Underwhelmed by the Force

I know what people are going to say. First, I am going to get accused of click-baiting. The only reason I am criticizing this film is to get attention, they’ll say. This is, perhaps, what is most depressing. Social media creates peer pressure, to the point where you’re afraid to voice your true feelings. Whether it’s 97% for Star Wars or 14% for Fantastic Four, the hype train takes on a life of its own, and everyone is expected to get on board. It reminds me of middle school. My sandwiches were getting smashed in the paper bags we used to carry, but only babies bring lunch boxes to the cafeteria, until you get to college, that is. Then they’re hip and retro.

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Not cool for middle school.

For the past fifteen years, I have defended the prequels, not because of some blind love for all things Star Wars, but because I actually (call me crazy) loved the movies. Now, in many ways, I feel that I owe the haters an apology, but not for the reasons you might expect. I now know the crushing disappointment they must have felt in ’99, and I can relate to their need to vent.

Star Wars has always meant different things to different people. For some, it is a gritty space-adventure with zingy one-liners. But for me, Star Wars is boundless imagination, spectacle and inventiveness epic in scope, sheer visual poetry. Lucas uses the screen like a painter does a canvas. You can just freeze the frame and hang it on your wall. His worlds feel alive even when you’re not watching. He is like a documentarian, only filming what he found. We may not have understood the political machinations of the Galactic Senate, but that was the whole point. Like THX1138 and American Graffiti, Star Wars was “found footage.” This has always been Lucas’ style, and it’s one of the reasons I love his films.

With the prequels especially, Lucas had something to say. Despite most people not wanting to think (just look at the travesty that is the Trek franchise) he espoused philosophies and explored political ideas. Maybe the dialogue felt wooden, and the acting abysmal, but at least his characters had something interesting to say. I’ll take Padme’s, “This is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause,” over 2 1/2 hours of vacuous lines—however well delivered—any day.

People act as if Lucas suddenly became interested in effects, at the expense of story, but this is demonstrably not true. The original trilogy was cutting-edge for its time, and George used every technique available to him, limited only by what he could imagine. When we got to the prequels, he did what he knew best, pushing the visual envelope. Now, for the first time in Star Wars history, the franchise has taken a deliberate step backward. While everything in Episode VII feels more gritty and real (JJ uses almost entirely real sets on real locations), what does it matter, when we’ve seen these places before, in other films, and with our very own eyes? I’ve walked through a forest before, and a beach, and a snowy mountain. I don’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to visit Jakku. Heck, my parents went there this summer; it’s called Dubai. And if I had a Millennium Falcon, I sure as heck wouldn’t take a trip to Clearwater Beach, 10 miles down the road. I’d want to see a giant sinkhole planet, like Utapau, or a termite-mound world like Geonosis, or the planet-wide cityscape of Coruscant. I’ll take imaginative and unconvincing over boring and realistic any day. National Geographic may look more believable than anything Frazetta can paint, but what does it matter, when we’re talking Sci-Fi/fantasy?

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Looks fake? Who cares!

Now, I’d be willing to overlook the mundane settings if at least the story was original, but it isn’t. The Force Awakens is a near-identical retelling of A New Hope, only, and I am not kidding here, the ’77 version told it a lot better. And if you are reading this and want to remain spoiler free, this is your last warning:

 

—- SPOILERS AHEAD —-

So, the day before I go into the movie, I am having a conversation with my nephews, and here is what I said, “I bet Kylo Ren is going to end up being somebody’s son, either Luke’s or Han’s.” It was Han’s. “I bet Finn holding a lightsaber on the poster is a red-herring. At the very end, Rey is going to pull out a lightsaber, proving (to herself and the audience) she is a Jedi.” This is exactly what happens. But this is the worst part, “I really hate that Starkiller base is a knock-off of the Death Star. It’s bad enough we have a Vader clone, more tie fighters and more X-Wings, but did we really need another super weapon? I swear, if they have to fly their X-Wings inside of it, to blow up some tiny reactor so that it implodes, I am going to be really pissed.” But my older nephew gave me hope. “Maybe not,” he said, “maybe JJ will do something cool and unexpected, like have Luke pull a moon down on top of it, destroying it with the Force. Remember how Yoda said, ‘Size matters not?'” Had they done that, it would have been amazing. In fact, his idea made me consider how JJ could take a familiar element (like the Death Star) and do something unique with it. Alas, we got nothing of the sort. I predicted almost the entire movie, scene for scene. Now compare The Force Awakens to the first Star Wars sequel. Who could have imagined, after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back? With the introduction of Yoda, and Vader telling Luke, “I am your father,” and Han getting frozen in carbonite? Had Lucas let 20th Century Fox make a sequel to Star Wars in 1980, I imagine we would have gotten something like VII. There’s even a character in it, Maz Kanata, reminiscent of Yoda, and an Emperor-type character, who appears only as a hologram, Supreme Leader Snoke.

I admit, I was excited about seeing Snoke and Kanata. Up to that point, the absence of CGI is bluntly apparent, an effort to pander to the haters and apologize for Jar Jar Binks. So many puppets and costumes are on display here, that the movie, at times, looks outdated. Considering modern Sci-Fi, like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s kind of ridiculous. Unconstrained by the weight of nostalgia, director James Gunn was free to try new things, and embrace modern effects, something Star Wars has long prided itself on. I don’t care what people say, CGI creatures look more real to me, because they move more fluidly, and their expressions are more lifelike. Why else did nobody think to use a hand puppet for Rocket Raccoon? So, I figured, at least we get to see some aliens that look alive. Only, these CGI characters could not be more boring. Supreme Leader Snoke, particularly, looks so human, I don’t know why they didn’t just make him human, or an actor in makeup. It makes the CGI look less convincing than Jar Jar.

All this aside, I did not hate the film. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it, mostly for the nostalgia trip that it was. Watching the Falcon dodging tie fighters, and seeing the old gang together again, was great. Newcomer Daisey Ridley also gives a superb performance as Rey. But if Star Wars did not precede the title, the movie would not be causing such a stir, or come close to making the 2 billion it will undoubtedly make. As a standalone film, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy and even The Martian are better. But Star Wars has a history behind it, a pedigree of expectation, and this was the first time in the series that I walked out of the theater not feeling thrilled or inspired, or even really wanting to see it again. Even John Williams’ score, which never fails to impress, is routine. I can’t think of a single memorable piece of music, nothing to compare with Duel of the Fates or Across the Stars. Perhaps most disappointing for me, The Force Awakens gives us little to nothing to talk about, and I doubt anyone will be discussing it, or debating it, in the next ten years.

At this point, I realize, it doesn’t matter what I think. Episode VII is riding a wave of positivity, and any dissenting opinion (like mine) is bound to get washed away. But to the people who really loved this movie, I only ask, “Does this improve on the Star Wars saga as a whole? Were we not better off, leaving it at Return of the Jedi?” Lucas said he never made a VII because there was no more story to tell. And, quite honestly, it saddens me to know that Han is killed by his own son, and that he and Leia don’t get to live happily ever-after, and that Luke becomes a hermit somewhere. Jedi was the perfect ending to a perfect story. Now, we have this ugly, uninspired imitation tacked on to it. While I am happy to see my favorite franchise return, I would have preferred a clean slate in another era, perhaps something along the lines of Knights of the Old Republic, but then Disney would not have been able to cash-in on the nostalgia trip.

 

 

Answering the Lucas Haters

This post is going to be something different, an on-going series that I will be continuously updating to answer the haters’ complaints about George Lucas and the Star Wars films.

