I came across this trailer recently for the latest installment in the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG. It’s called Galactic Strongholds, an expansion that gives players the ability to create their own bastions and fortresses as they take part in the ongoing war between the Sith Empire and the Republic. In addition to waging large-scale battles in space, you get to create custom bases (complete with decorations, trophies and furniture) and live on multiple worlds in the Star Wars universe.
Welcome back my friends! A funny thing happened just this morning. I was looking at an old article – titled Dystopian Science Fiction – and realized that something was missing. Yes, this is the article that earned me most of my current followers and the bulk of my traffic on this site, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a hidden voice in that little study that never got a chance to have its say.
Basically, when I was looking into dystopian literature, I realized that it and utopian literature are almost the same thing. You might say that they represent two sides of the same coin, not so much opposites as interchangeable facets where one can become the other with a simple turn of the wheel. So I asked myself, why then haven’t I compiled a list of the most popular Utopian literature to go along with my dystopian one? Having read Thomas More’s seminal book that started it all, I’m nothing if not incredibly fascinating by the subject. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nerd for research and can’t resist sharing what I find.
So why the hell haven’t I done this yet?! Don’t know, probably got swept away with all those posts about robots, ships, and guns. In any case, it’s a mistake I rectify here and now. Using the same format as my article on dystopian sci-fi, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the greatest forerunners, classics, and modern examples of utopia in literature. The list is by no means complete, but I feel it is a faithful sampling. You be the judge, here goes:
The first acknowledged examples of utopian literature come to us from classical antiquity, when scholars reached beyond the old strictures of writing about dynastic struggle, great wars and the foundations of their empires to tackle issues such as justice, morality, and the driving forces of history. By asking these questions, and offering up possible explanations, they were to have an immeasurable effect on subsequent generations of intellectuals, statesmen and social reformers.
The Republic: Written around 380 BCE by Plato, this is perhaps the oldest example of utopian literature. Written as an account of one of Socrates many dialogues, the chief purpose of this book was in finding the true definition of justice and what it takes to achieve a just city-state and a just man. As Plato’s best known work, it is also one of the most influential philosophical and intellectual texts in the history of western society and maybe even the world.
Made up of ten books, the account follows Socrates and his Athenian and foreign guests as they discuss various topics. Amongst them are whether or not the “just man” is happier than the “unjust man”, the theory of forms and universality, the nature of the soul, the role of the philosopher in society, and finally, what the different types of government are and what makes them just/unjust.
From Plato’s account, Socrates and his peers proposed that philosophers are the ideal statesmen and that justice can best be summed up by considering the common good rather than common sense definitions having to do with personal justice. In addition, the allegory of the cave – how we are all essentially prisoners and merely going by projections of truth rather than truth itself – was advanced. And finally, they listed the four predominant forms of government (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and how they tended to devolve into each other.
Ultimately, the value of this work was in how it showed the connection between political cause and effect, and how it sought to create guidelines for good governance. It’s identification of the four major types of government has been used over and over in the history of political discourse and even became the basis of modern political sciences. And because of its focus on things like the common good and the idea of philosopher statesmen, it was also to have a profound influence on later generations of scholars, particularly Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.
The City of God: Written by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century CE, The City of God is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Christianity. Written after the Visigoth sack of Rome, the text was intended as much as a consolation to Christians as it was a discourse on theological matters. Basically, Augustine claimed that though the city of Rome had fallen, the City of God, the “eternal Jerusalem” still stood strong and would endure.
Essentially, Augustine advanced a perception of history in this book that was characterized by a dialectical process, or a conflict between opposites. On the one hand, there was the City of Man, characterized by earthly pleasures and decadence, and the City of God, dedicated to eternal truth. The conflict, he claimed, would end with victory for the latter, where people would throw off the bonds of an earthly paradise in favor of a spiritual one.
Thought it did not concern itself with matters of practical governance or how an ideal state could be created in the here and now, Augustine’s treatise was to have a profound effect on the fields of theology and philosophy. Basically, his idea of a city where spiritual purity could be attained became the basis for a theocratic state, while his theory on the dialectical process of history would go on to inspire men like W.F. Hegel and (again) Karl Marx.
Tao Hua Yuan: Otherwise known as “The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring”, this book is considered the quintessential utopian book by Chinese scholars and historians. Written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, it is an epic poem of how a traveler accidentally discovers an ethereal paradise where people live an idyllic existence, unaware of the world outside their walls.
Written after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, a period marked by civil war and unrest, this poem tells the tale of how a fisherman sailed up a river that was entirely surrounded by blossoming peach trees. At the end of the river, he finds a village where the people, thought surprised to see him, welcome him and treat him as one of their own. He quickly realizes that the community is an idyllic one, where people live in harmony with nature and one another.
In time, he learns from the villagers that this place was established by their ancestors during the last civil war when the Qin Dynasty was conquering all of China. Since that time, they have been cut off from the outside world and know nothing of its political shifts and wars. Upon leaving, he is told that it would be pointless to recount his discovery of the village to others. He nevertheless makes a note of the village on his map, but when he tells others of it, their attempts to locate it prove unsuccessful.
In essence, the poem suggest that this place, the idyllic village, was otherworldly, and the man’s voyage up the river was in fact a voyage into the afterlife. It also advances the idea that it is only in being cut off from the outside world that an earthly paradise can exist, and those that leave it will never be able to return. This idea was to have a profound influence on Chinese and Asian culture, no doubt inspiring such myths as that of Shangri-La. In addition, the Chinese expression shìwaì taóyuán, which refers to a remote paradise – and literally means ‘the Peach Spring beyond this world’ – has its roots in this poem.
By the time of the Renaissance (14th/15th century CE), Europeans began to have a renewed interest in classical learning. At first, this consisted of merely adapting and translating previously lost texts from ancient Greek and Arabic to Latin and other European languages. However, by the time of the Enlightenment (18th century CE), European scholars were adapting and expounding on classical ideas, bringing them forward into the modern age with new speculations and examples on how a perfect society could be created, or whether or not one was even possible. It was also the age that the term Utopia began to be used popularly.
Utopia: Ah yes, the man who gave it a name! Sir Thomas More, otherwise known as Saint Thomas More, was a Renaissance humanist and THE man who brought the word Utopia into modern usage. Written in 1516 CE, his seminal study on the perfect society has influenced all subsequent generations of social critics, employing social criticism, history and of course, delicious irony to make a series of points about the ideal society and whether or not it can even exist.
The story is told (much like Plato’s Republic) as a dialogue between the author and a fictitious man named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler and tradesman. In the course of recounting his tales of all the places he’s seen he brings up one in particular place, the island nation of Utopia, which he hails as the best of all possible societies. As the story goes on, he details exactly what it is that makes it an ideal place, and by comparison, all others flawed.
To break it down succinctly, the Utopians do not value gold and silver because they long ago discovered that there worth is merely an extension of their rarity. Instead, they choose to value iron and bronze as precious and keep jewels, gold and silver in reserve in case they need to bribe foreign princes or armies. In addition, their economic activity is based on an egalitarian principle, where all people rotate from one service to another so that no sense of class hierarchy ever becomes permanent.
What’s more, when it comes to education, the Utopian have made it manifest that all people be taught to read and educated on basic matters of logic, philosophy, numeracy, etc. This is to prevent the creation of a philosopher caste which is concerned solely with matters of thought while others toil away and provide for them. Much like with their policy or rotating labor, it is customary that all people divest themselves from their tasks every now and then to pursue matters of art, science and other intellectual pursuits.
And of course, politics, property ownership, and all other forms of activity on Utopia are considered communal. There is no such thing as private property, rule is exercised by council and not by kings and a court, and membership in this council is rotational, popular and considered a civic duty. In short, Utopia is an ideal society because rule by the few, greed and ownership are all forbidden. And though there are few laws to speak of, all of these practices are contained within a strict code of conduct which was passed down by the island’s founder, King Utopus.
And last, but certainly not least, is the issue of religious tolerance. Written during the time of the Reformation Wars, More claimed that in this ideal society, no one’s faith was ever held against them. Provided they believed in a higher power, no discrimination or persecution were allowed under the law. However, there was one exception, which applied to atheists (!). Essentially, it stated that anyone who did not believe in the hereafter, where they would be answerable for their sins, would be allowed to hold public office.
