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“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.

10 years after its release, Obsidian Entertainment’s first game still fuels discussion. (Image via Wikipedia-Fair Use)

This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush.  Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood.  Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.

10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released.  And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations.  Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.

This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned.  The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent.  Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.

And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.

Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas.  Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.

So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?

In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family.  The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books.  (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)

The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches.  Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”

Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games.  A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.

Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good.  In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked.  But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.

In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.

But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour.  While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched.  There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content.  While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.

But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.

It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues.  Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual.  And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.

In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers.  In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”.  But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.

Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places.  As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”.  Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.

And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.

I received an absolutely wonderful book as a gift from a friend today.  It is called The Empire Striketh Back, a re-telling of the story of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as if it were written by William Shakespeare.  It is actually written by Ian Doescher, and I must say he did a marvelous job translating the film’s script into the language of the Bard.

There are so many things to love about this–it had me hooked from the “Dramatis Personae” page, done perfectly in the style of the plays.  And then the language–well! Let me quote a little bit of the first scene, just to give you an idea:

LUKE:  If flurries be the food of quests, snow on,

Belike upon this Hoth, this barren rock,

My next adventure waits.

It is really quite splendid.  Probably would have made the movies better if Lucas’s rather awkward dialogue had been re-written this way. I highly recommend it to anyone who has seen the movie (and who hasn’t?) I haven’t enjoyed a parody of Great Literature this much since reading The Classics Reclassified. I highly recommend it.

 

 

The great thing about Knights of the Old Republic II, my favorite video game–heck, my favorite work of fiction–is that the fact that each character is crucial to the major thematic points of the game:

  •  Atton alludes to the last Jedi he kills telling him of a place where Force sensitives are sent by Revan to be broken. This is almost certainly Malachor V.
  • Mira lost her family as a result of the battle, and that is why she became a Bounty Hunter. The Exile’s actions at Malachor shaped her in this way. As Mira says “There’s a lot of lost people out there. Scattered ever since the Mandalorian Wars… if I can find them, maybe, just maybe I can put the Galaxy back together.”
  • HK-47 says that, as result of the destruction at Malachor, Revan was inspired to build him. So, as he puts it, perhaps the Exile is responsible for his creation.
  • Visas’s homeworld was destroyed by Nihilus, who was created by Malachor, and whose fleet was hauled from it. This act has clearly left deep physical and psychological scars on Visas.
  • Yusanis fathered the handmaiden with the Jedi Arren Kae, and he went with her into the Mandalorian Wars, breaking his vow to his wife. This act shames the Handmaiden. Kae (apparently) died at Malachor; making Yusanis enter politics and eventually get assassinated by Revan. He may have been at Malachor, and was obviously deeply affected by the war, hence Brianna’s interest in the Exile, who is the first person she has known since her father who suffered the effects of the war, and her loyalty to Atris, which is to make up for the shame her father’s infidelity brought upon her.
  • Bao-Dur has feelings of guilt about Malachor that made him come to Telos to aid the recovery. He also lost his arm at Malachor. He still harbors feelings of guilt for creating and using the Mass Shadow Generator.
  • Mical the Disciple was turned to his path of “historian and scientist” by the decision of the Exile to go to war, when he was not chosen as a Padawan.
  • The Mandalorians were badly beaten in the battle, necessitating Canderous Ordo (who was also at Malachor) to take up the mantle of Mandalore and reunite the clans on Dxun.
  • G0-T0 exists for the purpose of rebuilding the galaxy from the war.
  • Even the psychotic Hanharr has heard of Malachor. As he asks the Exile: “Did you hear [the Jedi] scream as you butchered the Mandalorian tribes? Did you… kill your heart to shut them out?”

From this alone, we can see that most of the Exile’s party members would not be here were it not for the Exile’s fateful decision at Malachor. But that’s not all…

  • Atris was clearly very close to the Exile in the past, and was affected deeply by her decision to go to war, as well as the resulting horror of the battle of Malachor. This clearly has deep psychological effects on her, possibly contributing to her fall to the Dark side.
  • Darth Nihilus, the closest thing the story has to an out-and-out villain, is at least partially a creation of Malachor. He is often described the most powerful entity in the game, with his presence being felt everywhere, by everyone from Kreia to the Jedi to GO-TO to General Vaklu. (Some players complain that Nihilus is too easy to defeat in combat, after his buildup. This might have been the point, however–too everyone else, he is an unstoppable force of nature; to the Jedi Exile, he’s a pushover)
  • In the game’s pivotal scene, when the Exile returns to the Jedi Enclave to meet/fight the remaining Jedi, it is revealed the s/he was also deeply affected by that last battle, and forced to cut his/herself off from the Force to survive.

