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Force Majeure

October 12th, 2008

Star Wars are breaking out all over with a pair of recent projects further expanding the scope of George Lucas’ private universe.

The weekly, computer animated Clone Wars series has begun airing on Cartoon Network. It’s much like the recent theatrical film: it’s impossible for me to become invested in the characters, but at least there are lots of pretty things blowing up.

The most recent episode was rather neat in a way that only old-school fans would likely appreciate, at last paying off a design concept from more than thirty years ago.

In the original Star Wars, one of the Rebel ships was the “Y-Wing fighter” (below, left) which got its name because the top view resembles a capital letter Y. The craft was given a “stripped-down” look, in part to appeal to Lucas’ love of hot rods. The idea, as related in books of the day, was that the Y-Wings were originally sleek spaceships that were such a pain to maintain that the Rebel techs removed their outer plating.

I had thought that we might eventually see these sleeker Y-Wings in the prequels, which very deliberately started out with a design aesthetic emphasizing smooth lines and unbroken surfaces. The idea there was that with each subsequent film, the ships would come ever closer to the angular, utilitarian look of the original trilogy. I was sure that Y-Wings would make an appearance in Episode III, and disappointed when they didn’t.

As you can probably gather from a couple paragraphs above, Clone Wars stepped in to complete the circle, with Anakin Skywalker leading a Y-Wing squadron (below, right) in a bombing run on General Grievous’ battle cruiser. It was a nice Easter Egg for us old-timers.

The other recent attempt by Lucasfilm to milk the cash Bantha is the long-gestating The Force Unleashed video game/comic book/novel/toy line. The game was delayed several times, coming out nearly a year after its initially announced due date. (The toy tie-ins arrived on the shelves eight or nine months ago.)

The Force Unleashed is a more ambitious effort than Lucas’ first attempt at building a multi-media event around a non-movie storyline: the ill-fated Shadows of the Empire. This time, the setting is between the two film trilogies, a couple of years before Luke Skywalker’s battle against the Death Star. Luke’s nowhere to be found, though; instead the main character is “Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice.” In another fan-friendly nod to us old-school fanboys, his nickname is Starkiller, Luke’s original surname in the early script drafts.

Starkiller isn’t just some punk farmer whining about his moisture vaporators. Don’t get me wrong, he is a whiny punk, but he’s also the baddest-assed bad-ass that ever swung a lightsaber. The game amps his Force powers up to absurd levels; Episode III Yoda’s got nothing on this emo kid.

The storyline (which is presumably fleshed out in the novelization) has an interesting core, with Vader sending Starkiller out in search of the remaining hidden Jedi Masters, all the while plotting to use his apprentice to overthrow the Emperor. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.) The twist is that the entire thing is an elaborate plot orchestrated by Vader (with the Emperor’s blessing) to lure the Empire’s enemies into open rebellion. Starkiller is tasked to found the Rebel Alliance so that Vader can capture the lot for public execution. Naturally, the apprentice turns on his masters and frees the prisoners at the cost of his own life. I don’t know that I find it necessary for the Rebel Alliance to have a secret origin story, but I can appreciate the irony of the Emperor setting into motion the army that eventually brings down the Sith. (END SPOILER.)

In Entertainment Weekly’s review of the game, they compare it to the Grand Theft Auto series, something I hadn’t considered. However, it makes a lot of sense; in both games, you play a morally-challenged character who kills hundreds, possibly thousands of sentient beings. And like GTA, I’ve found it quite impossible to NOT accidentally kill innocent bystanders. When our emo boy starts whipping out his Force, he wrecks pretty much everything in sight.

One difference here, though, is that in The Force Unleashed, you’re supposed to be the good guy. Sort of. When you start out you’re very much in full-on Sith-wannabe mode, not letting anything stand between you and the Jedi you’re hunting. But as the story progresses Starkiller goes on a familiar redemptive path…except that the murder rate never decreases. Sure, most of the time you’re Force-choking stormtroopers or (my favorite) tossing them into the Death Star’s planet-destroying laser, but there’s almost no one, friend or foe, that you don’t wind up either trying to kill or claiming as collateral damage.

Not saying that I’m not enjoying it. I especially like the visceral feel of the Wii version, in which you literally punch the air to create your Force blasts. And throwing stormtroopers into bottomless chasms never gets old. But, as was the case when Darth Vader’s one redemptive act in Return of the Jedi somehow washed away twenty years of sins, it’s a little hard to swallow that I’m getting away with being the hero after my epic mass murder spree.

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