Friday, February 05, 2016

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

V


"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.





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Thursday, February 04, 2016

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

IV

"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.

So:

"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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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Why the Force Awakens is the new Star Wars

III

If there are stories (bad stories) whose later chapters add nothing essential to their significance, and whose significance is therefore contained in something less than the whole, at least you cannot tell whether any given story belongs to that class until you have at least once read it to the end...I always now omit the last book of War and Peace.
             C.S Lewis


Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a 2015 action movie. It concerns the adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley) a young woman of uncertain origins who lives all alone in a wrecked Walker in the desert. It's not the same desert that Luke and Anakin grew up in; but there are nomads and scavengers and huge reptilian beasts of burden: it's Tatooine in all but name.

Like Luke Skywalker, Rey accidentally acquires a robot containing secret information of the utmost importance, and as a result, becomes involved in a series of quests which bring her into contact with the Jedi Knights, the Rebellion and a veteran hero from the legendary past. The Rebellion has been re-branded as the Resistance and the spaceships have had a respray, but it's the Rebellion in all but name.

The correspondence between the two stories is pretty close. In Star Wars, Princess Leia put secret plans into R2D2 before she was captured by Darth Vader; in the Force Awakens, Leia's trusted agent Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) puts secret maps into BB-8 before he is captured by Vader's self-appointed successor, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). There is no point in complaining that VII "copies" or "rips off" IV: the new film's re-enactment or recapitulation of the old one is a major part of its aesthetic. When Ben handed Luke his father's lightsaber, we thought "Gosh: that reminds us of Merlin giving Excalibur to Arthur." When the very same lightsaber "calls out" to Rey, we think "Gosh! That reminds us of when Obi-Wan gave it to Luke." Star Wars draws on the fairy tales we all grew up with; The Force Awaken draws on Star Wars. 

Luke Skywalker lived with an Uncle and Aunt and had a group of friends and a social context. Rey seems to be as much of a hermit as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The story of Star Wars was the story of Luke growing up; Rey is already a confident, self-sufficient young woman when we first meet her. Luke used to spend his time racing sky-hoppers and shooting womp rats; Rey spends her time skilfully scavenging metal from wrecked space-ships and selling it in order to survive. Luke's golly-gosh vernacular marks him out as a teenager; Rey's cut-glass English gives her a kind of maturity and authority. (I kept thinking of Mary Poppins. At one point I caught myself wondering whether the Jedi Worreel would turn out to be a creature, a weapon or a holy place before realizing that what Rey had actually said was "The Jedi were real!")

So although Rey's story is to some extent shaped like Luke Skywalker's, it has no such trajectory. It isn't about anything. I suppose you could see her journey as being about the gradual discovery that she has the powers of the Force; or the gradual realization that she is going to have to use those powers to help the Resistance. Or perhaps she knew this from the beginning and only gradually reveals it to the audience? Until we are told her back-story, there is really no way of knowing.

Luke's main objective, when we first meet him, is to get off Tatooine and join the Rebellion. Rey's objective when we meet her is to stay at home and wait for her family. When she finds Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, her first inclination is to run away; when offered the chance to become second mate on the Millennium Falcon she says that she has already been away from Jakku for too long (although she's only actually been gone for about 35 minutes) [1]. Her family, about whom we know nothing, abandoned her many years ago: she is literally counting the days until they return. So it may be that her assimilation into the Resistance; her embrace with Princess Leia; and her journey to meet Luke himself all represent the quest for a family. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a solitary figure who separates himself from his community in order to bring back the Boon they need. Perhaps the Heroine With a Thousand Faces is the one who comes home and establishes a new community?

