Tatooine to be Reclaimed by the Desert

Mos_Espa_2All across North and Sub-Saharan Africa, desertification threatens farm land, pastures, townships and even cities, triggering food and water shortages and threatening wildlife. But in a startling twist, it now seems that this ecological phenomena is threatening an iconic movie set, one which science fictions fans should instantly recognize.

Yes, in the deserts of Tunisia, the town of Mos Espa is about to be reclaimed by the desert. This set was first constructed by George Lucas and his crews to act as the skyline for Tatooine in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Serving as the fictional home of Anakin Skywalker, it was here that Qui-Gon Jinn and Padme first met the cloyingly sweet blonde kid that would one day become the most evil man in the universe

mos_espa

And in a new study, lead by Ralph Lorenz of John Hopkins University, researchers have found that sand dunes are swiftly encroaching on the old Star Wars set and threatening to consume it. Since Mos Espa was first constructed in 1997, some sixteen years ago, Lorenz and his researchers have calculated that the sand dunes have moved a total of 130 meters.

mos_espa_dunesNote the satellite images to the left, which display the Mos Espa set in 2004 and 2009 as seen from Google Earth. Between the two, one can see how the large dune wall to the right of the compound is weakened over time, and dust and sand blowing in from the desert is able to make its way into the town proper.

You can also see how the buildings are harder to make out in the 2009 image, a result of them being slowly covered by airborne sand. In time, this will reach the point where the huts are no longer visible, and will likely collapse under the weight of the desert.

The aim of this study, far from inciting Star Wars fandom to mount a campaign, was to track the progress of desertification in the Maghreb nation. One of the benefits of the Mos Espa construction,  as far as Lorenz and his geomorphologists were concerned, was that it gave them a steady frame of reference. Since their interest is in understanding how sand dunes move, the Star Wars set gave them a good way to see changes in dune location.

Mos Espa layout
Mos Espa layout

The report outlined the likely consequences of the approaching dunes, and what they would mean for future generations of Tatooine-tourists:

Should the barchan that forms the focus of this paper overrun the Mos Espa set, many buildings will be temporarily buried.

Their rather flimsy construction will mean roofs will likely collapse, degrading the attraction of the site when the dune moves on. This has already been seen at a smaller film set (‘Repro Haddada’…sometimes referred to online as the ‘slave quarters’)

…This structure was overrun by a barchan around 2004, and has been substantially demolished, although it is still an object of pilgrimage by Star Wars fans, who also admire the barchans a few hundred meters to the south, which are prominent in several scenes of the movie.

They were also sure to point out that even if Mos Espa survives the swiftly advancing dune, the town is still likely doomed, as other patches of desert are encroaching from other directions as well:

In the long run, Mos Espa is still threatened: the large barchan (big enough to totally submerge the site) looms about 500 m to the east. In fact this dune is often driven over en route to the Mos Espa site, reportedly by ~80% of the visiting vehicles. Although the imminent threatening barchan and other effects may degrade the site on this timescale anyway, at the observed migration rate of ~6 m/yr, this large barchan will begin overrunning the site in about 80 years.

Sad news for fandom and sci-fi geeks. But I guess it just goes to show you, nothing lasts forever. But more importantly, it demonstrates one of the principle issues of Climate Change and the planets rapidly-changing ecology. So perhaps this will have the positive effect of making more people sit up and notice, and maybe even mobilize a few to action.

After Climate Change is an issue that effects, and threatens, us all. And against enemies like world hunger, displacement, drought, famine, and flooding, we need all the help we can get! So at the risk of sounding cliche, let me just say: May the Force be with us!

Source: blogs.smithsonianmag.com

Star Wars VII, What’s it Going to Be?

The news that Disney has purchased LucasArts for a cool 4 billion has certainly been making the rounds of late! Even more interesting is the release that they will be releasing the sequel trilogy sometime in 2015. This news has once again fueled a great deal of speculation as to what direction the new movies will take. Regardless of who is at the helm, it is generally agreed that there are only so many story arcs that the new movies could take…

The following list comes from AMOG‘s (Alpha Male Of the Group) online magazine, courtesy of Keith Veronese. The list is pretty comprehensive, and covers all the likely candidates for potential sequel and spinoff story lines. And lets face it, with the course of the prequels took, we all would like something new to rehabilitate the series! And with Lucas no longer at the helm, we all might just get what we want!

Immediate Pick-Up:
The first possible story arc for the new trilogy would be to pick up where the last movie left off. As it stood, the Empire was dealt a significant blow, but was far from finished. Granted, the Death Star was destroyed and both the Emperor and Darth Vader were dead, but the majority of the Imperial Fleet was still intact, as was its infrastructure and network of allied planets. As evil and rotten as it was, the Empire still commanded a great deal of loyalty and support within the Core Worlds, and the Rebel Alliance was likely to have its hands full dealing with all of them.

The benefits of this story are pretty clear. It’s a blank canvass in terms of plot, into which a new generation of writers can hurl all kinds of ideas. In addition, it’s a chance to bring back the old gang for another run, albeit with new actors and actresses.

The Thrawn Trilogy:
Written by noted sci-fi author Timothy Zhan, the Thrawn Trilogy are perhaps the most famous novelization in the franchise. Set five years after events in Return of the Jedi, the trilogy centers on the enigmatic character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the last of the Empire’s senior officers who has assumed control of the Imperial fleet. Intrinsic to these plans are a lost fleet that disappeared prior to the Clone Wars, a secret cache of cloning vats the Emperor established during his reign, and an insane Jedi Master living on a remote world.

Meanwhile, Senator Leia Organa Solo (that’s right, they tied the knot!) is pregnant and expecting twins. While she has become a member of the New Republic government, Han has continued in his role as a fleet General and is using his old contacts in the smuggling world to try and drum up shipping for the new government. His efforts bring him into contact with a group of privateers who will one day go from being self-interested sorts to the same kind of heroes Han had become.

And finally, there are the adventures of Luke, who is drawn to Jedi Master C’boath and seeks to learn from him. However, they quickly become enemies as Luke realizes he is insane and seeks to capture Leia’s twins for his own purposes. He also comes into contact with Mara Jade, a Force-sensitive woman who once served the Emperor. She plans to kill Luke, but circumstances have thrown them to work together and cooperate.

Needless to say, this would be a good story arc for the series, and would be convenient since it’s already been written in full. All the old characters are reprized and fleshed out, and some new, decidedly Star Wars-esque characters are also introduced. And given that much time has passed since the originals, it would be a good opportunity for some new actors to tackle the roles of all our favorites. I’m sure Disney would be willing to spring for some cameos from the original cast as well!

Darth Vader Spinoff:
True, we got more than enough of his origin story with the prequel trilogy, but there’s still plenty of room for Darth Vader to grow! In fact, there is a twenty year gap between the prequels and the original movies, during which time Vader essentially did his best work. This included hunting down the remaining Jedi, rooting out dissent and resistance to the Emperor’s rule, and just generally cementing his reputation as an evil cybernetic menace!

The benefits here are pretty obvious, at least as far as a single movie are concerned. Plenty of lightsaber fights, stalking from planet to planet looking for Jedi, and lots of that creepy respirator and James Earl Jones-esque dialogue. However, it might be difficult to maintain a three-movie story arc from this. But that might not be a problem, given the next option:

Boba Fett Spinoff:
Boba Fett is arguably the most popular member of the supporting cast, and there are plenty who believe that he deserves his own moment in the spotlight. And after the prequels gave him a passing intro, there might be some merit to giving him a more complete origin story. Imagine Boba Fett as a young man, going about the known universe and establishing himself as the most notorious bounty hunter.

Aside from being action-packed and full of plenty of the seedier stuff of Star Wars, this film could be paired with a Vader movie as a potential second installment. And perhaps a third could be opened involving Obi-Wan, focusing on his adventures as he travelled from place to place on Tatooine, hoping to stay off the Empire’s radar while keeping an eye on Luke.

