Star Wars

Compartmentalizing the Star Wars Saga

[Ed. note: This entry was begun over a week ago, before I had seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Some of my thinking here is no longer strictly relevant — and of course all of it is self-absorbed navelgazing — but I’ve decided to finish and publish it anyhow.]

In the wake of my last entry, a friend of mine asked why people make such a big deal out of Star Wars movies instead of taking them for what they are, either enjoying them or not, and just moving on when you don’t. Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that was the gist of what he was asking. And by “people,” I’m pretty sure he meant “me.”

I didn’t have a good answer for him, and I told him so. I really don’t know why these movies affect me the way they do, both good and bad… why they’re so important to me that my unhappiness with a sequel made 40 years after the fact sent me into an emotional tailspin. I could say what I used to say back in my college days, back when my buddies were all leaving to serve their two-year Mormon missions and it seemed critical to have my own glib answer to questions of spirituality: that the original trilogy was the closest thing to religion I’ve ever known. (This was long before those folks in the UK turned “Jedi” into an official religious designation; I dropped the idea after that happened, because it no longer seemed very funny, or very true.) I could also tell you that I’d constructed so much of my identity around being a Star Wars fan — something I stubbornly clung to even during the years when half the planet was renouncing their affection for the franchise because the prequels disappointed them so badly —  that when I was finally confronted with a Star Wars film I didn’t like (but which, perversely, so many others did like), the cognitive dissonance was so severe it felt like part of me was being torn away in a cataclysmic event, like an iceberg calving off a glacier. I could tell you these things. But unless you have similar feelings, there’s no way I can really make you understand them. If movies are just movies to you, if Star Wars isn’t that big a deal to you, then I can’t explain why they’re more than that for me, or why I am so damn dramatic about it all.

So I didn’t have an answer to my friend’s question. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about the core of what he was asking: Why can’t I just shrug off The Force Awakens, or any other Star Wars movie that doesn’t work for me? (As an aside, why can’t the prequel haters get over their disillusionment, too?) And the thing I keep coming back to is… all the Star Wars novels and comic books I’ve read.

Consider: in the nearly 40 years since the original Star Wars film (I still have trouble thinking of it as “A New Hope”), there have been quite literally hundreds of published stories set in that galaxy far, far away… everything from the Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s and ’80s to Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the very first spin-off novel), up through the explosion of comics and novels produced in the ’90s and early 2000s that came to be called the Expanded Universe. And that’s not counting the various video games, animated television shows, newspaper strips, and Force only knows what else. I’ve read quite a few of those stories (though not all, and probably not even a majority of them… hey, I do have other interests, and only so much time!) Some of them, the best of them, capture the feeling of the movies and the sound of the characters’ voices so perfectly that they feel like part of the movies themselves. Others are utterly terrible, both as novels and as Star Wars stories. Some of them feel as if they were written for another franchise entirely and just had the Star Wars character names plugged into them; you wonder if the authors of those have ever even seen a Star Wars movie. And honestly, the vast majority of these stories, like everything else in life, are simply mediocre. But the interesting thing is… I’ve never had any big emotional or psychological struggle with any of them. I enjoy the ones I enjoy, the better ones become “official” in my mind, or what the kids on Tumblr refer to as “headcanon,” and the others are quickly forgotten. No big deal. So what’s the difference when it comes to the movies?

Well, simply put, the movies are harder to dismiss because they feel more “real” to me. Partly that’s because it’s the way George Lucas wanted it. When the EU started getting too big in the ’90s and contradictions and retcons were becoming a problem, Uncle George (or at least his minions in the licensing division of Lucasfilm) let the word out that the movies were to be considered the primary canon, and everything else may or may not be “official” depending on what happened in future film projects. In other words, George wasn’t bound to follow or use any idea established in the EU materials. Disney has reinforced this notion by decanonizing everything published prior to its acquisition of Lucasfilm and rebranding it under the “Star Wars Legends” label. (Interestingly, a lot of ideas from the disavowed EU appeared in one form or another in The Force Awakens, and will probably creep into Rogue One too, so perhaps Disney’s motive was less about clearing the slate than justifying their exploitation of existing material.) All the new tie-in materials moving forward are to be considered canon and are part of the timeline, an idea that I have some problems with… more on that another time.

