Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars

The men who sold the movies

with one comment

Yesterday, I noted that although Isaac Asimov achieved worldwide fame as a science fiction writer, his stories have inspired surprisingly few cinematic adaptations, despite the endless attempts to do something with the Foundation series. But there’s a more general point to be made here, which is the relative dearth of movies based on the works of the four writers whom I discuss in Astounding. Asimov has a cheap version of Nightfall, Bicentennial Man, and I, Robot. John W. Campbell has three versions of The Thing and nothing else. L. Ron Hubbard, who admittedly is a special case, just has Battlefield Earth, while Robert A. Heinlein has The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers and its sequels, and the recent Predestination. Obviously, this isn’t bad, and most writers, even successful ones, never see their work onscreen at all. But when you look at someone like Philip K. Dick, whose stories have been adapted into something like three television series and ten feature films, this scarcity starts to seem odd, even when you account for other factors. Hubbard is presumably off the table, and the value of Campbell’s estate, to be honest, consists entirely of “Who Goes There?” It’s also possible that much of Asimov’s work just isn’t very cinematic. But if you’re a Heinlein fan, it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which we can watch adaptations of “If This Goes On—,” “The Roads Must Roll,” “Universe,” “Gulf,” Tunnel in the Sky, Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Glory Road, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and three different versions of Stranger in a Strange Land—the corny one from the seventies, the slick but empty remake from the late nineties, and the prestige television adaptation that at least looked great on Netflix.

That isn’t how it turned out, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Various works by Heinlein and Asimov have been continuously under option for decades, and three out of these four authors made repeated efforts to break into movies or television. Hubbard, notably, was the first, with a sale to Columbia Pictures of a unpublished story that he adapted into the serial The Secret of Treasure Island in 1938. He spent ten weeks on the studio lot, doing uncredited rewrites on the likes of The Adventures of the Mysterious Pilot and The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and he would later claim, without any evidence, that he had worked on the scripts for Stagecoach, Dive Bomber, and The Plainsman. Decades later, Hubbard actively shopped around the screenplay for Revolt in the Stars, an obvious Star Wars knockoff, and among his last works were the scripts Ai! Pedrito! and A Very Strange Trip. Campbell, in turn, hosted the radio series Exploring Tomorrow; corresponded with the producer Clement Fuller about the television series The Unknown, with an eye to adapting his own stories or writing originals; and worked briefly as a freelance story editor for the syndicated radio series The Planet Man. Heinlein had by far the most success—he wrote Rocket Ship Galileo with one eye toward the movies, and he developed a related project with Fritz Lang before partnering with George Pal on Destination Moon. As I mentioned last week, he worked on the film Project Moon Base and an unproduced teleplay for a television show called Century XXII, and he even had the dubious privilege of suing Roger Corman for plagiarism over The Brain Eaters. And Asimov seethed with jealousy:

[Destination Moon] was the first motion picture involving one of us, and while I said not a word, I was secretly unhappy. Bob had left our group and become famous in the land of the infidels…I don’t know whether I simply mourned his loss, because I thought that now he would never come back to us; or whether I was simply and greenly envious. All I knew was that I felt more and more uncomfortable. It was like having a stomachache in the mind, and it seemed to spoil all my fun in being a science fiction writer.

But Asimov remained outwardly uninterested in the movies, writing of one mildly unpleasant experience: “It showed me again what Hollywood was like and how fortunate I was to steer as clear of it as possible.” It’s also hard to imagine him moving to Los Angeles. Yet he was at least open to the possibility of writing a story for Paul McCartney, and his work was often in development. In Nat Segaloff’s recent biography A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, we learn that the television producer John Mantley had held an option on I, Robot “for some twenty years” when Ellison was brought on board in 1978. (This isn’t exactly right—Asimov states in his memoirs that Mantley first contacted him on August 11, 1967, and it took a while for a contract to be signed. But it was still a long time.) Asimov expressed hope that the adaptation would be “the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made,” which incidentally sheds light on his opinion of 2001, but it wasn’t meant to be. As Segaloff writes:

For a year from December 1977 Ellison was, as he has put it, “consumed with the project.” He used Asimov’s framework of a reporter, Robert Bratenahl, doing a story about Susan Calvin’s former lover, Stephen Byerly, and presented four of Calvin’s stories as flashbacks, making her the central figure, even in events that she could not have witnessed. It was a bold and admittedly expensive adaptation…When no response was forthcoming, Ellison arranged an in-person meeting with [Warner executive Bob] Shapiro on October 25, 1978, during which he realized that the executive had not read the script.

Ellison allegedly told Shapiro: “You’ve got the intellectual capacity of an artichoke.” He was fired from the project a few months later.

And the case of I, Robot hints at why these authors have had only limited success in Hollywood. As Segaloff notes, the burst of interest in such properties was due mostly to the success of Star Wars, and after Ellison left, a few familiar names showed up:

Around June 1980, director Irvin Kershner, who had made a success with The Empire Strikes Back, expressed interest, but when he was told that Ellison would not be rehired to make changes, according to Ellison his interest vanished…In 1985, Gary Kurtz, who produced the Star Wars films, made inquiries but was told that the project would cost too much to shoot, both because of its actual budget and the past expenses that had been charged against it.

At various points, in other words, many of the same pieces were lined up for I, Robot that had been there just a few years earlier for Star Wars. (It’s worth noting that less time separates Star Wars from these abortive attempts than lies between us and Inception, which testifies to how vivid its impact still was.) But it didn’t happen a second time, and I can think of at least one good reason. In conceiving his masterpiece, George Lucas effectively skipped the golden age entirely to go back to an earlier pulp era, which spoke more urgently to him and his contemporaries—which may be why we had a television show called Amazing Stories and not Astounding. Science fiction in the movies often comes down to an attempt to recreate Star Wars, and if that’s your objective, these writers might as well not exist.

Asimov’s close encounter

with 4 comments

By the early seventies, Isaac Asimov had achieved the cultural status, which he still retains, of being the first—and perhaps the only—science fiction writer whom most ordinary readers would be able to name. As a result, he ended up on the receiving end of a lot of phone calls from famous newcomers to the field. In 1973, for example, he was contacted by a representative for Woody Allen, who asked if he’d be willing to look over the screenplay of the movie Sleeper. Asimov gladly agreed, and when he met with Allen over lunch, he told him that the script was perfect as it was. Allen didn’t seem to believe him: “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov responded: “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen was duly impressed, turning to ask his friends: “Did you hear him throw that line away?” Asimov turned down the chance to serve as a technical director, recommending Ben Bova instead, and the movie did just fine without him, although he later expressed irritation that Allen had never sent him a letter of thanks. Another project with Paul McCartney, whom Asimov met the following year, didn’t go anywhere, either:

McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of the fantasy out of which a screenplay would be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters…He had only a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when a real group realized they were being victimized by imposters.

Asimov wrote up what he thought was an excellent treatment, but McCartney rejected it: “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue, out of which he apparently couldn’t move, and wanted me to work with that.”

Of all of Asimov’s brushes with Hollywood, however, the most intriguing involved a director to whom he later referred as “Steve Spielberg.” In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Asimov writes:

On July 18, 1975, I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Netherland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.

