On the Oscars

Accelerating its journey to complete irrelevance, the Academy Awards announced that it plans to add a category for ‘Best Popular Film’ (there’s a fairly credible suspicion that this is mostly a way to give an award to Black Panther, which…let’s not get into that).

I’ve long since stopped caring about the Oscars, but I wanted to address this a little.

It seems like everyone has problems with this, though from different directions. According to BBC, some people are complaining that it degrades the Academy Awards into a popularity contest, which is rather funny considering what the Oscars already are, while others complain that it will be a dumping ground for worthy films that people actually watched while allowing the more prestigious Best Picture award to continue going to movies people have already forgotten.

Here’s my problem: splitting ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Popular Film’ creates two separate categories of cinema: the ‘important’ films and the lesser ‘popular’ films (because if you distinguish from Best Picture – a designation that includes all films – and Best Popular Film – which includes a limited subset of that, you are very clearly implying the latter is a separate and lesser category).

One of the major problems with the Oscars is that they have been growing increasingly elitist, self-congratulatory, and hyper-focused on agendas. A look at recent Best Picture nominees shows a heavy leaning towards smaller, unpopular films that push issues from a perspective favored by the political and social climate in Hollywood – race, sexuality, Left-wing politics, and so on. Examples of agenda-driven films (listing only the winners that I personally know obviously and clearly fit one of the categories) from recent years include winners The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, and The Hurt Locker, as well as nominees Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Fences, Hidden Figures, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Selma, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Help, The Kids Are All Right, Avatar, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. Again, that is limiting it only to films that of my own knowledge push one of the above listed agendas, limited to Best Picture Nominees of the past ten years. I imagine that a more thorough examination than I’ve made would make the pattern far stronger. This, by the way, is not to say anything about the quality of the films themselves, nor is it to say there are no honorable exceptions, such as 2010 winner The King’s Speech. merely that this is a strong pattern in the Academy’s nominations in recent years.

They have been extremely reluctant to give nods to what are called ‘Popular’ films or films that have the approval of audiences; the fact that the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten following the controversial decision in 2009 to snub both The Dark Knight and Wall-E is only another example of this; it is an attempt at appeasement: to have space to nominate select ‘popular’ films without any chance of actually awarding them the trophy.

This new ‘Popular Film’ category is another attempt at appeasement: the Academy will give out a minor and grudging award to films people actually liked while still being able to reward the films that push the correct agendas. The fact that this seems to be largely a means to reward Black Panther is only another continuation of the trend of agenda first (let’s be honest; Infinity War far and away deserves to win that category above Black Panther. Quite a few films would be more deserving of an award than Black Panther, as a matter of fact: I’d even rank the mediocre Ready Player One as a more worthy recipient, though that’s not really the point here).

This is a trend that has been steadily growing over time. In, say, the 1960s Best Picture nominees tended to be popular films that were well-received at the box office, showed a high level of technical quality, and dealt with large subject matter or at least universal ideas. In 1965, for instance, the nominees included My Fair Lady (the winner), Beckett, Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and Zorba the Greek. Today I can only imagine maybe Dr. Strangelove being nominated. A few years before in 1963 the nominees were Lawrence of Arabia (winner), Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, The Music Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Quite apart from the fact that these are all technically fantastic films (at least, I know the ones I have seen are such and the others have a reputation of being so), note that one, these are big movies dealing with big subject matter and ideas, whether or not its immediately relevant to the then-political climate (though the nice thing about films like this is that they’re always relevant: My Fair Lady is never going to be out of date as long as men and women are attracted to each other and society has different manners for different classes), and two, that there is a huge variety in the kind of film being nominated, from musicals to family films to war movies to intimate dramas. Zorba the Greek is a very different film from Mary Poppins, which is barely in the same universe as Dr. Strangelove.

The point is, these were, by and large, the popular films of their day, and they will be remembered long after most of the Best Picture nominees of the past decade have been forgotten (which, in many cases, is now. Does anyone remember The Artist, Best Picture Winer of 2012?).

If the Oscars operated as they did back in the day, there would be no need for a ‘Best Popular Film’ because ‘Popular Film’ wouldn’t be considered a lesser category and they wouldn’t be filling up the Best Picture category with nonsense that no one cared about. Avengers: Infinity War would be a shoo-in nominee for Best Picture and a strong candidate to win. That is the kind of movie old Hollywood liked: a huge crowd-pleaser that was technically very strong and which dealt with big or universal ideas.

This whole post turned out longer and more involved than I meant it to. What I mean to say is that this move by the Academy is only the latest in a string of insults against their audience and the idea that they are entertainers rather than instructors. It exacerbates rather than solves the problem of Oscar irrelevance, all the more so because it seems to be done for the sake of continuing the same agenda-based criteria they have been operating under for at least a decade if not more. Certainly if they intend this as a way to tempt viewers back to the show, I doubt this will work. Cutting out the hostile moralizing would be much more to the point.

Star Wars Conclusion

My ranking of the films:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. Revenge of the Sith
  5. Rogue One
  6. Attack of the Clones
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Solo
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Holiday Special
  11. The Last Jedi

So, we’ve at last reached the end of my retread through the entire ‘Star Wars’ film series. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least. I imagine someone with the time to do a thorough research project (and access to backstage information) might be able to do a full study of how the film industry and society in general has changed in the intervening years through the lens of this series of films.

What strikes me most of all is just how far above every subsequent entry the original films are in every substantive way: story, plot, dialogue, character, theme, you name it. Comparing the original trilogy to the modern trilogy or the prequels is strange. It isn’t just a difference in quality; it’s a difference in competence. It’s a little like watching young Mark Hamill acting opposite Sir Alec Guinness (or, alternatively, Daisy Ridley trying to act opposite the venerable Mark Hamill): one side knows their craft in a way the other simply does not.

I don’t want to make a generalization, but it really does seem like the quality of film and filmmakers has steeply declined even in the thirty-odd years since Return of the Jedi. Even absent George Lucas’s quixotic attempt to write and direct the entire prequel trilogy himself after decades of comparative idleness, we have a huge, multi-billion dollar company like Disney staking a massive investment in these films and the best they can come up with is the uneven Rogue One. The quality of writing and storytelling in these later films is nothing short of an embarrassment, at times offensively so, and now we don’t even have the excuse of George Lucas trying to make it a personal project. This is a branch of the top entertainment media company in the world throwing enormous amounts of money and promotion at a project with The Last Jedi as the result. Meanwhile, some forty years ago, that same ‘branch’ made The Empire Strikes Back.

Something certainly changed in the meantime, whatever it might have been. Somehow we went from Leigh Brackett to Rian Johnson. It’s not just a matter that there is no comparing them as writers; it’s that someone made the choice to hire one and someone else made the choice to hire the other and thought the script he turned in was acceptable, and that this was done under the auspices of the most powerful film and entertainment company in the world.

What that tells me is that no cared about the quality of these films. They assumed that a Star Wars film would make money, so it didn’t matter what they put out there. It seems like ideology, not quality and not entertainment was the chief motivation. The characters have the consistency and depth of wet cardboard, but we can boast that there is not a single white male among the heroes and that they’re headed by a ‘strong woman’. The story is a nightmare of writing mistakes and plot holes, but the important thing is that shows men to be incompetent failures and women noble saviors who step up to tear down the past and fix the mistakes of the male order, while working in a few anti-capitalism messages as subtle as a sledgehammer. That was what mattered to the writers of these new films: politics and diversity. Not entertainment, not character, not ideas, not wonder, not ethics, not myth; just fuel for wannabe hack sociologists (but I repeat myself) to write about.

Basically, the conclusion I reach is that ‘Star Wars’ has suffered the fate of a wealthy country that turns to socialism following the mis-management of an incompetent regime (that would be the prequels): everything that made it successful or beloved is gutted and replaced with the new ideology under the assumption that it will always continue to make money no matter what. Then, as it dissolves into poverty and chaos, its new masters increasingly turn on the people themselves, blaming everyone and everything except their own insane choices until the country is run into the ground and thoroughly destroyed.

‘Star Wars’ is now the Venezuela of film.

Thoughts on ‘Solo’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi

Well, the good news is that Solo is immensely better than the abomination that was The Last Jedi. The bad news is, that still leaves it plenty of room be be pretty darn bad.

The film purports to be the origin story of Han Solo, showing where he came from, how he met up with Chewbacca, Lando, and of course how he acquired the Millennium Falcon. It posits that he began his days as a young orphan on the planet Corellia, stealing junk under the command of the sinister Lady Proxima – a centipede-like alien who burns in the sun yet has glass windows in her private chamber – alongside his girlfriend Qi’ra. During their escape attempt, Qi’ra is captured and Han hastily joins up with the Imperial military to avoid the same fate. Three years later he deserts to join a small gang of crooks led by a man named Beckett, hoping to earn enough money to buy a ship and go back to rescue his girlfriend. The job goes south, putting the survivors in hock to a crime lord named Dryden Vos, which forces them to take on an even bigger job that brings in Lando, the Falcon, and the Kessel Run. Oh, and Qi’ra is now working for Vos as his ‘top lieutenant.’

The galactic mob boss has a twenty-something girl whom he’s known for less than three years as his most trusted lieutenant. That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with here (needless to say, how this came about is never explained).

Okay, so there are a lot of problems with this movie.

In the first place, the structure of the film is odd. There’s a part early on where Han is settling in with his new crew preparing for a big job, and it felt as though it ought to have come much later. The characters bond, then half of them get wiped out in the very next seen and we have another set of characters for the rest of the film. The whole thing is kind of disjointed and occasionally confusing, without much of a unifying plot. Han is trying to earn money to buy a ship to go back to Correllia to get his girlfriend: how does that translate to serving with the Imperial infantry for three years? Then he meets up with the girlfriend and she’s working for Vos, so…so much for that motivation, we switch to trying to square debts with the crime boss, which he didn’t really incur since it was the guy he was working for who made the deal, but that leads to pulling another heist, which leads to an encounter with the nascent Rebellion (more on that in a bit), then turning on the mob boss, then…

You see what I mean? It’s less a single coherent plot than a series of small plots awkwardly stitched together and revolving around Han Solo trying to escape with his girlfriend until that motivation just kind of drops. There are too many characters who are set up, then drop out of the film entirely or disappear for long periods of time. Lady Proxima is set up and presented in the form an obviously very expensive puppet, then disappears for good after about thirty seconds of screen time. What was the point of that? Beckett’s crew – including his girlfriend – die a couple scenes after they’re introduced, then after a brief funeral are pretty much forgotten for the rest of the film. Again, what was the point? It adds nothing to his character or his relationship with Solo. In fact, the entire train heist could easily have been cut with minimal re-writes and the film probably would have been better for it.

Lando, surprisingly enough, isn’t in the film very much, and most of the time that he is involved he spends sitting on his ship or hanging out in the background, then he dumps the others like a coward as soon as he gets the chance. Why? Maybe if the film were more streamlined he could have been more involved; we might have gotten the chance to see him and Han become the friends they’re supposed to be instead of it just sort of happening because…actually, I don’t know why. They really have no reason to be friends by the end of the film. Maybe they’re saving that for a sequel.

Though, to be fair, I thought Donald Glover was okay as a younger Lando. He doesn’t have half the charisma of Billy Dee Williams, and he gives some very strange readings, but simply as a performance and outside of the nonsense they have him do (or not do) he was acceptable, for the most part.

The origin of the Millennium Falcon, however, falls completely flat. Turns out it’s just a ship Lando happened to own which was already the fastest ship in the galaxy, already called the Millennium Falcon, and which Han really has no reason to be particularly attached to even by the end of the film.

That’s a recurring problem here: though the movie is supposedly about how Han became Han, there’s very little of actual ‘origin’ to this origin story. That is, the things they provide backstory to are mostly glossed over without any kind of effort or weight to them. Where did he get his blaster? Beckett just tossed it to him before a job. His name? A random Imperial officer typed it into his application sheet. His ship? Well, Lando had it, then Han beat him at cards at the very end. Oh, and nothing about it came from Han’s loving care: it was just always like that.

