Sunday, June 07, 2009

"That's funny, the damage doesn't look as bad from up here"

Because I have a large stack of movies available for my viewing, and being a bit of an opinionated ass when it comes to storytelling, there is still a place in my schedule to update RMWC. The Royal We will now begin the new direction for this...whatever by trying to systematically view, subjectively judge and cast aspersions on these poor, defenseless DVDs. That said, what better starting point than...

Star Wars. I know, I know. What hasn’t already been said about Star Wars? Well, you could always peel away the baggage; the happy memories, the broken dreams, the subsequent fan hatedom. Wouldn’t it be great just to go back to 1977 and forget about all the crap that’s piled on top of the franchise and watch it as “Star Wars” and not as “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope?”

Well, I can’t go back to 1977, since I didn’t exist yet (and neither did a lot of you), so the next best thing would be to just watch the movie. Just watch the movie as it was, and take it on its own merits as the flick that launched a million imaginations (and just as many trilogies). It sure as hell launched mine.

Unfortunately, George Lucas had in the past announced that there was no way the original theatrical version would be released on DVD. This was around the time that the big boxed set of the trilogy was released, which didn’t even feature the Special Editions from 1997, but was instead an even “Special-er Edition.” Yeah, I didn’t get that set. FORTUNATELY, in 2006, a Limited Edition of the original movies was released individually, featuring not only the 1997 Special Editions but also the Original, Original Trilogy. You bet your ass that’s the version I’ve got.

Young farmboy Luke Skywalker dreams of leaving his small town home (okay, planet) and having adventures. A chance purchase of two fugitive droids carrying crucial information about a deadly super weapon gives him that chance to learn about his hidden heritage as well as teaming up with a scoundrel and rescuing a princess. It’s a straightforward plot, no big twists or surprises. Very primal. No wait, that’s not it. Its mythic (which is no surprise since Lucas has said as much). The frame is the “hero’s journey” with touches of the “Quest” and a little bit of the “road movie” thrown in for good measure to yield not just an adventure, but an ADVENTURE! (all caps with exclamation point). I think that ultimately, the best take on propelling the narrative is that it throws a wall of text that, for someone completely new to the film, makes no sense whatsoever but also establishes an internal backstory that exists for the film, but doesn’t need to be shown. Then it throws you into a ship to ship gunfight and boarding action, leaving you to wonder just what the hell is going on. It's a fantastic in medias res beginning. Sadly, after playing dozens of Star Wars video games, the iconic Wall of Text has lost most of its meaning and impact for me.

The other thing the story does is draw in the audience by going big. What’s at stake? The bad guys have a space station the size of a moon that can blow up planets. And they use it.

Quite a few, and almost all of them undergo some kind of arc. Let’s examine them.

R2-D2: Yep, the little trashcan that could. As the vessel for the plot’s Macguffin, he’s crucial and oddly enough, brimming with personality for an armless little robot that speaks in beeps and whistles. This little droid has moxie in spades, and is both a sidekick for Luke and the “funnyman” of his duo with…

C-3PO: Threepio’s interesting. He’s anthropomorphic, looks like the Oscar statue and the robot from Metropolis had a baby, is incredibly prissy and his dialogue consists mostly of whining and complaining. In this film, he’s mostly useless to the plot, tagging along with Artoo to provide comic relief (and quite a few quotable lines)

Luke Skywalker: Cool name, in a cheesy, old school b-movie kind of way, right? Yes it is. Luke’s the Hero, the young farm boy who goes off on an ADVENTURE! and starts learning new skills (like lightsaber combat). He’s in way over his head, but its his idealism that drives not only him forward, but a few other characters too. Let’s face it, Luke’s likable.

Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi: The great Sir Alec Guinness as the infinitely patient old soldier/mentor figure. He’s the one who helps light a fire under Luke’s ass to get his ADVENTURE! started (the murdered family also helped). Guinness plays Ben with charm and a twinkle in his eye, which makes the hit from his heroic sacrifice that much more effective.

Princess Leia: The famous cinnamon roll hair. There, I said it. Okay, so she’s a princess, and princesses need rescuing in mythic stories. Still, despite spending most of the movie captured, she’s fiery, not really taking the Empire’s shit and mouthing off to the villains at every opportunity. She’s not above tearing her rescuers a new one either, and is pretty handy with a gun too. Its hard not to like her.

