Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.”

In the opening scene to the critical & commercial bomb Waterworld, we’re introduced to Kevin Costner’s dystopia-navigating action hero by learning two unique facts about him: 1) he has gills that allow him to breathe underwater and 2) he drinks his own piss. This is such an off-putting introduction to someone who’s supposed to be coded as a heroic badass that the audience has very little wiggle room to ever get entirely past it; critic Nathan Rabin even refers to Costner’s protagonist as a “pee-drinking man-fish” for the entirety of his My Year of Flops review of the film. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi, is even more grotesque in the way it tears down Luke Skywalker in his own introduction, despite him being the de facto hero of the series going as far back as A New Hope four decades ago. An aged, surly Luke Skywalker drinks something much, much worse than his own piss in one of his earliest moments onscreen in The Last Jedi. When offered the lightsaber Rey extends to him in the final aerial shot of the film’s predecessor, The Force Awakens, Luke casually tosses the sacred thing over his shoulder and over the side of a cliff, flippantly disregarding the emotional payoff of the lore J.J. Abrams built up for Johnson to deliver on. The rest of the canon goes over the cliff with it, with pre-established dichotomies of Good & Evil, boundaries on the limits of the space-magic practice of The Force, and even basic questions of tone & intent being burnt to the ground so that new seeds can sprout from the ashes. Luke’s disgusting beverage of choice and general apathy for the history & lore of the Jedi is emblematic of The Last Jedi’s willingness to let traditional Star Wars themes & narrative threads die so the series can begin anew. It’s an often awkward, even outright goofy kind of blasphemy, but it’s a necessary evil for moving the franchise forward instead of merely echoing the past.

Ill-conceived holiday specials. made-for-TV Ewok movies, and near-universally loathed prequels aside, The Last Jedi is the first proper Star Wars film that’s not about stopping the construction or deployment of the planet-destroying spaceship The Death Star. You’d think that the same fans who blasted Abrams’s The Force Awakens for supposedly copycatting (or, in my opinion, improving through revision) the first film in the series, A New Hope, would appreciate that Rian Johnson has steered Star Wars away from telling that same tired story yet again. That has not been the case. There has been a wide gulf between critic & audience scores on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic in how The Last Jedi is being received. Many disgruntled superfans of the series are stressing out over the way Johnson has jumbled & set aflame their *shudder* fan theories, which extend from speculation on everything from what the film’s title might mean to who Rey, the new hero of the franchise, might be sired by to what purpose Porgs, adorable toy-selling space-chickens, might serve in the larger scope of Star Wars lore. Johnson is not only dismissive of these extratextual extrapolations on where the series is going; he also completely dismisses the many far, faraway places the series has already been. It’s difficult to tell that from the film’s basic plot, though, even if it is Death Star-free. The Last Jedi is a fairly by-the-books Star Wars story bifurcated between Rey & Luke debating whether the practice of Jedi space-magic is worth reviving (much to Kylo Ren’s watching-from-afar chagrin) and The Resistance’s numbers dwindling in the meantime as they flee from the crushing space-Nazi fascism of the First Order (despite the efforts of familiar faces like Poe, Finn, Leia, BB-8, Laura Dern, etc.). I don’t believe most of The Last Jedi’s divisiveness is a response to the film’s narrative choices (though I wouldn’t put it past the series’ die-hard fans to complain about anything), but rather a question of tone & respect for series-spanning lore.

Star Wars has always had a jokey flippancy built into its DNA (just look to fan-favorite Han Solo for examples); its humor is a defense mechanism meant to forgive or ease its more off-putting sci-fi nerdery. The Last Jedi is an outlier in that dynamic only in the way it alters the series’ sense of humor for modern sensibilities. The jokes in George Lucas’s original trilogy were geared for the Baby Boomer generation, the same kids who would have grown up on the space opera radio serials (and subsequent televisions shows) Star Wars regenerated nostalgia for. It’s a comedy style that’s only grown corny with time, drifting further away from modern sensibilities with each new trilogy cycle. The Last Jedi ditches the Baby Boomer humor to appeal to Millennials who have grown up on Simpsons snark & Adult Swim anti-humor. The film opens with a prank call. Luke Skywalker dismissively refers to lightsabers as “laser swords.” The toy-selling cuteness of the space-chicken Porgs is a constant visual gag, with even a few of the critters being prepared as meals and generally treated as unwanted pests. The open secret, though, is that Star Wars has always been awkwardly goofy, full of absurdist creatures worthy of derisive laughter, and loose with consistent logic in its space-wizardry. It’s only become normalized over time through decades-long cultural exposure. As gross as Luke Skywalker’s beverage of choice is in this film, it’s no goofier or out of step with the series at large than a Frank Oz-voiced Yoda puppet or a space-tavern full of bipedal sea creatures playing jizz music. Rian Johnson’s film is being torn apart by life-long fans of Star Wars for making a series they’ve grown up mythologizing feel nerdily weird & awkward again: something it’s always been, but they were once too young to see. Old-timers are likely feeling alienated by the modern humor that shapes its tone, but I’m totally okay with abandoning past devotees of the franchise to make the environment more hospitable for new ones.

