Friday, March 16, 2018

How I'd Reboot "Clarissa Explains It All"

I grew up in the heydey of Nickelodeon on TV. They say your earliest memories tend to be when you're around 3-5 years old, and for me, that would have been around 1991 when Nickelodeon dominated my early media consumption.

"Rugrats", "Doug", "Ren & Stimpy", "Pete & Pete", "Salute Your Shorts", and "Clarissa Explains It All" composed the vast majority of my early media diet. "Welcome Freshman" was there too, but I didn't care for it. All I can really remember about that show was how everybody always sat in chairs backwards because they thought it made them look cool or something. There was also "Hey Dude", but that show always bored the crap out of me and I usually just watched it when it was on before something else I wanted to watch. Oh, and of course there was "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" but I was honestly too scared as a kid to watch it. I didn't watch it until I saw reruns as an adolescent. There were also a bunch of game shows, but we can't be here all day.

Anyway... Those other shows? They were my jam.

"Rugrats" obviously had the most long-term success, even though the series pretty much lost my interest after the first three seasons.

"Doug" ended up migrating to Disney and, frankly, I thought that version was much more entertaining while it lasted.

"Ren & Stimpy" was pretty much the only show my dad enjoyed watching with us, and those early episodes definitely influenced my taste in comedy.

"Pete & Pete" was comparitively short-lived, but captivating and well-grounded in kid logic.

"Salute Your Shorts" was not the best, but I liked a bunch of the characters and thought their love-hate relationship with camp counselor Ug was fascinating.

But honestly, one of the shows I looked forward to watching the most was "Clarissa Explains It All".

That probably seems weird. And it is. Frankly, I have a hard time explaining it myself. There are a few smaller reasons why I suspect the show resonated with me.

1) It was the only show, other than "Pete & Pete", that depicted main characters who were siblings, and that was something I could relate to, especially once my younger brother was born. I think I related better to the dynamic between Clarissa and Ferguson than with Pete and Pete because the Petes were friendly with one another while Clarissa and Ferguson had more rivalry going on.
2) You tend to see that a lot of TV shows aimed at younger audiences have protagonists that break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. While the other shows I mentioned often had narration, "Clarissa" was the only one that consistently broke the fourth wall, and that probably made it easier for my younger brain to keep up with the show and the protagonist's shifting goals and feelings.
3) It was probably tied with "Doug" for the catchiest theme song of the bunch.
4) As a prepubescent boy with a STRONG distaste for romance, I was relieved to see a show where the female protagonist with a male best friend DIDN'T end up crushing on him.
5) I'm a visual learner and Clarissa always outlined her problems through visual lists and images used to explain her predicaments in excruciating detail. Hence the title.

However, probably the biggest reason by far that I always looked forward to "Clarissa Explains It All" was because of one particular conceit of the show.

Specifically, Clarissa had a computer.

More than that, Clarissa would regularly figure out how to solve the problems in her life by creating a computer game based on her problem and playing it.

Now, in hindsight, that conceit is absolutely bonkers.

Making a computer game, even a pretty simple one, is insanely hard work and requires a lot of special knowledge. At no point in the show is it ever established that Clarissa even HAS this knowledge. Heck, she barely seems interested in programming at all. She spends more time obsessing over bands, cars, and eventually journalism. This was just a thing she did to essentially role-play through her dilemmas. It was the 90's. Nothing had to make sense yet.

I've talked about this before, but that conceit drew my attention to the show like you wouldn't believe. My tiny mind was already blown by the mere idea of computers and video games, but the idea that you could just MAKE a video game and that they could reflect your problems and worries and help you work through them was an infectious one for me. Even during episodes where I might not have completely understood the problem or where I might not have otherwise cared, I still kept watching and wondering what video game Clarissa would make to help her tackle it.

Whatever, I was, like, 5.

That said, I think that this show (perhaps combined with the game show "Nick Arcade") really solidified my fascination and love of computers and video games from an early age. Similarly, I actually think these shows are one reason why I never thought of either thing as a strictly "male" activity, but I digress.

Point is, I have a lot of love for "Clarissa Explains It All", but it's less because it was a great show and more because it was very much a formative show for me. In an era where marketing executives still insist that boys can't relate to unapologetically feminine protagonists, the success of "Clarissa Explains It All" pretty much drives home the winning formula: Boys can relate to girls so long as they say and do things that the boys can relate to.

I couldn't relate to Clarissa's crushes or her dreams of being able to drive a car, but I could certainly relate to her struggles with her annoying younger brother and her continual interest in video games. And the fact that she had a best friend who was a boy made me feel like I could be friends with her and it wouldn't be weird.

So anyway, it looks like apparently Viacom is looking to reboot "Clarissa Explains It All". "Reboot" actually might be something of a misnomer, though, since it sounds like their intention is to have Melissa Joan Hart still play the title character, but as an adult matriarch of a family of her own.

There was also apparently a novel released a couple years ago by the original showrunner called "Things I Can't Explain" which detailed her post-high school life, including, yes, an actual relationship with Sam that eventually ended on weird, ambiguous terms. I haven't read it, but my understanding is that Sam got a gig in Europe, Clarissa couldn't stay with him and had to go back to New York, she didn't hear from him for years, and then she finally got a letter from him and... didn't open it.

So the novel doesn't really make it clear what Clarissa's mid-life trajectory would be. It would be fair to assume that she could have somehow eventually ended up with Sam, given that their platonic friendship eventually did evolve over the years. However, it's left so ambiguous that I'm not going to take it for granted.

Given everything I've said, here's how I think they should handle the reboot. Finally.

For starters, I like the idea of Clarissa now being a parent. The recent show "Girl Meets World" (itself a reboot of a different coming-of-age sitcom "Boy Meets World") took a similar approach where the former protagonists are now parents. However, while "Girl Meets World" kept the focus on the young character and made the older characters the supporting cast, I actually think the "Clarissa" reboot should retain the focus on Clarissa rather than be "Clarissa's Kid Explains It All" or something.

That might seem like a bad idea for a kids' show, but allow me to remind you all that I maintained interest in "Clarissa Explains It All", a show about a 16-year-old girl, as a 5-year-old boy. I'm pretty sure making her a couple decades older and giving her a couple of kids won't suddenly make her unrelateable.

Furthermore, "Girl Meets World" ended up getting canceled. I was also a pretty big "Boy Meets World" fan as a kid, so I can pretty easily tell you why "Girl Meets World" didn't have the same staying power: It was a retread. It was just "Boy Meets World", but with a female protagonist and with the old characters in the supporting roles. Frankly, unless you have a hard time relating to Corey and Topanga, there's very little in "Girl Meets World" that you couldn't have gotten from reruns of "Boy Meets World". Similarly, I think that if this reboot was just "Clarissa's Kid Explains It All", it would have a hard time not just feeling like a retread of the original series.

So how would I make the reboot interesting? Well, for starters, let's point out why Viacom is probably thinking about this in the first place. Specifically, they're hoping that a bunch of Millennial parents will tune in and get their kids hooked.

In that case, that should be the focus of the show.

A number of my friends are now married and/or have kids. I myself am getting married in like a month. The struggles of adapting to parenthood is difficult, but it's particularly strange for us Millennials, who have been admittedly slow to transition to adulthood, or at least the kind of adulthood that we grew up observing.

A lot of Boomers and Gen-Xers rushed into marriage and kids, and a LOT of the media Millennials grew up with OOZED with regret over that tendency. All the songs, movies, and TV shows told us to enjoy our youthful energy while we can, take our time settling down, and not rush into lifetime commitments before we were ready. By and large, I think we took that to heart. Millennials are generally less likely to rush into marriage, more likely to go to college, and less likely to reach financial stability as quickly as generations' past.

So we've got a bit of an "arrested development" thing going on. This is largely why Millennials are blamed for things like not buying cars or houses or cable subscriptions.

But because we diverged so much from the models left by the generations that came before us, when we do finally reach that point where we start making big life decisions, not only do we get filled with anxiety over the idea that we're finally putting down the roots that we put off for so long, we also stress over whether or not we took too long to do it and that we are simply too old to become "true adults".

So, to me, I imagine Clarissa the mother actually hasn't changed all that much, and that stresses her out. She probably feels like she SHOULD be behaving more like how her parents behaved, but she can't, and that probably makes her worry that she's doing it wrong.

Now, technically-speaking, Clarissa isn't a Millennial. She's a Gen-Xer. But let's be honest... Gen-Xers didn't really watch "Clarissa Explains It All". Millennials did. That's the audience that has nostalgia for the show, so that's the audience I expect the show to try and focus on (at least partially).

In other words, I see this reboot as a show that Millennial parents would watch with their kids to essentially be able to relate to the experience of transitioning into parenthood. Unlike the original show which portrayed the parents as archetypes (quirky archetypes, but archetypes nonetheless) that existed to provide obstacles and advice, the reboot would focus on Clarissa failing to fulfill those archetypes and then eventually figuring out her own way of parenting.

