Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

My Regrettable ‘The Last Jedi’ Review

When the Internet is Forever … or Regrets? I’ve Had a Few.

It’s been more than a year since The Last Jedi came out, and we’re halfway to the next chapter in the Disney sequel trilogy. My original review is still up on this site. I gave it a tepid positive review. I don’t regret all of my review. I think I very pointedly complained that it was, to be kind, a mess of meandering, mediocre movie-making. I also didn’t want to pick at too many plot points for preventing spoilers at that time.

My biggest regret is that I defended, quite incorrectly, that the movie was respectful of the Force and StarWars-y things. I have no excuse. My reasons for doing this are probably a mixture of giving the movie too much credit from past good will, and perhaps a bit of a moment of shock of looking on the bright side after watching StarWars fade like so many neuminal Lukes into dual sunsets.

The Last Jedi has become a bit of a polemic by itself. Much more iconic than its status as a part of the StarWars saga, it is now really a symbol of where entertainment is going in the conglomerate age, and how far large entities can push their fans, via social media, before they break their trust.

I will get this out of the way. I gave positive reviews to the way The Force is used in the Disney sequels out of a sense of nostalgia. While The Force Awakens also suffers looking back with a critical eye, I thought JJ Abrams at least was true to much of the aesthetic which made StarWars so memorable. I will give him that. I did enjoy a lot of The Force Awakens, and I don’t regret enjoying it for what it was. But I see Disney as having duped the fans, exploiting and mocking their nostalgia and enthusiasm. Shame on them and those who enable them.

My tl;dr gripe with The Last Jedi:

  1. The movie is not well plotted or well directed. You could excise Rose and Finn’s arc from the entire film and lose nothing in particular. The Crait scene at the end makes no sense. At several points characters go unconscious in order to transition to the next scene. Characters have to get to a particular location because the plot requires it, and they are constantly able to just be in the right place regardless of guards or distance or any other obstacles.
  2. So, if the goal was to introduce more women into significant roles, they had two new female characters in Holdo and Rose who were just terrible. Past characters from the Extended Universe (EU) of novels, comics, and games included Mara Jade, Satele Shan, Ahsoka, Ventress, etc. All were all female characters with real arcs, who fit in well with the space-fantasy genre of StarWars. These characters did not.
  3. Maybe this is 2a, but as far as the Holdo maneuver went, it really should have been a chance to give a heroic exit to Leia, excising Holdo entirely from the story. Also, it broke my disbelief very heavily that the maneuver wasn’t done earlier once all the transports were away and they were being fired on. Also, yes, it was pointless as they could have had a droid do it.
  4. Ultimately, Luke was very ill-served by this story. I could handle that this would have been Luke’s exit from StarWars. I could also accept if he were a minor character in this particular story. But they relied him as the MacGuffin for putting the whole story into motion. We spent a lot of time with him only to have him pointedly be a tragic figure, negating his previous incarnation as an optimistic cipher. They turned a classic hero story into a meditation on failure. We lost the EU, and all of Luke’s great adventures, for this?
  5. Rey is the protagonist in the story, and there was little to no growth of her as a character. They introduced her as a mystery box, but she still seems to have nothing at stake, and it’s not clear who she is as she deliberately has no back story.

The Soft Reboot Used the Original Characters for Nostalgia, but Impeached their Stories

The original trilogy (OT), the story that started all this, ended in failure. Nothing the original characters did had any effect on the galaxy. The Empire returned, the Jedi did not. All their plans turned to ashes.

Han and Leia gave birth to an emo Vader cosplayer who killed his deadbeat Dad. Luke ended in complete failure, and failed to “return” the Jedi. Even poor Akbar just got unceremoniously sucked out into space.

The New Republic failed, ending with the Empire’s successor building a superweapon which created a larger genocide than the original Death Star. In the end, when the Resistance sent out the call for help from Crait, everyone in the galaxy who said “we would have been better off sticking with the Empire” turned out to be correct. No wonder nobody answered the distress call.

Return of the Jedi Turned Out to be No Such Thing?

After Return of the Jedi, the first dialogue Luke Skywalker has in a movie is a discussion where he says “it is time for the Jedi to end.”

Technically, his first line is “go away.” Then he throws his father’s lightsaber — his first lightsaber — over his shoulder.

Just let that sink in. Disney thought they’d mine nostalgia. Then they frame their story so that the original heroes ultimately ended in complete failure with no effect on the galaxy. Contrary to the triumphal ending of Return of the Jedi.

Luke would have saved more lives, and possibly kept hope that Jedi knowledge would stick around, if he had surrendered and served Palpatine and learned the ways of the Sith. Even if he had, and ended up as an evil emperor himself, that would still be a better story, as it would give a clear course of action for the next hero in the next story.

With Luke serving the Dark Side and helping the Empire triumph, there would have been far less destruction and chaos in this fictional universe. The Empire’s infrastructure would still exist, an entire system of planets presumably would not needed to have been destroyed by the campy First Order. And the whole apparent war profiteering going on with the arms dealers on Canto Bight would have been mitigated by an Empire at peace rather than endless civil war.

Instead, they impeached all impact Luke had on the galaxy when he and his friends previously triumphed over the Galactic Empire. Now, Rey, this ungrounded mystery box, is the Last Jedi, and supposedly will be the one to bring back their return. This isn’t merely a sequel. It’s essentially a reboot of the same story as Luke’s. Which belongs in a cheap copy of StarWars, not an authorized sequel.

Had Luke trained a generation of Jedi, and then the sequel trilogy dealt with their conflicts in a new era, which Luke in the background, serving as a coda to his story, allowing him to die with some meaning, even tragically, I would have taken it for what it was. I wanted to believe very much that this would have been what we got that I suspended my disbelief and shamefully made myself feel as if it is what we got. But this was not even close. So I rescind all prizes and ribbons I’ve sent to Disney since.

It’s a Shame About Rey

One of the more outlandish theories of Rey I heard was of Rey being a chromosone-switched clone of Anakin. Not my favorite theory, still better than the worst EU. But also better than what we got.

Story-wise, she should have been an orphan/servant in that Force cult we saw at the beginning of The Force Awakens. She could have been the mistreated washer girl. We see her at the beginning, grounded in a society, but also being on the bottom of that society: forgotten, dismissed, etc. All part of the necessary trope of the hero’s journey.

My proposal would have been to cast Temuera Morrison as her servant/mentor in the Force Cult. Perhaps a scene where he gives her some basic advice, muses on his own history as a “warrior,” and also we also see that he’s the one who has taught her how to fight with a staff.

Then, when the cult was all slaughtered by the First Order, she goes out in the desert to be a scavenger and eventually discover her destiny. This kind of quick setup could have added a lot of worldbuilding to the story with minimal screen time.

The throne room scene was the strongest sequence in The Last Jedi, and was the last moment that this movie (and the new trilogy) could have been saved. There was a storyline possibility with her joining Kylo Ren somewhat. She was a bit of a Mary Sue in the first movie, but in this, we are only told that she is vacillating between the Light and the Dark. Told, now shown.

