Star Wars Episode IX: The Last Command

I was quite eager to see The Force Awakens last week, and was also a bit apprehensive. I had a sense that it would be derivative, that it would try to hard to have an “edge,” and that potential interesting conflicts would be avoiding to protect the “sanctity” of the Main Trio. And all these fears I had about The Force Awakens came true in some form or another in Star Wars: The Last Command, the finale to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. We’ve covered Thrawn twice before, now let’s look at how it all ends.

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It ends with tiny X-wings toys for Han and Leia’s twins. Merry belated Christmas!

 

My chief problem with The Force Awakens was that they took the quick and easy route by just ripping of A New Hope. You’ve got your new desert planet, your new protagonist in Stormtrooper outfit, your new galactic superweapon, and all the same old shit. The Last Command ripped off Return of the Jedi, and I think it suffered for it. Not that that’s all, or even most, of this novel. After Thrawn re-asserts authority with two of the coolest strategic maneuvers ever (both original highlights in the book), the heroes set in motion plans of their own. For example, breaking Mara Jade out of Republic holding, Jade the former Imperial assassin who may or may not want to kill Luke Skywalker. Another original example concerns them untangling the mesh of deception fracturing the Republic’s greatest ally, the smuggler alliance. But, in the end, the bulk of the action takes place on a forest planet, where a small band of heroes sneak about, make friends with an alien tribe, and try to smash the key base of the Empire that will enable the destruction of the Republic if left unchecked. Throw in some climactic lightsaber duels and an attempted Dark Side seduction, and you’ve got your story already finished for you in 1983. Admittedly, I’m painting with a broad brush: the details and relationships do separate this book from ROTJ. The climactic battle with a crazy Dark Sider and the final scene with Thrawn himself do separate this book from its influence. Yet Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising weren’t shackled to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back like this one, and still managed to tell good stories. Basically, if the callbacks in The Force Awakens bothered you, then the callbacks in The Last Command will bother you too.

 

The Force Awakens could’ve also reached for a darker “edge” that it doesn’t earn (and my brother would argue that it does, what with the First Order’s violence and everything). The Last Command also does that. Remember that scene in Empire where Luke confronts the cave in Dagobah? Zahn really thinks of that as a big moment, because it gets referenced a lot here, about how Luke needs to “confront his past.” But as I’ve said when discussing Return of the Jedi, Luke’s dark side isn’t that visible. Mara Jade has a great dark past— the Emperor sent her a final psychic message (YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER) that keeps spamming in her head, even as she tries to maintain good relations with the Republic. Those moments have a spark of intensity to them. But even as Luke (in the more literal sense than you think) confronts his past, we’re wondering what justifies such a character-focused look at an everyman protagonist. Luke’s not beneath this role, he’s just too good for it.

 

In fact, characters that can be described as “too good,” would summarize my main issue with this book. No one falls for anyone’s BS in this story. I guess that statement’s kind of true for this trilogy in general, but it’s really apparent here. Thrawn in The Last Command displays some of the coolest and most clever strategies ever, and every time a plan of his gets enacted, the New Republic smells a womp rat nearly immediately. Han, Leia, and Luke attempt some strikes against the rising Empire remnants, but Thrawn always figures out their plans just in time (and you thought Rey was a Mary Sue). And any attempts to get the main heroes to turn on each other always fall flat, ‘cause the heroes are just with it, ya know? I do get the overall effect Zahn was going for: we’re watching a tennis match, the game-winning ball always moving between halves of the court. Each opposing drive gets countered, and the side to fail a counter will get destroyed. And yet, in practice, doing this type of twist over and over again undermines dramatic irony.

