Sunday, November 20, 2016
SOON, SOON FROM NOW IN A THEATRE NEAR, NEAR TO ME....
The election of America's first avowed neo-Nazi president is so appalling that I'm going to take a short detour from politics to discuss one of my great loves, movies, and the descent into silliness of one of it's great franchises, Star Wars.
Back in 1977 when the original Star Wars was released I resisted having anything to do with it. I have a prejudice against pop culture: if it's phenomenally popular it can't be that good. For every Dan Brown novel that confirms my bias there's some other phenomenon that confirms that my prejudice, like all other prejudices, is foolish at best and stupidly harmful at worst but it's my prejudice. It keeps me from reading whole libraries full of popular trash novels and every self-help fad book ever written though it's also kept me from reading J. R. R. Tolkiens novels too. In any case, I resisted the original Star Wars movie for about a year. Finally, my then wife and I took our two daughters to see it at a theatre in Saugus, Massachusetts which no longer exists and were charmed. It was a popcorn movie clearly derived from the movie serials of 40 years before but it had fine acting and an engaging story line. I and my girls were hooked. We've been back to see all the sequels including the three, sad prequels.
Starting with The Phantom Menace my fervent wish was that George Lucas would simply butt the hell out and turn the writing over to Lawrence Kasdan and the directing over to the late Irvin Kershner who made The Empire Strikes Back the best of the first three films. The miscasting of Jake Lloyd, who lacked the strangeness that would allow us to believe he could end up as Darth Vader, and Hayden Christiansen*, who lacks everything necessary to becoming Darth Vader including talent, made it clear that whatever vision Mr. Lucas had for his saga was greatly lacking. Yet it was possible to write even Jar-Jar Binks off as the exposition for a scene whose outcome we already knew.
A few years ago when we heard that J. J. Abrams would be directing the new Star Wars sequels I was less than thrilled. Abrams knows special effects and pacing he doesn't know acting and his directing, stripped of the CGI, is plodding at best. His script writing is only inventive in setting up each new show piece for the computer imaging people. The new series suffers terribly from Abrams' banality. Take as one, and perhaps the most glaring, example of Abrams' bad writing and incompetence in dealing with actors the brief scene in The Force Awakens between Carrie Fisher's Leya Organa and Harrison Ford's Han Solo. They were lovers, married and estranged parents of a child who has gone horribly wrong. They haven't seen each other in years. They get a minute or two of screen time, a smattering of expository dialogue and then the CGI begins again. Their relationship in all its complexity was one of the drivers that made the initial three movies engaging but they might have been ordering pizza for all the time and emotional baggage they get a chance to display. I think it's one indicator of bad things to come that Carrie Fisher's name is nowhere in the cast list of Rogue One. I don't presume to know why but if her role in The Force Awakens is any indication of the attention her character is given and I were Carrie Fisher, I'd go back to collecting residual checks from the earlier movies and stay as far from the new incarnations as possible.
That said let me take The Force Awakens as the prime example of bad writing and direction since that is the only Abrams film we have in full release for the dissection.
First, thirty years have passed since the only emperor that the Empire ever had was killed, Darth Vader died and the rebel alliance destroyed the second Death Star. So why are the rebel alliance and the Jedi not ruling a restored Republic and fighting the occasional clean-up action against the remaining adherents of the old Empire? Did all those people longing for the restoration of an Intergalactic democracy just go into suspended animation for 30 years only to wake up to a restored Empire? That's the first great, gaping hole in Abrams' shoddy narrative.
Now let's get on to the second great fault in this new narrative. As partial, if unspecific explanation for the resurgent Empire we have the deus ex machina, Supreme Leader Snoke (whose name always recalls for me William Faulkner's social climbing Snopes family of Yoknapatawpha County though I doubt any actual connection). Snoke we are supposed to infer is the Ur-Sith, the master who trained the Emperor, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, to become Darth Sidious. Unfortunately, Abrams leaves all that to audience inference and doesn't set up the background for Snope's appearance. Yes, I know that there are oblique references to another Sith master in earlier movies but they come in the more recent prequels and have no canonical origin in the first three films ending with Return of the Jedi. I don't mind the introduction of Snoke per se. He's a kind of anti-Yoda, but it's just plain lazy writing not to give us some set up and back story.
Speaking of story and laziness, let's acknowledge right here that Abrams cribbed the entire structure of The Force Awakens from the original Star Wars film. We have an abandoned child grown to adulthood who finds a good father figure who is ultimately killed by his, in this case actual instead of surrogate, son. A few details change along the way but The Force Awakens story line is so obvious and predictable that there is not single midi-chlorian of surprise when Kylo Ren murders Han Solo.
So we have a recycled story line, a poorly conceived and described major character who comes out of nowhere and a narrative line that has circled back on itself because the director and principle writer hasn't enough imagination for both big CGI set pieces and cogent writing. That's three strikes but this is not basball. There are more.
As the fourth glaring and utterly stupid fault, I give you Death Star Redux. It's bigger, meaner and that's supposed to make us think it's new as opposed to something actually recycled. The original Death Star was described as "a small moon". The new Death Star is planet sized. It sucks its energy out of nearby stars.
Can we get to elementary physics for a moment? We know of star systems that have one and two stars. We also know that it is not a trip to the corner 7-11 Store to get to the next star from any given solar system. So, even if we don't consider any of the other glaring improbabilities and impossibilities of this new Death Star when it sucks all the power from the nearest star that action will kill the entire solar system around that star. The solar system dies in the starless icy grip of space unless it's a binary system which will die a lot slower because it still has one star where its life forms are predicated on two. So what's the point? The point is that once the Death Star kills the nearby star to power itself, there's no need for the beam that explodes planets, Every planet in that solar system is now dead or dying. Mission accomplished, to borrow a lie used by another incompetent at his job.
