Tag Archives: Star Wars

Feeling Like A Starfighter Pilot

Like any kid obsessed with Star Wars, I daydreamed about hopping in an X-wing and flying around doing cool stuff. Battlefront II, from way back in ’05, scratched some of that itch. The newer Battlefront II did too, although its starfighter mode got precious little attention. I’ve toyed with checking out the X-wing games from the 90s, but never got around to doing so. The Star Wars Squadrons was announced over the summer and I got really excited: here was this game all about piloting space ships and getting in dogfights. It promised an immersive experience, one that involved managing power while darting around debris; a game where an X-wing, Y-wing, and A-wing all handled differently. Anyway. Game came out yesterday, and let me tell you, the game feels so darn good.

Game feel is that secret spice of game design. It’s not always easy to quantify, but it’s absolutely intrinsic to any action-based game. It’s not going to be much fun if the simple act of moving your digital avatar through space is a slog. One reason I stand by Balloon Fight as being a quintessential game is that it’s odd flight mechanic (tapping A bobs you a little in the air, controlling your altitude is a matter of directing your falling) is so well executed that just bopping around the map is a simple pleasure. It feels good to play.

Gamasutra has a really good article about game feel, and what components usually make it up. Super Mario 64 is held up as one of the best feeling games to play. Moving Mario around the world is inherently fun, owing in a large part to how seamlessly the players’ controller inputs translate to action on screen. Jumping doesn’t feel like a gamble every time you hit the button, rather you know how far he’ll jump when you hold down the button a certain amount of time.

Interestingly, the design process for Super Mario 64 involved creating a small ‘garden’ where Shigeru Miyamoto and the team fine-tuned Mario’s controls. They hadn’t made any levels yet, because most important was getting Mario right. And not just the controls either: part of good game feel involves making sure all parts of the game line up. It’s not just that the avatar on the screen moves in relation, but that the noises the game makes as Mario jumps around and the animation of movement all fits together. Going back to Balloon Fight for a moment, the character’s arm-waving and bloop sound matches tapping A perfectly. One reason game feel is so hard to pin down sometimes is because it’s a culmination of every system coming together.

Star Wars Squadrons capitalizes on game feel. It’s entirely in first person, with most of the game information being given to you not through a HUD, but via the instruments in the cockpit. I’m still getting the hang of flying and fighting, which is a delicate ballet involving shifting between to engines, weapons, and shields all while weaving through space trying to get a bead on that enemy fighter ahead of you. Each ship handles differently, a TIE Interceptor isn’t just faster than a standard TIE Fighter, it’s also much more delicate. A Y-wing can soak up more damage than an X-wing, but it’s not as useful in a head-on dogfight. More than anything, though, the game just feels so right. Staring out the octagonal window of a TIE an upping the throttle, hearing the telltale whine around you and then the lasers firing. 

It’s clear that so much work went into making the starfighters feel right, into making sure that they flew the way you expected them. Sure, Star Wars is fiction so it’s not like we’re trying to mimic the handling of an F-15, but trying to match a collective imagination created by a multitude of movies, tv shows, and books. Star Wars Squadrons delivers, and it’s a game I’m slowly getting a hang on even if I keep getting outmaneuvered in online play. Maybe one day I’ll be really good at it, maybe I won’t. But hey, in the meantime, I get to be a starfighter pilot.

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Discussing Invasions in Committees

When you think Star Wars you don’t really think about the nitty-gritty of politics. Sure, you’ve got the admirals aboard the Death Star in A New Hope talking about dissolving the Senate and all that, but honestly, that’s about it. This is a space Western, we’re not dealing with boring politics here.

Unless, of course, you’re thinking of the prequels. The Phantom Menace’s second act has a lot of it, as does Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith. It’s… a bit of a sharp departure from the saga that’s got a lot of laser fights and space ships (although, I’d argue the story’s far deeper than that). In any case, it’s a bit of a bummer.

It’s disappointing, though, because the political arc of the prequels is actually really cool. We start with the Republic, a Galactic coalition with no standing army. The Phantom Menace sees an upstart politician use a trading blockade to wrest power from the established authority, predicating it on a vote of no-power rather than a standard end-of-term election, effectively staging a political coup. Ten years later, in Attack of The Clones, that same politician uses the threat of division to raise an army and start a war, the process of which sees him granted emergency powers and a much stronger political hold. This all culminates in Revenge of The Sith where the Republic becomes an Empire, and the Chancellor an Emperor. And so, famously, liberty dies.