In a footnote, Asimov adds: “He went on to do it without me and it became the phenomenally successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have no regrets.” For an autobiography that devotes enormous amounts of wordage to even the most trivial incidents, it’s a remarkably terse and unrevealing anecdote, and it’s hard not to wonder if something else might have been involved—because when Asimov finally saw Close Encounters, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this week with a new theatrical release, he hated it. A year after it came out, he wrote in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

Science Digest asked me to see the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and write an article for them on the science it contained. I saw the picture and was appalled. I remained appalled even after a doctor’s examination had assured me that no internal organs had been shaken loose by its ridiculous sound waves. (If you can’t be good, be loud, some say, and Close Encounters was very loud.) To begin with there was no accurate science in it; not a trace; and I said so in the article I wrote and which Science Digest published. There was also no logic in it; not a trace; and I said that, too.

Asimov’s essay on Close Encounters, in fact, might be the most unremittingly hostile piece of writing I’ve seen by him on any subject, and I’ve read a lot of it. He seems to have regarded it as little more than a cynical commercial ploy: “It made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.” In response to readers who praised the special effects, he shot back:

Seeing a rotten picture for the special effects is like eating a tough steak for the smothered onions, or reading a bad book for the dirty parts. Optical wizardry is something a movie can do that a book can’t, but it is no substitute for a story, for logic, for meaning. It is ornamentation, not substance. In fact, whenever a science fiction picture is praised overeffusively for its special effects, I know it’s a bad picture. Is that all they can find to talk about?

Asimov was aware that his negative reaction had hurt the feelings of some of his fans, but he was willing to accept it: “There comes a time when one has to put one’s self firmly on the side of Good.” And he seemed particularly incensed at the idea that audiences might dare to think that Close Encounters was science fiction, and that it implied that the genre was allowed to be “silly, and childish, and stupid,” with nothing more than “loud noise and flashing lights.” He wasn’t against all instances of cinematic science fiction—he had liked Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, faintly praising the latter as “entertainment for the masses [that] did not try to do anything more,” and he even served as a technical consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he remained unrelenting toward Close Encounters to the last: “It is a marvelous demonstration of what happens when the workings of extraterrestrial intelligence are handled without a trace of skill.”

And the real explanation comes in an interview that Asimov gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which he recalled of his close encounter with Spielberg: “I didn’t know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn’t interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret.” The italics are mine. Asimov, as I’ve noted before, despised flying saucers, and he would have dismissed any movie that took them seriously as inherently unworthy of consideration. (The editor John W. Campbell was unusually cautious on the subject, writing of the UFO phenomenon in Astounding in 1959: “Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” Yet Asimov felt that even this was going too far, writing that Campbell “seemed to take seriously such things as flying saucers [and] psionic talents.”) From his point of view, he may well have been right to worry about the “glorification” of flying saucers in Close Encounters—its impact on the culture was so great that it seems to have fixed the look of aliens as reported by alleged abductees. And as a man whose brand as a science popularizer and explainer depended on his reputation for rationality and objectivity, he couldn’t allow himself to be associated with such ideas in any way, which may be why he attacked the movie with uncharacteristic savagery. As I’ve written elsewhere, a decade earlier, Asimov had been horrified when his daughter Robyn told him one night that she had seen a flying saucer. When he rushed outside and saw “a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum” in the sky, he was taken aback, and as he ran into the house for his glasses, he said to himself: “Oh no, this can’t happen to me.” It turned out to be the Goodyear blimp, and Asimov recalled: “I was incredibly relieved!” But his daughter may have come even closer to the truth when she said years later to the New York Times: “He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

Rogue One and the logic of the story reel

leave a comment »

Gareth Edwards and Felicity Jones on the set of Rogue One

Last week, I came across a conversation on Yahoo Movies UK with John Gilroy and Colin Goudie, two of the editors who worked on Rogue One. I’ve never read an interview with a movie editor that wasn’t loaded with insights into storytelling, and this one is no exception. Here’s my favorite tidbit, in which Goudie describes cutting together a story reel early in the production process:

There was no screenplay, there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. [Director Gareth Edwards] got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make Rogue One using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film.

It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet.” Now that takes maybe two to three seconds in other films, but if you look at any other Star Wars film you realize that takes forty-five seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way—I used a lot of the Star Wars films—but also hundreds of other films, too, it gave us a good idea of the timing.

This is a striking observation in itself. If Rogue One does an excellent job of recreating the feel of its source material, and I think it does, it’s because it honors its rhythms—which differ in subtle respects from those of other films—to an extent that the recent Star Trek movies mostly don’t. Goudie continues:

For example, the sequence of them breaking into the vault, I was ripping the big door closing in WarGames to work out how long does a vault door take to close.

So that’s what I did, and that was three months work to do that, and that had captions at the bottom which explained the action that was going to be taking place, and two thirds of the screen was filled with the concept art that had already been done and one quarter, the bottom corner, was the little movie clip to give you how long that scene would actually take.

Then I used dialogue from other movies to give you a sense of how long it would take in other films for someone to be interrogated. So for instance, when Jyn gets interrogated at the beginning of the film by the Rebel council, I used the scene where Ripley gets interrogated in Aliens.

Rogue One

This might seem like little more than interesting trivia, but there’s actually a lot to unpack. You could argue that the ability to construct an entire Star Wars movie out of analogous scenes from other films only points to how derivative the series has always been: it’s hard to imagine doing this for, say, Manchester By the Sea, or even Inception. But that’s also a big part of the franchise’s appeal. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca was made up of the memories of other movies, and he suggested that a cult movie—which we can revisit in our imagination from different angles, rather than recalling it as a seamless whole—is necessarily “unhinged”:

Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.

After reminding us of the uncertain circumstances under which Casablanca was written and filmed, Eco then suggests: “When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere…My guess is that…[director Michael Curtiz] was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.”

What interests me the most is Eco’s conclusion: “What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes.” He cites Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. as two examples, and he easily could have named Star Wars as well, which is explicitly made up of such references. (In fact, George Lucas was putting together story reels before there was even a word for it: “Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri, I would watch it—and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.”) What Eco doesn’t mention—perhaps because he was writing a generation ago—is how such films can pass through intertextuality and end up on the other side. They create memories for viewers who aren’t familiar with the originals, and they end up being quoted in turn by filmmakers who only know Star Wars. They become texts in themselves. In assembling a story reel from hundreds of other movies, Edwards and Goudie were only doing in a literal fashion what most storytellers do in their heads. They figure out how a story should “look” at its highest level, in a rough sketch of the whole, and fill in the details later. The difference here is that Rogue One had the budget and resources to pay someone to do it for real, in a form that could be timed down to the second and reviewed by others, on the assumption that it would save money and effort down the line. Did it work? I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2017 at 9:13 am

The tentpole test

leave a comment »

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

How do you release blockbusters like clockwork and still make each one seem special? It’s an issue that the movie industry is anxious to solve, and there’s a lot riding on the outcome. When I saw The Phantom Menace nearly two decades ago, there was an electric sense of excitement in the theater: we were pinching ourselves over the fact that we were about to see see the opening crawl for a new Star Wars movie on the big screen. That air of expectancy diminished for the two prequels that followed, and not only because they weren’t very good. There’s a big difference, after all, between the accumulated anticipation of sixteen years and one in which the installments are only a few years apart. The decade that elapsed between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens was enough to ramp it up again, as if fan excitement were a battery that recovers some of its charge after it’s allowed to rest for a while. In the past, when we’ve watched a new chapter in a beloved franchise, our experience hasn’t just been shaped by the movie itself, but by the sudden release of energy that has been bottled up for so long. That kind of prolonged wait can prevent us from honestly evaluating the result—I wasn’t the only one who initially thought that The Phantom Menace had lived up to my expectations—but that isn’t necessarily a mistake. A tentpole picture is named for the support that it offers to the rest of the studio, but it also plays a central role in the lives of fans, which have been going on long before the film starts and will continue after it ends. As Robert Frost once wrote about a different tent, it’s “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / to every thing on earth the compass round.”

