Tag Archives: George Lucas

The Force Awakens: A Conversation (SPOILER ALERT!)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” you have no business reading this. Find something else to do.

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away … two lifelong Star Wars fans — Lavender, of lavendervroman.com, and Shawna, of earthtoshawna.com — decided to search their feelings and work out their issues after seeing “The Force Awakens,” director J.J. Abrams’ much anticipated first installment of Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy.

Here is the conversation that ensued …

SPOILER ALERT: Last warning! What follows is a free and open discussion of the many plot points, surprises, twists and other developments contained in “The Force Awakens.” If you haven’t seen the film, this review will ruin it for you. That is all. 

Lavender: What did you love about “The Force Awakens”?

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Shawna of earthtoshawna.com.

Shawna: I loved seeing all the familiar faces — Han, Leia, Luke, even Chewie, C-3PO, and R2. I loved all the funny references to the original trilogy, like the stormtrooper who repeated Rey’s Jedi mind trick commands. I thought the new characters were awesome. Rey’s character was reminiscent of Luke’s; Ren was evil and tragic at the same time. BB-8 was more charming than I thought he would be. I know you loved him even before you saw the movie, but I didn’t fall in love with him until I saw him on the big screen.

And Finn, actually, was my favorite new character. He’s kind of the new Han character. Maybe that’s why I like him. Plus John Boyega is just a great actor. I had never seen him in anything before, but I hope to see more of him.

Lavender: I’m glad you have joined the BB-8 fan club! And I’m relieved this new little droid didn’t turn out to be the Jar Jar Binks of “The Force Awakens.” He’s quite a scene-stealer, in the best way possible.

It was great to see those familiar faces after so many years. I was skeptical about that, but J.J. Abrams reintroduces them very carefully and cleverly. One of the people who made the movie for me, actually, was Harrison Ford, returning as Han Solo with hairy Wookie sidekick Chewbacca in tow. I didn’t expect Ford to play such a large part in the film and after some of his recent, rather lackluster movie performances, I didn’t think he had it in him. But apparently Han is the role he was born to play. He stepped right back into those smuggler duds as if only a few days had passed since he last set foot in the Millennium Falcon. His presence really anchors the movie.

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Lavender Vroman

I think my favorite new character is definitely Rey. She is a heroine for the ages, something revolutionary for a female action hero. Abrams has said that he created Rey in hopes that little girls would be able to look up to her and he has more than accomplished his goal. I love how we first meet Rey as a scrappy, lonely scavenger on the hopelessly sandy planet Jakku. Daisy Ridley is so charismatic and makes her immediately likable. Her portrayal of Rey is so independent, and smart, and goodhearted. I like that Finn is always trying to save her — such a gentleman — but he never really has to because she’s already on the task of saving herself. I like that she has technical aptitude and an extremely powerful affinity for the Force. She and Han Solo are the heart and soul of “The Force Awakens.”

Shawna: Yes! What you said about Rey — she is a great role model. She doesn’t need a man to rescue or save her. It bugs me that we are in the dark about who she is or where she comes from, but I guess they had to save that for future films.

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Lavender: We both found a lot to love about this movie, but I think we both had some issues as well. What didn’t work for you?

Shawna: I loved seeing Han and Chewie again too, but I didn’t like that Han went back to being a smuggler, or that he waited so long to reach out to his son. That scene was a disappointment for me, not because Han dies (I expected he would be killed off, because Ford has said he doesn’t want to be Han anymore) but the way he died. Getting killed by your own snotty kid is a crappy way to go. And it was too predictable. How did he not know that Ren/Ben was about to kill him? I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience knew.

Are you as bummed as I am that Mark Hamill had no lines?

It almost made me think J.J. Abrams wanted the seasoned actor (Ford) to have a bigger part in the movie — that he didn’t have as much faith in “I’m-Luke-Skywalker-I’m-here-to-rescue-you.” I felt a bit indignant on Hamill’s behalf. Plus he had to get in shape and grow a beard, and he was only on screen for about a minute. I assume he will have a bigger role in the sequel. I hope we will see more of Carrie Fisher as well.

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Lavender: For me, that moment at the end where we finally see Luke is when the movie finally comes together. I think I’m more excited about where that moment will lead than about anything that happened in the plot of “The Force Awakens.” Which brings me to my biggest issue with the film.

Abrams does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the original trilogy, especially “A New Hope.” From the exotic planets populated by weird alien species, to the old-fashioned wipes and cuts that George Lucas used to evoke the adventurous serials of old, everything is dead-on and totally authentic, in stark contrast to those cold, soulless prequels.

