Tag Archives: Rogue One

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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Top Nine Movies of 2016

There comes a point in time when you realize you aren’t going to get around to watching those movies on your list. And then it’s almost August and you’re still thinking about 2016 movies and honestly it’s just embarrassing at this point.

But then again, that’s why it’s a Top Nine, to save one space for that extra movie. Because there are movies out there I know I’d like, like Swiss Army Man or maybe Patterson. And Midnight Special. Man, I can’t believe I still haven’t watched Midnight Special. Maybe even some others that I’ve forgotten. But not La La Land, La La Land was awful.

Look, I had a busy year. So with no more excuses, here are, in a vague semblance of order that is liable to change, my top nine of 2016.

9. The Magnificent Seven

I know that, objectively, this movie is just kinda pretty alright, but I can’t help but to really like it. And of course it’s because it’s about a multiracial band of cowboys doing the hero thing. If your movie gives me a #AsianCowboy, of course I’m gonna be game. I want more movies with teams like this, so, here we are.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

I don’t know how I feel about the whole Cloverfield branding thing, so let’s ignore that. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in suspense, where half the horror of it comes from your own brain trying to piece together what’s going on. It’s terrifying, without ever resorting to cheap scares.

7. 20th Century Women

It’s hard to put exactly into words what I liked about this movie. It feels like a snapshot come to life, like an attempt to capture a very specific point in time with a very specific group of people. It’s wonderful and bittersweet, the sort of movie that leaves you feeling that this has been something.

6. Rogue One

I have said a lot of things over the past year about why I love this movie. In summation:

  • Epic battle against good and evil
  • AT-ATs and Star Destroyers
  • The good guys aren’t just white dudes
  • Again, the main heroes are women and PoC.
  • Star Wars, yo.

5. Zootopia

A movie about a bunny cop and a sly fox teaming up to solve a crime sounds overly cutesy on paper, but Zootopia succeeds in telling a pretty raw story on prejudice, but without it feeling overly moralistic. Plus there’s a gorgeously realized world in it that you just wanna explore.

4. Captain America: Civil War

Yes, the Marvel movies always get high praise for me. Especially Civil War, which levied the MCU’s eight years of history into a really affecting conflict. It’s an excellent example of causality in fiction, where just about every plot and character beat feels earned and is either pay off or set up for another. It’s excellent all around.

3. Sing Street

I’m not quite sure why I fell in love with his movie. Maybe it’s fresh on my mind because I read the script recently, maybe it’s because it’s such a great coming-of-age story, maybe it’s because it plays out a teenage fantasy so well. More than anything, though, the movie feels honest. There’s no winking, no tongue in cheek; Conor’s quest to start a band and woo wannabe-model Raphina is treated as being perfectly legitimate and not an adolescent flight of fantasy. It may not go quite as far as it could, but it remains a wonderful film.

2. Moonlight

A lot of people have probably said why this movie works better than I can. It’s a beautiful, almost haunting movie. It’s gorgeously intimate, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Stories let you live someone else’s life, and Moonlight does that so well.

1. Arrival

There are movies that, when hooked on an interesting premise, will be really happy about it and make its whole thing. Arrival has a great twist to it, but it’s not one done just for the kicks nor does it self-congratulate itself for it. Rather, it’s born out of a story about understanding, language, and otherness. Arrival is an incredibly unified movie where everything, its visuals, plot, and characters, all revolve around its central theme. And it’s an excellent movie to boot.

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In Which Josh Rambles Aimlessly About Science Fiction on Christmas Eve

I liked the idea of Passengers when I first heard about it: On an extra-solar space mission Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up from cryogenic sleep and have to deal with being alone together. It’s like Lost In Translation… in space! And I’m a sucker for a riff on Lost In Translation (Monsters: Lost In Translation… with aliens!). But then I saw the trailer. And look! Explosions! Peril! It’s not just about two people being people with each other.

Bummer.

But then reveals started coming in and it turns out that Pratt’s character wakes up Lawrence’s deliberately: because he’s studied her file and wants to fall in love with her. And he doesn’t tell her the whole waking-her-up-and-ruining-her-plans-without-her-consent-because-he’s-lonely thing and it’s portrayed as, get this, romantic.

