The colors of Star Wars

[This post is participating in Too Many Projects’ Production Design blog-a-thon.]

As I’ve written before, there were a lot of things that bothered me about The Empire Strikes Back. But I was only thirteen when I saw it, and a diehard Star Wars fan. It took years even to admit I didn’t like it much, and decades to be able to articulate my complaints. But there was one problem with it that I was able to identify immediately in the summer of 1980: the soft, pinkish light in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It hadn’t looked that way in the original, where the cockpit was shades of grey and fluorescent lighting and harsh shadows.

Had Han Solo had an interior decorator revamp his ship between the two films?

I wondered why the new lighting scheme bothered me so much. It could have been simply that change is painful — after all, the Millennium Falcon was already the coolest spaceship in sci-fi history, and you don’t mess with success. But I felt there must be a more substantive reason, and as I searched for it, I slowly awoke to the importance of production design, and specifically the cleverness of the color palette in the original Star Wars.

In that film, space is black, sprinkled with white stars. Spaceships are off-white and gunmetal grey. Stormtroopers, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia wear white. Darth Vader wears black. The surface and buildings of Tatooine are shades of beige, bleached by the sun. Inside the Death Star: grey walls and floors, grey-uniformed officers, black prison cells.

Everything is stark. There is almost no color in Star Wars — except when lasers are firing, lightsabers are clashing, and spaceships are exploding. Then what might have been only a modestly exciting action sequence is amplified, by contrast with the rest of the film’s chromatic drabness, into literally a dazzling thrill.

In 1939, when The Wizard of Oz shifted abruptly from dreary greys into Technicolor, audiences were exhilarated. Ingeniously, the art directors of Star Wars took that one tremendous sensation, chopped it up into small doses, and meted it out to their audience in electrifying little jolts throughout the entire movie — a strategy that the designers of Empire, with its more liberal and therefore less effective use of color, unwisely chose to forgo.

What brings you here, 2007 edition

Here are some of the top queries from various search engines that resulted in hits on my blog during the past year or so, reproduced verbatim from my server logs. (Last year’s results are here.) Each related family of queries is listed with a main variant in bold and selected other variants, plus the percentage of query-hits represented by that family.

I was at first surprised to see that hits for “James Bond villains” outnumbers hits for “vampire lesbian girl scouts” (etc.) and “sex” (etc.) combined, but then realized: the percentages are a function both of the popularity of that search and of the ranking of my site in the search results. In other words, if you’re looking for anything about vampires or lesbians or sex I regret to say there are a lot of likelier websites for you to visit before mine.

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Lightsaber duels: who wins?

Luke: Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we? Remember: anger, fear, aggression — the dark side are they.

This chart considers duels only between Force-adept antagonists (which eliminates the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and General Grievous).

Star Wars
Good guy Bad guy Winner
Obi-Wan Kenobi Darth Vader The bad guy
The Empire Strikes Back
Good guy Bad guy Winner
Luke Skywalker Darth Vader The bad guy
Return of the Jedi
Good guy Bad guy Winner But
Luke Skywalker Darth Vader The good guy In a fit of rage!
The Phantom Menace
Good guy Bad guy Winner But
Qui-Gon Jinn Darth Maul Stalemate Darth Maul appeared to have the upper hand before Qui-Gon was whisked away.
Qui-Gon Jinn Darth Maul The bad guy
Obi-Wan Kenobi Darth Maul The good guy In a fit of rage!
Attack of the Clones
Good guy Bad guy Winner
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Yoda Count Dooku The bad guy
Revenge of the Sith
Good guy Bad guy Winner But
Mace Windu Palpatine The good guy Not for long
Hordes of Jedi “younglings” Darth Vader The bad guy
Yoda Palpatine The bad guy Yoda would have won… if he hadn’t simply left. WTF?!
Obi-Wan Kenobi Darth Vader The good guy How good is a “good guy” who leaves his mutilated, helpless one-time friend to die in agony?

The record is not too favorable for the good guys. In fact it looks like the only good guy who wins while acting like a good guy is Mace Windu! You see, this cat Mace is a baaaad mother– Shut yo mouth! But I’m talkin’ ’bout Mace! Then we can dig it.

Happily, my son Jonah bucked the odds recently when he battled Darth Maul to a draw under the guidance of his teacher, Jedi Knight Tiere Kai, when the Sith Lord paid a surprise visit to Jedi Training Academy.

August 5th, 1977

[This post is participating in the Star Wars 30th Anniversary blog-a-thon.]

May 25th, 1977, was not an especially significant day for me. I was aware that some science fictiony thing called Star Wars had just opened, and I even saw a brief clip in the film-review segment of that evening’s news, but somehow, despite being a nerdy ten year old, the idea of seeing Star Wars held no appeal for me.

The decades of Star Wars mania that were soon to follow did such a thorough job of entombing my pre-Star Wars mentality that I can’t even construct a plausible theory to explain my disinterest, let alone remember the actual reason. A big-screen space adventure should have hit me right where I lived, and later, of course, it did, in a very big way. Could there really have been an earlier version of me that was immune to the prospect? In any event, the opening day of Star Wars came and went almost completely unremarked.

