Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Star Wars – Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)


I remember hearing about George Lucas’ nine-part plan for our lives on a bus to summer camp back in the 1980s. I thought that sounded like the most ambitious and exciting turn of events I could conceive of. Nine Star Wars movies were too much to hope for. For nearly a decade it really was. Then we got the prequels, and most of us just hoped that Lucas would stop, please stop. But then Disney stepped in, brought along J. J. Abrams and we were looking at nine movies again. Was this A New Hope? Or was the Disney Empire about to strike out?


You’d think that after blowing up the second Death Star the galaxy far far away would have learned its lesson. Alas, that is not the case. From the ashes of the Galactic Empire arose the First Order and their dark Jedi commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is seeking out Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who vanished after his attempt to resurrect the Jedi order failed. Once the first order finds and kills Skywalker they have an open door to the rest of the galaxy.

Standing in their way is the Resistance, organized by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). She’s sent her best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to retrieve the coordinates of Skywalker’s last known address. But the First Order comes around and mucks it all up. The coordinates end up in a droid named BB-8, who meets a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). Before you can say “Help me Han Solo, you’re my only hope”, Rey meets up with an ex-stormtrooper named Fin (John Boyega) and everyone’s favorite smuggler duo: Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew). A series of adventures explode across the screen as our heroes try to stay one step ahead of the First Order who are convinced that these events are leading to an awakening in the Force.

Good Points:
  • A superb cast delivers a solid script (with a surprising amount of humor)
  • Brings back the show, don’t tell, style of the original trilogy
  • Feels like a natural extension of the first three films 

Bad Points:
  • Or it is pretty much a rehash of A New Hope with a splash of new paint
  • Some of the design choices seem to miss the fact that Return of the Jedi happened
  • The death of a major character may be too much for some fans


You want to have a great time in the Star Wars universe, then The Force Awakens may be your movie. Bursting with interesting new characters, familiar faces, plenty of great humor and lots of action, the seventh movie in the franchise is a blast. It is also overly familiar and some viewers may find that familiarity off putting. For me it was just what 2-1B ordered. For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to the next adventure in the Star Wars series.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review

New opening crawl, same old ALL CAPS words.
Well let’s get this out of the way. You aren’t going to please everyone. That’s just a basic issue with making any kind of art or entertainment. Once Disney got involved with Star Wars we all knew that they were sure going to try to please everyone (and market as much merchandise as possible), but Disney’s track record in the first part of the 2010s was pretty good. They are focusing more on developing memorable characters and stories. We also had J.J. Abrams on board for The Force Awakens, and like or dislike his work, it is hard to ignore the fact that he crafts entertainment that appeals to a lot of people.

Finn's feeling a little blue after Rey is knocked out.
The big Bantha in the room is the simple fact that the prequel films did more to discourage long time fans than make new ones. There are good things about those films (I wrote a blog about ten of them) but for the most part the films aren’t nearly as satisfying for long time fans. Disney’s goal was to bring back those old fans, and create a new fan base. This meant bringing back the feel of the original trilogy and crafting new characters that are intriguing and exciting to the audience.

The approach was to saturate the new with the mood and feel of the old. From what I’ve seen, reaction to The Force Awakens is impacted by how the familiarity turns into fan service for you. If the movie crosses the line too often than the whole endeavor feels horribly calculated – something Disney is notorious for doing. But if you enjoy the mix, then suddenly you’re having a great time with a Star Wars film, and for a lot of fans that is reason enough to celebrate.

Jacket thief!
The visual aspects of this movie are a perfect mirror of that philosophy. A strong effort was made to show old time fans that this was a Star Wars movie as they remembered it. Gone are the extravagant green screen sets. Gone were the over the top lightsaber battles filled with CG characters doing the impossible. Gone were the hoards of CG troopers swarming a CG world. Instead you had location shooting, actual bodies on the screen, weight and gravity for the lightsaber battles and firefights, and the movie was shot on actual Kodak film, instead of using digital techniques.

Trapped between a droid and tough gal.
Most of the costume and character design follows the same pattern. We have Han Solo wearing his jacket from Empire Strikes Back, the pilot outfits for both sides harkens back to the original trilogy in a lot of ways. Hell, the whole First Order looks like they just took the Empires template for everything and gave it a few more curves and extensions and boom – there you go.

The effect is obvious, The Force Awakens looks like it is a natural extension of the original trilogy. That is often a complaint leveled at the prequels, that they never felt tied to the Star Wars universe until the second half of Revenge of the Sith.

Han Solo tours - bringing the best of the galaxy to you.
But then you have some of the over-playing the hand that I mentioned earlier. So A New Hope had three primary locations: desert planet, metal planet and jungle planet. The Force Awakens has three major locals: desert planet, metal/snow planet and forest planet. Yes you have a couple tweaks to the visuals, but for the most part the fact is you could swap out Jakku for Tatooine and no one would really know the difference. The inside of Star Killer base looks a lot like the inside of the Death Star, but that I can forgive. It was built by a group inspired by the Empire after all. But the forested planet we explore in the second half of the film could easily be the love child between Yavin and Endor. The biggest visual change is the final planet we see in the film, where Luke Skywalker awaits. Those grey islands in the mist are unlike anything else we’ve seen in the series.

