TTR/TTS: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Because fuck it, I may as well get this off my mind, and what better way than writing it out so I don’t have to think about a movie that came out several months ago anymore.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi managed to divide fans of the franchise in ways unseen since the prequels. However, was it really anything worth getting so pissy about? The first time I saw it, my impression of the movie was that it was unevenly made, with much to dislike and some things to think were fine at the very least. However, a second viewing caused me to rethink my opinion a bit, so I figure I may as well lay those thoughts out here. Note that I tried to avoid going into too much detail, because that would have lengthened the review even more, so I focused on areas of which I felt most strongly regarding the movie. As is my habit, there will be spoilers.

Things that Rocked: Luke’s Last Hurrah
Regardless of my ambivalence about Luke’s treatment as a whole, if one thing was done well in regards to his character, it was how he went out, as it was true to the ethos of the Jedi and to what he has always represented within the context of the saga.

Based on what Yoda emphasized in the original trilogy, the Jedi were supposed to the Force not to attack, but for knowledge and defense. Luke’s big moment at the end lived up to this. While some might be disappointed at him not coming in to save the day to kick ass, it was fitting for the greatest of the Jedi to do what he needed to without committing violence, a fitting contrast with his earlier failure to do so leading to the current events of the story. By doing what he did, he managed to not only buy much needed time for the Resistance, but also successfully humiliated his nephew even as he made clear that there was still hope for him, even if it was not obvious at the time.

Speaking of hope, this was the second reason why Luke’s behavior worked for him as a character. The earlier movies emphasized time and again that Luke was the best hope for good to triumph over evil, and that his very actions inspired it in others. It’s Luke who represents the last hope of a free galaxy and the Jedi by the end of the prequels, and it is Luke who restores hope when he blows up the Death Star. It’s Luke who draws Vader away from the darkness in which the latter steeped himself, and it’s Luke again who manages to, through the righteousness of his character, triumph over everything Palpatine represented. If hope could be personified, here lay its great champion. To know that Luke’s sacrifice not only bought the Resistance another day, that his actions would inspire those hearing of the event through secondhand sources, was as fitting an exit as it gets for him.

Things that Rocked: The Esoteric Force
Another detail I appreciated was how the Force was returned to its mystical roots. With midichlorians, Lucas had attempted to scientifically quantify the nature of what had been a vague, all-pervading existence that surrounded and bound all things, which in many respects was in conflict with the mythical nature of the story up to that point.

It was also rather decent of the movie to also give viewers a better idea of the nature of the Force. The island and the water mural both served to illustrate the interplay between the Light and the Dark, with neither side so much in a perfect 50-50 balance as constantly shifting back and forth like waves, this interaction in turn creating the energy field known as the Force.

I also thought the sequence with Rey in the cave was actually a visually striking one that added more insight into the nature of the Dark Side. Rather than being evil in itself, the Dark seems to offer insight into the self, including some of the harsher truths of the individual. If anything, the problem with the Dark Side is that those who try to use this introspective part of the Force for their own purposes become obsessed with the self to the point of losing all regard for everyone and everything else, not helped at all by how the Dark is connected to the more destructive aspects of nature.

In short, the Force works similar to a mix of Yin-Yang and Christian morality. Nature has Light and Dark, with neither having anything to do with morality in themselves, but it’s when people try to use them that morality becomes involved. It also averts the trap of ‘grey’ by indicating that balance isn’t using both sides of the Force, but in mastering the self in order to achieve true benevolent selflessness.

Things that Bugged Me: Rey in the Dark
As much as I did appreciate the attempts to explore the Force in a mystical manner, something that did irk me was that there was little sense of the Dark Side tempting Rey despite her not even bothering to resist its pull on the island. While it did reveal an important truth to her, it also failed to live up to its usual standard of offering some form of internal conflict for the character to work past. This kind of contributes to the idea that Rey is just plain bland, even compared to the previously idealistic Luke, in that there’s just nothing to hint at her potentially falling (it doesn’t help that she is shown getting emotionally worked up during battles yet this doesn’t seem to ever go anywhere). Maybe it was so that it would be easier for Kylo to take advantage of her emotional vulnerability?

Things that Bugged Me: An Odd Lack of Sensible Emoting
Another bit that stood out to me was Luke’s seeming lack of response to hearing of Han’s death, as well as his muted reaction to meeting Chewbacca for the first time in years. What should have been an emotional beat was quickly passed over, even if there was a hint of something more when Luke sneaks onto the Falcon and handles the dice. It was all the more striking given how much more visibly touched he was to see R2-D2 again.

To be fair though, Luke wasn’t exactly showing much in the way of extended mourning behavior after his aunt and uncle got flash fried and Obi-Wan was struck down in front of him, so maybe this was just the result of maintaining a fast-paced pulp adventure with a light tone.

Things that Sucked: The Chase
One of the major plot lines of the movie involved the Resistance fleet being pursued by the First Order, with the former being unable to escape the latter due to their ability to track them through hyperspace. It was like watching Fury Road, except if the chase in that movie had been a low-speed chase completely lacking in tension and boring to watch. Cripes, I may as well have been watching the LAPD chase a white Bronco for all the ridiculous hype placed on such a tedious plot line. Had they wanted to do a continuous chase through the galaxy, it might have been better to take some cues from the far superior one in The Empire Strikes Back.

The problems with the chase’s execution should be clear to even the most casual viewer. First up is the fact that the chase possesses nothing in the way of a sense of speed. A good chase gives a sense of progress, and this often involves use of the surrounding environment. However, the only real environmental markers came in the form of the darkness of space and passing stars in the background. Whenever the ships are shown, there’s nothing to indicate rapid movement. It’s just one set of ships firing languidly at another just ahead of them.

The above wasn’t helped by Leia’s moment. You know the one. Look at that scene and stifle your chuckles a bit (I thought the idea of Leia getting a moment to use the Force was fine in concept, just terrible in execution). Notice that she’s drifting in space for a bit, yet manages to get back to a ship that is supposedly moving at top speed away from the scene.

The second reason why the chase sucks comes from how lacking in tension it is as a result of how monotonous the entire thing is. Much of it occurs off-screen, and what we do see is completely unexciting. There’s no use of editing or cinematography or what have you to make us feel the noose tightening around the Resistance. Sure, we see other ships get taken down, but it’s so brief and happens to characters we have no reason to care about. To add to this boredom, the fact that the entire chase hinged in part on limited fuel supplies was not supported by the fact that the movie’s other subplots failed to make events feel as compressed as they should have. Remember how Finn seems distracted once he sees the casino? That’s not exactly a great way to show a character who’s in a rush to save the Resistance. In fact, the chase felt like it took a few days or even a week when it should have felt like several hours or a day (although this does raise questions about how the hell Han got to Bespin without a hyperdrive).

Things that Sucked: The Idiot Plot
So let’s get to another thing that really drags this movie down for me: the fact that a lot of what happens only does so because characters act like morons. In this case, let’s point out the subplot involving Poe and Holdo.

With Leia out of commission following the First Order’s surprise attack early on, a new character who we’ve never so much as heard of in the movies takes command. Obviously, as an unknown factor, the point of this is so that the audience is able to more easily root for the recognizable faces and question both the competence and allegiance of Holdo. As you should know by this point, Holdo turns out to be on the up and up, and Poe winds up engaging in a foolish attempted mutiny. However, a closer analysis of this plot line reveals quite a few cracks.

First up is Holdo’s introduction. She’s obviously a little out of place given that she’s wearing a fancy dress in a military setting. Unlike Mon Mothma, she doesn’t appear to be a political leader, and even Leia, who was fine with wearing more formal wear in this movie, was also shown wearing more practical items in the context of her position. So Poe comes in and gives her a bunch of information without asking and consideration for the possibility that she herself might be privy to it and more given her position relative to his own. She also undermines him, which, while somewhat understandable, is done at the wrong time and perhaps a little more harshly than should be done during a desperate situation. Furthermore, when prodded for a plan, rather than at the very least offering some assurances as a good leader should, she merely pulls rank, an act which is not likely to earn an underling’s respect (which makes it seem that whoever wrote this had no idea how effective military hierarchies, for all their emphasis on a chain of command, work). It’s clear at this point that Holdo has effectively been promoted beyond her level of competence.

