May the 4th be With You!

YodaWell, it’s the Fourth of May again, and you know what that means… it’s time to commemorate Star Wars! And what better way to do that than to point out some Star Wars related promotions and cool stuff! And as luck would have it, my buds over at Movoto Blog have forwarded me a rather interesting real-estate proposal. It seems that after decades of living on the swampy world of Dagobah, Yoda is looking to move his hutt!

As you can see from the infographic below, it’s listed as a fixer-upper, priced to move, and even comes with an endorsement from Luke Skywalker and R2D2… sort of. The overall price is listed at a bargain-hunting $7,762, and even provides square footage (90.25, or about the size of a spacious cardboard box) and helpful directions on how to find the place. Who knew it would be in a swamp outside Morgan City, Louisiana, specifically in the Atchafalaya Basin which sits to the west of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Ah yes, and apparently, Yoda’s hutt is a highly improvised structure, composed of mud and salvaged components from escape pods. And it seems that the Jedi Master relies on the Force to hold it all together. So anyone planning on moving in had better have a sufficient command of the Force (or a high enough midichlorian count) to see to the structural integrity of the thing!

Much like their real-estate assessments of Hogwarts, the TARDIS from Doctor Who, and how to zombie and ninja-proof your house, this bit of comedic fangasmery is the work of Motovo’s clever staff – nerds who moonlight as prospectors and real estate agents. Be sure to check out the infographic below and see more examples of their work at motovo.com.

yodashut
Source:
movoto.com/blog/novelty-real-estate/yoda/

 

 

March Madness: Star Wars Style!

star-wars-prequelsDon’t worry, that’s not the tagline for (yet) another Gangnam Style parody. It’s actually a concept for a March Madness style betting game involving Star Wars characters. Known as “This Is Madness!”, named after a favorite quote by C3P0, and designed to look like a bracket-style tournament between all of Lucasfilm’s classic characters… and the ones from the prequels too.

The tournament kicked off this past Monday, March 19th, and will continue until a winner is picked. The point of it all? To determine who is the biggest, baddest and most beloved fan favorite Star Wars character of all time! Daily matchups will take place, for which fans will get to vote by simply going to Starwars.com.

Each bracket will be for a different class of character (Jedis, Sith, Bounty Hunters, etc) until a final matchup between the light side and the dark. The winner will be announced on April 9th, and will presumably have bragging rights until Star Wars is no longer relevant… whenever that will be!

And of course, there’s a promotional video with the Dark Lord of the Sith explaining the rules of the tournament and encouraging us to vote Vader! Personally, I don’t much care who wins, so long as it isn’t that annoyingly racist caricature who’s name means container. Get it? That bloody bastard better not win anything, or I’m moving to Argentina!

Ahem, may the best character win…

How “The Empire Strikes Back” Should Have Ended…

In keeping with their usual sarcastic wit and keen observations, the folks at HISHE have released another Star Wars spoof. And as usual, you have to admit, it does present a few inconvenient plot holes, contrived twists and continuity errors that didn’t quite make sense. Especially when one considers the problems arising out of them Star Wars prequels…

Basically, if Anakin didn’t know he had kids in the first place, why didn’t he react more angrily when the Emperor told him? Wouldn’t he have been like, “You don’t me I killed my wife? How did she have kids?” And why did Yoda and Obi-Wan let Luke risk his life to go face Vader? And why didn’t Vader using that little thing known as the Force to keep his son from attempting to fall to his death?

That’s what makes these videos funny. Enjoy!

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 😉

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

Return of the Jedi

Well, Star Wars weekend is passed, and my final review of the original lineup is long overdue. Been that kind of weekend, unfortunately, a constant flurry of visiting family, friends, and then coming home to be drowned in Spring cleaning. Luckily, I got some time with my keyboard today and decided I’d dedicate some time to the third and final movie in the trilogy.

And much of this is still fresh in my mind, seeing as how my wife and I were driving up island on Star Wars day, and I spent much of the ride recounting the plot to her. She never saw the original trilogy (crazy, I know), so I’ve been trying to fill her in. Appropriate, no?

