Monday, April 22, 2013

Star Wars: Death Star is an entertaining novel by Perry and Reaves

Cover art by John Harris. (C) 2007 Del Rey/Lucas Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

This station is now the ultimate power in the Universe! I suggest we use it. - Admiral Motti.

One of the most important locales in George Lucas' Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope is the Galactic Empire's gigantic battle station code-named "Death Star." Essentially an armored sphere the size of a small moon (its diameter is stated as being 160 kilometers) and powered by something called a "hypermatter reactor," the Death Star carries nearly 1,000,000 crewers, stormtroopers, TIE fighter pilots, med techs and doctors, political prisoners, bureaucrats, Fleet and Army personnel, and even civilians who have been enticed to open stores and other businesses aboard.

At the heart of the Death Star is its Prime Weapon, a planet-killing superlaser which takes time to charge up and requires top-notch gunnery experts to run.

These "facts," of course, are well-known to millions of filmgoers who have watched Star Wars: A New Hopesince its premiere in 1977. Indeed, the Death Star is the focus of everyone's motivations in the film: the Rebels, particularly Princess Leia Organa, are keen on keeping the Death Star's stolen plans and seeking a design flaw they can exploit, while the Empire, personified by Lord Darth Vader and the Death Star's "godfather" and commander Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, hustle to complete the battle station and retrieve the stolen data tapes from the pesky Rebellion.

Star Wars: Death Star, co-authored by Michael Reaves (Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter) and Steve Perry (Shadows of the Empire) draws from events depicted in A New Hope, particularly in the action-packed second half, as well as the Prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. But because other Star Wars-related novels and role-playing sourcebooks have established that Raith Seinar and Imperial scientist Bevel Lemelisk had a hand in helping Tarkin create the Death Star, the authors have to somehow mesh the films' data with those from the books, and this they manage to do rather well without getting the reader to say Whoa, there! Didn't Rogue Planet state that Sienar "invented" the Death Star concept? Or didn't Emperor Palpatine first laugh at Lemelisk when he presented the plans to the Sith Lord in Kevin Anderson's Darksaber?

Although the battle station's fate is no secret - the reader knows that Luke Skywalker will, with the assistance of the Force, shoot a pair of proton torpedoes into the station's only weak spot - Reaves and Perry manage to make Star Wars: Death Star an amazing page-turner of a novel. They do so by focusing only on characters who are involved in its creation, operation, and defense, which is a big challenge because in the film, the Death Star's crew is portrayed one-dimensionally; Tarkin, Motti, Vader and their faceless underlings are ruthless, anonymous and always-obedient, unquestioning drone-like servants of the Emperor's New Order.

That's fine for the storytelling needs of the movie, but had Reaves and Perry done the black-white-no-shades-of-moral-gray bit, I doubt that any reader would have enjoyed the 363-page long novel past the first part. To their credit, however, the authors populate the Death Star with a cross-section of fully-developed characters whose various storylines converge and diverge as the plot follows the battle station's construction and deployment.

Take, for instance, Kornell "Uli" Divini, a medical doctor who served in what was the Republic Grand Army during the Clone Wars and has been kept on active service by the Empire. He's a man who wears the uniform of the Imperial Army but is tired of the death and waste of war.

Or Villian Dance, a lieutenant in the Imperial Navy and a crack TIE fighter pilot who wants to become one of the best "sticks" in the service but begins to question his role in the war against the Rebels after two combat missions and the "test" of the planet-killing superlaser on Alderaan.

There are others, of course, including a sergeant in the Imperial Marines with a high midi-chlorian count; a Twi'lek female whose Coruscant pub mysteriously burns down and signs on to run a similar dive in the Death Star; a Zelosian smuggler who escapes from the prison world Despayre and finds his way aboard the space station; and the crack Star Destroyer gunnery officer who wants nothing else but to fire "the big gun," only to have moral qualms about his duty later. All of them seem fully-fleshed out and truly believable.

Even the movie's best-known characters - Vader, Tarkin, and Motti - fare well in Death Star, especially the Dark Lord and the ambitious Grand Moff. The writers, by using references to Vader's past life as Anakin Skywalker, add dimension to the Man in the Suit that's a bit absent in the film version of the events, while Tarkin, whose affair with the beautiful yet ruthless Admiral Daala was chronicled by Kevin Anderson in other novels, is a bit more interesting. His ambivalence about his role in the Empire - is Tarkin content with being simply the Emperor's high-ranking subordinate, or does he plan to overthrow Palpatine once the Rebellion is crushed? - is nicely depicted by the authors.

All in all, this novel is one of the best Star Wars books I've read in a while. It doesn't get bogged down in technobabble, the prose is crisp and flows well, and even though the ending is pre-destined, the story is gripping and very entertaining.

Recommended: Yes

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Star Wars: A Musical Journey (DVD Review)

One of the nicest things about Sony Classical's soundtrack album from Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the bonus DVD that comes with the CD. Titled Star Wars: A Musical Journey, this is a magnificent collection of 16 music videos that span the entire six-Episode saga. The Prequels' four major themes (Duel of the Fates, Anakin's Theme, Across the Stars [Love Theme from Attack of the Clones), and Battle of the Heroes) underscore beautifully edited montages from the 1999-2005 trilogy, while action/setting cues and major themes from the Classic Trilogy feature scenes from all six Star Wars films to follow the Skywalker family's pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire. 

Of all the film series that feature classical-styled scores, George Lucas's Star Wars saga (which he personally calls The Tragedy of Darth Vader) is certainly a prime candidate for music videos. Indeed, Lucasfilm produced three MTV-styled vignettes (Duel of the Fates, Across the Stars, and A Hero Falls) for the Prequel Trilogy; each has aired at least once on MTV since 1999; in addition, the videos are included in the extra features discs of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: A Musical Journey's 16 videos are arranged in roughly chronological order from Episode I: The Phantom Menace to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, with only two videos being deliberately moved out of sequence. To illustrate the rise of the evil Galactic Empire, Episode V's The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) precedes the trio of themes from Episode IV: A New Hope. And to bring the Musical Journey to a triumphal end, director Tippy Bushkin has chosen Throne Room/Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for A New Day Dawns

While the vignettes are all well done and form a visual Cliff's Notes to the two trilogies, it should be noted that whileA Hero Falls is the same video that appears on Disc 2 of Revenge of the Sith's DVD set, the videos Dark Forces Conspire and A Fateful Love are not the same videos that were used for Duel of the Fates and Across the Stars. The presentation in both is different as far as video footage is concerned, and A Fateful Love goes even further, using the same musical material as in the Episode II album rather than the blend of the Main Title and Love Theme from Attack of the Clones heard in the 2002 Across the Stars video. 

Actor/director Ian McDiarmid (who plays the evil Darth Sidious in five of the six Episodes) introduces each clip with an introduction taped at Abbey Road Studio, where the world-famous London Symphony Orchestra recorded the scores for many of the Star Wars films. Viewers have the option to play the videos with or without the introductions, but McDiarmid's mellow voice and theatrical delivery are enjoyable and add much to the presentation of the various musical montages. 

In addition to the various viewing options (you can watch all the videos in the 70-minute long DVD as one feature, choose individual vignettes, or skip the intros), Star Wars: A Musical Journey contains a very nifty trailer for Lucasarts' video game tie-in to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

While I wish the director had kept the original videos from the first two prequel films, having watched A Musical Journey a few times has made me realize that their mix of film clip, quick shots of the actual production preparations, and footage of Williams conducting the LSO don't quite match the presentation of the other 13 videos. The vignettes are wonderfully edited and blend footage from the six films in a unifying manner, and the music is endlessly compelling and memorable. 

Chapter List

1. A Long Time Ago: 20th Century Fox Fanfare and Star Wars Main Title from all films 
2. Dark Forces Conspire: Duel of the Fates from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 
3. A Hero Rises: Anakin's Theme from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 
4. A Fateful Love: Across the Stars from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones 
5. A Hero Falls: Battle of the Heroes from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 
6. An Empire is Forged: The Imperial March from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
7. A Planet That Is Farthest From: The Dune Sea of Tatooine and Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
8. An Unlikely Alliance: Binary Sunset and Cantina Band from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
9. A Defender Emerges: Princess Leia's Theme from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
10. A Daring Rescue: Ben's Death/TIE Fighter Attack from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
11. A Jedi is Trained: Yoda's Theme from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
12. A Narrow Escape: The Asteroid Field from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
13. A Bond Unbroken: Luke and Leia from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 
14. Sanctuary Moon: The Forest Battle (Concert Version) from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

15. A Life Redeemed: Light of the Force from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
16. A New Day Dawns: The Throne Room/Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Photo Credit: Lucasfilm Limited via Star Wars Wiki
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