“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, an Amazon warrior, chooses to fight for a perpetually warring humanity that does not deserve her aid. In a similar fashion, it might be said that we as the audience do not deserve Patty Jenkins’ genuinely wondrous Wonder Woman. Audiences and critics have pummeled Zack Snyder’s bold figurings of the two foremost male superheroes in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. A public enamored with distraction from our ever-darkening social climate shunned Snyder’s aesthetically and narratively daring explorations of the present cultural zeitgeist, instead preferring to laugh the violent roots of society’s ills away in a slew of Marvel sequels, films that thwart any serious engagement with theme or emotion by constantly undercutting themselves with ironic humor. Given the thankless task of following up the obnoxiously kitsch Guardians of the Galaxy-clone Suicide Squad, Jenkins rights the momentarily listing DC ship not only by firing a shot across the bow of an industry beholden to masculine fantasies but also by engaging questions of war, innocence, and emotion in a film invigorated with dynamism and vibrancy.

Echoing Man of Steel’s jaw-dropping space opera opening, Wonder Woman begins by planting itself firmly in Greek myth on the island of Themyscira, embracing a world of gods, goddesses, and Amazons that is bursting with both color and life. Stunning blues and greens combine with massive white cliff faces to create an Edenic haven for Diana’s matriarchal warrior people. Jenkins showcases a command both of visual place and directing physicality, and early training sequences are clear, precise, and involving. Not enough can be said for Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, as she balances innocence, charisma, and earnestness with an expansive emotional range that Jenkins uses to great effect throughout. This early chapter (featuring excellent bit parts from Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and aunt General Antiope, respectively) foregrounds the film’s unwavering commitment to the reality and genuineness of its mythology (Diana was made by Hippolyta and Zeus and, refreshingly, that’s that) while also introducing broader questions of allegory and the materialization of ideals. The impetus that gets Diana off the island is to literally find and kill the god of war, Ares, and thus end the perpetual warring of humankind.

The war of the moment, World War I, is introduced via Steve Trevor (the ever-dependable Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British who crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the island, German ships hot on his tale, and is rescued by Diana. The initial combat between the Amazons and longboat crews is involving, shot with clarity and precision, but the best is still to come. World War I proves a curious and intriguing setting for Wonder Woman’s venture. Known as “the war to end all wars,” this particular conflict is historically regarded as a European struggle of unique futility and horror. The war, however, is figured not with close attention to historical specificity but rather as a universal avatar for war as horror, the actualization of the principle that Ares represents. The cruelty of war on humans, animals, and the Earth itself is compacted into a stirring composite that culminates in Diana’s refusal to ignore suffering in one particular village and charge across no man’s land. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score works wonders here, as Jenkins’ steady action choreography echoes a smoother and steadier version of Snyder’s colorful and dynamic constructions.

It is within the contradictions that this mythic and allegorical figuring of war brings about that Wonder Woman is at its most interesting. Unlike the Marvel or Disney Star Wars films, where theme is a coldly calculated and neatly arranged commodity, Jenkins plays out a number of the tensions inherent in Diana’s desire to be a warrior for peace. Her own strong conscience is held a hair’s breadth away from her immense martial skill, and the film wisely places a constant emphasis on Diana’s moral decision making that fuels her actions. It is in those actions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of her fellow warriors (both women and men) that Diana’s idealism is necessarily complicated, and the relative honesty with which the film handles these complications is one of its strongest elements.

Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were both preoccupied with the complications arising when ideals of goodness and truth become embodied in physical forms on Earth, and Wonder Woman follows this thematic exploration by emphasizing the tensions between cosmic and physical values, the realm of allegory and the realm of realism. During the climactic battle, Steven says to Diana that he will “save today” while she will “save the world.” Juxtaposed against each other, then, are the cosmic values that larger than life heroic figures such as Wonder Woman and Superman embody and their intensely personal struggles and attempts to enact those values in a physical space as Diana Prince or Clark Kent. This is further emphasized by Diana’s goal of ending warfare in the universal by killing the god of war himself, a lofty desire complicated by both individual victims and perpetrators of militant violence. Humor, interpersonal conflict, and narrative beats continually revolve around humans as beings with bodies, part of a tangible, physical world. Couple this with the mythic figuring of World War I, a specific war figured in a universal aspect, and Wonder Woman under Jenkins’ direction furthers Snyder’s interest in questioning the stories by which we organize our lives, whether they be tidy narrative ideals or acknowledgement of an irreducibly complex reality, suggesting that the two polarities must not and cannot be dichotomized.

