Star Wars as a Monster Movie

You’ve probably read enough screeds about George Lucas destroying childhoods through his CGI madness and endless need to tinker with perfection. Let’s have a chat about Star Wars that’s not, or at least mostly not, fueled by nerd rage. In fact, lets talk about Star Wars as a monster movie.

Star Wars as a monster movie?

Indeed, there were monsters, at least long ago in a galaxy far, far away or, as I like to call it, 1977. In fact, for most young fans who saw New Hope in the theatre the two most unforgettable scenes are these:

  1. The opening moments when the gargantuan triangle of death that we don’t know to call a Star Destroyer yet has sent a boarding party aboard the smaller ship that must be the good guys. After the chaos of a blaster exchange, the smoke swirls and a figure in black leather come out of the fog of battle. What is that? Is that a robot, a really scary robot? Why is it making that sound, that repetitive and ominous breathing? Holy Shit.
  2. When Ben, Luke and the droids that are not the ones you are looking for walk into the Cantina in Mos Eisley, that “hive of scum and villainy.” It’s also a hive of monsters…creature creations like we’d never seen before. Things that look like demons, werewolves, walking fish and Hammerhead…remember Hammerhead! Indeed, when I saw Guillermo Del Torro’s  “Troll Market” in Hellboy II I knew, brilliant as it was, it was really just an homage to what I had seen in that Cantina back in the Carter years.

And it doesn’t stop with our first sighting of Vader or the wondrous creatures of the cantina. How about the freaking Sand People?! Are you kidding me? They were and are the stuff of nightmares. What did those bandages cover? What did they even want… are they plunderers or something more terrible. They seemed like sandstorm ferocity embodied, wielding their terrible weapons.

Of course, that’s not all that makes its home in the desert planet’s wastes. When Luke and C-3P0 go looking for a missing R-2D2 Luke worries that they may have come upon “Sand People…or worse.”

Worse?

What the hell could possibly be worse than these vaguely human terrors? In fact, it seems like there’s plenty to worry about in the dunes.  I was struck as a kid, and now, with the enduring creepiness of Tatooine, how it functioned as a nightmarescape. When we first see Obi Wan Kenobi, he is scaring away the Sand People, wrapped in a cloak and howling like some Sumerian sandstorm demon. We’re briefly afraid we’ve met what’s worse.

The monster mash in space doesn’t end there. As you know, even the Death Star has a serpentine monster living in its trash compacter. You’d think the Empire could manage to keep monsters out of its garbage disposal system. But, given that faulty ductwork leads to their ultimate weapon’s destruction, maybe not.

The rest of the original trilogy doesn’t fail to disappoint on the monstrous front. Luke has to fight off a Wampa on Hoth (indeed the Blu-Ray release apparently includes a long-awaited, detailed exposition of the story of these ice monsters). The Millennium Falcon finds itself, Jonah-like, in the belly of a beast inside an asteroid. In Return of the Jedi, Jabba’s Palace is a regular medieval bestiary and includes the terrifying Rancor living in the subterranean dungeons.

Indeed, I think some of the darker undertones of the original trilogy are part of the reason for its enduring success. These were kid’s movies that didn’t feel like kid’s movies, films that gave us a universe that was truly Other. Even leaving aside the darkness that surrounded Vader and the Emperor, the almost rumor-like descriptions of the Sith that we had to pick up here and there, the Star Wars universe was a universe full of monsters.

How did the prequels do with the monsters (ok, nerd rage alert)? Pretty lousy actually. CGI, and the sheer number of bizarre characters thrown at us, made these creatures significantly less interesting. Every frame had some odd creature to look at in a universe that felt too clean, too well put together rather than the kind of lived-in feeling that the Original series exuded.

The prequels spoiled its monsters in an even more significant way—getting rid of them or explaining them till we didn’t care anymore. Darth Maul? One of the best characters produced in this franchise, rich with sinister mystery, a terrifying explosive weapon of Sith evil. So, of course, he dies back in 1997 in a struggle with Liam Neeson.

Even worse is the effort to explain Darth Vader. Part of the my purposefully vague definition of the monster in Monsters in America has to do with the fact that I believe monsters are creatures of mystery, full of a thousand meanings and not just one. The worst thing you can do to a monster is to try to define it. Name the demon and it fades into ether.

This is exactly what happened to Darth Vader in the prequels. In New Hope, the mystery that swirled around him like his great black cape was central to his chilling appeal.  We learned more of his secret history in Empire and Jedi but the central truth of his existence, his turn to the dark side, remained appropriately in near-darkness, where secrets can fester and every shadow becomes a new nightmare.

Then in Phantom, Clones and Revenge, we learn that he was once an annoying brat who had a special destiny because of a high midichlorian count. Later, he has an affair with Natalie Portman. His mom gets killed by those scary sandpeople. All of this leads ineluctably to his becoming a Dark Lord of Evil.

Mystery solved and monster fully tamed. And a tamed monster? Who cares.

Still, rewatch the original trilogy this week and enjoy the monsters, remember the essential weirdness of those first three films. Remember how it changed your world and made 1977 a way cooler place to live. And may the Force be with you. Always.

What I’m Watching: In a few days, the Saga on Blu-Ray of course. You mean, you didn’t think Lucas needed more money? And to show that I’m ok with dividing my loyalties, did you know that you can watch the entire series of Star Trek:TNG on Netflix? (they also have Enterprise, Voyager and Shatner Classic). I have to make a decision every day not to sit down and watch 10 episodes in a row and it’s hard. Not that I don’t think Solo could take Riker, indeed would shoot first.

What I’m listening to: Revisiting some early Nirvana on both ”Bleach” and the great boxed set  “With the Lights Out” (which contains Kurt doing a version of “They Hung Him on a Cross” by Leadbelly). Also, in honor of 1977, broke out my old vinyl “The Story of Star Wars”, an audio adaptation of New Hope with the much of the original soundtrack and audio included, plus some often strange narration. You can still find this gem on Ebay and your local indie record shop.

What I’m reading: Re-reading some Lovecraft for an article I’m working on. More on that later. Planning to start into some Theodore Roszak fiction soon.

I’ll be back the first of next week for Part II of the feminism and horror discussion and also responding to your thoughts and comments about the end of True Blood and the release of Star Wars on Blu-Ray.

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