Return of the Jedi!
Last time, I mentioned that Lucas claimed that he was following the three-act model when he made this trilogy. Thus if Act I could be considered the intro and Act II the dark chapter, then Act III would serve as the culmination to the whole thing. And that’s exactly what happened. In addition, the film had multiple story arcs towards the end the movie, all of which came together in a single, grand conclusion.

In fact, that’s something I forget to mention last time. You may recall that in the first movie, there was a single, all encompassing climax involving all the main characters, and that was the assault on the Death Star. In movie two, there were two strands, Luke’s confrontation with Vader which ran alongside Leia and Chewi’s escape from cloud city. And in this final film, there were three: the battle on Endor, the battle in space, and Luke’s final confrontation with Vader and the Emperor.

An act of symbolism, no doubt, but it’s also what worked best about this last film. With different things happening in different locations, audiences were kept intrigued and on the edge of their seats, watching how one climactic fight interacted with the next. And since we were emotionally involved with all the characters at this point, each one was about as tense as the last.

Alright, let’s get to the plot of this badboy and see why it worked so well!

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens with the new Death Star being introduced. The new weapon of terror is apparently nearing completion and Vader has flown in to inspect things personally. After letting the station commander know that it must be completed on schedule, he lets him know that the Emperor himself is on the way. He is naturally frighten and rightly so, as we are made aware for the first time that even Vader is a pushover compared to the big man himself!

Cut to Tatooine where Jabba’s Palace is located. R2 and 3P0 have entered, apparently to deliver a message to Jabba. Said message consists of Luke Skywalker opening a dialogue, asking to bargain for Han Solo, and concludes with him offering R2 and 3P0 as “a gift”. Jabba’s response is that no deals will take place, as he’s become quite fond of looking at Solo’s carbonite-frozen body. He’s even placed it against the wall like its some kind of artwork. Creepy, though it did bring the room together though 😉

Little by little, the others enter the picture. Leia comes in disguised as a bounty hunter and trade Chewi in for his bounty. As Han’s companion, he too is worth quite a bit of money to Jabba. At the same time, we learn that Lando has already infiltrated the place posing as a mercenary. In the middle of the night, Leia sneaks into Jabba’s palace room and thaws Han, who appears to be blind and sickly from hibernation. They have a passionate reunion, but it’s quickly cut short…

Beginning with a dark, evil laugh, Jabba reveals himself from the corner where they were hiding. Han tries to bargain with him, but Jabba’s pretty intransigent at this point. He has him thrown in the same dungeon as Chewi and Leia is forced to wear a funky-looking bikini (to the delight of nerds everywhere) and become his palace slave. This consists of wearing a choke chain and lying beside him on his floating couch.

However, Chewi let’s Han know that Luke will be along shortly,  and that he’s a Jedi Knight now. And he does, looking a lot more badass than he did last time! After making his way in with some subtle force tricks, he confronts Jabba and demands Solo’s release. However, things go awry when the minds tricks fail to sway Jabba and he sends Luke and one of his henchmen him into his Rancour pit below.

After a tense few minutes, Luke manages to kill it by dropping the cage door on its head. Jabba is pissed, and orders the whole bunch to be put on his barge and flown out to the desert. Seems they are going to kill them in a big ceremony by being tossed into the Sarlacc pit. No shortage of weird aliens or convoluted death schemes in this one!

Once arrived, and overlooking the sucking Sarlacc pit (some people have suggested Lucas might have some issues with female genitalia!), Luke and the others stage their counterstroke. This consists of R2 firing Luke his lightsaber, who then starts cutting through henchmen with it. He then works his way to the other escort, eventually reaching Jabba’s own sailbarge. Meanwhile Han, who’s eyesight has been returning, manages to take out Bobba Fett’s jetpack through blind luck. He flies into the side of Jabba’s barge and falls helplessly into the pit. But of course, he will survive!

Leia manages to turn the tables of Jabba by getting a hold of her choke chain and wrapping it around the big slugs neck. R2 breaks her chains and shoves 3P0 and himself off the barge, leaving Luke and Leia to rendezvous on the top deck where they use the barge’s cannon to set the place to blow. They make it back to their barge with Lando, Chewi and Han, swing around to pick up the droids, and get the hell out as Jabba’s barge is blown to hell.

