Thursday, December 2, 2021

Star Wars, Episode IX: Duel of the Fates: Chapter Fourteen- The Pieces

**for previous chapters, please refer to the Table of Contents**

        The deluge surrounded him. Flashing lights and intermingling comm transmissions, most of them simply the last gasps of despair from the commanders of ships that were falling in rapid succession like dominos, overwhelmed Hux's senses. It was as if the very air in the command center was restricting itself around him, taunting him, mocking him. He'd been so close to victory over both the Rebellion and Kylo Ren that he'd practically tasted it, but, it was all ash.

        As another fiery orange explosion ripped across the viewport before him, Hux felt a tap on his right shoulder. He turned around to see Lieutenant Shenjo, his aid, promoted just before the battle, holding a datapad in shaking hands.

        "Sir," his hands notwithstanding, the voice was smooth and steady. Hux had promoted him for a reason, after all. "Latest reports in; the Palpatine Reborn, Star Crusher, and Order's Fist were able to fend off the Wookies and Mon Cals and are moving into formation near B-Station IV. Thrawn's Gambit is also still in communication, but they could not confirm they will reach us."

        Hux had sent an order not that long ago- though it felt like eternity- for every surviving capital ship to draw together around one of the only remaining Battle Satellites around Coruscant, so as to provide a more comprehensive defense of the rest of the fleet. He'd had no chance thus far to determine how much hardware they had left. He'd expected it to be bad, but after waking up that morning with a fleet of several dozen Star Destroyers and Dreadnaughts at his hear only 4 names read off made him feel for a moment as if the ship's gravity wells had briefly shut down.

        He almost managed to keep his voice as even as his aide's when he responded, "Understood. And the rest?"

        Lieutenant Shenjo motioned, almost apologetically, to the orgy of destruction spread out beyond their eyes. "Either already lost, sir, or so damaged that they can't maneuver to us without being eliminated completely. I believe General Dartly is trying to rally survivors on the other side of the planet, but..."

        He didn't need to finish the thought.

        Still feeling a rising nausea- perhaps the gravity wells had been damaged and no one wanted to tell him- Hux surveyed the fight before him again. An inkling appeared in his thoughts, a feeling more certain than any he'd felt before- if he'd had any sort of capacity in that regard, he may have thought it a premonition from the Force itself- that this was it. Kylo Ren was not coming back. Ever. And the First Order had thoroughly and completely lost Coruscant.

        The only option remaining was to somehow, someway, survive this catastrophe.

        His mouth still feeling as if it were filled with ash, he gave the worst order he'd ever had to utter in his entire career. "Signal full retreat. All forces that can escape planetside are to do so, the rest are to go underground."

        Even now, Lieutenant Shenjo responded as if he'd just been told the weather. "Understood. Destination?"

        Hux thought briefly. "Galvon 6 is our closest base. All survivors are to regroup there. What's left of High Command will decide further steps then."

        The lieutenant snapped briefly upwards in salute, then crisply moved forward, forwarding the orders in a crisp, matter-of-fact tone. Hux, however, did not hear him. The sounds once again faded into a muddled wall of indistinct noise. Only one conscious thought was left to him in his utter misery:

        Damn you, Kylo Ren. Damn you to Hell.


        This odd, lightsaber-esque ax Finn had picked up sure was coming in handy. He and Rose had been able to reconnect with Jannah and, with her using a few delayed grenades, they'd already taken out a second Knight, with Jannah and Rose combining their efforts to maneuver him into a position for Finn to cut him down from behind. Now, a third- this one with some sort of strange cannon welded to his shoulder in lieu of a right arm- was staring him down, firing again and again. Yet, with the Force swirling around him, a clarity he'd never before felt in his life, it was all too easy to bat away each blast, the strength and quality of the blade absorbing the kinetic shock, so that only a momentary warmth of the plasma as it passed by ever reached Finn.

        He'd just started to weave his way towards this next opponent when a strange ripple seemed to pass through the very air around him, stopping him in his tracks. He immediately knew it wasn't just him; the Knight that had been so focused on him suddenly stumbled back as if struck, then glanced up into the sky. This was something in the Force. Even with his mask and heavy clothing, Finn could feel the shock radiating off the enemy. Then, even more inexplicably to Finn, the Knight simply turned and vanished into the tumult behind him.

        Too caught off guard by this to try and pursue, Finn turned to see Rose emerging from the debris she'd been using as cover to support him. She was also clearly at a total loss.

        "Did he just..."

        "Yeah. There was the Force, I think..."

        At this, Rose's voice turned sharp. "What?? Was it Rey?? Is she ok?"

        Finn shook his head, still trying to make sense of the shifting sensations within him, "I don't..."

        But that thought was promplty interrupted by Jannah's voice, cutting in on the transmittors they'd been using to coordinate. "Finn! Rose! We did it! The First Order is in full retreat!"

        They briefly glanced at each other in shock before looking up across the plaza, still smoking from its pockmarked blast craters. Through the shifting clouds of smoke and steam, they saw ships marked as First Order rising back up from the gloom, in some cases in such an apparent hurry that figures still clung to hatches and doors only half-closed. One by one, each one attempted to turn to a vector to flee into space, but there were quite a few that were rapidly too shot up by groundfire- or, in a few cases, by assorted atmospheric ships that Jannah's people had been able to capture on the fly during the battle- to escape. These collapsed back groundwards, usually in pieces and all in flames.

