“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which premiered on Monday and opens on Thursday night and might just break almost every box-office record that’s breakable, exists on a rarefied plane where expectations can get as far from reality as Dagobah is from Naboo.
(I have no idea how far Dagobah is from Naboo, but you know what I mean.)
It’s the first blockbuster since “Avatar” to not only prompt the question, “How much money will it make?” but also the tougher query, “Can it win the Academy Award for Best Picture?”
The short answer to the latter is this: No. Come on, it’s a “Star Wars” movie.
And also: Isn’t it enough to be in the running to become the biggest movie in the history of the galaxy? Why does it have to win awards, too?
Disney clearly knew this when it opted not to show the film to any critics’ groups or early voters, keeping it off Top 10 lists and critics’ awards and preventing it from having any chance of grabbing Golden Globes or SAG nominations.
And yet, for a moment, before it opened, a few people floated the idea that it could be the first box-office behemoth to win Best Picture since “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2003 and “Titanic” in 1997.
It seemed faintly possible. After all, what is “Star Wars” if not “Avatar” with more cultural resonance, a dazzling technical achievement that also managed to grab the zeitgeist?
And “Avatar” could have won Best Picture if it hadn’t run into the irresistible awards narrative provided by Kathryn Bigelow‘s “The Hurt Locker” and her quest to be the first woman ever to win Best Director. This year, there’s really nothing with that kind of narrative lurking to be the David to “Star Wars”‘ Goliath.
The field seemed ripe for the entry of a huge, game-changing film. “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” weren’t that film — could “The Force Begins” somehow be it?
And wouldn’t it be cool if it were?
But here’s the deal: For that to happen, it would have to be unassailably, inarguably great. If J.J. Abrams‘ film isn’t richly entertaining and grandly satisfying and completely thrilling, and also moving on a whole other level, then it’s just another good-to-great sci-fi movie.
And good-to-great sci-fi movies don’t win Best Picture.
In fact, most of the time they don’t even get nominated.
“The Force Awakens,” to my mind, is a good-almost-great sci-fi movie, fun and satisfying and pretty much what I want out of a “Star Wars” flick.
But it’s not a blast of freshness, the way the original film was. It’s not an I’ve-never-seen-that-on-screen-before accomplishment, which even those of us who didn’t like its script had to admit that “Avatar” was. It’s not the culmination of an enormous achievement, the way “The Return of the King” was.
And to me, that means it’ll probably get a handful of Oscar nominations, but it probably won’t be in play for a Best Picture nod, much less a win.
As for the critics who have pushed another thrilling popcorn movie, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” into the awards conversation, it’s unlikely they’ll jump off the Max bandwagon to go for this one instead.
That’s not to say that the film didn’t win raves in its first round of reviews that hit at midnight on Tuesday. But Oscar voters aren’t going to put the film at the top of their ballots because of a New York Times review that begins, “The big news about ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is – spoiler alert – that it’s good!”
And the industry’s hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, was decidedly mixed: “Though a definite improvement on the last three abortive ‘Stars Wars’ prequels directed by series creator George Lucas, ‘The Force Awakens’ is only at its best in fits and starts.”
The American Film Institute jury could still opt to put the film on its Top 10 list for the year when it meets on Wednesday. But “The Force Awakens” will never be a critical cause célèbre enough to get voters to overlook their distaste for sci-fi, or to forget that it’s the sixth sequel (or, if you want to be a stickler, the third sequel plus three prequels) to the only movie in the franchise to get a best-pic nomination.
Anyway, none of this means a thing when it comes to the reason why they make movies like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Here’s a pop quiz: Would you rather watch “Oliver!” or “2001: A Space Odyssey?” “Annie Hall” or the original “Star Wars?” “Kramer vs. Kramer” or “Alien?” “Gandhi” or “Blade Runner?” “American Beauty” or “The Matrix?”
In each case, the Academy went for Option A – and in every case except “Star Wars,” the Academy didn’t even nominate Option B. I’m not saying that Oscar voters always made the wrong choice (though I’d argue that they did in at least one instance), but AMPAS has long been wary of this particular genre, and it takes something enormous for them to change their minds.
“The Force Awakens” is enormous, all right, just not in the way that it needs to be to contend on this particular playing field.
If you look for Best Picture winners on the Box Office Mojo chart of the top-grossing domestic films of all time, “Titanic” is by far the highest at No. 2. After that, you’ve got to go down to No. 25 for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” then No. 39 for “Forrest Gump.” And that’s it for the top 100.
Don’t expect “The Force Awakens” to change those particular numbers. And so what if it doesn’t?