Monday, December 14, 2015

Star Wars and Fanservice

IT'S THIS WEEK, YOU GUYS! Yes, this Friday (even earlier for some of you lucky ducklings!) we're finally going to be watching a new installment of the Star Wars saga. I couldn't be more excited, even while trying to temper that with the knowledge that, even if it's good, it likely won't be as monumental or life-changing as the original films.

But God, let's hope it is at least good. There's no need to rehash the drama about the prequels, though I will say that they are in some respects both underrated and overrated, aside from Episode II which is borderline unwatchable. We've gotten some hints as to whether The Force Awakens is going to join them as critical anathema, or whether it'll be seen as a resurgence for the series. Several acclaimed filmmakers, from Kevin Smith to Steven Spielberg, have claimed that Episode VII is powerful, emotional and easily worthy of standing among the original trilogy.

But of course, The Phantom Menace got similar praise. Smith is known for heaping accolades on just about everything (which is a fine attitude, but not useful for gauging quality), and Spielberg is close friends with George Lucas -- he's not about to criticize something of this magnitude.

So let's talk a little bit about Lucas. He recently saw the movie, and from most news reports, enjoyed it. However, one line sounded particularly worrisome to fans:

“I think the fans are going to love it,” he said. “It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.”
To an outsider, it sounds like a boring, polite compliment from a mostly-uninterested old man. To those in the know, though, it brings up old memories of a director with a complicated relationship to the fans he created. The subtext is, "I'm an artist. I make films for the artistry, for the story, not to please fans. This film is a hackjob."

On Fanservice 

I'm going to use the term fanservice throughout the article, so it's helpful to define what I'm talking about. In general, fanservice is a piece of an artistic work that isn't there to serve the story or characters, but instead to make fans already familiar with the artist or series squeal with glee. It's often invoked in terms of anime, where it's defined as something like a panty shot or jiggling boobies. Fanservice doesn't have to be strictly sexual, but it is always gratuitous.

Are there moments like this in The Force Awakens? Surely. Here's an easy one: the second trailer ends with a shot of Han and Chewie on the Falcon.

To longtime fans, this was a moment to cheer. I got the shivers. To those who have never seen the film, though? This shot added absolutely nothing to the trailer. It was a half-second shot of an old man and a weird dog creature on a nondescript background.

You can find a worse example in Star Trek: Into Darkness, when "John Harrison," the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, reveals himself to be Khan. Star Trek fans immediately recognize the significance of this. The characters, however, have absolutely no idea why this would matter. He might as well have said "You thought my name was FooBoo. But actually, it's BooFoo!"

This is the definition of fanservice. Something that fails to add, or actively detracts, from the plot, and is meant to make followers of the universe grin.

The Problem

Fanservice is not necessarily a bad thing if used in moderation. Having Bones mutter "Dammit, Jim," in the new Star Trek movie is hardly a sin. But we start to recognize a problem when a film gets so burdened by the past that it's incapable of telling a new story. This was the defining failure of Star Trek: Into Darkness. The director of that film? J.J. Abrams. Who, incidentally, is also directing The Force Awakens.

Hmm.

So perhaps there is reason to be worried. Maybe Lucas correctly identified a film in need of a voice, too afraid to strike out on its own. However! It's hard to fully buy into this narrative for a few reasons (beyond simply hoping that Lucas is wrong). The first is that Abrams and Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy have gone out of their way to say that Episode VII strives very hard to tread new ground and tell new stories. The original trilogy characters, it seems, are cameos, handing off the universe to new characters. The fact that the trailers and merchandising have featured Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as opposed to Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford supports this.

But a bigger issue is that George Lucas is hardly blameless when it comes to valuing fanservice over story, regardless of his words. To put it another way -- he's one to talk.

Nostalgia, Moichendising and Winking

Let's be honest, here. Star Wars, especially the original film, is hardly a bastion of original storytelling. It's well-made, imaginative in many ways and a breathtaking accomplishment of visual effects, but it's basically just the hero's journey, and it's not even particularly camouflaged. Lucas conceived of the film in reverence to the old Flash Gordon serials of his youth. It was designed specifically for the fans of that genre.

And it didn't change as Star Wars grew up. Lucas made the wise decision to trade much of his film profits for the merchandising rights, and as the series progressed, the need to sell toys drove much of the writing (too many, Ewok-haters might say). I don't necessarily want to throw Lucas under the bus for this; he was responsible for a massive corporation at this point, and those gears require a fair amount of grease to keep turning. But all of the Ewoks and Gungans do make me raise an eyebrow at his insistence that Episode VII is some sort of banal fan tribute, whereas his films -- especially the prequels -- were high art with nary a thought about the fanatics. Do you really think the reaction to Boba Fett, who was originally just a henchman, didn't drive Lucas's decision to make him a crucial character in the prequels? Do you think fan squealing had nothing to do with the absurd Yoda lightsaber battle in Attack of the Clones?

We'll Know Soon!

Can we draw any real conclusions from Lucas's reaction? Probably not. He's not an idiot--he knows his words are being parsed by fans and media alike. But he's also not unbiased. He's struggled to deal with the monster franchise he created, and he's surely a little bitter about how he exited. His refrain has always been that the prequels were unappreciated because they lacked fanservice, though as noted above, it's hard to buy that. 

My prediction? His "the fans will like it" line refers more to the continuation of the central Skywalker storyline. Several sources, including the fantastic Secret History of Star Wars, imply that Lucas had several ideas for characters and plots that had nothing to do with Luke or Anakin. In addition, the scuttlebutt about the newest movies suggests that Lucas's treatments dealt with much younger characters, which would indeed have provoked a negative reaction from fandom. Perhaps dealing with young adults like Finn and Rey, just like the original trilogy did, is the form of 'fanservice' Lucas disagreed with.

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