The Mess of Skywalker: Too Many Sith on the Dance Floor

The Mess of Skywalker: Too Many Sith on the Dance Floor

I don’t give a man’s ass if you care about the spoilers I’m about to unload on you for Star Wars EP IX: The Rise of Skywalker because that movie is some hot dogshit.

First, let me make something clear. There are a lot of reasons why this movie doesn’t work but the performances were not one of them. Everyone did a pretty stellar job turning in performances for a bat-shit crazy script. Also, I’m not trying to attack the film the same way a rabid Star Wars fan would because the movie “messed up the lore.” Naw, I want to take a look at the script and talk about the problems of its narrative– and since this will be the last post of the decade, and since the problems I noticed are indicative of some troubling cinematic trends of the 2010s, this’ll also serve as a quaint little retrospective. SO. What went wrong with the Rise of Skywalker? 

Let’s start with the fact that it has four credited screenwriters, including the director JJ Abrams. I’ve talked before of how a showrunner requires a writer’s room in order to produce a quality show, else be cast the fate of True Detective: Season 2. But cinematic screenplays seem to suffer under the weight of too much influence. We saw this in 2015’s Jurassic World (totaling 5 credits for the screenplay). That final product we saw nearly five years ago was a patchwork of unrelated threads and tangents presented as if it should make any linear sense but was simply a sequence of vignettes loosely tied to the franchise’s conceit.

The Rise of Skywalker might be worse in this regard, the first two acts seemingly jumping around from five-second scene to the next five-second scene at such a dizzying rate that it felt as if I watch watching a music video than the world’s most successful movie this year. One suspects that one of the culprits was having spread the writing duties too thin across four people and then having to fold everything into something resembling a story. Writing is generally a solitary craft for this reason–or an extremely intimate one between a trusted collaborator– as it is hard to telegraph a singular vision of a story to even one other person before it’s finished. Imagine that problem multiplied three more times and the screenplay’s lack of communication within itself makes sense– even if the script doesn’t.

Some of these issues, however, could have been fixed with heavy revisions that would have required condensing smaller portions of the film into one. The afore-mentioned five-second scenes are largely in place to exposit where the team was heading in the next scene. There are just too many goddamn locations in this film. They go to Pasaana, they go to Kim Chi (I know that’s not the name, I’m not looking it up!), they go to Kef Bir, the rebel base is in a forest somewhere, Rey goes back to  Ahch-To and Tatooine at certain points, but the final act all happens around Exegol. That’s not even including the set pieces of the Star Destroyer(s). There’s no space to breathe when the story is always pushed to the next set. Abrams, perhaps, wanted to send off the trilogy with a tour of yet unexplored planets– or more likely, the four screenwriters fucked up and wrote in too many locations separately and merged all of these together. The obvious fix is to nix a planet, but the way the scenes seem to be arranged, and it barely made sense then, taking out any more of the story would fell this tensile house of cards.

Too many locations were behind another colossal disappointment of the decade, the should-have-been-great 007 feature Spectre which boasts a whopping 158 filming locations. Compared to the also-bloated-but-more-reasonable 51 of Skyfall and you can perhaps see where I’m going with this. When every scene is just a setup to get the next setup, there’s no basis to ground the audience. I can’t tell you what the hell happened in that movie because, as it was also a final installment of sorts, most of it was a marathon run of Bond doing “cool things” in “cool locations” and the value of any of those actions was entirely lost on me. Likewise, Rise falls into the same trap (although the filming was done almost entirely on green screens) taking place in too many locations to the point where it felt as if it didn’t take place anywhere. We got shown a weird alien version of Burning Man, only to get whisked away by Lando to get fed some exposition, leading to the next truncated action scene to find one of…

Too many MacGuffins. In other words, there are too many objectives. The dagger makes no logical fucking sense. The victory of finding the second wayfinder (for all of the dumb Star Wars bullshit names for stuff, an old nautical term for this magic GPS was a kick in the dick) was immediately nullified. Finn and whatshername crossing the waves to reach Rey, also rendered meaningless. Finn heading towards the control tower, also pointless. In this fuckin’ Star Wars movie, in addition to finding a 20-year old blade that belongs in the Goonies and enchanted map prisms, the gang has to hack into C3P0’s mainframe (the tears spent on his lost memory lasts about fifteen minutes before it’s restored), save Chewbacca from the bad guys (the pangs from his percieved death lasts 13 seconds), repair the Falcon, save Ben’s soul from the Dark Side and ON and ON and FUCK. It is the cinematic equivalent to watching a child play with action figures, endlessly explaining “and then…” but with million-dollar sets. How can you convincingly express a character’s motivation if they are narratively motivated to find 13 different things? Speaking of which.

