Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars-ars-ars-ars: Why Zahn Did It Better

Like so many I loved Star Wars as a child, and to this day lazy holiday afternoons with chocolate, chips, soda, and a deep, plush sofa might find me re-watching any of the movies.  Sure they have the brains of a toaster and can spawn the nerdiest possible conversations (evah), but for those lazy-lazy times, they entertain with that all important sf quality: sense of wonder.  (Zzrrum, zzrrum goes my lightsaber.)  I have recently been to see Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, and since the whole world is having a go, I will add my one, possibly two cents.

The Force Awakens is one of the most derivative pieces of pop culture I’ve ever been witness to.  Abrams went the politically correct route and provided two major new characters, a woman and black man, and then reversed the hero vs. damsel in distress roles between them.  Bravo.  Otherwise, he outright copies what has come before.  Jakku is Tatooine, BB8 is R2D2, there is another Death Star (the series count has now reached three, with the possibility for more), which includes another Death Star trench run, Kylo Ren is Darth Vader (with one twist on family), General Hux is Grand Moff Tarkin (with no twists), there is another cantina with alien musicians, Maz Kanata is Yoda, Rey is Luke (scavenger on a desert planet, parentage unknown, latent force talents, finds a lightsaber in haunted underground cavern, blah, blah, blah), there are AT-AT Walkers on a snowy planet, there is big, evil Empire attacking innocent, altruistic Rebellion…  And on and on and on goes the list of things copied from the first Star Wars films. Episodes I-III catch a lot of flack, but for sure they were original films, and fun for it.  The Force Awakens is just recycled material that has a lot of its fun sapped for having so obviously been done before.

But additional questionable choices were made with the franchise.  No, I’m not referring to the major event at the climax. I’m ok with that.  I’m referring to, for example, the newly revealed supreme badass, Snoke.  Not only does his name sound like something I blow out of my nose in the morning, (Darth Vader sounds far more scary), but he looks like the standard bulbous-eyed, bald alien people associate with 1950s UFO visits - just with a black hood.  And the rubbery cg doesn't help.  Darth Maul’s satanic visage and the Emperor’s pale lightning cackle made for more effective villains.  And the green hungry, octopus-ish aliens who go rampaging through a certain scene, well, they also looked Men In Black cheesy.  (The whole scene was, in fact, gratuitous.)  And the casting for Darth Vader—sorry, Kylo Ren?  Surely there were others who auditioned that could have occupied the uncertain villain role with more aesthetic aplomb?  The acting is fine, but it doesn’t prevent the actor from looking like a Harry Potter side character.  (I suspect I may be wrong about this: once the storyline inevitably flips him to the good side, will he fit the role better?  But for the moment that is my impression.)  But most importantly, why repeat the same plot backdrop?  I thought the Rebellion defeated the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi?  How is it that nothing has changed in the intervening decades?  How can the Rebellion (now dubbed the Resistance) still be fighting the Empire (now known as the First Order)?  Doesn’t this make Episode VI’s conclusion moot?  

After seeing The Force Awakens, I look at Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, the novels that continued the Star Wars story after Return of the Jedi, with increased appreciation.  They too are indulgent, sofa and junk food fun, but in Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, Zahn acknowledges Lucas’ vision and, unlike Abrams, takes the storyline in a logical, non-recycled direction.  In Zahn’s story, the Republic has re-taken control of the universe, and under the leadership of Leia, Mon Mothma and others is beset dealing with the problems of re-implementing a democracy.  Amongst the remnants of the Empire, crafty General Thrawn lurks, and using his preternatural wits, attempts to rebuild the Empire’s power.  With the Sith gone, Luke starts a Jedi academy, and heads into the galaxy looking for recruits.  Han and Leia get married and have children, and with Han now a general, there are plenty of adventures for he and Chewbacca to stumble into as he meets former “business colleagues.”  A love interest for Luke is introduced: an Imperial assassin who had been brainwashed by the Emperor to kill Jedi, and now wanders the universe as a mercenary for hire.  And eventually a mad clone is brought into the story, a clone set on using the dark side to achieve his own egotistical vision.  Zahn explores new worlds and new aliens, and overall writes a coherent storyline that fully integrates the films while moving the series in a logical direction that respects the tradition.  I wish I could say the same of Abrams.

