Nitpicking to Nukes: Lightsaber Suggestions for the New Era, Part 1–Setup for the Thing Actually Featured in the Title

Lightsabers! They’re awesome, fights involving them are awesome, and now I’m going to offer my suggestions for how future lightsaber choreography might better mesh the methods of all seven Star Wars films to date . Don’t hold up those signs, I’m well aware that I’m walking on thin ice. In fact, I may have fallen through it just by suggesting that my quaking fanboy musings might be worthy of consideration by professionals.

Well, sithspit to that, I am a professional. A professional bore, eh? In all seriousness, I’ve given a lot of consideration to the handling of blade-like implements in fight scenes. Now, I know that a lightsaber isn’t a sword, and I know I’ve been an ass about movie fighting in the past. Look up my Kill Bill articles if you want to see my at my most asinine. I’m going to do my damnedest to avoid that kind of overly-stringent idiocy, but I will be drawing on my training in swordfighting. I don’t think that three years of amateur practice makes me any kind of expert, but I like to think I’ve earned the right to draw on what experience I have now that I do over 800 cuts per session. Also, before you read any further, you’re either in this for the long haul or now’s your time to flee my font-flicking. There’s a lot to be written on this point and I’m too much of a nerd not to, uh, type it. Now then, enough of my ass-covering.

First off, lightsaber fighting styles have differed wildly from movie to movie. Within the Prequels–yup, gotta go there too– we saw varying degrees of flashiness and acrobatics. The original trilogy had comparatively grounded forms (a little bit too much so in A New Hope, because the original prop sabers were awful), and while the new trilogy’s just revving up the combat of The Force Awakens had a feel all its own. I’ve just gone through and rewatched every single lightsaber battle from the series, so let’s get over-analyzing. We’ll start with the Prequels, because I’m a slave to chronology. And folks, they weren’t that bad. They had serious dialogue problems and CGI bloating, but they were watchable.

I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis of every fight scene because that would take forever and every segment would just be a text version of “The Totally Phantom Menace.” If you don’t believe that something I mentioned appears in the film, you’re welcome to call me on it. In fact, you probably should, because I’m a shifty bastard with an agenda to push. Speaking of phantom menaces, though, that’s where we’re starting. So, with these guys:

One of these stances actually makes sense! The other doesn’t. Guess which is which.

and this guy:

Has there ever been a hooded character who got cooler when he lowered his hood? No. No, there hasn’t.

This is about to be over a thousand words of snark, so I hope you’re ready for it. I promise you I’ll have plenty of nice things to say come the Original Trilogy. Naturally I’m going to endanger myself by hating on the Prequels, am I? To clarify, I don’t hate the Prequels. I like them (read: I’ve just endangered myself), but they were seriously flawed. That is (mostly) a separate discussion. There, that’s my critic’s bias laid bare. The Phantom Menace had the least over-choreographed combat of the Prequel films, which I’ll grant is near-meaningless. Yes, pirouettes and superfluous jumping abounded, but it hadn’t yet reached the balletic absurdity of The Revenge of the Sith. (Side note: I appreciate ballet and have the utmost respect for the athleticism, talent and sheer discipline of its practitioners. It’s just that lethal energy-sword confrontations probably shouldn’t resemble it.) Cuts in Menace still looked like cuts, at least sometimes (my usual metric for movie fights is “never”, so sometimes is a definite improvement), and its saber-bashing came closest to matching the speed and flow of a sparring match between trained practitioners.

Look, I don’t think reality needs to be the benchmark for every fight, but I make absolutely no allowances for slowness in fight scenes. At least as far as the final stage of Obi-Wan and Maul’s duel, Menace doesn’t have that problem. I’d also argue Maul’s handling of the Force is the most logical–throwing metal at people is fun!–though rather uninspired.

That said, those scenes involving droid-dicing were, eh, let’s say problematicMenace had the best variety of the films in terms of choreography, and in some cases it was a little too much. Why would Obi-Wan jump-kick a pair of droids when he can just cut them both with a wider stroke? Why spin and twirl against battledroids, and conversely why do it slowly? There’s a difference between pacing attacks to a fight’s rhythm and just being slow. The unwieldy prop lightsabers cobbled together for a A New Hope were long gone at this point and the droids were entirely CGI (do you need to pull hits to avoid hurting empty air?), but I was repeatedly struck by how damnably dainty some of the Jedi’s attacks were. I know they’re just fighting a bunch of disposable droids, but why phone it in? If anything attacks should be faster since there are a lot of droids to get through and no one really expects them to fight back.

