Stranger Than Fan Fiction

August 12, 2016

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

Marvel SW cross

There was a time fanfic was a much derided form of writing. It was separated from professional writing by an abundance of mary-sue characters, pretzel-shaped soap-opera plots and continuity so shoddy that sharks were jumped on cyborg dragons even before the shark made an appearance. Some would argue that we’re still living in that time. I’d agree except it seems like over the last ten years, Hollywood has been completely taken over by fanfic writers and almost every recent genre flick is an elaborate fan film. Except by virtue of household names in the cast and high production values, it’s difficult to distinguish a mainstream cinema release from a fan-made homage based on quality alone.

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Not The Sequel I’m Looking For

October 23, 2015

002

Probably the only other sci-fi film that’s been looked forward to with as much rabid anticipation as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But because of Episode I, fans are looking forward to it with both ecstatic anticipation and creeping dread.

I think there’s some wisdom to this guy’s argument that The Force Awakens is bound to leave hardcore fans feeling let down. Not because it’ll inevitably suck, but because (let’s just use me as an example) that at 43 years old, no matter how good the movie is, I’m not going to be filled with the same heightened state of wonder I had at age five. I’ll just be literally incapable of it from a physiological and psychological standpoint. It’s a natural part of aging that probably keeps the world from being a much more bonkers place than it already is. Though it could be argued the world actually is being run by people disengaged from reality living in a constant childlike state of make-believe. That would explain everything from America’s reluctance to embrace gun-control to whatever’s going on in the Middle East with robots bombing children.

The inability for The Force Awakens to inspire that same childlike wonder is also a natural part of addiction. Trying to attain that original high is the reason Star Wars merchandising is such a huge industry. You keep mainlining new sculps of Boba Fett figures but you just end up feeling numb inside.

And I think some fans are going to be letdown only because it’ll be the end of speculation. They’ll know if director J.J. Binks actually pulled it off. They’ll know if Luke has really gone over to the Dark Side. They’ll know if blah-blah character is blah-blah thing from blah-blah-blah. What’ll be left to care about?

But I’ll go further in saying that The Force Awakens isn’t even a sequel to Star Wars.

At least not the Star Wars from my childhood. The one that was not called A New Hope when I saw it (see above). I’ve come to realize mine is a very specific perception of the film. So specific that I’m open to the possibility I’m alone in this perception. My Star Wars has little to do with five out of six of the existing films and absolutely nothing to do with the batshit free-for-all that’s the Expanded Universe (of which I’ve only read, in graphic novel form no less, the arc that continues from the end of Return of the Jedi where Luke really does turn to the Dark Side in order to defeat a reincarnated Emperor clone and one shark is jumped after another).

One thing I am sure of, my dislike of the Prequels isn’t specific to me. For fans of the Original Trilogy, it surrounds us, penetrates us and it binds us together. I’ve heard from some that Episode I even ruined, or at least dampened, their enjoyment of the whole franchise. But the reason for my dislike might be more unique. The Prequels specifically ruined my enjoyment of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Not because how spectacularly bad the Prequels are tainted everything they touched, it’s that they made me realize the universe in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is divergent from the one I personally experienced in (for the sake of clarity I’ll call it) A New Hope. This is something I already knew on some level, but the Prequels really hit the point home.

Even when I was a kid The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi left me cold. More so than I would admit to myself. At the time my blinding love for Star Wars prevented me from understanding exactly what it was I didn’t like about the films. I chalked it up to being mildly disappointed my hero and role model* Luke didn’t get the girl or that Empire ended on a WTF cliffhanger or that the Ewoks were unbearably cheesy. It was something more fundamental.

In the universe I experienced watching A New Hope, Obi-Wan and Vader were the last two Jedi. There was no Yoda, there were no Sith, Luke and Leia were obviously not related, and the Emperor wasn’t some kind of space-Sauron but just some dude. Sure, an “evil” dude by all accounts—something between Hitler, Stalin and whoever the worst Ceasar was—but just a man. Which is somehow much more truly evil than a guy in a nappy black robe who’s controlled by some kind of cosmic black magic.

For example, in  A New Hope Vader is a brutal and undeniably scary nemesis, but Grand Moff Tarkin is a much more chilling villain. You get the sense Tarkin really believes he’s acting morally, for the greater good of the Empire and its citizens. He’d probably admit he’s detached and unsentimental in the expedient way he deals with the Rebels, but he sees the Rebels the same way the Oval Office sees ISIS. His Death Star is America’s drone strikes. In this film you get the sense he’s an extension of the Emperor (since the Emperor is too busy to show up on screen, all you get is a sense) and the Emperor is a similarly pragmatic and unflinching colonial bureaucrat more than a psychopathic tyrant.

The film is shockingly low in expository dialogue about what exactly the political situation in this galaxy is. By way oblique comments and the way people react to the presence of Storm Troopers in Mos Eisley, the audience extrapolates the Empire is a totalitarian regime (Owen and Beru’s fate pretty much solidifies this impression). But exactly how the Empire operates, how it treats citizens, what restrictions on freedom and what level of taxation it imposes is never stated. We assume it’s pretty dire since there’s apparently a significant rebellion underway. Clevery, Lucas made the officer’s uniforms look a bit like Nazi uniforms so we immediately have visions of concentration camps and genocide. It’s an effective short-form, the Hollywood “black hat” updated for 1977.

imperial-officers-nazis

What we don’t know, however, is if there are concentration camps, or if the Empire is committing genocide, or why the Rebels are rebelling at all. For all we know the Rebels are radicalized jihadists trying to overthrow what was a relatively just and benign government that only abolished the Senate and built a Death Star in a last-ditch response to years of terrorist activity.

Now, that is a fan theory I am not seriously putting forward. But my point is the political situation in the galaxy of A New Hope is subtle and complex and has a ring of authenticity to it. The political landscape changes beginning with Empire Strikes Back, where it transforms into a dumbed-down good vs. evil struggle. The Emperor isn’t an off-screen character, we see him well enough to know he’s a creepy old Satanic looking wizard guy. By Return of the Jedi, the circle is complete and all subtlety and nuance is dead. He’s an evil space wizard. He has no complex human motivations, he’s just Evil—an embodiment of the Dark Side.

As well, before The Empire Strikes Back I had the sense the “Dark Side” was more of a metaphor. Simply a phrase the Jedi would use to describe people using The Force for nefarious gains and not a separate thing as it seems to have become in Empire.

Vader saying to Luke “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side” is a whole different kettle of fish than Obi-Wan describing to Luke how Vader had been “seduced” by the Dark Side. The former is literally making the pitch, “Hey, come and make a conscious life decision to be the living embodiment of evil. No justifications, no metaphors. Become literally evil. C’mon, son.”

In contrast, being “seduced by the Dark Side” is never believing you’ve become evil yourself but simply that you’re using this immense power you hold to more easily achieve your goals and, hey, what’s the big deal anyway? It’s not like you’ve become evil. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that.

Forget about the Prequel character Anakin for now. That name was never mentioned in A New Hope and Vader and Luke’s father really are two different people as far as we know. The idea that Vader was actually seduced by his own innate cruelty coupled with immense Jedi power is much more interesting than he’s fallen prey to something like an evil cosmic entity from Star Trek.

anakinoriginalAs it’s portrayed in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the Dark Side is like a spell that apparently changes Vader’s entire personality (from what looks like, at the end of Jedi, a pretty affable guy full of joviality and without a hint of cruelty in him) and which Luke is able to magically remove at the end of the film with a little less effort than a Catholic exorcism. But it’s not even like it’s a spell that gets cast upon you, it’s a conscious opt-in (to become a tyrant’s henchman for reasons unexplained in the original trilogy) and suddenly opt-out of just in time to save your long lost son.

This is pretty muddy, having-it-both-ways storytelling and part of the reason the Prequels had no option other than to be even muddier in trying to explain Anakin’s conversion. Trying show his journey from irrepressible blonde munchkin to the hulking masked psycho who crushes a man’s larynx in his fist before tossing him like a rag-doll into the wall, then date-rape drug interrogates his daughter and amputates his son’s hand is a herculean task. It’s like watching Little Orphan Annie turn into Regan MacNeil.

It’s a nearly impossible transformation that would’ve been helped if Jake Lloyd had the Damien-like uncanniness of a Culkin brother. But, as we know, he didn’t**. And even if Jake Lloyd did have a touch of the Anti-Christ in him, his character’s turn to the Dark Side would still be muddy. The Dark Side is at turns either that evil cosmic entity that possesses good people to do really, really bad things—like slaughter children—and also a conscious decision to “turn” to the Dark Side—because who doesn’t want to choose to slaughter children?

But more importantly, once the Force evolved from a its Taoist roots (everything is connected, there’s light and dark within everything) to a simple Jesus/Satan allegory (the two opposing Forces of literal good and evil) the Star Wars tale became a very different type of story set in a very different universe. And that’s the universe of The Force Awakens.

That isn’t to say I’m going to skip the film altogether or that I’ve preordained I won’t enjoy it. Not at all. I’m even kind of looking forward to the possibility of Darth Luke. But I’ll be seeing it not as the continuation of the hands-down favourite movie from my childhood, but merely yet another sequel to a couple films I honestly only kinda-sorta liked when I was a kid.

* Luke is a pretty terrible role model. I’m pretty much convinced in the new movie he’ll be a bitter old MRA bent on destroying the galaxy because his sister friend-zoned him 30 years ago. The reason he’s not on the poster because he’s “gone his own way”.

** I clearly didn’t mean adult Jake Lloyd, who ended up being true freaky.


Episode 197: THX 1138

October 1, 2014

197

The fifth installment in our DAN’S DEVIL’S BUCKET LIST series in which we watch classic movies of dubious quality that Dan has never seen. In this case, the seminal sci-fi, dystopian thriller love story: Geroge Lucas’s ‘THX 1138′ — the film that lead to ‘Episode 1′ being a thing that exists. At least that’s one way of thinking about it. It’s also directly responsible for this thing.

Original vs. Director’s cut comparison. 

Next on Dan’s list: Either 2001 or Omega Man.


MAY THE 4th but not the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th or 6th BE WITH ME

May 4, 2013

May the 4th graphic

It’s annual Star Wars Day! Also probably the biggest “celebration of a kind of ropy pun” day.

One of the things I became vaguely known for in Internet circles was my opinion that The Empire Strikes Back is not as good as people have convinced themselves it is. But other than a mild dislike of Ewoks and the obligatory loathing for the Prequel Trilogy, I still considered myself a Star Wars fan. I had been since I was five and always would be. Heck, even if I didn’t think Empire was all that and a bag of chips, I could still enjoy it well enough.

But a few months ago, when they announced that production of Episode VII had begun, I had an epiphany that nearly floored me: I didn’t care.

I say “nearly” floored me because I didn’t care so much that I didn’t care that I didn’t care they were finally going to make the final three films. It did, however, cause me wonder why it is I didn’t care. After all, I’d been a fan since I was 5 years old. That’s 35 years. That’s a pretty significant chunk of time in anyone’s life.

And it hit me.

I didn’t care because it wasn’t going to be a continuation of “my” Star Wars. And not just because the Prequels cocked things up irrevocably.

The reason I didn’t like the Prequels wasn’t really Jake Lloyd or Jar-Jar or too much ponderous plot and action and too little character development and decent dialogue. It’s just that it bore little or no relation to the Star Wars I knew and loved. Sure, it was the story of how the world of “my” Star Wars (Episode IV, A New Hope), had come to be except that… it wasn’t.

Though the events of Episodes I through III, do hamfistedly arrive at a sort of interpretation of the universe in the first (er, 4th) film, it’s not actually the same world. And this is the real reason (not the ones in my previous essay) I never cared for the 5th and 6th chapters in the Star Wars saga either.

In Episode IV there’s a real menace in the galaxy. We learn in later films that this menace is a dark wizard made of pure, undiluted evil, but in Episode IV the Emperor is an unseen entity who we understand has the juggernaut of his military put the boots to anyone who gets in his path. Or is he? He might only be a figurehead under the sway of the military. He might be a child. He might not even really exist. Who really knows?

If you only watch A New Hope the impression you get is that the Emperor is a master politician; more of a Ceasar or Richard III than a Sauron or Voldemort. Or maybe he’s not. It’s not important. The Emperor is just the idea of unstoppable power. So huge, it can’t be shown on screen. Your imagination does a better job.

But we do get the impression he’s just a man. He even employs a sort of dark wizard (there’s no mention of the Sith) as an attack dog (the chillingly viscous Lord Vader) but instead he has placed a Nazi death camp Commandant (Grand Moff Tarkin) as his second in command. This says a lot about this Emperor we know hardly anything about. It shows what he values as strength and what kind of man he thinks can run his empire best.

It makes zero sense coming out of the Prequel Trilogy that Vader isn’t in command of the Death Star. Sure, apologists can make excuses (not based on anything actually in the films) about why this might be, but in A New Hope Vader isn’t an avatar for the Emperor the way he is in Empire and Return of the Jedi. Tarkin is.

It’s Tarkin who is the cold, dispassionate face of a bloated bureaucracy grown too large to sustain itself economically and is forced to rule by suppression. It’s an empire run by the unthinking, banal, human evil we see in our own world.

As soon as we see the Emperor in Episode V, everything changes and by Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, it’s completely altered. The Empire is now the playground for an insane, megalomaniacal wizard.  The plight of the rebels goes from fighting a system of government that’s slid out of control and has begun to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of maintaining order, to fighting against cartoon henchmen under the sway of an evil magician. It changes the very nature of everything in the saga from the political situation to the psychology of those involved. It’s a completely different story set in a very different universe.

Everything in A New Hope has a certain sense of reality about it. From the aging technology in Mos Eisley, to what we understand of this crumbling Republic which has just been disbanded, to moisture farms, to the droids. It’s a world far removed from our own, but still very similar.

Even this thing called The Force that these relics (Obi Wan and Vader) from some old monk order seem to be able to use is a very muted kind of magic compared to the unlimited source of power we later come to understand it as. In Episode IV it was something you could almost believe you could personally tap into. Let go of your feelings. Feel the Force flow through you. Is this what happens when we meditate and focus and can suddenly make that 2-point basketball shot? Even if we know it’s not, it’s a magic we can relate to.

It’s so subtle that Han Solo doesn’t even really believe it exists. What kind of a halfwit, after all those massive Jedi wars of the Prequels, wouldn’t believe in The Force? It’d be like us not believing atomic bombs were used in WWII. The way we see The Force in A New Hope, it makes sense he wouldn’t believe in it. It really would just look like “luck” to him. It’s more interesting that way than Yoda and Vader being able to throw giant metal cases around hanger bays like overstuffed pillows with the mere flick of a finger.

Perhaps I see Star Wars Episode IV with too literal an eye. But it’s the eye with which I fell in love with that story 35 years ago. Even when I saw it at the age of 8, The Empire Strikes Back never sat right with me and I wasn’t able to put my finger on why. Since I was only 8, I just thought it was because I didn’t like Han getting Leia instead of Luke and it ends on a bullshit cliffhanger.

Now that I’ve had a few more years to think about it, I understand I’m still waiting for the proper sequel to that movie I saw in the summer of 1977. A movie I still love above all others.

So, May the 4th be with me!

But not The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th or 6th.


Episode 142 – LEGO

March 27, 2012

Click to listen to LEGO podcast

 

LEGO: The Building Blocks of Our Society?

In nostalgic conversations about childhood, one of the only toys almost everyone agrees on is LEGO. Appealing to a common creative node in our brains, since the 1950s boys and girls have embraced the brightly coloured gender-neutral building blocks. Well, until about the turn of the century anyway when LEGO suddenly became “for boys only”.

Of course, it wasn’t sudden if you were paying attention to the LEGO shelves in the big corporate toy stores. Slowly the service station and farm sets made way for yet another Star Wars set. Then BioniclePirates of the Carribean and Harry Potter started taking up the lion’s share of space. Plain old regular LEGO even found itself making way for surprisingly violent non-franchise lines such as Ninjago, Dino, Alien Conquest, Kingdoms, Racers, and even City which is like more traditional LEGO sets but an extreme version populated exclusively with cops and firemen.

Young Boys’ Club

Just take a look at the screen capture (below) of the LEGO website and see how “boy-centric” LEGO has become. You have to scroll down just to see “Bricks and More” (which is the completely underwhelming name for “starter sets”).

Click to embiggen

Click to see full product line

Now, of course there are plenty of girls out there who would love to play with Pharaoh’s Quest, DC Universe Superheroes, or Technic, but there’s plenty more suburban moms fully-indoctrinated into stereotypical gender roles who would never buy them these sets.

So what at first seemed like the pointless and backwards move on LEGO’s part, there might actually be a need for the new “girl-centric” Friends line. There’s absolutley no way merchandisers were going to ever be able to get stores to give up Star Wars shelf space for boring old basic sets. LEGO needed to make a splash. They needed to produce something for the media to get excited about; for people to get angry and blog about. Something blatantly, sexistly pink.

Making Friends

Unfortunately, it seems like instead of bringing girls and boys together they’ve seemingly segregated them by creating a more Bratz-like alternative to the iconic Minifigs. They’re making it easy for the suburbanites by saying “This is not Little Johnny’s LEGO, this is something completely different.

Not that kids ultimately abide these toy segregations, I remember seeing Han Solo having tea in a Littlest Pet Shop somewhere.

But it’s still unfortunate LEGO has wedged a separator-tool in between the “boy” and “girl” bricks because when we had a chance to see them in action at the mall a few weeks ago, they’re actually far better than the franchise-oriented sets they’ve been producing for the last decade or so.

As much as it pains me to say it but—with a return to a more basic style of set—Friends is better geared towards the open-ended creativity that always made LEGO great. It’s something that’s been missing from the franchise sets. The problem with Star Wars LEGO or the DC sets is by their very nature you can only build things from those franchises.

Creativity UnBound

A couple of years ago I tried to play with my (pretty vast) collection of Star Wars LEGO and soon became bored. I didn’t want to make Star Wars vehicles, I wanted to just create something. I couldn’t. By the very nature of the pieces everything ended up Star Wars.

