We have some more images of Star Wars: The Force Awakens now. We have some antagonists, protagonists, and a picture below everything of the fancy new aliens awaiting us which thankfully are mostly practical costumes from the looks of things. jtacmuseblog.tumblr.com/post/1…
Aside from the fact there doesn't appear to be a single person over thirty (with the obvious exception of creaky Grandpa Han Solo. Even Chewie looks to be bright eyed and bushy tailed despite his age.) there's another thing that occurred to me in passing that maybe everyone else ignored or has no interest in or simply didn't notice.
You'd think a fine display of creative alien species would inspire confidence in a production for me, especially since according to everyone I know I am irrationally predisposed to practical over computer generated effects work in films.
Here's the thing though...
The aliens do look...fine. They're all very creative and nicely designed and clearly tons of money and time went into making them.
Here's the Cantina creates from the original Star Wars:img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20…
See the difference?
The major dissimilarity at least I see in each of these instances is the absence or presence of cohesion: namely REPEATS.
In the original Cantina scene of Star Wars the most arresting idea in the production wasn't just the sheer variety of aliens (at least for me) it was the unheard of suggestion that there were alien SPECIES involved. All of the aliens playing the music are the same species. We see 'regular' humans in the crowd as well such as a guy in an X-Wing flight suit asking the bartender for a drink. The juxtaposition of the strange and the mundane to me always makes the situation seem more grounded and by association, perhaps ironically, allows me to project myself into the plot more readily. If I can picture not just a random jumble of weirdness but a universe with it's own rules, it's own history, it's own parameters even just by suggestion that story becomes much more interesting to me.
Imagine if all the aliens were different and the only human around was Han Solo. It might still work well enough as a scene but I think the impression would be that there was no real thought put into this storyline beyond generalized oddity for the sake of visual interest. You see a lot in lazy or cheap productions an emphasis on strangeness, but it can quickly come off as generic.
Unless there's some kind of grounding principal.
Here's some aliens hanging out at the pod races in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.img1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20…
Despite some one-off aliens in the pod race scene subconsciously I can identify at least some of the species from previous Star Wars films (especially the three-eye-stalk guy, the red alien with the twin-head-tails, and the guy who looks like a squid). We can identify to a certain degree some of the relationships between characters as well based on past experience. The twin-head-tail aliens (Twi'leks) are usually portrayed as slaves for powerful people so the tall guy although we've never seen his species before is clearly a power broker of some kind because of his holding the leash of the grinning Twi'lek lass in the revealing metal slave costume (well established by Star Wars The Return of the Jedi when Leia is forced to wear a similar one). George or his production designer have sewn into the unfamiliar the familiar. The scene doesn't look random just because of the inclusion of a few new races. It brings about diversity by hooking the unknown into the known at a glance.
But then there's the J.J alien line up. Do ANY of these species look familiar? There's something that looks a little like C-3Po and some old creepy humans in weird costumes, but the other aliens don't look at all even remotely familiar to the previous series or anything remotely understandable. In the Cantina scene as well as the pod race crowd we can work out what might be happening because of the similarity events in that science fiction scenario has to real world events. The Cantina has aliens in it, but they're listening to live music and enjoying drinks at a bar. The pod race is a weird future sport played and watched by aliens, but what they're doing still boils down to witnessing a live event, receiving concessions, and cheering for their favorite (or bet upon) competitors.
I realize the J.J scene is out of context, but what possible context could any of these guys be in that would make the least amount of sense?
They're all dissimilar; even the humans are deliberately made up to look completely different from each other like the creepy old guy, the girl with the silly hat, the fat guy with a ponytail, the crouching guys who look vaguely like bounty hunters or...something. It looks visually dynamic and interesting, but at what cost?
It reminds me of this tavern scene from the movie Dungeons and Dragons:www.yourprops.com/movieprops/o…
Again, looks fine and it's very diverse, but the issue still remains: is this a snapshot of a living world we're seeing, or just a bunch of non-speaking concept art pieces wandering around?
Nobody refers to Dungeons and Dragons the movie as feeling the least bit interesting as a world. Despite everything people say about the Star Wars prequels however people still championed the Star Wars brand as enduring because of the rich and interesting context an underwhelming story and largely uninteresting characters were part of.
In the D&D film the idea seems pretty simple: make everything seem all fantasy-ish. We'll add in guys with wizard robes and other guys in monster masks to make it seem like there's other races and professions to this film even if all we get is a glimpse of them.
But again, this doesn't have to be the case and the original Star Wars proved that!