In terms of energy, Menace had plenty of it. Especially in later sequences,  there was a sense of force (hehe) to attacks. A number of the strikes Obi-Wan and Maul aim at each other are absolutely murderous, and Qui-Gon’s defeat begins with just about the only pommel-strike in the entire series. A little bludgeoning is good for flavor, no? Of course, much of the remaining energy goes into things like Maul’s absurd 5-second dodge, in which he initiates as many spins as possible before striking his come-and-get-me pose a safe fifteen feet from Obi-Wan. Don’t even get me started on the amount of bobbing Obi-Wan does throughout the fight and in general. There’s no point in springing around unless it lets you get at your enemy.

Now, the fights are still (I’d argue) fun to watch. Less so the more you think about them, but in my experience that’s true of pretty much everything. I will say this much for Menace, the actual saber duels felt like everyone concerned still wanted their enemy (enemies in Maul’s case) dead. “Kill” was still high on the list of priorities, but only after putting in the paperwork at Flamboyance and Sons, Ltd. The droid fights, however, shouldn’t have been ho-hum just because of ho-hum enemies. Technically the Jedi are still in some danger of dying there, right?

Now, on to Attack of the Clones, where the choreographers took all the worst parts of Menace and forgot all the stuff it did well! Yay! Including such inspiring examples as the following:
1. Count Dooku going out of his way to take Anakin’s hand off when he was better positioned to cleave the Chosen One’s torso or stupid, stupid face
2. Obi-Wan allowing Dooku to slowly, slowly maneuver his lightsaber into a position where Dooku could cut his arm, then standing there and letting Dooku cut his leg too
3. Yoda’s unmatched Jedi Master saber-skill of attacking like a sentient ping-pong ball
4. Actual guard positions from European longsword forms and kenjutsu used to exactly none of their strength in the fight scenes
5. Also, that entire sequence has no meaningful impact on the plot and could’ve just as easily been excised without harming continuity with Revenge of the Sith. If Anakin had to have a metal arm, a throwaway line about his losing it in the Clone Wars would be plenty.

I will say that, as per usual with the prequels, the fighting in Attack of the Clones has a certain aesthetic appeal. It’s flashy and acrobatic and the movements are somewhat impressive from a technical standpoint. It’s just that it’s entirely the wrong aesthetic for a fight scene. It looks too much like dancing and not enough like repeatedly attempted murder. The floaty saber effect from Menace makes its triumphant return and infects the fight scenes proper, which is a brilliant way to take all the threat out of an energy weapon as a hot a star’s core capable of cutting through anything. That’s certainly an achievement, but not one to be proud of. There’s no intelligent reason to use close-up shots of Obi-Wan and Anaking getting their tendons laser-trimmed with sound editing so airy you’d think we were watching foam swords strike wet tissue paper.

Remember, lightsabers are supposed to be made of suspended plasma. That’s canon (unless it isn’t anymore, I’m not keeping 100% up-to-date on Disney’s retcons). Plasma isn’t pure energy, it’s a fourth state of matter. That means it has mass, and that means there’s every reason for it to be weighty. Remember this bit, it’s going to be important for Part Three where I synthesize all these observations into a list of suggestions.

Now then, Revenge of the Sith. Um… let’s start with the obvious.

I know, I know, low-hanging fruit. Which, coincidentally, is the only thing Obi-Wan and Anakin are threatening in this scene. Seriously, what’s the point of this? From lightsabers being treated like deadly feather-dusters in the previous films, now we don’t even have deadly to work with. They’ve stopped being weapons, they’re just glorified glowsticks at a seriously dimwitted high school dance.

I’m more surprised Revenge of the Sith had some decent moments. The grappling and active use of the Force in Obi-Wan and Anakin’s fight was actually nice to see, although the former worked a lot better. Obi-Wan and Anakin wrestling each other produced a touch of rawness that this whole sequence badly needed. For the few moments when they put aside the twirly crap, it almost felt like a climactic duel. We’re not even touching on Sidious and Yoda. I refuse to seriously analyze two sets of pixels waging war on one another, no matter how good John Williams’ scoring was.

On the note of grappling, there’s a brief moment in Anakin’s duel with Dooku where he immobilizes the Count’s arms, then releases and cuts them off in the same motion. I actually had to rewatch it a couple of times to be sure what I was seeing. Excellent! More stuff like that, less over-telegraphing. Of course in precisely the same sequence we get the cliche of Anakin’s rage manifesting as giant, slow swings which somehow achieve more effect on his opponent than the relatively controlled, though still piddly, pirouettes with which he opened the fight. I’ll accept arguments that uncontrolled anger causes people to fight like that, but it damn sure shouldn’t work.

So, now we’re finally back in Original Trilogy territory. This segment of the article’s run longer than I originally intended, though, so we’ll get to A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi tomorrow. Also, probably The Force Awakens. Lightsabers are a relatively small part of that so there’s less to talk about.

Then again, you know how much I can make out of a relatively small talking point. I invented the need for this whole trilogy of articles from nothing at all!

(Part Two Here)

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