Category Archives: Hollywood and Vine

Celebrities, the entertainment industry and other such frivolities.

The Fourth is With Us Again

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When I reflect on the state of Star Wars on May the 4th of two years ago, the word that springs foremost to mind is nervous.  We knew that Episode VII was in production, we’d read the rumors and seen that first black and white picture of the cast at the table read, we knew the original heroes were coming back – but we still couldn’t shake the jitters.  Too many unknowns in play.  Despite the scorn dumped on George Lucas for the wobbly prequel trilogy, the idea of a new Star Wars movie without any involvement from him whatsoever still set many stomachs ill at ease.  Would it turn out to be an empty exercise in fanservice (from a filmmaker with something of a reputation for leaping headfirst into that well-cratered minefield) or would it catching Force lightning in the proverbial bottle and gift us with the wonder we first felt at the theatres in 1977 (or with our videocassette copies in the early 80’s, depending on our respective ages)?  Would we be leaping up and cheering and racing back to the kiosk to buy another ticket or would we be shuffling for the exits with the sour faces we wore as the Revenge of the Sith credits rolled?

Fast forward to May the 4th, 2016, and we know the answer to that.  Against expectations, we have entered the Star Wars Renaissance.  Star Wars is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been, since, well, longer than I can remember.  The Force Awakens was one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and its highly anticipated sequel is filming presently and due to hit our collective consciousness in a little over a year and a half.  Daisy Ridley has become an instant movie superstar.  This December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promises to unspool the never-told-but-oft-alluded-to tale of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the infamous Death Star schematics (with another compelling lead female role, essayed by Felicity Jones.)  Plans for Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoffs are also in the works, to say nothing of the eventual saga-concluding epic Episode IX in 2019.  Literary tie-ins bulge off shelves with novels like Aftermath and Bloodline.  Oh, and yes, the Walt Disney Company is building two massive Star Wars lands at its American theme parks.  Toys and pop culture references abound and kids are throwing on Jedi robes and running around swinging plastic lightsabers again, pretending to be Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren just like we used to pretend to be Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader.

It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.

A week or so ago I was trolled on Twitter by an – let’s say interesting individual who, according to his timeline, goes around latching on to people who’ve said unkind things about the prequel trilogy and then spams them with memes and rants about the wonderfulness of Episodes I, II and III before blocking them in what is presumably a masturbatory fit of self-satisfied pique.  You can’t please everyone, I suppose.  Contrary to what this fellow presumes, I never said I hated the prequels.  There are plenty of things about them to like:  John Williams’ score, some of the lightsaber fights, the depth of the worldbuilding among many others.  What they get wrong, however, is that they lack the key ingredient that makes Star Wars resonate with its fans, and that is the sense of hope.

The prequels were always going to be a tragedy, and despite the whiz-bang-whee moments of adventure supplied generously throughout, the ominous, inevitable sense that this is all going to go wrong in the end casts a dark pallor over the seven-hours worth of narrative.  It doesn’t matter that you know IV, V and VI are going to set it right.  Taken on their own, the prequels are just simply not a very happy experience.  Art always mirrors its creators’ mindsets, and the young, eager, starry-eyed neophyte George Lucas who made the first trilogy is not the cynical, fearful, age-embittered auteur who cobbled together the second after spending decades as a billionaire CEO shuffled daily from meeting to meeting – a man increasingly worried about the world awaiting his three children.  Lucas thought America had learned the lessons of Richard Nixon and then watched helplessly as it turned around and anointed George W. Bush.  He couldn’t have made a film with the optimism and hope of The Force Awakens because it’s simply not who he is anymore.  But that didn’t have to mean that the hope dwelling at the heart of his slumbering creation could not have awakened as it did.  We should thank Lucas for the wisdom to bequeath his legacy to the custody of Kathleen Kennedy who recognized more than anyone what Star Wars had been and what it could be again.

Yes, bad stuff happens in Star Wars.  Entire worlds are obliterated at the whims of very bad people craving absolute power.  And unlike in its other more sci-fi oriented cousin Star Trek, you can’t save the galaxy far, far away by reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit a phased tetryon stream and realizing the true meaning of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.”  In Star Wars you have to pick up a blaster, or a lightsaber, or climb into an X-Wing.  Set aside your fears and stand up against the bad guys trying to set everything you hold dear aflame.  Each one of us dreams that in our inevitable moment of crisis, we will summon the courage to awaken our inner force, and that through the brave, extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and despite the power of the dark side, we too will be able to change the world for the better.  There were some tremendously sad moments in The Force Awakens, but was there anybody who didn’t watch that final scene of Rey offering the lightsaber to Luke and feel that kind of optimism, that things were going to be all right in the end, both for the characters and for us?  The metaphor of the generational handover in the movie was not subtle, but it was indeed apt, and proven by how the new generation of fans has responded.  Kids who weren’t even around when Revenge of the Sith came out are asking to have their hair styled like Rey for Star Wars Day.  We old sods are back too, and we’ve let Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 into our crusty, guarded hearts with the same welcome we extended their predecessors.

They are, at long last, the New Hope.

I’ve written extensively about the implications of and reactions to The Force Awakens since before and after its release, but it occurred to me that through these many thousands of words I haven’t actually said what I thought of the movie.  And I can think of no more suitable judgment than this:  I didn’t want it to end.  I knew, as I watched Rey ascend those stony steps, that the credits were imminent, but a very young, long since quiet part of me hoped that somehow the story would go on.  And I’m contented knowing that it will – in more than just a collection of movies.

Because the Force is with us.  Always.

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Fun and Fancy Speculation about Star Wars: Episode VIII

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Spoilers, of course.

The last reels have unspooled.  The final reviews are in.  Billions of dollars have exchanged hands.  Billions of bytes of data have been exchanged in the evaluation and measurement of the story’s worth.  Opinions have been cemented and there is little else to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  There remains but one lingering question:  what’s next?

Episode VIII has begun filming; we know this, thanks to the official announcement featuring a recreation of the final moments of the previous movie, and writer-director Rian Johnson’s sporadic tweets on the subject.  We’ve heard that Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern have joined the cast, most of which is returning.  We were disappointed but ultimately understanding about the shift of the release date from May to December of 2017, particularly if the additional time means a better movie is the result.  Other than that, the lid is closed, and as fans the only thing we can do between now and then is speculate.  What lies among the stars for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo and BB-8?  How will Luke and Leia fit in?  Will the Resistance defeat the First Order once and for all?

Figuring out what happens next isn’t actually that difficult.  The way forward is much clearer than the dangling threads of The Force Awakens would make it seem.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

The state of the galaxy

The First Order was successful in wiping out the capital of the Republic and most of the Republic fleet, leaving the Resistance without its primary means of support.  However, their superweapon Starkiller Base was also destroyed, reducing the First Order to much the same state.  So as Episode VIII begins, the galaxy is without a central government – essentially in a state of anarchy, with two substantially weakened powers grappling to establish themselves as the sole viable unifying force, with thousands of star systems up for grabs.  The Resistance was depicted as something of a ragtag band using old ships and weapons, while the First Order appears to be much better funded with plenty of state of the art materiel and personnel.  Even with Starkiller Base eliminated, the First Order may be better equipped to continue the battle for the galaxy even if it has to be one measly star system at a time.  One could very well envisage the opening crawl setting up the story thus:  while the First Order has been dealt a blow, with the Republic gone they have begun a war of attrition, pushing outward and laying claim to system after system, and the Resistance finds itself unable to keep up and looking desperately for a way to stem the tide.

We know nothing about Benicio del Toro’s character yet, other than vague comments about him being a villain.  That doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s another member of the First Order – their entire leadership is intact after The Force Awakens.  What if, instead, he’s the leader of a third party – some kind of wealthy (if shady) syndicate that the Resistance needs to court in order to keep up the fight?  We know the galaxy is full of criminals, like the infamous Hutts, or the rival gangs that sought to extract their swindled funds from Han Solo before they were eaten by rathtars.  What if Del Toro is the head of the mysterious Kanjiklub – or more likely, the leader of a Spectre-like organization that controls all illicit activity throughout the galaxy and has no great love for the First Order?  You could have an interesting story there with both the Resistance and the First Order attempting to sway his group into the fight, a sort of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of dilemma.  For General Leia, it would mean a significant challenge to her principles.  Is it worth doing business with devils to defeat the greatest devil of all?  If it has to resort to similar methods to achieve its ends, is the Resistance no better than the very foe it professes to despise?

The state of the Force

Even though the previous movie ended on a shot of Luke Skywalker and Rey looking silently at one another as the music swelled, Episode VIII likely won’t pick up with them for at least the first ten minutes (remember, all Star Wars movies begin with a spaceship going somewhere).  It would be foolish to believe that merely a glimpse of his old lightsaber will be enough to convince Luke to impart his knowledge to this completely unknown girl.  And I do believe she is unknown, despite the wishes by many fans that she will turn out to be Luke’s daughter.  There would simply be no story for Luke if that were the case.  Why would he refuse to train his own child?  You can suggest that it might be because the previous attempt to train one of his bloodline went bad, but there’s a considerable difference between a nephew and a daughter.  Rather, I would imagine that Luke will want nothing to do with Rey, having decided (at least at first) that the galaxy is better off without people who can touch the Force.  At least, until Rey proves herself somehow.  This is where a concept that was deleted from The Force Awakens might come into play.  (Hollywood never lets a good idea go un-recycled.)

Before screenwriters Arndt, Kasdan and Abrams decided that Luke himself was to be the object of the quest, there was discussion that there might be some valuable information left over in remnants of the Death Star that had crashed in an ocean on Rey’s world, and that that would be the story’s McGuffin.  In the movie, Han said that it was rumored Luke had gone looking for the first Jedi temple.  Yet when we find him he’s on an empty island in the middle of a vast ocean.  What if the Jedi temple is somewhere under all that water, and in order for Rey to be granted the benefit of Luke’s teachings, she is forced to help him find it, in a quest through ancient ruins that invokes Indiana Jones?  (Laura Dern as an oracle/ghost of one of the first Jedi, perhaps?)  The journey would of course be a spiritual one as well as a physical one, with Rey finding out even more about herself along the way and discovering, rather like The Karate Kid, that what appears as a futile series of labors has in fact been her Jedi training all along.  One aspect I find interesting in the discussion of who Rey might be is that every single theory suggests she was left on Jakku for her protection.  What if that’s not the case – what if she was abandoned there because her parents were afraid of her, because they thought she was dangerous?  What if there is more dark side in her than we’ve been led to believe thus far?  It sets up a fascinating contrast with Kylo Ren, whose training we know thanks to Snoke’s last line of dialogue is also incomplete.  In Episode VIII we might see parallel stories of Rey being trained to resist her innate darkness while Kylo struggles to purge the last of his inner light as he endures unexpected guilt over his act of patricide – and because there is an Episode IX to come, we may not see the resolution of that conflict yet.

The state of the galaxy’s favorite bromance

When we last saw Finn, he was lying unconscious in a Resistance medical bay after taking a lightsaber to the spine.  He will of course make a miraculous recovery and be consumed now with taking the fight to his former colleagues after spending most of the first movie running away from them.  John Boyega, tweeting on the first day’s shooting, included a hint of what might be either his character’s arc or an actual line of dialogue:

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This would fit what I talked about above, with the Resistance in regrouping mode as the First Order takes system after system, and Finn growing impatient with the progress of the war.  He’s going to want to punish the people who stole his life from him.  Trying to keep him from going too far down the dark path – even though in this example it’s not a question of being seduced to the dark side of the Force – will be his BFF Poe Dameron.  One could even see the two of them being dispatched on a mission that has something to do with the scenario I hypothesized above regarding Benicio del Toro’s character.  Rian Johnson is said to have arranged screenings for the cast of the Gregory Peck war movie Twelve O’Clock High and the Russian film Letter Never Sent; the former is about a hard-nosed general whipping a bunch of misfit bomber pilots into fighting shape, while the latter is about a group of geologists who get trapped in the Siberian woods while searching for diamonds.  Finn and Poe (and little BB-8 for good measure) might be cast into an homage to either, or a combination of both of these narratives.

As to “the lip bite that launched a thousand ships”?  I think it would a tremendous and welcome step forward to have gay characters in a Star Wars movie.  I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I don’t think the powers that be would slam the door on the possibility by dropping Poe’s yet-unseen girlfriend into the plot, but they will more than likely skirt what they could see as a potential audience-alienating controversy by leaving the matter to wishful conjecture instead.  The main thrust of the story is always going to be the war in the galaxy far far away, and every subplot will be in service to that narrative, not progressive social commentary, as much as we might welcome it.  Finn and Poe will remain pals and comrades-in-arms, but nothing more.

