Scotland is having a moment; even David Bowie noticed. In eight hours or so, residents of the northern European country will begin voting on whether they should stay in the United Kingdom of Great Britain (which, as writ down in 1707, encompasses England and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. At the same time, Scotland has had a banner year in the world of film and TV. In April, the introspective story of an alien’s self-discovery amongst the urban and rural men of Scotland, Under the Skin, debuted to wide critical acclaim. (I still can’t shake it.) Although set in Dorset, the BBC murder investigation series Broadchurch, starring David Tennant as a Scottish melancholic police detective, made such a splash when it aired here that it’s getting an American remake, also starring Tennant, that’s set to premiere early next month. Peter Capaldi, who will never lose his Scottish accent, no matter what role he’s playing (even if he’s Cardinal Richelieu on The Musketeers), is now Doctor Who. Stuart Murdoch, leader of indie band Belle & Sebastian, directed a winsome Glasgow-set musical released this summer: God Help the Girl.
But for me, nothing in film or TV right now can be any more about Scotland (or better yet, “Scotland”) than Starz’s lavish costume drama Outlander, which is based on the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. In it, Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, a former WWII combat nurse on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her sensitive and intellectual husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). Somehow, touching the standing stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness transports Claire to 1743, right before the thick of the second Jacobite rebellion. She becomes the imprisoned guest (yes, you read that correctly) of the Laird of the local Clan MacKenzie, Colum (Scottish character actor/everyman Gary Lewis). Everyone at his estate, Castle Leoch, suspects that their visitor, who appeared on their lands rather mysteriously and with a near incredulous backstory, is an English spy. Claire immerses herself in highland culture, but as an identifiably modern woman from the 20th century, she’s not afraid to confront its barbarism, misogyny, and plain backwardness. While a guest of Colum MacKenzie, she strikes up a tentative friendship with the young, noble outlaw Jamie MacTavish (Sam Heughan), who ostensibly represents everything that we love about Scotland: its wild, untameable spirit, cheeky sense of humor, romantic sense of independence, and high percentage of gingers. Although Claire wants nothing more than to return to the standing stones of Craigh na Dun in an effort to reunite with Frank in 1945, obstacles lay in her way everywhere. Chief among them is the mutual attraction between she and Jamie. Trust me, it’s pretty damn sexy.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice on this past week’s episode, the sixth of the season, that Claire’s confrontation with the sadistic English Army Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (expertly played by Tobias Menzies) and Frank’s direct ancestor (hence Menzies’s doing double duty on the show), sort of puts this whole Scottish independence vote in a nutshell. In episode five, Claire discovered that the members of Clan MacKenzie with whom she is forced to travel while they collect taxes from the villagers and farmers who live on MacKenzie lands are actually raising funds to bankroll a Jacobite rebellion that Claire knows, thanks to the hindsight of history, will end in their crushing defeat at Culloden in 1746. Having contracted a strain of Stockholm syndrome, Claire ruins any chance of securing the assistance of the English army in traveling back to Inverness when, after an officer “rescues” her from her Scottish “captors”/”friends” while on the road, she loses her cool over dinner with Brigadier General Lord Oliver Thomas (John Heffernan), casting doubts as to where her political (and by implication, cultural) allegiances lie.
Episode six, “The Garrison Commander,” is a two-hander featuring nothing much more than a psychological game between Black Jack Randall and Claire, a chamber piece set in a dark room where neither is willing to give in to the other’s desire for transparency. Once Lord Thomas’s men roll out at the word Scottish rebels have attacked nearby, he leaves Claire with Black Jack Randall, who, in an effort to expose her heresy, regales us with a tale about how he created a bloody masterpiece out of Jamie’s back, flogging him over one hundred times. I recommend this piece from Vulture about how the writer, producer, and actors staged the flashback scenes of Jamie’s torture and mutilation. The scene is visceral, realistic insofar as I know what it looks like for a back to peel off when repeatedly whipped, and most importantly, the loudest and most striking on-screen appeal for Scottish independence in the 18th century. But how curious this scene should air just days before the Scottish vote on 21st century independence?
