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Friday, December 30, 2011

Star Wars Commentary, Part 3: Storm Troopers versus Battle Droids


Let’s contrast these two Star Wars concepts using the following criteria:
  1. Appearance
  2. Competence
  3. Dramatic usefulness
First of all, the Storm Troopers look cool. People still buy mock-ups of S.T. armour for costumes or collections. The white color with dark highlights is a stark contrast to the black of Darth Vader and the dark purpose to which S.T.’s are typically put. White also stands out very well on most Star Wars sets (with the exclusion of Hoth, of course). Then compare this to a battle droid. I think they are coloured taupe or some similarly institutional colour. Dull. They have an elongated face, almost beak-like, and stick-thin limbs. All in all, they utterly lack in intimidation value. This is only accentuated by their comically high, modulated voices and ridiculous dialogue. We never heard a Storm Trooper say “Roger, roger” for very good reason: something that says “roger, roger” might kill you, but it can’t stop you from laughing at it. A battle droid doesn’t look like you need to be a Jedi in order to cut your way through a swath of them; a stiff breeze would knock them down. (The upgraded battle droids seen later in the trilogy start to look deadlier, but first impressions count for a lot: it’s the battle droids in Phantom Menace that stick with a guy.)
Which is more useful? If we were watching an episode of Deadliest Warrior, which would win in a fight? Certainly S.T.’s get their butts kicked a lot; one could even argue that’s their purpose. Battle droids fare no better, however. They are woefully fragile, falling apart when pushed by someone as useless as Jar Jar. Then again, the S.T.’s get beaten up by Ewoks, so neither side comes out with a great resumé. The question is, I suppose, would you rather tell people you’d been beaten up by a brain-damaged amphibian or an overgrown teddy bear? My instinct is to call this category a tie. Yes, both sides lose (they are the villains), but both get some victories, too. The Troopers crushed Hoth and Leia’s ship, but the battle droids did manage to beat Jar Jar’s extended family.
That leaves dramatic usefulness. By this I mean which is better in terms of plot and writing. The Troopers are humans, so the Jedi get to show off their cool mind tricks with them. “These are not the droids you’re looking for” is a classic Star Wars line that wouldn’t have been possible if the first trilogy was shot with battle droids. Yet in spite of their humanity, they are implacable and incorruptible foes. You can’t just slip one a ten-credit coin and weasel through Imperial blockades. The same could be said of the droids, too. Either side can be tricked, but not cozened, absolutely perfect for displaying the monolithic nature of evil. Villains that can be circumvented with a wink and a nod make for uninspiring enemies. The critical difference, though, lies in the vulnerability Troopers have to Jedi mind tricks. Villains need to have flaws, and what better way to display the funky mystical powers of Jedi than to have them control strong but weak-minded minions? Battle droids have a flaw, too, but it appears to be the uselessness of them as individuals or in small units. The Storm Trooper flaw (human minds) gives us an excellent writing hook. The battle droid flaw (individual weakness) only makes them less scary, since beating up a weak guy sort of makes the heroes seem like bullies. Edge: Storm Troopers.
Our score stands at Storm Trooper 2, battle droids 0, with one tie. This was particularly disappointing for me, too, because I clearly remember being totally jazzed at the concept of battle droids all those years ago. Wow, did they fall short of expectations. “Roger, roger.” Really? That’s the best dialogue you could come up with?
Nothing stings worse than having your high hopes dashed. At least I’ve learned my lesson. Next time (if there is a next time) I’ll go in with Anaconda 2 level expectations. As Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory says, “I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Star Wars Commentary, Part 2: Yoda


Yoda was my favourite Star Wars character. Who cared if he was wrinkled, green, and bald? The dude was seriously cool. Wizened and wise, he didn’t need height or muscles or brawn to display his worth. What nerd wouldn’t admire someone like that? You may note, however, that I said Yoda WAS my favourite character.  He still is in regards to the first three movies. In the “new three,” though, he’s one of my least favourites, and that’s saying something.
Old Yoda was a puppet. Puppets are cool. Anyone who’s seen Labyrinth had to have been impressed with the fantastic stuff they did with puppets. Yoda was definitely in that league. As a puppet, he had a slow, careful way of moving entirely in keeping with his 900+ year age. When his movements sped up, like when he whacked that idiot R2D2 with his walking stick, he looked exactly like an old man venting impotent anger. The way he pottered around his little hovel, grumpily denying Luke access to his Jedi birthright, was absolute beautiful.
New Yoda (or fake Yoda, as I like to think of him) is a collection of pixels. CGI. They can do some wonderful stuff with CGI, but Yoda was a failure. He had a slick, too-smooth manner of movement entirely at odds with his supposed doddering abilities. The new Yoda moved slowly, yes, but there was no sense that he was actually infirm in any way. Just slow. There was too much grace and poise when he walked around for me to believe that he was truly elderly or needed that cane of his.

