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Star Wars: Rebels, and Clone Wars a Little Bit

As much as I’ve said in the past that I’m a Trekkie first, there’s no doubt that Star Wars is firmly in the ascendant these days. I would have thought that both franchises were destined to stagnate and fade quietly away. Whether or not Star Trek: Discovery proves me wrong I won’t know for a while, but Star Wars has unexpectedly risen again with the release of the exhilarating the Force Awakens and gut-punch intense Rogue One.

Still, I can only re-watch them so many times. It was out of curiosity, and some unexpectedly good reviews that I ended up trying out the animated spinoff series: Clone Wars a while back on Netflix, and then, more recently, Star Wars: Rebels.

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Left to right: Hera Syndulla, Kanan Jarrus, Ezra Bridger, Zeb Orellios, Sabine Wren

Rebels‘ third season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve found myself quite enjoying it. Moreso than Clone Wars, although that didn’t stop me watching four fifths of it, too. I assumed that it would be very kid-oriented and shallow. A little unfairly, it turned out…

Star Wars: Rebels features Ezra Bridger, a street kid in the capital of the planet Lothal. The Galactic Empire is squeezing the planet for labour and resources and cracking down on dissent. Ezra is pickpocketing his way to survival when he gets caught up in a more ambitious Robin Hood-style action by the crew of a smuggler ship, the Ghost. One of them, Kanan, recognizes Ezra’s uncanny intuition and skill for what it is: he’s a Force-sensitive. Kanan was a Jedi student during the Clone Wars, and takes the brash Ezra under his wing. As they cause mayhem for the Empire on Lothal, they attract they attention of Imperial authorities, including the cunning intelligence officer Agent Kallus, his boss, the formidable Grand Moff Tarkin, and the Imperial Inquisitors, Force-sensitives tasked to hunt down surviving Jedi. Eventually, even the Inquisitors have to give way to their boss, Darth Vader. As the spark of the Lothal rebellion grows, inspiring others and drawing in other rebel cells, they become part of a larger movement that openly confronts the Empire, under the insidious and erudite Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Ezra becomes a member of a closely-knit crew of misfits: Kanan, the half-trained Jedi veteran, the exiled warrior-artist Sabine, sour ex-soldier Zeb, recalcitrant droid Chopper, and their feisty yet cunning captain, Hera Syndulla. Each of them brings their own skills and personal history and issues that drive them to oppose the Empire and stand by each other, however difficult that sometimes proves. Ezra struggles to fit into a crew, and family, and all of them try to cope with the growing scope of their role in the galactic conflict, as Ezra also begins to learn the ways of the Force and the perils of the Dark Side.

If that seems like a busy schedule, it’s because Rebels is built to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model of a new Big Bad every season, although Thrawn isn’t out of the picture as of the end of Season 3. That can be a dodgy approach, as it was on Buffy or Legend of Korra because it can be hard to keep ramping up the drama from scratch. However, Rebels takes an in-between approach, where the story arc of gradually escalating the scope of the rebellion, and the Empire escalating its response in line with it by bringing in a succession of heavy hitters.

By and large, the escalation coincides with the show finding its feet. Personally, I didn’t find the Inquisitors, with their creepy eyes and overdesigned light sabres, all that scary. But you’d have to be nuts not to find Tarkin or Vader scary – especially after the latter’s exploits in Rogue One, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is chilling, although his sinister wait-and-watch habit arguably went on just long enough to seem silly before he finally brought the hammer down, but boy did he ever!

That said, I have to say that I still find the series somewhat toothless. A lot of shows listed on the TV Tropes wiki have a section called ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar.’ It usually lists things like dirty jokes or heavy content slipped into kid shows for the benefit of the more mature-minded. Batman: the Animated Series and Avatar: the Last Airbender have quite a lot of entries in theirs. It says a lot about Rebels by comparison that it doesn’t have one at all.

