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A Study in The Force: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

FAFB

In revisiting films for my blog, I sometimes come across interesting trends or connections.  If I’ve learned anything from studying these films over the past week, it is clear that Star Wars is best when George Lucas isn’t in control.  He’s not a very good writer, he’s good at writings stories but when it comes to characters, he comes up short.  The best of Star Wars came when he put the pen down.  Much of the original trilogy was written by his co-writers.  The Expanded Universe was written only from his original inspiration, as were both Clone Wars series and Rebels.  The worst of Star Wars, the prequels, was written solely by him.

Lessons learned from the public outcry over the Star Wars prequels are evident in The Force Awakens, a movie that distances itself from that trilogy in a number of ways.  For one thing Lucas had nothing to do with it; Disney essentially paid him $4,000,000,000 to stay out of the project.  Was the movie better for it?  Possibly.  If you study the vast difference between how the Original Trilogy was made and how the Prequel was made (by the prequels, the time when anyone could say ‘no’ to George had passed) it would be hard to disagree.

Which much of the Star Wars cannon post-Jedi has drawn inspiration from the template of The Expanded Universe, The Force Awakens is drawn much more from the spirit of The Original Trilogy.  There are very faint echoes of the prequels, but they aren’t very close to the surface.  Why?  For one thing, this was a movie made by fans, not just J.J. Abrams but a whole group of people who were kids when the movie came out and, like me, fell in love with Lucas’ original inspiration.  Plus, they were fun, freed from the need to head toward plugging into a movie we’ve already seen, there was an heir of unpredictability about it.

What’s interesting about this movie is how it follows the logical steps in following a generation after Return of the Jedi.  Those being the logical step that Luke would want to train the next generation, to raise the Jedi from the ashes and correct the mistakes of the past.  But the past is often a merciless bastard and we find that one cannot have light without darkness.  The equilibrium of The Force is always in flux and rises and falls on human imperfection.

One thing that always puzzles me about this series is that hindsight is not a top priority.  A New Hope takes place just 20 years after Revenge of the Sith, and yet history seems to have fallen into the realms of myth and legend.  The Jedi, the Sith and the properties of The Force seem to be a faint rumor except by those who few who were actually there.  The same is true in The Force Awakens which takes place 32 years after Jedi and yet few believe that The Jedi actually existed.  How?  Doesn’t this universe have history books?

The nature of The Force is only explored in fits and starts here.  That could be because the only Jedi in the movie is onscreen for about 40 seconds.  The powers of The Sith haven’t changed though we get to see Kylo Ren drawn facts and memories out of someone’s brain – something that we never saw Vader do.  Yet, one new element that is added here is that an object can contain mythical properties.  That’s new to this series.  I refer to the moment when Rey touches Luke’s old lightsaber and is taken on a journey through the past and through the future.  How was this possible?  What has been learned?  Is this something that Luke has acquired in the past three decades?

Much about The Force Awakens is difficult to explore when seeing the series as a whole since the other two entries are still to come.  We see that this is a universe that forgets it’s past and that may be one of the reasons that we see history repeating itself.  The Jedi have risen and then fallen, they’ve gone into seclusion, the Empire has risen, and one light in the galaxy is plucked out obscurity to extinguish it.  Writing the future to correct the measures of the past would be the most logical direction for Episodes VII and IX to take.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Epilogue:

To look into Star Wars is to look into the reasons that I fell in love with the movies in the first place.

he movie that changed my life was actually the second movie that I ever saw.  I was six years old, the year that Star Wars was dropped into American culture and, for whatever reason, this movie just grabbed me as no film at that time really had.  It may have had something to do with the films that I was exposed to.  Most of the films I attended with my parents were Disney pictures, mostly comedies: Gus, The Love Bug, Pete’s Dragon, Hot Lead and Cold Feet and, the first movie I ever saw in my life, The Rescuers.

Star Wars was, for me, something special, something extraordinary.  Those characters opened my mind and my imagination to the idea of the future, the idea of great storytelling, the idea of that a movie could create entirely made-up worlds and, most importantly, the idea of what a movie could be.

Of course, it would take years and many more viewings to really understand all that Star Wars meant to me.  In a way, I’ve been chasing this movie my whole life, looking for that kind of grandeur and pure joy again.  In the 39 years since, thousands of movies have come my way, many have meant so much to me, but none has ever grabbed onto me like Star Wars.  As a kid, I wanted to see a movie, something, anything.  It didn’t matter what.  When I got older and was a teenager in high school, I began taking movies seriously, crawling underneath them to see what made them tick.  Today, I am aspiring to be a film critic and it is possible that I have Star Wars to thank for that motivation.

 

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Posted by on 05/09/2016 in Star Wars week

 

A Study in The Force: Star Wars on Television (1978 – 2016)

Star Wars Television

Star Wars was born at the movies.  It thrived there and when it tried to jump to another medium, it often had a slow start.  I refer to books, video games and, of course, television.  The history of Star Wars on television begins almost as soon as the movies began but it didn’t get good until the prequels.

