Quib – a new site for moment-by-moment film commentary

Hey everyone! If the Cameron Laventure Blog seems a little bare lately, that’s because I’ve been writing the bulk of my film analysis at a new site called Quib (at quib.co), where you can read and write fascinating moment-by-moment commentaries on great movies. I’d like to plug that site right now, if you have a minute.

 
Quib works a bit like Soundcloud, but for movies; you select a film, start a timer, follow along with your own copy of the film, and write observations, critiques, pieces of trivia, and whatever else suits your fancy. Your comments are synced up to specific scenes and moments throughout the movie, to be enjoyed and discussed by similarly-inclined cinephiles. It’s a great way to read good commentary, get your own writing out there, and engage with an up-and-coming film-loving community.

 
The site is young, so only a few writers have gotten on board so far (including myself), and I know the site’s creator would be interested to hear any suggestions for improving the interface. So if you’d like to give Quib a whirl, the following video explains the details more thoroughly:

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Star Wars Opinions: 48 Humble Headcanons

No nitpicks about The Force Awakens this time around. Just some wholesome little headcanons about the Original Trilogy. Fun for the whole family.

A New Hope

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1. The Yellow Exposition Scrolls (aka YES!) are actually there, zooming through space, but Master Yoda is the only one who’s Force-sensitive enough to see them.  However, because space is very big, and these scrolls only occur once every few years, Yoda has never quite managed to spot one. This is his greatest regret.

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2. Even in the distant futurepast, there’s no real way to test whether or not a being has a perspective of its own. Thus, the entire non-droid population of the Star Wars universe is agnostic as to whether droids are sentient creatures, or perspective-less machines like toasters and water slides.

To be fair, this is the exact situation we’ll end up in, once our robots get this smart. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

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3. This is one of only six Stun Beams left in the universe. This poor Stormtrooper schmuck is unaware that they’re worth a lot of money.

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“Hold your fire. There’s no life forms. It must have short-circuited.”

4. Twenty years later, this Imperial misfit woke up at 2:30 AM and realized he had single-handedly brought down the Empire. He swore so loudly, he woke up the dog. Consumed by regret, he became Supreme Leader Snoke.

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“He’s got too much of his father in him.”  “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

5. Owen and Beru think Obi-Wan is Luke’s father.  They don’t understand Star Wars.

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6. This guy is a human, and he would prefer that you not ask about it.

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7. Master Yoda once told a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, “The Force is for knowledge and defense. Never to attack. And if someone pushes your friend at a bar, take his arm from him!!”

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“I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”  “Charming, to the last.”

8. Princess Leia only has a British accent in one scene of A New Hope: her confrontation scene with Grand Moff Tarkin. This is canon. She is making fun of him.

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“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

9. Obi-Wan thought being a Force Ghost would be much cooler than it was.

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“I used to bullseye Womp Rats in my T-16 back home.”

10. Womp Rats are as smart as people, and Luke is a murderer.

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They’re also a sick boss enemy in Super Star Wars for the SNES.

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“This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of Kenobi. It will soon see the end of the Rebellion.”

11. After Darth Vader says these lines, Grand Moff Tarkin shuffles awkwardly in place for a moment. This is because Darth Vader had just said these exact same words about 30 seconds ago. He’s repeating himself because he doesn’t think Tarkin is being a good listener, and Tarkin is stressed out by Vader’s passive-aggressive mind games.

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“Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer. What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I’m all right.”

12. Even though he blew up the Death Star, Luke was still remembered by his fellow Rebels as “that cocky jagoff who turned off his computer and nearly killed everyone because a ghost told him to.”

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13. Chewbacca requested, in advance, that he not receive a medal, because Wookiees don’t believe in awards. Also, Chewbacca was telling Han to turn the Falcon back around the entire time, and is still upset that Han wouldn’t listen.

 

The Empire Strikes Back

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“I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee.” “I can arrange that! You could USE A GOOD KISS!!!”

14. Han Solo has never even held hands with a girl.

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“THAT’S IT. THE REBELS ARE THERE.”

15. Darth Vader has done this “The Rebels are there” routine with 12 other planets already — the same way, every time.  This is why his underlings struggle to contain their disbelieving laughter when Vader does it with Hoth.

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“Your Tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker!” “Then I’ll see you in Hell! Yah!”

16. Han is the only person in the Star Wars universe with a concept of “Hell,” and even he isn’t sure where he got the idea.

Also, the Rebel he told off spent the rest of the night thinking of comebacks he should have used. “Yeah, well, maybe I’ll see you in Hell, you dirty…smuggler…jerk!”

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“I found ’em. Repeat: I found ’em.”

17. This pilot, who saved Luke and Han from the frozen tundra of Hoth, frequently tells the story to his grandkids. It makes him smile, and it makes them smile too.

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“You look strong enough to pull the ears off a Gundark.”

18. This is an unspeakably offensive remark, for reasons that an Earthling could never understand. It’s easily the worst thing Luke has ever heard out of Han. Luke plays it cool, but even after the big rescue, his opinion of his friend has taken a severe hit today.

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19. R2-D2 is furious about being stuck with Crazy Luke on one of his Crazy Luke Adventures, but nobody asked his opinion, so here he is.

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20. Dagobah is Earth after severe climate change. Hence, the presence of Earth lizards and Earth snakes.

“But Cameron!” you protest, after a comical spit-take, “Star Wars takes place a long, long time ago! In a galaxy far, far away!

These words, while true, were never intended for us. They’re addressed to the cosmic alien beings who will enjoy this saga 40 billion eons from now at the Edge of Space.  We were never the target audience. We’re just lucky to be here.

IMG_229921. This is easily the worst day of R2-D2’s life.

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22. Master Yoda’s been practicing his wacky-old-man routine for over a decade. He only gets upset with Luke’s impatience after Luke’s questions force him off-script.

Also, Yoda is the only character to fight both R2-D2 and the Emperor. This isn’t a headcanon, but I think it’s neat-o mosquito.

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23. Nobody is allowed to project a hologram as big as the Emperor’s, under penalty of tortureball.

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24. Luke doesn’t understand the Cave. Not one bit. He fakes it to get Master Yoda off his back (figuratively).

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25. Yoda doesn’t get the Cave either. He wandered in there five years ago and saw the same thing Luke did: a spooky Vader-phantom with Luke Skywalker’s face. It gave him the willies. He decided to send Luke in there to get some answers, and now they’re both pretending to understand in order to save face.

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“You got a lot o’ guts, coming here. After what you pulled.”

26. It was Lando’s finger, that Han pulled.

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“That boy is our last hope.”  “No. There is another.”

27. Obi-Wan is pretty sexist, and always forgets about Leia.

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28. R2-D2 started out as a fog machine, but they kept adding upgrades.

