The PJ Tatler

Why Star Wars and Sci-Fi Actually Don't Suck

Yes, I read Kathy’s anti-Star Wars, and sci-fi and computer games, piece in bemusement. Consider this my polite reply.

When Star Wars first came out in 1977, it stirred the chords of my then six-year-old heart like nothing ever had before. The buzz about the film went on for months, all through the year, and when I finally saw it in the theater in late 1977, it didn’t disappoint. It was glorious — fun, macho, funny, dazzling — a ticket to another universe. The experience was incredible. The buzz continued straight through to The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and Return of the Jedi in 1983. It’s fair to say that Lucas’ arts dominated my childhood, but more importantly, the films he churned out in that period were actually good films. Empire’s foreshadowing, defeats, pacing, and twists make it one of the greatest films of its decade, if not the 20th century.

But here’s a little known fact about Star Wars: More than just being a series of two very good films, a pair of decent films and a pair of bad films, it bequeathed a whole industry. I’m not talking about the parallel marketing of the toys, many of which I used to own and now wish I still did because they would be worth a pile of money. I’m talking about Photoshop, and the broader digital imaging industry.

Photoshop was created by brothers John and Thomas Knoll. John Knoll was on the ILM team that breathed life into the Star Wars universe. He wanted to improve ILM’s processes for flying TIE fighters around and creating light sabers and blaster bursts. His brother, Thomas, was a coder on early Apple computers. Thomas built the code for a program that allowed Apples to manipulate photos. John saw the program’s true potential, and together they built Photoshop. Today it’s one of the most useful and ubiquitous programs on the planet, a powerful tool for serious photographers, artists, editors and hobbyists alike. I owe much of my career at NASA and in blogging to Photoshop and After Effects, and thus to Thomas and John Knoll, and thus to Star Wars. Not because I go around dressing up like a storm trooper (I never have, don’t, and never will) but because the team behind Star Wars helped advance and democratize the technology behind the film making industry. Photoshop led to Premiere, to Avid, to Final Cut, and back to Avid and Premiere and iMovie and Movie Maker and to editing video on your iPhone, and also to the broadening improvement of more advanced programs like Maya and Lightwave. Would Apple have become the preferred brand of digital artists if Photoshop hadn’t existed? Or would it have died as many other early computer brands did? ILM and its competitors, and some of us in the digital arts industry who never worked for any of the big effects houses, have pushed relentlessly to expand what computers can do for film, which has in turn led to more powerful computers and cheaper digital video technology. This impact on our daily lives isn’t as profound as the impact the space program has had on the technology we use every day in the first world, but it is far reaching and has enabled an awful lot of success for an awful lot of people.

I’ll grant that the SW prequels until Revenge of the Sith are awful films (Revenge goes in the “decent” pile, along with Jedi, though the Darth Vader “Nooooo!” nearly kills the whole film and Lucas seems determined to ruin the good ones now). They’re lifeless, predictable bores, not just because we know what that little boy turns into, but because the dialog is awful and, other than Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, all of the performances are terrible. Lucas is a great vision man, but his directing skills just don’t exist. He should hand the writing over to someone like R. A. Salvatore and the directing to, well, just about anyone. Go play with your spaceships, George.

That said, Star Wars isn’t the sum total of his career. Along with creating horrors like Howard the Duck, George Lucas has had a major hand in two blockbuster film series, both of which have produced quality films. Star Wars gave us two, and the Indiana Jones series, which Lucas wrote or developed the stories for, gave us two as well: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. Raiders is easily one of the best films of its decade, probably the best of Harrison Ford’s great career, and does what films are supposed to do: Entertain. And make a whole lot of money. I’ll grant that much of both of these franchises are derivative of earlier works, but what isn’t? A great poet of our time wrote:

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief, all kill their inspiration and sing about their grief…

And so it goes. George Lucas brought a touch of the great Akira Kurosawa to the world outside Japan, and updated the film serials of the past. Lucas may or may not be a great artist all on his own, but he does have a great eye for story and for quality in others. It’s not as though Lucas even tried to hide his films’ Japanese origins. What is Darth Vader, if not a cursed samurai given over to pure evil? What is Palpatine, if not the sci-fi version of a wicked shogun? Both character designs come very obviously out of medieval Japan.

Now, if you hate sci-fi it follows that you’ll probably hate both of Lucas’ most successful franchises, but that doesn’t make them bad films and it doesn’t make sci-fi a bad genre. There’s a tendency around to try to force others to stop liking things that we don’t like. Well, I love sci-fi. When I’m not reading up on politics, I’m probably reading either legitimate history or sci-fi/fantasy. Good sci-fi, like good video games, gets your mind going. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Jack McDevitt and Lars Walker. Both are fine writers with interesting minds who can create a universe and invest that universe with life. I don’t just read sci-fi/fantasy for the escape. I read it because, right now, it’s where the intellectual action is in fiction. Stop laughing, you snobs out there, and pick up some Asimov or Heinlein or Robert Jordan, and remember that Mozart was to some extent the Spielberg of his day. He was an immensely talented pop artist whose work has survived because it is great. You’ll find in sci-fi/fantasy some real firepower being put to the use of envisioning the future or creating a past that never was, and a whole lot less predictability in sci-fi/fantasy than other genres. Sci-fi/fantasy is the home of real creativity in literature these days, in my humble opinion. The years I spent on the Hubble project at NASA tell me that a huge number of the world’s most successful astrophysicists agree, and were inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek or other sci-fi to do what they do as adults. Not dress up in costumes, though a few do that: I’m talking about exploring space and pushing our knowledge to the bleeding edge and beyond.

As for the suckitude of video games, well, hating sci-fi flows pretty naturally toward hating other things that sci-fi lovers love, including video games. But is it possible to be successful in life and play video games? I’ll let the team behind Minecraft answer that one. Two European gamers built Minecraft on their own, and it sells on the Internet for $20. They marketed it via word of mouth (or keyboards) and let the world beta test their product for them. To date, Minecraft has sold nearly 5 million copies, at a going rate of nearly 10,000 purchases per day. You do the math and decide for yourself whether they qualify as “successful.”

If Minecraft’s creators hadn’t played video games, they wouldn’t know what it takes to build a good one, and they wouldn’t be nearing $100,00,000 in gross sales. They built a great, and very creative, video game. Their success follows naturally from the earlier success of the simulation/sandbox games pioneered by Will Wright, game player and creator of Sim City among other massive game franchises. The fact is, video games as an industry surpassed the movie industry in terms of revenue a few years ago. They arguably surpassed movies as a creative artform that impacts society and pushes technological improvements around at the same time. That’s especially true of Star Wars itself, in which the games have been far more interesting and creative than the movies, for a long, long time. Like movies, video games are neither morally good nor bad, it’s the content and time users spend on them that make the difference. Nevertheless, players gonna play and haters gonna hate.

For my closing argument, I wish to enter into the body of evidence, this.

Which led, years later, to this:

Notice the improvement in imaging technology?

I rest my case.