In the end, Hythloday claimed that there was no reason why other nations could not adopt these same principles which benefited the nation of Utopia so. The only reason, he claimed, was because all other nations of his day were “conspiracies of the rich” where enlightened reform is avoided because of greed, vanity and pride. Ultimately, More chooses to disagree with this fictitious character on numerous points as a way of distancing himself from the critique.
In addition, there are several ironic points which seem to indicate that he was also questioning whether or not such a place could even exist. The name Utopia for one translates from Latin to mean “No Place”. In addition, many of the customs he describes sound less than ideal and would seem to suggest that the only way to create a perfect society is to force people to comply with strict rules, which in turn can create its own problems. In the end, it was not clear if More was saying that such a place does not exist, could exist, or will never exist. All that is clear is the influence it had, once again by expounding on the virtues of collectivization, popular sovereignty and the removal of class distinction.
Gulliver’s Travels: Though I included this novel in my previous list as an example of dystopian fiction, there are many elements of Gulliver’s Travels that fit into the category of utopia as well. For example, between every voyage Gulliver undertakes which brings him to a land that parodies some aspect of English and European society, there is a corresponding trip to a comparatively idyllic place.
After traveling to the land of the Lilliputians, a land of moral midgets who’s size matches their outlook, he travels to the land of Brobdingnagians where the same rule applies, only in reverse. Whereas he was denounced by the Lilliputians for not helping them to subjugate their neighbors, to the Brobdingnagians he was considered a novelty and his own moral outlook was received with horror.
In addition, after traveling to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, all of which are seen to be inherently flawed in some respect, he travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. These horse people, who boast rational capacities that put humanity to shame, are seen as the perfection of nature whereas humans are seen as brutish. What’s more, Gulliver’s time amongst them makes him inherently sympathetic to them, but in the end they deny him the right to live amongst them since they see him as a danger to their civilization.
Ultimately, Swift did not give any details as to how the morally upright societies which stood in contrast to his parodies achieved their current state. But by including them in his story, he was employing a decidedly utopian tactic – using a fictitious, ideal society to point out the flaws in an existing one.
Erewhon: Also known as “Over the Range”, this novel by Samuel Butler is renowned as a prime example of utopian literature (though there are some dystopian elements as well). Published in 1872, the bulk of the story is an account of the fictional nation named Erewhon which is located within the mountains of New Zealand. Often compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Letters from Nowhere (1890) the tale is about a seemingly perfect society which proves to be less than all that.
In describing Erewhon, Butler paints the picture of an idyllic society where people live close to the land. There is also no machinery because the people of Erewhon fear that it will someday become intelligent and supplant them – a rather unique take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.
However, in time, the author notes several odd customs in this land involving their justice system, religion and system of coinage. For example, criminals are treated as invalids in their society, whereas invalids are treated as criminals. In addition, religious institutions offer their own coinage and act like banks, but are immune to charges of counterfeiting because they are religious institutions. These practices were meant to satirize certain aspects of Victorian society at the time, including its religious hypocrisy, intolerance and anthropocentricism.
Clearly inspired by other utopian writers, Butler even went as far as to borrow a page from More who was also ironic with his choice of title. The name Erewhon, an anagram for “Nowhere”, makes the deliberate point that this society is fictitious, and therefore its better elements are not to be found anywhere. Though by no means a dystopian story, it is nevertheless a poignant allegory for the British Empire during the time of writing, an empire that for all intents and purposes did not live up to its own ideals.
Though by no means as popular as dystopian literature, utopian novels were still a very common feature in the 20th century. And like dystopian lit, it was used repeatedly by authors to mock and satirize the world of their day. By showing a society that had overcome mankind’s traditional flaws, some sought to demonstrate how society could be bettered. Others, however, liked to juxtapose the belief in a perfect society with the reality of an imperfect one, as a way of demonstrating how the quest was noble but was sure to encounter problems.
Men Like Gods: Published in 1923, this work of science fiction by the venerable H.G. Wells explores an parallel universe where human beings live in a world without government. Much like the time machine, the book contains equal parts speculative science and social commentary, involving a world in the future that parodied his own.
Taking place during the summer of 1921, the story opens with a cynical English journalist named Barnstaple who is mysteriously transported through time to an alternate world named (interestingly enough) Utopia. Essentially an advanced Earth, Utopia is three thousand years ahead of humanity, where people live in a perfectly realized anarchy, no government or sectarian religion exist, and scientific research flourishes.
All Utopians live by the “Five Principles of Liberty”: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. After a month of staying amongst the Utopians, Barnstaple asks if he can stay amongst them but is refused. According to the people of this world, the best thing for this journalist is to return to his world. This he does, renewed of vigor and committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.”
This was not a political revolution, in Well’s eyes, but rather the march of progress which he felt was already very much at work in society. In essence, such a revolution that was guaranteed by scientific and rational progress, he surmised, would one day wipe away all the current problems of the world. Namely, petty nationalism, sectarian turmoil, and irrational fear.
Childhood’s End: Released in 1953, this story is perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s best known novel outside of the Space Odyssey series, and the one which established him as a writer. Embracing many themes which would show up in numerous sci-fi franchises, the book deals with the near-future possibility of contact with an alien species and the profound effect it will have on humanity. Broken down into three parts, the book begins with the arrival of aliens, moves onto the effect they have, and concludes with the aftermath of their experimentation and their departure.
The story opens with the introduction of the Overlords, a space faring race that appear suddenly in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. With their ships poised over every major city on Earth, they issue a simple directive: End all war, now and forever. They assume a sort of indirect control over human affairs, preferring to stay aboard their spaceships, and communicating directly with only the Secretary-General of the UN.
Though many suspect of them of malicious intent, the Overlords influence is largely indirect and they promise to reveal themselves in 50 years. In the meantime, the suppression of war leads to a sort of golden age where prosperity flourishes, but at the expense of creativity. When 50 years is up, the demon-like Overlords emerge and begin conducting some seemingly benign psychic research.
Generations pass and humanity grows antsy due to a general feeling of stagnation. However, many children begin to be born who demonstrate telekinetic powers. Finally, the Overlords reveal that they are representatives of what is called the Overmind – a vast cosmic intelligence created from alien races that have all shed matter’s restrictions and become cosmic beings. The Overlords, for whatever reason, cannot join the Overmind, so they act instead as a bridge, seeking out intelligent life and fostering cosmic evolution. Humanity is now set to join this intelligence, having become post-human and ready to embrace their full potential.
Though some would see this concept of Overlords, Overminds, and tampering with evolution as a negative, Clarke presented it as an unequivocal positive. To him, the idea that humanity would need to be forced to become enlightened seemed like a perfectly plausible means of overcoming its inherent flaws. This is in keeping with Clarke’s Futurist mentality, where progress is not only inevitable and desirable and human antipathy towards progress is based on irrational fear.
The Dispossessed: Published in 1974, this novel is one of several utopian science fiction books published by famed author Ursula K. Le Guin. Written during the Vietnam War, the story takes place in a distant solar system (Tau Ceti) where two empires with diametrically opposed views become engaged in a proxy war when a neighboring state undergoes a revolution.
Set in the same universe as her critically-acclaimed story Left Hand of Darkness, the Tau Ceti system consists of two major worlds – Anarres and Urras. Urras is the focal point of the story, a planet which is dominated by two major nations which are rivals. The A-lo nation (which represents the US) is capitalistic and patriarchal whereas the Thu nation (Soviet Union) is run by an authoritarian regime that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.
To complete the analogy, both states become embroiled in a war when an underdeveloped nation named Benbili experiences a revolution which prompts both sides to invade. Thus, Benbili comes to represent South-East Asia at the time of the Vietnam War, just as Urras represents the world at the time of writing – a world divided between two diametrically opposed empires, both of whom seem to think they are the example of a perfect society (or as close as one can come to it).
As the story goes on, we learn that Anarres, the other major world, was settled long ago by a group of proto-Anarchists who left Urras to escape the planet’s divided nature. Since that time, the Anarrean people have created an egalitarian society which maintains contact with Urras only through its capitol-city spaceport. In keeping with the story, this alternate planet can be seen as a third option for humanity, which finds itself otherwise torn between two extremes.
This calls to mind Brave New World, where Huxley had created a planet torn between madness and insanity, or primitive freedom and “civilization”. In the end, the character of John the Savage, a man who had a foot in both worlds, could not reconcile himself to either and killed himself. Huxley had long expressed regret with this outcome, thinking that he should have offered a third option in the form of the exile communities that dotted the world in his story. Seen in this light, Dispossessed seems to offer solutions to the problem of two civilization fighting over who’s “utopia” is better.
Ecotopia: Published in 1975, this novel is considered a pre-eminent work of utopian fiction and a fitting commentary on the green movement and counter-culture of the 1970’s. In it, author Ernest Callenbach describes a new society which has been founded in the Pacific Northwest by groups of ecological secessionists. Interestingly enough, his critique of this fictional society was based on environmental science and descriptions of actual communes that were being established across the mid-western US at the time.
Set in the year 1999, the story takes place from the point of view William Weston, a reporter named who is the first American to travel to the new country of Ecotopia. Most of the narrative consists of his cables back to the fictitious newspaper he works for, but other details are filled in by his diary entries. These include an affair with an Ecotopian woman, an experience which leaves him transformed and opens him up to the Ecotopian way of life.
Amongst the differences he notes between his world and this ecological utopia are the policies of universal health care, liberal cannabis use, fitness, local art and fitness (as opposed to television and spectacle sports), sexual freedom, and voluntary mock warfare. Curiously enough, they also celebrate gender roles and believe in racial separation. Not sure how those are meant to be utopian, but okay…
In the end, the narrator comes to see that the Ecotopians are not a backwards, regressionary people but simply individuals who want to live a healthier existence closer to the Earth. In addition to using modern technologies, provided they are ecologically friendly, they also maintain an advanced arms industry and stockpiles of WMD’s, a means of ensuring that a potentially revanchist US government doesn’t try to take back their territory by force. In the end, Weston chooses to stay in Ecotopia and act as a sort of cultural liaison to the outside world.
Aside from the issues of gender roles and racial segregation, this book seems to fit the description of an ideal society quite well. By demonstrating that a better life need not mean huge sacrifices or the denial of technology, Callenbach was basically arguing for an open mind when it comes to the ecological and social experiments which were taking place in the US at the time. His idea of an outsider coming to respect and embrace this culture also calls to mind More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, where the narrators did the same. He also seems to be arguing that a better society is not only possible, but within our reach.
The Giver: Although classified as a dystopian novel by some, this 1993 piece of YA fiction has undeniably utopian elements, and therefore confounds simple classification. Taking place in a fictional community where pain and strife have been eliminated through “Sameness” and people’s roles are selected by a council of elders, The Giver begins as a description of a utopian society which gradually becomes more dystopian in its outlook.
Enter into this world Jonas, a young boy who has been selected by the elders to serve as the next “Receiver of Memory”. This person occupies a venerated position in their society since they are responsible for storing all memories that predate Sameness, just in case they are ever needed to aid in the decision making process.
As Jonas receives these memories, he comes to understand just how powerful knowledge is. People in his society are happy, but only because they are ignorant to any way of life that runs counter to their own. In the end, he faces a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he could release the memories and enlighten his people, though it will surely mean chaos. On the other, he can keep them ignorant, thus ensuring stability for the time being.
Written for young adult audiences, but intensely mature in its outlook, this story not only examines what it takes to create a perfect society but what the costs of that might be. It is also very poignant in the way it addresses a theme which is crucial to growing up – how the end of innocence is a necessary step to becoming a mature and responsible individual. This is a step we frequently wish we could avoid, but seems inevitable in the long run.
Looking at the extensive list of utopian fiction that has been produced across time, I am once again reminded of just how closely linked it is with dystopian fiction. It seems that all utopian commentaries emerged out of a problematic world, where authors felt the need to offer up a better or even ideal society as a means of satire or consolation. Though they differed in that they were not quite cautionary in nature, they shared the same basic purpose as dystopian tales. At once, they offered people a chance to examine this thing we know as the human condition and ask if something better were truly possible.
Overall, I’m not sure which I like better. When I was penning the article on dystopian literature, I could honestly say I preferred it because it seemed more realistic. Now, I wonder if there is not a profound sense of genius and realism to utopian literature that I was perhaps overlooking. Sure, one could make the argument that works like the Republic and Utopia were simple in their intent, claiming that society could be turned into a model of justice and fairness through basic reforms. But upon closer inspection, one sees the unmistakable presence of irony. In all cases, it seems like the author is agonizing over the question of whether or not such changes are even possible.
Sure, greed could done away with if collectivization were enforced. Sure, if money were abolished, there would be far less in the way of crime. Sure, if people were made to rotate between professions, there would be less class conflict and snobbery. And of course, if government were truly representative and those in power were closer to the governed, there would be less abuses of power. But how do you go about making that happen? How, without resorting to force or Draconian measures, do you get people to treat each other as equals and respect each other.
Like it or not, the question “can’t we all just get along?” has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Many solutions have been suggested, like the expropriation of the ruling class, a certain means of production, or a certain way of living. But inevitably, all these proposed solutions get tied up in moral considerations (i.e. killing is wrong), or questions of practicality – i.e. getting rid of all the cars, central heating, AC and electricity will lead to millions of deaths worldwide. So really, is utopian literature meant as a proposition for change, or is it merely a tool to make us contemplate the tougher questions?
I know my answer, but in the end, the point is simply to ask, isn’t it? It’s the exploration that counts, which is precisely why such literature has been penned over the centuries. Waiting for heaven to come might be a pain in the ass, but trying to make it come can also be a ticket to hell!
Back with more examples of cool sci-fi worlds. Last time, it was the Dune universe, today it’s Star Wars! Once again, I will looking at the original movies, with some added info from the expanded franchise, but not the prequels. Sorry, but like most Star Wars fanboys, I prefer to pretend that those installments didn’t exist. Nothing personal, its just that aside from tying things up in a nice little package and providing some dazzling visual effects, they really didn’t enrich the universe any.
But this aint a spiel on Lucas and his lost sense of direction. This is about cool Star Wars worlds! And here are the top contenders:
Alderaan: This planet was apparently the soul of the Republic, much in the same way that Coruscant was its capitol. Renowned throughout the galaxy for its peaceful inhabitants and unspoiled beauty, Alderaan was also a cultural capitol that produced many of the universe’s greatest artists, poets and performers. As the home to Princess Leia Organa and her adopted father, Senator Bail Organa – both of whom were members of the Rebel Alliance – it was also was the first planet to be destroyed by the Death Star in Episode IV: A New Hope.
In the expanded universe, Alderaan is depicted as a lush and fertile world covered in oceans, grasslands, mountain ranges and canyons. In order to preserve the planet’s beauty, Alderaan’s cities were built directly into the landscape, either within canyon walls, on stilts along the shorelines, or underneath the polar ice. The planet’s capitol, Aldera, was situated on a small island in the center of a caldera.
In terms of government, the planet was ruled by House Antilles, a constitutional monarchy, of which the Organa family were the last surviving members. Jedi master Ulic Qel Dromo, who’s name comes up in the game Knights of the Old Republic, was also from Alderaan. The popular Star Wars creature known as the “nerf” (which I believe was inspired by Herbert’s “slig”) also comes from this planet.
The name is clearly inspired by the Arabic name for for two pairs of stars alpha and beta Canis Minoris (currently known as Procyon and Gomeisa) and alpha and beta Geminorum (Castor and Pollux). Translated literally, the name means “the two forearms” or “the two front paws”. I can only surmise that Lucas learned of this disused astronomic name and decided to use it in his franchise because of its esoteric appeal.
Corellia: A bustling world of spacers and traders, Corellia is also the home planet of Han Solo, Wedge Antilles and Garm Bel Iblis. It is also the location of the Corellian shipyards, a series of orbital factories that produce such ships as the famed Millenium Falcon, the Corellian Corvette and the Imperial-class Star Destroyer. In terms of ecology, Corellia is lush world with several highly developed urban centers, resulting in a great deal in trade. Little wonder then why Corellia is famous for its spacefaring culture, smugglers, pirates, and roguish personalities.
During the time of the Galactic Republic, Corellia was the capitol of the system and chief representative of the “Five Brothers”. This refers to the five habitable planets in the system, three of which were home to their own indigenous species. Being the closest planet to Corel, and the most developed, Corellia was seen as the senior brother in this arrangement.
Another interesting feature about the Corellian system is Centerpoint Station, an ancient installation that was built over a million years before events in A New Hope. Built by an insectoid species known as Killik, the station was apparently a massive tractor-beam array that was capable of towing entire planets from one point in the galaxy to another, which is believed to be the reason why Corell boasts several worlds with their own indigenous inhabitants.
During the reign of the Galactic Empire, Corellia became an imperial mandate, but maintained its fierce spirit of independence until the arrival of the New Republic. This spirit of independence is evidenced by the fact that the Rebel Alliance was founded here when the founders convened to agree on a declaration of principles. It was also shown in the way the Corellians resisted Imperial rule, both through its production of smugglers and pirates and its anti-Imperial demonstrations.
Although it never appeared in the original series, the planet is featured in a number of novelizations and video game adaptations (particularly the Corellian Trilogy and Star Wars: The Old Republic).
Coruscant: The capitol of the Galactic Republic and Empire in the Star Wars universe, this world was essentially one massive city. According to the expanded universe, approximately one trillion humans and aliens live on the planet, of which humans make up the majority, and the planet-wide city is multitiered, reflecting a sort of class system. Whereas the upper levels are occupied by the wealthiest citizens and members of the Republic’s bureaucracy, the native inhabitants of the planet are largely extinct or live on the lower levels while the planet’s surface is inhabited solely by outcasts and indigents.
The uppermost levels were made up of skyscrapers that dwarfed even the planet’s natural mountain chains. These were lighted regularly by the planet’s sun and a series of orbital mirrors which ensured that shadows cast by the massive structures did not overcast the surrounding environment too much. At the lower levels where natural light could not reach, holograms and artificial lights provided most of the illumination. These regions were often known as the “entertainment districts” due to the availability of bars, gambling halls and other distractions. People who lived in these regions were known as “Twilighters” because of the areas seedy reputation and appearance.
Coruscant is also home to the Galactic Senate, the Jedi Order, the Jedi Temple, the Republic Archives, and the Imperial palace. All trade routes cross at the planet’s galactic coordinates, ensuring a constant coming and going of trade and transport ships in and around the planet. In addition, several artificial satellites and shipyards were placed in orbit around the planet, especially during the reign of Emperor Palpatine. The massive output of garbage and the need for food and water meant that most of the planet’s needs had to be handled from offworld.
In addition to ejecting all of its non-recyclable garbage into orbit and importing most of its food, huge feats of engineering were required to meet its daily need for water. This was accomplished by piping in freshwater from the planet’s glaciers and underwater aquifers, which were created when the planet’s vast oceans were drained to create room for more urban sprawl. Just about all buildings on the planet also had their own semi self-sufficient ecosystems built directly into their buildings, where water, like most other necessities, was recycled.
Although it did not appear in the regular series, Coruscant was a focal point in Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy and made numerous subsequent appearances in novelizations and graphic novels (most notably, the Dark Empire series). The name is apparently derived from the Latin coruscant which translates as “vibrating” and/or “glittering”, referring to its opulent appearance from space.
Dagobah: A planet in the outer rim of the galaxy, and the home of Jedi Grand Master Yoda during his long exile. Composed of swamps and forests and teeming with life, the planet was devoid of cities or infrastructure. It was the location of Luke Skywalker’s training in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and also the last known location of Yoda before he died of natural causes.
Long before events in the original trilogy, the planet was also the site of a major battle between Jedi Master Minch battled and killed a powerful Dark Jedi. As a result, the cave where he fell absorbed his dark powers and became, according to Yoda, a place that was “strong with the dark side”. It was here that Luke confronted his demons and gained the first hints as to his true ancestry.
Because of its uncharted nature and its resplendent nature, Yoda chose this world for his exile, knowing that the presence of so many creatures and dark side energy would mask his force signature.
Dantooine: An Outer Rim world, known for its mild climate and resplendent system of grasslands, rivers and lakes. Though far from most galactic trade routes, Dantooine was a popular destination for people looking to escape the crush of the Core Worlds. Nevertheless, its population was largely made up of farmers and small communities.
Being a remote and peaceful world, Dantooine was also home to the Jedi Academy. During the Sith War, most Jedi Masters were stationed here and conducted the training of Jedi Knights. Towards the end of the war, the Academy was destroyed by the Sith during an orbital bombardment. However, the academy was quickly rebuilt as soon as the war was over and a new crisis loomed.
According to the KOTOR series, the planet was also once part of the Rakatan Empire. Remnants of this occupation were demonstrated by a series of ruins which apparently contained the first of several Star Maps, the purpose of which was to safeguard the location of the Rakatan Star Forge. It was here that Revan began his descent to the dark side when he began investigating these ruins for hints as to its location. Exar Kun was also trained here, another notorious enemy of the Republic who began as a Jedi.
Endor: Also known as the “Forest Moon of Endor” and “The Sanctuary Moon”, Endor was a small moon that orbited the gas giant of Endor. The homeworld of the Ewok race, and the location of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. It was also the site of the Battle of Endor, where Rebel forces engaged the Imperial fleet and army in both orbit of the planet and planetside. Though intended as a trap by the Emperor, this battle became the turning point in the Galactic Civil War and led to the Rebels to their eventual victory over the Empire.
Due to the fact the the second Death Star was supposedly incomplete, the Rebels were forced to put down on the world and locate the shield generator that protected it. In the course of their search, they came upon the indigenous Ewok people and were recruited by them. This alliance allowed for them to locate the generator and, when the Emperor’s trap closed around them, overcome the Imperial forces guarding it.
According to Lucas, this world was inspired by his original ideas for Kashyyyk, the home of the Wookies (see below). Here, the surface of the planet was lush and green, covered in massive natural forests and filled with tons of natural predators. In order to survive, the Ewoks live in villages built above ground, anchored along the sides of the massive trees where land-based predators cannot reach them. These same characteristics would be recycled later in the franchise where descriptions of Kashyyyk came up.
Hoth: The sixth and furthest planet in the remote Hoth system, this planet is a desolate and ice covered world renowned for its extreme cold and harsh climate. Because of its remote location, it was also the home of the Rebel’s Echo Base for a time during the Galactic Civil War, shortly after the Rebels destroyed the Death Star and were forced to relocate from Yavin 4. The Battle of Hoth, during which time the Empire discovered and destroyed this base, was a focal point in the movie Empire Strikes Back, where Rebels fought a pitch battle to cover their evacuation from the planet.
Beyond the planet was a large asteroid belt which apparently wreaked havoc with navigation and sensors, another reason why the Rebels chose the location for their base. The cold climate resulted in a relatively small amount of native life forms, which included the tantaun and the predatorial wampas. During the events of Empire, Luke Skywalker was attacked by a wampa and forced to flee its lair after cutting off one of its arms with his lightsaber. This encounter and his subsequent near-death experience on the icy plains led to a vision in which Obi Wan instructed him to go to Dagobah and seek the training of Jedi Grand Master Yoda.
From what I can tell, this planet is named after Hermann Hoth, a German General who is best known for his command of the 4th Panzer Army during Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) and his subsequent defeat at the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Known for his cunning and icy temperament, it seems fitting that an ice-planet would be named after him!
Kashyyyk: Also known as “Wookiee Planet C”, “Edean”, “G5-623”, and “Wookiee World”, Kashyyyk is a planet in the Mid Rim. It was the lush, wroshyr tree-filled home world of the Wookiees and the home planet of Chewbacca. During the time of the Sith War, the planet was a source of slaves, all of which were exported by the Cserka Corporation. After slaving operations ceased, the planet became a member of the Galactic Republic, only to be reduced to the status of a slave colony again during the time of the Galactic Empire. With the fall of the Empire, the planet were once again liberated and became a member of the New Republic.
Much like Endor, on which it was based, Kashyyyk was a lush word covered by forests, the greatest of which was known as the wroshyr tree. Due to the presence of natural predators, the Wookies made their home high up in the trees branches, constructing large villages that are anchored to the trunks and connected by bridge ways. Though primitive by Galactic standards, the Wookies demonstrated great ingenuity, especially when it came to adapting and using advanced technologies for their own purposes. In addition to constructing landing pads from the tops of large trees, Wookies are also known for their use of bowcasters, a blaster modeled in the shape of a crossbow.
The forest floor is considered sacred to the Wookies and off-limits to off-worlders. This area is known as the “Shadowlands” due the fact that very little light penetrates the forest canopies and reaches the forest floor. In addition, it is populated by many species of predators that are large and fierce enough that even the Wookies are wary of them. In Knights of the Old Republic, it was revealed that the ancient race known as Rakatan’s once used the planet as a source of slaves and even terraformed it, resulting in its lush forests, as well as its powerful and diverse species. The only remaining trace of the Rakatan empire, aside from the stimulated environment, is a Rakatan Star Map that is hidden in a corner of the Shadowlands.
Korriban: This planet was the homeworld of the original Sith species, and over the course of many generations became the home of the Sith Order. According to the KOTOR series, the original Sith Lords who defied the Jedi Order and embraced the dark side traveled to this world and subjugated the native species through their command of the force. Seeing them as godlike creatures, the Sith Lords were elevated to the status of divine leaders and were interred here after their deaths.
The tombs of original Sith Masters – Naga Sadow, Marko Ragnos, Ajunta Pall and Ludo Kressh – were all built in the Valley of Darkness. The inspiration for this was clearly the great Pyramids of Giza where the Pharaohs were interred. Each master has their own story, but it is apparenly Naga Sadow, the leader of the Sith during the “Great Hyperspace War”, that is most significant. Shortly after arriving on Korriban, the original Sith Masters began to turn on each other out of jealousy and mutual recrimination. In order to bring unity to them, Sadow took advantage of the arrival of a Republic survey team to convince his people that they were being invaded and needed to go to war.
The war took place roughly 5000 years before events in A New Hope are depicted and resulted in the total destruction of the Sith Empire. Korriban was devastated in the final assault, hence why the climate of the planet is desolate and rocky with little to no native flaura or fauna. In addition, Naga Sadow fled to Yaving 4 where he built a temple to himself and left a trace of his dark spirit, which in turn led to the rise of Sith Master Exar Kun (see below).
In addition, the planet became the home of the Sith Academy during the events of KOTOR 1, after Revan reestablished a base there. This apparently had much to do with the presence of a Rakatan Star Map, which was located within one of the tombs. The presence of this device, which are known to have dark side energy, may have a lot to do with why this planet was sought out by the original Sith Lords in the first place and became the locus of such dark powers. After events in KOTOR played out, the planet was once again left desolate when both the academy and its initiates were all destroyed.
Nar Shaddaa: Also known as the “Vertical City”, the “Smuggler’s Moon” and “Little Coruscant”, Nar Shaddaa is the largest moon of the planet Nal Hutta, the homeworld of the Hutts. Like Coruscant, it is covered by a planet-wide metropolis. But unlike the galactic capitol – which is only seedy and dark at the lower levels of its sprawl – Nar Shadaa is known for being dirty, dangerous and seedy just about everywhere on the planet.
Nar Shaddaa began as a stopover for merchants and smugglers who are traveling to and from the outer rim. In time, however, cities grew between the refueling spires and loading docks and began to be permeated by illegal activities of every kind. Often serving as entertainment for merchants, bounty hunters and privateers, gambling halls, race courses and seedy establishments quickly sprung up which were either run by organized crime or paid dues to them. Most syndicates have a home on this world, including the Hutts themselves who are known for being notorious gangsters.
Because of its reputation, a great deal of technological research and development also occurred on Nar Shaddaa. Companies that wanted to avoid restrictions and regulations that were commonplace elsewhere would set up shop on this planet, knowing that certain “fees” were the worst they could expect. Hence, in addition to being a place famous for gambling, smuggling, and assorted illegal activity, it is also a technological center of sorts.
Nar Shaddaa makes appearances numerous times in the Star Wars expanded universe, notably in the KOTOR series, the Force Unleashed, and other novelizations and games. Repeatedly, it has served as a hiding place for Jedi exiles or anyone else looking to disappear.
Tatooine: Possibly the most well-known planet in the Star Wars franchise, appearing prominently in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, Tatooine is a desert planet that orbits the binary Tatoo star system. Tatooine is sparsely-populated, mainly by moisture farmers, scrap dealers and the indigenous Sandpeople. However, the planet was also a focal point for events during the Sith War and the Galactic Civil War.
In the former case, it was the location of one of the Star Maps, and hence was visited by Revan twice. It was later the ancestral home of Luke Skywalker and the exile home of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, both of whom became involved in the Civil War when princess Leia’s Corvette was boarded and her droids – R2D2 and C3P0 – were forced to jettison in orbit of the planet.
Tatooine has historically been controlled by Hutts, the most notorious of which was Jabba. During the events of A New Hope, Han was indebted to Jabba and took on a contract with Luke and Obi-Wan in order to pay him back. However, due to the demands of the Civil War, Han was unable to pay off his debt and wound up becoming a fixture in Jabba’s palace. His rescue, which was carried out by Luke, Chewbacca, Leia, Lando, R2D2 and C3P0, led to Jabba’s death and the majority of his crew.
In addition to its mixed population of colonists and transient inhabitants, Tatooine is home to two sentient races of people: the Sandpeople and the Jawas. Although not indigenous to Tatooine, the Jawas had made a permanent home on the desert world, salvaging droids, ship parts, and assorted electronics for resale and repair. The Sandpeople, who are indigenous, are a fierce, nomadic people who have adapted to desert life and are hostile of outsiders. The native bantha creature is apparently sacred to them, serving as a mount and a beast of burden. Native species also include the elusive Krayt Dragon and the fearsome Rancor.
Legend has it that Tatooine was once a lush, ocean covered world which was ruled by the Infinite Empire (i.e. the Rakata). During the decline of the empire, the indigenous people rebelled and forced them off the planet. In response, the Rakata subjected the world to an orbital bombardment which devastated the planet, turning the surface to glass and rendering it inhospitable for all time. This is apparently how Tatooine became the desert world it is by the current time of the franchise.
Yavin 4: One of three habitable worlds which orbit the gas giant Yavin in the system of the same name. Known for its lush climate and jungles, this remote world would also play a pivotal role in galactic events. After the Hyperspace War ended, it served as the exiled home of Sith Master Naga Sadow and his followers. Before his death, many temples were built in honor of him and he himself was entombed in a sarcophagus where he waited in a comatose state until the day when a renewed Sith Order would find him.
Several centuries later, he would be awakened by Freedon Nadd, a fallen Jedi who sought knowledge of the ancient Sith. After learning all he could from Sadow, Nadd turned on him and killed him, in true Sith fashion. He then took Sadow’s place as the Dark Lord and died shortly thereafter. After several centuries, another fallen Jedi named Exar Kun came to Yavin and destroyed Nadd’s apparition. He then used the children of Sadow’s followers to build new temples and locate Sadow’s ship, buried beneath some old ruins.
In time, other Jedi began to join him, the most noteworthy of which was Ulic Qel Dromo. After allying himself with the Krath and the Mandalorians, he began waging war against the Republic. In time, the Jedi Order and Republic defeated him, but Kun managed to seperate his spirit from his body and would remain tied to his temples for centuries to come.
During the Galactic Civil War, Yavin 4 served as the Rebel alliances main base after they abandoned Dantooine. The Battle of Yavin occurred shortly thereafter when the Death Star, in pursuit of Princess Leia and the Millennium Falcon, arrived in the system and attempted to destroy the planet. After destroying the Death Star, the rebels were forced to abandon the planet and relocate to Hoth (see above). The moon remained relatively uninhabited and untouched for over a decade when Luke Skywalker chose to build the new Jedi Academy there.
Some Final Thoughts:
Okay, think I got them all. Or at least the ones I could squeeze in without going incredibly, incredibly long. But I’m not sure the datum, as collected from the various sources that make up the Star Wars universe support any conclusions. This might be because there are so many contributing authors, writers and conceptual artists. But I do notice a few things which should be plain to anyone who takes the time to sort through these worlds and the universe which encompasses them.
