Monday, October 12, 2009

Repairing Star Wars

This week we're picking out different fandoms and discussing one thing we would like to change about each aspect or installment of the fandom we've chosen. Today, I'm looking at each of the six Star Wars movies and deciding what one thing I would want to fix in each one.

In case you missed it, be sure to first read Saturday's post, where I explain how I actually prefer the prequels, and why I think
any (read: all) of the movies might benefit from a tune-up in the first place.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace

There are plenty of reasons people hate Phantom Menace, and these reasons are very widely known: just to name a few, people say it's too kid-friendly, there's too much CG, the script is problematic, and Jar-Jar Binks.

Heroes of Phantom MenaceTruth is, I agree with the critics on most points, but I differ from many of them in that I was not expecting the film to be like the Second Coming. Star Wars was not an essential part of my childhood, and I have never been a rabidly diehard Star Wars fan, so news of a new Star Wars movie was more or less the same as news of any ol' movie I'd like to see. My expectations were simply not as high as most people's. That being said, I was neither overwhelmingly pleased nor disappointed by Episode I.

The film most certainly had its moments, but many of the problems seem to have stemmed from the fact that somebody forgot the basic principles of Star Wars in the two decades after Return of the Jedi.

The old Star Wars had a cast of adults using rough-looking handmade props on grungy handmade sets that looked like aliens actually lived there; the new Star Wars had a cast of actors between 5 and 15 years younger than any of the actors in the original trilogy, and everything looked sleek, shiny, brand-new, and computer-generated.

Battle DroidsThe old Star Wars had archetypal (therefore, inherently relatable) characters who exchanged witty banter that brought out both their interesting personalities and several good laughs. The new Star Wars had loads of cookie-cutter and/or stereotypical characters who only had as much personality as was necessary to advance the plot or to try and force a laugh out of the audience.

I could go on. Frankly, the biggest single change that I think would have rescued the prequels from such harsh criticism is if someone other than George Lucas would have directed the films. From what I've seen and read, Lucas is a brilliant man, but he needs a creative filter; he should generate the ideas, and leave someone else to implement them.

That, however, is an unsatisfactory answer for my purposes here, because it doesn't get at the heart of what, specifically, I feel is the worst or weakest aspect of Episode I (or any of the prequels, for that matter).

No, if I could change one thing about Episode I above all else, I would transform Jar-Jar Binks into a real character, rather than leaving him as an unfortunately pivotal character in the plot, not to mention forced comic relief. I think it's pretty telling that Jar-Jar had progressively smaller roles in the two movies that followed--he had become a key player in the prequel story, but it was too late to ignore his existence altogether, so they had little choice but to phase him out.

Jar-Jar Binks with Queen AmidalaAlternately, I could choose to remove Jar-Jar altogether, but so much of the movie somehow hinges on his existence that the entire movie from his appearance onward would have to be tweaked or drastically altered, and "throw out the script and write a new movie" isn't helpful for the purpose of this exercise, no matter how good a solution it might be.

If Jar-Jar's speech was a bit more comprehensible, if the humor of his character instead came through funny dialogue exchanges and less-contrived slapstick, and if he were more like a clumsy hero than a buffoon (the kind of hero who wants to do good but is too klutzy for things to ever turn out right, perhaps), I think Jar-Jar wouldn't trainwreck the whole movie when he appears. Heck, he might even garner our sympathy. As it stands, he feels like he's in the wrong movie, and he disrupts my ability to take the movie entirely seriously for a good long while after he shows up.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

This one's easy: Improve the acting. It's supposed to be a love story, but I had trouble suspending my disbelief enough to see the romance. Padmé never struck me as a very interesting character, and I complained for a very long time that Hayden Christensen was miscast as Anakin Skywalker. It wasn't until I saw Episode III that I realized he was probably cast for his ability to play the angry little Sith who just wants his mommy, but that still doesn't excuse his flat performance in Episode II.

Meadow PicnicIt wasn't just the unconvincing romance; the scene where Anakin tries to rescue his mother from the Tusken camp could have been a powerful scene where we truly understand where Anakin snapped, but I just didn't buy it, and I'm a horrible person for admitting that Shmi Skywalker's attempt to squeak out "I love you" came out sounding so ridiculous that I actually laughed the first time I heard it.

I'm not the only one; there's a moment in the comedy movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story that parodies this scene from Episode II. It's subtle, but I assure you it's there.

