2016/12/22

Esquire: Star Wars Should Be Fun. Rogue One Isn't.

Scathing criticism of Disney's $150 million disappointment comes from an unlikely source: Esquire magazine.
Let's start by stating plain facts: Rogue One is not good. It may even be bad, though it's hard to argue a film with a final 40 minutes that entertaining could be outright bad. It's the first two acts that sink it: muddled, lacking in character, and somehow too fast moving while simultaneously a real slog.
I give Esquire credit for having the audacity to swim against the prevailing Hollywood current. Their rationale for such a grim assessment of Rogue One bears consideration.
It'd be easy to look at these issues and blame a troubled production and the storied Tony Gilroy reshoots. The truth is we don't really know how those reshoots affected the final product, though an attempt to rescue a "product" was clearly the goal. Normally I'd defend director Gareth Edwards' original vision sight unseen, if only to stand with the artist over the corporation, but in watching Rogue One I was left with the sense that the suits at Disney may have had it right to attempt a salvage operation.
The problems with Rogue One certainly exist at a script and filmmaking level, but they also go far deeper than that, right down to the core concept of the film. This was supposed to be Star Wars as a true war movie, getting down and dirty with the complexities of war, the death, the horror, and the moral compromises involved in killing for a supposedly noble cause.
Readers who've been following the Pulp Revival will already know why this approach failed.
Where the original Star Wars films were pulpy serials that took inspiration from more romanticized Hollywood depictions of battle, Rogue One promised to use its status as a stand-alone entry to come at war from the darker, more realistic perspective of films from the Vietnam era. Bringing some complicated moral weight to Star Wars is a great idea in theory, but so was communism, as Homer Simpson once astutely pointed out. We know how that worked out.
The original Star Wars was a rollicking tale of swashbuckling and heroism pulled straight from the pulps and the old Republic serials. Apocalypse Now was a dark, morally ambiguous portrayal of the Vietnam War. One of those films grossed $36 million in its opening weekend and spawned a decades-long franchise. The other made about 100 grand in the same time frame and remains largely in the domain of film buffs.

As the article's title says, Star Wars is about fun. The fun of science fiction and fantasy is mostly derived from escapism. Therefore adding gritty realism to Star Wars is not a great idea, even in theory. It is a dumb idea perpetrated by people who have no idea how to manage the franchise they bought so dearly.

Ignorance about the proper nature and execution of SF isn't just limited to film makers inhabiting the Hollywood culture bubble. Shedding light on this issue, Jeffro Johnson, among others, has written at length about the memory hole that SF's pulp era has been stuffed into. The soul of science fiction isn't Big Men with Screwdrivers. It's an ordinary man torn away from his workaday life and hurled far afield on a mission to rescue a space princess. Sound familiar?

Sadly, this strange genre amnesia has spread to the general population, as this recent Twitter exchange shows:
Twitter Fun 1
Now, my Twitter friend can be forgiven for not knowing that classical opera a) almost immediately became popular with the masses and b) was and remains a great deal of fun. The depth of ignorance about space opera on public display is just embarrassing.

NB: space opera got its name from soap and horse operas; not any similarity to grand opera. If you're going to argue space opera on Twitter, check first to make sure that your opponent didn't just release the third book in his award-winning space opera series.

But wait. It gets better.

Twitter Fun 2

Got that? According to our friend here, depth and fun are mutually exclusive.

Nice job, Hollywood. You've screwed up movies so bad for so long that some people don't even know what fun is anymore. Steps must be taken to recover the arts from the tin horn propagandists who are driving Western culture off a cliff.

I've gotten started on my own small contribution to making SFF fun again.



Stick around, because much bigger steps will be taken soon.

8 comments:

  1. > The soul of science fiction isn't Big Men with Screwdrivers

    I mean this with all sincerity, but one of these days you are going to have to make a detailed blog post detailing what you think "big men with big screwdrivers" is, because to this day, I still have no idea what you mean by that.

    I know you have gone into it on twitter, but twitter being twitter, it's a nutshell explanation that still uses me confused. I get that it's about characters trying to solve all problems with science, but that sounds more like a critique of stuff like Tom Swift, but the context you usually use it in is to comment on modern science fiction, or Cambellian SF, so I'm not really sure what you refer to.

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    1. It's a reference to the MST3K Movie. I use it as a rhetorical jab at Campbellian tropes.

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  2. But yes, science fiction is at it's best when it's fun. I don't know who made the quote, but I definately agree that "The Golden Age of Science fiction... Is twelve." And twelve year olds love fun things.

    Looking back through my favorites SF stories, even with the "heady, big idea" science fiction authors, I gravitate more to the the action packed, fast moving stories they made. I was bored to tears with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange land and found it an overrated mess, but absolutely loved stuff like Friday, Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Puppet Masters. As much as I love Issac Asimov, I'd argue that his funner story lines in his Paul French novels, or the faster paced Empire novels stood out from some of his other, more preaching books (Particularly his later books. I also agree with John C. Wright to some extent that Asimov's Short fiction trumped his novels.) I also have just as many fun memories of Janet Asimov's galactic hopping Norby adventures and they stand up as great robot stories, just as much as her more stodgy husband's Robot detective novels.

    So yes, fun is good. It's not a buzzword.

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    1. That's a great quote :)

      And we're in total agreement on Stranger in a Strange Land. I finish any book I start as a matter of principle. Heinlein finally lost me for good about 2/3 of the way through Stranger.

      People accuse William Gibson of filling his books with plot but absolutely no story. SIASL makes Gibson look like Keith Laumer.

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    2. My honors English teacher in high school (1994) wasn't obvious about it, but looking back, I'm pretty sure she was a bitter old leftist. She hated science fiction, and only begrudgingly let me use SIASL for my oral report in class.

      I wound up telling the class that the first two thirds were vaguely interesting if bland exploration of what an alien might find in the 70s era U.S., so it wasn't awful, just a poor representation of what sci-fi could offer.

      I then pointed out that the last third of the book was straight up hippie propaganda, with a splash of absurd messianic allusions. I told them if they were interested in the book that they should just stop when act 3 started.

      I never did see my teacher's reaction, as she was seated behind the lectern, but my classmates certainly paid attention. I wound up getting an A in the class, at least... and the teacher didn't argue with me about science fiction any more.

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  3. God, I wish Laumer was still alive; he'd be laughing his ass off.

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