TIE is TIE no matter what trilogy you are watching.
Then there’s the matter of the space ships. It is great to see the Millennium Falcon again. I like the replacement dish on top after the old one was scraped off in Return of the Jedi, but it seems that is the only technology that admits Return of the Jedi happened. By the time of The Force Awakens you’d think that fighter evolution would have continued from the B-wings, A-Wings and TIE Interceptors of the third film. But instead we get slightly revamped versions of the X-wings and TIE fighters that were old in Return of the Jedi. Now only a big Star Wars geek is even going to notice, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to no include some new ship types in there. Or at least throw in a couple Y-wings if you’re going to borrow from A New Hope.

"They sunk my battleship!"
I will say that the alien and creature design is a lot closer to what we saw in the prequels. This is probably because costumes mixed with CG has allowed film makers to go far beyond the limits of 1970s and 1980s technology. But The Force Awakens keeps things looking more physical when it comes to these new designs. There are plenty of CG only characters in the film, but they don’t stand out as much as the ones in the prequels and it helps that so many practical and physical effects are used. The audience is rarely pulled completely out of the moment, and allows the actors to interact with actual items.

Love the scale in this shot.
Like all the moves that preceded it, The Force Awakens has some really great visual moments. You get scenes where Rey is standing in front of a downed Star Destroyer or AT-AT on Jakku and the scale comes home. You have the enormous holograph of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the cavernous room he appears in. Maz’s forest hideout looks like nothing else in the series and camera captures it well. But the last third of the movie is filled with imagery that will become iconic: Han confronting Kylo Ren, the duel between Rey and Kylo Ren and the final climb to reveal Luke Skywalker all create a visual tapestry that adds a new chapter to Star Wars. The only misstep was the speech General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) gives in full on Hitler mode. It just seemed a bit too much almost to the point where I was chuckling. Of course subtlety was never something Star Wars was ever going for, but that moment just seemed over-ripe.

BB8 does his best Lawrence of Arabia.
The Star Wars series has always been a source of creative and unique sound design. It is safe to say that The Force Awakens provides plenty of great sound work. But here I think the creators went for the more familiar. Not much new material popped out at me in this area. Lightsabers, the Falcon, and blasters all sound like you expect. The most unique new source of sound effects is BB-8 who doesn’t’ sound like R2-D2, but is certainly cut from the same cloth. He is very expressive for only using sound effects.

Leia doubts the veracity of your claim.
For the music there really was no other option, John Williams had to return. When the movie first came out, a lot of film music fans were actually a bit disappointed in the score. But I think it was due to a strange duality. Some fans wanted a score that sounded like Empire Strikes Back. Others wanted a score with the choral majesty of Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace. The thing is Williams’ style changed back in the 1990s. He hasn’t written anything in the style of Empire Strikes Back for decades. Since The Force Awakens is a direct follow up to the original trilogy, the massive choral set pieces don’t make sense. There was very little human voice work in the original trilogy with just Return of the Jedi utilizing it for the Emperor to any great degree.

What Williams fashioned is a Star Wars score through and through, but one in his current style. It has plenty of quotes for older themes including the main Star Wars theme, the Rebel fanfare, Leia’s Theme and Han and Leia’s theme. But most prevalent is the theme for The Force. Williams gives it some glorious treatments in this score. Listeners with sharp ears will hear a subtle nod to Darth Vader’s theme in one cue near the end of the film.

There may be some trust issues here.
The new themes are really impressive. The best of the bunch is the theme for Rey. It has two parts that are very moldable and get a major workout in the film. Kylo Ren also gets a theme with two parts: a bold fanfare and a sinister conflicted theme. Finally you have a brash theme for The Resistance. That one sounds a lot like the theme for the Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade so I actually get a little distracted by it. I’m in the minority on that one, most people love it.

Wait, is this Tatooine or Arrakis?
Like any good Star Wars score, Williams weaves the themes in and around each other. He comes up with some exciting action music, my favorite revolving around the sequence where Finn and Rey abduct the Falcon. The final duel also has some great scoring as Rey’s theme and Kylo Ren’s theme do battle. But the best cue is the grand finale at the Jedi Steps and into the end credits: wonderful work, and one of my favorite Star Wars scores to date.

Ok, who ordered two craggy old smugglers: to go?
The acting is part of the reason The Force Awakens is so entertaining. One of the big factors is Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo. He brings a great combination of world-weariness and sly charm to the role. It is miles above his performance in Return of the Jedi and his interaction with the new cast and Carrie Fischer turn into the heart of the movie. It is great to have Han truly back. His final moments in the film provide the necessary punch and if Ford hadn’t been committed, I doubt it would have worked as well.

In addition there are some good performances by Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and even Simon Pegg as the greedy Unkar Plutt. Then you have the silent but enigmatic moment with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. That will provide plenty of discussion until the next installment comes out.

The future looks bright. She better wear shades.
As great as the old cast is, the new cast is what makes this movie work. Daisy Ridley is luminous as Rey. She brings so much energy to the role, and you can’t help but like and root for her. I connected so well with her that she ended up in my top ten list offavorite Star Wars characters after only one movie! Equally engaging is John Boyega as Finn. His struggle with his conscience and his interaction with Poe and Han allows us to understand and appreciate him. You get the feeling that he is going to grow as a character as the series progresses. I’m very curious to see where he ends up. Oscar Isaac is also immediately likable as the confident and friendly Poe Dameron. While his screen time is less than the other two, his personality and banter make you wish he was in the movie even more.

Don't tell me mum that I'm planning mass murder.
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren does a good job playing this character of conflict. He is menacing and dangerous, but he is also damaged in some way. When his mask comes off, we are surprised by his youth and yet it fits into why he does what he does. We only get part of his story in The Force Awakens, but his actions and desires tell us even more. Driver has plenty of presence and I think they will make good use of it in the coming films. Domhnall Gleeson does a good job in the role of General Hux. He has a fanatical intensity about him that reminds me of General Motti from A New Hope. While I think they lay on the Hitler-esque performance a bit too thick in his big speech, I’m curious to see more of him in the next film. Rounding out the villains is Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke. I’m not terribly fond of this characters appearance – he looks too much like Voldemort from the Harry Potter films. It was actually kind of distracting. Serkis does a lot with his voice and brings gravitas and evil into the role, at the same time his part seemed unnecessary. But that is more of a script issue than anything else.

Couldn't we see her shoot just one person?
Lupita Nyong’o does a very good job as Maz Kanata, the wise alien that puts Rey on the path to The Force. She has some very good banter with Han Solo and the combination of CG and the performance works pretty well. We also get Max Von Sydow in a small but critical role in the opening of the film. Kind of wish we got to know more about him. In the same boat is Gwendoline Christie as the shiny Captain Phasma: silver stormtooper with a cold but deadly attitude. I was hoping to see her kick some kind of ass… but she was barely in the film. Could it be that Disney is setting her up as the next Boba Fett? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

I'm not touching you. Does this bother you?
The script to The Force Awakens has one big plus and one big minus. On the positive side is all the humor and camaraderie in the film. This is the funniest Star Wars film in the series, and I’m not talking about burp jokes, clumsy alien jokes or an endless parade of droid related puns. No, this is actual humor that comes out organically from situations, banter and irony. We haven’t seen this kind of humor in action since The Empire Strikes Back, and you can tell that writers Laurence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt kept the focus on fun. The combination of this approach to the script and the warm performances by the cast is what makes the film work so well in spite of the big minus in the script.

Time to play the HD version of Yar's Revenge!
Familiarity breeds contempt and that is where some viewers may end up when they come to the conclusion that The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope in a different coat of paint. All the plot points are present. All the character moments can be checked off. Some sequences are played out in a nearly identical way. And when the script isn’t cribbing openly from episode four, you can see easy ties to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. As organic as the humor and character moments are, the plot feels very manufactured to deliver the same feelings A New Hope delivered in 1977. To be honest, that is a futile effort. You can’t catch lightening in a bottle twice, no matter how much talent and money you throw at something.

That is my biggest problem with The Force Awakens. It feels manufactured in many scenes. The Starkiller Base is especially bad. It really doesn’t need to be in the film at all. I spent most of my first viewing wondering how stupid the First Order was for building yet another super weapon, when twice before that super weapon was destroyed. It reduced them as a credible threat in a way and hurt the movie.

Don't tell me they stole the Red Matter from Star Trek.
But you begin to wonder if the Starkiller base was something added in later during script development or insisted up by someone at the studio. It just doesn’t fall in with the character driven elements of the story. And when The Force Awakens falters in the script it is because of moments like that. There are few too many scenes of fan service where the movie stops to say “remember how much you liked this from the original trilogy?”. Us old time fans get pandered to a bit too often and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

That said, I understand the approach. The Force Awakens goes out of its way to assure everyone that Star Wars is back, it is fun and it is going to continue the saga in a way that most viewers are going to enjoy. It isn’t ignoring the prequels, but it isn’t using them as inspiration either.

The First Order brings the brutal hammer down.
Balancing all this is J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair. I don’t envy him this task, and yet I think Star Wars is a better fit for him than Star Trek. Abrams’ tendencies toward action and mythic plot structure are in line with the galaxy far far away. Star Trek’s focus on ideas and themes at the core of each movie was something he didn’t seem as interested in. With Abrams helming The Force Awakens we are treated to a movie that moves at a rapid pace. It throws you into the story and never lets up till the end. He sacrifices some background for characters and situations, but so did A New Hope. Instead he relies on the performances and the actions we witness now to carry the film. For the most part it works. He manages to hit that sweet spot of plot, character and entertainment. You could argue that all Abrams had to do was mimic A New Hope and he would have a success, but if you remember all the movies that came out after 1977 that tried and failed to capture what made Star Wars work, you know that isn’t true. Abrams definitely tackled this formidable challenge and gave us a very entertaining Star Wars adventure.

