“Suicide Squad” Review

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterSuicide Squad is less a movie and more a warning; a warning of what blockbusters, and comic book movies in particular, could be and are becoming: primarily financial investments even at the creative level, with any and all artistic and narrative ambition snuffed out for the sake of fulfilling perceived fan desires. With a production history fraught with conflict and a theatrical cut that reveals serious creative and tonal clashes between director David Ayer and studio executives, Suicide Squad flounders along in fits and starts, waffling between ambitious attempts at provocative storytelling and jokey, half-baked Marvel-esque sequences.

One can’t really understand Suicide Squad if one doesn’t first note its production history. The Hollywood Reporter provides a timely and insightful look into the series of events that led to the “hybrid cut” of the film presented in theaters. In a brief summation, after the wildly controversial release of Batman v Superman in a cut deliberately truncated by request of Warner Bros. executives, those same executives panicked and determined that the issue with Zack Snyder’s ambitious film was not their own imposition of cuts but rather its serious tone. They eyed Marvel’s artistically stagnant and flippant but financially lucrative production line and grew envious. When director David Ayer (known for oppressive, brutal films such as Fury and End of Watch) presented his reportedly dark and serious cut to executives the money-holders panicked, demanding and financing reshoots and recuts to add humor and levity to the venture. Caught in the crossfire was Ayer’s initial cinematic vision, and a compromise hybrid cut was released to theaters, mashing together Ayer’s serious cut with the studio’s decidedly more light-hearted affair.

Of course, the viewer cannot fully or accurately discern which scenes should be credited to Ayer, and which ones belong to the teaser trailer company Trailer Park that was brought in to craft the studio’s cut, but it remains painfully obvious that this hybrid cut contains two competing cinematic visions. One features sparks of ambition, even if it wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of the Snyders and Nolans in the realm of comic adaptations. This possible path for the film utilizes the charismatic charm of Will Smith as Deadshot to explore a super-assassin as first and foremost a man with a daughter. One sequence in particular stands out as Deadshot is confronted by Batman. Deadshot prepares to resist the vigilante, and with his renowned marksmanship skills, the audience doesn’t doubt that Deadshot may very well succeed at killing Batman. Deadshot’s daughter, however, steps in front of the gun that her father holds, pleading with him to cease his endless killing. It’s a poignant scene that makes intelligent use of the DC cinematic universe, guiding the audience towards viewing the activity of the super-villains for what it is: shameful.

There are other character bits that hit home not only at an entertainment level, but a human one. Margot Robbie is superbly cast as Harley Quinn, fully embracing her psychological instability and landing some really great one-liners, but (even better) she also draws out empathy for the character. By the end of the film, and a revelation of Harley’s deepest desire, the audience begins to pity her (while Ayer adroitly avoids anti-hero idolization). The gang-lord/pacifist arc for the fire-summoning El Diablo is also a compelling idea, and a conversation within the squad at the end of the movie bluntly confronts and grieves for the evil that they have individually visited upon others. And one would be remiss to not mention Viola Davis’s chilling turn as Amy Waller, the frightening mastermind behind the government program that organized the squad under threat of death.

These glimmers of narrative ambition themselves are not what fails Suicide Squad. What fails the film is the lack of a substantive superstructure, a narrative construct to hold the adventure together. The failure is not the presence of jokes, or the whimsical, simple nature of the plot. Rather, it is the replacement of that plot with an omnipresence of humor. Conversations that should be used to advance characters are instead littered with quips, idle banter, and visual gags where one or two as comedic color would have sufficed. Even more painful, those conversations often do not flow naturally within themselves, moments where dialogue was obviously pasted together from multiple takes and dialogue threads disrupt the cinematic flow.  With the narrative front-loaded with humor, when Suicide Squad attempts to turn introspective in its final act the turn is undercut by an insufficient amount of foreshadowing and build-up. A villain lacking compelling motivation, like General Zod or Lex Luthor from Snyder’s films, deadens the tension and the emotional high-marks don’t hit with the force they should. The aesthetic does the movie no favors as well: ever shrouded in darkness, the movie never capitalizes visually on the natural pop and life of its cast, instead copying the flat visual composition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even more obnoxious is the derivative and blatantly manipulative incorporation of pop and rock music numbers into the film at a rate probably never before seen in action cinema. I counted no less than six music montages within the first fifteen to twenty minutes alone, and they continued throughout the film to the point of self-parody. Introduction of Deadshot? Pump in those good rock vibes. Approach an ominously dark and abandoned Midway City? Good rock vibes. Frightening prisoner-abuse scene? Good rock vibes. It’s as if the editor watched nothing but Guardians of the Galaxy for a year and decided that literally any scene could and should be improved with some nostalgic radio tunes, even intruding upon moments that should be (and clearly are meant as) more somber and reflective bits of the film. The most egregious of them all is when a rock number fails to fade out before a flashback to Superman’s funeral, so we get a wonderfully inept moment of editing when guitars and drums are licking happily along while Earth mourns the man of steel.

This moment gets at the utter failure of a particular philosophy of film-making that centers itself around both the trivial criticisms and expectations of fandoms. The emphasis on jokes over story and the scattered, nonsensical movies that result, spring from an emphasis on giving fans and audiences what they want at the expense of what the narrative needs at any given moment. The studio misdiagnosed a problem they themselves had started by tampering with Snyder’s vision for Batman v Superman, and instead determined they would give the audience a hyped-up version of Guardians of the Galaxy because, hey, violence without consequences is all the rage these days.

It’s a trend towards storytelling that balks at challenging its audience, instead catering to their every desire, good and bad, moral and immoral. It should be abundantly clear that a series like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy would never make it through production in today’s climate without executives panicking that audiences couldn’t handle or wouldn’t respond well to his unsettling vision of Batman. These mega-franchises are increasingly becoming mirrors that reflect a societal desire for consequence-free entertainment. Marvel set the precedent while the fandoms, with their endless social media rages and bullying, enforce the new orthodoxy, and now DC is feeling the pressure to bow the knee to fandom reception rather than artistic quality.

The postcard-like and inconsequential appearances of the Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad provide a fitting snapshot for this philosophy of fan-centrism: one that tantalizes rather than engages, tickles the senses rather than challenges assumptions. Snyder may have bested the comic-book movie machine by eventually getting his masterful Ultimate Cut released, but it appears Ayer’s artistic vision was felled by a beast that we, the audience, have created: one drenched in darkness, splattered with moments of kitsch-neon, in which the world is always in danger but our souls are not.

“Captain America: Civil War” Review

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That’s 10 Superheroes just on the poster (don’t worry, there are more)

This post is part review, part confession. I don’t have the best relationship with the Marvel franchise. Enamored by the first Thor film, my enthusiasm gradually wore off until it was dealt a painful blow by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that dashed my expectations, turning a story billed as a discussion of power and centralization into a story that taught me the ever-relevant lesson “don’t trust Nazis.” My Marvel cynicism grew deeper, hitting its lowest point with Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel films were white noise— always present in the box office, but unremarkable.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by Captain America: Civil War.

The film had its flaws. It carried the usual Marvel burden of having too many superheroes with too many clever retorts and witticisms. The massive 6 on 6 battle in the airport was almost entirely unneeded and exhausting.

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That’s just half of them, and I’m already worn out.

Nevertheless, the movie wasn’t just good— it challenged and even redeemed many of the problems in previous Marvel films. There were three main points of improvement: the introduction of a compelling moral conflict and resolution, moral weight, and the testing of Tony Stark’s character.

One of the most frustrating things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that the conflicts held little moral consequence. So often the conflict was set up as an unreasonable (often pseudo-religious) villain who threatened to destroy the world, galaxy, or in some cases, universe. This tension leaves little to consider. After all, when considering a sacrifice of, well, nearly anything, next to the entire universe, there is not really much of a decision to make. You save all of reality every time. The movie has no room for failure, because if they fail, everything, including the franchise, is gone.

