November 22, 2015

Tremors in The Force

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 3:00 pm
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It doesn’t seem so long ago that The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm for roughly $4 billion dollars and announced a new slate of Star Wars movies were in the works, but in fact it’s been almost three years. Like any lifelong Star Wars fan, I had some thoughts on these matters, just as I did a few months later when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Episode VII. All was quiet on the official news front for a long while after that, and I thought the casting announcement would be a good time to check back in. Well…that came and went nearly a year-and-a-half ago, and I apparently had too much going on at the time to wade back in. With each new milestone – title announcement, trailers, Comic-Con, etc. – I wanted to weigh in, but could never find the time…partly because I was accumulating so many articles on the subject that I needed to go back through, the writing itself was always delayed by the “research.” Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens just a few short weeks (weeks!) away, it’s now or never if I want to get some thoughts off my chest before the movie is looming too large in front of us – not unlike the Death Star over a Corellian starship caught in a tractor beam – for it to matter anymore.

Not that it really matters now. Or ever did. But is that going to stop me?

Since casting was the topic I was so keen to discuss, why not start there? Abrams and company put together an impressive ensemble for the new film, and when they it was announced at the end of April 2014, the big question was how many of the rumored names would turn out to have made the cut. There were, after all, a lot of rumors. In fact, from casting to plot and everything in between, these new Star Wars movies have had the rumor mill churning so aggressively that they might yet break the mechanism.

It was known that Abrams met with a huge number of actors during the casting process. The names I saw connected to the film – whether by their own admission or by sources said to be in the know – were Benedict Cumberbatch, Zac Efron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Michael B. Jordan, Jack O’Connell (star of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken), Gary Oldman, David Oyelowo, Dev Patel, Alex Pettyfer, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Saoirse Ronan, Tye Sheridan, Ed Spleers (Downton Abbey‘s footman Jimmy), Sullivan Stapleton (of the Cinemax series Strike Back), and Hugo Weaving.

The names to surface during this period that actually made the cut were John Boyega and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as Adam Driver, whose casting was pretty much confirmed a few months before the full, official group was revealed. Just a few days before the announcement, Oscar Isaac’s name suddenly popped into the mix, and he too would be counted among the holders of this golden ticket. When the announcement came, accompanied by a table read photo featuring most of the participants, it was satisfying to see some people who hadn’t been mentioned in the speculation phase at all. Up and comer Domhnall Gleeson – son of the excellent character actor Brendan Gleeson – was a welcome surprise, as were Andy Serkis and Daisy Ridley, who along with Boyega, extends the tradition of casting newcomers in lead roles…not that we knew at that point that Boyega and Ridley would be the leads. I’m also a huge Oscar Isaac fan, so I loved seeing him thrust into the mix, and later learning that he rounded out the trio of central new characters alongside Boyega and Ridley. But perhaps the coolest inclusion of all? Max von Sydow, the now 86 year old veteran whose epic career stretches back to the classics of Ingmar Bergman. Dude played chess with Death!!  From Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to Terence Stamp and Christopher Lee, the presence of older, esteemed actors bringing a charm and gravitas to these modern stories is another Star Wars tradition. With so much of the attention focused on younger actors during the frenzy of casting rumors, no one reported on the possibility of another veteran performer carrying that torch. I was thrilled to see von Sydow amongst the cast.

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Although their involvement was all but assured, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were confirmed to return as part of the big cast reveal, along with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker (Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, respectively). But if there was one complaint amidst the general enthusiasm which greeted the casting announcement, (Stephen Colbert’s disappointment notwithstanding) it was the lack of women. Only Fisher and Ridley represented the ladies, but Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy were both quick to assure fans that a few key cast members were yet to be announced, and that the eventual names would likely appease the concerns. Within weeks, those additions came to pass, with Nyong’o going from rumor to real deal, and Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie coming aboard as well.

The combination of beloved old blood and exciting new blood was a promising indicator that Episode VII, as it was still known at that point, was on the right track. As the months went on, there was plenty more evidence to suggest that Abrams and Kennedy were making all the right moves. Before following that thread, however, I should jump back prior to the casting, to cover the big news that broke about the script during the early genesis of the new trilogy. When Disney first announced its intention to create Episodes VII-IX, they revealed that Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt was already on the job of developing the new story, and had been for several months. So perhaps the first big surprise in the making of the film came when Lucasfilm announced that Arndt was moving on and script duties would be taken over by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter returning to the Star Wars galaxy having co-written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

When the serious effort to create a new trilogy began, Kennedy assembled a brain trust – a term which has long been associated with Pixar’s team of creative leaders and has gained popularity in Hollywood these days as more shared universe film series are developed – which included herself, Arndt, Kasdan and Simon Kinberg (whose writing credits include Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes and the last two X-Men movies). Kasdan’s deep history with Lucasfilm – he also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark – made his return to the fold a major coup. Once hired, Abrams joined this group to help develop the story for the new trilogy. By all accounts, there were a lot of ideas, but time wore on without any kind of actual story taking shape. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly recently:

 “[They] had just been hypothesizing and throwing out a bunch of what-ifs, but there was no story in place. It was, without doubt, a formidable assignment. There were so many options and so many paths that could be taken. Even when we were in debate — and sometimes it was frustrating and heated — it was always thrilling, because it seemed almost everywhere you looked there was something potentially extraordinary, which felt very much like the DNA of Star Wars itself.”

Kasdan said something similar in a Vanity Fair cover story from June of this year. “We were struggling to come up with a story. There were elements that we would come up with and say, ‘Oh, that’s good! That’s strong!’ But it was not coming together.” At the time, Episode VII was still scheduled for summer 2015, and with pre-production already underway, the script needed to take shape. However things went down behind the scenes, Arndt left and hasn’t made any public comments about his time on the project or his departure. In the press release announcing the changing of the guard, Kennedy said, “Michael Arndt has done a terrific job bringing us to this point and we have an amazing filmmaking and design team in place already prepping for production.” She also said she was excited about the story they had in place, though these more recent interviews make it clear that when Arndt left, there was no story in place. But hey, Kennedy is a consummate producer, and a little bit of spin goes with the territory. Abrams too, had praise for Arndt, but only a vague explanation about the changeover. It seems odd to me that in all the time Arndt was on the project – and he was on it for a while – there was no story in place by the time Abrams got involved. If he was initially doing a treatment before delving into the actual screenplay, there must have been more than just a random collection of ideas. I’d be quite curious to hear his unfiltered thoughts on all of this. (Fast forward to the present: Arndt retains credit along with Abrams and Kasdan as one of the film’s writers.)

With Arndt off the project, Abrams and Kasdan started nearly from scratch, incorporating some ideas from the brainstorming period but largely working from a clean slate. One thing they had all known from the start was that Hamill, Ford and Fisher were onboard, thanks to the efforts of George Lucas, who had met with each of them before selling to Disney, explaining his plans to hand over the company and, in the process, help launch a sequel trilogy. (Kasdan says he too was courted by Lucas to return.) While I give big kudos to Lucas for being instrumental in getting these members of the original trilogy involved in the new films, I can’t resist noting that the Godfather of the Galaxy Far, Far Away had his own story outline for Episodes VII-IX, which Disney and company decided not to use. It’s intriguing that Lucas even had an idea for post-Jedi storylines, since in the prequel era, he often talked  about Anakin Skywalker, not Luke, as the true central figure of the Star Wars saga. This article from The Verge contains a screenshot from an interview Lucas gave to Total Film in 2008, addressing that idea. Then again, the lore going back to my own childhood was always that Lucas had outlined nine stories, of which New Hope, Empire and Jedi comprised the middle three. Whether the ideas that Lucas floated to Disney were developed decades ago or more recently, the studio preferred to start fresh. Lucas told Cinema Blend, “Well, the ones that I sold to Disney and everything, they came up to the decision that they didn’t really want to do those. So they made up their own. It’s not the ones that I originally wrote.” Lucas sounds unfazed about it, though the Vanity Fair story attempts to suggest it’s a touchy subject for all involved. From the article, by Bruce Handy:

How Lucas felt about that seems to be a delicate topic, one that Disney and Lucasfilm executives declined to address. Decades ago, after Universal had made cuts in his second film, American Graffiti, against his will, Lucas constructed his career so that he’d rarely not get his way. As he told Bloomberg Businessweek while his new Star Wars ideas were still on the table, “Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful.” But another part of the deal was that he was paid a handsome sum to cede control, and however he felt about having his story ideas rejected, Lucas (who turned down an interview request for this story) is by all accounts supportive of the new films and eager to see them for the first time in theaters like any other audience member. “I talk to him and see him frequently,” Kennedy said. “And I’m telling you, every time I say, ‘Is there anything you want to know?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, I want to be surprised.’ ”

In the article, the paragraph preceding the one you just read says that Lucas’ stories apparently focused on teenage characters, and we all know that didn’t work out so well in the prequels. Disney knew it too, as the article suggests. Whether the discomfort Handy alludes to around the situation actually exists or not is hard to discern based on things we’ve heard from Lucas. On one hand, he has expressed that he’s happy to be out of the loop and excited to see the movie along with the rest of the world. This past January, he told USA Today, “The only thing I really regret about Star Wars is the fact I never got to see it — I never got to be blown out of my seat when the ship came over the screen. The next one, I’ll be able to enjoy it like anybody else.” (Really? That’s his only regret? I’ll assume he means his only regret about the first movie specifically. His quote above about knowing what he’s doing — does he mean he knows what he’s doing when it comes to Star Wars? Because that hasn’t been true in a long time.)

On the other hand, a brand new, yet-to-air interview with CBS This Morning that will coincide with Lucas’ imminent Kennedy Center Honor, finds him revisiting — with faint traces of bitterness — the rejection of his story proposals by Disney and his lack of involvement with the new movies. So really, who knows what goes on in that guy’s head anymore…

With the taste of the prequels still souring scores of fans, we all approached news of Episodes VII-IX with understandable trepidation. And yet with every announcement, every tease, and every peek, the enthusiasm has been palpable. As I said earlier, the evidence strongly suggests that Abrams and company have gotten it right. The signs started early, when we learned the movie would not be shot digitally as the prequels were — and so many movies these days are — but rather on good ol’ 35mm film (and in the case of one sequence, IMAX!). Shooting on film is an unimportant detail to most, but for movie buffs, a good sign. Additionally, the movie would not shoot in 3D, something I would not have put past any major studio to impose on the filmmaker for a movie like this. It will be post-converted, of course, so that 3D is an option, but again, power to the purists.
Very early in the production, Abrams appeared in a video announcing a contest through UNICEF that could win a fan a walk-on part in the movie. His message was interrupted by a creature walking by, and it was joyful evidence that Abrams was going old school on the new movies. This wasn’t a CG character inserted after the fact, but a tactile, seemingly animatronic being interacting with Abrams and the rest of its environment. It backed-up what Abrams and others had been saying, that one big way the new movie would try to recapture the magic that eluded the prequels was by using real sets and practical effects as much as possible. Abrams would continue to send teasing messages throughout the production, offering visual clues that were like manna to the masses. A nod to the Millennium Falcon here, a callback to the Empire there…just fun, non-substantive nuggets, but enough to provide a jolt of excitement of the faithful.