And if that sounds too focused on the Millennial audience, you're not entirely wrong, but I think that kids today have a different relationship to Millennial parents than us Millennials had with our parents. And I'm not trying to say "Millennial parents are cooler" or whatever, but I do think we Millennials are kind of obsessed with doing things differently than how our parents did them. Oftentimes this is hubris, but in general, the relationships that my friends have with their kids don't really remind me of the relationships I remember them having with their parents. One of those bigger differences is that I don't think Boomer parents were as inclined to watch TV with their kids. Growing up, most of the time I watched TV (even when at friends' houses) the adults would rarely join in, and if they did, they mostly commented flippantly, regularly criticizing what we were watching. Millennial parents, on the other hand (or at least the ones I know) seem to be more inclined to watch TV with their kids as a general rule.

So given that, I think it makes sense for "Clarissa" to evolve to a show that Millennials would watch with their kids so they could learn to better relate to one another.

But enough talk about the high-level concept stuff. Let's get more specific about what's changing and what's staying the same.

For starters, I don't see the reboot taking place in the suburbs of Ohio. Not just because Clarissa seemed eager to get out of Ohio and live in New York in the show, but because that's honestly what a lot of us Millennials did. We moved away. Not always that far, but with jobs becoming harder to get (and keep for that matter), and student loans ballooning out of control, we don't always get to choose where we live. A lot of us moved closer to cities and lower-income neighborhoods with real estate prices we can actually afford. I don't think I know any Millennial family that lives in a "white picket fence" suburban neighborhood like the one Clarissa grew up in. As such, I imagine Clarissa's family lives in a more modest home, probably closer to New York. She might not even own a home, she might just rent a decent-sized apartment.

Second, I think that, given her apparent state of arrested development in the novel (where she was in her late 20's) I'd find it unlikely that any of her kids would be older than 12. I'd probably aim at keeping them as young as possible. I wouldn't want the kids to be in their "rebellious" phase yet. I feel like the kids should not be old enough to see their mother as a burden (at least not constantly).

Third, unless the actor who played Sam is willing to come back as a regular and he actually can convincingly act as an adult version of the character, I think that Clarissa should be a single mom. For one thing, characters who break the fourth wall tend to be loners, and I think that it would be weird for her to have a husband that she met and fell in love with between the novel and the new series. Plus, being a single mom gives more opportunity for life drama since she'll have to juggle more. Also, divorce is a recurring presence in the series. Sam's parents were divorced, and apparently even Clarissa's parents separated.

Fourth, the show has to get the kids right. The kids can't be like the parents in the original series. They can't just exist to create conflict and occasionally show up to help Clarissa figure out the solution to her problem. Their problems have to be Clarissa's problems and vice versa. As I talked about earlier, the biggest challenge of the way I envision the reboot is making a show starring a middle-aged Millennial stereotype interesting to kids, and I think the key to that is making the kids relate to Clarissa the way they relate to their parents. It's hard for a kid to understand the perspective of their parents, but I think they try to more than we give them credit for. Also, being a kid can feel really powerless, something the the original show often touched on. Clarissa grew up frustrated with the limited control she had on her own life. Many of her conflicts arose from expectations and restrictions placed upon her by her parents. By instead making this show about the kids and the parent(s) cooperating to help solve one another's problems, kids might feel less powerless when it comes to their parents. Being able to see that their parents are just grown-up kids could be a powerful thing if done properly, and the relationship Clarissa has with her own kids will be important for establishing that.

And finally, one of Clarissa's kids should be a computer whiz who makes games every episode to help their mom deal with her problem of the day. Theoretically, Clarissa could still be the one to do this, but if the show's about her struggles as a single mom, it's probably a bit too much of a stretch to suggest that she still has the time to work out her problems by making video games. It's not a stretch at all to suggest that she still works through her problems by playing video games, but I think that this is a very simple way for her to be able to connect with at least one of her kids, get them involved in her problem-solving process, and reflect how video games can actually be a pretty good way to both bond with your kid and learn key problem-solving skills.

So that's how I imagine a "Clarissa" reboot. Pretty much an all-ages sitcom interpretation of Millennial parenthood where Clarissa has basically grown up to be the Wine Mom from BuzzFeed.

Honestly, I doubt the reboot will take the form I imagine. Mitchell Kriegman is a Baby Boomer, and while he was very influential to Millennials, I somehow doubt he's all that interested in continuing to explore the psyche of people my age. More likely, I imagine the show will be more like "Girl Meets World" where Clarissa isn't the main character and they instead do a retread of the original show, but with Clarissa taking the place of Janet. And if the show takes that route, I imagine it will do rather poorly.

But hey, I could be wrong. Kriegman definitely seemed inclined to take risks and maintain a specific creative vision with the original show rather than just do the easiest, most obvious thing to do, so maybe he might do the same now. Who knows? Honestly, there's a decent chance Viacom won't be interested anyway. Wouldn't be the first time a Clarissa reboot would get passed on. But if this actually happens, I think there's honestly a lot of potential here. There really weren't a lot of shows like "Clarissa Explains It All", and there really haven't been any other shows like it since then. Maybe it's time.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Why Some People Probably Hate "The Last Jedi" *SPOILERS*

I know I still haven't reviewed "The Last Jedi". I will, but I want to see it once more before I do.

That said, if you saw my BINGO card, you'll be able to determine that I didn't get a BINGO. I wasn't SUPER far off in terms of the overall tone and themes of the film, but I was pretty far off in terms of exactly how that would be pulled off and, by and large, the film REALLY went in directions I didn't expect.

I wasn't alone in that.

However, one thing that's dominated a lot of discussions regarding "The Last Jedi" is the backlash. A LOT of people are not just lukewarm on the film, but they outright HATE it, with people spamming RottenTomatoes and Metacritic with 1-star reviews deliberately to carpet-bomb the audience rating.

Is the movie actually that bad? Of course not. But you don't give a movie a 1-star review for being a bad movie. You give it a 1-star review because it offended you and you want to hurt it back.

Now, a lot of these offended audience members are probably just usual angry "Star Wars" fanboys that hate anything that isn't the original trilogy. However, having had a lot of discussions online with people who genuinely believe the movie is bad (or at least flawed), there are two main criticisms that I see the most.

The first is in regard to the Poe/Holdo subplot that essentially created a misunderstanding that led to a different subplot regarding Finn and Rose.

I personally LIKE these subplots, and I think some reasons for disliking them are unfounded, but I get it. Conflict based on lack of communication can be frustrating and feel somewhat hackneyed, so I can totally understand that criticism. I'll probably go deeper into it during my proper review, but by-and-large, if the Canto Bight subplot completely killed the pacing of the movie for you and just dragged, I can get that killing your enthusiasm about the film. Maybe not enough to go full 1-star review on it, but I can at least get knocking off a few points for that.

There is another criticism, however, and THAT one is a lot less understandable and probably responsible for most of the loudest whining.

Basically, a whole lot of people are upset that Rey doesn't have familiar or important parents.

Now... thinking about this outside of the context of "Star Wars", this doesn't make a lot of sense. Why should something like that matter? Most movies don't have reveals like that, so why get upset that this one doesn't either?

I've been thinking about that a lot lately and I've heard a lot of theories regarding why people are reacting so badly to that, ranging from generational divides to simple sexist incapability of accepting that a woman could have power that doesn't indirectly come from a man.

However! I actually have a different idea. I'm not saying I think it's more valid, but it's an idea I at least wanted to express as a possibility.

To understand it, let's go back in time a bit. It's the 70's. "Star Wars" just came out. Everyone fell head over heels in love with it. It was basically the "Harry Potter" of the time. A boy living with godparents finds out he has a secret power and leaves home to understand it and save the universe. And for a few years, "Star Wars" (and to a much lesser extent, the holiday special) was all the "Star Wars" there was.

And in that context, the "Star Wars" people knew at the time was almost adorably simple. Luke was the young farm boy who found out he was special, was sent on a vengeance quest for his dead father, and set out to save the galaxy from the simply evil Darth Vader. You really couldn't have had a more clear-cut good-and-evil story.

And that's how people took it! Nobody really expected anything deeper beneath the surface. When people heard a sequel was coming out, they naturally expected more of the same.

What they got was something different.

Now, in hindsight, especially for people in my generation, or even some members of Generation X, it's hard to understand the mindset of people going into "Empire Strikes Back" because we all grew up in a world where everybody already knew that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. It was kind of the original spoiler. I myself went in knowing that just because it's a part of the cultural zeitgeist as the archetypal rug-pull.

But at the time? Nobody saw it coming. And I mean NOBODY. George Lucas only told a very small handful of people. When they filmed the scene, the person standing in for Vader's voice said, "Obi-Wan killed your father" specifically to keep the true reveal a secret. Only George, a couple producers, Mark Hamill, and James Earl Jones knew the truth leading up to the premiere.

And the movie really leans into that reveal. Yoda seeming to have been disappointed with Luke's father for some reason, Luke confronting Vader in the cave only to find that behind his mask is... himself! Luke went into his true confrontation knowing who he was, just as the audience did, and left it shaken, unsure of what the future held for him, and the audience was still right there with him.

One of the things that struck me the most in the days following the premiere of "The Last Jedi" was how often I heard people theorize that Kylo Ren was lying to Rey about her parents to manipulate her.

Those people may not be aware, but the EXACT SAME THING HAPPENED after "The Empire Strikes Back". People refused to believe the truth and thought that the evil Vader was just lying to get Luke to turn. Even James Earl Jones himself thought that was the case. There was so much disagreement, in fact, that it's partially the reason Luke asks Yoda to spell it out for him in "Return of the Jedi". The audience needed it spelled out for them, too.

