Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Novel * David Shafer * The Encroaching Analytic Dystopia * 2014

Synopsis

Reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot coincided with two things which I’m pretty sure combined to ensure that I would not really enjoy reading it all that much. The first thing is returning to work full time, which is a good thing since I really like my job, however it leaves me less time for things like reading and writing. The other thing is a shift from a reading-intensive phase to a doing-other-things phase. These things happen. Anyway, the result is that this book took me like three weeks to get through, and under other circumstances it would have taken far less time. Most of this isn’t the book’s fault. I’m pretty sure that when I was finished, I was of the opinion that it is, in fact, a pretty good novel. It’s just that reading it felt like a chore, and I’m not sure how much of that was me and how much of that was the book. Because even after moving on, I’m pretty sure there are some significant annoyances which are keeping me from wanting to fully recommend WTF. One thing is that the coded/abbreviated form of the title is WTF. Another is that the main characters are kind of dull and one is actively obnoxious. The final thing is that the plot is esoteric and abstract and never really comes together.

Hmm, that makes me think that I didn’t actually like the novel all that much. Well, let’s try a quick summary, and maybe that will diagnose my issues with the book. The story begins with a woman named Leila Majnoun, who is in Myanmar working for a nonprofit organization of some kind. She’s a pretty engaging character, and it isn’t too long before she gets herself into a sticky situation. By which I mean that she witnesses something that she shouldn’t have and is now on the bad side of a vindictive cabal of corporate overlords and governmental intelligence. So her life is all fucked up. Then we’ve got Leo, who is a wayward trust-fund goofball with mental illness issues. He lives in Portland, which is fun because I used to live in Portland, and Leo is very Portland. Anyway, he has a breakdown of sorts and in his ramblings inadvertently stumbles onto the same corporate conspiracy that Leila has. And then we have Mark, who sucks. To be clear, Mark is supposed to suck. He’s a mealy-mouthed, low-rent conman who has stumbled ass-backward into a lucrative book deal and an inexplicably fruitful relationship with a billionaire. He’s an old college buddy of Leo’s, and coincidentally the billionaire who is Mark’s patron is also part of the aforementioned conspiracy.

The conspiracy itself is where the book has trouble keeping tabs on the actual plot. Part of this is because the nature of the corporate conspiracy is vague and abstract. Basically, the evil companies are in cahoots with corrupt government agencies and other international powers and have devised technology which can harvest the personal information of everyone in the world. They will then use this information to, like, profit and maybe enslave the thoughts of humanity? It’s super unclear. There’s underwater mega-databases and not-iPhones-but-totally-iPhones and secret security firms and who knows what else. Then there’s the resistance, who recruit Leila with some kind of weird Snow Crash-like computer program that connects everyone’s brains together or something. Speaking of Snow Crash, I repeatedly got the feeling that WTF was a slowed down version of Neal Stephenson’s book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, yet it really does seem like this novel has a hard time keeping track of its own ideas about data analytics and their role in modern society. Information is indeed power, but I’m not convinced WTF knows exactly what kind of power that is.

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Discussion

Oh thank sweet inflatable wacky waving Jesus, I’m so happy this copy of the book has a reading group guide. Oh, and these questions are also extremely full of their own cleverness. I’m writing them out verbatim, and I’m 99% sure the author wrote them. Okay. Here we go.

  1. Each of WTF’s three main characters seem to be opening a different book. In such a case, how soon should the author promise the reader that separate strands of a story will come together? How much time does the author have to make a case for the reader’s continued engagement?

Holy shit, that’s totally something I would write because I would still somehow be insecure about a narrative method I used, despite being published already. Anyway this question highlights my other main issue about the novel. There are way too many words spent on each character doing, saying, and thinking utterly inessential things throughout the story. I don’t care about how each character is introduced, however I do care that entirely too much time is spent with each and every one of them while they fuck off and don’t do anything. This goes especially for Mark, who in addition to being a douche is also extremely boring.

  1. Did you find it hard to credit that there would be this amazingly competent NGO logistician working alone in a beautiful and exotic city? If in fact you found Leila too conveniently badass, were there other elements of her character that mitigated that effect, that made her seem real to you?

Jesus, the insecurity just keeps getting worse. Anyway, that Leila was competent and smart and tough is not what annoyed me, it was constantly being told that she was the most beautifullest girl in the whole wide world. I get it, male author, you like babes. And of course there are physically attractive people of all kinds who are also smart and successful. And it is right and good to hate them. Especially when they’re also nice and pleasant and good cooks who also shred the guitar and are better writers than me.

  1. Is Mark a charming jerk or an uncharming jerk?

The latter, but what’s worse is that he’s a basic bitch and the books spends way too much time with him.

  1. Wouldn’t it be cool if Ikeas comprised a global network of safehouses?

I’m not sure that bit was as clever as you thought it was.

  1. When did you first know that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a coded title?

Like right away? Again, this is not as clever as you clearly want it to be.

  1. Had you any acquaintance with the word game the Jumble before page 184? Did you try to solve that puzzle as you read it in the book? Or is that the kind of Easter-egg shit you skip over when reading fiction?

Ooh, the discussion questions are getting edgy! There’s a swear! Also fuck you.

  1. Did you notice that the entire novel is a palindrome?

FUUUUCK YOOOOU!

  1. How do you feel about the TSA? Isn’t it a little strange that we all agreed to subject ourselves to their airport screening experience? How much of that do you think is actually Security Theater? Like, say, if they had taken half a banana right out of your daughter’s hands: would you think, Thank God these people are keeping us safe? Or would you think: WTF?

I would think, huh, is the author working on a bit for his open mike stand up set? The real answer is that in our post-9/11 safety fervor we did it to ourselves. We wrote President Bush and Congress a blank check to keep us safe from “terror.” And insofar as granting certain segments of the government unprecedented power is concerned, it worked a treat.

  1. Did you see that they’re now selling as advertising space the bottom of the bin in which they make you put their shoes? WTF?

Holy shit, this IS a bit. It’s like “you might be a redneck” but instead, at the end of every trite observation, he just uses the abbreviation of his book title in lieu of a punchline. Also that question is a fucking terrible sentence.

  1. You know it’s not a cloud, right? You know it’s a vast network of secure servers storing everything we do and drinking our rivers to keep themselves cool?

Jesus, this is some top-notch, Portland, Oregon, passive-fucking-aggressiveness right here. Also, I’m willing to bet that if anyone ever calls these awful, awful questions out the author defends them by saying something like “oh, uh, well these questions are all written as if Leo from the book wrote them,” and okay, sure, but also fuck you.

  1. That 5-zettabyte listening post and data-storage complex the NSA built in Bluffdale, Utah – did we ever vote on whether we wanted one of those?

NONE OF THESE QUESTIONS HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED IN THE BOOK. Jesus, these things read like angry Tweets from a conspiracy account. Also, that’s not how a representative republic works, take a civics class. It would be impossible to put every policy decision up for a vote, you disingenuous dingbat. Also, there’s over 300 million people in this country, most of whom could not give a shit how their cell phone works so long as it works. At this point I should also mention that I have extremely limited patience for stupid conspiracy theories, regardless of where on the political spectrum they originate.

  1. Which side do you think Tessa Bright is on?

Could not care less.

  1. Is Mark sincere in his commitment to Dear Diary?

No, wait, it turns out I can actually care less.

  1. Does Mark make it to Sine Wave 2?

Oh yeah, by the way, the book doesn’t actually end. Which I guess is fine since the plot is so ambiguous and nebulous, but there is absolutely no resolution to what plot there is. Now, I suppose you could argue that the characters were the focus, and I would agree that for the most part there is some kind of arc and growth for most of these people. However, I would also point out that the ambiguous ending trope only works if it is, in fact, ambiguous. The end of WTF isn’t unclear, or left to the reader’s interpretation, it just ends before the fucking story is over. And that’s a copout. So to answer this question, since the author clearly doesn’t give a shit, neither do I.

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Posted in Books, Conspiracy, Corporations | Leave a comment

Alien

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Film * Ridley Scott * Hidden Corporate Dystopia * 1979

Synopsis

Alien is one of those things where I watch it, and enjoy it, and appreciate it, but never find myself evangelizing for it. Never mind that I like similar things which hearken back to this particular movie in spirit, or use it for inspiration. I dunno, it’s like how I feel about The Pixies. Like, I get it. I like some songs. They were a major influence on pretty much every band that came after them that I fucking love. I’m just never going to put them in a personal top 10… or 20… or 50. Likewise with Alien. I like it a lot. But I pretty much fall asleep during the first 45 minutes or so every time I try and watch it. Maybe I should try not watching it after a long work week lying down on my comfy, comfy couch. But also maybe the movie should move its ass a little bit. Anyway, this time the same thing happens that always happens. I try to stay engaged, but the protracted, quiet, and dark scenes in the beginning lull me into a doze. Then something loud happens! And shit, I missed the scene where they discover the weird egg lair again. But then it’s quiet for another long stretch and here comes sleepytime again. Then bang! Oh shit it’s just the cat. Alien is a Pixies song, is what I’m saying.