For the next many days I was subjected to my friend David‘s ravings about the film. He’d seen it on opening weekend with his dad. I regarded his lavish praise with skepticism. I knew David was also heavy into “hard SF,” to which I, a confirmed Trekkie, had not yet graduated. He had never been able to interest me in his sci-fi novelettes or his hex-grid sci-fi boardgames, which all seemed the same to me, lots of galactic-conquest-this and enslaving-races-that.


Before long, though, I could not escape the Star Wars phenomenon and decided to check out… the novel. I picked it up at the bookstore and was immediately hooked! I must have read it twice in one week and was determined to see the movie immediately. But it was too late: the summer had come and it was time to go to Monticello!

When we were in “the country” during the summer, my dad stayed in the city to work and came up to be with us on the weekends. While he was away, we were without a car. The bungalow colony where we stayed had everything we needed, so we never missed it — except that without a car, we couldn’t get to the movie theater at the Jamesway mall, where Star Wars was playing.

Each weekend that summer I pleaded with my parents to take us to see the movie, but there were always other things to do and never enough time. Meanwhile I read and re-read and re-read the book, and my parents tried to placate me with related Star Wars items like the LP of the music. Being surrounded all summer by a day camp full of kids abuzz about Star Wars, they were small comfort.

Finally, on the first Friday in August, my dad arrived from the city a little earlier than usual and announced, “Let’s go see Star Wars!” The drive from Sims Bungalow Colony to the mall could not have been more than five miles, but it seemed to take forever. Waiting for the movie to begin I fairly vibrated in my seat, possibly hyperventilating. Two hours later my parents reported, with equal measures of amusement and alarm, that they had not seen me blink once since the movie began.

I’d lost my Star Wars cherry and life was never the same. As soon as we were back in Forest Hills after the summer, I made my way to the Continental theater on Austin Street to see it again. And then again a week or two later.

By fall it was still playing, but I began to worry about the day it would disappear from the theaters. I hatched a scheme to tape-record the audio of the movie. I fit my Radio Shack cassette tape recorder inside a shoulder bag. I got fresh batteries. I got blank cassettes and took off the cellophane in advance — I didn’t want it crinkling when the time came. I put on my watch, said “Seeya tonight” to my folks, and sat through three consecutive shows of Star Wars at the Continental.

During the first show I used my watch to locate silences in the film during which I could flip or change my tape. During the second show I recorded the audio, deftly ejecting, flipping, and changing cassettes (all surreptitiously inside my shoulder bag, as I had practiced at home) at the times I’d marked down. And the third show was for — what else? — just being able to sit back and enjoy the movie.

A week later I did the exact same thing in order to have two recordings. The crappier one would serve as a backup. Of course they were both crappy, but they were good enough to listen to again and again, the way most other kids listened to their favorite records. In no time I had memorized every word, every note of music, and every sound effect. Where other kids would go around singing their favorite songs, I would recite Star Wars.

I must have driven my family and friends to distraction, but they were all very tolerant, even supportive — surprisingly so, in retrospect. I was not quite as bad as the character in Diner who compulsively quotes The Sweet Smell of Success to anyone and everyone rather than actually talk to them. But I was close. Fortunately I was still a few years away from trying to get laid.

Thirty years later I still remember the movie with near-perfect fidelity. When I read about Edward Copeland’s Star Wars blog-a-thon to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, I asked myself, “What can I contribute that’s more than just another reminiscence of the first time I saw Star Wars? What’s left to say that I haven’t already said?”

Then I saw Charles Ross’s One Man Star Wars show and thought, “I can do better!” That gave me my answer; and here it is. I whipped it together in a few hours with Audacity, Transcode, and a very cheap microphone. I apologize for the terrible “tape hiss” and the strange audio artifacts. I’m no sound engineer — and as this makes clear, I’m no voice actor either. I have a new appreciation for what Charles Ross does on stage — though I do think I nailed Mark Hamill’s reading of, “Are you kidding? At the rate they’re gaining?” And all of Chewbacca’s lines.

Update: I just found this online: the General Cinema feature-presentation “snipe,” which preceded my first viewing of Star Wars at the Monticello Twin Cinema. As far as I know, I only saw this “snipe” that one time, but its jazzy tune was seared into my memory and I’ve been humming it from time to time ever since. God, I love the Internet.

Update 2: The YouTube copy of the General Cinema snipe is gone but can still be found here.

The exegesis strikes back

If the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, then I guess I’m not really “over” Star Wars, because I just can’t contain my frustration at how awful The Empire Strikes Back is.

(Yes, I am again going to tell you why you shouldn’t like a movie as much as you do.)

I watched Empire again for the first time in in a decade with my kids last week. Since they discovered Star Wars a couple of years ago, I have kept the lid on the existence of the sequels and the prequels, hoping to keep their experience of the Star Wars universe “pure” for as long as I could. Star Wars is perfect in its way; all of the other films merely detract from it.

