Tag Archives: Star Wars

Rogue One Review (Vaguely Spoilerish)

Rogue One was a Star Wars movie for people who hate Star Wars movies.

Star Wars movies are supposed to be fun. They have a sense of joy and adventure. This was a dark, intense, and ultimately depressing film that happened to be set in the Star Wars universe. And because it looked like a Star Wars movie, and people acted like they were in a Star War movie, when it ultimately turned out to be a dark war movie, the tone shift was rather jarring.

There’s nothing wrong with a dark and intense action movie, even one set in a comic booky world. I think movies like Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight are some of the best ever action movies. But they aren’t Star Wars, and they don’t belong being mixed with Star Wars.

Moreover, Rogue One wasn’t even a particularly good intense action movie. An intense action movie succeeds based on three categories: The quality of the action, how much you care about the plot/stakes, and most importantly, how much you care about the characters.

I can’t complain about the action. That was pretty good, so Rogue One did succeed in one aspect. But that was pretty much it.

The problem with the plot/stakes is that when you have a movie that is essentially a minor subplot to the most well-known movie of all time, everyone already knows how it’s going to end. So that takes the plot off the table. We already know they’re going to succeed at their overall goal. All that matters to us (or at least, all that can matter to us) is what happens to the characters along the way.

And for us to care about that, we have to care about the individual characters. And that is where Rogue One completely fails. The characters are so generic, derivative, and forgettable, that I literally can’t remember any of their names. There was knock-off Rey, knock-off Han, the squirrelly guy who wore goggles on his forehead for no apparent reason, the blind guy, the blind guy’s friend, the robot from Big Hero Six/Interstellar, Generic Eeeevil Commander, Grand Moff Uncanny Valley, and Forrest Whittaker who wandered in from Battlefield Earth. (I haven’t actually seen Battlefield Earth, but I’m pretty sure that’s where he wandered in from. Maybe it was Waterworld, Dune, or one of the Mad Max movies.)

On the plus side, it kept moving at a nice pace, and at least it wasn’t boring. So it was a lot better than Episode 2. But it left me feeling pretty meh, and was ultimately pretty forgettable.

Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

As I predicted, The Force Awakens was reasonably entertaining, but nothing special. A dumb-but-fun action movie that is an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours, but would be easily forgettable if it didn’t have the Star Wars name.

I try to look at The Force Awakens as being in the same category of Oz the Great and Powerful; more or less a work of fan fiction. If there are any nuances or character beats that add to your appreciation of the original, then you can incorporate those into your view of the work. But anything that detracts from your feelings on the original can be ignored.

If at the end of Return of the Jedi there had been a title card saying, “And then 30 years later, some other stuff happened,” that wouldn’t change how much you liked the original trilogy. So you should try to treat TFA as being the same thing.

Good Stuff

Looking at TFA as its own movie apart from the legacy, there were some good pieces to it:

– I really liked the characters of Rey and Finn. They were well-established, interesting, had clear goals and character growth. These are characters that you could build a great movie around. Creating compelling characters is the hardest and most important part of screenwriting, so we shouldn’t gloss over this. Lawrence Kasdan did a great job introducing characters worthy of Star Wars, even if the rest of movie wasn’t.

– BB-8 was totally dorbs. The animators/puppeteers did an incredible job of conveying emotion and character through movement, head-angle, and beeps. I think BB-8 is cuter and better at inspiring affection than R2-D2, which is some high praise.

– The action scenes were well-shot and visually interesting. They were exciting and clearly conveyed what was going on.

Contrast this to the prequels, where the action consisted of characters running in arbitrary directions like smurfs fleeing Gargamel, and then there’s some variety of meaningless glowing light, and everyone either cheers or is sad.

The action scenes in TFA also had clear stakes. You knew who were the good guys and the bad guys, what each side was trying to accomplish, and what would be the consequences if they succeeded or failed. Whereas with the prequels, you’re watching battle-droids fight clone-troopers, and thinking to yourself, “Uh, which army of unlimited faceless interchangeable sort-of-but-not-quite sentient slaves who have been programmed to kill and are secretly being manipulated by an evil mastermind as part of his eeeevil plan that makes no god-damned sense am I supposed to root for?” (Or when battle-droids fight Gungans, and you think “I know the Gungans are supposed to be the good guys, but they’re so annoying that I kind of want them to die.”)