Please don’t get me wrong: as much as I love the idea of Scottish independence, I think it is more Romantic than ideal or feasible. There are too many uncertainties: the fate of the Scottish currency (to join the disastrous euro zone or lose the hefty British pound? that is the question), whether England will accept an independent Scotland’s disavowal of the UK’s nuclear weapons, the real wealth that the rapidly depleting Scottish oil would bring to the new country, etc. As Steven Erlanger points out in his New York Times profile of the small, northernmost English town Berwick-upon-Tweed, independence would be catastrophic for those who live so close to the border. If you live in one country but work in another, how will you do your taxes? Small businesses are likely to go under. On top of it all, the Labour Party would lose its strongest voting bloc in Parliament if the left-leaning Scotland cuts ties for good. People are worried about what the UK’s flag will look like come 2016 if the Scots vote yes tomorrow. It seems silly, and though the polls suggest this will be a close call, I don’t think Scotland will declare its independence tomorrow.
The media everywhere are using the analogy of a divorce to describe this monumental decision. Is the married couple really that unhappy? England will throw Scotland some concessions, offering to do the washing up after dinner, even though it totally forgot how hard Scotland works during the day. Although I haven’t seen Outlander‘s seventh episode, “The Wedding,” I know that Jamie’s uncle Dougal (a gruff but charismatic Graham McTavish) has already figured out a way to save Claire from Black Jack’s clutches: making her a Scot by marrying her to a very game Jamie. This way, Black Jack cannot lawfully detain her while on MacKenzie lands. A fine political loophole that should make her transformation from Sassenach (the Gaelic word for “outlander” or, really, “Englander”) to Highlander. Lemme tell you, Saturday’s episode will be interesting no matter how the Scots decide.
Aside from their immediate availability, I tend to rent movies from the public library that I would never pay to see otherwise. On Wednesday, I picked up Thor: The Dark World and Divergent. I barely paid attention to what I now jokingly call Thor 2: Even Longer Hair; it was loud, stupid, and too complicated to follow while reading the New York Times. Despite its silly and childish sense of humor, the film took itself way too seriously. The same could be said of Divergent, which is the first in a series (big surprise!) of adaptations of the popular YA novels penned by Veronica Roth. However, Divergent pleasantly defied my low expectations. Once I got past the ridiculous premise, that in the undistinguished future, society is divided into five different factions in order to keep the peace, I got sucked into its dystopian world. Apparently a war some time in the past devastated the entire planet. We have no idea what in particular precipitated near total annihilation the world over; all we see is a dilapidated Chicago surrounded by an electrified fence stories high.
Given its generic provenance and overlapping themes about violence and children, Divergent is most often compared to that other YA juggernaut The Hunger Games. Years ago, I didn’t take too kindly to the first in that film series, writing that its unsubtle satire of our obsessive fascination with celebrity, competition, and violence could only really please the film’s built-in fanbase: enthusiastic readers of the novels. But catching Divergent–for free–was already on my subconscious agenda because I had just read an article by NYT film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis about the changing representations of young women and girls in cinema, a survey view of contemporary trends that compliments Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent pieceabout “badass” female characters in film today. Hornaday doesn’t mention Divergent, but Scott writes that protagonist Tris Prior is like Katniss Everdeen, her sister in arms, “a fighter against corrupt authority.” Since I am most interested in representations of women and femininity in all kinds of films, I knew that it would probably be worth my while to check out Divergent.
I have no idea what it is like as a novel; I have no desire to read the books, but I must admit that Divergent, as directed by Neil Burger and adapted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones), makes for quite a thrilling movie, a modern action flick with a feminist bent. It combines the trappings of a poignant coming-of-age story with those of a sophisticated political thriller. At least more sophisticated than it had any right to be.
Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice Prior, a teen born into the selfless faction of society. The film begins on the eve of her aptitude test, which should either decide if she is indeed Abnegation material or if she would better fit in with the scholars of Erudite, the honest folks of Candor, the hippies of Amity, or the daredevils of Dauntless. It drives me crazy that Roth didn’t use parallelism when naming her fictitious factions, opting for nouns (Abnegation, Candor, Amity) and adjectives (Erudite, Dauntless). Rather conveniently, on the day that both she and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) choose their future careers, if you will, Beatrice has the option of choosing any faction to belong to. The scene, played out in a symposium-like setting with leadership from all factions present and parents sitting in the audience with the kids they may or may not lose to a whole new family, certainly dramatizes the closest real-life equivalent: choosing your college (major). Much to their parents’ surprise, Caleb elects to be Erudite, Beatrice Dauntless. But you knew that was coming from the way she watched the Dauntless teens arrive at the Choosing Ceremony, a look on her face that said, “I wish I could jump out of a speeding train and run all the way to the door!”