Nor are Hans’ abilities given any explanation: his fantastic piloting skills, his mechanical skills, his shooting skills, improvisational skills, card playing, none of it is earned: he just has it. He drove a speeder and got kicked out flight school, so now he can automatically fly the Millennium Falcon better than anyone through the space storm that is instant death for everyone else. He shows up to a card game that, as far as we’re told, he’s never played before and almost beats Lando (would have if Lando hadn’t cheated, which…ugh, why? Why are you trying to make Lando out to be a completely unlikable person?).

As for Chewie, the film posits he was a prisoner of the Empire that they fed deserting soldiers to. Only Han spoke Wookie and so convinced him to join him in an escape plan. So, a big, important scene in the film and the life of our hero revolves around Han imitating Chewie’s growls. It is exactly as stupid as it sounds. Oh, and the film makes a point to explain that Chewbacca’s nickname is a nickname because Han didn’t want to say his actual name all the time. Glad they took the time for that rather than, say, giving the Millennium Falcon an origin that amounted to more than ‘it was there.’

(Han and Chewie also get a shower scene together. I’ll just throw that out there, because that’s pretty much what the film does).

There is a brief allusion to Han’s father, and that he worked on building freighters like the Falcon, but it’s passed over in a couple lines. That is a nice idea, and I would have much preferred to hear more about it, maybe have a flashback of Han and his dad, than to have yet more scenes of his girlfriend telling him that she’s a bad guy now.

The Qi’ra character is a problem because we in the audience know Han isn’t going to end up with her, and her presence in the story raises several issues, particularly the aforementioned questions of just how the heck this random street rat rose to become a professional assassin and bodyguard to a major gangster in only three years. That, and she’s not very interesting, doesn’t play much of a role in the plot apart from being Solo’s motivation, and her scenes are very repetitive. Again, she keeps reiterating that Han’s a good guy and she isn’t, and he keeps denying it. They don’t talk about anything that matters, like “how did you get off that planet?” or “What happened to you after we got separated?” Just vague references to being good or bad people.

Also, it’s one heck of a coincidence that, after being separated for three years these two just randomly bump into each other on the other side of the galaxy. And that brings us to another problem: that much like The Force Awakens this film seems to simply spawn in things whenever it needs them. There’s literally a moment where Beckett says they need to talk to the bad guy and his ship just appears. There’s a bit at the end where Han chases after Beckett, who has at least five minutes’ head start, but somehow Han ends up standing calmly right across his path.

Then there’s L3-37.

L3 is clearly an attempt to recapture the positive effect of K2 from Rogue One, but it badly misfires. Someone decided to make her an advocate for ‘droid rights’ with all the hostile self-righteousness of a modern college student (“We are sentient!” “Why? Because you’re my organic overlord?” etc.). She has a fantastic navigational computer for no reason at all, which is the only justification for her existence in this film (and it’s a pretty flimsy one at that: why would a droid even have such a computer? Wouldn’t that sort of thing be loaded onto a ship?). And are they really trying to make out that robots really are sentient beings with rights who suffer injustice by being treated like machines? Is Star Wars really poaching ideas from the Astro-Boy movie?

Whether this was meant to be making fun of SJWs or pandering to them, it doesn’t work at all. L3 is not funny and she’s not charming; she’s just obnoxious to the point that I almost cheered when she finally got shot to pieces.

Oh, and there are jokes suggesting she and Lando are sleeping together. Lando has sexual innuendos with a robot. Who thought that was in any way appropriate for a Star Wars film?

That said, it is unintentionally hilarious to see Lando cradling half her body and crying over this droid as she shuts down, as if he couldn’t just fix her and turn her back on.

Only, he can’t because he uploads her into the Falcon. So, the Millennium Falcon canonically now has the mind of a self-righteous sex toy. Thank you for that, movie.

Also, what is the deal with ‘Marauders’ in this movie? First they’re played as bad guys, and have kind of a cool ‘80s action-flick vibe to them. Then they disappear for an hour and it turns out they were the beginnings of the Rebellion and are led by a fourteen-year-old girl.

Uh…I have questions.

First of all, did Disney forget that the Rebellion got started about the same time as the Empire? We saw it beginning in Episode Three; we don’t need this nonsense about the start of the Rebellion. Also, why is their leader a teenage girl? Was she really the most qualified person available? Are we meant to forget that they’re responsible for the deaths of the monkey guy and Beckett’s girlfriend? Because the characters apparently did, as they don’t feel the need to mention it (again pointing to just how pointless that sequence was). It just feels like a twist for the sake of being a twist.

Speaking of twists, this film has a doozy. Are you ready? It turns out the Space mobster who was introduced murdering a man, has threatened to kill our heroes multiple times, and is heavily implied to physically abuse the female lead…is a bad guy.

No, I ‘m not kidding: they play this up like it’s a major revelation, with dramatic music, a slow lead in, and a ‘shock chord’ on the reveal that the criminal organization the main characters are trying to appease is actually evil. It’s ridiculous.

Though, to be fair, it’s less absurd than the other major twist, which is that the secret head of this criminal organization is none other that Darth Maul. Again, I’m not making that up: he survived being cut in half and dropping down a bottomless pit and some, what, twenty years later just shows up with mechanical legs and his double-lightsaber, which he turns on and then turns back off for no reason. I won’t even attempt to go over that one.

All that and I haven’t even touched on the film’s biggest liability: the lead actor.

I do not know why anyone thought casting Alden Ehrenreich in this role was in any way a good idea. He looks nothing like a young Harrison Ford (his face is too broad, his eyes are shaped different, etc), he sounds nothing like Ford (his voice is much higher), and to top it all off he is not a good actor at all. His very first line (“You should see what they look like!”) is awkwardly delivered, and he doesn’t improve as the film goes on. His inflection is off, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his facial expressions, and his dialogue is almost never convincing. Like, when Beckett punches him in anger at one, point, his “what was that for?” just sounds vaguely confused. Some lines he mumbles, others he over-plays as though he’s in a high school drama performance. It is just a remarkably bad bit of casting, especially for such an iconic role.

(I can only imagine what it must have been like for Ron Howard to direct this guy: (Muttering)“Good God, I was giving better performances than this when I was six.” (aloud) “That’s great, Alden! Let’s try that again…”)

Then there’s the clumsy fan-service, which is much more akin to that in The Force Awakens than Rogue One: we have things like Lando’s Jabba disguise showing up (apparently, he just had it in his closet for a good decade), the monkey guy making random references to ‘minocks’ and the cantina, Chewie losing the same piece in the holo-chess game that he loses in the original film, and so on and so forth. It’s all pretty clumsy and at times patently desperate.

Also, a lot of emphasis is placed on Han’s dice, which were introduced in The Last Jedi, as well as hyperfuel. It’s as if this movie were retroactively trying to make that one a little less moronic. Yeah, that’s not gonna happen, guys; just let it go.

Okay, so let’s call it: this is a bad film. But is there anything to like about it?

Well, what I find I appreciated the most is that Han and Chewie’s relationship is pretty much spot-on. I don’t like the scenario for how they met, but their friendship develops well over the course of the film and they actually have some good back-and-forth. The film at least knows to treat Chewie as an actual character, unlike the sequels.

I kind of appreciate that the film underplays the Empire angle, trying to show a more ground-level perspective, and that we get a bit of a feel for what day-to-day life under the Empire was like (though describing it as a “lawless time” makes no sense whatsoever).

And I will say that at times the film just feels like Star Wars again, with the ships, the fantastic aliens, and the light tone. When they fly through a nebula and run into a giant space monster, it’s awesome. That’s the sort of thing we want from Star Wars. Likewise the idea of the space storm, and some of the imagery inside it is really cool (though they didn’t need to repeat the ‘asteroid field’ theme music).

Some of the humor does work. I like the bit after they escape the space storm where Han and Lando stand looking at the battered Falcon. Han comments on what a great ship it is, while Lando, surveying the damage, answers “I hate you.” I also laughed at the card game scene where Han snaps at an alien with six or seven eyes on stalks to keep all his eyes on his own cards.

Then, near the end, there is one ‘origin’ moment that works: wherein Han indeed shoots first. It isn’t given the set up that it ought to have had, but it was one of the few moments in the film where this felt like Han Solo: where you believed the connection between this character and the one we met in Star Wars.

On the whole, though it is a bad movie, it isn’t a malevolent movie. There were parts that worked and parts that at least entertained. There was some creativity, even if it was swallowed up in stupid choices and desperate fan-service. Except for the weird sexual content (again, why?) it’s pretty harmless, especially compared to the sequels.

But as an origin story for one of the most iconic figures in film? This is an embarrassment.

Thoughts on ‘The Last Jedi’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One

What the heck did I just watch?

‘The Last Jedi’ is not just the worst Star Wars film by a considerable margin, but it’s one of the worst Hollywood films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s amazingly bad: bad to a degree that is hard to believe for such a major film.

How bad is the writing? The first sentence of the title crawl is a plot hole. That shouldn’t even be possible, but they pull it off. The line is “The First Order reigns.” They were a small, localized organization a couple days ago, then they got their superweapon and base of operations blown up after taking out a single star system, and now suddenly they reign supreme? I’m not even talking about the question of where they’re getting all their resources; just how do you go from small and covert to ruling the galaxy over a couple days during which you suffer a massive defeat? That would be like waking up the morning after Gettysburg to the news that the Confederacy now rules the entire East Coast. The world building in Force Awakens was already horrendous, now they’re not even attempting to stick with it; they’re just arbitrarily declaring what the circumstances are whether or not they make sense after the previous film.

Anyway, the set up is that the Resistance – or is it the Rebels? They go back and forth between the two terms as though the writer periodically forgot what the goods were called – is down to a single small fleet and are fleeing the First Order, which has about twenty star destroyers, a giant ‘dreadnaught,’ and ‘The Supremacy:’ a super-massive ship that serves as Supreme Leader Snoke’s base of operations. Yeah, the guy who was seen in shadows in a hologram in the last film? He just appears here. No lead in, no introduction, we just walk into his throne room and he’s there. Believe me, that’s the least of our problems.

The Resistance is fleeing their base from the previous film – yes, just like the opening of Empire Strikes Back – only to find that the Empire has a device that can track ships through hyperspace, meaning they can follow them wherever they go. With the good guys running low on fuel, they engage in a slow-motion chase through space while the heroes try to figure out a way to shut down the tracker so they can escape.

Meanwhile, Rey has gone to ask Luke Skywalker to come back and fight for the Resistance, but Luke wants nothing more than to be left alone to die, having become disillusioned by the Jedi and given up on the galaxy following his failure with Kylo Ren (why didn’t Leia go to talk to Luke? She was supposed to be the one looking for him in the first place and…oh, forget it).

I don’t even know where to begin. I swear I am not exaggerating when I say that every single sequence, almost every scene in this film involves some plot hole, some writing mistake, or something that just doesn’t make sense, and it’s done throughout with a level of incompetence that is staggering to see in a major Hollywood blockbuster. Oh, it’s shot well, in fact there are some very creative camera angles and striking sets, in stark contrast to the dull-looking Force Awakens, but the writing is on a level of a child’s fan fiction, right down to the cloned scenes, lack of consequence, and awkwardly childish words. At one point Luke comments that he came to “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.” How did the word ‘unfindable’ make it into a major movie script? Same for the term ‘Supreme Leader,’ as in “Long live the Supreme Leader!” (actual dialogue). Okay if they didn’t want to reuse ‘Emperor,’ but ‘Supreme Leader’ doesn’t sound like a real position of authority: it sounds like a botched translation after the fashion of “Do not want.”

The chase through space that comprises the majority of the film (and boy does it drag) is itself a plot hole. No, I’m not kidding: the main plot of the movie falls apart on multiple levels. Taken purely as a scenario we have the question of one, why is fuel suddenly an issue when it has never been before? Two, how is it the Resistance fleet and the First Order fleet are moving at the exact same speed so that the good guys can’t escape and the bad guys can’t finish them off? Three, how is it that the First Order can’t come up with a better plan than just follow them and keep shooting for about fifteen straight hours? Again, they have about twenty star destroyers, presumably each one containing dozens of tie fighters: the Resistance has already had their entire fighter squadron knocked out (which is a problem in itself, but we don’t have time), so why aren’t they releasing fighters (the excuse given by the film is that “we can’t cover the fighters from the fleet.” Since when was that an issue)? There are about a dozen ways the First Order could deal with this problem, even assuming the stars aligned properly to create it in the first place. And four, why do they suddenly have a magical tracker that can follow ships through hyperspace? More importantly, why did the writer feel the need to create this patently silly device when we could have just had a tracker onboard the ship, or a mole, or have it be that they’re tapping into the signal from the tracking device that Leia is carrying. Yeah, she’s carrying a tracking device so that Rey can find the fleet again, so why doesn’t anyone even suggest that perhaps that is the problem? They simply guess – correctly – that the First Order has a magic new tracking system.