Besides, if I had to wait years between installments, it won’t kill my kids to.

Keeping the other films secret did not prevent Jonah from learning in the schoolyard that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, among other things. I finally let the cat out of the bag (about the existence of episodes V and VI — I am not yet ready to let episodes I through III destroy my sons’ souls) when Andrea bought tickets for me and Jonah to go see the One Man Star Wars show later this month. To enjoy it, Jonah will need to know the entire original trilogy.

The secret of Star Wars’ success

In its 1977 review of Star Wars, Time magazine wrote:

Star Wars will find itself competing with several other major movies for the attention of audiences this summer, almost all of them with much bigger budgets. […]

Despite the talent and the money arrayed against it, Star Wars has one clear advantage: it is simple, elemental, and therefore unique. It has a happy ending, a rarity these days.

“A rarity these days”? In appreciating the impact of Star Wars, it is necessary not only to imagine what the state of the art in special effects was in 1977. (Check out Logan’s Run next chance you get. It won the Oscar for special effects shortly before Star Wars came out. That was the painfully cheesy state of the art.) It is also essential to remember that the ’70’s before Star Wars was a bleak time for movies a time for bleak movies. With the old studio system almost fully dismantled, a new generation of auteurs making important or disturbing or very personal films, and a new generation of stars more comfortable playing antiheroes rather than heroes, the movies were generally not a place you went for an uplifting good time. But boy did audiences need escapism — Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, and a recession were all current or recent memories. This is the cultural niche that Star Wars explosively filled. How many dozens of “simple, elemental” fantasy films have followed? Star Wars was the first. Can you imagine a moviegoing world where no such thing had existed for a generation? Can you now imagine how the arrival of such a film, at such a time, would thoroughly dominate the popular imagination for years to come?

The Time article quotes George Lucas as saying,

It’s the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old […] The plot is simple — good against evil — and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun.

Later, George Lucas would come to believe, and repeat ad nauseam, his own press about the mythic archetypes and timeless themes in his space saga. It’s all a lot of hooey. Star Wars succeeded because it was kid stuff in a world grown too adult.

I can’t fathom those who claim Empire is the best of the series. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Star Wars was light entertainment — indeed, that was the key to its success — whereas Empire strove to be something else — something deeper, more adult. For reasons I’ll go into below, it did not succeed. It was a mistake even to try. But the fact that it did try may render Empire more worthy, in the minds of some, for serious consideration.

In 1980, I was the biggest Star Wars fan that my friends and family knew. My friend Sarah and I played hooky from school on May 21st to wait hours in line for the first show of Empire at the Loews Orpheum on 86th Street in Manhattan. Afterward, everyone wanted to know what I thought.

I couldn’t admit the truth to them: that I didn’t like it. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. To do so would be to renounce my identity as a Star Wars fan — at that young age, the only identity of any kind I had yet managed to acquire beyond standard-issue “bright young man.” Besides, there were just enough thrills in the movie to confound my true feelings. I quickly zeroed in on an official line, which I repeated whenever anyone asked me how I liked Empire — since Episode V ended on a cliffhanger, I was reserving judgment until Episode VI.

The problems with Empire begin in the very first line of dialogue. Luke Skywalker tops a snowy rise on his tauntaun, unmasks himself in a closeup, pauses for applause, and speaks into his radio: “Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, you read me?”

Now, the story is that the rebellion has just moved its base to this new planet and is busy setting up shop and scouting out the area. Luke and Han are two of the leaders of this effort. Presumably they see each other multiple times every day, coordinating the hundreds of details involved. If you were Luke, would you address Han as “Han, old buddy” if you’d seen him just a few hours before? No, it would be, “Hey, you there?” “Old buddy” is how you’d address him if you hadn’t seen or spoken to him in a few years — just as the original audiences in 1980 hadn’t. Luke isn’t hailing his coworker, he’s reintroducing him to the audience. The fourth wall is broken.

A few moments later, Han himself rides into the new rebel base. Dismounting his tauntaun, he too unmasks himself and gazes past the camera for a moment while the applause subsides. He next strides pointlessly over to his ship to say something meaningless to Chewbacca and then walk away, all so Chewie can have his own applause moment. And an instant later it’s Leia’s turn to pose silently for the camera for a moment.

What is this, a movie or a fan convention?

Now the wampa subplot gets underway. Here it is in a nutshell: Luke is abducted by an ice monster, escapes, and is rescued.

The dramatization of this subplot is almost as uninteresting as that synopsis. (Han Solo appropriating Luke’s lightsaber to slice open the dead tauntaun and stuff Luke inside is what earns the “almost.”) It has no bearing at all on anything else that happens in the film, or the trilogy for that matter. Why is it even included? The answer has long been known to Star Wars fans even as George “the filmmaking technology of the 1970’s prevented me from showing Greedo shooting first” Lucas has denied it: Mark Hamill’s face was disfigured in a car crash after Star Wars, so they needed a way to explain his changed appearance in the new film. Their answer: a wampa paw in the kisser, story cohesion be damned.

