Watching Star Wars with Teenagers

I watched Star Wars with a group of teens, most of whom had never seen it before. Here are some of their questions and remarks:

–Is Yoda in this movie?

–Does anyone read that? (referring to the opening crawl)

–Is this one A New Hope? (we were watching the Silver Screen edition, which doesn’t have Episode IV in the title)

–I love that noise, that’s my favorite noise in all of Star Wars! (referring to the sound of R2D2 getting shot by the Jawas)

–(mockingly) “I was going go to Toshi station to pick up some power converters!”

–Why does he [Luke] whine so much? Dude should just listen to his dad.

–That’s like a snap on repeat (referring to R2D2 showing “Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!” on repeat.)

–His Dad is Darth Vader! (even the kids who had never seen the movie knew this)

–Oh hell no! (when Wuher tells Artoo and Threepio “We don’t serve their kind!”. It was a black teenager who made the comment)

–Oh shit, they look so fake! (speaking about the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina. They were in hysterics looking at all the various creatures)

–I know this music! This is in that one game… (The Cantina theme)

–Chewbacca’s my husband!

–That’s so gross! Did you see how his mouth went like…! imitates Greedo’s mouth sucking inward to say “Ya-bocca”

–That dude’s got no chin! (Grand Moff Tarkin)

–The is the lowest energy sword fight I’ve ever seen. (I didn’t point out the pun)

–Isn’t that his sister? (I clarify that we don’t learn that until Return of the Jedi)

–But don’t they have the same last name? (I let them know that Leia’s last name is Organa, not Skywalker, because she was adopted.)

–How do you know so much about Star Wars?

Overall, the kids were rapt throughout. A couple of them were locked to the screen from start to finish, only pausing occasionally to get popcorn but otherwise never breaking eye contact. Even the ones who were normally rambunctious and disruptive were really enjoying themselves. We only had one drive by who just wanted snacks who informed us that “Star Wars is stupid and gay” and the other teens shouted him down as he left. Good gender breakdown, about 60% female to 40% male.

They were very eager to see Empire and Jedi soon.

Solo: a Star Wars Story Complete Spoilers

Solo: a Star Wars Story
Final Approved Story Draft

Han is a hip young pilot fresh out of the academy. He’s talented and flashy and doesn’t play by the rules, but he’s also a loyal friend to those he cares about, and committed to causes that engage him.

His arch rival was the man who graduated second from the Academy, Lorn Faloon. Lorn is everything that Han isn’t: uptight, bound by the rules, and under the impression that the Empire has the world’s best interests in mind. We symbolize this by having them dress mostly the same, but Lorn’s collar is buttoned, as is his vest. His ship is also a X-shaped, boxy thing, in contrast to the Millennium Falcon’s circular shape, but that comes later. If we can have them play tic-tac-toe at some point, that would be good. He is angry that someone like Han could graduate first in his class, because Lorn has done everything right, and should be ranked far above, but Han’s hot shot unorthodox tactics have always placed him higher, and his willingness to take risks, despite putting his own life at risk.

Right after the big graduation ceremony, Han receives a coded message from his childhood pal Dal Thanoken, who reveals that Han’s sister, Gretel, has been kidnapped by the Dathomir witch Dortchen Yaga, and taken to the swamps of Kodos, where she will be sacrificed and eaten if someone can’t stop her.

Han needs a ship, and fast!

Calling on an old pal from Corellia, Lando Calrissian, Han enters into a high stakes game of Sabacc, a deadly game that involves throwing cards which represent monsters, traps, and Force “spells” that effect game play. Han easily dominates the tournament, which showcases a number of fan favorite monsters from the other films, such as the Sarlacc, the Bossk, the Great Pit of Carkoon, the Rancor, and more. Han’s arm mounted “Sabacc Rack” and “Duel Gauntlet” are sure to be popular accessories with the kids and cosplayers, too.

Han reaches the final round of the tournament, only to discover that his final opponent is none other than Lando himself! Lando ponies up his favorite space ship, the Falcon, as an additional prize, and to match it, Han is forced to bet his Sabacc deck, composed of countless rare and out of print cards that are worth an Emperor’s ransom. But this means that if Han loses, he’ll have no way to quickly earn the money to rescue his sister. He’s staking his entire future on this one game!