All the Lucas-bashing reminds me of the way I was bullied as a kid. Between 6th and 8th grade, I was mercilessly teased by pretty much the entire class, because hating on Nick was the “cool thing to do.” Nobody ever rushed to my defense for fear of being attacked in the same way. But Lucas is rich and famous, you say. He can take it. But that is no excuse for being a jerk. Someday, I may become a rich and famous writer, and I certainly don’t want that kind of hatred directed at me. What is entirely indefensible, however, is hating on a guy who has given so much joy to my generation.

The thing is, the hate is entirely unfounded. It’s not as if Lucas did something criminal, like raping someone, or taking an underage bride. There are certainly worse directors out there. Like I stated in an earlier post, a lot of it has to do with nostalgia and unmet expectations, but another big part is the Hollywood system. Lucas has always been an outsider, and over the years, his staunch independence has made for enemies. The big studios have wanted nothing more than to tear this man down. Now, while the Star Wars prequels were not everyone’s cup of Bantha milk, they did earn much critical and commercial success. Over time, however, a small but vocal minority grew, on the big new playground called the Internet, and the larger media quickly latched on to it. A beloved filmmaker failing miserably made for some great headlines, and from there, the whole thing escalated into what I can only describe as a lynch mob.

Personally, I could care less for public opinion. I like what I like, the prequel films included, despite their flaws. In fact, you can say the prequels turned me into a fan. At any rate, it is a mistake to judge a work of art in terms of flaws. Art isn’t science. Instead, we should be looking at the positives, at how the artwork makes us feel, how it stirs us emotionally and intellectually. When I saw The Phantom Menace in ’99, it blew me away precisely because of what it did right. I loved seeing the alien vistas of Naboo and Coruscant, the many space-ships and aliens, and the first ever CGI characters put to film, Jar Jar and Watto and Sebulba. I was thrilled by the pod-race, the three-way lightsaber duel, and I adored the music, especially the operatic “Duel of the Fates,” some of John Williams’ best. These kinds of things you didn’t often see in movies, even in Sci-Fi flicks, which around that time were almost always gloomy and depressing. The Star Wars galaxy was one I wanted to live in, the world of Aliens and Terminator or The Matrix, not so much. But the haters didn’t seem to get the same enjoyment as I did. They focused entirely on the negatives, dissecting each film for anything—and I mean anything—to gripe about.

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This. Just look at this shot!

Acting and dialogue aside, just how bad are these stories, really? Are all the criticisms justified, or does Lucas simply demand a little more attention from the viewer? I aim to answer.


 

PALPATINE’S PLOT

Q: When Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi return from Naboo with news of a blockade, why doesn’t the Senate believe them? What was the point of sending two Jedi to investigate if the Senate can do nothing about it?

A: In an allegorical way, Lucas is critiquing ineffectual government. The Senate doesn’t accept the Jedi’s testimony for the same reason Congress doesn’t “believe” 99% of scientists when it comes to climate change. More importantly, this establishes that there is corruption in the Senate, without which Palpatine could not have seized power. The story of the prequels is the story of a fallen democracy, orchestrated by a Sith Lord. This is his first step to power. By arranging for the Trade Federation blockade of his own planet of Naboo, Palpatine convinces the Senate of the chancellor’s impotence, calling for a vote of “no confidence,” so that he can assume power.

Q: OK, but why then does Palpatine, acting secretly as Darth Sidious, order the Neimoidians to kill the Jedi? If he wants to gain a sympathy vote in the Senate, shouldn’t he want them to escape, to report what they have found?

A: To become chancellor, Palpatine needs to do two things: 1) He needs to create a crisis (the blockade of his home planet) and 2) He needs to prove that the Senate is both corrupt and ineffectual. The last thing Palpatine wants is a quick resolution to the conflict. By killing the Jedi, he is preventing that from happening. Remember, the Neimoidians feared the Jedi would “force a settlement.” If such a thing were to occur, there would be no need for new leadership, as the problem would have been resolved before it even began. When the Trade Federation representative later states, “There is no proof!” this is precisely what Palpatine is relying upon. He wants endless debating and uncertainty, something he can promise “to put an end to,” when he becomes chancellor.

Q: OK, fine, but what is all this talk about the queen signing a treaty? Why would Palpatine want this, if he intends to create conflict?

A: Keep in mind, we do not fully understand all of Palpatine’s machinations. Lucas likes to keep things vague in all his films, especially in THX1138, to maintain a sense of mystery, a sense we are looking at a larger world, one that continues to exist off camera. What we do know, however, is that Palpatine is not prepared for “all out war,” because the clone army he has ordered has another ten years to mature. Most likely, he needs the treaty to resolve the conflict. After all, the invasion is nothing more than a ruse to power. Once that power is attained, he needs to prove himself an effective leader. What better way to do that than to end the conflict quickly and without violence?

 

MIDICHLORIANS

Q. The idea of midichlorians is “a clumsy retcon that screws up an explanation we already had.” The Force is no longer magical, it is just a disease.

A. If you type “midichlorians” into a search engine, you’ll find a long list of blogs attacking the concept. Here is a direct quote, “Arguably the worst scene in all of Star Wars. A great example of failing to understand the material you’re making a prequel to. Some bad writing, George…” Problem is, this is a straw-man fallacy, attacking an idea that was never put forth in the first place. So, let’s break this down:

  1. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda describes the Force by FIRST saying, “Life creates it. Makes it grow.” So, from as far back as 1980, we are given the idea that physical life forms both create and make the Force grow.
  2. In Return of the Jedi, Luke says to Leia, “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it.” In this scene, Luke implies that the Force is more than a spiritual belief system, that there is a genetic component to it. If it were entirely spiritual, with no connection to physical matter, it could not have been “passed on” from generation to generation.
  3. In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon tests Anakin’s blood for midichlorians, and sends the data to Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan remarks, “the readings are off the chart! Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a count that high.” But now here is the important part: Obi-Wan then asks, “What does that mean?” Qui-Gon says he doesn’t know. He could have said, “it means he is more powerful than any Jedi,” but this is not the case. Why? Because midichlorians DO NOT = the Force.
  4. So, what does the movie actually say midichlorians are? Anakin asks Qui-Gon this question directly, “I’ve been wondering, what are midichlorians?” to which he responds, “Midichlorians are a microscopic life form that reside in all living cells, and we are symbionts with them, life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midichlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.” Now, where in this explanation does he say midichlorians ARE the Force? Nowhere. Where does he say that midichlorians give a Jedi his powers? Nowhere. All he says is, midichlorians give us knowledge of the Force. That’s it. Nothing more. And for this reason, someone on YouTube wrote, “That little fucking shit ruined the Star Wars trilogy. Fuck him.”
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A more elegant ship, for a more civilized age.

TECHNOLOGY

Q: Why did the prequels look so different than the originals? All the ships look sleek and more advanced. Shouldn’t things have improved by the time of Episode IV?

A: OK, there are many things to consider here.

  1. First and foremost, technology does not always advance with the passage of time. Any historian can tell you the Roman Empire was far more advanced than medieval Europe. While the Ancient Greeks had successfully calculated the circumference of the Earth, 1500 years later, Columbus argued (erroneously) that he could sail from Europe to India by going west.
  2. The galaxy is a big, big place, the scale of which greatly dwarfs anything we can imagine here on Earth. There are literally billions of stars in any one galaxy, and in Star Wars, potentially hundreds of millions of civilizations. Point being, just as you would not be surprised to find a great difference in technology between modern day subsaharan Africa and New York, you should not be surprised to see it between locations in Star Wars. In fact, the distances between planets should only exacerbate these differences. So, while ships on Tatooine look clunky, those on Naboo may look more refined.
  3. Technology has more to do with economy than time. Compare cars in Cuba or in Russia to those produced in Japan or Germany. Visiting a communist country, you might feel you’ve traveled fifty years into the past. It is a dark time when the Empire takes over. With restrictions on freedoms come restrictions on innovation and commerce. This makes for clunky spaceships.
  4. In A New Hope, the Millennium Falcon is called “a piece of junk” by Luke Skywalker, and Leia says to Han, “You’re getting in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” At the time, we had no idea what a “good looking” spaceship might look like. What would make Leia say the opposite, “Woo-hoo, we’re riding in style!” Now we have the answer. The opposite to “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy” is the Naboo star cruiser, or something like it.
  5. Cinematically speaking, the more elegant ships of the prequel trilogy convey a more “civilized age,” before “the dark times,” before “the Empire.” Basically, after the Empire took over, everything went to shit.

