Sunday, November 18, 2012

Disney: VII, VIII, IX

So this post is pretty late in coming. Oh well.

Part of the reason I didn't write about this earlier is that I'd already written about the possibility of a sequel trilogy a couple of years ago. Also, to be honest, the reason this blog has had a total of two posts in a whole year (and none in the past nine months) is that I've been quickly losing interest in Star Wars.

Something that's always struck me about Star Wars is how it was crafted as an amalgamation of hundreds or thousands of different stories from fantasy and mythology. So, in much the same way that George Lucas delved deep into various mythologies to find the universal qualities to make Star Wars, I decided it'd be cool to delve into other fantasy and sci-fi stories, in order to get a larger view of the genres. Unfortunately, doing so only illuminated for me the fact that Star Wars is severely lacking.

Let's be honest: for as epic and wonderful as the Expanded Universe is, it's essentially a gigantic series of spin-off stories that gets trampled by the Star Wars films and TV series on a semi-regular basis. It's always been held back by Lucasfilm restrictions (the most they've been able to do is kill off Chewbacca; everyone else is in their elder years and somehow still alive despite decades of war), and rarely has it been truly worthy of the Star Wars name. Knights of the Old Republic, the Thrawn trilogy, and many other stories stand as notable examples to the contrary, but on the whole, the EU has suffered from simply being treated as a lesser aspect of the franchise.

Similarly, The Clone Wars, which is basically as canonical as the films, is also merely a spin-off, not the "primary" story. No matter what happens in The Clone Wars, most of it won't matter because most of the characters are from the films and can't be changed from what we know them to be in AOTC and ROTS. The galaxy won't be forever changed by The Clone Wars; it's changed by the events of the films.

Meanwhile, in other franchises, the primary story is much better-handled. In the Stargate universe, each of the three Stargate TV series (and the three movies) are equally capable of changing the direction of the entire story. In the Halo universe, nearly every story—whether it be a game, novel, or comic—is just as important to the story as anything other. Huge, epic (and canonical) facets of the universe are told in different forms of media, yet they all interweave between one another. Finally, the Star Trek universe has over 700 hour-long episodes and full-length movies, not even counting any of its expanded universe fiction or the single-season animated series.

To go from marathoning literally hundreds of episodes of Trek back to watching Star Wars is like learning to swim in a lake and then being dropped into a kiddie pool. Sometimes the six SW films are plenty deep enough. Certainly there's plenty of philosophical conversation to be had about them. But then (and perhaps more often) you hear Star Wars fans saying things like, "Oh, man! I just found something totally new about Star Wars! For one frame in the Special Edition VHS version of A New Hope, R2's red and blue light turns GREEN! Wow! I can't believe how deep and detailed these movies are! Thirty years later and I'm still discovering new things!"


I really can't describe how disheartening it is to see how shallow my fandom actually is. Yes, the Star Wars fan community is vibrant and wonderful. Wars fans are possibly the best fandom in existence, despite the angry sect of them that dominates internet message boards. Yes, The Clone Wars is great, for what it is. Yes, the EU is a very deep and endlessly detailed sub-universe. But as a whole, Star Wars needs a kick in its complacency.

That is exactly what I think this Disney purchase—coupled with George's retirement and the hiring of Kathleen Kennedy as his replacement—will provide. The fact that we're getting the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy—THE Sequel Trilogy, straight from George's notes and outlines—with an entirely new director and writer is amazing.

Currently over in The Clone Wars, there's a storyline going on that focuses on Jedi younglings learning to build their lightsabers. It's pretty fitting, as this news really has made a lot of older Star Wars fans feel like kids first discovering Star Wars again. What new galactic wonders will we see in the new trilogy? What will happen to the main characters from the OT? What new mysteries of the Force will we discover?

Despite the dark times of recent days, since the Disney and Sequel Trilogy announcement, I've been proud to once again think of myself as a Star Wars fan.

I'm excited enough that I'm actually going to go back and re-watch the entire Clone Wars series in chronological order, posting reviews for episodes that are missing on this blog. Should be fun.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Phantom Menace in 3D

I saw The Phantom Menace in 3D at midnight last night. I've got a bunch of thoughts, both on the 3D upgrade and the film itself.

The 3D
It must be said that the theater I was at unfortunately did not properly brighten the image, thus resulting in a terribly darkened image with the 3D glasses. It was absolutely horrible; I even took off the glasses at times because I couldn't stand the strain of trying to see the film. As if that wasn't enough, some of the 3D calibration was off. The depth effect seemed perfectly aligned at the center of the screen, but gradually got more distorted closer to the edges, as if there were some invisible lens over the whole thing. My thoughts here may be a little stilted because of this; I'll try to compensate by imagining what I saw brighter and less distorted.

The opening of the film, with the new 3D-ized Lucasfilm logo and opening crawl, really showed off the 3D. It was a bit gimmicky, but it was cool. After that, however, the 3D barely existed. It felt like watching the film normally, just darker. Ever so often you'd notice some 3D depth, but not a lot. Really, only the podrace had any noticeable 3D effect, but that one scene was AMAZING.

Secretly, I've always thought that maybe I could pilot a podracer. I've done it before in video games; it's not too tough. But actually seeing the insane speed of that race in 3D, with every tiny rock flying at the audience at 600kph, squashed that fantasy forever. It is absolutely jaw-dropping. It's so amazing that it marginally gives Anakin some character depth, since you actually get a firsthand sense of how ridiculously fast his reflexes are.

My last note here isn't really a 3D note; just something else they changed: Yoda. Yoda is now no longer the weird-looking puppet from the theatrical and DVD versions of TPM; he is now a fully CG creature, exactly like in AOTC and ROTS. He looks much, much better. They even got in some of the stiffness and lack of fluidity that the ESB puppet had (like a real elderly person would have), which adds to the lifelike feel. It's very cool.

The Film

"I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!"
You and me both, sister.

First off, I noticed one thing: there is entirely too much talking. Specifically, talking about things like trade disputes, the legality of blockades, and the formation of commissions. In a series called Star Wars, plot development, for the most part, should come through action, not incredibly dense dialogue. This kind of thing should have been reserved for the novelization of the film, not put into the movie itself. 

There's another interesting problem with the narrative here: we never actually see the Naboo people suffer, as Sio Bibble claims they are, and we only get references to "camps," where Panaka claims that "everyone" has been sent. So... the Trade Federation literally rounded up the entire planet's human population and put them in camps? In, what, a couple of weeks? We don't even see much of the Naboo people at all until the parade finale. As far as we know until that point, the entire planet consists of the Queen, her advisors, and two dozen security officers and pilots. Heck, we see more Gungans than we do of the Naboo, and they're supposed to be a hidden, less-populous race. No wonder the Federation had no problem rounding up the Naboo people; there wasn't anyone left to capture anyway. This might sound like nitpicking, but it does become a serious problem for the story. If we don't see any of the people that are "suffering and dying," nothing's really at stake for the audience emotionally. We're left with more words than images; cheap talk and no action. Amidala's quote to the Senate unfortunately applies to the entire movie: political discussion, considering what's going on, is mostly irrelevant. Yes, Palpatine needed to be set up as the future Supreme Chancellor, but that didn't need the extreme amount of dense political dialogue that we were given. Seriously, even the opening crawl of the film spends more time talking about trade disputes than anything actually important or life-threatening. There's no mention of war, the Sith, or any real conflict at all; it's just boring text that seems lifted from a political textbook.

Another problem: no one aside from Anakin is really given any character spotlight. A New Hope was notable in that it took its time to really highlight and strongly establish the characters of Luke, Han, Leia, and Obi-Wan. They were all given memorable introductions, very strong character moments, and enough to do that they really mattered. Here, we don't get much of anything like that.
Jar-Jar is more like one of the Three Stooges that just happens to exist in this story; he doesn't really grow or change, he just directs the main characters to where they can find the Gungans... twice. That's literally all he's good for; he doesn't do a single other notable thing in the story. In terms of narrative importance, he's just a glorified signpost that provides physical comedy.
Amidala seems to be more of a device to forward the plot than a real character.
Anakin is given the greatest importance in the plot, but he's not a perspective character; he's more like a powerful and mysterious object everyone else stares at and talks about. He's basically the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders.
Obi-Wan doesn't have much to do; he's mostly just "there" until the last few scenes. Really, this is 90% Qui-Gon's movie.
Speaking of Qui-Gon, he's actually given a decent amount of importance. He's the one that makes most of the choices, he's the one whose eyes we see the story through, and he's easily the best-developed and most realistic character here. If there's one character this movie does right, it's him.
I almost forgot about Darth Maul and Palpatine. In a way, they're sort of one character in this film: Palpatine is the brains, while Maul is the brute strength. Together, they actually work very well. If you look at Maul by himself, however, he's definitely a shallow character—and yet simultaneously the coolest character in the saga, second only to Boba Fett.

It seems that the real meat of Episode I is in its spectacle: the action and the effects.

The effects are, on the whole, outstanding. Every spaceship looks absolutely, completely real. The podracers are almost shockingly perfect. The CG creatures are hit-and-miss. The underwater monsters look incredible, while the Gungans look really bad by modern standards. On DVD they actually looked decent, with all the film grain and whatnot, but in full theater-quality with 3D depth, their lack of adequate texturing and light reflection is really obvious. The Battle of Naboo, with the two CG armies, is a little odd in that it's basically a realistic-looking mechanical army fighting a cartoonish-looking organic army.

The action is honestly some of the best in the entire saga.

The opening action scene, where the Jedi plow through a squad of battle droids, is amazing. The effect used for Qui-Gon cutting into the door doesn't look like the usual CG "melted metal" effect; it really looks like an actual metal door is melting and burning up. I'd really like to see how they did that. One thing of note here too is that this is the first time that we really see lightsabers hitting enemies and cutting them. Sure, in the OT we'd see an occasional removed hand or arm, but only when it was important to the plot. Otherwise, we'd just see Luke swinging his saber at random guards on Jabba's skiff, but we'd never see the physical contact. Here we've got Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon slamming their way through battle droids, leaving carved, smoldering pieces in their wake. The fact that the droids are CG helps, too, since we can see the sabers cut through them in real-time. It's really a lot of fun to watch.

The intermittent stuff, with the Jedi doing random battling here and there, is fun enough, though not quite jaw-dropping.

The podrace, as mentioned twice before, is amazing. It's not just style and it's not just special effects; it's a very smartly-choreographed scene. What's really great here too is the fact that we actually get to see the 2nd lap of the podrace, which does not appear in the original theatrical cut of the film. It's been in every version since the DVD release, but still, this is the first time it's ever been seen on the big screen, and it contains some of the best moments of the race.

The final battle of the film is really four battles happening at once. The Gungans vs Droids battle is probably the worst, as there's no one we really care about there, and it's mostly played for comedy with Jar-Jar instead of drama like every other part of the ending. The fight for Theed Palace, with Amidala and Panaka leading a group of security officers towards the Viceroy, is generic Star Wars blaster action. It actually feels a bit fake, with the officers standing in the middle of the hallway sometimes and still not getting shot. When the suspension of disbelief is broken that badly, there's just no tension. The battle in space is excellent. Yes, it's mostly from little Anakin's perspective, but it really is a sight to behold. The sense of scale is done wonderfully here, and the sharp contrasts of the tiny yellow-and-chrome starfighters against the black of space—lasers and crackling blue torpedoes flying everywhere—are breathtaking. Anakin also has his miracle moment in this battle, which, considering his deep connection to the Force, is plausible and rather interesting. Finally, we have the best Star Wars action scene of all time: the three-way duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul. Seeing this on the big screen for the first time since I was nine reminded me why I spent so many years of my childhood and teen years studying swordfighting and poring over lightsaber lore. It's the best-cheoreographed and most intricate duel, thanks no doubt to the absolutely incredible talents of Ray Park as Darth Maul. No other duel in Star Wars history is this good. This scene alone makes the entire movie worth watching.

All in all, seeing TPM again was a nice trip back to childhood. I wish the theater I'd gone to had better quality, but hey... actually, no, it was horrible. I might go see it again at a better theater on Tuesday just so I can say that I actually saw the whole movie as I was supposed to. But anyway...

I can't say the 3D was beneficial at all, other than in the podrace scene. Everything else didn't need it. Still, though, getting to see The Phantom Menace on the big screen is definitely worth it, 3D or not.

Friday, January 20, 2012

George Lucas

George Lucas is retiring.
Depending on what side of the fence you're on, this is either somewhat sad news or cause for celebration.

Lucas is easily one of the most polarizing individuals in various circles. While everyone agrees that he's an important person in the history of filmmaking, many people also assume that he's some kind of terrible, egocentric, literally-evil hack writer that only does things for the money.

In 1996, just before the release of the Star Wars Special Edition films, Mark Altman—the at-the-time editior of Sci-Fi Universe Magazine—said this after a preview screening:
"For those who grew up on Star Wars - a really seminal film for a lot of us - it's kind of a shock to see it butchered. It's like watching your childhood being raped."

And thus began the "George Lucas raped my childhood" paraphrase/quote. It's been a huge internet meme and somewhat of a geek mantra. There's even a song about it.

There's also a facebook group about it. This is what's written in their "about" section:

In 1977, George Lucas created the Star Wars Trilogy, an epic saga which would come to define a generation. Star Wars would play an integral role in the childhood of millions of children worldwide.

But nearly 20 years later, the descent began. In 1997. The Star Wars trilogy: Special Edition butchered the original films fan hads grown to love. He made Greedo shoot first.

1999 truly saw the beginning of the end for Star Wars. One word. Jar-Jar (or is that two?) How about two more? Jake. Loyd.

It was all downhill from there.

No sets, no story, awful dialogue which no actor could salvage. But that's ok. Because George Lucas had computers. And money. And computers.

It was all downhill from there.

I want my childhood back.

Give me back a badass Han, Lak Sivrak, matte lines on my snowspeeders, and a band in jabba's Palace that doesn't look like a drag review.

Really? "Butchered?" Greedo shooting first "butchers" the movie for you? I'm not fond of it either, but how exactly does that "butcher" the entire movie? That entire scene takes literally one minute, and the change is around one second. And it butchers the movie?

"No sets, no story, awful dialogue... but that's ok. Because George Lucas had computers. And money." This seems to suggest the reason why people seem so intent on the idea that Lucas is such a terrible person: they assume that Lucas didn't care that he was making a bad movie, and was in it entirely for the money.
Why couldn't he have simply made mistakes with the prequels, or merely had a difference of opinion? Why should we assume that he was being greedy?

"Give me back a badass Han, Lak Sivrak, matte lines on my snowspeeders, and a band in jabba's Palace that doesn't look like a drag review."
I actually had to look up who Lak Sivrak was. His name wasn't even mentioned in the movie, he has no speaking lines, and he gets less than a few seconds of screentime. He is literally just some guy in the background of the cantina scene. And this is the reason the Special Editions are so terrible?

"...matte lines on my snowspeeders..."
The matte lines around the snowspeeders were never supposed to be there; they were a limitation of the available special effects tech at the time. Look at these comparisons (top=old, bottom=updated):

In those last two comparisons, the snowspeeder is partially PASSING OVER the AT-AT's leg. And  the "Lucas raped my childhood" people would prefer THAT one? That goes beyond what's objectively good or bad; that's just people complaining because something isn't the same way they remember it. Who cares that it's a far, far better version of the scene? Not them, apparently. Their childhood memories are far more important than anything else. And that's the real clincher. Take a look at the language used: "give me back a badass Han... matte lines on my snowspeeders..."
Those people are treating Star Wars like something they own. Like it's their property somehow, and George Lucas is some kind of vandalistic intruder.

Take a look at's listing for the Star Wars saga on Blu-ray. The user reviews are completely skewed to the point where the average score is a mere 2.5 out of 5 stars, and most of the reviews are 1-out-of-5s.

That's lower than all four of the Twilight movies. Literally. Even the worst-reviewed Twilight film is a full star rating higher than the Wars saga.

Do people really hate Star Wars that much? Honestly? Look at the review scores. 1,062 people gave it a 1, but almost no one gave it a 2 or a 3. How does that work?
No one who reviewed that Blu-ray set probably actually thinks that Star Wars is only worth 1 out of 5 stars; they're just venting their frustration.

In an interview with The New York Times, Lucas shed some light on various aspects of his relationship with Star Wars fanboys.

“I think there are a lot more important things in the world” than feuds with fanboys, Lucas says with a kind of weary diffidence. But then he gets serious, even a little wounded. Lucas explains that his first major features — “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti” — were forcibly re-edited by the studios. Those were wrenching experiences he has compared to someone keying your car (he loves cars) or chopping a finger off one of your children (he has three and loves them too). Afterward, Lucas set out to gain financial independence so the final cut would forever be his. “If the movie doesn’t work,” he vowed, “it’s going to be my fault.”

In the last decade and a half, Lucas has given “Star Wars” several “final” cuts. For the 1997 special edition, he made Greedo, a green-skinned alien, fire his blaster at Han Solo because Han’s murdering Greedo in cold blood — as the 1977 version had it — struck him as a violation of his own na├»ve style. For the new Blu-ray version of “Return of the Jedi,” Lucas added Darth Vader shouting, “Nooo!” as he seizes the evil emperor in the movie’s climactic scene. Lucas made the Ewoks blink. And so forth.

When fanboys wailed, Lucas did not just hear the scream of young Jedi; he heard something like the voice of the studio. The dumb, uncomprehending voice in his Socratic dialogues — a voice telling him how to make a blockbuster. “On the Internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie,” Lucas says, referring to fans who, like the dreaded studios, have done their own forcible re-edits. “I’m saying: ‘Fine. But my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it.’ ”

Lucas seized control of his movies from the studios only to discover that the fanboys could still give him script notes. “Why would I make any more,” Lucas says of the “Star Wars” movies, “when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”

As it happens, I'm currently taking an English class focused entirely on studying the Harry Potter books in-depth. Yes, it is exactly as awesome as it sounds. At some point, the class discussion wandered towards Star Wars (being a related fantasy franchise), and one of my classmates said "I never watched Star Wars because I never understood why they did the whole movies-out-of-order thing." Another of my classmates immediately said "it's because George Lucas wanted more money, so he changed the story and said there was more before the first movie." I immediately countered with "No, he had the vague story for the whole saga before the first movie was released." The second classmate replied "Well, the thing is, I think George Lucas lies."

The conversation went on from there (and I think I technically ended up winning the debate), but that was a surprising example of just how deeply-embedded the Lucas-hate is in general society. For one reason or another, people just assume that Lucas is a bad person. And that hate apparently reaches Lucas, to the point where it became a large factor in his decision to stop making movies and retire.

I'm actually really pissed off at the internet and geek culture now. For all the arguments about George Lucas being some kind of satanic monster, the people making those arguments are the ones most deserving of all that vitriol. All the douchebags that whine and complain that Greedo shoots first can't even stop and realize that for every minor edit to the Star Wars saga, there's a huge contribution to filmmaking.

George Lucas created ILM, and revolutionized visual effects.
He revolutionized and set the standard for sound in film with THX.
Out of ILM spun Pixar, thus George Lucas is the godfather of modern CG animation in film.
Digital film and film editing were completely revolutionized by Lucasfilm. If you've ever used Windows Movie Maker or iMovie, you have George Lucas to thank for that.

Biggest of all, George Lucas gave us an epic fantasy story wrapped in a science fiction package that tapped into the very heart and soul of humanity. If he hadn't created Star Wars in the first place, no one would have loved it enough to get pissed off at the fact that it's 1% different than it was when they watched as a kid.

So now the people obsessed with blaming Lucas for the raping of their childhood have their way. Their comments have actually hurt him, and he's retiring.
Hey, people: go die in a fire.