Tag Archives: Darth Vader

The Why of Skywalker

Well, I’m not sure what to make of the title.

It’s not quite as straightforward as A New Hope or The Force Awakens, nor is it as clunky as Attack of the Clones or as obvious as Revenge of the Sith.  But after the abrupt drop of the trailer for the final installment of the great space saga that began 42 years ago this May, we’re left with just as many questions about The Rise of Skywalker as we had the instant before we saw Rey in the desert, igniting her lightsaber against the screaming approach of Kylo Ren’s TIE Silencer.  Has the returning creative force that is J.J. Abrams managed to craft a satisfying end to this particular tale after the creative choices made by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi left a vocal group of hardcore fans mewling over their spilt blue milk?  Is Star Wars going out in a blaze of exploding Death Star glory or limping, exhausted into a gentle fade away like Luke himself on his mountainside hideaway?

Star Wars as a series of movies isn’t one that lends itself to a lot of different interpretations.  You either buy into it and love it or shrug your shoulders and regard it with indifference.  (There tends not to be a lot of people who actively dislike it, save your typical clove cigarette-sniffing film critics who believe George Lucas and his generation killed the art of cinema.)  More to the point, there generally aren’t a lot of ideas at work in each movie, beyond the exploration of the archetypes of good and evil.  Ambiguity is nowhere to be found, and character motivations are generally skin deep, that is, “we must do X before Y happens.”  Rian Johnson’s stroke of inspiration in The Last Jedi was to sneak some genuine food for thought into this relatively restrictive frame.  While the bad guys chased down the good guys and laser blasts flew, we saw the usual notions of heroism and destiny turned on their heads.  From the moment Luke blithely chucked his legendary lightsaber over his shoulder, our expectations were thwarted.  We saw storied legends turn to cowards and were asked to examine the difference between a hero and a leader.  We were asked to consider the notion and worth of sacrifice.  We saw ugliness beneath opulence.  We saw three different versions of the same event and were asked to choose which one we believed.  In what was perhaps the boldest answer to the many mystery box questions left over from The Force Awakens and yet one that dovetailed neatly with the central thesis of the movie, Johnson told us that Rey (the wonderful Daisy Ridley) was descended from absolutely no one of any consequence.  Whenever the movie was meant to go right, it turned left, and unusually for this crowd-pleaser of a saga, a lot of folks got pissed off.

Angry Star Wars fans are nothing new as they’ve been skulking around the Internet ever since a certain Mr. Lucas thought that a bumbling orange floppy-eared amphibian was what his audience truly craved.  How many “raped my childhood” posts and comments were we forced to sift through while navigating the primitive interwebs circa 2000 A.D.?  But even through the uneven experience that was the prequel trilogy the love for the universe itself remained undimmed, largely because of the reassurance that the images of Luke, Han and Leia as they were first presented were preserved in cinematic amber, to be revisited whenever you had a spare two hours and a Blu-ray copy handy.  Luke Skywalker in particular was the unflappable hero, last seen beaming alongside his comrades by an Endor celebration bonfire, his mission accomplished, the future a galaxy of possibility.  Surely then, when he returned to the fray as teased by the final shot of The Force Awakens, we would see him again donning that mantle and slicing apart First Order Star Destroyers and other Chuck Norris-esque feats while those same angry fans now wet themselves in orgiastic ecstasy.  You know, much the same reaction as accompanied the reveal of Darth Vader hacking down hapless Rebels left and right in the closing scene of Rogue One.

And it would have been an incredibly boring movie.

A downtrodden Luke was a huge surprise, and incredibly necessary, because otherwise, what is his story?  Where does he go?  What does he do?  Grab the lightsaber and jump aboard the Millennium Falcon five seconds later so the remainder of the movie’s run time is stormtroopers getting sliced up?  There is a pretty good reason why these movies aren’t made by knuckling under to fanservice.  And why WhinyFanBoi68 doesn’t have a first-look deal at Disney, despite the many volumes of self-penned Luke/Mara Jade sex scenes on his hard drive.

As exciting as it is to live in an era where social media allows us to interact with the creators of our favorite art, the drawback comes when those same creators mistakenly interpret the shouted (and usually profane) demands of a fervent minority as the opinion of the many.  They will even find themselves feeling like they have to defend their creative choices vocally – feeding the trolls, in effect – instead of letting the work stand for itself.  Driven by these same trolls (and lazy media writers who give them megaphones by boosting their bleats to drive clicks), the public narrative on Star Wars now says that the poor reception of The Last Jedi led to an underwhelming response to Solo: A Star Wars Story and now The Rise of Skywalker will undo much of what was established by The Last Jedi in order to calm everybody down and make sure everyone has a rollicking good time at the conclusion of this saga.  Never mind that J.J. Abrams himself said he loved the script for The Last Jedi so much that he wished he was directing it, or that Solo still made a metric tonne of money despite its key fault (outside of the fact that you can’t really recast Harrison Ford’s most iconic role) that it was looking backward rather than forward.  The movie gods have decided, and there will be no take-backsies.  Apparently.