1. Borrow early, borrow often!: For one, Lucas and the franchise he created borrowed heavily from many sources. One can see without much effort inspiration from such franchises as Foundation, Dune, and various other science fiction serials. He was also not averse to taking from classic cinema, literature, and history. In addition to the familiar notions of galactic empires, an ecumenopolis (worldwide city), ancient alien empires, and multicultural, racial hierarchies, there was also plenty of gun-slinging, swashbuckling, duels, and underworld elements. All of this combined to create a universe that is quite rich and appeals to both the adult and kid in us, more often the latter.
2. This universe be big!: After looking through all the background, details, side stories and spinoffs, I could only feel that the Star Wars universe is expansive and packed. This goes for material happening both before and after the original movies. Long before Lucas and Lucasarts began tackling the pre-history of the franchise, there were writers and graphic novels makers who were writing sequels to the franchise. And while most of the novels got repetitive and cliched after awhile, some of it was pretty gutsy, proposing the fall of the New Republic and the resurgence of the Sith Empire once again.
And when it comes to the prehistory of the Galactic Civil War, it seems that the Old Republic was not as peaceful and boring as it was previously made out to be. In fact, the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith appears to be a regular feature in the pre-New Hope universe, happening periodically whenever a new Sith Lord emerged and recruited people to their cause. Sure, here too, things seem repetitive, but at least they’re not boring. And it also raises some interesting questions, like is this an ongoing fued that will never end, or is there some ultimate purpose behind the battle between the light side and dark side?
Stuff like this makes me both more sad and indifferent to the existence of the Star Wars Prequels. On the one hand, they seem all the more disappointing when held up to a franchise that is as detailed and diverse as this one. On the other, they seem dwarfed by the contributions of so many other creative minds, almost to the point where they can become irrelevant. With this in mind, it kind of makes sense why Lucas has become so jealous and bossy with the franchise in recent years. Perhaps after seeing how others could enrich his creation so much, he realized just how superfluous he could become. Hence all this “I am the CREATOR” talk! Seen this way, it could very well be that this is his way of reasserting ownership over a universe that is outgrowing him.
That was fun! Join me again for another installment in the “Conceptual Sci-Fi” series! And look for my review of Hunger Games and more chapters of Data Miners too!
Yeah, that’s not the most original parody of this movie’s title, but it sums up my feelings pretty well. In my last review, I addressed the first movie in the Star Wars prequel lineup, the absurdly named The Phantom Menace. In sum, it was a movie with some signs of quality, but which suffered from a technocratic plot and a whole lot of childish content. Overall, sort of a C+. Okay, not great! In addition, I tried to tackle the two big questions that are constantly asked about the Star Wars franchise. Number one: why were the originals so enduring and influential in their time? And two: what the hell happened with the prequels? The originals were enduring classics that combined gun slinging, swashbuckling adventure with space opera and mythology. The prequels… well, they were entertaining in places. Annoying, insulting, generally inexplicable, but still entertaining.
And now, onto the second movie in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the even more absurdly named Attack of the Clones! As you can tell from the title of this posting, I did NOT like this movie; and in that, I am hardly alone. According to critics and fans alike, it was even worse than the first – a complete 180 of what happened with the first trilogy where the sequel outstripped the original. And the reasons were obvious: For the most part, Phantom Menace was an critical flop because it was simultaneously kiddy, technocratic and suffered from an obvious sense of duty. The second movie suffered from the same ailment, but added some new elements that brought it down even further. But I could not hope to address them all in one paragraph so let me break it down succinctly. As C3P0 would say (in the originals!) “Here we go again…”
Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones
As I’m sure I mentioned in the previous post, Lucas spoke of what this movie would be about long before it aired… to the disappointment of fans everywhere. Whereas most of us were hoping that the second movie would depart from the childish tone struck by the first, Lucas dashed all that by saying it would be a love story and aimed squarely at kids. And of course, it would explain how the “Clone Wars” happened. On top of that, he had to give the audience some preview of Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side. A tall order, to be sure, but Lucas managed to mangle it pretty good! Here’s what went wrong:
Forced Chemistry: Lucas is known for writing dialogue that nobody can say, but in this movie, he really outdid himself! Those “romantic” scenes between Christensen and Portman, they’re PAINFUL! Not only does nobody speak like that, Portman and Christensen manage to go through these scenes without exhibiting the slightest trace of romantic chemistry! In fact, we’re given every indication to suggest that what’s really going on is a case of creepy stalker syndrome! Remember that back and forth from early on in the movie, “Please don’t look at me like that,” says Portman. “Why not?” asks Christensen. “It makes me uncomfortable.” Sound like love? Nope! As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the part where Anakin says he’s been dreaming about her for ten years straight, and that just being around her again is “intoxicating”. Ick! Can you say “obsessive”? And last, there’s the part where she totally disses him in front of people on Naboo. “Anakin is just a padawan,” she says. He objects to this sluff off, but she totally puts him in his place. Clear enough? She don’t like ya, kid. Move on or face a restraining order! And yet, we’re supposed to believe these two somehow fall in love a few scenes later? The only reason we’re supposed to believe it is because we already know it happens! Otherwise, it is wholly unbelievable and totally cringe-worthy!
Forced Rivalry: Oh, and let’s not forget the totally forced animosity that exists between Anakin and Obi Wan. It’s obvious from the way Anakin back-talks him and complains about him behind his back that he’s got some animosity for the man. It’s already predictable due to the fact that we know in advance that Anakin will turn bad and betray him, but it doesn’t help that the dialogue and the delivery feel totally fake and wooden. And lets not forget how insistent Lucas was with the whole odd couple dynamic! In fact, the back and forth between Anakin and Obi Wan and their complaints about each other are so overdone that Obi Wan just comes off as a nagging shrew and Anakin as a total bitch! Yes, we know what’s going to happen and its necessary to preview how, but Jesus-Allah-Buddah, a little subtlety please!
Infodumping: Which brings me to my next point. Lucas, you can’t have your characters just announce their feelings! It’s unsubtle, insulting to the audience, and drives home the whole dutiful nature of these awful movies even more! From the very outset, we learn that Anakin is in love with Padme/Amidala. Why? Because he says so. We learn shortly thereafter that Anakin resents Obi Wan. Why? Because he says so. We learn that Anakin is arrogant on a count of his abilities? Why? Obi Wan says so! On and on this goes throughout the movie. Lucas seems to think that the best way to establish something is to have his characters announce it openly, as opposed to say establishing it slowly through bits of dialogue and acting! And of course, its all because he feels obliged to cover his bases and explain how everything happened. This is why I hate prequels, you know.
Hayden Christensen: To be fair, the boy was up against it dealing with Lucas’ awful script writing, but that didn’t prevent him from being the most whiny, annoying bitch I’ve ever seen on camera. Seriously, even Shia LaBeouf was less annoying by comparison, and that was with Michael Bay writing his lines! And this is the guy who’s supposed to turn into Darth Vader? I would think that a war hero who got tempted by evil and became the universe’s most notorious bad-ass would be… oh, I don’t know, like Gary Cooper. The strong silent type! Not some whiny little kid who does nothing but lament about unrequited love and bitch about how he’s not being treated like an adult by his master. Exposition ruined what should have been the perfect character!
Jump-around Plot: Ostensibly, this movie was supposed to be about the Clone Wars. But on top of that, Anakin and Padme are supposed to fall in love, and then there’s the added duty of previewing Anakin’s fall to the dark side. As a result, we get a whole first hour in which the main characters are just running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Anakin brings Padme to Naboo to protect her (her home planet? Really? An assassin wouldn’t think to look for her there?), and the scenery works its magic and they fall in love. But then, Anakin has to rush off to Tatooine, totally unrelated to the plot, to find his mother. Once there, he finds out she’s been taken by sand people and she dies as soon as he finds her. Anakin responds by wiping out the whole village of sand-people, and somehow, nobody seems to care. That little act of genocide is forgotten as they have to rush back into the fray to rescue Obi Wan because he’s been taken prisoner. The only one who appears to be sticking to the plan is Obi Wan, who was busy at work the whole time investigating the clone plot. On its own, that part wasn’t bad, but its so diluted by the other crap that you almost don’t notice it. In fact, were it not for all the other crap, we might have actually gotten into the war!