Unfortunately while the individual scenes had clear stakes, the overall plot did not. But I’ll discuss that in the Bad Stuff section.

– This isn’t so much praise as a lack of a complaint, but I didn’t mind the presence of old Leia anywhere near as much as I was expecting to. For years I’ve been arguing including her in the movie was a terrible idea, because nobody wants to see Princess Leia old and fat and ravaged by decades of heavy drug use. But the way they actually used her in the movie was fine. It makes sense for old Leia to be the wise leader, a minor character showing up in a couple of scenes to dispense sage advice and send the main characters off on their adventures.

Had they limited Han to this role as well, with him and Leia running the resistance and squabbling but clearly still loving each other, that would have been fine. But alas, they didn’t. Which brings me to the problems.

Bad Stuff

First off, I need to make clear that this is the sort of movie where the more you think about it, the more problems you will find. So you really *shouldn’t* think too hard about it, because it will only detract from your enjoyment. (Unless you’re the sort of person who takes pleasure in picking something apart. Which, as I explained in my last essay, is much more common after The Phantom Menace.)

I could keep pointing out flaws all day, but because I don’t want to think too much about it, I’ll focus on a handful of the most glaring issues.

– The biggest problem is that there so many parallels to Episode 4, to the point that it became obvious, glaring, and annoying. You always knew exactly what was going to happen next because you’ve seen this story before. I won’t bother laying out all the similarities, because you’ve probably already thought about them yourself. (And if you haven’t, I suggest that you don’t, because it will just irritate you.)

If I wanted a greatly inferior blatant rehash of Star Wars, I could watch Eragon. I never actually watched Eragon, but I read enough of the book to realize some kid had written down the plot of A New Hope, did a find-replace to change “spaceship” to “dragon,” and hoped nobody would notice. JJ Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan did pretty much the same thing, only without bothering to change anything. This would have been a much better movie if it had its own plot.

– Having old Han in the Obi-Wan role was a huge mistake. Han is supposed to be a swashbuckling seat-of-his-pants devil-may-care cowboy. Not a grumpy old man. And his presence was additionally problematic in that he ended up being the one to drive the plot, with the main characters Rey and Finn relegated to spectators whenever Han was around. The movie would have been so much better if Rey and Finn had been free to make their own decisions, figuring things out for themselves, and moving the story forward on their own.

– Too many wildly implausible coincidences that ended up being hugely important to the plot. I won’t take the time to list them because that would just annoy you. But I will point out a couple of the most egregious: That in the huge vastness of the galaxy, Han and Chewie just happen to stumble across the Millennium Falcon at the very moment that Rey and Finn desperately need their help. And that in the entire vastness of the galaxy, the Mos Eisley Maz Kanata Cantina that they go to for help happens to randomly be where Luke’s lightsaber is hidden.

– The MacGuffin of the Rebellion and First Order both trying to find Luke just didn’t work at all. The movie never established why that was important to either side, so the audience didn’t know what was at stake or why we should care. And there’s no way this even *could* make sense. If the wise space wizard who is interconnected to all things decides it’s best for the galaxy for him to go into hiding, why would the heroes assume he’s wrong and try to find him? Or if he was hiding because he felt bad about himself and not because he believed it was best for the galaxy, that’s much worse. That turns Luke into a pathetic whiny bitch who is willing to let the galaxy burn because he wants to go off and pout. That’s totally inconsistent with Luke’s character in the original trilogy, and would retroactively ruin the good movies if you considered this to be part of the same series. (Which is why I don’t consider TFA that way.)

In practice, because this MacGuffin had zero emotional stakes, the plot ended up getting wrapped around the Death Star 3: This Time It’s Slightly Bigger And Has Longer Range. But we’ve already seen the heroes take on the Death Star twice before, so yawn. Return of the Jedi avoided being repetitive by focusing on the emotional struggle of Luke and Vader trying to turn each other. And the external visual action surrounding the second Death Star was very different from the first Death Star. It was about Han & Leia’s commando raid on Endor, while the space battle was relegated to supporting characters. But in The Force Awakens, we saw all the same stuff happen as had happened in Episode 4, and, well, we had seen that before.

– An untrained former storm trooper who wasn’t even very good at storm troopering holding his own in a lightsaber battle against a sith lord? Come on. If a random schmo is just as good at lightsabering as a master of the Force who has years of practice, what the hell is the point of the Force? And if we as the audience know that, why should we be scared of Kylo Ren?

