Wednesday, January 13, 2016

About That New Star Wars Movie...

Now that the spoiler-ban has expired, it's finally time to talk about The Force Awakens! So today, Joe and I present you with our thoughts, opinions and lingering questions. WARNING: some heavy-duty spoilers follow, so don't read on if you haven't seen the film (and plan to). -G

The G

First off, let me just say that I really enjoyed The Force Awakens. Yes, it's basically a remake of A New Hope, and yes, there are too many references to the original. But here's a Star Wars film that actually gets why people love Star Wars! Gone are the corny CGI effects, stilted dialogue and tedious plot devices that turned George Lucas's series reboot into a running joke, and in their place we have something that looks, sounds and feels like the genuine article. Plus Abrams and company have brought the franchise into the new millennium, not least by centering action on a diverse cast of likable young actors. It's not in the same league as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, but The Force Awakens is orders of magnitude better than the prequels.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was how the film declined to infodump the political context, instead letting viewers fill in the blanks. I mean, remember when Obi-Wan Kenobi casually drops that line about the Clone Wars? That needed no explication, and frankly, the Clone Wars were much cooler when they were just an abstract concept. Similarly, we don't really know what the First Order is, what kind of threat it poses, or why it's being opposed by "the Resistance"--a relatively small and poorly-equipped insurgent force--rather than the New Republic and its rather more imposing fleet. That's just how things are.

Prior to seeing the film, I had expected the First Order to be the insurgents--similar to how things work in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy. And that role reversal might have injected some appealing moral grayness into the narrative. But Star Wars isn't really about moral grayness, and so the creation of the Resistance may have been driven by a desire to avoid exactly that kind of scenario.

At the same time, it does raise the question of why, exactly, the New Republic is a passive actor in this drama. My pet theory is based on the end of Aftermath. The remnants of the Empire abandon their remaining territory among the core worlds for the Outer Rim, where galactic power--whether Imperial or Republican--has historically been thin. The New Republic, which presumably is still in a process of consolidation, would likely be disinclined to risk deploying its fleet in such uncertain space, and might be satisfied funding a smaller force to act in their stead. Sound familiar? It should, as real-world powers often prefer to operate through proxies than deploy ground forces for a direct confrontation, for example in Syria.

That got me thinking about how the analogy of ISIS, while imperfect, might be a better lens through which to understand the First Order than Nazi Germany, regardless of how much Abrams wants to remind us of the latter (and the imagery is not exactly subtle).

Symbolism aside, the First Order doesn't really have much in common with Hitler's mass-scale, industrialized fascism. Rather, like ISIS, it appears to govern an amorphous parastate with minimal institutions. And while the First Order does rule by fear, it is not the fear of an inexorable, ever-present and all-seeing panopticon, but fear of punctuated, ad hoc demonstrations of violence and repression by a marauding force of religious extremists. On Jakku or Takodana, for example, the First Order does not keep a garrison or collect taxes so much as use lightning raids to periodically take what it wants or needs--a function of its small scale and limited means. And this smallness is reflected in its wannabe Sith Lord, Kylo Ren, whose ragequit adolescence contrasts starkly with cold, calculating ruthlessness of Darth Vader.

Arguably The Force Awakens just reflects the zeitgeist of Western society in the twenty-first century, and the embedded fears of virus-like zealot movements that respect neither territorial boundaries nor the established rules of engagement.* Of course, it then does what popular art generally does to political complexities: reduce them to a more easily digestible "good guys vs. bad guys" dynamic. Which is not to say that there's much of a gray area when it comes to ISIS, an organization that specializes in snuff films and rape slavery, but there certainly is when you consider the Syrian (or Iraqi) civil war holistically, and the range of forces and interests involved there. The battle between the Resistance and First Order, then, is an idealized version of battle between the Western-backed YPG/Free Syrian Army and ISIS--just without the Assad regime, al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey and Russia also pursuing their own complex set of agenda in the same space.

Oversimplifications aside, civil war is a concept that people who don't and never have lived through it should grapple with, rather than just write it off as something happening "over there." The Force Awakens, at least, has the potential to get people thinking about the world around them--to a far greater degree than its predecessors. And while it would be very problematic to interpret Syria or another civil conflict using the binary moral spectrum of The Force Awakens, the film *might* lead people to read the news differently. Or not. Either way makes for a more interesting and timely narrative than the rote megalomaniacs, illuminati and Hitler/Stalin stand-ins that populate most explodovision blockbusters.

On the other hand, this brush with sophistication underscores just how profoundly disappointing it is that the film ends with an assault on the planet-killing superweapon, Starkiller Base. It isn't just that this is the third time our Sith legatees have decided to build a superweapon that can be defeated by a small band of plucky individuals with heart, or that this fact renders The Force Awakens entirely predictable. Rather, it's also because there are so many dramatic possibilities without the planet-killer--real, human drama that unfolds daily in our world. Besides, the First Order are already pretty terrible, running around and massacring civilians whenever they want something (and regardless of whether the massacre actually advances their interests). The Resistance probably don't need any more reasons to knock out their base, and neither do we.

*A set of standards that everyone ignores, to a degree.

Here’s what you really want to know, since The Force Awakens begins to set up Star Wars: The Next Generation (you can roll your eyes at me at any time): the new characters in The Force Awakens are just as awesome as the old ones we’ve known for thirty years. They might even be better.

Rey, Finn, and even Poe are characters you can build the franchise around as we begin to move forward. Rey begins the movie pretty much where Luke did in A New Hope, except that she’s had to survive on her own for a number of years and develop skills that Luke only had to scratch later. She’s like a weird mix of Han, Luke, and Anakin. Actually, maybe she’s a touch more like Anakin if you roll with the idea that her piloting skills comes as much from the Force as it does from natural ability and practice. Hell, Anakin was podracing from the age of three - something that I find baffling, but okay. I love her personality and...

I almost wrote that I loved her chemistry with Finn. While that is true, what I love is the chemistry everyone has. Poe and Finn is a friendship destined for the stars (pun intended), Finn and Rey is likewise a wonderful friendship in that brother / sister vein of Luke and Leia. Poe feels like the character that Wedge would have been in the original trilogy had we only seen him more on screen (rather than just in the books, also - go read the X-Wing series from Michael Stackpole, I don’t care if it isn’t canon anymore). He’s idealistic and competent and is one hell of a pilot. I hope we see much more of him in Episode VIII.

Han, Leia, and Chewie helped give the movie shape and dimension, the newbies carried the movie and did so admirably - to the point that while I can’t imagine how I would have felt if Han and Leia weren’t in the movie, I would be perfectly content if we had a Star Wars movie without any of the Big Three characters. The New Three can do it. I’m sold. I want more Rey, more Finn, more Poe, more BB-8, more Maz Kanata. More of the new. More.

Thirty Years Gone....

If you are anything like me you have probably wondered what in the galaxy has happened to our heroes in the intervening thirty years since the second Death Star was destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi. Now, if you are anything like me, you've also read any number of the related Star Wars Expanded Universe books, story collections, and comics which have filled in the gaps both between the movies as well as continuing the stories of Leia, Han, and Luke for decades following Return of the Jedi. You know what happens next.

Except you don't, because two years after Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm, most of the Expanded Universe was no longer considered canon or official. So, unless they forgot to mention a couple of kids in The Force Awakens, Han and Leia now only have one child, not three.

But we're not here to rehash any old and tired arguments about the original Expanded Universe, now known as Legends.

What I actually want to talk about first is Family. Here's what we know: Han and Leia stayed together for a time after Return of the Jedi and had a kid together, Ben Solo (a name that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but we'll move on). Ben, with other kids, trained under Luke to become part of the new order of Jedi until, we don't know how or why, he turned to the Dark Side and killed most or all of Luke's apprentices and became Kylo Ren. There's probably an article to be written about Kylo, but let's stay with Han and Leia for a moment.

This broke them.

My assumption is that Kylo turned ten years ago or so. Han admitted that he didn't know how to handle it, how to stay with Leia with all that pain, so he had gone back to smuggling with Chewie. Chewbacca, it should be noted, it is quite clearly done with all of Han's shit and having far more personality in The Force Awakens than in the previous three movies combined, is ready for Han to just go home to Leia. Everyone wants that. Leia want it. Chewie wants it. Han even seems to want it, but it is so obviously scared.

What crushes me is Han's persistent pain of losing his son. Han knows he's alive, but views Ben as being dead - and there's a quiet grief that was probably a giant rage fountain ten years ago.

Leia has had a never ending war to fight, though we can imagine that there was a period of time - maybe ten years maybe not - that she spent more time in helping build the New Republic and less time fighting the remnants of the Empire before the First Order began to rise from its ashes with Supreme Leader Snoke at its head. The rest of that time? I have a sneaking suspicion that Leia has been fighting one war or another, no less than the one inside her as her son turned to the Dark Side and became a mass murderer (like her father) and her husband / partner / love left because they couldn't work out how to exist together with their son gone. That war is far harder than the one against the Empire.

Kylo's turn also broke Luke. To the best of our knowledge, Luke has gone from the idealistic young "Jedi Knight" who was able to return Darth Vader back to the Light to a man who probably views himself as having failed so badly that everyone would be better off if he just went into hiding for the better part of ten years.

But I have to wonder about this, because what's going on with that old man on Jakku who has part of the map showing how to find Luke? Has Luke been randomly popping into the galaxy to guide a small priesthood that now exists around the Force? Something more is going on there if the old guy knows. There's a story there.

I like it, I love it, I want some more of it...

One of the things that I like best about The Force Awakens is there are so many little things left introduced but unexplored. Jakku feels lived in, hardscrabble.

I want more of Captain Phasma. She's a bit of an enigma character, but she's just cool looking enough to make her the new Boba Fett. Think about it, Boba Fett barely does anything in the original trilogy. He follows the Falcon to Bespin, but really all he does is collect the bounty even though it was Vader that really captured Han and then he delivers Han (unseen) to Jabba. Then he gets thrown in the Sarlacc pit. So much of the rest of Boba's legend seems to come from the books and the other ancillary material. I want Phasma's legend. Also, that armor is stellar (pun intended).

Maz Kanata is awesome, and I hope she survived. Her temple / bar is great. I love her character and personality and the heart that was shining through. Such a wonderful new character. I would say she's slightly underused (much like Phasma), but she shouldn't be a main character in this movie. What she does is help fill out the galaxy and show just how big and varied it is.

I love how Kylo Ren just keeps getting angry and smashing things - like he's the uncontrolled "give into your anger" that Palpatine kept talking about - except yes, this is what giving into your anger actually looks like. It looks like a petulant child smashing things. Which is why the scene with the stormtroopers noticing the rage in the other room and then just turning around is so awesome. They've seen this before.

I love Han's delight in using Chewie's bowcaster. Apparently in all the decades they've been together, Han has never picked up that bowcaster and fired it. This seems odd, but Han's always been about his blaster and you can argue that he may never have been in quite a tight spot as he was in The Force Awakens.

On the other hand, I equally love Han’s exasperation with Finn when he exclaims “That’s not how the Force works at all!” I suppose after thirty years, Han might actually know something of the Force he once denied.

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there...

Kylo Ren's struggle to fully accept the Dark Side is interesting to me. You've got a kid who is quite clearly emotionally stunted and only in control when things are going his way. He was (presumably) raised by loving parents who (may) have sheltered him a bit before sending him off to Jedi Boarding School with Uncle Luke who (again, presumably) did not shower him with admiration and full acceptance that Ben is the best thing of all time and when he met (somehow) Snoke - he was convinced to turn from the Light and go to the Dark. And he did. He changed his name like any good Sith, murdered his classmates, and possibly chased Luke away within an inch of his life.

But with all that, he struggles because somewhere deep down, he's a good kid who just wants to please his master, no matter who his master is. So he has to convince himself to fully accept the Darkness.

This is all speculation, of course, but one of the great things about Star Wars is thinking far too deeply about it.

The thing is, I don't want them to fill in the gaps of why Kylo is so angry. I'm not even sure I want a meetup with Leia, I think that will break my heart. I think he's just angry and his parents were too much of a legend for him to feel like he could ever live up to it but he almost doesn't want to be "bad" but that's what he chose as a teenager. It's obvious, I think, so don't explain it. It would diminish the story to know too much.

So I don't question quite so hard exactly why The First Order built Starkiller Base, but I do think about how there is a noticeably stronger sense of menace coming from The First Order than from the Empire. Part of this could be because The First Order have already destroyed several planets during the course of the movie, rather than just Alderaan, but we also get to see Stormtroopers slaughtering a village. Our heroes were at real risk of being killed by Stormtroopers on Takodana (Maz Kanata's homeworld).

The movie was dark. It was revealed that Stormtroopers are no longer clones, but are rather kids taken as children and raised to be brainwashed into being perfect soldiers. Also, I swear there was a line about bringing in Clone Troopers if the non-clones can't do the job. I'd love to see that explored. Regardless, it's amazing that Finn was able to get out at all, but given the concerns of reconditioning, maybe it isn't quite so surprising. It's all these kids know. It's also reminiscent of the Jedi of old, taking children because they're easier to train. Remember, Anakin was deemed too old to be trained when he was nine because he had already formed attachments.

But let's talk about some of that darkness, most notably Kylo Ren's murder of his father, Han Solo. I'm not sure anyone who knows about some of the history of Star Wars was surprised here because Harrison Ford wanted Han Solo to die in Return of the Jedi, and having his son kill him does permit some of that final push to the Dark Side. How can Kylo possibly be redeemed after that? Can Leia let that go? We're getting ahead of ourselves.

Kylo Ren is a villain living under the emotional shadow of Darth Vader (his grandfather). He tries so hard to be amoral, to be the baddest bad in the galaxy, but he almost prays to Vader's helmet asking for help. He almost needs Han's permission to kill him. But now that he's killed his father (something that I don't think Kylo is going to accept easily, mind you), what won't he do?

Sure, Kylo Ren was ultimately defeated by Rey, and saved by a convenient crevasse opening between them, but that has me wondering. If Rey was able to face down and kill Kylo in anger, would she have started down the path to the Dark Side? Will that be one of her struggles? Even if it isn't, I think we're still in store for an even angrier Kylo Ren to go darker and deeper.

Also, The First Order is a great name.

If you build it, they will come...

 One of the main criticisms leveled at The Force Awakens is that the framework of the film is that of A New Hope, as if JJ Abrams looked at the first movie and then tried to figure out how to make it new. This is fair, I think. All of my rather limited issues with The Force Awakens had to do with how strongly it aped A New Hope at times. I suppose Starkiller Base makes sense, from the perspective of the remnants of an empire pissed off that the rebels kept blowing up their planet destroying weapon. After Return of the Jedi, however The First Order came about the people in charge looked at the Death Star, saw what went wrong, and decided to level up and go Crocodile Dundee on the galaxy. "Death Star? That's a Death Star."

Of course, my annoyance with that has less to do with Starkiller Base being the Death Star injected with steroids and more to do with how it went down. The scene with Captain Phasma being told to get into a trash compactor is funny because we can see Han relishing the sense of payback there, but the quest to get the shields down so that the X-Wings can start their bombing run and then yes, we do get a short bit with the fighters flying into a trench, that bit is far too on the nose with the callback to A New Hope.

If you're going to do Starkiller Base, okay, let's do it. But then maybe it doesn't go down exactly the same with the planet blowing up. Maybe it's just crippled. Of course, once you introduce the base, it probably does need to be destroyed. Imagine the weirdness of a scene with Leia having finally defeated The First Order and then taking control of Starkiller Base. Do we worry that she'll be corrupted and consider using it?

The same goes for Leia telling Han that there is still good in their son, that she can feel it. It's too close to Luke's insistence on being able to redeem Darth Vader.

There's a lot to love here, though. Actually, most of the movie is smiling love.

First, The Force Awakens felt more like what we remember Star Wars to be than any of the prequel movies ever did. Yes, I know, I just wrote about how that's because Abrams dropped the plot of A New Hope into The Force Awakens and then changed the window dressing, but the feeling of Star Wars is nostalgic love. Nostalgia isn't bad, and so many of us have seen Star Wars so many times and can scarcely remember a time when we hadn't seen the movie. By the time we hit our teenage years, watching Star Wars was already an exercise in nostalgia.

The thing is, nostalgia gets us in the door - Rey and Finn keep us there. Add in a dash of Poe as the Wedge we always wanted outside of the books and never got, and we've got the future of Star Wars right here. The future is bright.

Final Thought....

They're bringing Lando back in Episode VIII, right? Right?