The most surprising thing to me among the litany of Last Jedi bitching was the note that one would think would resonate most among Star Wars fans:  that the Force wasn’t the exclusive property of one noble family.  That the revelation of Rey as the daughter of drunken (and deceased) junk dealers, and the anonymous kid on Canto Bight Forcing a broom into his hands before staring up hopefully into the night sky, hinted at a galaxy where anyone could be the hero, regardless of bloodline.  When we were young, who wasn’t that kid pretending that a hockey stick or a pool skimmer or any lousy stick you could find was a blue-bladed lightsaber ready to scare off those bullies who chased you home?  Who didn’t dream that we could find within us the same courage that led Luke to confront the Emperor, to confront our own demons, whatever they were?  Rian Johnson was one of those kids.  Making Rey a nobody, making her someone who found it within herself to be a hero no matter where she came from, was a powerful message for him to send – a tribute, in essence, to all the dreamers out there.  The idea that it might be retconned in The Rise of Skywalker to make her someone famous all along is like telling all those kids and kids at heart that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never get anywhere unless you’re born a Kardashian.

Or a Trump.

It’ll be unfortunate if that is the direction Abrams et al choose to push the story, in the hopes of soothing the commenterati desperate for predictable, straightforward answers to complete their wiki pages.  If Rey has to be a Skywalker to fulfill the promise of the title, wouldn’t it be more interesting if it’s a name she chooses for herself, rather than it being an inevitable cosmic birthright?  If the First Order’s (and the undead Emperor’s, apparently, I’m really not wild about that revelation) obsession with destroying Skywalker leads instead to the rise of millions of self-proclaimed Skywalkers across the galaxy – a sort of I am Spartacus moment to the strains of John Williams’ Force Theme?  “No one’s ever really gone,” says the voice of Luke in the trailer.  Maybe that line doesn’t have to be so bloody literal.  Maybe this is the resolution of the conflict that is Kylo Ren:  even though he wants to continue the legacy of his grandfather, no one else does.  Maybe the lasting victory of the light side over the dark is in what people remember and most want to take with them.

I’m not saying I necessarily want that to be the answer.   But the line between a lasting experience and something that is merely a diversion is the ability to surprise and to go deeper than what is happening on the surface, and based on the trailer I’m really not sure which is in store.  In many ways, Rian Johnson achieved the former with The Last Jedi simply given how many people are still talking about his movie, even if it is with disdain.  Once The Rise of Skywalker has come and gone, will we still be talking about it years afterward, or will it be merely a pretty good movie that leaves not a trace of aftertaste or thirst for interpretation?  An epic conclusion or a series of boxes ticked to avoid a rash of hot takes?

I know which one I’d prefer.

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Rise of The Dark Knight

The Christopher Nolan Batman trifecta.

After groaning through a prehistoric glacier’s worth of ice puns in 1997’s Batman & Robin, I was done with the Caped Crusader.  This was back in an era when I could usually find something positive to say about any movie I went to see, and my comment upon completing a slow funereal march out of the theater along with dozens of other disappointed audience members was, “That was $100 million that could have gone to feed starving children.”  Batman & Robin was a two-hour sensory middle finger, stitched together to become less than the sum of its parts like some ungodly Frankenstein’s monster by accountants and focus groups.  The old Adam West-Burt Ward TV show had been an after school ritual for me for many years, but the kitsch that worked so well in 22-minute installments in the late 60’s was excruciating when blown up for the multiplexes.  What was fun and oddly sincere in one medium became insulting in another.

Since ’97, the theaters had been flooded with one superhero movie after another, some decent but most not, as studios plumbed their back catalogue to find some obscure character in a mask whom they could dress a star as and plug into basically the same script with a hip-hop soundtrack and thus secure a pre-sold blockbuster.  Drubbed to death just as thoroughly around the same time was the concept of the prequel.  “We’re going back to show you how it all happened.”  It wasn’t enough to let a character exist with some mystery about their backstory; now it all had to be spelled out with each personality quirk given a deep, long-simmering Freudian rationale.  (We can all admit that we thought Darth Vader was much cooler before we heard his boyhood self squeal “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.)  So when I heard there was a new Batman movie coming out and that it was a prequel, my excitement level was roughly akin to what it would be if someone told me today’s special in our work cafeteria was a bowl of hot concrete.