Anyhow, my point here, at long last, is that I’m increasingly thinking I need to do with Star Wars movies what I manage to do quite easily with the books and comics, and compartmentalize all of them in my mind. I’ve been doing it with the Star Trek franchise for years. I love the first four Trek films that featured the original TOS cast; those are the “real” ones for me. Moving on, I like parts of Star Treks V and VI, although overall I have issues with those films; they are not part of my personal canon, but I don’t refuse to watch them. I didn’t care much for any of the four films starring the Next Generation cast, and in fact I’ve only seen a couple of them once. I’ve mostly forgotten them at this point, and that’s just fine. Meanwhile, I think my feelings about the post-reboot JJ-Trek films are pretty widely known — they don’t exist in my world. And I’ve got to start doing the same with Star Wars movies, too. I must learn to do what my friend suggested in the conversation that started all this: like what I like and ignore the rest.

That might seem so obvious as to not even bear mentioning, let alone writing a thousand-word blog entry about. But to date, I haven’t done that with Star Wars. I haven’t been able to. Even though I concede the prequels had a lot of problems, I basically accepted them… because they were Star Wars movies, and that lent them a certain authenticity and gravity by default. But I never had any obligation to view them that way… and indeed, many people did not and chose to pretend they never happened. It’s obvious to me now that I’ve got to do what everybody else has been doing since The Phantom Menace. For my own sanity, I’ve got to start imagining every new Star Wars movie from this point forward as a sort of new Expanded Universe… just supplements to George Lucas’ original saga that I can pick and choose from at will.

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Rogue One: I’m Not Feeling It

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We’re only a couple days away from the opening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which is the first of several planned “standalone” or “anthology” films that take place in the Star Wars universe, but are incidental to the mainline saga. In other words, this movie and the “Star Wars Stories” that will follow exist in parallel to the seven previous Star Wars movies, but are not “episodes” of the story being told in those other seven. The idea is to fill in the narrative gaps and expand on the universe we’ve seen in the numbered episodes… fleshing out backstories and exploring ideas that the episodes don’t have time to deal with. And of course, to keep Star Wars-branded product in the theaters (and the toy stores) each and every year for the foreseeable future, thus making a Death Star full of money for the new galactic overlords at Disney.

The movie is getting very positive advance reviews (including, reportedly, the approval of George Lucas himself, which may not matter to a lot of Star Wars fans, but it still matters to me), and many of my friends already have their tickets for showtimes this weekend. I, on the other hand…

I’ll be honest, I was more excited by the teaser trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than by anything to do with Rogue One, and that freaks me out a little. I mean… it’s Star Wars, man! Star Wars! Those two words have provoked an almost Pavlovian response in me for pretty much my entire life, ever since I was a wee lad doodling TIE fighters in the margins of my school papers. I should be bouncing off the walls right now, vibrating with excitement for my imminent return to the galaxy far, far away, just as I was for last year’s entry, The Force Awakens, and for each of the prequels before that, and for Empire and Return of the Jedi thirty-some years ago. But… I’m just not.

To be fair, there are elements in the latest Rogue One trailer that I find intriguing. I like the glimpse of day-to-day life under Imperial domination (literally under it, as a star destroyer hovers in the sky, throwing its ominous shadow over the city). I like the fact that this story is about ordinary galactic citizens for a change, instead of crazy old wizards and magical bloodlines. And the scenes of messy, close-quarters urban fighting with a scout walker clomping through narrow alleyways are something we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie, so there’s that. However — and I really can’t convey how much it pains me to say this — there’s nothing in any of the trailers that really makes my heart go zing.

Part of the problem is my lack of interest in the movie’s central premise. If you don’t know or haven’t figured it out from the trailers, Rogue One tells the story of the rebel spies mentioned in the opening of the original Star Wars film (I guess I’m finally going to have to give in and start referring to that one as Episode IV or A New Hope like everyone else does, for the sake of clarity). Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I myself have never given a second thought to those guys or how they actually got their hands on the secret Death Star plans that Princess Leia was carrying at the beginning of the whole franchise. Not once. As I put it in a recent Facebook conversation, this movie aims to “explain a maguffin that no one has ever questioned or wondered about in any way.” Remember the midichlorians in The Phantom Menace, and how baffled, if not downright angry, everybody was that George Lucas felt it necessary to quantify something we’d always just accepted, i.e., the Force? The midichlorian thing was one scene. Rogue One is an entire movie built around the same kind of thinking. As my friend Kelly put it during that same Facebook discussion, “What if someone made a movie called Ugarte in which we see the Peter Lorre character from Casablanca meet up with the two couriers who have the letters of transit?” Has anyone ever desired such a film? I know I haven’t. It’s not that you couldn’t make a good movie from that bit of background; it’s that there really isn’t any need to.

