Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Things I Used to Love That I Now Absolutely Hate - The Star Wars Franchise

Luke Skywalker drinks green milk GIF Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I will never forget the first time I saw Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode 4 - A New Hope) when it came out in May of 1977.  My mom took me to see it at the theater of the mall that was then known as the Mid-Island Plaza in Hicksville.  I was a big fan of the original Star Trek series, having watched the reruns on TV, so this eight year old boy was already primed for science fiction adventure.  But Star Wars was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  If I had to find a quick and easy reference to describe it, I would call it Guns of Navarone in space.  From the opening scene with the Imperial Star Destroyer bearing down on Princess Leia's crippled ship to the gun battle that ensued, followed by the dramatic entrance of the imposing villain Darth Vader, I was hooked.  We meet R2-D2 and C-3PO, the robotic equivalents of Laurel & Hardy.  Luke Skywalker represented the young man in us yearning to get away to experience something bigger and better somewhere out there in the universe, while Han Solo was the swashbuckling cool guy we wished we could be.  There were so many memorable moments.  The Death Star destroying Alderaan.  The rescue of Princess Leia and the death of Obi Wan Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader.  Luke and the other rebel pilots making a desperate attack against the Death Star.  I still remember being gripped with tension as Luke flew down the trench on the Death Star to reach the target area after so many of his fellow pilots were destroyed trying to do so before him.  I also remember going to Play World and Toys R' Us to buy the action figures, though of course  the popular characters were usually sold out.

To my delight, a sequel came out in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back.  Star Wars had become so big I remember the line to get in to see The Empire Strikes Back wrapped all the way around the theater.  The second installment in the series expanded on the universe of Star Wars, taking us to new worlds and environments.  Being ten going on eleven at the time, it was a hard movie to watch because the good guys stumble and lose.  We see the rebels fleeing from their base to avoid destruction by the Empire.  Luke finds Yoda to train to become a Jedi, but he fails at it. Undeterred, he impetuously races off to try and save his friends and face Darth Vader in combat, only to find himself totally out of his depth.  Not only does Luke get his hand chopped off dueling against Vader, the latter reveals that he is in fact Luke's father.  Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite and his companions are unable to rescue him as Boba Fett jets away with him.  As depressing as these events were, the movie ends on an optimistic note, with Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca setting out to rescue Han, and Luke with his new robotic hand making it known that he will be joining them at some point.

And then it was downhill from there.

Return of the Jedi

For me, the decline of the Star Wars franchise begins with the Return of the Jedi.  Before I go on, I don't think it is a terrible movie.  It is just good enough, in my opinion, to bring the trilogy to a satisfactory conclusion.  But, I have issues.

1. The rescue of Han Solo.

One of the tensions inherent in the Star Wars franchise is that it has to satisfy two audiences at once, the young kids who buy the action figures, lunch boxes, and other Star Wars merchandise, and the grownups, some like me who aged with the series.  Return of the Jedi (ROTJ), unlike Empire, swings more heavily towards the kids.

The beginning of ROTJ is set in the palace of the crime lord Jabba the Hutt.  Jabba, as every Star Wars fan knows, is basically a giant slug like creature.  His court is populated with a myriad of puppets and other ridiculous looking beings (not unlike the cantina scene in the original Star Wars).  Watching ROTJ as a grown up, it is hard to take Jabba and his henchmen seriously.  The way I see it, the whole sequence was dumbed down to make it appealing to children.  While Empire had the Jedi master Yoda portrayed by a puppet, he was still a serious character and you accepted him.

The other problem I have with this part of the movie is that the plan to rescue Han Solo does not seem to make much sense.  R2-D2 and C-3PO obtain an audience with Jabba to convey Luke's hologram message to demand Han's release, which only results in Jabba pressing the droids into his service.  After that, Princess Leia comes in disguised as a bounty hunter with Chewbacca as her "prisoner."   While Leia succeeds in getting Han thawed out from the carbonite, she too ends up being captured.  Then comes Luke Skywalker, only to be taken prisoner himself after battling some giant creature in a pit.  Oh, and lest I forget to mention, Lando Calrissian has somehow insinuated himself into infiltrating the ranks of Jabba's guards. The next day, Jabba has them all transported out to the desert to have our heroes thrown into the Sarlacc pit, only for R2-D2 to put himself (yeah, I think of R2-D2 as a he) into position to shoot Luke's light saber into the air to reach Luke, who promptly goes on the attack.  The whole affair culminates with the death of Jabba and the rest of the bad guys and our heroes ride off into the sunset for their next adventure.