The erratic character motivations are a symptom of too many fuckin’ characters. The character of Finn has to respond to Rey, New Han Solo, Rose, New Girl-Who-Used-to-be-a-Stormtrooper. A lot’s been made of the fact that Rose’s character has essentially been benched, and the explanation was one of cutting scenes to make the movie fit into two hours and 35 minutes (UGH), but really, when you decide to make a trilogy centering around four principal characters (Rey, Kylo, Finn, New-Han-Solo) and you give each of them five other characters to interact with, it’s going to be messy. What the hell does Finn want? We don’t know, other than he has something really important to tell Rey, which was apparently not “let’s bang” but instead “I”m force-sensitive” which is just… you fuckers… it’s just unnecessary (especially since it was only explained via a panel interview with Abrams).

We don’t really know what Rey wants, either. She just bounces from A to B. We know that she’s afraid of succumbing to the Dark Side, but there’s been nothing in the previous two films to indicate that she ever would. So. Who gives a shit? But probably the most egregious case of this is when homeboy Abrams introduces MORE GODDAMN characters and they behave like fuckin’ nonsense puppets. The bounty hunter chick that New Han So-Poe used to shuffle uglies with goes from “I can turn you in for a bounty” to “Just between you and me, I think you’re pretty OK,” in SECONDS. Then, she asks Poe to run away with her, lascivious eyes and all, and when he declines the offer, she gives him the thing that she was going to use to escape. Regardless of HOW she escaped without that medal (another macguffin? kinda? one that we didn’t know they needed?) homegirl shows back up with the weird monkey Gremlin to help save the day and in a closing scene (that I actually liked) rebuffs the suggested make-out session implied by Poe’s expression. That scene worked in that moment but not the larger context of any sense of consistency. It was funny, unexpected, and a light little bow to put on that charact– WASN’T SHE GOING TO RUN AWAY WITH THE DUDE EARLIER THAT SAME DAY?! What the fuck does Kylo want? To turn Rey into his goth girlfriend? Is that it? Fuckin’ APPARENTLY. Who the fuck is that weird yellow alien with dicks hanging from his face? Why is he there? What’s his fuckin’ deal? (After a google search of “yellow dick alien slug” I found that he is A MECHANIC WITH NO DISCERNABLE ARMS FUCK YOU) Aren’t the Knights of Ren trained Jedi under Luke Skywalker who followed Ren to the dark side? Wouldn’t that have been an interesting moment if they allowed a moment’s breath to reflect on the fact that RenBen had to kill his old friends to save his new one? No? The only motivation that was clear was General Hux’s double-cross, because it was set up previously that he despised the direction that Kylo-Ren was taking his Order but that subplot was treated so flippantly that I barely remembered it before looking at a plot summary. Yes, the side-lining of Rose is indicative of shitty Hollywood trend to appease the toxic opinions of redpill redditors, but the tragedy of narrative here is that every character was sidelined and their stories were diminished into oblivion.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t do some things right. The final third of the movie, at least the bits of RenBen and Rey-Bae, was genuinely interesting as the movie slowed down around them to face each other on the fallen death star. One setting, two characters, strong emotions. That was good. It was also almost good when they combined forces to face Palpatine. Almost. It didn’t bother me all that much that Darth Sidious had been resurrected by old sith magic (blah blah the force and forbidden sciences, cool). But that fucker is a font of unnecessary explication to justify the existence of this trilogy without ever actually explaining anything. He created Snoke? The fuck for? You want to kill Rey? Or Kylo? Why? Oh, ReyBae and RenBen are a diad in the force? Is that just a cool word you learned? Why? And more importantly… who gives a shit? Is it so Palpatine can restore his powers? He didn’t know about their diad. But then he does restore himself using their force power. Couldn’t he have done that… with… anybody? What the fuck is going on? Half that diad is thrown out of the battle immediately so… goddammit, why are you telling me all of this, you shitty fucking movie?!

