Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Return Of The Jedi (Star Wars Week!!!)

We're back for Day 2 of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to yesterday's review of The Empire Strikes Back.

Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy
Premise: (from IMDB) After rescuing Han Solo from the palace of Jabba the Hutt, the Rebels attempt to destroy the Second Death Star, while Luke Skywalker tries to bring his father back to the Light Side of the Force.
About: Return of the Jedi had an extensive director list which started with Steven Spielberg, who had to decline the invitation because he was still part of the Directors Guild, one of the guilds Lucas had a bitter falling out with after Empire. His next choice was David Lynch, who ended up declining because he felt the movies were specifically George Lucas's vision. All I can say is, thank God for that. Lynch would later go on to direct "Dune," which may be one of the worst sci-fi films ever made. Unfortunately, the winner of the director’s derby wasn't much better. Richard Marquand was chosen in part because he was not a Guild member. Unfortunately, it also meant he was inexperienced, a problem that would plague production. Many of the actors became frustrated with Marquand and that forced George Lucas – if the rumors are to be believed – to take over directing duties for much of the film.
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas (story by George Lucas)

Return of the Jedi starts much like Empire, with a movie before the movie. Now nothing is going to beat that stupendous Hoth sequence, but the Jabba The Hut thread is still pretty awesome. Picking up where we left off yesterday, you'll notice a strong storytelling engine powering this storyline - Rescue Han Solo.

Now it's important to remember that just having a goal isn't enough. Your goal needs to have horsepower. The more horsepower you have, the longer the goal can be sustained. Saving Han Solo is a huge goal with a ton of horsepower, but for arguments sake, let's change the goal to see how it would've affected the story. Let's say Han Solo had already escaped by the time the film began and simply wanted to kill Jabba The Hut to rid himself of the headache. That storyline still would've had some juice to it, but notice how the absence of necessity hurts the goal. It's not imperative that he kill Jabba The Hut, and therefore the stakes aren't nearly as high. It is imperative that they save Han Solo, hence why that storytelling engine has so much horsepower.

Now after the Jabba The Hut sequence, we’re in almost the exact same territory as when they got off Hoth in Empire. But here's our first example of why the screenwriting in this film isn't as good as that one. In Empire, after a short scene where Luke tells R2-D2 that they're going to Dagobah, we jump immediately into the Empire chasing Han Solo, then intercut that with Luke looking for and eventually training with Yoda. In Return Of The Jedi, George Lucas begins a trend of inserting scenes with no storytelling engine underneath them whatsoever.

Here in Jedi, we go back to see Yoda die. Now Yoda dying is a somewhat interesting development I guess, but George doesn't really know what to do with it, so he uses it to dole out a whole bunch of exposition about Luke being Vader's son - information we already know. If you're only writing a scene to convey exposition to the audience, you are failing as a screenwriter. Exposition should always be secondary to something else going on in the scene. And that something should always be pushing the story forward. You might be able to argue that Yoda dying is pushing the story forward (I would question that since it has no bearing on the rest of the film whatsoever), and so if this were the only scene here, I might give the writers a pass.

But where Lucas really screws up is that he follows this scene with an additional scene (with Obi-Wan) giving us virtually the exact same exposition. Luke is Darth Vader's son. We get it. Now what it seems like Lucas is doing here is a major screenwriting faux pas. He feels like he has to explain why Obi-Wan told Luke that Darth Vader had killed his father back in Star Wars. Whenever you're using entire scenes to explain inconsistencies from other parts of your screenplay, you're writing a bad scene. Period. Those scenes never work. But the point is, we get two long expositional scenes in a row that total 8 minutes, and neither of them push the story forward. Bad use of exposition is one of the easiest ways to identify a bad screenwriter.

Luckily, Star Wars hasn't died yet. That won't happen for another 15 years. After this scene, we introduce a huge storytelling engine that will drive us through the rest of the movie. That's the new goal, to destroy the Second Death Star. This is actually the earliest a major goal has been introduced into a Star Wars movie - at the 50 minute mark. In the first Star Wars, we didn't know the goal (destroy the Death Star) until 20 minutes left in the movie. The Empire Strikes Back never had major goal. So this is a pretty monumental moment. It's also why, even though Lucas makes the uninspired choice of adding Ewoks, that the final hour and 20 minutes of Jedi worked so well. I don't think you're going to find a storytelling engine with more horsepower than destroying the Death Star.

But since we've discussed structure so much already, I'd like to move over to the characters, because Jedi is the first film in the Star Wars franchise where the character development is noticeably weak. Whenever you write a character into a film, the idea is to create something unresolved in that character’s life. That unresolved conflict can be something inside of him. It can also be something between him and someone else. Good writing usually has both.

In the first Star Wars film we had a lot of this going on. Luke was struggling to believe in himself. Han was selfish to a fault. Luke and Leia had an unresolved issue (a potential relationship there?) Han and Leia had unresolved issues (they hated each other). Some of the most notable unresolved conflict was between the droids. C-3PO's flaw was that he was too cautious. R2-D2's flaw was that he was too reckless. And of course their relationship was always striving to find balance. What this meant was that every scene had some sort of unresolved conflict going on in it, whether it be internal or external. The more of these conflicts you add to a story, the more drama you're going to find in each scene.

In Empire, Kasdan does a really good job of redistributing these unresolved conflicts. Luke's conflict becomes his impatience. He constantly struggles with the amount of time and effort becoming a Jedi requires. He believes he's ready now. Because Han’s flaw of being too selfish was overcome at the end of Star Wars, Kasdan shifts the unresolved conflict over to his relationship with Leia. That unresolved conflict of "is there or isn't there a relationship here?" was so strong, that they didn't even need to add internal character flaws for the two.

In Return of the Jedi, all of the excellent unresolved character conflict from the previous films is eliminated except for Luke and Darth Vader. That means whenever we're not with them, the story struggles. Lucas actually makes the critical mistake of applying a new flaw to Han’s character - jealousy. Jealousy is the least flattering character flaw there is and it almost ends up destroying one of the best characters in movie history.

We also get a neutered imitation of the Han-Leia love story from Empire. In that film, the love manifests itself with a series of ongoing arguments, all with the underlying subtext that these two love each other. In Jedi, all that subtext is gone and the characters say to each other exactly what's on their mind - always a recipe for disaster. For example, a jealous Han will ask Leia straight to her face if she likes him or Luke. Good Lord. Talk about bad screenwriting. This is another good reminder to always scrutinize your choices. If the writers had just sat down and asked themselves, "Do we really want to take away everything that's cool about this character and make him act like a jealous teenager?" there's a good chance we would've gotten a much cooler Han in Jedi.

This leads us to one of the most critical mistakes of the franchise, and the reason why Jedi is not held up as highly as Star Wars or Empire. The Ewoks. Now there are a lot of opinions as to why the Ewoks were such a bad story choice, but it can be boiled down to a single reason. The mythology of this universe doesn't make sense if a bunch of cute furry creatures can take down the most imposing force in the history of the galaxy. If a bunch of glorified puppies can defeat an army that is supposedly technologically superior to them in every way, then how dangerous was the Empire all this time?

Not only that, but the Ewoks demonstrate one of George Lucas's biggest weaknesses as a screenwriter, his inability to manage tone. The Emperor is one of the scariest and darkest villains ever put to film. Once you do that, you have to create a film that stays tonally consistent with that kind of enemy. By introducing a bunch of cuddly creatures that make C-3PO a God, you jump into Saturday morning cartoon territory. It's too sharp of a tonal shift, and it confuses the audience as to what kind of movie they're watching. It just goes to show that one bad story choice can have catastrophic effects on the rest of the screenplay. That's why it's important to hold up all of your choices to the highest scrutiny and ask if they're the right choice. I'll remind you of some important advice that I learned a long time ago. If a choice doesn't feel right for any reason - if something’s telling you, "this doesn't feel right" – don't use it. Think of something else. Because I guarantee it will never get better.

Jedi held on to just enough of what made this franchise great to still be a solid movie. But a few lousy story choices, tonal inconsistencies, and the lack of moments with a true storytelling engine are the beginning of what will be the undoing of this franchise, which I'll begin to get into tomorrow.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Avoid writing a scene if the only reason you're writing it is for exposition. Pop in your copy of Empire and watch the back to back scenes where Yoda dies and Luke talks to Obi-Wan. Notice how both scenes talk about the past and don't push the story forward. Now remember, not all dialogue scenes are exposition scenes. You can have two people talking in a scene if it's pushing the story forward. When Luke talks to his aunt and uncle at dinner in Star Wars, his uncle tells him that he's going to need him to stay on the farm, and that the droids memories will need to be erased. This information is dictating future actions (and actually adding tremendous tension - if R2-D2's memory is erased, the Rebels hopes to defeat the Empire will be lost forever), therefore pushing the story forward. Or when Luke speaks with Obi-Wan at his place on Tantooine. Sure, we get some exposition about Luke's father, but the point of the scene is to show Obi-Wan the message from Princess Leia and for him to ask Luke to join him, again, pushing the story forward. Lucas and Kasdan should've looked for more clever ways to dole out the exposition from these scenes. It admittedly would not have been easy, but nobody said screenwriting was easy.