Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens!

Star Wars image from Gizmodo

Of course I have to review the new Star Wars film. Yes, even though you’ve probably already seen it, or otherwise are going to go see it no matter what I say. We tend to think of critics as consumer advocates and guides for what films to see or not see, and that is certainly a part of it. However, there is another aspect to it as well. Criticism of artistic works such as films is also about looking deeper into the meaning of the work and why it either succeeds or fails. So, yes, while nothing I say will have any impact on the film’s already massive box office take, I still have plenty to say about The Force Awakens and why it’s a good movie.

Oh, spoilers: It’s a good movie.

To be clear, there is simply no way that any film with the Star Wars logo can possibly top the original trilogy that started it all. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were the products of that magical “lightning-in-a-bottle” set of circumstances that all happened to line up just right. The technology for film special effects had just improved to the point where such an outlandish story could actually be filmed, the actors all had a great chemistry together, George Lucas was at a stage in his life where he was just the right kind of crazy, and he was able to have his then-wife, Marcia Lucas, edit the films into the masterpieces they are.

Having said that, Star Wars has been in a bit of a creative slump for many years. The prequel trilogy, while it has its fans, was a massive disappointment for most. Other Star Wars-related media, such as TV shows and the like, elicited a mass public response of “meh”.  The franchise has felt like it’s just going through the motions and milking the merchandising train to survive. The magic just hasn’t been there. It’s felt like the people in charge just haven’t cared. And I’m not saying any one person in particular was to blame…

Hey, how'd this picture get in here?

Hey, how’d this picture get in here?

…but the series really did need a fresh set of eyes to pump new life into it. Enter Disney, the company that has spent the past few years transforming itself into an empire of creativity and a leviathan of joy. As we’ve previously discussed here on Cat Flag, since Disney bought Marvel Studios it has found a formula for big-budget blockbuster comic book films that so far seems unstoppable. Meanwhile, it has ignited the imaginations of children everywhere with the mega-hit Frozen and backed some of the most talented and popular YouTube personalities through its Maker Studios subsidiary. If anyone could save Star Wars right now, it would be Disney. So while others seemed surprised, confused, and nervous about Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm three years ago, I was actually rather grateful.

It was also really telling that Disney decided to put the new Star Wars film in the hands of J.J. Abrams, the man who previously was in charge of the Star Trek reboot. Abrams is 49 years old, meaning he would have been a boy of about 11 when Star Wars first hit theaters. He almost certainly grew up playing with Star Wars toys. Maybe he even wore Star Wars pajamas at night, who knows? The point is, Abrams is a long-time Star Wars fan, and that means that he knows what it was that made Star Wars so appealing to people in the first place. Watching The Force Awakens, it shows.

Star Wars image from Screnrant

So let’s get something out of the way right at the beginning. The Force Awakens looks and feels like a fan-film. A big-budget, massive spectacle of a fan film, but a fan film nonetheless. Its plot is predictable and it clearly panders to our nostalgia for the original trilogy. However, in the context of a Star Wars film, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The series started out as George Lucas’s attempt to make a Flash Gordon movie, the film adapted elements from Westerns, samurai movies, and WWII films, and the plot was famously inspired by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory that all mythical heroes follow a common “Hero’s Journey” story arc. Star Wars has always been a predictable nostalgia-fest from the very beginning.

Understanding that helps to underscore where The Force Awakens truly works. It has the difficult task of being a “bridge movie” between the old trilogy and the new one. It must introduce new characters and elements while answering the fans’ questions about what became of the old characters and elements. It manages this balancing act quite well, giving us a compelling set of new heroes to follow whose on-screen chemistry works well together and a new villain who is markedly different that the villains of the previous films. At the same time, it brings back almost all of the old cast but resists the temptation to make them the center of the story. This is undeniably a film about new heroes and their adventures, while the old heroes mainly sit in the background acting as mentors. Harrison Ford, in particular, does a good job as the lovable cantankerous old guy who barely tolerates the young ‘uns around him but grows to genuinely want to see them succeed.

I can’t emphasize enough that it is the characters who make the movie work. Daisy Ridley (Scrawl, Youngers) is completely relatable as a girl just trying to get by with a dead-end, low-paying job in the middle of nowhere while desperately clinging to a hope that is quite possibly misplaced. Even more compelling is John Boyega (Atack the Block, Imperial Dreams) as a Stormtrooper with a conscience who is trying to escape the villains. Heck, I even loved the cute robot, BB-8. Here I was thinking I’d hate that ball that clearly exists to sell toys, but instead I actually ended up caring about it and hoping it made it through the film. Now that’s good screenwriting if I’ve ever seen it.

No, The Force Awakens is not as good as the originals, because nothing can be as good as the originals. Yes, the plot gets clunky at times, and some of J.J. Abrams’s annoying habits are back in full force. (Do you have any idea how big outer space actually is, Mr. Abrams? Your movies make me think you don’t.) Yet a combination of great characters, great acting, good writing, and a director and editors who know how to make great action scenes more than make up for the film’s weaknesses. And yes, even though I tried not to, I cried and clapped when I saw the Millennium Falcon again! At last, this is the movie Star Wars fans have been waiting for. The Force is strong with this one once again.

Reasons to be Optimistic about 2016

You have to admit, the news has been very depressing lately. In less than a month, we’ve seen terrorist attacks and multiple mass shootings, plus another controversial police shooting sparking even more protests. Western nations are getting more and more involved in a very complicated Middle Eastern conflict, tensions with Russia are still very high, and my home state of California is still in severe drought conditions, a fact that has caused major losses for our vital agriculture industry.

Laying it all out like that paints a pretty bleak picture, doesn’t it? What it’s easy to forget about shocking headlines, though, is that they are news precisely because they are shocking. Many of the everyday triumphs that make our world a better place don’t get headlines because they happen so gradually that they don’t get noticed. Well, today I’ve decided to celebrate the easily-forgotten ways that our world is actually getting better, in order to show that there are actually many reasons to be optimistic about the new year!

Crime is on the decline

Police Tape image by Tex Texin

In spite of Gallup polls showing that Americans think crime is on the rise and society is getting more dangerous, the actual crime statistics are showing the exact opposite. Violent crime in the United States has been declining almost every year since 1992. Property crime has recently been at its lowest since the 1960s. We are all actually far safer from crime today than we were 20 years ago.

Here’s a table breaking down the crime rates of all the major crimes since 1960. As you can see, the rate of homicide in 2014 was the lowest ever recorded.

The crazy part is that nobody actually knows why fewer and fewer crimes are being committed now than in the past. There are a few theories floating around, though. One suggests that crime spiked in the 1980s due to the rise of crack cocaine and the gang wars that raged over controlling the cocaine trade; according to this theory, as later generations rejected crack due to its horrific side-effects, crimes linked to the drug declined as well. Another theory holds that technology has proven to be the best weapon against crime, as more people carry credit or debit cards and fewer carry cash, and newer, more sophisticated security systems make it harder to break into houses or cars. Still others have proposed that the aging of the baby boomer generation has played a role in the decline, or that police crackdowns have been more effective.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that our streets are getting safer.

…and so is poverty

Slum image by Jonathan McIntosh

This isn’t to say poverty isn’t still a major problem. According to the World Bank, 702.1 million people worldwide are living without enough food, safe drinking water, shelter, or access to health care, sanitation, or education.

Yet poverty around the world has been declining every generation since 1820. In 1990, the United Nations pledged to cut the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. Not only did they succeed, they beat their own deadline by five years, passing that threshold in 2010. The World Bank now predicts that the rate of extreme poverty worldwide will be less than 10% of the total human population, for the first time ever in all of human history.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the lion’s share of this decline is taking place in Asia and Latin America, where economic development has been booming for years. People in these parts of the world have more jobs, infrastructure is being built, and a middle class is growing. In Africa, meanwhile, the poverty rate may be declining, but at a much lower rate. More than 40% of sub-Saharan Africans are still classified as living in “absolute poverty”.

Meanwhile, poverty in the United States actually rose during the Great Recession, with a current rate of around 15%. While this is much lower than the poverty rate of the early 1960s, it is still higher than normal for us. So it looks like there is still work to be done.

We are actually living in one of the most peaceful times in human history

Peace sign image from Wikipedia

In spite of the raging conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and other hot spots around the globe, by any statistical measure peace is winning out over war globally.

There have technically been no wars between countries since 2008, when Russia invaded the neighboring country of Georgia. That war only lasted five days and ended with a negotiated agreement between the two countries. You could argue that the War in the Ukraine is also a war between countries, though technically it is a civil war between the Ukrainian government and rebel troops that Russia vocally insists (in spite of all evidence to the contrary) are not just Russian soldiers wearing different uniforms.

All of the rest of the current ongoing wars are civil wars or wars against terrorist groups, and while both of these can be horrific and brutal, in general they tend to cause fewer casualties than wars between nations. Indeed, deaths as a result of armed conflict have been in decline since the 1980s, and genocides and other forms of mass killings are far rarer than they used to be. It seems that people are just not as willing as they used to be to shoot or bomb each other.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. Three reasons the world isn’t so bad after all. Here’s hoping all of you have a peaceful holiday season and an optimistic 2016!