Tag Archives: The Empire Strikes Back

‘For the Love of The Force’: A Fanboy’s Plea to J.J. Abrams

By WILLIAM SCHILLER

My first experience with a “New Hope” began well before it had that name. I couldn’t have told you this, as I wasn’t very verbal at the time. Instead it was told to me by my mother.

I was only three, and my mother dragged her family out to a 10-o-clock late show on a week night, to quench her love of good science fiction. The movie played and the titles rolled, and as the lights of the theater brightened, she found her husband and 8-year-old child sound asleep, but her 3-year-old son wired for sound.

That mother could have been concerned that perhaps she had given her child a lifelong trauma, but instead she had started the genesis of what could be called a fanboy. This was only confirmed when my older sister left shortly after for summer camp, and my mother gave me a choice of something fun to do while she was away –- anything that little boy asked for, she would make happen, and happen it did. For two weeks straight, my mother watched Star Wars in a matinée showing at the local movie theater, every day.

Soon there were action figures — I learned to overcome many childhood fears with bribes of Star Wars toys, and soon had duplicates of some. Years passed, and I have grown with the teachings of the Jedi. I always enjoyed certain bragging rights to geeks of my age: I have seen every movie within the series, all of them within the theater, and always had copies, legal or not, of the films at home.

Funny thing about being a truly rabid fan though, you can’t always relate to others the way you want to. None of my friends had somehow ever seen the only once-shown “Star Wars Holiday Special,” but I had; and since old George bought up and destroyed all existence of it soon after, I always felt like explaining it to others was like talking to someone who was sleepwalking -– they weren’t going to remember it tomorrow, and they sure weren’t getting it now.

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As I grew to become as old and jaded as a good Gen X-er can be, I found my inner boy child when the “Menace” was announced, and soon I had all of the posters and lame fast food merchandising that flooded the market before all of the other high-end toys would be produced. I sat with a Gameboy waiting for a midnight release showing to start, and loved every minute of it. Profoundly buoyed by the fanboy base around me, soon my brother-in-law started to compete with me on how many times we could see the film. My exuberance only began to wane nearing the 20th viewing within three weeks.

My wife and I, my brother-in-law and his friends made trips to larger and better theater experiences for the remainder of the prequels, and found ourselves at various crossroads. Love and hate for the films, and ticket lines with very young Jedis that made us all wonder if it was in fact whining that drew someone to the Dark Side, as Hayden Christensen seemed to prove.

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William Schiller, right, and brother-in-law Paul Humann.

In time, we all came to agree with the Star Wars outsider of our group and her insight that could only come from not drinking the Kool-Aid. Not that we didn’t love the taste of it, but we realized the subtle undertones we experienced as fans became like those of a sommelier trying to sell wine at an Oktoberfest beer tent. A hard sell indeed.

In admitting this, even now I have taken a huge step -– after all, my mother had to see “Empire” twice in one day, when that same little boy cried his eyes out, running from the theater after Luke lost his hand, but having to return with his mother’s encouragement to find resolution. Since that day, I have grown and come full circle as a fan.

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One of the amazing things about getting old is that it lessens the blows that life has to give. I have lived a life that flowed with and without The Force. At first, I saw myself in Luke, and now I understand an old Kenobi. I have children of my own, I have lost loved ones to fates that they could never have deserved, and once again I hear the calling of a new war. I will heed this call with somewhat less exuberance, dressed in the gear of my brethren nerds.

I know we all have the same thought: We will love seeing another chapter in a series that has been such a part of our lives. But for the love of The Force, please don’t mess this up, J.J. The fans have some scars that haven’t healed enough for salt to be lightly thrown around in this part of our world.

And please not one Gungan. Not one.

It’s been too long of a fan life to have one more Gungan.

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William Schiller is a father, husband, brother, and nit-picky nerd over nonessential knowledge that only gets someone somewhere when they are in a college writing class. He still has fond memories of Bea Arthur as a bartender with a heart of gold in the Mos Eisley Cantina. 

Photos and graphics courtesy of William Schiller.
X-Wing and TIE fighters photo: http://www.starwars.com.

 

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True Confessions: I Defended ‘Phantom Menace’ in Print

This is kind of embarrassing.

But I’m going to let you read it anyway.

One of the first things I wrote after I started my job as a copy editor at the Antelope Valley Press was a passionate defense of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” which was receiving almost universally scathing reviews.

Ironically, this opinion piece helped land me a position as an entertainment reporter for the Showcase section, so I look back at it with a certain fondness, no matter how misguided it may be.

Keep in mind that it was penned almost immediately after the release of “Phantom Menace” and many of us were still basking in the glow of a Star Wars revival and the fact that we had just seen Jedi spinning and leaping in the air, twirling their lightsabers, like we’d always dreamed it could be.

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Lavender Vroman with her Princess Leia buns and tickets to “The Phantom Menace.”

And we had yet to see the other two chapters of the new trilogy. I think many of us were willing to give “Episode I” the benefit of the doubt until the abysmal “Attack of the Clones” came out.

While I do not agree with almost everything I wrote back in 1999, I’d argue that some of the points about the original trilogy and its greatness, despite its lack of conventional “greatness,” still ring true.

I think my youthful journalistic folly can also serve as an object lesson as we anticipate the arrival of the first part of yet another Star Wars trilogy.

Only time will tell if the intense hype and euphoria surrounding “The Force Awakens” is warranted, and if there’s any greatness to be found in it.

Let’s not leap to judgement or praise. Let’s give J.J. Abrams’ incredibly risky new venture a chance to become what it’s destined to be. Hopefully, it won’t be something we later wince at and try to forget.

Below, the full text of my defense of “The Phantom Menace,” originally published in the Opinion section of the Antelope Valley Press. (Please don’t hate me.)

Critical Defense of Much-Hyped Star Wars Film

To cranky film critics everywhere — lighten up! As Darth Vader would say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

You promptly pronounced the long-awaited, much-hyped “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” a disappointment. You cut the film down with strokes as swift as a lightsaber’s. You blasted the plot and dialogue with the heartlessness of a battle droid. Your annoyance with the comic character Jar Jar Binks had you bellowing like Wookies. You scoffed at the actors’ performances with scorn to rival the evil Emperor’s. Sinister villain Darth Maul’s lack of screen minutes made you rave like Tuscan Raiders awakened prematurely from an afternoon nap. You argued that computer animation and special effects smothered any attempt at spiritual, artistic or moral substance.

One of you went so far as to compare George Lucas to Darth Vader, in an amusingly ridiculous extended metaphor. You said the writer-director-producer of the great Star War series had finally gone too far, taking himself, and his new film, too seriously. And you didn’t even realize that you were guilty of the very thing of which you accused Lucas.

In “Episode IV,” Yoda says that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” And everyone knows that these things inevitably lead to the Dark Side of the Force. And so, I suggest, do self-seriousness and the loss of a basic sense of wonder. Somewhere in that 15 year dry spell between “Return of the Jedi” and “Episode I,” you must have forgotten what made the original series so delightful  and successful.

Were “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” so remarkable because of fabulously constructed , original and flawless plots? Because of eloquent and layered dialogue to rival Shakespeare’s? Because of superb acting and deep philosophical content? Of course not.

Plot and dialogue have never been George Lucas’ strengths. He’s a storyteller on the most basic level. The original Star Wars trilogy was built on the most simplistic of plot lines, borrowing heavily from well-worn myth and fairy tales. It’s the story of an everyday hero who goes on an impossible quest and finds himself and something greater along the way. The stuff all good tales are made of. It’s cliche, it’s hokey, and people everywhere still love it.

As for dialogue … audiences in 1977 seemed to have no objection to such cheesy gems as Han Solo’s line, “Either I’m going to kill her, or I’m beginning to like her.” If nobody minded then, why should they now?

They shouldn’t, and that’s because the power of Lucas’ science-fiction epic has little to do with the spoken word. What makes him a good director is that he communicates effectively at the level that all films inherently operate on — the visual level. It is precisely Lucas’ vision of space, the things we saw when we first saw “Star Wars,” that have so captivated millions of people. It is what we saw of the characters, not only what we heard them say, but the visual impression they made on us, that endeared them to us. Who would actually say that Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher astounded audiences with their great thespian skills?

“The Phantom Menace” isn’t, and never was, intended to stand on its own. It’s a part of a whole, and to do it justice, it must be considered along with its other parts. The important elements, the things that branded the original three films into popular consciousness, are there in “Episode I,” and they make it a joy to watch.

Yes, Jar Jar Binks is annoying. Yes, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to give creepy Darth Maul more screen time. And no, Han Solo wasn’t there to grin his rascally grin and crack up the audience with his, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Get over it.

The first of the prequels isn’t perfect, but it succeeds in the same way the other three did. For, once again, Lucas takes us places we’ve never been, fills our eyes with sights never before seen — the Venice-like, regal planet Naboo, the metropolitan, silvery city of Coruscant and the underwater bubble village of the Gungans. He introduces us to a sad and beautiful queen arrayed in costumes Madonna could only dream of and Jedi in the midst of duels so full of motion and power they make our heads spin. We meet an innocent boy named Anakin with an arrogant streak, foreboding a downfall to come. Even Darth Maul’s short but memorable appearance hints of a greater evil awaiting us in the next episode.

“Episode I” is only the foundation for the remainder of three prequels and as a start it will do just fine.

So, all you film critics — I sense that there is still good in you. See the film again, this time on the lighter side of the Force.

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Jar Jar Binks photo: zap2it.com.

The Night Han Solo’s Blaster Came to Visit, or My Life With the Force

When I was 13, my dad came home with a surprise.

He was working at a hobby shop on Avenue I, where regular customers would bring unusual collectibles for show and tell.

One day, a film industry guy stopped by with a movie prop he thought my dad would be interested in.

My father convinced the man to let him take Han Solo’s blaster home for the night so he could impress his kids.

I don’t actually know if the fictional gun came from the set of George Lucas’ famous trilogy or whether Harrison Ford ever touched it or if it was just a convincing replica.

It didn’t matter. It was like Christmas at our house when my dad came strolling through the door with one of the coolest looking pieces of hardware in cinema history.

My siblings and I spent the rest of the evening posing for photos with the coveted weapon in the backyard, make-believing we were slumming it at Mos Eisley Cantina or caught in the thick of battle on Endor.

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My dad, Gordon Kemble, with the purported Han Solo blaster. 

My dad was always very sweet about bringing me whatever Star Wars items he came across at the shop — books, role playing games, whatever odds and ends he could find.

It was six years after the release of “Return of the Jedi” and merchandise from the trilogy was scarce. Lucasfilm had yet to fully capitalize on the franchise’s marketing potential and souvenirs were difficult to find.

I became a disciple of Star Wars in a vacuum of sorts. I was 12 when I saw “A New Hope,” not in a theater, or on Blu-ray, or on a 60-inch flat-screen, but on the old television set in my great-aunt’s den.

Despite the humble presentation, I was awestruck by Lucas’ space opera. I remember the sight of C-3PO and R2-D2 shuffling down the shiny corridors of the Death Star, the thrill of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker’s rescue of Princess Leia, who was no damsel in distress, the hilarious suspense of the trash compactor scene, the mysticism of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the allure of the monk-robed Jedi, and of course, the brilliance and majesty of the lightsaber.

I really did think that someday the lightsaber would exist.