This is good, but at times “The Force Awakens” is so much an homage to “A New Hope” that it almost feels like parody. I especially felt like this whenever Domhnall Gleeson’s over-the-top Hitler-esque General Hux came strutting onto the screen.

The plot of “The Force Awakens” almost plays like a reboot of “A New Hope,” complete with a climactic X-Wing/TIE fighter dogfight and an attempt to blow up yet another Death Star. I’m thinking from this point, all Death Stars should be banned from future installments. I mean how many of those things can there be?

I get what Abrams is doing here — he’s courting the fans who remember the prequels with a wince of pain, while introducing new generations to Lucas’ universe. He accomplishes this as well as can be expected, but I found myself wishing for a little more from the plot.

I wanted more character development, more time to see relationships simmering — especially between Rey and Finn, and Finn and Poe — and I wanted a little more urgency, danger, darkness. There wasn’t really ever a moment where I felt like everything was lost or that our heroes wouldn’t be able to save the day.

It’s funny you should mention the Han Solo death scene because, while of course as a fan I didn’t want to see that happen, I was kind of relieved. That was the moment I knew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was a dastardly villain of epic proportions. Before that, I didn’t find him all that intimidating.

I get your gripes about what Abrams did with Han in this movie, but I think it was necessary from a narrative standpoint and in keeping with his character, as hard as some of it was to stomach for those of us who always wanted to see Han and Leia live happily ever after.

Shawna: Yes, it did start to feel like parody, and I agree the worst offender was the jumbo Death Star. That was a “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment for me too. And Hux was too much, blech. I also agree with you about the weaknesses with the plot — it got to be too close to the plot of the first film. I actually didn’t mind that “OK, this person is the new Han, over here is the new Yoda … ,’ but really, must we also have the same plot?

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Lavender: You mentioned you’d like to see more of Luke and Leia in “Episode VIII.” What else would you like Abrams to do with the sequel?

Shawna: I absolutely would like to see more character development as well. I think they did a great job with casting (there were hits and misses in the prequels). I also think the CGI was more successful in this one than in the prequels. Maz felt more real to me than some of the CGI characters in, say, “The Phantom Menace.” Actually, she was more convincing than some of the non-CGI characters, now that I think about it.

I would like to see some questions answered. I thought it was kind of a cop-out when Maz said something like, “That’s a story for another time.” I felt like I was hearing the writers saying, “We’ll figure that out in time for the next movie.”

I want to know who Rey really is. On the one hand, it would make sense if she’s Luke’s kid because of the similarities between them, but also because why would they send some stranger to find Luke? After all they went through to get the map, especially. Why wouldn’t Leia go to him? If Rey is his daughter, why was she dumped as a child on a desert planet, alone? At least Luke was placed in the care of his aunt and uncle. We already have one estranged child in this movie.

If Luke is Rey’s father, then I guess we are just supposed to think Han and Leia and Luke are just really epic failures at parenting. With this being so close to “A New Hope,” I feel that’s where they are going with this — toward a Part 2 declaration of “I’m your father. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.”

And I want more backstory. How exactly did they raise such a stinker as Kylo Ren? He’s a bit of an entitled brat. He is a lot like Anakin. I am interested to see what happens with him in the next movie.

And if we could actually see Gwendoline Christie’s (Captain Phasma) face next time, that would be nice. That is, if she survives the trash compactor.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on Poe. I heard he was originally supposed to die in the TIE fighter crash, but Abrams changed his mind. And who is Max Von Sydow supposed to be? Do you have any theories on that?

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Lavender: I wonder about Max Von Sydow as well. I’ve heard many theories, including that maybe he’s Boba Fett, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Abrams has left us with a lot of questions, which is what I’m sure he intended. It’s going to be a long wait for “Episode VIII.”

I would have liked to see more of Oscar Isaac as Poe. He seems like a scoundrel and we need more scoundrels in our lives. Just as we were beginning to like him, he went missing for half the film. And I agree that Phasma is the Darth Maul of “Force Awakens.” Such a cool villain and a woeful lack of screen time.

I agree with you completely about Abrams’ use of CG imagery. He was obviously very conscious of the pitfalls of the CG-saturated prequels. I loved the blend of motion capture, puppetry and other practical effects. It felt right. And when he did use computer fx, they looked fantastic. The scenes with the Millennium Falcon were breathtaking, as were the aerial dogfights. And I, too, thought Maz was a great character. A little bit Yoda, a little bit Edna Mode.

I think your instincts about where Abrams is going with the sequel are correct. It will be interesting to see what director Rian Johnson does with it. After “Looper,” I really trust his vision.

