Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ten More Facts About the Star Wars Trilogy

1: Peter Cushing also played such iconic roles as Dr Frankenstien, Dr Who, and Sherlock Holmes!

2: George Lucas also directed the Indiana Jones trilogy, featuring Harrison "Han Solo" Ford as the iconic archaeologist!

3: Harrison Ford also takes the title role in the iconic 1982 cult sci fi classic Blade Runner!

4: In the first version of the script, "Star Wars" was going to be entitled "The Star Wars"!

5: Until very late in production, Luke Skywalker was going to be called "Luke Starkiller"!

6: The Force is an energy field create by all living things. It surrounds them, it penetrates them, it bind the galaxy together!

7: Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force!

8: The Jedi Knights were the Guardians of Truth and Justice in the Old Republic for over a thousand generations!

9: Princess Leia turns out to be Luke Skywalker's twin sister!

10: The word "iconic" refers to a style of religious artwork in Greek Orthodox churches, and should not be used as a synonym for "famous"!


The most incredible article about the Star Wars trilogy you will ever read

How Hollywood got Star Wars wrong

What is Luke Skywalker's relationship to Rey? The true answer may surprise you. 

George and Joe and Jack and Bob (and Me) 

Available from


Andrew Rilstone writes more perceptively about Star Wars than just about anyone else alive
Echo Station 5-7

...the most intelligent and insightful articles ever on the Star Wars hexology....”
Mike Taylor of the best things I’ve read on the whole Star Wars phenomenon in the last 27 years...

For more than 30 years, fans have been waiting for the definitive guide to the monsters, vehicles and aliens in the Star Wars universe. Some of them may find that this collection of essays by passes the time while they carry on waiting.

Starting with the opening night of Phantom Menace, Andrew explains why the prequels aren't quite as bad as everyone say; wonder if sometimes a lightsaber is just a lightsaber; and tries to show why the Saga has become so important to so many people.

A very personal journey to the heart of the Star Wars saga, in the company of such luminaries as Joseph Campbell, Jack Kirby...and Bob Dylan?

Includes parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the seminal "Little Orphan Anakin", though not necessarily in that order

Available from


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Hugo Awards 2016

The following essays were published on this forum in 2015 and eligible for nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work.

Captain America 1942 - 2015

It's not going to happen; but isn't it worth a go just to imagine the look on the face of the guy whose name we never mention (who lost in five categories last year)?

Hugo Award Categories

The Official Rules

Best Fan Writer: 
This is another person category. Note that it does not just apply to writing done in fanzines. Work published in semiprozines, and even on mailing lists, blogs, BBSs, and similar electronic fora, can be including when judging people for this Award. Only work in professional publications should not be considered.

Best Related Work: 

Awarded to a work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year. The type of works eligible include, but are not limited to, collections of art, works of literary criticism, books about the making of a film or TV series, biographies and so on, provided that they do not qualify for another category. Nonfiction collections are eligible here, but fiction anthologies generally are not because all of the individual works within the anthology are eligible in one of the “story” categories. There is no category for “Best Anthology.”

The Force Awakens I -VII







If you have enjoyed these articles, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. This means pledging to give him a small amount of money, typically $1 (0.69 English pounds) each time he writes a substantive piece. 

He is currently earning approximately £44 per article; NUJ rates are around £250/1000 words for a small magazine. 

Did you like the Force Awakens, or didn't you?


Chewie: we're home.

Very early on the morning of December 16th, I said “The Force Awakens was as good as it could possibly have been”.

Having now seen the film, er, five times, I think I would say “It was far better than it needed to be.”

I remember the days when TV and movie adaptations of comic books had nothing to do with the source material, and you didn't really expect them to. The Hulk was a fugitive named Dave; Doctor Strange was a medical student; Spider-Man wore his webshooters outside his sleeves. Even the Tim Burton Batman, which was fan-approved and kicked the whole thing off, had us struggling to find the things which resembled the comic book. (Even Reeves Superman. Krypton made of sugar. Elderly Jor-El. Hairy Lex Luther. No Superboy.) But at some point, somewhere around the X-Men, I suppose, someone realized that hey, these comic books are actually quite good; and hey, the kinds of people who read comic books go to movies; so hey, let’s make a Captain America movie that actually, like, follows the plot of Captain America! Let’s make a Guardians of the Galaxy movie and reference the Celestials and Howard the Frickin’ Duck! Let's make geek movies for geeks!

As has been noted, Mr Walt “Uncle” Disney spent 2.75 billion pounds buying the rights to Star Wars. And while a movie like Force Awakens makes a tidy little sum in a tickets and popcorn sales, the real, ongoing money is in computer games and action figures and breakfast cereal and lunchboxes and lightsaber shaped water bottles and duvet covers and t-shirts and lots and lots of underwear. People were going to go and see the Force Awakens whether it was critically acclaimed or not. The main thing to do was not damage the brand. (Marvel and Star Wars and Star Trek and Doctor Who are called "franchises" nowadays, a word which originally had to do with secret recipes for fried chicken.) The easy thing to do would have been to just show us all the toys and not knock over too much of the furniture. Disney would have made it's money back out of any film in which a wookie and a walker said may the Force be with you to a lightsaber. But Disney placed Star Wars in the hands of a man who actually liked Star Wars (however much he may have disliked Star Trek); and he shows every sign of having put together the kind of film he would have liked to have seen. He didn't go for all the obvious fan-pleasing effects; he held some of the cool stuff back til literally the last moment; he killed off good guys; he left us wondering what was going to happen next and wanting more. This was a far, far better film than it needed to be. 