        Jannah's voice broke through the moment, "We caught a bit of the last transmission from the First Order. Hux has called for a complete retreat."

        Finn could feel immediately this was true, but he still hardly dared allow himself to believe it. Everything had been so stacked against them and so much had gone wrong. Rey was still missing. But it was real. They'd done it. They'd won.

        Rose, her voice thick with emotion, was the first to collect herself despite the welling tears in her eyes. "Jannah, meet us at the entrance to the Temple. Bring a ship with solid comm gear. We have friends fighting up there and we need to contact them asap."

        Jannah's voice was also shockingly husky as she responded. "You got it. On my way."

        Their comms fell silent. Rose and Finn finally looked at each other, their eyes burning. Finn felt the largest smile of his life break out across his face.

        Without a word, they rushed into each others arms, squeezing tightly as if to keep the whole galaxy at bay, a beacon of love and light that had, for the moment, banished all darkness from the world.


        The fireball that ripped sideways across the curve of Coruscant's surface as the Fist of Vader was torn in two was a thing of marvelous beauty. Poe tucked that image away into the back of his mind, knowing he would revisit it again and again til the day he died.

        This pleasant reverie ended when his comm crackled back to life and he heard the voice that, other than perhaps that of Rey, Finn, or Rose, he had been the most desperate to hear.

        "Still alive, flyboy?" It was Leia, clearly exhausted, but with the same strength and confidence he'd always admired her for.

        "Leia! General! Thank the Force! Are you ok, what happened?"

        Leia chuckled, still sounding weary, and, now that Poe thought about it, a little sad. "It's...a bit much to explain, but that can wait. For now, I want you, Lando, and the others to return to the ship. It's time for a new gameplan."

        "Ay-yay." Indeed it is, Poe thought, as he steered back towards the center of the rebel fleet, time for something new.

        They sat around a command table in a room at a short remove from the main bridge. A Mon Cal commander, having transferred over as a liason after the battle had started, was finishing a summation of both casualties and estimates of how many First Order ships were believed to have escaped, using his webbed fingers to move projected images across a display screen.

        "In total," he concluded, "I estimate that we've seen at least 30 or 35% of Rebel- or, I should say, Allied- ships lost or damaged beyond repair and at least that in personnel lost, though these numbers will almost certainly grow over the next few days as we regroup and take stock."

        He paused for a moment, allowing all a moment fo reverential silence for those who had died today before continuing. "On a more positive note, the First Order has definitely lost significantly more manpower and, of course, control of Coruscant itself. For all the fighting strength they had on hand, we caught them at just the right moment and they could never consolidate; four Star Destroyers were able to make it to hyperstace, in some cases with scattered smaller craft alongside them, but at least 20 of their capital ships are wholly destroyed or disabled and any survivors captured. I estimate casualities in both ships and crew to be least 60%, though again, that is likely an underestimate."

        Poe looked at the faces around him, mostly seeing relief or happiness that the battle was won, but always tempered by at least a little grief over how hard this victory had come. After another moment of digestive silence, Leia finally spoke.

        "So, that's where are now. The question is- what next? Do we pursue the First Order right away, or start with pacifying Coruscant?"

        A powerfully built man with graying hair, the flamboyant color of his uniform identifiying him immediately as a commander from Kuat, was the first to speak. "I say pursue. We have assumed too often that the First Order had been set back only to see them rise again, stronger than before. Now is our chance to wipe them out for good."

        "With what ships?" This response came from a small, but powerfully dignified woman Poe knew had led the Corellian units in the fighting. "Our system sent everything they had available on short notice. I want to finish the First Order as much as anyone but rushing in with our noses still bloody could just as easily lead to disaster. We don't even know yet how many of our surviving ships are even able to still fly, let alone fight." Here she glanced at the Mon Cal to confirm her suspicions.

        He immediately nodded, blinking his large eyes as he did so. "I'm afraid I must concur. Our forces are as spread out as the First Order was. Even at breakneck speed, we are looking at at least a week just to assess the damage from this day, much less effect repairs."

        Leia took all this in silently, then glanced at Lando, who didn't even need a verbal prompt to offer his thoughts.

        "Well," he began after a moment's reflection, "you know me, Princess; I'm always ready for a good gamble if the prize is right. But..." and here his usual sardonic smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, "...I also know from experience how much you can lose when you go up against the wrong odds."

        At this, Leia's mouth curved into an amused smile as well.

        "So I say we stay and regroup first. No use beating the First Order now if Coruscant is left to chaos."

        Leia nodded definitively. "Then that's what we'll do. Let's consolidate our ships in the space over the government district and select a mixed group of forces and personnel to take the reigns planetside. I suspect there's more than enough work there waiting for us."

        Everyone sitting or standing in the room quickly started to jump up and move to their respective stations or ships. Po, however, needed to know something urgently before he could think about anything else.

        "General Leia," he rushed up to her, noting that she was a bit slower in rising from her chair than she used to be. He had to brush that concern aside for the moment, though. "Have you heard anything from Finn? Or Rose, or Rey?"

        At this, the weariness that had endlessly creased Leia's brow lifted entirely. "As a matter of fact, yes. Just before our little meeting here started I got a transmitted message that they are at the Jedi Temple and that they're ok. It seems they found us a whole bunch of friends on the ground ready to help us out."

