“Your First Step Into A Larger World…”

Among geeks of a certain age (those of us who grew up with, and whose tastes were shaped by, the original Star Wars films) there is an orthodoxy which states that as wonderful as the first film was, it is The Empire Strikes Back which stands as the best of the trilogy. By the time of Return of the Jedi, Lucas’ aim was already off of his now-adolescent original fans, producing a film aimed more at the little brothers and sisters, full of Muppet menageries and jungles full of teddy bears. We began to first feel the sting of our thing being done for someone else. This is, of course, to say nothing of the second trilogy (my generation’s view of which is well-established by now, and need not be hashed out again here).

I’m going to break from that orthodoxy, however, and state what I’ve come to realize in recent years: The best of Star Wars was the period from 1977-1980: between the release of the first film and the release of Empire.

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker: “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.” For the three years until the release of the second film, Star Wars truly was that larger world — the universe was vast, drawn in the barest outlines by dialog references that spoke of unseen details: Clone Wars. Dantooine. The Academy. Regional Governors. Ancient Religion. Spice Freighters.

The tales of that larger world came from few sources: additional hints supplied by color text on trading cards and toy packaging, the novelization of the film, the few tie-in novels (Brian Daley’s Han Solo books and Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye), and Marvel’s ongoing comic book series, “the greatest space fantasy of all time.” Even more so, however, the tales came from us — in a million back yards and bedrooms, created with action figures or with water-gun blasters and whiffle-bat lightsabers. Our stories, told against an endless tapestry of possibility.

Today, however, every corner of the Galaxy Far, Far Away is detailed. There are maps covering every location, every background character has a detailed backstory, every moment of the setting’s history has been nailed down. There’s no room for possibility. Hell, there’s no room to breathe.

As great as The Empire Strikes Back is, that’s where it really began. Where changes started to occur — where detail stopped coming in dropped references to a wider world, and started being telegraphed set-ups for a now-certain third-film pay-off. The vague outlines of the first film began to be forced into shapes, and not always in ways that improved the setting. (For example — in the first film, Darth Vader is the Black Knight — the heavy, the muscle, subordinate to Tarkin. In the second, he’s the right hand of the Emperor, above all others.)

I find that I prefer the universe as it appeared in the novels and the Marvel comic of the time — the Emperor as a weak politician, walled off from the people by the military Moffs who actually run the Empire. Different factions and houses vying for advantage and power — the Corporate Sector Authority, the House of Tagge, etc. I find that more interesting than a wizened evil sorcerer who managed to overthrow the previous government and in only 20 years managed to turn a “thousand-generation” institution into a half-remembered “ancient religion.”

This has been on my mind recently, due to the ComicCon announcement that Dark Horse comics was doing new Star Wars series, written “as if Episode IV had just come out in theaters.” The thought of an ongoing comic that ignored everything after the first film awakened a small spark inside of me — a return of that long-lost sense of possibility. Alas, it was to be short-lived, as further details proved that the comment only meant that the comic was taking place in the time immediately following the events of the first film, but would still be constrained by the established “canon.”

It makes sense, I suppose. Lucasfilm has way too much invested in Star Wars to throw out 35 years of established continuity. Still a disappointment.

What I struggle with even more is the desire, as a creator, to show what I mean by producing something that echoes what I loved about the setting from 77-80. The setting was a legend to my generation, created, in Lucas’ own words, because ‚ÄúThere’s a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales.” If it was any other legend or fairy tale– King Arthur, Robin Hood, Snow White — I’d be free to do “my version”, my take on it. That’s obviously much harder to do with a proprietary setting that is an active business. My choices boil down to doing a “fan” project, where I pour work into something purely for the love of it; or instead file off the serial numbers and come up with a pastiche of sorts.

The fan project is doable, of course, but hard to justify to myself — I make my living via creation, and spending the time, energy and resources to produce something like that would take away from other projects which allow me to pay my bills and feed my family.

The pastiche is also a possibility. Lucas himself was consciously doing a pastiche of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and other SF serials when he created Star Wars. The main issue for me is that the setting looms so large in my imagination, I can’t help but feel that any pastiche I’d create would feel too much like a pale imitation for me, which would detract from my ability to really invest in its creation. A copy wouldn’t inspire me nearly as much.