For its journey to the small screen Star Wars didn’t start off very well.  Its debut on the tube was an inane TV special so awful that is has not only become legendary but it has rolled over into admiration.  “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was a 1978 semi-pseudo variety special that fused together Star Wars with the production values of a bad Saturday Morning kid’s show, and incorporating former sitcom stars desperately in need of work – that being Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and Diahann Carroll (she absolutely adores you).  For whatever reasons, those actors are in the center here.  Briefly seen around the edges of this mess are the stars of the movie – Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Boba Fett and R2D2 and C3PO – you know, that actor we WANT to SEE!!

The movie is a Friendship Quilt of horrible scenes.  It’s so bad that it has become something of a legend.  Yet, it’s not something that’s easy to sit through.  It’s bad, really bad, unwatchable bad.  When it tries to funny, it’s painful; when it tries to be touching it’s funny.  When it tries to be entertaining, it’s embarrassing.  The notes are a mixed bag here.  There are ugly Wookiees, glam rock, Wookiee porn, Mark Hamill in guy-liner, and a bizarre moment when Carrie Fisher sings the theme to Star Wars with lyrics.  I realize that Fisher is known for her history with drug abuse, but here she is so glassy-eyed, she looks as if she just climbed out the window at Betty Ford.

This is not the Star Wars universe; it’s a version of the Star Wars universe hammered quickly together by network television to cash in on the brand name.  I wouldn’t want to think of the Star Wars cannon having a scene in which the all-mighty Empire takes time out to shut down the cantina at Mos Eisley.

Yet, the post-Star Wars generation doesn’t realize is where this special came from.  Nobody had any indication that this movie would be a hit, let alone a global phenomenon.  People wanted merchandise; they wanted something, anything with Star Wars attached to it.  This is what the public wanted.  And you know?  I think Star Wars history is more colorful for it.

Nothing would appear on television in a scripted series until after Return of the Jedi.  With Lucas reluctant to get moving on another Star Wars movie, ABC took the reins again and decided on a Saturday morning kid’s show.

Enter: “Droids”, a half-caf prequel to A New Hope that follows the adventures of R2-D2 and C3PO in the years leading up to their fateful meeting with Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.  This show follows their adventures with four different owners Thall Jobin, Jann Tosh, Mungo Baobab and a self-sustaining droid known as The Great Heep – Oh those Star Wars names!

The series deals in four cycles as the droids are passed from one owner to the next, all of whom apparently live on planets that are deserts.  The missions are at least differentiated – the first deals with the destruction of an all-powerful weapon; the second deals with the droids trying to help a prince reclaim the throne; the third deals with the search for some legendary rune stones and the fourth deals with The Great Heep powering himself by draining astromechs of their power.

The series has its moments but it isn’t very Star Wars.  In fact, it’s made to be very un-Star Wars.  ABC threw out the original ideas by the show’s creators for being “Too Star Wars-y” (that’s an actual quote) and went in a different direction.  That meant very few cameos from existing Star Wars characters and no actual Star Wars music (the music they used is pretty good, it was written by Stewart Copeland, the drummer for The Police).  The result is a mixed bag.  It’s a kid’s show from top to bottom and it’s nice to see R2 and 3PO’s adventures (despite one episode where R2 break-dances!).  It never caught on and only lasted one season.

“Ewoks” had a slightly better response.  Released just a year after “Droids” it lasted two season and followed the adventures of Wicket and his friends before the Rebellion showed up – a time which they could speak perfect English?!  The story dealt with Wicket, Teebo, Princess Kneesaa, Chief Chirpa and the clumsy wizard Latara trying to help protect their village from Morag the Tulga and their rival species The Duloks.  Plus there’s some nonsense about an ancient stone called The Sunstar that can blast light.  There’s magic in this series, not the force, but actual magic.  But it’s the kind of cartoon magic in which the powers are vague and are only used to point and shine bright pretty lights.  This makes you wonder why the Ewoks didn’t use the Sunstar against the Empire.

The series takes place before Return of the Jedi, but it isn’t until the final episode when any real connection is made.  That’s when The Empire becomes interested in getting their hands on the Sunstar.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine.

On the heels of the two animated series, George Lucas agreed to turn out two TV movies in an effort to overcome the embarrassment of the Holiday Special.  This time he would have complete control.  The result was a pair of TV movies centered on The Ewoks and their associate with the Towani Family.  First was “Caravan of Courage,” the story of how the family got shipwrecked on Endor and had to find each other again.  The second was “Battle for Endor”  a slightly disturbing follow-up that finds the entire Towani family wiped out by a creature called King Terak and forcing the young daughter and Wicket to go on the lam.

Both “Caravan of Courage” and “The Battle for Endor” are the products of their time.  They’re TV movies for kids from top to bottom – though you may be a little disturbed when the family is wiped out.  What surprises me is how cheap the special effects look.  Cheap special effects in a movie personally overseen by George Lucas is something that boggles the mind.

Nothing much happened from there until the prequels.  After the release of Attack of the Clones, a very reluctant, George Lucas allowed animated nuggets to be released to Cartoon Network and produced by “Powerpuff Girls” creator Genndy Tartakovsky.  The nuggets came under the title “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and lasted two seasons, the first containing 10 episode, each lasting 3 to 5 minutes.  The second season was also 10 episodes but were allowed to run 15 minutes.

