Friday, December 29, 2017

I'm one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

The Bride and I went to see the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise the other night.
Be warned; there are spoilers ahead.

So, anyway, it was...a Star Wars flick. Things blow up. There are lightsabers. Plot holes big enough to drive a dreadnaught through (after one part of the climactic starship-chase scene my Bride asked "Why did Laura Dern have to stay on the ship? Did I miss something?"). She wasn't okay with my explanation that it was so that Dern's sacrifice could be moving and poetic and tragic. She wanted to know why the hell Laura Dern had to stay on the cruiser? After all, all it was doing was going in one direction, and kinda slowly.

What, it's the Twenty-jillionth Century, they got starships and man-made moons and they don't have cruise control?

Hell, my work truck has fucking cruise control.

But, hey. Star Wars. The tech works around the plot, not the other way around.

Overall it was fun, good popcorn entertainment. There's some genuinely clever bits, like this wonderful exchange within minutes of the opening credits. The scene is set with the Imperials in their big-ass starships facing off against the rebels in their little fighters and light bombers, just like always. But in this case before doing the Trench Run one of the rebel pilots - Poe Dameron, our "Han Solo" scoundrel character - opens hailing frequencies to the Imperial flagship:

Poe Dameron: This is Commander Poe Dameron of the Republic fleet, I have an urgent communique for General Hugs.
General Hux: This is General Hux of the First Order. The Republic is no more. Your fleet are Rebel scum and war criminals. Tell your precious princess there will be no terms, there will be no surrender...
Poe Dameron: Hi, I'm holding for General Hux.
General Hux: This is Hux. You and your friends are doomed. We will wipe your filth from the galaxy.
Poe Dameron: Okay. I'll hold.
General Hux: Hello?
Poe Dameron: Hello? Yup, I'm still here.
General Hux: (to his flag captain) Can he hear me?
Poe Dameron: Hux?
Captain Canady: He can.
Poe Dameron: With an 'H'? Skinny guy. Kinda pasty.
General Hux: I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Poe Dameron: Look, I can't hold forever. If you reach him, tell him Leia has an urgent message for him...
Captain Canady: I believe he's...tooling with you, sir.
Poe Dameron: ...about his mother.

That's perfect. That's the sort of thing a fighter jock who's a bit of a dick and scared shitless would come up with to take his mind off the fact that in about thirty seconds he's going to do a Trench Run suicide mission.

It's Star Wars, so, yeah, he does, and things blow up, and improbably he gets away with it. But somebody on the screenplay team thought a little about the situation and came up with a nifty little piece of dialogue to make a point about it, and it tickled the hell out of me.

Here's the thing about this post, though; it's really not about The Last Jedi, but a bit of Lucas' universe that came out earlier this year; Rogue One.

Because a fair piece of what I really enjoyed about the latest outing started there.

The Last Jedi continued the exploration begun in Rogue One, that of the idea of the "force religion" as, well, an actual religion.
Remember, in one of the earliest lines spoken in the original Star Wars (sorry, I can't call it A New Hope; it's Star Wars, that's what it was when I went to the Lancaster Mall to see it in '77 and so what it always will be for me.) we're introduced to Darth Vader as the avatar of this "Force" power, a fearful aspect of an ancient rite shrouded in the mystic past.

Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin tells Vader: "You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion."

But after that, well...there's not a lot of "religion". The Force, as we see it in the original and the next six flicks seems to be just an excuse for magic tricks, and for Frank Oz and Alec Guiness to get all sententious and aphoristic. There's an occasional detour into what it is - some sort of universal connector, a sort of Internet for the universe only with less porn (one supposes, probably erroneously) - and some sort of vague connection between clearing one's mind and having psychokinetic powers. But it's not really a "religion". Not to Vader, and not really to anyone else in the first bunch of flicks.

Until Rogue One and Chirrut Îmwe.
Îmwe is played by Donnie Yen as a sort of leaner Master Po or a less homicidal Zatoichi. He is a kind of riff on the "blind monk" trope but done with some care and affection for the character. Other than that there's nothing particularly special about him...other than he's a Force monk.

Seriously. We meet him as our plucky band of rebel heroes are gypsying through the galaxy and he helps them fight their Imperial enemies. He's a sort of itinerant preacher and an out-of-the-monastery-work-brother, but I thought that the importance of the character is not that he's a mad monk with crazy bo-staff skills. It's that he actually believes. That's his little mantra in the title. He believes that the "Force" really IS with him. It's an inspiration, not a series of magician's tricks or choking people out when they piss you off.

