How will The Force Awakens fare over time?

I was going to write a review of The Force Awakens, and I may still get around to doing that, perhaps once it comes to DVD/Blu-ray. But right now, I’d like to address this strange idea in fan circles that the film is both critically on the wane and about to face a backlash amongst the general public.

First, let’s put things in perspective here. Conservatively, we can assume that the total domestic box office gross for The Force Awakens will be $885m. (It’ll almost certainly make more than that, but we shouldn’t get too cocky about these things.) The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the U.S. population stood at 322.7m people in December 2015; meanwhile, the Canadian population was estimated to be 35.7m people in April 2015. So, on a dollars-per-capita basis, you’re looking at around $2.47 spent per person on average during the initial theatrical run of The Force Awakens.

How does that compare with other films in the time since the original Star Wars in 1977? Here are the current top ten films since 1977 in terms of real dollars per capita, based on initial domestic theatrical runs:

  1. Star Wars (1977): $3.53
  2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $3.43
  3. Titanic (1997): $2.93
  4. Avatar (2009): $2.43
  5. The Empire Strikes Back (1980): $2.40
  6. Return of the Jedi (1983): $2.32
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): $2.18
  8. Beverly Hills Cop (1984): $2.05
  9. Jurassic Park (1993): $2.03
  10. Ghostbusters (1984) $2.00

(The Phantom Menace just misses out, coming in at $1.98 and making it to number 11 along with Superman: The Movie. And it’s interesting to note that five names dominate that list: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy, with the latter two reappearing again with The Force Awakens.)

Even conservatively, then, The Force Awakens is set to eclipse seven of those ten films, making it the biggest film in 18 years and the third biggest film since the original Star Wars. It’s certainly the king in terms of the six Star Wars sequels/prequels.

But how did those films fare with critics initially and over time? By taking the Rotten Tomatoes score for contemporary reviews by top critics and applying Laplace smoothing to account for small datasets, we arrive at the following, with the current Rotten Tomatoes score in brackets:

  1. Star Wars (1977): 89% (94%)
  2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): 88% (98%)
  3. Jurassic Park (1993): 80% (93%)
  4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980): 77% (94%)
  5. Avatar (2009): 75% (83%)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): 75% (96%)
  7. Titanic (1997): 68% (88%)
  8. Return of the Jedi (1983): 64% (80%)
  9. Ghostbusters (1984) 62% (97%)
  10. Beverly Hills Cop (1984): 50% (83%)

The first number gives you the probability of reading a positive review for that particular movie in a major publication at the time; the second number gives you a picture of how divided critics are in general on that particular movie, up to the present day.

Looking at those numbers, it seems clear that broad critical consensus for truly massive films tends to trend upwards over time. Age gives them a “classic” status, and the reassessment tends to be a little kinder, given hindsight and a knowledge of the overall cultural impact. (And before anyone points to The Phantom Menace as a counterexample, it should be noted that by far the most financially successful prequel began life with around 39% of top critics giving it a positive review; the overall consensus now stands at 56%.)

For The Force Awakens, the probability of finding a positive review from a top critic is 83%, putting it in roughly the same category as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park—fitting, given J.J. Abrams’ debt to Steven Spielberg.

In terms of being both a domestic box office success and an initial hit with critics, then, only one film beats-out The Force Awakens in the period since the original Star Wars: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The Force Awakens is, quite frankly, the most roundly successful piece of cinema in the last 30 years.

And it will stay that way for some time. Sure, it may fall out of favour with the Internet intelligentsia, especially when compared to Mad Max: Fury Road (just as E.T. has suffered as both Blade Runner and The Thing gained cult status), but in terms of general opinion, The Force Awakens will be held up as a landmark for many, many years to come.

So if you’re hoping for a critical reappraisal that simultaneously elevates the prequel trilogy and demotes The Force Awakens, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. History has already been written.

Addendum: Let’s be even more conservative, and estimate the domestic gross for The Force Awakens at $870m. To quantify the mix of initial critical response and real dollars per capita, we can find the geometric mean of these two numbers. This is how it all shakes out:

  1. Star Wars: 1.77
  2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: 1.74
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 1.42
  4. Titanic: 1.41
  5. The Empire Strikes Back: 1.36
  6. Avatar: 1.35
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark: 1.28
  8. Jurassic Park: 1.27
  9. Return of the Jedi: 1.22
  10. Ghostbusters: 1.11
  11. Beverly Hills Cop: 1.01

And compared to the other six Star Wars movies?

  1. Star Wars: 1.77
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 1.42
  3. The Empire Strikes Back: 1.36
  4. Return of the Jedi: 1.22
  5. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace: 0.88
  6. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith: 0.8
  7. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones: 0.74

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