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The Ultimate Battle of the Stars: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

The Ultimate Battle of the Stars: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

A short time ago in a galaxy very, very near, a young writer made the treacherous decision to boldly go where many have gone before.

Universes of geekery are very abundant. They tend to spring up from stories which already take place in their own expansive places with their own laws and rules of physics and magic: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, and even Firefly – a show we got half of one season and a single movie out of – have all churned out amazing expanded universes. But the defining universes and calling signs to all-time geeking are still the two Star franchises: Star Trek and Star Wars. And with the new trailer for The Force Awakens out now, there’s no better time to write about this.

Actually, that really isn’t fair to those franchises. Except for the fact that they involve big spaceships, regular interaction with alien races, and the word “star” as the first word in the titles, they have virtually nothing in common. That makes it perfectly possible to have a deep love and appreciation for both of them at the same time, and boosters of both franchises tend to get along just fine and have a lot in common with each other. Unfortunately, the only things people seem to notice if they’re not into either one are the levels of devotion fans have to Star Trek and Star Wars, and that’s all the onlookers need in order to start making their geek jokes and comparing the two to each other. This mindset has become so popular that it managed to leak into the Star Trek and Star Wars fanbases themselves. Its managed to infect a lot of people who should know better, and so we get a lot of comparisons making the case that one is better than the other. And now I’ve decided to jump into these murky, dianoga-infested waters myself in another one of my popular Ultimate Battle series.

While deciding which – if either – is better, I’ll also be trying to explain a lot of the differences between the two which make them separate and unique. Also, I’ll be taking as much of their universes into account as I know about – and, being raised by one Star Trek parent and one Star Wars parent, I know quite a bit. I’ll be using every iteration of both, or at least trying to – let’s face it, I don’t know everything about either of these franchises. So let’s do this! Star Trek vs. Star Wars. One day, I’ll learn.

Good Guys
The good guys of Star Wars are known to everyone. You’re counting them off on your fingers now that I’ve said that, aren’t you? Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader… It’s a very significant list which also includes bit role players like Boba Fett and Qui-gon Jinn. The world of Star Trek introduces us to a bunch of different characters as well, and most of Trek’s iterations are designated by their ship Captains: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer. Most Trekkies narrow the fight exclusively to Trek’s defining Captains, Kirk and Picard, while arbitrarily dismissing the others. This eagerness to fight over the best Captain unfortunately leaves onlookers with no information regarding many of the other characters. They forget Star Trek has interesting characters like Sulu and his litany of interests: Botany, gymnastics, and old weapons. There’s Spock, whose people place empirical logic above all other virtues; Deanna Troi, who has psychic abilities; Data, a robot who had difficulty understanding human concepts; Quark, a slimeball who still managed to show compassion by the standards of his culture and was often at odds with it; The Doctor, a hologram with all the capabilities of a real doctor; Phlox, a doctor with an interest in many different cultures; and Seven of Nine, a reformed member of a hostile race. Star Wars characters include Han, a smuggler turned good guy; Luke, a farmboy turned into a great warrior; Yoda, an 800-year-old Jedi Master; Jabba the Hutt, an evil gangster; and Boba Fett, a big-name bounty hunter. All of these characters have ticks and quirks of their very own as well, and many of them are ably developed through the course of the movies. The seven movies which are out so far, in fact, revolve around the life, fall into evil, and redemption of their main character, Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader but eventually betrays the Dark Side.
Winner
I’m giving this to Star Trek. Yes, Star Wars has its share of awesome, interesting characters, but too many of the main characters lean too much on cliche. The smuggler with a heart of gold has been done a million times. The young, eager small-town learner has also been done a million times. But almost all of the main characters in Star Wars – that’s main characters, not secondary characters, so no Yoda, no Admiral Ackbar – are human men, which is an absurdity in a universe that expansive. Seriously, there are about two women of any consequence between the two movie trilogies, and while it’s better in the expanded universe, it’s difficult to find prominent non-human characters. Also, Star Wars falls back into tropes pretty often. There are wisecracking rogue heroes, comic relief characters, badass royals, and even the main villain cackles at times. (Not Darth Vader. Emperor Palpatine.) Star Trek has a much more diverse and interesting array of main heroes. Also, while every good guy in Star Wars is based strictly off their fight against the Galactic Empire, Trek’s heroes are not as single-minded; each one is different, and has culture outside of Starfleet, which means they all look into their universe and interpret something different out of it. Part of it is because Star Trek’s universe is based in the idea of exploration, cooperation, and learning rather than a fight between good and evil. It’s in Trek’s mantra: “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, Star Wars fans may counter with the strength of Han Solo as a character, but that doesn’t work out as well as they’d like to think. After all, Star Trek has James Kirk and Will Riker.