The Sith Wars:
Finally, there is an area of the franchise which has become rather popular of late, and that is the rather fertile period in the Star Wars timeline known as the Sith Wars. What began with the Knights Of The Old Republic series has now evolved into a MMOG with Star Wars: The Old Republic. And even though the reception was not as extreme as LucasArts might have hoped, the stage has certainly been set for a possible second prequel series.

Taking place thousands of years before the events in the first Star Wars trilogy, the Sith Wars chronicles the titanic war which took place between the Old Republic and the Sith Empire. And although there have been several installments in the franchise that carry the name “Sith War”, the expanded universe now claims that the greatest confrontation took place 3681 years before the fall of the Old Republic and lasted until 3653. This war was in turn the result of over 1300 years of preparations and buildup by the Sith, who never forgot the crushing defeat they had suffered at the hands of the Republic during the Great Hyperspace War.

The benefits of this story are also quite obvious. In addition to being a very established story arc, there are plenty of interesting characters, developments and battles in this period which, if properly developed, would result in cinematic gold! What’s more, people do enjoy origins stories which are well told, and after the mixed reviews of the last prequels, a deep-origins story could be just the thing to rehabilitate the franchise. And it’s got all the right elements; Jedi, Sith, lightsaber fights, and a titanic war between good and evil, similar in tone to the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire.

What’s more, this story will have no sense of duty to suffer from. Unlike episodes I, II, and III which were burdened by having to explain where all the original characters came from, how Anakin fell to the Dark Side and how the Empire came to be, a Sith War trilogy would be able to tell a story where the details are not entirely pre-written. What’s more, the massive war does not suffer from the ambiguity or the Clone Wars, which seemed like little more than background for the prequels main focus – which was the fall of Anakin Skywalker. This time around, we’d be able to see lots of fighting and not be distracting by a whining Hayden Kristensen complaining about how much his life sucks!

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So what’s it going to be? Personally, my money is on options two and five. Having read the Thrawn Trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed it, I would certainly pay money to see it adapted to the big screen. At the same time, I’m itching to see some of that Sith War swashbuckling and fleet battles! Man, tough choice, and the studio hasn’t even announced what they might be planning yet…

Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Attack of the Clones. Here we go again…

Hello again! Here we are picking things up again with the Star Wars saga. Today, it’s the second installment in the prequel series, the ridiculously named Attack of the Clones. As I’m sure we all remember, Clones was the stuff of mixed reviews, some critics hailing its special effects and visual style, while others emphasized its flat dialogue and wooden romance.

But even more interesting was the fact that critics were torn over whether it was better or worse than the Phantom Menace. Not a good sign, and the butt of a LOT of jokes and debate. Hard to imagine that fanboys who were united in bashing the PM would find themselves fighting each other over which they thought sucked more!

But to be fair, there were some good points in this movie. So without further preamble, let’s get into it:

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the crawl once again saying that there is a crisis. This time around, it’s the threat of Separatists – led by former Jedi Count Dooku – that’s making things problematic. And once again there is deadlock in the Senate over it. In any case, now-Senator Amidala comes to Coruscant to speak her peace on behalf of those who oppose taking strong measures, and an assassination plot gets underway.

This prompts the Jedi order to send two old friends, Obi-Wan and Anakin, to provide her with added protection. Their introduction is rather painful to behold, as the hormonally raging Anakin begins relating how he hasn’t stopped dreaming of her and tries to make awkward conversation with her. He also picks a fight with his mentor, Obi-Wan, over what their mandate truly is. In the midst of all this, Jar Jar breaks the fourth wall by looking into the camera and smiling at the audience – a sort of, “I’m still here, bitches” for all the fanboys to see!

In another bit of “things to come”, we also learn that Anakin has been having dreams of another woman – his mother. He dreams that something terrible is going to happen, but in the meantime, they must focus on Padme, who’s assassin is still out there. For some reason, they decide to “use her as bait”, which consists of letting her sleep in a window-filled room with nothing but R2 as protection. Didn’t Obi-Wan say they weren’t supposed to be investigating, just protecting? Oh well…

In any case, her would-be assassin sends a probe with some poisonous slugs to attack her. Obi-Wan and Anakin kill said slugs, and Obi-Wan jumps through the window to grab the probe and ride it. Wait, didn’t he say they weren’t supposed to be investigating? Why’s he so determined to follow this probe then? Anakin grabs a speeder, they fly like mad, and chase the attacker through the city. Anakin reveals that this woman is a shape-shifter, a fact which seems superfluous, but whatever. They also performs some stunts that defy the laws of physics, but that’s also unimportant.

After reaching a bar, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase her inside and begin combing the crowd. After a quick re-enactment of the scene from A New Hope (where Obi-Wan sliced off another thugs hand), they drag the shape-shifter outside and learn she’s subcontracting. But of course, her contractor kills her before she can say her name. Obi-Wan, who for some reason was willing to chase the shapeshifter across the planet, just lets him go…

The Jedi Council decides its time to send Padme home, and that Anakin is to go with her. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is to track down the assassin by himself, a quest which takes him to the world of Kamino. This decision to split them, far from making logical sense, seems more like an excuse to get Anakin and Padme alone. Why send a Padawan off on his own, especially when his master has such misgivings about his attitude and powers?

But anyhoo, things get kind of cool when Obi-Wan arrives on Kamino and learns that former Master Sifo Dyas ordered the creation of a clone army. This, combined with the fact that the location of the planet was removed from the Republic archives memory would seem to indicate that there is a conspiracy afoot. Obi-Wan then meets with the clone template, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, and is convinced he’s found Padme’s would-be assassin. They fight, Jango escapes, and Obi-Wan pursues him to Geonosis.

Meanwhile, we get a string of scenes that are meant to elicit a romantic response. After following Padme around, complaining bitterly about Obi-Wan and professing his love in a series of ever creepier and wooden dialogue, Padme tells Anakin there’s no way. Why? She’s a Senator… Uh, what? Are Senators not allowed to date? Of course, Anakin can’t because he’s a Jedi, but the very fact that they’re talking about this would seem to indicate the feeling is now mutual. Seems sudden, but neither here nor there…

Arriving at Geonosis, where there’s a massive a droid-building colony, Obi-Wan gets into it with Jango and the Slave I. After thinking he’s killed him (Obi-Wan eludes death by copying Han’s hiding move from Empire), Jango proceeds to planet and Obi-Wan follows shortly behind. After wintessing a meeting between Dooku and the Separatists in which they plan their attack (using their droid and clone armies), Obi-Wan broadcasts his position and is then captured. He meets Dooku, who proceeds to tell him the truth, after a fashion…

He tells Obi-Wan there is a Sith in charge of the Senate, and that his plans are motivated to bring him down. He asks for Obi-Wan’s help, who in a move taken from Empire and Jedi, tells him he “will never join you”. Back on Naboo, Anakin continues to have bad dreams about his mom and decides he must go to Tatooine. He retraces her path, only to discover that she was taken in by some people from the movie – the Lars family, which includes the future Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

He learns she was taken by Sandpeople, and catches up with them just in time to watch his mother die, at which point, he and loses it! And I mean REALLY LOSES IT! In a scene we don’t get to see, Anakin takes out his lightsaber and kills the entire community of Sandpeople who kidnapped and tortured his mom, including the women and children. He returns to the Lars family dwelling and tells Padme of his mass murder, to which she replies that it’s no big deal.

I’m sorry, NO BIG DEAL?! Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, this man just confessed to murdering women and children and all Padme can say is that “to be angry is to be human”? What kind of sociopathic, enabling bullshit is that? Is she so into bad boys that she’s willing to overlook this first-time offense? Or are they in such a hurry to get to the next scene that she’s just got to forgive and move on? And why the hell didn’t the Jedi Order even mention this on his return? We all saw Yoda sensing it? C’mon people!

