So I Just Saw Solo: A Star Wars Story

The first thought I had when I heard that the Han Solo movie was coming out in May was that it must not be very good if Disney was interrupting the Christmas release schedule it had maintained for the previous three Star Wars movies.  The second thought was an observation from this old cinema deconstruction/serial killer fiction series that some friends introduced me to many years ago (if you’ve heard of Mr. Plinkett, then congratulations on your internet literacy; have some pizza rolls to celebrate) which went like this: all other blunders of the prequel trilogy aside, at least there was no attempt to shoehorn Han Solo into a story that really didn’t need a character like him, especially a precocious child version like the prequels’ timeline would have demanded.  Better to keep Han as a character who comes on stage fully formed instead of tinkering with an origin story.

Needless to say, I didn’t see Solo when it was in theaters.

Solo: A Star Wars Story Poster

Promotional poster for Solo. (Image credit: IMDb)

Instead, I waited until it came to Netflix and passed a lazy holiday afternoon enjoying some low stakes adventure fare.  I didn’t have any real expectations for the movie, so I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed it a lot.  If you approach this film with the understanding that there is no good reason for it to exist besides “Disney wants to keep milking Star Wars” then you can expect to have a good time.  The character beats of Han’s arc mostly work, and the set pieces are individually really fun.  There’s lots of stuff that harks back to the space western feel of the first Star Wars (Han and his first crew of misfits literally rob a train while wearing heavy dusters and twirling their blasters on their fingers) without getting bogged down in any of the melodrama of the Jedi stuff that preoccupies both the prequels and the new trilogy.  This is a straightforward story about how a scoundrel becomes a scoundrel, and while every beat in that journey feels like gratuitous fan service, every beat in the story feels like gratuitous fan service.  I mean, the big emotional moment of the movie (after the action sequence that really should have been the climax instead of just the end of the second act) revolves around Han shooting first, and at the same time that I was groaning about how obvious it was I was also laughing at such a succinct encapsulation of where this character is supposed to be when the credits roll.

For all the fun that it brings with it, Solo is not a perfect film.  There are some pacing issues, particularly with the final act, that could have been better handled.  I’m annoyed with the trend in recent blockbusters to have a perfectly serviceable climax with an obvious resolution point at the end of the middle act followed by an additional half hour of stuff that, no matter its self contained quality as a story, always feels tacked on.  In Solo, we see Han and crew pull off a successful heist capped with Han piloting the Millennium Falcon through extremely dangerous space (successfully completing the infamous Kessel Run in twelve parsecs); this would be a great place to end it as Han and Chewbacca have established themselves as figures in the galactic underworld who have a slightly heroic streak, but instead we get a third act where Han’s love interest whom everyone who knows Star Wars understands will in no way be with him by the movie’s end does some betrayal stuff and there’s a convoluted triple cross involving Han inadvertently using his earnings from the heist to jump start the Rebellion (ugh).  It’s too much in too little time, and the only thing I wonder about the whole decision to go with this ending is that there might not have been much confidence that Solo would warrant a sequel (I guess that was actually pretty good forecasting) and so the character needed to land much closer to where he is when he shows up in the cantina than the still relatively idealistic kid who makes that big score on Kessel.

It’s a shame about the lack of a sequel too, because for all the pacing missteps with the ending, there are a lot of story hooks that I would love to see followed up on.  Maybe I just need to read more Star Wars comics.

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So I Just Saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi Again

And it was just as good the second time!

I don’t have a lot in the way of new thoughts to add about The Last Jedi, but I wanted to touch on a couple of things I noticed on the second viewing.

Obviously, I’ll be discussing spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Before Rachael and I went to do our second viewing, we re-watched The Force Awakens since neither of us had seen it in its entirety since it first came out in theaters a couple years ago.  That’s still a really good movie as well, and after we watched it, Rachael and I came to the conclusion that much of what The Last Jedi does actually works in concert with what was set up in The Force Awakens instead of just tearing it down (a friend of ours pointed out that it’s silly to think of these two movies as working in opposition since JJ Abrams, the director for The Force Awakens, continues to be involved in the current trilogy’s production and will be directing Episode IX).  Rey, Finn, and Poe have their core characteristics established in the earlier film, and the understanding we have of them there informs how they’ll behave and fail in the second movie.  Before embracing her role in the Resistance, Rey is obsessed with staying on Jakku so she can be reunited with her parents; in The Last Jedi she learns with pretty strong finality that her parents abandoned her for no good reason and they’re most likely dead.  Finn’s set up as a guy who just wants to escape from the terrible life he’s been press ganged into, and he spends all of The Force Awakens trying to get away until his friendship with Rey drives him to do something stupid and heroic; when we follow him in the second movie, we see that he’s still acting selfishly, and it’s the realization that he can contribute to something bigger than himself in the form of the Resistance that generates a true change of heart.  Poe’s established as the hotshot pilot who is most valuable to the cause as a guy who can blow stuff up and pull off the risky missions; when we come back to him in The Last Jedi we get a clearer picture of Poe’s failure to recognize the human cost of his heroics and his feelings of impotence when stuck without an X-wing.  Everything about The Force Awakens sets up why we should like and sympathize with these characters, then The Last Jedi examines our assumptions about why we valorize the way they act in the process of helping them grow past their faults (it’s also in The Last Jedi where our three heroes more fully embrace the archetypal roles they’re inheriting from the original trilogy’s three heroes; Rey is the initially naive but immensely talented bumpkin, Finn is the scoundrel who learns to commit to something bigger than himself, and Poe is the inspirational leader of the movement).