        Po nearly fell to his knees as he felt the built-up worry and tension of the past few hours leave his body in a rush. For the first time in his life, he began to see the possibility of real peace ahead.

        "General," he said, straightening himself again. "Permission to be part of the landing party headed for the Temple."

        Leia's smile broadened. "Permission granted, flyboy. Now get out of here."

        Po didn't need to be told twice. He turned and rushed back to the hanger bay where he'd left his ship, Lando and Chewie close behind him.


        Rey remained crouched on the ground, her hands on the dirty and shredded garments left behind when Kylo- Ben- had vanished. Her left hand trembled slightly, but within she just felt...numb.

        "I...I thought...even now, maybe I could still save him.."

        A shimmer in the corner of her eye finally made her turn away from the macabre sight, and she saw the figure of Anakin standing to her left. When he spoke, his voice was firm, but still soft with compassion.

        "There is no forcing anything on a Jedi, or a Sith. Ben didn't want to be saved. Chose not to." He leaned forward, close to Rey. "This is not on your shoulders, young Rey, and you can't afford to be weighed down by unearned guilt and shame."

        To her right, Anakin's voice was joined by that of Yoda. "A new world to help create, you now have."

        Finally, Rey felt the numbness start to slip away. Grief, yes, and sadness were still there. But also the serene peace that comes with accepting that some things simply are, and must be.

        Slowly, wincing slightly at the aches and pains throughout her body from the fighting, she brought herself to her feet, her lightsaber held loosely at her right side.

        She turned around, where the Jedi Masters had once again formed a semi-circle before her.

        "Thank you. All of you. I won't forget this. And I promise you, the Jedi will go on."

        Gentle smiles, followed by another chuckle from Yoda. "So important, the Jedi are not. The work to bring peace, justice, safety to all, hm....these are what make life worth living."

        Now even the sadness was being pushed aside from a swelling happiness within Rey, the sort of purpose she'd always wanted for her life, and now finally had.

        Somehow, without knowing how she knew, she sensed that it was finally time for her to return to Coruscant.

        She looked again at the wizened faces before her. "Will....will I ever see any of you again?"

        It was Luke who answered, "Not like this, no. But, like the Force, we will be with you. Always."

        "Thank you," Rey whispered, feeling a wind pick up around her, knowing that was the final goodbye. The wind turned into a rushing light, as both the Jedi and the Mortis itself faded away from her, and she found herself momentarily suspended in a blank, white space, entirely alone.


        Rose and Finn were helping to organize aid stations to gather all the wounded, regardless of uniform, that still filled the plaza in front of the Jedi Temple. The usual cries and sights and smells of death and injury surrounded them, tempering the joy inside them somewhat, a sobering realization that there was bitter work to be done now to rebuild.

        A ship touched down on one of the few spaces available, carrying a few limited medical supplies local residents had collected on the fly. Finn agreed to help unload, while Rose went to seek out Jannah again to see if she needed anything. Her path took her across the front steps leading up into the frontal atrium of the Temple and she paused a moment to gaze up at it, taking a moment to let everything that had happened this long, long day simply wash over her.

        She was about to turn back around to continue to the other side when a sudden flicker of motion drew her attention, a figure that suddenly started to emerge from the shadows within. Her spine stiffened and her mind sharpened in focus, suddenly filled with worry that one of the Knights, or something just as sinister, had taken refuge there and was about to try and wreck some sort of vengeance just as they'd began to relax.

        Her worry dissipated almost instantly into sheer joy when the figure resolved itself into Rey. Clearly bruised and battered, but whole and alive. In that moment nothing else mattered. "REY!" She cried out in relief, dashing up the steps two at a time to grab her in a hug so fierce and desperate they both nearly went tumbling back down towards the plaza.

        For a moment, neither could speak. Finally, Rose pushed Rey back to arm's length. "WHAT happened?? Where were you, where did you GO???? We were so worried!!!"

        Rey winced, a mixture of both physical pain and emotional embarassment at the worry she knew her strange trip to the Mortis must have caused. "It's....a really long story, but I promise, I'll tell you all everything."

        She then glanced over Rose's shoulders and only then seemed to take in the enormity of the battle wreckage spread before her. "What happened to you guys here? Where's Finn?"

        Rose didn't miss a beat. "Long story. I promise, you'll hear it all too. But...Rey, we won."

        Rey had already sensed this after her battle with Ben, but hearing such news from a best friend always gave it far greater meaning. "I know. I...." her voice faltered only slightly, "I stopped Kylo Ren."

        "Figured it was something like that." Rose's eyes then lit up as she realized she had the chance to break the day's biggest surprise to Rey. "Hey, speaking of which- come with me." Forgetting all about her original goal of finding Jannah, Rose grabbed Rey's hand and pulled her down the steps as fast as they could managed- with the adrenaline wearing off, Rose started to feel as beaten up as Rey looked- and back towards the landing zone where Finn was still sifting through crates with other volunteers.

        Before either of them spoke, Finn's shoulders straightened and he wipped around, his face bursting into the biggest grin at what he saw. "Oh my God, REY!" The bear hug that followed was only slightly more painful than Rose's, but no less welcome.

        It was only after Finn had also pulled back that it hit Rey like a Star Destroyer ramming a Golan Battle Station. Not only could she sense him through the Force, she could feel him sensing her!

