Monday, January 2, 2012

Bad Geek Confessions: Star Wars

OK, it was 1977 in the Bronx, but I can be forgiven some poetic license on my hundredth post, can’t I?

My folks took me to a movie I hadn’t seen any trailers for, but the newspaper write ups made it sound like my sort of thing.  (I kind of pity the youth of today, who have access to every single detail of films months before they premier, now.)  After a lengthy mysterious underground trip we arrived at the theater. (Again, probably just a subway ride, but - poetic license.)

The room darkened, the above words appeared, and suddenly the screen exploded with the most awesome thing I had ever seen in my young life.  There was a brief pause for my brain to process:
“Wait, he’s the best part of this, and he’s the BAD GUY?”

The hypnotic coolness then continued for over two hours, transforming me into a lifelong Star Wars Geek.

As an unable to sit still seven year old with a hyperactive imagination, I was the perfect target audience, sucked in at the very beginning. I can even say that at one point I owned every single Star Wars figure (because there were only twelve of them). 

I’ve seen Star Wars at least once a year since it came out and the other originals even more frequently thanks to cable. (At one point I knew all the dialogue in Return of the Jedi, even the parts in Huttese.)  I was at every Special Edition and prequel opening night premier.  Of course I rantingly complained about the changes.  This is something which dates back to very early on in the series.  I’m told people were warned against discussing Vader’s redemption at the end of Jedi with me, since I felt it was contrary to the character as portrayed. (It’s all kind of a nerd blur at this point.)   I eventually accepted that, but refused to buy Episode IV to VI on DVD until they released the version with the original unedited films as bonus features. 

I’ve read multiple Star Wars Making Of, Art Of and Ultimate Guide books, and cut a swath through many opponents at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.  I even worked out Imperial and Rebellion cooperative rules for Star Wars Monopoly, and have honed my Chewbacca impression since I was eight years old to the point where I accidentally slip into it in times of frustration (scaring the neighbors once again). 

The very first furnishings I ever bought for my own place were life sized Imperial standees (which now still live in the basement).  My Christmas tree has always had a startlingly large percentage of Star Wars themed ornaments, not counting the talking “I AM YOUR FATHER” Vader next to the manger.  That’s not a religious statement or anything; he just balances out the larger scaled Unleashed figure that’s always in the living room…Which in turn is not to be confused with the differently posed Vader battling his son on the Jedi vs. Sith shelf in the sewing room. 
Neither of those talk, but the Vader head alarm clock on my night table, and the Vader bank downstairs, in the same room with the Return of the Jedi garbage can, do.

For several years I was a card carrying member of the Star Wars Fan Club. In fact I kept the card because it has an impressive Darth Vader picture on it.  That makes it match all of the home fixtures listed above, many t-shirts, and also a couple pairs of underwear.

Assuming I haven’t frightened away all the readers in droves with a foray into unneeded excessive information, I feel I have firmly established my credentials as a first generation Star Wars Geek of the highest order.

And I can honestly say…

I really liked the Phantom Menace.

I liked it enough to say it felt far more like a true Star Wars film than the other prequels.  Whenever
appears on screen, I am seven again.  That feeling didn’t go away during The Phantom Menace. I saw it in theaters seven times (A personal record for a single year…I blame a combination of waiting sixteen years for a movie, and having no life in general at that point in time.)  My opinion didn’t darken with each viewing and the whole “feel seven again” thing inspired me to buy a bunch of new Star Wars figures for the first (and last) time since the original films.   I even collected the complete set of Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut character cups. (This probably says more about my lack of healthy eating choices at that stage than movie fandom, however.) 
These are my reasons for singing the praises of this much maligned starting point for the myth:

First and arguably foremost, is Darth Maul:
a certified top notch, super mysterious, unknown past, Star Wars bad guy.  During the prequels we got to see Vader as a whiny child killer with mommy issues, Boba Fett as a sad orphan waif who lost his Daddy, and the Emperor as a politician with the power to have really long boring meetings. Maul reminded us of the unsympathetic, Jedi butt kicking, that the Dark Side of the Force should be.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Christopher Lee, but watch Lord of the Rings to see how he can be used effectively as a villain at his age.  Those films focused on his presence and dialogue, instead of using a computer to put his face on a gymnast and have him digitally kung fu fighting with Gollum, for example.  Darth Maul also was the first with the double light saber.  I know they’re plentiful enough in the Expanded Universe now that you get one free with hover bus tokens on Coruscant, but at the time it was a wicked gnarly new idea.  Darth Maul put the Menace in Phantom Menace.

In a similar vein, the light saber battles were the best of all the films in Episode I.  The original series had great psychological drama to the fights, but this was the first time we got to see Jedi vs. Sith action with both at the height of their powers.  Throw in Ray “more belts than the Men’s Warehouse” Park and they were credible plus a bit martial arts duels to remember.  Episode II and III went overboard with the Crouching Tiger Hidden Jedi wire work stuff, and all credibility left the building (or alien green screen location to be precise).

Physics? we don't need no steenking physics!
Another big action sequence that for some reason gets abused is the Pod Race.  I wholly agree with the analysis that chariots pulled by afterburning jet engines is completely ridiculous.  The problem is that people seem to say “completely ridiculous” like it’s a bad thing.  Speeder bikes that fly around trees instead of over them are also completely ridiculous, as is zooming in and around asteroids and unknowingly landing inside a giant toothed slug puppet.  Don’t forget about needing to fly down a long narrow trench in order to target a tiny hole that just happens to access the rubber band that holds the entire Death Star together.  (A Death Star, may I point out, that also has the completely ridiculous design features of giant chasms with swing points above them, and trash compactors with impractical sized doors and sea monsters.)  How about a laser beam that can stop after only a couple of feet?  All of the most fun, exciting and entertaining aspects of the Star Wars universe are completely ridiculous…just go with it.

Besides the action feeling more Star Warsy in the first prequel the characters did as well.  Liam Neeson brought a similar presence to the film that Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing did to the original.  He was someone with strong acting skills and abilities that could both carry a scene and play off and enhance other performers. 

Also, I’d like to point out that Jake Lloyd was one awesome little dude. I could very easily believe that he was cool enough to grow up to be the bestest Jedi ever, wooer of the young queen, and eventually the coolest thing I ever saw at age seven.  These are things that Hayden Christensen sadly did not convey as he alternated between sulking whiningly and whining sulkily.

The loss of Lloyd and Neeson in the other prequels led to losing something else that the original trilogy had in spades: Chemistry.  Things gelled much better with those two, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor than when they were gone.  It all seemed like natural conversations, rather than, “George told us to say this.”  I’m not solely picking on Lucas here.  Nobody’s ideas are good all the time.  I get the feeling that a large percentage of the prequel actors were overexcited about being in a Star Wars movie.  Sometimes you need people to say things like Harrison Ford’s famous quote, “George, you can type this ****, but you sure as hell can't say it.” Need more proof?  Compare the Attack of the Clones “I love you…I love you more,” overly saccharine exchange with Empire’s “I love you…I know,” which was ad-libbed on set from the scripted, “I love you…I love you too.”

There was also, and I know I’m getting flack for this one, Jar Jar: the receiver of the most scorn and nerd rage since they cancelled Star Trek.
So there!
I know mistakes were many and varied with the CGI clown, but the kids absolutely loved him. I heard multiple children in the summer of ’99 say, “Wesa goin' underwater, okey day,” as they entered the lake.  One of the times I saw it was a Saturday matinee, and it was obvious from the crowd reaction that he was by far the young ‘uns favorite part of the film. (More on the importance of that later.)

Another reason I originally liked the Phantom Menace is it didn’t spoil many of the major reveals and plot twists from the original trilogy.  With the exception of whom Yoda is (nixing a nice little surprise in Empire) most of the rest were unaffected.  The famous “I AM YOUR FATHER” reproduced hither and yon in my (and many other) geeks’ homes, and many other reveals were still intact.

