Ultimate Star Wars – An Encyclopedia For a New Era

Star Wars Hits the Reset

Ultimate Star WarsSince the Star Wars Saga first hit screens, fans have clamored for more and more information about their favorite space fantasy universe. In 1984, Raymond L. Velasco wrote the first Guide to the Star Wars Universe which attempted to detail many of the characters, aliens, and vehicles which were part of the universe; this guide was followed up with two subsequent editions.  Later, Star Wars super collector, author, and one time Director of Fan Relations, Steve Sansweet took up the task of compiling the first Star Wars Encyclopedia which would cover not only the movies, but the massive amount of books, games, and comics that were now part of the rapidly expanding Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU).  The subsequent release of the Prequel Trilogy and even more materials in the EU called for yet another update to the Encyclopedia.  The result was a massive three tome volume which detail everything from Amee to Hoojibs to Darth Revan; if you read about it in a comic, a book, or saw it in the movies, or on Clone Wars, there was a good chance it was in this book.

EncyclopediaWith the 2012 purchase of Star Wars by Disney that was all about to change as Lucasfilm and Disney needed to wrestle control of the massive beast the Expanded Universe had become and decided once and for all, what constituted canon in the Star Wars universe.  What was officially part of the Star Wars lore, and what was not going forward?  That controversial decision was made in 2014 with the announcement that going forward, only the six films of the Saga, and The Clone Wars series were considered the official history of the universe.  Also going forward, all comics, books would be going through the Star Wars Story Group and as a result would be considered canon as well.

To kick off this new era of Star Wars, Lucasfilm enlisted long time Star Wars writers, Ryder Windham, Daniel Wallace, and Adam Bray , along with megafan, blogger, podcaster, and frequent contributor to Star Wars Insider and the Official Site, Tricia Barr assemble a new Star Wars encyclopedia for this new era of Star Wars.

The results are glorious…

Chock Full of Star Wars Goodness

pagesUltimate Star Wars comes in at a sizable 320 pages, beautifully hard bound with a very nice forward by Anthony Daniels (C-3PO).  Every page is densely packed with information about characters, places, vehicles, aliens and creatures from the Star Wars Saga.  Some entries are fairly detailed with some great information for both new fans, as well as veterans of the Saga.  The layout of the entries is extremely organized and easy on the eyes.

The book is extremely well written, and you can tell the authors put a great deal of care and thought into what they were putting down on the page.  This is not some mere quick cash grab, Ultimate Star Wars is a lovingly crafted introduction into the Star Wars universe penned by writers who truly care.  While I’ve leafed through most of the pages and read quite a few of the entries, there is so much information packed inside, I know I will need a few read throughs to pick up on all of the little hints and secrets the authors peppered throughout the book.  There’s certainly enough information to keep the most avid Star Wars fan entertained for weeks,.

Since this book’s source is the Star Wars Story Group, all of the information contained within is considered Star Wars canon.  The nice thing about this release is it finally puts to bed some of the nonsensical rumors started by Lucas and Prequel bashers that Disney was going to retcon a lot of the Star Wars stories and characters from the Prequel Trilogy.  The most frequent rumors swirled around the origins of bounty hunter Boba Fett.

BobaSome fans simply refused to accept the origin story of their favorite villain; that he was the clone “son” of bounty hunter Jango Fett, and he had grudge against the Jedi for the murder of his father at the hands of Jedi Master Mace Windu.  They wanted Boba Fett to be this mysterious figure, a lone gunman in the lawless west of the Star Wars universe, conveniently ignoring the fact that Boba’s origin, as told by Lucas, is quintessentially Western… gunslinger/bounty hunter father gunned down by the law; son vows revenge against the law and takes up his father’s profession.  Thankfully Boba Fett’s entry in Ultimate Star Wars puts that argument to rest forever… Boba Fett is STILL the clone son of Jango Fett.  However, his fate in the belly of the Sarlacc is still left a little open ended for his potential return.

For those who are shaking their fists to the heavens in rage, I hate to break it to you but there are other surprises in store for you…

Quibbles… Master Evan Piell Is a Zabrak???

Master PiellI have a few minor nerdy quibbles with the book, but they certainly didn’t distract me from my overall enjoyment of Ultimate Star Wars.  The first main hiccup is a few errors have made their way into the text, the biggest culprit being the entry of Jedi Master Even Piell from Phantom Menace and featured prominently in an arc of The Clone Wars.  His entry incorrectly identifies his race as Zabrak when in fact he is a Lannik; yes a goof, but this book has been described as the first official encyclopedic Star Wars resource, it could cause confusion in fandom.  Hopefully future printings will correct these errors or they can be revised in a later edition.

And speaking of The Clone Wars I was a little dismayed at the number of pages dedicated to that show and time period.  In total The Clone Wars accounts for about 25 pages worth of entries, but when you consider over 50 plus hours of storytelling was dedicated to that show compared to the movies, I would have to imagine there’s a lot more information that could have been included.  However, to be fair the Clone Wars entires are outstanding and have some little nuggets of information that were not previously revealed, such as the identity of Padawan Ahsoka Tano’s homeworld.