I hope there will be more risks taken with “Episode VIII.” I can’t fault Abrams for playing it safe with “The Force Awakens.” Playing it safe is much better than totally destroying the Star Wars legacy. So overall, I’m satisfied and looking forward to what’s next.

Shawna: Yes — so many great characters introduced, but so little time. I was more than satisfied with the film, despite all my griping. I had chills when the opening crawl came up and the John Williams score started playing, and I was still thrilled by the end of the movie.

“Episode VIII” can’t come soon enough! We will have to content ourselves with watching “The Force Awakens” a hundred times while we wait.

Photos: Courtesy of Shawna, earthtoshawna.com; Fawn Kemble; makingstarwars.net; http://www.carolina.cl; http://www.comicbooknews.com; wall.alphacoders.com. 

The ‘Force Awakens’ Wait is Almost Over! Let’s Do This Thing

About a week ago, I realized that all this waiting for “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” has become almost second nature.

For a long time, I felt like we would just wait and wait and wait for this new chapter in the Star Wars saga. It’s been a pleasure unto itself, all this waiting, the anticipation. And then, I realized.

We are actually going to see it. The day we have waited for is going to happen.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 14: Stormtroopers attend the World Premiere of ?Star Wars: The Force Awakens? at the Dolby, El Capitan, and TCL Theatres on December 14, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Stormtroopers march at the world premiere of ‘The Force Awakens’ at the Dolby, El Capitan, and TCL Theatres Dec. 14 in Hollywood. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

For many of you, that day is tomorrow. You’ll be standing in line with your fellow fans to get your seats for evening or midnight shows. Soon you’ll know if all this waiting was worth it.

The rest of us will find out on Friday when “The Force Awakens” is officially released. (If you don’t see it in the first few days of release, well, that’s just a tragedy.)

“The Force Awakens” is about to become a reality, not just a hope. Our countdown is winding down.

I think even if I end up hating what J.J. Abrams has done with the franchise, I won’t regret this time we’ve spent obsessing together over Star Wars. There truly has been an awakening of the Force and it has been nerdy, silly, hysterical, joyful, more than a little insane, and magnificent.

My only regret is that I can’t travel back in time to grab my junior high self — the one who pretended to be an X-Wing pilot in the backseat on long car trips and pored over copies of Lucasfilm Magazine to see how it all worked — and bring her to 2015 so she can witness this moment. She’d never believe it otherwise.

But I know this would create a giant rift of some kind in the space-time continuum and maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that junior high girl is still here, after all, loving all this crazy adoration of the thing she loved crazily so many years ago.

Early indications are that Abrams has  not failed to revitalize George Lucas’ beloved, slightly tarnished legacy. As I scrolled through Twitter last night, I saw a litany of early reviews. Judging by the headlines, all but one of them was positive. “The Force Awakens” currently has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I’m not going to read any of the reviews until I’ve seen “The Force Awakens” for myself, but I’m posting some links here, if you’re inclined to look at them.

Many of them claim to be spoiler-free, but proceed at your own risk:

New York Times review
L.A. Times
Variety
Hollywood Reporter
Chicago Tribune

Time will tell, as it did with the prequels, whether the critics are correct in their very early, mostly enthusiastic assessment of this new generation of Star Wars lore.

Now’s not the time to worry about that though. As you head to the theater to hang out with some of the most fascinating and fun fans you’ll ever meet, to finally see this thing we’ve all been waiting for, I hope it’s a night to remember.

This shared experience proves once again, as Yoda said:

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

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P.S.

This is the best thing on the Internet right now.

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My 2-year-old daughter and I have watched the Jimmy Fallon video I don’t know how many times today. And we spent the rest of the day humming the John Williams theme around the house.

What a score that is! It never fails to evoke a powerful emotional response. It just stirs you.

Let’s hum it all the way to the theater and back.

Photos: moviepilot.com, http://www.starwars.com, http://www.youtube.com.

‘For the Love of The Force’: A Fanboy’s Plea to J.J. Abrams

By WILLIAM SCHILLER

My first experience with a “New Hope” began well before it had that name. I couldn’t have told you this, as I wasn’t very verbal at the time. Instead it was told to me by my mother.

I was only three, and my mother dragged her family out to a 10-o-clock late show on a week night, to quench her love of good science fiction. The movie played and the titles rolled, and as the lights of the theater brightened, she found her husband and 8-year-old child sound asleep, but her 3-year-old son wired for sound.

