Tag Archives: George Lucas

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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As they have unfolded on parallel big screen paths over the same four decades, Star Trek and Star Wars have competed for affections from the same pool of science fiction fans, often challenging said audience to pledge its troth to one or the other.  It’s rather like what Quentin Tarantino cannily observed in Pulp Fiction about the twin phenomena of Elvis Presley and the Beatles:  you can like them each to a certain degree but nobody likes both equally; in the end you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person.  From the perspective of the care and feeding of movie franchises, Trek and Wars are also case studies in how a series can evolve for the better beyond the participation of its creator.  We saw with Star Trek: The Motion Picture how the stoic and lyrical story that Gene Roddenberry wanted to tell ten years on from Star Trek‘s more colorful television inception was out of step with the fast-paced space battles that had enraptured the world in Star Wars.  A decade after Roddenberry’s passing we bore witness to George Lucas failing to understand what his audience wanted from Star Wars as well.  The Force Awakens clearly saw tremendous benefit from having Lucas hand over the reins, and bearing witness a Star Trek person would nod, smile and ask wryly, “where have I seen this movie before?”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture made enough money for its studio to greenlight a sequel, but with a caveat:  factoring in the costs of the abortive attempts at a TV series relaunch that preceded it, the final budget came in at $45 million ($149 million in 2016 dollars), which for that era was demonstrably insane.  (By comparison, Star Wars in 1977 cost $9 million which is a paltry $35 million today when adjusted for inflation.)  It’s said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan, but in this case, paternity was assigned, Maury Povich-style, to one Eugene Wesley Roddenberry.  It was determined by Paramount Pictures that Roddenberry would be removed from any future Star Trek movie and that responsibility for the series itself would be transferred to the more budget-conscious television division.

Going forward, Roddenberry received a token screen credit of “Executive Consultant” and retained the right to comment on aspects of production, but for all intents and purposes he was a figurehead with any significant influence stripped away.  Harve Bennett, a veteran TV producer with credits like The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man, would take over the center seat, famously winning himself the job by speaking truth to power and telling then-studio head Charles Bluhdorn that TMP was really boring and that yes, he could absolutely make a better movie for less than $45 million.  Bennett watched all 79 episodes of the original series and found himself intrigued by a genetically-engineered villain from a first-season episode who had been left by Captain Kirk to fend for himself on a distant planet.  Thus were planted the first “space seeds” of what would become Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.

There was another wrinkle to be dealt with as well in that Leonard Nimoy had been a reluctant draftee to the previous film and showed even less inclination to sign on for the second.  Nimoy harbored a great animosity towards Roddenberry and the studio stemming from unpaid royalties for use of his image in officially licensed products over the years, and while this had largely been settled to his satisfaction prior to the commencement of production on TMP, he, like many fans, had found the movie a frustrating creative experience.  Bennett’s pitch to get the author of I Am Not Spock to sign on was to give him a great death scene, modeled after Janet Leigh’s in Psycho:  it would occur about half an hour into the movie and act as a shocking but memorable punch to the gut for the audience, raising the stakes of the final battle to come.  That would both limit the amount of time Nimoy would have to spend on set and give him a final, merciful out from a role he was ready to move on from.  Nimoy was amenable, and production could commence with the entire cast intact.

Now, it was just a matter of coming up with a story.

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Roddenberry’s original proposal for the sequel was a time travel adventure that would see the Enterprise crew going back in time to prevent a malicious alien intelligence from interfering with the JFK assassination and thus corrupting human history.  After what was certainly a polite Hollywood “thanks but no thanks,” Bennett forged ahead on his own course instead, soliciting different writers to flesh it out into screenplay form.  What resulted was something of a mishmash:  one particular and no doubt peculiar draft involved the Enterprise crew going up against a superpowered alien man and woman from another dimension – think Captain Kirk vs. General Zod and Ursa from Superman II.  At one point there were five different versions of the same story floating about and nobody among the higher-ups was happy with any of them.  That’s when Nicholas Meyer came to Bennett’s attention.

Having recently made the H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper time travel fantasy Time After Time, Meyer was introduced to Bennett by a mutual friend, and as Bennett explained the ongoing scripting difficulties, Meyer made a bold suggestion.  Let’s look at every single draft, he said, and let’s make a list of everything we like, whether it’s a character, an event, or even a section of dialogue.  Meyer then proposed to take all those elements and weave them into a coherent screenplay.  Bennett explained the tremendous time crunch facing them:  in order to maintain the movie’s release date, the effects house (George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) needed the script in twelve days.  No problem, said Meyer, I can write this in twelve days.  Bennett was skeptical but gave him the job, and indeed, twelve days later, Meyer finished his draft, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (a reference to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech).  A few tweaks to satisfy the actors aside, the twelve-day wonder was very much what we ended up seeing on the screen – apart from the title, which became The Vengeance of Khan until it was reported that the third Star Wars movie was to be called Revenge of the Jedi.

We all know how that turned out.

