Squeaky Mouse Droid: A Different Point of View
“Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
– Obi Wan Kenobi, somehow talking about Facebook posts in a galaxy far, far away.
So, Squeaky Mouse Droid is back. Sorry for the long absence. In getting closer to the release of The Force Awakens, there was the idea to have a new article about every single trailer and teaser that the marketing team would set upon us, but I decided that it wasn’t necessary. So, yeah, if you’re curious, since the last column, they’ve released an international trailer, a few TV spots, and now a clip (which is less than 20 seconds, but it’s still the first “clip” we’ve seen separated from the trailers) and there’s a lot of new photos that have been released. What can I say: they are all awesome! Especially that Stormtrooper that fights Finn. Look around, you’ll find it.
So, while all those tidbits about the new Star Wars film (it’s still quite surreal, if you’ve been a fan from the beginning, to think there will be a new Star Wars film. Just sayin’) are all awesome, this column is all kinds of not awesome. This is a bit of a negative article. Has to happen. Don’t worry, the ol’ Squeaky Mouse Droid will be back to his usual self by the next article. In fact, he’ll be back to his usually self by the end of this one. Just hang in there. Indulge me while I hit hit a few sour spots. Then I’ll pull out of here just like Beggar’s Canyon back home!
George Lucas is a hero. He not only created the greatest and most imaginative saga that has ever been brought to the screen with Star Wars, he also created Indiana Jones! More than that, I can count on one hand how many single human beings have done as much for modern cinema (on both technical and storytelling levels) than this man. He is also a great human being (did you know that the $4 billion he got from Disney after selling the company the rights to Lucasfilm properties was, largely given to charity. That’s what I heard, and – yes – I believe it). Putting aside what follows in this very column, I will always consider this man one of my personal heroes.
But, in a sense, there are two Georges. There’s George #1, that young, filmmaker who was trying very hard to tell a story using mythological archetypes in the format of a daring adventure while pushing the limits of what was possible with the technology of the time, and then there’s George #2, the billionaire who already achieved huge success, and thought “cutting edge” could only mean CGI (this began in the late 90’s when CGI creatures were being featured in every movie simply because it was new and awesome), and who had somehow lost touch with the very essence of what made his own creation so great. He’s a man that might have had a good story to tell, but as any writer will tell you, a story is only good if it is told well, and his the prequels lacked that storytelling punch that the original trilogy had.
Well, George #2 recently made some comments that, to this intrepid writer, had a tinge of bitterness to them. “People don’t actually realize it’s actually a soap opera and it’s all about family problems – it’s not about spaceships.” Then he said: “The issue was they looked at the stories, and they said we want to make something for the fans. All I wanted to do was tell the story of what happened”, Lucas said. “They decided they didn’t want to use those stories, they decided they were going to do their own thing, so I decided fine”.
Case in point: even keeping the story for The Phantom Menace exactly as it is, the pacing could be improved by a igniting a fire under that screenplay. Want an example? Here goes: in the film, Qui Gon, looking to pay for parts for his ship, goes to a city, and meets Anakin Skywalker as a young boy, and they concoct this idea that Anakin can enter a pod race and they can use the money to buy the ship parts. But the script makes this a chore to get through. There is twenty minutes of dialogue about how this little gamble is supposed to work, including lines like “Watto doesn’t know I’ve built it (the pod). You could make him think it’s yours and I can pilot it for you.” This line was spoken because Watto wouldn’t allow Anakin to enter the race, but it really doesn’t explain how Anakin obviously entered the race anyway. You guys remember (I’m sure you’re trying to forget) when Qui Gon tried to place the bet with Watto, and the bet changed. Yeah, none of that dialogue about the pod or the all the changes with the bets really added to the essence of the story, and none of the lines are memorable or interesting. Or efficient. If George #2 had allowed another writer to give the script a polish, that writer might have told the same story this way:
Qui Gon enters the city with some money but not enough to get the parts for his ship. Watto has the part but isn’t susceptible to his Jedi Mind Trick. Oh well. But look: everyone in the city is wandering over to the arena to see a pod race. Qui-Gon wanders in as well and is surprised to see a human child as one of the competitors. That surprise doesn’t last long, as Qui Gon senses that this boy is strong with the Force. Qui Gon bets everything he has on the boy.
And there you have it. The story itself is unchanged, and the pod race doesn’t ‘t need twenty minutes of buildup about “whose pod it is” and “what’s the be.” The story would be streamlined, and a good writer would be able to write dialogue that allow us to know the kid even if there are less scenes with him if such a version were used. Sometimes less is more: less time is spent on the romance scenes between Han and Leia in The Empire Strikes Back than on the romance scenes in Attack of the Clones, but the Han and Leia romance was far more powerful and effective.
How about this? When did Anakin turn to the Dark Side in the prequel trilogy? Well, most people would say it happened when he killed Mace and then Palpatine started calling him Darth Vader at that point. That’s what it seems like. But really? What about when he started dressing in black and was complaining about the Jedi Council, or when he started asking Palpatine too many questions about the Dark Side and how to sue it to save his wife? Or what about beheading someone if the first moments of the film? Or.. if that’s not enough, what about slaughtering a village of Tuskan Raiders in the previous film? I remember the marketing campaign for Attack of the Clones very well, as I worked at a newspaper at the time and we worked hard to create splash pages all over the entertainment section for the film, and it was marketed heavily on the fact that the film would show us how he would make his decent to the Dark Side – that’s what it promised. And the scene that most personified this promise: when Anakin set out to find those Tuskans! The scene was the most prominent piece of marketing in the entire film. He was still portrayed as good for the last act of the film and started not only as good during the opening space battle of Revenge of the Sith (“I’m gonna help him out” he said, as he wanted to help a fellow clone pilot) moments before the beheading scene that was already mentioned.
My point: the screenplay for these films were all muddled. It’s hard to find that through-line for the key character progression from good to evil for Anakin in the film because Lucas didn’t ask for help writing the screenplay, and as a result, I can’t pin down exactly when he went to the Dark Side, just as I can’t really pin down who was betting what in the pod race before realizing that those specifics weren’t even important to the essence of the story. When you start piling on the more common complaints that people have about the prequels, the you realize that Star Wars had lot its edge.
Guess what? It happens; people do sometimes lose touch with what it was about their own creations that made them great. They also lose that fire inside – that passion and that drive – that led them to create it in the first place. They no longer can see their own work the same way the most passionate fans can see it. Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, a franchise that, on it’s own, was visionary and remarkable, because he had a real vision behind it from the beginning. But even his ear for good storytelling had drifted away from what made that franchise great (for those looking to re-watch a great Star Trek adventure, how many people still pop Star Trek: The Motion Picture into their DVD player?) and he was booted form a hands-on role so that a new team could breathe life into the franchise by calling back to what people loved about the old old show, and thus Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan was created. Since George#2 owned Star Wars personally (Roddenberry might have created Trek, but it was Paramount that owned it) and he even financed the films himself, he could not just be booted away when The Phantom Menace failed to excite his audience. As a result, two more prequels came out, and the endless expository scenes regarding trade federations and such continued, and the real grit of a fun space adventure would give way to people sitting on couches having conversation, or getting involved in more cartoonish action set-pieces.
Yes, things improved by the time he got to making Revenge of the Sith (but a lot of the problems of the other films were still present in the that one, especially in the long middle act of the film) and much of the sensibility of Star Wars just wasn’t there.
Lucas also commented to Vanity Fair that it’s “not much fun” when “you go to make a movie and all you do is get criticized.” I can understand that, but it really is a question of true love by the fans. Fans love this franchise, and when they saw their beloved story going off the rails, they had to let their voices known. It’s important that Lucas understand that all the criticism comes that devotion and passion for what he created. Also note some of the strange decisions Lucasfilm was making just before the property was sold to Disney. Neither Star Wars Detours (look it up, if you dare) nor releasing all the films in 3-D said a whole lot about the future – or even the real legacy – of the franchise; there was not much of a direction to that at all. Remember when they said they were going to release one of these films a year in 3-D, and they were going start with The Phantom Menace. So it would only be this year that we’d start seeing the classic Star Wars on the big screen. That whole idea infuriated fans; it certainly did not please them. What about Star Wars 1313 video game? What was going on in Lucas land that an edgy, dark Star Wars game got so far in development only to be scrapped without a public explanation.
And now the guard is finally changing. Star Trek obtained great success (but also had a few rough spots) once Roddenberry was moved away from a hands-on role, and the same could happen for Star Wars. Success is not guaranteed: all it takes now to all but sink The Force Awakens is a clumsily written script (imagine how much you might wince if the First Order has a weapon that can destroy the galaxy? I winced a lot when J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek spoke of a nova that somehow threatened the entire galaxy, so my fears here are not unfounded, believe me) but having a new creative team work on this film is not a bad thing. You’d think George would have been a bit more positive about the future of Star Wars than he came across during that interview. I have no doubt that he actually is positive and enthusiastic about the franchise’s future, but, just going from that interview alone, he sounded more like that controlling George #2, someone who was less than happy to see that his story wasn’t being told.
I really doubt that an Episode Seven film written and directed by George Lucas, which had the same “everything looks CGI” aesthetic as the prequels would be met with as much enthusiasm by the fans and the general public as the trailers TV spots for The Force Awakens has been. Just sayin’.
Still, George you are the man. Don’t ever change. Be proud of this great myth – this great world – that you created. Be proud to know it will continue on for generations.
Staying on the Dark Side of things for one more anecdote. Noted genre actor Simon Pegg spouted off the following comment recently, and it irked and even offended a lot of Star Wars fans.
“I don’t really have any respect for anyone who thinks those films are good. They’re not. (They’re) a monumental misunderstanding of what the (original) three films are about. It’s an exercise in utter infanticide … (like) George Lucas killing his kid.”
It’s hard to tell if he was being hyperbolic at all with this: he is a comedian, and delivery is everything, and you can’t get that reading the words on the screen. It does seem questionable to diss a franchise that he is a part of (yes, being Abrams friend and a huge fan, we all know that he’s involved both in front of the camera – even under an alien facade – and, no doubt behind it too. Maybe he could have said this a bit differently.
Consider: maybe hes right.
I like the prequels. I probably pop them in my PS3 more than I do the originals. I prefer watching them over many other blockbuster films. I’ll usually defend them from attackers, yet watching them, I feel that, in some basic way, they often miss the point of the original films. When Palpatine decided to throw lightning from his fingers at Luke at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, it was to make a point that would conclude the themes of the story. Luke had been able to stand up to the Emperor and not give in fully to the Dark Side, and though he could claim claim victory over the Emperor as to which side of the Force he was on, the Emperor punctuated the journey by illustrating how much more powerful the Dark Side is – the lightning was an illustration of that greater theme – and Luke would have to pay for his decision. It worked thematically in the story. In the prequels, characters shot lightning out of their fingers because merely because it was “cool” and because that’s what “evil” characters can do.
The overall tone of the prequels was also an issue. The original films had a story that started as a zippy, fun space adventure A New Hope and the tone had become a bit more somber in the two successive films (but still fun and vibrant when appropriate), but it was very organically done. On the flip side, the prequels began with fart jokes and concluded with children being slaughtered. Again, how a story is told is just as, if not more important, than the story itself, to allow the audience to take it in and have that story resonate with them. So, in thinking about this, I can’t help but think that Pegg had a valid point he was trying to make.
I promised I shall end this on a lighter note. Remember the scene in A New Hope where Chewbacca has an encounter with a “squeaky mouse droid” and scares him off! Well, the new Verizon commercial delivers on the phrase “what comes around goes around!” Victory for the mouse droid!
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Until next time (expect a full review of the new film when it’s released, of course!)