The success of the plan rests on the assumption that Jabba takes them to the Sarlacc pit instead of just killing them all outright.  Leia is perfectly placed so that she can wrap her chain around Jabba and strangle him to death.  R2-D2 will be able to get outside to lob the light saber over to Luke.  What if something happened to prevent R2-D2 from getting into position at just the right moment?  What if Leia was bound in such a way that she could not get at Jabba?  The rescue plan by rights should not have worked, and that it does succeed is only because the plot demands that it does.  I can't help but think that if ROTJ was more like Empire, instead of the Rube Goldberg rescue plot we get, we would see a rebel strike team raid Jabba's palace and rescue Han Solo by force. 

2. The Ewoks and the Endor Raid.

Yeah, I know, I am not the only one to complain about the Ewoks, who are somehow able to take on an entire legion of the Emperor's best troops.  If memory serves, this part of the movie was originally supposed to be set on the home world of the Wookies. If Chewbacca is anything to go by, Wookies would have indeed been formidable and credible opponents in a battle against the Stormtroopers.  I don't recall the details of why this was changed.  Maybe with ET The Extraterrestrial having come out the year before, there was a decision to go with cute, furry little creatures instead. 

But there is something else that bugs me about the rebel raid on the Imperial base on Endor.  The Emperor knows this raid is going to happen and he has his best troops on hand to surprise the rebels.  It is the goal of the Emperor to crush the rebellion once and for all.  This is going to be a battle to the death.  So, when the Imperial forces foil Han and his band before they can set their charges to blow up the base and thereby disable the shield that protects the new Death Star above from attack by the rebel fleet, why do they take the rebels prisoner?  I mean seriously, this is a war of extermination.  Granted, maybe the Stormtroopers were planning to massacre Han, Leia and the rest of the rebel band if the Ewok attack hadn't distracted them from doing so.   But there is a later scene when Han is trying to hotwire the door to get back into the Imperial base and Leia is wounded by blaster fire from a Stormtrooper.  A couple of Stormtroopers walk up to them and tell them to freeze.  Why?  Why don't they just unleash a hail of laser fire to kill Han and Leia?  What is the point of trying to take them prisoner?

3. The Emperor's Plan to Turn Luke to the Dark Side.

In a nutshell, the Emperor apparently hopes that Luke will be so angry watching the rebel fleet get decimated in their attack on the Death Star that he will try to kill the Emperor, thereby forcing Luke to fight his father Darth Vader (formerly Anakin Skywalker).  After Vader invokes the possibility of turning Leia to the Dark Side (more on that to come) Luke goes ape shit on his dad, chopping Vader's right hand off, only for Luke to see the wires sticking out, reminding him of his own robotic hand.

The Emperor glides over and tells Luke to kill Vader and take Vader's place by the Emperor's side.  But let's pretend Luke does kill Vader.  How does that turn him into the Emperor's bitch?  What is to stop Luke from trying to kill the Emperor?  Even if the Emperor manages to kill Luke, he is  without a right hand man. Another plot hole is that regardless of how this turns out, the shield protecting the Death Star is taken out and Lando and Wedge Antilles are able to fly into the core of the station and blow it up.  The Emperor is going to die regardless of what Luke or Vader does. 

4. Sister Leia.

It was one thing to give us the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.  But then ROTJ drops on us that Luke and Leia are brother and sister.  Really?  Ok, fine, let's go with it.  However, I have issues.

In the beginning of A New Hope, it is established that Darth Vader and Princess Leia know each other personally.  "Darth Vader, only you could be so bold" Leia says to him as she is brought before him as a prisoner on the captured cruiser.  Later on in the movie, Vader interrogates her (off camera) with the aid of a rather sinister looking device.  We can assume that this interrogation lasted for quite some time, at least several hours.  And yet in all that time alone with her, Vader can't sense that she is his daughter, or at the very least, detect the presence of The Force.  Remember, later on in A New Hope, when Vader is trailing Luke's X-wing fighter in the Death Star trench, without having met Luke in person, he says "The Force is strong with this one."  But Darth Vader's lengthy interrogation of Princess Leia reveals absolutely nothing to him about her true origin and nature.  I find that very hard to believe.

To be fair, the end of Empire does hint at some kind of connection between Luke and Leia.  When Luke is holding on for dear life outside the garbage chute at Cloud City, he is able to establish a telepathic connection with Leia so that she can have Lando and Chewbacca pilot the Millennium Falcon to rescue Luke.  It doesn't necessarily have to mean that Luke and Leia have a biological connection and that Leia has Force powers.  It can simply be chalked up to Luke using the Force to use telepathy to communicate with someone close to him.  I think it would have been easier to swallow if earlier scenes in Empire and ROTJ dropped hints that Leia had Force powers and that she herself was surprised to find out she possessed them.  Maybe even offer an explanation why Vader could not detect it when he interrogated her.

That being said, there is still enough that I like about ROTJ that makes it watchable for me.