The duel is fast and furious, with monster card leading into spell into trap into counterspell, the two grandmasters anticipating moves ten turns down the line. The audience is rapt as their monsters battle upon the field, dodging force bolts and smashing barriers, titanically slashing into each other in a manner similar to the arena battle from Attack of the Clones, but much cooler. Finally, when it looks like both men are exhausted, their decks nearly empty, Han plays “Force Friend”, a card that only appeared in the very first Sabacc release, and which has never been seen since, a card few know the existence of, and uses it to become friends with the monster closest to Lando, a Wookiee legend named Chewbacca, who was a hero in the clone wars. With all his defenses aligned in the other direction, Lando is powerless to stop Chewbacca’s crossbow attack, and loses the match one turn before his Tears of the Rist would have cost Han the match.

Lando is impressed, and is gracious in his loss, handing Han the keys and the title with a smile, promising to win her back next time. Chewbacca, who has remained on the field after all the other monsters have been desummoned, decides to accompany Han on his journey to save Gretel, and they take off. Inside the cockpit, Han finds a letter from Lando, wishing him luck, and telling him, cryptically, that the Falcon is “special” and that Han will figure out why in time.

Needing space fuel, Han and Chewie stop at a space port (good spot for advertising joke here, if Exxon or Shell or someone wants to pay for it), and while Han pumps his gas, Chewie goes inside to buy some drinks. Inside the Space Station is the usual: big guy besalisk with greasy trucker’s cap reading a girly magazine, some Jawas playing an arcade game (space invaders? Or is that too on the nose?), and, in the corner, a pretty human space pilot in a wedding dress and holding a space helmet, being harassed by a greedo. Chewie goes over to intervene, because he has a strong sense of duty and justice, and the greedo tries to get in his face, telling him to mind his own business, and in response, Chewie rips his arm off. It turns out that the filling station is attached to a quickie chapel, which is next to a small time casino, like the kind they have in Vegas. “Say, think you could give a girl a lift?” she asks. “My other ride seems a little stumped as to our next destination.”

The girl, it turns out, is Miss Qi’ra Faloon, of the Valengore Faloons. She mentions that she has a cousin at the academy, but Han doesn’t say that he knows Lorn quite well. Han tells her that they’re headed for the Swamps of Kodos, on the planet Kansaw, which suits Qi’ra just fine. She’s got no interest in marrying that lout Lugo Tice, no matter if his daddy is Sheriff of the whole system. Han’s eyes grow wide — this is some dangerous cargo he’s just picked up!

Meanwhile, Lorn Faloon has learned of his cousin’s disappearance, and the implications it may have for his family’s spice trade. Without the ties to Sheriff Tice, they would have to pay horrific tariffs that would destroy their profit margins, leaving the Atreides and the Kessels in charge of the universe’s spice. He heads off in his Raptor X. Sheriff Hugo G. Tice isn’t taking this laying down either, scooping up his now one armed Deputy Remvo and his son Lugo, piling them into his Police Interceptor, and speeding off after the Falcon, determined to get Qi’ra back.

The Raptor has a better hyperdrive than the Falcon, so in the middle of hyperspace, the Falcon’s proximity alarms begin to ring, and Han gets the shields up just in time to avoid being blown out of space by a photon torpedo. “Where are your fancy tricks now, Solo?” Lorn taunts over the space channel.

We cut back and forth between the present and the past, with Han as a young academy recruit, saying he wants to make a difference, and be the best pilot in the galaxy, and then sparring with Lorn in the test ship simulators, and then smash cut back to the present as they dog fight, IN HYPERSPACE, jockeying for position back and forth, trying to lock one another missiles on one another. Switches are flipped, dials turned, back and forth between laser bolts flying then freezing in mid-air because they’re moving faster than the speed of light, and suddenly, Han lets loose the Falcon’s garbage, which crashes into the Raptor at light speed, dropping Lorn out of Hyperspace, and disabling his ship, leaving his floating alone and disfigured…

They arrive at the planet Kansaw, only to meet a Star Destroyer, which begins to loose a bunch of TIE fighters, led by Sheriff Tice. “Thought you could get away, did ya boy?” he shouts over the comlink, his southern quadrant accent making him sound simultaneously threatening and ridiculous. More space combat here, only this time, with Chewie piloting, and Han and Qi’ra on the guns like in New Hope. “It could be worse…” Han says to himself.

Still outmatched by the sheer number of TIE fighters, Chewie begins to guide the ship down towards the cloudy planet, looking for some place to hide, only to discover that it is covered in gigantic tentacles. “It’s worse!” They deftly avoid the tentacles, while one wraps itself around the star destroyer and smashes it to pieces.

