Friday, June 26, 2015

The Great Awakening

“There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? The dark side … and the light.”

Those were the haunting, mysterious words that launched the very first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It has since been confirmed that they were spoken by motion capture aficionado Andy Serkis. Vanity Fair has also revealed the name of his character is Supreme Leader Snoke, a title that is evocative of military status, yet he also clearly knows something of the ways of the Force ...

Before we proceed, a word on the inexorable inevitabilities of the great spoiler controversy must be addressed. With each new photo leaked and each new character name announced, flames of debate rage across the Internet. Some emphatically want spoilers. Some emphatically do not. Adding to the argument is confusion over what even constitutes a spoiler.

The Star Wars Heresies certainly suffered a major loss in energy and enthusiasm, in part due to the black hole of secrecy J.J. Abrams and Disney imposed on the new film, a vortex of blackness from which not even the tiniest of spoilers could escape. This state of affairs for an entire year was a mistake in my opinion, as it opened up a void following endless cancellations and silence. I for one find it difficult to grow excited about a film no one knows anything about, which is why I think it was a bit of a forced hand (pardon the pun) to finally release a ninety-second teaser trailer mere months after production wrapped.

So while I have tried to avoid spoilers such as storyline reveals and plot twists, any new image or character tidbit from The Force Awakens has been welcome. For the record, I’m only offering up speculation here for the sake of entertainment. Even with two trailers, Vanity Fair interviews, and the occasional image leaked online, I feel like I know almost nothing about this new episode. Nor do I really want to.

On the other hand, the veil of secrecy has to be parted a little eventually. Especially in this day and age of social media, where every new photo eventually winds up as background on someone’s Facebook page. And the more information released officially, the more the audience is eased into this new era of the galaxy, not to mention the more control the powers-that-be have over said information. So no need for everyone, Abrams included, to grow sideburns, don bell bottoms, and pretend it’s 1979 all over again, because it can’t work. 

So as I ramble and speculate and theorize a bit here, the official The Star Wars Heresies spoiler policy is going to be framed as succinctly as possible. In short, a leaked photo of Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon with new characters Rey and Finn in the cockpit does not constitute a spoiler. A leaked photo of Han Solo slumped over the controls of the Falcon with Rey and Finn standing behind him in the cockpit holding bloody vibroblades does.

Simple enough?

So on to this "awakening" motif, as well as two of the more intriguing elements at play in the galaxy decades after the destruction of the second Death Star, the Jedi and the Sith. Or whatever the next evolution of Force talented beings may be.  That potential incarnation is the most intriguing element of the sequel trilogy to me. 

The release of the episode title for any new Star Wars film is a big moment, perhaps right up there with the first trailer. Episode VII adds to the mythos. The Force Awakens may take a moment to settle into the cultural zeitgeist, but it honestly brings with it not only multiple possible meanings but ties the new addition to the saga into a rich tradition of symbolism. Provided the new generation of filmmakers fish the metaphoric depths of storytelling and folklore as thoroughly as their bearded predecessor would have, the mysterious title can evoke more than its share of mythological underpinnings. 

The concept of awakening is a powerful one in Western mythology. For example, more than one reference is made in Norse stories. There is of course the tale of Brunhilde, who Odin imprisoned on a remote mountain, cursing her with sleep in a ring of flames until she could be awakened again. There is also the story of Heimdall, the watchmen of Norse myth, who was destined to blow on the horn Gjallar to awaken all the gods for Ragnarok and the end of the world. This theme is active in fairy tales to0, ranging from Rumpelstiltskin to Sleeping Beauty.

The same follows through in Eastern mythology. One of the most famous images of Hinduism is Brahma growing out of the navel of the sleeping Vishnu to create the universe again. And of course, the very name "Buddha" means the "awakened one," the one who awoke to the enlightenment inherently sleeping in everything. Not to mention the Taoist musings of Chuang Tzu wondering whether he was a man dreaming about being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming about being a man. 

In theory, all of this could be forming a viable mythic backbone for the sequel trilogy. After one pushes past the hater tone of the first couple of parts, the Vanity Fair article does an adequate job of filling in a bit of behind-the-scenes coverage regarding the film. If nothing else, it is reassuring Abrams is aware that the prequels have a fanbase, and we can infer he and writer Lawrence Kasdan are hopefully taking to heart the prophecy of the Chosen One, and his eventual bringing balance to the Force at the end of the original trilogy. 