At the same time that our heroes get deconstructed in ways that only make sense in the context of The Force Awakens, our villain grows more complex and sympathetic.  Kylo Ren is… not an impressive character in Abrams’s film.  Yes, he’s powerful, but he’s also clearly trying way too hard to live up to a legacy that doesn’t fit him well.  We’re given the impression that Kylo is supposed to be Darth Vader redux, both in the popular imagination and within the Star Wars universe, but he just… isn’t.  He’s petulant, impulsive, and, honestly, kind of whiny; while these are certainly traits that we associate with Anakin Skywalker in his youth (thanks for that, George Lucas), they don’t evoke the specter of Darth Vader.  The Last Jedi helps us understand why Kylo Ren feels like such a poor imitation; he’s suffocating under the assumption that he must live up to the reputation of his family heritage.  The Skywalkers decided the fate of the galaxy for two generations, and Kylo’s mentor in the Dark Side, Supreme Leader Snoke, clearly intends to make it three for three.  Of course, Snoke doesn’t care a whit about Kylo Ren’s appropriation of past icons, and this dismissal all that, summed up with the early scene in The Last Jedi where Snoke derides him for continuing to wear a helmet that he doesn’t need in homage to his grandfather, serves to drive Kylo Ren towards the decision to burn the past away and make something new just for himself.  Just like the heroes’ journeys through failure and better understanding of themselves, Kylo Ren realizes that he will be more satisfied with himself if he stops trying to imitate what’s come before; of course, his realization is accompanied by a violent coup of the First Order, but he is the trilogy’s villain.

Beyond the characters arcs, I just generally enjoyed the way the movie was put together.  The timeline of events make sense to me (I’ll stand by the idea that everything happens in the same twenty-four hour period; Rey’s plot begins perhaps a few hours earlier than the evacuation of the Resistance base at the beginning of the movie, and by the end of the first full day she’s on Ahch-To she’s on her way to help the fleet out), and the Canto Bight sequence still strikes me as delightful.  None of it feels indulgent to me, because it’s the crux of Finn’s arc; he can’t reach the point of being okay with self sacrifice for the Resistance without first understanding why the Resistance fights against the First Order (illustrated in the abuse of the underclass on Canto Bight) and without being on the receiving end of a selfish betrayal himself by DJ the codebreaker.  Luke’s Force projection of himself is a delightful thing on second viewing, because there are all kinds of little cues like the fact that his hair is cut and there’s no gray in his beard to signal that we’re not looking at the same Skywalker that Rey spent a day with.  It’s even better when you realize that the idealized self image Luke projects also serves the purpose of giving the remainder of the Resistance the legend they’ve been holding on to hope for.  It’s pretty nifty.

My one gripe is a really minor one, but I’m still bugged by the fact that during Luke’s showdown with Kylo Ren, Poe looks on and calls Luke by his first name.  Dude, you’ve never met Luke Skywalker before; you are not on a first name basis with one of the greatest heroes of the Rebellion.  The line feels like a slip in tone, and I’m still bothered by it.

It’s unlikely that I’m going to go see The Last Jedi for a third time in theaters, but it’s still such a good movie that I’m certainly looking forward to giving it another watch in the future.

So I Just Saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night.

It was an 11 p.m. showing, and I got home about 1:30 in the morning, and I had to get up at 5:30 for work the next day, and none of this matters because I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night, and it was fantastic.