The Force Awakens was a film I felt comfortable with. It was not, in truth, a film that thrilled me or filled me with joy. But as you get older, that happens less and less, which is why we start listening to folksingers. The main thing which was missing, I am afraid to say, was George Lucas. Lucas brought a mad inventiveness to the table; a sense of excess. Yes, someone sometimes needed to take him aside and say “George, George, are you absolutely sure about the Jamaican fish people?” Star Wars had iconic X-Wings and TIE Fighters and The Empire Strikes Back had almost equally iconic Walkers and the Return of the Jedi had, er, loads of cool stuff as well and the prequels, bless them, and gold pointy naboo fighters and funny round Jedi fighters and robots that curled up into wheels like roley poley bugs... The Force Awakens offered us, I think I am correct in saying, not one single cool new piece of hardware: X-Wings and TIE Fighters with slightly different liveries; a lightsaber with a cross bar; an even bigger and more deathier Death Star.

But on the plus side, there was no sense of anyone going through the motions, quoting famous lines, referencing famous scenes for the fans to tick off on their scorecards. Carrie Fisher made very little attempt to re-do her turn as Princess Leia from the first movie. We entirely believed in Han and the General as a middle-aged couple for whom things hadn’t quite worked out. I have known ever since the Ewoks started their song that when I next saw Luke Skywalker he would be a wise old man with a wise old beard and wise old robes, so there could be no better image for the film to end on.

Star Wars is an ongoing, generational space-fantasy saga, created by George Lucas and others. 

It is set during and after the fall of a great Galactic Republic; like the Arthurian saga, it’s about holding on to what you can of civilization as night falls. The cyclical conflict between Light and Darkness is represented by a single family. The first trilogy deals with the messianic Anakin Skywalker; the second with his son Luke Skywalker and the third with his grandchildren Ben and Rey Solo.

In it’s original form, the fourth chapter was intended to be a stand alone work, and therefore does not fit entirely satisfactorily into the saga; although George Lucas engaged in an on-going editorial process to rework the films into a single “fix-up” saga. It was painfully possible to see the narrative crack between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope; but when the saga resumed in 2015, fans were relieved that there was no such disjuncture between Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and Episode VII: The Force Awakens. 

At a micro level, the details of the generational trilogy may not have been what creator George Lucas originally envisaged; but we can be pretty certain that at a macrocosmic level, the saga was running roughly according to his intentions. Episode VII takes us into the third generation of characters; just as the heroes of episodes IV - VI were the children of the heroes of episodes I - III, so the Force Awakens introduces us to those characters grandchildren. A new political force, with a new technological terror, threatens the New Republic. The mystical guardians of peace and justice are once again riven by a schism between Darkness and Light. Unlikely heroes and heroines must take up their parents and grandparents swords to fight the coming darkness with their backs to the walls. This is the story that Lucas would have told; it is the story that Abrams is telling; and it is the story which will doubtless continue into the third decade of the new millennium when and elderly Rey Solo will doubtless witness her own children being tempted by the Dark Side of the Force. 

The saga begins with two Jedi Knights being sent to deal with an apparently trivial trade dispute which turns out * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


If you want me to carry on writing, either buy my book...

Monday, February 08, 2016

Why Star Wars bad guys ain't as good as they used to be


If you have a problem, said the Judo instructor on the programme, such as for instance a nineteen stone Jap in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use the problem to solve itself. If you can trip or throw or deflect the Jap as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stones quickly becomes his problem instead of yours.
           Douglas Adams

Finn and Rey, and even Han treat life and death as a game and revel in the playing of it. But there is a sense in which the First Order also seem to be playing at being bad guys.

Many people felt that the unmasking of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi failed: there needed to be something more shocking, less pathetic, under the helmet. Nearly everybody felt that Hayden Christensen failed to convince as the young Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. He was neither evil enough to be Darth Vader, nor impressive enough to be the great hero and friend of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Clones Wars cartoon handles him better: he’s the cynical, rule-breaking, wise-cracking Jedi. But a plot arc in which a likable cynical good guy turns evil is not really very satisfying. Likable cynical good guys are meant to reveal that they have hearts of pure gold.

In retrospect, Lucas was much closer to the mark when he cast Jake Lloyd as child Vader in Phantom Menace. If no-one without a helmet and voice-over can possibly be Vader, better make young Anakin the least Darth Vader like figure possible: cute, naive, starry-eyed, kind. Star Wars is never far from the influence of Jack Kirby, and Kirby put a character who looked angelic but was actually demonic in virtually every series he wrote: Orion, the Reject, Angel, even Victor Von Doom. Instead of a moody teenager, Anakin needed to be Sir Galahad: noble, gentle, pious, holy, beautiful. Then his descent to the Dark Side could have literally been like the fall of Lucifer.

Darth Vader is a different character in each of the original trilogy: henchman in Star Wars, pantomime villain and bogeyman in Empire Strikes Back and a tragic hero in Return of the Jedi. But he is never less than charismatic; his every line an instant quotation, demanding to be written in capital letters like Death himself. I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING! HE IS AS CLUMSY AS HE IS STUPID! THE EMPEROR IS NOT AS FORGIVING AS I AM! Probably James Earl Jones would sound impressively evil if he were reading out a recipe for vegetable soup.

There is no iconic villain in the prequels. How could there be? Palpatine sneers. Christopher Lee is Christopher Lee. Darth Maul looks impressive on duvet covers and underwear.

Episode VII knows that no villain it introduces can possibly have a tenth of the impact of Darth Vader. So what does it do? Following Douglas Adams advise, it makes that part of the story. It creates a villain who knows he is a pale imitation of the previous one. A villain who has to keep proving to everyone else that he is evil: losing his temper and breaking things when his plans fail; killing people he has no particular reason to kill to show he can. Actually holding onto Darth Vader’s helmet – presumably retrieved from the funeral pyre on Endor – as a holy relic, and praying to it. Feeling that he is being tempted by the Light Side of the Force.