That note about the leaks? It was no surprise that production was going to be off-the-charts in terms of intensive fan scrutiny. Speculation has run rampant since the casting phase we already discussed, and it hasn’t subsided. I don’t think there’s been a single day since the movie started shooting that I haven’t seen at least three stories about it on Yahoo‘s home page, and plenty of other websites have been plastering coverage as well. Hitfix contributor Donna Dickens has been doing near-daily countdown posts since I don’t even know when she started; this is her 287 Days Until Star Wars piece. It’s not even about Episode VII; it’s just random Star Wars stories. Really though? 287 days ahead of time?

Supposed plot and character details were constantly appearing online (and still are). In October 2014, a large number of images from the film leaked onto the web. (I love Entertainment Weekly‘s position that they wouldn’t post or link to the images because they’re stolen property, but describing them in detail was okay because the leak was newsworthy. Sorry guys, but that’s some bullshit. Report on the leak, by all means, but your journalistic integrity melts away when you start describing the material in detail. You’re as guilty as anyone at that point.) Personally, I’ve avoided all of this. I wanted to know nothing that wasn’t officially sanctioned by Disney and Abrams, the latter being well known for guarding his projects’ secrecy and being extremely deliberate about what he chooses to reveal and when. Bits of info slipped through my self-imposed firewall here and there, and things we have learned through proper channels by now have confirmed some rumors while disproving others. But even now, I’m trying to preserve as much surprise as I can. As much as I like the idea of going in completely blind, there’s no way I could ever remove myself from the build-up entirely. When that first trailer debuted almost exactly a year ago, the only debate in my head was whether to watch it online or attempt a trip to a movie theater over an out-of-town Thanksgiving weekend with family in order to watch it on the big screen. That lasted about five minutes, then the laptop came out. There wasn’t much to go on…but it was a perfect and potential-filled tease.

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, though there were dissenters too. (This guy had some interesting thoughts). The rolling droid was an instant hit. The three-pronged lightsaber was an instant controversy (Abrams enjoyed that debate, and offered that there was plenty of back and forth about it among the filmmakers as well.) The narration was an instant puzzler. (Who is it?? Andy Serkis? Adam Driver? Someone else?) And the sweeping shot of the Millennium Falcon that brought it all home? I didn’t hear much chatter about that, though I’m sure it was divisive. It’s a cool shot, but it doesn’t feel like anything from the original trilogy. I was okay with that. It’s a good thing for Abrams to bring his own sensibility to the film, up to a certain point (i.e. let’s keep the lens flare at bay, J.J.). By and large, we all want the new movies to evoke the classics while carving their own path.

A few weeks after the trailer hit — which itself came a few weeks after The Force Awakens moniker was revealed — we got a superbly clever and old school introduction to some of the characters and scenes glimpsed in the trailer. These holiday gifts had to hold us over for a while, because it wasn’t until the annual Star Wars Celebration event in April that the next wave of goodies would hit.

More to chew over than in the initial teaser. A lot of enticing and promising imagery. Still not a lot to go on, but it did its job. I loved the piano notes at the end of that superb first shot; loved the hissing echo of Luke’s narration (a sound effect I was only recently able to finally decipher; listen and you’ll hear the phrases “my father has it,” “my sister has it” and “I have it” quietly repeat after being spoken); loved the figure that was soon dubbed the Chrometrooper, and the Death Star-like hallway it was walking down; loved BB-8 peeking around the corner; and odd as this sounds, I loved Han Solo’s hair. I admit to being concerned about whether Ford would be given Han Solo’s traditional style once again or whether he would have the shorter hair the actor naturally sports, which frames his face more vertically vs. the more rounded-face look that distinguishes Han from most of Ford’s other characters. That final image of Han and Chewie, which sent fans into a tizzy of delight, was satisfying to me because of Ford’s hair. What can I say?

This new trailer kicked off another wave of publicity that would continue over the next few months as yet more details were revealed. The aforementioned Vanity Fair cover story was the occasion for The Chrometrooper to be identified as Captain Phasma, with Gwendoline Christie underneath the foreboding suit. We also learned that Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis would be donning motion capture suits to transform into characters called Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, respectively. (These revelations came as slight disappointment, since this means half of the movie’s primary female cast members won’t be seen as themselves — though maybe Captain Phasma’s helmet will come off, just as it appears Kylo Ren’s mask will; and because Serkis’ mocap bona fides are well established by now thanks to  Gollum, King Kong and Planet of the Apes‘ Ceasar. It would have been nice to see him in the flesh.) Maz Kanata wasn’t revealed, but we were told she is a pirate and has a castle that looks like the same sort of hip intergalactic hangout Jabba the Hutt once provided. And looking at this rogue’s gallery photo, many of these characters look as though they could have stepped right off the set of Return of the Jedi, further demonstrating the new filmmaking team’s commitment to practical makeup and creature effects.

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The next few months, with Comic-Con, Disney’s D23 convention, and an Entertainment Weekly cover story, would bring a smattering of new details and clues, from the identity of Domhnall Gleeson’s character — a villainous officer named General Hux, operating out of a location called Starkiller Base — to the possibility of appearances by Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb, two minor but key participants in Return of the Jedi‘s Rebel attack on the Death Star. But no doubt in keeping with Abrams mandate to maintain the element of surprise, the official hype machine had been quiet. Only in mid-October, with about two months to go before the release, did things finally pick up again. First there was the long overdue appearance of the film’s poster, followed closely by the third and final trailer U.S. theatrical trailer.

And so began the final marketing push. As we’re now in November, commercials have started popping up all over TV; more promotional tie-ins will be revealed; and talk show appearances will start up, beginning with Abrams, Boyega, Ridley and Driver on Jimmy Kimmel Live tomorrow night. But in terms of details, plot, etc., we still know so little, and it’s unlikely that we’ll learn much more between now and the movie’s December 18 release. Those who expected the final trailer to give us a more traditional preview of the story or to finally reveal Luke Skywalker were met instead with simply a longer tease which even recycled some shots from the previous trailers rather than offer entirely new footage. The Japanese trailer that followed gave us more enticing footage, but still few answers.

I’m fully in favor of this less-is-more approach, and while I never would have expected Luke to be completely withheld, I love it. And if some of the plot rumors that I failed to avoid turn out to be true — as it looks like they might be based on footage and official details we’ve seen — than I understand why we’re seeing so little of him. But really, how ballsy of Abrams and Disney to keep Luke Skywalker totally away from the ramp up to a new movie in which we know the character returns? He doesn’t even appear on the poster!

So with all of this unnecessary recapping out the way (sorry, but I had to justify the months worth of story links I’d been collecting with the intention of writing multiple posts over the last year and a half), and with the unveiling of the film rapidly approaching, here are some of my thoughts on what we’re in store for when the force awakens. I’m not one to go too deep down the rabbit hole of plot speculation (God knows there’s been more than enough of that plastered all over the internet day after day for months on end), but what we’ve seen — along with what we haven’t — has left me chewing on the following topics.

Oscar Isaac’s character, Poe Dameron, was revealed earlier this year to be one of the three leading protagonists of the new film. And yet we’ve seen surprisingly little of him so far. Not that we know much about Rey or Finn, but both have been featured prominently in all the publicity to date. Not so much with Poe. All we saw of him in the first trailer was a shot of him flying an X-wing. In the second trailer? Pretty much the same shot, and that was all. In the third trailer we see him twice, briefly both times: wearing his fighter suit as he passes Finn, and getting Force-raped by Kylo Ren in one of the trailer’s most captivating images. At Comic-Con, in lieu of a trailer, fans were treated to a behind the scenes video from the set of the film, and we got a shot of Dameron in civilian clothes and handcuffs being marched by a stormtrooper down a hallway strongly reminiscent of the Death Star detention cell block in A New Hope. There’s also this quick shot of him aiming a gun and looking alarmed, released just before the third trailer but not actually included in it. So why such mystery around Poe? How does he fit in? While on stage at the Star Wars Celebration, he said his character has “been sent on a mission by a certain princess and he ends up coming across Mr. John Boyega’s character, and their fates are forever intertwined.” Indeed, one of the newer photos making the rounds is a shot of these two together…though seemingly at a point in the story where I wouldn’t have thought they’d met yet. In the Japanese trailer, we see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Poe standing close to Princess Leia in what looks a war room similar to the one from which Leia monitored the first Death Star attack. So that, taken with his description, indicates that he already has a connection to Leia when the story begins.

Part of the marketing lead-up to The Force Awakens has been a variety of books covering the period between the events of Return of the Jedi and the new film. Among these titles is a Marvel comic series called Shattered Empire, and apparently the central character of that series is Poe’s mother. So it’s likely that Poe — whatever his role in the story — is already deeply involved in what we presume is a struggle between the Resistance and the First Order (names — revealed at April’s Star Wars Celebration — which seem to have taken the place of the Rebellion/Rebel Alliance and the Empire, respectively).

Oh, and in a related question, how does America’s new sweetheart BB-8 figure into events? The trailers so far have shown him (him?) keeping company with Rey and Finn. But the packaging for the remote-controlled (sorry: “app-enabled”) BB-8 toy that is already the hit of the holiday season and maybe one of the ten most adorable things I’ve ever seen in my life, describes him as “the spherical, loyal Astromech Droid of the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron.” The third trailer does show BB-8 positioned in the rear of an X-Wing fighter, and a model of Poe’s X-Wing that was on display at the Star Wars Celebration showed  BB-8 nestled in the back. So which characters is this little droid rolling with, and when do Poe, Finn and Rey cross paths? (Yes, by the way, Force Awakens toys hit shelves as early as September, and the absurdity of that is a topic I’ll have to avoid for now since this post is already longer than the CliffsNotes for Hamlet.)

The casting of Adam Driver has been a point of interest for me from the start. He’s one of the most original, unpredictable actors to emerge in the last several years, most notably in his three-time Emmy nominated performance on the HBO series Girls. But he seemed an odd choice for Star Wars because there’s something about him that seems so…I keep wanting to say contemporary, but that’s not it; he’s had small roles in period pieces like Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis (opposite Oscar Isaac!), and he was not out of place in either. He just doesn’t strike me as an actor whose persona would translate to sci-fi, fantasy or something otherworldly. Maybe because on Girls he comes off as so real, so unscripted, the idea of him in something less grounded in reality, where the dialogue will have a certain formality to it, has puzzled me. Hearing him speak as Kylo Ren for the first time in the third trailer — even with his voice altered a bit to sound more mechanical — gave me a jolt of excitement. It was just one line, but something about it put me at ease. (Not that I was worried. Totally wasn’t worried.)

