Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Disney Goes Rogue

If there's at least one thing you can give credit to George Lucas for when he introduced Star Wars to the world it would be originality. He took a lot of generation spanning story elements that had been around for a long time and transported them into a completely new backdrop. Such is the very essence of original creativity and the reason Star Wars had such a huge impact on my generation. It was enough to foster a certain nostalgic desire to re-live that experience, and that is extremely difficult not only because we see things differently as we age but also because if you were to try and re-introduce the same formulas again, they would by definition no longer be original. That is the paradox of the Hollywood sequel and constant curse of its creators.

Few fan bases have been so hard to please as those of the original trilogy. Look no further than the widespread disdain toward the Star Wars prequels as evidence. Lucas was not out to re-create whatever experience his fans might have had with his films. He just wanted to tell his story and although it was new and creative in its own right, the basic premises and the backdrop were the same as before. What did the fans expect? Well, the best you can do is provide little homages to the original work to tell the fans you understand them, you know how they feel. Studios often play into that to bring audiences to the theater, but not George. That would, and with no sarcasm here, be an artistic compromise.

When Disney took over the franchise, I think they vowed to avoid the reaction that greeted the prequel films when they set out to do the next trilogy. So in their first installment, The Force Awakens, they went completely the other way. Not only did they fill it with tributes and references to the original trilogy, but they kept the main actors in their original roles and practically duplicated the plot line of Episode IV. Well, it worked. They got their stamp of approval from the fans, but by re-enacting so much of the original work's form, they created something that lacked what made it so good to begin with, namely, originality. Then again, who could hope to re-create that?

Last night I went to see Rogue One, the second Star Wars franchise film from Disney Studios. The trailers had set me up for a war movie and probably revealed too much of the overall story, but I have to say, as an original trilogy fan myself, it was quite an experience on many levels. I may have to see it again to take it all in but for now, parsing it out for you the readers will help me gain some clarity. At some point beyond here there will be spoilers so if you plan to see it in the future you should go no further. But do enjoy the fan made movie poster above, which is done in the spirit of the original trilogy posters and looks a lot better than any that Disney Studios put out there.

============================ spoilers below =======================

Moviegoers are about to see the most serious minded drama placed into the Star Wars universe. By that I simply mean that the film takes its universe seriously. It may be a long time ago in a galaxy far away, but the story is told as if that world is as real as our own. Star Wars was part of a sub-genre of sci-fi known as the space opera, which like a musical opera, intends to transport us into a different place that is often full of exaggerations and stereotypes. This film steers clear of such things. It does not draw a straight line between good and bad characters. It showcases more human looking cast members than aliens so as not to distract you from the drama. One of the more delightful treats was seeing familiar space ships traveling over vast planetary landscapes that were just beautiful, but not really all that alien. This was one of the more subtle ways they managed to please us fans - by allowing us to see all those familiar war machines and space ships from our childhood memories and make them seem real. The death star rising like the moon on the horizon. AT-AT walkers attacking on a tropical atoll. And of course the familiar faces. ILM worked miracles re-creating the late Peter Cushing as Tarkin, and a stunning cameo shot of the young Princess Leia. They got role reprisals for Bail Organa and Mon Mothma. I have to say that the last 45 minutes was so chock full of fan material that it all but got out of control - all that "blue leader" to "red leader" banter. But what guilty pleasure to see more footage of those rebels and ties battling in space. I even had to laugh at one scene of a rebel in a watchtower looking out over the sunset at an X-wing leaving Yavin base - a re-creation of an original trilogy scene but now made real with a longer shot to enjoy it. It is wonderful that Rogue One explained some critical things about Episode IV, like Tarkin's rise to power, and why the Death Star had its fatal flaw, but did it have to lead right up to the very start of A New Hope? Nonetheless, most of the film stuck faithfully to the plot at hand.

It is also an odd paradox that the serious tone of the film was probably born of the meticulous desire to remain true to the Star Wars timeline. Your heart wants to be sad that every new main character dies by the end, but then your fan-brain kicks in and says that it has to be that way - otherwise we would have to explain why these people don't appear in the originals. Another clever invention was Donnie Yen's blind force-wielder Chirrut Imwe. What a great character he was. Not a jedi, as we know the Jedi were killed off by Palpatine except for a named few, but it shows how the force is accessible to anyone with enough faith. His fight scenes were in my opinion some of the most memorable.