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29. Headband Man has a lot of good ideas, but nobody ever asks him, so he’s decided to stop talking altogether.  So far, nobody’s noticed, and he’s getting angrier every second.

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30. Luke keeps falling into random holes and tunnels because this building is sentient, and it has a cruel sense of humor.

 
Return of the Jedi

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“Goodness gracious me.”

31. Jabba the Hutt’s stick-out door-babbler is a garish, tacky, gaudy thing. Nobody’s sure if Jabba was being ironic when he had it installed, and nobody’s foolish enough to ask.

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It’s also a sick boss enemy in Super Return of the Jedi for the SNES.

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32. Lando lowers his mask because he feels bad about his betrayal.  He wants to be caught.

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33. Luke’s rescue plan — as told to his friends — was, “We’ll put the lightsaber in the droid, we’ll go in one at a time, and, you know, just have fun with it.”

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34. Boba Fett is just eight-thousand tiny bugs in a suit of Mandalorian armor.

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35. After nibbling on C-3PO’s eye, Salacious B. Crumb inherits Jabba the Hutt’s criminal empire. He’s a lousy gangster, however; all he ever does is get high and laugh himself to sleep.

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36. Ordinarily, the Emperor — whose first name is “The,” surname is “Emperor” — would wear an understated suit and tie to work, like a normal head of state. While visiting Death Star Deuce, however, he opts to wear his favorite Snuggie. The comfortable-yet-practical garment is a symbol of his overconfidence, and it foreshadows his downfall.

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37. Obi-Wan Kenobi disappears when he dies, but leaves his clothes behind. Yoda disappears when he dies, but takes his clothes with him. When Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin Skywalker die, they leave behind fully-clothed corpses.

What’s the big idea, fellas? Here’s my take:

The Jedi are taught to shun possessions in life, but that’s only so they can get a big fat payoff right at the end. The better you are at the Force, the more stuff you get to bring with you, beyond the mortal coil. Qui-Gon was a dirty trickster who lied to Gungans, so he leaves everything behind. Vader had a nice redemption, but he killed way more children than is expected of a good Jedi, so he, too, leaves his body behind. Obi-Wan was a pretty good Jedi, so he gets to bring his naked bod along. Yoda, being a great Jedi, gets to bring his clothes, so he doesn’t have to strut about Force Heaven in the buff.

Theoretically, an even better Jedi would get to take the house. When the Best Jedi of All Time bites it, the universe will come to an abrupt end.

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“Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

38. This is the moment when Luke realizes that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a compulsive liar. He decides, however, not to make a stink out of it. What would be the point? The man’s a ghost now. A ghost who has to sit down sometimes.

mon-mothma-complete-guide-to-the-force-awakens-backstory39. Mon Mothma is the first woman Princess Leia has seen since she was a baby. Leia is having a weird day.

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“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

40. Han is just dying to raise his hand and ask “What’s a Bothan?” but he knows Leia would dump his sorry butt.

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Vader is on that ship.”

41. Luke, with his constant paranoid remarks and wackadoo Jedi stories, is easily Han’s weirdest friend (counting Chewbacca!). Han wants to tell him to shut up sometimes, but he knows Leia would dump his sorry butt.

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“Leia, do you remember your mother? Your real mother?”  “Just a little bit. She died when I was very young.”

42. This seems like a plot hole, because Padme Skywalker died during childbirth. However, Leia is pointedly referring to her adoptive mother here — who is her “real” mother — and frankly, she does not care for Luke’s phrasing.

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“You have a power I don’t understand, and could never have.”

43. Leia is being polite when she tells Luke she “doesn’t understand” the Force. She understands it. She just thinks the Force is for babies.

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44. The men in purple are in a ska band with the Emperor, who is not taking his job seriously today.

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45. The Stormtroopers could easily defeat the fuzzy little Ewoks, but they can’t bring themselves to do it. Instead, they allow themselves to die.

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46. That eerie ghost-wave erupting from the Emperor’s pancaked remains? It’s actually all the meanness escaping, for he was — in life — the Meanest Man in Space. It’s a good thing Luke and Vader ducked below the ghost-wave, or they would have become very mean indeed!

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“It’s not like that at all. He’s my brother.”

47. Han is relieved, but also terrified that his girlfriend might be as weird as Luke.

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48. It’s terribly awkward to be a Force Ghost with a checkered past. You have to spend a thousand years making peace with the other Force Ghosts, atoning for your sins, and generally working on yourself. This is why Anakin throws up his hands, walks away from it all, and reincarnates himself as Rey, which is a theory that I wholeheartedly endorse.

Star Wars Opinions: Luke Skywalker has vanished, and all we got was this lousy Death Star

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I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground in the Star Wars discourse when I say that The Force Awakens’ Super Size Death Star plotline is the screenwriting equivalent of copied homework.

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I want to mark up this entire scene in red pen.

Don’t try to tell me Starkiller Base isn’t a Death Star; I know what a Death Star is. It’s a big round Goliath metaphor with a planet-blasting hole in it, and it always contains a tiny weak point which can be lasered up until the whole thing explodes. It’s not a new thing now just because it’s the size of a planet instead of a moon.

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To a tiny human protagonist, a moon is already huge beyond comprehension.

Whether it came from screenwriters, or risk-averse Disney executives intent on the safest plot imaginable, the decision to clutter up half of The Force Awakens’ runtime with The Death Star Rises is pretty inexplicable to me.  The resulting film suffers heavily from the law of diminishing returns.

After all, there’s a dramatic reason that David only fights one Goliath. If he kills three Goliaths, each victory becomes less remarkable than the last. By the third time around, the reader stops asking, “Is he gonna defeat Goliath?” and starts asking, “Who’s the dingus that keeps sending all these Goliaths?” or even, “What if Goliaths are the real underdog here?”

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I officially feel pity for metal murder-moons now.  Thanks, The Force Awakens.

This effect is best illustrated, within the Star Wars subtrilogy of Death Star movies, by the evolving remarks of Han Solo. In A New Hope, Han gives the following assessment of the Rebellion’s plan to attack the Death Star:

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“Attacking that battle station is not my idea of courage.  It’s more like…suicide.”

Beautiful! The stakes are set; the odds are impossible; the divergent choices of the idealistic Luke and pragmatic Han make perfect sense. And the resulting one-in-a-million destruction sequence ranks among the greatest scenes that ever pleased a crowd. Just listen to this audio clip of a 1977 audience’s reaction, and you’ll hear exactly what this scene does to people:

Start listening at 2:43 for the finale.  Makes me cry a little.

Now, let’s move to Death Star 2: Electric Boogaloo in Return of the Jedi, and see what Han has to say about the second attack plan:

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“Good luck!  You’re gonna need it.”