I have actually seen this entire film before. Several times even. So if you’re new to what this even is, it’s basically a pure horror movie. Yeah, yeah, it’s set in a spaceship and takes place in outer space and the movie is called Alien, but the science fiction elements are an effective setting as opposed to the actual point of the movie. Well, that’s not entirely true, but we’ll get to that later. Anyway, Alien is first and foremost a horror film. The setting is a commercial, industrial-ass spaceship staffed with seven blue-collar spacers. They’re in transit back to earth after doing their space-mining or whatever. However, they’re awakened early because the ship detected a distress signal and therefore the crew of the Nostromo is obligated to investigate the source of the signal. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that this is always a terrible idea. As it happens, the distress signal is not human in origin. The crew crash lands on a small… moonlet? Asteroid? I dunno, some scary and sterile spacescape. Anyway, they decide they have little else to do but check it out.

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Oh no spooky alien! It’s probably for the best we only see the xenomorph in glimpses.

Obviously this goes poorly for them. While I generally take care regarding spoilers, this movie is the same age as me, which means it is ancient. Also, I’m pretty sure that most of the story was pretty well telegraphed by the promotional materials when it came out. Anyway, while out on the planetoid, they discover a creepy, H.R. Giger designed, goth-boy den of nightmares. They find a suggestive alien skeleton and a bunch of gross slimy eggs. One of the crew members falls in and contracts a… thing. The crew then recovers him, and despite being comatose with a huge crack in his helmet’s faceplate and some kind of heretofore unknown alien creature attached to him, the decision is made to bring him back onto the ship. Great idea! The only source of rational thought in this entire situation comes from our protagonist, Ripley. Everyone else is either evil or a fucking ding-dong. I mean, it’s a horror movie, there are many bad choices made throughout. Eventually, the cute little baby facehugger alien turns into a terrifying slimy devil-monster that stalks and kills its prey and is also like impossible to kill. It’s all very scary and cool, but let’s take a minute to figure out why Alien is also indicative of a horrible corporate dystopia.

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Ripley is so sick of your shit, corporations. Also, Ripley is rad in this movie, which probably goes without saying.

Discussion

Actually, it’s not that difficult to figure out, considering the motive behind bringing the pitch black nightmare creature on board is a critical plot point. Towards the end of the film, Ripley is getting fed up with the stonewalling of the ship’s science officer, Ash. The dipshit captain, Dallas, was just killed so now Ripley is in charge and is demanding answers as to how to finally kill this fucking acid-blooded death-demon. Ash is still refusing to answer questions, although it’s clear he knows some shit and is being a prick about it. So Ripley goes into the ship’s weird analog computer room, designated such because it is mostly white with a bunch of random blinky lights and a very 1979 computer monitor. This is MOTHER, which we’ve already seen when the aforementioned Dallas tried to figure out what the hell was going on and received an extremely helpful “cannot compute” answer from this weird future’s version of Google. Anyway, Ripley is getting nowhere with MOTHER until she uses her emergency override and discovers the truth of the matter, which is that “the company” set this all up from the get-go and that the crew is expendable.

Somehow, Alien has managed to create an entire dystopian society with seven characters, some impressive set design, and a few lines of text. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered another movie where the sets have done so much narrative work. Obviously the ominous, claustrophobic, dreadful atmosphere is projected throughout the film by the dark, dank, grim corridors of the Nostromo. It’s clearly industrial in nature, which deftly communicates not only what kind of craft it is, but what kind of society it comes from. It’s basically a space-faring oil rig, at least aesthetically speaking. In tandem with the various conversations between the characters, it’s clear that labor politics are alive and well in the distant future. Most of the early dialogue, before the alien starts really tearing shit up, is either mundane chatter or bitter complaining about “shares” by the underclass, represented here by the maintenance crew. Clearly we’re dealing with a society that is not much different than ours, and that everything is still mostly dictated by sheer corporate capitalism. This sentiment is punctuated by Ash’s secret orders, Special Order 937, which explicitly states that the company has sent them to capture the nightmare devil-monster for research purposes.

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All this industrial dank does a lot of world-building work.

Obviously, Ripley is none too pleased with this information, which implies that the society she comes from has at least the semblance of personal freedom attached to it. We’re given precious little other information to make this determination, however. Ripley seems shocked and betrayed by this corporation’s behavior, as well she would be, so perhaps this kind of secretive, evil behavior by corporations isn’t common knowledge. Not that it needs to be to constitute a dystopian corporate state, of course. Generally speaking, totalitarian society liberally uses propaganda and misinformation to disguise their true natures, and it follows that corporate overlords use the same kind of tactics. From what we’re given in Alien, it’s impossible to say what kind of Earth Ripley is returning to. However, considering that “the company,” always referred to ominously like that, I don’t believe that it’s out of left field to think that the Earth of Alien is probably more like that of Blade Runner than what we have going on right now. Essentially, the pressures of late-stage capitalism have motivated a corporation to sacrifice human life in order to acquire an extraterrestrial of unknown capability and to bring the thing to Earth, regardless of the consequences. That’s hubris typical of behemoth corporations, but it’s also indicative of the great social divide between the workers and the masters, and the contempt in which the latter hold the former.

Posted in Film, Aliens, Corporations | 2 Comments

The Waste Land Project: The Tempest

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Play * William Shakespeare * Magic! Music! Other Things! * 1611

Synopsis

Comparative literary analysis is difficult, and anyone who says otherwise is either a damned liar or a damned engineer who thinks they’re better than me. I am not a Shakespeare scholar. I’m barely Shakespeare literate. I’ve read and/or seen (checks internet) nineteen of thirty-seven plays. That sounds like a lot, but I assure you I barely remember any of those. And while compared to say, Chaucer, Shakespeare’s variety of English is fairly easy to deal with, he’s still not exactly Stephen King when it comes to clear, modern language. All of this is to say that both trying to make sense of the various themes at play in The Tempest and somehow put those into the context of a poem written over three hundred years later is a challenge. Especially when Eliot’s masterwork is not exactly, ah, easy to decipher. I should be clear about this paragraph. My aim is not to complain about a task I set myself which comes with exactly zero expectations and even fewer repercussions should I get bored and quit. No. This entire preamble is an extended apology to anyone reading this who is better at Shakespearing than I am, and also to anyone hoping to find some kind of shimmering, illustrious elucidation that will suddenly make The Tempest and The Waste Land clear. Disclaimer over, so let’s muddle through this.

The most striking thing about The Tempest, at least in relationship with The Waste Land, is that of tone. I’m not sure you could categorize this play as a comedy, exactly, but it is by no means a tragedy. Everything works out in the end, and in the meantime there are various pranks being pulled and some silly bits. I’ve never watched a production of The Tempest, and I might have to rectify that, because the sense I get from the text is that this play is quite the show. Or at least it has that potential. There’s a big storm which I’m sure is fun to stage. Also there is a ton of music in this thing, which is probably catnip to any theatre student who wants to set The Tempest in like, late ‘70s Los Angeles or something and Ariel is in The Germs. NOBODY STEAL THIS IDEA. Anyway, on the surface this play doesn’t appear to have much of a place within the confines of Eliot’s poem. There’s your basic Shakespearian shenanigans surrounding various dukedoms and whatnot, but there’s no sense of impending doom and apocalypse that The Waste Land is basically founded on.

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This cover is weird for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the publisher thought Shakespeare needed a critic quote on the front. I’m not trusting anybody who was caught “unawares” by motherfucking William Shakespeare, ya heard?

While I may not be a Shakespeare scholar, one thing I’ve noticed in my causal enjoyment of his plays is that his plots are rarely the main attraction. At no point in my life have I been reading or watching one of his plays and wondering to myself “golly, I wonder what happens next.” I mean, mostly because I’ve never unironically used the term “golly,” but also because the ending is generally projected from the very beginning. You almost always know what you’re in for, and if some aspiring director decides to get frisky and change things up, the proper reaction should be annoyance. Romeo and Juliet should not live to become professional surfer-assassins and King Lear shouldn’t have a sick jetpack. Mmm. Okay, well if the jetpack is true to his character, fine. Because that’s really the point, in the end. Nobody goes into the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet wondering if maybe they’re going to make it this time. We’re there watch the tragedy unfold because it is inevitable, and despite that preordained suffering, we can appreciate our humanity. Or some other kind of theatre school bullshit, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Tempest is a weird play.

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Listen up, girl, shit’s about to pop off up in here and I don’t want you to freak out and go ham on the first dude you see.

All the action of the play is set into motion when this cat Prospero is usurped from his rightful place as the Duke of Milan by his brother, Antonio. Alonso, the king of Naples is apparently fine with this gross injustice. Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about any of this, although that may be me projecting my own disinterest in Ferdinand. Anyway, the thing about Prospero is that he’s a wizard or some shit. He also lives on this mystical island with his lovely daughter Miranda, some poor troglodyte named Caliban who is basically a slave, and a spirit named Ariel. As the play begins, Prospero has magicked up a storm real good because Alonso and a bunch of his royal cronies, including Antonio, were out on their party boat or whatever and Prospero was there to fuck em up. So everyone ends up on this island thinking those who are not in their group are dead, meanwhile Prospero is using Ariel to do pranks and manipulate people. And jam out, there’s lots of singing for a Shakespeare play. Oh, and Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love immediately, because that’s how relationships work in Shakespeare. Hijinks ensue, everyone realizes what a shithead they’ve been, Prospero gets his shit back, and Ferdinand and Miranda get it on. The Tempest, y’all.