Wonder Woman does have a few weaknesses of note, chief among them being two campy villains, an evil German general and an evil German scientist, who echo the flippancy of a standard Marvel villain rather than project the ideological menace of General Zod or the Satanic machinations of Lex Luthor. Thankfully, the final act reveals these two to be red herrings of sorts, playing them off of the true threat in some interesting narrative and thematic ways. While a solid narrative turn, and a natural extension of the film’s themes, this final showdown does lack some of the visual punch that Snyder so effortlessly provides, but Jenkins infuses the climax with her own sensibility, orchestrating several heart-rending character moments along with lovingly-composed images bathed in the light of a rising sun.

It is this care for and sincere embracing of human emotion that lends Wonder Woman perhaps its greatest strength. While Jenkins may still be coming into her own as a constructor of action (not one to rival a George Miller or Ridley Scott at this point) she films her sequences with vibrancy and clarity, which is becoming an all too rare achievement in the overstuffed superhero genre. Of particular note are the moments when she merges an intensely anti-cynical emotional expression to visual and aural storytelling. It is a move out of sync with a genre riddled with irony and desperate to protect the desires and fantasies of fans. Jenkins instead provides a heroic role model (through Gal Gadot’s star-making turn) who intensely feels the brokenness of our world, rather than deflecting it through distraction and flippancy. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is not Wonder Woman at her most traditionally heroic, but rather as she walks through the aftermath of a gas attack, the orange of chemicals swirling around and fusing itself to her mounting grief and rage at the murder of civilians. It is a righteous indignancy, a moral horror, that has no respite or outlet except for heroic action, and it is in that action, the attempted realization of love, that Wonder Woman finds her greatest strength.

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“Logan” Review

Logan_2017_posterIf the typical comic book movie is one that is light on its feet, quippy, sterile, and sanitized, Logan operates as the direct inverse. Directed by James Mangold, this entry into the X-Men franchise is bleak, dirty, and fixated on violence. Of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe also is obsessed with death and destruction, but while Disney covers its sadism with a sickly sweet sheen of special effects, Twentieth Century Fox’s Logan hurls mutilated bodies at its audience with a focused and unrelenting consistency. On the surface, this may sound like a necessary correction to a genre that increasingly cowers from the consequences of its own carnage (note the critical skewering of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman) but Logan functions as little more than a reactionary explosion of over-the-top violence that, aside from its nihilism, offers nothing substantively distinct from the numbing parade of big-budget blockbusters.

In a strange way, Mangold seems to have adopted a mirror position of fallacies typically made by religious fundamentalists in judging artistic merit. The fundamentalist will view a film and reject it out of hand because the work contains content (actions, ideologies, religious beliefs, etc.) which the individual objects to, neglecting how those aspects of the story may be utilized in a manner that is both artistically compelling and humanly truthful. Likewise, Logan confuses the mere presence of horrific violence as a sufficient response to the glossing over of said violence in countless blockbuster franchises. Forcing the viewer to witness innumerable skull-punctures and dismemberments (all depicted in graphic detail) does nothing in itself to justify its own existence, and therein lies the chief problem with Logan: it offends, but it offends with no purpose.

Logan may depict violence, but it offers no meaningful questioning of that same violence. The brutality simply exists. The film is ostensibly an exploration of the modern fear that in a capitalist society we have all been reduced to weapons and tools at the mercy of corporations. Logan (Hugh Jackman) and the eleven-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) are saddled with powerful claws and regenerative abilities, yet the film never presents the opportunity for either character to solve conflict with anything other than the very tools of weaponization the narrative purports to hold in disdain. Scene after scene of slaughter is put before the audience, culminating in a dizzying massacre of nameless bad guys that we’ve seen two-dozen times too many (and this time at the hands of children, a fact that the breathless film never seems to seriously mourn but instead plays as cool and exciting). This climactic battle sees the film perform perhaps its most egregious act of moral jujitsu: it celebrates freedom for children born in test tubes and weaponized in labs while simultaneously reveling in the violent and repeated annihilation of X-24, a mutant clone of Logan also born in a test tube and weaponized in a lab. The obvious parallel is disregarded by a film too obsessed with its own faux-seriousness.