That mother could have been concerned that perhaps she had given her child a lifelong trauma, but instead she had started the genesis of what could be called a fanboy. This was only confirmed when my older sister left shortly after for summer camp, and my mother gave me a choice of something fun to do while she was away –- anything that little boy asked for, she would make happen, and happen it did. For two weeks straight, my mother watched Star Wars in a matinée showing at the local movie theater, every day.

Soon there were action figures — I learned to overcome many childhood fears with bribes of Star Wars toys, and soon had duplicates of some. Years passed, and I have grown with the teachings of the Jedi. I always enjoyed certain bragging rights to geeks of my age: I have seen every movie within the series, all of them within the theater, and always had copies, legal or not, of the films at home.

Funny thing about being a truly rabid fan though, you can’t always relate to others the way you want to. None of my friends had somehow ever seen the only once-shown “Star Wars Holiday Special,” but I had; and since old George bought up and destroyed all existence of it soon after, I always felt like explaining it to others was like talking to someone who was sleepwalking -– they weren’t going to remember it tomorrow, and they sure weren’t getting it now.

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As I grew to become as old and jaded as a good Gen X-er can be, I found my inner boy child when the “Menace” was announced, and soon I had all of the posters and lame fast food merchandising that flooded the market before all of the other high-end toys would be produced. I sat with a Gameboy waiting for a midnight release showing to start, and loved every minute of it. Profoundly buoyed by the fanboy base around me, soon my brother-in-law started to compete with me on how many times we could see the film. My exuberance only began to wane nearing the 20th viewing within three weeks.

My wife and I, my brother-in-law and his friends made trips to larger and better theater experiences for the remainder of the prequels, and found ourselves at various crossroads. Love and hate for the films, and ticket lines with very young Jedis that made us all wonder if it was in fact whining that drew someone to the Dark Side, as Hayden Christensen seemed to prove.

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William Schiller, right, and brother-in-law Paul Humann.

In time, we all came to agree with the Star Wars outsider of our group and her insight that could only come from not drinking the Kool-Aid. Not that we didn’t love the taste of it, but we realized the subtle undertones we experienced as fans became like those of a sommelier trying to sell wine at an Oktoberfest beer tent. A hard sell indeed.

In admitting this, even now I have taken a huge step -– after all, my mother had to see “Empire” twice in one day, when that same little boy cried his eyes out, running from the theater after Luke lost his hand, but having to return with his mother’s encouragement to find resolution. Since that day, I have grown and come full circle as a fan.

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One of the amazing things about getting old is that it lessens the blows that life has to give. I have lived a life that flowed with and without The Force. At first, I saw myself in Luke, and now I understand an old Kenobi. I have children of my own, I have lost loved ones to fates that they could never have deserved, and once again I hear the calling of a new war. I will heed this call with somewhat less exuberance, dressed in the gear of my brethren nerds.

I know we all have the same thought: We will love seeing another chapter in a series that has been such a part of our lives. But for the love of The Force, please don’t mess this up, J.J. The fans have some scars that haven’t healed enough for salt to be lightly thrown around in this part of our world.

And please not one Gungan. Not one.

It’s been too long of a fan life to have one more Gungan.

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William Schiller is a father, husband, brother, and nit-picky nerd over nonessential knowledge that only gets someone somewhere when they are in a college writing class. He still has fond memories of Bea Arthur as a bartender with a heart of gold in the Mos Eisley Cantina. 

Photos and graphics courtesy of William Schiller.
X-Wing and TIE fighters photo: http://www.starwars.com.

 

Star Wars More Than a Movie for Lifelong Collector

EDITOR’S NOTE: Few things have had more influence on the life of collector Shaun Griffith than Star Wars. Below, he discusses his enthrallment with the franchise and shares prized items from his collection. Some of these may take you back. FYI, he’s selling off some of his collection gradually on eBay. 

By SHAUN GRIFFITH

I don’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars. I’ve only heard the story from my mom. I was 2 1/2 and sat enthralled with “The Empire Strikes Back.”

I don’t remember my first Star Wars action figure. I only remember them always being there. At the age of 5, my room changed from Mickey/Disney themed to Star Wars. My mom had made over my room without me knowing. It was an awesome surprise. Posters on the wall (still have them), shelves of Star Wars paraphernalia, a comforter and pillow set (long gone now). The decor hung around for nearly a decade before items began to go into the archive.

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Shaun Griffith with Darth Vader at his sixth birthday party.

An only child, I took great care of all of my collections, Star Wars chief among them. Every action figure handled with great care … except for Boba, who found himself buried in the sandlot at some point.

