Daily Elysium: Selling Star Wars
I check Ain't it Cool News almost everyday. You could ask me why, and I don't know that I'd have a good answer for you. Honestly, most of it is just nonsense, a mish-mash of blaring headlines and awkward rants that makes me slightly embarrassed to have read it. I guess I always felt like there was an undercurrent of insight there, a hidden spring of intelligence that occasionally belies the common eruptions of vulgarities and exaggeration. Every now and again I read something there that just clicks, and then it's gone so quickly that I wonder if it was really there to begin with. Was the moment of AICN lucidity real, or my imagination?This happened recently, when I finally read the reason that Star Wars Episode 1 and 2 have fallen flat while I still, paradoxically, enjoy the original films. I'd always assumed, like everyone else, that I just had such a childhood fondness for Lucas' original trilogy that I was willing to overlook their obvious flaws, but without that nostalgia, found the prequel faults more obviously jarring. Now, finally, I see that the real reason is something much more tangible. Read on, to find out why...
Someone should probably tell me to just let the whole Star Wars thing go. I mean, talk about a dead horse, right? But, I really can't. I grew up on this stuff, and for better or worse there's a part of my psyche locked into that mythos, wallowing in all this Jedi nonsense. I remember when I got an X-Wing toy for my birthday, an AT-AT for christmas, how I'd spend every dollar I could scrape together on Star Wars figures, how I'd lay out epic battle scenes across my bed, and how I would crush Luke over and over again under the monumental weight of that AT-AT. Everytime, I mean every-freakin'-time he'd get right back up, do a front flip, and blast a hapless Stormtrooper who would hurl himself in an agonizing death throe off the edge of the bed. So, I can't let it go.
Neither can the people who participated in Moriarty's recent "Jedi Council" over at AICN (part 1/part 2) - though the articles may be said to have some spoilers about several films. And it was in this deluge of Star Wars fandom, that I found enlightenment. In part 2, Moriarty states:
I think that one of the things that happens is the more insulated you get by this technology, the less youÃ‚'re worried about human performances. Lucas makes such a big deal about editing within a frame. Suddenly, nobody gave the performances youÃ‚'re watching. ThereÃ‚'s no human connection. ThereÃ‚'s no moments where itÃ‚'s just Alec Guinness sitting in a room with Mark Hamill and theyÃ‚'re just talking, being actors. The great thing about Mark Hamill, heÃ‚'s not the worldÃ‚'s greatest actor, but he is a great STAR WARS actor. If you watch him in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the scene where heÃ‚'s in YodaÃ‚'s hut, and YodaÃ‚'s making dinner, and MarkÃ‚'s trying the food... he lives in that world! He believes every prop in that set has a reason and a purpose and a history. He sells it completely. When youÃ‚'re acting and half the props arenÃ‚'t on set and half the actors arenÃ‚'t on set, none of that is allowed to happen. ThereÃ‚'s no spontaneous, chemical whatever it is that makes a movie a movie. Tools are starting to get in the way. Tools suddenly arenÃ‚'t about setting a filmmaker free, theyÃ‚'re about the filmmaker losing the sense of community and what happens on a set. When Harrison Ford can throw a line out that nobody was expecting and it happens in a take with somebody else, that personÃ‚'s reaction is real. Now that has a harder time happening. ItÃ‚'s essential... in this final film especially, where itÃ‚'s all about emotion.
And, suddenly it all made sense. I mean, he's dead right about Hamill, for all his whining, and his overacting, he completely sells us Luke Skywalker. He is living on screen in that universe, and he can pick up a wooden spoon and taste really bad Degobah soup, and it's all right there for him. It's solid. He believes the world, and so I believe the world too. That's not there with Episode 1 and 2.
I don't think anyone is saying that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman are bad actors, though I can't be quite so easy on the cavalcade of disappointment that has been Anakin Skywalker, but that no matter how hard they try, they just can't sell it. When Ewan is talking to a CG Yoda, you can sense that in reality he's just surrounded by great sheets of blue, that he's not in the world but in a studio.
More importantly, it's clear just from watching the films that the most important thing to Lucas is getting the individual shot in a technically perfect manner. The individual shots have become more important than how those shots come together to form a story. You can see it in the 'making of' bonuses on the DVDs. Watch as he hovers over the effects team arguing painstaking points about how Yoda's nose should wrinkle in this frame, and how some monster's flesh should have a little more scaly texture. He's not listening to the film, not seeing how it flows into a story.
This isn't to say that stellar special effects necessarily damn a movie. Look at the Lord of the Rings films as a perfect counter-point. Visually, the films are stunning, but ultimately the story retains its focus on the characters. Nobody walked out of Fellowship and said, "Eh, the story wasn't that good, but it's worth seeing those effects." Well, maybe someone did, but they're idiots! No, in the end, the visuals only augment the story, create the epic backdrop to a story about characters. The interactions are still genuine! Even Gollum, a stunning technical achievement, is still played by a person that gives the actors a solid form to act upon. Jackson didn't tell his actors to just pretend like Gollum is there, he said Sirkis is Gollum, and they just sell it.
Though I've not seen it yet, I suspect the new Matrix suffers a similar fate as recent Star Wars films. I won't comment on that until I've seen it, but I keep hearing people say, "eh, the story wasn't that good, but the CG was awesome." I'm beginning to think that's the worst insult you can give a film.