A deeper look at The Rise of Skywalker (spoilers)

In the final episode of the Disney+ Star Wars Series The Mandalorian, there is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Star Wars aesthetic. Without spoiling a wholly different Star Wars property too much, there’s a point where the good-guys are escaping the bad guys and they reach a river of lava. Indeed, it is basically a canal of lava i.e. it is a structural part of the town the good guys are fleeing from. Now, within the Star Wars universe where people habitually carry stuff on palettes that hover or build impressive megastructures in out of the way places, there are many options for navigating a river of lava. In this example there is a barge sitting in the lava. At the back of the barge is a sort of astromech droid but the barge and droid have become a bit mired in crusted lava and ash and it takes some effort (and blasters) to get the whole thing moving. Once in motion, the droid springs to life, awoken by the barge moving again. It springs up on two spindly (and atypical) legs and sprouts spindly arms and then starts punting the barge down the river using a great big pole.

I felt like applauding. The episode, directed by Taika Waititi, had encapsulated a central element of the Star Wars aesthetic. It is a galaxy with fundamentally oddly distributed technology, often used in ways that only just barely make any sense and in a highly localised way and even then requiring us to imagine that things like lava* (or air or gravity) work very differently than we imagine.

Star Wars is not built to withstand rational analysis and never has been. It all makes about as much sense as the lava punting astromech droid and always has. That should be liberating. Star Wars operates on a kind of rule-of-cool rather than systemic consistency but happily blends technology and magic seamlessly.

Yet Star Wars is an oddly highly constrained series of films (associated properties much less so). In principle almost anything can happen and visually and on a purely incidental level almost anything can. Yet structurally and within its plotting Star Wars is not an anything-can-happen sort of show.

Which takes me to Rise of Skywalker, a film which often meanders and yet feels highly constrained. In this regard it is one of the most Star Wars of the Star Wars movies. Spoilers follow.

Continue reading “A deeper look at The Rise of Skywalker (spoilers)”

Spoiler Free Review: Star Wars IX Rise of Skywalker

I will avoid most spoilers and focus on my overall impression. Next week I’ll probably do a more spoilery review because there is a lot to talk about. In particular, I know there are a lot of creative decisions about how Episode VIII and IX connect but aside from a broad point, I’m putting those aside.

Not unlike Episode VIII, I felt there was a shorter, better film here that could have been made. Star Wars films share a property with James Bond films in that plots often take a back seat to set pieces. If you think of the long speeder race in Episode I, which sits there on a minimal plot pretext, there’s a whole history of things that happen just so there can be a sequence were things happen. Episode IX is no different but much of what I feel is padding is at the start.

An obvious comparison is with the Tatooine segment at the start of Return of the Jedi. However, unlike the over-complicated rescue-Han segment, the first act of Rise of Skywalker serves an almost opposite purpose. Instead of a spill over of the plot from the previous film, there is a need to essentially re-start a plot and get the characters moving again. Consequently, amid the macguffin hunts, there is a sense of all the characters looking for what the film’s plot will be.

Luckily, they find the plot. I enjoyed the first 30-40 minutes of the film as silly space-opera planet-hopping spectacle but it felt disposable. However, I then clicked more into tune with the film, stopped analysing and comparing and really, really started loving the heck out of it.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that Kylo Ren continues to be a substantial character in the film. I suspect Adam Driver’s performance will be the thing that defines this third trilogy. His character doesn’t make a great deal of sense and like Vader and Anakin, a lot of character twists depend on the force and psychic manipulation. Daisy Ridley’s Rey gets a greater range to play with and the film fully commits to her being the heart of the film and also makes zero bones about her being a mega-powerful force user on a scale that hasn’t been demonstrated before. I’m not saying that either Ren or Rey’s dark side struggles are wholly convincing but both actors give it a good shot and do a much, much better job than has been achieved in any Star Wars film to date. If you can’t make the tension convincing and at least feel like the characters are at risk of succumbing to evil or finding a route to redemption (regardless of what we know or might guess about the eventual plot outcome) then it saps the film of tension.

With the focus on the battle for the souls of Rey and Kylo Ren taking centre stage, the film has some real heft. The supporting characters get less of a good deal as a consequence — I’ll talk more about that in a spoiler review.

Visually, this is everything I wanted. Lots of classic Star Wars big picture ideas and some novel takes. It is a banquet for the eyes and I gorged myself.