Now here's the thing. Human beings inherently try to predict perceived patterns. When something surprises us, we try to retroactively find signs that we missed so that we won't be surprised again. It's kind of why we have the saying, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." In other words, there's no shame in being surprised ONCE, but there IS shame in not learning and adapting from your mistakes.

So when "The Force Awakens" came out and was being directed by the "Mystery Box" man himself, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, expected that there was some secret behind Rey's backstory, which was only shown in glimpses.

Now, if you remove the expectation of being surprised, there's actually surprisingly little reason to believe there was much mystery there. We don't see Rey's parents themselves, but we see them leaving her behind, and Maz tells her that whoever they are, they aren't coming back. Textually, the movie is pretty clear, or at least AS clear as the the original "Star Wars" (now "A New Hope" to avoid confusion) was about Luke's origins. I mean, we never SAW Anakin Skywalker, but that didn't mean we suspected there was some big hidden secret about his true identity. In a pre-"Empire" world, nobody had any reason to be suspicious.

We don't live in that world anymore.

And immediately following "The Force Awakens", basically J.J. Abrams and Daisy Ridley seemed confused about all the Rey parentage speculation to the point where their comments on the subject simply fueled more speculation. But if you read the way they talk about the character, whether or not they had clear ideas about who Rey's parents were in concrete terms, it is pretty clear they didn't approach her character as a child of an established character. They wanted her to be her own thing.

But people weren't buying it. They were CONVINCED that this was just another trick. They were foolish enough to believe Luke was just a normal farm boy with a pretty cool father and some special mojo that was rare, but not THAT unique. That's why I compared him to Harry Potter, who got a leg up from his dead parents, but more or less forged his own identity from that. That's pretty much what Luke was until that was ripped away from him by finding out his supposedly dead hero father was actually a very-much-alive villain. "Fool me once..."

So of COURSE people expected Rey to secretly be a Skywalker or a Kenobi or even a Palpatine. They expected her character trajectory to be influenced by the gravity of a different character in the universe, just like Luke was. They thought they saw all of the signs and so they thought they had the broad prediction right (that Rey was secretly related to SOMEONE) but disagreed about the details. It seemed like a foregone conclusion. Of COURSE Rey would have some kind of parent reveal. This is "Star Wars"!

But here's the thing I think those people aren't realizing.

In the "Star Wars" galaxy, the stories of the original trilogy were also just as prevalent. I mean, no, they didn't have movies, but in "The Force Awakens", it's clear that Rey heard stories about Luke, Leia, Han, and the Jedi. One of the first private moments we see of her is her looking out on the horizon, putting on an old rebel pilot's helmet. And when she found out that she had the power of the Jedi, she drew the same knee-jerk conclusions we did. Maybe what she thought she knew about her parents was wrong, just like it was with Luke and Vader (which only recently became public knowledge in the "Star Wars" galaxy). Why do you think she wanted to find Luke so badly? And there were a lot of circumstantial reasons to suspect that. Maybe she didn't just get abandoned. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding. Maybe it was all for a reason, and finding out that reason would not just make all of her suffering worthwhile, it would show her what her own destiny was.

By now, you ought to be understanding the problem of revealing Rey's parents to be someone important.

It's not a surprise.

Not for me, not for you, not even for Rey.

I mean, sure, the answer could have been surprising by being something like "Your parents are Lando and Leia!" but only the details are surprising in cases like that, and they don't change the deeper meaning. The idea that she might be related to someone important is the part that matters.

Unlike Luke who thought he knew who he was, where he came from, and what he would become, Rey had none of those things. She lived her life waiting for parents who would never return, so she never became anything. She never really knew her parents, or if she did, she forgot who they were, so she effectively had no past. And without a present or a past, how can you chart a future?

So in the absence of an identity of her own, Rey did nothing BUT get pulled around by the gravity of other established characters. Roped into helping Han and Chewie on the Falcon, aiding Leia in the Resistance, and then going to Luke to get him to come back and teach her to be a Jedi like him. She already was defined by everyone else and their past adventures. That was the problem.

Rey WANTED to find out there was a reason for it all. Rey wanted an easy way to chart her own future. If her parents were good, then she would follow in their footsteps. Evil? She would go on a path of redemption like Luke did. Either way, she would finally have a direction given to her.

But to find out that they were just weak, selfish people who had no impact beyond the impact they left on her by abandoning her and stunting her emotional growth as a person? That's... well, that's not helpful. Where does a person go with that?

And that's what made it frustrating for a lot of people, I think. The worst thing that could have happened to Luke was to find out that his simple, predictable backstory was a lie that he used to justify his actions. But the worst thing that could have happened to Rey was to find out that her backstory WAS simple and predictable.

"The Empire Strikes Back" trained "Star Wars" fans (and perhaps movie audiences as a whole) to expect the unexpected.

"The Last Jedi" knew that, and decided that the only way to be truly surprising AND meaningful was to find the answer that provoked the same character reaction out of Luke in "Empire". Rey needed to feel rudderless, confused, and pulled towards the temptation of meaning defined by the one person in the galaxy that claims to truly know them. And the truth about her parents did exactly that.

The truth was, she DID actually stay on Jakku all those years for no reason. She WAS waiting for parents that were never coming back, and it wasn't because they couldn't. It's because they never planned to in the first place. She wasn't strong in the Force because she had Jedi parents (which even I thought would turn out to be the case). It was because the Force doesn't care about parents. The Force chose her for reasons unrelated to anyone but Rey herself, and Rey has to find that within herself, not in others, if she is to become who she is meant to be.

And in contrast, you have Kylo Ren, who fell partially because he found out about his connection to Darth Vader. Unlike Luke, who handled having the truth hidden from him rather well, Ben Solo didn't. He felt lied to and betrayed (or so I'm told, I haven't read "Bloodlines" myself yet). And initially, he let that history guide his future.

In "The Last Jedi", he realizes that abandoning the path of Luke, his parents, and his namesake in pursuit of the path of an even older relative was a mistake. That's why he destroys his mask and spends the movie talking about how the past should die. That's why he killed Han and why he seeks to kill Luke. Unlike Rey, who craves being pulled into the gravity of these other character, Kylo Ren feels as though it defined his entire existence as Ben Solo. He was the son of Leia and Han and the student of Luke, named after Luke's teacher. And even that name itself was fake. He was literally the product of the previous generation, even their mistakes and lies, and it was suffocating for him. He thought Snoke offered him relief, but he finally realized the opposite. Snoke was just another remnant of the past trying to manipulate him for his bloodline. The only person who treated him like his own individual was Rey.

This is one reason why I find the connection between Rey and Kylo Ren so interesting. Kylo Ren essentially had everything Rey wanted. Living parents who gave a damn, a history that explained his position and power, and a path carved out for him. He rejected all of that, and that infuriates and confuses Rey. Meanwhile, Rey has everything Kylo wants. No parents, no history, no defined future, and power that didn't come with lots of emotional Skywalker baggage. She, likewise, rejected or ignored all of that and obsessed over trying to find out how she fit into the family trees and timelines and how she could carry on the legacy that preceded her, and that infuriates and confuses Kylo. They both want the other to accept what they have and then share it with them, and are both equally frustrated when they refuse. Rey wants Kylo to return to being Ben Solo and let her be a part of that. Kylo wants Rey to give up on trying to fit in with the past and just join him in setting a torch to all of that. It pulls them together, but also forces them apart, and it's just... Wow.

The Rey parent reveal is, in my mind, thematically, narratively, and emotionally perfect in the context of "Star Wars".

But it also kind of exists to obstinately tell everyone who thought that Rey MUST be related to someone important that not only do they not understand WHY they expect that reveal, but why trying to just replicate the "Empire Strikes Back" moment would have disappointed and effectively meant nothing to Rey. If Rey turned out to be a Kenobi, then her path becomes defined as redeeming the Jedi of old, which Obi-Wan partially represented. At that point, the only way to make her path interesting would be to make her reject that path and join Kylo Ren in rejecting the past. And, you know, there's an argument for how that could be an interesting story where it's essentially Force-users against everyone else, but it just didn't seem to make sense for Rey. Why would the Rey we know, who idolized the rebels of old, be upset to find out that Obi-Wan was her father or grandfather? I mean, it wouldn't have been like anyone was knowingly hiding that from her. Why would they? So the only reaction to a reveal like that that would have made any sense would have been for her to carry on the Jedi legacy.

And... well, what do you do with that? How do you make that interesting? How is that even remotely relatable if every important hero from the "Star Wars" universe is important largely because they had important parents? In that regard, why should anyone do anything but wait for the important people to have important babies that will save everyone? Why shouldn't we all just do what Rey did for most of her life and resist the call to adventure until someone forces us off our asses?

I had a very easy time relating to Rey in "The Force Awakens" and the beginning of "The Last Jedi". What nerdy kid like me didn't dream of secretly being an alien or a mutant or a wizard or (of course) a Jedi? Who wouldn't love to find out that your mundane past is a lie and you're actually an awesome Chosen One with cool powers?

