Movies

Your Bad Pandemic Movie of the Week Is… Zoombies (2016)

During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 17%

Zoo animals are infected with a strange virus, turning them into zombies, and begin wreaking havoc around the zoo grounds. It sounds like a foolproof premise for a really bad but endlessly fun movie, something that John Carpenter or Rob Zombie would absolutely crush. However, Zoombies actually achieves a somewhat impressive task of making zombie gorillas and lions boring.

It’s hard to paint a picture of what makes Zoombies just bad-bad and not fun-bad, but I’ll try. Picture you’re stoned out of your mind on a Sunday afternoon. Like too stoned to change the channel. The TV is stuck to the SyFy channel and on is a movie that looks like it only raised 25% of its Kickstarter goal, but they said, “eh.. screw it, let’s make it anyway.” Now with only a quarter of their budget, the production team can’t afford to hire a writer, so they have a bot watch 1,000 hours of Sharknado on repeat to create the driest dialogue possible. Having blown what little they had on the god damn robot, they were left were no other choice than to scrap all the revolutionary CGI effects I’m sure they had planned, instead settling for running some animation through Photoshop real quick and sending it straight to post. As you watch on from the couch, your brain baking from the bong rips starts to enjoy it, simply because it requires the minimal amount of sound and color recognition. That’s the headspace this movie functions in.

I will admit there were two things about the movie that helped salvage some of the time I wasted watching this. The first were the deaths. Boy, did they really imagine up some very gruesome death scenes. I’ll rank them later. The second was that the movie doubled as a struggling actor ladder match, where all these vanilla characters were fighting not just to survive, but also clawing for as much screen time as possible to add to their reel. And since, this movie never really bothered establishing a main character, it added a level of mystery as to who would be left standing with the belt and a background role on NCIS.

Odds on favorite to win the ladder match is Dr. Ellen Rogers, manager of her late grandfather’s Eden Wildlife Zoo, who wants to clarify early on that this is, in no way, a complete Jurassic Park ripoff. Business is booming at Eden. Ellen has coincidentally just bolstered her security personnel with the hiring of the tough-as-nails Lizzy. Today also is the first day of her internship program, as bright-eyed college kids look to gleam vital knowledge about the thriving zoo industry. She even has started building the framework for her innovative Dangerous Animal Daycare, where small children, like her super annoying daughter Thea, get to have hands on learning experiences with trained “environmental educators,” such as Kifo the gorilla.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Ellen, her zoo’s doctor is dealing with inexplicably infected primates. Using his best medical judgement, he decides to revive a dead and diseased monkey, because never has that had any negative ramifications in a zombie film. The lab becomes overrun, the alarm triggered, and chaos soon to follow. The group of Breakfast Club rejects arrive right in time to be literally fed to the wolves. Suit-clad Gage quickly claims alpha status, mixing a lethal duo of can-do attitude with fiscally conservative beliefs regarding zoo management.

The horrors of shoddy CGI befall the group, as crew and interns start dropping like flies. With the zoo on full lockdown and the stock footage police of no service, it’s up to Lizzy and Ellen to manage the situation by murdering every single animal in the place. The giraffes are victim number one, but not before they take a big healthy bite of Gage. It’s okay though, because this literally has zero follow up later in the movie. Even little Thea does her part by fast-tracking her clearly destined trajectory towards serial killer by smashing the shit out of a koala. As Thea bathes in the blood of her adversary, Ellen concocts an exit strategy. They will, wait for it, leave through the front gate, but not before blowing up the aviary as to not let the virus escape to the public.

The bad acting battle royale comes down to a four-way tie: Ellen, Thea, Lizzy, and Gage. They set the birds ablaze and head for the gates. However, in their path steps Kifo, no longer hungry to inspire young minds but hungry for actual young minds. For no discernible reason, the animators decided to not provide their main animal antagonist with the state of the art CGI found in the rest of movie, and instead opted for the technology used to make the fucking Gremlins. Ellen ends Kifo, and in a sense all of our suffering, as a chopper sends the remaining four back to the safety of their off-Broadway theatre troupes. Our parting shot shows the eyes of Kifo reopening, transitioning us flawlessly into Zoombies 2. A film for another quarantine I believe.