        "" she couldn't even bring herself to finish the sentence.

        "Yeah...I know..." he looked like he could barely breath from excitement. "I think it was your disappearance, and the Temple....something I'd felt for a long time, but couldn't understand, and now...." his thoughts overwhelmed his mouth and he once again lapsed into silence.

        He paused, took a deep breath, then stood taller and prouder than Rey had ever seen. "Rey...I'd like to be your first student. I'd.....I want to become a Jedi. I think I'm meant to."

        Tears began to slowly trickle down Rey's face. "Yes. I think so too."

        The moment was then interrupted when Jannah suddenly appeared from behind Finn, holding a comm device in her hand. "Hey! We just got a message from an Allied ship. They need a slightly larger space to land, but they've got a lot more and a lot better supplies than what's here!"

        A short while later, the cruiser Rey recognized as coming from Leia's flagship had touched down, with crew quickly exiting the craft to start organizing. The best part, though, was seeing the person disembark she'd sensed as soon as the ship had breached the atmosphere. She, Finn, and Rose raced forward as one and grabbed Poe in a fierce group hug, one that he reciprocated with equal fervor.

        "I knew. I knew you'd all do it." His voice cracked with pride.

        After a moment more, they pulled away from each other. Poe glanced at each up and down, then smirked; "you all look like hell."

        That was enough to break the tension, and for awhile, as the rush of post-battle recovery spun around them, they simply laughed and laughed and laughed.

        Evening. The sun setting over the skyline of Coruscant, brilliant red and orange and purple light reflecting in waves off the concrete, glass, and transparisteel of the many towers and turrents that had survived the day's fighting intact. Typically, the onset of night would mean no reduction in the light and noice and bustle of the galaxy's largest metropolis. Tonight, though, it was all more muted than anyone living could remember, even more than the day the Empire had first fallen.

        Leia reflected on all this, on the years gone by and the friends, foes, and family lost along the way, as she gazed out of the room she'd been provided near the Senate building. Once more, she'd arrived on the cusp of a victorious army, with the means and mandate to recreate a galactic government. Last time, she'd lost one family, but had been lucky enough to find, and later grow, another. This time, she was all that remained; husband, brother, and son, all lost to the darkness of war.

        "All gone..." she murmured to herself, her eyes still taking in the city before her.

        "You know that's not entirely true," a gentle voice behind her said. Her face slowly slid into a smile as she turned around to see the faint form of Luke on the other side of the room. He, too, was smiling, his face filled with a peace she'd not seen in him for years. "The ones we love are always with us."

        "Ah-hah," she responded, "which of the ancient texts did you pull that one from?"

        Luke put on a mock show of injured pride; "Careful there. You should know better than to tease a Jedi Master."

        She returned the joking sarcasm, "And you should know better than to pick a fight with your own sister."

        The smile returned, "Fair enough."

        A pause before he spoke again, "Thank you. For helping Rey in the Mortis."

        Leia felt her expression grow heavier with the memory. "It wasn't just Rey. I suppose...I wanted to see Ben once more. Even if I knew there was no saving him. I really have forgiven him."

        Luke's expression grew more somber as well. "I'd always somehow hoped that, maybe, he would one day forgive me. I don't suppose he ever did."

        Now Leia's tone turned admonishing, "Oh come now. Enough of that."

        Her thoughts returning to what was to come, Leia, turned back towards the window. "I just wish I had a clear picture of what comes next. We had one chance already and failed. What needs to change this time? So that no one has to pay this sort of price again?"

        Out of the corner of her eye, Luke moved up alongside her, taking in the last vestiges of color slowly slipping over the horizon. "Rey asked me the same thing in the Mortis. I don't have any more of an answer than you do. But she's not only strong, she's wise. Well beyond her years. The other Masters and I watched as she searched on her own through the Force. And after she overcame her own darkness against Ben...I do believe that if anyone can find a new path for the Jedi, she can."

        Leia nodded, heartened by this. "And she's got good friends around her. Like we had."

        "Yeah...I think they're more than ready."

        Leia didn't say anything else, only nodded. For longer than she could track, she and Luke simply stood their, silently, side by side, watching the last rays of light fade and night finally come to this corner of Coruscant.

        The next morning, Rey entered Leia's room, glad to have the chance to speak with her alone before everyone would arrive for the planning session. They hadn't had a chance to speak one-on-one since the events in the Mortis.

        Walking through the door, she first say C3PO, a tray with assorted used dishes held stiffly in his arms.

        "Oh! Master Rey! Good morning!"

        "Morning, Threepio. Is Leia already up?"

        "Yes. She waits for you in the living room. May I offer you anything?"

        "Nothing, but thanks."

        Threepio shuffled off towards the kitchen and Rey continued to the next room, where Leia was standing by the window. Rey walked over the join her, and before either said anything, they gave each other a tight, comforting hug.

        "Leia, I....I'm so sorry....your family..."

        "Rey," her voice, even though it was tinged with sorrow, was still so warm and welcoming, "it's okay. Really." She pushed Rey back to arm's length, her hands on her shoulders. "Ben made his choices. There's no changing that. I meant what I said in the Mortis. He was, is, and will always be my son. But this is bigger than any one family. We have another chance for peace, and we need to make the most of it."