Later on, a visibly desperate Poe again asks Holdo if she has a plan. A capable superior officer would, recognizing low morale, work to alleviate this. Even if she were not to spill the beans, she could have at least assured him that there was a plan, and also engaged in actions that would have kept things from reaching a point where her underlings saw fit to stage a mutiny. Unfortuately, Captain Queeg there fails to do anything that is actually productive.

I get the sense that in an earlier draft of the story, there were fears of a spy among the Resistance, hence Holdo being so tight-lipped. Not only would this justify her secrecy, but it would also create a tense atmosphere that would have been alleviated only if the Resistance had figured out the secret behind the First Order’s ability to track them (the hyperspace tracker, which was instead revealed early on in the film).

Poe then finds out that Holdo intends to have everyone abandon ship, and because things have gotten this bad, Holdo is unable to explain things in time before the situation hits a breaking point.

As a result of the above, Poe stages a mutiny which quickly falls apart, and poor communication decisions cause the bad guys to get wind of their opponents’ escape plan. It was a poorly written plot that centered in part around a character we couldn’t help but hate because of her sheer incompetence. Killing herself and taking a chunk of the villains with her at least somewhat redeemed the character, even if it did cause new complaints among those who argued about the viability of simply striking military targets using hyperspace ramming.

Things that Sucked: The Unnecessary Subplot
Unfortunately, a lot of these issues surround the writing of the new character of Rose. When Finn and her are making their escape from Canto Bight, she takes the time to free the fathiers, considering this act the real victory of the day.

I get that this moment with the alien horse with the creepy uncanny valley face was meant to show the importance of small acts of kindness even among the greater conflicts going on, but the logic used there was rather poorly thought out. For one, they didn’t free the kids from their oppressive existences, and chances are that the fathiers would either be hunted down and returned to their previous roles, or the track owners would just find new ones. This sort of short-term thinking brings to mind the logic of a limousine liberal who engages in volunteer tourism and corporate charitable donations despite suggestions that such activities actually don’t do much good and in fact harm the locals, and then justifies themselves less out of a desire to help than to feel good about themselves. In that way, I can’t help but wonder how out of touch the writers in Hollywood must be to think this argument holds water.

And let’s not forget yet another dumb moment late in the film when Finn, eager to finally die for a cause he believes in, engages in what he expects to be a suicide run against a battering ram laser, only for Rose to slam her vehicle into his in order to save his life (good thing that the crash didn’t kill either of them), and then for the story to make this seem like a wise decision when as far as either of them were concerned, they and their comrades were about to be hunted down like animals. To make matters worse, Finn winds up having to drag her dumb ass all the way back to the Rebel hideout.

I feel bad for Rose’s actress. I truly do. She gets what should be her big break only to wind up playing a badly written character and then harassed for it by idiots when the only ones worth criticizing (not harassing) for anything other than the quality of her performance were the people who went ahead with the creative decisions surrounding the character.

Aside from Rose, another issue that bugged me was the whole thing they had about war profiteering. It was silly enough that the military industrial complex is the most lucrative in the galaxy, but the whole thing doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels like a jab at real world politics and a lame attempt to insert moral greyness into the story, and worse yet, the focus quickly returns to the black and white conflict between Rebels and Empire. The entire matter brings to mind George Lucas and his attempts at making the Clone Wars more complex by suggesting that the Separatists had legitimate gripes with the Republic, only to show none of this in the movies and to treat all the Separatist leaders as moustache twirling villains.

And let’s not forget that this entire plot thread with Finn and Rose takes its sweet time despite the fact that the two characters were supposedly in a rush.

Things that Sucked: Sticking to the Status Quo
Now here’s the original sin of the sequel trilogy: the fact that there is almost nothing new under the sun. The problem a lot of people had with The Force Awakens was that it was ultimately nothing more than a greatest hits album put to film of the original trilogy. You had a bunch or rebellious Rebels facing off against the Empire but not really with the intent of transporting an important MacGuffin while having to launch a ground assault in order to remove a shield in order to blow up a bigger Death Star while there was moral and martial conflict between parents and children. Throughout all this, the movie sought to remind you of things that evoked the original films, including a scene at a bar where a bunch of shady looking aliens hanged out. However, given the need to revive the franchise after the divisive nature of the prequels, this was understandable, and hopes were that the following episode would allow the sequel trilogy to form its own identity.

Unfortunately, The Last Jedi, despite claiming to be doing something different, merely evoked even more of the original trilogy in an attempt to subvert its expectations, all the while establishing a new status quo that looked eerily similar to the previous films.

Meanwhile, all this did not distract from the fact that the sequel trilogy made the original films seem completely pointless. Luke, who was the new hope of the Jedi and the galaxy at large turned out to be a failure in both regards despite previous movies (to say nothing of the ending of Revenge of the Sith) making clear that he was the person destined to make everything as it should be after his father went off the right path. The Jedi are all but extinct, and need yet another single person to revive the order. The galaxy is back to having an imperial superstate in charge that needs to be removed. Han moved on from his shady past, only to regress back into it once his family collapsed. Leia was able to combine her desire to fight for a cause with personal fulfillment, and then her son went bad, and her marriage collapsed, and her political career went down the shitter, and she went back to being a military leader of a rebellion. The result of this is that the original trilogy now has a fresh paint of futility applied to its coat after the fact. So much for idealism and happy endings.

And don’t give me that crap about how this reflects real life. This series was never meant to reflect real life in its complex entirety, but rather the fairy tales of myths of old that told their audiences that there were battles worth fighting and that evil could be vanquished, or at least beaten back. But now it’s just another gritty war story where happy endings are short-lived and idealism is not nearly enough to make the fight worth fighting in the grand scheme of things.

Things that Sucked: What is the Context?
Another one of the original sins of the new trilogy is the lack of context into which the audience was thrown. In this movie, despite knowing little about him, we finally got to meet Supreme Leader Snoke, and then his top half decided to get a closer look at the floor of his throne room.

Now you might argue that it was the same with the original trilogy. We didn’t know much about Palpatine, not even his name. He was just the emperor. The difference is that we didn’t need to know about him beyond what we got. The premise that was set up since the first film saw the heroes having to fight the Dark Side of the Force and the evil Empire that ruled the galaxy. We knew that there was an emperor who ruled it, and he made a brief appearance in the following film before appearing in person in Return of the Jedi. By that point, what we did know of him was what was important to know, namely, what he represented. As the emperor, he was the personification of the Empire and all its material and social evils. As Vader’s master, he was the personification of the spiritual evils that came from surrendering to the Dark Side. To confront him was to confront the one being that represented everything wrong that needed to be righted in the saga.

Now compare that to the situation we have in the sequel trilogy. As a continuation from previous films, the audience was thrust into a situation in which the seemingly happy ending of the previous movies was completely undone, and little explanation is given for why. The audience needs to know these details. The original trilogy could get away with it because it was a new story and the premise was all that was needed to start with. Meanwhile, because these films are sequels, actual context is required, and that includes information on this Snoke fellow, where he came from, and how he undid the heroes’ victory from earlier. To see him get cut down has no significant dramatic impact because he’s such a vague concept both as a symbol and as a character (to say nothing of the fact that he came off as a discount Palpatine).

Having gone through my thoughts on the film, I’d say that my opinion of it has shifted somewhat. After my first viewing, I was ambivalent about the whole thing, and thought it rather uneven. After a second viewing, I’ve come to find myself, while not hating the movie, leaning somewhat toward disliking it as a whole. It’s not the worst movie ever, but I would not consider it anywhere near the best of the Star Wars films. It probably didn’t help that I’m not sure that the choice of director was ideal for making the next Empire.

I’ve made no secret of my less than positive feelings toward mainstream films that are designed to get decent Rotten Tomatoes scores without necessarily being great films in their own right. At the same time, there’s a quote from Rian Johnson about this sort of thing that kind of worries me even as it seemingly captures what I wanted out of a mainstream blockbuster:

“I would be worried if everybody across the board was like ‘yeah, it was a good movie’ it’s much more exciting to me when you get a group of people who are coming up to you who are really really excited about it. Then there are other people who walk out literally saying ‘it’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.’ Having those two extremes is the mark of the type of movie that I want to make.”

