Thursday, May 28, 2009

Star Wars, episodes 4-6

Do you know what happened on May 25?
1. In 1977, “Star Wars” (Episode 4) debuted.

2. In 1983, “Return of the Jedi” debuted

3. I graduated from college! (Can't remember what year. :))

4. And most important of all, in 2009 we celebrated Memorial Day. More on that later.

Today we continue our look at the trilogy with a look at the “original” trilogy from 1977-1983. These are three of my favorites of all time, and we have so little time to talk about them. But here, I hope, are the most important facts:

This one will likely always be just “Star Wars” to me. Unlike so many fans, my first memories of “Star Wars” aren't very happy ones. My aunt scared me for it by talking about the “snake” in the trash compactor. I dropped my Dad's watch during one showing and forced him to look for it under some people's seats, prompting him to threaten to spank me when we got home. What fun. I got a lot more out of it later on, when I slowly began to read the Marvel Comics adaptation of the movie. I began to understand the story better and appreciate the creativity and adventure. Slowly, after two more theater viewings, it began to turn into the classic it is.

Then one day, we happened to be shopping in Toys 'R' Us and saw that some new toys were coming out based on Star Wars. My parents bought. . .yes, the Early Bird Star Wars figure box! It's a classic item for collectors (and long lost to me now, of course), and it was the beginning of a beautiful business relationship between our family and Kenner Toys. I wrote a little bit about the Star Wars figures in an earlier post. You can read it here:

My family also bought the Super-8mm film version of Star Wars. It was silent with subtitles and only featured two scenes from the movie (Obi-Wan talking to Luke at his home and the escape from the Death Star), but wow, there was certainly enough there to entertain at birthday parties. We also bought the soundtrack album (with some of the most majestic film music ever written), and I have fond memories of my friends and I playing “Cantina Band” over and over, sometimes on 45 and 78 rpm.

Now hang on, we're going to make the jump to light speed to 1982, when “Star Wars” debuted on home video for the first time. It quickly became our favorite rental, being rented once a month for what seemed like the next year or so. And more importantly, my family and I began to appreciate it cinematically. It was always a good movie, but by watching it over and over, we began to understand WHY it was a good movie. We could see all the elements coming together to create the whole. That's one of the greatest benefits of home video- the ability to view it again. Movies began to become more like books. We could put them down for a minute and come back to them later. That's something that certainly isn't possible in a play or theatrical film! Star Wars cemented itself as a true classic thanks to home video.

As noted by Mark Hamil years later in the “Star Wars to Jedi” documentary, the central irony of Star Wars is that it uses high technology to present an anti-technological theme. We see these powerful spaceships and weapons. We see these incredible creatures and places. But through it all, we begin to understand that our eyes can deceive us, and that there is another, spiritual level to life. It is this spiritual level that sells the story, as far as I'm concerned.

Again as noted by Mark Hamil, “Empire” was a big gamble. With its more serious tone and themes, it was not the same as “Star Wars.” Many feel it's even better. It certainly is a favorite of the actors, and it's easy to understand why- there's a lot of drama going on in “Empire,” and the actors got to stretch their talents to the limits. There's a lot of pain to go through for our heroes and a lot of growing up for Luke. We also are introduced to one of the most important puppetry moments in movie history. Yoda holds his own against the real-life actors, and with the possible exception of E.T., this may be the pinnacle of how far puppetry in films can go. Read more about my hero Yoda here:

Of course, the big shocker was what Darth Vader told Luke at the end of their epic lightsaber battle. A friend “spilled the beans” to us before we saw the film. But even if you knew about it, it didn't take away from your enjoyment of the movie. It is a very dramatic moment, of course, and it could be the most important one in the series. It certainly emphasizes the spirituality of Luke's battle. “Empire” shows us the spiritual side of Star Wars like we'd never seen it before. The scene in the cave is a great foreshadowing experience and helps us understand the battle that Luke must face. And here we come to an important point. It's probably the most important thing we can learn from Star Wars. Are you ready?

“Star Wars” is not about wars in outer space a long time ago. “Star Wars” is about the wars that you and I face every day of our lives. “Star Wars” is about battles inside the heart. We watch these battles, but as Yoda says, “Wars don't make one great.” That's because we ALL go through wars. On May 25 we celebrated Memorial Day, where we remember those who have given their lives for their country. As honored and revered as these men should be, and although they are greater than the rest of us in many ways, they are not alone when it comes to war. The most important wars in “Star Wars” are the spiritual ones. Those are the same ones you and I face each day.

“Empire’s” biggest flaw is that it ends on such a cliffhanger. We feel cheated at the end by not knowing what will happen to our heroes. Yet it also ends with a glimmer of hope, as the story is obviously not over yet. There’s still a chance for things to be good.

“Jedi” is the graduate thesis. Despite its flaws, it is probably my favorite of all the Star Wars films. It wraps up the story in a way that is satisfying and also demonstrates what makes “Star Wars” so wonderful. Remember, it's 1983, just after “Star Wars” debuted on home video. We've begun to appreciate what a great film it is. Now, with “Jedi”, we not only see many of the same elements, we see them improved upon and presented in their widescreen, stereo glory. (It's interesting to note how many of the scenes and plot elements in episode 4 are revisited in “Jedi.”) And I was finally old enough to appreciate movies as an art form.