Yeah, it’s basically a reboot of A New Hope. A New Hope is also objectively the second best Star Wars movie, so why would you complain about that? (Image credit: Wookieepedia)

As someone who happily got infected with the Star Wars nostalgia bug as a child (I remember my dad trying to sell me on the first movie while we were in a video store when I was six or seven by talking up Luke’s flying car; as someone who’s never been a gearhead, I’ve always wondered why the go to feature wasn’t laser swords, but that’s neither here nor there), I’ve been waiting for this event for the majority of my life.  Even though I’m a millennial, I’m a total original trilogy fanboy, and I never had the opportunity to see any of those movies in a theater.  Return of the Jedi came out two years before I was born, and because of a fit of stubbornness in 1997 when the special editions first came out, I never saw those (my mom said I had to clean my room before I could go see Star Wars, and to my twelve-year-old mind it was more important to have the moral victory of not cleaning my room).  I did see all of the prequel movies in theaters (I think I even saw Attack of the Clones twice; I was in high school, and high schoolers have terrible taste in movies; don’t judge me), but those can hardly be counted considering that everyone recognizes that they’re just not good movies.  No, my Star Wars is the one with Luke, Leia, and Han, and I made it thirty years before I saw a Star Wars movie in theaters.

But we’re not here to discuss the odd chimera that is my millennial adoration for a decidedly baby boomerish phenomenon.  We’re here to talk about the movie.

Obviously, spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens follow.

Let’s just get the gushing bits out of the way first, because by the time this post goes live there will have been tons of gushing.  It feels obligatory at this point, almost as much as the frantic search for things to nitpick and critique about the movie feel obligatory as people move past the initial relief that yes, it didn’t suck lemons.

Random gushy things:

 

  • Poe Dameron has the best hair.  The first shot where we meet him at the film’s start is magical simply because he’s sporting some incredible feathered ‘do with magnificent sideburns that feels like a natural progression of galactic fashion since Luke’s moptop  (on an unrelated note, Oscar Isaac has probably taken the place of Ewan McGregor as that one actor in Star Wars I’d consider making out with if given the opportunity).
  • One of the random stormtroopers is voiced by a woman.  Yeah, people have been making a big deal that that one stormtrooper in the really funny scene where Rey figures out the Jedi Mind Trick was played by Daniel Craig, but the significant thing here is that in addition to learning that stormtroopers consist of more than just white dudes since the clone army was discontinued, we also learn that the grunts have women in the ranks.  It was a throwaway line, but I loved it.
  • Finn’s arc as a stormtrooper who suddenly develops a conscience on his first combat assignment works really well for me.  I liked the nods to the idea that stormtroopers are abducted and indoctrinated from childhood to be unquestioningly obedient to the First Order (that’s a detail pulled from the old Expanded Universe by the way, for anyone who’s keeping score), and the recognition that this process isn’t totally full proof (an officer makes an offhand remark that Finn will probably just need to be referred for reeducation since it’s his first offense, which implies that this break with conditioning isn’t as absurdly rare as some people might speculate).  That Finn would be brought face to face with the kind of violence he’s supposed to do on a regular basis and recoil with horror really worked for me; even though we see Finn engaging in some heroics against other stormtroopers later, that underlying current of reluctance to even be involved in fighting is a nice through-line for his character.  Also, his misguided attempts to rescue Rey when she clearly doesn’t need it are adorable.
  • For that matter, Rey never needs rescuing, and both of the times when she does get in real trouble, Finn’s attempts to save her are proven to be kind of ill-conceived.  I love that Rey breaks herself out of prison on Starkiller Base, and I don’t care about any arguments that try to explain why her awesomeness is implausible.  She’s our hero for this new trilogy, and given that Star Wars is space opera in the vein of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, I think it’s perfectly acceptable for the hero to be over-the-top awesome.
  • C-3PO is the most annoying character in the movie, and that’s the way it should be.
  • Luke doesn’t have a single line, and I don’t care because Mark Hamill sells wise space wizard so hard in his one scene (also, I love the detail that he doesn’t hide his cyborg hand anymore; it’s a good visual cue that he’s at peace with what he is after all the turmoil he goes through in Return of the Jedi).

Some observations about the movie’s details:

  • Lightsabers are used sparingly, and when they appear there’s an emotional weight to their use (also, I never realized how much lightsabers actually casting light on their surroundings would improve the way they look).  This is a nice contrast to the prequel trilogy, where it was decided that what everybody loved was the laser swords, so let’s have laser swords in every scene regardless of whether they’re necessary (I mean, go all the way back to the first scene of The Phantom Menace with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan; they sense a disturbance and their first reaction is to pull out their lightsabers; as an old man Obi-Wan only draws his weapon when he has to in order to protect Luke or when he’s confronted by Vader; random non-Sith threats don’t rate a laser sword, so their appearance lets you know things are serious).
  • Han Solo plays the role of Obi-Wan to Rey’s Luke, and the story beats have more depth knowing Han’s history.  I loved seeing Han in a mentor role here, even if it did mean that his death at Kylo Ren’s hands was inevitable (as soon as I saw Ren out on the catwalk with Han hurrying to confront him, I knew it couldn’t end well for the old guy).  I think it was particularly poignant to have Han redeliver Obi-Wan’s explanation of the Force after his extreme skepticism in A New Hope (it was also a nice extension from Han’s reluctant acceptance of the Force’s existence after seeing Obi-Wan and Luke in action as fully realized Jedi).
  • When people compare Captain Phasma to Boba Fett, they are being remarkably accurate: lots of hype outside the movie, doesn’t really do that much in the movie.  Of course, I know that it’s been pointed out that Phasma will have a larger role in Episode VIII, and I’m cool with that for now, but I think it’s important to remember that Boba Fett was also a character that a lot of people got excited about when he was first introduced.  Then he got knocked into a sarlacc pit by a blind guy.  Let’s hope that Phasma doesn’t has her own sarlacc waiting for her in the future.