Once they retrieve their ships, Luke and the rest dust-off from the planet. The Millennium Falcon heads off to join the Rebel armada while Luke, in his trusty X-wing, sets course for Dagobah. Seems he has a promise to fulfill, and some questions he needs answered. Arriving to find Yoda sick and weak, Luke manages to get the answers he needs. It seems that he’s finished his training, but that one final test remains: he must confront Vader again. Yoda also confirms that Vader is in fact his father, a fact he and Obi-Wan withheld. Yoda then warns him one last time of the perils of the darkside, but also that there is another Skywalker. He dies uttering these last words, and then fades away…

Back in the swamp by his X-wing, Luke feels incredibly alone. First Obi-Wan, then Yoda; but wouldn’t you know it, Obi-Wans specter appears and tells him Yoda isn’t really gone, kinda like him! Luke demands to know why Obi-Wan lied to him, to which Obi-Wan replies that his version of events – i.e. “Vader betrayed and murdered your father” – was true… in a sense.

Luke expresses his doubts about being able to kill his own father, but Obi-Wan says a confrontation is inevitable. He also confirms what Yoda said before he died, that there is indeed another Skywalker that was kept seperate from Luke to protect her identity. Luke concludes it’s Leia, which isn’t a stretch seeing as how she’s been the only female lead in this entire universe so far!

Back at the fleet, we are treated to a briefing. Seems the Alliance is poised to strike at the second Death Star before it is operational. Since the Emperor is overseeing the final phase, they plan to kill him and destroy his weapon of terror in one fell swoop. The plan involves two phases: in one, a small team or commandos will land on Endor and disable the shield generator that’s protecting the Death Star.

In the second, the fleet will jump in and send their fighter squadrons into the center of the station to take out its main reactor. Lando is set to lead the fleet, and Han is leading the planetary assault. Chewi and Leia volunteer to help, and so does Luke. Han is also sure to lend Lando the Falcon for the attack, which he promises to take good care of. The mission is on!

After narrowly making it to Endor aboard a stolen Imperial shuttle, Luke sense his father through the Force. Vader has the same experience, detecting him on the shuttle which, for some reason, is allowed to land. He informs the Emperor and asks for permission to confront him. On the surface, their party’s progress is interrupted when Leia gets lost chasing down some scouts. She is rescued by a strange, furry indigenous creature known as an Ewok. After helping her thwart some more scouts, he takes her back to his village.

Luke, Han and Chewi also come into contact with the locals, but in their case, it involves a trap involving raw meat and a net. Once they spring free, they find themselves surrounded by the furry guys, but they turn up their spears when they see C3P0, whom they believe to be a god. They too are brought to the village, and after enforcing some ground rules (no eating of his friends!), they begin conducting some cultural exchanges.

The Rebel party are welcomed into the tribe and the Ewoks volunteer to help them rid their world of the Empire. Meanwhile, Luke and Leia have a private chat where he reveals to her that she is his sister, and that he must go off to confront Vader. He believes he can turn him back, and as long as he remains with them, they will be in danger. Leia is tearful, but can’t stop him from going.

Luke surrenders to the first patrol he can find, and they take him to Vader. During their little reunion, Luke tells Vader that he intends to turn him back to the good side, but Vader is intransigent. He will take Luke to the Emperor where we will either turn or die. It’s clear he’s torn by this decision, but tells his son it’s too late for him to turn good again.

Together, they travel to the Death Star and meet with Palpatine himself. He repeats Vader’s ultimatum, turn or die, to which Luke boasts that soon, they’ll all be dead. The Emperor laughs and reveals that he knows of the attack and that it’s a trap! Cue scary music! It seems the Emperor allowed the location of the Death Star to fall into Rebel hands in the hopes that he could lure them into an attack and crush them all at once. Luke is understandably dismayed…

Han and his party, with the help of the Ewoks, find their way to the back entrance of the shield generator. After making their way inside, they are promptly surrounded and taken prisoner. R2, 3P0 and their Ewok scouts can only watch in dismay, but the Ewoks hatch a plan and run off. They return with the entire Ewok nation, and spring a trap of their own on the Imperial troops. A massive fight ensues, with the Ewoks and Rebels gaining the element of surprise but slowly losing out to the Imperial troops superior weapons.

