Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Galaxy Far, Far Away, Reduced and Redux

Today is George Lucas's 70th birthday. With all the Star Wars news that's been coming out lately, I've been meaning to put together some of my thoughts; today seemed like an appropriate day to sit down and make that happen.

First came the news that the existing Expanded Universe (read: all the SW-related novels, comics, video games, etc. published up to this point) are being, essentially, discarded. They'll remain in print (and here I'm thinking mainly of the novels) under a new "Legends" banner, but they're not considered part of the "official" story; while certain elements may be appropriated and reused, future contributors to the SW universe are in no way beholden to what came before. The only things that are official are the six feature films, the Clone Wars animated series that recently ended, and the upcoming Rebels animated TV series. Going forward, anything that comes out (beginning with the appropriately titled novel A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller in September) will be part of one official, unified storyline.

Generally speaking, I think this was the right move. I actually wish they had gone one step further and nixed the Clone Wars cartoons. I'm still in the midst of watching the final season, which was never aired on television and distributed instead through Netflix, but I've seen the rest. While there were some cool parts, I think the low points outweigh them. The main thing that drives me crazy is the return of Darth Maul. Yes, he was a cool character that was vastly underutilized, but the fact remains that he got cut in half and then tumbled down a massive shaft. The dude died, and giving him robot legs and pretending he survived is just lame. You gave him a badass brother; that should have been enough.

Actually, I feel similarly about the rest of the Expanded Universe, that part that did get severed from the official Star Wars canon. There were high points (I've written before that, despite my love of the movies as a kid, my continuing level of fandom owes a huge debt to Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy), but the low points were so bad that they absolutely had to go. I mean, come on: the ridiculous escalation of superweapons (the Sun Crusher, the Darksaber, World Devastators, Centerpoint Station...was there another Death Star? There may have been)? A clone of the Emperor (twice, I think)? Luke dating a ghost? The endless, contradictory musings on the nature of the Force? Ugh. Look, all of Zahn's novels were great, as were Aaron Allston's, and I really enjoyed the Han Solo trilogies (both Brian Daley's and A.C. Crispin's) and The Lando Calrissian Adventures (which were so totally unlike anything else in the SW universe); just about everything else was terrible. It would have been too confusing to pick and choose which stories happened and which didn't (and I'm sure there's plenty of disagreement over the quality of various works), so it all had to go. Besides, from a storytelling standpoint, it wouldn't have been easy to keep all of that and then pick up the storyline thirty years after Return of the Jedi in a way that would easily catch up those with no knowledge of the EU stories.

So all that is gone but not forgotten, and I do think it will be interesting to see which existing elements get reused and how. Grand Admiral Thrawn is such a great character--he has to get back into the mix somehow, right? I'd like to think so. I also think it'll be interesting to see when and how the "Legends" stories get overwritten. New stories are going to be told to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and whatever ends up happening in Episode VII. How will they be different from the tales we've already heard? Only time will tell. I just hope they bring in adequate talent to do the job. I was underwhelmed with the initial batch of authors chosen to expand the universe officially with new novels (John Jackson Miller, James Luceno, Kevin Hearne, and Paul S. Kemp). I liked (didn't love) Miller's previous SW novel, Kenobi; Luceno's work has been decent at best, despite having some pretty cool topics and characters to work with, like Darth Plagueis, Darth Maul, Darth Vader, and the Millennium Falcon); Kemp's novels I honestly can't even remember if I've read or not; Hearne hasn't written for SW before, and I'm not familiar with his other work. To be fair, I don't know who would have been better; I don't read a ton of sci-fi. I do think it would have been awesome to let Zahn kick things off, as he did in the first place, and I'd enjoy seeing more SW from Matthew Stover. One name from sci-fi I am familiar with is John Scalzi--I know he's turned down the opportunity to write SW before, but personally I'd love to see what he could do with it.

And continuing with the "I just hope they bring in adequate talent to do the job" theme, we come to Episode VII itself, currently scheduled for release on December 18, 2015. Let's start with the old news first: I'm not conversant with J.J. Abrams's entire oeuvre, but I like what little I've seen (the two newest Star Trek movies as director, and Super 8 as director and writer). I'm excited to see what he bring to the table, and bringing back veteran writer Lawrence Kasdan from the original trilogy gives me great optimism. I'm also stoked that John Williams will be back to compose the score; given his age, I'm sure a day will come when Star Wars music is composed by someone else, and I do not look forward to that day.

Of course, as we all now know, Kasdan and Williams aren't the only old hands being brought back from the original trilogy. The recent cast announcement confirmed that original stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker will be reprising their roles as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2, respectively. I think that'll be nice. It'll be awesome to see them in their familiar roles once again as they (I'm sure) pass the torch to a younger generation of heroes and villains. I'm still hoping they find a spot for Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian as well. I don't know a ton about the newcomers, except for Max von Sydow, who's always good, and Andy Serkis, who's an interesting addition. Everyone else? No real clue. I've seen Adam Driver in Girls, but that role is so far away from anything he'd do in Star Wars, there's no way to extrapolate. Domhnall Gleeson was fine in a bit part as Bill Weasley. I've heard good things about Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, and I'll try to catch some of their movies (primarily Inside Llewyn Davis and Attack the Block) in the meantime to get up to speed with their work.

The most important thing about the new movies, I think, is for the writers to let them be what they are. The original three movies had a broad appeal, including to kids, because it was a swashbuckling adventure with relatable characters, a lot of action and humor, and, of course, a happy ending. The prequel trilogy fell short in part because it was a very different story, but Lucas tried to tell it in the same way. The descent of a republic into fascism, and the fall of a hero into a power-hungry mass murderer? Not a story that can be told (well) if you want to aim it at kids. One thing I do think is good is that they're going to make a bunch of new Star Wars movies, and hopefully that will give them the freedom to make different kinds of movies. The prequels should have been dark. If the upcoming trilogy or standalone movies have a dark storyline, they should be able to go with it, with plenty of room to make other movies that are lighter. Variety and depth--that's what I'm hoping for.

Needless to say, George Lucas's work, and plenty of products based upon it, has brought me a great deal of joy over the course of the past 36 (almost 37) years. Despite my disenchantment with the prequels (primarily The Phantom Menace; it was the only one I'd describe as outright terrible, and the following two likely would have been much improved with a better start to the series) isn't enough to make me not excited for the new trilogy and everything else Star Wars still has to offer. I'm very much looking forward to it.

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