Wednesday, February 13, 2013
An Open Letter to the makers of the New Star Wars Films
To the Powers That Be at Disney,
No, no, no. Relax. This is not another snotty, Comic Book Guy post, complaining that C3P0 is going to want to be a real boy, or that Buzz Lightyear will be the main character of the next movie, or that Leia is not a Disney Princess. Unlike many people on the internet, I do know that a studio famous for certain things is capable of doing other things. Plus, the Star Wars films were danged kids’ movies (or family-friendly, anyway) in the first place. So, what’s the problem really, super-fans? This letter consists of a few suggestions from one lone voice of nerdiness, one Dork who has spent a lifetime with the universe of Star Wars as part of his mythological pantheon. I’m not one of those guys who tries to live by the Force. I don’t have a Slave Leia poster on my wall. And while I don’t care for the Prequel Trilogy or the CG manipulated versions of the original films, I did actually like a lot about The Phantom Menace (It’s a gorgeous movie, people. Look at it!). I’ve never subscribed to the idea that one must like either Star Wars or Star Trek. I like ’em both, and Babylon 5, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly to boot. I have plenty of space in my nerd heart for all (I even like Middle Earth, even though I’m not much for wizards and dragons). But I feel I need to stand up on my tiny little soapbox have my say.
In my previous letter to the creative team behind the rumored Star Trek TV series, I suggested that step one in the process should always be to look at the property and assess what it is really about. What is that thing that makes it stand out, that gives it its essential identity. With Star Trek, I contend that it is hope for the future of humanity (and life in general), wonder at the vastness and cosmic beauty of space, and a cautious optimism about technology and science, and that all this ‘let’s make it darker, let’s show lots of war, etc.’ stuff is muddying the waters and diluting the essential nature of Trek. But what is Star Wars? Is it about Jedi Knights battling to restore balance to the universe? Is it about fathers and sons, family destinies, etc.? Is it about people living on the fringes, fighting against insurmountable odds? I’ll tell you what it meant to me. It was a glimpse into realms of the imagination. I was transported to exotic locations, saw strange creatures and stranger people. Interesting characters like wise Old Ben, sleazy Han Solo, smooth Lando, driven Leia became role models of a kind. Leia was one (thankfully, of many) female characters in movies of my youth that defied gender roles and showed that a woman didn’t have to be constantly rescued by a man, but could do plenty on her own. Han showed me that one might have a rough exterior, so long as one remained true to one’s self and did the right thing when the chips were down. And even though I don’t like a lot about Return of the Jedi, or for that matter, the whole story of Darth Vader being Luke’s father (I much prefer him just being a villain with no ties to the protagonist beyond opposing ideologies), I do love the redemptive arc; the idea that as bad as he was and as awful as the things he did were, a man could find some little slice of redemption. But what it all came down to was stickin’ it to the Man. No, my ship’s hallways aren’t gonna be clean. No, my hero isn’t going to get the girl. Yeah, Han shot that dude. In cold blood. ‘Cause it was the right thing to do in that circumstance. And yeah, he is a little too short to be a Storm Trooper. Take that, suits. Star Wars don’t take no guff.
Star Wars had its roots firmly planted in the storytelling of a different time. It harkened back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and its sequels, to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon serials, and to the pulp science fiction of C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories and the like, and the Golden Age science fiction of Asimov’s Foundation books. These were books marked by bold visions, wild and untamed imagination, grand imagery, and daring adventure. Rogues and visionaries, self-made heroes. Sweeping stories, packed with action and melodramatic relationships. Swashbuckling and ray-guns. Rocket ships and robots. Strange vistas and exotic women. And obviously, when you look at the Empire (not to mention a lot of the technology), a level of World War II seeped into much of the series, with its crushing jackboots, resistance fighters, and average people caught up in the waves of history. It helped to break the image of the science fiction as being soulless, pristine hallways, and Spartan, monochromatic rooms. It visualized what had been in the literature for a long time, that when humans go into space, they will bring all their habits with them, not always sweeping the floor, cleaning off the table, repainting that part of the wall by the door, leaving the dirty laundry laying around, etc. It’s a world that looks like it’s being lived in, not one long day at the office.