I swear, he let me keep the jacket!
At this point it is easy to say that The Force Awakens works better than any of the prequels because of its ability to craft characters you connect to almost immediately, and create situations that make you want to see what happens next in the story. Both were experiences I never had with the prequels. I also think the script is a lot less messy than Return of the Jedi which really clunks along to get to its powerful conclusion. But A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are superior films that tell better-crafted stories and feel fresh and less manufactured. There is a feeling of caution in The Force Awakens. You almost get the sense that Abrams wasn’t allowed to go too far in any unique direction. I would argue that may have been the best approach for episode seven after the issues with the prequels.

A duel of the fates?
But I will also say that I won’t accept that kind of safe story telling for episode eight. The stage is set for some really interesting plot and character development. I want to see new worlds, new paths and new revelations. I don’t want to see Empire Strikes Back in a new coat of paint. If episode eight forges its new path, than I think those that don’t care for The Force Awakens too much will be willing to accepts its role in the series. But if episode eight continues down this path of manufactured familiarity, we’ll see some disgruntled fans that may be wishing that Lucas were back in the drivers seat.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Nostalgia Nugget: Boba Fett - Bad Ass or Ass Hat

Fett. The man, the mystery, the wookie scalper.
It is human nature to always want to know more about something or someone mysterious. And when you find out more – you’re usually disappointed. What you can imagine is almost always more impressive than what the actual story turns out to be. In a lot of ways that analogy is perfect for the Star Wars prequels. We all wanted to know what happened to our favorite characters and worlds before A New Hope started and the result was something that didn’t resonate with a lot of fans.

This is also the case for Boba Fett, one of the most feared bounty hunters in the galaxy, at least according to the folks at Lucasfilm before The Empire Strikes Back came out. He was going to be a major part of the new film and cause some real problems for Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca. When we got a look at him, he was unlike any character we had seen before.

No you don't get to play as Fett in this game!
Boba Fett’s mystique is all in his costume. He’s wearing armor and a helmet, much like a stormtrooper, but using grey and green instead of black and white. Visually this puts him in the middle of the conflict, neither good nor bad, but willing to work for whoever provides the most cash. Then you had his weapons, unlike any we’d seen in the series yet. His blaster rifle looked powerful. His arms were bristling with weapons of all kinds, and then you had that jet pack with the rocket on the top. Holy crap was this guy armed to the teeth!

In The Empire Strikes Back Boba Fett has three lines. They don’t tell us much about him. Vader makes a point to say, “I want them alive. No disintegrations.” Vader points at Fett when he says that last line, implying some kind of past between the two. Fett replies with “As you wish”. Later Fett is concerned about his prey being killed by the carbon freezing, “What if he doesn’t survive. He’s worth a lot to me.” This guy is in it for the hefty reward from Jabba the Hutt, and doesn’t give a crap about the Empire or Rebellion. His last line is to order some stormtroopers around.

So there you have it: three lines, some pot shots at Luke and flying in his odd looking space ship. Yet Boba Fett was one of the most popular characters in the entire Star Wars universe. I’m telling you, it is all in the mystery.

You see that image and all kinds of stories
kick into your mind!
I first encountered Fett when my parents bought me the 12-inch action figure that came out in 1979, before Empire Strikes Back was released. Obviously this was a new Star Wars character and on the box he’s blasting fire out of his arm and flying in SPACE! He also had Wookie scalps as an accessory. WOOKIE SCALPS! What a bad ass! I was suddenly obsessed with this character. This tall version and the smaller standard sized figures became some of my favorites to play with. Fett would always end up switching sides, capturing Han Solo and getting into battles with Darth Vader. It is also safe to say that my first Star Wars fan fiction (written in the late 80s when I got back into the series) was about Boba Fett escaping from the Sarlacc and discovering Jedi powers to fight a resurgent Empire. So yeah, I had drawings of Fett wielding a grey lightsaber (to match is grey outfit naturally).

Now lets talk a little bit about that “death” in Return of the Jedi. For a character that was so mysterious and dangerous in Empire, Fett goes out like a punk in Jedi. He gets hit by a blind Han Solo and then ricochets off the side of the sail barge and plummets into the Sarlacc, only to end up a burp joke – A BURP JOKE! (The third in a series of burping that Lucas was sure the kids would enjoy). Kiddies might have been tickled by burping aliens, but I was actually disturbed by Fett’s pathetic demise. I envisioned some kind of deadly battle against Chewbacca or Han. Hell even that short skirmish he has with Luke on the skiff seemed to promise something great. But no, flailing, falling and burping was all that was in store for us.

