Nitpicking to Nukes: Lightsaber suggestions for the New Era, Part 2– Further Setup For the Thing Actually Featured in the Title

(Part One Here)

And we’re back to my nonsense. Sorry about that, I refuse to let someone more competent run the blog. They’d just make a mess of it with their “common sense” and “topicality” and “tolerable writing.” By the way, apparently the top search leading to my blog is “a person holding a big sword pointed forward,” so perhaps what I really need to do is plaster the entire site in pictures of myself with my O-tachi. This has minimal relevance to our topic at hand, I just though all of you would appreciate it. Last time on Nitpicking to Nukes, I ran through a number of observations from the three Star Wars Prequels as part of my Sithian (Sithish? Sithesque?) master-plan to justify my bringing my obnoxious “advice” to bear on Star Wars.

Today, on the other hand, we’re covering the Original Trilogy and The Force Awakens. First, of course, A New Hope. There is exactly one buzzy light-cutter fight in A New Hope, and it’s this one:

Those of you who’ve been around the blog longer will probably have some idea of what I mean to say here. That said, I’m not entirely on-board with the choreography in the originals either. Now, for the Death Star fight the only props available were some very flimsy sabers made from spare electronics and dowel rods. I’m not an asshole so I’m not going to try and hold anybody accountable for not having a mega-budget this early in the franchise. Believe it or not, I do have some interest in what’s actually practical in stage-fighting! I just have a different definition of practicality than most choreographers do, which is probably because I’ve never choreographed anyone. Anyway, given the technical constraints at play here, I’m only going to mention things that don’t pertain to the saber-handling, or positives there of.

First off, Vader and Obi-Wan are both in actual stances, two different variations of the standard middle guard in fact. Obi-Wan’s also doing some interesting stuff with his hands. Yes, that was an innuendo, but it’s not my actual point. Visible in the picture I chose, you’ll note he’s got his thumbs on top of his lightsaber’s hilt. In effect, he’s doing a two-handed saber grip. I actually like this. The advantage of a saber grip (as opposed to the hammer grip I use) is that it opens the wrists up a bit more, giving a fighter better range of motion during cuts and allowing for straighter thrusts. For a lightsaber, where any part of the weapon can cut or block as needed, it’s not a bad choice. Throughout the fight, our two icons have pretty good footwork. Well, except for the part where Obi-Wan pulled that horrible, awkward spin. Maybe don’t do that.

There’s no twirling in the fight, no elaborate jumps, no needlessly massive cuts (except for Vader’s killing blow at the end, but that was probably the prop saber’s fault again). Both men keep careful watch on each other, alert without being afraid. Well, Vader could be terrified under that mask (he did lose his legs last time) but it seems unlikely. The pacing and focus on the opponent does well to convey that they’re using fucking lightsabers and the first man to make a wrong move will instantly die. I approve of that.

Without making it a criticism per se, I will say that the fight’s actually too grounded. Neither Vader nor Obi-Wan ever pick up the pace enough to press the other, and (doubtless courtesy of the props) there’s little variety to their attacks. They mostly make short diagonal chops or little thrusts, and there’s not a lot of blending going on.

Again, probably the props’ fault, but one important part of fencing that also happens to look pretty cool is the blending of one attack into another. An uppercut becomes a thrust, a thrust becomes a pommel strike, a pommelstrike becomes a downward chop which becomes another thrust and so on. Regardless, the pacing of the first Death Star duel is still something I’d love to see return in the future. Not constant, breathless action, but a proper ebb-and-flow in which the pauses make each burst of ferocity seem all the more violent.

Now we move on to The Empire Strikes Back, and again there’s only one major fight to analyze here (the vision on Dagobah doesn’t last remotely long enough). Which, of course, is the now-legendary I AM YOUR FATHER duel:

Luke does tend to over-extend a lot, but it reads as a deliberate touch that makes sense. In fact, I like that Luke’s form is visibly less controlled than Vader’s. Vader was a classically-trained Jedi Knight before became a Sith Lord, and he’s in his 40s. He’s had three decades of experience with a lightsaber, and on a more basic level he’s so much more powerful than Luke that he can knock Luke to the floor with one-handed strokes. Right from the start, it’s made clear that Luke’s not going to beat Vader.

And he doesn’t. In fact, he gets his ass kicked (coming back to that later, don’t you doubt). There’s also great contrast between Luke’s larger, more energetic motions and Vader’s controlled, almost flicking strikes. In terms of flow, this fight moves faster than the one on the Death Star, and the pauses are mostly from Vader screwing with Luke. We also get one of the few occasions in the series where we’re reminded that people don’t have to extend their hands to use the force, as Vader rips a bunch of space opera set-dressing from the walls to hurl at Luke at the mid-point of the fight. All good stuff.

I could keep going about the fight’s use of the environment and skillful handling of scene-changes to create tension and add a breather, but I won’t. Instead, I need to address that the latter half of the fight is considerably less polished. Vader and Luke both start doing these ridiculous flailing swings that clearly come in feet off target and were never aligned all that well to begin with. These are mixed in with the more controlled, swordsman-like cuts they used so well early, which I’m not sure what to make of. The flailing may be intended to convey a sense of desperation; we’ll get to that in the suggestions segment.