And so I will sit someday on my sofa, popcorn in hand in hand, watching Star Wars films and enjoying the fx (fix?).  But after finishing Abrams’ movie, I may just turn off the television and pick up Zahn’s books…


  1. I'm constantly bewildered at how everyone who is negative constantly focusses on the fact that there's a female and a black man in the lead roles as though that's some kind of justification for the film being bad (among the rest of the criticisms). They are just two actors playing characters in a film. I've not bothered reading the rest because this puts me off straight away. There are a lot of flaws, but the actors who play the characters aren't a part of those flaws at all.

    1. Just to make sure we're on the same page here, did you interpret my statement regarding the woman and black man as something negative about the film? If yes, please do read again. Besides the effects, they are the lone bright spots in the film.

    2. No, I found it negative about your review. I don't understand how you can view a director or writer choosing a female and a black man in lead roles as a politically correct route to take. Maybe it felt that way in the 90s, but surely we're past that by now and they can just be accepted as actors, like every other white male who doesn't have their ethnicity or gender pointed out.

      For the record, I think they were both great in their parts, but I just felt like their parts (along with the whole film) were under-developed.

    3. In general, I understand your point. Nobody gives the director of Independence Day p.c. shit for casting Will Smith as the lead, and I would not be the first as it is baseless. The Force Awakens has a completely different context, however. Where the concerns of white men held sway for six films, coincidentally both a woman and a black man are suddenly center stage in the seventh. They went from long under-represented to the spotlight. It's a major switch for the franchise that doesn't seem so coincidental. But what seals it for me is that on two (three?) occasions the woman informs the man, I'm a woman, I don't need your help, and then proceeds to rescue him. Abrams went out of his way to include those scenes - to make it obvious. If there had not been such interplay between the characters and preceding films, I might not have the opinion I do. Based on this I think it's obvious Abrams was trying to appease modern critics looking for more race and gender representation, that is, rather than including women and blacks as the organic result of the base material. Just to be clear, I think the inclusion of Rey and Finn is a positive thing, just seems a little disingenuous on Abram's part.

      Looking at how Timothy Zahn handled gender and race, he added two major female characters: a daughter to Han and Leia, and an assassin who had been the Emperor's silent right hand. Both are organic to story. He didn't add anything significant in terms of race, but did develop Lando Calrissian's character much further than the films.

  2. Yesterday, I finally saw the movie and had the exact same reaction to it you so aptly articulated in your review above. Maybe with the exception that I don't like the prequels and closed Zahn's first Thrawn book (back in nineteen ninety-what?) as soon as Master Luke was handed a cup of cocoa by 3P0, to never open it again, let alone try another expanded universe item.
    I would like it much better if Rey turned out to be Han Solo and Leia's daughter instead of Luke's as the main theory is, at present. I think a brother/sister conflict would be much stronger than if they were merely cousins, following more in the vein of the father/son conflict of the original trilogy.
    I enjoyed the movie (although there was a lot of eye-rolling at the never-ending quotes from the old movies -- and the absymal action-film one-liners uttered in-between), but thinking about it today concur that Abrams did too much re-treading of old ground. He is not a very original director, as films like Super 8 have proven.
    Also, I cannot understand how someone could misunderstand your comment about Abrams choosing the politically correct route.

    1. I was going to mention the re-quotes of the old movies and abysmal action film one-liners, but couldn't find a good place to put them in my 'review.' Thanks for bringing it up, as it was certainly something that had my eyes rolling, as well.