The Rise of Sky-high Expecations

January 5, 2020

After seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I tweeted: “Actually saw TROS. First Star Wars I’ve seen in a cinema since TFA. It was good! Not sure what movie the naysayers saw or what they were smoking beforehand.”

TROS press pic

Which I’ll admit does imply I was unaware of all it’s flaws, which I was not unaware of. I don’t believe anyone could be, they’re glaring. The question is, do you care? And I didn’t.

I knew going in—based not only on the two previous films in this newest trilogy but the six preceding films of the other two trilogies—that it was going to be a shit-show of plot-driven illogical nonsense and ham-fisted retconning. What I cared about was will I enjoy it? And, for the most part, with low expectations and no stakes riding on it, I did. I even shed a single tear at Ben’s redemption and the star-crossed lovers’ solitary kiss.

What I found confusing was that all of the film’s armchair critics hadn’t gone in with the same blissfully forgiving mindset. After all, these are the people who LOVE Star Wars, right? These are people who seem to have a lot riding on enjoying it and they seem to have stacked their own decks against being able to.

Now that I’ve watched a few critical reviews of The Rise of Skywalker, I think I understand things a bit better. Of course, I agree with the criticisms objectively. As I said, the flaws are glaring. But it seems what I want and expect from a Star Wars movie is different from what other people do which is also different from what Star Wars has actually ever been in the past or even has the potential to be.

What do I want from a Star Wars movie? Friends running around going pew! pew! pew! That’s it and that’s what I got. I was happy. What people seem to have wanted instead: a deeply significant and nuanced multi-generational epic.

From a franchise that treats morality, ethics, and politics as a literal good/evil binary.

There’s lots of logical holes to pick in The Rise of Skywalker from pacing issues and illogical character motivations to seemingly arbitrary retconning. But I’ve always felt that The Empire Strikes Back was full of that stuff too. And Return of The Jedi even more so with things like the pointless sibling revelation that had no actual impact on the plot.

So what did people really want and expect from The Rise of Skywalker? Are they even aware of what this thing is they love? It’s like the shared hallucinatory head cannon of what Star Wars is, and people have internally retconned it to always have been, no longer has any relation to what actually is on the screen.

Does Star Wars have potential to be “more”? Sure. It’s got space wizards and bloodlines and characters who find the fate of the galaxy is in their hands. That is certainly a recipe (arguably concocted by Frank Herbert in his Dune series of books) for a vast epic filled to the brim with deep lore where valiant but flawed heroes navigate the “feints within feints” of clandestine amoral political forces.

But to do so Star Wars would have to abandon what the core of Star Wars is. It would have to lose being a light buddy adventure-comedy which it could be argued all three films in the Original Trilogy were to varying degrees. Of course, the Prequel Trilogy did mostly abandon this aspect for the more dour tone of a serious military and political drama where no one seems to be buddies at all. You might be aware there were a few fans who didn’t care for this direction. But there were others who did and lauded the attempt to imbue the Star Wars universe with an historic and political depth that was only hinted at in the OT. If the Sequel Trilogy has any one fundamental fault it’s been trying to play both sides of the field. The dramatic scope of a meticulously detailed nine-book fantasy epic while still being a frivolous matinee adventure in the style of Flash Gordon.

So what we have are two Star Wars existing simultaneously: Flash Gordon Star Wars and Dune Star Wars. Sometimes they are apart (A New Hope vs. Revenge of the Sith) and sometimes they coexist (The Empire Strikes Back and The Rise of Skywalker).

That isn’t to say there can’t be darkness or emotional content in our matinee serial, but despite the literal world-ending stakes the heroes face Flash Gordon Star Wars wasn’t built for deep psychological studies or complex political maneuvering. It doesn’t have the frame for that stuff and it buckles under the weight.

