The new Star Wars film is good…by our standards today. But I don’t know if that really stands as a resounding thumbs-up.
by Donovan WheelerConsider two movies for a second. The first—1978’s Superman: The Movie—opens with a long, slowly developing Planet Krypton sequence. Marlon Brando struts around waxing philosophically about fiery death and the quality of life to an array of sullen-faced, yet supposedly benevolent, plutocrats for the first twenty minutes. After a presumably quick elevator trip to his crystalline penthouse, he fine-tunes his son’s first set of wheels (a six-speed spaceship with air shocks, FM Stereo, and an outer body resembling that chintzy star on top of the Christmas tree) and speaks longingly about what it means to be a father and love a child, especially a son. Every time Brando speaks, silence follows. He tells the high council that staying on Krypton is tantamount to genocide, while we hear the soft echo John Williams’ low strings for three seconds. He tells the evil General Zod that no one is above the law, especially when it’s inefficient and corrupt, and we’re given another five seconds of Zod’s seething gaze. He tells his wife, Laura, that if their son stays with them he will die as well, and we hear the mechanical hum of Jor-El’s glassy-looking laboratory. Every time Marlon Brando utters a hint of syllable, we’re given time—ample amounts of time—to process what he’s telling us. Life is short. Death is painful. Love is forever. It’s one of the most masterful bits of cinema in any genre.
The second film—2013’s Man of Steel—opens with a similar father/son/stubborn-high-council sequence on the Planet Krypton. In this version Russel Crowe’s Jor-El still patronizingly lectures the high council for failing to do something about their planet’s impending explosion. But before he finishes his complaint, the council is rebutting him…something about them rationalizing their decision to set up fracking wells all over their planet. And before we can contemplate Zach Snyder’s subtle plug for environmentalism, Michael Shannon’s rendition of Zod barges in and starts shooting the council dead in their seats. Before we sort out the weight of Zod’s decision to openly assassinate his government, we’re suddenly sent back to Jor-El’s pad where there’s yet another fight scene and the haphazard departure of baby Kal, who this time shoots off to Earth in something that looks like a pickled kidney wrapped around a small-bock piston. Quote…gunfire…comment…fist-punch…observation…explosion. Throw in some giant dragonflies, plumes of lava jetting into the atmosphere, and people getting vaporized in the intense heat and you get the modern day equivalent of the Brando sequence.
What do two films about The Last Son of Krypton have to do with arguably the greatest science-fiction franchise in the history of modern media? On the surface of it, nothing at all. Like about everyone else in the world, I very much enjoyed the newest Star Wars. And—apparently like everyone else in the world—I was willing to forgive the almost point-by-point rehashing of the plot from the original 1977 installment which started the whole she-bang. But actually, in so many ways, this recreation of the first movie merely reinforces what I’ve felt for the longest time about modern film: It’s all too frenetic and haphazard. Like the two Superman films, we now have two variations on the same story from that galaxy far, far away. And like the two Superman films, one of those stories is patiently told, rhythmically nuanced, and skillfully heightens the tension building inside of us. While we pretty quickly figure out that Luke doesn’t fit in on his uncle’s moisture farm, we learn much more slowly that he is a product of a destiny which is as big as the galaxy itself. When Old Ben Kenobi hands the young man his father’s lightsaber, we are treated to a powerfully narrated tale about the old man’s attempt to mold the man who would become Darth Vader. Kenobi (as performed by the late Alec Guinness) tells the story slowly not the accompanying sound of a ceaseless John Williams’ score, but instead to the bubbling hum of some sort of power generator (or very advanced Mr. Coffee machine) in the background. It unfolds over the course of ten to twelve minutes, and the only “action” is the click of the saber, and the electric hum of the laser blade which Luke clumsily waves about the screen. In the modern era, it’s got all the action of an off-Broadway stage scene. But it carries all the weight and power of a Tony-winning drama.
In the new version the heir-apparent to the powers of the Force, a plucky young girl named Rey, is reacting to her partner Finn’s abrupt decision to bail on everybody—oh, and the evil side has suddenly arrived blowing the hell out of everything—all at the same moment that she instinctively makes a right (or was it left…it all happened so fast) turn, headed down a flight of stairs, and stumbled onto the Luke’s old weapon. We get some disjointed “clarification” from a diminutive CGI alien who looks like a walking orange with vision impairment, and before the significance of four-eyes’ rumination can sink in…buildings explode, lasers bombast, and lightsabers clash. A couple days after watching the film, I discovered online that apparently Rey was guided by the voice of Kenobi himself, but in the midst of all the ADHD pacing, I missed that one.
I could go on. I could choose scene after scene from the original film (the fight in the Death Star trench, the first escape on the Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader’s confrontation with the “good guys”), and I could pair that with similar scenes from the new movie. All of them follow the same pattern, and all of them reinforce my argument that we have collectively lost something in this new world of screen storytelling. This isn’t a wholesale problem by any means. Quentin Tarrentio stands as an example of patient direction; the long, sweeping vistas in Twelve Years a Slave are breathtaking; and even Joe Johnston’s slowly developed intro to the first Captain America movie all prove that it’s still possible to create a story on film which knows how to build tension with dialogue instead of special effects.
Of course, this isn’t strictly a cinematic problem, either. In his 1985 masterpiece, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman noted that the average 19th century American could easily stand for an entire day and listen for hours at time to the speeches and exhortations of politicians, rhetoricians, and leading thinkers. If Donald Trump were running for office in the 1880’s, audiences would demand that he clarify and support his claims. Today, because he fits everything he says neatly into a single Tweet, too much of the nation takes his bluster at face-value. Making all of this more complicated is the obvious fact that I very much enjoyed the movie…and I’ll probably go see it again…and I’ll probably buy my own copy when it’s released on iTunes…and I’ll watch it repeatedly after that. And when I confront those truths, that’s when I remind myself that I don’t read as much as used to. Instead of devoting time to a well-detailed Jay Winik or Michael Lewis tome, I turn instead to three-page Salon piece…and I skim over that.
In 1977, the Force was the power of our imaginations, and it was with us. When we reenacted our favorite scenes with our little “action-figures” or when we improvised and created new story lines in our back yards. We went months and years with no connection to the film except for what we could recall from the night we saw it. Today, the Force exists in the form of digital suffocation. Our ability to think, our willingness to process, and our once introspective society has been replaced by instant gratification and stimulation. Now, we don’t have to think. The Force does that for us, and for once I wish it wasn’t with us.