Which, of course, turns out to be the case. When Yoda whipped out a light saber to fight Dooku, I wept. Seriously? Do we really need to do this? Ok. Bad enough that Yoda’s going to engage in a duel, but I anticipated his fighting style to be sort of Tai Chi. Careful, slow, deliberate, yet still manages to be in the right place at the right time. But nope, disappointed again. Watching fake Yoda bounce around the walls like a super-ball was one of the worst movie-watching moments of my adult life.
So we go through that agony only to have Yoda fail to beat up Dooku. Why’d he even show up? Then as the Jedi twins wake up, Yoda goes back to his crippled hobble. So basically, he’s a liar. He’s faking a disability for… what? Does he get a private bathroom back at Jedi HQ? A special parking spot right next to the door for his space-ship? Does he get a shorter work week, extra pay, promotions, what? Is Yoda only ON the Jedi Council because he’s filling their Senate-mandated “crippled” spot? Gah! That inexplicable fake-hobble is one of the dumbest things in the new three movies. It basically turns a wise mentor into a deceitful creep.
Ah, you say, but Yoda was a liar in the first three movies, too! In a way, that’s true. He concealed his identity from Luke (for maybe an hour), but that had a purpose; namely to probe Luke’s mettle and nature. Ah, but what about Yoda knowing that Vader was actually Luke’s father? Well, in spite of the prequels, there’s no indication in the first three that Yoda actually DID know about Vader being Luke’s dad. Obi Wan took it upon himself to train Anakin, according to his own words, and his failure could have easily been a secret he’d kept to himself. Remember that Luke knows about the lie when he goes back to Yoda in the third movie. We get no death-bed Yoda confrontation about the issue, but the instant Yoda’s gone, Luke wants to know from Obi Wan why he’d kept this a secret.
I mean, the prequels throw all the characters into everything, but to judge from the first three movies, everyone has only a piece of the backstory. Obi Wan doesn’t seem to know about Leia, yet Yoda does. (“No. There is another.”) My point is, if you take the first three at their word, Yoda is great. His only failure, really, is failing to instill in Obi Wan a proper humility, because if he had, Obi Wan would never have gone off and trained Anakin. No training, no Vader, no destruction of the Jedi.
But, then again, Yoda trained Obi Wan in the past, back when he was pixelated, and therefore utterly useless. And a liar, to boot.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Star Wars Commentary, Part I


I’ll admit it. When Phantom Menace came out, I stood in line and paid my money like millions of other suckers. I was thrilled to have another chapter in the Star Wars franchise to ogle, adore, and cherish. The first three (they will always be the first three to me, I don’t care if Lucas wants to call them IV, V, VI, they are the first three) were so good they spawned a nerd culture that has lasted to this day. The whole movie rental business didn’t last as long. Of course I was psyched to have more stuff to add to the Star Wars lexicon.
The first few minutes of Menace sucked me in. It was just so good to be watching light sabers again. Then, later, the light saber battle between the Jedi and Darth Maul was stunning eye-candy. It was only much later that it dawned on me how badly the movie sucked, sort of a weird type of “buyer’s remorse.” You mean I paid for this? This? This no-plot-bad-characters-dull-dialogue piece of garbage? Unfortunately, there is no way to demand your money back from a movie theatre the day after. I have studiously avoided paying to watch it ever since, at least.
Every few weeks the thing does show up on TV, though. If there’s been enough of a gap between watchings, I’ll even sit down. “Maybe I’ll like it this time,” I’ll think. Quickly I will be disabused of that notion. The speed with which I come to my senses depends entirely on what part of the movie I happen to start watching. Opening scene with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor? I’ll tune in until they are crouched in the docking bay, then stop, because I know inside of two minutes they’ll be encountering Jar Jar. Darth Maul fights keep me going until they end. Any other part, with talking, I usually manage less than three minutes before the weak plot and mind-numbing conversation cripple me. If the stupid kid actor playing Anakin is on-screen, I just keep channel surfing. Even for free, watching The Phantom Menace comes with too high a price.
So why did I walk in to the cinema such a wide-eyed innocent? Why was I thinking it would in any way be comparable to the first three? There’s no way a movie would fool me like that today. Was I really that much of a sucker? How could I be so deluded?
The answer, of course, is ignorance. I had no idea what I was going to see. All I knew was “new Star Wars.” That’s all I needed to know. Not that I was purposely blinding myself. Far from it. I watched the trailers, I read the sneak-peak info, I… well, that was about it.
Movie-goers today have many tools at their disposal that my younger self lacked. Between Google, Rotten Tomatoes, and YouTube, today’s discerning cinema patron is armed with the full gambit of movie information. There is scarcely a scene they haven’t been able to examine at leisure long before they decide to queue up and hand over their dollars.
It’s strange to think how much the internet culture has changed since Phantom. The Star Wars fiasco came out in 1999, the same year that Rotten Tomatoes debuted (and long before it actually caught on). Wikipedia drew its first breath in 2001. Google wasn’t around until 2004, with YouTube showing up a full year later. Oh, if only I’d had access to such powerful weapons in Days of Yore.
I certainly use them now. They allowed me to dodge Avatar, which may have been pretty but was otherwise a train wreck. It was like dating a beautiful dullard—fun for an hour, but agony beyond that. Sherlock Holmes, with its emphasis on action scenes instead of sleuthing, was nimbly avoided as well. The list goes on and on.
Would that it included The Phantom Menace and its evil cousins, Episodes II and III.
Next time… new Yoda versus old Yoda. (Guess which I prefer?)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Good roommates


