“The Rise Of Skywalker” – And The Rise Of Aesthetic Over Ideology

Prologue:

My relationship with Star Wars has, like many fans, been in a strange state of flux over the last few years. I was absolutely enthralled by Rogue One, particularly for its adult aesthetic and tonal consistency with the classic films – a shining example of how style will always trump substance (which has always been my fundamental approach to any art form, and also explains the overwhelming success of The Mandalorian TV series). I fiercely championed Rogue One, and consider it my #2 favorite Star Wars film only behind Empire.  I also really loved The Force Awakens for the first few “honeymoon” months of its release, but my passion for it began to wane as I realized the totality of its rip off of A New Hope – but hey, it’s only the first act so who the hell cares? I really liked Solo for its adult tone and smart blend of western and gangster genre themes. I was also totally swooned by Donald Glover’s near-perfect portrayal of Lando Calrissian, which brought tears of joy to my eyes. However Solo was minorly plagued by a kind of Ron Howard-ey blandness that left me wondering what the film would have been like had Disney not scrapped the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I really wanted to like The Last Jedi – but found it to be a tonedeaf non-story that, aside from a bizarrely written Luke Skywalker, added little depth to its characters, and felt more like a vanity project for director Rian Johnson than a sincere attempt to deepen and enrich the characters and mythology of the previous films. Not to mention the insultingly delivered “diversity” themes that relegated minority characters to a disposable comedic sideplot – a sad but delicious irony coming from the self-congratulatory paragons of “social justice” at Disney. Most tragically, The Last Jedi was marred by its presentation of a flawless and therefore uninteresting protagonist, exempt from adversity (her adversity is implied, not shown). Nor does she require any meaningful training from the only Jedi Master still in existence. What should have been a movie rich with meaty, elegant discourse discussing the complexity of The Force, was reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. A colossal missed opportunity that will quietly haunt Rian Johnson for the rest of his career.

The Middle Act Problem:

I recently re-watched The Last Jedi after having seen The Rise of Skywalker, trying to view it with an open mind, within the fresh context of its successor. And I will admit that within context, some of its flaws are somewhat softened – “a thousand generations live in you now” admittedly carries more weight now. However, I still found the movie incredibly problematic, unfulfilling, and essentially unwatchable. Not necessarily because of its story, but because of its aesthetic. The awkward, tonedeaf humor, the “punching bag” bad guys – essentially memes of themselves – who, with the exception of Snoke, inject zero fear or tension into the movie. The “social” themes, which Rian Johnson delivers with all the subtlety and nuance of a fifth grader (Canto Bight/capitalism, Admiral Holdo/toxic masculinity). Now, I absolutely support socially progressive themes in movies – a hallmark of science fiction – however when those themes are so eye-rollingly obvious as to insult the intellect of the audience, the message gets defeated. This is story-writing 101 folks. Children are not as dumb as you think.

The Last Jedi is essentially the North of Star Wars movies – both smugly conceived stories about lost children in search of their parents, both movies too full of themselves to realize their own dreadful sense of humor (except only one of these was intended to be a comedy). North was one of the rare movies to ever get a zero-star rating from Roger Ebert, and his gloriously scathing review essentially echoes mine for The Last Jedi:

“Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

– Roger Ebert’s review of North

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The secret inspiration behind “The Last Jedi”

The Last Jedi is further handicapped by its lack of any meaningful flashback or historical explanation, which fail to make us believe in its story – most notably Luke’s jarring character shift, and the necessity of The Resistance. As a result, the movie feels weightless and fails to command our investment. It’s doesn’t earn its story. The Last Jedi resorts to spoon-feeding the viewer what to think instead of smartly weaving its themes into the slow-burning nuance of the narrative, thus amplifying their effect when the viewer discovers those themes for themselves (as the original trilogy skillfully did). Instead of showing us its story, the movie merely tells us what to think – the cardinal sin of any artform. And that is why The Last Jedi fails.

I must admit, The Last Jedi killed much of my appetite for Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker. A strong middle act that evokes tension and fear is the most critical part of any three-act story, and is precisely the reason I am so hard on The Last Jedi. Corporate media told me it was because of my bigotry and toxic masculinity. But maybe I was just getting older, desensitized with age, my threshold for good storytelling too high? Perhaps it was the confluence of those things with the cynicism of dawning midlife that seems to plague many childless 30-somethings of my demographic? But for the first time ever, I found myself barely drawn to the trailers. I had checked out. I couldn’t even remember the date I’d bought tickets for. Thankfully my wife reminded me the week prior. But still, like a good fan, I donned my ironic “Chewie, we’re home!” t-shirt and, accompanied by three fellow Star Wars geeks, surrendered myself to my local Alamo Drafthouse theater on a cool December night in Corpus Christi, TX…


The Review:

The Rise of Skywalker begins promisingly, with a rushed but visually cool sequence of Rey undergoing some actual, physical Jedi training under the tutelage of her new master, Leia Skywalker. The scene concludes with Rey delivering the much-needed line, “I will earn your brother’s saber”. Key word being earn. Upon hearing this line, I immediately knew JJ’s head was in the right place, and my optimism piqued. This seemingly innocuous line effectively summarizes the totality of the new trilogy’s fatal flaw – which is the erasure of the fundamental ethos of Jedi Knighthood – the idea that Jedi Knighthood is earned, and not given (or stumbled upon, like in Rey’s case). Unlike superheroes, a Jedi must master his or her power through training, discipline, growth and adversity – you guessed it – the hero’s journey. And it is precisely this theme that made the original Star Wars films so powerful and lasting. They gave us a modern myth, dressed in a dazzling blend of space opera and New Hollywood grit, that resonated the “hero’s journey” within our own lives. It was essentially Rocky in space – a deeply human story drenched in blockbuster spectacle. This new trilogy struggles to connect with audiences precisely because of an excess of the latter, and absence of the former.

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With the exception of this first scene, the initial half of The Rise of Skywalker feels scattered and rushed, told in the usual neurotic visual style of Abrams with nonstop quick-cuts that leave the viewer with little time to catch their breath. It all looks beautiful, but we’re not given enough time to process what we’re seeing. The film resorts to lame scavenger hunt plot tropes of “find the artifact/person to find another artifact/person to lead you to the goal”. The attempts at character-building for Poe and Finn, as told through the introduction of female characters Zori and Jannah, run lukewarm at best. The movie disappointingly fails to capitalize on the opportunity to explore Finn’s Force sensitivity as hinted at in The Force Awakens. Instead, the film seems more preoccupied with making Threepio funnier than he is, with many jokes feeling forced, sometimes reaching sophomoric Rian Johnson-levels of cringe.

I do applaud Abrams for having the guts to go big by bringing back Palpatine – a respectful take on the beloved 1991 Expanded Universe classic, Dark Empire by Dark Horse comics, written by Tom Veitch. Unfortunately, the reveal feels hokey and rushed, starting with ridiculous eye-roller of a line, “The Dead Speak!” on the opening text crawl. Palpatine’s thousand-strong star destroyer fleet rising out of the water also presents a distracting plot hole. Where the hell did he get the manpower for constructing this fleet without signaling his existence? Surely one of those millions of crewmembers or construction workers would have snitched? However General Pryde is a welcome addition, as we’re finally given an austere and competent sub-villain (not the miscast punching bag lightweight Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux).  The movie does make an earnest attempt to slowly unravel the Palpatine-Rey-grandfather connection as told through a few bait and switch scenes between Rey and Kylo. However there simply isn’t enough time, and the epic reveal feels predictable and underwhelming. If only there was a middle film that could have handled this buildup?

However the movie makes a miraculous comeback in its second half. A massive tonal shift occurs precisely when Rey discovers the Emperor’s throne room within the wreckage of Death Star II. The scene is accompanied by those beautiful, haunting pizzicato strings softly plucking “The Imperial March”, directly referencing the Vader unmasking scene from Return of the Jedi.  And at this point the film finally begins to slow the hell down and breathe. The music cuts, and the film begins to focus. We are treated to a short but much needed scene with Rey facing her internal demons, personified by “evil Rey” wielding the memefied “swiss army knife” red lightsaber. This is followed by perhaps the best (only) lightsaber duel in the new trilogy, where a reinvigorated Kylo Ren, flanked by mountains of sea spray, appropriately bests the lesser-experienced Rey in combat.   An overwhelmed Rey kneels in defeat, only to give in to her hatred as she fatally stabs a distracted Kylo in the chest. For this brief moment, we finally see a flawed protagonist, and thus momentarily, she earns our empathy.

Those iconic John Williams strings kick in and what follows is perhaps the heaviest five minutes of the new trilogy. Rey makes an unexpected admission to Kylo while a dying Leia, sensing her son in need, heroically summons her last ounce of energy to perform a deus ex machina force projection of Han’s spirit in order to thaw Kylo’s charred, blackened heart – a scene which totally sounds hammy AF – but is delivered with an uncharacteristic pathos and dignity previously unknown to this new trilogy. Adam Driver absolutely owns his performance, and elevates what would otherwise be mediocre material. His lines feel authentic, and believably convey the inner torment one would feel from murdering their father for the supposed higher calling of the dark side. In what could have easily been a forced and distracting scene, Harrison Ford delivers a surprisingly sincere performance, tastefully concluded by cutting off his son with “I know”, before Kylo has a chance to say, “dad, I love you” – thus finalizing his catharsis and redemption to the light. One can clearly sense that Ford is referencing the real life death of Carrie Fisher, which makes his few lines that much more wrenching. This entire sequence felt like Star Wars, and I admit, I got choked up. You could hear a pin drop in the packed theater.  Nearly one hundred minutes in, and the movie finally commands my full attention.  And no, that’s not nostalgia speaking – that’s the confluence of good acting, writing and directing.

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The momentum injected by these scenes eventually dissipates, however the movie continues to run on fumes for remainder of its much better second half. Rey makes one final trip back to Ach To where a Force ghost Luke Skywalker provides her a pre-fight pep talk while making a delightful wink-wink rebuke to the mishandling of his character in the previous film. Rey’s eventual confrontation with the Emperor – implied to be a clone – is as good as one might expect given the time constraints of the movie. Here it is revealed that Rey and Kylo are two halves of an exceptionally rare “dyad” in the Force which, admittedly, is a legitimately cool and interesting concept that reasonably explains the extraordinary bond between Kylo and Rey. The concept of a “dyad” serves to further the idea that the Force is, in fact, a living, organic entity, transparent to the observable world, but instead exists on some invisible macro level in much the same way that a sphere appears flat when viewed on a small enough scale (sorry flat earthers). The notion that living beings are merely elements of “Force DNA” genuinely intrigued me, and served to enhance the mythology of the Force while satisfactorily explaining Kylo and Rey’s evolved ability to “force skype” with one another and physically manipulate objects. Two halves of a rift in Force-time? Perhaps a bit of a stretch, and a lazy substitute for a far more powerful brother-sister narrative, but I’ll buy it.

Rey’s confrontation with the Emperor feels like a lazy cop out the Return of the Jedi playbook, complete with a concurrent space battle and recycled Faustian rhetoric about sacrificing one’s self to save one’s friends, but the azure-tinged scenes are stylized and delivered powerfully enough for me not to care. The heroic arrival of newly redeemed Ben Solo – no longer Kylo Ren – is satisfyingly kickass. The way he cockily hand gestures “come get some” before dealing whoop ass to the Knights of Ren was a delightful throwback to his antihero progenitor – like father like son I guess. The lightsaber “hand-off” was quite cool as well, and I liked how Rey and Ben needed to team up to defeat the Emperor, which felt like the only natural conclusion to their dyad bond. Their defeat of the Emperor using lightsabers to deflect his Force lightning was a fitting reprise to the mode of his original disfigurement, at the hand of Mace Windu in Revenge of the Sith (“unlimited power!”).  Their victory concludes with the abrupt death of Ben Solo, presaged by Adam Driver delivering what I earnestly believe might be the most authentic post-kiss smile I’ve ever seen on film. And I truly didn’t mind the “Reylo” kiss, especially given all the sh*t they’ve gone through, and given how many times they’ve either spared, taken or saved each other’s lives. Hell, who wouldn’t crave a cathartic makeup kiss after that? Platonic or otherwise. Gutsy move, I liked it.