This is where Beatrice’s journey really begins. Choosing a faction other than the one she was born into means that she can never go home, and if she shouldn’t make the cut at Dauntless, the leaders will throw her out onto the street, where she will remain homeless, factionless, pitiful, and despised. On her first day of college, if you will, Beatrice changes her name to Tris (it sounds more futuristic, sportier), makes friends with Christina of Candor (Zoe Kravitz), and surprises everyone, especially herself, when she volunteers to jump off a building before the other “initiates.” “Initiates” is just another word for “pledges,” for the first hour or so mainly concerns the brutal training (hazing?) that the new recruits must undergo in order to join the co-ed fraternity. It goes without saying that Tris rises from the lowest performing to the top of the class, helped in so small part by her boot camp instructor named Four, a taciturn but sensitive Mr. Pamuk (Theo James). Thankfully, the filmmakers milk the sexual tension between them for most of the film; we’re never certain until the third act that Tris, and by extension, we, can trust him with her secret: the results of her aptitude test were inconclusive. In other words, Tris shows qualities from the Erudite, selfless, and Dauntless. Yes, don’t we all feel better knowing that the young woman we’re rooting for isn’t defined by just one trait? Isn’t that the whole reason the author invented this world?
Regardless, Divergent works as a film because its visuals are quite striking, beginning with the aptitude test. Injected with a serum that will induce hallucinations (only the first of its kind, you soon find out), Beatrice imagines herself in a hall of mirrors, the confrontation with her fractured identity very much actualized in her mind–and for the film audience. She stares down a fierce dog (Dauntless) until she tricks her mind into thinking it is only a docile puppy (Erudite) and tries to protect a little girl from the angry canine (Abnegation). The hallucinations seamlessly meld together in the edit, thereby heightening their lucid dream-like quality but at the same time lending her fears real power. The same goes for the second part of Tris’s initiation, after hand-to-hand combat and weapons training: the psychological torture/endurance test in which Four injects her with a serum that makes her hallucinate all of her fears and how she might use methods inherent to Dauntless members to overcome said phobias. In these fevered dreams, her world turns upside down, inside out. The escape from one nightmare just leads to the next before she wakes herself up. Four, conveniently equipped with technology that allows him to see what she was visualizing in her brain, quickly determines that, for instance, her method for escaping from the glass cube filling up with water (just tapping on the glass) isn’t something that would ever occur to a Dauntless MacGyver. It’s also what makes her better than someone who is merely Dauntless.
Furthermore, the production design is impressive and visually stunning. Tris’s descent into the Dauntless world is played out on an Expressionist stage. The exaggerated scale of buildings is like something out of a criminal underworld picture, or perhaps one about a motorcycle rebel gang. Or The Lost Boys (black leather and other stretchy, breathable fabrics dominate the Dauntless wardrobe). There is also a fair amount of shadowplay. The Dauntless’s environs contrast with those of the Erudite, whose architecture looks like its been designed by Buckminster Fuller, thereby undermining their claims to being factual or at least transparent in their research. Although the people in Abnegation live in concrete houses, their simple yet modern design recalls contemporary pre-fab homes or affordable housing blocks of the 1960s. In other words, modest and indistinguishable. Isn’t it remarkable, though, that Millennium Park doesn’t make an appearance in Divergent (but a Navy Pier-in-ruin does)?