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Did the Pre-Raphaelites love them some Miranda? Oh hell yes they did.

Discussion

A problem arises when I read something like The Tempest and have to think about it. My brain immediately rebels, like no! I got it! We did it, we’re done! Everyone’s cool in the end, remember? But then some other, probably deeply insecure part of my brain which feels like it has something to prove speaks up, and I have to sit here and try and answer questions. Why would Eliot choose this seemingly random line from a work which is so dissimilar to his own? Well whatever, let’s throw ‘em up and see what happens:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Okay, that’s Prospero’s servant-spirit Ariel singing to Ferdinand about his dead, drowned dad. Of course, his father isn’t actually drowned, Prospero just wants him to believe he is. (Side note: there goes Shakespeare just pulling English phrases which will become common expressions for hundreds of years directly out of his ass. Sea-change, c’mon.) Okay, here’s Eliot:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Okay, first of all, since it won’t come up in later editions of The Waste Land Project, allow me to point out how much I enjoy the phrase “The lady of situations.” I don’t know what that means but I love it. Now, woof, let’s spool the rest of this out. First of all, we’ve got like three threads working within this one passage from The Waste Land. First we’ve got Madame Sosostris, named for the fraud fortune teller from Crome Yellow. She’s out here dealing completely fictional Tarot cards (as Eliot mentions in his own notes) as a lark. The use of the Tarot here is purely for entertainment, because they didn’t have video games in the 1920’s, and is stripped of any ritualistic meaning it may have once had. It seems that this ritualistic meaning may have had roots in the fertility rituals that much of The Waste Land is rooted in, as noted in From Ritual to Romance. So we’ve got all that churning under the surface, and then Eliot plops a parenthetical right in the middle of it all, which is our Tempest reference. I’m trying my serious-minded grad school best to not just dismiss this as Eliot being flippant. Because T.S. Eliot was not a man anyone would ever describe as flippant. Yet given the context for this passage, and especially because it is a parenthetical, the line just seems like Eliot showing off. Like, “oh, look at this other thing I know.” And that attitude is very much like T.S. Eliot.

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Lord spare me from silly-billy versions of classic literature.

Yet this is literary analysis, where there are no accidents and coincidence does not exist. I know this, because I did a brief search about The Waste Land and The Tempest and was immediately rewarded with dozens of academic articles (which I cannot read because I do not have the extremely expensive access to databases like JSTOR and the like) about this very reference. One article, written in the 60’s, claims that The Tempest is a major reference, rather than a minor one. And I would really like to read that, because it seems like a reach. Frankly, this reference seems like a very T.S. Eliot attempt at learned humor. The joke, if it is one, is clearly a stuffy, erudite examples of humor, but I wouldn’t expect anything less. This entire section featuring Madame Sosostris is a goof, an example of short-form satire lampooning the popularity of the occult among the moneyed classes at the time. Of course, like everything else in this poem, the joke has an edge to it. This is simply another example of the degradation of culture. In antiquity, humans had a real relationship with the power of nature and in so doing created various rituals calling on the supernatural in an attempt to somehow mediate these powers. Those once-serious rituals are now played for the giggles of the upper class.

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Two things. First, the expression on these dude’s faces are gold: “get a load of this fucked up goblin, let’s punch it.” Second, that’s Gollum, right?

The passage used from The Tempest is about metamorphosis, and I’ve already pointed out how the term “sea-change” is yet another example of Shakespeare’s ability to straight up coin phrases out of thin air. Ariel is singing to Ferdinand here, basically trying to freak him out about his father’s supposed drowning death. Yet at the same time, the passage is somehow comforting. Like, yeah your old man is fish food, but in a way his death is beautiful, as nothing ever really ends but only transforms. Eliot is less positive in his outlook, because in this instance the transformation is a degradation. Madame Sosostris lays out a card meant to provoke – the drowned Phoenician Sailor – and makes this offhand Tempest reference as a motion to comfort. Of course nothing in The Waste Land is offhand, in the same way that nothing about T.S. Eliot is flippant, however the use of it here in that parenthetical and the emphasis placed on “Look!” marks it out as an aside. Yet by evoking The Tempest in the first place, Eliot is placing his own work within the context of Prospero’s magic island. It’s a nod to a time when people were capable of understanding magic and mysticism within the human sphere as opposed to a form of entertainment. The Tempest is about many modes of humanity, not the least of which is the transformation of perspective, which of course is paraded around in Act V. The Waste Land is about how those modes of humanity have changed with modernity. Eliot’s use of Ariel’s speech might have been delivered with a literary wink, but fitting with the tone of the poem it simply highlights what we’ve lost as a culture.

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Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

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Film * Stephen Herek * A Most Excellent Utopia * 1989

Synopsis

Most of the time, I’m here writing about books and movies which are, by most metrics, incredibly depressing. However you define “apocalypse,” whether it’s the literal end of the world, or a transition in a historical process, or the inevitable decline of civilization, or whatever, it usually includes bad times for a lot of people. If you scroll through the archives I spend a lot of time talking about disasters both real and imagined, the unsustainability of social constructs, ennui and despair, the harsh, eternal reality of universal entropy and the inevitable heat death of the universe. You know, fun stuff. Occasionally, especially if I’ve been on Twitter too much, I need to engage with a more positive worldview. I need to pretend that there’s a possibility of things being okay, that the fundamental mindset of humanity isn’t belligerent self-destruction. This is especially true in 2018, when social discourse seems more mean-spirited that it has been in the past. Like, I understand that most of this is perception born out of the immediate access to a vast social sphere that has been unavailable in the past, but like any other rapidly evolving technology, social media grew too big too quickly and it’s exhausting. Everyone just straight up fucking hates each other, all day every day, and it’s a bummer.

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Listen to this guy Rufus, he knows what he’s talking about. Carlin looks like the protagonist to an early-90’s FMV computer game. And I love him.

Which is why I need the reminder that once, in the late 1980’s, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure dared to imagine a world in which people were inclined to be excellent to each other. Now, before we get any further, some disclosure. This movie is on a short list of my very favorite things of all time, so I’m probably going to lean into some hyperbole here. I don’t actually know if it’s a good movie or not. I have no apparatus to actually criticize this film. I’ve been watching it since I was ten, and who knows how many times I’ve seen it. It’s probably not a great movie? But it’s also the best movie. The thing is, Bill and Ted is not exactly an inspired comedy, nor is it a particularly sharp science fiction story. It’s fun, of course, and there’s a pretty obvious message attached, but Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is more of a fantastical view of how the world should be. Everyone in the movie is fundamentally good-hearted, and the motives and actions of the characters are generally pure. The closest thing I can think of, insofar as pure, unadulterated positivity is concerned, would be Adventure Time. Which also happens to be one of my very favorite things, because the world is an exhausting place.

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All we are is dust in the wind, dude. Dust. Wind. DUDE. You know what, the writing in this movie is perfect.

It occurs to me, in my oldness, that not everyone knows exactly what Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure even is. If you come at it from the point of view of someone with no tangible memories of the 80’s, Bill and Ted is a dated period flick. To a point, that is fair. It is very 80’s. The entire premise of the film is based on the notion that the world will be saved by hair-metal butt rock, after all. That said, how beautiful is that premise? George Carlin is a man from the future, who explains how sick the future is going to be by citing bowling and mini golf scores. Make no mistake, this utopia is firmly rooted in what was cool in the San Fernando Valley in 1989. Bill and Ted, a couple of teenage doofuses, are destined to form a band which will inspire world peace and an eventual utopia. Do not worry about the details. However, this utopia is threatened because Bill and Ted are not very smart and are on the verge of failing their history class, the consequence of which is that Ted will be sent to Alaska by his overbearing father. The solution to this problem is that Carlin’s character, Rufus, arrives with a time machine. You see, in order to pass history, Bill and Ted must cobble together a final presentation to be given the next day. Bill and Ted use the time machine to travel through history and abduct various historical figures and basically force them to talk in their report. It sounds fairly dark when I say it like that. It isn’t.

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Rufus is the patron saint of patience.

Discussion

Everyone loves Bill and Ted pretty much right away. I’m not actually talking about the movie here, although the axiom holds true for good-hearted, right-thinking citizens of the world. No, within the world of the film itself, nearly every character likes Bill and Ted. The sole exception is Ted’s dad, who is as close as we get to a villain, and even he is acting out of a place of love and concern for his son. Other than that, parents, teachers, fellow students, and most importantly every single historical figure, immediately bond with Bill and Ted. Upon watching the movie for approximately the forty millionth time, people’s reaction to these lovable goofballs is the most striking aspect of the movie. These two guys never demand anything of anyone, yet pretty much anyone would do anything to help them out. And please, feel free to write your angry screed against white male privilege and set it on fire, because Bill and Ted never expect people to do their bidding. They go into the entire adventure expecting to fail most egregiously, and are legitimately surprised when the means of their success falls into their laps. No, Bill and Ted find help and loyalty wherever they go because they are fundamentally kind and accepting. That’s literally it.

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The corn dog is a nice touch. Geek.