One of my favorite characters from the original trilogy was Admiral Akbar. The Mon Calamari race were supporters of the rebellion early on and so they appear prominently in the Rogue One battles, but that Admiral Raddus sure did act and sound like Akbar if you ask me ;). And they took a new direction for an android "counterpart" who was a straight man like 3PO but not as bumbling. If I had to change one thing it would be the score. Sure it needed to be sad and foreboding, but not for the entire film! It's as if they didn't want the audience to get too emotionally involved so as not to let them down in the end.

Because such a different approach was taken with the material, mixing of old and new on a different backdrop, I would suggest that it succeeded in creating something original. And I wager that has something to do with why Mr. Lucas liked it better than the last installment. I'm hoping when Episode XII comes out Disney will continue to create new material but still preserve some connection to us original fans.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Closer Encounters This Time Around

The recent trailers for the new film Arrival generated some real interest for me, but I could not help noticing the parallels with the classic Spielberg sci-fi epic often referred to now as CE3K. I found myself wondering - with the myriad of alien visitation films that have come out in recent decades, has it really been 40 years since anyone has done it like this again? Let's note some of the common elements...

============ mild spoilers below =============

  • A story of a first encounter with an alien race that focuses mostly on the human impact and experience rather than on the aliens themselves or on any complex plot line.
  • The human impact is profound and life changing.
  • The governments of the world are involved and (initially) working together.
  • The aliens are much more advanced than us but have benevolent intentions
  • The primary struggle is in finding a means of communication which turns out to be radically different from our own written symbols.
Of course, the story is definitely original with a lot more elements involved, but I experienced just a slight twinge of nostalgia, enough to give the film a chance despite the huge scientific believability gaps. You would think that would put a film like 1997's Contact ahead of it, but I never once thought to connect that film with CE3K. Carl Sagan took a much more scientific approach to the topic.

Below the line are some of my thoughts on the positive and negative story elements.

=================== huge spoilers now ===================

I believe one of the well executed threads was illustrating the process of trying to communicate with a completely foreign entity, as seen through the eyes of a linguistic expert. That's one of the few items that felt like real science fiction - the kind that makes you think about what it might actually take. In fact, I hear that the book on which it was based is heavy on linguistic theory. It was also refreshing to see aliens depicted that were quite different from us physically and environmentally, although on the behavior side they tended to mimic several types of Earth bound animals.

Unfortunately the most crucial revelations were based on some rather ridiculous notions. Seeing into the future is philosophically difficult already, but to suggest that learning a new language could bring about that capability is nonsense. And of course they make the usual mistake when it comes to the time travel twist, which is if she saved the world from missing out on the technology by getting information from the future, why is the future portrayed as if she doesn't know she ever did it in the past? And what are consequences of humanity obtaining an ability to see into the future worldwide? These questions are not addressed because they don't support the focus of the story, which is primarily on the main character's life and some type of message about nations working together.

All that said, I was surprised at how the time flew given the slow pace of the film, so perhaps that was the main point - the telling of a story. The book on which it is based is called Story of Your Life. And maybe that is really the main connection that it shares with Spielberg's 1977 classic. I'd welcome any other thoughts on that note.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Favorite Martian

I have to be honest, the main reason I decided to go see The Martian was not because I am particularly fond of Matt Damon, but because at the time I had looked, it had a 98% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes! (It has dropped to 93% since). My expectation of the plot was literally a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway (lead role match notwithstanding), and on that count was not too far off target. But with Ridley Scott at the helm I figured it would at least be interesting, and in the end it turned out to be closer to amazing. A blog entry was in order.

Now it took some self-reflection for me to decide what made this film fall into the category of science fiction. I would have loved to blog about another recent space disaster film, namely Gravity, but refrained because I decided it was not part of the genre. Just because a fictional story is set in space does not make it sci-fi. There has to be some element of speculation that stretches the imagination regarding what is possible. I decided that since Gravity was set in near earth orbit on existing space station technology, it depicts events that could happen today without any further contribution from science or technology. However, The Martian, although it is based on NASA's own realistic ideas of how such a trip and rescue could be done, the fact remains that it has not yet been done. It is still completely in the minds of today's scientists and engineers. That puts it right on the border line of science fiction and real life drama, and that is part of what makes it such great story. Unlike most other fictional stories set on Mars, it not about Mars the planet, it is about the limits of human achievement.

