Showing posts with label Star Wars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Star Wars. Show all posts

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Did You Like Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker

There is a big bad. Exactly how he came to be there and where he came from is pretty much ignored. There is a dark lord on a dark throne on the planet of Exidor where shadows lie. That is all we know and all we need to know. 

There is a series of McGuffins which will eventually reveal the coordinates of the planet on which the big bad is hidden. There is a big metal eight sided dice which is very carefully not called a Holocron; and there is a magic dagger, possibly quite a subtle one. So a group of characters go off to find them. They are precisely the group of characters who have been the heroes of the previous movies. They are the only people who can undertake the mission because they are best friends. They love each other, but they only have 16 hours to save the universe. 

For two thirds of the movie, they bounce from exotic location to exotic location, falling into traps, getting captured and escaping. There is a festival on a desert planet; quicksand; sleazy backstreets; a high tech city out of Blade Runner; a possibly familiar forest moon; and an evil spaceship whose corridors feel suspiciously like the interior of the Death Star. Although the universe is going to come to an end in a few hours, and although their mission mostly looks kind of hopeless; all the player characters are clearly having great fun; bantering and scoring points of each other, laughing and joking their way to near certain oblivion. Goodies get killed off and get apparently killed off and get kind of virtually cybernetically killed off; but no-one really seems to mind or believe it. 

There is a deep heavy serious sub-plot. We have been building towards it from the very beginning. But it is sensibly kept in the background. One of the heroes is, to coin a phrase, a space wizard of uncertain and mysterious parentage; with a mysterious link to the evil space wizard who is now in charge of the evil empire. They keep kind of meeting and kind of having psychic sword fights and kind of revealing surprisingly unforeshadowed facts about each others' backstory. But none of that distracts from the Adventuring. 

The forces of evil are very much split. The evil space wizard is the enemy of the new dark lord and the evil empire contains a high level double agent passing information to the goodies. 

Two thirds of the way through the movie, all the McGuffins are secured. The good and evil space wizards go off to confront the dark lord as part of their personal development; everyone else gets into space ships to fight the dark lord's redundantly obscene stockpile of weapons. 

There is an absolutely huge battle and the goodies win. 

There is then a Jacksonesque fifteen minutes in which the film keeps doing call backs to all the previous films and completely failing to come to an end. There are brief Ewoks but no Gunganss. There is a final final scene which is really nice but which has pretty much no bearing on the rest of the movie. (I suspect it was filmed or at any rate scripted before anyone knew what Episode IX was going to be all about.) 

The best description of Star Wars I ever read was "a Saturday morning serial with Wagnerian pretensions". I don't think that the original Star Wars movie can quite support the sheer weight of Jungian psychology and fan-fictional universe building that has been piled on top of it. Somewhere along the line -- around the hundred and fiftieth minute of Empire Strikes Back -- Star Wars ceased to be about fathers and became about Fathers, or Father Archetypes. But Star Wars is and should always have been pulp adventure and space opera. Luke Skywalker is much more Flash Gordon than he is Siegfried. It should have been about heroes doing derring deeds. It's pulp. Since the Phantom Menace -- arguably since Return of the Jedi we've lost track of that. It's been too much about Darth Sidious telling Darth Vader about Darth Plagius during the ballet. 

I have argued elsewhere that a similar thing happens to Robert Galbraith's children's books. Volume 1 is a joyously ripping yarn about secret tunnels, school bullies, caddish teachers, unfair detentions and critical sporting fixtures; with just enough hints about a supremely evil wizard and the hero's mysterious heritage to give it some gravitas. By volume 7, the evil wizard has become the entire focus of the story. All the fun has gone away. 

There are some movie prequels which consist largely of elderly wizards sitting in boardrooms explaining the back story to each other, so the analogy actually works rather well. 

So with Star Wars. It isn't that the Jedi are not part of the magic of Star Wars. They are very probably the single most important element in the whole saga; the thing which distinguishes Star Wars from every other nine part Space Opera sequence you have ever seen. It isn't a coincidence that I started a Jedi Knights Club as opposed to a Rebel Pilots Club. But they are just not that interesting in themselves. The right place for them is in the background. Vader is the Emperor's henchman oh and by the way he used to be a Jedi Knight. Luke is a shit hot fighter pilot oh and by the way he wants to be a Jedi Knight. 

For many of us, the "real" Star Wars, the place where we encounter the joy and fun and excitement and exoticism and retro-nostalgia long-time-ago-ness at the heart of the saga has not been the increasingly flawed movies, but the mostly pretty good comic books, the very good cartoons, and the very, very, very good role-playing game. 

I have probably told this story before. (When nine hundred years you reach, tell the same stories again and again will you too.) Back in the day, when there were only three Star Wars movies, me and a group of gaming buddies put the video of Return of the Jedi into the VCR. (A "video" is kind of like an early version of Netflix, but with a choice of only one movie.) You remember the scene where Luke defrosts Han in Jabba's palace, and there is a brief exchange: "How we doing kid?" "Same as usual." "That bad?" All the role-players called out, as with one voice "I know that feeling"

We knew what it was like to be Star Wars characters. Luke and Han were just overgrown PCs. 

So please believe me that I am in no way criticizing Rise of Skywalker to say that it felt like a Star Wars role-playing game; like an extended episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Yes, sure, the entire universe is going to be over-run with evil, and yes, sure, the Emperor appears to have acquired a whole fleet of Death Stars and yes, one, several, or fewer beloved characters may or may not be mostly dead by the final scene. And yes, everything that Rey thought she believed about everything turns out to be wrong, again. But "Wheee----hayyyy" we're on a starship shooting along a trench and all is right with the world. 

I am totally in earnest here. The film may not survive multiple rewatchings; and I am not yet sure what it will do or has done to the Holy Franchise. But, to take just one example. When all the heroes appear to have drowned in the Lightning Sand but actually find themselves in a network of tunnels; and when they encounter a big scaly dragon Rancor thing, which Finn wants to kill but Rey wants to make friends with -- I could literally have whooped with joy. 

This is how it should always have been. Not hours and hours of Rey or Luke or Anakin talking to Luke or Yoda or Palpatine and approaching a dangerous time when they will be tested by the dark side of the Plot. Just a group of heroes. One of the heroes' Thing is that he is reckless; one of the heroes' Thing is that he is strong and furry; one of the heroes' Thing is that she is the Last But One Jedi. All together on one last adventure. Threepio gets some lines! Chewbacca gets to break things! No-one sings the Wookie Life Day Song! 

Obviously, they were going to figure out how to make Star Wars movies in the final volume of the ennealogy. That's how this stuff works.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please buy me a "coffee" (by dropping £3 in the tip jar)

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Did you like Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker

You don't actually want to know whether I liked the Rise of Skywalker. You actually want to know what I will say early next year, when I have seen it a few times and feel ready to talk about Campbell and Canon and Continuity.

And anyway, you are going to go and see the movie over the weekend, and you'll decide whether you like it or not for yourself. If I liked it more than you (like Phantom Menace) that's probably because I'm overinvested in the product and can force myself to like anything with the Star Wars logo on it. Even the Holiday Special was "not quite as bad as I had been expecting." If I liked it less than you (like The Last Jedi) that's probably because I've been watching these movies for so damn long that I overthink them and worry about stuff that no sane person would even notice.

But still: I have to start off by doing a straight review. Saying if I liked it. It was a nice movie. It made me feel like I was ten years old again. It was a dreadful movie. I felt like someone had pissed on my childhood. And I have to to do that without giving away any of the twists, revelations, or surprises. I assume that you already know the big ones: the Emperor is still alive and Chewbacca is Rey's mother.

Rise of Skywalker has to justify itself as a mega-blockbuster, a blockbuster squared. (Star Wars invented the whole idea of blockbusters) There are nutters like me who went to see it in the middle of the night -- enough of us to fill at least three screens of the Bristol Showcase. And there are a lot of perfectly sane people who saw The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi and quite want to know what happens next. Never mind the dangerous doll decapitating nutters on YouTube: millions of perfectly sane not-especially-fannish people really care about what happens to these made up characters in the next two and a half hours. This isn't a niche interest any more. And they aren't just any made-up characters. They are iconic character; characters we literally grew up with; characters many of us can't imagine a world without.

Or, to be strictly accurate. These are some fairy nondescript characters; we first encountered them four years ago and we are still waiting for them to acquire back-stories. But there are cameo appearances by several iconic figures from the 1970s. One of the original actors has, very sadly, died: this casts a massive shadow over the whole endeavor. It is painfully obviously what Princess Leia's role in the movie would have been if Carrie Fisher were still alive; we have to watch Abrams tiptoeing around a script from which fate has deleted all the pivotal scenes He does a technically clever job of  pasting cutting-room-floor clips of Carrie saying "I don't agree with you" and "This is a very important mission" into scenes from the new script. But it still feels terribly awkward and conspicuous.

There are X-Wings and TIE Fighters and the Millennium Falcon. They are totally still iconical.

And this is not just any blockbuster event movie. This is the Last Star Wars Movie or at any rate the final part of the trilogy of trilogies envisaged by George Lucas.

Can The Rise of Skywalker pull all the threads together and answer the many outstanding questions?

Can Abrams provide payoffs to all the setups he created in Force Awakened while honouring some of the more outre detours introduced by Rian Johnson in Last Jedi?

Can Episode VIII generate a "sense of an ending" which feels big enough and significant enough to be the final destination of the journey we collectively embarked on in 1977?

No. No of course it can't. No one film could.

But it is still manages to be a  very, very, very good Star Wars movie.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

it's only a movie

these are only made up characters

the person writing the film isn't even the person who made them up

it also isn't even the person who made up the last film

if you like it that is cool

you liked the last one more than some people did

and you liked the three before the one before last WAY more than most people did

it isn't an exam you are going to take

it isn't sensible to feel nervous and apprehensive

not in a 'I am looking forward to this way'

but in a 'I hope I am not disappointed way'

in any event it will not be the biggest disappointment in the last week.

this is the way people who feel who were driven mad by the last one

mad to the point of cutting up dolls and demanding someone make it again

although maybe they were mad already

probably they were mad already

if someone makes a bad Batman film then there can still be a good Batman film

if someone makes a bad Spider-Man film there will be another one a long in a minute

but because of the funny way the rules have panned out; this film can never be made again

this film will define and redefine the universe and whether the universe continues

you do not break faith with the your younger selves if you do not like this film

this film does not break faith with your younger selves if it is not very good

all previous films and action figures and memories at 3am will be exactly as they were at 11pm

symbols and archetypes and flags and relics matter

either they became archetypes because we invested in them, or we invested in them because they were archetypes

it is possible to be overinvested

i wish this was something I could just sit back and enjoy

possibly taking it a bit too seriously

i wish this was only a movie

Monday, November 11, 2019

There Will Be Ewoks

The more Star Wars trailers there are the more indistinguishable they become. 

There will be space ships against a dense starry background. There will be lightsaber fights. There will be cockpit shots and close ups. Chewbacca will roar and Han or Lando will go "yee-ha". There will be jungles and deserts. It will be THIS CHRISTMAS and EVERY SAGA will have a BEGINNING or and ENDING. 

We don't need to be told that a cowboy film will have a gunfight and a saloon and a stagecoach and a bank robbery and very probably a hanging and a stampede and a drunk doctor because if it didn't have those elements it literally wouldn't be a cowboy film. 

Say what you like about the Last Jedi: it certainly had spaceships, and lightsabers and mysticism and blasters and a bar filled with aliens and the Falcon and some robots. (And, also, much to some fans' annoyance, some girls.) Because otherwise it wouldn't have been a Star Wars movie. 

The more Star Wars movies there are the more indistinguishable they become. 


I am in a games shop. After Warhammer and Magic, the thing they have most of is X-Wing a miniatures war-game using the space ships from the Star Wars movies.

Tiny little model X-Wings, presented ready painted, with the various cards and markers that you need to operate them, sold individually in little blister packs. A single model will set you back £13. The Millennium Falcon costs £40.

I remember a game called Ace of Aces. Two little books: each containing a large number of views from the cockpit of a World War I bi-plane. You fought dog-fights with another player. The picture in your book showed you what you could see from your plane. The picture in the other player's book showed you what he could see from his. You each picked a maneuver and read them off on a matrix and found out what page to turn to. You had to get the enemy in your sights while keeping out of the enemy's sights. It was the closest you could get to actually flying a plane. This was before computers.

Eventually there was a Star Wars version where an X-Wing pilot and a TIE-Fighter pilot circled each other endlessly while flipping through the pages of two little books. It arrived just too late for it to be the thing I most wanted in the whole world.

Red versus black. Long and thin versus round and stubby. Straight lines versus curly lines. Good versus evil. I have two of the old Micro-Machines models, an X-Wing and a TIE-fighter, on display in my front room, along with two Black Series action figures of Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi.

Back when Star Wars was Star Wars and Space Dust was a relative novelty there was no way of owning or possessing an X-Wing. The closest you could get was a very expensive plastic construction kit and you knew full well that construction kits involve glue on your best school trousers and oil paint on the bedroom carpet and a crucial piece that doesn't fit and recriminations about how you could possibly have wasted your pocket money on a piece of plastic you were never going to do anything with. It seemed so unfair that the only people who could have X-Wings were the people who actually liked making models and already had Nelson's Victory and the Flying Scotsmen. The bastards.

"Don't dream it, be it" is a line from Rocky Horror. It was sometimes used as a slogan when we used to play role-playing games. Don't dream it: write down a lot of numbers and then spend the evening arguing about what they mean.

The particular form of nostalgia triggered by Star Wars merchandise is neither about dreaming nor being. (Not nostalgia. I am pretty sure I felt those exact same feelings the first time I saw Star Wars; and the second; and the fifth; and tenth. It was the exact reason I needed to watch it it over and over again.)

Don't dream it. Possess it. Own it. Have it.

Yes, of course, they shoot across the screen very quickly, and a model or a technical manual lets you get a proper look at them, but that is not what I am talking about. And yes when you are a kid you want to cross the fourth wall and become Luke Skywalker.  (No. not Luke. Not Han. I wanted to be the third rebel soldier on the left or to be Gold Six Standing By -- to have a minor walk-on part in the saga, to be a hidden part of the story that no-one else knows.)

It's about crystallizing a moment in time. Holding onto the experience. If only I had a model of the Big Pointy Star Ship and the Little Square Star Ship then I could hold the first seconds of the first time I saw Star Wars in the palms of my hands.

It isn't a very new thing for a little boy to see a steam engine or a bus or an aeroplane and want to own a model of it. And his dad isn't content with looking at pretty motorcars in showrooms: he wants to own one, even if it is not that practical for driving to Sainsbury's in.

I still can’t make models and I have never actually cared very much for that kind of war-game. God knows I never won a game of Ace of Aces or Wing Commander. But here I am in the games shop. Individually, these miniatures are very expensive, but they are tiny little X-Wings and they come ready painted and I could perfectly well afford to sink a hundred quid on a squadron of ten or so and get some black cloth and a table and fight battles. X-Wing versus Tie Fighter, on the floor of my flat, for ever and ever…. 

Finn speaking: "It’s an instinct; a feeling; the Force brought us together."

The Force is the great repository of Plot Devices. Code for the Author’s Hand. Finn and Rey's meeting is very important; it is also very unlikely. So we have to get right in there at the beginning and blame The Force.

We are in a forest. It is probably Endor: it would make sense for it to be Endor. That is where the central trilogy ended. That is where Death Star Two blew up. That is where the Emperor died. Kylo Renn must have come here and pulled Vader's mask from the ashes of his funeral pyre.

If it’s Endor, there will be Ewoks. I can cope with Ewoks.

Rey is running, left to right, across the screen. And then she leaps, improbably, across a chasm, and suddenly, she is in a different scene, in the ruins of a great building or the wreckage of a great structure. It must surely be the remains of Death Star Two. In the Other Trailer she was running through a desert into the path of a TIE Fighter, and doing an equally improbable leap. She spends so much time running and leaping that you start to think she has turned into a character from one of those computer games. Rey the Hedgehog.

Finn is looking through binoculars. At first I thought he was in a desert but now I think he is on Endor too. But people looking through binoculars make us think of Luke and Tatooine and the binary sunset. Looking to the future. Longing.

Poe speaking: "We’re not alone. Good people will FIGHT if we LEAD them."

The last movie left us with the Resistance all but wiped out. So this one has to be about ordinary people defeating the First Order. The first trilogy was about a rebellion; so far this one has been about a resistance. But the story has to end with a rising.

One of those scenes in an aircraft hangar, with Poe this time giving the plucky rebels a pre-match pep talk before they all get blown up. We few, we happy few, only there are now quite a lot of us.

Glimpses of characters. Rose, running through the rebel base. Finn, Poe and Chewie standing by an X-Wing. A Blockade Runner flies over the forest.

We know our sacred iconography. We don’t want new ships. We want to dust the old toys off and play with them one last time. The Blockade Runner is the little small ship which got eaten by the great big ship in the first seconds of the very first movie. What would you bet me that Leia is on it, and that the robots are on it as well and the last trilogy will end where the first one started?  

Rey speaking: "People keep telling me they know me. But no-one does."
Kylo speaking: "I do."

We are teased with the idea that Rey still has a Big Secret to discover, that contrary to what was said in the last movie, she is not no-one. I think that she should be someone. The Saga is about the Skywalker dynasty and Rey is part of the Saga. The Phantom Menace was all about a Special Child with Special Force Powers. If just-anyone can be a Mighty Force User then much of the Prequel Trilogy is wiped out. 

Some people think that much of the prequel trilogy being wiped out would not be that bad an idea.

A cruel sea, with something which could be a dam or an oil refinery, and we are back to Rey and her lightsaber standing still for a moment, looking at us, and suddenly Kylo walks through the spray spinning his lightsaber round his wrist.

TIE-fighters flying towards an island, which could be floating in space or could be reflected in a very calm sea. It is made of ice. Is it possibly perhaps maybe Cloud City abandoned these I-don't-know-how-many years and frozen over? Is that possibly perhaps what Old Lando is doing in the movie: serving as a guide? Someone must have gone back to Bespin at some point to retrieve Luke's lightsaber.

A shot of a dark throne, suitable for being occupied by dark lord, very possibly one who lives in a land where shadows lie. 

The Emperor speaking: "Long have I waited, and now, your coming together is your undoing…."

The Emperor is Still Alive. There is a kind of extra-narrative tension in trailers. What we learn about the movie before the movie starts is part of the experience of watching the movie. (This is different from the old kind of trailer which spoiled everything on general principles. "This year, coming to a cinema near you, an unforgettable motion picture experience in which Bruce Willis turns out to have been dead all along.") The return of the Emperor is not a twist, but a premise.

The Emperor is a plot device. Everything which happens happens according to his will. The whole of the Clone Wars was really only ever a trick, with Palpatine running both sides. It is impossible to know who the "you" that the Emperor has brought together might be. Was it he who brought Finn and Rey together, maybe to produce new Force Babies for the next trilogy? (He let Finn go. It's the only explanation for the ease of his escape.) Has the Emperor been arranging for all his enemies to assemble in one place? Or is it the big lightsaber fight which he's referring to?

A Star Destroyer floats up out of the sea: one imagines Yoda standing off-stage with his little paw in the air, saying "No! Different only in your mind." 

The Millennium Falcon at the front of a fleet that would cost several months disposable income to acquire the miniatures for. Bigger is not necessarily better; less can sometimes mean more; but after Avenger's Endgame no-one is going to begrudge The Last Star Wars Film wanting to have the biggest and most impressive concentration of spaceships ever seen in 3D Imax.

Finn, Rey, Poe and Chewbacca take their place in the cockpit. X-Wings fly over the sea again. 

And then the atmosphere changes slightly: to actual dialogue. C3PO, all shiny and plugged in and taking one last look at his friends. A blast of emotion from the robot butler with the British upper lip. A warning that Threepio may not survive the episode. And an epigram. This episode is the one in which we say goodbye. Not really, of course, but conceptually the place where THE SAGA ENDS.

Rey hugging Leia. Man, that's going to be hard to look at. I would rather they'd CGI'd her, like James Dean.

Luke speaking: It is the destiny of a Jedi to confront fear. Your destiny…. The Force will be with you
Leia: Always

"The Force will be with you always" are, of course, the last words spoken by Obi-Wan to Luke Skywalker in the original movie. "Your destiny…." means, once again, The Plot: the thing you have to do not because it is sensible or follows from anything but because it is what goodies do in this kind of movie.

Some kind of chase through some kind of desert, very probably a callback to the pod-race from Ph*nt*m M*n*ace.

A really odd vignette of a cavalry charge through what could be the oil tanker that Rey and Kylo were facing each other on.

An almost subliminal image of them facing each other on what I am pretty sure is the Emperor’s Throne Room from Return of the Jedi.

And then a really perplexing scene in which Kylo and Rey both seem to be jointly confronting a third figure in a clean, white, empty antiseptic location. Kylo has his Kylo mask on. And just possibly they are destroying the mask of Vader.

More Star Destroyers than have ever been exhibited in captivity before.

A close up of Rey; a close up of Kylo. And a majestically slowed down theme, and the words RISE OF SKYWALKER.

The more reviews of Star Wars trailers I write, the more indistinguishable they become.



PALPATINE has risen from the dead. PRINCESS LEIA has disappeared. C3PO has Red Eyes. CLOUD CITY has frozen. And there are still girls in it. 

READ: The Year of Waiting For Star Wars
ALSO READ: The Last Jedi

BUY: George and Joe and Jack and Bob
ALSO BUY; The Last Jedi
OR EVEN BUY: The Last Jedi, special edition.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

I am sure all this is fascinating, but what did you think of Solo?

"From the moment I picked your book up, to the moment I put it down, I couldn't stop laughing. Someday I intend to read it." 
Groucho Marx, attrib.

"Warren J. B" wrote the following about my review of Solo: 

And the blogs, op-eds and so forth, that think the intrusion of current political themes into Star Wars is the best thing since sliced bread? What do they need? What about reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, who think that specific inclusion is so ridiculous that they wonder it might actually be a parody? What about the creators and participants in the films who go on record not only to confirm these inserted themes, but to highlight them as reasons to see the film?

I could enjoy your rebuttals, Andrew, if there was much to them besides the reduction to ad hominem and dismissive refusal to unpack, just a little. (For another example: Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years. All those books and comics weren't written and drawn with Alden Erenreich in their mind's eye.) I could read about you picking apart the topic of 'leet' with points on why it's silly to worry about. But "seek help hurr" is a fourteen-year-old's comeback. It's sweeping the thing under the rug. It would be mere trolling if it was directed outside this blog. It's a childish kneejerk reaction - an "I'm right so there" - on a level with the people you're attempting to ridicule.

(I can't decide if tweeting it is much better or worse. Oh Mike. Mike Mike Mike...)

I've seen those complaints about L337. (among other things) I see what point they're trying to make, partly because they go into actual detail; but I can't go with them because they're too obstinate and obtuse. Imagine the frustration when 'the other side' - ostensibly the rational side - turns out to be practically the same.

I take this to be a criticism of the style rather than the content of my piece. Warren is one of the very good people who financially supports me via Patreon, so I think we can safely assume that he is familiar with my normal idiom. I think that he is making the point that I am a better literary critic than I am a journalist -- which is why I have recently, semi-seriously adopted "exegete" as a job description. The Solo review represented my first reaction to the movie: it was written more or less immediately I left the cinema. I think it is probably true that I don't do this kind of thing particularly well. Most of my exegesis is the result of a fairly long period of thinking and over-thinking -- six months in the case The Last Jedi; thirty-five years in the case of Spider-Man. Warren is perhaps correct to think that short, off-the-cuff reviews are a mistake. 

Warren is also, I think, correctly pointing out that my verbal fireworks can shade into flippancy and obscure the points which I am trying to make. I think that he thinks that, in the case of Solo at least, I should have written a more journalistic, academic piece. 

It is certainly true that I use tags and code works and assume that my readers will know what I am talking about. For example, I say "You can type this shit, George, but you can't..." when clarity would require me to say "Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness are known to have been openly critical of George Lucas's dialogue." 

Warren directly responds to some of my flourishes; so where I typed "it was ridiculous for anyone but Sean Connery to play James Bond until it wasn't", he types "Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years". I could of course riposte in kind: "No; but Connery was the central characters in six movies, where Ford was a secondary character in four; and indeed "How many actors have played the role of Indiana Jones?" But this would not, in fact be relevant: the correct response to Warren is "But I was not talking about Bond: the remark was a colourful way of saying 'It is sometimes possible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor.' " To which Warren might very well respond "In which case, why didn't you say that?" The substantive point about Solo is not "Can Han Solo, in principal, be played by someone other than Harrison Ford?" but "How successful, in fact, is Aiden Ehrenreich at playing the young Han Solo?" -- to which my answer, given in the original essay but possibly obscured by the one-liners is "only partially." 

The article contains one major flaw which Warren does not specifically highlight: namely, I ought not to make remarks about mental health for the sake of stylistic effect. I regret remarking that people who objected to the movie on ideological grounds "should seek professional help." (I don't regret making fun of them, but I shouldn't have made fun of them in those terms.)

So: as a public service and a penance — and actually as quite an interesting exercise — I am re-presenting my essay, this time translated into English. 

People writing comments beginning "I haven't seen the film, but..." are referred to the reply given by Private Eye magazine in the case of Arkell vs Pressdram. 

Solo: A Review 

by Andrew Rilstone

Solo is a highly successful adventure story, told with the trappings and hardware of science fiction. As such it is in the tradition of Doc Smith, Flash Gordon and the older Star Wars films. It contains a number of audacious and exciting action sequences; the one in which a group of heroes have to evade enemy space ships in an area of space which contains a gravity well and a giant alien is particularly memorable. People who enjoy those kinds of stories — which are often dubbed "space opera" — are likely to enjoy Solo. People who who do not enjoy "space opera" in general are not likely to find much to enjoy in this example of the form.

The present writer, who grew up reading this material, is still surprised that films of this kind have become so mainstream. He is also, incidentally, surprised that technology which once only existed in such films is now common place. He enjoyed himself very much indeed. 

The film is quite faithful to the visual style of the original Star Wars trilogy. Many of the scenes are based quite closely on scenes from those three films. For example, there is a desert planet that is quite similar to Luke Skywalker's home world in A New Hope; several bars and saloons which are reminiscent of the bar which Ben Kenobi and Luke visit in the same movie; and a villainous gangster who is a little like Jabba the Hutt, the evil slug in Return of the Jedi. However, in the opinion of the present writer, there was also enough variation that the film never felt derivative or like a pastiche. 

It could perhaps been argued that a wider variety of settings could be introduced into the Star Wars series, and indeed, that there could be a greater variation in the way alien life-forms are portrayed. However, in the opinion of the present writer, the film does well to stick to a generic look and feel which as been established in nine previous movies. 

It is by no means impossible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor. But there are specific problems with recasting Han Solo, who has (with the single exception of a radio series) only ever been played by Harrison Ford. Ford brought a very specific charm to the character which wasn't necessarily present in the original scripts. (Ford, like Alec Guinness and Carey Fisher, was openly critical of the quality of Lucas's dialogue.) On the other hand, the Han Solo character has been successfully portrayed in comic books and novels with no input from Harrison Ford. In the opinion of the present writer Aiden Ehrenreich is an engaging protagonist, and creates a character who is stylistically very similar to the one in Star Wars and its sequels. But he is never completely convincing in the impossible task of being a younger Harrison Ford. 

Han Solo is sometimes erroneously described as a mercenary. In fact, in the original films, he is seeking a financial reward for rescuing the Princess only because he needs to pay off a debt to a gangster. The new film is quite consistent with this idea: circumstances force Solo to become involved criminal activity but it is made clear that under a different set of circumstances he might have chosen a different path. 

The present writer particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Han Solo first meets his future partner, Chewbacca. 

The Han Solo who appears in the first Star Wars film is presumably in his thirties, where Luke Skywalker is a teenager. He often alludes to previous adventures, while Luke has, up to this point, led an uninteresting life. In this respect he is like Ben Kenobi, who is also a veteran with a mysterious history. It could very well be argued that any attempt to actually show those histories on screen tends to diminish those characters. However, this is an argument against the whole project of creating stories which are placed chronologically before the first movie. Granted the existence of these "prequels", the present writer found Solo a good deal more convincing than, for example, The Phantom Menace. He found it relatively easy to believe that the event shown in this film — dramatic robberies, meetings and betrayals, desert gunfights and assignations in taverns and bars — were the kinds of things that might have happened to a younger Han Solo. He found it harder to connect the politics of tax disputes and the investigation of illicit clone facilities with a younger Ben Kenobi. 

At several points during the story, Solo is shown playing a poker-type card game called "sabaac". Interestingly, although this games has been alluded to in several role-playing games and novels, it has never before been represented in a movie. 

The present writer felt that the casino sequence in the Last Jedi, and the scenes involving public transportation in Attack of the Clones (to name only two examples) clashed with the look and feel of the original trilogy. Solo, on the other hand, remained very consistent with that imagery. 

The Star Wars movies consist of diverse elements including war stories, Arthurian mythology and the Wild West. The “Arthurian” element — that is to say the story of the Jedi Knights — has become increasingly central to recent movies; although the other stand alone film, Rogue One was primarily about warfare and espionage. Solo, on the other hand, relies extensively on Western imagery. There are no battles, and with the exception of one very brief scene, no Jedi Knights. In the opinion of the present writer, this meant that Solo evoked the "look and feel" of the original trilogy much more authentically than Attack of the Clones on one hand and The Last Jedi on the other. This may suggest that Star Wars ought to be re-conceptualized as a "space western" (as opposed to "space fantasy" or even "science fiction"). 

However, this "consistency" and "authenticity" is achieved by taking a conservative, even a derivative, approach to the material. A substantial core of the film involves a group of mismatched individuals struggling to work together on an unfamiliar spacecraft, which rather resembles the cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels (for the first series, at least) and could even have been a scenario for the Star Wars role-playing game. Although the individual plot twists are quite surprising, the over all shape of the movie is quite predictable. Part of the plot is left unresolved at the end, reinforcing the sense that we are watching the first episode of a TV show. 

This is an unresolvable and unsolvable dilemma for any film maker working with the Star Wars franchise. A film like Solo which sticks closely to established imagery and conventions may be accused of being unimaginative; but an experimental film like The Last Jedi which attempts to say something new about the saga may with equal validity be accused of not fitting into the saga. 

Finally: a few commentators have complained about the robot L337, who believes that droids should be free and have equal rights with humans. The same writers have also had a problem with a subplot about Han’s companion Chewbacca wanting to free his own people from slavery. They felt that this subplot politicizes the movie unnecessarily. 

While it is true that Star Wars deals with a simplistic and heroic conflict of Good versus Evil, it is also true that good and evil are represented primarily in political terms. If it can be taken for granted that freedom-fighters, rebels and revolutionaries are "good" and empires, imperialism, and military rule are "evil", then it is surely no great jump to say that "slavery" is evil and "equal rights" are good? In the opinion of the present writer, at any rate, the complaint that L337 uniquely politicize Star Wars cannot be taken remotely seriously. 

Corey Carrier
Sean Patrick Flannery
River Phoenix
Harrison Ford
George Hall

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

If you don't tell me what you thought about Solo in a minute, I'm going to get very, very cross.

Solo is a very good sci-fi skiffy fantasy wild west space opera movie.

No-one who grew up playing with toy space ships can fail to enjoy the big middle section in which a space ship bounces around a gravity well while almost being eaten by a giant space octopus while trying to rewire the dead robot's brain into the computer while trying to feed Plot Devisium into the Warp Drive while being chased by TIE fighters and Star Destroyers.

My mind is still slightly blown by the fact that I have lived to see this sort of old school Lensemen pulpery projected onto big huge screens in shopping centres and other people apart from me evidently want to watch it. (Outside the cinema in Bristol there is a giant video screen advertising a movie about a dog show and lady's shaving razors like in Blade Runner. I could have ordered noodles if I'd wanted to. Just saying.)

Solo gets the visuals and tone and texture of Star Wars exactly right. It does this by a process of themes-and-variations: Han starts out working for a gangster who is quite obviously Jabba the Hutt without actually being Jabba the Hutt; and ends up on a desert planet full of picture postcard views that look almost exactly like Tatooine without actually being Tatooine. And there are three separate photocopies of The Cantina. I think maybe "sleazy Mexican bar full of aliens" is simply a Space Opera Trope of which the The Cantina is merely a particularly memorable example.

It's a big universe and probably there should be planets that look like Milton Keynes on a wet Friday afternoon and planets populated by sentient rocks and super-intelligent shades of the colour blue. But there is a kind of consensus about what Star Wars should look like and Solo looked like that. 

Of course it is ridiculous for anyone other than Harrison Ford to be Han Solo. It was ridiculous for anyone other than Sean Connery to be James Bond, until it wasn't; and ridiculous for anyone other than William Hartnell to be Doctor Who, until it wasn't. I don't know if I quite believed that the young lad who knocks about the universe getting in and out of scrapes is the same person as veteran smuggler who Luke bumps into in the second act of A New Hope. But he was an enraging enough hero for this kind of space opera. There is no doubt that much of Han Solo's charm came from Harrison Ford, not from the script. ("You can type this shit, George...") Perry King speaks many of the same lines in the Radio adaptation, and he comes across as a rather more mono-dimensional unsympathetic mercenary. But Han Solo isn't reducible to Ford. For every minute of screen time, there are ummpety-ump pages of printed text and umpety-ump comic book panels, all telling the Further Adventures of a figure who is identifiably Han Solo, none of which have any input from Harrison Ford.

It is Leia who called Han a mercenary and she wasn't being quite fair. Han wanted the reward money to pay off Jabba the Hutt, because if he doesn't, Jabba the Hutt will murder him. We never see any sign of him enjoying the trappings of wealth or wanting an indulgent life-style. That's followed through mostly in Solo. Han keeps having to do heists because he owes money to various galactic undesirables, but this isn't quite the life he would have chosen.

The "how Han first met Chewie" seen is funny, clever and retrospectively a bit obvious.

The Han Solo who we meet on Tatooine is older than Luke, a veteran, maybe 35 to Luke's 19 if we go by actor's ages. He obviously has a history, and the kinds of stuff he does in Solo is definitely the kind of stuff we would have imagined him doing. He gets involved in impossible heists, strikes arrogant poses in seedy space bars, falls out with nasty gangsters, is betrayed and counter-betrayed multiple times but usually turns out to have been one step ahead of them. I didn't believe in the Prequels because I didn't believe that the kind of adventures Ewan McGregor was having were the kinds of adventures that Alec Guinness would have had when he was young. Alden Ehrenreich has exactly the kinds of adventures that a young Harrison Ford ought to have had.

One of the cool things about a charming, veteran space pirate is that there is a history and a back story which he knows and you don't; and one of the specifically cool things about Han is that he keeps giving us tantalizing glimpses of his past. Arguably, we don't want to see Han playing cards with Lando, any more than we want to see Ben Kenobi and Luke's Mysterious Father fighting in the Clone Wars. But that is an argument against prequels in general, not a criticism of this film in particular.

It is interesting, is it not, how things that we all assumed were canon but have never actually been mentioned before slide into these movies and no-one bats an eyelid. I absolutely knew that the game on which Lando wagered the Millennium Falcon was called "sabac" but I am pretty sure I learned that from the RPG, not any movie.

Star Wars is a collision between three things. Star Wars is actually a collision between a lot more than three things, but three will do. It's first and foremost great big clashes of dreadnoughts and doughty little dog-fighters; a space ships and aliens space opera yarn. Star, in a very real sense, wars. But in the middle of the big star war there's a King Arthur fairy tale about the last quest of a magic Knight with a glowy sword. And somehow about two thirds of it takes place in a world of frontier towns, cactuses, and dodgy bars; space pirates and space gangsters. Space opera plus space fantasy plus space cowboys.

The main movies have increasingly focussed on the Jedi Knights to the exclusion of everything else; Rogue One was basically the Space Wars bit with everything else taken out. Solo is a space cowboy story with no Jedi at all. (Spoiler alert: Well, hardly any.) And what it proves is that the cowboys in space element was always what Star Wars was mostly about: if you had to define the saga in two words, "Space Western" does the job much better than "Science Fantasy." There are no casinos, coffee lounges, libraries, or idyllic romantic interludes in Solo: no moment at which I thought "I am sorry, but this is just not Star Wars."

But neither is there anything surprising or imaginative in the movie. There are good plot twists, but they are the kinds of good plot twists that you would expect in a movie of this kind; the kind of plot twists that anyone who had seen Empire Strikes Back would see coming at a distance of less than twelve parsecs. This is the kind of Han Solo movie you would have made if you had been asked to make a Han Solo movie. This is the kind of Star Wars adventure you would have made up when you were running the Star Wars RPG, and indeed did. Two thirds of the movie consists of a motley crew of mismatched individuals who get on okay, but quarrel a bit, in a spaceship that they kind of call home; which makes it feel not entirely unlike an episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Indeed, the ending, not quite a cliff hanger but with distinct loose ends left untied, felt very like the end of a TV pilot episode. I suppose that since everyone decided in advance that the film was not a success, we won't now get to see the follow up.

To an extent, any Star Wars film maker is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Do something experimental and different, use a Star Wars episode to say something about the Star Wars mythos, give us surprising takes on much-loved characters and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of violating the Sacred Saga. Fly close to the genre; do the kinds of things we expected and hoped you would do; show us the stuff we always wanted to see and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of making a redundant film that no-one asked for.

There is a very minor sub-plot about a robot. Some people have seen ten Star Wars movies and two TV shows but are still surprised that Star Wars movies often involve cute comic relief. The robot thinks of itself as female, and is very cross that robots are being used as slave labour on that planet that C3PO is concerned about being sent to the spice mines of. (Chewbacca is not wild about what they are doing to the wookies there, either.)

Some people think that this is an unwarranted intrusion of politics into what is basically just a series of adventure movies about plucky revolutionaries overthrowing a fascist regime. If you are one of these people, you need to seek professional help immediately.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Shakespeare's Second Best Lampshade.

I said:

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Mike said:

I think this is a rare case where you are exactly wrong. Subsequent episodes have overwritten our perception of the original film, but looking at that film as a film -- a single, self-contained drama -- Leia's/Foster's analysis is not only spot on, it also precisely captures what's so magical about that film. There is nothing about Luke, Han, Chewie, R2D2 or C3PO that marks them out as suitable for a grand adventure. The only characters on our side with any kind of power are Ben and Leia; but he is decades past his prime, and she spends most of the film in captivity.


No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Northanger Abbey

So: the Duchess's drunken uncle and her melancholy jester decide to play a prank on the puritanical steward.

The plan is to convince him, the steward, that she, the duchess is head over heals in love with him; and then convince her, the duchess, that he, the steward, is demon-possessed. As you do.

The prank depends on the steward being unbelievably vain (which he is) and the duchess being unbelievably stupid (which she isn't). It also depends on it suddenly turning out that the duchess and her chambermaid happen to have indistinguishable handwriting.

This is a bit of a stretch even by Shakespeare's standards: so just as the steward is swallowing the forged love-letter hook, line and sinker, a bit part player chips in with the famous words "If this were played upon the stage, I could condemn it as improbable fiction."

The TV Tropes website calls this kind of thing "lamp-shading", and Shakespeare is very fond of it. It isn't exactly breaking the fourth wall: Fabian doesn't know he's in a play, and he can't see the audience. If a real person had just negotiated Malvolio into such a successful heffalump trap, there is no reason at all why they wouldn't say "I’d never believe it if I saw it in a play!” I don't think it is quite true to say that Shakespeare is apologizing to the audience for the stream of plot devices he has just subjected them to. I don't think Shakespeare's audiences expected plays to be realistic: they went to the theater to see the surprising and the preposterous. I think that what Shakespeare is really doing is reminding us that everything in the play except this plot device is perfectly realistic, or at least asking us to pretend that it is. "This isn't just a story" he is saying "And these aren't just fairy tale characters. They are people just like you and me. This kind of thing doesn't happen to them every day. They are as surprised by it as you would be."

So: when Princess Leia (in the novelization of Star Wars) says "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes" is she simply engaging in Shakespearean lamp-shading? Is she pretty much just saying "Luke Skywalker wasn't a hero; he was just a person who this stuff happened to. He felt as out of his depth on the Death Star as you would have done. I know it's all very far fetched and unlikely, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy yourself…."

It is, almost inevitably, more complicated than that.


If we are going to talk about Star Wars -- and indeed, if we are ever going to stop talking about Star Wars -- we have to keep three things very separate in our heads:

1: Star Wars, a stand-alone art-house movie from 1977 which made it very, very big.

2: The Star Wars Trilogy, a science fiction epic consisting of a slightly revised version of Star Wars plus The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983).

3: The Star Wars Saga, a six part epic consisting of substantially revised versions of the Star Wars Trilogy and three more films -- The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2003) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

It is easy to forget that these are not at all the same thing; to assume that things we only found out in 2005 were already true in 1977. I just re-read the Dark Empire comic books, and was forcibly reminded that in 1995 there were no such things as Sith or Padawans, and no such planet as Coruscant.

Alan Dean Foster's book is definitely a novelization of Star Wars, not of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Darth Vader (first name: Darth; second name Vader) is merely a treacherous Jedi, one of a number of Dark Lords, not necessarily a pivotal persona in the galaxy. Luke Skywalker's father is still anonymous; he was a friend of Ben Kenobi and notable mainly as a star pilot. The only thing Ben says about Luke's heritage is that he is  "quite a good pilot".

In this version of the story, Luke Skywalker is no-one of consequence. The arc of Star Wars is spoiled if he is. Ben teaches him the meaning of the Force while he is practicing lightsaber fighting on the Millennium Falcon. He saves the universe 45 minutes later because he remembers and puts into practice what Ben taught him. Luke destroys the Death Star because he trusts his feelings, trusts the Force and trusts Ben Kenobi – not because he inherited superpowers from his dad.

So: is he a hero?

Well, the word hero has a number of different meanings. To a tabloid subeditor, anyone who has served in the armed forces in any capacity is by definition a war hero. Anyone who has done anything brave, whether saving a cat from a tree or going up a tall mountain by the difficult route could be said to have been heroic. If I admire a sportsman or a singer, I might say that they are my hero. For Wagner, hero is pretty much a job description: Siegfried is “the young hero” before he has done anything particularly brave. Joseph Campbell overloaded the word with Jungian symbolism and Freudian baggage, but a lot of the time, "hero" doesn't mean anything more than "the main character in a story."

So: the nub of the gist is that there is nothing heroic about Luke Skywalker, and nothing marks him out as a hero at the beginning of the story.

That is to say:

Having been explicitly told that Star Wars is a fairy tale, we would naturally assume that an orphan of mysterious parentage, living with a wicked, or at any rate indifferent uncle in a remote location is going to be a secondary and unimportant person in the story. We are, on our first viewing of Star Wars, surprised when Luke ends up taking center stage. After all, it comes as a surprise to us in the actual fairy tales when the plain, adopted and ill-treated sister gets to go to the big party and marries the prince: we naturally assumed the story was going to be about one of her older, prettier and more legitimate stepsisters. We are absolutely astonished when the Wart pulls the sword out of the stone: we assumed that big brother Kay was going to be king of England and kid brother Arthur was in there for comic relief. Even in the Good Book we all take it for granted that the singing shepherd is only in their for local colour; we very naturally assume that Samuel is going to pick one of the more impressive older brothers as King of the Jews.

Because that's how stories work.

Very ordinary people are sometimes thrust center stage by dumb luck. Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. Shakespeare said that. It's part of the letter that causes Malvolio to make such a prat of himself. You never planned to be a disability rights campaigner, but you were sort of forced into the role when the steamroller ran over your legs. You'd planned to spend the next five years racing pigeons, but you were 19 and it was 1942 and you kind of just found yourself helping to save the world from Hitler. Those nice kids in America are in the public eye because they happened to be in school on the day when one of their classmates blew a fuse. If the terrible thing hadn't happened we'd never have heard of them. 

None of which is to denigrate the accidental hero. No-one chooses to live in dangerous times. All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time which is given us. (I think Shakespeare said that, too.)

So by all means scrub out the idea that Luke had special powers because of his lineage; by all means scrub out the idea that Daddy was anything more than one Jedi Knight among many; and definitely scrub out the idea that Ben Kenobi is on Tatooine specifically in order to watch over the Chosen One. That still doesn't give us Luke Skywalker the accidental hero; Luke Skywalker who just happened to be in the shopping center when the bomb went off. Rather the contrary. A huge series of massively unlikely coincidences conspire to put him in the pilot's seat above Yavin at the precise moment when the entire future of the galaxy is hanging on one single proton torpedo. The more ordinary Luke Skywalker is, the more it looks as if the Galaxy, the Force or the Plot are fudging things to put him in that driving seat.

  • Luke Skywalker who is no-one of any importance is living in an unimportant settlement on an unimportant planet. By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight in the universe just happens to be living a few hours drive from his front door.
  • By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight just happened to know both Luke's father and also his father's murderer.
  • A Top Rebel Agent comes to Luke's planet to recruit the Last Jedi Knight to the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, she just happens to be a pretty young woman of about Luke Skywalker's age.
  • The Imperials capture the Rebel Agent before she can get to the Last Jedi. By sheer coincidence, the Imperial Agent who captures her just happens to be the Last Jedi's former apprentice and the murderer of Luke's father.
  • The Rebel Agent hides a message to the Last Jedi in a robot. By sheer coincidence, the robot just happens to be picked up (in the middle of a desert) by used robot salesmen.
  • By sheer coincidence, the traders next stop-off point just happens to be Luke's entirely unimportant homestead in the middle of nowhere. (If the sandcrawler had gone somewhere else first, there would have been no story.)
  • By sheer coincidence, Luke's uncle just happens to be in the market for some new robots. (If he had had plenty of robots, or been skint, there would have been no story.)
  • Luke's Uncle wants to buy the Little Red Robot, but by sheer coincidence, it explodes a few seconds after he hands over the money, and Luke's Uncle takes the secret-message carrying Blue Robot instead. (This is such a stretch that at least two different bits of fan lore exist to explain it.)
Once Artoo Detoo is in Luke's Skywalker's possession, the plot develops reasonably naturally from the choices Luke makes: not too many more coincidences are needed to nudge him in the right direction. He takes out Artoo's restraining bolt because he wants to rescue the damsel in distress; he follows Artoo into the desert because of his recklessness and his bad relationship with his uncle; he volunteers to go with Ben to Alderaan because of his restlessness and wanderlust; he tries to rescue Leia from the Detention Block because he's in love with her hologram. It is however, important that, by sheer coincidence, Darth Vader just happens to choose exactly the right moment to blow up Leia's home planet. If he had delayed by even ten minutes the planet would have been intact when the Millennium Falcon arrived and the ending of Star Wars would have been much more like the ending of Rogue One. If he had lost patience with Leia ten minutes earlier, the Death Star would have been long gone by the time the Millennium Falcon arrived in the place where Alderaan used to be. The Princess would never have been rescued (boo), Obi-Wan would never have been killed (hooray) and the Millennium Falcon would not have accidentally revealed the location of the rebel base to Darth Vader.

None of this should be read as criticism of Star Wars. The film is a masterpiece of structure and form; really the only weak link is Leia's "they let us go.." moment at the end of the third act. Everyone manages to be the main character in their own story: to Luke, Leia is the damsel in distress who he travels half way across the galaxy to rescue; but to Leia, Luke is little more than an undersized country bumpkin who blunders in to her cell with no plan for getting out. Ben is an old warrior coming to the end of his tale; Luke simply the latest in a long line of young hotshots he has introduced to the Force. And Han Solo is a professional adventurer. Ten years down the line he'll be sitting in another bar on another planet boasting about that one time he rescued an actual princess from a battle-station the size of a small moon. But various plot magnets pull their stories together. Ben Kenobi pulls Leia and Artoo and Vader towards Tatooine; Leia pulls Luke and Ben and Han to the Death Star, and the Falcon leads everyone back to Yavin.

But the first half of the movie still takes a lot of swallowing. I suppose we could apply the Samwise Gamgee theory of narrative. As soon as he asks the question "Why do people in stories never turn back from their quests?" he can see that the answer is "Because the ones who did turn back never had stories written about them." So we might say "Luke Skywalker is the hero because he happens to be the person who Artoo Detoo fetched up with." Someone was bound to get the message eventually; the story might just as well have been "from the adventures of Wormie Starkiller" or "from the adventures of Camie Loneozner".

But I don't think that works for five minutes. Wormie's dad wasn't Ben Kenobi's best mate; and so far as we know he wasn't a hot pilot, certainly not hot enough to learn how to fly an X-Wing in no seconds flat. I think that The Plot is quite clearly at work; driving us to the moment when Luke Skywalker and The Guy Who Killed Luke Skywalker's Dad are chasing each other down the Death Star Trench. Luke has a personal stake in the battle between Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan's apprentice that no-one else in the galaxy could possibly have. 

So let's admit that Star Wars is massively driven by fate and coincidence and plot device. Alan Dean Foster could see this clearly; and he could also see that this was precisely what made the film so much fun. So he hung a lampshade on the very first page. 

"If this were written up as a movie novelization" says Princess Leia "You would condemn it as a bit of a stretch."


“Oh but Andrew,” I can hear you saying “This is far too straightforward. Why do you assume that it is Luke Skywalker who Princess Leia is talking about. She doesn’t mention him by name. And there are other heroes in the story.”

That is a very good point. Ben Kenobi is one of the heroes; but he wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time – he was summoned by Princess Leia. And Princess Leia herself is one of the heroes, but she wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time either: she’d been sent on a really important mission by the Rebel Alliance. And Han Solo and Chewie were heroes, albeit mercenary heroes, and even they weren't really in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were adventurers by profession, in a tavern waiting for a patron to hire them.

So who else could the Princess be talking about?

Once you have asked the question, the answer is embarrassingly obvious. There is indeed an innocent bystander who gets drawn into the story entirely by accident and becomes the most pivotal character in the whole adventure. Princess Leia could have entrusted her secret message and her secret plans to any one of a dozen astromech droids on the blockade runner. Artoo Detoo just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All stories are true. Of course Artoo Detoo is the hero of Star Wars. He's the one with the secret mission and the secret plans inside him. He's the one who brings Luke to Ben. He's with Luke on the X-Wing at the end. The very first line in the film is Threepio talking to him; the very last line is Threepio asking about his welfare. So why wouldn't Leia, looking back years after the events, remembering how she unwittingly involved two lowly robots in Galactic events, say "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time...naturally they became heroes."

This makes the ret-con which said that Artoo knew Leia’s mummy and Threepio was kit built by his daddy even less forgivable. But it does give the problematic ending of Star Wars a hitherto unnoticed irony. While the humans are awarding each other medals in an incredibly overdone awards ceremony with undisguised Nazi overtones, the actual heroes are looking on from the sidelines. Doing, I suppose, the robotic equivalent of smiling wryly. And Princess Leia is in on the joke.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Last Jedi: Quinary Thoughts

Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

Samuel Becket


This was not the essay I wanted to write.

I wanted to write about Poe Dameron taking on the First Order dreadnought in a single X-Wing; and Kylo Ren cutting the Supreme Leader in two; and Yoda popping up right when you didn't expect him to and most of the battle in the ice (even though it went on forever) and Luke tapping the dust off his coat after the First Order have thrown everything they have at him; and how Dameron really does jump into an X-Wing and blow things up after he has been told not to and Luke really does take on the whole First Order with a laser sword after he has said he won't. 

So many moments. 

One can sit in front of Star Wars Rebels and enjoy the Death Star shaped corridors and the proper shiny Stormtroopers and Tom Baker being a tree without over-worrying about what effect all this will have on The Saga. Because although Rebels is, to the extent that we care, Canon, it is pretty clear that big developments in The Saga aren't going to happen in 15 minute cartoon episodes.

But Last Jedi is not just a film. Last Jedi is the next chapter of the Star Wars saga. Last Jedi affects every future Star Wars movie, every comic book, every novel, every role-playing game and (in fact) every story that is going to be played out in the head of every child with an action figure or a set of Star Wars Lego for all time. Star Wars Episode VIII has a significance which issue #18 of the official Poe Dameron spin-off comic can’t ever have. Fun though issue #18 of the official Poe Dameron spin-off comic may in fact have been.

If Frank Miller or someone really wants to tell a story in which Batman sexually molests Robin (and I assume that someone has at some time told such a story) then he does very little harm, because at the end of the day it is just one more weird take on Batman among a million other weird takes on Batman. Paedo-Batman can be put in the box alongside Camp Batman and Lego Batman and Had Tea and Bat Cookies With Scooby Doo Batman and never thought about again. It isn't enough for a Batman story to be canon. Every Batman story is canon until it isn't. It has to be a good story as well; good enough to become part of the consensus Batman which all subsequent writers will take for granted. I am a sufficiently old-school Marvel Purist that I still believe that the real Bucky died in a plane crash and the real Captain America agonizes about him for at least three pages every month. But I know perfectly well that the version in which Bucky survived the war and became the Winter Soldier has overwritten Avengers #4 because it's better. More interesting. More believable. More suggestive of new stories. If the Winter Soldier story hadn't really worked, it would have turned out to be a dream or an imaginary tale or a clone or an android messing with Cap's head.

Granted, dozens of novels and hundreds of comics were relegated to "legends" as soon as the words "The Force Awakens" crawled across the screen. But the main Star Wars movies can't endlessly reboot themselves. The Last Jedi says what the Last Jedi says and there is no doing anything about it.


"Try not" said Yoda to Luke in 1980. "Do. Or do not. There is no try." 

I am largely on Ezra Bridger's side: what does this even mean? How can you possibly do a new thing unless you try to do it? Granted, when Luke said "I'll give it a try" he was preemptively excusing his failure, and there is nothing wrong with a master encouraging a student to be self-confident. Possibly, Yoda is appealing to the old Hollywood cliche that even an elephant can fly if he believes in himself sufficiently. Perhaps he is even being a little Christ-like and enjoining Luke to have the faith that can remove and sink the mountain to a plain. But I am afraid it has always made Yoda seem altogether too much like one of those PE teachers who would punish you for not being able to catch a cricket ball because the only reason you failed to catch the cricket ball was because you didn't want to catch the cricket ball. (Luke hits Rey while he is training her. Not hard or abusively, but enough that she says 'ouch'. Ben, come to think of it, sets up the floaty thing to zap Luke's legs during lightsaber practice, enough that it hurts him. And the Younglings are very young indeed. At twelve, Anakin is already too old to start the training. Was there an undercurrent of abuse at the old Jedi temple?)

In 2017, Yoda's ghost offered Luke some new advice:

“Heeded my words not, did you? 'Pass on what you have learned.' Strength, mastery, .. but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

If this is what passes for Jedi Wisdom, then perhaps Luke should have held on to the ancient books. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. Learn from your mistakes. It's fairly good common sense advice, of course. And it's almost the exact opposite of what Yoda told Luke on Dagobah thirty years ago. I suppose being dead has given him a new perspective. 

What is it that Luke is to pass on to Rey? That however badly things turn out, she is on no account to cut herself off from the Force and spend Episodes X and XI moping on an island? That she definitely isn't allowed to elect Kylo Ren as president of the Third Republic? That even if the Boy With the Broom turns evil, it probably isn't a great idea to pull a lightsaber on him?

"Yes: failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is." 

What does that even mean?


You might have expected that after the defeat of the Dark Side at the end of Return of the Jedi, the Light Side would have been in the ascendant for many years. But Luke doesn't say this. Instead he says that after the fall of the Sith, there was a period of balance. 

Many of us hoped that these sequels would discard or ignore the Prequel Trilogy and we would never have to look at a Gungan or a Midichlorian again. But the Original Trilogy was about a Manichean struggle between Light and Darkness, which ended with the rout of the Dark. The idea that Anakin's role was to bring balance to the Force comes entirely from the prequels. It is taken absolutely for granted in the Force Awakens and the Last Jedi. When Rey reaches out to the Force, she feels "life, death; warmth, cold; peace, violence. And between it all. Balance and energy…the Force.” Han Solo now defines the Force, not as a hocus-pocus religion or a fancy word for "luck" but as "A magical power holding good and evil in balance." 

And Snoke sums the idea up very dramatically: 

“Darkness rises. And the light rises to meet it. I warned my apprentice that as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise.”

What does any of this even mean?

We all agreed a long time ago that Star Wars made much more sense if we assumed that every time anyone mentions The Force they are really talking about The Plot. Ben tells Luke that "The Plot is what gives a Jedi his power"; Luke has to learn about the Plot before he agrees to travel with Obi-Wan. When Alderaan is destroyed, Ben feels a great disturbance in the Plot. Vader realizes that the Plot is strong in Luke, and Luke only saves the universe when he lets go of his conscious self and trusts the Plot. 

Which is as much as to say: the Jedi are the Author's representatives in the Story. They have got some knowledge and understanding of where the Saga is going, and they get to manipulate and exploit fate and coincidence to keep the story on track.

Anyone who has ever run a role-playing game knows that certain characters have "plot immunity". However badly they screw up, they will always be found at the bottom of a pile of dead bodies with one hit point left. Even if their spaceship blows up they will be found floating in the vacuum and be hauled back on board an allies' ship, unconscious but alive. Because if they die the scenario stops working, and the game comes to an end. It is hardly surprising that before going into a dangerous situation Star Wars characters say "I hope that you turn out to be one of the characters that the story teller can't afford to kill off because you have something important to do in the next movie but one".

Which is to say: "May the Plot be with you." 

We all know, from the moment he first steps on stage, that Luke will fire the shot that destroys the Death Star. That's what happens in this kind of movie: the hero saves the day. The hero could, in fact, hit his target blindfold and with one hand tied behind his back, because the Plot demands it. That is what Luke Skywalker more or less does. He switches off his targeting computer and trusts to the Plot.   

This is why Rey turns out not to have a backstory: she doesn't need one. From the moment she steps on stage it is clear that the Plot is flowing through her. A whole series of wild coincidences -- Beebee, Finn, the Millennium Falcon, Han – conspire to put her at the center of the action. It really misses the point to say that she is a Mary Sue. Star Wars heroes and heroines are all Mary Sues. The Plot is with them.

If Star Wars were a single movie, or even a single trilogy, then we could afford to conceptualize it as the battle between Light and Dark. When the Dark is defeated, the story comes to an end. But if Star Wars is a saga, then the one thing we know for sure is that the Light can never, ever completely win.

For over a thousand generations, all of the Plot devices were being used by the goodies. However bad things looked, a Plot device would always come along and ensure that the goodies came out on top. Which meant, of course, that there couldn't really be any stories. 

The first of the prequels is called Episode I. The words "every saga has a beginning" were emblazoned across the posters. There are events in the Star Wars universe before Qui-Gon and Anakin become involved in that petty trade dispute; of course there are. But there are no previous stories. How could there be? The stories only start once there is a villain powerful enough to challenge the goodies. This is why Anakin is introduced as the one who will bring Balance. He has no human father. He is quite literally conceived by the Plot.

When the goodies were in control of the universe, the Plot begat Darth Vader. When Darth Vader won, the Plot begat Luke Skywalker. When Luke Skywalker brought the story to a complete and satisfying conclusion, the plot created Kylo Renn. Because Kylo Renn was too powerful, the Plot created Rey. We expected Rey to emerge from the threads of the Plot which have been built up over twenty hours of cinema and thirty years of history. But she is actually a pure Plot device. There is a girl who can use the Force on Jakku because there needs to be a girl who can use the Force on Jakku. The Plot has arbitrarily placed her there because that is where she needs to be.

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. 

Yoda tells Luke that the Dark Side of the Plot is quicker, easier and more seductive than the Light: but not, in the end, more powerful. It is more fun to be the villain. You'll be strangling generals and blowing up planets while the hero is still being grounded by his uncle for not doing his chores. It is harder and often less fun to stick to the script and be the good guy. But the Light Side of the Plot is more powerful. Goodies always win.


Darth Vader is not born a baddie; and we are not told that he is predestined to turn into a baddie. We see a series of more or less comprehensible steps turn him from the relatively angelic Tatooine pod-car ace to the nightmarish figure who haunts Luke on Cloud City. Similarly, there is nothing inevitable about Ben Solo's transition into Kylo Renn. His fall is the result of his own choices -- and of some very bad decisions made by Luke Skywalker. 

This repulsed me on a first viewing of the movie, as, indeed, it repulses Rey: it seemed less to be an act of deconstruction; more of willful desecration.

“Hey, saddo fans: you know that guy who has been your hero since you were eight -- well, this is what he is really like. Panicking and pulling a sword on a teenager and creating a new Darth Vader.”

I think we would have tolerated it more if (as someone must have considered) Luke Skywalker himself had turned to the Dark Side: if there had been a big Cloud City Moment in which Kylo took off his mask and revealed the face, not of Adam Driver but of Mark Hamill. Luke as the new Vader would have felt like an epic failure with an epic grandeur behind it. And Leia or Han or Rey or indeed Kylo could have dragged him back to the Light in the final reel. But this felt petty. Sordid, almost.

Completely wrong about this now think I that I was. 

On a second and third viewing, I am much more excited by the structural cleverness of the reveal than I am annoyed by the diminution of Luke Skywalker. Star Wars started out as a sort of riff on Hidden Fortress, so why shouldn't the pivotal moment of the third trilogy nod its head towards Rashamon? We see Ben Solo's fall from three points of view: the dishonest version that Luke initially gives to Rey; the misleading version that Kylo tells her; and the more truthful version that Rey eventually forces Luke to give her. (Is this final version the unvarnished truth or does it still depend greatly on our point of view?)

The account, like all accounts of the origin of evil, doesn’t quite work. Did Luke threaten Ben Solo because Ben had turned to the Dark Side, or did Ben turn to the Dark Side because Luke Skywalker threatened him? But on reflection, it’s a perfect fit to the Star Wars saga. It is shocking that Luke Skywalker creates Kylo Ren: but we have long accepted that Ben Kenobi created Darth Vader. 

We got three versions of that story, too. In Obi-Wan’s first account, Vader is simply an apprentice who turned to evil. In his second account, he presumptuously took Yoda’s place as a teacher; and some defect of training sent the apprentice bad. “My pride has had terrible consequences for the galaxy.” In the prequels, Obi-Wan goes against Yoda’s will and trains him to fulfill an oath to his own master, Qui-Gon, and Palpatine traps him in a complex web of lies. But in each version, Darth Vader, the prototypical evil Jedi is produced by Ben Kenobi, the prototypical good one.

The end point of Luke Skywalker’s story is the creation of Kylo Ren: the failure of the Light produces the new Darkness. And then along comes Rey, nobody from nowhere. The Plot produces her at the moment she is needed. To restore balance. To make sure the Saga carries on.

Rey thinks that the Plot is a source of powers and plot devices; but Luke tells her that is really a matter of understanding how everything fits together. Perhaps this is why the Last Jedi sometimes feels as if it doesn't quite fit into the Saga. Luke has closed himself off to the Plot. If the Plot is no longer with us, then perhaps things don't all fit together in a satisfactory pattern. We are no longer in a world where the goodies always win; where the cavalry always come over the hill, shouting Yee Har! and knocking Darth Vader off your tail. We are now in a world where people who volunteer for suicide missions really do end up committing suicide. The Jedi are passing away, and everyone is going to have to learn to cope in a Universe where no-one has privileged knowledge of the Plot. 


There is a piece of satire circulating on Twitter in which a True Star Wars Fan reacts to the Empire Strikes back in the same shrill tone that some True Star Wars Fans have reacted to the Last Jedi. “What is this movie? It invents Force Powers which there were no sign of in Star Wars. It turns Ben Kenobi into a great big liar. It introduces a fucking Muppet. And what’s all this Episode V nonsense? You've ruined my childhood."

This would be quite funny were it not for the fact that it is precisely how a lot of Star Wars fans did react to the Empire Strikes Back. And they weren't completely wrong. The Empire Strikes Back did turn the Force from a mysterious ancient power to an endless source of get-out-of-jail-free cards. It did turn Obi-Wan from a voice that Luke thinks he may have heard into an actual ghost. It did turn the lightsaber from an archaic ceremonial weapon to a Swiss army knife. It did reduce Han Solo from a dangerous rogue to a sardonic good guy. It did turn Star Wars from a happy upbeat salute to the good old days into a rather sordid tale where your idols lie to you and everyone betrays everyone else. And it doesn’t have an ending. Or a beginning. It’s entirely made up of middle.

And despite all that it really is the film which created the Star Wars saga as we know it. And from any reasonably objective point of view, it’s the best movie in the series.

The Last Jedi is a great movie. It tries to offer the arias and soliloquies of epic drama while still retaining the simple blacks and whites of a cartoon strip. It tries to give us the thrills and machismo of a war comic while still depicting the desperate heroism of an actual war.

This is, of course, impossible.

The Empire Strikes Back represented a tear in the fabric of the Star Wars tapestry. It took a hammer and smashed my pulp movie serial into a thousand pieces. Out of those pieces we built the Saga. And now, the Last Jedi has taken a hammer to that saga. What we are going to build from the fragments we don't yet know.

Luke Skywalker closed himself off to the Force. I sometimes fear that Walt Disney may have lost the plot.