My Thoughts On The Last Jedi (Part 2/2)

I have just returned from seeing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

In part one of this lengthy expose, I talked about my feelings on Star Wars as a whole, and about the first six movies. I didn’t get into Episode VII very much and I probably won’t dive too deep into it here, because now I’m going to talk about what I really came here to talk about: The Last Jedi.

In short, I loved it.

I loved it so much that there were moments when I felt utterly captivated and I could understand, for a moment, why so many people have loved Star Wars for so long. I felt like maybe I just never quite found MY Star Wars film, the one that suited me and my generation and what I wanted to see. I suppose that since I’m a child of the nineties, the prequels would be considered my trilogy, but as I watched The Last Jedi I just couldn’t help but be impressed by every aspect of it.

It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, this is certainly not an unbiased review, but I was biased AGAINST Star Wars going in, and expected absolutely nothing of it, not the least among the reasons being that it seems like most fans hate it (but then, as we discussed earlier, STAR WARS FANS ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE and will never be satisfied with anything), and Mark Hammill has made some… interesting comments about what he feels the writers did to Luke’s character.

I’m here to tell you, as a person who generally dislikes Star Wars, that I was well and truly impressed by this movie in every way. It felt like the movie allowed itself the space to tell a full story and utilized every moment they had perfectly, nothing was wasted. I’m not really going to do much of a plot synopsis here, but I’ll talk about the things that I find relevant. Also I guess it goes without saying but I may as well say that there will be SPOILERS for the film, and honestly if you haven’t seen it, I really think you should. And by the way, I went into the movie having had the whole thing pretty much spoiled for me on purpose. I specifically looked for The Last Jedi spoilers because I was vaguely interested in how the plot points and potential from Episode VII would be expounded upon in this movie. On paper, it would appear that the movie took all the potential from Episode VII, ripped it up, shit all over it and threw it out a window into space. None of the fan theories turned out to be right: Rey’s parents are (probably) not Skywalkers or Kenobis, Ben Solo didn’t turn good (well, not entirely anyway), Snoke is not revealed to be the long-lost Darth Plagueis (although I’m still kind of holding out hope that he might be), Poe and Finn are probably going to have a gay romance, and Luke… well, we’ll get to Luke.

It seemed to me like the change of director had been bad for the franchise.

I was wrong. As a matter of fact I think I’m really glad that J.J. Abrams left, because honestly I think his movies have the same run-of-the-mill, seen-it-all-before feel to them that I get from every goddamn superhero movie these days. But it does mean that the development of the film was tumultuous, going through several directors, and then of course there’s the very untimely death of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Leia is front-and-center in this film, and boy am I happy about that.

I’ve always felt Leia never really got the screen time she deserved, and was always a supporting character. In truth she still is a supporting character, but in a really appropriate way that I don’t think undermines her as a character at all. Carrie Fisher’s performance is wonderful, even though there are a few moments where her voice cracks pretty badly, but hey, Carrie Fisher has aged and so has Leia. The resistance members spend just about the entire movie locked in a space battle with the First Order’s flagship, maintaining a distance so that the First Order’s weapons can just reach their shields but not quite penetrate them yet, as the First Order slowly picks off all of their smaller ships and fighters. There is a moment when the bridge is blasted head on and every leader of the Resistance is sucked into space and killed at once, including Leia… but wait a minute!

Leia finally gets to have her Jedi moment and I think it’s executed absolutely perfectly. I call it her Jedi moment but really it’s her Force Power moment. We’ve always known that Leia is force-sensitive, but in the films she’s never really used the Force, apart from sensing the presence of loved ones. It might have felt silly and hammy to have Leia go on a badass rampage and start Force-pushing stormtroopers, or to whip out a lightsaber, so the way her Force ability is used feels completely organic and true to the character. When she’s sucked out into space, she’s seemingly knocked unconscious, but she begins to manipulate the particles around her and telekenetically pushes herself back toward the ship so she can be brought inside and rescued. It’s left vague whether she was consciously doing any of this or whether it was an instinctual act of self-preservation (I tend to think it’s the ladder), although her eyes do open if that counts for anything. Leia being bedridden, along with the loss of all the rebel leaders (including everyone’s favorite “It’s a trap!” trope namer, Admiral Ackbar) means that a hitherto unforseen character, vice-admiral Holdo, becomes the new de facto leader.

People seem to have a lot of opinions about Holdo, with some people feeling she’s the feminist icon Star Wars desperately needs, and others saying she is some kind of strange diversity-hire just put in to please the politically correct crowd. As always, people who think the latter are fucking stupid, because it couldn’t be father from the truth. Insert ANY character who happens to be a minority into a series, and it’s a guarantee that some fans will riot, saying that the producers just did it to appeal to “the PC crowd.” And by the way, what IS the PC crowd? Because it seems to me that if you insert a black character, the most you could be appealing to are black people, or people who don’t mind seeing a black person. So then, the only reason you’d be against seeing a black character is because… it’s because you’re racist, right? I don’t see any other alternative.

And it’s the same thing with Holdo. SOME PEOPLE (probably of the male variety, wearing fedoras and stroking their neckbeards while burping up some Mountain Dew) seem to think that she was shoehorned in so that the movie could say “Look at us, we have a female character in a position of power, HAND OVER YOUR MONEY, FEMINIST DROVES!” And also apparently some people are bothered by the fact that she has purple hair, a complaint so incredibly laughable in the context of fucking STAR WARS that I don’t even know how to go about adressing it. I mean, Yoda is a tiny wrinkly green muppet, there are green-skinned women with wet, mucus-covered tentacles poking out of their heads, one of the central characters is an eight foot tall Bigfoot that moans in a gargling whinny for speech, but yeah, it’s really the ONE LADY WITH PURPLE HAIR that strains credibility too far here.

At any rate, Holdo is the new commander of the fleet. Well, this trilogy’s Han Solo archetype, Poe, does not like that at all, and does like her methods. She wants to retreat and live to fight another day, ensuring the survival of the rebel alliance and sending a spark of hope to light a fire under the ass of the First Order. Poe would much rather be a swashbuckling hero, ride on in there and blow the shit out of their flagship (cause that worked so well when the previous heroes did that to the Death Star), and win the day for the Rebellion. They both have noble goals, and this is where we start to see what I feel is the central theme of this movie, the conflict between difficult decisions and choosing a path. Poe and Holdo both want what’s best for the rebellion, and while Leia agrees with Holdo’s philosophy, she does understand and secretly ALSO agree with Poe’s. But Leia is older now, and she’s not as willing to throw away innocent lives just to win a space battle, if that kind of thing can be avoided.

Meanwhile, back to the real meat of the story, we have Rey, who traveled across the galaxy to the homeworld of the Jedi to find Luke, who has secluded himself in shame after losing his apprentice to the dark side. We pick up right where the last movie left off, with Rey holding out Luke’s lightsaber to him. He takes it from her, and in a move that we probably all see coming, casually tosses it backwards over his shoulder. Don’t worry though, some Porgs find it, and in that moment they are ALMOST useful to the story and not clearly Disney’s attempt to merchandise a new adorable toy. Honestly I get why people hate the Porgs, they’re kind of cute in context but they do feel somewhat out of place and is it me or is their CGI kind of shabby? Oh well. That’s all I have to say about Porgs, really.

So, Luke. Mark Hammill has done several interviews now where he talks about he vehemently disagreed with the filmmakers’ writing of Luke Skywalker. Luke has become an island unto himself by sulking on a literal island in the middle of the ocean, ashamed and without hope at the loss of Ben to the Dark Side. He hates the Jedi, he hates what they became, he understands the turmoil they brought about during the time of the Old Republic, and he understands how meaningless legends can be. He knows that he’s a legend across the galaxy, but he also knows that a legend is not the real story. He’s done a lot of introspection, and in his despair he’s cut himself off from the Force. He’s isolated, scared, and ashamed. He’s in a dark and desperate place. Mark Hammill has said that this is completely out of character for Luke, it’s not something he would do. If Luke Skywalker saw that the galaxy was in trouble, he’d get off his ass and go out there and save it.

But you know, I have to disagree with Mark Hammill, and part of my disagreement is based on what a damn fantastic job he does portraying an angry and bitter Luke. The Luke we know was young, naive, and passionate. He didn’t have time to grow and learn, to be jaded by reality. Young Luke believed there was good in Darth Vader and was brave enough to go and face him to try and turn him to the Light. But old Luke is a veteran of the deadliest war in the galaxy, he’s seen so much despair and turmoil, and he had dreams of rebuilding the Jedi Order into something grand and beautiful. His hopes and dreams were dashed by Ben Solo. He’s lost everything he loves, and the galaxy that he fought so hard to protect is teetering on the brink of totalitarianism again, despite everything he did to try and save it, and he feels that it’s ALL HIS FAULT. He feels that he failed Ben, just as Obi-Wan failed Anakin.

And really, a LOT of what happens in this movie is a direct parallel to what happened in the original films. Obi-Wan and Yoda both went into hiding after losing Anakin to the Dark Side, and they both had to be approached by someone else asking for help (in Obi-Wan’s case, Leia) before they agreed to rejoin the fight. Obi-Wan wasn’t quite so depressed as Luke, but essentially they are in the same position. When Luke finally agrees to teach Rey about the Force, it’s a mirror of his time with Yoda, with him taking on the role of the grizzled old Jedi whose seen what happens when he fails to protect the galaxy from the Dark Side, and even though he has a lot of wisdom to pass on to Rey, they disagree on what should be done next, the same way Yoda and Luke disagreed on Dagobah.

I think that Mark Hammill missed the point of Luke’s sadness and isolation. The REASON that he’s acting so unlike himself is BECAUSE he’s in a rut, and he has to redeem himself. He’s only human, he’s allowed to fail, to make mistakes, to forget who he is, and then be forced to remember by a young idealist like Rey. It’s during Rey’s training with Luke that we also learn that Ben Solo actually had a legitimate reason for betraying Luke. It wasn’t because Snoke found him and seduced him into leaving the Light side, although that is a factor, it’s because Luke tried to murder him. Luke sneaked into Ben’s tent while he was sleeping, ignited his lightsaber, and stood over him, ready to murder him in his sleep. Luke later admits that this was true, although he had already changed his mind as soon as he’d ignited the lightsaber, but by then the damage was done, and Ben turned on him fully.

There’s also the interesting new development of Rey and Ben having a telepathic link that connects them at unforeseen moments and allows them to see and speak with one another. Rey begins to see Ben’s side of things, and Ben’s veneer of purpose and stoicism is breaking fast. He throws one of his usual tantrums in a lift when he breaks his helmet against the side of the wall, and spends a lot of time crying, but it’s clear that he’s on a path he doesn’t want to be on, but he’s confused and hurt, and doesn’t know where to go. He doesn’t WANT to follow Snoke’s path, but he also doesn’t want to return to Luke, who he rightfully feels had betrayed him. To her credit, Rey becomes infuriated when she learns that Luke tried to murder Ben, and the two of them have an impressing fight sequence, which Rey wins by calling Luke’s lightsaber to herself and igniting it.

The thing about Rey and Ben is that they represent balance and chaos. Rey has been our hero up to this point, but as Luke notices she has tendencies that could lead her to the Dark side. She continues to feel alone and abandoned because of her literal abandonment by her parents as a child, and she is particularly drawn to a cavern beneath the island which seems to contain some kind of deep, dark energy, although it’s never specified exactly what it is. It is somewhat reminiscent of Luke’s journey into the cavern on Dagobah when he had to face Darth Vader and found his own face inside Vader’s mask. In Rey’s cavern, she sees several versions of herself in a straight line, with her in the center, one side representing the past and the other being the future, each one moving right after the next. She attempts to learn the identities of her parents but she doesn’t.

And now both Rey and Ben have the potential to turn to the Light side or the Dark. I doubt that Rey will become the villain, but the important thing is that this whole movie emphasizes moral grey areas and the space between two extremes. The prequels were about the Dark Side, the originals were about the Light Side, and this trilogy is about the space between. When Rey and Ben finally meet in person again, each one thinks they can turn the other to their side. The confrontation with Snoke is fantastic, with him showing off his mastery of the Force and easily overpowering Rey, who begins fighting using Ben’s lightsaber when she can’t get to her own, which was formerly Luke’s. Snoke finally Force pushes her in front of Ben and gives him the opportunity to redeem himself in Snoke’s eyes and complete his journey to the Dark Side by snuffing out the only hope of the Light, but Ben finally stands up to Snoke and impales him by telekenitcally igniting Rey’s lightsaber and cutting him in half. There is this fantastic sequence rather afterward where Ben and Rey stand back to back, fighting off Snoke’s guards, finally on the same side. At the end of it, though, Ben does the same thing that Vader did with Luke, and holds out his hand in an offer for Rey to rule the galaxy alongside him. We see that Ben has the potential to overcome the Dark side, but he’s still unsure, still wavering.

It’s also around this point that Ben confronts Rey about her parents, saying that she’s known all along that they were never anyone important, just nobodies who sold their daughter for money and abandoned her, before leaving to go die a meaningless death and be buried in the desert. It’s unclear whether this is actually true, although Rey seems to agree, but there is a possibility it’s Ben attempting to turn her by extinguishing any hope that her parents might have been important or had a good reason for abandoning her.

I want to mention that I think Adam Driver does an amazing job of playing Ben, who’s such an emotionally volatile character. I also really like his fighting stance and movement, whereas previous Jedi’s have fought somewhat like samurai wielding katanas at one another, Ben is a berserker who stands with his feet apart, planeted on the ground, and moves slowly like a tank made of stone, barreling through enemies in his path. Rey is the opposite, swift and graceful, emphasizing once again how these two characters represent opposite extremes, and the grey areas between. There are several visual motifs that show this, and my favorite is when Rey and Ben are both attempting to pull a single lightsaber caught in the air between them, and their power is so evenly matched that the lightsaber breaks in half. Interestingly, this is also Luke’s lightsaber, and it’s one of the many times visual motifs represent the old guard of Star Wars passing the torch to the new characters. A lot of this movie is about Luke, Leia and the others handing over the galaxy and the Force to the newcomers, because it’s their time.

One final note about Adam Driver, I am really impressed and a little disturbed by how deep his voice is. I honestly can’t tell if it’s a vocal effect they used on him, but his incredibly low voice is unsettling. I couldn’t help imagining him saying “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”

HEY HOW DID THIS PICTURE GET HERE THIS ISN’T KYLO REN OH WELL LET’S JUST KEEP IT

But I digress.

The movie has a pretty long run time, which is fine with me, because everything seems to happen exactly as it should. And unlike other Star Wars movies, this one doesn’t have abrupt scene changes where the screen just wipes from one planet to the next, the characters hopping from place to place all over the galaxy, most of the action takes place within a few specific areas. There is a subplot involving Finn and a newcomer called Rose finding a master hacker who can get them into the First Order’s ship to disable their tracking mechanisms. It’s a perfectly good section of the film and the two of them do manage to liberate a herd of domesticated racehorses (or the Star Wars equivalent thereof), although there is a minor antagonist who I don’t think adds much to the story, but I guess we had to do something with Finn. Personally I don’t think this section of the movie is BAD, just that it’s a bit of a detour from the central action.

When Finn and Rose finally get on board the First Order flagship, it turns out that the sketchy rogue they hired turns on them at the last minute and hands them over to the First Order. It’s here that Captain Phasma makes her return, and I’d heard a lot of criticism saying that her fifteen minutes weren’t used very well. While it’s certainly true that she wasn’t on screen for a terribly long time, I thought she was perfectly effective and served as a good antagonist for Finn, who honestly didn’t exactly have the largest role in this movie.

Meanwhile, Holdo decides to evacuate the remnants of the Rebellion to a nearby planet with an old abandoned rebel base, and Poe stages a mutiny, taking over the bridge of the ship. He is stopped before too long by Leia herself, who walks in and blasts him with a stun bolt. Holdo elects to stay behind and pilot the ship while everyone else escapes, and while Leia knows this will involve Holdo sacrificing herself, she accepts her choice and wishes her luck. The two of them have a somewhat tearful parting in which they hold hands, implying that they’ve become very close friends during the time they’ve served together. Leia does seem heartbroken to lose someone else she cares about so soon after Han’s death.

Holdo does what I immediately suspected she would do, but admittedly I only saw it coming because Katherine Janeway did the exact same thing in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. She charges the ship up to lightspeed and then barrels right through the First Order flagship, cutting it in half. This results in Finn and crew being saved just in time by the destruction of the ship, and Finn having a final, but brief, confrontation with Phasma. Also they are at one point rescued by BB8 piloting a walker ship, which felt like a strain on credibility not QUITE equivalent to fish driving a truck in Finding Dory, but not ENTIRELY unlike it either. We do get to see Phasma’s eye through her helmet before she goes, so it was good to get to see her face.

