Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Original Flavor Star Wars Review

By Christian Nicholson

Once upon a time there was a movie called Star Wars, and everyone loved it.  Maybe, not everyone, that’s a bit of a hyperbolic statement.  A lot of people loved it and it made a lot of money.  It changed a lot about how the movie industry views science fiction movies, much the same way that Avatar changed the way the industry looks at 3d movies.  John Dykstra’s visual effects were stunning and with the direction of a young up and comer named George Lucas added a surprising realism to a science fantasy fairy tale.  At the time, Lucas wasn’t hailed as a creative genius. 

 He was a kid who was frustrated in his ambition to make a Flash Gordon movie and had a notable mentor in Francis Ford Coppola.  So Lucas did what any self-respecting wunderkind does: he wrote his own story and his own script.  It seems to have worked out pretty well for him.
It is worth noting that when he was making Star Wars, he wasn’t the guy with the markers and a legion of talented underlings.  He was a beleaguered filmmaker who was forced to collaborate and compromise with a very talented crew of colleagues.  Sometimes, a little editorial oversight is just what a talented creative person needs.
I was five when I first saw the movie and it was a big deal.  Like a lot of kids, it went straight to my imagination and sparked the not so hidden geekness in me.  I can’t say Star Wars did that to everyone it saw, but I recognize a significant difference between pre-Star Wars geeks, and post Star Wars geeks.  Pre Star Wars geeks were stimulated by far pulpier material than we were exposed to and had fare that appealed to the imagination as well as the intellect.  I can’t really say Star Wars appeals to the intellect much.  It doesn’t really work that way, and to be fair, isn’t really supposed to.  It’s supposed to be an exciting adventure and appeal to the emotions.  It works on that level pretty well.  I think Star Wars changed geekdom permanently for the better, and set the stage for what is now some pretty amazing sci fi, sci fantasy and fantasy.  Star Wars exposed a wider set of kids to foundation building experiences.  Geekdom is officially out of the basement. 
I think I should mention that Star Wars wasn’t the only influential fantastical thing out there.  Tron, Bladerunner, Krull, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Star Man, as well as many others exploded onto the screen in part due to the success of Star Wars, but each had its created its own share of inspirations.  I don’t know how many Frisbees were repurposed for the Games, but I’ll bet it was more than a few.  Because of its cultural ubiquity, and emotional appeal, an actual review of the movie becomes a kind of challenging and daunting task.  I think even the ubiquitous licensing and marketing add to the challenge of the thing.  My feelings for the movie become conflated with playing with the toys as a kid.
What also makes a review challenging is the fact that Lucasfilm has released a gajillion editions over the years, while making the actual theatrical release really hard to find.  I’m not sure why they chose to do that.  Star Wars works largely on a nostalgia basis for most folks at this point.  We’ve watched the film, and to a lesser degree its sequels, hundreds of times. 
Fortunately for me, most of those viewings were of the original, non-adulterated formats.  And the editions matter.  Like, a lot.  Lucas has gone back and made material changes in the thing which actually change how some of the characters are presented.  What’s more, because some of the changes in the editions are so drastic, it actually pulls me out of the experience.  I can’t get back to that nostalgia, that love I felt when I saw it for the first time when I was five.  This is why some fanboys claim Lucas raped their childhood.  What he actually did was change most of the available editions of an experience that for decades has had a reliable outcome (nostalgia) into something that prevents the reliable outcome, and in some instances rewrites emotional context of some scenes.
In recent years, I’ve recanted my Star Wars faith.  I suffered through the Special Editions, stood in line for the execrable Prequels, and seen myriad permutations of the licensing and marketing.  None of it mattered to me.  I kept the original experience with me, the original love.  I recanted because of one particularly odious bit of licensing: the mashup of Disney characters with the Original Trilogy characters in vinyl collectibles.  Darth Vader as goofy.  Donald Duck as Han Solo.  They took it too far.
So I actually came at this review not having seen any Star Wars anything, other than the excellent Plinkett reviews for a few years.  It felt good to come back.  Like I was coming home.
Anyone who’s moved far from their home town can attest, while it’s good to come home, it’s also pretty strange.  The place seems to shift, even if it hasn’t and you have to realize that it’s not the place that’s shifting, it’s you.  You can never truly go home again.  Seeing Star Wars as a grown up is very different than seeing it as a kid, or even as a college student.  For one thing, I recognize the place of nostalgia and I value it in (hopefully) emotionally healthy degrees.  For another thing, I think critically much better than I did at perhaps any other time in my life.  Sharpening the old saw does wonders for the cutting.
Original Flavor Star Wars defines its characters very well, and very quickly.  It makes excellent use of fantasy visual shorthand so we know really quickly how we are supposed to feel about someone.  The opening sequence is one of the best in film.  The Tantive IV with its rounded shapes and contours is being pursued by the much larger and intimidating Star Destroyer. The crew of the Tantive IV are introduced at the very beginning and we see their faces as they are preparing to repel a boarding assoult.  They are concerned, but not afraid.  They are determined but not hopeful.  When they are beset by Storm Troopers we feel a very human loss. The Storm Troopers themselves are armored head to toe.  Their faces are covered by helmets which boast a visor with a perpetually downturned and frowning mouth.  When they die, the cost is not in humanity.  Another thing of beauty is how the droids R2D2 and C3PO interact.  Within a few short moments, the humanity within the robots is evident and we feel sympathy for them.   Vader is of course, the baddest of the baddasses.  When he comes into the Tantive IV its through a cloud of smoke and destruction, flanked by Stormtroopers.  Clearly, this is a Boss.  It goes on and on.  Every character is clearly defined and, almost action taken is driven by internally consistent character logic.