While it would at first seem that he is trying to do something special, look at the quote again. He wants it to be either a “good” movie or “the worst movie.” That’s where I have a problem with his reasoning. A creator aiming for something beyond the norm should strive to make something that inspires belief that it is one of the all time greats or one of the worst works ever. Merely being “good” means being relegated to being somewhat above average. Better to instead go big or go home, because at least serious critics will argue over the merits of your work long after you’re gone.

My hopes for the next movie at this point are simple: that they manage to at least stick the landing and make a worthy finale to the capstone of three separate trilogies. I hope that the characters are actually written well and that maybe Rey’s darkness is properly explored instead of being reduced to the generic and poorly handled “strong female character” that she started out as. I hope that there is actual tension instead of forced conflict. I hope that instead of wallowing in nostalgia, the final film can instead develop its own identity. I hope that the writers remember that the story is a morality tale, and that it is righteousness that wins the day rather than power levels. I also hope that John Williams turns in a stronger score, because while the music for the sequels thus far has been passable, it hasn’t lived up to what we would expect of a franchise praised for its music.

But then again, maybe it’s just time for the franchise to end.


Things that Bug Me: Moral Greyness and Star Wars

So it’s almost that time of the year again. The time when Disney releases yet another new product of the Star War saga with the same interminable regularity with which they release their Marvel movies. Huzzah for our new corporate overlords. Huzzah for Disney continuing to dominate the movie studio market and grasping ever wider. But enough about that, let’s talk about one of the dumber things to come out of the pre-release buzz: moral greyness in a morality play like Star Wars.

So ever since the first trailer dropped (and I am not linking to it because I’m assuming that everyone and their mother has seen it. If you haven’t, lucky you.), people suddenly started to get into one of a tizzy about the potential for one of the old Expanded Universe ideas making its way into the new canon: Grey Jedi!

To be quite honest, the very concept is one that is insulting to anyone with a working brain, but then again, there are a lot of people out there without one posting their arguments on the Internet.

So let’s list some of the arguments and refute them, shall we?

Argument 1: Grey Jedi make sense because Yin/Yang
This argument is stupid because it comes out of video game sensibilities that violate the themes of the original films while not fitting in the slightest bit with Taoist philosophy. When you watch the original trilogy, the message is clear: the Dark Side is a bad thing given that it requires negative emotions to really work and in many ways also represents taking the easy way out (Luke: “Is the dark side stronger?” Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”).

Unfortunately, it also lends itself well to power fantasies such as video games. Let’s face it, when you want to play a Force user in video games, chances are that you’d like to use the Dark Side to do things like blast lightning out of your fingertips or choke people to death. In a way, given the Dark Side’s emphasis on dominating others, it would make sense that the cool abilities it offers would be part of the lure to those tired of feeling weak.

Naturally, video game developers thus decided that they had to offer players a chance to live out their fantasies, which meant allowing players to use the Dark Side without falling to it. It’s fine in a game if such a thing is not meant to be canon, but when you start trying to apply this logic to that of the original movies, it simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Return of the Jedi features Luke at his most vulnerable on a spiritual level. He is clearly detached and tempted to the Dark Side throughout the film, and near the end, finds himself poised to succumb to its temptations. While he does overcome Vader on a physical level, the scene plays out like a tragedy: the music is mournful and Luke has almost repeated his father’s mistakes. The moment of triumph comes shortly afterward, when Luke refuses this temptation despite seeing the easy path to power it promises. There is no moral grayness here suggesting that it was a good thing for Luke to use the Dark Side to beat Vader down. To believe that is to misinterpret the message of the scene, to focus on the power fantasy instead of the moral lesson.

Finally, it does not match up with Taoism at all. People seem oddly convinced that the Light and the Dark must both be perfectly in balance, but this is a credulous assumption. If one side is objectively good and the other objectively evil, to use both makes no sense. It would not be a loss if all evil was wiped out, because a world without evil is a Paradise. If everyone was selfless and no one selfish, they’d carry out what they had to for the sake of everyone else, like some sort of utopian worker’s paradise. It does not match up with Yin and Yang, which eschews human notions of morality and instead focuses on the harmonious duality found in nature. Good and evil simply do not need to exist in the same world, although they do.

Besides which, I wonder what Pablo Hidalgo had to say about this?

Argument 2: It’s okay, because Light should work with Dark
Again, why should Good and Evil coexist? We know that if you believe in morality, then they do, but the notion that Evil is something that should exist is a faulty one. One does not need to work with the Devil. One does not need to feed the evil wolf. We tolerate self-centered people because we need their help in areas in which they might be able to offer it if we give them something in return, not because we like them.

Argument 3: It’s great because it matches modern sensibilities
This one just plain annoys me for various reasons. It annoys me because it is based on immature conceptions, because it overstates the value of compromise, because it has poor ramifications given the nature of the religions that inspired the Force, and because it fails to understand what made and continues to make Star Wars what it is.

By immature conceptions, I mean that it is based on immature conceptions of just what a great lesson in morality such a thing would be for the series’ audience. The idea that everything has to be morally ambiguous to be mature is akin to that which states that making things dark makes them deep. In short, it is a failure to understand what real maturity is in that maturity is about examining themes in a manner capable of nuance and not simply pandering to the blind optimists or the hopeless pessimists. This “oh, think of the children” approach could better be thought of as “oh, think of the manchildren who demand that SW become more ‘mature’ so that said manchildren (and womenchildren) can admit in public that they enjoy a story aimed at young audiences.”

Next up is my issue with the idea that it promotes compromise. Now compromise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not an ideal solution, but it is one that makes sense in a pluralistic society where opinions are not necessarily based on good or evil, but rather about how to best go about solving an issue. In real life, compromise is important, and is often one of the better ways to solve a problem. However, as I mentioned above, compromise is not an ideal solution. There will be times when you should not compromise, when it might actually be better to fight because sometimes compromising only adds to the problem rather than helping to fix it. You can’t compromise with some people and then try to pat yourself on the back for ensuring peace in your time. You should never compromise when something clearly evil is going on right in front of you (at least ideally). In fact, you could make the argument (but that would require a post in itself) that a lot of the world’s problems came when people compromised when they should have fought harder (and while at it, fought where they should have considered compromise). You should never compromise with a Dark Side user, at least from what we’ve seen, given that the Dark Side has been portrayed as objectively evil, or at the very least selfish.

My third issue with this argument has to do with the ramifications of it in regards to religion. The idea that it is a good thing to balance the selfish and the selfless makes sense if you believe in mediocrity, because that’s already what the average person tries to do. Rather, despite getting overly dogmatic and far removed from the reality on the ground in practice, in theory, the Jedi seemed to have the right idea in many respects. You should try to control your passions. You should try to avoid too much attachment. You should strive for an ideal instead of merely sticking with mediocrity. It fits with philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism which are still practiced today. To say that certain ideals the Jedi espouse are wrong is to say that the philosophies and religions from which these ideals came are wrong, and that’s just stirring up a hornet’s nest.

Finally, there is the issue of such an argument missing out on the history of the series itself. The 1970s was a cynical period in American history. The country experienced social, economic, and political tumult, and this was reflected in American cinema, which considered gritty realism and moral ambiguity to be hip. Antiheroes waged seemingly hopeless battles against forces far beyond their ability to properly confront. The idealism of the 60s had given way to something far more sinister. It must have been a breath of fresh air when some cheesy looking science fantasy flick with an asthmatic cyborg villain, laser swords, corny dialogue, and a willingness to embrace the silly idealistic morality of yesteryear came out.

Despite what those ignorant of history might otherwise claim, the cynicism of today does not find itself unmatched. The 70s were not an idealistic, naive time, and I’m willing to bet that the Cold War inspired all sorts of dread. Given how nice the human race has it today in comparison to the past, I’m willing to bet that the people of the past were not naive yokels holding on to a false idealism, especially given all the wars and famines and whatnot making life hard. The attitude of those who think that the modern environment and its sensibilities requires a more cynical, morally ambiguous approach reeks of Whig History.

In fact, given the cynicism of modern society, I would argue that Star Wars needs all the more to remain idealistic. I argue that it needs to remain a tale of good triumphing over evil. I argue that it must remain so in order to remind all of us, as it did back in 1977, that there is good in the world, and that it is worth fighting for.

