Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Star Wars part three and a half

Contains spoilers

Well, somebody didn't obey orders, did they?  What was billed as a separate, standalone tale from the Star Wars storyverse turned out to be the full-blown missing link between parts three and four.  And no bad thing, even if we know, by implication how things turn out.  Plus there's an added structural challenge: classically act two would all be about stealing the plans of the Death Star, and the final act using them to destroy it.  But, no: that all has to happen in A New Hope.  Indeed, Gareth Edwards deserves praise for ensuring it doesn't feel like it's come to a shuddering halt, as if somebody's lost the final reel, a la Empire.  And not just for that; overall it is helmed with aplomb, helped by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna showing the am-dram of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega for what it was.

What I particularly liked was, rather than taking JJ Abrams' approach of creating a narrative doppelganger of an earlier story, Edwards captures the aesthetic of the 1970s/80s movies, which themselves took the vacuum tube-punk of 1930s Flash Gordons et al as their kicking off point.  There were particular scenes, shots, angles that felt like old friends.  That tunnel entrance on Scarif?  Think of the jungle battle at the end of the Teddy Bear Movie (retitled, I think, in some territories as Return of the Jedi).  A uber-liftshaft with challenging access issues?  Check.  Even an R2 unit skating across the screen from middle distance right to foreground left - I'm not going to search through the movies, but that wasn't accidental.

And, thankfully, no sodding cantina with a jazz band who are all alien but essentially bipedal and vaguely humanoid in scale and proportion, even if they are encumbered with what are obviously rubber heads.  Plus, another layer of dirt on those first three parts isn't a bad idea; bury them deep, deeper, until no living soul remembers their names.  All in all, quite a triumph.

However, I do have a sense of unease about the ending.  About Scarif.

Not the obvious one: that what is essentially a big filing cabinet, an interstellar Hayes repository, appears guarded by the SAS.  No, my concern runs much deeper.  It is a metaphysical - possibly ontological - concern, no less.  About the nature of data.

You see, the plans of the Death Star are a Maguffin; the object of the hunt, the thing people are prepared to sacrifice themselves for.  For this to work it has to be a single physical object.  It makes no sense otherwise.  But the Star Wars storyverse admits of digital data: Director Orson is ordered to check the records and content of messages sent by Galen Erso; the plans themselves are broadcast to the ships.  This is digital data and the great thing about digital data is that it is infinitely replicable and, in theory, remotely accessible.

You want a digital file?  Don't leap into your spaceships (without even grabbing a water bottle - seriously; fail to prepare, prepare to fail); no, get a hacker on the case.  But that wouldn't have made for a big battle scene at the end, would it?

Plus - let's stop a moment and consider this - we are to believe that the Death Star has one set of plans?  You can find the plans for the remodelling and extension of our house, digitally and physically, in the filing cabinet next to where I'm typing, and in the offices of the local Council (planning and building control), our architects, the builders (both the ones we used and unsuccessful bidders), the company that designed our underfloor heating, plus probably a few other contractors I can't think of at the moment.  And that's just a £180k domestic building project, not a space-going, planet-sized, planet-destroying vessel.

It's a small story point, but I'd be prepared to believe that the plan showing the flaw in the Death Star's structure was too valuable to be trusted to a digital plan and was held as a single, encrypted physical version, impossible to reproduce or transmit.  Even show us a failed attempt to access them remotely.  Then all the palaver to get them makes sense.  Otherwise I'm constantly being pulled out of the story, my mind constantly asking 'Really?'.

This is where the worlds of sci-fi ancient and modern, Flash Gordon and the X-Men clash unsuccessfully.  I've never had a sense of a film being so easy to parody, the hurdles that a story of stealing digital data creates for itself coming down essentially to issues of buffering and broadband speeds and getting up on the roof to align your aerial.  Scrolling yellow text?  I wonder if the next movie will have it as a never-completing blue bar?

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