Putting it all together

The second act of a play is traditionally the darkest, or, as Lawrence Kasdan has put it, “when everything goes to hell.”  Characters are brought to their lowest point.  Everything we’ve taken for granted collapses.  The remaining pieces are assembled in an unexpected order for the final dramatic showdown.  I think we will see the First Order resurgent, the Resistance on the edge of a final defeat, friends set against one another and Rey and Kylo Ren both forced to wage mortal battles with their own respective souls, perhaps even in the form of a lightsaber rematch.  I doubt we will see anything as gut-wrenching as Han Solo’s death – it would be gilding the lily a bit to take another one of the classic trio out of the picture – but as the credits roll we’ll be left with significant doubt as to whether our heroes will survive.  We may even be doubtful as to whether our heroes are actually heroes.  Just as Darth Vader ultimately turned out to be the true hero of the original trilogy by killing his evil master in Return of the Jedi, what if his grandson, whom we could never possibly consider forgiving after what he did to our childhood idol in The Force Awakens, is fated to follow a similar path?

About the only thing we can be certain of about Episode VIII is that once it’s done we’ll be having the exact same conversation about Episode IX.  In the meantime, let me know your own thoughts in the comments – do you see these as logical developments, or do you have another idea about what will follow the crawl on December 15, 2017?

In Search of Rey’s Parents… Or Not

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Prefacing this entry with the usual SPOILER ALERT for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, although seriously, if you’re one of the eight people left in the world who hasn’t seen it yet, what’s stopping you already?  I’m gonna get into major storyline discussion here, so please stop now if you don’t want to have the movie ruined for you.  Should you proceed past this paragraph, you are tacitly agreeing to hold me blameless.  Putting on the hold music while you consider wading further…

…doo dee doo dee doodeedoo, da da da da, dara dada daa.  (That’s the Cantina Band song, FYI.)

Now that we’ve had a little over a month to watch, re-watch, digest, mull, contemplate and postulate regarding the implications of the newest Star Wars movie, not to mention its – in the modest opinion of this scribe – gobsmackingly awesome lead character, we turn our lonely eyes to imagining what lies beyond the horizon of December 2017 and revelations promised to us by the ambiguous finale there on that isolated mountaintop in the middle of an endless sea where nascent Jedi Rey presented the fabled blue lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker to its last master Luke, just before the iris wipe to credits.  One of the biggest mysteries left unanswered as those blue names began fading in and out surrounded Rey herself, how she was able to achieve a decent mastery of the Force so quickly, and if perhaps the solution lies in her parentage.  There are three main theories circulating the Internet to that regard:  that she is Luke’s daughter, that she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter, or she is another child of Han Solo and Leia Organa whom they chose not to acknowledge during their many interactions with her in The Force Awakens.  While it’s very possible that one of those theories is the correct answer, I would argue that from a story perspective, it’s better if Rey is none of the above.  Why?  Let’s get into that.

1.  The Star Wars universe is incestuous enough already.

One of the loveliest aspects of the narrative of the very first Star Wars movie is how each character guides you to the next through a series of what seem like chance encounters.  Princess Leia hides the Death Star plans inside R2-D2, who meets up with C-3P0 and crashes with him on Tatooine.  They are abducted by Jawas who then sell them to the family of Luke Skywalker, who takes them to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who takes him to Han Solo and Chewbacca, who takes the whole gang back to Princess Leia, completing the circle.  With the sequels we learned of familial connections that made that journey in the first film seem like an amazing series of coincidences.  Indeed, it’s well known that making the villain the father of the hero did not occur to George Lucas until well into the second draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and likewise had he known that Luke and Leia would turn out to be siblings in the next movie we would have escaped the notorious makeout scene in the Hoth medical bay.

You can’t argue the dramatic impact of those revelations – the original trilogy probably would not have had as much resonance without them – but as modern writers and directors, you can’t go back to that parched well yet again without risking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  The prequels made things worse by establishing that C-3P0 had been built by Anakin Skywalker himself and that R2-D2 had been present for every significant event that transformed the Republic into the Empire, the cumulative effect of which was to retroactively make old Obi-Wan Kenobi into the biggest exaggerator/outright liar this side of Coruscant.  (Theory #2, that Rey is a descendant of Kenobi, would make him an even bigger liar, and render all his sanctimonious teachings to Anakin about forsaking attachment for the greater good pretty well moot.)

It almost escalated into the realm of the ridiculous:  we were spared, thankfully, an “Anakin, I am your father” moment from Episode III when a planned monologue from Palpatine about how he used the Force to will the midichlorians (ugh) to create the young Skywalker was dropped from the final script.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, space is really, really, really, really big.  Are we to accept that every major happening in the really, really, really big Star Wars galaxy centers on three generations of a single family who keep running into each other in amazingly convenient fashion, and hold back just enough truth from their encounters to keep the plot moving right along?  The Force Awakens was fairly criticized for having its story rely too much on coincidence, and Episode VIII should endeavor to move away from that – not turn the whole enterprise into a “who’s your father” exercise that would embarrass Maury Povich.

2.  It weakens Kylo Ren’s character arc.

Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo, sees himself as the natural heir to Darth Vader (the evil part of Vader, not the redeem-yourself-in-the-end-by-killing-the-bad-guy-aspect).  As a member of the hallowed Skywalker line, Kylo believes he has been chosen by the Force itself to fulfill a grand purpose left unfinished.  When he is using the Force to extract information from Rey’s mind and finds his own mind under siege by her awakening Force powers, his deepest fear, that he will never achieve that goal, is revealed.  After Rey rejects his offer of teaching her and defeats him in their climactic lightsaber duel, the implication for Kylo going forward is an escalating path of bitterness that he is not, in fact, the Chosen One he believes himself to be.  That his destiny is one of mediocrity, being vilified for his murderous actions, and ultimately being forgotten.  How much more brutal for his ego does it become, how many more lightsaber-slashing tantrums ensue, if the person who is fated for greatness in the Force turns out to be a mere nobody from a backwater world plucked from obscurity, instead of being yet another scion of an already famous family?

Kylo feels entitled to greatness by virtue of being descended from greatness.  If he is pitted against someone descended from that exact same greatness, what results is petulant cries of “mom and dad always liked you best” as glowing blades clash (and Kylo is teetering a little too far on the emo scale for the liking of many to begin with).  It becomes the equivalent of Kim and Kourtney and Khloe duking it out for Force supremacy, and honestly, nobody really roots for anyone in that contest, do they?  Instead, Kylo’s rage at failing to measure up to someone who has not a drop of Skywalker blood in her would truly push him over the edge – and if he is to follow Anakin Skywalker’s ultimate path of redemption, the choice to save someone who was not family (especially after he had no problem murdering his own father) would be all the more meaningful.

3.  It makes Rey less special, and it reinforces the dubious lesson that greatness depends solely on where you came from.

Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey elevated her above contemporary genre female heroes simply by how much whiz-bang joy she invested in it.  Rey wasn’t one of these downtrodden “sigh, I guess I have to go reluctantly save the world now because I’m the only one who can” tropes yanked from dystopian teen fiction.  While her choice to join the fight was not a willing one, once she committed she went all in, and brought a sense of wonder to the new world she was discovering both without and within.  Despite her initial and understandable fears, she embraced her abilities with the Force and became stronger than the young “no one” had ever dreamed.  Obviously Rey’s connection to her family is a pivotal component of her character; when we first meet her she is marking off the days since she was abandoned by them on the desert planet Jakku, and she longs to go back and continue waiting for them to return.  In the vision that accompanies her first touch of the lightsaber, we see a young Rey begging them not to go, and a spaceship rising into the sky in the distance, the faces of her family conveniently kept off camera for a possible future revelation.  If we see a future reprise of this scene and the camera whips around to reveal Luke Skywalker, or anyone else we already know, Rey’s choice to grow becomes less about personal courage and more about inevitability and predestination.  In that iteration, the choice was never hers – her DNA made it for her.  Put it in more contemporary terms:  a young man is born to a legendary major league home run hitter and eventually grows up to hit even more home runs than his father.  How interesting is that story, versus that of a young man born to an non-athletic minimum-wage day laborer who against much longer odds achieves the same goal?

The Chosen One is a trope that stretches back to the beginning of human storytelling, and resonates because there is a part of every single one of us that sometimes wishes we were “chosen ones” ourselves.  But in a way, this fantasy is abdicating a very precious responsibility – free will, our ability to write our own destiny – by wishing that someone else had set everything in motion for us long before we were born.  That we were born into royalty, or a long line of millionaires/magicians/mutants, or whatever, and all that is needed to rise from the puddle of mediocrity in which we think we swim is that fabled call to adventure.  There is something to be said for the concept of a true nobody who comes from nothing rising to seize the lightsaber by virtue of her own determination and hard work (a concept sure to appeal to the libertarians out there) and righting the course of history.  It would certainly be a positive message to send to the young women who identify with Rey that they don’t need to be of noble blood (or marry someone who is) in order to make something remarkable of themselves.

We know, based on the existence of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the countless other Jedi who populated the prequels, that the Force is not confined to the members of the Skywalker family.  Kenobi says in the first movie that the Force exists in all living things, and as much as you might hate the whole midichlorian concept, it reinforces this idea that everything has the ability to touch the Force on some level.  We also know that the Force is sentient, and is constantly attempting to balance itself by investing individual people with an enhanced ability to use it.  For all we know, there could be thousands of young men and women like Rey spread throughout the galaxy, gifted in different areas with an unusual level of aptitude that they don’t fully understand.  Poe Dameron’s ace piloting skills, for example, might even be another manifestation of the Force, if to a more limited degree.  But only Rey has the courage to “let it in,” which, if it speaks to her fortitude and not her parentage, makes her all the more compelling a character.  It tells the audience that every last one of you has the potential for greatness, and nothing about that requires that your last name is or has ever been Skywalker.

4.  And it’s exactly what we’re expecting them to do.

And that is my biggest gripe with the potential big reveal about Rey’s parents in Episode VIII.  J.J. Abrams et al did such a phenomenal job in keeping Rey’s story secret for The Force Awakens that watching her discover her true self was the most wonderful surprise about a movie that relied so much on echoing the story beats of the first, classic trilogy.  I can’t help but thinking that if Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (respective directors of Episode VIII and IX) go down the well-trodden road of hanging the emotional stakes of the next two movies on a tired, obvious theory about Rey that everyone has already guessed, then the audience response will be a fairly giant collective shrug – and it’s not as though those movies don’t already have enormous expectations to live up to the standard set by TFA.  Certainly it’s fun to speculate about who Rey could really be, but we want the answer to be something that nobody ever saw coming.  We want to be surprised again, and frankly, given the amount of money and talent going into producing these things, we should see nothing less than their best efforts to do just that.  The greatest stories are those where your expectations are turned on their head, not just met (barely).

It was announced this week that Episode VIII‘s release date has been bumped from May to December 2017, ostensibly due to that being a window that steers it clear of the comic-book adaptations and other summer movie fare that might eat into its potential box office take.  But it was also revealed that writer-director Rian Johnson is doing another revision on the script (even though filming has already begun) to pare back the roles of some new characters and ensure that the spotlight remains on Rey, Poe and Finn (umm… obviously?).  If they are going to take that extra time to make sure we get the best movie possible, then use it to give us a story that will keep us guessing or make us admit in hindsight that “I never would have thought of that.”  Don’t count on holding the audience’s loyalty if what you are serving is a lame, obvious “Rey, I am your father” reveal.  (The latest theory about Rey is that she is descended from Emperor Palpatine, based on, I don’t know, the fact that they both have British accents?  Not quite sure how old Palps was getting some on the side while he was so single-mindedly plotting to take over the galaxy.)

Rey is such a wonderful addition to the Star Wars universe, and to the motion picture science fiction/fantasy genre in general, that it would be a shame to see her lessened by a cheap, easily anticipated plot twist about her parentage.  She, and her fans cheering her on from the theater seats, deserve far more.  It may be fun to speculate about such things, but I have a feeling that if any of these theories turns out to be right, the result will be only disappointment – and everyone knows we have endured far too much disappointment from this franchise already.

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Shame on the body shamers

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I guess the goodwill couldn’t last too long.  Just as Star Wars:  The Force Awakens is being greeted by critical acclaim, record box-office earnings and praise for its compelling lead character, the dark side of fandom has arisen – very much like the movie’s First Order from the ashes of the Empire – and is blasting Carrie Fisher for her appearance, so much so that the actress/writer herself felt the need to respond through social media.  As you’ll see in the linked article, the troglodytes in question have then doubled down, suggesting a variation of “you were asking for it” by her agreeing to appear in the movie in the first place.

It is a morbidly fascinating phenomenon to witness the claiming of ownership of an entertainment franchise by certain segments of fans who blow collective gaskets when the newest installment does not meet every single one of their impossible expectations, or worse, dares to shake up the status quo.  Author Chuck Wendig received a taste of this when he met a backlash over including gay characters in his Star Wars novel Aftermath.  But even with that, Wendig wasn’t attacked for his looks, or, you know, succumbing to that virulent, merciless and entirely natural human process known as aging.

When it comes to women, all bets are apparently off.