Divergent probably wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for Woodley’s strong, sympathetic performance. She is convincing as a rebellious teen who, once she leaves her family and faction, has nothing but her own strength and wits to rely on. Although her parents support Caleb and Beatrice in their potentially life-changing decisions, vowing to love them regardless of which faction they choose, Beatrice’s desire to break free from the world of Abnegation is a quiet rebellion against her parents. As the film’s political conspiracy gradually comes to light, Tris is the only one brave and capable enough to defy the New World Order that Kate Winslet’s character, Jeanine, represents. As the leader of the Erudite, Jeanine undermines the Abnegation-led government (of which Beatrice’s parents are a part), stirring up rumors that the selfless leaders are hypocrites who beat their children. Jeanine interprets this hypocrisy as a flaw in Human Nature, which also explains her genocidal plan to turn the Dauntless into a mindless army (again, with the help of some serum injected into the neck!) that will obey her orders to kill everyone in Abnegation. She isn’t a fan of Divergents, either, since they cannot be easily controlled. In this way, Tris’s rebellious spirit is presented as an aberration of Human Nature (believe me, the way Jeanine talks about it, it deserves capitalization). Her coming-of-age story doesn’t just converge with the unraveling of widespread corruption in faction leadership; exposing Jeanine and putting a stop to her coup d’etat almost becomes her coming of age’s reason for being.
Almost. Remember, she’s still in “college,” and Divergent checks off a number of campus-living cliches: the “initiates'”original delight when learning dorms are co-ed and their subsequent squeamishness when they find out they’ll have absolutely no privacy, her aforementioned crush on an upperclassman/mentor who shows her the ropes (Four), and her impulsive decision to get a tattoo. At least the imprint of three black birds ascending from her collarbone isn’t a tramp stamp, but isn’t it a little too close to the revolutionary symbol central to The Hunger Games?
Divergent is, in my opinion, extremely violent, what with the brutal but narrative-driven fight scenes, attempted rape and/or murder of Tris by jealous male “pledges,” and the fact that her mother and father are killed within minutes of the other while trying to protect their children. It is also conspicuously bloodless thanks to its PG-13 rating. Most importantly, its scariest moments are presented as thrilling out-of-body experiences for Tris. In addition to the serum-induced hallucinations, she literally jumps into her journey towards self-discovery; if her leaping off a speeding L train onto the roof of a building doesn’t convince, her jump from the roof into the derelict building below sure does. However, I was completely bowled over and scared out of my rational mind when she zip-lined from a skyscraper on one side of Chicago to the Dauntless HQ down below, clear on the other side of town. This scene presents a very romantic conceptualization of her burgeoning identity not only as a Dauntless individual but also as an autonomous subject in general. Even if Tris is one “kick ass” heroine that film critics wish there were more of on screen these days, I can’t relate to her desire for what amounts to a militaristic life. But I do long for physical and emotional transcendence, like the one she experiences in the air. For her soaring through the sky shows her–and us, by extension–what she is capable of achieving and how that makes her feel. It’s my favorite scene in the film; it’s a bold statement about girlhood. And, dare I say, a superheroic one?
By way of conclusion, let’s discuss Tris’s sexual awakening. You knew it was coming. She’s in “college,” after all. Her first sexual experience arguably takes place when, in an effort to protect and train Tris, Four invites her into his own fearscape (it’s no match for her). The injection of the hallucination-causing serum acts as an exchange of fluids, and I immediately thought of the virtual sex scene in Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993) when Four and Tris plugged themselves into the computer, interacting (I mean, touching) through scenes visualized in their minds. Interestingly, and undoubtedly owing to the predominantly female audience, it is Four’s body that is put on display, revealed as a landscape that Tris discovers with her eyes and fingertips. She asks to see the expansive tattoo all over his back. The moment he takes off his shirt is meant to make audiences swoon, but it also uncovers that Four is Divergent, too. For his tattoo design incorporates the symbols for all five factions.
Although taken seriously as a suppression of her sexual desires, Tris’s decision to forgo her first real sexual encounter occurs so quickly that I originally misinterpreted it as one in which she does indeed have sex with Four off-screen. Her choice not to have sex (yet) is presented as no big deal, because she has no anxiety over Four’s feelings towards her. Curiously, though, at her final exam in which she must maneuver her own fearscape like a true Dauntless member, she envisions a betrayal of trust on Four’s part. That is, she quashes his attempt to rape her by kicking him in the groin. I was stunned to see date rape represented in this PG-13 action flick, but I love its context of female empowerment. The worst part of Divergent, vis-a-vis Tris’s self-actualization, is when, in the final scene as she and her friends escape the city on the L train, she says that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Understandable, given that she has no faction and no family, but it’s a shame that it’s her (male) love interest who reassures her that she is someone because he knows who she is. Two steps forward, three steps back for strong young women in film.