Similarly when Dune Star Wars tries to plumb the psychological depths and motivations of characters in this galactic struggle, it runs up against the wall of morality being a laughably reductive good/evil binary. It’s the philosophical equivalent of a cartoon Disney villain and also buckles under the weight of trying to hang a broader and deeper story upon. To me, it’s like watching the Scooby-Doo gang attempt to perform Hamlet.

Of course, at this point I expect a million voices to cry out “Whoa whoa whoa! But what about Empire? It is a perfect film. Check. Mate.”

Was it perfect though? In 2011 I wrote about all the flaws I see in Empire in a zine essay subtly titled The Empire Sucks Back. I’ll admit, it’s exactly the sort of essay I scoff at now when people lay-out all the joy-killing imperfections in TROS. But people seem to forget, or were too young to have experienced that—critical reviews aside—Empire wasn’t universally enjoyed. People didn’t, in fact, think that Star Wars needed to be anything other than a fun romp through the galaxy trading sarcastic quips and pew! pew! pew!-ing bad guys. There’s been a bit of a cultural retcon that Empire was always seen as the best Star Wars film and that Return of the Jedi, despite teddy-bear-shaped flaws, wasn’t actually greeted by many with a sense of “Finally, we’re back to what a Star Wars movie was supposed to be! A fun space adventure!”

I only bring this up to illustrate what I believe is a cognitive dissonance shared by many Star Wars fans today. I suspect a combination of childhood nostalgia, merchandise-driven Lucasfilm propaganda, and the sweet seduction of herd mentality has resulted in a fanatical belief that Star Wars movies have always been “good” movies, when I believe an objective analysis of them demonstrates they have always been flawed and messy. This cognitive dissonance, in my opinion, has coloured fans’ perceptions of the latest trilogy in an unfair way.

It’s not unfair to say that about half of each of the Disney era movies are a steaming dung-heap, but I do think it’s unfair to hold them up against movies which contain many of the same flaws and thus find them lacking.

It makes me question if many fans really love Star Wars films or if they’re fanatically devoted to an ideal based more on head canon and off-camera lore than the actual films.

 


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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…

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Empire Sucks Back

June 20, 2011

 

A little while back we were invited onto the Master’s Of None podcast for one of their Sucks or Rules shows to debate the 4th worst Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. I took sucks, Art took rules. Unfortunately, due to my computer’s crappy Skype connection and some other technical difficulties, the episode had to be scrapped.

You can read my argument below. Conveniently, Art’s side of the debate will not be reproduced here.

My argument is based on two suppositions:

A) Star Wars (aka A New Hope) is a perfectly told story and, for the time it was made at least, perfectly executed.

B) The Empire Strikes Back is not only considered the best Star Wars movie, but widely considered the best sci-fi movie ever made. Not only do I think it doesn’t stand up against the original film (or even, to some extent, the one that follows), I don’t think it’s a very good film period.

And by “not very good”, I mean actually kind of sucks gundark poodoo.

My argument is further broken down in the following three points:

1. An unfocussed story.

Unlike A New Hope—which has an A-to-Z plot that’s streamlined as an X-34 landspeeder—Empire Strikes Back meanders around the alphabet without any real direction. After a bunch of throw-away sequences (like the pointless asteroid belt chase), it eventually ends up somewhere in the middle of a story, around the letter M with Han Solo frozen in carbonite, instead of at Z with the defeat of the Empire.

 

Or at least it should have ended with a definitive event that provides some open-ended closure, whetting the palate for a sequel while being a fulfilling episode in itself. Instead you are left hanging with one of the most frustratingly anti-climactic cliffhangers in cinema history.

Which means—

2. The film doesn’t stand alone.

Anyone who’s hasn’t seen the first film will be able to follow the basic plot just fine. But at some point they’re going to need someone to explain to them exactly who the random ghost in the tundra is and just what the Empire is all about.