Yet, there is literally zero worldbuilding for Rey. She grew up on a flat, completely featureless desert. We know nothing about her hopes or fears, how she can read or fly a ship or know how to live as a feral teenager. Luke originally dreamed of a wider world, but felt an obligation to his aunt and uncle who raised him. When they were killed, he instantly had a reason to enter that wider world and a very personal reason to fight the Empire. Rey has no grounding whatsoever for any decision or action she takes. The story just lurches forward from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi with her having no moral dimension to decisions she makes.

If Rey was supposed to have a whiff of darkness, we should have seen her do things like steal BB-8 rather than just ask nicely. Rey only ever faced obstacles in theory, and succeeded at everything she tried on the first try. She only has radiated goodness in the stories thus far. And having some connection to Kylo was the only thing which could presented moral depth.

I was fine with Rey not being a Kenobi or Skywalker. I do think it redeemed the meaning of the Force to me to have broom boy at the end. But none of that in the end goes anywhere with this story.

Was it Just Rian Johnson or was JJ Abrams Our Last Hope?

I would like to defend JJ, and have hope he’ll make something worth seeing in Episode IX. (Edit: title is Rise of Skywalker? There’s your nostalgia plea.) But The Force Awakens still shoulders the blame for putting this trilogy on a dive which it could never recover from. I’ll explain:

The essential problem set up in TFA is that they simplified the story by keeping it focused on a few main characters with Rey as the protagonist. This could have been fine as the template. But they put it on a trajectory where the original trilogy had no effect on the universe. Everything they did ended in failure, with the Empire’s inheritors returning with a bigger genocide than Alderaan in the originals.

I can forgive using Luke as a MacGuffin in the first movie. But they needed a deeper story. There needed to be a generation or two of Jedi which he had trained, who operated inside the story. Not just that they all died in some throwaway line. There needed to be more of a story arc to give us genuine sense of something at stake rather than just CGI genocide happening in an expository shot.

We didn’t get anything which stands alone from the original series. And that fault was present with the TFA.

Yes, But is it Art? Subverting Expectations, You Incel!

I like artsy-fartsy movies as tone poems. But I have a problem with David Lynch as a storyteller. He only enjoys making movies like the way he makes paintings; he likes to make something you experience, or that washes over you with your own internal interpretation, giving you a take-away. Plots or satisfying stories are not his thing.

Twin Peaks new “season” I thought, was mostly a waste. Because he teases out characters and storylines as though it will go somewhere. You get a sense of a plot or a resolution, but in the end, there is none. I find this frustrating because it’s “subverting expectations” just to do it.

If you are going to do this, I can handle artsy-interpretive things. I recommend watching Twin Peaks: The Return Episode 8 as a standalone movie. None of the other episodes are necessary. It’s a completely meandering, interpretive film, mindfuck. It’s horror and sci-fi all combined. None of the other episodes explain it, and it does not lead into any other resolution. It stands alone on its own as David Lynch doing his thing as he does best.

The Last Jedi defenders are doing a rearguard action, like they’re explaining some kind of David Lynch artsy-fartsy tone poem. But it’s not. It’s a plot-driven movie with characters who are supposed to serve as the guides to a story of adventure and heroism. Giving us some sort of muddled, wet-fart characterization and plots which are perplexingly incomprehensible is not art. It’s just a shitty film. And everyone in the film industry, in the creative industry, all know it. The only people who are vocally defending this movie seem to have career incentives to do so, or otherwise fans with Stockholm Syndrome.

But Wasn’t Lucas a Gadfly Auteur Who Had a Vision?

George Lucas took a major personal risk on making the first Star Wars, and then another big risk in using that to finance The Empire Strikes Back. With both of those, he couldn’t afford complete creative control, and had to compromise more than he wanted to.

Compromise was a very important part of why the original Star Wars worked, and what the prequels lacked. It was saved in the edit. I really cannot stress how important that movie about the editing of StarWars is to any fan who is interested in the process of creativity.

He offloaded a major part of the writing work in The Empire Strikes Back to Lawrence Kasdan, and less mentioned is Leigh Brackett, who was a solid sci-fi storyteller who provided many of the solid story beats (and fantasy elements) to Empire. Sadly, she died in 1978, and didn’t help with Return of the Jedi. Yes, a female writer provided the bones for what became the primary story arc of the original trilogy. The Force may in fact be female, but it’s not the current story group who made it so.

David Lynch famously went to meet with George Lucas about possibly directing RoTJ. You can hear him speak for himself. Obviously, Lynch himself has a huge ego. But it’s pretty clear that Lucas wanted someone who would just do a journeyman job, which would be aggravating for a lot of creative people.

The Reaction to Criticism Brought Out the Worst Kind of Corporate Remoras

After The Last Jedi came and went I shrugged and realized I wasn’t interested in the rest of where this story is going. Given the shortcomings of it as a movie and story alone, I didn’t think they could really take it anywhere after all that, and closed that chapter of my mind as no longer being interested in Disney StarWars. But the fierce defense of the movie, as if it were something of object quality which was being criticized as a result of edgy philosophy — attacking the detractors as incels, MRAs, Trump supporters(?), garden-variety misogynists, and of course as racists — became part of the script used in defending this poorly-received corporate product. This has become interesting on its own, as the attempt to gaslight the public, with massive, paid media campaigns to mock former fans and customers, strikes me as a particularly terrible precedent.

My own experience online has included giving mild criticism to the current StarWars direction. In my case, a paid radio host for Lucasfilm forwarded me screenshots of a seemingly angry and mentally-defective juvenile making some kind of horrible threats in Tweets. The radio host asked me if I thought this was “OK.”

And there you have it. With Twitter, and social media in general, we have this brigading effect. Not only do people pile on, flood, dox, and anathematize contrarian opinion, but they will hold up random, bad eggs as if some barely-literate twitter person says something hateful or misogynistic, that random person’s tweet automatically counts as a press-release from your camp. This is gaslighting, and it has destroyed the integrity of genuine disagreements among fandom.

George Lucas received a lot of criticism from his fans for meddling with his own movies and doing odd things with the prequels. It’s still a worthy discussion of who really owns something which lands so large in public consciousness. I always fall on the side that it was Lucas’ right to do what he wanted with his creations, just as his fans have every right to point out where he isn’t honoring his own creations. I think he could never really reconcile that with himself, and for that reason I’ll bet it was a relief for him to offload all this to Disney.

But sold them he did. And Lucasfilm and the StarWars legacy is not in the hands of a visionary, but a large, multi-billion dollar corporate entity. There was a massive investment here, and then there an intention of having it all pay off. There is no hiding that Disney’s appeal is calculated to get customers. There is no other reason for it to exist.

