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Posts Tagged ‘George Lucas is a hack and a ne’er-do-well’

Star Wars Forever

November 18th, 2012 No comments

It’s been more than two weeks since the out-of-the-blue announcement that Lucasfilm been sold to Disney and that the first installment in a brand-new Star Wars film trilogy had been scheduled for release in 2015. Like many, I was not only blindsided by the news, I was–as a certain smuggler once said–totally blown away.

While some hyperventilating fanboys expressed concerns about the Disneyfication of the Galactic Empire–as if someone other than George Lucas had invented Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks–I’m pretty okay with it.

For many of us in the Star Wars Generation, the last fifteen years have played out as a prolonged disillusionment. We learned that Lucas was surprisingly tone-deaf when it came to revisiting his creations, obsessing over picyune details while neglecting the need for interesting plots and engaging characters.

So the possibility of a new trilogy at a remove from the technological ministrations of Emperor Lucas was welcome news. As was the word that it would abandon the played-out prequel era in favor of a proper follow-up to the films that we old-timers liked in the first place. And if Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and/or Harrison Ford showed up to the party, so much the better.

And yet, all of this comes with a realization. Just when I was getting used to the idea of Star Wars being an image growing ever-distant in my rear-view mirror, it’s now a thing that will outlive me. Untethered from George Lucas’ own mortality, purchased at great price by a company that never, ever allows its intellectual property to reenter the public domain upon which it built its own fairy-tale kingdom, Star Wars truly will be forever.

There will be a new trilogy, and a trilogy after that. There will be cartoons and novels and comics and toys and videogames and on and on and on. It will continue to be remixed and mutated. And somewhere down the line the whole magilla will be rebooted for a generation yet unborn.

I used to worry that I wouldn’t live long enough to see the final adventures of the Skywalker clan, as if that was something worth fretting over. And now I know that it’s impossible.

It’s freeing in a way. I can stop trying to outlast it. I can rest assured that my collection will never be complete.

There’s comfort in knowing that this story that ignited my childhood passion will be passed down through the decades. Kids will continue to chase each other around with lightsabers. Their bedrooms will be protected by R2-D2 night lights. And they’ll dream about living in a galaxy far, far away.

That’s A Load Of Sith

March 1st, 2012 No comments

Whatever I may feel about the prequel trilogy and the ancillary stories that have clogged the arteries of Star Wars fandom since the publishing of Timothy Zahn’s post-Return of the Jedi novel Heir to the Empire back in 1991, I’ll admit that that particular fictional world continues to fascinate me. So it was that I was intrigued by James Luceno’s recent hardcover novel, Darth Plagueis. It details the backstory of the Dark Lord described by Chancellor Palpatine to young Anakin in the movie Revenge of the Sith.

While the movie only implied that Plagueis was the former master of Darth Sidious (Palpatine’s own Sith secret identity), the novel promised to make their relationship clear. I hoped that it might also clarify one of the nagging questions at the heart of the story, the matter of Anakin Skywalker’s parentage.

The first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, introduced a number of controversial elements. (I mean, besides Jar Jar.) Chief among these were the so-called “midi-chlorians,” quasi-scientific fictional organelles similar to our own mitochondria. They were said to provide a link to the mystical Force from which both the Jedi and Sith warriors drew their powers. Furthermore, it was suggested that these microscopic organisms had somehow impregnated Anakin’s mother, thus fulfilling the prophecy of a Chosen One who would bring “balance to the Force,” whatever that meant. (You know, I’m a little embarrassed just typing out all of this.)

In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine’s retelling of “The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis” included a reference to the Dark Lord’s ability to influence midi-chlorians not only to hold back death, but to create life. Many viewers inferred that the off-screen Plagueis might have astrally knocked-up Anakin’s mom as part of the decades-long scheme to subvert the Republic and its Jedi protectors.

Here was Lucas doubling down on some of the sillier bits of The Phantom Menace. And yet I was kinda willing to go along with it, if only because it made the Sith Lords’ plan that much more devious. I liked the idea that Plagueis might have taken advantage of the old Jedi prophecy to plant an unwitting mole in their midst.