The Falcon lands, barely, at the epicenter of the tenticular mass, where his sister Gretel is inside an oven-like contraption, and the dread witch Dortchen Yaga is about to finish her spell. What begins is a massive four way battle between Dortchen and Han, Chewie, and Qi’ra, their blasters proving meaningless against the power of the Force, and one by one, Chewie and Qi’ra end up imprisoned alongside Gretel. Han is barely holding on, when a strange calm comes over him. He looks at the Falcon, which seems to look back at him, and he remembers his hand to hand training back at the academy, his instructor Arden Lyn telling him to clear his mind and become one with the environment. The Force is powerless against someone who has the will and the way. A Master of Teräs Käsi is unstoppable. Han touches the outside of the Falcon, and the two merge, becoming a gigantic armored robot combination of man and ship. The Solenium Halcon proceeds to use its massive strength and technique to karate chop through the tentacles that protect Dortchen from his attacks, and then he seizes her ala King Kong, her powers proving useless, and he tosses her upwards, into the sun. Careful viewers will see a little “blip” on the surface a scene later, to confirm that she did, in fact, burn up upon entry.

Han de-transforms, and looks out of breath and ragged. “Phew, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again, even if I wanted to!” The Falcon, meanwhile, has transformed from pristine to dirty looking, having gotten all mucked up in the fighting. “Grrrragh!” says Chewie. “Yes, maybe someday we’ll be able to afford to have her cleaned!” replies Han.

Everyone is safe, and Qi’ra decides to take Dortchen’s ship as her own, to strike off and figure out life without living under her family’s thumb. She wears a red cape, and reprograms Dortchen’s droid to serve as her sidekick. “Think we’ll ever see you again?” Han asks. “Who knows?” she replies, and then proceeds back up the stairs into her ship. “Oh,” she says, looking over her shoulder. “I left a little surprise for you in the cargo hold. Hope you like it.”

Inside the hold are a ton of crates filled with Spice, enough to set Han and Chewie and Gretel up for life. “Oh, this is hot stuff, and no tariff stamps! I didn’t think you could get this brand on this side of the galaxy! Who do we know that might be interested?” “Grr grogh grrrowww arrghl” says Chewie. “Jabba the who?” replies Han. “Well, lets call him up and see if he’s interested. I just hope we don’t get boarded or have to dump it on the way there.”

Back up in the cock pit, Han asks “Is there anywhere we can drop you Gret?” Gretel replies “Sure, back to Kessel might be nice. I’ve got some scores to settle there. After we pick up my ship from Tattooine.” “Tattooine it is, then!” Han says, making the jump to hyperspace.

Cut to credits with 70s funk music, and a series of jokes and outtakes about Hugo trying to buy fuel from the Space Station attendant playing in screen on the left, while the credits play on the right.

Post credits: Title Card: Central Medical Center, Gand Prime. Lorn lies on a hospital bed, wired up to a chest plate and looking much worse for wear. The insect-like doctors work over him, fixing what they can, and replacing what they cannot. Finally, one in a white labcoat stands at his side, and says “We’ve done what we can for you, Mr. Lorn, but with the damage you’ve sustained, I’m not sure what you’ll be good for–”

“Yes!” he interrupts. “Lorn no longer.” He takes the face plate that was to be installed, and clicks it into place with a metal hand. “Yes, yes, Dr. Zuckuss, what am I good for? Combine the R and N, like your nurses here. I am now 4-LOM! Beware, Han Solo, beware!” he cackles with his robotically modulated voice as we cut to black.

Star Wars IX FULL Spoilers

Rey and Poe are tasked by the Rebellion to locate the First Order’s new “War Star,” a gigantic planet sized base that is capable of draining the energy from a sun and using it to blow up ten planets simultaneously. To gain entrance to the FO base, they will need to locate Darth Vader’s glove, a powerful Sith artefact that allowed Vader to choke people at a distance by gripping his hand tightly. It is currently in the possession of Clip Asbo, an intersteller Transdoshan artefact collector who lives in Kubla Khan style pleasure in his palace on Jectine, and who runs the Transport Guild, the second most powerful force in the galaxy after the first order.

Rose and Finn are working with the remainder of the Resistance, now renamed “The Rebellion”, to eliminate the Manufactory of Plornect, which is producing the first of the First Order’s “Claymore” class Star Destroyers. Unlike the traditional triangular ships, this one is a round cylinder, and appears to be basically a gigantic lightsaber. The elegant and civilized design will allow the ship to destroy entire fleets with a single sweep, rather than firing chaotically, simply rotating its “blade” across the field.

Meanwhile, Phasma’s daughter, Phasma II, princess of the stormtrooper tribe is chosen to avenge her mother, and she has even cooler gold-chrome armor. She is paired up with the mysterious Zekk “Jade” Fel, the apprentice of Kylo Ren, They are regularly taunted by Ren for their failures, with him constantly showing up as a huge hologram and telling them how much they stink. Unknown to everyone, “Jade” is the son of Luke Skywalker, but Luke does not know this.