So yeah, even though we have all the time in the world right now, I think I still wished I spent these 90 minutes doing something more productive, like staring at the spackle on my ceiling. Nevertheless, that time is irredeemable now and I guess a silver living should be found. Perhaps solace comes from social distancing helping keep us safe, not just from the rapid spread of virus, but from:

5) Wolves sneaking up behind you to gnaw right through your Achilles

4) A parrot poking your eyes out while mocking your final words

3) A gorilla smashing your skull as if opening a coconut

2) Monkeys bursting through your stomach like that scene in Alien

1) Eagles ripping out your esophagus and using it to make a nest for their eggs

And for that I’m thankful.

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Movies

Your Bad Pandemic Movie of the Week Is… Outbreak (1995)

During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%

If you scroll through the Outbreak Wikipedia entry, you wouldn’t peg it as a bad movie. It was a commercial success, earning over $120 million at the box office. Roger Ebert heaped huge praise on it, calling it, “one of the great scare stories of our time.” But then you press play, and an entirely different story shows itself. The plot is messy, the dialogue static, and it features just an incredibly awkward romance.

So let’s unpack this thing. We start off heavy on the xenophobia with a virus outbreak in the African jungle, brought to America by a monkey via a Chinese ship. The U.S. military puts its best team of sexual scumbags on the case. Our ringleader is Colonel Sam Daniels, played by Dustin Hoffman, a virologist who refuses to play by the rules. Kevin Spacey as Casey Schuler is his right-hand man and they recruit Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who’s only qualification for handling a pandemic seems to be doing a quick skim of “Virus for Dummies” before boarding the flight to Zaire. These three all report to the by-the-book General Billy Ford, played by Morgan Freeman. Seriously, I don’t think there’s been a cast that’s aged more poorly.

Once back in the states, they take the virus to the lab, zoom in and enhance, and diagnose the virus as “Motaba.” By this point Motaba has made its way to American soil.  Patient zero: Jimbo Scott, played by Patrick Dempsey looking super McDreamy with his luscious looks and Motorhead t-shirt. He tries selling our contagious monkey on the black market, fails, and then proceeds to Harry and the Hendersons the thing into the woods, dooming us all the in the process.

Here’s the kicker though: this monkey was actually a two viruses for the price of one monkey. There’s the original water-borne virus that infects Jimbo and somehow does not spread after his trip to Boston. Then there’s the much more dangerous airborne mutation sweeping through a small town in coastal California. Action must be taken right away to save humanity, and in steps Colonel Daniels.

Except Daniels seems constantly preoccupied by the thought of his failing marriage with CDC scientist Robby Keough (Rene Russo) to even begin wrapping his brain around a global catastrophe or whatever. I mean he never misses a chance to interrupt an important medical briefing by venting about a weird self-imposed custody battle he’s having over their DOGS. He’s one step away from just flipping through the family photo album with patients on their deathbeds. This love rescue mission Daniels is on destroys any chance at intensity in the film, something you might want if you’re telling a story about the world potentially ending.

Health-professionals, military personnel, and generic 90’s news reporters flock to California as Motoba has started its spread. Daniels squeezes past the barricades, against general’s orders, because nothing saves a fractured relationship quicker than curing deadly disease. Meanwhile, on the warfront enters Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) hellbent on prioritizing what matters the most, the military’s spit-shine sparkling PR image.

In perhaps the most accurate aspect of the film, McClintock makes the decision to firebomb hundreds of infected civilians, simply to hide the fact that the military were developing the Motaba strain to use as a biological weapon, which is you know, a war crime. Daniels learns of the plot, decides that’s uhh kind of fucked up, and takes matters into his own hands. I guess it’s just a slight coincidence that Keough is also now infected.

Daniels and Salt set out to search and destroy the source monkey. They track the monkey to a six-year-old girl who has just been the most hospitable tea party host for our number one public health threat. Daniels comes up with the most brilliant idea to catch the monkey. They will use the, I repeat, SIX-YEAR-OLD girl as bait, putting her in the middle of a tranquilizer gun and a deadly contagious wild animal. Daniels gives the girl an inspiring pep talk that basically boils down to, “oooo I love my wife,” and by gosh it works.

With the monkey secured, Daniels and Salt hightail it back to the infected site, but not before a totally sweet helicopter montage. However, McClintock still has Operation Clean Sweep at all systems go. Just a quick side note, if you’re planning on spinning the obliteration of an American town as in the public interest, maybe don’t name it Operation Clean Sweep. Daniels sweet talks the bomber pilots into abandoning the mission, detonating over the Pacific.