The Phantom Menace

I remember around the time ROTJ came out, there were rumors that George Lucas wanted to follow up the original trilogy with one that takes place before it and another that takes place after it.  Then year after year passed by with no new Star Wars movie in the works.  I had given up hope that we would ever get any new Star Wars movies.  And then comes 1999 and The Phantom Menace. I remember feeling such excitement going to see it with my wife.

Afterwards, when I left the theater, I was tempted to call the police to report that I had been robbed.  I could not believe that George Lucas had 16 years to make a new Star Wars movie, and this was the piece of shit he had given us.

1. Taxation of trade routes.

One of the traditions established by the very first Star Wars movie was the opening crawl, which gives us a brief description of what is going on before the action starts.  With The Phantom Menace, we are told there is some issue with the taxation of trade routes.  But I could never figure out who was doing the taxing and who was expected to pay the taxes and what did blowing up the planet Naboo to smithereens have to do with it?

2. The toys win.

To give you an idea of how old the Star Wars movie franchise is, I was eight years old when A New Hope came out in 1977.  When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, I was just shy of 30.  Like I wrote above, one of the tensions in the franchise is that it has to appeal to both people like myself and the next generation of kids who were expected to buy the toys and the merchandise that accompanied the new movies.  One of the biggest problems I have with The Phantom Menace (I am not going to even get into Jar Jar Binks) is that we go from the fearsome looking Stormtroopers from the original trilogy to the Trade Federation and its robot army.  The Trade Federation aliens look ridiculous and sound ridiculous with their silly Asian sounding accents.  The robot army is completely incompetent.  30 year old me could not look at them and take them even remotely serious as a threat.

3. Little Boy Anakin.

When I first heard what The Phantom Menace was going to be about, I envisioned introducing the future Darth Vader as a cocky teenaged Anakin Skywalker who was maybe caught up with a band of intergalactic criminals.  Think Baby Driver in space.  He ends up meeting and getting into a series of adventures with Obi Wan, who senses the Force within Anakin and seeks to offer him an alternative to a life of crime by training him as a Jedi.  Instead, we get a boy who is, I don't know, about 8 or 10 years old who is precocious and we're expected to believe built C-3PO and is a champion racer on Tatooine.  It strikes me as bizarre to introduce to Star Wars fans the future murderous Darth Vader as a cute little boy.  Even more cringeworthy is his early interactions with the older Padme, only for them to become romantically involved in the sequels.  It just felt so wrong to me.

4. Young Obi Wan.

In Empire, when ghost Obi Wan appears to Luke on Hoth, he tells Luke to go to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda, the Jedi master who trained Obi Wan.  So, you would think that the prequel trilogy would show Yoda actually instructing Obi Wan.  In fact, if I could remake The Phantom Menace, one of the first things you would see is Obi Wan getting his final lesson from Yoda before going off on his first mission with Qui Gon.  It just baffles and bothers me that they didn't do this.  It would have been a great way to make an instant connection to the original trilogy.

5. Not enough Darth Maul.

The Phantom Menace needed a villain, who unlike the Trade Federation and its robot army, was actually menacing.  And it gives us one, a Sith apprentice named Darth Maul.  He is scary looking, practically satanic in appearance with his red face and horned head.  He is clearly a wicked cool badass.  But compared to Darth Vader in the original trilogy, he falls woefully short.  He barely speaks a sentence in the entire movie and he has very little screen time apart from his epic battle against Qui Gon and Obi Wan.  With Darth Maul, we get a villain who is more style over substance.  He should have been fleshed out more.

There are plenty of other problems with The Phantom Menace, but these are my main ones.  Suffice it to say, The Phantom Menace is the last Star Wars movie I paid to see in the theater.  And that was 20 years ago.

Attack of the Clones

I have to confess I have never seen this movie in its entirety.  I tried to watch it once from the beginning, but turned it off after a few minutes.  Specifically, after the scene where Amidala's body double is mortally wounded in an assassination attempt on Amidala.  With her last breath, body double Amidala tells real Amidala "I failed you."  I was like "No you didn't!  You were supposed to die instead of the real Amidala!  You fucking succeeded!  Congratulations!"  That one scene so disgusted me with its stupid dialog I turned the movie off then and there.

I did end up watching other parts of the movie, mainly the end.  I found it amusing how the early Stormtroopers were so polite when they were rescuing Amidala from that arena.  That's pretty much all I remember about Attack of the Clones.

Revenge of the Sith

Like Attack of the Clones, I don't recall that I have watched this movie from start to finish, though I have seen a fair chunk of it.

