Thursday, August 28, 2008

Chewy, Set Two-Seven-One

After including the original Star Wars of 1977 in my post of 20 favorite movies, I've been wondering what exactly accounts for the pull of the franchise on our collective imagination. I think the expected answer has to do with director George Lucas's attention to the seminal hero story that recurs throughout diverse human cultures. Joseph Campbell has written extensively about mythology, and he has called George Lucas "my best student," (though I can't help wondering if this is a courteous tip of the hat to the student who has had the greatest impact, or made the most money from this line of thought). I don't know much about Campbell's work, and so I certainly can't say anything definitive about this connection. But while this fealty to the traditional hero myth might explain how the story holds together in broad strokes--at least in the original three movies (the newest three seem to throw the original myth out with the bath water)--I think explanation of the popularity of the overall franchise needs something more than this.

I ask myself: would any of the other five Star Wars movies stand on their own? And what percentage of the audience for the new trilogy owes its enthusiasm to a youthful connection with the original three movies? I have to think that Lucas has made far fewer new converts to his cause with his most recent movies than he did with the original three (or two--I don't think anybody pays much attention to Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, even though it culminates the whole hero story--which maybe makes my point). Speaking from my own experience, I think my affection for the enterprise owes a lot to my being 14 years old when it first debuted, and I still think few movies have done as well at portraying a workaday life in space; this is rocket fuel for a boy's imagination, or it was for me. Whatever the explanation, at some point the whole enterprise seems to have gained enough mass to ignite its own chain reaction.

This latest release in (and extension of) the franchise, Star Wars: Clone Wars, raises these questions anew. Directed by Dave Filoni on a screenplay by Henry Gilroy, the story is set between the events portrayed in Episodes II and III, and follows Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi on an adventure amid the backdrop of the fabled Clone Wars (a story alluded to throughout the original trilogy, and told with biblical clarity--that is, with mind-numbing obfuscation--in Episodes II and III). As with most of George Lucas's plotting, this story is overwrought and hopelessly convoluted, perhaps to enable as large a stable of the existing characters as possible some screen time--Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO, Mace Windu, Count Dooku, Chancellor Palpatine, Padme, Jabba, etc. (Only Qui-Gon Jinn and Chewbacca and a youthful Han Solo fail to make an appearance.)

But I think if you're not already up to speed with these characters, the present story will be hard to sink your teeth into. Given the large number of characters to keep tabs on, it feels like no great effort has been made here to attract new viewers (though uninitiated kids might find the action mesmerizing on video). Rather, they seem to be counting on a pre-packaged audience, probably the biggest group of rabid devotees of any in movie history. So this one is preaching to the choir.

Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (who himself now appears cured of his inner conflict and self-composed enough for Master Yoda to assign him a Padawan learner of his own) are tasked by the Jedi Council with locating and rescuing the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hut, Rotta (wouldn't that be hutnapped?). Anakin must learn to teach, and to trade barbs with his witty and capable Padawan, the young woman Ahsoka Tano. And of course they must overcome impossible odds to do this, disposing of thousands of droid troops and a host of evil humanoids arrayed against them. There it is, or something close to it. (Does anyone really care about the details of the story?)

This film differs from the other six in that it's entirely animated (there was a TV series in 2003 called the Clone Wars, but it was a low budget affair). The nature of the settings in which the Star Wars story takes place, plus the heavy reliance on digital special effects--especially of the prequels--makes the marriage between the Star Wars universe and computer animation an especially happy one. The familiar scenes of Tattooine and of Coruscant on Naboo look almost to have been lifted from the live action films, and anything dealing with space as a backdrop or with the interiors or exteriors of space ships lends itself very well to computer animation. All of this places us comfortably into the familiar, alien Star Wars worlds; there's a happy well-worn shoe aspect as the movie begins. Only the creatures--the humans especially--are rendered with a distinct cartoonish unreality that reminds us that we are viewing a different medium from the original movies. The story is heavy on action, with numerous long fight scenes which replicate the scenes with which we're already familiar: hails of blaster bolts, flashing lightsabers, zillions of droids, numerous flying machines.

The grapevine has it that this theatrical release is intended to kick off a new weekly television program by the same team; this is the introductory pilot for that project. There's no mention of that in the movie, but the film certainly ends in an open-ended fashion (not that many of the myriad storylines in the Star Wars franchise ever wrap up definitively). For whatever reason, the Yahoo Movie Guide has quite a collection of critics panning this film, giving it the worst individual grades I think I've ever seen (well, there was Gigli...). So I was expecting a travesty to be done to the franchise, a horrid movie that disgraces moviemakers and viewers alike. But for once in my life I'm inclined to tell these reviewers to choke down a chill pill and take a deep breath and step back a little. Especially in animated form, it's easy to forget what the story is. It's a basic morality play for kids, one which just happens to have more adults in the audience because Lucas got his start--and set his hooks--when WE were kids.

Hell, maybe I need that same chill pill.

In the end, if you're a Star Wars person you'll likely enjoy this movie; and if you're not, you won't. The grade depends on that. As a fan of the movies, I rather enjoyed it.

But overall I think it only merits a C.


dbackdad said...

Nice review. I had been debating whether I was going to go see it.

Like you, my adoration of Star Wars was due to it's effect on me at a young age. I was 8 years old when my folks, my little brother and I saw Star Wars at a drive-in in Salem, Oregon. Like a lot of boys my age, it was really one of the formative events of my youth and can't be overstated. Because of that movie's influence, Lucas' many disappointing efforts afterwards were made all the more unbearable. Maybe that's not fair, but if Star Wars wasn't successful, none of the rest would have even been made. So, you can't blame Star Wars.

The first 2 movies are great and Jedi is great if you edit out any scenes with Ewoks (lol). Everything else has been disappointing, but watchable nonetheless. I think I will catch Clone Wars.

CyberKitten said...

I'm waiting for my next door neighbour to buy it on DVD (he's a *huge* Star Wars fan) and borrow that rather than risking a cinema visit. [grin]

wunelle said...

The video option is a good one! And if the weekly serial turns out as good, it might be worth watching.

CyberKitten said...

I never actually understood the whole Star Wars thing.... I mean it was OK I guess but.... I've always been more of a Star Trek fan myself...