        Rey fought back a short wave of tears and nodded. " did you reach the Mortis yourself? How did you find me?"

        Leia was contemplative for a moment before answering. She lowered herself down onto a chair, motioning for Rey to do the same. "You know, I don't think I'll ever fully understand it myself. Just...a feeling, quite sudden, that you needed me. And I just...followed the feeling. And then you were there. You and Ben."

        Rey yearned to ask more, but held back, not wanting to add any more pain to what Leia must already be suffering through. Instead, she simply took Leia's hands in hers. "Well....thank you. You were exactly the person I needed."

        Leia's smile returned, more radiant than ever. "Of course, my dear. Anytime."

        She stood up then, her manner turning official as she moved towards the door, summoning Threepio as she went, "And now, I think you and I are running late. We've got a lot of things to figure out."

Friday, November 12, 2021

Review: Ammonite

Ammonite (2020): Written and directed by Francis Lee. Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, and Fiona Shaw. Running Time: 120 minutes.

Rating: 3/4

        A woman, alone, is on her hands and knees, feverishly scrubbing a wooden floor. Until, that is a sharp, male voice cuts across the screen, telling her to "Move!" Feet shuffle over the beams she'd just finished polishing, Serious Men about Serious Work. They are carrying a table of fossils, marked as having been discovered by Mary Anning. One of them glances briefly at the note with her name on it, snorts, then replaces it with one displaying his name instead.

        So begins Ammonite, a movie for whom the word "subtlety" does not exist. I don't intend this as a critique, merely an observation of a film that I quite admire, even though its reception upon initial release was rather lukewarm given the pedigree of talent involved. Ostensibly based on rumors of a sexual relationship that may or may not have actually happened, Ammonite is centered around Kate Winslet as Mary Anning, a legendary and hugely influential fossil collector, and her friend Charlotte, played by my eternal heartthrob, Saoirse Ronan.

        It is certainly more than past time for more people to get wind of Anning's remarkable life, as she remains (and I know the competition here is fierce) one of the more underappreciated women in history. And though the movie is certainly heavily fictional- it is unknown whether Anning had a sexual relationship with anyone, man, woman, or otherwise- but Winslet very much captures the spirit of her subject, bringing across her strength, intelligence, and dogged refusal to conform to the world around her, even as her name was repeatedly quashed by the men in her field.

        Ronan's Charlotte, the wife of an admirer of Anning's who pops up only briefly at the film's start, is more or less forced on Anning after he leaves her in the seaside town alone to let her "recover" from what was either a miscarriage or death of their child. Feeling pushed into a caring role she feels unsuited for, Anning soon opens up more and more to her guest, while Charlotte quickly learns to appreciate the uniqueness of Anning in a time and place otherwise obsessed with social status.

        I knew about the romance that builds out of this going into the film, and though my expectation of an English repeat of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu proved somewhat off the mark, this is still a tender story about two souls finding something deep and meaningful between them. Ronan and Winslet are both able to convey worlds with just their glances. This allows them to carry a film that is otherwise a little thin around them, which not much else there, aside from hints at a past relationship of Anning's that still haunts her and a surprisingly deep moment involving Anning's mother.

        Seeded throughout is imagery and dialogue reflecting the themes of male dominance over women and the erasure of their presence and work, as well as ideas of loneliness and isolation. The early scenes with Charlotte are filled with moments like this; Charlotte, lying in bed, stares balefully at a moth trapped in a glad, suffocating to death. Or soon afterwards, when she is forced in the midst of grief to wade into the ocean, buffetted and torn by waves she neither wanted to experience nor is able to stop. It's simple, it's straightforward, but it remains effective even in the moments where the strings are obvious.

        I do feel that their is a positivity in the film's existence that goes even beyond the end product itself. Both Ronan and Winslet have been very open about how empowering and enjoyable they found the experience, especially since they were given free reign to map out the movie's central sex scene. Dealing with sexuality in a positive and constructive way for all, male and female, is still something sorely lacking in mainstream cinema, and I would very much hope that this movie can act as a harbinger of things to come. Ronan went so far as to say that she even felt a little angry that it took this long for her to have an experience like this that did not feel demeaning or exploitative in some way. Sadly, this is not surprising, but it does highlight how unacceptable that part of current filmmaking should be in an ideal world.

        Conveying so many ways that relationships form, only to be strained and threatened with breaking by the world around us, is the central pillar of Ammonite, a sweet and heartfelt and committed story of two souls with strength they themselves don't realize they possess. It came and went last year without much ablomb- which, given the circumstances, is understandable- but I think anyone and everyone should see it when given the chance.


Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Review: Eternals

Eternals (2021): Written by Chloe Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, and Ryan and Kaz Firpo, directed by Chloe Zhao.  Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Koeghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie.  Running Time: 157 minutes.  Based on the Marvel comics series originally concieved by Jack Kirby. 

Rating: 3/4


            Fresh of her historic success at the Oscars, Chloe Zhao is now the latest rising-star auteur to be given a chance to provide the now firmly-entrenched Marvel Cinematic Universe with, at the very least, a fresh coat of aesthetic paint. True, there is still world-building for future films that must be tended to, more so in this case than in many others, and that does hold Eternals back from reaching the same singular heights that, say, Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok achieve. Nonetheless, this is still a film filled with breathtaking and beautiful moments, plus a whole lot of genuinely groundbreaking representation for big superhero movies that was still relatively lacking in the MCU to date. Taken together, this was certainly one of the more unique and unforgettable Marvel experiences, whatever its flaws. 