 

Dramatic Irony, for the unaware, is when the audience knows something that the characters in a work of art don’t. Star Wars books and movies, in their current form, can set this up well. Like the movies, the book takes on a third person omniscient narrator, moving from meetings between heroes to meetings between villains, only keeping the thoughts of Thrawn away from the audience. We see Thrawn explain his latest evil plan, and then we see the Republic react to the plan in motion. Wouldn’t it be more involving if we saw the plan for the first time at the same time as the heroes? Or, even better, that the heroes sometimes go to the sign promising free kittys and end up in a pit of Nexus, just as we saw Thrawn plan? You know, some actual consequences once in a while? Instead, the book does all the work for us. We’re not screaming “No! Don’t do it, Leia!” because Leia will never do it. For a set of thrillers that rely on tension, this is a serious flaw.

 

I think I got it all out of my system. Now I’m going to tell you why you should buy and read this trilogy anyways.

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I think I figured out how they brainstormed Kylo Ren’s lightsaber…

First off, there are some great positives. It’s got that Star Wars kinetic energy. Thrawn is still awesome. It introduces cool new characters and worlds, and possesses a keen imagination. It proves that you can do politics in the Star Wars universe.

 

Second, it’s good to see how far we’ve come. I’ve grown to accept that this trilogy won’t be filmed, no matter how much I wanted it to be (and ranting on its flaws certainly helped quell that desire). Star Wars changed in between Heir to the Empire and The Force Awakens, and that’s ok. Before the Expanded Universe got declared non-canon, a lot of elements from them made it into the prequels, including the role of the Jedi and the planet Coruscant. That ended up restricting, I think, what the prequels became. It’s important for the new films to break out of the shadow of the old books. The Thrawn Trilogy, even if it’s declared non-canon, can just be an interlude adventure after ROTJ, like I think it was meant to be.

 

And finally, Star Wars is more than its flaws. I can pick apart all these movies or books, but the fact remains that why stories matter— their core— is sometimes separate from plotholes and personal preferences. Yeah, the fanboys may bitch, but we ‘ll all keep coming back like there’s a ‘free kittys’ sign there. And loving something, even as you pick it apart, shows how strong you love can remain despite misgivings. I love The Thrawn Trilogy and I love Star Wars. Zahn’s work kicked off the Expanded Universe, a messy, crazy expansion that people still hold onto even as the whole thing gets demoted to mere “Legends.” Just like the franchise it came from, The Thrawn Trilogy is too big to be constrained only in pages. Flaws in art will always exist, as long as we keep loving things in spite of what we nitpick.

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Review)

I’ve had dreams where I dream a movie I’m going to see. So, for example, if I see a trailer for a hypothetical Sandman movie, some months before opening day I may dream an entire Sandman movie in my head for a night. This happened with Age of Ultron. For some reason, this happened with Green Lantern and Transformers. And, six times in the past year, it happened for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Usually, these dreams are absorbing, but nonsensical and awful. So if I say Episode VII is “better than I dreamed it,” that’s not high praise. But it is better than I thought it would be. I came in expecting a Marvel movie. I reasoned that Disney wants a big safe moneymaker, so they chose the safest director they could find and planned to make a fanservicey retread that’ll keep us happy, but not particularly enrich us. And sometimes, it feels like that is what happened. But for what this movie could have been, it’s better than we dreamed.

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Another dream coming true: an excellent opening shot. Not as good as this one, but close.

I’m a little nervous about giving out a positive opinion. The early reviews for The Phantom Menace were positive too, after all. Am I not one of those fanboys that blabbed on Star Wars on this blog for several posts? I would say yes, yes I am. And I would say the writers of this film were too, and that this film is a metaphor for fans of the originals stepping into the world of Lucas’ devising.

There will be spoilers from this point out. Most of them.

