Monthly Archives: April 2018

High Stakes

For a reason that can be tracked back to one specific thing that won’t be discussed due to spoilers, I’m thinking a lot about stakes. There’s this idea in a lotta stories that really good stakes are “will they die?” It was Game of Thrones’ modus operandi in the early seasons, and it was the explicit reason why Chewbacca was killed in the first book of the New Jedi Order book series. The logic makes sense enough, if there’s the chance that anyone can die in any moment of peril, all of them will be high stakes. The highest of stakes.

But on the flip side, constantly having high stakes like that also tends to lead to a fatigue of it all. When you’re always worried someone’s gonna die, you sometimes stop getting attached to characters. Why should I care about this new character we’ve introduced if we don’t know how long he’s gonna last? Though is that better than never worrying about your characters because there’s no way they’re gonna kill someone this important off, right? When Jack Sparrow gets eaten by the Kraken in Dead Man’s Chest, you don’t really care do you? After all, there’s a third movie coming out and you know he’ll be back. Han in Carbonite is an issue, sure, but he’s coming back for Return of The Jedi.

I tend to disagree. Knowing that someone survives, or someone having plot armor, doesn’t necessarily mean you stop caring for lack of stakes. There’s a bunch of fun in finding out how someone survives. Like in Return of The Jedi we know that Luke and Han aren’t gonna be eaten by the Sarlaac. But it’s still exciting because we wanna see them get out of the pickle. The question of suspense, y’know, the element that keeps us invested, isn’t “will they die?” but instead “how will they survive?”

When done well, the question of ‘how?’ can be a really interesting one. When Buffy dies in season finale of the fifth season of, well, Buffy (oh, spoiler alert) there’s no question that she’ll be back in season six. After all, she’s the titular character. The question is how will she come back — and what will the ramifications of that be?

I think these days, with stories like Lost and Game of Thrones big in the public consciousness, we can conflate the willingness of a story to kill of its characters with its quality. There’s a general animus towards fake-out deaths (like Jack in Dead Man’s Chest or, more recently, Wolverine in the comics), because why give us all that drama over a death that won’t stick? Why fear for a character’s life when we know they won’t die?

So again, I come back ton the question of how. The creation of an unwindable situation creates a narrative need for an ingenious way out. If the catharsis is to come, and in a good story the catharsis must be earned, then the way out’s gotta be a good one. Circling back to Jedi, the plan to escape Jabba’s clutches is so outlandish and unpredictable that it’s so much fun to see them escape. It doesn’t undo the drama of Han’s carbonite freezing detour; it’s another fun twist to the plot, another complication for the heroes to figure out. There’s a fun to it that’s a really good addition.

Like I said, I’m thinking about stakes and the cliffhanging suspense that goes with it. I don’t think knowing that things have to turn out alright, be it due to announced sequels or even the conventions of the medium makes things less dramatic or less fun. I really enjoy the romantic fun of finding out how protagonists escape from a situation. The trick is, I figure, to make the resolution interesting and not making it feel like a cop out. It’s the how that makes it interesting, so making the how count is what matters.

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Letting Lara Down

I was pretty excited for the Tomb Raider movie that came out a couple weeks ago. I’m a huge fan of the game it was based on, the Tomb Raider reboot that came out in 2013. The game was an origin story for Lara Croft, one that gameplay-wise took cues from the Uncharted series it had partially inspired but then been eclipsed by. One thing I really liked about the game was how it made Lara less of a sex object. Gone were the catsuits, short shorts, and crop tops; in were the khakis and tank top (it mayn’t sound like much on paper, but the difference is marked). In addition, the game turned Lara into a survivor; shipwrecked on a mysterious island, she hunts for food, searches for her friends, fights bad guys, and uncovers a mystery. If the movie could capture that then we were in for a ride.

And, well, it kinda does, but more than anything the adaptation really plays down its women. Which is as frustrating as it is odd.

Heads up, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of plot here, so spoilers abound as we dig around.

Let’s talk Lara, since she is, after all, our protagonist. In the film, she’s a down-on-her-luck heiress who can’t receive her fortune because she refuses to sign the papers confirming her father is dead. She’s a courier struggling to make ends meet who only ends up going on her adventure when circumstances force her to her inheritance and the discovery of her dad’s research into the mythical island of Yamatai. There’s nothing quite bad here (except that pacing-wise this takes up a solid third of the movie); it’s honestly fairly typical as far as hero stories go and all that. But it really does the Lara of the 2013 video game a disservice.

Lara, in the game, is an archeological grad student; so right of the bat Lara is presented as being both intelligent and educated. She’s clued in on the myth of Yamatai by her college friend  Sam Nishimura, who herself is a descendant of the Yamatai people. Lara’s subsequent research convinces the Nishimura family to fund an expedition looking for Yamatai and to find the fate of its mysterious Sun-Queen, Himiko. In the game’s version of events Lara is given a lot more agency in the story. The expedition to Yamatai is of her own design, not something she takes on from her father. So not only is Lara an archeologist by trade, but she’s one competent enough to make an expedition happen. You could argue that the movie makes her more relatable, but Indiana Jones is a university professor and no one says he’s unrelatable.

