Monday, December 18, 2017

Exploring the Great Divide

Garbage. Unsatisfying. A waste of time. Audience rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.

And yet also:

Awesome. Incredible. The epic we've been waiting for. Critic rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

I'm talking, of course, about The Last Jedi, AKA Star Wars Episode VIII, AKA the newest divisive chapter in the long-running saga. What amazes me is how there seems to be absolutely no middle ground in reactions this time, aside from a very, very small few. I find it interesting enough that instead of doing a review for the movie like I intended, I'm going to try and explore the possible reasons for this, as a fan and a storyteller. For the record, yes, I saw it and enjoyed the hell out of it. That said, I do understand why some fans may not care for it. I hear your complaints, and am going to try and address them here.

Or I'm just going to talk out of my ass for a little while. You decide.

Fear not, I have kept this all spoiler-free as far as The Last Jedi is concerned. All the others are fair game.

Since I mentioned that I'm a fan, both of Star Wars and of the movie in question, let's start there: with the fans.

Most, if not all, of us grew up with Star Wars. We saw the original trilogy in full or at least in part on the big screen as it came out or during one of the many re-releases--and no, I'm not talking about the theatrical run for the Special Editions in 1997. We're the ones who remember empty streets in Mos Eisley, made up excuses for why Ben Kenobi's lightsaber was white and flickering during his duel with Vader (the dark side sabers created shorts in a "good" saber, FYI), and who understand that Han didn't shoot first, he shot only. We endured the agonizing sixteen year wait until Episode I, and then complained about midichlorians and the addition of fart jokes to that galaxy far, far away. We were annoyed at how whiny Darth Vader was before he turned, made fun of how much he hated sand, and wondered how out of all the men in the galaxy, Padme fell in love with the one who was so damned awkward, wooden, and downright creepy when it came to romance.

Then an amazing thing happened. Disney bought Lucasfilm and made the announcement we'd been dreaming of since 1983: there would be a new Star Wars trilogy featuring the original cast, even Harrison Ford who didn't want to do Return of the Jedi, much less anything else related to the franchise. We were nervous, sure, but we celebrated all the same and held our collective breaths for the story we'd been waiting for.

That lasted right up until the actual release of The Force Awakens.

With that chapter, the split that had begun with the prequels and healed when the new trilogy was announced reopened. A lightsaber that had a cross-guard. "Darth Emo." Holy crap, you killed Han, you bastards! Worst of all, it felt like a beat-for-beat retelling of A New Hope, right down to the flawed planet-busting superweapon. This was what we waited for? It was Disney's fault, it was J.J. Abrams's fault, Kathleen Kennedy, Lawrence Kasden--there were plenty of directions to point fingers. But hey, Episode VIII would have a different writer / director, so maybe that could redeem our hopes, right?

Now The Last Jedi is here, and that split has grown into a full-blown chasm.

But why? Why is this potential fans' dream turning out to be such a nightmare for 47% of them?

Personally, I think there's a couple of major reasons, and the first is one nobody's going to want to hear. You ready for it? Here goes:

They didn't write these movies for us fans.

Well, not just for us, at least.

Chuck Wendig already addressed this point quite succinctly over on his blog (Warning: MAJOR spoilers there!), so I won't rehash it here. The basic premise is that the powers that be (i.e. Disney and Lucasfilm) have to reach the widest possible audience, which means they can't just play fan-service and expect that everyone who goes to see the new movies will have caught up on the saga first. They also need to draw in those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before now, and turn them into fans like the rest of us, too. It's basic business, even if we're upset it's intruding on our fandom.

The second reason ties directly into that first one, and is also just as simple.

Star Wars is, was, and probably always will be for kids.

We fans either forgot or willfully ignored a key point Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm, and Disney all told us when they announced the sequel trilogy: it would bring the saga to a new generation. That meant that from the moment they announced the return of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, this trilogy was always going to be about passing the torch to a new group of heroes. This, in my estimation, was also why they chose to wipe the slate clean and relegate the Expanded Universe--something Lucasfilm did consider canon up until then, especially since they signed off on every single storyline--to "Legends" status. It was a clue most of us, myself included, missed: this might not be about Luke's new Jedi, or his kid(s), or Han and Leia's kids. It would be both for and about a truly new generation.

A generation that may not have ever seen the original trilogy, I should point out. I'll get back to that.

Let me tell you an anecdote. When I was eight, shortly after I saw Return of the Jedi on the big screen, I had a dream that I incredibly still remember all these years later. In the dream, the Millennium Falcon landed in my front yard, and the characters from the original trilogy came to visit me. Not the cast, mind you, but Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids. When they left, Princess Leia actually gave me a good-bye kiss ON THE LIPS! Granted, that last probably had more to do with the combination of a certain metal bikini and my body's inevitable march toward puberty than to my burgeoning entry into fandom, but I digress.

Now on the other hand, if I were a kid the same age having a similar dream, those would not be the characters starring in it, especially if the only Star Wars movies I'd seen were Episodes VII and VIII. Instead, I would have been visited by Poe, Finn, Rey, and BB-8. Maybe I'd have gotten my good-bye kiss from Rey, maybe not--she is portrayed in a much different way than how Leia was in RotJ--but the point is that for me, Han would be nothing more than the bad guy's dad who got killed, Leia would have meant about as much to me as Mon Mothma did in '83, and Luke would have been a strange mix of Ben Kenobi and Yoda.

Viewed in that light, of course The Force Awakens feels like A New Hope, because for this new generation, that's exactly what it is. Instead of being Luke's movie and the beginning of his overall story, however, it was more nuanced. It was Han's movie, as he passed the role of cocky hotshot pilot to Poe. Which means that The Last Jedi is Luke doing the same thing for the Force-users / Jedi with Rey, and Episode IX... well, tragically, we no longer know, do we? Obviously it would have been Leia and Finn's movie, but change is inevitable and with Carrie Fisher's untimely passing, now we have to wait and see.

Would I have loved to have seen the original heroes back in the center of the action again? Absolutely, but I also have to acknowledge that 34 years after the fact made that wish nothing more than a pipe dream. Beyond that, I doubt it would have managed anywhere near the financial success that The Force Awakens enjoyed. Kids from a new generation wouldn't have cared nearly as much as we older fans would.

Another argument I've heard goes something like this: "George Lucas intended the new movies to be about the next generation of Skywalkers since it's their story for the first six."

I hear you, and while I could argue that Kylo Ren is a confirmed part of the Skywalker line, I also know that's not really the point. The "Lucas Argument" is meant to convey the idea that had he maintained creative control of the franchise, the new movies would be more in line with what we expect from Star Wars. I could also counter that with the fact that one of his last acts at Lucasfilm before he sold it off was to appoint Kathleen Kennedy as, essentially, custodian of the franchise, and if he trusted her, then we should, too, but I acknowledge it's a flimsy counter, so I'll say this instead:

George Lucas is a visionary with a vivid imagination, has a deep understanding of how and why epic stories become epic and memorable, knows how to tell a captivating story through film, and is an exceptional technical director. That said, he is also terrible at directing actors ("Do it again, faster and with more intensity."), has a tin ear when it comes to dialogue, and needs someone who's not afraid to tell him "no" in order to properly convey those captivating, epic stories.

If we use the prequels as an example, we can assume he would have written and directed Episodes VII, VIII, and IX on his own and would have probably given us something that generated just as many mixed feelings as Episodes I, II, and III. I could nitpick those movies in order to prove that point, but this is already long enough, so I'll save that for another post, should anyone actually be interested in it.

Of course, George was known for borrowing from the EU (he didn't name Coruscant, Timothy Zhan did in Heir to the Empire), so aside from Dave Filoni moving from animation to live-action, he was possibly our only hope to get Mara Jade in a movie, so I am torn there.

To start winding this down, the original trilogy was magic linked to a specific time in our lives and a specific era of movie-making. It gave us things we had never seen on-screen before, but that no longer holds true. ILM didn't rest on its laurels after Return of the Jedi wrapped. They kept pushing the boundaries, giving us more and more photo-realistic effects until they came full circle with the prequels. We also grew up, so now, while the magic is still there, it's like watching David Copperfield when you know how the illusions are done. Our problem as fans is that we're waiting for that magic to be as potent as it was when we thought it actually was magic instead of simple slight-of-hand and smoke and mirrors. Unfortunately, the genie's out of the bottle and he ain't going back in.

The saga is evolving, whether we like it or not. We can either evolve along with it, and understand that as much as it pains us, we have to share it with others who aren't as familiar or passionate about it, or we'll never like another Star Wars movie again, no matter what the story or who makes it. That doesn't mean we have to give up what we had--we still have that on one of the 50,000 different home video releases--but it does mean we have to actually make room for something more from this tale that's become such an ingrained part of us. Ultimately, there's no right answer here. You can be content with the original trilogy and nothing more, or the original and prequels, or add the television shows, add the original EU, or go with the flow and accept the "official" Lucasfilm vision for it. Or, disregard what you don't like and allow your own mind to fill in the blanks for everything else if you want. That's the beauty of stories--they are nothing more than what you make them.

As for me, I'm going to give these new movies a chance, and will hopefully keep enjoying my new visits to that galaxy far, far away for a very long time to come.

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