Alright, moving on… Back on Coruscant, the news of a Separatist army explodes like a bombshell, with Palpatine once again exploiting it for personal gain. Thinking he’s doing the smart and noble thing, Jar Jar moves that Palpatine get emergency powers – a la Octavian – and his first act is to create an army for the Republic. Why they don’t have one already is beyond me, but who cares? Point is, Palpatine has got his way, and Yoda and Mace Windu decide its time to get involved.

Anakin and Padme also get the distress signal from Obi-Wan and decide they will go save him. They arrive on Geonosis too and after a needless scene where they are almost killed in a robot factory, they too are captured. A scene ripped off from Gladiator follows, as they are reunited in a massive Colosseum-type arena to die in a public display. They escape and begin to wreak havoc, and are rescued just in time by the arrival of Mace and the Jedi Order. They fight to a standstill and are surrounded, when Yoda arrives with the Clone army and begins kicking some ass.

A big fight scene ensues on the open plains of Geonosis between droids and Clones, while Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Dooku down. He beats them both in a rather implausible scenario, first managing to cripple Obi-Wan without actually killing him or severing any of his limbs, and then cutting off Anakin’s arm (an obvious preview of the scene from Jedi). Yoda once again shows up to save the day, and in another scene from Jedi, Dooku does his lightning trick.

The fight ends with a stalemate, Dooku runs with Padme shooting at his ship. Once more, a scene from the originals is at work here, this time from Empire when Leia was shooting at the Slave I. But Dooku escapes, makes it back to Coruscant and tells Sideous (Palpatine) that the war is happening, as anticipated. He meanwhile sends the first batch of clones on their new Star Destroyer look-alikes, and Yoda laments that the Dark Side has fallen and “The Clones Wars” have begun.

The movie ends with Padme and Anakin back on Naboo, where they’ve decided to get married after all. But since it’s a secret wedding, the droids are the only parties in attendance. THE END!

What didn’t work:
Well, where to begin? I shan’t dwell on the wooden dialogue or the horrid lack of romantic tension, since those are the popular whipping posts of most critics when it comes to this movie. Instead, I’d like to stick to some of the more obvious weaknesses, those that become more clear with hindsight.

  1. The Set-Up: Things get rolling when we learn that an assassin is trying to kill Padme, presumably because she’s the voice of moderation between the Republic and the Separatists. However, things get really implausible, really fast. For one, why the hell did Jango Fett subcontract anyway. Why not simply kill her himself? And why did this lady use poisonous bugs when a simple bomb would have killed Padme instantly? We saw how easily that probe flew to her window, so why the slow, stupid and easily thwarted approach? Then came how Jango’s involvement led Obi-Wan on his wild goose chase. The only reason he knew to find him on Kamino was because he used a dart which was manufactured there. The only reason he know to fly to Geonosis was because Jango mentioned it to him. And why was Jango pulling double duty with the whole assassination thing anyway? If the Kaminos are such good cloners, anybody’s DNA would do and they could just enhance it. Having him do that and eliminate Padme was just a way to tie the two plots together really and make sure Obi-Wan could find out all that was going on.
  2. Love-Story Contrivances: I know, I said I wouldn’t mock the terrible dialogue, which I won’t. To me, the real weakness here was just how contrived and unnatural the whole love story seemed. Aside from a brief, age-inappropriate meeting ten years before, Anakin and Padme are practically strangers. Having Anakin say that he’s loved her ever since they met was completely forced. On top of that, the way they are sent to Naboo together and all the scenes of them doing lovers things: boating, playing in open fields, eating and retiring to the hearth – are all obvious attempts to try and force a sense of romance. That’s the key word here: force (no pun intended). Between Anakin constantly announcing his feeling for her and all the idyllic scenery they take in, it’s like Lucas was behind us constantly saying “Look, they’re in love!” In the original movie, Lucas took his time to build up the romance between Han and Leia. In the beginning, they couldn’t stand each other, but this concealed some genuine tension. In time, this flourished as they got to know each other and began to start acknowledging each others strengths. In the end, it was clear that their different backgrounds and personalities is what led to their attraction. Throw in some genuine crisis, and they realized they were in love. See? That’s a love story, not this!
  3. Unsubtle Dialogue: Again, said I would avoid talking about the wooden dialogue. Which I am, sort of! My gripe here is just how unsubtle and (again) forced it all was, which is something the critics really didn’t get into. Examples: in the beginning, Anakin announces that he loves Padme when talking with Obi-Wan and Jar Jar. When talking to Padme, Anakin announces that Obi-Wan is an unfair master who’s too hard on him. When sitting around the fire, Anakin announces how much he loves her. Finally, she announces her feelings back. And in this, they are hardly alone. All throughout the movie, actors announce what’s going on as a means to convey what’s happening and to make the audience feel the requisite emotions. Never is time taken to convey feelings, mood, or establish tension the old fashioned way. And this just makes for a bad movie! As Robot Satan said in Futurama: “You can’t have characters just announce their feelings! That makes me SO ANGRY!”
  4. Way Too Much: In the documentary of the making of Phantom Menace, there is a lovely scene where Lucas and his people are watching the screening and there’s this moment of “uh-oh” at the end. They then discuss how Lucas did too much and how that brought down the ending. You’d think between movie one and two, he would have learned from this, but no! In this movie, he tried to do way more. On top of showing how romance developed between Padme and Anakin, he’s also shoved in a big ol’ preview of Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side, how the Clones Wars started, and Palpatine’s evil rise to power. A lot of critics jumped on this, saying that the movie was too long and suffered from a sense of duty. And in that, they were profoundly right! Duty is another key word when describing this movie. Having spent movie one showing where Anakin came from, they now had to preview his fall, where the twins came from, and how the Clone Wars started all at once. And it made for a sloppy feel, with too much happening and things bouncing around from one thing to the next without any of it getting enough development.
  5. Recycling: But alas, all of these faults could have been mediated had it not been for the fact that there really didn’t seem anything new about these movies. All throughout, there is material which seems to serve no purpose than to satisfy origin stories or recapture elements of the first three movies. In Clones, Boba Fett, Luke’s surrogate parents, the Death Star and Vader’s robotic arm are all previewed, and that’s on top of the Clone Wars and the romance plot. Once more it’s like Lucas is behind us saying “Look! That’s how it happened!” But like everything else, it just feels forced. Why not let new characters have their time in the spotlight? Why is it necessary to use every character from the first three movies? And another thing, this movie, more than in the first, uses scenes from the originals like never before. I mean, its one thing to rip off other movies, like the arena scene from Gladiator, but Lucas was even ripping off himself! The scene in the bar where Obi-Wan cuts off the hunters arm, the scene where Obi-Wan hides his ship on the back of an asteroid, the scene where he tells Dooku he won’t turn, the scene with the lighting bolts, the scene at the end where Padma is shooting at Dooku’s ship. All of these are clearly meant to recapture the feeling of the original Star Wars, but they fell short for the simple reason that audiences wasn’t nearly as emotionally involved. There’s paying homage to an original, and then there’s recycling, and this was the latter!
  6. Lazy Shooting: Something else which became apparent by this movie was the lazy way in which it was shot. After Phantom, It was already obvious that Lucas loved to cram as much CGI into every frame as possible. Hell, that much was obvious with the Star Wars Gold Editions! But if you watch the movies again, pay close attention to how EVERY SINGLE scene is shot. In these, you have the actors either walking slowly across the stage or sitting down. Always. Two cameras capture all of their dialogue and exchanges, Camera one, camera two. Always. If they are walking and talking, they will always stop, turn, and go back and forth between camera one and two. Meanwhile, all visual effects and background are provided by a green screen and all CGI characters are represented by colored lights. There are virtually no props, no stand ins, and a minimum of real actors. This, I have learned, reflects Lucas’ preferred way of directing. He sits in his chair at the edge of the green screen and drinks his coffee while the actors interact with each other or lights which tell them where to look. They walk through, stop, turn, or stay seated, do their lines, and his two cameras capture everything. Action shots are handled in much the same way, with only the occasional close-up or distance shot. Unless of course the entire sequence is animated by CGI, which they usually are!
  7. Strengths? Not so much: The strong points about this movie, the ones that critics hailed, mainly had to do with vision and special effects. But here’s the thing: Lucas’ vision in this movie consisted of CGI environments that all seemed to be taken from other movies or real locations. That doesn’t seem very bold or original. And what’s more, even the special effects weren’t so innovative. Clones was launched during the summer of 2002, right about the time that Spider Man, Minority Report and Men in Black 2 were released, all of which made impressive use of CGI. So really, what was so stunning and unique about this movie’s visual effects? And if action was something else about this movie that people liked, consider that it came out at the same time as The Bourne Identity and XXX as well.  So really, this movie was not a stand-out, smash-hit, summer blockbuster. If anything, it was one hit in a summer full of them.