The series took place between Episodes II and III and followed the adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin during The Clone Wars.  What is interesting is that while the characters are a bit more fleshed out, many of the stories feel curtailed, mainly due to the fact that Lucas didn’t want the series to step on the upcoming Revenge of the Sith.  Oddly enough, it keeps with the traditions that the best storytelling in the prequels was done without dialogue.  Many episodes in Season 1 contained scenes without dialogue and the effect was much better.

After Revenge of the Sith came the similarly titled series “The Clone Wars.”  Begun in 2008, it was a half-hour 3D animated series that again followed the adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin during The Clone Wars.  Each season had a different agenda.  Season 1 dealt with The Empire trying to pull various systems to their cause.  Season 2 introduced the Empire’s employment of bounty hunters (which they would do in Empire).  Season 3 and 4 would deal with the effects of the war on differing planets and the tensions between the Senate and the Jedi Counsel.  Seasons 5 and 6 would deal with the advancement of the Republic and the Separatists as the War draws to a close.

Both of these series (naturally) drew inspiration from the prequels but attempted to right the wrongs and complaints that had plagued Lucas’ trilogy since Phantom Menace.  The dialogue was better, the stories were less predictable and there was a dread of things to come without it feeling so “on the nose.”  The series opened up the world of Star Wars in a way that the movies never could.

Drawing inspiration less from the prequels and more from the original Star Wars trilogy was “Star Wars Rebels,” Disney’s first crack at bringing Star Wars to television (they were distributors for “Clone Wars” but this is their first series as a whole).  The story takes place after the rise of The Empire and follows a rag-tag team of misfits as they outrun the Imperials and try and help The Rebellion.

What this series has that Clone Wars lacked is an agenda dealing with The Force in a way that doesn’t have a ceiling.  In “Clone Wars” we knew that Anakin was headed toward the Dark Side but here he don’t know where the characters are headed.  The Jedi Master Kanan is part of the surviving remnant, one of the only survivors of Order 66 and that anger and resentment are built into his nature.  He struggles with reaching out with his anger over what happened and tries to keep his young charge, Ezra Bridger from doing the same.

The nature of Jedi training here ebbs very close to Yoda training Luke, only it’s the other way around.  This time all the fear and anger are on the master’s side.  Yet, in the last episode, Kanan is blinded and Ezra acquires a Sith holocron that pushes him close to The Dark Side.

Needless to say, Star Wars on television has gotten better.  All along the way it has been kid’s stuff.  “Droids”, “Ewoks”, “Caravan of Courage”, “The Battle for Endor”, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, “The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rebels” all ebb toward children, but in many ways so does the entire Star Wars trilogy.  It taps into the kid in all of us, that read King Arthur and The Jungle Book and Robin Hood and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  It’s an adventure pure and simple with a massive human element in the center.  What I have seen in the development of Star Wars on television is the development of television itself in the last 40 years.  It got better, it really did, but it had to come a long, long way to get there.

 
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Posted by on 05/08/2016 in Star Wars week

 

A Study in the Force: Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

ROTS

Whenever the subject of Revenge of the Sith comes up, I am always ready with the opinion that whatever its faults, whatever its rewards, this is not a fun movie.  I actually mean this as a compliment.  It would have been so easy for George Lucas to take the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga and lighten things up so they wouldn’t seem so harsh, but he didn’t.  This is a dark, painfully sad, unyielding melodrama about the hard fall of a very good person whose selfish personal pursuits plunge the galaxy (as well as his own humanity) into darkness.  There is no timidity to anything that Lucas presents here. That doesn’t make it a great film, it still suffers from the same wooden dialogue that plagued Attack of the Clones but by comparison, it slightly improves.

The role of the Jedi is a bit confusing.  The story take place as the Clone Wars are coming to an end and, for whatever reason, the Jedi are now given a top position in the Republic’s new standing army.  Why?  I’m not exactly sure, and the movie doesn’t offer an explanation.  Throughout this series they’ve gone from a religious sect, to a diplomatic core, to a paramilitary organization and now they’re leading the whole dang shootin’ match?  I’m not sure I get it.

This might have been the cause for public derision if the movie had bothered to mention it.  Palpatine has all the Jedi wiped out and then returns to the Senate to claim that the Jedi were trying to take over.  With that, all apparently turn their allegiance to the new Emperor because, well, he’s the new Emperor.  What I think the movie is missing is an indication that the Jedi were becoming the stuff of public derision.  What was the public opinion?  Was there some mistrust in the Senate?  Why, after the Jedi aided the army in The Clone Wars, are people so willing to except that the Jedi were up to no good?  I don’t know, maybe it was in the novelization.

There are no new force powers here save for what we learn about the Sith.  This is the only time we get to see Palpatine cut loose.  I’m speaking, of course, of the office scene in which the Jedi come to arrest Palpatine for high treason.  What he can do physically is mindblowing.  We can imagine that Vader might have seen it and it fueled his desire for more power.  It also might have impressed General Grievous, an imposing-looking meatbag held together by spare parts who carries the weapons and trappings of a Sith but is not, in fact, a Sith.  This is the first time in the series that we see anyone who carries lightsabers not because they are Sith or Jedi.  Grievous is an interesting precursor to Vader in that both carry broken bodies inside a man-made container.  He’s also the puppet in Palpatine’s ultimate plan.