Moody and restless on the occasion of his birthday, and much like Sherlock Holmes in the absence of a new case (a deliberate allusion made by Meyer, who had written a Holmes novel), Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is watching a new generation of Starfleet cadets, led by the bright young half-Vulcan Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley, in her first movie) usurp the place of his much older crew at the forefront of space exploration.  Those crew have largely gone their separate ways:  Spock (Nimoy) is now captain of the Enterprise and serving as an instructor to the cadets, and Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) is first officer on the starship U.S.S. Reliant, which is searching a distant sector for a suitable lifeless planet on which to test the mysterious Genesis Project.  Apparently unable to read their star maps properly, Chekov and his new captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) stumble into the clutches of the exiled Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who had been left on what had originally been a lush and fertile world subsequently transformed by natural disaster into a wasteland, costing him the lives of many of his people, including his wife.  Khan uses the mind-controlling properties of a native eel to bend Chekov and Terrell to his will, commandeers the Reliant and sets a course to intercept the man he blames for his ruin:  James T.  Kirk.  But first, he wants the Genesis Project for himself.

Genesis, it turns out, is like its Biblical namesake a “weapon of mass creation,” which can terraform a lifeless planet into an Earth equivalent in a matter of hours.  It is being developed by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick) and an elite team of scientists at Regula One, a space laboratory above a lifeless planetoid.  When an oddly monotone Chekov demands that Genesis be transferred to the Reliant, a suspicious Marcus calls her old flame James Kirk.  The transmission is jammed and Kirk assumes command of an Enterprise filled with a skeleton crew of green cadets to find out what’s going on.  They are intercepted by Khan, who gets the upper hand with a surprise attack, cripples the Enterprise (killing Scotty’s young nephew Peter in the process) and demands all information relating to Genesis.  Kirk’s superior knowledge of starship operations allows him to deal a desperate return blow, and the Enterprise limps to Regula to find the scientists murdered, Chekov and Terrell stuffed inside storage lockers, and Genesis gone.  However, the transporter was left on, suggesting that someone escaped, beaming deep into the planetoid.  Inside the Genesis cave, an oasis of life beneath the surface of the dead world, Kirk meets up with Carol and David, who is revealed as his estranged son.  Another betrayal looms as Chekov and Terrell suddenly turn on Kirk and company, revealing themselves still under the control of Khan.  Terrell kills himself to avoid murdering a fellow officer, Chekov is freed, and Khan steals Genesis from under their noses.  Kirk is at his lowest – defeated, outmatched, and feeling old and worn out.

But thanks to some efficient repair work by Spock and Scotty, the Enterprise is patched up, rescues its commander and steals away to hide in a nebula where shields, visual readouts and weapons locks won’t work, and where they will be more of a match for Khan and the Reliant.  As the ships battle to a stalemate, Spock observes that Khan’s lack of experience shows in his two-dimensional perception of space.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to drop out of sight, only to rise again behind Reliant and deliver a punishing and fatal blow.  Khan will not be denied his wrath, however, and activates the Genesis countdown, knowing that the Enterprise won’t be able to outrun the blast without its warp drive.  Spock, mindful that logic demands that the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few, subjects himself to a lethal dose of radiation in order to repair the engines and allow the Enterprise to escape, as the Genesis detonation gives life to a new planet inside the nebula.  Kirk, who has made a career of cheating death, is brought face to face with it as he must say goodbye to his dearest friend.  Yet in sacrifice there is redemption to be found, as he makes peace with his son, and gazing upon the sunrise as it breaks over the Genesis planet, finds himself feeling young.  And with Leonard Nimoy narrating the famous “space, the final frontier” lines, the camera lifts our hopes as it sweeps through a Garden of Eden to find Spock’s coffin lying safe and sound, a hint that in the future, perhaps nothing is as final as it seems.

Gosh, where to begin in the critical analysis portion?  There is so much going on here that you could probably write a dozen posts about this movie alone.  (It took me three paragraphs to summarize the plot and it still feels like I left so much stuff out.)  It remains the yardstick by which every subsequent Star Trek movie is compared, and whenever a new Trek dares to crib from it in the hopes of recapturing lightning in a bottle (as seen in the plots of Nemesis and Into Darkness, specifically) the results are invariably inferior.  In The Wrath of Khan, every element is firing on all cylinders:  the literate, classical dialogue (the go-to Star Trek movie when looking to quote the franchise in its entirety), the gradual tightening of the tension in Meyer’s efficient direction, the seething and layered intellectual fury of Montalban’s performance, the welcome spark of the renewed interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the seamless integration of new characters that we actually come to care about (Saavik, David and Carol), a then-unknown James Horner’s majestic nautical-flavored score.  It is a singular example, oft forgot in the modern age of CGI spectacle, that a movie is not necessarily made great by throwing an unlimited supply of money at it.  Forced by the studio into re-using leftover sets and costumes and even into recycling a few effects shots, Meyer compensated by giving the script the scope of an epic instead, using the characters to examine relatable issues like life, death and the inevitability of aging (rare in Hollywood films because movie stars hate acknowledging that they’re getting older).  The result is so engrossing that it feels much grander in scale than it actually is:  shot entirely on soundstages with roughly 80% of the movie taking place on either the Enterprise bridge or a redressed version of it.  You don’t notice any of that though, because you’re clinging to your seat wondering if Kirk and company are going to make it out of this one alive.