"Show me again the power of Darkness. Show me again, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started."


The theology of the Force is, naturally, a little vague. The very first time it is mentioned (in A New Hope) is when we are told that Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force. ("Seduced": interesting choice of words, coming from an order which enforces vows of celibacy.) Sometimes, it seems that the Dark Side and the Light differ in their approach ("a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack"). Sometimes, the difference is just that the Dark Side use the Force for evil and the Light for Good. Sometimes, the opposite seems to be true: it isn’t that bad people use the Dark Side, it is that if you use the Dark Side, it will make you bad. Sometimes, there seem to be two different traditions: the Sith are custodians of secrets and techniques which the Jedi know nothing about. Leia says that Snoke – the Supreme Leader – seduced (that word again) Kylo Ren to the Dark Side. After he has been all but defeated by Rey and Finn, Snoke says that it is time to “complete his training”. But I have an overwhelming sense that Kylo is feeling his way: that he wants to be a super-villain like Grandpa but doesn’t quite know what he is doing.

There seems also to be a Tao idea that the Light and the Dark sides of the Force need to be balanced. Qui-Gon believed that Anakin Skywalker was the one who would bring balance. Tekka says that without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force. Han Solo defines the Force as "a magical energy holding together good and evil". This is one of the ways in which VII acknowledges the prequels without having a guest appearance by Jar-Jar Binks: the idea of "balance" occurs nowhere in the first trilogy.

Anger and fear are paths to the Dark Side. Kylo Renn fears that he will never be such an iconic villain as Darth Vader, and is angry when one of his minions fail him. When people failed Vader, he strangled them, with his fist or with the Force, but in a calm and controlled way. When the Millennium Falcon escapes at the end of Empire Strikes Back, he simply walks away. When Kylo Ren sees that Rey has escaped, he goes berserk and starts smashing things with his lightsaber. (Two stormtroopers simply turn around and leave him to it. They are obviously used to him throwing wobblies.) But it feels like someone showing off: going through the motions of being angry to prove a point, like someone smashing a tea-cup in a domestic row. As if he doesn’t really mean it.

When Luke says that there is still good in Darth Vader, no-one believes him. When Leia tells Han that there is still good in their son and he must try and bring him back, we take it as a definite possibility. He clearly isn't very good at being evil.

All the officers of the First Order are young. If the First Order only arose after Luke disappeared, and Luke disappeared because of the rise of Kylo Ren, then the First Order can hardly have been in existence for more than fifteen years. (Quite quick work in converting a planet into a hyperspace planet destroying cannon, even so.) But there seem to be no old generals in their 50s who remember the great days of the Empire.

General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) seems positively amateurish. His bickering with Ren somewhat recalls Motti's quarreling with Vader in the first film. But he doesn't seem to have properly got the hang of being evil. His ranting speech before they wipe out the Republic looks like someone doing a very bad imitation of Hitler: more Roderick Spode than Oswald Mosley. Look at the way the stormtroopers salute him. The Empire never went in for this kind of thing (if anything, it was the rebels who liked Triumph of the Will style ceremonials). And look, for goodness sake, at the chief Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christiie), with her silver armour and bright red cloak. These are people who love playing soldiers; people who became Nazis because they liked the uniforms.

Alan Moore, thinking about Jack the Ripper and the mythology of serial killers, remembers that when he was a small child, he experienced an intrusive thought about stabbing his mother with a knife; simultaneously knowing that it would be easy to do; and that he would never do such a thing. The serial killer, he speculates, is the person who has both imagined and done the impossible thing; and that gives them a certain kind of power because they have crossed a line. He thinks it would be like perceiving the script for your life, and abandoning it. Allowing yourself to be seduced by the dark side of the Plot.

Kylo Renn kills his father. He doesn't kill his father for any reason. He doesn't appear to hate him. He may even love him. He falters for a moment; tempted, as he would see it, by the light. The sky literally turning dark seems to push him back to the Dark Side. He's doing something pointlessly evil; because he wants to step over a line and never go back.

And when he pulls of his helmet: well, it’s a surprise, certainly, but it’s not a shock. Young; floppy haired; rather good looking; weak. Like the Anakin of the prequels. The anti-Luke.

The Pope complained that the villains in the Force Awakens were not evil enough. That's sort of true; but it's also sort of the point. Darth Vader is a fallen angel, with all the evil and charm and charisma that implies. George Lucas was a true artist, and presumably therefore of Darth Vader's party without realizing it. Kylo Ren is not the Dark Lord: he is a very naughty boy.

"General Kenobi: years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars: now he begs you to come to his aid again." 

Star Wars reached back into previous episodes, previous movies previous chapters — even in the good years when it was the only one. We didn't need to have seen Ewan McGregor totally failing to either look or sound like Alec Guinness to understand that Ben-Obi-Wan-Kenobi is the hero of a previous film which just happens not to exist. The Force Awakens reaches back into episodes and movies and chapters which do exist. And Han Solo finds himself in the Obi-Wan role. He’s the hero of the last movie; he’s getting too old for this kind of thing he’s back for one last hurrah.

Perhaps his exit wasn’t a completely unexpected plot twist after all?

As soon as they get to the Death Star, Ben Kenobi knows that he has to face Darth Vader. There's no actual reason for the fight. Vader could have been standing between Ben and the shield generator; or he could have been blocking Ben's path back to the Falcon. But they seem to be fighting because they have to. Part of a personal quest: Jedi stuff that both Obi-Wan and Darth Vader acknowledge, but which the rest of us wouldn't understand.

In Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, facing Vader, in the cave and in real life, is part of Luke's spiritual progress; a thing he has to do to become a Jedi. This makes sense if Vader is a Jungian archetype. In order to become a Man, you have to confront and overcome the terrifying shadow of your father that haunts your dreams. It makes much less sense if he just a particularly nasty war criminal.

