Tag Archives: film

Star Wars Episode VII: your republic is my empire

The teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII is out and it is causing much excitement, ridicule and exasperation at all the excitement and ridicule (delete as applicable):

One of the things that has got a lot of people buzzing is the presence of stormtroopers, albeit Apple circa 2001 stormtroopers. Wasn’t the Empire destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi? How can they still be around?

It strikes me that there are two possibilities. One is boring as all hell. The other is much more interesting.

The boring option is the one they went for with the now defunct Expanded Universe (disclaimer: I haven’t read much post-Jedi EU; I just didn’t like what I did read): after the Emperor was killed a breakaway group of Admirals split off to form their own Imperial Remnant who continued to bother the good guys for years afterwards. This is sort of how I would have imagined things when I was nine and presupposes a simplistic goodies vs baddies approach. And while it’s true that George Lucas himself rather encourages this with his focus on the dark and light side of the Force, in reality there is a lot more ambiguity even in the original film series, with bored stormtroopers having casual conversations and careerist generals doing their best to manage Darth Vader’s mood swings in Empire Strikes Back. The implication that there are enough true believers in the Imperial Navy to break off and form a significant threat to the New Republic just doesn’t make any sense to me. There isn’t much of a (real world) historical precedent to suggest that this is what is likely to happen either.

What is more interesting to me is this: after the fall of Palpatine, the entire galaxy is likely to erupt into civil war. After all, immediately preceding his rise to power, the galaxy bubbling under with petty disputes and this was stoked by Palpatine and Dooku which lead to the Clone Wars. It is unlikely that after 20+ years of oppressive dictatorship that the Empire would simply turn into a happy clappy New Republic, much more likely that the vast majority of planets will either declare independence or form new alliances of their own. It is very unlikely that even after 30 years there wouldn’t still be tensions and trade disputes across the galaxy.

The people taking over the New Republic, who we might speculate are lead by Mon Mothma and Princess Leia, are unlikely to dismantle everything they’ve inherited. Whoever takes over as Commander in Chief is going to have to immediately make some very difficult decisions: do we let planet X invade planet Y or do we try to maintain the peace? Are these people really freedom fighters or are they pirates? Democratic ideals only get you so far. There are going to be a lot of people who, having won the war, are going to be deeply disaffected by the subsequent regime and its tough choices.

So while I think it is very likely that there will be some stringent measures to de-Sithify the Imperial armed forces, at the end of the day they are unlikely to be decommissioned. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to people: after all, during the prequels the stormtrooper’s predecessors the clone troopers were the good guys (gliding over Order 66 for a second there).

George Lucas got an awful lot wrong with the prequels, but much of the world building was spot on. People derided the focus on politics and trade disputes, but that made it feel much more real to me. Scratch behind the surface and the prequels aren’t a simplistic battle between the light and the dark, but a much more subtle tale of a decadent republic reaching the end of its usefulness, dominated by a religious order, the Jedi, who had become horrifically complacent and meddling in political affairs they should have left well alone. These themes are all there in the films and explored in greater depth in the Clone Wars (the irony of this being achieved in a watchable kids’ show is not lost on me).

The key thing that concerns me about these new films is that they will look at the criticism of the prequels and seek to simplify that political situation. If they do, my suspicion is that the films themselves will feel quite vacuous and empty. I’m not suggesting that the films should be about affairs of state and politicking in the way that I would agree that the prequels focus too much on scenes from the Galactic Senate which would have been better relegated to the background and opening crawls. But if they open with Luke and Leia doing everything right and bringing back and idyllic New Republic that only starts to go wrong when a new bad guy emerges, I will be deeply disappointed.

So, to summarise, I’m hoping those Stormtroopers are under the command of Leia who, if not an actual villain, is certainly worn down after decades of making hard choices and not getting everything right. That’s drama right there, that is.

The Disney Star Wars films could at last bring a balance to the force

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NaBloPoMo November 2012My initial shock of discovering that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney has given way to contemplation about what a post-Lucas Star Wars universe might look like.

For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.

The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.

But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).

And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).

In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.

So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).

I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.

I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.

The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).

As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.

Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.

Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.

UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.

