Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

Review: The Highwaymen

I like gangster films, 1930’s period pieces, and buddy cop movies, so I was bound to love Netflix’s The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as two retired Texas Rangers brought back for one final job in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a western set in the era of Ford cars and Tommy guns. It’s a cool premise with a solid execution.

I was actually startled by how desolate Harrelson was in this film. The trailer made Harrelson’s Maney Gault seem like a sort of whimsical partner to Costner, but he plays a truly broken, haunted man, someone with a history of alcoholism to escape the memories of self-inflicted traumas, someone who feels worthless to everyone, including his own family. He clings with almost dog-like loyalty to his former superior, desperate to do something right in his final days, even if he’s not sure he can live with the consequences of their ultimate martial task. In contrast, Costner’s former Ranger Captain Frank Hamer has found a loving wife and comfortable life, marrying into wealth. Yet while he is the more stoic of the two cowboy enforcers, Hamer is very obviously suppressing his own guilt and pain.

(By the way, does it seem like there are more and more movies about older, more vulnerable men confronting–or running from–their violent legacies? Logan and The Last Jedi certainly show the trend’s alive in recent pop blockbuster films, but they seem to be everywhere, and action movies and westerns are no exception. I found a 2013 essay musing on the old-man-action-hero subgenre, but I’d say that it’s continued to evolve, with more of an emphasis on the failing powers of an older generation, rather than simply the stories of older tough guys who can still take and throw a punch better than any of the younger whippersnappers.)

Writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock assembled a fantastic story here. I loved that the focus was almost entirely on the law enforcement pursuit, and the depiction of Bonnie and Clyde is largely via case files, news reports, and public adoration of the distorted, larger-than-life image that the couple held. While there are snippets of the criminal duo in tense scenes of highway murders, the most we see of a Parker or a Barrow is in one mesmerizing sequence shared between Hamer and Clyde’s mechanic father (played by William Sadler). That said, the film presents a curious mingling of fact and fiction that offers itself more as a thoughtful and melancholy story about two men who have lived on past their fading into myth, rather than as a literal representation of the principals involved.

While there is a lot of dramatic embellishment, the portrayal of “Ma” Ferguson was especially hard to reconcile with reality, despite the occasional allusions to corruption allegations in the film. Still, Kathy Bates is a delight as the Governor of Texas in every scene in which she appears.

Just a couple more notes, as usual focusing on what’s obvious to me (which of course means neglecting many of the creative and practical elements of the film that made it enjoyable to me as a whole). While this is a movie that often allows scenes to rest on ambient sound, the high-energy fiddling score by Thomas Newman feels perfect. Additionally, I enjoyed John Schwartzman’s cinematography; the scenery is at turns achingly beautiful and hauntingly desolate, as the lawmen pursue the outlaw lovers over sizzling roadways and through dust fields, lying in wait in Dallas exurb slums and along pine-forested Louisiana back country.

While this film isn’t covering revolutionary new ground, it tells a solid cops-and-robbers story that finds time to reflect on legacy and reputation. It’s worth your time.

Haunted: Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren, as we all presumably now know, wants the past to die; he’ll kill it, if he has to (I’m going to abuse the hell out of this line over the next few months and years, especially in casual conversation, if I haven’t already). Yet his past won’t let go of him. As Luke warns, for Kylo to strike his old master down in anger is to keep Luke with him forever–and since Luke gives himself up to the Force, this lingering imprint could very well be a literal presence, in addition to the figurative presence of haunting guilt that weighed on Kylo through most of The Last Jedi after killing his own father in the previous film.

I’m definitely a fan of a substantial lapse in time between VIII and IX. I wonder where that puts Kylo at the start of the film. Will he be haunted by Luke? Will we gain any knowledge into what sort of communication he has had with Anakin/Vader (if not purely rhetorical)? This reminds me of Cade Skywalker from the Legacy comics of the old EU, haunted by the spirits of his ancestors.

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Not that Cade and Kylo are anywhere near directly comparable characters. Cade at least was more or less always an antihero, while Kylo is so far pretty much a villain. Still, it’s something that will keep floating in the back of my mind, and maybe Luke will nag Kylo to confront what he has become in a way he did with Cade.

Still holding out for some literal representation of a spirit taking the form of Anakin having motivated Kylo to turn to the Dark Side, perhaps even warning him that Luke would one day act against him while he was still just a Jedi apprentice. Star Wars at times feels Shakespearean (ahem), and such a direction would echo the ghost urging Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, a path that would spell disaster for the prince and virtually everyone around him.

