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New Escapist Column! On the Need of “Star Wars” to “Grow Beyond” the Skywalkers…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last night, looking at the future of the Star Wars brand.

While there is still some ambiguity about where Disney will take the cinematic franchise following the release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, a clean break might be the best course of action. Modern franchises are too beholden to fan service and familiarity, to retreading old ground in order to avoid offending or challenging existing fans. This prevents franchises from growing and embracing new ideas and new possibilities. It leaves them stagnant, and ultimately does little to appease fandoms with very strong ideas of how characters or ideas should be portrayed.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

“So, Your Son is a Nazi”: Modern Hollywood’s Weird Fixation on Feel-Good Stories About Fascists…

JoJo Rabbit is supposed to be an “anti-hate satire”, but what exactly is it satirising?

To be fair to director Taika Waititi, JoJo Rabbit is a well-made and charming crowd-pleaser. It manages something genuinely impressive, offering a feel-good coming of age comedy set against the backdrop of Germany in the dying days of the Second World War. It belongs the awkward, saccharine genre that produced films like Jakob the Liar or Life is Beautiful or The Day the Clown Cried. It is impossible to overstate how thin a razor blade Waititi is dancing, and how remarkable it is that he maintains his balance. The film never feels too sombre or too dark, but never as tasteless as something like The Book Thief.

Of course, Waititi largely manages this through cinematic sleight of hand. He avoids dwelling too heavily or for too long on the victims of fascist oppression in Nazi Germany. JoJo Beltzer finds a young Jewish girl hiding in his attic, but the film never details the horrors of the Final Solution. The characters are repeatedly confronted with the sight of bodies hanging in the public square, but the camera never really lingers on them. Instead, it focuses on JoJo’s reaction to them. The audience’s gaze is fixated on his gaze. The question isn’t how the audience feels about the horror, but how they feel about how JoJo feels.

This raises an interesting and slightly unsettling question about the recent wave of Hollywood films exploring the emergence of the modern extreme right and the resurgence of fascist ideology. Who exactly are these films for? What is the intended audience of JoJo Rabbit, and what exactly is it saying to them?

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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is probably the weakest live action theatrical Star Wars film, which is quite something in a world where Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones exist.

To be fair, some of the problems with The Rise of Skywalker are forced by external events. Carrie Fisher passed away early during production, and there was always a sense that the third film in the trilogy would focus on Leia in the same way that Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens had focused on Han and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi focused on Luke. As a result, the film’s consciously flailing around how best to fill that void is understandable.

Similarly, director JJ Abrams arrived on the project at the last minute, after Colin Trevorrow was removed from the project. The new Star Wars trilogy has an abridged production cycle to begin with, but The Rise of Skywalker had to switch hands midstream. As a result, it makes sense that there is a certain rough quality to the storytelling, with Abrams inheriting a film that was not designed for him and trying to impose himself upon it.

These are serious and credible challenges facing The Rise of Skywalker, and it would take an impressive film to overcome these logistical hurdles. As much as Han Solo might not like to hear the odds, those odds have been stacked against The Rise of Skywalker from very early in the production process. The film seems keenly aware of this. At one point, Poe crash lands the Millennium Falcon on the forest moon of Endor. When Jannah comments on the rough landing, Poe replies, “I’ve seen worse.” Jannah replies, “I’ve seen better.”

However, while that failure to stick the landing might be forgivable – if disappointing in its own terms – The Rise of Skywalker is most severely undermined by unforced errors. The film makes any number of catastrophic storytelling choices, both in the story that it decides to tell and the way that it ultimately opts to tell it. Whenever The Rise of Skywalker reaches a narrative crossroads, it never fails to pick the weakest of the options in front of it. This is bad of itself, even without the sense that these choices are being driven by the most craven of motivations.

As with films like Justice League, it often feels like The Rise of Skywalker has been shaped and informed by listening to the loudest voices raging on the internet and tailoring a film to appease their aesthetic sensibilities. The grand tragedy of The Rise of Skywalker is that the kind of fans that it is intended to appease are well past being appeased. More than that, these cynical efforts to appease those fans serve to alienate the actual audience. The Rise of Skywalker is everything certain fans wanted from The Last Jedi. Not uncoincidentally, it is nigh unwatchable.

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160. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (#15)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Luke Dunne, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back.

It is a time of galactic strife. Following the Empire’s defeat at the Battle of Yavin, the Rebel Alliance finds itself on the run. A surprise attack on the ice planet of Hoth scatters the rebel fighters to the wind, with Luke embarking on training with a mysterious figure named Yoda while Han Solo attempts to ferry Princess Leia to safety. However, things are not as they appear.

At time of recording, it was ranked 15th on the list of the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Of Death Stars, Sarlaccs and Sexting: The Curious Sexual Energy of “Star Wars”…

At its core, Star Wars is a Jungian, Campbellian and Freudian story about what it’s like to grow up.

This is perhaps most obvious within the original trilogy. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is ultimately about the realisation that your parents will eventually and inevitably fail you. Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi is about growing up and learning to make peace with them anyway. Of course, the individual films frame these core themes through their own lenses. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens reframes that adventure so it centres on people who have rarely had the opportunity to anchor such a story. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi asked what that meant in 2017.

Naturally, this coming of age story is framed in terms of adventure – young characters discovering that they are part of an epic mythology that guides them towards confrontations with ancient and incredible evils, often learning hidden truths about themselves and their destiny. There’s a reason that the Star Wars franchise has come to be associated with the “monomyth”, distilling the hero’s journey into something with a story with universal resonance. It is a story about what it feels like to grow up.

It is also, inevitably, very much about sex. And in some very interesting (and quite eccentric) ways.

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“The Price You Pay for Being Successful”: How “The Empire Strikes Back” Was One of the First Blockbusters of the Eighties…

Star Wars is often discussed in the context of the late seventies, whether the political context of the Vietnam War or George Lucas’ status as an up and coming director alongside the likes of Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg or even just the way in which it shifted movie-making away from the new Hollywood model towards the blockbuster template.

Despite all of this, it is often overlooked just how firmly Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is rooted in the context of the early eighties. There are obviously any number of reasons for this. Most obviously, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi consciously retreated back to the late seventies trappings of the original film, right down to its decision to restage the Vietnam War with adorable toyetic teddy bears in the place of the Viet Cong. There’s also a sense in which the cultural markers of The Empire Strikes Back are more subtle than those of Star Wars.

Sabre-rattling.

Watched from a modern perspective, The Empire Strikes Back seems to herald the arrival of the new decade. Like all great sequels, it broadens both the scale and scope of Star Wars, but it also pushes the franchise forward. Even beyond the now iconic revelations about family lineage and power dynamics, The Empire Strikes Back radically redefines what it means to be a Star Wars film. It is no longer about navigating the moral ambiguity of an uncertain time, wrestling with the spectre of American might. It is instead about exploring social power structures, of finding one’s place in system.

The Empire Strikes Back might just be the first truly great eighties movie.

A little father-son outreach.

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New Escapist Column! The “Hiatus” After “The Rise of Skywalker”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last night, looking at what follows Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

Disney have announced that there will be a three-year gap between The Rise of Skywalker and the franchise’s next theatrical release. However, is this really a hiatus? In the nineties and even into the twenty-first century, franchises like Batman and X-Men routinely went three or four years between new releases. Each of the original Star Wars films were separated by three years. It perhaps speaks to the heightened nature of modern franchise production that the idea of going three years without a Star Wars film feels like a really long time – even with The Mandalorian on the air.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! The Incredible Expansiveness of “Star Wars”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening, getting ready for the release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the larger Star Wars mythos has always been its expansive nature, the extremely detailed world that George Lucas created to tell a very simple story. That complexity allows for imagination to run wild, for fans to populate that world with their own readings and speculation. However, there’s also an underlying tension at play; in that it exists as part of a marketing machine, it leads to the clutter of the prequels, and it occasionally leads fans to get over-invested with their version of these characters.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the Cautious Conservatism of the Mandalorian…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine late last week. This one looking at the big streaming news of the week, the release of The Mandalorian.

I have very mixed feelings about The Mandalorian. There are parts of the show that I enjoyed, like its obvious debts to samurai cinema or its exploration of the aftermath of Pax Imperiosa as a way of anchoring the franchise in the present moment. However, I was much less convinced of how decidedly retrograde it felt. So much of The Mandalorian seems designed to assure viewers that “this is Star Wars“, retreating away from the relative ambition of projects like Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi or even Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for the safe and the familiar.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! How Disney Have Monetised Spoiler Culture…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine over the weekend. I’ve been thinking about this for a little while, since the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and it came bubbling to the surface with the announcement that the first episode of The Mandalorian would include “a dramatic Star Wars-universe spoiler in the first episode.”

This got me thinking about the way in which, more than any other mass media company, Disney have weaponised spoiler culture as a selling point, to create urgency among consumers and to use that to drive the market. They have also used it to shape the conversation, to control what can or cannot be said about their films and at what point. Spoiler culture has grant Disney a surprisingly strong control of the fandom-driven market. It’s an incredibly canny move from the company, one which has exploited a core part of current nerd culture.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.