Chirrut is one of the first SW characters that actually treats "their religion" as an actual religion and, in so doing, makes the point so typically elided in Lucas' canon that this "Force religion" thing IS an actual religion, and as such that inspires people to acts of faith.

And, of course, those acts don't have to be noble. Just like Buddhism can throw up the 14th Dalai Lama and at the same time the murderous monk U Wirathu, just like Christianity can inspire Francis of Assisi and Arnaud Amalric, like Islam can mold the peaceful kindness of Sofyan al-Thauri, the gentle Sufi saint, and the murderous anger of a bin Laden, the "Force" can inspire Îmwe to sacrifice, and Vader to cruelty.

Îmwe can't choke people with his mind, or toss heavy object across the room. But he can choose the hopes and lives of others over his own because he does, indeed, believe that he and they are all one with the Force, and the Force is with them.

Chirrut. He's a true believer, and that's a pretty deep dive for somebody as addicted to pure visual effects as George Lucas.
But he's only one reason why I think I enjoy Rogue One more than any of the other outings in the Star Wars franchise.

For another, it's a straight-up tragedy. Our heroes "win", but in so doing pay an unbearable price. That's war. That's all wars, "good" wars, evil doesn't matter. For someone, for lots of someones, even victory in war comes at a horrible cost, a cost that is more than some can bear. It was good to see, in the Lucas world where carnage is usually so casually thrown about, the unbearably intimate agony of that cost.

But the last reason, and the most immediate, is that it's Star Wars told from the grunt's POV.
Rogue One is not a "hero" story, at least, not in the classic sense of the Hero Story, no King Arthur going from Wart to the Once and Future King. There's no Luke, no Vader
(well, except at the end, where we revisit the "rebel ship corridor" scene from the original. Remember that? Vader wades into about a platoon of rebel troops blasting the hell out of him and just kills everyone. Thing is, by this time we're so used to Vader stalking around choking people and dueling only with his peers that it was easy to forget why he was so damn scary to the good guys.

To a peer foe like Obi-Wan or (eventually) Luke he was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, sure. But to a regular grunt he was like a goddamn human wrecking ball; trying to fight him was like trying to fight a tank with a wiffle-ball bat. That scene reminded you why he was such a frightening enemy and why having Luke as the Rebel Arthur was so important...)
Lance Mannion saw that and it made him think that Rogue One was a "pointless" story because it was a hero story without the hero.

And, yes, the whole Star Wars magilla is Luke's King Arthur story. Okay, well, with the prequels the Othello story with Anakin/Vader as Othello, but that's a whole 'nother thing and poorly handled, at that.

The piece of worthwhile art at the center of Lucas' tale is Luke and his coming-of-age, his ascent to the hallow kingship. That's the important, central portion of that story, and all the stories, in Lucas' universe. It's the Hero's Quest, and as such the Hero is in the center.

But...those stories are also war stories. I mean, goddamn, the word is right in the title. And wars, whilst they may be led by the Hero are fought by Joe and Molly, whether they're carrying a spear or a sword or a crossbow or a blaster or a thermal detonator. But from all the other SW tales you'd never know it.
(As an aside...don't get me started on the Lucas version of combat; the fact that his land battles were staged purely for visual effect always makes the old drill sergeant in me come up out of my seat roaring "Cover? Concealment? Fire and movement, you stupid $#%!#!@!!??? What the hell is your malfunction? Lemme see your squad leaders right this goddam minute..!")
But this time, for the first time, we get to see how hard those mob-handed battles would have been on the rebel grunts. No wonder the Rebellion was so demoralized; the Imperial troops were good at being bad guys (and another thing I appreciated about Rogue One was that for the first time the stormies in particular and the Imps in general came off as genuinely dangerous as individual troops; like American troops in Iraq, they have all the high-tech goodies and all the firepower and all the logistical support in the galaxy.)
Demoralized? Like an amateur boxer trying to go ten rounds with the heavyweight champ; even when you land one you know it's gonna suck.

So I appreciated this one as an individual GI's version of all those other Star Wars battles. Pointless? Sure. Pointless because to the person behind the blaster-rifle it's all pointless. When you're fighting for your life there's no heroes, no kings or jedis, no glory and no glamor. You do your best to accomplish your mission and you do or don't, you live, or you die.

