Tuesday, December 27, 2005
I know we're both lookin' at his belt
The thing about the prequels - and they'll always be referred to as "prequels," I think, because they're obviously dependent on Episodes IV, V, and VI (a point John made very well back when he was still blogging). If they were better movies or if they were more consistent with the original trilogy they might be called "the first three movies" or something similarly inspiring. Unless Lucas puts out another re-cut of the originals that's tremendously bad in hopes of smoothing out the disparity, though (which would be unsurprising but very very sad), I think they'll remain "prequels."
As I was saying, though - the thing about the prequels is that they're not horrible movies unto themselves. They've got very strong premises, stunning visuals, lovely soundtracks, excellent acting (Christiansen and Lloyd notwithstanding, although I think that might have been intentional - Lucas trying to justify Mark Hamill's stiff acting by presenting the idea that the Skywalkers are just awkward emoters from way back). Set in one of the great settings in the history of fiction, too - I'd say that LAFFA Galaxy ranks with Middle Earth or Narnia as an outstanding place to set a story. There was so much potential for these movies to be great - all they needed was a few good scripts and a good director. Ideally a few great scripts and a brilliant director, but I think "good" would have more than cut it. If Lucas could have let himself turn the reins over just a little - pointed out to himself, perhaps, that the brilliant premise and stunning special effects and very good basic storyline were all his and that he could still have final veto power over anything and that his name was still and would forevermore be inextricably linked to the Star Wars world so maybe it would be okay if someone else was in charge of exactly what the characters said and maybe it would be okay if someone else was in charge of exactly how the movies were put together - then these movies could have been absolutely spectacular. With the basically unlimited budget and the complete resources of ILM available they could have been the Star Wars movies that Lucas wanted to make back in the 70's and 80's. And because of that fact - because they danced so close to "incredible" but only reached "okay, maybe good in parts" - they're almost painful to watch.
Remember back when The Phantom Menace hit the theaters? Remember the immense amount of pre-movie hype? PepsiCo, if memory serves, invested over a billion dollars in advertising - everywhere you looked, it seemed, you saw Obi-Wan or Darth Maul or wee little Anakin. Every entertainment-related magazine published a Star Wars issue. Lucas demanded that theaters be compliant with his new sound system standard so theaters across the country upgraded - Phantom Menace triggered a nationwide theater ticket price hike. Inspired by the memory of what it had been like to see the original trilogy in the theaters a few years before, Star Wars geeks tingled in anticipation of a brand new chapter - especially those of us who'd been either too young or too clueless to be caught up in the magic the first time around. "Remember how AWESOME it was when we saw the digitally remastered (!) X-Wings fighting over the Death Star?!?" we giddily exclaimed. "Remember how cool the new lotsa-aliens Mos Eisley looked!?!?" Occasionally someone would say something like, "Remember how confused and unimpressed you were with digital Jabba? Remember how you couldn't figure out why on earth Lucas would put that scene in? Remember how it felt like the whole point was to say 'Hey, lookit what I can do!'?" but those people were categorically snubbed.
The lines were insane for Phantom Menace, but we were sure it was very much worth our time. I sat in the parking lot of the Crossroads 12 Theatres in Waterloo and played 3-handed 500 with Jason and Mark while we waited. There were TV camera crews walking around getting human interest "Hey, you're a geek, aren't you!" pieces and people dressed up in costumes despite the summer heat. When the line finally started moving there were people literally hopping up and down with excitement (Mark and I hopped up and down, too, but we were just mocking them). We sat impatiently through the previews, cheered when the "Lucasarts" logo appeared on the screen, cheered even louder when the immensely kick-ass first chord of John Williams's score rang through the speakers, and settled back into our seats prepared to be blown away as the cool trapezoidal blue text crawl started (some of us quietly reading it aloud, as all blue words must needs be read).
Two hours later, we walked out of the theater confused and underwhelmed. The movie certainly had Star Wars-y elements, but there were so many jarringly weird bits (no pun intended). Why had Lucas gone away from making aliens cool and/or useful to the plot characters and made them all silly instead? Did the movie's climactic ending really center around Anakin pushing the wrong button in a starship? Why oh why were there no characters in this movie that we were interested in? Where, in a nutshell, was the cool?
