Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens with the iconic logo now inextricably blended with the identity of the franchise. I’m not referring to the 20th Century Fox logo, but to Lucasfilm. It’s a banner prevalent to younger generations weaned, not only on the prequel trilogy, but on an armada of transcendental material that has buoyed the brand beyond its cinematic roots: Cartoon Network’s The Clone Wars animated series (kicked off by a theatrical movie released by Warner Bros, and not 20th Century Fox), video-games like The Force Unleashed, and now Disney XD’s hit show, Star Wars Rebels. Today it is one of the most recognizable and exploited intellectual properties on the planet.
But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.. there was just one movie. It was called Star Wars. Legendary composer John Williams’ score transitioned seamlessly from The Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, as the text of that now classic opening crawl began to flash across the screen. And the rest…as they say…is history.
Nearly 40 years have passed since George Lucas’ space opera changed the face of cinema forever; and it may only be in hindsight that we fully appreciate it for the ground-breaking milestone it was. Today, most at least agree the film rightfully deserved to be nominated (it lost to Annie Hall that year), much the same way James Cameron’s ground-breaking phenomenon Avatar was acknowledged in 2009.
For all its technical innovations, Lucas’ The Phantom Menace debuted to mixed reviews, and even somewhat muted, (dare I say disappointing) box office results in ’99. It was supposed to top Titanic–it did not–but the quality of each subsequent installment in his new trilogy improved. This leads to the widely held position (agreed upon by me) that 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is actually a superior film to the original Star Wars. Following suit, Rian Johnson’s Episode 8 could end up a superior film to The Force Awakens.
What it probably won’t do is scale the same commercial heights, nor secure an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Producer Kathleen Kennedy and director J.J. Abrams have mounted arguably the most ambitious production in the history of Hollywood–rebooting what was once the biggest franchise of all time without the involvement of the original creator. Their achievement is a critically lauded, perfectly produced, record-breaker.
The Force Awakens is the crowd-cheering, acclaimed phenomenon that The Phantom Menace was not. I would go as far as to bestow the distinction of “the motion picture event of its time”. It is more than a film, it’s a full-blown cultural movement, which is why the AFI named it one of the best pictures of 2015 and the Broadcast Film Critics Association retroactively added it to their list of best picture nominations. And that’s why I expect, and hope, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will follow suit.
But a plot twist in is the making; a backlash has recently begun. People are up in arms about the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association nomination. A movement has begun to oppose a nomination by The Academy. And just this week, The Force Awakens was left off the Producers Guild of America’s annual list of nominated films.
The Academy Awards has long had a complicated and controversial relationship with blockbusters. Even so, big hits like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Fugitive managed to at least make it into the mix during the years of their respective releases.
After a public outcry in 2009 when Oscar nominations in the best picture category omitted Christopher Nolan’s comic book-inspired (was that the reason for the snub?) The Dark Knight, the Academy decided to revert to an old system that expands the category up to 10 nominees a year. The very next year, JJ Abrams’ very own Star Trek reboot was mentioned as a possible nominee by many. Although it ultimately didn’t make the cut (but incidentally did score a Producers Guild nomination), the show has since shown a more receptive tone to recent blockbusters.
Recently movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity were nominated. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott’s The Martian as well as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road are among the frontrunners this year. But those nominations won’t lessen the sting of a Star Wars Oscar snub. Hey, for all I care they can give best picture to Spotlight. (For the record, my vote goes to George Miller to take it all.)
The Academy came under sharp criticism last year for its omission of minorities, most notably the lack of nominations for Selma and director Ava Duvernay. Further issue can be made about the long and sorry history of the Academy in omitting women film-makers. Perhaps there is no more prolific female producer in Hollywood than Lucasfilm president and The Force Awakens producer, Kathleen Kennedy; who has never taken home the coveted golden statue.
Speaking of minorities, perhaps the most monumental success of The Force Awakens are the surprisingly wonderful new characters it introduces. A younger generation is falling in love with the most diverse characters to ever do battle in the Star Wars galaxy–as an iconic brand, born in the medium of cinema, endures by continuing to evolve. A strong, empowered heroine who flies like Han Solo and wields the force like Luke Skywalker, a valiant black hero who risks everything to do the right thing. There’s even the charming, quick-witted, hot-shot pilot, played by a Latino. For a picture that’s already accomplished so much, the inclusive, diverse cast may be it’s most significant legacy. For all the above reasons, and so much more, The Force Awakens deserves to be recognized at this year’s Oscar ceremony.