Bad Guys
Like the heroes, Star Trek fans can easily pick out their personal favorites from a long list of villains in the Trek universe. From Kirk’s iconic battle with the Gorn in The Original Series to the futility of resistance in The Next Generation, The Wrath of Khan, The Dominion, and Nero acting independently from the Romulan Empire in the 2009 reboot, Star Trek has a galaxy of colorful villains giving life to the idea that all good guys are the same, but bad guys are all bad in their own way. Every villain is unique in their methods and motivations, and through the course of five series, the relationships between Starfleet and the various other worlds of Star Trek evolved. In The Original Series, the Klingons were the bad guys. By The Next Generation, they had reached a truce with the United Federation of Planets. By Voyager, there was a converted Borg. All the enemies of the Federation also had different methods of attacking as well. The Klingons attacked with a directness which was honest in its brutality, while the Borg learned the way their foes functioned in order to immunize themselves against any counterattacks. And when it came down to the individual, Star Trek made out with characters like Khan – who was so awesome, they gave The Wrath of Khan an update which was the second JJ Abrams movie – and Q, whose malevolence was more subdued and refined. Star Wars has one Galactic Empire, but one is all it needs – nothing in any universe encompasses and dominates everything quite like the Empire. The Empire is the command of everything in the Star Wars universe, except for a few backwoods outposts which answer to crime lords. It’s run by a single Emperor who is hell bent on becoming immortal and who is so powerful, the forces of darkness themselves are at his beck and call. The Empire builds everything it has on every form of oppression you can imagine, including slavery, kidnapping, and executions. If you don’t want to follow Emperor Palpatine, he’ll send his right hand, Darth Vader, in to force you to obey. And Vader talks you into it at the point of his lightsaber.
Winner
This is where Star Wars shines. Yes, Khan was one of the all-time legends of villainy. Q’s mind games with Picard were things to behold, and the fact that he let himself be foiled just because he thought Picard was interesting gave him a dose of panache; and the Borg were downright scary. But none of that matches the pure evil genius, unrelenting chessmaster tendencies, and indomitable will to rule that define Palpatine. He used two different identities to mastermind both sides of the Clone Wars, using his power to get the Galactic Senate to consolidate its power into an all-encompassing empire and then exterminating the Jedi, the only fighters in the universe capable of challenging his rule. That’s some serious evil right there. He tricks the Chosen One who was prophesied to destroy him into joining him and is so convinced that he’ll become immortal that he doesn’t bother to appoint a successor. Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious is the very manifestation of evil itself, and if Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same universe, Khan, Q, the Borg, and everyone else are going to be answering to him.

