Walkey Talk: It's Not Binary. Films Can Be Popular AND Ambitious

Posted by: Michael Walkey  //  January 3, 2016 @ 1:50pm

Filed under: Walkey Talk

Part One: Ambition

I hate writing traditional movie reviews. I hate having to express myself within the confines of a structured checklist. Here's the plot summary. The acting was strong. The writing was confident. The sets were pretty. The music was loud.

Worst of all is having to rate films though some kind of metric: numbers, letters, stars, thumbs, tomatoes, etc. I find it counterintuitive to scientifically measure something that gives you an emotional response.

I think film criticism is important and would be a hypocrite if I didn't admit it held a special place for me. But when writing about films, I've always steered away from traditional reviews and opted to just discuss the film though a sociological or psychological context.

If there's one thing I hate more than giving someone an analytical movie review, it's talking about a film's massive box office grosses!

But I have to do it. I have to give my two cents. It's freaking Star Wars! I have to tell you what I thought of the film because it's going to become the highest grossing picture of all time. And sooner or later I will get that ubiquitous question I do with every popular film: "What did you think of...?"

Full disclosure: I'm too young to have seen any of the original trilogy in the theatre, but I'm old enough to have a VHS copy of Empire Strikes Back recorded from a free Superchannel weekend. I consider myself a Star Wars fan but would never stand in line longer than the actual running time of the movie I'm about to see. I have never worn a costume to watch a movie, although I wouldn't be opposed to it. I don't own any Star Wars-related toys, clothes, or paraphernalia, but I do have the first six films on DVD that I revisit about every other year. I can quote the films pretty well, but know nothing of the expanded universe laid out in the books and video games. I believe Han shot first.

The general consensus I've gotten from speaking to people who've seen the new film is it's a good film, but a safe one. J. J Abrams doesn't really push the envelope of the Star Wars genre. In sport, there's a difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. The Force Awakens would be a good example of someone trying not to lose. J.J. Abrams didn't make any mistakes with this movie. And he made a very polished, rock solid, entertaining film.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens. It was exciting to catch up with all the familiar characters after all these years. However, it seems to me, the best thing to happen to the new Star Wars movie was the release of the mediocre prequel trilogy, aka Episodes I, II, & III. The current Star Wars film is a good film, but by comparison, George Lucas's truly average prequels make A Force Awakens look like Gone with the Wind!

Is it considered nitpicking to believe where The Force Awakens fails is through a lack of ambition? I don't think so. Nitpicking would be complaining that Kylo Ren resembled the Ghost of Christmas Future just a bit too much – am I the only one who thought this?

The original 1977 Star Wars is arguably the most revolutionary film ever made. It changed the way people saw films because no one had seen anything like it before. And because of that, it not only became the most popular movie ever made, but transcended the medium and became a cultural phenomenon. In an ironic twist of fate, the immense popularity of the film has pigeonholed the creative ambition of the rest of the series.

After six films, Star Wars has now created a genre unto itself, and The Force Awakens falls well within the boundaries of that genre. With the exception of a flashback, a technique never used in the previous six films, J.J. Abrams' movie breaks no new ground. Are my expectations too high? Damn straight they are! It's part of the highest grossing series in film history. The quality of talent involved should be first rate. There are no excuses. Why must we expect mediocrity?

"If you're not going to break new ground, then what's the point?" – James Cameron

Part Two: Popularity

When I was a teenager, I read an article from Roger Ebert with tips on how to become a film buff. He listed essential movies to watch like Citzen Kane and Taxi Driver, and which film festivals to watch out for. But the thing I remember most was that he said if I was someone who paid attention to the box office grosses, I should stop. Sure enough, I was one of those people. I watched religiously every week. I tracked who "won the weekend", by how much, and analyzed what it meant to the industry as a whole. Every Monday, the previous weekend's top five movies would be unveiled. I would write down their grosses and keep them in a binder. I did this week after week for years. I was a walking encyclopedia of box office knowledge. I could tell you that in 1994, Jim Carrey became the first actor to have three number one movies in a calendar year: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb & Dumber. In 1996, Independence Day became the fastest movie to gross $100 million dollars when it did it in a mere six days. And in late 1997 and early 1998, a phenomenon known as Titanic spent 15 straight weeks atop the box office as the most popular film in the world, and eventually became the first movie to gross a billion dollars.

Most of this information has become useless to me as an adult, both professionally and socially. I have never been offered a job because I know that Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me made more in its opening weekend than the original Austin Powers grossed in its entire theatrical run. Nor has a woman ever wanted to sleep with me after whispering sweet nothings in her ear like: "Did you know the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds concert film holds the record for the biggest opening on Superbowl weekend?" And if there are still people who care about such trivial knowledge, smart phones have rendered me and other "Rain Men" obsolete.

As I got older and became a more experienced filmgoer, my tastes matured. As the Roger Ebert article predicted, I began to be drawn less to the mass appeal of popular movies and more towards quirky, personal (read: less commercial) ones. Eventually, I stopped following box office grosses altogether.

$100 million used to be the benchmark where a film would be anointed "blockbuster" status. In the 80s and 90s, when a movie would gross $100 million, studios would take out ads in Variety magazine celebrating the feat.

In May of 2002, Spider-Man became the first film EVER to gross $100 million dollars in its opening weekend. It was HUGE news. No one had ever seen that before. It looked so odd to see that many numbers in the column that listed the weekend's grosses.

We now live in a world where a movie can gross $100 million in a single day. On Friday December 18, 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens grossed $119 million, $5 million more than Spider-Man did in three. As I'm writing this, in a few days, Star Wars will surpass Avatar as the highest grossing picture of all time in North America. In a few weeks, it will likely duplicate the feat outside of North America, meaning it will be the most popular movie on the planet. Ever.

I want to say these facts don't matter, that a film's grosses correlate closer to its marketing department than its artistic merit, and these records are meaningless because, as I've said before: inflation is like a revisionist film historian that's killing the legacy of great films.

I want to... but I won't. Why? Because for the first time in a long time there is a genuine excitement about going to the movies. To hear people excited about seeing a movie brings me joy. All throughout the holidays, I witnessed post after post on social media of people seeing The Force Awakens. Men, women, children, grandparents; the cross generational appeal was evident and contagious. I wish people would get this excited about terrific pictures like The Big Short or Carol, but I understand that's just not how the world works.

But it is refreshing to hear news about a movie that's not based on a phenomenon that originated in a different medium, like The Avengers or Fifty Shades of Grey. Star Wars is a phenomenon that was originally conceived by filmmakers, intended for filmgoers. And by this reason alone, I celebrate the success of The Force Awakens.

I know I'm going against everything I've been taught by celebrating popularity over quality. The sign in Mr. Ivory's Grade 11 Religion class read: "What is popular is not always right."

But this Christmas, the most talked about piece of pop culture was not a book, or a play, or a sporting event. Nor was it a new series streamed online, or an Instagram meme, or a celebrity tweet. The most popular piece of pop culture the winter of 2015 had to offer us was a movie.

And to me, that is right.

Tags: Walkey Talk, Star Wars, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams, Harry Potter, James Cameron, Roger Ebert, George Lucas, Avatar, criticism

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