Carrie Fisher is incredibly smart, razor-edge funny, breathtakingly courageous with her openness about her battles with depression, and has probably written more of the lines you quote to your buddies at the pub in her largely unheralded career as a script doctor than any other scribe alive today.  But Hollywood is notorious and has always been notorious for giving its women a limited shelf life depending on – and you’ll forgive the lewd expression – how fuckable they are perceived to be.  I think of a lot of actresses of her generation who inspired heavy panting back in the 80’s and 90’s – Daryl Hannah, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone to name but a few – and wonder where they are now.  They’ve lost none of their talent, but the parts aren’t coming, despite male contemporaries continuing to land interesting and challenging roles.  Michael Douglas in his 70’s still appears in blockbusters in 2015 while his younger, but apparently not young enough wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is nowhere to be seen.  One of the most egregious examples I can think of is when Kathleen Turner, the voice of Jessica Rabbit, the famous femme fatale of Body Heat, was hired to play “Chandler’s father in drag” in an episode of Friends.  When you don’t sell posters or copies of Playboy anymore, this is what you are left with.  On the rare occasion you do get a chance for a plum part – usually as someone’s mother or a cackling villain – the response is, as we are seeing with Carrie Fisher here, clucked tongues questioning how you could let yourself go like that.

What is it about seeing an older Leia that struck such a disgruntled nerve?  We all know the infamous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi – for many young men of that era it was a sexually formative experience, but frankly there were plenty of other scantily-clad princesses in sci-fi and fantasy at the time, and you don’t often hear lingering reminisces of longing for Princess Ardala from Buck Rogers or Princess Karina from The Ice Pirates.   With Leia, perhaps it was the notion of a powerful female character being enslaved, literally chained up, that was the most appealing to those fertile young imaginations (he wrote, choking down his vomit).  Regardless, I’m not entirely sure, and Carrie Fisher has mused about this in her one-woman shows, why “Slave Leia” had to then create an implicit contract between her performer and millions of fanboys, that the person in the outfit was somehow obligated to look like that for the rest of her life, that her sexuality became the property of legions of strange men.  How she looks is really her business and no one else’s.  It may very well be the failing of male-driven Hollywood as it creates these images of lust-inducing goddesses without acknowledging the human reality beneath the makeup and the barely-there costumes and the pixels.  But these hopped-up keyboard warriors who have the gall to act as if they have been wronged, and then go and insult an accomplished woman from a safe perch behind proxy servers, are spectacularly nauseating.  Because, to put it bluntly:

CARRIE FISHER DOES NOT OWE YOU AN ERECTION.

Neither she, nor any other person who puts themselves in the public eye bears any responsibility to fulfill the sexual fantasies of every single person who happens to look at them.  When you buy a ticket to The Force Awakens, all Carrie Fisher owes you is a good performance, and in that, she delivers, bringing a quiet note of tragedy to what had once been an irrepressible character.  Perhaps that itself factors into disappointment with TFA Leia, that she is more subdued and less the forceful “your worshipfulness” than she is in the original trilogy.  Well, in character terms, 30 years of a life spent fighting a war you had hoped was over will do that.  More to the point though, Carrie Fisher was not under any compulsion to return to the front of the camera, and that she did it (and subjected herself to a rigorous diet and exercise regime first) speaks to her ultimate love of the character and the franchise and a level of caring for the fans that perhaps doesn’t always come across in her occasionally blunt interviews (remarks that, were she male, would pass unnoticed, like, I don’t know, EVERY SINGLE QUOTE Harrison Ford ever gave about Han Solo being boring).  And forget the comeback about whatever she was paid for her participation – do you have any idea what script doctors make?  She does not need the money that badly.  She could easily have sat this one out.

To soil yourself and fire demeaning remarks off into the Internet because the 2015 movie didn’t feature the 1983 actress is to betray a terrible sense of male privilege, as though the entire purpose of Princess Leia and by extension Carrie Fisher’s existence is to satisfy your desperate need for arousal by any means necessary.  It isn’t.   But apparently it’s okay to reduce her to that.  (I write this without expectation that my readers fall into this category, so kindly forgive the use of the figurative “you.”)  The success of The Force Awakens should have been celebrated as an unreserved triumph for Carrie Fisher and yet, the movie not yet three weeks in theaters, it is instead dragging out old issues that she’s struggled with her entire life.  She didn’t need this crap.  Where we should be talking about the movie’s story, style, message and impact, instead the discussion is being driven to its most trite level by the most juvenile of entitled voices, to the extent that Fisher herself felt the need to say something about it.  That’s disgraceful, and Star Wars fans everywhere owe her a collective apology – and a thank you for reminding us that even our imaginary heroes grow up.

It’s past time that we did too.

A Rey of Sunshine

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Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.

I Really, Really Want Supergirl to be Awesome

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Love it or hate it, we are living in the age of superheroes.  They have burst from the pages and the fringes to cement themselves at the forefront of mainstream entertainment, and they show no sign of folding up their capes and flying out of town anytime soon.  Having been alive to witness the emergence of the genre with the original Superman films of the late 70’s and their embarrassing sequels in the 80’s, the brutal slog of the zero-budget Cannon oeuvre (anybody remember the original Captain America?), and the long drought in the 90’s when all we had were Blade and a series of progressively awful Batman sequels, one can recall when superheroes were a fool’s investment; now studios and producers can’t snap up the properties fast enough.  Gone too are the days when you could write off the entire genre as mindless frivolity for the kiddies.  Serious talent goes into the production of these things now, and there are enough of them of sufficiently varied quality and targeted appeal that it becomes increasingly difficult to paint them all with the same ink brush.

At least, that’s what you’d hope.  Regrettably, the Powers That Be are still gun shy at the notion of a leading female superhero.  As Marvel takes heat from fans over the nonexistent Black Widow solo movie, a leaked memo from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter shows him citing the box office failures of Elektra, Catwoman and the original 1984 Supergirl as justification for a lack of development on female-led titles.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, in a most staggering example of sexism, no one postulated that the failure of the terrible Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie in 2011 meant the death knell of male-driven superhero movies, and Reynolds is getting another shot at a lead superhero role in Deadpool.  By contrast, no one eager to keep their plum Hollywood executive job would dare bankroll Jennifer Garner in, say, Zatanna.  (Marvel has announced the female Captain Marvel for release in 2018 – after DC, slower out of the gate with their own franchises, releases the Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman in 2017).  And while it is not as though we haven’t seen any female superheroes in the modern era, they still bear the scars of creative types being not entirely sure what to do with them.  Elektra and Catwoman didn’t fail because they starred women, they failed because they were bad films with leads written as caricatures designed to appeal to teenage boys rather than as fully developed and actualized women.  Gods as characters are hard to write with the best of intentions, and it would seem that crafting compelling stories for goddesses is even more of a Sisyphean task.  The challenge is to create wants for them that are believable and relatable, and obstacles that require more than a numbing million-dollar-a-minute visual effects budget to overcome.

