Our Sweet Affairs

I’m pretty sympathetic to anyone trying to do “indie” anything.  Indie filmmakers, indie musicians, indie video game creators, etc.  It’s tough to do when you don’t have the backing of a major company.  Which is why today, I’d like to make a little plug for two of my friends from college, Jen Finelli and Samantha Aiken, who are making their own indie film, I’m Having an Affair With My Wife.

The premise is rather funny and relevant in today’s times.  The couple at the center of the show is the epitome of the term “opposites attract.”  Lashonda is a driven CEO while Sung-Min is a free-spirited artist with a passion for volunteerism.  The fact that the couple is African-American and Korean only makes the plot even fresher and more interesting (it’s actually the first American romantic comedy in 17 years to feature such a coupling).  They find their marriage stagnating, so they get on an Ashley Madison-like website to seek out affairs, only to find themselves unwittingly matched with each other!  The producers are extending the different concepts explored in the film on their blog that’s featured on the film’s official website.

If all of this sounds cool to you, you should do as I did and visit their page on Seed & Spark, the Kickstarter for movie makers.  For as little as a $1 contribution, you can get rewards.  Some of perks of the campaign include a personalized poem, DVD copies of the film signed by the leads, music downloads, even a chance to be in the film.  If you contribute at the highest level ($3,000), you can even blow up Jen’s car.  That’s right… blow up her car.  Thanks for reading, and may all your affairs be sweet 😉

A Celebration of Star Wars

Back in 2012, Star Wars Celebration, that four-day extravaganza for fans of the galaxy far, far away, was held in Orlando.  The only trouble with that was that I was a first-year teacher with nowhere near the financial means to get myself to the convention.  Fast forward to last year, and my insurance underwriter’s salary and benefits ensured that I could grab the tickets when it came back to Orlando.  Celebration 2017 finally happened last week, and I thought I’d do a reaction post on it, like I normally do when Dragon Con happens each year.

The main difference between Celebration and an event like D*C is that the entire con takes place in a single large building, in this case the Orange County Convention Center.  Dragon Con, on the other hand, is spread out over five hotels and spans many different genres of geekdom, as opposed to just Star Wars.  The main drawback with this is that for major panels and events, the entire con will converge on one place, and only the most hardcore fans will be able to enter.  For the panels commemorating the 40th anniversary and talking about the next Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, the lines were such that in order to get in, one basically had to camp out starting the evening of the previous day.  As anyone who knows me can attest, I was not having that.  The price of going to sleep and getting up at a reasonable hour was a two-hour line just to get into the show floor that greeted me on the first day, making me uneasy about the rest of my Celebration experience.  However, once I actually got in, the crowds weren’t as bad.  The organizers also opened up additional entrances on future days, making those lines much more bearable.  The only other line-related snafu came when I tried to get into the show floor on the second day, and ended up not even being able to watch the live stream of the Last Jedi panel.  But it ended up on YouTube, which was a decent simulation.  Otherwise, I was able to get into and/or watch basically any panel I wanted.

Speaking of panels, the ones I went to were pretty enjoyable.  The 40th Anniversary panel featured almost everyone who was anyone in Star Wars that was there: Kathleen Kennedy (president of Lucasfilm), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), and Dave Filoni (Star Wars Rebels producer) were all there, along with a few surprise guests.  I expected George Lucas to ride off into the sunset after selling Lucasfilm to Disney, done with Star Wars for good.  But he showed up!  Another surprise guest was Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), from the “dreaded” prequel era.  I was happy with the warm and enthusiastic reception he got at the con, despite being associated with what many describe as a low point in Star Wars history.  Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) and Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) recorded video messages for the fans.  Finally, Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, who has never been to Celebration, made an appearance at that panel.  It was great to reminisce about some great movies.

The panel that discussed The Last Jedi was also interesting.  Rian Johnson (director), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), and Hamill all showed up, along with a new actress, Kelly-Marie Tran, who plays Rose, a maintenance worker for the Resistance.  Possibly the most interesting part of that panel was the debut of the movie’s first trailer.

The two most interesting moments in that trailer for me were the scene with Kylo Ren’s crushed helmet, which may imply something about his fate, and Luke’s words.  Many fans have speculated that Luke will either fall to the dark side, or become a “grey Jedi,” one who uses both the light side and dark side, while becoming fully invested in neither.  His quote, “I only know one truth: It’s time for the Jedi to end,” as well as Rey’s talking of seeing the balance of the Force, light and dark, serve to fuel this theory.  Now, this could just be something he says in the beginning of the film that ultimately amounts to nothing after he agrees to train Rey, but it’s fun to speculate.

Other fun panels were the Star Wars Rebels panel, at which Dave Filoni revealed that the fourth season will be the last for the beloved animated series.  Mark Hamill did a moving tribute to Carrie Fisher on the second day.  Daisy Ridley crashed the Heroines of Star Wars panel, along with Filoni and Rebels voice actresses Tiya Sircar (Sabine Wren) and Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoka Tano), and the audience got to watch the first of the new Star Wars: Forces of Destiny animated shorts. David Collins analyzed the music of Rogue One in an interesting way at that panel, analyzing the themes of hope in them and connecting them back to the music of the original films, and also talking about the “Dies Irae,” musical device, which symbolizes death.  Had you been listening for it in Jyn Erso’s theme, you would have known that she would die at the end, as it is repeated four times within her leitmotif.  There was a similar panel about the making of Rogue One, where the filmmakers showed several digital sets that were built but not used.

Mark Hamill gave a sweet tribute to his friend, Carrie Fisher

The show floor featured the usual combination of shopping and art that you would find at a place like Dragon Con, but it also had some more unique areas.  For instance, there was a section devoted to new Star Wars games that had a digital pinball machine you could try your hand at, and there was one section entirely devoted to people who had tricked out their cars with Star Wars stuff.  Toymakers like Lego and the prop replica companies had cool displays.  But the king of all of those might be Nissan, who as part of their “Go Rogue” promotion had a booth where congoers could experience using the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality device which I had never tried before.  I will be very interested to see what is done with this technology going forward.  And, of course, there were many, many great costumes.

Mace Windu has always been one of my favorite Jedi.