Rebels sort of resembles Firefly in that it features a created-family scenario scrunched into a slightly run-down spaceship doing crosses between covert ops and odd jobs. But somehow it still maintains a certain plastic unreality. The ship seems awfully clean and well-lit. Their food never seems to run low, enemy weapons only ever hurt them if the plot needs them to, they only have one or two episodes where fuel or money troubles vex them. And, like that old joke about the Enterprise, the Ghost doesn’t seem to have any bathrooms.

The characters themselves, meanwhile, are each interesting in their own right but the chemistry between them is a little weak. The show isn’t willing to do anything so brazen as have even subtextual romance subplots. Ezra seems to be trying catch Sabine’s eye for a while but nothing ever comes of it one way or the other. She doesn’t even just say ‘no,’ the subplot just trails off after a while. Kanan and Hera seem to have a thing for each other – she calls Kanan ‘love’ a lot – but it’s not clear what the story is there. And even during the tough times, very rarely do any of them break character in a shocking way.

The show is about war – it’s right there in the name and all – but like Clone Wars before it, the subject matter doesn’t really seem to be taken seriously. Not least because there’s a double standard about how shocking death is. In Clone Wars, the fact that the bad guys were bumbling battle robots made mowing them down seem unremarkable, notwithstanding some philosophical considerations concerning droid sapience. But now the Imperial stormtroopers are the enemy mooks, their bumbling and bad aim clash with the knowledge that there are actual human beings in that armour – although they very carefully avoid letting you see their faces whenever their armour gets stolen. It makes the death of any stormtrooper, especially one with a speaking role, or one who perishes with particular irony, quietly disturbing. And yet when death or maiming happens to someone with a face, then it gets regarded with shock by the heroes, even if it’s a bad guy, like the defector Tua or the Inquisitor who commits suicide in season 1 – presumably preferring that to having to report in to Darth Vader.

In general I think what makes me uncomfortable about Rebels is that it doesn’t consistently treat war as something bad but necessary, but as something awesome and cool. It makes for compelling battles and raids, though. Kanan is pretty good about speaking up for a more pacifistic angle, as well. And some episodes deal with the costs of war, like when Kanan gets blinded in season 2, Sabine’s schism with her clan, and the hideously costly battle at the end of season 3. Avatar had to pull punches as well, of course, but was somehow more consistent about it, and was more convincing about treating war as something you have to do but rather wouldn’t. The priority of action over character development also means that characters come through the fires of war but it doesn’t seem to cost them that much emotionally – they bounce back too easily.

That said, the toothlessness of the action is markedly diminishing, with characters unambiguously dying and the rebels getting set back big time in season 3. Given the Ghost and Hera’s very brief cameos in Rogue One, the bar for how far we can take this is promisingly high. And I do like the characters a lot. Ezra’s got rather more emotional range than average for the spunky young hero. Kanan has fascinating internal conflicts, and I like the way he subverts the standard Old Master character by being himself half-trained. Zeb has something of the shell-shocked veteran going on – he kind of reminds me of D’Argo in Farscape. Sabine doesn’t get as much character development as I’d like, but the premise of the scion of a martial tradition with the soul of an artist is quite charming. The level of sophisticated thinking displayed by Thrawn is well above average for a cartoon villain. My favourites are Hera herself, and Agent Kallus. Kallus has perhaps the most pronounced character arc of them all, keeping me guessing throughout. Hera’s interesting on a few levels. Arguably, she has the greatest emotional range and deepest backstory of any of the characters, especially since her father’s character carried over from the Clone Wars. But as a Star Wars fan, the coolest thing about her is that she’s a Twi’lek.

If you don’t know, Twi’leks are an alien species in Star Wars, almost invariably found in the context of exotic dancers and slave girls in the thrall of people like Jabba the Hutt. So to get one promoted to lead character is really cool. Besides that, she’s no one’s sex object. She makes those who assume she is one pay dearly in one early episode where she has to pose as a slave, and she dresses eminently practically, in something like Kaylee in Firefly’s work clothes. On a bigger scale, almost all of the human characters are discernibly non-white, so we’ve got actual representation and metaphorical representation as a garnish.

