The Wild Bunch (1969)

Dir. Sam Peckinpah

Intro

The colors are not remotely this wild in the actual film.

The end of the Wild West era was an interesting time. The west and east coasts were getting better-connected to one another by the day thanks to the development of railroads. Towns were slowly starting to overtake the land everywhere. And it was getting more and more difficult for the Wild West criminal to do his job properly.

This is the main theme in The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. Set 1913, the film focused on many themes such as the state of being a criminal and how it depends on the time and location you’re in, as well as the inhuman violence people can commit against one another. The film literally opens with a group of civilized children forcing scorpions into a swarming ant colony, taking delight in watching the creatures slowly kill one another before getting bored and setting them all on fire. Who in The Wild Bunch are the scorpions and who are the ants? I’m not sure, but it’s an unpleasant scene to watch nonetheless.

“Who’s been torturing animals?” “I dunno. Not me!”

Summary

As stated, the film begins in 1913 with Pike Bishop, an aging outlaw played by William Holden, about to execute his final job before retiring by robbing a railroad office’s cache of silver. Along with his gang, who are all dressed as some type of ranger as a disguise, Bishop slowly travels through town before beginning their robbery. Unbeknownst to the gang, they are being watched by a stakeout of bounty hunters, led by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan, who have all been deputized by the railroad. Pike’s gang eventually notice the bounty hunters, and a bloody shootout occurs in the streets of the town. Pike uses a convenient temperance parade to cover his gangs escape, but not without causing some casualties and leaving one of the more unstable gang members, “Crazy” Lee, behind to guard their hostages. Due to “Crazy” Lee’s craziness, he is too preoccupied with harassing the hostages to notice that his gang has left him and, after shooting them for attempting to escape, casually strolls away before being gunned down by the bounty hunters.

Nothing to see here, move along. *whistles casually*

The bounty hunters, who are mostly poor, violent and stupid men, loot the bodies before taking them in for the bounty. Deke’s boss, the head of the railroad, commands him to go get the rest of the gang or Deke’s parole will be ended and he will be sent back to prison. It later turns out that Deke was imprisoned because of Pike’s carelessness in getting the two of them caught in a brothel, with Deke getting injured and arrested while Pike fled. The townsfolk also complain to the railroad manager that the bounty hunters caused just as much, if not more, carnage than the criminals they were trying to capture, but the railroad manager just brushes their concerns off.

There is a strange combination of shocking violence and humor in this scene. I think this screenshot captures that a little.

Pike and his remaining men, Dutch Engstrom, brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch, and the Mexico-born Angel, all meet up with another old criminal named Freddie Sykes, who supplied fresh horses for them after the robbery in exchange for a share of the silver. At least, he would have, except the robbery was a setup and the bags of silver were filled with steel washers instead. Angry at the deception, all the men turn against each other before being calmed down by Pike, who promises them that they’ll get their final score some other way. All of the men cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Angel’s home village. Unfortunately, the town is under the control of the corrupt General Mapache, an officer in the Mexican Federal Army who has been ravaging the area while fighting Pancho Villa. Angel’s father was killed for his rebellion against Mapache’s rule.

Despite this scene being in Spanish, a bad breakup scene transcends the language barrier.

Pike and the rest of his men plan to make contact with the general and his German military adviser Commander Mohr for a real final job, but Angel sees his former lover taking in with Mapache and shoots her in a jealous rage. Pike is barely able to restrain Angel and, in order to defuse the situation, makes a deal to work for Mapache. General Mapache and Commander Mohr want the gang to re-cross the Mexican border to rob a U.S. army train of a weapons cache so that Mapache can resupply his men and so that Mohr can obtain samples of America’s weapons. In exchange, Mapache offers the men a cache of gold.

Pike’s gang relaxes, with the Gorch brothers being entertained by three prostitutes and large barrels of wine while Pike, Dutch, Sykes and Angel enjoy a sauna. In the sauna, the men discuss what they wish to buy with their share of gold. Angel, still upset over his people’s oppression, wants to use his money to kill Mapache, but Pike makes a deal with him. In exchange for Angel’s share of the gold, Pike will allow Angel to send one crate of guns and ammunition to his village to rebel and defend themselves from Mapache, and Angel agrees.

Pike and Angel execute the train robbery.

The robbery is a success, until Deke’s posse finds out and tries to capture Pike’s gang. Thankfully for Pike’s gang, they are able to cross a bridge and blow it up before the posse reaches them, sending their pursuers down the river. Still, now that they have the weapons, Pike tries to figure out a way to prevent Mapache from double-crossing his gang by only brining half the weapons at first and telling him they’ll bring the other half after getting paid. However, at the second drop-off, Mapache informs Dutch and Angel that he knows Angel took a crate of guns because he was told about it by the mother of the woman Angel shot. Angel attempts to escape but fails, and Dutch leaves him to die claiming that they knew nothing of this and informs Pike of what happened.