It all makes for compelling political fiction, just presented in a really lousy fashion. Though the political plotline is integral to the story of the Fall of The Republic, it feels tangential to the far more interesting story of the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and Anakin’s fall. Sure, Palpatine’s rise is interesting and all, but what we really care about is the story of Obi-Wan and Anakin, and, yeah, Padmé too. Unfortunately, these characters are affected by the political plots rather than affecting it (save Padmé in Phantom Menace). Taking the focus away from the heroes to focus on senatorial politicking would be like, well, taking the focus away from Jedi adventures to talk lackluster politics.

The problem is that Palpatine’s plot, though empirically interesting, doesn’t really have much to do with the main story involving the Jedi, which is emotionally interesting. Our attention, as an audience, is divided between two divergent plotlines. We’ve gotta pick one to put our interest in, and our interest goes with the people with laser swords.

Here’s the thing, though: As a kid, I didn’t mind the senate scenes too much. Sure, there was a notable lack of lightsabers, but there was a measure of voyeuristic intrigue to be privy to these machinations. Politicking isn’t usually a thing in kids’ media, so it’s pretty neat to get to see it in a movie like Star Wars. Granted, I am also that kid who got into The West Wing with his parents before Revenge of The Sith came out in theaters, so maybe I’m weird like that. In addition, the narrative of a politician using a (manufactured) crisis to seize power is a compelling one that, in better hands, could have really worked into the Star Wars that envisioned the original Empire as an America that had fallen to its baser desires.

Every now and then, I hear people decry the politicking of the Prequels as being the movies’ biggest failure. They’re not a highlight, but the idea is there, though the execution is certainly lacking. Perhaps it would be better served were it more closely intertwined with the characters’ stories, allowing them to take an active role in it all. But then, that would have the mostly-apolitical Jedi getting even more involved in the Senate, which would really only make Palpatine’s accusation of a Jedi coup even more plausible, and really, that’s the last thing he needs.

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Lightsabers

Hi. I’m twenty-nine years old, and when my mind wanders, it starts to think about lightsabers.

One of the many many things that make Star Wars so cool is the lightsaber: in a world with laser guns and space ships, there are a select group of people who forego all of that in favor of laser swords. When we first see it in A New Hope, Obi-Wan introduces it as the “weapon of a Jedi Knight, not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” Cool bit of world-building that sets up the Jedi Knights and the importance of the weapon.

But that’s not the part of lightsabers I’m thinking about.

Each Jedi has their own saber, one that’s theirs, and this weapon, as Obi-Wan admonishes Anakin in Attack of The Clones, “is your life.” Lightsabers are made by the individual Jedi and so is specific to them. Even the Sith lightsabers require an artificial (in the old Expanded Universe) or a tainted (as in the new canon) crystal. These weapons are almost an extension of their owner. Far more than Han’s DL-44 blaster, the lightsabers are far more personal and representative of those who wield them.

And Rey doesn’t get her own lightsaber in the Sequel Trilogy. I mean, yeah, she does, sure: In literally the final minute of The Rise of Skywalker, she stands in Tatooine and turns on her brand new yellow-bladed saber and then watches the sunset.

Which.

Okay.

Fine.

But when the mythos of the world puts so much import on a saber, it feels like a very weak culmination of a character arc for that to be it.

Consider Luke Skywalker. He is given Anakin’s saber in A New Hope, which he then uses throughout Empire Strikes Back. It’s his father’s weapon, by using it he is inheriting a legacy. It’s the Skywalker lightsaber, and it’s his, as it was his father’s before him.

Then in Empire’s climax, he loses it (along with his hand) and finds out that Darth Vader is his father. The villain is Luke’s father, that lightsaber he had been using belonged to the man who became Darth Vader. Turns out Luke’s inheritance is that one tainted by the Dark Side.

That’s rough.

Come Return of The Jedi, Luke has built his own lightsaber. He’s still gonna be a Jedi, but this time he’s creating his own legacy. While Anakin’s lightsaber bears a strong resemblance to Vader’s, Luke’s lightsaber takes more after Obi-Wan’s than Anakin’s. It’s a declaration of sorts that Luke’s following the path of Obi-Wan, rather than the failings of Anakin. Later on, during the final duel on the Death Star II, he tosses that lightsaber aside — that new definition of himself — to state that he is a Jedi, like his father before him. Obi-Wan didn’t think that Vader could be saved, but Luke did and he was proven right. Looking at a lightsaber as an extension of its wielder’s psyche, this is the culmination of Luke wrestling with his inheritance. He’s a Skywalker.

In The Force Awakens the Skywalker Lightsaber reemerges as an icon of legacy once again, this time to be taken up by Rey — who initially rejects it but in the climax claims it in one of my favorite Star Wars moments.