I saw the trilogy out of order. My sixth-grade teacher showed “Return of the Jedi” as a reward. Surrounded by classmates who had all seen the movie long ago, I marveled at Luke’s transformation from restless farm boy to noble Jedi warrior. By the end of the film, I was doing the “Yub Nub” dance right along with the Ewoks.

I then convinced my parents to rent “The Empire Strikes Back.” We took it to my grandparents’ house because they had a VCR. Finally, I was privy to the full mythology and the darkest and perhaps richest chapter of the trilogy, which was a little over my head at the time.

I wouldn’t see Star Wars on the big screen until the great re-release of 1997, a joyous occasion despite Lucas’ infamous tampering with his original imagery.

And I wouldn’t experience the heady, comforting rush of communing and commiserating with other Star Wars fans until 1999 when a certain prequel fanned the flames of frenzy over the franchise once again, for better or for worse.

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Camping out for tickets for “The Phantom Menace.”

Since then, I’ve enjoyed living in a Golden Age of Star Wars fandom, largely thanks to the efforts of Disney.

Merchandise is readily available, discussion is lively, and new developments are constantly on the horizon. It’s more than I ever dreamed of as a little girl, pretending to fly through the trenches of the Death Star in my very own X-wing starfighter.

This Golden Age will hit an unprecedented high on Dec. 18 with director J.J. Abrams’ new chapter in the franchise, “Episode VII — The Force Awakens.”

Whether this new entry in the series is spectacular or an epic failure, Star Wars will remain an integral part of my life. It’s sacred to me in a way that will not fade or change.

In a way, I owe my career to Star Wars.

My fascination with the franchise led to an abiding curiosity about cinema. I wanted to know how George Lucas brought the Rancor to life or created the awesome jump to lightspeed.

I subscribed to Lucasfilm Magazine so I could find out. I checked out books from the library on editing and cinematography and sound.

One of my first articles at the newspaper where I spent nearly 15 years writing about film was a well-meaning but misguided defense of “The Phantom Menace,” which was taking quite a critical drubbing.

I’m not going to claim that Star Wars taught me about love, but however weird it may sound, it is a significant part of my marriage.

My husband Nick and I were seeing other people when we camped out in the parking lot of a mall to be the first to snag tickets for “The Phantom Menace.”

By “Attack of the Clones,” we were dating. By “Revenge of the Sith,” we had tied the knot.

Star Wars isn’t the glue that holds our relationship together, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Not a day goes by that we don’t find ourselves talking about “The Force Awakens.” Some girls dream of diamonds from their beloved. My fondest gift from my husband is a red Force FX replica lightsaber. I’ll treasure it always.

More importantly, those first, indelible images of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford  in Star Wars taught me that I didn’t have to conform to what society might expect of me.

Sure, I wanted to dress up as Princess Leia for Halloween. She was, refreshingly, a princess who did much more than waltz about in a ballgown and tiara.

But early on I discovered that I didn’t really want to be Leia. She didn’t get to wield the lightsaber. We never saw her embrace her powers or her path to the Force. What I wanted to be was Luke Skywalker or Han Solo.

Star Wars helped me realize that as a girl I could be a Jedi, I could pilot a starfighter, I could shoot a blaster, I could save the galaxy from the evil Galactic Empire. So why should I limit myself in real life?

As I grow older, Lucas’ universe keeps me connected to my childhood self, the one who stood with Luke, gazing at the setting twin suns of Tatooine, dreaming of what the future might hold.

I hope it will always hold more Star Wars.

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Defending George as ‘The Force Awakens’

Instead of spending Black Friday fighting over flat-screen TVs at Walmart, I replayed “The Force Awakens” teaser trailer over and over on my phone, along with the rest of the world’s Star Wars nerds.

I analyzed and reanalyzed every detail: Is that Benedict Cumberbatch or Andy Serkis intoning ominously in voiceover? Who is that black-clad figure wielding the coolest lightsaber ever? Is that a droid or a soccer ball?