Brushing aside the more hateful, inflammatory complaints about women & PoC being afforded the blockbuster spotlight for once, most negative reactions to The Last Jedi are totally understandable. It’s not difficult to see how a film about literally burning sacred texts & starting from scratch could alienate some old-timers. Honestly, I’m not even sure the film’s absurdist Millennial humor & blasphemous revision of the Jedi as a religious practice/force for Good are 100% successful myself. I was much more emotionally moved by the sincere mythmaking & familiar, but consistent craft of The Force Awakens than I was impressed with the flippant absurdity of The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi may have been eccentric enough to alienate lore-serious Star Wars nerds, but it still doesn’t quite reach the over-the-top lunacy of something like Okja or Fury Road. There are moments when I could swear Brigsby Bear’s Kyle Mooney secretly directed the picture under a pseudonym, even though the evidence is stacked against me, but it’s ultimately too long & too well-behaved to satisfy as an absurdist masterpiece. Instead, the absurdism comes in flashes, just flavoring the original space opera recipe enough to establish a freshly goofy tone as a replacement for the staler goofy one it started with. Indignation over blasphemy to the lore of the Jedi and The Force is slightly more justified than resisting the film’s updated sense of humor, but when the now-established rules of space-wizardry were first introduced in the original franchise they likely seem just as absurd & arbitrary. In a way, dedicated fans deserve to be trolled for thinking that they’ve firmly grasped the rules & trajectory of the franchise enough that they can map out the exact stories of future installments based only on titles, advertisements, and interview clips.

Rian Johnson disrespectfully throws all fan theories in the trash, along with the consistency in lore that made them possible in the first place. It may sting the ego to discover you can no longer “figure out” the future of a franchise you’ve spent your whole life obsessively studying as if it were a riddle with a concrete answer, not a fluid work of art. However, by shaking up the rules & tones of what’s come before, Johnson has created so much more space for possibility in the future, for new & exciting things to take us by surprise instead of following the trajectory of set-in-stone texts. He’s made Star Wars freshly funny, unpredictable, and awkwardly nerdy again, when it was in clear danger of becoming repetitive, by-the-books blockbuster filmmaking routine instead. It’s an admirable feat, even if not an entirely successful one, and yes, even if it forced me to equate Luke Skywalker to a pee-drinking man-fish.

-Brandon Ledet

How the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) Nearly Destroyed The World’s Most Popular Film Franchise in Its Infancy

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We’re living in a pretty incredible time to be a Star Wars nerd right now. In the past year, we’ve seen two of the franchise’s best entries, The Force Awakens & Rogue One, bring its battered ghost back to the heights of its Empire Strikes Back & New Hope pinnacle. Now that enough time has passed and most of the bitter taste has been washed away, we’re collectively forgetting the nightmare regime of young Anakin & Jar Jar stepping on the throat of the world’s most popular film franchise, threatening to exterminate Star Wars forever into a CG oblivion. Jar Jar & Hayden Christensen weren’t the first threat to Star Wars‘s legacy, though. Nor were they the worst. A year after the unfathomably popular premiere of the franchise in A New Hope and two years before its sole masterpiece in Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars sank far lower than any line readings of “Meesa people gonna die?” or CG Hayden Christensen force-ghosts ever brought it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga, a 90min eternity of embarrassment & shame for a series that might not have survived it in the age of internet chatrooms or, even more recently, turbulent Twitter storms. The Star Wars Holiday Special luckily flew under the radar, surviving only as a ghost on the world’s least-watched VHS cassettes instead of being consistently torn apart in a public forum. If released in a more modern era, it might’ve been a death blow.

A variety show holiday special in the vein of a Bing Crosby or a Pee-wee’s Playhouse seasonal broadcast, this fanboy nightmare centers on the inane & vaguely defined Wookie celebration of Life Day. Along with Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship, and a few other stray celebrities most children wouldn’t give two shits about, not even in the late 70s, most of the original Star Wars crew makes an appearance here. Mark Hamill & Carrie Fisher get off light, appearing only in brief video conference scenes, never having to appear on set in their respective Skywalker roles. David Prowse & James Earl Jones escape even more responsibility for this crime against decency, as Darth Vader’s brief scenes are mere overdubs of clips from A New Hope. It’s truly Harrison Ford & Peter Mayhew who suffer the biggest loss of dignity here. The entire special’s narrative is structured around Han Solo helping Chewbacca avoid Imperial capture on his path home to his Wookie family in time for their all-important Life Day celebration. That’s right; Chewbacca has a non-canonical family created just for this prestigious holiday special. His father Itchy, his son Lumpy, and his wife Malla are no doubt the three most ill-conceived and poorly designed characters of a franchise that, again, was also responsible for Jar Jar Binks. Most of The Star Wars Holiday Special features Chewbacca’s ugly, shrill, unlikable family as they hang out in their mat painting treehouse condo, whining, roaring, and grumbling until their hirsute paterfamilias arrives. It’s borderline unwatchable, even with the occasional respite of a Han Solo line reading or a half-cooked comedy sketch from Mel Brooks collaborator Harvey Korman. It’s probably not fair to pick on the quality of 1970s children’s media from this decades-late hindsight, but this truly is one of the most unpleasant and, frankly, boring 90min stretches of sci-fi media I’ve ever endured. I’m honestly surprised Star Wars escaped it unscathed.

Not every moment in the special is agony. There’s a Heavy Metal-style animation sequence that’s an especially welcome moment of competence & effortless cool, one that serves as the first introduction of space mercenary Boba Fett as a character. Given my own nature as a gleeful garbage-gobbling goon, I also found some occasional touches of worthwhile camp hiding amidst the shrill Wookie whines. A bartending Bea Arthur sings a Kurt Weill number to a cantina full of unruly customers at closing time because she’s being shut down by the series’ de facto Space Nazis. Itchy, everyone’s favorite Wookie grandpa, has dirty video conference phone sex with Diahann Carroll in the same living room where his daughter in law is preparing a traditional Life Day meal. I also got the strange feeling that several characters were flirting with Chewbacca’s wife Malla and, although admittedly hideous, there’s something truly amusing about the look of his own son Lumpy. It’s better experienced in still images rather than in actually watching the special, but I’m just glad I how have something besides the Baby Grinch to post pictures of during my Yuletide shitposting.

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However, nothing in The Star Wars Holiday Special is excitingly campy enough to make up for the fact that overall the film feels like watching human muppet Bruce Villach, one of the special’s credited writers, narrate a 90min YouTube supercut of goats screaming. The special manages to reach a rare kind of awful that’s both boring and abrasive. It offers so little reward for the great leaps of faith it requires to stomach it’s incessant Wookie whines & stale comedy routines that I’m honestly shocked the Star Wars franchise survived it intact. This was a time before the series’ home video availability, so besides story records & tie-in picture books, The Star Wars Holiday Special was the first way you could take George Lucas’s populist classic home with you. The Empire Strikes Back eventually destroyed any lingering resentment this television broadcast could’ve generated, but if something this awful were released in the same intense scrutiny era of Jar Jar Binks’s moment in the flamewar sun, it might not have bounced back so quickly. As you’re preparing to celebrate yet another Life Day with your family this year, consider taking some time out of your holiday to revisit the beloved institution of Star Wars‘s creative lowpoint, or at least as much of it as you can stand. It might bring you nothing but pain & regret, but it’ll at least make you more appreciative of the heights the series has returned to in its post-Disney buyout era. You might even learn to cut Jar Jar some slack now that he’s got Lumpy & Itchy to compete with as the franchise’s ultimate lowpoint in terms of taste & annoyance.

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-Brandon Ledet

Howard the Duck (1986)

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“In a land of a lot of flops, it’s kind of awesome to be in a really famous flop. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s kind of a poster child for flops. A lot of iconoclasts really love that movie. They love to love something that everyone hates. And those are my kind of folks. I’m happy to be part of that club of people who don’t want to be told what’s horrible and just want to enjoy it anyway. Howard the Duck has a lot of fans, and usually when they come up to me, I just think they’re the coolest. Because it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck. [Laughs.]” – Lea Thompson, star of Howard the Duck

There are a lot of great reasons to love a movie, any movie, that have nothing to do with establishing yourself as an iconoclast or Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest” (not that those aren’t great consolation prizes). Ebert’s musings on cinema as a “machine that generates empathy” is a great go-to quote for starters, but I don’t think it exactly covers all of what makes a great film great art. For instance, I don’t necessarily love Howard the Duck because it makes me empathize with a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling duck from outer space or the human woman who wants to fuck him. Instead, I believe the infamous George Lucas-produced flop touches on one of cinema’s other distinguishing qualities as a unique art form: improbability. There’s an almost transgressive absurdity to the idea that this film reached theaters in the form that it did. So many collaborators touched this expensive, unlikely work and it took on a weird energy all of its own in the process. Howard the Duck isn’t Guernica or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it is a visually distinct, almost hauntingly memorable mess of artistic expression, at the very least notable for the specificity of its improbable ineptitude. Lea Thompson may have been a little off the mark in the above quote by suggesting the movie deserves love merely to buck its criticism or to establish contrarian cool points, but I do believe she’s right that it takes a certain strength & perseverance to hold onto that love in the face of its overwhelmingly negative reputation. I also believe that loving certain catastrophic missteps like these (and I mean genuine love, not its ironic cousin), films like 1993’s Super Mario Bros & Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles franchise, means loving something essential about film as an artistic medium. The worst thing a movie can be is unmemorable. Howard the Duck typifies a type of “bad movie” that’s anything but unmemorable, an outlier of improbable absurdity that only the film industry could deem worthy for public display in thousands of movie theaters (the most modern of art galleries) across the world.

Part of the reason Howard the Duck is such a great exemplifier of the “bad” movie as modern art is that so much of its DNA matches its cultural reputation. Both the film & its Marvel Comics source material depict an anthropomorphic duck transported from an alternate dimension against his will to a world that’s less than hospitable to him as an obvious outsider who’ll never quite fit in. In the comics’ words, he “trapped in a world he never made.” This is partly why he finds a kindred spirit with Beverly, played by Lea Thompson in the movie, who is socially & financially unable to find her place in a heartless patriarchy that only values her . . . assets as an art school model (or, in the film, a rock star babe) and not her talents or personality. The movie itself has become an out of place outcast in a hostile world and its slow-growing cult audience has become a sort of real-world surrogate for Bev in the way it finds love for something everyone else seems to hate. Howard’s comic book creator, Steve Gerber, used the duck’s misfit existential crisis as a device for griping about a modern world the artist found distasteful, critiquing social ills like a corrupt political system or violent children’s entertainment and filtering those critiques through outlandish comic book villains like Pro-Rata, the cosmic accountant, who lives in an enormous tower made of credit cards. Although the movie does feature a similar over the top villain in The Dark Overlord of the Universe, it also softens the property’s tendencies towards biting social satire in favor of some bullshit Marty McFly 80s cool & George Lucas-specific action “comedy,” the exact kind of Poochie-flavored marketing Howard would’ve despised in the comics. However, the film does maintain a critical eye against unwarranted hostility in the modern world in a way that feels very true to its source material and it’s amusingly appropriate that the citizens of Earth have treated Howard the Duck the movie with just as much of that vitriol as the way they treated Howard the Duck the character in the comics.

A large part of what people tend to hate about Howard the Duck is its inconsistent tone, which is a problem apparent as soon as its opening four minutes spent on Howard’s home planet, Duckworld. This movie was a produced in the early, lawless, Wild West days of the PG rating, which allows for a surprising amount of sexual content to seep into its childlike humor. In the first few minutes we spend getting accustomed to Duckworld’s anthropomorphic duck citizens (before the opening credits, mind you), we’re treated to two (!!!) shots of topless duck women’s exaggerated humanoid breasts (once in a bathtub and once in a Playduck Magazine centerfold). The clash of adult sensibility with kids’ movie visuals continues later when Lea Thompson infamously climbs into bed with Howard wearing only lingerie and a hungry smile, threatening to instigate the world’s most uncomfortable love scene (although I could argue that her character in Back to the Future’s seductive threat is even worse) as well as a moment where she finds a tiny, duck-sized condom in his wallet. (Thankfully, no mention is made of how terrifying real life duck dicks are.) In the comics Howard & Bev’s romance is played as odd, but harmless. Faced with the realities of its imagery in the movie is a different matter entirely. It’s hilariously wrong at best, an effect the film’s writer-directors Willard Huyk & Gloria Katz entirely intended, according to their interviews on the “A Look Back” featurette included on the film’s first DVD release in 2008. Howard the Duck looks & feels like a kids’ picture, but its hero is a sexual being whose appetite knows no special bounds. He’s also an animatronic puppet who will humorously hit hicks with cream pies in one scene & threaten to stab record company creeps in the face with an ice pick in the next, a wide range of tones that makes for a singularly memorable, terrifying experience, especially if you catch it at a formative age.

In the fool’s mission of trying to make sense of Howard the Duck’s tonal mishmash, it’s easy to lose track of exactly how striking its visual palette can be. Try for a second not to get hung up on the idea that this talking duck children’s film features a biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts,” a hedonistic bathhouse orgy, and a hideous space demon with a Doom monster torso & a scorpion’s lower body (more on that in a moment) and you just might find some interesting production design in those details. The violent new wave punks’ wardrobe features some incredible touches, like a leather jacket adorned with plastic babydoll faces. The aforementioned bathhouse is lit like an early Bava or Argento giallo picture. The scorpion demon from outer space is a perfect marriage of classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion technique with some nightmarish HR Giger flourish. Howard himself, although disturbingly uncanny, is a feat of practical effects animatronics. As a historical object of cinematic past, I’d argue that his design is actually quite beautiful. Jeffrey Jones’s Dark Overlord of the Universe, an all-powerful demon from beyond the planets who eventually turns into the aforementioned scorpion beast & is undoubtedly the film’s most overlooked secret weapon, is a masterclass in cinematic villainy, running the full gamut from Star Wars Empower Force-lightning to Cronenbergian body horror to self-conflicted Golem psychosis. There’s even some early-in-the-runtime outer space mysticism, which I’m always a sucker for in any film, regardless of quality. The only time Howard the Duck becomes genuinely boring is when it abandons its typical Reagan-era grit – with its drugs, punks, violence, and homelessness – for George Lucas’s usual mode of 30s & 40s action “comedy” chases which are just about as lifeless as they are in Spielberg’s 1941. At the very least, though, those scenes serve to contrast & heighten the absurd unlikelihood of the film’s very existence as a completed product and even in the worst of the film’s third act doldrums it’s difficult to take your eye off Howard’s unthinkable face, which has a Max Headroom kind of unnerving quality to it, one that makes you just as horrified by the duck’s presence as the fictionalized citizens of Earth who reject him at every turn.

Thirty years after Howard the Duck’s release it’s difficult to find much praise for what the film accomplishes. It’s occasionally covered by schlock cinema critical outlets like My Year of Flops or How Did this Get Made?, but without any hint of adoration or fanfare, if not with an open, unapologetic hostility. Even the film’s initial DVD release, supposedly willed into existence by a growing cult fanbase, could only muster the faint praise that it’s “one of the most talked about movies of all time” in its jacket copy. The only instance I can think of where Howard receives any kind of reverence or adoration is an post-credits gag in Guardians of the Galaxy where the character appears (in a much less visually interesting CG rendering) solely to troll the audience with the mere idea of his return to the big screen. Despite being the very first Marvel property to earn a feature film adaptation (and a surprisingly faithful one at that, lifting some dialogue directly from the page), Howard the Duck holds a lowly 15% score on the Tomatometer & is widely considered to be “one of the worst films of all time.” If it has a wide cult following its devotees are just about as silent as fans of pro wrestling or Nickelback. As strangely misshapen as the film can be, I believe it deserves better than that and its best chance for a path to a better reputation would be for more people to respect it for its basic improbability. This film was initially pitched as an animated feature, but was instead rushed into production due to studio pressure & morphed into a live action film where little person actors man animatronic duck puppets. It opens with a duck traveling through outer space against philosophical musings about infinite dimensions where “all is real and all is illusion,” yet ends in the same generic industrial space that concludes all 80s action plots. It indulges in generic 80s garbage pop, but finds unlikely collaborators in respected musicians Thomas Dolby & George Clinton. The dialogue is sublimely corny, with its references to “space rabies” & Quack-Fu, but is sold competently by in-on-the-joke actors like an incredibly game Jeffrey Jones (who really does put on one of his most memorable performances here) and future Oscar winner Tim Robbins, (who, appropriately enough, is dressed like Thomas Dolby in the film).

