Every Generation Has a Hot Take

Becoming fully immersed in the hype for The Rise of Skywalker by reconsidering my opinion of the earlier movies.

In the interest of increasing my SEO getting hyped up for the release of The Rise of Skywalker this week, I wanted to change things up and write about a movie before it comes out. It’s kind of fun to go back through the blog and see how my opinions have changed over time, so it should be fun to compare what I expect from the movie to what we actually end up getting.

Before I could start making a list of what I want to happen in the final movie, I had to go back and try to piece together the first eight movies into one cohesive story. It’s been surprising to see how much my opinions about the movies have changed. I don’t have any new favorites, but I at least have more respect for what my least favorite movies of the series have contributed to the story as a whole.

Making Peace With The Last Jedi
There’s one pervasive idea about The Last Jedi that I have a hard time believing. It says that Rian Johnson refused to “yes, and…” any of the stuff introduced in The Force Awakens, choosing instead to throw it all out and deliver his own take on Star Wars. For one thing, I have a hard time believing that any one person (apart from Kathleen Kennedy) could have that level of authorship over such a huge movie franchise. But more significantly, I now believe that it does all fit.

This video from “Movies with Mikey” is a strong defense of The Last Jedi (assuming you can tolerate all of its affectations). It’s convinced me that even the parts of the movie that don’t work are still at least thematically consistent. It’s about rejecting a binary view of morality, in a series that has always ostensibly been about good guys vs bad guys.

Since first seeing The Last Jedi, my feelings on it have gone from complete disappointment to begrudging acceptance. It’s frustrating, because the movie has some amazing visuals, the scenes between Rey and Luke are strong, and the fight in Snoke’s throne room is one of the best sequences in the entire series. I always thought that was dragged down by sub-plots that are off tone for Star Wars, or objectively pointless and silly.

The theme of self-determination is pretty obvious, but I think all of it fits together — Poe’s attempt at mutiny, Rose’s promotion from grunt solider to “featured player,” the Canto Bight sequence showing life in the New Republic separate from the First Order and the Resistance — with the larger theme of rejecting the assumptions that have led to the conflict that drives the rest of the series. I still don’t believe that it all works, but I do have a renewed respect for what it did as a sequel in a larger series, which was to leave the story in a more interesting place than it was when it started.

Making Peace With the Prequels
As I’ve been trying to piece together the story so far to figure out how I want it to end, the thing that’s surprised me the most is how many of the story threads were left with at the end of episode eight were introduced all the way back in the prequels. I still don’t think that the prequels are a story that’s told well, but I’m coming around to the idea that it’s a good story.

The story isn’t just about Palpatine manipulating the Jedi and betraying the Old Republic; it’s about how the Jedi and the Old Republic failed catastrophically, and it’s their own actions that made the Empire possible. The Jedi built the army that would become the Empire’s war machine, and centralizing power among themselves is what made it possible to take them all out with one order.

And the romance between Amidala and Anakin was so clumsy and devoid of chemistry that it’s easy to forget how explicitly the movies blame the Jedi for the tragedy that led to Darth Vader. It was their insistence on rules that made Anakin relatively easy to manipulate. Anakin may have straight-up murdered a bunch of children, but don’t forget that they’re children who were taken from their parents to be trained as warriors who would be forbidden from ever falling in love.

I’d thought of The Last Jedi as a rejection of everything Lucas did with the prequels — turning the story from one about a young hero with humble beginnings who goes on to discover his power and save the galaxy, to one that celebrates wealth and power and the assertion that some people are destined from birth to be heroes or villains. But that was probably my bias showing, and the prequels were trying to introduce the idea that the Jedi and the Old Republic were at least partly responsible for their own destruction.

Remember Endor!
As much as I love The Force Awakens (which is completely and unconditionally), it still seemed odd to me that it starts with direct analogues for the Empire and the Rebellion. I don’t agree with the criticism that it’s just a retelling of A New Hope — since these stories are cyclical after all — but it did seem a weird choice for what was supposed to be part seven of a nine-part series.

I think that’s partly because I’ve spent 20 years thinking of Return of the Jedi as the end of the series, instead of just the end of its own trilogy. The victory on Endor implied that the good guys had won, and the galaxy would return to the good old days of the Jedi and the Old Republic. But it should have been obvious that for the story to continue, we would have to learn that returning to the old system wasn’t good enough.

For this to be a continuation of all of the movies, it has to be clear that while the Empire may have been defeated, all the conditions that led to the Empire in the first place were still in place. I do wish that the New Republic had been shown falling as a result of its own dysfunction, instead of just obliterated by Death Star #3, but I guess that’s why we have novels and comic books.

The key thing I want to see in The Rise of Skywalker is a conclusion to the entire story, and an acknowledgement that going back to the status quo isn’t a real victory. It’s kind of surprising that a story that’s been told in fits and stops of varying quality over 40 years ties together at all, but it actually does. I hope they continue and conclude that story, instead of rejecting or retconning the inconvenient parts. (Except for midochlorians, which remain inexcusable).

So that’s the over-arching theme that I hope gets wrapped up in the finale: self-determination, a rejection of dynasties and destinies, and an acknowledgement that there can be more to a hero than just “light side” or “dark side.” In the next post, I’m making a list of specific things I want to see in The Rise of Skywalker.

The Mandalorian: We’ve Seen All This Before

The Mandalorian is both the Star Wars TV series I’ve been wanting for over thirty years, and even better than I imagined.

When I’m watching The Mandalorian, the thought that keeps jumping to my mind is “I can’t believe this is on television.” The part of my psyche that made me start tearing up at the sight of X-Wings flying over water in The Force Awakens, is now being triggered multiple times per episode.

They’re riding speeder bikes on Tatooine! That’s an AT-ST that’s been Mad-Maxed out by bandits! There’s a Dewback dragging a dead body! There’s a whole squad of Boba Fetts with jetpacks having a shootout with bounty hunters! This episode of television is starting out with a dogfight in space! Without a doubt, this series brings back memories of taking all of my Star Wars toys and smashing them together in different combinations and different settings.

For about as long as I can remember loving Star Wars — which is about as long as I can remember loving any piece of popular culture — I’ve been wanting a Star Wars TV series. It implies a galaxy full of new planets, new aliens, new droids, new spaceships, and most of all, new stories. An ongoing TV series has always seemed like the perfect way to take some of the characters, locations, or references that are only glimpsed in the movies, and then spend a long time exploring each in detail.

Except that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing for years, ever since the first Marvel comics: an author or a creative team will choose some corner of the Star Wars galaxy and then start world-building. And the results have been all over the place. Many have been horrible, some have been very good, but at least in my opinion, none have hit exactly the right tone and weight. They’re either just a mash-up of familiar elements that don’t seem to add anything, or they go in the opposite direction and seem so preoccupied with world-building and adding to the lore that they no longer feel like Star Wars.

I remember as a kid being annoyed at a comics storyline that had multiple characters being frozen in Carbonite. It just seemed to be an uninspired rehash of a strong image from the movies, and treating it so casually robbed one of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back of its weight. In the years since then, it’s been used even more casually in side stories. In fact, one of my only nerdy gripes about The Mandalorian is how the ship has its own portable carbon freezer, and it’s used as a comic beat. It just retroactively makes a key emotional moment in Empire seem like everyone was getting upset over nothing.

At the other extreme are all the absurd “epic” stories that seem to want to turn Star Wars into pure science fiction or pure fantasy (or in the obvious case of the prequels, all space politics), instead of the balance of fantastic melodramatic space western that the original trilogy got so perfectly right. So we’ve had clones, and creatures that evolved to generate force bubbles, and aliens with hypnotic sexy pheromones, and space vampires, and no doubt countless other examples of nonsense that feels tone deaf.

What’s becoming clear with The Mandalorian isn’t that it expands on the Star Wars universe so much as it pares all of it down to the basics. It’s not at all afraid to let its influences show: it went back to the genres that influenced the original movies — westerns, samurai movies, old Flash Gordon serials — and chose to tell simple stories that call back to those formats.

I think it’s a wise reaction to the prequels, since one of the main problems with those movies is that they were overstuffed with characters and political machinations and galactic conflict and side plots, so that it all became noise that drowned out the story that was supposed to be at its core: the corruption and fall of Anakin Skywalker. There’s so much noise that the characters who became the most memorable (in a positive way, so not Jar-Jar) are the ones with the least back story: for me, it’s Mace Windu and General Grievous. Like Boba Fett in the build-up to The Empire Strikes Back, they “read” instantly.

As far as I can recall, The Mandalorian hasn’t introduced any new species, has only one core conflict (Mando vs the bounty hunting guild), and is only concerned with telling one bit of the galactic back story (the purge of the Mandalorians). I can only think of two new creatures — the mount and the Mudhorn from the second episode — and they’re both used matter-of-factly as utility and obstacle, instead of introduced as “Star Wars lore.”

And crucially, the stories are as familiar as their simple titles suggest. There’s the one where uneasy allies attack a heavily-fortified compound, the one with the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Seven Samurai one, the one about a young hotshot gunslinger, and the one that’s a heist plus Alien. But calling them familiar isn’t a criticism; I think it’s what makes the show work as well as it does. The episodes feel like they simply belong in Star Wars lore without having to justify their existence.

And the pared-down storytelling keeps the noise to a minimum so that the key moments have all the impact they should. Episode 6 was full of fight scenes and dramatic take-downs, but each managed to have weight and feel like a climactic moment. Hell, this is a series that has used the “gun shot rings out, and the target is not who you think” three times already, and I believe it’s landed every time.

I’m reminded yet again of all the complaints about The Force Awakens just being a rehash of the original trilogy, and why I think that’s a complaint that completely misses the point. By this point, we’ve all seen enough Star Wars that most people can recognize that it’s not really science fiction, but a different type of fantasy western that has many of the same trappings as science fiction. But I think a lot of people — including myself, and maybe even including George Lucas — still think of Star Wars as being all about plot.

What The Mandalorian gets so right is the recognition that it’s not about plot and probably never has been. Just like sci-fi technology is used as a vehicle to tell stories about magic, plot is just a vehicle to deliver those moments in which the magic amazes us. When a shot lands in exactly the right place to blow up the space station, or the unstoppable walker is destroyed with some cable or a grenade, or the light saber is pulled from the ground and flies into the hand of the woman who’s destined to wield it.

As new people build on the Star Wars “mythos,” I think the ones who recognize that the appeal isn’t necessarily expanding out the uncharted corners of the galaxy, so much as opening up a galaxy full of beloved toys and smashing them together in ways that we never would’ve imagined.

The Magnificent Two Plus Pillboy

I just need to talk about how much I love The Mandalorian

I just finished watching Episode 4 of The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary,” and I don’t have much to say apart from damn I am loving this television show.

Just when you think they’re going to go full-on Lone Wolf and Cub, they dive right into the Seven Samurai, and fair enough. It’s TV law that every episodic series needs to have a Christmas Carol episode, with an exemption for Westerns as long as they do a version of Seven Samurai.

There’s also a little bit of Shane in there, too; or was it Hud? I haven’t actually seen either, but only know enough about them to make vague references to them and hope they work. One of the things that’s so brilliant about The Mandalorian is how well it incorporates all of those references without feeling derivative.

I was being dismissive about the series doing another take on The Magnificent Seven, but there are two things about The Mandalorian that make it work: first, it tells the story so matter-of-factly and un-self-consciously that it doesn’t feel like derivative pastiche or even respectful homage. Instead, it feels like it’s just a part of this heritage of storytelling that effortlessly jumps across genres and cultures: Western, Samurai, “space opera,” Japan to the US to Italy and back to Japan again. It still feels like a series from the late 1970s that couldn’t possibly have existed until the 2010s.

The second thing that makes it work is a seriously bad-ass take on the AT-ST. Yes, it was jarring to see super-tough heroes immediately freak out at the suggestion of an AT-ST, considering everyone in the audience saw a montage of dozens of the things being taken out by tiny, marketable bears with twine and tree trunks. But if you ignore that, it was a great way to bring in the Star Wars nostalgia by turning it into a fantasy element. It had been turned into a monster with glowing red eyes, changing the story into a classic one of noble villagers fighting off a giant bear, or a dragon.

One remarkable thing about The Mandalorian is that every episode has gotten an audible reaction out of me at least once. Usually I watch television and movies with as much detachment as I can manage; even things that make me cry still engage my brain at the “hey, that’s clever” level instead of making me genuinely emotionally invested. But in this episode, I audibly gasped at two points: once when the baby spit out a frog after all the village kids laughed at him, and again at the end when an assassination attempt failed.

The latter of those scenes is a familiar fake-out, and in fact is one that the series has already done in the first episode, and it’s filmed and edited in an extremely predictable and even cliched way. (A shot rings out, birds fly panicked from the trees). But because of the confident, straightforward storytelling that this series excels at, I thought of it as “old-fashioned” instead of “cliched.” It evokes old TV westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke not just with style or premise, but with overall sensibility: earnest stories with no sense of irony or self-awareness. And then The Mandalorian adds laser blasts and jet packs and aliens and Werner Herzog — and clever twists on the western like the gambler with a life-saving playing card in his breast pocket, or stubborn droids replacing spooked horses — which all dance across the surface of it to make it feel alien and fantastic.

The Mandalorian continues to be everything I could’ve wanted from a Star Wars TV series. It fills out the universe and shows us elements that have been hinted at but never realized. And best of all it’s so well written. Completely accessible to everyone who’s going to want to watch a show like this, but it never panders or stops to explain every detail. It’s wonderful to see a Star Wars story told with some trust that the audience will be able to keep up. I hope they keep up this caliber of skillful storytelling, but even if they somehow whiff the ending, what we’ve seen so far has been some of the best Star Wars since the early 80s.

And in case I’m reading this years from now and fail to understand the title: this episode had Eugene Cordero playing one of the villagers, and he also played Pillboy on The Good Place.

I’ve got a good feeling about this

Gay nerds in love in space!

On October 4, 2019, I got engaged to my boyfriend at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland. As recently as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought any part of that sentence was possible.

When I say I didn’t think it was possible, I’m not just talking about the obvious fact that for most of our relationship, California has been under a bigoted ban against marriage equality, initiated by a bunch of homophobic Mormons and opportunistic Republicans. At this point in my life, I’ve finally learned not to let other people’s bigotry get in the way of my own happiness, so the less time spent thinking about those a-holes, the better.

Instead, I mean every aspect of it seemed like something I’d never get to see. Which is probably best illustrated if I back up a step to explain how the whole idea started.

Disneyland’s a popular place to get engaged, so I’d always had it in the back of my mind as a maybe-some-day possibility. When they announced a Star Wars land where you could actually go inside a full-size Millennium Falcon, that seemed even better. I’d been wanting to get married and fly off on the Falcon ever since I was nine years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back and its very confusing romantic scenes between Han Solo and that other person.

We went to Disneyland twice in June, at the end of the month for my birthday, and earlier in the month to take advantage of a reservation against the insane crowds that never seemed to materialize (yet). While there, I was trying to get a feel for the logistics of popping the question, and I wasn’t having much success. They move people too quickly through the queue for Smuggler’s Run, which is good for wait times but bad for once-in-a-lifetime romantic gestures. And Plan B, surprising J with a ring while we were posing for a photo in front of the Falcon, lacked any sense of privacy.

Worse than that, though, was that it seemed very selfish of me. I’m the one who’s had a lifelong obsession with Disney parks. J’s a fan, but not as into them as I am (because I’m not sure it’s even possible to be as into them as I am). And I’m the one who was such a Star Wars nerd growing up that it’s the entire reason I moved to California. Naturally I’m predisposed to fall in love with the idea of a Star Wars land in a Disney park, but for a proposal, it’d be better to pick a location that’s special to the both of us.

During that second trip at the end of June, it started to become a place that was special to the both of us. We had a great time. (Especially surprising since we didn’t get a great first impression earlier in the month). And as we were headed back into Galaxy’s Edge for a third time, I thanked J for indulging me with so much time in Star Wars land over our vacation, and he replied with something remarkable: “I’m not ‘indulging’ you. I like Star Wars at least as much as you do.”

And then he added “I even like the prequels.” Which is troubling, granted, but I know that mixed marriages can work. What was even more startling was realizing how astoundingly dense I’d been. Not just realizing that I’d been living with another Star Wars fan. I’d spent so many years — decades! — feeling like I had to apologize for or make excuses for the things I loved, that it had gone past being self-deprecating and had turned into something I do reflexively, like a verbal tic.

In my defense, even working at LucasArts, I felt like I’d get made fun of whenever I outed myself as a Star Wars nerd. So even though Disney had spent billions of dollars to build a place catered specifically to Gen Xers like me who’d tear up at the sight of a full-size Millennium Falcon, I was locked into thinking of Star Wars as my own weird little nerdy obsession. And that mindset, once it takes hold, is pervasive. If it were just about a bunch of movies or theme parks, it’d be trivial. But for me, the constant feeling of being weird and other had taken over completely. It affected how I think of everything, both insignificant and significant.

One of the things that was hard to get used to when J & I started dating was that so much of my sense of humor was based on being sarcastic, and tearing things and people down. I had to get used to the idea of just trying to be kind instead of always trying to be clever. After nine years being more supportive and unapologetically enthusiastic about the things that make us happy, I can’t say I miss the days when I felt like I always had to have a snappy comeback or defensive explanation at the ready. I finally realized that we were a couple of big gay adult nerds in the middle of a playground built for fans of movies about space wizards, and I was with someone who shared my enthusiasm for big gay nerdy stuff without any need for qualification or judgment, and it seemed like the perfect place to get engaged to the perfect person to get engaged to.

The next step was to start the next phase of our relationship based on an elaborate lie. Neither one of us wear rings, and I had no idea about ring sizes or how to measure them. So I just took a wild guess about size and ordered a plain ridiculously cheap ring off of Amazon. (This will factor in later). I figured that since the ring wasn’t going to impress, I’d have to work harder on the presentation.

Since J really enjoyed the datapad games in Galaxy’s Edge, I thought of a scavenger hunt that would lead to the ring. I contacted my friend and former boss (and guardian angel who’s been directly or indirectly responsible for the highlights of my career), who works with Imagineering, and asked if there were any way I could get mocked screens into J’s datapad app. Since that isn’t possible for obvious reasons, he came up with a better suggestion: 3D print something that looked like a Star Wars artifact to hold the ring, “discover” it at Dok-Ondar’s antiquities shop, and then give it to J.

That’s the point where the scope of the project exploded. I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, but it did end up taking the better part of a month. I knew that I wanted it to look vaguely Star Wars-y, and I wanted it to light up when opened. I started by trying out variations on the Jedi Holocron, but I couldn’t find a model that opened in a way that I liked. (And I wanted to avoid the possibility of its getting confused with the ones on sale in the store). Then I looked at various puzzle boxes on Thingiverse, but they all required narrow tolerances and complex shapes that I’d need a CAD tool to be able to modify, and I wanted something more personalized. So I ended up scrapping the puzzle box idea and just making a simpler box in Blender that just twists open.

I wasn’t looking forward to having to wire up and solder a bunch of LEDs and sensors, so fortunately I didn’t have to. Adafruit makes a neat board called the Circuit Playground, and it comes with LEDs and several sensors attached. After a good bit more experimentation, I settled on a design with the main board at the base, soldered to a smaller LED board (called the NeoPixel Jewel, if you’re curious) just underneath the ring holder.

The board in the base responds to motion, pulsing a slow purple (one of J’s favorite colors) when it’s left alone. When you pick it up, it starts to pulse in a rainbow pattern, both because it’s pretty and appropriate for a proposal during gay days, and because Adafruit makes rainbow LEDs super easy to code. Capacitive touch sensors are wired to the ring holder, so when you touch the ring, both LED boards light up with a brighter, constant rainbow pattern. It all ended up being a lot simpler than I’d originally intended, but it soon became apparent that what I’d originally intended was way more complicated that necessary.

After I’d printed and assembled the box, I was fortunate yet again to have a co-worker with a lot of experience designing and painting 3D prints. He introduced me to the dry-brushing technique. Considering that I’d never painted anything like this before, including miniatures, I’m pretty happy with how much it ended up looking like aged bronze. The hardest part of the whole process was having to do it at work, to keep it a secret. Actually, keeping it a secret from J was the hardest part overall, since every time I made a new development or learned something new, he was the first person I wanted to tell about it.

Once the thing was built, I just had to figure out the logistics. My friend put me in contact with someone who works at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and she was absurdly, preposterously helpful. She helped come up with a version of the proposal that would fit in with the park’s overall storyline and how to incorporate the cast and the character of Dok-Ondar himself.

Finally, to explain to J why we had to be at a certain place at a certain time, I made up the story that we were helping to playtest an early prototype of a new interactive game in Galaxy’s Edge. I said that because it was such an early prototype, I’d been sent a bunch of static screens that would later take place of the Datapad app.

For the past few years, we’ve been going to Disneyland to spend the Gay Days weekend along with a bunch of friends. I asked a friend to be my accomplice, taking the box from me and sneaking it into Dok-Ondar’s ahead of us, and then the plan could start.

The first screen was presented as a message from an explorer who’d spent almost nine years (how long J and I had been dating up to that point) looking for a rare artifact (named after the place where we had our first date). He’d traced it to Batuu and said it would probably be in the hands of someone who dealt in rare antiquities. That obviously led to Dok-Ondar and the next screen. (As long as I’m describing everything, I should probably admit that I was super nervous, so I rushed through the “game” part instead of letting J do it at his own pace).

The next screen told us to go to Dok-Ondar’s and look for an artifact with a certain symbol on it. (Nerd sidenote: I put in a pattern of two-rings all around the jewelry box and again on top, assuming I’d say it was supposed to represent the twin suns of Batuu. I was reminded at the last minute that the fiction says Batuu has three suns, so I had to change the text to say the twin moons. I may have bought an engagement ring that didn’t fit at all, but at least I got the number of suns on a made-up planet right).

As we headed to Dok-Ondar’s, my heart sank into my stomach when I saw a line of guests waiting outside. I’d been worried that the store would be too crowded to pull this off — we wouldn’t find the box, or it’d be taken by another guest by accident, or it’d just be too loud and chaotic and ruin the whole thing. But right as we came up, I got a text message from my accomplice saying we should talk to the cast member at the door. I told them our names and that we were looking for an artifact, and they let us in. The cast had actually started a queue outside the store so we’d have the place mostly to ourselves for the proposal!

Once inside, we both set off to look for the box. While J was searching the shelves, I went to the counter and pointed at a glowing box behind it. “I found it,” I called out, totally cheating. J came over and we checked the next screen.

It said that Dok-Ondar probably had no idea how valuable the box was, so we could get it for a steal. I held the jewelry box up to Dok-Ondar and asked him to appraise it. He spoke a few words in Ithorian (!) and the Cast Members translated it for me: “It’s only valuable if you give it to J.”

So I gave it to J. He opened the box, and it began to pulse with a rainbow light. Then my choice of a less-expensive, nondescript “placeholder” ring came back to haunt me: it wasn’t clear that it was an engagement ring. It looked just like a Star Wars-y machine part or something. It didn’t help that I’d set J up for a puzzle hunt. It also didn’t help that I didn’t get down on one knee or anything, which is something I’d resolved not to do a long time ago, since I feel like it’s an outdated part of the ritual that sets up a weird power dynamic when you’re supposed to be entering into an equal partnership. Whatever the case, the thing I’d planned to be the big reveal wasn’t quite.

J was still figuring out what to do with the ring, so he put it on his index finger. I pointed to his ring finger and said, “It works better if you wear it on that finger.” He said, “But that’s where married people wear a ring.” I said, “So will you marry me?” He said yes, and the cast members cheered.

Afterwards, some super-nice operations cast members took us to the Smuggler’s Run ride and gave us the VIP treatment by letting us use the FastPass queue. Then they took our picture in front of the Falcon, and escorted us into Oga’s Cantina for a celebratory drink. (My friend and accomplice bought us a round, but Disney let us in without a reservation). It was all a big wonderful blur, and we ended up spending most of the rest of that day in Galaxy’s Edge, too. Everything from that weekend after the proposal is now jumbled together in my memory, but I know I built a droid and named it R3-X4 in honor of the date. And that night we watched the fireworks going off over Dok-Ondar’s shop as if in celebration.

In all, it turned out even better than I’d hoped, and even better than I imagined “get engaged at Disneyland” would go after years of having it as a vague some-day possibility. I’ll always be grateful to the friends that helped make it happen, and to all the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland who went out of their way to make the engagement of a couple of strangers into something unforgettable.