Tag Archives: The Force Awakens

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.

What movie? Check out the Facebook page here!

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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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Diversity: It’s That Easy!

Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, shows up in the last episode of Jessica Jones, providing a quiet link between that show and Daredevil. She tends to a wounded Luke Cage, because it takes a special kind of doctor to treat an (incredibly hot) man with unbreakable skin. Malcolm, Jessica’s neighbor, shows up too and the three share a scene.

And suddenly there are more (important) people of color interacting on screen than in any other Marvel property. If anything, Jessica Jones shows how simple it is to diversify a cast. Why not make the cutthroat lawyer a woman? Why not make the police officer they interact with black? This intentional mindset of ‘why not’ really affects the overall look of Jones. New York in the Netflix series is diverse, far from the overwhelming whiteness of How I Met Your Mother and Girls. The prominence of women in the story also allows for different narratives, avoiding the problem of Age of Ultron. It gets to the point that it’s hard to find a prominent white male character in Jessica Jones who could be classified as a hero ‘cuz those spots are all taken.

Diversity in media oftentimes comes down to being willing to make a big deal about little decisions. It means not defaulting to “white dude” when creating or casting a character and realizing that archetypes and narratives can belong to anyone because everyone has a story to tell. Or even just because everyone wants to see themselves in a story. Especially as a hero.

J.J. Abrams does this exceptionally well in The Force Awakens. There’s a decided effort in the film to diversify Star Wars and yet doesn’t feel forced. Yes, the main characters are very different (the woman, Rey, is the protagonist [and the best], the ex-Stormtrooper Finn is Nigerian-British, and the hotshot pilot is Guatemalan-American) but the movie’s attention to diversity really shows in the background.

Think about Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. With very few exceptions, all of the bit-part Rebel and Imperial officers were white guys. General Veers and Jan Dodonna have barely a couple lines each, but both were, of course, white men. But The Force Awakens does away with that tradition and switches it up. Imperial Officers are also women and minorities, besides being white. Ken Leung (of Lost fame) plays one of the Resistance’s admirals and a Trinidadian actor plays another. The small band of X-Wing pilots include, besides Poe and a couple aliens, a black guy and an Asian woman. Even the villainous First Order gets in on it: the random Stormtrooper that alerts Kylo Ren to the escaped Rey is a woman. That’s right, in The Force Awakens Stormtroopers can be not only black, but women too. And that’s in addition to the random officers who also just so happen to be diverse.

This is what I mean by making a big deal about little decisions. It means being willing to not just phone it in but decide “hey, maybe this person can look different?” We’re seeing steps being taken in this direction — and not just in Jessica Jones and The Force Awakens. Marvel’s recent slate of comics has been pushing a more diverse range of superheroes as does work like, say, Pacific Rim. It’s small details, yes, but do you know how cool it is to see someone like you on screen? It’s really not as hard to do as it seems, which is one reason why I’m a huge proponent of it. And if it’s not something you’ve thought about, well, you’re in luck.

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