Meanwhile, the fleet jumps in as planned. On approach, Lando’s helmsman tells him they can’t get any reading on the Death Star to know if it’s shields are still active. His helmsman concludes they are being jammed, but Lando knows this can’t be unless… He orders the fleet to pull up, and they narrowly peel off before slamming nose first into the shields. No sooner do they get their fleet reoriented than the Imperial fleet shows up out of nowhere to seal off their escape. Ackbar yells his iconic catchphrase: “It’s a trap!”

Lando and the fleet begin combing through wave after wave of TIE fighters. Despite their superior numbers, he and the other Rebel squadrons manage to hold their own. However, he grows suspicious when he notices the Star Destroyers are not moving into attack range. However, according to the commander of the Executor, their orders are to hold while the Emperor unveils something “special”.

Cut to the Death Star, where the Emperor lets Luke know, in the latest frightening revelation, that the Death Star is also fully operational. He orders them to fire. The big gun blazes up and destroys the nearest Rebel Mon Calamari cruiser. Lando and Ackbar realize the terrible truth. Ackbar orders a full retreat, but Lando insists they won’t have another chance to assault the Death Star, and simply must give Han more time to bring the shields down.

On the Death Star, Luke is finding it increasingly difficult to resists the Emperor’s taunts. He knows the Emperor wants him to give into his hatred, but he must resist or risk falling prey to the dark side. In time, he gives in and takes his lightsaber and tries to strike the Emperor down. However, Vader interferes and the two begin fighting. Luke turns up his sabre several times, but Vader continues to press him and force him to defend himself.

After they lose a second Mon Calamari cruiser, Lando tells Ackbar to move the fleet into attack range of the Star Destroyers. As long as they are tangled with the Imperial fleet, the Death Star won’t be able to shoot them, and at least they’ll be able to kill a few enemy ships in the process. The two fleets close ranks, and all hell breaks loose! Ships on both sides are destroyed, but at least they are buying time…

Back on the surface, the Ewoks and the Rebels manage to turn the tide. Chewi and some of furry friends commandeer an AT-ST and begin using it against Imperial forces. The Ewoks defenses also prove effective once they put away the rocks and wooden arrows and break out the logs. Once they realize that they’ve won but can’t make it back into the bunker, Han hatches a plan. Using the AT-ST’s communication system, he tells the commander inside that they’ve beat the Rebels and need reinforcements. The Imperial commander orders the doors opened, and Han and the Ewoks take the base and plant their charges.

The place blows up and the shield comes down. Ackbar orders all fighters into the Death Star to take out its reactor. On board, Luke continues to try and elude Vader. However, Vader senses his fear and is able to read his thoughts. He realizes Luke has a sister, and threatens to turn her instead. Luke loses it and attack Vader, pulverizing him with lightsaber blows until he takes off Vader’s hand. The Emperor laughs and tells Luke to take his father’s side, but Luke turns back at the last second. He is now a Jedi, he says, and will never turn to the dark side.

The Emperor is… pretty pissed! He replies that, as promised, Luke will be destroyed if he won’t turn. He begins electrocuting him with lighting from his finger tips, and Luke begins to beg Vader for help. Vader intervenes, grabbing hold of the Emperor and tossing him off a catwalk into the depths of the station below. He explodes in a massive cloud of Force Energy. Unfortunately, Vader’s suit has been irreparably harmed by the Emperor’s electrical storm. Luke comes to his aid, but it seems like ol’ Darth’s ticket has finally been punched!

Inside the Death Star, Lando and the Rebel pilots manages to reach the main reactor and hit it hard. It collapses, triggering a chain reaction which begins to destroy the station from within. Outside, Ackbar and the Rebel fleet manage to bring down the Executor through smart tactics and dumb luck. The Super Star Destroyer loses control and crashes into the Death Star. The whole place begins to fall apart.