 

 

If you have any questions or complaints about the Star Wars films you’d like answered, please don’t hesitate to comment!

In Defense of George Lucas

Now I want to make a few things clear. I am not a “Lucas apologist.” I have not convinced myself to like his movies, nor have I been blinded by love for all things Star Wars, nor do I “suck at the teat of George Lucas.”

I genuinely, sincerely, and in all honesty believe the Star Wars prequel trilogy is great. Not perfect by any means, but great nonetheless. Now, I do not mean to say they’re “good” in a bad sort of way. The Phantom Menace is a far cry from Plan 9 From Outer Space. No, I think they’re imaginative, exciting, beautifully shot and endlessly intriguing. Sure, the dialogue is often stilted, but no single film excels at everything. Breaking Bad, Star Wars is not. But then again, I don’t go into Breaking Bad expecting fantastic alien landscapes and operatic wizard duels.

A FALSE NARRATIVE

For over fifteen years, there has existed this false narrative, perpetuated by YouTube critics, bloggers and forum commentators, regarding the Star Wars prequels. Hour-long videos have been made, analyzing and nitpicking these films to death. What movie could endure such scrutiny? Never mind record breaking box office and Blu-Ray sales, positive critical consensus (Revenge of the Sith is the best rated film to date at 80%), or a legion of fans who grew up with and continue to be inspired by the prequels, Episodes I—III, we are told, are “objectively bad.” To challenge this narrative is to court unending scorn and ridicule. The only word I can use to describe it is dogma—a hate that borders on religious conviction. If you object to any of the criticism, the haters tend to become angry. Even famous people have gotten into the act, like Star Trek actor Simon Pegg, who stated, “I have no respect for fans of the prequels.” All this vitriol just makes these people seem insecure. I certainly don’t waste my nights bemoaning the (awful) Transformers films, despite growing up watching the cartoon and playing with the toys.

THE STAR WARS: AN EPIC IN SIX PARTS

Lucas has long maintained that the prequels were made to complement the originals, to fit together, as one 13-hour epic. But nobody ever discusses how his cinematic magnum opus turned out, whether the sum is greater than its parts. The ridicule started with Jar Jar in 1999, soon after The Phantom Menace, and never let up. Prior to its release in 2005, people were saying they wouldn’t even bother with Revenge of the Sith. Their minds had been made up without giving it a chance. Talk about closed-minded! And yet, I often wonder whether the haters ever consider stepping back from the expectations and preconceived notions, and the firestorm of negative media attention, to look at the bigger picture? What would they say, had Lucas released all six films at the same time, in some magical theater in 1977? Could it possibly have courted such controversy? Would anyone be saying, “Return of the Jedi was great, but what was with Vader going ‘No!’? He should have been silent!” Could it be that, once it became “the cool thing” to hate on Lucas, there was no going back?

While much of the criticism is warranted, most of it borders on the absurd, if not outright dishonesty.

INCONSISTENCIES?

A good example is something I recently heard, about how Anakin never specifically tells Obi-Wan to give his lightsaber to his son, even though, in A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells Luke, “Your father wanted you to have this [his lightsaber] when you were older …” Of course, we know Obi-Wan is a habitual liar. He doesn’t tell Luke the truth about his father’s death, so why would he bother telling him, “Oh, your father dropped this after I cut off his legs and left him to burn to death. He used it to murder kids. Want it?” Aside from Leia somehow remembering her mother, who died in childbirth, there are few major inconsistencies that cannot be explained.

BORING POLITICS?

If you take the critics word for it, you’d think a good quarter of the prequel trilogy is nothing but Galactic C-SPAN. Even The Simpsons featured an episode on it. But, interest in politics aside, just how much of Episode I (the most political of the three) is devoted to filibustering? Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. THAT’S IT. That is how long the senate hearing lasts in The Phantom Menace. Out of 136 minutes of dicing robots and dodging sea monsters and exploding spaceships, less than 3 minutes involves trade agreements and treaties, 1.7% of the film’s running time. This might be 1.7% too much, IF the scene was unnecessary, but on the contrary, it is the most pivotal moment in the film, as Palpatine uses the Naboo/Trade Federation dispute, which he himself orchestrated, to seize power, which, by Episode III, leads to the execution of the Jedi and to the creation of the Empire.

THE ADVENTURES OF JAR JAR BINKS?

Given how much people trash talk the character, you’d think the trilogy could be subtitled, “The Adventures of Jar Jar Binks.” Truth is, he mainly appears in the first film, and only for a few minutes in the second. A single fart joke, while lame, lasts for less than a few seconds, and his stepping in “poodoo” happens so quickly you’ll miss it if you blink. While I can’t say the character was a good idea (he wasn’t) I did laugh at parts, especially when he is hanging off the nose of a tank, juggling grenades. And, to be fair, a lot of hard Sci-Fi fans hated C3PO in ’77 for the same reasons.

POOR SCRIPT / POOR ACTING

Horrible script writing is another matter of contention, but horrid dialogue has been a staple of the franchise since the beginning.

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Shakespeare this is not!

Notice, however, how actors with theatrical backgrounds have less of a problem with the script. Compare Alec Guiness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi to Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn. Other great performances include Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku and Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine/Sidious; and Ewan McGregor excels throughout as a young Kenobi. Blaming Lucas for throwing his actors in front of blue screen is also unfounded, for two reasons:  1) Much of the prequels were shot on sets and on location, from Tunisia to Italy.  2) Stage actors are accustomed to blank sets and to using their imaginations. It’s a tradition going back to Ancient Greece.

NOTHING BUT CGI?

Perhaps the most demonstrably false claims about the prequels regards the overuse of CGI. Ignoring the fact that CGI was in its infancy in 1999, and that nowadays, every film from Avengers to The Hobbit depends on it, the prequel trilogy is often compared to a video game demo reel. There’s even this popular meme,

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But this is an outright lie. More models, sets and costumes were built for the prequels than for the first films, and here is the proof:

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A model of Tattooine used in “Attack of the Clones”

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A model of Geonosis used in “Attack of the Clones”

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Models were used even for vehicles!

HATE FOR THE ART, HATE FOR THE ARTIST

What really bothers me is how the director himself has taken the brunt of the hatred. Lucas has been called everything from incompetent, lazy, greedy and arrogant to outright racist. This is coming from people who hardly know anything about his personal life. But how does someone so incompetent and lazy build, from the ground up, the biggest FX company in the world? How does someone so greedy donate most of the 4 billion he earned selling to Disney? How does someone so arrogant appear so humble in his interviews? How does someone so racist have a best friend, Stephen Spielberg, who is Jewish, and make a black man the most powerful Jedi next to Yoda, or produce a film in honor of black aviators, or marry a black woman? But no, the haters hate him and his films, and if you disagree, they’ll attack you too, and with the same fervor.

Now you might be saying to yourself, Nick, why do you care? Well, I’ll tell you. I care because there are few things I hate more than a lynch mob. I’ve been there. I know how it feels. And it doesn’t matter one bit whether he is rich and famous. He is still a human being, just like you and me, and he has feelings. Don’t like his movies? Fine. But he doesn’t deserve personal attacks. Besides that, I really do love the guy. George Lucas helped define my childhood. In my elementary school, we often pretended to be Luke or Han during recess, and many of my earliest stories involved the Death Star. All the cartoons I grew up with, from He-Man to GI*Joe, were influenced by Star Wars in some way.

I am 41 years old, but there are days that I feel much older. Today, I went to the park with my kids and we played Jedi, waving our styrofoam lightsabers and jumping from rocks and tree stumps to avoid the lava on Mustafar. And for a brief shining moment, I was 12 again, and I owe it all to George. How can I not defend him?

As part of my ongoing podcast series, I discuss the value of art, the hypocrisy of the prequel haters, and the flaws in A New Hope,

Bob strikes back at “Attack of the Clones” naysayers*

Bob Clark’s excellent, albeit lengthy article is best summed up by his final paragraph, “Simply put, after all these years, the conversation surrounding them hasn’t ended, and isn’t likely to cease any time soon, as passionate supporters seek to defend it, even in the face of overwhelming objecting opinions. The fact that so many people are still talking about these films, even to decry their motives and attack their substance, stands as proof positive enough that they succeeded in making a permanent mark with audiences, providing a series of expert escapist adventure every bit as disturbing and thought-provoking as they are entertaining– love it or hate it, the movie remains a frequent talking point, and that makes it a modern classic.” I have made similar arguments in my own reviews. The Star Wars prequels remain true works of art; the proof is in the way they are continually discussed and debated. Poor films are forgotten. Lucas’ magnum opus has never been, and will likely never be.

Wonders in the Dark

Star Wars—Episode II: Attack of the Clones

***1/2

By Bob Clark

Prologue: Guilty Pleasures

In Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the respected surgeon Tomas finds himself unable to find work after returning to Soviet-occupied Prague, thanks to his refusal to recant an article he’d written prior to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The matter of his article makes for one of the most persuasive readings of Greek mythology—a political interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. According to Tomas, the Communists of his country who claimed to be unaware of the Soviet Union’s atrocities were just as guilty as Oedipus, the Theban king who brought plagues upon his kingdom by unwittingly marrying his mother. “As a result of your ‘not knowing,’ this country has lost its freedom…” writes Kundera. “And you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve…

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Attack of the Clones v. Return of the Jedi

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The lightsaber of Master Enim-Saj

After watching Attack of the Clones with my 11 year old daughter, she sent me this drawing of her lightsaber. I remember doing the same thing after seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, rushing home to draw monsters and spaceships. This is all the proof I need that Lucas hasn’t failed, at least when it comes to inspiring a generation of kids.

After a while, all of the anti-prequel memes and videos start to sink in, and I sometimes think, “Hey, maybe these movies really do suck.” But whenever I actually sit down to watch them, I am pleasantly surprised. Despite a barrage of criticism, I have long maintained that Episodes I—III are great movies, and that much of the hate directed at them has to do with growing up and becoming jaded. Conversely, adoration for the originals has much to do with nostalgia. Older fans tend to dismiss the newer films, while younger viewers are typically more appreciative. This dichotomy between young and old has led to much debate. It’s difficult to accept that something you once loved can also be deeply flawed. “It can’t be me!” the haters think, “it must be George!” They insist Lucas has lost his way, that his success was a fluke, attributed to everything else but him. But the facts simply do not bear this out.

You won’t see people attacking Uwe Boll with the same vitriol, despite his highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes scoring a 25%, with his lowest at 1%. Compare these figures to Lucas’ THX1138, at 88%, or his lowest rated film, The Phantom Menace, at 57% (3% shy of certified fresh). Box office receipts further attest to Lucas’ success as a filmmaker, with The Phantom Menace holding the #6 spot with 474 million, to the original Star Wars at #7 with 460 million. Still, critics insist Lucas is incompetent. It’s a character assassination that has driven the auteur into early retirement, even after saying that he wanted to make “smaller, more personal films.” But you’ll rarely see this kind of hatred for failed directors like Uwe Boll or the Wachowski Brothers/Siblings, or even for M. Night Shyamalan; and it has everything to do with nostalgia, growing up, and unmet expectations.

To test my theory further, and to prepare for The Force Awakens, I sat down with my kids for a week long movie marathon. This was the first they’ve been exposed to Star Wars, and the results were not surprising. Never did my older daughter say to me, “Daddy, why did the movies suddenly get better?” after Episode IV. Of the six films, Attack of the Clones happens to be her favorite, followed by VI, but “they are all pretty close.” My 5 year old, on the other hand, is running around the house knocking things over with her plastic lightsaber.

The prequels are rife with flaws, without question, but what Lucas does well—the action, the special effects, the mythological/philosophical/political motifs—more than make up for it. Besides, a lot of the same flaws get excused when it comes to the originals. And so, after carefully re-watching the saga, I thought it’d be interesting to compare, what I feel, is the worst of the prequels to the worst of the originals.

I should warn you, however, I am very new to podcasting, and would love to have the power to edit this thing. But I can’t, so please forgive the three-hundred or so times I utter the words, “you know.”


If you’d prefer not to listen to my voice (can’t really blame you) here is a list of the flaws I have found in both films:

ATTACK OF THE CLONES

  1. When the Naboo cruiser is blown up after landing on Coruscant, Corde tells Padme, “I’ve failed you senator.” Well, not really. The purpose of a decoy is to die in place of the person being protected. Oddly, Captain Typho seems to understand this, when he says, “She did her job.”
  2. Yoda tells Padme, “Seeing you alive brings warm feelings to my heart.” She doesn’t acknowledge him in any way.
  3. Obi-Wan gets into an argument with Anakin on whether it is in their mandate to find Padme’s assassin. Kenobi insists that their duties do not extend beyond protection. Later, when Kenobi sees the assassin droid outside her bedroom, he jumps through the window to catch it. But it would have made a lot more sense for Anakin to do so, being the impetuous one, and the one determined to find her killer.
  4. Zam Wessell shoots the droid carrying Kenobi instead of, you know, shooting him.
  5. Jango Fett uses a “Kamino saber dart” to kill Zam, when he could have used a blaster, leaving a trail for Kenobi to follow (although, it could be argued that Palpatine intended that he find the cloning facility on Kamino).
  6. A lot of the romantic dialogue is just painful to watch.
  7. After Anakin admits to murdering children (albeit, children of an “evil” species) Padme seems not to care.
  8. The most inexplicable mistake, and the one I simply cannot defend: the Jedi never make the connection between Jango Fett, the clones, and Count Dooku. Knowing Fett was hired by Dooku, and that he was also the template for the clones, they should have at least been suspicious of the Republic Army. This could have been fixed with a scene of the Jedi discussing their mistrust of the clones, which might have helped them escape Order 66.

