It was the summer before the 6th grade when I finally got to see the original Star Wars in 1977. I remember seeing the commercials for that movie on my little black and white TV and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was no cinematic vocabulary to even describe Star Wars because there was nothing like it in the history of film, and only Empire and Return came close to building on that vocabulary since. Coming out of that first viewing of Star Wars changed everything for me; I saw story, character and adventure in a different way and it became part of how I saw the world. That’s the best kind of spell a cultural event can cast on an audience-member, and it cast a deep spell on me.
I was in 8th grade when I saw Empire and a junior in high school when my anticipation for a conclusion to the series was more than overwhelmed by Return of the Jedi. The large strokes of the whole series worked on me, it cohered perfectly and I felt a deep satisfaction. The original trilogy was really just “the trilogy” as there was no trilogy that could compare. Nobody came out of the theater from any of those original trilogy viewings with a mixed review. We may have liked one episode over another, but we couldn’t wait to see those movies again. Nobody saw Return of the Jedi just once. We were more united culturally back then because all three films were largely enjoyed equally by feminists, blacks, whites, religious, atheists, old, young, snobs, rednecks and everyone in-between. It was a unifying event.
Fast forward to a couple years ago and audiences who saw The Force Awakens were generally pleased. It didn’t have the sweeping effect the original Star Wars had on an unsuspecting audience, but then again, how could it? We were primed by what Star Wars had already set back in 1977. I still put The Force Awakens into a box that is at least a worthy extension of the original trilogy. It is a weak link, but it still arguably works though the chemistry of Finn, Rey and Poe can’t compare to Leah, Han and Luke. That was 1977 lightning in a bottle and it’s hard if not impossible to repeat that magic in modernity. Force Awakens was a new movie, but it wasn’t something we’d never seen before like Star Wars was in 1977.
As I left the theater this weekend having seen The Last Jedi, I quickly got a sense of “blah”. It’s not that TLJ didn’t have enough spectacle, it has many of the touchstones we’ve come to love in the culture of Star Wars; fathers and sons, friends making sacrifices for each other, overt powerful weaponry vs. a much older magic, but it felt like a real departure from the more preachy, overt, clear story work of the original trilogy and Awakens, or even Rogue One. Does a film have an obligation to make me feel like I did in 6th grade?
In my 25 years of Comic Convention signings after having made Earthworm Jim, I noticed a common pattern among gaming fans… they too, experienced some kind of culture-altering event when playing that game in 1994. It brought them joy, stimulation and drove something deep they did not want to change. My most common piece of fan mail, I’ve now received hundreds of such comments, is of a fan suggesting we create a brand new Earthworm Jim game. They want that lightning put into a new bottle. They want to go back to what it felt like when they first played Earthworm Jim. Mind you, a new game would probably be some kind of abomination with a new team, new gameplay, innovation that would not necessarily be an improvement.
This is the danger of thinking that just because it would be another “Doug TenNapel creation” that I could mimic what a very special team made 25 years ago for an audience who hadn’t seen anything like Earthworm Jim at that time. With every proposed improvement, it could destroy the original spell and confirm, in horror, what we fear: that the past is gone forever and you can’t rebuild it in the present without ruining what made the past so special. I can’t watch The Last Jedi as a wide-eyed sixth grader and that is at least one component for the Star Wars/Earthworm Jim spell to work.
Mass media events like Star Wars, Aliens, Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, The Beatles, Cheers, are all things that need an element of surprise and freshness to work. We mistakenly think that a pop song is just a stand alone song when these art works are always in need of some kind of audience or context to perform the strongest magic. If the Beatles came out today, they might have failed. If Friends came out twenty years early they may have been cancelled the first week. And the creator of Aliens may have no interest in going back to the mid 80s when he has an Avatar trilogy to make today.
Fleetwood Mac released their top-selling, record-setting album Rumors when I was in 6th grade. My big brother (named Jim) got that LP for Christmas and we played it over and over. Every song was a big hit and it still takes me back to the late 70s every time I hear one of those songs. But Fleetwood Mac continued to make records after Rumors, and we largely weren’t interested in any of those songs. They continued to develop as artists and I didn’t feel like honoring their development. If we saw them in concert, we didn’t want to hear what they were exploring in the studio today, we wanted them to play the songs live that brought us back to the sixth grade.
As an artist who likes to have at least some kind of audience, I wonder what my responsibility is to that audience. If I regurgitate something old, I gain a broader, more loyal audience but don’t get the stimulation of making something new. Yet if I make something new it usually means creating an audience from scratch … and that’s always an uphill battle. I have sympathy for artists and story tellers who just want to create something new, but I also feel for the audience who just wants that old feeling again.