What I mean to say is that the destruction of the world is a boring concept. It’s too easy to think about.

In Civil War, however, the conflict isn’t the universe, or even the world, ending. The conflict is a relational one. Every other Marvel film served to unite and bring people together. This one dealt with what would tear people apart.

A moral discussion set in a framework that could possibly fail creates the ability to have both sides of the conflict make sense. Stark’s camp is right: oversight is needed and innocent bodies have been piling up from Avengers actions. Captain America’s camp is right as well: Bucky needs to stand fair trial, and UN oversight would destroy the active ability of the superheroes, rendering them useless. This kind of conflict is a real one, one similar to those that we face in our current political discussions. By placing real issues at the heart of the film, Civil War inherits moral weight, making the film more profound, more engaging, and more serious than its MCU predecessors.

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While predictable, T’Challa added considerable moral weight to the film.

Another firm moral discussion the film probes is the justifiable nature of revenge. The film not only operates as a wholesale condemnation of vengeance, but the theme is carried far enough to subvert traditional tropes about ironic justice. As Baron Zemo, no longer able to continue his vengeful course, places a gun to his head to take his own life, conventional film wisdom would have him pull the trigger, allowing the story to take its vengeful course so that the protagonist wouldn’t have to. T’Challa, however, intervenes to save the life of Zemo, not even allowing the viewer the catharsis of vengeance.

Secondly, the film finally gives emotional weight to the Marvel universe. The MCU has always had strong characters. The people who inhabit the Hydra, SHIELD, and Asgard are colorful and interesting. Regrettably, however, the Marvel story writers seem to have their hands tied behind their backs when figuring out what to do with these characters.

Making good plot decisions with characters requires sacrifice, vulnerability, and often destruction. When entire movie series are based off of people involved in your story line, you don’t have the artistic freedom to make wise character decisions. For example: if Thor makes a horrible, disgusting decision, the blot on his character could mar future films, potentially harming the productivity of an entire franchise. As a result, character decisions become stale, stagnate, and predictable.

Civil War, however, breaks this pattern. Because it is set in a fleshed out conflict, the characters make fleshed out decisions. The final, snowy fight scene between Captain America, Bucky, and Iron Man (thanks in part to Henry Jackman’s score) achieves am emotional power that was previously unreachable by the Marvel Universe. The splitting of the Avengers, the near-death (it would have been a much better complete death) of War Machine, and the irreconcilable hatred between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers leaves the film in a place that is far, far different than where it started. It comes to a conclusion.

A particularly compelling theme in the film is the testing of Tony Stark’s character. Previously, Stark, an arrogant jerk, always evaded the consequences of his actions. His defiance to authority, his devil-may-care attitude, and his irresponsible decisions (like creating an apocalyptic world-ending AI, a fault that he gets little if any condemnation for) always work out for the best, or at least have negligible harm. This kept Stark’s character in a stasis. He remained static, and I expected no change. After all, his arrogance was part of his appeal: he appealed to our love of a powerful figure who defies the big wigs and profits nonetheless.

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He totally should have died, but I’m not salty.

But in an unexpected turn, Marvel decided to finally bring Stark face to face with the consequences of his decisions, including a scene where he is berated and condemned by the mother of a dead bystander to one of the Avenger’s world-saving operations. Stark makes definitive, character-altering decisions that impact his relationship to himself and to others. These decisions are finally not decisions he can science his way out of or teamwork his way around. He has to live with the consequences of his decisions.

For these reasons (and others) I am admitting that I was wrong. Marvel made a good movie that wasn’t Thor. Marvel fleshed out characters that I thought commercial markets had deemed to remain skeletal, blockbuster pushing devices, and I am grateful. Sadly, most likely the next few films will destroy the conclusions reached in this film by bringing the characters back together, back into the comfortable status quo. But then again, I was wrong once, maybe I’ll be wrong again.

“Last Days in the Desert” Review

Last_Days_in_the_Desert_posterIn the Bible, the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness appears in the Gospels, but Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert may strike audiences as something far more akin to Ecclesiastes. Anchored by a fine performance from Ewan McGregor as Yeshua (Jesus is identified by his Hebrew name in this most recent film to tackle the Christ) and moving at a subdued pace through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stark desert cinematography, García provides a story that prompts reflection on the meaning, frailty, and purpose of human relationships.

García’s film is strikingly minimalist right from the opening passage of Jesus wandering alone through the wilderness, during which only two lines of dialogue are spoken, and makes no pretensions as to faithfulness to any specific Christian or Jewish understanding of Jesus beyond that of Jesus having been a holy man in real time and space who claimed to be the son of God and was crucified. If Jesus is God become man, then García’s Yeshua is man first and foremost: an ascetic wandering through the desert, searching for an intangible something from his Heavenly Father as he struggles against the elements. This is a shivering, dirty, tired Yeshua, one who laughs at his own predicaments, like his long hair tangling in the bushes he cowers in for shelter, before peaking off into a frustrated, agonized scream.

Yeshua is played by McGregor as a quiet, but earnest man who believes firmly in both his mission and the love of his Father for him, and those around him, who is struggling to fulfill and understand that divine purpose. (I’d be remiss not to mention that it is a bit frustrating for yet another film about Jesus to be so obviously ethnically inaccurate. However, García’s avoidance of the Jewish context for the story in favor of a more universal parable might shed some light on the casting decision.) He is taunted and harassed by the Devil, who most often appears in the form of Yeshua himself (played again by McGregor, fittingly outfitted with a few extra trinkets of jewelry). The conversations between the resolute, pure-hearted Yeshua and the devious, often petulant Lucifer are the highlight of the film. García allows Yeshua to actually be tempted (this isn’t a sympathetic Satan who wants to enlighten Yeshua), and while Satan asks vexing questions to a man who claims to be the son of God, he is frequently spiteful and cruel.

The film is at its most effective when it capitalizes on the Ecclesiastical tone, wondering at what (if any) meaning is to be found in the bitter wastes of the desert. For example, Yeshua catches Lucifer wondering at the beauty of a shooting star, to which Lucifer hotly denies admiring God’s creation before launching into a tirade on the boring repetitiveness of the earth, with its unceasing cycle of animal and human life. It is ultimate death, an ultimate end, that Lucifer longs to see. A motif of the cyclical pattern of life is echoed in the tension-fraught conflict in the family that Yeshua stays with for the bulk of the film’s middle act, where a dreaming son, a frustrated father, and an ill wife talk past each other and cling to alternating love and hatred just as their ancestors have and descendants will. Satan challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s struggles to the satisfaction of all, and Yeshua (who does not use his divine powers in this pre-ministry context) struggles to heal three frail human beings through both word and deed.

It’s a moving struggle, but it is here that the minimalistic nature of the film occasionally works against it. Somber in its tone, though undeniably beautiful, the film lacks a certain something in its resolution of the family plot (though the Crucifixion finale and epilogue are made all the more potent because of their artistic restraint). My instinct is that an element of joy, of the life that Yeshua celebrates in his parting blessing to the young son, is lacking. This is not to say that Last Days in the Desert is one-dimensional: there is occasional welcome and refreshing humor. But it is difficult for sparse humor alone to resonate on a spiritual level, and giving but a glimpse or two more of true human gladness might have made a delicate but significant difference.

Lubezki’s cinematography deserves greater mention here, as he captures the essence of García’s vision, placing characters within curiously subtle vistas. There’s a mystifying unobtrusiveness to Lubezki’s composition: at one point Yeshua and the father walk and talk, and it is only about halfway through the scene that one notices they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful, rugged, valley. An elusive but sublime truth lies hidden here in the desert, the shot suggests, if one would only take the time to notice it. It is an indictment of our modern quickness, our rushing over of things that do not strike us as important or interesting. Last Days in the Desert isn’t perfect by any means, but it prompts us to slow down, to pause, and to reflect, and in this case that’s more than enough to make it well-worth seeing.