I think Disney’s plans for an annual Star Wars release are also a factor in my indifferent mood. A new Star Wars movie used to be a major event — the release dates for the original trilogy, the Special Editions, and The Phantom Menace (although not so much the other two prequels, oddly) all stand out in my mind as significant temporal landmarks that I still tend to use when I’m navigating through my memories — and those events were years in the making. (Literally.) You had time for the anticipation to build. But Rogue One arriving so soon after Episode VII, and knowing that Episode VIII will be out only 12 months from now, and then another standalone only a year after that, and so on and so on, has already rendered the Star Wars franchise no big deal, the same way the Marvel superhero movies — which Disney also owns — are no big deal. Now, I love those Marvel flicks, but I don’t get especially excited about them or eagerly anticipate them. Frankly, I take them for granted. I know it doesn’t matter if any individual entry in the series is bad, or if I don’t get around to seeing it in a theater, because there’s always another one on the way (three of them, in fact, in 2017). We’re only two movies into the Disney era of Star Wars, and I’m already feeling the same way about this franchise, and that’s a drag.

Really, though, my biggest problem with Rogue One is the lingering hangover from last year’s Star Wars film.

This entry is already running long, so I’ll spare my Loyal Readers a laundry list of all the specific issues I had with The Force Awakens. Let’s just say that I didn’t think it was a very good movie, I don’t think it continued the saga in a good way, and it ultimately did something no other Star Wars movie has ever done: It made me feel old and out of touch and sad. In fact — and I know this is going to sound ridiculous and overly dramatic, but it’s true — I’ve been struggling against depression for most of the past year, never entirely falling into The Pit, but always conscious of a black shadow lurking just at the edges of my peripheral vision. And while there have been a lot of contributing factors, everything from Prince and Bowie dying to the election, I’m pretty sure the triggering event was that damned movie. After 15 years, I finally understand the intense reaction so many people had to the prequel trilogy: disapproval, disillusionment, and a nagging sense of having been played for a fool that gradually festers into genuine anger about the whole damn thing.

Honestly, I’ve spent the last year wondering if I’m done with Star Wars. Moving forward, I mean. Nothing is ever going to take the original trilogy away from me. I’ve always said the “raped my childhood” stuff we used to hear in response to the prequels was asinine, overblown pearl-clutching, and I still feel that way. I truly don’t want to become one of those fans. And I know that I’m already dangerously close to sounding like Grampa Simpson bitching that everything’s gone to hell because the Damn Kids aren’t doing things the way we did ’em back in my day. But I’m no longer sure that Star Wars has much to say to me… or, for that matter, is even interested in speaking to me in the post-Lucas era. And that has been — and continues to be — very, very difficult for me to wrap my head around. Frankly, it’s been pretty painful. Like losing one’s faith in religion, I imagine. I hold out some flicker of hope that Rogue One might redeem the franchise for me (although next year’s Episode VIII will be the true make-or-break point). But I don’t feel much urgency to find out. I fear the emotions I’ll go through if it’s also a disappointment, I guess.

Oh, I will see it…. eventually. But I know I’ll be walking into the theater with a sense of wariness when I do…

 

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Just for Fun…

Many years ago… before the dark times… before the Special Editions… my lovely lady Anne and I attended an all-night marathon screening of the original Star Wars trilogy. I made it through the first two films without too much difficulty, but I found myself fading by the time Return of the Jedi got under way. Not surprising, as it must’ve been going on 4 AM by that time, and even my awesome levels of nerdish enthusiasm weren’t enough to keep me going around the clock. I very clearly remember seeing the rebel star fleet, led by Lando Calrissian aboard the Millennium Falcon, going to lightspeed… and then opening my eyes again just as the fleet came out of lightspeed. I’d dropped off and missed all of the mucking about with the Ewoks on Endor, probably a half-hour or so of the film. I laughed for a long time about that…

(My affection and/or tolerance for the Ewoks has waxed and waned over the years, and at the time I was in a low point toward them. These days, I’m not quite so down on them as I was then; besides, I’d also missed the speeder bikes during my nap, and that could never be anything but a shame.)

