Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Soul of Star Wars

So first off, apologies to all my readers in the Ukraine. Once my fifth most popular country, they’ve currently dropped out of my top ten altogether. And yes, sorry to the rest of the Internet too. That was a long draught of content for The Star Wars Heresies.

There were reasons, however. For one, I’ve spent a couple of weeks working on an essay focused on the last arc of The Clone Wars. And honestly, not really getting much of anywhere with it. I took ten pages of notes on the episodes, which was apparently way too much.

For another, I realize there really is a where-do-we-go-from-here vibe that is permeating the saga we all know and love. Literally two or three days after I submitted my book, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, Episodes VII, VIII, and IX were announced, and the world promptly turned upside down and inside out. Since then one project after another has been shelved or cancelled, the most visible and painful one being The Clone Wars series.

As I’ve noted before, the Star Wars that I’ve known and loved for thirty-plus years really is over. It’s under new management with constant change and upheaval and it’s really difficult to get one’s bearings (if you read me on Facebook you know the exact same has been true for my life in general). And while I’m not even remotely spouting doom and gloom about the always-in-motion future, this simply isn’t the franchise and fandom that I’ve been writing about and participating in for over a decade.

That, dear readers, really is something of an issue.

While incredibly familiar with George Lucas’ Star Wars and comfortable with discussing it at great length and detail, I’m not as sure-footed about the new world we’re all in the process of transitioning into. Once the beating heart of the Wars was always beating under the flannel shirt of Lucas, and that’s not true anymore. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars may be inspired, and Disney’s may be great too, but I don’t know what they’re about yet.

Abrams is an obvious choice, though I do have to agree with some that he may have been a little too obvious. After all, it’s not like anything about A New Hope was obvious those many, many years ago. I did enjoy both of his versions of Star Trek, but honestly I got the most out of him from Super 8. Not only did he do solid work with an ensemble, but that film really had a heart and soul. Much like Lucas has always done with his movies, clearly Abrams wasn’t shy about investing a lot of his own self into that one.

From a directorial point of view, it will be interesting to see what he does with Episode VII. Obviously he will have to curb some of his more kinetic and favored camera work, and everyone has heard the lens flare jokes since he was announced as the director. Star Wars already has such a well-established pictorial style that directors are going to have to be very careful to remain faithful and true to that tested template.

But perhaps even more than that – and this definitely goes for the writers also – there is that ever-elusive “soul” of Star Wars that is somehow going to have to be maintained. This kind of thing is indescribable, it just comes over you when John William strikes a chord or two or someone activates a lightsaber for the first time or a narrative text in yellow font floats upon into the vast reaches of space.

Abrams’ esteem for the original trilogy is well noted. I seem to remember him even saying he was more comfortable working in the Star Trek franchise than in the Wars because he didn’t feel inundated with the “sacredness” of everything that had come before. Of course, it has been argued that while it is the role of the artist to reveal the sacred with one hand, it’s also their job to slap it away with the other.

This is something that Lucas himself has never been afraid of doing. I mean honestly, look no farther than The Phantom Menace. If one hates the execution, one simply hates the execution, but that film took the franchise in some bold directions, not only with epic lightsaber duels and podraces, but also with subversive villains and galactic politics. In short, it just wasn’t a rehash of the original.

Of course, much the same could be said for The Empire Strikes Back. Turning one of the most hated villains in movie history into the hero’s father may be cliché now, but in 1980 it was very daring and unprecedented. The unfolding history of the saga has always been about broadening, reframing, and redefining everything that came before. It’s not just about retelling the same story in the same way.

While Abrams’ esteem for the original trilogy is admirable, not only has tons of content been generated since, but for me it would be a mistake to try and recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle feel of A New Hope. For one, it’s never going to happen, at least not for the two or three generations now raised on Star Wars. And two, everything has significantly progressed since then. Countless episodes of The Clone Wars demonstrate that, and that was an animated series.

Almost everything about A New Hope was revolutionary. The universe itself was the game changer. The moment the Star Destroyer thundered overhead chasing the Rebel Blockade Runner, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. On the other hand, as some of the more persnickety critics have noted, its beautiful simplicity really bordered on the simplistic at times. The princess was in all white, the bad guy was in all black, and with tons of whiz bang and gun fights, it revolved around a we-have-to-blow-them-up-before-they-blow-us-up plotline.

That was its genius, but The Empire Strikes Back was a huge step up from that, a trend which - for my money - continued with Return of the Jedi. The arc went from not only blowing evil up from the outside, but journeying into that heart of darkness and redeeming it from within. And okay, the second Death Star had to be blown up too, but the point still stands. Not unlike Luke Skywalker in that deleted scene building his lightsaber on Tatooine and bringing illumination into the darkness, so did he with the dark side itself.

This can also be viewed through the character of Yoda. For the first generation, that diminutive Jedi Master hobbling around Dagobah spouting aphorisms at the snap-hiss of a lightsaber will never, ever be surpassed. True, the execution was brilliant and undeniably magical, but he was also something of a caricature. Honestly, all of what he said could just as easily have been gleaned from any of the Complete Idiot’s Guides to Eastern philosophy on the bookshelves at your local Barnes and Noble.

While the depiction of institutionalized religion like in the prequels may not be as inherently satisfying as the individual hero’s vision quest in the originals (gotta do a blog post on that one), it also provided very nice texture to a borderline one-dimensional character. To see the same little green sage who tells Luke “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack” in The Empire Strikes Back leading legions of proto-stormtroopers into war in Attack of the Clones should have made us rethink everything. Knowing that Yoda started off in an ivory tower on Coruscant only to fall all the way to a mud hole on Dagobah by the time Luke arrived there gives him an infinitely richer character arc.

If there had been such a feeling of “sacredness” with the prequels this sort of thing would have been impossible. What came after was not above completely subverting what came before, which of course was the point. If the next trilogy is simply an attempt to recapture some mystical, mythical magic from thirty-something years ago, there’s not much of a point, because we already have said magic.

My take on Star Wars is different from a lot of people’s. Hence the “heresy” part of The Star Wars Heresies. There is a philosophical trajectory to be mapped out in the sequel trilogy, and it would be really disappointing if it wasn’t followed through to its logical conclusion. If a shoot-Greedo-first-ask-big-mythic-questions-later mentality pervades just to satisfy groups of thirty and forty-something fanboys, the potential of this new trilogy could be derailed pretty effectively.

This trajectory, as noted before, is quite simply the progression of the Jedi Order from a religion of law, Old Testament-style, to a religion of love, New Testament-style. The former we saw in the prequel trilogy with its emphasis on non-attachment and dogma, the later flowering in the original one with Luke’s love and compassion for his father Anakin.

On a side note, to me a brilliant philosophical discussion with Luke and Qui-Gon Jinn’s shade from the other side is absolutely essential, those two being the bookends of the saga who had a deeper understanding into the mysteries of the Force than anyone.

And oh yeah, I’m also concerned about what the new villains are going to be. Following in the footsteps of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader is problematic at best. The Sith as antagonists are apparently out of the running, and those are big shoes to fill.

While some have endlessly bemoaned the fact, Star Wars as a creative entity has always been so unique in that it is largely the artistic expression of one person, namely George Lucas. This certainly isn’t to deny the endless contributions of everyone else, but the paradigm has definitely shifted as of last year. Unlike with Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, Lucas was unparalleled in his near complete control of his creation, and I for one will miss his unique understanding and input into that galaxy far, far away.

Yes, the Maker is thankfully still alive, having just enjoyed a birthday and a wedding. And true, he is providing story treatments and is onboard as a creative consultant. But it’s not going to be the same.

And thanks to an interview on Rebel Force Radio months ago, the long debated argument over how many films were originally planned reached something of a conclusion. Apparently there were going to be nine episodes, but that was before Return of the Jedi. One of the marketing people on the first two films revealed Episode VI was originally going to center around Boba Fett, and presumably saving Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. The last half of it was actually going to constitute Episodes VII-IX, with a protracted confrontation between Luke and Vader, with the Emperor egging them on.

So this does cause me some confusion over what these films are finally going to be. The Expanded Universe material will apparently have little, if any, influence on what is to come. Lucas’ true role in all this probably won’t be known for some time and, as for Kathleen Kennedy, she could be hiding in a cave in Afghanistan at this point.

Still, the thought of Mark Hamill sporting Jedi robes and perhaps a beard, Harrison Ford strapping on his blaster and sitting down in the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, and Carrie Fisher doing, well, whatever it is she’s going to do, does push a lot of fanboy buttons. And in all the right ways. It’s hard not to get excited about the promise of just seeing the Big Three back on screen – although some have argued for the Big Four, not to slight Chewbacca.

For me personally, the subtext of Star Wars has become almost as important as the text, so I’ll be anxiously waiting to see where this new era takes us. It’s funny, but part of the litmus test for me concerning whether a movie is really good or not is based on if I can write an essay about it afterwards. Thus far with the Wars, I’ve been able to type up entire books.

So the big question for me is, provided I eventually do a follow-up one on the original trilogy, will the sequel trilogy provide enough mythic and philosophical fodder for the Star Wars Heresies to continue?

P.S. And yeah, I will finish that Ahsoka essay eventually. My book index is also looming over me, so just bear with your humble Jedi blog master.