Da Hei Gou

Monday, July 28, 2008

Some Random Thoughts About Star Wars

This video (thanks, Scott) set me to thinking a little bit about Star Wars:

I first saw Star Wars 31 years ago. A friend of the family named Jim took my family to see Star Wars in the theater ... we were living in rural Nebraska and at that time (1977) even blockbusters like Star Wars took a month or two to hit the theaters out in the sticks. So Jim had seen it like a dozen times already (he was from the Big City, Lincoln) & explained it in great detail to myself and my brother. This was (is?) my first clear memory. From that day until puberty (ca. 1983), pretty much the only games that interested me were either a) Star Wars or b) another outer space–related game.

Based solely on the extreme coolness of the Star Wars movies — Empire in particular — I wanted to be an astronomer until I was about 14. Carl Sagan had an influence here as well. It must say something about me that I thought (OK, still think) Carl Sagan is one of the coolest people with whom I have shared the Earth.

Darth Vader Stained Glass WindowOne of the awesome things about Star Wars in the 70s and early 80s was that it didn’t have an “expanded universe” in the same scope as it has today. There was a Holiday Special, novelizations, a few scattered novels like Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, some Sunday comics, and a comic book series. I remember a cartoon about Ewoks, and some Ewoks TV specials too. There was precious little “canon” and most of that was hard to get at. On the other hand, the movies hinted at a lot of stuff happening around the edges. Who was the bounty hunter on Ord Nandell? What cargo did Han Solo drop? Why did Yoda live in the swamp? What’s a Womp Rat? For six- to eleven-year-old boys, richly hinted backstory + poorly developed canon = endless possibility to expand the stories. The only game I ever played was Star Wars and I never once played out a scene from a movie.

I think Empire spoiled my generation. It’s really the only undeniably good movie of the entire six-pack. It was so good that it made the first movie deeper and the third movie palatable. I saw Empire when I was nine years old, old enough to understand a lot of the grownup type themes about love and loss. It was heavy and dark in a way that fascinated me.

I have a theory about Star Wars films:

A Star Wars film can be great cinema, or it can have a scene on Tatooine, but not both.

Until the second (prequel) trilogy, I used to phrase this theory as “The cinematic greatness of a Star Wars film is inversely proportional to the amount of Tatooine it contains.” Actually, that theory might still hold, I dunno.

On my college admissions form (1989), I listed my religious preference as “Jedi.” This was actually not too far off the truth.

In college, I lived in a house near campus with several friends, and if the TV was on, it was probably playing a Star Wars video (or American Gladiators).

In 1996, I went to see a movie with my then-girlfriend at the mall in Eugene. One of the trailers was for the digitally remastered series:

At the moment when the announcer says “Now, for its twentieth anniversary...” my then-girlfriend said, “I think I’m going to cry.” I said, “I already am.” (FWIW I’m a little misty watching it again right now.)

I think I’ve seen the first three Star Wars movies several hundred times each. I’ve seen each of the three prequel films exactly once. Pretty much out of a sense of obligation: “oh, it can’t possibly be as bad as they say...” No, actually it’s worse. About 10 of the last 20 minutes of the last movie, and one scene in each of the first two movies, held a tiny kernel of the old Star Wars magic.1 So maybe 13 or 14 good minutes out of six excruciating hours.

It’s cliché for people of my generation to say, whenever filmmakers recycle beloved ideas from the 1970s and 1980s, that they’re “raping our childhood,” or “molesting me retroactively.” This is especially true on this topic. But after I saw Phantom Menace, that’s kind of how I felt. I lay awake all night — I was living in a hot, noisy apartment directly above West Burnside, not very conducive to sleep anyway — feeling a little like I’d just learned my father wasn’t really my father. I suppose that must be what it’s like for a devout and rather credulous young Mormon to hear about the Planet Kolob stuff . “Whoa, you mean I grew up thinking that was cool? Ugh, now I feel all dirty.

One of my favorite mental games for bored-times is to imagine plot outlines for better prequels. The Internets are awash with nerds pontificating about how the prequels suck, and I’m sure someone has written some plot outlines or somesuch. I haven’t — and probably won’t ever — go that far. But I think Lucas missed two (and a half) really big opportunities in the prequels. My mental plot outlines concentrate on those missed opportunities. In particular:

  • Obi Wan is almost totally lacking in backstory. Lucas could have filled three prequels with his story: his youth, his Jedi training, how he came to work for the Organas, his involvement in the Clone Wars. That’s two good movies right there, and we wouldn’t just be treading water for two interminable hours on Tatooine. Late in the second movie he meets Anakin Skywalker, and the third movie is all about Anakin’s fall, but told from Obi-Wan’s point of view.
  • Similarly, Padme/Amidala is a whole lotta nothing. You know what would be awesome? If she were a Jedi. You know what would be even more awesome? If the prequels were all about her in exactly the same way they could have been about Obi Wan Kenobi. You know what would be even more awesomer? If the reason Obi Wan and Anakin fight to the death in a volcano is because they are both in love with her.
  • (This is the half idea) Lucas really missed an opportunity by failing to introduce any new plot twists in the prequels. The worst thing about watching the prequels (two and three in particular), was the grim inevitability of it. You knew exactly what would happen, and whaddyaknow it did. Perhaps the most memorable scene of humanity in the entire six-pack is when Darth Vader tells Luke he’s his father. So what if he wasn’t? I’m just saying.

Notes

1 In the first movie, when Liam Neeson is fighting Darth Maul, there’s some kind of force field or something. It keeps interrupting the fight. Darth Maul and Obi Wan are all twitchy nerves jumping around looking menacing or scared but Liam Neeson sits down to meditate. I thought: “there’s something Yoda would teach.” That’s one. In the second movie, Natalie Portman and Teen Vader jump into a spaceship to go rescue Obi Wan. Portman pulls off that scene in such a way that you think “shit, she’s all psyched to go save her buddy’s ass,” and it feels a little Princess Leia-ish. That’s two. And in the third movie, the sequence where the robots are turning Teen Vader into Darth Vader...that’s three.

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