I mentioned above that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is not an inspired comedy, and while from the perspective of someone who did not grow up with this movie that’s probably true, it is equally true that the film’s comedy is subtle and tonally perfect. Bill and Ted introducing “Bob” Ghengis Khan and Socrates “Johnson” to Missy makes me laugh every time. You also have heard the catch phrases born from this movie your entire life, whether or not you’ve seen it. “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K” gets trotted out literally every time something weird happens or you’re not a real American. By the same token, the film’s central philosophy is “be excellent to each other,” and if you need another mantra to live by you’re doing life wrong. It’s that ethos which lends authenticity to the comedy. Bill and Ted doesn’t punch down. It doesn’t punch up. It doesn’t punch anywhere. No punching! It’s a film which asks why we can’t just all be cool and have fun and spend the day at Water Loops, you know? The meanest thing that happens in the movie is when Ted’s little brother ditches Napoleon, because “he’s a dick.” Even then, Napoleon is immediately redeemed because water slides bring the best out of everyone.

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Your stepmom is cute though. Remember when she was a senior and we were freshmen? Missy made me feel things as a kid, you guys.

Obviously Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a cotton candy fantasy which imagines an idealistic, picturesque version of America that has never existed and never will. I made an error above, when I talked about the film’s meanest moment, but that’s indicative of how the real world changes and Bill and Ted’s San Dimas never does. There’s a point in the middle where Bill thinks Ted is dead and he’s totally not. They hug each other, because obviously they’re the best friends to have ever existed and love each other. Then they part and call each other a fag. That was worth a chuckle in 1989 but feels grossly out of place in 2018. The only thing I would say about that is this: if you went into the world of the movie and told Bill and Ted that word bums people out, they would never use it again. I am as certain of that as I am of gravity, because all Bill and Ted want to do is allow people to be happy and love each other. The whole point of Wyld Stallyns is to unite the world under a banner of acceptance and joy and, of course, a deep unabated love of rippin’, shreddin’ guitar solos. Party on, dudes.

Posted in Film, Utopia | Leave a comment

Cress

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Novel * Marissa Meyer * Fairy Tales and Mind Control * 2014

Synopsis

Cress is book three of The Lunar Chronicles, a so-far delightful series of far-future science fiction loosely based on classic fairy tales. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you’re well aware of that fact. Each book in the series introduces a new major character, each one based on a particular fairy tale. The protagonist is a cyborg-mechanic named Cinder. Next up is a sassy young farmer named Scarlet. This book, the longest so far, is named after a tiny-yet-brilliant computer whiz named Cress. She’s based on the Rapunzel story, and so at the beginning of the novel we find her in the sci-fi version of a tower, an orbiting satellite-prison that Cress has been confined in for most of her life. Also, she has extremely long hair, because that’s kind of part of the deal. That’s about as far as the fairy tale parallel goes, because Cress is almost immediately rescued from her satellite-prison, in that it falls out of orbit and crashes to earth. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall any version of the Rapunzel story where the prince rescues her by just knocking the tower over, although if it does exist I would probably really enjoy it.

Since this is the third entry in a series, I’m going to make the assumption that you’ve read the first couple of books or otherwise don’t care about spoilers. I’m also going to assume that you intend to finish the series, because it is good. If you’ve been feeling the tone and overall story, Cress continues to provide what you like. So far, I feel that Scarlet is the weakest of the three main characters, however she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so I don’t see that changing much since she doesn’t get much of a chance to grow as a character. As for the new character, Cress herself, I happen to like her quite a lot. Cinder is still probably the strongest, most well rounded character of the bunch, but again, she’s the actual protagonist so that’s to be expected. Cress, though, is wonderful fun. There are tropey elements to her character, as there are with pretty much everyone here, but as a whole package it makes sense. Actually, and I hesitate to say this, but The Lunar Chronicles are basically anime. The world and premise are outlandish and makes for intriguing science fiction, the characters are a little broad and hew to almost-but-not-quite character tropes. Captain Thorne is your charming rogue with a heart of gold. Cress is the socially awkward waif who becomes formidable in pressure situations. You get it. It’s really not a bad thing.

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The Czech cover, and I don’t know what the red blurry thing is. Like some kind of Ring Pop? Remember Ring Pops? They were gross and made your fingers all sticky. Bleh.

Discussion

Ah, dang it. The first two volumes of this series were there, ready to help me out with ready-made, surprisingly deep discussion questions printed at the end. Cress also has “bonus materials,” but they consist of a sample chapter of some other thing I don’t care about and an interview with the author that I also don’t care about. But wait, I said to myself, desperate to avoid any kind of work, what about the internet? Nah, the only thing I could find was some unofficial book club questions that were extremely limp. Hell, damn, butts. I guess that leaves it all to me. The only problem with this state of affairs is the fact that I’m having trouble coming up with anything, because now all I can think of is how anime these books are. While this is a fun line of thought, mostly because it makes my wife all indignant, it’s also not a particularly fruitful one. Yeah, sure, now I’m picturing everyone with big old honking eyeballs and when things get silly they’ll inexplicably turn into short, squat chibi versions of themselves, but that’s still not particularly engaging. Even if it is fun.

It occurs to me that maybe that’s the issue I’m having. I was misled by the first two novels and their fancy discussion questions. You might not recall, but the analysis level on those things went from trite to Derrida pretty much between questions one and two. Now, I obviously appreciate looking for depth in media. Even when something seems light and frivolous it’s often that way for a reason. There’s still a reflection on the society said product comes from. These books are clearly no exception. I think the issue might be that those original two batches of discussion questions swung for the fences in a way that might have been detrimental to really appreciating what we have in The Lunar Chronicles. As a champion of reading, and more importantly thinking about what you’ve read, I appreciate the attempt. After all, the target demographic of these novels are not dudes with a Master’s degree who are pushing 40. Yes, okay, all books are for everyone, but you know what I mean. These are marketed as young adult novels, and unlike some novels in this space, the tone and language here are decidedly aimed at an audience of teenagers. Therefore, I appreciate whipping some analysis on them when they’re not expecting it. That said, maybe just yelling “what’s the meaning of life, ya doofus?” is not the best way to go about things.

When you’re trying to trick people into thinking about things, you have to be subtle about it. The entry point to any story are the characters, right? Now let’s get to sterotyping! Cress, the titular hero of this third novel, is a severe introvert. Through most of her life, she only really interacts with a few people, and while she has immense technical skill, when it comes to human interaction she’s basically hopeless. Now, as someone who grew up preferring the company of books to the company of my peers, there’s a certain amount of validation and comfort to be found in a character like Cress. I’m going to go way out on a limb and suppose that things haven’t changed all that much since I was a reclusive teenager, and state that your typical bookworm might be inclined toward social awkwardness. Here comes little Cress, then, and she’s clearly an extreme example of this kind of introverted personality. She’s different than most of our reading audience, though. Cress never had a choice. She was locked up at a young age, and her situation, should it be replicated on Earth in our time, would be classified as horrifying child abuse. Considering that, Cress is actually pretty well adjusted. Since we’re dealing with a fairy tale anime, however, we can expect these story elements to skew to the extreme side of things. Cress’ character still appeals to the latent introvert in the book-obsessed, and more to the point, validates that personality.

Cress is rad almost entirely because she’s never once comfortable with herself and yet still manages to push forward. Even in scenes where her technical mastery should distinguish her as extraordinary, Cress is still wracked with insecurity and inadequacy. And yet – and yet! – she doesn’t succumb to self-pity. At least not for any extended period. In this way, Cress is a lot more like Cinder, except that their technical specialties are different, of course. There’s also the matter of Cinder displaying the innate qualities of leadership that Cress obviously lacks, despite the fact that their upbringing was similarly horrible. Cress is quite clearly marked as a severe introvert, while Cinder is not. All the more curious, then, that Cress finds herself drawn to Captain Thorne, and vice-versa. Perhaps it’s not that surprising, given that we’re dealing with a couple attracted to what they are outwardly not. It turns out, the more we learn of these two characters the more we understand that beneath the persona they present to the public, they share many innate qualities. Look, I know none of this is any kind of earth-shattering revelation. But a good story doesn’t need to rewrite the landscape of critical theory, you know? Sometimes simply putting words to how books and stories make us feel is enough.

Posted in Books, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment

Rollerball

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Film * Norman Jewison * Corporate Dystopia Death Sports * 1975

Synopsis

I have to say that I’m fairly disappointed with the murderous kill-sport of rollerball. The film Rollerball also has some issues, but the actual sport depicted is… not particularly murderous? The movie begins cold with an entire game being played between Houston and Madrid. It is very seventies. As far as I can tell, the game is basically roller derby with motorcycles and an oversized ball bearing. Look, I don’t know. There’s a bunch of grown men whipping around on actual factual roller skates, going in literal circles. The track is a wooden ring, with a safe-cage in the middle where the coaches and doctors and benchwarmers hang out during the match. On the outside of the ring is a gutter where the tiny steel bowling ball is shot out of a pneumatic cannon. Some team scoops the ball up, and the other team tries to knock it out of his scoop-glove. The goal is to get the ball in a little ball-alcove in the side of the arena. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of structure – maybe it’s like soccer where there are formations which are fluid – but there are definitely motorcycles. Guys get punched around a bit, but if this movie-opening first game is any indication, the NFL is more violent.