So it was that I voluntarily dove into 368 pages’ worth of Sithtastic history.

Darth Plagueis, the novel, is the literary equivalent of spackling. It’s an attempt to tie together disparate story strands from various Star Wars spin-offs and explain what was going on behind the scenes in the lead-up to the Clone Wars. I’m not well-versed in many of the comics and novels, but even I recognized elements from Heir to the Empire, Shadows of the Empire, the current story arc of the Clone Wars TV show, and even the old Droids Saturday morning cartoon. Passages of the book read like an accounting of random Wookieepedia entries. An example:

If any Jedi were present, they would be sitting in contemplation, as Maul knew he should be doing, as well. Or if not meditating, then completing work on the graciously curved speeder bike he had named Bloodfin or the droid called C-3PX, or perfecting his skill at using the wrist-mounted projectile launcher know as the lanvarok.

Personages such as Wilhuff Tarkin, Jorus C’baoth and Mother Talzin are name-checked, but play no actual role in events. An enormous cast of characters exist on the periphery, there mostly to suggest that one is reading the Grand Unified Theory of Star Wars.

As befits a story set in the decades before the prequel trilogy, there’s a lot of politicking and discussion of interstellar commerce. If you ever wanted to know more about the taxation of trade routes cited in the opening crawl of The Phantom Menace, here’s your chance.

There’s also a surprising amount of gore for a universe in which people usually fall to cleanly-cauterized lightsaber wounds. Young Palpatine (no first name, he’s already that much of a douchebag) goes all serial killer on his family on his path to the Dark Side, and it’s pretty intense for a tie-in to what George Lucas keeps insisting is a property targeting 10-year-olds.

Your enjoyment of Darth Plagueis may depend on how much you like spending time around the unrepentantly evil. The Sith philosophy at times seems to be an especially noxious variant of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. But while the Dark Lords insist that they merely view the Force from a different perspective than the Jedi, they delight in cruelty. There are good guys in the book, but they’re off on the sidelines having adventures while our protagonists are front and center kicking puppies.

One objection that I have to the book is that some major events occur off the page. Luceno devotes an entire chapter to Plagueis’ hunt for those Force-sensitive individuals that his own former Sith Master had been grooming as potential disciples–a narrative dead-end–yet tosses away other actions of far more significance. More on this in a few moments.

Okay, I’m being hard on this book–which, objectively, is not very well written–but I won’t go as far as to say that I didn’t find it worthwhile. I came for the hole-filling, and enough holes were filled to leave me satisfied overall. But to talk about that I’m going to have to get into big-time spoilers. If you’re adverse to these, skip the following and rejoin me for the final paragraph.

One notable revelation is that Darth Plagueis is still alive and active throughout most of the events of The Phantom Menace. Whereas the movie tells us flat out that Darth Sidious and his own apprentice Darth Maul are the only two Sith Lords, Plagueis is there as well, observing events right up to the final few minutes. I suppose that this bit of retconning doesn’t really change anything, but I found it interesting nonetheless. (Sidious’ murder of his Master just prior to his own appointment as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic is a good scene, and I could easily hear actor Ian McDiarmid reading the dialogue in my head.)

The bigger deal was the long-awaited answer to the nature of Anakin’s baby daddy, and here’s where having things occur off-the-page left me confused. When Plagueis and Sidious learn of Anakin and his alleged virgin birth nine years earlier, both are shocked. Plagueis rushes (too late) to intercept the boy:

He had to see this Anakin Skywalker for himself; had to sense him for himself. He had to know if the Force had struck back again, nine years earlier, by conceiving a human being to restore balance to the galaxy.

