Friday, November 16, 2012

Chess goes to the movies: Star Wars

[WARNING: This post contains spoilers]

Alfred Hitchcock said that the difference between an American film and a European film is that a European film can open with a shot of clouds, cut to another shot of clouds, and then cut to a third shot of clouds. If an American film opens with a shot of clouds, it must cut to an airplane, and if by the third shot the airplane hasn't exploded, the audience is bored.

Denny Martin Flinn, How not to write a screenplay (Lone Eagle: 1999)

OK, first things first. It's Star Wars. Forget that A New Hope cobblers. It was Star Wars when I saw it at the Chelmsford Odeon in 1977 and it's Star Wars now.

Second, the fact that Star Wars (see?) opens by making the audience read a yard and a half of preamble not withstanding, Flinn clearly has a point. Films, especially mass market movies like Star Wars (see??), tend to get on with it. There's rarely any flab on them. Not even the bad ones.

Which rather begs the question of what the minute and thirteen seconds of chess that you see above is doing in there. In Saturn 3 the chess is essential to the plot, in The Thing it's about character development and in Blade Runner it's both. So why is that scene in Star Wars (I think I've made my point) if the chess neither enriches the story nor tells us something we didn't know about one of the characters? The answer comes in the phrase, "a bit of business".

Bollocks to Snickers

The story so far:-
It is a period of civil war. Grand Moff Tarkin (Dracula) and Vader (The Green Cross Code man) have just destroyed Alderaan whilst tricking Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) into revealing the location of the rebel base. The Death Star is about to trap the Milenium Falcon in a tractor beam and Obi-Wan (Alec Guiness) is using a spot of light sabre training to teach Skywalker (Mark Hammill) about The Force.
Clearly the interaction between Luke and his mentor needs to be there.  It sets up the big finale where Farm Boy switches off his computers and fires a couple of missiles up the Death Star's back passage using nothing but The Force for guidance.

The chess, though, is an completely different kettle of sci-fi. It doesn't advance the plot one little bit and the audience has long since discovered that C3PO is a prissy, pompous scaredy cat and that a wookie is not to be messed with. Why bother with it at all? Why not finish the film one minute earlier? Because while the chess in Star Wars isn't strictly necessary it is needed.

What's important about the scene is not the chess per se, but the humour (or light relief, at least) that flows from it. The laughs, such as they are, sit between the downbeat mood left by the destruction of Alderaan and the drama that will follow with the capture of the Falcon. They also break up what would otherwise have been the rather dry passage of exposition that explains the concept of The Force to the audience.

If the chess gives the film an emotional texture it wouldn't otherwise have, it also provides a signpost to the viewer. If they actually read that stuff at the beginning like George Lucas asked, they'd remember that this is all happening "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", but the chess scene reminds everybody that the Star Wars universe is futuristic even if it's not of the future.

We see a game that is recogniseably chesslike and yet it's not chess. It's got a chequered board, yes, but it's round and not square and the pieces move all by themselves. They even fight.  These little snippets really help sell the movie's premise, and are all the more important given that Skywalker's barnet stamps Star Wars as absolutely, positively, made in the 1970s.

The Star Wars films have suffered a great deal of fiddling over the years, not to everbody's pleasure. Despite all the changes, however, the importance of the chess scene remains its lack of significance. It meant nothing but gave the film that something extra. Thirty-five years on, a little of our favourite game still goes a long way.

Chess goes to the movies
Chess goes to the movies: Saturn 3
Chess goes to the movies: The Thing
Chess goes to the movies: Blade Runner


Jonathan B said...

Chess goes to the movies now has an Index

Jonathan B said...

The link between the last four CgtM hinted at last time-

Star Wars released in 1977 - a massive success. Therefore,

Alien (1979) gets made - it was the only sci-fi film the production company (20th Century Fox, I think) had in development at the time.

Alien was another huge hit, making the sci-fi/horror crossover genre rather fashionable. As a result Saturn 3 (1980) and The Thing (1982) get made.

Blade Runner (1982) was Ridley Scott's follow-up project after Alien. Had the first film bombed, he'd probably not have got to do it.

Hence: no Star Wars = considerably chess in films from thirty years ago.