RETURN OF THE JEDI

  1. The plan to save Han is ridiculously convoluted. First, C3PO and R2D2 show up as gifts for Jabba (just to get them into the movie, I guess). Then Leia arrives in disguise with Chewbacca (again, to get him into the movie), only to get captured. Lando is somewhere in the background, pretending to be someone else. Finally, Luke makes an appearance, only he doesn’t have his lightsaber. What was the original plan exactly?
  2. Jabba is a fat, naked alien slug with a penchant for “scantily clad human females,” apparently. This makes no sense. It would be like a horse getting turned on by a spider. Even if the point is to “degrade” her, how does Jabba know what is degrading to a human? And where does he even find a slave costume? Do they have racks of sexy outfits in the back somewhere? Slave Leia was, obviously, an attempt to appeal to adolescent boys.
  3. Luke falls into the rancor pit, using a perfectly sized bone to escape the rancor’s mouth. If the bone had been an inch or two bigger or smaller, he would have been lunch. And why again doesn’t he have his lightsaber?
  4. Finally, R2D2 shoots Luke’s lightsaber into the air, so he can catch it at the perfect moment, after he somersaults off a diving board. How could he have known any of that was going to happen? It all seems so contrived.
  5. Boba Fett, the most popular bad guy aside from Darth Vader, the “best bounty hunter in the galaxy,” dies in the most idiotic way imaginable, as Han accidentally hits his jet-back, sending him flying against Jabba’s pleasure barge and into the sarlaac pit. This always seemed, to me, like a lazy way for Lucas to “wrap things up.”
  6. Leia strangles Jabba to death with a chain. His neck is about three feet wide. It would be like trying to strangle an elephant.
  7. The entire movie seems like two separate films spliced together. Part #1 is all about saving Han. Part #2 is about destroying the *new and improved* Death Star. But the two halves do not seem to relate to one another.
  8. Yoda dies, telling Luke he has completed his training. What? I thought it took years to become a Jedi. Apparently, Luke just needed a few days of acrobatics classes on Dagobah.
  9. The Ewoks manage to defeat “an entire legion of the Emperor’s best troops” using nothing but rocks, sticks, and bows that shoot sticks! Storm Troopers in battle helmets are knocked cold by teddy bears dropping things from hang gliders. Also, how lucky did the Ewoks have to be, to position those log traps for the AT-STs?
  10. Luke asks Leia, “Do you remember your real mother?” She says she does, but how does Luke know to ask this? Couldn’t she have been raised on Alderaan by Padme? And what the heck happened to her real mother anyway? None of this is explained or alluded to in any of the original films, proving the Luke/Leia/Vader relationship was a late invention and poorly thought out.
  11. The Emperor continuously goads and harasses Luke, stating that if Luke gives in to his anger and strikes him down, he will become like his father and turn to the Dark Side. Why? If I am in a room with Hitler, and I kill him, does that make me Hitler?
  12. Yoda tells Luke the Emperor must not be underestimated. And Vader tells him, “Together we can destroy the Emperor.” Palpatine is built up to be this ultimate evil power. But by the end of the movie, he proves to be just a feeble old man, powerless to do anything as Vader picks him up and throws him down a shaft.

I Love The Phantom Menace

Here is my defense of one of my favorite, oft hated movies, “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” updated 11/05/2015

the Writer's Disease


I love The Phantom Menace. There. My secret’s out.

Saying that feels like saying I love Al-Qaeda. On the Internet, you might think hate for George Lucas has surpassed hatred for Osama Bin-Laden, particularly after his recent decision to yet again alter the Star Wars Saga for the upcoming Blu-Ray release. The controversy between what some call Lucas “apologists” and Star Wars “purists” brings to mind Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu, Scientist and Creationist. The same deep seated convictions stir the hearts and minds of both groups of fans. Never mind the global economic crisis, the revolutions taking place throughout the Islamic world or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is STAR WARS! That anyone should care so deeply about a movie is unquestionably absurd, but I find myself inexplicably drawn to this controversy. I can’t help but feel angry by this hatred for a filmmaker who has given so much to my generation. Imagine someone gives…

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Star Wars VII: The Same Thing

I seem to come from an alternate dimension, one in which the Star Wars prequels were great, and loved by all. In my universe, I distinctly remember my friends and I raving about Episode I, and how it made a gajillion dollars at the box office, and how even Rotten Tomatoes gave each of the three prequels a certified, over 60% fresh rating. Hell, when the Revenge of the Sith trailer played in my local theater, the entire audience cheered. And when Anakin made his slow descent into the river of lava on Mustafar, my wife cried, and she never cries during movies! But then, at some point between 1999 and today, I stepped through a wormhole to end up here, where every human hates the prequels. Though we live in a world of diversity, where some people are Creationists and others believe in evolution, some are Democrat and others are Republican, some love Obama and others think he should be impeached, there is ONE thing everybody seems to agree upon: the Star Wars prequels were terrible, terrible movies. I guess I am lucky, at least, to own copies of the prequels from my own dimension.

A downed Star Destroyer! We’ve never seen that before!

All joking aside, Star Wars means different things to different people. Nobody can quite agree on what makes it so special. Is it the story? The acting? The effects? Some combination of the three? For me, Star Wars was, and has always been, the ultimate fantasy. Now I do not use the word fantasy in the genre sense, but as a verb, as in “to fantasize” or to daydream. In 1977, George Lucas seemed to have bottled the imaginations of every 12 year old boy on Earth, to distill it onto the silver screen. A New Hope came out when I was two, so I didn’t see a Star Wars flick until 1980, with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. At the time, I was too young to fully follow the story, but I remember it changing my life. I went home to draw X-Wings and giant slugs, and looked for anything with which to live out my own space adventures, at one point using pen caps as spaceships. Being new to the cinema, I didn’t quite realize the anomaly that was Star Wars, and I eagerly anticipated more such spectacles. But despite Sci-Fi classics like Aliens, Terminator, Flight of the Navigator and The Last Star Fighter, nothing ever came close. Every other film was about a thing. E.T. was about a cute alien. Short Circuit was about a robot. Ghostbusters was about, well, catching ghosts. No other director could match Lucas’ creative audacity. For my generation, Star Wars was more than a movie. It was a window into another universe, a universe with laser swords and quarreling robots, with co-pilots that looked like Bigfoot and telekinetic wizards and moon-sized space stations that could blow up planets. Other studios attempted to reach the same levels of grandeur. The film, Krull, comes to mind, and the TV series Battlestar Galactica. But they all felt like cheap imitations. Then, three years later, Lucas really blew our minds. Everyone who watched A New Hope in ’77 wanted a sequel, obviously, and would have been content with more of the same, but George went far beyond expectation, giving us something both different and awesome, expanding his universe on the frozen world of Hoth, and with AT-AT Walkers and Yoda, and Vader saying, “Luke, I am your father!” And what kid in the 80’s didn’t try to freeze his action figures? My mother yelled at me when she found my Han Solo next to the popsicles.

Despite what you’ve heard, Lucas is a brilliant filmmaker. After all, he both wrote and directed the original Star Wars, without which there would be no franchise, no games, no toys and no “VII.” And he gave us Indiana Jones. Afterward, he could have spent his life making toilet cleaner commercials, and his reputation would in no way be diminished in my mind. But the haters never bother to mention his other great films, like THX 1138 and American Graffiti. No doubt, his style is unusual, what he himself describes as “documentary.” THX 1138, as he put it, is not “about” the future but “from” the future. What does that mean? Imagine you have a time machine that can pick up TV signals from the year 3000. Tune it to C-SPAN and, chances are, you won’t have a clue what anyone is talking about. With that in mind, the confusion regarding galactic trade agreements in Phantom Menace makes a lot more sense. Now you might be saying, who cares? Politics is boring! Maybe for you, but not for me, and not for Lucas, apparently. Besides, politics is central to the plot of the prequel films, as Anakin’s descent to the dark side is perfectly mirrored by the Republic’s transformation into the Empire. If you’re an amateur YouTube critic like Red Letter Media’s Mr. Plinkett (or whoever it is that voices the character), you might think Lucas is incompetent, that he “forgot how to direct” or that he simply “lost his way,” but anyone who has watched his earlier films knows that much of the criticism is in regards to his style. Since the seventies, Lucas has described himself as an independent filmmaker, working outside the Hollywood system, and that’s what Star Wars is, the most expensive independent film ever made and a true work of art. Why else would world renown art critic Camille Paglia describe Revenge of the Sith as “our generation’s greatest work of art”? Why else would film students, like Mike Klimo, dedicate exhaustive hours to studying the prequels as if it were Citizen Kane? Maybe you hate it, but style and art are subjective, and that is what makes it, for me, so compelling.

