Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars and Me

I'm one of those people who is old enough to remember seeing Star Wars (it wasn't called A New Hope then, in fact I don't think we knew it was Episode IV until a fair while after release) at the cinema when it was a new release.

This isn't really a review of The Force Awakens (there are at least 1,000,001 of those already out there and people loved it, hated it or are somewhere in between) it's more of a personal journey through my Star Wars experience up until last Friday when I saw The Force Awakens.

My initial introduction to Star Wars was not through the first movie. My interest was sparked by seeing a trailer for that film at a screening of something else. I don't remember what that film was, but I do remember being enraptured by the trailer for Star Wars and every other person in the cinema (except for perhaps my mother who never understood the appeal of Star Wars) thinking 'I want to see that film!'

By the time Star Wars hit our screens (back then Australia was about 6 months behind the US for new releases, and as there was no internet then very little chance of being spoiled) I'd toys, cards in gum and a novelisation subtitled The Adventures of Luke Skywalker (that intrigued me more than anything really).

I adored Star Wars. It had flaws, but 11 yo me didn't see them. This was the best film ever. Flaws and all (I can see them now) it still remains one of my favourite films. Han Solo became my favourite character. People played at being all sorts of characters, but I always wanted to be Han. He was just so effortlessly cool.

Waiting for a new film was torture, but there were other things to occupy the young minds that Star Wars had captured.

One of them was this novel. I didn't know anything about a sequel. Then a friend of mine brought this to school one day. Note the name on the cover: Alan Dean Foster. I actually really like Foster as an author (his Spellsinger series is a personal favourite), at the time he had never been given a credit on the cover of the Star Wars novelisation, which he wrote. George Lucas' name appeared as author of both the film and the book.  

Splinter of the Mind's Eye gets a pretty bad rap these days. I don't know why. I've read it a few times and find it an entertaining science fiction novel. It is true that if it had been the sequel to A New Hope, it would have sucked. It just doesn't have that epic feel to it. However I don't think that was anyone's intention. It was just a story set in the Star Wars universe. Reading it also readers are left in no doubt that Luke and Leia are not brother and sister. Foster has said that at the time he wrote the novel he had no idea that was the direction that George Lucas was heading with them.

One quibble with Splinter of the Mind's Eye is that there's no Han, however I soon found something else to satisfy that longing.

Respected science fiction author Brian Daley decided to do a trilogy focussing on everyone's favourite space smuggler. I first found out about the existence of the books from an excerpt that was somehow published in one of the magazines my grandmother read when I was staying at her house during a school holiday. Not long after reading it, little old Star Wars obsessed me had tracked down the novels.

I'd read at least the first two before The Empire Strikes Back hit our screens. The final was published in 1980, but I probably didn't get my hot little hands on it until after Episode V had premiered here. They're set not long before Han and Chewbacca meet Luke and Ben in the seedy dive in Mos Eisley. I think Han is talking about taking on the Kessel Run at the end of the last book.

I loved seeing Han star in books and filling in some of his back story. A hot shot pilot, who was betrayed by his commanding officer over an affair of the heart and then drummed out of the force, because the only person who was willing to speak up for him was over 2 metres tall and covered with hair. As Han himself bitterly said when asked about the incident, "Who's going to believe a Wookiee?" Ann Crispin also later wrote a series about Han pre A New Hope, which may have explored that further, but I think it fell into the EU category and none of that is canon anymore. The last Han novel I read was Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn, and to be honest it left me kind of cold.

Despite really wanting to see this I wound up having to make two treks into the city (the new releases were always on in the city and we had to wait sometimes months for them to hit the suburban cinemas) to see this. The first time was with my friend Oscar and we took one look at the lines and said forget about it. My parents took me in a week or so later, we got in that time, but even then there was a lengthy wait and an absolutely packed cinema.

I know plenty of people swear this is the best Star Wars movie ever. I'm not one of them. Don't get me wrong, it's a damned good film, but I just didn't get the OMG best film ever! vibe from it. Oh, yes my mouth dropped open when Vader let fly with 'I am your father.' I always found Yoda kind of annoying and never liked the way he treated Artoo (who is probably my favourite character after Han).

Liked it a lot, but didn't love it and while I wanted to see how it turned out I wasn't left with the 'must see more' feel I had after coming out of the cinema seeing A New Hope for the first time.

I kind of drifted away from science fiction, even pulpy stuff, and got more into fantasy over the intervening years.

After hearing a fairly lukewarm interview by Harrison Ford about the 3rd film in the trilogy, although even then Lucas was making noises about doing Episodes 1, 2 & 3, followed by 7, 8 & 9, I had misgivings about this one. I didn't know at the time that Harrison Ford had never really been that enamoured of his role and had been trying to get written out since A New Hope. Considering that neither he or Alec Guinness ever really liked the films, it gives their performances even more weight and shows what professionals they are.

Then a few friends saw it and they weren't that keen on it, either. This could be due to the fact that what really excites you at the age of 11 or 12, does not do the same to a jaded 17 or 18 year old cinematic palate.

I liked it as a film, but again it was more a sense of relief that it was all over and finished off properly rather than anything else. The Ewoks were cute, but their part in the film was overlong and became tiresome rather than funny after a while. I still can't believe they got their own film later on.  

I've never really been a fan of the Luke and Leia long lost twins idea. I always found Vader's turnaround to be incredibly unbelievable and I still wonder at how Palpatine suddenly got all that power. Not even the prequels really explained why he has the head of the Sith, If anything that should have been Count Dooku and he wasn't even a Sith Lord.

After Return of the Jedi Star Wars was pretty much over for me. I had heard rumours that Lucas wanted to make the other 6 films in his originally envisioned 9 episode series, but no one knew if he really would do that, and he seemed to have plenty of other things on his plate at the time.