Okay, let’s move on to some more in-depth discussions now.

On the axes of female and person-of-color representation, this film’s doing significantly better than a lot of comparable action movie fare.  In a cast of nine major humanoid characters (I’m not counting Luke or the droids since his appearance is more of a cameo, and even though we generally read droids as male, they’re really nongendered), there are four women and three people of color.  Those ratios aren’t bad, and when you exclude the legacy characters from the original trilogy they get even better (without Han, Leia, and Chewbacca it becomes a cast of three men and three women, and three white people and three people of color).  The gender parity is fantastic (though the obvious push from here is to work towards including nonbinary and genderqueer actors as well), but the racial diversity, while an improvement, could still be better.  As amazing as Poe Dameron and Maz Kanata are, they’re really minor characters in comparison to Rey and Finn, and in Maz’s case, her actress Lupita Nyong’o is hidden behind CG.  Considering that many people overlook Oscar Isaac as a person of color (he’s originally from Guatemala), that just leaves John Boyega to do most of the heavy lifting, and it’s a very awkward scenario to be the only black man in the galaxy (this is exaggerated a little bit; I don’t remember specifically, but I want to say that people of color do appear as background characters throughout, which is definitely appreciated).  Nyong’o’s situation leaves me feeling rather ambivalent, since she’s really great as Maz, but I also can’t help but remember that the last black actor who played a significant nonhuman in Star Wars was Ahmed Best–we don’t remember his character too fondly at all.  Nonetheless, the big issue with the ratio of white people to people of color is simply that the ratio won’t be satisfactory until white stops being treated like a default and people of color are placed into a single catch-all representational group.

Now let’s discuss Kylo Ren, because he is the most delightful villain in all of villainy.  In a move that seems to me to be the absolute best meta-joke ever, we learn that Kylo Ren, who is obviously a marketing attempt at giving the audience someone as iconic as Darth Vader for the new trilogy, is motivated by a desire to emulate his hero, and he’s actually really bad at it.  Ren throws multiple tantrums, whines about the fact that becoming a true master of the Dark Side requires him to kill his father, and he wears a helmet that he doesn’t even need to survive.  The big reveal that Ren is totally unscathed underneath his mask is such a wonderful anticlimax because it lets us know that this guy really doesn’t understand what made Vader so scary, while also giving us a glimpse of what Anakin Skywalker should have been like in the prequel trilogy.  Ren comes across as a kid who’s honestly never been challenged his whole life, and that’s left him with a huge ego that can’t handle the small failures he suffers throughout the film’s runtime.  When Rey comes along and demonstrates that she’s his peer even though she hasn’t had any Force training at all, he just comes unhinged in the most entertaining way.  The fact that he still has considerable raw power helps him remain threatening, and the specter of what he could become after completing his training with Supreme Leader Snoke and actually learning the secret to Vader’s power (seething rage channeled through iron willed self control) leaves me with high hopes for what we’ll see of him in the rest of this trilogy.  Besides that, I also love the subtext of Rey and Ren’s relationship where Ren is the entitled guy who is furious that he’s being beaten by a girl.

Speaking of Rey, I’m going to call it now that she’s not Han and Leia’s daughter (again, I have Expanded Universe stuff bouncing around in my head, and I couldn’t help thinking that she was supposed to be Ben Solo’s twin; it wasn’t until I later read that Kylo Ren is supposed to be around thirty while Rey is no more than nineteen so they can’t possibly be twins; he acts so immaturely that I read him as much younger) despite the movie’s extensive pains to show that Rey has a ton of parallels with Han.  It’s possible that she’s related to Luke somehow, but I think there’s a strong possibility that she has no connection to the Skywalker line at all; the special specialness of the Skywalkers was George Lucas’s thing, and considering that Anakin effectively succeeded in resetting the balance between Jedi and Sith when he killed the Emperor and left Luke as the only known trained Force user in the galaxy (as a young man Luke was a lot more influenced by the Dark Side than he cared to admit), there’s no real narrative imperative for the next generation of heroes to center around another Skywalker.  I’ll be happy either way, but the direction they go with Rey’s parentage will do a lot to determine Star Wars‘s broad thematic interest in the notion of legacies and generational sagas for a specific family.