Lucasfilm now, which is an entity which does hire public-relations employees who do issue press releases, seems indifferent to their employees who have open contempt for their fans. This is completely bizarre to me. This justifies to me every notion of refusing to purchase product from these people. They only tolerate this contemptible behavior from their employees, I assume, because they calculate that enough people won’t be driven away.

Corporate decision makers do love the idea of an entertainment product which appeals equally to boys and girls. They would love to sell movies, books, toys, comics, games, etc., equally among both sexes. As it has always been, StarWars had a primarily male fanbase, and entities like Twilight have primarily female fanbases. I don’t fault the mammoth corporation of Disney for trying its mightiest to make StarWars appeal to more female fans. But they’ve done it so ham handedly, so contemptuously, they’ve isolated their current fans, including their current female fans. (If 20% of their fans were female, still one presumes that they liked it the way it was.) I’m sure that George Lucas is having himself a mighty laugh.

Novel — Ghosts of The Sith

The entirety of my small novel Ghosts of the Sith is now available after completion and some heavy editing.

View or download this as an ePub document. I recommend reading the ePub version of this story for easiest reading experience on a tablet or a touchscreen. If you are unfamiliar with ePub, you can open the files with a free e-reader such as Calibre. By default, Windows opens ePub format in Edge. This is just an OK reading experience, but I would recommend using Calibre or any other dedicated e-Reader instead. If you have a Mac or an iOS device, iBooks is the best way to read ePub format, no question.

View this on the web published at GoogleDocs. To enable comfortable reading, I highly recommend using Reader View with Safari or Firefox. I recommend using the extension Mercury Reader for Chrome and other available browsers. If you are using Chrome on mobile, you can enable an experimental setting for easier reading. For Android, I overall recommend using the built-in Reader mode in Firefox. Safari on iOS has built-in Reader mode.

The Last Jedi Thoughts

Two years already since The Force Awakens. How time flies. I know I don’t update this website very much. And there has been some fascinating sci-fi released since then. Ex Machina (see it!) and Alien: Whatever (avoid it!).

I heard a lot of preliminary buzz about The Last Jedi ranging from people squealing that this was the best Star War since The Empire Strikes Back or, alternatively, that this was the worst thing ever. Nowadays, with billions of dollars at stake, and social media a kind of catnip for toxic people, anything popular is curated by some of the worst impulses of the human animal.

But here we are. The technological advancement that has made Twitter and GIF memes possible, also lets us seamlessly make our dreams into simulated reality. When Star Wars arrived in 1977, the special effects pioneered by Lucas’ creative team made a whole new world of make-believe possible. Lucas himself once said that “…a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” We went from that to a bouncing, animated Yoda sword-fighting with Emperor Palpatine in an embarrassingly short span of time.

The appeal of Star Wars wasn’t just the fantasy of cool ships and laser swords and pyu! pyu! It was a story with characters on a mythical journey. Periodically, the flow of StarWars™ product ever since has periodically been isolated from the human story, telling more and more formulaic stories that are about spectacle more than story.

I liked The Last Jedi. As a fan of the series, I probably am willing to like it too much. Similarly, I am likely to be disappointed if it were to burst some canon bubble I carry around in my head which is baggage from previous StarWars™ product. But on its own, it is a singular vision of a fantasy series, and it comes close to being a very good movie. I do think it is its own worst enemy, and there are numerous reasons why it’s not that good of an actual movie. I’ll get to that.

I’m going to separate my opinion on this. Because there really are two parts to having a reaction to this movie. There is the StarWars-y mythology thing, and then there is the way it succeeds or fails as a movie. The Last Jedi, in my opinion, succeeds very well in being StarWars-y mythological thing. But it has much to be desired as a movie. I will extol the virtues of the former, and decry the latter, anon.

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If They Should Buy Wars, Please Let These Wars Stay

The dominion of us Nerds are divided on the Star-Wars-y worthiness of The Last Jedi. I thought it was a triumph of recovering the greatness of the original trilogy, and has done so far more than any other product has done since then.

I think a major problem with the prequels and the subsequent other media from the subsequent era, is that George Lucas essentially wrote Star Wars into a corner. What The Force Awakens began, and what The Last Jedi finalized, was breaking out of these corners. I’ll list here my rundown on the painted corners from which Rian Johnson has thankfully liberated this saga.

The Rule of Two… Who Cares?

In the original era, Darth Vader was referred to as “Dark Lord of the Sith” without further explanation of what that was.¹ The original trilogy had established only that there was a Dark Side and a Light Side, and that Vader was once a Jedi, and the rest was left open. This was expanded somewhat in the subsequent Expanded Universe novels and comics, which explored the idea of “the Sith” as an order like the Jedi. The Phantom Menace introduced the Sith as the baddies directly opposing the Jedi. It established that “there are only two, a master and an apprentice.” It established that the Sith were a secret order, with a sort of self-defeating org-chart with masters pitted against their apprentices who were always plotting to usurp them. These were very specific plot devices for the prequel era.

¹I think this was the comics. I don’t believe that “Sith” was uttered in the original trilogy.

This limitation was the easiest one done away with in the The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren is not a Sith. Snoke is not a Sith. Or at least they do not say he is a Sith anything. And it doesn’t matter. The issue is thankfully dropped and not mentioned again. Hopefully not ever. Let the past go.

Midichlorians and the Force Are… Who Cares?

Once again, The Force Awakens began to get the Force right, and The Last Jedi completes the rehabilitation of the concept. Luke has more than a few scenes in which he goes into detail on what the Force is, expanding on the lessons we got from Obi-Wan and Yoda in the originals. Once and for all, this movie buries the notion that the Force runs only in a bloodline. Other Star Wars stories with multi-generational Jedi and Sith presaged that the universe is completely at the mercy of either genetically gifted wizard-monks who kidnap children, or psychopathic sorcerer-tyrants who kill children. What a depressing prospect. Maybe it is time for the Jedi to go after all.

Luke explicitly says the Force belongs to everyone and that everyone is a part of it. There is not even a hint of the dreaded “M” word.

Slight spoiler here: we learn that Rey is at least neither a Skywalker nor a Kenobi. The theme that the Force comes to anyone, and that a random person from nowhere can in fact be a hero, gets right back to Joseph Campbell’s original mythology. I wanted to stand up and cheer when it became clear that the build-up and fake-out mystery of who Rey is was resolved with a shrug. Much, much better plot point than her being part of a dynasty or someone who was conceived or created or cloned for some kind of destiny set out for her ahead of time.

Snoke is… Who Cares?

One of the corners into which the prequels had painted the story is that Emperor Palpatine, who was almost created as a one-off baddie in Return Of The Jedi after a brief cameo in Empire, becomes the main villain of the whole saga. To his credit, Iain McDiarmid took advantage of the scenery-chewing required and was always entertaining as Palpatine. But the story got pretty stale pretty quickly, with the Jedi playing Wile E. Coyote to Palpatine’s Roadrunner.