Finally, my biggest gripe is probably the publisher’s decision to release the book when they did.  The book contains almost no references to the current line of Marvel comics which are canon, there are only vague hints from the new novels, and there’s little in the way of hints about the state of the galaxy during The Force Awakens.  Additionally, there are a number of timelines included in the book, but again they are also very vague, no doubt leaving a lot of wiggle room for for future writers and storytellers to be able to come up with engaging adventures that fit within the new canon.  Taking all of this into account I really have to wonder if this release might have been better served happening closer to the release of The Force Awakens, or maybe shortly after it so more information coming from the spin off comics and books could have been included in the release.  Hopefully this book will either be regularly updated, or might have supplementary books released when there’s enough new information to warrant it.

pages2

Yancy, Is It Worth It?

To quote that great fount of wisdom, Napoleon Dynamite: “Heck yeah!!!”

This really is a Star Wars book for everyone.  If you’re new to the Saga, it’s a great primer on the characters, vehicles, aliens, and events surrounding the entire Star Wars Saga to date.  If you are a longtime fan, the first official Star Wars canon encyclopedia is a must.  The presentation is simple gorgeous, and like most of DK Publishing’s Star Wars work, they have been given full access to the Lucasfilm archives, and as a result Ultimate Star Wars is filled with beautiful pictures of costumes, props, and models from the Saga.  Additionally, the writing is outstanding and there are some very informative, and even poignant sidebars (“Anakin’s Choice” in particular comes to mind).

Ultimate Star Wars is a great resource for any fan looking for official information about their favorite characters, starships, gadgets, or aliens from that galaxy far, far away, and it even included a few surprises along the way for me.  So run, don’t walk to your local retail bookstore, or you can find some super deals online.  This is the first must have resource for any Star Wars fanatic.

Star Wars The Digital Movie Collection – Quick Review

Digital Movie CollectionFor months there had been growing speculation across social media that Star Wars was finally going to make the leap to digital distribution, and be available as a video download.  In fact Kenner recently announced are series of box collections of action figures called the Star Wars Digital Release Commemorative Editions which all but confirmed the release.  Rumors also began to percolate that Disney was taking the Original Trilogy and restoring the films to their pre-Special Edition versions in spite of ample evidence this was not going to be the case.

Finally, about a week before Star Wars Celebration Anaheim, Star Wars The Digital Movie Collection arrived.  After some waffling about whether to buy the release I decided to make the plunge.

So here’s a short review for those that may be considering the purchase:

The Movies:  Contrary to what the Lucas bashers thought these are not new transfers of the film with restored versions of the Original Trilogy.  These are in fact the same transfers from Lowry Digital that were  authorized by Lucas himself for the 2011 blu-ray release.  So if you hate blinking Ewok eyes, Vader’s new “Nooooo,” Han and Greedo shooting simultaneously then this probably isn’t the release for you.  However if you are, like most Star Wars fans, looking for a solid transfer of all six films that you can watch in glorious high definition on your phone, tablet, PC, or gaming device, then this is the release you’e been waiting for.

ANHThe transfers are very good.  Sure there’s the occasional hiccup like Vader’s lightsaber having an overly pinkish hue at times, and Phantom Menace has clearly had Digital Noise Reduction applied to it, but the films have never looked better.  What really surprised me was how well the detail of the image held up via streaming.  The compression used on this release is quite good, and there’s very little artificial noise in the image.  You of course also have the option to download to play directly on your device (I’ve not tried this option).  Sound of course is outstanding as you would expect in a Lucasfilm release.

One interesting tidbit though; this release portends a major change in the Saga going forward.  Gone are the familiar strains of the 20th Century Fox drumroll and fanfare which would introduce each of the films.  Obviously that was going to change going forward for the new films, but what Disney has done however is cobble together a fanfare from the closing credits of The Empire Strikes Back to introduce five of the six films.  A New Hope is still owned by Fox, and for now, will be in perpetuity unless a deal is reached by Disney.  SO the original Star Wars begins with its usual refrain, which I actually found a little odd after getting used to the change.  I suspect John Williams will either compose a new fanfare for Disney’s Star Wars films, or may re-orchestrate the piece from Empire so it flows more smoothly because as it is it’s rather abrupt.

NOTE:  This release is available through multiple video on demand services like Vudu, iTunes, Google Play, Xbox Video, and Amazon Instant Video.  However, be aware that due to rights issues, if you purchase the collection via the Disney Anywhere service, A New Hope is not included in the release so I would probably advise staying away from that service.

BonusBonus Features:   Each of the films also comes with a selection of bonus features.  Most of these are culled from the 2011 blu-ray release, and a handful were exclusive features on starwars.com.  However each movie comes with two short features entitled, Star Wars Discoveries From the Inside which highlight historical Star Wars treasures from the Lucasfilm vaults, and Star Wars: Conversations which feature Star Wars contributors discussing their experiences working on the Saga.  These new features are very good, unfortunately they are also very short.

As a whole the bonus features are a mixed bag.  For example the Prequel bonus features include only some of the deleted scenes completed by Lucas for the DVD release, and these are only presented in pillarboxed 480p which is a big letdown.  Additionally this release was an opportunity to possibly delve into some very good Star Wars documentaries which have never gotten a proper release such as From Star Wars to Jedi the Making of Ep1a Saga, and recent Emmy nominated Star Wars The Legacy Revealed.  Neither release is included, and instead we are presented with a hodgepodge of selections from the DVD and blu-ray releases.  However, let me be clear, it is a good selection, and it’s very nice that many of the Prequel Trilogy bonus features which were left out of the blu-ray release have been included.