The X-Men films had Storm and Jean Grey, and while the former was woefully underused and somewhat de-powered for the sake of plot, the latter was reduced to a mishmash of ethereal love interest-turned-psychotic murder goddess who had to be killed to save the rest of humanity.  Black Widow has no special abilities other than her basic combat skills and is shoehorned into the sidekick/partner role in whatever Marvel film seems convenient (and we won’t go in to the controversy about her revelation about her backstory in her most recent appearance).  While it was nice to see a truly superpowered woman emerge in Avengers: Age of Ultron in the person of the Scarlet Witch, the movie was so cramped with characters all requiring their own beats that we never got a chance to find out much about what made her tick, and again, she suffered the same problem as Storm in that her presence was limited to prevent the audience from dwelling on the extent of her powers lest they wonder why she doesn’t just do X and Y in order to stop the bad guys and save the world.

The original Supergirl movie tried to duplicate the formula that made Superman such a smash in 1978:  a cast of Hollywood stars surrounding a compelling unknown, and enough money thrown at the screen to try to give the audience a memorable effects-heavy spectacle.  Unfortunately, the weak story and the excessive focus on the campy villainess (and the refusal of the journeyman director to rein in Faye Dunaway’s gluttonous gobbling of the scenery) undermined a game performance by lead Helen Slater and conspired to sink the entire effort and by extension confine the notion of a female superhero movie into the vault for 20 years.  Superman himself went into hibernation around then as well, and has only recently emerged, though in two wildly uneven outings, the first of which (2006’s Superman Returns) turned him into a creepy super-stalker absentee father, while the second (2013’s Man of Steel) was a grim, violent, tonally wrong orgiastic CGI smash-em-up.  It has fallen to television, and producer Greg Berlanti, on the heels of his other superhero ratings successes Arrow and The Flash, to try and get Supergirl right – as cinema screens prepare to unleash the spectacle no one asked for of Batman and Superman beating the crap out of each other with Wonder Woman looking on and presumably shaking her tiara’d head in next year’s Batman V Superman:  Dawn of Justice.

The extended Supergirl trailer that debuted a few weeks ago was more than a breath of fresh air, it was a positively endearing gale-force blast.  As essayed by the immediately appealing Melissa Benoist, this sunny, optimistic Supergirl is utterly free of angst, and actually excited about exploring her abilities instead of viewing them and the corresponding duty to fight crime as a relentless curse – thus separating her from almost every single other caped crusader out there.  I’m not sure where the rule came from that superheroes have to brood constantly about their lot in life instead of finding joy in being exceptional; it smacks to me of writers worrying that this is the only way the average audience member will be able to relate to gods – by delivering the subconscious message that “yeah, Wolverine’s claws and healing factor are cool and all, but trust us, you wouldn’t really want to be like him.”

In the 1984 Supergirl there was a deleted scene early in the movie nicknamed the “aerial ballet” of her gliding through the air about a forest and beaming with delight as she discovered what she could do – snipped after a test screening for the sake of pacing, or perhaps the fear that an expected mostly-male audience simply wouldn’t want to watch a woman reveling in her awakening.  Ask yourself these many years later what the most popular scene in Frozen was, and the answer is Elsa’s “Let It Go” transformation, so, a haughty pshaw to that notion.  In the TV Supergirl trailer we see her take to the skies with a huge smile on her face, and a determination in her heart to be something more than she is – to be the hero she knows it is within her to become.  She does not want to run from who she is, she wants to shout it from the tops of the tall buildings that she’s leaping over in a single bound.

This, to me, is what modern superhero filmed fiction is sorely lacking, especially when it comes to female superheroes:  a sense of hope, which, if you think about it, is why young boys and girls read comic books in the first place.  The sense of powerlessness that youth can instill when one is not the popular kid, or has a rotten home life, or just feels that nothing ever goes his or her way, is what we turn to those stories to heal.  As kids and even adults we gravitate to the notion that we too might be able to put on a cape and soar, and find that triumph that is lacking in our own mundane lives.  That’s not what we’re getting from the movies that are all the rage right now.  The Marvel collection, despite their quippy, colorful tone, still operate from a sense of profound cynicism about the world and its people.  (For all the deserved feminist accolades for Marvel guru Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show’s core premise was that high school and by extension the world was a hell to be fought constantly, and Whedon’s chronic tendency to pad his drama by refusing to allow his characters any semblance of long-term happiness often resulted in a frustrating and pessimism-inducing viewing experience.  This approach to storytelling has carried over to his films and filtered through the non-Whedon Marvel movies as well.)  The DC movies are simply morose, packaged by bean-counting committees obsessed with finding a way to differentiate themselves from the comparatively lighter Marvel.  The obsession with shoehorning “dark and edgy” content into absolutely everything is stripping these stories of their reason for being.  We need to reconnect with the inspiration at the heart of these tales.  We need some hope back.  Girls and women will welcome a genuine, powerful superhero in whom they can see their hopes and dreams reflected, whose aspirations they can share, and whose triumphs they can celebrate, without feeling as though they are being pandered to with a male-gaze camera leering on shots of her shapely costumed figure.

This is why I am crossing my fingers very tightly for Supergirl.  Given how it has introduced itself to the world, and fair or not, more is riding on its success than its creators probably realize.  Done right, the show can tap into the same hunger for goodwill and optimism and compelling, complex female characters that made Frozen such a worldwide phenomenon and still lingers out there waiting to be embraced again.  It can deliver the message that not only can women lead a superhero franchise, but that they don’t have to do so by adopting the same gritty, troubled persona as the menfolk.  And it would be wonderful indeed to see some of that optimism permeate the other superhero stories that are flooding our screens instead of condemning us to a parade of furrowed brows and punching for the next ten years.  Let’s have something that leaves us happy and renewed instead of forcing us to ruminate on the bleak existentialist wasteland that is life.

