Monday, December 21, 2015

An "Anti-Star Wars Rant" Rant

I'm already seeing it--the snarky posts, the cheeky reviews, the hipster-bullshit-condemnation of the new Star Wars movie. It happens every time something popular threatens to bring fandom together to, you know, get along, under a common banner, or standard, or even via a common language. For something that is nearly forty years old, you'd think that Star Wars would get a pass, wouldn't you? By Star Trek's 25th anniversary, their status as an "institution" was conferred, and they were in the middle of making terrible movies.

Maybe it's the commercial aspect of Star Wars they object to. Maybe Lucas kept tinkering with it for too long and squeezed everything that made it good the first time out of the subsequent iterations. Maybe it was the price tag that Disney paid for it, a willfully obscene amount of money by anyone's defintion. I don't know, honestly. But here's the deal: I don't care that you didn't like the movie. I honestly could not give a shit. That you spent twelve dollars on the film to be insulted by it, and then spread that bile over the Internet, is your problem, not ours. So, please stop vomiting your displeasure up and calling us over to look at the eructation.

This is where it seems to break for these nattering nabobs and nay-sayers. They fall into three camps:

1. "I never liked Star Wars, even when I was a kid. It just didn't interest me then and it sure doesn't appeal to me now."

You know who those kids were in 1978? The weirdos that even the weirdos wouldn't play with. EVERYONE was into Star Wars. For six years, if you knew the right quote, or piece of trivia, or had the right toy, you were spared a beating from the class asshole. Why? Because he liked Star Wars, too. I don't know who hurt you; maybe your father, the alcoholic, used to flick lit Star Wars figures at your head to wake you up in the morning. But that's your damage to get square with.

And I know I'm being judgey right now, and I don't care. If you didn't like Star Wars as a young person, then I find that highly suspicious. Either you pre-dated the hipster movement during post-modern's heyday, making you post-post-modern, or you were just fine being the one irritating kid that didn't like anything. Either way, I am highly suspicious of your judgment when it comes to subjective criteria and art and I'll never trust any recommendation coming out of your mouth, ever.

2. "When I was a child I thought like a child, but when I became an adult, I put away my Star Wars toys and realized it's just for kids."

We can debate that all day (watch Episode III again and when Anakin slaughters all of the Jedi children, let me know how that sits with you), but the point is this--I had memories of a great childhood, one that the Internet and our Digital culture have all but completely ruined for me. You can't go back and re-visit the shit you enjoyed as a youth, because it was terrible. Wonder Woman? God-awful. Battlestar Galactica? Forget it.  Buck Rogers? Flash Gordon? Battle Beyond the Stars? Come on. It's all horrible. You know what still holds up, though? Star Wars. We all hate the teddy bears, but it doesn't keep us from rewatching Jedi all the way through.

That you have cut yourself off from your childhood joy makes me very sad for you.

3. "Come on, it's just such a product of the hegemony! Elitist, Classist, Racist, Sexist, and oh yeah, badly written. Lucas can't direct, Mark Hamill can't act, and no, I'm NOT a Star Wars fan! I'm wearing the vintage 1978 Iron On of R2-D2 IRONICALLY! So, yeah, whatever."

Ah, the hipsters. I knew you'd be in this group, barking the absolute loudest. What's even weirder is that they are doing it in SF/F author/fan circles. Why? Because everyone is talking about Star Wars and not whatever pet/fringe/foreign/under-appreciated/personal novel they constantly champion instead. "The science is bad." Thanks, genius. Where were you during every single science fiction movie over the past 75 years? Just now, the science is bad? This is right up there with that willfully obtuse newscaster from MSNBC who thinks Star Wars is racist because Vader is black.

News flash, Genius. I can make anything racist, satanic, or sexist. It's easy. You just put on your filtered glasses, and look for anything you can twist around like a balloon animal into another shape. It's easy to do, embarrassingly so. When you've stuck your head so far up the ass of whatever social/cultural/academic zeitgeist you're currently contributing to that you can't NOT see it everywhere, that makes me super sad for you.

Then there's the SF fans...not necessarily self-loathing, but for some reason, always looking for a way to shit on whatever other people like. "Rey is a Mary Sue," they say. Aside from the misuse of the term, there's never been a genre more forgiving of its heroes and heroines--up to and including the characters in books and movies that this chucklehead likes--than Fantasy and Science Fiction. These plot hole-spoiler posts, these snarky asides, these broad, sweeping condemnations of the franchise that brought tens of thousands of people into their chosen industry and hundreds of thousands of people into the related fields of gaming, animation, movie making,, and millions of people with an appetite for fantastic storytelling up to the plate--well, they ring hollow. They smack of disingenuous jealousy.