When you have too many tentpoles coming out in rapid succession, however, the outcome—if I can switch metaphors yet again—is a kind of wave interference that can lead to a weakening of the overall system. On Christmas Eve, I went to see Rogue One, which was preceded by what felt like a dozen trailers. One was for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which left me with a perplexing feeling of indifference. I’m not the only one to observe that the constant onslaught of Marvel movies makes each installment feel less interesting, but in the case of Spider-Man, we actually have a baseline for comparison. Two baselines, really. I can’t defend every moment of the three Sam Raimi films, but there’s no question that each of those movies felt like an event. There was even enough residual excitement lingering after the franchise was rebooted to make me see The Amazing Spider-Man in the theater, and even its sequel felt, for better or worse, like a major movie. (I wonder sometimes if audiences can sense the pressure when a studio has a lot riding on a particular film: even a mediocre movie can seem significant if a company has tethered all its hopes to it.) Spider-Man: Homecoming, by contrast, feels like just one more component in the Marvel machine, and not even a particularly significant one. It has the effect of diminishing a superhero who ought to be at the heart of any universe in which he appears, relegating one of the two or three most successful comic book characters of all time to a supporting role in a larger universe. And because we still remember how central he was to no fewer than two previous franchises, it feels like a demotion, as if Spider-Man were an employee who had left the company, came back, and is now reporting to Iron Man.

Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War

It isn’t that I’m all that emotionally invested in the future of Spider-Man, but it’s a useful case study for what it tells us about the pitfalls of these films, which can take something that once felt like a milestone and reduce it to a midseason episode of an ongoing television series. What’s funny, of course, is that the attitude we’re now being asked to take toward these movies is actually closer to the way in which they were originally conceived. The word “episode” is right there in the title of every Star Wars movie, which George Lucas saw as an homage to classic serials, with one installment following another on a weekly basis. Superhero films, obviously, are based on comic books, which are cranked out by the month. The fact that audiences once had to wait for years between movies may turn out to have been a historical artifact caused by technological limitations and corporate inertia. Maybe the logical way to view these films is, in fact, in semiannual installments, as younger viewers are no doubt growing up to expect. In years to come, the extended gaps between these movies in prior decades will seem like a structural quirk, rather than an inherent feature of how we relate to them. This transition may not be as meaningful as, say, the shift from silent films to the talkies, but they imply a similar change in the way we relate to the film onscreen. Blockbusters used to be released with years of anticipation baked into the response from moviegoers, which is no longer something that can be taken for granted. It’s a loss, in its way, to fan culture, which had to learn how to sustain itself during the dry periods between films, but it also implies that the movies themselves face a new set of challenges.

To be fair, Disney, which controls both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, has clearly thought a lot about this problem, and they’ve hit on approaches that seem to work pretty well. With the Marvel Universe, this means pitching most of the films at a level at which they’re just good enough, but no more, while investing real energy every few years into a movie that is first among equals. This leads to a lot of fairly mediocre installments, but also to the occasional Captain America: Civil War, which I think is the best Marvel movie yet—it pulls off the impossible task of updating us on a dozen important characters while also creating real emotional stakes in the process, which is even more difficult than it looks. Rogue One, which I also liked a lot, takes a slightly different tack. For most of the first half, I was skeptical of how heavily it was leaning on its predecessors, but by the end, I was on board, and for exactly the same reason. This is a movie that depends on our knowledge of the prior films for its full impact, but it does so with intelligence and ingenuity, and there’s a real satisfaction in how neatly it aligns with and enhances the original Star Wars, while also having the consideration to close itself off at the end. (A lot of the credit for this may be due to Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter and unbilled co-director, who pulled off much of the same feat when he structured much of The Bourne Ultimatum to take place during gaps in The Bourne Supremacy.) Relying on nostalgia is a clever way to compensate for the reduced buildup between movies, as if Rogue One were drawing on the goodwill that Star Wars built up and hasn’t dissipated, like a flywheel that serves as an uninterruptible power supply. Star Wars isn’t just a tentpole, but a source of energy. And it might just be powerful enough to keep the whole machine running forever.

The western tradition

with 2 comments

Ed Harris on Westworld

As we were watching the premiere of Westworld last week, my wife turned to me and said: “Why would they make it a western park?” Or maybe I asked her—I can’t quite remember. But it’s a more interesting question than it sounds. When Michael Crichton’s original movie was released in the early seventies, the western was still a viable genre. It had clearly fallen from its peak, but major stars were doing important work in cowboy boots: Eastwood, of course, but also Newman, Redford, and Hoffman. John Wayne was still alive, which may have been the single most meaningful factor of all. As a result, it wasn’t hard to imagine a theme park with androids designed to fulfill that particular fantasy. These days, the situation has changed. The western is so beleaguered an art form that whenever one succeeds, it’s treated as newsworthy, and that’s been true for the last twenty years. Given the staggering expense and investment involved in a park like this, it’s hard to see why the western would be anybody’s first choice. (Even with the movie, I suspect that Crichton’s awareness of his relatively low budget was part of the decision: it was his first film as a director, with all of the limitations that implies, and a western could be shot cheaply on standing sets in the studio backlot.) Our daydreams simply run along different lines, and it’s easier to imagine a park being, say, set in a medieval fantasy era, or in the future, or with dinosaurs. In fact, there was even a sequel, Futureworld, that explored some of these possibilities, although it’s fair to say that nobody remembers it.

The television series Westworld, which is arriving in a markedly different pop cultural landscape, can’t exactly ditch the premise—it’s right there in the title. But the nice thing about the second episode, “Chestnut,” is that it goes a long way toward explaining why you’d still want to structure an experience like this around those conventions. It does this mostly by focusing on a new character, William, who arrives at the park knowing implausibly little about it, but who allows us to see it through the eyes of someone encountering it for the first time. What he’s told, basically, is that the appeal of Westworld is that it allows you to find out who you really are: you’re limited only by your inhibitions, your abilities, and your sense of right and wrong. That’s true of the real world, to some extent, but we’re also more conscious of the rules. And if the western refuses to go away as a genre, it’s because it’s the purest distillation of that seductive sense of lawlessness. The trouble with telling certain stories in the present day is that there isn’t room for the protagonist that thrillers have taught us to expect: a self-driven hero who solves his problems for himself in matters of life and death. That isn’t how most of us respond to a crisis, and in order to address the issue of why the main character doesn’t just go to the police, writers are forced to fall back on various makeshift solutions. You can focus on liminal figures, like cops or criminals, who can take justice into their own hands; you can establish an elaborate reason why the authorities are helpless, indifferent, or hostile; or you can set your story in a time or place where the rules are different or nonexistent.