There is no background given to us going into this movie for who or what Snoke is. I liked to entertain the theories that he was an old Sith, or some kind of malevolent undead entity. He obviously is introduced as an Emperor stand-in for the soft reboot in The Force Awakens. In the The Last Jedi, the Snoke theories are all pretty much just similarly ignored and the plot drives right past him. It doesn’t matter, and he’s not the main point of the story. Thank the maker.

Everything doesn’t have to tie together. We no longer have to think about grade-school Darth Vader building C-3P0, baby Boba Fett, or Obi-Wan commanding an army of Jango Fett clones. Things are set back to being a vast universe in which our heroes only play a small, but significant, part.

Jedi are No Longer Super Heroes

This is probably one of the changes which is the most controversial. It takes away something which has been extremely popular for StarWars™ product over the last couple of decades: the Jedi as having super powers. This started with The Phantom Menace when we see Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon cut through enemies with no tension, or sense of danger, or anything at stake. We saw them effortlessly make superhuman CGI flips as though they were weightless animation. We saw them using lightsabers as acetylene gear. Thus began the era of animated, ridiculously overpowered Jedi, whether it was Starkiller in The Force Unleashed video game throwing around TIE Fighters, or Anakin and Obi-Wan effortlessly skipping over a lake of lava in the course of an insanely obviously computer-generated lightsaber fight.

Let me stick to that one, as it is commonly cited as one of the highlights of the prequels. The Anakin vs. Obi-Wan fight is to me the height of this ridiculous phenomenon in the live movies: there is no sense that either participant had actually expended physical effort, possessed an inner ear for balance, or was once in any way terrified of the molten rock and heat around them. Only when the plot demands it does Anakin get burned by the lava. Until then, there is no sense that either character is doing anything other than controlling a bloodless avatar in a computer simulation. Neither seems to suffer from the heat or caustic gasses one would be subjected to over a flowing lava stream. The animated series, sad to say, only continued this super-power trend, and made it worse over time.

For what it’s worth, I think the Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul fight in The Phantom Menace is by far the best fight scene in all the prequels. Every other attempt to create overwhelming (but perfectly coordinated) chaos in every battle scene in every subsequent movie is just CGI cacophony. Obi-Wan facing down General Grievous looks far less convincing than Luke facing down the Rancor.

In The Last Jedi, Luke actively mocks the idea that he can be some savior facing down the First Order with his “laser sword.” We knew then that we weren’t going to get a CGI Luke Skywalker floating up, cutting Imperial Walkers in half, or combining with Rey to double-team Snoke in some massively coordinated melee. I’m sure this rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way based on a lot of the backlash there has been. Luke’s place is thematically consistent with where Obi-Wan was in A New Hope. And it makes Luke’s decisions, both heroic and ill-considered, to have more consequence. Most importantly, it is consistent that Luke Skywalker knows that the legend of heroes will matter much more than what the heroes do themselves.

I agree it would have been fun to have seen a Luke in his prime, kicking some butt. Well, we’ve had years of comics and novels about the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. It’s too bad that all we get with Mark Hamill is the grumbly, bitter Luke. But those movies or TV shows would have had to have been made years ago. So as a torch-passing performance to a new cast, I thought this was an excellent use of Hamill as Luke, and, as cannot be said enough, was thematically consistent as well. That’s all I will say about Luke’s fate. See it for yourself to see the twists.

Luke also addresses another major plot hole the prequels steered us into: namely that the Jedi were failures. Luke points out that the Jedi were fooled and defeated by Darth Sidious. They inadvertently trained Darth Vader. They arguably did as much damage as they did any good in the galaxy at the end of their run. Luke is wary of any power wielded by Force users, which is of course the big lesson that should have been learned by the prequel events.

And it of course fits perfectly with a lesson on human nature. Good and evil at war within a human heart is very much a theme of classical heroes and villains. The Last Jedi wonderfully recasts this entire moral story. It’s taken a long time, but suddenly the moral metaphors in the SW universe mean something to people who may use the Force, but are still human, and neither all-powerful nor invulnerable.

What we really got in The Last Jedi more than anything was a development of the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren. Which is as it should be. The crux of their relationship, including Kylo’s entreaties that they rule the galaxy together, is thematically similar to what we’ve seen before, but it is a different form. I’ll address this more on the issues I have with the movie’s pacing itself, but the scenes with the two of them were very much the climax of the story that was being told here, and the best parts of the movie.

There are fans who would have preferred that the Jedi-as-super-hero trope continue on. If Episode IX were to include a light-saber fight between a bouncing, weightless CGI Maz Kanata, and a bouncing, weightless CGI Snoke, there are fans who would have clapped and shouted and justified it as the best thing ever.

The Universe is More than Just Remixes on What We’ve Seen

The B-story adventure in Canto Bight had some fun parts, although I know a lot of people found it over the top or silly. (I think this is definitely part of what needed fixing with editing or pacing, as I say below.) As for the premise of the expansion of the fictional universe into the territory of casinos and politics and war profiteering, I think it was necessary. After all, the series is based around stories of war. We’ve already seen developments which should be plenty depressing on their own, considering the way that endless war and genocide has been a plot device throughout the series.

I thought the expansion of the universe into some weird tangents was a great choice. It remixed some of our expectations and gave us a moral weight to the actions we saw. We can see that the war affects other people in the galaxy in other ways. And we see that there is a moral dimension to the Force, as we get a sight that even a slave child in the stables has a spark of the Force within him.

A political dimension to the Star Wars universe is also nothing new. The points made about war profiteering may rub some fans the wrong way. I can understand some of the complaints that it wasn’t a point that they would choose. I don’t entirely agree with making war profiteers out to be a villain, either. (In the real world, it’s not such an easy answer.) But then again, I respect the film for having a point of view. This makes this universe more lived-in than just a Jedi vs Sith role-playing game. And thankfully, if we’re going to get political allegories, it wasn’t horrifying Asian stereotype-creatures with names that are puns for American political leaders.

That last bit was maybe a little too cruel on ol’ George. I will give him this: Star Wars was always political. The metaphor of the Death Star was clearly a weapon of mass destruction, and the mechanized Empire was not-even-subtly a stand-in for 20th century fascist regimes, down to Nazi and Japanese-Imperial uniforms. Lucas himself also intended his films to directly point fingers at the USA and the Vietnam war for that matter, made more explicit as a metaphor with the Ewoks in Return of The Jedi. (I, like, many others out there, will fast-forward through all Ewok scenes if I am to re-watch any of ROTJ, anyway.) For that matter, when Ronald Reagan went with the metaphor and analogized the Soviet Union with the Empire, that was hardly out-of-bounds, either. In the 1970s, the Empire was a buzzingly obvious metaphor for evils in the real world.

To keep the Star Wars universe updated while also mining nostalgia, there was always going to need for an overriding political metaphor for the villains which would meet some kind of emotional impact on the audience. World War 2 was very much still in living memory during the original trilogy, although today it is less so. I personally thought that the First Order with their full-on Nazi drag act in The Force Awakens was stretching it a little bit. The world faces dangers from conflicts like Daesh nowadays, or bloody border wars in ethnic conflicts. In this, I thought Kylo Ren was a good successor to Darth Vader. He was wonky, unstable, more full of anger than competence.