The usual argument against this is “But it’s the second part in a trilogy, you can’t expect it to stand on its own.” And I would accept this argument if the assertion being made merely was that Empire is an excellent sequel. But I don’t accept this reasoning when the argument being put forth is that Empire is one of the best science fiction films ever made or even that it’s the best Star Wars movie. It would absolutely need to be able to stand on its own in order to claim either of those titles.

Too many unnecessary questions are raised by Empire. Mainly, “What’s so bad about the Empire anyway?” Taken on its own A New Hope, even in point form, does a much better job of giving you a sense of  how the Empire affects the lives of your average galactic citizen and what the Rebels are fighting against.

On Tatooine there’s a subtext that—even on a planet at the far reaches of the galaxy which no imperial bean counter should even care about—the inhabitants feel an oppressive domination.

 

On the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin describes how the last vestiges of a token democracy have been dismantled and in Leia’s holographic plea to Obi-Wan you get the sense of what’s at stake.

A New Hope excels because it is a story bolstered by a rich, cleverly constructed subtext. Empire is entirely lacking in this use of subtext, instead relying on either the audience’s prior knowledge of the story or their willingness to just go along with the action.

Oh there’s some good guys who are good but we don’t know what makes them good and some bad guys that are bad, supposedly, and they’re at war for some reason. Okay, got it.

Yes, it’s easy to understand there’s a war being waged and maybe that’s all you need to be able to follow the story. But with a great film you do more then just follow the story. You feel the story. The audience is in the middle of a galactic war but does the audience ever feel what’s at stake?

 

There are no starship captains with broken necks slumped against corridor walls, no charred skeletons of aunts and uncles, no needlessly slaughtered Jawas, no desperate poverty on the mean streets of a space port on a remote desert planet. As far as we know the Rebel Alliance are terrorists who’ve just bombed the Galactic Trade Center and killed thousands of civilians.

Sure, Darth Vader and the stormtroopers look spooky and the Imperial officers look like Nazis, but unless you’ve seen A New Hope you don’t know just how nasty they really are. And though it’s easy enough to accept the Rebels’ struggle, it’s harder to feel involved with it or to feel threatened by the Empire.

This results in—

3. Vague character motivations.

In A New Hope all the character motivations are crystal clear. Luke Skywalker wants adventure, Obi-Wan acts out of knightly duty, Han Solo is motivated by money (mostly due to his outstanding debt to Jabba the Hutt over dumping a shipment of smuggled goods) and Princess Leia is an idealist.

The Empire itself has built the Death Star, not because they’re inherently, cartoonishly evil, but because there’s a clear subtext they’re losing control of the galaxy and drastic measures are needed.

In Empire though everything, assuming you have not seen the first film, is a lot more vague.

For some reason Han has an unexplained bounty on his head which he inexplicably needs to clear up even though he’s well-hidden on an ice planet.

 

Luke wants to become a Jedi, whatever that is, and there’s some guy named Ben, whoever he is, who appears to him in the snow. Is he alive? Is he a ghost? Why does Luke think this hypothermia-induced hallucination is a reasonable thing to act on? How did Luke make his laser-sword leap into his hand?

This Leia woman seems to be an important leader even though her main role is not letting Han know she fancies him. Otherwise she’s dead weight.

For some reason Darth Vader is out to get them all because, well, he wears a black hat and needs something to do. Maybe Because a few dozen troops freezing to death on an iceberg are such a threat to an entire galactic Empire.

Other than Boba Fett hunting Solo for a double-dip at the bounty, none of the characters have clear, believable, well-defined goals.

This wasn’t the case in A New Hope which is a classic quest story. The protagonists, individually and as a collective, have a goal (to destroy the Death Star) and the action of the film moves inexorably towards that end.

In Empire Luke has a goal—to find Jedi master Yoda—which he achieves in about five minutes. He has the ultimate goal of becoming a Jedi, but that happens in another film. Well, it actually happens between films and we don’t even get to see it.