Thandie Newton on Westworld

The western, in theory, is an ideal setting for a story in which the hero has to rely on himself. It’s a genre made up of limitless open spaces, nonexistent government, unreliable law enforcement, and a hostile native population. If there’s too much civilization for your story to work, your characters can just keep riding. To move west, or to leave the center of the theme park, is to move back in time, increasing the extent to which you’re defined by your own agency. (A western, revealingly, is a celebration of the qualities that we tend to ignore or dismiss in our contemporary immigrant population: the desire for a new life, the ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles, and the plain observation that those who uproot themselves and start from scratch are likely to be more competent and imaginative, on average, than those who remain behind.) The western is the best narrative sandbox ever invented, and if it ultimately exhausted itself, it was for reasons that were inseparable from its initial success. Its basic components were limited: there were only so many ways that you could combine those pieces. Telling escapist stories involved overlooking inconvenient truths about Native Americans, women, and minorities, and the tension between the myth and its reality eventually became too strong to sustain. Most of all, its core parts were taken over by other genres, and in particular by science fiction and fantasy. This began as an accidental discovery of pulp western writers who switched genres and realized that their tricks worked equally well in Astounding, and it was only confirmed by Star Trek—which Gene Roddenberry famously pitched as Wagon Train in space—and Star Wars, which absorbed those clichés so completely that they became new again.

What I like about Westworld, the series, is that it reminds us of how artificial this narrative always was, even in its original form. The Old West symbolizes freedom, but only if you envision yourself in the role of the stock protagonist, who is usually a white male antihero making the journey of his own volition. It falls apart when you try to imagine the lives of the people in the background, who exist in such stories solely to enable the protagonist’s fragile range of options. In reality, the frontier brutally circumscribed the lives of most of those who tried to carve out an existence there, and the whole western genre is enabled by a narrative illusion, or a conspiracy, that keeps its solitary and brutish aspects safely in the hands of the characters at the edges of the frame. Westworld takes that notion to its limit, by casting all the supporting roles with literal automatons. They aren’t meant to have inner lives, any more than the peripheral figures in any conventional western, and the gradual emergence of their consciousness implies that the park will eventually come to deconstruct itself. (The premiere quoted cleverly from The Searchers and Unforgiven, but I almost wish that it had saved those references until later, so that the series could unfold as a miniature history of the genre as it slowly attained self-awareness.) If you want to talk about how we picture ourselves in the heroes of our own stories, while minimizing or reducing the lives of those at the margins, it’s hard to imagine a better place to do it than the western, which depended on a process of historical amnesia and dehumanization from the very beginning. I’m not sure I’d want to visit a park like Westworld. But there will always be those who would.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2016 at 8:36 am

Astounding Stories #1: Galactic Patrol

with one comment

Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity here to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. 

Nothing dates more quickly than a vision of the future. This isn’t just because reality has a way of catching up with and passing even the most plausible predictions, or because certain narrative elements, like the constant smoking we find in so much golden age science fiction, become anachronistic even before the prophesied year approaches. It’s because any literary work is inevitably saturated with the era that created it, regardless of genre. Language, cultural attitudes, style, pacing: they all require some degree of mental adjustment, just as a modern moviegoer has to be ready to meet the classic films of the forties halfway. If you aren’t willing to undergo that kind of mental shift, like a viewer who can’t sit through Casablanca because it’s in black and white, you’ve shut yourself off from an entire world of storytelling: anything outside that window—which creeps forward over time, cutting you off from more and more of the past—remains out of bounds. Science fiction, in any medium, is particularly vulnerable to this. If few of us watch When Worlds Collide or This Island Earth for our own pleasure these days, it isn’t just because the special effects seem clunky, but because it’s hard to accept an idea of the future filtered through the idiom of the fifties. Go back further to the pulps, and that cognitive divide looms even wider. And if you’re going to read the science fiction of the thirties, you have to account for the personal equation that separates you from its intended audience, a gap that even devoted fans can have trouble crossing.

This is all my way of leading up to the fact that Galactic Patrol by E.E. “Doc” Smith probably requires less of an adjustment to enjoy today than any other story of the space opera or superscience genre. In other words, it’s a blast, and it’s the first novel I’d recommend to anybody who was curious about what was happening in science fiction before the golden age. Smith, who in his nonwriting life was a food engineer specializing in doughnut mixes, isn’t all that familiar to mainstream readers today, but he was beloved, even idolized, within the fandom for decades, and it isn’t hard to see why. Galactic Patrol is the first installment in the saga of the Lensmen, an interstellar police force tasked with protecting the galaxy from the depredations of a ruthless nation of space pirates. (Just whisper the word “Lensman” and you feel a little internal shiver of anticipation, even if you have no idea what it means.) Each officer wears the Lens, a jewel constructed by an advanced alien race that serves as a universal translator, telepathic communicator, and identification badge. It can be wielded only by its intended user, who is selected after a rigorous training process designed to produce individuals of superhuman bravery, intelligence, and integrity. Galactic Patrol follows Kimball Kinnison, a recent graduate from the academy, on his first mission, and although he starts out by “attacking imaginary foes and actual meteorites with equal zeal”—as L. Ron Hubbard would later do during his own brief command in the Navy—he rapidly embarks on an adventure that dwarfs anything the genre had ever seen.

E.E. "Doc" Smith

Because the book really moves. Smith’s conception of interstellar travel is based on an inertialess drive, which instantly accelerates a spacecraft to faster than the speed of light, and Galactic Patrol has what I can only describe as an inertialess narrative. It’s as close as any novel can get to pure action, jumping from one high point to the next without any of the boring parts in between, and it doesn’t let up until literally the very last word. It sends both Kinnison and the reader bounding across the galaxy, and at its best, it’s still breathtaking. In fact, it miraculously manages to evoke both Star Trek and Star Wars, in sort of the same way that the Aeneid contains both the Iliad and the Odyssey, except that Smith is their great originator. It anticipates Star Trek in revolving around a starship and its crew—including an oddly familiar engineer who emerges from below decks, clutching a spanner and asking for some grease soap—but its breakneck pacing and emphasis on action are closer to Star Wars, although significantly more violent. (“As he struck and struck and struck again, the cell became a gorily reeking slaughter-pen, its every corner high-piled with the shattered corpses of the Wheelmen and its floor running with blood and slime.”) Parts of it even look ahead to Dune, with its idea of a single planet serving the sole source of a priceless drug, in this case a kind of superheroin called thionite. It’s all very artless, but thrilling, and it could only have come from the heart. Later, as one of the first in a long line of imitators, John W. Campbell would make his name in much the same kind of story, but in his hands, it feels like hackwork, while Smith writes this sort of novel just because he loves it.

Not every element of Galactic Patrol has aged equally well. There are the obvious moments of dissonance, like the fact that the crew of the spacecraft plots its course using calipers, compass, and slide rule, or that when we’re introduced to a “computer,” it turns out to be a man who computes for a living. Its attitudes toward women are harder to stomach: the Lensmen we meet are exclusively male, and for most of the story, the only women in sight are nurses, decoys, or hostages, along with the unnamed “stenographer” with whom Kinnison collides at headquarters. Only Clarissa MacDougall, the red-headed nurse who becomes Kinnison’s love interest, gets anything like a real speaking part. (It’s worth noting that Smith’s first novel, Skylark of Space, had two significant female characters, thanks in all likelihood to his coauthor Lee Hawkins Garby—another female writer who has fallen out of the history of science fiction.) It’s a boy’s book of adventure in space, sexless and morally unwavering, and once you account for this, it comes closer than any other story to recapturing the excitement of the days in which readers would lurk at newsstands to avidly await the next installment of a serial in Astounding. Later, the genre would leave Smith behind: he was grandfathered into Campbell’s circle of authors as a beloved elder statesman, but he never broke through to a readership outside the fandom. And that’s a real loss. The kind of storytelling that he perfected, for better or worse, is still what occurs to most people when they think of science fiction, even if they know it only through his imitators. And Galactic Patrol gives it to you uncut, like a pure hit of thionite.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2016 at 10:03 am

The Jedi mind trick

with one comment

BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

At some point over the next few hours, perhaps as you’re reading this post, The Force Awakens is projected to surge past Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie in the history of the North American box office. We usually don’t adjust such figures for inflation, of course, probably because there wouldn’t be as many records broken each year if we did, and it’s all but certain that the original Star Wars will remain tops in the franchise in terms of tickets sold. Yet it’s impossible to discount this achievement. If the latest installment continues on its present trajectory, it has a good chance of cracking the adjusted top ten of all time—it would need to gross somewhere north of $948 million domestic to exceed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and earn a spot on that rarefied list, and this is starting to feel like a genuine possibility. Given the changes in the entertainment landscape over the last century, this is beyond flabbergasting. But even this doesn’t get at the real, singular nature of what we’re witnessing today. The most unexpected thing about the success of The Force Awakens is how expected it was. And at a time when Hollywood is moving increasingly toward a tentpole model in which a handful of blockbusters finance all the rest, it represents both a historic high point for the industry and an accomplishment that we’re unlikely to ever see again.