As the ship falls apart, the half that’s still remaining operational fires on the escape pods, dwindling the entire Rebellion down to a handful of people, maybe a couple dozen, as they land on the planet’s surface beneath. This is where we enter the final act, and I have to say that there’s a visual element here that’s so brilliant that it saved the finale of this movie from possibly becoming a bit tedious. There’s a moment when the Rebels are in a trench and one of the captains walks out onto what appears to be a snowy landscape, only to leave what I genuinely thought was a trail of blood. I thought it was weird that this completely unnamed character would be bleeding, but one character puts his finger in it and then licks it and announces “it’s salt,” revealing that this planet is covered in salt that turns red when it’s touched – either that or it’s a red landscape covered in white salt, but either way the effect of this is startling good. During the ensuing battle between the last of the Rebels and the First Order, the Rebel ships skirt across the salt lands leaving a trail of red dust in their wake, making intricate patterns of red on a landscape of white, and blaster shots that hit the ground blow up puffs of red smoke, which gives this whole battle an excellent visual appeal, the kind of thing that was sorely missing from things like the original films’ battle on Hoth, which I find boring because it takes place on a bland snowy landscape.

There is a final moment on the Jedi homeworld where Luke is left alone, and he carries a flame to the tree holding the ancient Jedi texts, ready to burn the whole thing down. It’s now that Yoda appears to him as a Force ghost, looking and speaking like his older version from the originals (good choice on the part of the filmmakers), and when Luke hesitates to set the tree on fire, Yoda does it himself by calling down a bolt of lightning. Luke is flabbergasted at this, and Yoda cleverly quips “The ancient texts, page-turners they were not.” And he agrees with Luke that it’s time for the old Jedi order to die. It’s up to Rey and Ben to decide what happens to the Jedi now, and it’s time for the old masters to move on. Yoda gives Luke his usual dose of wisdom, pointing out that the burden of a master is to watch his pupil replace him and move forward into a new and different world.

Back on the salt-planet, the Rebels try their best but they can’t hold off the First Order who are fast approaching and blow a huge hole in the wall protecting them. Leia and the others wait for the end as the First Order begins approaching, and as the distress call to the remnants of the rebellion scattered across the galaxy goes out, they receive no response. Leia mourns that there is no hope left, and it’s at this moment that Luke appears in the doorway, wearing a black cloak. He kneels in front of Leia and they finally have a moment to reconcile, and he apologizes for failing Ben. Leia admits that she knows now that her son is lost, and there’s a beautiful moment where Luke kisses Leia on the head.

During most of the movie I was so interested in what was happening that I had almost forgotten Carrie Fisher died after filming in this movie and that this was her final film, coming full circle and ending her career playing Leia again. There are some really striking visual setpieces in this movie, one of them being Leia standing and looking out on the white saltlands with a veil covering the lower portion of her face, and another being Luke’s final goodbye to Leia as he kisses her on the head. I couldn’t help but notice that the love theme that played during Han and Leia’s scenes in the original movies makes a return for this moment and a couple of times in the movie during scenes concerning Leia, and it was an excellent touch. It really feels like this moment of Luke saying goodbye to Leia was also a moment of Mark Hammill, and all of us, saying goodbye to Carrie Fisher. She appears after this scene, but it’s a beautiful moment and I’m sure the filmmakers knew the kind of impact it would have on viewers after Carrie’s death.

Luke walks out alone against a fleet of First Order ships, and Ben has them unload all of their firepower into him, trying to ensure that he can’t survive. When Luke emerges completely unscathed, there is a moment where the viewer probably thinks “Oh COME ON, are we really overpowering the hero TO THIS DEGREE?” but it will make sense in a bit. Even I already knew the twist that was coming with Luke and was still startled by his appearing to survive being shot at by tons and tons of ammunition.

Ben emerges alone into the field to battle Luke. As I’ve mentioned before, the white-on-red terrain effect for this planet is brilliant, and provides a gorgeous set piece for the final act, and it really gives the impression of the land bleeding every time it’s touched. The blaster shots into the ground blowing up puffs of red smoke are like geysers of blood from the land itself, and Luke faces Ben in the bloody scar where the First Order just unloaded all their firepower. Within the rebel base, Leia and the others realize that Luke is drawing their attention to stall for time, and they notice that the local ice-foxes (a much better and more interesting creature than the Porgs, and actually relevant to the plot) have disappeared and have found a way out of the maze of tunnels. They follow them only to be blocked by a wall of rocks, and it’s now that Rey appears, obviously about to show off her force powers by lifting them out of the way. It’s a very good final deed for her character in this movie, because it’s something simple yet important, and also references Luke lifting rocks while training with Yoda, something he himself mentions earlier in the film when he says the Force is more than “just lifting rocks.”

Luke and Ben have a dramatic final battle, which ends with Ben dealing a killing blow to Luke, only to find that once again, he’s completely unphased. He presses his lightsaber against Luke’s chest only to find it goes straight through him, and Luke reveals he’s non-corporeal, as he’s been astral projecting himself this entire time. Interestingly, his astral projected form had a haircut and cool black battle robes. Presumably the lightsaber was real, though. A lot of people have been complaining about Luke astral projecting as it’s an ability that’s never before been shown in Star Wars. Well yeah, what’s that got to do with it? I mean, he’s the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy and he’s been living on the Jedi homeworld and reading their secret ancient texts, so it’s not surprising he would show off some new powers.

There is a beautiful moment where Luke shows that his hope is renewed, and that Ben is wrong to think that he’s finished the Jedi, as when Ben tells him that after he kills Luke the last Jedi will be dead, he tells Ben that he’s wrong, and he isn’t the last Jedi. I actually really like this because it implies that there is a last Jedi, but it’s not specificed who it is. We’ve seen the capacity for both Rey and Ben to be led to different sides of the Force, and that there aren’t really heroes and villains. This whole movie has the feel of reality, of bittersweet endings, of grey morality, of things not being so simple as there being a chosen one who fights off the forces of evil. It’s growth, and that’s something that Star Wars desperately needs. There’s also a nice reference to the battle between Obi-Wan and Vader (again, everything in this movie mirrors the previous films, with this fight being the equivalent of the battle between Vader and his older master, grown older and wiser over the years) where Luke tells Ben that “if you strike me down in anger, I’ll be with you forever, like your father,” as a callback to Obi-Wan’s line “strike me down now and I’ll become more powerful than you can ever imagine.”

Luke finally breaks off his astral projection and we see him flushed, exhausted, and completely spent. I don’t know if Mark Hammill really worked himself into exhaustion or if it’s just excellent makeup but he’s beat red and looks awful, it’s a very effective moment. Luke’s finale is a beautiful callback to his iconic sunset scene on Tatooine, with the same main theme playing as he looks out over the two setting suns of the Jedi homeworld, and meditates, floating into the air again, and leaving his physical body behind and dying to become one with the Force, in the same way Obi-Wan did when he died. At the same time, the remnants of the rebel alliance climb inside the Millenium Falcon and escape to safety, with Rey wondering how there can ever be hope for the Rebellion now.

The final scene is of a few slave kids seen earlier in the film, playing with dolls and talking about the adventures of Luke Skywalker. After being admonished by their owner, one of the boys walks outside and picks up a broom (is it me or did he Force-pull that broom to himself, just slightly), and looks up at the stars to see the Millenium Falcon jumping to hyperspace, giving the impression of a shooting star, and it’s revealed that earlier in the film, Rose gave her rebel alliance ring to him, and he stares at the sky with hope in his eyes. It’s a callback to Anakin’s time as a child slave, as well as a reminder about younger generations taking over as the older generation passes on, which is really what this whole film has been about.

So, I ended up expounding on the plot here a LOT more than I thought I would, but I’m glad I did. I was totally blown away by this movie, I daresay it may even have made a Star Wars fan out of me, for now at least. I was even tempted to go back and finish reading some of the earlier Star Wars expanded universe novels. But we’ll see how it all goes, I guess. Honestly I can’t recommend this movie enough, and if you’ve been brave enough to stick with me through both parts of this extremely lengthy essay, I thank you for it! I hope that if you’ve seen the movie you enjoyed it as much as I do.

On a personal note, part of my intentions in this new year are to do a lot more writing and posting to this blog as well as my Patreon where everything is cross-posted and earn my keep over there. If you like what I have to say and would like to hear more of it, feel free to come visit my Patreon page and lend your support.

May the Force be with us all in 2018.

Advertisements

On Stephen King and Storm Drains

I have a weird history with Stephen King and his fiction.

Admittedly, I probably haven’t read his best books. The first Stephen King book I read was one that was given to me by a friend who assured me I would love it. I did not. It was called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and I was surprised both by how boring it was and particularly by how not-scary it was. I mean, I had heard my whole life that Stephen King was a master of horror whose books were chilling and disturbing, and honestly the book was kind of meandering and had a creepy atmosphere, but in general it was pretty underwhelming.