Annoying Kids’ Character Everyone Hated
Sometimes, mass media creators tend to forget their audiences, and that results in the creations of weird, out-of-place elements of the series canon which were made strictly to appeal to outsiders in attempts to expand the audience. And when they try to expand the audience to little kids, the results can be grating. Both Star Trek and Star Wars have done this. Trek: TNG gave us Wesley Crusher, the son of Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher. Wesley was a child prodigy, which in TV parlance translates to “annoying know-it-all who sometimes acts suspiciously grown-up.” Throughout The Next Generation TV series, Wesley is a deus ex machina character whose purpose appears to be getting the writers out of technological jams by being the solution. The official count of times Wesley saved the Enterprise is seven, even though he had trouble getting into Starfleet Academy. Star Wars introduced a few things that might count: Chewbacca is arguably one of them, and there’s no question the Ewoks are another. But the most blatant attempt is easily Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar was meant to provide comic relief and to be an appealing character to younger members of the audience, but he ended up becoming symbolic of everything that went wrong with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. With a clumsy nature, interruptive presence, and odd speaking dialect, Jar Jar’s introduction in The Phantom Menace was so disastrous that George Lucas phased him into greatly reduced roles in the following prequels. Jar Jar had two or three scenes and maybe ten lines of dialogue in Attack of the Clones, and by Revenge of the Sith, he was just a background character in a single, silent cameo.
Winner
Star Trek. Wesley Crusher might have been a much more effective character had he been used in a different fashion – the big complaint against him is the fact that he is a Mary Sue character, a criticism that even Wesley’s actor, Wil Wheaton, agrees with. Jar Jar managed to steal the spotlight even at a lot of times when he wasn’t supposed to, but how could it be avoided when the character was an animated klutz with a wacky accent? More to the point, Wesley Crusher didn’t offend anyone outside the Star Trek loop. He didn’t piss off three different races of people. Despite the criticisms of Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton seems to have a terrific sense of humor about it. He sporadically pops up on The Big Bang Theory as himself, game to mock his time on The Next Generation.

Weapon of Choice
Despite the nature of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise sometimes need to apply force in order to defend themselves, and in self-defence they’re equipped with phasers. Phasers are the defining weapon of Star Trek. They don’t look like a whole lot, but even the small phasers issued to Starfleet personnel can be deadly. Phasers are direct energy weapons with settings everywhere from stun to disintegrate. Phaser beams can be adjusted in both their width and output, and they can also be adjusted to a point where they’re capable of hitting a bunch of targets at once or evenly destroying large objects or amounts of material. Creative people are also able to use them to weld, cut, or even create heat sources. Lightweight and versatile, phasers are always handy in a pinch. The Star Wars universe has the lightsaber, a thin loop of plasma affixed to a metal handle. Like the phaser, the lightsaber can be adjusted for the length and power of its beam. Like the phaser, the lightsaber is primarily a defensive weapon, but creative people can use them for other purposes – they can pass as knives. The lightsaber, though, is much more of a skill weapon. They’re made strictly at home by the Jedi, who wield them exclusively because the crystal alignments which give lightsabers their power are very tricky to get exactly right, which means they also symbolize one’s mastery of The Force.
Winner
This one is controversial, but I’m giving it to Star Wars. While the phaser is definitely the more useful and practical of the two, I also appreciate the idea of skill development. If someone develops their skills to the extent of being able to properly wield a lightsaber, that person will probably be the more powerful fighter, and even with range, a plebe with a phaser isn’t going to stand much of a chance against a master with a lightsaber. While Star Trek fans in this debate like to play up the wide beam of the phaser, they also leave out a crucial detail: The wide beam is merely a stun weapon. Besides, Star Wars has its blasters as well, making the lightsaber a more unique alternative while the phaser, despite its iconoclasm, still comes off as just another laser gun among a million.