There are so many scenes that could have been incredibly powerful, but the weak acting undid them all. Ewan McGregor tried his darndest, though, bless his heart.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith was the most refined of all the prequels; it seemed to have learned from most of the mistakes of its predecessors and recaptured that "Star Wars" feel. It was still a little doofy in a few spots, and Hayden Christensen's acting still wasn't stellar, but the things I would consider changing are, for the most part, relatively minor. That's not to say there aren't many things I would change--I could still have a field day fixing Episode III--but nothing so grievous as the things I would change from the previous two films.

Anakin and PadmeThere is one scene, though brief, that turned out pretty poorly and did some notable continuity damage; the scene where Luke and Leia are born stands out as something that really needs a change.

First problem: Padmé, after giving birth to twins, keels over dead because she has "lost the will to live." Weaksauce. Second problem: In RotJ, Luke and Leia talk about memories of their mother--Leia remembers images and feelings of her real mother. Luke and Leia were with their real mother for all of two minutes. As babies. There are ways to explain this away, but we shouldn't have to.

My solution: Rewrite the ending a little bit so that it reflects what I understand to be the original backstory for Luke and Leia that was never explained in the original trilogy. That is, Leia goes off to Alderaan to live with her biological mother, and Luke goes off to Tatooine to live with the Lars family. There could be a sort of quick time-elapsed scene that shows Padmé growing more and more ill as Leia grows up, until Leia is ultimately seen in the arms of the Organa family at Padmé's funeral. Done deal.

Episode IV: A New Hope

The original Star Wars, Episode IV, turned me off to Star Wars at an early age. Honest to goodness, this movie is why I did not grow up to be a huge Star Wars fan. I first tried to watch Star Wars when I was in single digits, probably, and by that point I had watched more than enough Star Trek: The Next Generation to know that I liked sci-fi.

I was bored to tears.

They played Star Wars on TV every so often, and I could never make it through the whole thing. I distinctly recall one time when I was about 10 years old and had resolved to finally sit down and watch Star Wars all the way through. It was later in the evening, and there were commercial breaks, but I was going to try anyhow.

By the time Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker were about to head into Mos Eisley in the landspeeder, I'd had enough. I was going to bed.

Entering Mos EisleyI honestly can't recall when I finally watched Star Wars all the way through, but I figure it must have been some time in middle school. How on Dantooine could I, as a sci-fi geek, wait so long to see Star Wars all the way through? And how could I possibly have been bored?

A few thoughts: First, as was the case with the original Star Trek, Star Wars was just too old. Nowadays I have a great appreciation for classic movies and old TV shows, but at the time, it just couldn't hold my attention if it was more than 5 or 10 years old.

Second, I suspect that part of the charm of Star Wars is that everything is so exotic, so alien. Fanciful weapons and whimsical creatures and unusual locations and all that. Having grown up on Star Trek, I was already quite accustomed to that when I first attempted to watch Star Wars, and a grungy cantina with a bunch of hairy fantasy monsters was not nearly as interesting to me as a high-tech spaceship with an android and a woman who can sense what people are feeling.

Third, and most importantly, it took too darn long for the plot to get going. Having been raised on Next Generation, the main conflict of the story is established in the first few minutes of the show, before the opening credits roll. I knew exactly what the problem was that needed to be solved, and even if there were twists and turns along the way, I still had a pretty good idea of where things were going. Not so with Star Wars.

So there's this spaceship that's under attack. Cool, cool. And the spaceship gets boarded and people start shooting at each other. Dunno why, but there are lasers, so it's okay. And then this big guy in black (who sounds like he's talking through the drive-thru speaker at McDonald's) starts making demands, and some girl with pastries on her ears starts praying to a trash can, and then the trash can and his golden buddy get in an escape pod and crash in the desert.

A big desert. A big, boring desert. And then they walk off in different directions. And then the trash can, who can't actually talk, becomes the center of attention of the movie for a little while.

And nothing happens for a long, long time.

C3PO and R2-D2If I could change one thing about the original Star Wars, it would be the pace of the first half of the movie. Up until the heroes finally start heading toward the Death Star, I have very little interest in the movie, to put it nicely. Too many characters need to be introduced, there's not quite enough variation in the locations to grab my attention (Tatooine is supposed to be a boring ball of sand, after all), and too little happens that advances the main plot.

Plenty of people love New Hope and wouldn't change a thing. That's fine. As a moviegoer, I prefer the main plot to develop faster. 'Nuff said.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Dangerous territory here. (As if I'm not already in hot water with the diehard Star Wars fans.) Somehow I get the feeling that suggesting any changes to Empire is akin to suggesting the Declaration of Independence could be cleaned up a little, or recommending a few alterations to Hamlet. What would a heathen Star Trek fan like me know about improving on perfection?