Problem was that I couldn’t remember just what was the significance of nine years ago. Thanks to Wookieepedia, I found it buried back on page 280: a single paragraph devoted to Plagueis’ off-page attempt to influence the creation of a Force-sensitive being. The gist of this thread, apparently, is that Palpatine’s bedtime story from Revenge of the Sith wasn’t the whole tale. Plagueis didn’t slip a Force-roofie into Momma Skywalker’s blue milk; Anakin Skywalker’s conception wasn’t the direct result of the Sith’s machinations. Instead, he managed to piss off the Force, which in turn reacted by giving the universe actor Jake (“Yippee!”) Lloyd.

Got it? ‘Cause I didn’t. It might have helped had this plot point been treated as prominently as, say, Plagueis hunting down a Force-using gambler.

So, to sum up: Darth Plagueis is a book for hardcore fans only. If you want to know about Palpatine’s youthful troubles, or just who in the heck was Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas, pick up a copy. But if you don’t know Hath Monchar from Gardulla the Hutt, you’re better off sticking to the films.

Party Like It’s 1999

January 31st, 2012 No comments

It’s weird going into Toys ‘R Us these days. I’m confronted with an enormous Star Wars display. It’s eight feet high and fifty feet long, and brimming with Phantom Menace-branded toys. I’m having a serious case of deja vu hearkening back to May 3, 1999: the date when every warehouse, henhouse and outhouse in America was overrun by plastic Jar Jars.

This time there are few if any gangly Gungans in view, yet the wall of Darth Mauls and Qui-Gon Jinns remains an unsettling echo of those last sunny days of the 20th Century, before the Star Wars Generation experienced the Great Disillusionment.

It’s hella strange to see this second wave of Episode 1 hype, brought about by the film’s forthcoming 3D rerelease. It’s as we’ve all collectively forgotten about the Jar Jar Candy Tongue Dispenser Memorial Landfill. Everywhere you look, there’s a facet of a blissfully unaware media campaign marketing the fuck out of a movie that people didn’t like very much the first time around.

Oh, I wish I could pretend that I’m immune to it all. It’s still a kick to see kids oohing over the toys from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And don’t think I didn’t buy that Ben Quadrinaros action figure. Or that new novel about Darth Plagueis, the Sith Lord responsible for training the future Emperor Palpatine.

Those of us who have failed to learn from galactic history are doomed to repeat it.

 

Okay, Maybe Not

September 1st, 2011 No comments

Look, I know what I just wrote in the post below. But since then, leaked copies of the Original Trilogy from the Star Wars Blu-Ray set have hit the Interwebs. As expected, there have been additional tweaks, ranging from benign and pointless to pointless and silly. And pointless.

Among them:

  • The shot of R2-D2 and C-3PO approaching  the entrance to Jabba the Hutt’s palace has been extended to make the door appear more massive.
  • A Dug alien (think Sebulba from Episode 1) has been added to Jabba’s court.
  • The Ewoks’ eyes have been given pupils and the ability to blink.
  • Rocks have been added in front of R2-D2 to help him hide from the Sandpeople.
  • The noise that Ben Kenobi uses to frighten off the Sandpeople has been changed to a weird, reverberating cry.
  • Vader now says, “No. Nooooooo!” as he tosses the Emperor into the pit.

Of all the changes, that last one seems like the biggest “fuck you” to the fanboys, as Vader’s shouted “Noooooooooooo!” was one of the most mocked moments of the prequels.

Again, many of the changes seem benign. And I always thought that the Ewok costumes looked dead-eyed.

Still, there’s a point where one has to call “bullshit” on the oft-repeated Lucas mantra that the special editions reflect his original vision unconstrained by technology. So, he originally intended for there to be a Dug (an alien not even conceived of until the late ’90s) hand-walking its way around Jabba’s throne room?

Or, as one Internet wag put it: “It was always his intention to have rocks around R2 there but dammit, rocks are heavy and we needed to wait until we could make believable fake rocks.”

Of course, the real problem isn’t blinky Ewoks, it’s that Lucas has kept the original, unvarnished versions of his films out of circulation.

George, if you’re listening–and truthfully, I have no reason to believe that you are–I have a message for you.

Stop being a douche.

