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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

I thought I'd turn down the ol' flash lamp for a minute and jump in with the most ultimate Ultimate Geek Fu in the history of the column. And by "ultimate" I mean "absurdly absurd."

Here's the root: my limbic system pulsed the other day and told me, in a blind stroke of brilliance, that there are three and a half movies that share an obscure but distinct...fellowship with the Star Wars movies (the real ones from '77-'83, naturally.)

Thing is, I bet this list, if it exists for anyone else, is wildly different. So, here's my list of the 3-and-a-half Best Star Wars Movies, Not Involving George Lucas:

1 - Blade Runner - I thought about putting in the more obvious Raiders of the Lost Ark here (a diverse team against impossible odds in a high-octane pulp adventure, relying on the supernatural to save their home planet and defend liberty) but both movies feature Harrison Ford, and Blade Runner, for all its bleak nihilism, has a science fiction setting that put me back on my heels when I first saw it.

Why it counts as Star Wars:

a) The visceral feeling of transportation to an impossible, unknowable, yet familiar and decidedly worn (but not worn-out) world. Just as I would have quickly died in the cantina at Mos Eisley, yet still desperately wanted to order a glass of liquid blue chalk, I still wanted to live in Blade Runner's L.A., as bad and rough and run down and dangerously dazzling as it had become.

b) The problem of violence and artificial intelligence. As a result of the disastrous, costly and mysterious clone wars, droids in Star Wars have been enslaved and neutralized for any and all combat purposes. The replicants of Blade Runner always (until the "prequels") represented, for me, the grit and teeth of the clone wars: droids who could think and kill, and did both. And they looked like us... which explains why R2-D2 looked like a fire hydrant, yipped like a chihuaua and readily accepted restrictor bolts.

c) Unreal creatures. Like the recent Friday Challenge, Star Wars made the unfamiliar familiar. Greedo, Chewbacca, Jawas, Sand People - even at five years old, after seeing the movie once, I, and every kid I knew, could rattle off these names without thinking. They were as familiar as family pets. Conversely, Blade Runner made the familiar: owls, snakes, eyeballs, the 1940s, AT&T, Atari, eerily unfamiliar.

d) Blade Runner's future-noir vibe actually has a lot in common with Star Wars' serial vibe. Both are alternate future histories. If Blade Runner had ever shown a theater marquee, Star Wars, Episode IV could have nestled upon it - a flight of '40s fancy during the grim reality of a society in tumult. Both movies are, strangely, from the same era of the alternate future past.

2 - Buckaroo Banzai - This one is a Lucas-free Star Wars for me, again for the "what the heck is going on?...but I get it!" experience and also for its sense of fun. There are two movies whose closing credits pop inside my heart - every time I see them - like a firework on Independence Day: the Star Wars awards when the winners face the camera and the score ignites, and that weird Casio tune with the random gang members appearing as the credits roll on Banzai.

3 - Lost Skeleton of Cadavra - Fifteen seconds into the movie, and I said to myself "this is weird and it is perfect." Another band of gung-ho actors struggling to manage nonsensical dialog in a bizarre but accessible setting. Okay, so the evil alien medical supply prop isn't exactly the Death Star, but I can't name another movie I've seen as an adult that so soundly resurrected something that had come naturally as a child: a sense of fun. Besides, I'm pretty sure Han Solo's "Kessel Run" quote could have been slipped into Cadavra's script unnoticed.

Surprising people into having fun is harder work than ever. It is something Star Wars made look easy, and the Lost Skeleton did with a doggedness that is practically a lost art.

1/2 - Flash Gordon - This one's nowhere near the other three on my "Lucas-O-Meter." It is camp (i.e. intrinsically unserious), it has a huge number of production problems that aren't fun at all and the tone was uneven. But as a kid, all I knew is that Flash Gordon comics, while slightly "old fashioned" were rippers, and this movie gave me a very rough mash-up of Flash Gordon with two or three of the better Archie Goodwin/Carmine Infantino Star Wars comics set before the release of 1980's Empire Strikes Back.

Even though it was released a full six months after Empire, I was still processing the cliffhanger down-note of the second episode of the trilogy. Flash Gordon gave me a welcome, if cheap, return to the "good guys win - always" clarity of the first Star Wars, right down to the "mystery" of the improbable defeat and seclusion(?) of the lone surviving bad guy.

So, what are your 3 1/2 movies (whether for Star Wars or for another major iconic film that inspired you)?
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