Fans of Fett knew he could get out of that, had to get out of it. Even the novels that occur after Return of the Jedi had Fett getting his jet pack working and escaping from the Pit of Carkoon and coming back to blast the crap out of the Sarlacc. Then the vengeance game was on with Fett pursuing Solo into infinity. We didn’t have to settle for the ending that George Lucas gave us, so we made our own and it was fitting to the mysterious character.

Nintendo's bounty hunter and one
woman army.
The fact is, we didn’t know much about Fett at all. Lots of rumors were floating around, especially before the comics and short stories of the late 90s and 00s really kicked in. I remember one great theory that had Boba Fett being a spurned lover of Han Solo and was more than happy to bring him to Jabba the Hutt. Cool concept, but I think someone was thinking of the bounty hunter Samus Aran from the Metroid games on Nintendo.

The 1990s was the boom of Fett fandom. The mystery of the bounty hunter seemed to intrigue everyone, and Lucasfilm and Hasbro took notice. Soon we had tons of Boba Fett merchandise to pick from. He went from being the character that the cool fans talked about, to the character that all the fans talked about. So the cool fans decided to talk about Pondo Baba instead. When the Special Editions came out, Lucas and his team made sure that Boba Fett was inserted into A New Hope during the Jabba the Hutt scene, and had additional footage in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. Fett fans were thrilled, even if they also felt a bit dirty from being pandered to. It also didn’t stop the Shadows of the Empire video game from featuring Boba Fett on nearly all the advertising and posters promoting the game. Fett was everywhere and there was no getting around it.

Spike from Cowboy Bebop doesn't quite
seem as good at his job as Fett does.
One other little thing I noticed in the 1990s, when Fett-mania was going strong, was that space bounty hunters became a thing. I already mentioned Samus from Metroid, but she was always labeled a bounty hunter even back in the first game from 1987. But the place I saw it was anime. Series like Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star and even Trigun all featured bounty hunters as the main characters or as key characters in the story line. You also had shows like Firefly and X-files that featured bounty hunting humans and aliens running around. I think we can all thank Boba Fett for that.

But too much of a good thing can lead to the diminishment of that thing. With each new novel, comic book and video game, Boba Fett became less of a mystery. The oversaturation of his character type and his character in general started to get old. This was all building to the prequels.

Cool looking character, but Aurra
didn't even get a line of dialogue!
The Phantom Menace attempted to scratch the bounty hunter itch with Aurra Sing, a female bounty hunter that appears in one scene, but still managed to appear on merchandise and magazine covers. Folks were even calling her Babe Fett. I don’t think the Fett fans went for her too much, although she appeared quite a few times in the animated Clone Wars television series.

So we got the origin story for Boba Fett, and met his father Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones. This revealed to us that Boba and Jango were from New Zealand and that Boba was a clone of Jango, who was in fact the source for all the clone troopers. Which means that Boba Fett was basically a glorified Stormtrooper. Um, yeah, that really sapped the mystery out of our favorite bounty hunter. Aurra Sing isn’t looking so bad now. But seeing Boba Fett as a little kid (and sadly portrayed by an actor who wasn’t so good) really seemed to diminish the mythic status of this character. After that a lot of folks seemed to lose interest in the bounty hunter.

Disney and Lucasfilm have never forgotten the heyday of Fett-mania. So in time for The Force Awakens along with all the Darth Vader merchandise that hit the shelves (even though Vader isn’t even in the film) we got a ton of Fett merchandise. Yeah I have to admit I might have recently picked up the odd Fett here or there. But I figure if I want to indulge in my Fett fetish, I still have a bunch of my 80s and 90s Star Wars stuff around. Yes folks, I’m that kind of fan.

So there you have it, how Boba Fett went from intergalactic badass to just another ass hat thanks to the prequels. But you know what, I can still watch the original version of Empire Strikes Back, where Fett doesn’t have a New Zealand accent and he is a greedy son of a bitch. Besides it looks like this new trilogy already has its own Fett-a-like. Captain Phasma only had about three lines too, right?

The woman, the mystery, the smell of armor polish.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Top Ten Star Wars Characters - Part 2

Time to jump into some more of my favorite Star Wars characters. I covered a runner up and numbers ten through six back on this post. Now it time for another runner up and my top five. So without further ado, lets get started.

Runner Up. Kyle Katarn – The Jedi Knight Video Game Series

Man, I loved Dark Forces, the first First Person Shooter in the Star Wars universe. You played as Kyle Katarn the spy who stole the Death Star plans, and sent them to operation Skyhook (which appeared in the Star Wars radio drama – yeah I’m that big of a nerd that I know the radio drama). Katarn later faced down the dangerous Dark Troopers, guys with killer armor, killer weapons and jet packs. When Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II came out and Katarn learned Jedi abilities. Now you’re running around with a light saber and actually choosing if you are going to go dark side or light side with your force powers. Katarn was a memorable character and had some great adventures I played both those games quite a bit, and only later found out that Katarn continued to appear in the Jedi Knight games and of course appeared in comics and novels. The guy even had an official action figure made in his likeness. Not bad for a character who never appeared in any of the movies and is now considered outside the cannon.

5. Princess Leia - The original trilogy and The Force Awakens

It is hard to imagine a time when the princess to be rescued from the dark castle was not spunky, fearless and ready to kick butt. In most fantasy and space opera these days, it is a given that the Princess is not going to be a demure flower. When the demure flower does appear, most of us are disappointed. But Princess Leia changed all that. Before she even speaks a line of dialogue, she kills a Stormtrooper with her blaster. When she does speak, she sasses Darth Vader! Those early scenes in A New Hope establish Leia as a new type of princess, and a new type of heroine. Lots of folks give Ripley from Alien credit for being the first strong female protagonist, but I’d argue Princess Leia beat her to it by a couple years.

The Empire Strikes Back evolved her character further. She stays to the last minute on Hoth ensuring her soldiers are able to get away and coordinating the escape. Her banter with Han Solo is excellent, and their budding romance is classic stuff. The finale of Empire packs its emotional punch because of Leia’s torment at seeing Han frozen and taken away to an unknown fate. Return of the Jedi doesn’t utilize Leia as much as the previous two films (a messy screenplay is probably the main culprit), but she does get some further character development with her interplay with Luke on Endor. And yes, the metal bikini, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, right? What is interesting is that Leia character development is actually all based around her romance with Han and Luke. She is a tough resourceful leader in the original trilogy and that never changes. Even when we come to The Force Awakens she is still the woman we remember, but the added twist of dealing with her son and estranged husband gives Leia added depth. It creates added emotional resonance for the climax of the film. All told Princess Leia or General Leia Organa is an unforgettable character and key piece of the mythology of Star Wars.

4. Luke Skywalker - The original trilogy and the new trilogy

I’ll admit that for a long time I never really appreciated Luke Skywalker. I’m not sure if it was his whining about power converts in A New Hope or the fact that he ignores Yoda in Empire Strikes Back or that he has to have his daddy save him in Return of the Jedi that rubbed me the wrong way. I was just a Han Solo fan through and through. Then I realized it was because I admired Solo’s devil may care attitude but my personality is much closer to Luke’s.

Of course that is the intent, Luke Skywalker is a perfect example of the traditional mythic hero. His story arc in A New Hope follows all the key points, the call to adventure, resisting the call, the initiation of the adventure, the belly of the beast, the return and the triumph. Beyond that Luke grows through all three films of the original trilogy. The boy we meet in A New Hope is the not the same man we end Return of the Jedi with. While Han may be the more interesting character, Luke as admirable because he always tries to do the right thing. Even his greatest failing in Empire Strikes Back is driven by his desire to help his friends. And yeah he's a little cocky about defeating Vader, but we can't rise if we don't get smacked down once in a while. Return of the Jedi gives us Luke rising up to be a Jedi unlike any other before him. It’s a compelling journey and Luke’s adventure drives the majority of the original trilogy. I’m very curious to see where the new trilogy takes Luke, his enigmatic presence in the finale of The Force Awakens is intriguing.

3. Obi Wan Kenobi - The original trilogy and the prequel trilogy

One character who received some very interesting development over the prequel and original trilogy was Obi Wan Kenobi. In The Phantom Menace we meet a young Jedi in training. He admires his maverick mentor, but also falls in line with the thinking of the Jedi Council. This continues into Attack of the Clones where Obi Wan believes much like the council that they were on top of the Sith, not falling directly into the Palpatine’s plot. We also see the more aggressive and confident Jedi Master we always suspected. Revenge of the Sith has Obi Wan dealing with the fall of the Jedi order, the betrayal of his apprentice and the realization that they all played directly into the Sith’s hands. This arc leads us directly into A New Hope.

I’ve mentioned before how well realized Obi Wan’s arc is in the prequels, and how much Ewan McGreggor’s performance resonates. Alec Guiness creates an instant character in A New Hope, a wise mentor that leads Luke toward his destiny. But this also falls in line with the Obi Wan of the past, learning from his mistakes in some ways and yet still performing the same actions of trying to control a Skywalker instead of guiding him. I put Kenobi so high on the list because of the strong performance by both actors playing the role.

2. Han Solo - The original trilogy and The Force Awakens

There is a whole generation of Star Wars fans that just thought Han Solo was the coolest guy in the galaxy. I know Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams fall into that group, and so do I. Harrison Ford just nailed the cocky attitude, banter with a walking carpet and the ability to hit on princesses look like too much fun. We totally understood Han’s mercenary streak in A New Hope, but we also cheered when he came back and saved Luke’s bacon. He was like the bad ass big brother to our protagonist and we loved him for it.

The Empire Strikes Back developed his relationship with Princess Leia as well as put him in the crosshairs for Darth Vader and Jabba the Hutt. His warm friendship with Lando builds up to the betrayal and the crushing defeat. Our favorite pilot has his wings clipped permanently . Or at least it seemed that way to me when I was a little kid. But Return of the Jedi brought Solo back for more. As a kid I was just pleased to have him back in the adventure and playing a critical role in the destruction of Death Star II. But these days, I can see Ford just going through the motions in that film. At least Han gets the girl, kicks some Imperial butt and his ship saves the day. The Force Awakens gives Solo added depth, and Ford bring the charisma with a vengeance. It was great to see Han Solo we know and love back in action, cracking wise and saving the galaxy. But his fate in the climax of the film also felt fitting and worthy of pushing the story forward for our new band of heroes. His legacy will have an important part to play in the new trilogy and that is great to see.

1. Darth Vader - The original trilogy and the prequel trilogy

To misquote Chasing Amy how can you not like the biggest, baddest, blackest dude in the galaxy? From his first appearance, a menacing shadow emerging from the smoke of destruction, to his funeral pyre in Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader became one of the most iconic characters in pop culture. His visual presence, his distinctive breathing, his red lightsaber and willingness to kill anyone who displeased him makes him one of the most feared and sinister characters in the Star Wars universe. The original trilogy places him as our main antagonist against Obi Wan Kenobi and then Luke Skywalker. And for most of the films he seems unbeatable. But in a genius twist of storytelling, Darth Vader is not defated by combat or Force abilities. His love for his son is what turns him from the dark side to the light, and it is Anakin Skywalker who brings balance to the force by destroying the Emperor, just as the prophesy declared.

In the prequels we follow Anakin Skywalker on his journey to become Darth Vader. As I mentioned in my examination of the 10 things the prequels did right, the story structure for this journey is solid, and actually well developed. Anakin turning to the dark side because of love mirrors his return to the light for the same reason. Yes poor casting and direction cause the prequels to fail in delivering the punch they could. But Revenge of the Sith gives us a glimmer of what could have been.  Even with his demise in Return of the Jedi, his shadow continues to loom large (and not just in the merchandizing. So much Darth Vader merchandise and imagry exploding everywhere for The Force Awakens even though the character never makes an appearance).  In The Force Awakens his legacy (or a warped version of it) compels Kylo Ren. I’m very curious to see what it is about Vader that drives Ren further into the Dark Side.

Well there you have it, my ten favorite characters from the Star Wars universe. It was fun to really ponder these folks and write a bit about them. Like many mythologies, Star Wars has a rich tapestry to look into, even sticking to just the films. This new trilogy of movies has me intrigued and enjoying the Star Wars universe more than I have in many years. I can’t wait to see what new characters may be added to this list in the coming years.

Who are your favorite Star Wars characters? Did I leave anyone off the list?

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Move Musings: Where Have I Seen This Before? Star Wars: The Force Awakens

While watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens I had a little bit of deja vu. And yes, more than the fact that the story was essentially A New Hope. Some of the actual visuals from the film were very familiar. And yes beyond the fact that they borrowed from previous Star Wars films. As a rule, Star Wars borrows imagery from Star Wars, that is part of the style of the series.

In any case, as Rey was wandering the derelict Star Destroyer, I realized that I had seen similar shots and angles in another movie I watched.

And just when I think I can stop writing about Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, someone has to go and reference it. Of course Nausicaa is a pretty good model for a lead female character in a science fiction story, so it is hard to begrudge the creators of The Force Awakens from giving Rey a visual nod to the opening scenes in Miyazaki's film.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Top Ten Star Wars Characters - Part 1

The Star Wars universe is one rich with stories and characters that have become entrenched in our culture. The mythic nature of the stories gives these characters a tremendous amount of resonance, and at the same time the way they evolved over the years has given them a life of their own. I have lots of favorites, but I tried to whittle this down to a list of ten and a couple of bonus favorites. I stuck mainly to the films but I have a few picks from novels, video games and few odd areas.

Runner Up: Djas Puhr – Star Wars Collectable Card Game

Lets start with one of the strange ones (that is why he is a runner up instead of a full-fledged top ten winner). Djas Puhr appears for about five seconds in the cantina scene in A New Hope but like nearly anything in the original trilogy has a full fledged history and adventures in the graphic novels and short stories out there. I first ran into him while playing the collectable card game (Or CCG for short). This guy was a bounty hunter with some deadly skills. He did some serious damage on his own, and could wield a lightsaber in a pinch. Djas was also a bounty hunter, and the CCG had some really cool cards that revolved around bounty hunting. Not a lot of cards that could hurt him outright (as opposed to Darth Vader or Boba Fett). I played dark side a lot, and Djas was almost always in my deck. It got so that my opponents would see him come out and sigh, because they knew he would do some damage before they were able to take him out. And he just looks like a bad ass as well.

10. Grand Admiral Thrawn – The Thrawn Trilogy

Perhaps my favorite non-film character has to be Grand Admiral Thrawn, the main antagonist in what is called the Thrawn Trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command). Cold, cunning and ruthless he presents a major obstacle for the New Republic. He is a master of strategy and using his opponents psychology, philosophy and instincts against them. He makes extensive plans with distant goals and manages to orchestrate serious blows against our heroes. Even when things don’t quite go his way, he doesn’t let it phase him, but shifts his schemes and often has contingences in place. He is as feared as Darth Vader, but is more respected, because he doesn’t let his anger get the better of him. His main failing is his arrogance. He is so confident in his intellect and understanding of his enemy, he underestimates them and it leads to his death. While I understand the poetic justice of his demise, I always found it a bit anticlimactic. But man, was he a force to be reckoned with. If you’ve never given those three novels a read, I recommend them to any Star Wars fan. They are fast paced, feel like a natural extention of the original trilogy and feature other great new characters including Mara Jade. But Thrawn is the main attraction for sure.

9. C – 3PO - All seven Star Wars films

I see lots of love for R2-D2 out there, but his counterpart just doesn’t get enough credit. For the original trilogy C-3PO provides a lot of the humor in the series. He plays the straight man not just to his little robot buddy but to a lot of the other characters around him. In the original trilogy C-3PO was a necessary part of the story. Without him on Tatooine R2 would never have made it into the hands of Luke and then to his ultimate goal of Obi-Wan Kenobi. In Empire Strikes Back he is the comic relief as the story gets darker and darker. His interactions with Han, Chewie and Leia are pretty amusing. Of course he is instrumental in getting the Ewoks to help the rebels on Endor and thus saving the galaxy.

Sadly in the prequels he is around for little more than a few moments of fan service and interaction with R2. Well, except for Attack of the Clones. For some reason Lucas thought that having endless horrible puns coming out of C-3PO’s voice replicator would provide the height of comedy. This man also gave us Jar Jar Binks (who is not appearing on this list, sorry to say), so his grasp of humor is suspect. But lets get back to the good points. Anthony Daniels not only brings C-3PO to life physically (in that painful suit) but also vocally, and that combination is one that endures to this day. He and R2-D2 are the only characters to appear in all seven Star Wars films. It is hard to imagine the series with out them, but most especially with 3PO’s style of banter.

8. Boba Fett - The Original Trilogy and Attack of the Clones

Mysterious bounty hunter with kick ass armor and ship that looks like a deranged elephant. What is not to like? I could (and did) write a whole blog about why Boba Fett is one of the most enigmatic characters in Star Wars at least until the prequels came out. I think for a whole generation of Star Wars fans he was the equivlant of mysterious cool. And yeah, I fall into that generation. The years haven’t been too kind to Fett, but I will say that as far as looks and abilities go, he is still on this list. Ask me my top favorite Star Wars characters back in 1998 or so and yeah Boba Fett would be on the top of the list. But these days he’s fallen a bit, but still manages to hold his own.

7. Emperor Palpatine - The Original Trilogy and Prequel Trilogy

Return of the Jedi brought this character to life for the first time. And what a jerk he turned out to be. Our first glimpse of the master of the galaxy in Empire Strikes Back hinted at a physically corrupted man shrouded in darkness. But we had no idea that this master manipulator was also good at taunting his enemies and fueling their hatred for him until they snap. We didn’t blame Luke when he just loses it and goes for the sneering cackling bastard. Supremely confident and delighting in his twisting and warping of lives, it is hard not to admire his devilish nature. The prequels actually do an interesting job of developing Senator Palpatine into the Emperor. He moves the chess pieces well and Ian McDiarmid gives an excellent performance going deliciously over the top in Revenge of the Sith. He is one of my favorite elements of the prequels. I’m curious to see if the new series hints at any sway from this dangerous villain, but if not, the six film saga we have serves as a fine showcase for this Sith lord.

6. Rey - The New Trilogy

One of the things that The Force Awakens does so well is deliver fun new characters and give them plenty of moments to shine. But no one was brighter than Daisy Ridley as Rey. We get our first female lead in a Star Wars film, and she embodies so much of what makes a great hero. He’s clever, compassionate and brave. Much like Luke Skywalker before her, she views her adventures with enthusiasm and excitement. She’s not the jaded modern hero who can’t be bothered to have fun or look in awe at what is around her. It is Rey’s interaction with her new comrades that drives so much of the story and the other characters in the movie. Ridley’s performance is perfect, and in the moments where she faces down Kylo Ren, faces the death of a friend and then meets a legend, we are right there with her, cheering her on and looking forward to whatever new adventure is around the corner. The prequels never offered us a character we could conntect to so closely. Rey is my favorite of the new characters featured in The Force Awakens and is the main reason I’m looking forward to the new trilogy to continue.

Get your goggles ready for the top five!
That wraps up the first five, but five more (and another runner up) are on the way. Would any of these characters make your top 10 list?

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