Then I took to Twitter to find out if I had missed anything. I texted friends and relatives to compare notes. I tried not to get too excited. “Remember the prequels,” I told myself, but it was no use.

In one of those spine-tingling moments that will go down in geek history, I and seemingly every other person on the planet was besotted.

In the days since the big reveal, relief and delight over the fact that “Star Wars: Episode VII” may not be the fiasco we feared has given way to gleeful mockery directed at “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, the man behind the best-loved sci-fi franchise of all time. (You may now start sending me hate mail, Trekkies.)

Dozens of comments on Facebook and Twitter express satisfaction that George can’t touch this new trilogy, J.J. Abrams be praised.

This hilarious version of “The Force Awakens” trailer, parodying the director’s much-loathed “improvements” to his original trio of films, has been circulating.

Also making the rounds, to great amusement, is this befuddling preview for an animated movie hailing “from the mind of George Lucas.” Turns out it’s based on a story he wrote and, yes, it looks pretty terrible.

I understand where all the George bashing comes from and I enjoy poking fun at his missteps as much as anyone. As far as my family is concerned, the filmmaker’s infamous prequels don’t exist and mention of a certain sequel with the words “Crystal” and “Skull” in the title causes physical pain.

Yet I can’t help but feel that Lucas doesn’t deserve such bitter backlash from the very fans who profess to adore his original creation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve defended Lucas. In 2008, I wrote a column arguing the director’s case. Ironically, it was just before the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Even so, I stand by what I wrote then:

(Lucas) has gotten a bad rap over the past decade for his megalomaniacal tendencies, a certain computer-generated abomination called Jar Jar Binks, his mysterious ability to transform capable actors, like Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson, into unfeeling blocks of wood and his inability to stop tampering with the “Star Wars” master prints.

These trespasses are not easily forgiven, but I can’t help but feeling that we have been a little too harsh on the master of the “Star Wars” universe, styling him in our imaginations as a scheming villain holed up at Skywalker Ranch, cackling as he dreams of new and better ways to annoy his adoring fan base.

… Perhaps it would be helpful, not to mention therapeutic, if we remembered all the things we used to like about George, his legendary contributions to the film industry and what his legacy means to us.

Lucas may be a control freak who doesn’t give a fig about what his colleagues or devotees desire, but it’s doubtful he would have accomplished all that he has if he wasn’t so uncompromising.

This is the man who almost single-handedly revolutionized independent filmmaking, championing artistic control with a savvy business deal that allowed him to preserve the “Star Wars” franchise exactly as he envisioned it and make a fortune off the licensing rights.

His technical contributions to the entertainment industry are innumerable. Since the debut of “Star Wars” in 1977, he and his creative team have aggressively advanced the fields of visual effects, sound, editing, digital filmmaking and video games. Industrial Light & Magic, THX, Skywalker Sound, Pixar –they all sprang from the mind of Lucas.

And it’s not as if his extreme wealth and power have driven him to the Dark Side, either. Lucas is a philanthropist, establishing an educational foundation and donating millions to his alma mater, the University of Southern California.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, however, is that Lucas is the creator of “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and the Indiana Jones trilogy, six films that have inspired and continue to inspire generations of lifelong movie lovers.

“Star Wars” was the movie that first introduced this critic to the wondrous possibilities of the cinema. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was the film that showed her how much fun you could have in a movie theater.

… I must confess that I have nothing but gratitude for him.

Perhaps it’s time we showed more respect for the mind that spawned the little space opera that has become not just a series of movies, but a pop cultural touchstone, a lifestyle, a shared language, practically a religion.

This guy invented the Millennium Falcon, the lightsaber, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Yoda and Boba Fett. He breathed life into a galaxy far, far away with rudimentary but revolutionary special effects that still hold up. He inspired John Williams’ epic, instantly recognized musical score. His depiction of the battle between good and evil — a battle that rages inside all of us — is timeless.

So I’ll say it again.

Thanks, George.