In which I alienate readers by mentioning a good movie’s Big But…
I saw Rogue One last night, and it was great. I was surprised by how seriously it treated the story, and by the father-daughter connection. The ambiguity of the characters and their motives was very satisfying to watch: almost every one had conflicting motives and could have made a decision either way at every point. There were definitely good guys and bad guys, but the way they accomplished their goals was highly ambiguous and provoked a lot of moral questions. The acting was fantastic, and the production design was really cool. There were at least two very cosmopolitan cities that didn’t have the artificial sheen of Coruscant in the prequels. And of course, there were familiar characters, especially imperial characters, that I didn’t expect to see.
They broke with the typical elements that we’ve come to expect from “Star Wars movies.” There was no crawler at the beginning, there were titles announcing the locations, and there were lots of new sorts of droids, troopers, and imperial officers and ships. The music was not John Williams, but it was satisfactory. It was loud, and distracting at some points, but the whole movie was loud and full of action. If you haven’t seen it, go and see it, and enjoy it. I really enjoyed it, BUT
It’s fan fiction. It’s undisputedly fan fiction, and there are a few things that are disappointing about that. Fan fiction mainly serves to allow readers or viewers to live in the world of the characters or extend the characters’ experiences in ways that fans would like but original creators don’t provide. This is related to my “Renaissance Faire Theory,” which is basically that when people want a particular setting or atmosphere, they don’t demand the things that make storytelling really great: moving characters who deal with moral dilemmas in original or unexpected ways. It’s not as exciting as something original because you really already know the story, or you know how a character will deal with something, they tend to take the story too seriously, and it takes away the air of mystery, where especially in Star Wars that is a crucial element. A long-lived TV series or book series has the same problems (dare I say Wheel of Time?) where if the only way you can keep things going is to reveal how everything works, then you’re going to kill the golden goose. Everything becomes very concrete, and the air of mystery is lost.
Fan fiction removes the air of mystery and takes the story too seriously
Let me give you an idea of a real air of mystery: when I was a casual to moderate Star Wars fan in the late eighties and early nineties, there really wasn’t a lot of Star Wars material to go on. There were three movies, a Christmas special, a few animated specials, an episode of the Muppet Show, and there were books, comics and novels. That sounds like a lot, but consider that people weren’t interested in making movies. They weren’t everywhere. There wasn’t a Star Wars section at Target. We watched Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, or if we were really lucky, Return of the Jedi once a year on TV, and if somebody got them on video, we would all go over to his house to watch. You had to be a major star wars fan to find the novels, get them through mail order, and the few “how’d they do it” books at the library were constantly checked out.
No one knew how the Force worked. There was no concrete manifestation of the Force. Maybe I would have heard of Kyber crystals or something like that if I’d been a more rampaging fan and had read the EU novels or the comic books, but I was really only interested in Star Wars being a movie. And that’s what it was. Sadly, the prequels and Rogue One make the Force into a very concrete thing, something attached to physical objects. This surely helps them with the plot, and it might please more hard-core fans, but I think it’s as bad as the midichlorians. The Force is intangible, and yet, fan fiction has this fault of not really getting that some things are supposed to be intangible. Strike one against fan fiction: removing the air of mystery.
Star Wars is best as the kind of story where people swing from the rafters and knock out the bad guys and take their uniforms
The next thing that I see is taking everything too seriously. I took the Wheel of Time pretty seriously: I really related to the characters, particularly Nynaeve, and wanted to get to know them and grow with them. But I was always able to see that seriousness in its proper place. Rogue One is really really really serious. It just doesn’t have the pulpy, adventurous quality that the original films had. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does mean I don’t think it’s going to be fun to watch multiple times, and I would rather watch Episode IV (which, now that I have kids, I have seen too many times). I really like Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett (who, incidentally wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back). If you want to really appreciate where Star Wars was coming from, read Black Amazon of Mars or one of Howard’s Conan books (you can get them free on LibriVox), and you’ll see why it really makes sense to have a princess, a rogue, an old man, and to have the guys beat up the storm troopers and steal their uniforms. There’s bounty hunters, and everybody swinging across the big divide, and it’s a big adventure where the good guys win and the bad guys get blowed up. It makes sense. There’s a place for that kind of story.
But when you take it too seriously, you get Rogue One. I liked the movie, and I thought the seriousness was done well, but wouldn’t you rather see something that serious in a totally new world, with new characters, where you don’t know if Darth Vader is going to show up? You don’t know who the hell’s going to show up because you’re new to it.
This isn’t just me bitching. Hollywood can’t make anything original these days
And this is where this isn’t just me bitching about a particular movie: we saw four previews at Rogue One and they were ALL action movies based on comics books or toys. There just doesn’t seem to be room in Hollywood for anything but fan fiction. I don’t think it’s interesting to watch these movies–I would rather have another Star Wars movie than another Avengers movie–but it’s sad that nobody’s trying to make anything original. If the production value of Rogue One, the great acting, and everything else great about it had been put toward a heroic story of people in a universe I had never seen before, it would have been ten times better. Doubly sad is that the solution is easy: read books. Your bookstore is full of original ideas, many of them just as exciting or better than Star Wars, and with really well-thought out characters, but they don’t sell in China, so they won’t get made into movies. As I said before, I would rather read a good book than see a movie of it, but it’s sad that the people who make movies are making that decision for me.
And this might be a good time to mention that I hate how people use the word “franchise.”
Books are not our last hope: there is another. Movies for kids are getting better all the time. A lot of them are nostalgia-inducing crap like The Minions and Trolls (basically cartoons with known music playing constantly), but some like Frozen are real works of art. The Lego Movie, as much as it’s an adaptation of a toy, was a really uplifting story about fathers and sons. So even if you don’t have kids, I recommend checking out some kids’ movies.