Politics
Okay, by this, I mean how politics are portrayed inside the franchises’ universes. Star Wars has a Galactic Senate where representatives of the various worlds go to fight with each other, but while the Senate Chamber was used extensively in The Phantom Menace, it played a reduced role in Episodes II and III and didn’t exist in the Original Trilogy. Star Wars, to paraphrase Anakin Skywalker, likes to keep its political negotiations aggressive: That is, with blasters and lightsabers. The Jedi Council is also a political entity, complete with petty bickering and so many in-house disagreements that I’ve frequently wondered if the Galactic Republic would just be better off with the Sith running it. Star Trek is a polar opposite – a lot of the stories and themes of Star Trek are driven by politics. Although Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is overwhelmingly about the politics of the Federation, the most political figure in Star Trek is arguably Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is known best for his cool rationalism. While he’s certainly willing to throw down a gauntlet, he waits until he has no other choice, and he’s always at his best trying to find common ground with whoever he’s talking to.
Winner
Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, a million times Star Trek. Politics is something that runs with the theme of Star Trek: You know that if Galaxy-Class starships are ever invented, we’d be idiots to try to send them out on exploratory missions with a Captain who couldn’t broker a truce in the event of a misunderstanding. Deep Space Nine introduced moral ambiguity to Star Trek – it was the first Star Trek series to really confront the idea that the United Federation of Planets might have been an unwanted aggressor without the best interests of its worlds in mind. The factions between good and bad in Star Trek always exist, but they’re almost always political or arising from misunderstandings. Star Wars is a direct tale about the fight between good and evil, and it’s always at its best when the Light Side and Dark Side are duking it out in traditional fashion. In the movies, Star Wars’s tries at political and moral gray areas were disastrous; politics were the biggest reason The Phantom Menace was considered the worst movie in the series. While the EU books portrayed political factions much better, there’s still the little matter of the Jedi Council and its petty bickering – and they’re the few select people in the Star Wars universe who are supposed to be above that.

Alien Designs
Well-designed aliens help create the illusion of different worlds, and that helps viewers get into the story. The problem with most alien designs, though, is that so many of them are humanoid. It’s a constant in science fiction: Aliens get designed, and everyone watching and writing creates a lot of basic features which we just assume aliens are going to need because humans have them: Eyes, nose, mouth, proper limbs, trunk. They get created with human values and ideals in mind, no matter how different their world is. Star Trek actually takes this to an extreme: Most of its prominent races are created not only with humanoid forms, but also with humanoid features. Nearly all of them walk upright, have human facial and body features, and many of them tend to think along the same lines. This aspect of Star Trek has gone so far that the language of one of its races, the Klingons, has a properly developed language which millions of fans take the time to properly learn. (The Elven language from The Lord of the Rings is getting to this point.) Star Wars is catching up to Star Trek in linguistics – there is a phrase book and travel guide with a lot of languages and phrases in it, and one of the more recent re-releases of Star Wars featured writing in a language called Aurebesh. But as far as designs go, Star Wars still brings humanoid basics…. And that’s frequently about it. With a lot of the races, the proper humanoid features are a lot more muted, so while the basic forms are there, they still look a lot more like aliens from the far end of the galaxy. Remember that guy in the Mos Eisley cantina with the slanted head? Or Lando’s co-pilot during the Battle of Endor? Or that cloaked anteater-like alien which clued the Stormtroopers into Han’s location on Tattooine? Or that weird cadre of sentients in Jabba’s palace? Yeah. Still humanoid, but only in basics.
Winner
Star Wars. There are times when Star Trek comes off not as a show about explorers, but as a show about people evangelizing about the one true path of the Federation. On those occasions, the human-like appearances of the various alien races takes on a much more disturbing undertone: They’re different from us! Clearly they’re not civilized! Also, Star Wars shows us that aliens could come in a lot of different shapes, even when it’s restricting itself to humanoid forms. Star Wars gets the idea that alien races could be completely different from humans.