Montalban and Shatner make for perfect adversaries – ironic given that they never share the screen – and neither gave a better performance anywhere else.  I’ve noted before how Meyer lamented Montalban’s underuse by the industry given his sublime talent, and he’s so good here at playing the villain he could have easily been the Alan Rickman or Gary Oldman of his day.  One of my pet peeves about younger actors playing bad guys is that they lack the life experience that lends a performer the gravitas in order to pull off true, unnerving malevolence, and fall into the trap of the emo tantrum instead.  With Montalban, aged 61 at the time of filming, you can see the years of hatred etched into Khan’s soul roiling behind sinister eyes as paraphrased Captain Ahab drips off his tongue like ambrosial acid.  Khan is quite simply terrifying, and no Star Trek villain actor since has been able to equal his work (I’ll wager most average people can’t even remember the names of the other villains across the series, let alone who played them.)  Shatner is great too, and proves (as he largely failed to do in the previous entry) that he can carry a movie as its leading man, delivering a performance that stands somewhat in opposition to how William Shatner is generally perceived:  there is effective understatement and nuance and quiet in James T. Kirk when we first see him rudderless and lamenting the life that feels like it is slipping away.  The return of Khan awakens the hero inside him, and the movie becomes his journey to reclaim the best part of himself – the unflappable, indefatigable, larger-than-life starship commander – as well as finally embrace his “first, best destiny” as a father and a leader.  The evolution in Kirk is as much of a joy to watch unfold as anything else about the movie, and although the death of Spock is deeply saddening, it is that last necessary step for Kirk to grow up.

To that most controversial aspect of the movie – that in hindsight really does seem the proverbial tempest in the teapot – Gene Roddenberry, who as I noted earlier was sidelined during the production, is alleged to have been responsible for leaking Spock’s impending screen death, resulting in a flurry of angry letters and threats to the production team from upset fans.  At that point, the script had Spock dying in Khan’s initial attack on the Enterprise in the first act in keeping with the intent to create a homage to Psycho.  With the Vulcan’s fate and the movie’s biggest surprise now lamentably public knowledge, Bennett and Meyer decided to move his demise to the end of the movie and add a fake-out to the opening scene, where Spock appears to be killed four minutes into the movie in what turns out to be a harmless training simulation.  That way, first-time audiences would shake their heads for making such a fuss over nothing, only to be tremendously moved when Spock eventually sacrificed himself for real in the climax.  Meyer said in hindsight that he owed Roddenberry a strange thanks for forcing them into a better movie.  But that was to be Roddenberry’s only contribution of any substance.  Like George Lucas thirty-three years later, he would sit idly on the sidelines and watch others take what he had created to new and unexpectedly greater heights.  There is a degree of tragedy in that.

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In summary:  Points for pretty much everything.  A few marks off because the wonderful George Takei (Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) don’t have very much to do, but that’s a minor quibble.  This is, without hyperbole, simply Star Trek‘s finest cinematic hour.

Next time:  Spock comes back, on the other side of the camera, and the bloom comes a little bit off the rose as the “odd number” curse starts to take shape.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  4 out of 4 stars.

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The Fourth is With Us Again

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When I reflect on the state of Star Wars on May the 4th of two years ago, the word that springs foremost to mind is nervous.  We knew that Episode VII was in production, we’d read the rumors and seen that first black and white picture of the cast at the table read, we knew the original heroes were coming back – but we still couldn’t shake the jitters.  Too many unknowns in play.  Despite the scorn dumped on George Lucas for the wobbly prequel trilogy, the idea of a new Star Wars movie without any involvement from him whatsoever still set many stomachs ill at ease.  Would it turn out to be an empty exercise in fanservice (from a filmmaker with something of a reputation for leaping headfirst into that well-cratered minefield) or would it catching Force lightning in the proverbial bottle and gift us with the wonder we first felt at the theatres in 1977 (or with our videocassette copies in the early 80’s, depending on our respective ages)?  Would we be leaping up and cheering and racing back to the kiosk to buy another ticket or would we be shuffling for the exits with the sour faces we wore as the Revenge of the Sith credits rolled?

Fast forward to May the 4th, 2016, and we know the answer to that.  Against expectations, we have entered the Star Wars Renaissance.  Star Wars is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been, since, well, longer than I can remember.  The Force Awakens was one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and its highly anticipated sequel is filming presently and due to hit our collective consciousness in a little over a year and a half.  Daisy Ridley has become an instant movie superstar.  This December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promises to unspool the never-told-but-oft-alluded-to tale of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the infamous Death Star schematics (with another compelling lead female role, essayed by Felicity Jones.)  Plans for Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoffs are also in the works, to say nothing of the eventual saga-concluding epic Episode IX in 2019.  Literary tie-ins bulge off shelves with novels like Aftermath and Bloodline.  Oh, and yes, the Walt Disney Company is building two massive Star Wars lands at its American theme parks.  Toys and pop culture references abound and kids are throwing on Jedi robes and running around swinging plastic lightsabers again, pretending to be Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren just like we used to pretend to be Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader.

It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.

A week or so ago I was trolled on Twitter by an – let’s say interesting individual who, according to his timeline, goes around latching on to people who’ve said unkind things about the prequel trilogy and then spams them with memes and rants about the wonderfulness of Episodes I, II and III before blocking them in what is presumably a masturbatory fit of self-satisfied pique.  You can’t please everyone, I suppose.  Contrary to what this fellow presumes, I never said I hated the prequels.  There are plenty of things about them to like:  John Williams’ score, some of the lightsaber fights, the depth of the worldbuilding among many others.  What they get wrong, however, is that they lack the key ingredient that makes Star Wars resonate with its fans, and that is the sense of hope.

