A Skeptic Watches Star Wars: Part II

Having now watched five Star Wars movies (the originals and two of the prequels – I skipped The Phantom Menace), I’ve discovered that my feelings on Star Wars vary so greatly from movie to movie it’s almost impossible to sum them up in one blog post.

There were times when I found myself on the edge of my seat, unable to look away. But there were also times I found myself rolling my eyes and checking the time about every fifteen minutes. The quality varied from movie to movie on so many levels that I really still can’t say whether I like or dislike Star Wars, only that I liked certain parts of it and definitely did not like others. It would be even harder to give an opinion on whether it’s good or worthwhile. But I will say that, for the most part, I found the original films to be better than the prequels; despite their more antiquated special effects, they have better acting, better-plotted stories, and are infinitely more believable. I also found the darker, more serious movies to be better than the light and funny ones, but that might just be a matter of personal preference.

When something is almost universally accepted to be The Best, I tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow.  This had better be good, I think to myself, if it’s going to live up to all that hype. But I find myself having to agree with the hype. The Empire Strikes Back is definitely, hands-down, the best Star Wars movie. The characters are deeper, the battles more meaningful, the moral decisions more complicated, and the stakes more personal than in any of the other Star Wars movies (excluding Luke’s storyline in Return of the Jedi). I loved seeing Leia have to make the decision to wait for Luke and Han Solo or lock the gates and protect the rebel base. I loved seeing Han’s old friend Lando have to choose between helping his friend or turning him over to the Empire to protect his city. I loved seeing Luke struggle to master Jedi training, although I have to admit I didn’t love Yoda. Even the Imperial officer who takes the blame for his troops’ failure lends a new layer of complexity to the story. While the Empire is still undeniably evil, one gets the feeling that its soldiers are – well, soldiers doing their duty, whose loyalty is to the wrong side, rather than evil in and of themselves. Everything in The Empire Strikes Back is handled with more thought, more gravity, and more careful consideration than in any of the other Star Wars movies I have watched. It’s on a completely different level. In fact, I have to wonder, if it hadn’t been one of the earliest ones, whether Star Wars would ever have become what it is now. Whether any more of the movies would have been made.

On the other end of the spectrum, I didn’t really have much patience for the pointless, endless battles of Attack of the Clones. The space battles in general were not my favorite part, but in Attack of the Clones they seemed endless and gratuitous, with no clear purpose in a larger narrative, broken up only by an awkward, forced-feeling love story that I wanted to buy into but really, really didn’t. I’m pretty sure, based on the release year and the little flashes of déjà vu I felt early on in the movie, that Attack of the Clones was the movie I mostly slept through as a kid. Looking back, I can understand why.

But beyond that, one of the things that bothered me the most, with the whole series but particularly the prequel movies, was how many things that should have been ethical dilemmas were glossed over. Sentient robots with distinct personalities are seen as property, to be sold, destroyed, or memory-wiped without a second thought. Tattooine is a haven for slave traders, bounty hunters, and all kinds of criminals, ruled over by the disgusting slug Jabba the Hutt. The prequel movies feature a cloned army, genetically engineered to be mindlessly obedient, which everyone in the Republic – including the most heroic of characters – is happy to accept. No attention is given to any of these things, except when they become inconvenient to the heroes. The galaxy is deeply flawed in ways that go far beyond the Empire’s control, and while that could be a good thing – giving more depth and realism to the setting – it’s not really explored and just feels like a series of missed opportunities and good characters condoning bad things.

I can’t help but wonder if one prequel movie might have worked better than a whole trilogy. I ended up feeling like Revenge of the Sith was all I really needed to know about Anakin Skywalker to explain both his fall to the Dark Side and his eventual decision to save his son’s life. He didn’t fit in among the Jedi and had trouble living by their code, giving up his emotions and personal attachments. He had lost his mother and was terrified of losing his wife, who he had married in secret. He turned to the Dark Side in order to save her, but his actions led to her death and the rise of the Empire. Cue the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan and the final transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader. That alone would have made it all believable; there was really no need to see his younger days as a Jedi apprentice, or the beginnings of their romance, or the endless and pointless space battles of Attack of the Clones, much less its predecessor The Phantom Menace. (I can’t fairly criticize a movie I haven’t seen, and I won’t try to, although I’ve read enough reviews to know they are almost universally negative; it’s enough to say that I felt little loss from having skipped it in terms of understanding the rest of the story, and that even Attack of the Clones felt like unnecessary buildup and backstory for the third movie in the prequel trilogy.) I did end up liking Revenge of the Sith, better than Attack of the Clones at least, but I think a single prequel movie, mostly following the storyline of the third one and acknowledging more openly how messed up the galaxy was even before the rise of the Empire, could have been a much better option.

