Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Force Fed

In early 1997, at the urging of my friend Parvesh Bal, I finally submitted a piece of writing to a publisher - and it sold! My first article was published in Singapore's The Peak magazine back in June of 1997. For your amusement, here's the article.
FORCE - FED
How Special is Star Wars:  The Special Edition?

Is Star Wars really new and improved?  Like the rest of the world, I lined up to see it again, braving mobs of rabid, lightsaber-waving fanatics dressed up as Jedi Knights or Wookiees or Princess Leia. Darth Vader jumped the queue at the popcorn counter, but I was too intimidated to protest. Star Wars, the ultimate space opera, is back in theatres, and, to paraphrase the inimitable Vader, there will be no one to stop it this time.

Not that anyone stopped it the last time, either, back in 1977.  It became the highest grossing film of all time, held that honour until E.T. came along in 1982, and now it has reclaimed the top spot, crossing the $400 million dollar mark. This should come as no surprise, as this new version of the science fiction classic, with new special effects and added footage, has been hyped constantly for almost a year. Why the new edition?  Was there something wrong with the old version? Or is this just a cynical grab for money?    

Clearly, everyone loved this film when it was first released - I know that I did.  When I first saw Star Wars, I was eight years old.  It cost 75 cents to get into the only theatre in the little mining town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, and that included a pop and a bag of chips.  My best friend Kelly and I went three times in the first week, and we immediately begged our parents for Star Wars toys. I got R2-D2, the little droid who looked like a garbage pail with legs. Kelly got Luke Skywalker, the last one in the store, and I was a little envious - after all, Luke was the hero - but I grew really attached to that feisty little beeping garbage pail, and we wound up collecting the whole set of characters, anyway. R2 became, and remains, my favourite - twenty years later, I still have the little guy in a box somewhere, paint faded, plastic chipped, but stubbornly intact, just like its onscreen doppleganger.

The movie inspired great devotion. My little brother, only six months old and not quite yet hip to the Star Wars scene, made the unforgivable error of throwing my Stormtrooper action figure (boys never called them "dolls") out the window of our truck while we were speeding down the highway. I had a fit, naturally, making Mom and Dad stop so that we could get out and look for it. This was summer in northern Manitoba - which meant that the ditches we were combing in search of my lost toy were filled with enormous mosquitoes, blackflies, and other unsavory creatures. An hour later, my infinitely patient father shouted triumphantly and lifted the scraped but whole Stormtrooper into the air. We resumed our journey, and I rolled up the window before letting my brother play with my things again. So profound was my relief that I didn't even notice the mosquito bites.  

My most memorable Star Wars moment happened in 1979. A friend and I were playing with those wonderful dolls, enacting our own little scenes like every other kid on the continent. At one point, my friend Keith was playing the role of Luke Skywalker, rattling his little plastic lightsaber in Darth Vader's face, who I controlled.  In my best menacing baritone, I said "Do not fight me, Luke....I am your father."

Imagine our shock and delight a few months later when Vader and Luke had an almost identical exchange in The Empire Strikes Back.  I promptly decided that I was psychic, but later experiments proved that I'd just gotten lucky.  It was probably just as well.  No psychic flashes foreshadowed Return of the Jedi, so none of the surprises in that film were spoiled.

Years passed; adolescence turned to young adulthood; young adulthood slipped away to that dreaded period known as "Dear God, I'm about to turn Thirty." Star Wars became a pleasant memory of easier, more innocent times.

Now it's back. This time I went to the movie alone, with jaded eyes and an outlook not quite as open to romance, heroism, and swashbuckling. This time I went because I was disturbed by the notion of filmmakers going back and editing their works, "cleaning them up" for a more sophisticated audience. This time I went because the unceasing barrage of advertising made it almost compulsory to do so. It was either go, or endure the endless cries of "Have you seen the Special Edition yet?"  There was no joy or anticipation in the prospect of seeing this "new" version. I am, after all, an adult, far more interested in the sociological implications of this restoration than in cheap thrills and derring-do. How dare Lucas meddle with Art, even if it was his own work? Would da Vinci have changed the Mona Lisa a few years later if he decided that her eyes should have been a different colour? The notion is ridiculous. I sat down and crossed my arms sternly before me, prepared for the worst.

It didn't take long for the old magic to penetrate my curmudgeon's shell.  That magnificent opening shot of the Rebel cruiser being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer is even more awe-inspiring now, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic's retooling. It was an impressive sight in 1977; one is forced to admit that the new, updated special effects do indeed enhance the film, making some scenes merely clearer and crisper, others into audience-rattling spectacles. The destruction of Alderaan is truly frightening in its power and realism now, adding to the impact of the movie. Lucas has even added a few scenes that had once lain on the cutting room floor, enhancing some story points and giving key characters more depth. In fact, my only quibble is that the much-ballyhooed Han Solo/Jabba the Hut meeting features dialogue repeated almost verbatim from the Solo/Greedo confrontation from a few minutes earlier in the film, obviously a result of Lucas having dropped the Jabba scene in the original movie. Still, this scene serves as welcome foreshadowing for events to come in the sequels. More welcome is the reunion of Luke and his friend Biggs just before the final battle over the Death Star; during the original release, we wondered why Biggs' fate was treated as such an important moment when he was such a seemingly peripheral character. Now, we understand why Luke looks so upset when Biggs meets his doom.

By film's end, I wanted to cheer along with everyone else as the Death Star exploded. Being a responsible adult, of course, I didn't indulge in such behavior...but it was a near thing. I still feel that the notion of retroactively altering a movie in such a radical way raises several disturbing issues (will jingoistic war movies of the 1940s be reinterpreted so that some of the uncomfortably racist scenes are eliminated?), in this case I think that the final product justifies the tampering. For when I left the theatre, I saw a new generation of eight year olds clutching their little R2-D2s, imagining worlds long, long ago and far, far away...and anything that stimulates the sense of wonder in our children can only be seen as that rarest of things, an unqualified good.  Star Wars isn't really about special effects, after all; it's about heroes, and Good and Evil, bravery and sacrifice and nobility; none of these things are lost in the enhancement. Take a couple of hours this weekend and let yourself be a child again; lose yourself in the exploits of an intrepid band of galactic adventurers.  Remember your innocence, and...May the Force Be With You. 

*****

LOOKING BACK: I'm less fond of Lucas' revisionism these days. I now feel that the additional Biggs scene is probably the only worthwhile change, and I notice now that I didn't even mention the infamous "Han shot first!" debacle. Still, I think this article holds together fairly well; I'd forgotten I'd included so many personal memories.

1 comment:

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

The personal bits were my favourites, but just out of curiosity:

people dressed as Jedis = fanatics

people dressed as Starfleet personnel =
...afficionados, p'raps?