Bottom Line:  While it is a nice convenience to have the entire Star Wars Saga available at the tip of one’s fingers via mobile devices, I’m not entirely sure this release warrants the $90 price tag.  The collection of bonus features is certainly a nice value, but there’s approximately only one hour of new bonus content, and while there was clearly some effort put into the new features, there’s nothing particularly revelatory or “new” here.  The bonus materials come across as a “best of” selection of features from the blu-ray set in addition to some starwars.com exclusives.  So for someone like me who has collected nearly every iteration of Star Wars on home video, there’s really not much to recommend about the release unless you are strictly looking at the purchase as a means to have Star Wars on the go, or a completist.  If that’s the case then I highly recommend the Star Wars Digital Collection.  It looks great and the quality of the HD presentation is very good compared to other digitalbonus 2 download movies; and of course like every Star Wars release the sound is top notch.

However, if you are someone who has yet to pick up the blu-ray release of the Saga, or has not made the jump into high definition for your HDTV, then I would definitely recommend this release.  Again, it’s a great presentation, and the bonus features are an extra plus for Star Wars fans who may still be holding on to their DVD collection.
Overall I’m happy with my purchase… sure I might have liked MORE bonus features, but what fan doesn’t.  but it’s nice to have the Saga available for those times I might be waiting in line, or on my lunch break, or away from home.  I’m sure my grandson will get plenty of enjoyment from this release so all in all it was a good buy!

Digital Collection

Star Wars Comes Home… Marvel Comics

Star Wars #7In an earlier post, I discussed my early love affair with comic books.  They were are part of my regular reading diet along with classics from H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis and the like. One of the earliest monthly comic titles I regularly collected was Marvel’s Star Wars which was published back in the late 70s through the mid 80s.  The stories we very hit and miss, but they kept me satiated while I awaited the next big screen adventure.

Luke, Han, and the Princess, now called the Star Warriors in classic Marvel fashion, would travel to strange worlds, fighting the oppression of the evil Galactic Empire.  Looking back at the series for every dud there were a handful of excellent stories like the Shira Brie arc, or Luke’s frequent run ins with the Tagge family.  But like all good things, Marvel’s Star Wars title came to an end, and the further adventures of the Star Warriors would go dormant for a few years.

Tales of the JediFortunately the hiatus did not last long, and Dark Horse Comics took up the Star Wars mantle churning out a regular stream of stories over the span of 24 years.  Like Marvel, sometimes they missed the mark, but by and large Dark Horse’s run was brimming with outstanding Star Wars adventure.  From Dark Empire to Tales of the Jedi to Dark Times, Dark Horse always pushed boundries and explored many eras left untouched by the Saga.  Many Dark Horse stories centered on the early days of the Jedi Order and The Republic, while Star Wars Legacy took Star Wars some 100 years after the end of Return of the Jedi.

However, with the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm and Star Wars by Disney, there now appeared to be rough weather ahead as Disney owned rival comics publisher, Marvel Comics.  For the next two years Dark Horse dutifully continued releasing new titles, but it was becoming increasingly apparent the Star Wars licensing would be moving again… Star Wars would be coming home.

Following the release of Dark Horse’s final titles, including the very interesting mini series, The Star Wars, which was based on an early draft of the Star Wars screenplay, Disney/Marvel announced their first slate of Star Wars comics.  Two of the titles, Star Wars, and Vader would focus on our heroes and villains in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Death Star during the Battle of Yavin.  Princess Leia, would be a five issue mini series centered on Leia and her efforts to rescue refugees from her homeworld of Alderaan who escaped the planet’s destruction.  Finally, Kanan: The Last Padawan would be a tie in to the Disney XD show, Star Wars Rebels.  Kanan promised to explore our title character’s days as a Padawan in the Jedi Order, and chronicle just how he escaped Order 66, and took up with the Rebel Alliance.  All of these titles held a certain amount of promise, and appeal to me.

Marvel varient

So rather than do a full blown review for each issue, I’ll give a brief summary of the story so far and my likes and dislikes.  Two of the titles are top notch, one I’ve grown ambivalent about over the course of three issues, and one title I’ve grown very frustrated with and wonder if I will collect it beyond the first storyline.

Star Wars OngoingStar Wars –  The first title released under the new Marvel branding, Star Wars begins strong with a riveting story by Marvel scribe Jason Aaron.  Our heroes have been sent to wreak havoc on an Imperial weapons factory.  The action is fast and the dialog at times seems to channel the actors performances; there are a couple of glaring missteps along the way, but Aaron keeps the story moving.  There’s a great moment when Darth Vader arrives on the scene to thwart the Rebels and hopes to discover the identity of the pilot who destroyed the Death Star.  Suddenly he comes face to face with Luke, but he quickly dispatches the young would be Jedi; Luke realizes he has a long way to go in his training.

While the premiere issue started well enough the next two issue took a bit of a step backwards.  It becomes apparent there’s very little plot in the way of this story, and most of that was presented in Issue #1.  The subsequent two issues came across as nothing more than beautiful action panel after panel, lovingly drawn by John Cassaday.  It’s wonderful to look at, but there’s little in the way of substance.  Hopefully, the title can present a few more stories with some depth; the announcement of a flashback one-shot issue featuring Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi fills me with some hope.  Overall it’s a good title, I just hope there’s a little more meat on the bone down the road.