Anyhow, I just ran across a video clip that edits the film’s climatic space battle together pretty much exactly how I remember it from that screening. Enjoy!

 

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May the Fourth!

Today is the unofficial nerd holiday known as Star Wars Day, owing to the unfortunate pun formed by a certain pronunciation of the date (“May the Fourth be with you!” Get it? Yeah, I know… it makes me groan as well.) Now, it’s not as if people need an excuse to chatter about Star Wars on social media any more than they already do on any other day of the year, but I must confess that I rather enjoy the whole silly thing. I’ve seen a lot of memes, artwork, and jokes today that have made me smile…  and with that swaggering blowhard Donald Trump all but claiming the Iron Throne last night, a few smiles have been absolutely vital to my psychological well-being.

Of all the Star Wars-related stuff I’ve seen today, my favorite piece has been a promo video produced by the British TV network Sky Movies to advertise their marathon of the first six SW movies (or, as I think they ought to be called, the Lucasian Sextet).  This one is just plain neato:

And then there’s the news that Greedo himself — or at least the actor who was inside the green-snouted costume, Paul Blake — has weighed in on the undying question of “Who shot first?” In an interview with the New York Daily News, Blake says the scene he remembers acting all those years ago ended with the words, “Han shoots the alien.” Period. In other words, not only did Greedo not shoot first, he didn’t shoot at all. Blake goes on: “It would be lovely to see them go back to the original version, I much preferred it, I must say.”

Amen, sir. There are a lot of, ahem, unofficial options these days for seeing the pre-1997 editions of the original trilogy, but I still hold out hope there will one day be a sanctioned, respectful, official BluRay release. I’d even buy a box set of all the variations that now exist, so long as the pre-97s are given a decent presentation. Hey, we all need our obsessions, right?

In the meantime, I think I’m going to watch that Sky Movies ad again. I really adore that…

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Nostalgia’s a Bitch, Man, But She’s My Bitch

star-wars_anh_luke-on-tatooineSo, do you suppose that during all those years Luke Skywalker evidently spends standing on a rock in the ocean on Planet Ireland, brooding about how everything went to hell for him after his twenties, he ever got misty-eyed about the good old days of zooming around the desert in his landspeeder and hanging with Fixer and the gang at Toshi Station?

Just something that occurred to me this morning as I was remembering the little farm town I grew up in and the faceless suburb it’s become…

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“I Must Leave This Planet or Lose My Mind”

In lieu of the usual music-type video, I thought I’d offer a different sort of distraction for this Friday evening…

I’ve seen a lot of Star Wars parody videos over the years. I mean, a lot. There are nearly as many of those silly things out there on the InterWebs as there are cat videos. But every once in a while, one comes along that is truly sublime in its creativity, its unique take on the source material, and yes, its side-splitting, coffee-spewing, tear-inducing hilariousness. My buddy Robert sent me one such gem today, which re-imagines several key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back as a Spanish-language telenovela, and the results are… well, just take a look:

Ah, man. I’ve watched this half a dozen times this afternoon, and I’m still laughing. But you know… seeing Our Heroes as, ahem, young and horny only highlights how deeply unhappy I am with what becomes of them in The Force Awakens. One of these weekends, I’ve got to clear my calendar and write up exactly what I thought of that movie…

But it probably won’t be this weekend. I may post some more in the next 48 hours, but I’ve got other subjects in the chute ahead of my TFA review. In the meantime, have a good one, kids. Hope you have some nice spring weather to enjoy.

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Review: Razor’s Edge

Razor's Edge
Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Razor’s Edge is the second of the two books in the aborted Empire and Rebellion trilogy that made it to press before Disney’s acquisition of all things Star Wars and subsequent termination of the existing “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials. (Well, technically, Razor’s Edge was the first of that trilogy, but I read it second; there isn’t a unified story arc connecting the two, so it doesn’t matter what order you read them in.) Remember, the idea behind Empire and Rebellion was to give each of “the big three” characters — Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo — a book focusing on them during the little-covered period between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, i.e., between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Razor’s Edge is Leia’s entry… and I’m sorry to say that it was pretty disappointing after the rollicking good time I had with the Han Solo book Honor Among Thieves. Also, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why.