Rey and Poe’s mission is complicated by Poe’s evil brother, Joe Dameron, and there is an awesome space battle between the Millennium Falcon and Joe’s Hex-Wing fighter (It’s like an X-Wing, but it has an extra set of wings like this ⚞⚟). The force ghost of Princess Leia appears to help them during this battle, revealing to Rey that, because Han had “adopted” her as his honorary daughter before his passing, she now possesses legal claim to the throne of Corellia, as well as that of Alderaan. Once the battle is finished, she adds red stripes to the sides of her trousers to signify this honor.

In the palace of Clip Asbo, they are shocked to learn that his son, Clorr, has murdered his father and taken his place as head of the transport guild. The First Order has been bad for business, you see, and if you aren’t expanding, you’re dying. Not realizing its true value, Clorr tosses them the “worthless” leather glove as a gesture of bonding and respect, in exchange for Poe’s new jacket (“I just can’t seem to hold on to these things,” he quips in an aside to Rey).

After a series of daring twists and turns and near misses, Rose and Finn sneak aboard the “dry docked” claymore-class ship, “The Mutilator”, and proceed to hi-jack it with BB-8’s help. Phasma II and “Jade” arrive moments after they have jumped to lightspeed, and Phasma II slams her force mace into a console dramatically, sparks flying everywhere.

With the stage set, our heroes converge on the War Star. Poe and Chewy engage the First Order Star Fleet, led by Joe in a newly souped up ship that now has TIE Fighter wing plating over the movable plates of his Hex Wing, and that at one point he dramatically disengages to increase his maneuverability, ala “I’m not left handed either” in the Princess Bride. Rey, wearing the Glove of Darth Vader, fights a Darth Vader-helmet wearing Kylo to a stand still, the two artefacts boosting their Force powers to levels never before seen on screen. “Han’s legacy is mine!” Kylo shouts. “No, it’s not too late for peace!” Rey responds.

Rose and Rebel code slicer Kylie Andor-Erso rush to hack the system and delete the code holding the War Star’s shields in place, preventing Finn from destroying it with the Mutilator. In the world of the Imperial CodeNet, they engage in a battle of wits with DJ, who attempts to outwit them at every turn, taunting them with a laughing avatar of his face rendered in monochrome green (a reference to the LucasFilm’s logo), while Rose and Kylie’s monochrome blue avatar (in reference to the “A long time ago…” part of the opening crawl) battles it symbolically with a lightsaber.

Smash compare cut back to Rey and Kylo, battling across the throne room of the War Star, destroying railings, hurling boulders, exploding glass. And then, a third man enters, wielding a green lightsaber. “Neither of you are worthy,” he declares. “What do you mean, my young apprentice?” Kylo asks. “Jade” does not respond, and instead enters the battle, the three way lightsaber duel all the more fierce because no one is on anyone else’s side.

Force Ghost Luke appears, so he can give Rey aid, but he is shocked to see both Kylo and “Jade” there. “You… You killed my son!” Luke yells. “No, I am your son!” “Jade” responds. “No! No, that can’t be true!” Luke shouts. “Search your feelings, you know it to be true!” “Jade” tells him.

“Don’t worry little buddy. Let’s blow this thing and go home!” says a familiar voice from off screen, and force ghost HAN SOLO appears, and it looks like the tide is turning for the good guys!

But then, Snoke reappears as an evil force-ghost and threatens to destroy them all. Ghost-Luke and ghost-Han merge into ghost-Huke Skolo to fight him.

“Run, Rey, Run!” yells the mega-force ghost as the battle brings the fortress down around them. She leaps into the nearest fighter possible and accelerates off planet. Kylo and Jade’s fates are left ambiguous.

Rose and Kylie bring down DJ’s force shield. Poe manages to slip behind Joe and blast one of his wings, sending the fighter sailing off directionless into space. The War Star is destroyed by the huge blue lightsaber beam slashing through the planet, cleaving it in twain.

At last, the Star Wars are over. On the planet Corsucant, our heroes are honored in a lavish ceremony celebrating the freedom of the Galaxy. Fireworks explode over various planets from the movies, and we zoom in to the credits with John Williams’ familiar heroic theme playing us out.

