Quick Notes on the New Star Wars Movies

The New Heroes

I thought Force Awakens was merely serviceable as a movie, a huge chunk of fan service and a merry-go-round of “hey remember Star Wars?” but not a lot of new life. And honestly, that means it was a massive failure.

It was the vanguard of the new guard, the movie that was supposed to introduce us to new heroes that we’d love as much as the old ones. Instead, we got Rey (generic gee-whiz do-gooder with a hardscrabble past who can somehow fight and fly better than all the others), Poe (generic impulsive anti-hero type), and Finn (indecisive cipher). To be fair, Awakens was more of an ensemble romp, more like Avengers than Star Wars, but none of these characters are given full living breath in Episode VII; they all feel like stand-ins for real heroes, or Saturday morning cartoon characters.

Finn is the most glaring screenwriting problem. For once, we have a character who’s been inside the machine, who’s served as a stormtrooper, and yet he’s as bland as porridge. He was sold at a young age to be trained by the First Order as a killing machine, for crying out loud! And then he got reassigned to sanitation, apparently. Do we get to peek inside his head? Aren’t the rebels going to treat him with a little suspicion, deprogram him, debrief him, pump him for secrets, test him, find out what his true motivations are? Do we find out what it’s like to be a ninja who’s been bumped down to trash detail? Does he think about his family or his friends back in the Empire? Does he undergo a journey of self-doubt and self-discovery (Rey) or discover the meaning of sacrifice and leadership (Poe)? Nope, nope, nope. If anything, he’s the counter-example to Poe’s learning as he tries to sacrifice himself futilely against that space cannon thing.

In the real world, we have examples of kids like this, who were abandoned by family and trained to be child soldiers. People like this are usually scarred, hard, fragile, difficult, unpredictable, and inherently compelling. But Finn does not behave like a Sudanese child soldier. He behaves like a suburban dork.

I think Force Awakens is a good case study on what does and doesn’t make a hero. Star Wars shows Luke Skywalker suffering great tragedy and then struggling to understand himself and his tremendously dangerous challenges, building a framework for action and self-sacrifice. Force Awakens shows a group of stock videogame characters running from objective to objective, completing quests to get to their next level-up. It feels cheap.

Cinematic Tension

Last Jedi, however, does a better job of capturing that Star Wars panache, in my opinion. While watching it, I remember saying, “Finally, a Star Wars movie that brings it back to these loaded, fraught, incredibly tense face-offs between powerful and determined heroes and villains.” Chiefly, the emotional psychic connection scenes with Rey and Kylo; the Kylo-Luke confrontation; and of course that brilliant faceoff between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke in the throne room. Jedi also does something that none of the prequels ever did: it gave real immediate stakes to a character’s moral choice. Game of Thrones isn’t a brilliant show because of the bloody battles; it’s a great show because of the memorable tensions between great and unpredictable characters.

The Star Wars prequels are boring because there are no mysteries or surprises. Kylo is definitely one of the more interesting elements in the new Star Wars.

For me, Jedi also performed the miracle of redeeming Rey as a character. She was bland and uninteresting to me in Awakens but in Jedi she developed passion, self-doubt, and purpose.

Killing Off Heroes

I agree that Jedi wrote Skywalker out in a weak and anti-climactic fashion. Honestly, the magnitude of Luke’s Force achievement– broadcasting his convincing self across the galaxy, blah blah blah– was never convincingly shown in a cinematic way. To the average moviegoer, Luke could’ve just jumped in an x-wing and flown over in five minutes… and Disney would’ve been better served to shoot that and let Luke die epically in the flesh.

I also take issue with the way in which the creators have chosen to close the chapters of the three primary heroes of the original movies. For a franchise as mythological and metaphysical as Star Wars, does closure on a character arc have to be a death? I think that’s short-sighted. Look at all the great movie endings through history. Many end with deaths, but just as many end with small victories or new journeys. (And of course that’s also what I hope happens to Princess Leia.)

Bad Technology

I was deeply annoyed at Holdo’s sacrifice, not because of any complaints about the character, but because of the holes it punches in the rules of space combat that Star Wars has always upheld. If lightspeed is really the ultimate weapon, why aren’t the x-wings firing off little miniaturized lightspeed missiles instead of stupid lasers? Is it because a lightspeed drive is too big and expensive to put in a missile? Cellphones used to be too big and expensive to put in your pants, too.

Those Other Tiresome Dustups

As for the fuss over Holdo, here’s a great article that puts Jedi‘s leadership lessons into laser focus. If you missed the Poe leadership thread in this movie, shame on you.

And here’s another great article about the much-ballyhooed Canto Blight casino scenes in Jedi and what they brought to the franchise. Say what you like about the inclusivity, which I think expands the Star Wars universe rather than tainting it, but you have to admit that Blight itself represents a whole new facet to the universe.


What Happens to Princess Leia?