Well, that about covers the weaknesses of this movie. I did my best to avoid the cliched, beaten-to-death talking points, and yet I still feel I hit on them quite a bit. And I really went long there too didn’t I? And yet, I haven’t even mentioned what bothered me personally about this movie. But to do so means ditching all the civilized critique stuff and going all the way back to summer of 2000.

In was back then, between the first two movies movies, that Lucas seemed to be pulling an about face. A year after the Phantom Menace debuted, reassuring rumors began to circulate that Lucas claimed its sequel would be more dark, more realistic and more gritty, kind of like the way Empire was to the first movie. However, these hopes were shot when Lucas announced that the second movie would be a romance story at that Jar Jar would remain in the picture.

When asked about the fans hopes for something more adult and dark, he casually dismissed these and other criticisms by saying that Star Wars had always been a “Saturday morning serial for kids”. This above all else seemed to annoy me, and countless other fans, since it now seemed apparent that Lucas really didn’t care what his age old fans and was going to continue to do the things that was making the new movies incompatible with the old.

However, after movie two he seemed to sit up and take notice of just how annoyed the fans and critics were getting. With one movie left in the franchise, he seemed determined to give these objections some due before the sun set on the prequel trilogy. Of that, more next time. Stay tuned!

 

The Star Wars Prequels, Duty Strikes!

Hello, welcome to my last installment on the Star Wars franchise in honor of May the 4th. Only took six days, and I still got the final three movies to cover. Not my best work. But as they say, we all have lives. Well, some of us do. For those who have nothing better to do than read what I write I can only say… you poor things!

In any case, I promised when reviewing the originals that I would dedicate at least one post to the Star Wars the prequel trilogy. But one can scarcely do that without getting into the whole Star Wars legacy and addressing questions about Lucas himself and the directions he’s taken. Love them or hate them, the prequels remain a bone of contention for original fanboys and the new generation of acolytes.

To start, I’d like to give a very quick recap of the three movies before saying what was good and bad about them.

The Phantom Menace:
This movie was without a doubt one of the most anticipated releases in the history of cinema. After years of waiting and hearing that Lucas intended to revisit his universe with some prequel pictures, fans finally got their big break in the summer of 1999. If you’ve seen some of the footage of opening night, where people were lining up around the block, in costume, kissing the floor upon entry, and waving around multicolored lightsabers inside the theater when the movie came on, then you’ve got idea of just how raw and powerful the atmosphere was.

And yet, the Phantom Menace would also go down in history as one of the biggest disappointments of all time. One could easily say that all the build-up made that inevitable. But there were clearly some other factors as well, and people would spend years speculating on them. Of that, more later. First, let’s recap the plot.

The movie opens with the declaration that there is a taxation dispute going on and that the “greedy Trade Federation” has decided to blockade a remote world named Naboo in protest. Sounds a little dry and implausible but okay. We see two Jedis, Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn, being sent to reach a settlement with said Federation.

But once they get aboard, things get hairy. The Feds destroy their ship, on the orders of some “Phantom” dude who’s clearly manipulating things back home. He orders them to begin an invasion of the planet while he covers their asses in the Galactic Senate. Meanwhile, they try to kill them using poisonous gas and some rather inept robots.

Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn manage to escape, relaying on some sweet combat moves and Jedi springing, stow away on one of the troop transports, and are taken down to the surface. Somehow, they are landed on the other side of planet and must find a way to reach the capitol to “warn the Naboo”. Uh, what good does it do to warn people in the midst of an invasion? And why are they on the other side of the planet if the robots are invading the capitol anyway? Bad navigation console?

They come across a glaring stereotype named Jar Jar, a bumbling Gungan idiot who tells them his people can help. They swim underwater to the Gungan city where the Boss Nass, through a little force persuation, gives them a pod and lets them take Jar Jar with them, mainly because he owes his life to Qui Gonn (echoes of the Wookie life-debt there). They make it to the capitol and manage to the save the princess, a monotone teenage Geisha named Amidala. Turns out, royalty is elected on this world, and she agrees to go with them to Coruscant to plead their case before the Senate.

After a daring escape, which is facilitated by R2, they make it to space. However, there hyperdrive is damaged and they must land on nearby Tatooine. Qui Gonn goes off to find a parts dealer and meets another stereotype, an alien named Watto (who might as well be called Shylock given his caricatured appearance and character). He won’t take their credits, and since they don’t have anything to barter with, Qui Gonn concocts a needlessly convoluted scheme.

Yes, instead of simply going to another dealer or hiring a ship (a la Star Wars I), he decides to back Watto’s slave (a boy named Anakin) in a pod race using his ship as collateral. If the boy wins, Watto keeps the money and Qui Gonn gets his parts. But after determining that the boy is force sensitive – via a midichlorian count, one of the biggest let downs ever! – and (according to his mother) the result of immaculate conception, he decides to up the ante. If the boy wins, he gets to take him and the parts with him. For some reason, he seems completely remorseless about seperating the boy from his mother, but whatever.

Oh, and did I mention he built 3P0 – a factory model protocol droid – from spare parts to help his mom around the house? Weird, I thought these things were designed for, you know, protocol, as opposed to doing dishes! But whatever… He meets R2 and the they have immediate chemistry 😉

After the big ass pod race, clearly inspired by Ben Hur, Anakin wins using his Force abilities and Qui Gonn has his bounty. Their departure is momentarily interrupted when a Sith named Darth Maul shows up, seeking the princess, and Qui Gonn must fight him. They make it out and head to Coruscant, which is introduced for the first time in the franchise, and begin to attend to all the dry political crap that is waiting for them.

There, Senator Palpatine, representative of Naboo (and the man posing as the “Phantom”) tells them they’re in the thick of it. The Chancellor could force the issue but can’t since he’s been marred by accusations of corruption. Palpatine recommends calling a vote of non-confidence to unseat him so that someone less weak-kneed will take over. After finding nothing but gridlock in the Senate, Amidala concedes and makes the motion. Palpatine is happy, since he (surprise, surprise!) gets nominated!

Meanwhile, the Jedi Council has a look at Anakin, and is worried. It seems his fear of losing his mother is a bad thing, at least according to Yoda. Fear, through commodius viccus, leads to the Dark Side. Seems harsh, but this combined with his age, leads to their decision not to train him. Qui Gonn goes to bat for the little kid, but they are stubborn.

However, things change when Amidala decides she must go back home and the two Jedi are ordered to go with her. For some reason, they take Anakin and his two droids too, and Jar Jar is coming too to provide more slapstick. When they arrive, they begin plotting how their going to overthrow Federation occaption. The Gungans are recruited to help, and agree to lure the droid army into a battle as a feint to leave the capitol open. They decide to make Jar Jar, the idiot they exiled for being clumsy, a General and charge him with leading their attack. …Really?

Meanwhile, Amidala, the Jedi and a handful of her security people infiltrate the capitol. After Amidala and her people take the throne room though a little decoy and switch, Qui Gonn and Obi-Wan come face to face with Maul. A brilliant duel ensues, Qui Gonn dies, and Obi-Wan defeats him by pulling a flip and slice routine that frankly, Maul should have been able to prevent. Hell, its the same thing Anakin tries in the third movie and Obi-Wan lopped both legs and one of his arms off! And Maul’s way more badass!

