Sunday, July 8, 2018

Summer Movie Miscelleny

I have been away and will be away again soon. My writing has suffered for it, but it seems to me that we all have two choices in life: there is either family or there is everything else. I will choose family for as long as it's needed. In the meantime, I hope you will continue to read Tellers of Weird Tales. There is still plenty to be found here, especially way back in the vault, if you haven't already been following this blog since its beginnings. I hope to devote more time to it before too much longer.

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Last month we were able to take time away from our work to see two movies. Solo: A Star Wars Story came first. We saw it in an old movie theater in Shelbyville, Indiana, and in that, I felt like we had stepped back in time. That's a nice feeling to have when you're seeing a movie that is essentially a return to the past and a work of nostalgia. Unfortunately we came too late in the run of Solo to have had much of a crowd. In fact there were only two other people in the theater, and they seemed to be either all dead or mostly dead. I wondered why they were even there.

I was a little apprehensive about Solo. I hadn't heard a lot of good things about it, and I was especially skeptical of the young actor chosen to play the title character. Now, after having seen it, I can say that there wasn't so much to worry about after all. I liked and enjoyed it, but that's not to say that it's a great movie. I'll tell you why I think that.

First, the whole Star Wars franchise is, in my opinion, pretty well exhausted. There is energy and inventiveness in Solo--having a young cast helps in that way--but it's hard to get excited anymore about a Star Wars movie. Solo is an example of why that is, for there is very little at stake in this film. We know that certain characters will live--there is little suspense as to their fate. As for the other characters--well, they're not very interesting or well developed. I didn't care very much whether they lived or died. They didn't seem to care either. Woody Harrelson's character loses the woman he loves (or at least who loves him) early in Solo. What is his response? Not much of anything. And what kind of lines are these people given to speak? Little that is either expressive or memorable. If anything is going on inside them, we don't know what it might be. They don't seem to have much in the way of feelings, desires, or personalities. Again and again in Solo, someone or something is lost, gained, or striven for, and yet its characters--and we because of it--feel almost nothing. This goes back to my complaint about the whole Star Wars universe, that it's pretty much devoid of love and human emotion. Put another way, the Star Wars universe is stoic. The characters we love the most--Han Solo for example--seem to be interlopers. Perhaps that explains his jadedness and cynicism in the original Star Wars (1977).

Second, and more to the point, Solo is the fifth out of ten Star Wars movies that exist solely to explain the original Star Wars (1977). (1) The problem is that Star Wars doesn't need any explaining. It's a whole story. It stands alone. (It's the only film in the saga to do so.) We all saw, loved, and thoroughly enjoyed it without knowing what came before. (We didn't really need to know what came after it, either. [2]) Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi mentions the Clone Wars and explains that Darth Vader killed Annikin Skywalker, but that's all we really needed in 1977. We didn't need five more movies--five whole movies running to nearly eleven and a half hours--to tell us what was neatly, economically, and satisfactorily disposed of with a few minutes of dialogue in the original and in its opening scroll.

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The exhaustion we see now in the Star Wars saga is emblematic of our larger popular culture. As I've said before, we are like people picking among the ruins of a once great civilization. There shouldn't be any need to point out that it will never again be 1977. There will never again be a phenomenon like Star Wars. As much fun as it was, we will never have that back, and we should quit trying to get it back. Likewise, we should quit trying to remake the creation. We don't need any more explanations of what went before. The scroll tells us. We don't need any new secret origin stories, nor any reboots. We don't need to know how Han Solo came by his surname or the details of his winning of the Millennium Falcon or how he found out about Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine. These things are minutiae. We all have better versions of how they happened inside our own imaginations. To commit them to film only heads off all other possibilities, which are, truth be told, infinite in number.

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The George Lucas version of the Star Wars saga--what fans call "the canon"--is only one of that infinite number of possibilities. For example, the second trilogy is not really the story of how Annikin Skywalker became Darth Vader. It's only Mr. Lucas' version of that story, just as in his revised version of Star Wars, Greedo shoots first. In our version of that scene, Han Solo shoots first. Is not our version equally as valid as the revised version? Isn't it actually more valid, considering that it's based on the original creation rather than on a revision? In an alternate version of the Star Wars universe (the version shown in the original movie), Darth Vader and Annikin Skywalker are not the same person. Vader is not Luke's father. With that being the case, the events of the second trilogy are rendered invalid. Even if we accept George Lucas' revision and Darth Vader is Luke's father, the events of a second trilogy could have happened in a different way. In my imagination they did. You may have a version sprung from your own imagination. I count your version as valid, too. As for how the Rebels came by the plans for the Death Star: the events shown in Rogue One are only one version of that story. You can see another version in Phineas and Ferb: Star Wars (2014). One, the "canonical" version, concludes with a creepy CGI Princess Leia, in other words an attempt to bring back something from the irretrievable past. The other is extremely funny and in the end perhaps more entertaining. So which version is the "right" one?

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What we're seeing in all of this is a kind of obsessiveness in explaining what came before. By returning again and again to the past, moviemakers (and fans) are merely regurgitating and chewing their cud. I've never chewed it before, but I know enough to say that cud is not fresh.

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I have other complaints about Solo. Again, as in other Star Wars movies, music (and by extension joy and pleasure) is here associated with decadence or evil. Witness the scene of the cocktail party on board the bad guy's spaceship. Also, early on, there is an extended chase scene that--though exciting and well-staged--amounts to a preview and source material for a video game. (Most action movies have these scenes now.) I for one don't want to see a video game while going to the movies.

More seriously: I had read about the supposed "social justice" content of Solo before going to the theater. If there is that kind of thing in Solo, it seems to be toned down. However, it's interesting that there seems to be in this film a kind of turning in the Star Wars universe in that the bad guys are now not strictly governmental (i.e., working for the Empire, in other words for a totalitarian State) but also include criminal syndicates allied with the Empire. In other words, in Solo is introduced an entirely new concept, that of what you might call a quasi-fascistic alliance between an overarching State and nefarious business interests working hand in glove with the State to bring about its ends. In other words, the makers of Solo are saying that Star Wars (1977) had it all wrong: the Empire as a State is not the main villain in the galaxy, for it is aided by and allied with businessmen, and so the bugaboo of the real-world Leftist rears its ugly head here. Never mind that Disney is a multi-gazillion dollar corporation like the mysterious Crimson Dawn. Businessmen--in other words, the middle class, aka Marx's bourgeoisie--are now seemingly the ultimate bad guys in the Star Wars universe.

There is other "social justice" content in Solo, for it turns out that the Cloud Riders are not marauders but warriors against the Empire and its businessmen partners. I guess we're supposed to sympathize with them because they have been exploited and abused. They are the underdogs, and we all love underdogs. The class warfare aspect of this part of the story is hard to ignore, though. And if there is any doubt that membership in the underclass intersects with the other sympathies of the real-world Leftist, the leader of the Cloud Riders turns out to be not just a woman but a bi-racial woman. Grrl Power, yeah! The only way it could have been better is if she were a transgender Muslim. (3) And in case you missed it, she seems to be a kind of Founding Mother of the Rebellion, for it is she who provides the Rebels with what they will need to power their fleet. (If only she had known that that same fleet would be wiped out by the end of The Last Jedi, she might have let Han Solo have it for the Millennium Falcon, which survives.)

One more bit before I move on the second movie we have seen recently. There was talk that Lando Calrissian would turn out to be "pansexual" in Solo. Yeah, whatever, Disney. But he does seem to have a thing for his robot, although their relationship, whatever it might be, seems to be one in which the distaff side--the robot--bullies and abuses her opposite--Lando himself. Anyway, I'm not sure what objection people might have to this relationship when right now (or at least very soon) real people are having (or will soon have) "sex" with robots. If it isn't wrong in real life, how can it be wrong in a movie? Beyond that, millions if not billions of people, instead of living their lives in the real world and in relationship with real human beings, are now living, mostly or exclusively, by vicarious means, that is, through machines. (And if they're not, they aspire to live that way.) The most obvious example of this way of "life" is the obsessive playing of computer games and video games. So are the same people who are having these digital or virtual "experiences" or "relationships"--the same people who report having digital "friends"--really complaining about a character in the movies having a "sexual" relationship with a robot? Isn't that a case of the pot calling the kettle black? (No pun intended.) Isn't there really only one kind of experience, one that takes place in the real world, without a digital intermediary? And isn't there really only one kind of relationship, one in which a real person relates only to another real person and not to a machine or through a machine? Why should anyone who lives his life through a machine complain about another person doing the very same thing? (4, 5)

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So a few days after we saw Solo, we went to see Avengers: Infinity War in a different movie theater. There were more people this time and we had more fun. It struck me that here are two movies, each made by a separate division of Disney, and yet one--Avengers: Infinity War--is so vastly superior to the other. It's much more entertaining and exciting in my opinion, but there is obviously so much more at stake in this film than in Solo. The characters are human and likable. They have feelings and desires and personalities. There is also a great deal of humor and some very funny dialogue. There is even music. (Wherever Star-Lord goes, there is music.) I guess my question is, how did it come to be that the Marvel movies are so much better than the Star Wars movies? And how has Marvel so successfully mined the past for material while the makers of the Star Wars movies have so often failed in that task?

One last thing. In Avengers: Infinity War, the villain is Thanos and he has, of course, his world-destroying scheme. This is to wipe out half of the life in the universe because he thinks the place is overpopulated. In a movie, that's a perfectly fine goal for a villain. We easily find ourselves rooting against the villain and for the men and women who oppose him. But do the people watching this film realize that Thanos' goal is one shared by millions of their fellows, some of whom are probably sitting right next to them in the theater? What I mean is this: If you believe in zero-population growth--if you believe that our planet is overpopulated and that our numbers should be controlled--that there should be only two billion people or five hundred million people or whatever arbitrary number of people you have come up with--that we are destroying our planet and should be reduced, or, in the words of a prominent writer and editor of fantasy, lessened or diminished--if you believe any of these things, then you are Thanos. You are not one of us. You are not one of the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy or the Wakandans or the people of Earth or of any other planet in the universe. You are a villain and a monster. Just admit that to yourself. You are a monster. And you should begin as soon as possible to cease being a monster and to come over to the side of humanity. Take this message to heart: Don't be Thanos. Be a human being. Be one of us instead of against us.

Notes
(1) Those movies are: The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), Revenge of the Sith (2005), Rogue One (2016), and now Solo (2018).
(2) Just as five of the Star Wars movies explain what came before the original, four, soon to be five, explain what came after. You could make an argument that they are also unnecessary. In the end, don't we really just need the original Star Wars? (Or maybe Star Wars and a little of The Empire Strikes Back?)
(3) We are led to believe at first that her character is male and are allowed to see only near the end that she is actually female. Is that a figurative transition from one sex to the other? Is she then figuratively "transgender"? Maybe. It's more likely that this is just a continuation of the trend in our popular culture to remake traditionally male roles or characters (Mad Max, Dr. Who, Colonel Sanders, Luke Skywalker) into female roles or characters (with Imperator Furiosa being the female Mad Max and Rey being the female Luke).
(4) "Sexual" relationships between human beings and robots go way back in science fiction. I'm not sure how far back, but they're at least as old as the Barbarella comic strip of the 1960s. See also the movie Westworld, from 1973. And if you look at the robot in Metropolis as sexual in some way (I think we're supposed to), then sex and robots have been a thing since 1927.
(5) By the way, Avengers: Infinity War also depicts a relationship between a human being and a robot. I think there's a big difference here, though. In Solo, the human-robot relationship is overtly sexualized. I guess we're supposed to think that it's cute and funny. (Maybe we're being softened up--no pun intended--for further moves planned by the social justice warriors behind the Star Wars movies.) In Avengers: Infinity War, however, the human-robot relationship is not overtly sexualized. In fact, the relationship between Scarlet Witch and the Vision seems to be one of love. The Vision aspires to be human. Scarlet Witch loves him and tries to save his life. Meanwhile Lando Calrissian is dragged down into mechanized sex with a robot that isn't and can never be human. Maybe that as much as anything explains why the Marvel movies are better than the Star Wars movies.
In any case, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Disney would create a "pansexual" character for one of its movies, for there has been sexual perversion in Disney movies at least since the 1960s. If you doubt that, watch the scene in The Parent Trap (1961), an otherwise enjoyable movie in which Disney's dirty old men had Hayley Mills suck on a pale, plastic popsicle for endless minutes. Worse yet is The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), in which there isn't anything that is not weird, creepy, perverted, or disturbing except for Annette Funicello. 

Revised July 11, 2018
Copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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