But on top of that, the Resistance was looking for a new base. We learn later on that the chase has been leading them to a place called Krait, which is a hidden planet with an old Rebel base complete with an impenetrable wall and stored equipment. Why didn’t they just lightspeed there in the first place? That entire scenario, with all its attendant problems, only happens because they didn’t do the logical thing in the very beginning.

Yet it gets worse.

Trying get out of this chase, Poe and Finn (and a new character named Rose, who is a terrible character for reasons we’ll get to) concoct a plan to sneak aboard the Supremacy and shut down the tracker. According to this film, Finn used to mop the room with the tracker in it. Apparently, he was janitor for the whole First Order because he also mopped the super-Death Star (he didn’t feel the need to let any of his friends know about this ultra-dangerous device either. At least he’s consistent). To do that they need to find a certain code breaker on Canto Bite, requiring them to detach from the fleet and go on a long, dangerous side quest.

Why is all this happening? Because the new commander, Vice Admiral Holdo, refuses to tell anyone her plan for saving them all.

Holdo is quickly becoming one of the most loathed characters in Star Wars and for good reason. You see, according to the film, she secretly has a plan to travel to Krait (again, why weren’t they going there in the first place?) and then abandon ship in cloaked transports, hiding on the planet until the First Order passes by. Only, for reasons best known to herself, she not only doesn’t tell anyone, she actively refuses to share this information even when her crew is hours from death, even when her fleet commander is literally begging her to give them some semblance of hope, and even when he finally leads a mutiny against her. She answers every plea for basic information with a snide insult (to the war hero who blew up the super-Death Star and inadvertently saved the fleet by blowing up the dreadnaught in the opening battle and who commands great respect among the crew). That all would have been bad enough, except that, in the end, the film tries to make out that she was the hero all along because she had her plan, and that Poe was in the wrong for not blindly following this hostile idiot into what looked like certain death (and which actually turned out to be certain death for most of the crew, but we’ll get to that).

And this is the entire reason why Poe and Finn come up with this plan that comprises about an hour’s screen time, and which ultimately fails and turns out was unnecessary anyway.

To sum, up, the main plot of the film exists because the Resistance didn’t do the obvious thing to begin with and because Holdo refused to tell anyone her plan for no reason whatsoever. Not to mention that the whole scenario is logistically preposterous and violates several established rules of the franchise.

The Force Awakens was lazy and stupid. This is raving insanity.

To top things off, Holdo’s plan is actually really stupid: it depends on the First Order not looking out the window to see the clearly visible fleet of transports (they’re cloaked, which I guess means they can’t be found on radar, but they’re visible with the naked eye. Then the First Order runs a ‘de-cloaking scan’ when they learn what’s going on, which why weren’t they doing that anyway?). This is another reason not to keep it a secret: Poe might have been able to point out the obvious flaws in the plan (sounds kind of like a certain writer who insisted on doing this whole film himself, come to think of it). On top of that, the film posits that the reason this happens is that the code breaker Finn and Rose hire turns traitor after hearing the plan, but that wouldn’t have happened in the first place if Holdo had just told Poe what was going on when he desperately begged her to.

Then she just sits there watching the ships blow up for about five minutes before doing a kamikaze run into the First Order fleet. Which also violates not only the continuity of the series (if you can use hyperspace as a weapon, why has no one done that before? Why haven’t they made weapons like hyperspace missiles specifically designed for it?) but also makes her look even more of an idiot for letting the rest of the fleet just get destroyed when they could have turned around and shattered the entire pursuing armada.

Are you starting to see what I mean when I say every scene in this film has some writing issue? And that’s just a broad overview of the film’s main plot. I haven’t even mentioned the bit where the bridge is blown up and Leia is thrown into space and then, minutes later, uses the Force to fly back into the ship. It’s one of the stupidest things you’ll ever see and serves absolutely no purpose save to get Leia out of commission for most of the film so that Holdo has to take over (no one ever brings it up again, by the way). This film is a series of idiotic writing choices that exist to set up other idiotic writing choices.

(By the way, Admiral “It’s a trap” Akbar gets killed in that same explosion. They brought back a fan-favorite, gave him one line, and killed him off screen to set up a horrible new character. That right there might encapsulate the mindset of the sequel films).

Ugh, I haven’t even gotten to Luke yet.

Before we dive into that, there’s still Canto Bite: the planet of ultra-rich war profiteers that Finn and Rose go to in order to find a code breaker to get them on the Supremacy etc.

How to describe Canto Bite? If George Lucas grew up on Flash Gordon and adventure serials, Rian Johnson apparently grew up on Communist propaganda cartoons. This is apparently his idea of capitalism: hideous and horrible rich men who beat cute animals, enslave children, and drunkenly gamble all night while secretly funding war. It’s loud, it’s crowded, it’s ugly, and the entire scenario is absurdly childish and heavy-handed.

The idea is that these rich people are profiteering off of the war by selling arms to both sides, and it’s even implied that they keep the war going to maintain their profit. That’s right: The Last Jedi tries to pitch the interwar myth of the evil arms dealers who ‘really’ cause wars. Rose describes these arms dealers as “the worst people in the galaxy,” apparently affording a second place spot to the people who just wiped out about a trillion innocent lives in one shot. Just so that we ‘get’ that they’re bad, the film shows that they use child slave labor and beat cute horse-things for the sake of racing.

This is moronic on any number of levels, and that’s not even considering the sequence of events (all I’ll say is that it involves BB-8 being mistaken for a slot machine and then firing coins like a machine gun. What tone were they aiming for in this film again?). Why are they using slave labor in a world where droids are readily available? It was dubious enough in Phantom Menace, but at least that took place in a lawless backwater full of poverty and run by criminals: this is an ultra-swanky casino planet for the super-rich. How is it even conceivable they wouldn’t be using droids? Also, why are all the slaves we see children?

The reason is that this is an insultingly manipulative and dishonest piece of heavy-handed propaganda. The writer wanted to take a shot against capitalism, so he shoehorned this moronic sequence into the film, making sure that there are children and animals being abused just so that we ‘get’ that these are bad people (because otherwise Finn and Rose recklessly smashing the place might be even more morally dubious than it already is). It’s basically a complete detour from the rest of the film for the sake of a gratuitous ‘message.’ Finn and Rose don’t even find the guy they’re supposed to; they just take up with the random low-life they met in prison who promises he can do the same job, is patently untrustworthy, and ultimately betrays them, which just makes them look like morons and makes the entire sequence feel even more pointless.

As a bonus, the crook then attempts to plant the idea to Finn and the audience that there is no good or bad side: that the same people are supplying the First Order and the Resistance and that it’s all “a machine” for the profit of the few. That’s right: The Last Jedi tries to revive the idiotic inter-war myth that wars are caused by arms dealers looking to get rich. Not only that, but it does so in this one scene and it never comes up again: a gratuitous and nonsensical cheap shot.

What is any of this doing in a Star Wars film?

Even at their worst, the Star Wars films have at least been universal, aiming to be escapist entertainment to be enjoyed by all viewers. Here, in the middle of the film, they’re suddenly attempting to inject real-world politics, and in the most shallow and heavy-handed way.

And to top it off, even if you’re the kind of person who will go for the evil capitalist screed, the sequence is so long, so patently unnecessary, and so childish in its perspective and execution that I can’t imagine anyone enjoying it. It’s just a bloated tumor on an already tedious and poorly structured film (I’m not even attempting to deal with the writing problems in the sequence; it has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever).

Now let’s finally deal with what they do to Luke Skywalker.

Luke Skywalker in this film is a bitter old recluse who, after failing to successfully train his nephew (more on that in a bit), ran away to a secret island to die alone, intending that the Jedi would die with him. When Rey asks him to come back and save the Resistance (which, need I remind you, includes his sister), he tells her to go away and sneers at her for expecting him to “walk out with a laser sword in front of the whole First Order.” He condemns the Jedi for allowing Vader and Palpatine to rise and scoffs at the idea that they’re necessary to keep the galaxy in balance. When he and Rey come to blows, she beats him handily and leaves him impotent and helpless in the mud.

At one point he milks a disgustingly obese seal-like creature and chugs down its juices. The scene lasts about thirty seconds and could easily have been cut, but the director chose to include it.

This is what the film does to the hero of three of the most popular and beloved films of all time. This is their idea of what such a man would look like thirty years on: a disillusioned, cynical coward who has abandoned all his ideals and only wants to die.

If the rest of the film were perfect, this one factor would still be a reason to despise this movie.

Oh, but it gets worse. The reason for his disillusion, the reason why he failed was that he had a vision of Kylo – his own nephew, remember – turning to the Dark Side and in a moment of weakness was prepared to murder him in cold blood. He was too ashamed to go through with it, but Kylo woke up, saw the lightsaber, and assumed he was trying to murder him, so he left him for dead, slaughtered the other students, burned down the Jedi temple, and went off to join the First Order.

Let’s be blunt here.

Luke Skywalker would never do any of this. Luke Skywalker would never abandon the Jedi, the order that gave him his beloved masters Obi-Wan and Yoda and which he was tasked to restore. Luke Skywalker would never turn his back on the galaxy or the Republic he fought to liberate, let alone his beloved sister, Leia and his best friend Han. And most of all, Luke flipping Skywalker would never in million years consider murdering his own nephew and student in cold blood while he slept just because he saw he might fall to the Dark Side. He is the last character in the world who would do that. He himself nearly fell to the Dark Side. He brought his own father, one of the most evil men in the galaxy, back to the light, and he risked everything to do it. He knows from personal experience how unreliable visions of the future can be.

If he saw a vision of Kylo turning to the Dark Side, he would talk to Kylo about it, he would redouble his training, he would talk to Leia and Han. If Kylo did fall to the Dark Side, Luke wouldn’t rest until he’d either saved him or stopped him. He would have acted like a hero!

Luke Skywalker is one of the great heroic icons of modern culture. He has been an inspiration to millions of people from all over the world in all walks of life. Mark Hamill has told stories of hearing from people who faced terminal illnesses or huge personal crises by finding strength and hope from the example of Luke. And this film, this worthless waste of celluloid written by a complete hack who doesn’t even have the talent to make his characters act like human beings, tries to take that away: to destroy it. All so that he can set up Rey, a character who couldn’t carry a teenager’s fan fiction, as his replacement because he doesn’t have the skill or the wit to write a character who can stand on her own.

That is more than bad writing. That is evil. This is an evil movie.

I went into this subject a while back with a piece on Captain America. I don’t use the term ‘evil’ lightly in this context, but when I see a beloved and inspiring piece of pop culture run into the ground and purposefully desecrated like this, I call it evil because the writer is taking something that inspired people to do and be better than they were and twisting it around to poison or at least destroy it, to try to make them see goodness and courage as mean, pathetic, hypocritical things that exist only to be seen through and torn down. That is what this film does, or tries to do. And that is evil.

To come down a little, I’d also like to point out that, even if I accepted the idea that Luke Skywalker would contemplate murdering his own nephew in cold blood, how does that explain Kylo’s subsequent actions? How does that lead to him murdering innocent people, burning down the temple (that same night), joining the First Order, and finally murdering his own father, who was trying to do nothing but help him? What is his goal? What is he trying to accomplish by all this?

Say what you will of Anakin’s fall, he had clear motives: first that he was desperate to save his wife and unborn child, and second that he wanted there to be order in the Galaxy. His actions may not always have made sense, but his overall character at least was consistent. Here we just have some vague talk of “a darkness” that was in Kylo, then Luke tried to kill him and Kylo immediately goes full-blown psychopath, targeting people who had nothing to do with his betrayal. Why would Luke’s betrayal cause Kylo to turn on his parents, on the Republic, and everything else?