This time around, Han knows it’s difficult to blow up a Death Star, but it’s not impossible. There are legitimate stakes here, but he’s not about to lose sleep over them. In fact, he’s willing to be pretty cheeky about the whole shebang.

This speaks well to Return of the Jedi’s relative indifference to Death Star Deuce; the station is there, and it’s a problem, but the film kindly requests that you invest yourself more thoroughly in the other, more novel elements (Jabba’s sail barge, the Luke/Vader/Emperor hate triangle, Salacious P. Crumb, et cetera).

Over the 33 years since Return of the Jedi’s release, the use of a second Death Star has likely tied with the presence of Ewoks as the most widely-criticized aspect of the film – which makes it all the more strange that The Force Awakens would take this flaw and dial it up to eleven.

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Imagine if BB-8 had been, like, thirty Ewoks.

Return of the Jedi would likely have benefited from something else in the Death Star’s place – perhaps an attack on the Emperor’s never-witnessed Imperial Palace? – but compared to The Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi works about as subtly and skilfully with its redundant plotline as a viewer could hope for, remaining otherwise quite different from A New Hope. There’s no attempt to ape the original stakes by sacrificing a neutral planet, the Rebel assault turns out to be a trap this time, most of the thriling dogfight takes place outside the station (where it serves as a solid visual motivator for Luke’s internal conflict), and the attack run itself is portrayed in a very brisk sequence – a scene which, strangely enough, feels more like a comforting post-Vader epilogue than a narrative climax in its own right, driven by a pretty triumphant piece of score and conveying only a mild sense of danger.

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Emperor’s been dead for ten minutes.  Everything’s gonna be fine.

This deft touch, however, is entirely absent from The Force Awakens (though perhaps no touch would be deft enough to justify a third doggone Death Star). Here, once again, the film’s approach to its looming massacre-ball is best summarized by the pithy remarks of Han Solo:

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“How do we blow it up? There’s always a way to do that.”

This furiously meta slice of dialogue officially marked the point, in my Force Awakens experience, where my giant Star Wars grin turned into the crooked puzzle-frown emoji:

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Over three movies, we’ve gone from “Attacking this thing is a death sentence” to “Just ‘splode it or whatever like always; I’m going back to bed.” This could have been a good piece of misdirection if another character had cut in with “Actually, we can’t blow it up,” and the plot had taken a new direction from there – or if the Starkiller assault had ultimately ended in failure. As it stands, however, Han’s line is a merciless stakes-killer, throwing out its arms and declaring to the audience, “Don’t panic, folks! You’ll get the same happy ending you’ve gotten twice before.”

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Poor Ackbar was just dying for there to be a trap of some kind.

Han’s comment comes across as an attempt to sidestep criticism by owning up to the screenplay’s repetition – a technique which is most commonly seen in sitcoms that have jumped the shark. Even in comedy, it’s more likely to be irritating than entertaining. Frankly, if I could rid the world of one common artistic delusion, “Pointing out your story’s problems is just as good as fixing them” would be a strong contender.

Despite the surface rebranding efforts, the Starkiller Base plotline mimics the story beats of A New Hope much more directly than Return of the Jedi’s behemoth did; there’s the pitiless obliteration of gentle planets, the viewing of schematics as our heroes enter the third act, and a lengthy attack run which even contains some trench action. It’s all a foregone conclusion that eats up a good chunk of the film’s runtime, stealing attention from Rey’s somewhat-wanting character arc (speaking as someone who loves Rey, and wants better things for Rey), and surrendering the chance to take audiences on a once-in-a-lifetime emotional ride in favor of chasing the highs of A New Hope.

I don’t know if anyone’s been to a theater where the destruction of Starkiller Base caused the audience to hoot and holler like it’s 1977, but I heard crickets at mine. The loudest and most powerful thought I had, during that moment, was “Oh, I guess this one implodes, more like.”

Even Supreme Commander Snoke – the guy who spent a trillion credits to build Starkiller — can’t bring himself to act surprised when the thing explodes. This is just what Death Stars do, people; read a book.

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“I know, I know, but we all knew from day one this mumbo jumbo wouldn’t fly!”

To summarize: I am upset with this plotline. But what’s been far more disheartening, to me, has been the excuse-making responses from many critics and fans. I pick no bones with genuinely felt movie-joy – it’s a rare and wonderful thing, infinitely more profound than my litany of gripes – but the most common reaction I’ve heard has been a sort of bedgrudging resignation, followed by a labyrinth of rationalizations – not to make the Starkiller plotline good, but to make it acceptable. “Sure, they did the Death Star thing a third time, but I guess it’s fine because…”

The Star Wars narratives are supposed to ‘rhyme’ with each other. George Lucas said so.  This is just continuing the tradition.”

There’s a difference between rhyming, and just changing the font size of the original word. Even George Lucas said the new movie was derivative, before Disney used their scary backstage powers to force a public apology to the corporate Gods.

Star Wars is supposed to be dopey popcorn-brain self-referential nonsense. That’s why we love it.”

There was a time when we loved Star Wars for bringing us new and wild shit. There was a time when we loved the Death Star, not because we always have, but because we’d never seen a moon-sized space station before, and it was blowing not only planets, but also our minds. The same goes for laser swords, magic energy fields, meteor worms, and every other weird, nigh-unimaginable concept that the original Star Wars trilogy weaved into a compelling, well-told saga with lovable characters and immortal themes.

Sure, the series has always adhered to the classical Hero’s Journey narrative structure, but there’s infinite room for variation within that framework. And it may have repurposed popular tropes of samurai and war cinema for a fantastical space setting, but that shouldn’t be phrased like it’s a simple feat. Even starting from “samurai in space,” there are endless creative crossroads for an artist to take before landing on the Jedi concept that we know and love – hell, the prequels should stand as solid proof that there are a million ways to do Star Wars wrong. The Original Trilogy did it right.

But as I believe the head-hanging acceptance of The Force Awakens’ narrative cannibalism demonstrates, the Star Wars fandom is strangely prone to defensive self-loathing. I recall that, when the flaws of the ongoing prequel trilogy were being pointed out, some of the most common fan defenses could be boiled down to, “Sure, but the original trilogy wasn’t actually good either; we’re just wrong people who like bad things.”

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“Jar Jar Binks is bad comic relief, and R2-D2 & C-3PO are also comic relief. Therefore, the droids are bad, all the movies are bad, and everything fun is bad.”

Perhaps due to a long history of unfriendly comparisons with the more cerebral Star Trek (which – let’s be real – we only compare these dissimilar franchises because they share half a title) and the onslaught of mythos-cheapening material we’ve gotten over the last few decades, many Star Wars fans have learned that they’d rather dismiss the whole thing – and therefore themselves – than defend it. Which, I think, is a real shame.