As you might have read, this month I have been revisiting the original Star Wars trilogy. Now that I have seen Return of the Jedi (I simply refuse to call them by their retroactively prescribed names, such as Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Who needs all that?), I can confirm that my earlier suspicions were correct: the series is indeed “one drawn-out B-movie.” It’s a stupid, bloated, and poorly made cult film series. Am I right in assuming that Return of the Jedi is the Godfather Part III to the Star Wars pantheon of films? While not wholly unnecessary (we desperately needed to know that Luke wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and convert to the Dark Side) like Francis Ford Coppola’s too-little-too-late second sequel, Return of the Jedi is easily the worst of the original bunch.
Let’s see. What happens? In an effort to rescue Han Solo, still frozen in carbonite, from the giant slug Jabba the Hutt (to whom Han had been in debt), Princess Leia and the bickering droids C-P30 and R2-D2 become Jabba’s prisoners. We’re treated to a song-and-dance routine by scared sycophants/prisoners which reminds us that we’ve most certainly entered the 1980s. A sex slave, Leia is forced to wear bronze lingerie. Now I understand how her Farrah Fawcett moment must have initially affected young boys in 1983 and in the years since. When Jabba rejects Luke’s holographic message pleading for his friends’ release, the self-proclaimed jedi knight has no choice but to come down in person. He makes threats (throughout the movie, too) that no one believes he can act upon, but he predictably gets the job done. Seriously, Jabba the Hutt was so nonthreatening a minor villain that we didn’t need a prolonged desert-set battle in which Luke and co. blew up his ship before the slug could feed a newly reawakened Han Solo and obnoxious Luke to the sarlacc. I have to admit that I didn’t remember the name of the giant, perfectly round mouth in the desert floor, whose sharp teeth don’t help cut down its digestion time of eternity. In the process of identifying the sarlacc, I discovered it has its own Wikipedia page. Don’t people have more important things to do with their time?
Ah, what else? Yoda dies. After saving his friends, Luke makes good on his promise and returns to Yoda’s isolated swamp planet Dagobah (which sounds too much like the yummy chocolate company Dagoba) in order to resume his jedi training. Yoda evaporates in the air (or was he just beamed up to the heavens?), but not before attesting to Darth Vader’s claim to Luke’s paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and to telling the boy that he has a sibling. Lucky for Luke, Ben Kenobi appears to him on Dagobah and explains Luke’s twisted family history: Darth Vader hid Luke from the Emperor, and in turn, Ben hid Luke’s twin sister from Darth. Luke hilariously makes one guess as to who his sister must be. “Leia!” But of course, it had to be her since there are no other significant women in any of these movies, despite the fact that there seem to be no limits to this imaginary galaxy. See? The writing hasn’t improved upon the first two films.
I know that from the prequels, we learn who is Luke and Leia’s mother. (She’s Natalie Portman, of course.) But isn’t it disgusting that the writers thought it was a good idea to never to delve into this anywhere in Episodes IV through VI? Instead, it’s all about the jedi tricks and schemes to keep the twins hidden, separated, so that they can find each other seemingly by accident and intuition. Perhaps the ultimate victim in all of this is the dispossessed mother. She doesn’t even come up.
Just when I was beginning to despair that I would never see the Ewoks (for a moment, I had thought the desert people on Tatooine in Star Wars were them; my bad), I got to see the creatures in the over-long third act on Endor, which is where the crew has landed in order to take out the Emperor’s new Death Star. It’s not much worth going into, but the Ewoks take Han Solo and the droids prisoner. Their captors are equal parts creepy and cute. These forest people resemble not only Gizmo from Gremlins and a more neutral toned Care Bears line of stuffed animals, they also recall Snow White’s dwarf friends. There’s even a shot of them walking along a narrow bridge/pathway or thick tree branch that leads us straight into their compound, much like the one that the animated dwarfs sang along while marching on their way to work. Leia, separated from the group following a borrring chase with stormtroopers on hovering jet skis and taken to Ewok Central, reunites with her brother, Han Solo, R2-D2, and C-P30, whom the Ewoks believe is some sort of god. Soon, Luke surrenders to the imperial guards in an effort to confront Darth Vader (it’s part of his destiny, you see) while the rest set up a plan to blow up the Death Star. Again.
