Tag Archives: A New Hope

Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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Of Stories and Hope

I’ve never been a huge fan of tragedies. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories like Othello, Whiplash, and Sicario; but those aren’t the ones I count my favorite stories.

I sometimes joke that I tell hopeful stories because if I want stories of injustice and despair, I can just read the news. I skim headlines and it’s not hard to see Othello and Chinatown being reenacted in current events. There is, of course, a greatness to using tragedy to comment on the human condition and all that. But sometimes, you need more. As a kid bullied at school for being different, I would find solace in fantastical worlds where, well, things were different.

Having just narrowly avoided a deadly encounter with a Nazgûl, Frodo sits amongst the ruins of Osgiliath devoid of hope; the Ring he seeks to destroy has been taking its toll; nothing makes sense anymore, let alone his quest. But Sam, his erstwhile gardener turned companion, rallies the hobbit: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered” (The Two Towers, 03:21). When things got bleak and everything seemed lost, the heroes pressed on no matter what. These stories were the ones of importance, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why” (03:22).

That’s how I opened my rationale (a thesis of sorts wherein I describe the focus of my four years of study at NYU Gallatin). Which, if you read my blog, recounting a scene from The Lord of The Rings in the first paragraph of my thesis really shouldn’t surprise you. I then go on to yammer on for the next several pages about the importance of stories as a means to define identity and convey truths. And something that stories can convey like no other is hope. They’re where we get to watch good triumph over evil and see hope win. It’s the total catharsis that Aristotle talks about in Poetics, or the ultimate boon of John Campbell. It’s that win, that “we did it!”

So why do those moments work? Why is Frodo and Sam preserving – and eventually overcoming Sauron – so powerful?

We know things by their opposite. Joy means nothing if we don’t know despair. In fiction, the bleaker things seem, the greater the catharsis of victory will be. Heck, Sam says it right there in his monologue, “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”  The plot of The Lord of The Rings is a literal journey into darkness, with Frodo and Sam trekking into Mordor while Aragorn and the others face off an overwhelming army. Things couldn’t really look bleaker. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker only destroys the Death Star when it’s about to blow up Yavin IV: it’s the bleakest moment. The Return of The Jedi illustrates it even better; Luke’s decision to throw away his lightsaber and turn down the dark side doesn’t come when Palpatine is taunting him, it comes after he attempted to attack the Emperor and went on to give into his anger during his fight against Darth Vader. Luke’s rejection of evil only comes after we’ve seen him travel down that path, making it all the more powerful.

I think that may be one reason why The Empire Strikes Back stands as arguably the best Star Wars film. We end the movie with Han in carbonite, Luke missing a hand, and the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. But then Luke gets a new hand, a reformed Lando flies off with Chewbacca to find Han, and we see Luke and Leia standing in the medical bay of a Nebulon-B Frigate that’s just one ship in the Rebel fleet. As bleak as an ending is, there’s hope. We know that this isn’t the end for them, we know they’ll keep going because they’re holding on to something.

I love stories. I really do. I love how they make Sam’s beautiful monologue in The Two Towers feel perfectly natural and earned. I love how these other worlds — because every piece of fiction, no matter how realistic, takes place in another world — show us things about our own. I yearn for stories imbued with hope because, against it all, that’s how I want to see the world: one where hope and love will triumph. There is a time and place for tragedy, but there are days when you need to be reminded that there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

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Order, and Narrative Thereof

I’m one of those people who will respect you less if you pick an album to play, and then play it on shuffle. See, there’s a deliberate rhyme and reason for the order of songs on an album.

U2’s War needs “Surrender” to be its penultimate song. After an album about war, violence, and fighting for hope, we have a song about giving up which leads into “40,” an adaption of the Bible’s Psalm 40. It’s crucial that the album ends there, in that space of a different sort of surrender. Furthermore, its refrain “I will sing a new song” works in tandem with the first track, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”’s “How long must we sing this song?” Listening to War in any other order robs you of the experience. Look at how “New Year’s Day,” a song about being apart from a lover, works as a sort of reprieve in between “Seconds” (about nuclear threat) and “Like A Song…” (in some ways, about military proliferation). With “New Year’s Day” where it is it takes on another level of longing; musically it’s far more understated then the fast paced songs around it and the song itself becomes a desire for an escape from the world. Sure, you can listen to the songs alone, but putting the album on shuffle’s just stupid. There’s an intentionality to how it’s set up.

Hang on, an intentional order that echoes and mirrors what came before creating and complicating a general emotion? This sounds like a narrative. And you bet it is. No, it’s not a beginning-middle-end story, but there is still and arc (still on War, each side of the record ends on a quiet song, “Drowning Man” and “40,” giving it something of a two act structure). All this to say, a narrative can be built out of order. If you’ve ever agonized over a mixtape or a playlist, you know that the tracklist matters as much as the individual songs.

So now let’s talk about Star Wars.

The saga is a bit of an oddity, with episodes 4, 5, and 6 coming out before 1, 2, and 3 (only to be followed by 7). This, of course, has led to a variety of different ways to introduce someone to the movies. Do you screen them within the chronology of the films (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)? Or in the order they were released (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3)? Do you ignore the prequels entirely (4, 5, 6) or try out the Machete Order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6)? No matter what you do, these are still the same movies. But the order you watch them in shifts the narrative.