– It’s just plain annoying that there are characters named Rey and Ren. “Don’t have characters with confusingly similar names” is one of those things they teach you in the first few weeks of an introductory screenwriting class.

Conclusion

The Force Awakens is an entertaining mindless movie if you don’t consider it to be part of the original Star Wars trilogy that you know and love. If you enjoyed the JJ Abrams’ version of Star Trek or the Michael Bay Transformers, You’ll probably like Episode VII. Just don’t think too hard about it.

How The Phantom Menace Destroyed a Generation

I think now is a good time to reflect upon how fundamentally weird it is that after this weekend, Star Wars will never be the same.

Imagine a devout Christian learning that an additional testament to the bible has just been discovered. They don’t know if this newer testament will be good or bad, whether it will be in keeping with what spoke to them regarding the previous testament, whether it will be full of excellent moral guidance or a disillusioning disappointment. But the one thing they know for sure is that a significant part of their identity will change.

The same is true for Star Wars. People may dismiss it as some silly movies, but that drastically understates its importance. Movies are our culture, our mythology. They reflect our ways of viewing the world, but that causality goes both ways. The shared experience we have of the movies we watch frames and informs on how we relate to each other and the world at large.

And in this respect, no movie franchise is more important than Star Wars. We see the world through the lens that Star Wars gave us. We see the light side and the dark side; the Evil Empire and the connection between all living things; oppressive soulless dictators that can only be brought down by idealistic scrappy heroes and dashing rogues with a heart of gold; an amazing adventure that awaits from us if we can escape our boring everyday life and circumstances.

To quote from Imaginationland, my favorite episode of South Park, “Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? … They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.”

And this weekend, this fundamental aspect of our culture and how we see the world is going to change.

This isn’t the first time we faced a change like this. When The Phantom Menace came out, it had an enormous impact on the culture and on ourselves, and not for the better. Nobody noticed the impact at the time. Everyone saw it as merely a disappointing movie, not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But looking back, we can see how this bad movie changed our view of the world.

Think back to what the world was like between the releases of Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, from 1983 – 1999: (Or for you younger people, let me tell you.)

In the 80s, the US was locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union. This fit perfectly into the framework provided by Star Wars. We were the scrappy freedom-loving good-hearted individualists, while the Soviets were the dour oppressive monsters bent on universal domination. Ronald Reagan even called the Soviets the Evil Empire. But there was also hope and a sense of wonder. The world was getting better and everyone was getting happier, and we all had faith that we would prevail in this struggle.

Then Communism fell; the Empire was defeated. And we got to reap the rewards. The world was more or less at peace. Technology was accelerating at a pace never before seen in the history of the world. We had hundreds of cable channels. Video games transitioned from being kids’ toys to an entirely new form of entertainment for everyone. E-mail removed physical location as a qualification for friendship, as we could instantly correspond with anyone in the world. Amazon changed the way we bought stuff, removing from our lives the hassle of going to physical stores and trying to find what we want. Ubiquitous cell phones added another layer of convenience and awesomeness. The dot-com boom made millionaires out of anyone who glanced in the general direction of the internet.

Things were wonderful. There was optimism and hope, and the belief that everything was only going to get better.

And to top it off, we were getting new Star Wars. To those of us who came of age during this period, new Star Wars was the most amazing thing of all. The holy grail, the new book in our bible. Something we had been dreaming of since we were kids.

I remember sitting in the theater, just as the movie was about to begin, and my roommate turned to me and said, “Our whole lives have led up to this.” He was being a bit facetious and over-the-top, but in another sense this was true. Ever since we could remember, we had been anticipating and wondering what new Star Wars would be like. And it was finally happening.

Then we got this thing we had always dreamed of, and it turned out to be terrible.

That moment changed everything. The optimism and hope of the 90s gave way to the dour cynicism of the 2000s. We realized that nothing would ever be as good as we had hoped. The things people loved were all awful. The world was a cold and unforgiving place that didn’t care about your hopes and dreams. There’s was no wonder, no joy, nothing to be delighted in. The best we could do was seek out the worst of things and take ironic amusement in how bad they were. We devoted our time to tearing things down, eking out a tiny bit of comfort in our ability to point out flaws in the things that didn’t meet our standards. Since nothing ever met our standards, this meant tearing down the entire world.