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However, I can’t stop thinking about how bold of a plot twist it would have been to instead make Rey the martyr, thereby allowing Ben to redeem his family legacy by restoring the Jedi order, thus literally being “The Rise of Skywalker”. To have allowed Rey to make the heroic sacrifice would have immensely deepened her character, and would have served to subvert her oft-criticized image as the flawless victor. Nonetheless, I must admit that I had no major heartache with the film concluding with Rey inheriting the Skywalker mantle. Despite the flawed execution, I generally agree with the new trilogy’s fundamental premise that a “nobody” can transform into greatness. The democratization of the Skywalker name – the idea that family can transcend bloodline – is kind of cool. I can live with that. Unfortunately the lack of depth to Rey’s character certainly dulls that grand premise, but those tastefully delivered final scenes on Tatooine were enough for me to forgive and forget. A careful eye will notice how these scenes are laced with “duality” motifs – two lightsabers, two moisture vaporators, two suns, two companions, two Force ghosts – perhaps to highlight Rey and Kylo’s dyad bond and the larger theme that great feats are never accomplished alone (“Always two there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice”). And that epic closing shot – the indelible image of those twin burning suns casting a hazy silhouette emblazoned over Rey and her loyal companion, elevated by the heroic swell of Williams’ orchestral strings – was so powerful and skillfully realized, that all my criticism momentarily dissolved. Good one, JJ – you got me (I truly am easy to please).

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite the commendable strength of The Rise of Skywalker’s second half, time will likely prove unkind to this new trilogy. It will be remembered as a scattered and unfocused group – not trilogy – of three loosely related films that failed to capture the cohesive vision and tonal elegance of its New Hollywood-era forebears. The proof is not in the loudness of the haters – but in the silence of the supporters. Where are all the fun, passionate fans gathering in droves outside movie theaters, espousing their sincere love and praise for these new stories? Certainly not online. And when they do show themselves, they’re rarely articulating their love for the new movies, but instead, are usually trolling dissenting fans with tired variations of “no one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans” (as if expecting quality work from an established franchise with unlimited resources was such a crime). Or they’re posting intellectually lazy memes about “fans hating Star Wars for being the same, but then hating it for being too different!” But what they fail to grasp is the simple fact that different isn’t always good. To be different is not enough. The novelty must also be delivered compellingly. Adam Sandler could easily make a Happy Madison Star Wars trilogy starring Allen Covert and David Spade, which would subvert all expectations and probably be funny as hell – but would it be good? The “professional” critics did little to help. Their reviews were mostly airless and corporate, blandly focusing on the politics – the “wokeness” – not the aesthetics, mythology, world building – the artistry – of the new movies. They hide behind overused catchphrases like “fan service”, as if to insultingly suggest that nostalgia is the only thing Star Wars fans want. Try this for “fan service” – give us a skillfully directed, written and tonally mature movie that feels like Star Wars and you can write a Star Wars story just about anything, and I guarantee fans will generally like it (The Mandalorian, Rogue One, Clone Wars, Rebels). We aren’t that hard to please.

To this new trilogy’s credit, I sincerely commend Disney’s costly decision to use real models and puppets instead of lazily abusing computer generation. That is no small feat, and the films all look gorgeous because of this – but alone, that is not enough. I’ve always maintained that this new trilogy’s story could have truly worked had the delivery been more focused and mature. But at the end of the day, if your product doesn’t look, feel, smell, sound, and/or taste good – no one is going to buy it. Period. Style. Is. Everything.

Epilogue:

Casual fans and critics always like to dismiss Star Wars as “silly kids’ movies about space wizards and laser swords” – and they’re not wrong – but they understate the enormous influence and immediacy these movies have over the culture, particularly with children. I know because I was one of them (surprise), growing up in 1991 when I first saw Empire Strikes Back one night on TBS. I still vividly remember sitting in front of my giant, ugly-ass wooden CRT television, my vacant six-year old mind captivated by the strange images of a scarred rebel hanging upside down in an ice cave, reaching out for some mystical power; a cyborg’s pristine obsidian helmet glistening in the white lights of his starship; the eerie sounds of Tauntauns, probe droids and Imperial walkers; the haunting clash of sabers in smoky chambers; Mark Hamill’s blood-curdling scream after the grand reveal; the confusion and boredom I felt during the Dagobah scenes – elegant and mature passages that my six-year old mind was incapable of processing, but are now some of my favorite scenes as an adult; my inexplicable aversion to C-3PO and the nightmares I had about him as a child. No kidding, there was something about C-3PO’s soulless golden face that absolutely terrified me as a kid (we’re cool now though). That is how my love affair with Star Wars began, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, how it became one of the most influential experiences of my youth.

As a child I had always dreamed of becoming a military pilot, a dream seeded in no small part because of Star Wars (and probably all the awesome video games it inspired, all of which I became obsessed with, much to my own social detriment). Through luck and hard work I was able to achieve that dream, and I attribute much of that success to the aspirational values of perseverance and self-discipline that Star Wars instilled within my vacant six-year old mind. Yes, I realize how cringing and earnest that sounds. Yes, there were many real human beings that carried me along the way. And yes, I am a huge believer in the value of dark, realist, non-aspirational movies about downfalls and cautionary tales (Taxi Driver, Scarface, There Will Be Blood, Barry Lyndon, Raging Bull, etc). But having the power to positively shape young minds is something filmmakers should not take lightly. Not a responsibility, mind you – as art need not always be socially conscious – but a due consideration when making films intended to inspire young audiences.

It remains to be seen whether or not the story of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren will inspire new generations of young minds in much the same way that the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Vader inspired mine. A rich irony indeed that children’s movies about “space wizards and laser swords” can make men out of boys and women out of girls. Such is the awesome power of great storytelling – of great filmmaking. May it never be forgotten.

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My Year In Bahrain – A Portrait of the “Westworld” of the Middle East

By the grace of God almighty,

And the pressures of the marketplace.

The human race has civilized itself.

– Roger Waters, It’s A Miracle


Sometime last year it dawned on me that, as a white guy, I’ve been a racial minority or near-minority, in every place I’ve lived for the last decade – Corpus Christi, TX (30% non-Hispanic white), Hawaii (25% white), and Jacksonville, FL (58% white). And, yes, the fact this took me so long to realize probably confirms my “white privilege”. I was born in Detroit, moved to Delaware shortly after, and spent the early 90s growing up in an inner-city elementary school in Wilmington, DE – a city with a white population of 34%. My circle of childhood friends included Italians, Jews, Christians, Asians, Blacks, Indians and Whites. My childhood innocence dictated that I not care about what you looked like or what religion you practiced, but only if you liked computers, Star Wars, video games, cool music, or if you knew interesting stuff like how many times Zach De La Rocha said the F-word in “Killing in the Name” (it’s 17).  I say this not to score some dumb liberal “race cred”, but only to highlight that from an early age, living outside the white majority was my normal. It never bothered me, and I’ve never had any reason to think otherwise. So, two decades later when I was offered one-year military orders to Bahrain in the Middle East, I didn’t bat an eye. In fact it sounded really awesome. In taking those orders, I’d be fulfilling the dreaded non-flying “disassociated sea tour” requirement, mandatory for all naval aviators in my career track. Making the deal even sweeter was the fact that I’d be avoiding a grueling two-year boat tour based out of Norfolk, VA. Haze gray and underway in a soul-sucking boat job, or living it up in a posh Middle Eastern city? The decision was a no-brainer. Career implications be damned.

However, despite my comfort with being a racial minority, I still found myself strangely nervous about living in the Middle East. There was something different about being “over there”. My Western conditioning had sewn within me an unexamined “us and them” mentality, teaching me to associate kufiyahs with terrorists and minarets with barbaric old-world values. Weeks before I left, I would spend late nights scouring shock sites like LiveLeak and Ogrish, studying countless videos of gruesome ISIS executions with clinical curiosity – much like the scene from We Were Soldiers where LCOL Hal Moore reviews the chilling images of the 1954 French slaughter at Dien Bien Phu just days before shipping out to Vietnam.   Shot in high-definition close up, edited and stylized for maximal propaganda effect, these modern ISIS videos spare no grisly detail, and are a far cry from the grainy, impersonal images of the Al-Qaeda executions of the early aughties. Watching these videos magnified my hatred of ISIS and rekindled (unnecessarily) my paranoia of living in the Middle East.  This apprehension was partially allayed by watching a few YouTube videos from expats that reaffirmed just how chill and Western-friendly “The Kingdom” actually was. This, however, remained to be seen…

Arrival:

As my plane entered final approach over Bahrain, I remember being overtaken by a very strange, sinking sensation of “wow this sh*t just got real” homesick alienation as the first images of the country hit, perfectly soundtracked as “Metatron” by DARKSIDE played through my headphones – the wildly foreign architecture, minarets, vast networks of pink-tan stucco compounds and villas – all blending into an endless monochrome dull-yellow landscape dissolving into a low, hazy horizon. I might as well have just landed on Mars. But the malaise begins to wear off when I lay eyes on the tall, gleaming towers of Bahrain’s capital, Manama – a modern city of the future whose presence commanded an admiration beyond anything I’d witnessed in the West. Much like its richer Dubai and Abu Dhabi cousins in the UAE, these modern buildings looked like something plagiarized from Sim City 2000, and seemed oddly out of place within the sea of antiquated stucco-clad architecture that surrounded them. Giant, bold, asymmetric shapes of glass and metal synthesizing into a futuristic landscape, manipulated by countless spindly cranes suggesting an old civilization in the throes of rebirth. At night, the city comes alive as a pulsating kaleidoscopic mass of neon lights and exotic cars – Lambos, Ferraris, Audi concept models you never knew existed – the stuff of coke-fueled 80’s fever dreams and Kavinsky synthwave fantasy.

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Upon arrival to my hotel (The Westin), I’m intimidated by how posh and elegant it looks. An overenthusiastic valet rushes my Uber (BMW 5 series) to open my door, nearly getting hit in the process. I feel grossly out of place as I fumble through the entrance wearing shorts and a t-shirt, awkwardly hauling my Fender Stratocaster guitar and giant military seabag over my shoulders like some kind of rock ‘n roll refugee.  A young female concierge wearing a sharp three-piece suit and skirt warmly introduces herself and guides me to the front desk. I might as well have just been greeted by Talulah Riley of Westworld. My self-consciousness immediately subsides when, asked for payment, I proudly brandish my new American Express Platinum, sliding it across the polished granite counter for the maître d’.

Exhausted, I get to my room and pass out for what seems like a lifetime. I awaken to the sound of Islamic prayer music, eerily reverberating off the surrounding buildings. It’s now dark, and my sense of time nonexistent save for the digital clock beside me claiming it’s eight o’clock. I feel refreshed, but a moment of sheer panic grips me before remembering where the hell I am. I’m relieved to discover my 24th floor hotel room looks nicer than I remember. But this brief moment of respite dissolves when, gazing upon the otherworldly glow of Manama’s cityscape, I am haunted by a loneliness I hadn’t felt since childhood. The dark, eternal poetry of “Bladerunner Blues” by Vangelis washes over me, as if trying to warn me about some phantom threat that had yet to reveal itself. I lose myself in this moment for what seems like another lifetime, but a gnawing hunger motivates me enough to leave the sanctuary of my room in search of food. Terrified by my newly acquired status of “stranger in a strange land”, I find the courage to set foot into this new world – beginning with the enormous mall connected to my hotel below…

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First Night at Mall:

A strong, exotic aroma of incense and perfume overwhelms me, but it doesn’t bother me. In fact I kind of like it. Marble floors, three stories tall, immaculate presentation. Far newer and cleaner than anything I’ve seen in the States. The floors are so polished they look like glass. I marvel at the sheer diversity of the crowd as I struggle to hold my best poker face, trying to stay cool while resisting random urges to stare and grin at the absolute strangeness of the situation before me – being a lone white American in a sea of non-white foreigners wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. I had never been so conscious of my race. Ten seconds pass and I’m convinced this is the most densely multicultural place on Earth. Mostly Arabs and Asians, with a few random whites and Indian/Pakistani folks here and there. Dudes wearing anything from traditional Muslim white robes (called thobes) to ripped jeans and punk t-shirts, to slick cashmere suits to shorts and flip flops.  Saudis wear checkered kufiyah headscarves, Bahrainis and Emiratis wear solid white – though the Bahrainis like show off their progressive style by wearing trucker hats with their thobes, or if they’re super chill – no headwear at all. Arab women walk around sporting anything from traditional black burqas to less conservative, more personalized abayas, to chic Western outfits with headscarves (hijabs) or simply wear their hair down – always with heavy makeup, strong perfume and an expensive handbag draped over their shoulder. I walk past a Starbucks, totally packed even though it’s 9 o’clock at night. Mostly chilled-out Saudis glued to their iPhones, usually with headphones, drinking coffee or tea with some kind of pastry. I walk by a few more upscale coffee shops. Equally as packed. Coffee shops are apparently a big deal here.

I happen upon a Virgin store, relieved to see a familiar sight from home. I spend about thirty minutes looking around. First the book section, chuckling as I come across what appears to be a Donald Trump biography, hardcover, printed in Arabic. This amuses me enough to flip through the pages, but I get confused before realizing that Arabic books read right to left – opposite of English. I make my way upstairs and look around the CD section, amazed at how a “brick & mortar” store can even have, let alone profit from a CD section in this new age of streaming and digital downloads. The small Arabic music section is dwarfed by the larger selection of Western pop music. I flip through copies of Taylor Swift Reputation, Ariana Grande Yours Truly (my favorite) and the new Cardi B. A few Pink Floyd vinyls are showcased prominently on the shelves nearby – Darkside, Animals and Obscured by Clouds – falsely implying they’re more popular than they really are, which annoys me for some reason. I check out the small musical instruments section. Mostly Yamaha stuff. The Filipino salesman shows a customer one of the acoustic guitars. Painfully out of tune. He lets me try one of the Ukuleles and the only song I know how to play is “Deep Water” by Portishead, a fact which probably reveals more about me than it should. Afterwards I check out the impressive selection of electronics. iPods, iPads, Asus gaming laptops, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, Bose headphones. As usual, the curmudgeonly PC-gamer within me scoffs at the giant wall of Xbox and Playstation gear, lamenting over the decline of PC gaming and the rise of consoles. I purchase a few voltage converters and head back into the mall’s giant vaulted thoroughfare, smooth jazz echoing throughout.  A little Arab kid wearing a Captain America shirt nearly runs into me. His burqa-clad mother scolds him, the thin slit over her mascara-brimmed eyes revealing what looks like a frown. Two young Saudi guys hold hands while nursing cups of Caribou Coffee.

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I swing by the local telecom office, Batelco, to purchase a Bahraini sim card. The store is packed. Little kids running around or zombiefied by handheld screens. An attractive blonde and brunette, mid-twenties, halter tops, wait nearby, both unpacking new iPhone X’s, speaking what sounds like Russian. Probably hookers. Also wearing ripped designer jeans (the brunette), a not terrible-looking nose piercing (the blonde), and expensive rose-gold watches by Michael Kors. Definitely hookers. Somewhere Lana Del Rey sings “it’s enough just to make you feel crazy, crazy, crazy, sometimes”.  A smartly-dressed Bahraini woman wearing a suit and hijab takes my passport and enters my information into an iPad. I opt for the 500GB, unlimited voice month-to-month plan for 5 dinars ($15) and think to myself, “not a bad deal”. Speaking perfect English, the agent explains the process for renewing my plan every month, but I’m too distracted to care, knowing I can just get the Batelco rep on the Navy base to do it for me anyway. She smiles warmly while handing back my iPhone with the new sim card installed. I pay and head over to the atrium to make sure my data is working but get interrupted by a Pakistani mall cop who yells at me for leaning on the railing. I pretend to be sorry and continue to cruise around the mall, still overwhelmed by the bizarre menagerie of familiar and foreign sights. Going down the escalator I pass by a ‘Pottery Barn for Kids’, which I didn’t know was a thing, but lots of rich people here so I guess it makes sense. A young Arab girl wearing a t-shirt that says ‘fierce femme’ smiles at me from the other side.

I make my way down to the Carrefour, which is basically the Walmart of Bahrain.  On the way, I stop at a virtual reality kiosk where fellow geeks play a high-framerate racing game while sitting in a specially designed gaming chair with Bose speakers built in to the back. A Saudi father and son wearing pristine white thobes currently occupy the seat, having what looks like the time of their lives. The output is displayed on a giant flatscreen TV and I’m impressed with the responsiveness of the headset relative to the gamer’s head movement. I get impatient waiting in line so I continue to the Carrefour and walk around scouting the wares, impressed by the selection, ranging anywhere from fresh produce, wireless routers, garment bags to Kitchen Aids.  I pick up two bottles of kiwi-lime juice and some Canterbury chocolates imported from the U.K.  Lots of U.K. stuff here.  “No Love” by Eminem ft. Lil Wayne plays on the giant flatscreen OLED television on display, which interests me enough to stop and watch the entire video before heading to checkout. The cashier, a depressed-looking Asian woman stares blankly into space while swiping my stuff. I look around to notice all the cashiers are depressed-looking Asians.

My hunger has now become unbearable, so I start looking for a place to eat. Realizing I have no cash, I swing by the currency exchange kiosk where an upbeat Bahraini clerk wearing a single-breasted suit by Yves Saint Laurent tells me they don’t accept credit card, so he politely points me to a nearby ATM. I take out plenty of cash to justify the withdrawal fee, but am furious when I realize I got shorted on the exchange rate – which should be 2.65 USD to BHD, instead I got 2.40. Fuming, I catch the escalator to the third floor and take a shortcut through the “Souq”, which houses the most expensive local wares in the entire mall. A dense, intoxicating aroma of what I assume is expensive perfume saturates the air, overwhelming my senses nearly to the point of unconsciousness. The patrons are mostly bored-looking Saudis dressed in kufiyahs and full burqas. I try not to stare. I’m the only one in Western clothing. Elaborate displays of gold, Persian rugs, diamonds and pearls adorn gilded storefronts with stylized Arabic print, so opulent and foreign that I begin to feel the pangs of homesick discomfort re-emerge. I waste no time walking to the exit where I’m comforted by a massive corridor of familiar restaurants ranging from Shake Shack, TGI Fridays, PF Changs, Cane’s Chicken and a few Arabic places. I lamely decide to eat at Fuddruckers where, even more lamely, I order chicken fingers with vegetables and a Sprite. A single mom with long straightened hair and chandelier earrings trades an iPad back and forth with her young son at a nearby booth.  A constant trickle of parents and laughing children walk past my table, in and out of some kind of Chuck E. Cheese type fun center attached to the rear of the restaurant, complete with neon-clad bowling alleys, arcades, skee-ball lanes, and some really annoying pop songs that I can’t identify. I catch myself staring at a jovial Qatari family of six across from me, bemused by the mother’s cheetah-skin abeyah. The children are eating burgers. My waiter, a cheery guy from Thailand, provides excellent service despite not expecting a tip. A quick google search confirms that tipping is not a thing here, but I do anyway. A group of Bahraini guys with five o’clock shadows wearing Bluetooth earpieces and denim jackets by Ralph Lauren walk past my line of sight outside.

Jet-lagged and satiated from my first meal in 18 hours, I decide to retire to my room at The Westin. I’m tempted to catch a movie at the multiplex, most of which are American movies playing in English to my surprise, but instead am overcome by an inexplicable urge to watch the Brian DePalma movie Body Double, which I can probably stream for free online anyway.

Welcome to Bahrain. Live Without Limits:

The most common colloquialism used to describe Bahrain is “The Las Vegas of the Middle East”, and it really is 100% true. The island-state is a strange, liberal anomaly nestled within the heart of one of the most conservative regions on Earth, quietly humming along to a cosmopolitan dream logic of alcohol, sex, nightclubs, pork, boozy rock festivals, and Brooke Candy singles. Nearly anything goes. During weekends (Friday and Saturday), thousands of rich Saudis flock over the 16 mile King Fahd causeway (usually driving painfully slow in a decked-out Range Rover or Mercedes Benz) in search of high-end shopping, American cinema, fine dining, waterparks, and other Western pleasures. It’s common knowledge that Bahrain’s strong economy is made possible, in part, due to a laissez-faire culture of human trafficking, which supplies a steady stream of cheap labor from East Asia – predominately Pakistan, India and the Philippines. Prostitution, while technically illegal, is seldom enforced because of the economic benefits wrought by the sex-tourism industry, largely enabled by wealthy patrons from Bahrain’s more “traditional” neighbors. Independent, high-class call girls from all over the world travel to Bahrain in hopes of cashing in. Homosexuality, legalized in 1976, is generally tolerated if public displays are kept to a minimum.  Echoing a familiar sentiment from another desert-city the West, Arabs like to say what happens in Bahrain is exempt from Allah’s gaze (because it’s partially man-made, of course).

The underlying aesthetic of Bahrain is difficult to articulate in words, and after much thought, can only be described as a dark, celebratory cross between Prince “Erotic City”, Pink Floyd “Young Lust” and basically any song off that second Charli XCX record.

While the Vegas comparison is suitable, I would take it a step further and declare Bahrain, more accurately, the Westworld of the Middle East – a jokey, but eerily apt comparison made by my friend Justin in response to a video I shared on social media. I say this because Las Vegas is much too established and accessible, whereas Westworld is a younger, more secluded dreamworld still trying to figure itself out. People come to Vegas to get rich and have a good time; people come to Westworld to find out who they really are.

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Soft Power:

A British protectorate until 1971, one can still feel a lingering European presence within Bahrain’s social fabric. English is, effectively, the national language – spoken and written basically anywhere that’s commercially relevant. European-style cafes and bakeries line the city streets, always packed. British Intermediate schools are highly respected, and firmly rooted within Bahrain’s education system.  Cricket and Rugby are highly popular, and it’s not uncommon to see local Bahrainis playing pickup games between buildings in the late afternoon when the heat subsides.

Terrorism was never a concern. I never once felt unsafe, and would often go jogging outside at night (when it cooled to a brisk 90 degrees F). It wasn’t uncommon to see women doing the same, alone.   “High Risk” areas were well known, and clearly delineated on maps. One had little, if any reason, to ever stray into one – and if you did, it would probably go unnoticed anyway (believe me, I’ve done it). Gun violence was non-existent due to a strictly enforced firearms ban. What little violence that did occur was limited to sectarian skirmishes between Sunni and Shia protestors – and for that, Bahrain’s police force is swift and effective – sometimes too “effective” to the point of human rights violations. These human rights abuses have dogged Bahrain’s reputation for a long time, and are fueled primarily by tension between its Sunni-led, Saudi-backed ruling class and Shia underclass majority.

There is effectively zero outward anti-USA or anti-Western sentiment. In fact, one could say there is actually pro-Western sentiment as evidenced by Bahrain’s embrace of Western culture – almost to the point of caricature. “Tribfest” – a huge rock festival that features top tribute bands from the U.K. – is hosted bi-annually at the Rugby club. The  Freddie Mercury act of April 2018 was profoundly entertaining, and I distinctly remember having a near-spiritual experience during the extended guitar outro of “Live Forever” by what was supposedly an Oasis cover band (though they looked and played so much like the real thing it could have been the Gallagher brothers for all I knew) . Coldplay was predictably boring AF, despite apparently being the crowd favorite. However, the spectacle of watching scores of drunk white dudes lamely dancing to “Viva La Vida” more than made up for it.

American cinema is ubiquitous and always in demand. I continued to pay my respects to the Big Screen, frequenting an Arabic cinema near my apartment where I saw Solo (three times), The Last Jedi (also three times),  Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One, and Predator to name a few. In March of 2018 I attended my very first comic-con, which featured local artists, promotional displays from big-name brands like nVidia and Blizzard, guest appearances from the cast of Game of Thrones, and some really cool virtual reality demos that captivated me for hours (and convinced me of the awesome power of VR for flight simulation). I also wrecked some n00bs in an Overwatch PC gaming tournament, feeling like Allen Covert’s character from Grandma’s Boy as I, the lone thirty-something man-child, fervently gamed alongside my team of Bahraini teenagers (all speaking perfect English).  Associated with this comic-con was the annual Formula One race hosted on Bahrain’s enormous 5.4-kilometer International Racing Circuit designed by German architect Hermann Tilke – an enormous, big-budget international event that attracts tens of thousands of visitors per year. The race is advertised relentlessly and the fact that Santana played the 2018 post-race concert should tell one everything they need to know about the enormity of the event. Consequently, racing culture has become hugely popular, as proven every night by the obnoxious sounds of aftermarket exhaust mods (fart cannons) from local street racers living out their “2 Fast, 2 Furious” fantasies. Of note, American muscle cars are considered exotic in Bahrain, and more highly prized than their Audi or BMW counterparts.

Or put simply, Bahrain is the “Austin, Texas” of the Middle East.

The Promise of Globalization:

Yet for all its progressive “excesses”, Bahrain (and the greater UAE) is a fascinating case study in the efficacy of globalization, and how progressive, particularly Western attitudes, are re-shaping the Arab world. Globalization – once a specialized word synonymous with progress and prosperity, has now become a common, xenophobic punchline in the West. But behind the smokescreen of paranoia do lie some very justified concerns – human rights abuses, currency manipulation, financial speculation, worst of all, the erosion of cultural identity. However, Bahrain, for better or worse, seems to be embracing globalization’s promise in full force – and reaping the rewards. Studies have ranked Bahrain as the freest and fastest growing economy in the Arab World, leading its neighbors beyond the (black) gold rush as the first sustainable post-oil economy in the Persian Gulf thanks to its booming financial, tech and manufacturing industries – although headquartering the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet probably doesn’t hurt either.

In his 2000 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman deconstructs, with what now seems like remarkable prescience, the enormous implications of globalization’s new world order. He explains how the slow and isolated world of the Cold-war era has now ceded control to the hyper-connected, hyper-sensitive, “flattened” world of the internet age. Enabled by the microprocessor, the old global rulebook of social and economic interactions changed, effectively, overnight. Those countries who adopted the new rules – pervasive and unrestricted internet access, free market capitalism, the rule of law, government accountability and transparency ­– would prosper (Japan, America, Western Europe). Those who resisted (Russia, China, Iran) would, and continue to lag behind. Despite bringing about the fastest rise in global living standards of any event in human history, Friedman is careful to explain that globalization is a complex beast, and not without its drawbacks. The prevailing metaphor of the book, and its title, poses the fundamental dilemma of globalization – to what extent must a country “sell out” its culture for the sake of appeasing, and thus profiting from, the new rules of the homogeneous global marketplace?

“People don’t compare their lives to their father’s and grandparents’ lives today. They have more information. They now compare their lives to the lives of neighbors and other people. Because they can identify via television, satellite, DVD and Internet. ” 
– Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree

After spending more than 24 hours in country, it becomes evident to anyone that Bahrain seems to be inundated with a prevailing sense of “to join the West is to prosper; to oppose the West is to fail”. Bahrain seems to genuinely take pride in its comfortable embrace of pro-Western sentiment – but not necessarily out of the goodness of its heart (though my inner optimist wants to believe this) – but because their prosperity demands it – because the rules of the global marketplace demand it. And there’s a rich irony in that the “market forces” so highly praised by anti-globalist conservatives are the very thing working in their favor to ensure a peaceful, prosperous, and pro-Western Middle East.

While I won’t pretend to have deeply engaged in the rich cultural traditions of Bahrain’s Muslim majority,  I will say that it does seem they’ve struck the right balance between modernization and cultural preservation – thus solving the globalization dilemma.  Look no further than the large sums of state money devoted toward preserving and renovating its museums, mosques, and historical structures – most notably the Al Fateh Grand Mosque and the Bahrain National Museum and Theater – beautiful works of architecture that house some of Bahrain’s most prized national treasures and customs.

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Conclusion:

The song lyrics referenced in the beginning of this piece hung over me like a specter throughout my time in Bahrain. I once thought its author, Roger Waters, was making a scathing polemic of conservatives’ cult-like worship of unrestricted free-market capitalism. But I now think those lyrics, which he penned nearly ten years before Friedman’s book, might actually be a sincere (and chillingly prophetic) statement about the bittersweet, irreversible truths of globalization – the effects of which have yet to be fully understood.

For centuries the Middle East has been the crucible for countless empires and invasions, and the fact that it still retains so much of its cultural identity is a triumph unto itself. But this new “invasion” of Western soft power is unlike other invasions of the past, and Bahrain is leading the region in demonstrating that the “weapons” of these new invaders can be harnessed and exploited for their own gain, while still keeping their cultural dignity intact. This effect is already beginning to influence Bahrain’s more conservative neighbors, as evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s recent progressive reforms by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030”, which most notably include allowing women to drive, public cinemas playing American movies, curbing the power of the religious police, and a less restrictive e-visa system to attract tourism. The winds of change are coming, even if slowly.

I will always believe in the judicious use of lethal force when necessary, and am not naïve enough to think jihadist terrorism will ever be totally eradicated. However, my experience overseas has convinced me of the cold but undeniable truth that healthy relations with the Muslim world – the proverbial “hearts and minds” – will ultimately be won not by bullets, bombs, thoughts and prayers; but by iPhones, Twitter, Marvel movies and Ford Mustangs.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story – The Undeserved Sacrificial Lamb of The Fandom Wars

Star Wars fans ought to rejoice. Despite bombing at the box office (largely for reasons unrelated to its quality), Solo should be considered another win for the spinoff franchise. In keeping with its Rogue One predecessor, Solo delivers an adult movie with tasteful humor, compelling characters, consistent lore, and a focused story (we don’t ask for much, Rian) – in other words, a passable Star Wars movie. And this should come as no surprise given the powerhouse creative duo brought to bear. Directed by industry veteran Ron Howard and penned by Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter for Empire Strikes Back), Disney clearly wasn’t f*cking around. In fact, Solo is rather revolutionary in that it’s the first truly “secular” Star Wars flick devoid of any huge themes of The Force or Good vs Evil, and maintains an uncomfortable silence of heart-pounding space battles or lightsaber fights – which perhaps explains why it came off as “boring” at times. But that’s OK! I thoroughly enjoyed the slower, grittier, Scarface-esque scenes of grown-up Star Wars antiheroes dealing with grown-up Star Wars antihero problems (conflicting motives, guilty pasts, heartbreak, choosing between two evils, etc).

It’s clear that Disney is using  the new trilogy to engender new fans while using the spinoffs to ensure fealty from the old – and to be honest, it’s totally working on me. So keep’em coming (just nothing else like The Last Jedi please, thanks). I saw Solo three times, and enjoyed it more each time. Here’s why:

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Han & Chewie:

Alden Ehrenreich’s Han Solo delivers a competent and believable portrayal of how our beloved lopsided-grinning antihero would have actually behaved in his mid twenties, striking the right balance of youthful arrogance, womanizer charm and streetwise grit – all wrapped around a warm gooey center of insecurity, jealousy and good-guy heart. In fact Qia’ra says it best when she chides “no, you’re the good guy” after Han smugly asserts himself as a rough-around-the-edges outlaw, to which he defeatedly replies “No, I’m definitely not the good guy…I’m, uh, a terrible person” – a welcome touch of cinematic self-awareness.

I was relieved to find the Han-Chewie relationship feeling quite authentic and natural, right in-league with their heartwarming “laugh it up fuzzball” antics from the classics. No issues there. I also loved the scene between Han and Lando in the Falcon’s cockpit where, in a brief moment of brotherly levity, they bond over their (effectively) fatherless upbringing – which totally explains their lost-boy “I make my own rules” ethos, distantly echoing Nietzsche’s, “when one has not had a good father, one must create one”. This is followed by Lando further revealing that he’s a mama’s boy – which TOTALLY explains his entitled (but cool AF) attitude. However my favorite Han scene was probably the nostalgia-bomb dropped in Lando’s cape closet on the Falcon when, in true Solo fashion, he cuts off Qi’ra mid-sentence to give her the kiss she secretly desires (SO gangster), beautifully foreshadowing the legendary “my hands are dirty too” first-kiss with Leia in Empire.

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“My hands are dirty too, what are you afraid of?”

Qi’ra:

Portrayed by the lovely Emilia Clarke, Qi’ra adds another strong, well-written female character to the Star Wars fold, and is perhaps one of the most interesting and complex characters to date. Initially Han’s childhood sweetheart from the streets of Corellia, her character evolves into a dark and mysterious spectre of her former radiant self. After being separated from Han during their botched escape from Corellia, Qi’ra ends up becoming a top-lieutenant for premiere crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn, answerable only to its commander, Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany).  However, the film is unclear about her relationship with Dryden, leaving us wondering if she’s a trophy wife, slave, girlfriend or some sort of daughter figure. But if one reads between the lines, the film cleverly implies that she’s developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for Dryden, presumably having been “rescued” from her dead-end existence on Corellia and forced to serve Crimson Dawn. Qi’ra hints at this when she nihilistically quips, “we all serve our own masters”. Either way, she rises through the ranks to become Dryden’s most trusted agent, as evidenced by her charge to “babysit” Han and Beckett on the Kessel Run job (the idiot fanboys are gonna love that one). But as their journey continues, she deliberately evades talking about her past, providing only scant details that hint of something truly dark and filled with some heavy sh*t that she ain’t proud of (making her look even more badass).

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While some might argue that Qi’ra doesn’t stand as a “strong” female, I would respectfully disagree.  Yes, she’s technically subservient to a man (whom she kills, mind you), and yes, Solo does fail the Bechdel test – but who cares? Qi’ra succumbs to none of the usual female tropes, and is portrayed as an equal, if not superior, to every other male character – and does so without coming off as condescending lecture on male behavior. She is respected by other men, competent, emotionally complex, and relevant to the story – all while maintaining a believable feminine vulnerability. She’s also a kick-ass melee fighter-assassin (and thermal detonator thrower) on par with her male counterparts. Damsel in distress? I think not.

The Han & Qi’ra Romance:

I actually found the love story between Han and Qi’ra one of the most interesting parts of the movie. It’s dark, complex and beautiful in its realness. It pushes Star Wars romance into more adult territory and I loved that.  After reuniting with Qi’ra 2.0 on Dryden’s yacht, the film cleverly explores her enigmatic character from Han’s perspective as he tries to process what the hell happened to his once-innocent sweetheart from days past. While the film never explicitly reveals her history, it’s framed in such a way that a discerning viewer will find all the clues they need. She succeeds in suppressing her affection for Han, save for a few moments of weakness, knowing he can never be apart of her opulent new life as a crime boss and all the shady morality that comes with it. This all culminates in that bold, bittersweet final scene when a smitten Han, suavely standing in the elevator looking Qi’ra in the eye, naively thinks she’ll come back with him. However the look on Emelia Clarke’s face as she says,“I’ll be right behind you”, conveys no such intention. In a final selfless act of true love, Qi’ra tells him what he wants to hear in order to protect him from a life he was never meant to have. Beautifully shot and palpable with emotion, this might have been my favorite scene in the entire movie and represents the quality of filmmaking Star Wars deserves.  

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“We all serve our own masters” – Qi’ra

And for the record, there’s nothing “anti-male” about Han getting the hard pass from Qi’ra, because seriously, what dude hasn’t? In the simple words of singer/songrwiter Kurt Vile – “that’s life tho”.

 Lando & L3:

I was nearly brought to tears by how well Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) did justice to the young Lando Calrissian. As soon as I heard that first line of dialogue at the Sabacc table, spoken in that iconic Billy Dee Williams drawl, I was like “yeah, we’re good”. Overall, he does an outstanding job with Lando’s character, properly emphasizing his  signature blend of card-slinging alpha-dog charm and borderline-metro-but-not-really, vogue-rogue narcissism (the holo-blogging scene was a great touch). Some fans might take issue with the “pansexual” innuendo between him and his loudmouth DRA (droids rights activist) companion, L3 – but come on, I think that’s a pretty big stretch given L3’s bizarro, over-the-top personality. My theory? Her emotion chip malfunctioned and caused her to confuse honest friendship for romance – basically the droid equivalent of that mouthy, out-of-touch narcissistic chick from high school who thinks all the boys are in love with her. If anything, I think the film suggests more of a platonic brother-sister dynamic than a romantic one.  And even if Lando is a “pan-sexual” (whatever that means), who the hell cares? He’s still a badass. Case closed. And as for L3, I found her to be funny, relevant and not annoying at all. Some may take issue with her “feminist” overtones, but I found them charming and pretty inoffensive. I would deem L3 a worthy addition to the Star Wars droid lineage (and FINALLY answers who C-3PO was communing with when he “talks to the Falcon” in Empire).

Beckett & The Mercenaries (<–totally claiming this as a future band name, btw):

The fact that I’ve lived long enough to see Woody Harrelson and John Favreau (voice of Rio) together in a Star Wars movie is reason enough for me to die happy right now. The abrasive camaraderie between Becket, Val, Rio and their new teammates, Han/Chewie, felt fun and authentic – and is perhaps best highlighted in the campfire bonding scene when, beautiful in its subtlety, Val’s distrust of Han is immediately defused with a hesitant smile after he admits he’s doing the job for a girl (“well, there was a girl”). Afterwards, Beckett evolves into a reluctant mentor for Han, if not even a father figure at times. However their relationship predictably sours as mercenary life gets in the way, ending unceremoniously as Han’s “good-guy” heart gets the best of him.  The rival merc gang, Enfys Nest, provides a welcome twist at the end which serves to further enrich the tale of the looming Galactic Civil War while also building on Rogue One’s themes of grey morality in times of revolution.

EU References and the Bria Tharen Connection:

Expanded Universe (“Legends”) fans will be delighted to find plenty of respectful nods to the great stories that carried Star Wars since 1983. Most obvious was the inclusion of Han’s time as an Imperial officer and pilot after graduating the Imperial Academy on Carida. Much like Jimi Hendrix, it was within the disciplined confines of military life that Han discovered his true inner renegade, which eventually leads him to risk his career to rescue Chewie from Imperial slavers. As a result, Han gets dishonorably discharged and starts anew as a smuggler alongside Chewie, owing him a life debt. So the film wasn’t totally off-base, the only difference being that he was kicked out of flight school for having a “mind of his own”, but instead of getting court-martialed, he’s forced to enlist in the Imperial Infantry (an even worse fate). However Han still technically rescues Chewie from Imperial slavery just like in the books. My only real complaint was that the movie totally ignored Han’s officer and pilot training at the Imperial Academy. These scenes could of so powerfully (and humorously) added to Han’s “coming-of-age” narrative as his rogue inclinations begin to conflict with Imperial esprit de corps. It also would of been wicked cool to see Han developing his craft in flight school, kicking ass and taking names in tie fighters.

Shrewd fans of Anne (A.C.) Crispin’s beloved “Solo Trilogy” will note the striking resemblance between Qi’ra and the suspiciously rhyming “Bria” Tharen from the books. While not an exact carbon copy of Qi’ra, the Corellian-born Bria was also Han’s longtime love interest who, like Qi’ra, reluctantly leaves him out of a sense of duty to protect him after realizing their diverging paths were incompatible (sound familiar, Padme?). Having struggled with addiction and lack of purpose, Bria leaves Han to confront her demons alone, not wanting to burden him in the process. She eventually finds her purpose in fighting for the fledgling Rebellion and rises to become the leader of the notorious Red Hand Squadron (think Inglorious Basterds) that heroically captured the Death Star plans in the Battle of Toprawa, sacrificing herself in the process. This obviously bears enormous resemblance to Jyn Erso of Rogue One, which begs the hugely important question, is Bria Tharen the spiritual inspiration for the two female heroines of the spinoff films? The resemblance is eerie beyond coincidence, and if this was indeed intentional, mad respect to Disney for bringing this legendary EU character to life as the hybrid of Qi’ra and Jyn Erso, both outstandingly written and performed.

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The fierce new (relatable) women of Star Wars, inspired by the EU’s Bria Tharen (top left)…sorry Rey

Conclusion:

It’s a crying shame Solo had to be the first casualty in the fandom wars (second if you count the declining toy sales), and with rumors already swirling about future Star Wars film delays and cancellations, it certainly won’t be the last. Ron Howard’s team did stellar work, and most certainly do not deserve their “sacrificial lamb” fate borne by The Last Jedi’s backlash boycott. The fact that Solo and Rogue One were quality films suggests that Disney is capable of delivering high-caliber and tonally-consistent Star Wars films – and contrary to popular belief – actually shows how little Disney wants to obstruct the vision of the writer & producer, which, unfortunately for Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy, only serves to magnify their responsibility for the sheer carelessness with which Episode VIII was handled.

However it’s not enough for Disney to just make good spinoff movies – it must ensure the same level of care for the mainline trilogy, whose episodes should not be lazily conceived in isolation, but in aggregate, as an entire trilogy (isn’t that the whole point?!). The results of Solo seem to suggest The Last Jedi backlash is indeed strong (and well organized), and if killing Solo is what it takes to wake up Lucasfilm’s leadership to their pompous and negligent treatment of the new trilogy and its legions of conscientiously dissenting fans, then, in the indelible words of Jagger, let it bleed.

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“Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution”

 

“The Last Jedi” and the New Aesthetic of Star Wars

Upon leaving the theater from The Last Jedi, I was immediately struck by two questions – 1.) Did Star Wars change or did I change? And 2.) Did people feel the same way about The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?

I’ll admit, my expectations for this movie were enormous, especially after 2016’s masterful Rogue One. The epic title, the crimson-hewn poster art, the badass trailers– all implied a sense of hugeness and gravity.  Given the events of Episode IX have yet to occur, my opinion of this movie could completely change; and I wholeheartedly commend Rian Johnson for attempting to sate our desire for a “unique” movie. However The Last Jedi underwhelms because it fails to capture the tonally mature, carefully-paced elegance of the originals – which I contend is the subconscious reason people, including children, fell in love with Star Wars in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of things I liked about the movie; however The Last Jedi is ultimately a double letdown of both story and storytelling. The film is marred by too many awkward moments of humor and goofy plot beats, while severely lacking in exposition, character development and artful dialogue – the latter two being the hallmarks of a great second act. It was alike and different from the classics in all the wrong ways. The fundamental reason why so many sequels fail (which is a whole new discussion) is because the new creators fail to understand what made the originals so great. Disney appears to be no different.

The Story

Before touching on aesthetics, let’s first discuss some structural problems with the plot. First, the story feels fundamentally hollow due to a lack of exposition for the good guys (The Force Awakens is partially to blame). We’ve seen Return of the Jedi, and are owed some explanation. Without it, the good guys feel like weightless carbon copies from the original trilogy (and no, the originals owed us nothing because no prior canon existed to Star Wars in 1977).  We can’t empathize with the Rebellion “Resistance” because we still have no explanation (literally zero) of their origin or motive. Why was a resistance even necessary after, just 30 years prior, pulling off the most kick-ass guerilla military operation in the galaxy? What was the New Republic government even like and why is it worth fighting for? Where the hell were the mighty fleets of the New Republic and why were they concentrated so finely that they could be wholly destroyed by a few superlasers from The Deathstar Starkiller Base? The easy answer is that the New Republic was a pacifist government that dismantled its weapons and only kept a token fleet for defense (and apparently a worthless intelligence agency). Such naïve rationale would make even the peace-loving Captain Picard facepalm himself in dismay. Disney could have at least honored the legacy of Return of the Jedi by giving us a simple 5-minute flashback (Lord of the Rings style) on the post-war events after Episode VI. This could of been easily accomplished by a short dialogue between Rey and Han/Luke/Leia.  Doing so would have provided the critical weight in helping us believe in that “spark” to ignite this new rebellion (or is it resistance?).

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Problem Number Two – There is basically zero relationship between Luke and Rey, and zero training accomplished. She shows up, Mark Hamill plays a cynical version of himself (which is sort of entertaining for a while but awkward for the movie), she swings a lightsaber at a rock, force-skypes with Kylo and leaves. This feels more like reality TV than epic storytelling.  Most criminal of all, the movie completely omits any semblance of the “hero’s journey” for young Rey.  After ditching Luke, she cordially meets bad-guy Kylo with whom she teams up to defeat a Sith master with little more than a scratch (although the lightsaber battle is really cool and the movie’s highlight). This narrative would have been far, far more satisfying had they been brother and sister, but I digress. She then heroically flies the Millennium Falcon into battle and rescues the surviving Resistance fighters by effortlessly force-lifting a ton of rocks (a feat even Luke would have struggled with as a trained apprentice).

Wow. Disney, I get you’re trying to be “different”, but there is nothing epic about telling a story of a kid who, unchallenged, “figures it out on their own”. It is neither inspiring nor relatable, and does a disservice to young viewers. And while I vehemently maintain that “relatability” is not a prerequisite for good art, it is a very powerful storytelling element whose omission is painfully absent in Rey’s development. Aside from an apparently painful mind-meld with Snoke and receiving some bad parental news (which she already knew), Rey achieves success without any suffering, failure, or catharsis (could this be Disney’s cruel play to the “entitled millennial” stereotype?). She better be the second-coming of Yoda or Jesus Christ to be this adept in The Force without a teacher. In fact, doesn’t Yoda even say that “failure is the greatest teacher” in the movie?! While Rey’s competence with a lightsaber is conceivable given her skill with a staff, her self-mastery of the Force is uninspired, unrelatable and ultimately detracts from the beauty of the story. Daisy Ridley is a dynamite actress and her portrayal of Rey is fantastic. Her character deserves far more complexity from the script.

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So…is she ever gonna get her ass kicked?

Supporters of the movie will likely celebrate its “punk” sensibility– how it seems to push the confines of epic storytelling (the three act structure, the hero’s journey, etc). However I would argue that these inspirational elements are hardly a “limitations” at all, but fundamental ingredients like sugar and salt, from which thousands of recipes can be made. It is still possible to craft a unique story without sacrificing these classic themes, and to think otherwise just seems intellectually lazy.  Yes the story was different, but not in a satisfying way. Disney promised us Rocky. What we got was a super-hero movie reboot. Looks like they’re saving the heavy-lifting for Episode IX!

Aesthetics

Even despite these annoying plot issues, I would argue The Last Jedi still could have been a great movie had Disney simply been more respectful of the tone of the classics. While lighthearted at times, the originals were fundamentally serious movies about suffering, faith, warfare and heroism. Perhaps a product of the post-Vietnam milieu, Lucas masterfully blended dark and adult themes with tasteful moments of humor (a skill he apparently lost for the prequels).  The solemnity of The Last Jedi is beleaguered by far too many awkward, ill-timed moments of slapstick that rob the film of any sense of tonal majesty.  For example, the scene on the cliff where Rey is practicing her hot lightsaber moves started swelling up as this gorgeous scene of badassery and focus…and then stalls when she accidentally cuts the stone in half, nearly hitting two of those goofy bipedal bird aliens. *facepalm*. Let’s not forget that classy montage (soon to be a meme) where “Jeremiah Johnson” Luke awkwardly milks the teat of a dopey-looking sea cow with Rey watching in confusion. And of course the scene where Mark Hamill (playing himself) tickles Rey’s hand as she “reaches out to The Force” – which is actually really funny but robs the scene of the dignity it deserves. What should be a movie rich with meaty, elegant dialogue discussing the complexity of The Force, is reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. Granted, as a young child watching The Empire Strikes Back I remember getting bored with all the Yoda training scenes on Dagobah. However as I grew up, those scenes quickly became my favorite part of the entire trilogy. Those philosophical exchanges between Hamill and Oz in the misty Dagobah jungle reign as some of the most artful and transcendent lines of dialogue I’ve ever witnessed from science fiction.

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And it wasn’t just the Luke and Rey scenes, but countless more off-color distractions such as the General Hux phone prank scene, gravity-falling bombs (in space), Finn dumbly walking around in a leaking suit, Rey scolding a shirtless Kylo, and the cringe-worthy horse-alien rescue on Canto Bight (a scene that felt more befitting the disastrous Episode I). And of course the watered-down battle of Hoth Krayt that seemed more concerned with promoting the weird narrative of Finn and Rose than depicting the realities of combat.

However I will grant that the final Luke Skywalker scenes were pretty cool and befitting the grandeur of his character. The lightspeed kamikaze was wicked cool too. Also, the Snoke and Kylo scenes were fantastic, and I loved how Snoke (brilliantly voiced) immediately addresses the “elephant in the room” by rightfully eschewing Kylo for being defeated by an untrained girl, not to mention mocking his Vader-wannabe mask. The Leia resurrection scene was also masterfully done, and a heartbreaking ode to Carrie Fisher’s famous request to “die in the moonlight strangled by my own bra.” (I held back tears on all three viewings).

Chuck Klosterman, in his book of “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs”, fascinatingly deconstructs the symbolic importance of The Empire Strikes Back as the cultural moment that marked the ascendance of Generation X. The rebellion is in retreat, the fate of the galaxy uncertain, and our hero forced to cope with a major identity crisis (sound familiar?). Emotionally heavy, cynical and bleak, Empire masterfully tells a coming-of-age tale that mirrors the Gen-X aesthetic with chilling accuracy. However there’s a frustrating irony in that the Gen X-ers helming the New Star Wars seem incapable of replicating the weightier tone of the classics they grew up with, Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards notwithstanding – but maybe they deliberately don’t want to?  As a millennial myself (who identifies as Boomer), I can’t help but wonder if The Last Jedi is serving the same cultural purpose for my generation as Empire did for Gen-X? A movie coddled by cutesy jokes, emo entitlement (Kylo) and unearned success (Rey), could The Last Jedi be Disney’s cruel affirmation (or mockery) of the millennial stereotype? Its nihilistic motif of “letting the past die” also seems eerily reminiscent of our “post-truth” Trump moment and its crusade against old institutions of media, politics and government.

But maybe the haters just don’t understand The Last Jedi? Maybe it’s just too artsy, too intellectual?  Or maybe our adult-centric view of Star Wars is wrong and that it really is meant to be nothing more than lightweight children’s fare? Who are we to demand more substance from the new stories? Maybe it will be us millennials who will triumphantly bring Star Wars back to its roots? But seeing as we’ve nearly killed rock ‘n roll, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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May We Honor Their Legacy

 

Comic Recommendations – January 27, 2016

Some good comics this week. I’m playing around with a Best Comic of the Week mechanic right now. It’s a work in progress…

THIS WEEK’S COMICS

All-New, All-Different Avengers #4 (Marvel Comics)

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This is probably my favorite depiction of the new Thor. Her sheer exuberance is really fantastic, especially considering her circumstances.

Cry Havoc #1 (Image Comics)

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Cry Havoc is a werewolf heart of darkness which features some interesting facts about hyena (and human) sexuality.

Ghostbusters International #1 (IDW Comics)

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The Ghostbusters have a cushy deal with the City of New York, but in Ghostbusters International they are looking at a much more profitable and therefore an incredibly questionable deal.

Also, what does the Tower card mean in Tarot? Is that supposed to be bad? Like, “Oh no! THE TOWER CARD”?

Hellboy: Winter Special (Dark Horse Comics)

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I already had plenty of reasons to go back and read through Mike Mignola’s entire Hellboy universe. I didn’t need another. I just need to find the time…

Old Man Logan #1 (Marvel Comics)

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This is probably my vote for comic of the week. When I saw that Lemire was writing this book with a character he’s already using in Extraordinary X-Men I was wondering how he would pull it off, but Old Man Logan‘s comparison between the current Marvel Universe that he is stranded in and the future he believes could still happen are really intriguing. Much like The Bride in Kill Bill or Arya in A Song of Ice and Throne, Old Man Logan has a list of people he needs to kill, and basically everyone left on his list would make a big wave if killed. This is really existing.

Prophet: Earth War #1 (Image Comics)

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Earth War is the last of four ongoing series comprising the Prophet saga. Having never read any of the first three, I found the mythology and POV really interesting, but I was slightly lost.

Has anyone out there read any of the previous Prophet series? I know I’ve heard of the original series… Did it win a bunch of awards? Or am I thinking of something else?

Revival #36 (Image Comics)

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Everything that happened with the Amish mother and daughter was golden. Who comes up with this stuff?

Saga #33 (Image Comics)

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I think the way to make it big at Image is to create a huge over-arcing story with just a ton of moving parts. You have to be obsessed with the motivations of your characters and let them go where they naturally would. That’s how you get something like Saga (or The Walking Dead). That’s how you get good stories when you don’t have 50-75 years of published universe to work in. Great work, Brian K. Vaughan. Saga is one of a couple of comics that continue to define success for independent comics.

Suicide Squad Most Wanted: Deadshot and Katana #1 (DC Comics)

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From what I’ve been hearing Deadshot is the main character and Katana is one of the lesser known members in the Suicide Squad movie. I’m sure DC wants to get its watchers/readers caught up on who these characters are and what drives them.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #54 (IDW Comics)

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Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael are less the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than they are the Foot Clan now, and this change of identity is going to have some interesting consequences. Seeing a divide in the Mutanimals now that Hob has been found colluding with Hun, part of me wonders if this schism will lead to Mikey and a new crew (Slash, Mondo Gecko, and Sally Pride, for example) filling the role of the TMNT.

It also struck me that Kevin Eastman’s development of the original Eastman and Laird characters in this volume reminds me of Robert Kirkman’s development of characters in The Walking Dead. I read some of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, but I’m starting to wonder if the characters had similar depth and high quality arcs in the original series. In other words, I’m wondering if Eastman is one of Kirkman’s influences. Can anyone who has read these series shed some light on the comparison?

Victorie City (Image Comics)

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Victorie City has this interesting indie noir feel to it with a really unique art style. It might be worth taking some time to read.

BOOK CLUB: CIVIL WAR

This week I had the opportunity to read Cable & Deadpool #31, X-Factor #9, New Avengers #22, New Avengers #23, and Black Panther #18. The majority of these issues were fantastic. New Avengers #22 brought me to tears as Luke Cage and Jessica Jones had to decide what they were going to do in terms of registration, leaving me really excited for this year’s Luke Cage Netflix series. The next issue made me immediately want to read everything surrounding Spider-Woman as a double- / triple-agent loyal only to Nick Fury. Clearly the sum total is that I want to read the entire series of Bendis’ New Avengers and hisSpider-Woman mini-series. Those are definitely going in the book club queue. I’m a little annoyed that the repercussions of the marriage of Storm and Black Panther in Black Panther #18 are all but non-existent in current Marvel. By the time I started reading comics again in 2011, Black Panther no longer had his own title and Storm had been thrown into the background of the X-books. What happened?

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It is insane that I already have a contestant for best new series in January already. Clearly, the comic industry does not have the same release constraints that the film industry does for new product released in the first quarter. Old Man Logan just feeds into this positive feedback loop created by Extraordinary X-Menand Jeff Lemire working for Marvel. 2016 is looking to be a fantastic year for comics, so fantastic that I started a sentence with a number despite it being a pet peeve of mine. Feel that power?

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens – In Search of Rey’s Last Name (SPOILERS)

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The biggest topic people have been discussing in just over a month since the release of Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens (TFA) is Rey’s heritage. I figured I would round up the best theories and the best evidence and we could get a better idea of where Rey comes from.

Rey, this is your life!

Luke Skywalker

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If you ask someone on the streets — because everyone on every street has seen TFA by now, right? — who Rey’s parents are, you’re likely to get some variation of this answer,

“Well, the obvious answer is that Luke is her father, but I’m leaning toward…”

The evidence that people will quote is ample, but it is incredibly fragile.

The first argument I encountered suggested that each trilogy has a protagonist that is a direct ancestor of the one before. In other words, the prequel trilogy (I-III) features Anakin Skywalker as its protagonist, the original trilogy (IV-VI) his son Luke Skywalker, and the sequel trilogy (VII-IX) his granddaughter by way of Luke, a young lady named Rey.

One crack in this particular theory is that it is not entirely clear that Anakin Skywalker is the protagonist of the prequel trilogy. It has often been cited as a weakness of Episodes I-III that George Lucas seemed to jump back and forth between Anakin and Obi-Wan in determining the protagonist of the series. In ethical terms, Obi-Wan Kenobi is certainly the hero, but a protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be “good.” A YouTube series attempted to edit The Phantom Menace, et. al., into awesome movies, and the first edit suggested was to make Obi-Wan the protagonist but to make the story about Anakin’s fall. This is the prequel trilogy that we deserve, but it is not necessarily the prequel trilogy that Lucas intended. That said, a shadow of a doubt might be all we need when it comes to suggesting that Anakin is not the protagonist of I-III. If we don’t have to look to the protagonist for lineage, it is easy to find Anakin’s grandchild in TFA — we need look no further than Kylo Ren, Anakin’s grandson through Leia.*

The remaining reasons people believe Rey is Luke’s daughter center around parallels between Rey and Luke (and occasinally Anakin/Darth Vader) throughout the film. The most compelling of these from my perspective is the comparison of “Rey’s Theme” with “The Imperial March” (Vader’s unofficial theme) and “Binary Moon” (Luke’s unofficial theme). Redditor swissvale_nick was able to recite a handful of parallels between Rey and Luke only moments after watching TFA for the first time, including similarities between Rey’s speeder bike and Luke’s X-34, between her AT-AT home and the AT-AT that Luke brought down, between Rey’s rebel pilot helmet and Luke’s, and so on, and so forth.

The parallels aren’t terribly compelling, in my opinion. What they prove is not lineage but similarity in role. Some have argued that parallels between Han Solo and Finn suggest that Finn will be Han’s spiritual successor, but I don’t hear everyone suggesting that Finn is Han’s son.

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There is a theory that Han’s “wife” Sana Solo from Jason Aaron’s Star Wars comic book arc “Showdown on the Smuggler’s Moon” (issues 8-12) might be Finn’s mother, but that whole relationship was dismissed as a grift in the last issue so the theory doesn’t have much in the way of legs to stand on.

Han Solo and Leia Organa

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“…but I’m leaning toward Han and Leia,” is probably the most common alternative to the Luke Skywalker theory.

Before TFA hit theaters, I avoided all news and rumor sites. I watched a couple trailers and that was it. The fact that there was a spherical droid and X-Wing fighters flying low over water was enough for me. If I had been scouring the web at that time, I suppose I would have heard some of the first rumors that Kylo Ren and Rey are both the children of Han Solo and Leia Organa.

In Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, Han and Leia had twin children named Jacen and Jaina. Both trained with Luke in the ways of The Force (as did their little brother Anakin, but that’s not important right now). Jacen later became Darth Caedus and Jaina ended up having to kill him.

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The parallels to Kylo Ren and Rey are pretty obvious. Moreover, now that Disney has taken over the Star Wars franchise, there have already been a couple of modified ideas from the old expanded universe incorporated into current canon. In Chewbacca #5, it is revealed that Chewie has a son back on Kashyyk, which reminds readers of Wookiee Jedi Lowbacca from Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta’s Young Jedi Knights. Starkiller base itself is strongly reminiscent of the Star Forge from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

The trouble with the comparison with the Solo twins is that Kylo Ren and Rey are almost certainly not twins. According to The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary — which Wookieepedia** cites as a canon reference book — suggests that Rey is 19-years-old whereas most sources (all non-canonical) suggest that Kylo Ren is nearly thirty. The “shadow of a doubt” is not as important for this theory as for the direct lineage theory above. What is more important is the fact that extra-canonical sources from the pre-Disney days do not dictate what happens in current Star Wars. The extended canon has always been plagued by questionable legitimacy, and yet when I watched TFA there were people whispering that Kylo Ren was Luke’s son Ben Skywalker (from Gregory Keyes’ duology Edge of Victory) even after it was revealed that he is definitely Han’s son Ben Solo. If the extended universe has any affect on future Star Wars canon it will be as a brainstorm not a blueprint.

The on-screen cues that Rey might be Han and Leia’s daughter are probably the best evidence of the claim. Han and Rey bond amazingly in the short time that they share together, Kylo Ren has a hefty interest in Rey, and the Leia/Rey hug has been cited by some as the scene that proves it all. It has been suggested that the Han and Leia theory of parentage was disproven at the get-go because Han left Leia following Kylo Ren’s massacre, but there is certainly room in the timeline of events for Rey’s birth. My favorite counter-argument is that Leia was pregnant with Rey when Han left her, and he never even knew that they’d had a second child together.

I tend to dismiss most of the #TeamLuke arguments because they work just as well for #TeamHanAndLeia’s case without realizing the fact that the #TeamHanAndLeia arguments tend to do the same for #TeamLuke. Rey’s chemistry with father figure Han might just be meant to invoke Luke and Han’s friendship from the original trilogy, Kylo Ren might know that Rey is his cousin and not his sister, and Leia’s embrace would be just as warm for her neice as for her own daughter under the same circumstances. 

Obi-Wan Kenobi

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It took a couple of weeks for the Case for Kenobi to hit the scenes, but when it did people started jumping all over the theory that Obi-Wan is Rey’s grandfather. This is despite the fact that the primary argument people are using is that Rey and Obi-Wan Kenobi are the only “good guys” with English accents.

My first problem with this evidence is that there is no reason to believe Rey has to be descended from “good guys” (see the next theory). Rey could be a Tarkin or a Dooku and I wouldn’t cry foul. Luke was the son of the most powerful Sith warrior in the universe. Why couldn’t Rey come from “bad” blood? My second problem is that accents are acquired by nurture, not nature. In other words, she would acquire an English accent because she is around people with English accents, not because she is genetically linked to someone with an English accent. I feel like the accent is bad evidence for what could turn out to be a really fruitful theory.

Better evidence comes in the form of voice-overs from both Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan, Episodes I-III) and Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan, Episodes IV-VI) during Rey’s lightsaber-induced flashback scene. This is likely because Obi-Wan was in custody of Anakin’s lightsaber during the time between Episodes III and IV, possibly longer than Anakin and Luke’s tenure combined.***

To admit this as evidence, we would have to believe that Obi-Wan’s voice was some sort of memory (actual or genetic) that was activated by the lightsaber. I am more convinced that Rey heard Obi-Wan’s voice because the old Jedi was in possession of this lightsaber when he underwent the trials to create a Jedi ghost, an event that would have happened between Episodes III and IV. We would also have to either ignore the fact that both Luke and Yoda spoke in the flashback or admit that TFA is the long awaited third Three Men and a Baby film.

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My favorite reasoning for inviting Rey into the Kenobi clan surrounds a woman named Satine Kryze who served as the Duchess of Mandalore and who was featured on eleven episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

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During these episodes it was hinted that Satine and Obi-Wan’s relationship was a bit more complicated than that of a political leader and her Jedi protector. The most obvious purpose for a story arc involving romance between Obi-Wan and Satine was to draw a parallel to Anakin and Padme, but it is not much of a stretch to suggest that the parallel goes further and at least one child resulted from this relationship.

Many who are rooting for this theory enjoy it because this would embody a reversal of the mentor relationship. In both the original and prequel trilogies, a Skywalker was trained by a Kenobi. If #TeamObiWan is the real deal, we will witness a Kenobi getting trained by a Skywalker beginning with Star Wars, Episode VIII: To Be Announced (TBA).

The further we get away from the Skywalker family, the more difficult a big reveal is going to be. It would be much easier for Leia to say, “No, I am your mother.” Obi-Wan is dead, Satine has never been featured in a film (and she’s dead), and any children they might have had are complete unknowns in the canonical Star Wars universe.

There are a couple ways I can think of to make this work. The first work-around is for Obi-Wan to say, “Rey, I am your grandfather.” We have heard Obi-Wan’s voice in all seven films despite him only being alive for four of them. That’s right, Jedi ghost Obi-Wan Kenobi could be the one to deliver the information. The other work-around would be that Luke could tell her. According to the canonical Star Wars comic books, Luke is in possession of Obi-Wan’s journal. It would also be an amazing reversal compared to A New Hope, where Obi-Wan didn’t have the heart to tell Luke that Darth Vader was his father.

This theory might have legs…****

Darth Vader

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My biggest problem with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was that they introduced the time-turner and never used this device in any significant capacity throughout the rest of the series. Similarly, Redditor minqj notices that clones are referenced momentarily in TFA but otherwise only referenced in the prequel trilogy. He compares it to Chekhov’s (Anton, not Pavel) idea that a gun that is introduced is going to be used at some point in the story. Minqj believes that Rey is actually a clone of Darth Vader.

If Rey is Vader’s clone, the line, “I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people,” which most have used to suggest that Rey is either Luke or Leia’s child, takes on a really interesting meaning. Even considering this, I probably would have overlooked this theory if my first thought about Rey hadn’t been that Daisy Ridley is the spitting image of young Jake Lloyd who played Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. Yes, the evidence is scant, but not nearly as scant as some of the ideas that I have listed in the Other Theories section.

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If we could judge a theory by the quality of its consequences, I think Rey being a Vader-clone might be the best theory we have. With Kylo Ren’s dedication to become more like Darth Vader, facing a rival who is a perfect clone of Vader would be the ultimate antagonism. This would also cast the line, “You’re afraid you’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader,” in a different light. If this were revealed at the end of TBA, we would have a brand new question to deal with: Where does this leave us in terms of Rey and Kylo Ren’s relationship? Does he become her apprentice? Does he deny the truth and attempt to erase “the lie?” Do they team up to defeat Luke Skywalker when he becomes the new Sith Lord?

Probably the best consequence of this revelation was thought up by Redditor hochamole in a comment on the same post who suggested that Luke could say to Rey, “No, you are my father.” Since Han isn’t around to scratch his head and say, “Hey kid, I’m your father,” this theory has my vote for best appropriation of a classic quote.

It was also suggested that Rey could be Luke or Palpatine’s clone. This theory doesn’t hit as hard, but based on the lack of evidence it seems like any clone theory would probably have the same level of validity, at least until some other theories start to surface. Maybe we can get a better proof worked out in the comments.

The Force

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If you have a Facebook account and friends who care about things that matter, then you have already read that “nobody we know” is no longer a valid theory for Rey’s origin, “somebody we know” is no longer a valid theory for Snoke, and specifically that Snoke is definitely, totally not Darth Plagueis. These revelations tore apart some of the favorite theories that people were throwing out during the week or so after TFA’s release, but I think I might be able to reassemble pieces of each to satisfy some of the people who found that the horse they were betting on had been removed from the race. Rey was born through immaculate conception.

The best theory on Anakin Skywalker’s origin, based on Qui-Gon Jinn’s thought in The Phantom Menacethat Anakin was fathered by The Force itself and Palpatine’s suggestion that Plagueis had power over life and death in Revenge of the Sith, is that Sidious’ master Darth Plagueis manipulated the midi-chlorians in order to create Anakin Skywalker. Skywalker would be the most powerful Sith in the galaxy and he could be used to replace Palpatine should his weakness in battle bring about his end. If we understand this to be the truth and we fast forward to Return of the Jedi, Luke’s risky gambit to convert his father to the light side wiped Plagueis’ Plan A and his Plan B off the board in one fell swoop. As Plagueis’ Plan C and an homage to this likely (though unconfirmed) explanation of Anakin’s origin, Rey could be yet another soldier of Plagueis created by his power over the midi-chlorians.

In this sense, Rey’s parents (well, parent — specifically her mother) could be nobody, and yet she could be created by Darth Plagueis. True, we haven’t ever seen Plagueis, but his presence was certainly felt in the prequel trilogy. This theory would also bring Plagueis back into the lineup of possible villains despite the fact that we know him to be a separate entity from Snoke. In a lot of ways, this is a best of all worlds theory.

This also gives me a jumping off point for a much more fun theory that Bobby and I had about a week after watching TFA. It was one thing that one of Anakin’s parents was The Force, but wouldn’t it be something to behold if both of Rey’s parents were The Force? A big male mass of midi-chlorians met a big female mass of midi-chlorians, they started getting fresh with one another, and, badda-bing, badda-boom, they made a 100% force baby named Rey. Anakin was powerful, and Rey would be doubly so. Maybe Rey could be Anakin-squared in terms of power. We could take Plagueis out of the equation, because everyone has met The Force. I mean, if you read my review of the first six movies you already know that The Force was the main character of A New Hope.

Other Theories

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There are some who believe Rey is a Palpatine based on her fighting style. I love the idea that the greatest hero of the universe might be the child of the greatest villain. I mean, I’d have no problem seeing it happen again. Some even think that Luke might have hooked up with Palpatine’s daughter, which is a compelling story in and of itself.

Others believe Rey might be the daughter of Luke and Leia because of that whole they kissed even though Leia always knew thing… This would explain her inordinate abilities with The Force. All things considered, I’m not sure anyone sees this theory as anything other than a Star Wars joke.

Based on a fan theory that Boba Fett’s daughter (Ailyn Vel, according to the expanded universe Dark Horse comic Star Wars Tales #7) is going to be featured in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and that she (and possibly her father) were involved with the Battle of Jakku, some are suggesting that Rey is Boba Fett’s granddaughter through this unnamed pilot. I read a particularly out there theory about Boba’s daughter hooks up with Obi-Wan’s son on Mandalore, but there is basically zero support for this theory.

I’ve heard fans of Star Wars: Rebel root for Kanan Jarrus as Rey’s father, but their opinions appear to be based only on the ages matching up and the fact that they could see Freddie Prinze, Jr. (the voice actor who plays him on the show) playing him in the film.

Bonus Theory: Kylo Ren

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I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to put forward a new theory about Rey’s parentage that blows all of the other theories away, so here it is: Kylo Ren is Rey’s father.

Leia knows Rey because the girl is Leia’s granddaughter, Rey resonates with Luke and Anakin’s lightsaber because she is Anakin’s great granddaughter, and Kylo Ren wants to destroy Rey because, like Saturn, America, and many species of fish, Ren is essentially eating his young.

Here’s how it works. Kylo Ren is not Rey’s 19-year-old twin (sorry, Solo twins fans), nor his 29-year-old older brother/cousin. His origin goes back much further in time.

Travel back with me to the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.

Han Solo wants to leave the Hoth base because there is nothing keeping him there anymore. It is clear that some sort of emotional situation went down between Han and Leia, that Han expected her to finally reciprocate his feelings for her, and that Leia — having just watched her home planet destroyed and making time for nothing other than the Rebellion’s military strategy — is cold and distant. I believe that the incident that prompted Han’s departure was an intimate encounter that came on when Leia dropped her guard and let Han into her heart. Ben Solo was conceived the evening before the incidents of Episode V.

Leia realized she was pregnant when they reached the Cloud City of Bespin, but before she could tell Han, Lando betrayed them, Vader and company took over, and Han was frozen in carbonite.

Kylo Ren would be born, in secrecy, between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

When Leia reveals Kylo Ren (the Ben Solo) to Han and Luke, Luke senses his incredible power. He (and to some degree, Leia) is the reason Luke starts his academy.

Kylo Ren comes of age and falls in love with another member of the academy despite Luke’s admonitions to the contrary. This is the point where Kylo Ren starts catching up on the lore about Anakin Skywalker and his fall to the dark side. He relates to Anakin’s struggles with his young wife Padme and knows that there wouldn’t be an Academy — or a Luke Skywalker, for that matter — without Jedi breaking their vows.

Luke sends away Kylo Ren’s lover and their newborn child Ren, and that is the last straw. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

Once the dust has settled from tearing apart these heaps of “evidence,” I think Rey’s father is most likely to be Luke Skywalker. If we were looking at a Rey Solo, it would make a lot of sense too. Daisy Ridley was quoted as saying her character’s solitude is a good clue, and the name “Solo” means alone. Of course, Luke and Obi-Wan were both hermits, dedicated to solitude for years. My wife doesn’t think solitude describes Han because he’s always got Chewy at her side.***** When it comes down to it, none of the evidence really matters. Luke Skywalker feels like the right answer. I’m going to listen to The Force on this one, but that’s probably not going to stop me from speculating on other possibilities.

 

* If you’re experiencing déjà vu in reading this passage, it is probably because I said the same thing in my post about the importance of family in TFA.

** The Star Wars wiki Wookieepedia has my vote for the best wiki title of all time. It makes me happy just knowing Wookieepedia exists.

*** According to Harry Potter wizard battle rules, Anakin’s lightsaber became Obi-Wan’s after their battle on Mustafar, but I don’t think Harry Potter is canon in the Star Wars universe. Their loss.

**** Only after re-reading this post did I realize I could have written, “Unlike Anakin Skywalker, this theory might have legs…” Is the sentence better or worse without the pun? What do you think?

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***** Amy brings a lot of sense to my theories, but she also brings a lot of nonsense. Here’s an example — Justin: “Who do you think Rey’s parents are?” Amy: “Banthams.” Justin: “Bantham? Do you mean a Bantha or a chicken?” Amy: “A small chicken… Wampas.” Justin: “Womp rats?” Amy, angrily: “WAMPAS.” To Amy’s defense, she was 75% asleep at the time. She probably doesn’t remember the conversation at all.

Comic Recommendations – January 20, 2016

More comics to cover and less text to wade through — I think the new posting format is working out pretty all right. Most of all, I feel energized to talk about comics. Short and sweet is not exactly what you expect from a blog that is not just long-winded, but the longest wind. Just consider this the party and the comment section can be the after party. Let’s get long-winded TOGETHER.

THIS WEEK’S COMICS

Batman #48 (DC Comics)

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The guy on the bench. He was totally who I think he is, right? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!?!?!

…and that last panel. Ooh. Gave me the chills. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “I am the one who knocks,” #AMIRIGHT?

Batman & Robin Eternal #16 (DC Comics)

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This is definitely the most interesting thing that has happened to Jason Todd / Red Hood since 2011’s The New 52, and it is probably one of the best things that has happened to him since Joker killed him. (For those of you who don’t know the second Robin’s backstory, the whole death thing didn’t take…) I hope now that J.T. has stared down his worst fear and his own mortality we might see him travel down some interesting and new paths.

Regarding the whole Azrael thing, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Jean-Paul Valley quite like this. I’m really digging where this is going.

Captain Marvel #1 (Marvel Comics)

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The current volume of Captain Marvel is a slow-builder, there is a surprising amount of character depth by the time you reach the last page. Issue #1 casts Carol Danvers as a starship captain like James T. Kirk (or at the very least a space station captain like Sisco) with a crew comprising some of my favorite heroes: Puck, Aurora, and Sasquatch of the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight!

Pencil Head #1 (Image Comics)

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Judging by creator Ted McKeever’s strange displays of humor in Pencil Head, I don’t think he’d be offended if I described his semi-autobiographical first issue as naval gazing at its finest. I’m fairly convinced that the life of a comic artist involves, as the cover suggests, “Oddball Artists. Twisted Writers. Demented Editors. Office Politics. Hamburgers. and a Dead Stripper.” Well, most of those.

Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death #1 (DC Comics)

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As the husband of a geologist, I am loving how this Poison Ivy mini-series comes out in support of women in science. I just wish artist Clay Mann would stop buttoning and unbuttoning Pamela Isley’s shirt from panel to panel.

Silver Surfer #1 (Marvel Comics)

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Dan Slott and Mike Allred deliver more light-hearted fun as Norrin Radd and Dawn return to Casa de la Greenwood after months in space, but an entertaining inversion of Silver Surfer’s own origin story promises some serious repercussions in the issues to come. I think Slott and Allred’s post-Secret Wars volume might end up outshining their pre-Secret Wars volume. What do you think?

Star Wars #15 (Marvel Comics)

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If Jason Aaron knows anything, it is Obi-Wan Kenobi. During the voice-overs I could actually hear Ewan MacGregor speaking in my head, and I nearly laughed out loud when Obi-Wan greeted an angry Owen Lars as if everything was hunky dorey between them. I know that Star Wars: The Clone Wars covered how Jedi become Jedi ghosts, but I would love if Aaron’s “From the Journals of Old Ben Kenobi” went into Obi-Wan’s experience with this process. #FingersCrossed

 

NOTE: Amazing Forest #1 is a 2016 IDW reprint of a comic released in 2013 by Monkeybrain Comics. As a result, I have not included it in the list.

BOOK CLUB: CIVIL WAR

I had the chance to get through another big chunk of Marvel’s Civil War, reading Civil War: Frontline #2,Civil War: Frontline #3, New Avengers #21, Fantastic Four #538, Wolverine #43, X-Factor #8,Thunderbolts #104, Civil War #3, Civil War: X-Men #1, Civil War: X-Men #2, and Cable & Deadpool #30.

It is during this chunk of books that we start seeing things from Captain America’s perspective, and there are a couple of interesting things that come out of this. First of all, New Avengers #21 was really neat. TheNew Avengers tie-ins came highly recommended and I now know why — Bendis’s focus on Captain America’s history and perspective really puts some issues of Civil War into focus. I especially loved the foreshadowing in Dum Dum Dugan’s lie that allowed Cap to escape. Shivers. Later, when the Steve and Tony disagreement comes to blows in Civil War #3, I was pretty disturbed by the fact that the picture of Iron Man punching Captain America so perfectly mirrored the Captain America Comics #1.

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I’m not sure what we were supposed to think about this — Are they suggesting that America now belongs to some much more shady people? Is Captain America making a decision that might be good for his friends but bad for the American people? Or does this just represent betrayal plain and simple?

When I first started reading the Civil War preludes, I kept wondering why there was such a focus on Amazing Spider-man and Fantastic Four. Last week, the Spider-man emphasis became clear — Peter Parker has the most to lose if the world learns his identity and he makes it clear what is on the line. This week, the inclusion of the Fantastic Four is elucidated — just as the American Civil War of the late 1800s was said to put family against family, disagreements in the first family of superheroes make it crystal clear that Marvel’s Civil War will do the same. In Fantastic Four #538, it is clear that Reed and Susan will probably be choosing different sides while Ben (and Johnny, after he wakes from his coma) are going to have to decide between them. This is almost too heavy to read.

That’s all I have to say. What do you have to say? Hit me up in the comments section or on Facebook if there’s anything here (or elsewhere) that you want to talk about. Until next week, be civil to one another, my friends.

Longest Wind Briefs – 10 Cloverfield Lane, the Alien Franchise, and Kentucky Fried Chicken

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These posts are like tapas, only less expensive!

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Earlier this month, I scoured this year’s new movie schedule in order to get an idea of how many movies I absolutely must see in theaters. I came up with five: Captain America: Civil War (5-6-16), The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist (6-10-16), Independence Day: Resurgence (6-24-16), Doctor Strange (11-4-16), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12-16-16).

Of course, that was before J.J. Abrams surprised us by unveiling 10 Cloverfield Lane, a movie that Abrams describes as a blood relative to the 2008 film Cloverfield. Here’s the trailer:

The Boring Brilliance of the Alien Franchise

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In the ’50s and ’60s, science fiction was depicted the future as an exciting time to live in. Everything was perfectly polished. Men and women wore skin-tight jumpers and we were all in peak condition. We had flying cars and silly ray guns and adventure was around every corner. It was a terrible lie, because everyone knows you can only be excited about something for so long. You watch a vine of someone teleporting from Earth to Venus, you share it with some friends, and in no time you have assimilated this information into the status quo. If you watch the same video a year later, you’re already bored with it.

This is why the Alien films are some of the best science fiction out there. When A New Hope came out in 1977, viewers were blown away by the giant Corellian Corvette, a bright and exciting space vessel that just kept getting bigger and bigger. In 1979, when the Nostromo comes on the screen, it just looks like some trash barge or oil rig in the middle of space. There are a lot of suspense-related reasons for Alien being exemplary in its genre, but it is exactly this boredom factor that makes it the best of the best.

The scene that originally brought me to this conclusion was Ripley’s epic battle with the alien queen at the end of Aliens (1986). In classic Japanese style, Ripley has donned a mech suit in order to battle a monster, but this suit was not built for battling larger-than-life beasts. It is basically the future’s equivalent of a forklift. The operator steps inside and can use hydraulics to lift heavy objects, to weld metal with less risk of harm, and to do various other shipping and repair duties. This was not a scene from Evangelion or Guyver; this was the equivalent of battling an elephant with a hi-lo. Hurley’s battle with the queen makes me proud of all the forklift drivers I’ve worked with over the years. Until we invent airlocks, you guys and gals may just be our last line of defense against rampaging biologicals.

The First Rule of Fried Chicken

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“I don’t know what to order,” Amy said as we stared at the menu. “I have never been to KFC before.” This wasn’t entirely true. While peeling apart a chicken thigh, Amy realized she had been to Kentucky Fried Chicken in the past, but only once. She could still count her experiences with the Colonel on one Ninja Turtle foot.

We each settled on a 3-piece chicken value meal with a drink, a biscuit, mashed potatoes, and macaroni, and I was actually surprised that I only got three pieces of chicken. Before you blow up at me, I used to work at a place called Chicken Express and on the first day I was taught that you always give the customer at least one extra piece of chicken. Nobody ever told me why, but I assumed that you always want to give people more chicken so they don’t complain. Because chickens naturally come in different shapes and sizes, a leg is not always the same as another leg. Some pieces might still be fresh but aren’t piping hot still. We would give extra pieces to customers to make up for chicken inequality. Once I knew about this, I started noticing it at other fast food fried chicken restaurants. This habit was not limited to Chicken Express. Over time, I’ve decided “Give ’em one extra” is the first rule of fried chicken.

Kentucky Fried Chicken broke the rules. I ordered three pieces of chicken and they gave me three pieces of chicken. Nobody shouted out, “Throw in an extra wing.” Just three pieces of chicken. After I discussed this with my wife, we compared our chicken thighs — they were all the same size! I hadn’t had a legitimate problem with the lack of extra chicken until I really started thinking about it. Real chickens come in different shapes and sizes, but KFC can guarantee the same size on each piece of chicken. Chickens were once an organic being, full of variance and life and unpredictability, but now they can be patented and grown to order. You have to wonder if there’s a point where these creatures stop being chickens and start being some mad product of mad science. Needless to say, the concept made me skeptical about ever returning to KFC. Amy was pretty much over it too, but mostly because she thought the food tasted gross.

The Birds Deserved Better

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I work on Saturdays and Sundays. Don’t pity me, though. I make more money for working on Saturdays and Sundays. It pays the bills. I also get the opportunity to listen to some really cool programming on the radio. On Sundays, I listen to The Splendid Table and I get to bring home factoids to my wife (the extraordinary baker and cook) about how to cook pasta without using much water or whether cinnamon can be categorized as “spicy.” On Saturdays, I listen to Snap Judgment, a program where people tell stories.

Recently, I was listening to a Snap Judgment segment called “The Birds” featuring Nikki Moustaki, the author of The Bird Market of Paris. You can listen to this story here:

Because of an interesting series of events, Moustaki ended up with cages and cages full of birds at her apartment. When Hurricane Andrew hit, she waited until the last minute to evacuate, and when she did she was only able to take a few of the younger birds with her. Eventually the coast was clear — well, not really, because she described having to crawl over beached yachts in the middle of the street — and Moustaki returned to her apartment to find twisted cages, drowned bird, and one screaming lovebird. If you don’t know anything about lovebirds, these birds bond either to another bird or to their owner and they bond for life. Moustaki’s lovebird had bonded with her and she had left it to die…

If you know me, you know that at this point in the story I am balling. It is a Saturday afternoon, I’m on my way to work an eight hour shift, there is snow and ice on the road, it is cold as heck, and I can barely see the road for the tears in my eyes. Thankfully, I do not wear mascara, or I would have had an awkward day at work.

Before I proceed, I want to make it clear that I do not agree with what Nikki Moustaki did. I don’t care if most of these birds were gifts or if she acquired them of her own volition — the moment they entered her life and her home they became her responsibility. Those birds died a horrible death and the ones who survived went through unimaginable torture. Someone who allows that kind of harm to happen to creatures that she is tasked to take care of should be in jail, not telling quirky and whistful stories on public radio.

When I think about Moustaki’s love bird screaming in her apartment, the image that comes to mind is my 10-month-old puppy Tiberius making noises of unimaginable anguish in a bent and busted crate, surrounded by water, crumbled apartment bits, and carnage, and it makes me think, “Justin, you can never shirk on your responsibilities like this woman did. That little boy depends on you for everything. What happens to him is on you.”

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Before you start saying, “Oh, Justin, we know you would never do anything like that,” I want you to know that I have done something like that before. My brother once bought an albino rat from Chow Hound and put it in the dropbox at Hollywood Video while I was working there. The rat found a little recess in the concrete DVD depository, but I was able to pull him out with little more than a light nip to my hand. When I brought the rat home, my mom slapped me. She is deathly afraid of rodents, so she didn’t see my actions as charity. Neither would the rat. I was forced to keep the rat in our shed, and over the next week I suffered from a rampant case of “out of sight, out of mind.” I never once fed that rat, and when I first thought to bring some food out to him, my rat was just a pile of ribs covered with a thin layer of skin. The rat I was in charge of had died of starvation, which is probably one of the worst ways to go.

Some of you are going to say it was my brother’s fault for buying the rat and pulling the prank. You’re wrong. I could have returned the rat to Chow Hound. Others might think it was my mother’s fault for not allowing me to keep the rat in the house. You’re wrong. I could have given the rat to a friend or let him loose in the back yard. There’s probably a contingent of people who think it was nobody’s fault — I was just a kid and I didn’t understand the consequences of my actions. I was nineteen years of age when I started working at Hollywood Video, old enough to be charged as an adult for any crime I might be guilty of.

My personal belief is that if you have pets, you need to make sure that each and every pet is able to get to safety in the event of an emergency. If you cannot guarantee that your animals will have at least as good of a chance of surviving a fire, tornado, earthquake, or hurricane, then you need to find another home for that animal. I think this is also the case with children. If you have multiple children, you need to make sure that they have a fair chance at escaping your house during a catastrophic event. This might mean waiting until your first-born is old enough to climb down a ladder until you have your second born. Whatever it takes — your children and your pets are your responsibility. You need to have a plan to get them to safety.

I live on the third floor of an old apartment building with my wife and my dog. If there is a fire that blocks our front door, we would have to climb out our bedroom window and down the fire escape. When Tiberius was a much smaller puppy, my plan was much more simple. I would bust out the screen in the window and help my wife to climb down. After that, I would scoop little Tiber up and place him into my wife’s school backpack, which I would wear on my front side like a baby bjorn. That way if he wiggled himself into a bad situation while we were climbing down the fire escape, I would have more options for stabilizing the situation and I wouldn’t have to rely on my wife’s puppy catching abilities.

Now that Tiberius is much, much bigger, I’m not sure how I’d get him out of the apartment in the event of a fire. I’ve actually spent some time thinking over this issue for the past few days. I know there are dog harnesses that people use instead of attaching a leash to a collar, but could any of those harnesses hold a dog’s entire weight without doing physical harm while a dog is lowered 30-feet to the ground? What of a harness that could bind him tightly to my own chest or back? Does that kind of equipment even exist? I brought this question up to my wife and she matter-of-factly said, “We’ve got a big duffle bag. We could put him in that. It’s even got a strap that you can wrap around you.”

Amy’s solution would work — I know it would — but I still find myself going back to the question. It would work, but is Amy’s solution the best solution? I know I’m not the first person to have a fairly large pet in a residence that is not on the ground floor. How would you, the reader, solve this problem?

This post has been full of meanderings and I’m not sure there’s any uncomplicated way to tie everything together. When you let someone else into your life, everything gets messy. If you’re not responsible with the power you have over them, things get messier still. If you can come up with any conclusions from this mess, I’d be happy to hear them. I just know that Nikki Moustaki’s story on Snap Judgment hit me with a big, wet, mess of emotions and I’m still trying to put them all together.

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