I heard another take on the First Order from Mr. Sunday Movies which I do think is interesting. The original Nazis were scary evil and scary competent. The “alt-right” guys in their Nazi T-shirts and bad haircuts are scary in an unbalanced, desperate way. Hux, then, is more of a LARPer of an original Imperial Moff rather than a cool, competent ruler. In that sense, it works.

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So the Mythology is Awesome, But is it Any Good?

In the age of the internet, I’m doing what nobody regularly does. I have a split opinion — a shade of “gray,” if you will, rather than pure black or white. I am firmly on the side of approving of how Rian Johnson handled the mythology of Star Wars, preserving what is awesome about it. And I mean “awesome” in the dictionary meaning of the word.

The movie, The Last Jedi, however, is just not a great movie. I certainly may hold a more critical eye than others, but I’ll be as objective as I can without spoilers. The flaws I find may not bother others, and it may be much more fun for kids. But that doesn’t make it immune from criticizing the things which tax our patience or halt our suspension of disbelief. The original trilogy was insanely popular not because it was a “kid’s movie,” but because it was entertaining for a wide audience on different levels.

Now, this brings up all kinds of objections. People will say, sure, “b-b-but the original had plot holes! So this film has plot holes too, so it’s exactly the same in quality as the first one!” I can say The Empire Strikes Back is a classic that everyone compares every other sci-fi action movie to because it is a master class on pacing and editing. People can reply, “yeah, well, uh, that had flaws, too, and people didn’t like it at the time, either, so… no one can say The Last Jedi isn’t as good!”

There is a role for opinion and then there is a role for taste. But there are objective things that can be measured.

The first problem with the movie which I think most people will notice is simply the running length. At two-and-a-half hours, it’s a lot to sit through. And there are several scenes which don’t really pay off for the story, which I believe would make the movie much more enjoyable had they been excised.

A theme that runs through the movie is failure and redemption. “Let the past go” is something which is important to Luke, as he is trying to excise the legacy of the Jedi’s horrible mistakes.

A chase plot sets the pace and ticking clock that frames the movie’s drama. With this setting and this conflict, different efforts to find a way out of impossible odds meet with degrees of failure or success. The chase parallels Rey’s time on Ach-To with Luke, and eventually these events link up, bringing our characters more and more successes and failures.

The problem with the story here is tone. There is a sense of desperation and a need for characters to risk their lives or to even outright sacrifice them. This is played for tension. But there are also moments where characters clearly need to sacrifice themselves and we can see it coming for quite a while.

Are we supposed to be horrified at the deaths, or ignore them as ships blow up left and right? Should we feel tension when a character seems about to die, or should we feel numbed because of the rate of destruction of everything else? I found myself frustrated when characters would fret about saving a single other character while ships or people are literally being blown to pieces around them. It’s not a spoiler to say, no, of course not everybody dies — we all knew that was going to happen. As if, well, our heroes really, really messed up and got a lot of people killed for no apparent reason.

The tone would definitely be helped if a few scenes were removed or excised altogether. I would have given editors a goal of removing at least half an hour from the movie to make the story flow in a tighter way. Some scenes linger simply because there is a desire to introduce more characters for no good reason. (Or to sell the toys? Such cynical thoughts do cross one’s mind.) Since Captain Phasma is in the trailers, I believe it’s not a spoiler to note that she is in it for a couple of extended sequences. She serves utterly no point other than to have a battle which is completely distracting to the plot. It is also edited in strange ways.

Now, granted, that is my critique of the main chase story. I think that there is a truly great story within this film about the arcs of Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren. Luke’s final scenes in the film are, I think, some of the best things ever in Star Wars. By contrast, a lot of the prelude to this with the actions with the other characters was, frankly, padding.

I can handle plot holes such as wondering why the bombs in space want to fall downward. We get it: it’s mainly a WW2 metaphor, and whether we are given an explanation or not, we can imagine that there probably is one that we don’t need to be concerned with. I can’t criticize the movie for having physics that doesn’t make sense. That’s always been Star Wars. This is fantasy, not hard sci-fi.

Other plot holes that just speak to bad editing are little more jarring. “Wait, did that person just drag his injured friend two miles? That would take a lot longer, wouldn’t it?”

The movie, as everyone can tell from previews and the trailers, starts at exactly the ending of The Force Awakens. We don’t know, say, how long exactly it took Rey to travel to Ach-To, but even if it is a number of days to pad the events, it’s still not much time. The chase sequence at the beginning of the film has an exact timeline, so we know for a fact that the whole movie seems to take place in a matter of three to four days. (I lost count.) So that does not leave a lot of time for Rey to make the, er, progression, she seems to do. By the end of the movie, it’s still at most a week after Han’s death and her fight with Kylo Ren.

I will gladly praise Daisy Ridley’s charisma in playing Rey, and I think the character is absolutely perfect for what she is. But it’s not hard to make the Mary Sue critique for some of how she was introduced. It’s a minor gripe, as I think a lot of plot holes like can easily be fixed by a simple line or two of exposition. My grip is that this exposition is never offered.

Rey turns out not only to know how to fly the Millennium Falcon, but she’s incredibly good at it? It wouldn’t have hurt to indicate that she had worked as a pilot on Jakku on the weekends. It turns out that she is incredibly competent with her sword and staff and requires no training whatsoever to use a lightsaber competently? It wouldn’t hurt to note that she received specific melee training back on Jakku, for instance. Because if a person can become a Jedi in a matter of days, it sort of takes away from how special it should be.

This is a critique that is more applicable to The Force Awakens, of course. But it’s still relevant to this movie, as we see a lot happen in a very compressed period of time. Ironic, then, that we get some important speeches about the importance of learning from failure. This is hard to do when you go from being a scavenger to hopping around the universe, training as a Jedi, and killing many people, all in less than a month.

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I am disappointed in how it seems the Disney/Marvel machine might be churning these movies out without as much careful editing and pacing as I would like. But this movie may get a lot of guff it doesn’t deserve from people more upset about the necessary re-set of the Jedi mythology. There are a lot of places they can go to from here. They can tell stories without some of the constraints from previous incarnations. Let the past go.

Rogue One Review

Mild spoiler warnings here. I won’t reveal any deaths. Other than that, I cannot think of much in this film that might be regarded as a twist in the narrative you wouldn’t expect on walking into the theater.

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Ever since Return of the Jedi, any subsequent Star Wars™ product has been judged by the fans on whether it got some element right or not. Rogue One certainly gets certain things very right about conveying the feel of the original trilogy. The “lived-in” look of the universe, wherein everything look dented, dirty, and used, was right-on. My inner nit-picking nerd was delighted. As far as sci-fi-based action goes, I would say that the battle scenes were as visually enthralling and competently directed as anyone would have hoped for. The mix of CGI and practical effects has never looked better. The ships and crafts all were seamlessly rendered beautifully. Good work has been done in the past, but this is a triumphant passing of the hat from the model-based stop-motion of the original to CGI.