Hux, Traitor

Just a short post of wild speculation today. Hux is a petty character, someone devoted to the fascist First Order but someone who also seems to be very deeply a pack animal, a dog. He is kicked and beaten and swears loyalty to the abuser. He cannot even comprehend the loss of his master. When there is an opportunity to shift power, he must be abused again to bow to a new leader. And when he sees a chance in the midst of that power shift, he briefly contemplates murder to advance his own ambitions.

Ambition is an odd word for Hux, in a way, because while he seems to crave power, it’s hard to imagine that he’d know what to do with it. He isn’t really leader material.

In the spirit of wild plot twists, my own random speculation for a movie coming out in about two years, which will almost certainly be proven wrong, is that Hux grows tired of working under the new Supreme Leader and decides to defect. Maybe the new film actually allows a jump in time, and we see the Resistance resurgent, winning offensives, giving the strained First Order a run for its money as Supreme Leader Kylo Ren remains fixated on Rey. Maybe we even open with Hux attempting to defect–and maybe that defection won’t be successful.

I’m not going anywhere with this, it’s not critical analysis, it’s just speculation. Anyone inclined to share the vision?

Big Hat Guy

Now that we have the fate of Luke’s Jedi training temple outlined in The Last Jedi, I hope that we’ll see new stories in the books and comics (and perhaps even a game?) exploring those years with Luke’s first crop of students.

There was a ton of content covering Luke’s efforts to restore and grow the Jedi Order in the old EU, and I hope to see some of that come up in the new canon. Luckily, we jettison a lot of baggage with the old EU, and Luke doesn’t seem like such a bad leader without some of the bloat of fallen apprentices and such that accompanied the older line. I am very interested to see what kind of teacher Luke was, especially outside of the context of Kylo Ren, a boy who maybe couldn’t have been saved from the Dark.

That all said, the only purpose for this post today is that I want to know more about the guy pictured up top. A lot more. He’s the guy killed by Kylo Ren during Rey’s vision sequence in The Force Awakens. Looping the scene over and over in a YouTube clip, I finally realized that the guy is probably human–I’d never gotten a good enough glimpse before to know. But that’s irrelevant. Dude has a very, very cool hat. I love his hat, and I want to know about this guy with this very cool hat. The only person with a hat cooler than this dude’s hat is probably Embo.

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Embo and his hat.

If you know anything about Big Hat Guy–like if his name’s popped up in some visual dictionary or creator commentary–please let me know. It’s pretty clear to me that we aren’t getting this guy’s story in any film. Frankly, we should not. He’s not important (to the plot, for he is quite important to me, yes, precious). But I hope he pops up somewhere, in some side story. This is the random sort of extra that would end up with a complicated backstory in the old EU. Let’s make it happen! Give me more Big Hat Guy!

 

I still don’t know about Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren is not, and probably never will be, my favorite Star Wars character. But damn, Adam Driver delivered an absolutely amazing performance in The Last Jedi, and his acting combined with Rian Johnson’s writing and directing may have been the best I’ve seen in a Star Wars film–certainly the most raw and visceral and nuanced characterization present.

[Spoilers follow]

Johnson wrote the character down quite a fascinating path. By the end of the movie, he’s risen up to defeat Supreme Leader Snoke, and with the passing of Carrie Fisher, it is likely that Episode IX will find Kylo Ren successful in having completely vanquished his past. The only lingering connection he has to the Light is Rey, and she seems to have finally given up on him too by the end of The Last Jedi.

I still have so many questions. Sure, we now see how Luke’s training temple fell, how Luke abandoned the role of teacher and active participant in galactic affairs, how Ben Solo finally embraced the Dark Side, and what happened to Luke’s other students (at least in broad strokes–no pun intended). But it is now definitely confirmed that Snoke had been acting on Ben this whole time, corrupting him. Did Snoke reach out to Ben, opening a psychic link as he did between Kylo and Rey? Did Ben seek Snoke out? Is Ben a religious extemist, someone who felt apathetic and empty and out of place among his family and among the Jedi, someone who was converted by holonet forums and propaganda videos? We know the moment that Luke lost Ben, but we don’t truly know how Ben was corrupted early on, nor how he truly became Kylo Ren. And dramatically, we haven’t needed those answers yet, but I suspect they will play into how the final film of this sequel trilogy proceeds.

