The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy: An Honest Assessment

With the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy and the entire nine-film Skywalker Saga has come to an end. The film has had its share of controversy, scorn and praise from all parties. Despite what trolls hoped for, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an actual hit film. Now as to its quality, that is another story. Personally, I truly enjoyed the film but am honest enough to admit the latest Star Wars film is riddled with plot holes and faults. Still it did enough to entertain me and others and provided closure to the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Looking at the three films in this trilogy it is fair to opine that on the whole, the trilogy was badly flawed and can be considered to be the weakest of the three Star Wars trilogies. And that is due to many reasons, especially one: it is clear that Lucasfilm and its owners Disney did not have a clear plan for the sequel trilogy and it hobbled the films overall.

Inconsistent Characters

Looking at the past three films (standalone films aside), it was difficult to tell what was the main story. The only consistent arc that flowed logically was Rey and Kylo Ren’s personal journeys in their understanding of the Force. Not surprisingly, this storyline is what received the most praise. Everything else, not so much.

future jedi finn

Look at Finn’s story in the films. He had a brilliant setup, the world of Star Wars told from the POV of a normal Stormtrooper, and how he comes to believe in a greater cause than his lot in life. As well as his story was set up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it stagnated in the followup, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where he became a bumbling comic relief shuffled off to a pointless side quest. Then in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, his story arc had a radical course correction as we are tantalized with him developing Force sensitivity, which hinted at his potential future as a Jedi.

Even more jarring was figuring out who was the main bad guy in these films. Kylo Ren’s story was fine and flowed smoothly as he struggled with his conflicting emotions. But he was set up to be the main villain according to The Last Jedi. In that film, he killed the supposed main boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, and took his title. Meanwhile, Snoke was dispatched too early and the filmmakers were left scrambling to find another villain for the final film. This is why director J.J. Abrams and others hastily resurrected the long-dead Emperor Palpatine. As great as it was to see him cackling and oozing evil on the screen again, his reappearance into Star Wars lore was sloppily handled. If he had been hinted at in earlier films, his revival would have made more sense and not come off as a desperate plot ploy.

Then there are the other supporting characters who were treated as disposable plot beats. Take poor Rose Tico, first introduced as an annoying and self-righteous wannabe crusader in The Last Jedi, which led to toxic online backlash from misogynistic and racist trolls attacking the actress. In The Rise of Skywalker, her role was noticeably reduced to that of a glorified extra and any hints of a romance with Finn alluded to in the previous film were gone.

Aside from Rose, the most contentious character introduced in The Last Jedi was Admiral Holdo played by a badly miscast Laura Dern. This supposedly brilliant military leader did not exude any kind of gravitas as a leader, which infuriated many viewers and emboldened Internet trolls. But hey, at least she had a cool death scene where she used her ship to take out the ginormous uber star destroyer.

Then there was Hux, the First Order leader who instead of inspiring dread and fear like Grand Moff Tarkin became an ineffective joke in The Last Jedi. His character was so mangled that he was mercifully killed off in The Rise of Skywalker after he nonsensically was revealed to be a spy working against the First Order.

Contrasting Visions

The fault for the way they and other characters turned out has to be with the scripts, which reeked of being written on the fly. Another important reason for the disjointed feel of the sequel trilogy was the contrasting visions of the directors of the films, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson.

abrams johnson

Although both men are talented directors who brought good ideas to Star Wars, their viewpoint clashed wildly. With The Force Awakens, Abrams was clearly doing an homage to the original films, especially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

A valid criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was too similar to A New Hope: both films opened on a desert planet where good guys and bad guys sought a droid that held vital information. The heroes run into an older mentor type who gets killed and the films end with a space battle to blow up a superweapon planet. Be that as it may, The Force Awakens was a fun film that served as a soft reboot and reintroduction to the world of Star Wars for a new generation. It also set up many plot threads that Abrams left for future directors to follow up.

The problem was that the next director, Johnson, obviously was not interested in doing that. Instead he had a mindset of doing a deconstruction of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, set up as a long-lost would-be savior in The Force Awakens, turned out to be a bitter old man without any hope. His final moments disappointed fans who were itching for him to decimate the First Order.

rey the last jedi

Rey, who was to be the next generation of Jedi, had a mysterious past and was seeking to learn about her parents. Was she related to anyone in the Original Trilogy? Why was she so powerful with the Force? Johnson obviously did not care with the casual dismissive announcement that she came from a family of nobodies. Something that had to be retconned later.

Supreme Leader Snoke was introduced as a trilogy’s final threat was unexpectedly killed by Ren. Meanwhile, Ren was hinted at in the film of having a redemptive arc but instead turned his back on Rey and embraced the dark side of the Force.  Both films are clear evidence that there wasn’t a coherent vision with the trilogy.

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The 10 Most Anticipated Upcoming Streaming TV Shows

The streaming wars is at a fever pitch with the unveiling of Disney+, Apple TV+, and of course, the current TV streaming king Netflix going full out with its offerings. A great benefit for us fans are the plethora of genre shows that various streaming services are producing. The most talked about sci-fi streaming show is The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars show, but there are other upcoming shows that could rival The Mandalorian’s buzz and production values. Here are the most anticipated shows. Keep in mind this list will only cover upcoming original programs. So no revivals like The Orville or The Expanse. With that out of the way, let’s get started…

10. Dune: The Sisterhood (HBO Max):

A companion piece and prequel to next year’s Dune, this series will focus on the Bene Gesserit. Dune director Denis Villeneuve will direct the pilot and executive produce it along with Frank Herbert’s son Brian.

9. Foundation (Apple TV+):

Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction saga about attempts from exiles in the far future to preserve their galactic civilization will finally be adapted into live-action. Rivaled only by Dune, Foundation might be a big draw to the streaming service with fans if adapted correctly.

8. Raised By Wolves (HBO Max):

 

The premise alone is reason enough to pique anyone’s interest. Two androids carefully raise human children on a mysterious world and have to deal with belief systems and other hardships. Ridley Scott is one of the show’s executive producers.

7. Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix):

Due to be released in 2020, this live-action adaptation of the revered Nickelodeon animated fantasy series looks to avoid the controversy and failure of the 2010 live-action film. Unlike that film, this series won’t whitewash the characters and will be executive produced by the creators of the original show.

6. Green Lantern (HBO Max):

Greg Berlanti is noted for his numerous DC superhero TV shows on the CW and for his harder-edged Titans on the DC Universe streaming service. He will spearhead this attempt to reintroduce the ring-wielding superhero to general audiences and hopefully make everyone forget the 2011 film that starred Ryan Reynolds. Thankfully for him and us, he is busy with Deadpool these days, which is a role that fits him well.

5. The Lord of the Rings prequel (Amazon Prime):

Amazon secured the elusive rights to produce this prequel series which takes place before The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s already noted for being the most expensive TV series ever produced with an estimated cost of over $1 billion. Surely, the budget will make the prequel look like a big-screen epic that will dwarf the competition. But will it be as popular as Game of Thrones? Or match it in quality (complaints about the last season aside)?

4. Battlestar Galactica (Peacock):

This will be yet another reboot of the popular space epic about humanity fleeing their ravaged civilization on a desperate quest to find planet Earth. Some may be disappointed this version of Battlestar Galactica won’t be a direct continuation of the lauded Syfy version from the last decade, but there is the promise it may offer a unique take of the star-spanning story and create a new generation of fans that will revere it as much as the original and the first reboot.

3. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+):

Ewan McGregor will reprise the role he made his own in a Star Wars solo series. Many have clamored for years for more of McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, the noble Jedi Knight that survived the Clone Wars and watched over Luke Skywalker while he was in exile. Originally planned as a feature film, the project has morphed into a TV show on the Disney streaming service. This is the best of both worlds because as we can see with The Mandalorian, the Star Wars show will feature film-quality production, acting and effects and be able to tell fleshed out stories about Kenobi that will hopefully explore the character and his life.

2. The Marvel Cinematic Universe shows (Disney+):

If the announced TV shows featuring established heroes and villains from the proper Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were to be listed individually, there wouldn’t be room for anything else! Unlike past Marvel TV productions, the upcoming shows are produced by Marvel Studios and will star the actors from the MCU films. Also it has been promised that these shows will tie-in closely with the MCU. There are many announced TV shows which range from an animated version of What IF? to direct continuations of situations from the films like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to new IP like Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. The ranking of the most anticipated shows goes like this: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, What If?, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel. They all sound promising and any true MCU cannot wait until next year when the first one (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) premieres on Disney+

1. Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access):

The recent Star Trek TV revivals spearheaded by CBS All Access got a much-needed boost with the announcement that Star Trek legend, Patrick Stewart, would reprise his iconic role of Jean-Luc Picard. From what we’ve seen of the trailers, the upcoming Star Trek show looks like a winner. What makes Star Trek: Picard so anticipated is that not only does the show brings back Picard, but assorted characters from the ’90s Star Trek shows and its a direct continuation of the original Star Trek timeline. This makes it clear the show is not a reboot and it gives fans what has been wanted for some time now: A Star Trek show that takes place in the future of the ’90s TV shows.

Other Shows:

Always (Netflix), Cassian Andor (Disney+), Amazing Stories (Apple TV+), Brave New World (Peacock), Lysey’s Story (Apple TV+), Cowboy Bebop (Netflix), DC’s Strange Adventures (HBO Max), Marvel’s Helstrom (Hulu), Station Eleven (HBO Max), The Witcher (Netflix)

Science Fiction & Horror: The Perfect Combination

Science fiction and horror have blended well together like peanut butter and chocolate for a long time. One of the earliest examples is Mary Shelley’s classic literary work Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and the melding continues to this day with assorted books, films, comic books, games and other media. Some of the standouts include the Alien films, I Am Legend, The Tommyknockers, the Predator films, Resident Evil, Event Horizon, The Fly, Dead Space, 28 Days Later, A Quiet Place, The Thing (and its source novel Who Goes There?), etc.

Why have the two genres been able to be combine so perfectly? That is to be debated since there are so many reasons and it may not be clear to many. But it can arguably be due for one factor and that is that the genre combo zeroes in to the fear of the unknown. Think about it, what makes horror so tantalizing is that it addresses what we’re afraid of, and that is ultimately death because it is the great unknown. What lies beyond death? Is it truly the end or the pathway to something truly horrific? Science fiction works have dealt with the nature of death and what it entails. As mentioned before, Frankenstein was all about defeating death and the horror of achieving this as Dr. Frankenstein found a way to bring the dead back to life through scientific means rather than using the supernatural.

Obviously it is the use of science or its grounded setting that sets science fiction horror separate from regular horror. And it is why it can be more unsettling…

With the regular horror genre, anyone experiencing it can take some small comfort with the idea in the back of the head that the horror story is implausible. There isn’t any way that a dead corpse will come back to life and start eating you, and despite all the so-called reality ghost hunting TV shows, the existence of spiritual entities still has not been scientifically proven. With films like The Thing, Alien or A Quiet Place, what makes them so terrifying is that we can encounter extra-terrestrial life that means us harm. Science experiments, research and discoveries that should benefit humanity can lead to disastrous results as seen in The Fly, Nightflyers, Event Horizon, Demon Seed, Blindsight, and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Then there is the sub-genre in science fiction and horror of humanity grappling with devastating diseases that falls into horror. Some like The Andromeda Strain are clear cut stories where diseases outright decimates us, but other works uses diseases to bring about body horror tales or create tenuously plausible zombie yarns. Examples include The Fireman, Black Hole, 28 Days Later, Cross, I Am Legend, and the Resident Evil franchise. Of course, saying that the events shown in these works are plausible is stretching things and as with any fictional work requires suspension of belief. But when the stories work and terrify us, they work quite well to the point that our rational brains stop questioning and start reacting to the horror of these stories.

Another thing to consider about how well the two genres blend so well is that the stories are often contemporary or take place in the future. These settings also lend to the feeling that what happens in them are possible. We don’t know that the first alien life we will encounter in the future will try to eat us or that using FTL will open a gateway to a hellish dimension. We cannot say for certain that these horrific events will happen.

What is even more unsettling is that what will actually occur in the future or just a few minutes from now can be far worse than what our puny minds can imagine. It all feeds into fear of the unknown and is why science fiction and horror are the perfect combination for storytelling.

 

Save The Expanse

expanse season 3 poster

Not too long ago, devoted fans of the Syfy series The Expanse were heartbroken when the cable channel announced that the third season of the show would be its last. Cancelling favorite TV shows isn’t anything new, nor are the efforts to save shows. The original Star Trek is the best example. Sadly, most attempts to save cancelled TV shows are doomed, however, there are the rare occasions where the shows find new life. This happened last year when NBC un-cancelled the time-travel show Timeless and renewed it for a second season. And now it seems as if the beloved sci-fi show may get a reprieve elsewhere. But let’s not celebrate yet.

For anyone who has not watched it yet (and shame on you if you haven’t even sampled it), The Expanse is based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey about a divided humanity two hundred years from now in the settled solar system. Humans still haven’t discovered FTL yet, but space travel tech has advanced enough to allow humans to settle on Mars, several moons and on space stations. A delicate balance of power exists as Earth, Mars and the Belt (the inhabited regions of the asteroid belt, the gas giant moons and orbital stations) as each side vies for dominance.

The Expanse follows the lives of several characters from all levels of life either throughout the system and how they are impacted by a conspiracy that threatens everyone. An extra-solar substance called protomolecule is discovered and it is able to alter all life. What is worse is that devious government and business leaders are trying to weaponize it. As this goes on, unlikely heroes from diverse paths cross paths and try to prevent the spread of the protomolecule and war itself.

hybrid protomolecule

In the third season of The Expanse, these efforts are failing as not only is the protomolecule spreading and appears to be sentient, but war breaks out between Earth and Mars. During the fog of war, many of the heroes do their best to contain the protomolecule and end the war.

This TV show is a true gem in a network supposedly dedicated to science fiction. It is smart, well produced, has wonderful production values, and is captivating thanks to its engaging stories and characters. Ever since its debut three years ago, The Expanse has lived up to its promise of being an intelligent, hard sci-fi show, scoring huge with critics. It even won the Hugo Award in 2017 for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. At the same time, it takes great pains to keep a balance between story and character. In the past two seasons, the show explored what life is like for the downtrodden in the Belt. This season, however, focused more on the ragtag crew of the stolen Martian ship Rocinante and rescued passengers as they’re targeted by both warring sides. The Rocinante crew have to struggle between helping the passengers put an end to the war, stopping the protomolecule infestation, and a personal mission to rescue a young girl threatened by the alien substance. What made this season unique is that it had many diverse characters featured separately in the past meeting each other and uniting under common causes.

All this sounds great but remember this series is based on several books and there are many tales left to present. Sadly, The Expanse will not have the chance to finish telling all the stories from Corey’s books. Citing low ratings and complicated distribution issues with other parties like Netflix and Amazon Prime, Syfy pulled the plug. However, it turns out that the show has a devoted fan base. To date an online petition garnered over 100,000 signatures, and high profile fans like George R. R. Martin, Patton Oswalt and Wil Wheaton are throwing their support to the campaign. #SaveTheExpanse

save the expanse

Alcon Television Group, the studio that produces the show, is actively shopping it around. Currently, there are talks between Alcon and Amazon Studios to distribute a fourth season. The main contention in the talks has to do with Streaming or Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) rights. One thing the show has going for it is that it is popular on streaming/digital demand, and Amazon is looking to add more original content for its subscribers. Streaming and digital services are becoming a haven not just for original programs but for cancelled shows that are given new life in their services. Let’s hope that The Expanse will find new life there or elsewhere because it deserves to be reprieved.

UPDATE: Amazon has saved The Expanse and the fourth season will stream on Amazon Prime. Sometimes our beloved shows have a secind chance. 😀

Ready Player One Is A Breathtaking Ode to Gaming & Geek Culture

Ready Player One Poster

The latest Steven Spielberg sci-fi epic is Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, and this is Spielberg’s best film in years.

It takes place in Columbus, Ohio in 2045 and follows the saga of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a downtrodden teenager who escapes his drab existence by living in a hyper VR called the OASIS. This online universe is a place where you can be anyone through avatars and live any kind of existence.

iron giant ready player one

Many visitors are active gamers like Wade who goes by a customized avatar called Parzival. Others have imaginative avatars as well, some unique, some are replicas of popular fictional characters. Some of these include the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, Batman, Lara Croft and others. They all sport assorted gear, drive various vehicles and mixed costumes from across popular games, films, TV shows, etc. A great example is the DeLorean vehicle from Back to the Future that Parzival drives or a Clark Kent disguise that is used at one point. Comparing Wade’s drab real world, which is literally crumbling apart, to the wondrous marvel of the OASIS, it is easy to see why most of the world’s populace chooses to spend most of their time in the OASIS.

In the film, the mysterious and super-rich creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) died a few years earlier. Before his death, Halliday set up an epic quest in the OASIS where gamers have to find three keys to gain control of the artificial realm and become insanely rich. Halliday had a deep love of pop culture, especially sci-fi, fantasy, anime, horror and comic books, and so sprinkled many Easter eggs throughout the OASIS as clues to finding the keys.

Wade lives in squalor and like most players sets out to find the keys to figuratively open the door to a better life. He also shares Halliday’s love of pop culture and thinks creatively, which gives him a distinct advantage in the quest. Joining him are a ragtag team of Gunters (Easter egg hunters), who include Samantha Cook/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Standing in their way are not just billions of other online gamers and Gunters but the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). He commands a virtual army in the OASIS and desires to gain complete control of the online world. Needless to say, Sorrento will stop at nothing to win the ultimate prize, even if that means using the resources of IOI to endanger everyone, including Wade and his friends.

Ready Player One is a fresh, exciting and nostalgic ode to our ever-expanding pop culture, especially our favorite genres.  Nearly every moment in the film just stuns our eyes with all the references that are too many to list here or even see after a few viewings. There are millions of them and part of the fun watching the film is trying to spot as many of them as possible. For a lesser director it would be so easy to let them overwhelm the film, but since Spielberg is Spielberg, he keeps the focus on the story and the characters. Many of the references and eggs actually serve a purpose in Ready Player One, in fact one of them, a certain film, plays an important role during a sequence that leaves you marveling over how Spielberg and his team managed to pull it off.

As great as it is, Ready Player One may be too much for some, probably those that look down upon geek culture. Others who embrace the culture will love what this film offers. There are some drawbacks, however. A bit more time should have been spent in the real word just for comparison purposes. It is established that reality is undesirable, but it should have been shown more. We never learn why the world is decaying, is it solely because most people retreated to the OASIS? Wade’s real life was depressing but what about his friends’ lives? Aside from some screen time with Samantha, the others are ciphers. Also, a key message in the film about living your real life instead of retreating into fantasies is hit over our heads repeatedly to the point of overkill.

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg’s mastery behind the camera and some genuinely good performances by Sheridan, Cooke, Waithe and Mendelsohn elevate the film above its faults. Of this group, Cooke and Mendelsohn stand out. Cooke’s character expresses a quiet sensitivity while exhibiting great strength and ingenuity. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn does a terrific job portraying the villainous corporate head of IOI.

say Anything ready player one

Nonetheless, the film is a pure joy and captures the fun and wonderment of Steven Spielberg’s earlier works. It reminds us why he is still the master storyteller in cinema. It lets us revel in our love of nerd culture while reminding us that the simple things are the best.  Ready Player One is a heartfelt and visual spectacle that celebrates our love of geekdom. Go see it now and a few dozen times before buying the download or home release.

José Soto