Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Shame of Star Wars

Anyone old enough to remember the original release of Star Wars knows what I am talking about. Back then, in Fandom’s infancy, Star Wars –nominated for Best Picture- was a genuine cultural phenomenon, so huge, so awesome (this word meant more back in 1977), that there was no shame in loving this film.

This was a huge break from the standard. Star Trek geeks had struggled for years in hopes of legitimizing their love for their series, but the public had already sentenced Trek in a way that would have been recognized on any of the Greek or Roman worlds the Enterprise might have visited – they gave thumbs down. After Trek’s third season cancellation, everything that followed -- the animated series, the movies, the comics and novels -- were all futile volleys in a war that was already lost. Society’s rejection of Trek was a shame that could never be undone, and the die-hard fans were condemned to the fringes of society. Perhaps it was at that moment the modern nerd was born.

But Star Wars broke the trend. For a while—a long while—Star Wars had it all. The message of Star Wars’ success was that sci-fi and action weren’t only for nerds and geeks and children - anyone could be seen waiting in line to see Empire.

The first twinge of the disaster that was to come was of course the holiday special, but Lucas wisely stamped that out. Lucas was so successful at quelling the special I actually went many years thinking I had dreamed it. But his instincts failed him in the third movie. The ewoks, it is pretty much agreed, were the first loose thread that when pulled, would mean the unraveling of the whole deal.

It’s been steadily down hill from there. Star Wars went bad at its core—with Lucas himself—and it can’t be fixed as long as the man who created it wants a stake in it.

The irony is that I love the Star Wars universe. Millions of others do as well, and many of these fans are in a position to round that universe out, through comic books, novels, video games and books such as ‘Complete Locations.’ They have taken all that was good in Lucas’s creation—the Jedi, the Force, the Empire, the Rebellion, Wookies, Hyperspace, Lightsabers, smugglers, princesses, desert planets, ice planets, swamp planets, Hutts, Boba Fett, Vader, landspeeders, speederbikes, and made it all better.

Lucas should love these guys, he should treasure them, because not only do all the licensed products keep Star Wars alive, the folks who write these products bring their oversized nerdy brains to bear in explaining Lucas’ half-assed, half baked innovations.

Yet with their ever effort, their every gesture, Lucas betrays them. He has Greedo shoot first, he mires the second trilogy in well intentioned but poorly rendered political intrigue, he kills Boba Fett after about 3 seconds of action, he makes all the Stormtroopers and Boba Fett himself clones, ruining a long-running and well-realized fanonical backstory that actual had Fett as a fully realized character. Ever since anyone other than Lucas wrote about the Wookies, they lived an arboreal existence on a planet where the trees were so tall the surface of the world was mostly unexplored. Lucas includes Kashyyk in a film and the battles happen not in the trees but on a beach.

Another example can be found in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are hard-pressed to even hold their own against Darth Maul, who is wonderfully badass. I greatly enjoy this battle- it’s exciting and well made. That double saber is very cool and Maul knows how to use it—he makes it count.

But then, the combatants are separated by a series of laser doors. I don’t really have a problem with how this is handled by the characters- I quite like Maul’s tiger-like pacing and Jinn’s quick meditation. They are Jedi Knights, after all, and they haven’t lost their cool even through such intense combat. But why are there six lightsaber doors here? The answer is so that Obi Wan can watch Qui-Gon die at close range. There is no other answer. The novelization didn’t explain why the doors existed, and Complete Locations claims ‘The laser doors lock into position in response to potentially lethal power outputs…’ and goes on to explain that there are six of them ‘as a deliberate reference to a Naboo legend, in which chaos is held back by six impenetrable gates.’
That’s spin. That’s someone way down the totem pole workking extra hard to patch holes in Lucas’ lazy writing.

And it is lazy. Some of Lucas’ other material is top-notch. Did you realize in Episode 2 when the Republic takes possession of the Clone army that even if they knew, right then, what Darth Sidious had planned for them, they still couldn’t refuse? Yoda and the rest were so completely outmaneuvered that they had no choice but to take the clone army or face defeat by the separatist driod army. Later, in Episode 3, Palpatine gets Obi Wan and Yoda off of Coruscant so when he reveals his identity to Anikin, who does the confused young Jedi have to discuss this with? Only Mace Windu, who eagerly plays his anticipated role in the Emperor’s plans.
That’s good stuff, and Lucas wrote it. But it gets buried in so much bad acting, bad directing, and equally bad examples of plain lazy writing as I demonstrated above, very little genuine excellence emerges from these films.

Then, the finishing blow: The Lord of the Rings eats Star Wars up. I thought it was bad when the first Matrix film was so much more enjoyable than Phantom Menace, but I hadn’t seen anything yet. Randall Graves’ wonderful arguing 2 of Jedi vs. King in Clerks aside, we all know who won that battle, and we all know why. Lucas could have hired anyone to direst the new films—even Jackson himself, when you think of it—but he chose to do so himself, against the evidence that maintains Empire as the leanest, most exciting of the original three. Story by Lucas, directing by someone better than Lucas.

Now, 30 years later, the once proud Star Wars fandom is, for the most part, abandoned to nerds and uber-nerds. Even Battlestar Galactica is cooler than Star Wars. Where anyone can praise The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and should Jackson make the Hobbit, anyone could wait in line for tickets (for a few hours, and not in costume- days in line dressed as a Nazgul is still strictly nerd territory), saying you are a Star Wars fan today is no better than claiming to be a Trek fan in 1977.

But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when no one knew what an Ewok was and Starbuck was Dirk Benedict, it was very different.

More of Gregory Adam's nonfiction writing can be read at The Deconstructionist.


Pete said...

Though I agree with you about the movies, I must say that I'm still a happy Star Wars fan...but of everything else. I read most of the books (only stopped after the New Jedi Order ended and they seemed to be at loose ends with themselves).

I've been playing Star Wars video games since the original X-Wing game came out on six floppy disks. I remember how excited I was when Dark Forces came out (and on a CD-ROM no less!) and how through-the-roof I was when Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight let me finally use a lightsaber.

Like a black hole, everything AROUND the movies is more powerful than what's at the center. THe movies are weak but they inspired a world of creativity and that makes me happy.

Just this morning, I was watching Tech Demo videos for the new Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and I'm happily excited for it.

So thanks, Mister Lucas,

Gregory Adams said...

So true! Have you played Republic Commando?

and that Black Hole analogy is sweet. Wish I'd thought of it.

Also, makes me want to watch The Black Hole.


Pete said...

Republic Commando was fun. Battlefront 1 and 2 are fun. Galactic Battlegrounds was fun.

I'm a total Star Wars geek...I just completely fail to be a geek for the movies. I haven't seen a Star Wars movie since Episode III was in theaters (I went to see it because...hell...I'd seen all the others in theaters, may as well see THIS muckity-muck.)

Actually, I thought episode 3 had good moments, but they weren't because of Lucas, they were the cumulative effect of the whole series on fans. It was all accidental resonance.