Of course there were other things going on the world that contributed to this shift in outlook. The dot-com crash brought down the economy due to all those bad ideas that were making people rich in the 90s. The debacle of the 2000 election, where both sides were absolutely convinced the other was trying to steal the election, made us forget that people can disagree with us on politics without being evil. The prevalence of arguments on the internet made us forget that those people who disagree are human at all. And of course there was 9/11, the Iraq war, and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

The content of Phantom Menace gave us a negative framework that we used to view these events. Political leaders were not merely misguided, but were cynically and intentionally creating wars out of nothing in order to further their own rise to power. The so-called wise people were misguided fools who served as tools for the evil leaders’ ends. Success was not the result of hard work, diligence, or merit. Instead, annoying buffoons like Jar Jar and young Anakin bumbled their way through a series of ridiculous situations and prevailed out of dumb luck. Where we had all been confident we would triumph over the Soviet Union, nobody had any hope of winning against Islamic terrorism, or even a way to conceptualize what victory would mean. Any efforts to improve things were inevitably doomed to not only fail but actively make things worse, playing right into the hands of the evil people’s evil conspiracy. Just like the struggle between the droids/clones/Trade Federation/separatists, we see the world as depressing incoherent nonsense.

Art reflects life, but we view life through the context that art provides.

Phantom Menace also changed the way we relate to movies. We don’t want to be hurt again, so we won’t allow ourselves to love and connect to movies in the same way. For our generation, there will never again be anything like Star Wars. And it’s questionable whether any generation will have something like that in the foreseeable future. Harry Potter is huge and beloved, mostly by people who were too young to be disillusioned by The Phantom Menace. But as big as Harry Potter is, it doesn’t have anywhere near the cultural, emotional, and mythological impact of Star Wars.

Think of the hatred people have for George Lucas. He created this thing that we love, but then it took on a life of its own, and became much bigger than him. Star Wars was part of our culture, our mythology, and our souls. With Phantom Menace, Lucas reached into our souls, grabbed a piece of our identity, and crushed it. People can’t forgive that, despite the fact that he is the one that gave us the gift of the original Star Wars in the first place.

And now, once again, Star Wars is going to change. And this is going to be a different sort of change than happened in 1999. We’ll get new characters, worlds, stories, and outlooks, and early reviews indicate that these will be a vast improvement over the disaster of the prequels. But the more important change is that there’s going to be a new Star Wars movie every year.

My fear is that this is going to make Star Wars stop being special, and turn it into something more like James Bond. A new Bond movie has come out every few years for half a century. Some are better than others, and some people find them entertaining while others don’t. But they aren’t part of our culture and mythology; not in the same way as Star Wars.

If I were to ask what happens in Return of the Jedi, you could tell me. Even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan, and even if you haven’t seen the movie. There are all sorts of videos of people who have never seen the Star Wars movies describing them. While we laugh at the minor details they get wrong, everyone knows the overall gist. By contrast, if I were to ask you to describe, say, Die Another Day, you probably couldn’t. Hell, I’m a movie expert and a Bond fan, and *I* don’t remember what happened in that movie. Nor do I care enough to look it up, which is kind of the point.

There are far more James Bond movies than Star Wars movies. This makes them common, and gives us a lot less reason to care. And I fear that the same will be true of Star Wars movies once there’s a new one every year.

In a sense, this is the last time we’ll get new Star Wars as a cultural force. Instead, we’ll get yearly additions to the Star Wars franchise, and that is a very different thing.

Perhaps this is for the best. We can’t undo the damage of The Phantom Menace. It may be that all we can hope for is to end the relationship we have with Star Wars entirely. If someone breaks your heart, you can only really move on once you stop caring about them.

I’ll still be seeing The Force Awakens this weekend, and expect to see each new movie as it comes out. I am hoping to enjoy it. But I’m assuming that at best I will enjoy it on the level of a reasonably entertaining movie. It won’t be creating new mythology, and it won’t be adding a new chapter to the book that is written in our souls. That book is finished and closed, never to be opened again. This is the way things are, and we have to accept it.

I opened this essay by comparing new Star Wars to a freshly discovered testament to the Bible. And that analogy is apt in a different way: To a devout Christian, the notion of an additional testament is absurd. The bible is the bible, the revealed word of god, and it’s not going to change.

