Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Star Wars got Lost

Last evening was the second-last episode of the Lost series, which began in the autumn of 2004.

A few thoughts: the programme is one of the most violent ever presented, or at least, that I have seen recently. Last night’s show, for example, featured a woman dying after having her throat cut, right before a second character is shot to death. Last week’s segment revealed more about the mysterious Jacob, and his unnamed twin brother, who were born from a shipwreck survivor who washed up on the island, was rescued by a woman already living there, who in turn murders the new mother by bashing her head in with a rock. This woman then raises the twins as her own.

I was reminded of the Norse pagan creation story, of the chief goddess giving birth to the Nordic race by having twins, one of whom is fair-haired, the other swarthy. In Lost, Jacob is shown to be fair in appearance, while his twin, if not swarthy, is much darker complected. It seems that the unnamed twin was rendered into the “smoke monster” that has harassed and murdered the plane-wrecked survivors, and many others, throughout the course of the series, when Jacob pushed him into the cave from which emanated a bright light of unknown origin. After which, the light was extinguished and the smoke monster came flying out of the cave.

The significance of this, I’m not certain. However, the producers and cast of Lost recently held a party to mark the end of the series. They were sent a revealing note by George Lucas, creator and director of the Star Wars “saga”.

It read as follows: “Congratulations on pulling off an amazing show. Don't tell anyone ... but when Star Wars first came out, I didn't know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you've planned the whole thing out in advance. Throw in some father issues and references to other stories — let's call them homages — and you've got a series.” This is what many people, including me, suspected all along about Star Wars.

The Star Wars “saga” ultimately failed, becasue there was, in fact, no story to tell. The Star Wars universe was not a place, but a device, which allowed George Lucas to meld together several genres — the western, the war movie, the medieval romance, the pirate flick, and the samurai film — to create an exciting adventure with the first installment in 1977. Though set in the distant past, the far-away galaxy possessed super-futuristic hardware, inspired in turn by Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1940s. This allowed the characters to seamlessly hop between genres. Thus, Luke Skywalker and company could engage in a gun (“laser”) battle in keeping with the old western; later, Skywalker could take on Darth Vader with a sword made out of light, as befits a medieval epic; afterward, our heroes could engage the forces of the evil galactic empire in World War II-style space dogfights. Courtesy faster-than-light travel, the characters could speed to any planet as befitting the genre: either a “desert” planet, or a “forest” planet, or an artificial planetoid to stand in for the villain’s castle. It was this melding of genres which made the original Star Wars so exciting, even if, as one critic put it at the time, it was really “bubble-gum for the mind.”

Be that as it may, it was certainly good-tasting bubble-gum — and relatively long-lasting, too. The premise had enough promise for two separate movies, but that’s it. The first sequel, the Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wisely handed over filmmaking duties to hired guns. Even here, however, the saga necessarily fell back onto melodrama — “I’m your father, Luke.” The third film in the original series had all the action, without the spirit. The three prequels, released around the turn of the century, and detailing the transformation of Luke Skywalker’s father into Darth Vader, the chief villain of the series, were at times just mediocre, and often, abysmal. Even a children’s programme joked about how the Phantom Menace was “half-baked.” One reviewer called it “the Phantom movie,” which is precisely what it was. Perhaps a more skilled screenwriter could have penned something more exciting and interesting. It is more so that Lucas attempted to stretch a device — sci-fi hardware subsuming multiple themes and genres — into a saga, and it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, work.


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  2. Good points, all.

    Lost was one of the few programs I found myself enjoying these last few years. Well, for the most part. I say "enjoying", and I DID enjoy the curiosity. A rare treat these days on the tube.

    It might not be the most intriguing serious of all time, but was certainly one of the strangest, and most hyped. It had some moments; the right cocktail of mystery and the occasional "hmm--didn't see THAT one coming" type moments to allow me to make space for the next week.

    But one thing about Lost, beyond the crestfallen disappointment that more than a few of us must've felt at the corny "Dorothy ends back up in the House with everyone gathered 'round saying hello and all is OK now" type ending, is this sense that the producers had some interesting notions they blended together--Lo Mein like--along with some real creativity here and there, but ended up with a hole in the wall at the end. The hole, that is, being that while the rest of the script structure finally got some sheathing and structure, the final wall installment was merely papered over rather than fully filled in with the requisite explanatory plastering I'd hoped. But that's just me.

  3. The whole thing was surrealistic--true--and there's nothing wrong with that initially if the strategy is to keep the viewer on notice for next week. However, at some point you want an explanation (Gods? Demons? Bad meds? Too long a stay at the loony bin?) for why dark-haired boys end up smoke monsters, sacred lights need tending, and what forces beyond really really odd magnetic anomalies make people live eternally. As you say, the interplay of a host of legends comes in, as does the constant name-dropping with surnames like Faraday, Locke, et al, and the co-mingling of Christian, Islamic, Wiccan, secular, science, mysticisms, and of course the archetypes ranging from rocker and redneck to doctors with attitudes. Some had guessed, mostly correct, I think, that this was Hell. Or more precisely a Purgatory moment for the literal Lost souls. Some made it to the final meeting. Others did not. But Ben Linus did. Redemption at last.

    Too bad the series itself could not be redeemed for the producers's creative juices running low at the end and leaving us with the remaining head-scratchers on mysterious twins most unlike (genetically) their birth mother, but in any event, destined for conflict like Romulus and Remus over a parcel of land on which guardianship is assigned.

    As to Star Wars I generally agree with your assessment here also. Lucus' real universe--or at least galactic empire--never rested on characterization or in some cases even laughable "love" tales (if we can call these dry, canned phrases love play) betwixt the protagonists, but the swordplay, the fights, and the true Power of the Force being the advances in digitized graphics.

    Mark Steyn has an interesting and at times funny take on this you might enjoy as well:

    The movie being reviewed is Revenge of the Sith, but it's exactly as Steyn notices that Lucas has this three-decade build-up that falls flatter than old beer, that he ties in the real problem here with Lucas' stuff: Outside of things that go boom, there's just not much there. It is, at most, a comic book genre quality of personality depth, with Happy Meal action-figure interplay, and lots of flash that goes directly to the big screen without ever going through a Spiderman stage first.

    As a side note, Steyn mentions that the whole "Only a Sith deals in absolutes" snipe from Kenobi during the climactic duel with the newly christened Uber-Sith Vader couldn't even make muster for half-cocked political commentary, as the build-up of Good Vs. Evil and Dark vs. Light forces at play erased this insertion as being anything serious about commentary on the Bush years. I thought that was interesting too. Such cheapjack philosophizing garnered approving nods out of the Cannes Film Festival--at most.