Hey, Look, before you start kvetching back--I understand. I was on your side when that Flash in the Pan, Twilight, clogged the internet up. I get it. And sure, okay, Harry Potter was a YA series that maybe shouldn't have appealed to as many adults as it did. But you're messing with Star Wars, now. You're pulling threads on a Gordian Knot. This franchise is both the Alpha and the Omega, as this weekend confirmed. A whole new generation of kids just came out of the movies indoctrinated into the Star Wars family. I know. I watched them come out of my movie theater all weekend. Those kids are your economic future, if you consider yourself to be a Creative Person of any kind.

I get that you say you don't like Star Wars. I don't pretend that I'm not bothered by it, but I'm going to make you a deal: shut your big fat flapping mouth and quit trying to bring down a bunch of people who are having a good time and NOT arguing politics for once this year, and I won't knock you down and take your lunch money and call you names. Just go play an XBox game and wait for this to blow over. I hear Star Wars Battlefront is awesome. We'll rejoin you in February when Deadpool comes out, okay? Until then, keep your head down and stop trying to kill our joy.


 Real fans, genuinely disappointed for one reason or another, are not going to use this as an opportunity to "count coup" and score social/political points by punching down on Star Wars. That's the problem I'm seeing. It's like the "film critic" who says they hate Martial Arts movies and then goes on to tell you for 2,500 words why Kill Bill is Tarantino's worst movie. If you want to have a go at Tarantino, be my guest, but don't throw something under the bus to highlight your ignorance.

Now, the flip side to this is....FANS...mostly GROWN-UP Fans...need to be okay with hearing that The Force Awakens isn't perfect. Legit criticism needs to be at least acknowledged. I think it's fine to love flawed things. And, judging by the number of people who adore Dino de Laurentis' Flash Gordon movie, most fans should be well-attuned to the idea of something being so bad that it's good.

So, I guess what I'm saying, in my unfair and un-egalitarian way, is this: Star Wars is OUR movie to like or dislike, and if we choose to criticize it, that's our right. Everyone else, who hasn't spent thousands of dollars loving the franchise over the years, doesn't get to talk shit

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Memories 18: What Did Star Wars Teach Me?

If you can, why not?
I’ve said throughout this series of essays that Star Wars was a part of me, an influence, etc. It’s easy to just rattle that off and not pay it any mind. It sounds good, but what am I really saying here?

Basically, Star Wars jump-started my creative process. I started drawing space ships and stormtroopers, pretty obsessively, after I saw the movie. This artistic swell turned into me creating my own characters, and giving them stories, and well, after that, it was all downhill.

Just for laughs, and in case any of you are still interested in this topic after nearly three weeks of navel-gazing, I’ll break it out and explain a little bit about what I took creatively from Star Wars. Some of these lessons revealed themselves to me as I got older, and some were pretty apparent right away. Mind you, this is not a Rosetta Stone to my creative self; I got these ideas reinforced to me in a number of other forms over the years, and so these lessons from Star Wars were just one of many voices saying the same thing, over and over, until it resonated in my sternum like a bass note. But the first note, the first thrum, came from Star Wars.

1. When telling stories, make them fast, tense, and if at all possible, clever. That snappy dialogue, the back-and-forth bickering stuck with me and became some of my favorite moments in a story moving at the speed of sound. I like that there’s just enough explanation, or exposition, to set the stage, and then after that, we’re telling the tale as we go along.

That idea set itself early on in my brain and I’ve preferred to read, as well as write, muscular prose ever since.

2. Myth-Making. Playing with existing structures and putting my spin them. This developed over time. The idea of taking a known thing and turning it around so that it’s seen from a new angle really appeals to me. Star Wars led me to the Hidden Fortress, which led me to Akira Kurasawa, which led me to The Seven Samurai, which led me to The Magnificent Seven, and then my mind was blown. You can make samurai flicks into cowboy movies, and vice versa.

3. Use what you like in your creative process. Lucas created Star Wars out of The Hidden Fortress, Flash Gordon serials, and judicious parts of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But unless you’re steeped in all of that scattered SF and Samurai lore (and at the age of 7, I knew nothing), it all had new paint on it and you couldn’t see the influences very well, mostly. At the age of 27, those influences were all well known to me, but that made Star Wars even more interesting.  Why not write about the thing you love?

4. People like rogues and bad guys more than good guys. It’s true. People like villains even more. Star Wars and Empire both had great rogues and fantastic villains. Darth Vader tortures Han and Leia for no other reason than to call out to Luke through the Force. Yikes. Characters who aren’t always squeaky clean are also unpredictable. That makes for entertaining characters.

5. Don’t be afraid to step back from what you’ve done and admit that it sucks, or that you were wrong. This was a lesson learned from watching Lucas do it the wrong way. I have been fortunate to work with some impressive and talented writers over the years, and our mutual honesty has served us well in this regard. Listening to people who like you and like your work when they tell you it’s broken is invaluable. Sometimes, you think it’s good and it’s not. Other times, you know it’s good, but want to hang on to it anyway. Learning to let it go is a good lesson.