So if you genuinely enjoy the third Death Star, I’m earnestly glad that you do; but I can’t personally stomach the viewpoint of “This is bad, but we don’t deserve better.” If you like Star Wars, you’re a person with good taste. Star Wars is good, fun, smart, well-crafted, worthy of your love, and you are worthy of Star Wars’ love in return.

“The Force Awakens is best viewed as a Soft Reboot/Half-Remake/Quasi-Remaster of A New Hope.”

Personally, I’m a little creeped-out by any attempt to stitch together a shambling, nonsensical frankengenre to absolve the sins of one movie. Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. There’s a number right in the title. Those are the terms by which it succeeds or fails.

“Would you rather we try something new, and end up with something as bad as the prequels?”

No, because I’m not a monster. But the notion that our only two choices are “bad new thing” and “good old thing” is a very sad concept of not only Star Wars, but the very nature of time itself. I’m not down with it.

“Well, what new story could they have done? Tell me an entire story right now.”

Ordinarily, I would dismiss this argument by noting that screenwriters are paid job-money to spend job-time crafting new plots. Just because a fan can’t conjur a superior plot right this second doesn’t mean a paid professional would be unable to accomplish the same over several months.

I would also note that cinema is a fantastically young medium, when compared to literature or theatre – both of which are still managing to accomplish new things – so the implication of “Every story has already been done!” is a slothful absurdity, especially when you’re working with a series about space-wizards where literally anything is possible.

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Darth Vader is a magic samurai burn victim in robot armor and a cape who breathes weird and chokes people without touching them.  This does not exist in nature.  People had to come up with it.

However, in the case of The Force Awakens, I don’t have to come up with a hypothetical alternate plotline. There already is one, sitting right at the beginning of the opening prologue scroll, shining in starlit gold for all to see:

LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED.

This is a perfect premise. Every Star Wars fan who came to the theater last December was literally making a journey to find Luke Skywalker. If the new heroes had been doing the same thing, throughout the film? We would’ve all been on the same team, through thick and thin.

The Star Wars series has told many kinds of stories – romance, revenge, escape, war – but not one of them has been a missing-person narrative, front to back. And missing-person narratives are dynamite, baby! Saving Private Ryan. Gone Baby Gone. The Long Goodbye. The Searchers. Add lightsabers to any one of those, and you’re already moving in the right direction.

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Donkey Kong Country 2: perhaps the ideal example of a “searching for the hero of the previous installment” narrative.

It’s true that the question of “Where’s Luke?” plays a role in The Force Awakens. But almost immediately, that question is stuffed into a droid and reduced to a quiet MacGuffin, functionally identical to A New Hope’s Death Star plans. Once Starkiller Base destroys the Republic, the question of Luke’s whereabouts is relegated to the background entirely.

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Q: Why does R2-D2 suddenly wake up at the end of the movie?  A: Because the heroes had beaten the boss and unlocked a new map.

Imagine, instead, a purely “Where’s Luke?” story, inspiring a cross-galaxy planet-hopping journey with a lean, desperate First Order hot on our heroes’ tail. With Luke being a continuous fixture of the plot, we could spend some time figuring out how Rey and Finn actually feel about his legend. Do they know he was there when the Emperor died? How did the tales of 30 years ago affect and inspire this new generation? Do Han and Leia miss their closest friend, or is there too much bad blood from the fall of Kylo Ren? There’s excellent dramatic potential in all these questions, and the Starkiller Base plotline leaves little room for them.

Perhaps Han and Leia, as enigmatic sidekicks on this road trip, would have the chance to take on new and interesting roles – as opposed to the situation in The Force Awakens, where Han is forced into Obi-Wan’s A New Hope role almost exactly, and Leia is crammed into the role of that bearded Rebel commander who says, “May the Force be with you.”

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“No, don’t worry, I’m 1/16th Jedi.  It’s cool.”

Perhaps Rey, with all that extra time with Leia, would have more of a chance to discuss the nature of the Force. Maybe Leia is reluctant to use it, herself, since the Kylo Ren catastrophe – until Han dies, at which point she uses the Force to bring down a friggin’ fleet.

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Leia’s untapped Force potential was the only real sequel hook left over from the Original Trilogy, and in The Force Awakens, she uses it to sit down when her ex dies.

Speaking of Han’s death: perhaps when Kylo Ren mortally injures him, Han still has the chance to board the Falcon one last time, and tries to hold on until they reach Luke Skywalker – but, with some moving last words aboard the ship he loves, he passes away just moments before being reunited with his old friend. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.

Not that I wasn’t shocked — like everyone else — when Han died in The Force Awakens. But only a few hours later, I felt like I had learned about his death from a Wikipedia article. It lacked staying power.

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We spent a lot more time mourning Darth Vader, and he was a fascist murderer. The world knew Han Solo for almost 40 years!

And then – at the very end — the search would be concluded. With Leia and the other heroes having changed course to lure the First Order away from reaching Luke, Rey would be the only one who ultimately finds him. We’d still end on that ultra-powerful shot of the first meeting between the two heroes, but it would serve as the fulfillment of this movie’s story, instead of a mere teaser for the next one.

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Which is, honestly, a good summary of my feelings after seeing The Force Awakens: that I still haven’t seen a new Star Wars movie, but just a very long, promising trailer for a new series. That series may yet be fantastic — the ingredients are there — but it’s a shame that it will only be two complete movies long.

I don’t rattle off these hypothetical shower-plotlines to hype up my storytelling abilities, which are, frankly, nascent as hell. I only mean to illustrate how vast the possibilities really are for all-new, all-exciting chapters of the Star Wars universe. If there’s a positive takeaway to be gleaned from this carping screed, I hope it’s this: that art is young, there is always something new under the twin suns, and if we want something more than throwbacks to yesteryear, there’s no real reason we can’t get it.

Star Wars Opinions: on the Discussion of Galactic Politics

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I revisited the Original Trilogy a few weeks ago, and then I saw The Force Awakens. Now, I have too many Star Wars opinions. I’ve decided to share these rapidly-cooling takes as blog entries, lest they crush me like the trash compactor in A New Hope.

But first, a friendly heads-up: many of these opinions aren’t positive. As I watched The Force Awakens, I found myself torn by warring emotions — falling in love with the wonderful characters and adventurous tone, appreciating the diversity of the cast, yet abhorring the derivative scenarios and settings that held it all back from its full potential.

So if The Force Awakens brought you unqualified joy, and you’re still on Cloud 9 City from the experience, I’m genuinely happy for you and I have no interest in raining on your medal ceremony. It’s a wonderful thing that Star Wars is making so many people happy again.

But if you’re in the mood to join me in picking some serious nits with The Force Awakens, then these might be the droids you’re looking for.