But as I grew older, what made me stop believing that stuff wasn't cynicism or some notion that I needed to "get real". What changed was that I stopped resenting the life I had and believing that I "needed" some kind of special backstory to chart my path for me or to feel empowered. The answers that I needed weren't secrets being kept from me, they were within myself all along. I just had to listen, accept what I already knew, and put in the effort to build the life I wanted for myself.

So when Rey has to go through the same thing, I thought it was perfect. I understood it completely. It felt right.

And, well, I guess I just assumed that was something a lot more people could relate to, too.

But what I'm finding more and more disturbing is that the people of the world are too aggressively looking for secrets that don't exist. The seeming omnipresence of conspiracy theories and the growing number of people who believe them seems to speak to this refusal to accept reality. The inherent mistrust of people whose jobs are to find and speak the truth, the desire to put familiar people in positions of authority, and most of all, the outright rejection of the emerging Millennial identity that is, largely, forged in direct critical examination of the problematic aspects of the generations that came before.

I mean, not to get too political, but I don't think it's a coincidence that a year after three major candidates for President all got their opportunities arguably because of their familiar last names, we have a lot of people getting upset that Rey doesn't have a familiar last name. For some reason, we expect to be led by dynasties.

And here we have "Star Wars", not just one of the most powerful forces of escapism our modern culture has produced, but in some ways, the founder of the dramatic reveal that upends and re-contextualizes everything you thought you knew, telling us that maybe our destiny may not be to the hero. There is no secret reason that explains why Rey's backstory was actually really necessary to keep her hidden or something. Her parents just sucked. Sometimes, parents just suck. And sometimes, people who have terrible parents go on to do amazing, incredible things. Alexander Hamilton, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, all accomplished great things without (or sometimes in spite of) direction afforded to them from biological parents. And really, how often do we see that kind of story depicted, especially in escapist fantasy?

People love patterns, and more than that, people love to feel that they understand patterns and can predict when they will recur. And when we're wrong about our predictions, it doesn't usually feel good.

In that context, I can understand why people are upset about the Rey reveal. It sought to recreate the FEELING of the "Empire Strikes Back" reveal, and the only way it could do that without undermining Rey as a character was to outright reject the very notion that she NEEDS a big reveal to understand herself. I didn't, most of us don't, and neither does Rey. But the FEELING of the "Empire Strikes Back" reveal was shock, disbelief, and disorientation. And "The Last Jedi" clearly did its job, perhaps too well.

People who thought they were clever for having "deduced" that there was more to Rey than we knew were now being told not only that they weren't clever, but that the movie was already a step ahead of them. Rian Johnson set a trap for them and they all fell headlong into it.

I think what I'm finding out is that most people like to be surprised when they're not expecting a surprise, but when they ARE expecting a surprise, they DON'T like being surprised, usually because that surprise essentially tells them that the pattern they thought they recognized was not only totally wrong, but based in a fundamental misunderstanding of why they thought the pattern existed in the first place. The Darth Vader reveal wasn't just about subverting expectations. It was because it took the expectations of the generation that developed the tropes that George Lucas was paying homage to in the first film, and in a single swift moment, took the once carefree and simple genre defined by "Flash Gordon" and turned it into something more akin to a Greek tragedy. And if you grew up with "Flash Gordon" like Lucas did, I imagine that was pretty hard to digest. If the reveal was just about surprise, it would have been meaningless to my generation. But it wasn't. That's because it wasn't just surprising, it was shocking, and even if you know it's coming, the shock on Luke's face never loses its potency.

Rey turning out to be a Kenobi might have been cool to some people for a while. But in 20 years, who would care? What would it matter in the grand scheme of things? How would a reveal like that define the sequel trilogy the way "Empire" defined the original trilogy? How would it carry weight after you know it? I keep hearing about how the Rey reveal is a "wasted opportunity", but to try and recreate the surface-level recipe of the Vader moment without really understanding the power behind it would have been the true wasted opportunity. But that's not really what these people are angry about. The "wasted opportunity" they're referring to isn't a narrative one, but a personal one. The "opportunity" they wanted seized was validation, vindication, and a continuation of the world as they believed it to be. As they wanted it to be. That's what I believe they're truly upset about. They wanted to turn to their friend and say, "I called it!" Instead, they had the exact same reaction as anyone else: "Wait, REALLY?" And perhaps any moment that puts a die-hard "Star Wars" fan on the same level as someone who's never seen a single "Star Wars" movie is too much of a hit to the ego for some people to accept.

And yes, ego is a part of this. I see fans saying that this reveal goes against the fundamental themes of "Star Wars". To me, that would be like people coming out of "Empire" blasting it for going against the fundamental themes of the pulp sci-fi serials that inspired it. It's not a rejection. It's a natural evolution. If it wasn't going to evolve, why make it? Why have "Star Wars" if we already had "Flash Gordon"? Because "Star Wars" had something new to say, and it resonated.

There are problems with "The Last Jedi". I'll get into them when I eventually write my full review. I do think there's a valid argument to be had regarding the execution of the Canto Bight sequence or the choices regarding Snoke. But Rey turning out to have dead, nobody parents who sold her for booze money was not a problem. I was blown away when I saw it, and I'm still blown away every time I see someone express disbelief in the same way James Earl Jones once did regarding Darth Vader. To me, that in and of itself is proof that this reveal did exactly what it was supposed to do, and I genuinely didn't think that would have been possible. I was sure that whatever the reveal was, it wouldn't hold a candle to the Vader reveal. I was completely wrong.

And if you STILL think it WAS a "wasted opportunity", I'd really like you to give me a better version. Give me a reveal that would have worked better narratively, dramatically, and thematically, and maybe I'll change my mind. I had my own theory that her parents were Jedi who trained under Luke, and even I left the movie feeling my idea would have been less interesting, if only because it would have given Rey a solid reason to reject Kylo Ren beyond just her own moral compass, and it would have given her an easy reason to continue the teachings of the Jedi.

Rey defines herself, and that's a scary thing for anyone to do. But what the old guard "Star Wars" fans are possibly missing is that Rey is not burning down what they thought they knew and loved. That's the path of Kylo Ren, the character that grew up in the shadow of that legacy. But Rey saved the ancient Jedi texts. She intends to carry on the legacy despite being told explicitly not to. Rey will pass on what she has learned. She came to the conclusion that the stories she grew up hearing about Luke, Leia, and Han may not have been exactly what she thought or what other people said, and she may not have had a connection to them as she secretly fantasized, but she decided to find inspiration in it all the same. All on her own, she decided to take up the extinguished torch and reignite it despite having no selfish reason to do so. She is still the hero championing all the ideals that "Star Wars" fans want the hero of the franchise to champion.

She's just stopped waiting for someone to give her a last name, first.

The sequel trilogy has become a clash between a person who wants to burn down the legacy that preceded him and a person seeking to preserve the lives and legacy of people she never knew and owes nothing to. If that's not "Star Wars", I don't know what is.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"The Last Jedi" Prediction Bingo Squares

UPDATE (2018): I've now updated my predictions to assess whether or not I was right, so consider this post to have SPOILERS.

I've been wanting to write about my predictions regarding the upcoming "Star Wars" film, "The Last Jedi", but each of my attempts has fallen short, mostly because I haven't really found an entertaining way of presenting them. Then Jenny Nicholson from YouTube went ahead and figured out how to do it: A Bingo card:

So I've decided to copy her idea so that I can finally put myself on-the-record for what I expect from this next film.

And, for the record, my expectations are REALLY high. Like, I'm probably expecting WAY too much from this movie, but I honestly can't really help it. So screw it! LET'S RIDE THIS HYPE TRAIN STRAIGHT INTO A BRICK WALL! WOO!

To make this interesting, I'm going to deliberately try not to use any of Jenny's predictions, and if I have one that's similar, I'll make it more specific to keep it interesting. Like Jenny, I'm going to make a bunch of baseless predictions since it would be boring if I got most of these right. These are still actual predictions of mine, don't get me wrong, but (for the most part) I'm specifically picking ones that don't have a lot of evidence to back them up. For each square, I've included a chunk about what I mean by my predictions.

B1) Luke trained Rey's mother
I'm going to start off with my first prediction regarding Rey's origins, which is that her mother was, in fact, one of the new Jedi Luke was training before Kylo Ren ruined it all. This makes a lot more sense once you hear some of my other predictions, but the short reason for why I believe this one is because I sincerely doubt that Rey's parents would be someone we know, but I also sincerely doubt that the identity of her parents would be something irrelevant. I'm also guessing that he trained her mother as opposed to her father because reasons.
VERDICT: Nope. I was right that Rey's parents wouldn't be someone we knew, but I overestimated their significance.

B2) Rey is not related by blood to the Skywalkers
This ties into the previous one a bit, but regardless of who Rey's parents are, I think it's very, very important to her character and to the themes of this new trilogy that she NOT be related to Anakin Skywalker by blood. I'll get deeper into why later, but it's mostly just that the character who represents the Skywalker legacy (Kylo Ren) believes that his blood entitles him to a certain destiny, and I believe one of the themes of this trilogy is that circumstance and power do not make you a hero, and making Rey special because she's related to Anakin would essentially send the message that heroes have to be chosen.
VERDICT: Correct!