The gripe here isn’t necessarily about the lore here, but just that the lore doesn’t matter. It isn’t relevant beyond a single scene and the scenes themselves, even the kinda-good ones, we’ve seen before. Essentially, there are too many new ideas to explain too many rehashed plotlines. Force healing is now a thing. So is cloning, and necromancy. There are so many new concepts introduced in this final chapter that the characters themselves, in an eye-rolling fourth-wall-breaking piece of dialogue call it out (“They FLY now?!”) It might have been different if any of the new concepts were introduced in EP VII or VIII, but we’re being told everything in the same movie in which Lando Calrissian shoots a stormtrooper with a bow and arrow. It’s not that great art can’t be told with the seat-of-your-pants, let’s-make-shit-up-as-we-go-along approach (Star Wars Episodes 4-6 is guilty of the same bullshit), it’s that as the final episode of this trilogy, it culminates to nothing. If Episode VII was guilty of rehashing the plot of A New Hope, then Rise is a pale imitation of Return of the Jedi shrouded in a bunch of gimmicky space religion gibberish to make it feel different enough. Where this should have resonated with the previous final chapters (III: Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side; VI: Luke stays to the light, Anakin redeems himself) the closing chapter to the third trilogy gives us a dual-win for the light side– ReyBae stays to the light, BenBen sacrifices himself to renounce the dark. That’s nothing new, but sure, it might’ve been a fitting end. It just seems so unearned, despite RenBen’s death, as so much of this movie is up its own ass in telling us why the nonsensical rules of this movie are more important than the two before it to justify taking the big bad from the first six movies and posturing him as the ultimate retcon villain. (See Star Wars and the Art of Derivation for more on how deriving art from previous installments leads to an ouroboros of self-fellating bullshit)

He would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for you lousy Skywalkers*.

Much like the disappointing truncated 8th season of Game of Thrones, this movie would have benefitted from either a split release or another year in pre-production script development with writers who understood that less is more and that 2.5 hours is more than enough to evince a complete story. My guess with Game of Thrones, was that the writers and producers wanted to move on to newer projects and the care that they had treated the series up until the final (two) seasons must have felt like a yoke around their necks and wished to tidy things up as quickly as possible. The story arcs that had been cultivated for years were suddenly dashed and resolved in perpendicular character turns, mystifying audiences for the sake of cheap double ironies. With Rise, my guess is that there was too much pressure to release it this decade. It is, after all, a story of resisting fascism and the last in the franchise to be released before the 2020 election at the end of a decade that has fallen from hope to dystopia in ten quick years.

With the Orig Trig (as all of the guys who get hella laid refer to it as), there was an emphasis in George Lucas’s interviews about the importance of adhering to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. A lot of this is horseshit coming from Lucas’s mouth, as we owe his wife of the time a great debt in editing what was otherwise an unmanagable movie, and his mentor who infused Empire with genius storytelling techniques. Yet, the focus on making mythic storytelling accessible to wide audiences was part of what made those movies endure the tests of time. Rise of Skywalker is also a space-opera about Good v Evil and the battle within the soul between those two extremes, yet it isn’t accessible to anyone. To (again) use Dan Harmon’s simplification of the Hero’s Journey: A character wants something, they get it but at a cost, they return to the status quo, having now changed. Because so much of the screentime is dedicated to fan-service, disjointed scenes between a bloated cast of characters, and a directorial pissing contest, the journey the audience goes on is incomprehensible. Yes, the heroes go on a journey and achieve the ultimate goal of peace in the galaxy but the costs of that achievement were cheap. (Also who galvanized a fleet of your average pilot? They Field-of-Dreamsed that whole subplot, fuck’s sake). Yes, Leia sacrifices herself for the narrative convenience of writing herself out of the rest of the script and yes, RenBen sacrifices himself to bring Rey back to life (which was a pretty good moment, to be H) but when Rey rejoins Han So-Po and Finn, they share an awkward three-way hug and Chewie gets a medal. It seems more like a perfunctory obligation to see them all together again, instead of catharsis, or showing any changed chemistry of their relationships. The film doesn’t linger, almost thankfully, as it transitions to the imitation of a final ending as Rey buries the Skywalker sabers outside the Tatooine moisture farm. As an orphan who once collected rare items from sandy wastelands, I can see how this would have been a fitting seal to Rey’s character arc, as she is symbolically placing the past away and embracing her future. Then she tells a stranger that she’s a Skywalker. I get that it’s adopting an identity that’s not tied to blood, but even still this statement tells me that this movie just can’t let go and I walked away wondering exactly what this whole trilogy was trying to convey, to a startling internal question:.

If films have not learned that HOPE without a definite message collapses under its own weight in the last decade, what have we learned?

 

If you would like to read some horror fiction that is not garbage but is probably somewhat guilty of the above-mentioned sins of storytelling, please check out Castle of Shadow available here in paperback and KindleCoS_cover_small

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

How the fuck did George R.R. Martin fool the general public into a near crack-addictive obsession with his Song of Ice and Fire?

