This post is in reply to Joy Spicer’s request here. Not that it takes much to persuade me to write about this topic.
Now, there are really two ways to answer this question. The first is simple enough: after seeing Attack of the Clones as a 12-year-old lad, my reaction to Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Senator Amidala could be summarized as follows:
Well, you know, I was 12 years old! At that age, I was not unlike the P.G. Wodehouse character Bingo Little, of whom, it will be recalled, Bertie Wooster says:
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time…
But there is more to the story than just that. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste your time. To find it, we must analyze the thread of political theory that runs (somewhat confusedly) through the Star Wars prequel series. Basically, it’s about how a republic turns into a dictatorship. The mechanism for this is a state of exception, as described by political theorist Carl Schmitt.
In Episode I, Senator Palpatine manufactures a crisis to secure the office of Chancellor. In Episode II, he manufactures another crisis to assume emergency powers. In Episode III, he uses his emergency powers to dissolve the Congress and place all political sovereignty in the office of the executive. It is the Schmittian blueprint to a “t”. (By the way, if you didn’t waste your youth studying political theory and you want to know who Carl Schmitt is, read this, and you will be left with no doubt whatsoever that he knew a thing or two about destroying a republic.)
Right, so how does Padmé Amidala, Honorable Senator, former Queen of Naboo (and of my 12-year-old heart), figure into all this?
Well, she pretty much represents the last vestiges of an actual Republic based upon civic virtue. She is an upstanding citizen who follows a sort of cursus honorum requisite for a life of public service. Unlike the Jedi, who, whatever their personal merits, collectively form a weird and esoteric cult that has more power than it should, Padmé is the closest we get to seeing what a good member of galactic society should be. An aristocrat, in the Classical Greek sense of the word: the best society has to offer.
Padmé believes in the Republic. She understands how the system is supposed to work, and does her best to preserve it. It’s only very late in the collapse era that she begins to realize that it is not enough, that, as she puts it, “the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists.”
Yes, unfortunately for Padmé, she was born at a time when the virtues of the Old Republic have gone the way of all flesh. As Palpatine says to her, in one of the few instances where he might not be lying:
The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good.
Even more unfortunately for Padmé, she is in a movie written and directed by George Lucas, who, though in many ways brilliant, has no ear for dialogue and an unfortunate proclivity to substitute some of Padmé’s political scenes with a confusing chase through a robot factory.
(In all fairness to Lucas, I loved the robot factory when I was 12, but come on…)
And then, the unkindest cut of all, that Lucas chose to emphasize Anakin’s fall to the dark side, which is the least interesting part of the story. How did the great hero, Anakin Skywalker, become the ultimate symbol of evil, Darth Vader, we wonder? “Well,” the prequels answer us, “Turns out he was always kind of a jerk, TBH.”
I don’t solely blame Lucas for this. The Phantom Menace put more weight on the political aspect and on Padmé’s story. And the audiences hated it. I suspect Lucas chose to shift his focus in the next two films to give us more space battles and lightsaber duels, and de-emphasize the bit about how a Republic collapses. Which is why so many of Padmé’s political scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. (Or, at least, on the bonus features section of the DVDs.)
And so by Episode III, her whole character arc collapsed into irrelevance, culminating in a truly stupid scene where she “loses the will to live.” Lucas might as well have just put a title card on the screen that said, “Padmé died on the way back to her home planet.”
But, none of that changes that she’s still one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars films. She’s doesn’t have magical space wizard powers or exceptional piloting abilities; she’s just somebody who tries to take on the most evil man in the galaxy using her wits. And sometimes she even wins! Her bad luck was that nobody was interested in a character like that, not even the guy who wrote it.
As an aside, I do find it peculiar that she’s one of the few characters Disney hasn’t miraculously resurrected to appear in further installments. Everybody and his brother came back as a ghost in the newer films, but not Padmé. I guess that’s what happens when you lose the will to live instead of merely being sawed in half and thrown into a pit, or blown up aboard a space station. Not that we should expect any explanation beyond, “Somehow… Padmé returned.”
Anyway, you haven’t come to hear me kvetching about major media corporations’ lack of originality. Have you? No. That would be too… lucky.
And yes, I know from Joy and other sources, that Padmé’s character is examined in more detail in the Clone Wars animated series. I have not watched that. Forgive me. It’s a me problem. I dislike the art style intensely and have never really been able to get over that to follow what is, I’m sure, a most enjoyable story.
As a final note, it’s important that I emphasize while Padmé is my favorite character who appears in the films, she’s not my favorite character in all of Star Wars lore. That honor goes to someone else entirely. I bet long-time readers can guess who it is…
Oh, Star Wars! Just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. Although in this case, it was really the author, E.K. Johnston, that got me to read this particular bit of the endlessly-expanding SW universe. I read Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thinglast year, and enjoyed it. So, when I saw she had written a book about Padmé Amidala, my favorite character from the Star Wars movies, I figured I’d give it a try.
The book largely focuses on the early days of Amidala’s Galactic Senate Career, between Episodes I and II. She, along with her handmaidens, make the transition to working on the sprawling city-planet Coruscant, while still retaining the decoy system that they used to great effect in Episode I.
Despite hostile press, and continual interference from the Trade Federation, Padmé begins to form alliances and coalitions, wheeling and dealing with other senators to pass bills, make reforms, and so on and and so forth.
Ah, my friend, if you were one of those who didn’t like The Phantom Menace because it had too much political stuff, you are going to hate this book, because politics is what it’s all about here. There’s one brief space battle towards the end, but otherwise, there’s very little combat for a book that belongs to a series with the word “wars” in the name.
But then, didn’t Clausewitz say that war is politics by other means? The two are closely linked all right, and Padmé’s political jockeying is really just maneuvering in a different sort of war. A dark irony that recurs throughout the book is the knowledge that behind the scenes, the apparently-kindly Chancellor Palpatine, who does nothing in public but read vote tallies and administer procedural rules, is building an army that will sweep the entire Republic away. Like Mao, Palpatine clearly believes that true power emanates from the barrel of a gun, and renders all Padmé’s senatorial efforts for naught.
This is why Padmé’s story is so tragic, when you think about it. Here is someone who believes firmly in the ideals of the Republic, so much so that she is incapable of understanding how it is slowly rotting away.
Or is she? There are some curious things deep within the Star Wars lore, such as a scene filmed, but then cut, from Attack of the Clones wherein Padmé tells Anakin:
Popular rule is not democracy, Ani. It gives the people what they want, not what they need.
From this view of the subject, it may be concluded, that a pure Democracy, by which I mean a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths…
A Republic, by which I mean a Government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. (Federalist No. 10)
Eh, on second thought, maybe Lucas’ version is better suited to film, even if how the whole “elected Queen” thing works remains unclear.
(As an aside, I’ve been thinking about this since I was 12 years old, and my interpretation is that Naboo elects something like a planetary CEO, who holds ultimate sovereign power for the duration of their term, but is obligated to resign after a certain period. The monarchical terminology is only there because Lucas thought since Leia was a princess, her mother should be a queen.)
But I’m straying off-topic. This book is about Padmé before the Clone Wars, before her relationship with Anakin, and how she navigates the public eye as well as the corridors of power. One of her methods is the dissociative tactic by which she plays “Amidala”; essentially a role created and maintained by her and her handmaidens for public appearances. One of the themes of the book is that Padmé seems to lack a true sense of self; rather, inhabiting one of a variety of personas depending on what she needs to do at the moment. Presumably, all public figures do this to some degree, but it’s taken to a literal extreme here, considering the fact that the “Amidala” persona can be portrayed by a handmaiden as well as by Padmé.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that it is all political theater. That Amidala, with her elaborate gowns and make-up, as well as the Senate itself, are merely actors and sets on a stage, playing a distracting part while the real machinations of power grind on in the dark, shaping a fate for the galaxy quite different from what the squabbling elite of Coruscant imagines. This lends the whole book a grim tone, underscored by the epilogue set at the end of Episode III, that darkest episode of the saga.
Like I said, this really comes down to a matter of preference. If the politics in the prequels bored you out of your mind, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you liked the themes of the prequels, then you should give this book a try.
I’ve been hearing a lot about this series, The Book of Boba Fett. But, turns out it’s not a book. It’s a television series, on a streaming service I don’t have. Damn false advertising!
However, Boba Fett: A Practical Manis a book. And it’s by the author of the Republic Commando books, the first of which I enjoyed. So far, so good.
The book follows Fett after his escape from the Sarlaac, when he has assumed the title of Mandalore. He’s going around doing typical Mandalorian mercenary stuff, when who does he run into but the Yuuzhan Vong?
Okay, time-out. How many Star Wars fans even know who the Yuuzhan Vong are? Personally, I had heard of them only by reputation; this is the first piece of Star Wars fiction I’ve ever seen that includes them.
My gut reaction is, they don’t fit in. They are weird, vaguely Lovecraftian entities that shun all machinery in favor of specially evolved organic technology substitutes. The Mandalorians description of them as “crab boys” made me think of the Collectors from Mass Effect 2.
Fett realizes a Yuuzhan Vong invasion is going to be bad news, and so strikes a deal with them to help them fight the New Republic, in exchange for the safety of his people. Of course, he knows they will renege on the deal and attack the Mandalorians eventually, so the deal is negotiated in about as much good faith as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and Fett begins discreetly passing intelligence to his nominal enemies in the New Republic.
I’m about to go off on one of my rants about Star Wars lore. Be warned.
I hated the idea of Fett negotiating such a deal. Of course, it makes strategic sense, but the Mandalorians are all about bravery and valor. Yet, here we have Fett using deception and legal quibbles to save his bacon. This is not the honest, forthright, confrontational style that Mandalorian honor demands! They are lions, not foxes!
This leads me to a larger point, which concerns not just this book, but everything we thought we knew about this particular Star Wars icon. Namely: is Boba Fett actually overrated?
I’ve always thought I liked Boba Fett. But, pretty much everything I see him in, he never quite lives up to expectations. As I said, I haven’t watched the new series, but I hear bad things, including that Boba Fett becomes a secondary character in his own show.
Of course, the thing that makes Boba Fett cool in the original trilogy is that you have no idea who he is or what his backstory is. He seems tough and capable, but beyond that, you make up whatever story you want for him.
Which is why all subsequent attempts to flesh Boba Fett out fall flat. They’re never going to live up to what you imagine. (Probably my all-time favorite Boba Fett story is his appearance in Galaxy of Fear #2, City of the Dead. But, I read that when I was 8.)
Like Karen Traviss, I love the Mandalorians. Theoretically, Fett should be the ultra-Mandalorian. But, again, he falls short of the Mandalorian ideal, otherwise known as Canderous Ordo from Knights of the Old Republic.
Ordo is like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. A tough-as-nails soldier who found steady work as a mercenary after the Mandalorian Wars, then used his underworld connections to forge an alliance with the Jedi Revan to defeat Darth Malak, then rebuilt the entire Mandalorian army. Meanwhile Boba Fett is most famous for being knocked into a hole in the ground by a blind man.
And so all writers who try to write Boba Fett are hamstrung by the fact that his documented actions are not half as cool as what everybody thinks he can do, and has done. Traviss is perfectly capable of writing good, solid Mandalorian warriors, as shown in the Republic Commando book, so I think the real issue here is the difficulty of reconciling movie Boba Fett with what we all want him to be.
Apart from the fact that (a) Fett isn’t a great protagonist and (b) the primary villains don’t really feel like they belong in Star Wars, it’s a decent book. There are plenty of battle scenes and stuff about Mandalorian culture. Traviss’ writing is mostly fine, although that issue with made-up words I mentioned in my Republic Commando review comes up again.
Also, there’s this:
Fett hadn’t come across anyone with ideas about taking over the whole galaxy before, unless he counted Palpatine.
Um… why would you not count Palpatine?
Anyway, that’s a minor point. This is a fun book for fans of the Mandalorians, even if only to compare how far they have fallen since the days of Ordo. But if you’re not a die-hard Star Wars fan, you’ll probably be lost.
No, I still haven’t. Something about it always eludes me when I try to write about it. The game is special to me, in a way that I find difficult to fully articulate. You’ll notice the title says 15 years, even though KotOR II was released 17 years ago. That’s because I first played it on Christmas Eve 2006, which still feels like yesterday, and it is slightly terrifying to realize it is almost half my life ago.
No other game, no other work of fiction, echoes in my head the way this one does, especially on dark winter evenings when I feel like a 16-year-old kid again, pondering the meaning of the Jedi Exile’s story.
There’s no perfect way to play the game. Every playthrough will involve some sacrifice. I’d argue the least satisfying way to play it as a bloodthirsty, unrepentantly dark side Exile, but even that makes a degree of sense. The horrors the Exile has witnessed could easily render them a twisted monster.
My preferred style is to play the Exile early as a cynical and bitter ex-Jedi, who over the course of the game gradually comes to understand the quest to find the lost Jedi as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for redemption. The tremendous spiritual gulf between the person who coldly ordered the use of the Mass Shadow Generator at Malachor V and the person who is capable of fighting to save Telos from Darth Nihilus, to redeem Visas Marr and Colonel Tobin, is a fascinating character study, and it’s this spiritual journey that I think makes for the most compelling interpretation of the story.
Does this say something about me? I don’t know; maybe so, although I think in this instance it’s just my preference for a narrative where the protagonist changes compared to one where they don’t.
Besides, despite the fact that it’s a role-playing game, and the character whose role I am playing is the Exile, the Exile is not the character with whom I most empathize. No, that would be Atris; the historian who delves into realms of esoteric lore because she is incapable of letting go of the past. Like everyone in KotOR II, Atris is haunted by the events of the war; not by what she did, but what she did not do, and the nagging thought that the Exile was willing to take a risk that she never would.
That burning resentment, which she masks as loyalty to the Jedi code, fuels her, and ultimately leads her astray from the Jedi teachings. And Kreia observes that Atris views the Exile as her “champion,” saying to the Exile “you were all that she could not be.” Note that this is exactly the relationship of the player to the player character in a video game. The avatar represents the person we wish we were.
If you play KotOR II “right,” you are forced to ask some questions about yourself. Like the Exile in the cave on Koribann, you “revisit the dark moments of your past.” Everything in KotOR II is about redemption and regret, about reliving moments of failure, of weakness. To paraphrase Kreia, “you find yourself… or you find yourself lacking.”
So many lines in KotOR II echo in my mind: “It is all that is unsaid upon which tragedies are built,” or the Exile’s line to Darth Sion, that Kreia chose them because they “could turn away from it.” (“It” being the Force. Among other things, KotOR II is about turning away from power.)
Anyway, back to Atris. Atris who, despite her flaws, is not an irredeemable monster, and for me, one of the most powerful scenes in the game is when the Exile acknowledges their own role in making Atris what she is.
Atris replies with three sentences that are very important. The first is “save Telos,” which is just a comment on the immediate threat: Telos is under attack by the Sith.
The second is “save the galaxy,” which is Atris’s recognition of the fact that unless the Sith are defeated at Telos, they will scour the galaxy. In other words, this battle is also the key moment in the entire shadow war of Sith vs. Jedi.
And then she says the most important thing of all:
I take this to mean that Atris realizes, possibly even before the Exile has, that they can be redeemed in this moment. That the battle of Telos, a planet ravaged by war, and struggling since the Exile’s destruction of Peragus, is the moment when the Exile can finally atone for Malachor V. Like Kreia says early on, the Exile is the battlefield. The terrible galaxy-shattering religious war has been waged in the Exile’s soul, culminating in this fateful hour.
Like all the really great epics, the secret of KotOR II is that, for all its vast scale, it is a very personal story. Everyone, I think, has something in their life that they regret, or that they would like a chance to do over again. That’s what KotOR II is about, and that’s the subtle beauty of its choice and consequence system: play it as a dark-sider, and it feels hollow and meaningless. Play it as a light-sider, and it’s a hopeful story of redemption.
I’ve gone on enough, I suppose. My words alone can’t convince you of what this game means to me, and maybe it truly is a case of “right place, right time.” Maybe it wouldn’t have struck me quite the same way if I’d played it earlier in my life, or later. But I hope I can least convince you of this much: that Art, supreme, powerful, meaningful Art, capable of moving someone on a very deep level, can come in all sorts of forms.
I guess it’s easy for people to read all this and wonder how I can care about a game so much, and to point to everything it inherits from the silly traditions of pulp sci-fi, like laser battles and speeder races and women in metal bikinis dancing for space slugs. (Though these last two elements, it must be noted, are optional.) “It’s just a game,” they might say, shaking their heads. Well, yes; it is, after all, just a game. But art is always “just” art.
There is a school of thought in criticism which seems to implicitly believe that History is over, that all the truly great art has already been made, that the canons of world art and literature are complete, and anything new must be inferior.
Needless to say, I don’t believe that. Like KotOR II itself when it was released, the artistic canons of the world are in a highly glitchy, unpolished state; fascinating but still in need of work, and creators of today still have as much capacity to make things that speak to the human soul as their predecessors did. There are great works yet to be made, just as the Exile is a “veteran of a war yet to come.” To see them needs an expansion of our minds, and a willingness to look in unlikely places. Like the lost Jedi, Art may not be found where you expect, but in those humble, unassuming places no one even bothers to look.
Which brings me to the last point I want to make: KotOR II‘s overarching plot is about finding the lost Jedi. But what’s under-appreciated is that “the lost Jedi” are not who you think they are. The lost Jedi are not Masters Vrook, Zez-Kai Ell, Kavar and Vash, the old leadership of the collapsing order that splintered during the Mandalorian wars, and that failed to understand the teachings of Kreia.
Along the journey to find these old Jedi, the Exile meets people scarred by the wars, fighting as best they can to survive in a galaxy decaying into chaos: Mira, Atton, Bao-Dur, Brianna, and Mical, all of whom the Exile can instruct in the ways of the Force. And Kreia reveals at the end of the game:
They were the lost Jedi, you know. The true Jedi, upon which the future will be built. They simply needed a leader, and a teacher.
The light side ending of KotOR II captures it all: the symbolic passing of the torch from Kreia to her greatest pupil, the Jedi who learned to survive without the Force, and atoned for the horrific violence of the Mandalorian wars, and planted the seeds that will eventually heal the galaxy.
Viewed this way, the ending is an optimistic, if bittersweet, story of renewal. From the bleak ruins of a war-torn galaxy, something new can come, once the old order has finally collapsed. Kreia’s death at Malachor (“Rest now, Kreia. Your time in this place is over.”) symbolizes the end of one era and the birth of another. It is fundamentally a story about taking responsibility for the past and creating “something that will carry your people’s memory into the future,” as Kreia tells Mandalore. It is the cyclical cosmic epic of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth.
I also struggled to figure out a good time to post this review. The book isn’t old enough for January’s Vintage Science Fiction Month, although it disturbs me a bit to realize 2004 was 17 years ago. Kids who were born the year this book was published will be voting next year. I am an old man.
Anyway… so you get the review now, because why not?
If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movies, you should know that the background to this book is that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there is an order of knights called Jedi who keep the peace in the Galactic Republic. Unfortunately, a bunch of star systems are trying to secede from the Republic, causing a civil war in which the Jedi are commanding an army of soldiers cloned from a member of a warlike race known as the Mandalorians.
Hard Contact follows Omega Squad, a group of elite clone commandos deployed to the planet Qiilura, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems is creating a nanovirus designed to target the clone soldiers themselves.
Omega Squad is assigned to destroy the lab and rendezvous with Jedi who are somewhere on the planet. Unfortunately, the only Jedi still alive on Qiilura is padawan Etain Tur-Makan.
Maybe saying it’s “unfortunate” is a bit harsh, but Etain often seems like she’s not even trying to follow the Jedi virtues. She’s emotional, impulsive, and annoyingly self-pitying. Then again, perhaps she just learned these habits from the so-called “Chosen One” himself.
More interesting is the main antagonist, Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian warrior whose job is to defend the lab and its science team, led by Dr. Uthan. I love Mandalorians. They are so cool. Even though he is a ruthless killer, part of me couldn’t help but like Hokan.
There were large portions of the book that really didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. It was dark, gritty and violent. At one point, although there’s nothing explicit, it’s mentioned that one of the thugs working for the Separatists is a rapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in any other piece of Star Wars media.
This doesn’t make the book bad, to be clear. It was a pretty gripping military adventure. It was just that I would practically forget it was Star Wars at times, until somebody would pull out a lightsaber or something.
Actually, one of my gripes about the book is that sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to shoehorn in references to Star Wars-y sounding stuff:
“She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.”
And then in the next paragraph we have:
“After a few bottles of urrqal, the local construction workers dropped their guard.”
I know this seems like a nit-pick, and to be fair, almost all sci-fi writers do this. I think I’ve done it myself, in fact. Anytime you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you feel a temptation to enhance the alien-ness of the world you’re creating. I wouldn’t mention this except I can’t help but compare it to my favorite Star Wars book of all time, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith:
“Listen to me: if this ‘Darth Sidious’ of yours were to walk through that door right now–and I could somehow stop you from killing him on the spot–do you know what I would do?”
Palpatine rose, and his voice rose with him. “I would ask him to sit down, and I would ask him if he has any power he could use to end this war!“
[…]”And if he said he did, I’d bloody well offer him a brandy and talk it out!“
How much stronger is that than if Palpatine had said “offer him an urrqal”? The scene from Revenge of the Sith feels immediate and real. It’s the most vivid interpretation of Palpatine I’ve seen. Stover was a gutsy writer, and that’s why his book still sticks with me.
I’m not trying to rag on Traviss’s writing too much. Overall, it’s quite good. Peter’s review confirms my impression that the action scenes are very realistic, and the interactions between the characters feel very real.
Both the protagonists and the antagonists are well drawn. The only weak link is Etain, and even that actually makes sense in a way.
There is a moral conundrum here for the Jedi. They’re guardians of peace and justice, but they find themselves in a war, not of their making, one they’re ill-equipped to fight without the clone army.
Instead of exploring that conundrum, Traviss chooses to shove her view down the reader’s throat, of the Jedi as belligerent tyrants who feel nothing for the clones as they merrily send them to their deaths.
You can definitely see this happening towards the end of Hard Contact. It’s very clear we’re supposed to sympathize with the Mandalorians (on both sides) and their straightforward warrior ethos over the Jedi. The final conflict at the end of the book is when Etain disobeys a Jedi Master to help out the commandos.
Now, I could say a bit more about how I think this ties in with the larger Star Wars universe, and why I think it makes sense, although I can also understand why it’s a controversial point. But, it involves bringing in a lot of Star Wars lore, and ultimately it’s just a matter of interpretation. It’s probably not worth looking at in-depth, especially since it would involve references to lots of other Star Wars media. No need to go down that rabbit-hole today.
Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I’m gonna do it.
I think a big problem a lot of people have with the Star Wars prequel series is the way it demythologizes the Jedi. After they’ve been built up so much in the original trilogy, we meet them in the prequels and they are… kind of bad?
I’m not telling you they’re as bad as the Sith, of course, but the fact is, in the Late Old Republic period, we’re seeing the Jedi at a time when the Order is already deep in decline. They break their own rules to let Anakin Skywalker join. They join a war effort that is contrary to their deepest values. As Yoda notes, arrogance is “a flaw more and more common among Jedi.”
This is symptomatic of the broader decline of the Old Republic. They say the fish rots from the head, and what could be a clearer sign of civilizational collapse than the most esteemed, élite and virtuous of the institutions becoming corrupted, betraying its own internal rules, and morphing into a catalyst for the destruction of the old system itself?
My favorite scene in the entire Disney sequel trilogy was the one where Luke gives Rey an accurate and unbiased history of the final days of the Jedi Order:
Luke: Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.
Rey: That’s not true!
Luke: At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.
Now, again, this isn’t to say the Jedi of the Clone War era are monsters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi etc. are good people trying to do the right thing. But sometimes what appears to be the “right thing” in the moment means making some compromise of values that will come back to haunt them down the line. Even the best people in the world, after all, can still be hypocrites.
I think Hard Contact goes right to this point. Joy is exactly right that Traviss clearly prefers the simple, soldierly virtues of the Mandalorians, who fight for nothing but honor and the guy beside them, to the overly-complicated and compromised clerical institution of the Jedi. This contrast becomes especially clear when the clones, who still have much of the old Mandalorian mindset, are under the command of Jedi.
With all that said, I think there are many, many Star Wars fans who just didn’t want the Jedi demythologized. And, I can respect that. “You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” after all, and I think the Original Trilogy notion of the Jedi as an ideal, a glorious order of noble knights, is one that many fans prefer over the Prequel Era’s deconstruction. Idealism vs. Realism: the unending debate.
All told, it’s a good book for older Star Wars fans, especially those who are fascinated by the clone army and the Mandalorians like I am.
Fifteen years ago today, my mom and dad took me to see Revenge of the Sith. I was not quite 15 years old. We had seen all the Star Wars movies together in the theater, and so of course we had to see what was then expected to be the last one.
I loved the movie, as I had loved all Star Wars films. It was dark and unsettling, and it had a message to it. Maybe it was a message only I could see, but it was a message all the same. More about that later.
On the way home afterward, we went to our local Borders bookstore. We always went to Borders (and Toys “R” Us) after the movies. This is something I suspect kids a few years from now will completely cease to understand—bookstores, toy stores and cinemas are all being shuttered, replaced by streaming, online orders, e-books and so on. These things are safer and more convenient, but make for less memorable experiences. If not for brick-and-mortar stores, I would not to this day recall walking across the parking lot with my dad, talking about whether or not it was ridiculous for Obi-Wan to come swaggering up to General Grievous like he does.I would have no memory of the way the clouds outside the store gathered on the horizon, portending a late spring storm in a way that I thought was just perfect given the mood of the film I’d just watched.
One thing I can’t remember is if we got the novelization at Borders or if my parents had already bought it for me and saved it as a gift. But either way, I recall reading it later that day and being enthralled by Matthew Stover’s prose as he retold the story of the film, adding depth and nuance to the characters, explaining their thought processes in certain key scenes.
Another memory that sticks with me from that day is a feeling of gratitude. I can distinctly remember thinking how happy I was to get to see a Star Wars film with mom and dad one more time. I was semi-aware that I was getting older, growing up, and for an instant, at least, was conscious enough to appreciate that moments like this wouldn’t last forever, and that I’d better be thankful for that one. I remember this vividly, because it’s such an important insight, flashed as if spoken by some deity of Greek myth (who were said to do such things) into the mind of an otherwise typically arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boy.
For I was arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled, make no mistake about it. I was only dimly conscious of it at the time, but Revenge of the Sith is a story designed to speak to arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenage boys. I had but recently been introduced to the joys of literary analysis thanks to Gayden Wren’s A Most Ingenious Paradox, and was far from good at it, but even I was aware, for the first time, that this story was meant to do more than just entertain. It was telling me something else.
George Lucas has talked many times about the deeper meaning of the Star Wars prequels. He has said repeatedly that they were meant to explore how a democratic society can give way to authoritarianism. While drawing parallels to many different times and places throughout history, Lucas once claimed that his fictional galaxy most closely resembles the Roman Republic–and its eventual transformation into the Roman Empire.
In my opinion, this attempt at social and world-historical commentary is what sets the prequel trilogy apart from Lucas’ original trilogy, not to mention the Disney sequels. Nothing in the original films was explicitly designed as a commentary on forms of government and phases of a civilization’s existence. Sure, there are rebels and there are imperials, but it was only meant as a fun space adventure in the style of Flash Gordon.
The non-Lucas sequels have turned it into more of a space soap opera—a family saga, like the epics of old mythology. The family saga thread runs through the prequels as well, but only to the extent that Lucas meant for Anakin Skywalker’s personal story to mimic the life-cycle of the Republic itself.
Of course, careful readers will note that above I have said that this sets the prequels apart, and of course, setting apart is exactly what a prequel should not do—its aim is to tie together, to make a coherent whole of a story.
Revenge of the Sith fails catastrophically in this regard. A callback to the original trilogy’s first spaceship interior and a shot of silhouetted figures watching the twin suns set do not begin to make up for all the ways in which Revenge of the Sith not only does not tie-in with the originals, but actively contradicts them. For example: how do Yoda and Obi-Wan even know the Lars family exists? Why do they give the children to them, and not to, oh, say—Padmé’s family? You know, their actualgrandparents?
In the novelization, Stover tries mightily to make it all add up, but even he cannot square this circle—or perhaps, circle this square, since the whole idea is supposed to be that we have come back to the beginning.
The prequels are best understood not as an earlier part of the story told in Star Wars: A New Hope, but as a separate series of spinoff films meant to tell an entirely different story. This story is about how a constitutional republic is gradually replaced by a tyrannical government that imposes its will through naked military force.
To put all this in context: at the time Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was divided over the Iraq war and the broader “War on Terror.” Some feared that President Bush, and especially Vice-President Cheney, were expanding the powers of the executive branch far beyond what was normal or healthy. The scene where Anakin tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” was seen as being a reference to Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
I was just becoming politically aware at the time, and finding out that my favorite movie series also was relevant to politics was pretty exciting, and I was delighted to study the social commentary aspect of the films.
But because Lucas was writing a drama, and not simply a dry treatise on forms of government, he needed a protagonist for his exploration of how republics collapse, and that is where Anakin Skywalker comes in.
Nobody much likes Anakin Skywalker as he is portrayed in the prequels, and for good reason. He demythologizes Darth Vader, who was an ideal villain in the original films. Hayden Christensen’s performance is uneven at best; although any actor probably would have struggled with some of the lines he’s given.
I’ll admit, reading the book so soon after seeing the film may have colored my impression of the character. Anakin’s behavior, which on the screen is over-the-top and ludicrously unstable, seems in the novel to be the product of an emotionally-drained, profoundly exhausted man struggling to think clearly. If you understand him to be suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation, as the novel explains, some of Anakin’s actions make more sense.
But even then, there are inherent flaws with his entire story arc that Stover couldn’t completely correct. Although I dislike the term, Anakin is what’s typically called a “Mary Sue,” in that he has everything handed to him on the basis of nothing more than some vague talk about prophecies and midi-chlorians.
Viewed this way, the Star Wars prequels are the story of a spoiled child who gets privileges he doesn’t deserve. In Revenge of the Sith, he’s granted a seat on the Jedi Council and doesn’t even seem grateful for it. (This is somewhat explained in the novel.)He’s a brat who keeps demanding more and more to feed his insatiable ego, throwing tantrums whenever his older, wiser teachers give any hint of a rebuke. As someone with a far better ear for the English language than George Lucas once put it:
And this is what I mean when I say that Revenge of the Sith is a story about and for spoiled teenage boys. The moment I’ll never forget from Revenge of the Sith—the emotional climax of the film—is the scene on the Mustafar landing pad when, soaking in the afterglow of a rage-fueled bloodbath, Anakin brags to Padmé about his newfound power. When she reacts in predictable horror, he flies into a rage and chokes her—ultimately leading to her death.
I could write a whole post about Padmé’s death and how it makes no sense. As if a strong woman would “lose the will to live”—after having just given birth, no less! Everything about Padmé up to that point tells us that she would, if anything, be motivated to fight harder for the republic she loves. And that’s not even touching the ludicrous plot hole it creates with Return of the Jedi when Leia is somehow able to remember her mother.
But remember, Revenge of the Sith is targeted at a very specific audience: arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys, and arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys aren’t empathetic enough to realize how contrived this is. No, what I remember thinking at that moment was:
Dude was married to Natalie Portman and he threw it all away because he was angry and wanted power.
Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale about where acting like an arrogant, narcissistic spoiled teenage boy gets you: you lose your lover, you lose your best friend, and you get mentally destroyed. (The fact that Anakin is also mutilated and burned alive is in line with the longstanding dramatic tradition of physical injury symbolizing psychic or spiritual wounds.)
As Stover writes, describing in the second person how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker:
“You killed her because, finally, when you could have saved her, when you could have gone away with her, when you could have been thinking about her, you were only thinking about yourself… it is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith—because now your self is all you will ever have.”
It’s a morality tale, and characters in morality tales are rarely notable for their depth or nuance. This is a key thing to understand about Revenge of the Sith, because it makes a lot of its weirdly clunky dramatic choices more comprehensible. The fact that the entire universe seemingly revolves around Anakin Skywalker—a classic flaw in any story guilty of Mary Sue-ism—is because it’s fundamentally a story for narcissists. Stover himself makes mention of this, in a passage told from Mace Windu’s perspective:
“Skywalker no longer had a shatterpoint. He was a shatterpoint. The shatterpoint. Everything depended on him. Everything.”
The tragic irony is that Anakin thinks he’s doing the right thing; he thinks he’s helping the people he loves, but only because he’s too solipsistic to think beyond what he himself would want. He sells his soul to the devil to buy eternal life for Padmé without ever bothering to think about whether that’s what Padmé would want. In typical Faustian fashion, he is left with nothing at all.
This underscores the other obvious way the prequel trilogy is unlike the other Star Wars film cycles: it ends on a downer. It is a tragedy; a story of decline and defeat. The film tries to de-emphasize this slightly in the final scenes, but the novel’s ending is much more melancholy: “The long night has begun,” the final paragraph tells us, and Stover’s last image is not Owen and Beru watching the sunset, but Obi-Wan riding off to begin his exile.
By filling in Lucas’ visually stunning but sometimes incoherent sketch with rich details of nuance, emotion, and backstory, Stover’s novelization makes the story of Revenge of the Sith vastly more layered and complex. It’s a story of manipulation, betrayal, and civilizational collapse. Above all, it’s a story of how a young man’s passion and fear cause him to destroy himself.
Perhaps I feel this way because I saw it at just the right time in my life, but more than any other Star Wars film, it’s about coming to terms with the end of something: for the characters in the story, it’s the end of the republic, the end of the Jedi, the end of a romance. For audiences at the time, as well as George Lucas himself, it was about the end of cinematic Star Wars. And for me, it was about the end of my childhood. I grew up with the Star Wars movies—the special edition was released in theaters when I was seven, and I had followed it to the cusp of adulthood.
Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t really the end of Star Wars. About a year and a half later, I found myself playing what I still consider to be the single greatest Star Wars story ever written: the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, which to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction. And, for good or for ill, there has been a whole new crop of Star Wars movies, and no doubt there will continue to be.
But for all its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the one I always come back to. It’s the darkest one; the one that isn’t about heroes toppling the evil empire, but about how the evil empire can be brought into being when we grow complacent, when we become arrogant or hard-headed, when we give in to our worst tendencies and emotions.
And it’s also about celebrating those who fight on even amid such dire circumstances, battling valiantly against overwhelming odds. As you can tell, there are many lines I cherish in the novel, but the one that I think of most often is this, from early in the book, as Stover introduces the massive space battle that kicks off the story:
“[T]he adults are wrong, and their younglings are right. Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”
I love that line. It’s so beautiful and so poignant. It’s about how there can be something noble, even amidst decay. It’s about finding something to hold on to, even when everything is collapsing around you. And for me, that’s what Revenge of the Sith is–at once a final, nostalgic glimpse at the joys of being a child who could be mindlessly entertained by a movie about space wizards, and a recognition that at some point, I had to move beyond such things; that sometimes such hero fantasies lead to more harm than good.
How much of that is the film, how much is the book, and how much is my own recollection of my 15 year-old self’s mindset, I can never say for sure. All three are forever intertwined in my memory, and that’s why Revenge of the Sith will always be special to me.
Look, folks, let me warn you up front: this is going to be one of those where I go on at length. There are going to be tangents, digressions, and detailed analyses of minutiae. Lots of spoilers, obviously. But you know, I think I was the last person in the world to see this movie, so I bet you already made up your own mind about it. This review is probably not going to be helpful to anyone as far as deciding whether they see it or not; it’s purely a form of therapy for me. So don’t feel like you have to read it. Or at least for balance, you should read Joy V. Spicer’s review of the film. She enjoyed it more than I did, and also, well, she’s just a fantastic reviewer and you can never go wrong reading a review that she has written.
Now, before we begin, some perspective: I first saw Star Wars when the Special Edition came out in 1997, when I was seven years old. I was thrilled when Han Solo arrived to save Luke during the Death Star attack, and I was shocked when Vader revealed he was Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back. I was terrified that Emperor Palpatine would triumph in Return of the Jedi, and I watched in awe as the climactic battle of Naboo played out in The Phantom Menace. I swooned over Padmé in Attack of the Clones, and I… well, actually, maybe I’ll save my thoughts on Revenge of the Sith for another time. But the point is, I’ve been watching Star Wars movies for a while now.
I loathed The Force Awakens, but I thought The Last Jedi was a great improvement. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this installment. And I’m still not.
This movie is baffling. It starts off with the massive revelation that the Emperor, who we last saw being thrown down a miles-long shaft aboard a space station which blew up shortly thereafter, has somehow returned, announcing his resurrection in a broadcast stating that he intends to resume his malevolent designs.
And sure enough, the first thing that happens is Kylo Ren’s arrival at Palpatine’s HQ on the planet Exegol. Exegol, we are informed, is the legendary hidden world of the Sith. Whatever happened to good old Korriban?
Palpatine orders Ren to kill Rey, promising him the aid of a massive fleet of Star Destroyers, which he has up till now been concealing.
In the scheme of things, this is a minor gripe, and one that could reasonably have been raised as far back as the origins of the Empire’s military in Episode II, but: where the devil do they get all this stuff? Is there a factory somewhere that churns out Star Destroyers? If so, why hasn’t some enterprising rebel destroyed it?
You see, I wasn’t kidding before. This is going to be a long ride.
The film now cuts to Rey, who is training in the jungle where the remains of the rebels are hiding out. Sensing that Ren is up to no good, she is distracted from her training, and has a few brief chats with Princess Leia. I thought it was awfully sweet that they wanted to make sure she still made an appearance, despite the sad fact that Carrie Fisher passed away before the film was made. It was a nice idea to do as a tribute to the late actress. However, the fact that the scenes had been repurposed from The Force Awakens was painfully obvious.
Meanwhile Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca have gathered data from a spy within the imperial fleet, which tells them that Palpatine is on Exegol, though how to actually get there is not clear. Fortunately, from notes found among Luke Skywalker’s belongings, Rey learns that Exegol may be found through something called a “Sith wayfinder,” which Luke had been looking for.
And here again, we must pause. There are two questions this raised in my mind: first, how does nobody know where anything is in this galaxy? Every third thing is on “the outer rim” or the “unknown regions.” Their ability to map things in deep space seems decidedly worse than our own on present-day earth.
But that’s a mere technical gripe. The bigger problem here is the assertion that Luke was looking for this mystery planet. The Last Jedi makes it quite clear Luke was not looking for anything other than to live out his days as a hermit. This attempt to retcon Luke’s motivations undermines his behavior in the previous film, and weakened his character. Now, maybe I could let this slide except for… well, lots of things, which we shall get to in due course.
Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca and C-3PO all head off to the planet Pasaana to find a clue to the Sith wayfinder. Not the wayfinder itself, per se, but a clue–a clue possessed by a Jedi hunter named Ochi, who back in his day had landed on Pasaana.
Unfortunately, Kylo Ren and his droogs, the Knights of Ren, also arrive in hot pursuit. Ren, establishing a pattern that he will follow throughout, decides not to make use of his massive numerical and technological advantages and instead attack Rey alone by trying to run her over with his spaceship, an attack which she easily thwarts.
Ah, also, I should mention that I’m not telling this in strict chronological order, though trying to hew fairly close. The film is so fast-paced and frenetic that it’s difficult to remember what order things occurred in. For example, there is also a minor sub-plot involving the spy in the Imperial ranks, which seems important but we ultimately learn isn’t really. Also, at some point on Pasaana prior to Ren’s attempted vehicular homicide, our heroes met Lando Calrissian, who has helped them to locate the clue–a dagger, found near the late Ochi’s ship, which contains a clue written in the ancient Sith language. C-3PO’s programming prevents him from translating–the Sith language is so evil that it has been banned from being spoken aloud.
This is progress, after a fashion, but alas; even though Ren’s attack on Rey failed, his forces were nevertheless able to capture Chewbacca and haul him, the dagger, and the Millennium Falcon, aboard a waiting Star Destroyer.
All is not lost, however; because Poe suggests using Ochi’s ship to travel to the world of Kijimi, where a there is a specialist who can alter C-3PO’s programming to enable him to speak the forbidden Sith words. Kijimi is also home to Zorii Bliss, an old flame of Poe’s who wears a Rocketeer-like helmet and lives the life of a rogue, constantly tangling with the authorities.
Lest you think me incapable of saying anything nice, let me state clearly that I loved this character. Even though her appearance didn’t quite fit in with the Star Wars aesthetic, it looked so cool I could forgive it. I loved her chemistry with Poe. I loved the fact she never removes her helmet, but, in one of the few quiet scenes in the film, she does lift her visor to reveal her eyes to Poe. It’s a small, subtle thing; but it illustrated the intimacy between them perfectly. I’d gladly watch a full-length movie about Zorii and Poe’s adventures together.
But back to the story: the droid specialist, Babu Frik, wipes C-3PO’s memory, enabling him to speak the dagger’s message, which reveals the location of the wayfinder. At the same time, Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer arrives, and Rey senses that Chewbacca is aboard. The heroes hasten to board the ship to rescue him, with the aid of a medallion Zorii gave Poe that… entitles the bearer to enter any Star Destroyer, apparently? I dunno, seems like the crew could just, you know, look out the window and notice it’s not one of their ships docking.
As fortune would have it, Ren has departed for Kijimi at almost exactly the same time the people he’s hunting are boarding his destroyer. It’s a wonder they didn’t pass each other. Again, Ren does not utilize his resources well.
Aboard the Star Destroyer, the heroes split up–with Rey running off to find the Sith dagger, hidden in Ren’s quarters, while Poe and Finn rush to save Chewbacca. Perhaps underscoring her mysterious connection with Ren, Rey shares his knack for going it alone without explaining where or why to anyone else.
Honestly, this sequence on the destroyer was one of my favorite parts of the film, and it gives me a golden opportunity to talk about something I really liked: the weaponry.
I talked about this a little bit in my review of The Last Jedi, but the small arms designs in these new films are fantastic. Weapons in the original Star Wars are basically old firearms with various gewgaws attached–e.g. the stormtroopers’ carbines are Sterling submachine guns, and Han Solo’s blaster is a Mauser C96. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does seem a little jarring for futuristic weapons to be recognizable as antique Earth weapons.
The weapons in Rise of Skywalker are still based on Earth firearms, but the modifications are far more extensive. First up, we have Poe’s blaster, which is a modified Sig Sauer:
I love the look of this–a well-shaped grip that fits naturally in hand, but a properly sci-fi barrel that we can easily imagine houses the “laser cells” or whatever.
There are still a number of Sterlings being carried by the stormtroopers, but they’ve been outfitted with white plating that makes them look much more futuristic. Rey and a couple other characters use these small, almost derringer-like pistols that have a very elegant curve to them.
And then there is the pièce de résistance, the thing that convinced me that I had to take a detour when I wrote this review to talk about it. It’s not actually in the part of the film I’m currently discussing, but this seems like a good opportunity to bring it up:
Look at that thing! Compact, sleek, and menacing. You’d never know it, but it’s built around a Glock-17, obviously heavily modified. Here it is being carried by the elite Sith troopers:
I know these seem like very minor details–and to be honest, they are. But details matter in movies, and especially in sci-fi. Set and prop designs tell us about the world in which the story takes place.
I also just loved the whole gunfight sequence–in particular, one long tracking shot of the heroes gunning down stormtroopers as they race through the halls. That was great. It called to mind similar scenes from A New Hope, but actually better. Again, I’d cheerfully watch a whole movie that consisted of Poe and Zorii doing that.
Poe and Finn rescue Chewbacca, but are quickly captured, and just as quickly freed again by General Hux, who has decided to betray Ren and help the rebels. This was an interesting idea, and I was curious to see where it went. As it turns out, the answer is nowhere–Hux is quickly executed by General Pryde, who easily slides into the role of “sneering imperial officer.”
Meanwhile, Rey retrieves the Sith dagger from Kylo Ren’s quarters, and has a vision of her parents being murdered by Ochi. She then has a sort of telepathic duel with Ren, continuing the odd psychic relationship between them established in The Last Jedi, which enables them to somehow project themselves across vast distances so one can physically contact the other. Ren then returns to the destroyer in person, and reveals the big secret that Palpatine told him: Rey is Palpatine’s grand-daughter. Ren explains that the strange bond between them is what is known as a dyad in the Force. It’s very rare, although it will be old hat to anyone who played Knights of the Old Republic II.
For the umpteenth time, he urges Rey to join him and rule the galaxy, and once again she refuses, escaping with the others aboard the Millennium Falcon.
If you can’t tell by now: this movie is filled, absolutely overflowing, with references to earlier films in the series. This scene is an obvious callback to the “I am your father” scene in Empire. At the very beginning of the film, Palpatine repeated a line from Revenge of the Sith verbatim. (“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some would consider to be unnatural.”) We’ve already had “I have a bad feeling about this,” and it was delivered by Lando, who has finally been heard from again for the first time since Jedi. It’s typical to have an ensemble reprise of the big numbers for the finale, but at this point, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me.
Little did I know…
They continue on to the coordinates C-3PO gave–to the Endor system, where they find the wreckage of the second Death Star. Rey realizes the dagger points the way to the location of the wayfinder, but before they can venture within, they are halted by a woman named Jannah, leader of a group of ex-stormtroopers who have rebelled against their commanders and formed a mounted infantry unit. She tells Rey and the rest that it’s too dangerous to enter the wreckage and they had better wait, but Rey once again ignores this and ventures ahead without telling anybody. She and Kylo really are made for each other, aren’t they?
The Wreck of the Empire’s Death Star is stunningly well-preserved. Remember, it was blown into tiny pieces and then presumably burned up in the atmosphere when crashing onto the planet below. And yet there are nearly-intact TIE fighters, stormtrooper helmets, and even the Emperor’s old throne room still lying about–a bit moldy and wet, for sure, but in fine shape considering the circumstances. Inside the remains of the throne room where Luke confronted Vader and Palpatine, Rey finds a hidden chamber containing the wayfinder, and upon picking it up, is confronted with a Dark Side doppelgänger–again, evoking Luke’s experience on Dagobah in Episode V.
Of course, Kylo Ren shows up, seizes the wayfinder and destroys it. He and Rey then proceed to fight a protracted lightsaber duel in the sea-tossed wreckage.
A word about lightsaber duels, if you will indulge me. And if you’ve come this far, it’s pretty clear you will.
In my opinion, the best lightsaber duel in all of Star Wars is Jinn/Kenobi v. Maul in The Phantom Menace–the “Duel of the Fates,” as the accompanying musical score is titled. And that score is a big part of what makes it feel so epic, but it’s also the pacing, the choreography, and the way it’s intercut so perfectly with three other action sequences. It feels, appropriately, like it’s the first maneuver in a grander battle, as the name implies–a lethal cosmic dance in which the course of galactic history itself is being shaped.
All the other battles pale in comparison–the ones in the original trilogy feel dull and restrained, and the subsequent ones in the prequels became unrealistic and exaggerated to the point of absurdity in a futile effort to top the climax of Episode I.
All the good things I said about the Star Destroyer shootout earlier? This is the opposite of that–this duel, like all the lightsaber duels in the new trilogy (and there aren’t that many), feels hamstrung and stiff. The energy and thrill just isn’t there. Even the Original Trilogy’s duels, while technically unspectacular, were at least interesting in that they felt organic and spontaneous, rather than labored and plodding.
The duel ends with Ren about to finish Rey off when he receives a telepathic message from Leia, imploring him to stay his hand. He does, which allows Rey to stab him in the stomach. However, Rey regrets this immediately and, using Force powers presumably inherited from her infamous grandfather’s line, heals his wound. She then departs aboard Ren’s starship.
Meanwhile, the psychic energy Leia expended to communicate with her wayward son has proven lethal, and she dies surrounded by the remaining rebel forces. Poe, Finn and company return to the rebel base and learn of Leia’s passing away, at which point Poe is promoted to general. (Which is kind of odd, because he’d been busted back down to captain in the last film. I’m not sure exactly how ranks work in this outfit, but if we assume it’s comparable to the U.S. Air Force, that’s a three-grade jump.)
Ren, meanwhile, stands on the Death Star ruin, brooding and staring out at the sea, when what should appear but a vision of Han Solo. Despite having been murdered by Ren, Han apparently bears no hard feelings, and offers his son words of encouragement. He tells him that “Kylo Ren”–the identity Ben Solo assumed when he turned to evil–is dead, and his son still lives. The vision, or ghost, or whatever he is, disappears, but now Ren is Ben once more.
I complained in my review of The Last Jedi that this Force ghost business was getting out of hand, but now it’s to where you can’t swing a lightsaber without hitting one. Almost literally, because we next see Rey on the planet where Luke Skywalker had been hiding. She is burning Kylo Ren’s ship (with firewood, apparently?) and throws Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber into the blaze when it is caught by none other than the spirit of Skywalker himself.
Ghost-Luke lectures Rey about the need to not simply hide out, as he had done, but to confront the Emperor and save the galaxy. He leads her to Leia’s lightsaber, which princess-turned-general had constructed decades earlier, when Luke trained her in the ways of the Force. Luke instructs Rey to take both sabers and go to Exegol to face Palpatine. Then, for his next trick, Luke reprises another scene from Empire and lifts his old X-Wing out of the water.
I felt like I should hold my lighter aloft each time they played one of these “greatest hits.” But instead of doing that, let me pause here to do something that Rise of Skywalker rarely does, and surprise my audience.
Anybody here remember the 2013 film, Star Trek: Into Darkness? I reviewed it on here back when it came out. One of my big problems with that movie is that, not to spoil too much, Kirk dies, but Dr. McCoy revives him, using Khan’s regenerating cells, which are treated effectively as a cheap plot device that allows us to have a Capt. Kirk death scene, and then to have a living Kirk again at the end of it. I think it’s kind of supposed to be an homage to how Spock sacrificed himself in the original Wrath of Khan, but the difference is, Spock’s death took an entire sequel film to undo, as opposed to being reversed in five minutes. That feels cheap. There’s no drama in a world where a character’s death can be undone in an instant.
Why is this relevant? Only because J.J. Abrams directed both Into Darkness and Rise of Skywalker, and in the latter, I see this same cheapening of death. Nobody really stays dead in Star Wars anymore–even if they die, they can come back as Force ghosts, which enjoy ever-increasing power. Palpatine is back as a zombie or something. Even minor things, like C-3PO’s memory being wiped, are soon reversed, as R2-D2 quickly restores him from a backup.
Something similar also happened in the video game series Mass Effect. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, dies during the prologue of the second game, only to be restored to life during the opening credits. Again, this cheapens it. The audience isn’t going to worry a beloved character might die if they know they can just come back later.
Remember, it was supposed to be a really big deal in Revenge of the Sith that Darth Plaguies could stop people from dying. By Rise of Skywalker, try not to stop people from dying. Rey has already brought Kylo Ren back to life once. There are no stakes; nothing feels important.
Case in point, to get back to the story: Palpatine sends one of his new Star Destroyers, which is equipped with a Death Star-caliber cannon, to destroy the planet Kijimi. There’s real emotional resonance because it’s like, the fourth-oldest of the new planets introduced in this film, and Zorii was there, so we had really become emotionally invested in it over the last forty minutes. Right? Right?
The rebels are able to track the signal from Luke’s X-Wing as Rey pilots it to Exegol, and decide to launch a final daring assault to wipe out Palpatine’s fleet before it can disperse. Lando and Chewbacca meanwhile depart in the Millennium Falcon to see if they can possibly scare up anyone else in the galaxy to help the small rebel fleet.
While the utter insanity of the space battle–which somehow turns into a ground battle that sees Jannah’s mounted infantry charge across a destroyer on horseback–rages overhead, Rey makes her way to Palpatine’s throne room. Palpatine launches into his classic “strike-me-down-wth-your-hatred-and-join-the-Dark-Side” routine. And for some reason, it appears to work, as Rey seemingly goes along with the Sith ritual.
But then Kylo Ren–I mean, Ben–arrives, and joins the fight on Rey’s side. Together, the pair stand before Palpatine, who then drops the pretense at temptation and instead absorbs their force energy into himself, granting himself even more power.
Meanwhile, the desperate rebel attack on the massive fleet goes poorly. Poe and his forces are badly outmatched and find themselves facing annihilation. But then Lando and Chewbacca arrive, leading what is, by far, the biggest fleet of ships ever assembled in a Star Wars film.
I would have liked to know how Lando pulled this off. He’s actually one of the few characters who you could sort of imagine doing it–he’s charming, charismatic, well-connected, and presumably knows a lot of people who owe him money and favors. I would have enjoyed, say, a five-minute montage of him cajoling, flattering, arm-twisting, flirting, bartering and threatening everyone who’s anyone into lending their ship to the cause. But alas, no such luck. He just shows up to save the day with no explanation, in another blatant throwback to an Original Trilogy moment. But I’ll admit, even as corny and predictable as this was, it kinda worked for me anyway. Even my heart of stone warmed a little at the idea of everyone banding together.
And I do mean everyone. Remember what I said earlier, about how the destruction of Kijimi had emotional resonance because that’s where Zorii was? Yeah, I was kidding. She’s fine, and comes back to help our heroes in the big space battle. And I can’t even really complain, because she’s my favorite of all the new characters.
Before we move on, one other thing I like about the space battles in this movie: the noises the spaceship cannons make. They have this great percussiveness that makes them feel really powerful. I liked that. Admittedly, sticklers may complain about the fact that they are making any noise in space, but, you know, in the words of Harrison Ford as quoted by Mark Hamill, “It ain’t that kind of movie.”
Meanwhile, back in the heart of all evil, Palpatine throws Ren–that is, Ben–into a deep abyss, which you would think Palpatine, of all people, would know is not an effective way to kill someone in this galaxy. He then turns his attention to Rey, but she has just had a moment of tremendous psychic clarity during which she communes with the Force ghosts of all the Jedi–we hear the voices of all the big names speaking to her.
Renewed by the spirit of all the Jedi dead and gone, Rey defeats Palpatine, reflecting his Force lightning back at him. She then slumps to the ground, apparently dead of exhaustion.
But then Ben emerges from the pit and, somehow, manages revive Rey using Force powers of his own.
I’m just going to pause here to note that Anakin Skywalker betrayed all his allies and turned to the Dark Side specifically for the purpose of acquiring this very power, and yet he never got it. Palpatine implied that he possessed it, although all indications are that he was lying, at least at the time. And yet both Ben and Rey have learned it without ever having even taken the final exams at the Jedi academy.
Anyhow, Ben revives Rey, she kisses him, he smiles at her, and then falls over dead. It is not clear why Rey does not revive him.
With the Emperor dead, the massive rebel fleet easily wipes out the destroyers and everyone heads back to the jungle planet for a celebration. Somehow, all imperial forces all across the galaxy are defeated simultaneously, allowing for a victory montage similar to the one at the end of Jedi. The best part is the wordless exchange between Poe and Zorii. Have I mentioned I like them?
And then Rey heads off to Tatooine in the Millennium Falcon, to make a pilgrimage to the Lars homestead.
All right, we’re almost to the end, but I’ve got to pause here one more time. The Lars homestead is iconic for us as the audience, because we all remember seeing Luke Skywalker standing there, staring wistfully out at the twin suns setting. That’s a great moment–but it makes no sense for it to be iconic in-universe. I mean, even Luke himself was doing that because he couldn’t stand the Lars homestead and wanted to get away from it. It’s hard to imagine that he, or anyone else in the galaxy, would remember it as a historically important place.
Admittedly, this isn’t totally the fault of the people who made Rise of Skywalker. This problem goes back to Attack of the Clones, when Lucas contrived the plot so Anakin and Padmé would visit the moisture farm, and then again in Episode III, when Obi-Wan somehow knows about the place and, rather inexplicably, brings baby Luke there. It’s as if Lucas confused what was significant to the audience with what was significant to the characters. And Disney just picked it up and ran with it.
This points to the real problem that afflicts Star Wars: somewhere along the way, the people who make it forgot what it was about. Back in 1977, Luke Skywalker was an everyman–the whole point of his character is that he is just a regular guy who dreams of being the hero of an epic adventure. And sure enough, that’s what he does! The promise of Star Wars is that anyone can be a hero.
And then Darth Vader turned out to be Luke’s father, and ever since there’s been this family drama aspect to the story that keeps diverting it. That’s why the prequels focus on Anakin, and why the sequels focus on Rey’s heritage.
Ah, actually, let me correct that: two of the sequels focus on Rey’s heritage. The Last Jedi conspicuously made it clear that she didn’t have a heritage of note. She was everywoman, a no-name swept up on a grand adventure. In that regard, The Last Jedi is the one that’s truest to the spirit of the original film. And look what it got for it: they spend most of the first act of Rise of Skywalker undoing the stuff that happened in Last Jedi.
Oh, which reminds me, if I may digress from this digression; what happened to Rose and Finn’s romance? Rose is barely in this movie, and Finn spends more time with Jannah than with her. What’s up with that? I liked Rose.
Star Wars is a playground; a galaxy far, far away where the imagination is free to roam. Why restrain it by turning it into the muddled story of the Skywalkers and Palpatines feuding like Hatfields and McCoys when there exists the potential for so much more? I think the fact that The Mandalorian has proven much more popular than The Rise of Skywalker just goes to show that people didn’t want a “Skywalker saga,” they wanted Star Wars!
Okay, that’s enough of that. Time to wrap this thing up, which is just what Rey does with Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, enclosing them in cloth and burying them in the sand outside the old farm. An old woman comes by–apparently having trekked into this vast desolate wasteland just to check if someone happened to be at the colossal wreck of an old moisture farm–and asks Rey who she is. She replies, sensibly enough, “Rey.” The woman then asks, “Rey who?”
Rey looks over her shoulder for a long, and what must seem to the old woman very awkward, moment, at the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia. Then she answers, “Rey Skywalker.” And with that, she turns to look at the twin suns setting, and the credits roll.
I have this haunting fear, whenever I carry on like this about a Star Wars movie, that you all will think I’m one of those crazed fans who furiously creates internet petitions whenever he doesn’t like something in a movie. I’m not quite that bad, I promise. Star Wars is fun, and while I may say harsh things about it sometimes, I enjoy writing about it, and I enjoy making fun of movies when they are silly. The Force Awakens annoyed me maybe more than it should have, because it felt so cynical to me, but oddly this film didn’t strike me that way. It’s kind of a disjointed incoherent mess, but it feels like it has a heart. Not a brain, nor a central nervous system, but a heart.
Anyway, that does it for the Star Wars sequel trilogy. The Last Jedi was sort of interesting, the other two were just pastiches of Star Wars moments jumbled together kind of at random. At least that’s how it seemed to me. But then, Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, and even flawed Star Wars stories have a way of striking a chord with people, if they see them at just the right moment in their lives. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime. But not now. I have gone on far too long already.
Galaxy of Fear was a series of horror-themed Star Wars books for children published in the late ‘90s. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, so as you can imagine, I gobbled them up. I’m not sure if these were the first horror books I ever read, but they were the first ones I remember reading, so they always have a special place in my heart.
The books follow the adventures of Tash and Zak Arranda, two children orphaned after the destruction of the planet Alderaan, now under the care of their “uncle”—a scientist named Hoole, who is a member of a species of shape-shifters known as Shi’idos.
This book is told from Tash’s perspective. She, Zak and Hoole crash-land on a planet called D’vouran, after it mysteriously pulls them out of hyperspace. The population of the planet is friendly enough, although Tash has the canonical “bad feeling” about it. She encounters a mad wandering beggar who warns her about people disappearing. In the fine tradition of Zadok Allen from The Shadow over Innsmouth, he turns out to be on to something with his dire warnings.
I’m going to try not to spoil these books, even though they are over twenty years old and in many cases, kind of give away what the horror is going to be by their titles, covers, etc. Let’s just say the name of the planet is significant. And, since I’m summarizing the series, I have no choice but spoil the fact that Tash, Zak and Hoole ultimately survive, thanks to an assist from the heroes of the original trilogy, which leads us into more horror hijinks with…
City of the Dead
This one is told from Zak’s perspective. He is haunted by a recurring nightmare of the corpses of his late parents tapping at his window. The trio is dropped off on a planet reassuringly named “Necropolis.” Zak befriends another boy who lives on the planet, who tells him about the supposed curse of Sycorax, a witch who lived there long ago, and a dare that involves entering a cemetery at night. Soon after, strange things begin happening, and Zak becomes convinced that the dead are returning from their graves.
This book is, by far, my favorite in the series. I love the setting; a whole morbid planet, gloomily obsessed with death. I love the eerie holographic cover. And I love the fact that my man Boba Fett gets to be the character-from-the-movies-who-saves-the-day-with-his-cameo-appearance this time.
All right, so I’m not doing great at not spoiling this, but I can’t help it! I will say that every book (for that matter, every chapter) ends with a cliffhanger that suggests all is not well. Often, this is not followed up on in the next book, and that’s clearly the case here. This has led me to develop my own completely preposterous fan theory regarding these books, but more on that later. For now, it’s on to…
The good news is, this book is told from Tash’s perspective. I like her better than Zak. The bad news is, the guest star character from the movies is Wedge Antilles. Wedge Antilles seems to be the character who gets shoehorned in whenever Expanded Universe writers need a rebel pilot, but can’t have Luke. I find him boring in all his appearances.
Also, the threat in this book is just not as scary as the first two. Arguably, a plague bio-weapon should be a more realistic concept, but then you see the cover, which basically has the Flemoid King on it, and you go, nah, actually it isn’t that realistic.
This book does get some points for establishing that it is not a coincidence that the Arrandas and Hoole keep getting drawn into these bizarre and horrifying situations, for introducing them to the overall antagonist of the plot arc, who has the awesome name of “Borborygmous Gog,” another Shi’ido who once worked with Uncle Hoole, and for introducing me to the word “ziggurat,” which is fun to say.
Still, I think this is one of the weaker books. Maybe things will get better in…
The Nightmare Machine
It’s back to Zak’s perspective for this one. Which actually works, because they go to Hologram Fun World, a sort of virtual reality amusement park. It somehow seems right for an immature boy to tell this story. The big attraction at Hologram Fun World is “The Nightmare Machine”—a V.R. chamber that shows you your worst fear. A sort of Orwellian Room 101 that you have to pay to enter. I’m surprised Disney hasn’t built one yet.
But—wouldn’t you know it!—something goes horribly wrong with the simulation, and it doesn’t end when it’s supposed to. And once again, we find the hidden hand of Gog working behind the scenes to torment Zak and Tash.
I love the concept here—the bending of reality itself is a great vehicle for horror. How can Zak ever really be sure he’s woken up? City of the Dead is still my favorite in this series, but this one has a really great concept. Also, the celebrity guest is Lando Calrissian. Gotta love Lando.
So, with the amusement park from hell behind us, we proceed to…
Ghost of the Jedi
This is back to Tash’s perspective, and Tash is obsessed with the Jedi. It’s kind of suggested she might be Force-sensitive. She’s been chatting with somebody on what basically amounts to an internet chat room.
Ok… let me pause and explain to you young people… a chat room was sort of like if you had a whole site that was just the comments section. A forum basically, before all of it got jazzed up and called “social media.”
Anyway, Tash’s internet friend, whom I’ll call Master Guccifer because that’s better than his actual handle, turns out not to be entirely on the level. Unfortunately, Tash only discovers this after agreeing to go to an abandoned space station which Master Guccifer has convinced her holds a lot of Jedi secrets.
Is it too much of a spoiler to say that Gog is, once again, pulling all the strings here? No, I don’t think it is. The first five books have all been part of the “Gog” arc—or maybe more accurately, the “Starscream” arc, because that’s the name of Gog’s project.
I do like this tale for two reasons: first, the atmosphere of the space station/library is pretty creepy, and second, because it actually teaches kids a valuable lesson: don’t trust what random weirdos you find on the internet are telling you, even if they claim to be well-read.
Oh, wait a minute. I just essentially told you not to trust me, didn’t I? Shoot.
Well, you have to at least stick with me to see where all this is going! After all, we’re about to finally unravel the mystery of Project Starscream in…
Army of Terror
The Arrandas and Hoole arrive on the planet Kiva, a desolate world, haunted by shadows—ghostly presences, ultimately revealed to be the victims of a failed project Gog had been working on.
Also on the planet, they find an adorable, cuddly creature which says “Eppon.” Deciding that he must be saying his name (like a pokémon) Tash takes Eppon as a sort of pet. Eppon is an adorable, cute little creature who seems like he couldn’t hurt a fly.
But Eppon grows. Particularly, when the rebels guarding him mysteriously die, he grows. Finally, it is revealed that he is Gog’s ultimate creation—Eppon is a mispronunciation of “weapon,” and he is meant to be a monster that will, I guess, go around killing people. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through when there are wild wampas running around Hoth that could do as well. I’m honestly not sure why the Empire bankrolled this project.
And there are more revelations in store! Uncle Hoole (whose first name is “Mammon”)was Gog’s colleague in the disastrous project that created the shadowy ghost-presences. The creatures have been seeking their revenge upon Hoole, but then realize it was actually Gog who destroyed their planet, and accordingly, decide to kill him instead.
Okay, I know I’ve poked a lot of fun at these books, and they aren’t really supposed to be taken seriously—they’re pulp sci-fi horror for kids, after all. I’m told they’re a knock-off of Goosebumps. Having not read Goosebumps, I wouldn’t know about that.
But all that being said, I like these ideas. I like that “Eppon” is how the little creature misunderstands his name. I like that he is ultimately shown to be as much a victim of Gog’s madness as much as anyone else is. And I love how Uncle Hoole has been seeking redemption for his role in the vast tragedy that destroyed the planet. (In a way, it’s a forerunner of the central theme of Knights of the Old Republic II, the greatest Star Wars story of them all, in which the destruction of Malachor V by the Mass Shadow Generator still haunts all the characters.)
The whole arc is at times silly, at times a bit groan-worthy, and definitely too filled with Original Trilogy characters wearing sandwich boards to remind us that yes, this is totally a Star Wars book. But for all that, it’s a satisfying story, with some scary concepts, and good characters. Yes, Zak is kind of one-dimensional, but Tash and Uncle Hoole are interesting, and even grow a bit over the series. And I didn’t even mention the dry, professorial droid DV-9, who serves as the children’scaretaker when Hoole is away. He’s less annoying than C-3P0, that’s for sure.
Now, because this is Star Wars, we can’t just quit while we’re ahead and be content with a nice satisfying story, and as a result, there are six more books after the “Gog “ or “Starscream” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it arc ended.
These books aren’t as good. Now it’s just the Arrandas and Hoole roaming around at random and somehow getting involved in more bizarre and horrific things—but this time there is no reason for it. Maybe it’s just me, but if the same three characters are going to keep having adventures, I like it to be for some discernible reason. Just having them keep happening to stumble into brain-transplant experiments orinfestations of billions of insects or whatever the hell Spore is doesn’t work for me.
Although to be fair, the cover of The Swarm is pretty awesome:
There are more cameos too, including Jabba the Hutt, Admiral Thrawn, Boba Fett (again), Darth Vader (again) Yoda, and Dash Rendar.
Remember what I said about Star Wars writers using Wedge Antilles as a poor man’s Luke? Well, Dash Rendar is the same thing for Han Solo. And I get it: we all like the idea of a roguish smuggler with a dark past. But Rendar never worked for me—he just screamed “We wanted to have this be Han Solo, but we can’t, so we made up this guy, who flies a similar ship, acts a similar way, and basically does all the same stuff as Han Solo would do.” I liked Shadows of the Empire—both the game and the book—but Dash Rendar was definitely a weak point. The part where Xizor tries to seduce Princess Leia was the highlight of the book, and the space battle at the end was the highlight of the game.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right—so the random weird stuff cycle of Galaxy of Fear; it isn’t as good. But there are a few interesting things, even so. In particular, book #11 Clones. I forget all the details now, but somehow or other, there’s this place churning out evil clones of people for some reason. For perspective, even Darth Vader has an evil clone. Think about that.
This is interesting given that only a few years later, George Lucas would make Attack of the Clones, where we learn that all the stormtroopers are clones. I realize that continuity isn’t a priority in this universe, but I would have thought Lucas would have at least bothered to tell whoever was in charge of content control, “Hey, I have it in mind to do something with clones in a future movie. Tell people not to use that in any spin-off stories.”
Oh, well. It’s Star Wars. If there’s one thing you can say unequivocally about Star Wars, it’s that none of it makes any sense whatsoever. At this point, it really has become a modern mythology, with various mangled versions that spring from the same set of ideas, but diverge in wildly contradictory ways. Future anthropologists may someday try to piece the whole mess together in an effort to understand the beliefs of 20th and 21st-century humans.
But while it may not have made sense, Galaxy of Fear was a lot of fun for an 8-year-old kid discovering he liked horror and sci-fi.
Now then, I promised you a totally preposterous fan theory. There is one way the second half of the series could be made to work; a way that would explain why all this stuff keeps happening to Zak and Tash, even after the defeat of Gog and everything else: what if Zak has been trapped in the Nightmare Machine the entire time?
But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.
This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.
Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.
So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.
I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.
Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.