When you look at the lineal timeline of the most successful films at the domestic box office, you have to go back seventy-five years to find a title that even the shrewdest industry insider could have reasonably foreseen. This list, unadjusted for inflation, consists of Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Titanic, and Avatar. Gone With the Wind, which claimed the title that The Birth of a Nation had won a quarter of a century earlier, is the one exception: there’s no doubt that David O. Selznick hoped that it could be the biggest film of its era, even before the first match had been struck for the burning of Atlanta. Every other movie here is a headscratcher. No studio insider at the time would have been willing to bet that The Sound of Music—which Pauline Kael later called The Sound of Money—would outgross not just Doctor Zhivago and Thunderball that year, but every other movie ever made. The Godfather and Jaws were both based on bestselling novels, but that’s hardly a guarantee of success, and both were troubled productions with untested directors at the helm. Star Wars itself hardly needs to be discussed here. Columbia famously passed on E.T., and Titanic was widely regarded before its release as a looming disaster. And even Avatar, which everyone thought would be huge, exceeded all expectations: when you take regression to the mean into account, the idea that James Cameron could break his own record is so implausible that I have a hard time believing it even now.


Which is just another way of saying that these movies were all outliers: unique, idiosyncratic projects, not part of any existing franchise, that audiences discovered gradually, often to the bewilderment of the studios themselves. The Force Awakens was different. It had barely been announced before pundits were speculating that it could set the domestic record, and although Disney spent much of buildup to its opening weekend downplaying such forecasts—with the implication that rival studios were inflating projections to make its final performance seem disappointing—it’s hard to believe that the possibility hadn’t crossed everybody’s mind. Most movie fans will remember that William Goldman said “Nobody knows anything” in Adventures in the Screen Trade, but it’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph in full. After noting that everyone in town except for Paramount turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark, he continues:

Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that may just cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.

If Hollywood has learned anything since, it’s that you don’t pass on Star Wars. Whatever you might think of its merits as a movie, The Force Awakens marks the one and only time that somebody knew something. And it’s probably the last time, too. It may turn into the reassuring bedtime story that studio executives use to lull themselves to sleep, and Disney may plan on releasing a new installment on an annual basis forever, but the triumphant rebirth of the franchise after ten years of dormancy—or three decades, depending on how you feel about the prequels—is the kind of epochal moment that the industry is doing its best to see never happens again. We aren’t going to have another chance to miss Star Wars because it isn’t going to go away, and the excitement that arose around its return can’t be repeated. The Force Awakens is both the ultimate vindication of the blockbuster model and a high-water mark that will make everything that follows seem like diminishing returns. (More insidiously, it may be the Jedi mind trick that convinces the studios that they know more than they do, which can only lead to heartbreak.) Records are made to be broken, and at some point in my lifetime, another movie will take the crown, if only because inflation will proceed to a point where the mathematics become inevitable. But it won’t be a Star Wars sequel. And it won’t be a movie that anyone, not even a Jedi, can see coming.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2016 at 8:13 am

Revenge of the list

with 3 comments

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

The forced error

leave a comment »

R2-D2 and J.J. Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens

Note: Oblique spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

At this point, it might seem that there isn’t anything new left to say about The Force Awakens, but I’d like to highlight a revealing statement from director J.J. Abrams that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been given its due emphasis before. It appears in an interview that was published by Wired on November 9, or over a month in advance of the film’s release. When the reporter Scott Dadich asks if there are any moments from the original trilogy that stand out to him, Abrams replies:

It would be a much shorter conversation to talk about the scenes that didn’t stand out. As a fan of Star Wars, I can look at those movies and both respect and love what they’ve done. But working on The Force Awakens, we’ve had to consider them in a slightly different context. For example, it’s very easy to love “I am your father.” But when you think about how and when and where that came, I’m not sure that even Star Wars itself could have supported that story point had it existed in the first film, Episode IV. Meaning: It was a massively powerful, instantly classic moment in movie history, but it was only possible because it stood on the shoulders of the film that came before it. There had been a couple of years to allow the idea of Darth Vader to sink in, to let him emerge as one of the greatest movie villains ever. Time built up everyone’s expectations about the impending conflict between Luke and Vader. If “I am your father” had been in the first film, I don’t know if it would have had the resonance. I actually don’t know if it would have worked.

Taken in isolation, the statement is interesting but not especially revelatory. When we revisit it in light of what we now know about The Force Awakens, however, it takes on a startling second meaning. It’s hard not to read it today without thinking of a particular reveal about one new character and the sudden departure of another important player. When I first saw the film, without having read the interview in Wired, it immediately struck me that these plot points were in the wrong movie: they seemed much more like moments that would have felt more at home in the second installment of the sequel trilogy, and not merely because the sequence in question openly pays homage to the most memorable scene in The Empire Strikes Back. To venture briefly into spoilerish territory: if Kylo Ren had been allowed to dominate the entirety of The Force Awakens “as one of the greatest movie villains ever,” to use Abrams’s own words, the impact of his actions and what we learn about his motivations would have been far more powerful—but only if they had been saved for Episode VIII. As it stands, we’re introduced to Ren and his backstory all but in the same breath, and it can’t help but feel rushed. Similarly, when another important character appears and exits the franchise within an hour or so of screentime, it feels like a wasted opportunity. They only had one chance to do it right, and compressing what properly should have been the events of two films into one is a real flaw in an otherwise enjoyable movie.

The Empire Strikes Back

And what intrigues me the most about the quote above is that Abrams himself seems agonizingly aware of the issue. When you read over his response again, it becomes clear that he isn’t quite responding to the question that the interviewer asked. Instead, he goes off on a tangent that wouldn’t even have occurred to him if it hadn’t already been on his mind. I have no way of looking into Abrams’s brain, Jedi style, but it isn’t difficult to imagine what happened. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt—the three credited screenwriters, which doesn’t even take into account the countless other producers and executives who took a hand in the process—must have discussed the timing of these plot elements in detail, along with so many others, and at some point, the question would have been raised as to whether they might not better be saved for a later movie. Abrams’s statement to Wired feels like an undigested excerpt from those discussions that surfaced in an unrelated context, simply because he happened to remember it in the course of the interview. (Anyone who has ever been interviewed, and who wants to give well-reasoned responses, will know how this works: you often end up repurposing thoughts and material that you’ve worked up elsewhere, if they have even the most tangential relevance to the topic at hand.) If you replace “Darth Vader” with “Kylo Ren” in Abrams’s reply, and make a few other revisions to square it with Episode VII, you can forensically reconstruct one side of an argument that must have taken place in the offices of Bad Robot on multiple occasions. And Abrams never forgot it.