However cagey I’m being about character arcs, they’re a decided improvement over Clone Wars, which consisted of multiple, mostly isolated adventures. That aspect of Clone Wars is handy because no more than a passing acquaintance is needed to get the significance of legacy characters like Hondo Ohnaka, Rex the retired clone trooper, or Ahsoka Tano, who has her own supporting character arc as a former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker when Darth Vader enters the narrative. It also gives the galaxy a bit more sense of scale – they don’t effortlessly go just any old where with no sense of how the larger war is going, and they’re only one, not particularly powerful independent cell of a larger resistance.

As a Star Wars fan, the references to the larger canon are charming without making the series completely inaccessible. Canon characters like Darth Vader and Lando are recognizable enough, as are locations like Dantooine and Mustafar. Others like Thrawn, Saw Gerrera and Colonel Yularren – otherwise known as one of the dudes sitting around the Death Star’s conference table – are engaging enough even if you don’t know who they are. At the same time, the writers are pretty good at making sure that the story of our main characters is served by the appearance of legacy characters like Vader, Ahsoka or Obi-wan, without them stealing the show. Likewise, they never defeat the primary villains in a way that diminished their effect or menace.

I might be being a little too harsh in some of my critiques, since I have a bad habit of putting this show on and half-watching it while I wash the dishes and such. But while I find it shallower and more by-the-numbers than Avatar, Legend of Korra, or the new live-action Star Wars productions, it still has much merit. Apart from the cool factor of Star Wars, it has cool and diverse characters, charming dialogue, and a promising story arc that’s been getting better and better. The music is superb, making effective use of the classic motifs by John Williams. The voice acting it a big part of what makes it, with Billy Dee Williams, Forrest Whitaker and James Earl Jones himself reprising their characters from the live action movies. The versatility of Dee Bradley Baker, who somehow made all the Clone Wars troopers sound like different people with the same voice, and Steve Blum, who, if you know what to listen for, is half the supporting cast, is stunning. And some big names come to the party as well: Jason Isaacs as the first Inquisitor, Freddie Prinz Jr. as Kanan – and his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar as another Inquisitor – Star Trek’s Brent Spiner as an Imperial senator, Kevin McKidd as a Mandalorian warrior, and no less a personage than Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, as the mysterious Bendu in season 3! Sherlock fans may also recognize the chilling Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn.

With such merits, the show is most promising and a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.

May the Force be with us all.

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Posted by on April 7, 2017 in Television

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Wars

Well, the time has come at last. I’ve said before that there is a trinity of franchises that set the style for popular science fiction today. First, in 1963, there was Doctor Who. In 1966 came Star Trek. And in 1977…

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Star Wars, now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was the brainchild of special effects wizard George Lucas. He made it as an homage to pulp sci-fi of his childhood, and it was a classic revisitation of the Hero’s Journey, arguably the oldest trope in existence.

Of the three great franchises I’ve done the history of, Star Wars is probably the one whose behind-the-scenes history I know the least. That said, I’ve gleaned a certain amount of lore from my parents, who remember seeing them when they first came out.

Star Wars’ saga of the Skywalker family’s quest to master the ways of the mystical Force that permeates the the galaxy and overthrow the evil Galactic Empire and its ruler Palpatine is a perfect illustration of the idea that there’s no such thing as an original story, only fresh versions of old ones. The Hero’s Journey is so basic, and yet in the cladding of Star Wars became one of the biggest deals in pop culture in the last half-century.

If you have infinite time to waste, you can check out the fascinating ‘History of Hollywood‘ series of articles on the TV Tropes wiki. From that, the Star Wars movies were one of the cutting-edge contributors to the concept of the blockbuster film, along with the work of Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg of the same period. It was a massive hit for all ages (per that wiki, family entertainment had been the exclusive preserve of Disney before then) that seemed to come completely out of nowhere.