            The central concept of the film is that there is a group of immortal superbeings, called Eternals, on a grand mission from Celestials, who seem to be more or less the Gods in this universe, responsible for creating stars, galaxies, and even life itself. Their main job is to protect intelligent life (meaning, in this case, humans) from dark powers called Deviants that instinctively hunt out intelligent life forms and slaughter them, but to do so in a way that minimally interferes with the development of the protected species. Yes, it's basically the Prime Directive, but for Space Angels. 

            The leader of the group assigned to Earth is Ajak, a motherly Salma Hayak, who spends less of her time fighting and more tending to the needs and wounds (both physical and emotional) of the very colorful and motley crew under her. Indeed, the very specific abilities of each person don't always appear to obviously lend themselves to fighting anything, much less Space Demons, but they ways in which they work in tandem during many of the early action scenes is truly fascinating to watch, and one of the ways in which this film is able to differentiate itself from its predecessors. 

            However, in the present day we learn that the team split up many centuries ago, pretty much explicitly over disagreements over how far and how literally to take their non-interference orders. This is, of course, the explanation for the audience POV-character (Kit Harington as a potential love interest for Gemma Chan's Sersi, who is more or less the movie's main protagonist) as to why the Eternals have not popped up before to stop Thanos, or, well, any other atrocity humanity has cooked up for itself over the millenia. Now, though, a series of mysterious circumstances linked to the reappearance of Deviants convinces Sersi that the Eternals need to regroup and figure out what's going on. Her primary companions in this are the childlike Sprite (Lia McHugh) and her past love interest, Ikarus (Richard Madden), whose flying and laser abilities seem to make him the strongest Eternal, at least physically. 

            Until the major story developments and plot twists start coming, the story is told more or less through a mix of flashbacks to many, many different past ages and places and the present. There is a suddenness to many of these transitions and you often are left guessing for a moment or two if you're in the past or present, but I found this to be rather fitting; a repeated theme is how time and memory weigh on the Eternals, and the sheer endlessness of their existance can make it harder and harder for them to keep up with the thread of their lives and their mission. In the case of Thena, Angelie Jolie's characters, this is explicitly tied into her having a form of PTSD-esque, Eternal-specific mental illness that eventually cripples her incredible fighting abilities. More than a few MCU movies have attempted to grapple with the psychological aspects that must inevitably follow from having such incredible powers, but this is one of only a handful of examples where it feels real and genuine, and not just tacked on. 

            There are lots of other ways in which this film is actively not just breaking ground, but shattering it. Lauren Ridloff steals every scene she's in as Makkari, the first-ever deaf superhero who is already sparking increased interest in learning sign language. Plus, her incredible superspeed powers make for some of the most arresting visual moments in the major fight scenes.  There is the first-ever explicit sex scene in a Marvel movie (basic missionary only, but hey, baby steps), as well as the most direct homosexual relationship to date, though doesn't get the same focus as the heterosexual ones. Throw in Don Lee and Kumail Nanjiani as, respectively, the first Korean and South Asian superheros in the MCU, and there is a lot packed in here that is worth lauding. 

            However, that has clearly not been enough to outweigh the film's noticeable flaws in the eyes of both critics and general audiences, and this is not without reason. The movie is juggling so many balls while trying to tell, as Zhao put it, "a love story across time and space," that a lot of threads inevitably end up underused or seemingly dropped entirely. Barry Koeghan's Druig has a truly frightening power of mind control, and at one point he apparently created something of a secretive cult deep in the Amazon as a rejection of human development, but the very dicey implications of that are never picked up on. For a time, an especially advanced and intelligent Deviant is built up as the narrative "Big Bad" with an understandable grudge with the Eternals, only to become so inconsequential by the end that I had almost forgotten about him when he suddenly dropped into the film's climax. 

            For my money, though, these shortcomings aren't enough to sink the film. Sure, taken as a whole, I would probably rank this somewhere within the mid-tier of the MCU, but this is far more memorable and interesting an effort than most of the other movies at that level. It takes some big swings, and in many ways the conclusion this builds to is very much nothing we've gotten from a superhero movie before.  

            There are still a lot of open questions in terms of where the MCU can develop from here and whether or not audiences can stay committed now that so much of the original cast has moved on, but I'm still here for the ride. Eternals will not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is a movie worth taking the time to digest on your own before shooting out any hot takes. 

-Noah Franc

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Star Wars, Episode IX: Duel of the Fates: Chapter 13- The Final Trial, Part 2

**for previous chapters, please refer to the Table of Contents**

        With time in this place being so ephemeral, Rey could not have said how long they'd been fighting. With both ground and weather shifting all around them, often seemingly at random, both had had to resort to every fighting and physical skill they'd mastered just to keep even. As the Mortis continued to shift in faster and faster cycles around them, from day to night to day and back again to night, Rey and Sidereas struck and parried, attacked and defended. Rey could no longer see or sense the old Masters, but Sidereas' attacks were too intense, too rapid, for her to dwell on her sense of utter isolation. Her twin blades whirled around her like wavering shields, her arms jerking back and forth to hold back any strike Sidereas attempted. However, his own guardrail blades allowed him extra time to react to every effort she made to pass his defenses, and every attempt forced her to retreat once again, least one of his energy blades find flesh.

