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Why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is already the top-grossing film in the United States

The “economic potential of deferring the audience’s desire for narrative closure,” Chewbacca Honey Shreddies and Mark Hamill's beard

Are these the Star Wars fans you're looking for? (photo by Rob Briscoe via flickr)

It’s the highest grossing film the United States has ever seen, topping Avatar’s $760.5m domestic gross. Now, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is opening in China. 

On the eve of the movie’s North American release, U of T News interviewed experts across multiple disciplines about the Star Wars franchise and its cultural impact.

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One of those experts, Associate Professor Nicholas Sammond of cinema studies, thought that the cast and crew did a good job for the most part, but he was dissappointed with the marketing of the film. “It seems the major problem was in the ancillary marketing, the incident where the Star Wars Monopoly version forgot to include Rey.”

He also found the disparity in acting styles between one generation and the next interesting. “Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher acted as if they were in the 1977 Star Wars, with the same wooden style of the original, while Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and John Boyega, had quite different approaches to their characters and dialogue,” he said. “It almost made me wonder whether it were a concscious choice on Abrams’ part.”

Sammond was also dissappointed in the audience (he saw the film at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles). “When Harrison Ford and Chewie appeared, there was wild applause and cheering. When Carrie Fisher appeared, mild applause. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but if they can update the acting, why can’t audiences update their attitudes?”

Another one of those experts − PhD candidate Justin Morris − returns to discuss whether the film matched the hype leading up its release. Morris, whose dissertation examines the cross-medial interactions of American serialized film, radio, and comic strips in the 1930s and 40s, is currently teaching a class in serialized media.

So far, he has seen the movie four times. 

What are your general impressions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? 

While I understand criticism that the film is really just a remake or remix of Star Wars (1977), I find the prospect of that quite interesting. Lucas’ original trilogy was noted for being a nostalgic pastiche of a number of bygone adventure film styles, and yet Abrams’ film can only be a nostalgic pastiche of Star Wars itself. I think that offers an interesting, if somewhat accidental, commentary on the foreclosing effect that the success of Star Wars had on American popular film after the New Hollywood. 

The film really benefits from a form of narrative ambiguity, which I think is quite rare for a blockbuster in 2015. Abrams and Kasdan seem to have understood the franchise’s indebtedness to the tradition of the Hollywood film serial. This manifests itself not only through the film’s suspenseful ending (which literalizes the idea of the cliffhanger in interesting ways), but also by dropping us into a world 30 years on with very little exposition, as if we missed a chapter. 

Visually, I think it was a bit disappointing that The Force Awakens broke with the style of the previous films. Though Lucas did not direct each of the films, both Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand seem to have embraced the style of the first film, which employed a certain flatness and stillness, even in special effects sequences, as a kind of homage to 30s-40s B-movie production practice. 

Abrams has obviously transformed the style and upped the kinetic ante, with all of the requisite shaky conversation sequences and quick-zooms. I’m sure this makes the film more appealing to a contemporary audience, but it does change the visual language of the franchise. 

The film is opening in China now and there are talks of it breaking the record as the top grossing picture of all time. 

I think it’s unsurprising that the film would approach the record for top grossing picture of all time, as it really marks the re-“awakening” of the juggernaut that helped define what blockbusters could do financially, and that really has very little to do with the film’s actual quality. 

As I noted before, I think the film’s success is really due to an understanding of the economic potential of deferring the audience’s desire for narrative closure. 

This process really began with the film’s extremely well-planned marketing, which offered only the smallest suggestion of what was to come. Though the film does follow a traditional narrative arc, it leaves enough question marks to excite the audience about the potential for repeat viewings, additional films and television shows, toys, and Chewbacca Honey Shreddies. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will make most of its money outside the theatre, but will transmedia products or merchandise prove successful in engaging audiences?

It’s interesting that in scrapping the previous “expanded universe,” Lucasfilm has brought its entire Star Wars output under one canon meaning that, for really the first time, Star Wars is a transmedial saga in the sense that it is telling a single story across multiple media. 

Far beyond any single example of merchandising in this case I think the newfound scope of the licensing is what will have the greatest effect. 

Star Wars has obviously been known for its product tie-ins from the very beginning, but Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm has pushed that to whole new levels, to the point that we are eating BB-8 branded oranges, taking multi-vitamins stamped with the genocidal visage of Darth Vader, and wearing designer Star Wars-inspired clothing. 

Traditionally these products are meant to serve as a real-world anchor between each of the property’s incarnations across various media. But I think we will see the tie-ins reach an unprecedented level of saturation, in which “Star Wars” really becomes something of a lifestyle brand that has very little to do with the films themselves. 

When we last spoke, we talked about tired, racist and sexist stereotypes in previous Star Wars films. How do you think the new film fares?

On the surface, I think the new film has taken a significant step forward in terms of diversity, and joins a small but encouraging number of mainstream films from 2015 that feature well-written female leads (Mad Max: Fury Road would be the other primary example). 

Star Wars will always be in the inheritor of a certain brand of orientalist adventure narrative, and The Force Awakens takes great pains not to address this issue, but to side-step it completely by muddling its political commentary beyond recognition. It reintroduces familiar Star Wars locales as completely new planets somehow almost universally devoid of indigenous populations. 

In fact, the mark of The Force Awakens’ diversity can really be seen in the disheartening response it has received in some quarters, from the “black stormtrooper” controversy surrounding John Boyega’s Finn character, to the questioning of whether Daisy Ridley’s Rey is really a “Mary Sue,” to the extremely sexist and ageist commentary on Carrie Fisher’s return as General Leia.

Ultimately, I think the stars and producers of the film have done an excellent job responding to this hateful minority, and one can only hope that the films continue to expand the somewhat limited tropes we’ve come to expect from mainstream spectacle filmmaking. 

Where there does seem to be a real disconnect however, is between the film’s desire to assert itself as progressive and the backward tone of some the film’s merchandising. 

This has become a sustained issue, with fans complaining about the relative lack of products featuring Rey over the film’s male protagonists, and the unavailability of any Leia toy that does not depict her in her “Jabba slave” outfit. 

This seems to speak to a continued “blue/pink” gender bias on the part of toy manufacturers. As Disney continues to face criticism, they will have to work to place their merchandising in-line with the messages their films purport to advance. 

What do you hope to see in the next film?

Though VII’s cliffhanger has left me hungry for more of Mark Hamill’s beard in VIII, I am mostly looking forward to Lucasfilm’s first spin-off film, Rogue One, for the potential it has to bring new genre and stylistic possibilities to the Star Wars franchise. 

(Visit flickr to see the original of the photo used at top)