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Today, I’ll be talking about political dialogue and exposition in the Star Wars series, and how its general absence in The Force Awakens made the whole affair feel like a galaxy without stars.

RUNNING FROM THE PREQUELS

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There’s a popular understanding of the Original Trilogy/Prequel Trilogy dichotomy that goes like this:

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The OT was wonderful because they focused on the rip-roaring adventures of lovable characters, and left the politics out of it.

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The PT was dreadful because everyone talked each other’s Gundark ears off about political matters (e.g. the taxation of trade routes to outlying zzzzzzzzzzzz).

At first glance, this seems like a fair assessment. And it certainly explains the dearth of politics-talk in The Force Awakens; if you want to reinvent Star Wars for an audience that largely hates the PT, it makes sense to put as many parsecs as possible between your new film and the perceived flaws of the prequels.

But even admist the widespread praise that The Force Awakens has received, there’s been ample and just criticism of the film’s reluctance to explain what, exactly, is going on in this galaxy far, far away. 30 years after the Empire’s defeat in Return of the Jedi, what fan wouldn’t be curious how, and in what form, the dreaded space-tyrants have managed to return? Who wouldn’t want to know what the new Republic is like, and whether it was even worth the three-film efforts of Luke, Han, and Leia to lay its groundwork?

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I want to see the world Mon Mothma built!

The Force Awakens rarely deigns to explore these concepts, instead staging all of its action far away from the Republic – which is destroyed, halfway through the film, as a perfunctory act of stakes-setting – and never quite conveying what the First Order wants, beyond the indiscriminate killing of villagers (which is super-evil, yes, but hardly an ethos).

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“Together, we will remove the blight of innocent villagers from the galaxy! CAN WE GET A HELL YES?!”  “hell yes”

I, for one, would have been more inclined to root for the Republic/Resistance against the First Order if I knew which side loomed larger, whose territory we were in, what it would be like to live under either side’s control, or even a hint of what ideals were being fought over.

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By contrast, the state of affairs in A New Hope – a film which The Force Awakens, in so many other respects, seems desperate to mimic – is quite clear. The Free Little Rebellion vs. Big Fascist Empire dynamic is, admittedly, a simple one, fueled by ample historical precedent and the healthy instinct of viewers to root for underdogs. But even so, A New Hope refuses to coast on these narrative shortcuts, taking extensive time to comment upon its political universe. The popular recollection of A New Hope as a politics-free zone crumbles under scrutiny; the film is simply better at handling its political dialogue than the PT ever was.

SO WHY DO THE POLITICS WORK IN A NEW HOPE?

In short, the political dialogue of A New Hope works because it’s written with purpose and panache. When the characters hold political discussions, there tends to be a compelling narrative reason. Sometimes these talks clarify the stakes, sometimes they bring us closer to the characters, sometimes they paint a more vivid and enticing picture of the Star Wars mythos, and sometimes they’re just entertaining in and of themselves – as political dialogue can very well be, when properly written.

Right from the first setpiece, when Vader and his Stormtroopers invade Leia’s ship, political references are peppered throughout which serve to illuminate the nature of the conflict and the danger at hand:

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m an ambassador on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.”

All this phony-ambassador business tells us just how watchful the evil Empire really is; that even in the vastness of space, Leia requires extensive deception to fly under their radar.

Later on, when Luke hides away with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ol’ Ben dives a little further into political exposition. In the same scene where Obi-Wan and Hologram Leia explain thrilling concepts like the Force and the lightsaber, they also provide a small history-and-civics lesson on the transformation of democracy into tyranny.

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“For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.  Before the dark times…before the Empire.”

Why do we need to know that there used to be an Old Republic, long before the events of this film? Because it makes the Empire far more savage and terrifying to know that there used to be democracy, until they murdered it. It also offers a faint glimmer of hope that freedom can be achieved again; a tantalizing possibility for our heroes to hold on to.

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“Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars.”

Some aspects of A New Hope’s politics are so lightly referenced that they serve primarily to tantalize us, making the whole mythos more vast, mysterious, and compelling. Throughout the OT, we’ll never find out what a “clone war” is; but the suggestion that this universe is huge and complex enough to include something as wild as a “clone war” without stopping to explain it, has a way of opening our imaginations. It tells us that Star Wars — the sci-fi fantasy about space wizards — is a place where anything can happen, and you’ll never guess what it’s going to be.

Perhaps the most politically talky scene of A New Hope is the Imperial meeting aboard the Death Star. The scene is best remembered for a brief moment where Darth Vader chokes a loser for sassing his religion, but the scene is also positively lousy with lines like this one:

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“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”

“Imperial Senate.” “Dissolved the council.” “Last remnants of the Old Republic.” The prequels are loaded down with phrases like these, but in A New Hope, they work to send an effective stakes-raising message: the bad guys are getting worse, and the good guys need to step up their game.

Some of A New Hope’s political lines, however, really are about the political ideas at hand; there can be genuine emotional heft to a purely political put-down, even in the most popcorny of blockbusters. I, for one, do a mental fist-pump whenever I hear Leia scold Tarkin about the self-defeating nature of fascism:

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“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Personally, I would have loved to hear The Force Awakens’ cynical, older Han Solo deliver his two ornery cents about the First Order, and the kind of idiots who would idolize the blundering fascists of yesteryear. “Guess some ideas are just too bad to die.” (It’s not a great Solo line, but I only spent two seconds on it because I’m not making Disney-money over here.)

A small, politically-charged remark like this could have felt pretty powerful in 2015 America – a time and place where tyrannical reactionaries are gaining a chilling amount of traction at the polls.

SO WHY DIDN’T THE POLITICAL DIALOGUE WORK IN THE PREQUEL TRILOGY?

The short answer is, it lacked purpose.

I won’t be citing specific lines from the prequel trilogy, because reading and writing dialogue from the PT is like sand; I hate it.

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But I do recall watching scene after scene of characters discussing the Separatists, how crucial it allegedly was to keep them from seceding, and how, perhaps, creating a clone army with terrible marksmanship was the wisest course — and yet, for all the time invested, I don’t recall having a single specific emotion about the Separatist movement. I think I had a sense of vague, cynical pity for them, knowing that they were unwitting tools of The Soon-to-be-Emperor (I don’t personally accept the name “Sheev Palpatine”), but it wasn’t a specific- or powerful-enough feeling to make me care about who was blasting at whom.

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Maybe they were supposed to remind us of the Confederacy? With all the brown? But generally I think the Confederacy is more hated for the racism, not the secession, so, no dice.

Likewise, the strongest emotion I felt about those Trade Federation dopes — and whatever they were up to — was “Wow, these aliens have a racist aesthetic.”

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For all the mouth-flapping the PT’s characters did, the villains’ rhetoric never outraged or frightened me, nor did the Jedi/Republic’s words ever inspire me.  Obi-Wan’s singular phrase from the OT, “peace and justice in the Old Republic,” held more emotional pull than three entire prequels’ worth of mealy-mouth kerfuffle.

So the difference between the OT and the PT isn’t a matter of No Politics vs. Politics; it’s a matter of politics with purpose and panache, versus politics that sit in the road, obstructing the story without bringing any pathos to the table.

Which brings us back to the third option, taken by The Force Awakens: little to no political talk whatsoever.

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE FORCE AWAKENS?

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A little Internet-scouring reveals the political details of The Force Awakens’ universe: the First Order is an entity operating beyond the borders of the Republic, laughed off by all of the Republic’s officials, aside from General seen-some-shit Leia. She manages to get a scrappy little Resistance going within First Order territory, secretly supported by the Republic. Then, as shown in the film, the Republic is destroyed, leaving nothing but the tiny Resistance to fight the tyrannical First Order, all of which is…

…functionally identical to the political conflict in A New Hope: the little Alliance versus the big bad Empire. Only the names have changed.

In-universe, this is a deeply depressing turn of events. It’s as though the wonderful ending of Return of the Jedi never happened. Makes you wonder what that wild Ewok party was even for.

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“We forced our oppressors to rebrand themselves! Yub-friggin’-nub, baby!”

In a narrative sense, repeating the exact same dynamic is bound to yield diminished returns. Over the course of three films, it’ll be hard to keep pretending to wonder “How could the rebels possibly defeat their overlords?” when we’ve already seen that exact power-shift take place in the OT.

At first, I chalked up the lack of political dialogue in The Force Awakens to two factors: a mischaracterization of the pros and cons of the previous films, and a troubling anti-intellectual streak in modern blockbusters. But I think the real reason The Force Awakens lacks political dialogue is because there simply isn’t much to say; if we saw the Original Trilogy, we already know the dynamic, we know the ideas being fought over, and all that’s left to do is watch everything happen again. In the absence of new information, we are meant to swap in our knowledge of the OT.

To me, this is the most disappointing aspect of The Force Awakens‘ throwback-heavy plot. Most of the derivative elements of the movie’s script are safely contained, without necessarily spreading to the rest of the trilogy – I think they know better than to give us Death Stars #4 and #5 in the next two films, for example – but this cyclical political stalemate between the perpetually-renamed Empire and Rebel Alliance appears to be the plot of the entire new trilogy, not just this installment. The chance to show us a new and interesting Republic, or a desperate operating-from-the-shadows First Order (think League of Shadows in Batman Begins, but with lightsabers), seems to be gone.

As previously stated, I adore the new characters of The Force Awakens; but I fear that Rey, Finn, and Poe will never have a truly unique chapter of Star Wars history to call their own. I hope, somehow, that I’m proven wrong.

A SHORT POST-SCRIPT ABOUT LEGEND OF KORRA

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The popular Nickelodeon fantasy-adventure series Avatar: The Last Airbender took many cues from the Star Wars movies, and gradually built an equally wonderful mythos, with its own clear and compelling narrative of scrappy underdogs vs. imperial fascists (in this case, Aang and his friends vs. the evil Fire Nation).

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To imagine how The Force Awakens’ political landscape could have taken a more imaginative direction, one needs only look to Last Airbender’s sequel series, Legend of Korra. While Korra, in my view, never reaches the brilliance of its predecessor, it’s still a masterpiece of worldbuilding, largely because it allows the political shifts of Last Airbender to have lasting, worldly consequences. The defeat of the Fire Nation at the end of Last Airbender isn’t reversed or canceled out by the events of Korra, whose villains instead hail from new political factions and fight for different ideals. In fact, the only ones who take up the Fire Nation’s tyrannical mantle are a bigoted underground gang, called the Agni Kais, who present only a minor recurring threat.

Looking back, I applaud the breadth of Legend of Korra’s imagination in depicting a world that – over the intervening decades between installments – changes as much as ours would. And I really wish Star Wars would have done the same.

A Second Look: Sunset for Ol’ Rooter, from The Land Before Time

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DISCLAIMER: I’m going to cry a couple times while I write this blog.  Don’t make it weird.  We’ll get through this, if we hold on together.

In many ways, my taste in movies hasn’t changed since I was 5.  I’m still just as attached to the animated classics of that fertile late-80s-to-90s period as ever, and the more I learn about cinema, the more my appreciation deepens for the Old Ways.  I know every song of the Disney Renaissance — especially the villain songs, which are indisputably the best.  You can’t make me “feel old” by reminding me that Anastasia came out 3000 years ago, because I remember exactly how old every cartoon is at all times.  It doesn’t matter when you’re reading this blog; I watched Aladdin yesterday.

But there’s one of these nostalgia-stuffed masterpieces that I love almost too much.  I seldom rewatch this movie front-to-back, because it’s so affecting that it physically aches to remember; actually seeing it is like exposing a nerve and dunking it in salt water.  Despite being released in 1988, the story is so timeless that it could’ve been told the same way in the ’80s, the ’30s, the 1830s, or the doggone Triassic period.

Since this magical film seems to stand comfortably outside human culture, outside the uber-capitalist structure of Hollywood, and outside of time itself – before time, one might say – it is only fitting that they named the movie Rock-a-Doodle.

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Nah, though. It’s The Land Before Time.

LandBeforeTimePlatvoetmetmoederRevisiting Don Bluth’s greatest triumph as an adult, it’s striking how dark the movie is – but as we start down that road, I’d like to comment on this millennial pastime of discovering-the-darkness-in-your-childhood-faves, replete with dire sentiments like “This will ruin your childhood!” and “Isn’t it fucked up that we watched this as kids?!

1000wThis “darkening” is rarely treated as the valid, thoughtful method of re-examination that it is.  It’s more often seen as some seedy, subversive act – something we’re not allowed to be doing, something the filmmakers could never have conceived of us doing.  After all, they were just making doofy billion-dollar light shows to keep everyone’s dummy fart-children from eating crayons, right?

Wrong, my hypothetical child-of-the-nineties friend; Don Bluth and company were artists, and it’s evidence of their incredible skill and depth of feeling that a work like The Land Before Time could be enjoyed on one level by children who have just learned to speak, and enjoyed on several more by adults who have walked the earth for decades.  Hell, it’s hard enough to make a movie that can be enjoyed on one level by one person.  (I’ve been trying for years!)

So, let’s check this reductive childhood-ruining concept at the door.  I’m here to honor and enhance The Land Before Time, not attack it, and my childhood is doing just fine where I left it.  I will not be held responsible for any damage done to yours.