And one last thing to ponder:  Han and Chewbacca have been friends for decades at this point, and Han’s never asked to try out Chewie’s bowcaster before?

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (5/4/14)

I nearly had to climb in a dumpster this past week to save a football.  Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.  Still, I’m ready to declare DumpsterGate 2014 the best work-related story of the year.

Faith

The Pope's Audience Hall Looks Like A Final Fantasy Boss Fight

La Resurrezione by Pericle Fazzini. The sculpture stands behind the chair of the Pope in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. (Image credit: Kotaku)

1. Richard Beck commemorates Yom HaShoah this week with a post from 2008 about a visit he made to the Buchenwald labor camp.

2. Also from Richard Beck: “This is why, in my estimation, many progressive Christians, despite their focus on social justice, still struggle with being kind, gentle, forgiving and loving human beings. If you aren’t attending to the affections in your pursuit of social justice you’re prone to becoming harsh, angry and judgmental. Or just burnt out. Joy rather than righteous indignation has to be what carries you forward.”

3. Matthew Vines is getting a lot of press lately since he published his new book God and the Gay Christian.  I’ve not read it, but from what I hear, it’s a good book for people who still feel the tension between holding a high view of Scripture (that you just can’t ignore when the Bible condemns something) and being gay affirming.  Vines identifies as a traditional evangelical, and he argues his case from that position.  His original lecture, which I watched a few years ago, was very helpful for me to begin exploring my own thoughts on gay people and the Church.  I’m very hopeful that his book gets traction in the evangelical community and it does some good there.

4. Candida Moss offers a brief review of a new book on the history of the tradition of Peter being the first Pope of the Catholic Church.  Early Church history is not something that I study extensively, but glimpses like this one always seem to pique my interest.

5. Zach Hoag on some pitfalls that come with the American, post-evangelical appeal to grace.  Hoag makes a good point about being wary of grace leaving us in a position to enable others to continue doing harmful things.  It’s a difficult line to walk.

6. At Theoblogy, a guest post from Rabbi Joseph Edelheit condemning a recent video that was produced by Jews for Jesus that depicts Jesus as a victim of the Holocaust.  Edelheit’s writing is pretty raw, and some of the comments criticize his harshness, but in this case I think it’s important to remember that this is a case of a Christian group co-opting the Holocaust for the sake of prosletyzing to Jews.  That’s bad evangelism.

7. This critique of the attitude behind the recent movie God’s Not Dead gets at something I’ve been saying for a while, although it’s done in a way that’s much more snappy and readable.  God, by definition, is a supernatural being, and experiences of him in the physical world are unprovable.  It’s vacuous to argue for or against his existence, even though so many things in popular culture seem bound on that exact course.

8. Al Mohler’s also been getting some attention for writing an op-ed where he argues that supporting the death penalty is a morally justifiable position for a Christian to take.  Here are Zack Hunt and Jason Micheli explaining why that’s absurd.

9. For blog host Patheos’s fifth anniversary, they’ve asked their various bloggers to compile lists of their top five posts.  Fred Clark just published his collection yesterday, and he links to some really good stuff.  Better yet, he asks for feedback from his commenters, who form a very lively community, and they have tons of recommendations as well.  I’ve been a fan of Fred’s for a little over a year now, I think, and this is a great collection of his work.

Feminism

1. Bill O’Reilly’s not clueless.  I think he is a total cad though.  Here’s his latest bit of dog whistling to get his audience all frothed up over a celebrity they probably don’t really care about because she happens to perform songs that contain positive messages about sex.  Take note of how, in O’Reilly’s estimation, this is a problem that uniquely affects the Black community, regardless of what statistics about teen pregnancy say.

2. A follow up from Slate about the story from last week regarding the kidnapped girls in Niger.  This article gives a pretty good overview of what the terrorist group who kidnapped the girls, Boko Haram, wants to do, and why we should care about this stuff.  Also, as a side note, remember that some of the girls escaped from their captors.  None have been rescued.

3. I want to be a traitor to the mens.  Thanks Scalzi!

Fiction

1. So Disney owns Star Wars now.  They will be releasing new Star Wars movies in the near future.  I feel positively disposed towards this fact, because I know that Disney is in the business of making money and producing entertainment that has broad demographic appeal.  Whatever Episode VII ends up being, I doubt it will match the craptitude(tm) of the Prequel Trilogy.  Of course, this also means that the Expanded Universe post-Return of the Jedi is getting pretty much completely annulled.  I actually read a lot of books in the EU when I was a kid, and I enjoyed them.  All the stuff that Phil Owen discusses in this article more or less went over my head at the time (and I didn’t stick around long enough to read any of the books that take place more than ten years after the Battle of Endor).  I suppose for more dedicated fans of the EU it’s a bittersweet thing to see it decanonized for the forthcoming movies, but I prefer to think of it as simply an alternate continuity.  The new Star Wars movies will probably be original stories, but I’m guessing there’s going to be a generous share of adaptations from all that source material.

