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The Fan Films Strike Back

Thanks to digital cinema and the Web, geeks are filming their own "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" stories. And they're pretty close to making something better than the junk their heroes have been dishing out lately.

12:00 AM, May 14, 2004 • By M.E. RUSSELL
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First, there are the exercises in special-effects pornography--stories with minimal setups leading to lightsaber duels, with the spirit of Darth Maul looming large in the money shots. The best of these is Ryan vs. Dorkman, a surprisingly well edited and choreographed exercise in which effects artists Michael Scott and Ryan Wieber--without even bothering to change into costumes--spend five minutes swinging lightsabers at each other in increasingly amusing ways. (Honorable mentions go to Art of the Saber--the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of fan films, and Duality, which looks great even though it features a character named "Darth Blight.")

Then there are the postmodern fan films--movies like The Formula--that marinate in self-reference and snark. They're more accessible to non-fans--because (a) they tend to make fun of Star Wars (and themselves) with the sort of knowing wink that says, "Yeah, I'm a little embarrassed about my obsessions--but what the hell can I do about it at this point?"; and (b) some of them are unbelievably strange.

Take, for example, How the Sith Stole Christmas. It's an insane jumble of the Star Wars and Dr. Seuss storylines, only it's played straight. By the time Darth Vader steals the Ewoks' presents, a Star Destroyer is chasing Santa Claus through an asteroid field, and elves in toy planes are wrapping tree lights around the legs of imperial walkers.

Other, lesser entries include: Bounty Trail--which begins with a young man buying a Star Wars comic book before exploding into what feels like a messy episode of a '70s TV series starring Boba Fett; and PA Wars and its sequel Duel of the Fakes, which concern beleaguered Hollywood film assistants who, apropos of nothing, wield lightsabers while fetching coffee for their bosses.

Finally, there are the ambitious fan films--sincere, irony-free attempts by filmmakers to expand the mythology they're borrowing. Some of these are, at times, scary good. Broken Allegiance tells the story of two renegade "dark" Jedi. The story isn't much, but the opening 90 second chase scene--with twisty camerawork and intricate geography that has TIE fighters slamming into walls and each other as they chase a shuttle--is more exciting than the openings of either Star Wars prequel.

The same can be said for the even more ambitious KnightQuest, which was shot on film and looks as though it cost somewhere in the low five figures to produce. It opens with a space chase that's so kinetic that George Lucas should be taking notes. As with all the Star Wars fan films, it's most comfortable when it's in motion--fights and flights are great; words coming out of mouths less so. But the ending evokes The Empire Strikes Back's melancholy so well--with its dream-like shots of Vader walking through the woods and an orphaned Jedi sailing into space, swearing vengeance against the Dark Lord of the Sith--that someone really ought to give writer/director Joseph Monroe a job.

LIKE THEIR OFFICIAL COUNTERPARTS, Star Wars and Star Trek fan films have distinct identities: Star Wars homages tend to be more focused on the kinetics of editing, movement, and violence, while the handful of truly ambitious Star Trek fan films work harder to convey characters and ideas. Consider Star Trek: New Voyages--one of the greatest, kookiest fan films of all time.

New Voyages, written and directed by Jack Marshall, aspires to nothing less than completing the remaining two years in the USS Enterprise's five-year mission--with new actors playing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Like Starship Exeter, it offers a complete TV episode for download. It also offers an uncanny replication of '60s-Trek costumes, lighting, and sets.

If this sounds like a foolhardy endeavor--how does one replace William Shatner, and even if you could, why would you?--well, it is. But still, the obvious, raw enthusiasm behind New Voyages gives it a strange, ridiculous power. Aliens appear as kitchy balls of energy, Kirk and Spock philosophize about the hymn "Amazing Grace," and a mysterious woman transforms into a dancing green slave girl in Kirk's quarters. New Voyages exists as a blazing reminder to the real Star Trek's Rick Berman that he's forgotten everything that made Star Trek a sexy, fun vehicle for ideas. In many ways, the better fan films seem like not-so-subtle warnings to the official license-holders: Underestimate your fans and they will outdo you.

SO THE BIG QUESTION REMAINS: Will the fans ever be able to make a truly professional film--one that puts it all together, as it were, in a complete package of top-drawer story, effects, and acting?

"I think we keep coming so extremely close that it's heartbreaking," Hanel says. "Knightquest and Broken Allegiance come to mind. Both had amazing production values--and then that one thing that makes the whole structure crumble."

And what if the fans do manage to reinvent the wheel? "Fan-films are probably going to wane pretty soon, either for one of two reasons: (1) Someone's going to make one way too good, and Lucas is finally gonna have to put the smackdown on allowing them; or (2) people are going to realize that filmmaking is so cheap any more they can make something quality enough to sell instead of being beholden to Lucas's copyright laws."

Not that he's giving up hope. "Right now, there are 200 15-year-olds all bugging each other asking how to make lightsabers glow. It's hard to believe, but one of those kids is the next Spielberg. Hopefully not the next Lucas--I'd hate to release that on the world."

"Fan-filmmakers make these movies because they're excited about what they're doing," Hanel explains. "Nobody becomes a director because their parents made them. Now, add to the fact that someone is so excited about filmmaking that they'll make a film and be broke by the end of it, no matter what. That's dedication to an art."

M.E. Russell is a writer and cartoonist in Portland, Oregon.