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In The Land Before Time, the main threat to our heroes isn’t a wizard, a monster, or the only lion on the continent with a black mane and an English accent.  It’s not even the Sharptooth, terrifying as he is in all his resplendent, towering majesty (I can’t help but respect a tyrannosaurus).  The villain is the elements.  Here, we have a story of lost children, all separated from their parents, struggling through an unforgiving, earth-shaking wasteland, barely avoiding starvation while struggling to unlearn the racism they were taught by their families – because if they can’t, they will certainly die.

The stakes are intense, no matter your age.  As a child, your sympathies probably lie entirely with the story’s child characters – who, incidentally, are the best child protagonists in any movie I’ve ever seen.  They’re complex, naïve, silly, and vulnerable, and their youth is depicted honestly and without apology; they never come off as obnoxious parodies or older minds written into younger bodies.  In fact, much of the film’s intensity comes from Littlefoot’s seemingly impossible task: getting a team of children to work together, while being a child himself.

And this is coming from someone who usually hates when there’s a kid in a movie.

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Dr. Grant: not a fan, either.

When you revisit The Land Before Time as an adult, one of the film’s newly apparent layers is the perspective of its adult characters.  One can understand how even a well-meaning parent like Littlefoot’s mother might unwillingly pass down a bigoted worldview, because she’s simply never known otherwise.  Then, in the heart-shattering scene of her death, an adult viewer can comprehend not only Littlefoot’s unbearable loss, but his mother’s desperation in passing down the information that he needs, not only to survive, but to live an entire life without her: “Let your heart guide you.  It whispers, so listen closely.”

While the movie generally tells a story of children struggling to survive in a harsh, changing world,  it’s also about the selfless nobility of adults who pass their wisdom to children, even when there’s nothing left in their own futures.

These dual themes are perfectly captured by the meeting between Littlefoot and Rooter.

Following his mother’s death, Littlefoot wanders the wastes alone, until he tumbles down a slope and collides with a green mound.  That mound reveals itself to be Ol’ Rooter, a cantankerous old scolosaurus.  Defaulting to Mean Old Man Mode, Rooter scolds Littlefoot, both for his clumsiness and for his tears.  Littlefoot – speaking more to himself than this turtle-shaped grump he doesn’t know – reveals that he’s blaming his mother for her own death.

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This is where Rooter, and the scene, surprise us.  The moment he understands what’s going on here, Rooter adjusts his tone, and tries to help Littlefoot.  The shift alone packs an emotional wallop, brought on by a perfect blend of James Horner’s score, the animation, Stu Krieger’s screenwriting, and voice actor Pat Hingle’s performance of the line, “Oh…I see. I see.”

Rooter goes on to conquer his own surly disposition, comforting Littlefoot as best he can.  He cautions our hero against blame, telling him honestly about the reality of death, but also of the way we keep our loved ones alive through memory.  When Littlefoot’s comforted enough to focus on his physical pain instead – “my tummy hurts” – Rooter sees this as his cue to exit.  Telling him, “Well, that, too, will go in time, little fella.  Only in time,” he turns back to his hole in the ground.  Rooter isn’t seen for the rest of the movie.

Like most of the film, the Rooter scene is powerful and earnest enough to get away with being extremely on-the-nose. Interestingly, it was actually added to the movie at the request of child psychologists, who felt that it would help children in the audience to process their sadness after the onscreen death of Littlefoot’s mother — particularly if they could relate to the loss of a parent in reality.  Since this recommendation resulted in one of the film’s most tender, moving scenes, it provides a stark example of how social responsibility and artistic wisdom are just as capable of working in tandem as they are of butting heads with one another.

It’s clear enough, then, what this scene does for Littlefoot.  But what is Rooter’s perspective?  What new aspect of the movie do we better understand by understanding Ol’ Rooter?

What I’ve realized, upon reviewing this scene as an adult, is that Rooter is approaching death himself.

33There’s a reason Littlefoot doesn’t encounter many friendly faces on his journey, aside from his main crew.  The vegetation is gone.  The water is dry.  The earth is arid and broken.  This simply isn’t a place where a dinosaur can survive.  Yet here lies Rooter, completely alone.  He’s clearly too old to make it to the Great Valley; it’s likely that he was either separated from his herd, or they had to leave him behind.

Since then, he’s dug himself a small hole, to curl up in and wait for the end.  Who can blame him for being grumpy, when some kid falls on his back and interrupts his final moments?

When Rooter changes his tone and comforts Littlefoot, he’s doing for the young longneck just what his mother had a few scenes ago: he’s passing on what he knows.  Aware that he has no time left, Rooter is giving Littlefoot what little he does have: the wisdom of an old dinosaur who’s lost loved ones before — many of them recently, perhaps, due to the famine and earthshake — and is ready to greet death in the wilderness.

Though the authorial intent is debatable here, I personally believe the confirmation comes in Rooter’s final line, concerning Littlefoot’s stomachache: that it will go in time.  “Only in time.”  Not with food; in time.  Rooter’s doing the best he can – and even this final line is phrased in the most comforting way possible – but he doesn’t expect Littlefoot to last long out here.  After all, nobody does.

The Rooter scene is, at minimum, a beautiful encounter between the film’s hero and an elderly mentor figure, at a time when Littlefoot needs to hear some wisdom to help him along.  But I think it’s far more captivating as a meeting from opposite sides of the great circle of life: one character who’s just entered the world, and one who’s ready to leave it.

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It’s worth noting, too, that Pat Hingle – the voice of Rooter – also voices the narrator of The Land Before Time.  Even if Rooter died mere hours after meeting Littlefoot, it’s entirely possible that he and the narrator are, canonically, one and the same; after all, the film generally adheres to a belief in some beautiful, vague concept of the afterlife.  We may only have seen a glimpse of Rooter, but perhaps he’s there the entire time, bearing witness and passing along the incredible story of Littlefoot and his friends, and how they made it to the Great Valley, long, long ago.

Even if we can’t see him.

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Lines I Adore: Ethan’s Possessive Gambit from The One I Love

SPOILER ALERT: It’s impossible to write one single word about the romantic sci-fi dramedy The One I Love without spoiling the whole movie.  I’m serious.  God Himself could not do it.  If you haven’t seen this movie, go and stream it on Netflix.  You can come back when you’re done.  Shoo!  It’s good!

Elisabeth-Moss-and-Mark-Duplass-in-The-One-I-Love“Look, I don’t have a lot of time, okay, and I’m not gonna get this right.  But I don’t want you to leave.  I don’t want you to leave me, Sophie.  Look, I know he is handsome, and smart, and eloquent, and he makes cool aardvark metaphors…okay, and I’m difficult, and I’m stubborn, and I know that I’ve been defensive, and I haven’t been what you needed.  And I take a big part of the responsibility for why this has happened, okay, but listen to me: I’m your husband.  And you’re my wife.  And I am not letting you go.  We’re a mess, and I love that about us.  And I don’t want to be perfect.  I want to be us.  So Sophie, please, give me a chance, before he comes in here.  I love you.”