2. In a similar vein, here’s the announced cast list for Episode VII.  And here’s a series of articles dealing with the fallout that comes from having only one new female character in a franchise that has no reason to be bound by contemporary gender politics (see that article about what the Expanded Universe did to see what I’m talking about).  Maybe I should rethink my placid confidence that the new Stars Wars movies will be okay.

3. Bob Hoskins passed away this week.  To commemorate his talent as an actor, here’s a video of raw footage from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? showing Hoskins acting against blue screen running parallel to the finished scene.

Fun

1. I’m a fan of Parks and Recreation.  It’s like a much happier version of The Office, but without all the jerks.  Folks who follow the show probably know that season 6 ended with a three year time skip into the future.  That’s always a risky thing for a show that’s been so grounded in current pop culture to do.  On the other hand, we’re seeing Parks and Recreation move into a speculative mode where the show will be doing a little bit of very immediate futurism.  Since the show’s already comfortable with suspending reality for the sake of comedy, I think this will work out fine.

2. Forced perspective chalk drawings are always fun.  So is the classic time wasting game Snake (I know I spent my share of Algebra classes playing snake on my calculator instead of paying attention).  Here’s something that combines the two, although the comments on this article indicate that this is an old thing from the internet.  Well, it’s the first time I’ve seen it, and it might be for you too, so enjoy it!

3. Maybe I’m just desensitized to hyperbole on the internet, but Buzzfeed style headlines have never really bothered me much.  However, if they bother you then there’s a plugin to help with that.  Of course, fogeys like myself prefer to just add snark the old-fashioned way–with our minds.

4. Have some very well done Batman cosplay.

5. Conservation of ninjutsu indeed.

6. Okay, so maybe the problem with Star Wars movies being so male-centric has to do with the fact that they’re all actually bees.

Gaming

1. I don’t play dating sims, but I thought this was a very thoughtful article about how a genre that’s so mechanically different from the types of games that are popular among Western audiences could offer some new insights into how to advance the medium beyond experiences that focus on competition and violence.

2. Also, here’s an article about why The Wolf Among Us, the episodic adventure game from TellTale Games that’s based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series, is basically a stealth dating sim.

Science

1. The universe is a big place.  Enjoy some pictures of it.

2. I want to live in an algae tent someday.

Superheroes

1. A visual history of Spider-Man’s costumes over the decades.  There’s been a surprising amount of variation (especially in recent years) for a character who’s look is pretty iconic.

Miscellaneous

1. Here’s an essay from 2010 discussing the ideological make up of the Tea Party movement.  It’s an interesting analysis that I think does a pretty good job of pinpointing the weird mishmash of conservative and libertarian values that inform the movement’s members.  Also, the importance of karma as an ideal to aspire towards strikes me as pretty insightful.  It’d be nice if folks considered that karma’s also not a terribly Christian ideal (I’m pretty confident it’s a universal value among Christians that people should always get better than what they deserve; we call that grace).

2. I’ve been getting inundated with banner ads for the past few weeks advertising John Oliver’s new comedy news show, Last Week Tonight, that premiered on HBO last Sunday.  HBO, in their infinite magnanimity, put the first episode on Youtube for free.  I enjoyed it.  I’m not going to buy an HBO subscription to watch it regularly, but where it’s freely available, I’ll tune in.  The segment on the national election in India was very informative, and the bit about ridiculous food advertising was quite good too.  Also, Oliver’s response to the Pop Tarts commercial was excellent and spot on.  Eating sugary foods for breakfast doesn’t help my students rise and shine; it just encourages them to punch each other relentlessly before 8:30 in the morning.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 7/28/13

Let’s see what’s going on!

Religion

1. There has been a lot of good stuff coming out of Defeating the Dragons this week.  It’s hard to pick just one article that I really liked, so I’m going to link a couple.  ForgedImagination’s writing about her struggles breaking away from a fundamentalist branch of the Church are incredibly moving.  Here’s one about her experiences with the toxic effects of modesty culture, and here’s another where she discusses her difficulty even setting foot in a church these days.

2. In a similar vein, Morgan Guyton at Mercy Not Sacrifice has been churning out a ton of good material this week.  He’s discussed the nature of the gospel as an open invitation to a party instead of a get out of hell free card, what it means to participate in a Church that is “exclusively for the excluded,” posted an open letter to an atheist that he hopes to begin a dialogue with (there’s discussion of Slavoj Zizek), and offered up a meditation on how the doctrine of utter depravity is better interpreted as utter providence.

