Slow and Focused, Fast and Furious: A Comparison of Two Lightsaber Duels

When fans go see a new film set in the Star Wars saga, they expect to certain elements: spaceships, the Force, Jedi and Sith, space battles, and the inevitable lightsaber duel at the film’s climax. It’s the last that’s perhaps most looked forward to, where the filmmakers to let their creativity shine with excellently choreography, exciting backdrops, and emotional intensity. Yet, it’s easy to forget that the world’s first experience with lightsabers in ‘A New Hope’ was watching a 59 year old space wizard and an asthmatic cyborg poking at each other and doing unnecessary spins on the Death Star. Compared to the duels that came in the prequel and sequel trilogies, the first lightsaber fight in history is charmingly quaint.

But what if the first lightsaber fight of the Star Wars saga was more frantic, chaotic, and dangerous? Thanks to a dedicated fan (fans?), we finally have an answer with ‘Scene 38 Reimagined,’ a remake that uses CGI to allow Obi-Wan and Vader to be faster, more maneuverable, and destructive during their fight.

When I fist learned of the remake back in 2017, I was excited to see how it would turn out, as the trailer showed a fight that seemed to strike an ideal balance between the hard-hitting, rougher duels of the original trilogy, and the flashy (but enjoyable) extravagance of the prequel trilogy. And while the end result is indeed impressive, I noticed that something was missing. Puzzled, I rewatched the video a few times before realizing what it was: the fight’s emotional core.

In the original fight, the focus of the duel is on the emotional state between Obi-Wan and Vader. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other in 20 years. They were once friends and allies who fought to save the Galactic Republic, but are now enemies, and the focus of the fight isn’t on their skills or how powerful their blows are. In fact, most of the fighting is with words: Vader, wanting revenge on Obi-Wan for their duel on Mustafar, tries to crush Obi-Wan’s spirit, proclaiming his power and mastery over the Force. Obi-Wan, however, isn’t moved. He easily brushes off Vader’s taunts and sacrifices himself to help Luke and the others escape.

The reimagined fight, however, takes a different approach. While the verbal spars are still present, a greater focus is placed on the fight itself. And what a fight it is! Lightsabers slice into walls, fires are ignited, punches and headbutts are thrown, the Force is used to hurl both combatants around, and every attack is faster and more powerful than in 1977. It’s a visual treat, and an exciting reimagening of what might have been, had George Lucas possessed the resources to make something dazzling and visceral.

However, there’s a trade-off here: With the cruder lightsaber effects of the time, ‘A New Hope’ had to focus on the emotional aspect of Obi-Wan and Vader fighting. The reimagening’s focus on better, flashier visuals, which, in my opinion, takes the focus away from why the two are fighting. It’s still a fun sequence, but in my opinion, the quieter, more focused fight in the original packs more of an emotional punch. As the sayings go, bigger is not always better, and less is sometimes more: An emotional, intimate focus is what makes the Obi-Wan and Vader fight so compelling, not how they’re great swordfighters.

For writers, the big lesson that comes from comparing the two scenes is that the emotional context behind a fight is more important than the fight itself. All the fanciest moves, the best fight choreography, and the best visual effects money can buy will only get you so far if your audience isn’t invested in what’s going on. Conversely, if your audience is invested in seeing two characters fight each other, you’ll have a much better chance of creating a great fight that will stick with them for years.

What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.

Favorite Moments: ‘When Death Troopers Try Going Through a Drive-Thru’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video

Why it’s great

Today’s video is another perfect example of fish-out-of-water comedy, by taking the Empire’s elite Death Troopers off the battlefield, and having one of them try to order fast food… and learning that his (her?) voice-scrambling helmet isn’t the best thing to wear when trying to talk with an ordinary person.

Another subtle nugget I didn’t notice at first when watching this video is that this is a great example of how even the most intimidating, faceless people in stories are still human underneath all their armor, complete with dreams, hobbies, and not liking certain foods. Keeping such things in mind can help us when we write henchmen or elite soldiers: They may be dangerous and dedicated to their cause, but there’s more to them than what organization they serve or what kind of armor they wear.