My experience was capped off by getting to meet two of my favorite actors from Star Wars: Ian McDiarmid and Billy Dee Williams.  The baseball card company Topps worked with the Celebration organizers to make almost all of the celebrities there available for photo ops and autographs.  While the autograph lines could be somewhat mismanaged (sensing a pattern here?) it was worth it in the end.  All of it added up to a fun experience.  While it probably isn’t as relentlessly well-run as Dragon Con, it was great to be surrounded by Star Wars fans and even to run into some friends I hadn’t seen in awhile.  Hopefully, Star Wars Celebration 2019 will also be in Orlando, cause I’d definitely go back again.

Rogue Elements

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterOK, now that I’ve finally seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it’s time to do what I always do with Star Wars movies: dissect the living shit out of them. 😉  In case you’re not familiar, this movie is a prequel to the first Star Wars movie ever made, A New Hope.  In that movie, the Rebel Alliance uses technical readouts of the Galactic Empire’s massive battle station, the Death Star, in order to destroy it.  Rogue One tells the story of how they stole the plans in the first place.  It is the first of at least three planned Star Wars Anthology movies, which will take place outside of the traditional “episodes” and depict different events in Star Wars lore.

As such, one could imagine that the filmmakers wanted this movie to stake out its own ground among Star Wars movies, and Rogue One does exactly that.  I mentioned last year that The Force Awakens had a sort of modernistic sheen that didn’t exist in prior movies, but Rogue One breaks much more with tradition.  I’ve heard it described as a “WWII movie in the Star Wars universe,” and I think that’s apt.  It had the feel of a war movie much more than any of the previous entries in the saga.  The movie centered on epic battles in space and on the ground (the space battle is one of the alltime best in my mind).  In addition, it was grittier, darker, and above all, faster.  There are some pacing issues at the beginning of the movie, but once it gears up, it moves at a faster pace than any to come before it.  So fast, in fact, that I feel like I need to see it again not only because I traditionally see Star Wars movies multiple times in theaters, but because I want to see if I missed any key details.  The movie also packs in a tremendous amount of action while moving at its breakneck pace.  This different feel, in my mind, was exactly what the Star Wars franchise needed.  After the giant nostalgia trip that was The Force Awakens, this served as an excellent proper introduction to the new landscape of the Star Wars universe.

In keeping with this theme, there’s also several staples of Star Wars movies that you won’t see in Rogue One.  For instance, there are no Jedi characters, and very little discussion of the Force or Jedi philosophy.  The movie does pay a weird kind of lip service to the concept in the form of Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen.  Îmwe, while not a Jedi himself (or even a Force-user, as it appears), is a blind warrior (already somewhat unbelievable) who reveres the Jedi and subscribes to their philosophy.  So, he isn’t a Force-user, doesn’t wield a lightsaber, and isn’t really as interesting as the Jedi.  Oh, and he walks around constantly chanting to an annoying degree.  I found his character easily the least likable.

Which brings me to another of my issues.  Star Wars has always thrived on its multifaceted and compelling characters, that the audience can bond with on their travels through space.  Rogue One had precious little of that.  Even the main character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), felt rather underdeveloped.  I came perilously close to not caring what happened to her by the end, to say nothing of the band of rebels she assembles around her.  Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) was also a missed opportunity in the character department.  He was portrayed as a Rebel extremist, almost akin to a mirror image of Darth Vader. I think he would’ve been a very interesting way to explore moral gray areas, or could’ve been made into an interesting antihero.  Sadly, neither of these happened.  Now, I can forgive this somewhat, because war movies typically don’t develop deep characters so it’s easier to kill them off at the end, as Rogue One did with most everyone.

That said, the one character that did feel well-conceived was Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who departed somewhat from the “hard and unforgiving Imperial” motif, and provided us with a different point of view of the Empire.  The droid K2-SO provided excellent comic relief too.  Alan Tudyk delivered his lines with the same sort of dry and witty comedic style that made him beloved as the pilot Wash in the Firefly ‘verse.  The filmmakers even digitally recreated Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and did a fantastic job.  I was a little worried about it when I heard that detail before I saw the movie, because I was afraid that it would be so obviously artificial that it would take me out of the action.  The only time that really happened is when the character turned his body, but even that wasn’t too bad.  They also painstakingly recreated his voice using a blend of voice acting and archival audio.  I wonder if they’ll do similar stuff like this in the future.

Other classic characters make appearances, such as Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa.  Genevieve O’Reilly reprises her (ultimately deleted) role as Mon Mothma from Revenge of the Sith.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to reconstruct the world of the original trilogy, and did a great job with that as well.

And that ending.  OH that ending.

While it wasn’t that surprising, the ending was sort of an elbow in the ribs to the audience, a reminder that, although this is a different movie, we are still very much in the Star Wars universe.  Darth Vader (who I wish had been in the movie more) ignites his lightsaber and starts cutting through Rebel soldiers like a hot knife through butter, and they scramble to relay the Death Star data tape to Princess Leia, who is also digitally reconstructed.  Leia speaks the last line of the movie, and the plot leads right up to the last minutes or hours before A New Hope starts.  The final confrontation between Krennic, Erso, and Cassian Andor is also well done.

My only other real beef with the film is the soundtrack.  Michael Giacchino got the unfortunate task of being the composer everyone will compare to the incomparable John Williams (with only about four weeks to write the score, no less).  Williams’s Star Wars soundtracks are so engaging that they almost become another character in their films.  Giacchino’s soundtrack felt much more “boilerplate action movie” -ish, and I hope that isn’t a sign of things to come when the 84-year-old Williams finally sloughs off the mortal coil.

Ultimately, Rogue One didn’t resonate with me quite the same way as The Force Awakens did, probably because we didn’t have as long a layoff between films, and I’m not a big war movie buff.  But it definitely is worthy of the Star Wars name, and whets my appetite for Episode VIII next year.

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Ben Mendelsohn does a good job playing Orson Krennic.

The Dragon’s… Tentacles?

20160904_004052It was Labor Day Weekend in Atlanta, and you know what that means… football!  But it also means that weird, wild, and wonderful gathering known as Dragon Con.  This year was Dragon Con’s 30th anniversary, and it celebrated by expanding into two more buildings in downtown Atlanta, making an already big event even bigger.  This inspired me to quip early on that “the dragon has grown tentacles,” and made me wonder if it can expand even further next year.  The programming even expanded, bleeding into the preceding Thursday more than ever before.  In a similar vein, I expanded my reach into other fan tracks and events that I hadn’t explored before, and discovered some hidden gems.

Highlights:

-I got to meet Eric Matthews!  So, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pretty big fan of the Boy Meets World/Girl Meets World universe.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I realized that all three of the panels that Will Friedle (who plays Eric Matthews) was in conflicted with other things that I wanted to go to.  On a lark on Sunday afternoon, I decided to peek into the Walk of Fame to see if he was there.  Having just experienced some amazing luck with panels (more on that later), I felt good about my chances.  Lo and behold, there he was.  Not only did I get to meet and take a picture with him, I was in and out in time for my next panel.  He had the same goofy, heart-of-gold persona that his character does (well, for at least the minute or so that I interacted with him), and it was one of D*C 2016’s best moments.

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-Crowds?  What crowds?!  I took a bit of a calculated risk on Sunday morning.  Generally, if a panel has a lot of famous people on it, I won’t schedule another panel right before it, for fear that huge lines will result in me not getting into it.  I was originally going to do so with the Firefly panel, which (as predicted) drew a huge line.  But I really wanted to attend a previous panel with the actors from the TV show Gotham (which I had missed last year).  Luckily, both panels were scheduled to be in the same room (along with the one right after it too, in a weird coincidence), giving me an advantage.  Not only did I get into both, I got to witness the angelic Summer Glau in a witty repartee with her Firefly costars Adam Baldwin and Sean Maher.  Then, after a surprise appearance from singer Jonathan Coulton (I rather thought he had outgrown an event like Dragon Con), I attended a panel with some actors from Power Rangers, which again filled me with nostalgia-induced smiles.  I had similar luck when a panel about the web series Con Man (starring another Firefly alum, Alan Tudyk) turned out to not have a line at all.  It’s things like this that make me think that the people who grouse about the crowds at Dragon Con either aren’t trying hard enough or are just blowing smoke.

-I went a little more low-key at night, and it largely paid off.  The one more raucous event I went to was on Thursday night, a sing-along which featured songs from the full range of geekdom, from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to TV show themes (“you can’t take the sky from me…”) which even included the theme from “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”  This brought out out the 8-year-old in me.  I did finally get to hit some of the “after dark” panels, which generally feature more adult themes, like Metricula’s Dirty Campfire Sing-Along.  I met Metricula at last year’s Con, and she performed a nice mix of old and new songs.

-The Battlestar Galactica panel this year featured both levity and poignancy.  Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) provided the laughs.  She was hilarious in a “say whatever pops into your head” way that I’m sure doesn’t always endear her to her fellow actors, but makes for great panels.  She even coined a new word, describing the character of Felix Gaeta (played by Alessandro Juliani, who was also at the panel) as “Cysexual,” for his brief romantic fling with a Cylon.

But the most powerful moment came when Kandyse McClure, who played Anastasia Dualla, was asked a question about her character’s suicide on the show.  She talked about the research she had done for that story arc, talking to people who had once considered ending their lives, and counselors who had worked with similar people.  Many viewers were puzzled by Dualla’s feelings of joy and happiness right before she kills herself, but according to her research, that’s usually what happens.  When someone makes the final decision to commit suicide, they are usually quite happy, because the weight of the decision has been lifted.  She also related her own struggles with depression during Battlestar’s filming, and how it had convinced her not to take the same action.  It was the first time I’ve ever seen a guest get choked up in a panel, and was moving to see.

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Kandyse McClure (left) and Alessandro Juliani

-I played the National Security Decision-Making Game for the first time.  The game, which is run by a retired Navy Captain, is incredibly intricate and interesting.  Those who were on Model UN teams in high school will appreciate it.  Players were divided into three “cells,” which represented countries.  Each member of a cell played a different role, such as the US Secretary of State or the Russian manufacturing sector.  I ended up with a faction, non-Russian ethnic minorities, that made it difficult to exert much influence over the game.  I often found myself in information overload as well, and unable to process exactly what to do next once my plot to overthrow the Russian government with the aid of Chinese peasants and the CIA failed.  It was still fascinating and fun, though.  The NSDMG exists within a fan track called the War College, and it has interesting panels I’d like to check out next year.

-Alex Kingston was charming as hell.  Kingston plays River Song on Doctor Who, everyone’s favorite British time-travel sci-fi show.  She started the panel with her signature phrase, “Hello sweetie(s)!” and charmed the hell out of a bleary-eyed Monday morning crowd for an hour.  More interesting than her relating her experience on Doctor Who were her memories from her time in the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as some other projects she’s working on.

-I explored some new bands and musical acts.  It was actually a bit of a study in contrasts, as the first one I checked out, Nerf Herder, got together in 1994 and have been flying the geek/punk rock flag ever since.  Rather than the funny/quirky weirdness of acts like Jonathan Coulton or They Might Be Giants, Nerf Herder’s songs explore themes like love and loss interspersed with nerdy themes (lyrics like “You and me/like Ghostbusters III/never gonna happen.”).  While their sound is more refined since the early days, the guys are in their mid-to-late 40s now, and there was a sense of “You’re too old for this now…” permeating the performance.  But it was still fun.

The second act, Geekapella, had a youthful energy (and some girls who were easy on the eyes :P).  Probably the highlight of their performance was their covers of TV show themes.  I personally flipped out when they went into the Captain Planet and Pokemon theme songs.  They also had some funny spins on popular songs, such as “Batman Knows What You Did in the Dark.”

Sing to me, then take me home.  Please.

Sing to me, then take me home. Please.

Lowlights:

-The Late Night Puppet Slam and Geek Singles Mixer were busts.  The Puppet Slam, billed as one of the Con’s signature events, was plagued by a ballroom with bad acoustics that prevented the audience from hearing most of what was going on.  The skits that I could hear were also… just okay.  One of them felt mostly like a poorly written piece of Doctor Who porn fanfiction.  The singles mixer also suffered from some room issues, as the chairs in the room limited movement.  The two girls I talked to gave off the vibe that they didn’t want to be there, too.

-I was reminded of why I’m not involved in any Star Wars fan groups.  The SW fan groups that come to Dragon Con are largely great, but there were a few moments during the Han Solo Forever panel that bugged me.  This one woman got so indignant over Han Solo being killed in The Force Awakens that she said, “I refuse to give money to the [Disney] machine that killed him.”  A few other panelists had outsized reactions to his death (I get it, but he’s a fictional character, guys…), and reminded me of the fans that turned up their noses at the prequels.  I love Star Wars more than any other movies, but I feel like the fans can be more nitpicky and whiny than most.  Witness the avalanches of rage every time George Lucas dared to change anything in subsequent versions of the movies.  Though, that panel was followed up with another that critically analyzed the music of Star Wars, and that was very interesting.

-I attended a live recording of the Politics Politics Politics podcast and it was rather unconventional.  The host takes more of a “carnival barker” approach to political analysis, but not in a partisan way.  Rather, he tries to inject humor and craziness into what can be a staid and buttoned-up world.  In doing so, though, he sacrifices analysis, often repeating media narratives without any indication that he’s thought them through.  While it was enjoyable and I respected what he was trying to do, Nate Silver, he ain’t.

To-do list for next year:

-Basically everything I put on this list last year.  Lots of new stuff caught my attention, so I wasn’t able to go to an InstaFilk session, the Night at the Georgia Aquarium party, or the Armory programming.  The Filk track also did a panel on music theory this year that I hope they bring back so I can go to it.

-The Skeptics track does nerd comedy, and I’d like to get to one of those.  Their comedians this year were Leighann Lord and Ian Harris, and they had another session where they teamed up with a college comedy group.  I neglected the Skeptics track entirely this year, and I’d like to return at least once.

One of my favorite costumes... Calvin & Hobbes!

One of my favorite costumes… Calvin & Hobbes!

That Girl with the Staff

ReyEver since Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters, fan speculation has run rampant about many details of the film’s plot. One of the more interesting things about TFA is that it leaves a lot of details unexplained, such as how and why Ben Solo fell to the dark side, what Luke Skywalker has been up to, Finn’s origins, and so on. This leaves a lot of material for future books and movies to explore, and makes for potentially fun storytelling. But the question that is probably on the most minds is… who is Rey? It’s clear that there’s much more to Rey’s backstory than what we learn of her in the film, due to her unusual strength in the Force. As a break from the glut of music posts I’ve written lately, I thought I’d unpack some of the more prevalent fan theories out there and give my take on them.

Rey is Han & Leia’s daughter and thus Kylo/Ben’s younger sister. This is the theory that I kind of hope isn’t true, mainly because Han & Leia spend a lot of time around her in the movie, so why wouldn’t they bring it up? Kylo also doesn’t seem to recognize her when he is interrogating her, although he does show up in the flashback sequence that she experiences on first touching Luke’s lightsaber. It also wouldn’t speak highly of them as parents if they gave birth to her and then just dumped her on Jakku for no apparent reason. Kylo is supposed to be in his early thirties in the movie, while Rey is 19. That means that Kylo was around 10 or 11 when Rey was born. I’m not sure Han & Leia would have exiled Rey in order to protect her, because they probably didn’t know yet that Ben was going to fall to the dark side. I don’t think this one has a lot of support, so I’m not sure it’s true.

Rey is the reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker. The biggest criticism of this theory is that we’ve never seen anything like this happen in the Star Wars universe yet. It hasn’t been established that the Force, or anything else for that matter, can cause anyone to be reincarnated. But Anakin set a new precedent himself, having been born of a virgin and believed to have been conceived by the will of the Force. So what’s stopping him from being reincarnated, especially since no one as of yet has been as strong in the Force as he was pre-immolation? Maybe he wanted to come back and get things right this time. Rey could also have been conceived by the Force as Anakin was, and her parent(s) didn’t have the same calm reaction that Shmi Skywalker did when Anakin was born, causing him/her/them to leave her on Jakku.

The ambiguous look Luke gives Rey could indicate a connection between them.

The ambiguous look Luke gives Rey could indicate a connection between them.

Rey is Luke’s daughter. This one has a bit more legs than the first two. The look Luke gives Rey when she encounters him on the as-yet-unnamed “first Jedi Temple planet,” could be described as one of recognition, like he knows her or has seen her before. It could even be described as having a bit of shock, like he never expected to see her again. Why would he leave her on Jakku, then? The most likely explanation there is that Luke’s fledgling Jedi Order had a similar edict against romantic relationships that the Old Republic Jedi did. Luke, in a moment of weakness, conceived Rey, then dumped her on Jakku because he was ashamed of his mistake. That doesn’t paint him in a much better light than Han & Leia in the above theory, but at least there’s some rationale behind it. Perhaps he knew that she was strong in the Force and that she’d be able to be self-reliant and provide for herself, as she showed she was doing on Jakku. If true, this would also ignite speculation on who her mother is, and would leave open the possibility of a Mara Jade-like character being introduced into the new canon, which would make many fans (including this one) happy.

One fan theory that has some evidence in The Force Awakens posits that Rey is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter.

Rey is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter. I actually really like this idea. Obi-Wan had a story in the now-invalidated Legends canon where he fell in love with fellow Padawan Siri Tachi. Why couldn’t they bring that plotline into the new canon? This also has a decent chance of being true, as we hear Obi-Wan’s voice in Rey’s flashback sequence twice, once with Alec Guinness’s voice, saying her name, and once with Ewan McGregor, saying “Rey, these are your first steps.” That could end up being a fairly big clue, although we hear a lot of voices (like Yoda’s) and see a lot of people in that sequence, so it could be a red herring.   It could also open up a lot of interesting storytelling with Kenobi’s backstory, as well as the identity of his offspring that becomes Rey’s parent.

Rey is just a completely new character and we’re obsessing about this way too much. The Star Wars movies have largely centered around the Skywalker family up to now, but what if Rey has no relation to any of them? I admit, I think I like this theory the best, because it could offer the most interesting potential explanations for everything. Rather than a retread of “I am your father!” it could offer the chance for Star Wars to go in a new direction, which many fans have argued is sorely needed post-TFA. I would agree. Though it could disrupt the narrative structure of the core nine episodes of Star Wars, it might be the best way to go.

Have any other theories about who Rey might be? Let me know in the comments!

We Will Finish What You Started

Han Solo is dead. Long live Han Solo.

Han Solo is dead. Long live Han Solo.

Well, it’s finally here. The moment Star Wars fans have waited three years for (or ten, if you truly believed there would be another movie someday). Like many of my fellow fans, I saw The Force Awakens (TFA) on Friday evening, and I thought I’d give my initial thoughts on the movie now that I’ve had a few days to digest it.

There was a reviewer that I caught on an airport TV that summed up the experience by saying, “This movie was exactly what it needed to be,” and I think that’s an apt description. TFA does a great job of passing the Star Wars torch to the next generation while retaining many of the classic elements that made the franchise into the 10,000-pound gorilla that it is. Case in point: none of the “old guard” characters (Han Solo, Leia Organa, etc.) show up until about 30-45 minutes into the movie, which gives the audience time to bond with and get used to new characters Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley).

New characters Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) inject new blood into the Star Wars franchise.

New characters Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) inject new blood into the Star Wars franchise.

In that time, it’s also clear that JJ Abrams has put his stamp on this movie, and it’s not George Lucas’s world anymore. There’s a sort of modernistic sheen on this film that wasn’t really present even in the prequels. Also, TFA moves at blinding speed as compared with any of the previous movies. Despite the different feel, I do think that this movie mostly feels true to Lucas’s vision of the Star Wars universe, with a few exceptions that I’ll get into later.

Both the new and old actors turned in solid acting performances, with Finn & Rey the highlights of the new characters. Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo was interesting, but I don’t feel like his character was fleshed out enough for me to strongly judge his performance one way or the other. Same with Oscar Isaac’s performance as Poe Dameron, although his character seemed a little more compelling than Driver’s. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are on point as Han and Leia, respectively. Chewbacca, C-3P0, and R2-D2 largely reside in the background and don’t have especially active roles. I wonder if the introduction of BB-8 as a sort of “new R2-D2” character means that R2 will make fewer appearances in subsequent movies.

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is one of the film's main antagonists.

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is one of the film’s main antagonists.

Plot-wise, the film introduced a lot of compelling conflicts that fill in the 30-year gap since Return of the Jedi. Luke has disappeared following a failed attempt to train a new generation of Jedi, Han & Leia were married, but estranged following their son Ben’s fall to the dark side. Han even loses his beloved Falcon! This gives the Lucasfilm Story Group plenty of interesting plotlines to work with in future movies, and gives the new Expanded Universe the potential to be even better than the old. My main gripe regarding the plot of TFA was that it felt derivative of the plots of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, right down to the planet-sized superweapon that the Resistance/Rebel Alliance has to destroy the shield generator for in order for their fighters to attack and destroy it, with the help of a poor person from a desert planet. Kylo Ren’s relationship to the main characters also smacks of the “I am your father!” plotline of Empire Strikes Back. However, the movie did stake some new ground, such as Rey’s abandonment on Jakku and her emerging connection with Luke Skywalker. I can forgive the derivative elements in this movie since they are done well, and serve to ease the fans into the new timeline. As long as Episodes VII and IX look to go in a different direction, it shouldn’t be a big deal in the end.

control room

There were other minor things in the film that bugged me, such as the new lightsaber activation and deactivation sounds that Abrams put in, as the original sounds were an iconic part of the Star Wars universe that I didn’t think should change. There’s also a scene where Han jumps the Falcon into hyperspace straight out of a larger ship’s hangar, and given what we know about the physics of hyperspace established in earlier movies, that felt weird. But these are cosmetic things that don’t make a huge difference in my enjoyment of the movie. In short, The Force Awakens was exactly the shot in the arm that the Star Wars franchise needed, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. Luckily, we won’t have terribly long to wait, as Episode VIII is scheduled for a 2017 release, and we’ll have the first standalone movie, Rogue One, to tide us over in 2016. That movie will cover the Rebel Alliance’s effort to steal the Death Star plans (RIP Kyle Katarn…), which become very important to their ultimately destroying the battle station in A New Hope.

Throwing Back the Curtain

SpotlightWhen the stories about rampant child sexual abuse by clergymen rocked the Catholic Church in 2002, my mother was rising through the ranks within our local Church hierarchy (at least, as high as a woman can ever rise). She worked primarily as a Director of Religious Education, and later rose to Pastoral Associate (second-in-command to the priest). I was in the ninth grade in a Catholic school, and taught Sunday school in one of the programs she directed. I remember my parents and I having a frank discussion in the living room of our house the day the scandal broke, disgusted at what happened and hoping justice would be served. So when we saw the movie Spotlight on Black Friday, it had special relevance for us.

But reading a news report is not the same thing as seeing the story come to life before your eyes, and Spotlight offered a fresh take on the recent past. The movie chronicles the story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the abuse scandal, and they sugarcoat absolutely nothing about the situation. Like the original story, the film leaves few topics unexplored. The reporters’ interviews with victims lay bare the psychological torment that these supposed holy men inflicted on them. Right before the closing credits, the film displays two items of supplemental text that illustrates the extent of the scandal: the team’s finding that around 250 priests were found to have sexually abused young boys in Boston alone, and a seemingly endless list of other cities and towns around the world in which the abuse happened. These statistics knock aside the misconception that this was perpetrated by “a few bad apples.” The film also starkly depicts the intense fear that many have about taking on the Church, right down to a police officer that admits to helping priests cover up their crimes, or an elderly lady that fears being shunned by her friends if she speaks out.

This fear even extends to the reporters themselves. Several of the people who help them publish their exposé are revealed to have sent evidence of the story to them as many as five years prior to their investigation. The leader of the group, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), admits to having ignored this evidence when he was editor of the paper’s Metro section. This serves to humanize the characters, and helps the audience understand that this isn’t a simple good-versus-evil dichotomy, and many people deserve different degrees of fault in the scandal.

Robby

Walter “Robby” Robinson is now the Editor-at-Large of the Boston Globe.

The acting in Spotlight is some of the best I have seen in a while, as the actors become so immersed in their characters that the audience really believes that they are a crack team of journalists working to expose a cover-up. Particularly poignant is a scene in which Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) blows up at Robinson because he is reluctant to publish the story without more proof that Boston Archbishop Bernard Law knew about hundreds of cases of abuse and did nothing. Rezendes wants to get the story out before another paper finds out about it and mishandles the story, and in that moment, the audience can see how this has become more than just something to sell papers for the Spotlight team. Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci also turn in virtuoso performances in their roles.

This is a film that will probably not attract a wide audience, due to the previously described uncomfortable feeling that many have with regard to exposing church corruption. This is unfortunate, because, there are important lessons in here that can be applied to other problems our country faces. But perhaps the biggest takeaway is this: human beings are imperfect, and whether they are a “man of God,” a football coach, or a group of wealthy bankers, no one should be elevated to the point where people believe them to be above reproach. While context should always be taken into account in any situation, everyone should be held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. This is why, no matter who you are, you should see this movie.

Blasters, Lightsabers, and a Joystick

So, big confession coming here: I love Star Wars. I can hear everyone who knows me collectively shouting, “YA THINK???” Yes, they are my six favorite movies of all time, and in further anticipation of the next episode in this great saga, I thought I’d talk about some of the best Star Wars video games ever to grace store shelves.

DISCLAIMER: I have not played every Star Wars game in existence (for instance, I have not played The Old Republic, Galaxies, or Kinect Star Wars), but I have played a lot of them. Thanks to Humble Bundle, I’m mending some of those gaps, but don’t flame at me if your favorite game isn’t here. Chances are I simply haven’t played it.

Star Wars was kind of a hit-or-miss franchise video game-wise. When it missed, it could miss badly (Jedi Power Battles, Masters of Teräs Käsi), but when it hit, it frequently hit home runs. The prime example of this is the X-Wing series. I consider these games some of the best video games ever made. They fulfilled every Star Wars fan’s fantasy, putting the player in the cockpit of some of the films’ most celebrated ships: X-Wings, Y-Wings, TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, and many, many others. In X-Wing, the player flies for the Rebel Alliance, and in TIE Fighter, the player flies for the Galactic Empire. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter allowed players to pick either side within the game.

Gameplay still from TIE Fighter, in the cockpit of an Assault Gunboat.

Gameplay still from TIE Fighter, in the cockpit of an Assault Gunboat.

But my favorite of these games was X-Wing Alliance. Unlike the others, in Alliance the player actually played a character, Ace Azzameen, whose family ran the Twin Suns trading station. Eventually, the family gets pulled into the Galactic Civil War and joins the Rebel Alliance. The enhanced graphics and sleeker gameplay were upgrades enough from previous entries in the series, but by far the best part of this game was the Quick Skirmish mode, which allowed players to make their own missions. I can’t think of all the hours I burned away creating missions that simulated battles in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, or were simply battles I made up on the fly. In all, it was a great conclusion to a superlative series.

X-Wing Alliance's Quick Skirmish mode

X-Wing Alliance’s Quick Skirmish mode

Coming close to the X-Wing series is Knights of the Old Republic. I resisted playing KOTOR for years, because I don’t normally care much for RPGs, because they generally take a long time to complete and have so many rules and moves to make and buttons to press that they get bogged down in themselves (a la Dungeons & Dragons). But KOTOR broke that mold, blending a strong combat engine that kept the game engaging with the interactive world of an RPG. It also had a well-crafted story with some great plot twists near the end (no, I’m not telling you what they are… play the game kid!). I haven’t yet played KOTOR II: The Sith Lords, but I’m sure it will be just as good.

Knights of the Old Republic still

Knights of the Old Republic still

Just behind KOTOR in my mind is the Jedi Knight series, which spans many eras of gaming. The original game, Dark Forces, is a first-person shooter heavily reminiscent of the Doom series, with the main character, Kyle Katarn, even wearing a similar stoic mug of the protagonist from those games. But the series started to acquire the Star Wars touch with the second game in the series, Jedi Knight, in which Katarn discovers that he is Force sensitive and undergoes training as a Jedi. So in case the X-Wing series didn’t fulfill your deepest Star Wars fantasies, running around with a lightsaber and using Force powers undoubtedly did. That game is notable for its live-action cutscenes, which sound insignificant but I think added a lot to the experience. It was also one of the first Star Wars games to include ethical decisions in its gameplay, in which a player’s actions determined whether Kyle would choose the light or dark sides. KOTOR would later expand on this model.

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast features Katarn returning to the ways of the Jedi after letting his Force skills decay for fear of falling to the dark side.  Jedi Academy features the player taking control of Jaden Korr, a knight in training at Luke Skywalker’s academy. Outcast and Academy further refined the lightsaber duel and Force powers, making for an improved play control and smoother graphics over the first game.

Actor Jason Court portrayed Kyle Katarn in Jedi Knight's live-action cutscenes.

Actor Jason Court portrayed Kyle Katarn in Jedi Knight’s live-action cutscenes.

Finally, I’m currently working on a game that I consider one of the best in the franchise, Empire at War. I feel like Empire at War is a sleeker, more refined version of Galactic Battlegrounds, which was little more than an adaptation of the Age of Empires engine with Star Wars characters put in. EaW is more true to the universe, and is a more versatile real-time strategy game, featuring land and space battles. Galactic Battlegrounds often felt like a slow experience where the player had to spend a lot of time gathering resources in order to build or do anything. EaW is much easier to learn, but not necessarily easy to master, even if it could get repetitive at points. I like to think of it as a version of Risk with more player control over the outcomes. Also, there’s a part where you get to roam around with the Death Star and blow shit up indiscriminately. Who doesn’t love that?

The "Risk board" interface of Empire at War.

The “Risk board” interface of Empire at War.

As far as other games, I feel Star Wars Trilogy Arcade deserves mention here. I recently got to play all the way through this game at the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo in Atlanta, where collectors bring in their arcade machines and put them on Free Play. While its controls aren’t the best, it’s a versatile game, simultaneously being a first-person shooter, flight simulator, and lightsaber dueling game. The Super Star Wars & Rogue Squadron trilogies featured good gameplay, but were often so difficult to complete that my controller frequently skittered across the floor in anger and frustration. Some may wonder why I didn’t include the Battlefront games in my top list, and it’s mostly because they didn’t really capture my attention. They weren’t bad games, but I just didn’t consider them all that memorable. In fact, I barely remember playing them.

The last stage of Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, where the player duels with Darth Vader.

The last stage of Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, where the player duels with Darth Vader.

So, in short, Star Wars has probably produced more solid video games than many movie franchises, and it will be interesting to see what happens with the new canon. The new Battlefront game already looks stunning, and it will undoubtedly be followed by many more.

Did I leave a game out? Let me know in the comments!

The Dragon’s Lair

Sith Lord Kylo Ren, who will be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with some First Order stormtroopers.

Sith Lord Kylo Ren, who will be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with some First Order stormtroopers.

It’s that time of year again. A time for costumes, fanboys, swords, and spaceships. Oh, and some drinking, too… yes, you guessed it, Dragon Con 2015 wrapped up a few weeks ago, and it was a rollicking good time as always. I got to do and explore several areas of the Con that I hadn’t in past years, which, even though it was my third Con, made it feel like the first time (apologies to Foreigner 🙂

Me with Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis (D-GA)

Me with Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis (D-GA)

Highlights:

-I got to meet a Civil Rights leader. Betcha didn’t see that coming, huh? John Lewis, the only Big Six leader still with us, came to the Con to promote his graphic novel March. Written with the help of Andrew Aydin and Nick Powell, March chronicles Lewis’s experiences in the movement, including such pivotal moments as the Nashville sit-in demonstrations and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, chronicled in the 2014 film Selma. Lewis, who has been a Congressman from Georgia for my entire lifetime, came out to greet people waiting in line for his panel, signed books, and took pictures. The panel itself was emotional and powerful, with several great questions that tied the Civil Rights movement to the Black Lives Matter movement and other political issues of today. Several people tearfully thanked Lewis for his many contributions. At a time when many of us escape into fantasy worlds, Lewis’s panel was a stark dose of reality.

Filkers performing

Filkers performing

-The filk track was amusing. Filk, I’ve learned, is the music of fandom. Filkers write their songs about the things they love, such as Star Wars, Doctor Who, Firefly, and whatever else you can think of. Generally, filk songs are set to the tune of popular songs and are tongue-in-cheek, as one of the artists described herself as specializing in songs about “Star Wars and fornication.” I attended three of their panels on Friday, including an open filking session where filkers performed their songs for anyone who wanted to hear them. The filk track also sponsored Firefly Drinking Songs, in which Marc Gunn performed several hilarious songs about Firefly with the aid of an autoharp. I liked my introduction into the filk track, and I think I’d like to explore it more next year.

-Some of the night events I went to were cool. I finally made it to Gonzoroo on Saturday night, which basically consisted of several musical and comedy performances by the guests of Dragon Con. Some of the better ones included The Doubleclicks, a guitar and cello-wielding pair of sisters who weaved their fandoms into quirky, relatable songs. Joseph Scrimshaw was probably the best comedian of the night, making several hilarious Star Wars jokes. Paul & Storm were the only act there that I’d heard of previously, as I was familiar with the music they made as part of the comedic a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook. Friday night, I went to a show that the Animation track sponsored that was a takeoff on the TV show @Midnight. For those unfamiliar, @Midnight is hosted by Chris Hardwick on Comedy Central, and features comedians making jokes about memes and weird stuff on the Internet in a game-show format. Dragon Con’s version was similarly hilarious.

-I checked out several exhibit spaces for the first time, and they were really cool. The Armory featured many different historical weapons, and was like walking through a mini-museum. The Alternate History’s museum of steampunk and dieselpunk creations had a similar feel. I kinda thought the Comic & Pop Artist Alley was just going to feature several comic books I’d never heard of, but the “pop artist” portion of the proceedings was very interesting. The talent of the artists was pretty eye-popping, as many of them were able to fuse popular culture with a beautiful artistic style to a great result. I even wanted to buy one of the prints, but there are apparently still people in this day and age that can’t take credit cards for payment, so I was out of luck. The Art Show was less fandom-centric, and more, well, artistic. The art there was a lot fancier, and while it still featured goblins, dragons, and other mystical creatures, it was more focused on original work than on appropriating cultural icons.

Felicia Day

Felicia Day

-Felicia Day and Karen Gillan’s panels were positively charming. Felicia Day is the consummate geek actress, having appeared in such shows as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Eureka, and The Guild, a web series she created herself about online RPG players. She alternated funny moments with candid discussions of her struggles with depression and body image, that she outlined in her recent book. Karen Gillian, best known for her role as Amy Pond on Doctor Who, was similarly charming, and talked about her experiences there, and how she’s grown close to her costars Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill. She also shared some interesting stories, such as when she had to shave her head to appear on Guardians of the Galaxy, and she sent her hair to the Star Wars costume designers, who made it into a wig for her. Side note: I want to give a shout out here to the Doctor Who panelists, who always put together some great panels with some great conversation. That was true again this year.

-I didn’t venture into the Walk of Fame as much, but got to shake one new hand. That hand belonged to Edward James Olmos, who starred as Admiral Adama on Battlestar Galactica. He had that same “wizened old dad” persona that he had on Battlestar in person, and it was great to meet him. I also made a return visit to Richard Hatch’s booth, and talked Battlestar with him too. I also decided to drop all the money I’d saved for the vendors on one item: a signed photo of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher from Return of the Jedi, my favorite Star Wars movie. I figured I should probably get my hands on some Star Wars memorabilia before the new movie comes out.

-The “edutainment” and other panels were fun too. The only panel I attended on the Electronic Frontiers track was an interesting (and thankfully even-handed) look at the debate over the Second Amendment. The president of American Atheists had a great presentation on the Skeptics track, and the Space track’s panels were very interesting, about life on Mars and the future of space exploration. The lady that runs the Space track infuses a lot of energy and excitement into it, and it is often infectious. The Star Wars track’s panels were also extra-good this year, reassuring fans about changes to the canon and talking about all we know about Episode VII thus far. There was also one panel that talked about the history of Star Wars video games, which I am (you guessed it) an avid player of.

This is a screen shot from Live Astronomy.  That white patch near the bottom near the center is the Pillars of Creation.

This is a screen shot from Live Astronomy. That white patch near the bottom near the center is the Pillars of Creation.

Lowlights:

-Some of the night events were kind of a bust. The Space track’s Live Astronomy event was cool in theory, as some attending astronomers showed us live feeds of space telescopes stationed in Chile and Arizona. Only problem is, since the objects we’re focusing on are so far away, you have to leave the telescope’s exposure open for a long time (and if it’s cloudy, even longer), so you can spend an hour or more there and only get to see one picture, as I did. But the picture was cool, showing a live view of The Pillars of Creation, the subject of one of the most iconic photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Solve for X Science Show started out with a few comedians who were not as good as Gonzoroo’s offerings, so my friend Austin and I left to check out a party (where I discovered Apple Pie in a Jar, my new favorite drink). I’ll probably check out the show next year, as I’m sure it gets more interesting as the night goes on.

-The Star Wars trivia contest was way easier this year, and I should’ve done it. They restricted it to just the new canon, which is essentially the films, the TV shows, and a few novels. I thought it might focus on the more obscure parts, but I saw the qualifying test questions later, and I knew most of them. With my luck, they’ll make it hard again next year, when the new canon has had a whole year to grow.

To-do list for next year:

-I want to check out Dragon Con Night at the Georgia Aquarium. I’ve never been, and it sounds fun. The Georgia Aquarium has a really cool ambience anyway, but deck it out in sci-fi and fantasy stuff, and it’d be even better. It doesn’t cost much extra to get in, and would be interesting to check out. In a similar vein, I’d like to check out at least one of the adult-themed panels that go on at night, as well as the Skeptics track’s Nerd Comedy show.

-I’d like to do an InstaFilk session. InstaFilk is one of the filk track’s traditions, where a group of nerds get together and attempt to write a filk song on the fly. Several of the results have been good, and I think that could be a unique experience.

-Maybe I’ll explore the gaming area. I’ve never quite understood the point of coming to Dragon Con to play games all day, but the gaming track has some tournaments and such that could be fun. They also bring in these massive virtual-reality arcade machines that involve you controlling massive robots or something, and that could be fun to experience.

-The Armory, in addition to its display, has programming too. Most of the panels involve docents that teach about the history and use of certain weapons. Again, it’s a unique experience that, since I’ve never done it before, could be interesting.

In short, it was another great year! Here’s to one more!

This little girl cosplaying as Young Amy Pond made me want to melt into a puddle.

This little girl cosplaying as Young Amy Pond made me want to melt into a puddle.

The True Vision

Returnofthejedi

I’d like to ring in 2015 with another post about my favorite movie series, which is of course Star Wars.  Last year, I defended the prequels.  Much of the criticism they endured was unfair and largely the result of misplaced fan expectations.  Today’s post is going to focus on the original three movies, and why I believe the Special Edition is the best adaptation of them.  To clarify, I am referring to the Special Edition rereleased in theaters in 1997, which is the first time I ever saw Star Wars.  I have seen the original 1977-1983 versions, and that’s what I’ll largely be comparing them to.  I am not referring to the DVD (2004) or Blu-Ray (2011) releases of the movies, where George Lucas and the team made further changes.

Let’s break it down movie by movie, starting with A New Hope.  The biggest improvement made was the addition of Han Solo’s initial confrontation with Jabba the Hutt over his debt.  This scene was deleted from the original film due to time and budget constraints, and featured a human actor playing Jabba.  In the new version, Jabba is added in using CGI, featuring the appearance fans are familiar with from Return of the Jedi.  In my opinion, this scene helps to flesh out Solo’s character, and foreshadows the events of Jedi, which makes the overall storytelling better.  He also steps on Jabba’s tail, which elicits a chuckle in an otherwise serious scene.

The original Han/Jabba deleted scene, with an actor playing Jabba.

The original Han/Jabba deleted scene, with an actor playing Jabba.

hanjabba

The new version in the Special Edition of A New Hope, with Jabba digitally inserted.

 

 

The other major changes involved the Mos Eisley and Yavin Four scenes.  In the former scene, more details were added to make the spaceport seem more like a bustling hive of activity (or scum and villainy, as the case may be :), which establishes the setting better.  There is one shot in particular where the camera pulls back, and viewers see a panoramic view of Mos Eisley, which I think adds even more to the experience.

This panoramic shot of Mos Eisley was added in the Special Edition.

This panoramic shot of Mos Eisley was added in the Special Edition.

There are two key changes when the protagonists arrive on Yavin Four near the end of the movie.  First, we actually see the Millennium Falcon land on the planet, which I think is interesting even if it is brief and doesn’t add much to the plot.  Then we get a scene between Luke Skywalker and childhood friend Biggs Darklighter right before the attack on the Death Star.  I like this scene because it helps the audience get to know Luke a little better, and sheds more light on his life before the events of the movie.  Also, it gives the audience a reason to care about Biggs and establishes why his subsequent death during the attack impacts Luke so much.

Luke & Biggs's reunion, reinserted into the Special Edition

Luke & Biggs’s reunion, reinserted into the Special Edition.

No, I’m not going to talk about Han/Greedo shooting first.  It’s a stupid debate and I don’t care.

There were fewer notable changes in The Empire Strikes Back.  Probably the most significant one was additional footage of the wampa being added in showing him eating his prey.  Not really much impact on the plot, but also helps to establish the setting.  The Battle of Hoth scene was also cleaned up significantly, eliminating matte lines and making it run just a little smoother.  There were a few other minor changes, but the Special Edition version of this movie is largely identical to the original.

The wampa

The wampa

Return of the Jedi, like A New Hope, received a comparatively extensive facelift.  Jedi’s overhaul, however, mostly had to do with the music.  Two pieces used for the Special Edition have much more energy and are better than those used in the original movie.  The musical scene in Jabba’s palace originally featured the piece “Lapti Nek” and had much less action.  The Special Edition replaced this song with “Jedi Rocks,” and the Max Rebo Band singers are replaced with CGI versions, which are much more expressive and interesting than the puppets originally used.  Fun fact: Oola, the green Twi’lek dancer that entertains Jabba, was played by the same actress in both the original version and the Special Edition, 14 years later.

The music in the celebration scene at the end is also different.  In this case, the two songs aren’t as directly comparable.  The first one has more of a tribal Ewok feel and is interesting, but I still believe the second retains the tribal feel while more fully showing off the extent of John Williams’s composing prowess.

The CGI sarlacc pit monster is also much more imposing in the Special Edition, with tentacles and a large mouth added for greater dramatic effect.

star_wars_sarlacc_by_seekerarmada-d5lwd25

So while the changes made in the Special Edition aren’t radical, plot-altering devices, I believe they do a better job of articulating George Lucas’s original vision for the movies.  The Special Edition movies just feel like a finished product, more so than the original films.  Many fans would argue that Lucas became overly meddlesome with his creations when he continued to make changes in the DVD and Blu-Ray versions, which is up for debate.  A good-sized portion of the Star Wars fan community tends to be oversensitive to these changes and throw temper tantrums over minor “problems” (see Han/Greedo debate above).  Whichever version you like, the original movies stand as a shining example of good filmmaking.