Probably the most talked about innovation of the Star Wars movies is in the area of special effects. In space movies prior to this, you moved a model spaceship across a background in a way that made it very obvious that they were subject to Earth gravity and made of plywood – see the old Doctor Who series. Lucas was the first one to keep the model in place and move the camera, resulting in much smoother motion. This innovation was the launching pad for one of Lucas’ many companies, Industrial Light and Magic, still the name in special effects. Only Weta Workshop has, to my knowledge, approached it in prestige since.

Star Wars was and remains a visual feast, from the locations, to the ships, to the aliens, to the action. It runs on raw emotions of exhiliration, awe and suspense. For the more intellectual viewer, it was rife with callbacks to classics like Flash Gordon and echoes of things like samurai legends. Thematically, it’s so universal that people all over the world have gotten into it.

Actually, despite its standing in pop culture and in relation to Doctor Who or Star Trek, there’s an argument to be made that Star Wars isn’t actually science fiction, but like Saga, is fantasy that just happens to take place in outer space. Science fiction is sometimes defined as being about what might happen, but Star Wars is clearly in another galaxy far, far away. That said, the aesthetic, if not the concept, had a big impact on science fiction from that day forward.

The 1977 epic was followed up with the Empire Strikes Back, a significant change in tone that included one of the most famous twists in movie history and, unusually, a situation where the bad guys kind of win.

Return of the Jedi rounded out the trilogy with a resolution of the threads laid in the previous movie and massive all-round epic conclusion that would stand the test of time for twenty years.

It must be said that all of this took a lot out of Lucas, and he defied a lot of convention in doing it, becoming a free agent auteur in the process.

Star Wars was also a pioneer of another, arguably less awesome area: merchandising. Star Wars doesn’t just make money from ticket sales, or video and DVD sales. It spun itself out into a huge market of collectibles like models, toys, posters and so on.

In addition, Star Wars has (or had, at least) something unique in its time: the Expanded Universe. With an entire galaxy to play in, the franchise ballooned into spinoff books and comics, covering the events after Return of the Jedi, before A New Hope, and spaces between, and following the exploits of our heroes and even the most briefly-glimpsed side characters.

This is what set Star Wars apart, I think, from Trek fandom or Whovianism: more than the other two, being a Star Wars fan became a lifestyle unto itself. Star Trek licensed materials were never as cohesive or interconnected, and Star Trek merchandise, in my experience, is harder to find and a lot more downmarket. Doctor Who is moving more in the Star Wars direction since the 2005 reboot, but it has a lot of catching up to do. Besides which, Star Wars, similarly to Warhammer 40K which came after, is a universe so big you can just about live in it full-time, and it’s an ideal breeding ground for Ensemble Darkhorse-type characters like Boba Fett.

It was something only possible because Lucas, having broken away from the Hollywood establishment, had pretty much total oversight of the franchise. In contrast, Gene Roddenberry, for better and worse, was still answerable to a studio. Until the sale to Disney, you could depend on one guy signing off on every little thing.

Which, it must be said, did backfire in numerous ways. Personally, I could never see myself getting into the EU because what little I gleaned always came across as overstuffed. Whether that’s fair or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that after a while Lucas’ creative monopoly started to show its drawbacks.

The most obvious one, and the one even Lucas himself has been known to joke about, is that Star Wars dialogue is as campy as it comes. Everybody gave him hell for that, from Harrison Ford to Sir Alec Guinness, and it’s been a part of the franchise from the word go. Coupled with this is the way he gives characters names that either sound like the babblings of toddlers, or that are hit-you-over-the-head goofy sounding, like the obviously sinister pseudonyms used by Sith or (and this is the one that makes me want to throw something at the screen every time) the portly X-Wing pilot in Episode IV named ‘Porkins.’ The Force Awakens is, for some reason, continuing this tradition in the person of Supreme Leader Snoke.