B3) Kylo Ren and Rey are the new Chosen Ones
In the previous film, and in the trailers for this one, we get the impression that Kylo Ren is ridiculously overpowered. He froze a blaster bolt in mid-air and held it for minutes without even thinking consciously about it. Luke and Snoke both talk about how much raw power he has. If he has even more power than Luke, it raises an interesting question. Trigger warning: I'm about to talk about the prequels and midi-chlorians. The main reason why Anakin Skywalker was so strong was because his father literally was the Force. He had a biological advantage. And while this passed on to Luke and Leia, through Luke we get the impression that, strong as he may be, Anakin was still stronger, implying that the biological advantage weakens with each generation, particularly if one of the parents wasn't Force-sensitive. By this logic, since Han Solo wasn't Force-sensitive, Ben Solo should have been less Force-sensitive than Luke or Leia, but this is not the case. This suggests to me that there's something more going on with Kylo Ren, and I suspect it's the same something that's going on with Rey. Specifically, I don't think Kylo Ren or Rey get their power through a midi-chlorian-based connection to the Force, but that they are the new "Chosen Ones" in the same way that Anakin was. I'll get more into that later.
VERDICT: This one was borderline, but I'm not giving myself this one. Though there's some implication that the Force is doing something wonky with Rey and Kylo Ren, we haven't really been giving the impression that they are "Chosen Ones" in the same vein as Anakin.

B4) The origins of the Jedi will be problematic
Based on what Han said in TFA, we can presume that Luke's hideout is the location of the first Jedi Temple, and what better reason would he have to go there but to learn the origins of the Jedi so that he can help rebuild the Order correctly this time. However, given his cynical disposition and insistence that the Jedi need to end, I presume that not only did Luke learn the origin of the Jedi Order, but he was shaken by it. I believe something regarding the Order's origins will partially convince Luke that the Jedi were meant to fail, hence why he decided to remain in exile: To allow the Jedi to fade out of existence.
VERDICT: While Luke did have some issues with the Jedi, it didn't extend to their origins. Heck, it seemed like he never even bothered to read the sacred texts. I wasn't too far off, but not close enough to count it.

B5) Luke left Rey on Jakku
She won't find out for a while, but I believe that Luke is the one who stranded Rey on Jakku. She didn't know who he was at the time and she may not even recognize him right away in present day (maybe because of the beard). But if we're presuming that her mother was a Jedi-in-training, her having a daughter might have been a deal-breaker because of the whole emotional attachment thing. But I don't just believe this because of my prediction regarding Rey's mother, I believe it because it's just too much of a coincidence that Luke's buddy Lor San Tekka (the guy who Kylo Ren killed at the beginning of TFA) just so happened to be within walking distance of Rey's home. Frankly, I think that this was the moment that the Force decided that Luke was unfit to bring balance to the Force, as he was willing to prioritize the resurrection of the Jedi over the happiness of Rey and her family, just as the old Jedi Order made a nasty habit of breaking up happy couples and taking children from their parents.
VERDICT: Guess Lor San Tekka really was just a coincidence. Well, it's "Star Wars", so I guess nothing is really a coincidence, but it wasn't Luke's doing, that's for sure.

I1) Luke will stop training Rey
You know that moment in the trailer where Luke is all like, "I've seen this raw strength only once before. It didn't scare me enough then. It does now"? Well, I predict that he'll initially agree to train her, perhaps even believing that the Force means for him to train her, but once he realizes who Rey actually is and the power she holds, he will realize that he shouldn't be training her. He won't explain why beyond simply what happened with the first person he saw with that kind of power (probably Kylo Ren), but I suspect that it won't just be out of fear. Luke is a Jedi and cannot be ruled by fear. Instead, I think he'll believe that training Rey will doom her to repeat the mistakes of the Jedi and that in order for there to be balance in the Force, Rey will have to find her own path. At that point, I believe Rey will continue to train herself (she seemed to be pretty auto-didactic in TFA) and Luke will watch, but not help. Eventually, they'll leave the planet and Luke will come with, but I don't believe he will ever agree to train her again after seeing her raw strength.
VERDICT: I was kind of off on many details, but I'm counting this one, mostly because Luke agreed to give Rey three lessons, but in the end, he only gave two, and part of that is because she started falling down the dark path without even resisting it.

I2) Rey was not born with her Force-sensitivity
This is partially tying into my belief that what makes Rey special can't be interpreted as a birthright, but also kind of a necessity in terms of the whole "Luke left Rey on Jakku" theory, since if Luke is the one who took her, he would have sensed her power, and even if that's something Luke has to consciously do, if her mother was Force-sensitive, Luke probably would have thought to check Rey out. I believe that while the Force was potentially quite strong with her (the Force flows through all things), he also would have sensed that she was likely blind to it, as most people are, suggesting she had an important destiny, but not as a Jedi. Furthermore, this would resolve the biggest problem "Star Wars" fans have with the midi-chlorians, which is that it suggests that there has to be a biological component in order for the Force to work, but if Rey has incredible power despite having a low midi-chlorian count, it would suggest that her power was not innate, but given to her later in life. An "awakening", if you will. More specifically, I believe that the Force has decided that it was a bad idea for one person (Anakin) to bring balance to the Force, because one person cannot adequately embody both Sides at the same time, even someone whose father is literally the Force itself. As such, I believe the Force "awakened" both Kylo Ren and Rey to a much deeper connection to the Force so that they could sort of be joint-Chosen Ones like I talked about earlier. Essentially, Kylo Ren will be the embodiment of the Dark Side, but with a hint of the Light Side (which may be why he always feels seduced by the Light Side), and Rey will be the embodiment of the Light Side, but with a hint of the Dark Side (which we'll see more in this movie). They'll be yin and yang, representing the balance of the Force.
VERDICT: While we know that Rey's power seems to grow in opposition to Kylo Ren's power, that does not suggest that she never had the power to begin with. She also said that the power had always been there, but now it had awakened. That COULD be read as her not having Force-sensitivity until recently, but I don't think it was explicit enough to count.

I3) The Knights of Ren hate the Sith as much as the Jedi
I was very happy with TFA when it was made clear that Kylo Ren was not a Sith, nor did he specifically revere the Sith. We don't yet know much about the Knights of Ren beyond that, but I personally believe that the Knights of Ren are modeled more after the Jedi than the Sith since they don't seem to have the "Rule of Two" and the way Kylo Ren seems to think of the Dark Side feels less in line with the way the Sith saw the Dark Side and more in line with the way the Jedi saw the Light Side, like how Kylo Ren talks about the Light Side seducing him the way a Jedi might talk about the Dark Side seducing them. I think the Knights of Ren see themselves as Jedi that were freed from the dogmatic thinking that the Dark Side was evil. I even think some of the Knights of Ren were former students of Luke's that helped Kylo Ren kill Luke's loyal Jedi students.
VERDICT: We actually haven't learned much at all about the Knights of Ren. They may, in fact, dislike the Sith (assuming they're still around), but it wasn't in TLJ, so it doesn't count.

I4) Phasma's helmet once again stays on for the entire movie
I thought it was really interesting how after the photoshoot with Gwendoline Christie dressed as Phasma with her helmet off was released, it was immediately clarified by LucasFilm as not being canonical. To me, this either implies that Phasma's face doesn't JUST look like Gwendoline Christie (like she's got scars or something) or LucasFilm is making a point of never, ever, ever showing Captain Phasma's face without a helmet in canon. Given how most people think Boba Fett stopped being cool the moment we saw him without his helmet (personally I disagree... I think Boba Fett was never cool in the first place), I wouldn't be surprised if LucasFilm has decided that they won't repeat that perceived mistake.
VERDICT: Her helmet cracks, but stays on. Good enough for me!

I5) Finn will ask Leia to let him leave the Resistance, and Leia will permit it
We already know from interviews that Finn will be the reluctant hero again and that he'll have a change of heart, partially thanks to a new character named Rose Tico, but to get a LITTLE more specific, I think that once Finn finishes recovering from his wounds, he will ask Leia to let him leave the Resistance in a moment that will mirror the scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" when Han asked General Rieeken on Hoth to leave so he could pay back Jabba. Similarly to that scene, I believe Finn will emphasize that, as a defector, he's got pretty much everyone in the First Order wanting to kill him specifically, so if he doesn't take off for the Outer Rim, he's a dead man. And I think Leia will respond with a familiar phrase: "A death's mark is not an easy thing to live with. You're a good fighter, Finn. I hate to lose you." This would both be a nice callback and highlight Leia's growth as a leader (and possibly her certainty that Finn won't actually go through with it, just as Han didn't).
VERDICT: Finn does try to leave, but he doesn't ask permission. Bzzt.

N1) Rey has psychometry
OK, so, "psychometry" is a rare Force ability where a person can touch an object and know about its history. While this mostly just existed in side-stories that have since been rendered non-canon after Disney took over, there is still a canonical example of a character with psychometry, and it is defined as such in the canonical novel, "Dark Disciple". Now, obviously, the movies aren't going to get that technical on us, and they probably won't use the word "psychometry" (possibly because Luke won't actually know it has a name), but I do think that Rey will once again demonstrate her ability to see into the history of an important object, just as she did with Anakin's lightsaber.
VERDICT: We never see this happen in TLJ.

N2) Finn will come back to save Poe (again)
While I'm not sure if Poe will actually get captured again like he did in TFA, I do think that part of the reason Finn will stop himself from leaving the Resistance is because Poe will get himself in trouble and Finn will decide to save him again. Though I doubt they'll call out the line explicitly, I see this as mirroring the "that's two you owe me" line from "Empire".
VERDICT: Poe doesn't get captured, Finn never saves his life in TLJ.

FREE) Luke and Leia will reunite
The free space is this prediction because, while it hasn't technically been confirmed, it's so damn likely that I would be surprised if it didn't happen.
VERDICT: This one's borderline since Luke doesn't ACTUALLY show up in person, but they do interact while both are alive, they have a conversation, and it serves as a reunion in my book.

N4) There will be "Stormpilot" queerbaiting
In case you don't know "Stormpilot" refers to the ship between Finn and Poe. If you don't know what "shipping" is... welcome to the Internet! Anyway, while it's been confirmed that there won't be a big romance subplot in this movie, we DO know that LucasFilm is fully aware of how many fans are hoping that Finn and Poe will end up being more than just friends, so I'm actually expecting that there will be a "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" moment between the two that won't be explicit, but will definitely be intended to queerbait the Stormpilot shippers. I'm hoping it doesn't happen (insert argument for why queerbaiting is problematic here), but Disney is getting pretty infamous for doing half-measures on LGBT representation lately, so... yeah. I mean, I'm not really a Stormpilot shipper and even I think that if they're going to deliberately tease this, they should just commit to it. It's only weird if you make it weird.
VERDICT: Surprisingly, no queerbaiting. Well, Poe does happen to be the one that finds Finn "naked and leaking", but there's nothing queerbait-y about it.

N5) Luke has a red lightsaber
This is probably a weird one. If you look at most of the new toys with Luke, you'll notice they don't include a lightsaber. We have seen Luke with a lightsaber in some promo images, but the lightsaber appears to be Anakin's lightsaber, and Luke's green lightsaber seems completely MIA. I believe he had to create a new lightsaber from scratch. However, in the new canon, it's established that a lightsaber's color isn't decided until a Jedi has bonded with it. It's also said that kyber crystals are inherently attuned to the Light Side, so in order for a Dark Side Force user to construct one, they have to dominate it through the Force, turning it red in the process. I believe that when Luke tried to construct a new lightsaber, he was surprised and disturbed to find that the Force was resisting him and that the kyber crystals were refusing to attune with him, essentially leaving him no choice but to exert his dominance over it, turning it red. I believe he is deeply ashamed by having to do this, and as such, only uses the lightsaber in dire situations. So I believe we'll see Luke use Anakin's blue lightsaber at first, but at a certain point, he'll be forced to use his new red lightsaber. HOWEVER...

G1) Luke is and will always be a Jedi
As jaded and cynical as Luke has become, I believe he is still dedicated to being a Jedi. Even knowing everything he knows, and even believing that the Jedi need to end, he also knows that he still has a vital role to play as the last Jedi and has resigned himself to his fate. He will not fall to the Dark Side (at least not completely) and he will not stop being a Jedi. That part of his character is too vital. But I'm not saying that Luke won't end up being an antagonist. I think this film will emphasize that "Jedi" is not synonymous with "good guy". Rey's goals are likely the greatest good, but Luke can disagree without turning "bad". If you really look hard at the Jedi throughout "Star Wars" canon, you'll see that they are not always the good guys, and I think that Luke essentially filling a "bad guy" role while still maintaining his identity as a Jedi is the best way for the movie to drive home that the Jedi have to end. The lines are probably going to start getting blurrier.
VERDICT: Yep. Luke remains a Jedi until the very end.

G2) Rey will call herself a Skywalker
This is probably my most wild theory, but I like it, so I'm including it. Essentially, I agree with all the speculation that Rey will ultimately become a Grey or Neutral Force user, but I think it will go beyond that. I think ultimately, she and Kylo Ren will create a new Order to replace both the Jedi and the Sith/Knights of Ren that is more universal. It will not emphasize the Light or the Dark Side, but rather preach a balance between the two. Now, I've already said that Rey will not be a Skywalker by blood, but in "Star Wars", names aren't just about blood, they're about identity. That's why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader and why Ben Solo became Kylo Ren. Now from a meta-narrative standpoint, it makes perfect sense for the Jedi to end and be replaced with something new and more universal so that the Skywalker Saga can be about something other than a black-and-white battle between the Light and Dark Sides, but from a franchise-building perspective, it's a terrible idea because you're expecting your audience to accept that the Jedi and Sith are gone and from now on, all Force users will be a part of this new Order. Even if you get them to accept that conceptually, "Jedi" has been in the zeitgeist for so long that whatever you'd call this new Order would generally just be called "the new Jedi Order" by lazy or casual fans. Unless, of course, you called this new Order something fans are already familiar with, something that symbolizes bringing balance to the Force, and something that has deep meaning. Additionally, I've already brought up how this new trilogy seems to be emphasizing that the fate of the galaxy can't just depend upon Anakin's family tree forever or it'll start to seem like an aristocracy. The torch will have to be carried by new, unrelated characters like Rey who are heroes for reasons other than their parentage. However, the main "Star Wars" saga is officially considered to be "The Skywalker Saga", so how can you have a "Skywalker Saga" if the main character isn't necessarily a Skywalker? Simple: "Skywalker" stops meaning a family. I think this episode will delve into what it actually means to be a Skywalker, and more specifically, what Anakin Skywalker's true purpose was. Remember, Anakin was a Chosen One that would bring balance to the Force, and the Jedi took this to mean that he would destroy the Sith, and he did, but they didn't realize that it also meant he would destroy the Jedi. The meaning, it would seem, is that Anakin was destined to destroy the failed dichotomy between Light and Dark and clear the slate for a new, more balanced generation, and I believe that they will honor him by assuming his name as a title. That's right, I believe that Force-sensitives in the "Star Wars" universe will stop calling themselves Jedi and Sith and instead start calling themselves Skywalkers, regardless of what "Side" they're on, and I believe it will begin by Rey calling herself Rey Skywalker. And if you think that's confusing because it's also a last name... well, who actually still uses it as a surname? As far as we know, Shmi Skywalker had no living relatives, and Leia never had the Skywalker surname to begin with, so neither did her son. Luke is the only Skywalker left, and he's probably not going to survive this trilogy, so the name is free for the taking. I for one would be thrilled if this is the direction they go down. The idea of an Order that actively tries to get Light and Dark Side users to complement one another rather than oppose one another is much more interesting to me than rehashing the same conflicts over and over again, and I think the idea of calling Force users Skywalkers is great, because I hate having to keep saying "Force users" when I'm not talking about characters that are explicitly Jedi or Sith or Knights of Ren or what-have-you.
VERDICT: This was always something of a long-shot. It could hypothetically still happen, but I sincerely doubt it at this point.

G3) Leia will ask Kylo Ren to kill her
During that moment we see in the trailers where Kylo Ren is about to kill Leia, you can pretty much tell that Leia knows. Of course she does. She may not have trained with Luke, but she's always been able to sense things through the Force. She even did it in TFA after Kylo Ren killed Han. And while she believed that there was still good in Kylo Ren when she sent Han off to bring their son back, his failure probably shook her. She's probably afraid that she's truly lost her son to Snoke. But in this moment, I believe she'll sense his conflict, but rather than try to talk him out of it, she'll dare him to kill her. It won't be out of resignation, but out of desperation. In her mind there are only two possibilities: Either her son is truly dead, in which case, there's nothing she can do, so she might as well end Kylo Ren's doubt, or her son is still in there, in which case, daring him to go through with it will just bring his conflict into crystal-clear focus. She won't beg for her life... it's not in her nature. But even after what he did to Han, she will tell her son it's OK and trust him to make the right call. And it'll work. More on this in a minute.

G4) Luke will cut off Kylo Ren's hand
While Leia may hold out hope for her son, I doubt Luke has it in him to be objective about Kylo Ren anymore. Just as Obi-Wan gave up on Darth Vader after watching him murder trainees and facing off with him directly, I believe that Luke has become convinced that Kylo Ren is now beyond saving. I believe that Luke will have another confrontation with Kylo Ren to mirror Luke's fight with Darth Vader in "The Empire Strikes Back", but in a surprise twist, Luke will be playing the role of Darth Vader this time around (hence the red lightsaber) and will lop off Kylo Ren's hand to drive that point home.
VERDICT: Only Snoke loses his limbs, and that's the least of his problems.