So, on technical aspects, R1 is definitely a Star Wars™ movie, trademark and all. If you sense I preface the rest of this review with my praise before effecting a deep inhale before announcing my ominous “but…” then the Force is indeed strong with you.

The technical expertise on display could have been put into any space opera setting. What makes me love Star Wars more than the look of any particular special effect are the characters and the rich mythology evident in the story. Rogue One was not a movie that went that route.

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Rich Evans of Redlettermedia.com made a brilliant observation in their review of Rogue One. He noted that the Star Wars universe isn’t really all that vast. In fact, it’s actually pretty limited. Fans don’t want new things. They demand variations on the old things: light sabers, Imperial walkers, Tie Fighters, X-Wings, etc.

Let us consider Imperial Walkers.

When the Imperial Walkers first appear for the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, they reinforce the movie’s title and overall theme. Their terrifying size visually relayed the power discrepancy between the Empire and the Rebels.** This establishes right away that the ending of the original Star Wars did not end the war. In the second chapter of the saga, we see the Rebels are back on their heels and are literally in danger of being crushed by the Empire’s wrath.

**This continues the brilliant design details from the first movie. As was similarly observed, the very opening scene of Star Wars juxtaposes the size of the Star Destroyer and the much smaller Rebel ship. The downward angle implies dominance. As Mr. Plinkett taught us, this visual detail tells you everything that you need to know at the beginning of the story: the Empire is dominant, has a long reach, and the Rebels are a precarious disadvantage.

The Rebels find that their snowspeeder aircraft can’t stop the Walkers, and they have very little ability to fight back against them with their standard projectile weapons. Luke, like the classical hero archetype, goes up against the impossible foe armed with his sword, and against all odds, comes away victorious.

The Imperial Walkers were not designed as if they would be practical war machines. To actually contemplate how they might work is besides the point. They are mythical monsters, and that is the purpose they serve in the story for which they were created. They were created as obstacles on the way for the wider journey in the story.

If we really stop to contemplate why Godzilla doesn’t act like more of an actual lizard — asking why he takes the time to punch down buildings and stomp on cars or how he could possibly breath fire — we’re missing the point. Godzilla is not supposed to be a real animal. Godzilla is a monster, and to get all Jungian here, monsters in stories convey palpable fears not literally, but on different levels.

The Walkers are an iconic design of the SW universe. They succeed so well as archetypical monsters by also invoking the mechanized cruelty of World War 2 tank warfare as well as classical motifs of mounted warriors. They accomplished their purpose by evoking something that was a tangible horror within living memory. So, just in terms of design, they’re popular as iconic mementos. The toys were coveted by my generation, and even as I’m going gray like Galen Erso, I can cast a wanting eye to the awesome Lego version.

But when we see them entering into a gritty battle against the Rebels in R1, and we also discover — who knew? — that X-Wing fighters have the firepower to cut them in half, then they become part of the practical landscape, and are no longer monsters.

In this movie, the Walkers become objects added to the background. Each ship or machine seemingly has a set amount of hit points and firepower and armor, and we get to see them set off against one another. To me, this makes the Walkers utterly pointless for being in the movie. Any nostalgic thrill I had in seeing them was quickly dissipated in a series of expected explosions and dogfights.

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In the Empire Strikes Back, the chase at the center of the narrative is the structure that frames the plot. Han Solo and company flee across the galaxy, dodging Imperial ships, space slugs, and ending up on the planet Bespin for the denouement of Luke versus Vader. The story structure is enriched by each step of the way by having the characters experience new locations and fantastic elements of the universe while expanding their relationship with one another, (Han and Leia), and with the Force (Luke). The pacing and plotting are virtually perfect, and it’s become the standard to which other sci-fi dramas are often compared.

Plot-wise, R1 suffers from the same problems as Return of the Jedi and every subsequent movie. The story progression only makes sense in that things happen in a way that they have to happen to fit the story.

In R1, the story serves the locations and elements, rather than the other way around. This is a typical progression in something like a modern game. In games, the purpose of the story structure is to get the character to navigate different environments and undergo different challenges. The overall story can be thin because it only serves to deliver the player to the different experiences. This kind of storytelling is familiar to modern viewers. I would argue that it would be better experienced through gameplay storytelling, but is not the same thing when experienced as a movie.

The hologram message from Galen to Jyn solves a plothole from the original movie: the Death Star designer only reluctantly built the station. The vulnerability was thus baked in so the Death Star will self-destruct. Galen’s hologram message with this fact starts the main story in motion, with Jyn desperate to follow up and find the secret, find the plans, and to get them to the Rebels so they can stop the Death Star.

Which left me wondering why Galen doesn’t shout in the hologram: “Exhaust port! Hit it with a torpedo! Toss a grenade down the shaft! It’s the EXHAUST PORT!” This certainly would have saved a lot of trouble for the Rebels having to steal the blueprints of the thing to find out where the vulnerability Galen talked about could be found. This would have cut down the running time of the movie by 80 minutes or so.

Also, is there a reason Krennic has to visit Vader in person? Well, we get to see Vader be intimidating, which is the only point of the scene. It seems like a waste of time and fuel there for a brief meeting that could be done by hologram.

R1 unfortunately spends a lot of time zipping from planet to planet for scenes that seemed rushed and unnecessary to the story.

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Stray observation 1:

So much effort was made for intricate details of this movie to mimic the feel of the universe from the original movie, that I am yet the squealing fanboy marveling at the work of the original creators all that much more. So many of the elements of the aliens, planets, costumes, ships, straps, guns, hair, noises, sounds, colors, and lighting, all look fantastic.

It’s still more to Rich Evans’ point that we as fans are our own worst enemies when we don’t want to see too much that is new. It started to grate on me that every familiar element Easter Egg that showed up seemed calculated to get the audience to clap with eager recognition. Luckily, my showing was mostly devoid of that response.

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Stray observation 2:

There was a lot that was a bummer about this movie. The war scenes were serious enough that I felt a bit of war fatigue. Did we need to see the Stormtroopers in a situation not unlike, say, American forces fighting insurgents in Iraq? As well as the Saving Private Ryan style bummers of seeing rows of Stormtroopers machine gunned?

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Stray observation 3:

Something that I also noticed from The Force Awakens: since when do ships in Star Wars have the ability to jump to/from light-speed from inside the atmosphere of a planet? It was a major plot device in the first few films that there was a degree of difficulty and imprecision in making the jump to and from light speed. Malfunctioning hyperdrives were a major source of tension. The imprecision of where a fleet would land even in the emptiness of space was another element. All that was gone in the new stories.

