Sunday, October 12, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Luke's Late Introduction in Star Wars

Alas, Star Wars has never gotten an adequate DVD or Blu release. It seems fairly obvious at this point that Lucas feels humiliated by his inability to get back to this level of quality, so he’s decided to simply degrade the quality of the originals rather than attempt to compete.

This means that Lucas has never officially released the deleted scenes, which are essential viewing for anyone attempting to understand how this masterpiece came about. Luckily, the scenes keep popping on the internet, despite Lucasfilm’s periodic attempts to scrub them out.

Last week, James Kennedy and I debated the question of why we like Luke despite the fact that he has an underwhelming intro scene, and why we’re willing to wait 17 minutes before a real hero shows up. Today, let’s go back and address how that tricky situation came about.

Originally, Luke was not just our hero but also our POV character, literally. We meet him much earlier on, watching the Star Destroyer battle through his binoculars from down on Tatooine, then we see him run to tell his friends about it, and then he has a discussion with his old friend Biggs who has just returned from flight school. You can watch these scenes above.

What did these scenes do for the movie?
  • Establish who Luke is: his personality, his situation, and his goals
  • Give him more instantly likable dialogue: “I’m quiet, I’m quiet, listen to how quiet I am, you can barely hear me.”
  • Give Luke more of a classic unjust social humiliation: His friends think he’s lying about the battle and the girl mocks him for it, but we were there and saw it with him, so they’re mocking us too, strongly establishing our identification with Luke.
  • Create parallel characters for Luke (those who are content to stay vs. one who has already left), showing him (and us) possible paths he could take.
  • Establish who Biggs is.
  • Establish more precisely why Luke can’t leave.
  • Establish more precisely the nature of the Empire and its relationship to the outer planets.
  • Establish why someone like Luke who hates the Empire would want to go to Imperial flight school, (Biggs reveals that would-be rebels graduate and then instantly defect to the other side, which they have to locate through rumors.)
So then these are the consequences of cutting these scenes out:
  • Luke is left with a much more indistinct intro scene.
  • We just have to guess who Biggs is when we briefly meet him later.
  • We have to infer Luke’s situation from his conversation with his uncle, though it’s never clear.
  • We have to infer the nature of the Empire from later scenes with Vader, though it remains unclear.
  • We remain utterly baffled as to why Luke wants to go Imperial flight school if he hates the empire so much (though most of us don’t notice the discrepancy until later viewings)
So then why were these scenes cut?
  • First and foremost, because Luke was wearing a goofy hat. They saw the dailies and instantly realized their mistake, but it was too late to reshoot. (And even if it had less goofy, hats shadow the eyes and make characters harder to identify with.)
  • The locations don’t have as much character as the other locations in the movie. They feel far more generic, with fewer unique and fascinating details.
  • These scenes are all backstory and no frontstory. Luke is passively receiving and dispensing information. His actions here effect no changes.
  • More importantly, they take up way too much time. The story really begins when Luke sees the hologram. That would have happened at 28 minutes instead of 20, which would have been unacceptable.
Does the movie get away with it? Absolutely. As in this previous example I cited from The Terminator, it’s clear why it was necessary to have these scenes in the script, so as to form a reader’s bond to Luke on the page, but once the footage came in, it became clear that Hammil’s performance was so good that these scenes became unnecessary: even in the underwhelming scene that now introduces the character, Hammil is telling us most of the missing info with his eyes, so we don’t need to hear it out loud.

Later, in the dinner scene, Luke’s words are insufficient to clarify what’s going on, but his eyes and tone of voice tells us everything we need to know. The actors playing Owen, Beru and Ben tell a lot of it with their eyes, too. (So much so that, in Empire, the filmmakers realized that they could add a big twist to justify the complexity of emotion going on behind everyone’s eyes when they mentioned Luke’s dad.)

It must have been hard to cut these scenes (“But then it won’t make any sense when he runs into Biggs at the end!” etc.) but they demonstrated an admirable dedication to tone over plot. It was more important that the story remain fast, fun, and exciting, even if it made a lot less sense. Why are today’s modern blockbusters all 150 minutes? Because filmmakers no longer have the courage to cut these seemingly-essential but ultimately-extraneous scenes.

1 comment:

j.s. said...

It's rare that you see deleted scenes that are as great in every way as the ones in the feature, but that somehow just didn't fit the flow of the narrative. These are no exception. They've been cut not only or even primarily because the story ought to start in medias res, doesn't need to be front loaded with backstory, etc. They've been cut because they are kind of bad and pretty boring.

These early scenes also remind me of Hemingway's biggest lesson from Gertrude Stein who took a look at some of his first stories and advised him to cut out the beginnings, just literally lop off the first page or so.

There's something to be said for trusting your audience to enter an interesting world and figure some things out for themselves, for not worrying if every last person in the theater doesn't get every single detail on a first viewing.