1. Lord Nelson in Space.

The opening battle sequence of this movie is an example of logic taking a back seat to what is visually dramatic.  One hallmark of the improvement of military technology over the last few centuries is the ability to kill your enemy from greater and greater distances.  In the great naval battle of the Jutland between the British and German fleets in 1916, the opposing ships could fire at enemy vessels over 10,000 yards away.  I have read that some of the fighting was at such great distances that the curvature of the earth had to be taken into account by the gun crews.  Modern jet fighters can fire at and destroy enemy air craft that are too far away to be seen with the naked eye but can be targeted by radar.  So, one can only imagine what distances would be involved in combat between space craft thousands of years in the future, assuming such a situation ever happens.  But in the opening space battle of Revenge of the Sith, we see enemy cruisers firing at each other at point blank range like the climactic fight at the end of Master And Commander.  I have a hard time taking this seriously.  But yeah, I guess it looks cool.

2. Whiny Anakin.

A common criticism of the movie.  I don't know if it is a result of bad acting, bad script writing, bad direction, or a combination of them all.  Anakin is an annoying shit in the movie.  I cringed the way Anakin says to Obi Wan at the end "You're either with me or you're my enemy." 

3. Amidala dying right after child birth.

Do you remember that scene in ROTJ on the Endor moon when Luke and Leia are alone?  Luke asks Leia if she has any memory of her mother.  Leia replies that her mother died when she was young but that she remembers that her mom often looked sad.  The writers for Revenge of the Sith must have forgotten that part, because they have Amidala die, presumably from grief, moments after giving birth to and naming her twins.  So, who is this sad looking mother that Leia remembered in ROTJ?

As you can tell, I don't have much to say about the prequel trilogy because The Phantom Menace was the only one I watched in its entirety, and it basically soured me on the two films that came after them.

That being said, I don't hate everything about them.  One aspect of the trilogy I did like was how Senator Palpatine, who becomes the Emperor, is creating the crises behind the scenes so as to create a situation whereby he can be given emergency powers to deal with them.  It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of how the masses can be manipulated to surrender their liberties for security only to find that they have lost both.

The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi

I was very jaded by the time the new trilogy was announced.  Still, I wanted to keep an open mind and see if the new Star Wars movie would revive the franchise and recapture the magic from the original trilogy.  Boy was I disappointed.

1. The original trilogy is rendered meaningless.

At the end of ROTJ, the new Death Star is destroyed, the Emperor gets thrown down a shaft and presumably killed, and Luke brings his father Anakin back to goodness before he passes away.  The Empire is overthrown and the revamped movie with new footage shows celebrations taking place on a number of different planets in the galaxy.  For all its flaws, ROTJ wraps up everything with a nice bow on top.

And then The Force Awakens (TFA) opens with Leia in charge of an embattled resistance trying to hold out against the First Order, or Empire 2.0.  Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to smuggling again.  Luke Skywalker is hiding somewhere and in what turns out to be a McGuffin, a major part of the plot to TFA is the recovery of a map that will tell the resistance or the First Order, whoever gets it first, where Luke is.  It's a McGuffin because when Rey finds Luke in The Last Jedi (TLJ), it basically serves no purpose.  Luke never really does anything to justify all of the trouble involved to find him in the first place.

Really?  This is what we get?  The surviving characters from the original trilogy are pretty much back where they started from in A New Hope.  Luke Skywalker's character is totally trashed.  So all of their struggles to overthrow the old empire accomplished absolutely nothing. 

2. The surviving cast members are squandered.

An important element of the original trilogy is that it was fun to watch Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 together.  It was one of the things that made it special for those of us who grew up watching those movies.

TFA, if it wanted to recapture the magic of the original trilogy, should have found a way to bring all these beloved characters back together again for one last adventure while passing the torch to a new generation of characters.  Instead, Han is together with Leia for barely a few minutes while Luke is absent and alone until the very end of the movie.  Now there is no chance of ever reuniting them, because Han was killed in TFA, Luke Skywalker dies at the end of TLJ, and Carrie Fisher died after filming TLJ.  Seriously Disney.  You had your chance and you blew it.

3. What is the point of the new trilogy or any other new Star Wars movie?

To the cynic in me, the Star Wars franchise has degenerated into nothing but a cash generating machine for Disney.  They know that they can slap the Star Wars label on any piece of shit movie they put out and the masses will march like lemmings to the theaters in the hope that the next one will somehow manage to recapture the nostalgia of the Star Wars of their youth. 

If there was going to be a new Star Wars trilogy to pick up after the original, there were so many different directions they could have taken.  One idea that popped into my head was having a surviving remnant of the Empire taking refuge on an uncharted planet and finding technology left behind by a lost civilization that gives them the power to strike back against the restored Republic.  Or maybe an alien threat from another galaxy.

There are a lot of other criticisms raised about the new trilogy, especially TLJ, with there being practically a cottage industry of YouTube videos by outraged Star Wars fans about such issues as the Canto Bight sequence, the Holdo maneuver (or just Admiral Holdo in general), Rey being a Mary Sue, and so on, that I don't feel the need to rehash them. 

Next month, The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment in this trilogy is coming out, and I just can't bring myself to give a shit.  May The Force be with you.