I am not a fan of seeing wheeled vehicles in Star Wars, either. I’d prefer seeing either floating vehicles or mounted creatures. The pedestrian “in between” of wheels sort of spoils the feeling of immersion in this fantasy universe. For a movie that was so intense about getting things “right,” I think this is an oversight of the world building.

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Stray observation 4:

For my taste, far too much attention was paid to make R1 close up any gap of events up until the start of the original movie.

As for the original characters that appeared in this movie, I thought they mostly seemed kind of off. The digital versions of Moff Tarkin and Leia seemed waxy and deep in the uncanny valley. I was immediately distracted. I could have understood their characters being in the shadows or reflections rather than full on, but I’m not sold on the digital puppetry.

They could have recast Moff Tarkin with someone like Charles Dance or David Bowie. (He was still alive at the time.) This would have been distracting, true, but more or less than the digital creations? I’m not sure.

Darth Vader seemed off. The costume just didn’t look quite like it did in the first movie to me. It seemed like the actor was shorter and of less stature than David Prowse, and the helmet didn’t quite look right around the neck. Also, sadly, while James Earl Jones reprises his role, his age is showing (or sounding), and Vader didn’t sound right to me.

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Stray observation 5:

One other note about Vader and his last scene of whup-ass on the Rebels: for all the care to make this movie snap seamlessly to the original, there were some things here are very different from the source.

Vader didn’t lead attacks into boarded ships himself and start kicking ass. The opening scene of Star Wars is effective as it is with Vader coming in after the slaughter brought on by the Stormtroopers, stepping so nonchalantly and intimidatingly over the bodies as he does with his hands neatly behind his back.

The first movie is very, very low-key on what exactly the Force is. Mostly, the Force users have meditative, trance-like powers to sense things in their minds’ eye, and this is the transcendental nature of the Force as it’s explained in the story. Most of the use of the Force is very constrained, with Kenobi using it to persuade stormtroopers, throw sounds, and most effectively seeming to disembody himself into it altogether. Telekinesis is only used once with Vader underlining a point by choking an Imperial Officer.

This is all amped up, as it should be, in the Empire Strikes Back, where the stakes are vastly increased, as are the abilities of Luke and Vader to toss objects around with the Force, and even deflect blaster shots.

By the time we get to Vader in Rogue One, Jedi powers in all the subsequent movies, games, cartoons, and movies are less like religion or martial arts, but are full-on super powers. Characters can be tossed around at will, shots deflected, and we already expect Jedi to be invulnerable when the plot requires it.

If I were to make the argument that the prequels damaged Star Wars mythos permanently, I would base it on how they changed the perception of the Jedi and the use of the Force as more super-power and less mystical. (I’m not even going to bring up the “m” word.)

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Last bit:

The characters in R1 are fairly flat in this heavily plot-driven story. They’re potentially interesting in their own right, but they just aren’t developed. There isn’t as much of the witty banter as in the first movie that was as important to the feel as the set design. The inherent darkness inevitable in the story of R1 doesn’t make for much uplift. There is nothing as charmingly fun as scenes of the Jawas capturing R2-D2.

The constraint of the running time is my biggest regret with the movie. I had a thought that all of this would have been much more enjoyable if it had been a 10-part series on cable/streaming. Game of Thrones gets a much better 10-hour season from a storyline than they likely would with a 2-hour movie.

As much as the CGI looked good when it was used, the practical sets were also quietly excellent. I could have watched the characters spend more time interacting in the practical environments with more dialogue and intrigue. All the same amount of special effects could easily have been padded out with more story content which would have introduced us more to the characters and their journey. An episodic structure would have given us more room to breathe and ponder the universe in between story beats. This could have given us more of the heart and mythos I felt was lacking.

We could have actually seen a proper love story, perhaps. The tragedies would have had greater weight than seeing the death of a character we only met an hour earlier. Saw Gererra’s character might have made sense. I definitely could sit through hours more scenes with K2-SO, who was the single part of the movie I enjoyed the most.

Maybe the makers of the movie might even agree with me, and would have enjoyed having more room to play in this wonderful sandbox and flesh out the stories. I’m sure the expenses involved with that approach meant that this never was a possibility. Even if it would have been a better story this way, Disney™ needed to see this movie return their multi-billion dollar investment. That meant that they aimed for a blockbuster with this over all other considerations. Too bad.

2016: Ructions All The Way Down || Arrival Review

Writing about culture is delicate thing at the end of 2016. Our society is undergoing frantic re-contextualization of what is right or wrong, conservative or liberal, taboo or normalized. Is social media is ultimately a tool for more social democratization or a boon for totalitarians? I suspect the ructions will continue, and we won’t shake this out for some time.

Maybe the received wisdom from cultural curators in the past was just reporting on general trends rather than influencing them. I’d wager that established cultural critics have never been less influential on popular perceptions than they have been in 2016. In the past, I would have thought the influence of internet bloviating twitterati as being over-hyped. This year has proved me wrong. Received wisdom is being overturned with every tick of the news cycle.

I think the pushing aside of the clerisy has been a long time coming.  As a Libertarian who is technically an atheist, I don’t exactly stand athwart social change shouting “stop.” But I’m afraid right now we are in the Stalinist stage of the social media revolution. The marketers, both of the commercial and political species, have legions of marketing and psychological methodologies at hand. The trick nowadays for the would-be power brokers is not to actually be an individual going viral with an original point of view. Clever power brokers at the top now seek to use strategically placed social media as an imitation of authenticity.

One of the insights on the state of all things digital and cultural was provided to me by Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying about his work as a PR person deliberately manipulating media blogs. Internet news blogs run on advertising, and advertising runs on clicks. They must get you, the consumer, to click on something, whatever it takes. Thus, the most ridiculously arresting, arousing, or infuriating of headlines will be hyperlinked. The metrics of what works are known by cruel, unfeeling, Darwinian culling. If it harvests a click, it multiplies; if it does not, it withers. It doesn’t matter whether what is being put forward is uplifting, insightful, or important to your actual life. What matters is a boolean consideration: whether or not the user clicks that link.

Media manipulators have used the accumulated knowledge of human nature to figure out what makes us click. Turns out, things that make us angry make us apt to click more than anything else. Yes: puppy videos or celebrity nip-slips are up there, too. But it’s much more profitable, if you are running a web site, to have a headline with a declarative statement that will cause blood pressure to spike one way or the other. This earn clicks. And only clicks matter.

It could be said that advertisers, politicians, and polemical-minded journalists are trolling us. They are much like the fisherman trying out different shiny flies to find which one gets the bass to bite. The troll feeds on its catch, grows larger and smarter, and the cycle continues.

Trolling reverberated throughout the election this year. Electoral anger was made possible by a Democrat Party that sought to suppress democracy in the name of Super Delegates delivering up a candidate neither welcomed nor even widely well-liked by the would-be consumers.

Anger-induced clicks helped with the Bernie backlash against the Clinton product simply being handed to the Democrat constituency by this clerisy. And this anger against the clerisy ultimately helped Trump against everyone else.