Darth VaderMore than any other Star Wars flick, Empire probably deserves the "best overall quality" award. The pacing is good, the characters are great, the dialogue is superbly polished, etc. It's classic sci-fi, and excellent American cinema.

Yet it's still not my favorite.

I see too much pain and suffering in the world around me, so I tend to prefer entertainment that is uplifting, makes me smile, makes me laugh. That's not to say that I've never enjoyed a serious movie, but if bad stuff has to happen to the characters I like, I prefer it to be poignant or thought-provoking or written in such a way that it enhances the sensation of "wow, are the good guys going to make it through this one?" without the situation feeling overwhelmingly hopeless.

Bad stuff happens to the heroes in Empire, and I just feel bad for them. Betrayal, loss, dismemberment... and it's not even the feel-good kind of dismemberment, either. I'm a huge fan of the big battle on Hoth, the asteroid chase is fantastic, Cloud City is neat to look at, the ending is perfect, and I shouldn't even have to mention Yoda, but the entire movie is just a little darker than I usually like my movies to be.

However, I'm willing to live with that. Empire would be a weaker movie if it were more cheerful. It's my problem I don't fully like it as-is. That's why I propose a compromise: Decrease the amount of time devoted to Luke being on Dagobah.

Luke and Yoda on DagobahI already said I like the shiny, high-tech look of Star Trek; Dagobah is the antithesis of shiny and high-tech, and no matter how interesting or exotic it may be, it's still a slimy mudhole. A somewhat depressing slimy mudhole, I might add. At least when the bad guys win and Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite, it looks cool, which helps to make up for that overwhelming feeling of "we're doomed." So, a little less time spent on Dagobah would suit me just fine.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

This one is my all-time favorite Star Wars movie because everything finally comes together and the saga comes to an end (for the films, anyway), and I do love a good conclusion. The film doesn't waste any time getting to the action and resolving plot threads from Empire, and the space battle at the end of the film juxtaposed with Luke's final battle with Vader and the Emperor juxtaposed with the other heroes' seemingly hopeless struggle on Endor is intense, and it's my absolute favorite section of any Star Wars movie.

Return of the Jedi Space BattleAnd you know what? I don't mind the Ewoks.

Granted, as you may have guessed from my scathing criticism of the part of New Hope where R2-D2 wanders off on his own, I'm not too keen on characters who don't talk (or, at least, who don't speak Galactic Basic) being the focus for too long. That being said, I think I'd be that much happier with RotJ if there was just a little less time devoted to the Ewoks being... Ewoks.

Of all the suggested changes I've made, I fear this one is most likely to stir up controversy. I'm sure there are oversensitive Star Wars fans out there who may want to hit me because of what I've written, but there's a very real possibility my Ewok-loving girlfriend will hit me when she reads this.

No, I did not just call myself an Ewok.

[Edit: Yes, she did hit me.]

Despite all the criticism I've made and all the changes I'd suggest, I still enjoy the fandom, though I admit I'm a much bigger fan of the video games than I am of most of the movies. I'm a sucker for well choreographed lightsaber battles and huge explosions, and Star Wars does not disappoint. I like the variety of locations, the unique vehicles, the designs of the tools and weapons, the witty banter, and the impressive things characters can do with the Force.

I like Star Wars.

...But I wouldn't mind changing a few things.


Scott said...

"I tend to prefer entertainment that is uplifting, makes me smile, makes me laugh." All too true, and I feel the same way. This is why I've had a hard time finding movies to watch lately.

In the 10,000 hits post, I recommended a manga called "Yotsubato" -- even if you don't decide to do it for the fandom deal, I still recommend it. It's just a short, cute manga full of laughs and fun. If it had a slogan, it would be something like "Every day is fun."

I'm really sick of Japanese fiction/movies/manga getting typecast as "weird", "disgusting", or "oversexed". Yes, the extremes are more extreme than, say, American mass media extremes, but at the same time, not ALL stuff from Japan is like that. :-/

I don't really have a problem with any of your changes; surprisingly enough, when I was kid watching the movies, I always fell asleep during the Dagobah training. I did like the Ewoks, possibly beacuse I also liked the actual Ewok movies. I remember them being a lot of fun.

Flashman85 said...

Well, glad to hear I'm not totally off my rocker, then!

I'll keep Yotsubato in mind, and I'll recommend Curious George and Horton Hears a Who if you're looking for movies that are absolutley nothing but fun and happy, without even so much as a hiccup of doom and gloom. Sure, they're ostensibly kids' movies, but I was surprised by how enjoyable and accessible they were for adults.