Fittingly, The Last Jedi is all about legacies and what to do with them. Luke rejects the lightsaber and the importance it has to being a Jedi. At the onset of the story, he is done with that past. Rey wields it in the duel aboard the Supremacy (since she’s gonna be a Jedi) and later vies against Kylo Ren for it. Both want control of it, but for different reasons. Kylo sees it as his birthright, his chance to wield Darth Vader’s legacy for his own. Rey sees it as the other part of Anakin’s legacy; that of a fallen hero redeemed — as she hopes to enact towards Kylo. In the end, the lightsaber is sundered and Rey collects the broken fragments. The past is broken.

But the lightsaber shows up one last time in The Last Jedi, in the hand of Luke’s Force Projection when he duels Kylo. Its purpose here is twofold: he taunts Kylo Ren with what he wants, yes, but Luke is also taking back up that legacy he had thrown away in the beginning. This is a Force Projection, Luke could have shown himself holding any lightsaber, and even from a cinematic standpoint, we’d just seen that lightsaber broken, how could Luke have it? The incongruity not only hints at the Projection’s nature but shows us that this is a Luke Skywalker who has agreed to his symbolism, who will be the hero the Resistance needs.

Such a wonderful culmination.

So now Rey is set up to craft her own lightsaber for The Rise of Skywalker. It’s part of the Jedi path and all that, plus she has all the books from Ahch-To to teach her. The lightsaber we see her is an extension of her — its design bears a similarity to the staff she wielded in The Force Awakens and the yellow blade suggests a new path. Except this comes at the end. It’s a coda to the story rather than a final act. Rey spends the movie still with the Skywalker saber, except rather than being willing to throw away the past and start fresh, she’s put it back together so it could still be in use. Which, fine, but by the end of The Last Jedi, Rey has the chance to start something new… and instead, she retreads a path.

As a fan, I’m someone who’s wanted Rey to kick ass with a double-sided lightsaber since the credits rolled on The Force Awakens. That The Last Jedi featured no such instance was an initial disappointment, but the missed chance in Rise is frustrating. Here was a chance for the new hero to make a statement, but instead, well, we got what we got. Rey’s yellow lightsaber is super cool, not just aesthetically but as a statement of identity. That it gets relegated to the very end is nothing less than a missed opportunity.

Remember: Black Lives Matter. Please take a minute and help.

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Defeat

I’ve had Star Wars on my mind as of late, partially because I just binged the entire final season of Clone Wars, and partially because thinking about Star Wars is more or less my default state. Anyway, I’d like to point out that Empire Strikes Back is a movie about failure and defeat.

It’s an oddly dark/dour take on what’s usually considered the best Star Wars movie; you don’t really wanna watch your heroes get beat up and lose and yet, that’s what Empire is.

And I seriously mean in every encounter and obstacle they face, Luke, Han, and Leia lost. The best-case scenario is escape.

The Wampa cave in the beginning sees Luke captured. The dude who blew up the Death Star got beat up by the abominable snowman. When he comes to and grabs his lightsaber, he doesn’t kill the Wampa and return victorious; nope, Luke runs away and almost freezes to death outside. Cool.

The Battle of Hoth. Sure, the Rebels bring down an AT-AT or two, but they’re ultimately unable to repel the Empire and end up escaping. Which is the point, yeah, but it’s still a crushing defeat.

Han and Leia get stuck inside a Space Slug and barely escape. Sure, they make it out, but it’s hardly a win. Then they get betrayed at Cloud City and Han gets frozen. Not good. What happens next? They escape Cloud City, but Leia is unable to rescue Han from Boba Feet and has to leave without him.

But it’s Luke who really, really suffers in Empire. Remember, in the original Star Wars, this is the guy who left Tatooine, inherited his father’s legacy (Jedi, excellent pilot), and defeated the Empire. After the Wampa and Battle of Hoth, he goes to find Yoda on Dagobah to learn to be a better Jedi. So far, so good, we break him down in the first act so he can get better in the second.

Dagobah does not go well for him, and Luke fails every task. Initially, he fails to recognize Yoda, instead dismissing the green alien as a nuisance. Later, in the cave, he ignores Yoda’s advice and brings his weapons with him. He fights a ghost of Vader and attacks, revealing his own face staring back at him. Then the X-wing. It sinks into the swamp and Yoda tells Luke to raise it, but he can’t. So Yoda does. It’s awesome, and Luke can’t believe it. To which Yoda says: “That is why you fail.” Verbatim from the Master’s mouth: Luke failed.

And then the duel with Darth Vader.  Luke does not win. He gets his hand lopped off and finds out his father was a Jedi and excellent pilot… but is now Darth Vader. That legacy he wanted? Yeah, not good. Luke escapes with his life, but soundly defeated in both spirit and body.

Okay, everyone loses. So what?

Character, that’s what.

By bringing the characters to their absolute nadir, Empire clears Return of The Jedi for the triumphant, uh, return. In it, we’re able to see how much the characters have grown, due in no part to the tribulations of Empire. Han and Leia have put aside their bickering and work as a team to take down the shield generator. Han’s gotten over his self-centeredness and Leia, well, Leia’s as great as ever. Of course, it’s Luke, as the main character, who benefits the most.

In Jedi he’s no longer the wide-eyed kid from Tatooine, the one we see infiltrating Jabba’s Palace is relatively calm and collected. When he meets the Ewoks he doesn’t underestimate them as he did Yoda, rather seeing them as potential allies. And in the final fight against Vader? This time he throws away his lightsaber rather than killing his father. It’s a journey of growth that wouldn’t have been possible without Luke losing over and over again in Empire. What’s important is that the payoff happens, and that the payoff builds on what came before.

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Cake, And Eating It

After the gargantuan behemoth that was Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, it was a decided breath of fresh air to be able to finish Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order inside of two weeks. This is despite Fallen Order being a bit of an open-world game, insofar as there is an amount of exploring and backtracking you can do, though honestly, that splash of open world might just be more of a hamper than a help.

Fallen Order is an action-adventure game in the vein of Uncharted or Tomb Raider: You run about different places, fight bad guys, explore stuff, find stuff. It’s not the most polished game; the controls are a little loose, combat’s not quite as responsive as I keep expecting it to be, and it can bit of a buggy mess at times. It’s still a lot of fun and, let’s be honest, I’m a sucker for Star Wars, so that’s a plus right there for me.

So the open-ish world.

Gameplay in Fallen Order follows a straightforward rhythm. You arrive on a planet, look for a thing, find the thing, make your way back to your ship, and repeat. As you progress, you unlock new abilities and such that open up new paths and new places to explore, and thus, new places for the plot to send you. It sounds pretty great on paper, but in actuality it ends up feeling like a lot of backtracking and retreading. Part of the problem here is that compared to more open world games, there’s not really a whole lot of exploring to be done. There’s is part of a wrecked Venator-class Star Destroyer you can go spelunking in on one planet, but there’s not much else beyond that.

This isn’t a bad thing! Most of the time the Uncharted games (which I adore) are a fairly straightforward affair, with there being little diversion from the main path. And when Fallen Order really leans into its Uncharted inspirations the game is really good! You get these frantic sequences where you’re running about as chaos unfolds around you, or you’re running for your life from a squad of Stormtroopers. There are those epic set pieces that are exhilarating to play; you get to be in a Star Wars movie!

And then you go through those same areas again, but without the narrative urgency, because you missed a few collectibles and now the magic is kinda gone. This isn’t just a case of doing the same thing again, like replaying Uncharted, this is more a case where the level plays out the same, just without the chasing Stormtroopers or Inquisitors that made it so exciting the first go round. It’s a little awkward, truth be told, but it’s a necessary awkwardness if you’re double checking for secrets you missed the first time (like I did).

Perhaps this is a problem of Fallen Order wanting to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to have a narrative-driven adventure like Uncharted, while still encouraging backtracking and open exploration. But the world isn’t quite as expansive as that in Tomb Raider; exploration in Fallen Order is limited to small diversions off the main route. Again; this is fine, but the process feels lacking and is somehow both too long and too short for it to really be worthwhile.

I suppose when it comes down to it I wish the game had chosen one direction and stuck with it. There are hints at times of an epic, bespoke adventure, and at other times of a bigger world to explore, but the game comes down in the middle and it’s… fine.

This frustrates me because there are elements to the game that are so so good and I feel like sometimes Fallen Order tries to be a game it’s not — to its detriment. Perhaps the lesson here is to know what you’re about and be confident in that. But in the meantime, I still had a lot of fun; when Fallen Order got out of its own way I was a Jedi with a double sided lightsaber fighting the Empire. And really, that’s what I wanted.

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Another Space Cowboy

If you haven’t had the chance to see it yet, The Mandalorian is a fantastic miniseries set in the Star Wars world. It’s about a lone gunslinger/bounty hunter, the titular Mandalorian, and his adventures around the galaxy, which, right there, is a great conceit for a story. The Mandalorian, more so than any Star Wars story since the first act of A New Hope, really leans into its Western roots and mixes all those familiar tropes together into a delightful mélange and serves it back up as something we’ve seen before, and, despite not exactly rewriting the book, remains so fresh. 

Consider first the Western. Cowboy movies — which most Westerns almost invariably are — take place in a very specific time and place. They’re set after the American Civil War, but usually before the turn of the century. There’s a specificity to it existing in the shadow of the War that plays into its setting: the American West. Out past much of civilization, Westerns take place on the edges of society where people who find themselves listless in postbellum America go to try and carve out a new life. How much a Western makes use of this varies (compare For A Fistful of Dollars with The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly to see two movies by the same director which use different amounts of setting [and both excellently), but the threat or memory of war and the isolation are quintessential to it.

From there, more tropes emerge. The duel at high noon, the train robbery, the lone wanderer arriving fresh to town. These tropes and images draw from the time and setting of the Western, and even when freed of some of that specificity, it’s still possible to see its roots. 

The original Star Wars threw a lot of those Western tropes into a science fiction world. Luke Skywalker lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere; he and his aunt and uncle are homesteaders who’ve swapped Colorado for Tatooine. The Mos Eisley Cantina is an alien saloon, replete with the newcomer who’s out of his depth (that’d be Luke). Han Solo himself, with his vest, boots, and low-slung pistol, is a wide-brimmed hat away from being the quintessential cowboy. A New Hope uses these familiar images and ideas to keep us grounded while it’s throwing space wizards, giant ships, and grumpy robots at us. Couching the outlandish in the recognizable eases us into this world. And it works! By the time our heroes are escaping from Stormtroopers aboard the Death Star, those Western tropes are far in the rearview, but they got us to where we are.

The Mandalorian really leans into those cowboy movie roots of Star Wars. It takes place five years after Return of The Jedi; the Empire is defeated and the New Republic runs the show. But the scars of the war are still fresh, and we see them in lingering grudges against the Empire and memories of pro-Imperial sentiment. Appropriately, it takes place in the Outer Rim, far from the reaches of more orderly, more populated space. The people in the story exist on the fringes of society, and accordingly, have their own rules to get by. But make no mistake, the Mandalorian is as much a cowboy as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He’s an outsider whom the townsfolk are wary of, showing up to collect bounties on outlaws. Both are also shown to have a moral code; they may not be the knights in shining armor of a fairy tale, but they ultimately will defend the weak and helpless (and maybe make a buck in the process). 

It’s possible to dismiss the Mandalorian’s conscience as a by-product of the show being produced by Disney, but those roots too are found in the Western. In The American West, David Hamilton Murdoch posits the Western genre as American mythmaking, an effort in the late 1800s and early 1900s to tell stories of what the United States and its people were about. The cowboy is at once both the embodiment of rugged American individualism and the inheritor of the mantle of the medieval knight errant. He is a man who’s strong enough to weather the wilds on his own, but he is also not one to turn down a noble quest. Sergei Leone may have muddied the image with his Spaghetti Westerns, but the myth of the cowboy shines on through.

The Mandalorian is not terribly original. One of its central conceits is borrowed from a classic samurai film; the fourth episode is an homage to The Magnificent Seven. The imagery of the show — the lone rider astride his steed in the sunset, the low angles during the showdowns — are ripped straight outta the library of the Western. And that’s okay! We enjoy the comfort of the familiar, and many of these tropes have survived for a reason (that is: they are very good storytelling devices). 

Ultimately, The Mandalorian essentially just a Western in space. Which is wonderful, because there will always be stories to tell and, by setting it in a galaxy far far away as opposed to a hundred and fifty years ago, the show takes the universality of the myth of the West and transmutes it into something bigger and for more people. The Mandalorian uses these established tropes and mythic elements to tell a story that feels at once new and ever so familiar. That it’s all executed brilliantly is really just the icing on the cake.

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Background Diversity

I really liked The Last Jedi, more that I did The Rise of Skywalker, and there are many reasons for that, and really it’s a lot of personal preference. One of my very favorite things in Last Jedi — and, admittedly, this is a very small thing — is the diversity of the Resistance members. Pay attention to the background of the movie, and you’ll notice that many of the Resistance offers and fighters are played by women and people of color.

Like I said, it’s a small detail. But there’s something profoundly affecting at seeing so much of the Resistance being ran by woman, there’s something super cool to me to see a random officer on the bridge walking around being portrayed by an Asian actor. It’s a detail in the movie that’s not only prevalent, it’s consistent: they’re everywhere. The random pilot we cutaway to is as likely to be a woman as it is a white guy, the person giving an update on the fleet too. It’s a thing that once you notice it, it’s delightfully consistent, and, really, quite wonderful.

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Why, then, you ask?

Because in no small way this Resistance feels like one that I could be a part of — without feeling like a token character. Not unlike the Rebellion in Rogue One, this is a group of people composed of all stripes. The Resistance of The Last Jedi demonstrably has space for everyone in their ranks, anyone can be a part of it.

