Tag Archives: Star Wars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – First Trailer

First – YES!

Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what Luke’s words at the end of the trailer could mean:

  • The Jedi were becoming aloof and corrupt by the end of Episode 3 (as better chronicled by the Clone Wars cartoon series).  He’s saying that it might be time to jettison the order and start fresh.
  • Luke is acknowledging that he failed to create a new Jedi order and is feeling sorry for himself.
  • Luke now sees the old Jedi/Sith paradigm as a force-user arms race that can only end by ending both orders.

We’ll see – fun stuff so far though.

(c) 2017 D. G. McCabe

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)

Directed by J.J. Abrams, U.S., 2015

First let’s start out: The Force Awakens is good.  What follows is a  completely spoiler-free review.  Fortunately, in a previous post I already laid the groundwork for such a discussion.  However, if you wish to make a completely independent assessment of The Force Awakens, as I did, you should stop now.

Continue reading Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)

Star Wars (or Relax Already it’s Going to be Fine)

Two weeks to go.

As some of you may be well aware, three of my favorite movies are Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983).  Two of my least favorite movies are The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002).  Revenge of the Sith (2005) I could take or leave – it’s quite good in some ways and its association with the aforementioned prequels damages its reputation a bit unfairly.

So the Star Wars series, as it stands right now, contains two great movies (Star Wars and Empire), one very good movie (Jedi), one average to above-average movie (Sith) and two bad movies (Menace and Clones).  The issue that’s been on my mind since 2012 – when Mickey Mouse purchased Lucasfilm and announced (finally) a sequel to Jedi, is which of these four category The Force Awakens is going to fall into.    Let’s see:

1. It’s Going to be Bad (Menace/Clones)

The team that’s been assembled to create The Force Awakens means that there’s a low risk of it being as bad as Menace or Clones.  J.J. Abrams is a fine director, in fact he already basically made two Star Wars films already (Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)).  Lawrence Kasdan is a legendary screenwriter.  The original cast, including Harrison Ford, is back, along with a half-dozen highly-regarded young talents, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.  The whole enterprise is being assembled by Kathleen Kennedy, one of the finest Hollywood producers working today.

Additionally, the first two prequels were written, directed, and produced by one guy – George Lucas.  There was no one to tell him no, which means numerous bad ideas made it into the films, especially the first two.  This risk has been mitigated by the level of talent surrounding the film, and Disney’s ability to be patient with it (bumping it’s premiere date out six months for instance).

Chances The Force Awakens will be bad: 5%

2. It’s Going to be Disappointing (Sith)

If all three of the prequels were as good as Revenge of the Sith, this would be a different conversation.  The handful of poorly executed scenes in Sith can be mostly cut entirely or tweaked a little bit.  I suspect the reason why these scenes remained in the film as-is was because of Lucas’ dominance.

There is a better chance that the Force Awakens is disappointing than outright bad.  J.J. Abrams has made a couple of movies that have underwhelmed audiences and/or critics after all.  That being said, I think the talent level involved still buttresses the movie against being disappointing.  For evidence of this, look at the trailers.

Trailers rarely tell the whole story, but if you compare the trailers for The Force Awakens to the trailers for the prequels, you will see the following elements that were missing from the latter.  First, Harrison Ford makes movies good.  Second, the dialogue seems well delivered, out of context sure, but not cheesy.  Finally, watching the prequels felt like watching a cartoon sometimes.  By using real sets, the trailers for The Force Awakens have a more tactile feel to them, which should help the tone of the film enormously.

Chances The Force Awakens will be disappointing: 15%

3. It’s Going to be Very Good, but not Great (Jedi)

With apologies to those who count Return of the Jedi as their favorite movie, I tend to agree with what seems to be the prevailing opinion of movie critics.  It’s a fine adventure film and a good ending to the original Star Wars trilogy, but it’s not quite a classic of its genre.  While I still believe the Ewok fight isn’t as crazy as it first appears, there are few other weaknesses in the film that just don’t give it the same “umph” as the first two.