So, y’know, my disinterest has now soured to disgust. Woo, another movie where the female character’s agency and goals are subservient to the male character’s want for a warm body.

And it’s all a rotten shame, since the way I first understood the pitch had such promise. How much more isolated can you get than in the middle of space? Lost In Translation used the foreignness of Japan to heighten the isolation of its protagonists – the story wouldn’t work as well in, say, Cleveland. Now replace Tokyo with deep space and you’ve got yourself a whole ‘nother level of existential questioning.

It’s science fiction, and science fiction (and other ‘genre’ stories) is equipped to tell stories that ‘normal’ fiction can’t. Roaming a spaceship meant to house hundreds by yourself isn’t something that could happen in real life (yet), but science fiction can explore that heightened sense of solitude and isolation. Replacing alone in the crowd for a week with alone among the stars while your shipmates sleep for decades allows a story to really look at, say, humanity’s desire for connection and all the drama that comes with it. Fiction is, by nature, a stylized and heightened form of reality; science fiction ratchets that up a few notches.

In addition, the fiction of its world makes its story universal, in that because it hasn’t happened, it could happen to anyone (which doesn’t excuse the lack of diversity sadly prevalent in science fiction). As no one’s blown up a Death Star before, blowing up the Death Star isn’t a ‘white’ narrative. (And because it isn’t a ‘white’ narrative, all the more reason for it to not just feature white actors!) Look at Rogue One. Being a Star Wars story, it takes place in a galaxy far far away free of this one’s messy history with race. So why can’t the rebels be Chinese and Latino? More than ever, is there the leeway for the everyman to not be a white guy, and Rogue One pulls it off magnificently. Suddenly the Rebellion comes alive in a way it never did in the Original Trilogy; there’s room at the space-table for everyone. A story we always hoped was universal really is. You don’t have to look like Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford to be a hero.

With that universality established, now we get to dive back into that heightened reality! It’s the Rebels against the evil Empire! But this is a world where anyone can be a Rebel, and where the Empire really is an unstoppable evil. Compare Rogue One to Saving Private Ryan or Fury, at least in concept. Both Ryan and Fury are World War II movies about Americans against the ostensibly-always-pure-evil Nazi Germany. There are insurmountable odds and crazy missions in all three of the stories, but in Ryan and Fury you’ve gotta be American to see yourself as the hero. Rogue One and Star Wars in general has a leeway you don’t find there.

Even war video games set in contemporary setting have a similar issue, with the Modern Warfare series usually being about American and British soldiers fighting vaguely Russian and Middle-Eastern soldiers/extremists. They’re stories about a certain group of people, during a certain part of time, fighting a certain group of people. Compare that to Halo: Reach which features an international band of soldiers fighting aliens. The villains are drawn in strokes as broad as in Ryan or Modern Warfare, but this time you don’t have to be an American to be the good guy. You get to be Noble Six alongside a team whose voice cast include those of Nigerian, Israeli, Haitian, and South Asian heritage. Anyone can be the hero because the villains aren’t even human. Even though the Halo world may be marked with some shades of gray in its morality, the extreme dichotomy of humanity=good, Covenant=evil lets it be a war story that isn’t reliant on an entire people group being evil.

And again, Rogue One. The Empire isn’t a real country or people group, it’s a fictional villainous government with analogues to real-life regimes. But in Star Wars, the good guys can win, they can really win! Yes, it may come at a cost, but it’s one against an Evil with a capital E. That latitude, for the baddies to be really bad and for the victories to be victorious, let’s a movie like Rogue One have a sense of the epic and hope that just doesn’t happen in reality. There’s a room for the ‘realness’ of realistic fiction, but so is there for the romanticism of science fiction like Star Wars and, yes, Halo.

I love science fiction. Always have. I will vehemently defend it even as I criticize the genre for its faults (ie: being overrun with white guys named John). Same goes for escapist fiction; there’s enough crap going on in the world that some days (a lot of days) I wanna read a book about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian pulling an Oceans Eleven style heist (Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels is wonderful, by the way). As I say a lot here, there’s a time and place for fiction to be ‘real,’ but sometimes lies about reality can be truer than the truth.

Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read it this far. This rant started somewhere and ended up somewhere very different, and it’s Christmas Eve and I’m too tired to make it the two essays it should be. So this has been Josh Rambling Aimlessly About Science Fiction. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas everyone, go watch Rogue One instead of Passengers.

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Prequels Can Work

Prequels, by their nature, face an uphill battle in that we know how they are going to end. We know that Logan is gonna lose his memories in X-Men: Origins, we know that Sully and Mike are gonna be best friends (but only one of them a scarer) in Monsters University, and we know that Anakin is gonna become Darth Vader. By explicitly being movies of the stories that came before, we enter into them knowing where they end up, and, well, already being spoiled.

But, if spoilers don’t necessarily spoil, then this factor shouldn’t necessarily make prequels less enjoyable. Monsters University is still plenty fun, mostly because we want to see how we get to where Mike and Sully are in Monsters, Inc. That the film starts with them in such different spots from where they are in the original. The journey to the familiar is where the excitement of the movie lies. Thing is, it’s easy there for it to quickly become just the retreading of what’s been done before or, at worst, a slow march to the inevitable. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of The Sith doesn’t feel like a character choice so much as a plot point hit because it had to happen.

Revenge of The Sith could have – should have – explored why Anakin opted for the Dark Side. What was it that drove a promising young Jedi to become a Sith lord? But rather than exploring any of that, the movie just trucked along about the ending of the Clone Wars, an Emperor rising to power, and an arbitrary turn to the Dark Side. Essentially, Sith doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s little depth added to the events of the originals, we end up exactly where we started with little change in the narrative status quo – A New Hope has the precise same impact whether or not you’ve seen Sith.

And this is where I talk about Rogue One.

We know the Rebels steal the Death Star plans. The question is how.

So the easy thing to do would have been to have just followed the heist of the plans and let that be that. Rebel spies steal plans. Done is done.  Instead, Rogue One contextualizes A New Hope.

For all its grandeur, the original Star Wars showed only a relatively small sliver of the galaxy (a backwater planet, the Death Star, and a Rebel Base) populated by farmers and outlaws, Imperial villains, and a handful of mostly-Rebel pilots. We begin in media res, with all the wheels already well in motion so we can focus on a farmboy from the middle of nowhere. Rogue One expands the scope of the story, showing more of the Alliance part of the Rebel Alliance and further emphasizing the threat of the Empire come A New Hope.

But the movie doesn’t over explain. The Phantom Menace felt the need to explain the mystical Force as microscopic organisms and C-3PO as a kid’s side project. Instead of feeling the need to, say, explain why the Death Star plans are on tape, Rogue One opts instead to fill in some plot holes and expand on things mentioned in the original movies (again: Alliance), but never seems beholden to what came before.

So Rogue One does what a prequel can do best, does what a prequel should do. It tells its own story that feels complete in and of itself, but in turn also adds a layer to the movie that already exists. A New Hope doesn’t feel any different knowing that it’s Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and all that under the helmet, but the final showdown against the Death Star takes on another level of meaning knowing what led to it.

Prequels get a bad rap because, well, a lot of them are bad. But Rogue One is inarguably a prequel (with a sequel already directed by George Lucas), and it’s one that does what those sort of stories can do. I’ve more rants essays to write about this movie, but for now, one thing that this movie does is prove that, hey, prequels can be really good.

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Visible Diversity

So I recently started Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Finally, I should say; you’d think with a Marc Webb directed pilot I’d have watched it sooner. Anyway, once you get past the somewhat off-putting title (which, as the theme song says, is a sexist term and the situation is a lot more nuanced than that), Crazy Ex is a lotta fun. It’s a musical equal parts cynical and idealistic set in a relatively mundane setting where no matter how outlandish it gets, the character relations stay heartfelt. It’s great.

But that’s not what this post’s about.

Look in the backgrounds of a scene in Crazy Ex or the backup singers and dancers in a musical number. It looks unlike a lot of what you usually see on tv, and not just because of the singing and dancing. Crazy Ex has made an effort to fill its background with people of all colors. Not just one person-of-color in the background, but a variety of folks who you don’t usually get to see on tv (or in media in general). I mean, c’mon! When was the last time you got to see an Asian guy as part of a musical number! Where he wasn’t the token background person of color? Since there’s, y’know, a few other non-white people populating the scene?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been remarkable at filling out its cast – both main and bit players! — with people who aren’t white. The person protagonist Rachel obsesses over is an Asian guy named Josh (*cough*). The Major Client she has to land for her law firm is black, some of the peopler competing in the guac competition at the Taco Festival are Latino. And the people at that Taco Festival also run the racial spectrum.

