Friday, October 3, 2014

REBELS REVIEW: "Spark of Rebellion"

The latest incarnation of Star Wars, Rebels, has now officially aired on TV. I won't be able to review the entire show - I don't even know if I'll have access to cable overseas - but I thought I'd at least share my thoughts on the TV movie, "Spark of Rebellion." Overall, there is some real promise with the characters, but a number of problems with the overall tone of the show and, surprisingly, the soundtrack. It's a fun ride, but does it have the potential to become something more?

I don't feel that I can review the show adequately without discussing key plot points in depth, so there are SPOILERS below.

The story is pretty simple, even simplistic at times. A ragtag bunch of Rebels piloting an old freighter, the Ghost, arrives on the planet Lothal to steal some equipment from the Empire. While there, they meet Ezra Bridger, a young human who shows some potential with the Force. The rebels take him along, but after a botched sabotage mission on an Imperial cruiser he gets captured. The rebels rescue him, and then in turn go to the spice mines of Kessel to rescue a group of Wookiee slaves. One of the Rebels, Kanan, reveals himself to be a Jedi and saves the Wookiees. The show ends with Ezra joining the crew under the tutelage of Kanan.

The tone of Rebels has been a source of considerable controversy amongst Star Wars fans, so it's worth addressing. Filoni and others have described Rebels as hearkening back to the spirit of the Original Trilogy, but I don't feel that's quite right. Although the Original Trilogy was made with kids in mind, at their best, the movies had an epic or mythological tone. Not unlike the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, they were fantastical stories in which heroes overcome overwhelming odds, but also confronted darker truths. "A New Hope" didn't shy away from showing the brutality of the Empire - just think of the burnt Jawas or the Lars family. George Lucas himself was concerned that revealing Darth Vader to be Luke's father might scar some kids. In "Return of the Jedi," we even glimpse the possibility of Luke, nominally the hero, joining the Dark Side.

Nobody would ever confuse the Original Trilogy for Game of Thrones, but to simply call it a whimsical adventure is to miss much of what made the films resonate so deeply. In fact, part of the genius of those movies is how they touch upon so many emotional cues without feeling disjointed. The sombre scene of Luke staring at the destruction of his homestead and the hilarious banter between Han and Leia in the Death Star detention block both feel like part of the same movie and in fact complement each other. Without the suffering, the catharsis of the Rebellion's victory would seem hollow; without the humor, we would be less attached to the characters. In fact, in his commentary for the blu-rays, Lucas notes that the real threat to Luke was always internal rather than external. That threat of "darkness" made Luke a much more interesting character than he would have been had he simply charged at his enemies blindly.

Based on "Spark of Rebellion," as well as public comments from Dave Filoni, Rebels is more of a whimsical adventure and won't venture into the darker territory that we got in the later seasons of "The Clone Wars." Indeed, the heroes seem to rush around without a plan and survive every scrape without a scratch. To its credit, their exploits are generally fun to watch. That said, I do think the show needs to give the story and characters more weight. Right now, it seems like it's all fluff, no meat. It's not that bad things don't happen to the characters in "Spark of Rebellion," but rather that the viewer is never given the opportunity to experience the danger and sadness that such situations should evoke.
Gotta keep one step ahead of the Empire

One moment stuck out to me as tonally dissonant. After the failed boarding raid on the Imperial cruiser, the Rebels flee and leave Ezra behind. Ezra had just risked his own life to board the cruiser in order to warn the boarding party about a trap. As they're fleeing, Zeb sees Ezra get captured right outside the hatch of the Ghost. Zeb closes the hatch when he realizes that he couldn't save Ezra alone. Initially, I thought this had the potential to become a really powerful character moment. Zeb had found the kid frustrating, but he seemed genuinely sorry to see Ezra get captured. Unfortunately, the scene is played for laughs and not consequence. When Zeb talks with the other members of the crew, he obfuscates what actually happened to Ezra. Rather than say something like, "I felt bad but he got captured and I had to close the door before the Imperials stormed our ship," he pretends not to know and tries to shift the blame. Unintentionally, the comes across as horribly callous.

It turns out not to matter though because Ezra is apparently never in any danger. The Imperial Stormtroopers apparently didn't bother to search him before throwing him in a cell because Ezra still had the holocron he'd stolen from Kanan. He then proceeds to trick the entire crew using the intercom unit in a helmet. The entire time it feels like Ezra is just having a blast running circles around the Empire. Now, we all know Imperials aren't the most competent villains, but this scene made them comically buffoonish. I obviously don't think we should have seen Ezra getting tortured - this is after all a kid's show. But I do think the show missed an opportunity to build his character by showing him in a moment of vulnerability. The kid doesn't have to be "Jedi Aladdin" all the time! After all, he initially refused Hera's entreaties to warn the boarding party about the trap because he was afraid for his life, but that fear seems to disappear once he's captured. It would have been nice to have seen him overcome those fears rather that for the episode to just forget about them.

Despite my complaints about the tone, I did enjoy the characters. We don't learn too much about them in this first episode, but they definitely are multidimensional characters. Orson Scott Card once said that a good character must have unique relationships with different characters. In other words, Character A's relationship with Character B should be of a totally different nature and type from his/her relationship with Character C. To some extent, I think Rebels achieves this. We see Ezra interact with the other members of the Ghost, and he's already developed unique relationship with different characters. Kanan is more like a distant uncle who wants to push and train Ezra, while Zeb is more like an older teen who doesn't want an annoying kid around. Hera's conversations with Ezra are almost exclusively about lofty ideals, while Sabine's are much more personal. We don't know much about the characters yet, but I eagerly anticipate learning more about their backstories.
Read A New Dawn to learn more about Kanan

I know a lot of fans have been excited to hear music from the Original Trilogy featured so prominently in the trailers for Rebels, but in the actual episode I thought it was overdone. It's as if the score was a mashup of the best of John Williams without any consideration as to whether or not it fit with the story. At other times, the cuts between various themes was very abrupt. For example, when the Ghost first flees from Lothal, it is pursued by TIE Fighters. It's a relatively brief skirmish, yet the soundtrack plays cues from the Battle of Yavin track, which I thought sounded far too epic for what was being shown on screen. In "A New Hope," Williams wisely saved the more epic themes for the climax of the film and used a less bombastic track for the Millennium Falcon's first battle with TIE Fighters. Ironically, I know Kevin Kiner can compose a good original soundtrack based on his record with "The Clone Wars." This just goes to show George Lucas' wisdom in restraining him from using too much of John Williams' music in that show.

This review probably sounds harsher than I'd intended. I focused on the tone of the show because that seems to be the most controversial aspect thus far. There is still room for a lot of improvement, but the fundamentals are relatively sound. The cast consists of entirely original characters. Not only do I not miss Anakin and Luke, but I actually find these new characters interesting. Rebels promises to be a fun ride. Whether or not it manages to tell great stories is another question. I think the biggest problem is that the show seems afraid to make Ezra vulnerable. I don't mind having a kid as the protagonist in this show, but at least let him behave like a real kid.

Overall, I'll give "Spark of Rebellion" 3 out of 5 AT-DP helmets:

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