Battle Beyond the Stars is Star Wars gone wrong

Battle Beyond the Stars is the rare bad movie worth experiencing. How can you not be at least a little curious about a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars pastiche, starring John-Boy from The Waltons, Hannibal from The A-Team, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects by a young James Cameron?

Like Starcrash a few years earlier, Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars crassly copies a number of superficial elements from Star Wars: sassy robots, radial wipes, exploding planets, severed arms, and heavy borrowing from Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in this case). But it betrays a total cluelessness regarding the real feat George Lucas pulled off: iconic characters, mythic underpinnings, and a tantalizing sense of a larger world worth exploring. Its spaceships, lasers, and robots are all in service of the story, not the other way around — otherwise you wind up with Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially a special effects reel with cursory linking material. As much as Star Wars gets right, Battle Beyond the Stars gets wrong.

As for those aforementioned James Cameron special effects, there sure are a lot of them. The ratio of effects shots to live-action studio footage must be near-equal. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the level of effort expended on the models and matte paintings, vs the dialogue, characterization, and story.

The performances certainly don’t commend it. Robert Vaughn sleepwalks through it, and George Peppard hambones as an Earth cowboy. Richard Thomas doesn’t seem to have a handle on his character, which I suspect is due to a lack of clarity in the writing & direction. Like Luke Skywalker, he’s an everyman farmboy with aspirations to be a pilot. What appears to make him unique among his people is his ability to pilot a A.I.-powered spaceship, but he later claims to not know anything about computers. He’s also an embittered jerk who seems resentful for the ragtag army that sacrifices everything for his world.

And it would be a waste of time to outline the ways in which it is ridiculously sexist. It’s only 3 years younger than Star Wars, but decades more retrograde.

Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo’s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.

George Lucas Cedes Control: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

After writing and directing three Star Wars prequels between 1999-2005, it’s easy to forget that back in the 1980s, series godfather George Lucas opted out of directing Episodes IV: The Empire Strikes Back and V: Return of the Jedi. Now Lucas appears once again to be ceding control over his most famous baby. He’s back to shepherding along splinter projects like The Clone Wars from the more aloof role of Executive Producer.

For anyone else confused, as I certainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003-2005 Cartoon Network television series “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” in turn followed by a second series with the same name as the movie. Got that? There are much bigger differences than swapping a colon for a definitive article, starting with the visual look itself. The best thing about the original series was its bold, striking visual style, realized in a hand-drawn line-art look similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s previous show Samurai Jack. From what little I understand of the process, CGI animation created in 3D can still be rendered in a flat 2D style, giving it the look of traditional hand-drawn cell animation. So the characters in the original at least appeared hand-drawn even though they almost certainly weren’t.

Ashley Eckstein and Matt Lanter in Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Anakin trains a young propellerhead

However, the feature film sequel looks like director Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and render the characters with full 3D shading. The result resembles a rough animatic or a throwaway videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aiming for photorealism, which becomes very creepy when approaching the uncanny valley – the point where animated characters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the nightmarish zombie horrorshows Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the latter being a huge step forward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars’ particular brand of stylization just seems cheap to me; I would have preferred the cool-looking 2D characters as they appeared in the TV series.

The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars universe, but no one (probably not even Lucas himself) would ever consider it as primary as its six older siblings. One advantage to being relegated to the second tier is a freedom to violate venerable Star Wars traditions. The classic opening crawl is gone, replaced with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel catching the audience up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splosions. That particular change is a shame, but brace yourself for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather welcome: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the soundtrack of my childhood (my entire generation can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones themes a cappella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blanket of redundant music that threatened to drown out the already almost overwhelming Saving Private Ryan.

The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chronologically between the events of Episodes II: Attack of the Clones and III: Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which nothing of import really happened in Star Wars continuity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basically war stories. This is actually a good thing in light of how the prequel trilogy often became bogged down in tedious political procedure involving interplanetary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the feature film still feels like an episodic tour through a number of spectacular battles. A particularly gripping and exciting battle takes place on a vertical cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “camera.” Lucas was sure to conceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allowing for carnage and huge body counts without a drop of blood (not to mention the economical reuse of costumes, and now, digital models). I remain puzzled, however, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and varying skill sets. This writer grew up with the original trilogy, and still has trouble accepting stormtroopers being on the side of the good guys.

Tom Kane in Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Yoda’s looking more “kitten” than “turtle” today

The TV series focused mostly on the battles, but the movie squeezes a fragment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Skywalker is inconveniently charged with training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), an annoying teen “padawan learner” (a Lucasism for “apprentice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush malapropism). I still find it difficult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tipping point to absolute corruption that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embodiment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetuous kid horny for the girlfriend he left behind on Naboo. Being responsible for the spunky, goodhearted Ahsoka certainly does little to help him attain the state of emotional detachment Lucas equates with goodness.

Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expensive technology behind this kind of animation, it’s still cheaper than mounting a live-action production. Animation, where anything is possible, is also the best way for the Star Wars franchise to expand the stories of its existing characters, when the original actors have aged, become too expensive, disinterested, or passed away. So why focus only on the prequel characters? Why not tell more tales starring the trinity that everybody really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han? Is Lucas afraid that messing with the canonical heroes generations of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wounding their deep emotional connection to the mythos? Or to be cynical, he may always utilize the various masked characters (Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in anything at any time without clearing actors’ likenesses. That said, some of the original cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee. James Arnold Taylor does an excellent impression of Ewan McGregor’s excellent (in turn) impression of Alec Guinness.

One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars without at least one offensively characterized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is inexplicably voiced as an old Southern queen.