I’m also excited to see what the mass audience makes of him. I take my familiarity with his work for granted, but there are a huge number of people who are scarcely aware of his work. They don’t watch Girls; they didn’t see Inside Llewyn Davis, they didn’t see This is Where I Leave You — a bigger, studio movie in which Driver has a large role, but which wasn’t a huge hit — and they haven’t seen his work in other small indies or low-profile films like What If, a rom-com with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. So this will be their first exposure to his untamed talent. I’m fascinated to see how it fits into Star Wars.

I talked earlier about how excited I was for Max von Sydow’s involvement. His role has been kept entirely secret up to this point, even more so than Luke’s. There’s been nary a photo or cryptic hint about who he’s playing or what he’ll be doing, and I love that. So here’s some light food for thought. Given his age, whoever he plays must be somebody who will not only have been around during the years of the original trilogy, but also the prequel era…which means conceivably he could be someone who knew Anakin Skywalker and Anakin’s mother, Shmi. Just doing some very rough math, if von Sydow is playing a character near to his actual age of 86, and we’re now 30 years out from the events of Episodes IV-VI, which themselves began 30 years after the events of Episodes I-III, then von Sydow’s character would have been around 26 when Luke and Leia were born…so maybe in his mid-teens when Anakin was a kid. Before I ran those numbers, I wondered if he could turn out to be Anakin’s father — a random notion that popped into my head only because von Sydow and Pernilla August, the actress who played Shmi, are both Swedish. Like that would need to matter. I was probably just reaching for something to negate the idiotic Immaculate Conception idea that Lucas came up with in The Phantom Menace.  Anyway…my number crunching shows the character would have been too young to father Anakin (not incapable of fathering him, but c’mon, this is a kid-friendly movie), so it’s moot. And there’s no reason to think he will have a connection to Anakin. I just like the idea that he could. That whoever he is, he has probably been around throughout the events depicted in the six previous movies — a set-up that offers some tantalizing possibilities.

Or maybe his character will simply be relevant to these new events, and that’s that. Either way…Max von Sydow!!

It’s been known for a while now that Han Solo has a large role in The Force Awakens, while the size of Luke and Leia’s is said to be smaller. The absence of Luke from the marketing, and the things Abrams has said about him, suggest that his role, even if small, will be central to the plot. As for Leia, it’s tough to gauge. She’s been nearly as scarce in the marketing as Poe Dameron. One of the rumors I heard when Michael Arndt left the project — no idea if there’s any truth to it — is that he wanted to sideline the original characters in favor of new ones, whereas Abrams wanted them to play a larger role and receive a proper send-off. It could be argued that they got a proper send-off in Return of the Jedi and we should be content with that, but at the same time, continuing the story of the original trilogy without its stars figuring in somewhat prominently wouldn’t feel right. Just having them show up for obligatory cameos might be even more awkward than not featuring them at all. So we seem to be getting a story in which Luke, Leia and Han factor heavily. Based on everything I’ve seen so far, it feels right.

But there is that nagging worry of whether or not Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can slip comfortably back into those characters after so long away. Do we really want to see Luke, Leia and Han 30 years older, or do we just think we do? Nostalgia has its allure, but it carries the risk of disappointment. We know they aren’t going to be the same as they were in the movies we grew up with, but will that knowledge make it any less uncomfortable to watch if they seem a little…off? Abrams has addressed the concerns too. In the Vanity Fair story, he said of Ford:

I knew that he had done in some movies a kind of more growly thing, and I didn’t want Han to be growly. But because of the backstory I wanted him to have evolved somewhat. I mean, when you’re in your late 60s you’re not the same person you were in your late 20s, and yet he had to be the character we know and love. So it was a balance that felt sort of emblematic for me in terms of this whole experience, which is it had to be what you know, but it can’t be exactly what you know.

From what he told The Seattle Times, he was not disappointed.

What was incredible from my point of view was how apparently easily they flipped back into these roles. I knew for a fact, for example, that Harrison Ford was going to be in this movie, but I couldn’t be certain that Han Solo would be. Meaning, I hadn’t seen Han Solo return after nearly 40 years, either. And it wasn’t until we got on set that I got my answer. It was a remarkable thing to see how effortlessly Harrison Ford became Han Solo again.

If we take his word for it, then they acclimated to their characters with ease and comfort. Like he says, however, they’re 30+ years older, and have surely accumulated experiences which have shaped and changed them into people who are the same but different. Will we accept those changes? Much of the Star Wars fiction that has extended the life of these characters over the last three decades has concerned offspring of Han and Leia, because of course the assumption is that the fiery princess and the charming scoundrel would stay together and have a family. But isn’t it kind of weird to think of Han Solo as a dad? The prominence of Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the marketing of The Force Awakens, and various clues gleaned from trailers and interviews, suggest that she might be the child of Han and Leia. If she is, in what kind of light will that recast Han? His relationship with Leia already had him softening a bit in Return of the Jedi. How will fatherhood have affected him?

From The Big Chill to Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan has frequently dealt with questions of how people evolve as time and experience impact them, and he said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that those questions were part of what appealed to him about coming back to Luke, Leia and Han after so long.

I thought, ‘Wow, okay, these people have lived — they’re in a different place in their lives, Han and Leia and so on. They’ve lived the same 30 years I have. What would that be like? How would you see things differently?’ And I was trying to figure out how I saw things differently, and one of the surprises is that you don’t learn all that much. You haven’t become much wiser than you were, and things are not clearer to you, and the world is just as confusing as it always was — and that’s a kind of lovely thing to get to write about again. Age does not necessarily bring wisdom; it just brings experience.

If Kasdan’s personal insight can successfully inform the characters, adding layers of depth while still holding onto the traits we love about them — and if the actors can tap back into those elements even as they bring their age and experience to bear — then it could be a real joy to watch those performances. My confidence continues to hold. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen (and haven’t seen) so far, and I think bringing them back was the right move. We’re getting the best of both worlds, with a story that connects to the originals but launches a new group of characters and helps us invest in them by pairing them with their predecessors. So far it’s looking like a winning recipe.

Another topic of feverish fan speculation has been the fate of Luke. His absence from the film’s posters and previews — with the exception of that confounding voiceover from the second trailer and the same clip’s hooded, metal-handed figure by the fire with R2-D2 that we all assume is our MIA Jedi — has elicited a lot of discussion. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly that one of the hooks Kathleen Kennedy dangled in front of him, enabling her to reel him into the project in the first place, was the opportunity to explore Luke’s post-Vader trajectory. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him,” Kennedy recalls. “‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’ He said, ‘Oh my God, I just got the chills. I’m in.’ I mean, it really was almost that quickly.”

I find that question to be less chill-inducing that Abrams.’ Episodes IV-VI gave us a perfectly satisfying picture of who Luke Skywalker is, and Kennedy’s question seems like one that never needed to be asked. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more story to tell after Jedi, just that this notion of Luke Skywalker needing to be demystified kinda comes out of nowhere. Yet it seems the query truly was a guiding light for the filmmakers. Kennedy went on:

The themes and ideas that we all continue to talk about are the themes and ideas that were the inherent in the original movies. We’re looking, obviously, for aspiration, for characters who are conflicted between good and evil, dark and light. George spoke often about that tension in everybody between what’s good and bad. He always felt that it was easier to be bad than good. I’m not sure all people would agree, but I think that that’s always an interesting conflict to explore. So that’s a big part of the themes inside of Episode VII.

That might explain why Lucas often said that his favorite moment in the classic trilogy was when Luke, hiding in the Emperor’s Throne Room from Darth Vader, gave into his anger and suddenly, furiously attacked his father at the suggestion that Leia could be turned to the dark side. The Emperor applauded Luke’s crippling assault that left Vader on his back with his hand chopped off. This was the moment when Luke would give into the dark side. But he didn’t, as we well know. He was a Jedi, like his father before him. Last month, a 10 year old episode of the Independent Film Channel show Dinner for Five resurfaced, featuring Mark Hamill telling the group that he thought Return of the Jedi would see Luke succumbing to the dark side…for a while at least. He talked about how interesting that would have been to play. Of course, the reason the clip gained traction now was that J.J. Abrams was also on the show that night. So between this TV show and the talk from Abrams and Kennedy about the existential nature of Luke Skywalker and the delicate balance between good and evil, the big new theory was that The Force Awakens‘ Luke would be evil. That’s why they had to keep him out of the trailers. That’s why his place in the movie is such a secret.

I understand why people might think this. But it’s a terrible idea that would make absolutely no one happy. Nobody wants to see Luke Skywalker as a bad guy, and to portray him as such would demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what fans desire, but of the beloved character’s core values. Who is Luke Skywalker? He’s not the villain, that’s for sure. If he managed to stay true to himself in that moment of defeating Vader in front of The Emperor, if in that moment of indulging his fear and his hatred he was still able to keep his wits and tell The Emperor to go to fuck himself (in more PG-rated vernacular), he’s not going to give into the dark side now. What stakes could be higher than they were then? Besides, if Luke had gone bad, Abrams and company aren’t going to leave him that way, and then the story becomes about bringing him back to himself, and we’ve already had the story of a Skywalker’s redemption. We don’t need another one.

All that said, there’s still some room to play with in that idea of the struggle between good and bad. Presenting Luke as a man who continues to feel that conflict within him which The Emperor hoped would result in a transformation, who is tempted by his anger and his fear…that could all be interesting, rich material to explore. A recovering alcoholic will still grapple with the urge, even years after their last drink. We could be looking at something like that when we’re re-introduced to Luke. Perhaps he’s gone into hiding, isolating himself because he has lost his sense of place in the world. Wherever he is when The Force Awakens picks up, it’s likely that he’s separated from Han and Leia. But how long will that have been the case? What is the relationship between them now? He seemed at peace when he returned to Endor to join his friends in celebration, overseen by the spirits of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda. What will have transpired to unsettle him during the intervening years? The fate of Luke Skywalker is easily the most captivating question among many captivating questions raised so far by The Force Awakens. As it should be. Let’s just hope the story doesn’t find him too far astray.

Just a quick thought here. Has anyone noticed the prevalence of red in the footage and images we’ve seen so far? Not the red of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber or the red of other lasers and such, but red on objects? New images of C-3PO show him sporting a red arm. Both Finn and Poe have been seen with beige jackets that have red on the shoulder and above the breast pocket. (Hmm…are they actually the same jacket? Is Finn the stormtrooper who’s marching Poe down that corridor?? Does Poe give him that jacket??? Why????) The TIE fighters — or at least one of them, seen damaged and hurtling through space in the third trailer and then crashed on the ground — appear to be partly red. In a shot from the second trailer that I mentioned earlier, of Captain Phasma striding down a hall, there’s a big red area to her left. Also in the second trailer, there’s that huge red curtain at what looks like a First Order rally (see Trailer #2 embed above). There’s a lot of seemingly symbolic red going on here. But symbolic of what?