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There’s another aspect to this too. By nature of it being a movie, the camera and the plot follows important people (Rose, for example, a no-name engineer, is deemed important by virtue of being a main character). It’s the principle of showing and not just telling, we’re not being told that there are brave men and women from all over the galaxy fighting the good fight; we get to see them Doing Things. Sure, the books and comics have retroactively added a lot more diversity and representation to the ranks of the Rebellion and Jedi Order in recent years, getting to actually see such on a big screen is profoundly affecting. These people are the heroes of the story, and a few of them look like me.

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Not only that, but many of them are in positions of power or responsibility. They’re members of the bridge crew, cooks; they’re pilots, not ground crew. They do stuff and so are implied to be important members of the team. By the end of the film, with the Resistance reduced to a small core, they aren’t all white guys. And these are the Important Survivors — again, film is a visual medium, what we see is as important, perhaps more so, than what we’re told; so seeing these people alive and as the proverbial spark that will bring about the First Order’s defeat.

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This is something the Prequels did really well too, throwing roles at women and people-of-color because, why not? The Phantom Menace had Captain Panaka and Mace Windu, Attack of The Clones had Queen Jamillia, and Revenge of The Sith revealed that Senator Bail Organa looked a lot like Jimmy Smits. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that tells viewers that, hey, there’s space at this table for people who don’t look like Luke and Han, that Leia isn’t the only woman in the Rebellion.

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The Rise of Skywalker makes a gallant effort at capturing a similar ethos. There is still diversity in the ranks of the Resistance, but it just feels far less prominent than how it was presented in Last Jedi. Don’t get me wrong, I love a cameo from an actor from LOST, but I can’t help but to mourn the loss of something The Last Jedi did so well. Embracing casual, background diversity is a small thing, especially in conjunction with bigger, more prominent representation, (which is super important and done decently in these movies), but it’s still something that I like to see and means a lot to me. It’s a bummer to see it go.

Note: Also, while scrubbing through The Last Jedi for these screencaps, I’m reminded of how damn beautiful of a movie it is.

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A Celebration

In less than a week, I will have seen The Rise of Skywalker, the culmination of the newest Star Wars trilogy. It’s thrilling because the idea of a new Star Wars movie never stops being exciting to my tired, late-twenties brain. ‘cuz, dude, it’s a new Star Wars movie!

The newest trailer (which, admittedly, is no longer quite as new as it once was) feels to be very much of the same sentiment. It’s triumphant, the music is brash and eschews tension in favor of sweeping excitement. Ultimately, it doubles down on a feeling of celebratory joy.

And why shouldn’t it? It’s movie number nine of a trilogy, it oughta have with it the cathartic joy of culmination. If this trailer is indicative of Skywalker’s tone, then I’m so ready for the ride.

Star Wars has always been a romantic series; innate to the main movies is this idea of hopeful adventure. When Lando and Wedge make their run on the Death Star II in Return of The Jedi the music is rousing and lively, not dour and dramatic. It eschews tension for thrills; there’s no doubt that the good guys will win — the question instead is how.

This is something the Sequel Trilogy has done real well in capturing. The battle over Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens is full of derring-do as Poe pilots his X-Wing. Rey grabbing the lightsaber is a beat that screams cool, underscored by the music and the camera. We knew this was going to happen, ever since Maz held it out to her, but watching it is so exciting, and you’d be forgiven for cheering wildly in the theater (I did).

If Rise of Skywalker is, in fact, a joyous celebration, then what The Last Jedi did is all the more key. Consider the relationship between deconstruction and reconstruction.

Deconstruction, in a literary sense, is where a story or trope is taken apart. The LEGO Movie merrily takes the piss out of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, making the Chosen Everyman into an utter nobody. Shrek exposes fairytales for the lie they are by positioning the ogre as the main character who saves the princess. Batman is offered a dosage of reality in The Dark Knight; Bruce Wayne is a bruised shell of a man who has little existence outside of his role as the caped crusader.

On the flip side is reconstruction, which is one of my favorite things. This is where the flaws and cracks highlighted by a deconstruction are acknowledged and built upon. Emmet may be the most boring minifig in the world, but that doesn’t mean he can’t go on a Hero’s Journey. Sure, the prince saving the princess is a tired trope, so Shrek builds its narrative on a genuine relationship between people — and so creates a new fairytale ending. The Dark Knight knows that the idea of someone fighting crime outside the law is ridiculous and so uses Joker as the ultimate deconstructor, forcing Batman and Harvey Dent to the edge. Ultimately, the movie decides that it is Batman’s extralegal nature that allows him to take the fall for Dent’s rampage, because Gotham needs a symbol, and an uncorrupt DA is much more potent than a masked vigilante.

The Last Jedi deconstructs Star Wars hard; what with one of its themes being about letting the past die. So much of the movie is about taking apart myths and our own obsessions with them. Rey and Luke are both consumed by the myth of Luke Skywalker with different takeaways: Rey wants that legend to save the galaxy, Luke is haunted by his failure to live up to it. The synthesis of these viewpoints is a systematic deconstruction of Star Wars. During one of Luke’s lessons, for example, he refutes the idea that the Jedi Knights kept the galaxy safe for generations by pointing out that their hubris allowed Darth Sidious to rise right under their noses. Maybe Luke has a point, maybe it is time for the Jedi to end.

Of course, deconstruction by itself makes for a grim outlook, and there are enough sad stories already. The Last Jedi accepts the power of a myth, while also acknowledging that we can’t always live up to it. Luke does face down the First Order, but he does so to save everyone and inspire the Resistance. Rey finds out that the Force does sometimes mean lifting rocks, but, again, it’s an act done to save her friends. By the end of The Last Jedi, the myth is being put back together in a new way, creating a new legend for a new rebellion.

So now comes The Rise of Skywalker, which has the opportunity to build on the foundation of The Last Jedi. The movie has explored a nadir, and now comes the chance for the heroes to chart their own course through the narrative and to, uh, rise. So the tone of the trailers for Skywalker is plenty apt, with their sweeping music and feelings of heroic fantasy. This is the grand finale! It’s not just about bringing a story to a close, it’s also about celebrating the world that so captured our imaginations.

My hope for the movie is that it draws me into its flight of fantasy; that it, like the trailer, makes my heart sing. I can’t wait for The Rise of Skywalker; I’m ready for the adventure. 

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Let’s Rank Star Wars Movies!

There’s a thing going around on the internet where people are ranking the Star Wars movies and, of course, other people complaining about people ranking the Star Wars movies. Now because I am who I am, I saw this and thought “Hey, that’d make a great rant essay!” since it’s an opportunity for an introspective look at the Star Wars movies (and definitely not an easy copout).

Of the ten movies to choose from (we’re omitting Clone Wars for obvious reasons), it’s pretty easy for me to put what I’d wager is tenth: Revenge of The Sith. Hold on, you say, Sith as the worst? In a world where Phantom Menace and Clones exist? Yes, strawman, yes. See, Sith is almost entirely reliant on us caring about Anakin’s arc, given that it’s about his fall and how that shapes the galaxy. The problem is that Sith doesn’t sell us on that, with Anakin’s big moment being the equivalent of the sitcom trope of a character walking in on two others in a compromising position and one saying “this isn’t what it looks like!” It’s frustrating, especially since the Clone Wars show would later go on to characterize Anakin in such a better way. Oh, there are some cool moments to be sure, but ultimately the movie is let down by its failure to execute a convincing fall from grace. Also, they completely sideline Padmé, which is terrible.

The other two prequels are in close contention with each other. Attack of The Clones is let down by a… not great love story, but one that’s buoyed by a cool third act, Obi-Wan’s detective story, and the amazing piece of music that is “Across The Stars.” I know The Phantom Menace is a bit of a mess, but it’s a lot of fun and Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is one of the three best fights in Star Wars. Plus: Qui-Gon! For me, there’s a decent amount of positives for both movies.

Solo is another one that just doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s certainly a bunch of fun and works well enough (with some great supporting performances and easter eggs that make me happy), but ultimately I’m not sure if it’s really all that more than ‘fine.’ Though it doesn’t annoy me quite as much as Sith, it’s nothing to really write home about it. I think, for now, Solo gets ninth, Phantom Menace eighth, and Clones seventh because, yes, Across The Stars is that freaking good.

The next chunk is when ranking gets tougher. Rogue One scratches so many itches for me (ragtag multinational team! badass woman! AT-ATs!), I want to put it higher. Return of The Jedi has a phenomenal climax, affords Vader so much complexity, and has Ewoks, which also makes me like it so much. A New Hope started it all and The Force Awakens is such a celebration of that spirit of the Original Trilogy that it’s almost difficult to rank one without the other.

Here’s where some of Star Wars rankings get really hairy. We can’t rank them in a vacuum, what with them working together and also being inspired off of each other. I put Solo so low because it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the others. A New Hope is such an odd little movie (it takes a while before we meet our main character, Luke, and before that, it’s a lot of watching robots wander in the desert) but it somehow works so well it deserves recognition — plus it’s what started this whole thing. Perhaps now it’s time for ties: Rogue One and A New Hope are fifth and Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens are third. I know, Jedi over Hope is an unorthodox choice, but its handling of a climactic battle on three fronts is absolutely masterful. Also, I really like Ewoks, man.

