Star Wars Isn’t Penny Farthing Cinema

Damn hipsters. They may still have their 21st century accoutrements but they’ve developed a strange fetish for retro tech like old-fashioned typewriters or turntable record players and vinyl records. You know what I remember about record players? Needles ripping a nice big scratch on your record so your favorite tunes forever sound like a hiccup, warping, and having to turn it over sometimes mid-song to hear the rest of the album. There’s a reason why digital arrived. It’s better. Nothing against old-fashioned books—I still have dead tree copies—but in terms of fitting 20 books onto my iPad as opposed to having to find room for 20 actual books somewhere in my actual living space, it’s no contest.

Unfortunately this kind of retro fetishism has long since afflicted Star Wars fandom. It has produced the ridiculous “look ma, no CGI” meme that even Rian Johnson, who is supposed to direct Episode VIII, perpetuated today by promising “more practical effects and less CGI.” Gee, Johnson was doing so well until now. As noted in my last post, I’m really sick of this nonsense, which likely has more to do with PR than reality. Unless Johnson wants this movie to cost $500 million and they’re starting on visual effects right now. Or the entire film takes place in an Indianapolis Pizza Hut. I’m surprised nobody has yet promised that every Star Wars film from now on will be shot in black and white, have no sound, and will only be shown in nickelodeons.

Practical effects were used on all of the Star Wars movies. I think one of the prequels had the most of any Star Wars film to date. But they were used when it was more well, practical, to use them and digital effects were used when it made more sense instead. The problem is because digital effects were rapidly developing in the ‘90s, a lot of attention was put on how the prequels were pushing the boundaries of digital effects. Fuddy duddy fanboys looking for yet more reasons to explain their deep-seated psychological problems with those films just scapegoated those effects. It seemed to affirm something in their minds that Lucas had left his old cookie recipe behind. Besides that, there has been for the past 20 years a kind of geek/nerd/fanboy who preferred practical effects, like there’s more integrity in doing things that way. Many of these people are just as familiar with model builders and puppet-makers as they are with directors, screenwriters, or actors. It’s easier to view them as craftspeople. Guys who do digital effects, in their minds, are just douchebags with laptops. There was a lot of praise for Peter Jackson using practical sets and stuff for his LOTR trilogy but some fans turned on him with the Hobbit films, in part blaming his use of CGI.

The paradox is that a lot of those same people cheerfully went off to see the Marvel pantheon, the Transformers flicks, and last year’s “Pacific Rim,” movies that all used lots of digital effects. Nobody whined that they should’ve found a real talking raccoon for “Guardians of the Galaxy” or that they should’ve painted Mark Ruffalo all green to be the Hulk.

Here’s the way I see it. Star Wars was always about pushing the boundaries of cinema, regardless of the techniques used. Lucas was never afraid of using techniques that were new and revolutionary. But those days seem to be over and Star Wars will no longer be on the cutting edge of cinema because Disney’s hires want to remain firmly in the last century because of a fan base that’s stuck in the last century.

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