I thought that Stephen King deserved another chance, however, and at the time I was working my first job and had absolutely no bills to pay, and I was nineteen, so of course I had no compunction spending way too much money on a super special deluxe edition of what was at the time his newest work: Under the Dome. It was a good concept, a story about a small town that’s trapped under an invisible dome that cannot be moved by any means, and how quickly society breaks down. Apparently the original title was an unfinished story called The Cannibals, and honestly that sounds much more interesting than what the book turned out to be.

I spent something like fifty dollars on a special edition of the book that came with some cards that had illustrations on them, really high quality paper and binding, and a weird cover that had the title in a flimsy ribbon rather than actually printing it on the book. Except for that ribbon thing, I was pretty impressed by the design of the book itself, and I was thirsty to read what waited within.

Under the Dome was about a thousand pages of wandering, meandering storytelling, introducing dozens of characters only to kill them off a few chapters later. I also wasn’t crazy about all the massive buildup to the incredibly underwhelming ending (SPOILER): oh right it was aliens all along. Not much explanation beyond that. Also the dome disappears and sends tons of polluted air that is killing everyone inside flying off to the rest of the state, and surely that’s going to have some bad effects but it isn’t really addressed. And there’s no epilogue at all, you get all that buildup just for the dome to disappear and the book to end on the next page.

At any rate, it was while reading this book that I began to notice the things about Stephen King’s writing that I really don’t like: everyone, be they man, woman, or child, all kind of have this jaded outlook on life and speak like truckers. I don’t mean profanity, because I don’t mind profanity. There’s just something weirdly scatological about the way everyone speaks. Everything comes down to metaphors about farts and shit and piss, or weird sayings that might sound natural coming out of a grizzled truck-driver at a 2AM pit-stop but just sound bewildering coming out of the mouth of a nine-year-old. And everyone is secretly some kind of monster. Everyone is secretly a murderer or a pedophile or a rapist, there doesn’t seem to be anyone immune from this.

Now, I get why that’s interesting in and of itself. Everyone does have the capacity to do horrible things under the right circumstances. But the character in King’s books are automatically portrayed as hiding a dark secret. The other thing that really stuck out to me was the catch phrases. I don’t remember if Under the Dome had many, but right about this time I was dating a guy who loved horror movies, who decided we were going to watch every horror movie ever adapted from Stephen King’s work. I have to say that a lot of them were great: there’s no denying Stephen King comes up with brilliant ideas. The Mist was a particular favorite, and I both loved and hated the bittersweet ending.

Carrie was a great movie, and as the weeks went on, my boyfriend and I worked our way through both versions of the Shining, through the two-part miniseries of It, Rose Red, Pet Semetary, Dreamcatcher, Misery, 1408, Secret Window, Storm of the Century, The Stand, the second version of Carrie, and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten. I still missed some classics: we didn’t watch Firestarter, Children of the Corn, The Green Mile or the Shawshank Redemption. But it’s fair to say I got a pretty good taste of what Stephen King’s ficiton is like.

A lot of those films dealt with similar themes: childhood, everyone secretly being some kind of monster, loads of catchphrases and incredibly corny moments, and even though these were adaptations and not the books themselves, I knew from reading some of King’s work that these aspects were probably present in his books too. Another thing about Stephen King books is that I just find myself feeling really uncomfortable reading them. I get that when you have a horror novel, you want to feel unnerved, but I just kind of felt anxiety, like I was trapped in a windowless room and running out of oxygen. That isn’t fun for me. I love fantasy. So it may be that I’m just the kind of person who is automatically diametrically opposed to Stephen King’s work.

I gave him another shot and read through several shorts stories from Everything’s Eventual, none of which particularly caught my interest. I had heard a lot of good things about the Dark Tower, and since it was a fantasy series and I love fantasy, I thought maybe I’d finally found the right fit. I read the Gunslinger in one day, I think about five hours, and that’s the only book in my life I’ve ever read in one sitting. Unfortunately it wasn’t because I was so enraptured by it or anything, I just wanted to get to the end. I remember bits and pieces of it. I’ve always hated westerns, cowboys, and deserts, so obviously that whole aesthetic was wasted on me. I really hated Roland for the choice he makes at the end of the book. I won’t spoil what happens but he does something very shitty and is eaten up with guilt for doing it, and I think that as a reader I’m supposed to empathize with him and this incredibly difficult choice he had to make, but mostly I just felt like Roland was kind of a dick.

I still want to give some of his other books a try. I want to read Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and maybe a couple of others. His most recent collaboration Sleeping Beauties has a very interesting concept. I’ve heard people rave about his memoir, On Writing, and I’ve read the first chapter or so and thought it was alright. Funnily enough, the only thing in Stephen King’s books that I REALLY enjoyed reading were the forewards and afterwards. I loved hearing his perspective on being a writer, on being famous, and how humble he is. It seems to me that King himself is convinced that a lot of his fame has to do with the fact that his first few books were successful, so everyone automatically loves everything written afterward. I applaud him for being so honest and self-reflective. I do notice that he has a tendency to write, um, a LOT of books about writers who live in Maine being haunted by monsters, and obviously that’s no accident I’m sure. I don’t really like his short fiction but in fairness to him I probably didn’t choose his greatest works to sample.

When I discovered that It was being adapted as a film, I was happy to hear it and thought it would probably be good. I did watch the TV miniseries back during my ex-boyfriends Stephen King movie run, and I was surprised at how terribly it’s held up over time. It wasn’t scary at all, it was incredibly campy and silly and ridiculous. As a child, I was vaguely aware of the existence of It and I remember finding it to be a terrifying concept, so seeing it as an adult it was kind of funny how incredibly not-scary it was.

Honestly, I don’t think Stephen King is really classified properly as a horror writer. Like I said, I haven’t read his classics, but a lot of his work has a very optimistic feel to it, it’s about normal people overcoming incredible darkness. It is no different, it’s about a group of childhood friends who triumph with the power of their will and their bonds with one another. It comes out to the same love-wins-over-evil trope that is a trope for a reason, because it’s a good concept. It is a little exasperating when everything ends the same way, but it’s still a good enough way to write a story.

I actually didn’t remember that the original film adaptation of It was a miniseries, I thought it was a movie. And I actually didn’t remember anything at all about the second part when the kids fight It as an adult, so either I didn’t pay attention, didn’t watch it, or just didn’t care. I do remember getting very bored, though.

So at my job we sell a few books, and one of them was the first Dark Tower novel, so I grabbed it while I was bored and flipped through the first few pages, thinking maybe I’d give that series another try. Although full disclosure, I did spoil the ending for myself a long time ago, but that’s beside the point. Despite trying, I still found the first chapter of the Gunslinger very boring. Then I saw a magazine called the ultimate guide to Stephen King or something, and I actually read through pretty much the whole thing, and I found the details about the upcoming It film to be really interesting. So when the movie was finally released I thought about going to see it in theaters, which would be a big deal for me because I’m typically very nervous about horror movies and I certainly don’t go to see them in theaters.

Last weekend I did something even more out of the usual for me, I went to see It in theaters all by myself. I was very nervous at first and did spend a little time messaging friends for comfort so I didn’t feel so alone. I had expected the movie to be good and I’d heard all the rave reviews about it, and they were right.

The movie begins with rain, which is automatically going to get my attention because I love rain. Apparently the word for that is pluviophile. What I love even more than rain is the sound of rain mixed with piano, and the movie begins with just that, so I was automatically hooked. The opening scene is pretty familiar by this point: a little boy in a yellow raincoat named Georgie takes out a homemade sailbot and runs alongside it as it sails down the rainy streets, disappears into a storm drain, and there he meets It, calling itself Pennywise, and is enticed to reach his hand in. In the book, Pennywise bites off his arm and leaves him to bleed out. In the miniseries, Pennywise grabs him and pulls him down into the sewer. The film combines these two by having Pennywise bite of Georgie’s arms in a pretty terrifying display where his mouth pulls back to reveal several rows of teeth, and a very painful scene where the actor who plays Georgie squirms helplessly in the rain in front of the storm drain.

I was really blown away by the beautiful cinematography of this particular shot. It’s hard to find a good screenshot to show you because the film hasn’t been released on home video yet, but after Pennywise bites off Georgie’s arm, he struggles to crawl away from the storm drain, screaming in agony. The actor’s performance is heart-wrenching, it’s hard not to feel incredibly sad at this very sweet kid being so mercilessly murdered. But even more than that, I loved the framing of the shot just before Pennywise reaches out of the storm drain to drag Georgie down into the sewer. It’s shown from above, with Georgie in his yellow raincoat crawling away from the drain, and rain pouring down hard on the whole scene. As he crawls, the blood from his arm fills up the water around him and the water begins to turn red. It’s just a really beautiful shot. Then Georgie is pulled down the drain and the movie’s prologue is done and the movie proper begins.

