Monday, December 18, 2017

My Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The New Trilogy, and Star Wars Fandom

My fellow cybertavern patrons, a many Happy Holidays to you, and thank goodness things are starting to wind down. Multiverse Desperado is chugging along just fine, Animation Deviation...needs to come out more often, and as I said before I've begun parlaying my deep dive thoughts on game industry current events into more professional columns at a certain website.

In fact I wrote a pretty extensive op ed on the Loot Box controversy surrounding the reception of EA's Star Wars Battlefront II recently.

Which brings us to what amounts to my rapidfire thoughts on the release of a certain blockbuster film recently, Rian Johnson's Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

First, some obligatory nerd credential padding. I love Star Wars. It's one of my favorite sci-fi franchises out there. I love the original trilogy. I... mostly tolerate certain parts of the prequel trilogy: Darth Maul is fine, the myth of Darth Plagueus is fine, but midichlorians and Jar Jar Binks are nails on a chalkboard for example. I love the Genndy Tartokovsky Clone Wars cartoon, still have the DVDs in fact, and never finished the “officially canon” CG animated Clone Wars cartoon but am content that it exists. I've also read my share of the ( now alternative extended universe) of Star Wars novels like the pretty excellent Darth Bane trilogy, Millenium Falcon, the Legacy of the Force, and even the truly schlocky nonsense that was Death Troopers aka What If Star Wars Characters Had To Deal With a Zombie Outbreak?

Also while the new extended universe has its detractors, I am more or less interested and fascinated by the direction the franchise is going. The Force Awakens was basically a reintroduction to the galaxy far far away for a new generation while respecting what came before, and even splicing in some meta-commentary about its own fandom in the margins. And while Rogue One wasn't really a good movie on a basic level, it was a fantastic representation of why I read some of the more acclaimed Expanded Universe books: to see a smaller story of a bigger conflict in all of its pulpy glory.

Which is something that I think some of the more long-running fans have forgotten about when it came to Star Wars' new regime at Disney. A lot of fans have internalized so much Star Wars mythology as being untouchable and full of established rules, characters, factions, and conflicts like an masterwork pocketwatch. But from its entire inception to its success, it was basically sci-fi schlock with a truly unique aestheticist behind the wheel and the start of a series that began the trend of merchandising and toy tie-ins. A character in Return of the Jedi had to get a fake beard glued on at the last second because his action figure had a beard for example. In other words, Star Wars was just as equally about the stories of swashbuckling rogues and space wizards fighting evil military organizations as well as the highly lucrative product placements waaaaaayyyy before The Mouse got a hold of it.

Which is why a lot of this expanded mythology is actually kind of bloated, contradictory, and bizarrely all over the place for a series that has science so soft and rules so broad it could allow just about anything. Case in point, early stuff about the imperial Stormtroopers said they were “manifested hatred of the Emperor himself” ...which then the prequels contradicted by saying they were clone soldiers. In one expanded universe novel, Bobba Fett was some sort of lizard man under that suit of armor... then turns out he's just some guy from a race of badasses that can kill Jedi. As for the Jedi and The Force itself, they became less like wisemen who were deeply spiritualistic and tried to preserve life in a passive fashion and more like DnD wizards. Congratulations, you have the Force, as long as you stay “Light-Side” aligned you can manipulate people, use telekinesis, run super fast, and eventually get more grab bag abilities.

Following through on the DnD comparisons, this super-power focused mystic steroid that became the expanded universe Jedi eventually eclipsed and overwhelmed anything remotely interesting that could be done in any capacity. If you weren't a Jedi in a Star Wars story, you were immediately a supporting character with barely anything to do with very rare exceptions. But if you weren't a Skywalker or a Solo, you were the B-Plot at best. For a religious order that promotes being passive and attempt to be mediators, it seems just strange seeing them assist in black ops raids for the New Republic or being treated as espionage operatives while also glorifying some sort of Skywalker bloodline heritage of Super Jedi.

But after a couple decades, the fandom, myself included, internalized these elements and accepted there was enough rationales to twist and change these elements into the forms they are now.

And then...I saw The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The latter of which actually made me hostile at first because of how much of this internalized presumptions about this universe were either subverted or harshly refuted.

Don't worry I'll get to my thoughts on the actual hot topic of the moment but I do want to clear the air when it comes to The Force Awakens' storytelling tricks and JJ Abrams' Mystery Box gambit since both movies are quite intertwined.

As I said before, I did enjoy The Force Awakens. I love the new leads, Finn is just amazing and Poe Dameron is slowly becoming one of my favorite ace pilot characters. The First Order being a bunch of crazy Imperial loyalists who want to bring the galaxy back into order by reinstating a new regime after lots of galactic turbulence makes a scary amount of sense in broad terms. Kylo Ren is a much different type of villain, the overly emotional insecure manchild with a hatred for change compared to his more ominous and in control commander of the Dark Side that was his grandfather. There was genuinely a lot to love in this movie.

However, JJ Abrams has a terrible terrible habit that he became famous for when he was a producer on Lost back in the day, The Mystery Box. Looking back at The Force Awakens, there was plenty of instances where Abrams was pulling this gambit: to set up a mystery full of intrigue and suspense and inviting you to come up with ideas as to how that can turn out. Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Was he trained by Palpatine? How did he become a Dark Side Master without anyone finding out? Who are the Knights of Ren? Are they similar to the Sith? How did Maz Kanada get Luke's original lightsaber? Who are Rey's parents? Abrams made a big deal about her past and her connection to the Force so clearly that's building up to something big!

The problem with this Mystery Box style though is that no matter what you ultimately reveal, it will never be as fulfilling as what others have brought to the table. The Force Awakens has been out for two years, and nerd culture-powered social media did what it did best with fan theories, crazy ass conspiracy nonsense, and using tentative logic since the new Disney canon has cherry picked several elements and characters from the older books like Darth Bane and Admiral Thrawn to justify stuff from the books and extended media they liked.

Then The Last Jedi shows up to theaters and practically takes a swerve on every single non-mystery Abrams had set up, practically slapping this hard work in the face. In many ways Rian Johnson managed to make a Star Wars movie that still feels like Star Wars, exciting dogfights, lightsaber battles, big operatic acts of heroism and the recurring themes of hope and resistance in the face of great hardship, while also deconstructing or even subverting elements of it that fans have grown fond of or desperately wanted something more from.

There are some minor spoilers for the movie ahead but don't worry, I won't give away major parts.

The biggest case and point is The Force Awakens ends with Rey reaching Luke Skywalker on an island on some distant planet and she hands him his old lightsaber. The music swells, his face is full of emotion, Rey is clearly waiting for some grand uplifting sense of finality or purpose in finding the map that lead to him thinking he was looking for some ancient secrets that might help defeat the First Order.

When The Last Jedi returns to this exchange Luke takes the lightsaber...then throws it over his shoulder off a cliff and leaves Rey confused, acting more like a broken curmudgeonly war veteran that had seen too much and goes back to his home.

Abrams' big Mystery Box nonsense involving Luke looking for the origin of the Jedi Order and leaving a map for someone to find him falls apart to complete subterfuge for its own sake with the direction Rian Johnson takes.

And this happens multiple times throughout the film. Supreme Leader Snoke was built up as next-generation Darth Sidious in The Force Awakens, only for his role in The Last Jedi to be one of misdirection.

As for the big mystery surrounding the new generation Jedi-in-Training Rey? Once again, the reveal is exactly what people weren't expecting and it has lead to outrage.

This is why I actually had a pretty adverse reaction to this movie at first. As much as I'm too used to Abrams' insufferable Mystery Box schtick, it is still a tool used way too effectively for its own good. But what Rian Johnson brings to the franchise is a pretty harsh look at the conflicts of Star Wars, the nature of the Force, and even the dangers of idol worship, de-mystifying some of the glory of the past movies.

As a reminder, Star Wars started as, and for many retains its inherent charm, by being a simple swashbuckling laser blasting space opera. Queue the heresy alarms.

But as time has passed I have begun to accept and even embrace the bold directions The Last Jedi takes the franchise in. Some ways are ones I wished happened a long time ago such as letting conflict be driven more by characters, their strengths as well as their faults, rather than everything be dictated by simple adherence to rationalizations and logic; something that too many in nerd circles fetishize to a creepy degree. A recurring theme of learning from your failures while understanding that not everything will always belong to you. All of this stuff is fantastic and surprisingly mature coming from a Star Wars movie.

However, what many of the more vocal fans have been going on about has been how parts of the movie don't make any “logical” sense, and some of it does hold some weight. There's a lot of weird creative license when it comes to cinematic time and travel scale. A lot of logistical stuff like how The First Order militarized so quickly to pose a threat to the Republic is basically never fully explained which makes one of the central conflicts of the movie one hell of a stretch, the list goes on.

Now I'm not gonna call The Last Jedi a perfect movie. There are some legit structural problems in the second act that makes everything feel out of whack and works against what should be an intense ticking clock conflict and there are few scenes that could have been cut for time. But I am willing to offer a big counterargument to the Star Wars fans demanding answers and clarity and explanation to all of these details.

Explain to me the details about Han Solo's boasting about The Kessel Run.

It's a prominent line he uses in A New Hope and the cast treats it as a huge deal but it's never fully explained. Guess what? Multiple books tried to explain this idea and not a lot of them stuck. One book wrote that The Kessel Run was basically the spaceship equivalent of rum-running during the Prohibition era where your Run was determined by how fast you were able to lose the authorities. Oh wait, no it's a run you make towards Kessel while trying to find the shortest route and Han did some sick flying maneuvers with The Falcon skirting past black holes to shave off some distance. Oh wait, turns out The Kessel Run was an elaborate ruse by Han for him to bolster his credentials as a smuggler.

All of those are logical, but the very line itself on its very surface reads as wrong. Ask any pedantic jerkface and they'll say 'parsecs are a measure of distance, not time, so that says nothing about what the Kessel Run is.” I should know, I was one of them.

So this immediate anger towards similar slip-ups in the new movies seems greatly misplaced, almost reading like a form of elitist gatekeeping. Hanging on desperately to a history and only remembering the good stuff while ignoring the stuff that was more problematic.

As I mentioned before, the “Legends” continuity of Star Wars will forever hold a place in my heart, but everything I have been seen at this point from Johnson, and to a lesser extent Abrams, makes me beyond interested in the new direction they have made by breaking multiple conventions holding the series back.

And yes, that is quite frightening, but it is also exciting at the same time.

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