After what feels like a full game of rollerball (it’s actually only like fifteen minutes, but still), the actual movie starts. The concept is actually pretty solid. Rollerball takes place in an indeterminate future, although the aesthetic is exactly 1975. Earth tones are everywhere, and so, so much wood paneling. In this future, all the world’s nations have gone bankrupt leaving corporations to govern society. There are some intriguing allusions to “the corporate wars” sprinkled throughout the opening of the movie, as well as an understanding that for the most part, humanity is content. It seems as if everyone has their basic needs met, and there is no longer the strife and struggle of modern-day living. The sport of Rollerball, then, is a sport of the times. Yeah it’s violent, but it’s all in the good fun of global competition. Besides, the players are all pretty well taken care of. So everyone is happy with the arrangement. The vast majority no longer has to struggle to live, there’s a sick new sport to get into, and all you have to do is abide by whatever management decrees without question.

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“Oh, huh? Movie? Nah, uh, I’m rebelling right now, sorry.” He looks like this through the ENTIRE movie.

It’s that last little bit which becomes the crux of the film. The protagonist is a man named Jonathan E. He’s the best, baddest rollerball player in the world. The best who ever was. Now, I skimmed over some reviews of the movie before writing this, both contemporary and modern, and most of them spoke well of James Caan in the role of our hero. Personally, I found him to be bland as shit. Like he did the movie as a favor to a friend, but not a particularly good friend, and so he just coasted. The whole point of conflict of the film is that old Johnny E is getting to be too big of a star, and therefore is a threat to the whole CEO structure of corporate society. Company leadership then directs him to retire before the season is over, which doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. He wants to know why. Corporate basically says “fuck you, that’s why.” What follows is a whole lot of listless rebellion. By the end of the movie, I’m not even all that sure what the stakes are, or how any of the actions which occur over the course of the story affect society as a whole. Despite some of the intriguing setup and exposition that we get, there seems to be very little in the way of payoff. Unless you consider three extremely long games of Rollerball to be a payoff, in which case Rollerball has you covered.

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You will become intimately acquainted with the sport of Rollerball. Go skate-boys! 

Discussion

The primary issue that Rollerball flirts with while never actually engaging all that deeply with is that freedom. Namely, it’s asking two questions about it. First, and most importantly, is what do we mean when we talk about our “freedom?” The second question kind of depends on the answer to the first, which is how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security, or vice-versa? To its credit, the film actually seems to want to engage with these ideas in between lengthy rollerball scenes. Yet it’s those very same namesake matches which distract from the larger overall state of the world. And yes, James Caan’s lackadaisical approach to the role don’t help matters, but there was little in the way of staking a position in terms of the two above questions. It’s weird because there is an ongoing escalation between the corporate masters and Jonathan’s refusal to retire, which is reflected in the games. Essentially, the managers keep changing the rules to make the game more vicious, with the hope that Jonathan E. will eventually succumb to the rigors of the game. He does not. Jonathan E. triumphs in the end and is the literal last man standing. What is not clear is what, exactly, the dude wins.

From the viewpoint of the average person in the world of Rollerball, life seems pretty good. All basic needs are covered and there doesn’t appear to be any social strife to speak of. It’s explicitly stated that warfare is a thing of the past, and that the “corporate wars” sealed that aspect of human society off forever. Further, most people seem to be perfectly content with the way the world works now. The only catch is pretty simple, if management says to do a thing, you do that thing and don’t ask questions. Despite that seemingly galling stipulation, there doesn’t appear to anything impeding people from doing things they wish to do. So, what is freedom? Is freedom the ability to make your living as comfortable as possible? Or is it the ability to pursue your own desires, regardless of what that might be? Jonathan E. wants to be the best dang rollerballer of all time. This desire conflicts with corporate interests. Old Johnny is going to be all right, when it comes to basic needs. Yet he continues to fight the power and to leverage his power as a global superstar in order to achieve his desire. Why? Well, the movie doesn’t have a great answer for you. It simply doesn’t spend the time outside the rollerball arena to create the necessary social context to provide a strong point of view.

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That’s Moonpie on the right. His mustache has about 300% more personality in this film than the protagonist does.

There is one thing that’s fairly clear given what insight we do get is that most citizens of the Rollerball universe seem fine. Pretty much every other character in the movie spend their time on screen trying to get Jonathan to chill. This seems misguided, because nobody has ever been as chill as Jonathan. Seriously, he’s engaged in this battle of wills with the entire global social order and finishes the movie in a physical duel to the death with a bunch of beefy guys on roller skates and motorcycles, and yet throughout the entire movie he seems like he barely cares how things turn out. Anyway, judging from the actions of the ancillary characters, it appears that humanity is happy trading their definition of freedom for safety and comfort. Johnny just wants his girlfriend back. I guess? Man, who knows. Everyone is so goddamn tepid it’s hard to say. And this is ultimately why Rollerball fails to hit with its premise. Most of the time, when the corporate world order is depicted in fiction, it’s the late-stage capitalist nightmare of ultimate income inequality. That’s not the case here, and the social question is far more subtle. Too subtle, in fact. Since we don’t have the context of what the rest of civilization actually looks like, it’s hard to determine if trading ultimate freedom for ultimate safety is the right call. In the end, Jonathan E. is the last man standing, but what has he won? Not only will we never know, it’s hard to say that we have any reason to care.

Posted in Corporations, Dystopia, Film | Leave a comment

The Eyes of the Dragon

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Novel * Stephen King * Stephen King High Fantasy? * 1987

Synopsis

I haven’t read The Eyes of the Dragon since… I don’t even remember. High school? Earlier? Needless to say it’s been a very long time, and this is only important because I think I read it before my Dark Tower fever set in, and so I kind of forgot about it. Coming back around, after having read the vast majority of King’s output as well as the entire Tower cycle in the meantime, the novel is an anomaly. The Eyes of the Dragon is strange not only because it’s a weird, Tower-adjacent tale, but because it is a genre that Stephen King doesn’t really fuck with, and that’s high fantasy. So that’s odd, but not out of character. After all, with a writer as obscenely prolific as Mr. King, it’s perfectly natural for his interests to swing all over the place, genre-wise. The thing is, King has a very specific, well-honed voice and style that sets him apart from anyone else. When it comes to writing, you don’t have to be a fan to recognize a brilliant craftsman. Anyway, The Eyes of the Dragon is high fantasy, but it’s Stephen King high fantasy, if you can dig that.

If you’re a fan of The Dark Tower series and haven’t read this, well, it’ll mess with you. And it’ll do it right away, so while I get deeper into the connection later on in the article, we should make something clear right away. This is not a Dark Tower story. It is a story which takes place on one of the infinite levels of the Tower, but nothing in this tale really touches on any of the core series in any meaningful way. That said, the novel opens up like a fairy tale: “Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons.” That king’s name is Roland the Good, and shortly after that we learn he has an uneasy advisor, the court magician, Flagg. Right?! The thing is, this book was written in 1984 (for his daughter) and not published widely until 1987. So, after the first Dark Tower novel but before even The Drawing of the Three came about. So, as strange as it may seem to read about a Roland who’s a bowlegged drunk, it probably didn’t register with all that many people when it first appeared. Also, as I mentioned, The Eyes of the Dragon is entirely its own thing. After finishing it, my only real disappointment is that King never revisited the Kingdom of Delain.

The Eyes of the Dragon sits somewhere between the epic high fantasy of Tolkien and a fairy tale. It’s not quite as simplistic as a fable or an actual fairy tale, but then it’s not nearly as detailed and daunting as, say, The Wheel of Time. The novel is briskly paced, there isn’t too much in the way of leaden world-building, and the cast of characters is every bit as well-drawn and compelling as you might expect from Stephen King. The outline of the story is pretty simple. King Roland is in poor health, and soon the kingdom will fall to his elder son, Peter. Flagg, the malicious magician advisor, would prefer the crown go to Peter’s sad, flawed brother, Thomas. As you might imagine, things don’t go terribly well for young Peter. As the story unfolds, we learn a lot about the royal family dynamics – this is primarily a story about characters and less about magical adventures. While that might disappoint some fantasy fans, I found the relationship between the various characters to be fascinating. Especially when concerning poor Thomas, who really didn’t stand much of a chance throughout. Even if the narrative can only end in one way, it’s still a fairy story after all, the journey is well worth the time, if only to get to know these characters.

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 I know it’s unfair to judge a career based on a single role that hasn’t existed in 30 years, but imagine if Bronson Pinchot read every audio book in the Balki voice.

Discussion

Roland the Good isn’t actually that good of a king, but I guess Roland the Mediocre doesn’t have the same ring to it. He clearly wants to go the right thing, but he’s a bit simple. He likes to hunt and drink and that’s about it. Women frighten him, which is a little bit off stereotype for the hedonistic king model, but that’s what makes him intriguing. All in all, he’s weak, and that weakness threatens to undo the solid work of his fathers before him. However, Roland knows quality when he sees it, and he sees it in his son Peter. Unfortunately, he also unwittingly sows discord in his sad son Thomas because that poor son of a bitch was never going to measure up to his older brother. Peter’s character is probably the least interesting of the main characters here, if only because he’s a little too awesome all the time. Most of this he gets from his mother, the kind Queen Sasha who in the end was too smart for her own good and triggered the wrath of Flagg. In due time, the quality that Sasha passed onto her son also put Peter in Flagg’s crosshairs. Of course because Peter is so wonderful and kind and good, he manages to win instant loyalty among a small core of helpers, which eventually gets him sprung from his tower-jail.

Peter, alongside Flagg, is indicative of the fairy-tale aspect of The Eyes of the Dragon. The dude just doesn’t have all that much depth, because he’s supposed to be the pure, moral center of the tale. Peter always does the right thing, and his heart is pure. There is no point where he has a dark thought, and the only point of weakness I can think of is his relationship with his younger brother, Thomas. Even there, it seems like he does all he can. He’s modest and thoughtful and puts other people first. It’s a little much, to be honest. Likewise, Flagg is pure chaotic evil. There’s no point in the story where the reader is made to empathize with him. There’s not a single shade of grey. Flagg doesn’t think he’s doing the right thing. Flagg is simply there to fuck shit up in the most grandiose way possible. These two characters are at the extremes, and are broad oversimplifications of human nature. They’re there to provide a clear moral to the reader. Be like Peter, fear Flagg. If this were an actual fairy tale, the overall plot would be the same, and these two characters would also remain. The major difference would be the rest of cast, who in a fairy tale would be simple cardboard cutouts of humanity.

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Rabbit. Why? Because rabbit, that’s why.

Lucky for us, Stephen King has almost never delivered a flat character in his life. Instead we get dull, listless Roland and the pathetic, tormented Thomas, both of whom add much needed depth to the story. Beyond them, we also have an assortment of ancillary characters who also brim with life. I particularly enjoy moody Peyna and the irrepressible Naomi. To be fair, the latter isn’t as well rounded as either Penya or even Ben, but it’s nice to have at least one woman in the story who’s not immediately murdered. Honestly, this is the main quibble I have with the book, because if King wrote the book for his daughter, why not deliver a kickass princess to save the day? Well, whatever. It should be noted that one of the reasons King excels at character building is his ability to deliver relevant anecdotes about people at appropriate times. It’s in this way that we learn a little more about Penya’s integrity and his loyalty to his servant. By the same token, we are quickly made to see Naomi’s self-assurance and her faith in her good dog, Frisky. The Eyes of the Dragon succeeds due to the depth of the cast of characters here, and you’ll note that I didn’t talk about the plot much. I mean, Flagg frames Peter for regicide and gets him imprisoned in a tower. Peter, an intellectual, escapes via napkin-rope, and saves the day with the help of his friends. The plot is almost an afterthought. What’s important are the people.

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Dragon. Who spends most of his time as a hollow, severed head on a wall.

All Things Serve The Beam

As I noted at the beginning, The Eyes of the Dragon is pretty clearly a story from another level of the Tower. The name of the kingdom is Delain, which is very close to Roland’s surname in the novels, Deschain. Obviously King Roland should raise some eyebrows among fans. What’s fascinating about King Roland is how much he has in common with the badass gunslinger we know the true Roland to be. Roland the Gunslinger isn’t dumb, but his thinking is slow. Painfully so, sometimes. He’s a man of action, after all, and he readily admits that he has trouble “thinking around corners.” Still, Roland the Gunslinger is adept at improvisation, which is key to the situations he finds himself in. Meanwhile, Roland the King was born into a stable, stagnant situation. He had none of the training or trauma that his gunslinger doppelganger went through. Despite that, his one inborn talent is hunting, which lines up nicely. That said, if Roland the Gunslinger was ever confronted with this version of himself, he would be disgusted. Meanwhile, Flagg is Flagg is Flagg. This version of King’s ur-villain is less giddy than other incantations, but is still the same chaotic evil monster as represented in The Stand and as Walter in the Dark Tower novels.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Film * Rian Johnson * And Like the Second Empire * 2017

Synopsis

If I recall correctly, this is the one the die-hard Star Wars fans hate. I went into watching this movie with the knowledge of fan backlash in the back of my head, curious as to what they were all pissed off about. Well, I watched the film hot off watching The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and it’s like… The Last Jedi is clearly in the same wheelhouse. As a lapsed fan who hasn’t had much of a relationship with the franchise in about a decade, I find myself enjoying these new movies. As I noted in the article for The Force Awakens, however, it’s a relatively superficial enjoyment. It’s the kind of mild thumbs up reserved for Marvel movies or any kind of other big-budget adventure flick. I’ll dig into some of the more specific arguments I’ve heard as to why The Last Jedi is bad after the break, but suffice to say if your expectations are in line with what Star Wars actually is, and always has been, then you’ll have a good time. The spectacle on display here is unparalleled. Some of the set pieces in this thing are, whew, impressive. I still enjoy these characters, and the new additions are fine as well.

Taking a wide view, the plot of The Last Jedi is a little loose. After the events of The Force Awakens, our primary characters are kind of all over the place. Rey is off trying to recruit Old Man Luke Skywalker to the cause, and is having trouble because Luke has turned into Yoda, basically. Meanwhile, Finn is coming to terms with his instinct to run the fuck away as quickly as possible but eventually runs into a new character, Rose, who manages to ground him. Poe, the reckless, cocky pilot, gets into some trouble and spends most of the film being insubordinate and kind of obnoxious. As for the bad guys, Kylo Ren is getting into a Vader-Emperor power struggle with the new fake Emperor, Snope. Much of the film is dedicated to playing Ren and Rey against each other, and for the most part it works. Ren is emo as hell, and Rey is extremely earnest, but I enjoy their screen time together. There is a believable tension between the two, and all the young actors inject their roles with a vigor and liveliness which is totally absent from the prequel trilogy.

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Ugh, youths are the worst.

All that said, The Last Jedi probably doesn’t need to be two and a half hours long. There’s plenty of opportunities to trim from a film that ends up being a touch bloated. Of course, you can take that with a grain of salt because I start getting impatient with any movie that’s over 90 minutes long. Still, the centerpiece of the action here is the First Order slowly, very slowly, hunting down the last remnant of the Resistance. Everything else that happens occurs with that doomsday countdown clock ticking overhead. I get that the slow encroachment of the First Order on the very last bit of resistance is supposed to add tension, but what with the story playing fast and loose with faster-than-light travel, that clock feels rather trivial. If you can up and travel to distant planetary systems and back in a few hours, well, you’re opening up all kinds of plot inconsistencies for Star Wars turbo-nerds to get needlessly bent out of shape about. None of these things really gets in the way of what Star Wars is, which is a rollicking big space-fantasy adventure. If your expectations are along those lines, they’ll be met. The Last Jedi is fun, and that’s all it needs to be.

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I like promo shots. “Look stern. Sterner. Hey, buddy, you still look confused. We’re going for menacing. Menacinger. Oh whatever, it’s fine.”

Discussion

Alas, being fun isn’t enough for the superfans. It never is. It’s what happens when you lionize something over years and years and are then confronted with the bare truth of the matter. It happens, it’s a process. The prequel trilogy laid bare for me how Star Wars works, what the movies were actually doing. I mean, the original trilogy was a big deal to me when I was a kid, but I was also not known for my astute cultural analysis when I was eight. I had a little bit more experience and education under my belt when the prequels came out, but even then they were no match for my nostalgia. Because make no mistake, I loved those prequel movies when they came out. I fully got swept up into the hype machine, because I was in my early 20’s and was experiencing my first real wave of nostalgia for my childhood. So when Yoda busts out his tiny lightsaber and starts hopping around like a meth’d out grasshopper, I was into it. For a while. But at some point I watched those movies in the cold light of day, after the rush of opening day hype and reveling in the wider universe for a while. What was left were three below-average movies that traded in spectacle and forgot how to craft broad, tropey characters so that they weren’t so obviously two dimensional. Even worse, those prequel movies exposed the fairly obvious flaws of the original trilogy.

It took a long time to come back around and enjoy Star Wars again. I’m never going to feel that wave of opening night excitement for it again, because that time has passed for me. I don’t even want it, to be honest, because I’m pushing forty and going outside always sounds like a hassle. All that said, when I read through internet threads where the fans are upset at The Last Jedi, I’m mostly seeing arguments that translate to people being sad and/or angry that they’ve finally seen beyond the curtain. In the interest of fairness, I will now bring up some of the most common online reasoning as to why The Last Jedi is the worst thing that’s ever been made in the known universe. I’m trying to do my best when it comes to building my strawman here, and so most of these issues with the film are from actual threads in the usual places, like reddit. Scorned Star Wars fans are not shy, y’all. So here we go.

  1. Jokes! There’s too many stupid/unfunny/pointless jokey-jokes in The Last Jedi. It messes up the tension of the plot and makes the overall tone of the movie uneven.

First of all, humor is subjective. You might not think Poe’s borderline postmodern quipping is funny, but I liked it. The humor of the new Star Wars movies crib a lot from the Marvel universe, of course, and I think that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I get it. The weird thing about Marvel-movie humor is that it generally fits the tone and character of the movie, but is rarely memorable outside the movie. Nobody is running around quoting Iron Man lines as if it’s The Princess Bride, you know? That said, the humor in this movie beats the shit out of the clownshow that was Jar-Jar Binks. And don’t even get me started on that fucker C3PO. There’s always been goofy shit in Star Wars. Ewoks exist, after all. We’re marketing toys for children here, people.