So this weekend, let’s all enjoy a (hopefully) fun romp of a movie, while saying goodbye to the connection we hold in our hearts for the original trilogy. We may not be ready to let go, and we may prefer it was otherwise, but we don’t have any choice in the matter.

And hey, there’s a new Harry Potter movie coming out next year.

Star Wars Episode 7

Look, I would absolutely love it if Episode 7 was an amazing movie.  And I do have to admit the teaser trailer looks good.

This comic sums up the way most of my friends have been reacting to it:

But I’ve been burned before.  I remember how excited we were in the late 90s, based on the delusion that new Star Wars would be as amazing as old Star Wars.  I remember how there was a (false) rumor that they would show the first preview for Phantom Menace before the X-Files movie.  As each preview was starting, everyone in the theater cheered in anticipation.  Then when they really did show the preview before Meet Joe Black, people bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to watch the previews and then walk out afterwards.  We all thought back then that Episode one would be awesome.

Then there was the enormous let-down of seeing the actual movie.  I’m convinced that this disappointment was a major contributing factor to the cynicism of the 2000s.  We got the thing we had been wishing for our entire lives, and it turned out to be awful.  The world just didn’t seem as bright and hopeful after that.

It’s easy to make a teaser trailer look good.  The teaser for Phantom Menace looked incredible.

It doesn’t look so good now that we know the context of those clips – how annoying Jar Jar and Anakin are, the wooden dialog, the boring incoherent plot.  But when the teaser was originally released, just seeing the Lucasfilm logo was enough to make us squeal with delight.  There was a double-sided lightsaber, cool looking ships, thousands of droids, Samuel L. Jackson, and a fully emotive Yoda.  We had no idea just how wrong it would all go.

Now people are getting their hopes up again.  And it reminds me of this scene from Fanboys:

For those of you who didn’t watch the clip, the joke is that someone is so excited about the upcoming release of Phantom Menace that he gets a full back tattoo of Jar Jar, on the assumption that the character will kick all sorts of ass.  We can laugh at that now.  My fear is that by the end of the year, we will look back at those who were excited about The Force Awakens in the exact same way.

Nothing would make me happier than if I turn out to be completely wrong about this, and the movie is great beyond the fanboys’ wildest dreams.  But for now, I’m not going to get my hopes up.

Least useful use of time travel ever

Sometimes I picture myself going back in time and having the following conversation with myself as a kid:

Present Me: You know how Star Wars is awesome?
Past Me: Totally.
Present Me: Well in 2008, there will be a new Star Wars movie.
Past Me: That’s totally tubular.
Present Me: But you’ll barely notice it’s in theaters, and not bother seeing it.
Past Me: That doesn’t sound like me.
Present Me: Six years later, you’ll use your fancy future technology that beams movies directly into your home to watch it. But then you’ll get bored after 20 minutes and turn it off.
Past Me: What the hell?
Present Me: Because new Star Wars is terrible.
Past: Bogus. But that beaming movies into your home thing sounds bad.
Present: Actually, it’s pretty good. Oh wait, you’re in the 80s, and are using “bad” in the Michael Jackson sense of the word. Speaking of Michael Jackson, there’s something else I should tell you…

Star Wars Episode VII

Ever since Star Wars Episode VII was announced, I was insisting it would be a terrible idea to bring back Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher.

Han and Leia are supposed to be swashbuckling sexy ass-kickers.  Seeing a grizzled and tired Han ravaged by age, or an old and fat Leia, completely undermines the point of the characters.  We want to dream of being like them, traveling the galaxy punching bad guys and having awesome sexy adventures.

That’s almost as terrible an idea as a movie featuring an old and decrepit Indiana Jones, which I still like to pretend never happened.

Even as various fan rumor sites were reporting that Ford and Fisher were in the cast, I clung to hope since there hadn’t been any official announcement.  I wanted the production team to be more sensible than the rabid fans.

But the official announcement just came, and Ford and Fisher are indeed in the cast.  Which is highly disappointing.

I didn’t have huge hopes for Episode VII.  It seemed incredibly unlikely that it would live up to the original series, and questionable whether it would even match the extremely low bar of the prequels.  But this latest news is making me reduce my already diminished expectations.

(They also announced that Mark Hamill is in the cast, but I don’t mind the idea of old Luke.  Luke’s journey was going from immature punk kid to wise Jedi master, so seeing him old and passing his knowledge on to a new generation is a fulfillment of the promise of his character, rather than a betrayal.)