So, what do I want to see in new Star Wars films? Well, I don’t really need to see Luke, Leia, Vader, or any of them again. Their story is done. It’s over. We’ve seen it. It’s been told. I’m not saying ignore them; clearly they should have had a profound effect on the galaxy. But just as I wouldn’t want every movie about the 60s to be about Bob Dylan, and I wouldn’t want every movie about cops to be about Eliot Ness, and I wouldn’t want every movie set in the Star Trek universe to be about Worf, I don’t want or need every Star Wars film to be about the Skywalker clan. It’s a big universe, filled with infinite potential. New characters and new locations, and new stories, that’s what I want. And don’t ever, ever, ever go back to Tatooine. It was supposed to be the back-end of nowhere, a place so outside of the flow of the galaxy that a powerful Force adept could hide out without worry, the son of a Republic hero could live a quiet life, and there was little to no chance of ever being stumbled across. Yet, five out of the six films visit that backwater nowhere (is it simply coincidence that the film generally considered to be the best in the series is the one movie that doesn’t take time out to visit Tatooine?). And everything that has ever happened in the history of the galaxy seems to have involved that one desert world at least once. What gives? And avoid the traps of Avatar and Episodes II and III. Don’t spend tons of money, time, and effort on recreating environments you could just fly to. A desert? A jungle? We have those here on Earth. Let’s see things we don’t have. Not even saying don’t go to jungles or deserts, but make them exotic, make them unique. Change the color of the sky, the ground, the plants. Give them distinct features we won’t recognize as North Africa, Australia, or Brazil. Avatar cost what, 300 million? 600 million? An episode of the last season of Farscape cost what turned out to be a prohibitively expensive 1 million, and in an hour of that show I felt like I had visited an alien world with strange creatures and people I’d never experienced, not taken a trip to Costa Rica or Brazil with the cast of Terminator 2. Imagination is the key, and maybe that really does require younger voices, younger directors and script-writers. Often, older filmmakers play it too safe, rely too much on experience. And if there is ever need of an illustration of necessity being the mother of invention, look at hard at Avatar, a movie where money was not an issue, where the best and brightest had everything they could ever want to put together a movie, and what did we get? A long, un-engaging retelling of Fern Gully with environments, people, creatures, and technology we’d all seen before in other films, video games, etc. Not an inventive or surprising element in the whole danged thing. A lower budget isn’t a bad thing. It forces creativity and invention. Not only that, but when the financial stakes are lower, the freedom to take chances is higher. And taking chances is how classics are made. It’s how Star Wars was made.
Let’s see a return to the action packed, visually striking, idea packed fun of Star Wars (before it was A New Hope) and the serious, high-stakes storytelling of The Empire Strikes Back. Interesting characters with surprising motivations. Strange worlds and unique locations. Creative and alien peoples. Look to the Clone Wars animated series, which has more interesting ideas packed into an average episode than the entirety of Episodes II or III. Look to other science fiction shows, like Farscape, which managed to capture that magic of the first Star Wars film week after week for four seasons. Or the operatic storytelling of Babylon 5, which could rise above primitive CGI and wildly uneven acting to be one of the best emotion packed science fiction epics out there. Star Trek and Star Wars helped to reshape science fiction. And after the success of Star Wars, countless films hit theaters, shows hit the small screen, and books hit the shelves. Some of them took inspiration from Star Wars and went further, became more, became something better. Don’t be afraid to look to these sources, look at what they did, and try to raise the bar again. And hey, while I’m talking about things I want to see, let me just throw out a few things I really, really don’t want to see. I don’t want to see vaguely racist stereotype aliens, like those pseudo-Asian Trade Federation guys (I kept expecting one to say ‘Me so solly’), or the Manton Moorland style antics of Jar-Jar Binks (I know he’s a popular target of ridicule, but there’s a reason for that, he seems like he stepped right out of a 1930s comedy where people might show up in blackface), and maybe a new trilogy shouldn’t feature only one prominent role for a black man…who is also pretty much the only non-Caucasian person (Lando in the originals, Windu in the prequels) with any significant screen time. And lastly, stay away from kid characters. Unless there’s a very good reason. Nobody likes kid characters. Nobody has ever liked kid characters. The kid is the least popular and most reviled character in pretty much every science fiction series out there that features one. Kids don’t like ‘em (Who was my favorite character in the original Star Wars movies? Han Solo. Who was my favorite character on Next Gen? Worf or maybe Picard. Who was my favorite character in the prequel trilogy? Obi-Wan. Who were my least favorites? Respectively Luke, Wesley, and Anakin.). Adults hate ‘em. They’re almost never written well (“Are you an angel?”). They’re usually the center of the most insufferable moments. So don’t do it. Just scrap that part of the story. Everyone will be happier.
So far, I think the most interesting time created for the Star Wars universe is still that of Imperial rule. What the Dark Horse comics term as The Rise of the Empire and the Rebellion Era. But that doesn’t mean filmmakers should stick with that. Maybe there will be other, more interesting times. Maybe a really good story set in the Nights of the Old Republic would work. Or, and I doubt this, something set in the so called New Republic time. Who can say. But if the movies are used to explore the time of the Rebellion in greater depth and scope, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.
So what is Star Wars? Like so many works of art, it varies from viewer to viewer. But I think it’s about fun, wild, exuberant action, exciting and exotic locations, and relatable but not necessarily nice characters. It’s about standing up for what’s right against the weight of a galaxy spanning evil. It’s about the power of the little guy to fight the system. It’s about all the shades of grey that exist between good and evil. Please, do what J.J. Abrams did for Star Trek. Make it fun to be a fan of Star Wars again. Make me look forward to the next film with unabashed anticipation, not wary trepidation (actually, that’s how I’m looking forward to the new Trek film, so maybe don’t follow Abrams’ example). Look back to what made Star Wars a cultural phenomena. It wasn’t little kids, hammy acting (well, there was plenty of hammy acting), or CGI. It was fun and new and grand and exciting. And it was full of hinted at ideas and larger things beyond what the camera showed. It captured and inspired the imagination. Let’s see some of that again, OK? I know you can do it, Disney. You have Pixar, which has created some of the best family-friendly movies of the last two decades. You have done what nobody believed possible and made a series of comic book movies that feel like the comic books they’re based on. You’ve got money, power, and talented people. And now you’ve got one of the most coveted, beloved franchises of all time. But like Star Trek before it, the fans have been put through the ringer and they’re kind of hurt and sad. Help us out, and don’t screw this up.
Thank you for your time.
-Matthew J. Constantine, Star Wars fan since the late 70s.