Kylo did a good job of eliminating his past over the course of these two films–killing Lor San Tekka and Han Solo and Snoke, attempting to kill Luke, and leaving Leia to fate. He also smashed apart his mask, his connection to Vader, and we see no effort on his part to communicate with Vader.

This gives me even more questions about That Scene in The Force Awakens, when he seeks aid from his grandfather. Is it rhetorical? Or is the strength in fact power infused in the artifact of the helmet? Is it some trick of Snoke’s, who is–or was–so gifted at reading minds and influencing people? Or is Kylo Ren mentally ill? Especially in light of The Last Jedi, where he was prone to temper tantrums but actually acted rationally and more clearly explained his motivations, I think it’s rather unlikely that any form of mental illness will have played a role in shaping who Kylo Ren is, but it’s something still floating around in the back of my mind.

I’ll never ship Kylo/Rey because (a) there’s way too much baggage associated with abusive relationships there and (b) I’m Finn/Rey all the way, but The Last Jedi did a phenomenal job of presenting Kylo and Rey as fundamentally lonely people who found some sense of togetherness and connection in each other, as much as they might not have liked to. I say this because it’s amazing to me how much The Last Jedi has shifted my perception of characters and relationships, especially regarding Kylo Ren. Now more than ever, it seems almost impossible for him to be redeemed; now more than ever, I want him to be redeemed. It will be truly fascinating to see where the final film takes this character, and I’m sure that I won’t be able to predict where that goes.

Second Viewing: The Last Jedi

We saw The Last Jedi again today, at the showing that was supposed to be our first. The Indiana State Museum IMAX is always my favorite cinematic experience. Reasonably priced tickets, drinks, and snacks; luxurious seating; and incredibly immersive visuals and crisp sound. Like with The Force Awakens before it, the ISM IMAX was one of the handful of locations in the nation where you could see the film projected in 70mm format. And with a single-screen theater, you really feel catered to (down to the museum staff member who introduced the film beforehand).

All the above factors made it predictable that I’d like this second viewing at least a little more than the first. The improved visuals and sound certainly helped, and the latter actually helped me catch some bits of dialogue that I’d missed before.

But I liked the film the second time quite a lot more, and more than just those factors discussed already would suggest. Knowing where the story was going, and being able to focus on details and individual moments with the background knowledge of the film’s overarching plot, I was able to get more out of every moment. Things made more sense. I was not just reacting but had the mental space to interpret.

Some moments had a stronger emotional kick. And I recognized plot clues that I’d completely missed on my first viewing. I want to talk about a few of these moments below, and I’d be happy to have a conversation about any of them–or any other moments, for that matter! But recognize that if you still haven’t seen the film, there will be spoilers below, and this is the only warning you get.

There were even more times where I at least teared up a little bit. The entire bomber sequence, but especially Paige Tico’s sacrifice and Leia’s reaction, is a real kick to the gut. That got me the first time, but knowing that Paige was sacrificing herself, and, in so doing, leaving her sister alone, all to try to take out a threat to the remaining Resistance fleet, is a powerful moment. Seeing A-Wing pilot Tallie’s little thumbs-up moments before her end got me a bit, too. Even when a minor character goes down, it feels significant. Every loss matters. Then Leia’s final scene with Holdo, and Leia’s final scene with Luke, are also incredibly emotional experiences that have not faded at all with the re-watch; in fact, knowing what Luke is about to do, that Leia/Luke scene is even more heartbreaking. And wow, “Godspeed, rebels,” is already a new favorite line of mine (I didn’t catch it the first time, but this line is first stated by the captain who’d served under Holdo when he stays behind to pilot the first ship that runs out of fuel, and that makes Holdo’s utterance of it later feel like a very personal, tribal, genuine sort of thing).

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Luke, but watching his journey through the film again, and knowing the decisions he was making and would make, ultimately have led me to decide that I’m very much in favor of what Rian Johnson did here, even if I would never have thought to map a course for Luke like this. Also, while the revelation of Luke’s astral projection was at first shocking and a bit confusing to me, I now recognize that the film heavily telegraphed this–Luke looks like his younger self, he entered the one-way base without being detected, and so on. Knowing that Luke made the choice to ensure the continuation of the rebellion and of the Jedi in a moment of heroic self-sacrifice (and of tremendous Force ability) gives those final scenes with him much deeper meaning, and his brief moment of seeing a twin sunset (or sunrise?) on the horizon is really touching and of course calls back to the original film. Also, I realized that this usage of the Force to astrally project was specifically set up early on in this film, when Kylo tries to figure out how Rey can see him and dismisses the idea that she was projecting herself to him on her own power because the effort would kill her–a nice bit of foreshadowing, in retrospect.