From a post-modern perspective, Raiders of the Lost Ark picks up where Star Wars leaves off. It’s pure cliffhanger and B-western homage, only it’s not really. It’s a Republic Serial story with a reactionary wish-list of rules and demands placed on it by two men who hated it when the hero lost their hat in a fight scene and it miraculously re-appeared back on their head at the scene’s end.

For a while, I thought I was the only person digging around deeply in this stuff. I found out later that most writers, including friends that I’ve known and worked with over the years, had similar experiences and compulsions. A burning desire to see how the sausage was made, either in print or on film. Especially the thought processes behind those creative decisions.

The big action image from The Force Awakens.
As a professional and paid, if not steadily employed, author, I’ve tried to imbue my writing with that same urgency, that same sense of wonder and even that same language. Hey, you can’t go wrong there, right? It doesn’t always work, and the Star Wars approach isn’t always the right one for a story, but as a tool set, it’s not let me down yet.

That wraps this series up. I hope you enjoyed reading them. With any luck, it fired you up to see the new film, or at least got you talking about the prequels. Hopefully you’ve got ticket to the movie this weekend. Maybe you’re bringing your seven year old kid. I hope you both get what you’re looking for out of the experience.  

May the Force be With You.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars Memories 17: May the Fourth Be With You

Film Noir Movies with Star Wars
characters. Yes, please!

I think the best thing that the fans ever did for George Lucas was choosing to ignore him when it came to the goofy stuff falling out of his gourd-like noggin.  People—and weirdly, it wasn’t my crowd—began taking ownership of Star Wars in the same way that the Millennials were claiming Harry Potter and to a lesser extent, Lord of the Rings.

In the absence of movies, Fan Activity took over. People began to re-interpret Star Wars through different lenses and filters. Steampunk Star Wars was the rage for a while. Dark Horse published the original trilogy storyline as classic Manga, complete with all of the storytelling tropes and differences in place. It was a completely new reading of the classic Star Wars text. And it worked. It held up.

Cosplay exploded, and with it came clever re-inventions of the visual architecture of Star Wars. Fan fiction went wild (and of course, we can argue that most of the books published between 1981 and 2010 are just high-end fan fiction), as did gaming. Someone produced a musical. Lots of artwork hit the internet; retro-travel posters to the various planets, minimalist movie posters, you name it. People started posting DIY Lightsaber tutorials, using plumbing and hardware supplies. And then, the fan movies! I can’t forget about those. The Boba Fett films alone are an impressive thing.

Even the new licensed material had a different tone to it. No longer just toys, you could now get chopsticks in the shape of lightsabers. Or my favorite, ice cube trays with Han Solo frozen in Carbonite. I knew we were going to be all right when I first saw those.

A ton of really talented artists, crafter, cosplayers, movie makers—fans, all, really stepped up and made Star Wars fun again. It doesn’t have to be heavy, not all of the time. I don’t need to take Midi-Chlorians seriously. All I need to do to get my Star Wars Fan Activity on is to say, on the appropriate day, “May the Fourth Be With You.” Of course, the only proper response to this is, “And also with you.”

 A Fan-Made Alternate
Empire Strikes Back Poster.
It’s okay to think that the folks who write down “Jedi” under religious affiliation on tax forms and census forms are a little nutty. They are. But they know it, too, and it’s okay. We’ve all got a sliding scale to determine our level of participation. Mine stops at fanfic and cosplay, but I wouldn’t be opposed to dressing up in costume for a single night—the premiere of a new movie, say.

We don’t have to consume the party line. This is, I think, especially important, now that Disney owns Lucasfilm. Disney is a Great Satan, and don’t you forget it. They will slap a Darth Vader mask on Donald Duck the instant Star Wars’ net worth drops below a certain point on their profit/loss matrix. Because they don’t care about Star Wars the way the rest of the world does. It’s like Lucas sold his creation to the Emperor. I know that seems weird, considering I was just praising the people who were doing Star Wars mash-ups with other things, so why does Disney bother me so much? I never liked them as a company. Never cared for their intellectual property. I was always a Warner Brothers guy. I don’t want Disney crossing over into the Marvel Universe, either, for that matter. But for now, they seem to be making smart choices. For now.

So, we’re turning a corner, now. A new Trilogy, the last of Lucas’ original idea. He gets a nod, but not a say, and honestly, that’s the thing that has reinvigorated my interest the most. I’m more excited about this movie than I have been for any project with the Star Wars logo on it since the 20th anniversary editions were announced. This is a great time to be a Star Wars fan, and The Force Awakens is most aptly named.

No one knows what happens after Jedi. They cut loose the Expanded Universe, another smart decision, to bring the focus back to these movies. For the first time ever, fans of the original series and fans of the prequels will get to experience the next chapter in the Star Wars saga at the same time, with no mental baggage hanging over. Like the Force, this trilogy will surrounded us, penetrate us, and bind fandom together again.