Fantasy had always been this niche enterprise, an interest in which could get your ass kicked around a schoolyard. Even with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, your dedication to the series determined how big of an ugly nerd you’d be judged as: “Oh, you read the books? Us cool kids only saw the movies! And, yeah, and, and we were necking! Ask Gracie if I wasn’t ploughing that neck like some sex god!”

Fantasy was so niche that the other end of the spectrum held similar defense mechanisms if you weren’t into it enough: “Oh, you haven’t even read the Similarion? Nice try, n00b. Me and Gracie were necking while discussing Idril’s lineage, like, twenty minutes ago before you showed up with your Aragorn-loving ass.”

Yet everyone gets into Game of Thrones. My dad’s read the entire series and I’m pretty sure he has a religious allergy to chocolate milk. My friends are fiends for the latest episodes and they all have theories. The nicest, old, old, ladies that ride the bus with me are holding Fire & Blood.

I wanna know why this polarized genre has found such a universal audience. So let’s start with the aforementioned properties that brought fantasy into the mainstream, shall we?

Twenty two years ago, a down-on-her-luck gal named Joanne Murray (JK Rowling to most) published a little book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (translated to the Sorcerer’s Stone for dumb American children). I myself read it in fifth grade and had a grand old talking-to with my teacher about the temptation of dark magic and its road to Satanism. Lutheran school. The book, and its subsequent six sequels, became a hit and a filmic phenomenon.

So why did Harry Potter break?

Well, Rowling was able to make the fantastical element of sorcery almost livable, enriching all of the daily elements of being a student, teacher, government employee, etcetera, with the pizazz of mysticism. Her tactic was to bring down magic to the ordinary, the familiar–  all of which would seem magical to the focal character who hadn’t experienced anything of the sort, just like the book’s readership. For young readers, going to school then became more exciting with a magical analogue, knowing that chemistry was potion making, soccer was Quidditch, and email was a bajillion electronic owls throwing messages back and forth.

She broke fantasy into a common tongue. While she didn’t invent Urban Fantasy as a genre, she made it accessible for young readers to grab onto in an empathetic way.

Aight.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, Tolkien managed the same feat. He followed up a fun, happy-go-lucky-go-wrong-go-lucky-again little romp called The Hobbit (ever heard of it?) and then followed it up with the masterwork earned from a life spent in academic research through mythology, Olde English, history, and the horrors he’d witnessed in World War One. And he needed to make it accessible.

Perhaps it’s his skill as an orator– much like the Velvet Underground leading to punk music, his reading of Beowulf apparently sparked a surge of interest into re-investigating the works in the olde tongue. Tolkien put his performative skills to the page knowing that his writing style needed to establish a mythos and lore similar to that of England’s storied history and mythology, while also remaining serviceable to the everyday reader. While he wrote in an archaic format, Tolkien would generally keep his prose fairly modern, allowing the uneducated masses (especially in America, which enabled his success) to finally access that sweet, sweet burgeoning Fantasy genre.

Which brings us back to George Rawr Rawr Martin. How’d he make Fantasy a universal genre? Martin, like Tolkien, was also guided by the possibilities of mythology, European history, and Catholicism (“lapsed” in Martin’s case) and brought the genre once again into the mainstream. Why so popular? Could it have been the more lenient censors? The blood? The violence? The big ole Red Witch titties? Igh…the incest? Sex and violence is nothing new, and while it certainly sells, it’s no guarantee of success. I think the motherfucker had the same instincts Rowling and Tolkien relied upon, updated with a life devoted to pop-cultural nerd shit.

He knew he needed to show us something familiar, whether we realized it or not. Instead of having us draw comparisons between the fantastical and the ordinary, Martin instead draws us into the fantasy by showing us a story we already find exciting:

Game of Thrones doesn’t start off in the Fantasy genre. It begins as Horror. A snowy glen, a doll-like corpse pinned to a tree comes back to life with blue fire in its eyes. It’s after the grisly aftermath of the White Walkers, when the deserter/survivor’s message gets cut short, doth the fantasy begin with a dark promise. The king visits, giving us a personae dramatis for the non-Stark players, and provides a launching pad for several story arcs, each with their own blurred genres. A political thriller foments when the alarming message that John Arryn has been murdered arrives. The forbidden romance between the Lannister twins is discovered. Jon Snow’s hero journey from Bastard to Badass begins by getting hammered. Sansa’s maturation story from a naïve believer in fairy-tales towards a well-versed decoder of deception is well set, as is Arya’s road from misfit to assassin. Tyrion gets his end wet.