A family friend was kind enough to put all three films on an EP VHS (it’s around here somewhere). Full framed, VHS played to the nth degree. Every time I was sick, home from school, which happened a lot, being a sickly kid, was filled with Star Wars. I was a devoted canon only kid. The novel spinoffs never appealed. Extended universe … blah.  If Lucas didn’t write it, I didn’t care.

Before “Phantom Menace” was released, I had a Santa Barbara News Press interview and was even quoted. Star Wars was more than a movie for me. I grew up fatherless, always wondering. At a church men’s conference, I discussed “confronting” my father one day.

Someone asked why I saw it as a negative, as a confrontation. Star Wars fans will understand the context. I laughed and acknowledged that I used that specific word because of Star Wars.
Ashamedly, I was Luke, minus a couple of droids and Ben Kenobi to launch me on my quest.

“Phantom Menace” fell flat with most fans but I was never a hater. “Phantom Menace” was the first time that I was able to join in with a large group of friends, camp out all night at the Riviera in anticipation of greatness.

After it was over, a college friend and I got in the car. He was let down. I wasn’t. I’d never known sci-fi community before that. It was greatness. People dressed up. We cheered. Time stopped for me.

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When Lucas sold to Disney I was glad. Episodes 7-9 would finally be made. He had said he’d never make them and I trusted Disney to do it right. I have no qualms about the forthcoming. It will be everything that everyone wanted “Phantom Menace” to be.

“The Force Awakens” parallels the reawakening of many a fan. It will inspire both new and old nearly 40 years after the original … . A New Hope unto itself.

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Bo Marr Monk. One of my favorite characters. Only featured in the background at Jabba’s palace. I was always fascinated. Had to mail away for this figure in the mid ’90s.

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Love these CDs, particularly Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes.

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Part of my sticker collection. RotJ stickers up top. Not so much a fan of the cartoonish
Ewok ones … reminds me of the Ewok cartoon. Love the mugshot-like figure stickers at the bottom; the fact that they pronounce the names, priceless.

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This was played many, many times. The New Hope soundtrack. Yes, I had
a VHS bootleg with all three films on one tape, however, I still played the soundtrack and
pictured it all in my head. Plus this album looks badass.

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Never played, still in the package card games. 

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When you’re traveling intergalactically, you must bring along your passport.

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Long before those recent lipsticks were produced, here you have Yoda Bubble Bath and Darth Vader soap. I had a C3PO soap too, but it disintegrated. Tossed it a few years ago.

IMG_0732Buttons! I have a button collection, however, these were never mingled with them.

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IMG_0735ESB & RotJ … note the improvements in coloring skills.

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RotJ comics, 1-4.

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This defined Star Wars action figures. Everyone had one of two cases, this one and/or the C3PO one. This case got a ton of use.

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Not vintage. Had to mail away. But I still get a kick out of it. George Lucas as a Stormtrooper, who could resist?

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Cork board. Lightly used. Still looks good.

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I subscribed to Star Wars Insider in the ’90s. I had several copies, however, this cover is particularly funny.

Shaun Griffith is a California native and a Hayward farmer (non-moisture) who went south to become a Santa Barbara Gaucho with a degree in film. He is married to an LBC princess with a sci-fi allergy. He works as an eCommerce Ops manager for a company with conference rooms named Ewok and Chewbacca and presently resides in the Bay of the Half Moon.

Photos courtesy of Shaun Griffith.
“The Phantom Menace” photo: YouTube.com.

She Still Believes in the Force

By EarthToShawna

Do you believe in the Force?

I was 2 years old when “Star Wars” was released in 1977. I was 5 when I saw “The Empire Strikes Back.” I remember the intense revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, Yoda levitating Luke’s X-Wing, and that I wanted a pet tauntaun.

Seeing “Return of the Jedi” in the theater was a bit more memorable, as I was 8. The first thing I remember about “Return of the Jedi” was that everyone was calling it “Revenge of the Jedi,” but then they changed the title.

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“I used to live here, you know.” “You’re going to die here, you know.”

“Return of the Jedi” was nothing short of thrilling. The rescue of Han Solo from Jabba’s palace was like nothing else I had seen before. And I know everyone likes to hate on the Ewoks, but 8-year-old me was excited when my mom bought Wicket and Logray figures along with the Jabba the Hutt action figure, complete with dungeon and Salacious Crumb. Such cool toys. I think we got them at Sears.

My mom bought a bunch of the figures that year, which was unusual. My mom loved the movie, and even though she let us play with the toys, they were hers.

I wanted to be Princess Leia. My thin blond hair didn’t lend itself to Leia’s fabulous intergalactic hairstyles, but that didn’t stop me from insisting that my mom put my hair in Princess Leia buns anyway.