Within the different backstories is a key difference: Sam. In the movie, Yamatai is something Lara investigates because of her father. The game positions it as something she’s into and found out about because of a (female) friend. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a young woman going on a quest to find her father (heck, it’s a trope I’m fond of), but the game’s plot both shows us a Lara with more agency and offers a version of events where Lara’s quest doesn’t revolve around a male character, rather displaying the friendship between two women.

And without Sam, we’re also without a lot of what makes Himiko interesting. In the movie, she’s a long-dead queen with a disease that, when infected, makes people disintegrate, and so was sequestered away on Yamatai. The Himiko of the game, however, was a supernatural queen who ruled Yamatai with an iron fist, transferring her soul into younger bodies to gain a sort of immortality. When a rogue successor took her own life rather than be a host, Himiko was trapped in her body and her kingdom declined. Along comes Sam centuries later, and Mathias (who’s the main antagonist in both versions) wants to offer her up as a new host. So it’s up to Lara to save the day. Once again, the game, by being a little more over the top, has a narrative with a lot more women doing stuff. Himiko isn’t Plague Victim Zero, she’s an immortal queen who was thwarted by a brave young woman. The present day sees Lara saving her best friend and putting to rest a vengeful, weather-controlling spirit. In the movie it’s Lara’s father who, once infected, blows up himself and Himiko’s remains. Lara still stops Mathias in the movie, but she’s given one less thing to do.

Look, the movie’s flaws are plenty and they mostly fall into the realm of plotting and structure. But the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise offered a new vision of Lara Croft and her mythos, one that featured a kickass Lara that was surrounded by other women of note. The film offers a perfectly fine Lara, but she’s a far cry from the one in the game. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see a movie take a narrative that’s so female driven and, well, take away its women’s agency. The source material was so rich; had so much going for it. And yet. Here we are. A decent enough strong female protagonist who could have been so much more.

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Star Wars as an Anti-Capitalist Discourse

Oh you thought I was kidding? Here we go.

Star Wars takes a lot of cues from Westerns. Characters like Han Solo and places like Mos Eisley’s cantina make it pretty obvious. But it’s also apparent in where it takes place: the fringes of society. Be they remote planets desert or frozen, these stories take place away from economic and cultural hubs. Which, given that we follow the good guys, makes sense: implicit in the Star Wars movies is the idea that places of wealth and opulence are the breeding grounds of evil. In other words, the real villain in Star Wars is capitalism (and the Sith too but bear with me here).

Let’s look at where we spend time among the wealthy in the Original Trilogy. Outside of Imperial Battle Stations, the only place we visit that is remotely ‘first world’ is Cloud City, a gorgeous city whose wealth is built on Tibanna Gas mining. It’s beautiful in the way sci-fi modernity is. But its gleaming hallways belie a darker secret. It is when the Rebels come to Cloud City (the richest civilian place we’ve seen) that they are sold out. Han is tortured and frozen in carbonite, Luke is lured into a trap and told that the bastion of evil is his father. But Lando’s a good guy, you say. Well, he was. He’s Han’s friend, turned ‘respectable’ by the capitalistic influences of Cloud City. It’s when he’s compromised as such that he betrays his former friends, but he finds redemption when he leaves Cloud City and joins the Rebellion on the outskirts of the galaxy.

The Prequel Trilogy brings us closer to civilized space, with the planet of Naboo, an idyllic, peaceful planet. The villains in The Phantom Menace are the Trade Federation, an economically driven group who, in the wake of a tax dispute, blockade the planet and invade it. It is a financially-driven, militaristic, occupational force that the heroes strive against. When the Republic and the Confederacy go to war, the Trade Federation is joined in leadership of the latter by other corporate entities; such as the Banking Clan and Corporate Alliance. The war is marked by economic entities turning against the government; the villains in the story are capitalists fighting against economic control.

In addition, there’s Coruscant, the glittering capital of the Republic. Like Cloud City hopped up on steroids, it is a hub of wealth beyond compare. Here is the Senate, a governing body locked into inaction; a Jedi Temple stuck in orthodoxy unable to adapt to the changing times. Not much good comes from the rich capital.

It’s in The Last Jedi where the anti-capitalist bent of the films comes to a head. In an effort to undermine the villainous First Order, Rose and Finn go on a desperate mission to Canto Bight, a rich city most known for its casino. Finn quickly learns that the city’s wealth is built on the back of the military industrial complex. The rich folks wheeling and dealing are profiteering off a war the Resistance is fighting for survival. Though maybe not outright evil, they are decidedly not good people. The codebreaker who Rose and Finn ally themselves with ends up selling them out, simply because the First Order offered him more money. It’s money, and the unfettered pursuit of it, that tends to create villainy in Star Wars.

