StarWarts, or How to mess up a good thing

I grew up on Star Wars. Loved’em. All three of them. From the first one (eventually renamed Episode IV A New Hope), full of the adventures of Han Solo and Chewbacca, Obi Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, the evil Darth Vader and NO! Jabba the Hutt, to Empire Strikes Back with Cloud City and Lando Calrissian, Yoda, and the terrifying prospect of being frozen in carbonite, to Return of the Jedi and those wacky little Ewoks (who supposedly speak some form of Tibetan, according to IMDb, but whose language to me always sounded like Latin – Ecce! Ecce! and a victorious Ita! etc). I don’t remember when I first saw Star Wars – I was born between the initial releases of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back – but I can’t recall a time I was unfamiliar with them. I fondly recall the whole family gathered ’round the television, sharing in the bliss which was George Lucas’ dream incarnate.

But something happened along the way of this dream, and I’m reluctantly upset about it. I say reluctantly because I don’t want to care, really. Let’s be frank – we love movies or we wouldn’t watch them, much less read and write about them, but they’re trivial things really. At least movies that suck are trivial. Great movies move you and change your life forever. But not many movies are great as measured in this way – most of them suck at least somewhat. All that said however, I am nevertheless truly upset at what has happened with the Star Wars movies. My grievances are twofold, but at the root of both issues is, at least partly (largely more likely), CGI technology. Consider the following quote, from IMDb.com, which refers to Return of the Jedi:

“George Lucas fired his friend and producer of the previous two Star Wars movies, Gary Kurtz, before production began (although some sources say he simply quit on his own) as Kurtz disagreed with Lucas’ assertion that audiences didn’t care for the story but for the spectacle.”

Is George Lucas crazy? It is all about the story. Well, that and the cinematography. I recall the first time I watched one of the “improved” versions of the original trilogy. I felt a wave of disgust at the copious digital editing which stood imposter to my cherished memories. Where was the earthy ruggedness of Tatooine (really Tunisia)? Was the desert not authentic enough to represent the desert? In its stead we have now this horrid, cartoonish sand and sky which smacks in the face of the very essence of George Lucas’ earlier (by a couple decades) efforts to create realistic looking sets by deliberately dirtying them up.  [See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076759/trivia?tab=tr&item=tr0742910 and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076759/trivia?tab=tr&item=tr0742811 et al.] And although Jabba the Hutt was intended to show his ugly face in the first movie, I consider it a stroke of good luck that he was unable to be realistically portrayed and was omitted until Return of the Jedi. This lent an air of mystery to this monstrosity which added to his power – he was like (well, actually he was) a gangland Overlord of the Underworld; an unseen force which is distinctly felt ‘though never seen. When we finally see him he takes on an imperial, albeit it filthy and disgusting, majesty.  I felt showing him standing outside the Canteen in the (raped) re-release was tacky, to say the least. It contributed zilch and deflated much. As for the general look of the original movies versus their mis-improved (if I may) re-releases, if you have access to any of the original (that is pre-1997 ) VHS releases (changes had been made before the movies even got onto VHS in the first place) compare them to the newer versions and tell me which looks better to you. The earlier versions have a scruffiness to them which is very much a part of their charm and is in line with, and contributes to, their “alien” nature I feel, whereas the re-releases appear like watered down cartoon versions by comparison, buffed and sanitized – sterilized and desecrated.

This brings me to the new millennium trilogy. I briefly described my feelings about these new movies in the comments section of a fellow movie blogger’s post, where some of the same ideas I’m discussing are brought up. To repeat and elaborate, this new trilogy ultimately created a new experience for me – namely the experience of being thoroughly familiar with the subject of a set of movies, much as one would be had one previously read the novel or novels upon which said movies were based, being as thoroughly disappointed in the film adaptation of said saga, and, and here’s the kicker, of being cognizant of the fact there is no previous material incarnation of said saga. In short, loved the book, didn’t care for the movie – oh wait, there was no book. (Of course there have been novelizations of the movies, and subsequent spin off novels, but these are entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand.) I felt for the first time (call me naïve if you want) the critic in me chastising the director and producers all along the way. I wanted to ride that wave of euphoria that carried me into the theaters in the first place, and pardon so many inconceivable errors of judgement, but I just couldn’t. It, at least for me, is all about the story – not the spectacle. The hurt was too great. And I’m talking literally here. The acting was painful.

I was able to overcome this fault however, because, let us speak and write only truths that our spirits may fly freely, the acting was pretty terrible throughout the previous trilogy as well, and that never stopped me from enjoying them.

But at least they were (originally, at least) surrounded by interesting scenery – memorable visions of another world. Our new friends are clothed in digital spectacle. It is gorgeous and invisible at the same time. Trivial and forgettable. Bling and blemish. At base, worlds just too unbelievable in their presentation. It’s ironic, I think, that the farther the technology grasps into previously unfathomable realms of image generation, the less “real” the images seem. Something to do with how the brain processes the visual data, I’m sure… (Or maybe I’m just a blind and stupid Luddite.)

I won’t bring down the hammer too heavily on any individual characters in the new films. Some odds and ends though:

  • I did think Phantom Menace seemed a bit geared toward children. Wasn’t this supposed to be for us grown ups (yeah right – “grown ups” don’t get excited about Star Wars movies) who were children when the original movies came out, so that we could have a second childhood (real adult thinking there!)?  But I reckoned it makes good sen$e to hook the next generation early, so I forgave the silliness.
  • When I saw that ridiculous crab like creature in Attack of the Clones, I dismayed at the illogic of it, but then I had to recall the AT-ATs, and they were pretty stupid really, too – two examples of things absolutely unfit for life or battle, respectively, defiantly existing
  • On a positive note, finally seeing Yoda kick ass was worth the price of admission! Finally a good utilization of CGI!

So perhaps I’m being too hard on what are essentially entertaining films that tell one hell of a great story. But this brings me back to my central point. It is a great story, and I feel it deserves to be told properly. And, sadly, I don’t feel these films do the story justice. I love the intricate political meanderings and the personal, heart rendering struggles. Revenge of the Sith had some of the greatest scenes ever told in filmdom – or at least it should have. The betrayal scene was unbelievably poignant (kudos to John Williams here, and again near the end, from the final battle scene onward – his best music ever). And some of the worlds are breathtakingly beautiful (or is that the John Williams effect again?)

What can I say? I love these movies as much as I dislike them. The saga is too good to stay angry over a little stiff acting and some excesses in the CGI department. I just wish George Lucas had applied a little bit of that artistry he displayed in THX 1138 to this series. A little finesse. Some subtlety and maturity to keep it from looking like the quasi-folly of a child’s mess it, at times, is.

[Perhaps that is part of the problem. As with that most vilified of suckness incarnate movies, Howard The Duck, the lack of a clear cut target audience presents problems. Star Wars is really adult thematic material all the way, yet the movies play out geared largely towards adolescents and the “child in all of us”, instead of towards the more appropriate mature adult audience member, within whose consciousness alone the themes can bear their ripest fruit. But then again, that they do appeal to such a wide audience is surely to their credit – and to the steady advancement of George Lucas’ net worth no less! And there is the ultimate proof that, well, he’s right and I’m wrong 😉 ]

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