The great hat trick in all of The Emperor’s political machinations comes to a head as soon as Anakin turns to The Dark Side, wherein he whips out Order 66, a keyword implant that orders all of the clone troopers to assassinate the Jedi.  I realize that Revenge of the Sith is ostensibly Anakin’s story, but for me, the center of this movie is really Palpatine.  Ian McDiarmid gives a brilliant performance here, playing a man who has no subtlety, no conflicts.  We see in him the great snake charmer that lies at the core of the Sith.  Like Hitler, Palpatine doesn’t overthrow the government to gain power, he erodes the government from within, biding his time.  He doesn’t remove his enemies over time but with one crushing blow.  He uses the weakness of his young protégé to pull him to his side.  It is a clever bit of manipulation that stands for all tyrants, all great manipulators.

That brings me to the single greatest scene in the entire trilogy, the moment when Palpatine has a heart to heart with Anakin.  Seated at the Opera, he tries to extol the virtues of the dark side, but senses that this approach isn’t working.  He takes a breath and then relays the story of Darth Plaegus The Wise, a Sith Lord who figured out how to manipulate Midi-chlorians to create life and to keep those around him from death.  What is happening here is something completely new to the Star Wars saga.  This is the first and only time that the mythology of Star Wars is given a mythology within the mythology.  This is something that happens all the time in stories like The Lord of the Rings and Dune and Harry Potter, in which the characters themselves have myths and legends and stories that they tell each other.  Stories that are passed on from generation to generation that change over time.  I didn’t realize it until I saw this movie, but this is the first time that the movies give us that kind of deeper level, that the Star Wars universe not only has a rich history but it also has it’s heroes and legends as well.

Many, including myself, regard this as the best of the prequels because this is where the meat of the story can be found. The conflicts come to a boil and the story of the decimation of Anakin’s soul carries a lot of weight. What he has to deal with is the foreknowledge that Padme will die and he basically sells out the entire galaxy to attain a power that he thinks will stop it from happening. I like the idea of Lucas borrowing elements of Faust – the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil to keep his loved ones from dying of the plague – and wraps those themes around Anakin’s story.

Plus, it’s also refreshing to see the Hellish world of the Sith. In the original we saw the Sith but only from the outside, only from Luke’s point of view. Here we get an inside look at how the relationship works between master and apprentice. We get to see the Sith Lord at the peak of his power and we understand what the Jedi are up against. It is interesting, and a little scary, how seductive the dark side can be when the apprentice is willing to submit.

Yet, as much as I give this movie credit, I must admit that it is problematic. It still suffers under the weight of Lucas’ impulses. It still suffers from his dusty, boilerplate dialogue (the exchanges between Anakin and Padme are cause to envy the deaf). It suffers from some structural problems, unnecessary characters, and an ending that basically paints itself into a corner. There are two lightsaber battles going on between four people that we know are all going to survive. As epic as they are, the drama of those two battles are undercut by the fact that we know that all of the participants are going to survive. That doesn’t make them unwatchable, but knowing the destination makes those scenes feel kind of long.

And yet, I admire Lucas’ tenacity.  This isn’t the first or second Star Wars movie that I run to.   I have to make it part of the journey, working my way through the series in order to fully appreciate it. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s not a great movie, but I can admire the artistry and the drama. I think this is the prequel movie that came closest to really hitting the mark.

 
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Posted by on 05/07/2016 in Star Wars week

 

A Study in the Force: Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

AOTC

After the public revulsion that followed The Phantom Menace, few people outside of decided fans really thought that Attack of the Clones was going to be any better.  Many found their assumptions to be correct.  With the second installment in his prequel trilogy, Lucas decided that trying something new might be a bad idea.  So, he turned to fan service, giving us the backstory of Boba Fett in an effort to win back fans that had been repelled by The Phantom Menace.

Actually, I think the story in Attack of the Clones is an improvement over The Phantom Menace.  It’s the story of an angry, mal-ajusted kid with powers that make his immediate peers nervous and whose circumstances go from bad to worse inside the span of 142 minutes.  He loses his mother, his loses control of himself and he struggles with the fact that he can’t even date.  Jedi powers or not, I’d be ticked off too.

The problem with Attack of the Clones is the dialogue.  I’ve said for years that if the dialogue were better, no one would complain about the story.  But that dialogue.  It’s flat, dull, colorless, factual, formal boiler-plate speech that even wonderful actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor can’t overcome.  I know, I know, that’s not really what this essay is all about.  I’m supposed to be neutral in these things, but I feel that a survey of Attack of the Clones is not complete without mentioning its shortcomings.  That said, let’s move on.

What Attack of the Clones offers that Phantom Menace did not was a wider scope of The Jedi Order.  What is interesting is that while the role of the Jedi is widened, the powers of the Jedi are not.  Very few new powers are introduced here save for one quizzical thing in which Anakin and Obi-Wan are able to fall hundreds and hundreds of feet and land on a passing speeder without getting squashed like a bug.  Do they have a Force-shield?  Can they slow themselves down?  It’s never implicitly said and I don’t recall this coming from the novelization.