I can’t be sure of what exactly ensued. Big action set pieces or fight scenes bore me to tears, but in this case I was also feeling dizzy and queasy due to my chronic medical condition, which causes vertigo. But I do remember that, while in Darth Vader and the Emperor’s company, Luke successfully resists giving into his hatred for both–it has to be said, disfigured–men. Every time one of them taunts him to kill so that his conversion to the Dark Side may be complete, Luke fires back at his absentee father that he can feel his goodness, trying to coax the good out of him. To make a long story short, something happened that totally surprised me: Darth Vader, who for years I have thought was the supreme baddie in this franchise, redeems himself! After Luke chops off his hand (thereby returning the favor that his father had done him at the end of The Empire Strikes Back), Darth Vader kicks the Emperor down, and his mentor falls through space. I wasn’t expecting that! And I never understood how Luke, abandoned by his evil father, could forgive and love him. Especially once he took off his mask, an act that kills him.
But perhaps the worst part of Return of the Jedi–yes, even more painful to watch than the impromptu concert scene at Jabba the Hutt’s–is the montage of worlds celebrating the end of the Empire. When it finally settles on our ragtag team of heroes swaying their arms and hips with Ewoks on Endor, I was so embarrassed. And that’s a storyline that J.J. Abrams’s much anticipated and much scrutinized sequel will continue to embellish. How could anyone think that he won’t do justice to these films? It won’t be difficult to improve upon them.
For years, whenever someone mentioned Star Wars, I recited the following response: “I used to love the original trilogy as a kid. It was something that I shared with my younger brother and my mother. The three of us bought advance tickets to see The Phantom Menace in 1999, but by that time, I think I’d already forgotten the earlier trio of films.” As you can see, I deployed this not-exactly-called-for viewing history as a diversion. It’s not that I was embarrassed–well, on second thought, maybe it was: I had forgotten virtually everything about these massive films, and the only memory that lingered was the knowledge that I was a fan.
Obviously, I wasn’t a diehard fan. But they must have meant something to me if, sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, I insisted we buy advance tickets to the first prequel, which has since been reviled for, among many other things, introducing the jabbering CGI monstrosity Jar Jar Binks. I’ll leave it to those who live and die by The Force to complain about how Lucas ruined the original trilogy with the retroactive Episodes I through III. I can’t even tell you the other prequels’ names without pushing a few keystrokes over at IMDb.
Instead, I want to talk about my recent–and still ongoing–rediscovery of Episodes IV through VI. It had been nearly two decades since I’d seen them. I decided to rent them from my local public library because I was fed up with not understanding all of the allusions to the film series that regularly float around in pop culture. Whether it’s Jamiroquai singing for us to “Use the Force” or why Adam’s toy replica of the Millennium Falcon on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs is the boy’s most prized possession, I’ve always wondered, “What makes Star Wars so great?”
Well, I’m afraid I cannot figure it out, because the most earth-shattering observation that I have made is that these films simply are not very good. While I could criticize the special visual effects, I understand that in their day they were ground-breaking. But I doubt they are the reason why millions of people worldwide worship these films.
I will attack the acting, though. It’s atrocious, and funnily enough, Mark Hamill isn’t the worst. His all-American, aw-shucks performance fits his character’s arc well: as Luke Skywalker, he goes from living on the desolate Tatooine planet, his uncle stifling him with mundane responsibilities, before he realizes his destiny is fated elsewhere. Namely, saving the galaxy from Darth Vader’s destructive vision. Princess Leia and Han Solo, two (im)probable lovers portrayed by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, respectively, have the worst exchanges that are meant to pass for sexual tension. The best part was when Leia called Han Solo a “nerf herder” in The Empire Strikes Back, thereby reigniting my memory of a power-pop band that my sister and I used to listen to in the 90s. I had no idea Nerf Herder went on to lend Buffy the Vampire Slayer its theme song. I am so not a geek.