Mangold does certainly know how to direct actors, and Jackman works extremely well with the small-scale material (it’s undeniably refreshing to have a superhero movie where the world/galaxy isn’t at stake), while Patrick Stewart makes quite the impression as an aged and unstable Professor X. Hints of novel ideas, like this theme of aging, pepper the landscape, but Logan is so obsessed with its own brutality that it literally eviscerates every shred of creativity as soon as it threatens to emerge (the excessive and casual disposal of a kindly farmer’s family should sear the most hardened conscience). The cinematography is of the competently mediocre variety that most comic book movies tend towards, an anonymous succession of mathematically consistent close and medium shots that fail to use visual language in any meaningful way other than to linger over a shattered skull or bleeding stump. Its villains are of the cartoonishly predictable and one-dimensional variety, one a soulless scientist, the other an insecure rank hopper who feels lazily plucked from Mangold’s far superior 3:10 to Yuma.

Mangold’s sense of character and moral complexity is alive and well in that also-violent Western, while Logan is content merely to beat its audience over the head with cruelty and refuse to provide any artistic form to the proceedings. Most offensive and concerning of all, Logan seems to think that this shotgunning of brutality with little rhyme or reason is in fact its primary virtue. It is a film that can be considered worthwhile only in relation to the recent slew of obnoxiously safe Marvel titles. Because it is essentially an exercise in excess without craft, Logan often feels like the once repressed child of sheltering parents gone overboard in teenage rebellion. If you find yourself wanting a thoughtful exploration of violence and nihilism, pulling out No Country for Old Men from the DVD pile may prove more worth your time.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” Review

Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngSpoilers ahead. Evasive maneuvers.

Another December, another Disney Star Wars film; and so it will be from now until whenever the box office returns are outstripped by the marketing budget. At the end of a year that saw tent-pole franchises provide unexpected masterpieces (Zack Snyder’s phenomenal Batman v Superman – Ultimate Edition) alongside carcasses picked dry by studio executives and fan service (Suicide Squad), Gareth Edwards, fresh off the aesthetically impressive if narratively inert Godzilla, tries his hand at besting a system stacked against him by stakeholder meddling and extensive reshoots in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though Edwards’ original vision for a Star Wars war-film has been watered down to a mere shell of the grounded and brutal film that was originally promised, Rogue One still holds enough artistry and life to distance itself from the creatively stagnant The Force Awakens and finally bring us back to a galaxy far, far away.

Rogue One is a prequel of sorts, occupying the timeline space between George Lucas’s masterful Revenge of the Sith and the original A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a tough, jaded woman caught up in a rebel mission to (unbeknownst to her) assassinate her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who walked away from the Death Star project for moral reasons, but was forced back into working for the Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) at the same time Jyn’s mother was killed. Heading up the rebel mission (which takes a detour to visit some rebel extremists led by Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker) is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, whose hardened methods and steely resolve come into conflict both with Jyn’s familial loyalties and cynicism towards both sides in the Galactic Civil War. Also gathered along for the ride are the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and the mysterious Guardians of the Whills, the burly Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the blind Force-zealot Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen).

Of course, one has to address the extensive reshoots Edwards was forced to conduct by Disney executives, a pox upon Rogue One that the film is able to overcome, if not ever fully shake. There is no way at this point to know for certain the degree to which Edwards was forced to alter his film at the request of corporate executives (detective work can be done by analyzing trailer and behind the scenes footage); the main point is that it was extensive, and it does show. Compared to Edwards’ recent Godzilla, it’s recognizable pretty early on that Disney has its director on a tight leash. To his credit, Edwards frequently bumps up against the top-down dictated aesthetic sanitization, but the war-film target that the initial creative crew were aiming for is pretty watered down. Glimpses of this tension are particularly evident in the muddled handling of Saw Gerrera’s extremist group on Jedha. In an engaging action sequence, a group of Gerrera’s rebels ambush an Imperial cargo shipment in a crowded marketplace, and Edwards does something that Lucas did to great effect in his original six episodes: he taps into a real-world iconography to frame his space-fantasy narrative, in this case the visual language of Mujahdeen or Taliban fighters fighting Soviet or American occupation forces.