Flaws? So, so many. However, very much all of them revolve around spoilers and the issue of how to follow Episode XIII. There was an openness to Rian Johnson’s film that I feel really freed the franchise to head off in multiple directions. Putting directors and writers aside, inevitably that very freedom is a massive problem for a film that (at least for the time being) has to wrap up forty-years of previous films. Openness is not a great situation to be in plot-wise for the start of a conclusion. So the story takes a few easy ways out and honestly that’s probably for the best because it is clear from the first act that the writers were finding it hard to get the story focussed on something.

Flaws though? Show me a flawless Star Wars film. There isn’t one, not even The Empire Strikes Back or a New Hope. The Saturday morning serial that is a key influence on Star Wars and the often bitty nature of the films relied on the sudden reversal of cliffhangers and plot points to create temporary tension. Star Wars films work poorly as visual novels and the set of films that tried hardest for that quality were the prequels where it did not work out well.

I’m not going to do a ranking until I’ve rewatched it but overall it delivered and satisfied all my Star Wars cravings for another decade. Your experience will certainly vary (again, its Star Wars and love/hate it is part of the nature of the franchise). At the screening I watched, people applauded at the end but I suspect alcohol and full Christmas bellies may have played a part.

Review: The Mandalorian

Where the Apple+ streaming service had to open with a range of new original programming, Disney+ thumped down with a massive back catalogue. It does offer a live action version of The Lady and The Tramp but its most notable new program is the first Star Wars live action series The Mandalorian.

Helmed by John Favreau as chief showrunner, writer and executive producer, the show very much is attempting to bring big cinema visuals to a small screen show (a very small screen if you count my phone). However, of the other names attached to the show (including Kathleen Kennedy and Colin Wilson*) the most relevant is arguably David Filoni.

Filoni’s early career included directing episodes of Avatar:The Last Airbender but is more famous for his work on the animated series Star Wars:The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. There is a strong sense of The Mandalorian slotting into the ongoing history of Star Wars animated series. Like previous shows, it fits into a historical in-plot gap between films. In this case the setting is in the aftermath of the collapse of the empire after the events of The Return of the Jedi.

Post-Empire the more out of the way planets are even more lawless and violent as they were during the original trilogy. A guild of bounty hunters roam the spaceways looking for wanted criminals and bring them in dead or alive. It’s a Wild West Spaghetti Western galaxy of dusty planets and taciturn men, scattered through with remnants of a defeated army and lost veterans who can’t find peace after years of war.

Of course the intersection of “Spaghetti Western” and “Star Wars” spells “Samurai” and the film legacy of Akira Kurosawa, which is where the whole concept of ‘Mandalorian’ comes into the picture. Wearing Boba Fett like armour, the titular character works as a bounty hunter but is actually a member of a semi-hidden warrior society who live to perfect their armour and follow a kind of religious discipline which includes never taking off their helmet.

“Mando” as the character tends to be called (his fellow Mandolorians are sufficiently secretive that for most people he’s the only Mandalorian they’ve ever met — hence the definite article) extrapolates the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name to the the man-with-no-name-and-no-face. Where Eastwood’s character rarely let emotion alter his expression, Mando is nothing but a chrome burnished helmet. It is the ultimate expression of the introversion-as-masculinity trope with the ultimate warrior who literally encases his vulnerabilities is impenetrable armour.

It is not surprising then that The Mandalorian is proving to be something of an exception to the Star Wars hate in right wing circles. I think there’s some unsubtle satire going on from Favreau with the masculinity tropes, especially given his past exploration of an armoured character who literally calls himself Iron Man. However, subtle deconstructions/celebrations of masculinity tropes inevitably are taken at a surface level in some quarters (cf Fight Club or the people whose favourite character from Watchmen was Rorscharch).

The show is old-school in another way. Rather than a deeply interconnected serial story, the show is more episodic. After the initial episodes that establish the premise, the show is essentially Mando wandering the galaxy and encountering a different set of characters each week. The guest stars are worth watching (Amy Sedaris as spaceship repairer, Richard Ayoade as a insectoid robot, Werner Herzog as an ex-imperial scientist and an unrecognisable Nick Nolte) but this is a show with few re-occuring characters or settings. With a little introduction you can watch any of the past three episodes in almost any order.

I’m pacing myself here to see how much I can write before mentioning Baby Yoda. The answer is: this far.

The initial episodes featured Mando taking on an apparently close to impossible man hunt commissioned by Werner Herzog (about whom we know little other than he has a gang of very beaten-up Imperial Stormtroopers helping him). The target is described as fifty-years old but I think it is very safe to spoil the reveal that the fifty-year old is an infant who physical resembles Yoda and is presumably a being of the same species.