Vader ComicVader – Unfortunately Vader is a title in need of some direction. The story is part Vader as office lackey, part Vader as threatening Dark Lord, part soul searching, angst riddled former good guy. It would work if it could figure out which of these titles it wanted to be. As it stands the title is extremely confused and double minded. The series, penned by Kieron Gillan, tries desperately to walk this tightrope between these three versions of Vader, and what we are left with is an attempt at a post-modern deconstruction of the Dark Lord that leaves us felling neither sympathy or fear of Emperor Palpatine’s dark apprentice.

Part of the problem is this title really makes ample, and I mean ample use of call backs to episodes in the Star Wars Saga. There are so many winks to classic Star Wars moments that any investment you may have felt in the story is lost as your brains replays moments from the films. In one issue Vader is in Jabba’s palace negotiating with the vile Hutt. There’s a good three pages worth of pointless panels wasted on us looking at Vader’s feet as he drifts dangerously close to the trap door Luke fell through into the Rancor pit in Return of the Jedi. Of course this kind of assumes you are pretty familiar with all of the Star Wars films. There’s even one of the more bizarre reference to The Clone Wars animated series as we meet the Geonosian Queen. Vader is apparently needing an army to use against those who would conspire against him, and the Queen, now part cyborg is just the ticket as Vader proceeds to steal her cyborg/insect babies. It’s bizarre and feels completely out of place in Star Wars.

Vader issue 3

AphraTo make matters even worse we are introduced to one of the most annoying, ill fitting character concepts in the entire Star Wars universe…. the rogue archaeologist, Doctor Aphra. My hatred of this character has only grown over the course of the two issues since her arrival. Imagine the most loathsome, computer savvy, whiney, depressed, emo, know-it-all teenager you could find in a coffee shop… that’s Aphra. Constantly juggling between moments of really wanting to help Vader, and depression over her suspicion that he will kill her when her service for him is finished; there is little to recommend about her. She comes across as a character taken from the pages of Tank Girl, or a contemporary angst teen superhero comic. She’s really a poor fit for a galaxy far, far away, and for a brief instant when she demanded Vader kill her and be done with it, I really wished Vader would have choked her out (she deserved this fate… not Padme).

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh… well I am. I had extremely high hopes for this title and it has been nothing but a let down. The art is fantastic, and there are individual moments that click, but I could not recommend this title to anyone but a total fanatic, or a Star Wars comic completist. The book simply doesn’t warrant the investment, and while it tries desperately to please everyone, it fails to do so in so many regards.

Princess Leia Issue 1Princess Leia (mini series) – Fortunately the bad taste in my mouth that was left after issue 1 of Vader was washed away by this fantastic series. Princess Leia quickly became my favorite of the new batch of Marvel comics. Sure, the art was a little different than either Star Wars or Vader, but it had a neat kind of retro vibe which looked like some of the early materials released by Wizards of the Coast for their Battle for Theed Introductory RPG game. What really made the title stand out though was the story and the characterization of Leia. This is the Leia hinted at in the early scenes of A New Hope, before the arrival of Luke and Han. This is the Princess of the Royal House of Organa who has to exude confident leadership, but is racked with pain over the destruction of her home and the death of her family.

Defying orders from the hierarchy of Rebel Alliance leadership, Leia Organa, along with Rebel pilot, and fellow Alderaanian, Evaan, escape from the Rebel Base on Yavin 4 looking for survivors and expatriates from Alderaan. Realizing her citizens may be in peril, Leia begins to take her role as the head of House Organa seriously. This eventually leads them to Naboo where a large contingent of Alderaan’s artists and thinkers live. Of course all is not what it seems and there’s political intrigue afoot. There’s even a wonderful moment in Theed City when Leia sees an artistic rendering of her mother that ties both trilogies together. It’s a fascinating moment because when we see the portrait of the Queen in her full makeup we realize that Leia shares the same duality as her mother. There’s the proper Princess of the Royal House of Alderaan, and the feisty, blaster wielding, fast talking Rebel resistance fighter. Series writer Mark Waid handles this moment with care and it is much more effective than the ham fisted Saga references in Vader.

Leia issue 2

So far, Leia has been an enormous success, and sales figures have been very brisk. Hopefully this will lead Marvel to revisit the character in another mini-series. I’m not sure Leia needs her own regular monthly title, but she’s a central character to the Saga and deserves a lot more attention.

Kanan Star WarsKanan: The Last Palawan –  Finally, we come to my favorite Marvel Star Wars series to date. Only one issue old, Kanan was released a few weeks after Princess Leia’s debut, but the book quickly became my favorite of the new stories set in the new canon Star Wars universe. The series follows the adventures of Kanan, Jedi teacher and Rebel leader on the Disney animated series, Star Wars Rebels. Kanan Jarrus is a former Padawan named Caleb Dume who escaped the horrors of Order 66 with the help of his Jedi Master, Depa Billaba. However, the first issue of Kanan begins with the closing moments of the Clone Wars, as Billaba and her young Padawan lead their Clone Troops into a final battle against the force of the Trade Federation.

What makes this series work so well is the writing. The first two arcs of the series will be penned by Rebels producer/screenwriter (for the 1st Season), Greg Weisman. He has a firm grasp of these characters, and more importantly, imbues them with a reality. Although this is a fantasy series the characters feel like people you might know. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the first issue when Kanan is talking with some Clone Troopers about duty, and following orders. The clones relish in ribbing the young Padawan, and the writing just feels right. What really makes this scene work is that we know what’s coming in only a few pages… betrayal. The reader is left with confused emotions; we feel genuine sympathy for these clone soldiers, but we know that they will ultimately turn on their friends. It’s heart wrenching, and only a master storyteller like Weisman could pull off a scene like this.

Kanan

In addition to Weisman’s outstanding script, Kanan: The Last Padawan is graced with the top notch artistry of Pepe Larraz. From top to bottom this is the best of Marvel’s new Star Wars series, and will hopefully fill in some gaps of what happened during the early days of the newly formed Galactic Empire. It’s a very wide open part of the timeline now filled with new dangers and enemies for our young Padawan hero.

 

May the Force Be With You… and “Make mine Marvel!”

Learning to Let Go…

The Star Wars HeresiesGood friend of the blog, Paul F. McDonald, author of the outstanding book, The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols, and Philosophies of Episodes I-III (I highly recommend this book to any Star Wars fan wishing to explore the deeper meanings of the Saga), recently wrote a brief essay on his site entitled, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  Paul examines a growing ambivalence he felt regarding Star Wars in a post-Lucas world, but how two things brought him back to full-throated Star Wars fandom: 1) Star Wars Rebels, and 2) the Force Awakens Teaser.  I certainly agreed with him about Rebels, and the news coming out of the Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One panel filled me with excitement.  But I still had a great deal of concern about the future of Star Wars sans George Lucas.  Could Lucasfilm tell the kinds of rich, deeply layer stories George had with the Saga and The Clone Wars.  There was kind of a maddening tug of war going on with the fan within me.  On the one hand there was all kinds of news coming out of Celebration that as a fan really got me jazzed, however, JJ’s statements about the themes of Star Wars and his constant catering to a particular portion of the fanbase still left me deeply troubled.

Qui-Gon and Anakin

But, Paul brought up one great point in his essay that I had to consider… one of the central themes of the Prequel Trilogy is learning to let go of the things we are attached to… and that even included George.  George is gone, and I needed to come to terms with that.  While that is something I’m going to still wrestle with for some time, looking back on the hundreds and hundres of Star Wars stories told in books, comics, and short stories I’ve collected over the years there have been plenty of Star Wars stories told by authors that have the same depth and emotional resonance as George’s Saga.  One book in particular, “Kenobi,” by frequent Star Wars novelist John Jackson Miller, is one of the finest Star Wars tales ever told and would be a worthy addition to the Star Wars film legacy.  Star Wars didn’t just have to be about George and his wishes, and although I still wish George was involved at Lucasfilm, those days are gone.George Lucas

I needed to let go…

I still stand by my earlier criticisms of JJ Abrams, and I still have a lot of concern about the film he will deliver in December.  Not because of Lucas’ absence, but Abrams abilities as filmmaker and storyteller, and his own views of the Saga which I find to be very constrictive.  But overall I have to admit the materials coming out of Lucasfilm since George’s departure  have only honored what came before, and have fit in quite nicely as part of a larger tapestry of the overall Saga.  From the remaining Clone Wars stories, to Rebels, and the books and comics, it’s clear the Star Wars Story Group, led by Kiri Hart, takes its job seriously, and will do their best to deliver quality Star Wars stories that even George would be proud to have his name attached to.

The final piece which really helped me to let go of George and just try to enjoy the Star Wars that was coming was rewatching a special video produced for starwars.com following the release of Revenge of the Sith.  The Journey was a two part video released the Summer of 85 as both a “Thank you” to George, and a “Thank you” to the fans.  While Clone Wars had been announced by George it appeared the cinematic Saga was over and George would soon retire leaving Star Wars to television.  As fans we would no longer share that communal bond in a darkened theater and would have to be content enjoying the Saga, and stories to come, in the comfort of our living rooms…. no longer joined as fans.  Looking at this video as a “goodbye,” from George really helped me say “Farewell,” to him as the guardian of the Star Wars galaxy.

The Journey Part 1

The Journey Part 2

(These videos are only available via starwars.com, but are also included as part of the bonus content for the recent Star Wars Digital Movie Collection)

I’ll still have plenty of things to say about Star Wars coming from Disney, and if I think Disney/Lucasfilm goes off the rails with certain stories I’ll still be posting my criticisms.  But now is the time for me to sit back, and enjoy the ride ahead.  I really need to heed the advise of those paragons of wisdom, once trapped on the Satellite of Love, who famously quipped: “Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”

Mike & the Bots

 

Star Wars Anthology – Rogue One Quick Observations

Rogue OneSo the final day of Star Wars Celebration is here, and some of the biggest news revealed this week came from the Star Wars spin off panel this morning.

Director Gareth Edwards was introduced to fans, and the plot for the first spin off (now referred to as Anthology films) was revealed.  The story involves the theft of the original Death Star plans by a band of resistance fighters.  The movie will be set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope and will follow a group of Rebel soldiers.  Edwards describes the film as “very gritty” and a “war film.”  In fact a number of people behind the scenes have been drafted from the Saving Private Ryan crew as well as Zero Dark Thirty.  The story comes from long time head of Industrial Light and Magic, John Knoll who was simply tossing the idea around to some friends when he was asked to pitch the idea as a film.

