There are no doubt fellow media pundits who cover the awards season race who are sighing in disbelief over the title of this post. “What would ever make you believe a new ‘Star Wars’ movie could get nominated for Best Picture?” they are likely asking. “It’s just the most anticipated movie of the past five years. It’s a box office smash. It’s nothing the Academy would ever take seriously.”
Let’s take a moment for a quick history lesson, shall we? Back in 1978, George Lucas’ first “Star Wars” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Director (Lucas) and Best Original Screenplay (Lucas). It won the other six it was nominated for: Original Score (John Williams), Visual Effects, Costumes (!), Art Direction-Set Decoration (now Production Design), Best Sound and, most impressive, Best Editing. It also earned a Special Achievement Award for Ben Burtt’s sound effects. It lost the top prize to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and actually beat another Sci-Fi classic in a number of categories, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Vilmos Zsigmond took home the Cinematography award, a category “Star Wars” was strangely snubbed in).
At the time Lucas was coming off 1973’s “American Graffiti” which was also nominated for Best Picture and he’d earned Directing and Screenwriting nods. Even for the much smaller awards landscape of the 1970’s he was on a “track” to eventually earn a statue. After effectively seguing to producing – and taking Executive Producer credits at that – he had to make due with the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1992. Not what many would have expected for the man who helmed the groundbreaking and artistic achievement “THX 1138.”
“Star Wars” was a critically acclaimed phenomenon, but the subsequent films never earned the same Oscar love. “The Empire Strikes Back,” still regarded as the best film in the series, earned only three nominations for Original Score, Art Direction and Sound. It took home a statue for the latter and an honorary win for Visual Effects (there is enough material in the history of changes in the nomination process for that category to easily fill a college thesis paper). The third film in the initial trilogy, “Return of the Jedi,” won the Visual Effects Oscar (another honorary win) and earned the same four nods as “Empire” as well as the recently added Sound Effects Editing category. 15 years later, Lucas returned for three new films and it wasn’t pretty. The tremendous drop in quality with these pictures has likely clouded the judgment of many who are involved in awards season game on a daily basis.
1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” earned three nominations: Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing and Sound. It won none. 2002’s “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” was nominated for just Visual Effects. It lost. 2005’s “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” earned just one nomination for Makeup. (Spot a trend?) As Hollywood endured Lucas’ new series of blockbusters the creative class seemingly forgot what he’d created 30 years before or, worse, looked at the original films in a more negative light because of what followed. The whole narrative about Joseph Campbell’s hero myth influencing Lucas’ work was gone. Meanwhile, the Academy to continue to reward epic phenomenons.
In the years since “Star Wars” first made a splash, cultural touchstones such as “Titanic,” “Avatar,” “E.T.- The Extra Terrestrial,” and all three “Lord of the Rings” films were nominated for Oscar’s big prize. Two of them won and, more importantly, only one film (“Avatar”) earned a nod in a year where there were more than five nominees. Times have changed, but not as much as you might think. Especially with movies such as “Gravity,” “District 9” and “Inception” earning nods this decade.
With tonight’s debut of what we believe will be the final trailer for “Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens” it’s clear the J.J. Abrams directed installment has the elements you’d expect for a Best Picture nominee. The “Star Trek” filmmaker has brought his own vision to the “Star Wars” universe and its appears epic and haunting. There is an air of tragedy here which makes the stakes seem much more real than the CG created landscapes of the last three films (enjoy retirement Jar Jar Binks). Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac. Those aren’t actors who usually phone it in. Not for something like this. It’s a great preview, but it’s not attempting to sell the movie as something it isn’t.
Obviously, you can conservatively argue that this means potential below the line love in categories from Makeup to Sound to Visual Effects. Or, maybe in a year where there is still no clear frontrunner. In a year where almost every contender has one flaw or another, maybe “The Force Awakens” makes the cut. The reaction from everyday moviegoers to those at all levels of the industry has been eyebrow raising. You can joke about how movie ticketing services’ servers crashing is just a PR ploy to fuel interest, but unless you’re Facebook with 300 million daily users (doing lord knows what) that simply doesn’t happen t0 commerce sites of that caliber in 2015. “The Force Awakens” is already a phenomenon – there’s that word again – and it doesn’t open for another two months.
The move may not live up to the marketing. It may just be a step or two better than what Lucas wrought 15 years ago. It could just be a crowd pleaser in the vein of “The Avengers” or “Jurassic World.”
Or, it’s not.
“Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” opens in most of the world on Dec. 17 and nationwide on Dec. 18.