The dynamic duo then head to the hospital. Salt has miraculously gone from just learning about viruses at the beginning of the film to Nobel Prize winning biologist, developing an antidote in like 7 minutes. Humanity is saved, but most importantly, it looks like Daniels and Keough are going to make it you guys. Oh yeah, and Kevin Spacey dies. Just a great happy ending all around.

So when the credits rolls, I suggest reflecting on the highly important message this movie delivers in these uncertain circumstances. Hit up your ex, because maybe all you needed was a massive pandemic to really make it work.

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Movies

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review: An Existential Look at Love

The first scene of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire narrows in on our titular painting. A lady in fancy gown, looks away to the empty horizon, isolated, the frills at the end of her dress set ablaze. The painting’s creator, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), looks through the painting, staring at a memory long in the past. This moment frames the anguish that drives the complex commentary on love throughout the film.

Marianne is commissioned by a high-society woman to paint her daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). As Marianne settles into the estate, she gathers rumors about Heloise’s sorrow. Heloise shrouds herself in her dark cloak, numbing herself to the constraints of 18th century society. She’s to piously accept the arranged marriage set up by her mother, expected to practice the concept of restraint learned at the convent to guide her in the strengthening of the family’s noble bloodlines.

This sense of anguish lurks around the corner in every aspect of Marianne and Heloise lives, but briefly we get to see fleeting moments of escape found in each other. For Marianne, it is an aesthetic release provided by her muse. Her passion ignites from mental snapshots she takes of Heloise. It’s the first sight of Heloise’s golden curls in the sunlight, her piercing blue eyes, and gentle slope of her neck that cement Marianne’s artistic attraction.

Heloise’s escapes come not from the lure of outward beauty, but the moments of liberation from internal strife. In Marianne arrives someone who can break free her emotions long locked away. A smile first cracks open as Marianne plays Heloise a first exposure to orchestral music, a discovery of something profound to define her existence. Through this relationship, she builds ways to contextualize her suffering from music to nature to art itself.

Cinema often portrays love as a permanent cure from our anguish, but Sciamma sees it differently in her award winning screenplay. Yes, Marianne and Heloise find their longest reprieve as they fully consume themselves in one another, but eventually the constraints of life return and sorrow prevails. The motifs of fire as passion in the film quickly give way to signs of internal distress. The complexity of their love pulls back and forth as they look longingly at each other from opposite sides of a crackling bonfire. Heloise’s dress begins to catch fire with her reacting with nothing but emptiness. Eventually, the world swallows up you back up and those moments of escape burn off into the night.

This might make the mood of the film sound awfully bleak, but Sciamma tries to have her characters live outside the binary of happy and sad. Yes, her existential argument centers around the idea that to exist is to feel pain, but she also communicates that any experiences that temporarily lift us from that pain is worth the heartbreak that might follow. Sciamma supports this belief by comparing her two lovers to the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

With Orpheus ordered by Hades to not look at his lover Eurydice until they escape the underworld, Orpheus cannot resist her beauty, turns back, and on the precipice of exit Eurydice sinks back down below. According to Marianne in her interpretation, Orpheus decides to accept the memory of Eurydice, a blissful moment preserved in the mind, never to be soured by time.

Marianne has her own Orpheus moment. At the threshold of her goodbye, she peers back at Heloise, angelic in her wedding gown. The image both haunts and delights. It’s the perfect encapsulation of aesthetic ecstasy Marianne found in her muse, but also reminds of a love doomed from the beginning by expectations. Both fade from each other’s lives forever, only memory remains.

Sciamma concludes her film by showing her characters as a sum of their experiences. Heartbreak facilitated growth. Marianne improved as an artist, her agony translating to a deeper connection with her canvas. Heloise has found a similar connection with her emotions, her tear-streaming reaction to the symphony far removed from the blank face first seen on the French cliffs. Portrait of a Lady on Fire refuses to coddle audiences with a love conquers all messaging, but it does give us some solace in its reminder that at least our anguish drives our human existence forward.

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Movies

Little Women Review: Jo March’s Lesson on Love

*Spoilers* 

We meet Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women defiant over her publisher Mr. Greenwood’s demands for her characters to be married by the end of her stories. This reluctance towards marriage persists as we learn more about her. She never misses a moment to mention that her fuel in life comes from her independence.

However, she arrives back to her childhood New England home sharpened much like the winter airs that greets her. She no longer possesses the cheerfulness of her youth, shown to us through intermittent flashbacks that carry the story along. Her role as the leader of the March sisters is no longer necessary, her big sister Meg content in marriage and her little sister Amy off on European adventures. We start to realize the claims of independence mask contrary intentions. Eventually, she unleashes her pent up frustrations to her always understanding mother Marmee.

“Women, they have minds, and they have souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.”

Saoirse Ronan’s delivery of this pivotal scene is what frames her character’s viewpoint on love. I empathize with her fears attached to love. The concern is that a sharing of yourself with another leads to you being left with less of yourself. You have less time to pursue your passions. Your important personal connections already made, like Jo’s with her sisters, will move to the background. The worry is that accepting another as a part of you results in an entire shift in your identity.

However, that stance can be a dangerous one to keep. Self-acceptance can quickly turn into complacency. Jo finds her herself in this spot. She is reluctant to challenge herself in her writing. Her educator counterpart Friedrich offers the potential at an equitable partnership based on honesty, but quickly pulls back from the leap necessary to embrace new truths.

She walked herself off that ledge before at the culmination of her transition from childhood to adulthood. The autumnal leaves of change surround her and her childhood friend Laurie. Her sisters have accepted the change ahead. Meg has married. Amy has accepted her aunt’s offer of an artistic apprenticeship in Europe. But when Laurie admits his love for Jo and her leap of faith into unknown appears in front of her, she retreats into what is comfortable: her understanding of who she is without love.

Now Jo faces a future of loneliness, unless she accepts that a past layer of herself must be shed and a new version of her well-defined personality adopted. We as humans must force ourselves out of the rigidity of old ways to allow for opportunities at growth. In these regards, Jo is no longer mentor but mentee to her younger sister Amy.

Amy, played expertly by Florence Pugh, put herself through this cycle of growth. She transforms in the film from fussy and petulant child to steadfast and determined adult. She has worked hard not only at her painting, but in understanding what she wants from life. While Jo prides herself on self-discovery, Amy has discovered herself through her relationships. As she paints her forever love and soon to be husband Laurie, she reveals her mantra towards love.

“I believe we have some power over who we love, it isn’t something that just happens to a person.”

Love needs to be grabbed when you see a chance at it. It isn’t something that serendipitously falls upon us. A successful partnership requires the diligence to work towards common goals, without the suffering of individual identity. We cannot reach understanding alone, as we often are unaware of our blind spots. A true partner can help us reach greater truths about ourselves and give us the fire to push our passions to new heights.

When Friedrich took life into his own hands and finds himself face to face with Jo and the entire March family. Now, Jo must heed Amy’s lesson on determination. A new adventure awaits in a train to California with Friedrich on it. It will not require a sacrifice of who she is, but an admittance there is still much more to become.

So here’s to those of us who are love-hesitant chasing that train in the new year and taking the chance at betting understanding ourselves through the love we can give others.

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My Favorite Films of 2019

*Spoilers abound*

10. Judy

Reneé Zellweger’s performance was all it was hyped to be. She adds a new dimension to a star that is sadly fading from the pop culture canon. Zellweger captures tragically the agony of Judy Garland’s last stages in her career. Her eyes convey someone broken, and fully aware she cannot be fixed. Zellweger endears us to Garland with the devotion she has for both her children and her fans. The climatic scene of her pouring her last drops of energy into a final rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a last shared moment between her and the fans that gave her meteoric rise and devastating fall purpose, was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in film this year. Zellweger fully deserves the Oscar that is hopefully heading her way.

9. They Shall Not Grow Old

I don’t think there was a grander feat attempted in film this year than Peter Jackson’s efforts with this World War I documentary. First off, Jackson and his crew sifted through 600 hours of interviews from soldiers collected by the BBC and International War Museum. Jackson then took the distorted footage that remains from almost a century ago, colorized it, used modern production to create more animation, then added sound effects that resulted in one of the most authentic war documentaries to date.

8. Midsommar

The boldest and most imaginative horror film premise on record. The newly crowned king of horror, Ari Aster, takes never ending daylight and transforms it to sinister effect. Florence Pugh kicked off her moment in the spotlight with a good breakout performance as the grief stricken Dani. Unfortunately, Aster wasn’t able to get the most out of his characters like he did in his debut Hereditary. The gang of caricatures in Midsommar don’t produce the same complexity as Toni Collette’s internal fight between grief, anger, and motherhood. Aster should be praised for this brave attempt to revolutionize the horror genre, but I just wish the execution could’ve been better.

7. The Farewell

There is not a single character in Lulu Wang’s family memoir that I do not love. Zhao Shuzhen’s performance as Nai Nai, the family matriarch who is diagnosed with cancer but unaware of her diagnosis because of the family’s cultural practices, is brilliant and if there is any justice in the world should sweep up any best supporting actresses awards (she’s nominated for a Independent Spirit Award in that category). She’s sweet and witty, but also the epitome of toughness that main character Billi (played by Awkwafina) needs in her navigation of the quickly approaching adult world. The other family members deserve their praise as well, from the stoic but secretly hurting son Tzi Ma (played by Haiyan Wang) to Hao Hao (played Chen Han), the grandson and groom lost inside his own culture. The camera swivels rapidly as the family downs shots at Hao Hao’s wedding, each character completely unique from the next but a perfect fit together.

6. The Lighthouse

I’m a sucker for a film heavily packed with allegory and symbolism, and Robert Eggers makes sure to shove as much of those aspects into his sea-epic. Willem Dafoe plays a lighthouse manager, who doubles as a shepherd-like figure for the vengeful god of the sea Neptune. Robert Pattinson is quite literally a lost soul at sea, looking for four weeks of work, but more importantly for salvation from past transgressions. A nasty storm hits that tests Pattinson’s desire for penance, and puts him on the tipping point between heaven and hell. It’s a film that opens itself to multiple interpretations, but regardless of your takeaways the last 30 minutes will leave your jaw dropped.

5. Knives Out

A fun and light murder mystery that also is a politically astute commentary on American politics is a hard thing to pull off, but Rian Johnson nails it. The descendants of Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) self made wealth are a murderers row of everything wrong with our current political landscape: the rise of the alt-right youth, trust fund babies, and lifestyle gurus. Daniel Craig relished the opportunity to get his Atticus Finch on, and delivers a great performance as the righteous Southern investigator. The true star of the show is Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombery’s nurse living with her undocumented mother, who against her will finds herself up against these scourges of America. Johnson gives his main character a happy ending, and instills in the audience the fantasy of justice that allowed us to escape the unfortunate reality of our current American society.

4. Uncut Gems

This film never gives you a moment’s peace. Adam Sandler never stops screaming as a jewelry salesman and overall asshole Howard Ratner. The noise continues to build as Ratner weaves his bullshit across New York. You’re anxious, you’re irritated, but also somehow rooting for Ratner. The Safdie Brothers did what they set out to do, drain you of all your emotion and leave you dumbfounded. You might leave the theatre not sure what the hell just happened, but you’ll have definitely felt the entire 2 hours right in your pulse.

3. Waves

A true coming-of-age drama that leaves all the sappiness at the door. Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) faces the real challenges of American youth that can’t be overcome with light-hearted romps. He’s weighed down by the expectations not only of family, but of the pre-defined notions of masculinity and our ill-fated attempts at perfection. He faces the reality of human limitations without the copings mechanics to come to terms with his humanity. Mix in the opioid epidemic and you have a powder-keg of youthful frustration that has no healthy chance to escape. We are hit with a harrowing end to act one, but are thankfully given an optimistic second act that gives a tad of reassurance. Themes of love, honesty, and acceptance through the lens of Emily, Tyler’s sister (Taylor Russell), and her positive relationships with her father (Sterling K. Brown) and boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) provides the next generation a blueprint to climb out of that dark hole that often faces us.

2. Parasite

A suspense film masterpiece. Director Bong Joon-ho moves gracefully from comedy to tension, tragedy to vengeance, in his metaphor of class struggle between the working class Kim family and ruling class Park family. The images within the film of that struggle are poignant. The Kims find themselves stuck in the Park family’s house, trapped underneath their luxurious living room table, as the Park couple find sexual gratification in their employee’s poverty. Never will you want to eat the rich more. It’s probably the most complete film of the year, and should clean up come award season.

1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I didn’t identify with a character more this year than Jimmie Fails’ fictionalized version of himself in Joe Talbot’s commentary on gentrification and cultural displacement. Jimmie Fails is struggling to find his place in the city he loves. He holds his hope in his childhood home that his family was priced out of. Jimmie maintains the home that he no longer possesses, continuing to paint and garden so the cracks don’t start to show. As the film moves forward, the cracks inevitably do show. The idealized version of his childhood starts to show its true face. Jimmie has built a new family network involving his best friend Montgomery (Johnathan Majors) and Mont’s father (Danny Glover), insulating him from the dissolution of his relationship with his own father. The scene that will stick with me the most from this year sees Jimmie on the bus, eavesdropping on two transplants bad mouthing San Francisco. Jimmie sharply interjects:

“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

It spoke so much to my feelings with Pittsburgh. I hate the problems this city faces, and look nowhere near close to changing. Racism is prevalent throughout the city, its cultural charm disappearing institution by institution. As yes there are some elements I can never understand when it comes to the systemic racism of inequitable development, but Jimmie Fails and his search for his small pocket exclusively his own in the city he loves represents all us city dwellers that are worrisome about where they belong in the future of the city we love wholeheartedly.

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Yet Another Star Wars Review

*This article contains huge spoilers, so if you somehow stumble on this without having seen The Rise of Skywalker, it would probably be in your best interest to steer clear.* 

Star Wars opinions: it seems like everyone has one on the Internet these days. Disney sucks. Rian’s fault. JJ’s fault. The inundation of reviews has made it almost impossible to determine whether I even think the trilogy are good movies. It’s all swirling around up there, ready to be synthesized. There is only one possible solution to it all… one more hot take to throw into the fire. Head deeper into the Disney content vortex, in hopes I can sail the ship out the other side with some conclusion.

The only way this can be achievable is if I scale things back and determine what actually matters in a Star Wars film. The biggest problem I’ve had in analyzing these films is that the passion I have for the franchise consumes me (much like the passion Anakin had for Padme consumed him… see, here I go). Once the characters were established for this trilogy, I started to build the vision in my head. Then the plot starts to steer off the course I plotted, and I got upset the Star Wars world I built wasn’t realized.

Thinking about what could have been will get me nowhere. Instead, I need to look back at what started this passion and understand what made those first three movies great to a young nerd. I boiled down the original trilogy to three core elements that carried them into the pop culture pantheon: character development, world building, and story. When scrutinizing the new trilogy on these terms, I think I finally might find clarity.

Character Development

Ah, what a motley crew that greets us in the beginning stages of A New Hope. We immediately receive the groundwork for an epic space opera that’s on a direct beeline for immortality. Darth Vader epitomizes villainy perfectly. Luke is a boy about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, certainly an idea that a young imaginative mind can embrace. Then surround that main character (aka yourself) with the coolest best friends ever. It’s hard not to immediately get lost in that world.

Going forward, they search for love, friendship, and salvation in one another. All of these are achieved for the most part in a group dynamic. That togetherness provokes a familial element that reaches into our inner desires. Watching the bonds of family and friends conquer intergalactic adversity gives us hope that our personal networks we build can achieve the same.

Here we find my first flaw in the trilogy, and the blame for this one lies mostly with The Last Jedi, the film that produced the most inner strife for myself. The Force Awakens regenerates new great characters in Rey, Finn, and Poe, and the film ends placing them all in interesting attack positions on the chessboard. The Last Jedi takes those pieces and with a giant swipe sends them to the dark corners of the galaxy.

These three characters share almost zero screen time in the film until the final moments. Poe and Rey actually meet for the first time at the end of The Last Jedi. Finn spends the movie on a do-nothing mission with a pawn on the character chessboard. Two and half hours dribble by, and the opportunity to build that group rapport is squandered.

Writer and director Rian Johnson took a similar risk that The Empire Strikes Back managed to pull off. By isolating the major players, the characters embark on inner discovery that shapes them for the rest of the series. However, Johnson failed to recognize his positioning within the entire Star War series. Seven films came before him and a whole universe has already been established by the introduction of his chapter in the saga. More works needs done to chip away at the old guard of the first six films and create a new group dynamic that the audience wants to invest in.

J.J. Abrams, the creative point for the new trilogy, tried to right this mistake in his direction of The Rise of Skywalker. While Abrams has taken flak for contradicting The Last Jedi and making Johnson’s contributions to the saga obsolete, the decision to have Rey, Finn, and Poe share the screen for a huge chunk of the film was a needed fix. Watching the new crew sleuth around the Star Destroyer harked back to the adventurous and amusing nature that made you want to root for the OGs.

The chemistry was simmering between the three, but because of the separation caused by The Last Jedi it never reached a full boil. There just wasn’t enough experience shared between them to fully commit to them being lovable successors to their Resistance elders. Part of that is due to the group never encountering meaningful conflict (more on that when I get to the story discussion). Watching the characters work together to overcome their misfortune is what truly bounds the audience to them. As we enter into the final chapter without that redemption arc in place, the trilogy feels more like a cute Meetup session between a pilot, fighter, and Jedi than a family’s journey reaching its satisfying end.

World Building

Tauntauns, AT-ATs, Cloud City… the original trilogy brought us new concepts that revolutionized science fiction cinema. You fell head first into a universe that captured imagination, but left room for you to build more in your head. For the most part, the new trilogy succeeds at this as well.

Here is where Johnson deserves praise for his bold attempt at branching away from the already established and much loved Star Wars universe, and chartering off into his own territory. The planets he creates are unlike others from the series, but my favorite thing about them is they are functional in understanding how the universe operates. This is one of the complaints I have about the world building additions made in the prequel trilogy. The planets created serve no purpose other than for Lucasfilm to flex their CGI capabilities.

Canto Bight is the best example of using a planet to glimpse into the culture and problems that arise from intergalactic governance. Within the Canto Bight scenes, we see capitalist greed, police over-surveillance, and a fight for animal (species, creature?) rights. These are issues we never contemplated occurring within space, but make incredible sense considering the always present themes of imperialism and rebellion within the entire saga. We also receive snippets of religion (the nuns of Ahch-To) and industry (the mineral mines of Crait), all elements that take a universe and mold it into a society.

Sadly, Abrams seemed unwilling to venture into the darkness of the Star Wars universe and discover his own worlds like Johnson did. He retreated into the comforts of the already existing. The climatic scenes of The Rise of Skywalker involved X-wings, Star Destroyers, and the Millennium Falcon. It all felt repetitive and stale. While perhaps there was a vocal group of Star Wars fans that wanted to stay in their nostalgic bubble, I wanted a new adventure that sparked the joy that started this obsession. While there were many flaws to Johnson’s film, at least his universe made us curious about what else laid inside it.

Story

What film can succeed without a coherent story? The original trilogy’s storyline was simple, easy to identify with, and captivating above all. This new trilogy is none of those three.

It could’ve been. The Force Awakens ends with character arcs that should guide them through the rest of the series. Kylo Ren dealing with his inner conflict between light and darkness. Rey set to embark on her difficult journey of self-realization. Johnson’s duty with The Last Jedi is to take these character arcs and develop deep conflict by the end of the film that the characters must resolve in the final chapter. It’s what makes The Empire Strikes Back the greatest film in the franchise. The characters encounter their limitations and face the dire consequences because of it. You worry not only about how they will come on top, but how they will grow as characters. It’s the perfect bridge between beginning and end. Perhaps Johnson tried doing this, but I feel he failed miserably. The characters are in no greater danger than how they began The Last Jedi. Even worse, our main character Rey has no personal crisis that will propel her forward to her coronation as trilogy hero.

The lack of a cohesion between the visions of Johnson and Abrams derails the story completely off the tracks. Abrams gives every impression in his script for The Rise of Skywalker of feeling pressured to correct Johnson’s mistake, scrambling towards some sort of conflict that can carry his film. Once again, he rests on the ideas of George Lucas with a half ass attempt to write Emperor Palpatine back into the universe. Then gives Rey her personal crossroads by an even lamer decision to bind her and Palpatine by blood. It’s lazy writing that lacks a single drop of creativity. When we reach our ending, I hardly cared. The story had been twisted and mangled to the point where the crux of any good action film, your beloved characters overcoming their struggles and affirming our utopian dream of good always defeating evil, was incapable of any satisfaction.

If you leave the theatre after the last film of your favorite film series devoid of any satisfaction, I guess you have no other choice to label the new trilogy not good. After looking past the gut reactions and embroiled debate between friends, I think I now understand why. It comes down to the lack of a unified vision with how this trilogy was to unfold. There were moments in the three films that had the three great elements of a Star Wars film, but never were they working in sync. Abrams built the bare bones for a good story and Johnson buried those bones so Abrams could never find them again. Johnson built a new captivating universe and Abrams blew it up with a Star Destroyer. In the end, I will view this new trilogy as a story of unrealized potential and an inability to work together. And when you consider that Star Wars is a series dedicated to fulfilling your destiny and the power of fellowship, a trilogy that is drastically missing these elements can only be seen as a dishonor to those original films I hold so dear to my heart. 

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