After having seen Star Wars: Rogue One last night and Force Awakens before it, I now feel qualified to offer my opinion on what it is that’s missing from Disney’s handling of the Star Wars property. This problem also afflicts other franchises that have attempted to pick up where they left off decades prior. What tends to happen is there is a meticulous recreation of the surface and an inability to recreate the substance, even when some of the original creators participate.
One of the factors that leads to this is a lack of recognition of what the essense of the thing is. For instance, with Force Awakens, the dream-team committee determined that Star Wars should be reduced down to a single buzzword: delight.
“On the first day, I said, ‘look, delight, that’s the word. In every scene, that should be the criteria we’re using. Does it delight? Is it fun?”
This, on its surface, sounds good, until you recognize that the best of Star Wars contains much more than “delight”. It also contained a lot of danger, wonderment, espionage, and of course, mythology.
Not only that, but there is historical context. Star Wars was a nostalgic escapist fantasy for a culture that had burnt out on cynicism after Vietnam and Watergate. It presented a world with very clearly defined good and evil. It positioned Luke in the middle in which it was very easy for him to decide where to go with his life.
The reason Star Wars became such a touchstone to Generation-X is that it challenged the prevailing attitude of cynicism. Because the film was set in a far off world, it really didn’t need to mount a cogent argument for why being good or believing in yourself was the right thing to do. Like any fairy-tale, it set its own self-serving rules and allowed its hero to navigate through it a way that made perfect sense. While everyone contains a dark side that we need to face down, there was no ambiguity about the virtue of becoming a Jedi or fighting the Empire. Luke just needed to dig-deep and believe in himself, and Han (in the B-plot) needed to move beyond his selfishness.
These days, however, there is no clear sense of morality. Society has fractured down the middle with red-states and blue-states, liberals accused of being oversensitive “social justice warriors” and conservatism being branded fascist. Also, prior to 911 the analog of the Rebel Alliance was either of the revolutionary war or the French resistance under Nazi occupation. But after 911 one could make a case that the Rebels are analogous to radical Islam. We’re now living in an era in which debating moral ambiguity, claiming up is down and right is wrong, is one of the most popular sports on social networks as people jockey for the ultimate currency of the 21s century: raw attention.
While Star Wars, in retrospect, could be seen as an antidote to the cynicism of the 1970s, it’s important to remember that when it burst upon the scene it had a sort of rebellious spirit to it in the sense that nothing else dared be quite so idealistic and simplistic.
Even though Empire Strikes Back attempted to inject more operatic gravitas into the proceedings, the storytelling style of Star Wars shares more to the Hollywood of the late 1930s than anything contemporary. That bravado, to buck the prevailing trend, is what earned it so many raspberries from film critics of the time. The film was seen as a driving force of dumbing down cinema so that we would no longer wrestle with our problems but merely escape into fantasy.
So, as usual, a key flaw in these two new Star Wars films is that it’s not really possible to go home anymore. We want our Old Star Wars back, and yet society has changed so much that we can’t get a handle on what it is that made those films special beyond the surface-level details.
For instance, in Force Awakens, much was made out of the fact that they chose to build a whole new fullsize Millenium Falcon prop rather than using CGI. This is the infamous prop that dropped its ramp on Harrison Ford’s leg, an ominous sign of bad Karma. Force Awakens was also shot on film, although it contains so many FX shots that I really didn’t get a clear sense of it as a chemical film. Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards and like most modern directors, he is a fan of the handheld camera, so much of the film has the same sort of vibe as news footage from the Iraq war. While Star Wars was meant to wash away the ennui of the Vietnam war, Rogue One seems to want to focus on the “war is hell” and collateral damage aspects. The more the film attempts to feel “real”, like news footage, the more it lets go of the lyricism of Star Wars.
When I was a kid I was baffled by the idea of Star Wars as Space “Opera”. There’s no singing in Star Wars, I thought, so in what way is it “Opera”? Kids can be literal like that. What I didn’t realize is that it’s not the singing that made Star Wars Opera but the 19th century romanticism and high-drama. The films of the late 30s that Star Wars mined for inspiration, like Errol Flynn’s Sea Hawk, were in turn inspired by older traditions from the 1800s. It was actually through the music more than anything else that this linkage to 19th century classical scene is felt most strongly, and that was via Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Sound a little familiar?
If there is one thing George Lucas understood (or perhaps more appropriately, his ex-wife Marcia) is the power of editing in determining a film’s ultimate impact. The orignal Star Wars was pared down into its barest essentials. Like any masterpiece, it contains no filler, and within each scene, even the quiet ones, there are memorable lines.
Even lesser bits like this intended to build a little character interaction POP because the dialogue is deliberately childish and delivered in a wide-eyed Frank Capra Golden Age of Hollywood style that was diametrically opposite to the drab realist style of 70s art-house cinema. It’s not as important what they say as how they say it, the old-school broad acting style that just doesn’t give a rat’s ass for current trends. And that’s what makes it timeless. While it was a product of the 70s, stylistically it never truly fit by virtue of how it dredged up and mashed-together other styles. That’s what makes it timeless and that’s what the new films either can’t or don’t want to recreate.
Rogue One in particular is the subject of much speculation by virtue of the extensive reshoots that took place. I can’t think of a film that changed this much since Richard Donner was removed from Superman 2. Based on rumors that the film was lightened in the reshoots I don’t think an alternate version that matched the original story would have been any closer to the romantic tone that people yearn for most from Star Wars: A New Hope.