It is for these reasons that I really hope they don’t go down this path with the new movie. It would not only suck, but in hindsight completely violate the message of the older films. I honestly hope that my fears are unfounded and that the writing team knew better. Perhaps they did and the whole “grey” thing will turn out to be a red herring. But then again, I’m just some shiftless loser on the Internet. What do I know of appealing to audiences today or good storytelling?

Yet Another ‘Rogue One’-Related Article

Author’s Note: I’m just posting this to get it off my chest and maybe compensate for releasing such a short TTR/TTS compared to the usual, so the post won’t be all that polished (not that my other posts can be considered as such when you think about it), nor all that long.

I’m pretty sure we’re all sick and tired about any discussion of last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I know I am. Still, because I have little better to do at the moment, I may as well bring up one issue I had with that movie which doesn’t get as much prominence as I feel it deserves.

Rogue One was billed by its creators as a grittier, more grounded war film. This was supposed to be something different from what was usually presented in the Star Wars setting, but when you think about it, that wasn’t really true so much as yet another claim to promote the film just like how The Force Awakens kept publicizing its so-called emphasis on practical effects.

The problem with the movie is simple: it suffered from a major identity crisis. By that I mean that RO could not decide whether it wanted to be a gritty war movie or a Star Wars film. Sure, there’s an emphasis on the darker side of the Rebellion and the oppressiveness of the Empire’s rule, along with an emphasis on characters who should not stand out nearly as much from the crowd as the main characters in the other films do. But at the same time, this attempt to ground the movie fails hard.

Take for example the continued poor showing of stormtroopers. In the original movie, the troopers were said to be well-trained and professional troops who managed to quickly overrun the defenders on the Tantive IV. When they failed to hit the good guys and let them escape, it was because the Empire wanted to track the Rebels to their hidden base. When the heroes did interact with them in other films, we figured that they could get away with humiliating these guys because these were supposed to be lighter films where good prevailed and the main characters were wearing thick plot armor. In RO, on the other hand, stormtroopers continued to be faceless mooks who got taken down with ease. For some inexplicable reason, characters could easily take out several of them with blunt weapons instead of blasters. A more grounded movie might have tried to emphasize that for “normal” characters, taking on stormtroopers was not nearly as easy due to the fact that they were “normal” people taking on professional soldiers.

A second issue is the fact that despite claiming that this was supposed to be a more grounded movie, it retained the soap opera aspects of the other films. By that, I referred to how the main character turned out to have a close connection to the people behind the Death Star. Of course, Jyn is related to the guy who ensured that the station was vulnerable to a proton torpedo fired directly into a small exhaust port (by the way, there was never a plot hole given that you wouldn’t expect anyone not using the Force to successfully make that shot).

On top of that was the treatment of the Empire. Here, the Empire was portrayed as this totalitarian and monolithic government that the original movies had implied they were. However, the movie goes and ruins that with one scene.

If you haven’t guessed which scene I’m talking about, it’s the infamous scene with Vader on the Rebel flagship.

Why is that scene such a problem, you ask? Well, it goes completely against how the movie wants to portray the Empire. The Empire isn’t meant to be cool. It’s a terrible form of government that ruins lives, with its ranks being made up of monsters, backstabbers, and incompetents. It’s rather telling that the primary focus among the bad guys was Director Krennic, who is the closest thing to a mundane representative of the evil that is the Empire in the series. However, that one sequence goes against everything that has come before it by making Darth Vader look cool. Don’t give me any BS about it making him scary. If they’d made it scary, little kids would be too terrified to continue watching the film while Vader brutally slaughtered Rebels in a scene right out of a horror movie. No, this scene made Darth Vader look cool as he cut through Rebels like butter. The only people who would find the scene scary are the sort of wusses that are afraid to leave the house and post some of the more ridiculous content to the “Nightmare Fuel” pages on TV Tropes. Furthermore, the scene also overshadows the rest of the movie. It doesn’t help that the plot is forgettable and the characters so uninteresting, making it all the easier to forget about everything except for Darth Vader looking cool. So much for a story focusing on something outside of the main cast, huh?

And to be honest, the ending wasn’t all that special in how dark it tried to be. Sure, the main cast was killed off, but it was hard to care about them. Furthermore, the series had already given a darker ending in the form of Revenge of the Sith‘s ending, which ended with the Sith victorious, a lot of people dead or changed for the worse, and the good guys holding on to their last hope. Before that, The Empire Strikes Back had done a good job of establishing a much darker tone than its predecessor.

All in all, on top of its many other issues, RO just didn’t know what kind of movie it wanted to be. All we can do now is hope that the upcoming movies aren’t nearly as unsure of what they hope to achieve, and are worth watching beyond highlight moments uploaded to YouTube.

On Disney’s Mastery of the Crowd-Pleaser

I cannot help but feel a mixture of admiration and dread whenever I look at Disney’s spate of upcoming blockbusters. There is something amazing about how the company has seemingly perfected the science of creating a corporate production line of crowd pleasing tentpole films that not only make significant amounts of money, but also succeed in winning over the majority of critics. At the same time however, there is something almost horrifying in how efficient they are in polishing their products.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Disney has in recent years succeeded in producing a bunch of big-budget flicks that make make money on command while also getting fresh Rotten Tomatoes scores. The movies are spectacles in many senses of the word, if often forgettable; good but not great, but rarely bad due to being well executed on a technical level. They’re also safe and polished in their mediocrity so that while they won’t find themselves on lists of the greatest films of all time due to their lack of ambition, their aforementioned polish should at least ensure that few critics give negative reviews. They provide audiences their money’s worth, so viewers are unlikely to think poorly of the product even if they won’t remember it within a few years, if not a few months. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a family-friendly restaurant franchise.

These movies, while not original properties, do succeed in part because of their nature as continuations of franchises. They can take the form of live-action remakes (although the upcoming Lion King is taking a step further by presumably being an animated remake of the original film), entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the newly restored Star Wars Cinematic Universe.

The live-action remakes appeal to adults who wish to engage in nostalgia alongside their children and recapture their lost youths, rolling out in a format that is more appropriate for grown-ups too embarrassed to admit they enjoy animated movies for children (as they likely never emotionally developed past the adolescent phase wherein a teenager shuns the childish things they enjoy lest they be seen as anything other than ‘adult.’ Not to say that all adults who watch these movies are like this. Others might just be overgrown children who seek nostalgia and escapism to forget just how much they hate their lives).

The MCU is as assembly line as it gets. We get the standard three acts of most Hollywood screenplays for almost every introductory film: protagonist failing to meet their full potential comes across a (likely expendable) mentor or some other supportive figure who helps them achieve their potential (becoming a superhero). Hero battles and defeats forgettable villain, while somehow winning the love of a forgettable love interest. Cue sequel hook and tie-ins to the rest of the MCU.

This isn’t to say that I hate the MCU’s content. I rather liked Iron Man and even appreciated the pulpy period war movie that was the first Captain America. The first Avengers was a lot of fun, and the second CA movie was pretty good too. But even then, once you notice the formula (and don’t throw any bullshit about “different genres” with a superhero skin my way), it starts to get old fast.

Not only that, but there is often a lack of heart or a distinctive voice to the products. Compare that to one of the earlier superhero film series: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. The series was often corny, quirky, and melodramatic, yet was capable of genuine moments of heart and actual drama. The ending shot to the second film is more meaningful in leaving an impression about the true darkness lying underneath an otherwise happy ending than the ending of Civil War, which alleges darkness, but just can’t resist plugging future movies and showing viewers that the adventure will continue in its final shot. To stick to comparisons with SM2, I recall reading somewhere that the MCU wanted to create a more ‘realistic’ home for the Parkers by having them live in an apartment. Now sure, this is more realistic in the sense that they probably couldn’t afford a house with their meager income, but a similar thing was done with much more impact on both the characters and the audience in SM2. In that movie, focus is given to the reality of trying to be a superhero while trying to live a normal life outside the costume, something that has never come up in the lighthearted MCU. Furthermore, the Parkers’ living situation actually comes up in that movie, which has Aunt May losing the house. And let’s not get into the part when Aunt May gives money to a reluctant Peter. That right there is actual human drama of the sort that the MCU only pretends to engage in. Even the third SM film, while a weak point in the series, at least was bold enough to end things ambiguously in regards to the state of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship. The closest thing to that sort of darkness in the endings of any MCU films happens in the first Captain America movie (which might help explain why I’m so fond of it).

