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Friday, April 13, 2018

Sequels, Side Stories, Social Justice... A NEW Star Wars Post!

A never-ending epic mythology loved by many, would be betrayed and killed for by everybody, and is agreed upon by none.
-- from The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1906),
    appended to by Christopher Knight (2018)

The Force Awakens.  Rogue One.  The Last Jedi.  And in six short weeks Solo...

Clearly, much has happened in the past two and a half years since this blogger - said by some to be more enthusiastic than might be healthy - has posted anything at all about Star Wars.  And that last time was about The Star Wars Holiday Special!

Little wonder that a few had written e-mails asking if I was still alive or if I had gone Amish or something.

Happily, I can sincerely report that my love for the Star Wars saga is still there.  As much as it ever was.  It's been part of my life since childhood and someday many decades from now I plan on making everyone giggle at my funeral by being laid out in my Jedi Knight costume.  I lived as a fan and I'm going out as a fan.

However, that's not to say that some things about this mythology, now firmly in the hands of Disney, are beyond concern and commentary.  Writing as I am now, with three new Stars Wars films just since November of 2015 and a fourth incoming (which will finally push the number of the franchise's movies into the double digits and we are NOT counting that "Clone Wars" animated movie) there is a sense of fresh perspective to approach from.  So let's punch it!

The Sequel Trilogy

"This will begin to make things right," Lor San Tekka tells Poe Dameron with the first spoken words of The Force Awakens.  Was he speaking about the situation of the galaxy now thirty years past the events of Return of the Jedi?  Or was it a sly jab at the prequels: a trilogy panned by many... and not without reason... as being when Star Wars went off the rails?  Whether it was Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams or Lawrence Kasdan who wrote that line, he must have had a giggle-fit while typing it.

But for whatever reason, the sequel trilogy so far seems to have galvanized many against Star Wars more than the prequels ever did.  And I can't understand that.  Not at all.  Because so far that has happened... the sequels are proceeding EXACTLY as George Lucas meant for them to go!

Way, waaaay back in the day when Episode VI was still being branded as "Revenge of the Jedi", Lucas described in interviews with Reader's Digest and a few other outlets that the Star Wars saga would someday have nine films total.  That after he finished Return of the Jedi that work would begin on Episodes 1 through 3 and then years after that would come the final trilogy.  That one would be about an older Luke, who even then Lucas was noting wouldn't be in the story at the very beginning.  Lucas emphasized that there was to be one ubiquitous thread through the tapestry he was weaving: the droid duo of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio.  The droids were witnessing this vast story unfold around them, and even at times play critical roles in the tale.  And someday far into the future they would be sharing the entirety of the Skywalker family's adventures with others who would be recording the story and pass it along to others.  Artoo and Threepio were the ciphers through which we would witness this grand epic.

Sometime later, around the early Nineties or so, before the official announcement came out of LucasFilm that writing had begun on Episode 1, George Lucas said something else.  That the then still-planned sequel trilogy would be more "philosophical" than the previous films had been.  That they would be about the concept of power, and what it means to have it and wield it.  The sequel trilogy was also intended to delve deeper into the Force as a concept.  To dissect and examine the Light and Dark sides as had never been done before.

How is this not what the sequel trilogy has been thus far?  Because it seems pretty on track to me.

We know that Lucas' original plot for the sequel trilogy as he gave to Disney at the time of the acquisition was scrapped in large part. But that doesn't mean the themes and motifs he was aiming for were chucked out also.  It would surprise me if Lucas didn't have a large role in consulting about the sequel trilogy.  It's HIS story, after all.  No one knows about where it was headed toward better than he.  In years or even decades to come it will probably come out that he had a bigger hand in the sequels than many would express approval for at this time.  But sooner than later, when it's all spread out before us and we can see the ebb and flow of the Skywalker Family across the span of seventy-some years of story time, it will make sense.  I have faith in that.

So, The Force Awakens was much better than I had anticipated, and it has only grown on me with repeated viewings.  And then came The Last Jedi: the film that schismed the fanbase as few thi... okay as nothing had before, including Jar Jar and those ridiculous midichlorians.

Lemme just go ahead and say it: The Last Jedi is the greatest Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back and in time I believe it will be widely renowned as THE best of the series by far unless Episode 9 supplants it.

Rian Johnson didn't play it safe at all.  He incinerated the garden.  Then he burned down the house for good measure.  Sometimes you have to destroy utterly so that you can rebuild and grow and make it better.  "Let the past die, kill it if you have to".  It was time to let Star Wars grow and blossom into something it had never been before but was always meant to be.  And that wasn't possible if it was still clinging to our own expectations.  This is a multi-generational saga of a kind that has never been done in American cinema before or perhaps ANY cinema at all.  But it has to be allowed to evolve and burst forth.  To not be the domain of one or two generations of fans but to belong to ALL of us.  And that's the meaning of the final scene in The Last Jedi: that beautiful moment where the children at the fathier stables are playing with makeshift dolls of Luke Skywalker.  And that one kid uses the Force to nonchalantly grab his broom before looking up at the night sky in wonder and hope...

That would have been the PERFECT final scene for Episode 9.  But it also punctuated Luke Skywalker's character arc and its appropriate ending: as the legend he was always meant to be.  Flawed though he was, Luke rose above that and become something greater.  Something far more powerful than he could have been as the failed and fallen Jedi exile.  In his final act, Luke understands and accepts the choice of Obi-Wan Kenobi decades earlier.
Would we have dared rob him of that, because of our insistence that Luke fit to our own demands of narrative?

Is The Last Jedi a perfect movie?  No.  There are problems I have about its sense of internal chronology (something I might make a separate post about soon).  But it accomplishes what needed to happen for this saga to be something that would be passed down to and appreciated by our children, and our children's children.  And I absolutely must tip my hat to Rian Johnson for having the guts to do that.

By the way, for what it's worth: my Snoke theory sucked, too!

The Standalone Films and New Trilogies

Opening night of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for me was a cinema on the outskirts of San Diego.  Unfortunately it was the first time ever that I had seen a Star Wars movie at a theater without the company of any friends.  However I like to think that I made some new friends in the hour or so before the projector cranked up.  The Lord does provide, it seems...

Rogue One demonstrates how good the Star Wars franchise can be from here on out if it's allowed to take risks.  Yes, it was about the stolen plans for the Death Star.  But from that one bit of line from the opening crawl of A New Hope Gareth Edwards and his team painted into being, with strokes both bold and fine, a vista perhaps grander than any we've seen on this magnificent canvas.  It was dark, and mature, and unforgiving... and it wasn't afraid to let people we fast came to care about die.  Rogue One was the Star Wars movie that emphasized war in all its savage and gritty horror.  Star Wars needed that, more than it realized.  And that nightmarish moment when those poor Rebels hear the mechanized breathing down that blackened corridor and the red saber ignites...

I kid you not: the whole heapin' theater went BERZERK with screams of terror.  So many of us left the premiere screening with a "thousand yard stare", in stunned disbelief at the butchery we had witnessed.  And that is when I knew: Rogue One succeeded.

Now, we aren't quite at Solo yet.  That's coming next month.  And I can barely believe it either, how much I am NOT enthused about this next film.  Maybe it's the tumultuous production history that's plagued it.  Maybe it's simply that it's not a story that necessarily needs to be told.  But based on the past few trailers, I'm beginning to be hopeful.  It will likely be the first Star Wars film that I won't catch on opening day, but that's okay.  I'm hoping to see it together with friends that weekend though... and that matters more.

My criticism here is that Disney has set a precedent for Star Wars stories beyond the nine episodes of the Skywalker saga.  But by no means should ALL the Star Wars films to come be tethered to that core epic.  It's a big galaxy.  It's a big HISTORY: some 25,000 years of lore and it's barely been scratched into.  If Disney is afraid of lack of marketability with new characters removed from the Skywalker storyline, it shouldn't be.  Well into The Force Awakens I found that Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Renn, though I had known nothing at all about them... they had become characters I was genuinely feeling for and empathizing with.  By the time Han and Chewie showed up, I had accepted Rey and the others as being as much a part of this saga as any other character.

There are a lot of stories to tell in that galaxy far, far away.  Across a massive geography and span of eons.  Given how well he did with The Last Jedi, I'm looking forward to what Rian Johnson can show us with his new trilogy.  However...

Saga Over-Saturation

Let me be blunt: I'm afraid that we are getting too much Star Wars WAY too fast.  For so long we went three years between new Star Wars movies.  And then it was sixteen years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace.  Come a little over a month from now we will have had FOUR new Star Wars motion pictures in less than two and a half years!

Is it too much too soon?