The prequels were always going to be a tragedy, and despite the whiz-bang-whee moments of adventure supplied generously throughout, the ominous, inevitable sense that this is all going to go wrong in the end casts a dark pallor over the seven-hours worth of narrative.  It doesn’t matter that you know IV, V and VI are going to set it right.  Taken on their own, the prequels are just simply not a very happy experience.  Art always mirrors its creators’ mindsets, and the young, eager, starry-eyed neophyte George Lucas who made the first trilogy is not the cynical, fearful, age-embittered auteur who cobbled together the second after spending decades as a billionaire CEO shuffled daily from meeting to meeting – a man increasingly worried about the world awaiting his three children.  Lucas thought America had learned the lessons of Richard Nixon and then watched helplessly as it turned around and anointed George W. Bush.  He couldn’t have made a film with the optimism and hope of The Force Awakens because it’s simply not who he is anymore.  But that didn’t have to mean that the hope dwelling at the heart of his slumbering creation could not have awakened as it did.  We should thank Lucas for the wisdom to bequeath his legacy to the custody of Kathleen Kennedy who recognized more than anyone what Star Wars had been and what it could be again.

Yes, bad stuff happens in Star Wars.  Entire worlds are obliterated at the whims of very bad people craving absolute power.  And unlike in its other more sci-fi oriented cousin Star Trek, you can’t save the galaxy far, far away by reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit a phased tetryon stream and realizing the true meaning of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.”  In Star Wars you have to pick up a blaster, or a lightsaber, or climb into an X-Wing.  Set aside your fears and stand up against the bad guys trying to set everything you hold dear aflame.  Each one of us dreams that in our inevitable moment of crisis, we will summon the courage to awaken our inner force, and that through the brave, extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and despite the power of the dark side, we too will be able to change the world for the better.  There were some tremendously sad moments in The Force Awakens, but was there anybody who didn’t watch that final scene of Rey offering the lightsaber to Luke and feel that kind of optimism, that things were going to be all right in the end, both for the characters and for us?  The metaphor of the generational handover in the movie was not subtle, but it was indeed apt, and proven by how the new generation of fans has responded.  Kids who weren’t even around when Revenge of the Sith came out are asking to have their hair styled like Rey for Star Wars Day.  We old sods are back too, and we’ve let Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 into our crusty, guarded hearts with the same welcome we extended their predecessors.

They are, at long last, the New Hope.

I’ve written extensively about the implications of and reactions to The Force Awakens since before and after its release, but it occurred to me that through these many thousands of words I haven’t actually said what I thought of the movie.  And I can think of no more suitable judgment than this:  I didn’t want it to end.  I knew, as I watched Rey ascend those stony steps, that the credits were imminent, but a very young, long since quiet part of me hoped that somehow the story would go on.  And I’m contented knowing that it will – in more than just a collection of movies.

Because the Force is with us.  Always.

“Chewie, we’re home.”

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Three little words.  The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon.  A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years.  We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different.  This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen.  This was a gift.  This was faith rewarded.

About damn time.

The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill.  Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies.  We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.

Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night.  I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m.  People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue.  Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water.  When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.

We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for.  It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight.  No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”  But the glow faded very fast.  Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises.  It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy.  And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn.  We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again.  The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it.  Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars.  He was ready to move on.

Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams.  The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter.  The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia.  Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo.  The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds.  The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.

The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months.  In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen.  He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet.  Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better.  Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment.  With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.

What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result.  The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.

Star Wars VII and cultural karaoke

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For someone prone to dropping Star Wars references in almost everything he writes, I haven’t had much to say since the official announcement, just a few cycles prior to Star Wars Day, of the cast of J.J. Abrams’ continuation of George Lucas’ fabled saga, in which months of speculation and rumor about who said what and who else was photographed coming out of where were put to rest snugly inside the belly of a Tauntaun.  The lead three from the first beloved trilogy are back:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perennial “Han Solo bores me” grump Harrison Ford (undoubtedly for a handsome chunk of change), along with the unseen but ever-present Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.  They are joined by a mix of screen veterans like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac and the legendary Max von Sydow, and relative unknowns like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver.

Nothing was forthcoming, however, about what contributions to the saga the new players are making.  In the leadup, Driver was said to be the preferred candidate for the “Darth Vader-like villain,” whatever you take that to mean.  As an aside, granted I don’t know what goes into the science of casting, but having endured a few minutes of one episode of Girls I can’t imagine looking at him and having my first thought be, “ruthless galactic bad guy!”  I stand by my opinion that young actors make lousy villains – they often come off as spoiled brats having hissy fits because Mommy confiscated the XBox – but yeah, yeah, lesson of Heath Ledger and all that, we’ll wait for the movie.  And although J.J. Abrams says he regrets being coy about who Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play in Star Trek Into Darkness, suggesting that it hurt the movie in the long run, he seems to be sticking with his policy of keeping everything locked in the mystery box for now.  The only other tantalizing tidbit we’ve heard is that Han Solo is supposed to play a major role in the story while Luke and Leia will be relegated to supporting parts.  (I don’t think this works – the character of Han was never meant to be a lead, only a strong foil, but again, we’ll wait for the movie.)