What is special about Attack of the Clones is that it explores how and why a Jedi falls to the Dark Side.  Of course, joining the Sith seems to be a matter of choice much like a teenager who takes up a life of crime.  Some do this out of despair and others do it because it is a quick and easy path that requires less effort.  Anakin’s journey into darkness is born out of frustration.  He’s a kid who was born a slave, taken from his mother, raised by a council that persistently told him ‘no’ regards to personal matters, and refuse to let him love who he wants.  He’s angry and bitter at the cards he’s been dealt and that feeds the aggression that will consume him.  The dark side takes advantage of his weakness and seduces him with promises of greatness.

The chief difficulty here is the coda from the Jedi that forbids Anakin from having a girlfriend.  This is handled in a rather strange bit of dialogue in which Anakin tells Padme that, for a Jedi, possession and attachment are off the table, but compassion is central to the mantra of the Jedi.  “You might say, we’re encouraged to love.”  So, you can love but you can’t date?  You can love humanity, but not an individual?  It’s not very clear.

As far as I can tell, the Jedi’s code of non-romantic attachments is more along the lines of why Superman and Batman can’t have girlfriends – because they can be used as leverage by one’s enemies to hurt you.  But there’s also the theory that the Jedi operate in the same way as Catholic priests in that they don’t marry after they’ve been ordained.  In the case of the Jedi, the purpose behind this may stem from the emotional telepathy, i.e. a vengeful Sith can weed out the one you love and kill them much in the same way that Vader weeded Leia out of Luke’s mind.  After the fall of the Galactic Empire, this ‘no-nooky’ clause was virtually abandoned.  In the new Jedi Order that rose up in the years following Luke’s redemption of his father, he married Mara Jade and eventually had a son named Ben.  How this will be handled now that Disney has wiped the Expanded Universe off the table remains to be seen.

Anakin’s personal battle runs parallel with what is happening in the larger scope of a world that is coming apart at the seams.  The overview of the Jedi maintains their role as a religious order running parallel to the central government but having no hand in government affairs.  However, the role changes with the clouds of social change.  In times of peace or when political strife sparks debates but not war, the Jedi seem to function as a peaceful but still stern diplomatic core.  As negotiations break down and actual conflicts begin, the role of the Jedi is expanded and they begin operating as a unilateral paramilitary organization working side by side with the actual military as they march into battle.  That role would mysteriously change as The Clone War neared its peak.

The social role of the Jedi Order raises an interesting question about whether or not it is government funded.  I mean, look at their Temple.  You don’t get that kind of elaborate décor when you’re broke.  As I have mentioned before, this goes back to A New Hope when the exiled Ben apparently had $17,000 to spend on a trip to Alderaan.  And here it’s strange that somewhere a Jedi – Master Sifo Dyas – had enough money to secretly fund a cloning project when he got nervous after foreseeing the coming Clone War.  Dyas had to get the money from somewhere.  When he died in an accident, Darth Sidious and Count Dooku picked up the project, wherein was installed Order 66.

All of this leads to the biggest question of all.  How did the Jedi not see this coming?  In a movie in which the dialogue feels like a festering wound, this plot hole is covered up by one line from Yoda who reasons that “The Dark Side clouds everything. Impossible to see, the future is.”  Exactly how this works, I’m not sure but it clears up a lot of possible plot holes.

Within the Star Wars lore (actually Wookieepedia) it would be explained as a “Wound in The Force,” a catastrophic event that either happened or is on the verge of happening.  When The Force is weakened – such as by war – the Sith can take the opportunity to alter the fabric of The Force and cloud their actions.  This explains a great deal in terms of what happens in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith and the coming Clone War.  Though it is controversial in nature, and is probably the reason the Yoda warns Luke the the future isn’t written in stone.  Whatever it is, however it works, it would alter the course of events for the rest of the Star Wars universe.

 
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Posted by on 05/06/2016 in Star Wars week

 

A Study in the Force: Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

ROTJ

So, here we are at the end of the original trilogy and this, in any other series, is a place where the creatively has drained out.  Second sequels are almost always just a creative void, or as the late Roger Ebert called them “An annuity in action.”  Not so with the original Star Wars trilogy and while most people devalue Return of the Jedi as the wobbly third-leg of the trilogy (mostly due to the teddy bears), I think it reveals some surprisingly original elements to the mythology.

While most of Empire dealt with the Jedi powers, it did reveal the destructive nature of the Sith.  That being that a Sith Lord is prone to killing without mercy and, even more disturbing, without being in the same room.  More than that, it also revealed that the Sith can seduce a Jedi over to the dark side by manipulation of the mind through weakened emotions.  Those elements really come to the surface in Return of the Jedi.