The trailers for Batman Begins didn’t spur much enthusiasm either.  Liam Neeson doing his Jedi mentor routine again.  Bruce Wayne angst-ridden about his parents, even though we’d seen him coping with that in movies one through four.  The only thing that seemed promising was the casting – heavyweights like Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, each of whom has the freedom to pick and choose and certainly wasn’t going to sign on for the same old same old.  After Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman, successive films had tried to compete by doubling the number villains and cramming whatever A-lister was available into the roles, regardless of whether or not the story was served by it.  Screenwriter William Goldman, when discussing working with Batman Forever‘s cowl-wearer Val Kilmer, commented on this pattern by observing that “Batman is and always has been a horrible part,” and that it existed solely for the more over-the-top villain roles to play off.  The casting of Christian Bale in the lead this time, not an unknown but not exactly a seat-packing screen presence either, seemed to suggest that there were slim pickings in the ranks of volunteers to succeed Kilmer, George Clooney and Michael Keaton.  The trailer scenes showed a very low-key approach to the storytelling as well, almost pleading “um, excuse me, if you don’t mind, that is, if you’re not busy, we kind of have a sort of new Batman movie for you.”  The director, Christopher Nolan, had made the fascinating low-budget Memento, and the plodding higher-budget Insomnia.  Truthfully, it all added up to a spectacular non-event.

Imagine one’s surprise when Batman Begins turned out to be merely spectacular.

The reasons why?  Well, Christopher Nolan made one crucial decision in crafting his film.  Aside from the usual reasons offered – treating the material seriously, dialing down the camp – he defied both expectation and tradition and deliberately made Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting character in the movie.  Admittedly borrowing a lesson from the casting of the first Superman, where Oscar-winners and other screen legends surrounded the unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, Nolan uses his stars to reflect their light onto the lead.  The movie remains Batman’s story through and through; while there are villains, they are not given equal billing, nor is any significant screen time wasted on the complexity of their origins (the burden of all the Spider-Man movies).  Like the best villains, they exist mainly as challenges for the hero to overcome – impediments to his growth as a human being.  Even in The Dark Knight, the Joker comes out of nowhere and simply is, like a force of nature – he lies repeatedly about how he got his signature scars, in effect taking the piss out of the tired “villain’s motivation” trope.  And there is a mystery to be solved; an actual plot to unravel piece by piece, instead of the bad guys running around trying to kill Batman for two hours.  It keeps moving forward in so compelling a fashion that you forget you’re actually watching a character study, that happens to have some cool fight scenes in it.

In addition, Nolan created a complexity to Bruce Wayne heretofore unexplored on screen.  He has three personas:  Batman; the private, troubled Bruce Wayne; and the flamboyant, spoiled rich 1%-er Bruce Wayne – a new dimension to the man, unseen in his Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney iterations, where Wayne seemed to be just a decent guy who happened to be extraordinarily rich.  Bale’s public Bruce is a trust fund brat, careless with his millions, the last guy you would ever expect to want to be Batman, let alone actually do it – which makes it even more logical that he would choose to act this way.  Bale’s work is so good in the part that he’s actually more interesting as Wayne than he is in the Batsuit – which is just as well, because it’s over an hour into the movie before he finally puts it on.  The Dark Knight continues this dichotomy:  Bruce Wayne continues to act like a colossal entitled douchebag, deflecting all suspicion that he could possibly be the noble, driven soul determined to save Gotham City from itself.  In Nolan’s Batman films, the true battles are not “Biff!”  “Zap!”  “KaPow!” but the ones going on inside these incredibly damaged people who are essentially representatives of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human beings.  Batman isn’t just a token good guy – he’s us.  He’s what we like to think we’d do, given the means, but more importantly, the will.  And like us, he is a man who must overcome significant flaws and weaknesses to push himself beyond that limit.

The forthcoming conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, takes place nine years after Batman went on the lam, blamed for the murders of Harvey Dent and several police officers.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to suggest that Bruce Wayne’s challenge in this movie may be to question whether he can truly leave the mantle of Batman behind, if the path of a hero is ultimately futile in that it has no end, no final triumph, way to know for certain whether the entire journey has been worth it.  With apologies to William Goldman, Batman is no longer a horrible part.  Truthfully, it never was – he just happened to end up in some horrible movies.  Handled properly, he is an ideal vehicle for an exploration into the concepts of heroism, sacrifice and morality – the stuff of what the best stories are made.  So go on and rise, Batman – we’re going to miss you when the last of the credits roll.

