California Dreaming

This past December was the sophomore year of the Disney Star Wars resurgence, and fans and critics were generally pleased. Rogue One was an entertaining return to the time of the original trilogy, complete with Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers and Vader’s signature black helm. The key differentiator was the tone of the film, closer to a gritty war movie than the jolly camp adventure of the Lucas originals. Also missing were the opening crawl, John William’s score and signature fade wipes. So we’re left with a solid action movie, dressed up in all the mise en scène of Star Wars (the tech, jargon, lore) missing the feel of the core trilogy. From a business and marketing perspective, this is a brilliant move, broadening Disney’s Star Wars IP beyond the narrow artistic confines of the original films. Prior to Rogue One, this was all but impossible. See: the uproar over the blasphemous prequels; the Force Awakens honing tightly to the prescribed formula.

Yet there’s something lacking in the new broadened and reawakened reality. Something cynical in the ultra efficient filmmaking of the Disney-Lucasfilm industrial complex.

Thinking back to the 77 Star Wars, there was a crew of dreamers and engineers, shaggy and bespectacled. They lacked the funds of the big studios, so they improvised spaceships with model airplane parts and glue. I watched the original 77 film recently, and I was struck by those moments in-between. Not only the iconic scenes that are oft repeated (Vader stomping around, Luke’s wide eyed naivete), but the naturalistic shots of a krayt dragon skeleton in the sand, the denizens of Mos Eisley drinking and smoking exotic vices, Aunt Beru pouring blue milk, Han’s improvised frustrations, Leah’s feisty snark. It’s these non-serious in-between shots that make the universe feel lived in, that it will stick around beyond the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. That feeling is lost from the later films, and most of the newer entries, where every moment is a life or death struggle, high intensity, and even the humor is that of soldiers, not idiosyncratic galactic weirdness.

The similarities to another California success story are striking: Apple. Jobs and Woz, hacking away in a garage with borrowed parts, their first computer cobbled together with a hand soldered board and wooden frame. Accolades, fame and fortune came later, but that first strike defined the core of what Apple would be: beautifully designed personal computers for individuals, not gray number-crunching machines. Just as Star Wars redefined the feel of space sci-fi in cinema (away from the cold techno optimism of Star Trek or 2001 to a warm, worn galaxy of adventure, populated with familiar archetypes, not unknowable aliens or pressing philosophical conundrums), Apple made nerdy gadgets the ultimate status symbol.

And of course, both Apple and Star Wars were massive hits, redefining their respective industries, entering the cultural canon, earning billions. Here we are, 40 years later, both have become institutions. Both are riding on their past glories, minor adjustments being marketed as courageous moves, but mostly just polishing and remixing the rich material of the past.

The question remains: is the magic still there? The spark that brought these two behemoths to life? Of course, Jobs and Lucas are gone. But there were others in the early days, down in the death star trenches. Disney has proven to be a responsible steward of cultural heritage (Star Wars, Marvel superheros and fairy-tales the world over). And Apple continues to bevel aluminum edges and perfect their minimalist helvetica marketing. But now they are the establishment.

The time’s ripe for another set of shaggy underdogs with zero budget and a dream.

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