Now that the slate has been intriguingly wiped clean in most respects, it will be interesting to learn what state the Force has been existing in for over thirty years. As noted, it has been brought back into balance and, presumably, the dark side that had so clouded and infested the galaxy during the Clone Wars and the civil war has largely dissipated. In my book, I likened the galaxy-wide mystical energy field to an enormous sea, with countless beings floating around in it, as oblivious to it as fish are to water.  

Still, hopefully things have improved and stabilized enough for a few decades for everyone to notice. 

It would feel like something of a waste if the galaxy has been in nothing but a state of strife and conflict during the thirty year gap. Crashed Star Destroyers aside, the Force awakening at the very least implies a bit of rest, a well-earned cosmic sabbatical for the conflict of the light and the dark. The Force partially slumbering in a peaceful, balanced equilibrium for awhile seems only fair. 

But as the galactic pendulum swings in one direction, it must swing in another. And as simple drama dictates, conflict has to start to creep its way center stage again. That certainly seems to be the way of things in the trailers, with stormtroopers running around and the possibility of some kind of Imperial civil war erupting. 

Along the political spectrum, George Lucas once commented that the end of the Empire would see the uprooting of corruption and fascism, and the real Republic would return in fine form. This strikes me as a potentially slippery slope, with lots of possibility for history and the mistakes of the past to repeat themselves. With the Sith gone and the Force balanced, my own vision of the future galaxy would be a bit freer, maybe even a touch anarchic, with any kind of centralized authority being shied away from for the time being. 

But understandably, the galaxy is complicated, and civil war has left it's mark. A lot of this isn't going to be remotely understood until the post Return of the Jedi novel Star Wars Aftermath debuts in September. Granted, the Empire isn't finished, and the political situation in the Inner Rim is largely a complete mystery.

Judging by Abrams and company's fondness for Star Wars as a "western" set out on the frontier, it is reasonable to speculate a lot of the events in the film are taking place in the wilder Outer Rim of the galaxy. Daisy Ridley's character, Rey, is reported to be a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, probably far off the beaten path of Coruscant. Might it be speculated that it's the planet farthest from the bright center of the universe, Tatooine renamed by the fractured Empire or some such?

Thanks to Vanity Fair again, we have likewise seen Adam Driver's Kylo Ren marching new stormtroopers about on an ice planet. It would be interesting if this was a deliberate juxtaposition with the Rebel Alliance's former base on the frozen world of Hoth, only with the bad guys on the run in the far reaches of galactic civilization this time around. Whatever the rationale, those new stormtroopers look really sweet, particularly the chrome-plated Captain Phasma, potentially poised to be the next fanboy favorite ancillary character, following in the footsteps of Boba Fett or Darth Maul. 

From the little we know, it seems the primary conflict isn't going to be another tired military clash between the rebuilding Alliance and the collapsing Empire. The now defunct "Expanded Universe" has beat that bantha to death over twenty years of publishing. From what publicity has been announced at the last Celebration and such, the big battle is going to be between the Resistance, featuring such hotshot X-wing pilots as Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron, and the equally mysterious First Order, which seems more than reminiscient of the Third Reich, what with their title and their fondness for Nuremberg-type rallies. 

Sure, the First Order may be a broken remnant of the Empire. And the Resistance may be a Rebel-Alliance inspired movement, which is struggling without Republic protection in the Outer Rim. But at least it's a little new, with updated X-Wings and refurbished TIE fighters. 

Speaking of the First Order, admittedly one of the biggest concerns here at the Star Wars Heresies was the handling of any new nemesis in follow-up movies. For one, simply bringing back the Sith would potentially negate the destruction of the Emperor and Anakin returning to the light side. And we all know Lucas has been adamant that the Sith are a very specific lineage, and a very specific tradition. Dark side users aside, only two Sith there are, no more, no less. And that thousand year cycle of brutality and violence was finally broken in Return of the Jedi.

But on the other hand, how does one not resurrect the Sith as a threat? Anyone would be hard pressed to best Darth Sidious in terms of personal and galactic evil and oppression. And as far as Darth Vader goes, it's surely equally impossible to top the single most iconic villain in the history of cinema. 

If certain random rumors hold true, the filmmakers at work on the new trilogy may have found a reasonably clever way to maneuver around this problem. The poster boy of evil in The Force Awakens is undeniably Kylo Ren, who we have already seen brandishing a tell-tale red lightsaber and throwing around Force pushes in the new trailers. Speculation has it that he is actually a Sith wannabe, a Darth Vader fanboy, a galactic copycat killer of sorts who goes around snatching up dark side artifacts. Possibly like that primitive-looking crossguard lightsaber or even the aged, melted Vader mask given a close up in the second teaser trailer.