        For all the increased rage and power she'd sensed in Ben as soon as he'd appeared, their blows had, at first, carried equal strength between them. Slowly, though, she could feel her strength ebbing. Force nexus or no, she couldn't remember the last time she'd ate, or slept, or had a moment of peace to simply close her eyes and breathe. Everything had gone by so fast, and she realized she was now approaching her limit.

        Almost as if the Mortis itself was reacting to her detiorating mental state, a rip appeared beneath them, fissuring up beneath Rey's left foot. She finished a deflection of another attack in time to shift her feet beneath her to avoid falling, but this was just one things too many. She simply couldn't react quickly enough to the lightsaber and her opponent and the very land around them; this time, she couldn't turn her body quickly enough to avoid the impact of a hard kick following Sidereas' lightsaber sweep that felt as hard and sharp as a metal blade. The breath was forced out of her lungs and she felt herself crumble backwards, landing hard on her side against a rocky outcropping rising up out of the ground that she'd apparently been backing into. All at once, her body felt as if it were made of stone, and it was all she could to remain standing upright and keep her saber lit in her hand.

        Immediately, the Force around her was filled with a sense of menacing triumph. Grimacing, drawing on the Force to pull air into her lungs, Rey looked at the shadow before her. The figure that was once Ben Solo raise its glowing blade in a salute, and its angry voice spoke; "Now, finally, it all ends."

        Before he could approach, though, before Rey could even try to summon the strength to go on, the world was once more brought to a halt by the sound of something Rey would never have expected here.

        Leia's voice, calm yet filled with strength, filled the air around them.

        "Ben. My son."

        Sidereas seemed to be as caught off guard as Rey. Pausing for a moment, he turned to the side, and both he and Rey say Leia, standing before them with the gentlest of smiles on her face.

        Rey, gasping through the pain that still ached in her stomach, tried to find something to say. "Leia, you....are"

        Was she dead? Or was she alive and physically there, like her and Ben? She appeared more solid than the Masters had, but there was still something faint about her appearance, though Rey was still not sure that couldn't just be her exhaustion.

        Sidereas merely contemplating her for a moment in silence before speaking, turning more of his body away from Rey and towards this new figure.

        "First Father, then you. Are you also a phantom? Or are you here so I can kill you too?"

        Leia's voice remained soft, but the pain in her eyes was all too apparent. "Ben, please. Just leave all this. You are still my child and I've already forgiven you. Just leave it, and let's be a family again."

        Rey felt her heart break at hearing this, but Sidereas merely snorted with contempt. "I guess I can say it as often as I want, none of you sentimental idiots will ever get it. Alright then." With this, he settled back into a fighting stance, "If you are real, then this is just another test. I can kill you too, and finally be at peace."

        Leia merely looked at him another moment before responding. "If that's what you truly want, Ben, then I won't fight you."

        Though the rocky ground underneath her didn't move this time, Rey felt as if all matter around her had been blasted away, leaving her trapped inside a cold, deathly void. No. Leia, no.

        Her vision began to blur with tears, but she could still identify the shadow-that-was-Ben as it began to move towards Leia. And this sight, somehow, lit a fire that banished all the pain, all the exhaustion, all the worry, that Rey had felt pulling her down. No. Absolutely not. She wasn't about to lose another teacher. Another friend. Her family. Not this time.

        Rey felt her body move like lightning through the air, flipping up and over Sidereas just as he began a horizontal swing that would have cut Leia apart at the waist. Instead, Rey's downward-facing first blade halted him in his tracks, her fury and determination to end this now making the Force around them seem to glow with renewed purpose. Her strength returning, Rey was now defining the terms of the fight, striking and parrying and attacking again and again, forcing Sidereas back on his heels. Using the same tactic she'd fallen prey to, she rapidly followed one attack with a spinning side kick that avoided the guards and connected with Sidereas' knuckles. With an audible crunch and a repressed grunt of pained surprise, Sidereas' lightsaber deactivated as it was sent spinning away. Now, it was the wannabe Sith Lord backed against a rocky outcropping, Rey standing above him with her blade poised for another strike.

        Now, now, do it now. Rey could feel the Force burn within and around her. Her thoughts and motions slowed, as if she had sunk into deep water. Strike him down, bring balance, bring peace, end it. Her vision blurred around the edges, a swirling gray around the still-solid image before her. He's hurt me, he's hurt us, he killed Han, he killed Luke, he'll kill Leia. She had been alone, so alone, for so many years, until she found Poe and Finn and Han and Leia and Luke, and this man had tried to hard to take it all away, and now I can end all this and save the Jedi, save the galaxy...

        Rey. Leia's voice, again, still so gentle and loving and calm. Somehow, just hearing her name like that silenced her thoughts, pulled her out of the tunnel she hadn't realized she was burrowing into, brought her back to herself.

        Rey, her saber still lit and poised above her her, looked with new eyes at the person before her, and Ben, at Sidereas, at the Supreme Leader of the First Order. And she knew, with a finality that she found oddly comforting, that she could not be the one to strike down Ben Solo. Her lightsaber deactivated as if of its own accord. Her arms fell to her sides.

