Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.
More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.
Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.
Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.
Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel.
Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.
An unexpected comparison can be drawn this holiday season between two of the biggest science-fiction franchises – Doctor Who and Star Wars. In both Peter Capaldi’s final turn as the Doctor in ‘Twice Upon a Time’ and Rian Johnson’s sequel The Last Jedi, central characters openly advocate rejecting both their pasts, and indeed intertextually the pasts of their product’s own history. The Doctor, an old man on the verge of rejecting a new lifespan, ‘let’s go’ of his incarnation while The Last Jedi‘s ostensible villain, Kylo Ren, just about avoids fratricide as he advocates killing his own past, killing his own history and letting it die (and by default the known galaxy) to create something new.
In both examples, you have two long-standing, iconic storytelling franchises, both with powerful, ingrained and dedicated fanbases, actively attempting to jettison aspects which made them adored in the first place. And, indeed, in both cases, the fandom of both properties have lost their minds in desperately rejecting this rejection. I won’t rake over my earlier thoughts about the current state of fandom, but it gives birth to another question – why can’t fans let go of the past?
Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.
The cyclical nature of storytelling is one of my fascinations, and something I fully intend to write more about on Cultural Conversation. Star Wars is one of many major franchises which taps into deeply mythological, archetypal stories which end up telling cyclical narratives about characters and worlds which repeat history, repeat myth and cleve to prophecy. These concepts are all over fiction, in myriad ways. What people don’t always realise, however, is that cyclical narratives are all over Fandom too, and yes that is Fandom with a capital F. Insert your own word appropriately. Fandom started as a beautiful thing, a coming together of like minds. Much like the rest of our society circa 2017, the Force no longer seems, sadly, to be with it.
If the reaction to The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the legendary Star Wars lexicon, proves anything, its that Fandom cannot cope with change. This is no startling revelation. Many writers have been discussing the toxicity of Fandom for some time now, particularly since the advent of Twitter and the rest of social media gave a voice to a legion of what many would consider ‘trolls’; intentional rabble-rousing, mischief making naysayers who love nothing more than to be reactionary and tear down anything the majority love. /Film has written recently about the toxic reaction to The Last Jedi, a film which as I discussed is not without its problems. It does, however, expose the issue of change and Fandom in greater detail.
“This is not going to go the way you think!”
That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.
Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.
The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.
You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising. It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just *the* signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.
What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.
The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.