Leave off the fact that we still have no idea who or what Snoke is, how he got in touch with Kylo, how he tempted or seduced him, or any of that. Our entire backstory linking this trilogy to the previous one is a thirty-second flashback to a single incident that doesn’t even make sense on its own ground.

On that subject, the film makes something of a big deal of ‘letting the past die.’ Luke, after being humiliated by Rey, tries to burn the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts. He finds he can’t do it, so the Force ghost of Yoda does it for him with a lightning bolt (yes, the ghosts can summon lightning now. And hit people. At least the film lives its own message of destroying the past, as it certainly destroys any sense of continuity that remained in the series). His justification for this is that the books were boring and Rey doesn’t need anything they contain. Because thousands of years of wisdom, study, and tradition all come down to whether or not it benefits her.

Granted, a later scene shows that Rey took the books with her, but that doesn’t really change the wrongness of this scene.

Meanwhile, Rey goes off to try to turn Kylo back to the good side, because two days after he murdered Han Solo in cold blood and was complicit in the massacre of trillions of lives, and personally tried to kill her she’s suddenly decided she’s almost in love with him because they have a Force connection, both hate Luke, and she saw him shirtless. I wish I were kidding. I really do.

This leads to a blatant copy of the throne room scene from Return of the Jedi stuck two-thirds of the way through the second film in a trilogy. Snoke toys with Rey, then orders Kylo to kill her to “complete his training.” Killing his own father in cold blood wasn’t enough, but killing a girl he has no reason to care about should do the trick.

Then, in a very stupid turn of events, Kylo kills Snoke. Let me reiterate: Snoke, a character who came completely out of nowhere, was given no development, no backstory, and no motivation, yet is supposedly the most powerful being in the universe, is killed off part-way through the second film by a silly bit of wordplay. They just stuck a random ultra-powerful bad guy into the story then killed him off: a classic shaggy dog story.

Kylo and Rey have a tag-team fight that has some very funny choreography if you pay attention (one guard’s weapon actually disappears mid-shot just so that he can’t use it on Rey), then Kylo tells Rey that he doesn’t want either the Resistance or the First Order to win, but “wants it all to end.” Then he just takes Snokes place and we resume. Again, swear I’m not making that up.

God, I don’t even know what else I ought to go over: Captain Phasma is back, despite apparently being killed in the last film. She dies again here without evincing the slightest personality or character. There is some very bad continuity during a fight in the Supremacy’s hanger: as in, seriously embarrassing for a major budget film. Phasma just teleports from one end of the hanger to the other and acquires and loses a gun twice in quick succession just that she can have a melee duel with Finn.

Then there’s a fight down on Krait, which is at least visually interesting, but I don’t even care at this point. They copy the Hoth battle from Empire Strikes Back, down to using walkers and speeders. That means the film opens with the beginning of Empire, basically copies the plot structure (one group tries to evade the Empire without lightspeed, the protagonist trains with an old master), then diverges into the end of Return of the Jedi, then goes back to the beginning of Empire. It’s not only a cheap copy, it’s schizophrenic.

This fight contains a contender for the most moronic part of the film (a rarified title). The Resistance is hiding behind an impenetrable wall with no way out. The First Order brings up a cannon with ‘miniaturized Death Star tech’ to breach it (lucky they just happened to have that). Finn and the others fly out to stop the cannon, Finn prepares to sacrifice himself to save the Resistance. Then, at the last minute, Rose flies in and stops him, allowing the cannon to blow open the base while she delivers perhaps the most asinine bit of dialogue in any ‘Star Wars’ film: “I saved you. That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”

Again, she says this while the wall blows up behind her, seemingly dooming the entire Resistance because of her actions. How the heck did this moment make it into the film? How could they possibly have filmed it without realizing how shallow, hypocritical, and self-defeating it was?

Anyway, at the last moment Luke seemingly shows up. He has a moment with Leia (actually kind of a nice one, as Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are able to channel a bit of their actual characters one last time, but there’s no saving the film at this point), then goes out to fight Kylo. Only, after a brief confrontation, he reveals that he was never actually there: Luke’s still on the island, force-projecting himself across the galaxy to distract Kylo. They couldn’t even give him the dignity of one last battle. They couldn’t allow him to be at all heroic in this film even once.

Then he dies. Yeah, he pretends to go into battle rather than actually going there himself, then, after it’s over, he just dies of the strain. They butchered his character then killed him off to prevent any chance of redemption.

All that and there’s so much I haven’t mentioned. I haven’t mentioned the Porgs: cute little bird creatures from the island who show up regularly to provide ‘comic’ relief. I didn’t laugh once at these things: they are so patently a marketing ploy and so obviously pointless that they’re just revolting. To make matters worse, interacting with them has become Chewbacca’s whole purpose. He doesn’t interact with Luke, his old friend of decades, except a single moment where Luke yells at him for no reason.

One thing I haven’t seen anyone else commenting on is that the effect of the ships leaving hyperspace looks weird. In the original films, the ships kept moving when they came out of light speed, so that the effect was them speeding up and slowing down very abruptly. Here they just stop. It looks strange and unnatural.

Another thing that rather surprised me about this movie is just how boring it is. It just drags on and on, with nothing being accomplished, nothing meaningful being said or done, no moments of honest humanity, just plot point, action scene, plot point. There’s no tension because everything is so badly constructed, no interest because the characters are so bland and poorly written.

The Last Jedi is an unmitigated disaster. Not only is it by far the worst Star Wars film – no, I’m not excluding the frickin’ Holiday Special, which at least had Bea Arthur to lend it some sense of humanity, at least attempted a bit of world building, and oh yeah, didn’t seek to destroy an iconic hero – but I could see it ending up on a list of the worst films ever made (understanding that such lists are generally limited to major, well-known releases). The incredibly bad writing, the incompetent continuity, horribly conceived characters, tedious pacing, and active hostility towards its source material and its fans puts it beyond the pale. You could write a whole book on what is wrong with this film: I really just scratched the surface. Yes, there are individual good things, such as some of the visuals and a few individual scenes, but they simply don’t matter in the face of all the other terrible choices that destroy this movie.

In any case, Star Wars has now become one of the very few franchises that include both one of the best films ever made (Empire Strikes Back at the very least) and one of the worst (this abomination). The only other series like that I can think of would be Jaws and possibly Halloween. What an indictment of the state of Uncle Walt’s company that they allowed this to happen.

Yoda says that failure is the best teacher. If so, this film is an academy.

P.S. If you want a thorough dissection of this film (that is longer than the movie itself and infinitely more entertaining), I highly recommend YouTube critic MauLer’s series of videos (here’s the first one). He uses both clear logic and a strong understanding of storytelling to objectively demonstrate why and how this is a terrible film in an exemplary fashion. His conclusion is particularly well phrased and on point.

Thoughts on ‘Rogue One’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens

When Disney acquired Star Wars it announced that, in addition to the main saga films it would be putting out a line of ‘anthology’ movies set the Star Wars universe and dealing with smaller ‘side’ stories. The first of these was Rogue One, which purports to tell the story of how the Rebel Alliance got hold of the Death Star plans in the first place.

Right away the film let’s us know that it will be operating differently from a standard ‘Star Wars’ film: there is no title crawl, but instead a prologue. There are no Jedi in sight, though the Force is mentioned often. Most importantly, the tone of the film is gritty, harsh, and morally ambiguous. This is less of a fantasy than a sci-fi war movie.

The plot is that the film takes place in the days before the original ‘Star Wars.’ The Empire is putting the finishing touches on its new battle station, preparatory to unleashing it upon the galaxy, and the Rebel Alliance gets wind of it from a defector. The main character is Jin Erso, who is the daughter of the project’s chief engineer, Galen Erso. The Rebels think that she might be able to help them find and capture her father so that he can inform the Senate what the Empire is up to, though one of the Rebellion generals secretly gives the order to assassinate him before the project can be completed (more on that later). But when Jin gets a message from her father, he tells her that he secretly put a flaw in the machine that will cause it to blow up if hit in the right place, so the race is on to steal the Death Star plans to give the Alliance a fighting chance.

The first thing to notice is that while the film has its share of flaws – which we’ll get to – it is much better than The Force Awakens in just about every conceivable way. However, it would be pointless to make this simply a compare-and-contrast, so I’ll try to minimize that point. What works in the film?

In the first place, the story, though convoluted, is easy enough to follow; the Empire has the Death Star, the Rebels have to figure out how to deal with it. The stakes are clear, as are the ‘conditions:’ the heroes have to confirm the existence of the Death Star and find a way to destroy it. We already are invested because we know what the Death Star and the Empire are.

Now, some might argue that, since we know what’s going to happen – that the heroes will successfully steal the plans – there’s no tension. But the question in story is rarely whether the heroes will win: the question is how they will win, and who, if anyone, will survive. The question is less whether there is a doubt of what will happen than whether what happens is interesting to watch (otherwise there would be no point to watching a film twice or watching a film about historical events). It is about vicariously enjoying the courage, competence, and cleverness of the characters as they bring about an outcome we feel is desirable.

It helps that the film works very hard to recreate the look of the original film, though with modern technology. The attention to detail in this area is very impressive, from the grainy view through binoculars to the red eyes on Darth Vader’s mask, to even using stock footage of some of the original actors of the squadron that goes up against the Death Star, the film strives to make us believe that this is taking place shortly before the original, putting every element in its rightful place. Whether it succeeds or fails in this (and there are examples of both), the effort is clearly there and appreciated.

That is really the chief virtue of this film: that the filmmakers so clearly love and respect the originals and seem to be trying to pay sincere homage to them. A lot of this I attribute to the director, Gareth Edwards, who also made the 2014 Godzilla, another visually creative film that evinces a sincere respect for its source material. He obviously know Star Wars and loves it. He even shows basic respect to the prequels by returning to Mustaphah (where we learn Vader has his dark castle: a very nice detail and fits perfectly with the series’ pulp roots) and bringing back actor Jimmy Smits as Senator Organa.

Nor do I think this is all just cheap fan service like so much of The Force Awakens. Just as a comparison (I won’t do too many of these, promise), there’s a moment in the latter film where Finn bumps the holo-chess set on the Millennium Falcon and it briefly turns on. It’s played as a joke, with the camera lingering on his reaction before the set it switched off. Here we have a brief shot of some low-lives playing what appears to be a version of the same game with real, crudely built figures. It’s passed over in a fairly standard shot and you probably won’t even notice it unless you’re paying attention. The former bit forces the gag into the audiences face by putting it in the middle of the scene and have the character react ‘comically’ to it. It plays no role at all except to remind us of that thing we saw before. The latter bit is more subdued, doesn’t require the audience to ‘get it,’ but when you do it actually adds to the world by establishing that this is a wide-spread and popular game that is played with or without fancy technology. It isn’t brilliant, but I think it points to the difference between the two films.

As for the characters, they’re a mixed bag: easily the best is K-2SO, a re-programmed Imperial combat droid with very blunt speaking patterns who gets all the best lines (“You are being rescued. Please do not resist”). Played by the marvelous Alan Tudyk, he’s a genuinely charming and funny character, probably the best of all the Disney-made Star Wars films thus far.

There’s a blind monk who is devoutly connected to the Force and his hulking friend with a machine gun who are kind of interesting in their close friendship and diverging views of the Force (the blind guy also gets some good lines, as when he comments on being blindfolded).

The main villain of the film, Commander Krennic, is…fine. He’s sufficiently intimidating and ruthless, though is clearly out of his depth when faced with the likes of Vader and Tarkin. This gives an interesting (and consistent with the previous films) insight into the Imperial power structure, where like in C.S. Lewis’s image of Hell everyone is trying to outflank and take down everyone else. Krennic is threatening enough to be dangerous to our heroes, but a lot of the joy of the film comes from watching him squirm when he goes up against the two established villains.

Speaking of which, there’s been a lot of talk of the CGI used to resurrect the legendary Peter Cushing. Personally, I think it works well enough, though it is distracting at times. Compounding the problem is that the combination of computer and vocal impersonation simply can’t recapture the actor’s tremendous charisma and talent, making this Tarkin feel noticeably different from the one we knew in the original film. On the other hand, if they were going to tell this story at all Tarkin obviously had to be in it, and they give his character the respect he deserves: he’s every bit as cunning, as ruthless, and as fiendishly intimidating as he was in the original. I particularly like his introduction, with his back to the camera framed by the Death Star outside the window. And, besides which, even though I know it’s a fake it is good to see Peter Cushing again.

