Archive for the ‘star wars’ Tag

[50/50] Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars”

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

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Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars” (1977)

Like Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas had a singular talent: he was very good at finding and hiring other very talented people. For everything that can be said about Lucas as a technician and movie maker — he was mechanically astute and had an exceptional visual eye — he was not a very good director, editor or writer. But he knew people that were. Everything we love about “Star Wars” — the look, the sound, the designs, the special effects, the sweep of the action — all of that was created by other people, who helped Lucas remix and reform the pop culture snippets he grabbed from movies and the pulp sci-fi he devoured growing up. (Heck, even the famous opening scene of the Star Destroyer rolling endlessly overhead was lifted from — or, if you want to be charitable, inspired by — a similar shot from “Space: 1999,” which aired around the time Lucas was in England to began pre-production work on “Star Wars.” As the old adage goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”) Lucas was a visual artist, yet the older he got, the more he forgot the most important rule: Show, don’t tell. The stuff people hate about Star Wars — the terrible writing, the abuse of English, the endless revamping and retconning — that’s all Lucas.

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My “Star Wars” can be found in the amazing paintings of Ralph McQuarrie, who Lucas hired to help illustrate the script he was pitching. It was McQuarrie who gave shape to what we now recognize as the lasting legacy of the movie: its appearance. I still get the same sense of wonder each time I see these renderings, 35 years after I first discovered them in a short preview in Starlog magazine. These earliest images are curious too because the details are so different from what eventually was filmed, based as they were on an early draft of the script. In a way, I’m still waiting to see that movie.

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(In a grand experiment, Dark Horse Comics recently began publishing a series based on Lucas’ first rough draft. Called “The Star Wars,” it is radically different — almost unrecognizable — from what appeared in theaters. I’m looking forward to reading it, if for no other reason than it, brings me full circle with my Star Wars experience.) As for that experience? Star Wars used to be much higher on this list, in my all-time Top 5 favorite movies, period. It was a massive influence on me as a kid, when I wanted to be a filmmaker, and even later, when it had a huge sway over me as a game designer.

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By extension, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) should be on this list of favorite movies as well. It is widely thought to be better than “Star Wars,” and is frequently held up as the best example of how a sequel could be done. (It should be noted it was not directed by Lucas, but Irvin Kershner.) The Battle for Hoth is still one of the most thrilling cinematic achievements ever. Lucas’ endless tinkering with his ‘baby’ — instead of making new movies, he just kept reworking the same three films past the point where anyone cared — doesn’t take that away.

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In the end, people can be very hard on George Lucas — and justifiably so. But the fact remains: he is probably the only director to inspire filmmakers around the world twice — first, when he did “Star Wars” in 1977 and showed everyone how to make a movie; and again in 1999, when he did the prequels, and showed everyone how not to make a movie. How many people can say that?

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[50/50] A Bridge Too Far

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Book #5: “A Bridge Too Far” — Cornelius Ryan (1974)
Computer Game #5: “V for Victory: Operation Market-Garden” (1993)

A_Bridge_Too_Far_-_1974_Book_CoverFlush with success after D-Day, the Allies had the Nazis on the run in the fall of 1944. Thinking he could end the war early, a British general came up with an overly-ambitious plan to hopscotch across the Netherlands and sweep around the German defenses. The attack involved the largest air drop of troops in history, and was bigger than the invasion of Normandy — which took over a year to plan — and was launched within a week. The effort to simultaneously seize seven key bridges in seven cities became one of the biggest disasters of WWII.

In fact, Operation Market-Garden nearly cost the allies the war.

It wasn’t just poor planning that doomed the attack. Hubris on the part of allied commanders lead them to believe they could punch through any enemy resistance, and misplaced assumptions lead them to ignore crucial intelligence from partisan forces. In one case, allied troops were dropped right in front of elite SS units, who promptly mowed them down. The ambitious invasion turned into a rescue operation to save as many men as possible, and “A Bridge Too Far” quickly became shorthand for over-reaching. Of course, disasters make for compelling stories, and journalist Cornelius Ryan’s oral history of the battle became one of the best books on WWII. (It is also three times as long as “The Longest Day,” his earlier book about the — very successful — D-Day invasion.) As infuriating as it is to read, it is a fascinating look at how not to fight a war.

Curiously enough, “A Bridge Too Far” was also the last of those epic star-studded war movies that Hollywood used to make. It was expected to be the biggest box office hit of 1977 … until it opened opposite of a little sci-fi flick called “Star Wars” … whoops

# # #

victoryTwenty years later, in time for the 50th anniversary of WWII, Atomic Games came out with a series of exceptional wargames focusing on the biggest battles of the war. “V for Victory: Operation Market-Garden” is the only wargame I’ve ever played every scenario and variation of, and it provided even greater insight into how not to fight a war.

The game is all the more interesting because it is impossible for the allies to win. Even if everything had gone according to plan, even under the most optimal conditions, the allies would have still failed in their attack. This is the sort of lesson that should be — and is — taught at military academies, and every politician who ever used the word “cakewalk” should be beaten about the head and neck with the game box.

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[50/50] Short Story #3: “The Days of Solomon Gursky”

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Short Story #3: “The Days of Solomon Gursky” — Ian McDonald (1998)

410197Truly one of the more ambitious short stories ever, “The Days of Solomon Gursky” focuses on a scientist who discovers a form of immortality and follows his career over the next, oh, 40 billion years or so, dropping in on him during seven key days. This “one week” in the life of the character is both a play on the English nursery rhyme “Solomon Grundy” and a re-envisioning of the creation story from the book of Genesis. McDonald crams dozens of scientific concepts onto each page, daring you to keep up as he skips from idea to idea on the long arc of Gursky’s adventure to the end of the universe and beyond. And yet, thanks to the pathos at the core of the story, the frantic pace of “Days” has genuine gravity: Although he has reshaped reality in his own image, Solomon Gursky cannot find the lost love of his life, who once sacrificed herself helping humanity escape from a losing war in deep space.

Many of the ‘big ideas’ in this story echo those found in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but with a serious bent. McDonald’s writing is just as often poetic as it is prose — think “The English Patient” — giving it a different feel than most sci-fi dealing with nanotechnology, genetic engineering, custom-made planets and pan-dimensional beings. You can find a pirated version of “The Days of Solomon Gursky” online, but this is one story worth tracking down.

[50/50] Video Game #5: Space Wars

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Video Game #5: Space Wars (1977) aka Spacewar! (1962)

1181242171185Want to determine once and for all if an Imperial Star Destroyer can beat the USS Enterprise? Want to play THE original video game? You can do both with what is considered by many to be the very first digital game: Spacewar! Created in 1962 to showcase the computing power of the PDP-1 computer, Spacewar! is credited with helping to close many a sale of the expensive mainframe. Object? Blow up your opponent. While popular with programmers, the game was never available to the public.*

One of those programmers, Nolan Bushnell, who would eventually go on to found Atari, was inspired by Spacewar! to build the first commercial video game a decade later: Computer Space. Alas, in spite of its cool futuristic cabinet (which made a cameo in 1973’s “Soylent Green“), Computer Space wasn’t much fun to play.computer-space-ad

What was fun? Space Wars, the commercial version of the PDP-1 game. Released in 1977 in the wake of Star Wars, the programmers creating the game had the brilliant idea, and presence of mind, to update the appearance of the two ship to look like those in Star Wars and Star Trek. And a star was born.

Talk about simple: the ships were composed of a handful of vector lines, moving against a black screen with a few dots on it for stars, and a circle in the middle representing the sun.  And yet this simple setup produced one of the greatest games ever. Object? Blow up your opponent. Don’t fall into the sun. Really. That was it.

Honestly though, if its your brother’s ship you’re annihilating, what more do you need?

 

* Until now. Last year, someone emulated the original Spacewar! game and put it online. Enjoy.