Specter of the Past: A reflection on the Star Wars Expanded Universe

specter of the past (2)The Iredell County Public Library will always hold a special place in my heart: it was there that I discovered the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It was a discovery that, in a certain respect, changed my life forever.

You might scoff at this, but let me explain. I was about eleven or twelve years old, and had reached “peak Star Wars,” so to speak. I was entirely obsessed with George Lucas’s epic saga. I had action figures, I had Star Wars Risk. I played Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars Lego on XBOX for ungodly hours with my brother, cousin, and neighbors. I had (and still have) a Darth Vader folder in which I kept my intricate sketches (ahem, well…tracings) of clone trooper armor. My parents had bought me the 2004 Special Edition DVD set of the Original Trilogy along with the soundtracks to Episodes I, III, and VI, music and visuals that framed my imaginative adventures for years. My brother and I had light-up lightsabers with sound effects, Darth Vader’s red and Mace Windu’s purple blades respectively, with which we pummeled each other so thoroughly we had to duct-tape the shattered points at the top. It was a glorious time to be a kid.

Glorious, yes, but even at a young age it was bittersweet. Revenge of the Sith had been released in 2005, an event which I treated with an almost religious anticipation and reverence. The week spent waiting for my parents to decide whether my brother and I were old enough for a PG-13 movie only heightened the sense of honor that we would be blessed with the opportunity to see the last ever Star Wars movie in theaters. And so our dad took us to the Statesville Marquee Cinema, where we met another father and son we knew from church and buckled in for what remains the single greatest cinematic experience of my lifetime. I was overwhelmed from the opening shot of the battle of Coruscant to the final image of the binary sunset on Tatooine, during which I cried, struck with the sudden realization that this story that I loved so much was over.

The fervent and impassioned discussions with friends at lunch in my homeschool co-op, the thrill at having new Complete Locations and Incredible Cross-Sections books to dissect along with an ARC-170 Lego set to labor over (don’t get me started on those technic s-foils) softened the finality of it all, but eventually a subdued sense of mourning started to set in. It might be hard to explain outside of the context of childhood, but try to understand: a significant part of my life up to that point was spent in anxious anticipation for Revenge of the Sith, and no matter how satisfying that movie had been my imagination craved more. I had my own adventures to act out with friends, of course, the stuff of hundreds of outdoor lightsaber fights, but they always devolved into arguments over each other’s Force powers (“What do you mean you blocked my Force push!?”). I didn’t like that. I wanted stories. I wanted narrative.

Enter the Iredell County Public Library. It was towards the end of the school year, and my mom had stopped at the library before we went to get our yearly standardized testing done. Instead of hopping onto one of the computers downstairs as I usually did, I decided to wander around upstairs, where the “real” books were kept.

Now, it should be noted that I was and always have been a voracious reader, but at this point I mostly stuck to classics and history books of the children’s variety, the Wishbone series being a particular favorite of mine. I didn’t regularly dig into “grown-up” books, but everything was about to change.

As my eyes scanned the shelves I caught a glimpse of the Star Wars logo, those fat, rounded letters that blasted onscreen with the London Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of every episode. I almost did a double-take. “On a novel!?” It was a big, hefty, library bound copy with a blue spine that read: Heir to the Empire. I quickly yanked it off the third shelf to look at the cover.

 

heir to empire

There were Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie, all arranged in stunningly true-to-screen likeness (my artistic sensibilities at that time were easily impressed), Stormtroopers illuminated by an explosion in the midst of combat, X-wings cutting through the sky just as they did at the end of Return of the Jedi, and a mysterious Imperial officer, dressed in white with skin that looked vaguely blue, scowling in the bottom left-hand corner. What struck me most, however, was the robed, bearded man with piercing eyes, a medallion dangling from his neck, whose hands sent splinters of light shooting across the sky in some act of primally-focused power. And there, right over the logo, were the words that sent shivers down my spine: “THE SAGA CONTINUES!”

It was too good to be true. I rushed the book off to the circulation desk and checked it out on the spot. When my family left I was the first to our Dodge caravan, curling up in the front seat and eagerly flipping to the first page: “‘Captain Pellaeon?’ a voice called down the portside crew pit through the hum of background conversation. ‘Message from the sentry line: the scoutships have come out of lightspeed.’”

By the end of the first chapter, in which it had been revealed that Captain Pellaeon commanded the Star Destroyer Chimaera (what a beautiful, mysterious name it was!) and served under the brilliant alien Grand Admiral Thrawn, I was enthralled. In the coming weeks I stayed up late into the night (probably till 9 o’clock or so) awe-struck by the fact that the New Republic, led by our heroes, was still fighting the remnants of the Empire five years after defeating the Emperor. And these remnants were led by a blue-skinned red-eyed man who could defeat his enemies by understanding their art. Their art!

I had stumbled upon the section of the library that held science fiction author Timothy Zahn’s books, and I left clutching what readers know as the first novel in the Star Wars Expanded Universe tightly to my chest. It was such a blurred, euphoric moment of discovery that I can’t honestly remember whether my selection was purely the will of the Force or instead the result of me noticing the “VOLUME 1 OF A THREE-BOOK CYCLE” pronouncement right above the title, but either way I was taking my first steps into a larger world, a world that stretched beyond what is now known as the Thrawn Trilogy to Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn Duology, to Survivor’s Quest and Outbound Flight, to Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando novels and James Luceno’s Dark Lord Trilogy.

Vision of the FutureThis world would take me to incredible places imaginatively, narratively, and morally that I had never realized existed. It was like watching Lucas’s movies for the first time all over again. There was Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand, a young woman whose arc from pawn of the Emperor to friend and eventual wife of Luke Skywalker spoke to the possibility for redemption and freedom even for “bad guys,” and whom I definitely never crushed on. There was Joruus C’Baoth, a crazed Jedi-clone who warned me about the seductive, maddening desire for power. There was Grand Admiral Thrawn, an Imperial of brilliant cunning but with an unexpected sense of honor. There were space battles, temptations of the dark side, clones, smugglers, and enslaved assassin peoples who broke the bonds of their oppressors through the reception of knowledge from their enemy. There were Interdictor cruisers that yanked enemy ships out of hyper-space with their gravity-well generators, intricate villainous political plots that preyed upon racial tensions, smugglers that learned to act with nobility, space pirates who foolishly chased money and ambition to their own destruction, and clones who rejected their created-purpose to serve as destructive agents of the Empire to live peaceful, quiet lives of farming. These were the stories that filled my childhood imagination, that challenged me to think about right and wrong, heroism and cowardice in ways that I had never thought before.

So why bother writing this? On April 25, 2014, Disney declared all these works to be “non-canon” for the purposes of creative freedom in building a new Star Wars trilogy. With a stroke of the pen, a corporation had deemed these books and stories to be irrelevant, null and void. They had been deemed “Legends,” a golden banner crying out a warning to newcomers that these stories are a fiction within fiction.

I understood the decision, but it remained a little strange to have books you loved as a child declared “untrue.” As I speculated on the upcoming Star Wars films with friends I thought, with a twinge of sadness, that Zahn’s novels no longer mattered. But after the disappointment of The Force Awakens and the sudden return of free-time post-thesis writing, I’ve revisited a few of these old friends (The Thrawn Trilogy and the Hand of Thrawn Duology) to find that they’re just as alive and well as when I first found them in the Iredell County Library those many years ago.

All fiction is untruth, in a sense. In the end, stories are still just stories. Does it make any sense then for an executive to impose factual and historical restrictions on a universe that allows characters to heal themselves via Force-trance and fight mob-boss space-slugs? The universe of these particular stories is so beyond the factual it defies canonization.

I’m not here to claim that the Star Wars Expanded Universe produced great literature (it didn’t). I’m not here to tell you that the old canon is better than the new canon, or to engage in one of a thousand silly arguments of continuity and textual faithfulness that fandoms fixate on. That’d be wasting your time.