        For a split moment, after Rey's blades faded away, Sideareas stood completely still, hardly daring believe that he was still alive. But he was, no matter how, and that meant he still could- would- triumph. A stray thought of his, searching through the Force, located the feel of his lightsaber, lying a dozen meters away where it had stopped rolling. Keeping his injured hand behind his back as if to protect it, he twitched a finger. In his mind, he felt his blade slowly rise into the air and begin to slowly circle around behind Rey, far out of her line of sight. Now, to just keep her attention on him long enough.

        Rey thought she'd been tired before, but now it was as if the weight of the entire universe had settled into every fibre of her being. She fought the tendrils of unconsciousness that began to grasp at the edges of her thoughts, working to speak, to try once more to see if Ben was still there.

        "...I'm sorry, Ben," every word was a struggle, "I'm sorry it came to this. But I can't be the one to kill you."

        Somehow, even now, the look of hatred and determination remained, and the voice was as dismissive and contempt-filled as ever. "Because you're weak. Like my uncle and my parents. That's why the Jedi were destroyed. That's why you'll fail."

        Rey could only slowly shake her head at this. How could he not understand?

        "I can't kill you Ben...." and here her voice became sadder than she'd ever thought possible, "'ve destroyed yourself already."

        His opponent's words mere chatter in his ears, Sidereas continued to twist his finger ever so slowly, until he could feel that his unlit saber was in place, aimed directly at Rey's back. It trembled in midair, almost as if it was anticipating his strike, his victory, as much as he was. Rey still seemed no closer to resuming the attack, but he'd felt her rage earlier and knew that could change at any time. Now. Now was his chance. He made the smallest of motions with his index finger, and his blade picked up speed, pressure building on the activation plate.

        This time, there was no voice. No actual warning. Rey could barely think at this point, could barely stand. It had all been too much, and she was only one person, barely a Jedi. All she could feel was a nudge, deep within herself- or, perhaps, from the Force- to just....let it go. To take this weight off her own shoulders. To accept her own limitations, her own weaknesses, that no amount of Jedi training would ever perfect or magic away. Rey couldn't save Ben, or the universe, all on her own, because no one person could bear that sort of power. No one person could ever encompass the whole galaxy. The Sith kept trying, and they kept breaking themselves in the process. If Rey wanted to be different, to actually change something, she would first have to learn to let go.

        And she did. Rey took a breath, the deepest she'd taken in what felt like ages, and felt the weight dissipate in her shoulders and legs. Suddenly filled with a profound peace and only semi-conscious of her own body, Rey felt herself crumble to her knees...

        ......the instant his blade was at bullet-speed, the whirring snap-hiss of its three-pronged activation casting the deepening shadows around them in a red hue. Sidereas had no time to react. No time to move or even make a sound. There was only the split-second realization, as Rey collapsed before him, leaving his own body in the direct path of the fire-red lightsaber he'd deliberately thrown with all his telekinetic strength. Even as it tore through his chest, burying itself to the hilt in his lung, he stood, so entirely in shock that at first he didn't even register any pain.

        Rey hadn't heard the unmistakable sound until she was on her knees, having just barely thrown her arms out to stop her falling completely onto the bare ground. Once it registered, and her nostrils filled with the stench of burning flesh, she snapped her head up to see Sidereas standing there, still stone-solid as if frozen, his blade buried in his chest and protruding like some hellish fin from his back, with the front part of his robe beginning to smoke from the proximity of the lightguards. Her senses fully returning to her, she jumped up and grabbed the hilt, immediately deactivating the blade and tossing it aside. Only then did it appear to register in Sidereas' eyes what had happened.

        "Oh..." came out in a small voice, and he then began to crumple backwards. Rey instinctively used the Force to slow his body, settling him gently on his back. The waves of light and weather around them began to shift more slowly now, almost sluggish, as if the Mortis itself was exhausted from the battle that it had born witness to.

        "Ben...Ben..." Rey's brain kept telling her to face facts, that there was no way he could possibly survive this with no medic or gear of any sort on hand, but her heart still refused to believe it. "Ben, you'll be ok. Please. Say something."

        He saw her lips moving, but couldn't hear anything. He could barely feel the ground beneath him, nor could he smell or taste the air. Only his eyes remained active, it seemed, as he saw Rey's face contort with emotion as she continued to try to speak with him. He could feel himself fading.

        Suddenly, it wasn't just Rey before him. All the apparitions from before, all the old, dead Jedi, Luke foremost among them, were once again there. And, curiously, when Luke Skywalker spoke, he heard him loud and clear.

        "It's over, Ben," he said, his voice both resigned and regretful at the same time. "But you can still join us. Reach out to us, and we can still draw you in to the light."

        For a moment, Sidereas didn't respond. He saw, as if viewing a holovid, the moments from his life flash by that had led him here. Led him to his failure. To his death.

        And he knew it had all meant....nothing. He was now...had always been....would always be....nothing.

        His eyes focused one last time on the face of Luke Skywalker, and he spoke. "Now. Now it's dead and buried."

        Ben Solo fell into darkness, forever.

        Rey had barely had a moment to try and register what Ben had just said when his body began to fade into nothingness, his clothes and gear simply falling limp and empty to the ground below, like some stragen apparition.

        "No...NO! BEN!" she cried out, but it was too late. Even within the Force, she felt it as certain as anything.

        Ben Solo- Kylo Ren- Darth Sidereas- was gone forever.