That being said, by blockbuster sequel standards very good is actually a fine standard to hit.  For example, none of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels quite make this mark.  It is, however, hit by many well-regarded films like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness.

Here’s the problem: it’s really hard to make a great movie.  Even in a genre like the Hollywood blockbuster, where no one expects Academy Award level performances or deep thematic imagery, it’s really hard.  This is especially true when measured up to not only the classics of the genre on their merits, but when considering the emotional weight of nostalgia.  Most likely, The Force Awakens will be as good as Return of the Jedi, or slightly better, just because even with the talent assembled, “great” movies of any genre just don’t come around that often.  That’s part of the reason why they get to be called great.

Chances that the Force Awakens will be very good but not quite great: 55%

4. It’s Going to be Great! (Star Wars/Empire)

As a Star Wars fan, I hope The Force Awakens will fall into this category.  As a student of film history, I don’t think it’s likely.  The issue is that Star Wars and Empire are classics of their genre for very specific reasons that are unlikely to be replicated.

I just watched Star Wars yesterday.  Its technical innovations are often cited for the reason why it’s a great film, and this reputation is well earned.  However, for me the film is a masterpiece of pacing for an action/adventure movie.  It just has its own, unique momentum, which just tramples over its flaws.  Do we notice that some of the dialogue is silly?  Sure.  Do we care? Absolutely not.

The Empire Strikes Back is a classic of the blockbuster genre for very specific reasons as well.  First, you have to remember that it was really the first attempt to make a sequel in the way that we think of sequels now.  Sure there were sequels, but they usually were self-contained stories with the same characters, they weren’t an epic continuation of the first film’s story.  Second, it really is a great movie-movie, not just a great Hollywood blockbuster.  The story, themes, acting, and effects really are top notch.  Finally, it has one of the best endings of any movie – a gut-wrenching combination of plot twist and cliffhanger.

The Force Awakens won’t have intense technical innovations.  It won’t be the first modern sequel either.  Its chance for greatness is to replicate Star Wars’ sense of momentum and have an ending like The Empire Strikes Back.  Can it happen?  I guess we’ll see in two weeks.  For now I’ll be a bit more conservative in my estimate.

Chances The Force Awakens will be Great: 25%

Conclusion

Writing out this exercise made me feel a lot better.  I’m no longer worried that the movie will be bad or even disappointing.  At worst, it will be very good.  At best, it will be great.  Anyway – better get your tickets, I got mine!

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Science Fiction Tropes: Humanoid Aliens and Faster than Light Travel

By D.G. McCabe

I may or may not have mentioned on this blog that, concurrently to this project, I’ve also been working on a science fiction novel for quite some time.  Recently, I was browsing the internet, looking for a few ideas and I came across two concept that, apparently, are on the outs within the science fiction writing community.  The first is “humanoid aliens,” the second is “faster than light travel.”  I’m going address both these concepts one at a time to explain why I don’t think there is a good justification for eliminating either concept as a science fiction concept.

Humanoid Aliens

We all know the reason why Star Trek aliens look like humans – and no, not the canonical explanation put forth in Star Trek: The Next Generation – I mean the real reason.   The budget for a 1960’s TV show wasn’t exactly robust, so Gene Roddenberry and friends had to make do with what they had, which wasn’t much.  For the sake of the continuity of the series, the aliens were mostly kept humanoid.  Star Wars and other films/television series have mostly humanoid aliens, although there is far more diversity than in Star Trek.

I have read a few articles, and the comments to those articles, which find humanoid aliens to be implausible – the elements of soft science fiction and fantasy.  The justification goes that just because life evolved a certain way on Earth, doesn’t mean that life would evolve that way on other planets.  In fact, judging by what we know about our own Solar System and problems posed by the Fermi Paradox (odds are we should have encountered some aliens by now, why haven’t we?) it appears unlikely that aliens would look like us.

I take exception to stating that humanoid, sentient aliens are implausible.  First, look at the sheer number of “humanoid” animals on Earth (if we count anything that walks upright as “humanoid”).  There are all other primates, bears, kangaroos, penguins, meerkats, and prairie dogs to name a few.  “Humanoid” seems like a pretty low bar to hit when describing another animal.

