Friday, June 27, 2008

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode One

So at this point, my computer refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Internet, which means I can't surf the web, check my email, or illegally download Doctor Who. (I'm typing this on my room-mate's computer; he will be handling the illegal-download duties this week.) But you didn't come here to hear about my problems, you came here to listen to me yammer about random stuff!

A few years back, I found myself discussing the Star Wars prequels with a friend I've unfortunately lost touch with. We were talking about how much they sucked, to be specific, and how easy it would be to rework them into something better. We came up with plans for revised versions of all six movies (as we pretty much took it as a given, even back in 2002, that Episode Three wasn't going to be a classic.) Today, I'm going to share with you our views on what needed to happen to Episode One, the Phantom Menace!

First, the story needed to begin in mid-battle. We never see the droid troopers in battle against anything other than Jedi for the first three-quarters of the movie, and the Jedi basically school them. Which makes the battle droids appear weak and unthreatening (and their spindly design and comedy voices don't help.) So our Episode One opens with the Trade Federation fleets (and needless to say, our Trade Federation aliens would have their own language, with subtitles) attacking the peaceful planet of Naboo (except that Naboo would probably have a less silly name in our version.) Droid soldiers (who would look more like the droids in Episode Two, with stockier bodies and deeper voices) overwhelm the Naboo soldiers, and all appears lost...

Until two Jedi arrive. Qui-Gon Jinn and his rebellious student, Obi-Wan Kenobi, show up to negotiate (and if necessary, enforce) a peace. The Trade Federation are expected to toe the line--the Jedi are, after all, respected for over a thousand years as the peacekeepers of the Republic. (There's a hint of something unsavory about this, here. Many of the species outside of the Republic, on the Outer Rim, are immune to Jedi powers, and there's definitely an undercurrent of an idea that maybe the Republic was founded when the Jedi kicked out the people they couldn't control. But Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are decent men, even if Obi-Wan is a bit of a hellraiser.)

But this time, the Trade Federation refuses to kowtow. They instead take the unprecedented step of attacking the Jedi, insinuating that they have the patronage of something darker, more ancient, something that even the Jedi must fear. Qui-Gon is worried and wants to find out more, but first, he and his apprentice have to fight a world of killer robots, free Queen Amidala (who isn't elected, because Queens tend not to be) and get back to Coruscant, the capital of the Republic to warn everyone.

For two Jedi, this is easier than it looks. They get the help of a native of the planet, whose name isn't Jar Jar Binks, who isn't clumsy, and who is actually useful in a fight. Think an amphibious version of Chewbacca, rather than the CGI mess we got. Sort of if the Creature From the Black Lagoon was a nice guy. But we'll continue to call him Jar Jar here, just to make it clear who we're talking about. They save Jar Jar, and Jar Jar repays the favor by helping them rescue the Queen and get everyone off-planet.

The Trade Federation give chase. Conversations with their secret master, Darth Sidious, make it clear that this is just the first step in a plan to split the Republic apart, and he needs Naboo's resources to make it happen. It's clear that while the Trade Federation isn't afraid of the Jedi anymore, they're very afraid of him. The Jedi's ship gives the Trade Federation the slip by escaping past the Outer Rim, into the frontier territory controlled by the Hutts, but their ship is damaged and they must put down for repairs on a backwater planet. (Not Tatooine. No Tatooine until the end of Episode Three, that's my motto. This is another part of the Hutt territory, a few systems away from Tatooine.)

While the Queen's people are fixing and Qui-Gon is meditating, Obi-Wan sneaks off. (Hellraiser, remember?) He winds up meeting an orphaned teen just a year or so younger than him (say, seventeen to Obi-Wan's eighteen), who's in the middle of an illegal swoop race with a bunch of alien bikers. (For the non-Star Wars literate, swoops are to the speeder bikes in 'Return to the Jedi' as Harleys are to those little crotch-rocket motorcycles.) The teen, one Anakin Skywalker, is racing for money, and wins...and as a Jedi, Obi-Wan can tell that this kid is using the Force to help him race on a scale that staggers Obi-Wan's imagination. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon winds up having his meditation interrupted by a force of one hundred armed guards, sent by the Hutts.

While all this is going on, Darth Sidious sends his apprentice, Darth Maul, to apprehend the Queen personally should the Trade Federation fail. Maul lands on the planet, and begins seeking his quarry out...and the first thing that attracts his attention is an apocalyptic bar fight between several dozen disgruntled alien bikers convinced that Anakin was cheating, and Anakin and Obi-Wan, who become instant friends while slicing, dicing, and shooting aliens. But Darth Maul is watching them...