Luke manages to reach a shuttle with Vader in tow. However, with his suit irretrievably damaged, Vader tells Luke to take his mask off so he can see him once with his own eyes. Luke obliges, and sees the scarred pale flesh that is Vader’s true face. He then tells Luke to leave him, that he already saved him, and to tell his sister what he did. He then dies, in a scene with is truly tearful… Luke and Lando manage to escape as the station explodes, Lando howling a triumph cheer as the Falcon clears the flaming exit tunnel.

Luke makes it to the surface, where victory celebrations are already underway. Leia tells Han about Luke and her being related, and gives him a big kiss. Their little triangle has become a twosome at last! He arrives in the Ewok village amidst music, dancing, and has a final communion with the specters of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and his father. The final shot shows the entire cast sitting together and smiling broadly as the music reaches a crescendo. The trilogy is done!

What worked and what didn’t about this last installment:
As I said already, this movie packed a triumphant climax that really worked. After two big installments, audiences got to see everything come together with three separate battles, all of which succeeding in capturing a different kind of tension. For example, the battle on the planet was a real heart string puller since we all wanted to see the indigenous furry creatures overcome the imperialistic bad guys. The battle between the two fleets was fast-paced and visually stunning, and the way they were entirely dependent on Han’s ban on the surface made it all the more tense. Finally, the confrontation between Luke and Vader was a whole different kind of action, a battle of wills as much as weapons.

Of course, there were weaknesses. For one, the whole convoluted plot to free Han seemed to contain a few too many twists to be a considered a crafty plan. It was like, why didn’t R2 just give Luke his lightsaber when he fell into the Rancour pit? Why did they need to wait until they were out in the desert? Second, the whole plot involving Ewoks was pretty kid-centric. Originally, Lucas was planning on using Wookies, but decided that something for the kids was in order, reworked the name Wooky into Ewok, and history was made!

And finally, there was some lazy acting this time around that survived the cutting floor. Second, there was the sheer implausibility that a race of small furry creatures armed with sticks and stones could overcome a legion of troops that the Emperor said were his best. And once you took away all the shooting and explosions, this movie really wasn’t as emotionally involved as the other two. Overall, the focus seemed to be on visual effects and action.

Combined with the kid-centric elements, it was clear that by this point in the franchise, Lucas was retaining creative control. So in a way, this movie was a preview of what Lucas would go on to with his prequels. In the end, this movie still kicked ass and was climactic to the point that audiences were blown away and all its weaknesses were overlooked. It was only with hindsight, perhaps with the help of such flops as Phantom Menace, that they became apparent.

But that’s something for the next post. Right now, I must go off on a triumphant note, much like this film! It was a triumphant conclusion, the action rocked, and holy crap that musical score was great! Even now, I find myself humming it as I recount the events of the movie. Epic! So really, this is and shall remain an enduring classic with many memorable scenes. Especially the one near the end where Lando and the Falcon clear the Death Star as its exploding. YEE-HA!

Yaaaay! The good guys one! The Empire has fallen! Bring on the wine and the Ewok music! And until next time… nope, still can’t say it! Good-bye y’all!

May The Fourth Be With You!

Yes, it is now May 4th, making it officially Star Wars Day! And in honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to dedicate the next few days to reviewing the classic movies which started it all. Yes, those movies, the ones that made Lucas filthy freaking rich and perverted his sense of creativity.

But I’ve already ranted enough about those… ahem, other movies. Today is all about honoring the good things about this franchise and pop culture phenomena. And it really was a phenomena wasn’t it? When it comes to setting trends, box office records, and inspiring an entire generation of movie makers and movie-goers, few things can measure up to Star Wars.

In fact, part of the reason the fanboys reacted so badly to the prequels was because they loved the originals so much. Were it not for the intense love inspired by the originals, the new ones would never have been able to inspire such hate. Funny how that works…

First up, and in honor of May the 4th, is the original Star Wars, or as its extended title reads:

Episode IV: A New Hope
Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with a crawl that divulges the bare bones of the movie’s premise. Basically, there’s  an evil Galactic Empire, a band of Rebels, and things are pretty tense ever since the latter won their first victory against the former. But in truth, the audience got all they needed from the opening visual sequence, a touch of cinematic genius if ever there was one!