No one would care if you made R2-D2 fuchsia or had Vader quoting Monty Python if the original versions were out there as well. It doesn’t matter if you’re keeping them in the vault out of artistic integrity or sheer cussedness. Let them out. Grant them a full restoration and a fresh HD transfer. Give them the love and respect that they deserve.

There’s an article on the Time website in which TV critic James Poniewozik asks who “owns” Star Wars, Lucas or the fans? I argue that there’s a third party: history.

There’s a simple fact obscured by the debate over whether Han or Greedo shot first: the special edition of Star Wars is not the film that won seven Oscars and, by the way, changed how movies are made and marketed. Film historians and students are being denied the opportunity to evaluate it as a cultural artifact from 1977. While there’s enough original material to at least get some sense of what the fuss was all about back in the day, the lather of CGI obscures the groundbreaking movie technologies innovated by Lucas, John Dykstra and others.

Let go, Lucas. Put away your insecurities and frustrations and recklessness. Isn’t that the Jedi path?

I’ll Never Leave You

August 24th, 2011 No comments

Early reviews of the forthcoming Star Wars Blu-Ray disc set have been hitting the Interwebs. And I have realized a terrible truth about myself.

I want it. I really, really want it.

There are several reasons why this is beyond stupid, but the top two are these:

  • I already own all six films on DVD.
  • I do not own a Blu-Ray player.

That latter one is an especially good reason, I tell myself.

Yet, the fact remains that in my heart of hearts, I want to caress this box and hold it to my bosom. I want to revel in its splendiferous high-definition images. I want to watch the legendary deleted scenes over and over.

I know how this sounds.

And I know that the old frustrations remain. The original versions of the Original Trilogy will stubbornly continue to be unavailable, replaced by even-further revised “special editions.” Greedo will shoot first.

I find it amusing that the above reviews tout the Blu-Rays for correcting many of the flaws of the previous DVDs, even those that were presented as intentional choices. When audiophiles noticed that John Williams’ score had been flip-flopped on the left and right rear audio channels of the Star Wars (aka A New Hope) DVD, the response from Lucasfilm was a literal we-meant-to-do-that. Yet now it’s been corrected.

It occurs to me that if George Lucas invents a time machine, he will spend all of eternity changing the past so that reality will match whatever version of his invented history he will have, for the moment, decided upon.

And yet. And yet.

Why can’t I quit you?

Tickets To Alderaan Are Half-Price

May 26th, 2011 No comments

Star Tours was the second* collaboration between filmmaker George Lucas and the Disney theme parks, and the first ride based on Star Wars. Employing a squadron of hydraulically-powered simulator cabins in synchronization with a four-minute special-effects film, it sent its passengers on a raucous galactic vacation piloted by a cheerful, hapless droid named Rex. It was a sort of Star Wars “greatest hits,” with a dangerous flight through ice asteroids, an encounter with an Imperial Star Destroyer and a climatic trench run against yet another Death Star.

I was fortunate enough to be living in Southern California in January 1987 when the original Star Tours ride opened at Disneyland. In celebration, the park stayed open for 60 hours straight, and I was there for much of it. So it was fitting that I just happened to be visiting Orlando the week prior to the official unveiling of the rebooted Star Tours at Walt Disney World this past Friday. The circle is now complete.

Rocking my R2-D2 mouse ears, sporting some 3-D "flight goggles" and generally looking like the hugest dork in Dorkville.

I’d originally intended to wait a day before visiting so as to avoid the crowds, but my friend (and fellow Disneyphile) Sherri talked me into attending on opening day itself. I’m glad that she did.

There was a massive Star Wars hootenanny going on throughout the Disney Hollywood Studios park, with costumed characters everywhere and more than a few foolish fans who wore their Jedi robes in the 90+ degree heat. There were several “celebrities” in attendance in additional to the inevitable Anthony (C-3PO) Daniels. Young Boba Fett! The voice of Ahsoka Tano**! Some other people!

I would have made a "these aren't the droids you're looking for" joke, but the Stormtroopers beat me to it.