 

Meanwhile Han and Leia are… well, what are they doing anyway? Running away, I guess. Though being chased is a classic plot device, it’s not fulfilling on a narrative level. There’s no pay off when the protagonists achieve their goal, the chase is just over. And though it is a plot device that can work in certain types of film—such as horror—epic fantasy-adventure is not one of them.

Vader actually does have a goal of sorts. He wants to find Skywalker and turn him to the dark side. Fair enough. I’m not sure it will work, but thank god someone is trying to achieve something tangible here.

So naturally he goes about this by chasing Han and Leia across the galaxy instead. Seems like a bit of a convoluted way to go about it, but what else does a fleet of Star Destroyers have to do? I mean, besides trying to wipe out that tiny rebellion they were spending untold resources trying to find who escaped in another direction entirely. Of course, pointing this out to Vader wouldn’t be a smart career move.

The whole narrative is flipped on its head. The protagonists are supposed to have goals and the antagonists are supposed to stand in their way. That is how narratives are structured. Here we have the protagonists standing in the way of the antagonists’ goals. While this switcheroo could be produce interesting results in a bleak, post- modern art film full of nuanced characters and subtle plot twists, it doesn’t work in an epic adventure tale. It is like Raiders of the Lost Ark being told from the point of view of René Belloq instead of Indiana Jones.

This is, ultimately, what The Empire Strikes Back suffers from. Instead of a central goal for the protagonists to achieve, there’s a series of situations they’re forced to deal with. While heroes need stumbling blocks placed in their path to make their quest interesting, the audience needs a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish—even if they don’t achieve their goal.

 

I have no problem with Empire having a tragic ending where the bad guys win. But the bad guys don’t really even win here. At best they’ve just been a pain in the protagonists’ necks. Vader doesn’t turn Luke to the Dark Side or crush the rebellion, the rebels don’t do anything but run around and get their asses handed to them. The only character who actually achieves anything is Boba Fett and he is, at best, a peripheral player.

Ultimately, this loops back to point #1 that the story is unfocussed. The overarching lack of focus in the film is a direct result of the foggy character motivations. The “most frustratingly anti-climactic cliffhanger in cinema history” wouldn’t have been if Han Solo’s capture had any real significance to a greater story.

Obviously, he’s a charming rogue the audience loves and seeing him frozen in carbonite is a bummer. But, as far as we can tell, this has no bearing on a rebellion he didn’t really seem to want to have anything to do with. Removing Solo from the fight doesn’t really gain the Empire anything. What the Han Solo cliffhanger actually achieves on a narrative level is detracting from the impact of Vader’s revelation that he’s Luke’s father.

An actually riveting cliffhanger would have been Luke being captured by Vader or, more chilling, Luke choosing to go with him. That would have been a real No way! What’s going to happen next? scenario. Instead Lando tells us exactly what the audience has already figured out is going to happen next, “Princess, we’ll find Han. I promise.”

Though not actually a terrible film, what I’ve tried to argue here is that Empire Strikes Back isn’t close to deserving the reputation it holds. The bottom line is it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do—to continue the stories of existing characters in a compelling way; to give them more depth and enrich the universe they inhabit; and do it by telling a satisfying story.

From the standpoint of achieving what it sets out to do, A New Hope is entirely successful and even Return of the Jedi does a better job. At least Jedi makes no bones about being a simple adventure for children. Empire‘s attempts at paternal Greek tragedy and exciting matinee adventure story both fall short of the goal. The lead-up to the Luke’s story’s famous pay-off is clumsy at best while Han and Leia’s flight from the Imperial Fleet is frankly boring.

 

Every time I watch Empire, I find I’m rooting for Boba Fett (When a glorified action figure with four short  lines and about 2 minutes total screen time is your most popular character, you know your film has problems).

Now for some detailed nit-picking.

