Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Guest Post: HED: Must-Study Sci-Fi: The Battle at Carkoon (Return of the Jedi) by JC Hutchins

JC Hutchins, author of 7th Son: Descent, will be guest blogging for today. He sent clones of Boba Fett to take over.


Hi there. I'm J.C. Hutchins, a sci-fi novelist and unapologetic Star Wars geek. I'm obnoxiously old school in my love for the franchise: I barely tolerate the Special Editions, I believe that bounty hunter Boba Fett is deader than disco (gobbled by the mighty Sarlacc, and not a "survivor" as the post-trilogy books claim), that Han most definitely shot first, that CGI Jabbas are buzz-killing bad juju, and that midichlorians are a mighty peculiar way to measure the power of the Force.

And for the love of Palpatine, lightsabers come in only three colors: blue, green and red. Purple? Bah!

I love the original trilogy. As a storyteller, I study the original trilogy. I think George Lucas and the original series' writers did a masterful job of first building a solid stand-alone narrative in A New Hope, and then figured out a clever way to extend the series into a trilogy, with compelling character arcs for several of its characters. Star Wars is certainly science fiction, but in many ways it doesn't feel like SF ... mostly because nearly every aspect of the tale has a familiar present-day analog. Religion, swords, fascism, fighter planes, lovable rogues, surly sidekicks -- it goes on and on. If only all sci-fi could be so accessible to the masses!

As a novelist, I watch for how other tale-tellers excel. In the case of Lucas and Star Wars, it's in three key areas: effectively using an ensemble cast, telling subplot-powered parallel tales with that cast, and pacing. This may be best represented in the showdown on the desert planet of Tatooine in Return of the Jedi, as Luke Skywalker and friends fight above the Sarlacc pit, a hole that likes to eat people.

If you're a writer, there's lots to learn from in that scene. I know my use of ensemble cast, pacing and action in my human cloning thriller 7th Son: Descent is highly influenced by lessons learned from this bit in the flick. I dare not do a shot-by-shot breakdown (though I've studied it that closely), but I'll share some relevant beats within the sequence so you might glean some wordsmithy value from it, or appreciate it a bit more as a viewer.

We'll start with a conversation between Han and Luke, who are held prisoner aboard a spiffy air-speedboat, traveling to their doom. Han, fresh from his carbonite block, says that his temporary blindness seems to be ebbing. Luke says he has a plan. Foreshadowing.

Meanwhile on his pleasure barge, sluggy gangster Jabba the Hutt is flirting with Princess Leia, who's chained to his throne (much to the chagrin of feminists everywhere, including myself). We've seen him give that chain a good yank or two before this sequence, so we're clearly aware that it's there. Boba Fett is presumably nearby, looking cool.

Cut to droids C-3P0 and R2-D2. Threepio, ever the selfish diva, frets that he and Artoo might be destroyed after Luke and friends are executed. Artoo replies with a series of confident bleeps: he's certain things will work out. That's more economical foreshadowing -- and the viewer doesn't pay it much mind, as the tease hails from a chirping trash can.

Finally, the air skiffs carrying Luke, Han, Chewbacca and an incognito Lando pull into position above the Sarlacc. Luke warns Jabba to free them, or else. (He's done this several times before this scene, in fact.) The villain gives a predictable chuckle, and tells his toadies to kill the prisoners. All hope is lost.

At this point, we've got three parallel stories happening here: the droids, Leia and Jabba, and Luke and friends. We don't know it yet, but the foundations of what's to come have already been built. From a craft perspective, it's all over but the shoutin'.

Tubas blare. Luke gives R2 a salute from the air skiff's plank. He performs a Force-fueled backflip, and -- boom goes the dynamite! -- R2 launches a lightsaber, which Luke catches. Plot point payoff! Luke slices and dices, and frees his comrades.

Of course, fatty Jabba won't stand for this. He belches orders to take out the air skiff. Cannons fire, and Lando finds himself swinging above the Sarlacc, screaming for help. Ever-cool Boba Fett soars to the skiff. Luke is off to take care of another threat -- a second air skiff filled with Jabba flunkies.

The scene has now diverged into four parallel stories: the droids, Leia and Jabba, Luke on the second skiff, and Han, Chewy and Lando.

Han takes out Boba Fett by accident. (I know Fett fans wail at this -- an undignified death! -- but I've always been cool with it.) We cut to Jabba, who's wigging out, blubbering like a baby. In the confusion, Leia uses the slave chain to strangle the gangster. Pow! Another plot point payoff! A death rattle for the ages!

Back to the outside battle: Things just got worse for our heroes, thanks to cannon-fire hailing from the floating barge. Lando's slipping closer to the hungry Sarlacc's maw. Han is dangling upside-down from his skiff's edge. Chewie, the ever-faithful sidekick, is saving Han's bacon by clutching to his feet. Luke leaps from the second skiff to the barge, to take out that troublesome cannon.

Luke eliminates the cannon threat. Lando is nearly gobbled by the Sarlacc, but Han -- with some much-needed humor -- rescues him. Pow! His eyesight was getting better! The tide is turning, because the music tells us so.

Now we start to see the storylines coalesce: Artoo has met up with Leia, and frees her from her chain. Threepio, whose eye was being eaten by a muppet, is also rescued by Artoo. The trio make their way to the sundeck of the barge, where Luke is still duking it out.

Within seconds, we've gone from four parallel stories to two. Pretty cool.

In one of the few weaknesses of the sequence, Luke tells Leia to aim the barge's supercannon at the deck itself. (I consider this a weakness since this laser-howitzer, while visible during the action, wasn't sufficiently foreshadowed.)

But wait! The droids fall off the barge, into the sand below. Up to three parallel stories again!

The cannon fires, Luke and Leia swing to the air skiff via a magically-appearing rope (another weakness, but if we can buy into a talking slug, I guess we'll buy this), where they meet up with Lando, Han and Chewie. Back to two parallel stories. They pick up the droids as they flee the flaming barge, which brings the team back together into one unified narrative.

And then -- in what I consider the coolest explosion in the entire Star Wars series -- the big barge goes kablooey. The second act of the movie begins.

See what Lucas & Co. did in that scene? They gave several protagonists something to do -- or something to react to -- split them up, efficiently foreshadowed the plot twists, effectively cut to each unfolding narrative to remind the audience "what" was happening "where," and then brought the characters back together through well-established character behavior (and some fortuitous circumstances). And it ends with a big fireball, as all great stories should.

Oscar-winning writing, it ain't ... but it's a damned good representation of how writers can deftly juggle multiple storylines, build conflict, and keep characters faithful to their established behaviors. If you're a storyteller yourself, check the Battle of Carkoon sequence when you're struggling with narrative. There's some spiffy lessons to be learned in those six-and-a-half minutes....

1 comment:

Matt Heppe said...

"Han most definitely shot first" You got that right! What the hell were they thinking when they re-edited (poorly) the bar scene? Argh.

Thanks for the write-up of the battle over the Sarlacc pit. There is a lot to be learned there. Just don't watch Luke too closely. He's not exactly the most graceful or athletic Jedi ever to come along.