Some say Hollywood is running out of ideas. Some say film and TV creators are cashing in on nostalgia. Some say writers are refusing to step out of their comfort zones. They might be right.
Consider the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on Dec. 18, 2015. Within a month of its debut, the continuation of the classic sci-fi franchise broke over a dozen of box office records, including the highest-grossing domestic film ever released in the U.S., according to Time Magazine.
While the film scored an impressive 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the biggest complaint against the film fell on its plot. The film was called an unoriginal re-imagining of its 1977 counterpart, “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
It’s easy to see the family resemblance. Both are classic tales of a young hero, growing up in poverty and thrust by fate into a conflict of empires and rebels where the galaxy hangs in the balance. Both have a big, floating space-ball of death. Both have iconic robots, ships and weapons. Both have the plight of a rebel force against a dominating organization of evil. Both have a desert planet, stormtroopers, a man in a mask and a furry friend. The list seems to go on like a recipe for sci-fi greatness.
It’s a convincing argument. Maybe Hollywood is running out of ideas.
However, this may not be the whole story. Consider American mythologist Joseph Campbell.
He is widely known for his theories on the evolution and necessity of myths in society, and primarily for his ideas on “The Hero’s Journey.”
An oversimplified explanation of the theory is that every myth follows a basic streamline formula, involving basics such as the hero, the damsel in distress, the rogue, the mentor, the comic relief, the villain, etc.
The formula has been traced to Greek and Norse mythology, Shakespearean plays and, yes, Star Wars.
The connection becomes even stronger with reports that during Campbell’s lecture in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1984, a certain director was in the audience: George Lucas.
Lucas had already rocked the film industry with his 1977 hit “Star Wars,” as well as 1980 sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983 installment “Return of the Jedi.” Some believe Lucas had studied Campbell’s work in the early 1970s while writing preliminary drafts for Star Wars.
Consistent with this, Oscar-winning actor Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in all three films, described his first encounter with the script in an interview with David Letterman in September 1986. He said he was normally not a fan of sci-fi, but he couldn’t seem to put the script down; he read it in its entirety before accepting the role.
Perhaps his almost subconscious interest in the script came not from its futuristic “long-time-ago” wonder and fantastical environment, but from the classic formulaic approach.
The story was simple. It was easy to understand. It was well known. And it was loved.
In an age where many movies have archaic origins — from comics in the 1920s to books from the 1960s to shows from the 1980s — we still seem to flock to the familiar.
Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the way humans are hardwired from thousands of years of stories. Maybe it’s an easy way to make money. Maybe we see ourselves in the hero’s journey. Maybe it’s the most repeated formula in existence. And maybe it’s the most baffling, adaptable, adored method of storytelling in the history of mankind.
People love a good hero. People remember a good hero. People tell stories to their children about a good hero. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker, Batman, Hamlet or Frodo, we can be sure the old stories will never go out of style and the nostalgia will never die. And Hollywood is going to bring the stories we love to the screen.