Today, a new episode in the Star Wars saga hits theaters. The film, as the latest iteration of a series that spans nearly forty years, is representative in many ways of a broader cultural phenomenon, which has become the bread and butter of Hollywood: The sequel.
At its most basic level, the sequel is a mechanism for renewing or extending the revenues of an existing film or franchise, often to the detriment of plot. An existing film is converted into a brand identity, and the sequel draws spectators because of the name alone. Substance is sacrificed at the altar of profit, in many ways undermining the meaning and rhetorical power of the initial film – offering merely a higher budget, more sensational imagery, and ever-more worn out tropes (“I’m getting too old for this shit.”). Particularly for films not intended to have sequels, their continuation dilutes the message by repeating the medium ad infinitum. Sequels were long considered the easy way out by filmmakers, their ilk banished to the realms of cheesy horror and cookie-cutter action flicks – where the majority of sequels still dwell today.
Star Wars was different in that regard. The original three films were planned and written together: a trilogy. Together with The Godfather Part II, the 1970’s and ’80’s saw a change in the perception of the sequel. Suddenly, it was apparent how a sequel could be more than just a lazy screenplay, rather extending the story arc.
The mechanisms of the culture industry, however, are always at odds with each other. Culture is creative, it strives to be original, taking risks and freedoms. Industry is economic, it seeks to produce and profit. The trilogy briefly reimagined the sequel as a part of a larger whole. Now, it has become a formula for maximizing box office income by exploiting the human attraction to the familiar. New ideas, as an investment, are never certain, and the film industry has become increasingly stuck in the rut of profitability, where creative originality is forced aside in favor of profitable certainty.
The meta-trilogy (three trilogies) of Star Wars is no exception; Disney bought the brand from George Lucas fully aware of the massive potential for profit – just as it did with both Pixar and Marvel. When culture becomes a commodity, it ceases to be culture, instead only a fetishistic shadow of itself. Certainly, money has long been a part of culture, but the dynamic between the two has changed. The former no longer fosters the latter, it exploits it, subjecting it to the stifling impersonality of the balance sheet.
On the one hand, the new films will be a celebration of American cinema culture. On the other, they are an expression of just how poor that culture has become, treading water in clichés of its past.