Let’s start with the villain, who I think is the most interesting aspect of the new movie. Kylo Ren’s backstory is essentially the story of all the prequels. He goes into a Jedi Academy (Luke’s, in this case), goes lustful for power, becomes obsessed with Darth Vader, gets seduced by a Dark Side Master, betrays Luke, and goes on to lead The First Order (the replacement Empire in this movie). Kylo Ren is essentially Anakin of the prequels combined with Anakin in the originals. Anakin’s childishness and seeking of approval meets with Vader’s dangerousness and cold heart (at least, when he has his mask on). He’s a Star Wars fanboy out of control, worshipping Vader and acting possessive when someone tries to ruin his “ideal” galaxy. When Kylo Ren throws one of his temper tantrums, it’s easy to imagine him going all “GEORGE LUCAS RAPED MY CHILDHOOD,” before logging onto 4chan to call Mon Mothma a hag. Deep down, he’s just a scared little kid. And I’m so glad the creators didn’t go for a grimdark “Let’s outVader Darth Vader” approach. Instead, Kylo Ren’s a rip-off of Darth Vader because he’s trying to be. That’s pretty clever.

But who are the good fanboys? Those would be Rey and Finn, our protagonists. They’ve heard of Luke Skywalker in legend, and have awe-filled respect for him. When they meet Han and Leia, our new heroes have similar reverence towards those two as well. If Kylo Ren’s a child at his worst, then Finn and Rey are children at their best. Their personalities (strong and easy to identify) are on their sleeves, and they take on every challenge with a sense of innocence. They’re also in way over their heads, as the First Order and The Resistance fight and scheme, skirmishes and plans that our new heroes get swept into. It’s easy to imagine Abrams in a study, asking out loud, “I’m way in over my head! I was just a child when these movies came out! Now what do I write about?”

For god’s sake, just look at Jakku, the planet where the new movie spends the first act. It’s filled with crashed Star Destroyers and other such icons. Our new heroes are playing in the ruins of a once mighty force. How much more symbolic can you get?

Still not convinced? Consider Luke’s story, which is the overarching one. He goes into exile after he gets betrayed and loses faith (almost like a fan that deserts the franchise after the prequels happen). At the end of the movie, Rey finds him. The Force (or, the plot) took Luke’s hopelessness and responded by leading Rey to him. When they lock eyes, Rey’s posture is all about “Accept me!” That’s what the new creators want: for Lucas, their Jedi Master, to accept their creation and deem their continuing training worthy.

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Obligatory “better than the prequels” mention.

But this meta story doesn’t interfere with what’s going on. I mentioned how the new main characters remind me of children, and that’s something sorely missing from the saga until now. Star Wars is not a series for children; it’s for everybody. Its gift lies in making you feel like a child and then talking up to you, not down. They give you characters as vehicles for your wildest imagination. And these characters, who wouldn’t play out much different if they were kids in a schoolyard, are just right for this.

Now, with that said, there is a distressing lack of imagination on display. My worst fear was that Disney goes and rips off A New Hope and stops working from there. And, in parts, that’s what happens. Oh, they rearrange plot points and switch around character roles, but let’s recap. This movie starts with a battle where Stormtroopers decimate the good guys, leading to a high-ranking Rebel giving a droid secret info. The droid stumbles into a desert planet’s local, a local that goes on an adventure with Han Solo and Chewbacca to a strange bar and a planet-destroying weapon. And goddammit, the Empire never learns, because they built a new Death Star.

“Oh we did not!” the film says. “It’s called a Starkiller! This one’s bigger, and it’s got more lasers, and it… it, hey, look over there, it’s Admiral Akbar!” Don’t be fooled, this really is another Death Star. And the planet this Death Star ends up destroying is mentioned once, if at all. That planet’s death hardly affects anyone outside of people saying “Well that sucks.” There is a climactic battle to destroy Starkiller, but it happens to the side of the truly interesting conflict (Kylo vs. Rey and Finn). It’s probably the least interesting space battle in Star Wars history.

And for all of these callbacks, some plot holes occur as a result. The heroes get Anakin’s lightsaber back. As in, the one that got lost in Cloud City. When asked how a character obtained this, said character literally says, “That’s a story for another time,” and drops it. No, mam, we’d really like to know. An Imperial makes a throwaway comment about how they’re not using clones anymore. But why? I know out of universe that this movie regards the prequels as the weird uncle who is best ignored when he rants about midichlorians infiltrating the government. But in this universe, clones still seem like a decent deal. “If we have clones, we can’t have a hero in Stormtrooper gear be a walking reference to Episode IV, and we can’t have that, now can we?”

There’s also a subtler, but more damaging effect that comes from this movie being written by fanboys. Han and Leia’s relationship splintered due to events in between movies; they haven’t seen each other in a long time. That’s a setup for conflict if I’ve ever written one. But when the two reunite, they have nothing bad to say to each other. They instantly know what caused their fracturing, and speak of how they love each other so much. Which is fine by itself— I like to see that they made it. But it’s not what should result from the setup, and least not right away.

So I’d say the meta plot is more interesting that the actual plot. Is this meta plot worth recommending the movie over, if it mostly comes from speculation on my part? There are other good things- action, character, worlds, lines. It’s a really good Star Wars story, if not a great one. But this meta story makes this whole endeavor feel more human, feel like someone is communicating to me. This is a movie made by fans, about fans, for fans. And I am in that number. I was 6, 9, and 12 when Episodes I, II, and III came out— I was the perfect age for those movies. As not-good as they are, I can’t hate them, because in a way I feel like they were made for me. And this movie was also made for me, a creator who feels like he has big shoes to fill and not trip in. Not bad for a giant corporation that’s only interested in your money. The love of the fans came through on this one. The creators put a lot of themselves into this story, and I think that’s one of the best, most personal gifts you can receive. I hope the next movie does that too.

A Charlie Brown War on Christmas

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CHARLIE BROWN enters.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Christmas has become slightly tolerable now due to my hair implants. But everything else seems to be going wrong. Obamacare doesn’t cover Lucy’s psychiatric practice, and Snoopy has started foaming at the mouth. Good grief! Well, at least I found the last unsold Christmas tree in the lot. Unfortunately, it’s just this stick.

 

TREE SELLER

(offstage)

Wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Thank you for letting me have this Christmas tree for free. It’s quire Christian of you.

 

TREE SELLER

We wa wa wa wa.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

What did you say?

 

TREE SELLER

Wa?

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Why did you say, “Happy Holidays”? You used to say “Merry Christmas.”

 

TREE SELLER

Wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa, wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa. Wa wa!

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Good grief!

 

LINUS VAN BELT enters with blanket.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Linus, did you hear what that man said to me?

 

LINUS VAN PELT

I did not, Charlie Brown.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

He told me, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and said it’s because he wants to be inclusive to all cultures.

 

LINUS VAN PELT

That’s a lie propagated by the liberal media. The seculars of the world don’t want to acknowledge that Christmas exists, so that they can undermine the Christian family values that make this country great.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Does this mean our Christmas pageant has to become a Holiday pageant?

 

LINUS VAN PELT

If the liberals had their way, they’d replace the baby Jesus with Rudolph.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

Good grief!

 

LINUS VAN PELT

We should teach this man a lesson.

 

TREE SELLER enters.

 

LINUS VAN PELT

I heard you haven’t been spreading the true meaning of Christmas, Mr. Tree Seller.

 

TREE SELLER

Wa wa?

 

LINUS VAN PELT

That’s right. And I have someone who’ll teach you a lesson. Catch!

 

LINUS VAN PELT throws his blanket to TREE SELLER. The moment the blanket leaves LINUS, LINUS goes limp and falls down. The moment TREE SELLER catches the blanket, he looks possessed.

 

TREE SELLER

Assuming control of a new host body.

 

CHARLIE BROWN

You mean the blanket is a parasite alien? Fuck on a stick!

 

TREE SELLER

Yes. I, BLANK3T from the planet Mars, can control humans by touch. It is my mission to spread the message of Christ through any means necessary. I will brainwash this feeble human into worshipping the one true God. Now that it is done, return me to my original host.

 

CHARLIE BROWN gives the blanket back to LINUS. LINUS stands up.

 

LINUS VAN PELT

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

 

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

 

BLACKOUT