BUT, in an after credits sequence, we are treated to Joe Dameron’s one winged ship crashing on a desert planet, ala The Force Awakens. He escapes from the ship, barely, and struggles to run before it is swallowed up by the sand. After wandering for a series of cuts that we are meant to interpret as a long time, he is ambushed from behind by a woman in a familiar set of golden armor. “Hello Joe,” says Phasma II. She leads him back to the largest hut in the stormtrooper village, where, on a throne built of the helmets that the troopers wore in A New Hope, sits a burned and cyborg augmented Captain Phasma! Her armor is damaged, but she is still clearly alive and angry. “We were wondering when you’d arrive,” she says. “Now, it is time to create the Second Order.” We cut to black on her last two ominous words.

A Sense of Wonder

A young man steps into the hanger, accompanied by the wizened old mentor who has told him of his mysterious past, and the two slaved that have brought a mysterious message that could save the world. The young man has just sold his speeder, a vehicle that he treasured, but that he acknowledges is no longer in demand since a newer model came out. The old man has assured him that it will be enough.

We see the star ship that they will fly in: it looks nothing like the traditional rockets we are used to in science fiction, nor the “space plane” that we see from real life space exploration. Even in contrast to the other ships we have seen thus far in this world, this one is unique: unlike the Tantive IV or the Devistator, this ship is flat, more like a pizza or a hamburger, with a cockpit stuck awkwardly onto the side, and a loading platform more like that of a cargo plane.

“What a piece of junk!” exclaims the young man.

There’s a moment in most Steven Spielberg movies where, upon seeing the object of wonder (the dinosaurs, the aliens, the bicycle flying), we cut back to the people watching react. We see the children’s faces in awe, the parents with mouths agape, the government agents shocked and in disbelief. The film tells us what reaction we should be having.

Yet, we are all taken in by Han Solo. Luke, who is shown to have a strong interest in spaceships, is planning on attending the Academy to become a pilot, is later in the film shown to be quite a competent pilot himself, says the Millennium Falcon is a junk ship. When Han tries to justify the condition by saying that he’s made a lot of “special modifications”, Obi-Wan simply rolls his eyes.

This isn’t the first time that Obi-Wan hasn’t been taken in either. Take the famous “Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs” exchange in the cantina. Much ink has been spilled to justify that a parsec is a measure of distance, not time, and therefore the Falcon must have a very efficient navigational computer, or Han is much better at piloting than others, so in a treacherous environment like the area around Kessel, he must be able to blah blah blah. Almost no one considers that he’s a smuggler and con man who is trying to talk up a potential client, and saying whatever comes into his head to impress them. It’s much like his later bullshitting about a reactor leak caused by a slight weapons malfunction and that he needs a few minutes to lock down. Large leak. Very dangerous.

Again, watch Obi-Wan’s reaction:

This is not a man taken in by fancy words. He knows Han is bullshitting him, but he doesn’t have much choice, as he’s in a time crunch and needs to leave right now. Better a thief than a stormtrooper.

Han then proceeds to kill a debt collector, shooting him under the table (not unjustifiably, as Han was being threatened), unlike Obi-Wan, who merely maimed the thug who was bothering Luke, and tried to deescalate the situation first.

But the idea that Han Solo is a good person, is introduced to us as a hero, is from the get go a role model? There’s little in the film to support this. He gets his money and runs, just like he said he would.

And this makes his return at the very end to save Luke, and therefore insure the destruction of the Death Star all the more heroic.

What’s in a Name?

Canon is pretty funny to discuss.

For example, what’s that lady in white’s name?

It’s Mon Mothma, obviously, and she’s about to tell us about how many bothans died to get the plans for the second Death Star.

But her name isn’t actually used in Return of the Jedi. It is mentioned once in Revenge of the Sith, and she’s in the Clone Wars cartoon, but those came out over 20 years later. We all learned it somewhere, through osmosis, through fan transmission, through the strange ways that we communicate knowledge to one another on the playground, on the internet, in the letter pages of fanzines…

But, during that interregnum, what counted as good enough evidence that her name was Mon Mothma? What counts as “canon”?

The ending credits, which aren’t a part of the narrative?

Jedi Credits

The shooting script, which isn’t part of the film at all?

jedi script

The novelization?

jedi novel

Trading cards?

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Action figures?

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Signed photos from the actress herself?

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I would submit that, rather than worrying if we have to accept that Art Carney is a member of the Rebel Alliance if we also want Chewbacca to have a family, it doesn’t actually matter where the information comes from, provided it makes for a better and more interesting story, and a more rewarding experience interacting with the film. Sometimes it’s trivia, sometimes it makes a big difference, and sometimes it’s meaningless.

