Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reflection on the Star Wars Universe

Reflection on the Star Wars Universe

I’d like to make a quick programming note about my exploration of the Star Wars Expanded Universe and any further Star Wars related reviews in the near future. When I started investigating the Star Wars EU many months ago, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Would the novels recreate the joy twelve-year-old me had of discovering a galaxy beyond the original three films? Or would they be embarrassingly bad like so much of the popular cultural detritus of the past? Turns out it was somewhere in between.

As much as I enjoyed revisiting the Star Wars EU, not all of it worked. At the very least, even those works that capture the character and feel of the original trilogy--such as the Thrawn Trilogy--were hampered by the fact that the Clone Wars saga had not been fleshed out, meaning any references to events prior to A New Hope never fully meshed with George Lucas’s overall plan as it unfolded from 1999 to 2005. But there were also some goofy ideas that felt like hastily written fan fiction (Dark Empire, I’m looking at you).

I’m planning on continuing my journey through the Star Wars EU. After all, I still have to finish off the Thrawn Trilogy. It will be interesting to see the Star Wars EU now that we have a very real “official” vision of how the saga should continue. I would also like to take a look at the new ancillary novels and comics that have the Disney stamp of approval. Of course, I won’t be able to immerse myself in all Star Wars all the time. I think it was Jesus (aka Young Anakin) who said, “Man cannot live by Star Wars alone.” But I might keep this up until the release of Episode VIII. Hell, I haven’t even watched those Ewok movies yet, which will likely require some time, whisky and gumption to get through.

Finally, I wonder how my time spent in the Star Wars EU affected my experience watching Episode VII. As I noted in my review, I liked Episode VII, but I was also ambivalent about how much of A New Hope the film borrowed. If anything, familiarity with the Star Wars EU eased expectations I had of Episode VII. Of course, the roman numerals in the title ask the audience to see this entry as even more important. They’re telling us that it’s a part of the cyclical myth of the Skywalker family, which has always been central to Lucas’s vision. But, at the same time, it’s also one of hundreds of stories told using tools fashioned by Lucas. I love having all of these stories, but they by necessity make the films a little less special. After all, if you increase the supply, then the value of the “product” diminishes.

For me, the original trilogy will always be the very heart of Star Wars. After that, the prequels and the Clone Wars cartoon constitute Lucas’s insane and uneven vision. Everything else, good and bad, will stand apart. And I’m okay with that. I love Lucas’s influences and the world he built, and I’m just happy to get some more stories told within that galaxy. For now, I’ll take it.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII--The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII--The Force Awakens (4/5)

For many Star Wars fans, they have been waiting thirty-two years for The Force Awakens, both because the film continues the story of Han, Leia, and Luke and because they don’t consider the prequels a worthy follow up to the original trilogy. Disney, the new corporate stewards of Star Wars, seem to be acutely aware of fan reaction, and they have crafted Episode VIII with these disgruntled fans in mind. In order to do so, they brought in J.J. Abrams who has garnered a reputation as a fixer when it comes to franchises run astray. He directed an installment of Mission Impossible after Tom Cruise’s star had fallen, and then he helmed the rebooted Star Trek as well as its unsuccessful sequel. From his first announcement as director, I was disappointed to see J.J. Abrams in charge, largely because it seemed like such an unimaginative choice. Without a doubt, The Force Awakens is the best outcome we can expect from someone like J.J. Abrams (which I know is both something of a compliment and an insult).

I’ll try to make this review relatively spoiler free, but if you want to go in without knowing anything beyond what you may have gleaned from the trailers, then you might want to skip the review until you’ve actually seen the film.

In a knowing nod to the audience, the new generation of characters are themselves immersed in the tales of Star Wars. They’ve heard of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, and the Rebellion, but to them these stories are little more than myths. You can read this as cynical audience manipulation if you like, but the four new characters--ace pilot Poe Dameron, reformed Stormtrooper Finn, orphaned scavenger Fey, and Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren--all earn their place in the Star Wars galaxy. They’re genuinely interesting characters who have their own conflicts and arcs over the course of the film, and the actors turn in great performances, something that has long been missing from Star Wars.

But those of us who first fell in love with the original trilogy probably aren’t coming to The Force Awakens primarily for the new characters. We’re showing up for our old favorites whether we want to admit it or not. I was skeptical of the plan to bring back the big three from the original trilogy. Why reuse characters whose stories have already been told, I reasoned. But when Harrison Ford finally arrives decked out as Han Solo, I’ll admit to becoming a little giddy. Not only was it exciting for Han to show up but for Ford to show up as well, since he has seemed completely absent for his last several performances. I’m not sure what Abrams did--perhaps slip some whisky into Ford’s morning coffee?--but Ford is by turns funny, charming, and gruff. And when he finally rendezvous with Carrie Fisher as General Leia, I may have become a little verklempt.

Most moviegoers will get a vague wiff of deja vu for most of the proceedings, and that’s because the film cribs heavily from the original trilogy. In fact, The Force Awakens largely plays out like a mix and match A New Hope. There’s a desert planet, a character with a greater destiny, an older mentor, and a giant superweapon (we’ll get to that soon). In fact, The Force Awakens feels like a reboot in multiple ways. First, the film isn’t too far off from being a remake of A New Hope. Second, the film’s goal appears to be resetting the series after the poorly received prequels. From the recycled plot to the smaller focus to the use of practical effects, The Force Awakens aims to go back to basics. Still, it's clear the film was made with genuine affection and reverence (but perhaps too much of the latter).