Hoth:

  • Was a frozen wasteland really the only (barely) habitable planet the rebellion could find to hide out in. In an entire galaxy, there had to be some other distance rock they could have picked. One that wasn’t -40 all the time.
  • The Wampa is ridiculous. Why does it glue its prey to the ceiling of its cave? Why wouldn’t it devour Luke instantly? I guess it had a Tauntaunto eat first. But it’s still a little absurd to believe he was saving Luke for a late afternoon snack. More importantly, when it swipes Luke off his Tauntaun, there’s never been a monster arm that’s more obviously just a bunch of fun fur glued to a broom handle. Some of the effects in this movie are shameful.But more importantly, why is the Wampa sequence even in the story? The only purpose it serves is to explain the changes in Mark Hamill‘s face due to an auto accident.If the story is true, and there’s some debate about the veracity of this, the trick doesn’t work.  Han should’ve at least said, “That monster really rearranged your face, huh kid?” But even if it is true, then the whole sequence is far too obviously hamfisted into the story anyway. They’d have been better off to just pretend Luke didn’t suddenly look radically different instead of letting it dictate the plot. So ultimately what does the whole Wampa episode achieve? It slows down the narrative. A New Hopebegins with the Star Destroyer attacking the rebel spaceship Tantive IV, likewise Empire should have begun with the attack on the rebel base right out of the gate.
  • But even more absurd than the Wampa are the Tauntauns. First, ignore that it makes no sense the rebels would patrol on the backs of animals and expose themselves to the elements instead of flying around in snow-speeders. And second, forgive that the Tauntaun’s body shape seems illogical for traversing the tundra (well, nature is actually pretty weird. Maybe kangaroo-goats make sense).What’s really baffling about Tauntauns is how they seem singularly ill-equipped to deal with the climate. Surely humans should freeze to death before the wooly, indigenous creatures with a hefty layer of fat? And what are Tauntauns feeding on anyway? There’s no vegetation and they’re clearly not carnivores with those stubby arms and bovine teeth.
  • But getting back to snow-speeders. Why do they have harpoons and tow-cables anyway? What would you ever harpoon from a moving aircraft? Wouldn’t it be a drastically bad idea to tether yourself to heavy objects in mid-flight?
  • Sillier still, I have always contested the “all-terrain” worthiness of the All-Terrain Armoured Transport (AT-AT)or Walkers. I think Hoth might actually be the only planet flat enough for the Empire to effectively use them. Surely they’d topple in Tatooine’s sand dunes and they’d get bogged down in Dagobah’s swamp. Not able to lift their feet very high, they’d trip on any terrain that wasn’t a tundra or a salt flat.Furthermore, assuming they get the troops transported to wherever the action is, how do the troops get down from the belly? Do they rapel? Do the AT-ATs kneel like elephants? Is there an elevator platform?Whatever the case, a much better design would have been a Sandcrawler—which actually looks like it could traverse all-terrain (might even be aquatic judging by the prow-like design of the front). Like all the technology in A New Hope,  the Sandcrawler just makes perfect sense. Unlike the cool-looking but impractical Walkers, you really believe someone might have built it. The only question it raises is why tiny Jawas would build something so big. In which case it makes sense that it was a surplus (or stolen) Imperial troop transport.But the spindly legs aren’t the most baffling design feature about the walkers. The rebels use their speeders’ tow-cables because the armour plating is apparently too heavy for their blasters to penetrate. Well, too heavy until the tow-cables trip them and then a single shot to the head makes the whole thing blow up. Which almost makes more sense than when Luke tosses a grenade into an AT-AT’s belly and its head explodes. How the hell does that work? When it comes to the walkers, unlike the mechanics in A New Hope, logic is entirely thrown out the window.