The best thing about the movie is something I’ve wanted to see for a long time; namely, what happens next. Lucas could have done that, had he worked on the sequels instead of the prequels. But he didn’t. Including the original actors in support roles as the generals and senators who send the new kids off to war is a powerful statement. Handing off the series to the new kids is exactly the right way to do it. I had an idea for how the story would start, too. A way to involve the original cast and still make it a Star Wars trilogy for a new generation.  Since this plot idea will never be relevant again, I’m going to write it down for posterity. This is how I would have started episode seven.

After the crawl, talking about years of peace and recent rumors of unrest, we open on Han and Leia. Now a senator, Solo is wrestling with something, and Leia asks him if he wants to go through with it.
HAN:  What choice do I have? We’ve got to inform the council, or they will continue to debate the issue. We’ve got to act now.

LEIA:  I know. We need support. But I have a bad feeling about this.

HAN:  It’s been a long time since you’ve said that to me.
They banter for a bit, and the intercom beeps and informs them the Millennium Falcon is approaching. They leave together to meet it.

In the lift, Han says he’ll feel better about what he’s got to do with Chewie beside him. “I miss that old fuzzball,” he says.

The lift door opens and it’s not Chewbacca. It’s a Sith dressed in black. He fires up the lightsaber and Leia force pushes him back as Han draws a blaster. In the background, the Millennium Falcon is landing on the platform and we cut to Chewbacca and Lando flying the ship. Chewie roars and Lando fires up the belly turret. Heavy duty blaster fire rains down on the Sith Lord, and he deflects it all with his blade. Han gets a few shots off, and then his gun is pulled from him with the force and the Sith Lord looks at Leia, looks at Han, and shoots Han with his own blaster.

Han is mortally wounded. They say something nice and he dies in Leia’s arms. Chewie howls in mourning.

Han is buried with full military honors. Leia speaks at his funeral, and explains he was assassinated by an enemy thought to have been wiped out—the Sith. This garners mixed reactions. Most people consider the Sith a myth, or a boogeyman, but she doubles down and takes political heat. The funeral is disrupted by this and Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando are spirited away in the confusion.

Cut to the Jedi Academy, now rebuilt. Leia gets out of the Falcon, which just landed, and a lone figure in black robes greets her. Of course, it’s Luke.
LUKE: I know why you are here.

LEIA:  It’s Han.

LUKE: I felt it. His passing.

LEIA: Then, you know what I am going to ask.

LUKE: Leia, Han was a brother to me. But you cannot ask that of me.

LEIA:  (angry) But why?

LUKE: I can’t investigate his death. I am too close to it. My emotions are strong. Too strong. I would only make things worse.

LEIA:  I can’t do it alone, Luke. I need your help.

LUKE: I can be your council in this matter. As for Han’s assassin...I will send my two best Jedi. They will find out who did this.
So, the new Jedi get on the Falcon, with Chewie and Lando. Inside, they see the droids for the first time. Threepio is as beat-up looking as the ship. Artoo now has a niche cut out for him in the Falcon’s cabin, and he’s tucked into it, connected with tubes. One of the Jedi notices the archaic droids.
LANDO: You’ll go before that Artoo unit goes. He’s earned his place on the Falcon.

CHEWIE: Barks.

LANDO: Chewie says you’ll have to earn your place, too.
So, they pass the torch. The Jedi are quickly separated from the Falcon as they encroach on the Sith’s Master. Lando, Chewie, and Leia battle the politics, and the politicians who have been influenced by the Dark side of the Force, and the by the end we see the tables have been turned. The Sith are now the Rebels, and the Rebellion is now the New Federation—or, the Empire.

It blurs a political line, but I think it’s a dandy opening. Han dying in the first ten minutes galvanizes the audience and gives us a clear mission and plot to kick start the trilogy. Plus, it fulfills a long-standing dream of Harrison Ford in that he wanted Han to die as far back as Jedi. In fact, I’d kill off Lando, and at least one or both of the Droids by the second movie. Blow up the Falcon in the final film. Chewbacca lives. Leia lives. Luke’s alive (maybe). But those are meaningful casualties for a galactic war—another thing we did not get in Jedi, but we’ve since learned, thanks to Harry Potter, is an okay thing to put into a story about war and rebellion.

Well, it’s not going to happen that way, though I have a funny feeling Han will bite the dust in this movie. It’s the only thing that explains why Ford is so happy these days. And I’m okay with it. I’m not one of those people that get mad when they don’t use my ideas in movies I had nothing to do with. I originally came up with the idea as an exercise in re-plotting the Phantom Menace as Episode 7 instead of episode 1, keeping the major set pieces and characters, but reworking the story heavily. How cool would it have been if Darth Maul had assassinated Han Solo? Our heads would have flipped back on their hinge, like a Pez Dispenser.