The internet has gone wild for the infant muppet** because of its almost unbearable cuteness. Even less talkative than Mando, Baby Yoda (officially ‘the child’) is a powerful force user with a toddler’s instincts and a habit of sticking frogs in its mouth. The scenes where the two interact are often pure comedy gold and Baby Yoda elevates the show both as a plot macguffin and as a humanising influence on the central character.

Pedro Pascal does an excellent job of an almost thankless acting task: adding character to a figure who is essentially an almost silent walking suit of armour. The puppeteers working Baby Yoda have an even harder task and that the Baby Yoda/Mando pairing on screen works so well is a testament to the skills and talent of everybody involved.

Worth watching? I really like cartoons with ambitions to be substantial TV and this show feels like a very good animated series that somehow has escaped into live action. I don’t mean that as a put down because there’s been no shortage of good animated TV shows that have been overlooked by wider audiences because cartoons=juvenile in peoples minds. Still, this is a show that often follows the violence conventions of animated shows aimed at older kids. There is a lot of shooting and people do die but it is not gory and at least one episode has resorted to the cliche of showing that the bad-guys were all not actual killed just knocked out and captured despite the implication of the earlier scenes.

The last thing to note is that Disney are deploying the show on a weekly basis rather than indulging in the Netflix binge-watch approach. I believe it is intended to be an eight episode series, with six episodes shown so far.

A retro-futuristic show that gives a great hit of Star Wars aesthetics with a shout-out to classic Westerns.

*[No, not that Colin Wilson but this Colin Wilson]

**[the character is a puppet rather than CGI but I don’t know if it is technically a muppet]

The less loved Star Wars wing fighters

I was impressed by this comprehensive list of ‘alphabet’ fighters from Star Wars https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2019/09/star-wars-wings-ranked/

I hadn’t realised there were so many but I can’t help thinking that there is a lot more of the alphabet Star Wars could have covered. So I have decided to fill in some of the gaps.

The technically impressive W-Wing fighter proved to be unusable for most purposes when it was discovered the second engine had been put in the wrong way around. Its capacity to spin around in circles was second to none.

The successor to the W-Wing used a similar design and was the aptly named M-Wing. The extra big engine on the back was particularly impressive given its tendency to explode unexpectedly.

The ill-fated N-Wing fighter was a product of years of astronautic research. It was not until the disastrous battle of Spodkin that it was discovered that the N-Wing’s engines fall off under high acceleration.

The collapse in demand for N-Wing fighters led to many unscrupulous second-hand star-fighter sales-beings marketing unsellable stock as “Z-Wing fighters” by parking N-Wings on their side.

The L-Wing fighter was built for durability, technical stability and vertical take-off. It had an unparalleled ability to fly upwards. Unfortunately it lacked the ability to go in any other direction. Up, up, up they went with no capacity to shut down the engine. Flocks of L-Wings still rise above the galactic plane, their pilots long since rotted down to skeletons, while these indomitable fighters continue on their ever upward flight

“What does the circle bit do?” asked the designer’s boyfriend looking over the schematics for the Q-wing. “What do any of the these bits do?” replied the designer. Nobody knew.

It is misleading to call the G-Wing a ‘design’. It was produced due to a droid error at an automated fighter factory. Three thousand were produced before the assembly line could be shut down. The G-Wing is not space worthy but they are sought after as a collectors item.

“I’m sorry but this new design is unacceptable.”
“How dare you! That is my greatest work yet! The P-Wing fighter!”
“Look, space fighters are either blocky or curvy. Blocky represents good and curvy represents evil. It’s established semiotic canon.”
“Well what about the Millennium Falcon?”
“Han Solo is a rogue and a smuggler. The Flacon is a bit curvy because Solo is a bit of a bad-boy.”
“Well the P-Wing represent the inherent duality of the universe. It will bring balance to the force.”
( In fact the P-Wing failed to bring balance to anything including itself.)

The lower-case-i wing resulted not only in the designer being sacked but the whole planet he was from was ostracised from polite society.

After a series of design failures and public relations disasters, fighter design went back to basics. “Forget letters,” they said “the next big thing is punctuation!” Thus was the Asterisk-fighter born. Fast, reliable and agile, the Asterisk-fighter was a technical and critical success. Unfortunately pilots refused to fly them because “they make us look like assholes.”

The minutes from the board meeting after the disastrous marketing launch of the R-Wing is just the sound of the CEO bashing their own head against a table.

Needless to say, this post is not endorsed by Lucas Arts or Disney

How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star

I don’t always sleep well but when I do suffer from stress induced insomnia it’s never at the initial falling asleep stage. One excellent talent I have is falling asleep. I’m very good at it but it’s not a skill much celebrated.

