x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Episode III½

Feature The Star Wars franchise expands ever further, most recently with the animated television show, The Clone Wars. What does it mean to be a true fan?

Mike Goldschmidt, a Star Wars superfan, made a fan film in the dunes outside Al Ain.
Mike Goldschmidt, a Star Wars superfan, made a fan film in the dunes outside Al Ain.

As the Star Wars franchise expands ever further, most recently with the animated television show, The Clone Wars, John Mather explores what it means to be a true fan. Mike Goldschmidt grew up in Queens, New York, in the same neighbourhood that Martin Scorcese shot the gangster film Goodfellas. When he moved to Al Ain in 2004, the surrounding landscape - rippling red sand dunes cut by Jebel Hafeet and the rocky terrain of Buraimi - looked as though it was from another world. Like Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films, the desert seemed to be an isolated planet at the far end of the universe. Or, as Goldschmidt puts it as we talk in his villa: "This is Star Wars."

Goldschmidt has been a fan of the George Lucas franchise since childhood - he was born in 1976, one year before the first film, A New Hope, was released. When he met his future wife for the first time in 1999, he knew he had to admit to her that "my room was wall-to-wall Star Wars posters and toys". Goldschmidt eventually had to leave the collector's items behind when they moved. His villa's living room sports only a few items of memorabilia, the most striking of which is a poster for Star Wars Episode III½: The Lost Jedi, a fan film Goldschmidt made with fellow Star Wars aficionados in 2004. The film, which takes place between the two trilogies, was the brainchild of Jerry Elvey, another local fan. The two met in 2004 and, recognising Al Ain's potential as a distant planet, decided to follow a trend among Star Wars fans and make a film.

Today, Goldschmidt keeps on top of Star Wars news and says he's seen a couple of episodes of The Clone Wars animated television show, which premiered on MBC last month. It is the latest incarnation of the ever-expanding Star Wars franchise. Based on a film of the same name that was released last summer, the show is a hit in the US (though the film was a dud) and the supervising director Dave Filoni hopes the new approach will catch on here. "What I like about George is that he is never afraid of trying new stuff with his universe," he says.

But whether this new universe, geared to a younger generation, can hold onto the franchise's die-hard fans remains the outstanding question. For Goldschmidt, he says he will always be a fan and has accepted the franchise for what it is: an epic tale of good versus evil, ultimately aimed at children. And while The Clone Wars isn't necessarily what he wants from Lucasfilm, the production company founded by George Lucas in 1971, he is happy because he got to make his own vision of Star Wars with The Lost Jedi.

After Goldschmidt and Elvey met, Elvey churned out a script in three days and the two men began rehearsing the fight scenes and recruiting actors. They took advantage of their surroundings: Ponderosa restaurant in Al Ain Mall stood in as the Jedi council and an old fort in Buraimi provided the backdrop to the film's climax. Using a camcorder, Goldschmidt directed and starred in the 15-minute film. The whole production cost just more than $1,000 (Dh3,673), most of which went on the costumes, which were made from the original designs by an Al Ain tailor.

An aspiring filmmaker, Goldschmidt looks back on the film, which was screened at a convention in Indianapolis in 2005 and led to him making a Star Wars promotion for Cinemax, as a great experience. For him, it was an opportunity to develop professional skills and experience his childhood fantasy of battling with lightsabers. His childhood obsession with the iconic weapon is one reason he is still a fan today.

Childhood attachment is the reason many fans have struggled with Star Wars' trajectory after the first films. "We believe George Lucas's ideal death time was 2:07am, 14 November, 1990," Andrey Summers wrote in an article about Star Wars fans in 2005, that is a time prior to the release of Revenge Of The Sith. The film was the final instalment in the new trilogy. Chronicling the story of Anakin Skywalker, Luke's father and later Darth Vader, the first two films had received mixed reviews. Still, the fans themselves greeted the Revenge Of The Sith with simultaneous excitement and derision, accusing Lucas of veering from the tone of the originals. As Summers wrote, in the 1990s, Lucas had been accused of selling out his franchise in the form of books, video games and television series. His article in Jive Magazine, written with tongue firmly in cheek, captured the angst of many Star Wars fans at the time. Its thesis: that true Star Wars fans hate Star Wars. "To be a Star Wars fan, one must possess the ability to see a million different failures and downfalls, and then somehow assemble them into a greater picture of perfection," he wrote. "Every true Star Wars fan is a Luke Skywalker, looking at his twisted, evil father, and somehow seeing good." His conclusion: "But the idea of Star Wars? the idea we love."

When it comes to Goldschmidt, Summers was right, it has always been the idea that has attracted him. "It's a simple story of good and evil and I think that's what people like about it," he says. He believes Lucas's original fan base, himself included, has grown up, and while true fans will remain loyal no matter what ("that's why they're fans"), it makes sense for Lucas to try to attract the next generation. "From a filmmaker's point of view, I understand why he's doing what he's doing."

Filoni says Star Wars has always been for children. Still, he hopes to attract both young and old fans with the animated show, which might be a challenge in the UAE where the The Clone Wars film was a flop. Critics panned it for its amateur-ish feel and episodic plot, while Entertainment Weekly went as far as saying, "George Lucas is turning into the enemy of fun." But on television in the US, The Clone Wars has found success. The first episode was the most-watched premiere in Cartoon Network history, scoring highly among children aged six to 14, an indication that Lucasfilm is attracting its desired younger audience. Still, Filoni insists he working to keep the purists happy. And when the reviewers panned his film, he believes many of them were disappointed fans, struggling with the change. "Whenever you are dealing with Star Wars you are put up against a huge wall."

A common complaint is that the new incarnations of Star Wars aren't as dark as the original trilogy. In fact, some fans argue the films took a turn to the soft side with the fuzzy Ewok characters in Return Of The Jedi. Goldschmidt himself sees this as a generational difference, one compounded by the fact that Lucas himself is getting older. However, Filoni points out that Revenge Of The Sith, the final film, begins after a slaughter of the Jedi knights. And his show is inevitably heading towards that disturbing moment in the story. "There is definitely darker and more imperial episodes," he says about some instalments that haven't aired here yet. "At times, The Clone Wars does get intense and kind of violent." The Lost Jedi, Goldschmidt's film, is violent at times too. He hopes one day to make another film, based on another Elvey script called The Edge Of Redemption. Any plans are on hold, though, because Elvey has moved to Ukraine and many of the other actors have left the Emirates. In the meantime, Goldschmidt is happy watching the six movies, and catching the odd episode of The Clone Wars. He invites me into a theatre he has in his house. He puts on A New Hope, the first Star Wars film. As we watch the Tatooine landscape, he leans back and says, "There is so much eye candy going, you don't feel you are wasting your time."