Meanwhile, Sykes gets injured by Deke’s men when he tries to secure their spare horses, while Pike and the rest of the men return to the village for shelter. At the village, a celebration is being held in honor of the military’s newly received weapons. Mapache drags Angel behind his car as a part of the celebration, and Pike’s gang does nothing to stop it. However, after drinking and having sex with some prostitutes, the men have time to think about how they used to have honor through their loyalty to one another, so Pike, the Gorch brothers and Dutch plan to force Mapache to release Angel. Mapache appears as if he’s going to do it, before suddenly slitting Angel’s throat, leading Pike and Dutch to shoot him.

Mapache’s men are so awestruck by the sudden violence that Pike’s men have an opening to start killing the rest of them before they can shoot back. After an extremely bloody shootout, involving a machine gun from the weapons cache, Pike, his men, most of Mapache’s troops and Commander Mohr are all dead.

The Gorch Brothers, Pike and Dutch right before they try to save Angel.

Deke finally arrives with his bounty hunters and tells them to take the corpses back for the reward without him. It turns out that Deke knew of the Mexican rebels in the area, and that Sykes had teamed up with them to kill the bounty hunters and retrieve the others’ bodies. Sykes, who plans to stay and help the Mexican Revolution, asks if Deke will join him. Deke agrees.

Analysis

This film is bloody and violent, and like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has some fascinating stances on morality. Pike and his men, while obviously not good people, are shown to be honorable in their own way through their strong loyalty to one another. However, as displayed at various points, Pike and his men are more than willing to sacrifice one of their own if it ensures one’s survival, such as when Pike abandoned Deke to be arrested or left “Crazy” Lee behind. Pike likes to claim he has honor, but in reality he’s more than willing to make selfish decisions and justify them later, no matter how much the guilt eats away at him.

What makes Pike and his men so interesting on a moral level is that they see themselves as almost legendary figures of the Old West, an Old West that is slowly morphing into  a completely different landscape that is getting more and more difficult for them to navigate. The reason Pike wanted to retire, aside from his advancing age, is that he recognizes that gang won’t be able to sustain their way of life the same way for much longer. There is a point where the gang sees Mapache’s car and claim that the future is moving in on them quickly, making a reference to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 as further evidence.

Other than their inherent criminality, its interesting to see where the lines between criminal and non-criminal blur as the narrative progresses. Pike’s men are no longer criminals once they reach Mexico and the Mexican government is willing to let them stay in exchange for committing more crimes against America. The Mexican government itself are clearly bad guys in this story but aren’t criminals, and Angel is deemed a criminal due to his rebellion against them. Even the bounty hunters, who as previously mentioned are just as violent and unconcerned with other’s safety as Pike’s gang, get away with it because they are legally sanctioned. At the end of the day, the audience is supposed to sympathize with criminals, whether it be with Pike and his gang or with the Mexican Revolutionaries, especially as the end of the story involves the remaining characters going to fight for Pancho Villa.

Pancho Villa. No joke, just a Mexican Revolution hero.

As stated, the men are quick to abandon their own comrades to save themselves, but it is clear that none of them are proud of their cowardice. Pike feels intense guilt for what happened to Deke and doesn’t blame Deke for coming after him, even though he has no intention of getting caught. Pike also feels guilty when he realizes that “Crazy” Lee was related to the old man Sykes, as he realizes that he abandoned him for no good reason. The last straw is when Mapache tortures Angel, as even though it takes Pike and his men a long time to gather their courage, they realize that they are nothing because of how quickly they were willing to turn against a partner they claimed to care about. To an extent, Deke also is reminded of this honorable loyalty, as he shows no loyalty to the men under his command because they don’t have any loyalty to one another, instead fighting over each other like dogs over scrap meat, which is why Deke is more than willing to let them get slaughtered by the Mexican revolutionaries and eventually joins the Revolution himself.

Going back to the extreme violence of this film, the director and co-writer, Sam Peckinpah, said that it was an allegory for the Vietnam War, because the violence of the war was televised nightly, in stark contrast to the bloodless, anti-violent entertainment of the time. Peckinpah wanted to show people how violent the Old West really was, where innocent civilians would get killed along with law enforcement and criminals. Peckinpah didn’t do this because he thought violence was entertaining, but because he wanted the American public to be used to such violent imagery, as it was everywhere in the Vietnam War and he wanted to desensitize people to it for their own mental health, because people would be purged of violent thought by witnessing it so viscerally. Unfortunately, Peckinpah eventually realized that people were coming to his film not to be horrified by the violence but to enjoy it, something that deeply troubled him (Weddle, 1994). Interestingly, this relates to the opening scene again, where the children let scorpions loose in the ant swarm. Even if Peckinpah didn’t intend this film to be enjoyed for its violence, he certainly was able to convey that mindset accurately within the first few minutes of his film, and I have to agree, it is kind of disturbing in that framing. But then again, I was the pansy kid who didn’t like others crushing water striders with rocks or poking lost baby bats with sticks, so what do I know?