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American politics are almost light-hearted compared to, say, the Turkish would-be “coup” this summer. This is a story almost completely uncovered in the West. In what’s become a theme this year, the government of Turkey seems to have trolled their own populace. The Islamist President blamed the coup attempt on a bookish Islamist organization his own Islamist party was once allied with. In this way, Erdoğan cemented his hold on the country as a populist Islamist, while also claiming to fight dangerous Islamism. This contradiction is not coincidence. The incoherence is confusing and demoralizing, of course, but that can only help the powers in charge maintain their hold by repressing dissent.

Not so subtly, the Erdoğan regime has claimed that groups of secularist liberal intellectuals are tied in to the “Islamist” coup through links in education. Thus, the current Islamist populist regime has cemented its hold on the country, while claiming to be fighting Islamist terrorists by arresting and removing from positions of power large numbers of non-Islamist secularists. It takes some deliberate concentration for an outsider to follow these events, but the population of Turkey is forced to take it all in stride, and stand compliant in the face of a broadly mendacious official government line. And if the individuals do not like it, they can say goodbye to their jobs, their livelihoods, and in a word repeated quite often: their “honor” in society.

True totalitarianism is not merely living in a society in which official power repeats lies endlessly; that happens often enough everywhere. Under true totalitarianism, one is forced to recite those lies with phony sincerity and a phony smile, which everyone knows is phony, but which is required nonetheless. Totalitarianism demoralizes the individual by humiliating him and emasculating him, forcing him to smile and partake in his own humiliation.

Social Media has proven to be very adept at reinforcing these totalitarian norms by leveraging every pseudo-private space as a vector through which to enforce these pageants of self-negation and submission. In the West, we’re so far only playing games with totalitarianism and hate-clicks; contrarians still have room to mock back. In Turkey, the real thing is playing out for blood and body-counts. It remains to be seen whether the Turkish experience is an anomaly or a prequel for the rest of us.

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Of far less importance than matters of Trump or Turkey, is the state of the culture of geekery.

I’m not sure whether it’s purely motivated by money, or part of some social experiment, but the social media hive minds been telling us consumers of geek media that what we really need is for women to kick ass!! in more action/sci-fi/super-hero movies.

I think, for the dollars involved, marketers are determined to fight the fundamental truth that a bunch of action films are power fantasies that boys — testosterone soaked boys — revel in. Female power fantasies — which exist — are often much subtler, personal, and less about punching or using swords. The company line that feminism means we need to see more women kick ass!! is as phony to me as claiming Cinemax soft-core lesbian sex scenes are “empowering” for the gay community. Both seem to me really driven by the consumption habits of a male audience, eager for the visual spectacle of titillating female flesh.

I think the story of 2016 as the year of the Great Gaslighting might best be exemplified in this RedLetterMedia video on the failed Ghostbusters reboot. Consider: a major corporation, worth billions, for the sake of maintaining high-income executive salaries, conducted an ad campaign for Ghostbusters that framed the existing fans of their intellectual property as basement-dwelling misogynists. This is not to defend the small number of misogynists who actually did make their foolishness known, but to point out that Sony marketed their product as a symbol of progressivism and feminism that all well-meaning, right-thinking people should embrace by principle. Whether it’s fraudulent to advertise an awful, unfunny movie as if it were otherwise, is besides my point. It’s about a multi-billion dollar corporation ginning up hatred against a group of people that Sony even explicitly recognizes as powerless and small. The massive corporation played the part of victim for being rejected by its own consumers. This is a level of cynicism really beyond parody.

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This is not to claim that there are no legitimate fans of watching women kick ass!! in movies. Geek girls exist, and they are legion, and I love them. I just won’t pretend that these are things that everyone actually wants. I’m in favor of the things that not everyone gets.

I just am aware that geek girls are numerically in a minority, and no sane person goes to, say, ComiCon because it’s a great place to meet girls. I stand for the contrarians, the geeks, the outcasts, and the lovers of insanely nerdy inside references. I fight for the users! There is something to be said for being in the minority, anyway. Who wants to always be in the “most” when the “most” is mostly wrong?

As it is, true nerds have seen their culture appropriated as super-hero, fantasy, and sci-fi movies have taken over movie grosses. As a geek, it’s interesting to watch female starlets play comic book characters. I often think to myself: has she any clue who Emma Frost or the Scarlet Witch are in comic books? And one level further: has she even dated the kind of man who has any idea who those characters are?

Fine enough. Let the nerds and neckbeards have our moment. We geeks suffered through playing right-field in our day, so I am fine with the pretty, chiseled people in movies coming to ComiCon and grovelling at the great otaku temple to win the favor of our dollars and clicks.

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Arrival is a science-fiction movie with a female protagonist, and it’s very good science-fiction that satisfies the thinking geek. Nothing felt false to me in the movie, as things so often do in the sci-fi genre these days.

I’ll compare it to the Martian, as far as smart sci-fi goes. I didn’t care much for that movie, even when I wanted to like it. It pulled me out of my suspension of disbelief a little too often with over-acting actors making too many quips and asides that fell flat to me. I liked it for the journey of the protagonist solving problems in a methodical way, providing the base for the rare hard sci-fi big budget movie. I felt I appreciated the Martian more as an idea of a story than the story itself. Which follows, as I heard the book was better.

Arrival, also based on a book I didn’t read, is not quite hard sci-fi, as obviously it involves aliens and fantastical elements. But let the geeks rejoice! This is a movie wherein the two lead characters are scientists. And they act like scientists. And there is honest-to-Xenu drama in watching them figure out the complexity of communicating with aliens. There is no fake-out with people acting like they wouldn’t act in real life, nor needless quips, nor jokes to elicit audience response, nor cheeseball moments. It all felt very true. Even the heart-wrenching sentiments, which are very powerfully evoked by Amy Adams’ character and her very personal loss, are all very pure.

Critics said they hated how the military stymies the scientists when they’re trying to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. But I found it rang true. Forrest Whittaker’s character says “I need to know exactly what you’re going to do before you go in there, because I need to defend it to a room of people trying to protect their jobs.” Sounds like a perfect recitation of the drama of life in a bureaucracy. In my experience, any actual scientist would nod knowingly at that scene. (Yes, that’s how you can recognize the real scientists in the theater: they’re the ones in the lab coats nodding.)

There still is a lot of drama that is milked from characters under danger from other characters pointing weapons at them, but it serves the story progression within context of the plot, not as a plot device to add drama unnecessarily. No jump scares. Sound is used as part of the story, but the alien noises are very deep audio tones, and it worked to hear it in a theater where the room is shaking. No audio is used in lieu of plot. (Take that, JJ Abrams and Lost.)

Yes, the message is a bit hippie-dippie: “we all need to get along!” But if you’re going to criticize human nature and the state of the world along those lines, this is the way to do it.

Arrival is science-fiction at its best. It is transcendent storytelling that bridges the world we know with fantasy, and brings us face to face with things both beautiful and terrible.