I have had good roommates and bad roommates. Often, my roommate has been both at the same time. The kind of guy, for instance, who eats your last jellybeans while you’re gone for the weekend is also the kind of guy who will freely share his extensive music and VHS collection. Or a girl who plays The Barenaked Ladies’ “If I Had a Million Dollars” over and over again until you want to move to the States just so you can easily buy a gun that will allow you to mow down the entire apartment building is also the girl who does the dishes when it’s supposed to be your turn. But these days, my roommates are the absolute best.
Today’s breakfast conversation was highly entertaining. Breakfast conversations are rare things: everyone in the house has slightly different schedules, which means we don’t often all gather around the table until supper. We got lucky today, and managed to have almost ten minutes in the same place at the same time. It gave us a chance to discuss our zombie apocalypse preparations.
You see, I have the delight to live with two people who are just a touch phobic about zombies. They don’t believe zombies exist… sort of. Maybe they do, a little. Certainly they are concerned with our preparedness should the eventual outbreak occur. Depending on their moods, they might considerable that outbreak inevitable rather than eventual. The whole thing does make for some interesting chats, though. Food stores, access to water, weapons for protection, that sort of thing. Today was home defensibility.
We have a two-story house. It’s been decided that the temptation and convenience of having access to the first floor can’t be allowed to sway our resolve. Zombies can’t climb. Zombies can, however, break through windows (even boarded up ones) and eat you while you try desperately to claw your way out of your blankets. So the current plan has us sacrificing the ground floor in exchange for security.
That leaves a single staircase as access, designed thusly:

You can see how the zombies can just make a clean run down that hallway up to our bedrooms. Obviously, it needs to be blocked off. Several ideas have been thrown around. A simple sheet of plywood would serve to lock the thing down, but my fellow house-dwellers aren’t satisfied with that. They have suggested we get a steel trap door. It would be designed to be out of the way, attached to the wall over the stairs, and then be lowered into place on a hinge. The thing would lie horizontally over the top of the stairs. Lock it down, and done. That way we are secure, but also have the ability to sneak out if the coast is clear.
This morning, however, the trap door idea was revisited. A steel gate that would slide down to close off the stairs at their bottom would mean the gate itself would be held in place by the lower stair. Further, a steel bar (or even a simple wooden 2x4) could be wedged between the top step and the gate to make it even harder for the zombies to push through it. It couldn’t be the kind of thing that mall stores use, because we need something opaque. Maybe the sort of things liquor store owners use in the movies. Zombies hunt by smell, but also sight, and a glimpse of one of us upstairs would send them into a noisy rage. That’s another point in favour of the liquor-store gate rather than the mall-store gate: it would block more noise. Who wants to sleep to the sounds of constant groaning? (Maybe porn directors, I don’t know.)
So it looks like the liquor-store gate installation crews will be coming over any day now. The decision has been made. The zombies don’t stand a chance.