When I heard they were making a seventh Star Wars film without Lucas, I distinctly wrote on my Facebook page, “anyone but J.J. Abrams.” OK, I can think of a few worse directors, like Michael Bay, but after the Star Trek reboot, I realized Abrams is the anti-Lucas. He is all pop, no art and no style (unless you count his fondness for lens flare). He gives audiences exactly what the studios say we want. And the studios, unfortunately, know of only one formula for making movies: if it worked before, it will work again. Abrams is the poster child for this type of formulaic film making. Or did you really think the Trek reboot was original in any way? With its planet destroying super weapon ripped straight from the Death Star? Or Star Trek II, which copied the plot of, er, Star Trek II? Or Super 8, which was nothing more than an ugly mash up between Alien and E.T.? My biggest fear is having a Star Wars that resembles other films, one that is derivative and uninspired, and which suffers from sequelitisThe Phantom Menace, at least, continued in the tradition of expanding what we knew about the Star Wars galaxy. In Episode I, we discovered Naboo, with its Renaissance architecture and sleek, elegant ships; we watched a pod race, learned about galactic politics, and were made to “unlearn what we had learned” or assumed, regarding the genetic component of the Force (something that was always implied in the originals, if you bothered to think and pay attention). Last but not least, we were thrilled by a three-way light saber duel set to an amazing operatic theme, still the best, IMHO, fight scene in the series. It was nothing like the Star Wars we grew up with, which was why it was everything like the Star Wars we grew up with.

Some time after ’99, complaints about the prequels started to flood the Internet. Jar-Jar was no doubt a miscalculation (something Lucas was quick to correct in the later installments), and the acting and dialogue were, admittedly, abysmal (and yet, no more so than in the originals). But of the dumbest complaints were these: “Why do the spaceships look brand new? They should all look like they did in the originals,” and “Why are there robots? We can’t dress up like robots!” and most idiotic of all, “Where is the Darth Vader like character?” But my favorite one was this, written by a legitimate critic in a legitimate newspaper, “Why is there is so much traffic on Coruscant?” Lucas should know there’ll be no traffic jams in the future! It’s as if the haters wanted nothing more than a rehash of old material. When Abrams took over, he did exactly what I knew he would. He read the complaints, took them to heart, and did what he does best: he copied, adding a heavy dose of nostalgia. The newest trailer, much like the teaser, bears this out. The whole Internet had a collective nerdgasm and grown men wept. And for what?

Look everybody! Storm Troopers are back! Though slightly different. And X-Wing fighters are back! Though slightly different. And Tie Fighters are back! Thought slightly different. Hell, even Darth Vader is back! Though slightly different. And the Millennium Falcon is back too! Which is, actually, exactly the same. Is this really what the fans wanted? More of the same? If Abrams had been tasked to give us The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, do you think he would have given us Yoda or Boba Fett? With Return of the Jedi, would he have risked introducing us to Jabba the Hutt, the Sarlaac Pit, Ewoks or the Emperor? So far, the only original thing we have to look forward to in The Force Awakens is a droid with the body of a soccer ball. So . . . there’s that.

Look, the trailer looks cool, and I am confident Abrams will handle the acting and dialogue better than Lucas ever could. But without George, Star Wars will lose its artistry and its magic, the very things that set it far beyond every other 80’s movie, the very things that has us excited about a new installment forty years after its inception.

When Disney canceled the excellent Clone Wars series, leaving many loose plot threads, to replace it with Rebels, I gave it a chance. But I find Rebels to be derivative, watered down, and downright boring. I can’t, in all honesty, bring myself to watch it. But a movie with a hundred+ million dollar budget is a different thing altogether. Perhaps, by this December, I will be eating my words. Abrams might just give us something fresh and inspiring, taking the franchise to awesome new heights, and I will be made to look the idiot. That is something I am sincerely, sincerely hoping.

Oh, scratch that, this light saber has a hand guard! That’s new!


STAR WARS RING THEORY BY MIKE KLIMO

Recently, prequel fan Mike Klimo posted an amazing, exhaustive and heavily indexed research paper about something he calls Star Wars Ring Theory. Klimo proves that George Lucas’ six part film saga is an intricately woven and symbolic work of art (a considerable departure from anything Hollywood, or J.J. Abrams, is likely to give us). He shows how the prequel films perfectly mirror the originals, in an exploration of Buddhist and Daoist principles, highlighting many of the things I have long noted and admired. And yet, he still managed to blow me away with stuff I never knew. Did you know, for instance, that in Daoism, the word used to describe immortality, or the practice of attaining immortality, is remarkably similar to the name Qui-Gon? Mind. Blown. So, if you haven’t checked it out already, please go to: Star Wars Ring Theory.

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Forsooth! Shakespeare does Star Wars?

Do two great tastes taste great together? Is William Shakespeare mixed with Star Wars the literary equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? That is the question I put before myself when I picked up William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher. What immediately comes to mind for most people is who? Or more grammatically, whom? For whom was this book written? And I suppose the answer would be me. After all, I consider William Shakespeare the greatest writer who ever lived, bar none. The guy could write everything exceedingly well: drama, comedy, tragedy, historic fiction, you name it. If there’s a genre out there, it likely originated with him. He has been credited with inventing the modern fantasy genre—A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and common words we use today like eyeball and knife (as in to knife someone in the back). He is the only writer I know that cannot be edited. Just try changing a single word from one of his sonnets; you can’t do it without making it worse. People unfamiliar with the bard think he’s high-brow entertainment, a writer for the educational elite, but William was a populist, the Tolkien/Martin/Rowling of his day, and I have no doubt that if alive in ’77, he would have adored Star Wars. If people aren’t flocking to bookstores to read Shakespeare today, it’s because he wrote nearly 500 years ago, between 1564 and 1616. Let’s see how popular Game of Thrones is in the year 2513. Also, the bard and his audience loved melodrama, poetry and philosophy, three big no-no’s in the modern publishing world, things I am forced to omit or hide in my own writing. So, you could say I am a fan. Let’s call him peanut butter, really rich homemade peanut butter.

On the chocolaty side of things, there’s Star Wars. I have gone on record defending the oft hated The Phantom Menace and was brokenhearted when Lucas sold his soul to Disney. While I cannot stomach the Extended Universe (I could not, without pissing off a lot of fans, review Heir to the Empire) among my guilty pleasures is Star Wars and Philosophy, Star Wars Psychology, The Science of Star Wars, The Star Wars Encyclopedia and the Star Wars Atlas. Naturally, when I found William Shakespeare’s Star Wars on Amazon, I risked a speeding ticket driving to Barnes & Nobles. But to my great disappointment, William Shakespeare has not come back to life to try his hand at a Star Wars novelization, nor has any baffled archaeologist found a five-hundred year old manuscript for the Sci-Fi epic. And here lies the problem. The real author, the very much living and not of the Renaissance age Ian Doecher, does a great job emulating the language of the period, but the whole thing comes across as a needless translation. I am certain the people of the time would have loved Lucas’ story, although they might have struggled to imagine the Death Star trench run, but what need do we have today of an old English Star Wars?

