Saturday, February 11, 2012

True Storytelling - Han Shoots First

Okay.  You know the story by now.  That famous scene in the cantina on the outer rim of a galaxy far, far away.  If not, here’s a refresher that’s on everyone’s (at least us dorks) mind now that Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace is back in the theaters to cash in on the whole 3D craze. 

So, who shot first?  Greedo or Han Solo?

There’re two opinions on this matter – George Lucas’ and everyone else’s.  Just to clear it up: we’re right and he’s wrong.

But why?

A good point, as presented by a commenter in the MSNBC article (citing FPBMurray37 on is that Greedo, that green, bug-eyed alien, competent enough to be hired and entrusted by the most vile gangster in the universe to collect a bounty on the probably low-credit-scoring and delinquent Han Solo, couldn’t have missed.  He was a pro.  Pro enough to track him down to Mos Eisley.  Pro enough to corner his target.  Pro enough to get the drop on Solo at point blank, sitting directly across from him in a pub booth.

All was well with this for many years until, with the magic editing of George Lucas and the Special Editions, Greedo shoots first, putting a nice crater in the wall half a foot away from Han’s head.  And then, of course, Solo kills him, apparently now justified and no longer – at least in George Lucas’ eyes – a “cold blooded killer.”

Okay.  The Greedo Shoots First scenario, much like the commenter pointed out, is not very plausible.  Yet, I suppose, with a little suspension of disbelief, I guess…maybe…it could have happened like Lucas wanted it to.  I mean, that Greedo had some ridiculous hands.  I think there are suction cups on the tips of his noodley fingers.  Must be tough to get a grip on a blaster’s trigger.

So, maybe he fumbled.  All pros do.  This one was just untimely.

The "How" isn't the real issue though.  It's the "Why."  The problem with this justification of Han Solo killing Greedo is that this simple, decades-late edit has ruined the story of Han Solo.  No, in fact, it has ruined Star Wars itself.

You’re thinking, Hey, relax.  It’s just a tweak in a film. 

And you’re right.  Really, I’m not a Star Wars super-fan.  I don’t really care.  But I am a storyteller.  I am very invested in telling good stories and recognizing good stories, and as a storyteller, I’m telling you George Lucas broke Star Wars with that one revision.  As I edit my latest work, seeing the interconnection between character’s actions and their motivations and who they truly are, I find it unbelievable that Lucas failed to recognize all that he was undoing with his changes, especially given the brilliant stories the man has given to the world.

Greedo Shot First and Ruined Star Wars?  Explain yourself.

The Star Wars Universe in its original state – before Special Editions, before Prequels – was a dangerous universe.  Filled with wretched villainy and scum.  A dangerous place of Evil Empires and those who struggled to make ends meet. What gave this sci-fi adventure so much appeal to audiences was the “used” feel of the places, the ships, and the people and aliens that inhabited these worlds.

When Han meets Luke and Ben Kenobi, he takes the job for the money.  He couldn’t give a damn about anything but getting paid.  Because money means survival as much as the gun he carries on his hip.  He’s cocky, he’s hard, and in a universe where men get arms cut off in dive bars whose patrons take brief notice only to go about their drinks as if nothing happened - and he’s at home in it.  To be at home in it you have to be dangerous - as dangerous as the space that surrounds you, if you want to survive.  So what would a smuggler do when cornered?

He would shoot first. 

Normally, if Han were a bit player, nobody would care.  Sure, we’d think, Well, the Star Wars Universe is less dangerous than we thought, and everything is black and white, but whatever.  Except that now, we know exactly how things turn out in this Universe.  Han shooting first means there are good guys and bad guys.  No in between.  That means that Luke and Ben are always safe with Han, because he’d never turn them over when caught by the Death Star tractor beam, because he’s not that kind of guy.  And in Return of the Jedi, there’s no way in hell Luke takes the Emperor’s offer.  All that hesitation and angst?  You can flush it.  Because in this universe, good guys never falter.

Ruined it, you have.

The problem in the Han Solo character arc is that Greedo shooting first deflates Solo’s path to righteousness.  In fact, Greedo shooting first means Solo was never going to abandon Luke to fight the Death Star alone.  After all, Han has been a good guy all along. And good guys fly in an shoot bad guys out of the trench with their walking-carpet co-pilots and lasers.

But when Han shoots first, well, that’s different. Our eyebrows raise.  We’re invested.  We’re guessing at motivations and outcomes.  We recognize that the world these characters play in is multi-dimensional.  It can be unpredictable.   Like our world, the real world.  We see the honesty in how the characters relate to their circumstances, because we see it in our lives, every day. 

That’s my point, as a story teller – something that George Lucas has somehow forgotten.  We create places and characters and we have this god-like power to make them do and act in any way we choose, but if those actions and those characters aren’t true, or real, then what’s the point?  Why would anyone care?