“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.

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.

“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.

return-jedi-star-wars
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 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.