Secondly, and more importantly, if we use the same standard in which we judge other science fiction concepts (hard and grounded in real science versus soft and grounded in fantasy), it follows that humanoid aliens are more plausible than not.  First, we have to assume that Earth is not that unusual or unique.  If life developed on Earth, it would likely develop on planets similar to Earth.

If life develops on Earth-like planets, it follows that it would develop in a similar fashion as on Earth.  To assume otherwise would be to say that the laws of chemistry and physics are consistent throughout the universe, but biology is “crazy” and anything can happen.  The potential for mutation is limited to what actually works in an environment.  If a planet is similar to Earth, it follows that the environment wouldn’t be so radically different that these mutations wouldn’t follow a similar path.

We then have to think about why humans are sentient and have civilization and other species, say, dolphins, do not.  The answer is basic and well known – we have hands and dolphins do not.  Other factors include our relatively long life spans compared to most animals and our adaptability to different environments.  In short, if an alien species evolved to a level of sentience on an Earth-like planet, the most logical result would be that they would generally look humanoid, if by humanoid we mean a creature with its hand free and a head on its shoulders.

Faster than Light Travel

This one is trickier from a scientific point of view.  According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, matter cannot exceed the speed of light.  The piece of matter would need infinite energy in order to do so. There are a few theories out there using wormholes and warp bubbles that would work around this, but these methods would require an amount of energy that may be impossible to generate.  In other words, it looks like we’re kind of stuck.

First of all, let’s explore why we need faster than light travel in science fiction.  Without it, you are stuck with telling stories that are: 1) mostly about humans; 2) mostly about the effects of time dilation (time moves at different speeds at different accelerations and locations); or, 3) stories about humans experiencing the effects of time dilation. Speculative scenarios involving humanity’s place in a larger universe are effectively off limits, since there is no larger universe that is practically accessible.  You need faster than light travel to enlarge the scope of the story you are trying to tell.

Granted you can tell a lot of good stories about humans, time dilation, and the effects of time dilation on humans, but why limit yourself?  Yes you would need an explanation as to why this thing exists that shouldn’t – a thing whose existence would challenge our very understanding about either general relativity and/or the production of energy. But who says there won’t be such a discovery?  In all of human history there is only one Albert Einstein and one Issac Newton after all, why not someone to come up with something that solves the problem of practical interstellar travel?  My point is that, just because we don’t know something now, or it would challenge our understanding about how the universe works, doesn’t mean that someone won’t think of it.  In conclusion, I don’t think “well that’s not how the universe works based on our current understanding of science” is a good reason to categorize all speculative fiction with solution to the faster than light travel problem as “fantasy,” as long as the solution has some grounding in reality.  After all, what’s the difference between that, and assuming that a sentient alien species can evolve on an Earth-like planet that looks absolutely nothing like what evolved that way on our planet?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Empire Strikes Back and the Science Fiction Genre

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

1980, Irvin Kershner, USA

“The force is with you young Skywalker.  But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Most people that are familiar with the Star Wars series consider the Empire Strikes Back (“Empire”) to be the best film of the six.  Once in a while you’ll run into someone who finds the original Star Wars (1977) or Return of the Jedi (1983) to be their favorite, but I find it hard to argue against Empire.

And why not?  Empire succeeds in everything that it tries to do.  It moves the story along from the first Star Wars film, sets up a convincing love story, trains Luke (Mark Hamill) as a Jedi, builds tension, and ends on the perfect note to set up the next film.  There are none of the plot inconsistencies, or unsuccessful attempts at humor that you find in some of the other films in the series and far fewer issues with the dialogue.

So if Empire is an extremely successful and well made film – where does it stack up against the classics of the science fiction genre?  I would first argue that science fiction is such a versatile genre that it is really like comparing apples and oranges, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Besides Empire, three other great science fiction films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),  Solaris (1972),  and Ghost in the Shell (1995). First, 2001 is a story about mankind’s place in the universe, contains groundbreaking visuals, and gives the audience a chance to soak in the concepts of the film with its long shots and minimal use of dialogue.  It’s nowhere near as entertaining as Empire (I personally find it boring), but it isn’t intended to be – it’s intended to make you think about reality whereas Empire exists in a self-contained, fantasy universe.

