ORBzine - 1999.08 Review Comments

ORBzine - "Review Comments"

by John Kane

And now to the chore of replying to the comments over the Phantom Menace. Smell of singeing reviewer? I think not.

For the short one, what kind of comment is 'it sucks'? A non- value judgement. 'Oh no it is not, oh yes it is' does not actually count for anything unless you can start pointing out why, does it?

Of course I think science fiction should abide by rules as close as possible to those we are familiar with. Escaping from the drudgery- or the horror, depending on your neighbourhood- of day to day life is a tolerable objective, but usually some of the reason you have to is that you have not been putting enough energy into making real life better. You can escape too hard. Also, if you do not, what are the characters going to be to you? It is hard enough getting inside the head of someone who has simply been in a different walk of everyday life; when things can be so different, impossibility - and indifference - are not far away.

Part of the goal, part of the method of the science fiction I most enjoy, is to come as close to reality as possible and still get what you want. I mean, look at Zindell; as weird, as diverting and as intellectually challenging as you could ever wish, but there is absolutely nothing out of place with the psychology or psychonomy of it.

Bitter? Of course. We the fans were let down badly - and deliberately - over this. What I do not understand is that Burakowski objects to it. Since when has it been taboo to object to things you disapprove of? You should just be totally blase, let life wash over you? Thank you but I do not think anyone should put much effort into being a doormat. (Of course, if you have not guessed yet, one of the things I am most annoyed about is the fact that I actually enjoyed parts of it.)

Stick to the original three films? Well, if this is the alternative, I cannot think of a good reason not to- particularly for gaming purposes, where you have to customise the universe to a certain extent, and this movie does not help win players' confidence in the slightest- but I also cannot see that it matters. Let there be more Star Wars by all means, but for heavens' sake do not let Lucas do it- or control it- because he has lost the touch.

The long comment, oh dear. The most provoking thing is that someone totally unknown to me should take such an instant dislike, and such a dislike. I can only ever recall blowing up this badly myself once, responding to a series of sick jokes about religion which as much as said anyone with any faith was a sad bastard. (We were both barred from the newsgroup after that ..) I had something very real- the feeling if not the truth of the position- to defend, and precisely because I was in two minds myself, reconciling that tension caused me to lash out much more improvidently than I would or should have. What prompted this outburst I cannot tell, but it is such total calumny on what is after all a not dazzlingly important topic (when all is said and done, entertainment is secondary) that by the end it was impossible to take seriously. Criticism should have some sense of proportion; one is permitted, I think, a little vitriol reacting to a billion dollar fraud, but this relentlessly anal flaw- searching is so comprehensive and imbued with such malevolence, it comes out as too unbalanced to be believable.

Heigh ho for some kind of detailed response. As for being a 'reviewer of choice', it was submitted off my own bat. As for saying more about how I do it myself, yes, and? This was also ripped out of an earlier review of mine (of Only Forward) in which I suggest, favourably, exactly that. Grammatical structure? Now this comment, I do not know whether or not to ascribe a sense of humour to my interlocutor or not - on balance, I suspect not - but this has to be a joke. It is so beside the point as to be ludicrous. In any case, yes, I do have rather a grasshopper style, because I enjoy writing that way- bouncing about between topics helps me relate them one to the other, form a more complete and holistic impression than otherwise possible, which was actually the intent. Deconstruction is mechanistic; opinion is holistic.

As for reasoning, he has missed the point. There is absolutely nothing reasonable about Star Wars. (He cannot seem to identify facetiousness, either). I resent my reasoning faculties being impugned, but I would resent it even more if he had managed to do so successfully. A predicate is not an argument; I make numerous statements that he seems to take for arguments, to the greater loss of clarity of it. The review does not have a deliberate reasoning structure at all, in fact; a very serious case on my interlocutor's part of seeing something that is not there. I put almost no effort into reasoning about it because you do not cut up the things you like just to see how they work. (Well, to duplicate, maybe, but is this really the place for it?) You cannot deconstruct a piece of fiction like Star Wars and expect there to be much left when you are done.

