Monday, November 9, 2015

Star Wars: The Hype Awakens...

"An engaging human drama set in a fantasy world that paralyses the imagination... A story not only for children but for anyone who likes a grand tale of wonder on an epic scale… filled with marvels and strange terrors, moral warmth, and most of all, pure excitement." - George Lucas

The hype tsunami for Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues to gain steam, and it's inspired me to write today's mega-post.

Or rather, a Red Letter Media analysis of the latest Star Wars trailer did.

Allow me to explain...

I loved the first two films in the trilogy. Saw them at just the right age. The third film wasn't nearly as good: Luke's plan made no sense and the whole Ewok thing was preposterous. I was getting older and more jaded. I could accept moon sized battlestations and sound in space as a kid, but little chubby Teddy bears with stubby arms that can barely throw or stab with any force defeating a massive, experienced war machine… not so much.

Even my seemingly boundless imagination has limits.

Gary Kurtz says the original draft of Return of the Jedi was more adult oriented. Han Solo died and there was no second Death Star: "It was a rehash of Star Wars, with better visual effects. And there were no Ewoks… it was just entirely different. It was much more adult and straightforward, the story."

I did like the furry munchkin's creative use of logs though. If they'd had gigantic pet monster symbiots, it would have worked better. Like dogs, only huge, clawed and fanged, like that Rancor thing. Maybe the Ewoks picked their lice off or cleaned their teeth, or removed thorns from their massive paws.

The Empire Strikes Back went seriously over budget and threatened to bankrupt Lucas. It was, and is, the least financially successful of all the Star Wars films, pulling in $100 million less than the original. It's the lowest earning of all six. Think about that. Lucas tilted towards the safety of toys and marketing for a reason. It's a stressful business and you can easily lose your shirt (to top it off, Lucas was going through a very expensive divorce at the time). Lucas himself reedited Empire to be action-oriented and appeal more to children, but it didn't work and he abandoned the effort.

By the time Jedi came out, story was no longer king. The Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan tag team was sundered. Merchandising had taken story out behind the barn, beaten it up and shoved a toy in every orifice. Jedi made $50 million more than Empire, and was bolstered further by solid merchandise sales. And if you equate box office with quality, the best film of the whole set is The Phantom Menace, with $1,027,044,677 worldwide. That's how our wallets voted, at any rate.

Star Wars was the biggest film event of my childhood, and I don't think anything since has shaken up cinema as much. The Matrix was a seminal film, but as a more adult oriented picture, it didn't have the same impact. When you're under ten, films have a bigger impact. You've not been filled up with decades of hype and media and tropes and twists and characters being killed only to be revived by the end of the episode, or cynical reboots of major franchises every couple years. Everything is fresh and shiny and new and never seen before when you're young and bright eyed.

Since The Seventies, Star Wars has gone on to earn billions.

Nothing quite like it existed before. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan… none of them generated such a reaction. I suppose the nearest equivalent would have been James Bond, a franchise which has survived on a diet of exotic locations, fast cars, beautiful femme fatales and pulse pounding action all while fabulously dressed.

Star Wars is an entire universe of storytelling opportunity, not just a lifestyle and a few volcano lairs.

It ushered us in to The Franchise Era.

Alec Guiness hated it. He felt children were filling their heads with nonsense from Lucas' fictional universe instead of facts from the real world. He had a point: I know more about the imaginary world of Star Wars than I should, without even trying. I know what Coruscant is. I know the names of numerous fictitious species, to no useful purpose. I've got all sorts of useless knowledge bouncing about inside my head.

Star Wars is effortlessly digested. It's like reality, only pureed and then injected and slathered with thick layers of sugar. Not like real life at all, in other words. It's the imagination of a ten year-old fueled by a two hundred milllion dollar effects budget. It makes war in space look cool the way Harry Potter makes boarding school fun and magical by stripping away the buggery.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is another enduring franchise that altered cinema. A great movie, but according to Gary Kurtz, "this idea that the roller coaster ride was all the audience was interested in, and the story doesn't have to be very adult or interesting, seemed to come up because of what happened with Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Indiana Jones films–and the fact that that seemed to make a lot of money."

Ouch. Thanks a lot, Raiders.

The story behind the making of Star Wars is almost as interesting as the film series. More so in the case of the prequels.

So much drama!

There are numerous websites and books that delve into the creation of Star Wars. Lucas likes to say he had it all figured out from the beginning, but that's simply not the case. The script evolved and changed in significant ways right up until they went on location.

Sometimes even then.