I like J.J. Abrams. I like him even when other people don’t. I like him when he misfires. I think he’s more entertaining and a better director than George Lucas—ironic since Abrams is a huge Star Wars fan and one of the many working professionals who credits Lucas was his career interests. I think we’re going to see a more sophisticated Star Wars for the next trilogy. I think—I hope—that we’re going to get a more grown-up sensibility. Kids today can handle it. And adults want it. There are now two generations of fans who feel a kinship with this material that they grew up with and made a part of themselves. Frankly, those generations are more important than the kids for whom this will be their Star Wars, because we are already a part of the franchise in both a literal and a figurative sense.

This was something Lucas never really understood about Star Wars. Whenever you make a movie, a book, a TV show, whatever—whenever you make a story, you are giving it away. Our human nature is to take that story and make it our own. At its most personal, a story becomes a part of us. Not just in our memories, or that sense of time and place that it evokes when you re-experience that story, but we shape things in the story to fit our needs. Snape isn’t really evil. Deckard can’t possibly be a replicant. Darth Vader was once an innocent child. Han shot first. Whatever you bring to that story, including your baggage, becomes a part of the story for you. We don’t all experience Star Wars in the same way. Those differences, those small scenes that matter to us, are what makes it so important.

It wasn’t fair for Lucas to try and change that. He told his story. He gave it to us.

And not only did we take in his story and made it our own, we bought into it—quite literally, over the years—to the tune of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise. I was by no means a collector, but I’m confident that over the years, I put five grand into Lucas’ pocket, at the very least.

That kind of money may not get me a seat on the board of directors, but it definitely makes me a shareholder in the company. And when Lucas saw the push back on some of his creative decisions, he should have listened to us.

I cannot wait. Can you?
His is now a flawed legacy. Thankfully the money he will make off of the sale of his company—close to four billion dollars when it’s all over—is going to fund education. He’s giving it all back to us. I respect that. And I am going to take back some of the things I said about him over the years. He’ll always be remembered, however, as the creator of Star Wars. And as the man who changed the way Hollywood does business.

It took a while, but we all got what we wanted. Here’s a new Star Wars movie about to drop, and it’s the one I never thought we’d ever see. Best of all, there’s a new director and an old screenwriter (Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark), both of whom I feel are perfect for the job. I like the cast. And I love what bits I’ve seen in the trailers. I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s a good time to be a geek in general, but it’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars Memories 16: We're Breaking Up

By 2003, I had had it.

The third prequel movie came out, and I sat through it, angry. Bitter, angry, and more than somewhat confused. George Lucas went to film school. He went there with other film geeks, just like him, and if you didn’t know about his group of famous friends, it included Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla, John Milius, and several other noteworthy people. When they weren’t making movies, they were talking about movies. And no matter what you think of their collective output, you can’t argue with history and popular consensus; those guys knew how to make movies.

So why was I sitting through a film wherein I know what’s going to happen to the main character, so much so that the film has zero tension, zero suspense, and is barely holding my interest? Shouldn’t that discussion have come up at some point or another at film school? “Oh, yes, it’s not in the textbook, but while we’re talking about it, don’t ever make a movie and suck all of the suspense out of the title by telling everyone what the movie is about for 25 years prior to actually making the movie.”

They are pretty posters, aren't they? You sure can't fault the
art direction on the films. Gorgeous looking train-wreaks.
That’s the biggest problem with the Prequels. They are weak movies, to be sure, but most Star Wars fans forgive them because of the spectacle. I think my favorite of the three is the second movie, Attack of the Clones, because it’s almost completely action, with very little plot and intrigue to get in the way. Jango Fett is the Boba Fett we never had, and watching him go one-on-Wan against Ben Kenobi is particularly satisfying. The gladiator scene in the finale is very reminiscent of some old Ray Harryhausen fights on Mysterious Island and elsewhere. Best of all, no annoying Jar-Jar scenes. I call it “Episode II: the Apology.”

But it’s not the movies Lucas should have made. His problem (and it was communicated to him—you must understand this) is that he was determined to tell the story of what happened to Darth Vader and that doomed him from the start. We’ve seen, and he’s told us before, that he made shifts and alterations to his story as he went along. He should have altered it further. Frankly, there was no way—no way—his clone wars were going to beat or exceed my clone wars that I have carried around in my head for the past two decades.

There are about a hundred ways to fix the first three movies so that they are more cohesive, and less predictable, and keep the same edge as the first set of movies. But Lucas was adamant that, suddenly, the first SIX movies of his NINE part trilogy are suddenly, and “always have been,” about Darth Vader’s rise and fall.

There were other things, as well. During some speech where he won an award for being a humanitarian or something or other, Lucas told the audience that his least favorite movie in the Star Wars franchise is Empire Strikes Back.

Think about that for a second. Everyone’s favorite Star Wars movie is the creator’s least favorite. Unbelievable.