The best decision Abrams made in taking on this daunting yet coveted assignment was to hire Lawrence Kasdan to help him shape the screenplay to his satisfaction.  Kasdan’s work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was invaluable, particularly his gift with sharp, concise dialogue, and his pen was sorely missed in the prequels.  I recall reading somewhere that Lucas did ask him to help with Episodes I-III and Kasdan declined, suggesting that Lucas needed to write his own story this time.  Shame – we might have been spared I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here.  Here everything is soft and smooth.  Kasdan comes from the antecedent generation of screenwriters, prior to the reigning group that grew up watching movies in video stores, and as such he’s less likely to fall into the Admiral Ackbar-forewarned trap of making this new movie nothing but a callback to the highlights of the first three – if he can keep Abrams, the leading member of the aforementioned reigning group, and the man with the last word on this movie’s story, in line.

Star Wars Episode VII has a Sisyphean task ahead.  It has to measure up to the standard of the first three movies, expunge the bad taste left in many mouths by the soulless, over-digitized prequels, and convey the feel of the Star Wars universe without simply repeating what is not only familiar, but entrenched in the souls of an entire generation.  Even the original trilogy couldn’t manage to do this; that’s why we had two Death Stars to blow up.  But it’s the challenge awaiting anyone who tackles a sequel, no matter what the series.  People always want more of the same thing.  James Bond has to order the same drink, wear the same tux, introduce himself the same way and end up with a girl in the end.  When he doesn’t, fans (and critics) pout.  Formula is a straitjacket:  stray too far and you lose your target market, nestle too comfortably inside it and you’re lost in the cesspool of endless fan service.

When Super 8 came out, critics were quick to dub it the second coming of Steven Spielberg, at least his late 70’s/early 80’s aesthetic, missing the point that when Spielberg was making Close Encounters and E.T. he wasn’t trying to pay homage to anything, he was just telling stories of the time.  With Super 8, however, J.J. Abrams seemed to be trying so hard just to recreate the look and feel of that era of moviemaking that he forgot to tell a story that had any heart, or was even remotely interesting.  My concern for Episode VII is that Abrams will focus on all the wrong elements again, packing a most visually impressive movie with winky-noddy retreads of beats and lines of dialogue from IV-VI that are so familiar they have lost their original meaning and have become geek and nerd shibboleths instead.  Abrams blew the landing of Star Trek Into Darkness by turning the last twenty minutes into a variation on the finale of The Wrath of Khan, yanking us out of the story with “oh yeah, that’s a reference to X, that’s a reference to Y” right when we needed to be locked deep inside it.  I don’t particularly want to be sitting in the audience at Episode VII and eyeing my watch to pinpoint the inevitable moment someone announces “I have a bad feeling about this.”  We’ve been sated with franchise movies constructed from checklists instead of scripts that have emotional resonance.  That way lies the banality of the Friedberg/Seltzer “oeuvre” (i.e. Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans and any one of a dozen comedies built on evoking Pavlovian audience reactions to limp parodies of stale pop culture.)

Note that in the coverage of the cast announcement the new actors are getting much less attention than old.  The new guys (and one girl so far) in Episode VII will be blown off the screen if they are merely retreads on the naive farm boy, the steadfast princess, the wisecracking cynical smuggler, the former hero fallen to the dark side.  They will be dismissed as pale revisions of a superior first draft.  They need to have their own wants and goals and quirks in order to etch themselves into our hearts the way the originals did and to become new shibboleths that we can exchange and quote for another forty years.  They won’t be able to do that if they are plugged into a paint-by-numbers Star Wars plot designed primarily to bring back a sense of 1977.  And if at some point in the movie Daisy Ridley breathes “I love you” to John Boyega and he replies “I know,” we’re just going to roll our eyes.

It’s perhaps ironic to criticize Star Wars for relying too much on repetition of the familiar when it is in itself a pastiche of hero tropes that have existed since cave wall storytelling.  Those tropes are not the problem; the problem is choosing to use them as targets rather than starting points.  That I think is the major issue I have with the kind of storytelling espoused by J.J. Abrams and his contemporaries.  They’re not trying to do anything terribly new, they just want to do their own version of the stuff they liked when they were young, focusing not on creation but on re-creation with a modern spin.  It’s cultural karaoke on a billion-dollar scale, and if we’re going to invest that amount of money, talent, effort and time, it would be nice to walk out of the theater having experienced something worthwhile.  Having been taken somewhere we’ve never been before.  George Lucas himself proved the disconnect that occurs when you construct a story predicated on hitting specific beats (a systematic problem with pretty much every prequel ever made) rather than growing organically from rich characterizations.  We know where you’re going with this, you’ve practically handed us the coordinates and programmed the navicomputer.  And we stop caring.  Just like we stop listening to the guy at the karaoke bar doing “American Pie” for the fifteenth time, no matter how good a voice he actually has.

In any event, the gauntlet has been thrown down, Messrs. Abrams, Kasdan et al, to step away from what’s expected and venture instead into galaxies unknown – dare you pick it up or recoil lest your arm be severed by a lightsaber?

Don’t explain away the magic

elsasnowball

This is going to be one of those posts predicated on an entirely inexperienced and likely uninformed premise, so feel free to take it or leave it as you choose.  But I’m just gonna throw it out there and see what you guys think.  And that premise is:  there is far too much explaining going on in fiction, especially as regards characters with supernatural abilities.  I skim through people on Twitter glorifying “highly developed, intricate magic systems” in fantasy novels, and have seen, distressingly, a great number of others complain that Elsa’s powers were never explained in Frozen.  I guess the seven-year-old in me is wondering where the magic in magic has gone.  Why does every paranormal situation in fiction have to be scienced up with midichlorians?  What happened to taking magic on faith?