I’m just here to say that those books rang true to me, resonating with such strength that the love of story they helped build provided the kindling for a fire that burns even brighter today.

May the Force be with you, Timothy Zahn. Thanks.

I “sad” this

Here at Pulling on the Push Door, we try and get a variety of perspectives, and we love having guest authors. This post is written by friend of the blog, Sarah Troxel! Please comment with your own perspective and thoughts.

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Such a sad jellyfish.

We don’t get to choose our operating systems. When we were born we didn’t design Facebook as our primary means of social networking. Our technology’s designers have control over our lives. You can say you are exempt because you choose to opt out. Maybe you have a boycott against Apple or have deleted your Facebook. But that doesn’t mean you are exempt from its control over the world around you. Technology impacts our social environment and consequently, the way we operate in the world.

On the 24th of February, Facebook added a feature to its “like” button. Now, users can choose: “like,” “love,” “haha”, “wow,” “sad,” or “angry.” While there is nothing I can do to reverse this, I want to bring awareness about the changes that will occur in our lives by sharing several reasons why I am frustrated. They all link back to a loss of autonomy.  

First off, simply from a linguistic perspective, the feature is inconsistent and clunky. We currently use “like” as both a verb and a noun. Saying, “I’m going to go like that status,” and “I got 54 likes on this photo” are equally appropriate. Now, the set of six options includes two verbs (“like” and “love”) two exclamations (“haha” and “wow”) and two adjectives (“sad” and “angry”). We will need to decide as a linguistic community how we will use our new terms. Will we say, “I got two angries on my status,” or “I haha-ed that picture yesterday”? That is for us to decide; but mind you, we did not choose the material we are working with.

In the past few years, the use of comment feature has begun to dwindle. When I first got a Facebook, people routinely commented one or two word reactions to my pictures and statuses. Today, I am thrilled (I confess) if I simply get a high quantity of likes. I am not saying that commenting has entirely gone by the wayside or even that traditional “words” are inherently better. A well-chosen emoji can communicate more meaning than a sentence and qualifies as a “word” in that sense. But the new six-faceted feature makes it easier for people to limit themselves in communication. Essentially what we are getting is an efficated six-emoji feature. But the catch is that by choosing the new feature, the autonomy goes out of the emoji. If I see a “haha” (with the creepy squinty face) on my picture, I will not think “wow, this person really thought about what they wanted to express and which emoji best communicates that.” No, now I know you simply chose the only suitable option that the function gave you.

The strangest thing about all of this social reordering is that it goes against what the designers intended. The idea is to make social interaction safer. As in the previous example, the autonomy of choosing your own emoji, let alone crafting sentences (gasp!), carries some social risk. Your comment can be left to interpretation, and you bear the responsibility for your choice. Designers simplify interaction in an effort to make it safe; in the simplified system, the designer carries the responsibility for the interaction. Yet despite all strivings for safety, the huge irony is that it does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. When we don’t take responsibility for our communication, we subject ourselves to the third party of the operating system and further hinder our efforts to be understood. It’s like playing an electronic game of telephone, where our communications may at any time be misunderstood. Now, when you “angry” my status, I will spend days stressing out about whether you are somehow sympathizing with me, or whether you carry resentful feelings toward me. This interaction is not “safer”; it has only exponentially increased social anxiety. We have lost control of the communication.  

The other irony is that this was an effort to increase choice. We want options. Facebook users were frustrated that the only (quick-and-easy) option was a “like.” For a few years, people discussed the potential for a “dislike” button. Now, Facebook has not only given us a dichotomy, it has graciously given us six choices! We will no longer be limited to a simplistic, positive reaction! But the tragedy is that we are more limited than ever. Human emotion in communication has been boiled down to a six-outlet system. While we may not begin to lose our distinction between “wonderstruck” and “dismayed” in our simple “wow,” we will be limited in regards to how we receive the emotions of others.

I “sad” this. Maybe two months from now I will forget that I was so frustrated. Adaption comes quickly. Maybe I will learn I was wrong, and this new feature will actually give me a better understanding of my friends’ emotions. But I do know it will influence the way we operate with each other, and I know we will have had no control over it.

I apologize if I have made you more anxious. Now that we have the feature, elaborated protests will help nothing. We must make ourselves aware of what happened and do our best to use the system to communicate in an accurate and compassionate manner.

So before you leave feeling like a helpless victim of the system, I want to provide seven suggestions to help give us back our autonomy as we move forward:

  • Don’t freak out about the linguistic change. This kind of thing happens all the time. Soon we’ll be saying “I totally wow-ed what I learned in Physics today” like it’s old news.
  • Continue to use the old-fashioned emoji. The recent “sticker” feature also provides a great opportunity to use your autonomy and express unique reactions.
  • Actively comment. The risk you take by putting a name to your words is worth the richness of human interaction. If someone shares about their grandpa’s funeral, don’t leave your response to a simple “sad,” but comment in consolation or tell them you care.
  • Do not use the “angry” button in any context where it will be perceived as hostile. This is irresponsible and a cheap way of avoiding constructive conflict. If you want to disagree with someone, do so with a thoughtful argument in the comment section. The only reason to use “angry” is to sympathize with someone else’s anger at injustice or unrighteousness.
  • Give charity in your interpretation. Don’t over-analyze the six different reactions. If your future mother-in-law clicks “sad” on your engagement announcement, assume she means that she is crying happy tears.
  • Engage in face-to-face conversation. In the end, I am not proposing a boycott of the new system. But if we don’t want to be limited by it, we must go beyond it. It is okay to compassionately “angry” someone’s post about systematic racism, but take the initiative and ask them to elaborate on their thoughts when you see them in person. Let us not allow ourselves to live in a simplified online world that can’t bleed into our physical relationships.
  • Tell me what you think. I will enjoy three comments on this article more than three-hundred “sads.”

“The Finest Hours” Review

The_Finest_Hours_posterSometimes a simple story earnestly told can prove just as effective as the most complex of narratives, and such is the case with Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, a historical drama based on the astonishing true account of the Coast Guard rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker that split in two during a fierce storm off the coast of New England in 1952. Gillespie fully embraces well-worn narrative conventions that trumpet common man heroism and romance against the elements, but imbues those conventions, and even occasionally subverts them, with a passionate sense of human nobility and a deft command of cinematography and tone.

From the unfortunate title, a misguided attempt to play on the old cliche, one might expect The Finest Hours to be a paint by the numbers adventure on the open sea. Capable and entertaining, perhaps, but nothing that would linger in the consciousness for long after the credits roll. Such an expectation, however, speaks to a subtle, perhaps unspoken aversion to straightforward, earnest storytelling. Our entertainment desires seem to have become split between the spectacle driven blockbuster franchises that thrive on their own self-evident lunacy on the one hand, and brooding, cynical and darkly humorous works on the other. One group wears the thin veneer of virtue to justify its own absurdity and incoherence, while the other exists only to mock and tear down whatever moral instincts we might cling to as a society. A simple tale of human courage, then, of the human spirit triumphing over incredible odds, appears to have no market (as its paltry $10.3 million opening weekend and tepid critical reviews attest to) in an environment where audiences seem to only be interested in that which distracts from or deconstructs reality.

All this to make the point, primarily, that The Finest Hours is astonishingly refreshing in its simplicity of mind and focus in the same sense that The Revenant is. While Gillespie doesn’t communicate with the rich and brutal symbolism of Alejandro Iñárritu, his focus is essentially the same, though filtered through a distinct artistic lens: the practical and tangible concerns of men and women struggling against both nature and each other.

The Finest Hours concerns itself primarily with two men: Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and the tanker’s engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), both men of quiet purpose whose character is judged best by their actions rather than words. They’re a refreshing change of pace from the boisterous and dominating action heroes that tend to helm this sort of adventure. Bernie (mumbling all the while in a convincing New England accent) finds himself asked to do the impossible by a novice commanding officer, but his only (and oft-repeated) question is “what do the regulations say?” Ray, facing almost certain death on a tanker split asunder, seems reluctant to contradict his frightened shipmates when they insist on delusional plans to save themselves, but his understated but rational grasp of the physical realities saves the lives of many. The heroism praised in this film is not one of assertive, domineering men, but rather of those who quietly try to do right by their fellow human beings and tend to the problems immediately in front of them.