As for Vader, he doesn’t have much screen time, but again I thought they pretty much nailed his character (a stray pun being the one exception), and he’s as spectacularly intimidating as ever. I love how when he’s talking with Krennic, he only has to take a step towards him to make the other man practically wet himself. Then at the end of the film he has a huge fan-pleasing moment where he tears into a group of Rebel soldiers, reminding us just how terrifyingly powerful he really is.

The other most notable thing about the film are the visuals, which benefit enormously from Gareth Edwards’ signature ‘ground level’ approach. He aims to make the audience feel like they are in the scene, on the beach under the lumbering tread of Imperial Walkers, or diving down through atmosphere with Rebel fighters. There are a ton of very creative, very striking visuals throughout the film, especially during the climactic battle, like a crashed X-wing skidding across the planet shield or the Death Star eclipsing the sun before blowing a hole in the planet (keeping with canon, the Death Star doesn’t completely obliterate any worlds, but its lowest setting is arguably more visually impressive in the way it makes the ground curve up like a cresting wave).

On that subject, the environments are more akin to classic Star Wars: there’s the Jedi sacred world of Jedha, with its crumbling red-stone statues and temples built right into the side of the mountains, a trading outpost built in between two asteroids, and the tropical island world of Skeriff where the final battle takes place. In between we return to Mustaphah and Yavin IV (the latter of which is meticulously recreated) and have a couple rather ho-hum planets to fill out the story.

Actually, there’s a lot of filling out going on, which brings us to the flaws of the film. First and foremost is that the plot, especially about the middle, drags. It seems as though they didn’t have enough story to get to the length they wanted, so they fill it in with some unnecessary stuff involving Forest Whittaker as a crazy ex-Rebel (his whole performance is strange and distracting to the point that I wish they’d left him out) and the aforementioned sub-plot about whether Cassian will assassinate Galen Erso.

The latter is a major problem. You see, it might have made sense when they didn’t know how far along the Death Star’s development is, but after it blasts a hole in a planet they know it’s already operational and that killing the lead engineer won’t make any difference. They had already suggested an alternative plan to capture Erso and have him testify before the senate. That is obviously their best bet at this point, so why does the one general continue to order Cassian to murder him? No reason except to gin up some extra drama when Jin finds out.

Speaking of which the two leads are…well, they’re not bad. Jin Erso is much more palatable than Rey (at least when she isn’t giving Katara-like inspirational speeches, then she gets kind of annoying, since she is not in a position to be any kind of moral authority). She’s competent, but not perfect, and she does have to work and suffer for her goal. Cassian is just kind of forgettable, as is the pilot guy. Basically, the team of heroes in this film is half fun and memorable, half dull and forgettable. And the latter includes the main characters.

Also, why does the Rebellion need Jin’s inspirational speeches? Haven’t they been fighting this war for about twenty years at this point? It’s not inconceivable, psychologically, but it is disappointing. The idea that the Rebellion we were cheering for only exists because this girl no one cares about stood up for the ideal they were fighting for is annoying and unnecessary. Why bother with the extraneous drama of whether they’ll give up or not anyway? Isn’t the ultra-dangerous assault interesting enough?

That said, I do like how the volunteers are all the ones who had to do dirty work for the Rebellion. The idea is that they’ve already compromised themselves so much that they can’t bear to have it be for nothing. On that subject, the moral ambiguity of the film (Cassian’s introductory scene has him killing an innocent ally to avoid detection) has received criticism for diverging so far from the pulpy tone of the other films. Personally, I’m willing to accept it, partly because this film is explicitly separating itself from the main series, and partly because there is a price for this. The characters don’t get to live happily ever after following all they’ve done. Their ‘reward’ is to sacrifice their lives in a good cause to ensure that other, more virtuous people, will be able to win the war. I actually really like this: the implication that the violent, brutal element in the Rebellion is sacrificing themselves to give a chance to the idealistic element embodied in the original characters. It reminds me of the line in Dean Koontz’s Odd Apocalypse, “A scourge must be scourged.” It’s some genuinely smart moral writing, though I could have done without the pointless complications.

Basically, the film could have stood to be a good half-hour shorter, and to have spent more time with the Dark Side characters, as they’re by far the most interesting. I would have liked to see more of Krennic and Tarkin’s backstabbing, more of Vader, and more of the Death Star’s construction. The Rebel characters aren’t bad (like the ones in Force Awakens), but they’re not very interesting for the most part.

Meanwhile, though I praised it before, some of the fan service is pretty clunky. Probably the worst is when those two guys from the Cantina – the “he doesn’t like you” guy and his friend – just show up on Jedha. This is stupid: for one thing, why are they here? For another, the city is blown up mere hours later while being under Imperial blockade, so how did they end up on Tatooine? Also, the bit does nothing; it could have been cut without changing anything.

Also, while I appreciate the film trying to connect itself to the original, having Leia’s ship depart from the battle was a step too far. It hurts the continuity with the original and creates questions relating to Leia and Vader’s actions in that film. An unfortunate lapse at the very end of the film.

Granted, Leia’s line about Rogue One having brought them hope is nice, but they didn’t need to set it up that way: they could have just shown the fleet broadcasting the plans and Leia’s ship receiving them. That would have fit perfectly without creating the problems of this ending. Such a simple solution, but they didn’t do it.

Another problem comes in the opening scene, where Erso sends his wife and daughter into hiding when the Empire shows up. Then his wife comes back and Krennic shoots her. This whole sequence is problematic: what kind of mother would abandon her daughter in that situation? Why does Krennic shoot her just after talking about using her as a hostage? Granted she had a gun on him, but he has several armored, highly trained guards who could easily have disarmed or wounded her. Again, it’s just to create a bit more unnecessary drama and it’s very clunkily done.

Fortunately, I’d say there’s more that does work than that doesn’t. The last forty minutes or so, which actually showcase the mission to get the plans, are pretty much fantastic, with a very well-realized back-and-forth as the heroes and villains alternately get the upper hand. The space battle is one of the best ones since Return of the Jedi, and the sight of the classic ships and tech (in a setting that makes sense) is very satisfying. The whole sequence is great, with very minor problems that don’t really affect the overall effect.

On that note, and again in contrast with The Force Awakens, Gareth Edwards knows how to create suspense. Compare the scene in Force Awakens when Rey is trying to break out of prison before Kylo gets back with the one where Jin is listening to her father’s message while the Death Star prepares to fire. In the former, we just have the whole scene of Rey escaping, then the scene of Kylo approaching and entering the cell. There wasn’t the slightest attempt to create suspense; it was as if the director just didn’t even think about it. In Rogue One, we get Erso’s vital and heartfelt speech intercut with almost silent scenes of the Death Star gunners powering up the cannon, then of the blast hitting the city. We know we’re on a time limit and something very important has to finish within a very strict time limit before something else kills them all, and we follow both events as they reach their climax.

I also appreciate that the film has the courage to follow things through to their logical conclusion. The characters succeed, but none of them escape. In the end, Jin and Cassian can only hold each other and watch the blast from the Death Star as it sweeps over them, taking comfort in the knowledge that they’ve given the galaxy hope. It’s a striking ending, and handled with taste and emotional resonance. I also like Jin’s defiant taunt to Krennic: “My father put a fuse in your machine, and I just told the whole galaxy how to light it.”

In the end, the film is nothing like the disaster that The Force Awakens was, but it is rough and very uneven. The parts that work really work and the parts that don’t really don’t. But the good will on the part of the filmmakers, especially Gareth Edwards, is palpable, which puts it in stark contrast with the previous film. It isn’t a great film; I probably would rank it below Revenge of the Sith just for the dullness of most of the characters, but it is a good film. And at this point in our journey through Star Wars, that counts for a lot.

Thoughts on ‘The Force Awakens’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith

There are two cardinal rules for making a sequel. The first is that you cannot undo or cancel out the previous film. The second is that you cannot simply repeat the previous film. This movie does both.

We open with the word the Luke Skywalker has vanished and that the ‘First Order’ has arisen from the ashes of the Empire. Now Max Von Sydow has found a map that could show the way to Luke’s location. He passes it off to a pilot named Poe, who puts it in his droid, BB-8, which he sends off into the desert when the First Order attacks. BB-8 ends up in the hands of a scavenger named Rey, while Poe meets a defecting Stormtooper named Finn who breaks him out of the First Order, only for them to be separated on the desert world. Finn bumps into Rey, they escape onboard the Millenium Falcon (which was sitting in the junkyard), then meet up with Han Solo. Turns out the First Order has a planet-sized Death Star, which they use to destroy the Republic, then the race is on to destroy the weapon before it can wipe out the Resistance (which is not the Republic, but is supported by them).

So…I hate this movie.

Let’s start with the story. Just from that description you might be able to see part of the problem; it’s a jumbled mess. There’s the plot of looking for Luke, who presumably can stop the First Order. That depends on getting BB-8 to Leia and out of the hands of the First Order. But then there’s the super weapon plot, which comes completely out of nowhere about a third of the way in. Nothing thus far hints that the First Order has this thing, there’s no foreshadowing whatsoever; we just cut to it, then we see it wipe out a solar system in one shot from across the galaxy. The two plots are pretty much unconnected, except that the same characters end up involved in both. Mixed up in that is a subplot of Han Solo trying to reach his son, who has gone over to the Dark Side and become the villainous Kylo Ren. This doesn’t start to come into play until the final third (but more on Han later). There’s also sort of a subplot where Rey wants to find her parents, but then maybe wants to become a Jedi.

In the original film, everything revolved around the Death Star: we are told about it in the opening crawl. The plans to the weapon are the MacGuffin. Luke Skywalker yearns for adventure, which he finds aboard the Death Star in rescuing Leia from its dungeon. Han Solo is chartered to take them to Alderan, which is destroyed by the Death Star, requiring him to find a way to get his ship off the station. Obi-Wan’s teachings of the Force are ultimately what allow Luke to destroy the Death Star, which is foreshadowed when Vader warns the Imperial officers that the Force is a power beyond even this “technological terror.”

Even the prequels did this; in Phantom Menace everything revolved around the invasion of Naboo: it began in the opening and was defeated in the climax. In Attack of the Clones, everything revolved around a plot to assassinate Amidala, and while that sort of petered out, the ending still tied into the beginning. They were badly done, but they were more or less contained stories. Here it’s two or three unrelated plots awkwardly stitched together. The Luke Skywalker plot doesn’t tie into the super-Death Star, which isn’t really connected to Kylo Ren’s relation to his father, which isn’t at all linked to Rey waiting for her parents.

On top of that, the world building is horrendous in this film. We’re told the First Order ‘rose from the ashes of the Empire’ Okay, what does that mean? Are they left over officers and men from the Empire? Didn’t the Republic do anything to try to stop their rise? How much of the Galaxy do they control relative to the Republic? When did they arise: only after Luke left, as implied in the opening crawl, or right after the Empire’s fall? Where are they getting the kind of vast resources to build their armies? And what of the Republic: what’s their presence in the Galaxy? What the Hell is the ‘Resistance’ and why is it, Order instead of the Republic? Oh, but the Republic is ‘supporting them.’ Why isn’t the Republic just fighting the First Order if they’re the resurgent Empire? Why this convoluted nonsense about a Resistance?

The filmmakers put absolutely no effort into establishing this scenario: they simply declared that it was so because they wanted to recreate the ‘Rebel-Empire’ dynamic and didn’t care that it essentially violates the ending of Return of the Jedi. Now, you could get to that point again, or recreate the dynamic without gutting the established canon, but that would have required a modicum of imagination, so instead they arbitrarily declare that there’s a new Empire and new Rebellion, only this time they’re called ‘the First Order’ (that’s a stupid name, by the way) and the ‘Resistance,’ and oh, yeah, the Republic is in there too somewhere, at least until we get the chance to take it out so we don’t have to deal with it.

Also, how the heck does the First Order have the resources and power necessary to build a planet-sized Death Star? How could they possibly have constructed this thing under the nose of the Republic without anyone noticing? How is it that not one person ever got the word out that this thing was under construction? The First Order, whatever it might be and however much of the Galaxy it controls, is not the Empire: it isn’t an all-powerful governing body with a grip on military, economic, and legal matters. It is supposedly a relatively small, covert operation, yet it is able to construct this monstrosity without anyone being the wiser?

Not only that, we learn they’ve been poaching children to serve as stormtroopers for upwards of twenty years: no one noticed that? The Republic didn’t do anything about it? What is the Republic at this point? Why are they so useless? The Republic is supposed to be composed of tens of thousands of worlds; even if it’s a shrunken shell of its former self they ought to be able to do something: the rebellion defeated the Empire a mere thirty years before. Why is the government they established so pathetic by comparison?

Speaking of which, the Republic gets wiped out in one shot from this weapon. Now, a super-Death Star that blows up five planets at once is a bad idea to begin with (making a second Death Star in Return of the Jedi was already pushing it; this is just insulting), but are we really supposed to believe that the Republic’s entire presence in the Galaxy, its entire fleet, all its administrative and military capacities are contained in these five planets? If so, then why bother blowing them up? By the standards of this world, that’s puny! It would be as if ISIS got hold a nuke and dropped it on Liechtenstein. Yes, that would be horrible, but if it wouldn’t really affect their military position one way or another, except to infuriate the rest of the world. But assuming the Republic is more than just these five planets and they were simply the capital, then this would be like nuking Washington D.C. Again, that would be bad, but it wouldn’t immediately destroy America’s power or presence in the world. Again, it would only infuriate the rest of the world and direct all their anger and might upon the perpetrators.

So, why doesn’t that happen here? Where is the rest of the Republic, the rest of the Galaxy? Where are their allies, or even just other civilized societies that would be outraged by this mass slaughter? Where are Naboo, Kashyyyk, Bespin, and all the other worlds we’ve seen over the course of the series? Not here. The film acts as if the galaxy consists of a tiny handful of planets and just these three factions, one of which was just knocked out in one blow.

There was absolutely no thought put into this development. They wanted a way to reset to the original film (a terrible idea to begin with) and just took the first chance they could to get the Republic out of the way without any logical set up or consequences. It happens because the script says it happens, just like the First Order exists and is galactically powerful because the script says so.

On the subject of world building, there is something off about these environments. In the first place, the new planets are boring as heck (with the exception of the island world Luke is found on at the very end). They are literally just the same environments from previous Star Wars films, only with different names so that we have no sense of association with them. There’s a desert planet, but it’s called ‘Jakku’ instead of Tatooine. Why? What was the point of that? There’s a forested world with an ancient temple, but it’s not Yavin IV. There’s another forested world where the Resistance has its base, which looks so similar to the last one I think they filmed in same location, so what was the point? Then there’s a winter planet that functions as the Super-Death Star. At least that one isn’t exactly like Hoth, as it has forests. But still, what a pathetic lack of imagination!

Say what you will about the prequels and their over computer generated environments, but they at least tried to show something new. There was nothing in the original films that looked like Naboo, or Coruscant, or Kamino, and the prequels didn’t just recycle Hoth, or Deggobah, or Bespin.

(Some have even claimed that the city planet that gets blown up isn’t actually Coruscant, but “Hasnean Prime.” If so, then one, that’s another example of just recycling planets, and two, if Coruscant is still around than that just reinforces the question of where the rest of the Republic is during all this. But if not, then blowing up such an important setting in one scene is only one more example of this film’s contempt for its source material).

About the only interesting thing about the environments here are the downed ships on Jakku, which are cool and create a great sense of scale, but since we see the First Order using this exact same tech, and apparently the war never ended (but how would we know?), the impact of seeing the weapons that fought the last war lying silent in the sands is completely ruined. It’s just another one of the film trying to evoke a Captain America-like ‘I understood that reference’ response.

Also, the worlds are oddly empty. Jakku just has one village that gets slaughtered in the opening, then a tiny outpost of a few scavenges. The forest world just has this ancient temple that doubles as a bar just sitting in the middle of a forest; nothing around it, it’s just there. We go in and there’s a re-creation of the legendary cantina scene in the original Star Wars, but why are all these creatures here? It made sense in the original because Mos Esley was a spaceport: this is just a big temple in the middle of nowhere. There’s no sense of a living, breathing world around the characters; it all feels very constrained. I was reminded of Dungeons and Dragons: the Movie, where you would occasionally have these fantastical matte paintings, then cut to a tiny, obvious set (no film should remind you of Dungeons and Dragons: the Movie). There’s a similar sense of phoniness here. Again, say what you will of the cluttered landscapes of the prequels; at least they seemed alive. Whatever conceptual problems they had, they were living, breathing worlds that seemed to be going on independent of the story and cast.

There’s a bit where Rey is sitting at her camp in the middle of the desert, and this guy just happens to be riding past on a thing with BB-8 in a net. As far as we can tell they are literally the only living things for miles, in a trackless desert, and he just happens to be passing by. It doesn’t feel natural: it feels as though the film just spawned him there so that she could get involved in the plot.

As this indicates, part of the sense of restraint comes in the way the characters all just sort of bump into each other. Rey runs into BB-8 being dragged past her camp. Finn decides to defect just as Poe is being brought on board the star destroyer and just happens to be the guard assigned to escort him to his cell (more on that later). They crash land in the desert and Finn just happens to run into Rey, who has BB-8, and the Millennium Falcon just happens to be sitting right there, then almost as soon as they take off they just happen to run into Han Solo, who just happens to have some unhappy clients show up minutes later. This is about the laziest writing possible: there was no effort put into trying to make any of this a coherent story. Characters just bump into each other when the script says they should and they stumble from one plot point and bit of fan service to the next with no rhyme or reason.

The cumulative effect of all this – the empty planets, the endless coincidences, the total lack of consequence – is that the film operates as if nothing exists in this world that isn’t directly connected to the main characters. It’s like a badly designed video game: set pieces and characters just spawn in when the developers want them to for the sake of creating a reaction in the audience and then cease to exist once they’re over. There is nothing outside of the narrow path that you’re ordered to follow, and everything is there for your benefit.

On top of all that, there are a lot of plot holes, things that don’t make sense, and just bad writing in general. How the heck does Poe survive that crash in the desert, then end up on the forest planet just in time to save the others? If Finn knew about the super-Death Star, why didn’t he mention it to anyone before it nukes the Republic, and why doesn’t anyone bring this up? How is it that Finn is the only Stormtrooper to break his programming? If he isn’t, why doesn’t the First Order have means in place to deal with this sort of thing? Captain Phasma walks in on him having a panic attack and barely reacts. Kylo Ren sees him freeze during the attack on the village, yet of the thousands of Stormtroopers available they assign this guy to guard the most important prisoner they have? The Millennium Falcon leaves Jakku with the First Order parked right outside the planet, and yet the bad guys not only don’t notice them, but they heroes don’t even consider that possibility despite narrowly avoiding a bunch of Tie-Fighters minutes before. If you consider the logistics, the scene where Finn and Rey are working on the Falcon happens while the First Order’s Star Destroyer is basically sitting right next to them, but nothing comes of it.

In the opening scene, who is Max Von Sydow supposed to be? We don’t find out; I don’t think he’s even given a name before his killed off (yes, Max Von Sydow, acting legend, star of The Seventh Seal, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Exorcist is in the film for about five minutes and dies without our even knowing who he’s supposed to be). And why does Kylo kill him when he knows he can tell him where the map is? Why does Poe stay behind instead of fleeing with BB-8? What did he expect the droid to do on this desert planet full of scavengers? He just says “this is safer with you than with me.” What was his plan? Was he counting on the droid finding a friendly local who happened to be able to get it to the Resistance?

In the original, Leia sends R2 to Obi-Wan, obviously the best qualified person to get the information to the rebellion. She knows he’s on Tatooine and drops the droid onto the planet when she can’t get there herself. There was a clear plan in her actions. Poe giving the map to BB-8 instead of fleeing into the desert makes no sense.

On that subject, is it really that hard for the First Order to scan for a droid in the middle of the desert? And why does Kylo drag Poe all the way up to his ship when he must know the map has to be nearby; why not torture him then and there? Then he does the exact same thing later in the film with Rey: dragging her all the way back to the super-Death Star because she saw the map once when he knows it must be in the area.

Speaking of the map, it shows multiple labeled star systems, yet not one of them is in the Republic archives? In Attack of the Clones it was a huge deal when they couldn’t identify one planet, now there are at least ten whole systems complete with labels and they say “it’s useless without a larger piece.” And who made this map anyway? Where’d it come from?

Oh, and the characters talk as if the Jedi, the Force, and so on are things out of legend and myth, so that Han Solo has to tell them “It’s all true.” The Jedi Order was destroyed less than a lifetime ago. Luke Skywalker was training new Jedi as recently as a decade previous. The Empire fell thirty years ago. This is idiotic! Rey flat out says that she thought Luke Skywalker was a myth: that would be like someone in the 1970s saying they thought Winston Churchill was a myth.

On that subject, no one recognizes the Millennium Falcon? It’s not the most famous ship in the galaxy or anything, it’s just sitting in a junk pile because some low-life stole it? Oh, but we’ll get to that.

Also, why is the First Order and the Resistance still using the exact same tech they had thirty years ago? I’ll tell you why: so the filmmakers could have familiar sights like Tie Fighters and X-Wings for the fans to feel nostalgic over. Never mind that that makes no sense in the context of the world. Again, the prequels did this better by having ships that were recognizably similar to the familiar ones, but clearly at a lower stage of evolution.

Again, the world building this film is amazingly bad. There was no effort or creativity whatsoever put into this story or this set up: they simply copy and pasted elements from the original without bothering to make them connect in any meaningful way.

Then there are the characters. Oh, Lord, the characters…

The film is headed by Rey, a scavenger from Jakku waiting for her family to come back, unable to accept that they’ve abandoned her. She’s okay in the early scenes, where we see her just going about her daily routine, and when she’s meeting BB-8. But then the action starts and she becomes absolutely unbearable.

In the first place, she’s a textbook Mary Sue: an overly-perfect character that everyone in the story loves and admires, who possesses an unbelievable level and number of skills and who more or less succeeds at everything she does. This isn’t an idealized figure, like Superman or James Bond: this is a character the filmmakers demand you like and are willing to sacrifice any and all concerns to make you like them. Rey gets set on by a group of thugs: doesn’t matter if this is a chance for character development on Finn’s part, or to show his stormtrooper training come in handy: she beats them all, even though they’re bigger than her and have the element of surprise. Rey boards the Millennium Falcon: doesn’t matter that she’s never flown it before, she knows instantly what each button does and after a little comedic crashing pulls off the most complicated and amazing stunts ever seen in the ship. She then helps Han Solo fly it better and fixes it for him. He hands her a gun (to which she says, “I can take care of myself,” which even the film seems to recognize makes no sense in that context) and after a single fumbled shot she’s knocking down Stormtroopers like nine-pins. She though the Force was a myth a day before, then starts using Jedi Mind Tricks and Force-pulls before willing herself to be a better swordsman than Kylo Ren (who was trained by Luke) and defeating him in combat.

And all the while everyone is telling her how special she is; Finn is practically in love with her (which admittedly is one of the few honest-seeming character motivations in this film), Han Solo wants her to be his co-pilot, Kylo and Snoke want to train her as a not-Sith, and so on. She indignantly snaps at Finn when he tries to help her (“let go of my hand!”) and makes shrill expressions of irritation when she thinks he’s doing something wrong.

I found Rey to be almost as irritating as Jar-Jar Binks, only with an added level of smugness that made her even worse. She’s an awful lead character. Her ‘arc’ consists of discovering how super-awesome she is without any struggle or training – it just comes natural to her – and using her self-esteem to defeat the villain. To make matters worse, she defeats Kylo, the main bad guy, in the first film of a trilogy. Why? Where do the filmmakers think they can go with this?