The plot isn’t bad. It begins with Leia and Han on a secret mission to meet with merchants who can provide supplies for the construction of the new rebel base on Hoth, but their ship is attacked by Imperials shortly after arriving at the rendezvous point, suggesting they’ve got a leak somewhere in the Alliance. Fleeing their attacker, they come upon a pirate vessel attacking a freighter… and to Leia’s shock, the pirate is a former Alderaanian ship that survived the destruction of their homeworld and turned rogue to survive. One thing leads to another, and Han, Leia, and the Alderaanians find themselves at a pirate armada’s “clearinghouse,” surrounded by cutthroats, trying to figure out how to save a group of innocent captives as well as themselves, and uncover the identity of the spy in their midst, as before the Empire catches up to them.

That all sounds good, and I liked the primary setting — an abandoned asteroid mine filled with broken-down machines and senile droids, now taken over by the pirates — but I found I just didn’t engage with the story in any significant way. The secondary characters were largely indistinguishable from each other, the Imperial pursuit never seemed all that threatening, and I wanted something… more from Leia. Her lingering feelings of guilt and trauma over what happened to Alderaan are mentioned, and supposedly play a big role in why she’s so interested in these hometown pirates, but the feelings don’t have any palpable presence, and I kept thinking they ought to. Not that I wanted the book to become too dark and heavy — remember, that’s my complaint with so much of current popular culture and a place I definitely don’t want Star Wars to go — but a little more exploration of the princess’ mindscape would’ve been appropriate in this story.

On the positive side, Leia is convincingly portrayed as capable of independent action, Han gets in one of his trademark insanely reckless rescue stunts, and some of the banter between them is nice.

In the final analysis, I’d give Razor’s Edge a lukewarm recommendation. It’s mediocre and disposable, but it’s an adequate diversion, and it is better than some of the Star Wars tie-ins I’ve read. But I wanted it to be so much better than it was…

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Trek or Wars?

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So, I was talking recently with this guy and when I happened to mention that I wasn’t blown away by the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, the way I’d hoped to be, he replied, “Well, that makes sense… you’ve always been more of a Trekkie anyway.”

Whoa, wait… what?!

I have to admit, I was a little taken aback.

Not that I deny being a major Trekkie, of course. How can I, when I honestly can’t remember a time before I’d seen the original Star Trek series? Hell, one of my strongest memories of kindergarten — kindergarten! — is talking to a little girl about this cool guy on TV called Spock. But somehow it surprises me to think that people believe I prefer one of these pop-cultural juggernauts to the other. Certainly I’ve never seen myself as having a preference.

People love their rivalries, though, don’t they? Sports teams, political parties, favorite hamburger chains, what make of pickup truck you drive… the list is endless. For nerds, the irresolvable conflicts are Marvel vs. DC and Star Trek vs. Star Wars. I can tell you from personal experience that nerd rivalries are every bit as bitter as those between football fans. My first real taste of that came from this kid I knew back in college. He was frankly the biggest nerd I’ve ever met, the sort who was absolutely convinced there had to be an “in-universe” explanation for why the sets were different on later seasons of the BBC sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf than they’d been in the first year. (Um, because the production company got a bigger budget and built new ones?! As nerdy as I proudly am, I’ve always had this stubborn connection to real-world, behind-the-scenes reality.) This guy was so extreme in how seriously he took his fannish interests that he could’ve been a character on The Big Bang Theory. He would’ve been the guy the regular characters on The Big Bang Theory look down on, actually. Anyhow, this guy left me speechless one afternoon by snottily decreeing that he was a Trekkie and he hated Star Wars because there are obviously more story possibilities inherent in a trek than in a war. Um, okay, whatever, man.

Personally, I’ve always found the rivalry between the two properties and/or their fans, this idea that there are two warring camps who can never, ever find common ground, silly.and contrived, in spite of my old college pal’s rotten attitude. If you prefer one over the other, that’s your prerogative, but it’s perfectly possible to enjoy both, and I suspect most people — at least the people who like this stuff at all — like both.

