how to look like the future

We watched The Empire Strikes Back last night on DVD, which I hadn't seen in a while. It was, of course, a huge feature of my early adolescence. Although I can't recite the dialogue word for word any more, every line of it is deeply familiar, etched into my brain at an impressionable age. But one of the things that really struck me on this viewing was that it, and the original Star Wars (which I know we're supposed to call 4 and 5 but I'm still not used to that) are structured on the model of radio communications. The Rebel commanders can talk to the fighter pilots, and vice versa; Vader's underlings can communicate with him via a visual communications deck that basically functions like radio, but with added visuals. Very very rarely in these two movies do individuals carry communication devices (the phone model). When people don't have phones, or phone equivalents, it gives you a lot more to work with to create suspense, danger, drama.

I noticed this in part because we've been watching the first season of Earth 2 on DVD lately. It's entertaining enough (I always like First Contact stories) but I find two things really distracting: the phones and the clothes. Their communications "gear" is pretty nifty, especially for 1994 when the series was made -- worn over the head with microhones and eye pieces that fold in and out. But it would be such a different kind of story without the phones (even though they don't always work, etc). Lucas's adherence to an older 40s aesthetic has been noted by lots of people, but I'd never before really thought about narrative structure and communication devices. Recently, of course, cell phones have featured in a lot of thriller movies (Cellular and 24being the obvious ones, but also Hostage and Transporter 2). It would be hard to write a plausible thriller today where no one had cell phones. But many of the stronger SF films still rely on a radio-based model, or occasionally ship-to-crew radios, rather than the omnipresent personal communications/recording/entertainment device that is a feature of much literary cyberpunk (and, increasingly, real life).

The clothes in Earth 2 are truly atrocious -- every time we watch it I have to worry about a vision of the future that involves high-waisted pants that make everyone's butt look terrible. Because they're meant to be settling a new frontier, half the characters are wearing faux peasant clothes and the rest seem to be in stuff from Limited Express. And that's why the show looks dated, even though it's set in the future. In Empire the clothes are simple and retro enough to be symbolic more of grand categories than particular decades: the swashbuckler's leather vest, the sharp tailoring of Imperial forces, and the wizard's cape. Princess Leia rarely gets beautiful clothes to wear (except in the award scene at the end of #4, and a few other places) -- she wears jumpsuits, a flowing toga-like thing, mostly nondescript stuff. And that's why I can still believe in her as a heroine. Padme was so overloaded with decorative stuff in the recent films that she's going to look really peculiar in 20-30 years. But of course, she wasn't given anything else to do except brush her hair and get googly eyed over Anakin. I was glad to see that Empire still really works as a film and as a visual experience, and I don't think it's just because I grew up with it.