Types of Media
Both franchises have transcended their original mediums. Both of them have managed to invade the world of science fiction literature. They’ve also crossed into each other’s mediums – William Shatner credits Star Wars for studios being willing to take a chance with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while Star Wars began with a show about the movie’s droids before later moving into fare with storytelling truly worthy of Star Wars: Two shows based on the Clone Wars, and more recently, Star Wars Rebels. They’ve even both gotten into the world of video games. Now, Star Wars is a natural for the video gaming world because so many games revolve around the concept of you being a one-man army and taking on the world. The games are nearly ready-made when the title of the franchise has the word “wars” in it. Star Wars is a very action-oriented franchise. Star Trek also made its way to video games, but with considerably less fanfare. You can probably guess why: There’s very little action to base a Star Trek game on, so a lot of the games churned out based on Star Trek were pretty weak. Granted, Star Wars has been one of the weakest licenses ever given to video game developers – it’s like the developers are coasting on the Star Wars tag alone. Large aspects of Star Trek games are based on mental dexterity, which isn’t a bad thing, but people don’t seem to remember Star Trek ever being a video game franchise.
Winner
Star Wars. Its been naturally integrated into more kinds of media, and has been more prominent in other forms of media. Although Star Trek has been dazzling in many forms of media, most attempts to turn it into a video game have fallen flat because programmers have trouble compromising the elements required of a good video game with the elements which make up Star Trek. Star Wars hasn’t had many of those problems, although to be perfectly fair to Star Trek, Star Wars hasn’t gotten along the best with gaming either. Yes, there are strong points like Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Squadron, and Lego Star Wars, but Star Wars as a whole has produced far more trash than diamonds. Do I have to bring up Masters of Teras Kasi?

Overall Themes
It’s the themes of Star Trek and Star Wars that really resonate with people, inspiring them and keeping the fanbases connected. Calling Star Wars science fiction is a little inaccurate; it’s really more of a genuine science fantasy because it has a basis in mystical elements. The mystical elements of Star Wars is embodied in The Force, an omnipresent entity that connects all life in the universe. Its most notable aspect is the fact that it grants incredible, superhuman powers to anyone who is able to tap into it. It has a Dark Side, though, which tempts good guys into self-corruption. Both the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy revolve around characters who are learning to master it. The Prequel Trilogy is about how its main character, Anakin Skywalker, was trained to be a prophesied Chosen One who would destroy those who used the Dark Side – known as the Sith – but was tempted and corrupted, falling to the Dark Side himself. The Original Trilogy is about Anakin’s son, Luke, learning to use The Force, become a Jedi Knight, and eventually facing the Galactic Empire and redeeming his father. Star Trek is more science based than Star Wars, and most references to the idea of any sort of higher power are mostly there for cultural contrast. That makes a dominating theme of Star Trek that of humanism – or really, being-ism in the Trek universe – and the exploratory and political nature of the franchise brings on the virtue of open-mindedness. Most of the characters running the various incarnations of the Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine are full of intellectual curiosities and willing to peace and diplomacy in the name of avoiding a serious conflict a shot.
Winner
So, here are the themes of both franchises reduced into very short, simple, easy-to-write sentences. Star Wars: Don’t turn away from something just because it’s hard, and you may discover a talent you never knew you had. Star Trek: Keep an open mind, and you can discover a lot of interesting people and places. Both are equally virtuous, and following just one would make you a better person; and more power to you if you try to follow both. (As I do.) Therefore, I’m calling this a draw.