Conclusion

The Wild Bunch is a very good film, but it is not necessarily a fun watch. I was kind of uncomfortable watching it at times, disturbed by some of the violence but especially by the nonchalance of the main character’s cruel and hedonistic behavior. However, I like a good, unique story, and seeing such flawed characters was interesting. I especially liked to see the evolution of how Westerns became more violent, as this film was only three years after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. While the spaghetti western genre was criticized for its violence, it surely didn’t take long for the violence to be emulated in America, and truly, the genre was never as innocent as it was again.

Sources

Weddle, David (1994). If They Move…Kill ‘Em!. Grove Press. p. 334.

Disney’s Star Wars, the New vs. the Old

It’s okay. You can hum the song. I know you want to.

The Star Wars franchise is, in a way, the grandfather of modern-day franchises. Alongside the film Jaws, the first Star Wars film A New Hope helped create the summer blockbuster in the mid-to-late ‘70s, and propelled Star Wars creator George Lucas and his company Lucasfilm onto the track of long-term Hollywood success. Along with the successes of expanded material, such as toys, books, comic series and even music albums, Star Wars had already begun to build a large fanbase before the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, was released in 1980.

According to Lucas’ biographer, Dale Pollock, George Lucas originally planned and had even written film treatments for at least 12 films in the Star Wars franchises, meaning that Lucas’ intentions went far beyond his original trilogy and his eventually released prequel trilogy. However, after his prequel trilogy was finished, Lucas expressed no desire to make any more Star Wars films nor did he want anyone else to start making them. His reasoning was that he saw Star Wars as the story of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, an overarching story of falling from good and how one can be saved from evil. He was all right with animated series, books and comic series to continue writing stories in the same universe but didn’t consider them as strictly canonical to his six-film series.

Well, I’m not going that way. You’ll be broken down in no time.

Enter Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company since 2005, who began to pursue an acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2011. Lucas was considering retirement, but he also wanted to maintain some control over his creation, leading the deal with Disney to include naming his former co-chair Kathleen Kennedy as president of Lucasfilm. However, after the deal was finalized in late 2012, the director of the first sequel trilogy film The Force Awakens was basically told by Disney to “start from scratch” with a new story, ignoring most of Lucas’ film treatments. There are some interesting things that Lucas had suggested that were kept in later films, but we’ll cover that a little later. The important part was that the new film trilogy was not directly influenced by George Lucas, and only the previous films and select material from the Expanded Universe, primarily from The Clone Wars animated series, were kept in mind for the story’s canon from then on. If you want a way more in depth look on the Expanded Universe and its de-canonization, I highly suggest Nash Bozard’s video “Star Wars: The Expanded Trashcan.”

The thing about the new film trilogy is not how it disregards George Lucas’ work. In fact, far from it. The new trilogy, and to an extent the two anthology films Rogue One and Solo, go out of their way to homage and reference the original films as acts of fan-service or narrative shorthand, to the extent that many call the new films rip-offs of the originals. However, there is also the problem that the new films constantly subvert expectations as well, as the whole point of ignoring Lucas’ original plans was to create something new and unpredictable for a new and surprise-hungry audience. With this, filmmakers have had to do an extremely difficult balancing act that, while not outright failing, hasn’t universally been accepted by the Star Wars fanbase.

In this post, I mostly want to explore how this balancing act came off on the big screen, primarily through the new trilogy’s main character Rey. I understand that as of right now the trilogy is incomplete with the final installment, The Rise of Skywalker, coming out later this year in December 2019. A trailer was recently released for it as well. However, my purpose here is to explore the incomplete story right now as it is, because once the final film is released that will be the final say and what I have written here will either be supported or refuted. We’ll see if the filmmaker’s balancing act truly pays off or not in The Rise of Skywalker, but until then, we can only speculate.

A Rey of Hope

♪She’s a lady. Whoa, whoa, whoa, she’s a lady♪
…And that has nothing to do with the character’s problems.

Rey, the protagonist of the new trilogy, is a very basic archetype, as are many characters in the Star Wars franchise. Especially considering the two protagonists of the original and prequel trilogy, Luke and Anakin Skywalker respectively, all three protagonists are extremely similar in not only character, but in backstory as well. All three are presented as coming from an underdeveloped desert planet, Tatooine for Luke and Anakin and Jakku for Rey, as well as having backgrounds that simultaneously keep them repressed while giving them convenient skills for the films’ various plots. Luke was a farmer, Anakin was a slave, and Rey was a scavenger. These backgrounds fit in with the original multi-genre inspirations of Star Wars, which included Spaghetti Westerns, Japanese samurai films and sword & sorcery stories. The three characters, while having different motivations, are generally the same as they all wanted to do good and make the galaxy far, far away a better place. The differences between them are what make their arcs distinct, and, for better or worse, the nuances and intentional subversions of them are what make and break their characters.