Am I making a big deal about a small thing? Yes. Because it’s a small thing worth making a big deal about.

It’s easy, all so easy to fill out a scene with a bunch of white people peppered with the occasional sprig of diversity. But what Crazy Ex does that’s so cool is take that diversity and ratchet it up several notches, and then make those sprigs of diversity visible. You don’t have to squint to find your background minority.

Star Trek Beyond did something similar. Not only is the background crew of the Enterprise noticeably more diverse, but, once again, the featured people in the background aren’t all white. The crew members we see disappear into a cabin while making out are an Asian guy and a white woman (*cough*); the woman we follow as the bridge is evacuated is an Indian woman. Heck, the leader of the super high tech space station, Commodore Paris, is played by Shohrer Aghdashloo who was in The Expanse. She’s the person who tells Kirk, what to do, by the way; and that’s great.

And this is the part where I have to mention Rogue One. Because, again, diversity! Heroes! Chinese actors! A Middle Eastern actor is the pilot! Diego Luna! Forest Whitaker! But! But but but! It’s also the small stuff in the background. The Rebel troops we see in the trailer are racially diverse (and the LEGO AT-ST set coming out features a black guy as the generic rebel trooper). Again, these are small details that give the world a fuller feel.

And it’s friggin’ important. Because this is fiction, and fiction reflects reality, and reality is remarkably diverse. White-as-default isn’t gonna fly anymore. Yes, I have a personal investment in this because, growing up, I didn’t see a lot of heroes who looked like me. Over the years I’ve gotten used to turning on the tv or sitting down in a theatre and not expecting to see myself represented (or represented as anyone other than The Other). Yeah, I try and fix that in my own stuff, even if it’s just a student film.

But.

It’s changing.

Star Trek Beyond firmly proved that Sulu wasn’t the only Asian on the Enterprise and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is inclusive as crap in who gets to be in its musical numbers and who gets to be  multi-faceted people on tv. And Rogue One, well, I’ve already ranted about that.

If this is the sign of fiction-to-come, I can’t wait.

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Excuse Me As I Geek Out About Rogue One

A new teaser of sorts for Rogue One dropped and it’s the sort of behind-the-scenes sizzle reel that I go nuts for. You’ve got folks on sets, folks in costumes, folks with prop guns; all that good stuff. ‘cuz when you combine Star Wars with moviemaking stuff, you’re really going right up my alley.

It also helps that I’m incredibly psyched for Rogue One.

Right off the bat, there’s the obvious thing that I love the cast’s diversity. It fills my soul with glee to know that there are two Chinese actors in a new Star Wars movie, along with people from all over the place. Not just that, but that these characters aren’t just window dressing but people people. Who, based on what we’ve seen, get to do cool stuff.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (of which I have no guilt), diversity is friggin’ important, guys. This is Star Wars; it’s science fiction, not reality. I’ll hear you out if you complain about not being able to have a Japanese woman show up during the War of the Roses or a black man in a movie about the Incan Empire, but science fiction is, uh, science fiction. Especially when it’s in the vein of Star Wars; stories set a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. There’s no reason for the world to not be diverse. We’ve got aliens already, so why can’t the (presumable) leaders of the team that steals the plans to the Death Star be a woman and a Latino man?

But beyond that (because there’s more to Rogue One than its wonderfully diverse cast that I will never shut up about), there’s the fact that Gareth Edwards is directing it. Which, as we see more of it and hear more about it, he seems like a great person for this movie.

Which may sound a bit odd, given that his prior major filmography has been Monsters and Godzilla, neither of which are really war movies, a genre which Rogue One seems to be drawing a lot of influence from. But, what Edwards is bringing to Rogue One is a tremendous sense of scale.

What both Monsters and Godzilla do incredibly well is contain an immense sense of scale. When you finally see the titular monsters at the very end they’re treated as being absolutely sublime. There’s a wonderful mixture of terror and awe that’s nothing short of memorable. Godzilla too gave the famous kaiju a special kind of awe, making him feel like an unstoppable force of nature.

Star Wars has usually been about the heroes and the Jedi, the big players in the galaxy. Rogue One steps away from that and tackles more ordinary rebels (or at least the Rebellion-affiliated) in their fight against the Empire. These aren’t people who can cut a hole in an AT-AT with a lightsaber. For these heroes, an AT-AT is really bad news. This is where Edwards shines. Look at the way he portrays the AT-ATs in that first trailer, those machines are huge, destructive monstrosities. If the Empire is going to be this unstoppable military force, then this is the guy to be directing the movie.

Especially since Darth Vader’s going to be showing up.

If you haven’t gathered, I’m really excited for Rogue One. In part because, yes, it’s more cinematic Star Wars stories, but also because it’s a new and different sort of Star Wars story.

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Something Something Diversity Something Star Wars

There’s a new Star Wars trailer out, this time for Rogue One! Now, when they announced it to be about a ragtag band of Rebels stealing the Death Star plans; that got me excited. I’m all about ragtag teams pulling off heists. But then they announced the cast. We’ve got Felicity Jones starring and, in addition to Forest Whitaker, people with last names like Luna, Yen, Wen, and Ahmed. If there’s one thing I like as much as ragtag teams, it’s multinational ragtag teams (see: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Big Hero 6, X-Com: Enemy Unknown). So I was excited for the trailer.

And it delivered. But, with the second new Star Wars movie in as many years, it also shows a commitment to a new direction being taken by the franchise. In The Force Awakens we had a female protagonist along with a far more diverse cast than Star Wars is known for. Rogue One once again has a female protagonist and what’s shaping up to be an even more diverse group of people.

This is important.

Which is something I say a lot about diversity, but this won’t be beating a dead horse until diversity stops being a special thing that only happens sometimes.

But what’s so wonderful about (the trailer for) Rogue One is how darned effortless they make that diversity. Because yes, diversity is easy, it just requires you to stop and think about it for a while.  Somewhere along the line during Rogue One’s production the decision to bring back a Rebel leader had to have been made. Now, there are a bunch you could have; Jan Dodonna, General Rieekan, Admiral Ackbar, heck, you could even bring back Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa. But instead they went with Mon Mothma, also known as the One Other Named, Speaking, Female Rebel Who Isn’t Leia. It’s a small, almost arbitrary decision, but because of it the trailer just about passes the Bechdel Test, something that the Original Trilogy never did. Is passing the Bechdel Test that big a deal or even necessary? No. But the friggin’ teaser for the new Star Wars movie does what a surprisingly large number of major films fail to do. It’s a small thing (albeit awesome) that really showcases what the new status quo is.

On that note, let’s go back to that cast. Because dude, that cast. Again, the folks at Lucasfilm have made a conscious to ask the simple question of “why not?” when casting. Why not cast Donnie Freaking Yen as the space-samurai? Why not let Forest Whitaker be the guy in the badass bounty-hunter looking armor? Why not have the seemingly lead male character be played by Diego Luna? It’s small, yes, but holy crap is it awesome.

Let’s just look at East Asian characters first, since that’s important to me as that’s what I usually pass as. In the Original Trilogy, literally the only Asian character was a Y-Wing pilot during the Battle of Endor who got two lines and a couple seconds of screentime. The Force Awakens added X-Wing pilot and Admiral to that list. But on Thursday I got to see Donnie Yen, an actor I know from Hong Kong kung-fu ‘flicks, not only in a Star Wars movie but beating up Stormtroopers. It’s hard for me to put into words how freaking cool that is for me. When Big Hero 6 came out I got to see a superhero movie with a protagonist who looks like me. And now there’s a Star Wars movie coming out with a character I could cosplay and not have to add the prefix ‘Asian.’

I’m so psyched for this movie for so many reasons. A bunch of my friends think Rogue One’s looking to be even better than Force Awakens (my jury’s still out). When it comes down to it, though, how often do you get to see the stories you grew up with not just continue but to become as progressive as this?

 

Hey, wanna support diversity and science fiction in student films? Check out the teaser for my new movie here, support me on Kickstarter here, and like it on Facebook here. And tell your friends!

 

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