Star Wars is back. The space-opera juggernaut that ruled the late 70s and early 80s is once again reigning supreme over pop culture. Disney paid $4 billion for the contents of George Lucas’ toybox. But really, any movie studio that wants to can make its own Star Wars movie. (They just can’t call it “Star Wars.”)
Sure, you can trademark those two words, and the names of the main characters, and a few key touchstones like “The Force.” But as we’ve discussed endlessly, Star Wars is a mish-mash of tons of other stuff that was already decades old in 1977. It’s Flash Gordon, Lensmen, epic fantasy, The Hidden Fortress, The Dam-Busters and a bunch of other stuff, all smushed together and spiffed up with beautiful space VFX. You can’t really own Star Wars, because it’s a compendium of classic stories.
So any movie studio that wants to cash in on Star Wars mania can create its own space fantasy, full of weird creatures, spaceship battles, epic quests and huge mystical destinies. They don’t even have to base it on a particular classic IP—and given how much weird baggage things like Flash Gordon carry, it might be better not to.
There’s such a rich trove of material out there to borrow from, too. Space opera, just by itself, goes back generations and has left us with a huge wealth of archetypes, plot devices and story ideas. Star Wars barely scratches the surface of what space opera has to offer. And when you mash it up with other genres like epic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery and military science fiction, the possibilities are basically unlimited. A lot of what makes Star Wars so endlessly fascinating isn’t the result of George Lucas having a boundless imagination, but of Lucas having his hand in a lot of cookie jars. (And yes, I have now constructed a tortured mixed metaphor in which Lucas plundered several cookie jars to make a toybox.)
What I’m saying is, I hope that we see a wave of swashbuckling new space action movies soon. After the original Star Wars blew everyone’s mind, we got the Star Trek films, Alien, Flash Gordon, the guilty pleasure Moonraker, and a host of other random space movies from Buckaroo Banzai to Last Starfighter to Ice Pirates. Plus Buck Rogers and Battlestar. Plus a million Spaghetti space operas and other random oddities. Not all of these films were brilliant—although I will not stand for any smack-talk about Moonraker—but they were mostly thrilling and fun, and the perfect space candy for your inner child.
So I guess I’m hoping that, even as the success of some big films in the 2000s started a superhero feeding frenzy, a new Star Wars supremacy will make some other studios think about ways to get in on some of that sweet space action. One new Star Wars movie per year feels like a lot, but it also feels like not nearly enough space action. We need a regular dose of spaceships shooting energy weapons at each other, alien planets, wild and crazy ray-gun fights, and so on. There is a serious space-battle deficit in our lives.
I know what you’re going to say here. John Carter. Jupiter Ascending. Tomorrowland. Even J.J. Abrams’ own Star Trek movies didn’t really make Star Wars money. There’s been a long string of attempts to do a brand new spacey, futuristic movie series, and a lot of them have tanked. These sorts of movies are expensive, even if you cut corners. And we can be here all day discussing the ways in which those movies failed to win over audiences, and failed to convince us that they were going to be fun exciting romps. It’s absolutely true that Star Wars has a huge ocean of nostalgia to sip from, and The Force Awakens succeeded in part by reminding us of everything we loved about that universe. But the marketing for a lot of those other movies didn’t really convey the idea of “fun, exciting joyride.”
On the other hand, things like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar prove that it is possible to launch a series about spaceships and aliens, and have a massive success. It helps if there’s a known quantity involved, like Marvel or James Cameron, but also if the first movie actually seems fun and entertaining. The key to owning this rollicking-space-fantasy niche is 100 percent about convincing people that this is going to be a fun ride, with a decent payoff.
So sure, maybe doing a new space-opera movie series isn’t a slam dunk. But a canny film-maker can absolutely draw from the same sources that George Lucas plundered and come up with something that mainstream movie audiences will lose their shit over. If our new wave of Star Wars-mania leads to even one or two things that feel like a new Alien or a new Buckaroo Banzai, then that will be a brilliant outcome.
And you know what existing property actually desperately deserves a goddamn movie adaptation? Nexus. The space-faring comic by Mike Baron and Steve Rude about a guy who gets superpowers—but is forced to assassinate people he dreams about—is dying for a lavish movie adaptation. Also, Saga. But our Nexus movie is crazily overdue. WHERE IS MY NEXUS MOVIE, HOLLYWOOD?
Update: I realized that I already published a list of amazing space heroes who deserve their own movies, a couple years ago:
All images: Star Wars concept art by Ralph McQuarrie.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming Jan 26 from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.