Tag Archives: The Force Awakens

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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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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The End of (Star) War(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let The Past Die

Part of why I like The Force Awakens is that its characters are, in many ways, Star Wars fans themselves. Rey and Kylo Ren both grew up on stories about the Rebellion and the Empire (though with different takeaways) and so want to live out their version of the stories. Kylo fashions himself into an ersatz Darth Vader, Rey sees the chance to join up with the legendary Han Solo and maybe become a Jedi like Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, deconstructs those dreams (and those of the audience too). And since I’m gonna be talking about The Last Jedi, this is where I let you know that here there be spoilers. About character arcs and stuff, which as we all know is what really matters.

So anyway. Spoilers. And deconstruction.

Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for being nothing except a shadow of Vader. Killing Han’s not good enough; Kylo’s just a fanboy. It becomes clear that Kylo will never come into his own so long as all he wants to do is imitate his grandfather. And so the character of Kylo Ren, as we knew it in Awakens, is dressed down and forced to forge a new identity.

Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Rey can only watch as Luke Skywalker casually tosses the revered lightsaber over his shoulder. Turns out Rey’s idea of Luke is terribly misinformed. Even her understanding of The Force (controlling people and lifting rocks) is wrong. Rey’s expectations are dashed and eventually she has to, in the words of another Jedi, unlearn what she’s already learned, and try and start afresh.

The Last Jedi sets fire to a lot of what we hold dear about Star Wars. Sometimes this is done through character (Poe is chastised for his propensity for reckless and costly space battles where they somehow overcome the odds) and other times it’s through the story itself.

Look at the Jedi.

They’re cool, right? With their dope lightsabers and all the heroing we see them do in the movies. Luke outright calls them fools, a prideful group whose hubris allowed the Empire to rise. He goes so far as to desecrate one of the finer points of the Star Wars mythos, derisively calling the Jedi’s weapon a laser sword. And Luke has a point. Maybe the Jedi weren’t all they cracked up to be (and, as we see in the prequels, they really weren’t the brightest of the bunch). The movie takes apart a chunk of Star Wars, and puts its pieces on display. The Jedi are flawed, overblown legends, maybe it’s time for them to end.

The response to this deconstructed Star Wars is embodied by the movie’s hero and villain. Rey and Kylo have both seen their goals tossed aside, goals that were, in essence, to emulate the Original Trilogy. They each respond differently: Kylo sees this as an opportunity to burn it all down and let the past die so he can remake the world as he sees fit; Rey, however, wants to rebuild from the ashes, learning from the mistakes of what’s come before. The epic battle between the light side and the dark side continues, though this time it’s one that these two have defined for themselves.

And that’s this movie’s relation with The Force Awakens. The prior one re-established Star Wars as we remember it, replete with high-flying romantic adventure. The Last Jedi takes apart those tropes, breaking down the notions of chosen ones, daring plans, and wise masters. But writer/director Rian Johnson loves Star Wars and so, now that he’s taken them apart, he can develop them deeper than before. Luke is bitter and stubborn, a far cry from an idealistic farmboy or a sage like Yoda. But he still has much to learn, especially from his shortcomings. The idea of a wise master who knows everything doesn’t stand up, but when we take that away we’re given a Jedi Master who is still learning. Which is a more interesting, deeper interpretation.

Rey is a nobody, but she’s still strong with the Force – all that talk about chosen ones and being descended from a great Jedi (like Kylo) is bunk, but, but but but, now anyone can be a Jedi. Luke Skywalker doesn’t swoop in to defeat the First Order, because that hero could be anyone, that hope is bigger than he is.

What Rian Johnson does seems almost anathema, counter to the distilling of Star Wars that is The Force Awakens. But Johnson gives these stories new room to grow, and so he forces Rey and Kylo (and fans like me!) to reexamine the older Star Wars movies and figure out a new what’s next. Kylo Ren isn’t gonna be Darth Vader, and Rey isn’t about to be Luke Skywalker.

And we’re better off for that.

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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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This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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Top Nine Movies of 2015

Woah, it’s June, and I haven’t done of these yet? Big reason is because there are some movies that I still haven’t seen. Like Carol, which I really need to get around to soon. Then there’s The Room, which I really should see, but am not sure if I’m ready for the toll of that movie.

So anyway, here are my, at current, top nine movies of 2015, with an extra space left for a movie that catches me in left field.

9. The Martian

It’s a well done movie about a Mars exploration; honestly that’s all The Martian needed. But that it’s dang entertaining and has a strong scientific (if not totally accurate) bent just makes it that much better.

8. The Big Short

This is a movie that made me not only understand, but laugh at the housing crash that may or may not screw over my financial future.

Yay.

7. Sicario

Woo, another movie about cartels. Except Sicario exists in a very gray world, where good and bad are hardly as clean cut as you’d want them to be. It’s a gripping story, where the lesser of two evils mayn’t be as much of a lesser evil as you’d hope. Plus, this is a movie that makes every freaking gunshot count.

6. Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a small movie that feels so much bigger. It’s tight focus on three characters really lets it explore them, and grapple with the questions of artificial intelligence. Plus, I love me some haunting science fiction, and that’s definitely what this movie is.

5. Infinitely Polar Bear

There’s a beautiful scene early on between the two leads as Maggie encourages Cam that he is capable of taking care of their daughters alone, despite his bipolar disorder. It’s heartbreaking, filled with a tragic honesty that goes on to permeate the entire movie. It’s not a story of recovery — that’d be too easy — instead it tells a story about not being alright. And it’s all the better for it.

4. Inside Out

I’m a Pixar nut; I’ve seen every one since Finding Nemo in theaters. What’s remarkable about Inside Out is how it handles a very grownup topic — depression — with such nuance. It, like Polar Bear is a story about not being alright; and though this one ends with recovery it is no less potent.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Dang, dude. This is an action movie. The movie’s outlandish spectacles and nonstop action grip you from start to finish. That it’s grounded with a strong feminist perspective is a bonus that makes it so much better. And that’s not even getting into the sheer craft of how it’s shot. I want more movies like this.

2. Creed

Watch this scene.

I can’t think of a movie as comfortable in its own skin as Creed. Filled with a youthful energy that fuels a terrific underdog story of identity, the movie is an expertly crafted fist-pumping, cheer-worthy movie. Plus, its use of motivated long takes shows The Revenant how to do it.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Could it have been any other movie? It’s a phenomenal follow up to the original, that captures the beautiful optimism that made the originals so special. But it’s the old movies updated with wonderful diversity and a worthy successor of a protagonist. This is Star Wars, this is a movie that reminds me why I like telling stories. This one wins, hands down.

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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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Josh Kinda Just Wants To Talk More About Star Wars

The Force Awakens’ planet-obliterating Starkiller Base is powered by absorbing its system’s sun and firing it as a weapon. This mechanic allows fighter pilot Poe Dameron to utter the phrase “but as long as there’s light, we got a chance” without it feeling remotely hollow or contrived. It reflects, as well, the standoff going off in another part of the planet and, even bigger, the general concept of the Star Wars saga as a whole. See, Star Wars is about the Light Side and the Dark Side, good and evil, all that. It’s a cosmic conflict, one that’s rendered all the more powerful when given a distinct visual flair — it’s no coincidence that when the climactic battle is at its bleakest the sun has disappeared and it’s in victory that it comes back. The understanding of the climax, then, is that the heroes lost all hope (note which scene we’re in when the light fades for good) but were still able to win in the end. Talk about story-theme-image synergy.

That a line like that can be worked so effortlessly into a story is a mark of director Abram’s mastery. By rights, it should be too corny to work, and in all honesty, yes, it is pretty darn corny. But we don’t care (or at least I don’t) because it fits perfectly in with what’s going on. Poe isn’t lecturing about some deeper issue; he’s appraising the battle’s situation.

Now, it works for Star Wars since the franchise, at its best, wears its heart proudly on its sleeve. But it doesn’t make being able to work its central theme so effortlessly any less impressive. It’s not something a lot of movies can do, but is one that Star Wars can because, well, science fiction.

So here we are again, talking about how the silliness of scifi (a weapon powered by absorbing a sun?) allows it to go places non-genre fiction can’t. Heck, not just scifi. Life of Pi is all about stories. Because it deals with such an outlandish situation (in a lifeboat with a tiger. Also mysterious floating islands), Pit’s retelling of it to the company men at the end forces us, as readers, to reconsider all that happened. Ultimately, we’re left with the same conclusion that Secondhand Lions came to: the factualness of a story is less important than the Truth of it. But because we’ve been with Pi throughout his adventure, him asking the company men (and us) what makes the better story feels downright natural.

You can’t just throw ideas at a thing and hope it sticks. Avatar tried its darnedest to embed a green message in its narrative, but it felt heavy handed because it had so little to do with what the story was really about (finding your true self in another culture that— okay, so maybe Avatar would have benefitted by keeping the green theme more front and center). The best themes are so well worked in that you only realize them subconsciously at first.

Anyway. I’m still exhausted from my movie shoot. And my copy of The Force Awakens gets to my apartment in a few days and I can’t wait. And I love that Abrams was able to work that line into the movie so effortlessly.

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Differently Normal

I’m currently in the middle of my second game of Subterfuge, a wonderful mobile strategy game rife with cunning, manipulation, and, er, subterfuge. Within the game our Specialists, special hires which essentially let you bend the rules of the game. While most everything in the game is depicted abstractly, the Specialists are all given little portraits. And here’s where the game’s art design shines: LOOK AT THAT DIVERSITY! For a wonderful change, ‘white male’ isn’t the default look and no one’s role is limited by their race; the Navigator’s Asian and the Princess is black!

There’s a misconception that making a character not a white dude means having to make it a story about not being a white dude. Which is a real pain. Sometimes it’s nice to get to just be seen, no strings attached.

Look at Big Hero 6, which I liked for a number of reasons, in no small part because I got to watch a movie with a main character who looks like me. Another reason I really liked it was that Hiro’s race was completely inconsequential. Hiro’s half-Asian (like me!) but he still gets to be the everyman. His race has no more to do with his arc than Luke Skywalker’s. And that’s cool!

See, when ‘white and male’ is subliminally registered as the default, chances are you’re going to go with a white dude when you need someone relatively nondescript and ordinary. So when you need an everyman — y’know,  that person who could be anyone — you end up going with a white guy. It’s why Bruce Willis played the ordinary cop who had to save the building in Die Hard. It’s why Bruce Willis played the ordinary cab driver who had to save the galaxy in The Fifth Element. It’s why Bruce Willis played the ordinary driller who had to save the planet in Armageddon.

But you can shake things up and make, say, a woman the chosen one. Or a black dude the guy who decides to try and fight for something more. And a Latino the ace fighter pilot. Guys, I really like The Force Awakens. But it’s important, because it — and this is crucial — means anyone can be anyone.

I’ve been watching The Expanse later, because I’m a sucker for spaceships with excellent worldbuilding and interesting politicking. What’s also caught my attention is the show’s bent towards inclusiveness. Most obvious is the Undersecretary of the UN who’s played by an Indian woman — and dresses the part. She’s hardly a simple ersatz Gandhi, though; Chrisjen Avasarala is afforded the same complex goals and characterization of Cersei in Game of Thrones. In The Expansive we find an Indian character with depth and complexity well beyond what’s usually afforded non-white characters in Western media. There’s more, too! In one episode we hear reference to the Captain of a Martian warship. When we meet her, she’s Captain Yao, a small Chinese woman who’s first name is essentially ‘Captain.’ That is to say, her identity as ship’s captain is in no way impacted by her race: she’s not a Chinese captain, she’s a captain who happens to be Chinese. The distinction here is crucial, it means that these characters’ identities can be defined more by their jobs and personalities rather than the color of their skin.

Look, there’s a time and place for stories about race. But if the only stories about people who aren’t white is about being non-white, it’s just another form of discrimination where only caucasian people get to be ‘normal.’ We need more Hiros and Avasaralas, characters who get the depth and complexity no matter what they look like. Let’s make the everyman anyone.

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