What’s Next for Our Star Wars Princess

What happens to Princess Leia in the next Star Wars movies? What should happen with Princess Leia?

There’s no doubt that old-guard Star Wars heroes are dying like irradiated flies. So far, one hero per movie. And no matter what you think of the new trilogy, the question remains for our beloved franchise: what happens to Princess Leia now that Carrie Fisher has unfortunately passed from this world to one far, far away?

Here are some options, and some thoughts.

Princess Leia Becomes CG

I’m fairly certain there isn’t enough footage for Leia’s future to be stitched together out of odds and ends. So the CG option rears its ugly head, and if you remember the uncanny valley moments with Grand Moff Tarkin in Force Awakens, you know how ugly that head is.

However, Disney fortunately shot this down in April 2017, announcing that they will not digitally recreate Fisher. They also said that Fisher won’t be in Episode IX, which is… interesting. But it doesn’t solve the problem of what happens to the character.

Princess Leia Becomes a Force Ghost

This is the lazy solution: cobble together enough old footage to kill Leia and then have her reappear as a benevolently-smiling but silent Force ghost, standing beside all the others. (I wonder what all the Force ghosts do when they’re not summoned for some feel-good postlude. Force bowling? Force Scrabble?)

However, with Disney saying that Fisher isn’t going to be in Episode IX, this is also seemingly off the table.

Leia Goes Offstage

Not Off-Broadway, but simply gets called away and isn’t involved in the flow of Episode IX at all. I doubt anyone is considering this kind of farewell.

The Princess Leia Time Jump

Popsugar posits that Leia will be written out in exposition via a leap forward in time between Episode VIII and IX. I’m thinking Ep IX would open on a memorial service to remember her great sacrifice of five years ago, and all the new heroes would weep over how noble and impactful her last deed was.

Honestly, I think this is a bad idea. In my opinion, one of the main reasons Last Jedi did worse than Force Awakens at the box office was fan revolt at the way the new movies have been killing off favorite characters (although I believe Jedi was a stronger film). Killing Leia offscreen, no matter how reverently, doesn’t feel right. The early returns on Solo make it clear that the Star Wars magic does have its limits. Mistreating Leia could damage the franchise further.

Princess Leia Becomes an Audio Presence

With Fisher unavailable, what if Princess Leia’s called to a far-flung star system to fight another great conflict for the Force? There are plenty of voice talents capable of capturing Fisher’s wry, gravelly audio presence, and plenty of side quests (and for that matter, meta-quests) she could pursue for years and years. This is a bit of an old-school lo-fi solution, but an elegant one.

Princess Leia Ascends Into a New Lifeform

Unfortunately, with the trilogy format, I don’t think they can postpone the Leia problem in Episode IX. So something must be done.

Here’s a suggestion: give Leia her moment of ultimate sacrifice, maybe something where she willingly steps into a trap or threat to save another hero or heroes. (This could be done via a long shot and a lookalike.) In my example, the threat is a chamber encrusted with eggs, each containing a horrible biological threat. After the explosion (there’s always an explosion), the good guys find a large, oddly-shaped globe in the room. After some discussion, they take it to their base and scan it to find that it contains a child.

At that moment, the globe dissolves, revealing a mysterious girl. And Princess Leia is reborn, keeping our ties to the original trilogy alive, and giving Carrie Fisher a positive, life-affirming farewell to the Star Wars universe.

But again… Disney has said that Fisher won’t be in Ep IX.

Don’t Kill Leia at All

My last modest proposal is to find another way. It’s rather short-sighted to assume that all character arcs end in death. Wouldn’t it be seemly to send Leia off to new journeys and new arcs?

Although it’s ostensibly scifi, the Star Wars universe has always been one steeped in magic and myth, about an adventure as connected to the spirit as it is to the physical realm. The Leia of The Last Jedi is certainly older and frailer, but she clearly demonstrates that she is no ordinary being, and perhaps her last farewell to the movies should do the same.


Movies Suck.

movies-suckMovies suck. That’s the big headline today. It’s not exactly banner news for you guys, but still, it’s something that can be forgotten in the heat of the moment.

I love movies; everybody loves movies. But it’s a grievous error to assume that all stories can be told in a movie format, or that movies are our species’ greatest cultural asset.

A lot of my favorite stories will never make it to film because they’re not marketable enough, they’re too long, or they’re headtrips that would be difficult to visualize.

Visual Storytelling

There’s a genius to visual storytelling, and not every director has it. How many times have you been in a theatre watching a closeup of or a slow push in on an actor’s thoughtful face and wondered, What the hell is that person thinking?

In my opinion, some of those moments are failures in visual storytelling. We should be able to know that this is the final straw that leads him to leave the country, or momentary indecision, or terrible indigestion, but we haven’t been given enough information. On the other hand, perhaps the director wants us to be unsure of the character’s thought process. And of course, some of these moments are merely our failures to read the cues that the director is sending. It’s a fine line. Without the often ham-handed aid of voiceover narration, the inherent limitations of the visual medium make filmic storytelling a challenge.

Film Is Shallow

Complex storylines simply can’t be told compellingly in film. Imagine if you sat a capable screenwriter or novel writer down with the three Lord of the Rings movies and had him novelize them. How do you think they’d compare against the Tolkien originals? The idea is laughable — all the nuance, history, grandeur, and poetry of the originals would be stripped out. Still, most agree that these movies are remarkable works of art.

It’s my opinion that movies typically can convey the depth and complexity of a good short story. The average novel must shed a significant fraction of its heft when transcribed for the silver screen.

And the Odds Are Against Us

Also, as a collaborative medium, movies are often destroyed from the inside by flawed implementation. The teams are so big, the stakes are so high, and the points of failure so varied that sometimes I marvel when a good movie is completed, not when a bad one is made.

Even when a good movie is wrapped, it’s often sabotaged by half-hearted marketing, or even shelved by the same studio that made it because of fears that it isn’t worth the expense of distribution and promotion. The system is structured so that it tends to create stinkers. Great stories that don’t seem to have mass-market appeal generally don’t stand a chance.

Anyhow, some random thoughts as we head into the holiday season. Go out there and love you some wintertime movies, but do it with both eyes open.


Cheetah with Bolt – Now Cheesier

Cheetah with Bolt Makes My Mouth Hurt

My friend Nicol and I were watching TV half-heartedly and we saw one of those Grande commercials go by, advertising some accelerated internet service in Austin called “Cheetah with Bolt.” I’m not sure what Cheetah with Bolt is. Sounds like a new costumed crimefighting team.

Anyhow, Nicol admitted that she thought it was a badly-planned new snack product. Specifically, Cheetos with Jolt. Now that, my friends, would be one hellish cheesy puff.


“The Fall” is a movie you’ll regret not seeing

Screenwriting: See “The Fall” while you can

the_fall_7.jpgI caught this gem recently on the strength of its trailer, and I definitely don’t regret it. Visually stunning and filled with subtle heart, it’s worth your time.

Here’s the summary: a little girl and a young man are both in a hospital, recovering from injuries; his are grievous, caused by a stunt he attempted for the love of a woman. They become friends, and he begins to tell her a fantastic story of epic heroes and villainy, filled with adventure in improbable places, like the Arabian Nights or any folk tale you can name. The director, Tarsem (The Cell with Jennifer Lopez), shows off both his music video chops and his love of incredible international locations with the settings.

The screenwriting genius here is that the young man is in a lot of pain, physically and emotionally, and he’s telling the story to entice the girl to steal morphine for him, perhaps to reduce his pain, perhaps to hide from reality, and perhaps to kill himself. It’s based on an obscure little foreign film with a much smaller budget called Yo Ho Ho, which you can find at IMDB.

Tarsem made this as a labor of love over the course of five years. It stars virtual unknowns, and that’s my best guess as to why you haven’t heard of it. This movie deserves to be seen on the big screen. Trust me.


Screenwriting: a ?!?! moment in Blade Trinity

A screenwriting thought: Blade Trinity puzzler

Screenwriting isn’t game design (although a lot of game designers wish it were). Still, screenwriters are, like game writers, in the business of visual storytelling. Under that precept, I’d like to relate the following tale of woe.

The other night I channelsurfed upon Blade Trinity. I’m as much a fan as anybody of the brain-dead spectacle so I watched a fair chunk of it, although I admit that I was hot-swapping between it and Harold and Kumar.

Anyhow, among ridiculous tropes and hilarious pomp, one ?!?! moment stood out for me. Abigail (Biel) and Blade (Snipes), after discovering their friends murdered and base defiled, are girding for battle to the requisite vengeance beat.

Silvery blades in leather holsters, check. Black revolvers that fire vampire-killing mumbo-jumbo fluid, check. CG-tastic UV folding hacksaw, check.

Cut to Abigail at her laptop.

Cut to Abigail selecting tunes for her iPod playlist. On the screen you can clearly see the phrase “Abigail’s iPod.” I nearly ingested a fatal dose of popcorn through my nose.

They’re about to do battle with the hordes of Hell and Dracula himself, and Abigail is loading Nickelback tunes into her freaking iPod like she’s preparing for a road trip to Boise?!? This was easily the funniest thing I’d seen all night. (Apologies to Kal Penn… the new H&K movie looks essential.) The only way they could’ve improved it would’ve been to show her loading up a Kung Fu lunchbox with a seaweed wrap and a thermos of Starbucks’ finest mochachoco latte.

To me this clip screamed, “Middle-aged screenwriter desperately trying to prove his cultural relevance.” Next time, guys, pay a little less attention to the cultural fads and a little more to the emotions and drama of the movie you’re making.

Did anybody see this thing in the theatres? Please let us know. I MUST know if this clip caused any guffaws – or not.