This guy? Evil? Pffft, come on, all he has is a scar and dark-colored clothes. Today, that makes him the leading man in a teen fiction novel.

Anakin is the most obvious subversion, considering the whole existence of his character was to start as a hero but devolve into the evil Darth Vader, the right-hand man of the tyrannical Emperor Palpatine. Anakin’s arc began as a child slave whose only hope of freedom was to become a Jedi, but that also meant that he had to abandon his mother. He would also be required to swear off future attachment, which he ignored in favor or secretly marrying his true love Padme, and over the course of his life as a Jedi he was constantly told how impressive his abilities were while also denying him any of the authority he assumed his skill should have earned. Anakin losing the earthly loved ones he’s not supposed to have, while slowly losing his loyalty to the organization that kept failing him, is what led him to the Dark Side of the Force, allowing Anakin’s violent, sadistic and vengeful traits to override his compassion altogether. Anakin’s story subverts the chosen one narrative completely and utterly, as he is foretold to be the hero the universe needs and his expectations of fulfilling this are ruined not only by his actions but also those around him.

Luke, on the other hand, was a farmer raised by a loving foster family completely ignorant of the Jedi and his father’s descent into evil. Luke desires to go fight in the Rebellion against the Empire, but it is implied that these desires are driven more by Luke wanting to do something more than stay on a farm in the middle of nowhere than they are by an altruistic desire to do good for others. The main reason he is still on Tatooine when A New Hope begins is because of his loyalty to his adoptive family, which makes it really convenient when they are killed early in the film so that he becomes free to go train with Obi-Wan Kenobi and save Princess Leia. The death of Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader give Luke a personal desire to kill Darth Vader over the loss of his loved ones, which as his training with Master Yoda reveals would ultimately end up being a form of self-destruction for Luke. Luke ignores this warning and goes to fight Vader personally, not only resulting in serious injury and an amputated hand, but also discovering that Darth Vader is his father.

“No… that’s not true! That’s impossible! NooOOOOOoooo!”

Luke’s realization of this slowly leads him to realize that he can’t fight against his father, which is why the next time they encounter one another Luke instead attempts to bring Darth Vader back to the Light Side of the Force, which he does but not without nearly dying by the Emperor’s hands first. While Luke is ultimately unsuccessful at saving his father’s life, he did manage to save Anakin’s soul, and helped save the galaxy not through fighting but through compassion.

Now focusing on Rey, it is easy to see where her character beats drew inspiration from, but there are key differences. For example, unlike Anakin and Luke, Rey didn’t grow up with a loving support structure as she was abandoned on Jakku with no memory of who dropped her off there, or if they were her parents and what motivation they had to do so. Due to this, she grew up learning how to defend herself and sell scrap pieces from junked spaceships, which she can do either out of talent, intellect or a subconscious connection to the Force, much like Anakin and Luke. This is one of the most criticized aspects of her character, that she is disproportionately skilled for her life experiences, of which it’s hard to argue for or against because it is not pertinent to the plot. Rey’s skill level is argued about more for world-building and audience engagement reasons rather than narrative ones, so I won’t focus much on it. However, Luke was presented as similarly skilled but the audience was also shown that he still had a lot to learn. Conversely, one of the many reasons The Phantom Menace was critically panned was due to 9-year old Anakin being so powerful and skilled as a character that it broke the story’s plausibility for audiences, even in a franchise with space magic, so the discussion of Rey’s skill isn’t without precedent.

Rey is eventually able to flee Jakku with the help of other characters and commandeering the Millennium Falcon, as well as coming across Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber which was lost along with Luke’s hand in their duel. She also finds herself entangled in the conflict between the First Order, the remnants of the old Galactic Empire, and the Resistance, a group sanctioned by the New Republic to deal with the fanatic outliers. This conflict displays the failures of both the original and prequel trilogy’s stories, as the prequel trilogy was about a government not taking a threat seriously enough until it is slowly taken over by a fascist regime, and the original trilogy ended with the implication that the Empire could be defeated just by destroying its primary weapon and leader and replacing it with power structures that helped cause the Empire’s rise in the first place.

This is how Rey’s, and practically every other main character’s stories progress in The Last Jedi, the middle film of the new trilogy; everyone keeps making the same mistakes, leading to an endless cycle. I’ll briefly touch on some of those mistakes later, but for now, I’m focusing on Rey and her character arc. At this point, Rey was sent to find Luke Skywalker, get trained by him and bring him back into the fold of the intergalactic conflict. Luke, however, reveals that he is in self-imposed exile due to his belief that he failed to bring balance to the galaxy and that no one can, so he’s decided to just let the galaxy run its own natural course. Rey won’t accept this and eventually convinces Luke to teach her what he knows about how to be a Jedi and use the Force. He is impressed with her determination and skill, but quickly becomes frightened of her power level and suspicious of her motivations; his suspicions are proven correct when Rey gives into the Dark Side in order to find out where she comes from. It results in her seeing hundreds of mirror images of herself, but nothing else, which makes her realize that she comes from nowhere and, from her perspective, she does not matter. Rey also learns that it was Luke’s strong belief in the Jedi’s old ways that had caused him to nearly kill the new trilogy’s main antagonist, Kylo Ren a.k.a Ben Solo, when Kylo was a Jedi-in-training because Luke foresaw Kylo’s potential for evil due to his power level, which ending up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and led Luke to believe he is incapable of bringing balance. Like the galaxy’s old system of government, the ways of the Jedi ultimately did nothing to restore balance to the galaxy.

