The lights in the room are turned off. Everything is silent, save the mechanic emissions from the screen. My vision fades into darkness just beyond arm’s length. Suddenly, the screen turns on, casting a net of blue and yellow lights around me. At the same time, the theme of one of cinema’s greatest goes off with a proud blast. My excitement lights up like the screen: my anticipation to see this film’s special edition was reaching its climax.
Now, you may be wondering what film I was watching. Cinema’s greatest? A bold label to describe recent movies. Perhaps Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit? Notable theme song? Harry Potter? Fantastic Beasts? Possibly one of the new versions of Star Trek?
Well, that last one is somewhat close. But then again, not really. The film I was experiencing was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
I know what you are thinking: no, I was not born before 1997, the year this film’s version was released in theaters. I bought the special edition online a couple of years ago, and watched it through my computer. But turning off the lights in my room really did give it that special effect.
Now you might think I remember this moment fondly because I am a fan. Although this is true, there is another reason: the experience of re-watching this movie in my room is better than any experience I had watching a film within the past decade.
Now, I like going to the theaters. The food is usually good, though expensive, the company of friends is a treat, and the ability to watch a film on a 60 foot wide screen is always nice.
The problem hasn’t been the theatergoing experience, but the trend of films themselves.
The emergence of cinematic special effects has been one of pop culture’s most significant moments. Modern special effects, namely CGI, allowed for greater immersion into the screen, distancing film from theater and raising our standards for suspension of disbelief. But the advancement of special effects within cinema would always be a slippery slope. As the demand for aesthetics increases, the actual content of the film seems to become devalued.
The fundamental role of a film is the ability to tell a visual story. “Story” is the key word in this phrase. Barring aesthetics, the contemporary film seems to have lost this goal.
Why do I want to watch an old Star Wars movie instead of the newest blockbusters? I’m certainly not the only one. The Empire Strikes Back hearkens to an age when the best of special effects consisted of well-crafted costumes, make-up and green screens.
I will concede that compared to modern films, The Empire Strikes Back definitely lacks in the aesthetic department. However, the look of the movie is not why I fell in love with the original Star Wars films. I enjoyed those movies because they told an entertaining, compelling and profound story.
The original trilogy was basically modeled after a Shakespeare play. From the inevitability of destiny and fate (Luke’s path), the presence of family tragedies (Luke and Darth Vader), and the conflict between emotion and reason (the balance of the force), Shakespearean themes are heavily present throughout each film. Even the dialogue, embedded with subtle profoundness and filled with impassioned tones, alludes to the dramatic and compelling scripts of Shakespearean literature. The presence of Shakespeare in Star Wars shows how important storytelling was in its creation.
Unfortunately, it seems like each new movie values story less and less.
Take for example James Cameron’s blockbuster, Avatar. For a long time, this film was the highest grossing movie in the world. You would think that this success was due to exceptional story-telling and visual content. Nope, just the latter. Besides decent acting, the plot was unoriginal, using the “foreign savior” trope but in space. Yet critics paid no attention to the story of the film, instead praising the revolutionary use of CGI. In other words, the film’s aesthetics inflated the positive reviews.
Our culture only seems to care about the artistic side of film, focusing on uniquely aesthetic ways to visually tell a story rather than the actual story itself. Because of this, films nowadays suffer from bland dialogue, unoriginal plots, stagnant character progression, and insincere themes.
But the direction of the film industry is only in response to society’s demands. If there really is a decline in quality, it may be our fault, as we seem to prioritize aesthetics over substance. The only way to improve this trend is for us to recognize the ultimate purpose of movies: quality story-telling through visual art.