Ask an American audience member about the new Star Wars film, and they might reply that it is a classic, action-filled, adventure sci-fi film containing nostalgic moments from the original series while filled with new surprises. For those who have seen the previous movies of the franchise, it is a spirited continuation of childhood full of new twists. As for those who are entering the universe of Star Wars for the first time, it is a fun, adventure- filled thriller with an impressive universe and refreshing cast.
Record-breaking numbers show that director J.J Abrams has indeed hit a chord with worldwide audiences. Breaking more records than any other film in history, “The Force Awakens” hit a world-record opening of $529 million and became the highest grossing 2015 film with a whopping $1.870 billion in box office sales. It holds the place for the fastest film to gross $1 billion, in only 12 days, and is the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing movie giants like James Cameron’s “Titanic” and “Avatar”. Such colossal figures point to the evident truth that the Star Wars franchise is a worldwide phenomenon. Global numbers include being the highest-grossing film of all time in the U.K and Ireland, surpassing Britain’s very own “Skyfall” in sales. It also holds the record for the biggest weekend of all time in countries including Australia, Russia, Germany, Hungary and Denmark, to include a few. In Japan, it is one of the only two films to pass $82.7 million at the box office in the past five years.
According to this trend, “The Force Awakens” was then naturally expected to rank as one of the highest-grossing films of all time in the most populous country on the planet: China. However, analysts were met with disappointment and confusion when “The Force Awakens” opened with a lower than predicted figure of $52.6 million in its opening weekend. Even more unexpectedly, the franchise was beaten by another movie series in only its second week of release. Theorists immediately scrambled for explanations to the relative lack of excitement with Chinese audiences, pointing out reasons that its relative unpopularity was due to a lack of generational history in China. However, the Star Wars franchise was not beaten by traditional Chinese films, but by other American franchises, such as “Transformers” and “Fast and Furious 7”, China’s highest-grossing American movie franchise of all time.
The relative unpopularity in China can perhaps be explained by differing preferences for movies due to distinctive cultural tastes. Yet even Chinese students have a hard time understanding why other American films are more popular than the galactic franchise.
“Maybe a Chinese audience doesn’t prefer ‘Star Wars’ because there’s too many explosions,” suggests Emily Jin ‘17, a psychology major from Beijing. “Like in general, a Chinese audience would prefer something that is more serene and tranquil.” But after a moment of reflection, she pauses. “But then again, I can’t really generalize that because other Hollywood films have been successful in China. ‘Fast and Furious’ is also quite vibrant, but Chinese people still prefer them, so I don’t know why ‘Star Wars’ is basically unpopular.”
Perhaps it makes more sense to see the movie in a different light. For North and America and the U.K, ‘Star Wars’ has been a historical franchise with a vast world. American audiences thus see “The Force Awakens” as an addition to a large historical franchise, an addition to a cult culture of Jedi and light-sabers. Yet for Chinese audiences, “The Force Awakens” is the confusing debut to an unknown series. While American audiences in the theatre yell excitedly at the re-appearance of Han Solo, Chinese audiences stir in confusion as an increasing number of familiar characters appear one by one. As American audiences clap to the final scene with Luke Skywalker, Chinese audiences may wonder why the random man in a hood appears in the final scene of the film. To put it another way, “Star Wars” in America is already a long established brand, while it is only becoming introduced to the younger generation of Chinese audiences, who grew up in their own cultural context to a mixture of Chinese folktales like “The Monkey King”, Japanese anime such as “Detective Conan” and Western toys like Lego and Barbie. This theory might also explain why “Transformers” was such a big hit in China instead of Star Wars: “Transformers” is not only a popular toy with Chinese children, but a popular cartoon animated by Japanese studios. The explanation that “Transformers” strikes a chord with China because of children growing up watching the Japanese animation of “Super robot life form transformers” thus suggests that “Transformers” has been a part of childhood in China while “Star Wars” is a foreign force.
While theories on culture and childhood influence helps to explain the Star Wars mystery in China, the more significant aspect of this event is China’s role as a giant movie market in the future. The introduction of “Star Wars” to China marks the advent of an increasingly globalized culture and raises several questions, including how the next generation of Chinese will respond to American culture and whether the two economic giants can successfully continue on this trajectory of cultural exchange.