A rebel officer cautions Han Solo against venturing out into the inhospitable Hoth night to look for Luke. “Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker!” Han Solo’s response is both inappropriate and out of character:

“Then I’ll see you in hell!”

This is something you’d say to your enemy, not to someone giving you sensible advice! It’s also the only intrusion into the series of earthly religious ideas, and weirdly out of place for that reason.

Next up in this target-rich environment: the aftermath of Luke’s ordeal. As he recuperates in the infirmary, it’s time for a little levity. Empire delivers it in the form of sophomoric name-calling.

Leia: I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser-brain.
Chewbacca: [laughs]
Solo: Laugh it up, fuzzball.

All of which culminates in this outburst from Princess Leia:

Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!


Now, I can appreciate the value of a good name-calling insult, thou unmuzzled ill-breeding lewdster. But come on. “Laser-brain”?

I’ll give George Lucas a pass on the icky climax of the infirmary scene, where Leia smooches her twin brother just to get a rise out of Han Solo, because Lucas (by his own admission in a 1983 interview) didn’t know he would end up making Luke and Leia siblings until halfway through writing Episode VI. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t get a pass. Shouldn’t he have had a central plot element like that planned out in advance? And what does it say about Leia’s maturity that she’d toy with Luke in this adolescent way?

Well, let’s move on. Soon Luke is all better, and just in time to face an Imperial invasion. On the way to his snowspeeder he bids Han Solo farewell. As Luke walks away, the camera lingers on (what can only be described as) Han’s strangely loving gaze. We knew he had a soft spot in his outlaw’s heart, but when did he turn into a sentimental sap?

Later, after a thrilling land battle in which Luke crashes his snowspeeder but buys time for many rebels to escape, Han Solo is making his own escape, but… the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive won’t work! On the one hand, that’s good, ’cause it means it’s time for a thrilling chase through a nearby asteroid field. On the other hand, what do you mean the hyperdrive won’t work? Did an angry wampa tear it apart looking for Luke (which would at least have tied the pointless wampa story into the rest of the plot)? No, it just plain broke.

We’re supposed to believe that the Falcon is the hottest smuggling hot-rod in the galaxy, and Han Solo is a wizard at wringing every drop of performance out of her. Yet somehow the hyperdrive was broken for no reason — and Han Solo had no idea? Oh well, it happens to the best of us, I guess, and the asteroid field scene is cool, no doubt about that.

But what’s the very next thing that happens? Luke crashes his X-Wing on Dagobah — also for no reason! Hotshot pilot my ass. For those keeping score, that’s two Luke crashes within about ten minutes of screen time. Not only are our heroes suffering a collective and inexplicable loss of mojo, but considering Mark Hamill’s real-life ordeal it’s in pretty poor taste for the screenwriters to keep pressing the “Luke crashes” button.

Fortunately for Luke, the one person on all of planet Dagobah he has come to see is within a soundstage of the crash site. Whew!

When Yoda reveals his identity to Luke, he chides his motives. “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things!” This is where Luke should have said, “OK, seeya, thanks for the soup.” In the movie-and-a-half leading up to this scene there is not one thing we know about Luke beyond his desire for adventure and excitement. Well, maybe his desire to know more about his father, but that in itself wouldn’t make him yearn to be a Jedi any more than I yearn to be a bookbinding salesman.

And by the way, what’s wrong with craving adventure and excitement? Yoda never says. He does say that Luke is filled with much anger. Really? Luke? Luke Skywalker? When Luke tells Yoda he’s not afraid, Yoda promises him mysteriously, “You will be. You will be.” Huh? Is Yoda in the same movie as everyone else?

I’d like to turn our attention away from Dagobah for just long enough to make this observation: with hundreds of ships and thousands of fleet personnel at his disposal, why, exactly, does Darth Vader think he’ll have better luck capturing the Millennium Falcon by putting a tiny handful of bounty hunters on the job? Fortunately for the bounty hunters, when the Imperial fleet finally flushes the Falcon out of the asteroid field, her hyperdrive is still busted. Han Solo’s repairs aren’t worth spit (and baling wire). Groan.

Back to Yoda, who implores Luke to stay on Dagobah until his training is complete. “Only a fully trained Jedi knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader and his emperor.” Ben opines that Luke is their “last hope.” Two things about this: first, what do Ben and Yoda think a greenhorn like Luke can do alone against the Empire that they themselves could not have done better together years earlier, before the Empire amassed its present might? And second, if everything depends on Luke, why in the world did Ben wait so long to begin Luke’s Jedi training?

Ben makes a last plea to Luke: “If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere.” But… but… you already have interfered! You got Luke to go to Dagobah! You persuaded Yoda to train him! So obviously you can interfere, you just choose not to. But if Luke is your last hope, you damn well better interfere! What, is Ben making an empty threat? Is he throwing a tantrum? None of this makes very much sense. And what about Yoda? Can’t he lend a hand? He’s a freakin’ Jedi Master, for crying out loud.

No, for some reason, Luke is all on his own. He leaves Dagobah and heads to Cloud City, where our other heroes are prisoners. Darth Vader is using Luke’s friends as bait to trap Luke, which is well and good, but then he plans to… freeze him for his journey to the Emperor? Why does he feel the need to do something bizarre like that? We never find out. Can’t a dark lord of the Sith and a jillion stormtroopers safely imprison an incompletely trained Jedi for the duration of a single interplanetary trip?

Whatever. This gives us the chance to see Luke trying to hold his own against Vader in a series of pretty cool duel scenes. Vader’s psychological assault on Luke and the decision Luke faces are the only parts of “deeper, more adult” in the film that do work.

Enough bashing of individual moments in the film. Let’s look at some of the bigger problems.

The first is a personal complaint concerning the differences in the Force between the first film and the second. In Star Wars, the Force can be seen as an allegory for self-confidence, an idea that has held great appeal for me my whole life. Anyone can become proficient with “the Force” just by honing and believing in their own abilities. In Empire (and the rest of the series) that idea is out the window. The Force is something that runs in families — if you ain’t got it, that’s too damn bad — and you can do magic with it, and Forcey good guys can come back as ghosts to keep their old Forcey friends company. (Yes, in Star Wars, Luke hears Ben’s voice after Ben dies. But like the “ghosts” in Six Feet Under, Ben’s voice gives Luke no new information, so is it really Ben’s ghost saying encouraging things to Luke or is it just Luke’s memory of Ben’s training? That ambiguity plays better, for me, than Ben’s floating, spectral form [complete with the cloak that was left behind when he died] having conversations with people.)

My next big complaint is that the story is too small. It’s all about Darth Vader being obsessed with Luke. The Empire hardly does any striking back! The first movie was about a galaxy in turmoil; this one’s about a small group of people.

What if the Empire really did strike back in this film? Luke, on a cocky high after lucking into a major rebel victory, would be horrified to witness the awesome power of the Empire as it brings all its resources to bear and eradicates nearly every vestige of the rebellion. Somehow managing to survive the galactic holocaust, Luke retreats into obscurity — echoes of Ben Kenobi! — utterly demoralized and haunted by what he’s seen and (indirectly) caused. Eventually he befriends a local starry-eyed farmboy with dreams of adventure, and at first tries to knock the wanderlust out of him. But in the end it is his own sense of duty and derring-do that is reawakened. (Episode VI could then have been about the two of them building a newer, stronger rebel alliance that finally does topple the Empire. Oh well. This is not the first time — or the second — that I’ve thought I could do the story of Star Wars better myself.)

Say what you will about Return of the Jedi — the irksome Ewoks, the perfunctory return visit to Dagobah (and its oversized helping of exposition), the broken-record reuse of the Death Star as the military objective, and the way the rebellion seems to hand out generalships like candy — it was fun to see Luke kick ass, to see Threepio revered, to see the Emperor dominate Vader, to see Leia in a bikini. Fun is what Star Wars was supposed to be about. Maybe George Lucas, the famous film rebel, was rebelling against the success of his own creation, but for whatever reason, The Empire Strikes Back was no fun at all.

Indiana Jones and the Rolling Roles

The latest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, came out in 1989 and was set in the year 1938. Next year, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford will present a fourth Indiana Jones movie. In real time, 19 years will have elapsed since the last one.

Since Harrison Ford has visibly aged in that time, it’s reasonable to expect that a comparable interval has elapsed in story time between Indy 3 and Indy 4. Let’s say that the story interval is not 19 years but 24. That opens up a pretty interesting story possibility.

It’s 1962. An aging Indiana Jones has made a discovery of tremendous personal importance to himself, something he’s been looking for all over the world for thirty years. And for some reason, the first thing he does is to make his way to a small city in California to track down an obnoxious loudmouth with a fast car and a taste for Stetson cowboy hats — Bob Falfa.

Jones tries to convince Falfa to accompany him on a highly unique project. Mysteriously, Jones tells Falfa that he can divulge no details (“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you”) but, knowing Falfa’s love of fast cars, promises him the chance to drive something faster than anyone’s ever seen.

This was the wrong thing to say. Bob Falfa’s pride is hurt; his own car, he asserts, is the fastest thing on wheels. “And I’ll prove it to you!” Falfa storms off before Jones can get another word in and, almost at once, he goads a local hood, John Milner, into a drag race — which Falfa loses, spectacularly, trashing his car in the process.

Humiliated, Falfa leaves town that very day and changes his identity, swearing off hot rods and Stetson hats in a bid to be untraceable. (But he can’t completely break with the past. His new name, Martin Stett, commemorates his preferred hatmaker.) Stett kicks around for a few years and ends up with a gig in San Francisco as the personal assistant to a wealthy and unsavory businessman known as The Director.

Late one night Stett finds himself in a high-stakes poker game with some hardcore gamblers, including one charming out-of-towner (“I’m just passing through”) who’s losing badly. Out of funds on a big hand, the stranger puts his pink slip in the pot, assuring everyone that it’s for “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.” Stett wins the hand — and learns to his astonishment that he’s the new owner of a spaceship called the Millennium Falcon. The stranger, Lando Calrissian, is devastated but gracious in defeat. He offers to give piloting lessons to Stett in return for a lift back to his home galaxy far, far away.

After dropping off Calrissian at a bustling spaceport, Stett flies around this new galaxy for several years, picking up odd jobs where he’s able and enjoying his new solitude so much that he changes his name again, this time to Solo. Over time he befriends a Wookiee, a Jedi, and a princess, and plays a role in reforming galactic politics.

Feeling nostalgic one day, Solo takes a long flight back to Earth and is a little puzzled to discover that, due to the time-distorting effects of faster-than-light travel, he has arrived years before he left. Thus unable to visit his old stomping grounds — they don’t exist yet! — he makes to leave immediately but the Falcon’s hyperdrive, which has always been finicky, gives out altogether. Solo is stranded on a planet where there are no spare hyperdrive parts for thousands of light years in every direction.

With no other options, he conceals the Falcon in the New Mexico desert and begins researching ways to rebuild the hyperdrive from raw materials available on Earth. His research reveals the existence of ancient Etruscan mineral-smithing techniques that produced artifacts suitable for use in the hyperdrive motivator.

Solo begins hunting for Etruscan artifacts all over the world and is soon drawn into the world of archaeology, for which he has adopted yet another new alias — Indiana Jones — and reindulged his old love of broad-brimmed headwear. Along the way he has numerous new adventures and his repair of the still-concealed Millennium Falcon is sidetracked into an on-again, off-again project whose highlight is a dramatic near-crash during a test flight in 1947.

Finally, by 1962, Jones/Solo/Stett/Falfa has accumulated enough Etruscan jewelry and pottery and so on to build a hyperdrive motivator and complete the Falcon’s repair. However, he is by now old enough that his arthritis robs him of the agility needed to crawl in and among the parts of the Falcon’s engine machinery. What he needs is someone younger, mechanically inclined, and trustworthy. He knows just the person: an aimless young hot-rodder named Bob Falfa. And this time he won’t insult his car…

Operation Star-Wars-make-saga-more-good

Soon after the release of Star Wars: Episode III: Attack of: The Phantom Sith Clones, or whatever the hell it was called, when the Star Wars “saga” was finally all wrapped up, my sister Suzanne e-mailed me to say she was “relieved” to have enjoyed it. (The prior two films were total disasters, of course.)

I disagreed with her and wrote:

So I guess it didn’t bother you that

  • None of the characters had any chemistry;
  • All of the action scenes were jerkily edited and hard to follow;
  • Threepio’s memory is cavalierly erased for no good reason other than that the story’s continuity required it, though wiping out a main character’s personality is an act of unspeakable violence — and Artoo’s memory isn’t wiped, nor does Artoo grieve for the impending loss of his friend;
  • Anakin’s turn to the dark side is completely unmotivated;
  • Padme does nothing during the whole movie except look worried and then inexplicably die;
  • Yoda pointlessly mentions to Obi-Wan that he’ll be able to “commune” with Qui-Gon;
  • The Jedi were so easily hoodwinked;
  • Obi-Wan never conveys Padme’s dying utterance to Luke or Leia;
  • Palpatine dispatches three Jedi masters in under a minute;
  • Obi-Wan walks away from Anakin when he’s dying in agony;
  • Anakin and Obi-Wan had a pat reconciliation just before it all turns to shit;
  • The Death Star takes about twenty years to construct (long enough for Luke to grow up and destroy it soon after it becomes operational), but the Death Star II comes together in no time at all;
  • Yoda, battling Palpatine, knowing the stakes, and holding his own, turns tail and runs from the one good shot at him he’s ever likely to get;
  • We still don’t know what the heck midichlorians are or why Anakin’s got so many of them;
  • By an amazing coincidence, of the millions of Wookiees on Kashyyk, one of Yoda’s liaisons there was Chewbacca;
  • Obi-Wan “hides” the infant Luke in the one place in the whole galaxy Darth Vader is most likely to look for him;
  • But Vader doesn’t!; and
  • The prophecy is never explained.

It wasn’t all bad. Here are the things that were good:

  • The glimpse of Farscape‘s Wayne Pygram (“Scorpius”) as a young Tarkin helping to oversee the construction of the Death Star (but why no dialogue??);
  • The suitably operatic irony (artlessly executed) that Anakin’s desire to protect Padme is what killed her;
  • Fragments of the philosophy-of-the-Force scenes with Palpatine;
  • The tug-of-war for Anakin’s loyalties (again, artlessly executed);
  • General Grievous: the coughing, wheezing ‘droid who’s a tiny fraction organic.

