Friday, January 20, 2012

Star (The Deleted Scenes) Wars: Episode III: Redeeming the Jedi

Perhaps the only interview given this week that proved to be more explosive than that of Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife was that given by George Lucas on the media circuit/circus as he promoted Red Tails (a film about the Tuskeegee Airmen that he has been touting for over a decade). In an interview with the New York Times, he reportedly said that there would be no new Star Wars films; in the past, this was a matter of practicality (his age, the time it takes to make a film, etc.), then  become a strong denial of ever promising more than six films. Now, apparently, it’s because of the fans: "Why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?" he said.

Lucas insists that the prequels that fans loathe were the films he wanted to make and his exact vision, and he certainly has that right. However, watching the classic Star Wars trilogy deleted scenes is a powerful reminder of the collaborative process that Star Wars once was, and how that process had changed by the time of the Lucasfilm Empire and the prequels. Lucas’ original trilogy may not have been the perfect vision he sought, but their popularity didn’t rise on account of the visuals alone or his sole stewardship – it rested on the characters and story. The series was clearly straying from those factors by the time of Return of the Jedi; the film was loved universally and made more money than Empire, and yes, it did bring things to a close that was in many ways (retroactively) logical, but it was not entirely satisfying. The idea of bigger and better (Creatures! Spaceships! Death Star! Explosions!) merged with cute and cuddly (Ewoks…why did it have to be Ewoks?) -- and a feel-good ending where the greatest evildoer (short of Adolph Hitler) is redeemed after half a lifetime of genocide,  galactic tyranny and spousal abuse -- led to severe criticisms of the finale.

The release of the Return of the Jedi deleted scenes on Blu-Ray shows just how vital the creative collaboration process of Star Wars and Empire was to the series as a whole, and serves as an indication of how “my way” is not always the best way. Lucas spoke often about being free from Hollywood and the nightmares he dealt with from studios and production units on films like THX-1138 and the original Star Wars film, and, unlike Gene Roddenberry, Lucas often gave credit where credit was due to his production staff (many of whom went on to write, produce and direct their own successful projects, even today). Clearly, however, as scarred as the production left him, the diamond of art emerged from the coal of the conflict. The best account of this process that anyone can recommend is Michael Kaminsky’s The Secret History of Star Wars, a nearly 500 page tome that, while scholarly, never lapses in entertainment, meticulous research, or interest. The book is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of the various script drafts, production issues, story conferences, and more, that lead to the shaping of the Star Wars saga over 30-odd years; the chapter on "Jedi" (detailed to a lesser degree in the Annotated Star Wars Screenplays) is mind-blowing for its specific revelation of how the storyline was warping into Shakespearean Tragedy territory and into three more films—and how certain life events and story decisions curtailed these plans and brought the series to a screeching halt -- and gave the world the film as we know it today.

The first deleted scene on the “Tatooine” menu, “Vader’s Arrival and Reaching Out to Luke,” actually opens the film, with Vader meditating in his Star Destroyer after speaking with commander Jerjerrod (never named in the film, but important to our understanding of the film’s evolution, as we’ll see) about the Emperor’s arrival. Vader calls out to Luke, his son, to join him (an echo from their duel in Empire), then the screen flashes to Luke inside a cave on Tatooine as he finishes the construction of his new lightsaber (something he taught himself to do with help from a journal of Obi Wan’s, or so the novelization tells us). Luke then places the saber into R2-D2’s dome as C-3PO waits outside. Luke senses Vader; he seems to hear him. Luke presses on with his task, then the story picks up with the droids on their way to Jabba’s palace.

This scene turned fans rabid when it was previewed at the San Diego Comcon last year, and it’s easy to see why: it’s iconic. We SEE where Luke’s saber comes from; we SEE just how complete his new powers are. We see the telepathic link to Vader, which provides more of a hint of where their story is going (and certainly feeds into the post-Jedi Expanded Universe fiction and the prequels, such as Shadows of the Empire, where Vader is clearly meaning what he says about working with Luke against the Emperor; or the revelations of the Sith in Revenge of the Sith, when we see how the Sith are willing to betray each other for power. I’m still not convinced that Vader’s link to Luke was originally intended, as the footage seems to be recycled from Empire, but the scene with Luke and the droids is genuine and complete with effects and music.

“Tatooine Sandstorm”: There have been pictures, action figures, and a script for this scene, but to my knowledge, it’s never been screened in its entirety until now. It was cut because it slows the action, but…so what? After blowing up Jabba’s sail barge, we all could use a little beachfront R&R, and it’s emotionally satisfying because we see the gang all back together, we see Han make his peace with Lando and accept his place with the rebellion, and we see everyone develop a new respect for Luke. Besides, it’s just really cool to see real-life X-wing fighters next to actors, wind machines, and some pre-Dune sandgear. The scene is an emotional release and important for characterization. When scenes like that are cut for action, something’s wrong.

Once we’re off the “Tatooine Menu,” we move on to “Endor” with the “Rebel Raid on the Bunker.” There are multi-camera shots of Han, Leia, and their crack team of commandos invading the Imperial bunker, and then taking out an entire battalion of Stormtroopers inside the fortress’ bowels AT CLOSE RANGE. That’s right—every rebel makes his/her shot, while the Stormtroopers are shown to be complete goofs who would make even Greedo (aka "Who Fired First?" scream. Not only can they not hit the broad side of a barn, but they can’t hit stationary targets that have no cover at close range. Viewed without sound, we can almost imagine this scene as inspiration for Dark Forces and the other 1990’s Star Wars shoot-em-up games, as trooper after trooper goes down into a crumpled pile on the floor, like a bag of bones on a polished dance floor. Laughable but memorable. The sequence that follows, an extension of the segment where the group is captured inside the bunker, is hilarious for Harrison Ford’s reply after being called “Rebel scum.”

Moving onto the “Death Star II Space Battle” menu, we get “Jerjerrod’s Conflict,” in which the good Moff Jerjerrod (Jedi’s equivalent of Grand Moff Tarkin) actually hesitates when Herr Palpatine gives the order to aim the Death Star’s laser at his own people on Endor. That’s right, he’s a Moff with a conscience! Of course, he does what he’s asked—with Palpatine as a boss and a really good pension, who wouldn’t? -- but he openly sweats at the notion of collateral damage. Remember, this is the same Death Star II that Randall and Dante talk about in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, with the construction crew contractors that paid the price for their involvement by being blown up by the Rebels. If Kevin Smith had known about Jerjerrod, one can only imagine the bets Dante would lose to Randall (and yes, Lucas confirmed on the Attack of the Clones DVD that the innocent contractors are in fact the insect-like Geonosians).

So, if Jerjerrod’s such a great guy, and this is the scene that was filmed, why harp on him at the beginning of this piece? Kaminsky’s book reveals that in the original storyline, Jerjerrod vied for power and the Emperor’s favor against Vader (something that likely shaped the storyline of Shadows of the Empire, with underground crime lord Xixor taking over Jerjerrod’s role). Clearly, Jerjerrod’s role changed, but in light of other snippets of cut scenes and production literature in which we learn that many rebel leaders were former Imperials (including General Nadine, who has several command shots), we’re given more scope to the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire, and see not only how the Rebel fleet may have amassed enough support and expertise, but also how ticked off everyone was becoming at the Empire.

“Battle of Endor: The Lost Rebels” shows unused shots of many rebel pilots and leaders, including General Nadine, General Cracken (who served as gunner about the Millennium Falcon when it was piloted by Lando and the Sullustian alien Nien Numb), and various rebel pilots, including Sullustian Ten Numb, a Mon Calamari, and various human B-wing and A-wing pilots, including—gasp!—two women (by the way, you can see one fan’s mashup of some of these deleted “Jedi” scenes and Pulp Fiction by Googling “Star Wars – La Royale with Cheese”). These shots are not necessary (some are in fact, deliberately corny), but they add scope to the Rebels and their story.

And – that’s it. No alternate ending. No “To be Continued.” Han doesn’t die (as Harrison Ford hoped), Lando doesn’t die (as screenwriter Laurence Kasdan suggested to add suspense and danger), and Luke doesn’t die (which Lucas felt was necessary to hint). Unlike the original story plan involving Jerjerrod, we never see the Emperor’s homeworld of Had Abaddon, Leia does not become Queen of the survivors of Alderaan, Yoda and Ben do not become “real,” and Luke does not wander off into the sunset by himself, in search of the “Other” that Yoda mentioned (Confused? Intrigued? Read Kaminsky’s book). Had the trilogy ended this way, it might have been left open for other storytellers and directors to devise under Lucas’ guidance, but what we ended up with was, for better or worse, the fairy tale we have today, still tonally uneven as the lighthearted action romp it became tries to mesh with the darker tragedy it started as, but with these deleted scenes, it ends up a bit more powerful and perhaps even a bit more human. And now, thanks to all of the complainers like me, we will just have to go on reading novels and watching deleted scenes, knowing that there will be no more films. I’d still like to think, though, that if the Jedi can live on in the Force, then Yoda – and the saga -- will always be with us.