Sunday, May 18, 2014

How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Forty Years Later

How to Build a Universe thatDoesn’t Fall Apart Forty Years Later; Or, My Trip through the Star Wars Expanded Universe

 With the recent announcement of a third trilogy in the Star Wars saga, fans of George Lucas’s brainchild have, naturally, found themselves cycling through a complicated series of emotions, but mostly those of fear, anger, and other states of being that could lead one to the dark side.  I too have felt some trepidation about three more film entries into the world of warrior space monks, light swords, and intergalactic war.  Some of these concerns have already been plastered across the internet, so I won’t rehash them here.  (I will say that one of the things that bothers me about Abrams is that he seems like such an obvious studio choice that you could almost hear a studio exec telling his friend over a cell phone at brunch, “You know that guy who redid those other star movies?  Well, why don’t we just get him on board our star movies?”) 

After this initial rush of dread, I started to think about the possibilities inherent in the world of Star Wars.  George Lucas crafted a unique and inspiring box of toys that have allowed plenty of creative minds to conjure some imaginative continuations of his world.  Like plenty of geeky children growing up in the 90s, I became interested in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) that was having something of a renaissance in the lead up to the new prequels.  I’ve decided that for my blog, I should revisit some of the ancillary works derived from the Star Wars Universe but not directly from George Lucas himself.

Here, I should probably provide you with a brief overview of my take on the prequels.  The short version is that the first two are incompetently made while the third one is mostly an enjoyable film that only falls flat towards the end because it’s tasked with doing the heavy lifting that the first two films failed to accomplish.  But others have gone over what’s wrong with the prequels (at length).  What’s rarely mentioned, however, is that the prequels are filled with great concepts that are poorly executed.  I quite like the idea that we follow Anakin from his days as an innocent child to his turn to the dark side, even if the lines poor Jake Lloyd had to deliver would have been impossible for even the most accomplished actor.  I love stories about romantic relationships stifled by monastic orders, like the famous the letters between Abelard and Heloise or the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  But there is absolutely no chemistry between Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman.  Still, when the characters kept their traps shut, the audience was often treated to impeccable displays of action choreography, special effects and spectacle.  For whatever reason, directors half George Lucas’s age are mostly incapable of staging action nearly as well as him, and this holds true even for the much maligned prequels.

But there is one crucial aspect of the original trilogy that holds true for the prequels as well: they are both immaculate examples of world building.  In recent years, when I watch any one of the six main Star Wars films, I’m reminded of Michael Chabon’s brilliant essay, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes.”  Reflecting on some fictions’ ability to invite others to join in the process of creation, Chabon writes:

Readers of Tolkien often recall the strange narrative impulse engendered by those marginal regions named and labeled on the books’ endpaper maps, yet never visited or even referred to by the characters in The Lord of the Rings.  All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure.  Through a combination of trompe l’oeil allusions, of imaginative persistence of vision, it creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and Web sites. (54)

Well, there are obviously no maps in the Star Wars films on par with the now iconic one that opens up each book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Lucas’s galaxy still engenders flights of imaginative fancy through the alternating elements of that which is cloaked and that which is elaborated. 

First, the elaborate detail of the Star Wars films is awe inducing, which has only become truer as special effects have developed over the decades.  But let us just take the Mos Eisley Cantina scene as an example.  That scene is striking for a variety of reasons, not the least among them is the fact that we are introduced to a dozen or so species built out of the imagination of an extremely talented makeup and special effects crew.  You can imagine how overwhelming that scene must have been to audiences in 1977, especially considering they were probably used to the elongated ear and funny eyebrow aliens on shows like Star Trek.  This brings me to the fact that the origin and background of these creatures are completely cloaked, allowing the viewer’s imagination to conjure a million unique backstories.  Lucas provides us with the raw materials as well as the open space necessary to build a world in our own fecund imaginations.  The incredible detail with which Lucas painted his galaxy has lead many people to wonder what other stories are out there, what other tales there are to tell, while the mystery of what’s hidden gives us space to craft these narratives in our own head. 

I still remember the first inkling I had that in Star Wars, unlike some other imaginary worlds, there is an entire universe of stories that appear to be happening even as we are following the three main characters.  It was when I realized that the fighter pilot, Wedge Antilles, appears in all three films, first helping destroy the Death Star, then fighting AT-ATs on Hoth, and, finally, destroying the second Death Star.  As a kid it blew my mind that a single actor would reprise his role for what amounted to maybe five minutes of screen time over the course of three films.  I became quickly enamored with Wedge because he seemed to be at the center of all these major, galaxy changing events, but he was just an everyman.  He wasn’t royalty, he didn’t win the heart of the princess, and he wasn’t secretly the chosen hero.  He was just a damn good pilot fighting for a cause he believed in.  Realizing that Wedge appeared in all three films made me understand that this galaxy extended far beyond a handful of characters.  Wedge was another means for Lucas to develop a sense of simultaneity in his world. 

By carefully crafting these blank spaces, Lucas has invited plenty of artists to collaborate in creating this universe, which they did in droves starting in the early 90s.  At the time, I read a number of EU novels and comic books, and I’ve played plenty of Star Wars video games in my day.  (I especially liked Michael A. Stackpole’s Star Wars: X-Wing series, which, naturally, followed the exploits of Wedge).  But it’s been many years, and I cannot be certain that the works I enjoyed were any good and the ones I hated were actually bad.  Besides, the Star Wars EU was quite the cottage industry back in the day, and there are plenty of well regarded or infamous works that I’ve never touched.  Now that Disney, the new owners of the Star Wars universe, have effectively put a lid on the EU, it seems like now is as good a time as any to see what I missed out on during my early days reading Star Wars novels and comic books before this portion of the Star Wars Universe is reimagined by Disney.  (Fans appear to be upset about the fact that Disney has stated unequivocally that the EU isnon-canon, but since they never really were canonical, I don’t fully understand what the big deal is).  My plan is to drop some reviews here and there over the course of the next year as we lead up to the release date of Episode VII.  I just hope I don’t become completely consumed by 90s nostalgia in the process.  Wish me luck.

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