G5) Rey will save Kylo Ren's life
Once Luke disarms Kylo Ren, I believe there will be a moment somewhat evocative of the moment in "Revenge of the Sith" when Mace Windu had Darth Sidious pinned. Luke will decide that he has to kill him, not necessarily because "he's too dangerous to be left alive", but because he sees no other way forward. Kylo Ren has rejected the Light Side, he betrayed Luke and his fellow students, and he killed his own father. If he lets him live, he will just continue down the Dark Side, and as a Jedi, he simply cannot allow that. He won't be driven by revenge or fear, but he will reason that he can't treat Kylo Ren as special just because of his relation to him. However, Rey will refuse to accept this. Maybe she'll have heard about Kylo Ren sparing Leia, maybe she'll just sense some kind of deeper connection, or maybe it's just because, unlike Luke, she sees a better way forward. Whatever the reason, I believe Rey will betray Luke, save Kylo Ren, and help him escape. I believe Luke will try to talk her out of it ("This is not going to go the way you think!"), but just as Luke once had to reject the insistence of Obi-Wan and Yoda that Darth Vader had to be destroyed, Rey will reject Luke's insistence that Kylo Ren has to be destroyed so that she can save him just as Luke once saved Vader. More on that in a minute.
VERDICT: It didn't play out quite like I imagined, but Rey does believe Kylo Ren can be redeemed and saves his life during the Praetorian guard battle in the throne room, so I'm counting it.

O1) There are no more Force ghosts
Similar to how I believe that Luke will have to resort to turning a kyber crystal red in order to build a new lightsaber, I think that the Force will show other signs of abandoning Luke for what he did to Rey. Specifically, I see him losing his connection with the Force ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin. I don't think they're gone completely, but I think Luke has just stopped hearing from them.
VERDICT: One of the best scenes in the movie includes a Force ghost, so I was super-wrong. In fact, the Force doesn't abandon Luke, Luke cuts himself off from it.

O2) Rey will convince Kylo Ren that they should train one another
This is what I believe the whole Rey-saving-Kylo-from-Luke thing will culminate into. Essentially, everyone seems to be predicting that either Rey will agree to be taught by Kylo Ren or Kylo Ren will start his redemption arc and start training under her. Well... why not both? If Rey decides she needs to understand the Dark Side and also realizes that, while Kylo Ren will never leave the Dark Side, she can at least help him become sane again, she may convince him that they are both better off learning from one another rather than learning from Luke or Snoke, who perhaps represent the last vestiges of the old guard that must be destroyed in order for true balance to be achieved. She will offer to teach him what she's learned about the Jedi (because, just to emphasize, Kylo Ren didn't start his training under Luke until he was 23 and probably didn't get very far before Snoke started corrupting him, which is probably one reason why his abilities are so unrefined and why his lightsaber is so junky) so that he can teach her about the Dark Side. The film may not present all of this information in an obvious fashion. In fact, the film may not help us understand Rey's reasoning at all. All we might see is her saving Kylo Ren from Luke, helping him escape, and then asking him to train her in the ways of the Dark Side, making it LOOK like Rey is going to turn, when in reality, she's simply trying to understand how to bring balance between the Light and Dark Sides and bring an end to the centuries of conflict started by the Jedi and the Sith. Rey will try to bring Ben back, not through conflict, but through connecting with him, learning with him, and understanding him. I don't think they will fall in love (though I suppose it's possible), but I do believe they will not fit a traditional student-teacher model and instead treat each other as equals, complementing one another, though ultimately, Rey will be the one to take the lead.
VERDICT: Nope. At least not yet.

O3) Leia will die, but not because of Kylo Ren
Ultimately, I think Leia's bluff will work and Kylo Ren will be unable to go through with assassinating Leia, but... I still don't think Leia will survive this film. I know originally she was supposed to, but now that they've said she will not posthumously be in Episode IX, I think they're more likely to kill her off in Episode VIII than kill her off-screen before Episode IX. An off-screen death would just be so frustrating, but at the same time, I don't have a LOT of confidence in this prediction since LucasFilm might have felt it would have been disrespectful to give Leia a death scene a mere year after Carrie Fisher passed away. Then again, Carrie Fisher was a tough old lady, so she probably wouldn't have minded much. We'll see, but I'm putting my chips on her not surviving to the end of this movie.
VERDICT: Leia survives. I suspect she'll die between films, but she's alive at the end of TLJ, so it doesn't count.

O4) The New Republic will fall into apathy and chaos
This isn't a very wild prediction, I know, but it's important to keep in mind that the status quo is different in this trilogy than it was during the original trilogy. Despite their name, the Resistance is more-or-less defending the status quo: the New Republic. However, during TFA, the new Galactic Senate was destroyed by Starkiller Base, and the New Republic was already having the same problems with indecisiveness that the Old Republic had. Even though Starkiller Base was destroyed, the First Order still delivered a very powerful blow, so unless the New Republic acts quickly, it's just a matter of time before the First Order gets back on its feet. And of course, without the Senate, the New Republic will be a chicken with its head cut off, and I'm willing to bet that the people with the means to help the Resistance pull the New Republic from the brink will ultimately fail them due to their own selfishness or lack of urgency, and essentially they'll allow the First Order to assume control of the galaxy, leaving the Resistance as the last hope to stop them and then maybe find a better system of government than a Republic since that doesn't seem to be working out all too well. This will likely fit into the same theme as what's going on with the Jedi, specifically that the Old Republic and the Jedi were destroyed for a reason, and just trying to rebuild carbon copies of them will just end the same way.
VERDICT: The only thing I was really wrong about on this one was that I imagined it would take longer. The movie pretty much opens with the First Order in full control. Aside from that? Pretty much spot-on.

O5) Rey will take back Anakin's lightsaber from Luke
And finally, I believe that just as Rey reclaimed Anakin's lightsaber from Kylo Ren at the end of TFA, she will also reclaim it from the end of TLJ, probably so that she can stop him from killing Kylo Ren. Just as her claiming the lightsaber from Kylo Ren was a way of saying that he was unworthy of it because of his obsession with the Dark Side and his insistence that it was his by birthright, Luke will also be unworthy of the mantle of Anakin Skywalker for being unable to let go of the Jedi, even as he realizes they are destined to become extinct.
VERDICT: Luke never really accepts the lightsaber in the first place, but Rey does resume ownership of it and I believe that at least one of its broken crystals will be used for her new lightsaber, so I'm giving myself this one. Mostly out of pity.

So that's my Bingo card of predictions for "The Last Jedi"! Maybe I'll even be right about some of them!

UPDATE (2018): And here's the final card! Not even close!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rogue One: The Star Wars Movie Where Everyone is Boba Fett

I liked "Rogue One". I have a hard time articulating WHY I like it, but I can't pretend I don't like it.

And I'm not really here to argue why I shouldn't like the movie, or why the movie is really objectively bad. I'm not even all that convinced that it is bad. If it were bad, I imagine a lot more people would have disliked it. This is kind of an argument I've seen literary nerds paint themselves into with "Harry Potter". They'll spend a lot of time arguing why "Harry Potter" isn't good, but then they realize that the problems with "Harry Potter" don't stop anyone from enjoying it for reasons they can't necessarily figure out. And if virtually everybody likes something, how can you argue that it's "bad"? What does "bad" even mean in that context?

So, no, "Rogue One" is probably good, otherwise I doubt so many people would like it. But I feel like it's worth pointing out something about its characters.

They're all Boba Fett.

If you're less well-versed in "Star Wars", allow me to explain.

In "The Empire Strikes Back" (retroactively known as "Star Wars: Episode V"), Darth Vader hires a bunch of bounty hunters to find the Millennium Falcon after his own troops perpetually fail to do so. Among these bounty hunters is a guy named Boba Fett. He is not explicitly named at any point in "Empire", but we know his name for other reasons I'll get into in a moment. In any case, he's the only bounty hunter to successfully track down the Millennium Falcon for Vader, and he leads the Empire to Bespin before the good guys get there, mostly because he wants to collect the pre-established bounty on Han Solo. We see him do one clever thing (anticipate Han Solo's clever trick of hiding in space garbage), he says a few lines ("As you wish", "He's no good to me dead", and "Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold"), it's implied that he has a thing for disintegrating his targets, and he has a really cool outfit.

So if you don't know much about Boba Fett, it probably seems like he's a fairly uninteresting character. And you'd be right, but you'd also be wrong, because Boba Fett is one of the most popular characters in the entire franchise, particularly among old-school "Star Wars" fans.

There are a lot of speculated reasons as to why, but the real reason is pretty simple: Marketing.

The original "Star Wars" was insanely popular. Like, "Avengers" popular. It was a phenomenon, and so the studio was all over marketing the upcoming sequel, and once Lucasfilm had developed the character of Boba Fett based on older designs and concepts for Darth Vader (the character everybody loved), the marketing team decided to lean heavily into the character. They made toys, he made mall appearances, he was on posters, and he was in an animated short that was included in the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special". Boba Fett was sold as a new villain who would basically be Darth Vader's right hand in the sequel, and fans ate him up. In the time leading up to the new movie, fans speculated wildly about this character, his background, his skills, etc. Then the movie came out and it was AMAZING. Like, seriously, "Empire Strikes Back" is, to this day, regarded as the best "Star Wars" film, and it probably deserves it.

But the thing about Boba Fett is that his role was severely diminished over the course of rewrites and edits for the final film. He doesn't really do all that much and he has no close relationship with anyone, even Vader. He's no one's right hand. He's just kind of there, wearing a helmet. Is he happy? Sad? Mischievous? Bored? Smarmy? The answer to all is yes and no because he's always silent and wearing a helmet. He's Schrodinger's Bounty Hunter.