3. From Richard Beck at Experimental Theology, a rumination on hopeful belief versus dogmatic belief framed in the context of the question of what the Christian afterlife looks like.  Beck calls himself a hopeful universalist, and makes a good point about the reality that faith consists of a certain amount of doubt, and so certainty is not something that’s helpful to throw into the equation. Also from Beck, a paper he presented at a conference on Christian ethics back in June which discusses the connection between Christianity and anarchism.

4. I read Fred Clark at Slacktivist regularly.  He’s a very harsh critic of the religious right, and sometimes with good reason.  Here’s a critique he recently wrote pointing out how the purity culture that parts of the Church participate in creates a bizarre climate where ideological extremism only exists in one direction.

5. I’m so happy that Rachel Held Evans is back from vacation now.  She’s the reasonable bridge builder in my regular diet of Christian bloggers.  This week she wrote a thoughtful post about how anger is a useful tool for spurring action, but a hindrance in maintaining a clear vision.  Also, because she blogs for CNN now, she wrote a great article there discussing the reason that people are becoming disillusioned with the modern evangelical branch of the Church.

Comics

Kitty Pryde

Kitty Pryde (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Over at Beyond the Gamer, XmenXpert posted a nifty list of five superheroes in the Marvel universe who haven’t been made into Avengers yet, but really should be.  Kitty Pryde tops the list, which why not, seeing as she did single-handedly save the Earth from a giant bullet by phasing it through the planet.  Honestly, if you’re a hero in the Marvel universe and you save the whole world all by yourself, that should be an instant Avenger card right there.

Science

1. Magnets are a lot of fun.  Magnets used to make ferrofluids do interesting things with their structure is more fun than that.

2. Rachael and I saw Waking Life this week (in what I’m calling the slowest movie line-up of the summer), and while I thought it was strange, it did ask some interesting questions about the nature of dreaming.  If you haven’t seen it, then it might be worth your time; just don’t expect any comprehensible plot, since the entire two hour film seems to be mostly a simulation of a dream.  To help you figure out what that’s supposed to mean, here’s a list of ten theories on the nature of dreaming.

3. So, leave it to a bunch of Germans to freeze light for a minute.  “This light moves too quickly!  We must stop it so we can optimize its efficiency!”

4. I’m not sure this is exactly what they were talking about in Inception, but it’s an interesting avenue of research.  I’m curious to see what comes of memory implantation (one person in the comments mentioned that this could have profound effects on treating Alzheimer’s if it eventually led to being able to implant a person’s lost memories).

5. I listened to an audiobook a few years ago that was set in the near future where everyone had these weird silver glove things that worked like a cell phone.  They were fully flexible, and people just kind of stuffed the gloves in their pockets until they needed to make a call, then they pulled the rumpled little thing out, put it on, and got connected.  The first step to getting those gloves is this stuff here.

6. “We all love cephalopods!”

7. We actually get yellow skies like this in Georgia on occasion, though never with the awesome cloud formations.  Rachael and I used to joke that maybe it was the world ending; apparently we weren’t the only ones thinking that.

8. A quote from Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, about the importance of allowing science and everyday life to intersect as much and often as possible.

Gaming

1. I don’t have a smartphone.  If I did, I doubt I’d try to do this with it.  “You died of the plague, roll a new character.”

2. I haven’t played this game, but the trailer looks good.  It’s a point and click adventure about a woman who’s nine months pregnant, in jail, and suspected of murdering her cellmate.  Also, it’s free.

3. Chrono Trigger is, objectively, one of the best games ever made.  I own it on three different platforms because no matter how many times it gets re-released, I always want to play it again.  This tribute makes me all nostalgic, and also leaves me wondering if Square Enix will ever do an HD update.  Check it out.

4. When you stop and think about it, you realize that the play cycle on Donkey Kong really was pretty short.  So short, in fact, that one guy with way too much time on his hands did a play-through of all three levels using stop motion photography and beads.

Movies

1. I feel very ambivalent towards the X-Men movies.  Even the ones that are generally considered good aren’t perfect.  Also, like any action movie, there are always plot holes.  For your consideration, a series of videos enumerating all the problems that were in the first three X-Men movies.

Current Events

1. Via MaddowBlog, an article discussing the recent trend in conservative policy toward instituting prison reform as a cost-saving measure.  Personally, I think this is a wonderful move on the part of the conservatives, because it holds true to the conservative ideal of fiscal responsibility while doing something that really will be of benefit to society as a whole.

2. From The Next New Deal, an article reviewing the libertarian model proposed by Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  I am not a libertarian, so I won’t say that this is a good critique of libertarianism writ large, but it puts the model that Nozick promotes in a very different, very harsh light.  If I have any libertarian readers, would you care to comment on this?

What the Heck, China?!

1. A man in China has a pet turtle whom he gives cigarettes to.  The turtle is a nicotine addict.  This is very sad, because I love turtles.

The Internet is for Sharing

1. Kotaku links to a Reddit thread where people are posting comparisons between Game of Thrones and Star Wars.  It’s Reddit, so you’ve probably already seen it, but I live under a rock and found it novel, so here it is.  Obviously, it contains spoilers for both franchises.

And that’s it from my little corner of the internet.

The Game That’s a Ripoff of Star Wars Until It Isn’t

I mentioned in my link roundup last week that I had discovered a freely available compilation of remixed songs from the soundtrack of one of my favorite games from my childhood.  The discovery set off a wave of nostalgia that left me reminiscing about that game, and so I will now subject all my faithful readers to an explanation of what was great about Final Fantasy VI.

Originally released as Final Fantasy III in America to avoid number confusion (Squaresoft thought that the second, third, and fifth installments of the series wouldn’t appeal to westerners, so they didn’t get localized until the late ’90s when Final Fantasy was at the height of its mainstream popularity), Final Fantasy VI was an ambitious game for its time.  There was a total of 14 selectable characters to put in your party (two of which were actually optional secret characters), each with his or her own unique abilities.  The story revolved around a group of heroic rebels fighting to overthrow an oppressive globe-spanning empire (no princesses to be rescued here).  The central hero, in a genre that is still overwhelmingly dominated by male protagonists, was a girl.

There was a lot about this game to love.

The three lead protagonists of Star Wars, from...

The three lead protagonists of Final Fantasy VI, from left to right: Terra Branford (Mark Hamill), Celes Chere (Carrie Fisher), and Setzer Gabbiani (Harrison Ford). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the more quirky aspects of Final Fantasy VI is that it’s rife with Star Wars references and parodies.  The main character, Terra, is a young, supernaturally gifted orphan whose parents were killed by the evil Empire.  She has an older mentor figure who helps her towards joining the rebellion and then promptly dies.  She goes on a spiritual journey to rediscover her heritage, and returns to aid the rebellion fully in control of her special abilities.  In essence, she’s Luke Skywalker.  There’s also a handsome rogue with a ship that Terra really needs, a big furry man who’s speech is unintelligible, and a highly capable former official of the Empire who gets imprisoned for assisting the rebellion and then subsequently broken out.

Besides the story parallels, there are also hat tips in the form of a pair of expendable crewmen named Biggs and Wedge who function as Terra’s wingmen in the opening sequence, a scene that directly parodies Luke rescuing Leia from the death star (“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”), and the final betrayal of the Emperor by his second-in-command who throws him to his death from a very high place.

So this is all wonderful high adventure fun, right?  Well, yeah, it is.  Every character’s so fully fleshed out, and the story is just exciting.  You really feel like you’re doing something that matters to this world when you go and battle against the evil Empire.

Of course, then you reach the Floating Continent, which feels very much like the final dungeon of the game.  The Emperor has seized control of the source of all magic in the world, and it looks like he’s going to wipe out the rebellion once and for all.

Your party reaches him just in time, but he easily subdues them.  Then you watch in horror, wondering how you’ll get out of this scrape when suddenly the Emperor’s only remaining general (there were three, but one died and the other defected) stabs him in the back and throws him over a cliff.  Huzzah!

Except this general is a madman who you’ve witnessed commit multiple acts of genocide throughout your travels.  And he now has control of the source of the world’s magic.

This is where it stops being like Star Wars.

Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where the first half of the game was ambitious, the second half goes all out in terms of its innovations.  Up until the halfway point, the game has been pretty linear with very few opportunities to stray from the path.  It’s been mostly lighthearted (aside from the mass murder) and there’s been a pervasive sense of hope that things will get better.  That all goes out the window when you resume control of Celes, the former Imperial general who joined the rebellion, after she’s been in a coma for a year following the events on the Floating Continent.

Suddenly we have a new central character, the world is in ruins, the party has been scattered to the winds, and Kefka, the madman who took control of the source of magic, reigns over everything as a god.  The Empire was oppressive, but it didn’t burn down whole villages just for giggles.

It’s almost like starting a whole new game at this point, but with much less restraint on what can be done.  There’s some linearity at first, because you’re land bound again after your airship’s destruction, and you need to find a new one.  Once you do, though the whole world opens up, and you’re free to go pursue anything that you like.  There’s the matter of reuniting your party, in the course of which you’ll wrap up the individual plot threads that each character had dangling out there, but these are all standalone stories.  You can tackle them in any order you like, and even skip some if you want.  As soon as you have the second airship (named the Falcon in one last Star Wars reference) you can even go straight to the final dungeon with just your pitiful party of three characters (this is not a good idea).

Final Fantasy VI is, objectively, one of the best games.  I loved it as a kid, and I still love it today.  Now if only Square Enix would do a remake like they did with Final Fantasy IV