I won’t really go into too many more details about the film, except that there is one scene in particular that I have to mention because of how incredibly effective it was in the theater. There’s a scene where all of the kids gather in the main character Bill’s garage and look at slides on a projector of various incidents throughout the history of their town, Derry, and figure out It’s involvement with them. The projector starts working on it’s own and begins showing slides of Bill’s family, with Georgie in the photos, and the slides get faster and faster until they become a silent film. It’s interesting to note that Bill and Georgie’s mother is never shown directly in the movie, she is seen from the side playing piano at the very beginning of the film and mentioned by Bill’s father (who is shown), but is never explicitly shown and has no lines.

In the photos shown on the slides, Bill’s mother’s face is obscured by her hair blowing in the wind, and as her hair parts her face is revealed to be a smiling Pennywise.

Then the lights go out and the music stops, and real life movie theater is completely dark for a moment.

Then Pennywise leaps out of the projector screen at the children.

This is a particularly brilliant effect because the audience watching this movie is watching it in a theater, and the shot is framed so that the projector screen in Bill’s garage looks just like the projector screen of the movie theater, and for a split second, even though your brain knows better, you do have the feeling that Pennywise has just jumped out of the REAL movie screen and is screaming at the audience. It shocked everyone in the theater and made me jump. I really don’t like jump scares in general and the movie was mercifully short on them, but I can forgive the movie for that one because it was so genuinely unexpected.

I mean, looking back on it, sure, it does seem like the scene is obviously setting up Pennywise leaping out of the screen at the kids, but I honestly didn’t expect it, and during the moment when Pennywise jumped out of the screen, I remember several thoughts racing through my mind: one was that I vaguely wondered if this movie were in 3D and I’d missed something, then realizing it wasn’t in 3D, then the thought that scene would lend itself very well to 3D, and then how smart it was of the director to frame that shot like a real movie theater to convey the illusion of Pennywise jumping out of the screen. It simply wouldn’t work at home on a TV or on a computer monitor.

The movie was altogether very interesting and mercifully had a moment of rest where I was able to run away and go to the bathroom (I always have to pee at least once during a movie, so I have a bit of anxiety about how much I’m drinking and the timing of when I’m going to go). The ending was pretty satisfying, it was nice to see Pennywise speaking with the kids and trying to bargain for his life. I wasn’t exactly shocked by the sudden reveal at the end when the title card of the film flashes across the screen and it says IT, followed by a newly added “Chapter One.” I already knew that the filmmakers were producing a second film, as the book is set in two different time periods that overlap one another, one in which the kids fight It as children and one when they come to defeat It as adults.

After this, I skimmed the prologue of the book itself, and then skimmed through some more interesting parts that I wanted to read. There is some interesting underlying mythology about what exactly It is, it’s relationship to the universe and the universe’s creator, a mention of a kind of godlike deity guiding the children to defeat It, and all of this is heavily connected to the Dark Tower series. I had read in the Wikipedia synopsis of the book that there is a moment when the narrative switches to It’s point of view, so I was glad to find that and read it. I also read the very ending, as well as the penultimate scene that luckily never made it into either film adaptation, in which Beverly has sex with all of the boys in the sewer in order to try and bring them together. Sex scenes like that, particularly involving innocent kids who are just on the cusp of adolescence, have a way of making me feel incredibly melancholy and this one was upsetting to read too, but I do think it was pretty effective, if a little strange. But there was an element of Beverly reclaiming her power after her father attempted to take it from her.

All in all I’m really glad I saw It, and I didn’t let my initial fear of seeing it in theaters scare me away from doing it. I may also finally give Stephen King another chance sometime, although honestly I tend to assimilate the writing style of whoever I’m reading, and I don’t want my own writing to end up seeming too much like Stephen King, so I might put it off for a rainy day.

I’ll just stay away from storm drains.

I Tried To Read The 5th Wave And Failed

I just can’t with this book.

I first saw the Fifth Wave in the bookstore a few years ago when it was brand new, and it seemed pretty interesting. It has a very good premise. It’s a dystopian YA novel (strange how that’s not only a genre now, but an oversaturated and cliche genre. What a weird time to be alive) about a girl surviving on her own in the ruins of Earth after aliens show up and destroy the place.

The alien assault comes in the form of “waves.” The first wave is an EMP blast that disabled all electronic devices and cuts off communication. The second wave is a series of bombs dropped into fault lines that trigger tsunamis which wipe out all human life near coastlines. The third wave is a virus, transmitted by birds, that not only causes people to die a painful and bloody death, but also lose their mind to the point that one victim is shown to have been chained to her bed while she ripped her own fingernails out.

The book begins after the fourth wave has begun. It has a pretty strong opening chapter, and I was hooked very quickly. The narrator, Cassie, switches back and forth between recounting the events of her life before and the way humanity dealt with the attack from “the Others,” and her current mission to travel to a nearby airbase where she believes she might find her younger brother, trekking along desolate highway while being followed by a sniper.

At first, Cassie’s tendency to wax philosophical is charming. I mean, if you can’t contemplate the futility of existence in an apocalypse that somehow manages to combine an alien invasion, a superflu, a zombie virus,, a worldwide flood, a super bomb, and the mass murder of all survivors, you really can’t ever find a time to contemplate anything. But as time goes on, it feels like author Rick Yancey was more interested in using the lens of an uber apocalypse to discuss human society than actually telling a compelling story.

And things only get more ham-fisted from here. Every point is driven home without a hint of subtlety, and simple messages that shouldn’t be difficult to grasp are slammed in with a sledgehammer. The most egregious example of this is a moment that made me roll my eyes almost out of my head. I had to put the book down and Google to see other people’s reactions because I was so incredibly annoyed.

At one point, Cassie is reciting her experience in a camp of survivors. They’re all struggling to survive and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, unsure if anyone is ever going to come and help them. Cassie herself makes a brief reference to religion before this scene, simply saying that when it comes to God, she feels like there’s some kind of a broken promise there. But leaving it at that would be subtle and understated, two things that this book is not. We’re briefly introduced to two characters surviving in the refugee camp: a religious fanatic nicknamed Mother Theresa by the others, and “the sole atheist in our camp, some college professor named Dawkins.”

Yeah, that’s a LITTLE on the nose, Rick Yancey. Let me talk about WHY I hate this so much. The point Yancey is trying (read: failing) to make here is that all fundamentalism is bad, both religious fundamentalism and… non-religious fundamentalism? I mean there’s a problem with trying to explain how someone could be a fundamentalist ahtiest when atheism is simply the rejection of a religious claim, but I get what he’s trying to say here. He’s saying that we should be level-headed in our approach to life, and not get lost moving too far to one side or the other to keep a clear view of the situation.

But this is an actual apocalypse story. The other survivors jeer at the atheist, telling him he’s going to hell, to which he reasonably responds, “How would I know the difference?”

What bothers me so much about this is not just that Yancey went with the most obvious and on-the-nose name choice possible for an atheist character by naming him after Richard Dawkins, though that annoys me too. And I won’t dwell on it for much longer, but I have now found two different interviews in which someone asked him about naming his character Dawkins, and in both of those interviews he chuckled and said “You caught that, did you?” Yeah, Rick. We ALL CAUGHT IT. It was not subtle, or clever, it was ham-fisted and graceless. Anyhow, that’s not what bothers me so much. What bothers me is the idea that in a world where all of the conceivable apocalypses have happened one on top of another, that an atheist would STILL be regarded with disgust. I mean, if you need any more proof that there is no God looking out for you, trying looking around at the nightmarish dystopian hellscape you live in. I get that people would probably turn to their faith for comfort, but like Cassie mentioned earlier in the book before this scene, it’s clear that if there was some sort of promise from God to keep people safe, he didn’t live up to it, and may as well not exist anyway. The idea that this ONE character is the SOLE atheist is ridiculous, particularly when Cassie more or less admitted to being an atheist only a few pages ago.

I did manage to get a bit of revenge when, later on when groups of soldiers arrive to take all young children away to safe houses, Mother Theresa demands that she be allowed to leave too, because “women and children should be taken first, that’s just how things are done,” seeming to go out of her way to throw everyone else under the bus. I might have enjoyed this jab at religiosity more if it hadn’t been countered by an incredibly flawed atheist strawman. Not that his Mother Theresa character wasn’t a straw man too, but at the very least, anyone could sympathize with the atheist character.

At any rate, just when I began to feel really interested in what was happening to Cassie, the story switches perspectives rather abruptly to another character called Zombie, previously Cassie’s high school crush, and his experiences becoming infected with the plague virus, and subsequent recovery. He’s hooked into a computer program called Wonderland that “maps” his experiences, basically downloading his entire personality, memories, feelings and thoughts into a computer, and then he’s sent to boot camp to train in becoming a soldier. Calling the computer program Wonderland is one of several cringe-worthy literary references that might have been clever if they weren’t so cliche. It reminds me of the villain in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being named Valentine, or the way the Looking Glass Wars tried to turn the Mad Hatter and Chershire Cat into anime-style martial arts badasses. It just feels so… silly. There’s kind of a trend in this series of giving silly names like Wonderland, Zombie, Nugget, Razor, Poundcake, and Dumbo. Sometimes they feel like they’re supposed to be references to other works, sometimes they just feel like unfortunate nicknames.

The story switches back to Cassie and manages to get very interesting for a few chapters, because the sniper who had been following her is an alien. Up to this point, no one has seen the aliens, but it is known that there are aliens masquerading as humans and killing people, which is called the Fourth Wave. The Fifth Wave, by the way, is never explained or even mentioned in this book, and won’t be addressed until the final book in the trilogy, but I digress. So the aliens have basically attached themselves to people’s brains and possessed their human hosts, but they aren’t a conciousness which replaces the old one (a la Stephanie Meyer’s the Host), they are still the same person they always were, only they’ve been “awakened” to who they truly are. The alien, Evan, is having trouble deciding on what to do because during the time he was hunting and stalking Cassie, he became attracted to her and began to become obsessed with her, unable to bring himself to kill her, instead nursing her back to health.

Evan is a pretty interesting character. He’s conflicted and you can see that his humanity is ultimately overpowering the alien part of himself. It does however worry me that since he is set up as Cassie’s romantic interest, this book continues the disturbing trend in YA fiction of having a female protagonist fall in love with an abusive or obsessive male partner who gives off some distinctly rape-y vibes. Still, because I’m me, I was just happy to finally have a cute boy involved in the story who I could be vicariously attracted to, because what is young adult fiction without sexual tension?

This, unfortunately, is when the book grinds to a complete halt. Evan and Cassie end up sharing a kiss and he climbs in bed with her, at which point the camera fades to black and we switch to Cassie’s younger brother, a terrified seven year old named Sam, who is brought into the safe houses after being separated from a girl he meets on the bus, and the narrative returns to Zombie, who is now in boot camp. And the book goes Full Metal Jacket on us. And you know, I really tried with this part. Firstly, I find military stories entirely boring, particularly when they involve boot camp, because I tend to view boot camp as a very strange form of physical and mental torture that we as a society have sanctioned as perfectly alright, and this book continues to espouse the supposed virtue of emotionally and mentally destroying a person through weeks and months of torture before “molding them” into a soldier, which even in real life seems to have little effect but destroying a person’s natural empathy and replacing their personality with that of a cold and ruthless machine designed to serve it’s masters, sacrificing any humanity.

But again, I digress.

I have difficulty with boot camp stories because of the above mentioned reasons, but also because it’s really not what this book has been about up to this point. And exactly halfway through the book is a very strange time to take on such a drastic change in tone. I mean, yeah, it’s still the same hopeless dystopia as the first half, but at a certain point the utter hopelessness of the story becomes unbearable. I mean, there IS no victory for these characters. At this point, most of humanity is dead. Even if they somehow defeated the aliens, there’s nothing that can be done, humanity will not survive beyond this point, any attempt to survive is pointless. And Yancey has said that the point of this story is not about victory but about endurance, but still, how compelling is a story of endurance? I mean, at the end of Gary Paulson’s book Hatchet, the main character does eventually get to go back to society. His endurance pays off. Where is the pay off here?

The thing that really pushed me over the line is that the book goes into gruesome detail describing the fate of the people who died, particularly through the lens of Casssie’s younger brother. Not only does the narrative go through the horrific details of his mother’s death and the way he lost everything he ever loved, but it does so while retaining his point of view, so that characters are still called “mommy” and “daddy” and we can see his innocence shattering. It all becomes so incredibly depressing that it’s almost too difficult to bear. This whole book is just steeped in hopelessness, and that’s the problem with it. Once you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, things can only get worse. There is never going to be any payoff for these characters.

The little boy is thrown into boot camp, a ludicrous idea even for a dystopian novel, and the drill sergeant taunts him about the death of his mother, which is probably more monstrous and unforgivable than anything that’s happened up to this point. Now granted, this drill sergeant is an antagonist, but the scene is framed in such a way that it suggests boot camp is a GOOD thing, so what is the message being sent here? I don’t know, but honestly this is the point where the book became too much for me and I had to put it down. I skimmed summaries for the rest of the book and then the rest of the series to sate my curiosity about what happened next, and I’m going to talk about it now, so consider yourself spoiler warned.

This boot camp section carries on for a while, and the narrative doesn’t return to Cassie for a long time, which as I said, grinds the story to a halt, because even though Zombie has been introduced, the central story was still mostly about Cassie. Halfway through the book is a bad time to give this novel a deuteragonist. We’d already followed Cassie, Evan and Sam, and Zombie’s section had been brief enough that it didn’t detract from the overall narrative. Frankly, I just don’t have the patience for this kind of storytelling. I know it may be important to switch focus, but I had to keep willing myself to read on beforehand, through all the gloomy atmosphere, because the story was essentially pretty good and was rolling along. I don’t have it in me to put with a boot camp section, not now. The military aspects of the book seem to be glorifying the military and even though that’s another discussion for another time, it was just too harsh of a tonal shift for me.

So, I was genuinely curious about what the hell the Fifth Wave actually was, and apparently it isn’t even explained until the third and final book in the trilogy. The big secret is that the aliens were never on earth, they were always acting remotely, and the mothership doesn’t actually house the aliens so much as it houses their equipment and their weapons. They controlled people by mapping themselves through Wonderland and then uploading themselves into people’s brains. This is meant to pull the rug out from under you, but Yancey actually did a very weird thing in the way he told the story in the first novel. You see, we learn from Cassie that the military are actually alien-controlled humans, but we switch to Zombie and Sam being cared for by the military and being given explanations about what the aliens are, even though we as readers KNOW they are the aliens. But, the information they’re giving the protagonists seem to be true, so it’s kind of a triple-bluff. I wish that the author had picked a better method of explaining the central story than several info-dumps from the point of view of side-characters, given by unreliable characters. Worse, the villains mostly seem to be pretty good people, except for the two military drill instructor types.

The general theme for this book seems to be that we as the reader are shown something, and then the characters are put into a situation where we know what’s happening and they don’t. That’s a good storytelling method in and of itself, but unfortunately, things get wonky from there. Right when I as a reader think I know what’s going on, the “bad guys” are acting good, and we’re left to wonder who exactly is the villain here. And this isn’t done in an interesting, morally ambiguous way, like a political tale in which every player has their own ends and the lines between good and evil become blurred, it’s just clunky and indistinct, leaving me as a reader not sure if the antagonists are lying or telling the truth, and not sure if the narrative itself is lying to me or telling the truth. There are lies hidden within truths hidden within lies, but it’s spun in a very ineffective way, and just left me scratching my head and unwilling to keep slogging on once the focus of the book shifted halfway through.

In case you’re curious, the ultimate ending of the series apparently keeps piling cliche upon cliche, because the sole fault in the Wonderland program is that the aliens didn’t anticipate that LOVE would become involved, and basically, love can break the spell that the program has on people, as it did with Evan and his (creepy?) romantic obsession with Cassie. Yes, that’s right, it’s the old “love trumps everything” trope, but wait, it gets better.

The reason that the aliens sent their ship there was to destroy human civilization, because humans were destroying the environment and wiping out other species, and apparently the Others go from planet to planet, wiping out civilizations that pose too much of a threat to their environments in order to keep life going. But if that’s the case, what about the Others themselves? If they have this kind of sophisticated technology, then surely they must have developed and incredibly advanced civilization that DIDN’T harm the life around themselves, in which case they could use their technology to travel to planets and help other races to take care of their home worlds, share their own technology with them, or hell, even take over the planet and become benevolent dictators. It seems like the Others went through a HELL of a lot of trouble to wipe out the majority of the human race when inevitably another race will eventually evolve to take it’s place and create it’s own civilization. And from what I can tell from plot summaries of the rest of the series, the real origins of the Others are never explained and they’re never even communicated with directly. What a let down.

The Fifth Wave, by the way, is a series of child soldiers trained by the aliens, who go and destroy what’s left of humanity, by tricking them into thinking they’re killing alien-infested people. Even though the people training them to do this are actually alien-infested, but actually not because of the whole Wonderland thing and ugh, my head hurts.