Throughout the films, lesser antagonists are driven by a want of money: Greedo wants the bounty on Han’s head, Watto refuses to sell anything for cheap, Unkar Plutt is miserly with his rations. Luke and Obi-Wan use Han’s love of money to get to the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia; but it’s when Han stops caring about the money that he really becomes a hero. Star Wars makes it pretty clear: the capitalists tend to be villainous, those who don’t emphasize making money are heroic.

By taking place primarily on the outskirts of society, with its interactions with society dominated by free enterprise tending to lead to misfortune, Star Wars takes a stance against unfettered capitalism. To be heroic in Star Wars is to do things for more than economic gain. To pursue money above all else, to be motivated by capitalism, well, that might not make you the Empire, but you’re certainly not a good guy.

Writer’s Note:

Well. That was fun to do again. It’s a lotta fun to dig into something I love as much as Star Wars and connect dots to create a meaning that may or may not be intended (though The Last Jedi railing against the military industrial complex is certainly deliberate). Is Star Wars itself anti-capitalist? Maybe a little. Will I do more of these oddly in-depth analysis? Maybe.

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The End of (Star) War(s)

After the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped up, Lucasfilm started letting other people play in the sandbox they’d created. And so the Expanded Universe came about: more stories set in the Star Wars universe continuing the adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy really kicked the EU into high gear, and an impressive series of novels, comics, and games were born, each crossing over and referencing each other. It’s a lotta fun, and I’ve read/played a lot of them.

In the EU, the Battle of Endor was only the beginning of the end. Various Moffs, Admirals, and Warlords rose up to fill the Emperor’s void. The Rebellion, now the New Republic, set about mopping up threats until a formal treaty was finally signed 15 years after Endor, properly ending the Galactic Civil War. But of course there were still adventures to be had. The Yuuhzahn Vong invaded six years later, the Dark Nest Crisis was a thing, and then there was another Civil War which is kinda where I checked out. Point is, the galaxy was almost always at war.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided they would make new movies, they nuked all of the EU, primarily so they could start with a blank slate from which to start the then-upcoming Episode VII. On the one hand, I was really bummed because there went the Thrown trilogy, Wedge Antillies’ legendary reputation, and some really cool Clone Wars-era stories; but then that also got rid of some of the later books when things started getting really moody and stuff, so, y’know, not the worst call. Point is, The Force Awakens started a new idea of where Star Wars went post-Return of The Jedi.

And it’s different. There’s a villainous First Order but the New Republic isn’t fighting it. Rather, Leia’s started a Resistance to fight back. Which is odd. Why is there a Resistance when there’s a government that should be fighting that war? In essence: Where’s the New Republic’s fleet?

Turns out, the New Republic demilitarized after the Battle of Jakku. In the new canon, Jakku, one year after Endor, marked the final fight between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. The Alliance’s decisive victory led to Galactic Concordance and the war ended right there. That was it. No Grand Admiral Thrawn, no Black Fleet Crisis, no Rogue Squadron. And with the war over, they demilitarized. The First Order wasn’t perceived as a legitimate threat, so they didn’t take up arms again and then it was too late.

Let’s ignore the fact that this plot point should have been at least referenced in The Force Awakens and instead talk about demilitarization. Historically, when wars were over, countries would demilitarize, military budgets would go down and armies would shrink considerably. After World War II, however, the US did shrink its army, but its military/defense budget never returned to pre-war levels (and still hasn’t). Put simply, the US has constantly been at war since the 1940s, be it a Cold one or something against Terror. The idea of demilitarizing after a war, decommissioning ships, reducing war R&D, shuttering bases, is a foreign concept in American pop culture.

And yet, that’s what happens in the new Star Wars canon. With the Empire defeated, the New Republic put away its guns and played peace instead. Which sounds kinda weird, but that’s ‘cuz we (the US and people who consume US pop-culture [which, in recent years has come to encompass American politics as well as media]) are just not used to that idea. The implication’s pretty clear: When the war’s over, the good guys disarm.

Of course, as the First Order rises the New Republic is hesitant to re-arm and so it falls on Leia’s Resistance to serve as a paramilitary force to stop them. Things go sideways for the New Republic pretty quickly, mostly ‘cuz they underestimated the First Order. But that’s not the New Republic’s fault for being pacifist, it’s because the First Order’s martial and ruthless.

Star Wars is, of course, about wars (in the stars!). But for all its martial posturing, its, courtesy of the new canon, also a world where that war ends and is followed by demilitarization (and peace!). It’s such an odd notion, one that borders on fantasy, but then again, Star Wars is supposed to be a fantasy, isn’t it?

N.B.: This has been Josh thinking far too much about Star Wars. Tune in next time to hear Josh analyze the Star Wars saga as an anti-capitalist text. And the time after that to see my analysis of the Star Wars movies being anti-war. Finally, I’d like to apologize to John Horgan for borrowing his book’s title for this blog post.

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