While Empire was primarily Luke’s story, Jedi focuses primarily on Vader.  We learn for the first time, a little more of his backstory, not only that he is a fallen Jedi but that his body is mostly metal.  That would explain the limitations of his fighting style and, based on the way that he dies, we understand the reasons that he doesn’t use force lightening.  Later in the series, we see the full-bore terror of what a Sith Lord can do, but Vader has limits because his body has limits.  That may be one of the reasons that The Emperor is so keen on attaining Luke, because he knows that Vader is never all that he can be as far as physical strength.

Force lightening is the grand hat-trick of The Emperor in Return of the Jedi.  Before he whips out the lightning bolts, he’s seen as a feeble old man whose chief function is to order everyone around.  When, in the last 20 minutes of the movie, we see the full-girth of his power, we understand why The Emperor is the BMOC.  When Vader kills him by throwing him down a reactor shaft, the lightning shorts out Vader’s breathing apparatus and explains why he is unable to use this power.  It’s not that he’s never been trained on this and its long-term effects are not explored until we get to the Expanded Universe.  It is a Sith ability.  The Jedi apparently never use it due to its associate with anger and aggression.

The use of Force Lightning may explain some of the relationship between Vader and The Emperor.  Their relationship was one element of Jedi that wasn’t really explored before.  It is apparently hinged, not on respect, but on intimidation or more in line with a form of military protocol in line with the way that Hitler’s underlings knew the fatal cost of their disloyalty.  Vader knows that The Emperor can wipe him out just by snapping his fingers, and further that telepathy allows the Emperor to read his thoughts, his fears and his misgivings about turning his son over to the dark side.  Yet, there’s something interesting that is introduced in this movie but never really explored.  There’s a point midway through the movie in which Vader visits the Emperor in his throne room and admits that he has felt his son in The Force.  The Emperor is curious and says “Strange that I have not.”  Has Vader gained this ability?  It is hard to be sure.

The movie focuses primarily on Luke’s ability to settle Vader’s personal conflict and return him to the good man that he has suppressed.  In the end he is able to do this and his father dies but is able to appear as a Force Spirit.  We know that, by their very nature, only Jedi can give themselves completely to the force thereby gaining immortality.  We see him allied with Ben and Yoda at the end of the movie but that raises questions of commitment.  How long does it take a Jedi to learn the power of becoming a Jedi and what does it entail?  Also, one element to the film that I have always appreciated is that Luke gives his father a funeral by the Jedi rite of cremation on a funeral pyre.  It is suggested in The Phantom Menace that this is wholly a Jedi ritual, especially since the Sith seem to always go out in a way that leaves no corpse behind.

Jedi leans heavily on the familial elements of The Force.  That being that it is largely hereditary.  We learn at last that Vader and Luke are, in fact, father and son but also that Luke and Leia are brother and sister.  Leia’s force abilities are barely hinted in Empire but slightly more fleshed out in Jedi.  When Luke approaches her about their family bond, he asks about her mother which leads to one of the most controversial elements of the whole Star Wars saga.  Do you remember your mother?”, Luke asks.  “Just images really, feelings.”  This raises questions since Padme died at the moment of birth.  Images, I’ve always maintained could mean photographs, but feelings I think come through The Force.  Leia’s force abilities aren’t as much a part of her character as they are with Luke possibly because it tangles with her larger military and political role so that element is there but not really explored.  She is in charge of the New Republic while Luke is in charge of the New Jedi Order.

In the end, Luke is apparently the only Jedi left, but we wonder if he will pass his knowledge onto his sister.  That’s touched lightly on in the expanded universe (not Disney’s).  The attempts by Luke to start the Jedi back up won’t be introduced until The Force Awakens some 30 years later.  What we come to realize from this original trilogy is that The Jedi Order and nature of The Force are revealed slowly and mostly kept in check.  There are some holes still left open but they would be patched up only to have new plot holes and new questions spring open as we move forward into Star Wars lore.

 
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Posted by on 05/03/2016 in Star Wars week

 

A Study in The Force: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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Majority rule basically dictates that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the all the Star Wars movies and, yes, I happen to belong to that majority.  This is a much darker story, a story that digs deep into the buried myths of the Star Wars lore.  With A New Hope we discussed that the groundwork had been laid, but the actual functions of The Jedi and The Sith weren’t completely fleshed out.  There are ideas present, but their actual application seemed to exist as a “Stay Tuned.”

What’s great about The Empire Strikes Back is that the vagueness of the Force and of the Jedi order presented in A New Hope are off the table.  There’s a sense of “let’s get into it” that carries those ideas outward.  For one thing, the idea of The Force is much more practical here.  It’s not just a Zen philosophy that somewhat suggests a manipulation of one’s immediate surroundings.  The movie is hardly 10 minutes along before we get full-on evidence of what The Force is capable of.  Alone in an ice cave, strung upside down, Luke spots his lightsaber stuck in the ice.  He calms himself before reaching out for it and finds that, through The Force, he can move objects.  This was an idea that was barely present in A New Hope.

On the other end, we find that Vader has amped up his destructive power.  In A New Hope he briefly gave a mouthy Imperial Officer the business by choking him just by raising a hand.  Here he has honed that power and one of the great running gags is Vader’s persistent demotion of senior officers by choking them to death via The Force.  He’s gotten so good at it, in fact, that he doesn’t even need to be in the same room with his intended victim.

Much of Empire is given over to the cosmic education of Luke by The Jedi Master Yoda who is not mentioned in A New Hope for whatever reason, and whose presence is only revealed to Luke as he lay dying in a blizzard.  This education encompasses a much more comprehensive training session than Ben was able to get into.  While Ben’s brief training focused on settling the mind, Yoda’s training focuses on the muscle strength of The Force like lifting objects with one’s mind by way of controlling emotions.

Emotions are a huge introduction to the lore of The Jedi in Empire especially if you follow the child-into-man motif of Luke throughout the Original Trilogy (he a child in A New Hope; an adolescent in Empire; and an adult in Jedi).  In Empire, Luke’s demeanor is that of a sullen and uptight teenager which makes Yoda’s job all the more difficult, he calls out his new charge by reminding him that “You are wreckless!”

Ben makes the point that This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the Dark Side of the Force.”  In A New Hope this was an idea that was not presented, but here it becomes essential to The Jedi.  Fear is presented as the ultimate trap for a Jedi despite the fact that we understand that it can also be a safety mechanism.  The manifestation of Luke’s fears are presented in a scene in which he comes to understand that he is, in essence, his own worst enemy.

It is also very lightly suggested that Jedi training begins at a very young age.  Dismissing Luke’s potential as a candidate, Yoda says he is “too old to begin the training.”  Later, in the prequels and in the Expanded Universe, we come to understand that children are taken for training at a young age.  There is a process of becoming an Initiate before going through the Jedi Trials and then becoming a Padawan.  None of that is mentioned here, though Yoda’s brief comment may suggest it.

The familial aspects of The Force are not present either, we don’t get that until Return of the Jedi.  The major bulletpoint of Empire is the newly developed idea that in The Force there is a light side and a dark side and that everyone starts off in Jedi training and, somewhere along the way, follows one path or the other.  The difference being that the light side takes time, discipline and work while the dark side requires vast amounts of negative energy.  These are aspects not presented in A New Hope.

It is also suggested that a Jedi is turned to the dark side by a kind of mental seduction, in Luke’s case, the revelation that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are one in the same.  Luke is young, ill-tempered, and emotional and Vader plays on that much like a young person is drawn into a life of crime my a criminal who offers him power and money.

In A New Hope we discussed the introduction of the idea of Jedi immortality that giving one’s self to the force at the moment of demise means that you can come back, apparently as a ghost.  We see that first here as Ben appears to Luke in ghost-like form to give advice.  If you can be everywhere and see everything and relay important information back to your allies, the movie doesn’t mention it.  We’ll discuss more on this later.

It is also introduced here that Jedi and Sith are telepathic, not in the way of speaking from one mind to another but in a way of transporting messages through feelings.  In Empire this happens twice.  Luke calls out to Leia who doesn’t seem to hear his words but who seems to understand his situation.  Then Vader calls out to Luke as a last ditch effort to pull Luke to his side.  Added to this the Jedi are also able to see images of the future despite it’s erratic nature.  The seduction aspect of the dark side comes into play from this idea as we sense that Vader is manipulating the fate of Luke’s friends in an effort to draw him out.

The master/student relationship is interesting too.  We see Luke with Yoda, but we also briefly see Vader with The Emperor.  The difference is that Vader’s approach to his master is must more subservient: “What is thy bidding, my master?”  Meanwhile, Luke’s approach to Yoda is much more open, he calls him “Master” but the dialogue is much more liberal.  Vader’s conference with The Emperor is designed so that his master can give an order, but when Vader makes a suggestion of turning Luke rather than killing him, it almost comes off as weak and fearful.  Vader’s attachment to The Emperor is almost military, like an advisor speaking to a General.  Luke’s attachment to Yoda is more academic, like a student regarding a teacher.  Note that when Luke tries to leave, Yoda’s reaction is a stern suggestion that he stay and finish the training.

Of the original trilogy, Empire seems to be the one with the willingness to delve into the mysteries of The Force and of the nature of the light and dark side.  It’s less vague than the previous film but it is far more important to the main story than in Jedi.  We’ll get to that tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on 05/02/2016 in Star Wars week

 

A Study in The Force: Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

So, its Star Wars week, and I wanted to give some acknowledgement to a series that, in many ways, made a movie-lover out of me.  But how to do that?  There’s so much stuff out there with regards to Star Wars that I wouldn’t know where to start.  My first idea here was to talk about the movies one by one, but I feel that coming off of the exhausting Spielberg Month, I wanted to dial down and try something new.

So, all this week I’m going to deal with the mystical aspects of Star Wars, not the visual effects, but the ideas, the force and the strange uneven legacy of the Jedi as the series plays out.  In order to do that, I must begin where the whole saga began, not with The Phantom Menace but with A New Hope.