So be it… Jedi.

Although giddy for the release of brand new, high-definition Blu-Ray versions of their favourite films, Star Wars fans were mostly horrified this week to learn that the Jedi Master of the saga of a galaxy far, far away, the relentless tinkerer George Lucas, had ordered some additional digital changes to his babies – the most egregious of which was the dubbing of additional dialogue for Darth Vader during the climactic sequence in Return of the Jedi where he sacrifices himself to save his son.  Where Darth had originally done the deed in silence, he now screams “No.  Nooooo!!!!” as he picks up the evil Emperor and hurls him to his doom.  No less a luminary than actor (and Star Trek star) Simon Pegg took to Twitter to denounce this latest re-edit, and the Internet nearly melted down from the resulting collective fanboy freak-out.  For Wars-ies still miffed by Greedo firing first in the 1997 Special Edition re-cut of A New Hope and the overall existence of Jar Jar Binks, it was one CGI tweak over the line.  With the backlash to the Special Edition changes and the general disappointment in the prequel trilogy still fresh in his mind, it’s a little puzzling why George Lucas would want to go back to that same poisoned well.  Surely the thought of being digitally burned in effigy across millions of chat boards can’t be a comforting thought to anyone, no matter how many billions of dollars they sleep on at night.  But it’s difficult for fans or anyone who’s even aware of the Star Wars phenomenon to remember that Lucas sees Star Wars uniquely and in a different way than anyone else.

Star Wars was made in an era before home video, when special effects could be just okay since they were only designed to be seen once quickly in the theatre, rather than pored over, rewound and scrutinized again on an endless loop – when the audience was meant to be so engrossed in the story they didn’t have time to notice the strings on the spaceship.  We know it as we first saw it, and to us, it was and always has been perfect.  When Lucas looks at it, he remembers only the pain of making it:  the threats from nervous studio executives, the embarrassment of the actors not understanding his dialogue, the frustration of the camera crew and their British union rules, the disappointment of the effects guys wasting money on useless shots, the overall feeling that he was ruining his career.  With that baggage, he hasn’t become emotionally attached to every nuanced moment or every cadence in a bit player’s delivery of their only line of dialogue that has managed to entrench itself in popular culture.  It is his creation, and he sees it with the eye not of a kid playing make-believe lightsaber, but of a craftsman where every compromised choice made under pressure of deadline and lack of resources sticks out like a hangnail on an otherwise relatively satisfactory manicure.  Lucas himself has said that “works of art are never completed, they’re only abandoned.”  It’s the same feeling that for those of us who are aspiring writers leads us to tweak endlessly, thinking that every nip and tuck of text brings us inexorably closer to that critical moment when the manuscript will be “ready” – an undefined day that lingers in an unreachable fog.

In the decades since the first Star Wars, we have entered an era where art has become communal – a shared experience where millions of others can take art, bend it, shape it, smash it to bits and reassemble the pieces, with varying degrees of skill and success.  Aside from the many mainstream Hollywood homages to and ripoffs of Star Wars, there is a Library of Congress’ worth of amateur art and fiction out there that draws inspiration from Lucas’ universe.  Indeed, whatever you are into, chances are someone who didn’t originate it and has no connection with those who did has either written about it, made a video about it, performed a song about it, drawn a picture of it or, eye-rollingly, made porn of it (see “Rule 34 of the Internet”).  We live under the impression that once art has been released, it belongs to everyone.  It is the hope of every artist, no matter how hipster they claim to be, that what they have created will be embraced by a large following.  It truly is a cry into the night hoping for a reply.  The ultimate measure of success then is to affix oneself into the zeitgeist as Lucas has done.  Star Wars has grown beyond him and become a force – pardon the pun – unto itself.  Much as the people of a country react poorly to proposed changes to their centuries-old constitutions, voices rise in anger – mostly in the form of Internet chatter – when George wants to smooth out what he sees as the rough edges in his work.  It doesn’t matter if we think it’s perfect.  He doesn’t, and no amount of anonymous name-calling will change his mind.  As much as we might hate him for “Jedi Rocks” or blinking Ewoks or Hayden Christensen’s ghost, if it were our creation, our universe, we’d reserve the right to do the same and we’d be frustrated by strangers getting sentimental and enraged about what we see as our flaws and personal failings in our work.  Whatever one may think of the methods or the results, George Lucas is always trying to improve his art, and there’s something noble in him not being willing to think something is just good enough.

Having said all that, I liked it better when Vader chucked the Emperor over the edge in absolute silence.  But that’s just me.