However, that is just one of the idiotic problems with Death Star Redux. It's now planet sized. Consider please the amount of energy that would be required to move that large an object at a leisurely walking pace through space. Let's suppose that it's built in orbit around some star that it's going to gobble up one day. The gravitational forces keep it circling its star without any motors but the moment the Empire wants to move it to some new area it's going to need massive amounts of energy just to break out of orbit and keep moving through space at that slow walking pace. When it need to get to the next star system some dozens or hundreds of light years, it's going to be several thousands of years before it can threaten its next planet. Maybe Kylo Ren's thirty-second great-grandchild, still committed to the family business of planet destruction might come within range of its target which might by then be a friendly planet. Alternatively, let's suppose that the Death Star Redux could move at warp speed. Can we even imagine the number of sucked-up suns that it would require to move it that fast or the amount of heating that would occur on the surface of so large an object at speeds faster than light? The fact is that the Empire would be better served by building many smaller Death Stars than by building one humongous one. Just as a tank is more mobile than a fortress and a soldier more mobile than a tank, bigger and bigger Death Stars are nonsense.
Not only that but consider also the fact that so large an object would exert its own gravitational forces on everything around it. As it moved through space at any speed it would dislodge planets and moons from their orbits. In short, the Empire's science team are either idiots or con men boondoggling the Empire into buying self-defeating mega-hardware. Where have I heard that before and wasn't "Star Wars" attached to that con game?
Also, before we depart the theme of physics entirely, let us consider Newton's Third Law of Motion. If for every exertion of force upon an object there is an equal and opposite reaction, when the Death Star fires at a planet it is going to get kicked backward substantially. Maybe that's how the Empire expects to bounce the Death Star from solar system to solar system? I don't think so. Once again, the larger the Death Star the more problems in elementary physics it must solve and the less likely it is to be built.
So the lazy, unimaginative Mr. Abrams has stuck himself with a rehashed series of scripts and plot elements that make less sense than Donald Trump's promises and trickle down economics combined. Worse yet we are falling into the crass hole of the last two Harry Potter movies: Harry Potter and the Increased Ticket Sales I & II. The coming Rogue One is an interleaf in the Star Wars saga. It is Episode III.5, the story of the theft of the Death Star plans that Princess Leia feeds into R2D2 at the beginning of the 1977 movie. Other than the people getting fat off of box office receipts, who the hell cares? We know that Count Dooku sent the plans onward to General Grievous at the end of Episode II: Attack of the Clones and that those plans have survived to create the Death Star in the 1977 movie. The only reason that we need to see the machinations between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars is that some of those involved need more cash. I don't begrudge James Earl Jones, the wonderful and much under-rated Warwick Davis or Jimmy Smits a penny. Hell, I don't begrudge any actors their paychecks. I do begrudge Disney every penny of profit and whatever cash the undeserving Mr. Abrams cons us out of.
Even as I make plans to see the coming Rogue One my heart sinks and I wish for a different director, writer and outcome. With a whole universe of problems to consider and a new generation of adults to confront or create them Mr. Abrams has chosen to feed his audience the meal they've eaten before jazzed up with some spicy CGI or, in this case, a meal that no one ever ordered. It's as if we'd come to a familiar mid-priced yet with pretensions to up-scale restaurant and have been told that we can order anything on the menu. We will be charged full price but we will only get the sorbet and salad from between courses and had better like it. Mr. Abrams taken us nowhere that we haven't been before, nowhere we asked to go while tossing some glitter in the air and hoping it distracts us from the fact that we've been on this ride before at lower cost and with better direction.
Ultimately, I have enjoyed the Star Wars saga though less and less so since 1983. This franchise is in serious danger of dying from lack of character rather than lack of energy. Fans are fans and will keep buying tickets regardless of the watered small beer and pablum fed them. Then there are those like me who can enjoy a good story with a coherent mythology told engagingly. Just as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull killed the Indiana Jones franchise despite the best efforts of Harrison Ford, John Hurt, Karen Allen and, above all, Cate Blanchette (the less said about Shia LaBeouf the better) we are verging on the point where Star Wars may well explode like a sabotaged Death Star and fade away forever without realizing its best potential. That would be sad. One more interleaf movie designed to con money out of my pocket and I will do what I do with most superhero films: wait until they appear on cable television and watch as much of them as I can stand before I change channels in disgust.
Finally, having distracted myself from politics briefly I would like to point out that I feel today that I may have been too harsh on the fact that the rebel alliance is fighting the Empire 30 years after its defeat. Seventy-five years ago we in America went to war against Fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan. By the time Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were thirty years behind us we had spent a decade between 1945 and 1955 fighting McCarthyist Fascism at home, succumbed to the neo-Fascism of Nixon and Reagan and now, thirty years after Reagan and Poppy Bush, we have elected a true neo-Nazi as president. We have taken the people who made the mess, impoverished the middle class and shipped jobs overseas and decided, exactly as the Germans in 1932 did, that the people who intentionally created the mess are the ones to clean it up. Now it's the obligation of all of us to destroy the Death Star. I wish us all luck.
* In Return of the Jedi Alec Guinness' spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Mark Hamill's Luke that his father, Anakin "Is more machine now than man." When the healed and reconstructed Darth Vader rises, Frankenstein monster-like, at the end of Revenge of the Sith, he is far less mechanical than Hayden Christainsen at any point in either of the movies in which he appeared.