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The ‘Star Wars’ Effect: Internet Hype Culture and The Force Awakens

Nowadays, the release of a blockbuster trailer is an online event. Studios under pressure to post big opening weekend sales – and ads people actually want to watch – flood their social media sites with all kinds of trailers, teasers, and TV spots. It’s no longer enough to simply advertise; for modern franchises, such as those within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, trailers have to link films together, hint at possible story elements, and provide material for speculation and debate for the hardcore fans. In many cases, trailers cause so much excitement and hype that they actually end up being better than the movie they advertise. These trailers are not, by any means, bad. It’s important to advertise a movie to get people excited and get them talking about it leading up to its release so that they’ll come see it. But this “hype culture” phenomenon that exists online can seriously harm movies: as hype builds, expectations rise to almost impossible levels.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was probably the most eagerly anticipated movie of the last 10 years. Generations of fans had grown up on or with the trilogies, and many were left anxious after the poorly received prequel trilogy which threatened to tear apart the fandom that director George Lucas had created back in 1977 with the original Star Wars. The hype for Episode I upon its announcement was, at first, massive, and the film was highly praised for its use of computer-generated imagery. But as the years went by, and people began to look at the films critically (Star Wars fans who haven’t seen Red Letter Media’s “Mr. Plinkett” reviews of the prequels should definitely do so), the hype faded away, and we were left with the consensus that the prequels are just pretty terrible. So when The Force Awakens was revealed, and J.J. Abrams was being brought in to direct this time instead of Lucas, people got excited once again.

And now that it’s finally in theatres and people have seen it, reactions have been mixed. The most common complaint has been that Episode VII feels too similar to Episode IV in regards to the concept, the setting, and the overall plot. This is true to an extent: some plot elements were unnecessary and brought the film down (for example, Starkiller Base – did we really need a THIRD Death Star?). But these complaints are only minor. In spite of its flaws, The Force Awakens does so much right.

The original trilogy was a smart, concise story where each part referenced the others in some way: a key part of the Star Wars formula. Nearly every franchise in existence has a formula; Indiana Jones, James Bond, and many others. Every sequel within that franchise has a similar formula, with slight changes made to some elements to make it different from the movie that preceded it. The keyword is “similar”: all of these movies are pretty much the same thing, when you get down to it. Star Wars is no different. The original trilogy established a formula and it worked. When George Lucas attempted to deviate from this formula too much, we got the prequels. J.J. Abrams made the very smart choice when making The Force Awakens to stick to this formula while changing certain aspects to keep it fresh and exciting.

There are significant inversions within The Force Awakens that make it new and exciting, without departing from the formula. One of the things that makes Star Wars great is its characters. The space battles are cool, sure, but Star Wars has always been about characters and the way they interact with each other. All the way back in Episode IV, you could see the friendship between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo grow; from their first encounter in the Mos Eisley cantina, right until the very end. Each movie built on the relationships between not just the protagonists, but with the villains as well. The Force Awakens gets this right, but does so in an interesting way: the main characters are essentially inverse versions of the characters from the original trilogy. Luke worked on his aunt and uncle’s farm and dreamed of leaving his home planet to go on grand adventures; Rey only wants to return home and has adventure thrust upon her when she finds BB-8 on Jakku. Darth Vader was a powerful, menacing tyrant who mastered the Force and commanded an army; Kylo Ren is an apprentice who has no control over his emotions and holds on to Vader’s legacy. These familiar but altered elements make the film interesting while still following the Star Wars formula people know and love.

To say that the hype surrounding The Force Awakens was massive would be an understatement. This movie was literally being called “the second coming”. Fans were going crazy with theories and arguments all across the internet. With Abrams at the helm, people believed that Star Wars would be returned to its former glory. And I believe it has been. It’s not a perfect movie, but then no movie is perfect. It was my favourite movie of 2015, and it was one of the first movies in a long time where I can say I actually had fun watching it. The Force Awakens in particular had to live up to astronomical expectations, when all it had to do was be a good Star Wars movie. And it was a great Star Wars movie.

Matthew Edwards

The author Matthew Edwards

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