  1. Luke wouldn’t be like that! In fact, most of the recognizable characters do not act in ways that the audience expect. They have established traits form the first movie and The Last Jedi throws that all away.

I mean, Luke has always been a hotheaded, whiny baby, right? Was I watching the same movies? Of course he shows growth over the original three movies, but he’s still generally impatient and a little too eager to overcompensate for his own insecurities. A successful character arc doesn’t mean that a character overcomes all of their flaws, after all. Besides, we’ve been completely out of touch with all these characters for 30 years, and a lot has happened, most of which we’ll never know. For the most part, the primary old guard characters seem true to their younger counterparts. Nothing seemed like a reach. Luke failed, spectacularly, and the ability to use that failure to run away and sulk has been in his character from the beginning. So was his ability to overcome that eventually and be the hero.

  1. The plot is a mess. What was the point of the whole casino-planet side story? There are established elements of the story which are internally inconsistent, like how light speed works. Also, they basically steal like half the plot from the first three movies.

I will readily concede that the plot is the weakest aspect of The Last Jedi. I get what they were going for, but I don’t think they exactly nailed the execution. That said, the choices were made for a reason. The casino bit, while too long and too disconnected from the main story, still served a purpose. One, it gave Finn and Rose something to do, and more importantly gave that relationship an opportunity to mean something. Two, it’s our only real opportunity to see a planet outside of the immediate conflict areas. It’s a look at normalcy under the First Order, and this underscores the movie’s theme, which is that the real rebellion hasn’t even started yet. That’s why the very ending of the film is a shot of those little rebel kids. As for the rest of the plot, I guess I just don’t get worked up about the details anymore. I mean, it’s a fantasy-adventure movie that has never bothered to learn what a parsec is. Who am I to tell them that they can’t warp into the middle of their attack cluster? Finally, while there are definitely recurring themes and plot elements in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi that were present in the original trilogy, I find that they’re used to ground the new stories in what audiences are familiar with rather than just being lazy.

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If I can’t have Poe-Finn because of your heteronormative squeamishness, then Rose-Finn will have to do. 

Those seem to be the big ones. People hate on Rose, but I liked her. I suppose that’s just a subjective thing. I’m sure there’s a million other little quibbles to be had – I’m not sitting here trying to defend these as the greatest movies of all time or anything. I’m also not trying to completely dismiss the above criticisms. I just think it’s useful to look at them in context of not only other Star Wars movies, but other movies of this type. These are big, broad, blockbuster movies and are constructed as such. When these kind of films are good, they’re not only entertaining but retain a simple core an audience can hold onto. The Fast and the Furious movies are fun and dumb as shit, but they’re also movies about the meaning of family and drinking Coronas, so we can all relate. When these kind of movies are bad, they’re just a cacophony of noise devoid of humanity, like the Transformers movies. Star Wars is, and has always been, a giant spectacle with a simple core of humanity. Sure there is the suggestion of a wider world, filled with an infinite amount of characters and stories, but at least insofar as the movies are concerned, it’s only ever suggestion. At their heart, all Star Wars needs to do is present its fantastic universe and give us some characters worth caring about, in the broadest possible sense. To that end, I think The Last Jedi succeeds in its purpose.

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Moby Dick

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Novel * Herman Melville * White Whale, Holy Grail * 1851

Synopsis

When I was in grad school I took a course in 19th century American literature, the idea being to become more familiar with what was going on in books before Modernism. Looking over my syllabus, I was alarmed to see one of the quarter’s assignments was Moby Dick. This wasn’t alarming because it’s a long, difficult book – it’s graduate school, there’s no shortage of excessive reading assignments. No, it alarmed me because I had tried to read Moby Dick on three separate occasions before that and had only ever managed maybe a hundred pages or so before quitting in a rage. Whatever, though, the cagey grad school student knows how to skirt around onerous reading assignments, so I dipped around in the text and got what I needed, but that made four attempts at this book and four failures. While that didn’t surprise me, the attitude of one of my cohort did. She fucking loved Moby Dick, to the point of reading it annually. She was excited to read it for class because, well, she was going to do it anyway. I couldn’t understand the appeal. I still don’t, despite the fact that, at long last, I finally managed to stick a harpoon in this fucker and finish it.

The reason I don’t understand the appeal should be obvious to anyone who has tried to read it. Herman Melville doesn’t make it easy. He’s not writing for your enjoyment, or your enlightenment, or for you at all. I’m not actually sure what he’s doing, or why, because the novel itself is so strangely composed it’s difficult to get a proper handle on it. It’s a novel, yes, but there are so many tangents which go in so many different directions to so many different purposes it’s hard to call it coherent story. The narrative, strictly speaking, is easy to wrap your head around. I’m willing to bet most people could sketch a quick outline for you, simply through a century and a half of cultural osmosis. There’s a whaling ship captain named Ahab. He’s real mad at this massive, aggressive white whale which ate his leg. He gets his crew together and chases it. They catch up to it, and Moby Dick wrecks his ship all up and nearly everyone dies. If you’re bummed I just spoiled a 167 year old novel for you, sorry. Still, that’s the extent of what happens in this novel. The actual story is not the point.

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No wonder that whale is so hard to bring down. It flies and also breathes fire.

If Melville had an actual editor, who meticulously went through the text and excised all the extraneous material from the book which has nothing to do with the journey of the Pequod and her crew, Moby Dick would be a hundred page long novella. The other four hundred some-odd pages are story adjacent, maybe, as most of them concern whales in some way. One thing you should definitely be prepared for is the sheer volume of whale-talk. Inaccurate whale-talk. It can be tough, sometimes, as an enlightened citizen of the 21st century reading a long, scientific passage which outlines the whale’s warm blood and lungs, only to have Melville accept all that and still come to the conclusion that the whale is still a fish. Why? Well, because the Bible says so, and also he knew an old whaling captain back in Nantucket who’d be pissed if you called a whale anything other than a fish. And then Melville keeps going. Just on and on and on about various kinds of whales and what the different aspects of the whaling ship are for and how they hunt the whale and what they do with it when they kill one, in excruciating detail, to the point where Moby Dick is more a 19th century documentary about the whaling industry than anything else.

It’s for this reason that it’s hard for a modern reader to really get a grasp on the novel. I’m probably better equipped than most to deal with this fucking thing, and I’m at something of a loss. Now when it comes to literary analysis, I’ve never focused terribly hard on overt symbolism, which probably doesn’t help considering that this is a famous symbolist novel. Yet even knowing that, it’s difficult to discern what is important and what is not. Because quite frankly, most of the novel is supercilious in tone while being superfluous to the story being told. And if you enjoyed those two words, maybe Moby Dick is for you. All that said, I think there is still value here. There were times I was transported to the deck of the Pequod and was feeling the nautical vibe of the whaling adventure. There were times I was in awe of Ahab’s monomaniacal force of will. There are scenes of humor and metaphysical transcendentalism which border on inspiring. That’s all here, but you really do have to work for it.

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I always enjoy an effective minimalist cover, although the whale looks fairly nonplussed, considering.

Discussion

Over the course of writing these articles, I generally try to take a more casual approach which hopefully serves to appeal to an audience that maybe didn’t pay that much attention in English class while still affecting some amount of depth than might still appeal to those who did. To this end, I almost never use secondary sources when discussing a work. It’s my general preference, here, to take a more direct, personal approach with the media I’m discussing. However, sometimes a text will be so far out of my area of expertise, it’s really in my best interest to look elsewhere for help. In the case of Moby Dick, I am way out of my depth. One nice thing about academic forums is that you quickly learn that there’s no shame in leaning on the established criticism of a text in order to help form your own point of view. Especially with canonical works like this. In this instance, my edition of Moby Dick has some excerpts of critical essays which will hopefully help me elucidate just what in the hell I just read. As it happens, my boy D.H. Lawrence has my back. I’m going to pull a quote or two, and that should see us through.

The following are taken from Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature:

“Moby-Dick, or the White Whale.

A hunt. The last great hunt.

For what?

For Moby-Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.

Of course he is a symbol.

Of what?

I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.”

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I dunno, maybe stop jamming sharp sticks in its eyeball and it’ll stop eating you.

Okay, well that’s how the article begins and so far, Mr. D.H. Lawrence, you’re not exactly helping out, although I appreciate the unorthodox structure of your criticism. He goes on to talk a little bit about the whale before circling back and just trashing Herman Melville. Trust me when I tell you that nothing gives the researcher more secret pleasure than going through old criticism and reading the cattiest, rudest statements leveled at canonical masters by other canonical masters. It’s a nice reminder that even geniuses are human. Anyway, here’s Lawrence being a bit of a bitch (which, to be fair, was kind of his default mode).

“At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won’t do.

And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it’s not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.

Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby-Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself. And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.”

Lawrence is such a mean girl. Anyway, as you might expect I felt a wave of vindication reading this passage because I thought most of those same thoughts, if in slightly more vulgar parlance. The prose really is just ponderous and monotonous. And Ishmael, the ostensible narrator, never, ever feels like a proper character. He has no agency, no interior life. He’s a Melville analogue who is there to tell you everything you never wanted to know about the whaling industry in and around Nantucket in the mid-19th century. And he has some very hard opinions about that time and place. Moby Dick, in many areas, is an insecure justification of the American point of view. Not just Manifest Destiny, but total dominion over the very ocean and the Leviathans within. One of the didactic side-chapters is about the question of over-hunting, and Melville acknowledges that while humans can and have overhunted species before, whales can’t go extinct because they’re so big. I guess? The chapter ended up being a dismissal because the conservationist point of view (which didn’t really exist at that time) conflicts with the entrenched, salt-encrusted traditions of the American whaler. Lawrence has some things to say about Americans.

“It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt offering to this savage’s little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk hat sits correctly over his brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never come off.”

That’s… pretty accurate. As a nation we’ve never been terribly put off doing the most insane things while still wrapping ourselves in a cloak of innocent righteousness. Yeah yeah, we’re genociding the bejeezus out of these dang Indians, but we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do! Sure, we’ve built an entire industrial economy on the back of involuntary labor in the South, but the slaves have Jesus now so really we did them a favor. Nor is it all negative, although the ethical armor is used to protect us from blame more often than not. Even whaling, which I expect most people to be against in this day and age, is something of a wonderment. Pre-industrial ships setting out for years at a time and harvesting the largest animals on earth like it ain’t no thing? That’s impressive. Possibly just as impressive is a Quaker captain like Ahab convincing a thoroughly diverse crowd of men to do his bidding, despite the insanity of it. Okay, one more Lawrence quote to finish out, so we can get an idea of what the hell Moby Dick is supposed to mean.

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The guy in the hat doesn’t even look bummed. He’s just like, yep, I sort of figured this was how it was gonna go.

“So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equaled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.

The terrible fatality.

Fatality.

Doom.

Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!

Doom of what?

Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. Doom of our white day.”

I’m gonna sing the doom song now! D.H. Lawrence goes on for a bit with the doom talk, but that’s rather the gist of it. Moby Dick, for Lawrence, is the reckoning of civilization, which is represented by the Pequod. The Pequod, which is the finely crafted, civilized ship of America, is doomed. It is doomed to utter destruction by the chaotic vagrancies of the natural world. This attitude is a refrain from Lawrence’s literature, of course. He was as anti-industrialism as they come. He saw the breakneck technological pace of the late 19th century and the early 20th century as a portent of civilization rushing to its own destruction. That the extermination of the natural world would be the extermination of the human race. Or, at the very least, the “white race” as depicted by the Pequod. Considering that my site has the world “apocalypse” in it, you will not be surprised that I am perfectly happy with this conclusion. More doom more better, as nobody says but should. That said, Moby Dick, as a work of unfettered symbolism, can mean pretty much anything the reader wants it to mean. The text is there to be used as evidence of your interpretation. Personally, I’m fine with Lawrence’s evaluation. And now I can finally stop thinking about Moby Dick. Thanks, D.H.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Film * J.J. Abrams * Totally not the Empire Again * 2015

Synopsis

Well good job, Rogue One, you went and made me watch the rest of the new movies. I held out for a long time, for reasons stated in other articles, but here we are and it turns out, Star Wars is still all right. As a lapsed fan, I’ve come around, and can now enjoy these movies for what they are. And what are they? They’re bright and flashy action-adventure movies set in an iconic universe which is as deep or as shallow as your imagination wants it to be. That’s what Star Wars has always been. I’m not sure it counts as an epiphany or revelation, and I’ll definitely get into it a bit more when I defend The Last Jedi, but I’ve come to understand what is appealing about Star Wars in general. When I was a kid, it was a fertile universe for my imagination. In my twenties, when the prequels were hitting, it was my first real blast of nostalgia. Now, an uncomfortable amount of years later, they’re just fun movies I don’t have to spend too much time thinking about. The set pieces are cutting edge and amazing, like they always have been. The characters are broadly drawn but compelling, just like they always have been. The tone is fairly light, just it always has been. Turns out, J.J. Abrams has a pretty good idea of what is appealing about Star Wars. He certainly has a better handle on it than why people enjoy Star Trek.

So, The Force Awakens, three years later. Personally, I liked Rogue One better, because it felt newer than this film, which deliberately draws parallels to the original trilogy in order to smooth over any residual bitterness left over from the prequel trilogy. Damn there’s a lot of these fucking movies. This franchise is endless. Anyway, I still like the movie. Better than A New Hope, even, which might sound like blasphemy, but The Force Awakens gets off to a better start. Plus we already know about the universe and the major players in it, we’re familiar with the history, so it doesn’t have to do any of the legwork that first film had to do. Of course, there’s still some groundwork which needs to be laid down. There’s exposition needed to help us understand what’s been going on since 1983, or whatever the equivalent date system is in the Star Wars universe. Even more importantly, we’ve got these new characters to deal with.

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That droid could buy you so many power converters.

It’s a good thing that the new additions are all great characters. Actually, allow me to rephrase that. The new additions are great Star Wars characters. That’s not intended as in insult, either, because Star Wars is a particular kind of story. Star Wars characters need to be broadly drawn – heroes or villains or scoundrels – while at the same time retaining a relatable humanity about them an audience can connect with. They need to have a clear background, but we can’t spend a million years dwelling on that background. They need to have a clear motivation and a clear goal, even if that goal is little other than “save the day” or “ruin everyone’s shit all up.” So here comes our new characters. Our primary hero is Rey, an otherwise unassuming young scavenger who spends her days trying to survive while patiently waiting for… something or someone to come back to her. Our primary villain is Kylo Ren, who really wants to be as rad as Darth Vader and never will be. We got our hotshot pilot, Poe, who has problems with authority and an extremely marketable droid, BB-8. There’s also Finn, a stormtrooper with a heart of gold who would like nothing more than to get away from the not-Empire, the First Order. Okay, let’s get into it.

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And here, with Finn and Poe, we have the true beating heart of the entire story. Poor BB-8, looking all forlorn, knowing Poe is lost.

Discussion

The opening of The Force Awakens gives off some heavy New Hope vibes, and I’m sure this is a deliberate choice to ease old fans back into the groove of the original trilogy. I mean, we’ve got an adorable droid who has a top secret message and a scuzzy desert backwater town featuring exactly one redeemable human being who also happens to be our hero. That said, there are additions and layers and callbacks present which successfully differentiate from the previous movies. Finn in particular is an excellent addition to the formula. For whatever reason, his stromtrooper conditioning didn’t work and he grew a conscience and an individual personality. When it comes time to slaughter innocent civilians, as a stormtrooper is wont to do, he refuses. Shortly thereafter, he takes the first opportunity to hitch a ride with Poe to get the hell up out of Dodge. When that goes bad, he hitches his wagon to Rey, who has her own issues she’s working with. This is all 400% more tolerable than whiny-baby Luke in A New Hope, by the way. Rey and Finn have no discernable relationship with previous characters, but both are still established here with these early interactions. Finn is conflicted between wanting to run the fuck away and the desire to do right. Likewise, Rey is a hopeless romantic who keeps herself going with the fantasy that her parents are going to return to her and is faced with the chance to make a difference. Honestly, we don’t need a whole lot more going forward, you know?

The Force Awakens is still a sequel, however, and so it’s not too terribly long before old characters show up and start giving us some exposition to fill in the 32 years which have passed since the Empire expired in Return of the Jedi. It apparently didn’t take too long for a new baddie to show up, even though the movies don’t really get into the origins of Sith-Gollum, or whatever the hell Snoke is supposed to be. So while the Empire may have been defeated, here comes the First Order with pretty much the exact same infrastructure and a weird planet-gun what shoots star-juice and can explode planets up just like the Death Star but like, bigger. That’s all… a little disappointing. Still, Kylo Ren manages to redeem some of the menace I personally didn’t feel much with the New Order. He’s the son of Han and Leia, and is an extremely powerful Force user. Unfortunately, he’s pretty well tipped over the Dark Side, which is a bummer for the various heroes. Probably the best thing the movie does with him is to successfully set up his massive inferiority complex. Of course nothing these new films could come up with will ever be as iconic and awesome as Darth Vader. It’s impossible. So here comes Kylo Ren, with a lame helmet and dopey outfit, and of course he’s trying as hard as he can to be as cool as his grandfather. And of course he never will be.

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Rey is awesome, and Kylo Ren’s lightsaber still looks stupid.

The point of The Force Awakens is to thwart the First Order by tracking down Luke Skywalker and getting him to unleash his sick Jedi powers to save the day. The beach ball droid has the missing bit of map, which will serve to point the way to where Luke has been holed up for years. The reasons Luke bailed are explained in greater depth in the next movie, but suffice to say he’s gone Yoda. After the climactic confrontation between Ren and Rey (Star Wars names will never cease to be the actual worst), Rey takes off to go find Luke and get her Empire Strikes Back training montage on. Meanwhile, Han Solo is dead, thanks to a reverse Vader-Luke situation in which the son dispatches the father. Like quite a lot of The Force Awakens, there are echoes and reverberations of the original trilogy in this scene, and therefore it doesn’t hit as hard. That said, I don’t know that it needs to. You’re never going to regain what Star Wars was when it was new. It’s like Kylo Ren trying to be Darth Vader, it’s never going to happen. Nor should it. These movies can succeed on their own terms as lighthearted action-adventure movies, which The Force Awakens, at least, does.

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