If I do wake up in the middle of the night (and some claim that’s a normal sleep pattern) the trick I’ve found for getting back to sleep is finding something that is both complex enough to be distracting from more stressful thoughts but so inconsequential as to not be stressful itself. Anyway, I woke up last night worried about multiple things that the long-suffering meat robot has to deal with when Monday comes around. So many things in fact that I spent the darkest hours plotting how to blow up the Death Star in some detail.

The canonical method for blowing up the Death Star was determined by two factors. The first was George Lucas wanting to fit in a sequence based on WW2 movies, in particular Dambusters and 633 Squadron. The second was to give Luke a specific heroic feat to conclude the story of the first film. I’m not going to gainsay those aesthetic choices.

However, as a piece of problem solving the whole strategy is less than perfect.

  1. Huge numbers of people are killed. Sure, it’s war and self-defence but the people killed are also people enslaved by an evil empire run by a mind controlling space wizard. Fewer deaths would be inherently good.
  2. A large proportion of the Rebellion’s pilots are killed in the attempt. There are deaths on both sides and while the bulk of the casualties are on the Imperial side, the proportional cost to the Rebellion is huge. We know they are short of pilots because they happily let Luke Skywalker fly an X-Wing.
  3. The plan can’t actually work. To be fair, the Rebellion doesn’t know this and they also have very little choice. In the end though, the plan ONLY works because Luke has hitherto untapped force powers and because he gets in-flight advice from a Jedi space-ghost.
  4. The plan is last ditch in terms of timing. The Death Star is destroyed just at the point at which it could destroy the Rebel base. Some margin of error in the timing would have been better as a plan (although less good dramatically).
  5. The Rebels have no idea what a safe distance for blowing up a Death Star is. For all they knew, the explosion could have destroyed them or at least what remains of their fleet. The Death Star has enough power to blow up a planet, turning it into a bomb is less than wise.

Point 3

I’d like to deal with point 3 first mainly because the plot manoeuvrers the Rebellion into the position where it apparently has no choice other than a last-ditch attack using small fighters. The issue is that they can’t actually land a bomb into the magic vent despite it’s resemblance to a womp-rat.

Is there a better option? Instead of firing a bomb into the vent, wouldn’t it be better to place the bomb manually? In terms of war films, think The Guns of Navarone instead of 633 Squadron. No time to infiltrate the Death Star, I hear you say? We’ll get back to that but for the moment we don’t need anybody to get into the Death Star as the vent is on the outside. Drop off some commandos into the trench and they can plant the bomb.

Too hard? Too much of a suicide mission? Well, it is even easier than that. Astromech droids are designed to crawl about on the surface of space vessels and interact with devices on the surface. Drop an R2 unit equipped with a bomb into the trench and let them beep-boop its way to the vent. The tie-fighters will try and blow it up but now they will be the ones trying to hit a small target in a trench while the x-wings attack them.

It would be a noble sacrifice by droid but the Rebellion doesn’t otherwise show much respect for the lives and autonomy of droids. This plan doesn’t address the huge number of casualties but arguably it would lead to marginally fewer x-wing pilot deaths.

Obi-Wan’s commandos

I couldn’t think of a better solution than R2-commandos without there being a bit more space in the plot. Infiltrating the Death Star with demolition experts is a safe plan all round but the story gives no time for that to happen. We do know that it is possible to infiltrate the Death Star as the crew of the Millennium Falcon manage it somewhat unwittingly, earlier in the film (to what extent Darth Vader lets them is another matter).

To fit a commando raid into the story would require Obi-Wan to access the plans to the Death Star in R2D2, make sense of them, understand the weakness and assemble a team to do the job. None of which happens or has time to happen.

However, assuming that Obi-Wan could do all that, then points 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be dealt with. Plant a bomb and blow up the Death Star from a safe distance.

There’s got to be a better way

I know I’m a bit R2 fixated, but the plucky little droid can do an awful lot. Noticeably, when he is aboard the Death Star he manages to gain control over the station’s computer systems. R2 has the whole place hacked. The simplest (but least dramatic) solution to the Death Star problem would be for R2 to introduce a virus or exploit some other IT vulnerability in the Death Star.

Ideally, once compromised, the Death Star could be set to self-destruct (all spacecraft have self-destruct sequences by the fundamental laws of space-opera). With sufficient notice, the Death Star could be safely evacuated thus minimising loss of life except for the weird monster that lives in the trash compactor.