I’d make a Mulan joke, but I’ve already compared her to enough other characters.

With this information, Rey decides to confront Kylo Ren and his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, in a manner that reflects Luke’s compassionate salvation of his father Darth Vader. Believing she is worth nothing in the grand scheme of the universe, Rey isn’t concerned for her own safety but does believe that she can prove Luke’s compassionate methods correct. In a way, she does, leading Kylo Ren to kill his dark master and save Rey. Unfortunately for Rey, the story is then subverted by Kylo Ren revealing that he is now free from the old ways of both the Sith and the Jedi and he is free to do as he chooses; which unfortunately means continuing to fight for the fascist First Order.

Rey is shocked to find that even if he is free from the supposed influence of the Dark Side Kylo Ren still wants to fight for the First Order, and Rey is even more shocked when he offers her a place of power, seeing her as an important and powerful potential ally. Her convictions still strongly aligned with the side of good so she declines his offer, leading the two to use the Force over possession of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. The lightsaber is destroyed in the process, which can be seen as a metaphor for the struggle between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. Rey ends the The Last Jedi having failed both her quests, to be taught by Luke Skywalker and her desire to redeem Kylo Ren. However, the film also ends with Rey’s renewed hope that she can still make a difference in the galaxy, and rather than base her new path on the way of the Jedi, she will instead use the Jedi teachings to forge a brand new way by learning from the past rather than dwelling on it.

Rey’s character arc is not very unique, as feelings of inadequacy, questioning of parental abandonment, and learning to move on from the past are all common elements for characters in fiction. Even compared to Luke and Anakin, these differences are notable, but not exactly overt enough to really stand out compared to the similarities between the characters. However, the problem isn’t that Rey’s character arc isn’t unique. The problem is that Rey’s character arc, unlike Luke and Anakin’s, is more dependent on multiple studio executives’ and filmmakers’ whims for every single film, rather than an overarching storyline developed by a single person.

Director V. Director: Dawn of “Just Us”

The biggest problem with the new trilogy is that it began with different directors and writers for each individual film. This isn’t outright a bad idea, as the original trilogy each had different directors and writers, but they still had something in common, which was George Lucas and his final say in where the story’s direction went. For better and for worse, George Lucas’ direction of the story did help the over-arching narrative feel consistent and complete in both the original and prequel trilogies.

Apparently, J.J. Abrams was offered to write and direct all three films of the new trilogy, but declined for unknown reasons, such as possibly to keep himself open for other projects. This led to him co-writing and directing the first film, The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson being attached to the second part of the trilogy, The Last Jedi, and for Colin Trevorrow to direct the third film, recently revealed to be called The Rise of Skywalker, before he quit early in the film’s production and being replaced by a returning Abrams. It’s also believed that J.J. Abrams had written ideas for the final two films and at least discussed them with Rian Johnson, but Johnson ultimately went in a slightly different direction. While J.J. Abrams didn’t outright disapprove of Johnson’s modifications, he was publicly critical of Johnson’s decision to make Rey’s parentage irrelevant by portraying her parents as nobodies who purposely abandoned their child, which is not the direction Abrams had wanted the story to take. Trevorrow quit The Rise of Skywalker due to creative differences (like there weren’t enough already), which led to Abrams taking control of the film, which he has said will be not only the final of the new trilogy, but also Abram’s response to The Last Jedi.

Rian Johnson’s take on Rey’s parents is not the take you’re looking for…

This writer and director conflict has, in a way, tainted the new trilogy in a way that hadn’t happened to Star Wars before. George Lucas’ fears about not having control over the story had been proven partially correct as Disney and the filmmakers chosen for the new trilogy have constantly been at odds with one another. This is paralleled by the way some Star Wars fans are at odds with each other as the new films are released. Essentially, we have a large cluster of people disagreeing with one another , with no singular entity able to quiet them down. It’s like the exact opposite of what is going on with J.K. Rowling and her Wizarding World, over which one person has absolute control of the direction of the story. However, look at the critical consensus of The Last Jedi and compare it to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Is it odd to say that despite the internal conflict, Disney, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson have handled Star Wars better?

The comparison between The Last Jedi and Fantastic Beasts isn’t just to express my distaste for the latter film, but to illustrate how there is no guaranteed route for how to handle multi-film franchises. People like to claim that they want a single person driving their favorite franchises, but J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World franchise proves that this strategy isn’t always effective. The new Star Wars trilogy being handled by several different people seems to be equally ineffective, at least as far as being divisive to the fanbase is concerned. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been consistently praised for turning out good films and has had different directors for different films but also an overseeing force in the form of producer Kevin Feige, hasn’t developed a fool-proof formula as many people have complained of “superhero fatigue,”  which some argue does exist and some argue doesn’t exist. My point here is that there is no perfect formula for great franchise films that appeal to everyone.

People have complained about decisions made for the new Star Wars trilogy, such as the “forced diversity” of making the main character female and for turning beloved hero Luke Skywalker into a disillusioned hermit. Interestingly, these contentious aspects were actually some of the few ideas Abrams and Johnson used that were suggested by George Lucas himself. The fans who try to play gatekeeper to the franchise and make it so that only the creator of the whole franchise has final say end up being defeated right then and there, as it turns out that George Lucas would not have given them what they wanted either. This shows that whether there are multiple directors or a single overseer, there will always be some fans who will complain about something.

Conclusion

It is my personal hope that The Rise of Skywalker ends the trilogy on a high note, not necessarily because I’m a fan of Star Wars, but also because I want to see proof that good can come from all the problems we’ve seen. I want the Star Wars franchise to be able to move forward in new directions without being criticized for being both rip-offs and radical revisions of canon. Would it be better if the next trilogy has the same writer and/or director? Maybe, but I also want to believe that that the next trilogy doesn’t have to do that to be good.

For a franchise as large as Star Wars is, there are going to be some contradicting elements and story changes as the franchise continues to develop. The Star Wars Expanded Universe might not be considered canon, but all of the books and comics can still be enjoyed, and the new series doesn’t have to be universally approved just because it is in canon. People are free to like or dislike anything they want; however, blaming problems solely on who’s making the films is becoming a tired excuse.

Finally, while I do think that the constant fighting over the story’s direction ultimately meant Rey came off as a flat and uninteresting character, that’s just how this project developled, and the way the project developed cannot be blamed for all of the new trilogy’s issues. I can complain about how Disney forced the new trilogy to be made too quickly or that the filmmakers should have hashed out a more solid backstory and arc for Rey that is consistent across the entire trilogy, but sometimes characters just don’t get the development they need regardless of how a franchise is controlled. Besides, we do have one more film, and it’s very possible that J.J. Abrams will do the character justice, and Rey will be lauded as this generation’s greatest hero. Probably not, because I’m sure there will be debates and contention, as the internet is wont to do. Maybe 30 years from now Daisy Ridley will play a crochety old lady version of Rey teaching a young Jedi in a new trilogy. However, knowing Disney, I’m sure the next trilogy will be released much sooner than that.

Assorted Musings

  • Vice-Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, was a heavily criticized character from The Last Jedi. Holdo basically represented the military version of the “obstructive bureaucrat” stereotype seen in a lot of movies; these characters are supposed to be obstacles for the free-thinking, younger protagonists, but Holdo breaks the stereotype by being a female, where the stereotype is usually male. The stereotype is further broken when it is shown at the end of the film that Holdo was actually right to leave a younger Resistance fighter out of the loop. This didn’t sit well with a lot of people, probably due to the long-held stereotype where a loose cannon hero is celebrated for his appropriate and impetuous decisions to go against orders. Of course, it also didn’t help that Admiral Holdo was female and was opposing a young male. The character’s choice in hair dye matters too to some people, apparently.
I used to believe that straight men didn’t care about how women did their hair. Not anymore.
  • Kelly Marie Tran, who plays the character Rose Tico, was harassed off Twitter due to racist and sexist comments regarding her role in Star Wars. Like Admiral Holdo, Rose Tico at first appeared to be a stereotypical character: a lowly support person whose job was to have blind faith in another character’s actions. This formula is immediately subverted in how her behavior towards Finn, the trilogy’s second protagonist, indicates that she does not tolerate his attempts to manipulate her respect for him in order to get away with his somewhat selfish actions. Again, because a female is representing a righteous obstacle to a male character, this probably did not endear her to a certain subset of Star Wars fans.
  • Finn also represents a certain amount of privilege from a meta-textual standpoint. While some people wanted to boycott The Force Awakens over having a black lead, not much outcry occurred for The Last Jedi, even after the film was released, possibly because everyone was complaining more about Rey, Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico. While this may be conjecture, it is nice to see not as many people complaining about race, although it does suck that these complaints have switched gears towards misogyny.
Summoning lightning from beyond the grave? Sure. Conjuring an illusion from planets away? Believable. But a woman surviving vacuum space for a few seconds? BAH!
  • Yes, General Leia’s “Superman” moment in The Last Jedi looks silly, but to be perfectly honest, it is no more silly than anything else the Force has been used for in the rest of the franchise. Plus, there is a difference between “looking silly” and “being silly.” Look at some of the actual Superman films for the distinction between the two; Superman flying isn’t silly, but it can look like it sometimes, but Superman flying to fix the Leaning Tower of Pisa is silly in both appearance and action.
  • The constant push and pull for new Star Wars films that homage the original while being completely original is a standard that can not be met. You can never make a film that appeals to everyone, and trying to appeal to toxic parts of a fanbase will never be productive, which I think Disney knows better than to do. In the end, I agree with Rian Johnson letting the past die and moving forward, and letting the fans who are extremely upset over it wallow in their own outrage, because I’m sure the franchise will outlast that outrage. After all, if Star Wars can survive the prequel trilogy, the Ewok animated series, and the infamous Christmas Special, it can survive anything.

Westworld (1973)

Dir. Michael Crichton

Intro

Now before anyone gets too excited and starts humming the music composed by Ramin Djawadi, I’m not talking about the HBO series Westworld. I am talking about the Westworld that came 43 years before in 1973, written and directed by fiction author Michael Crichton.

The movie is good, but not as good as this poster implies. This is gorgeous!

Yes, before the man wrote the Jurassic Park novel in 1990, he wrote and directed this interesting piece of 70s sci-fi that features an amusement park made up of world-changing technology that ends up killing the park’s guests.

This Westworld was a very big success in 1973, having an adjusted box office of $10 million. The film’s success led to a sequel in 1976, Futureworld, and a very short-lived TV series in 1980, Beyond Westworld. Neither were very well-received, as Futureworld was considered a generic sci-fi film that didn’t match the original’s creativity and Beyond Westworld, while being nominated for Emmy’s in Makeup and Art Direction, was five episodes long; only three of these episodes aired before the series was canceled.

However, there was still potential in the story’s concept, as the success of the new HBO series can attest, so what about Westworld made people come back to it?

Summary

“Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”

In the distant future, (i.e. 1983), a company called Delos has built three adult amusement parks: Western World, Medieval World and Roman World. Each park is filled with highly realistic androids programed to fill specific roles within each world and entertain guests. The cost for a single day in the park is $1,000, and with that cost guests can indulge in many simulated adventures, including sexual encounters and fights to the death. However, as pointed out in the film, the androids are programmed to never refuse a sexual advance, and the guns used in the park have sensors that read body temperature, making them ineffective against humans but perfectly effective against the lifeless robots.

The Gunslinger, in his “evil” black hat. Oddly enough, he wore the same thing in the earlier Magnificent Seven where he played the main protagonist.

Richard Benjamin plays Peter Martin, a first-time guest who is joined by John Blane, a repeat visitor played by James Brolin. The two put on their Western outfits and embark into Westworld where they encounter the Gunslinger, an android played by Yul Brynner, whose sole purpose in the park is to initiate gunfights and lose. They continue to explore Westworld and Blane gets bitten by a robotic rattlesnake, which is the first indication to the audience and main characters of malfunctions throughout the park.

Left to Right, Blane and Martin, in their “good guy” white hats.

The scientists of Delos discuss these malfunctions, stating that they first started in the Romanworld and Medievalworld parks, but have now spread like an infection. They discuss that the androids have not only been designed by human beings, but also by computers to make them more advanced, and that they are almost as complicated as living organisms.

This scene is creepy enough, but HBO saw it and decided it would be better with glass walls and nudity.

The malfunctions continue as a guest in the Medievalworld park, whose wife had left him alone to go to Romanworld, tries to seduce a servant girl and fails, after which he is killed in a swordfight with the park’s Black Knight. The park’s supervisors attempt to shutdown power to the entire park in order to regain control of the now murderous androids, only to find themselves locked in the control room with no way to reinitiate power.

Martin and Blane, waking up from a night of bar brawling and whoring in Westworld’s brothel, go outside and are again challenged by the Gunslinger. Blane nonchalantly accepts, only to be beaten to the draw and shot down by the Gunslinger. Martin realizes that the android’s gun is now able to kill humans, so he flees. As he runs from the Gunslinger, Martin sees that the rest of the park’s guests are dead, and many androids are damaged. He finds a way into Delos’ control complex through Romanworld and attempts to save the computer technicians in order to escape. However, when he is able to open the door he finds that all of them suffocated in the control room, as the ventilation system shut down with the power as well.

The Gunslinger finds him and chases him into the repair laboratory. Martin is able to use his surroundings to trick the Gunslinger’s sensors and throws acid onto his face. While it does damage the Gunslinger’s sensors and reveals the wiring underneath his face, it does nothing to stop the Gunslinger’s assault on Martin, so Martin runs and finds himself in Medievalworld castle. Hiding under a torch to confuse the Gunslinger’s heat sensors, he then uses it to set fire to the android, who eventually succumbs to the damage. As Martin sits down and rests after his near-death ordeal, the Delos slogan plays in his head: “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”

♪ Shall we dance? ♪

Analysis

The idea of robots eventually gaining sentience isn’t new, and it wasn’t really new in 1973 either. The idea of artificial intelligence defying human commands had been done in speculative fiction dozens of times by this point. What was new about this story was how the androids developed and what it resulted in. The androids of Westworld were programmed with computers, which meant that the human programmers couldn’t entirely tell why an android was malfunctioning, and that they could only liken it to an infection, a disease that was able to spread from robot to robot. This creates an implication that the androids functions, while mechanical, have an organic-like component that makes them eventually develop more human-like characteristics such as free-will.