This could possibly alleviate a few problems. To begin with, it would supply the film with the inevitable dark side bad guy, but reasonably count for his retro, somewhat familiar evil look, black mask and robes and all. Yet at the same time, Kylo Ren is obviously missing an official "darth" in front of his name, thus he's not a direct part of the Sith, and that lineage remains successfully destroyed.

Not to mention, let's face it, the idea is just suitably creepy. 

The other big question mark is the light side of the coin, the Jedi. It will be really intriguing to see what is done here. There are a few Force ghosts floating about in the ether of the netherworld, a trick only light siders can accomplish, as depicted in the Lost Missions arc at the end of The Clone Wars. I for one would love to hear a philosophical discussion with Qui-Gon Jinn and, given Liam Neeson's voice over work in animated series, it is not out of the realm of possibility. Perhaps the most dramatic ghostly exchange could be with Anakin Skywalker himself. 

Despite stirring up fanboy tensions, it is perhaps likely that this was the original plan, thus explaining Lucas' insistence that the Force ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi be edited to include Hayden Christensen. 

Whatever the state of affairs in the Force netherworld, there is only one remaining physical Jedi left that we know of. When we last saw Luke Skywalker, he had thrown down his lightsaber, defeated the Sith through his father's redemptive love, and was encircled by old friends on the moon of Endor. This presents its own set of dramatic challenges, not the least of which is the new Jedi Order of one renouncing violence and succeeding, as a counterpoint to the old Jedi Order feeding into war and failing. 

The narrative's depiction of the Jedi and violence is unknown, as is Luke's story. Again, if some rumors and speculation hold, the first film may very well be the "Search for Luke Skywalker." The new Jedi is rumored to have gone into an exile of sorts, traveling "upriver" like a retiring soldier, or riding off into the galactic sunset like a cowboy. 

Whatever the story, it already sounds far more right than Luke just immediately establishing a new Jedi Order on Coruscant and, again, just repeating the mistakes of the past. With all the prequel saga in place, it would seem ridiculous to simply cobble together another bloated, dogmatic order, with one foot in the mystic current of the Force, and the other snared in the bureaucratic traps of government. 

While Yoda did impress the importance of passing on his new wisdom, he never explicitly instructed Luke to rebuild the old Order. The point was largely that Luke became something new, with hints that the Jedi had moved from a religion of law to one of love. At least at the end of the last film. And if this next episode is being read correctly, Luke passing on his knowledge and abilities will be on a much more personal, intimate level, as he himself learned from Obi-Wan and Yoda. 

The recapped lines he spoke in the trailer are already legend. The Force runs strong in his family. He has it. His father has it. His sister has it. With the mysterious promise that "You have that power too." 

And that's where the real speculation begins. Is he referring to John Boyega's character Finn? His image is the first new face seen, popping into frame wearing stormtrooper armor and a frantic look of considerable distress. If the Force is awakening, he could pass for one just snapping out of a dream, maybe scoring a violent hint of a "larger world"?

The odds on favorite may be a certain scavenger from the world of Jakku, though. 

Everyone seems eager, myself included, to see a female lead take the reins. Kathleen Kennedy even played up that angle on stage at Celebration. It would open up a new world of mythic and symbolic possibilities if it was Rey who possessed that familiar power. Not only would she be keeping with the tradition of beings with major Force potential being found in lowly, isolated places and starting their journey from humble beginnings, it could also be wonderful to have a full-fledged mother of the Force in that long ago, far away galaxy ...

P.S. Welcome to the family, you three.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney

While it's true I did not attend Star Wars Celebration this time around, I am proud to announce I finally took a real vacation. And best of all, it was Star Wars themed. Over Memorial Day, my friend Layla and I stayed at the wonderfully posh Swan Resort at Disney World. And as Qui-Gon Jinn so eloquently put it, "Nothing happens by accident" so, yes, it just happened to correspond with Star Wars Weekends.

That weekend, Ashley Eckstein, Warwick Davis, Silas Carson, and Vanessa Marshall were all in attendance, with the whole event hosted in style by the irreplaceable James Arnold Taylor. It was a fabulous time, albeit hot and humid and uncomfortable on the morning of the opening parade, and let's just say it's best to shy away from Downtown Disney on Memorial Day weekend. All in all though, our primary complaint was simply that we only had three complete days to spend down there. 

Still, the experience is highly recommended. And it did help with my conversion to the Disney era of Star Wars. May the Force be with them. Please. 

So on a not so long weekend ago, in a state not too far away ...

Not exactly staring off into the twin suns of Tatooine, but the view from the hotel did offer a tantalizing promise of taking our first step into a "larger world" ...  

Our own version of Docking Bay 94 and, might I add, the only way to travel. I don't know if she can reach .5 past lightspeed, but she's definitely got it where it counts.

Our entrance to Hollywood Studios was clearly under tight Imperial supervision.

Fortunately, since we're both librarians, this did provide the requisite "Chewie, we're home" moment. 

And while there may be no such thing as "luck," we did happen upon a few familiar faces. Even if some of them were wearing masks.

And we ran into some new friends, too.

And I may have to agree with Han here. Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side. Having a toy one again made me far happier than perhaps it should have. Not to mention it made a really cool noise. Pew pew!

Speaking of merchants, beware Tatooine traders bearing gifts, because they're usually expensive.

So merchandising may be more on the "dark side" of the Force, but there was no way in Mustafar we weren't going to snag those The Force Awakens t-shirts faster than an angry wampa swatting at a tauntaun. And we hadn't even made it to the aptly named Darth Mall yet!

Suffice to say, we did eventually. So one of the best things about Disney? All the shops will ship your loot back to the hotel so you don't have to carry it around with you all day. One of the worst things about Disney? Same thing.

Still, Layla was understandably proud of her fashionable R2-D2 hat, not to mention patriotically sporting those Rebel Alliance colors.

But nothing like a giant walker stomping through the woods to get your mind off the inevitable credit card bills.

Escape was made possible, courtesy of Star Tours and C-3PO.

So we blasted into hyperspace and scored a trip to Hoth and Naboo, but on the last Star Tours trip, I'm fairly certain I visited three planets, not just two. Every now and again, my faith in Disney does bounce too close to a supernova.

Along those lines, here's Han to remind us that texting in hyperspace ain't like dustin' crops, boy!

But at the end of the day, all you need is a good strong hug from a Wookiee. As if a Wookiee would or could hug any other way.

Let's face it. Naboo was probably far more cool and tranquil than Orlando at the beginning of summer, but props to the queen for balancing that headdress and keeping all the makeup on in humidity that was probably far more comparable to the swamps of Dagobah.

Admittedly, it would have been nice that day had we gotten a taste of the snow plains of Hoth as opposed to simply a snow speeder, but it was still nifty and pretty screen accurate.

Eventually though, we found some shade and sat down for "An Ewok's Tale" with none other than the Ewok rock god himself, Warwick Davis. And we even got to see clips from his most impressive home movie, Return of the Ewok, which he had shot on the set of Return of the Jedi back in 1983.

Always entertaining, at one point Warwick reenacted his attempt to sabotage Kenny Baker so he could snag the role of Wicket and have a scene with Carrie Fisher. "Food poisoning." Right!

As usual, that bundle of energy and talent and enthusiasm known as James Arnold Taylor seemed to be everywhere. Much like with the celebrity interviews at Celebration, he handled all the ones here with style and grace, and also performed his legendary show on voice acting, "Talking to Myself."

And there he is interviewing Silas Carson. Carson played both the Jedi Master Ki-Adi-Mundi and the trade baron Nute Gunray in the prequels, and thus had the awkward experience of filming two death scenes in the same day during the shooting of Revenge of the Sith.

During his interview with Vanessa Marshall, there was a screening of the epic trailer for season two of Rebels, not to mention a scene after the crew of the Ghost encounter Vader. Never, ever pass up a chance to see Star Wars on the big screen. 

There were all kinds of tasty snacks at the Galactic Dance Party, though these were the only ones guarded by the Inquisitor. Rounding out the fesitivites was arguably the greatest firework display this side of Endor after the second Death Star was destroyed.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, whether it be the Clone Wars or Star Wars Weekends. Clone troopers were there to escort those of us out who needed that extra bit of coaxing ...

Fortunately the rest of the year is not exactly going to be skimpy when it comes to all things Force-related. New Rebels, new tie-in books, and no doubt a final movie trailer at some point. I for one am counting down the days until The Force Awakens midnight madness sales in September. 

All I can say is, if they're going to be marketing a Kylo Ren and First Order stormtrooper bedspread, a Force Awakens alarm clock seems obvious. As a co-worker noted, it already has a built-in tag line. "Let the Force awaken YOU."