I did read some of the sequels that were written after when the EU kind of kicked off, but they didn't really grab me. They didn't have the same sense of wonder that the original films and related novels had for me. I also realised that they were going to keep putting out these things endlessly and I didn't want to be locked into that.

So, the next Star Wars moment for me was:

Okay, the title sucked, but it had Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman in it, and it was Star Wars, how could it miss? Oh, how naive we all were. The only person to come out of this film with his reputation intact was Liam Neeson. Qui Gonn should have been Obi Wan. Qui Gonn was cool, Han Solo cool. Totally believable, except for the bit where Darth Maul killed him. That wouldn't have happened. Qui Gonn could play Maul on a break and still come out on top.

Pretty much everything else they got wrong. Natalie Portman, good actress though she is, suffered from a lack of direction and bad dialog. Ewan McGregor tried hard, but I always felt he was miscast as Obi Wan, even 30 years on and having led a hard life as a hermit in the desert world of Tattooine I just couldn't see him turning out as Alec Guinness (I have similar issues with James McAvoy as a young Charles Xavier in the X-Men films, he just doesn't turn into Patrick Stewart). Jar Jar was simply a bad idea and totally unbelievable. There's a bit where Qui Gonn grabs his tongue, because he keeps flicking it out at the dinner table, he should have yanked it right out.

I liked Watto, but God that kid annoyed me. He does not turn into Darth Vader! He cannot! Then there were the midichlorians and so many other things that just didn't work for the audience.

Despite this we all turned up a few years later when this hit our screens:

I'd always been fascinated by the concept of the Clone Wars right from the time they were first mentioned in Obi Wan's cave, but then I saw this film and a friend and I came out saying to each other: 'What? How can the stormtroopers be clones? That just doesn't work. They've screwed up A New Hope for us.' Apparently if people watch the animated series it fills in some blanks. I never did that. I just can't come at the idea of Star Wars as a cartoon.

Again there's just so much wrong with this film. Once again the dialog sucks. I would have begged George Lucas at this point to hire someone who can write dialog, because he can't. Even as far back as A New Hope, Harrison Ford was telling him: "You can write this shit, George, but we can't say it." The one bright spark and something that may have made it a better film was the distinct lack of screen time given to Jar Jar. I also liked seeing Yoda fight. Most people hate that, but to me it made sense. What else was he going to do? Spout Jedi logic at Dooku while he gets sliced and diced?

Yep, came out of that one feeling more than a bit ripped off. However nothing was going to stop me from seeing the conclusion.

I don't know that it was really revenge as such. I still call it Rise of the Sith in my head. I think it got the title because Return of the Jedi was initially going to be called Revenge of the Jedi, but it was scrapped because it didn't test as family friendly.

Again story and dialog sucked. For God's sake, George hire a proper writer! It's not like you can't afford it. Acting was barely adequate. It felt rushed. They compressed the extermination of the Jedi and Anakin's turn to the dark side into a very short space of time, so the audience never really bought it. Natalie Portman had an incredibly short pregnancy. It also required retconning of one of Leia's speeches in the original trilogy when she talks about remembering her mother. I assume she's talking about Bail Organa's wife, who she believed was her mother up until Return of the Jedi (I'm going with the fan theory that Luke and Leia are not Anakin's kids, but Obi Wan's and in my head Owen Lars is actually Obi Wan's brother, not Anakin Skywalker's step brother). At the end I kept wondering how on Earth did Obi Wan age about 40 years in 20, as well.

I never really invested in the film and during it I kept wondering if Richmond had won their football match that night and couldn't wait to get back to the car so I could turn on the radio and find out. I also missed the first episode of the new Doctor Who to see the film. Took me years to catch up on that episode, too. Yes, I am a nerd, and damn proud of it!

In hindsight the prequels were a mistake and I don't just mean that they were bad films, poorly written and suffering from pedestrian directing, but there was a whole air of them: 'We know what happened. These are just expensive ways of filling in some minor blanks.' No one ever really wants to go into a film knowing the ending, and we went through 3 of these. In many ways it would have been better if they'd never been made and fans filled in their own blanks or read professionally written novels covering the events before A New Hope. If only Lucas had realised that he didn't need to start with Episode IV.

I won't say much about The Force Awakens, other than I frakking love it! I'll need time to watch it again and think about it before I can give much more of a review than that. As far as where do I put it in terms of rating the films? IV always comes first, I put The Force Awakens on a par with V, then VI (I wasn't impressed with Return of the Jedi) and the sequels are varying levels of bad, if I have to rate them then it's II, followed by I (Jar Jar loses it points) and III comes a very distant last. It's one of the worst films I've ever seen.

The Force Awakens almost wipes the prequels away for me. It's new, it has new characters and old characters, we love the world, it reminds us of what we love without going over the top and totally just fan servicing. Yes, the plot is very similar to A New Hope, but A New Hope itself is a fairy tale set in outer space. Luke is a farm boy who rescues a princess from an evil wizard for God's sake!

What The Force Awakens does is feel like an old fashioned Star Wars film. The sense of wonder I got as an 11 yo watching that trailer all those years ago is back.

1 comment:

  1. How would Rogue One rate in your list of favourites?? Before the Prequels?

    Star Wars is still one of my favourite-ever films, and I adore it in the same way as I adore Doctor Who - wholeheartedly but acknowledging its flaws.
    (I missed the start of my sister's 30th Birthday to see the first episode of new Doctor Who - also proud of my geek ideals. And the next week I took her and the 3-week old nephew to see Revenge at the cinemas - he slept thru the whole experience...)