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Star Wars IV: So is it a remake? And if so, what type of remake?

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve been thinking a bit about ‘remakes’ these days, especially as I’m exciting about the upcoming Spike Lee remake of one of my favourite films of the last 10 years, OldBoy. I’m particularly intrigued by this remake as it has a particular problem to overcome – the ‘twist’ near the end, which is so crucial to the film, is very well known to anyone who likes this type of gothic violent thriller. Its strongly hinted in the publicity for the film that they will replace it with an entirely new twist – which raises the question of whether Oldboy without that particular *spoiler alert* shock incest storyline is really a remake. In which case, why go to the trouble of ‘remaking’ it, rather than just use the base storyline (a man kidnapped and locked away for 15 years without any explanation) for an entirely new film?

    Now everyone who has ever dipped into discussion forums around film knows that ‘remakes’, especially of much loved originals attracts the ire of many film lovers more than almost anything. I’ve never had a great problem with it myself – it seems to me that creative reinterpretations are the lifeblood of most of the arts. And unless you go back to Eisenstein and Chaplin, very little in cinema since the middle of the 20th Century is really original. Even Ozu’s Tokyo Story was arguably a remake of a Hollywood film. I actually find it quite intriguing as to how skilled film makers approach existing films and stories, especially when it crosses cultures, which is one reason I’ve enjoyed D.P. Martinez’s book ‘Remaking Kurosawa‘ so much.

    Martinez argues in the chapter of that book ‘Cloning Kurosawa’ that Star Wars avoids the ‘remake’ tag because it combines genres with the basic storyline/characters of Hidden Fortress to make something genuinely new. I know Vili has argued similarly. But, on watching A New Hope for the first time in years, what struck me most is that the film is much less ‘sci fi’ than I had remembered. It has little of the curiosity about science and society which is characteristic of that genre. Instead, I think of it as much more of a science fantasy film. I know there are no formal definitions of these genres, but I tend to think of science fantasy as the transposing of classic historical stories into an invented future or otherworldly scenario. So while A New Hope lacks the dragons and magic of much science fantasy, it shares the general interest with classic storytelling in a pseudo medieval society.

    As such, it seems to me that choosing this sort of world for the film is a quite logical transplanting for a samurai film. It is a world of clashing warlords in a society where there is no post-enlightenment alternative to emperors and princesses – only a choice between ‘good’ rulers and ‘bad’ rulers. Never in Star Wars is there any mention of modern democracy – it is a classic feudal society of an inherited aristocracy with a caste of noble retainers, with a vague nod to the Roman style of aristocratic ‘democracy’ through a Senate. They even unquestioningly have ‘slaves’ in the form of sentient robots. If anything, it is the Empire which seems more modern, with its fairly egalitarian selection of meritocratic bad guys. The only nod to a non-feudal world is the freewheeling anarchy/libertarianism of Han Solo.

    So I don’t really see Star Wars IV as having changed genre in any significant way from Hidden Fortress. It is a simple transposition into an appropriate milieu, no different from Seven Samurai and Yojimbo being transported with various degrees of success to the wild west. And in fact, when you look at the many other films influenced and remade of Kurosawa since Star Wars, it seems so many film makers agreed with Lucas that an ill-defined future or animated fantasy world is the most appropriate.

    While Star Wars of course does introduce a number of hints from other genres – there is a bit of swashbuckling, and Han Solo has a bit of the cowboy to him, I don’t see these as any different from the selection of genres Kurosawa sampled. John Ford of course was as much an influence on Kurosawa as he was on many later Hollywood directors, and there are many non-Japanese elements I think in his Samurai films. So I don’t see the notion of ‘combining genres’ as a strong argument for saying that Hidden Fortress was just one influence of many on Lucas, rather than the actual ‘original’.

    Now to the actual story. I don’t think there is any need to reiterate the common elements between A New Hope and Hidden Fortress. The two squabbling peasants – the inexperienced but gritty princess – the flight through enemy territory with a precious cargo. Even the wookie (Martinez argues that the awkward, gangling slave girl is the model for the Wookie). While the General has gone, to be replaced with Luke, Han Solo and Obi-Wan, I’m not sure this is any greater an alteration than the mix and match of characters which led from Seven Samurai to The Magnificent Seven. Even the ending is not so different – while in Hidden Fortress it is implied (through the new high status of the Princess) that they have defeated their enemies rather than show the Death Star explode, the overall arc and result is pretty much the same – the cargo is delivered successfully, the enemy is defeated, the rightful (caste) order is restored.

    So I’m increasingly of the opinion that Star Wars should be seen as a remake in the same sense that The Outrage, The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars are remakes. They took the basic story, transposed it to a more familiar setting for a western audience, and altered the base storyline and characters to fit into this new setting. I don’t feel that Lucas altered the story any more than Ritt and Sturges did for their films.

    On a subjective basis, I would personally rank Star Wars as above The Outrage and The Magnificent Seven in its artistic success, but well behind A Fistful of Dollars, which for me is the supreme remake/reimagining of a Kurosawa film. Maybe significantly, Leones film is the one which sticks most closely to the original.

    Thoughts?

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    Vili Maunula

    Interesting. I wouldn’t myself call Star Wars: Episode IV a remake of The Hidden Fortress. It definitely is influenced by it (as well as other samurai films), but the actual final story line is so different that the similarities seem to me quite superficial.

    While with The Outrage, The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars you can pretty much always say what a particular scene corresponds to in the original, this seems impossible with Star Wars, apart perhaps from a couple of specific instances — the droids walking on the desert, for instance.

    In fact, the story points that Episode IV shares with The Hidden Fortress — delivering the princess through enemy lines, for instance — are pretty much repeated also in other Star Wars films, especially episodes V and I, without actually making them any more (or less) of Kurosawa remakes.

    So, I would say that while it is certainly easy to see Kurosawa and Japanese culture as an influence on Star Wars, I would not call Lucas’s film a remake of Kurosawa’s. Also, I don’t think that Kurosawa should be considered the only major influence on Lucas — while I don’t know the comics, I believe that Flash Gordon was also a huge source of inspiration. For instance, the opening text crawl is pretty directly copied from the Flash Gordon films.

    But I would be interested to hear what others here think!

    I do definitely agree with you that Star Wars is not science fiction. I’m not even sure if it should be called “science fantasy”. There is very little science in it. “Space fantasy” might be a better name. But that, I think, is exactly what the film aims to be, with its famous “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” opening. It very consciously puts itself into the mythical past, rather than the anticipated future.

    This is probably also why the society there feels so much like ancient Rome or Greece — I actually didn’t realise that the robots are indeed slaves. A good point! As for democracy, I think that this topic is explored in slightly more detail in the prequels. Which is unfortunate, as the topic isn’t really Lucas’s forte. Then again, he still handles it better than the love story. Brrh. But anyway, I think that in Lucas’s universe, at least some of the monarchs are elected. Or at least I left the films with the understanding that Princess Padme (the mother of Luke and Leia) was an elected princess, and not princess by birth. But I may be mistaken.

    Finally — a bit unrelated, but what actually is the film that you meant to link to as Ozu’s source for Tokyo Story? My browser takes me to Oldboy, which I doubt was your intention. 🙂 Was it supposed to be Make Way for Tomorrow?

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Finally — a bit unrelated, but what actually is the film that you meant to link to as Ozu’s source for Tokyo Story? My browser takes me to Oldboy, which I doubt was your intention. Was it supposed to be Make Way for Tomorrow?

    Yes, sorry about that, my fault. I did indeed intend to link to Leo McCarey’s film.

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    lawless

    I’m tired and should be on my way to bed — it’s been a draining week over here — so for now my sole contribution to this discussion is it’s not a remake. Maybe I will be able to come back later and talk more about why I think that beyond pointing upward and saying “What Vili said,” but I wouldn’t count on it.

    I still have yet to go looking for our copy of Episode IV. It’s on videotape, and I’m fairly sure it predates Lucas’ unwarranted (imo) messing around with the movies. Fixing continuity glitches is one thing, but adding effects is just stupid.

    Despite the excruciating nature of much of Episode I, I liked the political sections. Vili’s right, those were better done than the love aspects. Your recollection that Padme was elected is correct. In fact, I believe the Senate was largely, if not entirely, elected.

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    lawless

    It turns out that we don’t have the copy of Star Wars IV: A New Hope that we thought we did, so I’ll have to get it from Netflix. I’d better send the copy of Plan B back tomorrow.

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    Ugetsu

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – That’s hilarious. It makes as much sense as most of the other theories.

    It turned out that there was a long line at Netflix for Star Wars IV: A New Hope and I got Flight instead before getting The Bad Sleep Well. Right now Star Wars is at the top of the queue with no indication of unavailability, but that could change. .

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    Vili Maunula

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Star Wars, if you manage to get a copy, lawless!

    As for the Onion article… somehow I never really get their humour. The ideas are often good, but the execution feels flawed. I thought that this was the case here as well. Or maybe I’m just needlessly critical of a satire magazine! In any case, thanks for the link Ugetsu!

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    coastalcruiser

    Hi. Just dropped in for the first time on other business, but couldn’t resist perusing this Star Wars thread. Smart crew here.

    ViLi says: do definitely agree with you that Star Wars is not science fiction. I’m not even sure if it should be called “science fantasy”. There is very little science in it. “Space fantasy” might be a better name…

    George agrees with you folks. He has stated in one of the film commentaries that Star Wars is fantasy, not Sci-fi.

    I would argue though that there is a lot of ‘science’ fiction in SW. Faster than light drives, teleporters, energy weapons, shields to keep energy weapons out, and last but not least… LIGHT SABERS!! :>

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    Vili Maunula

    coastalcruiser: I would argue though that there is a lot of ‘science’ fiction in SW.

    Even with Clarke’s third law in mind (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), I would say that I don’t consider faster than light travel, teleporters, energy weapons and shields or light sabres to automatically qualify something for the label “science fiction”, and in the form that they are presented in Star Wars (without any actual scientific explanation as for their working) think that they better fit the genre of “space fantasy”.

    Of course, a Star Wars film written by someone like Joe Haldeman would probably not have been quite the box office magnet as Lucas’s version was. 🙂

    Ultimately it is just a question of definitions. I personally like my scifi with an extra serving of science.

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    coastalcruiser

    Fair enough. 😉

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