I also worry at how badly he has managed to misread me. Throughout, there is an imputation of malice almost equal to his own; not the case, I am afraid - and anyway, there are much more important targets out there.

As for the previous films, He does not appear to have read what I wrote with any intent to understand; you can argue that Star Wars does not need a connection to reality, but one to mythology- it needs to be a good story far more than it needs to be a plausible story. I do not expect reality from Star Wars. There should be heroics; I just do not like having them too cheaply and easily done. Slapstick heroics, a genre Lucas is trying to invent, has to be done with great absurdity to come off in any case- it usually does not. Where do I impute that ESB is unrealistic? It has 'at least a basic connection to reality' which is more than you can say of most science fiction. How on earth did he manage not to notice what I had written? The slug comment- 'even Clarke has unwound far enough to have a dig at' - cannot this man tell a quote when he sees one? 2061; Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke, in the chapter entitled 'The Valley of Black Snow'. Quite laudatory, actually.

I dislike Ewoks and will continue to do so regardless of what you say. Even though everything may well be predetermined, a good gamesmaster should be able to make things look as if it took great and valiant struggle to make things go the player's way- and a moviemaker should be able to do the same thing for the heroes. The scale of the odds the Ewoks are up against should be so huge that for what has to happen to take place violates all suspension of disbelief. With any ability on the imperial side, the Ewoks should lose. Even as incompetent and strung out a field force as a bunch of Vietnam-era GIs should have held that station. (In one particularly crazed demonstration game of the highly non Star Wars infantry combat system Phoenix Command, inspired by the above line of thought, they did.) In fact, from the Imperial point of view, you can turn the shield generator station into Rorke's Drift without much effort; it is just too damn hard to sing in stormtrooper helmets, though.

The point of the 'credentials' paragraph he objects so much to (why?) is that I do not believe in aphorisms. No comment- at least, no well-worn comment - is worth more than the person who makes it, although we are sometimes persuaded by factors we ought not to take into account. I do not really believe in the power of logic to do anything other than preach to the converted any more, or at most to take effect on a willing adversary. Of course everyone has a right to express themselves- but no-one has or can have any innate right to be taken seriously, without that we make a nonsense of the business of exchanging ideas. I made the effort to tell you where I was coming from, at least insofar as it matters for this; he has not bothered to declare himself or his interests. In any case, what would you prefer- a total fanboy blind to any comparison, a high culture nerk who has never heard of it before?

As far as not being able to do better goes- and why should I have any respect for the opinion of a voice from nowhere when he tells me otherwise?- I said 'I or any of the gamers'. Any of the fifty- odd people over the last decade I have ran with personally, the who can count how many hundreds who helped make them the gamers they are, or god knows how many million others worldwide. He has already misread me so badly I cannot see that his basis for comparison has any relation to the truth, or what passes for it. Also, you can certainly tell when you are enjoying a game, and any session where the players find it hard not to collapse in hysterical laughter is a good session. I would not still be gaming if I or the people I game with did not think I was any good at it. By the evidence of his standard of scriptwriting, ninety percent of the hacks out there on your SF bookshop shelves could do better- and that is only in accordance with Sturgeon's Law. The other ten percent could do much better.

As for ridiculous overstatement, cannot anyone tell a throwaway line when they see one? Hollywood dumbing down- anaesthetising people who ought to be out making what they want take shape as per the standard issue american dream - is a force for evil. The only way to suppose otherwise is if you think intelligence is more trouble than it is worth, and if you are prepared to overreact this strongly to a passing comment I did not even think was worth giving a sentence of its own, maybe yours is. He also complains about a misplaced- it is not- apostrophe. On the internet? The most slapdash, happy-go-lucky, anarchic, precision-free language environment you are going to find anywhere? This is clearly the sign of an anal-retentive mind. (No-one I talked to would actually believe me when I said someone on the net cared about apostrophes.)

Actually, it is an interesting point. One of my usual places to start in when bending the universe for this particular session is the nature and character of the Old Republic; which is why this movie let me in particular down so badly. Suppose it really was domestically run as badly- and approximately on the same only-centralised-at-the-very-top model - as the third reich. Say the man immediately before Palpatine had tried something of the sort- rule by fear and decree - and it had failed. That would make Palpatine fill the same relative place as the great postwar statesman Conrad Adenauer. Now that would turn everything upside down. The Dark Side would become unquestionably the right side, even if far from the wisest, to follow; the Empire would be a tragic necessity because either we beat them into order or they beat each other back to the stone age; and the Alliance, disastrously deluded idealists or pawns of an equally dark, but even less constructive, evil. (Would Mon Mothma be a fair stand- in for Hermann Goering? Vader as Guderian or Galland?) Followers of the Light Side would be fugitives even within the Alliance, finding it both impossible to act on their beliefs and impossible not to. Do you see how it could be done? Can you imagine the decisions the characters would have to make, the possibilities and opportunities for adventure?

Alternatively, looking at the New Scientist's review of the Phantom Menace and its comprehensive slating of the wisdom of the light side- it said essentially that without fear, anger and hate we would be unable to function as sentient beings, easily devoured by threats we do not guard against; easily curbed, snubbed and denied our fair share and say because we have not enough self-respect to resent insults; unable to hold out own in society because we allow ourselves to be manipulated; so the dark side is effectively what makes us human, and Lucas has backed the wrong horse - then the positions reverse, and 'ever onward, ever upward' becomes the motto of the dark side, Homer Simpson the emblem of the Light. Strange - but hold it there because I have already done it. I doubt whether my interlocutor would dare anything of the sort or be able to execute it with any degree of efficiency.

The actual review - funny, I thought it had started much earlier - appears to boggle his mind. Of course I make sweeping statements- and the mental figure of a hollow blanket is rather amusing- because it is not a precise kind of movie. If you want a one sentence summary, this is a kids' movie and should not have been. How many bullies do I know who are marionettes? well, they all have buttons to push, but that is very much the point. They should not be like that- they should be up to much more on their own initiative. They have no initiative. They are hired thugs, without the basic caution, or basic confidence, of hired thugs. Can you imagine how different things would have been with any of the crooks from Reservoir Dogs- or at least someone with that much attitude- in the command chair? They do not run a tight ship. They make no effort to plan ahead, they make no effort to lead or inspire. Only programmed droids would think them worth following. (Perhaps that is why they have droids in the first place.)

The virgin birth, was it supposed to be shocking? Face it, that - a virgin-birth - is exactly what it was, and the Force is not God. Shocking is not really in George Lucas' repertoire; he is far too sanitised. What he was up to I cannot quite fathom. This is, when all is said and done, an extremely conservative movie, which, despite the surface trappings, imputes that people should go where fate puts them and stay there. (You disagree? Explain Anakin's mother.) As for monarchy, perhaps a corporate state offers more freedom, more chance of a career open to talent - in addition to the fact that it, too, is intrinsically evil, or do you actually prefer being forced to bend the knee to a smug, pampered, congenitally inbred tyrant, who has powers of life and death over you - and whom, moreover, is so intrinsically, mystically 'superior' to you that it is right and just that they should have them, so much so that it is sin as well as crime to raise your hand against them, or would you have a freely elected democratic assembly, howsoever corrupt? The Jedi-backed aristocracies of the old republic have all the attributes of the worst tyrannies of the ancien regime, which we moderns rightly abhor. You cannot get it this badly wrong - running two diametrically polarised concepts into one another - and expect to be taken seriously.

Pod racing. One of the funniest moments in my role-playing career- the middle phase of it, anyway - was a car chase scene with a group of fellow student roleplayers, including two postgrad junior faculty, in a game of Dark Conspiracy, the the-aliens-are-coming game that helped destroy GDW if nothing else. We wrecked the car almost immediately - wrapped it round a policeman - and stole another one to continue after the bad guys, who were smuggling an injured alien out of town or something, I forget the details. That car ended up wrecked as well- after zigzagging through docklands, we jumped a drawbridge, came down nose first and tipped over onto the roof, took our damage points, said a collective 'ouch' and stole another car. I think we went through six cars, written off one after the other through extreme blues-brothers style driving trying to catch up with these guys- usually because we had fallen so far behind from wrecking the last one. I think we got them in the end - rammed them off a bridge. it was utterly demented, even less plausible than the pod race, but it was great fun - because the story was enough to support the departure from reality. The pod story is not new, and Lucas does not handle it well enough, to get the same kind of effect. The moral, therefore, is do not ape something unless you can do it better or more relevantly.

Pacing and tension? Secondary problems, especially for a gamer to whom the universe revealed in the movie is much more important than the cinematic experience itself. There is little enough to pace and nothing to be tense about. Lucas sacrifices tension to cartoon humour. How can there be tension in a slapstick environment? You can spot cheap gags coming a scene away- and most of them are cheap gags. Of course the good guys are going to win, but as I think you should be able to tell by now, they just are not that good. All right, the cutting between scenes at the end sort of works.

Chuckle with glee? Grow a brain. I was very disappointed by the Phantom Menace - perhaps stupidly, perhaps too much informed by my own kicking round in the Star Wars universe, I expected something far more together, much more like the Japanese movies Lucas started out aping if not like my own more tonal changes. Why should I enjoy any part of writing what was essentially the report of a death of a friend? On the evidence of this, I am not like him - am nothing like, and thank God for that. He accuses me of what would in the same circumstances be his own behaviour, a behaviour which I can only consider contemptible. Immense weight placed on another throwaway line, written in cold anger if in any emotion - but have you read the interview with Lucas in Empire - the film magazine - in which he as much as says that the fans' expectations for this movie were too high, so he decided to ignore them? Sounds remarkably like being pissed on to me.

As for Yoda being a cradle-snatcher, he was always like that. There is a strong streak of it in the kind of traditional sensei stereotype he is based on, after all - so he is still himself.

Perhaps I wrote a bit hastily, literally dashing it off in an afternoon - the saturday after seeing the movie on friday night - but on reflection, I find myself unable to disagree with my earlier conclusions - that Lucas betrayed his fan base by giving them a far substandard movie; that the characters are chronically stupid; that heroism and slapstick takes Goonesque, Pythonesque skill that Lucas could not pull off even if he tried; that the universe he portrays is deeply stupid and, worse, gamer-unfriendly; that it is impossible that the assumptions he makes about how society works would build one that looks like that; that for the sake of telling a better story myself, I would be far better off pretending this movie never happened.

In any case, I think I will close with a piece lifted from Patrick O'Brian, the best historical novelist currently writing- you can tell because all the others have acclaimed him as such, and who else are you going to believe? It may be too good for star wars fans, but I think you will get the point - it is Maturin reacting after his rather shocked friend Jack Aubrey has asked him if he really meant the judge they have just come away from playing cards with could have been cheating.

In response to Aubrey's contention that a man so highly placed could not be a cheat he says I make no accusation. Though if I had a certainty where in fact I have only a suspicion, a man's being a judge would not weigh heavily. Sure, it is weak and illiberal to speak slightingly of any considerable body of men; yet it so happens that the only judges I have known have been forward companions, and it occurs to me that not only are they subjected to the evil influence of authority but also to that of righteous indignation, which is even more deleterious. Those who judge and sentence criminals address them with an unbridled, vicious righteousness that would be excessive in an archangel and that is indecent to the highest degree in one sinner speaking to another, and he defenceless. Something of the same happens to critics, I believe.

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