Friday, July 06, 2007

Star Wars & Me - Part 2

I used to have a picture of Jar Jar Binks up in my living room. There, I've admitted it. I'm not sure if I'm wholly ashamed of that fact or not, but, returning to the subject of Star Wars influence and impact on my life, it would be simply wrong of me to cover the Prequel ere without confessing that deep, dark secret.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself here. In the run up to next weekends Star Wars Celebration Europe I thought it might be interesting to talk about my experiences of Lucas' return to the Saga. As I discussed in part one, the Original Trilogy had a very profound and far reaching effect on my youth, and in many ways the Prequel Trilogy has formed something of a backdrop to my adult life as well.

It's hard to know exactly where to start with a discussion of the Prequels. My Star Wars fanatic sister had made sure that I knew from an early age that the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, was in fact episode four, and that Lucas intended to make three films set before it and three films set after it. I know that Mr Lucas has more recently claimed that the plan was always to only make six films, and that he'd never said he had plans to make episodes seven, eight and nine...but....well... I've watched interviews with him where he's not only said that he was planning nine films, but that the entire saga could possibly be twelve. So, like many of my generation, I'm sure, I spent much time contemplating what events might transpire in these as yet unmade films.

I think it's unlikely we'll ever see Lucas himself produce Episodes 7-9. For one thing, the time period they would likely have originally been planned to take place in has been thoroughly covered by the many novels, comics and video games that have been released over the last thirty years. It's not impossible that Lucas might come out and declare that none of that is canon and make three films that flatly contradict it all, but I'm sure he makes a lot of money from the sales of those "Expanded Universe" products, and I can't see him shooting the goose that lays the golden egg. I've often imagined the sequel trilogy as charting the fall of the New Republic, Luke's eventual turn to the Dark Side and the establishment of a new Sith Order opposed by the last remaining Jedi, Leia Organa. Thus demonstrating the cyclical and somewhat futile nature of history. But, you know, that would be kind of dark.

Speculation about the Prequel Trilogy, however, was always a little more fun. After all, where this was concerned, we actually had some clues to work on. We knew that the Clone Wars were likely to take place at some point during the films, though we had no idea what they were, other than that a Jedi such as Obi-Wan was able to attain the rank of General during them. We also knew that at some point during the Prequels Anakin would turn on his master Obi-Wan and embrace the dark side of the Force. We also knew that the final showdown between the two woudl take place beside a pool of lava, and that Obi-Wan would ultimately emerge victorious, and that Anakin would be left hideously disfigured. Lastly, we knew that at some point Anakin would father twins, but we didn't know who their mother would be (although we suspected that Luke would be taken from her at birth while Leia would stay with her for a short time).

That's all anyone had to go on for about fifteen years, but even with such a small amount of information, the early internet was still full of websites, newsgroups and forums dedicated to discussing exactly what was going to happen in episodes 1-3 and 7-9. Of course, it was all wild speculation and nothing else, and then...

...and then, in the wake of the huge success of the release of the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy in cinemas worldwide, George Lucas finally did what so many Star Wars fans had by now given up almost all hope of him ever doing...

...he announced the continuation of the Star Wars Saga on the big screen.

More specifically, he announced that production had started on Star Wars: Episode I. At that time it had no subtitle, that was it, he kept everyone guessing about the title for a long time.

Eventually, the first trailer was released on the internet, and I can remember patiently sitting for hours while my dial-up connection slowly downloaded the trailer. Ever so slowly the first new shots of a Star Wars film to be seen since the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi played across my PC's monitor. It looked amazing. This was going to be the greatest film ever. It was going to have been worth the wait.

My first inkling that this assumption may not have been entirely correct came when the title was finally announced - The Phantom Menace. I was convinced it was a joke. I thought it was a play one words, as in "The Fandom Menace" but I guess I was wrong. The title's grown on me since.

Soon after, the Duel of the Fates video was released, and it wasn't long before my then fiance and I knew every line of dialogue in that video off by heart. Now, when my then fiance and now ex first got together, she had never seen a single Star Wars film. I had the joy of introducing her to the Original Trilogy (in their Special Edition forms), which she instantly fell in love with. She had willingly joined me in my Star Wars fandom and we were both incredibly excited about the new film.