There’s a lot about mainstream cinema’s portrayal of romance that sticks in my craw.

I used to think it was the abundance of clichés that turned me off from the romantic genre (and most romantic subplots).  But as I grew out of my All-Seeing Film Student phase, I realized this was kind of a gendered rationalization; after all, the action and horror genres are stuffed to the pores with their own staples and stock characters.  Once I’d matured a little (i.e. last couple years, and ongoing), and better understood movies and relationships alike, I realized what was really unsettling me.  It’s not that romance on the Silver Screen cycles through so many familiar tropes.  It’s that these tropes so often promote misleading, severely unhealthy ideas about relationships.

I believe this stems, in large part, from the similar ways that violence and courtship are treated by film narratives.  Most mainstream movie plots are about people falling in love or fighting one another (if not both) and there have always been a lot of the same people telling both kinds of stories.  Thus, the treatments of these topics are bound to overlap in problematic, most likely unintended ways.  (That juxtaposition can be consciously played for irony, too, but it’s a soggy form of irony that belongs in the garbage.)

One of the first parallels I noticed was the similar treatment of action villains and ex-girlfriend characters.  What does an action film do with its villain?  It punishes him.  It has the hero spin-kick him into a meat grinder.

And what does a romantic film do with its ex-girlfriend character?  It punishes her.  It has the hero verbally destroy her.  Or it has the very cosmos conspire against her, outside the protagonist’s will.  Or — at the very least — it makes her new relationship crumble like crackers into soup.

Or, if the movie is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it does all three. large_20080417forgettingsarahmarshall-jasonsegal-kristenbell

Of course, there are plenty of romantic plots that conclude with their characters moving on in more mature, yet still satisfying ways; ways that don’t feel designed to feed the angriest instincts of the dumped.  For my money, that kind of ending is usually more honest and entertaining.  But because such endings aren’t backed up by the universal cinematic language of violence – they don’t involve anyone being defeated – they’re harder to pull off, and thus, depicted less often.

More troubling still is the homunculus archetype of the Stalker Lead: a creepy, manipulative mashup of the most indulgent traits of romantic leads and action heroes.  The Stalker Lead is rewarded for being an unstoppable Terminator of a protagonist.  To get his happy ending, he has to insist on a woman’s love, just as a movie cop would demand a terrorist’s surrender.  He has to “fight for her” (as literalized by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).  He has to dangle himself from a damn ferris wheel and threaten Rachel McAdams with his own corpsitude if she doesn’t agree to a date.

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Don’t be fooled by his Ryan Gosling disguise. This man is scum.

The worst consequence the Stalker Lead will ever face is a “lovable scamp with a wry grin” designation.

And there’s one particular, climactic action that the Stalker Lead is known to take: the Demanding Monologue.  The hero plants his feet.  Stands his ground.  Bellows his love to the woman, perhaps before a crowd –an act designed to humble him, most likely, but still a manipulative, macho display which forces her to either accept his love or render herself a heart-puking goblin queen in the eyes of every onlooker in this Parisian square.

Often, this monologue contains proclamations so absolute, so oblivious to the woman’s agency, that they’re just a dozen eggs away from being Gaston lines in Beauty and the Beast.  “I’m not leaving without you.” “I love you. That means you belong to me.” “Never gonna give you up.”  This is the man stepping up to the plate and claiming the relationship.  Like many an action hero, all he needed to do was go harder than before, and now, here he is: going his hardest.

It’s this clichéd, problematic plot function that Ethan’s monologue from The One I Love uses to the film’s advantage. the-one-i-love-image-mark-duplass-elisabeth-moss

In the film’s finale, Ethan (Mark Duplass) manages to get alone in a room with his wife Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) while their idealized, duplicate selves (Mark Duplass & Elizabeth Moss) struggle to get in. The entire movie has been exploring the question of whether it’s better to have your real partner or a perfect version of your partner, and while Ethan has been leaning toward the former, Sophie has been leaning toward the latter.  Having cheated on Sophie long before the movie began — and having spent the intervening years blaming her for bringing it up too often — Ethan has this one dramatic opportunity to convince his wife to choose him over his ideal copy.

He plants his feet.  Stands his ground.  He goes hard and makes a brief, but passionate and beautifully-composed speech.  He nails the conceit of the film: “I don’t want to be perfect, I want to be us.”  It’s so on-point, we barely notice how measured and insufficient his slipped-in apology is: “And I take a big part of the responsibility for why this has happened.”  The speech is a small masterpiece of screenwriting by Justin Lader, brought to high-stakes life by Duplass’s desperate energy.  The line that’s stressed hardest is a classic example of the Demanding Monologue proclamation:  “I’m your husband, and you’re my wife, and I’m not letting you go.”

And it fails.

At first, Ethan’s speech appears to succeed; he runs off with Sophie to resume their turbulent married life, leaving their duplicates behind. But as the last seconds of the film reveal – both to the audience, and to Ethan himself – it was the “perfect” Sophie who escaped with him, and the original Sophie who stayed behind.  Ethan’s possessive, agency-denying gambit of “I’m not letting you go” was an abject failure.

The turn is a genuine shock, due in large part to the expectations shouldered by this genre. By making that last-minute stand and fighting for his wife, Ethan did what he was supposed to do.  He did what all those other men did.  And all those other men got the girl, didn’t they?

But it’s not just the subversion of cliché that makes this turn, and the monologue that it hinges upon, great.  It’s that it’s more honest than cliché.  Looking at these two characters, and the way a relationship between them would function — and forgetting, as best we can, the history of the genre up until now – of course Ethan’s effort fails.  He held back on a meaningful apology (a painfully human, relatable mistake).  He misidentified why the duplicate Ethan was a better partner; it’s not that he was cooler, it’s that he was willing to own Ethan’s mistakes.  And Ethan’s declaration of “I am not letting you go” was domineering, unpleasant, and almost threatening.  Ultimately, it was her letting him go.  And perhaps she would have, no matter what — even if Ethan had made the “perfect” speech.  But there’s certainly nothing in this beautifully-crafted monologue that would actually persuade Sophie, given the events of the movie up to that point.

It’s often said that one of the greatest storytelling achievements is to write an event that’s both unpredictable and inevitable.  Sophie’s decision to leave Ethan strikes this balance masterfully, and it’s mostly thanks to this brilliant failure of a speech.  Because the monologue pits genre expectations against the characters’ natures, and allows the latter to win out, it leaves the audience saying both “I can’t believe that happened” and “Well, of course that happened.”

And, as a bonus, the movie provides a more truthful perspective on relationships than most films of its kind.