Spoiler Alert: Rogue One

Serving as an immediate prelude to the very first Star Wars film (A New Hope), Rogue One restores a measure of gravitas to the Star Wars canon that was seriously undermined by the goofiness of 2015’s The Force Awakens. Rogue One is still a remarkable nostalgia trip, thanks to the digital recreation of familiar Rebel and Imperial hardware along with the likenesses of actors who first appeared in the original 1977 film. But without the need to consider future franchise opportunities for its stars, Rogue One is free to kill off all of its major characters, marking a narrative structure that is unprecedented for blockbusters in general and Disney piffle in particular. Self-sacrifice inspires a strong emotional response from the audience—see, for example, Obi-Wan Kenobi posing peacefully in A New Hope before Darth Vader strikes him down. The several heroes in Rogue One sacrifice themselves one by one until all that’s left is a floppy disk in the hands of a princess. This is powerful plotting, and all credit to the film’s writers. Perhaps there is hope for the fictional far-far-away galaxy after all.

Image via ThoroughlyReviewed.com

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Dumbing Down Star Wars in The Force Awakens

It was high times for the Rebel Alliance at the end of Return of the Jedi (1983). Across the galaxy, crowds rejoiced at the destruction of the second Death Star and the apparent defeat of Emperor Palpatine. Princess Leia Organa, who two films earlier had seen her home planet exploded for sport, was re-united with a twin brother she never knew she had, becoming aware of her own Force sensitivity, and in love with a swashbuckling hero who would later father her son. It was a resounding victory, and deservedly so, even if Ewoks had to help.

The Force Awakens begins thirty years later, yet reveals nothing about the consequences of the Rebellion’s victory. One might think democracy was restored and the title scroll refers quickly to “THE REPUBLIC” before never mentioning it again. The original Republic, of course, existed in the time of the prequel trilogy and was transformed into the first Galactic Empire through the machinations of Palpatine, a dark lord of the Sith. But now, without any political backdrop, Leia and her band of good guys are called “The Resistance” and the masked jerks with Star Destroyers are called “The First Order.” Where, exactly, is the New Republic in all this? We never find out.

Instead the entire film propels itself in pursuit of a particularly foolish MacGuffin (an object, for example, that everyone wants to get their hands on.) This is a common technique in action films and was used in A New Hope (1977) as the Empire tries to recover stolen Death Star plans. In The Force Awakens, the object everyone desires is a map to Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding because he messed up as a Jedi Master and created a pitiful gothic monster in the form of his nephew, Kylo Ren. The whole idea of following a map across the galaxy in order to find a planet is embarrassing—space is 3-D and wide open; all ones needs are coordinates. Instead we are shown a meandering orange trail that stretches for tens of thousands of light-years. What if you’re coming from a different direction? I don’t know, fly casual?

Luke is only in the film for about a minute, and he has no dialogue. The MacGuffin, despite being relied upon throughout the entire film, is only a tease. Where else can we look for an actual story? There is Leia, who is now a General with the Resistance. Her situation must be painfully tragic. Not only is she a woman without a home or a family, but the rebellion she led so fiercely has failed to change much at all. She seems not to have been trained in the Force, and she is separated from Han Solo, who cruises the galaxy with his Wookiee bro looking for their junky old spaceship. Leia and Han’s son, Kylo Ren, has run away to apprentice for an evil mastermind and wants to murder Leia’s brother. And yet the film doesn’t explore Leia’s potential pathos at all. It mostly places her in the background. Although, for Leia, the worst is yet to come.

Han Solo’s Death Wish

Harrison Ford was ready for Han Solo to die in Return of the Jedi, although he didn’t get his wish. He was tired of his character and maybe George Lucas as well; it’s probably only because of the latter’s departure (and Disney’s deep pockets) that Ford reprised the role at all. Still, he was only in it for a last hurrah, and so Disney needed to kill off his character. Han Solo was always a cagey, wily, brave and lucky bastard; despite what George Lucas later revised, Han did shoot first, because he knew if he didn’t, Greedo would fry his ass. Han Solo is nobody’s fool, and neither is his brother-in-arms Chewbacca, who hardly even loses at chess.

Yet Han’s death in the film is hard to understand. After many years he has been reunited with the Millennium Falcon, he has seen Leia again and they agree that he should ask young Kylo to come home. So Han flies to Starkiller base, where Ren likes to brood, and confronts him. Han walks out onto the longest, narrowest, most railing-less, most pointless catwalk in the galaxy, above an abyss that is undoubtedly bottomless. He says, kiddo, please, let me help you? And Kylo agrees by switching on his lightsaber. These two may be father and son, but could Han really be so credulous, so naive, have such a blind spot to let himself be murdered by a well-known psychotic, without even a contingency plan? To let down everyone who has ever loved him? While Han’s death is the core of the film’s narrative, it’s also meaningless, because we know nothing about the relationship Han and Kylo once had.

Kylo Ren turns out to be a kind of metaphor for the whole movie: a clueless newcomer who idolizes the remains of Darth Vader and wants to get rid of the characters we love.

Consider also Chewbacca, who was once a rather menacing (if big-hearted) presence. In The Force Awakens he just mugs for the camera. And the droids, who George Lucas envisioned as the point of view for all of Star Wars, are likewise relegated to the sidelines; R2-D2 is asleep for most of the movie, and C-3P0 only gets in somebody’s way once.

Diverse New Idols

Of course, this film is supposed to be about the new characters, not the old ones. Disney made a very clear nod to gender and racial equality in casting their lead actors. The unfortunate thing is that neither of these characters is given any substantial backstory or character development. They demonstrate no internal conflict or struggle. They experience no defeat, and little growth. It seems to be within these two that the Force has “awakened,” since it gets them out of every jam with killer, invincible instinct. Rey, although she begins the film as a poor desert scavenger, is purely virtuous and physically adept from the beginning: she excels at hand-to-hand combat, won’t sell out a friend for money, magically flies a spaceship for the first time, magically wields a lightsaber for the first time, etc. Her basic attribute is that she kicks ass and while that’s always fun, she’s little more than an totem, and therefore a stereotype. The film tells us nothing about her personal history or relationships, except that she has been waiting in the desert for someone to return.

Meanwhile Finn the black Stormtrooper begins the film by having a panic attack in battle. He witnesses his fellow Stormtrooper killed and bloodied, and refuses to fire on the enemy. He soon defects from the First Order and joins up with Rey for mindless hijinx. Finn’s moment of truth is presented as a moral revelation: he realizes that killing is wrong and refuses to do so. And yet, once he joins the good guys, he has no problem turning around and shooting his former comrades. Finn says that he was kidnapped as a child and indoctrinated as a soldier all his life—presumably those other Stormtroopers were too. Finn ought to have immense sympathy for them; he should be deeply conflicted about his actions and his future. Instead, he’s a happy-go-lucky blaster jockey: another totem. Both actors are partially wasted in this film because their roles are meaningless. And that is not what women or racial minorities (or anyone) needs.

Furthermore, the giftedness of these characters undermines everything the other films have taught us about the Force. These new heroes don’t have to learn anything; it comes to them naturally. This is the only Star Wars film without a line of dialogue spoken by a Jedi Master. Star Wars has always been about learning and discovering the difference between dark and light, but here that sense of erudition and discovery is wholly lacking.

Um, That’s Not How Starkilling Works

Even if the technology in speculative fiction is more advanced than our own, the rules of physics still usually apply. Even magic such as the Force is plausible as long as it operates according to a set of rules. But when writers make lazy shortcuts, it’s hard to take their storytelling seriously.

Consider the First Order’s headquarters, Starkiller Base. Although The Force Awakens is dead-set on recreating every iconic element of the original trilogy, someone in Hollywood must have thought that after two Death Stars with highly vulnerable shafts, it was time for for the First Order to up the ante. The result is Starkiller Base, an entire planet that has been hollowed out and turned into a weapon that sucks up the mass of a star and fires it across the galaxy. It basically does the same job as a Death Star, except from longer range. Honestly a Death Star would be much more economical, if only someone could design some good grates.

The first time Starkiller Base fires its weapon, we see a cinematic technique J.J. Abrams used previously in Star Trek (2009). Here, people on one planet look up in the sky just in time to see another planet destroyed, in broad daylight. And they go, OMG! Now the speed of light is not a limiting factor in the Star Wars universe; spacecraft can exceed it. But the beam fired by Starkiller Base is not traveling faster than light, and likewise appears to consist of matter rather than radiation, meaning it is traveling much slower. So how many years should it take to reach its target, if ever? And once its target is destroyed, how many years until the light from that event reaches another solar system? I don’t know why Abrams insists on making galaxies feel so tiny when we know they are truly epic.

I Have a Bad Feeling About This…

In fact the whole film is an a-causal jumble of narrative serendipity: a steady stream of nostalgic, unconnected tropes that we can expect to see again and again as the franchise rolls forward. We know the Force works in mysterious ways, and so we can accept that Rey stumbles upon the Millennium Falcon sitting under a tarp, collecting dust in a junkyard on the planet where she lives. What is harder to believe is that on a world full of scavengers, she is able to walk onto the ship, power it up, and fly it away without a key. Everything is there for the characters when they need it.

Repetition of elements also defines Star Wars; George Lucas said of the prequel trilogy that it was supposed to mirror the original. Disney obviously had no problem with this concept, but rather than crafting a variation on a theme, they hack up every element from the original trilogy that they can. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) reveals a great secret: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father and Leia’s as well. One can expect a similar bombshell will drop in Episode VIII, and will almost certainly involve Rey and the mysterious figure she was waiting for in the desert. I wager that Rey is Luke’s daughter, or Kylo’s sister, or even Leia’s clone. She must be a Skywalker; she appears to be more gifted than even Anakin. Her midichlorian count must be through the roof.

Now, like everyone else who loved Star Wars and was excited for the prequel trilogy, I was bewildered by The Phantom Menace (1999). Aliens are argue about economics, the acting is stilted, the dialogue is poorly written, the plot is inscrutable, Jar-Jar Binks tries to coin a catchphrase, and everybody dies a little inside. Attack of the Clones (2002) generates more narrative interest; Anakin is old enough to discover himself and his love for Padme; he shows flashes of the lust and rage that will ultimately lead him into desolation. And Revenge of the Sith (2005) features some truly incredible moments, as Palpatine pulls the strings of his trap together and Obi-Wan tries to convince Anakin to come back to the light. Aside from from their special effects, the prequels make for poor viewing, but underneath their obscure, indiosyncratic presentation, there is an interesting story about good and evil. The prequel trilogy burns brightly in my imagination (if not onscreen). Meanwhile, The Force Awakens is just the opposite. It is an exciting movie to watch. But it has no compelling storyline, no character development, and no moral. It’s obviously a set-up for larger plot elements to follow, but still this is supposed to be cinema, not a television pilot.

They also made X-Wings uglier. Two stars.

See also: Notes on the new Star Wars Movie on Aardvarchaeology

Spoiler Alert: The Lego Movie

The story starts off predictably enough for a grandiose adventure: a wizard, a prophecy, an unwitting hero.  Emmet is just a model construction worker, living his city life to the tee by following every rule in the book.  He is manically happy just to be doing it right: greeting his alarm clock with a smile, doing some calisthenics, watching his favorite sitcom before heading out for an overpriced coffee and a fulfilling day on the job.  He feels like he has friends, that he’s part of something.  Then a mysterious woman who’s obviously not playing by the rules leads him to fall down an archaeological rabbit hole and end up with a mysterious plastic piece stuck to his back.  The woman tells him he has found the “piece of resistance” and is the hero of prophecy.  And like Neo in The Matrix, Emmet begins to realize he’s been living a lie.

The putative villain in the film is Lord Business, head of the Octan corporation.  In real life, Fox News, though generally not known for its perceptiveness, accused The Lego Movie of pushing an anti-capitalist agenda and making Lord Business look like Mitt Romney.  To be fair, there is certain capitalist critique in the film: the Octan corporation not only employs Emmet but makes and sells his coffee, produces his television show, and constantly plays his favorite song on the radio.  They also manufacture voting machines, which may explain why Lord Business is president of the world.  To be fair, Lord Business’s plan to perfect everything to his liking and then glue it in place forever does reflect a certain degree of conservatism.  But never mind that The Lego Movie endlessly promotes the toys of a company that made nearly $1 billion in profits in 2012; the real reason the film is not anti-business is because Lord Business does not end up a villain.

Nor does Emmet end up a hero—until he realizes he was never entitled to be one.  The wizard from the beginning of the film admits he made up the whole prophecy, just so someday someone might believe in him or herself.  To help foil Lord Business’s superglue spree, the people of the city are inspired to believe in themselves as well, and they take to the sky in a hodgepodge of jury-rigged vehicles to fight the robotic micromanagers determined to pose everyone perfectly.  The message of the film changes: from there shall be a hero, to anyone can be a hero, to everyone can be a hero.  Emmet even offers heroism to Lord Business, saying that he has a choice, that he can change.  For exposing both prophecy and villainy as BS, The Lego Movie gets an A+ in the moral-of-the-story department.

Of course, there’s a twist: Emmet and his world are the projected fantasies of a real boy, who personifies his real father as Lord Business.  When Emmet tumbles out of his animated world onto a live-action concrete floor, he’s no longer able to move.  He finds himself in a basement where the boy has spent the day messing with his father’s meticulously constructed collection, ignoring signs to keep his hands off.  The lighting is somehow reminiscent of a twenty-five-year-old print ad, and for a moment you get the unsettling feeling that you just spent twelve dollars to watch a 100 minute commercial.  But then in walks Will Ferrell.  As the boy’s father, a mature collector and block aficionado, Ferrell’s plan to glue everything in place is real.  But the inventiveness of his son inspires him to change his mind.

The film represents something of a full circle for Lego, which prior to 1999 issued sets mostly based on its own generic intellectual properties: cities, castles, pirate ships, the wild west.  But then they started licensing Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other blockbuster film franchises.  The popularity of Legos soared, to the point where they now have a film franchise of their own.  It helps a lot that characters like Batman, Superman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse (from The Simpsons), a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and a Millennium Falcon‘s worth of Star Wars characters can drop in for cameos, along with half-forgotten real-life luminaries likes Shakespeare and Shaquille O’Neal.  If I have any criticism of the film, it’s that Shaq is one of the few diverse figures in a sea of yellow faces.  There’s also Morgan Freeman providing the voice of the wizard, and a Native American in a headdress, whose unprovoked toss of a tomahawk in the general direction of the good guys is all the more troubling for its tired half-heartedness.

But in the end, The Lego Movie wins because it is consistently, deliriously funny, because it is intelligent and has a heart, and because if you can catch even half of what’s happening in the plasticky mise-en-scène you will see things you have never seen before. The film is visually astounding, looking like a vast stop-motion fantasia even though it’s really computer animated.  Everything from fire to water to steam is depicted as frenetically rearranged Lego blocks, and the fluidity that emerges from the static forms is a revelation.