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong for the MCU to strike a light tone. It’s not a bad thing to be fun, even if the movies do get rather samey after a certain point, and the character arcs of the heroes often suffer. Remember how Tony Stark finally seemed to be moving forward with his life at the end of Iron Man 3? Unfortunately, because the studio likes money, and because the nature of comic book story arcs means that the adventure can never end, this happy ending was short-lived.

And then there’s Star Wars. The two movies released thus far can be summed up as fanservice and pandering. Fanservice and pandering. The scene with Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One was not enough to save a mediocre movie and you know it. The Force Awakens succeeded in spite of its script, and even then, there were little things that made it sometimes come off as less a SW film than a pastiche. I’m personally not hoping for too much from The Last Jedi (cripes that sounds more like a title for the final part of a trilogy than the middle section), and fully expecting the Han Solo film to be crammed with fanservice (and maybe show us the whole “12 parsecs” thing that should have just remained a cock-and-bull story that he was trying to pull on what he thought were a couple of yokels) and a story that undermines his character arc in A New Hope because the studio is afraid of having a proper anti-hero as its protagonist (which means we’ll be getting a jerk with a heart of gold who does the right thing at the end).

Hopefully, I’m wrong about at least one of these two movies in the best way possible.

Not that such descriptors apply to only those three products rolling out of the Disney factory. One can see this in their animated movies as well. Moana, which I actually liked, was as perfunctorily executed as it gets. The plot was standard, the heroine followed a basic outline, and the story beats could be seen from a nautical mile away. One can see the laziness of Disney’s factory-like efficiency in how they treat the predictable moment when a supporting character leaves only to come back near the end to aid the protagonist a la Han Solo. The moment is poorly built up, with the reasons for it being hinted as it occurs, but not before (unlike in the case of Han, where we get a brief scene that foreshadows his return at the heroes’ darkest hour). Zootopia (a movie so predictable that I correctly predicted exactly what lines would be said and how they would be delivered at several points) somehow won an Oscar despite the story and the characters being far less interesting than the themes and the world presented in it.

Still, for all my criticism, I would like to make it clear once again that there’s nothing wrong with what Disney is doing. They’ve figured out a formula that works for their business. Their movies please crowds and make money. Not only that, but since they can reliably pull of the former, the latter is more likely to happen. Even someone as cynical of their process as me has to admit to having liked some of their recent movies. The fact is, you don’t always need great art. Sometimes, people just want to escape the dreariness of daily life and the latest neorealist art film isn’t an ideal means for doing so. Fluff might be fluff, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. The subject matter of much of this blog is proof of that.

It’s just that sometimes I wish Disney would take a real chance rather than putting on the appearance of doing so. Aim for the stars even if it means increasing the likelihood of falling into the mud. But then again, that’s not good business, and who am I to tell the people swimming in cash what they should be doing?

Little things that would have improved ‘Rogue One’

So I finally got around to watching the new Star Wars spinoff: Rogue One. My thoughts? Eh. It was competent but unmemorable. And while I could easily write a whole essay on my issues with it and the often poor arguments put up by those who are attempting to defend it, I decided instead that since those are already being covered by countless numbers of clickbait writers and critics of both the amateur and professional variety, I figure that similar to The Force Awakens, I’d just offer a few points of improvement that could have been made with the benefit of hindsight. Beware of spoilers!

1. Less Vader
I never thought I would ever argue such a thing given that he’s one of my all-time favorite fictional characters (I only bothered to read the comics featuring him despite being lukewarm on the whole new expanded universe I’ll have to keep some track of now). However, the fact is that I could have done with a little less Darth Vader in the movie. His meeting with Krennic doesn’t really add much to the movie (I didn’t even mind his one-liner), but given the positive reception a certain later scene of his has gotten among various viewers, I would make the serious argument that something along those lines should have been his only scene in the movie.

The problem with Vader’s usage in the actual film was that his prior appearances kind of take the wonder out of that final sequence. By limiting his presence before then to brief mentions, anticipation can be built before he finally makes a memorable cameo.

Just have Tarkin tell his subordinates to contact Vader before we see his star destroyer enter the field of battle and wreck the remaining Rebel fleet. Afterward, maybe have the crew of the Rebel ship inform their comrades that an Imperial boarding party has arrived. Throughout this entire time, Vader has been absent from the movie, as if to emphasize that this spinoff is less about the usual gang than it is the supporting players that made things possible for the good guys to come out on top. Then, as they gather at the likely entry point, the lights go out and there is a silence. This is suddenly interrupted by a soft sound that grows progressively louder and louder. It’s a familiar one: the iconic breathing of a certain Sith Lord. The characters on the screen freak out. So does the audience. And then the lightsaber ignites.

2. Do something with Krennic
Krennic was completely forgettable. Of course, one could say that about pretty much any character in the movie. This was a huge shame given that there was material there for a character I wouldn’t forget about as soon as I left the theater.

For one, there was his friendship with Galen. Perhaps they could have given this more emphasis, maybe even have it so that as a friend of her father, Krennic could have represented how the Empire twisted talented people into monsters and tore bonds, be they personal or communal, apart, just like how civil wars can rip apart families and communities. Maybe make him a guy who Jyn may have once referred to as an honorary uncle before everything went wrong to contrast with her two father figures. At least give him something.

Also, all that traveling that Krennic did felt kind of silly. I could understand him going to check on the facility to figure out who leaked the info, but what about Scarif and Mustafar? I guess with the latter you could say that he was trying to play politics against Tarkin, but this went nowhere and added little to the film. As for the former, I guess the script needed him to be on Scarif for whatever reason (I’ve already forgotten why).

3. Trim the cast
Quite a few critics have argued that one of the film’s prominent weaknesses is a rather weak cast of characters. They’re poorly fleshed out and by the time of the movie’s end, you just don’t care all that much about what happens to them. I suggest then that the cast be slightly trimmed so that more can be done with fewer characters.

To be more specific, I’d have merged the characters of Jyn and Cassian. Perhaps have it so that instead of just being tortured and apathetic lead number 1138, Jyn could have been a Rebel agent trained by Saw who fought the Empire less out of ideals than out of a desire for vengeance. Maybe even this motivation is starting to fizzle as she finds herself more and more burnt out from carrying out dirty work like Saw’s or having to kill informants lest they leak information after being captured like Cassian does in the movie. However, this all changes once she discovers that her father leaked a message.

In this way, the focus could be on her rediscovering her desire to fight the Empire, except out of a desire to serve a higher cause rather than a darker one like revenge, paralleling how the series itself is about fighting for the right reasons rather than falling into dark paths and methods. Furthermore, this way she would have the standing needed among the Rebels to make her speech and gather like-minded volunteers before the climax.

This trimming should also allow for more time with developing relationships, be they the ones Jyn has with her two father figures or the camaraderie that develops among the Rebel group the movie follows.

Bonus: The stuff that bugged me
First of all, I couldn’t help but notice how the movie’s opening seemed to be based less on what the characters would do rather than ticking a few boxes. In this case, leaving the lead character alone because her mom was dead and dad taken away by the Empire. Her mom dies a pointless death after being told to run when it is clear that her acting as she did was stupid due to the fact that she was heavily outnumbered. Maybe just go for the cliche of having her mom killed in a surprise attack on the homestead and her dad taken while Jyn hides in a bunker.

Second, what was up with the inclusion of the two bar thugs that harass Luke in A New Hope? Why did those characters have to be there given that they were on Tatooine not long afterward? Apparently they left Jedha just in time to avoid getting roasted by the Death Star.

An Update on My Progress

This is an update for those wondering why it’s taking so long for me to churn out the next post. For the record, I’ve been using what free time I have to work on the Things that Rocked, Things that Sucked of the next Naruto arc on my list, and boy is it taking me a while to write despite the arc being shorter than the multiple arcs that were focused mostly on Sasuke. It’s going to be a real doozy too given that after writing quite a bit, I’m still not even done with the first draft. Only now do I realize just how much there is to talk about there.

