Sunday, November 25, 2012

20¢ worth of advice about Star Wars: Episode VII

When you're ill, you start to think about what matters most. Star Wars, for instance.

I've spent most of the past four days in bed, days I could have spent doing productive things like playing video games endlessly, or writing any number of movies blogs, or (more likely) getting drunk with my friends in town for the holidays. But no. I've been sequestered to my room, surrounded by Gatorade bottles filled with water, blankets of every sort, and a growing frustration at my own frail mortality. That is not the point of this entry, but I thought I'd vent a bit; I've been in here a while.

What I have been doing while recuperating is watch the original Star Wars trilogy. Specifically, Star Wars the way I grew up watching them: on VHS in full screen—there's something about the warm, soft picture that comes from magnetic tape that penetrates my deepest comfort sensors and makes me feel good inside. That, and there's no "Jedi Rocks."

Anyway, since I've had adequate time to contemplate on why these three films work so well, I thought I'd chime in on what I would do with the three upcoming Star Wars flicks that Disney has so earnestly told its investors are in pre-production. Certainly, we've had enough of these lately, but I haven't made any lists yet, dammit! Besides, I need to get in the habit of writing for fun, even if my opinion is redundant, and though I may have recently crawled out of the nadir of the sickest I've ever been in my life, writing a list about Star Wars sounds pretty damn fun about now.

Ten bits of unsolicited advice regarding Star Wars: Episode VII

1. Star Wars is a Saturday afternoon serial

Something easy to lose sight of amidst the constant blitz of Star Wars media—comics, TV series, novels, oh my!—is how Star Wars got started. As I understand it, and I could be wrong, Lucas wanted to make an homage to old sci-fi movie serials like Flash Gordon. That's where the Episode VII's construction needs to start. Elemental conflicts. Good vs. evil. Heroes getting out of scrapes. Villains concocting fiendish plots. If it takes more than three good, long sentences to abridge the story structure, start again. A simpler machine is a better machine when it comes to great myth (which is also what Star Wars is based on).

2. Great characters are key

Just because the conflict is simple doesn't mean the characters are allowed to be shallow. Look at Luke and his arc: farm boy who undergoes a hero's journey in the first film, undergoes trials and hardship during the second, then comes into his own in the third. How about Han: do-anything mercenary who learns to value the loyalty of friendship in the first film, then love in the second, then personal responsibility in the third. Now let's think about Anakin in the last two prequels: evil kid who doesn't bother pretending he'll become evil later acts sullen until he eventually goes full-tilt evil. Simple stories, rich characters, this is the stuff that myths are made of.

3. Practical makes perfect

If there's anything the Lord of the Rings trilogy should have taught special effect artists everywhere, it's that practical effects married with CG age much better than pure CG. Hell, I sometimes cite Episode I as my favorite of the prequels because it "feels" so much like the first three, and most of it comes from using practical sets, effects, and generally not being so CG-drunk as Revenge of the Sith. I'm serious, build those six-foot scale models of Star Destroyers, film sets on locations that look like real places, use stunt doubles and not CG replicas for the more intense stunt work. It will look better and feel more like Star Wars, guaranteed.

4. Quip it, good

Like I said, it's a Saturday afternoon serial. Junk is supposed to be popcorn magic, and the best popcorn films generally have a modicum of humor, or at least good quotes, sprinkled throughout. It doesn't have to be quite as Waka Waka as Return of the Jedi, but certainly more than either Attack of the Clones (where it was obvious where the quips *should* have been) or Revenge of the Sith (which was deliberately dark, often at the expense of being a Star Wars picture). "Laugh it up, fuzzball." "This will be a day long-remembered." "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." All more memorable than the anonymous screenwriting of the prequels; if you want me to recall your film fondly, make me talk its language.

5. Sounds good to me

Please, please, please keep John Williams and Ben Burtt for your sound design. I can't imagine why either wouldn't acquiesce to continue work on arguably their most esteemed series to date, but, seriously, give them as many cement mixers full of money as they require to get them to stay onboard.

6. Short, sweet

Both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back squeak by at just a hair over two hours. Return of the Jedi is about two hours and fifteen minutes, but just about everyone admits it's the weakest of the trio. Both The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith hover near two hours and twenty minutes, which still feels bloated even in today's post-Dark Knight blockbuster landscape. Remember, Star Wars is a Saturday afternoon serial! Get us into the theater, then give us *just* enough space opera before kicking us out, the better to hop back in line and see it again.

7. Don't adapt it from the EU

Maybe take bits and pieces from the various books, TV series, video games, etcetera ad infinitum? Either way, there's a brave new world waiting to be explored by some intrepid young screenwriter out there, one that shouldn't be constricted by pre-existing fiction.

Okay, just straight-up take Thrawn. I don't mind. But that's all.

8. Visit new places

This kinda goes with my previous point, but please don't retread old areas for nostalgia rush. How many damn times do I need to see Tatooine before I've had my fill? The same goes for Hoth, Endor, Mustafar, Courescant (especially Courescant!), everything. Show me some exotic planet whose life only dwells in subterranean mines, or one consisting entirely of mountain ranges. And while you're at it, I'd like to introduce you to the Bridgers…

9. Remember when aliens didn't speak English?

This is a small touch, but an important one when dealing with alien life. Personally, I liked it when I had to read Greedo's speech from subtitles, and that I couldn't understand what Jabba had to say; they sounded more menacing that way. It's what makes the galaxy feel more unexplored, more adventurous. Besides, what's the point of being fluent in over six million forms of communication if everyone talks the same lingo?

10. Make it Star Wars

Every blockbuster series released since 1977 (hmmm) has wanted to be Star Wars. Episode VII has the unique privilege of actually *being* Star Wars. Don't chase trends. Don't mimic other films. Learn from The Avengers, from Lord of the Rings, hell, from Skyfall, but remember your heritage: a Saturday serial as conceived by one of the wunderkinds of New Hollywood (and Star Wars is every inch a film a part of the New Hollywood movement it so swiftly snuffed out). Be exciting, be thoughtful, be an elegant film from a more civilized age.

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