Return of the Jedi was a mixed bag. I wasn’t crazy about the Ewoks, the vicious teddy bear aliens who help to defeat the Empire. But Luke’s storyline alone was powerful enough to make the whole rest of the movie worthwhile. His decision not to fight – not to let himself be turned to the Dark Side – was a powerful moment, as was Darth Vader’s decision to save his son’s life, finally rejecting the Dark Side himself. There’s something to be said for a series that’s all about war and violence ending when the hero throws down his weapon and refuses to kill, and the huge number of parallels between Luke’s story and his father’s make for a powerful resolution. Luke is not only choosing to reject the Dark Side, he’s actively breaking the cycle by making a different choice than his father – and at the same time, he’s reminding Darth Vader of what he once stood for by declaring himself “a Jedi like my father before me”. I didn’t love Return of the Jedi, with its teddy bear aliens and icky slug monsters and repetitive threat in the form of a second Death Star, but I did love that particular sub-plot. Luke Skywalker, the character I described as the least interesting after watching A New Hope, at this point became the most compelling – and I definitely mean that in a good way.

In the end, I didn’t love everything about Star Wars, but there were parts of it that were definitely worthwhile. The Empire Strikes Back was undeniably a great movie, and I enjoyed at least certain aspects of both Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith. A New Hope was not a personal favorite, but it was certainly a respectable movie and was good enough to make me want to keep watching. The only one I really couldn’t stand was Attack of the Clones, and I certainly don’t want to judge the whole franchise by one disappointing movie.

In other news, I’m probably going to watch Rogue One and The Force Awakens this weekend, so I’ll be back with more thoughts on those once I’ve seen them.


A Skeptic Watches Star Wars

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Star Wars: A New Hope. I’m pretty much new to Star Wars – or, at least, I was until a few days ago. It’s not that I’m completely ignorant. Characters like Han Solo, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia, iconic props like lightsabers, and lines like “the force is strong with this one” permeate our culture in such a way that it’s almost impossible not to be aware of them. I even went to see a Star Wars movie once, when I was a little kid, but I fell asleep about halfway through and don’t really remember much, except robots and things blowing up. Based on the timing, it would have been one of the prequels, but I’m honestly not sure which.

So I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not a Star Wars fan. Not by a long shot. Maybe it was the recent release of The Last Jedi and all the hype that came with that, or maybe because the kids at school talk about it so much. I like to be aware of the things the kids are passionate about – the books they’re reading, the movies they like. But anyway, I guess I was curious. So I caved in. I bought A New Hope on iTunes and watched it. And to my surprise, I found that I already knew the story.

No, I don’t just mean that I recognized some of those iconic bits of pop culture I was talking about earlier. I did, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Rather, the storyline itself – the story of a poor farm boy with a great destiny caught up in an epic battle of good vs. evil – is one that I know well. It’s the basis of most fantasy stories, and beyond that, it’s an archetypal hero’s journey.

Although Star Wars is science fiction, it’s definitely soft science fiction, more concerned with adventures on alien planets than explaining how the actual science works. In a way, it almost feels more like a fantasy story set in space, with its mystical ideas surrounding the Force, a magic-like power that its hero learns to use. The movie itself, which begins with “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, seems self-aware of this genre-blending and embraces it. The story is filled with knights wielding swords (OK, lightsabers), a space princess, a heroic quest, and an emperor whose evil empire spans an entire galaxy, alongside the more typical science fiction elements such as spaceships, aliens, and sentient robots.

I’m not complaining about the space fantasy aspects of it. In fact, that was probably what I enjoyed the most. I happen to love seeing an old story revisited in a way that makes it feel new. If Star Wars reminded me of anything, it was probably the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, a series of retold fairy tales set in a futuristic dystopia. Rapunzel is trapped in a satellite, Cinderella is a cyborg who loses her foot on the palace stairs, and so on. I happen to love the Lunar Chronicles, so I definitely mean that as a compliment. In both the Lunar Chronicles and Star Wars, the fantasy archetypes occasionally clash with the science fiction setting, but it’s interesting to see all the ways they meld together, and the ways that the setting changes the archetypes.

Princess Leia was without a doubt my favorite character. I was expecting a damsel in distress, a passive victim for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo to rescue, but what I got was a fierce young woman who defies her captors, thinks quickly under fire, cares deeply for her cause, and improvises an escape plan once she realizes her rescuers don’t have one. Leia is awesome, and my only disappointment is that she had so little to do in this movie, spending much of it as a prisoner on the Death Star and then on the ground while the battle unfolds in space. I feel sure I would have liked it much better if she was the main character.

The actual protagonist, Luke Skywalker, was in my opinion the least interesting character in the movie. I’m sure I’ve offended somebody, and I’m sorry, but I just have to say it. He’s a classic fantasy hero in a science fiction setting, and that’s an interesting premise, but he has very little depth. He’s a wide-eyed idealist with a good moral compass. He wants to see the galaxy and be a hero. He wants to train with Obi-Wan and become a Jedi, but feels duty-bound to stay home until the Empire conveniently destroys his uncle’s farm. None of those are bad things to say about the hero of a movie franchise, but on their own, without any further character development, they’re clichés. I’m truly hoping that Luke becomes a more compelling protagonist in future movies, because at this point, I really can’t make myself care about him.

The actual plot also feels kind of cookie-cutter, but as I’ve said before, the setting is enough to make up for that. I actually find cookie-cutter plots far more tolerable than flat characters, especially if the characters and setting are interesting. And yes, the idea of a hero-in-training, a roguish anti-hero, a wise mentor, and a princess in distress teaming up to fight an evil empire sounds very, very cliché. If it had been set in a classic medieval fantasy setting, it would have been utterly boring and unoriginal. It still didn’t really hook me in an edge-of-my-seat, can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens kind of way, but the outer space setting certainly helped.

The battle scenes weren’t really my cup of tea, but that’s probably because this isn’t the kind of thing I usually watch. While I do like both science fiction and fantasy, I’m one of those weird people who thinks fight scenes are the least interesting part of movies. However, I will say that there wasn’t as much pointless violence as I expected. Just about every battle or fight did serve a purpose in the story, even if a few of them went on longer than I would have liked.

Besides that, I found that I had a hard time taking the story’s antagonists seriously. I’m sure the Stormtoopers’ armor probably looked slick and futuristic at the time, but I just kept thinking it looked like it was made out of plastic and seemed to be about as effective. And Darth Vader just didn’t scare me the way I expected him to. I think what it comes down to is that the image of Darth Vader is so iconic it’s familiar even to non-Star Wars fans. I’ve seen him on t-shirts, backpacks, notebooks, kids’ tennis shoes, and just about anything else you can imagine. I feel like the fact that it’s so familiar takes the edge off the creepy factor.

I’m definitely not saying I hated the movie. But I’m also not saying I loved it, or thought it was the greatest cinematic masterpiece of all time. I know it was a huge game-changer in the history of movie-making and a beloved classic for many people. To someone like me – someone looking at it through an outsider’s skeptical lens – it couldn’t possibly mean the same thing it meant to its first fans, or to those who grew up with it.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a Star Wars fan in the way that I’m a Harry Potter fan, but I do feel that I now have a greater appreciation for Star Wars and a greater understanding of what it’s all about. Now I know that there is a story worth telling in Star Wars, and one that I found surprisingly familiar in ways that go beyond lightsabers and iconic characters. I do plan on continuing to watch at least a few of the other Star Wars movies, so I’ll probably update soon with more of my thoughts as I explore more of the series.

Book Reviews · Young Adult

Book Review: Renegades

I absolutely love The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer, so of course I had to read her latest book, Renegades, which was released this past November. I’m not really a fan of superhero stories, so I was a little uncertain at first. However, once I got past the nicknames and costumes and secret identities, I found myself really enjoying the story.

Renegades is set in a grim dystopian future where the superheroes can’t save everyone, the villains just might have a point, and in the end, it’s the ordinary people who suffer. It doesn’t pull any punches. The main character, a young villainess who volunteers to infiltrate the superheroes’ organization, grows increasingly torn between the two sides as the book goes on. Her own superpowers are less impressive than her ingenuity and resourcefulness, and she truly believes the world would be better off with no super-powered “prodigies” at all.

Nova and Adrian, the two main characters, have opposite goals and opposite views of the world. Yet at the same time, they have a lot in common. Both of them have their doubts about the Renegades, the powerful superheroes who rule the city. Both of them lost family members at a young age and are still looking for justice/vengeance. They were raised by the leaders of opposing sides and began working for their families’ cause at a young age. And they both have not one but two superhero identities, one of which is known to the Council and the other regarded as a threat. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when they meet out of costume, ignorant of the fact that they’re already enemies, they get along quite well.

