There Has Been An Awakening

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens two days ago.  My wife and I took the morning off to see it, having waited until (a) the weekend crowds had died down and (b) our son, who is sadly too young to see or sit through it, was back in preschool.

I should state outright that neither of us have been to the movies since our son was born, more than three years ago.  We didn’t intend for that to happen, things just sort of worked out that way.  (I blame it on the lack of anything worth seeing, myself.)  So it was either the Star Wars butterflies in my stomach or my aged ineptitude, or both, that led me to accidentally purchase tickets online for the 11:00 p.m. show tonight.  We intended to see the 11:00 a.m. show.  The helpful, tattooed miscreant at the ticket counter directed us to guest services, where an extremely patient woman helped us exchange our tickets for the 11:30 a.m. show.

Of course, she had to exchange them again when we realized the movie would let out a half hour past the time we were due to pick up our son from school.  As I said, she was patient.  AMC should be proud.  I’d wanted to see it in normal (2D) projection, but as the only available showing that would let out in time was in (non-IMAX) 3D, we donned our cheap, sadly non-Star Wars themed glasses and headed in.  I tell you these things so you know how discombobulated I was going in to this movie.  Sure, I’m absentminded most of the time, but I think perhaps I was a little more nervous going into this film than I had anticipated being.

My anxiety, however, was misplaced.  J.J. Abrams had us all well in hand.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best time I’ve had the movies in well over a decade, and the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

My thoughts, including all the spoilers, after the jump.

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The Story Is Always About the Characters

I’ve been known to defend certain aspects of the Star Wars prequels.  Not because I think that they’re good films overall, but because there are certain parts of them, mostly involving setting, action, or small character quirks, that struck me as belonging in the Star Wars canon.  That is to say, certain aspects of the films, such as parts of Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi Wan, jibe with my own internal vision of the backstory of that character.  They seem to fit.  They seem like glimpses into what the prequels might have been had they been written and directed by someone who actually cared about Star Wars.

io9’s recent look back at Attack of the Clones pretty much sums up my feelings on that movie, in a way I’ve never really been able to express very well myself.  In short, they describe Clones as being, for the most part, just as bad as we all remember, a storytelling failure not redeemed by the one or two good moments of fan service we see on screen.

The message I really take from their review, however, is one I’ve been struggling to elucidate for some time: that the failure of Episode II and, by extension, the Star Wars prequels as a whole, is a failure of character.  The prequels prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that no amount of intriguing world-building, beautiful production design, or stunning action sequences can save a story that fails to bring its characters to life.

So wait, Jim.  Step back a minute.  What you’re saying here, really, is that character is important to storytelling?  Big reveal, dude.  You’re really jumping the shark, here.

Yes, what I’m saying is that character is important–vital–to storytelling.  But you already knew that.  What I think is interesting is finding such a great example of a story that should have worked, that had everything going for it, every reason to work, but completely screwed the pooch when it came time to deliver.

Sure, George Lucas had the burden of decades of fan expectations to deal with.  Yes, that’s a lot of pressure.  But what people often forget is that Lucas made the movies he wanted to make.  He’s never responded well to criticism of the prequels, and generally speaks dismissively of Star Wars fans.  He’s the kind of filmmaker who’s more concerned with how things look than how things feel.  To him, the saga is a soap opera, and he filmed it like one: a story purportedly about passion and heartbreak and betrayal that nonetheless fails almost completely to deliver the pathos of any of those emotions.

What Lucas wanted is what we got: a throwback to the sci-fi adventure serials of his youth, peppered with just enough superficial emotional motivation to propel the plot of the adventure forward.  It’s something that’s appealing to children, but not to adults, who crave real character arcs.

Had he endeavored to see it from the perspective of the people who enjoyed the original movies, he would have (or should have) realized that the films he was making couldn’t possibly have worked.

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These are our passion faces.

Take io9’s example of the romantic relationship between Padme and Anakin:

As forced and muddled as the courtship between Anakin and Padme is, it’s obviously an essential piece of the overall puzzle of Star Wars. It’s a nice thing to see, but it’s just handled so terribly. “You are in my very soul tormenting me?” Really? It just sounds like robots talking. And why are you guys eating pears with forks and knives?

It i handled terribly.  The romantic scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman should be used in film school as an example of a lack of chemistry.  The actors are woodenly delivering lines, having been sapped by the bad writing and the directing of any emotional motivation to make the scene work.

Padme Amidala is supposed to be the entire reason Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side.  At the very least, she is the proximate cause: his desire to save her from the death he envisions is the turning point for his character.  In order for that to make sense, for it to play for the audience, we have to believe it.  We have to buy that he loves her so much that he can’t imagine a world without her in it.  That unlike the average person dealing with the idea of loss, Skywalker sees the power to prevent it, and falls into the trap.  He falls to the dark side with the best intentions, but in this case, those intentions never really make any sense, because from the standpoint of the character as he’s portrayed on screen, the audience has absolutely no reason to believe that he actually believes any of it.  The viewer can’t buy what you can’t sell.

Plot and character may be unavoidably intertwined with most stories, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the plot serve the characters rather than the other way around.

Writing character is a question of empathy: can you, as the writer, put yourself in the shoes of the character you’re writing, so that the character’s emotional responses to the stimuli around them come off as fully realized.  There’s no substitute for running a character through the filter of real human emotion.

There may be some writers out there who can create authentic seeming characters completely dispassionately, but if there are I don’t know of them.  If you can’t see the world through your character’s eyes, at least imaginatively, and feel at least a small flicker of what they must be feeling in the situation you’ve placed them in, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.

And that’s where Lucas failed as a writer with the prequels: he couldn’t sell the defining relationship.  As io9 puts it:

Then it happens. The biggest leap in the history of Star Wars. On the brink of death, Padme confesses her love for Anakin. It’s so out of left field, even in the movie the character of Anakin is surprised to hear it. “I truly, deeply, love you,” she says. Too bad we barely get that sense before that. I couldn’t help but laugh that Lucas made the decision to have Anakin act so shocked. It almost feels like an admission he wasn’t sure how to get the characters to this point, but had to, and here it is.

You might be able to get away with the equivalent of “And then something happens” when it comes to plot, but you’ll never get away with it with character.  The beauty of fiction is that you can get the reader, or the viewer, to believe and accept almost anything if you can sell the characters’ responses to those stories.  If the characters clearly believe it, if they act and think and feel in a way that reflects humanity and emotional logic, then your reader won’t have any trouble suspending their disbelief when it comes to interstellar spaceships or unlikely plot developments.  The reverse is not true.

The story is always about the characters.

Thoughts on ‘The Force Awakens’ Trailer

When September passed by and we hadn’t gotten a proper trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I knew that Lucasfilm had chosen to treat this movie differently.  The teasers we had seen up to that point were extremely minimal, providing no real glimpse into the actual story of the film.  The latest and, purportedly, the last trailer before the premiere, which aired this week during Monday Night Football, was an internet sensation (as we all knew it would be), but it followed in the footsteps of the teasers by keeping its cards very close to its vest.

The “trailer” isn’t really a trailer: it gives us no real insight into what the actual plot of the movie will be.  Which makes a certain amount of sense.  This is Star Wars, after all; they could have never released a trailer and gotten away with it.  J.J. Abrams & Co. clearly want audiences to go into the film with as few preconceived notions as possible.

Here are some of my thoughts, in bullet point form:

  • The big news is: still no Luke.  Or so we think.  It’s obvious that they’re saving Mark Hamill for the premiere.  Two things are important to note, however.  First, we may indeed have seen more of Luke than we think.  The same shot of a hooded figure placing a robotic hand affectionately on R2-D2’s dome was used in the teasers and used again here: it seems clear to me that this is Luke Skywalker, thirty years later, his artificial hand having been replaced or upgraded, touching his old companion in friendship.  R2 was Luke’s droid, after all; he rarely left his side during the original trilogy.  It would make perfect sense that he would accompany Luke into the exile that production rumors have hinted was his destination after Return of the Jedi.

    Secondly, those same production rumors have strongly suggested that Mark Hamill’s participation in Episode VII is minimal–that, in fact, the central thrust of the plot features the new characters (Rey and Finn) seeking out the now-legendary Luke Skywalker in (apparently) self-imposed exile.  Several reports have stated that Luke Skywalker only appears near the end of the movie, and not for very long.  If this is true, and Luke’s character features into The Force Awakens only at its conclusion, then it follows that they wouldn’t include him prominently in the initial marketing (the poster and the trailers), particularly if they also wanted to keep his character’s involvement a surprise.
  • The shots of Rey hunting amidst the ruined Star Destroyer on Jakku were gorgeous.  The entire film looks gorgeous.  I can’t wait to see it for this reason alone.
  • Rey and Han Solo’s interchange in the trailer (“There were stories…” “It’s true.  The Dark Side, the Jedi.  They’re real.”) indicates that the events of the original trilogy have faded into legend, which is both more interesting from a storytelling perspective than the alternative, as well as consistent with the original films.  Despite the fact that they’d been wiped out only twenty years before, Luke Skywalker barely knew what a Jedi Knight was when he met Ben Kenobi.  It appears that has once again become the status quo, meaning that Luke apparently did not bring the Jedi back to the prominence they had before the rise of the Empire.
  • As much as we all want to see what happened to the original cast, I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the new story that’s obviously being told here: this is a new generation of heroes, guided by an older one.  There are a lot of parallels to be made here to the generational change in the real world, I think.  George Lucas has compared the recent history of the Star Wars universe as being similar to ours in some respects: the Clone Wars were like World War II, while the Rebellion was like Vietnam, at least in the consciousness of the people living through these eras.  In that since, you could call Luke, Han, and Leia’s generation the Baby Boomers, just as you could call their children (literally and figuratively) the Millennials.  It’s been said that Baby Boomers had the chance to change the world but failed to do so: wouldn’t be fascinating to find that, like in the our world, Luke Skywalker’s generation similarly failed?  The new canon that has been established since the Disney takeover has begun to make clear (primarily through the novel Aftermath) that the Rebels’ victory on Endor was only the beginning of a larger war.  Whether or not the Rebellion was able to successfully establish a New Republic in the long term, the idea that there is no true end to war and suffering (except, arguably, through the Force) would certainly make for a powerful new chapter in the larger story.
  • The emergence of a new superweapon of some kind, as evident from the poster and the trailer, indicates that the First Order truly is picking up where the Empire left off.  Whether the First Order is already a major power in the galaxy or merely a re-emergent threat (which is distinct possibility, given hints seeded into Aftermath), clearly they’ve come to conquer.
  • We really have gone back to the settings and feel of the original three films, here: every shot takes place either aboard a spaceship or on some backwater planet.  Not a city-planet to be found.  Which begs the question: what happened to Coruscant?  Is it simply not relevant to this story?
  • Since I started writing this (a couple of days ago), the Internet has blown up with rumors that Luke is, in fact, Kylo Ren, the black-cloaked, helmeted villain from the trailers.  The problems with this theory are legion and obvious, the biggest being that Ren is played by Adam Driver, who has been shown as the character in photos and the teasers.  The idea that Luke Skywalker might have turned to the Dark Side, however, is not a new one, and the most compelling argument I’ve heard for why Abrams might try this can be found right here.  Of course, any theory saying Luke goes evil has to take into account the leaked photo that’s been floating around the Internet, with Mark Hamill dressed in what is clearly Jedi (i.e., good guy) attire.
  • The music is fantastic.  You can here a new take on one of the classic themes in the trailer, when the Millennium Falcon is flying through the Star Destroyer wreckage, and it’s very moving.
  • Overall I’m impressed by what I’ve seen so far, and even more impressed by the restraint they’ve shown with the trailers and marketing.  They clearly want us to be surprised and impressed by whatever they’ve cooked up, and let the film speak for itself.
  • The footage we’ve seen has undeniably felt like Star Wars, to me, in a way the prequels never did.

Confessions of a Lifelong Geek

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I’ve been a geek for my entire life.  I used to get Tolkien paperbacks taken away from me in elementary school because I’d stick them inside my textbooks and read when I was supposed to be paying attention in class.  I had an unhealthy obsession with the Thundercats.  I used to act out Darth Vader’s death scene in Return of the Jedi rather than playing with my friends.  In high school, when other guys were obsessing over girls, I was obsessing over Terry Brooks and Tad Williams and Magic: The Gathering.  I can still hold my own in a variety of geek trivia.  Heck, I’m now a full-time author of fantasy and science fiction.  It doesn’t get much geekier than that.

But there are some skeletons lingering in my geek closet…guilty secrets that weigh heavy on my eager, geeky heart.  And you, dear readers, will be my mother and father confessors tonight.  Forgive me, for I have sinned.

The fact that I spend my days thinking about fantasy worlds and obsessing over things like lightsabers and the finer points of magic systems doesn’t change the fact that there are some areas of geekdom in which I just don’t measure up–and here they are.

  • I don’t get Doctor Who.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  But every episode I watch just confirms my initial impression, which is that it’s an intentionally cheesy, low-budget farce that takes itself inexplicably seriously.  The hardest part to understand is the rabid fandom associated with it–I suppose I could understand watching it late at night when there’s nothing else on, but I can’t really imagine actually being excited to watch it.  Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the Doctor, Time Lords, or Whovians in general. I want to like it.  I just. Don’t. Get it.
  • I have never played Minecraft.  You could add the names of any number of other empire-building, strategy games here and the statement would still be accurate.  I love gaming, but I’ve never been able to get into this particular genre.  I’ve never had the patience for it.  I like my games heavy on graphics and story.  And it’s not that I don’t get the appeal of, for instance, building your own dream castle with adjacent gold mine and badminton park, but no world I’d dream up would look any good all pixelated and Minecrafty.
  • The last anime I watched with any level of real interest was Akira.  Last manga? You guessed it.  Akira, volume one.  Which was awesome.  But keeping up with even one anime or manga series seems like it could be a full-time job in and of itself, never mind staying abreast of all the most popular shows and books.  I guess I just prioritize other geekery, here: if I have to choose between a fantasy or a sci-fi novel and watching an anime, I’m going to choose the book.
  • I have never played Dungeons & Dragons.  This one actually embarrasses me a little.  How can you even consider yourself a true-blue geek if you’ve never played D&D?  It wasn’t for lack of trying; I just never had any friends who were into it.  I used to go into this game store the next town over when I was a kid and look at Dungeon Master’s guides and box sets and just drool.  It seemed complicated and immersive and just fun.  But I wasn’t much of a self-starter when it came to hobbies, and since I never had any kind of D&D mentor I never got around to it–to my ever-lasting shame.
  • I prefer TNG to TOS.  It’s not that I dislike Star Trek: The Original Series.  In many ways, Kirk and Spock and crew will always be the more memorable characters to me.  But as far as quality story-telling goes, I’ve gotta go with The Next Generation.  The world is more interesting, the storytelling is superior, and the issues are far more topical to my own lifetime.  It also has a few more decades of science fiction canon to steal from, so the plots of the episodes end up being a lot more interesting.
  • I think the Star Wars prequels had some redeeming characteristics.  Whoa whoa whoa, stay with me here.  Listen closely.  I’m not saying they’re good.  They are terrible films made by a creatively stunted writer/director that pretty much ruined every Star Wars fan’s internal vision of the backstory of a number of classic characters.  So just to be clear, I’m not saying I like the prequels.  I’m saying that there were a scant few things that Lucas (or someone) did do right.  Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the production design of the films’ universe, and the lightsaber dueling, for example.  Diamonds in the rough, all of them, but worthy of positive mention.  Everything else is just one big fart joke.

What are your geek confessions? What are your responses to mine?  Feel free to explain my wrongheaded thinking; I’m willing to be educated.  This inquiring mind wants to know.  I promise I won’t judge your own confessions…too harshly.