For starters, we see a small ship running for its life, being pursued by a very large ship that is chasing it down. This tells us two key things: the Rebels are a small but committed band that are fighting for their existence against a very large, very powerful foe. The massive ship and the way it is making a slow, lengthy crawl over the camera lets us see the power and reach of the Empire, and establishes some dramatic tension which last well past the first few minutes.

Meanwhile, the ship is disabled and boarded. Imperial troopers, decked out in their white suits of armor, very clinical and faceless looking, board and kill all the defenders. Then in walks Darth Vader, who stands a head taller than the rest, is clad all in black, and very clearly means business! Cut to the droids odd-couple, C3P0 and R2D2, who’ve been scurrying around since the action started. Though we don’t know who she is at first, we see Princess Leia giving something to the latter, which under the circumstances, is of obvious importance. Shortly thereafter, they eject in an escape pod to the planet Tatooine, located below.

Leia gets her formal introduction after Vader kills the ship’s Captain and brings her forward to demand answers. She’s a member of the Imperial Senate, and apparently also a member of the Rebel Alliance. The reason their ship was boarded was because a certain set of plans, pertaining to the Death Star, were stolen and traced to their ship. After getting nothing from her, the Imperial officers deduce that the escape pod must have contained them and pursue it to Tatooine’s surface.

In time, C3P0 and R2D2 wind up becoming the property of a moisture farmer named Owen Lars. His nephew, a young man named Luke, quickly establishes himself as the movie’s protagonist. In addition to wanting to get off Tatooine, he also dreams of being a pilot and finding out more about his father, a man whom he knows virtually nothing about. Like all classical heroes, his will be a journey of self-discovery which will take him across the galaxy and fundamentally change him.

Naturally, his surrogate parents are afraid to let him go, alluding to the fact that his father’s legacy is not something they want him to be a part off. But in the meantime, Luke has a more immediate problem on his hands. After seeing a fragment of the recording of Princess Leia and learning that R2 was intended to meet a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man whom Luke suspects is actually Ben Kenobi who lives in the deep desert. After hearing of this, R2 runs off, forcing Luke and C3P0 to run after him…

They find him, and Ben Kenobi, after a near-death encounter with some Sand People. After chasing them off and tending to Luke, Ben reveals that he is in fact Obi Wan, and takes Luke and the droids back to his pad to talk. Luke learns, much to his delight, that Obi-Wan knew his father and that he was in fact a war hero and a Jedi Knight. His lightsaber is still in Obi-Wan’s possession, which he gives to Luke to play with. This was audiences first glimpse of one of the coolest weapons in sci-fi history, and impressively, it was done on a rather meager budget!

In any case, Obi-Wan sees R2’s recording in full. Leia reveals that she has come into possession of the Death Star plans, intended to deliver them to her father on Alderaan, but was intercepted in transit. R2 now holds them, and they still must be delivered. The recording ends with her pleading with Obi-Wan to help the Rebels. He asks Luke to accompany him so he can learn more about The Force and his father, but Luke is naturally reluctant. He can’t leave so long as he has ties and family on Tatooine that need him… Ooh, foreshadowing!

Cut to the Death Star, the infamous Imperial weapon of terror. Its commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, makes his first appearance, as do the other senior commanders. After some exposition on just how freakishly powerful the Death Star is, it is also revealed that until the plans are found, there is a danger. On top of that, there’s also the consensus that the Death Star needs to be tested by blowing up its first planet. Also, with Leia aboard and not talking, Tarkin concludes that they can kill two birds with one stone.

Luke and Ben meanwhile find a wreck in the desert, a Jawa landcrawler which had been destroyed by Imperial troopers. Luke quickly realizes that the Imperial troops were searching for his droids. He rushes home to find his uncle and aunt dead and their home destroyed. He then returns to Obi-Wan to tell him that he will come with him after all. The two then travel to the planet’s spaceport, Mos Eisley, to find a spacer who will take them off planet.