More, of course, on this topic to come…

Star Wars, Far Far Away, and a Long Time Ahead

There’s a wonderful and terrifying play by Anne Washburn entitled Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play, which envisions a world after the apocalypse. You know the one, The Apocalypse. The one that wipes out most, but not all of us, and allows for just enough of everything for the remainder of humanity to scrape on, somehow. A group of survivors huddle together in the cold, and, to starve off fear and cold and unhappiness, they retell an old Simpson‘s episode: Cape Feare. Without giving too much away (because, really, if you have the opportunity to see the show, you ought to), The Simpsons ends up a major force in the new world that emerges from the ashes, and by the end, the idea that it was once simply a cartoon for people to relax and laugh at the end of the week with would be blasphemous.

Lawrence Miles, author of numerous Doctor Who novels and creator of the Faction Paradox series, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t watching Who. One of his earliest memories was watching a Sontaran on screen, and his uncle making a joke, and thinking that he needed to correct his uncle, because that wasn’t Humpty Dumpty at all, it was a terrifying warrior going to kill the Doctor. It’s a memory he recognizes as ridiculous, because how could it have happened? And yet, it’s a formative one. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars, when I didn’t have a copy in the house, when I didn’t know all the characters and the story by heart. There must have been a first. My father, probably, showed it to me. He was a devotee of old Sci Fi, loved Star Trek and Doctor Who and all the others like them. We had a copy on Betamax, taped from television. I got a proper VHS set for my birthday one year. My “devotion” has waxed and waned, but I always come back to it, and I always find something new to appreciate.

The tale we call The Epic of Gilgamesh (or, He Who Saw The Darkness, or Surpassing All Kings; it has numerous titles), isn’t actually a single comprehensive story, in the mold of its most regular comparisons, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s a compilation of numerous fragments composed over more than two thousand years, and pieced together painstakingly by Assyriologists and others over the past hundred or so years. And even then, the version that comes down to us non-specialists is incomplete, full of lacunae, missing lines, paraphrases where we’ve guessed at roughly what ought to have gone there given the context. And this was not an unpopular story — rare among the writings of Babylon, this is one of the few tales committed to tablet. It was translated into numerous languages, and told and retold again and again, until it was lost for about two thousand and then rediscovered again. We mostly use the “standard” version from c.1200 BCE, written and edited by Sin-liqe-unninni, found in the Library of Ashurbanipal. And even now, we have numerous translations, each of which takes a different tack, from the utterly exhaustive and authoritative Andrew George two volume set, to the colloquial, reordered, and rather modernized version by Stephen Mitchell.

Which actually tells the story? George’s, which opens:

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!

Or Mitchell’s, which opens:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood.

George’s is, without a doubt, the most accurate of any Gilgamesh available. It is impossible to understate the degree of scholarship he has done on the story. He has literally examined and translated every existent fragment that has ever been found, ever. Ever. There is no greater authority on the story than he. But Stephen’s version has a poetry of its own, even if it is not “accurate” in the sense of fidelity to the text, and conveys the story beautifully. (For reading pleasure, I personally prefer the translation by John Gardner and John Maier, but that didn’t provide as stark a contrast.)

In the otherwise forgettable post-apocalyptic dragonfest Reign of Fire, Christian Bale and Gerard Butler reenact a scene from The Empire Strikes Back for the amusement of a group of children.

The broad strokes of the story are all there, even if the details are missing, and the context is lost. How much of the rest of the story do they know? do they perform other scenes? other movies? have bits from other stories been mixed in? Perhaps at the end, the starship Enterprise is blown up by the White Knight after his duel with the evil Emperor Feyd Harkonen, and saved from dying himself by the Doctor? Is that bad fanfiction, or simply syncretism, like when Herakles rescued Theseus from the underworld, or Jason assembled all the greatest heroes of the land to fetch the Golden Fleece?

We now remake movies all the time. New versions, homages, updated editions. We retell stories in different setting, with different details, different costumes and different characters. But this, too, is nothing new. Opera has a strong tradition of using classical plots — it is the music which is important. Faerie tales, too, change their details as quick as their location and our social mores, though the story itself lives on (Does Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf after being ordered to strip off her clothes and toss them into the fire, regardless of the cat’s warnings? Does she recognize the Wolf for what he is and pray for deliverance? Does a heroic Woodsman save her, cut her Grandmother out of the Wolf’s belly, fill it with stones, and then drown the wolf? Does she instead shoot with Wolf with a gun hidden in her basket, because girls these days are wise to men like that? Or does she happily consent to lay with the Wolf, because, really, werewolves are her thing, and the two remain lovers happily ever after?)

What will our stories look like in a thousand years? Two thousand? Three? Which versions will make it through the wars, natural disasters, forgetfulness, censorship, religious confusion…? Which versions will be rediscovered, tucked away in some footlocket buried in a subbasement, or hidden in a library thought lost to time, or burned to a DVD that our descendants have only just now discovered how to decode?