Magic and other supernatural abilities should never be the raison d’etre of a story; they should be an angle by which a dramatic human conflict is examined.  When authors and screenwriters get bogged down in the “why” of magic, the human element is lost.  Stan Lee gave an interview around the time the first X-Men movie came out where he explained the genesis of those characters thus:  having exhausted the idea of superpowers acquired through gamma ray bursts, radioactive spider bites and the like, labeling the new characters “mutants” eliminated the need to craft complex origins for each of the hundreds heroes and villains who would populate his fictional world.  He could just get on with the story.  Likewise, though crippled by a low budget forced upon it by a nervous studio unconvinced of the potential of comic book movies at the time, the first X-Men is by and large better than the dozens of other adaptations that followed simply because it doesn’t waste an hour telling you where everybody came from and how they got their powers.  They’re mutants, they can do things humans can’t, let’s go already.

In the first Star Wars, the entirety of the Force is explained in one line:  “It’s an energy field created by all living things; it surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”  We didn’t need Obi-Wan going into ten pages of dialogue about the different castes of Force-wielders, the innumerable versions of the specific powers and how Jedi Trance Remix can only be used on Hoth in a Wampa cave by an 18th-level adept wearing green trousers on alternate Thursdays.  If you look at the original drafts of Star Wars, George Lucas had included that extraneous crap, but he wisely cut it to improve the story’s pace.  (As we know to our eternal lament, he put it all back in for the prequels.)  In Frozen, Elsa’s magic also gets one line of explanation, and it’s delivered in a moment of urgency at the beginning of the movie.  (If you missed it, the head troll asks her parents, “born with, or cursed?”  They answer, “born with.”)  What more did the story need?  Nothing – because the story was never about Elsa’s powers.  They were only a catalyst for a human conflict.  The story was about the bond between the sisters, and that’s why it resonated so deeply with audiences everywhere.  Emotions are the key, not technical papers about the chemical processes that make fireworks sparkle and go boom.

The obvious, worst case scenario for the inevitable Frozen 2/Frozen Again/Refrozen is that the writers decide to explain Elsa, by revealing that she was actually rescued/adopted from a family of ice sorcerers/arctic spirits/frost giants/magic penguins who return to claim her, and force her to choose between her birth family and “adopted sister” Anna.  (Wanna take bets as to whether this is the direction they go in?  It’s not one I offer with enthusiasm.)  And once you start explaining, you can’t stop.  The narrative becomes less a story and more a Wikipedia, where each hyperlinked word leads to another page of definitions and explanations.  That’s what wrecked the latter incarnations of the Star Trek series, where crises could be solved over and over with plodding explanations of made-up technology – reconfigured electroplasma conduit taps emitting verteon particles through phased quantum inducers and so on.

Apart from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the latest of which I struggled to get through, I haven’t read any fantasy novels in a long time, mainly because I grew tired of wading through elaborately constructed and meticulously explained worlds in which nothing interesting ever happened.  (I am open to recommendations, author friends, especially if it’s your book.)  I understand that world-building can be a consuming exercise, but constructors should remain mindful that the world will only be as compelling as the characters within it.  It’s a bit like visiting a foreign country – you don’t conduct a thorough review of its civil and criminal code before sprinting out of your hotel room to hit the sights.  Tell us just enough so that we don’t get lost, and not a solitary syllable more.  Let us discover the world on our own, hand in hand with the locals.

When a mystery is explained, it loses its ability to compel our interest.  Remember how an X-Wing flying through the Death Star trench looked so much cooler before you knew it was a small model filmed and optically composited against a background plate of another small model, and another layer of black velvet curtain with sequins representing the stars?  So too is the wonder of magic diminished when we’re told it’s caused by a specific ancient Petrifying Spell developed by the archwizard Grumblethorn during the seventh Marcovian Age, requiring equal portions of Skirbian tree lizard earwax and Boltan’s Smoogrifying Powder, gathered beneath a two-thirds waning crescent moon.  I know some readers glom on to that level of detail; I find it tedious.  When I’m describing the use of magic in my book, I try to picture it cinematically, as if I was sitting in a theater watching it unfold before me, and imagining the awe I would experience in that moment.  What difference does it make how it happens?  It’s enough that it does, and that it can be both beautiful and terrifying.  And as always, the emotional impact of the spell on both the user and the witness (and/or victim, as befits the scene) is what’s more dramatically interesting – both to write, and to read.

That’s my take, anyway.  Could be completely off base in terms of what’s grabbing people’s interest these days.  Your thoughts?

May the Mouse be with you

Above:  The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.
Above: The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.

