Tag Archives: Star Wars

The Allure (and Curse) of Prequels

The concept of a prequel as a literary device has been around in one form or another for quite a long time in almost every medium. When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, the idea of going back and telling the story of the Clone Wars was something that hadn’t been done before on that kind of cinematic scale. More than 20 years later, the Star Wars universe is still dipping into that well, and will likely continue showcasing stories that take place before A New Hope for the foreseeable future. 

Star Wars certainly isn’t alone in wanting to delve into the stories that take place before the original setting of the intellectual property. A short list of heavy-hitters appearing this year alone on TV includes (but is certainly not limited to) the following:

  • Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
  • House of the Dragon
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi
  • (And just this week) Andor

Before I get into the particulars, let me say this: This post is not about the casting, fan backlash, or creative decisions involved with any of these shows. I have the greatest respect for the actors, crew, and digital artists who bring these shows to life. If you’re here expecting some sort of fanboy outrage at one or more of those groups, feel free to hit that “eject” button now and punch out. Byyyyeee.

Still with me? Excellent. What I hope to do with this blog is to take a look at the viability of prequels as a framework for telling  stories, exploring three things that make prequels attractive as well as three more that make them less appealing than an original story. With that in mind, let’s dive in.

The Allure

Nostalgia

The most obvious answer is that a prequel hopes to capture the magic that the property had before, tapping into the good will and warm fuzzies that we may harbor from previous iterations of said property. Depending on how subtle or overt this previous connection is handled, you might wind up with fun call-backs, but it runs the risk of becoming heavy handed with member berries. 

For the most part, I’m fairly forgiving of when the fan service gets too fan service-y. Even when this happens, it’s hard to deny that the feelings that are evoked when you see parallels play out. In the right hands, they can be profound. The best prequels are able to successfully excavate those little nuggets of emotion we have tied up with the original and shine new light on them.

Nostalgia is often a distortion of past events, though, filtered through the lens of a yearning for a past that may or may not have really existed except in our minds. While it can be a two-edged sword, it can also be a powerful reminder of what we love, reigniting our passion and enthusiasm in the present. 

More Time in the Setting

Stories taking place in settings we love are always finite. There are only so many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only so many Lord of the Rings movies. Once a setting has achieved that sort of critical mass in the hearts and minds of fans, it’s natural to want to go back to that place if given the chance. After all, we have friends there, favorite spots, and (in general) we know what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s a known quantity, and one we already like.

Settings with rich backgrounds are often the most fertile soil for prequels. If you’re a lore nerd like I am, who just loves to sink your teeth into the backstory and worldbuilding, this is a chance to see it brought to life. The mentor figure of a previous story might now take center stage as the protagonist of the prequel. Characters who are bitter enemies might be friends in this telling. Maybe you get to witness legendary events play out that were only ever talked about, or receive additional context to the original story.

Like the voyages of the original Constitution-class Enterprise? Well, here’s more of that. Remember the thrill of Game of Thrones? Let’s have another foray into Westeros, shall we? And so on.

A Safe Bet

Prequels don’t have the risk that new, completely original stories carry. There’s a built-in audience, likely one that’s hungry to see more of whatever it is. This makes prequel stories something comfortable for both the producers and consumers of media. If you liked this, you’ll surely love that.

It’s the same mindset that brings us sequels, but there’s an innate guardrail backed into prequels: You know where the characters are going. You don’t have to worry about coming up with the next big story arc, and you already have the end point established. You’re just filling in the gaps and adding additional layers to a story that’s already been told. 

The Curse

Spectacle Creep

The issue with going back before the ‘main’ timelines is that the temptation to make the prequel story bigger, grander, and more impressive often blows the originals out of the water. Consider the lightsaber duels in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. They are orders of magnitude more complex and fast-paced than the ones we see in the original trilogy.

The ever-increasing want to pile spectacle on top of spectacle, to outdo what audiences have experienced before, can be momentarily thrilling in the moment, but it always has the effect of making the source material seem far more mundane. This is especially noticeable when you watch the releases in that universe’s chronological order. Thus, prequels often have the side-effect of downgrading or side-lining the originals.   

Continuity Nightmare

By its very nature, a prequel does not exist in a void. It comes before something. It’s no easy feat to balance the needs of the prequel story with the constraints placed on it by the stories that released before it. It’s a delicate balance to walk. Lean too much into what’s been established and you risk severely limiting the scope of your story. Throw canon to the wind and the prequel story may not fit within the greater framework that exists in the minds of fans.

This is personally why I think that prequels can be a hard sell for long-running fandoms — it’s too easy to cause contradictions and lore breaks. Sure, not everyone cares about that. Most casual viewers probably don’t, but invariably there are fans who are invested in the universe that do want to see continuity maintained. Prequels are often the bane of those kinds of fans.

Now I know that, more often than not, these types of fans are dismissed out of hand as whiny manbabies, like a Youtube comment section come to life. But, I would argue that many of the fans that object to major breaks in a universe’s continuity just want all parts of the thing they love to work in concert, forming  a cohesive whole, rather than having elements that work in opposition to that. Major breaks in continuity can make that a bridge too far to span.

Lack of Stakes

Perhaps the worst curse of prequels is that we know that nothing will really change. Yeah, maybe we get a little extra insight into what leads up to the originals, but we know the story can only resolve in a certain way. We already know who lives and who dies.