And the early cuts of the film were dreadful. Brian de Palma mercilessly ridiculed it. According to Michael Kaminski's The Secret History of Star Wars, Marcia Lucas complained that it was "the At Long Last Love of science fiction. It's awful!" And then she burst into tears.

If you see some of the outtakes, you can understand why. The pacing was off. The footage flat.

New editors were hired. Lucas' wife worked on it, editing right up until release. She became so sick of it, she never wanted to hear or see anything related to Star Wars ever again. It damaged their marriage.

But in the end, they did succeeded: they pushed George's creative vision past certain disaster and created something truly special. An instant classic that became a genuine cultural phenomenon.

Perhaps that's what it takes to make a great, genre-expanding film. Speaking of The Empire Strikes Back, Kershener brought up a quote of Francois Truffaut's: "You start a film and you want to make the greatest one ever made. Halfway through, you just want to finish the damned thing." Kershener felt the same way: "Halfway through my crew was falling apart. Many of the people left, they were so ill. So, no, I never stopped and said, 'Boy, oh boy, have we made a terrific film.'"

It won't remain beloved forever. The generation beguiled by Mark, Harry and Carrie will age and die off. Even now, kids refuse to watch the original trilogy because it's too old and slooooow. Kids just won't watch paint dry anymore, I tell you. Give it another ten or twenty years and kids will find it completely unwatchable. Films with fewer than two thousand cuts will be deemed slow. So they'll remake it, with more explosions and a break neck pace that I'll find incomprehensible, but tots will love. That's inevitable.

For the prequels, Lucas admitted 80% of the story was in the third movie. The first two are mostly filler, which fans seem to have picked up on: fan edits cut out The Phantom Menace entirely. Lucas wrote the pictures at the last minute and especially compared to the first film (which Lucas slaved over and took advice from some of the best directors and writers in Hollywood), it shows. McCallum says no one knew what Lucas was doing on any of the prequels, and freaked McCallum out when, late in the day, Lucas said he'd have to start writing 'soon'. They were already in production. McCallum thought he'd been writing, but Lucas had only been thinking about it.

That's actually a lot of what writing is, of course: thinking. Some people ponder for ages and then write it down all at once, in a frenzy. But I think Lucas got into some serious procrastination.

How much did he really want to do the films? Because he sure wasn't keen on writing them.

I'm looking forward to Force Awakens, although not with the enthusiasm I wish I could muster for it. Nothing will take me back to being ten. I learned that with the prequels. And the more blockbusters I see, the less impact they have. They become noise. The world is in danger? What, again? It's like politics: politicians and advocacy groups constantly try and press your buttons, get you outraged and engaged, but it's the same thing, over and over and over again, and it becomes tiresome, because nothing really changes.

I'm hoping there are enough old people around that Force Awakens isn't as quick cut as Avengers: Age of Ultron. I didn't enjoy that experience, and the memory sours further every time it enters my consciousness. It felt like a Transformers picture: an obnoxious assault on the senses.

On the other side of the equation is artsy fair like Only Lovers Remain Alive. I'd rather watch the Avengers again. At least I can appreciate the artistry that went into the sets, props, and CGI. But I admit I'd watch Lovers before a Transformers flick.


Theories about the plot are flying about the web, and I have to say I'm intrigued. The storytelling and business aspects of the film are equally interesting. Given the enormous amount of money involved, there's a lot of pressure to deliver results. What effect will that have on the storytelling choices they make? How much does real story matter, versus the simulacrum of story? Do we need story anymore, or is it sufficient to throw stuff at the screen in quick succession and expect the audience to just be bludgeoned into submission? The fact that a release date was set long before there was even a story suggests something, and it isn't good.

Some people get irate if you ask that a plot make any sense. It's baffling. But for my own writing, encouraging.

They have some of the best people in the business on the project. If anyone can deliver under crushing pressure, Kasdan and JJ Abrams can.

JJ is a better fit with Star Wars than Trek, anyway. There's a new interview with Abrams up on WIRED, and he says all the right things. I think the Force Awakens is in very good hands.

I'd love to see what James Cameron would do with the franchise, too, but I don't see him ever playing in someone else's sandbox. He's got his own. Same goes for Spielberg. Prior to Avengers: Age of Ultron, I'd have thought Joss 'Firefly' Whedon would be a good fit. Now, not so much.

Have I got any theories about the film? Well, no, not any particularly good ones. As an aspiring writer, I should have picked up more from the trailers. Been able to ken where they were going. Know what narrative choices they were making. Why? Because I enjoy mythology, and I've spent some time reading about archetypes, the basic plots and story structure. Some of these things should be obvious. Surely I've learned something.