And, if even in dying, you do your duty and accomplish the mission...well, that's the point, and was the point here; the rebels do their jobs, do their duty and, even in dying to do so, they end up giving the rebellion "hope" that horrible cost.

Was that hope worth the cost? That's for each and every one of us, and them, to decide.

But, for the first time in a Lucas-universe flick, Rogue One actually forced us to stop and think about it.

Well done, troopers.


Leon said...

No porn in the Star Wars universe Chief?

I beg to differ:

I saw that on TV a millennia ago and I still want my money back.

FDChief said...

I hadn't even clicked on the link before thinking "This has GOT to be from the gawdawful Christmas special" and, yep. Oof.

That of the things that is still perhaps the single biggest problem for the Lucasverse is adult sexuality. What little there is, is stuck in the 12-year-old mind of Lucas' creative self (i.e. Slave Leia). That's always been one thing that stands between this canon and genuinely good art. There's more, but that's a biggie.

Which isn't to say that there's not porn ABOUT the Star Wars universe; Rule 34 and all that.

Just not IN it.

Brian Train said...

I checked out of the Star Wars movies after the third one (which I guess is #6?).
I too watched the first one when it came out and liked it a lot, but I was 13 and have grown up and moved on since then.
Perhaps, 40 years later, so have these movies.

FDChief said...

I did, too, Brian...but then I had a little boy and, guess what? He yanked me back in.

I won't say that this franchise has "moved on". But, perhaps, it has grown a trifle.

Largely, I think, because the people working on it are not the guy who created it. George Lucas came up with the idea of a space opera that looked "real"; worn, used, full of visuals that made you think that this was a real world that real people - admittedly, people who could use things like spaceships and laser swords and mystical powers - lived in. And that is a huge accomplishment for a writer of fiction; to create a believable alternative universe.

The problem was that, beyond that, the creator has the sensibility of a 12-year-old and a thirst for marketing bucks. That puts a terrible limitation on his creativity, and from that on his universe. It's no surprise that other people have done more, and better, with the Lucas' SW universe than its' creator.

But outside my kid's SW period I had checked out again until this Rogue One thing. It had all the gee-whiz eye candy...but a tragedy at the center that someone (or someones) had put some genuine thought into. It's a good war flick, and I say that as an ex-GI who genuinely and deeply loathes most "war flicks".

Which brings me, by the way, to recommending a great flick about war; the 1988 The Beast (sometimes The Beast of War. Soviet tank crew versus Afghanistan. Perhaps the most unsparing exploration of war ever filmed. Joe Bob says; check it out.

Pluto said...

I found it interesting that you started with a review of "The Last Jedi" and fell into "Rogue One." The sole interesting/sad thing about Last Jedi is that Luke as Arthur did piss poor and walked away from the job. You sure didn't see that coming when George Lucas finished filming "Return of the Jedi."

Fabius Maximus commented that one of the major subtexts of Last Jedi is that white male Boomers screwed up their quest to make the universe a better place and it is time for people who aren't white or aren't male to do better. I can't bring myself to spend money on Star Wars so I can't comment on it but the screams of indignation about the plot (such as it is) make his comments seem reasonable.

I fully agree with your comments about Rogue One and wish they'd make more (and better movies) to fill out the Star Wars universe from other people's points of view. "The Force Awakens" relentlessly killed my interest in the main storyline (except for a few cool visuals, which really is the stock in trade for the Star Wars universe).

FDChief said...

I should get to talking about TLJ. I thought it had some interesting thoughts - and it DID have thoughts, which is pretty out-of-the-box for a SW entry - and took the story some fun places. The big fail was the plot development, that had holes and leaps that were difficult to explain; there was just no need for some of them.

In the end, though, it's just popcorn entertainment. I don't expect intellectual engagement with a SW flick. They are what they are, and, like any other heroic fantasy genre, they are not what they aren't.

I think the thing about Luke is that he is the Arthur of the Mordred stories; the old, tired, jaded king who is sickened by the treachery of his adopted son. He fails, but because of his blindness and Mordred's/Ren's treason. Just as in Malory, in the SW tale he disappears to Avalon where he waits until the galaxy is in need. So the trope is still going.

But, again, it's Star Wars; it's more about the gee-whiz than any deep dive into myth and legend.

Brian Train said...

I love "The Beast"!
I can't count how many times I've seen it, practically memorized the dialogue.

Absolutely one of my favourites.