It’s old news now, but given that it happened in the midst of my James Bond countdown and then the holidays and a bunch of other things hit at once, I never took the opportunity to comment on the revelation that sent Star Wars fans into a Force-induced tizzy – that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm Ltd. to The Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion, and accompanying this massive corporate transaction was the equally hefty revelation that Star Wars Episode VII will be released in 2015.  Ever since Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas has been insisting up and down that Star Wars as a cinematic enterprise is finished, done, or, as Emperor Palpatine would put it succinctly, “complete.”  Yet the Mouse House confirmed in the same press release that there would be many further trips to that galaxy far, far away.  Star Trek has been going strong in multiplexes, despite a few missteps, for eleven movies now with a twelfth on the way, so shouldn’t la guerre des étoiles be able to blaze across our screens for as long as the medium is viable?  Clearly Disney thinks so and has immediately begun soliciting creative talent to assemble the next voyage.  J.J. Abrams turned down an offer to direct, citing loyalty to the other space franchise he helped relaunch.  Michael Arndt, a screenwriter whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, has been chosen to pen the next instalment, with Lawrence Kasdan – who wrote the masterful The Empire Strikes Back and co-wrote the not bad Return of the Jedi before opting to sit the prequel trilogy out – in the wings to script further adventures.  It’s safe to say that these titanic moves were not on anyone’s radar, and that Star Wars fandom, which has struggled in recent years to reconcile their love of Lucas’ creation with their hatred of his incessant (and yet perfectly legitimate, as far as I’m concerned) tinkering with it, has seen its universe upended, with resignation about the quality of the prequels now sprinkled with optimism about what the future might hold.  What I’m not sure about is how Disney intends to treat them – as much as some fans like to dump on George Lucas for the reason of the moment, I don’t know if the fans recognize how good they’ve had it under the amiable real-life Galactic Emperor, and how things may change for the worse.  And I say this as an admitted lover of Disney!

It’s not necessary to rehash the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars – the marriage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth with science fiction to craft an enduring story that inspires little boys to wave flashlights around against an imaginary Darth Vader.  In the real world the bad guys win much too often; in the world of Star Wars, good always triumphs over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for one’s fellow human being (or Wookiee) is the greatest cause to which one can aspire.  We still talk about Greek myths over two thousand years on, and so this trilogy of movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s is a relative zygote in terms of how long it’s had to inspire its audience.  Yet its reach is unparalleled – movies, TV and literature across every genre can get an immediate laugh by dropping in a quote from Star Wars, and everyone can smile and feel like they’re part of the world’s biggest and most inclusive club – one that stretches across all cultural and regional divides.  One of the most enduring traits of Star Wars is its ability to be passed on, down through generations now as the kids whose eyes opened wide at the scratchy print in the rickety old movie house alongside their parents now watch the same adventures with their own children in the comfort of a surround sound-equipped home theatre.  And many who touch the flame of Star Wars use it to fire their own creative candles, as those who first heard the stories of the Greek gods offered their own interpretation of those tales to new audiences.  Star Wars likely holds the record – if indeed, it were possible to count – for the sheer volume of unofficial derivative works, written, sketched, painted, sewn, sculpted and filmed parodies, homages, tributes and other acknowledgements of what has become a shared universe.   (A quick search for “star wars” on YouTube yields 1.4 million hits, ranging from remixes of John Williams’ iconic theme song, Lego recreations of famous Star Wars scenes, animations of dancing stormtroopers, girls in Princess Leia’s metal bikini and Zeus knows what else).  That universe, the most remarkable example of remix culture, has been, until now, watched over in silent guardianship by George Lucas, who has permitted these myriads of creations so long as they are not for profit.  What then do we make of the stewardship of Star Wars and all it represents being entrusted to the company that famously sued a daycare for painting Mickey Mouse on its walls?

The world has changed tremendously since that notorious incident, which predated the Internet and the lingering question of copyright in the digital era.  Progressive media companies and celebrity brands like J.K. Rowling understand the tremendous value to be found in allowing fans to play in their sandbox, realizing that it’s about building a community (and receiving free advertising), and that ultimately, the vast majority don’t mind paying for officially licensed offshoots, be they yet another Blu-Ray boxed set or endless waves of toys.  For decades however, Disney has been the most trigger happy of the lot, ready to unleash their armies of attorneys at whosoever dareth trespass against them.  I’m just saying there’s a reason why you won’t find a lot of Donald Duck stories at fanfiction.net, nor will you find Walt Disney in Love on YouTube.  As someone who has created his own fictional universe and wonders idly about the future day an aspiring scribe decides to pen their own fan fiction trilogy using my characters and settings, it would be tremendously flattering to know I’d inspired someone like that – and truthfully, why else are we writing except to inspire – but if another someone decided to reap financial gain from my work without my by-your-leave I’d be Scanners-head-exploding livid.  I’d be equally as upset if someone produced a derivative work that was pornographic, excessively violent or simply insulting to the spirit of my original.  The trouble is you can’t seem to have one without the other, that either all copyright is enforced to the limit of the law, thus creating the perception that you’re a grouchy Lars Ulrich type and hate your fans, or you go for George Lucas’ approach and accept a certain percentage of the bad stuff (what a retail outlet would call “shrink”) with the understanding that most will be positive and done out of love and only help your brand reach new heights.

The lingering grey area for Star Wars fans is whether Disney will continue what Lucas started, if they will accept that Star Wars is its own entity and deserves a freer hand than what has typically been Disney copyright policy in the past.  After Return of the Jedi in 1983, Star Wars entered a long dry period where nothing save a few crude cartoons and made-for-TV Ewok movies was forthcoming from the Lucasfilm vaults, and instead the creations of the fans, whose interest never waned, kept blowing oxygen on that dwindling spark, until Lucas was finally ready to go back to the well, knowing that he had legions out there who remained loyal to him and to his universe because they felt like they owned a piece of it – an emotional piece that could not be quantified in financial or percentage terms.  Once described by Campbell as his single best student, Lucas always understood that a myth cannot thrive in the care of a single person, and in commenting on selling his baby to Disney he spoke about needing Star Wars to go on without him.  In many ways it already has, and the nightmare scenario of Disney being Disney and starting to remove the likes of Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager and Troops and Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” routine from YouTube will be the beginning of the end of Star Wars as the force – yeah, I went there – for uniting people and unleashing their imagination and creativity that it has become.  The hope is that Disney too has evolved since the daycare incident and understands just what they’ve managed to acquire; a property that has become the unofficial property of millions of people the world over.  People may wear Mickey Mouse ears, but they don’t go around pretending to be Mickey Mouse in the way kids want to be Luke and Han and Leia.  Fingers crossed that the lawyers of the Walt Disney Company don’t cease-and-desist them out of their dreams.

So be it… Jedi.

Although giddy for the release of brand new, high-definition Blu-Ray versions of their favourite films, Star Wars fans were mostly horrified this week to learn that the Jedi Master of the saga of a galaxy far, far away, the relentless tinkerer George Lucas, had ordered some additional digital changes to his babies – the most egregious of which was the dubbing of additional dialogue for Darth Vader during the climactic sequence in Return of the Jedi where he sacrifices himself to save his son.  Where Darth had originally done the deed in silence, he now screams “No.  Nooooo!!!!” as he picks up the evil Emperor and hurls him to his doom.  No less a luminary than actor (and Star Trek star) Simon Pegg took to Twitter to denounce this latest re-edit, and the Internet nearly melted down from the resulting collective fanboy freak-out.  For Wars-ies still miffed by Greedo firing first in the 1997 Special Edition re-cut of A New Hope and the overall existence of Jar Jar Binks, it was one CGI tweak over the line.  With the backlash to the Special Edition changes and the general disappointment in the prequel trilogy still fresh in his mind, it’s a little puzzling why George Lucas would want to go back to that same poisoned well.  Surely the thought of being digitally burned in effigy across millions of chat boards can’t be a comforting thought to anyone, no matter how many billions of dollars they sleep on at night.  But it’s difficult for fans or anyone who’s even aware of the Star Wars phenomenon to remember that Lucas sees Star Wars uniquely and in a different way than anyone else.

Star Wars was made in an era before home video, when special effects could be just okay since they were only designed to be seen once quickly in the theatre, rather than pored over, rewound and scrutinized again on an endless loop – when the audience was meant to be so engrossed in the story they didn’t have time to notice the strings on the spaceship.  We know it as we first saw it, and to us, it was and always has been perfect.  When Lucas looks at it, he remembers only the pain of making it:  the threats from nervous studio executives, the embarrassment of the actors not understanding his dialogue, the frustration of the camera crew and their British union rules, the disappointment of the effects guys wasting money on useless shots, the overall feeling that he was ruining his career.  With that baggage, he hasn’t become emotionally attached to every nuanced moment or every cadence in a bit player’s delivery of their only line of dialogue that has managed to entrench itself in popular culture.  It is his creation, and he sees it with the eye not of a kid playing make-believe lightsaber, but of a craftsman where every compromised choice made under pressure of deadline and lack of resources sticks out like a hangnail on an otherwise relatively satisfactory manicure.  Lucas himself has said that “works of art are never completed, they’re only abandoned.”  It’s the same feeling that for those of us who are aspiring writers leads us to tweak endlessly, thinking that every nip and tuck of text brings us inexorably closer to that critical moment when the manuscript will be “ready” – an undefined day that lingers in an unreachable fog.

In the decades since the first Star Wars, we have entered an era where art has become communal – a shared experience where millions of others can take art, bend it, shape it, smash it to bits and reassemble the pieces, with varying degrees of skill and success.  Aside from the many mainstream Hollywood homages to and ripoffs of Star Wars, there is a Library of Congress’ worth of amateur art and fiction out there that draws inspiration from Lucas’ universe.  Indeed, whatever you are into, chances are someone who didn’t originate it and has no connection with those who did has either written about it, made a video about it, performed a song about it, drawn a picture of it or, eye-rollingly, made porn of it (see “Rule 34 of the Internet”).  We live under the impression that once art has been released, it belongs to everyone.  It is the hope of every artist, no matter how hipster they claim to be, that what they have created will be embraced by a large following.  It truly is a cry into the night hoping for a reply.  The ultimate measure of success then is to affix oneself into the zeitgeist as Lucas has done.  Star Wars has grown beyond him and become a force – pardon the pun – unto itself.  Much as the people of a country react poorly to proposed changes to their centuries-old constitutions, voices rise in anger – mostly in the form of Internet chatter – when George wants to smooth out what he sees as the rough edges in his work.  It doesn’t matter if we think it’s perfect.  He doesn’t, and no amount of anonymous name-calling will change his mind.  As much as we might hate him for “Jedi Rocks” or blinking Ewoks or Hayden Christensen’s ghost, if it were our creation, our universe, we’d reserve the right to do the same and we’d be frustrated by strangers getting sentimental and enraged about what we see as our flaws and personal failings in our work.  Whatever one may think of the methods or the results, George Lucas is always trying to improve his art, and there’s something noble in him not being willing to think something is just good enough.

Having said all that, I liked it better when Vader chucked the Emperor over the edge in absolute silence.  But that’s just me.