After getting past Imperial guards, they are forced to contend with some tough barfolk. Obi-Wan quickly dispatches them with his own lightsaber, and they meet Han Solo shortly thereafter. After being treated to some not so idle boasts about his ship (the Millennium Falcon), Obi-Wan determines that Han’s the man to take them to Alderaan. We, the audience, also learn that he clearly has some debts, and an angry creditor named Jabba. Before he can leave to check on his ship, he’s forced to gun down one of the men Jabba sent to collect.

Getting into orbit and away from the planet prove a might bit difficult given the presence of Imperial troopers and Star Destroyers. But Han wasn’t bullshitting when he said his ship was fast. They dust off, jump into hyperspace (another cool visual experience) and elude their Imperial chasers.

Meanwhile, Takin has the Death Star parked in front of Alderaan, which he threatens to destroy if Leia won’t divulge the location of the Rebel base. She does, telling him their on Dantooine, but Tarkin orders Alderaan destroyed anyway. Seems Dantooine is too remote to provide an effective “demonstration”. But it’s okay, since she was lying through her teeth. When Tarkin learns of this, he’s naturally pissed and orders that Leia be executed.

However, this order coincides with the arrival of the Millennium Falcon. Since their destination has been blown to pieces, the crew fly into a complete and utter debris field, and soon find themselves face to face with the Death Star itself. After getting nabbed with a tractor beam and brought aboard, they are forced to stow away in the Falcon’s secret compartments, where Han usually puts his “special” cargo. After popping out and sneaking past more Imperial troopers, they learn that Leia is aboard the station. Obi-Wan heads off to disable the tractor beam, while Luke convinces Han to take part in a daring rescue. Hijinx ensue!

First, we have Han, Luke and Chewi’s rather clumsy attempt to get Leia out of her cell block. The first phase, getting in, goes off without much trouble (unless you count all the shooting). Unfortunately, phase two, getting out, proceeds less smoothly. After being cornered my reinforcements, Leia orders them to jump into the trash compactor to escape. Only the timely intervention of R2 and 3P0 prevent them from being mashed.

Second, Obi-Wan succeeds in shutting down the tractor beam, but comes face to face with his old apprentice, Darth Vader. A lightsaber duel ensues, crossed beams providing a metaphor for the internal struggle between the righteous teacher and the student who went bad. As they head for the ship, Luke sees Obi-Wan locked in this duel, and is forced to watch as Obi-Wan puts up his blade and lets Vader kill him. But of course, he warns Vader that this will only make him more powerful… something we will understand very soon.

Ultimately, the good guys get away, short on crew member, but it seems their escape was allowed to happen. Knowing that they will set course of the Rebel Base, Vader has a tracking device placed aboard the ship, and the Death Star follows them to a small moon called Yavin 4.

Once there, Leia meets with the Rebel command staff and shares the plans. Knowing that the Death Star is likely en route, they prepare a desperate plan to destroy the Death Star using the one weakness they can discern. An exhaust vent located along the station’s central axis, at the end of a long, well-defended trench! Some two dozen Rebel pilots suit up for the mission, Luke volunteering to help, and asking Han to do the same. But, having been given his reward and eager to pay off his debts, Han says good luck and leaves with Chewi.

After slipping past the Death Stars shields, the Rebel pilots begin fighting it out with the station’s defenses and defenders. However, the assault on the vent itself does not go well. One wing of pilots is shot down trying to make the run, and the one pilot to get off a shot misses and is killed shortly thereafter. It now falls to Luke and what’s left of the attack wing, which includes his old friend Biggs Darklighter. Biggs is killed covering Luke, and he himself appears about to be gunned down by Vader’s own fighter, until someone new shows up and saves his ass!

