Editor’s Note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications.The opinions expressed in this commentary, which is updated from an earlier version, are solely those of the author.
Lewis Beale: People thrilled about seventh "Star Wars movie" don't get it's bad sci-fi
He loved first installments, but franchise evolved into worst thing ever for rich literary genre
Hollywood only wants CGI-ready sc-fi plots, skips complex greats like Butler, Asimov
Beale: Few real sci-fi movies made. New "Star Wars" promises to be empty of ideas.
Now that the trailer for the seventh “Star Wars” movie is out, you can imagine the anticipation among the millions of fans of the film franchise. And why not? The six “Star Wars” films have been enormous successes: they have grossed over $2 billion domestically at the box office, spawned scores of books, comic books and merchandise (how many kids have their own light saber?) and made household names of characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.
They’ve also been the worst thing ever for the science fiction genre.
I say this as someone who has been a devoted sci-fi reader since childhood. I was so blown away by the first “Star Wars” film when I saw it in 1977, I went back two more times the same week to wallow in its space age fantasy. But here’s the thing: George Lucas’ creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon).
“Star Wars” has corrupted people’s notion of a literary genre full of ideas, turning it into a Saturday afternoon serial. And that’s more than a shame – it’s an obscenity.
Science fiction is in fact one of the most creative literary genres around. The best of sci-fi is filled with meditations on what’s “out there,” what makes us human, how technology is used and how it is changing us. It takes up issues of race, sexuality and quite literally everything else under the sun. It is essentially about ideas, not action, and that’s the problem, as far as Hollywood is concerned.
There are, for example, no light sabers, spaceships or Death Stars in the 1979 novel “Kindred,” by Octavia Butler, who won the Hugo and Nebula, sci-fi’s top awards, and was also awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.
Butler’s main themes are race and sex, and in “Kindred” she wrote about a modern black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South, where she is enslaved. The novel is regularly taught in classrooms and has made at least one list of “Great Books By Women.”
But Hollywood has yet to adapt it for the screen. Maybe if the lead character had a Wookiee by her side…
Many of the great works of sci-fi have not been made into films – The Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov, Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War,” William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” among others – partially because they are too smart, too dense and too thoughtful.
Sure, some classics have made the transition, but the track record is spotty: David Lynch’s “Dune” was a disaster, for example, and the recent “Ender’s Game” was a mixed bag that was not successful at the box office. Francois Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” although stylish and intellectual, was a bit too frigid for a mass audience.
Which means that Hollywood studios, not known for thinking outside the box, opt for the “Star Wars” template – lots of whiz bang, plenty of quirky alien characters, CGI to the max, plenty of explosions and little thought of any kind.
To be sure, the first “Star Wars” was a breath of fresh air, a fun flick for sci-fi geeks. But the series quickly ossified, a victim of its own success. Only two of the films – “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” – show any originality. The rest tread water, give the hardcore fans the same old, same old. I mean, how many light sabre duels can you sit through before you’re bored out of your skull? How many outer space dogfights? How many seemingly profound Yoda-esque thoughts?
Me, I’m giving up on the whole thing. I don’t care that J.J. Abrams, a director with talent, is helming the new flick. He’s hemmed in by audience expectations – like casting the stars of the original in this film – and recycling stale material. I’ll pass.
Instead, I’ll queue up “The Matrix,” and enjoy the most original sci-fi movie of the past 25 years. I recommend “Star Wars” fans do the same. They need to be reminded what real creativity is all about.