Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

She was the first to show me that a princess could save the day, both in fiction and reality.

She used her talents to entertain and educate, both on the screen and on the pages, and used her battles to show us all how to recognize and defeat our personal demons. She was sharp and acerbic, could disarm internet trolls in seconds, and proved that no matter the adversity, you can always make a comeback.

She will always be royalty to me.

 

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Thoughts on Legends

 

Thoughts on Legends

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I’m sure you’ve seen the news. A group of Star Wars fans who want Lucasfilm to continue the Legends/Expanded Universe stories have purchased a billboard in San Francisco to raise awareness and place their demands in the public sphere. After multiple attempts at petitioning online and through letter-writing campaigns, this crowd-funded purchase was their next step. If the news reports are any indication, it got noticed. I know at least one Lucasfilm employee saw it.

Sincerely, congratulations on executing a successful crowd-funding campaign, although I believe that $5000 would gone a lot further as a group donation to Make-A-Wish or Force for Change, both of which are friends of the Star Wars brand. But, I digress.

I once had the greatest of respect for the Bring Back Legends petitioners. I still am a huge fan of the Legends/Expanded Universe stories because that is where I really dove into Star Wars after discovering the movies. I was there for Heir to the Empire – there should be a t-shirt for that – and for pretty much everything that followed, for better or for worse. I recognized how futile the overall campaign was in the post-buyout era, what with the marketing challenges and high potential for general audience confusion, but these guys were super passionate in their fandom.

They still are. That’s part of the problem.

Somewhere along the line, they started becoming aggressive toward fans and artists. They started harassing my friends and fellow fans, including threats of bodily harm, rape, and death. That aggression escalated when The Force Awakens premiered, resulting in some in this movement spoiling plot points on public sites until Lucasfilm relented. This actually caused some sites, including the official Star Wars Books page on Facebook, to shut down for a time because they couldn’t stop the flood.

The Legends movement became the face of ruining the Star Wars experience for all fans because it wasn’t the right canon.

Yeah, it’s the internet. No, it’s not right.

It wasn’t every Legends supporter, but this echoes GamerGate and the Mens Rights Activist movements (among countless others) in that a very vocal extremist minority has become the movement’s active voice. I’m sorry, but perception is reality, and right now, this movement is perceived as being a bunch of bullies.

I don’t stand for that in fandom. It has poisoned their efforts, and it has poisoned Star Wars fandom overall. It’s even driving away some of our best ambassadors.

As a Legends/EU fan, I share Chuck Wendig‘s sincere hope that the Legends movement gets some resolution. I firmly believe that more Star Wars work means more great mythology to enjoy, but I cannot find it in my heart to support the Legends movement because of this activity. They need to find a way to clean their house, excise the cancer, and make amends to fandom at large.

Star Wars is still forever, and it should be for everybody.

Review: Star Wars Smuggler’s Bounty Resistance Box – January 2016

 

Star Wars: Smuggler’s Bounty
Resistance Box – January 2016

Jan 2016 Box

 

The Force is still strong with this subscription box.

After the success of the First Order box from Funko’s Star Wars subscription box service, it was a no-brainer for me to upgrade from the month-to-month to a full year subscription. This time around, the service was still capitalizing on the global success of The Force Awakens, but they shifted gears from the bad guys to the Resistance.

The box’s form factor is the same as the First Order box, including durability and the treasure chest layout. The UPS driver who serves my route left this one out in the intermittent Georgia winter rain, and even though the box was damp, the contents were unharmed.

 

Jan 2016 Top Tray

 

Similar to the last box, the top tray for this go-round contained a patch and a pin. The plastic envelopes were both opened on one side due to what looks like a production issue, and as a result the pin was bouncing around in the box. Since the box is well compartmentalized and the pin is quite durable, nothing was damaged.

 

Jan 2016 Patch

 

The patch is embroidered with BB-8, the adorable little hero droid from the new movie and the focus of the marketing for this box. When my wife saw it, she beamed, so I know that it’s a winner in our house. The pin is of Poe Dameron, the hot shot star pilot of the Resistance, although at first it kind of looked like Jessika Pava, the female X-Wing pilot from the film. One can dream, right?

 

Jan 2016 Pin

 

Under the platform that housed the pin and patch was a navy blue Funko t-shirt. This time, it was a movie-themed shirt focused on the heroes of the Resistance. In my opinion, it is much more attractive than the simple figure shirts from the last box, although I would have liked to see Rey more front and center. Regardless, it is still a nice shirt design. Based on what I’ve been able to find so far, it seems that every box is the same this time, so there are no shirt variations or chase figures.

 

Jan 2016 shirt

 

The big ticket items this time were one exclusive Funko Pop figure and a Funko Home ceramic mug. The figure is of Chewbacca with his bowcaster, and while I have never really been impressed with the figures of the Wookiee before, this one really caught my attention. It’s actually furry, and that somehow makes it adorable.

 

Jan 2016 Chewie

 

The ceramic mug is modeled after the protocol droid C-3PO, right down to the detail of his red arm as the mug’s handle. It seems like a sturdy, wide 12-ounce mug, but it is hand wash only and not microwave safe. Those two criteria are killers in my house, so I’m not quite sure what I plan to do with this item.

 

Jan 2016 Mug

 

In the end, remember that the promise made by Funko is that this $25 box will contain $50 worth of merchandise without any filler. By my estimation, Funko has once again delivered on their promises of value and content. The figure is about $10 in stores, and the t-shirt is in the $15-25 ballpark depending on the vendor. The pin and patch are around the $5 price point each, so the real wild card this time is the mug. Most of the comparable mugs online go for about $10, which places this box in the $45-55 range. All of that without any mini-comics or postcards.

The next box, which is due to arrive in mid-March, is centered on the cantina from A New Hope, and the spotlighted character is Greedo. The order window closes in early March. If you’re on the fence, I recommend the $25 “pirate” plan, but if you really want these kind of items with a Star Wars flair, I fully endorse the annual “smuggler” plan.

Seven Days of Star Wars: Day Seven – A New Hope

Seven Days of Star Wars
Day Seven

 

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Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
(PG, 121 minutes, 1977)
(PG, 125 minutes, 1997)

This is the final installment in a series of looks at each of the wide-released theatrical Star Wars films leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This includes each of the films that comprise the saga’s story after the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by the Walt Disney Company and the April 2014 canon reset.

The series progressed through each of the films in reverse chronological order, starting with 2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and moving onward to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Today wraps up everything with Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, which is the one that started it all.

A New Hope – or (as some of the old guard fans who saw it in first run frequently chastise me) simply Star Wars – is an interesting mix of the science fiction and the sword and sorcery genres. As a result, Star Wars isn’t science fiction, but more of a space opera fantasy. It’s a tale of people and sweeping elements of human mythology, and as a result I give a lot of leeway when – with apologies to nitpickers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson – it comes to the science of spaceflight.

I can’t remember the first time I saw A New Hope, but I know that it was on a pan-and-scan VHS tape, and no matter how many times I saw it that way, it still didn’t compare to the Special Edition theatrical experience. My parents accompanied me to the opening weekend premiere in January 1997, and I knew that they were having a blast watching me watch Star Wars in a way I had never seen it before. I got completely engrossed in the film, and crept to the edge of my seat during Luke’s trench run. I cheered when the Death Star exploded, and when I glanced over with embarrassment for breaking silence during a movie – a cinematic taboo in my youth – my parents were grinning ear to ear.

The Special Edition changes didn’t bother me in general. Most of them were visual updates that neither added nor detracted from the story, but added depth to the atmosphere and environment. The Jabba scene was only okay with me, even though it grinds the plot progression to a halt by repeating information we learned in the cantina.

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The lone exception in my eyes is the shootout in the cantina. By not letting Han shoot first, or even alone, it removes part of the character’s definition for me. I liked having a Han Solo that was an independent, proactive, and rough smuggler. That element is lost in Han being reactive; even if he’s preparing to kill Greedo, he still hesitates in the Special Edition.

Many people point to Darth Vader in this film as an iconic evil character, but he’s actually quite shallow in this story. He’s a mustache-twirling caricature of a villain, but not terribly complex. He’s visually set apart from both the Imperial troopers and Princess Leia. Interestingly, the Imperial officers are in black, presumably because they are not as expendable as those in white, and Tarkin (who is far more complex a villain than Vader in this movie) is in a somewhat ambiguous grey.

Before I get into the itemized list of things I love about A New Hope, the winning point for this film is how it can be viewed through the lens of any of the heroes. A modern action film, including the prequels to an extent, would limit the story to one character and their journey. A New Hope tells several distinct parallel tales, including those of Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, and Artoo-Detoo. In fact, A New Hope defines Artoo’s character by making him one of the main characters and true heroes of the film.

That’s really the magic of Star Wars: The franchise has an entire galaxy as a rich setting, and it drops the viewer directly in it instead of feeding elements to an audience through precious minutes of exposition. That element is taken care of in a scrolling block of text, and it only provides enough to frame the home instead of completely furnishing it. The movies feel so realistic because of the immersion, and have defined my favorite type of movie: The one that doesn’t provide answers but rather makes me work for them and figure them out as we go.

That’s the magic that allows me to forgive shoddy dialogue and plot holes. That’s the magic that allows me to indulge my inner child as I travel to a galaxy far, far away.

 

Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Force

The Force is one of the backbones for the story, and in comparison to the rest of the saga, it’s amazing how much it has evolved from this point. Obi-Wan describes it as “an energy field created by all living things” that surrounds and penetrates and binds the galaxy together.

Consider that. From the perspective of 1977, it’s an all-encompassing energy field that Jedi can tap into. From the perspective of 2005, it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi learning from Qui-Gon Jinn that the Living Force has merit and value.

Obi-Wan truly became a Jedi Master, but it took his failure with Anakin Skywalker, his exile, and his communion with the spiritual world to get him there. It is the foundation for the nature of the Force in this franchise, and an inspiration for millions of fans worldwide.

Of course, by this time, Kenobi is a crazy old wizard living on the outskirts of Tatooine civilization. The first time Luke mentions Obi-Wan, the looks between Owen and Beru are telling, and it’s a detail that I didn’t notice as much before seeing Revenge of the Sith. Now, they stand out as much as the meaning behind the claim that Obi-Wan died around the same time as Luke’s father.

In the post-Revenge of the Sith world, Obi-Wan’s expressions appear more pained when discussing his friendship with Anakin Skywalker and the betrayal of Darth Vader. He lies – a “certain point of view” – about it just as much as he does about Anakin wanting Luke to have the lighsaber, but the conversation still appears to eat away at the Jedi Master.

I also see Kenobi’s small smile as he embraces his destiny in a new light. It still carries an element of acceptance, but it also has a bit more assurance behind it after knowing the Qui-Gon Jinn has passed on his knowledge to his apprentice.

Obi Wan

 

The Droids

The odd couple of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio help drive the plot for a good part of the movie. In what was unique to me, Artoo’s dialogue and feelings are interpreted through See-Threepio and the audience’s own impressions, bringing the viewer into the film instead of leaving them out in the theater.

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A New Hope is where these two droids, characters that have appeared in every film, are introduced. Artoo is unique in that he knows the complete story (so far) and has the power to inform Luke of his father’s destiny and mother’s fate. I consider him one of the true heroes of the franchise.

 

TIE Fighter Attack

The musical sequence starting with Obi-Wan’s sacrifice and leading into the escape from the Death Star is one of my favorites to play loudly in my car.

It starts with the Force Theme as Kenobi realizes his fate, and then launches into a passionate version of Princess Leia’s theme and the Rebel Fanfare as the Millennium Falcon rockets from the landing bay. Luke mourns with Leia’s consolation over the Force Theme before the music leads into the Rebel Fanfare as a battle theme intercut with bits of the music for the Empire. It is an exhilarating piece that gets the blood pumping.

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This concludes the Seven Days of Star Wars celebration. Of course, there is so much more to the franchise than these seven feature films, including the current official canon of comics and books leading into The Force Awakens, and the thousands upon thousands of hours of content from the former Expanded Universe, which is now called Legends. Even though it isn’t considered “official” by Lucasfilm, it remains a treasure trove of good stories, and as long as they entertain and inspire, they still serve a purpose.

Tomorrow, a movie premieres that fans were told would never happen. It is the beginning of a new era and a brave new world in the Star Wars universe. We don’t know what lies in store for our heroes old and new. Some will live, some will turn, and some will die, but the constant is that we carry on as a society, and our lives and lessons follow suit from generation to generation through tales of the human condition told in metaphor and mythology.

May the Force be with you always.

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My Rating: 8.5/10
IMDb rating: 8.7/10

Seven Days of Star Wars: Day Six – The Empire Strikes Back

Seven Days of Star Wars
Day Six

 

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Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
(PG, 124 minutes, 1980)
(PG, 127 minutes, 1997)

This is the sixth installment in a series of looks at each of the wide-released theatrical Star Wars films leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This includes each of the films that comprise the saga’s story after the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by the Walt Disney Company and the April 2014 canon reset.

So far, the series has progressed through each of the films in reverse chronological order, starting with 2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and moving onward to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Today continues the race toward the beginning with Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, which is set three years after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.

The Empire Strikes Back is usually the top film for Star Wars fans, and it’s not hard to understand why. In fact, it’s kind of difficult to find anything in this film that doesn’t work for me. It’s definitely the one I have seen the most out of the entire franchise, and it’s the one that packs the most punch for me. The characters and their motivations are so vivid, even among the secondary characters, and the settings are incredibly detailed and complex. Even the pacing, which is a major complaint from me with modern cinema, is top notch.

Similar to Return of the Jedi, I can’t remember the first time I saw this one, but I do remember my first (and only) experience with it on the silver screen. Just like Return of the Jedi, I saw the Special Edition on opening night back in February 1997, and it was phenomenal.

Out of all of the Special Editions, the changes made in Empire are the least jarring and made the most story sense. The best changes for me were the superficial modifications to Cloud City, including the more dynamic atmospheric lighting. It made the city look so much larger and expansive, and a bit less confusing in the later chase sequences.

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Joss Whedon aired a criticism about the film back in 2013, noting that it doesn’t actually end. He does have a point there: Empire doesn’t actually resolve the primary conflict in lieu of pushing it off to Return of the Jedi. I’m willing to ignore that to an extent because of how far this film pushes the mythos and characters, and how closely the concept of a cliffhanger tracks with the Flash Gordon roots of the franchise.

I love The Empire Strikes Back. But, what do I really love about The Empire Strikes Back?

 

Han and Leia

The Han and Leia romance is really the centerpiece of the film, and it shows in every aspect. I love that the story gives us a strong woman who doesn’t like to admit that she’s not in control and a stubborn man who actually learns how to speak to her instead of at her.

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It’s not that Leia has to cede control of her life, but more of the situation: From the moment when the Empire assaults Hoth, Han is in charge of trying to get the princess – a valuable member of the Rebellion – to safety. They run from the snow planet to the asteroid belt, escape the hidden danger of the space slug, hide themselves on a Star Destroyer and in the refuse, and seek refuge on Bespin. Along the way, Leia discovers that this simple blue-collar snarky smuggler actually knows what he’s doing in the galaxy and that he can be trusted. She’s not treated like cargo or a damsel in distress, but like a human being who needs help. When the tables are turned and Han is the one placed in danger, she does everything she can to rescue him.

To that end, this portrayal of Leia was the first female action hero I saw in cinematic pop culture, and she’s still my favorite.

Their love theme is also still one my favorite orchestral pieces ever, and that theme is in the very DNA of the film’s score. Even the chase through the asteroid field and the escape from Bespin use elements as their backbone. This is Han and Leia’s movie.

 

Yoda

Yoda is my favorite character in the entire Star Wars franchise.

Luke takes an incredible journey in this film, bridging the gap between innocent farmboy in A New Hope and the contemplative warrior in Return of the Jedi. On that path, he receives a mentor in what seems to be a crazed hermit living on a swamp planet who speaks in fortune cookie clichés. It’s the wisdom that inhabits the character behind those sayings that I love.

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Yoda is a puppet, but he feels so unbelievably real thanks to the talents of Frank Oz. The ears and the eyes convey so much emotion from the wise Jedi Master, and the performance felt so magical. Yoda’s musical theme is also a perfect encapsulation of the character, hiding the mystical power behind the almost whimsical and floating notes.

Yoda also reminds me of my late grandmother. She was my closest grandparent when I was growing up, and was kind and wise, stern when she needed to be, and had just a little bit of childlike magic behind her eyes.

 

The Duel at Bespin

Where I think that Return of the Jedi is the story that provides the greatest depth to Darth Vader, Empire is the one that defines his unparalleled power and legacy. At every turn, he is a match for the running Rebels, and he uses Han and Leia to lure Luke to Bespin through Luke’s attachments and the power of the Force. The parallel is striking: Anakin fell because of his attachment issues, and now his son’s attachments to precipitate another fall.

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The duel is intriguing because Vader is obviously the cat in this game. He keeps whittling away at Luke’s defenses, toying with him, batting at him, and maneuvering him into the corner before making the killing blow. The trick here is that the killing blow is not a physical strike – sure, he slices Luke’s hand off to (literally) disarm him – but rather an emotional and mental strike. Vader defeats Luke emotionally by revealing a dark truth. He breaks Luke in a last attempt to lure him somewhat willingly to the Darkness.

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That is how the Empire struck back.

 

Tomorrow’s entry in the Seven Days of Star Wars will wrap things up with Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

My Rating: 9/10
IMDb rating: 8.8/10

Seven Days of Star Wars: Day Five – Return of the Jedi

Seven Days of Star Wars
Day Five

 

Star Wars - Return Of The Jedi (1983) Style B by Kazuhiko Sano

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
(PG, 132 minutes, 1983)
(PG, 135 minutes, 1997)

 

This is the fifth installment in a series of looks at each of the wide-released theatrical Star Wars films leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This includes each of the films that comprise the saga’s story after the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by the Walt Disney Company and the April 2014 canon reset.

Day one examined 2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Day two looked at Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Day three was dedicated to Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Day four examined Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Today is about Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, which is set four years after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.

Return of the Jedi has always been my least favorite of the original movies, but it’s still a good entry in the franchise. I really enjoy most of it, with the exception of the Tatooine sequences which I find rather slow.

I don’t fully recall the first time I saw Return of the Jedi, but I was very excited to see it opening week for the 1997 Special Edition releases. It was originally scheduled for a March 7th premiere, but ended up getting pushed back by a week after Lucasfilm saw how well the other two were performing. The Special Edition changes didn’t bother me at all except for Jedi Rocks, the new musical number in Jabba’s Palace that replaced Lapti Nek. The extra footage with Boba Fett carousing with the band’s backup singers is pretty funny to me, but the musical sequence itself kind of falls flat compared to Lapti Nek.

I was okay – okay, not excited, but just okay – with the 2011 Blu-Ray changes as well. I was apathetic about the Jedi Spirits change that replaced Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen since the story logic makes sense – the spirits retain how they saw themselves at their death, Anakin the Jedi Knight died in Revenge of the Sith when he became Darth Vader, and I doubt he ever looked in a mirror after donning the armor – and Shaw is still in the movie when Luke removes Vader’s helmet. His screen time was reduced by, what, ten seconds? I don’t see that as a slight to the actor.

What I do wonder is how Anakin got access to the Force Spirit knowledge. Yoda and Obi-Wan learned from Qui-Gon Jinn’s spirit, but there’s nothing in the story to suggest that Qui-Gon also visited Vader. That is the major plot inconsistency between the Prequel and Original Trilogies that makes me really wonder.

Finally, the biggest thing that annoys me about Return of the Jedi is the music. The soundtrack on the film is fantastic, and when Sony released the full soundtracks in time for the Special Editions, I jumped on the opportunity. The problem with Jedi is how Sony mixed the music when converting it to digital: The sound is muddy and muted, like they over-compressed it when removing some of the background noise. The better sounding version actually comes from 1993’s Star Wars Trilogy anthology release, which compiled one CD for each movie and a fourth disc with previously unreleased tracks. It’s still not the complete soundtrack, and it does have a significant hissing sound, but it sounds a lot better than the Special Edition. It also contains “Lapti Nek” and two versions of the Ewok “Yub Nub” track.

Even as the weakest of the Original Trilogy, there are things that I love about Return of the Jedi.

 

Luke Skywalker

Luke really comes into his own with this film, growing from the wide-eyed innocent in A New Hope to the impulsive warrior in Empire Strikes Back and finally landing on a calm and pensive Knight in this story. He isn’t as cocky in this story as he was heading into the duel at Bespin, and he takes thoughtful action in an elaborate rescue plan for Han. He’s not afraid to take action, but he also reflects a lot of Qui-Gon Jinn and a later Obi-Wan Kenobi in watching and learning about what’s happening around him before jumping into the fray. He’s deeply in tune with the Force at this point, and confronts his fears to help bring his father back to the Light.

This is my favorite interpretation of the young Jedi.

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The Death of Darth Vader

This is also the story that provides the greatest depth to Darth Vader. Many people tell me that they don’t like Return of the Jedi for neutering the badass Sith Lord we saw in two movies, but this is an enforcer whose motivations are being questioned by his über-evil boss and whose very essence is being torn by his own conscience.

Anakinredeemed

After weighing the options between Palpatine and his son, Anakin re-emerges and saves Luke’s life by killing his own master at the expense of his own life. In one of the moments in Star Wars that brings a tear to my eye, he looks on his son – the very son he thought he lost when Padmé died – without the aid of the armor that defined his second life. The music behind the touching scene between Mark Hamill and Sebastian Shaw only adds to the feeling, using the Imperial March in muted and singular notes to signal Anakin’s passing.

It’s a little different after watching Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith because I find it a little more difficult to forgive someone who kills kids in cold blood, but the nostalgia still fuels my emotions when watching a son seeing his father for the first and last time. It’s not so much the details, but the sweep of the mythology that carries the meaning for me.

 

The Ewok Celebration

The Ewoks are an element of Star Wars that have never bothered me. First, they’re cute (even though they’ll eat you), and second, they make an example out of the Empire’s arrogance. All that military might at their disposal and they can’t defeat a primitive species that fights with rocks and spears.

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The biggest thing I like about the Ewoks is how they party, both after accepting the Rebels into the tribe and after the destruction of Death Star II. I’m a big fan of both the original and Special Edition endings: The original was good for the time in wrapping up the movie, but the Special Edition version wraps up the trilogy and, in part, the six-film arc. I love “Yub Nub” and find myself humming it quite often, but I also love the new music and visuals developed for 1997’s releases. It adds a larger scope to the Rebellion’s actions and the Empire’s defeats.

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Tomorrow’s entry in the Seven Days of Star Wars will take a look at fan-favorite Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

 

My Rating: 8/10
IMDb rating: 8.4/10

Seven Days of Star Wars: Day Four – The Phantom Menace

 

Seven Days of Star Wars
Day Four

 

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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
(PG, 133 minutes, 1999)
(PG, 136 minutes, 2001)

This is the fourth installment in a series of looks at each of the wide-released theatrical Star Wars films leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This includes each of the films that comprise the saga’s story after the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by the Walt Disney Company and the April 2014 canon reset.

Day one examined 2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Day two looked at Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Day three was dedicated to Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Today is all about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which is set 32 years before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.

The hype was strong with this one. Not counting the Special Editions or the Ewok TV movies, sixteen years had passed since the last film installment of Star Wars. To say that The Phantom Menace was highly anticipated is an understatement.

I had discovered Star Wars sometime around 1985, but really got into it sometime around 1992 when I started reading Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. The only way I had seen the films was on pan-and-scan VHS tapes or edited television presentations, and after the experience of the Special Editions in 1997, I was stoked for a new story on the silver screen. All I knew about the story of how Anakin became Darth Vader was from the scant lines in the movies and the one-line description of the lightsaber duel “over a volcano” from the Return of the Jedi novelization.

When the trailers came out, I asked a friend of mine who had a CD burner to make a copy for me, which I watched almost every day in what could only be described today as terrible resolution. I bought tickets as soon as I could for opening weekend, and on my meager wage as a part-time elementary school custodian, I treated my family to a new adventure in the galaxy far, far away.

Despite all the hype, I was not disappointed.

Crazy, right?

I’m not an apologist fanboy, and as one can see from the last three days, I don’t love this franchise unconditionally. I get the anger over the prequels. They weren’t what die-hard fans who had been with the franchise since the summer of ’77 expected. Darth Vader’s a morally good and cute kid who likes to race and loves his mother? The conflict is about the politics of trade disputes instead of good vs. evil? The Force is really microbes in your cells? Jar Jar Binks!?

The crux the matter is that the movie those fans expected didn’t happen, and that infuriates them. It makes them believe that George Lucas destroyed their childhoods or tainted the three movies that became a legend. It’s fueled the careers of people like Simon Pegg who take every chance they get to complain about the franchise. It prompts supposed “true fans” to exclude anyone who doesn’t think exactly like them. It makes them cheer when Patton Oswalt suggests going back in time and killing Lucas with a shovel.

It justifies parents actually teaching and wanting their kids to hate. Think about that for a minute.

It also makes some fans think that Star Wars belongs to the public because it has so permeated pop culture. I can’t begin to describe how ridiculous that sounds to me. The ideas and discussions and interpretations certainly belong to the public, but the intellectual property still belongs to the artists who created it. Consider franchises that have been around longer than Star WarsDoctor Who, Star Trek, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so on – and ask why this one is special enough to be fan property instead of Lucasfilm property. Answer: It’s not.

Don’t get me wrong: The prequels weren’t great movies, and I do place a lot of that at the feet of George Lucas. It’s well known that he didn’t have a lot of opposition in the prequel era. Sure, he’d directed before – American Graffiti, THX 1138, the original Star Wars – but each time he’d had a producer like Francis Ford Coppola acting as the angel/devil on his shoulder pushing him to think a little differently here and there. He was also still hungry to make a name for himself and defy the Hollywood establishment. By 1999, things were different.

George Lucas is a wonderful dreamer, a fantastic innovator, and a great experimental filmmaker. But for mainstream film like Star Wars, he needs a counterbalance, and I don’t think he had one strong enough for the Prequel Era. Those films needed tightening and more polish, and that’s what hurt them in the end.

Also, that “younger” Yoda puppet? That was painful. As much as I adore Frank Oz, I’m so glad they replaced it with a CG Yoda in the Blu-Ray releases.

Puppet and New CGI Phantom Menace Yoda

So, despite the flaws, what makes this movie work for me?

 

A Gateway to Fandom

Star Wars is, at its core, a children’s story about families and people, the choices they make, and the consequences of their actions. In particular, it’s a story about the Skywalker family. That’s not a dismissal of the story’s complexity, which attracts fans of all ages and drives them to analyze every corner of the universe, but it’s based on the movie serial adventures that inspired George Lucas as a youth.

In the same way that the original 1977 installment inspired young fans – today’s parents – The Phantom Menace inspired young fans in the Generation Y and Millennial sets, and it’s readily apparent in how the Star Wars juggernaut keeps rolling. If The Phantom Menace had been as crappy a movie as people claim, Star Wars would have died at that point. At the very least, it would have been relegated to cult status like so many ‘80s films.

But it wasn’t, and that’s amazing to me. The ‘80s got the Original Trilogy, the ‘90s got the brunt of the Expanded Universe, the 2000s got The Prequel Era, and the 2010s got The Clone Wars, Rebels, and the beginnings of the post-Disney Big Bang. Every generation gets a new vision of Star Wars, and the mythology and the fandom carries on.

 

Anakin Skywalker

Fan expectations determined that The Phantom Menace’s version of Anakin Skywalker should have been what we got in Attack of the Clones: a reckless Jedi Knight flirting with the Dark Side. Instead, we all got an adorable slave boy with a deep respect for family.

And I’m okay with that.

The Darth Vader we met in the Original Trilogy was a dark and evil mustache twirler who gained depth over the course of three movies. There was no doubt in A New Hope that he was evil: He had a deep, menacing voice, wore all black, and killed people on a whim. He was ruthless, a concept that was built upon in the Expanded Universe as he slaughtered every remaining Jedi and Rebel he could.

But in our history, darkness wasn’t readily apparent in childhood. Even Hitler wasn’t born as a genocidal maniac.

Anakin Shadow

If the episodic Star Wars films are truly about the Skywalkers, then it makes sense to know about Anakin before he becomes a Jedi. The trilogies run in similar narrative styles – if you have the time, take the plunge into Mike Klimo’s Ring Theory – and Luke was also introduced before he discovered the Force. It also provides a greater dramatic pedestal from which Anakin can fall.

I mean, it’s not entirely necessary for the redemption story, but it makes Anakin’s story a little sweeter for me. It also struck an emotional chord for me since The Phantom Menace came out around the time I was considering leaving home for college. When Anakin leaves and his mother tells him to be brave and not look back, I cry a little for the eight year old.

On the dark side of this topic, a lot of people criticized the film and its inclusion of a young Anakin by attacking Jake Lloyd. He was ten years old when the film came out, and he got smacked with a bow wave of negativity and threats, and he doesn’t like talking about his role in Star Wars to this day.

Some people say that it’s just how the internet is, but these are the same people who had no problem bullying a ten-year old kid online for something that wasn’t really his fault. It’s inexcusable.

 

Qui-Gon Jinn and the Nature of the Force

As I mentioned with Attack of the Clones, the Prequel Era came with the unspoken promise that we would see the Jedi in their prime. The Jedi in The Phantom Menace, with the exception of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, were effectively monks in thoughtful seclusion on Coruscant. That made Qui-Gon Jinn a breath of fresh air.