How much enjoyment you can ring out of the film’s retread of old favorites depends on what you expect from a Star Wars movie. Personally, I went back and forth on the issue. The one retread that genuinely bothered me was the return of yet another Death Star superweapon. Learning that they were bringing back a version of the Death Star gave me terrible flashbacks to all of those awful superweapons from the 1990s Star Wars novels. At one point Han Solo voices my feelings, saying that this new planet sized weapon is just like the Death Star, to which another character swats away such concerns, basically saying, “Naw, dude. This isn’t anything like the Death Star. It’s, like, much, much bigger.” (I’m kind of paraphrasing here). But unlike in A New Hope, where the Death Star plans drive the plot forward, the new superweapon seems mostly incidental.

I’ll admit to both enjoying The Force Awakens and feeling somewhat ambivalent. For all their faults, the prequels strove for something new. George Lucas didn’t have to answer to anyone, and he gave us something that was weird, unique, and, yes, sometimes terrible. What he didn’t do is repeat himself. Disney won’t let that happen again, you can be sure. And according to fan reaction, the public has largely welcomed our new corporate overlords. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to hope for something unique and exciting from big budgeted entertainment. At the same time, that’s exactly what George Lucas gave us with A New Hope, a postmodern bricolage of cowboys, samurai, myth, WWII, and experimental cinema. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see something like that in the Star Wars universe, but we will get a string of some pretty good movies. I guess for now that’s good enough.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (3.5/5)

As you might guess from the title, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, was designed to follow the lead of Empire Strikes Back by going darker than the original installment. Where the first game attempted to recapture some of the energy of the original trilogy, Sith Lords really rubs our noses in the darker side of Star Wars. Once again, the Jedi have been nearly wiped out. (The Jedi seem so prone to mass extinction that it’s a wonder they’re still around four thousand years later). Your character stands as the last Jedi, but you have lost nearly all of your Force powers.

Slowly your backstory is revealed. During the the Mandalorian War, previously mentioned in the original game, your character decided that the Jedi Council was too slow to act and joined Revan and the other Jedi who mounted a defense against the Mandalorian onslaught. Upon returning to the council, you were stripped of your connection to the force and exiled. Since then, the Jedi have seemingly disappeared from the galaxy, and a bounty has been placed on your head, because you are the last of their kind. Eventually you discover that other Jedi exist, but they are in hiding, attempting to uncover the threat facing them and to strike when the moment’s right. Your goal is to assemble these Jedi and face this threat together.

Like most RPGs, Sith Lords follows the Wizard of Oz narrative structure of a long journey where new and strange character join your party as you continue on your quest. There’s the soldier, Atton Rand, the blind Force wielder, Visas, the bounty hunter with a heart of gold, Mira, a Mandalorian only known as the Mandalorian, and of course the droids from the first game, HK-47 and T3-M4, who, liked Artoo and Threepio, make a reappearance. This list is hardly exhaustive, and like too many RPGs, the number of characters are overwhelming. I don’t think I once included in my party, G0-T0, the robotic avatar of a crime boss (don’t ask).

But perhaps the most important character is Kreia, an old crone who has a strong connection to the Force and bond with the main character. You first meet Kreia after waking up on a seemingly abandoned mining facility. Kreia is neither fully Jedi nor Sith, and instead represents a middle path between the warring philosophies. This is best illustrated in the game in a cutscene that occurs after you have given some money to a panhandler on Nar Shaddaa. Kreia advises you against this seemingly altruistic action, suggesting that it may have unseen consequences, which turns out to be the case since the man you gave money to is later attacked for his recent boon. There’s an interesting comment here about how actions reverberate across the galaxy in ways unknown to us.

The Sith Lords was a notoriously rushed game, and it’s obvious to anyone who plays it that the story’s incomplete. Recently, a bunch of good samaritans developed a patch that restores a good deal of the lost content, but The Sith Lords still feels unfinished. However, there are those who have championed the game as better than the original. While I enjoyed playing The Sith Lords, I can’t agree that it’s necessarily an improvement. With the exception of some more micromanaging, the gameplay is nearly identical to its predecessor. (No one finished an RPG and thought to themselves, I really wish I could spend more time tweaking my weapons and armor). And because of the game’s unfinished nature, you don’t delve as much into the characters. I never felt as if I knew my allies as well as I did those in the first game.

I think some who claim The Sith Lords is better than KOTOR fall under the false assumption that just because something is darker then it is necessarily more complex. Certainly, a game can be gritty and explore complex moral grey areas, as this game accomplishes during the cutscene on Nar Shaddaa. But just as often, going dark can merely be a juvenile’s idea of what it means to be adult. In The Sith Lords, any moments of genuine moral exploration are counteracted by sophomoric understanding of dark and gritty.

**SPOILERS AHEAD** The worst instance occurs after you have finally found and assembled the remaining Jedi on Dantooine. And they are all quickly killed. So the main focus of your quest is rendered moot. What’s more, most of these members of the Jedi Council are kind of jerks. What makes this development less interesting is that the prequels, which have plenty of their own problems, actually explored the destruction of the Jedi and the difficulty of seeing the consequences of our actions in a more interesting manner. I would take questions of how war makes fascists of us all in the prequels over the veneer of dark and gritty The Sith Lords too often presents. So while the original game attempted to reignite a sense of fun and adventure missing from Star Wars during the prequel era, The Sith Lords competes directly against the prequels in their own arena and somehow ends up losing. **END SPOILERS**

Still, there’s plenty to like about The Sith Lords, especially if you liked the first game. While underdeveloped as characters, the designs of the Sith antagonists are admittedly pretty cool. Darth Sion is nothing more than charred remains apparently fueled only by his hatred, and Darth Nihilus dons an awesome mask that appears to be influenced by Japanese Kabuki theater. With more time, the game may have fulfilled its promise, even if it may never eclipse the original game.