The Force Awakens Teaser Observations – Themes & Other Observations (Spoilerish)

Force Awakens

NOTE:  There could be SPOILERS ahead, but this is largely my speculation, so be warned:

Another day, another watching the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer another dozen times.  The trailer has really started to grow on me with each subsequent viewing, especially as I started to analyze what the trailer is telling us about the state of the galaxy, and delve a little deeper into thematic elements revealed in this brief 88 second preview.

1. John Boyega – Hero On the Run

As the trailer opens we reveal the desert sands of Tatooine (I don’t buy for one minute that we are going to be introduced to yet ANOTHER desert planet), as ominous music rises and a menacing voice says: “There’s been an awakening… Have you felt it?”  Suddenly, Boyega jumps up in distress, clearly disheveled, and on the run.

WP4Phone_20141129090218One of the reasons I believe this is a revisit to Tatooine is that like many legends, and a number of the world’s major religions, they are all born out of the wilderness; or the desert to be more specific.  In the Star Wars universe, Tatooine is that vast wilderness in which our myth finds its genesis.  The story of Anakin, and later his son Luke, all originate from the desert wastlands of that planet that is farthest from the “bright center” of the universe.  So once again, our hero will emerge from the wilderness to take on his/her task.

I also believe there is a specific reason John Boyega is the first person we meet in the trailer; it will be his “Hero’s Journey” we follow throughout the Sequel Trilogy.  Somehow the Force has chosen to return through him.  As we’ve seen in both the Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars, the Force is not simple some inert energy field surrounding all living things which is passive and is simply a tool to be used by someone with a connection to the Force.  It is in fact an active agent; a sentient thing with its own will which it reveals to those who are willing to listen.

Mark HamillSomewhere in the galaxy there is a growing malevolence, as our dire narrator reveals later in the teaser; so it is very like the Force is calling out for a champion to restore balance to the Force once again.  This of course begs the question, where is Luke, the Jedi who restored balance to the Force?  As I speculated in an earlier piece, I believe Luke probably came to some realization that the Jedi way, while noble in its goals, was not necessarily the right way.  The Jedi taught that attachment was forbidden, but Luke’s unconditional love for his father, which is an attachment, ultimately saved the universe.  So clearly, something about the Jedi Code as we know it is amiss.

I never once bought the Expanded Universe notion that Luke would immediately set out to recreate the Jedi Order we saw in the Prequels; he would want to do something different.  Even after Jedi (back when we thought the Empire was destroyed), I wondered if Luke would be more like Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the ronin Samurai we saw in Akira Kurosawa’s classic films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, dispensing justice and defending freedom throughout the galaxy.  He would probably pass on that knowledge to another, like his sister, but would be looking to the galaxy at large, standing up to evil wherever he finds it.  Maybe this is the reason Luke is largely absent during this 30 year period of civil war; there are other injustices in the universe to be fought than a seemingly never ending war.  But this raises more questions…

2.  The Dark Side – They Always Have the Coolest Lightsabers:  

WP4Phone_20141129104649Who exactly is the hooded figure with his red bladed lighsaber longsword (affectionately called “Excalisaber” by Lazy Padawan).  Could he be a fallen pupil of Luke’s? We’ve established in The Clone Wars that there is no life after death for the Sith.  So this is not some resurrected Sith Lord, and if Luke is the last of the Jedi, and the Sith were destroyed in Return of the Jedi, then Luke has to be the catalyst for bringing about the reemergence of the Dark Side in some way.

This of course makes for some classic mythological storytelling, recalling the story of Lucifer and his expulsion from Heaven,  Maybe this dark agent is the son of Luke who has chosen another path, once again echoing the fall of Anakin, but in this case it would be the father who redeems the son.  There are many exciting story telling possibilities here which completely fit in with the type of modern myth George Lucas was trying to tell.

And while I was fairly ambivalent about the villain’s new lightsaber with its mini-saber cross guards, the design has really grown on me in the last few days when I view it in the context of a larger story.  The design is a call back to the classic broadswords/longswords prevalent in Medieval lore.  While Lazy Padawan jokingly referred to it as “Excalisaber” the name is very appropriate.  The sight of the red blade igniting in a wintery forest setting evokes images of knights and castles… a feeling of something ancient; something that was lost to the mists of history, but has been found again.  This Black Knight lies in wait, ready to pounce on our heroes, armed with his sword imbued with the power of some dark magic.  It’s a great visual which really works in the Star Wars setting.

3.  Daisy Ridley… Luke Skywalker was once a girl:  

Luke girlI really love the design aesthetic of Daisy Ridley’s character as it very reminiscent of early Ralph McQuarrie designs for Luke, back when George Lucas was toying with the idea of making his lead a young woman. Daisy jumps on her speeder bike in an outfit which closely resembles some early production paintings, right down to her riding goggles.

What I really love about this sequence is the determined look on her face, and this feeling I get that she is one who is quick to action.  Whether or not she is the child of Han and Leia, I think she serves a similar role as Han, and both literally and figuratively drives John Boyega’s character into the fray, and really kick starts his Hero Journey.

WP4Phone_20141129090235I really do hope she turns out to be Han and Leia’s kid, but even if she’s not she will be a crucial player in the events of the Sequel Trilogy.  But I appreciate the efforts of Abrams and Kennedy to go back and use some of McQuarrie’s discarded designs for inspiration.  To me McQuarrie, John Barry, Norman Reynolds, and Joe Johnston were the key figures who created the visual language of the Saga from a production level.  Their work inspired and informed the work of Gavin Bocquet, Doug Chiang , and Iain McCaig for the Prequel trilogy.

4. Music – How Could I Forget John Williams

One of the aspects of the teaser trailer I forgot to mention in my previous reports was John Williams brilliant music.  There are some wonderful new bits of music for the first minute of the trailer before a new re-recording of the Star Wars theme takes over.  it’s a very interesting mix of an older Williams style from the 70s mixed with a more familiar sound from Williams work over the past two decades.

WilliamsThe trailer begins with dissonant strings playing as we look at the Tatooine skyline.  The piece sounds very similar to a short bit of music he wrote for Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition during the Gobi Desert sequence.  Then we cut directly into the action with a very busty bit of music which felt like an action piece from the Prequels.  The tone takes an ominous turn with the appearance of our villain.  The Falcon and the Star Wars Main Theme bring us home to a rousing conclusion.

While it was just a short snippet of music, Williams once again demonstrates that his compositions for the Saga are almost like a character unto itself.  It’s the Greek Chorus, informing us how we should feel as an audience, who we should fear, and who we should cheer for.  He has built an enduring legacy with the Saga, and the film composers who take up the baton from this music icon for the spin off films, and future episodes of the Saga will be hard pressed to fill the enormous void his absence will leave.

Overview: That should about wrap it up for my analysis of the trailer for now.  I may take another analytical look as more information about the film is revealed, but for now, until we get a full blown teaser trailer, I’ll just be satisfied watching this teaser a few more times.

May the Force Be With You

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The Force Awakens Teaser Observations – 24 Hours Later

So, like most fans I’ve watched the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer a few dozen times, and I’ve had a full day to process my thoughts about it.  I really enjoy the trailer overall, but there are aspects I’m somewhat ambivalent about.  In retrospect, it’s a nice trailer which generates interest in the film, but I didn’t find particularly earth shattering, or game changing as some fans have called it.  Frankly I found the teaser trailer for Jurassic World a much better tease and definitely has me hyped to see it opening day.  However, there are some really interesting aspects about the trailer I wanted to delve into a little bit closer. So strap yourself in, cause here we go!!!

1. Cinematography:  I’ve always been a fan of the look of J.J. Abrams films.  Sure, he uses shaky cam from time to time, and the lens flares can be a bit much, but his visual style has always been rooted in a Spielberg look (e.g., Super 8) mixed with some modern techniques (e.g., Alias pilot, Mission Impossible III).  I figured  he would stick to a visual style more closely resembling what Lucas, Kershner, and Marquand established in the 6 films of the Star Wars Saga, but there were a couple of shots that really stood out like a sore thumb and bothered me quite a bit.

For example, the first shot we see is a desert skyline; fine looks great.  Then one of our heroes, played by John Boyega, jumps up into frame… no problem.  However, my big problem comes specifically from the lighting of the shot; it is extremely flat, and lacks any depth of field.  For a brief moment I thought someone was pulling a fast one and this was a fan made trailer as it looks like a shot someone had taken with their home video camera.  It’s ironic that Abrams constructed a shot that is so flat it almost looks like it was shot on video, while both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were in fact shot on video and never looked like they were.

My other problem comes from the Stormtrooper landing sequence, as Abrams returns to form and makes generous use of shaky cam and a modern blue hue which is commonly found in horror films (he made ample use of this in Super 8).  My problem with both of these is they simply do not fit the visual language of the other six films.  There’s certainly room for creative interpretation in the Saga.  For example, Peter Suschitzky’s camera and lighting work look significantly different than Gil Taylor’s work in A New Hope, or Alec Mills’ in Jedi, but there is still a consistency that looks and feels like the preceding films in the Saga.  However, this is a fairly drastic change.

One could argue that the films need a different look for a different time, and that’s true to a point, but when the films are numerical and are chapters of a continuing story, there should be an effort made to keep the look and style consistent.  If you want to hire Paul Greengrass to make a total shaky cam, documentary film about Clone Commandos in a spin off film, then fine.  The spin offs are certainly an arena where directors should be allowed stretch and see what they can do with the Star Wars genre, but I firmly believe the “Skywalker Saga” should have a consistent approach.  Again, there’s room to explore, and the remaining shots in the trailer look like they came from a traditional Star Wars film, so it may just be this one sequence.

2. Ball Droid:  I love ball droid, or ME-551 as I call him (HINT: change the 5’s into the letter they look like… you’re welcome futbol fan).  He’s adorable, cute, and strange like a lot of Star Wars characters.  I found it extremely amusing that a lot of “fans” who have bemoaned George Lucas adding cute or childish elements to the Saga, had no problem with this droid.  He’s literally a soccer ball with a mini R2 dome attached, and makes all the cute little beeps, moans, and whistles that we’ve grown accustomed to from droids.

Of course some of these fans argued that cute wasn’t part of Star Wars before Jedi and those insufferable Ewoks.  I guess I must have been imagining things when I saw mouse droid in A New Hope, the little bat guy squeal for his drink in the cantina, or watched Chewie cower in fear like a dog after escaping the garbage masher and hear the screams of the Dianoga.  Those scenes all struck me as “cute.”  But what about the fart and poo jokes in Phantom Menace, Yancy?  Well we had belch jokes in both Empire and Jedi, and a cute little fight scene between a little droid and an annoying diminutive green Muppet; so excuse me if I’m not offended by more childish humor in my Star Wars films.  Get over it; cute has always been a part of Star Wars.

3. Daisy Ridley:  I know almost nothing about this character, besides what I’ve read on various spoiler sites, but I love the design of her clothing, her speeder bike, and I love Ridley’s determined look in her brief moment on the screen.  I know I’m going to love Kira (or whatever her name turns out to be), and despite what some rumors are reporting, I have a suspicion she’s Han and Leia’s kid.  She has that same kind of feisty Leia Organa/Padme Amidala vibe to her, and I cannot wait to see Ridley’s performance on the big screen.

The other big stand out moment during this sequence was the reveal of her speeder bike.  It has a great lived in universe look, and feels like something you might find in Mose Eisley, or racing down the streets of Mos Espa (from Episode 1).  It’s a terrific design that looks like one part souped up speeder bike, and one part Magnum Ice Cream bar.

4.  Sith Guy and His Lightsaber Broadsword: 

I really like the look and feel of this entire sequence.  Our Dark Side villain moves in a very stealthy yet aggressive manner as if he were hunting prey.  In a very dynamic shot we follow him/her through a snowy forest, when suddenly the lightsaber is ignited.  It’s a very cool moment that works especially well with the dire sounding narration.  The look of the saber is cool, but I will have to agree with critics that it appears to be fairly impractical.

Ultimately I really have no problem with the design as it’s meant more for visual impact than anything else… after all these are fantasy laser swords we are talking about.  So I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief here. Even if those little cross guards really would serve no function in “real life” they could make a handy bottle or letter openers

5. CGI… everywhere: 

So we heard a lot of hoopla going into this production that the new Star Wars film was going to be made using “old school” techniques, with less CGI.  Practical sets and miniatures were the new norm (as if the Prequels didn’t use these), and the film might even use stop motion in one scene.  Older fans were all aflutter as they apparently believed that the page was being turned on the CGI-fest of the Prequel Trilogy era, and we were entering a new phase where model makers were going to lovingly craft models (which they did for the Prequels by the way), and use motion control cameras to create shots in camera (they did this in the PTs too) in front of a green screen.  Well the trailer unveils, and what do you know… CGI everywhere.

Ball droid.. yup CGI.  Beautiful X-Wing fighter shot… most of that was constructed in a computer. The glorious, over the top Millennium Falcon flyby… yup, that’s CGI too.  Obviously a model of the Falcon was used, but it was (like most of the PT models) scanned and turned into a computer model enabling FX artists to create much more complex and elaborate effects shots than was possible before.  If any fan honestly believed they were going totally “old school” and would not use the tools available to effects artists today, then you were dreaming.  Industrial Light and Magic is going to use every tool and technique at their disposal whether it’s “old school” or newer CG advances.  Lucasfilm is banking everything on this film, and will leave nothing to chance.

Overview: Reflecting on the trailer after 24 hours has not really changed my opinion.  The Force Awakens is a solid teaser trailer, but I would hesitate to call it spectacular.  There are some terrific moments, but there are also areas that raise concerns for me.  To me this trailer feels more like a preview of a teser, almost like the web exclusive “Breathing” teaser for Attack of the Clones. Hopefully, by the time we get to Celebration a proper teaser will be unveiled that will give us more to sink our teeth into.

May the Force Be With You
 

The Force Awakens – Trailer Observations

Well the first Official Teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has dropped, and I’ve watched it a dozen times or so.  So here are some quick observations:

1.  LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the shot of the X-Wings skimming over the water, looked fantastic, and suitably epic!

2.  Nice to see the Falcon again, not necessarily sure I’m a big fan of that particular shot.  A little too much shaky cam for my taste.

3.  Speaking of shaky cam, just looking at the Stormtrooper landing sequence it is VERY evident this is a J.J. Abrams film, and will look very modern compared to the other six films.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as fans need to remember these films are being made for a younger audience and there are certain expectations they have.  Abrams like to use shaky cam to give the audience a “you are there” feel.  I’m sure he will dial it back compared to Mission Impossible III, but he’s not going to change the way he makes films.

4.  Bad guy’s lighsaber… jury is still out for me.  I’m not sure if I’m a big fan of cross guards on the hilt of the lightsaber blades as they seem unwieldy, but it is growing on me.

5.  Rollerball R2 unit.  I suspect older fans who hate “cute” elements in their Star Wars are going to hate this character.

6.  John Boyega OWNS the screen in the few seconds he appears.  I definitely wanted to know more about him.

Overall it’s a solid teaser, but I was left a little underwhelmed.  Compared to the Episode I & III teasers it was lacking.  The Episode II “Breathing” teaser was outstanding, and Empire’s teaser had me going back to the theater again, and again.

One of my biggest takeaways from this teaser is that J.J. is desperately trying to surround this film with an air of mystery, but this trailer comes across as less of a mystery and more like a series of random shots strung together that tell us little. The great thing about the teasers for the Prequels is that they hinted at just enough of a story to give the audience a tease of the upcoming adventure, but still managed to shroud it in mystery. J.J.’s Mystery Box can be frustrating at times.

On the other hand, I do appreciate the fact that J.J. avoided turning the teaser into a nostalgia fest, and instead of dwelling on the past chose to introduced the new characters that will propel the Saga going forward.

 

Great Article Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Ewok Adventure

Ewok AdventureFriend of the blog, Lazy Padawan has written a terrific piece celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the very first Star Wars spin off film, The Ewok Adventure: Caravan of Courage.  Like Lazy Padawan, I fondly remember sitting down to it on a Sunday night three decades ago, and once again being transported to that far away galaxy.  Sure some of the acting was a little rough, and some of the effects were a little dodgy, but the film was a cute, whimsical little adventure for kids, and still managed to touch on some big thematic elements found in many children’s fairy tales.

Again, I highly recommend you check out Lazy Padawan’s Holocron, as well as her other blog, the Star Wars Prequel Appreciation Society, where she posts some terrific Prequel related news and articles.

Also, in honor of the show’s 30th Anniversary, the Official Site has posted a summary of 9 Things You Never Knew About The Ewok Adventure.  So you might want to give that a read through as well.

Anyway, I’ll be off for the next couple of days celebrating Thanksgiving with the family, and I think I may just give The Ewok Adventure another spin over the holiday, as well as its follow up, The Battle For Endor.

Stay On Target – Observations About The Force Awakens Trailer Roll-Out

Anticipation… Is keepin’ me waitin’

Keep CalmFor weeks rumors had circulated in the fan community that a teaser trailer for Star Wars The Force Awakens was coming soon. John Williams was allegedly in Hollywood secretly recording original music for the trailer, and soon chatter began that suggested the teaser was going to debut in front of the final installment of the Hobbit franchise. Fan fervor grew as details of the trailer began to leak and it appeared a release was imminent.

Finally, our friends at MakingStarWars.net broke the news that the trailer would debut sometime this week to some movie 100 theaters, but the details were a little hazy. The anticipation for the release was reaching a fevered pitch on social media as fans (like myself) refreshed their Twitter feeds, or visited the Official Site for just one morsel of official news. Of course the announcement was bound to disappoint…

Force AwakensThe morning of November 24th, Regal Cinemas jumped the gun and announced they would be featuring the trailer at a number of their theaters; then AMC jumped on board. Finally, around midday, the Official Site broke the news that the trailer would debut at 30 theaters across the US and Canada… the internets blew up.

Here we go again…

The backlash was immediate. Fans across the country complained that many states were excluded from the release, and overseas fans (especially Brits where the film was made) were livid that they were left out as well. Fans could not understand how Disney, a company that had appeared so savvy with the buildup of each Marvel film by using the internet, television and theaters in concert to promote trailers for new Marvel films could now be so tone deaf using “old-school” means for the release of the teaser.

“You got what you wanted tiger. How does it taste?”

planet-of-the-apesThere’s a great moment in the original Planet of the Apes following the crash landing of the astronauts. Taylor (Chuck Heston), the cynical captain of the crew, is goading on the more idealistic Landon who still is trying to maintain traditional customs on their new home, and still views himself as an explorer on a mission. Taylor is having none of it as he is simply views their survival as paramount, and has little interest in scientific research. He sarcastically lays into Landon suggesting that he really got his wish to be a true explorer, but unfortunately there will nobody around to learn about his discoveries. He finishes his verbal tongue lashing of Landon with the classic line, “You got what you wanted tiger. How does it taste?”

I look at this teaser release in the same way. For months we’ve been told over and over again by older fans, and cast and crew that this Star Wars is going to be done using “old school” techniques, like practical effects, miniatures, puppets, and even stop motion animation. The days of the “evil” and “misguided” George Lucas and his obsession with CGI are finally over now that we got some “real” filmmakers in there who know how to tell a story with “real” characters (NOTE: I’m being sarcastic). Now with George gone we can finally wipe the post 1980 Star Wars slate clean (after all, Star Wars really died after Empire don’t ya know?), and begin a new phase of classic, retro Star Wars. Well, this teaser release is certainly retro as it’s only available in a handful of cinemas, and an online release has not been announced yet… how’s that taste?

Back to reality…

sw77The fact of the matter is that Disney is intentionally going a little retro with this release in hopes of building anticipation. Unlike the original limited release of Star Wars in 1977 which was a result of cinemas not wanting to carry the movie and Lucas’ demand for specific theaters equipped with state of the art sound equipment, this release is limited in an effort to generate buzz and compel fans to make the roadtrip to seek out the trailer. It’s actually a pretty smart strategy; yes it’s an annoyance for fans overseas, and for fans outside of states carrying the teaser, but it really is no different than 1977 when moviegoers often had to go out of their way to get to the single cinema in their state that was carrying Star Wars.  It’s still a little odd because even back in 1979 the teaser trailer for The Empire Strikes Back could be found in theaters across the country running in front of diverse films from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and the Gene Wilder/Harrison Ford comedy, The Frisco Kid.  As an aside, I must have sat through each of those movies a dozen times just to watch the trailer over and over again.

I’ll be honest, the teaser release doesn’t affect me in the least since Tempe Marketplace here in the metro Phoenix area will be showing the teaser and is only 6 miles from my home.But for those fans who are upset about the trailer roll out, they have very valid complaints. It’s not 1977 anymore, and there’s no real reason I can see for delaying access to the trailer to fans… especially the legion of loyal fans who live overseas. You can still build anticipation, and still be fair to those loyal Star Warriors who have longed for just a peek at the latest entry in the Star Wars Saga, or for those older fans who thought that Episodes VII-IX would never happen.

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I understand Disney/Lucasfilm’s desire to be separate and unique from the Marvel brand. You don’t want to simply copy and rehash promotional ideas from that franchise, but there has to be a happy medium that can be found, can’t there? Maybe an exclusive release for this weekend, with a worldwide roll out next week, as well as an online trailer on Monday would be more appropriate. Perhaps an official online release is in the cards after this weekend, otherwise I can see no real benefit to staggering the release like this, as it only builds up animosity in the community (like we need more of that), and resentment towards the new powers that be that run Star Wars.

Anyway, I will be at Tempe Marketplace Friday night to check out the teaser, and I will report back. But in the mean time: Keep Calm and Watch Star Wars!

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May the Force Be With You

Rebels – Gathering Forces

Fair warning: This episode just aired on DisneyXD tonight and is also available through the DisneyXD app so there are spoilers ahead!!!

Episode 8 – Gathering Forces – Great Moments Overshadowed By a Weak Plot

Ezra Gathering ForcesLast week’s episode, Empire Day, was perhaps the best episode of Rebels to date, and left viewers with an exciting cliffhanger.  Agent Kallus and the Inquistor were in hot pursuit of our heroes, and in danger of capturing them once and for all.  Meanwhile, the renegade Rodian Imperial worker, Tseebo, was about to reveal to Ezra the fate of His mother and father.  Unfortunately, Gathering Forces is an episode which looses focus on the central plot established in Empire Day, and instead focuses on Kanan’s command decision to confront the Inquisitor along with Ezra.  While that subplot works brilliantly on its own, as a conclusion to this two-pary arc, it feels rather clunky and forced.

Our story begins right in the middle of the action where we were left at the conclusion of Empire day.  Our heroes, aboard the Ghost are trying to desperately outrun a group of T.I.E. fighters led by the evil Inquisitor.  The ship is being pummeled by blaster fire and shields have nearly collapsed as Kevin Kiner’s score ratchets up the intensity.  During the battle the Inquisitor manages to launch a tracking device which attaches itself to the hull of the Phantom, a small craft docked on the Ghost.

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6354Chopper has been knocked out of the fight and it is up to Ezra to affect repairs so the ship can jump to lightspeed, however Ezra’s skills are a bit limited, but the timely arrival of Tseebo to the cockpit saves the day, and the ship blasts to hyperspace.  However, the crew’s sense of relief is short lived when Tseebo reveals that the Imperials have placed a tracker on the ship.

Hera and Kanan debate the next course of action with Hera recommending the crew stay together to ensure Tseebo is safely delivered to their Rebel contact, the mysterious Fulcrum. However, Kanan believes the best course of action is for he and Ezra to take the Phantom and drop out of lightspeed at the abandoned asteroid base featured in the episode Out of Darkness.  Hera is not convinced (and neither was I… more on that later), but ultimately relents, so Kanan and Ezra prepare to take off as a diversionary tactic.

Meanwhile Ezra is growing increasing frustrated with Tseebo’s presence on the ship.  He soon reveals that Tseebo was in fact responsible for Ezra’s parents disappearing, and had failed in his task to take care of Ezra for his parents.  Ezra clearly resents the impact that Tseebo has had on his life, but quietly admits that if he had not been orphaned he would never have learned how to survive.  Tseebo’s story is made even more tragic as he reveals that all he wants is forgiveness from Ezra, but that appears to be something that is not coming soon.

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In an exciting sequence, the Phantom is detached from the Ghost while still in hyperspace.  Eventually Kanan manages to gain control of the little craft and sets down at the old abandoned Clone Wars era asteroid base.  Kanan informs his young Padawan that he will have to use his training and reach out and control the minds of the vicious shadow beasts before the Imperials arrive.  However, Ezra is filled with fear, and at first cannot control the creatures, but in this moment Kanan uses his fear of the beasts to conquer his real fear… that he will learn the truth about his parents.  He is finally able to summon up his courage and overcome that fear, and in a very powerful scene reaches out to Tseebo through the Force and tells his old family friend that he is forgiven.  Having overcome this fear Ezra is now able to control the shadow beasts.

Just then, the Inquisitor and his troops arrive only to find Ezra and Kanan defended by a large den of dark critters… all hell breaks loose.

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6451Kanan and the Inquisitor face of in a quick, but intense duel with the Inquisitor quickly getting the upper hand, and almost toying with Kanan along the way.  With a powerful Force push he hurtles the Jedi away, and turns his attention to Ezra.  Alone now, and once again faced with fear, and now anger as he sees his Master unconscious at his feet, Ezra channels his power to a much darker place.  The Inquisitor even eggs the young apprentice on, and goads him into tapping into the Dark Side.  Ezra does just that, summoning what appears to be the queen of the shadow beasts, and enormous creature which dwarfs the other creatures.  Ezra commands the beast to attack the Inquisitor.  Meanwhile, Ezra gathers up his Master and they run to the Phantom making their escape, and disabling the Inquisitor’s shuttle in the process.

Meanwhile, back on the Ghost, the crew delivers Tseebo to Fulcrum (whom we never meet), and we are once again left to wonder the fate of Ezra’s parents as we cut away right at the moment Tseebo is about to tell Hera what happened.  It’s a frustrating tease which really feels drawn out now for no good reason.  Finally, Kanan and Ezra are reunited with the crew, but Ezra has a lot on his mind and doesn’t appear to be quite ready to hear about his parents just yet.  In the poignant final scene of the episode, Sabine presents Ezra with a gift for his birthday (member last episode we learned Ezra’s birthday was on Empire Day); a cleaned up holographic picture of Ezra with his parents before the Empire arrived at Lothal.  Those were clearly happier times, and it’s a fitting conclusion to the arc.

The Good:

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6480Gathering Forces concludes with a great light saber duel between Kanan and the Inquisitor.  The choreography of the fight is very dynamic with the Inquisitor uses a technique very akin to traditional fencing versus Kanan’s slightly less elegant style.  This works perfectly with the Inquisitor’s arrogant attitude and leaves the viewer with the impression that the Inquisitor is simply toying with Kanan and has the upper hand.

Ultimately the Inquisitor dispatches Kanan with minimal fuss, leaving Ezra alone to handle the dangerous Dark Side Force user.  In a very powerful moment, Ezra reaches out with the Force in his anger and rage and summons the queen of the shadow beasts and directs it to attack the Inquisitor.  There’s some great animation as the air literally seems to stand still as wave of the Force call out to the creature, and Kanan’s face is filled with dread as he knows exactly what power his young Padawan has tapped into.

Freddie-Prinze-JrThis episode is also chock full of terrific performances; Gathering Forces may very well be the best acted episode of the series to date.  In particular, Taylor Gray, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Jason Issacs turn in some tremendous work building up the drama and tension of the episode’s terrific finale.  Issacs turns in his usual deliciously villainous work with the Inquisitor, spewing out his venomous lines with a nasty haughtiness which really makes you love and hate him simultaneously.

But Freddie Prinze, Jr. in particular  really seems to have found his voice in Kanan and brings a tremendous amount of depth to the role in Gathering Forces.  His love of Samurai and martial arts films really comes through in his work as Ezra’s Master.  Yet there is also edginess to the role which suggests that in many ways he’s flying by the seat of his pants, and is probably in a little over his head.  Kanan is slowly emerging as my favorite character of the show, and a great deal of that is in part to Freddie Prinze, Jr.’s  acting chops.

The Bad:

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6454Unfortunately, Gathering Forces is saddled with a fairly ridiculous plot which strains the limits of logic, and makes Kanan come across a little selfish.  The crew realizes their ship is being tracked by the Empire through hyperspace with a device attached to the hull of the Phantom, the small craft which is docked with the Ghost. Hera immediately concludes they should ditch the Phantom leaving it for the Imperials to find while they continue to make their way to rendezvous with Fulcrum and deliver Tseebo and his secrets to the Rebels.  Kanan immediately overrules this and decides that it would be best for him and Ezra to leave the ship in the Phantom and lead the Imperials on a wild goose chase.  Kanan suggests that the Inquisitor won’t stop pursuing the Ghost as long as the two Jedi are on board

However, this really makes no sense, as we’ve seen no evidence in the show at all that the Inquisitor can track our heroes’ location through the Force.  He may get odd premonitions, but nothing that would lead him to discovering the Ghost crew had pulled one over on him until they were far away.  Also, as we’ve seen through numerous episodes, the crew works better when they are a team, and all work as one.  Whenever characters get separated from the rest of their comrades, that’s when the trouble starts, and you can see that as a theme in practically every episode.  A united family makes a stronger force for good than a fractured one.

Rebels-Questions-from-the-Past-SW_f9772f18Ditching the Phantom makes the most logical sense, and allows our intrepid band to complete their mission in the shortest amount of time possible.  Remember, Tseebo and the Imperial secrets he holds in his cybernetics are vitally important.  But Kanan’s decision to make his “last stand” at the abandoned asteroid base only makes matters worse and is a very questionable decision too.  Regardless of the crew’s experiences in Out of Darkness, the Empire is unaware of this location and it could still be of use as a secret location for drop offs with Fulcrum.  The crew would simply need to be cautious, and now that they are aware of the danger it would still be a suitable location to conduct drop offs.  But now that option is completely off the table as the Imperials know of the location.

Kanan’s decision to leave the Ghost and take the Phantom simply comes across as a little reckless and a decision based more on emotion and a desire to confront the Inquisitor and stop him.  That doesn’t seem very Jedi-like.  Rather than focus on the mission of delivering Tseebo and the Imperial secrets he stole to their Rebel contacts, Kanan is almost going out of his way to place himself and his Padawan in harm’s way.  And to make matters even worse he really places Ezra is a very dangerous spot by making him try to control the shadow critters who inhabit the mountain at the asteroid base.  So, far we’ve only seen Ezra fail at trying to control one lone, wild Lothal cat; this is not the time to test his young apprentice, especially as the Imperials are fast approaching.  I simply found the plan to be foolhardy and reckless given the stakes if the crew failed to deliver Tseebo safely.

Rebels-107-Gathering-Forces_9d8960e2Ultimately, what really bothered me about Gathering Forces is that the episode did not feel like the conclusion of the story which started in Empire Day.  Once Ezra and Kanan leave the Ghost this almost come across as a one off episode, and the payoff to the story that was being laid in Empire Day comes across as an afterthought.  We gets hints and suggestions to who Fulcrum is, we are teased, once again, regarding the fate of Ezra’s parents, but ultimately there’s no conclusion as we divert attention from the main plot of delivering vital stolen Imperial data to the Rebels to a lightsaber duel on a remote asteroid.  It makes for a poorly thought out conclusion to the story, as if the writers really didn’t know how to wrap up the story, or had simply run out of time to tell a self contained episode and padded the story to stretch it out to two episodes.

Unfortunately Kanan’s plan leads to another beef I’m beginning to have with the show… the reuse of character and location models.  The decision to return to the abandoned asteroid base almost comes across as a cheat, and a means to finish the arc on the cheap by reusing a location they’ve already visited.  Now to be fair, in the early days of an computer animated series your are going to reuse characters and locations until you can build up enough assets to populate worlds with a variety of animals, plants, and locations.  But Kanan’s plan already felt needlessly forced, and this just highlighted the frequent criticism among some fans that the show appears to be made with a modest budget compared to The Clone Wars.  This is not necessarily a fair comparison, but Clone Wars raised the bar so high that it makes the show’s visual shortcomings stand out like a sore thumb.

Rebels_112414_1600Having said all that, Gathering Forces has some of the most stunning visuals of the series to date.  In particular the lightsaber duel on the asteroid base is a visual treat as is the opening space battle.  There are some terrific, visually dynamic moments in the episode that are almost on par with the films, and it is clear Dave Filoni and crew understand the visual language of Star Wars, there are just some areas they need to tighten up to reach the visual quality of storytelling they aspire to.

Overview: Gathering Forces is one of the most frustrating episodes of the show to date.  There are some really great character moments in this episode and the final confrontation between the Inquisitor, and our Jedi duo, Kanan and Ezra, is superbly crafted.  However, Kanan’s plan to save Tseebo makes no logical sense and comes across as just an excuse to set up a story which will end in a lightsaber duel.  The result makes Gathering Forces feel less like a continuation of Empire Day, and more like a self contained episode which just happened to reference it.  Loose plot threads are left everywhere, and we are never really given a proper payoff for Tseebo in the episode’s conclusion.  Unfortunately, his story and the fate of Ezra’s parents will have to wait for another episode.

NOTE:  If Gathering Forces was a standalone episode only focusing on Kanan and Ezra’s confrontation with the Inquisitor this would have rated much higher, as those elements alone work quite well.  However, I’m grading this as part two of an arc, and compared to Empire Day this episode is simply a weak conclusion.

7 of 10

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May the Force Be With You

Happy Life Day – The Agony and the Infamy

Star-Wars-Holiday-SpecialIf you are a Star Wars fan who is active on social media, odds are someone in your timeline wished you a “Happy Life Day” yesterday.  Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) many fans have never experienced the “joy” and “wonder” of The Star Wars Holiday Special where that Wookiee seasonal greeting found its origins.  However, say the words “Star Wars Holiday Special” to a fan who has actually seen this obscure piece of Star Wars and television history and reactions will run the gamut of dread, embarrassment, nostalgia, or bewilderment… or a mix of all four.

The Holiday Special only aired once on November 19th, 1978, never to be seen again, forcing fans to track down this little piece of Star Wars curiosity through VHS dupes, DVD copies, or on the internet.  For those of us around in 1978, there was a growing anticipation of the show.  STAR WARS WAS GOING TO BE ON TV!!!!  Commercials announced the air date, and showed brief glimpses of our heroes in a brand new adventure.  I was primed and ready to be whisked away to that galaxy far away… I only wish the show had been able to live up to the hype.

Memories, like the corners of my mind… make it stop

I still remember watching the show back in 1978 at my friend Tim’s house.  Tim’s dad was an audio and videophile who had this ridiculously massive stereo setup along with a projection screen TV, pirated HBO, and professional radio broadcast equipment in the house.  He also had the only VCR in the neighborhood, which at the time was nearly a $1000 investment, something my dad had no interest in.  We popped some popcorn, got our sodas and watched…  It was Star Warsish; Han Luke, Leia and the gang were all there, but there was just something off about the show.  Even at 11 I found The Holiday Special to be less than special… but hey, the Kenner toy commercials were cool.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is one part variety show, one part TV sitcom, on part Christmas special, all dressed up with Star Wars trappings.  If this sounds like a mess of an idea to you, you’re right.  The premise of the show is simple, Han is trying to get his pal Chewbacca home in time for Christmas… errr… the Wookiee holiday, Life Day.  Unfortunately the Imperials stand in the way of Chewie reuniting with his family.  Now that could have worked as a general premise if we followed Han and Chewie on their misadventures across the galaxy as they try to beat the clock and make it to the Wookiee homeworld, Kashyyyk, for the traditional Life Day church service.  But this show was made on the cheap, and instead of following our heroes in an action packed Star Wars adventure we are stuck on Kashyyk with Chewie’s family while they anxiously await Chewie’s arrival… and wait…. and wait… and wait.

LumpyWe are introduced to Malla, Chewie’s wife, their son Lumpy, and that irascible old timer, Itchy, Chewie’s father.  For nearly 15 minutes we witness Wookiee family drama unfold, all without the benefit of subtitles.  Malla cooks dinner, Lumpy is bored, and Itchy is annoyed.  It’s fairly easy stuff to follow but ultimately we are left to wonder what the point of this special is; after all, anyone watching the show could find the same gripping drama in their home every Thanksgiving.  And ultimately that’s the biggest downfall of the Holiday Special; it’s simply boring.

Tripping… 70s style

Their are certain points in the show where one has to wonder what narcotics or hallucinogens the show’s writers were taking when they wrote this special.  In one scene, Itchy is trying to amuse his bored grandson by showing the little Wookiee a video program with some sort of bizarre, Cirque du Soleil show complete with alien dancers and trippy dance numbers.  Later we watch a psychedelic performance by Jefferson Starship (minus Grace Slick) in hologram form.  But the piece de resistance is an extremely uncomfortable, hyper-sexualized scene involving Itchy watching singer/actress Diahann Carroll singing on a virtual reality device (this family watches an awful lot of TV).  The lyric are fairly suggestive for a children’s program, and there is a disturbing “dirty old man” vibe in the sequence.  For all intents and purposes Itchy is watching intergalactic porn.

BobaOne aspect of the show I’ve never understood fan fascination with is the 10 minute animated segment of the show which introduces the bounty hunter Boba Fett.  The Star Wars cartoon is broadcast on a channel that Chewie’s son, Lumpy begins to watch on his portable video screen.  The cartoon, like the rest of the special is a hot mess with a mix of highly stylized animation, outlandish story elements, and a very meandering story.  Boba Fett is cool, but its really hard to get past the ridiculous plot which requires our heroes to be hung upside down in order to counteract the effects of a sleeping virus.  I was already filled with a sleeping virus by the midway point of this “Special,” and no amount of hanging upside down was going to alleviate that.

There are some moments that are fun, or at least mildly entertaining.  Most of the laughs are provided by TV funnyman Harvey Korman as a video repairman and as a four armed Juila Child-like alien chef.  The Carrol Burnett Show star makes the most out of some fairly painful material.  TV’s Maude, Bea Arthur, has a great little guest stint as Ackmena, a bartender at a Cantina.  Arthur sings a charming little tune about “last call” at the bar, sung to the tune of the Cantina Band song from A New Hope.  These sporadic moments at least keep the show barely watchable, but even their performances can’t save this turkey.

Cantina

So, if you have managed to make it this far into the show you might as well strap yourself in for the rest of the uneventful ride… because it goes out with a … well, it goes out with something.

Princess Leia didn’t just do that?!?!?!
LukeFinally Han and Chewie show up just in time for Life Day, while thwarting the forces of the Empire who were holding Chewie’s family hostage.  Unfortunately, we’ve had to slog through over an hour of bad jokes, lousy songs, scenes only played out with Wookiee grunts and growls, and 70s drug trips before we get to the finale.  Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO arrive just as the Wookiees gather around the Tree of Life, wearing their “Sunday best” for their traditional Life Day services (looking suspiciously like the Heaven’s Gate cultists minus the Nikes).  As a tribute to this moment, Princess Leia sings a Life Day carol, to the strains of the Star Wars Theme.  It’s a cringe worthy moment, not because Fisher can’t sing (this is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher after all), but simply because listening to the Star Wars theme reduced do a little ditty imploring the viewer to, “live, to laugh, to dream, to grow, to trust, to love, to be!” is painfully bad, and a fitting conclusion to the show.

To be fair, there is a certain quaint charm and nostalgia factor revisiting the Star Wars Holiday Special from time to time, especially if you have a copy which still has the commercials.  Watching the old International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union commercial with the Look For the Union Label song is a hoot, as is watching the promo clips from CBS’ TV lineup.  There are also plenty of great toy commercials from the era, as well ad ads for Hungry Man and MC Donalds.  The actors try to make a go of it, and even Harrison Ford appears to be putting in effort on the show, which is surprising considering his disinterested performance in Return of the Jedi.  Mark Hammil gives his usual buoyant performance as Luke, and Carrie Fisher tries her best to come across as regal, and commanding.

Most of the blame for this mess of a show is often placed on George Lucas’ shoulders, but there is no evidence he was ever involved in the project beyond approving some of the production artwork created by artists Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie.  The Holiday Special was all about promoting the Star Wars band and certainly Lucas deserves some criticism for allowing this project to see the light of day, but the lions share of blame should be squarely placed at the feet of the Fox and CBS executives who actually thought this project was a good idea to begin with.  If any Star Wars production or merchandise ever screamed “Cash Grab!” the Star Wars Holiday Special is it.

I showed the special to my kids once… once; just so they can say they saw it.  Someone probably should have called Child Protection Services on me… I’m not sure if that was the act of a loving father who wanted to pass on his childhood memories to his kids, or the act of a vengeful man who wanted his kids to endure the same pain he had as a child.

NOTE:  One dedicated fan created a two disc DVD set complete with bonus features and with an outstanding dupe of the Special including versions with, and without the commercials.  Also included is probably the finest version of the Holiday Special available… the Rifftrax version, complete with classic commentary by MST3K alum, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.  They at least make the show watchable.

Gang

May the Force Be With You

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