Last time I started writing about my thoughts on the recently released teaser for the next Star Wars movie, Episode VII. In the grand scheme of the internet debate, I don’t suppose my thoughts amount to much–I certainly don’t expect them to have any effect–but here they are. I think the glimpses we’ve been given point to a movie with some serious problems, and in particular some serious problems trying to continue what was good and unique about the original Star Wars movies.
It’s been suggested that I’m being hasty, judging a movie by only a few seconds from it. The movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum however. I see similarities in the teaser to elements that were problems in other J. J. Abram’s movies. He has certain tendencies; the problems in his movies follow certain patterns. When I notice similarities between the teaser and his other work, I think it’s fair to assume that he is carrying his tendencies forward into Star Wars, and that familiar problems will likely come with them.
It’s also been suggested that nostalgia has blinded me, that I would hate any new Star Wars material because nothing can live up to the original trilogy in my mind. I leave it to you to judge for yourself whether my objections are rational or some sort of emotional backlash. While I greatly enjoy the Original Trilogy, I don’t think those movies are perfect, just good, unique, and worth watching. Meanwhile, I can envision countless sorts of new material that I would be excited to see so long as a certain quality is preserved, a quality I will call, for lack of a better phrase, the Star Wars atmosphere. My objection to the teaser is that the Star Wars atmosphere is mostly lacking, and I’m not sure J. J. Abrams understands it.
Let me explain by returning to the teaser about thirty seconds into it.
Storm Trooping: The Movie
After the rolling droid, and culminating in some sort of embarkation maneuver, we get a few quick glimpses of storm troopers. For the record I have no particular trouble with the new storm trooper design; I think it looks great. My problem with these glimpses is the camera work, although it’s difficult to unpack what I mean. The essential question is this: what are these shots supposed to communicate?
Probably my most petty complaint is stylistic. There’s a trend over the last two decades to make movies a more visceral experience, especially any sort of movie with action. Filmmakers don’t just want to show action, they want the audience to experience it, at least in part. Consider the difference between the first and later Bourne movies. In the first we saw the many fight scenes from a fairly stable and slightly removed perspective, because the intent was to let us watch what Jason Bourne was doing. The later movies involved faster cuts between camera angles that were closer and more varied, all up in the character’s business, to use the phrase. The goal (presumably) was to let us feel the fights more than see them.
I’m not a fan of this particular trend, most obviously because I don’t even really want to see a lot of violence, so I certainly don’t want to experience it on any other level. I also think it’s a lazy and ineffective sort of storytelling. It’s something that people do because they don’t trust the story to communicate it’s importance effectively. To use the above example again, because the director didn’t trust the visual of Bourne’s fights to communicate danger, intensity, urgency, or whatever, he used camera tricks instead of narrative, staging, acting, and all the other better tools at his disposal. I think the result looks sloppy, not to mention frequently incoherent. Camera tricks are no substitute for a good story.
Science fiction movies in particular always face the temptation to devolve into meaningless action. One of the best qualities of the original Star Wars trilogy is that they kept their focus on character and story. In fact during the filming of Return of the Jedi, when Mr. Lucas was asked about how he was going to top the lightsaber duel at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, he explained that he wasn’t even trying. Instead he was going to trust the characters and the story to make the end of Return of the Jedi intense, and that approach paid off. The lightsaber fight at the end of Return of the Jedi is entirely forgettable, but the scene isn’t.
Now to go back to the storm troopers, what we have is a jiggling and flashing close up of some storm troopers in formation, a jiggling and flashing close up of storm trooper guns, and a jiggling and flashing close up of storm troopers advancing down a ramp. These seem to indicate an “up in the character’s business” filmmaking style, and a particularly jiggly one. In short they seem to be indicative of J. J. Abrams usual style, but J. J. Abrams nearly never trusts his characters and story and frequently descends into meaningless action, often incoherent action.
Another important thing to note is this: the wider and more stable cinematography of the original trilogy actually helped communicate the scope of the action. While a close shot of one or two stumbling troopers might communicate the visceral feeling of a shockwave, the wider shot of an entire hallway filled with stumbling troopers communicated the scale of what was shaken. While a camera trick might communicate the visceral feeling of an AT-AT causing the ground around a single soldier to explode, the wider shot communicated the overwhelming presence of the AT-ATs when compared to the rebel soldiers running around on foot. “Up in the character’s business” style always makes things smaller, because so much context is eliminated.