Through out the history of Star Wars, that being the seven films, the two TV series and the expanded universe the idea of The Jedi Order and how they function within this world have gone, admittedly, from one extreme to the other.  The expansion of what The Force is and how it is properly (and improperly) used varies widely as we move from the Original Trilogy through to J.J. Abrams brave attempts to untie the knots the Lucas has tied in his own series.  To understand that, you must understand how the series has evolved.  For these purposes we are not going to move through the series chronologically in SW time but chronologically in real time beginning with the Original Trilogy, then very briefly through The Expanded Universe (before Disney obliterated it) then through the prequels then the TV shows and finally into The Force Awakens.
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In A New Hope, The Force was presented in very broad terms.  Obi-Wan explains that it is sort of a mystical energy field that surrounds and binds everything together.  That’s a beautiful philosophy, a Zen idea of inner peace and harmony through the energy of the universe that allows you a power that controls your actions and obeys your commands.  It is a balance of the natural world that we soon discover is easily corrupted.

For this particular film it is also very simple.  Its a meditative idea that doesn’t yet suggest what would come later.  There’s barely a suggestion of the ability to manipulate objects in your immediate surroundings and, if you look only within this film by itself, you might be led to believe that it is an ability that can be acquired by anyone.  Once, long ago, the Jedi ruled the land but apparently so much time has passed that the current generation hardly believes that it exists at all.  Some dismiss it as hokum; like Luke’s Uncle Owen who dismisses it as wizardry and craziness.  Han balks at the idea of a mystical energy field controlling his destiny much like an atheist might dismiss the suggestion of a God controlling the universe.  The Force here seems to be suggested as an idea that it is based on a matter of belief whereas later it would juggle back and forth as being a matter of heredity, biology and/or just the luck of the draw.

Han’s reaction may come from the tapestry of the times.  The Jedi in A New Hope are pretty much the stuff of ancient history (if by ‘ancient history’ you consider a span of only about 20 years), they’re also so few in numbers that they are almost negligible.

Ben explains that the Jedi are all but extinct and we can see that he is pretty much its only living embodiment.  Yoda isn’t mentioned as of yet so Ben seems to be the lone survivor.  He sees Luke as the conduit for reigniting the flame.  Based on an old storytelling trope that the smallest and least worthwhile figure in the universe will summon up the courage to take on the masters of the universe; it becomes Luke’s burden to carry.  Why?  The movie never really knows other than the fact that he is an expert pilot and the son of a great Jedi Knight who was destroyed by the film’s antagonist.  He can be trained in the ways of The Force not because of his linage but because Ben can train him.  There’s no suggestion here that it’s a special skill, it is suggested that anyone can do it.  The construct is presented as a master/student relationship that will lead to a lifelong commitment.  The term “lifelong” takes on a different meaning as the series progresses.

Getting Luke out of the dustbowl and into the action is Ben’s backdoor way of restarting the Jedi order.  The legacy and dynasty of Luke’s family is something that will come about later, but here it is suggested that Ben thinks he’s the one to get the Jedi going again in order to topple The Empire for reasons that aren’t really clear.  He’s the son of an old friend, one who had this mysterious power so he must be the one to undo what has been undone.

The actual function of the Jedi in The Old Republic wavers back and forth as we move through the series.  Here, far from the paramilitary organization that they would be in Attack of the Clones, they are described as a sort of a monk-like order that never-the-less acted as peace-keepers within the Old Republic in the days before The Emperor and his goons decided that evil would always triumph because good is dumb.

In A New Hope only four force users exist: Ben, Darth Vader, the unseen Emperor, and eventually Luke.  These four represent the balance to the force (two of them and two of us) yet, the reasons that Ben needs Luke in the middle of this conflict are a little vague.  If you trust the continuity of this film it seems to be because, well, “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.”

What the Jedi and the Sith (a word never mentioned until Phantom Menace) are capable of is only hinted at here.  They have abilities to control things with their minds and, in Vader’s case, with his hands but outside of schooling a rather mouthy Senior Officer by temporarily cutting off his air supply, those elements are left largely for us to discover when we move into Empire.  It is also not established here that The Force yields a dark side and a light side.  Obi-Wan talks about “the dark times” and mentions that one of his students betrayed and murdered the Jedi, wiping out an order that had existed for about 20,000 years, but the idea that a Jedi could choose a darker path is not established yet.

The film also hugely suggests something that wouldn’t be fully explored until Revenge of the Sith, the idea that a Jedi can give themselves a certain immortality (something that the Sith, by their very nature cannot achieve).  Ben sacrifices himself in his battle with Vader but he disappears when he is cut down, apparently becoming one with the force.  Before being struck down, Ben informs Vader that “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  I’m not exactly sure how.  Apparently when giving yourself to The Force, you die and are able to exist on two different planes – here and there.  You can come back as a ghost to give advice and guide those you love, but it is never expressed exactly how this is “more powerful.”  It is never explained here but it apparently it allows the deceased to become an omniscient figure, able to act as a sort of conscience as Ben does when Luke is aboard his X-Wing.  Its power to appear in spectral form comes later.

A New Hope presents The Force as a simple and somewhat vague concept constructed out of Zen philosophy brought through an order that seems to be one dying breath away from extinction.  This is an idea that would not stay solid for long.  Once we move forward into the series, the rules start to get a little fuzzy, the role of the Jedi changes rapidly until the whole Zen idea is kind of washed away.  We’ll find out tomorrow where the changes begin.

 
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Posted by on 05/01/2016 in Star Wars week