by Geoff Olson

A night out at the movies increasingly feels like a trip to a big casino. You slap down a fair chunk of change to partake in sensory assault with an attached risk of regret.

As someone chronically averse to gambling, I prefer the odds offered by Netflix. For less than the price of a movie ticket, I can binge myself catatonic for a month.

The ascent in TV programming quality arguably dates back to the premiere of the HBO series The Sopranos in 1999. The descent in American film quality has been on a shallower grade, over a longer period. In the late ’70s, actor Paul Newman supposedly observed that the biggest Academy Award winners of the time were “two robots and a rubber shark” — a reference to George Lucas’s comic droids in Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s fake maneater in Jaws.

Lucas and Spielberg expertly set the tone for dramatic action in the ’70s, and computer-generated imagery raised the bar for impossible scenes from the ’80s on. Seeing the writing on the box office wall, Hollywood studios shelved scripts for challenging, socially relevant films in favour of sequel-friendly, green-screened juvenilia.

I saw the first Star Wars flick as a teen. Whelmed-over I was, as Yoda might have said; but it didn’t penetrate my psyche to its core. Different story with the elementary school set, who found their gen-X touchstones of mythic heroism in a movie serial. Unfortunately, the first three Star Wars episodes were followed by a series of head-scratching prequels that were as much enraging as entertaining.

In a literal disenfranchisement, I got off the Lucas bus when the cutesy-poo Ewoks appeared in Return of the Jedi — 16 years before Jar Jar Binks shucked and jived his way through The Phantom Menace. (Industrial Light and Magic conceived the latter character with toy-buying kids in mind, not adults, according to the 2010 documentary The People Versus George Lucas. The serial was never intended to grow with its aging fanbase, a la JK Rowling’s Harry Potter productions.)

But I’m a curious sort. With the hype and crowds dwindling for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I thought I’d take a gamble on the Disneyfied reboot. I did it up right by paying $6.75 on half-price Tuesday for a bare bones 2D, non-THX screening. Just like back in the ’70s.

Director JJ Abrams went back to the original document to honour the memory of Lucas’s pre-CGI space opera. There are no surprises, as he retells the first tale right down to the Rebellion’s destruction of a (bigger) Death Star.

Actor Harrison Ford reportedly wanted his character Hans Solo killed off years ago. Just as John Cleese says he couldn’t walk down a street for years without someone yelling, “do the Silly Walk,” I imagine Ford hasn’t been able to venture into a pub for decades without someone saying, “Please don’t shoot me, Hans Solo!”

And here he is, a senior shuffling through another extraterrestrial bar scene with all the vim of a man ascending the gallows with an eight-figure cheque in his pocket. He might as well have been wearing a sign around his neck reading, “I’d rather be in Carbonite” (which appears to have been used to set Carrie Fisher’s face as General Leia, by the way).

But as they say in the auto ads, “your mileage may vary.” There’s been plenty of rave reviews from critics and viewers alike for this curiously stilted production. Perhaps we’re talking about a peculiar form of Stockholm syndrome. After all, this film franchise/marketing juggernaut kidnapped the imaginations of gen-X kids years ago. Now adults, these folks want to believe with the intensity of Fox Mulder. But what they’re buying into is sterilized kids’ stuff, applied with a gauze of adult nostalgia by the Mouse.

Great American films with adult themes still get made, but they take a back seat to ass-kicking mesomorphs in unitards and armour. Hollywood’s one-size-fits-all output, increasingly geared toward the Asian market, has easily-translated dialogue and themes unlikely to raise red flags with censors in China.

You can interpret that as a welcome move toward colour-blind panglobalism, or another questionable entertainment trend traceable back to The Empire. Not Lord Vader’s, but Lucas and Spielberg’s.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 26