By focusing on two understated characters thrust into circumstances beyond their own control, Gillespie exercises remarkable restraint that pays dividends in terms of authenticity. We aren’t subjected to laborious exposition about families and girlfriends at home. Rather, Gillespie trusts the early introduction and continuing subplot of Bernie’s engagement to Miriam Webber (Holliday Grainger) to have sufficiently tuned the audience in to the personal stakes (in an endearing romantic twist, Bernie is such a gentle and timid man that Miriam’s proposal of marriage frightens him into initially saying no). This frees the action sequences to focus their propulsive emotional intensity on the immediate concern, staying alive and beating back the forces of nature, while adding far more poignancy to the moments where Gillespie allows the melodrama to naturally flow (aided by a classically romantic score by Carter Burwell).

This focus is magnified in its visceral effect by phenomenal composition work by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Aguirresarobe utilizes steady long shots to frame the scale of the nor’easter our characters find themselves trapped within. This is used to particular effect during the initial splitting of the Pendleton, as the rolling seas break apart a powerful technological feat like it was a mere plaything. Shrouded in darkness but partially illuminated by the flickering of both man-made lights and natural lightning, the divided ship becomes a testament to the power of nature and the smallness of man, and in these moments the film deals unabashedly in the sublime. On land as well, the oppressive whiteness of a merciless winter storm is beautifully rendered, and it is here that comparisons to The Revenant become most fitting. While The Finest Hours may impart a level of pure heroism and innocence to its central figures that The Revenant rarely does, both films concern themselves with the physical struggles of men against the harsh realities of the world we inhabit. It’s a simple film, yes, but it’s about as real and earnest a story as you’re apt to see from Hollywood.

Deadpool and Moral Perversion

We watch a movie or read a book because we think it is worth engaging with. While “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction” may have its merits, I don’t think it would demonstrate a great deal of worth to me, so I don’t watch it. As a result, art reflects what we find to be valuable. Art also changes our understanding of what has value. Consciously or unconsciously, we are changed by our art.

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Louie, I think this is the beginning of a horrible habit.

The way some people will be shaped by certain art will be different, and it is important to be cautious about critiquing art too broadly. It is unwise for a compulsive smoker to watch “Casablanca,” and it is unwise for a particularly violent person to watch “Gladiator,” but that doesn’t make these films particularly evil, it makes them unwise viewing material for some people.

If films can contain content wicked enough to exclude some audiences, can there be films that have content wicked enough to exclude all audiences? Can we ever say with confidence that “No one should see that movie”?

Operating under the assumption that we can make this claim, I will declare (with China, apparently) that no one should see 20th Century Fox’s “Deadpool.”

PRODUCT PLACEMENT
This film was made totally independent from corporate interests, just like how Suburbans are the most reliable and efficient Sports Utility Vehicles on the market that will keep you independent from automotive trouble on the road.

This film, based off of the beloved comic book mercenary Deadpool, has been given an extensive marketing campaign, all trying to reassure comic book fans that this Deadpool will be the character they know from Marvel comics, not the confusedly mute and stoic character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

All of my observations have been based off of the handful of trailers that have come out for this film. The fact that the trailers themselves have thoroughly condemned the film to my moral sensibility shows that I am either a fuddy-duddy (possible) or the film is deeply wicked.

Deadpool is a character based on perversion and irreverence, a comic hero in a tragic setting. In the trailers alone the character strips away meaning and value from important things, leaving only cynical humor and gore.

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Don’t worry, at least he can do cool tricks.

Nearly every trailer for this film is a comedy trailer. Comedic trailers have patterns, beats and pauses, that demonstrate when the content is telling a joke. When this trailer pauses, once even with the stereotypical comedic record scratch, it is during scenes of brutal violence. We are to laugh as a bullet crashes through several brains, spilling a bloody mess. We are to laugh when Deadpool hoists up a human being with his two swords, crowing that he has turned him into “a f***ing kabob.” Violence is a joke to Deadpool, but we are not asked to be disgusted at him, we are asked to laugh with him as he dances in scenes strewn with carnage of his own making, laughing at human dignity, laughing at the value of life.  

After graphic scenes of death, Deadpool declares that he is “so turned on right now” and “definitely touching myself tonight,” as if violent disposal of human life is a matter of sexual titillation.

Deadpool also perverts sexuality, sexualizing nearly everything with juvenile efficiency. The trailers, complete with strippers, feature the protagonist making every possible reference to sex. As he stuffs an enemy’s mouth, he taunts “I never say this, but don’t swallow,” after a female villain punches someone he quips “I so pity the dude who pressures her into prom sex.” Sexuality is a joke, and the only women not strippers or his love interest seem to be immediately sexualized.

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Freud would have a lot of uncomfortable things to say about this movie.

This film is set in the context of the most generic plot imaginable. “When your worst enemy is after your best girl” seems to be the extent of this film’s conflict. This basic plot is a vehicle to portray the hero’s perversion. The film seems to act out a Freudian adolescent daydream where the hero is invincible, dominates everyone, and rejoices in objectification and lechery.

But why have I bothered to write this article? Obviously this film is trashy, it bills itself as such. But humans have been making horrible art forever, and we have to expect evil at the box office.

I am writing this article because I have seen many of my friends, Christians even, expressing overwhelming excitement at this film. Given that the film is unabashedly advertising itself as perverse (one advertisement consists of Deadpool cursing and making sexually charged comments to children), I cannot reason why anyone should watch, much less be excited for, “Deadpool.” What virtue or value can come out of this film?

Some may say the film has merit as an exploration of a wicked character, but Deadpool is not a character as much as a combination of internal desires, a bundle of lusts that is clearly made to be rejoiced in.

Some may answer that the film will be a fun action film purely seen for base enjoyment. But when a film intentionally uses graphic and wicked means to portray “fun,” the very act of watching the film is demeaning.

I may be missing something. Perhaps my frustration at what I have seen has blinded me to real merit and value, and I would welcome correction in the comments, but I can see no reason or acceptable excuse for watching the bloody, carnal circus “Deadpool.”

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Maybe the totally interesting and original jokes about chimichangas justify the horrific violence and sexual objectification.

“It’s Treason, Then:” A Response to Eric’s Review of TFA

Warning: This post is spoiler-ridden.

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Bombad spoilers!

Eric and I agree on many things. His imaginative and well-thought-out approach to matters of art is not only inspiring, but worth emulating. While I rarely have any substantive disagreement with Eric on matters of art, particularly on Star Wars, when it comes to Eric’s review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I firmly disagree. While J.J. Abrams is not George Lucas, Episode VII is a worthy and significant addition to the heart and power of the Star Wars myth.

Defending Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably the safest thing to do on the internet (besides mocking Donald Trump). After all, the film has received uniformly good reviews and is exploding box office records. The main complaint against the film, voiced by Eric, has been that it seems too much of a rehash, as if Abrams and his team were trying to recreate the original trilogy, as opposed to further moving and developing the galaxy far, far, away. Where Lucas created new ideas and worlds rich with imagination and complexity, Abrams seems to be reminding us of how great the original trilogy was (perhaps, even, with a cruel and undeserved hatred of the prequels). Instead of creating a Star Wars movie, he has created a graceful and colorful homage.

It is certainly accurate to say that The Force Awakens adopts many plot points from previous Star Wars films. There is a droid with a secret stranded on a desert planet, a scary villain with a mask and fearful dark side powers, a complex father-son relationship, a huge planet-destroying superweapon, a trench run, and even a Yoda-like mentor.