For me these new Anthology films are very intriguing.  According Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm Story Group director, Kiri Hart, George Lucas himself came up with the concept of doing these Anthology films and gave them their moniker. The word Anthology is interesting as it certainly implies a collection of stories outside of the Saga proper.  It was probably a way Lucas envisioned other writers and directors to play in the Star Wars sandbox telling stories that were not related to the Skywalker Family Saga, but explore stories or concepts left untold or fill in some blanks left by the films.

Gareth EdwardsI really am looking forward to the Anthology series as it can take Star Wars into other film genres, and be freed from the limitations of Lucas’ grand story arc.  Lucas himself played around with many of these concepts in his animated show, The Clone Wars, through episodes that were not so subtle nods to Hitchcock, Godzilla monster films, and horror.  One episode in particular, Bounty Hunters is a basically a retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (check out Bryan Young’s awesome blog from the Official Site for more info).  Lucas himself even used subplots within individual films themselves to examine other film genres, and often cited film noire as a big influence on Obi-Wan’s search for the Padme’s potential assassin in Attack of the Clones.

Star Wars is a big universe, and there are lots of stories to be told.

NOTE:  Unfortunately due to an agreement between Disney and Paramount, Disney will not be promoting Star Wars Rogue One until after the release of Mission Impossible Rogue Nation later this summer.  So despite Lucasfilm showing a teaser trailer and a pre production photo at the panel it’s doubtful they will be shown to the public until after Mission Impossible hits screens.

Star Wars Rebels Season 2 Trailer!

At the Star Wars Celebration Rebels panel they debuted the trailer for Season 2 of Rebels.  Again, more great work from Dave Filoni and company.  For Clone Wars fans the trailer features the return of Captain Rex and that villainous pirate Hondo Ohnaka.  Looks to be a great season!

Star Wars – The Force Awakens Teaser Reaction

So Thursday kicked off the largest gathering of Star Wars fanatics this side of Mos Eisley… Star Wars Celebration.  To open the festivities, director J.J. Abrams, and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy hosted a Force Awakens panel complete with the stars of the films, as well as some behind the scenes people.  They finally concluded the event with what everyone had been waiting for… the new Star Wars The Force Awakens teaser trailer:

The internets went wild as Twitter feeds flooded with reactions to the two minute tease.  The general consensus seems to be overwhelming excitement… My reaction is a little more tempered.  While there are certainly some awesome elements, there are quite a few things that concern me.  Still I really enjoyed the trailer, but something felt… off at the same time.  I decided to give it a few days and watch the trailer a few more dozen times.

There’s Something Familiar About This…

JukuuThe trailer begins with like the original teaser for The Phantom Menace, in a very quiet long establishing shot, as our hero, Rey traverses the desert of Jakku on a speeder bike through a ship graveyard.  It’s a wonderful moment and evokes a very Star Wars otherworldly feel… we fade to black.  Unfortunately the rest of the trailer is hampered by a case of living in the past.

In fact, that’s the whole premise of the trailer… to convince older fans that Star Wars is safe again…

and the last thing Star Wars needs to be is safe…

Vader Helmet Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame©Lucasfilm 2015 Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame©Lucasfilm 2015 X-Wings Trooper Snow PlanetWhile reflecting on the trailer a good couple of days I’ve come to the conclusion that director JJ Abrams is doing his damndest to convince audiences that his new Star Wars film is fresh, while all the time catering to the nostalgia of older fans, and ultimately fails miserably on the first count.  The trailer is little more than a 70s/80s retro fest with nearly shot for shot recreations of the Death Star II exhaust port chase, a recreation of a famous publicity shot, and constant call backs to the Original Trilogy.  Originally I was going to do a point by point breakdown of different shots, and I may at a later date, but to summarize, there’s a lot in the trailer I really like, but there’s a disturbing tendency on JJ’s part to play it safe and simply cater to fans, and that’s not what the Saga needs right now.  What Star Wars needs is a fresh voice with bold ideas who understands what came before and wants to continue telling stories rooted in myth while approaching it from a new angle.

Does JJ “Get” Star Wars?  image

What particularly disturbed me about the Celebration Force Awakens kick off panel were comments uttered by Abrams himself which really made me question whether or not he even understood what Lucas was trying to accomplish with the entire Star Wars Saga, let alone the Original Trilogy. At one point Abrams regurgitated the Prequel basher talking point that Star Wars is really at its heart, a Western, which of course implies that Lucas really doesn’t get Star Wars at all and the appeal of the franchise.  Somehow, Star Wars is a space Western and if Lucas just would have kept Star Wars limited to that box the Prequels wouldn’t have gone off the rails (so the theory goes).  This whole mantra of Star Wars as Western source seems to have begun by a group of Lucas bashers who created, what they call, the “4 Star Wars Rules.”  Apparently on some level Abrams subscribes to this theory.

While talking about his experiences shooting in the desert of Abu Dhabi he said, “Star Wars is as much Western and fairy tale as it is anything else.  One of the things you expect and want to see is these tangible, beautiful John Ford landscapes…”  A nice sentiment JJ, but you are simply talking out of your butt.  Any first year film student will ArtooThreepiotell you the “John Ford look” is all about Monument Valley found at the border of Arizona and Utah.  Monument Valley is an area dominated by sandstone buttes and mesas… not rolling endless sand dunes.   I suppose you could argue he’s talking about the sequences in the valleys of the Jundland Wastes, but that seems a stretch as most people think desert planet when they hear the word Tatooine.  In fact there’s very little in the way of John Ford to be found in A New Hope, but there’s a lot of it found in Attack of the Clones.   Instead what Lucas did in A New Hope is adopt a very David Lean look from Lawrence of Arabia to inform the visuals of the desert planet.  With a big, endless desert framing most of his shots.  However, Lucas clearly channels his inner John Ford in Attack of the Clones:

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(NOTE: Thanks to Mike Klimo of Star Wars Ring Theory for recently posting these screengrabs on his Twitter feed.  They’ve been very illuminating)

Even the plot of A New Hope has almost nothing to do the Western genre.  Sure there are elements of the American Western sprinkled throughout; Han is certainly a space cowboy, Mos Eisley, and especially the cantina have a very Western frontier town feel to them, but they are just elements of the whole.  A New Hope, like Star Wars in general is an amalgam, a pastiche of the influences of Lucas’ youth and interests as a filmmaker, borrowing heavily from sources such as Flash Gordon, Tolkien, Greek myth, Japanese cinema, Medieval adventure tales, layering it all with a spiritual element gleaned from the world’s major religions.  A New Hope has far more in common with Flash Gordon serials (which Lucas originally wanted to adapt) than a Western, and the plot borrows liberally from Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai film, The Hidden Fortress.

Abrams failure to grasp this raises a whole lot of concerns on my part.  I’m just not sure he really understands the mythology and legacy behind Star Wars.  He certainly understands his feelings of Star Wars as a child, and how that impacted him as a youth, but there’s so much more to the Saga than one’s childhood memories and fantasies.  That’s a large reason that while on the one hand I enjoy the trailer immensely, on the other I worry that The Force Awakens will be little more than a nostalgia fest; something Abrams is intimately familiar with.

Han & ChewieFor a lot of fans, the final shot of Han & Chewie aboard the Millennium Falcon was the “money shot” and sent them over the moon as fanboy/fangirl chills ran up their spines.  The waves of nostalgia washed over them and they were filled with a sense of awe as their dreams were finally realized… George no longer had his hands in the Saga, all of their wildest Star Wars dreams could be realized.  For a brief moment I was even hit with a feeling of being that child who grew up with Star Wars back in 1977, waiting anxiously for the next installment and contenting myself with reading another issue of Marvel’s Star Wars in the meantime.  It was a wonderful moment, but as soon as the screen faded to black I realized that something about it felt very off to me.  I pondered about that shot for a good chunk of time until I realized I had seen all of this before… because I had a poster of it on my wall.

Han & Chewie

JJ was up to his old tricks… The shot is nothing more than a recreation of that iconic poster, and while it’s a nice nod it really speaks volumes about one of Abrams’ biggest weaknesses, and accentuates a growing concern I’ve had for months.

You see, one of the biggest knocks on Abrams has always been his lack of creativity as a filmmaker.  He’s always been involved in projects that on some level are derivative of other works.  Three of his past four motion pictures have been sequels of franchises, with the one exception, Super 8, being a complete knock off of a 1980’s Steven Spielberg film.  Even the TV series he’s produced have borrowed liberally from other works.  One of my favorite shows he produced, Alias, is nothing more than one part The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., one part X-Files, with a heavy dose of Dan Brown mythology.  When you look at the totality of his work there is really nothing there that screams “visionary,” or even suggests an artist who really has the ability to oversee the relaunch of a massive franchise… just look at his very hit and miss results with Star Trek.

JJ ArtooUltimately, his lack of his own creativity is his downfall as a filmmaker.  While Lucas could take all of these wildly divergent elements from myth, pop culture, and religion and massage it into it’s own self contained universe which felt original yet familiar. Abrams, on the other hand, has shown no such ability as an filmmaker.  His work routinely feels like a homage to another artist’s work, or a series of ideas slapped together in an effort to feel original, but wind up coming across as derivative.  This trailer does nothing but reinforce that point as there is no original substance to be found.  The one thing I can say about Lucas was he had an ability to tease you with new locales, strange aliens, and situations in each of the five teaser trailers that followed A New Hope.  Whether it’s battles in the snow, the forest, a high speed race through the deserts of Tatooine, raging storms over a water planet, or a deadly lightsaber duel on an erupting volcano, Lucas was always able to tantalize with new ideas.  JJ’s tease is little more than a complete rehash of the Original Trilogy with a new young trio surrounded by visuals and designs that are all comfortable and familiar.

And that leads to my biggest gripe and concern… I’m not convinced this film will be terribly original, and will in fact be little more than a soft reboot of the Saga, allowing Disney to distance itself from George’s Saga, and move forward, and frankly Disney has found the perfect guy for THAT job. While Abrams talks a lot about “moving the Saga forward” I’m not so certain with this trailer that Lucasfilm is really going to attract interest from young audiences.  The trailer really caters to older Star Wars fans, and if you are a young person who is not already invested in Star Wars there’s little in this trailer to suggest something new or fresh about the Saga.

We’re Going Back… To The Past!!!

Back-to-the-Future-Doc-BrownThere was an alarming exchange midway through the panel in which Katleen Kennedy seemed to suggest that fans reaction is a very important part of the storytelling process.  Of course she added the caveat that Lucasfilm will still tell the stories it wants, but there certainly was a not so subtle subtext running throughout her comments that said, “We’ve heard your cries.”  Well sorry, but fanboys should have pretty much no say so in the future of Star Wars.  Many of these “fans” are the same Lucas bashers who wanted boderline evil Anakin betraying the Jedi and exterminating them in a three arc story, forgetting the wise words of George, “…a monster becoming a monster isn’t a story.”   Storytelling by committee, and more importantly, by consensus is not art, it’s just catering to the mob.  It seems pretty safe to say that JJ’s mandate is to push every fanboy button, and weave a very safe Star Wars film which takes little to no risk, all in the hopes of avoiding controversy.  He will cater to their every whim; in fact JJ appears to be all in…

During his Force Awakens panel Abrams once again began to engage in Star Wars historical revisionism found among Prequel/Lucas bashers suggesting that his films were going to be more “tangible” and “real” because they built sets for the actors to interact with. Of course this is meant to imply that George moved away from this tradition and simply shot all of his films on digital stages in front of green screens.  Of course this completely ignores the dozens of sets and locations used for the filming of the Prequel Trilogy.  Lucas too desired a tangible look for his films, however he had to go another course.  Instead of dealing with a galaxy in the middle of a war he was examining a Republic in a state of decline, that is ultimately pushed over the ledge by Palpatine.  So on the one hand the universe had to be shiny, a little less used looking, while on the other hand still staying true to the rules he established in the universe.  I think he did a pretty darn good job:

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As you can clearly see these are real sets, designed and constructed by a group of talented artists who took weeks, and months to develop designs which could tell the story Lucas was trying to tell.  Each one of the Prequel films is filled with beautiful sets and locations, certainly enhanced with special effects, but if you don’t believe Jjj-abramsJ will be incorporating the same techniques, I’ve got some lovely beach front property in Yuma I can sell you. However, what really grinds my gears is that JJ is so willing to cavalierly dismiss the work on those films, all for the benefit of throwing around a few buzzwords that get fanboy hearts aflutter.

I used to work as an intelligence analyst back in the day with a focus on international politics… so words are really, really important to me, and what’s left unsaid, or implied by the words you are using is as important as what you actually say, or what you meant to say.  During one portion of the interview section of the show JJ states that the mandate he had was to “set a standard” and that everything had to feel real.  That’s a good enough sentiment, but then he takes it a step further; unnecessarily so: “You knew people were in those places.  The way the light interacts with the set.  You want it to be legitimate, and authentic.”  Abrams is clearly separating himself from Lucas here, and is making it clear, although unstated, that he’s going to make a movie for older Star Wars fans who felt burned by the Prequels.  To make matters worse he’s actually implying through his words that what George did in Episodes I-III was “inauthentic” and “illegitimate.” As if Lucas totally dismissed the use of practical sets and locations. I think as I’ve shown in the pictures above that was certainly not the case with the Prequels.

Lucas & DanielsAlso understated in the Force Awakens panel was any mention of Lucas, or even a hint of his involvement in the production. I think George’s name came up a whopping two times in the entire panel, despite the fact Lucas created this large sandbox that all of these people are playing in now. I’m really beginning to suspect that George’s statements from January that Disney had jettisoned his treatments for the Sequel Trilogy and were doing their own thing is true. Early on we were told Lucas and Abrams were meeting regularly, and Lucas’ son even suggested that George and JJ were texting daily. Then Star Wars scribe Michael Arndt, who was writing scripts based on George’s treatments was let go, and then Disney Studios honcho Alan Horn implied in a Q&A that he wasn’t aware of Lucas’ involvement in the project any more. That would certainly explain why Lucas is even barely given a mention at Celebration; even Lucas’ good friend Kathleen Kennedy only mentioned his name in passing while recounting how she became head of Lucasfilm.

imageFrankly, this troubles me a great deal. Much has been made of Abrams ability to weave a mythology in his television shows like Alias and Lost, but in the case of both shows, that mythology became a muddled mess as the shows wore on. Both shows did not find their footing again until AFTER Abrams had left the productions. Add to that his inability to understand the roots of the mythology behind the Star Wars Saga, and there is cause for concern. So excuse me if I have a lot more faith in the guy who actually created the universe, than a sometimes very talented filmmaker (Super 8) who is often prone to make materials that are devoid of real depth and miss the point of the source material (Star Trek Into Darkness).

Again, to be clear, I did enjoy the trailer, with certain reservations. My biggest concerns are not necessarily with the content of the trailer itself, but with Abrams’ apparent inability to grasp the magnitude of the depth of story telling that Lucas presented in his six part Saga. For all of Abrams’ talk of wanting to move the Saga “forward” for “a new generation,” this trailer seemed needlessly mired in the past, and shows little in the way of anything new or fresh. The trailer seems to be catered to a certain subset of fans who are still bitter at George Lucas for not giving them a Prequel Trilogy that had been brewing in their minds for nearly 20 years. Ultimately it feels like a trailer by put together by a marketing group:

Stormtroopers… check
Star Destroyer… check
Millennium Falcon in a fight… check
Vader… check

I really want The Force Awakens to be a film that launches fandom for a whole new generation of fans, but from what I’ve seen it looks like I’m stuck in a 1980’s time warp.

Force Awakens