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by Bill Gibron

21 Aug 2008


It’s never fun to bury a friend, especially one you’ve watched wither away and die right before your eyes. Harder still is the realization that, for many, this onetime companion continues to live on, bigger and brighter than ever. Two decades ago, a perfect little trilogy was formed, a series of science fiction films that took the genre into worlds of unbelievable imagination and action-oriented invention. Spawned from this matinee mannered speculation was a fanbase so devoted, so affected by what creator George Lucas had wrought that they supported each and every facet of its growing legacy. Even horrific examples of capitalization like the Wookie-ccentric Christmas Special held a special place in the hearts of the devoted.

But now it can be said with some certainty - Star Wars is dead. No, not literally. As long as there are novices, unaware of the backstory that began in the year of the Bicentennial, the cash flush franchise will continue to live long and prosper (to borrow a superior series’ sentiment). Yet in my eyes at least, the beloved story of Luke Skywalker, his Dark Lord father Darth Vader, and the rise and fall of the Republic/Empire ceased to exist last week. True, the motion picture monopoly had been on life support ever since the cancer that was the prequels reared their ill-conceived incompetence. And at the moment the horrible Hayden Christiansen became the black man-machine menace, screaming a sophomoric “NO!” over his fate, Wars was, in my view, clutching for breath.

But with the arrival of the kid-friendly flotsam known as The Clone Wars, the last vestiges of the original trilogy have been officially purged from the myth’s creative corpse. It’s not just the grade school age focus of the new animated movie (and eventual TV series), or the poorly rendered cartooning that turns adored characters into cake decoration versions of their former selves. In fact, one could argue that the very reason Clone killed the original Wars was due to an overabundance of ambitions. In an attempt to broaden the concept’s appeal, and pull in even more fans to the fray, Lucas and his Skywalker Ranch regulars have figured out a way to alienate the very individuals who gave him his dollar-driven dynasty in the first place.

We need to get a few things out of the way right up front. I admit that I have been very harsh on Lucas and his Hutt goitered grandstanding ever since he made it perfectly clear that his old fans need not apply to the prequel’s Jar-Jar jive. His love of money and the million ways he can successfully shill his sparse space operatics have given rise to many a rant - and often over-pitched ridiculousness. But as someone who stood in line for nearly seven hours to see the original Star Wars - sans Special Edition tweaks - upon release, and then went on to sit through it seven more times (a personal record for the ‘70s) I believed I earned the right to vent. 

Of course, no one could have anticipated the diabolical double cross that was the updated digital versions of the classic Wars triptych. In retrospect, an artist has every right to tweak his creations to fit his final designs, and Lucas does own everything in that galaxy far, far away. But his early attitude - the original films would NEVER again be seen in their un-doctored state - indicated a despotic delusion and disinterest. Not just with those who supported him through the tough times, but for the very artform he was working in. Say what you want about the Special Editions (good, bad, indifferent, what?) but the flash free version of Episode IV was actually nominated for an Oscar. Imagine the uproar if someone, say Steven Spielberg, took Jaws and added a digital shark. You get the idea.

Yet it was the moment the prequels were announced that the fanbase took sides. Some wondered why it took Lucas so long to realize his original aims (he had announced an eventual series of nine films to fill out the franchise), while others smelled a revisionist rat. Fast forward several years, and the foul stench of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and the highly over-praised Revenge of the Sith continues to permeate the Star Wars universe. While the films have their champions, most consider them pale comparisons to the movies that first fired their intense motion picture passions.

So how exactly does The Clone Wars obliterate the last remaining vestiges of the old Wars world? Easy - it treats it like it doesn’t exist. Clone is the first film in the entire Lucas legacy that feels like it was made out of something different. Maybe it’s the technology, or the introduction of random new characters that will NEVER be referenced again in any other Star Wars storyline (that is, until the new ‘Ultra Special Editions’ come out, right?). Perhaps it’s the general dumbing down of everything to fit a Saturday Morning cartoon mentality. It could be the unnecessary nature of the project, considering that Lucas had already commission material like this from animator Genndy Tartakovsky and his Cartoon Network crew.

Whatever it is, Clone Wars plays like someone’s bad interpretation of what Star Wars should be. From the infantile way the new padawan, Ashoka is portrayed (critical comparisons to Hannah Montana are not that far off) to the shocking pseudo hate crime that is Ziro the Hutt, everything here in rendered is regressive, aggressively adolescent tones. Sure, we see some interesting space battles, including a vertical assault that really captures the thrills of old, but when tempered by Jabba’s drag queen Uncle and his equally annoying son (a baby slug lovingly referred to as “Stinky”), the visuals dim and then disappear.

Indeed, the moment Ziro opened his Truman Capote piehole (a voice mandate from Master George himself, so the story goes), I felt my affection for Star Wars finally die. I recognized that I had been a fool for falling for Lucas’ line time and time again. I remembered my dismay at the way he handled the romance between Anakin and Padme. I re-winced at dialogue that sounded like badly written middle school mush notes. As with every other piece of this seemingly infinite creation, I tried to process it and put it into perspective. I could argue for its comic value - if only barely - but as the performance continued, the flamboyance fostered nothing but rage. And then grief.

Over at Ain’t It Cool News, Drew McWeeny - aka Moriarity - has decided to stop writing about Star Wars forever. His decision comes from a combination of things: an issue over embargo dates; his ongoing distrust of Lucas’ intentions; the rabid response to his opinions on messageboards and comment lists; a personal ‘enough is enough’. Yet one imagines that, like me, he’s sick of figuring out ways to defend his fandom, especially in light of what’s going on now. As Clone ramps up for a Fall premiere, and a live action TV series scouts locations in Australia, it’s clear that the old guard aficionados who kept the franchise afloat between bouts of sequel/prequel/trequel-itis are no longer important to Wars’ world. In that regard, more than any other, it’s time for us to return the favor.

Call it a eulogy or a grand kiss off, but I’m done. Star Wars is dead, at least to me. Somehow, it doesn’t seem all that surprising. Or sad.

by Bill Gibron

20 Aug 2008


by Bill Gibron

19 Aug 2008


by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2008


One of the most intriguing media marriages in quite a while has been the uncomfortable creative partnership between videogames and movies. A lot of the relationship comes from the film industry’s lack of artistic options. Whenever they are in need of something story oriented, they look for the nearest narrative shortcut they can find. Similarly, the gaming business has discovered that, the more cinematic you make your console experience, the more likely the demo is to plunk down their dollars. Looking back to where it all began, with one eye in the technology and the other in the toilet, G4’s animated series Code Monkeys exemplifies how the ‘80s started the plug and play revolution, and how film both guided, and gave into, the medium’s many delights.

For the employees of GameAvision, the sale of their company comes as a complete shock. It grows even more disconcerting when they learn that crazy rich man Bob “Big T” Larrity is the new owner. An insane Texan, the new head honcho places his brain dead son Dean in charge. Then, he begins picking through the remaining employees. Between programmers Dave and Jerry, Todd and Mary, it’s hard to find someone serious. Even the other workers in the office - Black Steve the accountant, self-centered Claire the receptionist, and flamboyantly gay game composer Clarence, make it obvious that the lunatics are indeed running the asylum. Eventually, Larrity asserts his command, bringing in underage Korean boy Benny to test all the games. As they try and better competitor Bellecovision with each new game they release, these Code Monkeys set themselves up for fulfilling victory - or agonizing defeat.

Created by one of Adult Swim/Comedy Central’s up and coming talents and utilizing one of the most unusual animation styles ever, Code Monkeys is a joke filled gem for the ADD crowd. It is set up to be a waltz down analog memory lane for anyone who spent time throwing their Nintendo controller against the wall, while reminding us that pop culture - and specifically film culture - drove much of the artform’s early years. Slightly less successful than other television cartoons - including South Park, The Simpsons, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Code Monkeys still succeeds on several levels. It’s not just about characters - it’s about friendship, failure, uncovering personal flaws and foibles, and referencing every movie made during the Reagan era.

Initially, we are taken in by the camaraderie, the continuous back and forth between friends Dave (lead programmer and major party animal, voiced by creator Adam de la Peña) and Jerry (far more concerned with conformity). Then the differing dynamics between uber nerd Todd and ultra-feminist Mary add additional spice. When you toss in the amiable villainy of loose canon Larrity, his buttheaded son, and the ancillary players in this narrative mishmash, we find ourselves oddly won over. As things progress, we start to see the actual nods to the beginning of the entire videogame revolution. Famous names in the community (Nolan Bushnell, Steve Wozniak, Gary Gygax) tweak their own regal reputation, and suddenly the show is more than just slackers acting silly.

It all begins, brazenly one might add, with “The Woz”, featuring the former Apple pioneer. It’s the perfect set up for the show, and leads brilliantly into the very inside (and very funny) “E.T.” The episode reams Atari for creating one of the worst movie tie-in games of all time, and it features a fabulous ending that lashes out at George Lucas as well. The film connections keep coming, as a recognizable Tony Montana type helps Dave and Jerry finance their own business, and between Breakfast Club riffs (in “Todd Loses His Mind”) to the various direct lifts from famous videogames (Super Mario Brothers, Castle Wolfenstein) this is one of the more clever and concrete spoofs out there.

But it goes beyond pure lampoon. What’s clear here is that de la Peña really ‘gets’ the ‘80s. His insights into the decade, either personal, political, and professional are dead on. As is the design. You sometimes forget you are watching an animated series. Instead, you think your Sega Dreamcast has risen from the dead and started programming your TV’s picture tube. The visuals here provide a definite “wow” factor. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this is laugh out loud hilarious. The jokes come flying so fast and furiously, and the reactions cutting several beats out of the standard satiric type, that you can easily get lost and lose the humor. Still, there are moments that definitely tickle your tendencies - especially if you grew up loving your Intellevision.

As DVDs go, Shout! Factory really doesn’t deliver a definitive set. The fluffy bonus material may be appreciated by those really into the premise, but there’s very little backstage stuff. Even odder, the series never announces the voice cast during the opening and closing credits. It will take a trip to IMDb to discover such treats as Aqua Teen titan Dana Synder doing the voice of the Dungeon and Dragons addicted Todd. Also, without a working knowledge of the medium’s past, it may be hard to appreciate some of the creative cameos that eventually show up. Still, for such an off the beaten path production (G4 isn’t exactly a household name), the packaging here is perfectly fine.

Upon reflection, what is obvious about Code Monkeys is it’s nerdisms. It really does illustrate how geeks and the concerns of celluloid finally came together to wage war against boring entertainment and even more mundane cinema. The minds making the first videogames were lonely obsessives who disappeared inside arcane technology, rarified intelligence, and a shared love of all things fringe - including certain cult films. That two decades later that would become the Tinsel Town production norm is just another facet of Code Monkey‘s indirect appeal. On the outside, this is nothing more than profanity among programmers, Dig a little deeper, and you see our current culture finding its footing - for better and for worse. 

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