After an encounter with wild Jawa aliens by our heroes you might be forgiven for supposing that the Jawas are just one shot monsters that are there to bother the characters and transport R2-D2 and C3-PO around.
But when Obi Wan, Luke, and the rest get to the infamous Mos Eisley space sport...www.starwarz.com/tbone/wp-cont…
Look in the corner: JAWAS!
Marathon that, they're Jawas that are just sitting down. They aren't selling robots or doing anything we've seen Jawas do up till now. What are they doing? Maybe they're beggars of resting or waiting...who knows?
The point is (and this blew my mind as a kid honestly) that the creatures we had seen in one part of the fantasy universe existed in other parts
OF THAT SAME UNIVERSE.
Having seen a lot of animated fantasy/sci-fi shows I was used to crowd scenes being packed with weird, vague designs to indicate without a lot of effort that 'This is an alien/fantasy world', like this crowd scene from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.www.he-manreviewed.com/wp-cont…
All of these aliens are unique, but they look a little slapped together. If you asked the animator to tell you what they were called or how they lived he'd probably shrug. They're aliens...or something. They all look creative, but the truth is that for all that creativity they're just filler. You won't see any of these aliens again after a scene like this because they don't LIVE anywhere. The two-headed guy is just there to look weird in this scene. The guy with three eyes or the giant with new pupils or the sunglasses wearing guy in the back with the tall hat? They don't exist except as people to be in this scene.
But when you have repeats, when you have indications that the species is a species and not just a bizarre set decoration then you are crafting world, not just filling up space.
This is a scene from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. www.geeksofdoom.com/GoD/img/20…
This big guy is called Morn. He was often shown in the background of scenes set in the bar called Quark's (owned by Quark) and was mostly there to be a scenery setting extra, but later on in the series he had quite a few things to do in episodes. For example he began the series with hair but later on was bald. The reason? Apparently he tried to smuggle some irradiated in his second stomach! He had a time, a plot arc where he faked his own death. For a normally background weird alien character he had so much going on in his life behind the scenes it would often bleed into the show proper.
Then there's Star Trek 11's bar scene with this guy...40.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kwr…
This alien is seated between Kirk and Uhura and is annoyed by the two of them flirting with each other. He never says a word, but as Morn proved you don't need to say much to be established as a character. So who is this guy? What backstory did the creators dream up so he would be more than just a prop that occasionally moved?
His name is...Long Faced Alien.
Apparently the production company used to call him 'Brian ' but that was just to distinguish him from the other aliens. He is so generic that the creators of the movie had to give him a stand in name so they could remember who he was. He has no story. At all. Memory Alpha is a website devoted to die-hard Star Trek fans and collects all known information on even the most ancillary characters in every show and film.
Morn has a page devoted to him.
Long Faced 'Brian' has less than three sentences.
And how about the other people in the crowd? Well clearly the writers/production designers cared about the world they were building when we have dynamic characters like
*Cadet with Blue Drink
and lets not forget the most memorable of all
Now lets compare, shall we, to the COMPLETE cast roster of every single alien that not only was in the original Star Wars Cantina scene but also in the Star Wars Christmas special cantina scene! images1.wikia.nocookie.net/__c…
Yes you might argue none of these people matter, but...just look! All of these people have their own alien races. Some of them have more than one name. Characters like Momaw Nadon (the guy who looks like a big snail) has shown up in comics and video games. There's ACTION FIGURES for half of these guys and backstories for much of the rest.
But J.J's approach seems to be using the 'fill' tool on the background. Maybe in time honored traditional some of these aliens here will be named and given backstories, but at the moment and given the track record of the previous Star Trek films, it seems more likely they'll just look weird and that's all they're meant to do.
When the most dedicated fans get hold of it or the extra-cannon materials pour in maybe some of these guys will see better exposure, but it just seems to me it will be an uphill battle.
There's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in any form of fiction (especially Star Wars which pays homage to fast-and-loose sci-fi serials which had no aspirations generally of making cohesive universes) but it seems to me that George Lucas and others have in the past stepped up the game instead of letting it slide into pointlessness.
The bounty hunters that Darth Vader hires? All named and all have shown up constantly throughout the lore, the most successful of the bunch being Boba Fett who managed to become integral to the entire plot of the series and a fan-favorite despite being introduced without a single line of dialogue.
There's also the mysterious mastermind in the X-Files series: The Cigarette Smoking Man.theredlist.com/media/database/…
This 'character' wasn't intended to be a character at all! The actor who plays him was simply an extra on set who decided to smoke a little during a scene. The action, the sort of menacing glare he gives to the actors was all improvised...and later on adapted into a character nearly as iconic as the two lead heroes.