I deliberately tried to avoid any and all plot spoilers in the run up to the film's release, and given that I was such a heavy internet user (and active on a few Star Wars forums back then too) that was no mean feat. Thus, I was a little disappointed when a casual glance at the back of the soundtrack CD, released a few weeks before the film hit cinemas, resulted me reading the track title "The Funeral of Qui-Gon Jinn." Doh!

It was the summer of 1999, I had a good job, I was engaged to be married, traveling the world doing good, and there was a new Star Wars at the cinema. Life was good. Was it the greatest film ever? Well, no, I guess not. It was very good, but a little heavy on the politics, a little heavy on the annoying gungan and a little light on the Han Solo front. In the Original Trilogy, the Jedi's rampant idealism had been counterbalanced by Solo's world weary cynicism. There was none of that here, and the film suffered for it.

Reading a lot of people's views on The Phantom Menace today you'd be forgiven for thinking that's it's two hours of Jar Jar Binks in boring senate meetings about midichlorians. To be fair, the senate meetings, Jar Jar's antics and the mention of midichlorians are a very small part of what is, on the whole, a thrilling action/adventure movie. The podrace and the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsabre duel are two of the high points of the entire six film saga. It has a strong cast, with Liam Neeson particularly standing out as Qui-Gon, whose presence is sorely missed from episodes 2 and 3. Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor are both fine actors on fine form here and, yes, indeed, Jake Lloyd is actually very good as the young Anakin Skywalker. The script, at times, lacks much of the wit of Original Trilogy and there are a few jarring cuts in the film which the DVD release later revealed were due to the removal of several scenes. I can't help but feel that had those scenes remained the film would have flowed more smoothly and I'm hoping that a future DVD (or perhaps BlueRay or HD) release will see these scenes fully restored to the film. Yes, Jar Jar got to be a little too much at times but...small children loved him, and my then fiance loved him too (that's why we had his picture up in our living room), she even carried around a Jar Jar back pack everywhere she went for quite some time. So, I don't hate Jar Jar, in fact, I'm rather fond of him. He reminds me of that simple, happy summer, when Star Wars was back in the cinema at long last (and I saw it four times).

The Original Trilogy had inspired such groundbreaking, classic PC games as Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, X-Wing and TIE Fighter, so when The Phantom Menace was released, LucasArts knew they'd set themselves up with a very high benchmark to meet. The official game of the film was a fairly uninspiring if fun platform affair, certainly not the type of game to almost take over your life, as the previous games I mentioned did. However, all was not lost, as there followed the extremely unimaginitively titled Episode I: Racer. I suspect that the guys at LucasArts had poured so much of their collective genius into making this game that they simply had none left when it was time to choose a title. I remember installing the game with eager anticipation, loading it up, navigating through the menu screens, clicking on "play" and being met by nothing but grey fog and what I assumed were the sounds of a pod race. A quick bit of online research later and I broke the sad news to my dad - he needed a new graphics card. My dad, bless him, splashed out on a brand new top of the range card, and before I knew it I was off racing across the deserts of Tatooine, across Malastare, Ando Prime, and the rest of the Galactic Podracing Circuit. This game was pretty much perfect, easily the best racing game I've ever played. Not only were the controls and the game play superb, but there was a veritable smorgasbord of tracks and pods to choose from, as well as a seemingly endless supply of upgrades which could be purchased with your race winnings. My only real complaint about the game being that the final few special races (unlocked by winning every other race) finally proved too hard for me. Still, if you've never played it, then hunt this one down in the bargain bins or on eBay. I seem to recall in needs a patch to run on XP, but don't let that put you off.

Now we move on to Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The summer of 2002, with my Podracer alarm clock firmly consigned to the dustbin (due to its providing the single most unpleasant way to be woken up in the morning), I was now a much oldr and wiser man, not only married, but also the father of one small but perfectly formed little boy, Zak (Han, Luke and Anakin having been rejected as names by his mother - although she would have happily called a girl Padme!?!).