To top it off, even if you accept her abilities and allow for her shrillness, she’s not a very interesting character. Her motivation is that she’s waiting for her parents, which is okay, but it ties into nothing else in the film and she’s told to drop it half way through, leaving her without any real motivation at all. Why does she want to be a Jedi? Why is she suddenly invested in the Resistance? What is her goal? On the subject of the parents thing, how hard would it have been to make finding them a guiding motive for her? Wouldn’t that make sense, wouldn’t that give her a relatable goal, open up story possibilities, give her some reason for being in this film?

Then there’s Finn, the defecting Stormtrooper. There’s a lot of potential there for a really interesting character, something we haven’t seen before, and the filmmakers very carefully avoid all of it. In the first place, there’s no credible reason behind his defection: he’s just shocked to find he’s being ordered to kill people and that war is frightening. This despite the fact we later learn he’s been trained from childhood to do just that. We’re told this was his first mission: they train him for twenty years before sending him on his first mission? And he instantly falls apart? Not only does he instantly fall apart, but no one in the First Order seems to notice or care; they just give him another extremely important assignment. Then we learn he’s actually a janitor. What?! Then what was he doing on a covert strike mission? It’s not like the First Order lacks men or resources from what we can see. He’s been ruthlessly trained to kill for twenty years, yet he’s a cheery, bumbling, insecure idiot who seems to have walked straight out of a sitcom. Why? Why take such a potentially fascinating character premise and immediately turn him into a bog-standard cowardly black sidekick?

Poe is our hotshot pilot, would-be Han Solo analogue, and he’s…fine, though he doesn’t have a lot of screentime. Also, his dialogue, like everyone else’s, just feels off. Too contemporary, to sitcom-esque, neither the awkwardly ‘mythic’ cadence of the prequels or the easy banter of the originals: more like whoever was writing it was trying much too hard to be clever and witty without really have the talent to pull it off. Still, Poe at least works as a character.

Easily the best new character is BB-8, the droid, who has a lot of personality and fits in well beside 3PO and R2 (who have little more than cameos here). One of the few genuinely clever jokes in the film involves him giving a thumbs up. He’s about the one thing I would keep if remaking this movie.

As for the bad guys, we have Kylo Ren, whose story I have problems with, but at least he has some dimensions and some attempt at complexity. His personal confusion, his obsession with Vader, his overcompensation with the mask and the lightsaber are all reasonably interesting. Trouble is, he’s as whiney and immature as Anakin, except he’s supposed to be one of the leaders of the First Order. At least Anakin wasn’t supposed to be head of the Jedi Council.

I do like his interactions with General Hux, however; they come across as equally powerful, but in different ways, and their back-and-forths are some of the best scenes in the film. On the other hand, Hux’s Nazi speech is much too on the nose (the Stormtroopers even give a ‘heil’ salute for goodness sakes!).

Then we have Supreme Leader Snoke, who…what the heck is he supposed to be? Where did he come from, what’s his position in the Galaxy? What is his goal? How does he relate to the past villains? Like the First Order he heads, Snoke is just there: he’s not established, he’s just dictated to exist and be super powerful.

As for the returning characters…let’s be blunt.

You do not get to reset Han flippin’ Solo’s character development you pathetic little cockroach of a film!

Han Solo’s development from smuggler to war hero is one of the most perfectly realized character arcs in film. This movie undoes it. It posits that after his son turned to the Dark Side he abandoned Leia and went back to smuggling as “It’s the only thing I was good at.” Han Solo would never do that! He would never abandon Leia at any time, let alone when she’s already dealing with losing their son. If there’s one thing we know about his character, it’s that. Smuggling is the only thing he was good at? He was a war hero! A general! He helped save the frickin’ Galaxy! How is it even possible he would not be heavily involved in the Republic? He had firmly left the life of crime behind him by the end of Empire at the latest: how would it even be possible for him to go back to it?

Also, he lost the Millennium Falcon? First of all, that would never happen while Han was still breathing; he loved that ship more than he love most people. Second, why do that? You could easily have had him fly in with the Falcon to save the heroes as his introduction: that would have been awesome. The whole set up serves no purpose except to create two or three separate plot holes and provide more opportunity for Rey to be insufferable.

But that’s not good enough for this movie, no! Not only do they reset his character, they make him completely incompetent; he welches two deals at once simply because he’s an idiot and according to the dialogue has done so to basically everyone in the underworld. “Only thing he was good at” and he’s a complete failure at it. Then we have a bit where Leia snipes at him and he just takes it with a few ineffectual pleas rather than pushing back (she actually asks “When have you ever helped?” Which…go to hell, movie!). That’s the defining feature of their relationship and they dump it to make Han Solo an ineffectual beta male.

Then they kill him off in the course of him failing one last time. Han Solo exists in this film only to be humiliated, emasculated, and die.

Leia fares a little better. There’s a touch of her old character left, though she’s much more subdued and has lost most of her spitfire attitude. There are a few scenes between her and Han where they at least come close to channeling their characters again, probably just because Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford still had great charisma and chemistry, despite the terrible writing.

By the way, in what universe do you make a sequel trilogy to Star Wars with the original cast, and you don’t give the three leads a scene together? Luke, Han, and Leia never share a scene in these films. And they can’t do it now: Han’s dead in story, Carrie Fisher has died in real life. The opportunity has passed by and they just ignored it. What idiot made that decision?

Apparently to disguise how much they’re insulting his character, the film gives Han some ridiculous feats to pull off, like entering the atmosphere at light speed or shooting a Stormtrooper without looking. Likewise they establish Poe’s master piloting skills by having him blast bad guys with pinpoint accuracy from his X-Wing. This is another example of lazy writing. We know these things are ridiculous. They don’t depend on anyone’s skill; they depend on the writers dictating whether or not they’ll work. They’re not impressive; they’re just stupid. Contrast this with something like Empire Strikes Back, where Han has to evade the Imperial fleet at sub-light speeds. Everything he does is logical, audacious, and clever, like hiding from a Star Destroyer by landing on the side of its bridge. They work because they reasonably would work in the context of the film.

Even in the prequels, for all their exaggeration of Anakin’s abilities, he couldn’t just break reality at will. Directly contrasting with Poe, when he tries to get off pinpoint shots from his fighter he blows off part of Obi-Wan’s ship and has to improvise something else.

The point is, the original films and even the prequels took time to think up reasonably impressive feats for their characters to perform and which worked in context of the world. Force Awakens simply dictates that something happens.

In conclusion, the writing in this film is simply terrible. Granted the dialogue and acting are better than in the prequels, and the environments are less cartoony, but in terms of storytelling, world building, character, and plot, I’d say The Force Awakens is worse than any of the prequels, while lacking the creativity that made them watchable. There’s a technically competent sheen that makes the film appear better at first glance, but the moment you apply any thought to it you find it’s completely hollow.

But apart from the bad writing, the insultingly bad storytelling, and the absolute lack of creativity, the reason I hate this film in a way I don’t hate any of the prequels is the insult done to the original trilogy. This film isn’t just a bad or unnecessary addition; it systematically seeks to destroy the accomplishment of the originals. The Republic? Gone in one shot. The Empire? Apparently fully restored. Leia? Old, alone, and ultimately ineffectual. Han Solo? A failure at everything, lost all his character development, and is killed by his own son while failing yet again. Luke Skywalker? Failed to restore the Jedi and ran away after being unable to prevent his own nephew from falling to the Dark Side. Vader’s last-minute redemption? Apparently forgotten and irrelevant. Everything the characters we loved accomplished over the course of three of most beloved films of all time is now gone. That fantastic, rousing adventure that won the hearts of millions around the world has now been ret-conned into a dismal failure just so the filmmakers can retread the same ground with new and terribly conceived characters.

See, the prequels may have been bad, they may have introduced some truly stupid ideas, but they ultimately didn’t take anything away from the originals. The Empire was still powerful and evil, Darth Vader was still the ultimate villain, whatever he had been as a young man, and however clunky or dubious the Empire’s rise might have been, it doesn’t detract from the thrill of seeing it fall. Now, according to this film, all that is meaningless.

There are bad films and there are malevolent films. A bad film is just technically poorly made, but a malevolent film is actively hostile to the audience: it seeks to take something from them.

The Phantom Menace is a bad film, but it isn’t a malevolent film. It’s incompetent, but in the end it was only trying to be a fun sci-fi adventure for kids and it failed. There’s no harm in it really except that it’s irritating, boring, and badly done.

The Force Awakens is both a bad film and a malevolent film. It’s not only terribly written, but it seeks to undermine and destroy the legacy of three of the most beloved films of all time in order that it can take their place. It tears down great characters in favor of pushing terrible ones. I won’t get into a possible misandric agenda, though it’s kind of obvious if you care to look.

Because of that, I hate this film in a way I don’t hate the prequels, and I have trouble pointing out anything positive about it. There are good things: some of the humor, like the two stormtroopers quietly retreating as they hear Kylo throwing a temper tantrum, is very funny. The visual can be very cool, like a surface-level shot of the death planet firing. Finn’s obvious attachment to Rey is an isolated bit of believable human emotion, especially his saying that he was ashamed to tell her what he really was and her ending up being the one thing he’s willing to fight for. In a less agenda-driven film, that could have been a really good plot line. And BB-8 is a fine little character who fits right in with the others. Luke’s introduction, whatever the problems around it, is visually and atmospherically striking.

But none of that matters because the film’s ill intention is too palpable. Even ignoring any socio-political aspect, the fact that it tries to undermine and undo the original trilogy is itself enough to outset any positives it may have, and that’s not even considering how bad the writing is.

I hate this film.

Thoughts on ‘Revenge of the Sith’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones

The original Star Wars trilogy was simply a self-contained fantasy-adventure story. The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, was structured around a particular event that would lead into that future story. The whole thing is (at least in theory) is built around the moment where Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, and it is that moment which Revenge of the Sith is all about.

The result is easily the best of the prequels, not just because it’s more tightly focused and has more of a coherent storyline, but also because it feels as if George Lucas had at last started to learn some lessons in writing and direction. It’s still clunky at times and there are still stretches of terrible dialogue, but the storytelling is much stronger than the previous two, and despite its poor foundations the film actually manages to be remarkably solid and carries real emotional weight.

We open with a spectacular space battle over Coruscant as Anakin and Obi-Wan race to rescue Chancellor Palpatine from Count Dooku. They succeed, but during the battle Palpatine convinces Anakin to murder Dooku when he gets him at a disadvantage. There’s a crash landing (which is really cool), and separatist leader General Grievous escapes and Obi-Wan is tasked to go after him in the hopes of cutting the head off the movement and ending the war.

At the same time, however, the Jedi Council grows increasingly worried about the amount of power Palpatine has acquired, especially as he’s long since overstayed his term in office. They resolve that once Grievous is caught, they’ll remove Palpatine from power if he doesn’t step-down voluntarily, fully aware that this might require them to assume control of the Senate for a time.

Meanwhile, Amidala has revealed to Anakin that she’s pregnant, potentially exposing their secret marriage and resulting in him being expelled from the Jedi Order (The scene where she reveals this news to him is excellent, by the way, with some very good acting by Hayden Christensen as he processes this development). Anakin, however, is more worried about the nightmares he has begun to have of her dying in childbirth; just like the dreams he had right before his mother died.

All of this combines to drive Anakin further away from the Jedi and towards Palpatine, who claims to have knowledge that might be able to save Amidala from dying. Palpatine also begins to feed him suggestions that the Jedi might be seeking to take control of the Republic…which unfortunately is a very plausible explanation for their behavior as they seek to remove him from power (and, insidiously, is exactly what he is doing).

So, just from that we can see that the storytelling is much better this time around. Character motivations generally make sense (with a few exceptions, which we’ll come to) and the plot is easy to follow. We still don’t know just what this war is all about, or why the Separatists are supposed to be the bad guys (I had to laugh when the Trade Federation guy is killed just as he’s trying to explain his motives), but once granting that there is a war on everything else more or less plays out reasonably.

Not only that, but the character actions have real emotional power behind them. We get to see them struggling with trying to do the right thing, wrestling with their consciences, and yet ultimately picking their choices in the heat of the moment when no one is thinking clearly. There’s a fantastic scene mid-way through, where all the pieces are in place, and we cut between Anakin and Amidala, in different parts of the city, silently making up their minds what path they will take. There’s no dialogue, just somber music and visuals (as indicated, the acting is notably better this time around as well; there is still a lot of bad dialogue and awkward performances, but also patches of real, solid emoting. Hayden Christensen in particular is excellent in several key scenes). It creates the sense of huge weight suspended on a point, about to fall one way or another, and we’re just watching to see which way it’ll go.