Seems Han had a change of heart, and after blowing up Luke’s tails and sending Vader’s ship into a tailspin through space, Luke fires off his ordinance and hits the vent dead on! They break off and get away just in time to avoid the massive shock wave that blowing up such a massive station produces! The Rebel Alliance is saved, and the Empire has been dealt a mighty blow. However, as we see, Vader is still alive and makes it away, letting us know that the war (and movie franchise) will go on…

What Worked So Well About It!:
Where to begin. You know, its always at this point that critics and fanboys say what was so good about the original movies by comparing them to the new ones. To avoid this needless cliche, and perhaps to be a good sport, I’ll keep comparisons to a minimum. Suffice it to say, part of the reason why the first movie was such a smashing hit was because it tapped in to a certain need which was becoming apparent in the movie-going community. In terms of science fiction, audiences were becoming just the slightest bit tired of dystopian stories and dark visions of the future.

After so much technophobia and misanthropy, the stage seemed set for something positive and heroic to come along and renew people’s faith in humanity and the future. So in a way, Lucas’ masterpiece benefited from good timing, arriving exactly when people needed it to. Such timing had not been seen since the arrival of the Beatles to America, an event which came after the assassination of JFK when young people were looking for something happy and joyful to focus them onto new and positive things.

Another thing which worked in its favor was the fact that Lucas had to contend with limited budgets, an largely inexperienced cast and crew, and just about every mishap imaginable. Being in the position of the underdog, having little expected of him, and having to contend with all kinds of difficulties, what came out of it all is best labelled “art from adversity”. There’s just something so purifying about a noble effort which succeeds despite difficulty, isn’t there? It was like Lucas’ movie was living out its own plot, the committed band of Rebels fighting an evil Empire being a metaphor for Lucas’ own fight with the studios and production companies.

The Weak Parts:
But of course, Lucas also benefited from a great deal of help, which came from the highly experienced and talented hands of John Williams, the cinematography of Gilbert Taylor, and a host of editors who helped clean up his movie once the raw footage was slapped together. Arriving just a few months shy of the films theatrical release, these people saved production of the film in many ways, and demonstrated to Lucas that when it came to shooting and dialogue-writing, he needed some help to make it all work (something he forgot in more recent years!)

In fact, it was because these individuals had arrived late to the production that many weaker elements of the movie survived and became part of the original movie. In several scenes, actors and extras made mistakes which Lucas didn’t notice because he was not accustomed to shooting films. Two prime examples are when a Storm Trooper walks head first into a sliding door on the Death Star, and Mark Hamil yells “Carrie!” to actress Carrie Fisher while they were shooting. These were never edited out, as was some of the lazier acting and poor dialogue.

In fact, Lucas gained a reputation for writing wooden dialogue as he was making this movie. During their initial readings, many of the actors complained that it was unrealistic, unnatural, and completely awkward. These sentiments were brilliantly captured by Harrison Ford when he confronted Lucas and told him, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”.

The Enduring Legacy:
Of course, I could get into all the cultural and cinematic influences that were apparent and helped make the movie such a box office hit. But let’s face it, that’s been done to death! I shall just say that in the end, Lucas knew where to borrow from and could make it all work together. Combining elements like westerns, samurai movies, and allusions to ancient and modern history with an epic story of good versus evil, Lucas’ creation tickled all the right bones and gave audiences what they wanted when they wanted it.

And really, it was one of those rare movies where people felt that there truly was something for everyone. It was not strictly a kids movie (despite what Lucas would later claim) because there was simply so much material and attention to detail which no child would have been able to appreciate. So while the kids (and kids of all ages!) were dazzled with shoot outs, dogfigths and lightsaber duels, the adults were able to appreciate aesthetics borrowed from such classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Seven Samurai, Metropolis, and costumes and themes alluding to WWII and Nazi Germany.

And of course, with its smashing performance at the box office, Lucas and his crew now had the freedom and the street cred to make some follow up movies and see his vision through to completion. And in no time at all, all the studios and production companies which had doubted him or told him no were lining up to imitate him and finance whatever Star Wars clone they could find. Lucas, I imagine, got a real kick out of that!

Anyhoo, having spilled so much metaphorical ink on this movie, let me just wrap things up by saying Happy Star Wars Day and be sure to check back soon. Next up, I will be covering the even more famous The Empire Strikes Back, one of the few movies in cinematic history to ever be credited as being “better than the first”. In the meantime, check out this shot from the blooper reel. Keep your eye to the right as the Stormtroopers walk in…