Although the book is long, the plot itself is very simple, and almost seems to exist just as a framework for the characters, world-building, and extensive backstory. However, I don’t mean that as a criticism. This simply isn’t a plot-driven story. Despite the action sequences and superhero imagery, it’s a character-driven exploration of shattered faith and divided loyalties, and personally, that’s something that appeals to me far more than fights and explosions. Both Nova and Adrian won me over so completely that I enjoyed following their emotional journeys and didn’t really care how slowly the plot developed. However, if you’re someone looking for an exciting adventure story, you may want to look elsewhere.

If I have a criticism, it would be that the book is such a morally ambiguous mess, its two viewpoint characters are essentially the only likable characters. Adrian and his Renegade team are true heroes fighting for justice, but they are heroic antagonists who you still can’t always root for. Nova is compelling and sympathetic in spite of all her flaws and misguided goals, and that’s a huge achievement in itself. But the other Renegades, while many are well-intentioned, come off as a huge case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, exerting control over every aspect of life in their city, serving as judge, jury, and executioner in all cases of crime, and encouraging a sense of dependency in those without powers, leading them to believe they cannot cope without their all-powerful superhero leaders. Meanwhile, the Anarchists – the supervillains who have dedicated themselves to bringing down the Renegades – are even worse. They kill in cold blood, see assassination as the best way to change things, and don’t care one bit whether ordinary civilians get caught in the crossfire. And yet, with one or two truly villainous exceptions, they care for their own like family and really do believe they’re trying to liberate the world.

There’s something grimly realistic about that. It’s sometimes almost too easy to classify fictional characters as good or evil, heroes or villains. By using those labels and yet creating a world in which there’s not much difference between the two, Meyer emphasizes that things are rarely that neat and tidy. In real life, few people see themselves as the villain of their own story, and few conflicts are purely good vs. evil. I won’t say none. But there’s something about the book’s murky moral conflict that rings true and definitely makes the main character’s internal conflict and eventual decisions far more believable than they would be in a world of good and evil.

In one scene, the two main characters have a surprisingly honest discussion about their beliefs. They don’t agree by any means: she thinks the public is too dependent of superheroes to solve all their problems, while he believes that’s a superhero’s duty; she believes the world would be a better place if no one had special powers, while he seems shocked by the idea; and she openly defends her infamous uncle, who he’s not aware she’s related to and definitely does have any sympathy for. However, they trust and respect each other, and each of them listens to what the other has to say, without dismissing it outright. I would love to see this part of their dynamic explored further, and I think it will have to be if the series is going to have anything resembling a happy ending.

Despite the fantasy and superhero elements, I feel like there’s a message somewhere in this book that is relevant to our present-day world. I’m not saying the Renegades and Anarchists have real-life counterparts, because they and their conflict are products of the fictional world they inhabit, but I am saying that the novel paints a picture of a polarized, volatile society where rival groups fight for control at the expense of the ordinary people. It comes across not just as a fantasy story but as a dystopian novel, and every dystopian novel carries some kind of warning that is drawn from the real  world in which it was written. The Giver has a message about individuality and conformity, Fahrenheit 451 explores censorship of information, and 1984 warns against surveillance and brainwashing. Likewise, Renegade explores the responsibilities of those in power, the ways in which good intentions do not always have good results, and the inability of the novel’s two rival factions to find a peaceful solution. Don’t let the superhero capes and clever code names fool you: this book is not an escapist fantasy.


Love’s Labour’s Lost

At this point, I like to think that I know what to expect when I sit down to read Shakespeare. After all, I’ve now read fifteen of his plays, including almost all of the most famous ones. I’m not saying that to boast, but rather, to give a bit of context for how utterly blindsided I was by Love’s Labour’s Lost.

It’s not that Love’s Labour’s Lost is a bad play. It’s a cute romantic comedy with a lot of genuinely funny moments. But it’s nothing like what I’ve come to expect from a Shakespearean comedy. Typically, although Shakespeare’s comedies do include plenty of romance and humor, there’s more to them than just a lighthearted love story. Twelfth Night is about a young girl stranded in a foreign country after losing everything in a tragic shipwreck. As You Like It deals with betrayal and exile and finding love in spite of less-than-desirable circumstances. There are times when Much Ado About Nothing looks like a tragedy in the making. Without even getting into tragicomedy and problem play territory, each comedy almost always has something important at stake, which is resolved in the final act, allowing for a happy ending.

However, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, this does not seem to be the case. It’s simply the story of four men who have sworn to study, fast, and remain single for three years, the four women they almost immediately fall in love with, and their various attempts at flirting. The vow that they all make at the beginning could provide some conflict, forcing them to choose between loyalty to their friends and newfound love, but it is easily cast aside. The girls seem to be playing a game with their suitors, using masks and gifts from the four men to engineer a case of mistaken identity. However, they, too, are infatuated and are just having a bit of fun. By the end of the same scene, the four couples are together. In other words, what I’m getting at is that there is very little conflict, almost nothing at stake, and not much in the way of plot.

The characters, too, come across as two-dimensional in comparison to some of Shakespeare’s later work. There is little difference between the four women, and only Berowne stands out as an individual among the four lead men. It could easily have been the story of two friends who make a similar pact and the two women they fall for without almost any of the details changing. Coming from a writer whose plays are known for being intensely character-driven and who created such memorable characters as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind, Prospero, etc., it’s startling to see a play where the lead characters are so interchangeable.

The most interesting thing about Love’s Labour’s Lost is the ending, and that’s what drew me to the play in the first place. Unlike most comedies, this one does not end with marriage, although that’s where it seems to be headed almost from the very beginning. Instead, it ends with the princess learning that her father is dead and the four women returning to France. They promise to reunite with their suitors after a year of mourning, indicating future weddings and a happy ending, although I have to wonder if these four fickle and easily-infatuated men will be able to wait a year or whether they’ll just go off in pursuit of the next group of women to show up at their court. With the rumored sequel, Love’s Labour’s Won, lost to history, there’s no way of knowing. In any case, it’s interesting to see the men forced to keep at least part of their vow (reduced to one year instead of three), rather than simply being able to break the promise and get married right away.

I’ve read and enjoyed lesser-known Shakespeare plays before – I definitely have a soft spot for Troilus and Cressida – but I can see now, having read it, why Love’s Labour’s Lost is so rarely read or performed today. It was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and one can see the beginnings of what would become his signature style in it: lovers who are trying not to fall in love, mistaken identities, clever wordplay, and even the genre-blend of an ending that perhaps foreshadows future tragicomedies. However, those pieces are not supported by a strong storyline or memorable characters and fall flat when there is so little at stake.

My Poetry

The Year We Stole Christmas

Do you remember
The year we stole their Christmas
Stuffed it into bags and carried it away at night
Only to realize
A few hours later
We’d stolen nothing
Nothing that mattered

Do you remember
That I always knew
Christmas was more than the things you stole
A dog with an antler tied to my head
Thrilled at first to see you
Dressed as Santa Claus
Until I figured out your plan

Do you remember
That I was right?
Do you remember
How your heart grew that night?

Do you remember
What Christmas means
Powerful enough to make a mean old Grinch
See the light
As it dawned Christmas morning
With no presents
No feast

Do you remember
When we brought back their gifts
And joined in the feast
And never looked back on that lonely mountain?

Christmas can be shut out
And forgotten
But if it lives in your heart
No one can steal it

My Poetry

Just Yesterday: a poem inspired by A Christmas Carol

Just yesterday, he sneered at us
And sent us on our way
Just yesterday, he threatened, scorned,
And hated Christmas day
Just yesterday, he clung to gold
And shut out warmth and light
Just yesterday he loathed the world
What changed this winter’s night?

How can a cold and hardened heart
So quickly melt and bleed?
How can a man in love with gold
Release his crippling greed?
How can a dark and lonely soul
Give up its cruelty?
How can a single night reverse
A bitter history?

And can we trust the workings of
This miracle today?
Or when the sun has set and risen
Will it fade away?
The past is written, and the present
Unfolds here and now
But future is a mystery
What’s still to come? And how?

A selfish miser transformed to
A kind, warm-hearted man
Who joins in carols that we sing
And gives all that he can
Today is Christmas, so we trust
Miraculous goodwill
And hope, tomorrow morning,
It will linger with us still

My Poetry · Uncategorized

Cosmic Dance

This really isn’t book-related, but I wrote this poem a few days ago, and since the eclipse was today I figured I might as well share it.

They chase each other
Through the vast expanse of space
Marking day and night

When the sun goes down
A shining silver lantern
Hangs among the stars

In the glaring light
Of day it fades, outshone by
The sun’s golden rays

Endless cosmic dance
Sun and moon meet and perform
A vanishing act

A circle of fire
In a darkened daytime sky
Blotting out the sun