The Death and Resurrection of Star Wars

The first question my friends asked me after seeing The Last Jedi on opening night was, “Did it go the way you expected?” After stumbling over some incomprehensible words, I couldn’t come up with an answer. Not because I had a hard time following the film or enjoying it, rather, because the film Rian Johnson created is completely unexpected and yet embraces the established mythos of the Star Wars saga.

Warning: major spoilers ahead

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A Re(new)ed Hope: Rogue One and the Little Guy

Last December, we were transported back to a galaxy far, far away and were reacquainted with some familiar friends. For some, The Force Awakens was a little too familiar, as though J.J. Abrams and Co. we’re treading on hallowed ground. It was an almost impossible challenge facing Abrams; trying and meet the massive expectations of a rabid fan base while telling a new story in a complex mythos. To his credit, Abrams delivered a thoroughly enjoyable film that extended the Skywalker saga for a new generation. But with all these things in mind, it’s no wonder he played it safe by sticking close to the original trilogy in tone and structure.

Rogue One was a much riskier proposition. Director Gareth Edwards was tasked with creating the first Star Wars film unconnected to the Skywalker saga. This required a film with an entirely different structure, and since it was a direct prequel to A New Hope, it needed to be steeped in the sights and sounds of 1977. Moreover, this film had to prove that stories unconnected to the Skywalker saga were worth telling.

Rogue One is a triumphant addition to the Star Wars universe. Not only does it add layers of depth to A New Hope (an almost 40-year-old movie) but it also serves as connective tissue between the prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Rebels, and the original trilogy. It does all this while telling a gripping and inspiring story about the fledgling Rebel Alliance.

The most compelling message found in Rogue One echoes a line from last year’s The Force Awakens. As Finn is rescuing Poe Dameron from the clutches of the First Order, Poe asks him why he’s doing what he’s doing. Finn responds, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” This theme—doing the right thing in spite of the circumstances—is what drives our characters forward in Rogue One. For our main heroine Jyn Erso, it’s easy to see how she’s inspired to do the right thing during the course of the movie. A glimmer of hope, her father’s love, and the full reality of what the Empire is capable of is all it takes to push Jyn back into the fray.

Ultimately, the film isn’t really about Jyn Erso though. Its true poignancy lies with all the other characters around her. Rogue One is an homage to the unknown soldiers, the X-Wing pilots, and the cargo haulers. These background characters—some even have names like Chirrut, Bodhi, or Baze—are all thrown into the middle of this galactic conflict. They’re not heroes like Luke Skywalker; they’re not going to save the galaxy by defeating Darth Vader or the Emperor (which is made plainly clear in the final scenes of the movie). But each one of them makes a choice to do the right thing, to defy the inescapable oppression of the Empire. And though none of these characters survive their suicide mission, their small individual contributions are collectively vital to the greater Rebellion and inspire great hope in others.

The title of Episode IV (A New Hope) certainly points towards Luke’s role as the last Jedi but now it gains an entirely new layer of meaning. The entire Rebel Alliance, fractured and on the edge of despair towards the beginning of Rogue One, draws on the heroic sacrifice at Scarif to rally in the face of mass destruction and terror. I think that’s why Rogue One is so successful. It’s a story about how the collective actions of a few determined people can inspire hope for the galaxy. It’s a story about you and me making a choice to do the right thing in the face of terrible circumstances.

Lucasfilm and Gareth Edwards unquestionably proved that there are compelling stories to tell in a galaxy far, far away. The Skywalker saga will always give us the epic conflict of good versus evil. These new stories will help fill in the gaps, whether they’re stories about the little guy like Rogue One or origin stories like the forthcoming Young Han Solo film. The Star Wars universe is ripe for new and different themes and narratives. I’m excited to see what Lucasfilm can come up with next.

The Promise of an Old Friend

A few years ago, a dear friend moved across the country to begin attending grad school. I even road tripped across America to help him transition from one coast to another. The thing is, what was once an almost daily friendship was now punctuated with frenzied visits once a year. Sure, we would talk on the phone or via Skype, we’d play SimCity together, and text each other, but it just wasn’t the same. Thankfully, when we were together, on the same coast, it felt like no time or distance had separated us at all. We’d tell the same kinds of jokes, laugh at the same kinds of things, and talk about all the same topics. We’re able to pick up right where we left off.

Watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a lot like catching up with that friend who rolls into town every once in a while. All the same sights and sounds were there, just like I remembered them. Even the same jokes were told, though there were far more laughs at some of the new ones. Certainly the trappings and the setting were different but it felt good to be reacquainted with this galaxy far, far away.

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The Mythic Legacy of Star Wars

I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And what a relief too. After years of anticipation and apprehension, we finally witnessed J.J. Abrams’s vision of the future of a galaxy far, far away. His contribution was a worthy addition to the Star Wars universe that holds up well on its own and within the larger context of George Lucas’s saga. The prevailing theme in The Force Awakens is legacy and any discussion of this film must address what came before.

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Vanished Into Thin Air: The Loss of Skywalker 

With the release of the final trailer yesterday, the hype machine for the newest entry into the Star Wars saga is at full power. I’ve been guarding my anticipation, making sure to keep my expectations at a healthy level. I’ve tried my hardest to avoid spoiling the movie and have steered clear of the rumor mills. The reactions to The Force Awakens have stretched from unrestrained excitement to tentative curiosity to indifference. And I think the continuum of these responses is tied to your opinion of the prequel trilogy.

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Interstellar: An Ode to Sci-Fi

I saw Interstellar a few weeks ago. I walked out of the theater stunned into silence. I said one word to my friends as we walked out to our cars. I lay awake in bed for hours. It was a visceral experience. It was the best use of the medium I’ve seen since last year’s Gravity. It certainly wasn’t the perfect movie but it did raise some interesting questions and explored some deep themes. Most of all, it was a call back to a different kind of film—an ode to science-fiction.

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Take Me or Leave Me: Shame, Sexuality, and Spider Man

In the past few weeks, we’ve had two high profile celebrities decide to publicly declare their sexual orientation. First was Michael Sam, a All-American football player from the University of Missouri. Sam joins a number of professional athletes who have outed themselves–joining Robbie Rodgers of the MLS and Jason Collins of the NBA–and is poised to become the first openly gay player in the largest, most popular professional sports league in America. The second was last Friday, when actress Ellen Page outed herself during a speech at a conference in Las Vegas. Page is primarily known for her roles in Juno and Inception. Both of these announcements are interesting case studies of the intersection of the public and private.

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Zombie Outbreak: Why are Zombies so Popular?

In 1978, George Romero released his classic film Dawn of the Dead beginning our cultural fascination with all things zombie. Since then, there have been hundreds of pieces of zombie fiction created spanning every medium—films, books, comics, video games, even zombie themed races. One of the highest rated television shows on cable is The Walking Dead. Max Brook’s seminal book, World War Z is now a multi-million dollar blockbuster movie. In 2011, the CDC named their disaster readiness manual “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.” Our culture has been bitten and we’re consuming everything related to zombies.

I read World War Z while I was in grad school and I created a high school Social Studies unit plan based on excerpts from the book. The idea for each lesson was to take a story from the book, examine the social commentary, and then apply these lessons to what the student observed in our society—assessing how truthful the commentary seemed to be. Perhaps zombies have grown so popular, because good zombie fiction is rife with social commentary. It reveals something about us that’s scarier than the monsters.

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The Problem with Superman

I recently watched Man of Steel, the newest Superman movie, and walked away disappointed. Those of you who know me well know that I prefer Batman over Superman (and Marvel over anything from DC). In the right hands, Superman can be an interesting character at the center of some excellent storytelling. The first two thirds of Man of Steel was an excellent example of this type of storytelling but then something happened during the climax of the entire film that exposed the major flaw with Superman that prevents him from becoming a truly compelling character.

Note: Major spoilers follow, ye be warned

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Xbox One and Gaming Innovation

On Tuesday, Microsoft unveiled their newest gaming system, dubbed Xbox One. Beyond the spectacle of the announcement, the actual details of the system itself were shrouded in confusion. It was pitched as an all-in-one entertainment system that would revolutionize the way we interact with our televisions. That’s all well and good but video gamers are the core market of the Xbox brand, not home consumers. For the first 30 minutes of the presentation, there wasn’t even a single mention of video games. What is the Xbox One, an all-in-one entertainment solution or an innovative gaming system?

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