So what made him decide to ignore an insight so good that he practically internalized it? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it seems likely that contract negotiations with one of the actors involved—and those who have seen the movie will know which one I mean—affected the decision to move this scene up to where it appears now. Dramatically speaking, it’s in the wrong place, but Abrams and his collaborators may not have had a choice. As he implies throughout this interview and elsewhere, The Force Awakens was made under conditions of enormous pressure: it isn’t just a single movie, but the opening act in the renewal of a global entertainment franchise, and the variables involved are so complicated that no one filmmaker can have full control over the result. (It’s also tempting to put some of the blame on Abrams’s directing style, which rushes headlong from one plot point to another as if this were the only new Star Wars movie we were ever going to get. The approach works wonderfully in the first half, which is refreshingly eager to get down to business and slot the necessary pieces into place, but it starts to backfire in the second and third acts, which burn through big moments so quickly that we’re left scrambling to feel anything about what we’ve seen.) Tomorrow, I’m going to talk a little more about how the result left me feeling both optimistic and slightly wary of what the future of Star Wars might bring. But in this particular instance, Abrams made an error. Or he suspects that he did. And when he searches his feelings, he knows it to be true.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2015 at 10:16 am

The Force Majority

leave a comment »

Daisey Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Earlier this morning, when the embargo on reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was finally lifted, it was as if millions of critics suddenly cried out and were silenced by fans shouting: “No spoilers! No spoilers!” I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I’ve been cautiously skimming the dozens of reviews that appeared a few hours ago, and most are positive and encouraging. If there’s one common caveat, it’s that the new movie is, if anything, a little too reverent toward its predecessors: Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls it “an adoring copy.” Which, you might think, is only to be expected: loving regard for the source material is one thing, among so much else, that the prequels sorely lacked, and the best way to recover what was lost might well be to take it out of the hands of the man who invented it in the first place and entrust it to an outsider. The new movie certainly seems eager to give people what they want. And this might all seem too obvious to even state out loud—except for the fact that its release also coincides with the trailer for Star Trek Beyond, which is largely the handiwork of the very same man, and which is anything but respectful toward what inspired it. In fact, it’s anxious to look like anything except for Star Trek, and while it’s too soon to pass judgment on either movie, it doesn’t seem premature to talk about their intentions. And the fact that J.J. Abrams has taken such different approaches with our two most iconic science fiction franchises raises fascinating questions about the position that each one holds in our culture.

I don’t intend to get into the whole Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate here. (It’s enough to say, perhaps, that I’m temperamentally more inclined toward Star Trek, but I like both about equally, and each strikes me as having one indisputable masterpiece—in both cases, the first sequel—surrounded by a lot that is uneven, dated, or disposable.) But the fact that their modern incarnations happen to depend largely on the personality and decisions of a single man sheds new light on an old subject. Elsewhere, I’ve written of Abrams: “With four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality.” And I have reasons for hoping that The Force Awakens will break that pattern. But if it does, it’s because Star Wars speaks to Abrams himself in a way that Star Trek never did. He’s always been candid about his efforts to turn the latter franchise into something more like the former, as if it were a problem that had to be fixed. If Star Trek Into Darkness inspired a backlash great enough to cast the considerable merits of the first of the rebooted movies into question, it’s because by repurposing The Wrath of Khan so blatantly, it emphasized how willing Abrams has been to pillage the franchise for material while remaining indifferent to what made it special. But none of this would be interesting if Abrams himself weren’t a kind of test case for viewers everywhere, a majority of whom, it’s fair to say, would rather spend two hours of their time in the Star Wars universe.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The real question is why. You could start by defining the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars as a tale of two Campbells. The first, John W. Campbell, was the most important editor science fiction ever had, and in his three decades at the helm of Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, he perfected a kind of plot that was essentially about solving problems through logic and ingenuity. The second, Joseph Campbell, was a Jungian scholar whose conception of the hero’s journey was based more on suffering, rebirth, and transcendence, and if the hero triumphs in the end, it’s mostly as a reward for what he endures. Star Trek—which raided many of John W. Campbell’s core writers for scripts, outlines, and spinoff books—took its cues from the former, Star Wars from the latter. And while each approach has its merits, there’s a reason why one has remained the province of a close community of fans, while the other has expanded to fill all of Hollywood. One is basically a writer’s series; the other belongs to the producers, including George Lucas himself, who recognized early on that the real power didn’t lie in the director’s chair. Star Wars is less about any particular set of ideas than about a certain tone or feeling that has rightly thrilled a generation of viewers. What’s funny, though, is how rarely it gets at the sense of transcendence that Joseph Campbell evoked, and if it ever does, it’s thanks mostly to John Williams. At their best, these are fun, thrilling movies, and it’s precisely because they take the glories of outer space for granted in a way the original Star Trek never did, perhaps because it spent more time thinking about space as something more than a backdrop for chases and narrow escapes.

And this isn’t a bug in the Star Wars franchise, but a feature. After the premiere of The Force Awakens, Patton Oswalt tweeted that it “has the best final shot of any Star Wars film,” which only reminds us of how lame the final shots of those earlier movies really are: half are basically just wide shots of a party or celebration. When we contrast them with the last five minutes of Wrath of Khan, which are among the most spine-tingling I’ve ever seen, it shows how strangely cramped Star Wars can seem by comparison. Pauline Kael noted that there’s only one moment of organic beauty in A New Hope—the double sunset on Tatooine—and later complained of the lack of satisfying climaxes in Return of the Jedi: “When Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.” But this isn’t necessarily a flaw. There’s a place for what Kael called the “bam bam pow” of the Lucas approach, once we embrace its limits. If The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the original trilogy, it’s for the same reasons that some viewers were disappointed by it on its first release: it’s nothing but a second act. Star Wars has always been better at setting up situations than at paying them off. These days, that’s a strength. Abrams is notoriously more interested in creating mysteries than in resolving them, and it makes him a great fit for Star Wars, which, like most modern franchises, doesn’t have much of a stake in narrative resolution. Disney plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time, and if its approach to the Marvel universe is any indication, it’s the project for which Abrams was born—a franchise without any annoying third acts. But as much as I wish him well here, I hope he remembers that Star Trek deserves to go beyond it.

The greatest opening shots in movies

with one comment

Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

Argo and the textures of the past

leave a comment »

The most interesting moment in Ben Affleck’s Argo comes at the very end, during the closing credits, which juxtapose still photographs of the real people and events depicted in the film with their fictional equivalents. It’s a nice reminder of the story’s historical origins, but it’s also an excuse to show off, as the movie indulges in some well-deserved self-congratulation about its meticulous reconstruction of the recent past. The most likable thing about Argo is its attention to texture and cultural detail, from the vintage Warner Bros. logo that opens the movie to its abundance of bad haircuts and floppy mustaches. And although the movie has been gently criticized for its departures from the facts—its version of the final flight to safety of the six hostages in Iran is almost entirely invented—there’s no doubt that this is a movie that takes genuine pleasure in certain kinds of authenticity, even if it’s only skin deep. (A film like The Master, by contrast, is authentic all the way to the bone.)