For the record, I consider my affections pretty evenly divided between the two, about 50/50. Over the years, my focus has shifted back and forth between them, largely depending on which was more prominent in the culture at the time (Trek was far more active in the late ’80s and early ’90s, for instance, while Star Wars was in a fallow period then), but I love ’em both more or less equally. I find neither “superior” because they’re not trying to accomplish the same thing, and both franchises have produced lots of dross in name of the almighty marketing machine. From Trek, I’ve taken a lot of my personal sense of morality and ethics, as well as (probably) my urge to explore — or perhaps the stories of exploration have resonated with some trait that was already baked into my character. But Star Wars excites me in a way Trek never has. One appeals to my intellect and the other to my gut, I suppose. They are the poles at either end of my nerdy continuum.

Of course, at the moment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more consistently satisfying me than either Trek or Wars, so figure that one out.

This has been another meaningless exercise in navel-gazing brought to you by a late hour and a fuzzy head grabbing inspiration from wherever it can…

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Review: Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves
Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve thought a lot about that movie and about Star Wars in general, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite era, both in terms of storytelling as well as the real-world Star Wars phenomenon, was that scant handful of years between the first two movies, i.e., Episodes IV and V… or, as we old farts who’ve been there since the dawn of time like to call ’em, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. That period was the most fun, in my opinion, when this whole crazy juggernaut of a franchise was still a swashbuckling adventure untainted by the tragic undertones that crept into it later, when anything was possible and Luke Skywalker was just, to borrow a memorable phrase from James S. A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, “a farm boy who love[d] flying his fast ship.”

Honor Among Thieves was one of the last Star Wars novels published in the so-called “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials (books, comics, and games) produced before Disney acquired the Star Wars brand in 2014. The book was originally intended as part of a projected trilogy titled Empire and Rebellion, set in that sweet spot between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, and with each book focusing on one of the “Big Three” heroes: Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Only two of the three novels in that trilogy were published, however, before Disney’s controversial decision to decanonize the EU and recategorize all those stories as mere “legends.” So technically speaking, Honor Among Thieves and its companion piece, Razor’s Edge, never happened. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the more entertaining SW tie-ins I’ve encountered.

The time is shortly after the destruction of the first Death Star. The Rebels have abandoned their now-compromised base on Yavin IV and are searching for a new world on which to settle. Han Solo still has not committed to formally joining the Rebel Alliance and considers himself an outsider to their cause, an independent contractor who’s willing to do jobs for them but expects to be paid in return. So when Leia asks him and Chewbacca to fly into Imperial space to pick up a Rebel spy who’s called for extraction, it’s just another paycheck. Naturally, though, he gets more than he bargained for when the spy reveals why she called for help: an Imperial agent has discovered the path to an ancient alien artifact of immense power, but a third party has accidentally acquired the information as well and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. And now the race is on to intercept the data and recover the artifact, which will bring its possessor ultimate control over the Galaxy. Matters are complicated by an old friend turned bounty hunter who’s picked up Han’s trail and intends to capture him for Jabba the Hutt, as well as by an unexpected side trip to rescue Leia from an approaching Imperial fleet…

Refreshingly free of the usual mystical light-side/dark-side concerns involving the Jedi and the Force, Honor Among Thieves is more reminiscent of the old Han Solo novels by Brian Daley that I loved as a kid, or perhaps the original Marvel Comics Star Wars series (as opposed to the current Marvel series), just a fast-paced space opera adventure about a scoundrel with a fast ship and a sharp tongue. There’s even a bit of an Indiana Jones vibe in the final act as our heroes trek across a jungle world toward an ancient ruin that houses the story’s MacGuffin.

The tone never gets too heavy, but the book does offer some interesting ethical questions — voiced by the most unlikely of philosophers, Han Solo himself –about whether a New Republic founded by a victorious Rebel Alliance would be much different from the Empire for people who live on the margins, like himself — meet the new boss, same as the old boss — as well as whether anybody can be trusted with the kind of power promised by the object everyone is trying to obtain. And while I personally have grown very weary of all the superweapons in the Star Wars universe — including Starkiller Base in the new movie — the artifact in this story has the novelty of being alien in origin and non-destructive in nature, an idea that I found far more intriguing than just another variant on a giant laser.