Here’s a guy who has no idea what he really created. As soon as Star Wars got popular, he because Elvis-Level-Famous, and he disappeared into a bubble and surrounded himself with creative types and built an echo chamber so we couldn’t get to him. Not as fans, not as critics, no way, no how.

I wrote this in 2003, before the third prequel, Revenge of the Sith, came out. Mostly to salvage what residual good feelings I had for the nostalgia of my childhood, which Lucas was currently running roughshod over.
Me and Star Wars are breaking up.
 No, it’s cool, really, it was a long time coming. As you well know.
 I mean, in the beginning, it was all hearts and flowers. Real romance. Star Wars showed me things I never thought possible. Whole new worlds opened up to me. I never felt so free, so alive, as when we were together. 
 Sure, she turned dark on me after a while. But, to be perfectly honest, I really liked it. I was attracted to the danger. She had this seedy underside. Bounty hunters, hands getting cut off...and big secrets revealed. Vader was Luke’s father. Wow. 
 I guess that’s what made the teddy bears all the more jarring. After something so dark, all of a sudden, Star Wars is cutesy. From nowhere, I might add. And to so ignominiously dispatch her dark, shadowy, bounty-hunter-ridden self for this ‘kinder and gentler’ Star Wars was a joke. Even the excitement at the end wasn’t enough to keep me around. I had outgrown her. 
 It didn’t mean that I didn’t miss her. We stayed in touch for a long time. I’d occasionally visit. We’d hang out, catch up, and talk about the old times. I almost always left when she trucked out the teddy bears, though. I wasn’t THAT desperate. 
 Then, after, what, twenty-five years, she came back to me. It should have been good, but it wasn’t. She had changed, and not for the better, either. Where was the good old Star Wars? The kinda sinister Star Wars? And to completely denounce her past like that (I know now it was her dad talking) felt a lot like having the girl who took your virginity show back up and act like she didn’t know what you were talking about. 
 The trouble was, just about everyone else bought into it. “Oh, Star Wars, we love you, and blah blah blah. No one was calling her on her bullshit. She got so worked up about it, that she decided to stick around and re-establish herself. “It’ll be different this time,” she promised me. “Better, faster, more interesting.” 
 And like a fool, I believed her. 
 Prequels? Please. I should have known when she changed her name like that. Oh, the trappings of her former self were there: certain characters, certain situations, and certain familiar tropes. And she looked great. I mean, really, they did a lot of work on her. Cher would be proud. Talk about Botox. 
 But it wasn’t her. It wasn’t Star Wars. Her father’s hands were all over that little hatchet job. Why won’t he just leave her alone and let her live her own life? I don’t know. I think he’s living vicariously through her. 
 Well, I’d had enough of it. I walked away. You know this, you were there. But do you know what she did? She begged me to come back. I said no. I can’t, I won’t do it. Not anymore. 
 Then she brought back the bounty hunter. 
 It was an apology, sure, and a pretty good one, at that. In spite of a lack of narrative, drive, character, and content that I really used to enjoy, it was a pretty sincere apology. She told her dad to back off and I think he did, for a little while. 
 Well, here she comes again. She’s promising a lot of things that I don’t think she can deliver. “This one is the one. It’s the thing that made Star Wars what it is. There would be no Star Wars without this.” It’s not that I don’t believe her anymore. It’s that I don’t think she can tell anymore if she’s telling the truth or not. Her father has her so convinced that it’s all about him that she’ll say ANYTHING to try and get me back. I’m just tired of buying into her bullshit. I mean, when milk goes sour in the fridge, do you put it back in the fridge and think that it’s going to become good again? No, you dump it down the drain. 
 She’s already hurt some people with her first two comebacks. I have decided that she won’t hurt me. Anyway, thanks for listening. I’m telling you this because I have to get off the treadmill, break the cycle. Here, here’s all of the stuff from our relationship. Do me a favor and destroy it all. I don’t care what you do with it, and I don’t want to know.
 When 2005 rolls around, I will be firm in my resolve. I expect I will have moved on. I think Lord of the Rings is about to break up with whomever she’s seeing...
 After the prequels, and all of the exposure to Lucas after two decades in his bubble, I needed a break. But there’s something about Star Wars that would not let me put her down. Not permanently.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Wars Memories 15: The Phantom Menace

It was the best of times. It was
the Worst of times.
When the word came down from Skywalker Ranch that Lucas was in seclusion, and working on the Prequels, the Star Wars Fan Block exploded. The Clone Wars? Are you kidding me! Young Obi-Wan? Anakin Skywalker as a Jedi Knight? Oh, boy, this was going to be great!

Unless, you know, it wasn’t going to be great. I was part of the small contingent of fans who took a head count of Lucas’ movies and came up with fifty-fifty odds on the prequels sucking. After all, we said as a collective, shrill voice, he couldn’t stick the landing back in 1983. And what did he follow it up with?