I don't think this film got as much credit as it deserves for staying so true to actual science.  I read that the author of the original book, Andy Weir, had connections to NASA and was able to allow the director access to the top scientists working on the Mars projects. I think Scott may have been attracted to the project because of its potential to inspire future scientists and engineers to go into space exploration, and to garner public support for a manned Mars mission so that our country could make it a priority. I believe that because of this he let NASA rule the day on the technical side, while at the same time using his own skills to craft an engaging story that is suspenseful, charmingly humorous, and educational at the same time. The only flaw for me was the somewhat corny soundtrack. I almost forgave it when I realized those disco tunes were being played right after the Apollo missions had ended in 1972. It was almost like saying "Hey guys, let's pick up where we left off."

I have to also mention that this is one of two films that I would actually recommend seeing in 3D format (the other one being the aforementioned Gravity). The reason is simply that the Martian landscapes that were created were absolutely spectacular! And they are featured regularly between segues throughout the film. Ridley Scott loves good cinematography and he features every angle possible, from rock formation closeups to satellite altitude flyovers. Even though I'm sure some rocks are real and some are digital, you just cannot tell one from the other. If you want to really feel you are on Mars, see the film in 3D.

I haven't said much about the details of the story but there is really not much more that needs to be said because it is all just a tale of how a group of people use raw ingenuity to perform a rescue mission from one of the most uninhabitable places you could realistically be stranded in. That story is as old as Robinson Crusoe and still works, so no spoiler warning needed. I will, however, admit that I thought my blog title was pretty cheesy, but I could not resist as it comes from an old show from my childhood, and it gists with my belief that the film is important on levels other than just its entertainment value. And lo and behold, I later discovered that when My Favorite Martian was made into a move in 1999, it co-starred Jeff Daniels, who plays the director of NASA in this film. That's enough to redeem the cheese!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Did The Force Awaken?

As a generational Star Wars fan, I was surprised at how much I downplayed my anticipation for the 7th episode that I was able to finally view the day after Christmas. The first red flag came when I learned that Lucas was letting his franchise go to Disney. It was crazy - a total control director relinquishing control to a total control conglomerate! But Disney did well with Pixar and Touchstone, so there was hope. Then I read in a mag article that Abrams and Kasdan did not consult Lucas for the script. They not only started from scratch but rushed it due to the tight schedule - typical for Disney. I think respect for the fan base would have at least let George write them a synopsis and then they could decide what to keep and what to throw away later. But they didn't even consult someone like their own employee Dave Filoni who had been creating stories with Lucas for years in the Clone Wars project and probably knows the Star Wars world inside the man's head better than anyone. Even the Rebels series he is now doing perfectly mixes the old with fresh new material and proves how masterful their team is with the fan base. What I feared at that time, and supported by the trailers, was that Mr. Abrams and company would go too far in trying to imitate the past. Those fears turned out to be well founded.

============= mild spoilers below ============================

Now, let me just say that there is enough entertainment value in The Force Awakens to make it not just a good watch but memorable. The production value, of course, is top notch, and the new stars, Boyega, Ridley, and even Oscar Isaac who plays pilot Po Dameron, are wonderful. There are some really great sequences that work - like the Tie Fighter escape, including the space battle in which Finn and Po quickly establish a friendship, or Han Solo and the smuggler confrontation, or even a small exchange where Han offers Rey a job. There's enough of those wonderful moments to satisfy. But I left also feeling that it could have been so much better, and spent a lot of time thinking about how bad the script had been. So what I thought I'd do here is just list a bunch of specific changes I would make if I were in Mr. Abrams shoes. I'm hoping some other fans out there might be having similar thoughts. But these are going to be major spoilers so reader beware.

============ MAJOR spoilers (and I really mean spoil) below ===========
  • Han and Leia seemed like they were sleeping most of the film. Such tired acting was surprising since both Ford and Fisher have had continuously active careers, and the newer cast members did so well. Could Abrams have been intimidated so much by his childhood icons that he could not get the chemistry going? I mean, if Han is still galloping across the galaxy on dangerous smuggling operations, he should still have the same cocky attitude his character showed as a young man, just maybe a bit grumpier. If Leia is commanding soldiers, should she not be showing more passion? The few moments of emotion she was allowed to show were horribly forced. I personally would not even have been that ambitious with their roles to begin with. I can imagine Han Solo becoming a collector and trader of vintage space vessels on some remote outpost. I can imagine Leia as a prominant senator in the new republic, where such subdued acting would fit better. 
  • Mark Hamill's one shot was pulled off quite well, but did they really need Rey to meet him face to face at the end of VII, rather than at the beginning of VIII? The first meeting of master and apprentice in any film, not just Luke and Yoda in ESB, is a critical story piece that is now rendered impossible in the next film. I would have had Rey travel to the island with a shot of Luke, in meditation, sensing her presence and taking some action indicating he'd been waiting for something for a long time.
  • The little nods to A New Hope were cute but should have been more subtle. The Millennium Falcon was featured in all three of the original trilogy films, but only in ANH did anyone play hologram chess. Even George Lucas knew you only do that once, and it became one of many signature scenes for which that first film is remembered. Replaying it for fun in this film only diminishes that memory. The same can be said for the trash compactor reference, the Kessel Run banter, and Han's "you changed your hair" quip to Leia. You only do this kind of thing when it makes sense to the story - like the use of the old targeting computer images when Finn needs to use the Falcon's guns.
  • J.J. Abrams seems to agree with the very wrong Hollywood notion that if you want to make something better, just make it bigger. He really lost me in his Star Trek reboot when he decided to blow up the entire planet of Vulcan, one of the most entrenched alien civilizations of that world. When the empire destroys Alderaan in a ANH, it is one of the most emotionally poignant moments because it is Leia's own home world being destroyed before her own eyes. In this film they blow up 5 republic planets in one stroke without any emotional impact at all. Bigger is not better, it is just too overwhelming to contemplate. While the first trilogy's emperor was scary because he was an evil person, the only way they thought they could make Supreme Leader Snoke scary was to make him really huge. That only works for little kids. ANH had a little cantina, so let's make it into a BIG club cantina this time! The first cantina worked because it was like a western saloon - its main job was to be scary. The wonderful thing is that the weirdness of the alien customers was the normal part in that world - they were different only because they were the shady players you might find drinking it up in a darkly lit pub. But in this film, Han tells them not to stare before they go in, and the aliens are now just as alien to our protagonists as to us. Disney just doesn't get science fiction.
  • Maz Kanata wasn't a bad character, almost a Yoda type, but what a boring form they gave her. She looks like ET, but with even less facial features. Couldn't they have come up with something a little more creative?
  • Staying with Maz's place, the minute they walk in some random character calls them in to the First Order, and another calls the Resistance. We know nothing about these characters either before or after those calls. What a lost opportunity for some real story to be inserted. At least wait until we get some time to absorb the environment before upping the plot tension. Such basics.
  • Darth Vader wore a mask primarily because he had to in order to breathe, which gave a good excuse for the now iconic look and sound. Kylo Ren wore a mask because... he wanted to be like Darth Vader? Already that sounds quite weak for a villain, and then he takes it off all the time which diminishes even the mask mystique. Look at all Lucas' villains - either mask all the time or never. Boba Fett never even removed his helmet in the first trilogy and look how great that helped his reputation. It just works better for bad guys not to change their look unless they change their character. Maybe if his face had been more disfigured we would forgive the mask wearing outside of battle, but Disney likes their people looking good on camera I guess.
  • Leia's part was written with no contribution to the story. As a general, she made no decision about the course of the war. As Han's partner and Ren's mom, she did nothing to either contribute to or withdraw from those relationships. She should have either been left out or given a real part, but both of those options were too risky for Disney. So she just recites meaningless lines all day.
  • When Han first steps onto the Millennium Falcon, his words to his co-pilot are "Chewie, we're home". What a silly line for Solo - tailored only to fan sentiment! How about "Look at her, Chewie, almost the same as I left her".
  • The confrontation between Han and his son was a bit hollow because there was no prior build up of any conflict in the relationship. If you are going have two main characters collide and one of them dies, you need a back story to give it weight. Now if episode 8 tries to fill in how Ben grew up, how he turned against his father, and so on, it is too late to save the relationship so it is a bit pointless.
  • So C-3PO has a red arm, but do you really think he would apologize for it when meeting Han instead of waiting until someone asks? Even if you do, wouldn't it be more effective to just let it be and let the fan base ponder about it later?
  • Finally, why make fun of the Jedi mind trick? The mark is not supposed to repeat what the Jedi says like a robot. It is more subtle than that. In ANH, the stormtrooper repeats Obi-wan's words to his buddy as if he thinks he is the one originating the thoughts. And it is easy in that case because there is no consequence for that slip - while letting a prisoner out of a cell will cost a stormtrooper his life. That would be hard for a mind trick to overcome. Is it surprising that George Lucas understands the rules of his fantasy world better than other people do?
I could keep going but that is enough to make the point. It is one thing to leave audiences wondering about the who, what, and why of various elements in the story. But while everyone is trying to do just that, why can't we call Disney to account for their bad script writing?  They need to know that if they wanted to "get it right", the trick was to give the creators time and freedom, something Disney hates to be liberal with. Just throwing money at it doesn't work. Let's hope they learn something on the next time around.