April 28, 2016
On Iconic Films and the Danger of Returning to Them
And so it begins.
There are images that live forever in the minds of most die-hard moviegoers – Rick and Louis walking into the foggy unknown at the end of Casablanca, Antonio Ricci escaping the wrath of the crowd under the protection of his son at the conclusion of The Bicycle Thieves, Mookie and Sal’s surprising optimism during the closing moments of Do the Right Thing. These are characters and moments that will live in perpetuity. They are ageless, for every person that sees these films will likely have those images etched in their memories forever. Sure, moviegoers noticed Humphrey Bogart age in movie after movie, yet Rick Blaine will always remain that optimistic romantic heading off into a life of danger and uncertainty. Antonio Ricci will eternally be a figure shamed in front of his son, yet perhaps lifted up by his strength in the face of adversity. Sal and Mookie will always be just about to begin a new journey, one much more complicated than it had been just a day before. The makers of these films were right to conclude their stories where they did, for this is how these characters should be remembered – in the moment, in the middle of unending life.
But imagine if their stories continued, if Rick and Louis were depicted twenty years later in another bar somewhere in Europe in which walked Ilsa Lund. Would the ending of the first film still have the same magic? How would we feel if Vittorio De Sica had seen fit to return to Ricci and show us him working as a successful store owner in an economically-rejuvenated Italy? Would we still be as moved as we were before? What would we say about Do the Right Thing if we learned that Sal had become a bitter old man cursing the young men who had destroyed his store so many years earlier and making broad racist swipes at all people of color? In truth, we would likely wish the sequel had never been made – not because its depiction of Sal would be outside the realm of possibility, but because most of us prefer to believe that change and healing was possible for those characters.
A year ago, my list of iconic moments in film would have included the end of Return of the Jedi and its endearing image of its heroes in a moment of joyous celebration. I was under no illusion that the destruction of the second Death Star had completely wiped out the Empire, and I always knew that more stories involving these characters could be told. However, I was glad they weren’t. In my mind, Luke would always remain the triumphant young man who had found the long-dormant conscience of his father, and Han and Leia would forever stay the couple who had finally found the path to true happiness. Now Luke is an aging recluse, and Han is gone. Alas, so too is the iconic image that had accompanied my memories of these characters.
And as this change occurred, I must admit that my attachment to the series began to wane. The original Star Wars trilogy acquired legendary status in my youth. Everyone had to see them, and if you knew someone who hadn’t, you made sure to bring over your VHS copies along with some popcorn and soda. It was simply a joy to share these films, and I remember the glee I witnessed on the faces of people who discovered them for the first time during their return to the big screen in 1997. The prequels dampened this joy somewhat, as did Lucas’s continued tinkering with the original trilogy. With each alteration, the films may have gotten closer to his original vision of them, yet they got further and further away from the films that had excited people so much back in 1977.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Star Wars would return. As revenue from physical products fell and film costs skyrocketed, Hollywood was always likely to turn to safe bets rather than untested inspirations. Remember, prior to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, King Kong had already been remade twice, Godzilla twice as well, and Dracula countless times, There had also already been reboots of Batman and Superman, as well as Spider-Man, James Bond, and Star Trek, so Hollywood was definitely not shy about hitting the reset button.
Yet there is a difference between rebooting a series after a long hiatus and starting it up again after just a two year break. And there’s a distinction between picking up a series after twenty years and completely diluting it of what made it so special in the first place.
Granted, there was a lot that we didn’t know about the characters in Star Wars. We never knew anything about Luke’s childhood, nor were we pricey to the fascinating details of just what caused Han to go into smuggling in the first place or to the countless exciting and harrowing adventures he must have had while in that profession. We also didn’t know how Han and Chewbacca met or the details of Leia’s childhood. In truth, they didn’t matter. We accepted the characters as they were the first time they appeared on screen. And we accepted that there had been a daring and costly mission to retrieve the design of the Death Star and that they had been placed in a droid that eventually made its way to Tatooine. We didn’t need to see it. I believe we still don’t.
In a perfect world, the Star Wars series would have stopped with Jedi, and Disney would have come up with an original story that would have dazzled and amazed this generation of moviegoers in the same way that the original trilogy did people in the late 70s and 80s. It would have been theirs, their legend filled with their iconic images. It would have been something they introduced their children to and spoke of with reverence when asked about the memorable moments of their youth. Instead, they get The Force Awakens, not a bad film, but one that is likely to give viewers a sense of déjà vu if they watch it so soon after Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.
And that’s not all. Next year we get that story that no one was demanding in a film entitled Rouge One, a film that, judging by the trailer, is filled with the kinds of characters that regularly appear in adaptations of Marvel comic books. In fact, the description of Jyn that we hear in the first trailer could just as easily refer to the Ant-Man’s alter ego, Scott Lang. As if that wasn’t enough, two years later, we’re likely to get that solo Han Solo film. In other words, Star Wars is moving backwards, filling in plot holes that no one minded in the first place.
Will those films make money? Probably. However, with every successive Star Wars story, the original trilogy will lose a little more of what made it so extraordinary to so many people. Eventually, they will just be the best parts of a series that was extended not because there were more stories that demanded to be told, but because a studio decided it needed to make them to survive in today’s post-Internet world. I understand this, yet we must recognize what it means. Nothing is sacred, and no series is untouchable. Wolverine will eventually be played by a different actor, the reset button pushed on the X-Men; there will one day be another version of James Bond’s first case, just as we’ll soon get John McClane’s first year on the job. The upcoming reboot of Spider-Man is unlikely to be the last, just as Affleck’s Batman is unlikely to be the final one we see. Disney will continue to make live-action versions of their animated masterpieces, and movie studios in general will continue to comb through what has come before for that next big thing. Contemporary filmgoers will essentially be watching their parents’ masterpieces instead of having their own. Again, I get it from a business standpoint, and it appears that much of the movie-going public has no objection to it. I just hope it is recognized for what it could be – the end of each generation truly having their own cinematic legends.