Howard the Duck and Willow.

Those two movies are like the secret of Miaygi-do karate. “No defense against.” Willow is just terrible, and I don’t care if you liked it. It’s terrible. It’s basically a special effects demo reel for ILM. The ‘morphing technique was the latest computer advance and showing it off in a movie would generate interest, and of course, it did. After 1988, you start seeing it everywhere, including in the Michael Jackson video, “Black or White.”

The less said about Howard the Duck, the better.

Still, the trailer looked good. When Darth Maul pops out his Lightsaber Staff, we wet our pants. The ships, the costumes, all of it. It looked like we were going back into Star Wars again.

Still, the question remained: what if it sucked? I was jaded, I admit. I had a real problem with the Special Edition trilogy, and then when the Prequels were announced, it came with a billion dollar deal with Pepsico to produce licensed merchandise for the movie. Go back and read that number. 500 million for the Phantom Menace, and 500 million for the other two movies. One billion dollars. Just so a corporation to slap that logo onto a Pepsi can. There was no way this movie would satisfy me as a consumer and also as a fan. Not with that much money on the table before anyone ever saw a shooting script.

Then we found out what, exactly, the Prequels were to be about. We’re going to go back in time now, to my initial comments on The Phantom Menace. They have not changed at all since I first saw the movie, and I’ve seen it several times, since—this last time, in 3D.

Here’s younger, skinnier Mark:

I cheated. I read the comic book adaptation three weeks ago. I did it because I knew there would be some things in the movie that would irritate the crap out of me, so I wanted to know how much, how often, and if it impacted the story in any way. 
 Well, to start the movie out with "I have a bad feeling about this" just smacks of a guy trying to recreate glory days. Why use it so quickly? Or at all? I mean, it was cute in the first movie. I think it was a fluke that it ended up in the second movie. By Jedi, he had to put it in. But really, did that trend have to continue? Right away, I was off to a bad start and the lightsabers hadn’t even come out yet. I kept reading and quickly hit Jar Jar
Binks. Jar Jar is just as irritating as you would expect. Sometimes, even more so. 
 Animator Hubris:  That’s my new term for scenes where the guy rendering Jar Jar is so damn pleased with his job at the Lucas Sweatshop that while all of the other actors walk up to their mark and say their lines, Jar Jar is seen in the background juggling bantha poodah. That character is in constant motion, like Bill Cosby breakdancing, all through the movie. In every scene. He even slept busily, for Christ’s sake! None of the other characters did that. Watto was quite effective. No wasted movement. Even the rest of the Gunguns (Jar Jar is a Gungun. Isn’t that nice nice?) weren’t overly busy. 
 Hey, Mr. Lucas, I know that every single nickel is precious to you, but could you spring for some acting classes for those yabos in CG, please? Or at least have them go look at what Ray Harryhausen did. Something, anything. 
 Then there’s the Star Trek sequence.  It’s the part where Qui Gon Jinn (played by Liam "Next of Kin" Neeson) takes a blood sample from young Annikan and pushes it into his communicator-cum-tricorder and tells young Obi Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan "Lipstick on your Collar" McGregor) to analyze it.  He comes back with a Midi-chlorian count of over 20,000.  "That’s more than master Yoda".  Wait, back up.  Midi-What?  Symbiotic bacteria that act as conduits to the Force?  Hey, maybe if you hit warp factor 10, you can have Doctor Crusher check Anakin out in Sickbay.  Come on.  What the hell -happened to the mystical energy field that controls an individual’s Destiny?  I understand that it was put in as a story device to quantify the fact that Anakin is the most powerful force-sensitive person ever...but did it have to be so...stupid?  What’s wrong with Qui-gon just looking through an eyepiece of some sort and checking out his aura? 
"It’s pure white!" 
"Not even Master Yoda's aura is pure white." 
Same effect, no Star Trek technobabble. 
 I have an idea on how to fix a lot of the problems in the movie. Have Anakin lose the Podrace.  Then Qui-Gon would have to take the boy, smuggle him out of the city (taking the tracking device out first), and be on the run from the local militia. Then when Darth Maul shows up, it’s a lot more tense, as they are about to get pincered. This does a lot for the movie.  It makes the podrace more interesting, as we all expect little Anakin to win, in spite of Sebulba’s machinations. Then Qui Gon displays the recklessness that everyone in the movie tells us about, but no one really ever sees, as he frees a slave and spirits him away (thus welching on a bet). It also makes that fight in the desert a little more interesting, and explains why the two of them are in such a hurry and on foot, when we saw Qui Gon earlier on those camel-thingies.  But hey, nobody asked me.  And if someone did notice it at Yes-Man Central, they damn sure wouldn’t have pointed it out to Mr. Moneyhead. 
 In short, everything all of the critics say is true.  The film lacks tension, character development, and so forth.  Unfortunately, everything the fans (and Roger Ebert) say is also true.  The ride is great, the CGI creatures are wonderful, and all of the stuff that’s supposed to be cool is very, very cool. But it in no way was worth the hype.  Already the fans are separating into three camps: 
 The Purists:  This movie sucked!  It’s a pale reflection of the original trilogy.  I’m disavowing all prequel knowledge. 
 The Apologists:  Come on, Star Wars was always a kid’s movie.  The movie was great.  I stood in line for two weeks and blew a month’s salary on the toys, so it has to be great, because otherwise I look like a fool! 
 The Rationalists:  Well, this movie was just a set-up.  The NEXT movie will be the cool one. 
 My take on those viewpoints is as follows. 
 For the Purists – yeah, it sucked, but so did Jedi.  What did you really expect?    Enlightenment?  Illumination?  If I had to prep myself for three weeks to see this movie and was still irritated by the inane stuff, then that movie should be considered a failure.  Who among us really watches the Ewok scenes in rapt fascination?  Well, that same zoning instinct drops into place quicker than the targeting scope on Red Five’s X-wing whenever Jar Jar is on screen.  I saw that one coming in the teaser.  No, I'm sorry, but I tried to warn some of you, and you just wouldn't listen. 
 For the Apologists – no, the trilogy wasn’t aimed at children.  Only the third one was.  The humor present in Star Wars was character and dialog driven.  It was chuckles, not laughs.  There were no pratfalls and no fart jokes in Star Wars.  And don’t you dare tell me that Empire was a kid’s movie either.  There was kissing, an outpouring of emotion, and Luke spent the movie getting beat to a pulp by everyone, including his own dad.  He got his hand chopped off with a lightsaber, don’t tell me that’s kid stuff.  Yoda was coincidentally cute and Kenner hyped that up.  He was the new favorite among the parents.  So, Lucas gave us a whole gaggle of furry Yodas in Jedi.  Everyone was stiff and the dialog was stilted.  That felt like a kid’s movie.  But it really wasn’t.  These movies just appealed to us because we were a generation of weird kids.  There wasn’t anything else to go see, and the movie didn’t have any nudity, so why not take us to see Star Wars?   Phantom Menace is a slow pitch towards the 8-12 year olds.  If that doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe it’s time to put down the lightsaber and (ahem) Get A Life.  When the Trekkies are laughing and pointing at you, maybe you should rethink the merits of a homemade Admiral Ackbar costume. 
 For the Rationalists – Well, you are correct about one thing. The next two can’t be any worse.  Or can they? The problem is, as fans of the original movies, we have a very strong, opinionated idea of what goes on in these three. Even if you say you aren’t, you will walk into this movie with a preconceived notion of what may go down.  And if the Phantom Menace doesn’t at least hint at what is to come, then you will leave feeling cheated.  Like most people are. That hint comes, but only in the last ten minutes of the movie.  By then, we’ve sat through 80 minutes of Jar Jar footage and are ready to go home.  That one little hint at the end of the movie is not enough.  Not nearly. 
 But it doesn't really matter if you like the movie or not. You will go see it.  Everyone will. It's the must-talk-about thing among the Geek Nation, and for all of the normal people as well who have children.  I guarantee there will be some ditch-diggers in Episode II that stand up in the middle of the movie and say, "DAMN! Darth Sidious is Senator Palpatine?  I never saw that coming!" So, there's a lot of folks out there who don't care as much as the rest of us. And really, who can blame them. The toys, books, food, and other bits of junk with the Star Wars logo on it are strewn about the countryside like pop-cultural Kudzu. You can't kill it, you can't get rid of it, you can't avoid it.  The only thing you can do is let it run its course and hope that it dies on its own.  Which it won't.  Not for six more years.  Hope you're braced for it. 
This sequence is sublime. It almost makes up for
Jar-Jar Binks by itself. Almost.
 Now, here’s the funny part. In my three week prep for the film, I figured out exactly what I wanted out of this movie. I wanted Jedi fu, lightsaber fu, podrace fu, Artoo fu, Senate chamber fu, two lightsaber deaths, multiple robot beheadings, and six costume changes for Princess Amadala.  And I got that. For what it was worth, I enjoyed it a lot.  But that still doesn’t make it a good movie.  Proceed with caution.

Back then, I was basically made of rage, but it didn’t mean I was wrong about this. Even when Star Wars movies are bad, they are still pretty good. We just trade substance for spectacle. The podrace scene is a perfect example of an eye-catching, awesome-looking sequence that goes nowhere and does nothing in terms of plot.

The prequels are the beginning of the Great Divide between Star Wars fans. Us first generation Star Wars fans felt that we were being disrespected, and the younger generation, who hadn’t seen the old movies anyway, started calling us bitter old cranks.  I suddenly knew exactly how the old Star Trek fans felt when Next Generation came out.