And if they find it, what will Star Wars look like? How much will survive?

Star Wars — Super 8, B&W

The shortest of all the truncations, this version by Kenner Films was released shortly after the film was in theaters, in late 1977. Peter Cushing is credited, though he does not appear in the film, as is the music of John Williams, though this is a silent film.

It consists of two scenes: Ben and Luke discussing Anakin Skywalker, and the escape from the Death Star, where the Millennium Falcon battles the TIE Fighters.

Let us consider the story presented, as though we knew nothing about Star Wars, as if this were the only version of the tale we had: the mysterious old man, Ben, gives the young man, Luke, his father’s light saber, and tells him about his father, the Jedi Knight. The young man turns it on, and waves the magical blade about for a long time, marveling at the glow. Ben then explains the true story of Luke’s father’s death — he was betrayed and killed by another knight, Darth Vader. Ben’s expression is one of sadness and regret. Ben then explains the force, a mysterious energy field that binds the world together, as Luke looks on bewildered, trying to understand. There are robots present, even though nothing else about the setting suggests that this is a science fiction story, and Luke is fixing one that looks like a human. The cylindrical one, R2D2, produces the image of a woman, Princess Leia, who begs Ben for assistance in saving the rebellion from the evil Empire. Ben and Luke look at one another for a long beat, and then Ben tells Luke that he must go save the Princess. Luke is apprehensive, doubtful, as he paces about, not wanting to met Ben’s gaze. Luke has responsibilities here, at his home, but he also feels a need to join the rebellion. The choice is literally out of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

We cut to a triangular ship, flying through space, as the subtitles finish “…and fulfill his destiny.” It is clear what Luke’s choice has been. Is this his ship? One he has smuggled himself upon?

The ship flies towards a large, metallic planet, with a huge crater in the side, like a baleful eye. Cut to a large, hairy man running down a corridor, followed by a roguish fellow in a vest with a rifle. Fighters for the rebellion, perhaps? They observe a group of soldiers in white armor guarding a space ship. Luke and Leia arrive moments later. We are inside the Death Star, and Leia has been rescued. Han Solo and Chewbacca, the other two, had aided Luke in the quest Ben sent him on. The soldiers move on, perhaps because they are changing shift, and our heroes see their chance. R2D2 and the robot Luke was repairing make their way towards Han’s ship as well. But they have moved too quickly, and the soldiers turn to fire on them. A gun battle ensues, and, if we look closely, a helmeted figure in a dark cloak, wielding a sword similar to that which Ben gave Luke, is seen walking away in the background. Is this the Darth Vader that Ben spoke of? Is that why Luke fires in such anger and distress, staying far longer than his companions to kill the soldiers? But a metallic door slides shut, protecting the dark man from Luke’s shots, even though he kills two of the soldiers, and Luke retreats to the safety of Han’s ship.

Han and Chewbacca pilot their ship away from the Death Star, while Luke sits forlorn. Leia attempts to comfort him, as the robots look on helplessly. Was this the only chance Luke had to avenge his father’s death? But there is no time for such thing — Han’s ship is being pursued by Imperial ships, and they must man the turrets and defend themselves. An exciting space battle ensues, with the small Imperial Ships flying about as Luke and Han (or is it Chewbacca? Their names aren’t distinguished) fire away. R2D2 puts out a fire inside. Luke’s spirits rise as the fight goes on. Ship after ship is destroyed, until our heroes are safe… for now! The End.

I’m certain that most of you have noticed that there are many very important things absent from the story: the Death Star Plans, Obi-Wan’s Death, the Destruction of the Death Star, the Death of Luke’s aunt and uncle… And yet, for all that, it does tell a more or less complete story, with an emotional arc for Luke. It also brings up one of the important questions that we will be asking ourselves throughout this discussion:

Is Star Wars about rescuing a princess, or about delivering secret plans?

In this version, they obviously chose the former, which leads to some strange choices. The scene with Ben and Luke is one of the most dialogue heavy in the entire series, and thus is an odd one to pick for a silent adaptation. The rescue of the princess occurs off screen, as a lacunae to be filled in by the viewer. It demands questions and invites further stories to be written about it. And yet, for all that, cutting the story down to just those base elements is to be admired. It was surely no easy task to turn the entire film into a comprehensible story, rather than a sort of Tumblr-esque “greatest hits” gif repository. It is fascinating to see how much of a story can disappear without affecting the other parts. We already know about the subplot of Biggs Darklighter that was excised from the original film, leaving only some incongruous dialogue in the Death Star trench battle to suggest that Luke is fighting alongside his best friend and someone’s he never thought he’d see again. How much more of the movie could be removed? What is the point of Star Wars? How much can we lose without it becoming a different story?