However, that is not an issue anymore due to how much these stories have permeated our culture.  My daughter, without having seen the films, and without paying much attention to all the Star Wars crap in my home and head was fully aware of who Yoda was, who Anakin became, and the connections between Vader Luke and Leia, all from other kids, references in unrelated shows and movies, and merchandise.  This leads to a second and perhaps even larger Bad Geek Confession:

When my daughter watches the Star Wars Saga for the first time it will be in as recent a form as I can manage and in numerical order from I to VI.
This may be the Special Edition DVDs, the upcoming 3-D theatrical releases, or the Mark Hamill predicted sock puppet show on the front lawn, depending on timing.

Yes, I ranted, howled and complained at all the Special Edition changes and prequel retcons and inconsistencies as they came out.  In fact I raved uncontrollably like a…

Well there really isn’t any raving at a level that compares to a first generation Star Wars Geek that sees Greedo shoot first, so let’s just say I raved a lot and leave it at that.
A great disturbance in the force, as if millions of geeks suddenly cried out.

Something happened though that changed my view:

I talked to myself.

No not in the deep introspective personal therapy way.  (Yeah, like that’ll happen.)

To explain, I have to start with the fact that while I am, and ever shall be, a huge fan of the movies, my connection to the expanded universe has gotten smaller and smaller. 

...and we were happy to have it!
Originally, of course, it was easier. (Not counting way too many late nights playing X-Wing with a mouse and nearly setting my hand on fire from repeated mouse pad abrasions.)  It started with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the first novel I read in under a day. There wasn’t much more universe to expand at that point.  There were a few books by Brian Daley, some comics borrowed from friends, and the infamous Holiday Special. (I am convinced Lucas needs to release that one on DVD, if only to let Carrie Fisher record a commentary track. How hysterical would that be?)

With the explosion of new material, I found that with the exception of the tales by Timothy Zahn and A.C. Crispin, I was better off watching the movies again, and playing with my toys…um, I mean organizing my collectibles. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.

It kinda looks like Star Wars.
In any case, by the time the Clone Wars cartoon came on, I didn’t bother with it at all, and still haven’t seen a whole episode.  One afternoon, at a birthday party for one of my daughter’s classmates, I saw two of the seven year old boys were wearing t-shirts with animated versions of Clone Troopers, Jedi and such.  Deciding I wanted to know what I sounded like when questioned by grown-ups at that age, I handed them their cake slices and innocently said, “Cool shirts. Tell me, what’s this Clone Wars show about?”

Then the same event that exploded around me in the theater in 1977 happened in that little party room. The two of them leapt from their seats and went into a nonstop descriptive, limb swinging, sound effects filled demonstration. I had ABSOLUTELY no idea what they were talking about, other than it was glorious to behold.

Here’s the thing:

A great many of my fellow first generation Star Wars Geeks use unfortunate and inappropriate metaphors to describe what George Lucas has done to their childhoods by changing the Star Wars movies and universe in general.

What did George Lucas do to my childhood?

Open a world to my imagination which I could fill with cool if confusing action figure playtime.  (Apparently all the dialogue took place in my head, but I made all the sound effects, leading my dad to pass my room on occasion, stick in his head and say, “What the hell’s going on in here?”)

Create a common fantasy realm for my friends and I to share in as we adventured on distant planets in the back woods, flew through space in lawn chairs, and beat the snot out of each other with appropriately colored plastic oars while making whooshing noises.

Introduce me to Mythological Archetypes, the Hero’s Journey, and many other story telling standards that are a part of human culture, disguised as an exciting space opera fairy tale filled with wild characters and exotic locations.

No amount of scream adding, voice switching, cgi enhancing, love child of James Brown and Cookie Monster singing alterations can change that. 

And now, as those two lads acting as windows into my own seven year old experiences showed me quite clearly, Star Wars is theirs.

Whatever shape George Lucas has transformed it into, it belongs not to him, not to those of us who came before, but to them.

And they seem to be taking excellent care of it.


Kim Luer said...

You, and this post are quite awesome.

Jeff McGinley said...

Wow, thanx! Wait till you see the special edition post in a couple years with improved effects!