Say you watch them episodically. You get a very straightforward story about Jedi and trade disputes, forbidden romances and arbitrary falls to the Dark Side, a time skip and a plucky Rebellion against an evil Empire. The narrative shift really starts to show when you compare it to the order the movies were released. Episodically, there are fun beats like seeing an adult Boba Fett and meeting Yoda again in Empire. Luke’s arc is a mirror of Vader’s, and Jedi sees him in the position to make a similar choice due to the foreshadowing provided by Sith. Watched in the order they were released, however, shifts Anakin’s arc to be a mirror of Luke’s, where he fails where his son succeeded. The mirror, episodically, makes Luke’s success more heroic and, release-wise, makes Anakin’s fall more tragic.

Machete Order, where The Phantom Menace is dropped and Clones and Sith are watched in between Empire and Jedi, somewhat gets the cake and eats it too. By putting the prequels after Empire, we get a two-movie long flashback sequence that expounds on the twist that Vader is Luke’s father, explaining not only Anakin’s rise and fall, but also more on Obi Wan, Yoda, and the Emperor. It shifts the overall narrative, giving a great deal more focus on the stakes of Luke’s choice between the Light and the Dark. It also gives Luke’s line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” much more impact, given that it emphasizes Anakin as a Jedi rather than Anakin as evil. Still the same Star Wars movies, just different emphases.

The order something’s presented in can do a lot for it. It gives U2’s War an additional layer of subtext and shades the overall arc of Star Wars. Think about that the next time you hit shuffle on that new album you got.

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Thoughts On The Holy Trilogy

Doing something different this week. In advent of The Force Awakens, the club I run at NYU is marathoning the Original Trilogy. In lieu of an essay, what follows is something of a live blog.

Star Wars

(A New Hope)

  • It’s remarkable how much of the first few minutes are told visually. The first proper dialogue isn’t until Vader interrogates Antilles. Once we get to Tatooine, we’re back to relying on the visuals for Artoo’s run in with the Jawas. The lack of explaining goes a long way to making the world feel lived in and, well, real. This way, by the time we get to Luke, we’re already immersed in this very foreign world.
  • Binary sunset. Freaking iconic.
  • I always forget how downright weird Star Wars is. We’ve got spaceships and robots but an ‘old wizard’ (as Owen calls Ben) and tribal people riding animals. There’s such a delightful mix of past and future that makes it feels very timeless.
  • Ben’s discussion with Luke is very much an exposition dump. But it works because by the time we get to it we wanna know what’s going on with Artoo and Threepio and we’re also very much in Luke’s position in wondering who is he and what’s going on. Also, the exposition isn’t so much on how the world works but on the romance of Luke’s adventure-to-come.
  • Once Leia joins the group she refuses to take crap from anyone.
  • There’s a wonderful mundanity to some of the world; like Stormtroopers discussing speeder models while Ben shuts off the tractor beam.
  • There’s a strong focus on an emotional arc (rather than a character one). It’s about the thrills and the adventure, not so much about an in-depth character analysis.

The Empire Strikes Back

  • The opening of Empire really highlights the serial inspiration. IV, V, and VI all open with a misadventure of sorts (Artoo and Threepio on the Tantive IV, Luke and the Wampa, Jabba’s Palace) that isn’t unlike a cold open. Helps give the movies the feeling that things have been going on before the start (and will keep going after). The world’s lived in.
  • These movies are ridiculous: we’ve got a muppet fighting with a robot over a lamp. But they commit to it and that sells it. We take Yoda seriously despite how silly he could be because Empire isn’t winking at the audience. It’s played straight and it works so well.
  • Threepio interrupting Leia and Han will never not be funny.
  • There is a major gender imbalance in these movies, but Leia really holds her own among everyone else. She’s a strong character.
  • Unlike A New Hope, Empire focuses far more on character. We’ve got the relationship between Han and Leia and Luke’s own quest to become a Jedi. There’s no less derring-do and adventure than the first movie, but there’s a stronger focus on the character’s own internal emotional arcs.

Return of The Jedi

  • The misadventure cold open is most pronounced in Jedi where it’s in some ways its own episode. It’s a crazily convoluted way to get Han back in the picture, but it also serves to reestablish the relationships of the central characters. And it’s a whole lotta fun.
  • Leia getting to kill Jabba is a great moment.
  • Luke’s conflict is so much better than Anakin’s in Revenge of The Sith. Rather than the choice being a very clear Light Side or Dark Side, Luke has to choose between his father and becoming a Jedi. Neither choice is inherently wrong, but the interesting part comes in what each decision reflects: saving Vader is selfless, whereas becoming a Jedi is more self-centered. Luke’s arc in this movie is being willing to give up himself and his conflict along the way is really well done.
  • I know I shouldn’t but I do kinda really like the Ewoks. I think part of the reason is because they’re so reflective of the heart of the movies. There’s this uncynical hope to them that, even if they are people-eaters, fits into the movie well enough.
  • Fittingly, Luke’s brush with the Dark Side (when he attacks The Emperor) comes at the lowest point of the battle; the Ewoks are losing, the Rebel Fleet is being torn apart, and then Luke gives in to his anger. The protagonist’s inner arc is reflected in the larger conflict as a whole.
  • The music, man, the music. During Lando and team’s run on the Death Star it’s not this super-serious musical cue of epic-ness, rather it’s this romantic adventure theme. Star Wars doesn’t get weighed down with itself, it isn’t afraid to be a lot of fun.

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