Here’s a bit of something to chew on while I try to finally finish the review: my suggestions for minor changes to The Force Awakens that would have made it so Rey’s growth felt less controversial. First of all, make her less invincible. In other words, don’t be afraid to have her fail and land herself in serious peril despite her best efforts. For example, while she did escape from her shackles near the end, she manages to avoid getting captured just fine without the aid of her friends. Maybe make it so that despite doing fine for a while, she eventually finds herself cornered, only to be saved by her friends. This would better highlight the importance of teamwork among the good guys (to contrast with how individual villains don’t seem to like each other all that much), as well as to emphasize that her friends were willing to come all that way to save her (in contrast to the family that abandoned her), in turn shifting her further away from her loner tendencies.

Second, instead of letting Rey develop the ability to apply the Force in different ways over the course of the movie, instead, as with the original Star Wars, focus instead on one skill that is mastered by the climax. In the original, it’s Luke applying what Obi-Wan taught him when he was practicing with the lightsaber in order to pinpoint the thermal exhaust port and guide the proton torpedoes to it. Instead of a mind trick then, perhaps have Rey escape her bonds using telekinesis. It could even be hinted at by having her unconsciously moving objects when under high levels of stress, which could in turn be used to indicate both her potential as well as emphasizing whatever emotional issues she has that could lead to the Dark Side (and in turn working well to foreshadow the risks of her hostile state of mind during the final parts of the confrontation at the end of the movie). Going back to telekinesis, this skill would become more prominent each time she used it during the movie. This would then come to a head when she overpowered Kylo’s own telekinesis to nab the lightsaber.

And that’s not even getting into making it so that her fighting style is far dirtier and more pragmatic than what we got in the movie. You’d think someone who had to fend for herself against a hostile planet would understand the value of not fighting fair. That would have been a cool way to differentiate her from Luke and Anakin while also showing similarities over which she could bond with Han “Shot First” Solo. It certainly would have been one way to show her gaining an advantage over Kylo Ren during their duel, if she just kept fighting dirty to make up for her lack of experience with a lightsaber.

How the hell does my mind expend so much brainpower on this crap?

Video Games, the Escapist Character, and a Bunch of Thoughts

I’ve previously explored the concept of the escapist character and how they relate to the audience. Characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones are less about character arcs and relationships than they are about thrills and adventure—that is to say, escapism. Such characters are broadly defined in a manner in which their simplicity ensures memorability. They are not so much surrogates for the audience, as they are what members of the audience wish they could be. These characters benefited in the later stages of the twentieth century from the popularization of a medium that could effectively take advantage of them, as the escapist character’s relationship with the audience was perfected through letting said audiences become the character. The medium I speak of, as should be obvious in the title, is the video game.

In a video game, players can take control of a character, and through them thus do things that they could only otherwise dream of. Even the average geek gorging out on nachos and soda can pretend for a time to be Batman or whatever larger than life character they wish to be.*

I’ve also previously written on the perils of adapting a video game for the big screen. The ingredients that make a great game do not translate into a great movie. A game is an interactive experience while a movie is a presentation. That is why great care must be taken even as one transplants what should be a cinema-friendly element—the escapist character—from a video game. One risk lies in the importing of certain characters that might not be able to succeed within the same niche upon transplantation into a new medium.

Given my previous digressions on Star Wars, I suppose it oddly fitting to bring that franchise to the fore once again because the damn theme is still stuck in my head. Prior to the changes made to the canon by Disney, two notably escapist characters were introduced into the fictional galaxy far, far away via video games. Revan and Galen Marek served their roles as escapist characters well within the concepts of the games they were introduced in (Revan in particular even had an appearance that was decided upon by the player), however, upon closer inspection, one can see various ways in which they were a poor fit for the old canon unless certain changes were made.

Revan’s shortcomings as a character lie in the fact that in many respects, he (according to the wiki, Revan is, or rather was, canonically a he) does in fact embody the Marty Stu. While the traits that do define him as such work for an escapist character, they fail to make him properly fit into the larger framework of the franchise, which eschews such characters in favor of broad archetypes that have the potential for developmental arcs. He is described by others as having mastered both the light (ergh) and dark (ugh) sides of the Force without succumbing (argh) to the temptations of the latter. In addition, he is also highly skilled in a variety of disciplines, talked up by others, and even gets the girl at the end. Now granted, this works well for an escapist character. However, this doesn’t quite work all that well within the wider mythos. Looking at it from a more distant vantage point, Revan’s existence undermines the later existence of Anakin Skywalker, the so-called Chosen One of unprecedented potential who, despite all his natural talent and wide variety of skills, was also a highly flawed person who ultimately failed to achieve any of his goals, but at least came to be redeemed and fulfill his destiny in the final moments of his life. It’s why it is so satisfying to see Revan lose badly in his confrontation with the Sith Emperor**, and then suffer further humiliations later on. But as bad as Revan was, there was arguably an even worse example of an escapist character who was more of a Marty Stu when considering the broader context: Galen Marek.

As the protagonist of a game that promised players a chance to live out their fantasies of kicking ass with the Force, Galen excelled in that capacity, pulling off great feats of ability with the Force and shifting the course of the galaxy’s history—an exemplar of power fantasy within the realm of video games. If Revan was but a point in which the audience could insert themselves into the SW saga, then Galen was just a good old fashioned Marty Stu. To bring you an idea of the insanity, let’s bring up how he’s portrayed as possessing such a huge amount of potential in the Force that he tops Yoda by telekinetically moving an entire Star Destroyer (!!!).

I know that size matters not, but holy shit. Galen is in fact, so skilled and so powerful to he manages to take on Darth Vader and win before proceeding toward a confrontation with Palpatine himself (!!!). Oh, and while he does die in the process, Galen does manage to successfully wound the Dark Lord of the Sith while also leaving behind a legacy of inspiring the founders of the then fledgling Rebel Alliance, the symbol of which is based on the Marek family crest (!!!). Are you laughing yet? I know I was.

Anyway, if Revan serves to undermine Anakin, Galen undermines Luke. He pulls off moves that make Luke’s development in the original trilogy look like a joke, and then proceeds to influence history to a degree that rivals that of the heroes in the actual films. It’s hard to see Luke as special and the last hope of the Jedi when others make him look like a noob.

While escapist characters in video games do have the potential to succeed when adapted to new mediums or within the context of a larger story, one should not immediately assume success without first ensuring that they are a proper fit.






* Afterword I: A Very Brief Digression into How the Video Game Narrative Can Be Manipulated By the Game Itself
Given its prominence, the concept of the escapist character and their role within the context of a video game has undergone some analysis within the context of video games themselves. Something other narrative mediums cannot do quite as well is outright mock the player for attempting to escape into a game.

For example, games like Spec Ops: The Line outright mock the players’ attempts to live out their fantasies of being a badass heroic soldier, taking apart the nature of such simplistic narratives in the face of the fog and fury of war.

** Afterword II: Author Inserts in Expanded Universe Works
Something that’s always irked me is how people writing material for expanded universes in established franchises often seem to feel the need to leave their mark by writing in blatant additions that either come into conflict with established canon or go too far in making their particular contributions bigger and better than what already is part of the franchise they are contributing to.

Look at the old SW EU and check out just how many authors felt the urge to write in characters, abilities, and devices that completely eclipsed what was presented in the films in terms of scale. In addition to the ridiculousness of Revan and Galen, we also had villains who rivalled Palpatine in terms of just what they could do despite Lucas outright calling Sheev the very worst and most powerful of the Sith Lords. We also had other superweapons that foreshadowed Starkiller Base and its ability to rehash, with visibly diminishing returns, the dramatic potential of the original Death Star.

It even expands to the serial escalation of The Force Awakens. It’s not enough that we have a new bigger and badder Death Star, no. It’s not enough that once again (remember what happened in the Star Trek movies?) J.J. Abrams has to arrange convenient methods of travel that cut down travel time for characters down to almost nothing (did anyone else think that Han’s new trick of going into hyperspace from or to enclosed locations was kind of ridiculous?). No, now, based on suggestions from materials beyond the movie, it’s suggested that Snoke has to be some sort of big bad villain whose scope makes Palpatine’s look minor in comparison. Palpatine, the closest thing to the Devil himself in the series. They knew they couldn’t top Vader, but they just couldn’t help themselves with trying to take on the other iconic villain in the franchise.