Not enough, apparently.

The folks over at Red Letter Media have done a fine analysis of the trailers. Odds are they're right about a good number of things. Hell, they even swear less than usual.

What's their take?

The new characters are the children of the characters from the first film. I figured one of them would be, but not both. But after listening to Red Letter, it seems like not just the obvious choice, but the right one dramatically.

They also spotted a death star in the poster which I didn't even notice. And they connected the death star to the trenches on the snow planet. In other words, the silly Empire has hidden the death star inside a planet. At the end of the film, it will shed its disguise and reveal itself to a shocked galaxy.

I mean, damn. Simultaneously super cool and totally crazy stupid. My ten year old self loves it; the adult me is less sure about it, but then, he isn't the target demographic here.

So it makes perfect sense.

Not sensible sense, of course.

Ten year old super cool sense.

Honestly, if you do a cost/benefit analysis, no responsible executive would ever build a death star: the first one got blown up after destroying one defenseless planet, and The Empire lost the second before it was even finished. Talk about a bad investment. I'll bet they couldn't get the second one insured.

On top of that, it's tired. Repetitive. Been done.

Yet, how do they create an equivalent, or greater, menace?

Pitting a teenager in a one-man fighter against a freakin' planet sized battlestation is the ultimate David and Goliath scenario. What would say epic more, without getting preposterous?

No one wants a galaxy sized battlestation.

Where would you put it?

So the death star is back. I get it as a writer, even if I'm not impressed as a consumer. The Empire Strikes Back managed to get around this escalating threat issue by taking the franchise in a different direction: character based drama. Luke trains, Han and Leia begin to fall in love. The climax is a soap opera twist, an emotional based threat rather than a physical one. I think that was the right way to go. The death star leaves no place to go in terms of escalation, after all, so you have to zig instead of zag. Character drama offers much more potential for the series in the long run as well.

JJ has that covered too it seems: Red Letter posits that Adam Driver's Kylo Ren will be Han Solo and Princess Leia's son. I had thought Driver's casting was odd, as he didn't seem that intimidating a physical presence. He's no hulking Darth Vader.

But he does look like Ford.

Even I get that the girl salvager Rey, played by Daisy Ridley (who will be Luke's daughter), is going to lead John Boyega's Finn Calrissian to Han Solo, who'll take the pair to the Rebel base. They'll find Luke Skywalker before a final showdown on the snow world. Or have a showdown and then learn they need to go look for Luke if they hope to defeat this new (old) threat to this highly inbred galaxy.

Luke could even be a villain. I hadn't considered this option either, honestly. It'd be a decent if unwelcome twist. Maybe that's what today's media savvy audience needs to jolt them out of complacency.

JJ did take on the project because of the question, 'Who is Luke Skywalker?' which suggests some kind of complexity exists in the answer. Otherwise, why ask? What potential does 'he's a great guy' offer dramatically? Not much. A turn to The Dark Side would fit and give Luke an arc to redemption.

And you know what ? The question 'who's Luke?' is a great starting point for the new films. Because story should come with character. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, came from the Toy Department. You can see story being subordinated to merchandising in it.

Can Force Awakens rise above that? Not a chance. But at least character is on the board. At the heart. That's the best we can expect.

Although I should probably be saying 'archetype' rather than character. According to George:

"In the kinds of movies I make, I tend to stress the plot side of things… usually the characters are archetypes to such a degree that it's not necessary to go into a lot of detail because I'm not dealing with psychological problems. My films are storytelling movies, not character movies."

And it is true that archetypes abound in the original trilogy. I don't know what populates the prequels.


Speculation is good for storytellers. Trying to figure out what they're going to do with a beloved, multi-billion dollar franchise is a fun thought experiment. Exercises brain muscles. It is certainly relevant to anyone trying to reach a mass audience.

What would you do with the Star Wars universe?

The other question, of course, is how long will it take before we all become sick to death of Star Wars? Because it's going to happen. Just ask Lucas' ex-wife and Kershner. Disney's going to be pumping out pictures every year for… forever. Until it stops being profitable. The temptation to flog this golden space goose mercilessly will be enormous. Shareholders will demand it. Disney has the clout and resources to put Star Wars everywhere. We're going to drown in merchandise: pajamas, tote bags, stickers, comics, novels, toys, games, books, TV shows, shoes, hats, rugs, mugs, t-shirts, socks, gloves, amusement parks, virtual reality, home decor, props, everything you can think of, they'll do.

We'll be able to consume until we puke all over our Jar Jar themed bibs. Yay!

An then they'll just wait ten years and reboot the whole thing for a new generation.

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