We haven’t even seen Episode VII yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to Episodes VIII and IX. Rian Johnson will pick up the reins from Abrams and Kasdan as the writer/director of Episode VIII. Johnson is the director of the highly original indies Brick and The Brothers Bloom, as well as the time-travel thriller Looper. He also helmed some Breaking Bad episodes that are considered among the series’ best. He’s a great choice for Star Wars, somebody who has talent and vision that he can bring into this familiar world, and he’s already been hard at work on the script, applying his own stamp to the next chapter in a story whose groundwork has been laid by Abrams, Kasdan and the rest of Kennedy’s brain trust. I don’t think it’s been made official by Lucasfilm or anyone in charge yet, but Benicio del Toro is all but confirmed to be joining the movie, and there are also reports that rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw has landed one main role, while fellow ingenues Olivia Cooke, Tatiana Maslany and Gina Rodriguez were also said to be among the top contenders for another. (That news came in September, and since then all three actresses have joined or are close to joining other films that might impact their availability for Episode VIII, which will return the series to its proper schedule with a May 26, 2017 release.) Maybe it was all the same role; we know too little about the movie right now to say.

Casting news always excites me, but I hope each new movie isn’t overloaded with major character additions. The original trilogy, and even the prequels, didn’t bring in too many new significant figures from film to film. The Empire Strikes Back obviously had a couple of key additions, but by and large the cast that we met in A New Hope stayed intact through Return of the Jedi. Abrams has assembled such an impressive line-up for The Force Awakens (the jury’s still out on Ridley, but she looks poised to nail it), and I hope that the movie doesn’t pull a Darth Maul and get rid of promising characters before they’ve had a chance to be developed. While the articles linked above mention that some of those actresses might have been screen testing with John Boyega, we really have no idea who will be back for Episodes VIII and/or IX. So far, the only actor I’m aware of to confirm their return for the rest of the trilogy is Anthony Daniels…which makes sense, since C-3PO and R2-D2 have been the connective tissue across every Star Wars trilogy. Boyega and Ridley are safe assumptions at this point, but who else? Harrison Ford has a big part in The Force Awakens, but is he appearing in the next two as well? And if so, how sizable will his role be going forward? If Luke and Leia are featured less prominently in this outing, will they be more central to the next two installments? Given how crucial it sounds like Luke will be to this film — regardless of how much screen time he has — doesn’t it stand to reason that he’ll remain a key figure as the trilogy unfolds?

And what about Lando?!? When so many original cast members were confirmed to return, there was vocal disappointment among fans that Billy Dee Williams wasn’t involved. But hints have been dropped that Lando will yet find his way into the new adventure, and having him join Episode VIII would mirror his arrival in the second film of the original trilogy. Williams expressed the same thought when asked about Lando’s return by some outlet called Cinelinx:

But I uh…I may very well…I have a feeling I’m going to show up. There’s nothing I can really discuss about it at this stage. People think of me as the original cast, but I didn’t come in until the second movie.  I did Empire and then I did Return of the Jedi, but I came in after everyone else was introduced…So I think they’re probably proceeding in that way. I can’t imagine them not bringing Lando back.  But we’ll see, I don’t know.

In his Vanity Fair interview, Lawrence Kasdan also provided hope, saying, “Right now, there’s no Lando Calrissian in this movie. But Lando I don’t think is finished in any way, shape, or form.” So hopefully we will see Billy Dee Williams back in action down the line. Assuming the new cast and their characters prove engaging in The Force Awakens, I already hope we’ll see most of them back too.

So Rian Johnson’s taking on Episode VIII. For Episode IX, Lucasfilm and Disney made a less exciting choice, tapping Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow. It felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his having lucked into making what this summer became — to universal shock (and Universal’s shock) — the third highest-grossing film of all time, domestically and internationally. I don’t want to come down too harshly on Trevorrow; he might prove a great choice in the end. It’s just that he’s only directed two features so far (the first being indie charmer Safety Not Guaranteed) and I’d consider the jury still very much out on him. I wish Disney and Kennedy would have gone with someone a little more proven. Not so much in the experience department — Trevorrow showed he was definitely capable of handling a big movie — as in the realm of talent and point of view. To be fair, Gareth Edwards, who won the assignment of directing the first Star Wars spin-off movie, Rogue One (which I just don’t have room to address in this post, but I’ll get to), also has just two films to his credit: like Trevorrow, an indie breakout (Monsters) and a blockbuster follow-up (Godzilla). His hiring was met with much more fanfare than Trevorrow’s, but I would argue that based on those two films, he’s expressed a stronger vision than Trevorrow has yet demonstrated. Now I liked Safety Not Guaranteed quite a bit, and I enjoyed Jurassic World well enough, but I’m not sure what he really brought to the latter that a number of other competent directors couldn’t have brought. The massive success of the movie is much more a testament to the subject matter and the Jurassic Park brand than to anything exhibiting vision on its director’s part. If the powers behind Star Wars were willing to hire someone like Rian Johnson, whose movies definitely have their own stamp, then they are obviously comfortable handing the reins of their precious $4 billion investment to someone who will apply that stamp. In a September 2014 conversation with director Terry Gilliam, Johnson addressed this:

It’s a balance. That’s been the great thing. Kathy [Kennedy] and her whole creative team have been just so insistent that all the filmmakers they’re hiring for these new movies, ‘We want you to take it and turn it into something that you really care about.’ We’ll see how the process plays out, but so far, that’s a big part of why I’m in it, because that seems to be their attitude towards it. It’s really exciting.

Trevorrow might have a strong voice of his own too, but if so, it’s still emerging, and Lucasfilm and Disney’s decision to hire him seems more concerned with playing it safe, whereas hiring Johnson was inspired. Obviously I want the movies to be great, so I’m rooting for Trevorrow all the way. He’ll have one more chance to show us what he’s got before tackling Episode IX, as he returns to the smaller scale of Safety Not Guaranteed with a drama called The Book of Henry, starring Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Dean Norris and excellent young actors Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Jacob Tremblay (Room). Here’s hoping that film let’s him show us something promising and sends him into Star Wars with strong buzz that justifies the choice to hire him.

Yes, finally…there’s this. I am fully aware that I’m a grown-ass man becoming giddy about the extension of a movie series that fueled my imagination when I was a little-ass kid. When I was growing up, Star Wars was still a new thing. It’s stature and significance has grown and grown into a phenomenon that I believe to be unequaled, and I came of age as that was happening. Star Wars is in my DNA. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I can’t expect these new movies to impact me the way those first three did. I think those who never caught the Star Wars bug and are able to view us fans from a distance believe that the reason we disdain so much about the prequels is that we expected them to stir us the way the original trilogy did, and they didn’t, because we had grown up.

That’s not it.

We disdain so much about the prequels because so much about the prequels is bad.

Today, those skeptics think we’re setting ourselves up for a bigger fall, because we’re even older now, and that much further removed from the state of being we existed in when Star Wars cast its spell on us. And that’s true. But I don’t expect or need these new movies to take root inside me the way the initial films did. How can they? I’m not an impressionable child anymore. I just need them to be good. To be charming and thrilling and exciting and fun and dark and emotionally grounded. To tell a story that builds on what came before but charts its own course, and makes me want to follow. In various interviews, Abrams has talked about the mood and spirit everyone involved hopes to achieve with these new films. He’s talked about what made the original Star Wars so special to so many and about trying to transport us back to that place. Sadly, we can never truly occupy that space again, but we can feel connected to it.

Even for today’s kids, it will be different. The world has changed. When I was a kid, there was nothing else that had the scope and scale of Star Wars. There was no competition. Today’s kids may love it, but the popularity of Batman, Superman, Spiderman and The Avengers is boundless. Kids have Harry Potter, they have Transformers, they have movies and TV shows that are rife with technical wizardry the likes of which, in my childhood, couldn’t be found anywhere except in Star Wars. With all of these influences (and more) competing for kids’ imaginations, Star Wars is just one piece of the pie. They may love it, they may go back for repeat viewings, but they’ll also move onto the next thing with relative ease. They won’t swim, soak and steep in it the way my generation and those just before and after mine did, because there are too many other exciting things vying for their attention. But the fact that a nearly 40 year old creation still holds such a powerful sway is a triumph in itself, and we need to keep all of this in mind as The Force Awakens takes its place in the world.

In a recent interview with Wired, Abrams spoke of developing the movie, saying, “I asked questions like ‘How do we make this movie delightful?’ That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful.” It’s an interesting word for him to use, because while each trailer I’ve seen has suggested a movie that will live up to its expectations, “delightful” is not a word I would use to describe what we’ve seen. The trailers have been action-heavy, and even a little melancholy and a little dark. Who knows what the overall tone of the movie will be, but hearing Abrams use a word like “delightful” — a word that conjures all the things I said above that I want the movie to be — makes me feel like we really are in store for a treat, because this thing must have a tone that hasn’t been revealed yet. It’s a reminder that even with the exposure going into high gear as we enter the final few weeks before release, we have no idea what to expect.

We’re in the home stretch now. My excitement is high and I can only imagine the fever pitch it will hit as opening night approaches. My tickets are purchased, and while new commercials, articles, photos and interviews are starting to fly at us, I’ve cut myself off. I don’t want to know anything more than I do at this point. If I got more clarity about Poe Dameron with only a few weeks to go, I’d be disappointed. Abrams and Disney have laid down their approach to marketing the story, and I’m on board. If they’ve withheld Dameron from us for this long, then I don’t want to find out anything. If any light were shed on Max von Sydow’s character before I’m sitting in the theater on December 17 watching the movie, I would be sorely disappointed. So right now, I’m good. I feel the Force, and I can’t wait to see what Abrams, Kasdan, Kennedy and this cast of aces have in store for the worldwide community of Star Wars faithful.

I have a good feeling about this.

January 27, 2013

The King of Science Fiction

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 6:46 pm
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It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs. The opportunity to take the reins of the most beloved and influential film franchise ever and make the sequel that fans no longer thought to expect, revisiting characters not seen in nearly 30 years while also salvaging a brand that, while still thriving in many formats, was not in the best shape when last seen on celluloid. So…no pressure.

Steven Spielberg said no. Brad Bird said no. J.J. Abrams said no. Ben Affleck said no. J.J. Abrams elaborated on why he said no. Guillermo del Toro said no. All was quiet. There should have been an announcement, but it didn’t come. A job which would seem on the surface to be one of Hollywood’s most coveted may actually have been its most feared. And then J.J. Abrams said yes.

Star Wars Episode VII has a director. And it’s the same guy who is currently in charge of Star Trek. Ben Kenobi once spoke to Luke Skywalker of sensing millions of voices suddenly crying out in terror. That loud noise you heard when this news broke on Thursday was millions of voices suddenly crying out in collective orgasm.

The fact that one person is now the shepherd of the two most popular and enduring science fiction franchises ever is a bizarre twist of events. I keep thinking about the cop played by Peter Boyle in Malcolm X who witnesses Malcolm’s influence over his followers at a crowded demonstration and ominously remarks, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I don’t know what the implications are of one man making new Star Trek and Star Wars movies, but I take it as a good sign that the universe has not folded in on itself and created some kind of super black hole. Fans seem happy, and it didn’t take them long to start having fun with the fact that Abrams now reigns supreme as the King of Science Fiction.

I’d love to know how Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm and producer of the sequels, changed Abrams’ mind, and if any Jedi mind tricks were involved. Or maybe she simply told him, “Resistance is futile.” (Some vague details are mentioned here.) I’m sure he will have plenty of interview opportunities in the months ahead to explain why he decided to commit the next several years of his life to outer space. He’ll probably soon start collaborating on the script with Michael Arndt, who has already been hired to write the movie, plus he’s still in post-production on Star Trek Into Darkness. That comes out in May, so he’ll be promoting it, then he’ll likely have to move right into pre-production on Episode VII. Then probably back to Star Trek when he’s done in 2015, as he is signed on to direct one more installment of that series. And let’s not forget his nonstop work developing and producing TV shows; the day after the Star Wars announcement, NBC and Fox each bought a pilot from his Bad Robot label.

I’m excited by the selection of Abrams. I think he’s about as good a choice as we could hope for to redeem the cinematic corner of the sprawling Star Wars galaxy. The prequels left the franchise as burned and scarred as Anakin Skywalker after he was hacked to pieces and left for dead on the fiery shore of a liquid hot magma river. Now Lucasfilm’s new leader Kathleen Kennedy is playing the role of Emperor (minus the being evil part), encasing the charred remains in a shiny new suit, and Abrams is like Luke, come to redeem the franchise and help return its purity.

Okay, that may be an overreaching attempt at a metaphor, but you get the idea. Star Wars needs to be placed in capable directorial hands, and Abrams fits the bill. In an email thread discussing the selection on Friday, a friend of mine said he had hoped for more of an “actor’s director;” someone who could handle the action and special effects but whose most obvious gift was for coaxing performances. I wanted essentially the same, writing in November that I hoped the chosen director would be someone “who has shown skills handling mainstream content with good performances, editing and storytelling.” My friend likes Abrams well enough, but doesn’t think he’s the guy who can deliver that. I think he can. I see Abrams as a guy who can bring the spectacle, the humanity and the humor, and who can put it all together in a good-looking, skillfully assembled package. His entry in the Mission:Impossible franchise is my favorite of that series; 2009’s Star Trek did the legacy proud; and the pilot episode of Lost, for which he won a Best Director Emmy award, is two spectacular hours of television. His last movie, Super 8, was an homage to early Spielberg, but while I had problems with some of its sci-fi aspects, it really worked for me on a character level (although we all have our own radar for these things; my Abrams-resistant friend found the movie’s character development and quieter, “human” scenes to be lacking).

I am not without concerns when it comes to Abrams. While I enjoyed Star Trek overall, there were some traits on display that he needs to avoid when it comes to a new Star Wars movie, especially because they call to mind The Phantom Menace. At one point, Kirk crashes onto a planet of ice, and is attacked by a creature which is then swiftly attacked itself by another creature. Neither was necessary. They seemed to exist just to give Abrams the chance to design some monsters for a movie that didn’t have an obvious place for monsters. On top of that, both were generic-looking CGI bores. This tends to be another problem with Abrams. For a guy who loves monsters, the ones he’s come up with are usually bland. The creatures in both Super 8 and Cloverfield (which he produced) were kind of….meh. Star Wars may or may not call for creatures, but if it does, let’s hope Abrams takes his cue from the Wampa, the Rancor or the giant asteroid worm rather than anything in The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, which his Star Trek creatures take after. I also want to see him strike the right balance with the humor. Star Trek occasionally went a little too far into goofy, Jar Jar territory, like when Dr. McCoy gives Kirk an injection (can’t remember why) which has the side effect of making Kirk’s hands swell up like balloons. The joke was milked and felt too silly. Humor is good, but it has to find the right tone. And for the love of Yoda, please none of Lucas’ potty humor. Again, look to the original trilogy. There are some really funny moments in The Empire Strikes Back, and most are born out of character dynamics, dialogue and great timing. That’s the model to use.

As I see it, there are two significant challenges Abrams faces. The first is finding a way to differentiate between Star Trek and Star Wars. The space battles in the former series were always tepid compared to the fast-paced, fluid action sequences in all of the Star Wars films. But Abrams brought that kineticism to Star Trek, so now he has to figure out how to keep the two from looking interchangeable. He’ll need a different color scheme (less blue, less orange) and he might just have to sacrifice his beloved lens flare.

His second challenge may be the thing that caused him, and probably others, to turn down the movie in the first place: reverence for the first three movies. Abrams has said on several occasions that one of the reasons taking on the Star Trek reboot appealed to him was that he was never much of a Trekkie/Trekker, and so he didn’t feel beholden to its legacy when relaunching it. That won’t be the case here. Abrams has often spoke about what an influence Star Wars was and how avid a fan he is. He cited that as one of the reasons he initially passed when Emperor Kennedy came calling with the keys to the Millennium Falcon. The burden of hopes and expectations that fans will place on his shoulders will be second only to those he places on himself. But you don’t get to be where Abrams is without a lot of confidence. So switch off the targeting computer, J.J. Lower the blast shield. Feel the Force flowing through you, and let it guide your instincts. And go ahead and read some of the articles that have popped up all over the web about what fans are looking for from the new movies. There’s plenty of good advice to be gleaned. Here’s one, from The Playlist. (Michael Arndt, you should be reading this stuff too.) Here also are a few articles about some Abrams trademarks that may or may not find their way into the new movie, again courtesy of The Playlist, as well as Vulture and TV Guide.

Even as I write this, it’s hard not to be a little excited. I remember May 19, 1999, the day Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace opened. I was in Ithaca, New York, experiencing my final days of college. A friend and I had tickets to the first show of the day, and the elation was indescribable; 16 years in the making. In minutes, the Star Wars titles would fill the screen, John Williams’ iconic theme blasting through the theater, and for the first time since I was six years old, the opening crawl would be unfamiliar to me. I would have no idea what was coming. I also remember that after the movie, we drove around aimlessly, talking about it, trying to convince ourselves that we liked it. We might have been successful for a short while, but reality soon set in. Now I’m an older, wiser, more jaded Star Wars fan, and I know to temper my expectations. A new Star Wars movie can’t possibly affect me the way that A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi did, nor does it have to. It just has to be good. And with a script by Michael Arndt, a producer like Kathleen Kennedy, a consultant like Lawrence Kasden (not really sure what Simon Kinberg brings to the table, but whatever) and J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair, the future of Star Wars looks bright…but hopefully not too blue or orange.

(Click here for more artist Star Wars/Star Trek mash-ups)

November 28, 2012

Geek World Continues to Ponder Possibilites After Tattooine Drifts into Orbit of Pluto

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:15 am
Tags: , , , , ,

“The long term contract I had to sign says I’ll be making these movies ’til the end of time…”
                                                       -Weird Al Yankovic, “Yoda” (1985)

If you follow entertainment news (to which, if we weren’t in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane and a presidential election, I would ask, “Is there any other kind?”), you are probably aware that about a month ago, George Lucas and The Walt Disney Company’s Chairman and CEO Bob Iger announced that Disney is acquiring Lucasfilm in a deal worth $4.03 billion, and that the studio would be making a new trilogy of movies set in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, not to mention many more future movies within other corners of the massive Star Wars galaxy. And if you only casually follow such news, it might seem that the level of attention garnered by this announcement was a bit over the top. For pretty much three weeks afterwards, barely a day went by without new articles on the topic popping up on the pages of entertainment websites, many of the pieces purely speculation about who should direct the new movies, or commentary on what the movies should and should not do, etc. It’s been a bit much. But then again, to those of us who care about things like this, it is pretty huge news. And even though it’s taken me this long to get all my thoughts down and, like most of my posts, this one arrives too late and too long for anyone to actually care, I’m going to proceed anyway, for my own sake. Hell, South Park managed to build an episode around the news weeks before before I could finish this post.

Where to begin? I guess earlier this year, when it was announced that A-list producer Kathleen Kennedy was joining Lucasfilm, serving as Co-Chairman alongside founder George Lucas as he transitioned away from running the company. That was huge news on its own. Yes, I’d be happy to explain why. For those unfamiliar with Kathleen Kennedy’s CV, she is one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific movie producers. She and husband Frank Marshall have a long history with George Lucas, going back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, on which she was credited as “Associate to Steven Spielberg.” Just a couple of years later, she was a full-fledged producer on E.T., earning her first Oscar nomination. For most of the 1980s, Kennedy and Marshall were Spielberg’s right hands, serving as in-house producers at the director’s production company Amblin Entertainment. Spielberg and Amblin’s involvement with the next two Indiana Jones movies, not to mention the close friendship between Lucas and Spielberg, naturally put Kennedy in Lucas’ inner circle too.

In the 90s, the husband-and-wife team left Amblin and struck out on their own, forming The Kennedy/Marshall Company. Well…”struck out” may be the wrong phrase to use, since they continued to hit home runs. And they remained in close partnership with Spielberg, with Kennedy producing most of his movies, including War of the Worlds, Munich, War Horse and Lincoln. She’s also produced such films as The Sixth Sense, Seabiscuit, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (earning Oscar nominations for all), The Bridges of Madison County and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the latter giving her some art film cred amidst a mostly Hollywood-based career).

Clearly, Kennedy is an active producer. Which made her such a surprising choice to take over Lucasfilm. Kathleen Kennedy makes movies. That’s what she does. And that’s not what Lucasfilm does. Not historically, at least. Since 1990, Lucasfilm has put out seven films. Three of those were the Star Wars prequels. One of them was Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which was just the first four episodes of The Clone Wars TV series cobbled together. One of them was the fourth Indiana Jones movie. The other two were Radioland Murders, which most people have never heard of, and Red Tails, Lucas’ long-gestating passion project about the Tuskegee Airmen, which came out earlier this year. In the same time period, Kennedy produced 22 features, served as Executive Producer on 18 more and also had a hand in numerous short films and TV projects. If Kennedy was coming to take over Lucasfilm, then Lucasfilm was going to start making a lot more movies.

Publicly, it had been a quiet period of transition since Kennedy came onboard. And then…that out of the blue announcement, which exploded across the entertainment news landscape.

There are a lot of elements to this deal, so it might be easiest to examine them one at a time.

Although Disney has experience acquiring successful companies with a popular brand, the partnerships haven’t always been smooth. Their 1993 purchase of Miramax Films ended sadly, with the 2005 departure of Harvey and Bob Weinstein from the company – named for their parents Miriam and Max – that they had made synonymous with prestige independent film. It never made much sense for the studio behind Bambi, Dumbo and Cinderella to go into business with the studio behind Reservoir Dogs, Clerks and sex, lies and videotape. Bambi’s mother may have been shot, but we didn’t see the hunter carve her up for venison while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle With You.”

Prior to purchasing Pixar in 2006, Disney had a marketing and distribution deal with the animation studio, but it turned ugly when the two sides couldn’t agree on terms. After Michael Eisner left Disney in 2005, Bob Iger took over and seemed to bring peace to the Magic Kingdom. Relations with Pixar were smoothed, leading to the 2006 deal with Disney. Then in 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment, and now the Lucasfilm deal continues the company’s acquisition of family-friendly brands with all manner of franchise possibilities. (And let’s not forget The Muppets, who have been part of the Disney family since 2004, and whose profile rose with last year’s hit movie. A sequel is currently in pre-production.) Under Iger’s management, relations with Pixar, Marvel and The Jim Henson Company seem to be going well, and with a seasoned pro like Kennedy in charge at Lucasfilm, there’s no reason to think that Disney will try to meddle in the business. Iger was quite clear with Disney’s investors: this purchase is all about Star Wars, and the doors that will open should be enough to keep Disney’s leadership and shareholders plenty happy.

The purchase includes all of the Lucasfilm companies – Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Skywalker Sound and LucasArts. In the case of ILM, Iger stated that the plan is to leave it alone to do business as usual. Hopefully that will prove to be the case – for Skywalker Sound and LucasArts as well – allowing Disney to reap whatever revenue they bring in while also taking advantage of them for their own needs. ILM and Skywalker Sound have been used by many Disney films in the past (as well as Marvel’s Iron Man franchise and The Avengers), and it seems highly probable that Disney will now utilize the companies for all of their films. The article above does point out that, with the exception of Sony Imageworks, movie studios have not had the best luck running visual effects companies, and Disney in particular struggled with Dream Quest Images (which became The Secret Lab) and Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers. The article also mentions that ILM made $100 million in revenue last year, which I seriously doubt. The nightmarish fiscal realities of the visual effects industry are a whole other issue, but I can tell you that VFX studios don’t make that kind of profit. They don’t make much profit at all. Anyway, my hope is that Iger is true to his word and allows ILM, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts to keep doing what they’re doing, and that the piles of cash they’ll make from Star Wars and its merchandising will more than cover the cost of ILM and Skywalker Sound going about business as usual. As for LucasArts, hopefully Disney’s intention to pursue more Star Wars video game opportunities will provide lots of work to keep them going strong.

Lucas’ previous relationships with other studios make the future of his properties murky at this point. According to this piece in The Hollywood Reporter, 20th Century Fox owns the distribution rights to the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) for all time, while their ownership of the five subsequent films reverts back to Lucasfilm in 2020. That means the ongoing 3D re-releases of the movies (Episodes II and III are due in 2013) will remain Fox releases, and any more home video releases in the immediate future will also come from Fox. If Disney ever hopes to release a major box set with the entire nine-part saga, it will have to work out a deal with Fox for Episode IV. (Dare we dream that under Kennedy and Disney, we’ll eventually see a remastered home video release of the first trilogy’s original versions? If we do, I doubt it will be before home video goes away and everything is online or beamed directly into our brains and projected through our eyeballs on whatever surface is in front of us.) The article quotes a Lucas associate as saying that the director didn’t like the idea of splitting up the movies amongst different rights holders, but that turning the future of Star Wars over to Fox instead of Disney made no sense. Anyone taken a family vacation to Foxland lately?

Distribution rights to the Indiana Jones films remain with Paramount, meaning any future Indy movies would require some kind of deal between Paramount and Disney. And despite ongoing rumblings, nobody seems really committed to another Indy film anyway. Meanwhile, the popular animated series The Clone Wars airs on Cartoon Network, which is owned by Warner Bros. Iger’s plans for the future of Star Wars definitely seem to include TV series (perhaps the long-awaited live action series will finally see the light of day?), but where The Clone Wars will land after its current season ends – and how series box sets will be packaged in the years ahead – remains unconfirmed.

One Lucasfilm property that shouldn’t have rights hurdles to clear is Howard the Duck. The 1986 film was based on a Marvel Comics series, and now Lucasfilm and Marvel are united under one roof. Your move, Disney.

So now that Disney owns every star, moon and planet in George Lucas’  galaxy far, far away, what will they do with it all? Well, we know they will make Episodes VII, VIII and IX, which I’ll talk more about later. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for a property as rich as Star Wars.

Disney has been in business with George Lucas going back to 1986, when ILM created visual effects for the Michael Jackson 3D short, Captain EO. The next year, the Star Wars-themed motion simulation ride Star Tours opened in Disneyland, eventually hitting the other Disney parks as well. The development of future theme park attractions based on Star Wars is inevitable. A park the size of all of DisneyWorld could easily be created from the vast expanses of the Star Wars galaxy, and if it happened to Harry Potter, you can bet the Millennium Falcon it will happen to Star Wars.

How awesome is that gonna be?

The possibilities are pretty much endless, but for starters, here’s some fun artwork created by artist Tom Hodges for Star Wars Celebration V a couple of years ago.

If there’s one thing that Disney and Lucasfilm have in common beyond visionary creators whose imaginations birthed timeless, beloved characters and stories, it’s that they both know how to sell the shit out of Stuff. So beyond the new movies and the obvious theme park development, expect Disney to churn out endless streams of Star Wars Stuff. The only question is what that will actually look like, since Lucasfilm has already been doing it for years. TV shows, toys, novels, comic books, clothes, toothbrushes, coffee mugs, keychains, posters, calendars, Christmas tree ornaments…just think of all the Stuff that Star Wars can – and has – been slapped on. Can Disney up the ante, or will they just keep the machine going?

In practical terms for movie fans, the biggest shocker of the Lucasfilm/Disney announcement was probably not the acquisition so much as the reveal that Episodes VII, VIII and IX were in the works, with 2015 set as the release date for the first. And not only would there be a post-Jedi trilogy, but Lucas would not be directly involved in making them.


Now the Kathleen Kennedy move started to make sense. While Lucas has helped develop story treatments and will serve as Creative Consultant, he is leaving the future of Star Wars on film in the capable hands of Kennedy and a new group of filmmakers. Those of us who were disappointed in what Lucas did with the prequels dared to imagine new Star Wars movies that could actually recapture the tone of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The possibilities are thrilling. Speculation immediately began about who would or should direct the new movies. That question hasn’t been answered yet, but another one has been. The task of writing Episode VII has landed on the desk of Michael Arndt, who won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine and earned another nomination for Toy Story 3. His outstanding work on the latter is what makes me feel comfortable and encouraged by the choice. Granted, it’s still not much to go by. Those are his only two films to date, though several more are on the way: another Pixar film (due in 2015), the next installment of The Hunger Games franchise (on which he will share credit with Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy), the Tom Cruise sci-fi film Oblivion, directed by Tron: Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski and also featuring contributions from Departed writer William Monahan, and Phineas and Ferb, based on the hit cartoon series. At least two of those will be out before Star Wars hits, so we’ll have a better sense of Arndt’s skills, but so far he seems to be a guy who can combine humor, strong characters and authentic emotional weight. Seriously, do we need to talk about the amazing final third of Toy Story 3?

Directors will likely be approaching the invitation from Kennedy with as much trepidation as passion. While we all know the vitriol directed at Lucas because of the prequels (among other things, to be fair), at least he could fall back on the fact that everything we love about Star Wars still sprung from his brain. But who wants to be the outsider who comes in and potentially screws up the chance to relaunch the brand?

It needs to be someone who has established an ability to make smart, commercial movies, and in my perfect world, a little more weight will be given to filmmaking skill than how profitable or financially successful their previous films have been. One friend of mine suggested Rian Johnson, director of Brick and Looper, and that’s just the kind of person I’d like to see take the job. In that vein, Duncan Jones – director of Moon and Source Code – could be a great choice as well. Jon Favreau would probably do a good job too. I’d love to see it directed by somebody who isn’t necessarily proven in sci-fi or fantasy, but who has shown skills handling mainstream content with good performances, editing and storytelling. Ben Affleck, perhaps? (He says no.) Will Disney look to its Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski? That could go either way, though with a good script I think he’d do a fine job. David Yates handled the last four Harry Potter films quite nicely, showing a skill for balancing action and effects with quiet and even powerful moments of performance and character. I don’t know; I’m not interested in wasting much time speculating on these things. I just want Kennedy and whoever else is involved in the process to be smart about it, and not hand the reins over to someone who makes bland, cookie-cutter studio movies that might make money, but who has no personality as a filmmaker. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be someone who has such a singular style or point of view that they overshadow the movie. People have tossed around big names like Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan, but I can’t imagine either being interested or…right for the gig.  Apparently, Lucasfilm sent Arndt’s treatment to three directors in recent weeks, and all have declined…either because of other projects they have lined up, or maybe because they only see the pitfalls. Whatever their real reasons,  J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Steven Spielberg all passed. (Oddly, Spielberg talks about not being a sci-fi guy or being interested in action movies anymore, even though his next project is Robopocalypse…a sci-fi action movie.) One name that keeps popping up as a likely director? Matthew Vaughan, who directed the Daniel Craig caper Layer Cake, the comedic fantasy Stardust, the action-comedy Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. (He was set to direct an X-Men follow-up, but abruptly dropped out right around the time the Lucasfilm/Star Wars news broke, fueling speculation that he’d been offered Episode VII. I’ve seen all his films except for Stardust, and I’ve enjoyed them, but I don’t know if he’s got the right stuff for Star Wars.

Then again, I’m admittedly being far too precious about this whole thing…as evidenced by the fact that I’m still writing about it.

What I really want to see is a Funny or Die short or SNL sketch or something where we see what a Star Wars movie would be like directed by eccentric filmmakers like Terrence Malick (Luke wandering the desert of Tattooine to whispered voiceover about the spiritual essence of the planet’s twin suns), David Lynch (Han and Lando have an oblique, circular conversation in a room with dim, flickering lights and a loud, unsettling buzzing noise coming from nowhere in particular) and Quentin Tarantino (Luke, clad in a yellow jumpsuit, once again finds trouble in a cantina, this time expertly wielding his lightsaber to maim an onslaught of aliens).

The fact that we’re even getting Episodes VII, VIII and IX is perplexing. While the rumors back in the days of the first trilogy were that Lucas had nine stories altogether, he often said during the prequel era that the completion of the second trilogy would make clear that together, the Star Wars movies were really the story of Anakin Skywalker; his rise, his fall and his redemption at the hands of his son. Despite what most of us think of the prequels, the six movies together do tell that story, forming a symmetrical arc that ends with Return of the Jedi. The post Jedi-years have been explored in numerous novels, but none of those stories stemmed from Lucas’ own ideas. In fact, I remember when the first Star Wars novel, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, came out – I was in my early teens – and I took a stand against reading it because it was not based on George Lucas’ own story. I wasn’t interested in a Star Wars that didn’t come from Lucas. (Little did I know what I would get for my loyalty.) Still, Zahn claims that Lucas once briefed him on his own intentions for the later years of the saga, saying that the idea would be to follow the next generation of the Skywalker family.

Actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have all expressed willingness to return for new movies, and they would have to be willing, because c’mon… you can’t recast those parts. And yet, if the stories skip so far ahead in time that Luke, Leia and Han have become one with The Force, then you’re no longer talking about Episodes VII, VIII and IX; you’re just talking about new movies in the Star Wars universe. In truth, I don’t know how I feel about seeing Hamill, Fisher and Ford back in these roles. It’s not that I want to see someone else playing the iconic parts, but it’s been a long time since Return of the Jedi. It’s not always so easy to slip back into characters years later. Whatever else you might think about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Indy that Ford played in that movie just wasn’t the same Indy we knew in the 80’s. If he’d been playing the part every few years in a new adventure, the aging would have been less apparent. But to pick up the character 18 years later…it was a bit jarring. True, Luke, Leia and Han would probably play more supporting roles in the sequels, but still…there’s no doubt that this is dangerous territory.

Ooooh, but if they could pull it off….could be really cool. And could we make sure Billy Dee Williams gets in on this too?

The next three films will need to fit tonally with the six before it, but once Disney can turn its attention to telling other stories on film from within the Star Wars universe, there could be more potential for going in unexpected directions. The Kennedy/Marshall Company produced all the Jason Bourne movies, which makes me think of how cool it would be to see Paul Greengrass bring his gritty realism to a story of spies or smugglers in some of the galaxy’s seedier corners. Don’t think Disney would go for that? I’m not so sure. All four Pirates movies were PG-13. As long as Kennedy keeps things from going too dark, I think she’ll be given a fair amount of leeway. And if the plan is really to put out a new Star Wars movie every 2-3 years – as Iger said in his announcement – they’ll need to be varied in tone and style to keep interest sustained. Frankly, that seems like too many movies, even with an expansive galaxy to draw inspiration from. Given the extent to which it has been marketed over 35 years, you can’t really be concerned at this point with the idea of Star Wars cannibalizing itself, but the Major Event mindset that comes with a big movie release could get old if really attempted with such regularity. Perhaps a live action TV series is the better way to explore the worlds of Star Wars for the long haul.

About a week ago, news broke that Lawrence Kasden and Simon Kinberg have been approached for the sequels, though it’s not fully clear yet in what capacity. Their involvement is not official yet, but sounds likely. They may each be writing an installment of the sequel trilogy, and/or coming aboard one or all of the sequels as producers. Kasden’s involvement is surprising and exciting; surprising because he works only occasionally these days (or at least, only gets films made occasionally), and exciting because he of course co-wrote both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and Raiders of the Lost Ark; damn, that dude was on fire!) On the other hand, those were the days of Kasden’s own classics Body Heat and The Big Chill. His work lately has been much less celebrated and memorable. Prior to writing and directing this year’s little-seen, little discussed Darling Companion, his last film was nine years earlier: a messy adaptation of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. Kasden’s glory days seem far behind him. But maybe a return to the world of Star Wars will revive his creative juices. I’m hopeful. The hiring of Simon Kinberg leaves me less encouraged. Kinberg’s had some popular hits, but his movies have been pretty shallow. I enjoyed the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith well enough, and I’m more a fan of  X-Men: The Last Stand than most people, but neither of them demonstrate what I’d want in a writer for a Star Wars movie. His credits also include Sherlock Holmes, which always looked dumb to me (I still haven’t seen it), the forgetful Hayden Christensen sci-fi flick Jumper and the horribly received Reese Witherspoon/Chris Pine/Tom Hardy romantic comedy This Means War. When it comes to Star Wars, Kinberg comes with a bit too much Hollywood studio gloss for my preference, and he’s definitely outclassed by Arndt and Kasden. But time will tell.

It’s bittersweet to see Lucas step away from the company he built, even if so many of us have been disheartened by the direction he’s taken in these later years. It probably is the best thing for the future of the franchise to place it into someone else’s hands, and it’s comforting to know that the first pair of hands to guide it will be Kathleen Kennedy’s. And I have to imagine that Lucas is largely relieved by the decision. Since 1977, he has been trapped by this crushing machine that became more massive and all-consuming than he ever could have imagined when he set out to make a Flash Gordon-esque space fantasy that told a simple story of good vs. evil. He had no idea that Star Wars would become his life, and when you add to that the excessive amount of flack he’s taken over the last 15 years for the special editions and the prequels, I imagine there must have been a moment when he committed to this decision, or after he signed the contract with Disney…a moment to himself where he just sat down, closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath of freedom. In 2008, the super-smart, super-funny Simon Pegg was a guest on Elvis Mitchell’s outstanding podcast The Treatment, and he said that when he met George Lucas at the premiere of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas told him, “Don’t be making the film you made 30 years ago 30 years from now.”

A sad, almost confessional comment. And now, at last, Lucas can unburden himself from the shackles of Star Wars that, while I’m sure have provided him with rewarding creative experiences over the years, have also undoubtedly sapped much of his energy and derailed other pursuits. Will he make the small, obscure, non-mainstream artsy films he’s been talking about for so long? Who knows. Philanthropy is a huge part of his life, and most of the money he makes from selling his company to Disney is expected to go into his charitable endeavors. He does still have that Creative Consultant role, and will probably continue to keep his eyes on the franchise and offer his advice from time to time, but by and large, Lucas is done with the series. He leaves his company to Kennedy and Disney. Talk about the end of an era.

A series of video discussions between Lucas and Kennedy have been filmed are being released once a week at starwars.com. The first two are here, the third here. Two more will follow in the weeks ahead.

The two people reading this know that I’ve said more than enough at this point. There will be plenty more to talk about when a director is announced, when casting is announced, when the movie itself arrives and when Disney’s plans to steward the franchise have had time to take hold. In the end, I think the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney could be a great thing, and I’m excited to see what happens in the years ahead. I’m of two minds about the sequels, but I have no doubt that when they hit, my inner child will bust out.

If I have two final, random hopes for the future of Star Wars under this deal, here they are: that the new movies be shot with a lot less greenscreen and digital set decoration, instead favoring physical sets that look tactile; and that Disney can somehow work out a deal with 20th Century Fox to remaster and release the unaltered versions of the original trilogy on Blu-Ray. It’s not exactly a new hope…but it is a renewed one.

May the Force be with us…

September 16, 2011

A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away, I Actually Cared

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 7:16 pm
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May 19, 2012: This post was originally published in September 2011. I temporarily removed it two months ago, and am now reposting it with its original date. In case you email subscribers are wondering why you’re getting it now…


Today, the Star Wars Saga arrives on Blu-Ray disc. All six movies, available for the first time in high-definition. In addition to the movies themselves, the box set includes new special features, including a treasure trove of deleted scenes from the original trilogy, none of which have been officially released before. For those fans like me, who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s watching these movies over and over again, this should be a great day. This box set should be a must-have. So it makes me pretty sad to say that I have no intention of buying it.

For any fan of my era, it should come as no surprise why. The versions of the original trilogy being released in this box set are the Special Editions which George Lucas created in 1997. You know…the ones where Greedo shoots first. Where the house band in Jabba’s palace has been given an overblown and dorky musical number. Where Jabba himself appears in a re-inserted deleted scene (skip to 1:00 mark), rendered in abysmally poor CGI (which was redone yet again in 2004, better but still not great). These versions have long replaced the ones that I grew up with, the versions as they appeared upon initial release in 1977, 1980 and 1983. And the movies have been released so many times on home video and DVD over the years that it comes as no surprise at this point that the originals are not being made available. But hey, that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth venting about.

I was incorrect, actually, when I said the originals are not available. They are. Lucasfilm tried to placate fans by releasing substandard prints of the unaltered films as “bonus features” on the 2006 DVD releases. Those discs, it should be noted, were made available for a limited time only and are no longer in the marketplace.

I was also incorrect when I said that these versions arriving on Blu-Ray are the 1997 editions of the films. They aren’t. Lucas has continued to tinker with them in the years since, making additional changes and moving them further away from the classics of my childhood. After the release of the prequel trilogy, Lucas made changes that would make the original films more consistent with the prequels (not exactly the direction one should be moving in, given their inferiority). Such changes included replacing actor Sebastian Shaw, who appeared as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker in the final moments of Return of the Jedi, with Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Lucas also replaced the performer who played Emperor Palpatine in hologram form in The Empire Strikes Back with Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine in the remaining four films.

Now for this latest release, Lucas has made additional changes, and his choices grow increasingly inexplicable. In A New Hope, he has replaced Obi-Wan’s “dragon call” – used to scare off the Sand People – with a new sound that is, sadly, laughable. In Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader picks up Palpatine and throws him down an abyss to his death in order to stop him from torturing Luke, his once-silent action is now accompanied by a hokey cry of, “NOOOOOOOOO!!” (mimicing a similar hokey cry from the end of Revenge of the Sith.)

Lucas has every right to make these changes. I don’t dispute it. These movies are his creations, they belong to him and he should be able to do whatever he wants to them. The frustration comes from the fact that he refuses to preserve the original versions of the films that existed prior to 1997, so that we have a choice. The new legion of Star Wars fans – those who grew up watching the 1997 (or later) versions – don’t know anything else, and so they can continue to enjoy these incarnations. But those of us who came before simply want the option of watching our versions of the Star Wars movies. And yes, they’re ours. They belong to us as much as they belong to Lucas. Not in any sense of copyright of course, but in our hearts and minds – and that’s a powerful sense of ownership that can’t be discounted. Everything Lucas has, he has because of Star Wars fans. We’re the ones who went to the theaters to watch the movies over and over again. We’re the ones who bought the toys, the lunchboxes, the trading cards, the storybooks, the bedsheets, the soundtracks and the innumerable other products. “Merchandising, merchandising!” chanted Yogurt, played by Mel Brooks in the actor/director’s 1987 Star Wars parody, Spaceballs. “Where the real money from the movie is made.”