But all of that is actually secondary. My main complaint concerns a matter of more basic perspective. There’s a famous story about Hitchcock, during the filming of Psycho, having to re-film the detective’s ascent of the stairs, because the original camera perspective made him seem like a villain rather than a victim. Here we have something like the reverse: these shots put us in the middle of the storm troopers, identifying and sympathizing with them. They’re the heroes going into danger, rather than the danger the heroes are going to face.
Current rumors suggest that a converted storm trooper is the hero–the first scene of the teaser adds some support to that–but then he would become a hero precisely by ceasing to be a storm trooper. (Which might be why the storm trooper from the desert isn’t wearing his helmet.) I suppose, as a part of the plot, a whole group of heroes could dress up like storm troopers and then ride into danger, in which case these storm troopers might actually be the heroes, but that seems unlikely. If it turns out to be the case, I’ll happily retract this part of my complaint.
In the original trilogy, the storm troopers were the embodiment of the vast, monolithic, and unassailable empire. That was one of the clever effects of having them all look identical, even anonymous. (They don’t even seem to have names, just numbers.) They collectively became imperial might, rather than being individuals. One might get shot, but there were always more, endlessly more identical storm troopers, always coming at the protagonists like an unstoppable wave. (Sure in real life it’s important to remember that even one’s enemies are human beings, but Star Wars isn’t real life. More on that in a moment.)
Think about how storm troopers were used in the original trilogy. We didn’t see them preparing to board Princess Leia’s ship, we just saw them pouring through the door, too many to stop. We didn’t see them preparing to storm the rebel base on Hoth, we just saw them pouring through the door, too many to stop. We didn’t see them preparing their ambush on Endor, we just emerged into the forest to find the entire surrounding area was filled with them.
So even if these storm trooper shots didn’t flicker and shake, even if they weren’t so close that it’s impossible to tell context, they would still be entirely wrong because we (the audience) are with the storm troopers rather than being confronted by them.
There are a couple of obvious objections people might raise. For example, they might suggest that humanizing the villains could provide some interesting moral depth, making the world more grey. That isn’t Star Wars though. Star Wars has clear good and evil. In fact clear good and evil are essential to the story. In the last moments of Return of the Jedi, with Luke representing good and the Emperor representing evil, we don’t want Darth Vader to arrive at some sort of compromise between or mix of their two positions, we want him to choose a side. The drama in Star Wars is always like that: it’s about whether a character will choose good, never about what good is. In fact, the most morally grey characters in the original trilogy, Han and Lando, have their grey-ness portrayed as a failure; they’re likeable heroes precisely because and only when they stop being grey and become good.
People might also suggest that these scenes come from the beginning, when we’re getting to know the storm trooper who will eventually become good. Maybe we’re glimpsing storm trooper life from our (eventual) hero’s perspective, so we’re supposed to sympathize with him, not the others. Think how much more effective it would be though to view things from the another perspective. Perhaps we could start with the perspective of where-ever the troopers are attacking. A drop ship (or several) appears. Endless waves of merciless and identical storm troopers appear and represent imperial might. Then afterward, one of them takes off his helmet and looks around at what they’ve done. He suddenly becomes an individual, we understand what he’s seeing–if the actor is good, we’ll understand what he’s thinking and feeling too–but storm troopers remain a sort of idea, the unstoppable endless wave of evil power.
The Scene I Don’t Mind
After the storm troopers we see a woman driving away on a speeder. She’s obviously in some sort of hurry, although we don’t get any clue about why. This scene I don’t mind. It doesn’t thrill me–I can’t imagine that it’s intended to be thrilling, which does inspire questions about why something so largely forgettable was included in a teaser–but I can live with it.
I don’t mind her hurry, and am not talking again about irrationally frenetic action, because there’s no reason to suspect that her hurry doesn’t make sense (e.g. quick erratic movements or ten seconds of empty desert).
THE AWESOME PART
Then there are X-wings skimming across water. At this point I very nearly forgot all of my complaints, because this sequence is just great. I wish there were some sort of wider shot for scope, like I mentioned above–something to tell us how many X-wings are involved in the battle they are no doubt racing toward, or something to tell us about the danger they’re about to face–but there’s no reason to suspect that there isn’t something like that which was just not included in the teaser. (Imagine how awesome it would have been if the pilot pictured had said, “All wings report in,” and then there had been a wider shot of dozens of fighters skimming across the water.)
If the teaser had just been X-wings skimming across water, it would have been enough, and I likely would have retracted all of my previous doubts about Mr. Abram’s upcoming Star Wars film. I would have joined the happy throngs of excited fans. Instead the trailer was more than just X-wings.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on “He Won’t Seem Evil Enough If We Don’t Invent a New Sort of Lightsaber,” and “Just Hold The Camera Still, Man!”