Oh, yes…and a dude named George Lucas. I was asking a Disney cast member why it was that the ride itself wasn’t opening ’til noon when he let it slip that “the big guy” himself would be attending. To which Sherri said “Spielberg?” (Sherri swears that she said “Lucas” first, but I didn’t hear that. And it was a lot funnier this way.)

I didn’t see George in person this time***, but a video screen near the ride queue displayed the opening ceremony. It kicked off with a silly bit in which two hooded Jedi fought their way through a horde of Stormtroopers and blasted the force field encapsulating Star Tours, only to be revealed as Lucas and Disney president Bob Iger. George went on to cut the line in front of me, the fucker.

The waiting area for the ride is much the same as it’s been these past 24 years–C-3PO and R2-D2 continue to bicker–but changes reflect our real-life obsession with travel security. Now the addled goose droids**** check baggage for smuggled weapons and subject guests to a thermal scan. It’s all in good fun, though, and part of a story line about a search for a rebel spy which amusingly pays off once the ride is underway.

Poor Rex has been packed in a crate waiting for a factory recall that will never come.

The ride itself? As much as I loved the original, Star Tours 2.0 sends a proton torpedo right up its exhaust port. It makes the Kessel Run in nine parsecs. It’s all that and a bag of death sticks.

What’s different? The film is now in 3-D, and it’s good 3-D. What’s more, the single scenario of the original has been replaced by a randomly-generated sequence which promises more than 50 different combinations*****.

I was only able to view three of the six planets. My first ride included a trip to the desert world Tatooine and participation in its dangerous pod race, as well as a splash landing in the creature-filled oceans of Naboo. The second time I got Naboo again, but I also flew through a battle on the ice planet Hoth. (Other excursions include the Imperial homeworld Coruscant, the Wookiee world Kashyyyk and a dogfight against Boba Fett over a mid-construction Death Star.)

It’s giddy fun, and if you’re in any way a Star Wars fan, you owe it to yourself to board a freighter to the Orlando system. (Star Tours is also officially debuting in Anaheim in June, though soft openings have already begun.)

* The first was Captain Eo, the 3-D film that starred Michael Jackson from his marginally-less-creepy days.

**You know, Anakin’s padawan trainee from the Clone Wars cartoon series. Who is so vital to the saga that she doesn’t appear in any of the live-action films.

*** Just as well. He is, I am reminded, a hack and a ne’er-do-well.

**** So named because they were originally built out of left-over goose armatures from the defunct America Sings attraction.

***** There are actually only 11 different segments. Here’s a spoilery preview video showing many of them.

My Wife Can Only Dream Of This

January 3rd, 2011 No comments

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the creator of the comic book and subsequent beloved TV series The Middleman, did the unthinkable and took a year off from Star Wars. Then he shared what he learned.

Some choice quotes:

“George Lucas didn’t rape a goddamn thing. He GAVE me my childhood. He provided the fat, pale and sensitive boy I once was with a vibrant, imaginative and optimistic idea of what storytelling could be. George Lucas engineered a waking dream that evolved into an overwhelming desire to become a creator on my own right. I am where I am thanks, in great part, to George Lucas.”

and…

“In my willing estrangement from Luke Skywalker and his merry band of rebels, I came to value their small and very personal adventure in contrast to the massive cultural apparatus it spawned. It now seems absurd that a film as sparsely populated — one whose triumph of the imagination was to imply massive scope through the judicious use of production design, location and editing while telling a relatively small hero’s journey story — has developed so overwhelming a cultural footprint.”

and also…

“While I can’t possibly understand the what drives a man who at a young age single-handedly changed the face of popular culture and was catapulted to a level of fame that would boggle the mind of a mere journeyman television writer, I suffer for having so close a relationship with the work of someone so preoccupied with an ever-so-elusive ideal of aesthetic perfection that he stamps out what made it great in the first place.”

While some of his arguments echo points I’ve made over my past couple of years as a semi-recovering Star Wars enthusiast, he relates them ever so much more eloquently. I think what most resonates with me about his essay is his discussion of accepting and even celebrating one’s past, flaws and all.