What we can learn from ‘Jakku: First Wave’

Today, we’re taking a look at Star Wars, but not at one of the official movies, books, or games; we’re into the world of Star Wars fan films, and one that focuses on everyone’s favorite movie mooks: the stormtroopers. Unlike most fan films, though, this one is quite unique: There’s no laser blasts, no lightsabers, no force powers, or any of the other famous features of the galaxy far, far, away. Instead, it’s a psychological story that takes a look at three stormtroopers before entering the biggest battle of their lives. Let’s take a deeper look at what this short can teach us.

Consider having your story follow doomed characters just before their end

‘Jakku’ sets its tone instantly by telling us that everyone we’re about to see are going to die. That knowledge hangs heavy throughout the runtime as we watch the final minutes of the stormtrooper’s lives, knowing that they’re not going to make it through the battle to come.

In our own stories, focusing on the end of a character’s life – whether they know it or not – is an excellent way to get the audience’s attention. We’re used to our heroes charging into combat and making it out alive, sometimes without a scratch… but what about those who don’t have a chance? How do the underdogs, the faceless, nameless people who don’t have plot armor or aren’t main characters, face their end? I find that more fascinating than following someone who will survive because of their importance to the plot.

As I’ve written before, staring death in the face reveals who someone really is: Just how would you react to knowing that your end is about to occur in the next few minutes? Do you run? Hide? Face it head on? Incorporating such questions gives you the chance to see a character’s deepest self.

Consider making your story take place in one location

It may sound counter-intuitive – and even boring – to set your story in a single location. Who can make compelling stories about love and war, loss and betrayal in just one room? (or a cockpit, or a boat, or a car, etc.) Yet, such a thing is possible; ‘Jakku’ takes place entirely inside the hold of an AT-AT, and is captivating thanks the power of its story and the situation, instead of big, flashy visuals.

The advantage of doing a story set in a single location is that it forces you, the writer, to be creative with how you tell your story, as well as almost mandating that it becomes a character piece, as you won’t have access to big-budget special effects. Can you tell a sci-fi story in a single room? A post-apocalyptic drama? A historical period piece? No matter what tale you tell, it will be more intimate than the most sprawling, epic tale that goes to numerous exotic places. (and as a bonus, if you’re doing a movie, you’ll save a lot of money from only having to build one set)

Consider having your big, tough guy join the armed forces for a silly reason

The lone moment of humor in ‘Jakku’ is an effective one: The stoic, fearless trooper seems to fit the mold we’ve seen many times elsewhere: the tough guy who loves to fight and believes whole-heartily in his country. The patriot, so to speak, who joined the armed forces for the noblest of causes. But that’s not the case: he joined the Empire just because he wanted to wear stormtrooper armor.

Silly? Yes, but it’s amusing because we, the audience, expect the big, buff, military types to love their countries and wanting to serve it above everything else. Learning that they joined the armed forces for the silliest of reasons makes them more memorable by defying our expectations.

Consider focusing on why your characters fight

In my opinion, the one thing ‘Jakku’ does best is showing that these stromtroopers aren’t fanatical troopers who mindlessly follow orders and charge into battle without a second thought. They’re human, with different levels of fear and courage. One wants to avenge his younger brother, who died on the Death Star. The other wants to fight for the Empire’s ideals, and the last is there to prove to himself that he really can fight. This humanization helps us see the Empire not as an endless wave of white-coated redshirts who can’t shoot the broad side of a barn, but as people with different reasons for joining the Empire: Some selfish, some noble, and others who are just looking to try something new.

In your own works, exploring why characters fight and risk their lives makes the more human. It’s one thing to read about soldiers charging into battle, but knowing why they’re doing it (beyond being ordered to by their superiors) makes for more compelling storytelling. Knowing that someone is fighting to avenge a fallen family member or friend, or fighting dirty just to end a war so they can go home, or that they’re trying to prove to themselves that they’re brave makes the more compelling than gung-ho marines.

