While I can’t say I’ve been one of the more loyal Star Wars fans over the years, (the prequels lost me for a bit) some of my fondest memories of my childhood include it. Then again, I can’t imagine too many “older millennials” not having some sort of deep cultural connection to it – whether loved or hated the ever-present looming of the franchise was always there. Cartoons (Muppet Babies), other films (Spaceballs), and even songs (Weird Al) constantly had references to a series of films that almost became bigger than film itself. In what was likely a very annoying event for my family, I once taped the trilogy off of a USA network cable marathon and watched it constantly – so much that I used to know the words to the Ewok song at the end of Jedi.
Seeing my fandom really blossoming, I remember at some point that my mother gave me a series of books called The Han Solo Adventures when I was young, I think she got them from a book club or something and passed them on to me, and I was hooked on the characters of Han and Chewie. I mean, I teared up at the end of Episode 7 due to a particular incident – er, the movie came out a million years ago, if you haven’t seen the spoiler I’m sorry. I nearly cried when Han Died. When a prequel film was announced I got really excited.
“It is a lawless time. Crime Syndicates compete for resources – food, medicine, and hyperfuel. On the shipbuilding planet of Corellia, the foul Lady Proxima forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection. On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars…”
That is the opening crawl for Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film that fills in some of the gaps of the titular characters backstory. Ultimately, one can think of any of Han Solo’s questionable boasts in the previous films and wonder “I wonder what the Kessel Run is?”, “Has Chewie ever really ripped someone’s arms off?” or “Did he really win The Millennium Falcon from Lando ‘fair and square’?”
The film answers all of this without seeming too gratuitous about it, thankfully. Yeah a lot of things that seem really important to the character’s later motivations and personality seem to have all taken place in the span of only a few weeks or less, but the writers resisted things like shoe-horning Boba Fett or Darth Vader into the film, a fact that I was really happy about. Yeah there was another BIG cameo in there, but it was refreshing rather than cringey.
Harrison Ford has some mighty big space boots to fill, and I was perhaps the most skeptical of the casting of Alden Ehrenreich as Han. Rather than attempting to do a prolonged impersonation of Ford, Ehrenreich nails the personality and wise-cracks of the character in such a way that you could imagine him being a 20-year-old version of the same man. To compare this to the series’ often fan-imagined competitor – Star Trek, I feel that casting of young versions of characters was done FAR better here.
Donald Glover was amazing as he always is in his role as Lando Calrissian – a portrayal that actually added a lot to the character that casual fans that don’t want to read a library of books may be unaware of. I know some folks, as tradition with any film nowadays, were mad at the insinuation that Lando was Pan-sexual now in various interviews – once seeing the movie, I love how this was handled, and while not going into specifics he was not going around and having sex with anything he saw. In fact, it was one of the more touching relationships in the franchise.
Rounding out the main cast was Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Paul Bettany as Dryden, and Woody Harrelson as Beckett. I was actually surprised at how much I like Harrelson’s character as I wasn’t a big fan of him being cast as he’s far too recognizable and Star Wars has always stayed away from huge stars for the most part. Granted, he basically played the same character he often plays in many films such as Zombieland and The Hunger Games – older guy that has seem some crap and mentors the younger main character. I’ll just chalk that up to his version of how Ice Cube always plays police officers or how Liam Neeson is perpetually given roles in thrillers that involve him saving his family. Honorable mentions go to other characters like Enfys Nest who meet the “cool character that folks will become obsessed with” mold like Boba Fett.
Perhaps my only real quibble with the film was the addition of a sub-plot concerning a droid character in Lando’s employ named L3-37 that is basically a parody/homage of various modern-day social justice movements. The character is often seen advocating for droid rights, as she has “malfunctioned” to such a degree that she sees injustices involving droids all around her when few others seem to care. We even see that many of the shadier characters in the galaxy enjoy droid cage-fighting as a spectator sport, a fact that enrages her.
While I’m not mad about this inclusion, I feel that this and the war profiteering plot in Episode 8 are a bit too “on the nose” and lack the subtlety that Star Wars usually has. I mean, Star Wars isn’t Handmaid’s Tale, it’s usually not a scathing rebuke of modern-day politics unless you consider that the bad guys are space Nazis essentially.
All-in all, I really liked this film – it captured the fun and spectacle of the non-‘anthology” films well, and made me remember how awesome Han and Chewie are. I’m hoping this does well enough that they make more, but who knows as it seems the film was released at a bad time and is slightly under-performing. Considering this was a film in which the original directors got fired and Ron Howard ha to “swoop in” and save the day on, I’d say they did a solid job.
Ever wanted to compare a Star Destroyer‘s size to that of the Independence Day UFOs? How about The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and The Planet Spaceball? Well, look no further than this crazy chart! It’s a work in progress, but the sheer amount of stuff on here already is crazy. a High Res version can be found HERE.
Or: Why did I limit myself on topics when I created this blog?
I have a confession to make. Like Benedict Arnold, Tokyo Rose, and Jane Fonda before me, I am a traitor to my own country. I haven’t spied on anyone, I haven’t sold state secrets to anyone, nor have I taken up arms against anyone. What I have done, however, can be seen as just as bad by some in the geek culture – I’ve sided with The United Kingdom when it comes to entertainment, most notably with my science fiction tastes. For years now, I haven’t really cared about Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, or Firefly The latter of the three even got me in a bit of trouble. So the question is: Is there a tangible difference between American and British science fiction, or have I become some sort of anglophile “weeaboo*” that pretends everything form the UK is better? In this article I hope to explain why I like what I like and show that these two types of science fiction couldn’t be more different.
*Note: “Weeaboo” is a pejorative term applied to fans of Japanese animation that apply fetishism to the country of origin and appropriate cultural references in a perverse way. Watch the SNL skit “American Jpop Funtime Now” for an example of this mentality.
When I first started this blog, I did a similar concept in an article called “Bristish Science Fiction VS American Science Fiction – Why all the Fuss”, this was sadly an article that pretty much devolved into me whining about the remake of Life on Mars and lost all momentum. I should learn that ranting right after watching something is a bad idea! I was going to simply re-write that article, but figured a new take on it would be a better idea – perhaps actually explaining my stance would be a great idea. What I did lay out then was a general thesis of why I liked stuff from the UK more – “I think the main difference can all be chalked up to the argument of mood vs spectacle with the British productions geared heavily towards atmosphere, mood, and concepts and most American-helmed productions relying mostly on spectacle, visuals, and special effects. ” As one can see here, I was really vague and applied my theory to only the visual media. If we step back a bit and look at all mediums including books, audio, and TV/film this is still salvageable. I think the main difference can be simplified to “humility vs pride”.
What could I possibly mean by this? When I originally talked about my dislike for needless “spectacle” in American science fiction I was talking about the way in which much of the media I’ve seen turns into vapid feel-good schlock with little substance. Something like James Cameron’s Avatar is a prime example of this as it has some of the best special effects, but little story to back it up. It’s one of those movies that tricks you into thinking that you’ve seen something amazing, then you realize you just saw another re-make of the tired John Smith meets Pocahontas storyline, just with blue cat-people. It truly is the story of the noble savage for a modern generation.
These age-old nationalist themes run deep in most American science fiction productions. If you look at a show like Star Trek and boil it down to it’s essence, The travels of the Starship Enterprise can seem almost exactly like that of a frontiersman venturing into the American wilderness. Gene Roddenberry even famously said that his past experience on the show Wagon Train essentially meant that Star Trek was “Wagon Train in space.” So Star Trek is based on American Expansionism, surely not all American Science Fiction is based on that? Well,no. But most stories are about some sort of space adventuring, space colonization, and optimistic futurist fluff. I think this all goes back to World War II, and America’s status as the world’s premier mega-power from then on. American exceptionalism has tainted us with a false sense that “everything is okay, because we live in America” at all times, and to me that really isn’t true.
On a sharp contrast, The United Kingdom was faced with decades of hardship after the war, even long after the scars of the Blitz healed. Their empire crumbled, and the economy slowed to a crawl not too long after. Internal strife, terrorism, and even labor unrest lead to many calling the once mighty nation the “sick man of Europe“. America had it’s problems, most notably with civil rights, but while most American suburbanites pretended to live in the realm of the fictionalized Leave it to Beaver TV show, many in England were miserable. This lead to a creative path of social commentary in most British science fiction. The book British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide by John R. Cook and Peter Wright lays this theory out pretty well:
“British [science fiction] TV was different. While America was assured of its leadership role in the emerging space race and could look with confidence to the stars as an extension of the utopian frontier possibilities of the American Dream, Britain was having to cope anxiously in the same period with the loss of empire and general decline as a world power. Thus the notion of the British in space was not only a depressing impossibility but an outright absurdity. Some of the basic differences in character between British and US science fiction TV may be traceable to this: where archetypal US series like Star Trek often confronted the future with a sense of gung-ho optimism. British equivalents were more prone to view it with pessimism, anxiety or, especially later with such shows as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (BBC TV, 1981) and Red Dwarf (BBC TV, 1988-99), an alternative response of absurdist humour […]”
The above quote really struck a chord with me, and got me thinking about shows like Quatermass. When you first meet the titular character Bernard Quatermass, he is thrilled to have sent the first human, even better a human from Britain, into space. In a classic fashion, It all goes downhill from there and every subsequent series shows that he is slowly becoming disillusioned with the government, world space programs, the dangers of science, and finally life itself. That’s heavy stuff for a space adventure, in America Bruce Willis just rides in and saves the day. Even the “safest” UK science fiction, material geared towards families, follows this mindset. While quite a few episodes of Doctor Who can be seen as family friendly fun, there is a hidden darkness in there as well. iconic alien races such as the Cybermen are a commentary on cosmetic surgery and how long you can alter yourself and still be a human. Daleks are fascists in space, and episodes like The Green Death are taking a jab at industrial eco-hazards. Doctor Who has even tackled subjects such as religion and homosexuality, a huge “no-no” over here.
This tendency towards social commentary and pessimism isn’t without it’s critics. In the 1960’s the BBC produced a drama called The War Game that depicted the aftermath of a nuclear strike on the UK. As I pointed out in my review, establishment types were not happy: “The War Game didn’t actually get shown on any TV network until the mid-1980’s, and I’m thankful it didn’t meet the same fate as other 1960’s BBC productions –wiped and junked. It was deemed too dark, it made the British infrastructure look bad, it belittled civil servants, and it stood in the face of over-zealous national pride –things that weren’t cool forty years ago. At least now we can watch it, and enjoy it without any censorship involved.” A lot of fans don’t like this either and label British science fiction as too dark or depressing. For me this is a case of “to each their own, as I’d rather have emotional attachment to something in a show than just watch eye candy all day.
So there we have it, American science fiction is far too optimistic for my taste and does little to talk about social commentary. Instead, much of it tries to further idealistic post-war American values that many Americans no longer value – such as new imperialism. American productions seem whitewashed and fake in this climate, while UK productions still have teeth, even to this day. Not everything has to be bleak – being witty, satirical, or even mocking is fine as long as the subject has substance. I just want something more than “YES WE CAN!” because I’m too cynical for that garbage. Maybe Bruce Willis Won’t save the day, Aerosmith won’t play a cool song, and maybe the rock hits the Earth, let’s make the most out of it! Lately there has been an uprising of US based shows with a UK slant directly coinciding with the rough times we are having as of late, so there is hope that they are trending to a common end. Not everyone is happy about this though, as I leave you with a quote from a Time Magazine article that pines for the long-gone days of “happy science fiction”:
“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude. There appeared to be no problem that couldn’t be dealt with either by the one-two punch of positive thinking and, well, punching— or by intellect and inspiration: new inventions were dreamed up that automated everyday tasks and made the impossible not only possible but also commonplace.”
Anyone stopping by this site might wonder why exactly I don’t just talk about ALL science fiction, I mean it’s not like I don’t watch stuff from my home country at all. Keeping in mind that I am a Star Trek fan, I’ve dabbled in Star Wars, and I love some old Buck Rogers, that doesn’t excuse the fact that I am shamelessly addicted to stuff from the “other side of the pond”. The question remains, is there really a difference to the two different styles, can one distinctly draw a line between the two sides and separate them? For me, the answer is yes.
I think the main difference can all be chalked up to the argument of mood vs spectacle with the British productions geared heavily towards atmosphere, mood, and concepts and most American helmed productions relying mostly on spectacle, visuals, and special effects. As one can imagine, most of this can be chalked up to budgetary constraints, as anyone with access to millions of dollars in production budget would love to make something as grand as Star Wars, but if you are given far less you may have to settle for Blakes 7. What this usually means is that the actual scripting for these British programs has to be scripted to concentrate on tension, horror, and relationships versus escapist imagery. This forces the writers to go for ballsy content that will grab viewers and hold them; while there are a few American scifi shows that have taken this route, many “wuss out”.
A prime example of this neutering of concept in favor of spectacle can be seen in the American version of Life on Mars, a remake of a UK show from a few years ago. At first glance, the shows seem similar, but anyone will immediately notice a stark difference between the two. First and foremost, we have the production values in place hammering away any subtlety in concept. Instead of filming in antiquated areas, and keeping things dingy, the American show goes for a smooth veneer of CGI effects on things to add in the twin towers and other relics to constantly remind us of another time.
I was constantly baffled by the use of yellow lense filters to instill a weird vibe on the show, it made it look like portions were filmed on Venus or something. I know folks had a hideous concept of color back then, but wouldn’t it be better to actually use sets with yellow, green and brown things in them instead of just tossing a filter over everything? It’s not like the sky was yellow back then, though I was born in the 1980’s so maybe I missed that memo. This basically ruined the show for me right from the beginning because it makes it hazy and hard to see anything in any of the shots. Instead of thinking “man, Gene Hunt’s office has terrible décor”, I thought to myself “why is he at work at sundown in a foggy yellow-lit room?” While both shows do a fairly decent job of keeping the early 1970’s fashion and hairstyles in check, the American one looks a bit too “shiny” and somewhat gratuitous. The acting seems more “Hollywood” and fake, and everything looks too clean and sterilized. Even the classic cars seem to all be from car shows, no spec of dirt on any of them. The U.K. Life on Mars excels on “not trying too hard” and succeeds by keeping everything simple. The U.S. version tries far too hard, and as a result fails.
Another huge misstep is the overall casting of the show. In the original, Sam was a normal sized guy, athletic but not too large. This was at odds with Gene Hunt’s large size and physicality. We were to believe that if the two were to ever get in a fight, Hunt would decimate Sam with sheer size and brute strength. Instead we have a Sam that towers over Hunt, a sixty year old Hunt to be exact. I know Harvey Keitel is a well-liked actor, but how am I supposed to believe that he is a hardass, if it looks as if he could break a hip at any moment. Everyone else looks “too pretty” if you get my drift, nobody looks like a real person, and it seems like they cast the show from a modeling agency.
My final real problem is that the show has been whitewashed to be more politically correct. In the original Gene Hunt is not a nice man, he is a corrupt cop that uses his rank to bully everyone around him. Aside from that he is a chauvinist, he is racist, he is homophobic, and he has the manners of a drunken frat guy. While a bit of that stays in, things like racist views are taken largely out, as to not offend people. I can see why this happened, but the whole point of the character is to show an exact opposing view to Sam, someone that Sam tries so hard to avoid being. This way, when Gene starts to soften up, especially in the sequel show Ashes to Ashes, he is that much more endearing.
I could keep going, but I’d rather not nit-pick the entire show to death. Truth is, had I never seen the original version I still would have been annoyed by the show, and probably not finished it.
By doing this comparison, I am by no means belittling American science fiction as the inferior product, but it does show why one can almost never truly adapt a program from there to here, our sensibilities are so different. On the flip-side imagine a show like V (the new one) being created in the U.K., it would be an entirely different show. So yes, there is a difference in the two brands of sci-fi, and I prefer one over the other.