Finally, we’re left with Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. I used my make-it-a-tie lifeline last time so I can’t do so now, because that’d really be a disappointing copout (and this post is certainly not a copout, y’hear?). Both movies expand on and play with what’s been established by the prior movies, and both magnificently juggle very dark themes with radiant hope. Though I love The Last Jedi for so many things big and small (including the best Star Wars fight in the throne room and also porgs), I think I have to, cliche as it is, give the title to Empire. Its pacing is pitch-perfect, the romance between Han and Leia is excellent, Yoda lifting the X-Wing will never not be profoundly powerful, and Luke vs Vader is the second-best Star Wars fight. Plus: AT-ATs.

In sum, my ranking is:

1. The Empire Strikes Back

2. The Last Jedi

3. The Force Awakens

3. Return of The Jedi

5. A New Hope

5. Rogue One

7. Attack of The Clones

8. The Phantom Menace

9. Solo

10. Revenge of The Sith

Naturally, these are all my opinion and should be treated thusly. In addition, they are liable to change at any given time and I will not be held accountable for them.

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Stable Boy

I’ve been thinking a bunch about Star Wars lately which, c’mon, what else is new. But with Disney’s D23 event taking place over last weekend and some sweet new trailers for The Mandalorian and The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars has been on my mind a little more, especially The Last Jedi.

Particularly how it ends.

Let’s recap.

The Resistance is defeated, the fleet reduced to the Millenium Falcon and those aboard. But they have hope: Luke Skywalker came out of hiding and stared down the First Order, becoming a symbol in the process. The First Order won, but the Resistance, as led by Leia aboard the Falcon, lives on.

But that’s not how the movie ends!

The Last Jedi ends on Canto Bight, with a group of enslaved children Rose and Finn had run into earlier. They’re in the stables we left them in, but now one of the kids is using improvised props to enact a rendition of Luke’s final stand. They are interrupted by their overseer, and they scatter. One of the kids ends up outside, where he reaches out and grabs a broom to start sweeping. He’s distracted by the night sky, and it’s on this kid looking out at space that the movie ends.

And it is such a beautiful ending to the story.

First, there’s the kid retelling the story of Luke Skywalker. Though the Resistance may have lost the Battle of Crait, the legend of Luke’s victory over Kylo Ren has reached even stable kids far away. We believe Leia when she says that the Resistance isn’t over, but seeing the urchin’s retelling is proof positive that the dream lives on. Even though the kid’s speaking in an unsubtitled alien language, we’re still able to understand what he’s talking about and what it means to him and the others. The tale of Luke Skywalker staring down impossible odds is important and relevant to them because even though they’re a galaxy away, it reminds them that, hey, maybe there’s hope yet for them even though they’re at the bottom of the rung. In a moment that certainly has some meta shades, we’re shown the power of stories. Luke’s actions on Crait have reverberated throughout the galaxy, the Jedi are still out there! By including this scene, The Last Jedi offers a coda that lets us know that our heroes’ actions were not in vain, that the stories and myths that someone like Rey believes in are certainly worthwhile.

Then one of the kids goes outside grabs a broom — calling it to his hand with the Force. The visuals here are important, we’re in a wide shot and there’s no cutaway to the kid reaching out to the Force or anything. Notably, in a movie series where just about every use of a Force power gets a close-up and attention, this time it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beat. Though it’s clear what happened on a second viewing, the ambiguity leaves one wondering if they’d imagined it. By cultivating the ambiguity, the movie offers a sense of wonder and mystery: did that kid use the Force? Can he use the Force?

There are four cutaways in the sequence, and each one is incredibly motivated. The first is of his feet as he sweeps and pauses. The shot focuses our attention on his work sweeping hay, and thus the importance of his stopping — right now this is important, watch. We go back to the wide as he looks up, then we cut back to his face as he stares at space. Next, we see what he’s looking at: stars in the night sky. One of them flickers and jumps to Hyperspace — bound for parts unknown. His hand tightens around his broom, the ring with the Rebel insignia bright on his finger. He’s with the Resistance, and when we cut back to a close-up on his face, the juxtaposition of the stories, Hyperspace jump, and Rebel ring making it easy to read his expression of one of determination to be a part of that story. Like Luke Skywalker watching the binary sunset on Tatooine so long ago, this kid also dreams of bigger things. That’s how The Last Jedi goes out, back on the wide shot of him staring at the sky, his broom raised not unlike a lightsaber as John William’s Force Theme swells.

Star Wars is in many ways the story of the Everyman, and with its final scene, The Last Jedi doubles down on the idea that anyone can be the hero, that anyone could be a Jedi. This is a story where you and I could be a hero, one maybe where this kid working in a stable could be too.

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