A lot has been said about Rogue One becoming magical at the very tail end and yet that was not my experience. Like Terminator Genisys, the film relies on the gimmick of recreating classic moments from a different perspective, hence surfing on the coat-tails of the old film’s resonance. No matter how detailed the recreations of these characters, they are all still glorified cameos. Had this been the first Star Wars film anyone saw, these scenes would not have the same level of impact as having decades to stew in pop-culture.
This review I feel says pretty much what I’m trying to say here. Rogue One exists not so much because it’s a story that must be told but to satisfy the need people have to keep going back to where they came from, only to realize that you can’t go home again. The world has changed and we have changed. Films like this, despite these museum-grade recreations of mid-70s production values, are just like walking through a museum. Cold, sterile, dead. All the more appropriate then that the poster-child for this is the Uncanny Valley recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. So much blood sweat and tears invested to reanimate him, and yet he is given no memorable lines. This is the definition of “gimmick”.
I am not necessarily a fan of Alan Moore‘s work, but I have a firmly believe in what he says about writing here:
“I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river. They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment. They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being; that can change a society. They are seen as simple entertainment; things with which we can fill 20 minutes, half an hour, while we’re waiting to die. It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants. If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience. They would be the artists. It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.”
The reason Star Wars became a hit is that it was what audiences needed but they didn’t realize this until it was staring them in the face. These sorts of things only seem self-evidenct in the rear-view mirror.
The problem with big-studio franchises is the films are usually written by committee. They start with trying to figure out what the audience wants, and then serve it up straight. By not having a clear auteur’s vision that is immune from the influence of fashion-trends, they can succumb to cover-band thinking where if they just copy X, Y, Z of the original, then people will accept it. Based on box-office receipts, that formula seems to be successful, and fans tend to lack enough introspection to be aware of what’s truly missing. But over time I believe that fans come down off the high of the hype cycle to realize that these sorts of simulacrum still do not hold a candle to the original, just as much as a cover band performance of Stairway is simply not the same as Led Zeppelin in their prime. And yet so much of modern cinema is either a franchise reboot or continuation that perhaps the public has simply stopped expecting anything better.
Before I wrap up, I want offer one example of “they shoulda done this” (note, contains spoilers):
Donnie Yen’s blind monk character is the closest the film decided to go in offering up a Jedi. He’s a true-believer, and yet at best he is slightly force-sensitive but not Jedi-grade. One of the worst sins of the prequels was establishing that being a Jedi was simply genetic. You either have the midichlorians or you don’t. This created that feeling that millions of kids had everywhere that if they just wished hard enough maybe they could move that pencil with their thoughts. Rogue One had a golden opportunity to correct that sin. Donnie Yen’s character supposedly needs to successfully pass through a bunch of cross-fire to flip a switch to turn off a force-field or unlock a door or something. What they decide to do is have him “get lucky” by walking through the cross-fire without getting hit. It is an act of faith that he pulls this off, and yet it could just easily been shrugged off as a sign of stormtroopers having bad aim. So depending on your point of view (pun intended) it could have been sort of self-parody.
Yen’s character already uses The Force to compensate for his blindness. So he has some mild Jedi-like powers one way or another. What they should have done is had him dig deep and throw the lever via force-telekenesis, similar to how Luke summoned his lightsaber in the ice-cave.
Star Wars or no Star Wars, I think everyone secretly wishes they had telekenesis and have gestured like this to try to move things. It’s one of those universal magical powers that people want, sort of like flying. When we see someone in the movies use telekenesis, it’s always a fist-pump moment. The more struggling it takes before they do it, and the higher the stakes, the more fist-pumpable it is.
The scene with Donnie Yen was ripe for this, and they blew the opportunity bigtime. I guess the committee decided if he had enough powers he would have competed too much against Luke and Vader as an A-lister, but had he actually been latent Jedi-grade, then his death would have been that much more significant. As it played out, I just didn’t care enough (really about any of them including the lead).
The last thing that bothers me about these new films is the matter-of-fact way they present their vistas. One of the strangest and coolest things about Star Wars was the way the Rebel base in A New Hope took place under what looked like a Mayan temple. For whatever reason, the production actually shot location footage in Guatemala. It was easy for Star Wars to look exotic when it was leveraging actual wonders from the ancient world, similar to the mud huts in Tunisia that were redressed as Tatooine. Here are screenshots from Star Wars that show how kick-ass this was:
When they go back there for rogue one, they decide to turn the Massassi temple from a pyramid into a series of rounded towers. Why? No apparent reason other than to make it different. And the way they present them is “oh, ho hum, here’s the base”. There is no pomp and circumstance. No sense of “epicness” to it. And the music doesn’t come close to John Williams. It’s there, it looks impressive, and yet it has so much less impact than the brief glimpses of exotic locations and matte paintings from the old days. That’s pretty much how all the production design goes down. You knew they had an unlimited budget so you expected it to be flawless, and it was, and yet it feels…so empty…so routine…compared to that scrappy little B-movie that had to pull every trick in the book to conjure up a sense of wonderment.
Anyway, let’s just say as far as popcorn movies go I’m looking forward to most is Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I enjoyed the new GoG trailer that played in front of Rogue One more than Rogue One itself:
P.S. I am aware that Carrie Fisher is in the hospital right now after a heart-attack. I kind of don’t want to fixate on it because this year has been bad enough for Gen-X.