What makes peanut butter so delicious is not the language (let’s call that the bread) but its creamy goodness. You can enjoy peanut butter on a cracker, a celery stick or right off your finger (sorry, I’ll stop with the metaphors now!) Here’s the rub: what makes Shakespeare great is Shakespeare. He was an amazing/brilliant writer. It would be as if, hundreds of years from now, someone tried to rewrite a popular movie as if Stephen King had written it. This isn’t to say that the effort was wasted. I understood what Ian was trying to accomplish, but his focus was on the wrong things, on the language, rather than on what made the bard great. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars shines whenever new material is added to the original screenplay, the clever play on words, the asides (when a character speaks directly to the audience) and the soliloquies (when a character speaks to himself). In one clever line, Han says that he’ll never tell who shot first, him or Greedo. R2D2 bleeps and bloops throughout, except when he is talking to us, at which point he admits to feigning stupidity. I also enjoyed Vader contemplating his nature, from the dark path he has taken to his robotic arm, or Luke pondering the death of a Storm Trooper:

Act IV
Scene 6.
Enter LUKE SKYWALKER, holding stormtropper helmet.
LUKE Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too?
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.

While not on par with Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be, it’s still unfortunate there were not more of these internal monologues to take the reader beyond the story. It would have added a much needed dimension to the Star Wars screenplay. I cannot imagine, for instance, Shakespeare neglecting to give Leia a speech, and a long one at that, after the destruction of Alderaan. Her entire world is gone in a blip and everyone she has ever known is dead, and she has nil to say about it. Even in the film, I always felt the scene to be lacking emotional depth, probably because Lucas’ was imitating his pulp Sci-Fi inspirations, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. But in Shakespeare’s day, glossing over mass murder would be inexplicable.

What you have in Ian Doecher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is 70’s Lucas channeling 50’s Sci-Fi as filtered by an author from the 2000’s in a language from the 1500’s, and the result is one mixed up cookie. If you’re a fan of either things, you’ll definitely be entertained, but it’s shallow and unworthy of the bard. On the plus side, the artwork is great. While I cannot wholly recommend giving it out for Halloween this year, it’s a very small bite (at around 200 pages) with very wide margins, so you can read it in an afternoon. Now if only someone could make Hamlet in Space that would be something.
 

Lucas Finally Breaks My Heart

After more than a decade of defending him, I am finally brokenhearted by George Lucas. Why, George, why? See, I have always regarded him my favorite director. And not just for Star Wars. I love THX-1138 and American Graffiti just as well. Despite the torrent of hatred lobbed at him from YouTube and message boards, I have always admired his tenacity, his unwillingness to conform to the strictures of the masses. When Star Wars was made, Lucas defied tradition by refusing to put the credits at the beginning of the film. Because of this, he was kicked out of the Director’s Guild. When he was preparing to make The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was afraid of studio intervention, so he financed the movie himself. If he hadn’t, there is not a doubt in my mind 20th Century Fox would have made a passable sequel at best, adding nothing to the franchise. Throughout his career, Lucas stuck to his guns, despite the critics, because that’s what artists do. When the Prequel films went on to receive near universal disdain, I applauded his courage, in challenging moviegoers to think, for producing, from his own pocket, a pop culture Sci-Fi adventure dealing with such heady topics as the root causes of evil, the Buddhist tenets of non-attachment, and the collapse of democracies into dictatorships. What other Sci-Fi films, aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, even comes close to such laudable artistic ambitions? Sure, the Prequel films weren’t your regular direct-by-numbers, mindless entertainment, but at least Mr. Lucas offered us something to discuss. Whether or not you agreed with Jar-Jar or thought the acting was abysmal is besides the point. Art isn’t intended to appease the majority. There are enough watch-it-and-forget-it movies out there. I wanted a Lucas film more than any other film, because he was unique; he was an independent billionaire who didn’t play by Hollywood’s rules. I don’t want to be spoon fed what a studio thinks I want to see. Hell, I don’t even want to be pleasantly satisfied. I want to be challenged. To be disturbed. Even annoyed. I’ll take Jar-Jar’s annoying antics over cut-and-paste film making any day. So when the masses cried foul that Han no longer shot first, Lucas stuck to his guns. He didn’t relent. Any other studio would have. Whether I agreed with him or not (I often don’t) I have always been inspired by him.

Walt Disney (the man, not the company) is another hero of mine. When he was working on Snow White in 1937, everyone told him the same thing they told Lucas; the movie would bomb and he’d lose all his money from mortgaging his house. But Mr. Disney stuck to his guns. He didn’t make Snow White merely as a financial venture, but also for artistic reasons. Then Walter kicked the bucket, and the studio went on to make a number of atrocities until, by 1988, they were prepared to shut down their animation department. What saved Disney animation and the future of the entire medium? The Little Mermaid. But, the movie almost didn’t get made. The artists, however, were given free reign, having been moved into a trailer park and largely forgotten. Fortunately, Disney went on to make a number of masterpieces, from Beauty & the Beast to Mulan, before succumbing to the industrial machine with garbage like Treasure Planet. Watch either the Toy Story or the Pocahontas documentaries to get an idea how Disney films are produced today. In Pocahontas, the wonderful song, If I Never Knew You, which was at the heart of the story and which validated the not-so-happy ending, was removed. Why? During a pre-screening, some kids looked bored. If Pixar hadn’t made the decision to ignore Disney’s advice about making Toy Story edgy (because that’s what kids “want,” apparently) we wouldn’t have the lovable Woody and Buzz. Fortunately, the head of Pixar understood the value of art for art’s sake. John Lasseter had been a long time fan of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation company headed by visionary Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for such masterworks as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Given this background, it’s no wonder Lasseter refused to kowtow to Disney’s demand for a Toy Story 3. Pixar made the wonderful Finding Nemo instead.

The Disney Corporation is an entirely different beast than Disney the man, buying Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (because it wasn’t enough that every little girl on the planet adores Disney); Pixar (since they couldn’t force them to make a Toy Story 3 otherwise); and Marvel Comics. At least John Lasseter became the new head of Animation, who had the good sense to bring back traditional 2-D (presumed dead by a board of directors, no doubt) with The Princess and the Frog. Marvel has always had financial difficulties since, let’s face it, kids are too busy playing video games to spend 3 minutes reading, so maybe a Disney buyout was necessary. But Lucasfilm? Industrial Light & Magic is the premiere special effects company in the business. And their merchandise, which includes toys, games and books, sell like hot cakes. Best of all, it was all being run by a visionary, an anti-corporate tycoon, a man who produced Tucker, the true story of a revolutionary car maker bought out by the auto industry. It already frightens me how, when I submit my book to editors, most of the major players, despite going by many different names, fall under the same publisher. The fact that a handful of billionaires will eventually control everything we read and watch and listen to is terrifying, the very socialist, sterile future Lucas warned us about in his first film! So what does George Lucas go and do to finally, finally break my heart? My hero of independent thinking? He sells. And not just to anybody, but to the biggest of corporate conglomerates, to an industry that prides itself on focus groups and catering to expectations, where art has been broken down into a science, and success is measured only by the almighty $$$.

What can we expect from a Disney owned Lucasfilm? New Star Wars films, made by teams of writers, each scene optimized for marketing potential and toy-tie ins; and of course, any and all outrageous ideas, things that might upset or offend people, will get voted down. And what will we have? Films nobody complains about. Films nobody will go on message boards to rage against. No more boycotts. They’ll be like Tron and Pirates and Narnia. Moviegoers will be happy, Disney will make billions, and Star Wars will become just another blip in the noise machine that has become our modern movie producing society.

I honestly feel sorry for Lucas. The Internet age didn’t agree with him, and the haters finally beat him down. We live in a world where people with no real talents are given an equal platform to voice their discontent, where lynch mob mentality dominates, where opinion is distinguishable from fact. I am deeply saddened by this news on so many levels. Art is dead and the Internet seems to have killed it. To further illustrate the point, last week, the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame) released Cloud Atlas, based on a truly revolutionary book with deep philosophical underpinnings. Making ten million dollars in its first week, it is already being called the biggest flop of 2012. Based on those returns, we can expect the Wachowskis to get booted out of Hollywood soon, along with Shyamalan and Lucas, and anyone else who dares challenge the feel-good status-quo.