Iconic Spaceships
A good franchise with the word “star” so prominently featured better have some awesome star-hoppers, and in this respect, both Star Trek and Star Wars have obliged us in spades. Star Trek, of course, has the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise has been designed and redesigned many times, but the basics are always there: A large saucer, large impulse engines, phasers, and photon torpedoes. The Enterprise is over half a kilometer long and comes equipped with a method of faster-than-light travel called a warp drive. The Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, and therefore it tends to come off as a giant galactic luxury cruiser; but while it wasn’t really built for combat, the Enterprise has saved the world on numerous occasions. Jean-Luc Picard managed to save the Earth twice from the Borg using two different versions of the Enterprise. There are a lot of ships in Star Wars which might qualify as standout icons, but the most prominent one is probably Han Solo’s personal vessel, the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon is basically a converted freighter which may look like a hunk of junk, but with the capability to jump to .08 past light speed and make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, definitely has it where it counts. Like the Enterprise, the Falcon has a world-saving pedigree – Solo rescued Luke Skywalker during the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV, allowing Luke to deliver the payload that blew up the Death Star. In Episode VI, Lando led the Rebel Alliance in the Falcon during the Battle of Endor and delivered the killing shot himself. Although best known for its speed, the Falcon is no pushover in combat; it’s equipped with concussion missiles and three different kinds of laser guns. It’s large enough to have a significant range, but small enough to be a versatile and dangerous dogfighter.
Winner
I can’t decide. I tried, but I can’t. Both spacecraft are so different and so useful that it seems a moot point. The Enterprise would provide luxury and comfort to its crew members, as well as long-term sustainability for a long voyage. If there’s a rescue mission which requires large pickups, the Enterprise can hold several thousand passengers comfortably, with every nice living luxury necessary and all the latest technology available for use by everyone aboard. The Millennium Falcon has more of a brass knuckle feel – it has the design patterns of an old World War II bomber, rife with jagged, sharp edges built more for functionality than comfort. There room for the crew and maybe a handful of passengers, but it’s a tough, reliable ship which can get you much further than any of the small transport shuttles from Star Trek while still providing the firepower and maneuverability of a single-person starfighter. My own ideal would be to simply lodge the Falcon into the Enterprise’s docking bay.

Movie About Fanbase
Both franchises have received a rare designation: They’ve had theatrical features made about their fanbases! Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans, probably shouldn’t be labeled as a feature. It’s a documentary about the fanbase itself and the way Star Trek has influenced their lives in positive ways. I’m not sure if its director was a Trekkie himself, but at the very least, Trekkies does a very Star Trek-like presentation by trying to shed a new light on a group of people, and the director seems to have some level of respect for them. There was a movie called Fanboys which was completely fictional, and about a group of hardcore Star Wars fans trying to rush their terminally ill friend to George Lucas’s home so he could have his last wish fulfilled: See The Phantom Menace. (Fanboys takes place in 1998 or 1999.) While intended to be a lighthearted, irreverent take on sci-fi fandom, Fanboys is just insulting. It revels in every geek stereotype imaginable, and if anyone behind Fanboys cared about Star Wars in the slightest, it doesn’t show. Plus, there was the obligatory shot at how bad The Phantom Menace was in the end, which sort of takes the movie out of its era – there was a time when The Phantom Menace was the most eagerly awaited movie ever, and the thought of it being bad was outrageous.
Winner
Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans. Trekkies wants to show its audience how Star Trek inspires people to be their best and go further than they ever thought they could. Fanboys was an insult through and through, and not only did it spend 90 painful minutes picking on Star Wars fans, it got its jabs in at Star Trek too. William Shatner makes a cameo – which is really the best part of the movie – and hey, if you insult one group, why not insult them all? There’s a group of Trekkies in Fanboys who get into a scuffle with the main characters. Hilarity, as you can probably guess, ensues.

Well…. This is a first! We have a tie! My personal preference remains loyal to Star Wars by about a hair, but here we have definitive proof that one of these franchises isn’t better than the other. Live long and prosper, and may The Force be with you!

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The Dark Territory of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Dark Territory of It’s a Wonderful Life

I looked up the writers of the classic Frank Capra flick It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s name was among them, and when I did some further-depth research about his own life, I was a little surprised to learn that he suffered occasional bouts of depression during an earlier downswing in his younger years. It seemed odd to me because It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t come off as anything that could ever have been written by anyone who’s suffered from depression. It comes off like more the fantasy of a screenwriter trying to put his arm around the backs of depression sufferers everywhere and say “There, there, it’ll all get better.”