Solaris is about human isolation, nostalgia, and loneliness.  It is the story of a cosmonaut who is tempted by a living planet to exist in his past rather than his present.  It isn’t so much a science fiction film as a fever dream.  Empire isn’t interested in peering deep into your soul the way Solaris is, and with good reason.  Could you imagine Han Solo (Harrison Ford) getting nostalgic about, well, anything?

Ghost in the Shell, of course, is not about a fantastic galaxy far, far away, but about our present relationship with technology.  It is a commentary on the line between man and machine, and, at base, what makes us human.  Granted it has a lot more action than Solaris or 2001, but its psychological themes are in some ways encompassing of both films.  Like 2001, Ghost in the Shell asks to what extent can we become dependent on machines/computers and still be human? Like Solaris, it explores isolation by asking if we can have constant access to the “net” yet still feel isolated?

Is Empire a “great” film?  Like 2001 or Solaris or Ghost in the Shell, it is well made and executes its goals without obvious flaws.  The issue, I believe, is that Empire’s success occurs in the mythological universe of Star Wars.  Rather than provide commentary on the present human condition, it instead builds upon a mythological story filled with basic and accessible themes about good and evil, fathers and sons, and friendships helping us overcome adversity.  It doesn’t reach for the philosophical as much as these other films, but that’s not a flaw in my opinion.

Too often we are compelled to assign “greatness” to the most philosophical works and dismiss films with simpler themes as mere entertainment.  I would argue that a film’s “greatest” exists in how well it achieves its objectives – not by what those objectives are.  If you use that as a measure, indeed Empire is a great work of science fiction and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars (Episode IV): The Phenomenon

Star Wars

(a.k.a. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

(1977, George Lucas, USA)

Star Wars may be the most popular movie of all time.  When adjusted for inflation, only Gone with the Wind (1939) has made more money at the box office – and it can be safely said that Star Wars is a more popular film than that particularly troubled work.

As an impartial movie observer, I would agree that there are better films than Star Wars.  It’s true that George Lucas’  greatest cinematic influences comes from the man whom this writer believes is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived – Akira Kurosawa.  Most notably, there are elements of Seven Samurai (1954) and the Hidden Fortress (1958) visible in Star Wars.  Both of these are considerably better movies than Star Wars, but, while popular, they are mostly popular among film buffs, film historians, and filmmakers.

So Star Wars is more popular than its cinematic influences, and it is more popular than the only movie that has made more money than it has (granted that film had a 38 year head start on Star Wars and periodic re-releases in that timeframe).  So why?  The first clue can be found in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a favorite of George Lucas and a seminal work in modern mythological theory.  In it, Campbell sets forth the concept of the “mono-myth” or the singular myth that weaves a thread through the myths of all societies.  To boil it down into two sentences, the mono myth involves a reluctant hero answering a call to adventure from an older, father figure.  The hero must either defeat or avenge the father figure in order to complete his quest and return from it with a benefit to society as a whole.

While Lucas used Campbell’s work as a blueprint for Star Wars, elements of the mono-myth by its very nature can be found in numerous other better, less popular movies.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the aforementioned Seven Samurai, and other classics films follow the Campbell mono-myth quite closely.  What sets Star Wars apart are three elements: its characters, its music, and its technology.

First, the acting in Star Wars is not technically of a high quality.  But who cares?  The actors’ performances create interesting and memorable characters.  It is no small feat that characters that appear on screen for only a few minutes at a time are among fans’ all time favorites.  The main characters are among the most memorable in cinema history (no matter who shot first, which, by the way, was obviously Han).

Second, the musical score, heavily influenced by Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite (one of the most important pieces of music from the 20th Century), is among John Williams’ best. Remember, this was in the era of drum machines and synthesizers, and I’m sure some film producer told Lucas to use a more “futuristic” sounding score.  But just as Stanley Kubrick used a classical score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Williams’ orchestral score magnifies the epic feel of the film.

