Star Wars

A Beginning…

With Solo: A Star Wars Story hitting theaters a week from tonight, I’ve been inspired to dig an old friend out of the cavernous Bennion Archives for a quick re-read, a novel called Han Solo at Stars’ End by the late Brian Daley. Published in 1979, Stars’ End was the first of three books by Daley about everyone’s favorite Corellian smuggler pilot, and only the second-ever Star Wars tie-in novel. (The first was Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was a great adventure but sadly was rendered obsolete as soon as The Empire Strikes Back was released. I read and reviewed that one a few years ago, if anyone is interested.)

Han and Chewie have always been my favorite Star Wars characters, and the Daley books — Stars’ End in particular — quickly became favorite reads as well. I must’ve read Stars’ End almost as many times as I’ve read the Star Wars novelization itself. The opening stands out in my mind as a textbook example of in medias res storytelling:

“It’s a warship all right. Damn!”

Instrument panels in the Millennium Falcon‘s cockpit were alive with trouble lights, warning flashers, and the beeps and hoots of the sensor package. Readout screens were feeding combat-information displays at high speed.

Han Solo, crouched forward in the pilot’s seat, coolly flicking his eyes from instrument to screen, hastily assessed the situation. His lean, youthful face creased in a frown of concern. Beyond the cockpit canopy, the surface of the planet Duroon drew steadily nearer. Somewhere below and astern, a heavily armed vessel had detected the Falcon‘s presence and was now homing in to challenge her…

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to read more!

The Daley novels were among the so-called “Expanded Universe” materials that Disney declared non-canon when it acquired the Star Wars franchise, but Stars’ End is always going to feel “real” to me no matter what Disney does. I’m very interested to see if Solo: A Star Wars Story borrows any ideas from it or the other Daley books…

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This Makes Me Smile…

Okay, this will take a bit of setup, so bear with me for a moment, please.

As part of its all-out exploitation, um, that is, expansion of the Star Wars brand, Disney has recently begun producing animated shorts set in the SW universe and released through the Disney YouTube channel. These shorts, collectively known as Star Wars Forces of Destiny, are each two to three minutes long and focus on the female characters of Star Wars (there is, however, at least one centered on Luke Skywalker). I’ve seen a few of them and they’re… nice. They’re obviously aimed at a very young audience, and they’re too short for any deep storytelling — mostly they’re little vignettes that fill in plot details you never knew you were curious about — but they’re cute, upbeat, well drawn and animated, and — I especially like this — they include familiar voice talents from both the SW feature films (Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, and even Mark Hamill) and other animated SW series (Ashley Eckstein from Clone Wars and Rebels, Vanessa Marshall and Tiya Sircar from Rebels).

As if all that weren’t gratifying enough, though, I just spotted something in one of the latest ones, “Bounty Hunted,” that really made me smile. See if you can catch it, too, about 14 seconds in:

Did you see it? Did you? Eh, probably not. The moment passes quickly, and you’d have to be an old super-nerd like me to even know what you’re looking at.

At 0:14, there are a couple shadowy figures in the foreground who, on closer inspection, appear to be Jaxxon, the six-foot-tall green humanoid rabbit from the original Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s, and Skorr, a cyborg bounty hunter seen in the Star Wars newspaper comics of the same period, which were drawn by the legendary Al Williamson. (Skorr was meant to be “that bounty hunter [they] ran into on Ord Mantell.”)

It’s funny that this would cross my radar this morning, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the early days of the Star Wars phenomenon, in particular that short-lived period between the release of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back when there really weren’t any rules or conventions yet. Today, the franchise labors to breathe under decades of backstory, questions of what is or is not “canon,” and, most significantly, the weight of expectations, both from the property owners and the fans themselves. But back in the day, 1977-1980, well… it seemed like anything was possible then, and the only thing anyone really cared about was that there should be more. My friend Kelly recently called that period “the gonzo years,” and it’s an entirely appropriate title. The stories being published by Marvel and in the very earliest tie-in novels by Brian Daley and Alan Dead Foster were colorful, freewheeling, frequently weird, sometimes awe-inspiring, and most of all, they were fun. (I think part of the reason I responded so positively to the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie is because I saw in it the same pleasingly anarchic sensibilities as the early era of Star Wars.)

It makes me happy that somebody at Disney remembers “the gonzo years” and was able to honor them even in a small way.

And it makes me even happier that Jaxxon is now officially canon…

However, on a slightly grumpier note, I thought the last line of this short, the one about telling Han that Leia is a keeper, was a real heartbreaker considering what we learn about them in The Force Awakens. Han and Leia not being together, or at least not getting back together, was one of the many reasons I didn’t like that movie, and one of the many fundamental decisions underpinning the sequel trilogy that I disagree with. But that’s another entry…

 

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The Point of Star Wars

This just reminded me of something I said myself not too long ago…

The point of Star Wars isn’t exactly to turn your brain off, but it is to turn your heart on, and let that organ be the shepherd that guides you through all the stars and all the wars.

— Chuck Wendig

 

 

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Space Cowboy

So, I don’t know about you, but I’m just sitting here this morning watching that new trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story on a continuous loop, like this:

 

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The Archeology of Our Modern Mythology

Being a Star Wars fan was different 25 years ago. Before the Special Editions. Before the prequels. And of course long before Disneyfication made a steady flow of new Star Wars movies not only possible, but inescapable. Way back in the mid-1990s, there was actual scarcity associated with the franchise. We had the first new novels and comic-book miniseries that would grow into the Expanded Universe, and Hasbro had tentatively introduced a new line of toys. But the red beating heart of the franchise, the movies — and remember, at that point, there were only three movies, the original trilogy, the Holy Trilogy — had happened a very long time before. In a very real sense, they felt like ancient history. So how appropriate was it that an archeologist named David West Reynolds chose to treat them as ancient history and go to Tunisia in search of the real-world locations that had once stood in for the fictional world of Tatooine?

I remember reading West’s article in the old Star Wars Insider magazine and feeling the same sense of wonder I might have experienced if he’d been talking about the ruins of Troy. I’d always known that those places really existed somewhere on the globe, but no one had thought (as far as I knew) to actually go see them, and seeing his photos and reading his descriptions of how they appeared nearly 20 years after the shoot was fascinating for me.

As it happens, West didn’t just take still photographs during his expedition; he also shot hours of videotape. And now he’s shaping that video into a documentary for hardcore Star Wars fans to geek over. Naturally, he’s using Kickstarter to raise some money for post-production, and just as naturally, I’m quite excited about the whole idea. Here’s his pitch:

West actually met his initial funding goal weeks ago, but now in the final hours of the campaign, he’s hoping to raise enough extra money to allow him to include additional footage, motion-graphics maps, Star Wars-inspired graphics, and on-screen annotations, as well as original music and a professional polish on the audio and video. And when I say “final hours,” I’m not kidding; as of this writing, there are only about nine hours remaining. So I realize my post here is very last-minute and unlikely to attract much attention or help for West’s campaign, but as I said above, I’m excited about this project and would like to see it made as well as it possibly can be made, so I figure it’s worth a try. If you see this before morning, and if it sounds at all interesting to you — and if it doesn’t, what kind of Star Wars fan are you?! — jump on over to the Kickstarter page and have a look around, and then consider pledging a few bucks. It’s not just a time capsule of those sites before the tourists and the resurgence of Star Wars fandom altered them forever; it’s also a time capsule of a different period of Star Wars fandom.  One that I honestly think was a lot more fulfilling than our current era. But hey, that’s me, and we all know I’m just a grumpy old man these days.

Check out the campaign here.

 

 

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Carrie, Again

The official Star Wars Celebration convention is currently underway in Orlando. I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they played this:

Watching this, I fell in love with her all over again, from that first sweet “Hi.” Then I had my heart broken yet again with the montage of her reciting the “Help me, Obi Wan” speech through the years.

I often feel genuine sorrow when celebrities I admire or whose work is important to me pass on, but I can’t remember mourning any of them as intensely as I have mourned Carrie Fisher. Not even Leonard Nimoy, and his death hurt. But Carrie — and her alter-ego, of course — really did feel, well, real to me. As real as the girl I had a crush on in middle school, as real as that beloved aunt who had such an outsized spirit you couldn’t help but want to hang around her.

Rest in peace, my princess. I’m grateful we still have your movies, and your words.

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Well, So Much for That…

She did it to me again...

The Digital Bits had an update this morning on the whole Star Wars thing:

We’ve essentially confirmed that Disney’s current 4K scan of the film is the most recent revised version (essentially the latest “special edition”), not the original theatrical edition. What’s more, Disney’s director of Library Restoration and Preservation, Theo Gluck, held a special event at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts last night, a presentation called Animation Restoration at Walt Disney Studios. Gluck was asked there about Star Wars and reported that the original cut negative for the film currently exists in its “SE” configuration only.

 

In addition, 20th Century Fox’s Senior Vice President of Library and Technical Services, Shawn Belston, was also on hand at the Wexner event last night. He confirmed that all of the “trims” removed from the original cut negative (in the mid-1990s, to create the SEs) still exist as well. (Thanks to Bits reader Chuck P., who attended this event, for his firsthand report.) So what does all that mean to you?

 

In summary: While it is essentially technically true that the ‘77 cut negative “no longer exists” in its original state, it is also technically true that it could be re-built if so desired. All of the needed film elements still survive and have been preserved. Nevertheless, if one takes Gluck and Belston at their word (and knowing them as we do, we certainly do) this would seem to be fairly official word that no such reconstruction work has been done to date. Thus, it appears that there is little chance of the original 1977 Star Wars being released on any home video format in 2017.

 

Meanwhile, however, we also know (from checking in again with our sources yesterday) that original high-quality prints of the theatrical editions continue to exist in various film archives around the world, as well as in the hands of private collectors. So… the Saga continues.

Well, shit.

I do not understand — and I will never understand — why one of the great landmarks of cinema history continues to be neglected like this. When I consider the efforts that’ve been made over the years to find an intact print of Metropolis, a 90-year-old silent movie that’s hugely important but which few members of the general public have even heard of, and make sure even that is available for the serious film-history buffs who desire it, the Star Wars situation simply doesn’t make sense to me.

Now, I can hear some of you muttering under your breath, “Ah, Bennion, not this again. The Special Editions really aren’t all that different, and I actually think they’re better in some ways.” I totally disagree, but hey, if that’s your honest feeling, who am I to tell you you’re wrong about something you enjoy watching? It completely misses the point of my argument, though: It wasn’t the revisionist, CGI-filled SEs that had the greatest impact on our culture, or that revolutionized the American film industry. Those are the versions we ought to be celebrating, preserving… and marketing. By rights, the Special Editions ought to be viewed as a novelty, just an interesting experiment, like when Coppola cut all of his Godfather movies into chronological order back in 1992 or whenever that was. But certainly that was never intended as an outright replacement for the originals… and today it’s The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980 that’s hard to find, not the theatrical cuts.

Some people have told me that it’s only a small minority of older Star Wars fans who actually care about this, that it would be a niche market at best. Maybe so. But it can’t be that small of a niche, or there wouldn’t be so much interest in bootlegged “fan preservations,” and there wouldn’t have been so much excitement generated by yesterday’s rumor, however short-lived it turned out to be. There is money to be made on a home-video re-release of the pre-1997 editions, and there is artistic and cultural value in such a release, I’m convinced of it. But evidently the bean counters at Disney feel otherwise.

At least it’s been confirmed that the negative trims from the original cuts are still around. I never did believe Lucas’ claims that the original negatives no longer existed in any form. Maybe in another 50 years, when the children of the ’70s are dead and gone, our cultural priorities will have evolved enough that someone will see the value in reconstructing the historically significant editions of the trilogy. And they will wonder what in the hell was the matter with George Lucas and the Disney executives and all those casual fans who just didn’t appreciate what they had…

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A New Hope for the Original Original Trilogy?

star-wars_cockpit-laugh

Turning to happier matters, long-time readers of this blog know that one of my personal holy grails — the Grail, actually — is getting the pre-Special Edition versions of the original Star Wars trilogy on some kind of high-definition home video format. Of course, an official DVD or Blu-Ray is no longer strictly necessary in order to enjoy the Star Wars films I grew up with in modern presentation standards. The notorious Despecialized Edition bootlegs are nearly as good to my eye as any studio-made disc, and for the absolute purists, the Silver Screen Edition — which was scanned from an actual film print that predates the appending of “Episode IV: A New Hope” to the title — is reputed to be the closest thing to the 1977 experience you’re going to get, short of commandeering a passing time machine. But even so, I still want an official, studio-sanctioned Blu-Ray that I can buy, hold in my hands, and display on my video shelf, simply as a matter of principle. I want to see the historically significant versions of these films, the ones that started this whole crazy pop-cultural juggernaut and completely reinvented how movies are made and marketed, and even what kinds of movies get made… the versions that are supposed to be enshrined in the Library of Congress but reside there in name only because of George Lucas’ obstinacy… I want those versions of the Star Wars trilogy re-legitimized after decades of being denigrated and suppressed by the own creator. I know this desire isn’t entirely rational, and that a dwindling number of people care or even know the difference anymore… but what can I say? We all have our quirks.

When I first heard a few years ago that Disney was acquiring Lucasfilm, my very first thought was that maybe the new corporate overlords would see the profit potential in giving those “early drafts” (as George took to calling them) the respect they deserve. Since then, rumors of a Blu-Ray release have come and gone every six months or so, and none have come to fruition. Today, another round of rumors sprang up… only this time, it seems there might actually be something to them.

The website Making Star Wars is reporting that a number of sources have said the unaltered original trilogy will be re-released this year in celebration of the first film’s 40th anniversary. I’m not familiar with Making Star Wars, and the site’s editor-in-chief stressed in his post that this is entirely unconfirmed, but I’m told this site has a good track record with these things, i.e., the rumors it reports usually turn out to be true.

My own go-to source of information on these things, The Digital Bits, had this to say:

One thing we do know for sure is that Lucasfilm has a new 4K scan of that original version of the film. That was essentially confirmed back in December by Rogue One director Gareth Edwards (as we reported here). The original theatrical version must exist – even if what Edwards saw was a 4K-updated version of the latest Special Edition (as was later tweeted by Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo), the company would still have needed to make a full 4K scan of the original theatrical film elements as a starting point to produce it….

 

IF this is going to happen, the timeframe for the release would perhaps [be] May for a theatrical re-issue and November-ish for a disc release, in time for Black Friday shopping and prior to the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters. And the place it’s likely to be officially announced would be the Star Wars Celebration convention in Orlando (April 13-16). So we should know more soon.

As I said, these rumors seem to surface quite regularly, and I’m trying very hard not to get my hopes up. I really don’t want to become a fanboy Charlie Brown, certain that this time he’s really going to connect with that damn football. However… the pieces all fit, I think. If there’s one thing Disney knows how to do, it’s capitalizing on the older assets of its film library… which now includes the Star Wars saga. And the 40th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to do something like a Blu-Ray box set. I’ve got my wallet out and ready, if it happens, even if I also have to buy all the dreaded Special Edition variants to get the versions I prefer. I’ve done that before with Blade Runner and Close Encounters, so what the hey. And if Lucy yanks the football away again, well, I’ll always have my bootlegs and my righteous indignation.

That said, I’ve got to be honest… I’ve got a good feeling about this. Maybe the Force will be with us old-timers for a change!

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Like the Greatest of Trees…

The Old Republic was the Republic of legend, greater than distance or time. No need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that… it was the Republic.

 

Once, under the wise rule of the Senate and the protection of the Jedi Knights, the Republic throve and grew. But as often happens when wealth and power pass beyond the admirable and attain the awesome, there appear those evil ones who have greed to match.

 

So it was with the Republic at its height. Like the greatest of trees, able to withstand any external attack, the Republic rotted from within though the danger was not visible from outside.

 

Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic.

 

Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.

 

Having exterminated through treachery and deception the Jedi Knights, guardians of justice in the galaxy, the Imperial governors and bureaucrats prepared to institute a reign of terror among the disheartened worlds of the galaxy. Many used the imperial forces and the name of the increasingly isolated Emperor to further their own personal ambitions.

 

But a small number of systems rebelled at these new outrages. Declaring themselves opposed to the New Order they began the great battle to restore the Old Republic.

 

From the beginning they were vastly outnumbered by the systems held in thrall by the Emperor. In those first dark days it seemed certain the bright flame of resistance would be extinguished before it could cast the light of new truth across a galaxy of oppressed and beaten peoples…

Old-timer Star Wars fans like myself might recognize those words as the prologue from the novelization of the first film, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker (as it was then known), credited to George Lucas but actually ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, copyrighted 1976. I’ve always loved this passage, in particular that line about the greatest of trees rotting from within. So very evocative.

Just something I’ve been thinking about lately…

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It Was One Movie…

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in "Star Wars"

“We’d done this little low-budget film. They’d even flown us economy to our location in London to save money, and we lived off a per diem that came nowhere near the vicinity of luxurious. We’d done a cool little off-the-radar movie directed by a bearded guy from Modesto. A thing like that wasn’t going to make people want to play with a doll of you, was it?

It was one movie. It wasn’t supposed to do what it did — nothing was supposed to do that.  Nothing ever had. Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.

Had I known it was going to make that loud of a noise, I would’ve dressed better for those talk shows and definitely would’ve argued against that insane hair… ”

— Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist

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