Dark Knight Rises: the threequel we needed but not the threequel we deserved (SPOILERS)

Let me begin by saying that, on balance, I quite liked the Dark Knight Rises. Overall, I think it stands up and has something interesting to say. I don’t agree with its politics (which are not that coherent in any case as I will explore), but you have to be fairly insecure in your views to not like a film simply because you don’t agree with the ideology behind it. A well executed film has a point of view, even if that point of view is tosh. The Dark Knight Rises certainly has one, which is better than most Batman stories which simply glide over the pro-capitalist, authoritarian wish-fulfilment which is at the core of the character.

As a geek, the film was also fun in terms of spotting all the references. One of the most fun aspects of the Nolan Batman films is spotting all the references and nods to some of the best strips we’ve had over the years. Batman Begins mashes up Year One with Ra’s al Ghul lore and some of the Long Halloween; The Dark Knight has a lot in common with Dark Victory (especially the fall of Harvey Dent), but with lots of nods to The Killing Joke and the other better Joker stories. The Dark Knight Rises, of course, is a mash up of Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns. But for me, the nods I most enjoyed were references to lesser known bits of the canon such as the underrated No Man’s Land and Year Three (the bit when Blake declares he as always known about Bruce Wayne being Batman is clearly a nod to the revelation by Timothy Drake, the Robin he most closely resembles in terms of temperament).

Threequels which satisfyingly tie up the series are a distinct rarity (yes Spider-Man 3, I’m looking at you), so the fact that this film manages to take the series back to the beginning, as well as satisfyingly coming to a full stop, is something to be grateful about. Ra’s revelation in Batman Begins about wanting to revenge the death of his wife now looks, in retrospect, as if the Nolans had planned this all along. The direct comparison to the prison and the old well Bruce falls down as a child, was also particularly enjoyable. Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed; this is a solid piece of work I’m sure I will get more out of on repeat viewings.

And yet.

I can’t help feeling it missed a few tricks. It was a worthy follow up to Batman Begins, but as the sequel to the Dark Knight it was fairly underwhelming. We get to see that Gotham has prospered under a lie (that Dent is a martyr and Batman a traitor), but the film utterly fails to spell out how that decision leads to Bane’s eventual success. The Dent Act would appear to be some way of keeping the gangbangers under some kind of permanent detention, horrific from a liberal point of view but also quite expensive and impractical. Are we really meant to believe that this hasn’t lead to lots of innocent people being locked up and that, with all this unaccountable power, the police have become less corrupt, not more? It’s a situation that doesn’t satisfy either the liberals or the authoritarians: the authoritarians can’t be happy that this approach is seemingly responsible for the eventual destruction of the city; the liberals can’t believe it could possibly have lasted as long as it did.

I didn’t like the way they handled Bruce Wayne at the start of the film. Part of the problem was that they were going, very self-consciously, for a mirror image of the start of the Dark Knight Returns. While the Gotham of Returns has sunk to a new low, the Gotham of Rises is experiencing a renaissance. Similarly, while the Bruce Wayne at the start of Returns is a philandering playboy, the Bruce Wayne of Rises has become a recluse (both of which evoke different faces of Howard Hughes, but that’s another matter).

I understand why they took this choice, but it didn’t work for me. Essentially, we are being asked to buy into the idea that Bruce Wayne has sat in the same room for eight years; it doesn’t ring true, and it makes it pretty likely that Wayne is Batman (even if you hadn’t figured out that he must be a billionaire with access to military technology by that point). This isn’t a fallen Dark Knight, this is a Dark Knight in suspended animation. Worse than being unconvincing, it’s boring.

Because his fall from grace amounts to little more than a stumble, it makes his rise far less interesting. Indeed, it’s barely noteworthy at all. Possibly, this is deliberate because Nolan wanted to make the broken bat subplot that much more impactful later on, but it means the first act never really gets moving.

The film’s portrayal of Catwoman is… mixed. On the plus side, this is clearly relatable to the Selina Kyle of the comics. However much I might love Batman Returns (and I do), Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman takes as many liberties with the source material as, well, Danny DeVito’s Penguin.

It is interesting that they chose to dress her in the same way she is depicted by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Merriweather in the 60s TV series and not, say, as designed by Darwyn Cooke in the iconic 2004 reboot – a vastly more sexy (and less exploitative) version. As it stands, at time her character seems quite out of place in a film which is struggling to retain a cynical and gritty vibe: I kept expecting the POW!!s and WACK!!!s to appear onscreen the first time she fights Bane’s henchmen with Batman.

Anne Hathaway’s casting made people nervous, even 7 years after Brokeback Mountain (if you can’t get over the fact she was in the Princess Diaries, that’s your problem), but she delivers all anyone could have expected of her. The problem is, she isn’t given much to do, and this is a real problem for me. Given the very obvious influence the Jeff Loeb/Tim Sale iteration of Batman has had on the films, it was surprising they didn’t tie her back to the Falcone family who were such a central part of Begins and the Dark Knight. Without such an arc, she ends up as a femme without the fatale – indeed, someone who is destined to become little more than Bruce Wayne’s wife (I’ll come back to that ending later). In this respect, the Catwoman of Batman Begins is a far more interesting character, one who has far more less reason to walk away and yet does anyway. It was downright cruel to offer us the glimpse of an interesting, kick-ass Catwoman only to spend three hours taking her away from us in slow motion.

I read a lot of people say that Gotham is a character in her own right in Nolan’s films; personally, I’ve always been disappointed by his portrayal of the city. Admittedly, to an extent I just have to get over the fact they didn’t reuse Anton Furst’s designs or get another artist in to reimagine the city from the ground up. But for me, Nolan’s Gotham just looks like a generic urban sprawl: on location shots of New York and Chicago with all their iconic buildings strategically avoided or digitally removed (which is exactly what it is). If you want to give a city a personality, you have to give it a face.

But more than that, the populace of Nolan’s Gotham don’t seem to have much of an identity either. The Spider-Man films invest New York with so much personality that the point in which the ordinary people help Spidey out has become a cliche (it was quite wearisome in Amazing Spider-Man – you could see it coming a mile away). The people of Gotham, by contrast, are just used as fodder in this film. At least at the end of the Dark Knight, the people on the ferries have a Noo Yawk moment of their own (oh yeah, about that bit when the prisoners refuse to kill the citizens: how does that square with the city going on to pass the Dent Act); in Rises they don’t do anything at all.

Again, as a sequel to the Dark Knight, this sucks. We are invited to think of the Joker’s reign of terror as a sort of 9/11, so why doesn’t Rises explore that at all? Instead, once again we’re in suspended animation territory, with the huddled masses sitting around waiting for either the police (who spend three months underground yet emerge neither deranged or even noticeably unshaven) or Batman to come and save them. Are we meant to believe no one, apart from the police and a few business executives, would do anything to resist Bane? It is at this point that the film slips from authoritarian wish fulfilment and into swivel-eyed Atlas Shrugged territory. As I said, this doesn’t fit with the setup of the Dark Knight at all.

I’ve been harsh here. I’m not a fan of Bane, but I did like Tom Hardy’s portrayal and the way they integrated his backstory quite cleverly with Ra’s al Ghul’s. Anyone who knew the comics could see the Talia reveal coming a mile away, but even with that said it was well done. If you focus on the Batman bits, and ignore the frankly confused story about Gotham, it’s a neat little story. The only bit that really struck a wrong note for me in terms of the Batman story was the final shot in the film, which had been foreshadowed earlier in the film, in which Alfred spots Wayne and Kyle in a Parisian bistro.

This was a horrifying way to end the film, and quite odd for Nolan, the king of ambiguity, to finish off his series. It is a bit like him deciding to end Inception with the spinning top falling over. If the film had ended with a close up of Michael Caine’s face, his eyes lightening up, I would have been entirely happy. But that final shot of Bale and Hathaway diminishes their characters. The strong implication was that, after an adventure, they were looking forward to a life of conventionality and mediocrity. I know they could have just been dressing up for Alfred’s benefit and that in reality, Wayne was now Selena Kyle’s gimp who she lead around on a leash, but that final shot meant the film ended on a full stop and not a question mark. However much Nolan wanted to make it clear he would be making no more Batman films, this was a bad note to end it on.

So in the end, while the Dark Knight Rises delivers in ending a series in a perfectly workmanlike way, it is clear that it could have been so much more. The politics, as rightwing as Batman has ever been, ultimately undermine a film that had a lot of more interesting avenues to explore than this frame could allow. The quest for the perfect threequel continues.