Before I go on, I should make this clear as it is a point on which I might diverge from a lot of readers. I watch campy franchises like this in spite of their cheesiness, not because of it. I will never understand the logic of watching something to enjoy its flaws. For me, camp is sometimes an historical relic that is acceptable in that context, like the original Star Wars, or something I tolerate because the story is worthwhile anyway, as in the case of something like Tomorrowland. It’s why I never watch things like the Family Guy Star Wars parody (well, that and a general dislike for Seth MacFarlane) or, on the Trek front, Galaxy Quest, because the conversation is going to be them saying, “Hey! Star Wars did something stupid and cheesy!” And me replying, “Yes, I know. Now will you shut up, I’m trying to enjoy it over here!”

Which is why, like a lot of people, my favourite Star Wars movie was Empire Strikes Back, because Lucas merely took general charge of the production and left the dialogue and other fine details up to colleagues. Didn’t improve the Imperial Stormtrooper’s aim much though.

Star Wars was ambitious in having a saga across multiple movies – grabbing us early on by inexplicably calling his first movie “Episode IV” – but it’s clear that Lucas was playing things a little more seat-of-the-trousers than he might have wished us to believe. I particularly remember watching Empire Strikes Back with my Dad as a kid. In one scene Leia kisses Luke – mainly just to tick Han off – and my Dad remarked, “She’s gonna to feel funny about that later.” Leia also discusses in Return of the Jedi what little she remembers of her birth mother, but Padme dies in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith. And there are little early oddities like Vader shouting at Leia in Episode IV, whereas, ever after, his calm stoicism is one of his best assets as a villain.

Another thing Dad pointed out to me over the years is that oftentimes Lucas couldn’t seem to make up his mind who his target audience was. The violence and crises of the movies are pretty mature stuff – I remember being quite shocked as a child by how many of the good guys get shot down in Episode IV. And it was many years before I could get through Return of the Jedi because despite the cute kid-friendly Ewoks this movie also contained the Emperor himself – who I will remind you, looked like this:

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Bit much for a seven-year-old to take, really.

Which brings me neatly to the Prequel Triology. I’m probably the oldest generation for whom this was a part of my growing up: the new trilogy of Episodes I, II, and III, beginning in 1999 with the Phantom Menace. This trilogy follows the rise of Anakin Skywalker through the Jedi ranks and his eventually succumbing to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader. And, at this point, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of twelve willing to defend it.

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Lucas was back in the driver’s seat for this one, as he had been for Return of the Jedi, and unfortunately, due in part, seemingly, to tribulations in his private life, his worst bad habits seemed to get the best of him.

Now, there are legions of articles, comment threads and videos discussing the shortcomings of the Prequel trilogy. In general, another of Star Wars’ dubious distinctions is being one of the first franchises to exhibit a voracious yet unpleasable fan community. If you can stand his interminable videos and obnoxious voice, then the YouTube critic Confused Matthew probably does as thorough a job as anyone of dissecting them.

Among the most common ones were the sloppy and vague background to the conflict – taxation of trade routes, etc. – making it seem arbitrary and hollow; making one’s Jedi potential based more on a blood test than on the content of your character; a plot that barrels ahead leaving hole after hole in its wake; a lot of prophecy and Chosen One talk in a franchise that has never used it; accusations of racist stereotyping; enemies that flip-flop between being funny and scary and failing at both; and of course the most ham-fisted love story ever seen on screen.

That’s not to say that they had no virtues: Episodes I and II in particular had great action, visuals, music and casting, and the fight at the end of Episode I was a masterpiece of choreography. But then Anakin took centre stage and it went downhill fast.

Anakin Skywalker is so arrogant and abrasive you’d think he’d already fallen to the Dark Side! His come-ons to Padme in Attack of the Clones were my younger self’s master class in how never to treat a woman, and he regarded the world through what I’ve since dubbed the ‘Anakin Skywalker Serial Killer Glare’ (see also Jace in City of Bones and the teen big brother in Jurassic World). Beyond that, Lucas’ dialogue got worse and worse, and the battle droids and Jar-Jar stood for Star Wars’ inability to keep a consistent tone.