Finally, the technology’s impact cannot be understated.  No one had figured out how to make realistic space combat on screen before Star Wars.  If you watch the classic television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, for instance, you will see dozens of crappy attempts at this.  The fact of the matter is that Star Wars made these effects look real, and this was a huge deal at the time that cannot be understated.

Beyond these three elements, the popularity of Star Wars sustained itself in a time before the internet or easy access to home video.  The experience of seeing that film for the first time stayed with fans for decades, and comes back to them a little bit every time they see it.  That even goes for those of us who first saw the movie on home video or on cable television.  While you can nitpick flaws in Star Wars’ script, acting, or the changes and updates Lucas has made to it over the years, it is its ability to impact the first time viewer and stay with them that makes Star Wars perhaps the most popular film of all time.

(c) 2012

Star Wars: Episode III and its Classic Villains

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

(2005, George Lucas, USA)

Revenge of the Sith (“RoS”) is by far the best film of the prequel trilogy.  The film of course focuses on Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becoming Darth Vader and the Republic becoming the Empire (and thus the Chancellor becoming the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid).  I often wondered why Lucas chose to accomplish both of these tasks in a single film instead of spreading them out, but it definitely works out well in the end, as the film successfully sets up not one, but two classic movie villains.

The Emperor of course has been playing a double agent since Episode I, simultaneously controlling the Republic through the Senate and the Separatists through his apprentice, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).  Clearly his apprentices don’t last very long (Darth Maul (Ray Park) lasts at least an entire film whereas Count Dooku is only really in the second half of Episode II), but there is method to his madness in that he’s aiming for the apprentice he truly wants the entire time.

The Emperor fits a villain archetype of the grand schemer.  Other examples include Blofeld from the James Bond series, Lex Luthor, and Michael Corleone.  These are men with tremendous power and effect their will not through brute force but by shadowy manipulation.  When compared to aforementioned villains, the Emperor is certainly a head above Blofeld (who’s over complicated schemes end up causing his undoing).  As for Luthor, it depends what interpretation you’re going off of; with the modern interpretation certainly more on par with the Emperor than the Silver Age, mad scientist Luthor.  Corleone is a good comparison. Even though he eventually repents in the Godfather Part III, his ruthlessness and meticulous scheming are certainly on par with the Emperor’s.

Darth Vader on the other hand is a villain as fallen hero.  Certainly he can be compared to Hercules or Lancelot, but those comparisons really don’t fit.  After all, Hercules was allowed to rectify his crimes through his twelve labors, so his fall to the proverbial “dark side” was only temporary (and caused by Hera for that matter).

The example of Lancelot is a bit closer to Vader, but still doesn’t work.  After all, Lancelot did not intend to bring about the fall of Camelot, it was instead a consequence of his forbidden love affair with Guinevere.  Still, it is never shown that Lancelot is a particularly bad or evil person, but rather a man who placed his own feelings above the needs of the kingdom at large.  While this is certainly Sith-like, the lack of any ruthless malice on his part causes the example of his fall to be a bit short of Vader.

I think that the uniqueness in Vader is that he was first introduced as a villain and it was later revealed that he was once a hero. While the greatest plot twist in the history of cinema has been undone by the universal popularity of Star Wars, and later by the Prequel Trilogy, there is still value in approaching the Vader/Anakin dichotomy as Vader first.  After all, it underscores the danger that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) faces in the Original Trilogy since it shows how extreme “falling to the dark side” really is.  There is rarely a chance for redemption, and any good intentions that the individual once had are now completely nullified by the lengths they will go to pursue whatever it is that they want.

Vader is of course a far more interesting villain than the Emperor in this manner.  The intricate web the Emperor weaves to come to power is far more interesting than the Emperor as a character, while Vader’s character and actions are both interesting to dissect.  Still, both are classic villains and Revenge of the Sith succeeds at showcasing their rise as villains, or as in Anakin/Vader’s case, his fall as a hero.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe