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Thoughts on The Force Awakens

This is not a review. It is a burst of reactions and first impressions. It is rife with spoilers.


It has been 32 years since we’ve had a good Star Wars movie – or 35 years, depending on your level of Ewok-induced disillusionment. After the prequels, George Lucas led us to believe there would be no more Star Wars movies, and even had the gall to suggest that he never even planned to make Episodes VII-IX, which, as anyone who was twelve in 1983 can tell you, is a bald-faced lie. Not that we would have necessarily wanted Lucas to make them, of course, after seeing I-III.

Therefore, finally getting an Episode VII that’s actually good is a boon unlooked-for, a surprise gift. It is not perfect, but it is perfectly delightful.

Our new trio – Rey, Finn, and Poe – are likable, engaging, and superbly acted. The movie is funny in the same quippish way as the best of the original trilogy, but funnier. The directing is crisp, the visuals (it goes without saying) are stunning. Kylo Ren is a nuanced villain, and he can stop a blaster bolt in mid-air. Come ON! But really I don’t much feeling like tabulating the pros and cons; it did not suck, therefore I am a Star Wars fan again, and it is in that capacity that I will consider some common critiques of the new movie.

Common Critique #1: “Rey is a total Mary Sue. She has all the skillz and no flaws. Give me a break.”

Response: True, she is Force-strong, scrappy, and multi-lingual, with a knack for piloting, engineering, and hand-to-hand combat. Just like, hmm, Anakin, who freakin’ invented C–3PO when he was five or something. I have faith we will see Rey’s flaws in the coming movies, but in the meantime I really can’t hear you over the fact that my twelve-year-old daughter thinks it’s awesome that the new main character in a Star Wars movie kicks ass and is female.

C.C. #2: “This is basically a re-make of the original Star Wars. SO many similarities.”

Yes. Largely true, and the worst thing about the movie. At numerous points the obvious parallels took me out of the moment. But let’s be clear: the borrowing is rampant from not just A New Hope, but from Empire and Return as well. From IV we have your basic we-need-to-blow-up-the-Death-Star climax, as well as the kid-from-a-desert-planet joining the Rebelli-oops-I-mean-Resistance. But the father-son dynamic comes from V & VI, the catwalk confrontation between Kylo and Han is straight out of V, as is the hologram-conversation-with-a-supreme-leader. The assault on Starkiller base, with its ground assault component to neutralize the shields, and having to fly into the structure to blow up stuff there, is actually more reminiscent of VI’s Death Star battle than IV’s.

Point being, I’m not actually worried that this is going to continue. My sense is that this movie was the big nostalgia-fest, and going forward, they’re going to tell their own story. If I’m wrong, and the parallels continue (for example, with Luke training Rey in ways that blatantly mirror Yoda training Luke), that will suck. The level of imitation/homage/nostalgia in Force Awakens is clearly intentional, and I don’t get why Abrams made that choice, but I think – I hope – it’s done.

C.C. #3: “So the First Order is the Empire but not really and the Resistance is the Rebellion? And then what the hell is the Republic? And are they dead now? I’m so confused …”

This is actually the one that has me the most worried. The reason is that the answer to some of the above is apparently to be found in Aftermath, the Star Wars novel that takes place between Return of the Jedi and Force Awakens. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough about it to know that the Rebel Alliance founded the New Republic, which beat the crap out of the Empire in a big battle at Jakku (hence all the wreckage there). Then the Republic signed a peace treaty with what was left of the Empire, drew borders, yada yada. The First Order is what’s left of the Empire, and since they’re technically at peace with the Republic, the Senate doesn’t want to officially support an insurgency against the First Order. So Leia goes and does it on her own.

All very good to know! All totally absent from the film.

The Force Awakens is keenly attuned to the personal struggles of its protagonists and antagonist. It doesn’t seem to care much for galacto-politics. By far the most consequential event of the movie is the destruction of the Hosnian system by the Starkiller base, the implicatons of which are not even dealt with. Was the new Senate destroyed? How much of the Republic Fleet was lost? Is the First Order now in a position to retake territory from the Republic, or does the loss of Starkiller also leave it stretched thin?

My hunch is that all that stuff will be answered, as will many other things, not in the movies, but in the associated novels, comic books, and video games. Look, I love that the story has jumped forward so far, leaving so many questions unanswered. It actually creates a situation similar to experience of the original trilogy, when we heard stuff about the “Clone Wars” but could only guess what it was about. And, to be fair, now that I think about it, this was all true back then – IV-VI are similarly light on the world-building.

But I don’t want to read all that extra stuff. I’ll watch garbage if it’s the right kind of garbage, but I can’t stomach a paragraph of bad or even mediocre prose.

Let’s allow that there’s only so much they can put in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, so obviously some details of the universe will have to be found elsewhere. I will happily grant, to use one example, that Maz Kanata remain an enigmatic character in the movies, with a wealth of background detail ready to be uncovered elsewhere if you’re sufficiently inclined to look. Same for Lor San Tekka, the old guy at the very beginning of VIII. But here’s where I draw the line: the fall of Luke’s Jedi Academy. If that’s addressed in the subsequent movies, via flashback or whatever, great. If, in order to get the whole story on that event, we have to read some tie-in novel, I will be very very cross.

Moving on.

Rey’s background. I really need to see the movie again to verify what some people have suggested is the case: that in her vision-thingee when she touches Luke’s lightsaber, at that moment when young Rey is being left behind on Jakku, she’s wearing something that looks like Padawan robes. That would strongly suggest a connection to Luke’s Academy, which would also make her incredibly rapid acquisition of Force powers a little more understandable.

In any case, I hope she’s not somehow Kylo’s twin, because that would be too obvious and if that was true Leia should have been able to sense it. I am rooting for granddaughter-of-Kenobi over daughter-of-Luke, though either one would require quite a bit of backstory that might get stashed in tie-in novels (ugh). I think it’s inevitable (and appropriate) that either Rey or Finn turn out to have familial connections to the older generation, but I hope that it’s not true of both of them.

Supreme Leader Snoke should turn out to be Darth Plagueis. Or someone totally new. If he turns out to be the Grand Inquisitor from the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, I will be very very cross. No, I have not seen that show. Yes, I read about that theory on the Internet.

Can we take a moment to dwell on how very tragic Han’s death was? The great smooth talker finally meets the situation he can’t talk his way out of. And it’s not like he got to die heroically either, if-he-hadn’t-done-that-we’d-all-have-been-doomed, nope. Either he thought he could get through to his son, and he was wrong, or he knew he couldn’t get through to his son, and was sufficiently depressed about it to choose death. Either way, dark. And Leia! She basically told Han to do that talking when he himself was skeptical! And then Luke, no doubt feeling responsible for Ben Solo breaking bad in the first place! These poor original trilogy folks have it rough. I hope they catch a break.

Oh, and: that expression on Luke’s face when he turns around! The beard, the craggy skin! All the long years, the hope of a new tomorrow after defeating the Emperor and redeeming his father, swallowed by failure and disillusionment – that’s all there, plus his own self-doubt, maybe also a tinge of new hope at this person who’s found him. A perfect expression, and this from a performer who objectively could not act his way out of a paper bag thirty years ago.

I’ll have a better handle on this movie when I’ve seen it a second time without all my nostalgia buttons being so deftly pushed. And a better handle yet when Episode VIII comes out in a couple years and we see where they go from here. But in the meantime: the lightsaber wiggles in the snow, then lurches forward, and Kylo Ren thinks that he’s force-grabbing it but it whooshes PAST HIS FACE and Rey catches it. I’ll forgive a whole lot for more moments like that.

Rackham and Crane

Allow me to direct your attention to a writing project I have going with my friend Phil Chase. It is a fictional correspondence written by two characters, each one written by one of us. It’s an exercise for our own amusement, but we’d be perfectly happy if others enjoyed it as well. Check it out!

Rackham & Crane: A Correspondence

Movember: Select My Stache

You may have heard of Movember. It’s a thing where guys grow mustaches in November to raise awareness for “mens’ health,” i.e. prostate cancer and testicular cancer. There is, not surprisingly, a foundation, and a website with social-network-y features, and suggested recipients of donations, and rules.

But one of those rules is “start clean-shaven on November 1,” and where’s the fun in that? So I am doing my own Movember thing. A Faux Movember, if you will. I’ve been growing facial hair for a month or so and on the first of November I will trim down to a mustache. Because I’ve never had one before, and because, yeah, fuck cancer.

So, this is where you come in. Help me decide what mustache to sport in November! Vote for a mustache style, either one of those listed below, or another one, and email me or tweet or post a Facebook comment, whatever you prefer. I only ask that if you do vote, at some point this year, also make a donation to a cancer-related charity of your choice. If you’re stuck for ideas, the Conquer Cancer Foundation is a good one.

Here are the main mustache styles I am considering:

1. The Chevron: Your basic Magnum P.I. mustache.

2. The Horseshoe: The poor man’s Fu Manchu.

3. The Pencil: I don’t actually think anyone will vote for this, but it would be easy.

4. The Handlebar: Or at least as close as I can get in the allotted time.

5. The Friendly Mutton Chop: The example picture is aspirational, but you get the idea.

And, for reference, here is the current state of my facial hair:


That’s it! Please vote!

The Epistolary

It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that when I started a new mini-project-ish-thing a couple weeks ago, I plugged it on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and in a few emails, but completely forgot to mention it on, y’know, my blog.

So, anyway, The Epistolary. Go check it out. It is not in the nature of that project to have much in the way of updates, but there may be a few, and it is likely that there will be more activity over there than over here in any case.

Cerin Amroth has moved

The kidblog, Cerin Amroth, can now be found at Movin’ back to hosting things myself, so I figured I’d grab the domain name since it was still out there. If there’s anyone left who doesn’t just get there by clicking a link from Facebook, update your feed.

This blog also migrated, but that should be transparent.

Yes, You Still Have to Read the Books

Once upon a time, I thought I was going to be that guy. The one who didn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire, but only watched the HBO series, so that I could provide that perspective, crucial at dinner party conversations, of someone who had only experienced the television version. That was my plan. Its chief advantage, in my mind, is that it saved me the obligation of reading thousands of pages of text that I had started once but put down.

Then early last year the iBook version of A Game of Thrones was on sale, and I didn’t even know where my physical copy was any more, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. A few months later, I had read all five books in succession. I then waited patiently for the first season of the series to be available on DVD to watch that, but having done so lacked the patience to wait for season two, and finished watching it recently by … other means.

I love me a good fantasy literature conversation. And I also groove on a good aesthetics-of-film-adaptation chat. So it’s been good times lately, all in all, but for those of you who thought like I used to think, I am here to tell you that, sorry, you do still have to read the books. The HBO series is very good. But if you enjoyed it, you should know you are still missing far too much to ignore. Being “that guy” just isn’t worth it.

Not speaking in absolutes here, but in relative terms, the most helpful way to think about it is that the television series is melodrama, and the books are naturalism. This is understandable. In a TV series you want to end each episode on, if not a cliffhanger, at least on an interesting plot-beat that makes viewers want to tune in the following week. You want an explosive ending. And, within your budgetary limitations, you favor action over dry conversation. To its credit, the series avoids one of the conventions of melodrama: black-and-white villains and heroes. That wouldn’t have fit A Song of Ice and Fire at all, so they rightly avoid it. But in most respects the series works to elevate the level of drama.

An example: in the books, when Daenerys goes to the warlocks’ tower, it’s out of curiosity after an invitation. They have dire plans for her which she escapes, after having visions, but all this occurs in the middle of her time at Qarth. In the series, her people are killed! Her dragons are kidnapped! And in the season finale she enters the tower alone and rescues them!

Television imposes natural limitations on the numbers of characters you can have, because each one has to have an actor, preferably one that can stick around for a season or two (until George R.R. Martin has them ruthlessly killed, of course). As a result there are fewer coincidences in the show, and more paths crossing. The whore who Theon visits in Winterfell shows up at King’s Landing, and fills the shoes of a handful of minor characters. Arya serves as cupbearer to Tywin Lannister, who she doesn’t even meet in the books.

That last one an example of crossing paths working really well, actually — their scenes are nowhere to be found in the book, but the series’ writers get a lot of mileage out of them, not only creating tension, but also conveying all sorts of details about those characters that comes across in the books in completely different ways. It’s probably the kind of scene that Martin wishes he had thought to include in the books.

When I say the books are more naturalistic, I mean that most of the time, Martin seems to be tracing the paths of his characters through the world he has created, and thinking, dispassionately and concretely, about what would happen to them in the circumstances they find themselves in, and then following that thread where it leads. In other words, while he includes plenty of instances of dramatic tension, in a battle between “wouldn’t it be cool if” and “this is how my world works,” the internal consistency of his world wins out every time. I happen to believe that he will round out this series of books with a suitably sweeping, loose-ends-gathering, perhaps even melodramatic ending, but in getting there he has been perfectly content to kill off characters, major and minor, and to introduce new characters when efficiency might dictate to keep it simpler, and sometimes to include whole chapters for little reason more than to introduce us to a new corner of his world.

All of this makes for a very different experience than the tightly-plotted TV episodes. Not necessarily better or worse, but different enough that you can’t really say that by experiencing one you’ve got the gist of the other.

One way that the television series cannot hope to measure up is when it comes to conveying the extraordinary detail and depth of the secondary world Martin has created. Where Tolkien’s world is mythic, Martin’s is sociopolitical, based on medieval Europe in a way many fantasy world’s only are on the surface. He has his (rather limited) supernatural elements, both historically and in the present, and works through systematically how such things might influence society, and what the resulting culture(s) would look like. And then he fills it in, with geneaologies and economies and religions and political divisions and all the rest. In the television series, most of these details can only be hinted at, referenced, perhaps alluded to in order to give a wink to fans of the books, but they can’t really be conveyed. There’s just not enough time.

Consider Dragonstone, Stannis’ keep on the ocean. If you’re read the books, you know that it was the built by the Targaryens when they first arrived from over the sea, escaping the apocalyptic ruin of Old Valyria. It was their citadel for conquering this new land — that’s why there’s a big map built into that one table. The place is suffused with the magic of the dragon-riders of yore. When Robert gave it to Stannis after the war, it was simultaneously a great honor, as a storied and formidable keep, but also a way to give a rather uncomfortable place for non-Targaryens to someone Robert was certainly uncomfortable with. And it was a slap in the face that Stannis didn’t get Storm’s End, the historical Baratheon seat of power.

That last point is (briefly) touched on in the television series, but Dragonstone itself is a just a moody keep built on rocky cliffs. They make it a dour place for a dour ruler, reinforcing character with visuals, in filmic fashion, but there is so much there that you don’t get to find out about without actually reading all those world details in the books.

Sometimes it’s not just background details that get lost, but crucial matters of motivation and plot. You have to be playing close attention in the final episodes of season two to understand just what Qhorin Halfhand is expecting of Jon before he provokes him to killing him, and if you didn’t already have some context from the books, you’re likely to miss it. And you could hardly be blamed for wondering “who the heck burned Winterfell?” at the end there as well. Everything in there plays out differently than in the books anyway, but it’s downright confusing. No doubt HBO will clear it up in season three, when they’ll be able to introduce Ramsay Bolton. But where on earth was he in season two? The way that he’s referenced but not introduced has everything to do with not having to find an actor for an extra season, the same way that Theon’s taking Winterfell in the first place is only presented after the fact because budgetary constraints limit the amount of swordplay you can fit into your ten episodes, and nothing to do with the best way to present the material. And don’t even get me started on all the tactical complexity of the Battle of Blackwater Bay getting reduced to a couple big explosions and a fight over a fifty-yard section of wall.

Looking ahead to what lies in store, in both the books and the television series, a great illustration of the stark contrast between them is provided by the matter of Jon Snow’s parentage. No spoilers here — we don’t know the answer yet! — but it’s easy to see that the answer to where he comes from will be one of the big reveals later in the story. And as exciting as it will be, in a way, we already know how it will play out in the television version. Come season six or seven or eight or whatever it turns out to be, in episode three and episode eight, we’ll have scenes bringing up the issue of where he comes from, reminding us of his details, and foreshadowing for the finale, episode ten, which will lead with a “previously on Game of Thrones” that includes that conversation between Ned and Robert from season one that no one’s thought about in forever, so we know something to do with that will be coming this episode. And then we’ll find out … something.

Now consider how it is in the books. Readers have been thinking about this for a while, and there are multiple theories. The one with the most textual evidence, and the one I support, involves a detailed reading of certain historical events that so far haven’t even come up in the series, key recollections of Ned’s in one of his POV view chapters before he dies, and a carefully constructed timeline of the events of Robert’s Rebellion in order to rule out other possibilities. All of this is only possible because of the sheer volume of history, backstory, and ancillary detail that you get in the books. When we find out the truth, whether or not it aligns with any particular theory, we can be sure that it will be consistent with all the clues that have been sprinkled throughout the years in these books, and that final “I knew it!” or “Wow, I didn’t see it, but there it is!” will be immensely satisfying.

So, by all means, enjoy the series. It’s a great adaptation. But there’s a difference between taking a dip at the shallow end of the pool and swimming in the ocean. You still have to read the books.

The Ryan Pick

I realize it’s not fashionable these days to be relaxed by campaign events, especially VP picks, but Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan has set me at ease.

First, and most obviously, I don’t think it was his best pick, politically speaking, and therefore it (very slightly) increases Obama’s chances of re-election. Romney was on better footing when he could draft off of the natural tendency of voters to blame the incumbent for their current woes, keeping the focus on his opponent. Now the Obama campaign can shift the focus to Ryan and his budget plan, and engage in some good old-fashioned scaremongering about how he wants to take away everyone’s Medicare, which has the added benefit of being more or less true.

But I was also set at ease because of what the pick means for if Romney does win. On the campaign trail he’s transmogrified from a moderate, sensible, New England Republican into a cookie-cutter national GOP mouthpiece, so people wonder, quite rightly, just who he’ll be when he’s actually sitting in the Oval Office. And I’ve always suspected that he’d go right back to governor-of-Massachusetts mode, and social conservatives would grumble, business leaders would cheer, and he still wouldn’t be my choice over Obama, but he wouldn’t be a catastrophe, and if we’re lucky he might be able to pull off a Grand Compromise or two.

Romney picking Ryan reaffirms my hunch. Ryan is a longtime political operative and a thorough policy geek. He’s a number-cruncher. I’m sure he has plenty of votes putting him on the wrong side of social issues, but being a socially conservative crusader is not his thing. And while I happen to think that some of his core assumptions render his solutions for fixing the country’s budget and economic path highly problematic, I give him credit for presenting concrete and even unpopular proposals for addressing real problems. Ryan is the pick for a technocrat, not an ideologue.

Plus, the propect of a Biden-Ryan VP debate gives me something to actually look forward to in an otherwise hideous election season.

The Best Of Polytropos

Pardon the stroll down memory lane, but I’m tidying up the blog a little, and thought it would be nice to have a succinct “best of” list from when I blogged regularly to link to. Here it is. Let me know if you think anything is missing.