In my fair and wounded, but proud and beautiful city of Paris, Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens (or Episode VII, which is a format I prefer) will be released in exactly four weeks from today, on Wednesday 16th. I do hope that the panic that seized the city recedes, and that people can all commune around the same pop culture experience, either on opening night or during the subsequent showings.
I do know that I will be there opening night, come what may.
But to prepare myself for the first worldwide public showing, I’ve tried to tamper my expectations. “Why?” you may ask. Well, I’ve seen a lot of articles online about the potential chances of success of Episode VII. Most articles have addressed the box office part of that success, with some expecting an opening weekend of 1 billion dollars. Not only are those figures wildly impossible to reach, but no article has addressed the potential for fan disappointment yet. Or none have been decisive.
If we consider the new Episode’s chances of box office success, I’m pretty certain that as far as box office results are concerned, Episode VII will be a resounding success. However, beyond pure financial considerations (yes, there is such a thing as non-financial considerations!), I know for a fact that Episode VII will fail. Not only because of overexposure and massive spoilers that are bound to be released in the next few weeks; but most of all, it will fail because expectations are just too high!
Of course, as a casual-but-knowledgeable fan, I want to be positive about the movie… I want to feel excited! But that’s the thing with excitements: The higher it goes, the harder the fall. It’s just impossible to NOT feel disappointed! It’s simple math, among other things.
1. Math shows us that expectations are just too high
Fans and journalists have been so excited about the new sequels, so reassured by the casting news, so impressed by the first trailers, that they forgot to look with cold eyes at their growing expectations. The more we learn about Episode VII, the higher our expectations grow. And they can only be let down. It’s just science!
I’ve tried to apply a mathematical formula to the level of expectations that fan are currently feeling toward Episode VII. Think about it this way:
Let's look at Episode I:
- During the 16 years separating Return of the Jedi from The Phantom Menace, fans were slowly but surely becoming more and more impatient for their Star Wars fix. Everyone remembers the lines around the blocks, the people camping days – weeks! – in advance of the May 1999 release. Before the iPhone, before the Apple craze, only one phenomenon could unite fans like that and make them eagerly await with their breath held the release of a new movie… and that was Episode I.
Episode I was really anticipated by fans, to say the least. And so, the let-down was massive. Some fans even talked about George Lucas “raping their childhood”. When people start using expressions as strong as this, it really means that they were disappointed, to put it mildly. But those are just hard-core fans. Let’s look at the general public: the Rotten Tomatoes aggregated score currently stands at 57 and the Metascore stands at 51. This would give us a general reception and appreciation average with Episode I of 54.
If we set the level of expectations of that movie at the 100 (a “perfect score”, and a good “base” for future comparisons), it gives us a good measure of the level of expectation for that particular movie.
That would mean that between the level of 100 of expectations and the 54 score of appreciation/contentment, the mathematical "disappointment level” for Episode I was 46.
Now, looking at Episode VII:
The hardest but most plausible assumption to take to evaluate the level of expectations for Episode VII is to assume that fans have almost erased the prequel trilogy from their minds. There, I’ve said it: I believe that a lot of fans going out on opening night for Episode VII will actually believe that that movie will be as good as the original trilogy. In addition, Episode VII not only follows the timeline of Episode VI onward, but also follows this timeline in “real time”, i.e. that the 32 years separating the release of Episode VI and Episode VII have gone on in the Star Wars universe as well.
So, this means that fans have actually waited 32 years for this Episode, and not the 10 years that separated Episode III from Episode VII.
Expectations over the first 16 years were sky high. Can you imagine how high they will be if fans have waited 32 years for a new “real”/”really good” Episode? Well, applying a very simple “rule of three” tells us that if fans waited 16 years between Episode VI and Episode I and their expectations were 100 (the base), then their expectations for Episode VII will be at 200 if they waited 32 years for the new trilogy. One could argue that 200 is an impossible score, and that since a perfect critic gives a score of 100, how can 200 be a real number? Well, expectations are not critic, they’re hopes and dreams! And the whole compounding of 32 years of impatience are bringing the score to unrealistic and unheard-of levels, that’s the whole issue!
Time has compounded people’s hopes over the last 32 years. And even if Episode VII is as good as people want it to be, it can never be perfect. It can never reach 100. But let’s assume it’s as goods as you hope it is, and that its general reception and appreciation average is 99, which is as close to perfection as it will ever get (no movie is ever perfect, especially one already viewed in the fans’ mind eyes).
Then, that would mean that between the level of 200 of expectations and the 99 score of appreciation/contentment, the mathematical "disappointment level” for Episode VII will be 101. That’s more than double the level of disappointment with Episode I.
Okay. This was a long-winded and completely obscure way to try to explain why we’ll be disappointed. Let’s not pretend that this is not nerdy stuff, because it is… So, let’s look at more reasonable explanations that could justify why Episode VII will utterly fail.
2. Overexposure will kill the movie / Disney will milk this out
The longer you wait, the more you are disappointed as explained above. But the reverse is also true: the shorter you wait, the less you are excited. If you have a new episode every 2 years, or every six months (since there will be a December 2016 release for the “expanded adventures” Rogue One movie, and that Episode VIII is coming out May 2017) then you won't even have time to get excited. Most of all, you won't have time to over-analyze every details over a worn-out VHS like you did with the original trilogy (Han shoot first, right?), exchange with your friends about this or that, track down that VHS you think you have where the old version is still untouched or the Christmas Special is recorded live with commercials.
Simply put (and as explained in my previous article), Disney is not patient enough to wait it out, and that means that we will definitely not build enough excitement after Episode VII to appreciate the new trilogy and the expanded adventures.
3. The new movies do not have an end in sight nor have anything new to offer
An extension of the point above is that by wanting to create a new trilogy, and a trilogy of expanded adventures, and probably prequels, and sequels to prequels, then Disney is not only running the risk of milking this out, but also of creating just pure fatigue for the fans. There is just a finite amount of money fans will be willing to spend on merchandising, new movies, and the rest of the ancillary business.
Once the new trilogy is finished, Disney will surely announce a fourth trilogy. Or a reboot of the original trilogy, or a reboot of the prequels. And every time they make the announcements, they’ll come out with new Blu-rays. Or by that time it will be Green-rays, because that will be just like printing money. Because Disney will try to bring enough nostalgia and desire for special features and extras that consumers will have to stick to physical discs rather than digital content. Or there will be new formats, new media, “new” new things, just to continue on and on…
Sure, many generations will love it, but how many of the original fans will still appreciate it? You could then argue that the idea behind new trilogies will be to bring in new fans, to create new things. But will it really be new or will it all just be a retread!
People tend to forget that the first time is actually always the charm. We think we get it wrong and that we can go back and do it better (Lucas certainly tried that a lot!) but at the end of the day the first time you discover a masterpiece, every subsequent trials might actually all go all downhill from there. It's like a copy of a copy that gets less clear as you go on. Once you create a universe, if this universe is so new, so wonderful, even if you’re happy to go back to it, the shock of discovering the universe can only be smaller than coming back to it.
4. Episode VII won’t change the world
Yes, the "Jedi order has officially been recognized as a religion for a few years now. But this is more anecdotal than the rest of the impact from the first trilogy.
Star Wars didn't just change movies forever. It changed the world, too. Don't just take my word for it, look at its influence: when pop culture and movies and philosophy and dreams are impacted so much, it's hard to argue the world wasn't made better because of it.
Think of all the dreamers, the geeks, the potential Lukes that were all inspired by this movie… One could argue that the whole Silicon Valley revolution was started not by the Palo Alto Research Center but by George Lucas. It's not a question of technology: it's not because George Lucas created ILM that the Silicon Valley revolution was started; it's because Lucas showed the world that it was okay to be a farm boy and still have dreams of flying and saving the world.
That's quite an impact!
You really think Episode VII will have such an impact?
5. Episode VII won't have any soul
You can say what you want about the George Lucas of now or LucasFilm or even Disney. But the George Lucas of then had a soul. A lot of people say that the story of Star Wars is the story of George Lucas: he set out to destroy the evil empire (Hollywood studios), he fought violently and won (A New Hope was a huge success); yet he came over to the Dark Side when he created his own evil empire (Empire Strikes Back… and wins!). So we're kind of missing Episode VI when Luke (George) fights back the temptations of the Dark Side and stays pure. George Lucas succeeded so much that he became exactly what he was fighting for in the first place: a big Hollywood mogul, controlling everything, not letting young artists under his wings get the “final cut”, etc.
But looking back at this pure film that was Episode IV, it wasn't a “product”; it was a masterpiece and most of all a work of art, where Lucas bore his soul out. It was a dream come true; it was made because Lucas didn't know it was impossible to do; he did it because he could, and most of all because he dreamed of doing it. Again one might argue that Lucas already had his “evil” corporate empire in mind with Episode IV, since he wanted merchandising and product licensing for himself, etc. But I believe that at the time those were just a means to an end: Merchandising was used by Lucas to finance even more soul-bearing films. Merchandising wasn't even available until a few months after the movie's release! It's only afterwards that the merchandise became the end of it all: The films were actually a means to an end, made to market more toys, and not the other way around.
And so it goes for Episode VII: it is a product, not a film; it is a work of marketing and think-tank/writers room making, not the work of art of a single mind and a single vision. The toys have been available for months now prior to the release. The movie will certainly not have a soul, it's all just manufactured to appeal to the masses, not just the geeks and the 12-year old Gorge Lucas that once was.
At the end of the day, it's okay to make a movie that doesn't change the world. I'm pretty sure J.J. Abrams and Disney didn't set out to create such a movie (even if Disney wished they had a movie like that! But one could argue that Walt Disney himself has changed the world a few times already, so no need for a repeat).
It's okay to just make a GREAT movie. It's even okay to set out to just make a good movie. It's just that expectations need to be realistic since this is not the first of its kind – not even just the 7th of its kind but the follow-up to so many countless copies and movies inspired by that first one – it won't change the world and won't have the same impact that its originator.
It sounds obvious when spelled out right, but it's also worth repeating.
Do you hate me for killing your hopes? On the contrary, you should love me! Because the harder you fight against the dark side (High hopes! Expectations!), the more you’ll love the movie in the end! You should really prepare yourself for this movie just like another James Bond: something that comes along every 2 to 3 years. Or yet, like another Marvel movie. Because this is what it will become. And there’s nothing bad or wrong about it. It just won’t be the same thing as Episode IV. Because nothing will ever be the same…