And part of me almost wishes that Affleck and his collaborators had invented just a little more. Argo is a nice, entertaining movie based on an inherently fascinating historical event, but it rarely tries to create anything like real human drama. The six hostages in Iran never emerge as anything more than background characters, and this is a big problem: we’re concerned for their safety, but more as a matter of principle than because we’ve come to know and like them as individuals. Affleck’s character, based on the real CIA operative Tony Mendez, is a stock, somewhat colorless type, and I smiled at his introduction, which shows him collapsed in bed, still wearing his clothes from the night before, before being awakened by a phone call alerting him to a new assignment—a situation familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Bruce Willis movie. The most interesting character by far is John Chambers, the legendary makeup artist, played by John Goodman, who helps Mendez construct a fake movie production as part of an elaborate escape plan, and Argo might have been an even better movie with him as the lead—the real Chambers deserves it.

Watching Argo, I was consistently interested by what was on the screen, but I couldn’t help feeling that the real story was taking place elsewhere, with resonances that the movie teases out only occasionally. Movies like this deserve to be judged based on the best of their genre, and the real comparison here is to Michael Mann’s The Insider, a movie that I loved when it first came out and which has only grown in my estimation since. It’s forty minutes longer than Argo, but it uses that time to develop unforgettable supporting characters and evoke times and places beyond mere surface detail, and it still manages to move like a shot—it’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seems substantially shorter than its actual runtime. It also involves us in a multitude of worlds—journalism, law, the tobacco business—with their own sets of rules, and by the end, we feel as if we know them intimately. Argo would have benefited from more of this kind of specificity: it gets the clothes, the hair, the typefaces exactly right, but we’re still left with less than we’d like to know about Iran, Hollywood, or the CIA.

And there’s another world here that I wish had been explored more deeply: the universe of the fictional Argo itself. Affleck dismisses the fake movie at the story’s heart as a bad rip-off of Star Wars, but in fact, it was an ambitious project based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, with Jack Kirby contributing some of the designs. The contrast between the promises of science fiction and the messy, complicated reality of the Iran hostage crisis is one that the movie only superficially develops, to its own loss: the idea of a little boy with Star Wars bedsheets watching footage from Tehran is an astonishing one, and it reminds us that there was a larger world beyond the line outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Argo’s closing shots, as text describing the aftermath of the crisis is set over figurines of C-3PO and Luke Skywalker, are brilliant, and hint at a vein of material that the film seems only intermittently interested in investigating. The way movies interact with the world around them is endlessly mysterious, but here, we only glimpse it at intervals, through the cracks in the story’s more conventional suspense. And perhaps it only testifies to the richness of the film’s underlying material that it leaves us wanting more.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

The Fandom Menace

leave a comment »

What does it mean to be a true fan? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, ever since watching the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, a loving portrait of the vocal, passionate fringe of Star Wars fandom. “If it says Star Wars on it, I’ll buy it,” one fan gleefully admits, while others say that, yes, they didn’t care much for The Phantom Menace, but they still saw it ten times in the theater. Fandom is stronger than one’s like or dislike of any individual film or piece of merchandise: even more than the movies themselves, it’s about the shared experience of caring deeply about something, and about being around others who know how you feel. For the sake of that sense of community—of being part of something larger than yourself—sitting repeatedly through a movie you don’t really like is a small price to pay. And if you don’t feel that the franchise is living up to its potential, there are plenty of ways to address the situation on your own, whether through fan edits, conventions, or simply venting your feelings online.

Fandom, as I see it, is primarily a quest to keep a certain set of feelings alive. It’s the feeling you get when you see a great movie for the first time, or when you’re a child playing with a few plastic toys that seem capable of having endless adventures on their own. It’s about a moment in which the world—or at least the world of narrative possibility—seems full of limitless potential, with an infinite number of stories that could be told. To recapture that feeling, you want to spend as much time in this world as possible. You extend the experience in every way you can, either by revisiting the works that first triggered the emotion or exploring the expanded universe. But after a certain point, a new comic book or video game doesn’t expand the universe of stories. Rather, it contracts them, either by closing off unspoken possibilities or reducing them to yet another mediocre spinoff. Great storytelling, after all, is a rare commodity. Very few franchises have managed to sustain it for even three movies.

That’s when fandom starts to curdle—and not necessarily for the right reasons. Looking at the new movies and toys we’ve been given, and how much worse they are than the ones that encouraged us to love this world in the first place, we can only conclude that George Lucas just doesn’t care as much as we do. It never occurs to us that the first two Star Wars movies might have been outliers, and that even Return of the Jedi represents a regression to the mean. (My wife and I watched the Despecialized Edition of Jedi the other night, and the fall in quality from Empire—one of the greatest movies of all time—was painfully clear.) If the prequels were disappointing, it isn’t because Lucas wasn’t trying, although he may have suffered from hubris and lack of oversight: it’s because it’s unlikely that all these pieces would fall into place again in just the right way. And if that’s true of the movies, it’s doubly true of everything else. If we’re lucky, a franchise will give us one or two great films. Given the vagaries of any kind of artistic production, it’s unrealistic to expect anything else.

But of course, we do expect more, and it’s those expectations that bind fans together, as quixotic as they might be. Fandoms thrive on the sense of being endangered, or at least of being part of a vocal minority pitted against a complacent mainstream. Plenty of Star Wars fans like to think of themselves as the loyal opposition to Lucasfilm, and, even more radically, to the vast number of ordinary moviegoers who see Star Wars as just another movie—or, worse, make no distinction between the prequels and the original trilogy. As The People Vs. George Lucas points out, kids love Jar Jar Binks, and the generation that grew up on the prequels is graduating from college with their good feelings for these movies intact. Fans see their role as that of holding the franchise to a higher standard—to the one that they remember, rightly or not, as their first experience of this world. The fact that this ideal may not exist doesn’t enter into the equation. Indeed, their power comes from the fact that, like Yoda, they want the impossible.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2012 at 10:06 am

Revenge of the Fan Edits

leave a comment »

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” H.G. Wells said, and he was perfectly right—except, of course, for the passion among certain fans to create their own version of Star Wars. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself sucked into the curious world of Star Wars fan edits, thanks to the wonderful documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, which I watched twice in a row one night last week. Fan edits are a sort of fanfic executed with Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro: a chance for enthusiastics to engage directly with their favorite—or most hated—works of art, in a way that is guaranteed to reach a small but receptive audience. In the case of Star Wars, fan editors recut, restructure, and even radically augment the original films to fix problems, address perceived shortcomings, or serve an artistic agenda of their own. Fan edits, at their best, can serve as a showcase for considerable talent in editing, film restoration, and special effects. And like fanfic, they often reveal surprising things not just about the fans involved, but about how we think about storytelling in general.

In the world of fan edits, there are two prevailing tendencies, which I’ll refer to as the preservationist and the revisionist (although there’s a lot of overlap). The preservationists are the ones concerned, and rightly so, with the fact that no adequate high-definition print of the original, unaltered Star Wars films is currently available, and Lucasfilm seems to have no interest in ever providing it. The result is a community of intelligent, informed preservationists who are as concerned with restoring the correct color balance to The Empire Strikes Back as they are with making sure Han shoots first, with the undisputed masterpiece of the form being Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, which painstakingly restores the original trilogy to something like its pristine state. In many cases, the apparent restoration is an illusion, with new mattes and rotoscoping used to recreate the original effects, but it’s an incredibly compelling one. I’ve been watching it with something like awe all weekend, and when I finally have the chance to show Star Wars to my own children, this is the version I’m going to use.