But the really objectionable part comes when Anakin, through sheer dumb luck, ends up commandeering a fighter and flies into orbit with the Naboo fighters to engage the Fed command ship. Those watching couldn’t help but notice that the other ships have all left for some reason, but again, WHATEVER! Anakin, despite the Feds claim that nothing can get through their shields, manages to do just that when he accidentally flies his fighter into their bay and fires some torpedoes into their main reactor. The ship blows up just as Anakin flies out.

Down below, the Gungans are having a hard time tackling the droid army, and Jar Jar’s constant slapstick and bumbling aren’t helping things much. But somehow, he manages to stay alive, and eventually the destruction of the command ship renders all the droids inoperative. The day is won and the capitol celebrates. The Jedi have a memorial and speculate on how Maul must have had an accomplice, since Sith always work in twos. The camera then pans to Palpatine to let us know, as if we hadn’t figured it out already, that he’s baaaad!

And that’s how the movie ends. With lots of fanfare that calls to mind the medal ceremony of the first movie, we see Gungans, the Princess, Obi-Wan and Anakin all standing on ceremony as people cheer and blow horns. The credits rolled, and audiences everywhere were left speechless…

The Reception:
After the movie finished on opening night, it was like the fans everywhere were going “uh, what just happened?” Seriously, if you watch the documentary footage, you can’t help but notice how underwhelming the mood was once the movie was over, nothing close to the electricity that there was going in. It was as if they’d come to witness the second coming and were forced to watch cheep parlor tricks instead. The critics weren’t too kind either, most giving it mixed reviews based on its weak scripting, the inclusion of Jar Jar, the dry political content, and the saccharine character of Anakin.

However, there were good things about this movie too which did not go unnoticed. Just about everyone acknowledged that the pod race and lightsaber duel were worth the price of admission. But overall, this movie fell far short of expectations. And with the benefit of hindsight, the weaknesses became all the more apparent.

  1. The plot stunk of duty: This is something that would become more apparent as the trilogy went on. For all three movies, the entire plot seemed like a set-up for a bunch of explanations. This is a weak basis for a story and makes the audience feel like the movie is plodding along out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to tell a story. In the Phantom Menace, the focus was overwhelmingly on explaining how Palpatine got into power, even if that was only a small part of the story. Aside from that and the introduction of Anakin, there was nothing of importance happening elsewhere. I mean seriously, a taxation dispute? A blockade of a remote world? THESE things put the Galactic Republic in turmoil? I know this was all meant to show how inefficient and corrupt the Republic had become in its dying days, but c’mon! Give us something of consequence!
  2. The plot just plain stunk!: Throughout the first half of the movie, so much happens for which there is no decent explanation. Mainly, audiences just followed it along, waiting to see where it went and only realizing with hindsight that it didn’t make any sense. For starters, why did the Trade Federation agree to this risky scheme when they didn’t even know who they were dealing with? Were they that desperate to getting out of paying their taxes? Second, why was it necessary to fly to the surface to warn the Naboo if they were already being invaded? Third, why did Qui Gonn go through all that trouble just to get some parts? Why not go to another dealer, find a smuggler, agree to pay them ten times what they wanted once they got to Coruscant? Why sponsor a pod race, plot to free a boy, use his force power to manipulate the situation, and ultimately leave the boy’s mother behind in the end? It all seemed so reckless and silly, not what you’d expect from a Jedi Master. What’s more, everybody and their brother was warning him against taking on Anakin, saying they foresaw danger in his training. So why then was he so obsessed with training him, because of that vague prophecy? If this is such an important factor, why weren’t audiences made aware of what that prophecy was? Maybe then we might understand why he was so intent on seeing Anakin become a Jedi and the Council was not. But this was never done, not in this movie or its sequels. And Qui Gonn’s death-bed request that the boy be trained was a pretty weak excuse for the Jedi Council accepting him after all.
  3. One-dimensional characters: There’s this hilarious clip over at Red Letter Media where a guy asks a bunch of people to describe characters from the Star Wars universe. The rules are, say stuff about them without mentioning what they look like or what their job is. In the case of the originals, the people selected could say volumes about Han, Luke, Leia, et al. But with the prequels, they couldn’t say jack! There’s a reason for this. Beyond their basic roles, every character in this movie had no real substance or character. Hell, it wasn’t even clear who the main character was. So many people are the focus of the film and doing things to advance the plot that it doesn’t feel like their is a protagonist at all. Ah, which brings me to point 3!
  4. Who’s the focus here? All good stories have a protagonist. A person’s who’s journey is the focal point of the story and helps the audience to identify with them and become emotionally involved. In the originals, that person was Luke Skywalker. By no means was he the only character, but he was clearly the focus of the story. His own journey of self-discovery was the main driving force of the plot, and his battle with his own demons and his past provided the resolution. In the Phantom Menace, all we get is snap shots of different people doing things to advance the plot towards a resolution, which feels too tidy in the end.
  5. Too much reliance on CGI: It’s an easy thing to criticize a director for relying on CGI, but when you consider the fact that Lucas managed to capture lightning in a bottle using nothing but stop-motion, animatronics and puppets, you have to wonder why he was so obsessed with using the latest technology. Granted, it allowed him to do things he couldn’t before, but it also limited his shoots and made the movie feel incredibly sterile. In just about every shot in this movie, you don’t have real sets and actors on location. You have actors walking in front of a green screen and looking at hanging lights instead of physically real stand-ins. And no matter how advanced the technology, people will always know what they are seeing isn’t real. And when all the backgrounds look so perfectly glossy, clean and packed to the hilt with digital effects, it all just feel fake.

Some Possible Explanations:
As all fans of the Star Wars franchise are aware of by now, Lucas was never that good at scripting or directing. In fact, it was well known that in the first movie, help needed to be brought in to complete the film. In the second movie, that help was on hand from the beginning and it showed. But by the third, Lucas was clearly back at the helm and making the big decisions. With this in mind, it’s little surprise why the Phantom Menace was the way it was. With the success of the original franchise, Lucas had grown richer and more powerful than anyone thought possible, and with companies like Lucas Arts and Industrial Light and Magic behind him, who the hell is going to question him? He’s George freaking Lucas!

Surely, the man must have thought himself immortal by the late nineties when he began writing the script. All those people who used to tell him what to do or challenge him were now gone, replaced by sycophants and suck ups who grew up idolizing him. And can you blame them? It’s George freaking Lucas! How could the creator of Star Wars be wrong?

Sure, there were plenty of cool action scenes and the new technology was pretty damn effective at letting Lucas do all the things he couldn’t do before. But this was Star Wars, dammit! Where were the classic characters, the epic storytelling, the stuff that went beyond special effects and eye-popping visuals? Part of what made the originals so damn good was the depth that went far beyond the ships, guns, and lightsaber duels.

When you look at the originals, at all the things Lucas wanted to do but got called on, you begin to understand. According to rumor, Luke Skywalker was supposed to be a half-cyborg, Han was supposed to be a green alien, and the dialogue was supposed to be a lot more wooden and cheesy than it turned out to be. But thanks to dedicated professionals who knew how to rely on Lucas’ strengths and help him with his weaknesses, something truly awesome and classic was made.

But, as with most things, this success proved to be the downfall. Like Lucas, we all seemed to think he was solely responsible for the creation of Star Wars. Granted he was, in his own words, “the creator as well as the decider” (a cheesy reference to that awful Bushism), but he was never the sole voice of the project. Literally everybody, from the co-directors, co-writers, and even the actors themselves had a role in helping him to make his movies. Without them, we are left with Lucas as he is, warts and all. And after years of success and a growing obsession with the latest special effects, that’s not a very pretty sight!

Well, that’s what I thought of Phantom Menace. Stay tuned for Attack of the Clones… This aint gonna be pretty! But in the meantime, here’s some funny news. It turns out Topher Grace, who played Eric on That 70’s Show, has made an 85 minute editors cut of the three movies. Follow this link to read more on this interesting and funny story:

http://www.bestweekever.tv/2012-03-07/topher-grace-edits-star-wars-prequels

The Empire Strikes Back or Happy Star Wars Day weekend!

Well, it’s officially the day after Star Wars Day, so now what? It’s the perfect time to review the sequel to the time-honored classic, that’s what! And I did promise to cover this rare example of a movie that managed to exceed the original, didn’t I? Hell, I would even if I hadn’t, its a freaking cool movie! And the nostalgia appeal alone makes it worth revisiting, time and time again.

And as I might have mentioned last time, The Empire Strikes Back benefited from several advantages which weren’t initially available during the shooting of the first film. This included help with direction, writing, and of course he had the musical score from the get go, which really didn’t suck! But on top of all that was the fact that in the second movie, things had a much darker and more mature feel.

Lucas acknowledged this in a series of interviews and indicated that this was his intention all along. Following the conventional three act formula, Act II is always the darkest of the chapters, where things go bad for the main characters and escalates the dramatic tension. As such, he needed to turns things on their head after the first movie’s happy conclusion, and threw in some big revelations and twists just to make the ride especially fun.

The Empire Strikes Back:
Plot Synopsis:
The opening crawl once again tells us what we need to know, that despite the destruction of the Death Star, its a dark time for the Rebels. The Empire is still a force the dominant power in the universe, after all, and since their loss at Yavin 4, they’ve been pursuing the Rebels without fail. At the same time, Darth Vader has taken an unhealthy interest in finding Luke Skywalker.

Cut to Hoth, where we see an Imperial probe landing on the surface, and Luke and Han who are out on patrol on the back of some weird looking beasts. Luke spots what he assumes is a meteor and tells Han he is going to check it out, but is unfortunately laid out when a big furry Wampa (aka. a Yeti) sets upon him.

Next we see the Rebel base, where Han checks in and let’s Rebel General Rieekan know that he’s got to leave. Essentially, his time with the Rebels have only made things worse with Jabba and his considerable debt. Rieekan is understanding, but his farewell speech to Leia leads to a rather serious argument. Seems she’s unhappy about his decision, and he’s convinced there’s something other than professional admiration motivating her feelings.

Luke wakes up later in the Wampa’s cave, and relies on his newfound knowledge of the Force to free himself and slice off the Wampa’s arm. He escapes into the frozen wastes, but nighttime is descending and the temperature is dropping! Han realizes that Luke hasn’t checked in and decides to head out into the cold to find him. After several hours, the Rebel base is forced to seal its doors and lock them out for the night. Luke and Han are on their own, and odds of their living through the night are slim!

Out on the frozen wastes, Luke is near death and experiences a vision. Obi-Wan comes before him and tells him he must go to Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Master Yodah. He passes out just as Han comes over the horizon to find him, but the two are kinda stuck when Han’s Tauntaun dies from exposure. Luckily, Han gets the bright idea to cut his beast open and stick Luke inside, thus keeping him warm and alive until he can build a shelter. Come morning, Rogue squadron finds them and picks them up! The boys are saved!

Back to the base where the Rebels learn that there’s an Imperial probe droid in their midst. Yes, that little spindly thing from the beginning has not only been getting around, it’s been taking footage of their shield generator and broadcasting it to the Imps! Han and Chewi manage to take it down, but it seems that the damage has been done. The evacuation begins…

Then comes another moment in cinematic genius, the scene where the Imperial fleet is shown and the Executor (see More Cool Ships) is introduced. After seeing many massive Star Destroyers pass each other in the starry night, several of them are suddenly overtaken by a huge shadow. Naturally, the audience can’t help but wonder, what the hell is no big that it can cast a shadow capable of blacking out a whole fleet worth of Star Destroyers? A Super Star Destroyer, that’s what! We then cut to the bridge where Vader is watching the fleet, all to the tune of the evil Imperial music!

And of course, it seems the footage has reached them, and upon seeing it, Vader comes to life and orders the fleet there immediately. Admiral Ozzle, the aging stereotype of the arrogant and incompetent British officer, seems pissed at his subordinate for finding this out and gives him a hard stare. Oh we just know that’s going somewhere don’t we? Meanwhile, the Rebels are preparing to leave, and Han and Luke have an awkward moment as they once again say good-bye to each other and wish each other luck. Seems they’re always saying good-bye…

Shortly thereafter, the Imperial fleet arrives but has alerted the Rebels to their presence and have raised their planetary shields. Vader concludes that Ozzle jumped them in too close to the planet, and decides some disciplinary measures are in order. This consists of him choking him to death over a video conversation and promoting his immediate subordinate, Captain Piett, to the rank of Admiral. Here too, the scene was perfect! One man listening in, trying to ignore the fact that his superior is slowly asphyxiating and dropping to the floor, and appearing both flattered and terrified that he’s now in charge.

The first salvos begins as the Rebel ships begin to fly for deep space, X-wings and the planetary Ion cannon providing cover. Meanwhile, General Veers, commander of the Imperial troops, lands beyond the shield and begins sending his walkers into the fray. This is the first appearance of the AT-AT’s, and they were pretty chilling to behold. The Rebel troops meanwhile dig in while Rogue Squadron engages them in their attack speeders.

However, things don’t go so well. The AT-AT’s are too heavily armored to destroy with blasters, and the dug-in defenders weapons are similarly ineffective. Luke comes up with the bright idea to trip up the walkers using their tow cables, but this too begins to falter after the majority of Rogue Squadron gets shot down.

Luke himself is shot down and is forced to bail, taking out a second walker with a grenade from the underside. However, in time, General Veers walker gets in range of the shield generator and delivers the death blow to it. The Imperial forces move in and begin attacking the command center itself.

Back at said center, Vader and an Imperial garrison walk in virtually unopposed, and all forces are ordered to being a full retreat. Han grabs Leia, who is still at her post, and compels her to join him, Chewi and the droids aboard the Millennium Falcon. As the last ship to leave, they are barely out of the bay as Vader walks in. Luke similarly gets to his X-wing out on the wastes and dusts off from the planet. The Imperials have won, but the good guys have once again lived to fight another day.

Luke meanwhile tells R2 that they are not going to rendezvous with the fleet. Seems he’s got another destination in mind, the planet Obi-Wan told him to go to in his vision. Arriving at Dagobah, Luke’s ship is disabled by a storm and he crashes into a fetid swamp. He and R2 are unharmed – well R2 almost gets eaten! – but his ship is marooned and he now seems stuck on this new planet. In the course of setting up camp, he is snuck up on by a tiny little green man, an annoying little creature who seems to know who Yoda is. He promises to take Luke to see him, but only after they’ve had supper!

Meanwhile, it seems that the Imperial fleet has zeroed in on the Millennium Falcon. Han and crew try to escape them, but it seems that ongoing mechanical issues are preventing them from jumping into hyperspace. They pull a trick by pulling into an asteroid field and hiding on one of the larger rocks. Pulling into a cave, they set down to make their repairs.

Back on Dagobah, Luke discovers that the little green man is Yoda, and that his constant pestering was a way of testing his patience, a test he failed. However, Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice insists that he has confidence in the boy, but Yoda is unimpressed by Luke’s insistence that he’s not afraid. He insists, in a very chilling line, “You will be… you will be.” They begin his training, running through the woods as Yoda explains the mysteries of the force and the danger of the dark side.

Luke confronts his first test when he senses a cave filled with dark energy nearby. Yoda tells him he must go inside, and that the only thing in there is “only what you take with you”. After crawling through creepy lizards, snakes and slimy walls, Luke comes face to face with his nemesis – Vader! They exchange blows with their lightsabers and Luke is victorious, cutting off Vader’s head and watching it roll to the ground. However, he is dismayed when the helmet blows open to reveal… Lukes own face! Dun, dun, dunnnnnn! Foreshadowing!

While in hiding, Han and Leia finally come to terms with their feelings for each other. After sensing that there was something going on there, only to see the sparks fly with fight after fight, the two realize that they actually love each other and have themselves a passionate kiss. Unfortunately, the moment is interrupted when a very rude droid announces that he’s found the problem with the hyperdrive and they can get it working again!

Meanwhile, Vader orders the fleet into the asteroids to pursue. Despite taking severe losses, he presses his commanders to keep on them. However, the Executor must pull out of the field when Vader is alerted that the Emperor himself is making contact. In the course of talking with the massive hologram of the Emperor’s hooded face, he learns the Luke Skywalker is officially a threat. The Emperor insists he must be dealt with, but Vader assures him he could be turned. He will do so, or kill him in the process, Vader insists.

Back in the cave, repairs are proceeding, but things get a little odd when they realize that their hiding place doesn’t react too well to blaster fire. They board again and make it out seconds before the “cave”, which appears to have teeth, closes on them. Back on the Executor, Vader has called in some added help, a slew of bounty hunters which includes Boba Fett. The Falcon pops out of the asteroid field and is once more pursued and can’t withdraw, so Han decides to pull a daring maneuver by charging the pursuing Star Destroyer. After slipping over the bridge, the Falcon “disappears”.

The Captain of the pursuing Star Destroyer goes to apologize to Vader, and is killed. Vader orders the fleet to break up and track every possible trajectory. However, seems the Falcon is actually mounted on the back the Star Destroyer’s bridge where its been hiding the whole time. Han plans to float off as soon as their host dumps its garbage before going into hyperspace, which is apparently standard Imperial procedure (not so environmentally conscious that!) They begin to float off with the junk, but it seems they have a tail… Boba Fett in his ship, The Bounty!

They set coarse for Bespin, to a place known as “Cloud City” –  a floating metropolis built around a gas mining platform, where Han has a friend who he thinks will shelter them. This “friend”, who goes by the name of Lando Calrissian (whom he won the Falcon from years back) appears to be running the place now. And despite their bumpy past, Lando seems happy to see him. Leia, however, has a hard time putting her trust in him.

In time, she realizes just how right she was not to! After C3P0 disappears and turns up in pieces, Lando invites them to a dinner banquet, and Vader appears to be the guest of honor! Turns out Boba Fett tracked them there and alerted Vader, who showed up just before they did and threatened to destroy the place unless Lando turned them over. The torturing begins! But it seems that Vader has a larger agenda than extracting information or punishing a few rebels. The real aim of this little “deal” is to prepare a trap for Luke, whom he knows will not be able to resist.

Back on Dagobah, Luke has a vision of the future in which Han, Leia and Chewi are suffering. He is unable to shake the vision and decides to leave. Yoda and Obi-Wan plead with him not to go, telling him he’s not ready and that he cannot hope to defeat Vader. But Luke is intransigent, insists he will come back, and that he won’t fall to the Dark Side. Once Luke leaves, Obi-Wan laments that they might lose their only hope, but Yoda reveals that there is another… hinteddy, hint, hint!

Meanwhile, Han is put into carbon freezing, a way of testing the process Vader intends to use to capture Luke. He is then handed over to Boba Fett to take back to Jabba. Having had all he can take of Vader’s treachery, Lando pulls a double cross and springs Leia and Chewi from capture. Chewi tries to take Lando’s head off, but stops when he tells them they can still save Han. They arrive too late, and Fett gets away… Luke has also arrived and Leia tries to warn him, but they are separated by too much blaster fire.

Luke continues to search the city, and finds his way to Vader. The two draw and begin dueling, and Vader is impressed by Luke’s growing abilities. However, before long, he wears Luke down and eventually takes his hand off. Beaten and helpless, Luke crawls to the end of a catwalk overlooking Bespin’s central mining shaft. Here, after much time and waiting, he learns the truth of what happened to his father and why Vader has been obsessed with finding him…

Vader did not murder his father, you see. Vader IS his father. More than that, he doesn’t want to destroy Luke, but to recruit him. Together, he believes they can destroy the Emperor and “rule the galaxy as father and son.” Luke is overwhelmed and possibly even tempted, but chooses death rather than surrender and capture. Jumping into the shaft, he falls but is pulled into a side passageway which dumps him outside. Hanging on for dear life on the edge of an antenna, Luke begs Obi-Wan for help. However, Obi-Wan already told him he wouldn’t be able to interfere if he confronted Vader. With no one else to call to, he reaches out to Leia, who appears to hear him. She order the Falcon to turn around and picks Luke up. They blast for orbit and prepare to make a daring escape.

However, the Executor is pulling into position and Vader reveals that the Falcon’s hyperdrive was disabled. They need only close in and board them now. However, R2 already found out about the hyperdrive from the station’s computer and zooms in to make a hasty field repair. He managed to put things back in order just in time, and the Falcon blasts off! Admiral Piett watches in horror as he sees them escape, and waits for Vader’s vengeance. But Vader, solemn and saddened, merely wanders back to his quarters…

Back at the fleet, Luke and Leia are tending to his lost hand. Lando and Chewi have meanwhile hopped back onto the Falcon and are going off to find Han. The movie closes with a hopeful scene of Luke, Leia and the droids watching the Falcon leave against a backdrop of the Galactic Core. The shot widens to show the rest of the fleet as it drifts away. Though they’ve suffered a beating and many set backs, the good guys are still alive, and hope remains…

What Made This Movie Even Better!:
As every fan of Star Wars and classic cinema is no doubt aware, this movie is considered one of the few sequels that actually surpassed the original. The reasons for this are pretty plain and I’ve already gone over them, so I think I’ll skip them and get right to the specifics.

For starters, the cinematography was masterful. Again and again in this movie, the music, camera angles and dialogue all coincided to create the perfect atmosphere of tension and impending doom. The opening scene where the Executor is introduced, the build-up to the battle on Hoth, the sense of defeat as the Rebels are forced to retreat, the terror Luke feels as he confronts the Dark Side, the fearful moments as we wait for the trap to close around the main characters on Bespin, and the growing desperation as Luke fights Vader… All of it culminated in the massive revelation that Luke was in fact Vader’s on. It was one of the biggest twists in movie history, and it was absolutely awesome! Years later and I still get the willies just thinking about it.

And in the end, this movie really captured the essence of dark second act. After the introduction and brief victory of good over evil in the first movie, we get a dose of hopelessness and soul-shattering revelation in movie two. Not only did it chill the bones and impress audiences with its mature themes, it also made us wonder just how the good guys were going to turns things around in the end. And it was only because the two movies were so character driven that we cared about what happened so much. Luke’s coming of age, Han and Leia’s budding romance, Chewi’s fierce loyalty, and even the droids quirky antics; we all felt a sense of attachment to these characters and wanted to see them come out okay.

Little wonder then why audiences were on the edge of their seats for the next three years. And granted, the third and final installment had its share of weaknesses, by then the momentum and following had become so strong that it seemed like nothing Lucas did could be perceived as wrong. And honestly, the third and final movie was so climactic and emotionally involved that they really just disappeared didn’t they? But more on that next time.

Happy Star Ways Day Weekend everybody! Enjoy yourselves and… well, you know the rest 😉

Of Prequels And Why They Suck…

Of Prequels And Why They Suck…

Looking back, I’ve noticed a sort of thread running through some of the posts I’ve made. And in truth, this thing was quite influential when it came to what inspired me to write science fiction in the first place. It began with the infamous Star Wars prequels, the movies which ruined what used to be a very influential and nostalgic franchise. It was then reinforced by the odious Dune prequels, which tarnished the legacy that inspired me to write science fiction in the first place. Since then, I’ve noticed these same elements at work in any prequel I’ve chanced upon and the lessons only seem to get more concrete.

While I’m no expert on the fine art of writing, be it science fiction or anything other genre, by the time I started doing it I was pretty clear on what I wanted to create. Basically, I wanted to write something I would enjoy, something that emulated the greats I had come to know and admire. But when it came to what I DIDN’T want to do, I found prequels summed up a lot of it succinctly (especially the aforementioned examples). I’m sure I mentioned as much in previous posts, but today, I thought I might speak to these things specifically; outline why prequels can – and often do – suck!

1. No Surprises:
Whether it was the Star Wars prequels, X Men Origins: Wolverine, the Legends of Dune series, or anything else prequel-oriented, there was one undeniable problem they all had in common: we already knew what was going to happen. By stories end, we know that the characters are going to become whatever it is they were in the original story, and we know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. In some cases, we even know how, so there really are no surprises. The only real purpose of a prequel is to fill in the background, explain HOW things happened and how the characters and story we are familiar with came to be.

For example, in Star Wars, we know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, that Palpatine is the villain and will take over the Republic, and that Amidala will give birth to Luke and Leia before dying. There are a host of other details which the more nerdy among us were familiar with as well, and we were all drawn to theaters back in 1999 hoping to see how they played out. But in the end, when all was said and done, I don’t think any of us came away satisfied. Seeing how things happened when you already know what will happen just seems to make for a disappointing experience.

2. Sense of Duty:
Another thing that brings down a prequel is the fact that things MUST be explained. In short, the writer, director, author, etc. has a list of things which need to be covered before the end. These things have to fall within an established framework – i.e. what has already been established by the original story – and cannot contradict or be inconsistent with them. So really, in addition to having a story where there really are no surprises, you also get a story where things have to proceed in an established fashion and often seem heavily contrived. The end result is not what would feel natural based on the story so far but based on what needs to happen for the sake of the original story.

X-Men Origins will suffice as an example here. In this movie, the story had to show where Wolverine came from, how he and his brother (Sabretooth) had their falling out, and how his memory got erased. The result was actually pretty weak, in my opinion. Basically, Colonel Striker shot him in the head with Adamantium bullets, which he knew wouldn’t kill him but would erase his memory. Now, how did he know ahead of time that that would be the effect it would have? Second, why do that instead of lobbing a rocket-propelled grenade at him? Simple, because the story required it. Wolverine is supposed to be an amnesiac in the first movie, so this movie had to show how.

And while were on the subject, why didn’t Wolverine’s girlfriend kill Striker at the end when she had the chance? The woman had suggestive powers and had the man in her grasp, so why not tell him to march off a cliff? Again, because the story demanded it. Striker needed to live to see movie two, so instead she said some fluff about how she’d be no better than him and just told him to take a walk until his feet bled and he fell from exhaustion. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I was disappointed.

3. Less Is More
A lot of people insist that when it comes to back stories and background, the less we know, the better. After all, wasn’t Darth Vader scarier before we knew that he was once portrayed by Hayden Christensen? Wasn’t he a lot more menacing before he cried over the loss of Padme? I know for a fact that I’m not alone when I say that the whole “NOOOOOOO!” scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith brought him down in my eyes. What was once a titanic force of badassery was transformed into a whiney, bitchy child through the simple act of fashioning an origins story.

To use a non-prequel example, consider the Batman franchise. In the Tim Burton version, we got to see the Joker’s origin story, but in the Christopher Nolan version, we got nothing. And frankly, wasn’t Ledger’s updated take on the Joker much more scary than Nicholson’s because of it? Sure, his dialogue and acting were spot on at capturing the insanity and terror of the laughing psychotic killer, but wasn’t part of that assured by the fact that we had NO IDEA who he was or where he came from? The origins stories that he told – “wanna know how I got these scars?” – and how they kept changing was part of what made him so effective. As the audience, we wanted to know, how DID he get those scars? Why IS he so crazy? But by denying us this, I think we were kept wanting and we respected the movie more for it.

The same is true of Batman himself. In Burton’s, we got an exact reversal of what happened with the Joker. Aside from the fact that his parents were murdered, apparently by a young Jack Napier (who would go on to become the Joker), we knew nothing about him. Where he got his skills from, his equipment, and how he got started. This served to make him a much more mysterious character which in turn made him more interesting. In Burton’s Batman, he was the focal point whereas the Joker was his nemesis. But in Nolan’s updated version of The Dark Knight, the Joker was undoubtedly the focus while Batman was just the hero trying to stop him. I’d say what he knew – or in this case, didn’t know – about them was central to that.

4. The Audience’s Imagination Is The Writer’s Greatest Weapon:
I believe it was the famous photographer Duane Michals who said “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” Okay, I Googled that, sue me! But the man had a point, and it applies doubly to movies since they too are a visual medium. What the readers and/or an audience can imagine based on snippets of a story is infinitely more powerful than what they can be shown with a few hundred pages of text or a two hour movie. This is why less is more. By giving the audience less to work with, they have more freedom to imagine and create. If you tell them what happened, detail for detail, then they have nothing except for what you’ve given them.

This, I think, is precisely why prequels are so often a disappointment, at least in my estimation. I’ve always considered myself to be an imaginative person. Given a blank canvas, or one with just a few details, I can create just about anything. And I’m hardly alone in that fact. Imagination is something everyone has – to varying degrees, sure – but it’s part of what makes us human and gives our lives meaning. Being able to express our inner life makes us happy, and there are few things more hurtful and insulting than having someone mock or dismiss that creativity. It’s also one of the cornerstones of a free society, the freedom to create and not be persecuted for it.

So it’s little wonder then why people are drawn to movies where books they’ve read are being adapted to film, or to prequels, where things that have been previously alluded to are acted out. People go to see them because they want to know if it will bear any resemblance to what they themselves imagined. Or, they go because they just want to see what the director’s own vision was. Either way, when you get around to seeing it for yourself, is it not a letdown no matter what? Isn’t that the real reason why people who’ve read the book constantly insist that the movie isn’t as good? That certainly seemed to be the consensus amongst LOTR geeks. And I should know; by The Two Towers, I was one of them! And isn’t that the real reason why the Star Wars prequels sucked as much as they did? We, the fans and audiences are active participants and create out of what we are given. Being told point blank what happened removes half the fun of it!

Some Tips For Writing:
Well, that’s all I got for now. Except to say that if someone is hoping to do a prequel, there are certain tips that I’ve come up with that can help. These are by no means established rules, just the result of my own amateur experience and observations. For one, a writer should take care not to give too much away when writing background. As always, less is more. It’s enough to let the background stay in the background and focus on the story. The more the reader/audience has to work with, the better. That way, when you are writing out the back story, you have much more freedom to work with, and don’t have to worry about staying within boundaries.

Second, a good idea is to write things out ahead of time. When I was thinking up Legacies, I began by writing out an outline for the entire background of the story. I didn’t do this because I was one day planning on writing a whole franchise worth of books, prequels included, but because I just wanted the story to be tight and know where everything fit. But because of that, I was able to pen several short stories that took place before the first novel. Rarely were the main characters and plot lines from that novel the focus of these stories, but they did serve as a solid backdrop which helped to advance things.

But don’t take my word on that, consider Lucas himself. He thought up the entire plot for Star Wars trilogy before making the first movie in the franchise, thus he knew exactly what he wanted to do ahead of time. Sure, he made changes and was forced to adapt along the way, but the end result benefited from this foresight. However, when it came to the prequels, he had only the bare bones to work with, and began writing each movie independently of shooting it. And it certainly showed, didn’t it? Rather than feeling like an ongoing story, each movie was a self-contained tale that was full of duty and contrivances. Nuff said? Plan ahead!

Last, but not least, remember that a story, ANY story, needs to tell its own tale. It cannot be written for the sake of filling in another. Its a bit of a vague point, I know, but a writer’s mentality is important when it comes to the creative process. At no point can you be thinking, “this needs to be explained, that needs to be explained”. It needs to be, “this is a story that needs to be told”. Every character has an interesting back story, and stories are living, organic things. They change over time, grow, and eventually die. Showing how they got to where they were going needs to be interesting and told with sincerity. So forget the duty, focus on the events and what made them interesting. If in the end its not a story that you yourself would enjoy, then don’t tell it! Simple as that…