Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Star Wars

I'd been kicking around the idea for this post for a while, but the recent release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens back in December gave me the necessary kick in the arse to sit down and write it now. You see, I've been a huge Star Wars fan for my entire life, or at least as much of my life as I can remember, which goes back to about the age of three. While I'm not one of those fans who dresses in costume, learns to speak the alien languages from the films, or tries to use the Force to move objects around, I have seen the movies an obscene number of times and known way more about the minutiae of the Star Wars universe than I probably need to. It's not the only science fiction franchise I'm a big fan of...I also love Star Trek, for instance, but for different reasons. While Star Trek appeals more to me because of the deeper themes, more complex storylines, and it being a more realistic vision as to what the future may hold, Star Wars is just rollicking good fun. Creator George Lucas has stated numerous times that he was inspired by the Flash Gordon serials he loved to watch a a kid, and the label of swashbuckling space opera that has been levied on Star Wars seems more than appropriate to me.



In discussing my love of Star Wars, let me point out that I was born at the beginning of 1980, so even though I was too young to see the original trilogy in the movie theaters, my parents did and I grew up never knowing a world in which they didn't exist. I was three years old in 1983 when Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was released and I had (and still have) a lot of memorabilia from that era. I used to have several of the action figures and playsets, including the Ewok village, but all I can find now in my garage and my parents' basement are a few scattered figures (the Rancor keeper, General Madine, an AT-ST walker) and two books: one a full color picture book of the movie and the other a pop-up book with highlights from the movie's story. My love for all things Star Wars really blossomed in the late 1980s when I saved up enough of my money from Christmas and birthday gifts in order to buy the original trilogy on VHS...in fact, it was a boxed set of all three movies, plus a fourth tape about the behind-the-scenes making of the films called From Star Wars to Jedi. I've still got the tapes somewhere, but from that moment I probably watched the films every few months and learned all I could about the characters, alien races, planets, and backstory of the Star Wars universe. This was aided greatly by some books my mum bought me in the early 1990s: three of them were on the making of the films and included a wealth of information, concept art, and special effects secrets, while the fourth was a Star Wars encyclopedia. I was able to come full circle when the original trilogy was re-released in movie theatres in 1997 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the the first of the series to be released, Episode IV: A New Hope. While it was a thrill to see all three on the big screen and with surround sound, it was quite jarring to see how George Lucas had modified the films I had memorized by heart over my entire life up that point. While some of the additions weren't too bad (for example, adding more X-Wings in the background during the assault on the Death Star), others were unnecessary (changing the band and music in Jabba's palace), clunky (re-inserting the deleted scene in A New Hope where Han Solo now talks to a CGI Jabba the Hutt, a scene that is actually beneficial in explaining why Jabba is after Han, but which suffers from primitive CGI), to the downright stupid (having Greedo shoot first). I vowed there and then that I would never watch the modified versions of the films again, although this became increasingly difficult to do as Lucas made sure only the special editions were available to buy on DVD and digital download going forward.


You can imagine my excitement and surprise when I started college and heard that Lucas was going to make Episodes I-III! New Star Wars movies...what more could I ask for? Ever since I was a kid and had read that George had originally planned nine movies in the series, I'd always hoped that someday he'd make them. The excitement in the build-up to the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 was unbelievable, and not just personally but for all Star Wars fans. However, my initial reaction after I saw the film three times in the theatres was that it was just okay. I enjoyed it because if was Star Wars, because it set up the beginning of the story that would lead up to A New Hope, and because there were some fantastic characters and actors in it (Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor's superb portrayal of young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ian MacDiarmid as the younger Darth Sidious/Senator Palpatine, Darth Maul, Christopher Lee as Count Dooku in Episodes II and III). However, there was also some terrible acting, most notably Natalie Portman (Padme Amidala), Jake Lloyd (young Anakin Skywalker in Episode I) and Hayden Christensen (teenage/adult Anakin in Episodes II and III). Portman and Christensen are usually decent actors who nonetheless delivered wooden, stilted performances in these films. Granted, the dialogue George Lucas wrote (one of his self-admitted weaknesses) didn't help, but still, good actors should be able to overcome. Even Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, while passable, was hampered by the dialogue that left his character a bit less than what he should have been.  Episode II: Attack of the Clones was a bit better than Episode I although some of the romantic dialogue between Portman and Christensen was unbelievably bad. Again, though, I enjoyed it because it was Star Wars, but for me the only one of the three prequels that approached the brilliance of the original trilogy was Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. It had action and adventure, emotional pull (Obi-Wan expressing his anger, disgust, and heartbreak at Anakin's ultimate fate at the conclusion of their epic battle is a favorite scene), some very efective editing (the cuts back and forth between Luke and Leia's birth and Anakin's transformation into Vader), and the climactic moment we'd all waited for when Anakin took his first breath as Darth Vader. In fact, I rank Episode III in my top three films in the series. If I rank the films in order of favorite to least favorite, it looks like this:

1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
2. Episode IV: A New Hope
3. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
5. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
7. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

That being said, I continue to enjoy all of the films and have come to appreciate them more with the passage of time, especially the prequels. (I even don't hate Jar-Jar Binks as much as I used to, even though I could still do with MUCH less of him in Episode I). I also need to mention that Ewan McGregor's portrayal of the younger Obi-Wan Kenobi was tremendous throughout all three prequels and he is firmly cemented as one of the great characters and performances across the entire series. Even the way he appropriated Alex Guinness' mannerisms and accent from Episodes IV-VI in order to make him wholly believable as the younger version was masterful (not to mention he's long been a favorite actor of mine). The original trilogy will always hold the most special place in my heart as those were the original three movies that hooked me and everyone else, and as you can see above they make up three of my top four films in the series. Even though I ranked the new film fifth, I thoroughly enjoyed it and think it is a worthy and perfect continuation of the series, capturing the spirit of fun, adventure, and humor that was at its most effective in the original trilogy and which was slightly lacking in the prequels. (I'm deliberately shying away from saying anything more about the new film in case any of you reading this still haven't see it yet!). Seeing so many of the old characters in the film and falling in love with the new ones was really cool and struck the right balance between nostalgia and something new that was needed to appease the older fans while bringing in the new ones.




What's been the best thing for me lately about Star Wars, besides it giving me an excuse to relive my childhood (some would say I still haven't outgrown it) and revel in my geekiness for all things Star Wars-related, has been getting my kids into it. In particular, my second oldest daughter and my son sat and watched all six films in order with me in the weeks leading up to the premiere of the new one. My son has been into Star Wars the past couple of years in terms of toys and costumes (he's been an X-Wing pilot the last two Halloweens), but it's turned into a full-blown obsession akin to how I was at his age. He dressed in his X-Wing pilot costume and my daughter dressed as Princess Leia (complete with the hairstyle, courtesy of my talented wife!) when we went to see The Force Awakens. Although I don't think their goosebumps matched the nostalgic rush of mine when the opening fanfare and story crawl first hit the screen, they were definitely on the edge of their seats with excitement as much as I was.



Getting back to my son, he has loads of Star Wars action figures, Legos, cars, etc, and now that he has learned to read he is devouring every book about the films and the Star Wars universe that he can get his hands on. He is even blowing me away with his knowledge of the different creatures, planets, vehicles, characters, etc. He knows which movie certain events happened in and at the age of six and a half, as well as how and why they connect with the other films. Another thing that has struck me is that since he has grown up in a world where the six films have existed, some of his favorite characters and moments actually come from the prequels. Yes, he loves Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Yoda, and Darth Vader, but he also routinely lists Mace Windu, Anakin, General Greivous, Qui-Gon, Darth Maul, and Count Dooku as some of his favorites. His willing acceptance and enjoyment of the prequels for what they are allowed me to watch them with a less cynical eye and realize that while they are for the most part definitely weaker than the original trilogy, they also suffered from the unrealistic weight of expectations leading up to their release (especially Episode I, which had sixteen years of anticipation and a huge amount of hype leading up to its release that it could never meet or exceed) and they have been overly vilified by fans and critics alike.  Sure, they're weren't as good as the originals, but they certainly weren't as bad as the conventional wisdom makes them out to be, either. That's my opinion, at least.



With all of this being said, my kids and I are now eagerly counting down to the release of Episodes VIII and IX. While I consider myself fortunate that I've been able to see all of the films on the big screen, I'm also glad that my kids will get a chance to experience the excitement and anticipation of each new film in a new trilogy. Additionally, their experience of seeing the six films in order from I-VI as opposed to how I and others of my generation experienced them (IV-VI, and then I-III) is different enough that I'm glad it gives them their own unique way to experience the wonder and fun of the Star Wars saga. In the end, sharing in all of this fun and sense of wonder in the realms of imagination with my kids is the best part about the entire experience for me.

6 comments:

  1. Some of my favorite movie series are the ones I shared with my kids. My memories of the past coupled with their excitement made viewing them a real joy. I'm so glad you got to experience it too.

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    1. You totally nailed it when you said "memories of the past coupled with their excitement." I wish I had written that! :)

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  2. The first movie I ever saw in the Theater was Star Wars IV A New Hope, I was only about four years old when I saw it, and apparently slept for about halve an hour of the film. Never the less... I was hooked.

    I agree with your ranking of the films, however I am still not sure about where exactly I put The Force Awakens, although I loved seeing all the old characters, it seems to lack anything other than a very superficial plot, whereas episode one had trade sanctions, false flags, proxy wars and other sort of high brow messages running in the background of light saber fights, jar jar and other sorts of things.

    I will have to see The Force Awakens again before the next one comes out and see if there was anything I missed, but I doubt it. However my initial reaction would be to put it in 5th spot just as you did, my opinion may change over time.

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    1. You know, the longer it's been since I saw the Force Awakens (I saw it the day after it premiered), the more I tend to agree with your line of thinking. I *do* think it was good and just the right type of film for the series to come back with, but you're right that the plot was superficial not to mention VERY derivative of A New Hope.

      I also agree with you that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, both of which I ranked below it, had MANY more interesting subplots...I think I just can't get past the horrid dialogue written by George for those which is a shame because I *do* still like those movies a lot.

      What will definitely be interesting to see is how Episode VIII carries on from VII...it needs to be a strong bridging movie like Clones and Empire, don't you think?

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  3. Great article, and I agree with your ranking of the films although you mis-spelled the last one. They should obviously read:

    1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
    2. Episode IV: A New Hope
    3. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
    4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
    5. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
    6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
    7. The Ewoks: Caravan of Courage

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    1. Haha! (I'm assuming you mean that in place of Return of the Jedi, not Phantom Menace, yes?). In any event, I agree...the Ewoks aren't *awful* but they do grate and it's just a bit more than unbelievable that such primitive, small, and weak creatures could take down entire battalions of the Empire. If that's the case, it makes it even more pathetic that the Rebels couldn't defeat the Empire earlier!

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