 

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It’s bigger, better, faster, stronger

If adopting previous plot points is a reason to be dissatisfied with a film, however, there can be no Star Wars. Star Wars nearly always re-establishes plot points. There is always a looming Dark Side villain, there is often a superweapon or at least a massive space-ship. There is not one, but two Death Stars in the original trilogy, and the second is bigger, tougher, and scarier. Even the spherical shape of this superweapon is modeled in the Trade Federation Lucrehulk-class battleship, which is visually most distinct from the Death Star because it has a built-in, more impressive trench circling it. General Grievous and Count Dooku are fascinating shadows of the conflicts of Darth Vader. There is a long and abundant series of similarities and echoes in the Saga that I won’t list here. It is vital to understand, however, that repetition is not a sufficient indictment against the new Star Wars. Repetition can do wonderful, fascinating things to a plot. Shakespeare himself was aggressively fond of repeating the same conflicts and concepts in new and interesting ways.

 

More complex complaints, like Eric’s, will acknowledge this point, but argue that VII fails to use those repetitions to “serve greater narrative purposes.” I would argue, however, that the narrative echoes in VII serve significant narrative purpose to the development of the Star Wars saga.

One of the central conflicts of Star Wars is what it means to bring balance to the Force. In the Phantom Menace and the Attack of the Clones, Anakin is raised in the Jedi Order believing that in order to be bring balance to the force, he must overcome the Sith. The Jedi are training him as a corrective who will destroy what they see to be the remnants of evil in the galaxy. To properly bring peace, you must wipe out the wicked. They are “too dangerous to be kept alive.” Anakin’s desire to end evil by destroying the wicked is ironically turned with great force on the Jedi as Palpatine identifies the Jedi as those who are spreading evil. Through love for his wife and future family, Anakin wipes out who he sees as the obstacles to love: the Jedi. In a climactic moment, Anakin allows Palpatine to throw Mace Windu off of a building, presumablymace-windu-palpatine killing him. Palpatine assures Anakin and the Senate that now they will have peace. There is not peace, however, for evil dwells in Palpatine and Anakin and the cast down Mace
Windu’s influence still lives in Anakin’s heart and the remaining Jedi.

At the end of the Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker  is faced with a similar problem. Palpatine tells him that he must strike down either Palpatine or Anakin. He must end wickedness through violent action. In perhaps the most compelling scene of the saga, Luke recognizes the good and evil in his father, seeing that both righteousness and wickedness are in conflict in the human heart. He chooses to spare his father and suffer cruelty from Palpatine. Then Anakin, again acting through love for his family, throws Palpatine down a shaft in the Death Star.  As The Return of the Jedi closes, we see a happy, peaceful galaxy where Han and Leia are together, Luke is becoming a Jedi, and the evil reign of the Sith is over. We are promised peace.

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Yub-yub

 

Like before, it didn’t work. There was a snake in the galactic garden. Kylo Ren dominates opposition with aggression reminiscent of Vader. The cruelties of the Empire have come again in full force. Han Solo and Chewbacca are smuggling again, and Leia is again waiting for a droid. The audience members are left to scratch their heads:

Why is Han not with Leia? Why is the Empire back? Where is Luke? Where is the peace we were promised?

The influence of the cast down Palpatine still lives in the heart of Ben Solo, the First Order, and perhaps even Luke. The shockingly “Star Wars” setting of VII is a reminder that the evil that Anakin has tried to erase is still living and breathing. Anakin, and maybe Luke, has made a miscalculation. Evil does not lurk in the teachings of the Sith, it lurks in the human heart. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said,“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”

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Spoiler Alert

 

When Abrams underplays the new trench run and seems to cut out all of the galactic dread out of the new superweapon (except for a stunning planetary destruction scene), he isn’t poorly trying to copy A New Hope, he is broadcasting to the audience that the same conflicts that span across all six episodes are present in this film. He doesn’t need to rehash the dread and tension of the end of A New Hope because Lucas already brilliantly accomplished this. He merely is reminding the audience of the universe we are in. The film is not about Poe and the Resistance, they are the setting. The film is about Rey and Ben.

While the same conflicts of all previous episodes seem to be present and unchanged, the conflicts of the past are not invalidated. Han begins in A New Hope as an irresponsible scoundrel. He runs from responsibility and is selfish. As the films go on, he becomes noble, even self-sacrificial. In The Return of the Jedi, he is established as a righteous character, and his union with Leia seems to solidify this transition.

Those who idealize the original trilogy place a peculiar heroic emphasis on the scoundrel Han. They urged Abrams to give them characters that resembled the morally shaky Corellian. Those, like Eric, who were more story-conscious, mourned Han’s return to smuggling in The Force Awakens as an ignoring and erasing of Han’s moral development. What prequel and Abrams haters don’t understand is that that Han’s return to smuggling is not a return to the scoundrel, but the desperate mourning of a broken man. Understandably devastated by his son becoming a vengeful mass-murderer, Han cannot remain with Leia. As he tells her, he knows that every time she sees him, she sees her son Ben. Implied is that he also sees young Ben in the face of his wife. 

07_20162515_3d0dbd_2531196aHan himself describes his action as running from his grief. Han isn’t returning to smuggling, he is regressing to smuggling as a coping mechanism. He is running from his son’s betrayal.

This daring and mature development of Han’s character is not only surprising on the part of Abrams, but is breaking new and interesting ground in the audience’s understanding of Han. When Han leaves for the Starkiller base, he sets out with a goal nearly identical to the goal of Han Solo in VI. He is going to disable a shield vital to preserving a superweapon. But Abrams, using the old material of VI to bring new depth to Han, has Han sent out with a new mission. He is going to bring his son home, or die trying. When he sacrifices himself to demonstrate his love for his son, he is not scoundrel Han or general Han, he is father Han, an old man who loves his son. Han sacrifices himself, calling back to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s deaths in I and IV, but he sacrifices himself for love, like his father-in-law.

As Han falls down the chasm of Starkiller Base, his death is reminiscent of the death of Mace Windu and Palpatine. Ben Solo believes his struggle against the light is over now that he has slain his father, but like Windu and Palpatine, Han will still live on in Ben, and the conflict between the light and the dark is only beginning.

Han’s story illustrates how Abrams uses his host of references to the original trilogy and the prequels to powerfully develop the themes and characters of his story. While Abrams is not Lucas, he has brought out significant emotional themes to play in the new Star Wars films that should have all fans not only excited, but thinking.

Eric probably agrees with my thematic praise, but believes that these themes were not brought out enough by Abrams, and that is a discussion of filmmaking and taste, but these themes are present and vibrant in this film.

Now that I have discussed Eric’s main complaint against the film, responding to him as a storylover, I will now respond to Eric as a Star Wars fan.

Eric said that Abrams seemed to have jettisoned the “titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative” of Lucas.

To titanic visuals, I point you to the awesome Starkiller Base scene, the wide-angle and beautiful shots of Jakku, and the wide shots of the First Order Army (something we never got of Stormtroopers under Lucas).

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“titanic visuals, new planets, and mastery of mythological metanarrative” ~Eric Marcy

To new planets, I will admit that Takadona, and D’Qar look a lot like Yavin 4. Jakku, however, is a lot more than a Tatooine desert. Jakku’s economy, based on looting the broken hulls of crashed spacecraft, is a peculiar and interesting consequence of galactic war that is largely unexplored by Star Wars in the past. Starkiller Base even gives us a snowy forested planet, something unseen by the warm moon of Endor and the nearly lifeless Hoth. This environment is further explored as massive amounts of heat are fired from an edge, incinerating snowy forests in a harrowing display of power.

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“titanic visuals, new planets, and mastery of mythological metanarrative” ~Eric Marcy

 

Mythological metanarrative is a more complicated matter, but the sins of the Skywalker family following their progeny into cyclical conflict is a mythological pattern worthy of Campbell.

Eric later praised the prequels for “the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force,” a description that also aptly describes the moral complexity of Ben Solo.

Finally, Eric stated that “The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday?”

