Sky Captain and Star Wars
Relax, I’m not going to write a review. But I happened to see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow last weekend, and it got a lot of thoughts percolating. A lot of them came together, ironically enough, while listening to some people who are in a dither over the movie that Sky Captain most reminds me of, Star Wars.
Before we get to that, let me make a couple of points along the way. First off, as far as I’m concerned, the first one is called Star Wars, and it’s the first one. I’m not going to call it Episode IV or A New Hope or anything else. Second, I’m not going to ever use the words “mythology” or “canon” in reference to any of the Star Wars industry. It’s a movie, not Holy Scripture. No, I’m not being snobby. When George Lucas made Star Wars, it was obvious his intent was to capture the flavor of the old Republic serials. The fact is, if you went to the movies on a Saturday morning in 1941 and saw, say, Tom Tyler in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, nobody ever referred to the individual episodes by their titles. Episode 6 is never called “Lens of Death,” except by the same kind of annoying OCD types who worry about how the cartoons fit together with the comic books. Feh.
Getting back to the topic at hand, Sky Captain is very much like Star Wars; where Star Wars was a love letter to Flash Gordon, Captain Blood and Jack Kirby’s entire career, Sky Captain harkens back to the older Buck Rogers, Blackhawk, the Fleischer Superman cartoons, and a big serving of Steranko’s “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” with passing references to King Kong and the Land That Time Forgot.
Both films were primarily intended to entertain. They’re fun, exciting romps. You know all that noise Lucas made about having plotted out the whole epic before they ever started filming the first movie? Hogwash. It’s obvious from the films that came later that he’s making it up as he goes along. He never intended for Star Wars to become this lumbering beast. Princess Leia is a classic fairytale princess in distress. That’s what she was intended to be, and that’s what she was. Then the Star Wars “universe” began to be constructed by obsessive fans and avaricious marketing weasels. Once that happened, and Lucas was charged with the care and feeding of this licensing machine, he started having second thoughts; a princess means a monarchy, and monarchies are bad. Being stuck with the fairytale princess and wanting to be “responsible” in the material he’s cranking out, Lucas was forced to come up with a concept that baffles the mind and offends the logic: a democratically-elected princess who rules an entire planet at the age of 14. Nonsense. If Lucas had plotted out the entire story before he made Star Wars, Leia wouldn’t be a princess, C-3PO would have recognized Uncle Owen (or at least the planet he was built on), and George Lucas would not be constantly putting out new “Special Editions” with corrected footage to plug the logic holes he keeps making. He shoulda quit while he was ahead.
Over at CBR, one of the regulars, Noah Johnson, recently explained his theory about the more recent Star Wars films. With his permission, I quote (note, some sensitive souls may take issue with his use of language; take it up with him):
No, you want to know why Star Wars is going to hell? Because we finally pushed Lucas too far, that’s why. Think about it. You’re George Lucas; you’re this crazy kid who wants to make movies. So you do a couple, and they do okay. AMERICAN GRAFFITI makes a mint, which buys you the credibility to go ahead with this wacky idea like if Kurosawa shot a Flash Gordon serial about WWII, and hey, it actually comes off.
And then your life is over. Your life as George Lucas, filmmaker, has ended. Your job title is now Official Bitch of Star Wars. You think Doyle was sick of Holmes? You think Sting is sick of “Roxanne”? Nothing. They are NOTHING compared to how sick of Star Wars Lucas was by the mid-90s. No matter what he does, no matter where he goes for two damn decades, there’s some malodorous fanboy in his face going “George, whenya gonna do the first trilogy, George? Huh George? Is it gonna be cool, George? Will it have Han Solo? Will it, George? Han’s my favorite!”
Finally, one storm-ripped night a decade ago, watching Skywalker Ranch security drag off a 350-pound man in a T-shirt reading BOBA FETT LIVES, Lucas made his mind up. “You little bastards want the first trilogy? You little soul-sucking, life-destroying geek parasites want the first fucking trilogy? I’ll give you the first trilogy. Oh yes, I’ll give it to you.”
Lucas’s mission in life is now to ruin Star Wars for all its fans, because he hates it and he hates us. Thus, first we get the Special Edition, in which tiny changes make the world unbelievable, the pacing and structure weak, and all the characters colossal pussies. Then Episode I is released, and Operation I Hate You All hits high gear.
It’s not just that Episode I is bad, though good lord it’s bad. It is quite deliberately designed to infect the head and make it impossible to enjoy the original movies any more. Deliberate, massive continuity gaffes keyed to powerful scenes in Episode IV sap the emotional intensity of watching it again. The legendary Jedi, whose myth is so key to the power of the original trilogy, are revealed as frauds, their mystical connection to the universe reduced to a few point-and-click superpowers, and those don’t even work right half the time. The vast, sweeping universe introduced in STAR WARS is revealed to be about the size of your average suburb.
Episode II is designed primarily to destroy Lucas’s most memorable creation: Darth Vader. Nobody anywhere disputes that Vader is one of the finest cinematic villains in the history of the medium. His first entrance still stands as a seminal moment in American film. But now we learn that Darth Vader is really a smarmy, whiny little jerkoff with a rattail, who is possibly the worst lover since the invention of sex. Now when we summon to mind Vader’s terrifying visage, we hear in the back of our minds Anakin whine “I want to know if you’re suffering as much as I am” and oh god, we are, we are.
Expect Lucas’s dramatic and public suicide right before the release of STAR WARS EPISODE III: FROM HELL’S HEART I STAB AT THEE, in which we’ll learn that Yoda is a child molester, Luke is actually a random orphan passed off to Anakin as his son, and Han Solo spent his early adolescence being rented out to sailors by his pimp, Chewbacca.
Because Lucas hates them, and he hates us. And he has the power to act on that hate on a scale we can only dream of.
Which brings me to Sky Captain. I fervently hope and pray that the creators of this film have heeded the lesson of Star Wars. They don’t need to go back and tell us the origins of all these things, they don’t have to make a sequel that takes us through the next decade. If they have a brain in their heads, they will leave well enough alone. It’s a fun movie; it doesn’t need to become a religion. Make a sequel if you must. Heck, make two. But whatever you do, don’t ever start referring to your wacky little alternate history as a “mythology.” That way lies madness.
So why do I care about this? Because I like the movie. Like Star Wars before it, this is a movie that intellectuals and artistic poseurs are going to flat-out hate. Those guys live for deconstruction. They want a movie they can dissect, full of subtext and hidden meanings. It also helps if the movie is deliberately obtuse, ironic, fatalistic, and maybe a little preachy. It should stop dead so a character can lecture on environmental issues or the oppression of women or the Evils of Capitalism. It should also contain a few snide cracks at the people too stupid to get it, i.e. the ordinary normal person. Ideally, it should have some shock value, or “challenge the societal conventions,” in other words be deliberately offensive so as to provide an excuse for the contempt heaped upon those yokels who are offended by the stuff that was added specifically to offend them. (Yeah, that’s a rigged game; so what? Welcome to pseudo-intellectual posturing 101.)
Sky Captain will disappoint those people. But anyone with a bit of joy, fun, wide-eyed wonder and optimism left will enjoy this movie. It has no sermon to deliver, no message to impart. Its goal is simply to entertain you for a while, and at that it succeeds admirably, if you’re the type of person who can be entertained by giant robots, laser guns, dinosaurs, a plucky reporter, or the occasional amphibious airplane. There’s nothing to deconstruct here. The late Lawrence Olivier appears here because it’s a nifty idea, not because somebody’s got some point to make. What I like about it is, there isn’t one single moment where the filmmakers smirk and wink and remind you how silly and childish all this is. They don’t apologize for the outlandish notions they toss out like popcorn. Rather, they embrace the nutty ideas and celebrate them, hauling ideas out and shouting “isn’t this COOL?” and making you want to shout a big “yes” in response. It is cool. It’s optimistic and fun, and I hope somebody has the good sense to not suck all that fun out for the sake of turning it into a safe and politically-fashionable cog in the marketing machinery.
If anybody starts talking to you about the Sky Captain Mythology, do me (and yourself) a favor and punch them in the head. A lot. Thanks.