Overall it’s still a really solid duel and one of my favorites from the series. In places, it makes me wonder why Star Wars has better swordfighting than so many movies that actually involve swords. See, guys? I can be reasonable! I mean, I’ll simultaneously fire off snark in another direction, but I can be reasonable!

As far as Return of the Jedi goes, I actually don’t have a whole lot of use to say. In my opinion, it balances intensity, practicality and aesthetics the best out of any of the films, but I’ve covered anything I otherwise would’ve said about it in my discussion of The Empire Strikes Back. That brings us to The Force Awakens for the final batch of notes. These will be mixed, especially since I’m discussing not two fighters but three: Finn, Rey and Kylo. Let’s do a quick breakdown of these folks as I understand them. Also, we’re five months out so I don’t want to hear about spoilers. Click out if you must, but I would hope if you were that bothered you’d have seen the movie by now.

Anyway, Kylo is the only (somewhat) trained Force Sensitive, and the only one with anything approaching extensive lightsaber experience. Finn is a former stormtrooper so he must’ve had some degree of training, and he can’t actually be terrible if he was sent to accompany Kylo to acquire the MacGuffin of the hour. Rey is a scavenger who’s justifiably talented with a pole weapon but not necessarily with anything else. All of this makes it difficult for me to say exactly what they should be doing. I can make some arguments for Kylo, but Rey and Finn may not even have handled a vibrosword (assuming those are still canon) and I’m pretty sure they’ve never used a lightsaber.

In all honesty, it’s pretty good… for the first portion of the fight. When Kylo’s fighting Finn, he’s visibly much faster, more controlled, and makes better use of his weapon. I do have to dock points for the return of twirling between cuts, but that could be argued down to Kylo’s personality and I’d have to concede that point. He uses the crossguard on his lightsaber to burn Finn in a bind while protecting his own hands. That’s excellent. Finn keeps swinging his lightsaber despite having had a large hole burned in his right shoulder. That’s, er… quite questionable. Now, yes, he shortly gets cut down anyway, but that’s all the more reason to just end it there.

normal hole in the shoulder is bad enough (yeah, uh, Obvious Statements for $2500?). Finn gets a spike of super-heated, rapidly fluctuating plasma driven in there. I’m pretty sure you’d need advanced muscle grafting just to heal that, and I promise you you’re not lifting your arm with an inch-wide whole in the muscles controlling it. This seriously undermines the lethality of lightsabers, and that’s a running theme in this fight that I have to take issue with even though the choreography’s good.

Then Rey gets Anakin’s old lightsaber when initially we think it’s Kylo pulling it. Awesome moment, beautifully framed. It just makes no sense, that’s all. The original Jedi trained from earliest childhood to use the force as well as a lightsaber. Even Luke had training in A New Hope, then more in The Empire Strikes Back and presumably plenty between that and Return of the Jedi. Rey’s only learned that she’s a Force Sensitive earlier in the film. Anyway, she gets the saber and goes toe-to-toe with Kylo for a while, though admittedly being driven back. She takes no hits and stumbles around a lot less than Finn does until Kylo corners her against a fissure that’s opened in the ground. Three seconds later we get “The Force?” and suddenly Rey wins in 9 moves. I counted, it’s 9.

Now, I’ve had serious issues with the methodology of fighting in Star Wars before, but this is the first time that I can conclusively say that the actual plot behind it makes no sense. Kylo’s been trained since childhood, same as his grandfather once was. It probably isn’t to the same level of quality and the teacher-swap when he went Dark Side probably fudged things a bit, but it’s still ample training. He’s also, lest we all forget, the villain. I believe I brought up in one of my past articles that villains should be competent and powerful before anything else. Up to this point, Kylo is.

I know what some of you are thinking: “Well, Kylo got shot by Chewie earlier, and Finn got some hits in too!” Yes, those things happened. However, when I and my fencing buddies are injured, it doesn’t slowly manifest thirty minutes into the session. It happens the instant I try to make a full torsal cut with a pulled muscle in my left hip, or the moment Mike tries to swing with his sprained wrist. Fighting skill is a matter of fine motor coordination, muscle power and endurance, and plain old braincase growth. If you’re injured badly enough to mess up your form, you can’t just tank through it. So if Kylo was able to stomp his way out to where he intercepted Finn and Rey, fight Finn, beat Finn, and then also almost beat Rey, his injury wouldn’t suddenly matter just because they brought up the Force.

In terms of personality, I like Rey, I just hate that she’s such a fucking Mary Sue. She simply is, there’s no way around that. She’s the textbook (Internet) definition of a Mary Sure. Bringing this all back to the topic at hand, lightsabers have been used in many ways, but this is the first time a movie’s effectively told us you can become good with them instantly if you happen to be the right person. I’m actually more irritated about it since the choreograph in the fight was, as I said before, pretty good. Cuts were cuts, thrusts were thrusts, people looked like they wanted to win and not die. It’s just that the wrong person won.

There, we’re finally through with the preliminary crap. Next time I can finally get to…

The Thing Actually Featured In the Title

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