What always gets me about the Prequel Trilogy is that it contains a terrific story about Anakin’s downfall, but that Lucas doesn’t appear to have noticed it. A lot of aspects of the story that exist as plot holes would have worked if strung together differently. I thought, during Attack of the Clones, Anakin was going to be given legitimate reasons to be disillusioned by the Jedi; the fact that the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ do nothing about slavery in Episode I, their callous attitude toward Anakin’s mother in Episode II, the inflexibility of their code, and the implication in Episode II that there were corrupt Jedi masters involved in instigating the Clone Wars, were, I assumed, setting up the Jedi Order as being in decline, and Anakin’s frustration turning him to a side that promised decisive action. The Seperatist movement could have been a group with legitimate grivances that got coopted by evil. Instead, we get this.

Part of the problem is that worldbuilding in Star Wars has always been a little slapdash: the sheer size and openness of the universe also results in it being quite vague. Sometimes this helps imply a larger world, like C-3PO’s brief line in Episode IV about the Spice Mines of Kessel. But sometimes it undermines the story: at no point does anyone explain in the Prequels what a Sith is or what they want revenge for. What the Seperatists want, their ‘demands’ as Count Dooku puts it, are never shown. The specific remit of the Jedi is never clarified. Most frustrating of all, as I said in my article on the Force Awakens, the Force is never given clear rules as to what you should be able to do with it, at what stage of your training, so that characters tend to find new powers and forget old ones when the plot requires it.

George Lucas’ talents lie squarely in high concept, special effects and production oversight. Despite everything above, though, I don’t mean that as damning with faint praise. Lucas is really, really good at those things. Despite what he makes his characters say sometimes, I’ll also credit that his casting is never less than spectacular. His first ‘Special Edition’ of the first trilogy also made the most of new developments – and more money – and for all the subsquent remasters have contained some questionable decisions, you have to respect Lucas for going outside the system and trying new things. Pity more people in Hollywood don’t try that.

Star Wars is flawed – badly flawed – in myriad little ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s a write-off. It still stirs real emotions in its fans, and taps into very basic elements of storytelling that speak to anyone and everyone. It didn’t become the massive phenomenon it is because of hipster-ironic snarking at its expense. The trappings are strikingly original, the action is exhilirating, and it will be a dark time for the Rebel Alliance indeed when composer John Williams is no longer around to write the stunning scores for these movies. When the hamminess does work, it really works, too – there’s just something about the phrase “you are in command now, Admiral Piett!” The Force Awakens is showing some signs of upping Star Wars’ game in the diversity department – in which it was already fairly strong – and shaking off a bit of the camp, while still retaining its Rule of Cool ethos. As enthralling as Star Trek, as timeless as the Lord of the Rings, and almost as quotable as the Princess Bride, it well deserves its place as one of the cornerstones of geek culture.

May the Force be with you.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in Movie, Saturday Supplemental

 

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The Force Awakens: So it Begins

Well, this holiday season was the big one all of geek culture was waiting for: Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens has come!

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It was probably inevitable in what I grouchily refer to as the Age of the Remake, where Hollywood et al can barely seem to make anything that isn’t an adaptation, a remake or a sequel of something that came out twenty-plus years ago.

This particular instance was made more than usually unpalatable for me because the man at the helm is the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams. Apart from a general feeling that this is too much power for one nerd to hold, I’m still ticked off at him for building his resume for this job by running roughshod over my favourite franchise and effectively turning into a mindless Star Wars knockoff.

Let it not be said, however, that I buy into the age old Star Trek vs. Star Wars rivalry. I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan; Empire Strikes Back has been one of my favourite movies since before I was school-age. That said, I’ve never had the kind of personal loyalty to the franchise that I have to Star Trek. Not because there’s anything wrong with Star Wars. It’s just that Star Wars doesn’t have the mission or message that Trek does. Star Trek was here to tell us something really important about our potential for the future, albeit I’m beginning to think I’m the only one who noticed. Star Wars invited us on an epic and soulful whiz-bang space adventure, simple as that. And if that’s the bar they want to set, then I will concede that the Force Awakens more than delivers.