That means that established characters that are alive and kicking in the future are effectively untouchable in the present. There are no stakes when the outcome is already known. When there are no stakes to a story, it can make everything in it feel brittle and unearned. It doesn’t matter how outnumbered, outgunned, or impossibly the odds are against them, we know that the heroes will make it through. It drains most, if not all, of the dramatic tension from the story as we already know the protagonists will win. Prequels are where the plot armor is thickest, and it shows.  

Final Thoughts

For one reason or another, we live in an age of prequels. In the case of both the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones universes, it’s because the main stories have already been told, and it’s too soon for any sort of reboot. With Star Trek and Star Wars, they seem to both have an allergy to advancing their own timelines (with some exceptions), and would much rather set their stories in eras that have historically proven popular.

Combine that with the powerful urge for studios to create some sort of interrelated cinematic universe, and it’s a safe bet that the stream of inevitable prequel releases is just getting started.  

Still, there are some places even within those offerings  where new, original stories can thrive, ones that aren’t as beholden to other source material that have more space to grow. (Mandalorian, I’m looking at you.) While my instinct is usually to leave backstory as just that, I’m usually willing to give prequels stories a shot. Sometimes they land, and sometimes they don’t. After all, a story well told is a story worth your time, regardless of how much baggage it might carry from what has gone before.

So, I put it to you, dear reader, what are your thoughts on prequels? Do you like them, love them, despise them, or are you just sort of ‘meh’ on them? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!


Behind the Scenes: 5 Storytelling Factors to Keep in Mind

My recent quarantine with Covid has been a springboard to catch up on several streaming shows that are within my wheelhouse, including (but not limited to) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ms. Marvel, and Stranger Things 4. That much media in so short a time made certain things stand out to me in sharp relief, so I thought I would share them here. What follows will contain spoilers for the aforementioned shows, so consider yourself warned. 

Also, I want to be clear that while I may be discussing some of the missteps of these shows, that doesn’t mean that I’m dunking on them, the actors, the crew, or anyone involved in the production. This is up to and including the writers. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to productions of this size, a lot of compromises that have to be made for time and budget. My purpose here is not merely to point out some of the underlying flaws. No, I want the shows coming on the major streaming services to be better. Many of them are already watchable, but there’s always room for improvement.

As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, writing is cheap. Before the camera rolls or the digital artists jump in to work their magic, you have a script. Just words on a page. It surprises me sometimes what actually makes it through to the screen when a little bit of logic or a slightly different presentation could make a world of difference.

With that in mind, here are five ‘under the hood’ considerations writers should think about when constructing their narratives:

1.) Moving pieces around the board

Unless your entire story takes places in a single location, your characters have places to be. How long does it take them to get there? What challenges, if any, do they have to overcome to arrive at their destination? Even if all of this takes place off the screen or page, it’s worth thinking this through. This is especially important if there are other events occurring during this time that need to eventually synch up.

End of episode 5.

In science fiction, it might be as easy as hopping in a ship or stepping onto a transporter pad. Still, you should have an idea of how long the trip takes, as well as how events might have changed in the meantime.

For fantasy, where the fastest mode of travel available might be a sailing ship, you might consider how long the characters are at sea. That could affect the relationship they have with each other and give you space to further develop their interrelations.

Beginning of episode 6.

Example: At the end of episode 5 of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ex-Grand Inquisitor Reva is seen stabbed through the abdomen with a lightsaber, abandoned by her forces on a junk world, and left for dead. At the opening of episode 6, however, she’s on Tatooine, seemingly fully healed and back to normal.

We might give this a pass, assuming in our minds that several days have passed since her duel with Vader. If that were the case, there are still some things we don’t see and are never mentioned. How did she heal herself of what was (presumably) a mortal wound with no resources at the ready? Once she did that, where did she find a ship with the range to get her off planet? The time in hyperspace is shown later to take almost no time at all, so I’m not counting that.

However, the show undercuts this by continuing the transport chase with Obi-Wan, Leia, and the rest of the Path in space. Unless the transport has some serious shields, it shouldn’t be able to withstand the onslaught of an Imperial Star Destroyer for very long. So, this tells us that not much time at all has passed since Reva’s stabbing.

2.) What options are available to solve a problem? Why do they choose that one?

In just about any situation, the characters may have several options to deal with a given obstacle or problem. They could try to use brute force, employ misdirection, kitbash some solution on the spot MacGyver style, or any number of a million possibilities.

Wait, you’re going to do what?

So, why do they go with the option that plays out in the narrative? This can be particularly tricky when you’re dealing with people who have military training, those who are trained to shrewdly assess a situation and come up with a solution that produces a specific end result.

This is not to say that all decisions your characters make will be done with calm, rational precision.  Decisions are often made out of emotion, instinct, or conditioning. While the audience may not think to question why a character undertakes a certain course of action, these decisions are something that deserves the writer’s attention. The larger, more important the decision, the more the writer should weigh whether it makes sense in the context of what they’ve established.

Looks like the ship could hold a fair few people.

Example: Let’s head back to Obi-Wan Kenobi, episode 6. He’s on a ship with a busted hyperdrive and likely doesn’t have the time to make repairs before the ship is destroyed (although that point gets a bit muddled along the way). He does, however, have access to a pretty decent-sized shuttle that does have a functional hyperdrive. The shuttle looked big enough to hold a large percentage of the Path, at least enough to significantly reduce the number of people in harm’s way.

Instead of employing the shuttle to evacuate the kids and a good chunk of the people, Obi-Wan takes it to use as a diversion. It would have made more sense in that situation if Obi-Wan’s shuttle did not have a hyperdrive on it at all, so Obi-Wan takes Vader’s Lambda-class shuttle after their duel, which we know from Return of the Jedi has a hyperdrive.

3.) Why do they need to act right now? What is their time scale?

Have you ever been frustrated that a character spends no time developing a skill and is suddenly an expert with no explanation, not even the tried-and-true ’80s montage? Or, has a love story not quite worked because the characters have barely had time to know each other? Chances are that the scale of time wasn’t enough to make the payoff feel earned or plausible.

Beginning of episode 3.

The same goes for a villain who needs to act right now for some reason. What is the time scale they are working off of? Perhaps there’s some convergence of events or a limited window of opportunity that won’t come again anytime soon, or ever. Why doesn’t the villain just walk away, learn from their mistakes, and try again in five years?

Time is a factor in the travel that I mentioned above, but this aspect is less about the amount of time that passes for the characters and more what they do, or don’t do, with it.

End of episode 3.

Example: In episode 3 of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan meets her Jinn extended family, the Clandestines. Their initial meeting is cordial and welcoming, and goes a long way towards explaining part of Kamala’s mysterious background. At that point, I thought the stage was set for Kamala to be buddies with them initially, then slowly start to realize that the Clandestines’ goals maybe weren’t as noble as they seemed at first.

Later in the same episode, however, Najma decides that Kamala has to help her achieve her goal of opening the portal to her home plane that night, during Kamala’s brother’s wedding. Besides the abrupt tonal shift of ‘you’re one of us’ to ‘we’ll kill you and your entire family if you don’t comply,’ there is zero explanation of why Najma couldn’t wait until the next day. Or next week, or next month.

All the Jinn appear to be long-lived, and they had been waiting around since at least Partition in 1947. So, what’s with the sudden urgency? Clearly, they could wait because Najma and her group are all arrested at the end of episode and don’t catch up to Kamala again until they’re all in Pakistan, presumably several days to a week later.   

4.) What knowledge do the characters have to act on? How do they know that?

Let’s say your characters are faced with a difficult decision. They don’t have time to debate it in committee. They need decisive action, and they need it now. What do they do? Perhaps more importantly, what do they know to do? What is the situation as they understand it in that moment? That will entirely shape the decision that they make.

Metal. Much respect.

This is especially important if you have several groups working in concert towards a larger goal, and something changes suddenly. There has to be some believable way for the characters at the point of contact to understand the broader scope of what is going on. With literary devices like telepathy, you can easily have one character reach out to another one, such as Luke contacting Leia as he hung from the bottom of Cloud City. But, Leia wouldn’t have known to do that otherwise.

Bottom line, unless there’s magic in your story, and it’s able to inform all parties involved, the characters shouldn’t magically know the right thing to do; they need to have some way of arriving at the correct decision that makes sense.

’86, baby. I think that will be his year.

Example: In Stranger Things 4, we get perhaps my favorite scene in the entire series: Eddie Munson on top of his trailer in the Upside-Down shredding out Metallica’s Master of Puppets. The scene is made even better with the knowledge that the actor playing Eddie, Joseph Quinn, was actually playing the guitar in that scene. Ultimately, Eddie sacrifices his life to keep the demobats distracted, to buy his friends more time. It is a great character moment, as well as a heartbreaking death scene between Eddie and Dustin.

There’s just one issue: Eddie had no knowledge of what was going on with Steve, Robin, and Nancy in the Creel House (who were all busy being strung up by tentacles at the time). Eddie is absolutely correct in his assessment that his friends need more time, but how did he arrive at that conclusion? Why would he have thought they needed more time? There’s nothing in that moment to tell him to stall for time, certainly at the cost of his own life. For a group that makes a point of showing that they have walkie-talkies to keep in contact, they don’t use them.

5.) What are the consequences of their actions?

This is a biggie for me, mainly because negative consequences so rarely seem to come back to haunt main characters. Obviously, you want to grant your characters as much agency as you can, so they need to make meaningful decisions. The result of these decisions should be a big part of the story you’re telling, and there should be repercussions. Without them, it can start to feel like nothing the characters do really matters.  

Target: Acquired.

Consequences don’t always have to be negative, however. Most of the time your characters are standing in triumph at the end of the story because of their actions. In fact, I have a special place in my heart for stories that show us how the heroes’ actions tangibly improve the lives of the people around them.

Besides a sense of stakes and tension, knowing the consequences of the characters’ actions is a great way to map out what happens in future stories or later in the one you’re writing. So, you’re not doing yourself a favor by ignoring them. Your story will feel more real and engaging if your characters don’t always get off the hook. Even if they’ve done the right thing, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished. 

Consequences BE GONE.

Example: In Stranger Things 4, Eleven loses it on her school rival, Angela. Eleven viciously attacks her bully with one of her roller-skates. This results in Angela being hurt badly and bleeding. Two police officers show up at her house the next day to take her into custody, pending assault charges.

When Dr. Owens, played by Paul Reiser, recruits Eleven in the diner, she asks about the incident. Owens hand-waves that and says that he will make that all go away. He certainly does. It’s never mentioned again. Unless it’s referenced in Season 5, which I seriously doubt, it’s a complete non-issue to the story.

Okay, that’s five. I don’t often write about writing itself, but I thought this was worth exploring. Do you have any narrative tropes, non-sequiturs, or leaps of logic that stick out like a sore thumb to you when you’re reading or watching movies and/or TV? If so, share them below in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


Tropes I Can Do Without: Incompetent Antagonists

So, I’m breaking my rule here just a bit. My goal for this year was to write about those thing I love more than the things I dislike. But today is Halloween, and this one in particular has been weighing on my mind of late. I’m going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy trope that I would REALLY like to see go away: incompetent antagonists.

FreddyWise

Trick! This post has nothing to do with either of them! Both of them are pretty cool as is. 

See if this sounds familiar…a plucky band of heroes is just so darn good. And clever! The bad guys, by contrast, might have cool tech and uniforms, but they are largely idiots, or exceedingly arrogant (or both). Because the heroes have the ‘heart’ of 100 Rocky Balboas, they are able to snatch victory out of the lazy, slackened jaws of defeat. Hooray! Everyone goes home.

Based on this, I’m proud to introduce Carson’s First Law of Villainy: The level of satisfaction the audience experiences from the heroes’ victory is directly proportional to the competence of their opposition.

Or, in other words, the greater the threat, the greater the payoff. If it seems nigh-impossible for the heroes to succeed, the more of a “YAAAS” moment you get when the they finally — somehow — pull it off. Villains are key to this. You can have a weak villain and still have a fun, engaging story (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you in most cases), but the writer does his heroes a disservice if the opposition they face is weak or ineffectual.

Let’s look at some examples. Think of a bad guy or set of bad guys. This can be from books, movies, comic books, really anywhere. Why were they memorable? Why were they a threat to the protagonist, and what lengths did the hero or heroes have to go to defeat them? For me, one figure immediately springs to mind.

This guy.

Darth-Vader_6bda9114

Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!

Darth Vader.

Not, Anakin Skywalker. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith as he was portrayed in Episodes 4, 5, and 6. He’s powerful, in control, and a dire threat to anyone who gets in his way. Every time the heroes cross paths with him, they pay for it. Obi-Wan goes down, he cuts off Luke’s Hand, and Han gets encased in carbonite.

He’s always one step ahead, and going up against him directly seems like a suicide mission. So, when Luke does finally defeat him, it shows how far the character has come. The Luke who whined about going into Tosche Station to pick up power converters couldn’t have faced Vader and lived. It had to be the Luke who wore all black, who single-handedly stormed Jabba’s barge like a boss to do that. In essence, Luke had to grow into Vader’s looming threat. As I’ve said before, it’s the presence of the wolf, not its absence, that makes the deer fast.

star-wars-return-of-the-jedi

And the winner for Most Improved goes to…

Of course, Grand Moff Tarkin does refuse to evacuate the station out of sheer arrogance, but that’s the difference between the two characters. Tarkin was certainly competent in other ways, but ultimately fell prey to this classic movie trope: His belief in his own superiority sews the seeds of his downfall. In the end, however, I think the original Star Wars trilogy does a good job of establishing the Empire as a legitimate danger to make its defeat feel like an accomplishment. (Stormtroopers who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, notwithstanding.)

Let’s look at a really bad example. I must preface this by saying that I’m big fan of this author’s work, and have been so for 20 years or more. But lately, the bad guys are bad at what they do. Really bad. Let’s talk about Shadow of Freedom, by David Webber, a novel in one of the spin-offs of his Honor Harrington universe.

Shadow_of_Freedom_(cover)

Despite being front and center on the cover, Honor Harrington never appears directly. 

I posted my review on Goodreads, but here’s the part that pertains to this topic. The bad guys are some of the worst I’ve ever read. There are multiple sets of them, and they are all idiotic, arrogant, AND their tech is way inferior to the good guys. In short, they are cockroaches being run over by a semi. They can’t even really fight back. They either flee or they die, without presenting even the slightest bit of threat or challenge.

If it only happened once in the book, that would be one thing, but it happens over and over again. And this isn’t the only Honor Harrington book where this is the case, I’m sorry to say. I want to see the protagonists struggle to achieve their goal, to really fight for it, sacrifice for it. There’s none of that here, because the bad guys are disposable, stupid, and pose no real danger.

Commando-1985

Yeah, pretty much like that. 

That brings me to Carson’s Second Law of Villainy: The audience should, in some way, empathize with the antagonist enough to — almost — wish them to succeed in place of the protagonist.

This is stepping outside the speculative realms, but think about Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard movie, played by the incomparable Alan Rickman. He is a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, and a worthy adversary of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Even though we hope McClane is able to triumph over Gruber, the moment that Gruber’s team opens the vault is genuinely exciting. For an instant, you almost feel elated that they have accomplished their goal, even though they’ve done some horrible things to get there. You temporarily suspend your wish for McClane’s victory in favor of Gruber. It’s only for a moment, but it’s there.

slider-hans_gruber

The man himself. 

Even this can be traced to Gruber’s innate competence. He knows what he’s doing. He has it together. He has a thought-out master plan and the will and resolve to see it through. That he is very good at what he does contributes to the menace he represents to McClane. If Gruber and company were a bunch of bumbling idiots, McClane’s triumph wouldn’t have been nearly so resounding.

Another example of this is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in my opinion one of the greatest TV villains of all time, and Giancarlo Esposito’s masterwork. (Spoiler Alert) Even though Gus represents deadly peril to our protagonists, Walter and Jesse, it’s pretty satisfying to see him take down the Juarez Cartel. Again, we’ve seen this guy literally slit a guy’s throat in cold blood just to make a point, but in this moment we are glad that Gus has won the day. And he did this through superior planning, a deep knowledge of his targets and their foibles, and a driving determination to avenge his dead friend, Max. Again, competence.

Breaking Bad (Season 4)

Is today the day, Hector? 

It’s these instances of success where we can’t help but cheer, even though we know we shouldn’t. And it’s these moments that lead me to Carson’s Third Law of Villainy: Antagonists should believe and behave as though they are the protagonists in their own story.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about some of the worst people who have ever lived in real life is that they thought they were the good guys. They all thought they were the hero in their own story. A well-rounded antagonist should likewise believe this. They aren’t just there to be a convenient obstacle, to wait around to be defeated or killed, they have goals and dreams like anyone, albeit twisted by our standards. In their view, the hero is the actual villain of the piece.

One of the most unsettling examples of this is the movie Falling Down. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the protagonist of a story by looking for the one in the most pain. Not so with this movie. Even though the story revolves around William Foster (Michael Douglas), he is really the antagonist. We see that he’s in pain, and that he’s fed up with the world, but when Robert Duvall’s Sgt. Prendergast confronts him at the end of the movie, Foster says “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”

MSDFADO EC034

His glasses aren’t the only thing that’s cracked. 

And, just to throw a curve ball into the mix, let’s talk about the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) in Serenity. He certainly passes the competency test. He’s articulate and extremely dangerous, and also strangely empathetic towards his victims.

He passes the first two laws of villainy with flying colors, but not the third. That is perhaps the only failing in an otherwise command appearance. The Operative knows that he’s a monster, that what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. That’s the only part of this character that doesn’t ring true to me, especially when Shepherd Book says that men like the Operative ‘believe hard’ and ‘never ask why.’ The Operative knows he’s a villain, which in my estimation, makes him less of one.

6a00d8345295c269e201bb0998189d970d-800wi

Perhaps there is nothing left to see. 

Well, there you have it, Carson’s Three Laws of Villainy, and how the use of them can prevent a milquetoast antagonist. Villains fuel the story’s conflict, and what is a good story without conflict?

So, if you’re writer of any sort of fiction, do us a favor and make your villain as compelling as your hero. Make your protagonist rise to the challenge. And if you can, have your villain go out with a bit of style or panache.  (That’s more of a personal request, however.)

Truth is, we all deserve better bad guys in our stories. Villains aren’t good, but by the horned helmet of Loki, they should at least be good at it!

693e5f0bdd2942ed5c9b1d7923fb939f603663ad875b1940cb773d9560b00b9d

Burdened with glorious purpose, indeed. 


Fanboy Review #6 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Before I get into the particulars of the movie, I wanted to say a few words about Carrie Fisher. Like so many, I was shocked to hear of her passing. First there was the news of her heart attack, then her death, AND THEN her mother’s death. I can only imagine what the family is going through right now, and my heart goes out to them.

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To me, she’s royalty.

Of course, growing up with Star Wars I had a huge crush on Princess Leia. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and it actually wasn’t her slave-girl outfit that did it for me. The moment that I think I truly fell in love with Princess Leia is when she removed her helmet after thawing Han out of the carbonite. “Someone who loves you,” she said, and there were anime-style hearts in my eyes. And if that didn’t really drive it home, the moment when she turns the tables on Han on Endor, stealing his own line of “I know” just before she zaps a Stormtrooper cemented in my mind that she was no wilting daisy. True, she was the damsel in distress in Episode IV, but her sass and overall attitude showed us that she was anything but the standard-issue screen heroine of the day. Bear in mind that is was 1977, a time when the changing role of women in fiction, particularly science fiction, wasn’t even a conversation we were having as a society.

But fan worship aside, I respected Carrie Fisher for her abilities as a writer, and for her outspoken stances on mental health and substance abuse. Unfortunately (for me, at least), in all the sci-fi conventions and events that I’ve attended over the years, I never had the privilege of meeting her. From what I hear, she was quite a lady. And though Leia Organa may be the role she is remembered for the most, I appreciate the real person who brought her to life, and the lasting impact her work has had on the world. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher.

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Now, to the review. Roll the standard spoiler warning:

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

The first of what could be an endless series of standalone Star Wars movies, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit theatres a couple of weeks ago. In that time, it’s made over $650 million worldwide. With the original extended universe cannon gone, Rogue One steps up to fill the gap of how the Rebel Alliance got its hands on the Death Star plans. With a new cast of characters, we embark upon the first of the non-episodic Star War stories.

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The ‘One’ and only. Trust me.

First Impressions:  Despite my damaged-but-still-intact love of the franchise, I wasn’t looking forward to this movie. It felt unnecessary, like an obvious attempt by Disney to milk their purchase of its revenue potential. The trailers didn’t do much to change that idea. Still, it is a return to the era of Star Wars that I love the best, so it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it. (Let’s be real here.) I liked but didn’t love The Force Awakens, so let’s see how it goes.

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LIKE. A. BOSS!

What I Liked:

DARTH FRIGGIN’ VADER! I thought he really was going to be a minor cameo in the movie, but Great Scott…that end corridor scene. Why do people fear Darth Vader? This is why. Plus, it also seems to give us an answer to why Vader is so angry when he first boards the Tantive IV. He’s calm and collected the rest of the time, but I now see why he wants to ‘tear the ship apart’ when he finally catches up to it.

– The Battle of Scarif. If you’ve read my sci-fi, you know I’m a sucker for a ground battle going on while a gigantic space battle rages overhead. We got that in Return of the Jedi, and the climactic battle sequence here is pretty much everything I could have hoped for, and more.  This definitely puts the ‘wars’ back in ‘Star Wars.’

– Perhaps a better name for the movie should be ‘Suicide Squad.’  The movie pulls no punches. I had thought that perhaps our band of misfits might be return for a sequel, but that will not be the case. One of the problems with an epic story like Star Wars is that the death of a major character will be rare. For a one-time cast, each of our intrepid heroes steps up, does their job, and goes down like a boss. When the bill came due for Imwe and Malbus, I genuinely teared up. I am one with the force, and the force is with me. I am one with the force, and the force is with me.

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– Seeing Biggs and the Red and Yellow squadron leaders back in action through unused footage from Star Wars. Now we know why there was a vacancy for Luke in the form of Red-5, and why there was no Blue Squadron attacking the Death Star around Yavin. Plus, seeing some minor characters like General Jan Dodonna  and Mon Mothma recast so that they can still be a part of story was cool as well. And that leads me to my next point…

– CGI Characters. This is perhaps my most divisive opinion on the film. Bringing characters back to life was handled pretty well and with respect, I thought. When I first saw Governor Tarkin, I thought he would be a brief cameo. Nope. He plays more of a part in the story than I would have thought. While we’re not quite there yet with the technology, we’re still better than we were with Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy. I do wish the voice actor for some of Tarkin’s lines had stayed more with Cushing’s sharp British delivery, but that we got as much as we did was great. CGI Leia was a bit less impressive, but hearing Carrie Fisher say “Hope” was moving, especially now.

– The Score. John Williams didn’t do the soundtrack for this movie, but Michael Giacchino does a pretty good job at capturing Williams’ trademark Star Wars style. I do wish the main theme had been used a bit more, though. It’s not just for Luke!

– Expansion of the New Lore. From the Guardians of the Whills, to reaffirming Kyber crystals while establishing that this is what powered the Death Star’s planet killer, this story does a lot to fill in the gaps of the continuity, particularly since the old lore is dead, dead, dead.

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Cool shot. Too bad it’s ‘Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.’

What I Didn’t Like:

– The TRAILER. Part of the reason I wasn’t excited about the movie was because of the trailers leading up to it. It felt like one big warning that Jyn might somehow betray the Rebellion and join the Empire, that she should remain true to herself no matter what came her way. Well, almost none of the footage or lines from the movie trailer made it into the final movie. Jyn’s dramatic turn in an Imperial uniform while the lights in the corridor go up? Nope. Any hint of her joining the Empire? Nope. Cassian and Jyn on the beach fighting AT-ATs? Nope. Vader talking with Krennic on the Death Star? Nope. Jyn’s whimsical line of “It’s a rebellion. I rebelled”? Nowhere to be found. I understand that footage can be cut different ways to dramatically change its meaning, but the footage they used is not even in the movie. Not just a scene here or there, but a sizeable chunks of what was shown just isn’t there. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed the movie that I got a whole lot more than the movie the trailer previewed.

– No Title Crawl. Yeah, I know that it’s not part of the trilogies, but I still missed it. The slow scroll of words while the Star Wars theme blasts is an essential part of getting me hyped for what’s to come. It wasn’t there at all, and its absence was ringing.

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Yaaaaas!

– The Names. Aside from Krennic, Jyn and Galen, I had a hard time remembering the names of the characters. Maybe it’s just how long the Star Wars universe has been around, and the memes that go with it, but the names sort of went in one ear and out the other. They also didn’t seem to use them in dialogue very much, so that part made it even harder to catch them. If you don’t know a character’s name, I think it’s a little harder to sink your teeth into them, figuratively speaking.

– The Beginning of the Film. It felt slow and overly complicated. To be fair, there were a bunch of characters to introduce, but it seemed like a lot of explaining on a theme that we likely already know going in. We get to Jedha and things pick up, and then sort of fades again at Eadu. Scarif is pure joy and awesome, however.

– This is kind of a weird one, but important to me nonetheless: I know that having the Rebellion do shady and horrible stuff is a way to make it more realistic, but I like the clear dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys in this franchise. I generally prefer more morally ambiguous stories…just not in Star Wars. It’s for all the same reasons why the ‘Section 31’ episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 don’t work for me. Yeah, that’s great for another sci-fi property, but keep it out of this one.

– A Nerdy Nitpick: I realize that Diego Luna was using his normal speaking voice in his portrayal of Cassian Andor. While he is from Mexico, his accent came off as French (which struck me as on-the-nose considering he’s in the resistance against a jack-booted fascist regime). We’ve never had much variance of accents in Star Wars, just the occasional British accent, so that was a little distracting from his performance.

– A REALLY Nerdy Nitpick: Galen’s farm at the beginning bears a striking resemblance to Uncle Owen’s farm on Tattooine. The equipment, the interiors, even the layout all have a similar look. The thing is, Uncle Owen wasn’t into growing crops — he was a moisture farmer. Tatooine has so little moisture that a whole industry had to spring up around coaxing moisture from the air and turning it into usable drinking water. The planet Lah’mu, however, is wet. Really wet. So wet that Krennic walks through a puddle to get to it and it’s sprinkling while they are talking. So what kind of farming was Galen doing?

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Questions you have. Resolution to them we have not.

Unresolved Questions:

If anything, Rogue One does a pretty good job of tying up loose ends, especially with its rather Shakespearean ending. If Galen thought that the Empire would never find the hidden weakness he installed, why was it found so easily in A New Hope, leading to Tarkin’s “moment of triumph” speech? Also, why would Leia even pretend to be on an ambassadorial mission when it was clear that she had just been at Scarif? Vader would be like, “Dude, I saw you take off from that Mon Calamari ship like 30 minutes ago.” Deny it to the end, I guess. And would Leia be surprised that Darth Vader was on her tail when she says, “Only you would be so bold.” Or was that, again, for some sort of deniability?

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So what’s your point, Matt?

Conclusions:  I realize that it might be hard to know whether or not I liked this film based on what I stated above. I like this movie, I really, really do. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was far better than any one-off film had any right to be. Believe it or not, it reignited my love for the franchise far more than did last year’s The Force Awakens. While I still worry that the anthology stories may overstay their welcome in the future, this was a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe, and a pleasant surprise to this very jaded and cautious fan.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


Fanboy Movie Review #4 – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion. Most of the time with these reviews I watch the movie only once, but let’s be real here…it’s Star Wars. I’ve seen it twice at the time of this writing. And as always, there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

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Great! What does that mean, exactly?

Just as we thought, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has indeed shattered all sorts of box office records. Considering the dark, yawning abyss of the prequel trilogy (easily the greatest cinematic disappointment of folks my age), I went into this movie with neutral to low expectations. Fortunately, I had avoided spoilers with ninja-like online reflexes. J.J. Abrams is normally very good at what he does, but Star Trek: Into Darkness didn’t work for me on many levels, so it was with a fortified and guarded heart that I entered the move theatre.

First Impressions: I took the movie trailers with a grain of salt.  Phantom Menace’s trailer is still one of the best of all time, and we saw how that movie turned out. But, Disney is distancing itself from the prequels as well as tapping into the vast well of nostalgia that folks of my generation have for the original trilogy.

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Real guys don’t look at explosions…

What I Liked:

  • THE ACTING! Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. I really can’t say enough good things about the new folks. Absolutely amazing. Harrison Ford is one of my favorite actors of all time, and his return to Han Solo is some of the best acting I’ve seen from him in years.
  • The fan service. I won’t lie, I enjoyed seeing throwbacks from the original. Seeing Han walk into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Seeing him with Leia again. All those things really struck my nostalgia vein, even if I felt like they took it a bit far at times (see below).
  • The cinematography is gorgeous. They really used a good mix of practical and digital effects to push the story forward without it feeling like just a CGI beauty contest with no substance underneath.
  • BB-8. I didn’t think I would like him because he was an obvious stand-in for R2-D2. I was wrong. BB-8 is awesome and had a similar-but-different-enough personality from R2. *flashes a lighter in a thumbs up*
  • The moment when Rey calls the lightsaber to her to face Kylo Ren. When she ignites it for the first time…this is perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, and that’s saying something. Wow. Again, Daisy Ridley. Totally sold.
  • Chewy’s rage. When a Wookie sees his best friend go down, fear for your freakin’ life. I just wish there had been more of it. Also, Leia feeling Han’s death through the Force. It was as though a billion fanboy voices cried out at the death of a fan favorite.
  • The emotion. After suffering through Manikin Skywalker, it is SO refreshing to see fear, happiness, pain, and sadness on the faces of our heroes. It brings it all home.

 

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Fine, just don’t take off the mask.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The similarities to Episode IV. It’s been said before, so I’ll keep this one brief. If the movie has a major flaw, it’s that it takes perhaps too many cues from the original trilogy, right down to bringing in the Death Star by another name. My hope is that Episode VIII can do something else that doesn’t feel like a remake of what has gone before.
  • Lightsaber usage. They are one of the coolest weapons ever, but they are super impractical if you don’t have training. You are more likely to lop off your own leg than do anything to an enemy. Both Finn and Rey use lightsabers without any sort of training and actually do pretty well for themselves. Rey even bests Kylo Ren (who himself was trained by Luke). That was a bit hard to swallow. Luke didn’t have a lightsaber duel with anyone until the end of Empire, and that was at least after his training with Yoda.
  • The score. When I think of incredible movie scores, John Williams springs immediately to mind. Even through the wasteland of Phantom Menace, we at least got Duel of the Fates, one of the coolest pieces of movie music ever. Here, the score was just sort of ‘there’ and the moments where it really shines are really just rehashes of previous leitmotifs. It’s serviceable enough, but not really memorable. That’s disappointing.
  • Captain Phasma. She was billed as kind of a new kind of Boba Fett, and it’s Gwendoline Christie for crying out loud! She’s barely in it, and gets coerced into dropping the shields pretty easily. Why was she not the one that Finn fought with the lightsaber instead of random Stormtrooper #34, I’ll never know. Let’s hope she’s still alive because she had better play a bigger role in the next installment.
  • Kylo Ren. I appreciate that he’s not a mustache twirling villain, but I think Adam Driver was a complete miscast for this part. He is an able actor, but when he took his mask off for the first time, I thought “Wait, did they get Marilyn Manson to play this guy?” He’s whiny, he’s petulant, emo, and ignores the call of the light side of the Force for reasons we haven’t found out yet. Aside from looking completely badass with his mask on (which he certainly does), he doesn’t seem like he’s very good at being a bad guy. The only reason he gets Han is because he sucker punches him. Functionally, as the villain of the story, he’s pretty weak. With the heroes being miraculously good at what they do, he’s really out of his league.
  • General Hux. This guy is the most experienced commander the First Order has at its disposal? Despite being young and unimpressive, he is the direct analogue to Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the legendary Peter Cushing. He falls far short of anything approaching Tarkin’s screen presence or gravitas. Again, a complete miscast.
  • Han’s Death. It was a powerful moment to be sure, but one that was painfully telegraphed ahead of time. And THEN there is no real moment of mourning or ceremony to mark the passing of a legend. I understand the emotion surrounding it all, but that seemed like a lackluster end for a fan favorite. In a movie that doesn’t seem to take a whole lot of risks, and one that is all about fan service, killing off Han Solo seems like it is necessary only because Obi-Wan died in Episode IV.

Unresolved Questions (At Least in My Mind):

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More than I can count, I have.

Where to start? The movie leaves so many things unexplained. If I numbered them out, this blog post could wallpaper the Starkiller Base, so here’s just the highlight reel. Who left Rey on Jakku, and why? Is Rey Luke Skywalker’s daughter? If so, who is her mother? Or is she the twin to Ben Solo? Why did Ben turn to the dark side? Did no one (Luke, I’m looking at you) ever tell Ben that Anakin turned from the dark side before he died? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? (The horrible Star Wars name generator strikes again!) How does Finn fit into all of this? Why did Han go to see Maz when BB-8 knew where the Resistance base was? Why was the Hosnian system so important that destroying it could ‘destroy the Republic,’ a polity which presumably consists of thousands of systems? How could the First Order, a shadow of the old Empire, build something as massive as Starkiller Base without anyone noticing? Why had they not used the super weapon before this time if it was already loaded? Why don’t they just drain a system’s sun and leave the planets to die in the cold? The list goes on and on. Let’s hope that Mr. Abrams doesn’t repeat the mistake with Lost and actually explains to us what’s going on.

Let’s Talk About Rey:

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There…is…annoootherr…Sky…walllkeerrr…

The character of Rey is pretty divisive, it seems. Is she a Mary Sue? Is she OP? Is the whole debate over her inherently gender-biased? Would we even have this discussion if the character were male?

Here are my thoughts: Yes, she does seem to be good at everything. She’s a good pilot, hand-to-hand fighter, mechanic, climber, pistol shot, etc. She picks up Force powers with no training, and she bests Kylo Ren when she has never wielded a lightsaber before. It does seem a bit unbelievable, but it is a movie called ‘The Force Awakens,’ and Rey is obviously more steeped in the Force than anyone else around her. Isn’t that enough for us to suspend our disbelief?

But there’s something else going on here that I think is important. Star Wars isn’t really science fiction. Sure, it has starships and lasers and Wookies, but at its core, Star Wars is really a fantasy tale. A straight-up Joseph Campbell Monomyth. So, I think the character should be judged by fantasy standards. If we take Rey and plop her down into Middle-Earth or Krynn, do any of the arguments against her have validity?

Do we really question that Eowyn is able to take down the Witch-King of Morgul? What about Tauriel? We buy that she is excellent at everything (except perhaps picking a significant other) and practically indestructible just because she’s an elf. Why is Rey any different? Here we have a cool female protagonist that’s interesting, heroic, brave, athletic, and one that is not portrayed in a exploitative or sexualized manner.

We have been waiting for a character like Rey to come along. And if there’s going to be someone like her in popular fandom, Star Wars is the natural place for her to live.

 

Conclusions: 

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Oh, so THAT’s why Luke isn’t on the movie poster.

It always does my heart good to see good work rewarded. The last few years have made me a bit cynical on this point, particularly due to Michael Bay’s hatchet job on the Transformers franchise. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good movie, and I wish it well.

It is far from a perfect movie, however, and its flaws led me to merely like it a whole bunch rather than love it like the first Avengers. Still, it is wholly worth the price of admission. I plan to see to see it at least one more time before it leaves the theatres.

But walking out of the movie theatre twice, with all the feels I’ve carried with me, has made me wish that the name “A New Hope” hadn’t already been taken.

Onward to Episode VIII!

And that’s how this fanboy sees it.