There was a brief window of my life when I made a tradition, like everyone else, of watching It’s a Wonderful Life during the holiday season. I was just a few years into it, though, when I noticed that there was something about it which really wasn’t sitting right with me. I had hit a low point in my life at the time and was contemplating suicide harder than I ever had – it’s fairly safe to say only my religious beliefs at the time kept me from going through with it. That, of course, puts me in a situation similar to that of George Bailey, James Stewart’s main character. The movies takes us through George’s life story, bringing us to the moment the movie begins, when God – yes, THAT God – is commanding an angel named Clarence to talk George out of his suicidal depression. Clarence visits George, shows him what everything would be like of he never existed, and George is magically happy again.

If only real depression were that simple. In real life, there’s no Clarence, and George offs himself. The problem with the movie’s premise is that George is set up and defined as a man of very significant impact. It’s true that George has thwarted dreams that are similar to my own in a couple of ways, but it’s difficult to get me to believe George really had it that bad. His dream of traveling the world, after all, is something he surrenders willingly, even if he does do it quite often. George first takes over a business that was threatening to stop writing loans out for the poor because the board heads would only continue doing that if George was running it. I don’t have any problems with this; but George gives his college cash stash to his brother Harry, and that’s where the problem begins. Harry takes George’s cue and then seemingly coasts through his life on a series of implausible breaks. Harry marries into a rich family and becomes a war hero.

George, meanwhile, runs his company and keeps roadblocking his own path. His gestures are admittedly noble: At one point, he gives his honeymoon money to depositors to satisfy their immediate needs. At another, he turns down the job of his dreams when it’s offered because his nemesis, Potter, is planning to take over his city.

Throughout all this, by the way, George is able to find the time and means to marry his longtime love and sire four kids. He buys a home, too. During the never-born sequence, George’s wife, Mary, ends up being a shy, perpetually single librarian, as if she could never have found a man who wasn’t George Bailey and a fulfilling career. (Well, okay, this movie is from 1946, so the career isn’t very likely.)

A supremely ironic point that occurs to me right now is that so far, the movie and I are in agreement over the main theme: George is leading a life most people would consider very significant and fulfilling. But that’s where our similarities end. George is very well known and beloved throughout his community because of the willing selflessness he shows, constantly sacrificing pursuit of his dreams in order to better the lives of those around him. Everything he did, except getting rejected by the military, was something he gave up by personal choice. He has good friends and a devoted wife and a good home in a nice community.

This is basically magical Hollywood depression. It’s sanitized nicely for people who believe a few inspiring words are more than enough to snap anyone out of a funk and return them to their jolly old selves. Just like real depression and real suicidal contemplation, I swear, knowing from experience. It’s basically the same, except take away George’s communal niceties, flowing opportunities, family, and largely decent job. Strip him of all the status, prestige, and trust he earned from the people around him, and put him in a much more menial situation in which the livlihoods of a lot fewer people depend on his fortunes and you’ll start to get the idea. I can’t imagine myself being the only person who ever watched this while depressed and thing holy shit, this movie is fucking mocking me!

The one inspirational thing that I did take away from It’s a Wonderful Life is actually the life story of Frank Capra himself. He got himself stuck in a life rut very similar to my own, and our ages during this rough patch weren’t that far apart. Capra was going through his during much worse circumstances. Yet, he still found a way to overcome his obstacles and eventually become one of the most important directors in the history of American film.

Really Great Movies: The Social Network

I take back every bad thing I ever said about Justin Timberlake. It’s that he came riding in on the back of a popular boy band, and we all know how that usually turns out, right? Well, if you were among the many, many Timberlake bashers, you may take heart in the fact that his singing hasn’t really changed one bit. However, he has proven to be a great pop music innovator, but what really surprised me is his acting ability. In The Social Network, he plays Napster founder Sean Parker, the charismatic machine gun-talking salesman who leads Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg down the path to success, but at the cost of Zuckerberg’s soul.

How do you make a good movie about the formation of a website? Well, hiring David Fincher to direct is a good start. It’s pretty odd that a project like this would come from Fincher. The Social Network is, after all, a movie which is giving acknowledgement to the beginnings of one of the most dominant corporations in the world. One of Fincher’s other indisputable classics (he’s building an impressive resume of them) was Fight Club, a roaring primal scream from one person in a materialistic, corporate world wondering where the line between his gussied up material character and his real self is drawn. Also on the staff of The Social Network is the great screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men, The American President, and created TV’s The West Wing. The Social Network, as a result, is written and directed in a very engaging manner.

The Social Network’s universe revolves around Mark Zuckerberg, a young Harvard student first seen mouthing off to his girlfriend with the cold bluntness and efficiency one might hear in someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She finally ditches him with equivocal coldness and efficiency, sending The Zuck back to his dorm to get drunk and badmouth the girl in his blog before setting up a hot-or-not site called Facemash, which crashes parts of the Harvard network. It also brings him to the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who have an idea for a Harvard alumi dating site and and thing The Zuck is the perfect guy to get it online. Zuckerberg likes the idea and uses it to create a whole new social network for people to stay in touch.

Long story short: It gets big. It expands in a way no one has ever seen before. Mark gets rich and inadvertently screws everyone over.

Mark Zuckerberg the way The Social Network portrays him is a tangled mass of contradictions. He is a genius who is easily led on by a very good snake oil salesman. He is a stone, thick and impenetrable for most people but he has an excellent idea of what makes people tick. He is a faithful friend to his friend and business partner, Eduardo, but doesn’t seem to care that Eduardo was screwed over by Sean Parker. Zuckerberg has a personality set to the robot position for the entirety of The Social Network. He seems alienated from the real world most of the time, but is a creative innovator who is able to make billions by analyzing the base desires of humanity.

Zuckerberg likes the idea of a universal connections network, so he takes his inspiration from the Winklevoss twins and a grand from Eduardo for his startup fee. When two girls at a Bill Gates lecture tell Mark and Eduardo to Facebook them, they know they’re on to something, and Sean Parker enters the picture as something of an advisor to Facebook. He has two things Mark and Eduardo need: The first is an excess of charisma shooting from every pore in his body at the speed of sound. The second and more important thing is connections, which Eduardo come in handy when Eduardo tries to make them himself in New York City and fails. Parker definitely plays a role in the success of Facebook, but he also turns into a wedge when he correctly calculates the respective reactions of Mark and Eduardo to him when they first meet. Mark, shooting for the stars, likes Sean. Eduardo, who doesn’t like him, prefers a more conservative approach. Sean, acting like the average kid after doing something which results in his folks playing the good parent/bad parent routine, snuggles up to Mark and uses him as a shield.

The Social Network is set around a pair of lawsuits Zuckerberg faces from the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo. They are all suing Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss twins because they believe he committed intellectual property theft by using their idea to form Facebook and Eduardo because he came back for a slice of the Facebook stock which Sean Parker slickly tricked him out of. The story is told in flashbacks, but they are mostly unbroken so the interruptions to the boardroom scenes are kept at a minimum.

There is a little bit of a Shakespearean element to The Social Network. No one dies, of course, but Mark seems to be made into some shade of Hamlet. Lawsuits are used as vengeance killings once Mark wipes his formerly solid relationships with his friends right off the face of the Earth. Like Hamlet, The Zuck seems lost and uncaring in his own little world at times, much to the detraction of everything that isn’t taking place in his head. The Social Network ends not with a massacre, but with a bitter irony: His Facebook site now has over a million members, but Mark Zuckerberg has no one left in his corner to help him fight his battles. The final scene is Mark, having the kind of money which society deifies, sitting pathetically in an empty boardroom, attempting to friend his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

It’s possible that by making Mark Zuckerberg such an alienated character even a the best of times, Fincher was turning The Social Network into an other social commentary about where the tricky location of a blurry line between materialism and reality, where the accumulation of things ends and the actual person is formed. If that’s the case, maybe The Social Network has something in common with Fight Club after all.