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The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2

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Behind the Scenes of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. Yesterday I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal (some would claim that the philosophical depth of all of Star Wars is minimal; even by their standards, A New Hope is lacking). Seriously. Go take a minute to watch it again.

The spiritual depth of the entire film consists of an old wizard/sage/priest giving our young hero a brief description of the Force, telling him that legions of warriors who harnessed it once roamed the galaxy but are now nearly extinct, and that he should trust his feelings. That’s it, in the entire movie. Even in the lightsaber scenes (not just the duel, but also when Luke is training aboard the Millennium Falcon), the use of the Force is minimal. The only truly strong uses of it in the entire film are Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick and Luke blowing up the Death Star.

The philosophical depth of the Star Wars saga comes from three sources: The Empire Strikes Back (which, as we will see in a minute, was not truly Lucas’s film), the Extended Universe, and the collective imagination of the fans. Seriously – almost all of it comes from these sources.

First, Empire, which was the root of it. Notice that the Force gets a big upgrade in this film. We see people manipulating objects with their minds, performing athletic and acrobatic feats far beyond normal human ability, using it as a kind of “spider sense” for defense, and even using it to glimpse into the future. This is a big jump from the first film.

Then we get Yoda, who brings with him some pithy, vaguely Zen, deep sounding aphorisms: do or do not, unlearn what you have learned, much anger I sense in him, etc. To be honest, the depth even here is… modest. The speech of the movie puts forth a somewhat facile pseudo-Zen philosophy. As a child, I thought it was somewhat deep. As a 37 year old man with a philosophy degree, I find it fun but lacking.

What it did do, however, was present a surface facade of real depth – while remaining extremely vague. The vagueness is critical. It allowed the viewer imagine a lot more depth than was actually there. And for decades, that’s exactly what we did. Those of us who grew up with the movies made up stories in our heads, or while playing games with each other. We traded theories and rumors – rumors that were often so full of BS that they were literally made up by one of our own friends, who had no source.

Importantly, Empire is the film (until this week) that had the absolute least input from Lucas himself. The film was directed by Irvin Kirshner, and the screenplay was by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Numerous documentary evidence confirms that Lucas himself had little input into the script, and at one point during production he literally told Kirshner that he was “ruining my movie.”

Thus, the first burst of true depth and genius of the overall saga came not from Lucas himself but from his collaborators. And the reports of Lucas’s feelings about Empire confirm that he didn’t truly understand what made it great. The prequels only confirm that he still doesn’t – the beauty of the saga was just more accidental genius.

Tomorrow: the Extended Universe.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1

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Lines to See Star Wars in 1977Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

First, let’s consider the original 1977 film. But let’s be clear about it: I don’t at all think that Lucas was slacking off when he made this film. The tales of how difficult the film was are famous and many. Lucas spent four years just writing the script, and then he famously fought sandstorms, studio executives, budget issues, and technical issues. And don’t forget that he spawned an entire industry to create the special effects that couldn’t previously be done.

Star Wars was a labor of love – or at least a labor. But go watch that original film all over again. Unless you’re a male, nerdy member of my generation – in that case, you probably already know the film word for word. You guys can stay with me if you like. The rest of you, go watch it again.

What kind of film is it? At the end of the day, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp. Now, it’s a really solid one. It’s tons of fun. It was set in a world that felt lived in and real – and also massive. It hinted at enough outside of the core story to suck you in and let you lose yourself in what was going on. And it did all of this while providing scenes of space battles and laser swords in ways that were completely unheard of before the film’s release.

But still, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp – deliberately styled after the pulp serials of the 1930s. George Lucas admits this straight up in interviews. Indeed, that’s a large part of the charm of the film. Many people I know still list it as their favorite of the series specifically because it’s just a fun adventure romp.

But it’s also a really strange film – and I don’t just mean its revolutionary special effects and kinetic space dogfights. The structure of the film is really bizarre, and it doesn’t map to standard storytelling conventions. It spends half an hour following the story of two minor characters, when it hasn’t even introduced the main protagonist yet. The near universal consensus is that said protagonist is whiny and annoying and is overshadowed by the rogue of the series. Everyone remembers that crazy pace of the Death Star assault, but the first half of the movie is almost painfully slow – I remember as a kid fast forwarding through the droids in the desert on my Betamax video cassette.

But the visuals are stunning. And quite a bit of the film was heavily experimental in its day: the special effects, of course, but also the narrative structure, the heavy reliance on an orchestral soundtrack, and the raw pacing of the aforementioned Death Star assault.

In short, it was a gigantic art house film.

It’s the most successful art house film of all time. George Lucas got really, really lucky with it. But because the film he was actually trying to make was an art film, he never truly understood why it resonated with everyone.

Forget Empire and Jedi for a moment, since they weren’t directed by Lucas himself. Besides, we’ll be discussing those later this week. Think about the prequels – and think about them as the most expensive art house films ever made.

The reason they didn’t resonate well with audiences is because Lucas never understood what made the Star Wars films so popular. He thought – and still thinks to this day – that everybody loved his little art house film because it was an art house film. That’s basically how all art house directors think. What he never realized was that the universal appeal of it was a happy accident.

He managed to get just enough right – and at just the right time – to appeal to a vast, previously untapped audience. Laser swords? Check. Aliens? Check. Spaceships? Check. David vs. Goliath story? Check. A frenetic pace that nobody had ever seen before? Check. Visuals unlike anything previously done? Check. Giant spaceships more awesome than anything… except for that even more giant space station that could blow up entire planets? Check. An awesome toy line in a world that hadn’t been merchandised to death yet? Check.

The thing is, even this entire package wouldn’t have had the appeal that it did if any of it had been well done before. But it hadn’t been. And on top of all of that, there were just enough hints of a cosmic half-magic, half-religion, half-philosophy underlying his universe to suck everyone in to the mythological side of his accidental genius.

But that’s for tomorrow’s story, when we look at the accidental genius of the saga as a whole.

 

This is What SHIELD Is Supposed to Be

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First, the important question: how does Age of Ultron compare to The Avengers? The answer is that they’re completely different movies, and your reaction will vary greatly depending upon how you feel about that. The first film was a rollicking good time with a plot that completely fell apart as soon as you spent more than thirty seconds actually thinking about it. But the thing is, it was just so much freaking fun that most of us really didn’t care that the plot was so flimsy.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I had just about the opposite reaction to Age of Ultron. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fun film and I enjoyed it plenty in the theater. But it’s nowhere near as much fun as its predecessor. However, unlike the first film, I find this one growing on me more and more the the more I think about it.

This is still a superhero film, meaning that it’s a blockbuster popcorn flick at heart. Yet this movie is far deeper and more thoughtful than its big brother. To nobody’s surprise, it picks up the story basically where Captain America: The Winter Soldier left off. But the story isn’t the only part it picks up. It also grabs the themes of that movie and runs with them, albeit in a very different way. The Winter Soldier shows us a world where our leaders and heroes are corrupt and abusing their power. Age of Ultron dares to follow that up by asking, “what should the people of power in our world do with that power?”

Is this film the deepest possible attempt to answer that question? Absolutely not. And yet it is a terrible indictment of the world we live in that the most serious literary approach of our age to that question is coming from popcorn flicks.

Although I read a lot of comics as a kid I never read many comics with Avengers characters in them. That’s especially true of Captain America. As a youngster he bored me. But I’ve found him to be among the best characters of this new wave of superhero films – not just of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but of all of the superhero films of the twenty-first century. The Winter Soldier was a powerful film and cemented the character strongly with me. Age of Ultron only strengthens the case.

There are some wonderful moments involving his character. In a hilarious scene where each of the Avengers tries to lift Thor’s hammer, his attempt stands out. In a movie with Samuel L Jackson’ts Nick Fury and Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, he still manages to nab a couple of the best one liners of the film. And when the film pokes a stick right in the eye of Man of Steel‘s wanton destruction and devil-may-care attitude toward civilian casualties, Steve Rogers is right at the center of it.

And yet he’s not the emotional center of this film. That belongs to Hawkeye and his surprising back story. Or perhaps to the intriguing relationship between Banner and Romanov. And the Maximov twins brought a surprising amount of heart to the story as well. I was fully expecting their transition from villains to full-out Avengers to be painful, and yet it works pretty well in the plot.

But the driver of it all comes down to a difference in world view between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, and by the end of this movie I found myself absolutely ready for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. There is no way that these two characters continue in the same universe without conflict arising. Their personalities simply won’t allow it.

The more I think upon this movie the more satisfying I find it. To paraphrase a line from the film, which I lifted for the title of this post, this is what superhero films are supposed to be. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see it again with my son.

A Tale of Two Trailers

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So, within 48 hours of each other we have two very different trailers released for two movies that look to be quite different – but both of which, theoretically should be very interesting to SFF fans.

First up is the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The first teaser trailer for it left me decidedly underwhelmed. And that was a little frightening: I literally camped out for all three of the prequel films (yes, even after the disappointment of The Phantom Menace) – and had a blast doing it. If you put out a trailer that didn’t sell me… that’s dangerous. On the other hand, the trailers for The Phantom Menace were freaking awesome, and the movie itself… well, we all know how that turned out.

As underwhelming as the first trailer was, however, this new one more than makes up for it. I am, finally, officially stoked about the new film.

Coming barely more than a day later is the new trailer for Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice. And I have to say… unlike the first Force Awakens trailer that left me underwhelmed… this one leaves me actually worried. Zack Snyder is capable of bringing a fantastic sense of fun to his films. 300 had it in spades. Sucker Punch had it… although it admittedly didn’t have much more than that. But Watchmen was already losing it and apparently while he was filming Man of Steel he’d just left it in his other pants pocket or something because it just wasn’t there.

Now we get this trailer, ever so promising that it might actually bring some fun back to Superman. For those who can’t tell through my brick-like subtlety, that was sarcasm. This trailer is gloomy and broody and moody… Look, this is Batman and Superman in a big budget film for the first time. This movie should be dripping and oozing with fun. Fun that is, apparently, nowhere to be found. I am a gigantic Batman fan, and a pretty good Superman fan as well. And this trailer almost has me wanting to skip the film. We’ll see how things turn out, but I’m not feeling it here.