The Hutts, meanwhile, have summoned Qui-Gon to ask him exactly who this "Trade Federation" is that's just landed a battlefleet right above their planet, and why they want this Queen. (They're not angry. The Hutts merely sent a hundred armed men to fetch him merely as a sign of respect for his abilities as a Jedi. To send just one armed goon would be a grave insult.) Qui-Gon explains the situation, and while the Hutts have no interest on either side, the Trade Federation's presumption and demanding attitude alienates them.

A major battle follows. In space, Hutt battleships fight the Trade Federation's forces, and the Hutts fight dirty. On the planet, Qui-Gon returns to find that Obi-Wan and Anakin have dragged a whole army of lowlifes to their hangar. He gets everyone on board the ship and prepares for lift-off, when Darth Maul shows up. Maul cuts a swathe through the angry mob, and very nearly through Qui-Gon as well. He's very well-trained, and uses the Dark Side of the Force in a way that hasn't been seen in centuries...not since the founding of the Republic, in fact.

Qui-Gon holds his own just long enough to get to the ship, which takes off and weaves its way through the space battle, finally getting clear of the planet and jumping into hyperspace. Next stop, Coruscant! ...where Queen Amidala finds little sympathy for her cause in the gridlocked Senate. Her personal Senator, Palpatine, manipulates her into putting him forward as a candidate for Chancellor.

That night, Obi-Wan goes to see Amidala in her quarters. (Because, y'know, grrrrowlll! Jedi are discouraged from forming relationships, but it's not forbidden.) He finds her there, but he also finds Darth Maul. A lightsaber duel follows, with Obi-Wan handling Maul better than Qui-Gon, but still not well enough. The two combatants trash the room, slowly destroying power couplings and lighting fixtures over the course of their fight so that the room gradually darkens, eventually lit only by their twin lightsabers. Then, Maul manages to disarm Obi-Wan, and the room is lit only by one saber, gradually inching down towards Obi-Wan's face...

And then, behind Maul, there's the trademark sound of lightsabers turning on, one after another after another until the entire Jedi Council stands illuminated. In the center of them stands Yoda, who's not wielding anything. He's just staring at Maul with a little scowl on his face. Maul sees that, and runs for it. He slices open a wall and jumps out into Coruscant hover-traffic, leaping from car to car until he's just a spot in the distance.

With that, Amidala decides to return to her homeworld. She's no safer on Coruscant than anywhere else, and Jar Jar has pledged the help of his people against the droid armies. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Anakin decide to accompany them--Anakin wants to become a Jedi, and although Yoda insists he's too old to begin the training, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are both open to the idea. (Yoda, meanwhile, warns Qui-Gon that the power, the darkness he felt in Maul is reminiscent of the ancient warnings, the legends of the Sith. He urges the utmost caution. If the Sith have returned, dark times may lie ahead for the entire galaxy.)

The heroes' forces run the blockade surrounding Naboo, and Queen Amidala allies herself with the Gungan armies for a showdown. They free many of the captured Naboo pilots and a handful of ships, and Anakin volunteers to help fly a risky assault on the Trade Federation's co-ordinator ships (which enable their droids and starships to act in unison.) He's hoping the Queen will be at least a little impressed with this show of bravery...after all, grrrrowlll!

Gungans fight droids (more competently than in the movie, which made it look like a sort of Special Olympics of war), Anakin heroically destroys the co-ordinator ship, and Darth Maul battles both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon dies, Darth Maul dies, but even without the co-ordinator ship, the Trade Federation's forces are overwhelming, and defeat seems certain...until Chancellor Palpatine arrives with the Republic's forces to save the day! Huzzah!

Or, at least, sort of huzzah. Qui-Gon is dead, and without him, Anakin's dream of becoming a Jedi seems stillborn. Not to mention, the captured Trade Federation leaders mention a further Sith Lord in the shadows, the master to Maul's apprentice, one they only know as Darth Sidious...and on mentioning his name, they immediately drop dead in agony. Yoda fears the worst. Even with all his misgivings, though, he cannot deny Obi-Wan his ascension to Jedi Knight. And as a full Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan may take an apprentice. He chooses his fast friend, Anakin Skywalker. And at the awards ceremony, Amidala delivers a kiss that makes it pretty clear that she, too, chooses Anakin.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Informal Storytelling Engines Poll

At this point, I've now done seventy-six entries in the "Storytelling Engines" series, which is a lot longer than I generally tend to stick with things. (Honestly, I'm kind of impressed with myself. Probably much more than my audience is impressed with me.) But the problem is, I'm actually running out of things to talk about. I originally based this series on the great big "Essentials/Showcase Presents" volumes because they were cheap, and because they gave a nice overview of a long period of a series' history, which allowed me to take a look at the way storytelling engines changed over time.