All of these threads we are willing to follow. The bulk of the first book, however, is devoted to Ned Stark, who serves as the primary protagonist. And although his character is embroiled in political chaos and familial complexity, his narrative drive is identical to a hardboiled detective’s.

That’s right, bitches. I’m making this about noir. NED DETECTIVE.

Once he reaches King’s Landing, Ned’s arc falls into the classic structure of a steel-jawed man interviewing a sequence of people looking for the truth. His self-appointed charge is to prove that Cersei’s children ain’t his buddy Bobby Baratheon’s. Ned’s story is based in inquisition in search of the truth, for truth’s sake. Hence, he pokes around the government, he pokes around the common folk, pokes Gendry in the shoulder, he pokes around the ledgers. And he uncovers the scandal and confronts the Femme Fatale. Unlike your average noir thriller, the protagonist is beheaded in front of his daughters.

Which serves as the inciting incident for all of the other plot lines, each one a mishmash of genre regardless of the fantasy setting. A broken-man with a soft-spot for protecting naïve children? With a vendetta against his brother who injured him in their youth? Who finds the value of life through working with common, defenseless people? But still likes killing people? Without context, I’d say with 70% certainty, that I was describing a Kurosawa film. You know who I’m referring to.

Genre-smashing isn’t new.

The aforementioned Akira Kurosawa defined a generation of Japanese cinema by imbuing traditional samurai legends with the genre-specific elements of the western. You can follow this thread for awhile:  Blade Runner is pure noir slammed into a complete science-fiction setting. True Detective: Season One is noir, sure, but injected with the DNA of a buddy cop film, TV police procedural, and cosmic horror. Robert Brockway’s The Vicious Circuit series mixes punk-rock and some of the vilest horror I’ve ever put in my brain (and you should too). Evil Dead II mixes horror with slapstick comedy, while Slaughterhouse V mixes a horrifying account of World War II with quirky science fiction.

It comes down to the same science of making a good mixtape. The advice that my brother gave me on mixtape compilation: “You want to balance novelty with nostalgia.”

The reason is digestibility. You’re more willing to eat your first oyster if you spritz some lemon on it. The familiar makes the unknown easier to handle. The dark complexity of Blade Runner makes more sense if you’re slumming through the streets along with Rickard. True Detective: The turn from existential pessimism towards existential optimism would be way too heady and pedantic unless you had both Cohle and Hart find their Yellow King. The the reality of war in Slaughterhouse V would burden the reader with too much emotional weight unless it was delivered in a way that let the reader escape and put things in perspective just as the narrator describes the horrific events.

Taking one thing and smashing it into another thing is the basis of innovation. It’s the proverbial “you got my peanut butter in your chocolate.” It’s the reason pizzas are sold on bagels, the reason your fridge has a freezer attached to it. It needs to happen at a certain point and it happens on a near instinctual level– ask anyone who’s ever had to write music reviews of local artists: “They’re like Modest Mouse meets The Ramones– if Joey had range.” Science Fiction, at a certain point, was essentially a bunch of pulp drivel until pioneers such as Phillip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem came along and embedded a deep sense of meaning into it, reflecting our own lives, views, and the philosophies they were enchanted by. Hardboiled pulp detective fiction was wrangled by Hammet and Chandler until Ellroy elevated it to literary standards. Hell, you look at the progression of comic books, a medium nearly entirely written off because of its fringe appeal– and now those characters are currently dominating the box offices. The success and/or legacy of which comes down to the fact that the creators held the format of one thing in one hand and enmeshed it into the social topics of gender roles, race, sexuality, or insecurity– it stays relevant.

Game of Thrones is rooted in the fantasy world specific to Martin’s brain. What Martin has that other fantasy writers lack, is a cool understanding of the genres around him. He’s the über nerd who understands everything under the banner of geekdom, inside and out. It’s so complete that I’d wager you could remove the fantasy element entirely and you’d still be left with a competent and enjoyable series. Which gets close to answering my initial question:

Because there’s something that anyone could recognize as their favorite genre, everybody can get into it.

 

Pierre Manchot blends Fantasy with Science Fiction and Dystopia in his humorous series The Fish Fox Boys, the third book of which is soon to be published. Get caught up starting with the first novel here re_cover_small

 

Biographical details lifted from Wizard and the Bruiser episodes of JRR Tolkien and G.RR. Martin:

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/jrr-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings-pt-i)

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/game-of-thrones)