Not only were the emotional moments still powerful, but so were the comic moments. I love the humor in this, and except for a couple moments that defused tense scenes a little too early, I thought it all landed pretty solidly. I certainly have favorite lines here already (though for now I’ll have to paraphrase; my memory’s not perfect):

  • “I can’t wait forever. When General Hux is available, tell him Leia has an urgent message for him. About his mom.”
  • “Incredible. Every word in that sentence is wrong.”
  • “Where are you from, Rey? No one’s from no where.” “Jakku.” “Wow, you really are from nowhere.”
  • “He says I stole the ship. [beat] We stole the ship.”
  • “You were always scum.” “Rebel scum.”
  • “They really hate that ship!”

More generally, there were a lot of funny sight gags, and there were many moments of physical comedy. Domhnall Gleeson’s earnest-space-Nazi demeanor, his cowering and snivelling, his sheer pettiness as Hux is delightful and matched by how he’s treated like something between a ragdoll and an abused dog by Kylo and Snoke throughout the film, and he got a fair number of cute one-liners.

Benicio Del Toro’s hacker character, DJ, is funny too, with his stutter and his sleazy arrogance and his convenient moral relativism. It’s less any specific moment, and more how the character is portrayed. I love his delivery of, “Let me learn you something big, Finn.” It’s not funny on its face, and yet…

Shifting gears here, I’m still thinking about the film’s themes, and I think it’s interesting that The Last Jedi subverts the Jedi/Sith relationship with attachment. Historically, the Jedi viewed attachment as a path to the Dark Side. The Sith cultivated attachment, and it was attachment that drove a kindhearted person like Anakin to the Dark Side. But in The Last Jedi, Rey is attached to Han and Luke and Leia and Finn and hope; Rose and Leia show that we should work to save what we care for, rather than simply sacrificing all for a cause; and it is Kylo Ren who insists that we should “let the past die; kill it, if you have to” and becomes frustrated when Rey rejects his offer to join forces, angrily proclaiming that she is still not letting go. For that matter, Rey, despite being viewed as a model Jedi by the end by characters ranging from Snoke to Yoda, often fights with wild passion and fury; her motivation might be right, but she is definitely guided in the moment by emotion.

Another thing I’m thinking about: where does this film go now? It basically spun an alternate version of events in Return of the Jedi in its climactic mid-film scene. What if Luke had gone to Vader and asked him to return to the Light, Vader and Luke worked together to defeat Palpatine, and then Vader asked Luke to join him to rule together? Maybe something like what happens in The Last Jedi. “The Supreme Leader is dead…Long live the Supreme Leader!” Holy shit! Where do we go from here, indeed? That moment could have been a conclusion to this trilogy, and here we have it squarely in the middle act of the middle film. The status quo has been disrupted for virtually all of the characters by the end of the film. Luke is gone, Han is gone, Leia will probably have to be gone; on the opposite side, Snoke is gone, too. Poe has finally evolved into the leader Leia saw in him underneath his dangerous heroics. Finn is finally committed to the cause. Rey is a Jedi, even if she truly came from nothing, and Kylo Ren has achieved his wildest ambitions. Wow.

All that said, the abruptness of the ending was less dramatic to me. By the end of the film, we definitely had a conclusion. It was a well-told film, and we are not left with dangling threads after all. Maybe that’s what was weird to me. We had so much build-up, and so much resolution of what was developed, and then the film ends without a clear idea of where the next one could possibly go. I still maintain that the very final scene with the kids has some disturbing implications, though I did see this time that the kid uses the Force to pull the broomstick to him, and so could merely suggest that hope has been renewed in a future generation (and not necessarily that this generation will one day have to join yet another bloody conflict motivated by two feuding religious orders).

My opinion has gone up for The Last Jedi, and I’m at the stage where I’m gushing about it (obviously), and I think I need to see it maybe even a few more times before I’ve really processed it. It’s a good film, and hopefully indicates an exciting direction for Star Wars storytelling in the future.