Because Starkiller Base is built into a planet, it requires both less metal (which could be taken from the planet itself) and less coordination to construct. While hollowing out a planet is impressive, it is not nearly as impressive as the construction of a Death Star, which, while smaller than the planet Starkiller Base is built on, is about as large as the actual constructed material on the planet. The Empire, even a remnant First Order, has massive industrial power at its disposal. We don’t know how many planets the First Order controls, but it necessarily has an unimaginable amount of manpower. Finally, Starkiller Base was likely already started by the Empire, which was obsessed with the creation of superweapons.

No matter where you fall in this discussion, there has been nearly universal praise of the well constructed and exciting characters of Ben, Rey, Finn, and Poe. Even if you disagree with my broader point, we can all agree that Star Wars is in fresh, new, and good hands.

And to Eric, who mourns the loss of George Lucas, I say this:

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”

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Q.E.D.

“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” Review

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster PULLINGIt was inevitable that The Force Awakens wouldn’t quite be able to live up the swelling levels of anticipation that have been building in the years since Disney acquired the franchise. I had braced myself for a bit of disappointment on some level, recognizing that this sequel trilogy would never be able to totally recapture that rapturous wonder and excitement that the entire Saga, Episodes I through VI, had inspired in me as a child, but I couldn’t foresee the disconcerting and slightly traumatic realization that I had walking out of the theater: J.J. Abrams has delivered a well-made and enjoyable film, but one that feels more like a tribute to Star Wars than Star Wars itself.

Let me give the good news first: our new heroes are, for the most part, excellent. Rey, as played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, is particularly compelling. A young, rugged, but hopeful scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, she follows in both Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s footsteps admirably. I’m especially pleased with the decision to make our primary hero a woman, giving young girls a heroic model who is also strong in the Force. Rey embodies everything we love about Star Wars at its best: she’s plucky, resourceful, and 100% earnest. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, likewise, is a scrappy Resistance pilot with both skill and spirit, similar to Wedge Antilles with a bigger role to play. His astromech droid co-pilot, the ball of both fun and emotion known as BB-8 does more than simply fill R2-D2’s role: his own beeps and twerps combine with his magical physical design to make him the single most charming element of The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, as played by Adam Driver, also shines as an insecure wannabe-Sith, the first time we’ve gotten to see a dark side villain who appears to be straight-up psychologically unhinged.

While the new heroes themselves feel authentic, the narrative forged by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan unfortunately misses the forest for the trees, correcting George Lucas’s intentional shortcomings as a director (acting, dialogue) while jettisoning what Lucas brought as a visionary that made Star Wars unique (titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative). These failures do not necessarily make for a bad movie, as I will strive to explain, but instead leave The Force Awakens feeling distinctly out of sync with rest of the Saga.

The chief obstacle to The Force Awakens is the amount of fan-service and self-referencing present in the film, as almost every major plot point is recycled from the original trilogy and done in an inevitably inferior manner. While such a move is understandable from a business standpoint, as Disney and Abrams strive to assure fans that the franchise is in good hands, it does the narrative arc of the Saga a tremendous disservice. The Starkiller Base (the primary weapon of The First Order) is perhaps the most egregious offender. Its inclusion seems meant to simultaneously call back to both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, while attempting to up the ante by making a point not only of its ability to hit multiple planets but also its planetary-scale that dwarfs the Empire’s previous battle stations.

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Starkiller Base

Abrams and company here show an unsettling disregard for the metanarrative of the Saga they undoubtedly love and cherish so much. When Resistance planners bring up a schematic comparison of Starkiller Base and the Death Star, it comes across as a lazy attempt to top the stakes and gravity of the original entry. “Oh, so you thought what Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca had to wrestle with in the original trilogy was tough? Pssht. Gimme a break. Get a load of this thing.” But even in this attempt to outdo the original films, Abrams fails to provide significant reason to fear the technological terror he’s constructed on both a narrative and visual level. Unlike the destruction of Alderaan, clearly presented as Leia’s home system to provide some shred of emotional heft, when the Starkiller Base fires up its giant laser it takes aim at a system only vaguely known as part of the Republic and with hardly any knowledge given to the audience of why this system matters. If you missed the fact that it’s the capital system of the New Republic, you are not alone. Disney’s aversion to the political machinations of Lucas’s prequels is so powerful that they fail to give even the skeletal bones of political context A New Hope supplies.

Star Wars fans may object to my complaints on the grounds that Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace both call back to this structure, building to a climax that centers around destroying a space station from within, but Lucas understood that he couldn’t simply repackage the same threat, and so he forced the superficial similarity to serve greater narrative purposes. While one can easily argue that Lucas fails at this intent in The Phantom Menace, at least the droid control ship has no planet-destroying power, serving rather to reveal Anakin’s remarkable piloting abilities, and in Return of the Jedi the true menace of the Death Star II isn’t so much literal as symbolic, the station used as bait by the Emperor to lure the Alliance into pitched battle, a battle which itself provides the basis for the spiritual temptation of Luke Skywalker. But Abrams doesn’t realize what Lucas did: that calling back to the old familiar structure should also forge ahead into new ground within the context of the overall narrative, and here the failure is most obvious. The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday? Lucas’s vision for the Saga understood that the universe he created must be consistent with itself while pushing towards new horizons, and Abrams at multiple points disconnects with that universe by remaining narratively static.

What made the Star Wars Lucas created so unique, so brilliant, so utterly unlike anything else ever to grace the silver-screen is its ability to call back to ancient myth, integrating its own stories in a cyclical fashion that continually sheds new light on the Episodes that have come before. The Force Awakens certainly cycles back to the original trilogy, but in attempting to simply restate previous entries louder and with more nostalgia than Lucas’s prequels, Abrams has missed the heart of Star Wars: he has not expanded our imaginative conception of the galaxy far, far away. The frequent and cute quips referencing the original trilogy might be fun in 2015, it having been roughly thirty years since we’ve seen our original cast in theaters, but a decade down the road, when The Force Awakens is simply part of a much larger web of the new Disney canon, I’ll wager it may feel more than a bit overdone.

Such nostalgia is redundant, as Lucas had already worked a self-referential system into his Saga with the cheesy one-liners that crop up repeatedly and consistently through both the prequel and original trilogies (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” “This is where the fun begins.” “Artoo-Detoo, where are you?”). In The Force Awakens, however, Abrams has taken what should be superficial reminders that we’re in the same hokey galaxy and made them the entire movie. The Death Star/Starkiller Base comparison is not the worst of it. Abrams recycles the trench run, the reactor core, the Emperor’s hologram, the Resistance/Rebellion as underdogs, Han Solo’s job as a smuggler (effectively negating his narrative arc, one of the more egregious rehashes), the cantina scene, Maz Kanata as a Yoda figure (even repurposing lines about the Force to much less effect) and the lush forests of Yavin 4 reappearing on both Takadona and D’Qar (it’s a curious imaginative decision to have two planets appear successively in the narrative with such similar and derivative visual palettes).

To a certain degree, one can’t be too angry at Abrams. Perhaps the source material is so beloved to him that he couldn’t help but simply give us what we’ve already gotten (a more cynical mind would see it as a safe attempt to court those disenchanted by the prequels). For all the derision that Lucas’s prequels received, it cannot be denied that they stayed true to the heart of Star Wars in a sense that The Force Awakens does not. Episodes I-III continually opened our eyes to an ever expanding universe, challenging the viewer with new and iconic sights and sounds (the classical Naboo aesthetic, the skyscrapers of Coruscant, the climactic duel on the lava planet of Mustafar) as well as challenging and profound mythic thematic material (the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force, the framing of Darth Vader as a tragic hero, the intricately plotted demise of a democracy through manipulation by fear). One can also easily forget that no one thought that the original Star Wars, A New Hope, would succeed, that Lucas received death threats for making Vader Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, and that redeeming the trilogy’s main villain in Return of the Jedi rather than killing him at the hands of the hero is a fairly bold move for the swashbuckling adventure story Lucas originally set out to tell. By catering to what fans expected and wanted from Star Wars, Abrams neglects what sets Star Wars apart from most Hollywood franchises. What good are real sets and practical effects if they just deliver inferior versions of what has come before?