The usage of such imagery is fraught with charged implications (similar to Lucas’s complex visual fashioning of Republic planes in the Attack of the Clones as Vietnam-era gunships), but unfortunately Gerrera’s cell is later cast in a muddled fashion more akin to Maz Kanata’s castle than a serious terrorist organization. There’s an interrogation octopus more campy than creepy (between this and the rathtars in The Force Awakens it seems post-Lucas Star Wars can’t quite get creatures sorted out), a total lack of spatial awareness within the base itself (shot tightly, cramped, and blandly) and the charismatic extremist version of Gerrera glimpsed in the first teaser trailer (“what will you do if they break you!?”) is replaced with an eccentric, quirky, unstable and goofy figure lacking in menace and coherence, but abounding in vague exposition. While the destruction of Jedha at the hands of the Death Star is visually remarkable, Gerrera’s role leaves disappointingly little narrative impact, his driving impetus obscure and undefined. Characters in the film tell us that Gerrera and company are extremists, but the film never truly convinces that Gerrera does anything “extreme” beyond shooting stormtroopers, a tonal shift most likely handed down by executives fearful for the marketability of the film.

Choppy editing in this first half of the film generally muddies the proceedings as the crew takes a tour of the galaxy to assemble the members of the crew. Slower-pacing to establish both place and character is eschewed, and dialogue and character bits feel pasted together from multiple cuts of the film, shortchanging consistent and natural character development (this weakness may actually be the fault of Edwards himself, as the human element was the one area where Godzilla noticeably floundered). Other moments that should be darker are declawed (Cassian’s murder of an informant at the beginning of the film is played as ho-hum and without tension rather than as disturbing), a Darth Vader appearance at about the midpoint is textbook shoehorned fan-service (and another example of the Disney strategy of raiding Lucas’s discarded idea junk pile for visual concepts), and the film in general continues the baffling Disney tendency to sonically quiet Star Wars. Blasters, spaceships, and explosions continue to lack the sonic bite and distinctness that Lucas’s films had. This all combines to divert the film from the unsettling and visceral war-film we might have gotten had Edwards been left alone with his artistic vision.

On the aural note, there is one more (and perhaps the clearest) area in which executive meddling seems to have robbed the film of artistic power: the musical score. Alexandre Desplat, Edwards’ collaborator on the muscular score for Godzilla, was mysteriously dropped from the project in September because of reshoot “scheduling conflicts” (a highly suspect explanation that is most likely code for creative disagreements with the second directors and writers brought in to aid in the reworking of the film). Whatever the reason, John Williams imitator Michael Giachinno, a competent composer in his own right, was brought in to write a brand new score in only four and a half weeks. Any composer would find this a daunting challenge and, of no real fault of Giachinno’s, the rushed nature of the score is glaringly obvious. Though Giachinno’s music is featured much more prominently than Williams’ score in The Force Awakens (theoretically a good thing), it occasionally feels like a second rate imitation of the real deal, and, more significantly, is sometimes tonally out of sync with the action onscreen. Most glaring is its negative impact on the otherwise engaging sequence on Eadu, in which Krennic, Galen, Jyn, and Cassian all face off and are interrupted by a rebel airstrike. Jyn’s father is hit in the fray, but the score doesn’t start proclaiming the tragedy of the moment until far too late into the scene, and so an awkward minute or so of action unfolds in which the audience is witnessing the fear and anguish of Jyn for her father, but the brass is still twinkling away in faux-Williams exciting-action-mode. These, and other moments that should have been scored more ominously or tragically (or simply less anonymously), are likely victims of a director and composer not being given sufficient time and independence to formulate a focused artistic vision.