We are taken to the palace of Jabba the Hutt, intergalactic crime lord and, as my friend said, “I would describe Jabba the Hutt as a rising pancake.” Our heroes put on disguises in an attempt to rescue their friend Han from Jabba, but Jabba won't be fooled, and ends up taking our heroes hostage, including. . .oh God. . .Princess Leia in a slave girl outfit. . .The boys who were seven when episode 4 came out were 13 when “Jedi” came out. Hmmm. If there were any doubt that this film would become a legend, the gold bikini made it official! This is actually quite significant. For by including a sexy chick, “Jedi” becomes more complete. We gain not only the spiritual side of a story, but the sensual as well. We get “turned on,” but not in only one way!

Anyway, because Jabba isn’t fooled by disguises, Luke must confront him face to face. He walks into the lair of monsters to save his friends. They send a big monster called the Rancor to eat him. It looks like Luke is out of luck, but he not only survives, he kills the monster! Jabba orders Luke and Han to be thrown into the Sarlac pit, keeping Leia for himself, for obvious reasons. I won’t tell you what happens, you have to watch the film and enjoy the technique of one of the great fight sequences in the saga.

Anyway, Luke must confront the truth about Darth Vader, and in the process the truth about himself and how easy it would be to go over to the dark side. Luke knows he must face Vader again, but also that he can’t kill his father. He can’t win. There seems to be no way out. Or is there? Is it possible that the weapons of war and the powers of good go beyond anything the Emperor can understand? Remember this telling dialogue?

VADER: A small rebel force has penetrated the shield and landed on Endor.
EMPEROR: Yes, I know.
VADER: My son is with them.
EMPEROR: Are you sure?
VADER: I have felt him, my master.
EMPEROR: Strange that I have not. . .

Well, I suppose if you didn’t understand love, you might not feel anything either. . .

Ah yes, the “cute and cuddly” Ewoks. These guys may not look very powerful, but they basically helped defeat an Empire. Again, the lesson is not to judge a book by its cover. Don’t believe a disguise. It was so easy to believe that Darth Vader was nothing but a bad guy. . .

Jedi is one of the few action films out there that promotes non-violence. It shows what all the other movies have been hinting at. Just “obeying your heart” is not always the way, because sometimes obeying your heart gets you in trouble. “Jedi” presents the inner battles we face and shows how physically destroying your opponent is not always the best answer. Probably the most important moment in all the films comes when Darth Vader threatens to turn Leia to the dark side. The gorgeous music swells, and the drama takes on a spiritual tone that can be tasted. (I was very glad when they finally released that piece of music on CD! It wasn’t included in the original soundtrack recordings of “Jedi.”) It can almost bring you to tears when you begin to understand all that is going on in that moment.

And then, “Go my son, leave me.” “No, you’re coming with me. I’ve got to save you!” “You already have, Luke.” The spiritual side - the good side- has triumphed in the lives of Anakin Skywalker and his son. And to prove it, as our friends gather together at the ending, and they sing and dance and hug and talk, we see Anakin joining all the other loved ones. You know, Heaven is going to be something like this. . .

But my favorite Jedi memory of all time may be right after the first time we saw it, when my mom, brother and I walked out of the theater and towards the car. We each kind of glanced at each other, smiling. We knew we had just seen one of the greatest things we'd ever seen in the theater. That's true for me to this day.

SPECIAL EDITIONS: The Special Edition of the trilogy came out in 1997, and featured improved special effects and a few formerly deleted scenes. It was a lot of fun seeing the films in the theaters again, but I don't think the special editions improved the story much. As Lucas said, “A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story. . .a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” While the new effects were certainly great, the original story is what mattered most, and that's what we all need to remember. . .including Mr. Lucas. Read on.

ENOUGH ALREADY: While peeking at the recent showing of Episode 4 on MTV, I noticed something unusual. The scene that was added for the special edition had been re-done! Jabba looked different than he did in the original special edition release. It was a neat effect. . .but hang on here. Exactly how many times are we going to “fix” these movies? Shouldn’t we close the book at some point? Look, I don’t want to wake up in the year 2525 and find that none of the original film is still alive! “Oh, but we can make Princess Leia look so much better now! Isn’t this actress prettier than Carrie Fisher? Well, isn’t she?” I will kill you now. We need to keep the originals alive in some form until the end of time, if for no other reason than to let people see how things were “a long time ago.”

SOLD OUT: Just this afternoon, I saw a poster advertising a “Star-Wars” related event in my local library, featuring guys in costumes and talks about some of the great Star Wars science fiction books. While the tickets were free, they were limited, and I was unable to get one, as they had all already been given out. It’s been over 30 years, and Star Wars still has the power to “sell out” venues. It’s a testament to our love for the stories and our desire for adventure and romance and fun, as well as for the spiritual side of life. The force is going to be with us for a long time to come, and I’m thankful. Thanks for riding along.