Archive for July 1999

Episode I: A Review

23 July 1999
Categories: Film buff

Get this straight: I love the original Star Wars. I can watch the whole Episode IV–VI trilogy through from start to finish in one sitting… as long as I pretend Episode VI ends with Darth Vader on the pyre and hit STOP before the goddamned ultra-trite Ewok party song. Even so, I avoided all the months of pre-prequel hype and myriad fan sites, breaking the moratorium only in the last week before Episode I premiered to read the reviews of a few sources I trusted. The word common to all these reviews was “disappointment,” so I had very low expectations going in, and waited for over a month before bothering to see it.

And even with the bar thus lowered, Episode I still sucks. It’s pretty to look at, sure. And as a technological achievement, while not as groundbreaking as Episode IV, it’s a spectacular display of what the gnomes at Skywalker Ranch are able to do in 1999. But in terms of content, it is utterly devoid. I had no problem understanding what the putative comic relief Jar Jar Binks was saying—the hard part was bringing myself to care. The plot device of the robot army shutting down because their command ship was destroyed was the most simplistic contrivance I have seen outside of the Teletubbies—obviously a long time ago, they didn’t read Sun Tzu. And the mythic symbolism of the original was wiped clean from Episode I, except perhaps for the allusion to immaculate conception. Too bad Joseph Campbell is dead. Maybe Lucas should have given Bill Moyers a call before writing his tissue-paper script.

The biggest problem Lucas faces, though, is the fact that in a galaxy far, far away, they don’t have Pepsi, or Taco Bell, or any of the other commercial brand-names that in most any other genre could be generously sprinkled throughout the movie for that oldest of Hollywood cash cows, product placement. Which is why we have been inundated with tie-in commercials ever since the first trailer came out, and will be subjected to same until long after the video is released. I ignore most of these. I refuse to buy any action figures because it’s not possible to get an Artoo Detoo without buying a larger set. But there is one Star Wars tie-in about which I am very enthusiastic:

LEGO. In addition to the obligatory Episode I sets, there is now a collection of “classic” sets that were non-existent when this Legomaniac and SW fan was the intended ages of 7-12. There’s an X-wing fighter with our hero, R2-D2. There’s a box set of a Y-wing fighter (with the ill-fated Gold Leader and the astromech droid R5-D4) along with Darth Vader’s TIE fighter, and the little Darth minifigure has a little cloth cape. There’s a landspeeder complete with helmet-haired Obi-Wan. There’s even a snowspeeder from Episode V, and a pair of speeder bikes from Episode VI with Imperial scout troopers. All of them, especially the X-wing, are tremendously cool. The only problem I see is if you buy all these sets you wind up with 4 Luke Skywalkers, and no Princess Leia, Han Solo, or Chewbacca. I’m hoping this will soon be resolved with (I suspect) the release of a really big set—the Millennium Falcon. (Also notably lacking are A-wings, B-wings, standard TIE fighters and Imperial stormtroopers.) My recommendation: check ‘em out!

Epilogue [2001]. So LEGO must have been listening, because in the two years since I wrote the above, they came out with the Millennium Falcon, an A-wing, a B-wing, and the standard TIE fighter, plus Boba Fett’s ship, the Imperial Shuttle with Emperor and nifty red-suited guards, and an escape pod with Artoo and Threepio. They also came out with two amazing, 1/28 scale, highly detailed models, one of an X-wing, the other of a TIE Interceptor. These are just incredible. The X-wing contains over 1,300 pieces; the nose assembly alone takes 14 steps to build. The best part about it is that the standard Artoo Detoo minifigure is accurately sized at this scale. The worst part is that the wing attachments are kind of flimsy and the wings sag when in the closed position. The TIE Interceptor is much more solid (though fewer pieces), although its wings are also slightly wobbly. Both kits are not really suited for play, they’re more for sitting on their display stands and looking cool.

The Millennium Falcon does, as I suspected it would, include Princess Leia as well as Han and Chewie and Artoo and Threepio—and another damn Skywalker. It’s one of the most concise LEGO kits I have ever seen. There’s not a single superfluous piece, everything fits together like a perfectly nested puzzle. That said, the ship is far too small. All the other Star Wars sets follow the same approximate scale and play well together; the Falcon, if scaled to match, would be nearly twice the size it is. For one thing, only two figures fit in the cockpit, and only if they’re shoehorned in; also there’s no room for a passageway from the cockpit to the rest of the ship. I understand a larger Falcon might be ungainly to play with and prohibitively expensive, but it still should be big enough that it doesn’t seem dwarfed by a Y-wing fighter.

Best of all is the standard TIE fighter. Not only does it come with a black-helmeted pilot, but the kit has an Imperial stormtrooper as well. I bought two, so that I can display them flanking Darth Vader’s ship as if they’re racing down the trench, blowing holes in Gold Leader. This gave me two stormtroopers, so now I can reenact my favourite exchange of the entire series:

Stormtrooper #1: Do you know what’s going on?
Stormtrooper #2: Maybe it’s another drill.


A Television Viewer’s Advisory

1 July 1999

My fiancée figured it out first. She saw it right away. I was looking—in vain—for a few good trivia questions, and hadn’t quite figured out what was wrong until she said something.

Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? is an alien mind-control transmission.

It’s so obvious, even if you don’t pay close attention, and I certainly don’t recommend that because then they’ll get to you. Maybe they were getting to me at first, and that’s why I didn’t notice it.

Look at the clues:

  • We’ve all known for a long time that Regis Philbin is from another planet.
  • The set is bowl-shaped, as if built inside a giant flying saucer.
  • The lights that converge on the center dais and then fan back out again after every question are something straight out of Close Encounters. (“How to make the humans calm and content? Ah yes, trigger the Spielberg synapses.”)
  • Every contestant looks normal at first glance. Too normal, in fact. A second glance reveals normal-seeming facial features that never quite cohere into a unified face. It’s as if they pulled rubber human suits on over their real (and not necessarily humanoid) bodies… or perhaps grew their human bodies in big vats.
  • Although there may be one or two token humans in the field of ten for the quick qualifier question (not what they call it, so pardon the alliteration), they never make it to the high chair.

The biggest clue is the game itself, which is utterly asinine. All the patter is very regimented. No matter how much the player chit-chats while deciding on the answer, the answer must be stated by both its letter and the answer, verbatim, every time. Then Regis banters about how sure the player is of their answer, but ultimately always prompts for the line “Final answer.” All of which appears meant to keep the suspense as high as possible.

(If I were more paranoid, or condescending enough to think alien technology so primitive, I might say the dialogue is meant to be mesmerising, to make the viewer receptive to hypnotic suggestion. It could explain the odd pacing of the show.)

Even with the hyper-dramatic pauses, the game is not designed for suspense. There are two “safe levels,” dollar amounts that, once won, cannot be lost. Who wouldn’t keep blundering on to the next question when they know that that 32 thou they didn’t have 5 minutes ago is safe in the bank? (Especially when they get to hear the next question before deciding whether to go on or quit.) In addition, the player gets three “outs” during the 15-question round: a 50/50 where “the computer” takes away two wrong answers, leaving an even-odds choice; a 30-second phone call to anyone in the U.S.; and the opportunity to turn to the already-assimilated-but-still-human audience and ask them to vote on the answer. Twice I’ve seen a mindlessly simple question go to the crowd, only to have them respond via their keypads, “Ninety (or more) percent of us think you’re a complete dumb-ass. What planet are you from?”

Most of all, the questions are generally frightfully simple, at least for any American high school graduate who happens to have been born on this planet. Here’s an example:

    How many red stripes are there on an American flag? A: 5 … B: 6 … C: 7 … D: 8

The guy in the high chair didn’t know. He stalled for time, rambled on and on about how he was picturing the flag in his mind, how he knew it had 13 stripes for the 13 original colonies, how he knew there was a red one on top and bottom, how he was trying to do the math. I swear it took him thirty seconds to finally come up with the correct answer, and even then he wasn’t certain about it.

This was the $64,000 question.

ABC (i.e. Disney) is just hemorrhaging money with this dog of a game show. It’s not exciting, suspenseful, nor challenging. So why are they doing it? Because by giving away record-setting big bucks for questions whose answers are known by your average half-drunk navel lint picker, they get a lot of instant, free publicity (ET, Extra, all the fluff shows are giving it heavy airplay; even the N.Y. Times has gotten into the act) and get a lot of people to tune in during the couple of weeks this show will air (and maybe get more than a few of us sucked in while we’re sitting there feeling superior to those schmucks on the tube).

But the joke’s on us, and we won’t be feeling superior for long. Because the more people who watch, the more minds will come under the control of the alien powers that would use Disney as their pawn.

(Thank god that our channel 7 feed from Prime Cable sucks so badly. A lot of the subliminals are lost in the static and the inverse ghost image of Regis’ head.)