So what to do? What would you do? Strive to come up with something close-but-not-quite, in order to try to reclaim the thrill you once felt and communicate that thrill to others; or throw logic to the winds and embrace the idea of doing something purely for the love of it, without any ability to recoup anything for your effort?

 
 

John Carter

Around 20 years ago, Disney released a film, based on a property only familiar to a few. The film was a nearly-perfect adaptation of the source material, and a great film in its own right. The studio, however, didn’t support it that much, and when it opened at #4 in the box office, it quickly sank. That film was The Rocketeer, and to this day, Disney continues to give the film a short shrift — most recently releasing a bare-bones no-extra-features BluRay for the 20th anniversary — despite the fact that it stands as one of the studio’s best-realized productions.

I see a lot of The Rocketeer in John Carter.

I’ve been a fan of the John Carter stories since I first read “A Princess of Mars” at age 11 or 12. My wife and I saw the midnight premiere of John Carter last night, in IMAX 3D — and despite reservations that I had, from awareness of the studio’s dumping the film in a traditional dead zone for releases which traditionally presages a dud that they’re looking to forget quickly, what I saw was a nearly perfect distillation of the themes and images that have been in my head for 30 years. Some changes were made, of course — such things are inevitable in film — but the changes (especially an updating of Dejah Thoris into a more active and capable character, while still maintaining her traditional allure) actually serve to make the film better than the source novel in some respects.

In many ways, it’s a bit like Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring in that way — a film that gets the look and feel of the work so very right, but with slight changes that make it a better film.

Of course, the press has passed judgement — they’ve read Disney’s intention (the neutering of the title, the early March release, the near-total lack of tie-in support), and, as ever eager to follow the lead of their betters, are lining up to belittle the film as gimmicky, one-dimensional, hokey, and even derivative. (Yes, a century-old story which influenced dozens of sci-fi blockbusters is now criticized as copying those blockbusters. This is the culture we’ve created, kids — welcome to it.)

Don’t believe it. John Carter is everything a Mars movie should be: mysterious, wondrous, exotic, thrilling, and filled with unabashed pulp heroism. Efforts like this should be rewarded.

The fans of NBC’s always-on-the-brink-of-cancellation Community have a saying: “Six seasons and a movie.” John Carter deserves a trilogy (at least) — but at this point it doesn’t look likely that it will even make back its budget on US box office. Which is a damned shame — because the lesson that Disney will learn from this is that films like this don’t make any money.

If you love science fiction, pulps, or just a good, old-fashioned tale of heroism, do your self a favor and go see this film, before it, like The Rocketeer before it, sinks out of view.

Self-Publishing (Movie Edition)

So the news broke from Sundance last night that Kevin Smith is distributing his new film, Red State, himself.

He had been telling everyone that he was going to auction distribution rights in public after the screening — and handed that over to his co-producer to officiate. As soon as bidding began, Smith bid twenty bucks, and the auction was closed. He’ll make deals with theaters himself, renting the space and pre-selling tickets. As Smith pointed out, with his 1.7 million Twitter followers and his Podcast audience, he’s been able to completely sell out venues (including Carnegie Hall in NYC) without spending a dime on traditional marketing.

The link to the site, above, features the current tour dates and a button that allows you to request a screening in your home town.

In the press release (also linked on the site), Smith says: “Don’t hate the studio; BECOME the studio. Anybody can make a movie; what we aim to prove is anyone can release a movie as well.”

Of course, the traditional media outlets are pretty dismissive of this whole thing. This, though, is one of the more balanced bits of coverage.

Most outlets are deciding to run with stories concentrating on smug “mixed reviews” for the film — but Neil Gaiman has said: “It’s the best thing he’s ever done. Left me shaken and grateful and wanting to make art.” I think I’ll trust Gaiman’s opinion, rather than conglomerate-fellatists like Drew McWeeney.

There’s no denying that Smith is able to do this because of his existing fame, built via the traditional model. But it’s a matter of scale — and it’s quite obvious that somebody without as much exposure could do the same thing on a smaller scale.

Publishing Houses, Film and Television Studios, Record Labels — they’re all relics of the last century.

Storm the gates.