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Celebrating my seventh birthday in a Leia-inspired ‘do.

I know I’m not the only one who can say the Star Wars movies were the first sci-fi films I saw, and the first I loved. They kicked off a lifetime love of fantasy, science fiction, and adventure.

The early ’80s had so many movies I loved — “The Neverending Story,” “E.T.,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Splash.” I wanted to be a mermaid, to make friends with a botanist from outer space, to ride a luck dragon.

Like so many of us who grew up on the original trilogy, I groaned when Jar Jar Binks appeared on screen. But Jar Jar, like those nasty little teddy bears, was there for the kids. And while the franchise may not be FOR kids, the films spark the imaginations of kids, and bring out the kid in all of us.

My son is a Star Wars fan, but I don’t think the movies are as epic for him as they were for those of us who watched them in the theater, because they came at a time before the world was saturated with 24/7 entertainment in the form of computers, cable TV, DVDs, etc. We didn’t go see “The Empire Strikes Back” and then get back to our Minecraft game. We absorbed Star Wars, we thought about it, we dressed up like the characters and acted out scenes from the movie. Star Wars got under our skin and into our consciousness.

I didn’t love the prequels as much as I loved the original trilogy. They aren’t as good; that’s part of it. But also, the original stories are the ones I saw when I was little, when I believed in the Force, and in magic.

People who don’t care about Star Wars or sci fi probably think we are all crazy, those of us who are as giddy as little kids, waiting for the new movie to come out. But there is just something so … visceral? universal? What is it about these movies that speaks to us? Is it the triumph of good over evil? The combination of adventure, suspense, romance, and a dash of humor? Is it the story? The special effects?

I think one of the things I love most about Star Wars is that the universe George Lucas created seems so REAL. It’s so believable, and it’s so COOL.

I’m no longer the little girl who believed in fairies and unicorns and 900-year-old Jedi masters, but I still watch the old movies because those familiar characters are like old friends, and for a few hours, I believe in magic again.

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My grandparents saved this picture I made of Princess Leia, when I was 6.

Read more of Shawna’s sci-fi musings at earthtoshawna.com.

Photos courtesy of EarthtoShawna. 

True Confessions: I Defended ‘Phantom Menace’ in Print

This is kind of embarrassing.

But I’m going to let you read it anyway.

One of the first things I wrote after I started my job as a copy editor at the Antelope Valley Press was a passionate defense of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” which was receiving almost universally scathing reviews.

Ironically, this opinion piece helped land me a position as an entertainment reporter for the Showcase section, so I look back at it with a certain fondness, no matter how misguided it may be.

Keep in mind that it was penned almost immediately after the release of “Phantom Menace” and many of us were still basking in the glow of a Star Wars revival and the fact that we had just seen Jedi spinning and leaping in the air, twirling their lightsabers, like we’d always dreamed it could be.

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Lavender Vroman with her Princess Leia buns and tickets to “The Phantom Menace.”

And we had yet to see the other two chapters of the new trilogy. I think many of us were willing to give “Episode I” the benefit of the doubt until the abysmal “Attack of the Clones” came out.

While I do not agree with almost everything I wrote back in 1999, I’d argue that some of the points about the original trilogy and its greatness, despite its lack of conventional “greatness,” still ring true.

I think my youthful journalistic folly can also serve as an object lesson as we anticipate the arrival of the first part of yet another Star Wars trilogy.

Only time will tell if the intense hype and euphoria surrounding “The Force Awakens” is warranted, and if there’s any greatness to be found in it.

Let’s not leap to judgement or praise. Let’s give J.J. Abrams’ incredibly risky new venture a chance to become what it’s destined to be. Hopefully, it won’t be something we later wince at and try to forget.

Below, the full text of my defense of “The Phantom Menace,” originally published in the Opinion section of the Antelope Valley Press. (Please don’t hate me.)

Critical Defense of Much-Hyped Star Wars Film

To cranky film critics everywhere — lighten up! As Darth Vader would say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

You promptly pronounced the long-awaited, much-hyped “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” a disappointment. You cut the film down with strokes as swift as a lightsaber’s. You blasted the plot and dialogue with the heartlessness of a battle droid. Your annoyance with the comic character Jar Jar Binks had you bellowing like Wookies. You scoffed at the actors’ performances with scorn to rival the evil Emperor’s. Sinister villain Darth Maul’s lack of screen minutes made you rave like Tuscan Raiders awakened prematurely from an afternoon nap. You argued that computer animation and special effects smothered any attempt at spiritual, artistic or moral substance.