Even worse, the ultimate end for Cassie is that she downloads the memories and personalities of thousands of long-dead humans into her own mind, basically becoming Super Cassie and going on an army-of-one rampage against the antagonists, ultimately beaming herself onto the mothership with a bomb in hand, blowing herself up and destroying the mothership in the process. I don’t know if this actually defeats the Others, because clearly if they’ve done this with other planets before, they must have more ships. Did this really accomplish anything? So we have a combination of the “love conquers all” trope, the “humans will destroy the planet” trope, and the “sacrifice yourself to save Earth” trope. It’s kind of sad to me that a story with such lofty goals ends with such cliche set pieces.

And then finally, the epilogue of the series involves Zombie and Sam wandering through the ruins of the old world, basically just continuing to survive, and having some philosophical discussion about what a realm is. And that’s it. Like I said, there is no victory. No matter how long Zombie, Sam, and the other survivors make it, no matter how many generations of their children survive, humanity is still dead, all of human history is still destroyed, all of the art and music and literature and memories of past generations is gone. And the world isn’t rebooted in an Eden awash with possibilities, it’s on a planet in which much of the life has been destroyed and what land remains is littered with waste. The end.

How incredibly unsatisfying.

And that’s the Fifth Wave. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t. It set out with some lofty ambition, but ultimately feels pretty pointless. The point of a dystopian story is to try and overcome the dystopia, to begin rebuilding, to create a new and better world, but this? This is just sad, and hopeless from the very beginning. Pain stacked upon pain, often in horrifically morose detail. It’s strange to me that in the world of YA fiction, you can’t directly talk about penises or breasts and you can’t do any more than imply that sex happens, but you can spend chapters describing blood leaking from the eyes of children and infants dying in their cradles and bands of marauders murdering (and raping?) children. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in general that we are so much more comfortable describing horrific violence in gory detail than talking frankly about something as natural and harmless as consensual sex. Not that that’s Rick Yancey’s fault, it’s just an observation, and it’s certainly not a new one.

And now, I can finally go read Mercedes Lackey.

Why I Love Kesha

My relationship to Kesha is a curious one. She appeared at a weird time in my life.

On the surface, Kesha seems to be everything I hate about pop music: trite unoriginal pop songs with simple melodies and attention-grabbing hooks but otherwise little substance, cliche or vapid childlike lyrics, shallow subject matter that deals only with partying, sex, vague relationship woes, and verse-rap bragging peppered in between overly-synthesized and overproduced electro pop that is substantive enough to be entertaining but not enough to be unique, and lackluster vocals that are autotuned to the point that no one could have seriously thought the artist was ever really a decent vocalist to begin with in the first place.

I get that. I get the problems with Kesha. I get the reasons that people don’t like her. The above paragraph might lead you to believe I can’t stand her, but curiously nothing could be farther from the truth.

I started out hating her for all of the reasons mentioned above. Like everyone else on planet Earth in 2009, I too was subjected to endless repetitions of her breakout single Tik Tok on the radio, and like everyone else I was annoyed by it’s vapidity but secretly just a little bit entertained by it. But really, I genuinely didn’t like her. She sounded plain trashy. She clearly looked like a hot mess. Her aesthetic has always been “rave girl who hasn’t showered in several weeks and rolled around in garbage and glitter.”

But the truth is, Kesha is not what she appears to be. And the weird thing about is, she isn’t the OPPOSITE of what she appears to be either. She makes frivolous pop music, and she MEANS to do it, she means what she’s saying. She WANTS to be a pop star, and she isn’t making pop music ironically to try and expose the flaws in the medium. The pop music she’s making is genuine.

There are a group of listeners who consider Kesha to be another drop in the bucket, overly-autotuned pop singer cranking out tunes mostly made by producers, with little talent for songwriting or for singing. This is not the case. Kesha isn’t vapid or dumb. She’s incredibly intelligent, she has a genius IQ and received nearly perfect SAT scores. She’s driven and passionate and knows what she’s doing. However, don’t let that lead you to believe that Kesha is in fact an architect and student of Victorian literature whose lifelong art project has been to deconstruct the mythos of the pop star by playing one, laughing pretentiously in her study at night over a glass of sherry at plebeian pop fans who’ve bought into her charade.

The thing that makes Kesha unique among a slew of pop stars is the fact that she’s entirely authentic.

She comes from a humble background. In a life story that seems almost too perfectly fitting with her dirty rave girl aesthetic to be true, Kesha’s mother got incredibly drunk at a party and doesn’t remember the hookup that led to her becoming pregnant, and nine months later gave birth to Kesha Rose Sebert without the slightest idea (or worry) about who the father was. Kesha was raised by her single mother, a wonderful hippie songwriter called Pebe, and together with her brothers the family seems to have lived in an open, accepting home environment. Kesha definitely has hippie elements in her personality, and she speaks with a gentle slur that makes it sound like she’s always intoxicated, and a Californian accent that immediately calls to mind the movie Heather. I think. I’ve never seen Heather. Moving on.

Kesha moved to Nashville to become a musician, and spent many years writing her first album Animal. She made a lot of friends in the business, including fellow newcomer Katy Perry, and her first major role in the pop world wasn’t in her own song but as an extra in Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl music video. Go watch the video and near the end there are several sexy blonde girls sitting around a pool with Katy, and there she is, she even has her own close up shot for a moment. Kesha also wrote songs for many other musicians while working on her first album. The first song to put her on the map was Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” a simplistic and artless reworking of the classic song You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive into a sugary pop-rap tune with almost no substance whatsoever. When Flo Rida was working on the song, he decided he wanted to try out having a female vocalist on the chorus, and Kesha was working nearby in the same studio, so she was pulled in and recorded some vocals for the chorus. Because of some legalities, or the absence thereof, when Right Round became a worldwide smash hit, Kesha received absolutely no royalties for the song, and continued to live the life of a starving artist scraping to get by, while her voice was playing on every radio in the country and she remained unknown and unpaid.

This is where the infamous dollar sign in her name comes from. Her name is almost always stylized as Ke$ha, leading to some cute jokes in which people pronounce her name Kee Dollar Sign Hah, but it was conceived as a joke about the irony of the circumstance Kesha found herself in: everyone would assume she was rich, being in a worldwide hit single, but she got cheated out of any share of the money. As time would tell, she was cheated out of a lot by the music industry and the shady characters therein, and I’ll come back to that in a bit.

So, enter me. A ninenteen year old gay kid living in the south, struggling desperately to deal with a tumultuous life, and just coming out of a rather powerful bout of Christian zeal. I spent about a year of my life completely devoting my time and energy to being a Christian, and I took it very seriously, and I even achieved some small level of peace, but ultimately I realized it was a coping mechanism, and this time when I came out of Christianity I left it behind for good.

I was fairly aimless at the time. I’d hated school my whole life, and I’d graduated a year earlier. I did not want to go to college because I just hated school and didn’t want to experience any more of it, but I didn’t want to work either, both because I hate the tedium of boring and strenuous minimum wage jobs, and because I’ve been dealing with debilitating anxiety since I was sixteen, complete with rolling panic attacks that for all intents and purposes never really end or begin, but just go on forever. I wasn’t medicated whatsoever at the time, and I was struggling with severe agoraphobia that was developing in my life.

I was in a relationship that was both abusive and incredibly unsatisfying. I was entirely aimless, I was sad, I was lonely, I was horny, and I was frustrated in every possible way. Spiritually, sexually, emotionally, and mentally, I was frustrated to a breaking point. But I’d never had any suicidal tendencies (yet, that would come later) and never self-harmed, so I had no outlet, no real way to truly break down.

My boyfriend and I took a trip to Virginia and spent the night at some friends’ house. These friends happened to be another gay couple, and they threw a party which involved two more gay couples. One of those couples left once the drinks started flowing, leading to there being a grand total of six of us in the house. We got drunk, we got horny, and I, having never actually been drunk before, was eager to use the “oh it’s my first time being intoxicated” excuse to put as many dicks in my mouth as I could before everyone started to say no.

Does that sound a little rapey? It probably does. I can’t say I was in a good state of mind.

At any rate, there was a lot of sexual activity that night between just about everyone, pairing off for a few minutes with one another at different points. The radio was on, and Kesha’s hit single Tik Tok was booming through the house and I put my tongue into several orifices of several guys, and then spent the night in a cuddle sandwich with my boyfriend and one of the others who had broken away from the pack and basically let us fondle him the entire night.

All in all, it was pretty fun.

The next morning I had something of a hangover, which is honestly quite rare for me.

On the way home, Tik Tok was playing on the radio.

I don’t know why, I don’t understand it, but suddenly, I just got it. I enjoyed it. I had fun with that song. It was great. I didn’t want to stop listening to it.

Now, I know it sounds more like a joke than a real story: I never really liked Kesha until I participated in a drunken six-way gay orgy with some delightfully Virginian, slightly trashy gay guys. But it happens to be true.