Speaking of which…I don’t know if there is a way of getting that trash compactor monster to destroy the Death Star but it would be worth having a sub-committee look into it.

Using non-Star Wars technology

I guess a computer virus is not really in keeping with Star Wars, even though there is no way they couldn’t exist in that universe. What other SFF technology could dispose of a Death Star more safely?

  • Nanobots. Get some nanobots on that thing and let them feast on all that tasty, tasty technology. The whole thing gets nibbled to death.
  • Trap it in hyperspace somehow. We don’t see it use hyperspace in a New Hope but it must get around somehow. Trapping the Death Star in another dimension sounds plausible but as we don’t know how hyperspace is supposed to work, this isn’t much of a plan.
  • Use the force. When Alderaan is blown up, the loss of life is felt across the universe as disturbance in the force. Maybe, if they all concentrated really hard when the Death Star appeared, they could have rotated it just a bit so that it missed. With the Death Star rendered tactically useless by the sheer force of will of whole planetary populations not wanting to die, the Empire would be forced to retire the whole project.
  • Teleport the Death Star crew off the station. This requires the Rebellion to have Star Trek teleporters but the Empire not to have protection from Star Trek teleporters.
  • Go back in time and not let Palpatine become Emperor. A more elegant solution than a blaster.

Around about this point I drifted back to sleep.

Review: Solo – A Star Wars Story

I admit that from its announcement, I didn’t see much point to this film. The curse of the prequel trilogy was a need to fill in the vague elements of backstory, often forgetting that the original film worked by creating a sense of a deeper history and a bigger galaxy than we actually saw. So a Young Han Solo movie didn’t interest me — it would inevitably be a stringing together elements like winning the Millenium Falcon, completing the Kessel Run in X number of incorrect units, meeting Chewbacca, etc and we’d all expect to go ‘ooh’ when something like that happened.

I once went on a Beatles Tour of Liverpool with a friend who loved the Beatles. It was a weird experience as Liverpool is a city I know quite well. The tour guide treated every stop with a kind of chirpy reverence as if each semi-detached house or park gate was a holy relic. People took excited photographs and I felt really odd. It took me awhile to get over the cynical detachment and enjoy the tour for what it was: something fun.

Oddly, Solo does indulge itself in exactly that way even down to a pause-for-weighty-significance when Solo gets his blaster. It’s no spoiler to say that Solo will play cards with Lando for the Falcon, that he will meet Chewbacca, and that the film is peppered with references to almost every trait and famous line and significant object you can think of for the character of Han Solo.

But I say “oddly”.

The odd part is that this really didn’t become annoying. Instead, Solo manages to be fun, clever and exciting. Not the best Star Wars film but certainly far from the worse and an enjoyable space-opera/heist-movie/western in its own right. Yes, it has a lot of that tour-around-Solo’s-youth elements but it knows it has to be fun and exciting and carry some emotional oomph in places.

Cleverly it picks up elements and themes from other Star Wars films that have taken a secondary role to the main thrust of the dark-v-light side of the force and the saga of the Skywalker family. The Jedi and the Sith don’t get a mention (the Sith get a visual reference near the end with a fun surprise) and the nearest we get to a Skywalker is a reference to Tatooine.

Instead, we get to see life under the Empire from the perspective of its criminal underclass and network of gangsters. Life under the Empire is one of war and criminality often working hand-in-hand. Han has been living for years as a part of the gang of child thieves on a shipbuilding world and as a young man is ready to escape. The first part of the film follows him off the planet and (briefly) into military service with the Empire before he falls in with a different group of criminals. Here the main story takes hold as quest to steal starship fuel entangles Han into a series of events that involve a sinister criminal conspiracy and a rival gang of mauraders led by the mysterious Enfys Nest.

The cast is excellent. Alden Ehrenreich as Solo isn’t the strongest actor in the group but he is more than good enough and it’s a tough job to follow Harrison Ford. He manages to give the character enough street smarts and attitude to feel like Han Solo but also enough naivety and vulnerability to be more than a impression. Donald Glover as Lando is dripping in charisma. Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany play cynical criminality in quite different but effective ways. Thandie Newton is under utilised. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s revolutionary robot pilot steals most of the scenes she is in from the rest of the cast. Emelia Clarke manages to plausibly convey both a hardened cynicism about the world she is in with an equivalent vulnerability to Solo as a character.

Lots of big, great looking set pieces. Some space battles and utter space nonsense that is gloriously stupidly fun. Some genuine suprises and twists. Betrayals, counter-betrayals, stand-offs and robot uprisings.

Take it for what it is and have fun.