Han Solo: The film’s biggest badass is the smart mouthed, swaggering, audacious space cowboy with the badass name. Say it out loud: Han Solo. It freakin’ works. I never really realized it before, but Han has the second major character arc of the movie. He’s introduced as a shady smuggler in a shady bar with some hefty debts to pay off. He’s kind of desperate, and not above plugging the poor mook (poor, stupid Greedo) sent to collect the bounty on his head. He’s dangerous, and I love the fact that Luke can’t exactly trust him. Even on the DEATH STAR (hey, its all caps in the title scroll), Luke has to twist his arm into helping rescue Leia. Luke’s in over his head, but Han’s in WAY over his head and he knows it, wants to survive it and get paid. But then something happens and he has a change of heart that’s subtly played by Harrison Ford. Han Solo goes from being just another stain on the armpit of the galaxy with a hot rod ship to an actual heroic character (with a hot rod ship).

Chewbacca: Han’s copilot and sidekick. He’s big muscle and ends up providing a lot of comic relief in tense scenes. Oh yeah, and he’s pretty much Han’s conscience. He’s a supporting character, is great at it, but there’s not a whole lot else to say.

Darth Vader: The Villain. Sure, he’s not “THE Villain” (that’s Peter Cushing’s Tarkin) but he’s the badass villain who’s mysterious, dangerous, dresses in all black, has quasi-religious magical Force powers, a red lightsaber and James Earl Jones’ voice. Sure, Tarkin’s all oily and smug and has a big battle station, but Vader is just so commanding and badass cool. He really is one of the great screen villains.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
How does it look for a 30+ year old movie? You know, the original cut still looks great, and since I’ve never actually seen this cut in widescreen before, there were some nice new bits for me to look at and go, “oh, cool.” In terms of directorial technique, I don’t think I can point to any single frames and go “this one shot is particularly amazing” but I think the visual strength of the film is Lucas’ ability to make the Star Wars universe look lived in and plausible enough to suspend disbelief for (remember, I’m talking about THIS one particular movie here, omitting discussion of all others). I do have to admit, however, that I loved some of the transitions/wipes, like when Threepio is being lifted up transitioning to Ben’s homestead. That could just be me, though.
Turning imagination into visually engaging storytelling is always an accomplishment. Of course, he couldn’t have done that without a kickass special effects team. It still looks great (overall) Lightsabers, lasers, spaceships, costumes, midgets in costumes, puppets, etc. They pulled off so much awesome with not a lot of budget. Look at Chewie and tell me he doesn’t look plausible.

While its not the best written movie ever, it gets the job done. Characters speak as though you think they should. Obi-Wan’s wise, Luke’s idealistic, Han’s jaded and Vader is threatening. Dialogue gets from point A to point B mostly painlessly, tossing off in-universe references to help flesh out the plausibility of the story. Whole conversations may not be mind blowingly awesome, but the movie’s infinitely quotable (as pop culture already knows)

Shucks howdy, this movie sounds amazing. First, the sound effects complete the immersion into the film. There’s a reason why Ben Burtt wins an Oscar every time he shows up on a credits reel, and yeah, Star Wars is really where he got his start. Second, the film (alright, trilogy) features possibly the greatest original score for a film EVER. John Williams is a prolific composer, and has worked on some huge movies, but for Star Wars, the music is epic. Without it, it wouldn’t be half the movie that it is today. The visual effects in this film are still great but the sound, my God, the sound is flawless.

Like I was seriously going to say “don’t see this” for Star Wars. I mean, its Star Wars, not Episode IV, or A New Hope, just Star Wars. Of course I like it. Hell, I still like it after all this time. You know what, no matter what Lucasfilm Ltd. Has done or not done since 1997, I can’t justify retroactively putting any of that blame on the original Star Wars, because somewhere on the space/time continuum, there’s George Lucas toiling away on a labor of love in 1977, trying to prove, with a small budget and mostly small name actors, that you can make a kickass ADVENTURE! movie full of crazy visuals and wild-eyed wonder. If you’ve never seen the original cut of Star Wars, you really should track down the “limited edition” 2 disc set and enjoy yourself some cinematic history.

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