Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Movie Musing: Genre Wars – Revenge of the Myth

Wizard with lightning attack. This is "Lord of the
Star Hobbits" right?
It has come up before and it is sure to come up again. Which genre do I pick when I categorize my blogs about Star Wars. They are science fiction, right? You see space ships, robots, laser guns and technology we don’t have yet. But then you’ve got The Force, which is clearly some kind of magical power. Also people are fighting with swords and most of the conflict is on a grand high fantasy level. So are they fantasy films? No, because you have WAR in the title. Much of the conflict in the series revolves around armies clashing for different ideals. These are war films. But then you have the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks and BB-8. Those are all such juvenile characters appealing to a very young crowd. These are kid flicks.

George, George, George, you didn’t make it easy for us.

"Obi Watanabe? Are you nuts?"
But that was by design. Lucas was making something that crossed multiple genres. It had elements of various familiar movies and stories. By mixing them together you get something that is new and yet familiar at the same time. Star Wars has been around so long, it is hard to remember when it was fresh. In 1977 people hadn’t seen anything really like it, and yet it reminded them of the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. There were elements of the John Carter novels in there. Obi-Wan was very much like a samurai from a Kurosawa film (and Lucas reportedly wanted famed Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune for the role). Darth Vader was a black knight of Arthurian legend and Princess Leia the damsel in distress (with the 70s twist of her being a lot tougher than she appeared). And then you have the music with John Williams creating a Golden Age flashback with his full orchestral bombast. During this time it was rare to hear scores that weren’t jazzy or rock influenced, fully electronic or comprised of mostly songs.

As the series expanded over the decades, each film added to different genre elements. Empire Strikes Back expanded the war storyline, as well as building on the powers of the Jedi and giving us more sci-fi goodies to watch. Return of the Jedi brought out even more silly aliens for the kids, a climactic resolution to the war and hero storylines and even more robots and strange new worlds. You get the idea.

Hiring a gunslinger at the local bar? Where's Luke's
white ten gallon hat?
The Star Wars franchise embraced its identity as a cross genre work that doesn’t’ fit snugly into any one role, but manages to do all of them with a solid degree of ability. Its success with the public and the impact on pop culture inspired others to give the same approach a try. Why do a straight up Western when you can do a Space Western like Outland or Firefly. How about set up a noir detective story in a grimy future like Blade Runner. Or maybe a soap opera inserted into a uncanny horror film. Welcome to Twin Peaks. And don’t get me started on anime. It seems like they’ve been doing this for as long as Lucas (and maybe even before). You want romance, and knights and giant robots all mixed into one story, Vision of Escaflowne may be what you’re looking for.

These days it seems like standard genre films just don’t cut the mustard any more. In most cases they’ve been done so many times there aren’t any new stories to tell. Sure you can shake up how you tell them, and with a director with a strong vision can make something fresh and exciting like Tarantino did with Django Unchained. But most films opt for combining a couple of genres together to add another unfamiliar element to the whole thing. I think we can thank (or curse if it annoys you) Star Wars for making that more acceptable.

Where will her
journey take her?
To me, Star Wars is a fantasy saga clothed in science fiction trappings. The core of the stories (especially the first six) is the rise and fall of a hero. It is classic mythic storytelling. Anakin represents the tragic part of the cycle in the first three films. Luke Skywalker represents the heroic part of the cycle in the second set of three. We’ll see if Rey matches one of these two cycles or if she forges her own path.

The characters and their evolution is what Star Wars is all about. It tells stories that are based on very old tales and links them together to create a new set of mythology. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but to me it is an important thing.

In my mind, science fiction is about humanity in a general sense. It always asks questions at its core, and these are questions about all of us. How will we survive on other worlds: The Martian. Is technology our gateway or hindrance to the next stage of evolution: 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ghostin the Shell or The Matrix. What are the perils of controlling evolution and life: Jurassic Park or Star Trek II and III.

Star Wars comes close to asking some of these questions. In the original trilogy you could argue that there is an anti-technology message. The Empire has all this impressive technology at their disposal, but they never win completely. They are constantly thwarted by rebels who have less resources, and outdated technology. Luke destroys the first Death Star without any technological aid, just The Force as his guide. Yoda is a Jedi Master who lives in the middle of nowhere with not a single sign of any technology, and yet he is one of the most powerful characters in the saga. The Ewoks literally use sticks and stones to bring down the Empires best legion of troopers.

But the films never really ask the question, are humans better off without technology. Because all the characters are surrounded by technology at all times, and would be at a loss without it. Even though R2-D2 is unable to help Luke destroy the Death Star, they would have been dead earlier in the film if R2-D2 didn’t save them in the trash compactor.

"No seriously kid, no Jedi says Whoopee!"
So is the message a confused mess? I don’t think so. I think Lucas is not telling us that technology is evil or saying that humans are better off without technology. It is not a question of technology at all, but a question of instinct. Ben Kenobi (and later Qui Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace) ask their pupils to focus zen-like on now. “Stretch out with your feelings.” “Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.” “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” The message here is that technology is a fine too, but it is only a tool. The human instrument is just as critical. This message is about the person, not the scope of humanity.

The other time Star Wars comes close to commenting on technology is with the clones. But again, it becomes a question of use. How you use the clones is more important than any moral or ethical questions on their creation. I think science fiction stories dealing with clones almost always struggle with that moral dilemma. But Star Wars doesn’t even question it. It just happens. In many ways they are treated like droids are in the Star Wars saga. It is an interesting approach (and one of the things I really liked aboutthe prequels). But they are in service to the story, not an element meant for us to ask questions about.

Good vs. Evil in visual metaphor.
All this means that Star Wars sits firmly in the realm of fantasy for me. I find it easier to view it through that lens, especially from a thematic and narrative point of view. Star Trek is much more of a science fiction series, even though it often focuses on the characters stories and lives, and will dive into war and fantasy elements. In the end Star Trek offers us questions about humanity’s journey. Star Wars offers us questions about our personal and spiritual journey.

No, you want a series that is a true amalgam of science fiction and fantasy in almost equal parts – The Matrix has you covered there.

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  1. As you say, there is much slop-over among scifi and other genres. Though there is hard scifi that tries to violate no physical laws, most scifi typically (and famously) asks the reader/viewer to accept one impossible – or at least improbable – premise such as FTL drive or the secret existence of transdimensional reptilian overlords. Star Wars asks for enough such premises to fill a Death Star. So, I suppose it’s fair to regard it primarily as fantasy. Mr. Campbell would be satisfied with the mythos.

    Mythic elements are at the core of any good story in any genre including history, of course. Myth is how we transmit values on a societal level and form our own values at a personal level. (Anyone who sees Star Wars as a sad tale of a father shamelessly betrayed by ungrateful children probably should be avoided as a business partner.)

    1. I think that the mythic elements of the story are what made such a big impact on me when I was young. I think that story telling is still very strong in the prequel, even if the surrounding elements are less successful.

      Ah man, seeing the original trilogy as a betrayal is pretty funny. Reminds me of "How I Met Your Mother" and how Barney saw the film "The Karate Kid" and assumed it was a tragic fall of Johnny and Daniel and Mr. Miyagi were the villains.