Well, unfortunately, Marvel and DC aren't publishing them as fast as I'm writing about them. As I write this, there are seven series ('Shazam', 'Sergeant Rock', 'Metamorpho', 'Robin', 'Human Torch', 'Rampaging Hulk' and 'Captain Marvel') left that I haven't done an entry on. And honestly, I have no idea what to say about the Human Torch's solo series. DC is coming out with a few new volumes in the next few months ('House of Secrets' and 'Blackhawks'), but after that, I'm officially out of material.

So I'd like to hear people's opinions for a moment. Should I, at that point, wrap it up as a regular feature? Eighty-five entries, thanks very much, good job and well done? Or should I try expanding it to other areas, some of which wouldn't be comics-related? (For example, I've got the entire series of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, the Critic, Monty Python, Futurama and Black Adder on DVD, not to mention more Doctor Who and Simpsons than you could possibly imagine.) Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. I'll be paying close attention.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Don't Look Now

(Sorry about the lateness of this entry--been too tired to write lately. I'm thinking about taking multi-vitamins.)

There was a time in my life--a happier time--when I could say I have never seen a film that could be summarized with the words, "Donald Sutherland wanders around Venice for two hours, then gets stabbed by a midget." But unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Because I have seen 'Don't Look Now'. This unintentionally-aptly-titled 1973 thriller is legendary for its infamous "shock" ending, which made #22 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Moments In Film. After watching the film, I understand why the ending is so popular. After sitting through this movie, I was overjoyed to see any kind of an ending.

In all seriousness, the film is deadly dull. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play a couple whose youngest child has drowned, and their working vacation in Venice (he restores old cathedrals) is filled with...well, as I say, endless sequences of them wandering through the streets, and loud, ominous music that continually seems out of place in its efforts to convince the audience that something is happening when it isn't. Christie meets two elderly British women, one of whom claims to be psychic, and the movie tries to squeeze a little mileage out of that, but as with all of the subplots, it never really seems to get going. Every so often, someone mentions something about "murders", but the director never lets any of that get in the way of endless shots of people wandering around the Venetian scenery.

And then, in the end, Donald Sutherland gets stabbed by a killer midget that he thinks is his daughter. No explanation, no set-up (because really, how do you set up "killer midget"?) I'd say I was sorry for spoiling the movie by telling you that, but really, if you read this review and wind up not wanting to see this film, I've done you a favor. (Oh, by the same note, the cancer patient did it in 'Saw' and he's pretending to be the corpse on the floor.) Then, as he lies dying, we get a quick montage of every scene in the entire movie, just to complete the illusion that we're trapped in a never-ending hell of dull, pointless sequences of awkward, stilted dialog and random musical cues.

I realize that very few of my readers were clamoring to see 'Don't Look Now'. Most of you have never even heard of it. But if I've saved even one person from wasting 110 minutes of their life watching this testament to cinematic immobility, my time on this earth shall not have been in vain.

Friday, June 13, 2008 Performance Art?

The radio ads for are so strange, so bizarrely desperate and weird that I do sometimes suspect that they're not meant to be enticements to visit the site at all, but perhaps some sort of meta-commentary on the futility of attempting to convince people to buy your product with persuasive discourse. Last year, for example, they ran a series of ads discussing how you could sign other people up for the dating service if you didn't want to use it on your own behalf. " the yenta in you!" (I can only assume that they stopped doing this because of all the potentials for disaster that could result. "Honey, we decided we didn't like the man you were dating, so we signed you up for Here's Harold, we think he'd be a much better boyfriend for you.")

Later, they took to emphasizing their "six months free" promise. As in, "If you don't meet someone within the first six months, we'll give you another six months free." That's right, if you've wasted your time and money on our website in a seeming eternity of desperate loneliness...hey, you'll just waste time from now on!

Their latest campaign is all about how "easy-to-use" the site is. How easy? Well, they say that you can learn via a page of hints and tips from experienced users, their "best customers". But is a service whose goal is to try to get you not to use it anymore. If you've been using long enough to figure out every detail of its web interface, then you're clearly not their "best customer"--you're someone who apparently has nothing better to do on a Friday night than figure out how to adjust your profile on a dating website. The people whose advice you want to listen to would tell you, "I dunno--I put up my information, met a nice girl/guy in about five minutes, and never needed to use the site again."

I can understand that advertising a personals service is probably difficult, as there is a bit of a stigma attached to using one, but even by those standards, has a strange, flop-sweat desperation to its ads. Still, at least it's an entertaining desperation. It could be worse. They could be the guys at "It's Just Lunch".

Monday, June 02, 2008

Taking a Break

Taking a week off from writing (it's sort of like a vacation, except that I still have to go put in forty hours at my regular job.) So there will be no blog posts beyond this one that tells you there won't be any blog posts.

Now you see why the tag for these is "meta".