The actor and eventually the director and writer took what was essentially a background character and injected them with life that overflowed into a fully fledged person. People asked on forums the moment he showed up 'Who is that guy?' The fact that he didn't speak became a mystery. The world of the story seemed so alive that even someone as innocuous as a guy leaning against a cabinet smoking seemed to harbor secrets.
So you see why I'm a little upset if the most we get nowadays is a bunch of throwaway weirdos. Yes this trend inhabits even productions I like such as The Lord of the Rings and the later Star Wars films a little too often indulged in weird designs for the sake of oddity or selling toys, but there have been great success stories of building upon ideas instead of just splattering them everywhere and hoping they stick.
I need to be convinced that the writer/director/producer cares. Throwing money at a screen doesn't do that for me.
It might seem odd but I like my fantasy/sci-fi to have some kind of consistency. It's all very nifty to dream big and have something new show up every second, but the problem is that can come across as someone who has no ties to reality or a more like an adult talking down to a child.
Here's an actual street crowd on an actual street in actual reality.caracteres-caracteresmx.netdna…
You see different people, different walks of life, different costumes, different races and identities and heights and widths and any of the rest of it, sure, but you also see correlations. There's people of similar skin colors, ages, costumes. We don't see the crowd made up of people who all look entirely dissimilar even though there's a representation of many different races and lifestyles here. It's not an equal split of diversity: it's a sampling that feels organic because of repeats, because of correlations.
Ah, but is this alien world supposed to represent perhaps some kind of mysterious Eastern country? Maybe the intention was to suppose a strange place to Western eyes where the people dress differently and their ways of curious. A little condescending to other nations perhaps, but that entrancement with the exotic has been with us since the beginning.
Fine and dandy. Lets take a look at an exotic street market from the exotic mysterious middle east.jesusrosas.com/revista/wp-cont…
We have diversity again, but interesting there's actually LESS of it than the previous crowd in the First World country. Here the populace is almost uniformly middle eastern. They mostly dress similarly. There's an age range but not much of one. For all the surroundings being different we're still presented with a perhaps distressing lack of the odd. They dress differently but that's about the major distinction, that and the racial unanimity.
Tatooine is supposed to be a space port: a nexus of trade.
So lets look at an actual airport crowd.www.scmp.com/sites/default/fil…
At a distance especially everyone looks pretty much the same. They're engaged in similar activities despite the difference in nationality represented. There seems a near similar range of races/ages/genders here too. This is the nexus of cultural exchange on display, thousands of people from all over the world, and yet we don't see that much of a difference.
We don't see too many 'weird' things. We don't see guys from Spain dressed 'Spanish' or Mexicans dressed 'Mexican'. We don't see Asians wearing wide brimmed straw hats or Americans wearing shirts with the American flag all over it. This may all sound very racist, but it's exactly the way that people seem to think aliens are in their productions as well. Every alien dressed and behaves and acts the same way. They don't have personalities or histories they're just weird things that look weird.
But consider the crowd below. Each of these people you could be forgiven for saying look interchangeable, but down in that crowd is a million stories.
The differentiating factor in each person isn't how they look but who they are. They come from different places, have experienced different things, are going to do different things. They don't have to look that interesting to BE interesting.
I GET IT.
The supposed purpose of a weird alien world is to be weird and alien. We supposed to see stuff we haven't before. We're supposed to think 'ooh, that's odd!' and marvel at the creativity on display.
But if that's all it is we aren't looking at a world any more: we're looking at a concept artist's portfolio.
How is a more expensive diorama of empty alien subtypes that have no existence outside of glorified scenery any better than an animated kid's show that has a wall of shadowy aliens sketched in to fill up space?
Yes it's 'practical' but that doesn't mean it's good.
CGI, Practical, animated, live action...I DON'T ACTUALLY CARE THAT MUCH.
What I do care about is something that tells a story, characters who live.
Star Wars became famous for it's 'used future' feel. Space ships weren't shiny, peerless devices, they were practically treated like used cars. Blasters were oily and dented. Alien planets were dingy and lived in. Clothing and hair was mussed.
Now it looks so clean, so planned, so very...stagey.
If this crowd is any indication that's the feel of this production: expensive and tailored to the last detail without any room for imagination.
But a crowd scene CAN give us that: a window on the world we may never get to see but in that one panning show got a little taste of.
People, not just props.