Dagobah:

  • Unlike Hoth, at least Dagobah makes sense as a hide-out. It’s gloomy and made out of mud, but at least you wouldn’t be in danger of freezing to death. Though drowning looks like it might be a constant worry. But it’s still a pretty big, remote place to hide out in. So one has to question how Luke crash-landed—not only on the correct continent but— right in Yoda’s back yard.Fans will often cite The Force as having lead Luke to the exact right spot. Which is fine, except to believe that you have to make up this excuse for the film instead of the film showing this. A shot of Luke closing his eyes and “reaching out” would have been all it took. Instead he just angles his X-wing into a zero-visibility cloud bank and hopes for the best.
  • On a production level, Dagobah is so obviously a sound stage it’s laughable.  It might be all the dry ice that gives it away. Obviously they couldn’t shoot in an actual swamp because Frank Oz needed to be able to walk around below floor-level to manipulate the Yoda puppet.
  • Yoda is terrible. He’s almost forgivable from an effects standpoint but he just isn’t quite convincing enough for me to forget he’s obviously a puppet. Especially as soon as he speaks. From that second onwards all I can see is Fozzy Bear. Okay, that’s not entirely true. At times I see Miss Piggy. Either way Yoda is not just so obviously a Muppet but also so obviously Frank Oz that I’m instantly shot out of the movie like R2 being spit out of the swamp.
  • Worse, Yoda is a horribly racist stereotype of the inscrutable Asian martial arts master. Okay, he’s not as bad as the Trade Federation envoy in The Phantom Menace. One thing I’ll say for Empire is nothing is as bad as what’s in Phantom Menace.
  • Even Luke’s terrible monologues in the swamp while he’s muttering away to R2 are more naturalistic than any of the dialogue in the prequels. But not much. Cringe-inducing lines like “But I wanted to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters” have nothing on Hamill’s painfully dire delivery of a truly terrible script here. The famously clunky dialogue in A New Hopewas at least economical. Alec Guinness was the only actor saddled with lengthy expository speeches and, well, Hamill finally gets the chance to prove he’s no Alec Guinness.Not his fault, really. Chewbacca and R2-D2 have all the best lines in Empire.
  • One thing Empire supporters always cite as the film’s main strength is how it “goes darker” as if this is a get out of jail freecard. It’s not. Darker doesn’t instantly equal good. It still has to be done well.The first real instance of this new exploration of darkness is the Dark Side Cave. Which was apparently the best name they could come up with for this ominous nexus of evil power that makes Luke hallucinate a duel with Darth Vader. Apparently the Dark Side also makes everything happen in cheesy slow motion. And adds more of that dry ice atmosphere. The premise of the scene is okay, but the execution is one of the worst executed sequences in sci-fi cinema. And that includes the monorail model in Logan’s Run and all of Barbarella.
  • Luke’s failure in the cave is another thing. Yoda seems disappointed but if you match up his timeline with Han and Leia’s, he’s been at it for about all of two days. Maximum. No wonder he’s a crappy Jedi. After he gets a vision of his friends being tortured by Vader and he rushes off to save them, he promises Yoda he’ll return to finish his training. How about return to start his training? What is this? Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University?

Cloud City:

  • Even before getting to Bespin, there’s problems. Namely, the space slug. How did it survive in the vacuum of space? What was it feeding on out there? Unless it eats rock, there isn’t much for it to eat in an asteroid field where, we’re told, anyone would have to “be crazy” to venture into. If you’re willing to assume the asteroid belt is the remains of the slug’s home planet and the slug somehow survived that, you’re an idiot. I’m sorry, but that’s too absurd to be believed.
  • Perhaps more offensive than Fu-Man Yoda is that Lando is a total space pimp. Remember, blaxploitation films were still being made right up to the end of the ’70s. More offensive still, he sports some of the worst costume design in the series. One of A New Hope‘s strongest features is how authentic the costumes look. Tarkin’s uniform, Obi-Wan’s robe, Han’s vest and Luke’s karate gi are real clothes you don’t question for a second. Go ahead and compare them to sci-fi costumes prior to 1977 where everyone looked like one of David Bowie’s worst acid trips wrapped up in tin-foil. Lando’s tight polyester slacks and gold-lined cape might fair a little better, but they look like they came out of a community theatre’s costume trunk.
  • Vader tests out the carbon freezing process on Han Solo to make sure it won’t kill Luke. Good idea. But why exactly would he even need to freeze Luke in carbonite? Why couldn’t he just have his stormtroopers stun him with their blasters. It worked on Leia just fine. It’s not like Luke is actually a blaster deflecting master Jedi at this point. Heck, Vader could probably just put him in a sleeper hold with his mind. The whole carbonite set-up is a needlessly complicated plan—though one that does drive the plot nicely.
  • Due to the over-complicated nature of the plan, Luke gets away but not before Vader tries to convince him to turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Which is all well and good except Vader wouldn’t call it the “Dark Side”. Evil people don’t actually believe they’re evil unless they’re also completely insane.Grand Moff Tarkin was an excellent example of this kind of banal evil in A New Hope. When he blew up Alderaan it wasn’t for fun or even to be cruel, it was expedient. He’s heartless and ruthless and, for all intents and purposes, evil—but he wouldn’t see it that way. Tarkin would see himself as pragmatic, iron-willed and able to do “what needs to be done” where lesser men wouldn’t or couldn’t. Empire shies away from this real-world vision of true evil for a more digestible cartoon caricature.Vader might believe he used the Force in a different way from Obi-Wan, but he’d never think of it as the dark side. He’d call it “The Vader Method” or something more marketable. And even if he begrudgingly admitted to himself he used what Yoda and Obi-Wan called “the dark side”, he would never acknowledge that. The furthest he might go is to say Obi-Wan didn’t fully understand how the Force works. He’d never say to Luke, “Don’t underestimate the power of the dark side,” he’d simply leave it at, “Join me and we’ll rule the galaxy as father and son.”Which, really, is a much stronger argument than saying, “Come be eeeeevil. Mwah-ha-ha-ha.”
  • And Vader isn’t even as “evil” as he was in the first film. When he crushes Captain Antilles’ throat with his hand and tosses him into the wall, you know this is a brutal, ruthless villain. He even tortures Leia (off-screen) with a creepy black robot you feel might be some kind of rape-droid. In Empire he doesn’t kill anyone with his bare hands (well, gloved hands) and those he does kill are just his own officers whose deaths are practically comic relief anyway. This time when Han is tortured (in an absurdly complex apparatus, by the way), Vader isn’t even present to get his gloves dirty. He’s a shadow of his former self, no longer truly menacing but simply “the bad guy”.

Han/Leia Relationship:

  • It’s been said many times but it bears repeating: Saying “I know” when someone professes their love for you as you’re (possibly) about to be executed is a dick move.
  • Also a dick move is hitting on the girl you know your supposed closest (human) friend has been hot for since before you met him. The way Luke crumples in his hospital bed when Han says “She expressed her true feelings for me” should have been enough to tip him off he was stepping on some bro-toes. Maybe when he says to Luke, “That’s two you owe me” he means Leia’s breasts. Well, Luke never had a chance anyway—pointless incestuous story revisions in the next movie or not.
  • There’s something creepy about Han’s bedroom moves. Though the kiss in the Millennium Falcon does a pretty good job paying homage to the leading man/lady dynamics of movie classics from the ’40s, it does a little too good a job. Or the problem is inherent in paying homage to the “no means yes” psychology of those old love scenes. Here it’s not quite as bad as the rape-kiss in Bladerunner but it comes pretty close. I can’t remember if Harrison Ford pulls out the rape-kiss in Raiders of the Lost Ark too. He must. It seems to be his signature move.

Cage Match 6: Sci-Fi vs. Fantasy

June 10, 2011

Science Fiction. Fantasy. In any bookstore or public library you’ll find them lumped together as Sci-Fi/Fant. Often this is fair since there’s a lot of an “You got peanut butter on my chocolate”  approach taken with both genres.

Or as Miriam Allen deFord said, “Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities.

Read the rest of this entry »


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