All this being said, if Edwards is on a leash, he is constantly straining at that leash, pushing as far as he can artistically within the constraints placed on him, and this persistence proves to be Rogue One‘s saving grace. Edwards and company, like Lucas before them, try some bold cinematic and technological moves, the digital recreation of Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin chief among them. Not only is Tarkin rendered remarkably well (for the most part) in a daring push of special effects technology to its limits (reminiscent of Lucas’s experimental flair throughout his six films), but he gets a fleshed out role and not a mere winking cameo. Tarkin highlights one of the film’s central motifs in his interactions with Krennic: that of the small, ordinary figures in the galaxy clawing to make an impact on the titans we recognize from Episodes I-VI. Krennic tries and fails to ascend the Imperial hierarchy as an individual, his project seized by Tarkin at completion, and credit slipping out of his reach. This failure of solitary ambition is juxtaposed with the collective efforts of anonymous rebel soldiers, whose minute acts of sacrifice compound to lay the groundwork for the eventual toppling of the Galactic Empire.

Edwards also works on this motif with his visual constructions, even if his knack for elaborate set-piece construction so evident in Godzilla has been somewhat lost. Edwards films the Death Star as a ghostly, looming specter (not unlike the form of the specter that the Death Star II takes in Return of the Jedi), eclipsing the sun and seemingly the universe itself, literally uprooting the natural order. Of particular note is the framing of the space station moments before its weapons test on Jedha, in which the weapon aligns with the planet in carefully positioned spherical arrangement that calls back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, framing the moment not only as a technological threshold, but the passing from one spiritual era of the Star Wars galaxy into another.

This all builds to a climactic final act that, even if it may have been restructured in reshoots, bursts on screen with color and vigor not seen since Lucas’s explosive conclusion to his Saga in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, nothing can quite compete with Lucas’s near flawless rendering of large scale combat at the end of Attack of the Clones or the beginning of Revenge, but Edwards and company nail the essentials: the bright greens and blues of tropical Scarif back a frantic rebel gambit to seize the Death Star plans and beam them off in a combined land/space effort in the vein of The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. Edwards infuses the rebel scramble with a frenzied fanaticism that pays dividends: X-wing pilots careen into Imperial shield-gates, rebel frigates ram Imperial Star Destroyers, ground troops scramble in an explosive diversion effort, while our main heroes find themselves in hair-raising predicament after predicament. Edwards even performs a bit of cinematic necromancy for continuity’s sake that would make Lucas and his Special Editions proud, cutting in footage of Red and Gold Leaders from A New Hope. Most emotionally satisfying of all is the tangible sense of the unlikelihood of the whole venture: every member of the Rogue One team gets a classic moment of warrior’s sacrifice. Particularly impactful are the ends of the wonderfully animated K-2SO and the religious Chirrut, whose moment of action convincingly conveys a sense of the Force’s all-encompassing will making such an unlikely chain of events possible.

The real payoff comes, however, in two brief moments at the end of Rogue One. After Jyn and Cassian successfully beam the plans off-planet, nameless rebel soldiers begin passing the plans one to another in their desperate bid to escape the just-arrived Darth Vader in his Star Destroyer. Vader boards the rebel flagship and hunts down these anonymous heroes one by one, as they defy the titan cutting them down by the dozens in a collective action (ordained by the Force) to get the plans to Princess Leia and the Tantive IV. It is here that Rogue One feels most like the war-film it was billed as: the story of small people matching up against an overwhelming conflict and making a galaxy-shifting difference.

Surpassing even this thrilling set-piece is the brief lyrical and visual moment that directly precedes it. Having successfully completed their mission, Jyn and Cassian sit exhausted on one of Scarif’s island beaches as the Death Star turns to vaporize the facility in a last-ditch Imperial effort to foil the raid. The sky before them is engulfed in flame in an inversion of A New Hope‘s binary sunset; if Luke’s horizon spoke of the infinite potential of the future, Jyn and Cassian’s tells only of the imminent and fiery end of the present. Giachinno’s serviceable score suddenly swells with strings and choir, pairing with the beautifully composed image of two friends embracing for comfort in the face of coming death. It is a moment of tragedy, beauty, and tenderness that overwhelms in both its visual and aural power. It is a moment that feels right in line with the loftiest of Lucas’s operatic ambitions, yet conveyed in a fashion that distinguishes itself from Lucas’s sensibilities, and it is in this moment of undiluted cinema that the purest spirit of Star Wars stirs suddenly and potently back to life.

“Arrival” Review

arrival_movie_posterDenis Villenueve’s science fiction tale of peacefully bridging linguistic and cultural gaps could hardly come at a more appropriate societal moment, with financially dominant blockbusters struggling to outdo each other in excesses of quick-witted violence, and a political climate that reached a boiling point a couple of years ago and hasn’t paused to take a breath. Arrival slams the breaks on our all-consuming societal paranoia, forcing audiences to reckon with a slow, deliberate story of bridging inter-species divides and resisting the human urge to violence. Though its final act can’t quite narratively deliver on the near flawless setup, the first half of Arrival is an astonishing feat of visual and sonic immersion; a master-class of tension-building and question-prompting.

Arrival can’t be easily summed up, (nor would it be fair to a reader to attempt to) other than to say that Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, a professor introduced through a brief, touching character sketch built around grief and tragic loss, who is then recruited by a colonel in the US Army (Forest Whitaker) to assist physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating for extra-terrestrial visitors that have appeared over middle-America, along with eleven other places around the globe.

In its slow-moving introduction to characters both human and alien, Arrival feels most akin to a particular subgenre of science fiction that deals in transcendent, quasi-religious narratives of first contact: 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Interstellar. Each film posits an ideal human who functions as much as an archetype as a person: Kubrick’s Nieztschean astronaut who subdues humanity’s rebelling technology, Spielberg’s St. Paul-esque convert who follows his bliss, Nolan’s humanist savior of intense paternal love, and now Villenueve’s teacher who fights for empathetic understanding and communication across linguistic gulfs. As in preceding contributions to this generic conversation, Villenueve (paired with cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) crafts sequences that envelopes the audience in sensation, both aural and visual, anchored with cinematic composition that is both precise and beautiful.

Villenueve balks at deception in his set-pieces (rejecting filmmaking built on quick-cutting and shaky-cam to create the illusion of excitement that too often disguises the nonsensical nature of the action), instead guiding his camera in slow, smooth, and deliberate motion that allows the human eye and imagination to engage with every part of what is portrayed onscreen. He worked wonders with this methodology in Sicario to create a near unmatched and pervading sense of tension, and in Arrival he challenges the audience to participate in the work of bridging the gaps between them and the aliens themselves. Most notable is a gorgeous sequence depicting Louise’s arrival at the base camp just beyond the alien ship via helicopter, as the camera slowly swings over a perimeter packed with people desperate to catch a glimpse, through mist, and then into a lush valley, where bleak military tents sit before the cocoon-like vessel as clouds billow in over a ridge like a waterfall and Jóhannsson’s experimental score drifts and echoes alongside. The successive encounters with the alien visitors stand out as unique cinematic achievements, playing with the audience’s expectations, sending one’s mind scrambling to dissect and interpret every piece of aural and visual stimulation. It goes without saying that Villenueve has very quickly asserted himself as a master of atmosphere.

It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, that the final act of Arrival ties the story up in a way that, while tidy and resonant on an individual level, is derivative of previous science fiction films and doesn’t pack quite the bewildering punch that 2001, Close Encounters, or Interstellar do. Perhaps it’s a bit of a high standard to apply, but Arrival clearly aspires to be considered alongside these giants of science fiction (the first encounter here contains a subtle nod to the irreversible moment of touching the monolith in 2001). It may succeed more on the aesthetic front than the narrative front, but that still leaves Arrival a high point of the cinematic year, chocked full of sounds and images that will haunt you long after leaving the theater.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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 ufortunately pervasive, myriad aspects of George Lucas’s infamous prequel trilogy have been treated unfairly, the character of Count Dooku in particular. Episodes I, II, and III add a tremendous amount of thematic and aesthetic 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 foreshadowing 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.