As the new plan came to light, mixed feelings arose in the fandom. The one that ticked off a lot of people is that, to develop a story for a new wave of Star Wars, they decided to chuck out the entire post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe canon and start from scratch. People who have invested themselves in experiencing the licensed comics and books were understandably left with a feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them. As someone who is only broadly aware of it, it seems to me that the EU has grown so vast, complex and detailed, that to successfully integrate all of it would be impractical.

Thirty years after the downfall of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, the new Republic is engaged in a proxy struggle against the First Order, what remains of the Galactic Empire. Rey, an orphaned battlefield scavenger, is pulled into an urgent mission by Finn, a Stormtrooper of the First Order who has deserted. Joining forces with heroes of the semi-legendary battle against the Empire, they have to evade capture by the fanatical disciple of the Dark Side Kylo Ren to bring the Resistance a droid, BB-8, who carries a map that will show them their great hope: the whereabouts of the missing Jedi Luke Skywalker. At the same time, the First Order have built yet another planet-destroying superweapon that must be destroyed for the Republic to survive and preserve the ancient Jedi ways.

A few people I know complained that the plot is basically just a retread of the very first Star Wars movie, and there is something in that. The fact that their opposition is basically an Even More Powerful version of the Death Star is certainly a clue. A lost droid with a secret mission is another one. The desert planet setting (oddly not Tatooine as I assumed) and the fact that our heroine – who even dresses a bit like Luke Skywalker in his farm boy days – meets a mentor figure are all very clearly revisiting the basic plot of Episode IV. All that said, it never crosses the line into straight-up ripoff territory in the same way that Star Trek: Into Darkness did.

Thorough worldbuilding has never been a strong point of Star Wars. George Lucas’ judgement about when to explain things and when to leave them ambiguous was shaky at best. This movie is no different, though at the stronger end of normal for the franchise. We see an inhabited planet get blown up, but it isn’t clear which one, nor is it dwelt on much, rather like Alderaan back in the day. The exact political or strategic situation is really fuzzy: is the Republic in direct conflict with the First Order? And if so why do you need a Resistance? And why does the Resistance include people who became top generals in the Rebel Alliance? Shouldn’t they be in the regular military? Star Wars allows a lot of latitude to not worry about this sort of thing, but it still makes the story universe seem a bit unpolished. The movie has a very interesting set of scenes where we see what it’s like to view the world when you’re sensitive to the Force, but the actual rules of the Force, what it makes you capable of and how much of your ability is talent and how much is training remain eternally ill-defined.

More irritating to me is that there are so many incidental encounters, supporting characters and other elements that, I am forced to assume are going to be significant in the movie-a-year Marvel-style cinematic saga that Star Wars is apparently now to become. Knowing that and seeing all these possible hints makes this movie feel less like an experience to be had and more like homework for an experience that hasn’t happened yet. This was the thing about Lost that always got on my nerves: the whole story seems to be trading on the promise of something awesome coming later rather than focusing on its own merits.

And merits the story does indeed have. I’d agree that the movie is a retread of Episode IV, but it is one in the same way that Star Trek: the Next Generation is a retread of the Original Star Trek, or that BioShock: Infinite is of BioShock, or that the Second World War was of the First. It’s a generational echo, a chance for a new group of people to undertake a similar cause in their own way.

The story pulls a bit of fast one by setting up a main character who it turns out isn’t actually the main character; he’s a bit more analogous Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy. The characters have personal struggles and traumas of various sorts, and it’s fascinating how we have two Hero’s Journey stories running together and mutually supporting. Finn and Rey’s refusal of the call phase is a bit more than just a formality as it is for Luke in Episode IV. Rey’s loner lifestyle gives way to her becoming part of a team and a circle of friends without her losing her personal indepedence or a turning into a cookie-cutter love interest.

