I am not a “Star Wars” person. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like “Star Wars.” I saw the original movie (one that I refuse, now and forever, to call “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope”) on the day it opened in 1977, and I thought it was enthralling. Three years later, I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” on the day it opened, and I found it even more enthralling. (By the time I saw “Return of the Jedi,” I was a professional critic and watched it at a preview, and…well, we all know how well that movie worked out on the enthrallment scale. Not so much.)
I’ve seen “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” four or five times apiece since then, and have continued to relish them, but the whole fan-geek metasphere of “Star Wars” means nothing to me. I have never been obsessed with its universe, have never felt a deep and abiding identification with Luke Skywalker and his Zen joystick daddy-issue Rebel Force journey, and I thought that all three episodes of the revived “Star Wars” trilogy (“The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones,” “Revenge of the Sith”) played like scattered and unconvincing digital pulp. I glaze over at the thought of any conversation that involves Sith Lords or Clone Wars or Trade Federations or Malastare or Starkiller Base or the supple ways of hyperdrive. To me, “Star Wars” mania is a cosmic distraction, the original fake news.
Yet I also take “Star Wars” utterly seriously: as entertainment, as cultural spectacle, and (in the case of the first two films) as indelible pop artistry. When I go into a new “Star Wars” movie, it’s always with a new hope — that they really pulled it together this time, that they made a movie that has some of the elemental thrust and techno-religious majesty of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” Last year, sure enough, “The Force Awakens” took us a good part of the way there. I did the same sort of two-step with it that I think a lot of viewers did — loving, at first, that it so conjured the look and spirit of the original “Star Wars,” then realizing, a few days after I saw it, that there’s a limitation to retro-fitted nostalgia, since the original “Star Wars,” while inspired by old serials, didn’t conjure the spirit of anything so much as itself. Nevertheless, J.J. Abrams set the series back on course. And — hope springs eternal — he set the stage for what could now turn out to be a vastly exciting stand-alone episode.
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Which brings me to the subject of year-end critics’ awards. This year, in a direct repetition of what happened last year, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will not be screened in time to be viewed by members of the New York Film Critics Circle — a group I’m part of — when we gather Thursday to vote for our year-end awards. The film’s studio, Disney, has every right to miss the voting deadline; clearly, it’s not part of their roll-out plan. (Disney isn’t the only studio to make that decision: Sony won’t be screening “Passengers,” the romantic star-voyage thriller that pairs Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, in time for the voting, and Warner Bros. will miss the deadline with “Collateral Beauty,” starring Will Smith as a fallen advertising executive.)
I used to argue, pretty vociferously, that critics’ groups should wait before voting until they’ve had the chance to see every last movie. But that ship, I’m afraid, has sailed. The whole timing of awards season has inexorably moved up, so that critics’ groups now feel — with some degree of reasonableness — that to remain in the loop of influence, their awards have to be timely. The point of this post is not to toss blame around for the fact that the NYFCC will be voting without having seen “Rogue One.”
Yet I think it’s worth noting, for just a minute, what the casual, nearly unquestioned acceptance of this situation says about how we now view popular movies, and how that has changed. The conventional wisdom has it that popcorn cinema has taken over the culture, and in one way it has. But in another way it’s never been held in less high regard.
A number of my friends and colleagues in the New York Film Critics Circle are “Star Wars” people, and I’m always curious to know how they feel about a movie like “The Force Awakens” or “Rogue One” not being included in the voting. Almost every time I ask about it, I get a variation on the same answer: They’re breathless with anticipation to see the film, but they shrug off its de facto ineligibility, because — this is the phrase I always hear, usually uttered with a quizzical grin — “It’s not a critics’ movie.” Which always makes me want to say: How do you know that? Or maybe just: Really, why not? (Actually, that usually is my response.) After all, the ones who are saying this are “Star Wars” people.
Forty years ago, a lot of critics didn’t know what to make of “Star Wars,” but if you were assembling a 10 Best of 1977 list in hindsight, I know more than a few critics who wouldn’t hesitate to place “Star Wars” at #1. The Academy Awards had the same general feeling about it: The movie was one of the five nominees for Best Picture that year. Just to give you a sense of the landscape, here were the other four: “The Turning Point” (maudlin semi-kitschy ballet-world soap opera), “Julia” (gauzy semi-fraudulent Lillian Hellman biopic), “The Goodbye Girl” (glibly amusing, at times cloying Neil Simon romcom), and — the movie that won — “Annie Hall.” As popular art, “Star Wars” now looms, rightly, over most of those films. If a “Star Wars” movie was worthy of consideration then, why shouldn’t it be worthy of consideration now?
One answer may be: “Rogue One” is no original “Star Wars.” (And really, what is?) But where’s the open mind about the prospect that it could be? What if the movie turns out to be great? Will critics look at their awards and wish, deep down, that they could ask for a do-over? My point is that in the era of all-popcorn-all-the-time, critics have chosen to deal with popcorn movies not by disliking them but by compartmentalizing them. Overall, these films tend to get nowhere near 10 Best lists, year-end critical awards love, or — for the most part — the major Academy Award nominations. Yet what kind of a movie culture do we have that reflexively turns its back on taking what could well be the most important popcorn movie of the year seriously? That treats its absence from the potential awards pool as an afterthought? We have a movie culture that’s become too complacent about its categories of achievement, and maybe too calculated about what it adores.