It's not an uncommon concern.  Many longtime die-hard fans are wondering if cranking out Star Wars movies so rapidly is a wise tactic on the part of Disney.  If the toy sales related to The Last Jedi are any indication, there is a fatigue that is setting in.  At 12:01 this morning the new merchandise for Solo: A Star Wars Story went on sale.  I'm going to venture to say that the Solo stuff is going to be the worst selling in Star Wars history.  And it won't be a reflection on the film itself so much as it is how TIRING it is to be assaulted with Star Wars on what is now practically a nonstop basis.

I'd rather have GOOD Star Wars, than to have Star Wars NOW.  Moderation and delayed gratification are great virtues to adopt.  One film a year, every Christmas holiday season, would be plenty.  Perhaps without ever intending to, Disney established a wonderful holiday tradition for all to share and enjoy when they released The Force Awakens and then Rogue One in December.  The Last Jedi continued the tradition and ideally Solo should have been the entry for 2018.

Much the same can be said of Disney's plans for Star Wars in television (maybe I'll finally catch up on Star Wars: Rebels soon.  So much Star Wars, so little time...).  If there are one or two concurrent series, there shouldn't be much fatigue in that (I mean hey, CBS has how many CSI shows now?!).  But if I have to someday load onto my iPad Pro the app for the Disney Star Wars Channel - 27 different series for $9.99 a month - I'm gonna say "forget THAT!"

Remember Disney: we want GOOD Star Wars, not necessarily a LOT of Star Wars.

Diversity and Social Justice Agendas

This is the big one that worries me.

It completely mystifies me: the kerfluffle about Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose and Holdo and pretty much ALL the Rogue One team members...
Some are angry that casting in Star Wars has become "politically correct".  Some are complaining that Star Wars isn't "diverse enough".  And I can't understand either.

Maybe it comes from growing up on a dairy farm in rural North Carolina.  As a young child, my life was filled with so many different people.  It didn't even occur to me that I was "white" and some were "black" and that some were "hispanic".  They were simply people.  Just individuals.  And when I saw The Empire Strikes Back at age six I never saw Lando Calrissian as a "black man".  Even that young I saw that Lando was a unique and complex person who was stuck in a very bad situation.  He was a good man who had been compelled to do something bad and it was because he was looking out for others and not himself.  But was he a "black man" doing that?  Not to me.  He was a man though.

That's not good enough today.  Now we have to fill a social agenda quota: make "so many black" and "so many female" and whatever.  And then there are those who despise the fact that the main hero of the sequel trilogy is a girl.

And it is all completely bollocks.

I don't know how else to put this, but here it goes.  In the Star Wars galaxy there are NO black people.  There are NO white people.  There are NO Asians.  There are NO hispanics.  Whatever planet humanity hails from in that universe, Europe and Asia and Africa are long forgotten if they existed at all.  Those are PEOPLE, dammit!  And to pick this one out and that one out as "examples of racial diversity" is to insult too much of what Star Wars is supposed to be.  We are supposed to be focused on these characters' qualities of virtue and integrity and moral being, not their skin color.

Huh.  Seems that Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about that once upon a time.

It shouldn't matter what color is the skin of the actors and actresses, or where they come from on Earth.  The question is: are these actors and actresses the RIGHT ones to fill the roles?  It's the good of the story that matters, not any "special interests".

And so far as Rey is concerned: seems that roughly half the population of humanity is female.  And there has been a male character at the forefront of every episode in this saga until now.  Let the ladies have their turn.  They have statistics on their side.

As I said before: I want good Star Wars.  I want Star Wars to be something for everyone.  But it cannot be everything for everyone.  And therein rests the greatest peril to this galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars is a mythology about ideas.  It is not meant to be, and never should be, about ideologies.  And though it hasn't occurred in the film series itself yet, there are already indications that the saga may be taken down paths it should never venture toward.  A "quick and easy way", as Yoda might have cautioned.

So, let's get to the heartmeat of the matter...

I and many others were appalled by Chuck Wendig's Aftermath novel trilogy, which takes place following the events of Return of the Jedi.  They are by a country lightyear the absolutely worst literature of the new Star Wars canon and Wendig insinuated (in a blog post so laden with profanity and raw hatred that in a sane world he should never again be allowed to write for the franchise) that all of the bad reviews that Aftermath received were because "bigots" didn't aprove of his social agenda in that novel and its two followups.

No, Aftermath wasn't given bad reviews because anyone was "a bigot".  Aftermath and its sequels were given bad reviews because the plot was terrible, the characters were cardboard-thin, the dialogue was abominable, there were too many elements from our real world that ripped us out of the suspension of disbelief (playing Settlers of Catan, seriously?), there was an ignorance of science that would be unforgivable in ANY fantasy setting (a single comet spawns an entire asteroid field?  That must have been one big-ass comet...), that what should have been the thrilling Battle of Jakku was turned into a dreary bore.  It was as if an A-list director had been given a hundred million dollar budget to remake Tora! Tora! Tora! and instead made a film about the Pearl Harbor Post Office.

But since it's been brought up...

Aftermath's many flaws were exponentially magnified by Wendig deciding that he would turn Star Wars into a platform for his own social justice agenda.  

Which did nothing whatsoever to alleviate that myriad of flaws which would have been there regardless.  Perhaps if he had been subtle about it.  That particular issue has been touched upon a number of times in what is now considered to be the "Legends" brand: that vast body of work once and still so lovingly referred to as the "Expanded Universe".  It was not anything remarkably new.

But Wendig was hellbent on shoving his own agenda into the faces of those he disagreed with.  People who only came to his books because they trusted him to give them a good solid Star Wars story that would respect them as fans.  He did not do that however.  And based on the rantings and ravings he posted on his blog, Chuck Wendig seems to have a very real and visceral hatred of those who do not believe as he does on some matters.  Just as the Dark Side always does, be it there or in our real world, that hatred within him corrupted his work.

That must never be allowed to happen to the Star Wars franchise as a whole.  And perhaps Disney will have learned something from allowing a propagandist to contribute canon to the saga.

I don't want Star Wars to be a "liberal" mouthpiece.  I don't want Star Wars to be a "conservative" mouthpiece either.  Or for it to be a stage from which to be pro-Christian or pro-atheist or in support of this party or that party... Star Wars is supposed to be BETTER than that.  It's supposed to be something timeless and to harness it to temporal causes, regardless of ideology, would tear apart the greater core of what makes Star Wars so dear to people of all races and creeds and perspectives.

Star Wars should never, ever become a political platform.  Star Wars should never, ever become a social engineering platform.  It shouldn't be co-opted into becoming a stamp of approval or endorsement for anything of our fleeting temporal concerns.  Star Wars is about the heart of the human condition and the universal truths of wisdom and folly, of good and evil.  It belongs to "them": to those who will come after.  When we make it about "us", we are depriving them of some of that.  Maybe even depriving them of all of it.

Maybe Disney wasn't fazed by one author going off the reservation like that.  But the films are an entirely different affair.

Because one of the riskiest things that ANY business can do, at all, is to involve itself in politics.  Because doing so puts the customer base in jeopardy.  Dick's Sporting Goods is learning that even now: sales at its stores have plummeted since the company joined in with the recent matter of gun purchases.  Target has taken a ginormous retail hit in recent years after announcing policies regarding restrooms.  And the half-empty (often worse) stadiums this past season are testament to the "success" of the National Football League making a social agenda more important than kicking a pigskin.

Disney's own ESPN should be sufficient warning: honk off most of your audience and there WILL be a price to pay.

Without remarking upon any issue at all, one way or another, I must make this observation and Disney would do well to consider it.  See that ginormous swath of red across America from this past election?  That's where most of the people who buy tickets to Star Wars movies are from.  Those are also where most of the families that buy Star Wars toys and clothing and books and posters and video games live.  Yeah, there are plenty of Star Wars fans in those blue enclaves along the coasts and in the northeastern United States and around the metro areas... but the red is where most of the action is at.  That big burning crimson is where most of those billions and billions of dollars in merchandising sales alone are being generated from.

That is not a judgment against anybody.   That being said, I can genuinely attest that very, very few of those families would buy action figures of characters who were engaged in some kind of behavior that is in dire opposition to sincere convictions and beliefs about right and wrong.  And it would decimate or worse the overseas market for Star Wars.

That isn't what fans of Star Wars want or deserve.  They... we... want something we can share and enjoy in common, no matter what our stance and vision and notions might be in this real world.  Inflicting the real world so blatantly into this saga out of selfish ideological interest would ruin Star Wars for all.  It would be worse than the proverbial killing the goose that laid the golden egg.  It would be LITERALLY killing whatever that is laying the golden eggs.

Somehow, I like to think that Disney knows and appreciates that.


qemuel said...

I find it amazing that I haven't checked your blog in way too long, nor did I immediately do so the moment Last Jedi came out, and you post your thoughts the day before I thought "but what did Chris Knight think of this movie!?"

I am seriously considering coming out of retirement and resurrecting the review blog to articulate my thoughts on this film now that pretty much everyone on the planet has as well...