Qui-Gon-Jinn

In this adventure, Qui-Gon bends the Jedi Code because he believes in a cause. He remains dedicated to the Order, but sees the nature of the Force in a different light than his peers, which (for better or worse) prevents him from moving beyond going from mission to mission around the galaxy.

The Jedi at large focused on the Universal Force, but Qui-Gon paid more attention to the Living Force. Amusingly, this appears to have affected Yoda later on as he discusses more elements of the Living Force when he trains Luke in Empire Strikes Back. The Jedi Order played with the Living Force a little bit with the concept of midichlorians, which I see as more of an attempt to use science to explain spirituality and mysticism. At the height of the Republic, so much of everyday life was about technology and science that it makes sense to apply it in all aspects. By the time of Luke’s training, the Order was as much a legend as the Library of Alexandria in our culture. Midichlorians don’t bother me because they don’t stick around long in the saga.

Qui-Gon saw (and lived in) the shades of grey on the galaxy around him, and saw worth in every soul he met. I deeply admire the character, and believe that had he been Anakin’s mentor, things would have turned out so much better for the Skywalkers, the Jedi, and the Republic.

 

Jar Jar Binks

Qui-Gon Jinn is exactly why I don’t have any problem with Jar Jar Binks.

Yes, he was a misguided comic relief to a movie otherwise waterlogged in political games. Yes, he was silly, which was out of place in Star Wars to this point in time. But he was also valuable to certain messages from the film. He introduced the heroes to the other side of Naboo’s symbiotic relationship, and eventually prompted Queen Amidala to seek peace with the Gungans.

I never picked up on the racism that others saw in him, and wondered from a behind-the-scenes perspective if Ahmed Best, a black man, would portray and advertise a racist character in a movie even if the pay was good. I doubt that he would.

On the topic of behind the scenes movie magic, Jar Jar Binks is also responsible for the motion capture technology in modern cinema. Filmmakers in the last 15 years have built upon the foundations that George Lucas built to make Jar Jar Binks interactive with the actors. Without that character, I don’t know that we’d have character interpretations like Gollum or the Hulk.

Jar Jar Binks also held a message for me. Much of my youth was spent in isolation from my peers, mostly because I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t dedicated to the majority religion in Utah, and didn’t run with typical in-crowd. I placed academics over dating, and I spent more time writing and reading than anything else. When The Phantom Menace came out, I was coming out of some of my darkest years. It was a period where I nearly always felt cornered, alone, and angry, and I sometimes wondered if the world would even miss me.

Jar Jar Binks actually gave me hope. He was an outcast – a “pathetic life form” – who wasn’t a hero, but someone who was appreciated for what he had to offer to the heroes. He taught the heroes something about the worth of common people in the galaxy who weren’t Jedi or politicians.

I’m not his biggest fan, but I place some value on what he brought to the story, and it makes me sad that he ended up being an ignorant stepping stone who thought he was doing the right thing during Palpatine’s ascension.

Jar_Jar_meets_Jedi

 

The Lightsaber Duel

Before The Phantom Menace, lightsaber fights were styled after battles with broadswords. In the Prequel Era, they became something we had never seen before, and the energy they imparted kept me engaged. In the years since, the three-way duel has waned as one of my favorites, but at the time it was both energetic and heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, it has also spawned an entire generation of lightsaber builders who think that swordplay is all about spinning blades and acrobatics.

duel

 

The Music

The Phantom Menace was also a pioneer in modern Star Wars music, which carried over in several re-used sequences for the following episodes. When people think about music in The Phantom Menace, they start with “Duel of the Fates”, which is a great piece, but not one of my favorites.

“Anakin’s Theme” was a fantastic reflection of the character with its light and gentle airiness that speaks of young Anakin’s empathy. It also foreshadows with the subtle hints of “The Imperial March” in its DNA, telling you that tragedy is in the young boy’s destiny.

The other piece of music that I love from the film is “Augie’s Great Municipal Band”, which plays over the peace ceremony. The part that I love is how it tells you who the phantom menace truly is, and it does it with the voices of the children who will suffer in the future. When you slow and pitch down the children’s choir, it reveals the theme of Emperor Palpatine. I find it cool and so very, very creepy.

Great_Municipal_Band

 

Tomorrow brings the Original Trilogy with Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

 

My Rating: 7.5/10
IMDb rating: 6.5/10