Sunday, December 17, 2017

Take Note: Why Star Wars has the Best Battles in Cinema

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea for others to consider.

Spoiler Warning: The following article contains minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The article below only talks about the space battles in the film. Characters and locations will be discussed loosely, and without names. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, check back later. Everyone else, let's do this.

One of the opening scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is a big space battle. I know, you're shocked. A big space battle in a film called Star Wars. I'll give you all a minute to catch your breath and finish clutching your pearls. Good? Good. It was during this scene that it occurred to me why Star Wars battles are so memorable, and why they work so well, even when they are largely inconsequential to the overall plot. These  long movies, with several story lines to deal with, philosophies to expound on and secrets to reveal. Do they really have time to waste on all the pew pew and bang bang? More importantly, how do they get away with wasting time on them? In a film about space wizards fighting with laser swords, which is already pretty awesome, it's saying something that many of memorable moments come from rust buckets trying to gun each other down.

Stop me if you've heard this one: In a Star Wars movie there's an enemy fleet of baddies about to kill kittens or something. And there's another fleet of good guys trying to stop the bad guys or run away or save the universe. Both sides have launched their fighters and the big battle is about to really get going. And then this happens:

Do you remember this guy? Looks familiar right? Do you know his name? I sure don't. But this, right here, is why Star Wars battles actually work. This guy isn't one of the heroes. He's not even an important second tier guy like Hawkeye or a recurring jokes like the Cabbage Vendor. Nope, this lovable fellow exists only so that a handful of minutes from now a lucky tie fighter pilot can turn him into charcoal.

The obvious move here would be to say that Star Wars takes the time to show you the pilots, to humanize them. To remind us that behind the cockpit of those crafty X-Wings and speedy A-Wings are real people with real emotions. That in conflict, fighting for your ideals has a price. But in truth, you'd have gone to far. It's not that Star Wars takes the time to show you a human face, it's that Star Wars takes the time.

The space battles in Star Wars have stakes. They have moves and counter moves. They have tactics and gambits that either pay off or fail and they have a resolution. In essence, they are a story unto themselves, a stage play of battleships and aircraft dog fighting on the endless sea of space. The films take the time to show us this, to let us know who and where all the pieces are on the board before things really get under way.

The opening space battle in The Last Jedi is about a Rebel fleet trying to escape from an Imperial fleet. The Imperial fleet has a big battleship that can punch through the shields of the Rebel fleet's capital ship. That's it. That's all you need to know and it's set up in like thirty seconds in the film around story dialogue and other bits. The Rebels release all their ships to take out the big Imperial ship and then we get our quick cuts to each pilot's cockpit. More important than the score, we know the rules of the sport we're playing. The Rebels have a ship they want to protect, the Imperials have a ship they want to protect. The time limit is determined by when the Rebels can escape. Everyone releases their fighters onto the field and it's time to play ball.

So much of modern cinema forgets to do this, or dices it up so finely that it is unrecognizable. So many fantasy movies with battles full of orcs and mystical beasts and big explosions and it's all meaningless, not because we don't know what the stakes are, but because we don't know how the game is being played. All we see is two mobs smash into one another interspersed with clips of our heroes cutting through mobs of faceless enemies while exchanging witty one liners. It's all fluff. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the details of any big, army sized fight scene in a Marvel movie for instance, or Lord of the Rings, but I can recall just about every space battle in every Star Wars film to date. I can tell why they were fighting, what they were fighting over, who was in the battle and where they were.

I can tell you those things because the Star Wars films, all of them, the good and the bad, have taken the time to set their stage. In the Marvel movies, which are all great, often times our heroes are reduced to punching baddies until the plot timer goes off. Four or five of our team is left to thinning out the herd until one of them can reach the thing they're fighting over. And that's not to knock the Marvel movies. They've done a lot great work that puts the ten-thousand-cuts school of film editing in modern action movies to shame. But the reason why Star Wars is so enduring, why it is so memorable on top of the lightsabers and the Force, is because each of their battles are communicated to the audience effectively. Who, what, when, where, why? These are questions we're all familiar with, questions we all apply to our stories, but how many of us stop to ask them of our battles?

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