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Rey and BB-8

This is not to say that The Force Awakens fails at setting a grand stage for Episode VIII, and I remain hopeful that Rian Johnson will take the Saga in a new and exciting direction. I look forward to seeing new adventures with characters like Rey, BB-8, and Kylo Ren; I’m simply frustrated for the moment at having to watch them relive a previous generation’s. The new cast is truly remarkable, and though I may be disappointed in the way that Finn was written, I have to tip the cap to John Boyega for bringing obvious heart to his performance. It’s an inescapable reality, though, that only a few moments grasp for Lucas’s ambitious brand of visual storytelling: Rey and Kylo Ren locking sabers, Leia and Rey embracing in shared loss as the Resistance celebrates victory behind them, and a weary and weathered Luke Skywalker turning to face our young heroine. It is this final moment that filled me with the most hope for the future of the Saga. Luke’s robotic hand calls back to Anakin’s, his grieving countenance speaking of a man who has been beaten down by both the light and dark sides of the Force, all while Rey offers him Anakin’s lightsaber, pleading with the old to forge a path ahead into the unknown. In this moment we see the entirety of the Saga invoked at once. Past, present, and future are summoned through specific use of imagery that carries newly illuminated narrative weight, and I see a glimmer of the sort of storytelling Star Wars provides at its best. If only The Force Awakens had been able to tear itself away from the mirror long enough to realize the visionary potential hidden within itself.

At the end of the day, however, one can’t fault Abrams for not being George Lucas, and what may seem to some a scathing indictment of this sequel trilogy should rather be read as a wistful reflection on what we have lost with the passing of the torch. I insist on feeling none of the anger with which some fans regularly chastise those who cherish Episodes I-III, the films that formed the backbone for my imagination. There is much to like about this new installment, even if Finn’s character is incomprehensible (a bred-killer who defects and shows no signs of internal conflict), or Kylo Ren’s force powers are frustratingly inconsistent. One writer notes in his own review that Lucas stayed so true to the internal rules of the universe he created in the prequels that he consciously insisted on providing us with dislikable characters for the sake of a greater narrative. Abrams has done the opposite, providing us with likable characters at the expense of the logic of the Star Wars universe. We finally have formally good Star Wars movies, but I fear that the price may have been Star Wars itself.

What the Prequels Got Right: Count Dooku’s Hidden Role in the Star Wars Saga

Oft-maligned, Christopher Lee's wonderful performance as Count Dooku is given purpose by the power of the Saga's metanarrative.
Oft-maligned, Count Dooku is given purpose by the power of the Saga’s metanarrative.

Over the course of the last several months, wide-ranging conversation has taken place within the Star Wars fan-base regarding the imminent arrival of The Force Awakens, and alongside rampant and wild speculation has been a sizable amount of discussion reassessing the Saga at large. Typically this takes the form of maligning the prequels and holding up the original trilogy as the superior work. While such a conclusion is undoubtedly correct, several aspects of George Lucas’s infamous prequel trilogy have been treated unfairly, the character of Count Dooku in particular. For all their flaws, Episodes I, II, and III add a tremendous amount of thematic weight to the metanarrative of Star Wars, and Count Dooku’s role in the saga deserves to come to light, as the thematic links between Dooku and Darth Vader illuminate the events at the end of Return of the Jedi in new and exciting ways.

In Star Wars lore, General Grievous is often considered the primary foreshadower of Anakin Skywalker’s fate in Revenge of the Sith: a half-organic, half-machine pawn of far greater and more powerful forces. As Star Wars fans also know, Grievous’s character in Revenge is rather shallow: a moustache-twirling henchman who serves little purpose other than to draw Obi-Wan Kenobi away from his apprentice while Palpatine seduces Anakin to the dark side of the Force. Dooku’s character has often been criticized in the same manner: he exists only to provide the late Christopher Lee with a villainous role and the audience with several obligatory lightsaber duels. Such criticism, however, neglects Dooku’s presence in several key prequel moments that correspond to important scenes in the original films.

A Skywalker, a Master and an Apprentice in the opening to
A Skywalker, a Master, and an Apprentice.

The key to unlocking the thematic significance of Dooku in the broader saga lies in his fateful duel with Anakin at the beginning of Revenge and its strong parallels to the battle between Luke Skywalker and Vader at the end of Jedi. In both cases a Sith apprentice (Dooku/Vader) locks sabers with a Skywalker (Anakin/Luke) before the Sith lord Darth Sidious (Palpatine). In each duel the Skywalker gets the upper-hand over the Sith apprentice by using the dark side, lopping off the saber hand (or hands) of their opponent before being faced with a choice: either strike down their opponent or show mercy. Palpatine then urges the Skywalker to strike down his now defenseless apprentice. Lucas further clues the audience in to the parity between these duels by providing visual connections. In both films Palpatine observes the duel from a rotating throne that overlooks a massive space battle, and in Revenge Lucas imitates the famed tracking shot in Jedi of Luke unleashing his rage against Vader to win the duel, only this time Anakin gets the better of Dooku.

A Skywalker, a Master, and an Apprentice.
A Skywalker, a Master, and an Apprentice.

The most revealing aspect of these two duels, however, lies not in their similarities but in the primary difference: the choice of the Skywalker when commanded to kill. In Revenge, Anakin decapitates Dooku, thus taking Dooku’s place as Palpatine’s apprentice and beginning his tragic arc towards becoming Darth Vader. Luke, however, rejects Palpatine’s order and shows mercy, an act of righteousness that leads to Vader’s redemption.

“Together we can destroy the Sith!”

Frequent viewers of the Saga should be able to easily acknowledge this parallel, but might argue it tells more about Luke’s character than it does Dooku’s or Vader’s.This is where one last connection becomes essential. In Attack of the Clones Dooku speaks to Obi-Wan after his capture on Geonosis. During this conversation, Dooku tells Obi-Wan that a Sith lord has taken control of the Republic. Obi-Wan doesn’t believe him, but Dooku presses the issue, declaring that “you must join me, Obi-Wan, and together we can destroy the Sith!” Alarm bells should be sounding at this point for anyone familiar with the revelatory duel between Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader appeals to his son with near identical language, arguing that “you can destroy the Emperor” before his famed pronouncement: “join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!” From Anakin’s boasting to Padmé at the end of Revenge that he intends to destroy Palpatine we can infer that he makes this appeal in earnest. But what if we assume the same about Dooku? Suddenly, a powerful foreshadowing of Anakin’s fate comes into focus.

“Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!”

Dooku, like Anakin, is a well-intentioned Jedi who falls prey to hubris. Dooku perceives the evil corrupting both the Jedi and the Republic, realizes that the dark side presents the path to power, and arrogantly assumes that he can manipulate evil to good ends, working with Darth Sidious until the opportune moment, at which time he will strike down the dark lord and restore peace and security to the galaxy. Dooku, however, fails to foresee the depths of Palpatine’s cunning and is outmaneuvered by the Sith lord, finding his political machinations twisted and himself at the end of a lightsaber, with his former master ordering his death.

In the grand narrative arc of the Saga, therefore, Dooku warns the audience of Vader’s eventual fate. When Anakin holds two blades to Dooku’s throat, an audience that has seen Jedi realizes that Anakin is holding those blades to himself, and the staying hand of principle could prevent the tragedy to come. Even more powerfully, an audience watching Jedi will remember Dooku as Luke holds a blade to Vader’s throat, adding greater poignancy to Luke’s realization of how close he has come to becoming his father. It is an epiphany that never occurred to the young and prideful Anakin as he stood over Dooku, but it occurs to Luke, redeeming both father and son, and in highlighting this moment Count Dooku earns his place in the Star Wars Saga.