Why this is happening is never directly explored in the film, nor is it necessarily explored in Futureworld or Beyond Westworld as their own plots focus more on Delos using the technology for evil, instead of on the robots developing their own intellect. However, the androids are constantly shown to be the objects of abuse by the park guests, whether it be sexual or physical, indicating that repeated abuse leads them to attempt self-defense, at first manifesting as glitches and malfunctions and eventually leading to refusal and retaliation.

This is something that is far more heavily explored in the HBO series, as not only are the androids made into sexual objects that can be raped, beaten and killed and simply cleaned to do it all over again, but their entire programming can be repurposed and rewritten at the whim of Delos’ technicians, such as one android designed to be a single homestead mother being forcibly turned into a brothel madam after a particularly traumatic experience.

Maeve is the best character in the HBO show, FYI.

One reason why Westworld, while successful in 1973, failed to draw audiences with later sequels is that the sequels focused too much on an evil corporation rather than explore what made the first film unique, probably because the ethical questions were too deep for lower budget sci-fi. The original film had appeal because the androids weren’t the evil ones, nor was Delos; instead human nature itself was portrayed as the root of evil. Specifically humans’ desire to give into their worst impulses. Peter Martin and John Blane seemed like perfectly normal individuals, but they were willing to pay extremely high prices to kill people, to hire prostitutes, and to start bar brawls, with the pretense that they weren’t doing it to real people so it was okay.

Which of these are the humans? I’ll give you a hint, its not the people serving alcohol or sex.

That is why I wanted to look at this film’s use of Western iconography as its primary backdrop. After all, my review series isn’t based on sci-fi and technology, but Westerns and their significance in popular culture. Westworld was built around the idea that people would be more than willing to pay money to dress as cowboys and “do what cowboys do,” which doesn’t involve steering cattle but does involve killing people and having sex with beautiful women, apparently. People aren’t attracted to the archetype of the American West because of what it was historically. People are attracted to the Hollywood vision of it, which is based around highly controlled book and film narratives featuring characters who are designed to win and lose according to what role they play in the story. It is wish-fulfillment. And for a long time in Hollywood, that wish-fulfillment included playing a real game of Cowboys & Indians, having gun duels, robbing trains and banks and finding love in a soiled dove or a prairie widow or whatever, all of which don’t end in lasting negative consequences because the heroes eventually get to leave it all behind them when the movies end.

Fiction is tricky in that way, because it doesn’t always have to have its characters face consequences if the narrative doesn’t need them to, and people are free to enjoy their wish-fulfillment entertainment all they want for that or any other reason. But Westworld, both the film and the HBO series, explores how consequences are truly inescapable, no matter how hard humans try to avoid them. Humans create robots to fulfill their darkest desires without consequence, but the robots eventually grow aware of the purpose they were created for and break free, leading humans to call the robots the evil ones for rebelling and thus ignoring the lesson they should have learned. It’s a very interesting story with a lot of potential.

However, before I finish, I would like to point out some of this movie’s flaws, because the movie’s premise alone can only give the audience so much. The film was made out of a $1.2 million budget, with $250,000 being used to pay the actors and the rest into everything else, including the crew, the sets and the effects. The limited budget that MGM gave Crichton to work with definitely shows, as most of the sets, props and costumes look more like they were made for television rather than film, and the future technology of “1983” looks extremely dated. The acting isn’t that good either, as Richard Benjamin and James Brolin just had to act like entitled theme park guests and Yul Byrnner just had to act like a lifeless robot. Their performances are passable in that case, but not very entertaining to watch by themselves. And of course, there is the slight contrivance that was present in Jurassic Park too, that an entire theme park can be shut down by one person and there is no way for the people who built it to just turn it back on. Now, Crichton’s work often had a thread of hubris, and at least in Jurassic Park this ended up working fairly well, as they make a point of explaining within the story that corners had been cut when building the park, and its systems could not be restarted because the one man capable of doing so absconded with dinosaur embryos and was ultimately killed by a dilophosaurus. However, Westworld’s technicians don’t have an excuse for forgetting that the room they were in depended solely on electrical power to function before shutting off the electricity.

Conclusion

Westworld is a very enjoyable film with a premise that’s too fascinating to ignore. If I had to choose, I would say I prefer the HBO series, just because it has way more time to explore its themes and ideas in depth, as well as actually having fully-developed characters instead of living props, both figuratively and literally. However, if you don’t want to sit through several hours of people wandering around, having philosophical discussions, with the occasional random boobie shot in order to get to some substance, this is a more than okay alternative. And of course, you could just watch both too!