Norditorial - On STAR WARS, Patience, And Optimism
I realize that writing a STAR WARS article these days is akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater (or "Hot Slave Leia!" at a comic book convention), and that everyone of us, myself included, analyzes every crumb of information about Episode VII coming out of Lucasfilm/Disney these days with all the intensity that can be summoned. Believe me, Disney knows. This past year, since the announcement of the Lucasfilm purchase, we've received a bit of news, a lot of rumors, and a ton of anguish over the very little information we've learned of the plot. What do we know? Very little. But we can conjecture quite a bit.
This is different than the anticipation ramping up to the Prequels. We knew that story - if not the details, then we certainly knew the endgame. George Lucas never hid the fact that the Prequels were about the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. We all knew the what, but not the whys and hows. Never mind how the Prequels turned out - I remember those days in 1999 rather well, and the hope and happiness about getting a new STAR WARS movie was a palpable, joyous thing, regardless of how you feel about it now. Those were the best times to be a STAR WARS fan.
It's different now. A lot of fans feel burned. A lot of fans feel a bit betrayed. And a whole new generation of fans, grown up on the Prequels, don't have any memory of the original films and what they meant. It still shocks me a bit to meet people who fell in love with the STAR WARS Saga through the Prequels, and what those movies mean to them. To many of those fans, THE CLONE WARS animated series is the pinnacle of STAR WARS, and while that series is quite good, to me it bears little resemblance to the films I grew up with. But it's not my place to judge how anyone experiences their fandom. Love is love.
It's also different in that we have no idea what story Disney, J.J. Abrams, and Lawrence Kasdan are going to tell. This is what many of us have been wanting to see for 30 years - the continuing story of the STAR WARS Universe after RETURN OF THE JEDI. Will we see Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and so many others of the movies we loved again? Will this be a new generation of Jedi and smugglers and villains? RETURN OF THE JEDI was a fitting end to the story - Vader was redeemed, the Jedi had returned, the Empire was in ashes and good triumphed over evil. It was satisfying and it felt earned. I remember sitting in the theater during those final moments of Luke and Vader's battle, as Vader goaded Luke into combat. That moment felt like EVERYTHING EVER. Was it predictable that Anakin awoke from Vader's shell to save his son? Absolutely. Just because you can see the end coming doesn't make it bad. Sometimes the stars align in just the right way and take us where we want to go.
So, yeah, what happens next in the STAR WARS Saga is a mystery. There's approximately 32826372367 guesses out there on where the story will go, but nothing certain. I figure Han and Leia's children will factor in in some way, or Luke's children if he has any. Since none of the Expanded Universe books are being used (and thank the Maker for THAT), we're in uncharted territory. And I imagine that's about as frustrating as it can get for many fans. It's not like last time. This time, we're all in the dark.
Enjoy that. Savor that. Use that. And relax. I'm not talking about blind trust here - there's enough trepidation to go around, believe me. But so few people remember what it was like, simply knowing nothing about a movie, and just sitting down and savoring a new story, told well. I knew nothing about THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK when I first saw it. I certainly had no knowledge of the huge plot twist that dominates the movie (although it was out there at the time, in the comics and novelization, but I avoided reading those before seeing it that opening weekend). One of my greatest movie memories of all time was during Vader's reveal, when after I got over my own stunned response, to hear the audible gasp from the entire audience at the time. Turning around and looking at all the mouths agape in the audience, and tears in the eyes of some of them, as Vader slapped Luke around with a bit of familial truth. Those next three years of anticipation for RETURN OF THE JEDI were hell and heaven together in my 10-year-old to 13-year-old mind, and that made RETURN OF THE JEDI all the better.
So now, I'm not so eager to have that experience ruined for me this time. It's an effort, but I'm trying not to click on every article that has Episode VII in the title, especially when it comes to possible plot points (which unfortunately includes casting). Even knowing if a certain actor will be in the movie is a potential for too much knowledge. I don't normally go into movies blind, but this is STAR WARS. It wasn't ruined for me back in the 1980s, and I want very badly to keep that when going into these new films. I read every article when it came to Prequel news. I still think the Prequels weren't very good movies, but knowing every single plot point that was coming dampened the enthusiasm. All my nostalgia and all my anticipation got the better of me.
Anticipation and nostalgia mixed together can be a dangerous thing to expectations. To many, it could be setting a movie like Episode VII on a huge pedestal, impossible to climb. I'm fully aware of the effect that nostalgia can have in criticism, and it's something I try to avoid whenever possible, because you're not reviewing the movie then. You're reviewing, in essence, yourself. Your own life, tied up in STAR WARS. And because STAR WARS gave me a happy, wonderful childhood, it feels like a bit of a betrayal to it when you have to criticize it. I know an awful lot of critics who were guilty of that when THE PHANTOM MENACE came out. It took years - years! - for a lot of them, including myself, to come to the truth that Episode I was simply a bad movie with good parts. Many people won't get fooled again when it comes to the new movie, and while I think that may be a good way to go when it comes to Episode VII, it's possible to take it too far. I refuse to have any kind of agenda when I sit down to Episode VII in 2015.
Besides, there's a lot to be happy about. Yes, Disney is a mighty corporation, interested in making a ton of money in toys and other ancillary products, and STAR WARS is the mother lode. But I refuse to believe that the people behind the making of these films are that cynical. I think that each and every one of them genuinely wants to make a great movie, and they are measuring themselves up to the films of old. They want to tell a great story, and bring back that experience of joy that we all felt, but this time, it's new. This time, it's George Lucas's universe, but that they added a part. I think J.J. Abrams presents problems (which I'll get into below) but to anyone thinking that Abrams is in this strictly for the paycheck and prestige of directing a STAR WARS movie is ill-informed at best. Abrams wants to make the best movie possible, and I admire his bravery in setting himself up for the incredible scrutiny that is happening now and will surely follow in the wake of Episode VII's release. Rumors abound that he wanted to leave the project (and I have no idea if there's any truth to them, but I doubt it) but under all that attention, directing Episode VII would seem overwhelming to anybody, especially a fan like J.J. Abrams.
I'm beyond happy that Lawrence Kasdan is back writing for this saga again - his is a voice that was sorely missed in the Prequels, and no one, not even George Lucas, got into the skin of these beloved characters like he did. The script for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is perfect. Have you read Leigh Brackett's original draft? It's not terrible - it has a lot of interesting ideas in it, for certain, but the work Kasdan did in clarifying things and bringing the characters to life is priceless.
But I'm already reading too much negativity about Kasdan online that's a bit stunning. Too many people judge filmmakers by their worst film. And yeah, DREAMCATCHER is undoubtedly a bad movie. You can lay a lot of that at Kasdan's feet, but the fact is Stephen King's DREAMCATCHER is an awful book, his first novel after his near-death accident, when he was trying to get the creative juices flowing again. It's a book that had to happen, but it's a terrible read, and a poor choice for a film adaptation. I'd much rather judge Kasdan by the best work he's done - as screenwriter for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, two of the best scripts of the 1980s. And then there's BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL, GRAND CANYON - those disparaging Kasdan really should take better stock in the man's work. It is JOYOUS that he's returning to the Saga. I'm sure Michael Arndt's work is appreciated, but Lawrence Kasdan working on a STAR WARS movie is what we've dreamed of since the original films.
J.J. Abrams. Here's where it gets a bit... conflicted. I hated STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. It's a terrible movie, and Abrams shares a large part of the blame for it (although Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof's script is the worst). But the action setpieces are well orchestrated, and the movie moves well. Abrams' weakness in the films he's made so far have all been at the script stage, in my opinion. I find little fault in his actual direction, aside from the whole lens flare thing. Look at SUPER 8. Abrams nails the entire 1980s family film aesthetic - it's when it gets to the details of the alien that the film loses momentum. I'm on record for my love of his first STAR TREK movie. His MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3, while not the best of the series, is still really well done. It just gets a bit convoluted - and that's been Abrams' problem when it comes to his films. They always feel like the script needed another pass (or in the case of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, another 90 passes). That's what Lawrence Kasdan is there for. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK are two of the most focused movies ever made. There's very little fat, a ton of great character motivation, and they hit what they aim at. Those are increasingly rare in tentpole movies today, and other than the character work, that's what I hope most for Abrams and Kasdan to get right.
Now 2015 is rapidly approaching, and with so little being disseminated in the news about Episode VII, it's natural for fans to become concerned. We're hearing a lot of unsubstantiated rumors about what's going on behind the scenes - that Abrams wanted to bolt from the production, that they can't get the script nailed down, that the date may be moved from May to December, or out of 2015 entirely. This is red meat for those of us who write about all this online, but it's all vapor when it comes down to the essential truth of whether or not Episode VII will actually be any good. Too many people have decided already that it won't be, and that's a direct violation of the code of criticism. All the behind-the-scenes drama disappears when the titles start, or at least, it's supposed to. It can inform criticism later on, if the movie turns out badly, but too many people have agendas already.
We don't make the movies. We just watch them. And I'm going to watch STAR WARS Episode VII the same way I sit down to every movie I've ever seen and ever will see - with boundless optimism, wonder, and hope. Every film - EVERY FILM - starts at 100. If you sit down to a movie with anything other than that, you're doing it wrong. It's the basis for every review that I write. Perhaps that's why when a film turns out badly that it burns me more than others, but I wouldn't ever trade that for indifference and apathy.
So, yes, there's profits to be made, but no one wants to make a bad movie. This is a film that's been percolating for over 30 years, in the minds of fans as well as in the mind of George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and the many people involved in Episode VII. Are there people at Disney salivating at the thought of all those toys, t-shirts, posters, games, and various knick-knacks being sold for huge profits? Absolutely. But I know that's not the primary agenda for the people directly involved in the stories and the films. They want to tell great STAR WARS stories, because they love the universe, they love their place in it, and they want to come as close as they can to that wonderous feeling we all had when we first saw that Star Destroyer pass over the screen or the Millennium Falcon first jump into hyperspace. Our first lightsaber duel. The Death Star Battle. The Battle of Hoth. The humor and wisdom of Yoda. The romance of Han and Leia. The badass Boba Fett. That shock and awe when Vader revealed who he was to Luke. Jabba the Hutt. The Battle of Endor. Luke and Vader's final conflict. And a universe set right again, as a boy bid farewell to his father. "You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right."
It's okay to be critical. It's okay to not trust your nostalgia, or to not let it blind you to a movie's failings. But all that is afterwards. If you come at a new STAR WARS movie with cynicism, distrust, and feeling like it has something to prove, I just ask one thing. Stay the hell away from me.
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