And ain’t that the truth. One of the smartest and most prophetic things George Lucas ever did was negotiating, prior to the release of the first film, to retain all the merchandising and sequel rights. Check out this graphic, which came out about a year ago, depicting The Economics of Star Wars. The merchandise section accounts for movie tickets, video games and toys…but I’m not sure if  “toys” encompasses all the other products, like coffee mugs, cookie jars, Halloween costumes, shampoos, posters, etc.

If it seems like I’m moving away from my original point, I’m not. I’m speaking about the power of Star Wars fans; a power that, according to the chart, equals over $22 billion dollars. So yes, Star Wars belongs to us as much as it does to Lucas. And yes, everything Lucas has, he has because of Star Wars fans. It’s our money that allowed him to build Skywalker Ranch, his secluded retreat initially comprised of 2,500 acres purchased in 1978. It’s our money that allowed him to build a facility in San Francisco’s Presidio to house Lucasfilm Ltd., Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts. It’s our money that has put his kids through school, paid for his home and afforded him every luxury he enjoys. It’s our money that has kept him on Forbes list of the 400 richest people in America (at the time of this post, he ranks 97th). I’d say we deserve to be heard, our opinions valued.

True, we aren’t always easy. Fans so passionate and committed can be harsh. To say that those of us raised on the initial trilogy were disappointed in the prequels is something of an understatement, and we were vocal in our disappointment. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones each have a few things going for them (Darth Maul is a kick-ass, if sadly underdeveloped villain, and I’m a big fan of the rain-soaked fight between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett), but for the most part these are just terrible films. It pains me to say it of anything Star Wars, but it’s true. Revenge of the Sith was certainly an improvement, but was too little too late. Lucas would say that the prequels could never meet the expectations fans had built up for them over the years, and that may well be true. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that the prequels – the first two, especially – are poorly written and directed. Our complaints were largely valid. Yet they seemed only to harden Lucas’ resolve. It’s almost as if he became determined to upset the fans; as if making them angry actually gave him some sort of thrill. Perhaps it does. That might be the only way to explain some of the changes he has made to the films. Really, compare Obi-Wan’s original dragon call to the one newly created for this DVD release:

How could anyone think this is an improvement? The new call sounds like the melting Wicked Witch of the West crossed with a victim being mutilated in a Saw movie.

And here is Vader’s outburst as he stops Palpatine from torturing Luke:

Are we really to believe that this has been bothering Lucas all this time? Are these really the thoughts that weigh on his mind? Not a single change he has made to the trilogy since beginning this fiddling in 1997 has been an improvement. Some of the changes may have been innocuous – expanded vistas outside of the Cloud City windows, for example – but nothing he’s done has made the movies notably better. Even some of the changes on these Blu-Rays are harmless enough (here’s a rundown of all of them). Okay, so he widened Jabba’s palace door and made the Ewoks blink. Necessary? No. But not terribly troubling either. More often than not though, the updates have ranged from bad to dreadful. Compare the original performance by Sy Snootles and the Rebo Band from Return of the Jedi to the new version he added in 1997.


Even when Lucas made Jedi in ’83, he was already showing signs of the juvenile humor that was found throughout the prequel trilogy. The original musical number is already kinda dumb. But seeing what he replaced it with lends the original a gravitas on par with The Beatles playing The Ed Sullivan Show. Dare I say, the original version actually has some subtlety. The song is pretty dopey, but it’s primarily there to set the scene and establish Jabba’s palace as a cool hangout for a ready-to-party crowd of intergalactic riff-raff. In the ’97 version, the musical number becomes the focus of the scene, and is just…obnoxious.

A less abhorrent but still ill-advised change Lucas made is the aforementioned replacement of Emperor Palpatine’s hologram in The Empire Strikes Back. Replacing the original actor with the one who plays Palpatine in the prequels isn’t so bad an idea, but as the comparison clip below illustrates, there are four different versions of the scene, the last of which adds clumsy, superfluous dialogue about Luke’s identity.

Four versions. Why? Does Lucas have nothing better to do? Defenders of the dialogue-heavy update could argue it was added because Vader isn’t aware that his children survived their mother’s death…but since that version of Empire came out in 2004 and Episode III came out in 2005, might it not have been smarter to have Palpatine relay the information to Vader in the new movie, after informing him of his wife’s fate?

Again, Lucas making changes isn’t really what bothers the fans. Two things bother us. One, they’re bad changes. He takes things that are completely fine as they are, and makes them worse. His instincts as a filmmaker are long gone. If his changes were at least well-conceived, then we might not mind so much. We’d probably still be annoyed by his continued messing with the movies, but maybe it wouldn’t be anything to get our lightsabers in a twist over. The greater offense – the thing that really bothers us – is that he makes these changes without offering the original versions as an alternative. Like I said, Lucas has every right to muck with the movies to his heart’s content. All we ask is that he gives us a choice.

In 1988, a well-known filmmaker testified before Congress on the subject of film preservation. “It will soon be possible to create a new ‘original’ negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control…In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.”

These remarks were made by George Lucas.

While the full statement primarily speaks to the rights of the creator of a work of art, Lucas is clear that the public also has rights. The public has the right to view a work of art in the form and context in which it originally existed. “The public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests,” he said. “And the proof of that is that even a copyright law only permits the creators and their estate a limited amount of time to enjoy the economic fruits of that work.”

This is all Star Wars fans want. We want to watch the versions of the movies we grew up with, and we want Lucas to acknowledge their importance – and our right to them – by taking care to preserve them properly, with the same high-definition remastering he has provided for the Blu-Rays. He claims that to do this would be prohibitively expensive, but nobody’s buying that from a guy who, according to the Forbes article referenced earlier, is worth $3.25 billion. His position is not only an insult to the fans, but to the hundreds of crew members who worked on the films and whose efforts are often eliminated through the changes. Remember, Lucas didn’t direct The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. Of course he wrote the stories and owns the rights and technically can do whatever he wants to the films, but is it not a sign of disrespect to directors Irvin Kershner (Empire) and Richard Marquand (Jedi) to alter their films? Lucas may have been frustrated by the technological limits at the time the films were made, but they should continue to exist as records of that time, of the hard work poured into them by dedicated crews and of the countless childhoods spent immersed in them.

Look, it’s easy to dump on George Lucas. He makes it easy. And I suspect he even enjoys it, in a way. For many fans, the prequel trilogy and the revamped versions of the original trilogy have soured them on Star Wars altogether, but they shouldn’t allow these later crimes to sully what was once a pure source of joy and inspiration. I love Star Wars. I’ve always loved Star Wars. I always will. The title of this post proclaims that I no longer care, but of course I do. I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t. Fans wouldn’t be commenting about the newest changes all across the internet and Twitterverse if they didn’t care. And for as much as Lucas has been a source of frustration over the past nearly decade-and-a-half, it was his fertile imagination that drew millions of us, tractor beam-like, into the Star Wars universe. He created an amazing world filled with beloved characters and unceasingly cool weapons, vehicles, creatures, etc. Okay…then he created Jar Jar Binks. But that doesn’t negate everything that came before. And let’s not forget that  Lucas has done a tremendous amount for the art and craft of filmmaking. With his THX system, he championed the importance of presenting movies in digital sound. With Skywalker Sound, he created a haven for directors and sound designers to create rich aural landscapes. With Industrial Light & Magic, he helped change the state of visual effects. Without Lucas, there would be no be Pixar, which began life as a small group within ILM. Beyond his contributions to film, Lucas is a generous philanthropist, who has long supported education efforts through his George Lucas Educational Foundation and who has signed onto The Giving Pledge, an effort led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage the world’s wealthiest people to give the majority of their money to philanthropic causes. Just this week, Lucasfilm and Stand Up 2 Cancer unveiled a partnership involving a line of Star Wars/SU2C T-shirts.

My point is, the guy’s not the Dark Lord of the Sith we tend to take him for these days, and with all the vitriol he receives from disappointed fans, there is still good in him. So perhaps, just as Darth Vader was redeemed through the tough love of his son Luke Skywalker, Lucas will eventually have the change of heart that we, the fans – a collective Luke Skywalker, if I might be so bold – desire and deserve. As The Digital Bits editor Bill Hunt pointed out today in his review of the the Blu-Ray release, if Lucas wants to mine any more money from releasing these movies on DVD (and going back to the VHS days, there have been at least six releases of the Star Wars trilogy on home video), remastered versions of the original trilogy may be the last thing left in his bag of tricks to make it worthwhile for consumers. For while this Blu-Ray set will surely sell like gangbusters – with a treat like the long-sought deleted scenes inspiring even disgruntled fans to fork over their cash – what else is left that will be exciting enough for fans to pay yet again? It’s not the upcoming 3D conversions, I can tell you that.

So on this day that should be cause for unanimous celebration amongst Star Wars fans everywhere, comparable to the elation experienced by the destruction of the second Death Star, let those weary and disappointed among us continue to hope that Lucas will recognize the importance of preserving the original versions of the original trilogy and will remember his own words that illuminate their significance as cultural artifacts. That will be a day long remembered, and a day when Lucas can, in one stroke, win back the love and respect of disappointed fans.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see if I can track down someone who bought the Blu-Rays so I can watch the deleted scenes.

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January 23, 2008

Oscar Nominees Post-Script

Yesterday, a friend raised the subject of Zodiac‘s absence from the nominations, and while I had mentioned it in my predictions write-up on the eve of the announcement, I was remiss not to bring up its shutout yesterday (ditto for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). It was starting to get some attention and I thought it might break through in a few places. He reminded me that we had both wondered, after seeing it back in February, if it would be remembered come Oscar time. The thinking always seems to be that the studios roll out tons of big dramas in the fall because they’ll be fresher in the minds of Oscar voters. And I’ve always argued that it doesn’t really matter, because the critics are fastidious about reviewing the entire year when they make their ten best lists and announce their critic’s awards. And it’s those critics lists and awards that start to form the small groups from which the guild and Academy choices will eventually come. This year, many critics put Zodiac on their top ten lists; Away From Her came out in April or May, and yet Julie Christie has dominated the Best Actress field; and in years past, the Academy has remembered early-in-the-year releases like The Silence of the Lambs, Fargo, Braveheart, and Gladiator. But I wonder if the critics do suffer from a habit of latching onto the most recent thing. If There Will Be Blood had come out in April, No Country for Old Men in June, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in August, and Zodiac in November, might things have gone differently? Would Zodiac have been a bigger factor in the overall awards season, or would it still have been edged out by other movies with broader support? I stand by the statement that it would be better for movie fans and better for the awards season if these films were spread out through the year, rather than crammed into the last few months, with a dozen limited releases in December that Academy voters don’t even have time to see because they’re on vacation when half the screeners arrive, and are getting back home with less than a week to review a stack of films before the voting deadline closes. But such are the ways of Hollywood.

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