Clone Of Silence

August 18th, 2008 No comments

According to Box Office Mojo, The Clone Wars brought in only about $15 million this weekend, landing in third place behind the Dark Knight cash machine. That’s still five million better than The X-Files managed, but just the same, I doubt anyone at Lucasfilm is all that happy about it.

And yes, that total includes my own five bucks.

Oh, don’t look at me like that. Like I wasn’t going to go. Grow up.

It was strange to attend a Star Wars flick that began without most of the traditional trappings: the familiar theme music, the receding logo, the expository crawl or the 20th Century Fox fanfare. The latter is considered so much a part of the Star Wars experience that most of the soundtrack CDs begin with it.

Still, I got about what I expected from The Clone Wars: lots of glorious eye candy and things exploding. Since the droids and vehicles were built from the same digital assets as those used in the real Star Wars films, the battle scenes were on par with the prequels. One action set-piece arguably exceeded anything from Episodes 1-3: a spectacular sequence in which Ashoka the Jedi padawan rode atop the windshield of a Republic walker as it climbed up a mountainside.

The human characters were, as reported elsewhere, surprisingly stiff, springing into action only during the lightsaber duels. Digital Padme, I must note, did have a nice ass.

I found that I didn’t miss the original voice actors much. The guy that played Obi-Wan channeled Ewan McGregor, just as McGregor had previously channeled Alec Guinness. And at least Christopher Lee had a fair amount to do reprising his Count Dooku role.

I did find myself questioning one character choice: the decision to play the villainous Ziro the Hutt as a gay stereotype dolled up with feathers and given a Truman Capote voice. Like Jar Jar Binks–a character in the Stephen Fetchit tradition who was cast with a black voice actor encouraged to perform with a rasta accent–it’s one of those “what were they thinking?” things. Note to George: making him an alien doesn’t help.

As for the story…well, it was more a series of events than a story, which befits its origin as several kludged-together episodes of the forthcoming TV show. And I couldn’t get very invested in it. Will Anakin come to accept his new padawan pupil? Of course he will, until he kills her. Will the Republic convince the Hutts to permit military supply lines through their territory? Could I possibly care less?

Supercollector Adam Pawlus over at Galactic Hunter appears befuddled by the poor reception of the new film by Star Wars fans, but I think it’s pretty obvious. For one, this was more obviously kid-focused than the live-action films. (Indeed, virtually everyone at the 4:00 pm Saturday show I attended was a young child or a parent.) I would also point to the backlash against Lucas not only for the prequels but for the recent Indiana Jones feature.

But more important, I think, is that the fans could smell that there was no movie here. Lucasfilm has tried similar tactics before: the first Clone Wars cartoon was originally conceived as little more than a series of one-minute toy commercials until animator Gennedy Tartakovsky lobbied to make them longer and more elaborate. Prior to that was “Shadows of the Empire,” a between-the-movies, multi-media project that involved books, comics, toys and even a soundtrack, but no film. I believe that the fanboys saw that Lucas wasn’t even trying, so why should they bother?

And honestly, while I can’t say that I disliked the “movie” or felt that I wasted my money, neither can I recommend it to anyone who isn’t a diehard fan in it to see Shit Blowing Up. Or digital Padme ass.

Indiana Jones And The Nineteen-Year Hiatus

May 28th, 2008 No comments

Vic and I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Monday afternoon. When it was over, Vic declared that while George Lucas had not repaid any of what she feels he owes her, neither did he owe her any more because of it. That’s high praise from her!

My own feelings are mixed. It’s certainly enjoyable, and no one involved embarrasses themselves. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s also not The Phantom Menace. I’d say that it’s roughly comparable to the other two Indy flicks. But it wasn’t worth the 19-year wait.