This version was, of course, intended for those who had already seen the film in theaters, and knew the answers to these questions. The visual designs of Chewbacca and Death Vader, the choice to display as many of the starship models as they could, spending as long as they can with light sabres and 3d messages projected on tables — it is clear that despite the black and white silence, they still want to convey the spectacle and effects wizardly that made the movie so memorable. Were our ur-text lost, this version would be an odd one to try and recover the full version from. It could lead to conflicts over the nature of the Force, the identity of Darth Vader, what, precisely, the Death Star is… But the tantalizing hints provided are nonetheless appealing.

Would it endure? Who can say. Could it endure? Certainly. It begs for expansion. It demands filling in. Though it says The End, this is not an ending.

More to come.

The Backstroke of the West: Language and Function

 

Revenge of the Sith is not the best Star Wars movie. It has wonderful visuals, an interesting story, and some really nice action sequences, but it is bogged down by some strange directorial choices, some odd dialogue choices, and the occasional poor acting performance.

Backstroke of the West, on the otherhand, is just brilliant. I’m well aware it was made as a joke. The film was purchased as a Chinese bootleg, translated into Chinese, and then back into English, with all the attendant “engrish” and strangeness that comes from bulk machine translation. Some enterprising souls then dubbed the entire thing over an HD copy into the form above. On a surface level, it’s a silly curio, taken to an extreme level. Years back, Vader’s “No!” translated as “Do not want!” was a series of memetic images that floated around the internet, and this, no doubt, is just as quotable.

However, sitting there and actually watching it, once I got into the movie, after the opening crawl and once the novelty began to wear off, I began to really enjoy it. It was like watching the film again with a fresh pair of eyes and ears. It’s one thing when you’re watching a film that was obviously in another language — even as a child, I was under no illusion that the Godzilla movies were originally in English, and that’s why people’s mouths didn’t match the dialogue — but to export it into a feature length science fiction film, it managed to give the distance and foreignness that most sci fi is simply lacking. I could actually pay attention to the movie, rather than worry about the acting or nitpicking details.

Let me explain further: there is no logical reason why characters in Star Wars should be speaking English. It’s possible, of course, that the intergalactic lingua franca just happens to sound exactly like English, but there’s no in-universe reason why the characters all speak late 20th century American and British accented English — Star Wars isn’t one of those franchises where it’s revealed at the end that Luke and Leia are actually Adam and Eve, or that Tattooine is really Mars after a devastating collapse caused all of humanity to leave Earth. In fact, Star Wars is explicitly set in the past, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. It is for our convenience as movie viewers that the films are presented in our native languages.

Movies use this sort of shorthand all the time. One famous example is in 1987’s Dirty Dancing. The film is set in 1963, and yet Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze’s final dance number is to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s Academy Award winning (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, a decidedly contemporary track that became one of the most iconic late 80’s songs. It’s a song  that literally could not have been composed or produced in 1963, due to its use of synthesizers, drum machines, vocal processing, etc. Yet we literally see a character put on a 45 before Swayze takes the stage. They aren’t dancing to silence. They could have used a more contemporary track; there’s a wealth of music from the 60’s that would have been appropriate. But in an attempt to convey the feeling, energy, and passion between the characters, the director and producer used a very modern song to keep the sequence from feeling nostalgic or old. Watching them dance to Time of My Life better conveys to the audience how it would have felt to have them dance to something from the 60’s, realism be damned.

And so, having the characters in Revenge of the Sith speak at a remove, in a slightly more alien tongue, actually helped make the film a more enjoyable experience. You can’t quite understand exactly what’s happening, except for the parts that are perfectly clear. The words are recognizable, but not coherent. You’re forced to focus on the visuals and expressions, rather than vocals, and exposition is cut down to almost nothing.

The result is an emotional rollercoaster, a film of violent pathos, a tragedy of anguish and heartbreak. Gold and Ratio Tile simply cannot find equal footing with one another, despite The Plum Of’s attempts to reconcile them. Mr. Speaker’s takeover is awful in it’s inevitability. The fall of the Presbyterian Church seems destined, because the Hopeless Situation Warriors cannot see the trouble before their own faces. Had they put a little more trust in Gold, perhaps it would not have been so, but they did not, and thus the West conquered all, without the people even noticing.

I’ve always said that there was a good movie hiding inside Revenge of the Sith. It just took a quirk of translation to find it.