The Takeaway:

Doing a small scale story helps you focus on characters instead of distracting your audience with flashy visuals, and exploring why a small group of doomed people do what they do (such as fighting in a war) makes for compelling drama, even if their reasons for doing so are on the silly side.

Favorite Moments: The TRON Holiday Special

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

No, this isn’t a long-lost relic from the 80’s that should have stayed lost: this Funny or Die video pokes fun at the Star Wars Holiday Special by imagining what might have happened if TRON had a special of its own. The answer? It would have been as terrible/awesome as it’s infamous real-world counterpart.

While my favorite moment is poor Santa being de-rezzed, the whole video is a great example of the Christmas Special trope, and why it’s a near-perfect formula for comedy gold:

1. Take any franchise and give it a Christmas special, no matter how absurd it might be (Can you imagine a Hellraiser Christmas? How about a Waterworld Christmas?).

2. Have your characters save Christmas.

3. Have said characters learn the True Meaning of Christmas (which may or may not involve Jesus, depending on your audience).

If you’re looking for comedy, you really can’t loose with the Christmas Special: the more outlandish and non-family friendly franchises you get, the better the comedy. Imagine how hilarious it would be if Darth Vader had to deliver presents to all the good Stormtroopers on the Death Star and learn that it’s better to give than to receive. Or imagine Gandalf, Frodo, and the Fellowship traveling to Mordor to save Santa after he’s been kidnapped from Sauron. Or contemplate how amusing it would be for the Umbrella Corporation to feel the holiday spirit and work to make everyone’s Christmas a little merrier while simultaneously trying to destroy with with zombies.

No matter what genre your franchise is, injecting some holiday cheer is a great way to make your audience laugh… even if said franchise involves giant, shapeshifting robots from beyond the stars.

What we can learn from: ‘Ring One’

 

One of the greatest pleasures of our digital age is how easy it’s become for fans to create crossovers of their favorite franchises and play around with all manner of ‘what if?’ scenarios. Most of these revolve around characters and factions from different franchises fighting each other, but every so often, we get a crossover that tries something a little different.

This mashup of ‘The Return of the King’ and ‘Rogue One’ sounds like it would focus on, say, the Fellowship of the Ring infiltrating Scarif to steal the Death Star plans (Oh, how I would love to see Legolas taking out stormtroopers with his arrows), but  ‘Ring One’ tries something we don’t see very often in these mashups: Tragedy.

While it’s fun to imagine the Empire and the free people of Middle Earth fighting one another, and our heroes saving Middle-Earth, this mashup shows how it would really go: Everyone would die. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sauron, and everyone else are obliterated by the Death Star. Yet, while such a situation can be depressing, ‘Ring One’ makes it a great example of the ‘Face Death with Dignity‘ trope. We’re so used to seeing characters be brave and courageous when facing impossible odds in everyday life, but what happens when they face their inevitable deaths? Are they still brave and courageous? Do they try to flee, even when it’s hopeless? Do they pray? Do they try to comfort others?

For writers, having our characters know they’re going to die is a fantastic way to see their deepest qualities, to find out who they really are when they face the end. Here, Frodo still tries to get to the Crack of Doom, Sam spends his final moments of life trying to comfort him, and Gimil and Legolas finally reconcile from their trilogy-long distrust of each other.

Is it sad to see the Fellowship all die? Yes. But it’s beautiful in a bittersweet way: some of fiction’s most memorable moments occur only at the end of a character’s life, moments that can stay with us like nothing else can. We remember those who give their lives to save others, who spend their final minute trying to comfort someone else, or refuse to give in to fear. When you bring your character’s stories to a close, you have a chance to give them one final, shining moment of glory. Take advantage of that, and you’ll give your audience a moment that will stay with them forever.