My belief–and I know that Vic will back me on this–is that the biggest obstacle Indiana Jones faces is a power-tripping George Lucas. While it was hard enough syncing up the work schedules of Lucas, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, it’s been widely reported that the main reason it took so long to make another Indy installment is George’s stubborn insistence that the film had to revolve around the eponymous crystal skull.

Indeed, one big problem with the film is that Lucas thinks we care about the damned skull. (He also thinks that Raiders worked so well because viewers were invested in the Ark of the Covenant. He’s wrong.) Whereas the entire backstory of the Ark was covered in a single scene, we get a ton of exposition about the history and properties of the Crystal Skulls. George, we got that it was about aliens the moment we arrived in Area 51. And it really doesn’t matter: the point of a “MacGuffin,” per Alfred Hitchcock, is that it really has no point beyond motivating a story’s characters.

Set in 1957, Skull wisely takes Harrison Ford’s advanced age into account. And I give them credit for not trying to make him or costar Karen Allen (reprising her Raiders role in a welcome development) appear unnaturally younger.

Lucas was said to believe that Skull should’ve been inspired more by ’50s sci-fi films than ’40s serials, as was the case with the earlier Indy chapters. If so, he blew it. While there are some obvious nods to the decade–the biggest being the striking image of Indiana standing on a rise with an atomic explosion looming in the background–it’s still more Republic Pictures than 20th Century Fox. That’s because it’s trying so hard to recapture the earlier Indy films, especially Raiders. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s just that the familiar tropes–truck chases, trap-laded tombs and creepy crawlies–have nothing to do with flying saucer flicks.

Familiarity is both a blessing and a curse here. It’s fun to catch the little winks to the audience, such as the inevitable appearance of the Lost Ark in the midst of the Area 51 warehouse, unseen by all except the audience. Still, a big part of what made Raiders work was surprise, and my familiarity with the previous films’ pacing meant that I could predict, down to the second, each occurance of a gun-wielding villain dropping “unexpectedly” into the frame. This predictable unpredictability continued, as in the scene in which Indy and company faced a series of three waterfalls; the little kid behind me in the theater (accurately) declared “the third one’s gonna be huge.” When the eight-year-olds can tell what’s gonna happen before it does, it’s time to change up your pitch.

Okay, enough negativity. Look, it’s a fun film. While there are some slow sections, there’s plenty of humor and action. The interplay between Ford and Allen is enjoyable, and I’m glad that the story devoted a fair amount of attention to their relationship.

Shia LaBeouf is fine as Indy’s sidekick/son (what, did I give it away?), but Lucas is smoking crack if he thinks I’m signing on for “The Adventures of Mutt Williams.” Nothing wrong with the actor or the character, it’s just that Mutt’s not a headliner. If there’s to be a further continuation of the series, I’d prefer to see the filmmakers take the James Bond approach and allow another actor to play Indiana Jones.

Honestly, I think that the best thing for Indy would be if Lucas, Spielberg and Ford gave up their stranglehold on the character. As I suggested earlier, there was no reason that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull couldn’t have been made in 1992, three years after The Last Crusade. Allowing other actors and directors to take a whip crack at Indy during the last 19 years would’ve invigorated the franchise and kept this perfectly-agreeable fourth chapter from seeming a relative disappointment.

Sith Happens

March 11th, 2005 No comments

Last night saw the television premiere of the full trailer for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. It certainly looks incredible, though I’ve been fooled before.

I approach this “final” chapter with a mixture of anticipation, dread and ennui. (Is that even possible?) Star Wars has been a significant part of my life for so long that a part of me can’t help but be excited by the opportunity to visit that universe one last time, yet, like many others, I’ve found myself generally disappointed with these prequel films.

The original Star Wars premiered at a time when I really needed it. It was 1977, and I was twelve years old and miserable. It’s a familiar story–awkward and ostracized child falls in love with a fantasy world–so I’ll spare you the details. The important thing is that Star Wars gave me something to daydream about and fueled my creativity. I spent my junior high and high school years rattling on with my geeky friends about such burning issues as whether Boba Fett was “the Other.”

When Return of the Jedi debuted in 1983, with it came the word from George Lucas that he was taking some time off from the Saga. This was a matter of great concern: would he ever complete all nine films? Would I live long enough to see them?

Years passed. I saw Lucas in person at the 10th anniversary Star Wars convention, when he promised that he would return one day to the galaxy far, far away. Though, he joked, not before he completed one more Indiana Jones film and eight more Howard the Ducks. It was funny at the time.

Still more years passed. Hasbro began making new action figures to swell the ranks of my collection. Post-Jedi continuations began to roll off a literary assembly line, but no movies were in sight.

Finally, there came the Announcement. The rumors were over, and production of Episode I was underway! Again came the anticipation and the geek chatter, but with it a certain fear. I recall a disturbing dream in which I went to the premiere only to realize that the film was terrible. Little did I know…

Meanwhile, the luster began to wear off what had been my unconditional love for Lucas and his world. First, there were the “special editions” of the old trilogy. Digitally pissing over my childhood wouldn’t have been so bad if Lucas, the film preservation activist, hadn’t attempted to ensure that his own movies would never again be seen in their original form. Then came the word that the nine films had been cut to six. Actually, there’d never been any plan for nine films, Lucas told us. Just ignore the dozens of interviews he did in 1977. Historical revisionism became one of the prime exports from Skywalker Ranch.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in May, 1999. I drove out with my friend Doug to the Lorraine Theatre, an old movie house in the middle of nowhere which just happened to have the best sound system in Illinois. At last, I would have a chance to relive the excitement of seeing a new Star Wars film for the first time!

You can guess what happened next. About 15 minutes in, nagging questions began to invade my thoughts. “What’s with these Yellow Peril aliens?” “What the hell is Jar Jar saying?” “Why is it that no one seems to be having any fun?” “What the hell is Jar Jar SAYING?”

It was a shock. I had fully expected to stay for the second show, but found myself driving back to Champaign, wondering what had happened. Emperor Palpatine had no clothes.

My wife likes to say that George Lucas is a hack and a ne’er-do-well. I always respond, “He’s not a ne’er-do-well. American Graffiti was good.” But I find that I have to admit the part about the hack.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Lucas’ film successes have been happy accidents, owing to a combination of outside help, budget constraints and blind luck. It’s telling that as he’s gained the technical freedom to tell exactly the story he wants, the story itself has become less satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. I still give Lucas his due; he changed the ways in which movies are made and marketed, and he’s done a great deal to further their technical advancement. And I still love Star Wars, despite his best efforts. Whatever disappointments the prequels have presented, there are moments and creations within them that are as wonderful as anything from the old films.

I believe that there are two primary reasons that the prequels haven’t engaged me as much as the classic trilogy. (Three, if you count the fact that I’m now 40 years old instead of twelve.) First, it’s difficult to relate to these new characters. A collection of nobles and royals, their interactions are formal and stilted. There’s no haughty Princess Leia or wisecracking Han Solo to prick their pomposity.

Second, and perhaps most damaging, is that the story revolves around Anakin Skywalker, a highly unlikable person whose “hero’s journey” has taken him from dull child to sullen teen and now to psychopathic Jedi-killer. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, and later Han Solo (once I realized that Han had the cooler ship, the cooler companion, and the girl). I can’t imagine wanting to be Anakin. “Mommy, when I grow up I want to slaughter my friends and rule the Empire with an iron fist!” I’m uncertain how I feel about his adventures. Should I root for young Anakin in the Podrace? Or would it be more appropriate to hope that he suffers a fatal crash? Can I be invested in his romance with Padme, even though I know that the path inevitably leads to bitter tragedy?

Maybe that sense of tragedy is the real problem with the prequels. The first Star Wars was a ray of hope in the aftermath of the turbulent Vietnam War. These films, however, seem to verify the unpleasant truths around us: that politicians are inevitably corrupt and manipulative, that “freedom” is an illusion crafted to meet their ends. Institutions crumble and good people die. Things might work out in the end, but in this case, the end was more than twenty years ago.