Luke Skywalker is a natural hotshot, but when we first meet him, he's still very much a neophyte. When he tells Ben he's ready for anything the audience cries out "Oh no you're not!" He flies well and shoots well and picks up Obi-Wan's Force lessons in a hurry; but he gets creamed by the Sandpeople in the desert. Rey is burdened by heroic omni-competence from the beginning. When we first meet her, she is confidently dangling on a rope in the hull of a wrecked Stardestroyer; at the end of the film, she's confidently abseiling around the interior of Starkiller base (this movie's Death Star substitute). She out-flies First Order TIE fighters the moment she gets behind the wheel of a spaceship; she is able to overpower Finn (John Boyega), a trained soldier, in unarmed combat; holds her own against Han Solo as a pilot and engineer; works out how to do Jedi mind tricks from first principles; and wins a duel with a wannabe Dark Lord the first time she holds a lightsaber.

Oh: and she speaks Wookie.

Does this demonstrate that the movie is a propaganda piece, intended to infect the youth of America with the dangerous lie that women can be just as good as men and thereby destroy western civilization?

Probably not. But I do think it's rather lazy writing, or else a gigantic unresolved plot hole. [2]

By the way: I would take the phrase "Mary Sue" to refer to a character, usually in fan fiction, who is obviously a stand-in for the writer. If you were to read a story about a fat Methodist kid with glasses, who hates football and French lessons, who, while trying to avoid some local bullies, finds an old Police Box on the East Barnet Road, and immediately strikes up a great relationship with the mysterious old man inside… well, I would call that character a Mary Sue. There is nothing specially Mary-Sue-ish about Rey. It's not like her first name sounds exactly like the director's last name…

Perhaps Rey's over-powered character sheet simply indicates that she is Strong In The Force. If she is a person of great importance—maybe Darth Vader's granddaughter—then it would hardly be surprising if Ben and Anakin and Yoda were hovering over her shoulder, controlling her actions. Partially. The ghost of Ben literally told Luke to go to Dagobah; perhaps he indirectly told Rey to steal the Millennium Falcon?

This would certainly explain the shocking use of coincidence in the first twenty minutes of the movie. We don't have too much of a problem with Poe, the captive rebel who needs to escape, hooking up with Finn, the stormtrooper with a conscience who wants to jump ship: circumstances force them together. Although it was jolly lucky that Poe was imprisoned on the one ship in the galaxy which had a malfunctioning stormtrooper on board. But it's quite a stretch that when Poe tells the robot containing the McGuffin to run away, it runs straight into the hands of Rey. (The more important a person she turns out to be, the more of a stretch that becomes.)  And it's even more convenient that Finn, believing Poe to be dead, runs to the nearest town and immediately bumps into Rey and the Robot. The three of them, trying to escape from baddies, run straight to a wrecked ship that we all instantly recognize as the Millennium Falcon— which is immediately boarded by its original owners, who just happen to be in the area smuggling space dragons. 

It bears repeating: the robot containing the address of Luke Skywalker—who Rey believes to be a legend—runs straight onto a ship once owned by another legendary character, who knew Luke in the days of his flesh.

A long time ago, before Star Wars was Episode IV of anything, a very wise man pointed out that the Force was largely a way for the Author to intervene in the narrative and direct the plot in the direction he wanted it to go, without any of that pesky fooling around with character and motivation

"It's not always necessary for the author to put in an appearance himself, if only he can smuggle the Plot itself into the story disguised as one of the characters… "The time has come, young man, for you to learn about the Plot." "Darth Vader is a servant of the dark side of the Plot." When Ben Kenobi gets written out, he becomes one with the Plot and can speak inside the hero's head. When a whole planet of good guys gets blown up, Ben senses "a great disturbance in the Plot."

I don't think this is nearly such a bad thing as Nick Lowe (author of the essay quoted above) does. I think that the existence of the Force is one of the things which made Star Wars fun. I think that the Force worked best precisely when Lucas was using it as an excuse to skip over the boring bits. When it's obvious that the Empire Strikes Back has run out of Plot, Luke Skywalker suddenly develops telepathy so Leia can come and extract him. I think that the Force is at its worst when Lucas is trying to convince us that it's a Very Profound piece of Space Philosophy. [3] The Plot influences Luke relatively subtly: he voluntarily takes on a series of quests in which he has obvious personal stakes. But Rey keeps running headlong into new situations for no reason except that the Plot says she ought to.

It would, by the way, be cruel to point out that the writer of such an influential essay was confusing Star Wars with a series of adverts for fizzy candy lozenges.


Luke's quest is to find Princess Leia. Rey's quest, if anything, is to find Luke. The first line of the story-so-far crawl announces that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. Many of us spent a long time speculating as to what Luke's role in Episode VII could be, and it is rather cool for the reveal to come in literally the first second of the movie. It is also very cool to withhold the resolution—the moment we actually see Luke Skywalker—until the very last second. Between those two massive revelations there are lots of small reveals, one very big twist—and many unanswered questions.

There were questions left dangling at the end of Star Wars too. Did Vader survive the last battle?What did Ben mean about becoming more powerful than Vader could possibly imagine? Which of the heroes did Leia love? But they were largely questions about what was going to happen next—in some future film. The Force Awakens leaves us with sheaths of blank space. Who is Rey? Why did Kylo turn to the Dark Side? Is Finn anyone special? Who or what is the Supreme Leader? Where did the First Order comes from? Why, forsooth, is there a whacking great crashed spaceship outside Rey's front door? Stuff which has already happened; which the writers know about and the characters know about; but which the Plot has decided to conceal from us paying customers.

Star Wars ends with Luke trusting to the Force. If you agree with me and Joseph Campbell, this means that he has grown up and become a Jedi. The Force Awakens ends with Rey meeting Luke Skywalker. She hands him his lightsaber (the one he got from Ben who got it from his father, the one that was cut from his hand and lost on Cloud City). The film rather cleverly stops before he takes it. If her Quest was to find Luke, then Rey has definitely completed it. But what does it mean? Has she found the family she's been waiting for? Or merely signed on as the acolyte of the Last Jedi? Until we know her relationship to Luke, it's hard to read. And where are we in the Plot? Is this the end of a self-contained story; or the cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode of a trilogy; or merely the end of the first act of a three act story?

Here is one thing it might mean.

The Force Awakens is not a satisfying story in the way that Star Wars was, but it is shaped like a story, indeed, it is consciously shaped like that story in particular. It constantly looks back on it: the Jedi, Darth Vader, the Death Star, and Luke himself. At the beginning of the film, Rey thinks that Luke is a myth: at the end, she is standing face-to-face with him. So perhaps the Force Awakens is the story of how one person discovered, or rediscovered, that the old fairy tales were true.

And that "myth" didn't necessarily mean the same thing as "lie".

That's what Star Wars was about, come to think of it. And perhaps that's what it means to be awakened by the Force.








[1] Chronology is a big problem in Star Wars: on-screen action occurs in real time, where months seems to pass off screen. Luke clearly spends months with Yoda on Dagobah; Han and Leia spend a few hours running from Hoth to Bespin; but they all arrive at the same time. Don't even think about what would happen if Biggs were canon. It is tempting to think that Abrams put this time-line inconsistency into Force Awakens as an in-joke.

[2] The decision to make the hero of the movie a woman was clearly a political one. The decision to make the hero's confident a black man was probably equally political. It was also a highly political decision not to have one single non-white character in the original Star Wars, and only two women (Luke auntie and the girlie that he has to rescue from the baddie.) The difference is that no-one, not even George Lucas, realized that there was even a decision to be made because this is 1977 and you don't have women or black people in sci-fi movies. I'm not racist or sexist, you just don't. Abrams was aware that a choice existed and decided not to make the same mistake again. This is indeed political correctness, but it is by no means mad.

It is a Very Bad Thing that no black people have been nominated for an 2016 Oscar: whether this is the fault of the prize committee, overlooking black actors; or Hollywood, not casting black actors in decent roles; or wider society, making it hard for black people to go to film school or stage school and learn how to be actors, I, of course, could not possibly say. But if we allow the lack of black faces to be the only thing the 2016 Oscars are about, then the judges in 2017 will feel obliged to give the "best actor" statue to a black person even if some white guy actually puts in an amazing performance. And that, of course, will in turn lead the fascists, of whom there are many, to say that the prize was awarded purely on the basis of colour, and for people who are not themselves fascists to say that there are two sides to the argument..

[3] Something else I don't have any problem with is an author using a little bit of divine intervention to help an already religiously themed story on its way. When the heroes have literally done everything they possibly can and failed, God Almighty sticks out his leg and trips Gollum up. This seems to me to be a strength, not a weakness, of Lord of the Rings.




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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

How Hollywood got Star Wars wrong

II

A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away...
The Journal of the Whills (presumably)


Story is a slippery word. It could mean what happened ("we've pieced together the story") or one person's version of what happened ("that's my story and I'm sticking to it"). Or it could simply mean a lie ("don't tell stories"). Philip Pullman emblazons the words this is a story in large letters on the back of his feeble retelling of the life of Christ. You can take it how you will. "This doesn't purport to tell the historical truth, it's just something I made up to make a point"? "Religious truths always take the forms of stories because stories are magical things"? "Jesus wasn't real, ha-ha Christians are silly"?

A lot of tosh has been talked about stories, mostly by Neil Gaiman.

Life is made up of stuff. We experience one thing after another, in no particular order. When we talk about our lives, that's what we mostly talk about. One thing after another, in no particular order.

"It was cold. I was in that yellow dressing gown. It was the old house. The one next door to the old lady with the parrot. The door was green. It was called Charlie. It couldn't speak. The Christmas decorations were still up. It was the first time I'd seen new kittens. You were cooking fish, weren't you?"

Oscar Wilde was wrong: when people talk about themselves, they are hardly ever interesting.

Sometimes, one particular bit of life seems to have a shape. Perhaps the stuff really did happen in that shape: perhaps you really do always go into town on a Wednesday, but one particular Wednesday you decided, for no real reason, to stay at home, and then, oh goodness me, there was a terrible terrorist attack so if you had gone you would have been killed! Or perhaps we force them into shape by telling them over and over again in the same words. Perhaps we add the little bit about how something in your gut was telling your not to go into town although you really needed to get a spare part to fix the washing machine. Not lying, of course, but leaving out the bits which aren't important and exaggerating the bits which are.

Does anyone doubt that Alec Guinness met James Dean? Does anyone doubt that Dean showed Guinness the brand new Porsch Spyder he was so proud of? Does anyone remotely believe that Guinness had a gut feeling that no good would come of the car, and begged Dean not to drive it? Can anyone really blame Guinness for creatively turning a quite interesting bit of stuff into a really, really good story?


A story is a story because it is shaped like a story. The shape of a story is a pleasing thing and something which is shaped like a story is easy to remember. You could doubtless write 10,000 words about the princess's domestic life while she was hiding out in the cottage; and another 10,000 words about the pranks and day to day quarrels that her seven boyfriends engaged in while they were working in an all-male industrial environment. You might get a good novel out of it. You might get a good novel out of anything. But it wouldn't be the story of Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs. It wouldn't have the right shape.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who knew a thing or two about stories, once contemplated a sequel to Lord of the Rings. Anyone who has read Lord of the Rings understands that that, in Tolkien's world, evil can never be completely defeated. It always returns in a new form, becoming more petty but more insidious in each incarnation. The Dark Tower is knocked down at the end of the War of the Ring, but no one is in any doubt that it is going to get up again; as it did after the fall of Numenor and after the Last Alliance. The story that Tolkien envisages—teenagers in Minas Tirith playing at being orcs, the rise of a half-serious Sauronic cult—is just the kind of thing we would expect to happen next.

But Tolkien felt that this story was not one worth telling. It would "only be a thriller". Oh, he could tell you, in some detail, what stuff happened in the decades after Lord of the Rings. He tried to cover some of the stuff in a monumentally ill-judged epilogue, which his publisher sensibly forced him to delete. But this stuff is no more part of the story of Lord of the Rings than the post-war Labour government is part of the story of Dad's Army.

Not that it wouldn't have been fascinating to see Tolkien writing a thriller set in the world of Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is a novel set in the world of the Silmarillion, after all. (The Hobbit is a fairy tale set in the world of the Silmarillion, one of many points that Peter Jackson entirely missed.) And now I've typed it, I realize that some clever writer could put together a very funny play showing us a very elderly Captain Manwaring in the 1960s. There was a sequel to Steptoe and Son showing and elderly Harold in the present day, wasn't there? Anything can work if you want it to, even a grown up Harry Potter.

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." was not, in 1977, a piece of branding. It was an artistic statement of intent. Star Wars is a story.

The Empire Strikes Back is just one thing after another.



Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.      Winston Churchill

What happens after Return of the Jedi?

It's an easy question and we don't need a film to tell us the answer.

With the Sith destroyed, the Empire would rapidly heal itself from within. It would quickly be displaced by a New Republic, with Princess Leia as President. (Mon Motha? Okay, you can have Mon Motha if you like.) Han and Leia would marry, and keep the Skywalker bloodline going. Luke, in obedience to Jedi tradition, would remain celibate, but would pass on to the children what Yoda had taught him about the ways of the Force. They in turn would go and look for more younglings. Old Luke would live to see a New Republic with a new Jedi order and peace and justice would be secure for another thousand generations.

But there's no story there.

You want a story? Okay, I'll give you are story. One of the young Jedi is seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, and the whole cycle begins again. Master against apprentice. Father against son. Brother against brother, or sister, or just conceivably cousin. In fact, let's give Han and Leia two kids. Twins if you like. One hairy and one smooth. Er...one good and one evil...

This was the plot of the Legacy of the Force novels, all nine of them. But it does rather undo the conclusion of Return of the Jedi and render the trilogy null and void. Stories in which our heroes face some new threat from outside the galaxy—telepathic robot space crabs, maybe—seem tawdry and pointless. Ones in which it turns out that there was a spare clone of the Emperor in cold storage under the Jedi Temple; or in which someone magics Darth Vader back from the dead are best described as travesties.

We don't want to know what events followed Return of the Jedi. We don't even want to know what story followed Return of the Jedi. We want to know what film follows Return of the Jedi.

Is Star Wars Episode VII be a reboot? Everything's a reboot nowadays: poor Peter Parker has hardly had time to swear to spend his life catching thieves just like flies before a younger geek's uncle is getting shot all over again. A 1978 cut-price Star Wars knock-off called Battlestar Galactica was rebooted in 2005 as a political and religious war story. It was so serious and realistic that critics said it couldn't possibly be science fiction. So why not reboot Star Wars? Maybe recast Luke Skywalker as a jihadi and show that Vader is doing the right thing according to his own lights? Abrams got away with claiming that his Captain Kirk was a different fella to the T.V Captain Kirk, or at any rate the same fella in an alternate universe. No-one had any problem with that, apart from people who like Star Trek, who are not the target audience of a Star Trek movie, obviously. Why not give us a brand new Luke Skywalker?

Mark Hamill once claimed that George Lucas wanted "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" to be the words printed in a book, a book of fairy tales that a mother wookie would be seen reading to a baby wookie. A sort of furry Princess Bride. Suppose Star Wars VII had put the book back on the shelf and told us the historical version?

Is Episode VII a continuation of the Star Wars saga: an extrapolation of Star Wars history, gungans and midi-chlorians and Ewoks and all? That is very much what the current batch of Star Wars comics are doing: treating the existing six moves as story-making matrix. Granted that Alec Guinness used to be Ewan McGregor; and granted that Anakin Skywalker was the Chosen One; and granted that Ben was on Tatooine primarily to watch over his son while he's growing; and granted that Jabba the Hutt lives on Tatooine... well, what kind of stuff must have happened? People who like this sort of thing have found that this is the sort of thing that they like.

But what if…

What if Episode VII, while nodding its head to the Trilogy and wiggling its eyebrow at the Prequels tried to recreate Star Wars for a new generation? Not Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope but Star Wars, the stand-alone rite-of-passage tale about how whiny kid-Luke finally switched off his targeting computer and became a man.

What if Star Wars VII were a sequel to that film.

What if it were the film we wanted, and never got, in 1980.

What if The Force Awakens turned out to be a story.

Is that even possible?





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Monday, February 01, 2016

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

I

"The story, when you actually put it into words, is only so-much nonsense to hang a great visual experience onto." 
Mark Hamill, talking in 1978

Star Wars is a 1977 rite-of-passage movie. It concerns the adventures of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), usually described as a farm boy but actually depicted as a sulky James Dean teenager who likes nothing more than wasting time with his friends and fooling around with vehicles called T16s (or skyhoppers). Luke’s journey from boy to man is represented by a pair of interlocked quests: to identify and rescue the beautiful woman (Carrie Fisher) who’s cry-for-help he has stumbled upon; and to be initiated into a legendary order of warrior monks by retired hero Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Despite talk of princesses and Emperors the action takes place neither in a fairy tale kingdom, nor feudal Japan, but in a vaguely imagined but compelling visualized space-opera future. An oppressive Empire rules the entire galaxy; mile-long space-ships are swallowed up by battle-stations as large as planets; and a hop between stars is treated like a stagecoach ride between two outposts. Luke forms an alliance with the charmingly amoral Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who is described as a pirate but heavily coded as a cowboy. 

The action runs the gamut of screen-genres: Arabian Nights, Wild West, Perils of Pauline, and the Dambusters are all referenced. The uniforms look vaguely manga, and one of the anonymous fascists at a baddies’ council of war actually claims to be searching for a hidden fortress. The heritage the film explicitly lays claim to is the Germanic-English fairy tale tradition (the rather arch opening caption tells us it’s happening "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…") and Flash Gordon (an anachronistic scrolling text telling us "the story so far".) But by far the most memorable figure in the movie is Darth Vader (David Prowse / James Earl Jones) whose role is at this stage undefined but who seems to act as stand-in for the unseen Emperor. He sports a black helmet, black armour, and a fantastically impractical black cloak. The film’s centerpiece is a ritualized duel (with laser weapons rather than swords) between him and Luke’s mentor: so the overarching genre is probably Arthuriana. 

Just as each space-ship is dwarfed by the size of the next, so the moral volume of the action is turned up throughout the movie. Our whining rebel-without-a-cause becomes a rebel against the evil Empire, and ends up putting his T-16 flying skills to good use on a suicide mission to save the revolutionaries from being wiped out by Vader. The moment Luke destroys the Empire’s Ultimate Weapon is also the moment he becomes a Jedi Knight and therefore the moment he becomes a man. It’s also, incidentally, the moment that the cynical Han Solo develops a moral conscience: a masterpiece of economical plotting. 

The films ends with all the heroes getting a medal and living happily ever after. People queued round the block to see it in 1977 and some of them experienced it 6 times in a single week.

Star Wars was followed some three years later by a wholly unnecessary sequel, branded, not as Star Wars II (this was the era of Jaws II and Rocky III) but as "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back". This  not only turned Star Wars in to "Star Wars Episode IV" but implied the existence of three other films which no-one had ever seen. Until 1999, this seemed like a very good joke.

The second film featured all the main characters from Star Wars — even Ben Kenobi gets a cameo, despite being dead. It gives us our first glimpse of the Evil Emperor, introduces us to giant four legged tanks known imaginatively as "walkers" and a floating city straight out of Flash Gordon and the Hawk Men. But the tone of Empire Strikes Back had nothing whatsoever in common with the tone of Star Wars. The fairy-tale structure — indeed, any structure whatsoever — is abandoned. Instead, we are asked to follow two separate, highly episodic plot threads. In one, Luke Skywalker receives cod-philosophical instruction from a swamp dwelling Muppet who we are supposed to believe mentored Alec Guinness; in the other, Han Solo and the Princess are chased by Darth Vader through fields of asteroids, swallowed by a giant space worm and end up taking refuge with one of Han’s barely trustworthy associates. 

Producer George Lucas obviously had more money to throw at this movie, and much of it remains visually breath-taking even thirty five years later. But nothing in it has any of the charm of, say, the dwarfish second-hand robot-dealers or the alien-filled outpost from the original movie. 

The film’s impact depends on the revelation that Darth Vader has been Luke’s father all along. Nothing in the Empire Strikes Back foreshadows this; and it actively contradicts everything we were told in Star Wars. The revelation is so stunning and so emotionally charged that the film doesn’t so much end, as merely stop after this point. Since the climactic battle, which the good guys lose, is place at the beginning of the movie, some people have speculated that Lucas wanted to recreate the feelings of a schoolboy sneaking into the cinema and catching the second half of one movie and the first half of a different one. It is inexplicably regarded as the high point of the sextology, although in 1980 it was universally regarded as a baffling disappointment. 

Sometime during the filming of Star Wars, George Lucas encountered the mythological snake-oil salesman Joseph Campbell, and became convinced that Star Wars was a version of the "journey of the hero" and Skywalker an avatar of the Hero With a Thousand Faces. Since Campbell’s universal key to all mythologies amounts to the assertion that mythical heroes tend to go on a journey, encounter obstacles, and in the end achieve something it is quite hard to see how it could have failed to do so. By 1983 Lucas had swallowed Campbell’s bullshit hook, line and sinker and spent the third Star Wars movie retrofitting the first two to fit in with some of his ideas. 

Return of the Jedi feels like the culmination of a trilogy. Themes, musical and visual, are revisited. Jabba the Hutt and the Emperor, who were only talked about in the first two films, finally come on to the stage. We do the climax of the first film (many little ships against one huge battle station) all over again, twice as big and about half as fun. We re-do the land battle from Empire Strikes back, only smaller, and with teddy bears.

After some preliminary loose-end tying in which the charming Tunisian sequences from Star Wars are re-imagined as a computer game and feminist princess Leia gets to dress like the cover girl of a Gor novel, Luke-the-farm-boy commits fully to the role of Jungian Archetype. He surrenders to Darth Vader; who takes him before the Evil Emperor who tries to turn him to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader, who has spent the last three movies torturing princesses, blowing up planets and strangling underlings draws the line at watching his son being zapped by evil lighting bolts, and decides, literally at the last moment, to turn good and destroy the Emperor. 

So the film ends with the teddy bears — furry alien primitives with bones through the noses and a marked tendency to put white people into cooking pots — celebrating a Great Victory. The Emperor is dead, Vader is redeemed, the Empire is defeated, and they all lived happily ever after.

And there, for 16 years, the matter rested.



 "Oh, dear."
"Why 'oh dear'?"
"You are in love."
"Is that bad?"
"For a monk, it does present certain practical problems."
Name of the Rose


If Star Wars is the story of how Everyboy became Everyman then Star Wars "episode IV" is a stand-alone movie with an entirely satisfying beginning, middle and end. Luke doesn’t need wilderness training from a Muppet to become a Jedi Knight: he became one the second he trusted to the Force and destroyed the Death Star.

If, on the other hand, Star Wars is the story of how a group of peasants with bows and arrows defeated a huge technocracy by virtue of their innate goodness and spirituality (apocalypse when?) then Return of the Jedi barely counts as an ending at all. Sure, they’ve blown up the Death Star again and sure, they’ve killed Darth Vader’s boss, but isn’t this meant to be an Empire which extends across the whole galaxy? How much difference is the assassination of one politician and the destruction of one weapon likely to make? Several comic-book and paperback "continuations" show our heroes waking up the morning after the party and resuming the battle against the remains of the Empire, which rather spoils the Ewok victory dance.

Return of the Jedi can only be thought of as a conclusion if you turn the trilogy on its head and make the villain the hero — if Star Wars is not "the adventures of Luke Skywalker" but "the redemption of Darth Vader". And between 1999 and 2005 this is what George Lucas set out to do, ploddingly re-working the back story to this affect through a trilogy of monumentally misjudged "prequels".

The Phantom Menace (Episode I) is a kind of protoevangeleum, showing us Darth Vader when he was a starry eyed child named Anakin (Jake Lloyd). Much mumbo-jumbo is spoken over him: he is "the chosen one", "conceived by the midi-chlorians" who will "bring balance to the force". Young Darth himself wanders about the set, blundering into spaceships, winning chariot races, saying "yippee" and generally being as un-messianic as it is possible to imagine. We are left with no hint as to why this likable moppet became cinemas most iconic super-villain. The film works best if you try to ignore the Darth Vader angle and just see it as the adventures of a spunky little slave-kid. 

Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (Episodes II and III) depict Vader (Hayden Christensen) between the ages of 19 and 23 and offer various reasons why he became evil: anger against the savages who killed his mother; hubris because he thinks he’s a better Jedi than his master; fascist theories about authoritarian rule; belief that the Dark Side could resurrect the dead; fury and grief when he causes the death of his lover Amidala. The religion of the Jedi Knights — in Star Wars, merely a non-threatening, non-specific polytheism — becomes explicitly Buddhist: emotion, and attachment in general, are now paths to the Dark Side. The Jedi are revealed to be celibate and Anakin’s love for Amidala is the ultimate cause of his fall. The child Anakin’s "sin" was that he loved his mother; the teenaged Anakin’s offense is that he lusted after Natalie Portman, as which of us can honestly say we haven’t. [*]

In the background, we see the machinations by which someone called Palpatine gets himself elected President of the Galaxy, votes himself an invincible army of clones, and declares himself Emperor. This, it transpires, is part of a longer and much more evil game: Palpatine is in reality Darth Sideous, the last in a long chain of evil Jedi Knights called the Sith. Palpatine becoming Emperor puts the embodiment of ontological evil in charge of the Universe. Vader is, of course, Palpatine’s anointed successor.

The three prequels are not, in fact, anywhere near as bad as people sometimes say. If you treat them as six hours of space opera, replete with gladiatorial arenas, chariot races, capital ship battles, dog-fights and martial arts confrontations, with an undercurrent of galaxy-wide diplomacy, Faustian pacts and machinations at the center of government,  they are a lot of fun. They are probably much closer to what George Lucas intended Star Wars to be than Star Wars itself was. But there is an underlying silliness of which comedy Jamaican fall-guy Jar-Jar Binks is only the most egregious example. Jake Lloyd nor Hayden Christensen are poor substitutes for Mark Hamill, and instead of Harrison Ford’s witty, cynical side-kick we have an endless stream of portentous Jedi preachers. The films somehow manage at the same time to be too silly and not nearly enough fun.  

But they served their purpose. They redefined what Star Wars is all about. The evil of the Empire flowed from, and only from, Emperor Palpatine. Darth Vader was Palpatine’s apprentice; Luke would have been Vader’s. With Palpatine and Vader dead, the infection has been cured. The funeral pyre in the woods really was the end of the story.

And there, once again, the matter rested.



[*] When Ben told Luke "I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father" Luke did not reply "Don’t be silly, the Jedi didn’t marry."






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