' Cinema Romantico: When the Unknown Becomes Known

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

When the Unknown Becomes Known


Today the New Horizons probe is set to make its fly-by of Pluto and give us our very first up close and personal look at our solar system’s most distant planet* (*suck it, IAU). Pluto has always been my favorite planet, and not because of the Disney dog, as my arch-nemesis Neil deGrasse Tyson might claim. No, it was my favorite because it was so far away, because by being so far away it was utterly unknown. I remember doing a “science” project in grade school in which we were tasked to choose our favorite planet and present a report. There was so little information on Pluto. Everyone knew about Jupiter’s spot. Everyone had seen that shot of Mars from Viking 1. Everyone knew the 411 on Saturn’s rings. But Pluto? Ah, ‘twas a mystery. No one really knew what it looked like, we could merely imagine, and to imagine it was simply the best. I still daydream about the sun’s remote, barely-there glimmer from Pluto’s surface, a surface which I always imagined was similar to the picture employed by the Encyclopedia Brittanica of my youth to illustrate the Greek underworld ruled by the god Pluto. I guess that’s why I feel so strange today. I’m absolutely euphoric to see Pluto up close yet completely heartbroken to cede the mystery.

The real secret weapon to the original “Star Wars” movie was its setting in the midst of an ongoing conflict. It was a period of civil war and we just happened to be catching up. The scuzzy X-Wing fighters were physical evidence. Those things looked like they’d been broken down and re-built, like, two-dozen times. Those things had mileage. The movie’s opening crawl was akin to reading a history textbook several decades after the fact. “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.” You could imagine that hidden base and battle and the secret plans’ thievery any way you wanted.

Well, as you know, there are going to be a series of new “Star Wars” spinoff movies, filling in the blanks between the god-awful prequels and the seminal trilogy of yore. The risk these movies run is not simply in their quality. Perhaps they will be finely made. But there is something to having all those wondrous places our imaginations have carried us rendered null and void. In the original “Star Wars” there are small references to seemingly enormous pieces of the puzzle – the Old Republic, the Academy, the Imperial Senate, The Clone Wars. I loved those allusions. I loved conjuring up the mental image of the Imperial Senate floor while the spooky connotations that something like “Clone Wars” elicited let the darker aspects of my mind’s eye go haywire. Alas, when finally we were introduced to the Imperial Senate and the Clone Wars……well, it was like getting to the Alamo and discovering there is no basement. God, I’ve never experienced such cinematic letdowns.


There is part of me, I suppose, that is excited for the possibility of these stories, just like part of me is excited to see Pluto as Pluto really is. But part of me, the hopeless romantic, the hipster Walter Mitty, is genuinely crushed. There is going to be a movie detailing the origin of Han Solo, even though Han Solo, as far as I’m concerned, exists on the same sorta plain as William Kidd. Who wants to be told unequivocally that Captain Kidd didn’t leave buried treasure? How on earth is that any fun? Those damn scientists get in the damn Loch to harness foolproof evidence that Nessie is just a fanciful Scottish saga and everybody loses.

Well, maybe not everybody. I suppose to more scholarly minds than my own the truth of Captain Kidd and the reality of Loch Ness is exciting and insightful, not unlike how finally seeing Pluto up close and personal and in vibrant color will be breathtaking. And I confess to being riveted by every Pluto image beamed back by New Horizons thus far. Still, with captivation comes a significant dose of sadness, a putting to bed of all my whimsical Plutonian daydreams. I will be heartbroken to know Pluto does not quite exist as I thought I did. And even if this Han Solo origin story winds up to be a phenomenally crafted film with impressive insights into the mind of our favorite Corellian smuggler, I for one will nevertheless be grief-stricken to see precisely how he made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

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