Overall, Episodes IV and V (I have yet to watch The Return of the Jedi) appear to be one drawn-out B-movie. It’s not just the special effects and acting. It’s also the set and costume designs. When inflation is taken into account, I wonder what Star Wars‘s budget of $11 million would be today, because it looks cheap. The writing is bad, and the imperial generals and admirals have some of the worst line-delivery, which the out-of-sync (and THX-mastered) audio makes even more distracting. As for the costumes: does anyone really buy Chewbacca? It’s clearly a really tall man in an itchy diarrhea-brown yeti costume. Speaking of ensembles, in one scene, Princess Leia is dressed in an all-white ski suit, the next, a drapey, polyester nightie. Don’t tell me that George Lucas and his collaborators weren’t channeling Ed Wood and Roger Vadim when they created this mythology. And I swear that everyone pronounces Leia’s name as “Leah” in Star Wars and later as “Laya” in The Empire Strikes Back. A similar transformation occurs to Han Solo’s moniker; the long A in “Han” is further accentuated.
Some people say that Star Wars is a western set in space. On what evidence? Because the good guys wear white, the bad guys black? That’s not even true; the imperial stormtroopers almost look like carbon copies of Darth Vader, but they wear white plastic armor. It’s quite a stretch to say that the Rebel forces represent villagers or homesteaders, and Darth Vader the outlaw who comes to town to disrupt their peaceful way of life.
Star Wars is a lot of things, but it is not a western. It’s primarily a paternal melodrama, because the main conflict exists between Luke, the so-called “New Hope” of Episode IV’s subtitle, and the father whose identity had always been a mystery to him. And seriously, how could Darth Vader’s confession toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back have shocked audiences in 1980, even if they don’t know that “Vater” means “father” in German? Luke’s uncle and Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness, the only interesting actor in this whole enterprise) had dropped clues that Luke’s father joined the dark (aka darth?) side. The second installment sets up how the epic battle that we’re slowly building towards will be one over Luke’s soul. Good thing the Force is strong with him!
That brings me to my next point: Yoda. Yoda is a Jedi master who has trained Jedi knights for over 800 years. A lime green puppet voiced by Frank Oz, he might be the most offensive thing about Star Wars. Given the design of his countenance and his speech pattern (his grammar goes object-subject-verb), he is most obviously modeled on a stereotypical wise old Asian man and would later be reincarnated as Mr. Miyagi. Yoda presents the best personification of The Force, some pseudo-religion about how everything is connected and therefore anything can be moved. This is where all of the references to “Jedi mind tricks” in Kevin Smith movies come from. And this is how Lucas and co. chose to distinguish their vision of the future in space from that which appeared on TV screens in Star Trek. I’d rather be beamed somewhere distant than have a muscle spasm in my shoulder trying to move a spaceship.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to watch Star Wars without thinking of everything that has come after it. You could say that I revisited these films because I wanted to see the parallels between the biggest movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars. Although drawn from a lesser series of Marvel comic books than The Hulk or Iron Man were, Guardians has a lot in common with Star Wars. Peter Quill’s outlaw name, Star Lord, sounds like it was ripped from the earlier films’ iconography. Like Luke, he doesn’t know who his father is, but as we understand from the set-up for the shoo-in sequel, we’re going to find out how learning his father’s identity will have significant repercussions for the whole galaxy. Like Han Solo, Peter’s a loner, a rogue and a charmer. His beat-up, lived-in ship resembles the ramshackleness of the Millennium Falcon, and the mutual attraction between Peter and the green warrior princess Gamora is as sure a thing as Han Solo and Princess Leia finally giving in to their shared desires. The main villain of Guardians, Ronan, may be dispatched by the film’s end, but he’s kind of like Darth Vader: he defies the supreme ruler, Thanos, in an attempt to control the galaxy, destroying whole planets with the press of a button, much like Vader. But Guardians of the Galaxy, by no means my favorite film, is far more appealing, visually interesting, and more succinctly told. We don’t need a sequel or two or three, but we’ll get them anyway, because that’s Hollywood’s business model.
Speaking of superhero movies, isn’t that what Star Wars really is? For reasons that I have already described, Luke Skywalker is the quintessential superhero, for he has elements of Superman (daddy issues) and Spider-Man (his harnessing the Force is akin to Peter Parker’s web-slinging). You could even say his piloting proficiency mimics the technological prowess of Batman, whom some consider a superhero and others do not. I may one day be able to understand the appeal of these stories, but I will never be able to connect to them emotionally. They’re just fairytales for boys.