Likewise there’s a great scene at a theater before that where Palpatine does a little quiet manipulation of Anakin by sharing the legend of Darth Plagius, a Sith Lord so powerful he could create life and stop death (this hints at an explanation for Anakin’s virgin birth. That point is still stupid, but at least they did something kind of interesting with it here at the end of the trilogy). And the scene where Anakin and Obi-Wan say goodbye, though they don’t know it, for the last time as friends is also really good, especially since we the audience know what is going to happen. It mirrors Han and Luke saying goodbye in the original film, and we feel the tragedy of it.

And all of this works towards the end; the actions of the Jedi Council, the actions of Anakin, of Palpatine, of Obi-Wan, of Yoda, they all play a part in what happens, and yet we are able to understand why they all do what they do, and why, from their point of view, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Plot wise, the film is pretty solid.

The dialogue has improved as well. There’s still a lot of clunky or cringe-inducing lines (especially when it tries to get romantic), but there are also some pretty good lines, whether comedic (“How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!” “Apparently not.”) or dramatic (“This is a happy moment. The happiest moment of my life”).

The opening sequence, of a high-adventure space-battle leading to a raid on a big capital ship, is the sort of thing we ought to have gotten throughout this trilogy; fast-paced, thrilling heroics with Anakin and Obi-Wan. I also like that, over-the-top as the action is, they don’t take it too far; Anakin’s a skilled pilot and warrior, but he can’t break the laws of reality to suit his will (e.g. when he tries to shoot a bunch of gremlin droids off of Obi-Wan’s fighter, he ends up blowing off part of the wing).

Anakin is really a lot more likable in this film: he’s still whiney and entitled in parts, but he also has scenes of humility and expresses real affection and respect towards Obi-Wan, and has a more believably affectionate relationship with his wife. When he has his nightmare, he doesn’t try to hide it but tells her the truth. We actually have something like the ‘good man’ that Obi-Wan described in the original film, at least in fits and starts.

Though that’s a problem for the trilogy as a whole: Anakin is too immature and too young throughout it. He never comes across as anything more than a teenager at best: a well-meaning and responsible teenager here, but still an adolescent. He never becomes a man: a mature, integrated, confident personality. Han Solo was a man, so was Luke in the latter part of the trilogy, and so is Obi-Wan here. Anakin never comes across as an adult, and that’s a huge detriment if he’s supposed to become Darth Vader (although I will say that he is genuinely intimidating after he turns, with his glowering, hyper-focused expressions while he’s trying to kill people).

Another perennial problem is that they keep switching villains. Count Dooku gets killed in the first act and the rest of the film is pursuing a new villain called General Grievous, who takes over after Dooku’s death. Why bother? Why not just have Dooku be the main villain throughout and have his death spark the crisis with Palpatine? It would have been a lot more streamline and given his character some actual space to develop. As it is, for all Christopher Lee’s charisma, Dooku is basically a non-character: he shows up at the end of the second film and beginning of the third to have a fight with Anakin and Obi-Wan, beat them the first time and lose the second. It’s confusing, not engaging, and a horrible waste of a great actor.

Grievous gets some cool things to do (like launching himself into space or whipping out four lightsabers at once), and has a decent design, but we barely have a chance to get to know him, we’re not really intimidated by him because he’s kind of goofy with his bombastic voice and ever present cough, and he’s basically just eating up time. Granted, there is tension in the lead up to his death, but only because we know it will precipitate the show-down with Palpatine, which would have been better served by a character with more weight. Again, I really can’t fathom why they would hire Christopher Lee and then do almost nothing with him (about the only thing worse would be hiring someone like Max Von Sydow and then killing him off in the first five minutes).

Another problem is the clones. Why, oh why, did they have the Republic soldiers be clones? That just raises so many issues, such as that the war seems have almost no effect on the day-to-day life of the Republic, that it’s weird for Anakin and Obi-Wan to treat them like normal people and even express concern for their welfare, and that we know the Stormtroopers in the original films aren’t clones, so there’s a disconnect between the two trilogies. The clones ought to have been the villain troops (dropping the useless battle droids, which barely seem capable of basic self-preservation, let alone presenting a credible danger to others), with the Republic forced to militarize to counteract this threat. That would mirror how both Anakin personally and the Jedi Council as a whole are doing things they would never have imagined to deal with the crisis and emphasized how much of a toll the war was taking and why it was important to end. It’s just one of the many huge, unfathomable mistakes made in plotting this trilogy.

That said, I do appreciate that this film tries to do what it can with the material it has. Though things like the death of Anakin’s mother, his meeting Amidala when he was eight, and so on are themselves poorly conceived, the film applies them in ways that both make sense and further the plot in interesting ways. Anakin’s already failed a loved one before and is desperate not to do so again, but gets no help from the Jedi (more on that in a bit). Also the application of midichlorians and the virgin birth already mentioned. The film is saddled with the terrible decisions of the past, but it actually tries to put them to good use and does a fairly decent job of it (in this it actually reminds me a bit of Freddy vs. Jason, another film that had a ton of terrible baggage, but did a good job of making something worthwhile out of it. Funny how often I refer to that movie).

As for Anakin’s fall itself, there is good and bad. On one hand, the reasoning behind it is solid, as is the progression of him acting suddenly, realizing what he’s done, and then resolving to follow through. I also like how he quickly starts both rationalizing it to himself (“My allegiance is to the Republic”) and trying to cover it up (telling Amidala that Obi-Wan’s trying to manipulate her when she asks about his crimes, not explicitly denying them, but trying to deflect her attention). On the other, there is no origin for the name Darth Vader; it comes across like Palpatine is just picking it out of a hat.

The real problem though is that he goes too far too fast, especially given his supposed motives. I’m sorry, but you can’t go from “What have I done?” to cold-bloodedly slaughtering frightened children within hours. Also, his excuse to himself and Amidala is that the Jedi are plotting to betray the Republic: that obviously wouldn’t apply to the children, so his killing them makes no sense even from his own point of view. How the sequence should have played out would be Anakin fights the adult Jedi (along with the Stormtroopers), then captures the children for re-education, only for it to turn out, or be implied that Palpatine actually had them quietly murdered. That would have been bad enough while allowing us to understand his motives. As it is, he simply dives headlong off the slippery slope for no apparent reason (though again, they try to justify it by having Palpatine promise to save his wife if he does what he’s told, it just isn’t enough).

And the word “Younglings” is stupid, especially since they have to use it in the most dramatic scenes.

Despite those flaws, the whole set up is well-conceived after the fashion of a Greek Tragedy, where Anakin violates the moral code he’s supposedly committed to in order to avert a future disaster, only to inadvertently bring it about by his own actions. It’s both credible and human; who wouldn’t be willing to do almost anything to save a loved one? And once you had, wouldn’t you feel obligated to keep on doing ‘anything’ even as your original goal slips away? It’s very nicely done, and fits well with Vader’s character in the originals (he makes the same offer to his wife as he later makes to his son: We can overthrow the Emperor and rule together, bringing order to a galaxy long torn by strife).

The fight with Obi-Wan isn’t badly set up, and it does feel weighty, leavened by several dramatic moments and spectacular shots (love the one scene of them clashing while lava erupts behind them), but it drags on far too long and gets way too over the top. Not to mention I don’t like how it ends, with Obi-Wan leaving Anakin to burn to death. He should at least put him out of his misery. It should have been that he didn’t realize Anakin was still alive and their final exchange happened elsewhere. That final exchange (“I hate you!” “I loved you.”) is very nice, however.

On the other hand, the Yoda versus the Emperor fight is completely gratuitous, especially since it doesn’t even really have a resolution: it just sort of stops. Then Yoda declares he’s going into exile. Why? It didn’t really look like he lost, and anyway, why go into exile? I’m sure the Rebellion could use him.

Speaking of Yoda, his doctrine of detachment, advising Anakin to accept the death of the unknown loved one he’s trying to save, inadvertently leads to him becoming Darth Vader and the destruction of the Jedi. Likewise he tried to warn Luke against turning Vader in Return of the Jedi and continues to expect detachment. Taken in light of the two trilogies, a case could be made that we’re watching the Jedi ethic turn from a Buddhist ideal of self-sacrifice through detachment to a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice through love of others.

On that note, it’s well-conceived that the very thing that allowed Palpatine to turn Anakin is the very thing that will one day lead Vader to turn on him; his love of his family. Clumsily and often poorly as it was done, credit must be given to Lucas for setting this up as a key factor in Anakin’s character. Likewise, it makes sense that Palpatine wouldn’t foresee this; he’s too arrogant and too selfish to see love as anything besides dangerous attachment that can lead to anger, hatred, and the Dark Side. Palpatine is a lot like Yoda in this regard: it takes Luke and Vader to prove their perspective wrong and, presumably, bring a new understanding to the Jedi.

Visually the film continues the spectacular imaginative imagery of the previous two films. This has been a consistently strong element of the prequels and it’s in full force here, with the endless cityscapes of Coruscant looking better than ever, a world of caves and giant lizards, and the final showdown on the lava-ridden world of Mustapha. In between we get glimpses of several other different and visually striking planets, including a brief look at the surface of Alderan and our first proper view of the Wookie home world, Kashyyyk (though, honestly, I thought it was much more striking in the Knights of the Old Republic game, where the trees were so tall and so dense that the surface was a land of perpetual gloom and darkness). Chewbacca getting a cameo is completely gratuitous, however.

And the downfall of the Jedi, with the somber music, Yoda, staggering under the disturbance to the Force, and the various knights being mowed down one after another by people they thought were their allies, is very well done. For all that the Jedi lacked the sense of grandeur and heroism they ought to have had, it does feel impactful to watch their fall.

Speaking of visuals, we really didn’t need to have Palpatine turned into the withered, cloak-shrouded image of the Emperor we knew, but seeing him standing beside Vader in the final moments is very striking. In this final effort they actually did at last make several useful points of continuity, from Obi-Wan commenting that the Emperor needs the Senate intact to keep the galaxy under control to him picking up Anakin’s lightsaber to one day give to Luke. On the other hand, why wipe 3PO’s memory, except that there was no way to make the continuity work otherwise?

Basically, this film is a lot more competently done than the previous two. It is as if, realizing he needed to get this one right, Lucas buckled down and actually put in the time to improve his craft in between movies, producing something that, while it doesn’t approach the quality of the originals, is nonetheless a solid piece of work.

I especially appreciate that the film is a tragedy: there is no happy ending, and there’s very little humor outside the opening sequence and some parts of Obi-Wan’s quest. They keep what humor they have to where it’s appropriate, unlike having Jar-Jar doing pratfalls right after seeing Qui-Gon get stabbed, or having 3PO making bad puns while young Boba Fett is cradling his father’s severed head. Once the third act is underway, there’s almost no comedy (at least, no intentional comedy): the droids are very subdued and the few lines they have are straightforward comments rather than jokes. This was a bold, but necessary choice: people are supposed to feel the ending as something somber and heartbreaking, and for the most part it is. Things like the Palpatine hamming it up in his speech, or the infamous “NOOOOO!” when the newly created Darth Vader rises from his slab are unfortunate lapses that sort of kill otherwise dramatic moments.

The prequel trilogy, as a whole, is uneven at best. The first two are frankly very bad films, though they each have their highlights to show there was talent and passion behind them. However, like a struggling baseball team at the bottom of the Ninth, Lucas and his crew managed to pull things together to produce, not a great film, but a decent, arguably a good film. There are still a lot of flaws, but the high points of this movie elevate to what can be categorized as a win, in the process partly validating the previous two. It’s the one that most needed to work, and by and large it does,

In short, I come away from the prequels glad that they’re over, but also feeling like they did add something worthwhile to the story. They’re not necessary, and often insufferable, but they do manage to continue and even add layers to the overarching theme that, just as the Death Star paled in comparison to the Force, so the Force itself is outstripped by the bonds of love and family. And for that, and for the other positives they contain, I will ultimately say I’m glad I saw them.