When I got home the following day I honestly felt like I was still drunk. I sat in my bedroom, my head swimming, and looked up Kesha on iTunes, listened to the samples from Animal and read some of the reviews. I was disheartened. The reviewers were all mostly saying the same thing: the music was samey and average, the lyrics were so juvenile they sounded like they were ripped from the diary of a sixth grader dealing with boyfriend drama for the first time, and her singing voice was terrible and autotuned to the point of ludicrousness. I agreed with all of these assessments and quickly decided that Tik Tok was in fact a guilty pleasure, and that in general I still disliked Kesha.

But I couldn’t quite get that song out of my head.

My dysfunctional relationship progressed, as did my anxiety. I dove headlong into a Tori Amos phase from which I have never resurfaced, and mostly forgot about Kesha. I did torrent Animal at one point and gave it another cursory listen but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I fell in love with Imogen Heap, Florecne and the Machine, and many others, and continued to keep Kesha mostly out of my mind. When I finally broke up with the aforementioned boyfriend it happened to be right at the same time that my agoraphobia and anxiety had gotten so bad that I’d developed the curious symptom of alternating between sharp pains on the entire life side of my body or being completely numb in the same places. I was finally put on medication, and like magic, my panic attacks just disappeared. I was riding the first wave of stimulants I’d ever experienced, since I’d never done any kind of drugs before, and I was riding high on the antidepressants which elevated my mood and let me have gloriously peaceful and undisturbed sleep at regular intervals, and the relief and freedom of being done with an abusive relationship and having the freedom to love and to fuck whoever I wanted, provided I could find someone.

It was then that Kesha returned.

I don’t exactly remember what caused it. I just remember being high on my antidepressants, feeling adventurous and excited about going to gay clubs and finally getting my young adult life started, and I went back to those downloaded audio files from Animal, and turned them on, and I became completely hooked.

I listened to Animal front to back, non-stop, for several weeks. I didn’t listen to almost anything else. I fell absolutely in love with the music and started to learn a little more about Kesha. I still understood a lot of the complaints: some of the lyrics were trite, but there were also a lot of hidden gems that you wouldn’t have guessed existed. Tik Tok and Take It Off were big hits all about partying, but other songs on the album lamented the darker aspects of being a party girl, of trying to find solace in living in the moment and enjoying the night as much as possible because it’s all you truly have. Hungover, Blind, Animal, and Dancing With Tears In My Eyes are all very emotional songs about the loss of love and the difficulty of trying to live day to day in a haze of partying. There’s a longing in these songs for something, an emptiness, and a willingness to be up front about the good and the bad, to be unapologetic about sex and fun and relationships, to call things like the way they are.

My little sister joined me on this adventure and loved listening to Kesha with me, and was actually nice enough to buy me a physical copy of Animal with some money she’d been given, which I still have. Later on, when Kesha started to release singles for Animal’s companion EP Cannibal, I downloaded them all as they were released and ordered a copy of the two combined into one two-disc album (Animal + Cannibal) that came with a cute little “K$” temporary tattoo which I intended to put on my cheek at my first concert, and which I have still never used but remains in the case. When I attended my first real concert last year, the Dresden Dolls at Coney Island, I was sad when I realized I’d forgotten to bring along my Kesha tattoo for my first concert. But at least I still remembered. That’s something.

The companion EP Cannibal was a great nine-track romp that fit the atmosphere of Animal perfectly while managing to expand on it. The songs were still about partying and having fun authentically and unapologetically, but there was a song called The Harold Song which absolutely broke my heart and still continues to be one of my favorite songs. It’s a beautiful and melancholy song about the loss of love that really affected me at the time because I was dealing with a terrible breakup, and this song was a companion in that pain and darkness for me. At first I thought that Cannibal deliberately mirrored the songs on Animal (Grow A Pear has a chorus very similar to Tik Tok, elements of Tik Tok are incorporated into Cannibal, Animal itself is included as the last song in remixed form, and many other songs seem to borrow elements of songs directly from Animal), and I’m still not sure if it was done intentionally or if the song structures were just all very similar and working from the same pop framework.

Kesha is honest and authentic, and I think that that’s what makes her special. I think this is also the reason that people like Kanye West, but I just can’t bring myself to think that guy is anything but a self-absorbed douche. Kesha delivers pop cliches with a slight wink because she knows it’s cliche, but she’s doing it authentically. And she isn’t a bad vocalist either. The thing that confused me the most about Animal was the fact that Kesha’s voice is very unnecessarily autotuned in many of the songs.

Kesha is an incredibly prolific songwriter, and there are literally more than a hundred demos for Animal that never made it onto the album. One song, a completely acoustic breakup song called Goodbye, is a really great glimpse into an unfiltered Kesha with all of the pop trapping stripped away: her voice is soulful and unique, and her intonation is similar to Alanis Morissette. Her vocal ability is surprising, it doesn’t completely blow you away, but it’s not at all what you’d expect after hearing so much autotune and vocal effects on her album. She also released another EP between Cannibal and her second album Warrior called Deconstructed, which contains simplified emotional mixes of several of her songs, including The Harold Song, with her vocal ability really put on full display.

I still don’t really understand why she chose to allow herself to be autotuned so much when she didn’t really need it, although considering the dynamic between herself and her producer Dr. Luke that came to light later, it’s not difficult to imagine that maybe he made the decision for her. I don’t really know.

And with that we come to Dr. Luke. Kesha came forward and filed a lawsuit against Dr. Luke for raping her, and for abusing her. I don’t really know if there was physical abuse, and I’m not going to look it up. The thing is, I’ve purposely avoided learning the details of this lawsuit. Kesha’s entire career came to a halt because under her contract she was unable to release any music unless she dropped the lawsuit against Dr. Luke, and he vehemently denied ever having abused her, despite many other women in the music industry coming forward to say they’d suffered abuse at his hands as well. Honestly, my heart was just too broken for Kesha to read the details. I couldn’t handle it. I was having a hard enough time holding my own life together, and to know that someone who I had come to greatly admire and respect had been hurt so badly, and who was being treated unfairly by an unfeeling system, it was too hard. It’s why I still don’t know all the details. I do know that eventually Kesha was forced to drop the lawsuit so she could continue to make music, but I still don’t know many more details. I know that during her absence she appeared at a few live events, and at one of them gave an incredible performance of When It Happens To You by Lady Gaga, a song about surviving rape.

Kesha also briefly had her own reality show which I watched the majority of online and greatly enjoyed. It really showed her beautiful personality, and the general carefree and honest way in which she lives her life. It made me smile to watch it, and it gave me hope.

I used to have this poster on my wall, and alongside the topless poster of Lady Gaga, I imagine that anyone looking at my room was probably really confused about my sexuality

Kesha inspires me. Her strength, her dignity, her willingness to create. There was a moment during Kesha’s reality show where her little brother was attempting to write a song, and she was giving him writing advice. The advice was this: “You have to be willing to let yourself suck.” As a musician and a writer, this has been one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever absorbed. What she meant was that when you start out at anything, you’re not going to be incredible. With drawing, composing music, or writing, you start out as a novice, and even your best, most polished efforts, are still going to be less than perfect. You’ll probably experience a few flashes of incredible creativity and accidentally stumble upon expressing yourself honestly and with style, but you have to be willing to let yourself create something that is less than perfect. Kesha’s hundreds of demos are a testament to that. Many of those songs are not that great, but they’re all honest and authentic, and that’s the thing about Kesha that I admire so much.

You have to be willing to let yourself suck. You have to be willing to create whatever is in your heart, and sometimes it’s not going to be great, but you have to be willing to do it. Lady Gaga has said something somewhat similar, which is “You have to respect your vomit.” She was referring to one of her songs, and about how the lyrics come in a rush, and she just word vomits them out, and that she then chooses to respect her vomit, respect those words for being authentic and in the moment. This proverb doesn’t inspire me quite as much but it’s worth mentioning in conjunction with Kesha’s advice from above.

And so, in a surprising twist, I ended up loving an artist who I thought represented everything I hated about manufactured pop music. While, yes, the element of pop manufacturing is there, Kesha’s honesty and brazen authenticity still shines through, and even though some of her songs are a bit cliche, her music is a surprise. Her personality is a surprise. Everything about her is a surprise, if you assume that the dirty glitter party girl you see on the cover is as shallow as her surroundings suggest. I don’t know how much irony she injects into her style, but Kesha is a worthwhile person and a worthwhile musician. She’s an activist for animal rights, she loves the gay community and has immense appreciation for her fans, and she approaches life with the kind and passive attitude of a hippie but the fortitude of a revolutionary. Her voice is real and true, even though there’s sometimes a layer of autotune.