Star Wars: A New Post – Part I

November 30, 2015

This is an essay perhaps 10 years in coming. Not so much about gaming as about storytelling in general. It turns out that there are many factors in the reception of a story: we in the audience might think of ourselves as objective viewers, but no, we too are part of the experience. Our expectations and understanding and more. Or as Avner the Eccentric said:

“You thought you could just come and sit and be the Broadway audience. No. You’re the audience, and you’ve got work to do.”

I’m prompted to speak because a new Star Wars movie is coming soon. Are you excited? Remember, though, that people were excited about the prequel movies, and that turned out a bit complicated. So here today’s essay begins.

It all started in conversation with friends somewhere 10 years ago. I had watched the first of the new Star Wars prequels — excuse me, I had watched Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. But I hadn’t watched any of the others. General public sentiment was that the prequels were terrible, and, going on The Phantom Menace alone, I had to say I was disappointed. Not disastrously, though, and I had hopes for the rest: after all, it was obvious the effort George Lucas had put in to making that first prequel match the original trilogy in style.

So my view was that the two trilogies were basically the same sort of movie. I spoke with the group about that. Then it happened:

“Have you seen the other two?” “Well, no.” “Then don’t talk about it until you have.”

Of course. What was I thinking? It is literally impossible to have an opinion as an outsider. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the advertisements, watched the “making of” material, read reviews from informed experts, and followed conversations from everyday people, you can neither think nor speak of a creative work unless you have absorbed it from start to finish.

You know, like Twilight.

. . . People, this is why the Vampirely blog exists. You don’t have to roll around in poison ivy to get the impression that it is poisonous. And once you’ve torn yourself away from horrified fascination at that blog (do check it out if you haven’t), you may recognize this sort of statement as part of a larger double standard: “You must be an insider/outsider to be ALLOWED to speak,” with either format used depending on whom is speaking. I could go on yet another essay about THAT.

But I want to have the conversation that I missed 10 years ago. Because hey, guess what just happened? That’s right. I WATCHED THE OTHER TWO PREQUELS.

Thesis: The Star Wars prequel trilogy was made with the same standards as, and with great fidelity to, the original Star Wars trilogy

I’m not trying to convince you, unknown reader, that the prequels were any good: just that, if you think they were flawed, be advised the original trilogy was just as crippled with flaws. And I’m not trying to convince you that your beloved original trilogy was any bad: just that, if you think it was wondrous, be advised that the prequels were filled with as many wonders.

Follow me on a journey of discovery.

The essayist in the days before the prequels

I loved the original Star Wars movies. Ta da! I’m already on your side, aren’t I?

Except there’s no guarantee that you love the original trilogy. There are quite a few people who believe they were terrible. How can this be? Simple: people have different tastes, different preferences, and different mistakes they will forgive.

Have you ever seen, read, or performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The play ends with a remarkable play-within-a-play, a device for which William Shakespeare was rather famous, but one he put to surprising use here. He explicitly taught his audience the “right way” to deal with a play they didn’t like: to make it better in their head. To make excuses for the mistakes and help tell the story.

I was to find this important shortly.

On the arrival of The Phantom Menace

As with most people (except those who disliked the original trilogy; see above), I was excited to hear that George Lucas was going to fill out the trilogy of trilogies. And, wow! Look at that preview material! A light saber quarterstaff? Creative!

Somewhere around the release, I enjoyed a “making of” feature that they showed on TV, and it too was surprising. I was impressed — deeply impressed — with how dedicated they were on fidelity to the original trilogy. And there was a line about one specific detail of the movie that I only half-heard, and I’d really like to remember it better: something about “capturing the sneer.” I will return to this in a moment.

What did I think of the movie?

Wow, those computer animated characters were annoying. Yoda was so much more expressive as a puppet than as a 3-D model. There were stupid jokes where they didn’t belong and our beloved droids were just comic relief.

In the plot, it seemed things happened . . . just because they happened. I couldn’t feel like anything important was going on. And then, however much importance was placed on the light saber quarterstaff in the previews, they killed its wielder and got rid of the element I liked! Hopefully they had plans to make things more interesting into the future, because they didn’t have much left going for them.

Still . . .

There was something about “the sneer.” Watto, that slaver . . . it looked like he had a sneer scanned straight from the face of the bartender of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Did he? I can’t find any evidence online that this was a fact, but it stuck with me. There were other similarities, too.

Huh.

Time to re-watch the originals.

On the realization that the original trilogy was not given to us from the heavens

I enjoyed the original trilogy, but of course I had seen it most when I was a child. Eventually I got around to re-watching those three movies.

It was remarkable. For one, I was reminded that the original had jokes throughout. As a child, I perhaps had taken it too seriously, just as many children from a slightly earlier generation mistakenly thought that Batman and Get Smart were all serious.

I also saw more parallels than I ever realized. There was even a bit of an embarrassing moment for me. At the end of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader had his helmet removed, I found myself at a loss for words and exclaimed “It’s Anakin!” Well, yes, of course it was Anakin: but what I meant was that I felt an instant visual connection between that actor and the young child that George Lucas carefully found to represent him in The Phantom Menace.

I also saw the problems.

. . . Wow, but the original movies were flawed. Did you realize that? Yes, you probably did . . . unless you took William Shakespeare’s advice and made up for their own failures.

Consider:

You are in a snowspeeder on Hoth. You want to shoot down an Imperial Walker. What do you do?

If you’re a fan, then I’m sure you’ll immediately have an answer like this: “Their armor’s too powerful to get through, so first you have to topple them, sort of stretch out their neck. When you do that, the strained neck is a weak point where you can blast through their armor.”

Great. Then it’s a darned shame this “neck” stuff was never explained in the movie, isn’t it?

Seriously, go watch Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Do it. All you hear is somebody exclaim how their armor’s too powerful to get through, and then, a few moments later, someone blows up an Imperial Walker. If you blink at the wrong moment, you won’t even realize that the shot is fired at the stretched-out neck. YOU in the AUDIENCE have to piece together the explanation and make up for the flaws in the original. Or, as in the case for many of us, we small children never understood the plot anyway and we had to ask our parents why things happened.

Things happened . . . just because they happened.

Or how about content that not even fans can defend? Take Luke Skywalker’s training in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. You’ve heard this happen: the nervous laugh in the audience. Okay, so, he lowers the blast shield on his helmet and blocks the laser shots, but Mark Hamill’s acting is lacking. He just sort of wiggles the light saber prop around and then pops back up on his heels like a little child re-enacting the same scene. You simply cannot believe that he has learned anything about the Force, and, consistently, I’ve heard a disbelieving laugh from any audience with whom I shared the experience.

So where does this leave us?

At a good place for a break. I will allow a recess for you to digest the above, then it will be the return of the author in my next post. After all, there are a few more movies to consider together, and perhaps you need a moment to re-watch them before a new one comes out . . .

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