Genocide? No biggie!: Speaking of the massacre Anakin committed, I’m sure everyone noticed how little the other characters seemed to care about that. Yoda senses the massacre through the Force, but it never comes up again. Even worse, Padme seems totally unphased when he tells her that he slaughtered women and children. She even goes as far as to say “To be angry is to be human.” WHAAAAAT? The boy wipes out an entire village of people, women and children included, and the best you can say is “no biggie?” What kind of person are you?! Equally odd, when Anakin returns to the Jedi, no one so much as mentions it. Yoda knew something was up, but its like he either forgot or stopped caring. Little wonder why this kid turned evil, he’s got no boundaries!
More Re-Used Characters: Like I said about the first movie, Lucas seemed to think that he had to introduce ALL the characters from the first movie, even if he was hard-pressed to do so. In this movie, we get the back-story of Boba Fett, who as it turns out, is a clone! Yes, the bad-ass bounty hunter extraordinaire from the first trilogy is actually the clone of a bounty hunter named JANGO Fett. That seemed kinda forced, but the introduction of Owen and Beru, who are apparently Anakin’s step-brother and step-sister-in-law? That was just plain stupid! Did he expect the audience to go “ah-hah!” every time he did that? Honestly, I think people just rolled their eyes and sighed whenever it happened.
Final Fight Scene: One thing that always seems to redeem Lucas’ movies is the action scenes. That awesome fight scene from the first one was enough to justify admission, but this time around, Lucas screwed the pooch on that one too! The big scene at the end, which apparently was inspired by Roman-style executions in the Coliseum, was not too bad, but it was long and drawn out. And holy hell, the fight scene that ensues between Dooku, Anakin, Obi Wan, and then Yoda? It was totally unrealistic, and punctuated by some of the worst dialogue ever! First, he takes down Anakin by hurling him into a wall just so he can fight Obi Wan one on one. Then he manages to defeat Obi Wan without inflicting any real harm, mainly so he and Anakin can go at it mono a mono. After he takes off Anakin’s arm, fulfilling yet another plot element, him and Yoda go at it. “I can see we are not going to resolve this with our knowledge of the force, but our skills with a lightsaber.” Do I even need to say it? Nobody talks like that! Yeah, the fight scene is entertaining, sure, but otherwise nothing but theatrics and zero substance!
Clueless Jedi: In the first movie, the Jedi seemed just a little slow on the uptake. I mean I know I have the benefit of knowing exactly who the bad guy is, but between the first and second movie, a full ten years have passed! You’d think they’d have done some digging and learned a thing or two about who Darth Maul was and who he might have been taking his orders from. And this time around, they’re even more clueless. And it seems almost necessary in order to explain how Palpatine could have seized power without the Jedi getting wise to him. I admit, that was a tough thing to tackle. But Yoda’s explanation, how the “dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is,” etc etc, falls pretty flat. Apparently, the Jedi’s have a diminished capacity to use the Force now, and rather than tell anyone, they keep it hush hush because Yoda doesn’t want their enemies getting any ideas. Pretty contrived explanations, man! A simple line of dialogue, like how Palpatine has mastered a technique that allows him to mask his presence in the Force, that might’ve worked. It might even make sense in the context of how, at times, Yoda and the others get suspicious of him. He can mask his dark Force energies from detection, but once in awhile, something slips through. Oy! I feel so geeky!
And that about covers this bad-boy. Overall, it was pretty bad, pretty rushed, pretty forced, and suffered from a sense of duty even more than the first. It was not enough that it had to explain major plot elements, it also had to forecast a number of developments that the audience knew would happen later on. And that was its downfall. When it comes to prequels, the potential for excitement comes in the form of developing things that have been hinted at, but for which the audience is seriously short on the details. In this case, the Clone Wars. Only once did it come up in the first trilogy, when Luke spoke to Obi Wan about what his father did. And several passing mentions were made in other areas of the franchise, including comics, novels and video games. But always, the details were in
short supply because the master (George) never left any notes.
So really, that’s what this movie needed to do but failed to deliver on. Explain the war, get into it, and sure, throw in some stuff cataloging Palpatine’s rise to power. That’s it! Instead, we get a whole lot of set-up designed to explain how the war is GOING to happen, an awful romance story, a rushed and forced prelude of Anakin’s fall, and a quick scene showing how Palpatine used the war crisis to become a tyrant. This last part felt like a technocratic holdover from the first movie – Parliamentary procedure leading to the emergence of dictatorship, yadda yadda. But the point is, we missed out on all the real action when that’s all the fans really wanted in the first place! In fact, the final scene where Clone Troopers are boarding their vessels and going off to war is the closest we get to seeing the war at all in this movie. Sure, the big battle on Geonosis kinda counted as part of the war, but it was really more of a prelude, not the actual thing! And with a name like “Attack of the Clones”, you’d think we’d see more, you know, attacking! Instead, the war is something that happened between movies, to be covered later by another producer (Genndy Tartakovsky) and then commandeered by Lucas when he realized it was profitable. But more on that later! Up next, the salvageable finale to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith!
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones Entertainment Value: 6/10
If only I get my hands on a big, rolling intro the way Lucas did! Man, would THAT come in handy here! Weren’t they just so great? I can remember watching them as a kid, pre-teen, post-teen, and young adult. Those inros and the music that preceded them, they always had a way of getting me into the mood for another Star Wars movie marathon. And weren’t they just the thing for a movie party? Yes, the Star Wars franchise was a masterpiece of pop-culture gold, something we who saw it when we were children could still enjoy years later. Hell, people of my parents generation found them equally appealing, both when they first hit theaters and years after their release. During the 80’s and early 90’s, there was scarcely anyone who wasn’t affected by the Star Wars phenomena. And today, those who haven’t seen the originals tend to get funny looks when they make that admission. I myself have been known to say “Didn’t you grow up in this country” whenever someone admitted it to me!
Sounds a little crass when I hear myself say it now, but you have to admit, I had a point! In fact, Star Wars has been so influential that pop culture experts, cultural historians and media gurus have been pouring over it for decades, trying to ascertain exactly why this ought to be. I mean think about it: a franchise that had a limited budget, an inexperienced director, weak writing/dialogue, newby actors and actresses (with the exception of Sir Alec Guinness), and production problems from day one somehow became a rip-roaring success at the box office and spawned two sequels that did even better. In fact, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was one of those rare sequels that was considered better than the first, right up there with the Godfather Part II, Mad Max, and T2.
Now why is that? Why is the Star Wars franchise so enduringly influential and popular? There is no single answer, but the general consensus seems to be that they were just good at capturing a certain Zeitgeist. In addition to its accessible theme of the hero’s journey and the idealist fighters battling against an evil empire, there was also the classical themes of The Fall, the Redemption, dynastic struggle between father and son, the ties that bind, the hero’s fate, and countless elements borrowed from other popular genres, such as gun-slinging spaghetti westerns and swashbuckling samurai movies. All this came together to create something that some thought was brilliant, others thought was a guilty pleasure. But that all could agree, it worked! People liked it and wanted more!