Nothing daunted, we decided we must have just missed something and promptly went back into the theater for the second showing (complain though I might about how disappointing these movies were, they were still Star Wars films and I'm still a Star Wars geek - I saw all three prequels twice on opening day). Same result, though; we left feeling like we'd missed something we were supposed to see.
Apparently the feeling was fairly global. Remember when Attack of the Clones came out? There was quite a bit of hooplah, but no more than any other summer blockbuster would receive. Certainly not a This Is The Only Thing Going On In The World Of Cinema-level carpet out-rolling like Phantom Menace received. And Attack of the Clones was better than Phantom Menace but still disappointing. And then Revenge of the Sith came out almost quietly - certainly compared to Menace - and had some parts that were better than AotC but some that were worse and was overall underwhelming again.
And that's it. No more Star Wars films, and I for one feel like we're still sort of owed three Star Wars films. They were breathtaking eye candy, but they weren't sagas or epics or any of the other superlatives that they were darn well supposed to be. Instead they're three very strong supporting examples of the theory that there's no more important part of the moviemaking process than the scriptwriter. Sigh.
In keeping with the rant-y theme of this post so far, I'll go through some specific points of the prequels that annoy me. All of these have probably been covered elsewhere already (some of them probably by me in my last Star Wars post), but here are a few more specific gripes with the three prequels:
>>Why oh why oh why did Lucas decide to introduce midichlorians? Why why why? The Force is possibly the single coolest idea in the entire LAFFA Galaxy setting; I can't think of another example where fantasy and sci-fi are blended so seamlessly. And there's already a great explanation of it in Star Wars: An energy field created by all living things which, Ben tells us, surrounds us, penetrates us, binds us all together, and partly controls our actions while still obeying our commands. Very nice indeed - a science-y explanation of magic, basically. Tiny little creatures in our cells? That's a horrible explanation, and it makes Ben sounds like an idiot when he explains the Force to Luke in Star Wars. Maybe he also thought midichlorians were dumb and thought he'd pretend they didn't exist by not telling Luke about them.
Seriously, though - I can't think of a single reason why adding the idea of midichlorians was anything but dumb. Did he want to soften the blow of explaining Anakin's virgin birth by having tiny little subcellular creatures be responsible instead of a mysterious Force? Did he want a way to quantify Anakin's Force-ish badassness by letting Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take a midichlorian count? Or - this is my personal favorite - had he made a bet with Spielberg that he could introduce one really stupid idea into The Phantom Menace and still have the top-grossing film of the summer?
>>I thought Jar-Jar was annoying, but not so much because of how he was characterized as because of the role he was given. All the important, acting-intensive roles in the old trilogy were given to humans. Yoda comes closest to breaking that, but he's really just a supporting character in the old trilogy; a way for Luke to learn more mad Jedi skillz. There's a reason for that, and it's not just because it requires a huge technology investment to make a special effect into a main character. People are used to reading emotion from other people. At best we can read broad emotions from non-humans: the dog is happy to see me. This wasp seems to wish I wasn't here. When you have a non-human in a major acting role like Lucas tried to do with Jar-Jar it doesn't work. We the audience see a special effect that's emoting, not just the emotion. Sure, Jar-Jar was annoying, but Chewie would have been just as intolerable placed in a major role like Jar-Jar's. Jar-Jar could have been cool (or at least interesting) in a supporting role, but he's not at all fit to carry a major role.
>>Why did Lucas decide Tatooine was so important? It went from, "If there's a bright center to the universe, you'e on the planet it's furthest from," in Star Wars to being the site of much of the action in the prequels. Almost every time Lucas tried to do a cute nod to the old trilogy it didn't work. Look, they're back on Tatooine! That's neat, huh? Now we can meet Owen and Beru when they were young, even though we hardly met them in Star Wars and we don't really care about meeting them again! Yippee! That sure does make hiding Luke on Tatooine seem like an idiot idea, though. At least pick a spot other than the hut right by Anakin's mom's grave and maybe change Luke's last name since we've established that Anakin Skywalker is a galactic celebrity. Far too high a price in awkward plot mechanics to pay for being able to say "Ooo... Tatooine! I remember that!"
>>While I'm nitpicking, why do you suppose the names of Sith Lords became less subtle between the old trilogy and prequels. In the old trilogy we had Darth Vader, which has a lovely evil sound to it but doesn't really mean anything. Maybe part of "invader". We also have the Emperor, but he never uses his Sith title - which we can interpret either as Lucas brilliantly forseeing his desire to have the Palpatine Is Sidious connection be all secretive and startling in the prequels or as Lucas not having thought of the idea of the Sith being ancient enemies of the Jedi and the Emperor being a great Sith Lord as well as a regular old Dark Jedi. But, to stay somewhat on track - we have Vader. Very cool, evil-sounding name. In the prequels, we add Darths Maul, Sidious, and Tyrannus and learn about former Sith Lords Darths Bane and (this one is my favorite - run out of unsubtle "this word sounds bad!" names, George?) Plagueis. Good grief. If the Emperor had successfully turned Luke to the dark side in Return of the Jedi, I think his cool Sith name should have been Darth I'mGoingToGoHurtSomePuppiesNow.
>>I've complained about this before, but I can't understand Lucas's insistence that having cameo appearances by characters from the old trilogy is cool. I think that meeting Boba Fett as a young kid works fairly well, but only because he's more of a plot device than a character in the old trilogy. If Lucas had known how he was going to use wee Boba when he made Jedi, he would certainly have had a huge, drawn-out fight between Boba and Luke where Boba expressed his lifelong hatred of Jedi. It would have been silly and a delay in the plot, but by heck it would have been a tie-in back to another movie. The touching moment 'twixt Yoda and Chewbacca in RotS was perhaps the dumbest moment in all six movies, made even more so by the fact that Lucas felt an entire scene on Kashyyyk was necessary to set it up. Both CGI Jabba appearances (in I and IV) are grating in their lameness; non-CGI Jabba was a very cool character. CGI Jabba was a joke.
Even the non-cameo crossovers were awkward. R2-D2 and C-3PO didn't need to be in the prequels. They had major roles but were still basically just "hey, I know him!" cameos. I was stunned and unimpressed when I saw them in Phantom Menace and I never changed my mind about it. If Lucas does remake the old trilogy (which I can see him doing - get rid of all the pesky actors and make the whole thing CGI) I hope Artoo at least gets to keep his ability to fly and defeat super battle droids single-handedly and whatnot.
I'm sure I could find more things to list, but this is a pretty long post (especially considering its completely meaningless content) already. If you're interested in reading further ranting-by-me about Star Wars, feel free to peruse my review of Revenge of the Sith. If I think of more particularly objectionable points I'll add 'em to this post later. I certainly encourage feedback. Disagree with me or add to the list - either way, I'd love to hear it.
On a more serious and relevant note, Happy New Year's to you all and a blessed 2006. You know, just in case I don't get around to posting again until next December.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
Specifically to guard against this sort of thing, I set a posting trigger for myself several months ago - a specific criterion that requires me to post when it's met. And, a few days ago, met it was, so here I am back on the blogosphere. Maybe it'll be easier to keep posting than it was to start posting again.
Nothing fancy, though. To keep me from having to actually formulate a cohesive entry, I'll once again lean on the timeless blogger's crutch of cute little bullet points. And away we go -
- As far as actual news goes, the big event in my life of late is a move back to my old high school stomping grounds. I live not quite two blocks from my old high school home now - my (somewhat lame) wishes that I lived closer to John so as not to have to walk so far have been granted, sort of. If he hadn't moved away I'd lived quite a bit closer than I used to. It's odd; certainly a different sort of social setting. It's nice to be closer to work and fun to be living with a bunch of camp people (all 6 of us (7, if you count Jesse)) are EWALU alums), but I've always handled change poorly, so it's been sort of a weird transition. Mayhap I'll blog in more detail about it someday.
My social circle has seen a fair amount of job-getting and child-having of late, too, but I'll not take away peoples' chances to share their own news (Matt and Jesse, in particular, certainly have blog-worthy events to share from the last month or so. Updates, gentlemen! You can't let a blog languish un-updated for weeks at a time; that's all sorts of uncool).
- As you may have noticed, I've admitted defeat in the face of spam commenters (what an odd thing spam is. I assume it's very cheap to send out spam e-mail but it can't be free and I have trouble imagining that there's any sort of return for the spammer - surely no one actually buys the products they claim to be selling. So it makes no financial sense. I'm forced to assume, then, that spam exists merely to annoy. Which is a sad thought, but at least if it's true then the spammers of the world are succeeding brilliantly; that's nice for them) and activated the annoying word-verification dealie for comments. Sorry about that - those drive me nuts, too, but I was deleting 4 or 5 spam comments a day. It should be noted that this in no way weakens my position when criticizing Jess for activating the annoying word-verification dealie on her blog.
- A couple of link-ish notes to bring to your attention, too - there's a new blog linked. I found Sean Meade's blog a couple of weeks ago and have enjoyed reading through his archives. Sean's a fellow Iowa City West/Wartburg man, and from what I can gather he rarely disappoints his readers with long periods of e-silence.
Also worth noting is that Paul Cantrell has been posting some new audio clips recently. For those of you who haven't checked out his work yet or who got out of the habit during his summer sabbatical, hie thee to In The Hands and listen. It's phenomenal stuff; I stand by my earlier comparison of Paul to Vladmir Horowitz in the level of understanding he conveys in his playing. Pure Internet gold.
- Here's a question I pose to those of you familiar with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy oeuvre: when you read that the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything was "what do you get when you multiply six by nine?" did you notice how that product isn't actually 42? I don't ask that question to be snarky - I'd always assumed that was an intentional bit put in by Douglas Adams, either to illustrate that the question-finding program had been flawed by the Golgafrinchans pushing out the native Earthlings or to poke fun at technology or possibly just to make a silly joke or - my personal favorite explanation - assign a mathematical untruth to the fundamental question of the universe and thus illustrate how fundamentally weird and messed-up the universe is. Whatever the reason, it never occurred to me that it was purely a throw-away bit.
But then I was sitting around last week after a weekly poker game that I participate in, talking to a couple of the other players. One of them's a pastor-in-training and he commented that wearing clerical garb tends to inspire people to try to ask supremely profound questions, presumably to impress the garb-wearer. "I get a lot of 'What's the meaning of life?' sorts of questions," he said. "I usually tell 'em 42."
We all laughed appreciatively (more, I suspect, to make sure people knew we caught the allusion than because it was actually all that funny - I find people do that sort of thing a lot), and I offered the fun fact that six times nine does indeed equal 42 in base-13. I got two blank stares, so I tried to explain the math a little more, but their confusion stemmed from where I was getting "six times nine" in the first place.
Apparently they'd both read Arthur's Scrabblic question as "what do you get when you multiply six times seven?" I concede that's more mathematically logical, but it's not nearly as clever and it's not what Douglas Adams wrote - a position I spent the next several minutes trying to defend. They were both sure the book had said 6x7, and I began to think that maybe I was the one who'd misread (it occurred to me too late that that since we'd been playing poker at Greg's I could have gotten to a copy of the books in about three strides. Or gone and woken up Greg and demanded that he weigh in on the argument in about ten). It was also suggested that perhaps Adams had simply made a math error.
It's obviously no sort of big deal in any cosmic sense, but if those of you who've read the HHGG books would weigh in as to whether you noticed that the math didn't work out and - if so - what you thought Adams was trying to say thereby I'd appreciate it.
- I find I almost enjoy the baseball off-season more than the on-season. I've spent a lot of time recently following the general managers' chess game as they trade players and activate players and offer players immense amounts of money. If only there was also some baseball to watch, the off-season would be ideal. If I was the sort of blogger who found myself being frustrated because I wanted to post more often I'd start a baseball blog. This year, of course, the Cubs are a mortal lock for the World Series championship.
- This year, I'm pleased to report, Iowa seems to have finally remembered what December is supposed to be like. Here's to three more months of snow and sub-zero temperatures! And, hopefully, to our landlord replacing our furnace with one that's not as inefficient as a furnace is legally allowed to be!
Just in case I fall back into non-posting for another couple of months I'll say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's now. Also happy birthday to my two holiday-birthdayed readers. If you're not doing anything Friday, stop by the Java Creek Cafe in Cedar Rapids for a Christmas Soul Hug concert. You know you like you some Christmas music.