Finn’s defection to free agency is probably going to transition into his joining the Resistance in a later movie, but oddly for playing the long game, his arc seems more rushed even than the others, and they all feel rushed. His defection seems to come with no particular precedent – it’s even noted he never had a single discipline problem prior to that – and he goes through the opening steps of the Hero’s Journey at an especially breakneck pace. He clearly has a lot to do later in the series. He’s a good guy with a good heart and although he’s somewhat the comic relief, it’s never to the point of disrespecting him, because he’s honestly out of his depth, being neither an ace pilot nor a potential Jedi like most Star Wars protagonists.

Abrams has proven that he’s really good at building a character arc in the context of television series, like Lost and Fringe. But it feels like he panics and rushes things when he’s limited to the runtime of a movie. It can be done: Joss Whedon’s Avengers can stand on its own as a character piece even if you haven’t seen Thor or Iron Man. It might even have been worthwile for Abrams to go full Peter Jackson and make a three hour mega-movie if it allowed a bit more modest pacing.

Overall, the new crop of heroes are perhaps my favourite thing in the movie: they aren’t supermen – or even all men – or aces or destined saviours – although there’s an element of Arthurian imagery with Rey. They’re regular people with complimentary skills and talents, and there’s less of a sense of living up to a pre-ordained destiny, as in the other two trilogies, than of just trying to be a good person and make your way in the world. Er, galaxy.

As for the returning champions like Han Solo and Leia, contrary to what I feared given Abrams’ history with Star Trek, the movie honours their contribution to the franchise. Although Solo’s character seems to have had a bit of the old reset button, and the way he enters the story’s a tad contrived, the old guard have arcs of their own. They don’t take over the story and turn it into fanfiction, nor are they in there just as a fanservice bribe, nor as comic relief to make fun of the franchise. To Rey and Finn, these people are practically folk legends, and yet they relate to them as people and learn and grow from their influence.

All this is set neatly against the villain Kylo Ren. It kept occurring to me that Rey and Ren are like opposite sides of a fandom argument on a comment thread. While Rey is enriched by her encounter with history and yet remains her own person, Ren is consumed by it. He’s basically the worst gatekeeper-type fanboy. He’s obssessed with being a Dark Side badass. He worships Darth Vader’s memory as the ultimate master of the Dark Side, to the point of wearing a ripoff of Vader’s mask for no other apparent reason. His lightsabre appears to be both oversized and overpowered – it gives off heatwaves and deals a lot more damage than normal – and punches his own open wounds to show off how tough he is. Despite all these trappings, the untrained Rey gives him a run for his money; he lacks Vader’s imposing stoicism – indeed he has almost no self-control at all – and doesn’t appear to know how to use the old Sith standby of Force Lightning. It all goes to make him both scary and loathsome. The fact that he’s pitted against a group of gender and race-diverse protagonists of the kind that the whitebread macho fanboys railed against gives it a rather grimly satisfying symbolism. Really, every franchise should do something like this, just to sort out the Reys and Finns from the Kylos in their midst…

Overall, I really enjoyed the Force Awakens. It walks a fine line between doing something new and riffing on the classic that gives you a reasonable amount of both. It’s cheesy and maybe shallow, but Star Wars was always cheesy and shallow, and it was epic regardless. The characters are really fascinating, the special effects are awesome, the connection with the original trilogy is touching, the music is superb and the dialogue, the butt of many a joke at Star Wars’ expense, has improved a good deal. Abrams has also reined in his lens flare fetish a bit. My main concern is whether the revived franchise will be able to maintain a sense of momentum going forward. We’ve already escalated to a Mega-Badass-Super-Death Star™, and I’m not sure where we can go from here.

However, for the first time in a while, I can honestly say, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Happy New Year, and may the Force be with you.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Movie

 

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