May the Fourth: How 'Force Awakens' revived the 'Star Wars' franchise

May the Fourth: 'Force Awakens' became the latest franchise in Hollywood to recover after some mid-series flops.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' stars Adam Driver.

“Star Wars” is a movie franchise currently on top of the world, after its newest entry – the seventh film in the series, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – became the highest-grossing movie of all time (domestically without adjusting for inflation) and was well-received by critics. 

With the success of its newest film, “Star Wars” becomes the newest Hollywood franchise to reinvent itself and recover after some less-than-stellar installments.  

“Star Wars” established itself in the late 1970s and early ‘80s with the original trilogy, which ended in 1983 with “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.” More than a decade would pass before director George Lucas would release the first of the prequels, which explored the past of legendary screen villain Darth Vader. 

But all three movies, which were released in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, were poorly received by reviewers (though the final chapter, “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” received better reviews than its predecessors). 

“The film has a broader range of emotions and visual effects than any installment since ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’” The Christian Science Monitor's film critic David Sterritt wrote of "Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones." “But the writing and acting are as stiff as R2-D2's metal torso. If clones are so scary, why does Lucas keep cloning pop-culture clichés he's latched onto from other films, including his own?" 

So director J.J. Abrams had to win back many fans and meet high expectations when he took on the task of helming “Force,” which jumped forward to take place after all of the “Star Wars” movies released so far. 

“J.J. is terrified,” director Steven Spielberg said in an interview with “60 Minutes” prior to the release of “Force.”

But “Force” became a success and anticipation is now high for the upcoming “Star Wars” films (none of which will currently be directed by Mr. Abrams).

How did “Force” do so well? Wired staff writes, “It features great visuals, snappy dialogue, and a likeable cast of young actors,” with fantasy and science fiction fantasy editor John Joseph Adams telling Wired of "Force," "I enjoyed 'Star Wars' for the first time in a long time, whereas after the prequels I wasn’t sure that I ever would again."

There were some 'Star Wars' fans who weren't won over, of course, with some criticism centering especially on the similarities between "Force" and the first "Star Wars" film, "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope."

As for Hollywood in general, some franchises have also successfully reinvented themselves, while others have not. But given how often Hollywood has attempted to resurrect past successes, however, it demonstrates that no once-beloved property seems to ever be fully finished.

Abrams also revived another loved-but-downtrodden sci-fi franchise: Star Trek. He took on the task of directing 2009’s “Star Trek,” taking charge of a franchise that had seen diminishing returns (the films released prior to the 2009 movie, 1998’s “Star Trek: Insurrection” and 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis,” were two of the lowest-grossing films in the series). New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff noted that the 2009 film was an “attempt to rejuvenate the decades-old space adventure franchise.”

The movie successfully did so, with the film receiving good reviews and becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. 2013’s sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” also did well, though it grossed less than the first and was slightly less well-received by critics. A new film is planned for this summer.

2015 saw another franchise come back besides “Star Wars.” After the tepidly received 2001 movie “Jurassic Park III,” the dinosaur series didn’t appear in theaters for years. While critics didn’t love this past summer’s “Jurassic World,” audiences did, and the movie became the second-highest-grossing film of the year (behind only “Force”). A sequel is set for 2018.

These reinventions don’t always work as well financially, of course. A 2015 “Terminator” movie, “Terminator Genisys,” didn’t hit with critics or fans and was largely seen as a misfire in the US, though it did perform better overseas.

And the global audience now opens up hope for franchise films that don't resonate with a US audience.

Skydance Media Chief Creative Officer Dana Goldberg said of future “Terminator” plans, “Do we intend to have a next step of Terminator? Yes, we do,” according to TheWrap. “Happily, we live in the world where the domestic number had a level of importance 10 or 15 years ago – I’m not saying it’s not important, it is – but we have to play to a worldwide market. In terms of ‘Terminator,’ the worldwide market paid attention, but we’re not taking the domestic number lightly.”

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