All this is certainly enough to prove that indeed the ramifications of the Exile’s choice at Malachor are the central point of the game. It requires many playthroughs to find them all, but the case is overwhelming. But then, in a final masterstroke we are shown other, similar decisions and their consequences play out before us, that allow us to piece together the ultimate theme of the story:

  • The destruction of Peragus serves as an effective opening, because it reminds the Exile, subconsciously, of the annihilation of Malachor. Furthermore, Atris, Lieutenant Grenn, the Ithorians, Colonel Tobin, GO-TO and others all comment on how the lack of fuel will harm Citadel Station. Thus, Exile must come to grips with the “echo” of the destruction of Peragus. This, the game hints, is the first time the Exile has ever truly had to confront the consequences of his/her actions. Thus, by the time she leaves Telos, the Exile has seen or been told of the consequences of two of the more remarkable acts in her life, and Atris even compares the destruction of Peragus to that of Malachor.
  • The scene in which the Exile chooses either to help or furiously dismiss the beggar on Nar Shaddaa is key. Kreia allows the Exile a glimpse at the consequences of his/her choice, and reveals that it is not always as clear-cut as it may appear.
  • Nar Shaddaa is home to refugees from both wars.
  • Dantooine was badly damaged as a result of the Jedi Civil War, which was itself a result of the Mandalorian Wars.
  • Onderon is relatively unaffected by the actions of the Exile prior to the game (though s/he fought on Dxun) but the Onderonian debate between secession and isolation and remaining in the Republic bears a close resemblance to the Exile’s choice of whether to close his/herself off from the Force or to embrace it.
  • Telos presents the Exile with an opportunity for redemption, in the form of whether to help the war-ravaged planet recover, or not. (Though, as we will see, the way to do that isn’t as black and white as it seems.) More immediately, in the game’s final act, the Exile is called upon to save Telos from Darth Nihilus. This episode is particularly ingenious, as forces from Onderon and Dantooine arrive to help the Exile, who wouldn’t have done so otherwise.
  • Of course the recovery efforts on Telos and the Political Situation on Onderon are also interdependent, as the Ithorians are repopulating Telos with the Onderonian’s and Dxun’s beasts.
  • Korriban presents the Exile with the cave, where s/he must confront the pivotal moments in her past, and reflect on whether s/he would do things differently.
  • The Ubese warriors in Visquis’s lair are bitter about the bombing the Republic wrought against them in the war, and have thus been made into “weapons”, as Visquis says. This foreshadows the creation of the Sith Lord Nihilus and his hordes by the activation of the Mass Shadow Generator, as well as Revan’s ultimate plan.
  • Visas, like the Exile, has, as Sion puts it “kept living while the Universe dies” around her. She has seen a planet destroyed, and it has affected her tremendously. (Of course, her planet wouldn’t have been destroyed if… see above.)
  • The impact of the destruction and subsequent restoration of Telos is seen in many facets of the game, from the separation of Aiada and Lootra on Nar Shaddaa, to the beast rider whose Boma escapes outside of Iziz, to the oft-repeated need for fuel for Citadel Station by everyone from Lt. Grenn to Atris to Col. Tobin, show the echoes of Saul Karath’s attack.
  • Telos is again threatened towards the end of the game in the battle against Lord Nihilus, and here again, the Exile sees the consequences of his/her decisions (Peragus, Dantooine, Onderon and Malachor) play out.

The entire game builds, subtly yet relentlessly, into an awesome thematic experience that shows all the consequences of Malachor, of Peragus, of Telos, of the Mandalorian Wars and ultimately, as Kreia says: “of all wars, of all tragedies that scream across the galaxy.” Again and again, consequences of actions are shown, leading up to the last planet, where the Exile must walk upon the dead planet of Malachor, and culminating in the ending scene, in which Kreia tells the Exile how his/her choices will impact the planets and people s/he has met throughout the journey. This works well, because the player has already seen the consequences of past choices throughout the game.

But the true genius is not only that the theme is so brilliantly and so pervasively intertwined with the story, but also that it does not carry any judgment. Things may be called “light” and “dark” by characters, but the player can make their own decision. Is the “independence” of Gen. Vaklu or the “cooperation” of Queen Talia better for Onderon? The pragmatic Czerka  Corp. or the more spiritual Ithorians better for Telos? And the central question of the game: was the destruction of Malachor justified? It killed many, and ruined the lives of many more. On the other hand, would not countless more have died if the war had not ended, as the Exile can argue? And anyway, if not for Malachor, Mira, Atton, Bao-Dur, Mandalore, Brianna and Visas would not be around to help the Exile on the journey. And perhaps the most widely asked question: Is Kreia a Jedi or a Sith, good or evil?  It must be played through many times, and the player must make many different choices, but the game’s theme remains awesomely consistent no matter how the game is played.

People complain about the game’s ending, but frankly, I found it perfectly coherent and satisfying, once I understood all these concepts. It’s actually one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Ok, so I lied a bit when I said no football stuff for a few months.  But really, these are so cool. Check them out. The “Yavin Rebels” one is my favorite

I admit, I’ve always been fascinated by football helmet and uniform design.  In my opinion, this is the best football helmet and uniform design ever.  Interestingly, it was also the very first.

 

Well, we heard the big guns roar behind the battle line;

Every member of the Corps, by our officer’s design,

Affixed his bayonet to his trusty laser gun.

The order, as of yet, had not come to anyone,

But we knew we’d have to charge at the foemen’s barricade,

So, in battle armor large, in a phalanx we arrayed.

Our satellites looked down at the enemy’s artillery

Which was set up in a town that our cavalry would pillory.

The UAV’s report went directly to the Colonel

(Who was resting in the Fort, with an injury internal)

The plan that he devised had been centuries rehearsed,

It would have been recognized by Napoleon the First.

But for every gee-whiz gadget, and with all of our  technology—

The upper management has yet to send us an apology.

The strategies they made were completely obsolete

And so our whole brigade met a horrible defeat.

All our battle droids broke ranks, and we knew our fate was sealed–

So we took our hover tanks and retired from the field.

(more…)