When people find out that I like science fiction (and write about it), they often try to find a familiar example to talk about. This is a better reaction than to say, “Oh, that crap?” or something along those lines. But recently, the example has inevitably been Star Wars — and what was up to that point a conversation motivated by polite interest threatens to go sour. Have you ever seen someone become a grouch and a snob at once? That’s me on the topic of George Lucas.
The thing is, I’m a huge fan of spaceships and lasers and stuff blowing up in space.
I also happen to think that one of the hardest things, creatively speaking, is to tell a story that is entertaining and worth thinking about five minutes later. The temptation when doing this kind of Star Wars thing is to just toss something off with lots of spectacle and not much heart. For one thing, it’s easier! Good dialogue is an art, but it’s also a lot of mental perspiration on the page.
It can also be easy to get away with laziness, because there’s a certain attitude that lets someone like Lucas critic-proof his work. If you say that, “Oh, it’s meant to be a cheesy space opera,” then you are dismissing the power of what space opera can be when it’s done right. This may not happen very often, but intelligently written or filmed entertainment occurs every now and then. Two examples from my previous Gutter articles are Firefly and The Forever War.
Lucas doesn’t deserve a free pass — no one does — and what brings out my inner grouch is that, in addition to coasting along on crummy work, he helps make one end of the science fiction spectrum the only one that most people know about. I like science fiction precisely because of the range it allows. If I’m hankering for some exploding lasers and flying planets, then I look through my SF shelf. And that’s the same shelf I go to if I want beautifully written prose and something to ponder later (eg, China Mountain Zhang).
(As a side note: somehow the mystery story gets away with what has always been troublesome for science fiction. Looking at the various genres of fiction — broadly speaking, fiction that is driven by story — I think that mystery novels are the genre that get the most respect. They show a similar range as does science fiction — from serial killers all the way to tales of fractured postmodern identities — but somehow still pass as lit’r’ture. How do those crazy mystery writers do it?)
I guess what I’m saying boils down to: I have nothing against Lucas wanting to do some thrilling filmwork. I like such a variety of stuff that I don’t begrudge a pop culture fix to anyone. But I’m still irked when the thing in question is not very well put together. Case in point: Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith.
I had heard ahead of time about the horrendously cheesy dialogue, but the clunky lines still surprised me. What characters say is the most basic way of getting our sympathy or convincing us that these fictional people have something to them. As an example of what Revenge of the Sith has to offer: Padme has just realized that her lover Anakin has become Darth Vader and killed a roomful of baby Jedis. Her response? “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart.” Not even an exclamation point. Your mileage may vary of course, but I found no way into the heads of the characters.
The selling point for the movie, in the absence of characterization, was the big action scenes. They’re flashy, yes, full of movement and computer generated dazzle, sure. But they were mostly pretty boring, with a weirdly disconnected and weightless feeling. And if you’re the kind of person who cares about military tactics or strategy, this movie is going to drive you crazy. The Jedi, rather than being effective leaders, are the morons of the universe! They get wiped out in about ten minutes, and they don’t find much use for their powers. Nifty and/or excessive use of Force powers would’ve been a huge draw for me, frankly, but no such luck. If you want to find out how cool it is to be a Jedi, you’ve got to boot up your computer and play one of the (better) Star Wars videogames.
I’ll be curious to see what happens to the franchise now that the primary driver behind it, the official movies, are done. I suspect the marketing juggernaut is next-to-unkillable at this point, since it’s already survived these movie prequels.