The story contains elements of Joseph Campell’s Heroic Journey, which creates the universality of the Star Wars saga and actually gives the movie something critical to chew on beyond the technical wizardry of the emotional manipulation in the film.
Luke receives the call to adventure from the old hermit (wizard, witch, some old crone) and subsequently denies it for a hot second.  What happens when the hero denies the call is pretty standard: his/her life starts to turn to shit. The business of being a hero is all inclusive.  You don’t get to do it part time, or later on.  After Luke denies the call, he discovers his aunt and uncle are brutally murdered by Storm Troopers.  Then he gets with the program.  In a kind of quantum sense, Luke’s decision to deny the call causes the murders, which I think is kind of funny.  When playing with Schrodinger’s Cat and the Call, if you accept, the cat is alive.  You deny and it’s dead.  Once the universe chooses you, it’s best to get on with the business.
I recommend Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces for a more in depth analysis of the Heroic Journey.  The prose is pretty dry and scholarly, but once you slog through that you can discover for yourself all of the excellent hero stuff in Star Wars and the rest of the OT.
One of the things Star Wars does well is reference places and past events in its world 0to give it a better sense of being a complete universe with a history which has present consequences.  Our imaginations are allowed to fill in the blanks so we can envision a much broader story that our characters are only minor players in.   In storytelling it’s called ellipsis.  The story we are seeing inspires us with a sense of the broader story we aren’t seeing. I think one of the reasons why Star Wars has inspired so much apocrypha is for that very reason.
However, Star Wars does a few things I can’t really look past, because they set the stage for some of the crapulence to follow.  I have taken to calling a plot element a Lucas whenever it exists more or less to further the plot or action and does not appear to have arisen from reasonable character motivations.  Whenever you have to develop a line of logic independent of what you are actually seeing, or have been told in, it is probably a Lucas.  Star Wars has a few Lucases and I would regard them as being largely forgivable, but for the precedent they have set with subsequent projects.  Nostalgia and extremely positive feelings for the characters makes us want to imaginations to forgive the logic holes.  It’s like, the chick is so hot we convince ourselves she’s also brilliant.
Three minor Lucases happen within a really short period of time, and in such rapidity that we really don’t think about it too much.  It’s only later when we try to apply reason to the things that they begin to fall apart.
The first is when Leia tells Han about the tracking device on their ship.  Han doesn’t believe the Leia (although technically she’s a spy and has expertise in Imperial tactics) but we can let that one go.  He’s Han freaking solo, and it’s the Milleneum Falcon.  That’s just character interaction.  The Lucas is when Leia lets it go.  She just kind of  “whatever, Dude,”s it. And lets it go knowing she’s being pursued by THE FREAKING DEATH STAR.  This is the person who straight up lied to Tarkin about the location of the Rebel base even when the alternative was to watch her home planet get exploded.   Then to drive the point home, she watched her home planet get exploded. We know Leia’s will can’t be broken, and that her loyalty to the Rebellion is without question. She hasn’t analyzed the plan (“Lets just hope a weakness can be found…”) and she is leading the DEATH STAR home without making any sort of other plan?  The only reason why she wouldn’t kind of take her time and work on some other plan is that we have to move forward with the plot.  Which is a Lucas, however minor.  Also, it’s important for the Rebels to know the Empire is coming.  (Which brings to mind a funny point… Imagine for a second, the reaction of the other leaders of the Rebellion when Leia shows up with the plans for the Death Star… but then is also leading it directly home.) I think the only reason why we get the exchange proving Leia knows the Empire is coming is so that the Rebels won’t be caught by surprise when the Death Star shows up.
Hot on the heels of the Leia Lucas is the Yavin Lucas.  The Death Star jumps into the system on the wrong side of the planet so they have to cruise around it to take a blast at the moon the Rebel base is on...which provides just enough time (to the second) for the Rebels to actually blow up the base.  Friends of mine acquainted with actual planetary dynamics and gravity and the like don’t have as much of a problem with this as I do.  And frankly it’s not that big a deal.  It’s just a kind of dumb logic thing that sets up the whole action of the iconic space battle.  It’s an action which more or less requires us to fill in the blanks so that we can get a battle scene we like.  It’s a Lucas.
The third is the Tarkin Lucas.  The Tarkin Lucas really is minor, and might actually serve to demonstrate character, but I think it’s funny from a certain perspective.  From the crawl, we are treated to a description of the macguffin being the stolen plans of the Death Star.  Throughout the movie the essential thing is the stolen plans, which if they fall into Rebel hands could actually lead to the destruction of the Death Star.  We spend a lot of time and energy on this idea.  The villains spend a lot of time and energy on this idea.  Tarkin is told by an aid (probably a high ranking intelligence officer) at a crucial moment that yes indeed there is a danger, and Tarkin flatly scoffs at the idea.  While I am willing to just play that off as the arrogance of the character, I think it’s kind of funny that Tarkin hasn’t been in the same movie as the rest of the characters.  His arrogance and denial of the threat helps to build the dramatic tension.  But his arrogance is to me, a minor Lucas that will later blossom into full crapulence.  It demonstrates that George Lucas is well versed in the craft of storytelling, but the art of storytelling is in hiding the mechanics.  Not only should we not see the strings, we also ought not see the puppeteer.
Logic leaps and plot holes aside, Original Flavor Star Wars is well worth tracking down and watching.  Turn off your critical brain when it comes to those things and let the nostalgia take over.  Let the visual shorthand transport you to a time where heroes were born and made, and right and wrong were clearly defined.  The inspiration you found so long ago, in a galaxy far far away, you can still find today.

No comments:

Post a Comment