Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd. via AP
Felicity Jones appears as Jyn Erso in a scene from "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," in this image from Lucasfilm Ltd. The film, released Dec. 16, is emblematic of what blockbusters will continue to look like in years to come, critics say.

For Hollywood, record-breaking 2016 meant giving fans what they want

Comfort-seeking audiences flocked to the familiar in 2016, and movies like 'Rogue One' seemed expressly written to reward them.

Spoiler alert: This article discusses characters and plot points in "Rogue One."

By most standards, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a smashing success.

Box-office figures show the film has the fourth biggest 12-day total in history, attesting to the enduring appeal of nostalgic reference. 

Yet for all that its plot revolves around a band of scrappy rebels taking on the Galactic Empire, “Rogue One” falls short of revolutionary, some critics say. Underdeveloped characters and unexplored plot lines take away from the charged action sequences and cameos from familiar faces. Instead of adding to the richness of the Star Wars universe, writes Peter Suderman for Vox, the film only “reinforced what’s already there.”

“It's a kind of timidity,” he continues, “an unwillingness to break the franchise mold – even in an installment supposedly meant to do precisely that.”

The film’s strengths and shortcomings together provide a glimpse of what audiences can expect from big-budget blockbusters in years to come, film and media analysts say.

In an era where a single major production needs an investment of about $200 million, Hollywood giants like the Walt Disney Co. – which owns the Star Wars and Marvel franchises – are more likely to bet on the tried and tested than risk losing on an experiment. Hence the ongoing proliferation of sequels, prequels, retellings, and adaptations.

More movies, too, seem purposely produced to provide fan service. While that used to mean rewarding long-time enthusiasts with in-jokes and cameos, critics of the trend say, it now can encompass entire plots.

Not that blockbusters have stopped pushing the envelope. “Rogue One” gave audiences the most extensive use of digital reincarnation to date, bringing back via CGI the late Peter Cushing’s character, Grand Moff Tarkin. But cutting-edge narratives, others note, have begun to shift to the Internet streaming space, where the stakes are lower and the audience easier to access.  

“More and more is riding on fewer and fewer films,” says Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at the University of California Los Angeles. “The only way [studios] can ensure success is by picking something that is easily promotable and that people are already familiar with.”

And audiences have flocked to their old favorites, with 2016 breaking the all-time record for domestic box office thanks to hits like "Finding Dory," "Captain America: Civil War," and "Rogue One." (The only two movies to crack the Top 10 in 2016 that were not part of a franchise – "Zootopia" and "The Secret Life of Pets" – were animated films.)

Blue milk and 'walrus men'

Set immediately before the events in 1977’s “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” ties itself to its chronological sequel with a host of Easter eggs scattered throughout the movie. Some were designed for longtime fans, like the glass of blue milk sitting on the kitchen table at the start of the film – the same beverage Luke Skywalker pours for himself in “A New Hope.”

Others were more obvious, like the rebel base on Yavin 4. Mon Mothma, political leader of the Rebel Alliance who debuted in “Return of the Jedi,” and Bail Organa of Alderaan, who was introduced in the prequels, both make an appearance. Evazan and Ponda Baba, a pair who show up in the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, have a short bit at the marketplace in Jedha.

Princess Leia graces the final scene, with a computer-generated Carrie Fisher reprising her iconic role.

All these combine to make the film feel familiar even as it strives to tell a story distinct from the main saga. And that sense of familiarity is what audiences often look for when they hit the cinemas today, says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York.

“We don’t go to the movies anymore to find innovation,” he says. “We go to the movies to find almost reassurance.”

Part of it, he says, has to do with one of the things that has always lured people to cinema: the appeal of escapism, the consolation that in a dangerous world, some things – like the notion that the good guys will win – remain unassailable, or at least preserved, in film.

“People tend to think the past was rosy and nice. That very last scene [with Princess Leia] brought people back to their feeling in the 1970s,” Professor Levinson says. “People today … they’re not comfortable with what’s going on in the world. That puts more pressure on entertainment to provide a comfort zone.”

A 'safe risk'

To be sure, “Rogue One” takes some narrative risk. Many critics noted that the film depicted the chaos of war more convincingly than any of the others before it. 

“It’s not a feel-good movie. You leave feeling emotionally wrung out,” says Simon Tarr, a filmmaker and associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Art and Visual Design. “I thought it was pretty risky for them … they were able to take it in a new emotional direction.”

But it was “a safe risk,” he says, “in the sense that they didn’t have to worry about betting the farm because it was a ‘Star Wars’ movie. You’re basically printing money.”

It’s hard to argue with the box office. Within 12 days of its Dec. 16 release, “Rogue One” had made more than $340 million in the US and more than $600 million worldwide. The result, analysts say, is that studios are increasingly loath to tinker with the formula: Develop a fictional universe, ensure its mass appeal, and stick with it.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first in Warner Bros.’s “Harry Potter” spinoff series, gave the studio a promising start to what is now a five-movie sequence. The revered head of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, gets a shout-out in the first film and seems poised to appear in future installments.

Marvel's interlocking multiverse has taken off on the big screen – elevating even formerly obscure heroes like a walking tree and talking raccoon to superstar status. Its “Captain America: Civil War”  and “Dr. Strange” earned both critical and commercial approval this year.

D.C., on the other hand, struggled to make its latest incarnations of stalwarts Batman, the Joker, and Superman resonate with fans. Both films still made the Top 10, though, for box office. And the financial rewards, observers say, mean the company is unlikely to veer from the creative strategy, with next year's “Wonder Woman” and a coming “Justice League” movie planned.

Universal Pictures, hoping to create its own interlocking universe, is opting for a monster mash of classic characters like The Mummy, Dracula, Invisible Man, and Frankenstein.

“I think the big budget films are probably not going to be risk-taking,” says Professor Kuntz at UCLA. “Audiences ... want another chapter, but one that’s not too different from before. [Studios] are willing to roll with what audiences want.”

To some degree, blockbusters have always been about safe storytelling; edgy narratives have long been the domain of independent cinema.

“It doesn’t mean movies are bad if they provide us a story that we are familiar with,” Levinson says. “People find it very satisfying.”

Still, some critics say the rise of the interlocking series has ushered a more perceivable decline of originality in Hollywood, especially among big-budget movies.

In the case of “Rogue One,” they say, the effort to align the film with the original saga cost it fully developed characters with robust relationships with one another. Writes Alyssa Rosenberg for The Washington Post: “They exist less as people, much less as avenues to explore any big ideas in depth or with sophistication, than as characters in a video game; we need them to complete tasks, not to be people.”

Not as easy as it looks

Others say producing a sequel (or prequel, or adaptation, or live-action version of a loved animated film, a la the 2016 smash "Jungle Book") with a budget of $200 million dollars is itself a major risk. Fulfilling audience expectations can be a huge burden – which makes the success of the last two “Star Wars” movies that much more remarkable, says Jason Squire, associate professor of the practice of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California.

“You’re trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle,” he says. “That’s highly creatively challenging.”

Of more than two dozen sequels Hollywood had released by the end of September this year, only seven performed better than their predecessors. According to Fortune magazine, “that means for every blockbuster like ‘Captain America: Civil War’ there have been more than 3.7 disappointments along the lines of ‘Zoolander 2’ or ‘Independence Day: Resurgence.’ ”

“I don’t think any of these tent-pole movies are risk averse,” Professor Squire says.

In addition to the financial risk, there's a real danger of outraging fans by messing with a beloved property – which George Lucas ran headlong into with three "Star Wars" prequels.

And with films like the musical “La La Land” and drug drama “Moonlight” receiving critical acclaim and box-office success, Squire says he is hard put to say the American film industry is lacking in originality.

Bigger ideas on the smaller screen

The most cutting-edge storytelling, however, has begun to move from the silver screen to the computer monitor.

Streaming services such as Netflix and HBO Go have given producers the creative freedom to explore the speculative, the fantastic, and the deeply disturbing: from what would happen if a creature from another dimension kidnapped a boy in 1980s Indiana, as in the wildly popular “Stranger Things,” to the consequences of taking technology too far, as in the sci-fi series “Black Mirror” and “Westworld.”

The reason, analysts say, is not only are blockbusters more expensive; people go to theaters less often now that they have access to all manner of content at their fingertips.

In the end, Levinson says, “It’s a question of what we want our movies to do. And I would say that as long as we get these cutting edges in one place or another, it’s not bad for our culture where one place where we used to get it changes to something else.”

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