Bottom line: official canon or not, Honor Among Thieves is a fun read that’s perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon. If you love and miss a certain kind of Star Wars story the way I do, it’s highly recommended.

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What? There’s a New Star Wars Movie?

star-wars_tfa_poster_wide[Ed. Note: This is not a review, and there are no spoilers ahead, just in case there’s anyone remaining at this late date to whom that matters. What this entry is is something I started noodling with a week before The Force Awakens opened but ran out of time to finish before I got swept up in the events of the big weekend. I liked the direction my musings were taking, so I decided to come back and see where they ultimately led. Think of this entry as something that got lost in hyperspace for three weeks and has finally arrived in the here and now. Because of that provenance, you may encounter some odd phrases relating to time. Sorry about that. And for the record, I am planning to do an actual review of the film, so that’ll be coming soon…]

Did you guys know about this? A new Star Wars movie? Wonder how they managed to sneak that onto theater schedules without anyone noticing?

Just kidding.You’d have to be living under the cliche’d rock to not know about this movie. The familiar logo and character faces are everywhere this holiday season. As far back as Halloween, some of my friends were grumbling that they were already getting sick of it, that it was even worse than the marketing blitz for The Phantom Menace back in 1999. Personally, I’ve been enjoying it, at least to the extent that I’ve even been aware of it. Weirdly enough, I was more or less oblivious to it until just a short time ago. Aside from the online hubbub that accompanied the release of each new trailer, I somehow didn’t see all the merchandise trickling into stores or notice all the tie-ins infiltrating TV and even social media ads. I don’t know how I could’ve missed it; too damn busy with the mundane duties of my daily life, I guess. Adulthood… sigh. But now that my eyes have been opened… well, I’m in my element. My friends may find it obnoxious to go into a grocery store and see a jug of coffee creamer decorated to resemble Chewbacca, but I enjoy it. I like feeling that old Star Wars buzz again, the same one I remember feeling way back in 1980 and ’83, and yes, in ’99, too. It makes me happy.

However, the buzz isn’t exactly like it used to be, is it? While people are unquestionably excited about the prospects of a new Star Wars, I sense an undercurrent of reservation this time. At least I am more reserved about it. Back in ’99, I had a countdown clock and a pre-production painting of a podracer on my work computer’s desktop for months ahead of time, and I’d already bought a bunch of merchandise well before the movie opened. (I can recall a coworker shaking his head and hissing, “It’s like a cult for you people!” Um, yeah. So?) This time around, though… well, it’s just different somehow. I’ve known the release date was coming up and I have my advance tickets, but like I said above, I really haven’t given the movie much thought until recently. And I’ve looked at some of the new toys and collectibles that are out there, and while a lot of them have made me smile, so far none of them have found their way into the Bennion Archive.

Some have suggested all of us cultish fans are gun-shy after being burned by the prequels. Maybe that’s the explanation for some people, but I don’t think that’s what’s holding back my enthusiasm. The truth is, I basically liked the prequels. No, really, I did. I had my quibbles with them, sure; they weren’t what we all hoped for, certainly, or what they could’ve and arguably should’ve been. But they weren’t that bad. Trust me, I’ve seen bad movies, movies so bad they can boil your eyeballs and liquefy your brains, and the prequels really, truly were not in that league. At least not in my estimation. If your mileage varies, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree and not discuss it. I’m done having that conversation, because all the bile those movies have inspired over the last 16 years has been hurtful and toxic and tiresome, and frankly it’s sucked a lot of the fun out of being a Star Wars fan. If anything, that’s probably more to blame for my “wait and see” attitude about The Force Awakens than anything: my fear that the Great Fanboy Wars, which finally seemed to be calming down a bit in recent years, are about to flare up all over again.

Consider: If TFA sucks, then the outcry will be enormous. For many fans, it will be the final disillusionment, and a whole lot of people will just turn away from Star Wars once and for all, as many already have because of the prequels. And I, a die-hard loyalist to the end, will be find myself constantly defending what the popular wisdom will have decided is indefensible, namely, the entire Star Wars franchise. (Like I haven’t been there before, any time anyone mentions the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica or even — increasingly and utterly baffling to me — the original Star Trek series.) And if by some chance the new entry is great, then the “I told you so’s” directed against poor old Uncle George and his prequels will be deafening. And that will really trouble me too, because I already think the amount of disrespect he receives is unjustified.

I’ll be honest, I’m much more apprehensive about the former possibility — that Episode VII will suck — than the latter. I have very little faith that director JJ Abrams can deliver any sort of watchable Star Wars movie, not after the utter hash he made of my beloved Star Trek. (I know, I know, those films had a different writing staff than The Force Awakens, and JJ has always claimed to be far more of a fan of Star Wars than Star Trek. And I also know I initially gave the 2009 reboot picture a somewhat positive review. But as time has passed, my position toward that one has hardened. A lot. That’s a tangent I shouldn’t take right now, but let’s just say that as far as I’m concerned, the reinvention of the Star Trek franchise has been an unmitigated disaster, and JJ is the one person most responsible for it, since he was the man in the center seat. That’s a reference that Trekkies will get.)

Ultimately though, it kind of doesn’t matter if The Force Awakens is any good or not, because Star Wars is — and always has been — much more than the movies themselves.

Star Wars is the tattered paperback novelization that I read over and over and over until it finally split in two, coming apart right up the middle of the spine, a book I read so many times as a kid that I can still remember some of the lines. It is the plastic Slurpee cups and the cheap, fuzzily printed posters from Burger King. It is the black-edged trading cards that came in loaves of Wonder Bread, which we never actually ate but which my mom cheerfully bought anyhow, so I could collect those cards and carry them in my wallet like family photos. It is the incredibly daft (I like to say “swashbuckling”) Marvel comic books that featured a six-foot-tall green rabbit and a space pirate who strode the decks of an off-model star destroyer in hot pants and a muscle shirt. It is the summer afternoon I spent in a corner of our still-under-construction barn listening to the entire NPR radio show on a scratchy transistor radio, and the cheap knock-off “lazer sword” toy I waved at my friends who were armed only with sticks, and it’s the rubber-backed t-shirt iron-ons that always made my chest feel clammy but were so damn cool looking.

Star Wars is the line that wrapped around the block in front of the old Centre Theatre in downtown Salt Lake, and it is Meco’s disco “interpretation” of John Williams’ famous music, and it is all the painfully bad variety-show and sketch-comedy attempts to hop on the bandwagon. Yes, it’s those episodes of The Donny and Marie Show and The Muppet Show and The Richard Pryor Show, and it’s Bill Murray singing the theme on SNL. It is even — god help us — the infamous Holiday Special.

Star Wars is my dad buying me a copy of Han Solo’s Revenge by Brian Daley that I spotted in a drugstore window, just because he knew I wanted it, and it is that awesome birthday cake my mom made for me that had all the Kenner action figures standing knee-deep in chocolate frosting instead of candles.

Star Wars is the night I passed on going to a dance so I could record the film from broadcast TV without commercials. It is the all-day marathon of the original trilogy I went to with an old girlfriend, and the all-night marathon I went to with my Anne. It is the rush of sheer joy I felt one afternoon in 1991 when I wandered into Waldenbooks and literally stumbled across a display for the first tie-in novel published in years, the start of the publishing juggernaut that came to be called the Expanded Universe.

Star Wars is the Qui Gon Jinn insulated tumbler I used to use during my morning commute, and the Darth Maul figurine that was on the cake I received for my thirtieth birthday.

Star Wars is all the conversations I had with the younger guys I worked with at the movie theater, the guys who nicknamed me “the Jedi Master.” And it is the debates I had with my friend Robert until the wee hours of the night at Selwyn College in Cambridge, England, my friend who flew in from halfway across the country to see The Force Awakens with me. And it is the countless arguments I used to have online before I decided it simply wasn’t worth my time to argue about it anymore.

And yes, Star Wars is that damn Chewbacca coffee creamer, and the Death Star tea infuser, and the box of Cheez-Its with the First Order stormtrooper on the front.

In short, Star Wars is a thread that runs throughout the tapestry of my life. All our lives, anyone who’s been alive in this culture for the past 40 years. It is a thread both material (in the form of merchandise) and experiential. It has penetrated our discourse and our thoughts to the level that people can use its characters and situations as metaphors with no doubt that they will be understood.

Star Wars is an exercise in marketing hype, yes. And it is even, when you get right down to it, a series of movies. But in a weird way, the actual movies are the least important aspect of the whole thing… and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.

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