I was, obviously, very busy with other things at the time, and Attack of the Clones kind of snuck up on me, and I only managed to see it once at the cinema. I remember being blown away when I first saw, and hugely disappointed when I later returned to it on DVD. It has some amazing parts, such as the introduction of the Kaminoans and the cloning facility, and Jango Fett was a very welcome addition to Star Wars universe. However, a lot of the action falls a little flat on further viewings due to either a complete lack of dialogue (the big end battle) or some appalling dialogue (the speeder chase at the beginning). The biggest problem with this film however, is Hayden Christensen's wooden performance. While I completely understand that he was trying to play a troubled character who was trying to keep his very powerful emotions in check, he instead comes across as an uncharismatic, whiny bore. The few times that he does let himself go, and truly emotes, he really shines (for example, when he confess to Padme about his slaughter of the Tusken Raiders). However, it's in the romance that his performance really falters, and it's just impossible to buy any kind of connection between Anakin and Padme. I've heard since that Christensen and Portman loathed each other, and if this is the case then it's a real shame as it really hurts the movie. I can't help but think that it would have been much more in keeping with the feel of Star Wars to have them fall in love while fighting side by side in the Clone Wars, rather than have them in such a stiff, formal situation light years away from the action.

All that aside, Star Wars films are a lot like pizza, when they're good, they're great, but when they're bad...well...they're still pretty good. This film still has some excellent moments, such as the showdown between Jango Fett and Mace Windu, or the ultimate fanboy moment - Yoda vs Count Dooku. Some people hate Yoda's fight scene in this movie and think it's laughable. Those people are idiots. It's damn cool. Yoda rocks!

My wife didn't enjoy Attack of the Clones, however. Hayden's acting was just too wooden, and she thought Yoda's fight scene was silly. She was falling out of love with Star Wars. It was no longer the care free summer of '99, things had started to turn sour at the church where I worked, which then dominated just about every part of our lives. Just as the victory celebrations at the end of Attack of the Clones are tempered with Yoda's warnings of impending doom, so things had started to go very wrong in my own life, and I was ultimately to find myself entering my own dark times, just as that galaxy far, far away was.

So we skip forward a bit to 2005, the Saga was reaching a close, and it's darkest moment, and my life was mirroring it in many ways. 2004 had seen me quit the church where I'd been working for five years as I discovered that my boss, the pastor there, was every bit as corrupt and morally bankrupt as Chancellor Palpatine. That had cost me a lot, my job, my house, the band I was bass player in and most of my friends. Then in 2005 it began to become clear that it was, ultimately, going to cost me my marriage as well. We were heading to the London Expo when she told me she was leaving me and while we ultimately decided to try and work things out for the sake of our now two children, it was clearly the beginning of the end. It may sound completely absurd, but it became most clear to me that we really weren't going to be able to work it out when, having pre-booked tickets for the opening night of Revenge of the Sith, she announced to me just before we were about to leave for the cinema that she didn't want to go and that my dad could have her ticket instead. Her love for Star Wars was well and truly dead, and with it yet another thing that we shared was gone. It took us another year to finally agree that it was over.

Still, you don't want to hear about that dark time in my life, not when there's still the final chapter in the Saga to talk about!

So, what of Revenge of the Sith? Was it any good? Of course it was! By far the best of the prequel trilogy, and probably the third best film in the entire Saga. Action, adventure, excitement, this film had it all. Incredibly dark at times, thankfully, and only slightly marred by Hayden's still quite wooden acting (oh, and that awful "Nooooooooooo" from Darth Vader at the end...ugh.... ). At last, here were those moments we'd been speculating about for all those years. General Kenobi fighting in the Clone Wars. Anakin... Obi-Wan... A river of lava... The finest lightsaber fight in the Saga. The twins are born (and generate the oddest, most pointless continuity error... how does Leia remember her mother?). Vader and Tarkin oversee the construction of the first dreaded Death Star and C3P0 and R2D2 find themselves on the Tantive IV under the command of Captain Antilles. The circle is complete! Now George Lucas is the master!

Obi-Wan Kenobi delivers a young boy to his aunt and uncle on Tatooine and...despite everything that's going horribly wrong in my life...I have a new hope. I start working on a comic called "Young Gods' and...well...if you want to know what that led to, then you'll have to go back to the first post on this blog, and keep reading...

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