I Love The Phantom Menace


I love The Phantom Menace. There. My secret’s out.

Saying that feels like saying I love Al-Qaeda. On the Internet, you might think hate for George Lucas has surpassed hatred for Osama Bin-Laden, particularly after his recent decision to yet again alter the Star Wars Saga for the upcoming Blu-Ray release. The controversy between what some call Lucas “apologists” and Star Wars “purists” brings to mind Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu, Scientist and Creationist. The same deep seated convictions stir the hearts and minds of both groups of fans. Never mind the global economic crisis, the revolutions taking place throughout the Islamic world or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is STAR WARS! That anyone should care so deeply about a movie is unquestionably absurd, but I find myself inexplicably drawn to this controversy. I can’t help but feel angry by this hatred for a filmmaker who has given us so much. Imagine you get a special gift, something that changes your life, and then, decades later, you are given another by that same person, only you do not like the gift as much, maybe you even loathe it. Should you now hate this person? When it comes to Lucas bashing, it’s a virtual lynch mob, which makes me wonder, did these people learn nothing from Return of the Jedi? Don’t they know hatred leads to the Dark Side?

For die hard fans, no thinking person can enjoy The Phantom Menace. Not a year goes by that I don’t come across some comic or article taking pot shots at the prequel trilogy. The article doesn’t even have to be about Star Wars, yet somehow the reference is thrown out, as though we must never forget our raped childhoods. The epic failure of Episodes I, II and III has become legendary, repeated in the media like a mantra, as certain a fact as gravity. There is even a “fan” film depicting an 80’s George Lucas being kidnapped and replaced by an evil clone, as if the “real” Lucas could never have made something so terrible. Suggesting that the movies might not be that bad is to be suffering from Lucas Stockholm Syndrome. But wait. Something isn’t quite right here. How can a movie, any movie, spawn such hatred?

In 1999, before The Phantom Menace hit theaters, I was not a huge fan. I owned the movies on VHS, and watched them once or twice, but had none of the toys or books or posters. But when the trailer for Episode I was released, it brought me back to Thanksgiving Day, 1980, when I rode on the back of my uncle’s dirt bike to see The Empire Strikes Back; to the afternoon in 1983 when my sister and I waited in a line that wrapped around the theater for Return of the Jedi. This wasn’t just a movie, it was a cultural event. One week before release, I waited hours with a hundred or so people pining for the lost wonder of childhood. We listened to John Williams’ blasted from parked cars and relished talking about things too geeky for everyday society. I was 24 years old.

The Phantom Menace made me feel like a kid again. I didn’t look for clever dialogue or Oscar worthy performances here. I wanted spaceships and aliens and cool looking planets, and things that went KABOOM! and Lucas delivered in spades. Mature Sci-Fi, like District 9 and Minority Report, are far too gloomy for such guilty pleasures. Where else can you find aliens racing plane engines on a desert planet? Or that three way lightsaber fight, still the best in the saga? Keep in mind, this was long before the age of Marvel films, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Consequently, without The Phantom Menace and the much maligned Jar-Jar Binks, we might never have CGI characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot. After seeing the film, I remember my friends and I loving it, and my four year old nephew going nuts over it. A fellow coworker and Marine later told me, “Now I want to be a Jedi.” Even Rotten Tomatoes gave it a certified 61% fresh rating. So, at the time, there was no inkling of the hatred the movie would later spawn.

Love him or hate him, he gave us Gollum, Hulk, and Groot

More than a decade later, Mr. Plinkett of Red Letter Media would say that Lucas’ script for The Phantom Menace was written by an eight year old. But it’s precisely this unchecked imagination that made me fall for George. It’s every kid’s dream come true: a billion dollars in toys! How can you not enjoy watching him play? In 2005, after the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith, something changed in me. I knew I had become more cynical, jaded. Having a mortgage and two kids will do that to you. I knew that I would never again wait with such anticipation for a movie. It’s one thing to enjoy a film and quite another to count the days on your calendar, wishing time could move faster. Perhaps if I had been a little older in 1999, 34 instead of 24, I might have understood the disappointment.

I have always insisted that the hatred for the prequel trilogy has more to do with aging and less to do with the actual films. Let’s be honest here: Star Wars meant more to the people growing up in the 70’s than any other decade. My father, who is 78, never goes to the theater because “they don’t make good movies like The Sound of Music or Casablanca.” I know a guy in his fifties who loves The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, but never cared for Star Wars. I know teenagers who have never seen, or even care to watch, Star Wars. And I also know kids who adore the prequels. So is it really Lucas that’s changed so much, or is it us? Is our hatred for him really a hatred for growing up? No prequel could have delivered the experience of watching the original as a child. In the re-release, critics found flaws with nearly every change, but the first cut of the films, we are led to believe, is flawless. It forces me to wonder, how did Lucas manage to create the most beloved film of all time, if he is so incompetent? But if we were to scrutinize the original with the same critical eye as the prequels, we could find much to gripe about.

The story of A New Hope, originally called Star Wars, revolves around retrieving the Death Star plans, but why does nobody consider that the rebels might have made a copy? Consider Leia’s on-again/off-again British accent, or her ho-hum attitude to having her ENTIRE planet destroyed. She acts like they forgot her ketchup at McDonalds. “Hey, I didn’t order all the people I’ve ever known killed!” It also never made sense to me, how the Death Star is supposed to move. Is it a space station or a spaceship? Somehow, it makes it to Yavin IV, but just can’t fly the extra few miles around its moon to blow it up. And how could the Empire be so dumb to create an exhaust port leading all the way down to the main reactor? Or for that matter, why doesn’t anyone consider, I dunno, landing a ship over the damn port and just dropping a bomb in there? I wonder what Mr. Plinkett would have to say about all this? Doubtless, nostalgia gives the first film a free pass. Empire Strikes Back, heralded the best in the saga, is also the most flawed. Does it really seem credible, to anyone, that Luke was Leia’s brother all along? Or Vader their father? What about Yoda, who continuously contradicts himself when he describes the limitless power of the Force. Size matters not, unless it’s something REALLY big, like the Death Star. Not to mention, turning 900 years old makes you useless. Seen through the rosy tint of childhood, however, the original trilogy is without flaw. As for me, I love all the films, warts and all, not because of what they don’t do wrong, but because of what they do right. With expectations bordering on religious ecstasy, the prequels were doomed from the start, just as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest filmmaker in history. In contrast, casual fans love the prequels, as DVD and Blu-Ray sales have proved time and again.

The Phantom Menace is far from a perfect movie, but then again, I have never seen a perfect movie. I have never accepted the notion that art should be perfect. Should writers and painters and directors think like mathematicians? Should they never consider their most unorthodox ideas lest people think them inane? I love The Phantom Menace not despite its flaws but because of them. I love that we become passionate about art, one way or another; that we find ourselves hotly debating changes to a film decades after its inception; I love that we wonder whether words like YIPEE are cringe-worthy or just a sign of the times; I love that we consider racial stereotyping about an alien species; I love that we debate the physical aspect (midichlorians) of a spiritual belief system, something long debated by philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza. What other movie comes close to rousing such passions? None. By a long shot.

This post was last updated on 11/12/2015


For more, download this excellent 108 page defense of The Phantom Menace at RED-LETTER-MEDIA-EPISODE-I-REVIEW-A-STUDY-IN-FANBOY-STUPIDITY.