I remembered that as a kid, before there even were Star Wars sets, it was so much more fun trying to make an X-wing out of regular old LEGO. Maybe it was yellow and blue and the X-foils didn’t collapse, but  it was a rewarding creative experience

Watching the kids play with Friends at the tables, I could tell those bricks had the same creative potential. Though whatever you made was going to be a gaudy pastel shade, you could build anything you wanted—a hair salon or an armored riot-control vehicle.

Let the Pieces Fall Where they May

What is sad is that boys are going to be the ones losing out here. They’re going to be stuck with their restrictive, uncreative Ninjago sets while girls are learning to make connections with their minds. Hopefully those suburban moms and dads will be able to suppress their homophobia long enough to let Little Johnny play with his sister’s new Friends.

LEGO Grand Theft Auto

Some of Jakob’s student work from graphic design school, circa 2003.


Episode 134 – TRILOGIES

December 18, 2011

Like all good things that come in threes, Nerd Hurdles celebrates its 3rd birthday today! Three cheers—or these days, woots—for us!

Everybody loves a good trilogy. But we ask you: Has there ever been a good trilogy?

Just like people you pick-up in bars, or in line at a sci-fi convention, somewhere along the line they inevitably let you down. Most often the brilliant first installment is a cash cow that studios want to milk to death. That’s understandable. If we could spin Nerd Hurdles into three progressively crappy, but profitable, podcasts, you can bet your ticket stubs we sure as hell would.

Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lost Boys, Robocop, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Star Wars and The Terminator are all fantastic stand-alone films. They all tell complete stories that need no further elaboration and, by the very nature of their endings being so neatly tied up in bows, guarantee only diminishing returns with each dip in the well.

The worst, and most obvious, offender is probably The Matrix. Parts 2 and 3 are so obviously pulled out of asses that cinemas are still spraying Nilodor on seats trying to get the shit smell out.

trinity the matrix

Then you have proper trilogies. Stories that were conceived from the start as having three chapters. X-Men and Spiderman both started off on the right track but the ball was unexpectedly dropped—off a cliff, with lead weights attached  into a sea of lava— in the third act.

Vampires vs. werewolves underdog, Underworld, didn’t even manage to get a proper third act as first installment’s poor box-office performance meant acts II and III were amalgamated into the already in-production second film. Ironically, the strength of the franchise’s cult-following got a pointless prequel greenlit.

Ultimately, the most successful “trilogies” are often open-ended film series that happened to have only three installments produced. The celebrated Man With No Name trilogy isn’t really a trilogy at all as it’s really three separate stories which happen to involve Clint Eastwood’s iconic character. A man who who doesn’t even have a name so could actually be argued to be three separate characters. If you’re the kind of guy who’d get drunk at a party and argue that. (Why are you looking at me?)

One of my favourite trilogies,Toy Story, arguably gets better with each film. But each could quite happily exist without the other two. The relatively consistent Mission: Impossible movies (up to four installments now) are really no more than stand alone episodes in the tradition of James Bond films. Only the ham-fisted call-back to Alan Rickman‘s “Hans Gruber” character makes Die Hard III a legitimate part three (and yes, there’s a part four in that franchise too).

So what are the perfect trilogies. Is there one that tells a three-part story and doesn’t stumble in the final lap.

Most film buffs would cite The Godfather but we couldn’t watch past the first film. We’re willing to grant the other two are equally as crappy. Or brilliant, whatever.

Lord of the Rings could be a contender though it’s not so much three films as a single three-part film—there is a difference.

Highlander is balls from the get-go. Even ignoring the ignominious 4th film, Indiana Jones is at least 50% terrible. Same goes for other classic four-part trilogies The Terminator, Scream and Alien. And don’t forget a six-part debacle of a trilogy called Star Wars. Fairing no better are popular favourites Back To The Future and the not-even-a-trilogy Ghost Busters.

Throw in Blade, Cruel Intentions, Darkman, Rush HourCrocodile Dundee and low-blows like BloodRayne or Cyborg Cop and I think we can just agree that bad things come in threes.


The Empire Sucks Back: The Zine

October 29, 2011

Purchase The Empire Sucks BackThe Empire Sucks Back

The epic blog post is now a zine! Jakob’s controversial views on exactly what makes The Empire Strikes Back a bad movie are expounded in this 16-page essay. Since there is no “try”, it’s up to you to decide if he does or does not make a strong argument.  Afraid? You will be… you will be…

$3 CAD (shipping incl.)

SOLD OUT!


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