In a later message I sent her my prescription for how the saga might have been improved.

  • Lose the midichlorians, for gosh sakes.
  • Lose Anakin’s mother. Anakin’s an orphan of uncertain provenance.
  • Lose Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan is the one who discovers Anakin and takes him under his wing.
  • Leia’s not Luke’s sister. What’s the point? Furthermore, it destroys the tension of the Luke-Leia-Han triangle.
  • Keep the prophecy, but explain it better and make it more mysterious. The prophecy describes a prodigy in the Force who will destroy the Sith. The prophecy seems to point to Anakin but no one can be really sure. Yet Obi-Wan believes fervently (just as Morpheus believes in Neo in The Matrix). Obi-Wan’s pride at discovering and training this special boy is part of both men’s downfall.
  • Lose the sullen brooding angsty teen angle. It does not suffice to explain Anakin’s turn to the dark side anyway, and is just annoying.
  • Do make an issue of the prophecy, and what Anakin’s knowledge of it does to him. It places unusual pressure on him, and somehow or another this is what leads him to the dark side. This can become the through-line of the whole saga: knowing the future and trying to change it is a sure way to fuck it up. Just look at what happens to Padme.
  • Make the Jedi less gabby and more heraldic, along the lines of the Knights of the Round Table. Give them a charismatic king- like leader to whom they can be loyal. Lose the Galactic Senate and the Republic’s so-called democracy.
  • Make Anakin become the favorite of this king-like leader. The Jedi are mindful of the danger that Anakin poses, but the king’s love blinds him and he blocks the precautions the Jedi wish to take. In the end, when the Jedi are betrayed, they’re not taken by surprise; they know it’s coming. But their loyalty to the king prevents them from doing anything about it, even when it means their own annihilation.
  • For a touch of operatic cliche, make Palpatine the jealous younger brother of the king. He recognizes the opportunity presented by the king’s love for Anakin, and corrupts Anakin.
  • Palpatine interprets Anakin’s premonitions of Padme’s death and cultivates his fear. Meanwhile, he also plays on Anakin’s sense of inadequacy that is the result of the prophecy. Anakin doesn’t feel like the super Jedi he’s supposed to be and worries that he won’t measure up when push comes to shove. This makes Palpatine’s corrupt teachings more attractive to him; he believes it’ll give him the edge he needs to live up to the prophecy.
  • There needs to be many more Jedi, including more who survive the betrayal. By surviving, they’ve lost their honor and have become ronin. After the fall of the Republic, these ronin don’t merely hide; they work behind the scenes to subvert the Empire and are connected with the formation of the Rebellion.
  • The ronin consider Luke valuable mainly for symbolic purposes, and intend to use him politically in some way when he comes of age. To everyone’s surprise, though, Luke is as much a prodigy in the Force as his father was, and forges his own destiny in defiance of the ronins’ plans.
  • More should be made of Darth Vader’s ever-present desire to overthrow the Emperor. This desire is endlessly frustrated or delayed. Of course the Emperor knows all about Vader’s ambitions and is a skilled-enough manipulator to always turn Vader’s plans against him. In the end, Vader is something of a whipped dog, and this contributes to his betrayal of the Emperor (which destroys the Sith and fulfills the prophecy).
  • Vader’s redemption requires more than just watching Luke suffer at the Emperor’s hands. Instead, it requires Vader recognizing in Luke a parallel with his own fall (as he’s now come to regard his turn to the dark side). As Luke is about to make a similar disastrous mistake to one that Vader himself once made, a paternal instinct takes over. Vader is not strong enough to defeat the Emperor by himself, even with the element of surprise; but he and Luke fighting side-by-side bring about the Emperor’s death. It probably requires Vader sacrificing himself to make the final kill.
  • After Luke’s triumph, the ronin pledge their fealty to him and proclaim him the new king. But (in a parallel with George Washington) Luke refuses the title and places Leia in charge of something new: a truly democratic government.

All of this is orthogonal to my desire to remake the original Star Wars. And none of it is as good as Keith Martin’s reinterpretation.

By now my claims of being a “recovering” Star Wars nerd may be starting to ring a little hollow. But the messages I quoted above were written in 2005, when the pain of the prequels was still raw. That faded into irrelevancy in no time. And although it seems I keep coming back to Star Wars, in fact I was just browsing through my old mail to look for something interesting to put on the blog today because I didn’t have the time to write something new.

Make that seven

Another way I’m like Ken: in today’s blog post he writes, “I find that I think in movie quotes about 45% of the time.”

Huh. Just 45%? Maybe Ken is Bob lite! After all, I was the founding movie-quotes editor of the Internet Movie Database.

Quoting dialogue from movies and TV shows has been a cherished way of life for me since age 10, when it occurred to me to place my tape recorder in front of the TV and grab the audio from an episode of Happy Days.

(It was the one where Herb Edelman plays a house burglar. He breaks into the Cunningham house but is foiled by Fonzie, who correctly guesses he’s not armed thanks to this bit of “prison poetry”: “He who steals with a gun in his hand / Gets ten years to life in the can.” Jesus, do I really still remember that???)

After that I taped and memorized The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and a Robert Klein stand-up comedy special on HBO, but that was just preparation for the day I smuggled a tape recorder into a movie theater to grab the audio from Star Wars. I memorized every word, every sound effect, every note of music. For years afterward, where other kids would sing their favorite radio hits, I would recite scenes from Star Wars. (And I must say: being so intimately acquainted with the audio of that film gave me an appreciation for just what an accomplishment it was. The visual effects today are dated, but the audio created for Star Wars has never been equalled — which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense coming from the director of the sonically innovative predecessors THX-1138 and American Graffiti.)

As time went by it became clear that I had an aptitude for remembering quotable dialogue verbatim — that is, without the usual minor lapses in word choice and ordering that usually afflict movie quoters — even without the benefit of tape recorders. I expanded my movie-viewing horizons and amassed a collection of favorite quotes. Eventually I offered to contribute them to the maintainers of the nascent “rec.arts.movies movie database” on Usenet. The quality and quantity of my submissions (and my corrections to quotes they already had) landed me an invitation to join the team — a team that later became the Internet Movie Database company and later still got bought by

(…to be continued…)

The Star Wars remake project, part 1

In high school in the early 1980’s, I once got into a debate with a teacher as to which was the better movie, Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I of course was a total Star Wars fanboy, deaf to the teacher’s arguments in favor of 2001. I believe the gist of my own argument was, “Star Wars is the top-grossing movie of all time and 2001 is incomprehensible; you’re obviously wrong (you hippie).”

Now that I’m a recovering Star Wars nerd — and have also long since developed the sophistication to comprehend 2001 — I can easily see how 2001 is in many ways the better film, although in some important ways the two aren’t really comparable.

Despite George Lucas’s later claims to the contrary — to wit, that he was designing a mythic archetypal saga — Star Wars was meant first and last to be popcorny escapism. Of course it succeeded wildly, not least of all because of the pop-culture doldrums of the mid-1970’s, and changed the whole movie business, to the extent that rich storytelling and character development became scarce for a long while, sacrificed to spectacle and bombast. It took years for significant amounts of grownup content to return to movie (and TV) screens.

All of which has been said before, but perhaps this is new: the idea to remake Star Wars as a good movie by today’s standards. That means crackling dialogue, emotional beats, character arcs, and even topical relevance.

Topical relevance? You bet. The story of Star Wars is the story of a once-enlightened republic gone corrupt, then brought to its knees by a small, ill-equipped band of guerrilla fighters. Any resemblance to the United States vs. Iraq, Israel vs. Hezbollah, etc. may originally have been incidental but now screams “allegory.” That the heroes of the story are the allegorical equivalent of terrorists (so-called by the superpower; in story and in life they call themselves freedom fighters) will give the remake a slightly subversive agenda. That’s a bonus. Our job will be to make this allegory clear without allowing it to overpower the story.

I say “our job” because I am inviting public participation via the comment feature of this blog. In this installment I am laying out what I consider to be the requirements of the remake. In part 2 I will describe some of the problems with the existing Star Wars that I hope to address in the remake, such as an over-reliance on coincidence and Luke’s passivity. Part 3 will present the backstory. Part 4 will propose character arcs. Part 5 will introduce a story outline, and later parts will develop key scenes. Each post will incorporate any feedback I get from the earlier ones. Maybe one day we’ll actually film the thing. More likely this effort will be squashed like a bug under the legal thumb of Lucasarts. Even more likely is that I’ll lose interest, but we’ll see. Well begun is half done.

Now for the record, let’s take a look at the core of the original movie — those elements we need to keep in order to qualify as a remake and not a ripoff:

A beautiful princess, nominally a functionary of the corrupt government but secretly a rebel spy, obtains some key intelligence. Expecting capture, she entrusts it to an unlikely emissary who is able to escape unsuspected. The emissary is instructed to seek a former military ally but is intercepted by a bored farmboy with dreams of adventure. When he learns a beautiful princess is in peril his desire to leave his dreary home intensifies, but not until (a) he hooks up with the military man and (b) the government destroys his home in a search for the emissary is he moved to act. They seek to convey the emissary (and his intelligence) to officials of the rebellion, but are waylaid into an opportunity to rescue the princess, which they do after many adventures. Finally the intelligence is delivered to the rebellion, which uses it to score an important military victory.

With some modifications, I think this is a fine framework to start from, and Luke is still a good choice for a main character, though we can make him better.

Notice that everyone’s favorite character, Han Solo, is missing. He is not integral to the plot when formulated this way. (Ben Kenobi could have had his own spaceship and not needed to hire a pilot.) I do still expect to need the character — I’ll explain why in a future post — and integrating him into the story better than before is one of the problems with the existing Star Wars that I’ll discuss in the next installment.