Maybe there is some rule which says that when the Light Side and the Dark Side meet, they must duel. Maybe they are fulfilling some promise they made, years ago, before Vader killed Luke's father. Maybe Obi-Wan is consciously seeking his own death. Because he knows that he needs to be at one with the Force before Luke will be able to destroy the Death Star? Because he has learned from his old master a discipline which enables him to maintain his consciousness after death? Because enlightenment involves confronting your shadow self and experiencing ego death?

Is it possible that Han Solo is seeking his own death?

Does he know that the moment he faces his son is the culmination of a redemption arc that began when he turned the Falcon around and covered Luke’s back on Yavin? Or is he just keeping a promise to Leia, knowing how it will end, but going through with it anyway. ("Not my idea of courage. More like… Suicide.")

Han Solo, the real Han Solo, the one who gunned down Greedo in cold blood and cracked a joke about it, did not believe in the Force. I used to wonder how that was possible. How could you not know the Jedi Worreel when they were acting in big numbers when you were a teenager. Chewbacca knew Yoda, didn't he? But the Republic extended across the whole galaxy. (There are maps of the Star Wars universe. It is clear that by galaxy we mean, well, galaxy.) So even if there were hundreds of Jedi, they were awfully thinly spread. Maybe they were more like Saints than Cardinals. Even if you believed in them, you would probably never meet one. If you'd never met one, well, it was pretty easy not to believe in them.

Yoda tells Obi Wan that there is another hope besides Luke. In Return of the Jedi, when we discover that Leia is also Vader's child. Luke thinks she has inherited some of Darth Vader's midichlorians, and that some day, she will understand how to use them. This is a catastrophic failure of Lucas's retrospective plotting: it’s impossible to imagine that the hotheaded politician that Leia has been established to be would undergo the sort of training Luke underwent…and anyway, wasn't Luke too old to begin the training? It’s much more believable that she’s General Leia, running the Resistance to the New Order.

But this makes me wonder…

On Starkiller base, Finn admits that he does not really know how to take the shield's down, but says that he will trust the Force. Han Solo looks shocked and says "That's not how the Force works."

What does Han Solo know about how the Force works?

"I used to wonder that myself” he says “Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo-magical power holding together good, evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is, it's true. The Force, the Jedi, all of it. It's all true."

And when he meets Rey, and recognizes her as his daughter, he takes her, not back to Leia and the resistance, but to Maz's tavern, where she has a mystical vision associated with Luke Skywalker's lightsaber.

It couldn't be, could it?

It couldn't be that while Leia never learned to use the Force Han Solo did?

And that there may be a familiar voice whispering in Rey’s ear in the next movie?

If you want me to carry on writing, either buy my book...

Sunday, February 07, 2016

10 facts about the Star Wars trilogy

1: The Force Awakens is the seventh film in the Star Wars series!

2: The other film in the series are The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, the Empire Strikes Back and the Return of the Jedi.

3: Although it is Episode 1 of the saga, the Phantom Menace actually came out 22 years after Star Wars!

4: Star Wars was created by George Lucas, The Force Awakens was written and directed by J.J Abrams!

5: Despite it's futuristic hardware, the Star Wars series happens a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away!

6: Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, was the hero of the first three movies!

7: Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker father, was the hero of second three movies!

8:  In Star Wars, Han Solo shoots a bounty hunter down in cold blood! Later releases of the film re-edit the scene so the bounty hunter goes for his gun first!

9: Christopher Lee, who plays Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones, once played Count Dracula in a low budget British horror movie!

10: Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in Star Wars, played Van Helsing in the same movie!


The most incredible article about the Star Wars trilogy you will ever read

How Hollywood got Star Wars wrong

What is Luke Skywalker's relationship to Rey? The true answer may surprise you. 

George and Joe and Jack and Bob (and Me) 

Available from


Andrew Rilstone writes more perceptively about Star Wars than just about anyone else alive
Echo Station 5-7

...the most intelligent and insightful articles ever on the Star Wars hexology....”
Mike Taylor of the best things I’ve read on the whole Star Wars phenomenon in the last 27 years...

For more than 30 years, fans have been waiting for the definitive guide to the monsters, vehicles and aliens in the Star Wars universe. Some of them may find that this collection of essays by passes the time while they carry on waiting.

Starting with the opening night of Phantom Menace, Andrew explains why the prequels aren't quite as bad as everyone say; wonder if sometimes a lightsaber is just a lightsaber; and tries to show why the Saga has become so important to so many people.

A very personal journey to the heart of the Star Wars saga, in the company of such luminaries as Joseph Campbell, Jack Kirby...and Bob Dylan?

Includes parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the seminal "Little Orphan Anakin", though not necessarily in that order

Available from


Friday, February 05, 2016

Rebel agents discover the First Order's ultimate weapon. You won't believe what happens next!


"A marvellous healthy innocence… Nothing unpleasant. People go bang-bang and other people fall over, but no horrors. No sleazy sex, in fact no sex at all. A wonderful freshness about it. Like fresh air... People are going to read too much into it."
       Alec Guinness on Star Wars.

Star Wars was fun. It never strayed into camp or self-parody; but there was always a sense that Han and Luke were big kids, having a great time. Bad stuff happened: planets got blown up, uncles and aunts got incinerated, princesses got tortured — but no-one really minded. Look at Leia greeting Luke in the detention cell: is this a woman who was subjected to torture a few minutes ago? Look at Luke greeting Han after the battle: is this a man whose best friend has just been blown up? Think of the garbage masher. Were you horrified at the idea that our heroes were almost certainly going to be crushed to death (or consumed by a garbage eating squid) or were you delighted that such a classic movie serial cliffhanger was being acted out on the big screen? And weren't even Han and Luke were enjoying themselves? "One thing's for sure; we're all going to be a lot thinner." I suppose soldiers do engage in gallows humour when they are seconds away from death, but surely not that kind of wise-cracking.

Furry first mates who tear people's arms off over chess games; quick kisses before swinging over chasms — utility belts containing ropes that are only of any use to you if you are planning to swing over a chasm, come to that; nervous little robots that scoot off down corridors when they see wookies. Everyone gives the impression that they are playing at being heroes and villains. This is one of the reasons why the Star Wars role-playing game was such a success.

The Empire Strikes Back is not fun. Goodies lose; death is final, and sad; friends betray you; trusted mentors lie to you; and being tortured really, really stings. Luke has his hand cut off, and Vader kills people to death, instead of just threatening to. Return of the Jedi fudges it: it seems to realize that Empire Strikes Back was altogether too dark, but instead of lightening up, it makes the main plot even heavier but counterbalances it with some comic relief. Ewoks. One of the things to be said in favour of Phantom Menace — I will repeat that: one of the things to be said in favour of Phantom Menace — is that what with Anakin winning the chariot race, and making friends with R2D2 and blundering into the front line of a battle; there is quite a bit of fun to be had even without that charming rascal Jar-Jar Binks. But Episodes II and III take us on a downward spiral of grimness.

"Let's play Star Wars! I'll be your forbidden love, and you can accidentally murder me."

"Ooo, ooo, can I be the little kids who get massacred!"

How could Lucas defend the silliness of Phantom Menace on the grounds that it was a children's movie, and then perpetrate the final half hour of Revenge of the Sith?

One of the very great strengths of the Force Awakens is that it puts that sense the fun back into Star Wars. It's by no means without dark moments — it starts with the massacre of a whole village by stormtroopers; and we distinguish Finn, the stormtrooper with a moral conscience from the others by virtue of the fact that he's got a bloody hand-print on his nice white helmet. Before long, apparent good guy Lor San Tekka has been killed and Poe Dameron is shouting "no, no not the mind probe!" But even these sequences have a great deal of joy about them. What better way for a story to start than with a hero meeting a mysterious contact in a tent and receiving a mysterious map? How right and proper for the mysterious contact to die right after handing over the macguffin!

Once Finn and Poe hook up, the fun really kicks in. They have just the kind of bravado and banter that a pair of player characters ought to have. (Template: Reformed Stormtrooper; Template: Brash Pilot.) And anyway, we're Star Wars fans. We're getting a feel of what it would be like to fly a TIE fighter. In Star Wars, the iconic fighters were little ships, the ones that came in packs and buzzed around like mosquitoes. And we scarcely ever got a look at the pilots. So of course the first set piece action sequence should be about a goody flying one of those little ships — and letting us see the cockpit, and the controls. Giving us all, in fact, a sense that we are inside the ship. Showing us, more than anything in the previous six movies, what it would feel like to be a pilot.

"I always wanted to fly one of these" says Poe. Life and death situation? Trying to save the Resistance? Could be killed at any moment?

Whee...this is fun!

If you wasted endless hours playing X-Wing on your first PC, and if you had a Brash Pilot with 8 dice Starship Piloting then you will understand that "Use the toggle on the left to switch between missiles, cannons and pulses; use the sight on the right to aim; the trigger is to fire" is the best line in any movie, ever.

Meanwhile, down on Jakku…

Rey is having a hard time; eating the Star Wars equivalent of pot-noodles; scavenging for metal; getting short changed by definitely not Jewish scrap dealer Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg, not that you would know.) But after a brief and obligatory misunderstanding, Rey and Finn are having the time of their lives, running away from explosions, stealing broken down space ships and leading First Order TIE fighter into shipwrecks. 

Abrams is obviously very pleased that modern compositing technology allows us to see X-Wings and TIE fighters flying low over deserts and forests and seas and ice-flows where the old movies could really only show them against jet-black starscapes. It does look rather cool: but much of the Star Wars aesthetic involved ships whizzing across stars spangled backdrops. And it's less fun for X-Wings to be all-terrain vehicles. There should be X-Wings for fighting in space, snow-speeders for fighting in the snow, a new kind of half submarine half spaceship boat for fighting near the water — a cool new toy for each environment. (We don't even see any A-Wings and B-Wings and Y-Wings.) The Empire used to use totally impractical AT-ATs when attacking targets on land — the First Order just throws even more TIE fighters at them.

It would be untrue to say "so when Han Solo himself turns up, it is a surprise." But it would be fair to say that most of us weren't expect him to pop up at quite that moment. We are sufficiently engaged with Finn and Rey that he have temporarily forgotten that a class reunion of graduates from the original trilogy was precisely the thing we bought out ticket to see.  We knew Han was in it, but we weren't waiting for him.

But once Rey Solo has stolen the Millennium Falcon, the next thing which has to happen in the story is for Han and Chewie to come looking for it. This is the real explanation for the plot holes and coincidence that killjoys complain about. There could have been a caption which said "Rey and Finn traveled around the universe for some weeks, trying to find word of the location of the Resistance base…" and a map of the Star Wars galaxy with a wibbly line being drawn across it to show their route; and a cutaway to Han and Chewie hearing the rumour that the Millennium Falcon has been seen near Jakku and deciding to check it out… but that would have been boring. Han and Chewie showing up is the next thing that needs to happen in the Plot. So it's the next thing which happens, and damn common sense and logic.

So: Han and Chewie suddenly turn up; and are suddenly boarded by two different gangs of jabbas who Han owes money to. The ridiculous Mars Attacks B-movie creatures that Han is smuggling suddenly get loose and start eating people. Everyone continues to treat the whole thing as a brilliant game, even when Finn is about to be suddenly eaten alive by a carnivorous space octopus. No one is worried. We know that heroes don't get eaten by carnivorous space octopuses in the first reel. He knows it too. Whatever may be in store for old Mr Gandalf, I'll wager it isn't a wolf's belly. May the Plot be with you.

I grant that it would have been exhausting and vulgar if the film had tried to maintain this pitch for the whole two and half hours. We would have started to experience action-sequence fatigue, like we felt in the seventeenth or eighteenth hour of the battle of the five sodding armies. The tone changes noticeably when we arrive on…er…checks guide book…Takodana.

The Force Awakens is perhaps not overburdened with originality. I am happy, for the present purposes, to accept the theory that there is Only One Story. But Abrams seems committed to the idea that there is Only One Place, or at any rate, only about six places: the Desert Place, the Woody Place, the Snowy Place and the Wet Place — Tatooine, Endor, Hoth and Naboo (which also happen to be the most memorable locations on the planet Mongo.)

One of the good things about the prequel trilogy — I will say that again: one of the good things about the prequel trilogy — was the sheer range of silly and inventive settings that Lucas threw at us. Abrams seems only interested in revisiting settings we recognize from the old movies. If Rey's story was going to sort-of kind-of recapitulate Luke Skywalker's than maybe she should have been found living with her uncle and her aunt at the bottom of the ocean; or on the top of a mountain; or on a planet made entirely of cheese. But Abrams evidently feels that unless we start out with a long desert sequence we won't know it's Star Wars. 

So it is no particular surprise that Abrams should want to recapitulate the iconic saloon scene from Star Wars. And, it is no surprise, given 30 years of technology and thinking time, that the aliens in this cantina are far more imaginative and realistic than anything Lucas offered — doubtless each with a well-thought out back story that we'll have to buy the action figures and read the Visual Dictionary to find out about. It is no particular surprise that, somewhere in Abrams' iteration of the Star Wars universe there should be a wise-old-person who knows the Ways of the Force and can dispense cryptic plot-information in a strange dialect. And definitely no surprise that she is a diminutive CGI alien.

I was, however, quite surprised that Abrams chose to mash-up those two elements: to make this season's Yoda analogue the barkeeper in this season's saloon.

The Star Wars cantina (doo de dooby dooby doo, do, dooby do) is ordinary; just another rough place in a rough part of town. Luke lives in a world where meeting flatworms and walruses in a pub is only like bumping into a Chinese guy and a native American by the docks. Maybe doesn't happen every day, but nothing weird about it. But this tavern; this a place of power. There are holy relics in the basement. If anything, it's standing in for the Swampy Place. Rey's vision when she touches the lightsaber is the equivalent to Luke's vision at the Tree. It's a test.

One wonders, in fact, if Han knew exactly what he was doing when he brought Rey here. He says that Maz Kanata will help them get their droid home, something she shows absolutely no interest in doing. 

Abrams now lays his cards on the table. While the fun stuff with the octopus was going on the baddies have been engaged with the Dark Side of the Plot. Kylo Renn has done his big reveal: Han Solo is my father. We've met this movie's Emperor analogue, and discovered that he's constructing this movie's Death Star analogue.

The Starkiller base is the one really weak idea in the movie. Star Wars was about the Death Star. It was the centerpiece of the film. To all intents and purposes, the Death Star was the Empire. It may not have made total logical sense to imprison the Princess inside the Ultimate Weapon that she's stolen the plans for; or for the planet-buster to come complete with a detention block and conference suite; but it makes terrific dramatic sense for all the baddie scenes to happen in one place. It's the thing which holds the film together. 

Starkiller, on the other hand, seems tagged on as an afterthought, basically to give Dameron Poe something to do in the second half; and to give us an excuse to cut back and forth between Jedi Stuff and X-Wing Stuff. The scene in which the rebels sit round a conference table with a white board and brainstorm how to destroy the Ultimate Weapon is the one genuinely silly moment in the entire movie. It lampshades the problem that Star Wars baddies always seem to design their weapons with easily accessible self-destruct buttons too blatantly. It makes the audience say "I know this is fantasy, but puh-leaze..."

From Takodana onwards, we know where we are. Han and Leia did not live happily ever after: they had a son; he turned evil; they broke up. There is an Ultimate Weapon coming to kill everyone. It is Rey, not Finn, who Luke's lightsaber calls out to: she's the Jedi, the Force-person, the Hero of this trilogy. From then on, we're into the grim, dark, serious, mythical round of lightsaber confrontations on bridges and in forests, Son against Father, maybe Sister against possibly Brother, no final resolution, and the whole thing ending on a dying fall.

I don't know quite what it means for the Starkiller base to suck in a sun in order to power its hyperspace capable planet-buster rays. I don't know if it travels, Galactus-style, from solar system to solar system; eating stars and chucking their energy at planets that have annoyed it; or if somehow a side effect of a fantastically efficient solar energy converter is that it causes an artificial but temporary eclipse. I suspect Abrams doesn't know either. But it does make for a fantastically cool moment when Kylo Ren comes on stage in the final act and everything literally goes dark. (The very first scene in the movie is a stardestroyer eclipsing Jakku's sun.)

It's like we've squashed the happy go lucky victory of Star Wars and the grim sordid defeat of the Empire Strikes Back into one movie.

I like space knights and space dragons and duels and confrontations and no-Luke-I-am-your-father. I said that I thought the dominant genre of Star Wars itself was the Arthurian legend. Of course the new chapter should include desperate confrontations on bridges and terrible duels in dark forests, and awful tragedies. And of course, one of the veterans from the last trilogy needs to die on Starkiller, just like Obi-Wan died on the Death Star.

But oh, I do wish The Force Awakens could have stayed funner for longer.

If you want me to carry on writing, either buy my book...

Thursday, February 04, 2016

What is Luke Skywalker's relationship to Rey? The answer may surprise you...


"Who are you?"
"No-one of consequence."
"I must know!"
"Get used to disappointment."
          The Princess Bride

The question of Rey's identity hangs over the Force Awakens. The revelation of Darth Vader’s identity at the end of the Empire Strikes Back was a surprise because we didn't know it was coming. We certainly hadn't spent three years developing theories about it. I remember someone proposed it as a possibility in a review of Splinter of the Minds Eye; and Green Cross Man reportedly let the cat out of the bag in an interview. But most of us went into Empire Strikes Back thinking that Vader was the murderer of Skywalker Snr. We only noticed that the word Vader sounder a bit like vater after the event.

Until Christmas 2017 the idea that Rey is Han's daughter and the idea that Rey is Luke's daughter will hang over the Force Awakens as two delicious possibilities. Of course each trilogy should have a Skywalker as the hero: Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Rey Skywalker. But of course Kylo Ren should turn out to be Rey Solo's evil brother. Brother-battle is one of the stages of the Journey of the Hero. Cousin-battle, not so much. The moment when Rey says that Han Solo is just the kind of father she wished she could have had, and Luke says softly "No. I am your father" will be a colossal disappointment because it will abolish the idea that Leia is Rey’s mum. Similarly, the moment when the Supreme Leader says casually to the captive Rey "My apprentice will kill you, just as he killed Han Solo, your father" will be a huge disappointment because it will make the idea of Rey Skywalker evaporate. 

And no-one after 2017 will be able to see the Force Awakens as we saw the Force Awakens because one of things that everybody knows about the Force Awakens will be that the heroine is called Rey Skywalker (or, as it may fall out, Rey Solo), just like one of the things everybody knows about Star Wars is that that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, and one of things that everybody knows about Citizen Kane is that Rosebud is the Statue of Liberty.

I am a big fan of surprises. I would much rather you went to see Citizen Kane not knowing who Rosebud is. (I got to within 30 seconds of the end of the movie thinking we weren't going to find out.) But honestly, Rosebud isn't the main or only important thing about Kane. And in fact, if I told you now that Rosebud is ******, that wouldn't tell you one thing about the movie. It would simply make you think "How can it possibly be important that Rosebud is ******? (Although when you do eventually see the movie, a particular thing in a particular scene, which doesn't seem very important at the time, would leap out at you.)

But the surprise is rather pleasurable. I remember enjoying it. Almost as much as the first time I realized why it mattered that the dog hadn't barked.

People say "any film which can be spoiled by giving away the ending can't be a good film". But you might as well say "any film which can be spoiled by editing out the sexy bits can't be a good film" or "any film which can be spoiled by dubbing the dialogue into Aramaic can't be a good film" or "any film which can be spoiled by removing the incidental music can't be a good film." Films are about making you feel particular emotions. Surprise is an emotion. Change a surprising bit into an unsurprising bit, and you've changed the emotions I fell when I watch the film. Suspense, surprise, sexy bits, gross bits, embarrassing bits, bits where everything is very quiet and peaceful except for a very subtle musical beat and then SPLASH the shark bursts out of the chest of someone you didn't realize was an android are components of the overall impact of the movie. 

If you are less than 72 years old, you basically didn't feel what Hitchcock wanted you to feel when you first saw Psycho.

I remember, in 1980, my local cinema actually painted the words "please…don't reveal the ending" over a poster for the Empire Strikes Back—which, in itself, changed the film, by telling you in advance that the ending was going to be a surprise. In fact, the ending had been revealed months in advance, in novels and script books and comics. A radio presenter whose name is not worthy to be carved here, referred to Carrie Fisher "and her on screen brother Mark Hamill" way before Return of the Jedi had gone on general release, with no apparent sense that he was doing anything naughty.

"A good story" is arguably what happens when the audience knows things that the characters don't know; and the characters know things the audience doesn't know; and the writer or director knows things that neither of them know.

A little girl sneaks into an old house to retrieve her ball: the story teller and the audience know that there’s a psychopathic serial killer who eats little girls waiting there for her. But the little girl does not know. Result: agonizing suspense.

A little girl sneaks into an old house to retrieve her ball: neither she nor the audience realize that there is a serial killer in there, and the music is telling us that every thing's fine. Result: popcorn spilling shock when the murderer jumps out from the cupboard.

Since "suspense" or "shock" is what the director wanted you to feel, anyone who says "It's a great film, particularly the bit where the serial killer jumps out of the cupboard" has decided that he knows better than the director what the experience of watching the great film should be.

Or he just likes ruining people's fun. 

When we first saw Empire Strikes Back, we didn't know that Vader was Luke's father and neither did Luke. We felt a genuine shock when Vader revealed the truth; that stomach-turns-over falling-down-a-deep-hole shock that only the best stories can give you. (Yes, I felt it when the workman started chucking Charles Foster Kane's garbage into the furnace, as well.) We spend the last ten minutes of the film deliciously participating in Luke’s shock, confusion and desolation. But anyone who goes to see Empire Strikes Back for the first time today already knows that Anakin Skywalker took the name Darth Vader and had twin children who were hidden from him at birth. Luke is the only one who doesn't know. We watch Luke finally learning something we knew two movies ago. We watch Luke's reaction, but do not share it. And that, quite simply, is a different movie.  

We would all like to experience that thrill again for the first time. And I think that is why J.J Abrams has been almost fetishistic about not revealing any aspect of the plot of the Force Awakens in advance—and keeping a lot of important stuff secret within the actual film. I am pretty sure that the main reason Finn gets to wield a lightsaber is so that a lightsaber-wielding Finn could be shown in the trailers and on the posters. To trick us into thinking that Finn is the Jedi, Finn is the Luke-analogue, Finn is the hero. So that we will be surprised when Rey is the one Luke's lightsaber calls to...

There was a small amount of fuss because a Star Wars themed Monopoly set did not include a Rey figurine. The manufacturers claimed that when they were planning the merchandising, they weren't allowed to know what Rey's role in the film was. This explanation seems entirely convincing, unfortunately.

When Rey returns to the Resistance base after the Bad Thing has happened, Leia embraces her. Not Chewie; not Poe; Rey. Rey the scavenger who Leia only met a few hours ago. On one side of the airfield are Leia and Rey, comforting each other. On the other side is everyone else. The Bad Thing primarily affects Leia and Rey.

Of course Rey is Leia's daughter. Why are we even talking about this?

Rey instantly knows what she's doing when put in charge of the Millennium Falcon. Being a pilot isn't inherited, but some of the things which make a good pilot are, and Han is a great pilot. He offers her a job within fifteen minutes of meeting her; and there are several amusing scenes where Rey and Han say the exact same thing at the exact same moment.

Oh, you say: she could have inherited that from Luke, who was pretty good in a fight; or indeed from Anakin, who was the best star pilot in the galaxy. She could. But when everyone meets up on Starkiller base, Chewbacca says that it was Finn's idea to rescue Rey and she understands him. She understands Chewbacca. Neither Han or Chewie are remotely surprise by this.

Of course Rey is Han's daughter. Why are we even talking about this?

Luke Skywalker can’t be married. I know you are still sore about Jar-Jar Binks. I know that the midi-chlorians were a terrible misjudgement. But this is Episode VII. Not Episode I rebooted, or Star-Wars-4-let's-pretend-the-ones-in-between-didn't-happen-like-with-Superman-Returns. Episode VII is the continuation of the story that started 66 years ago with a tax dispute. The prequels are gently references several times in the Force Awakens: the Jedi Temple, the Sith; the possibility that the First Order might have used clone troopers.

Luke Skywalker can't be married. No: I don't know how the Force manages to run in families if the Jedi aren't in the habit of producing little Jedi; but the canon makes it very clear that Jedi neither marry nor are given in marriage. The whole tragedy was set in motion by Anakin breaking the laws of the Jedi order and marrying Padme Amidala.

Luke Skywalker can't be married. And even if he were, don't you think his wife would be hinted at somewhere in the story? Why is it Rey, rather than Mrs Luke, who is sent to take the lightsaber to Craggy Island?

Rey can't be Luke's daughter. Why are we even talking about this?

Of course we are building towards a mighty battle between Rey and Kylo Ren. Of course this is going to be a battle between a brother and sister. A famous mythological battle between cousins is barely worth thinking about.

So why is Rey hiding on Jaku, if her parents are alive, albeit separated? Time frames are a bit hard to work out: Kylo seems to be about 30 and Rey about 20. Luke has been gone a very long time; long enough for the First Order to develop a fleet, uniforms and an infrastructure; long enough for people to think he's a myth. Long enough for Han to have become well-known as a smuggler and a pirate again. A decade, at least. Leia is treated very much as Han's "ex"; they aren't a couple who've been apart for a few months. Probably, when Kylo Ren slaughtered the students at Luke’s Jedi school, he was around 20 – hardly any younger – meaning that Rey would have been only ten.

The question "where does Rey's skill in the Force and lightsaber fighting come from since she has no training" is best flipped around: "Since Rey is skilled with the Force and lightsaber fighting, she must logically have had some training." Jedi start training very young, so by the time she was ten years old, Rey could easily have been taught the basic lightsaber moves and how to exert mental influence over the weak-minded. But who was her teacher? If she was trained by Luke, then why does she think he is mythical? Of course this is science fiction, sort of, and in science fiction people can have their memory's wiped. But memory-wipes are a very unsatisfactory plot device.

The first words spoken in the movie are by Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, no less) "This will help to make things right". We don’t know who he is: but he knows Leia ; knew Kylo Ren when he was still known as Ben Solo; and has the secret map containing Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts.


"Before it was clear that Ben Solo would turn to the Dark Side,  Luke requested that his niece Rey also be sent to learn the ways of the Force. Leia and Han quarreled over this: Han felt it was their duty to let her be trained, but Leia wanted to raise her own daughter. And old retainer named Tekka was charged with taking the young child to the Jedi school. But when Ben Solo became Kylo Renn, Luke warned them away, telling Tekka to hide the child, but gave him a map so that she could come to him when the time was right. Han and Leia believe that Rey was killed by her brother; Tekka has allowed them to continue to believe this because this keeps her safer from Kylo Ren. He has watched the child on Jakuu ever since, and taught her what he knows of the Force, but refused to answer questions about her Uncle or the Jedi, allowing her to believe that they are myths."

Abrams likes to foreshadow his big revelations. There have been references to Kylo Ren’s family before we find out whose son he is. The film is full of hints that Rey has a connection with Han and Leia; but nothing points to her having a special relationship with Luke. (True, she feels his lightsaber “calling” to her; but it’s a powerful Jedi artefact, and she is Darth Vader’s granddaughter.)

Some Skywalkerists think that this is deliberate misdirection: the hints that Rey is Han's daughter proves that she is not. But if the film is constructed along those principles, there is no point in saying anything more about it.

[*] Yes, trigger warnings. Of course it's okay to say "by the way, the film has some big shocks in it" if your friend is the sort of person whose whole week would be ruined by a serial killer jumping out of a cupboard, in the same way that  "by the way, there are some scenes in which gentleman take all their clothes off" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say to someone who would be agonizingly embarrassed if they saw a Thingy.

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