Flotsam: Heir to the Empire and New Filmmaking

1. I’m dipping my toes into the ‘Star Wars’ expanded universe with Heir to the Empire. I’m about half-way through, and my impression so far is that it’s a lot of fun and a genuinely pretty good extension of the story. There’s a good sense that, yes, this is a logical scenario for ‘what happens next?’ from the end of the last film: old and new enemies and allies popping up, difficulties that weren’t relevant in the original, but would logically become so with the characters’ new position, and new revelations and story elements brought in to change the landscape and create new challenges.

2. In particular, I really like Thrawn as a villain. A new evil Force user would have just felt tired and unimaginative (not to mention childishly stupid: “Oh, but my guy is even badder!”), so instead we have someone who is a completely different kind of threat, but at least equally dangerous (all the more so since the heroes don’t have much experience fighting someone like him). Rather than being a Sith wielding magical powers and enhanced fighting skills, he’s simply a tactical genius who can seemingly outsmart anyone who crosses his path. He has a few ships and a small army under his command, and with that he becomes a queasily dangerous figure, the kind of man who makes you genuinely nervous to see the heroes fighting.

3. My main complaint so far is that the book plays into the references a little too much: too many little winks and nods (e.g. basically repeating the ‘approach to Cloud City’ dialogue beat-for-beat when they go see Lando in his new digs). It gets a little tiresome and conflicts with the impression that the book is a legitimate continuation of the story.

4. This is a problem that a lot of fan fiction writers or people trying to add to existing, iconic storylines run into; the tendency to load the story down with shout-outs and quotations so as to remind the reader of favorite moments from the original. This is okay in moderation or when integrated into the story, but it has to be done carefully, otherwise it will kill the individual identity of the story and, consequently, make the whole thing feel artificial, as if you could see the author poking his head out from behind the curtains to share a laugh with you. Particularly with something like Heir to the Empire, I want to feel like it’s as much it’s own story as the three films that preceded it, not just trying to remind us of them.

Now, it isn’t really a big deal, since the author generally does a good job of making this feel like a genuine expansion and continuation of the story, but it does get a little tiresome after a while, and I think it’s something to be aware of when crafting a story.

(Though I do think turning “I am not a committee” into a private joke between Han and Leia was an example of the right way to do this sort of thing; give a real motive for the characters to make the call back, while also using it to show how far they’ve come since then).

5. Speaking of which, my first exposure to the story (except through hearing about it, of course) was through a truly impressive fan-made film by DarthAngelus. He’s been releasing it in 5-10 minute chunks for the past few years and has so far reached about a third of the way through the book. What he has so far is now being put out in a single, hour-plus video labeled part one, the trailer for which is below.

As you can tell, the animation and acting are pretty rough (though I feel bad acknowledging that, since they’re very impressive for a fan project), but frankly the story is good enough that I find it more than makes up for it. Ideas and storytelling usually trump visual fidelity (I say ‘usually’ because there is a point where it becomes too distracting its own right, but I don’t think that’s the case here).

6. Oh, and despite what I said about the acting (which isn’t horrible, just kind of stiff for the most part), I love Thrawn’s voice: that perfectly controlled, silky smooth delivery. I’ll never be able to picture him as sounding like anything else. Actually, kudos to the actors in general for at least matching the voices of the original actors pretty well (look, I’ve gotten through this entire thing without mentioning Disney Star Wars, I’m not bringing up Solo now).

7. In any case, I’ve long been hopeful that we might be approaching a kind of revolution in film the way we’ve had one in books, where it becomes practical for dedicated groups of private individuals to put together films that rival or surpass what Hollywood can produce (not that Hollywood seems to be exactly striving to beat them at this point). With inexpensive or even free editing and animation software available, the main obstacle I see is just finding a distribution system that provides a stable return on the investment (Kickstarter, Patreon, etc. are helpful, but I think they’re too unpredictable to serve as the basis of a genuine production market). But once someone works that out, then things are going to get very interesting.

Projects like this may be the Jazz Singer of a new era in film making.

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