This turned out to be kind of perfect for Boba Fett. Because of how he was marketed and received by all the fans, his appearance in the film kind of confirmed everybody's speculation about him. If you were a kid and you bought a Boba Fett toy and you imagined a crazy backstory about him, his actions in "Empire" probably fit within the framework that you imagined for the character. It probably didn't directly confirm anything either, but you were able to fill in the blanks.

You know how some movies can sometimes "feel" more violent than they actually are because they leave certain things to the imagination? Like the ear-cutting-off scene in "Reservoir Dogs" for example? Well, Boba Fett is a character that gets more interesting because everything about him is left to the imagination, and everyone in the film acts like he's a more interesting character for unspoken, nonspecific reasons. And so, if you went into the film expecting him to be a cool character, you left the film feeling like he was, indeed, a cool character.

"The Force Awakens" deliberately replayed this tactic with the character Captain Phasma, and it worked gangbusters. Hell, I went into the movie KNOWING that Phasma was basically just an attempt to capture Fett Lightning in a bottle again, and it worked. I went into that movie expecting Phasma to be awesome, and I left that movie hoping that Phasma somehow survived Starkiller Base, despite Phasma never actually doing anything all that important or cool. It just kind of works.

But the joke about Boba Fett is that as they continue to include him in canonical materials, he continues to fail to live up to his own hype. In "Return of the Jedi", he stands around and gets killed in the most embarrassing way possible. In "Attack of the Clones", he's a kid who watches his father get his head cut off. In the "Clone Wars" cartoons, he gets to show off some impressive skills, but he ultimately gets used by a bunch of bounty hunters and fails to kill the Jedi who killed his father.

Boba Fett's subtextual reputation is that he's a cool, badass, world-class bounty hunter, but in actual text, he's a marginally-competent screw-up who almost always works for somebody else and almost always fails.

Boba Fett succeeds as a character because of the magic of "projection". We as an audience go in with the pre-conceived notion that he's a badass, so everything he does or says is taken within that presumed context, reaffirming that previously-held belief, even if there's an equally-valid context that would do the exact opposite.

That brings us to "Rogue One", where, as the title of this post suggests, every character is Boba Fett.

Every character was well-established in marketing and other canonical media produced by Disney so that when we went into the movie, we got the gist of the characters and wanted to like them. Then, when we saw the movie, they behaved in ways that allowed us to project those preconceived character traits onto them, and so our expectations of how we would feel about those characters came through and allowed us to build them up as complex, interesting characters. It also helped that pretty much all of the actors were great in bringing a lot of weight to these characters.

If you watch "Rogue One", it feels like every character has a really cool and interesting personality or backstory. You aren't really sure WHY it feels that way, but it just sort of does.

It's the Wile E. Coyote running over a cliff logic. It's only a problem if you look down. Otherwise, you can just keep running on air.

But if we're being honest, very few characters in the film actually earn the reputations that we project onto them. The film doesn't give any of the characters a real arc, we don't really see them do much to build up the character traits we assume they have, and they act like they know and care about each other even though they don't really have any reason to.

It's a magic trick, is what I'm saying.

Now, like a magic trick, it probably doesn't matter if I tell you it's a magic trick, or even how the magic trick is done. You'll still be entertained, and that's perfectly fine. See, it doesn't really matter WHY you think a character is well-defined or interesting, just THAT you think a character is well-defined and interesting. Most good movies do this by showing us scenes of them developing or establishing themselves in interesting ways, but sometimes movies can get away with doing this in unconventional ways.

"Avengers" did this by making a bunch of other movies that established these characters ahead of time so the movie could focus on action. "Rogue One" did this by applying the Boba Fett formula to virtually all of the characters.

Is that cheap? Maybe, but if your brain is interested in these characters, why should you care whether or not those ideas came from the movie itself or if the movie just tricked your imagination into doing its work for it? Isn't it equally impressive that a movie can do that?

Well... yeah! Kind of! I think "Rogue One" and its cast, crew, and marketing team deserve props for making me care about characters that (let's be honest here) don't really do all that much. Magic tricks aren't easy to pull off, and given the positive reception of the film, I don't think anyone can argue that they didn't successfully pull it off.

Sure, tricking people into believing that you made the Statue of Liberty disappear isn't as impressive as actually making the Statue of Liberty disappear, but it's still impressive, isn't it? I mean, I certainly can't do that. Can you?

The only problem with this method of character establishment is that it doesn't work very well in the long-term. Part of the reason "Attack of the Clones" is considered the worst "Star Wars" movie of all time is because it's the first movie that Boba Fett is in where his presence actively contradicts people's imagined, projected character traits and backstories for him. We see what he's like as a child. We find out where he comes from. We see him without his helmet on. We learn where he got his ship. There's nothing to project onto. I personally don't think he has a BAD backstory (in fact, I actually think it's pretty interesting, particularly in "Clone Wars"), but I didn't go into that movie with decades of baseless, imagined adventures of Boba Fett, bounty hunter extraordinaire. If you did, your reception of the character's portrayal in "Attack of the Clones" probably sounded something like this:

So this is the danger of the Boba Fett Method: It's a really shoddy foundation for a long-term character that you want to build upon. Boba Fett was cool until they started treating him like an actual character.

Luckily, "Rogue One" avoids this by not being a foundational film. If any of these characters will ever be seen again, it will be as side characters. If their backstories are ever told, it will be in books or video games that most people never see. This is a one-shot side-story. So the fact that none of these characters have substantial depth to them isn't really a problem, so long as you believe they do for the duration of the one film that they're all in.

This, in general, is the power of "Star Wars", and a large part of why I love it so much. It's such a massive, broadly-defined universe that it's just a playground for the imagination. "Rogue One" is the first movie in the franchise to make that playground the main attraction, and I think it worked.

Take my personal favorite character of the film, Chirrut Imwe. He's blind and believes in the Force. It's implied that he's at least Force-sensitive because he's able to "see" things, like Jyn's Kyber crystal, and because he defends a Jedi temple. However, it's also implied that he's not a Jedi because he doesn't manipulate the Force or use a lightsaber. He just sort of trusts in the Force and lets it guide him. He's more passive. He also has a dependent relationship on the more cynical and brute-force character, Baze Malbus.

Based on those simple things (as well as Donnie Yen's performance), I was able to imagine an entire character from whole cloth. It's not that I HAD to, I WANTED to. I ENJOYED doing the movie's work for it. The movie never once defines his abilities in any concrete terms, but I did within moments of being introduced to him, so it knew it didn't have to.

That's how basically the entire movie works. It eschews exposition and character development because they know that if they make the characters just intriguing enough, the audience will do that for them and they can just skip to the action sequences.

One could make a compelling argument that that's lazy, and maybe it is, but one man's "lazy" is another man's "efficient". The writers didn't have to expend energy rigidly defining any of these characters, and that allowed them to focus their energy elsewhere. One could argue that they didn't do any of those other things significantly better as a result, but that doesn't really matter since they still did them pretty well.

So, yeah. "Rogue One" tricked most of us into liking a bunch of characters that we really had no specific reasons to like.

I still like them anyway, and you probably do too.

That said, if somebody DOESN'T like the movie, it's probably because they weren't willing to do the movie's homework for it. They EXPECTED more concrete character development and exposition, and when they didn't get it, they rightly didn't enjoy the rest of the movie.

You can't fault the viewer for that anymore than you can fault someone who isn't fooled by a magic trick. The whole point of a magic trick is to fool you, so if it doesn't work, that's the magician's fault.

I've seen a lot of people get up in arms over people who bring up a lot of valid criticism for the film and explain why they didn't like it. When someone says that they thought the characters were poorly-defined and didn't really do anything all that interesting, I see a lot of fans get really offended by this. And it makes sense. In their minds, these characters WERE well-defined and interesting, so hearing somebody suggest otherwise sounds absurd. But these people are always hard-pressed to actually refute those claims, and ultimately they decide to just sneer and dismiss the negative criticism or attack the person making it.

Look, guys, I know we all like to think we're not unintelligent, gullible film-goers, and that we only like movies that are well-crafted and deep, but I've got news for you.

ALL fiction is about tricking you into believing things that aren't real.

Some fiction tries harder at forging a believable illusion than others, but in the end, it's still all just pretend.

It's entirely possible, and in fact, very, very likely that you enjoy at least one movie that is objectively terrible. That doesn't make you a bad person.

This is actually a problem I see with "Star Wars" fans in general, and I think it first bubbled to the the surface during the prequels. "Star Wars" fans don't want to admit that they like the movies for sometimes rather silly reasons. They want to feel mature in their admiration of the franchise, and so they try to build up this mythology around the quality of the original films.

But let's get real here. "Star Wars" was a good movie that used very stock characters and tropes in a very visually-stunning and imaginative way. "The Empire Strikes Back" was an objectively good film that built upon that foundation and made it go deeper and took it in directions nobody expected. "Return of the Jedi" was wall-to-wall fanservice that was inoffensive enough that most people didn't really realize that it wasn't all that good. The prequels are OK movies that didn't live up to decades of hype and nostalgia that over-sold the original films. "The Force Awakens" was a competently made retread of the original "Star Wars" with some really interesting new characters.

"Rogue One" is a magic trick that is very competently-made, but entirely hinges on whether or not you are willing to care about characters for pretty shallow reasons.

This is a franchise about space wizards and laser swords. Can we as a fandom finally learn to be OK with that?