The revisionist tendency is somewhat more problematic. The Star Wars prequels, for obvious reasons, have inspired the most revision, starting with the famous Phantom Edit, which removes much of The Phantom Menace‘s exposition, its talk of trade disputes and midichlorians, and most of Jar Jar Binks. The result is a stronger film, but also less interesting: by removing the worst of its excesses, we’re left with just another bland space opera. Much more ambitious is Adywan’s Star Wars Revisited, an obsessive fan edit of A New Hope. Continuity errors have been fixed; special effects have been cleaned up and enhanced; entire sequences have been reedited or created from scratch. Sometimes the changes are fun—as when the soundtrack swells with the Imperial March, which originally didn’t appear until the second movie—but they occasionally cross the line: Revisited radically reedits the final assault on the Death Star, for instance, as if the original weren’t exciting enough on its own, and it even fixes Han Solo’s floppy wrist motion as he fires his blaster in one scene.

These changes are perfectly fine when viewed as a sort of elaborate fan criticism, or as a demo reel to show off the reviser’s skills at editing and visual effects (which are impressive…most impressive). But I disturbed by the implication on one forum that for some fans of the film, this has become their preferred way to watch the movie—or even to introduce it to viewers seeing Star Wars for the first time. At that point, their philosophy begins to shade into that of Lucas himself, who apparently would be quite happy if all copies of the original version of Star Wars were somehow destroyed—as they will be, in time, if they aren’t adequately preserved. The original Star Wars isn’t perfect, and that’s part of its charm: it’s a film made by real men and women on real sets, under considerable constraints, with solutions invented on the fly, without the luxury of digital retouching. It’s a film made lovingly by hand, and I like even the things that bug me about it. In one shot, for instance, you can see a crew member crouching behind a droid at the Jawa Sandcrawler, dressed to blend in with the background. You can erase him, of course—but why would you want to lose that connection to that day’s shooting, out in the hot Tunisia sun?

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

Source Code and the state of modern science fiction

leave a comment »

On Saturday, my wife and I finally saw Source Code, the new science fiction thriller directed by Moon‘s Duncan Jones. I liked Moon a lot, but wasn’t sure what to expect from his latest film, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be the best new movie I’ve seen this year. Admittedly, this is rather faint praise—by any measure, this has been a slow three months for moviegoers. And Source Code has its share of problems. It unfolds almost perfectly for more than an hour, then gets mired in an ending that tries, not entirely successfully, to be emotionally resonant and tie up all its loose ends, testing the audience’s patience at the worst possible time. Still, I really enjoyed it. The story draws you in viscerally and is logically consistent, at least up to a point, and amounts to a rare example of real science fiction in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

By “real” science fiction, of course, I don’t mean that the science is plausible. The science in Source Code is cheerfully absurd, explained with a bit of handwaving about quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus, but the movie is unusual in having the courage to follow a tantalizing premise—what if you could repeatedly inhabit the mind of a dead man eight minutes before he died?—through most of its possible variations. This is what the best science fiction does: it starts with an outlandish idea and follows it relentlessly through all its implications, while never violating the rules that the story has established. And one of the subtlest pleasures of Ben Ripley’s screenplay for Source Code lies in its gradual reveal of what the rules actually are. (If anything, I wish I’d known less about the story before entering the theater.)

This may sound like a modest accomplishment, but it’s actually extraordinarily rare. Most of what we call science fiction in film is thinly veiled fantasy with a technological sheen. A movie like Avatar could be set almost anywhere—the futuristic trappings are incidental to a story that could have been lifted from any western or war movie. (Walter Murch even suggests that George Lucas based the plot of Star Wars on the work he did developing Apocalypse Now.) Star Trek was often a show about ideas, but its big-screen incarnation is much more about action and spectacle: Wrath of Khan, which I think is the best science fiction film ever made, has been aptly described as Horatio Hornblower in space. And many of the greatest sci-fi movies—Children of Men, Blade Runner, Brazil—are more about creating the look and feel of a speculative future than any sense of how it might actually work.

And this is exactly how it should be. Movies, after all, aren’t especially good at conveying ideas; a short story, or even an episode of a television show, is a much better vehicle for working out a clever premise than a feature film. Because movies are primarily about action, character, and image, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood has appropriated certain elements of science fiction and left the rest behind. What’s heartening about Source Code, especially so soon after the breakthrough of Inception, is how it harnesses its fairly ingenious premise to a story that works as pure entertainment. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the high and low aspects of the genre joined so seamlessly, and it requires a peculiar set of skills on the part of the director, who needs to be both fluent with action and committed to ideas. Chris Nolan is one; Duncan Jones, I’m excited to say, looks very much like another.

The greatest opening shots in movies

with 7 comments

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same with closing shots last week—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click or mouse over for the titles:

George Lucas: Writer of a Lost Art

leave a comment »

As long as we’re on the subject of beloved artists who experienced a marked decline in quality, let’s talk about…George Lucas. (Because, obviously, no one has ever discussed this before.) I’m not going to go into all the ways that Lucas’s recent work has been disappointing—you have the entire Internet for that—but I do think it’s important to highlight the ways in which Lucas was, at his best, a remarkable writer.

Exhibit A is the famous transcript, which appeared online last year, of an early story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (You can find a nice clean copy here.) Seated around a table with Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas spins out one idea after another, laying the groundwork not only for Raiders but for the entire Indiana Jones series. The whole transcript is worth a look, but there are a few particular moments that are especially valuable. Here’s Lucas on the importance of a structured plan, and the usefulness of making lists:

In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out. Especially a thing like this.

(The process might sound mechanical, but in my own experience, nearly all complex narratives begin in a similar way: you start with ideas for a certain number of scenes, and know you’ll need a certain number of chapters, so you do your best to make the two numbers fit.)

On plausibility:

The trouble with cliff hangers is, you get somebody into something, you sort have to get them out in a plausible way. A believable way, anyway. That’s another important concept of the movie—that it be totally believable.

On the proper use of backstory:

We’ve established that he’s a college professor. It doesn’t have to be done in a strong way. It starts out in a museum. They just call him doctor this and doctor that. We can very easily make that transition, and very quickly establish that whole side of his character. [Italics mine.]

Finally, this wonderful moment:

Spielberg: One thing you should do—He’s on this airplane. There are about four or five passengers around him. He’s asleep and these passengers are looking at him. We don’t know why. They they all get up and put on parachutes, and they jump out the door. He wakes up when he hears the door open, and realizes he’s all alone. The door to the cockpit is locked. The airplane begins to go into a spin. He’s trapped in this airplane and it’s going down. The whole thing was a set up. That’s a great cliffhanger, to see how he gets out.

Lucas: That’s great. Then what happens? One sentence further and it’s a great idea. [Italics mine, of course.]

So what happened between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The simplest answer: for Raiders, Lucas was working for a studio. For Crystal Skull, he was the studio. Raiders was made under a surprising number of limitations—Spielberg had just come off the notorious flop 1941, and was anxious to prove that he could deliver a movie on time and under budget—while Crystal Skull had no limitations at all. And without limitations, as I’ve pointed out before, an artist is free to indulge in all of his worst impulses, until the small moments of ingenuity that made him so special are gone.

Remember, above all else: a good artist needs to be criticized. Every writer needs a handful of early readers whose feedback he or she trusts. At first, it will probably be one or two close friends; later, hopefully, it will be an editor. But Lucas is the richest man in Hollywood; he produces and owns the Star Wars franchise outright; he doesn’t need to listen to critics. And he might reasonably argue that he doesn’t have to. But no matter what your level of success, you need someone to tell you when you’ve lost your way. And Lucas, sad to say, hasn’t had this for a long time.

%d bloggers like this: