Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

amidala
Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”

I posted an excerpt from this last year.  Lately, another bit of it has been running through my head.  It was my G&S-ified depiction of the scene where Palpatine declares himself Emperor, set to the tune of Ludwig’s song, “A Monarch Who Boasts Intellectual Graces” from The Grand Duke. (Note that throughout, “republican” and “democratic” are used in the general sense of political concepts, not the present-day parties in our own galaxy.)

Enjoy!

****

PALPATINE:

Oh, the Chancellor who uses emergency powers

Will gain, if he’s smart, a good deal of support.

      He can speak to opponents without getting glowers

 And won’t have any need to lie or distort–

You know, I am sure, in these perilous hours,

That though a sep’ratist danger still towers

And threatens this Senate of ours,

  I know of a plan that will make ‘em abort!

Oh! My motto is “safety;” I’m not a daredevil,

And while I rule here, we will all be secure.

With a powerful Emp’ror, who’s quite on the level,

Republican principle may long endure!

CHORUS:  

Oh! His motto etc.

PALPATINE:

When rule democratic simply fails to succeed;

And Congressional meetings are just a mess–

An Emperor clearly’s the thing that you need

To at once set ev’rything right in Congress!

With no more long meetings progress to impede,

Improvements extreme we can make with all speed,

It’s easy to do, and I will do the deed—

              It’s done! And here’s to our having continued success!

 Oh! Our Galaxy nearly had gone to the Devil,

But I thankfully happened to know of a cure–

With a powerful etc.

CHORUS:   

Oh! Our Galaxy etc.

About ten years ago, I wrote a comic opera adaptation of the Star Wars movies, with songs set to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. It was just an exercise in songwriting that I did for fun, but it definitely helped me learn how to write a decent rhyme.

Re-reading it now, I see most of my lyrics were pretty bad–although to be fair to myself, few lyricists can ever hope to match the great W.S. Gilbert.

But there were a few songs I wrote that were pretty decent.  For instance, this adaptation of the meadow scene from Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin explains his dictatorial political philosophy to Padme. It’s set to the tune of “Were I a King” from The Grand Duke.

ANAKIN: Were I in charge, in very truth,
And yet had kept my health and youth,
In spite of my ascension;
To keep us peaceful, keep us strong–
And make these blessings last for long–
I would request the voting throng
All their concerns to mention.
To some big council they would go
And voice with elocution,
Their little problems all, and lo!
They would find a solution!

The men who would be to this council elected,
Would all by popular vote be selected–
And if they all did what they said on campaign,
They could run for office again!

CHORUS:    Oh, the men who would be etc.

ANAKIN: And if councilmen should disagree
The problem would then come to me–
And I’d make the decision!
One side may say to “Cut the tax!”
The other says “Prevent attacks!”–
Unlike our current plan that lacks
An executive with vision–
Both sides would have to go to me,
And I’d make ’em see reason!
And if they still would disagree–
I’d have them shot for treason!

Oh, the man who can mold a political sphere
Completely bereft of corruption or fear,
Can govern and rule, with of his brains a tenth
Intelligent life–and possibly Ennth!

Lor_San_Tekka_brought_before_Kylo_Ren.png
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Image via Wookiepedia, reused under Fair Use.

This week, Star Wars: The Force Awakens surpassed James Cameron’s Avatar as the highest-grossing movie in U.S. history. I had some pretty harsh words to say about Avatar when it came out. I thought it was absurdly over-hyped and over-rated. A mediocre fantasy/sci-fi film being marketed as a cinematic triumph merely because it was “3D”.

Avatar was a work of utter genius next to the abomination that is The Force Awakens.

I knew going in that Force Awakens was playing the nostalgia card and trying to imitate the original movies rather than attempt anything innovative, so my hopes weren’t high.

It was still worse than I could have ever imagined. Even the Star Wars Holiday Special was better than this nightmare.

This movie has all the flaws of every Star Wars movie ever made, only more so. It has dialogue that is worse than anything Lucas ever wrote. It has characters who appear out of nowhere, with no buildup, and are disposed of summarily almost as soon as they arrive. It has a plot that makes Attack of the Clones look like an intricately-woven masterpiece of storytelling. It has horrible CGI special effects that are worse than the prequels’ decade-old CGI effects, and it has sets and costumes that are worse than the originals’ four decades-old sets and costumes. Somehow, the CGI stormtroopers in the prequels look more real than the real stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.

The villains in this movie are called things like “the First Order” and “the Knights of Ren”. It is not clear who they are, what they want, how they got there, or how they got all the men and materiel that looks like the stuff the Empire had 30 years before.

Opposing this inexplicable fascist regime is something called “the Resistance” which is allied with something else called “the Republic”. Since these organizations are both affiliated with the heroes from the originals, the fact that the First Order achieved this absurd degree of power indicates that Luke, Leia, Admiral Ackbar and the rest must be utter morons. They toppled one Empire only to somehow allow another one almost exactly like it to spring up!

Luke, perhaps having become rightly ashamed of his role in this disaster, has vanished, and Leia is looking for him. The movie begins with a Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron, meeting an old man who gives him a map that may lead to Luke. Poe then gives the map to a droid, and is captured by the stormtroopers of the First Order. The droid escapes and is rescued by a junk scavenger, Rey.

Meanwhile, the lead villain, Kylo Ren, interrogates Poe, who eventually tells him about the droid. While Ren is away, one stormtrooper decides to free the pilot and escape with him. The stormtrooper, who is named “Finn”, apparently managed to resist years of brainwashing and became horrified when ordered to fire on civilians.  This has led him to desert. (His name and his intro both made me think of Flynn Taggart)

The two steal a TIE fighter and escape, but are shot down. Finn ejects and, thinking Poe has been killed, wanders the desert planet for help, eventually finding Rey and the droid, moments before the First Order soldiers do. Rey, Finn and the droid escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, which is conveniently in the junkyard / shantytown that Rey lives in.

Let me now pause the synopsis to analyze this sequence. The Millennium Falcon is an extremely famous ship. As we shall find out soon, Han Solo, the ship’s owner, is legendary for his exploits in the war. Moreover, Rey makes her living selling ship parts scavenged from wreckage, and yet for some reason a fully-functional ship was sitting right here?

During their escape, they of course engage in a dogfight with the First Order forces. At one point during this fight, one of them says “we need some cover.” Cover is essential during a gunfight on the ground. It is virtually impossible in an aerial battle. This is utter nonsense.

Let me also stop to mention that Daisy Ridley’s flat performance as Rey pretty much kills any tension this scene might possibly have possessed, though in fairness to her, Rey is extremely unlikable, so it’s not all Ridley’s fault. John Boyega’s performance is good, and Finn is a relatable “Everyman” character, but it’s not enough to save the scene. This state of affairs will persist throughout the film, so feel free to go back and re-read this paragraph every time I mention either character– it will apply equally well at that time.

Somehow or other, the two get pulled aboard a large and sinister ship. They hide in the Falcon‘s trademark secret compartments, which does no good at all when they are boarded by Han Solo and Chewbacca, who know that underneath the floor is the first place to look.

Rey and Finn are shocked to meet the legendary Han Solo, who tells them that Luke is missing, and looks at the map the droid is carrying. He tells them it will help them locate Luke. He also tells them that he is smuggling some kind of giant monsters, and has apparently angered some tangential hooligans in the process.

By an extraordinary coincidence, several rival gangs of these tangential hooligans happen to show up at once, demanding that Solo pay them back or turn over his cargo or something. The hooligans also are looking for Rey and Finn and the droid on behalf of the First Order, even though the First Order only realized they should be looking for them 20 minutes earlier.

At this point, the monsters get loose, killing the hooligans and enabling our heroes to escape in the Falcon. Han urges them to join the Resistance and takes them to a cantina clearly meant to evoke the one in A New Hope.

Here they meet the worst character in all of Star Wars–a poorly animated cat with glasses. Yes, you read that correctly. All I can think is that someone said “What if we crossed Jar Jar Binks with an Ewok, and then gave them the same function as Dexter Jettster?” And then they did it, and they got this idiotic character, who is ham-handedly introduced for the sole purpose of plot development. The character is named Maz Kanata, but they should have just called her “Eks Pozishun”.

Around this time, Finn decides he wants to run away and not bother fighting the First Order. He tries to arrange passage to the Outer Rim with some more tangential hooligans. Elsewhere, Rey wanders off down a dark corridor where she hears ghostly voices. There she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in a pile of junk. When she picks it up she is subjected to a vision that indicates she is Force-sensitive. She’s scared by this, and says she doesn’t want the lightsaber when Maz comes to find her. (Maz, by the way, somehow came to have Luke’s lightsaber. The ridiculous contrivances never end in this Galaxy.) Rey runs away, and Maz gives the lightsaber to Finn.

Meanwhile, the First Order has just completed building their impossible planet-destroying base that makes no sense. One of their military commanders, who makes the Colonel from Avatar look like a subtle, nuanced and well-developed character, gives an absurdly hammy speech to celebrate the first firing of the superweapon.

It was completely unclear to me what they destroyed with it. I mean, clearly it was some important bunch of planets, but who the people on the planets were, or what was important about those planets, or why we should care about them was unexplained. Hack screenwriting at its absolute worst.

I know, I know: you’re thinking “But the same thing could be said about the destruction of Alderaan in Episode IV!” Well, yes; but it worked in that movie because everything was new. It was the first one most people saw, and we expected to be dropped in the middle of things. Force Awakens is supposed to be a follow-up movie, and so the audience reasonably expects to be able to follow along from the previous movie, and not have a bunch of new stuff dumped on them.

Could they not have blown up something we cared about? Something we had seen before? Barring that, could they not have at least blown up something that had some strategic significance?

At roughly the same time that they are blowing up the planets, Kylo Ren and his men arrive at the planet Solo, Finn and Rey are on, and commence shooting everyone. Ren captures Rey, and carries her off in accordance with melodramatic tradition. I was surprised he didn’t say “I have you now, pretty one!”, and twirl his mustache, except of course he has no mustache. Possibly the reason for the mask is that he was ashamed at being a stock villain who had no mustache.

Finn fights off the stormtroopers using Luke’s lightsaber, and “the Resistance”, including Poe, arrive in X-Wings to fight the First Order. This is the one part of the film that might have managed to evoke some nostalgia for the original Star Wars, except that such battles have been done better and more often by countless of the “Expanded Universe” stories. This tiny dogfight paled next to, say, Rogue Squadron II. But I suppose the generation Force Awakens is pitched at never played those games.

Ren and his forces leave, and General Organa (formerly known as “Princess Leia”) arrives, and shares a brief moment with Han Solo, the father of her son (Kylo Ren). It’s the best scene in the movie, probably because the annoying newcomers get out of the way for once and let us see two original Star Wars characters (one of whom is even portrayed by a good actor!) speaking to each other.  Their lines are really good too:

Han: You changed your hair.

Leia (giving him a sarcastic look): Same jacket.

Han: No… different jacket.

This was a good scene.  It deserved to be in a better movie.

Leia and the Resistance take Han and Finn and the rest of the crew to their base, where they begin to analyze the situation.  The First Order’s new weapon is an even bigger Death Star–a hilariously lame idea that the movie seems hellbent on emphasizing as much as possible; going so far as to have the Resistance displaying holograms of the two weapons side-by-side.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you that Ren has taken Rey to this same super-base to interrogate her regarding the whereabouts of Skywalker? Didn’t think so. You’d think these evil overlord-types would have learned by now not to conduct all their business aboard their superweapons after what happened to the first two Death Stars. It’s like if Hitler had his personal office on the battleship Bismarck.

Rey resists Ren’s interrogation, and for some reason he takes his helmet off, revealing that he looks like a young Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape. (I suspect Disney’s marketing people were well aware of this resemblance.)

The Resistance, realizing they have to destroy the new superweapon, launch a daring raid to infiltrate the base, led by–who else would you choose?–Han, an old man who has already deserted the cause once, and whose own son is the leader of the enemy forces, and Finn, who a few days earlier actually worked for the First Order.

Rey meanwhile has managed to escape and is wandering around the First Order’s base at random.  Ren can’t use the Force to sense her because he is too busy throwing temper tantrums that would make even young Anakin Skywalker ashamed.

Han, Finn and Chewbacca eventually run into Rey, and then set out to plant the explosives at the critical point that will destroy the station.  But will they be in time? The weapon is nearly charged, and the Resistance leaders know it is mere moments from firing and destroying their planet.

Many have criticized this sequence for being blatantly copied from Episode IV.  But that’s not really the problem. All the Star Wars films intentionally echo one another; so having this same setup isn’t what’s wrong with this sequence.

What’s wrong with this sequence is that it’s done really badly.  Everything about it feels like the work of amateurs. No–not amateurs.  Hacks. It feels lazy.  When experts do it, it’s a recurring leitmotif. When amateurs do it, it’s a loving homage.  But when hacks do it, it’s just depressing recycling.

When the First Order base is close to firing, C-3PO actually says “It will take a miracle to save us now!” This is by far the worst line in Star Wars. I can’t believe it made it past the editors.  Note that there is no similar line in the equivalent scene in A New Hope. That’s because Lucas didn’t need to tell his audience “Hey, you feel tension now! The heroes are in trouble!”; he had built that feeling organically, and the actors expressed it with their eyes and their body language. A New Hope is by no means a great film,  but it felt like the work of people who cared.

Star Wars died for me at this point. So I guess it was fitting that in the next few minutes, the last truly interesting and likable character–not to mention good actor–from Star Wars also made his exit.

Aboard the base, Han confronts his son (while standing over a bottomless pit, of course) and asks him to return to the light. Ren removes his helmet, turns to his father, says some words of contrition–and then runs him through with his lightsaber. The mortally-wounded Han then plunges into the pit below.

It’s a powerful moment–more powerful, indeed, than J.J. Abrams “can possibly imagine”; because it symbolizes how his movie destroys the soul of the franchise.  Here we have a beloved character from the original movies being cut down by a two-bit emo villain cobbled together from spare parts.  This is the moment when Star Wars fundamentally changes from being the epic space opera Lucas envisioned into, in every sense, a Mickey Mouse operation.

The rest is perfunctory–the X-Wings blow up the enemy base, the heroes fight a lightsaber duel with the villain (Both Finn and Rey take their turn) and escape victorious back to the Resistance base.  It all feels very much done in haste–“here you go, here are your classic Star Wars tropes, eat them up!”–with no emotional power. The essence of the characters is forgotten. We never really see Leia mourn Han’s death–there’s no time for characterization or emotion, as she has to hustle Rey along to the final plot point: finding Luke Skywalker.

R2-D2 powers up and together with the new droid they are able to complete the star map that leads to Luke–a scene that looks even more ridiculous than it sounds, once you realize it is comparable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff having been unable to locate a China-shaped cut-out from a map of the Earth.

Rey flies off in the Millennium Falcon to a very beautiful planet of rocky islands. There she finally finds the protagonist of the original trilogy, looking worn and grizzled, with a thick grey beard.  Luke, ever the odds-defying hero, pulls off one more miracle escape: the film ends before his character can be ruined along with everything else.

I’ve criticized George Lucas a lot, and he made a lot of artistic decisions I don’t agree with. But dammit, he was an artist, and he had a talent for film-making. And what’s more, he had a vision.  Here there is talent, perhaps, but no vision.  This is a cargo cult Star Wars–made by copying superficial aspects only, with no understanding of what made it compelling.

Given all that, why do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.

A long, long time ago, I wrote about Ian Doescher’s delightful book The Empire Striketh Back–a re-imagining of the Star Wars film as though written by William Shakespeare.

Well, I recently learned that Doescher also wrote more of these books for the prequel trilogy.  As my readers know, I like the prequel trilogy very much, but there’s no denying it has a weak script that undercuts its other strengths. This is especially true of Attack of the Clones.

Doescher’s treatment fixes these problems. Most notably, it fixes the character of Anakin Skywalker.  In Doescher’s version, Skywalker seems like he actually cares about Padme Amidala.  This really helps the romance between them. (I know, you would think this would be obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to Lucas.)

That’s not the only improvement–all of the dialogue is much better when done in the style of the Bard.

The irony is that Lucas has always defended his awkward script by calling it “stylized dialogue”.  Well, Doescher’s dialogue is even more stylized; but what’s more is that it’s good. It trips off the tongue.

What Lucas should have done was give his story outline–which is very strong, with its political machinations, epic battles, and forbidden romance–to Doescher or someone like him, who could give it a fittingly poetic script to match.  Then maybe put the exceptionally talented cast under the direction of a Shakespearean director (say, Sir Kenneth Branagh?) and they would have really had something.  It would have been stunning.

The prequels are not bad–they just needed a better script.

Quick! Name that movie about a pilot who gets horribly burned and disfigured. You know, the one where earlier in the story, he’s been trying to save the life of his secret lover. In fact, he’s so desperate that he turns traitor and aids a tyrannical, militaristic government. But even so, he fails–his lover dies, and he becomes a barely-living shell of his former self.

Got it yet?

Actually–as you already guessed from the title of this post–that describes two movies: The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen.

The English Patient was nominated for 12 academy awards, including best picture, which it won. It’s considered a powerful, moving, tragic love story. Revenge of the Sith was a box office hit, but was generally received poorly by critics. The Devil is in the details.

Actually, in this case, the Devil is in how the main character is written and performed. Count Almasy, the lead in The English Patient, is just likable enough that while you don’t exactly forgive him for giving aid to the Nazis, you can believe he truly did it out of his love for Katherine. He really seems like he cares about her. Add to this Ralph Fiennes’s charisma and acting skill, and you have a compelling doomed romance.

Anakin Skywalker, on the other hand, is an entitled jerk from his first scene to his last. He constantly whines about why he hasn’t been given privileges that he has not earned, while simultaneously breaking every Jedi rule. Even his supposed love for Padme never seems like anything other than an excuse to commit further atrocities. He claims to be trying to save her (“from [his] nightmares”), but ultimately kills her himself because of his inability to control his arrogance and rage.

Now, I’ve left out quite a few differences between the two movies. The English Patient is told through flashbacks, and there is another plot running through it parallel to the story of Almasy: the story of Hana, the nurse who finds him after he’s been burned, and her own struggle to deal with the horror of war and death. The only other plot element in Revenge of the Sith is about an evil robot General with four arms. So maybe the main character isn’t the only issue here.

Even so, I still think there is a really strong story in Revenge of the Sith. You can see it whenever McGregor, Portman or Ian McDiarmid are on the screen. It’s just that it kept getting undercut by the massive problems with the way Anakin Skywalker is written and portrayed. (Once he becomes pure evil in the final third of the movie, it really comes together. This is probably because Christensen was better at playing evil, and an evil character is easier to write than a complex one.)

The bottom line is: when Count Almasy gets burned alive, you think: “poor guy, he just wanted to help the woman he loved.” When Anakin Skywalker gets burned alive, you think: “the S.O.B. had it coming.”

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The Originals: A Boring Swamp
PrequelsAreBetter
The Prequels: A Gorgeous City

We are under a month away from the much-ballyhooed release of “Star Wars VII: Will This Sith Never End?”.

Ok, so that isn’t the real title. But swapping a few letters  in that title neatly summarizes my reaction to it. I’m suffering from Star Wars fatigue.

Still, in honor of the upcoming premiere, I decided to re-watch the entire six movie saga. I came away from it with one overriding conclusion–one that won’t surprise my long-time readers, but will shock all others:

The Prequels are better than the Originals.

To this I add another sub-conclusion:

The Phantom Menace is the best of all of them.

And finally, the most controversial point:

The Empire Strikes Back is the worst of all of them.

Yes, that flies in the face of every review you ever read. But reviewers are subject to fads and fashions, and it was fashionable to bash the prequels largely because critics at the time were nostalgic for the originals.

I’ve always thought the prequels were good. But now I’ve realized they are way better than the dreary original trilogy, with its dull characters and repetitive plots.

Start at the beginning, with The Phantom Menace. Yes, Jake Lloyd was weak, but no worse than Mark Hamill. Moreover, everyone else did quite a good job. Liam Neeson portrays Qui-Gon as an arrogant rebel, and Ewan McGregor is great as his put-upon, trying-to-be-respectful-but-also-follow-the-rules apprentice. I also love the constant sniping between Padme and Qui-Gon. I’m going to come back to this movie later, but for now, we’re on to Attack of the Clones.

It was not as good as I remembered. The plot is an incoherent mess, and the romance is a disaster. But, one thing that was pleasantly surprising was how well Natalie Portman did at playing the romance. She couldn’t do well enough to actually create chemistry (alchemy would have been required to get any sparks from Christensen), but her acting in the love scenes is actually quite good.

The big question, other than why Padme marries Anakin, is how did the planet Kamino apparently keep churning out clone armies without anyone noticing? The Kaminoan Prime minister tells Obi-Wan it is “one of the finest” clone armies they’ve ever made, implying there are others.  No one follows up on this.

Revenge of the Sith starts out impressively with the massive space battle, drags a bit with the tiresome General Grievous subplot, but builds to a powerful emotional climax in the scene where Padme and Obi-Wan confront Anakin on Mustafar. It’s the best scene in all of Star Wars, with Portman and McGregor both doing a magnificent job, and Christensen (for once) showing some terrifying, insane charisma.

My biggest problem with the prequels was the sexism: the treatment of Shmi, who has no dramatic purpose other than to die, was bad enough; but when Padme (who is a very strong, well-written female lead in Phantom Menace) inexplicably falls in love with the loutish Anakin, it seemed like Lucas was saying “Oh, her and her lady brain! That’s just what chicks do.”

The reason the love story in Attack of the Clones is so bad is because Anakin has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A former Queen turned Senator and successful military strategist would not fall for somebody who was failing at being a monk and pouting about it.

The plot of Clones makes no sense–the Padme/Anakin romance is about as unromantic as it gets, even if you believe that opposites attract. The mystery of why Count Dooku hired a bounty hunter to sub-contract out the task of assassinating a Senator who was going to vote against the creation of an army to oppose forces Count Dooku himself was leading makes no sense either. Hell, I got confused just writing that.

Revenge of the Sith is better at making some sort of sense, but at the end we are still left wondering what Padme, or the Jedi, or even the Emperor himself, ever saw in Anakin. He is basically worthless to everyone; even the Sith.

But as weak as that is, it was still a more compelling story arc than: idiot blows up a space station–>idiot meets talking frog in swamp–>idiot’s friends blow up second, larger space station. Also, sword fights.

A New Hope looks downright silly. None of what Obi-Wan says to Luke is remotely accurate, and the special effects are horrible. The only likable character in it is Han Solo, and he is only likable because he wants to get out of this mess as fast as possible.

The story of A New Hope makes about as much sense as that of Clones; which is to say, very little. What is the use of a space station that blows up planets? It is perhaps the most worthless weapon imaginable–something the simply exterminated all life, leaving the other stuff intact, would be way more valuable. Moreover, why it had to orbit the planet before firing made no sense, nor did the rebels’ elaborate ceremony at the end.

Then comes The Empire Strikes Back, which is nothing less than a total drag. After a hilariously bad battle on Hoth, we are treated to a half hour of Luke sitting in a dark, dreary swamp, intercut with another half hour of Han and Leia sitting in a dark, dreary ship. It’s the dullest hour in the series. Jar Jar Binks addressing the Senate was more interesting.

So, then eventually there is a lightsaber duel in which Luke’s expression never changes until the end, at which point he sobs like a baby at the revelation that Vader is his father. (Note: great heroes do not break down crying like babies. Though I suppose Vader is to blame for that, too.)

In all the gushing over how great Empire allegedly is, critics lose sight of the fact that it goes absolutely nowhere.  It reminds me of Mark Twain’s “rules governing literary art”, stating “that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” Like Twain said of Fenimore Cooper’s work, Empire “accomplishes nothing and arrives in air”.

The only developments in Empire are these:

  1. The Rebel Alliance loses Han Solo, who had been trying to leave ever since he got there.
  2. Luke finds out that Vader is his father, which raises more questions than it answers, and sets us up for the big payoff in Return of the Jedi, when…

…the alliance has to waste time getting Han Solo back, for no apparent reason. The Jedi may preach letting go of attachment, but in practice, their motto is clearly “no man left behind”. (And I do mean “man”, since the misogynist pigs were all too glad to leave Padme in the sand on Geonosis.).

Anyway, the whole Jabba’s palace / rescue Solo sequence had nothing to do with the rest of the story. It served no dramatic or thematic purpose for Han to ever be put in carbonite.

Just remember that: the first third of that movie is dedicated to an irrelevant subplot.

Meanwhile, the Empire has inexplicably tried to replicate their biggest failure: another giant, useless battle station that does nothing except destroy the planets that probably belong to the Empire anyway. Then we have the obligatory lightsaber duel and space battle–a sequence completely upstaged by the similar one in The Phantom Menace.

It all gets blown up, at no cost to anyone, except one Ewok, a couple rebel pilots, and Anakin, who frankly deserved to die ever since he sexually harassed the Senator he was supposedly guarding.

What struck me about the original trilogy was how damn dull it was. Next to the sophistication of the prequels, it was like watching a movie a ten year old might make.

Overall, the prequels were decent, but not as good as I remembered. The originals were almost unwatchable. The people who tell you the original trilogy is better are just wrong. It’s horrible.

Most of the Star Wars movies make no sense. Clones is incoherent, Sith introduces new elements that weren’t foreshadowed in Clones, A New Hope doesn’t match up with anything that comes before or after, Empire is boring and pointless, and Jedi is spent resolving plot problems that Empire caused.

But remember: there is one more movie in the saga, and it actually has a *gasp* coherent plot!

Lucas pretty obviously spent those 15 years between Jedi and Menace writing one story, and it was Menace. After that, he realized he needed two more movies and just made it up as he went along.

In Phantom Menace, for once the plot makes sense: Federation blockades a planet; Queen escapes from planet, Queen returns with plan to liberate planet. This concept of a ruler returning to claim their throne is actually somewhat plausible, and sounds vaguely like something that might possibly happen in a universe that makes sense. (Queen Amidala’s appeal to the Gungans is pretty much a “Napoleon at Grenoble” moment.)

The twist with Padme the handmaiden being the Queen is the subtlest, cleverest piece of writing in the Star Wars movies. And it’s right in front of our eyes the whole time, but cleverly disguised by the Queen’s elaborate costumes. This is better than the “I am your father” twist, because that was only a twist due to Obi-Wan blatantly lying to Luke for absolutely no reason. That’s a cheat on the storyteller’s part. The twist in Menace has foreshadowing, buildup and payoff.

The other standout thing about Menace is how Padme completely outwits both the Jedi–especially the condescending, arrogant Qui-Gon–and the Sith. It’s the only time in all the movies someone actually tricks Palpatine. (Granted, Palpatine also maneuvered Amidala into voting for him, so he still got what he wanted out of it.)

It’s the only time in the movies when a character triumphs not due to ham-handed luck in order to further the plot, but rather due to a character actually crafting and executing a sensible plan.  It’s infinitely more satisfying than Luke destroying the Death Star by “trusting his instincts”

Menace is a good movie, hamstrung by bad acting from Jake Lloyd, and an overabundance of Jar Jar Binks antics. And even these aren’t as bad as the subsequent comic relief with C-3PO and R2-D2 in later installments.

I think the only Star Wars movies that work as standalone movies are New Hope and Menace. They have complete story arcs, whereas the others really don’t. Empire doesn’t even have any plot development at all.

My final verdict: The last hour of Menace and the last hour of Sith are the best parts of the entire saga. Ironically, while these are the highlights of the series, there is no logical way to get from one to the other. You would never guess they were from the same series if you watched them in isolation. That’s why a bunch of ridiculous stuff had to happen in Clones as Lucas tried to mash it all together.

Given that, which film is more satisfying?  Sith gets a more emotional response, but it also needed more clumsy writer manipulation to do it.  So the edge goes to Menace, whose upbeat tone feels more true to the old serials Star Wars allegedly imitates. (Very few old serials ended with the heroine dying in childbirth after being choked by the hero.)

In spite of what old-timers viewing the originals through rose-colored glasses will tell you, The Phantom Menace is the best Star Wars movie. We can only hope and pray that the new movies imitate Menace, and discard the baggage of The Empire Strikes Back and the dated, boring original trilogy.

I just read an interesting article called “The Hidden Artistry of the Star Wars prequels”, by Mike Klimo.  It’s a very good (and very long) reinterpretation of the prequels that defends them very cleverly.  Klimo argues that they have a lot of hidden symbolism and intentional echoes of the original trilogy, to a degree few realize, designed to create an intricate story structure.  And indeed, some of the shots in the prequels are uncannily similar to scenes in the original.

Frankly, though I am a staunch defender of the prequels, not all the arguments persuaded me.  I think in some cases the reason for the similarities between the two trilogies is that “George Lucas likes those kinds of shots”, rather than “George Lucas was deliberately telling a subtle and complex visual narrative.” Because frankly, one flaw in the Star Wars series is that the six films do not fit together visually–the switch from Episode III to Episode IV is incredibly jarring, and makes it feel like a completely different series.

Nevertheless, it is a very good article, and raises interesting observations and details, as well as talking about a style of narrative I’d never heard of before.   If you have time for a long read, it is quite thought-provoking for anyone interested in movies.