Friday, May 3, 2013

Phantom Troublemaker on Star Wars: Episode I

(Painting by belligerentmonkey.com)
I can’t remember ever writing anything about Star Wars.
I mean, obviously I’ve done toy reviews. And I’ve mentioned the books and movies and stuff in passing, or in reference to other things. I think you guys all have a pretty good idea about how much I love Star Wars. But I’ve never done of those posts where I just ramble on about my personal history with it; they way I’ve done with GI Joe, Faith No More, Doctor Who (several times), and even Iron Man (who I had no personal history with but still managed to crank out my 1,000 word minimum).
I hope you enjoy those posts, because in honor of the anniversary of the release of A New Hope thirty-six years ago, here’s a Star Wars thing. I went into this thinking that it had come out on May 4th and that was the deal with "May the Fourth", but it came out on the 25th. "May the Fourth" just sounds funny. So this occasion just got slightly more stupid and less meaningful. But it's about Star Wars, so hooray!
           The first time I saw a Star Wars movie I was fifteen days past being one year old. My parents – who are not particularly nerdy – took me to the theater to see A New Hope on opening day. I don’t know why. And obviously it has no real significance other than for me to be able to say I was there. It’s not like I remember it or anything. But because of that I can honestly say I was there opening day for each of the Original Trilogy movies. Mom took me to see Empire and Dad took me to see Jedi.
Side Note: They also took me to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the theater. Possibly because they were having trouble getting me to sleep (heyo!).
The first time I actually remember seeing A New Hope in the theater was when my mom took me to the Fabulous Fox in Atlanta. I have no idea what year it was, but it was long before VHS was a common thing because I hadn’t seen it before (that I remembered). I’d been playing with all of the toys, though, so I knew the characters. I also think it was before my sister was born – pre-1984. It might have coincided with the release of Jedi. Whatever the case, that viewing was pure magic.
I vividly remember buying popcorn and going into that grand, majestic theater. Mom pointed up at the ceiling and the iridescent star field painted there (does that ceiling light up or are they just glittery?). I experienced one of my earliest cases of nerd chills when the FOX fanfare started blaring out of the sound system, and they only intensified when John Williams’ majestic theme followed. As the narrative crawl ascended the screen:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, 
far away…
I raised my eyes to that star-covered ceiling, wondering if the words would just continue off of the screen and up into those artificial heavens.
I’ve watched Episode IV so many times since then that any particular memories of that viewing experience have blurred and been washed away. I treasure that viewing at the Fox, but my favorite is when I watched it for the first time with my son on Father’s Day a few years ago. Naturally he already had a massive collection of the little, PVC Galactic Heroes figures. As each new character appeared in the movie, he would pick out the corresponding figure and say their name. It was awesome.
Like most other people you would ask, I’d say The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite Star Wars movie. I love the sequence on Hoth more than just about any other movie opening. Even when I was too young to understand the desperation of the Rebel Alliance at that point in the narrative, I knew that people living on a planet made of ice were in a serious situation. And as soon as the movie starts they’re found by the bad guys. Not only that, our hero Luke nearly gets murdered and eaten by a huge monster. I was always scared by the Wampa scene, but what followed was absolutely terrifying – those few moments after Luke emerges from the cave, only to find himself alone in the middle of nowhere. The only thing that saved me – and Luke – from absolute despair was the soothing vision of Ben Kenobi. Even as a kid I reasoned that if that blue ghost was telling him he had to go to Dagobah, then he must make it out alive. And sure enough, the moment Kenobi’s message ends, Han Solo shows up on his Tauntaun to save the day.
I don’t think I quite understood the Tauntaun disemboweling until I was older. It’s one of those weird things that established itself in my consciousness so slowly, over the course of many years, that I was never really horrified by it. Even now I dismiss it somewhat; as we are very careful about exposing Lil’ Troublemaker to graphic violence but neither me nor my wife thought anything of showing him that scene.
Side Note: It was only with huge reservations that I let my son watch Revenge of the Sith. No matter what you might think of the movie itself (I still like it), the ending is horrifying and tragic. But once your kid has older friends you’re just going to end up in situations where you have no choice but to let certain things go. The Clone Wars animated series has made every boy on the planet a huge Anakin fan – including mine – so when he heard about another movie starring Anakin, as well as pretty much everything that happened in it, there was no denying him. I guess he’s handled it in his mind. I’ve talked to him about it and he understands that Anakin chose to be bad and do bad things and that Obi-Wan had no choice but to stop him. To this day, though, lava is a constant environmental threat to his action figures. Clearly there was an impact. It bums me out just to think about him seeing Anakin burning alive. Now I feel like a bad dad.
The rest of Empire is a series of exciting and different environments, all suited to stimulate the imagination of a kid. As much as I loved Hoth, I was also enchanted by Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City (I’ve never cared much for Dagobah). The progression of the Bespin scenes is amazing. Starting with bright, pristine, open hallways that slowly give way to dark and grimy smelting rooms, prison cells, torture chambers, the Carbonite freezing chamber, and finally the epic nettle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the black Bespin night. Cloud City transforms before the viewers’ eyes from a place of hope and trust to a place of deceit and despair. It’s one of the most ingenious uses of setting I’ve ever seen.
Side Note: I won’t mention the Special Editions too much here. I just wanted to say that the enhancements to the Cloud City scenes are spectacular.
I remember going to see Return of the Jedi with my dad in 1983. I even remember the movie theater we went to, though I can’t remember exactly where it was or what it was called. I didn’t realize it when we went in, but it slightly resembled the Imperial bunker on Endor’s moon thanks to its design and the fact that it was below ground level – behind a strip mall and under the ground floor. You can bet I noticed it on the way out.
I loved Jedi and I still do. It was full of action, excitement, Muppets, wildly varying environments, and sexiness. Oola and Princess Leia created feelings in me that I hadn’t experienced since those space midgets molested Wilma Deering on Buck Rogers. The movie’s pacing is relentless and only lets up towards the end when Han and Leia and Luke have their mushy time conversations in the Ewok village. There is so much amazing stuff in Episode VI. New vehicles, new creatures, new aliens. To this day it is one of the most exciting movies I can watch.
The ending isn’t nearly as satisfying now as it was when I was a kid. Back then the Emperor died, Luke saves his Daddy (sort of), and the Death Star gets blown up. Happy ending and the good guys won. Now that I’m older and “wiser” I know that the war wasn’t over. Even without my exhaustive following of the Expanded Universe I would realize that the loss of a leader and one single superweapon would hardly crush the Empire.
Which brings me to the altered ending to Return of the Jedi, every second of which fills me with Nerd Rage. The galaxy-wide celebrations are absolutely absurd, and are George Lucas’ misguided attempt at wrapping up his war story in a neat little package. The original ending that kept the celebrating localized to the Ewok village makes sense. Those Rebels have just scored a major victory against the Empire. They have a reason to party. But realistically the rest of the Empire is still… the Empire. The Grand Moffs are still in place and the sectors that are under Imperial rule still are. The Emperor’s death didn’t vaporize the remaining Imperial forces. The Coruscant scenes are especially moronic, as that is the center of Imperial rule and its citizens are unlikely to be happy about the end of the Empire, whether it occurs then or later.
Finally, we have the Anakin change. As stupid as the widespread celebrations are, the Anakin change is one of the dumbest things in a movie ever. I understand what Lucas was going for. He wanted continuity between the Trilogies. But it does not make a lick of sense. I’m not going to explain it here because I have done it several times before and it makes me tired and cranky, but if Anakin’s ghost is Hayden Christensen then Obi-Wan’s should have been Ewan McGregor and Yoda’s should have been CGI. Or whatever Yoda looked like eight hundred years ago when he wasn’t a wrinkled-up old toad.
As much as I hate to end on a sour note, I think I’m done for right now. I didn’t cover nearly as much as I had planned, but I said more than I thought I would about certain things. That’s how rambling works, I guess. I just went back up to the title and adjusted it from simply “Star Wars” to “Phantom Troublemaker on Star Wars: Episode I” because I obviously have more to say about the comics, toys, books, Clone Wars, and everything else that this wonderful, beloved, and occasionally frustrating and mishandled franchise has to offer. I haven’t even mentioned Disney.
I don’t know when I’ll get around to Episode II, but I’ll try to make it less than three years from now. The bottom line is that I do love Star Wars and that just like every other fan, that’s the reason I get so touchy about it when I perceive a wrong.

-Phantom


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