One of you went so far as to compare George Lucas to Darth Vader, in an amusingly ridiculous extended metaphor. You said the writer-director-producer of the great Star War series had finally gone too far, taking himself, and his new film, too seriously. And you didn’t even realize that you were guilty of the very thing of which you accused Lucas.

In “Episode IV,” Yoda says that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” And everyone knows that these things inevitably lead to the Dark Side of the Force. And so, I suggest, do self-seriousness and the loss of a basic sense of wonder. Somewhere in that 15 year dry spell between “Return of the Jedi” and “Episode I,” you must have forgotten what made the original series so delightful  and successful.

Were “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” so remarkable because of fabulously constructed , original and flawless plots? Because of eloquent and layered dialogue to rival Shakespeare’s? Because of superb acting and deep philosophical content? Of course not.

Plot and dialogue have never been George Lucas’ strengths. He’s a storyteller on the most basic level. The original Star Wars trilogy was built on the most simplistic of plot lines, borrowing heavily from well-worn myth and fairy tales. It’s the story of an everyday hero who goes on an impossible quest and finds himself and something greater along the way. The stuff all good tales are made of. It’s cliche, it’s hokey, and people everywhere still love it.

As for dialogue … audiences in 1977 seemed to have no objection to such cheesy gems as Han Solo’s line, “Either I’m going to kill her, or I’m beginning to like her.” If nobody minded then, why should they now?

They shouldn’t, and that’s because the power of Lucas’ science-fiction epic has little to do with the spoken word. What makes him a good director is that he communicates effectively at the level that all films inherently operate on — the visual level. It is precisely Lucas’ vision of space, the things we saw when we first saw “Star Wars,” that have so captivated millions of people. It is what we saw of the characters, not only what we heard them say, but the visual impression they made on us, that endeared them to us. Who would actually say that Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher astounded audiences with their great thespian skills?

“The Phantom Menace” isn’t, and never was, intended to stand on its own. It’s a part of a whole, and to do it justice, it must be considered along with its other parts. The important elements, the things that branded the original three films into popular consciousness, are there in “Episode I,” and they make it a joy to watch.

Yes, Jar Jar Binks is annoying. Yes, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to give creepy Darth Maul more screen time. And no, Han Solo wasn’t there to grin his rascally grin and crack up the audience with his, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Get over it.

The first of the prequels isn’t perfect, but it succeeds in the same way the other three did. For, once again, Lucas takes us places we’ve never been, fills our eyes with sights never before seen — the Venice-like, regal planet Naboo, the metropolitan, silvery city of Coruscant and the underwater bubble village of the Gungans. He introduces us to a sad and beautiful queen arrayed in costumes Madonna could only dream of and Jedi in the midst of duels so full of motion and power they make our heads spin. We meet an innocent boy named Anakin with an arrogant streak, foreboding a downfall to come. Even Darth Maul’s short but memorable appearance hints of a greater evil awaiting us in the next episode.

“Episode I” is only the foundation for the remainder of three prequels and as a start it will do just fine.

So, all you film critics — I sense that there is still good in you. See the film again, this time on the lighter side of the Force.

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Jar Jar Binks photo: zap2it.com.

When the Force Awakens Grief Instead of Joy …

By BRENNA HUMANN

I, my husband and my family hold back tears of unbearable grief with each new announcement heralding the long-awaited release of “The Force Awakens.”

We can think only of the one who is not here to watch it with us. The one who we know would love the experience the most. The one who was, in my world, the “other Skywalker.” My brother.

Paul was an epic fanboy of the caliber that is often joked about in nerd culture, but is actually reached by very few. The kind who could just as easily quote Star Wars, Star Trek or Tolkien to students in his classes as an English professor, as he could top-rank in “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments in the gaming Mecca of San Jose. The kind who could just as easily joke with friends about the most obscure story arcs of the most obscure comic book characters, as he could compose and deliver professional academic whitepapers on their literary cultural significance. Everyone he knew loved him.

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Paul Humann

He was 33 when he died last June of an extremely rare form of mucosal melanoma, eight months after his diagnosis and the unimaginable pain and agony that followed. It simply does not seem possible that his battle is over. I still cannot understand it.

When we were young, in a youthful Skywalker-like naiveté, and a very similar alien isolation in the Mojave Desert, I never realized how much my brother, his life, his experiences, his hopes and dreams, were vital to the very predication of my own, until he was gone.

As Gen Y-ers well know, the shared experiences we grew up with –- largely shaped by film, TV, and other pop culture watched in our parents’ family rooms –- has become not only our shared self-referential language, but a means by which we continue to understand and interpret the rest of the world. Art speaks truth, now more than ever.

And a cinematic touchstone like Star Wars is of a defining magnitude in Western life experience. It’s a critical piece of cultural literacy -– one that infinitely informs pop culture, archetypal artistic references, and in-jokes that define relationships. I’ve always thought the story is in fact SO BIG because of the deep tribute it pays to a global awareness of the mythological concepts it imitates.

So when a piece of your life is so formative, your memories of it are colored by who experienced it with you. For me, that was always Paul. I don’t have any memories of a life before he came along.

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Brenna Humann and her brother, Paul.

And for geeks like us, those companions who’ve always been with you, in the back of your mind, also includes icons like those of Star Wars. Have you ever noticed how deeply neo-Platonic dualism runs in George Lucas’ plot lines? The character dyads abound. Obi-Wan and Vader. Han and Chewie. R2-D2 and C-3PO. Luke and Leia. There are always two.

Lucas’ brand of mythic dualism was never more vividly real for me than when I felt the loss of my own other half –- no one shares more of your life experiences than a sibling does. And Star Wars will forever be defined for me by my brother. By the Mos Eisley Cantina poster in his room. By his extensive Boba Fett collection. By the endless speculative conversations we shared as rumors of the prequels and sequels first began when we were teenagers.

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I remember having so many arguments with my brother and my husband, both devoted fanboys, that the Star Wars prequels were, in fact, dreadfully terrible films. A realization they were of course reticent to make, in their faithful enthusiasm for the revival. But one they nonetheless regretfully conceded, as they floundered in the wake of total narrative disaster left by Jar Jar Binks, Midi-chlorians, and other epic flaws. And I did gloat.

Another point of discussion was one of the sharpest criticisms against Lucas’ writing — his unapologetic outright thievery from world myth and religion in his storytelling, making in some cases very little attempt to recloak whole storylines in a fabric more appropriate to the Star Wars tapestry. I remember the look of shock on my brother’s face when I explained that one of the biggest reasons I couldn’t stand this linguistic laziness in the prequels was the naming of the Skywalker mother as “Padmé.”

Taking college classes at the time on world religions, I had to break it to him that the word “padme” means “lotus” or “yoni” in Sanskrit — read: Vagina.

“Really George Lucas, your name for a classic mother figure is… Vagina?” went the conversation. Talk about female objectification. Natalie Portman did what she could to bring substance to the good Senator from Naboo, but the Mary Sue named “Vagina” dying of a broken heart in childbirth? Honestly. Classic female fridging, with an even frostier layer of gender objectification, in my opinion.

Then there was the time Paul told us that, in his graduate work in creative writing, another (female) student had been assigned to peer review a poem he wrote. She returned it with a graphic picture drawn over his text, as her commentary –- one of those “only in college” moments. He then returned her work with a picture of the Sarlacc Pit monster drawn on top, complete with hovercraft, gangplank and scrambling stormtroopers. A priceless play on vagina dentata myth.

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My brother and I liked to joke that, in our –- often called “useless” -– humanities majors, we were “classically trained” in world myth and iconography. He took his fascination into a creative writing degree, attempting to find as he said, a “major in comic books.”

He succeeded, basing his curriculum as an English professor on selections from “The Watchmen,” “The Sandman” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” I took mine into a philosophy degree, which I have not used since, other than to marvel at the exceptional lack of logical rhetoric in American society.

But he always called me to ask my thoughts on his course content, the logic of certain rhetorical usages, or the history behind classic cultural representations. And I always called him to ask what the hell to do with my life.

He had a remarkable, Jedi-like way of seeing through to the core motivations of a person, and being able to communicate with virtually anyone, that I have never possessed. And one which I fear I will never hear the wisdom of again in this life.

Each jaw-dropping Star Wars trailer image I see, or soul-stirring refrain I hear from that epic score we all know so well, is a stabbing, breath-stealing pang of sorrow.

“Paul would love to see this, but …”

The prospect of what secrets and adventure lay ahead on the screen looms hollow. Like a gaping desert Sarlacc Pit, but with the heart-stopping battle on the gangplank already lost.

I hope, as said by Boba Fett in the ignominious Star Wars Holiday Special, that “We’ll meet again.” I miss him.

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The Star Wars Holiday Special

Brenna Humann was born and raised in the Antelope Valley, an alumna of California public education from preschool to university. She has worked as a journalist, nonprofit manager, and grantwriter, and remains an avid student of world religion and culture. Though her late brother Paul was strong in the force, with a power she did not understand and could never have, he has now become more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine. For her part, she prefers not to believe in no-win scenarios.

Photos courtesy of Brenna Humann.