How Some People Miss the Very Point of Star Wars or Yet Another Star Wars Post Because It Won’t F-cking Get Out of My Head

Note that this is yet another Star Wars-related post because for some inexplicable reason the damned franchise won’t get out of my head. Hopefully it’s the last one for a while so I can get back to TTR/TTS. Also note that the opinions expressed herein are my own, and you are welcome to your own opinions regardless of whether or not they match up with mine, even if I personally think your opinions are wrong and you deserve to be laughed at for having them.

Point 1: The Tone
The series is not meant to be taken in any manner other than that of a callback to the adventure serials George Lucas enjoyed in his youth. While the series as a whole is not slavishly devoted to the pure pulp of the works that inspired it, as is evident in the darker turns introduced with The Empire Strikes Back, it is ultimately meant to, in the end, take those old stories and then proceed to tell them in new ways without losing sight of their essence.

Going all grimdark with Star Wars misses the entire point of the series, given that many modern audiences don’t appreciate the context into which the movies first entered the popular consciousness. After the rampant melodrama in mass entertainment in earlier years, cinema entered into increasingly dark, realist, and psychological periods, with the era into which George Lucas first made his mark being one known to some as New Hollywood, during which the biggest movies often were more artistic in their aims and often rather cynical. This in part explains how Lucas’ strange little movie managed to distinguish itself from all the other major releases coming out of Hollywood that year.

The movie called back to the films of yesteryear, which were more melodramatic, sillier, and more idealistic, even if they were also a lot kitschier in their stylings. Even with the darker turns the story took in the following installments, everything still managed to end on an idealistic note, which was fitting given the nature of the story.

It’s not that I don’t have a theory for why people seem eager to take the series apart and make it darker and edgier. People have grown weary of simplistic blockbusters in the modern age of Hollywood, an age that Star Wars’ massive success helped bring about. With this much saturation in the movie market, it’s hard to appreciate the earnest and simplistic way the movie communicates to audiences. In a way, the series is a victim of its own success. Some people want it to be different because what originally made it so different has been copied to death by other blockbusters, if to, for the most part, lesser success.

The problem with that is that once you take the franchise to darker places in side stories, the overall optimistic tone begins to seem questionable given the new information. How does one reconcile the inscrutable, yet seemingly benevolent Force with some writers’ later attempts to question this part of the premise? How does one reconcile the eventual conclusion that everything will turn out for the better at the very end despite the occasional victories of evil with the urge some writers have to say, no, in this case the darkness wins, and that’s final?

Point 2: Manichean Morality
Relating to the above points on the premise of the series is the rather simplistic morality of the story. Something that bugs me a lot about some of the non-movie material that was released as part of the franchise was a tendency to split the Force into a light and dark side, with the implication that both needed to be balanced out. This bothered me because one, it conflicted with how I interpreted the Force as laid out in the movies, and two, because it gave me the sense that people wanted to revise the morality of the Star Wars universe and make it into something more resembling that of Dungeons & Dragons or whatever other franchises are out there with moral ambiguity.

The Dark Side (note the capitalization of the words in the term) is not a different point of view. It is meant to represent a corruption of what is natural. The Dark Side is to the Force what cancer is to the body. There is no light or dark side, just the Force and its corruption in the form of what groups like the Sith espouse.

It’s why the climax of Return of the Jedi is so important. Luke’s physical triumph over Vader is not treated as such. Listen to the music during that sequence and you hear something mournful, because it represents the darkest moment of the story, when Luke finds himself sorely tested on a spiritual level upon seeing the benefits of giving in to the Dark Side. In fact, after disarming Vader, the music segues into the Emperor’s theme, indicating that the bad guys are this close to winning. Luke’s real victory comes when he rejects the pull of the Dark Side and decides to save his father’s life by affirming his decision to remain a Jedi instead of becoming Palpatine’s new apprentice. There is no moral ambiguity there. By making the choice that he does, Luke becomes the ideal Jedi and a pure force for good, in this way not only surpassing his father as a warrior, but also surpassing Yoda and Obi-Wan, who had been revealed as having manipulated a young man in the direction of killing his own father due to their lack of faith in the man who had once been Anakin Skywalker. It’s the culmination of Luke’s character development, as he has at that point mastered himself on both a physical and spiritual level.

People miss the point when they say that the Jedi were wrong to believe what they did about the Force, and that Yoda was simply biased in his teachings to Luke. Rather, what they should have taken from the movies is that while the Jedi had the right idea, the way they went about it was often flawed, just as the doings of a religion’s representatives do not necessarily reflect on the teachings of the religion itself.

It’s also annoying, if understandable given the at times questionable execution, when people completely misinterpret the Prophecy. There was no balancing in the Force by destroying the Jedi and Sith alike. The Jedi resemble Taoists in that they try to live in harmonious balance with nature, in this case, the Force.

While the original trilogy had the moment of triumph of all that was good be Luke’s rejection of the Dark Side, in the context of what was revealed in the prequels, the real victory thus comes after that moment. Anakin had seemingly failed to fulfill his part of the Prophecy when he joined the Sith and became Darth Vader. However, once Luke makes his decision, all the moving parts finally click into their proper places. It is Vader who can only look between his master and the son he wanted to so badly protect. It is Vader who says nothing as he is forced to choose between a continuation of his current life or certain death for the sake of saving someone he loves. It is Anakin Skywalker who makes the fateful choice to sacrifice himself in order to protect the person he cherished most. And in doing so, he destroys the Sith, destroys the corruption in the Force, and thus brings it into balance.

There’s no moral ambiguity there: good triumphs over evil. That’s all there is to it.

Well, at least that’s what it seemed to be until a certain storyline in The Clone Wars was confirmed as part of the canon. Honestly, I can’t even keep up with this franchise anymore. I’m too old and have too many responsibilities in the real world to geek out and memorize all sorts of minutiae like I could in my youth. But anyway, fuck everything; I still prefer my original conception of the story’s morality. Maybe if Disney sells the franchise somewhere down the line or something, a new canon will be established.

Still, regardless of the above, if I wanted moral ambiguity, I’d just check out another franchise which had such a thing as part of its overall premise. Star Wars is ultimately a very idealistic story, with a simplistic and idealistic morality to match. To take that away is to take away part of what makes it Star Wars and not some other story. Sure, you can play around with things as some entries in the franchise have, but to outright argue for some sort of moral ambiguity or balancing of the light and dark sides is to write stories that just aren’t Star Wars. When you introduce elements that contradict the very premise of the work, you either have to do them very well so that everything fits nicely, or you don’t do them at all. It’s why I didn’t mind when George Lucas clarified that anyone arguing that the Dark Side wasn’t necessarily a bad thing was just deluding themselves. In the end, for better or worse, the simplicity of the franchise is a defining part of it. It’s what makes it childish in many respects, but it is also what makes it easy to digest and relate to.

Ways the Next Star Wars Movie Can Improve Upon The Force Awakens or How I Learned to Write a Clickbait-Style Post to Compensate for My Inability to Finish the Posts I Want to Write

Welp, now that the hype has died down for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I can at last move on and hope to the Force that I don’t have to see yet another bit of merchandising associated with the franchise for a while. Personally, having watched the movie, I thought it an adequate entry in the franchise. I didn’t love it, but I thought it was a decent enough stepping stone for future episodes to work with that certainly indicated some improvement from the previous trilogy. Still, there were some noticeable issues I had with the movie, issues that hopefully will be rectified in future installments.

Here are some basic ways that the next movie can improve upon what we got from the previous episode.

Warning: there are some spoilerish details in this post so if you don’t care for that sort of thing, watch the movie wherever before reading the following.

1. Improve the Writing for Rey
I’m kind of on the fence on whether or not Rey falls into the Sue category. On the one hand, she is perhaps a tad too competent to ever come off as an underdog, is quickly loved and trusted by others, has no notable (and persistent) flaws, makes no real mistakes that harm her and the people close to her, and never seems to be in any real peril. On the other, perhaps her character and any shortcomings could be explored in future films (although this would then raise the question of just why the writers didn’t bother giving her some sort of prominent flaw to work past over the series given that she pretty much accepts that she has nothing to look forward to going back to Jakku). If she’s not a Sue, she does come dangerously, dangerously close, and she also doesn’t have the excuse of being an escapist character a la James Bond due to such characters not really working in a series like Star Wars.

The writing for Rey seemed to be an issue that plagues a lot of male writers whenever they try to write a strong female character. Maybe they just don’t know how to write women. Maybe they are afraid of being seen as sexist. But what often happens is that they wind up creating a character devoid of actual flaws (ex. A female lead who is clumsy, but clumsiness isn’t really much of a flaw to work with compared to say, an actual shortcoming as a person such as greed, racism, vindictiveness, possessiveness, and so on) who can’t be challenged on any meaningful level whether physical (notice that a lot of female action leads don’t really get hit all that much or show any signs of damage when they do, in contrast to say, John McClane in the first Die Hard, who is brave and resourceful, yet a clearly flawed person that steadily takes on more and more damage and stress over the course of the story) or otherwise.

A rather well written action heroine was Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Where modern films might portray her as a standard badass with survival skills, T2 instead was willing to portray her as a flawed human being who had suffered a lot of emotional and mental damage as a result of her experiences. She was paranoid, prone to acts of extremism, was unwilling to develop relationships with either her son or other people (note that in contrast to the rapid bond she builds up with Kyle in the first movie, she’s mentioned as having shacked up with guys simply as a means of helping John learn the skills he needs to fulfill his destiny). In fact, it’s young John, who we first believe to be a mere delinquent, that possesses traits more associated with femininity in that he is the one who provides a moral compass for both his mother and the machine assigned with protecting him. This is how you write nuanced characters without allowing their sex or gender to limit what they can become.

Here’s just one possible thing they might do with Rey. Play on the fact that she’s a prodigy when it comes to a great many things. Maybe, just like the man who crafted the lightsaber she brought to Luke, she grows cocky as a result of her successes. Maybe this combines with the habits she developed growing up alone and seemingly friendless on Jakku to make her think that she doesn’t need to rely on anyone and can handle things herself once she’s been properly trained and has attained the necessary experience. Maybe seeing Finn in such bad shape as a result of trying to protect her makes her all the more afraid of connecting with others too closely and obsessing over becoming strong enough that she not only doesn’t need saving, but also in ensuring that she can protect those who mean so much to her. Think Anakin, except with much better writing. It’d also serve as a nice contrast with Luke’s own character arc in the original trilogy, which suffered from the fact that he faced far less temptation than Anakin had. It’d also be a great way to play on the concept of an action heroine and that of the damsel in distress, in that Rey’s distress would be not the result of her being a helpless weakling, but because of the character flaws stemming from her own strengths. Take what’s there and expand on it to create a character with various nuances to her, including her own vices and virtues.

2. Make Snoke an Actual Character or at Least Give Him a Presence
It’s not going to be easy replacing Emperor Sheev Palpatine alias Darth Sidious. Whether you loved his low key ham in Return of the Jedi or his over the top scenery chewing in Revenge of the Sith, the guy was just a fun villain to root against. In the former, he managed to exude menace as the personification of all that was evil in the series, while in the latter, he was a breath of fresh air and emotion in a sea of vapid dullness. Hell, his first name managed to make him an even more memetic character once it came out.

Snoke clearly is meant to be the overarching villain of this new trilogy just as Palpatine was for the previous two. Just like Sheev, he’s the brains behind the bad guys, and appears before his subordinates utilizing hologram technology that makes him look huge and imposing. So far though, I’m not sure what we have to work with. He’s clearly the bad guy, but there’s been little revealed about him as a character. In contrast to Palpatine, he wasn’t left completely to the imagination in the first film of the new trilogy (compare that to the original trilogy, where the emperor is only mentioned in A New Hope, appears through a hologram for one scene in The Empire Strikes Back, and then finally makes his proper debut in ROTJ, thus serving as a shadowy reflection of Yoda).

Hopefully this time we actually get something to characterize Snoke because so far he feels like Palpatine 2.0, except with nowhere near as much charisma.

3. Don’t Make Another Into Darkness
I can understand why TFA was basically a Greatest Hits Collection of classic SW. As with Abrams’ Star Trek, the studio needed to revive a cash cow franchise while also making it accessible to mainstream audiences. Like that movie, they basically made a sequel that was actually a soft reboot of everything, hence all the familiar tropes and other story elements, while also hitting the reset button to make the good guys the underdogs all over again (boy, does the happy ending in ROTJ look like the Rebels jumped the gun a bit in hindsight), and bringing in their very own versions of Vader, the Emperor, and the Empire (making everything the good guys worked for three movies ago kind of pointless).

But now that the hard part’s done, they can surely go off in their own direction, right?

Unfortunately, this is the cash cow franchise. As seen with the Marvel movies, Disney probably doesn’t want to take too many risks given how much money there is to be made with an IP they bought for over four billion dollars. It’s why they’re planning on running the franchise into the ground by releasing an episode every two years instead of three like the previous two trilogies, and why they’re also release spinoff anthology movies in between. It’s why Disney is making such a big deal out of how “inclusive” the franchise now is whenever they get the chance (and why “progressive” media outlets are so keen to swoop in on such developments). SW is a product, it always has been, and Disney intends to outdo even George Lucas when it comes to making money off of it, and that means creating a product that will appeal to as many people as possible. It’s not about politics or art or what have you. It’s about getting to what’s in your wallet by any means.

It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if the suits altered whatever script Rian Johnson turned in so that it would be more marketable. Yeah, maybe they might true to make their very own version of Empire, but honestly, given Disney’s desire to create a multi-movie universe in the vein of Marvel, they’ll probably stuff it to the brim with allusions to other SW movies and maybe even lift certain parts verbatim from other movies, just like Star Trek Into Darkness did.

Maybe I’m wrong and Disney is confident enough in the IP and people involved to handle the next episode with a light touch, but given stories about the behind-the-scenes antics at Marvel, don’t be surprised if the movie only appears adventurous only to turn out to be just adventurous enough to make the average schlep think it so, when it reality it’s a fairly safe picture that markets itself as adventurous (you know, like a lot of the Marvel movies).

Bonus: If There’s Actually a Space Battle or Dogfighting, Do a Better Job With It
As with The Phantom Menace, part of the climax of TFA involved dogfighting and blowing up a command center. And just like TPM, I honestly could have cared less about what was going on there. This was because of much more than the whole blowing up the Death Star bit being highly overplayed by that point. It’s also because I had no reason to feel invested in what was going on.

In contrast to ANH, where the movie’s focus was on the battle at the Death Star, and where the stakes felt huge because the Empire getting off a shot would destroy everything the Rebels had worked for, in TFA the focus was on what was happening on the ground. Aside from maybe Poe Dameron, all the characters the audience was supposed to care about were directly on the planet. Furthermore, there was nothing particularly exciting choreography-wise or even new with the dogfighting. ANH was something different yet so familiar, making it stand out from everything else that came out during that era. ROTJ, while rehashing the Death Star plotline, at least had the advantage of this being a vital part of the climax of the original trilogy in addition to showcasing just how far special effects had come since the original Star Wars.

If anything, the filmmakers should take a page out of the playbook from, of all people, George Lucas. Go nuts with depicting the sheer scale of battles, but avoid making the mistake of not focusing on crafting characters that the audience cares about. People are way more willing to accept over the top sequences so long as they are not only done well, but also when much of the tension surrounds the question of just what these characters the viewer is invested in must do to get out of the sticky situation they find themselves in.

Bonus: Fewer Cameos
One thing about TFA that should cause it to age less gracefully than the movies it tries to be a pastiche of is its inclusion of celebrity cameos. Cameos are by their very nature distracting, because they take the audience out of the story so that they can make remarks about Celebrity X suddenly appearing in a movie. Cameos also tend to date movies. When any flick features a celebrity cameo, it immediately dates itself due to the fact that big names of any moment will eventually fade into obscurity at some point or another. TFA managed to avoid most of the usual issues with cameos by only including celebrities as voices, although hopefully future films will just focus on telling a story.