If the show doesn’t work, if it falls back into the cheeseball antics of the bad old days of the 80’s and 90’s, then, attitudes being as they are, not only will the likes of Ike Perlmutter be vindicated in their beliefs about the box office non-viability of female superheroes, but it will also be taken as a reinforcement of the (in my opinion, erroneous) idea that comic book movies have to be dark and cynical in order to find an audience.  No one is suggesting that the stories shouldn’t have conflict, but the victories that come of those conflicts shouldn’t always feel so Pyrrhic so that one walks out of the theater or turns off the television worn out and depressed when we were meant to have been inspired.  There’s that old chestnut about a movie or a show that makes you stand up and cheer; we haven’t had that for a very long time, and we really need it – boys and girls alike.  So Godspeed, Supergirl, may you fly far, and may you turn out to be everything we’re hoping for and far more.

No pressure or anything.

“Chewie, we’re home.”

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Three little words.  The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon.  A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years.  We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different.  This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen.  This was a gift.  This was faith rewarded.

About damn time.

The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill.  Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies.  We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.

Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night.  I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m.  People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue.  Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water.  When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.

We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for.  It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight.  No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”  But the glow faded very fast.  Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises.  It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy.  And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn.  We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again.  The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it.  Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars.  He was ready to move on.

Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams.  The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter.  The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia.  Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo.  The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds.  The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.

The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months.  In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen.  He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet.  Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better.  Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment.  With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.

What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result.  The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.

Marvel Fatigue

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I come before you today with a problem.

It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts.  It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.

You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.

I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni.  But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste.  Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies).  And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals.  We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning.  And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent.  But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:

Surprise us.

The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars.   My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us.  And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down.  The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.”  Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one.  Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977.  For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke.  Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route.  Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own.  You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.

I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue:  sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste.  If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting.  One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern.  Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings.  Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?

I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian.  I want to be wowed.  I want to be surprised.  I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right.  I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.

I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.

I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man.  Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected.  And why should they?  They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls.  You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.

I’m tired of McDonald’s.  Give me a steak.

Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong.  There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise.  The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard.  But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.

I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore.  Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with.  That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.

But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.

I have been, and ever shall be…

Nimoy

Our sky is a little dimmer today with the loss of someone who expanded the meaning of stardom out beyond the final frontier.  Leonard Nimoy, gone at 83, was an actor, director and photographer by vocation but at heart a storyteller and shaper of one of the most impactful fictional characters of our time, who helped remind millions of us feeling like aliens walking an often confusing planet that we were human after all.  And more than that, in an entertainment landscape overrun by buffoons and simpletons elevated by ratings popularity to aspirational figure(air)heads, Nimoy made smart and logical the coolest thing you could hope to be.  With his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Nimoy gave the pursuit and value of intellect a mysterious and, dare-one-say-it, sexy side.  He gave hope to those of us more comfortable with a math book than a bench press.  He showed that brain could be more magnetic than brawn.

When I first watched Star Trek at the age of 10 or so, Spock was the character I was most drawn to.  Sure, Captain Kirk was the swashbuckling hero and Scotty had a cool accent, Dr. McCoy was full of Southern charm and Lieutenant Uhura was simply stunning to behold, but Mr. Spock was, if one will pardon the pun, fascinating.  A teenage kid struggling with hormones and the associated emotional imbalance, particularly in the wake of the passing of his own father, will naturally find himself captivated by this unflappable figure who sets that troublesome turmoil aside and approaches each problem from the standpoint of clear and logical analysis – while never forgetting the all-important human equation, even if he hasn’t quite figured that out yet.  I wanted to learn more about Vulcans and try to emulate their approach to life, even if I didn’t think I would ever become a scientist.  More importantly I wanted to figure out if it was actually possible to neck-pinch someone into unconsciousness – would have helped with bullies back in the bad old days.

Our popular culture contains an infinite assortment of characters whose adventures and traits resonate within our collected consciousness long after they have exited the stage.  With respect to his successor Zachary Quinto, few characters and performers are as inextricably fused as Nimoy and Spock.  Surprisingly, or not, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial description of the USS Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer was the very definition of “broad strokes,” a sketch that could have applied to any generic alien from any cheesy science fiction program of the last century:

…Probably half-Martian, he has a slightly reddish complexion and semi-pointed ears…

As most fans know, NBC was so unimpressed with Spock as he appeared in Star Trek’s first pilot that dumping him was one of their conditions for agreeing to finance a second.  Roddenberry refused, of course, and over the original run of 79 episodes, Nimoy took those pencil marks and began to infuse him with depth, gravitas, and even a dose of Jewish mysticism (the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute), creating a lasting icon.  As the Star Trek canon became ever more robust, Nimoy seemed to get its characters and the reason for its popularity more than the behind-the-camera talent did.  Blossoming into a fine director, he took them helm and helped guide Star Trek on its cinematic journey, and those times where it stumbled were those in which his voice was left unwisely on the sidelines.  It would seem strange to wish to try and do anything with Star Trek without the input of Mr. Spock, but so goes the human arrogance that Spock himself would rightfully disdain.

Like so many of his Trek co-stars, Nimoy the actor wrestled with the issue of typecasting.  In the 1970’s, he suffered through a bout of fan misgivings after the publication of his autobiography I Am Not Spock, proof that even before social media the public was apt to overreact to things not worth getting upset about.  Such was the loyalty to the character he had etched into so many millions of hearts.  (Sure enough, when rumors began circulating during the pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Spock was to die, a most illogical wave of threats began bombarding that movie’s producers.)  When he wrote his sequel I Am Spock so many years later, Nimoy reconciled with his alter ego and with the fans who wanted to see him as nothing else, perhaps recognizing that if one is to be known for just one achievement in one’s lifetime, the definitive portrayal of a character who inspires millions of people is not such a bad legacy to leave.

In his twilight years, as he explored his passion for photography and made the occasional TV or film appearance, Nimoy seemed settled into the idea of himself as elder statesman and philosopher.  A few days ago, after he was admitted to hospital, Nimoy’s Twitter account posted several moving messages about life and memory, perhaps from an accepting sense that the days were growing short.  It was, in effect, communicating a final wish to the world that it live long and prosper, as he did.  In the final scene of Star Trek II, the dying Spock’s thoughts and words are not for himself, but for his ship, his captain, and his friend.  “Don’t grieve,” he says.  “It is logical; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

In the end, Leonard Nimoy is that rare man who can move on from this life with no task left undone and no ambition left to prove.  It can truly be said of him that he left things better than he found them – we could wish no more for him, or ourselves.  And perhaps as his captain might have put it, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”

Star Wars VII and cultural karaoke

xwing

For someone prone to dropping Star Wars references in almost everything he writes, I haven’t had much to say since the official announcement, just a few cycles prior to Star Wars Day, of the cast of J.J. Abrams’ continuation of George Lucas’ fabled saga, in which months of speculation and rumor about who said what and who else was photographed coming out of where were put to rest snugly inside the belly of a Tauntaun.  The lead three from the first beloved trilogy are back:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perennial “Han Solo bores me” grump Harrison Ford (undoubtedly for a handsome chunk of change), along with the unseen but ever-present Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.  They are joined by a mix of screen veterans like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac and the legendary Max von Sydow, and relative unknowns like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver.

Nothing was forthcoming, however, about what contributions to the saga the new players are making.  In the leadup, Driver was said to be the preferred candidate for the “Darth Vader-like villain,” whatever you take that to mean.  As an aside, granted I don’t know what goes into the science of casting, but having endured a few minutes of one episode of Girls I can’t imagine looking at him and having my first thought be, “ruthless galactic bad guy!”  I stand by my opinion that young actors make lousy villains – they often come off as spoiled brats having hissy fits because Mommy confiscated the XBox – but yeah, yeah, lesson of Heath Ledger and all that, we’ll wait for the movie.  And although J.J. Abrams says he regrets being coy about who Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play in Star Trek Into Darkness, suggesting that it hurt the movie in the long run, he seems to be sticking with his policy of keeping everything locked in the mystery box for now.  The only other tantalizing tidbit we’ve heard is that Han Solo is supposed to play a major role in the story while Luke and Leia will be relegated to supporting parts.  (I don’t think this works – the character of Han was never meant to be a lead, only a strong foil, but again, we’ll wait for the movie.)

The best decision Abrams made in taking on this daunting yet coveted assignment was to hire Lawrence Kasdan to help him shape the screenplay to his satisfaction.  Kasdan’s work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was invaluable, particularly his gift with sharp, concise dialogue, and his pen was sorely missed in the prequels.  I recall reading somewhere that Lucas did ask him to help with Episodes I-III and Kasdan declined, suggesting that Lucas needed to write his own story this time.  Shame – we might have been spared I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here.  Here everything is soft and smooth.  Kasdan comes from the antecedent generation of screenwriters, prior to the reigning group that grew up watching movies in video stores, and as such he’s less likely to fall into the Admiral Ackbar-forewarned trap of making this new movie nothing but a callback to the highlights of the first three – if he can keep Abrams, the leading member of the aforementioned reigning group, and the man with the last word on this movie’s story, in line.

Star Wars Episode VII has a Sisyphean task ahead.  It has to measure up to the standard of the first three movies, expunge the bad taste left in many mouths by the soulless, over-digitized prequels, and convey the feel of the Star Wars universe without simply repeating what is not only familiar, but entrenched in the souls of an entire generation.  Even the original trilogy couldn’t manage to do this; that’s why we had two Death Stars to blow up.  But it’s the challenge awaiting anyone who tackles a sequel, no matter what the series.  People always want more of the same thing.  James Bond has to order the same drink, wear the same tux, introduce himself the same way and end up with a girl in the end.  When he doesn’t, fans (and critics) pout.  Formula is a straitjacket:  stray too far and you lose your target market, nestle too comfortably inside it and you’re lost in the cesspool of endless fan service.

When Super 8 came out, critics were quick to dub it the second coming of Steven Spielberg, at least his late 70’s/early 80’s aesthetic, missing the point that when Spielberg was making Close Encounters and E.T. he wasn’t trying to pay homage to anything, he was just telling stories of the time.  With Super 8, however, J.J. Abrams seemed to be trying so hard just to recreate the look and feel of that era of moviemaking that he forgot to tell a story that had any heart, or was even remotely interesting.  My concern for Episode VII is that Abrams will focus on all the wrong elements again, packing a most visually impressive movie with winky-noddy retreads of beats and lines of dialogue from IV-VI that are so familiar they have lost their original meaning and have become geek and nerd shibboleths instead.  Abrams blew the landing of Star Trek Into Darkness by turning the last twenty minutes into a variation on the finale of The Wrath of Khan, yanking us out of the story with “oh yeah, that’s a reference to X, that’s a reference to Y” right when we needed to be locked deep inside it.  I don’t particularly want to be sitting in the audience at Episode VII and eyeing my watch to pinpoint the inevitable moment someone announces “I have a bad feeling about this.”  We’ve been sated with franchise movies constructed from checklists instead of scripts that have emotional resonance.  That way lies the banality of the Friedberg/Seltzer “oeuvre” (i.e. Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans and any one of a dozen comedies built on evoking Pavlovian audience reactions to limp parodies of stale pop culture.)

Note that in the coverage of the cast announcement the new actors are getting much less attention than old.  The new guys (and one girl so far) in Episode VII will be blown off the screen if they are merely retreads on the naive farm boy, the steadfast princess, the wisecracking cynical smuggler, the former hero fallen to the dark side.  They will be dismissed as pale revisions of a superior first draft.  They need to have their own wants and goals and quirks in order to etch themselves into our hearts the way the originals did and to become new shibboleths that we can exchange and quote for another forty years.  They won’t be able to do that if they are plugged into a paint-by-numbers Star Wars plot designed primarily to bring back a sense of 1977.  And if at some point in the movie Daisy Ridley breathes “I love you” to John Boyega and he replies “I know,” we’re just going to roll our eyes.

It’s perhaps ironic to criticize Star Wars for relying too much on repetition of the familiar when it is in itself a pastiche of hero tropes that have existed since cave wall storytelling.  Those tropes are not the problem; the problem is choosing to use them as targets rather than starting points.  That I think is the major issue I have with the kind of storytelling espoused by J.J. Abrams and his contemporaries.  They’re not trying to do anything terribly new, they just want to do their own version of the stuff they liked when they were young, focusing not on creation but on re-creation with a modern spin.  It’s cultural karaoke on a billion-dollar scale, and if we’re going to invest that amount of money, talent, effort and time, it would be nice to walk out of the theater having experienced something worthwhile.  Having been taken somewhere we’ve never been before.  George Lucas himself proved the disconnect that occurs when you construct a story predicated on hitting specific beats (a systematic problem with pretty much every prequel ever made) rather than growing organically from rich characterizations.  We know where you’re going with this, you’ve practically handed us the coordinates and programmed the navicomputer.  And we stop caring.  Just like we stop listening to the guy at the karaoke bar doing “American Pie” for the fifteenth time, no matter how good a voice he actually has.

In any event, the gauntlet has been thrown down, Messrs. Abrams, Kasdan et al, to step away from what’s expected and venture instead into galaxies unknown – dare you pick it up or recoil lest your arm be severed by a lightsaber?