Much like its self-loathing “wisequacker” protagonist, Howard the Duck is a “strange fowl in an even stranger land.” Its mere existence points to a cinema-specific ability to bring strange, improbable art to a mass audience, whether or not that audience appreciates it. In fact, its complete lack of a positive reception only adds to its idiosyncratic charm in the way it mirrors the mallard-out-of-water hostility of the source material’s narrative. The film has objective faults, sure. It could have been shorter, better paced, more tonally consistent, etc. What’s more interesting to me are the ways its stands out from other films with the same problems. Its practical effects techniques, however dated, carve out their own, unforgettably bizarre space of visual distinction. Its duck/human sexual tension is a brilliantly uncomfortable mode of (again, intentional) audience trolling. Its attempts to shoehorn in George Lucas’s aggressively wholesome aesthetic of radio serial adventure epics into its modern era cynicism is beyond bizarre. Its space demon villain is a genuinely breathtaking work of movie magic evil in a film generally considered to be technically inept. This movie should likely not exist in its completed form and it’s that exact, eccentric crime against good taste & basic logic that makes it such a memorable oddity, a quality often overlooked in a quest to catalog its many, improbable faults. There’s never been a better time to reconsider Hoard the Duck’s charms a go-for-broke cinematic misstep. On its thirty year anniversary, the film is benefiting from some fine wine time capsule qualities that can only come with age. Its comic book source material is currently experience one of its all-time best runs with Chip Zdarsky’s neo noir take on the property over at Marvel. There’s always a chance that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn will continue to Trojan horse the wisequacker into future MCU properties, so it’s probably best to be aware of his cinematic past. Besides, falling in love with Howard the Duck will have Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest.” And if none of that is enough to convince you that the film is at the very least interesting as a cultural relic, if not lovable as a cinematic outlier, then I believe Thompson’s Bev put it best: “Howard may be a duck, but you people are animals!”

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Re-Edit (2001)

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Science fiction fans are a notoriously easily-riled bunch. This year’s Hugo Awards–the speculative fiction equivalent of the Oscars–was an unequivocal debacle, as a contingent of MRAs and their acolytes, impotently infuriated by what they perceived to be a rise in “SJW issues” in their genre literature, attempted to rig the voting system to prevent any work with pro-women, pro-minority, or LGBTQIA issues from being awarded the prestigious award. Considering that SF is the genre that has always been at the forefront of exploring issues of oppression and intersectionality, this is completely absurd. The machinations of these ignorant folk, who can best be referred to as “fake geek guys,” resulted in five separate categories receiving “No Award” this year, including Best Short Story and both long and short form Best Editor categories. And this was just the contentious babblings of a vocal minority of cisgender, white, heterosexual males who apparently have no concept of sci-fi history.

Much less controversial was the near-universal hatred for the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. Although that hatred has died down in the sixteen years since the film was released (in no small part due to the fact that anyone born after 1994 doesn’t remember a world where there were only three near-perfect Star Wars movies instead of a mixed bag of six), The Phantom Menace is still widely regarded as a failure on both an artistic and a fandom level. The complaints about the film are endless, and I could never hope to create as in-depth and exhaustive exploration of the film’s flaws as RedLetterMedia did, but here’s a short summation of issues that fans and mainstream film-goers despised:

  • (Most notoriously) the introduction of original character Jar Jar Binks, a person-sized CGI space rabbit that engaged in presumably child-pleasing comedy antics throughout the film.
  • The racist caricature of Jar Jar as an ignorant simpleton who spoke in a conglomeration of Jamaican slang and antebellum slave dialects, as well as the Jewish stereotypes applied to hook-nosed greedy slave owner Watto and the Asian stereotypes (largely embodied in an accent that confuses “l” and “r” sounds) represented by the Trade Federation.
  • The pacing of the film is terrible: characters spend seemingly endless time in needlessly complicated and redundant political debate; other than in action sequences, characters simply wander around aimlessly in a (vain) attempt to give dialogue scenes some sense of motion.
  • The revelation that the mystical Force that binds all life together was caused by germs known as midi-chlorians.

I never really had much of a horse in that race; I was twelve the summer that the movie came out, and I thought it was mediocre at best then. I was always more of a Star Trek fan, and although I think the rivalry between the fandoms of those two franchises is exaggerated and instigated by the aforementioned Fake Geek Guys, I was young enough to be less discerning than others. I didn’t like Jar Jar, but I also didn’t think of Star Wars as an unimpeachable work of staggering genius the way that so many sad middle aged men with basements full of memorabilia do. I appreciate the franchise much more now than I did as a kid, although I pity people whose lives revolve around it. I mean, come on, the original trilogy is a lot of fun and has some really great ideas, but it’s still a fairy tale at its core: a farm boy meets a wizard who tells him he has a magical destiny, and he then teams with a pirate to rescue a princess from an evil wizard.

The problem of Jar Jar was expressed almost immediately, as was fan frustration regarding the Midi-chlorian concept, with complaints about the film’s pacing problems coming later. So it’s no surprise that fans of the era immediately set to work trying to “fix” it. The Phantom Edit, initially credited to “The Phantom Editor” who later revealed himself to be film editor Mike J. Nichols, was not the first fan edit of an established work, but it was one of the first to be noteworthy for its popularity in the mainstream, receiving coverage from news outlets as varied as Salon, NPR, PBS, and the BBC in 2000 and 2001. Notable changes to the source material included reduction and deletion of dialogue from the annoying battle droids, removal of the more immature dialogue from Anakin’s scenes, reduction of expository and political dialogue, and the severe trimming of Jar Jar’s appearances on screen, removing his slapstick elements. Also removed were all references to the midi-chlorians.

The Phantom Edit was later edited even further, into the more streamlined The Phantom Re-Edit, which also circulated as a bootleg tape or download; the earliest reference to it that I can find is a review released in June of 2001, meaning that it was created no later than May of that year. This edit also extensively alters other problematic features of Menace, most notably by getting rid of the English dialogue for Jar Jar and his people as well as the Trade Federation, and many conversations between characters on Tatooine are also altered to sound alien; this dialogue is then subtitled. To a large degree, this works strongly in the film’s favor. The Trade Federation are no longer as stereotypical and actually seem threatening in this version, the racist accents of Jar Jar and the other Gungans is also done away with, and the replacement subtitle dialogue presents them as being competent and politically savvy. Moreover, Jar Jar’s dialogue has been replaced completely, making him a character who is surprisingly wise and sage (although the cartoonish hand movements are still present in many scenes–can’t get around that).

So, is Star Wars: The Phantom Re-Edit a good movie? Well… not really. To use an apropos cliche, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Menace was still full of stilted dialogue and wooden acting, and no amount of editing will magically turn those dreary performances into something more watchable. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon still spend a lot of time expositing to each other over the phone in scenes that now remind me of all the times Don Draper called Betty and told her he would be late coming home. The scene in which Qui-Gon takes a blood sample from young Anakin is still present for no real reason, simply cutting away before the infamous midi-chlorian conversation. The edits are necessarily abrupt, but that doesn’t mean they’re not jarring and alienating. All told, it’s a better movie than Menace, but that’s not saying much. Hardcore fans who are still mad, fifteen years later, that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” might get some satisfaction from the re-edit, but that’s about it.

The Phantom Edit and The Phantom Re-Edit fail to address the larger problems of how the prequel trilogy relates to the franchise as a whole. In Star Wars (I’m not about that “A New Hope” nonsense), Ben Kenobi wears robes because he lives in a desert, not because that’s some kind of Jedi uniform like the prequel trilogy reinterprets it to be. Darth Vader is a lonely weirdo without much real clout; the members of the imperial military treat him with deference only because of his relationship with the Emperor, all while making fun of his religion behind his back and to his face. Vader even goes out and flies around in a tiny little fighter ship like all the cannon fodder pilots; he could have been killed pretty easily out there–which doesn’t make any sense if he was supposed to be some kind of prophesied Force savior. The glorification of his character in the prequel trilogy exists for one purpose: brand name recognition (and thus a higher profit margin).

I have no doubt that this is the reason that Vader’s corpse gets a cameo in the trailer for The Force Awakens, due out this Christmas. I have to confess my overwhelming excitement for the film, but I also hope there’s no nonsensical revisitation (or, Force forbid, a revitalization) of his character. I have my doubts; it’s been a decade and a half since we stood on the precipice of new Star Wars movies, and it remains to be seen whether or not Episode VII will also demand a fan edit. Here’s hoping the answer is “no,” but we’ll find out soon enough.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond