Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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This film is Episode IX in the Skywalker saga. It is #3 in the current trilogy of episodes, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). It was directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot and released in December of 2019 by Walt Disney Studios. Stars include Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Ben/Kylo Ren, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe. There are also appearances from Carrie Fisher as Leia, Mark Hamill as Luke, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca. Composer John Williams is featured as Oma Tres. This review contains spoilers.

Emperor Palpatine has returned and is building an armada on the planet Exegol. Kylo Ren captures a Sith wayfinder device that leads him to the Emperor, who demands that he kill Rey. Meanwhile, Rey is training to be a Jedi under Leia Organa. Finn and Poe obtain intel that Palpatine has returned, and a group of Renaissance fighters leaves on the Millennium Falcon in search of a wayfinder device so they can get to Exegol. On Pasaana they encounter Lando Calrissian, who gives them helpful information. Ren locates Rey through their Force bond and arrives on Pasaana, where Rey confronts him and Chewie is taken prisoner. C-3PO has seen the inscription that leads to the wayfinder, but is forbidden by its programming from translating. The group goes on to Kijimi to find a hacker, where Poe encounters an old friend/enemy Zorii. After obtaining the information, they mount an expedition to rescue Chewie from aboard an Imperial battleship. Ren tells Rey she is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, and General Hux reveals himself to be a spy, allowing Chewie, Poe and Finn to escape. The group moves on to Kef Bir, where Rey locates the wayfinder on the remains of a wrecked Deathstar. Ren destroys the device and the two duel. Leia is dying and tries to reach Ren. Rey takes advantage of his distraction dring the duel and deals a killing blow, but then relents and heals him with her own life force. Upset by what she has done, Rey takes his ship to Ahch-To where she means to become a hermit like Luke, but Luke appears and convinces her she is wrong. She takes Luke’s ship and leaves for Exegol, where she expects to face the Emperor in a final battle. Is there any way the Renaissance can win?

In general this went very well. The actors have grown into their roles since the first film of this series, bringing a dignity and authority to their characters. It’s a fairly long movie at 1 hr. 22 min., but the plot keeps everybody moving, jumping from planet to planet in a quest to find the Emperor’s hidden stronghold. We encounter various colorful characters along the way while Rey and Ren keep up their personal conflict from within the Force. An interesting symbolism emerged when Rey was revealed as the Emperor’s granddaughter. She and Ren/Ben are a dyad within the Force, two sides of the same creature, presumably, we expect, representing good and evil. They grapple with love and hate and swing first one way and then the other, seeking for balance. Besides this excellent screenplay, Abrams has produced a visually artistic movie using both the live and CGI elements. He’s also made amends to the older fans, bringing back characters from the previous films, including Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker and a host of others, through various glimpses and voices. The story ends, as it began, on Tatooine.

I was mostly pleased with this. On the not so positive side, the action sometimes seems a bit frantic; there were no quiet moments of reflection/decision, and it skips from world to world like driving down the street. Supposedly the Emperor’s battle fleet is docked within the planet’s atmosphere, but I wondered about action on the wing of one of the battleships. Shouldn’t the air be a little thin for that? Can’t the people inside the ship get out there to deal with things? And why do people keep disappearing? I know they’re supposed to be absorbed into the Force, but it still irks me.

Controversies: Others weren’t quite so happy with the screenplay. Social media producer Klaudia Amenabar complained on Twitter about Rey needing men to help her succeed when she should have been powerful enough to do it on her own. Joonas Suotamo (a.k.a. Chewie) replied, calling this toxic fandom, and a squabble ensued. See a summary article about it here. Also, I’ve seen some comments about this installment generating the widest split between fan and critic ratings of any of the Star Wars films: 86% to 54% positive at Rotten Tomatoes. This is a gap of 32 points, apparently for catering to the masses.

Although this film didn’t quite pack the sense of wonder the first Star Wars movie did, it’s a very satisfactory ending to the series. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of Solo: A Star Wars Story

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This film was directed by Ron Howard, written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan and stars Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke. It was produced by Lucasfilm and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in July 2018.

Han and Qi’ra are orphaned children trying to escape indenture to a crime boss on the planet Corellia. They make up a plan to get away, but Qi’ra is caught just on the threshold of freedom. Han escapes and signs up for military service, hoping to become a pilot, but he deserts when this doesn’t work out. He takes up with a band of freelance thieves led by a man named Beckett, who introduces him to Chewbacca the Wookie in the worst possible way. Beckett is trying to steal coaxium fuel for Dryden Vos, a crime boss of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. When they arrive at his penthouse, Han finds that Qi’ra has escaped Corellia by taking employment with Vos. She introduces him to smuggler Lando Calrissian, and on his second try at sabacc, Han catches Lando cheating and wins his ship the Millennium Falcon. Rebels capture the coaxium, causing mayhem. Can Qi’ra and Han get out alive? Can they rebuild their relationship? Can Han make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs?

So, Howard has done a workmanlike job of incorporating everything that had to go into this film. Because Han, Chewbacca and Lando are well-known characters with established histories, the film had to go back and provide scenes and details that were already described. Even with generous actions scenes, it’s not that exciting, moving from point to point like a checklist.

There was a controversy before the film even got to theaters, as director Howard was hired to replace Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired for “creative differences.” A lot of the film was then reshot, at considerable expense. Box office receipts were dismal, the first real failure of a Star Wars film in the history of the franchise. This may have been about poor word-of-mouth, but it was more likely a boycott by fans unhappy about the Disney-controlled films and especially annoyed by The Last Jedi. The result has been mutterings from Disney about maybe not making any more Star Wars films. Is this a demo of how to kill a cash cow?

The biggest problem with this film, of course, was Alden Ehrenreich trying to step into Harrison Ford’s shoes. Ehrenreich did a workmanlike job with the character, but workmanlike just isn’t Han Solo. Donald Glover as Calrissian got glowing reviews, but it was really the charismatic Woody Harrelson as Beckett who lights up the film—an understated, low key performance notwithstanding. Also prominent was Lando’s annoying co-pilot L3-37, an animated character fighting against the slavery of droids, who got quickly squashed. Was this a message about SJWs?

The casting issue brings up another question. Why isn’t Disney investing in flashier talent for these movies? I think some of the Marvel films have had the same issue, where it looks like they went down to the local acting school and hired a bunch of young kids and then suppressed whatever talent and individuality they might have. Even weeks of promotional hype about what stars they are doesn’t make up for their lack of presence on the screen. Howard did a good job making his cast carry their weight here, but really, why is Disney so hell-bent on mediocrity?

Average film. Three stars.

Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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I’m running a little late on reviewing this film, but feel the urge to comment regardless. Note: there may be lots of spoilers below. This was written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The story picks up just after events of the Force Awakens. The Republic is dead and the fascist First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke, is now on a mission to take control of the galaxy. The Resistance is struggling against this new threat. Rey searches out Luke Skywalker, hoping he’ll be able to answer her questions and teach her to be a Jedi. Meanwhile, the Resistance ships prepare to face the overwhelming forces of the First Order. Can Rey convince Luke to leave his secluded island and rejoin the fight? Can Princess Leia, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, Rose and the other Resistance fighters hold off the First Order and escape with their lives?

Well, this isn’t as bad as I expected from some of the reviews out there. There’s action and a reasonable (if thin) plot. It’s billed as humorous, but I didn’t really see that—the jokes were pretty feeble against the grand scheme of the production. What I mostly took away from this was clear messages to the traditional fans that change has come to the series.

Most of this comes from the conversations between Rey and Luke on his isolated island, where it becomes clear Luke has withdrawn from the Force and considers the Jedi “religion” outdated and empty. He advises her to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while he stubbornly refuses to help her. Eventually she gives it up and goes to try to turn Kylo Ren, whom she feels connected to in some way. That turns out to be a trap engineered by Supreme Leader Snoke. Lots of folks die at the end, and the Jedi history is wiped out.

So, that’s all fine. But what are they going to replace it with?

The original Star Wars set up is a classic archetype, the same kind of hero tale that’s passed down from generation to generation around a village campfire. There’s a hero, a sidekick, a princess, an aspiring youngster and a couple of wise old wizards, all fighting for light against the forces of dark. Lucas’ understanding of this, plus some really creative imagination, is what made the series so successful. But now they’re going to kill off the old characters, tear this structure down and give us something else.

I agree that the Resistance is pretty tired at this point, but I’m not seeing this spark they’re expecting will emerge to fire it all up again. We’re left in a universe of kids where both Ren and Rey are strong in the Force, but (without history and education) have no idea what they’re doing. There’s no discipline or consequences here—personal grandstanding is the big thing, and insubordination and mutiny among the Resistance fighters are laughed off by indulgent leaders as no big deal. Ren wants to rule the galaxy, and he tells Rey that she can come from nothing and rise to success. Still, it’s clear life isn’t working out for him. He’s weak and sniveling as a tool of the darkness, at this point totally unable to carry the role with any conviction. Actually, none of these characters are very strong. They’re just cogs in a feel-good commercial machine.

Three stars.

Here are the Sad Puppies’ 2016 Hugo recommendations

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FeatherPenClipArtKate Paulk has posted the Sad Puppies’ recommendations for Hugo nomination. I notice there’s a slight overlap with both the Rabid Puppies’ recommendations and the Nebula nominations. There’s also a fair amount of diversity here.

I’m not going to be able to review all these before end of the Hugo nominating period, so check at Rocket Stack Rank for reviews of these works and also those recommended by the Rabid Puppies. Interestingly, the recommendations for “editor, short form” only include one of the statistically identified “best editors” from Rocket Stack Rank. I’m not sure what that indicates, maybe that taste goes a long way toward what different groups see as good spec fiction.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Andy Weir – The Martian
Brian Niemeier – Nethereal
Alyssa Wong – “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers”
Natasha Pulley – The Watchmakers of Filigree Street
Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Scott Hawkins – The Library at Mount Char
Charlie N. Holmberg – The Paper Magician
John Sandford & Ctein – Saturn Run
Sebastien de Castelle – Greatcoats series

Best Fan Artist

Otaking77077 – TIE Fighter animated film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN_CP4SuoTU)
Karezoid (Michal Karcz) – http://karezoid.deviantart.com/art/Within-The-Choir-of-Ascending-Spirit-571475023
Michael Callahan – http://www.callahanvisual.com/galacticwarfighters/zl8qd59i0iczlgvsm79u4rfqnxxa7q
Piper Thibdeau

Best Professional Artist

Abigail Larson
Sam Weber
Frank Cho
Larry Elmore
Dustin Nguyen
Richard Anderson

Best Fan Writer

Jeffro Johnson – Space Gaming and Castalia House blogs
Declan Finn – Sad Puppies Bite Back
Eric Flint – “In Defense of Sad Puppies” (http://www.ericflint.net/index.php/2015/06/08/in-defense-of-the-sad-puppies/)
Mike Glyer – Puppy roundup posts on File 770 (http://file770.com/?page_id=22881)
Brandon Kempner – Chaos Horizon
Charles Akins – http://dyverscampaign.blogspot.com/p/best-reads-of-week.html
Dave Freer – Mad Genius Club
Dorothy Grant (fynbospress) – Mad Genius Club
Ron Edwards – https://adeptpress.wordpress.com/

Best Fancast

Tea and Jeopardy
Geek Gab
Hello Greedo

Best Fanzine

File 770 – http://file770.com/
Nuke Mars – http://www.nukemars.com/
Superversive SF – http://superversivesf.com/
Otherwhere Gazette
Tangent Online – http://www.tangentonline.com/

Best Semiprozine

Sci Phi Journal

Best Editor – Short Form

Jerry Pournelle – There Will Be War vol X
John Joseph Adams – Lightspeed, and Nightmare
S. M. Sterling – The Change anthology
Jason Rennie – Sci Phi Journal
Paula Goodlett – Grantville Gazette
Bryan Thomas Schmidt – Mission: Tomorrow

Best Editor – Long Form

Toni Weisskopf – Baen
Jim Mintz – Baen
Tony Daniel – Baen

Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form

Daredevil Season 1 Episode 2
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Person of Interest Season 4 Episode 11: If-Then-Else
Kung Fury: Laser Unicorns
TIE Fighter animation by Otaking 77077
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Melinda
Daredevil Season 1 Episode 13
Doctor Who: Heaven Sent
Gravity Falls: Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons
Gravity Falls: Northwest Mansion Mystery

Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form

Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Predestination
Ant-Man
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Inside Out
iZombie (Season 1 as a whole)
Person of Interest (Season 4 as a whole)
Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Ex Machina

Best Graphic Story

Order of the Stick
Stand Still Stay Silent – any 2015 plot arc
Schlock Mercenary Book 15
Empowered Volume 9
Saga Volume 5
Erfworld
Fables: Farewell Volume 22
Gunnerkrigg Court Chapter 15: Totem
Invisible Republic Volume 1
Lazarus: Conclave

Best Related Work

Sad Puppies Bite Back – Declan Finn
Appendix N – Jeffro Johnson
Safe Space as Rape Room: Science Fiction Culture and Childhood’s End – Daniel
A History of Epic Fantasy – Adam Whitehead
Atomic Rockets – Winchell Chung
Legosity – Tom Simon
There Will Be War Vol X – Edited Jerry Pournelle
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) – Felicia Day
Frazetta Sketchbook Number 2
Galactic Journey – http://galacticjourney.org/

Best Short Story

“Tuesdays With Molakesh The Destroyer” – Megan Grey
“Today I am Paul” – Martin L Shoemaker
“… And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes” – Scott Alexander
“Asymmetrical Warfare” – S. R. Algernon
“Cat Pictures, Please” – Naomi Kritzer
“Damage” – David Levine
“A Flat Affect” – Eric Flint
“Daedelus” – Niall Burke
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – Alyssa Wong
“I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything” – Laura Pearlman

Best Novelette

“And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead” – Brooke Bolander
“Pure Attentions” – T. R. Dillon
“Folding Beijing” – Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu
“If I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up In the Air” – Clifford D. Simak
“Obits” – Stephen King
“Our Lady of the Open Road” – Sarah Pinsker

Best Novella

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Penric’s Demon – Lois McMaster Bujold
Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds
Perfect State – Brandon Sanderson
The End of All Things 1: The Life of the Mind – John Scalzi
Speak Easy – Catherynne M. Valente
The Builders – Daniel Polansky

Best Novel 

Somewhither – John C Wright
Honor At Stake – Declan Finn
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
A Long Time Until Now – Michael Z Williamson
Seveneves – Neal Stephenson
Son of the Black Sword – Larry Correia
Strands of Sorrow – John Ringo
Nethereal – Brian Niemeier
Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie

Retro Hugos

If This Goes On – Heinlein, for Best Novel
“Requiem” – Heinlein, Best Short Story
“The Roads Must Roll” – Heinlein, Best Short Story. Sad Puppies’ recommendations for Hugo nomination. There is a slight overlap with both the Rabid Puppies’ slate and the Nebula nominations.

 

Review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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WarriorNext on the agenda, the movie we’ve all been waiting for. Harrison Ford can sure carry a movie, can’t he? Also, I was impressed with how well Chewbacca has aged. While the humans have gotten worn and moth-eaten, Chewie still looks sleek and supple, ready to take on a new generation of bad guys.

The format for the film has been updated for current sensibilities. This was a coming-of-age film for what Disney is surely hoping will be a new crop of young stars. They’ve added diversity in that the two main characters are a woman and man of color, while the dark side is represented by various unattractive white men. There were no LGBTQ characters that I could pick out.

The film moved right along. The quality of constant action is apparently a necessity in action-adventure films these days. There were a couple of spots where I was feeling a little tired, and wishing for a quiet moment of contemplation to give the narrative depth. As I recall, The Force is supposed to require a certain amount of meditation and development in order to work well for the user, but they rushed Rey into it here. Under pressure, her talents already seemed full-blown. My opinion of J.J. Abrams is that he’s really great at action, but not so good with the warm, beating heart of a film. It comes off a bit shallow.

On the bright side, there was nothing offensive about this. The scenery and special effects were awesome. The young stars were attractive and engaging. The script was adequate, if not earth-shaking. It was entertaining. Required viewing for anyone wanting to stay current with SF entertainment and literature.

Market share vs. awards

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So, why doesn’t “traditional SF” win awards? This seems to be true regardless of whether we’re talking about books, short stories or film. For example, the film Iron Man might get Academy Award nominations for sound editing and visual effects, but never for Best Picture. In the same way, Star Wars tie-in novels may have respectable sales figures, but never come anywhere near the ballot for the Hugo Award.

On the other hand, message-driven, more literary works are the standard, not only for nominations, but for actual wins at both awards. This is because they have something different or important to say. It’s about entertainment versus making a statement. It doesn’t make any difference what your statement is, it just needs to be there in order for something to be considered significant above the dross of entertainment that generally fills the airwaves, and the content of spec fiction novels.

The Sad/Rabid Puppies will complain about this, of course, as they seem to be coming from a viewpoint that SF should be only about entertainment and never about message. However, I’ve just spent a lot of space in talking about how science fiction is failing as a genre just because of this outlook. The actual science content of entertainment grade SF is low, meaning that it really undermines SF as a genre about the same way that tear-jerker sentimentality as a selling point does.

Don’t get me wrong. I love space opera. It’s just that I know it’s entertainment, and not really science fiction.

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