So it begs the question, how and where did things go wrong? I’ve say how and where at the expense of why because I feel that one is obvious: right around the summer of 1999, when Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was released. That’s pretty much when things went wrong! From then on, things got steadily worse, with an even-worse sequel and a salvageable third. Fans of the franchise were left sore and dumbfounded, having spent their money to see them, but generally feeling betrayed and confused. From a critical and a popular standpoint, the Star Wars prequels did not hold a candle to the originals, leaving many people to wonder what could have happened.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Naturally, when it was announced that prequels were coming out – movies that would cover the Clone Wars, show the origins of the Empire, and the fall of Anakin Skywalker/rise of Darth Vader – fans were excited. I know I was! Like most men my age, I had grown up on the franchise and lived in a world saturated by Star Wars toys, books, magazines, lunchboxes, figurines, and even novels. So it goes without saying that I wanted to see how Lucas would fill in the back-story. But like most fans, I left the movie theater a little daunted. It was only a few minutes in when I first came to realize who the target audience was, and like most people my age, I wasn’t too happy about it. Sure, the lightsaber fight scene and podrace were both worth the price of admission, but something needed to be done about the rest of it. There were just too many weaknesses that were glaringly obvious. Let me see if I can break them down succinctly:
Weak Plot: It’s a rare thing when a movie can be both technocratic and childish at the same time, but this movie pulled it off! First, we have a plot where the “greedy Trade Federation” is blockading a planet because they’re unhappy about taxes. And we get a big earful about how the Republic is deadlocked and ineffective due to the stumbling blocks of parliamentary procedure. Really? This is how the big, huge saga begins? I know were supposed to be getting a preview of how the Republic became a tyranny due to corruption and inefficiency, but it could have been done in a way that wasn’t so heavy-handed and dull. In fact, nothing about this plot seems realistic or even interesting. A great big civil war and slide into despotism began with taxes on trade routes??? Let’s not forget how the Trade Federation has all these ships and battle droids. When was the last time a Merchant Marine was ever allowed to do that, stockpile weapons and blockade planets? Who the hell is running the Republic that this sort of thing was allowed to take place? And if they really wanted to stir things up, why blockade some backwater place like Naboo (kiddy name if ever I heard one!)? Why not a hub, like Coruscant or Alderaan or something like that? Oh, and Palpatine, the evil Sith Master who will overthrow the Republic and become Emperor, he’s actually FROM there? I’d think a master of the dark side would be better suited coming from somewhere a little less remote, don’t you? I know, I know! Sarah Palin wasn’t exactly from a major hub either. But she’s aint President… yet (gulp!)
Racial Caricatures: Let’s not forget the borderline racist junk that made it into this movie. First, the “greedy” Trade Federation representatives, whom Qui Gon Jinn referred to as “cowards”, clearly a bunch of Japanese businessmen. Why is the Trade Federation run by this one race, for that matter? Aren’t they supposed to be like a guild or something? The fact that they all look and sound the same only deepens this racist impression. Then there’s Jar Jar, a creature so annoying he made most of us want to hurl a whiskey bottle at the screen! He has big flappy ears, is clumsy as hell, has a ridiculous accent and speaks pinyin. Put on a big fro and you got Buckwheat, racist without the folksy! Next, there’s Watto, who might as well be called Shylock for all the obviousness of his character. One, he’s greedy and cares only about money; two, he wears a yamaka-type headpiece; and three, he’s an obvious scam artist. So in essence, Lucas caricatured Black people, Asians and Jews in one fell swoop with this movie. I know he likes to draw parallels to the past, but Victorian-era bigotry is not something any smart man should want to associate with.
Virgin Birth: The original Star Wars movies made obvious use of Judea-Christian mythology, but this movie went above and beyond. Having Anakin be the result of an immaculate conception, where the Force (or midi-chlorians as they call them in this movie) willed him into being, was just plain pushing it! I mean, I know Anakin was supposed to be special, but this whole “Chosen One” thing was too much. The fact that there was a prophecy associated with his existence had potential, and I kind of liked where they went with it in later movies, but in this particular one, it made me want to gag.
Midi-Chlorians: Didn’t you just know I was going to bring them up next? Yes, as someone who grew up with The Force, I can tell you that one of its greatest selling points was its mystery. The way Obi Wan explained it to Luke, the Force sounded very much like an allegory for destiny, history, or the unfolding of a divine plan. No one quite understood it, no one knew with any certainty what course it would take. But in the end it seemed to unfold in such a way that balance was restored and those who tried to control it ended up being screwed. What better allegory is there for Karma, the Divine, or universal justice? You can’t get more mythological and Judea-Christian than that! And how and why some people are more sensitive to it than others was something that was also a mystery. So you can imagine how it might seem disappointing or dumb when Lucas decided to reduce it to microscopic bacteria that exist in your bloodstream! Why not just say there’s a F gene or something? With one stroke of the pen, we went from deep mythology to pulp sci-fi!
Re-use of Characters: Prequels are supposed to use many of the same characters, but that doesn’t mean that EVERY SINGLE ONE needs to be accounted for, or that they have to be part of the same plot. For starters, Anakin build C3PO? And R2D2 knew him as a kid? What they didn’t have other service droids in the past, you gotta re-use the same ones for over thirty years? And if so, why the hell didn’t this come up in the originals? Sure, Lucas did a last minute explanation for that in the third movie, but that didn’t change the fact that this was just weak. And it happened again and again in the second and third movie, as if Lucas was getting a bonus every time he managed to write a character from the original movies into the new ones. You know, the universe is a big place. People’s paths may cross, but not all the freaking time!
Forget your mom, kid: One of the things I heard people complain about a lot with this movie was the way Anakin was being pressured to cut all ties to his mother. In essence, he’s pulled away from her, told that his fear of losing her is a bad thing, and how this could lead him to the dark side. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering…” as Yoda put it. So what then? He’s just supposed to turn his back on her and become an emotional ascetic? He’s freaking ten! And with lessons as pedantic and cold as this one, its no wonder the boy turned to the dark side! And really, one can draw a straight line like that through anything! Watch! “Fun leads to enjoyment. Enjoyment leads to fondness. Fondness leads to obsession. Obsession leads to destruction. Destruction leads to suffering…” Or how about discipline? Jedis love discipline. Watch me connect to it the dark side! “Discipline leads to perfection. Perfection leads to arrogance. Arrogance leads to foolishness. Foolishness leads to error. Error leads to anger…” and so on. See? Not hard! It’s like playing “Six degrees of Dark Side”. And the prequels are full of this kind of needlessly harsh reasoning, stuff you’d never expect to hear out of a Jedi. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be disciplined, but isn’t compassion also supposed to be their thing? More on that later…
The Kid: As if Jar Jar wasn’t annoying enough, we got to suffer through all the bad one-liners and atrocious acting of that kid who played Anakin. Another obvious ploy to court the kiddy vote, as was all the podracing and dog-fighting he did, stuff no ten year old would ever do! The former was bad enough, but did Lucas really have to include that horrid dogfight scene at the end where he basically saved the day through sheer luck? I already checked my brain at the door, but I still felt my intelligence being insulted with that scene! Speaking of which, where is that kid now? I don’t recall seeing him in anything after this movie came out. But given the sheer exploitation, odds are good he either turned to drugs or became a petty criminal in order to channel his outrage of being in such a film! Hell, if I were him I’d be suing the bastard for raping my youth!
Okay, so it was a bad movie. However, I remember being soothed by rumors that this first installment was just a first salvo that was meant to get the kids hooked and that the later movies would be aimed more at the adults. Lucas was even rumored to have reported that his second installment would be darker, and since the subject matter was supposed to be how the Clone Wars began, I figured it had to be true. Lord knew, we who were now adults, who had grown up enjoying Star Wars as kids, expecting something from the man. But I learned a lesson from all this, check your sources, and don’t expect nothing from men like Lucas! Sometimes, the fan community makes up stories and puts them in place of real fact. And Lucas, it seemed, had no intention from deviating from the course he set. In fact, he even went on the record as saying that Star Wars was always meant to be a “Saturday Morning serial for kids”. Translation: screw you grown-up fans! I don’t need you anymore!
And it was about that time that I discovered why Lucas was going down this road in the first place. Contrary to what some people had said, he had not gone crazy, or mad with power. In truth, Lucas was never a very good writer or director. The only difference now was that he seemed to think he had overcome these limitations. A few years into the release of the prequels, critics had formed a chorus that could be heard chanting the seminal words of Harrison Ford: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!” These words, which were just a heartfelt complaint at the time, have come to be synonymous with everything Lucas did wrong. Apparently, when he was making the first Star Wars, he had a lot of trouble adapting his script to the screen. More than one cast member, aside from Ford, had asked themselves “Who talks like this?” when reading it. But, knowing his limits at the time, Lucas sought the help of others during the making A New Hope and had full-time writing and directorial assistance when making Empire and Return of the Jedi. But after years of success and adulation, Lucas appeared to think that he knew best and didn’t require any help from anyone anymore. In fact, it was rumored that he now did all his writing on the Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by sycophants and yes-men who told him what he wanted to hear and kept the negative reviews from his ears. It was not until the second installment got panned that he seemed to sit up and take notice. But more on that in my next installment…
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Entertainment Value: 7/10