The Reepicheep Syndrome

It happens in fiction. A character strides through scene after scene, endlessly impressive to his fellow characters and obviously beloved of his author. He is invariably showered with attention and almost always with praise – except from the audience. The audience can only watch, baffled and annoyed. This character is the author’s pet: The author is transfixed by him, but the audience just can’t share the joy. Call it the Reepicheep Syndrome.

Reepicheep is, of course, the bold, talking mouse of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We know he’s bold because

You can take this guy.

they tell us he’s bold, and also because he recommended the phenomenally bold course of sailing to the Island where Dreams come true (though here I am using “bold” in the sense of “stupid”). Reepicheep talked incessantly of honor and his sword, though his only known uses of the sword were to beat a coward and stab Telmarines in the foot. His habitual threats of violence thus rang hollow. But everyone took him as a paragon of valiance and courage, and by the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it was all rather too much.

Though the namesake of this syndrome, Reepicheep is a mild example of it. Why C.S. Lewis decided to anoint him “most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia” is a mystery, but at least he remained fairly tolerable. A far more extreme (and obnoxious!) example is Wesley Crusher. Widely taken as an avatar of Gene Wesley Roddenberry, Wesley Crusher was the Enterprise‘s wunderkind, a precocious genius and occasional savior of the ship, the captain, and possibly the galaxy. What he is truly famous for, however, is the irritation and, yes, hatred he inspired in the fans.

The hatred is probably out of proportion to the actual offense. But the point is that it was very real. For some reason, it struck the writers – or perhaps just Roddenberry – as a good idea to present Wesley as genius, savior, and sometime-victim of adult stupidity, while viewers – according to their account – mostly suffered. Wesley Crusher is an exemplar of the Reepicheep Syndrome.

But the greatest example – the model of imperfection for the ages – is Jar Jar Binks, the symbol for all that is wrong with the prequels. The mockery and hatred directed at Jar Jar Binks is a rare distinction; that he is annoying is as universal an opinion as that the world is round. (There are always dissenters.) George Lucas thought he was a good idea, though, and that was when the franchise started going off the rails. Even after receiving the judgment of the fandom, Lucas insisted on including Jar Jar Binks in following movies. In one sense, he broke from the usual pattern of the Reepicheep Syndrome: Jar Jar was not an object of much admiration (though the people of Naboo, proving that they should have been left to the Trade Federation, elected him senator). But the divergence between the author’s judgment and the audience’s is rarely so overpowering.

Divergence of opinion between author and audience is common. The Reepicheep Syndrome distinguishes itself by a blatant fondness on the side of the author that is inexplicable to the paying public. Wesley Crusher and Jar Jar Binks are star examples of this phenomenon, but all readers have their own experiences of it. Reepicheep is one of mine. What are yours?

We Might Have Guessed

If you listen to critics of the arts, teachers of the arts, and even a fair number of actual realistic-fictionartists, you will hear many praises of and exhortations to realism. If you examine art, you will find that many people have been wildly successful while showing a flagrant disregard for realism.

A prime example of this is Twilight. (If you were an old, powerful, more-or-less immortal supernatural being, would you be in high school?) However, I am going to focus on Star Trek and Star Wars and their shared violation of realism in everything military. I have chosen this focus because that sort of (un)realism is widespread in fantasy and sci-fi, and also I like Star Wars and Star Trek and have enough firsthand experience of them to write about them.

I once read a detailed critique of a certain Star Trek episode that made a very strong case that, at the end of the episode, three important characters should have been court-martialed. This is how I learned that, in real militaries, staff officers (however senior) don’t take command from line officers (however junior).

But one doesn’t need that sort of knowledge to see that the entire franchise is built around a principle so lethally unrealistic only television can save these people. This is the principle that in any unknown or dangerous situation, senior officers are immediately placed at the point of greatest jeopardy. They routinely round the senior officers up into bands just small enough to be easily ambushed, just large enough to virtually exterminate the senior staff in case of disaster. The Next Generation made a show (hah) of not sending down the captain, except when he really wanted to go, but this did not improve the picture a great deal.

This is Star Trek’s main offense to military realism. There are smaller ones, such as the fact that the Enterprise keeps civilians as permanent residents. Consequently, they are always endangering small children, and you don’t want to think about what’s happening in other parts of the ship while the officers are hanging on for dear life on the violently-shaking bridge.

Of course, Star Trek would not be Star Trek if our heroes didn’t get to do the coolest part of everyone’s job. Star Wars’ offenses to realism are less fundamental, but somehow even goofier. Consider that the Rebel Alliance gives away generalships like Employee of the Month awards. They may give them away as Employee of the Month awards. There is no other way to explain why Han Solo is made a general fresh off the accomplishment of getting defrosted, nor why Lando is a general five minutes after being a shady businessman.

I know: the maneuver at Taanab. But look: No single maneuver will make you a general unless it wins the battle, ends the war, saves several major heads of state, and prevents an invasion of hostile aliens from another dimension.

Another premier example of Star Wars’ unrealistic war is the ground battle on Endor. I like Return of the Jedi better than most, but it is ludicrous that the battle was won by a horde of midget aliens armed with weapons that were obsolete at the founding of the Roman Empire. If the stormtroopers had stayed by the installation and defended it – which was the only reason they were on the moon – it would not have been possible for them to lose. Even when, strangely impelled to be idiotic, they charged into the trees, they should still have carried the day. Superior firepower beats superior numbers any day, and it isn’t possible to defeat professional soldiers with advanced weaponry by konking them with rocks.

Star Trek and Star Wars give every indication of having been written by people with a rather slippery grasp of military matters. That their lack of realism hasn’t kept them from smashing success doesn’t prove that a lack of realism is all right. But it does prove that when people turn to fiction, realism is not terribly high on their list of desired qualities.

We might have guessed.

Black, White, & Gray

Since its release, Rogue One has been proclaimed – and not only by Disney – to be a new kind of Star Wars movie. In various elaborations on this theme, all the usual suspects line up: gritty, realistic, Ambiguitycomplex, ambiguous. Rogue One mostly lives up to its billing, though in less than exemplary fashion. I would like to examine this, not for the sake of the movie itself so much as for the larger points of complexity and ambiguity in stories.

In the moral compromises of its heroes and a gut-wrenching shot of a little girl terrified in the crossfire of battle, Rogue One finds an ugly side of war that the earlier Star Wars movies do not (though this is somewhat undermined by the relentless battles, which leave the impression that war is endlessly diverting and explosions are more desirable in a story than, say, dialogue). It even gets its hands on a genuine moral dilemma that is latent in technologically advanced warfare. In the course of the movie, the Rebel Alliance plots to assassinate the Death Star’s chief scientist.

By the way: Spoilers.

The idea of assassinating a scientist has a moral queasiness about it, but a case can be made for it. A scientist can have just as much blood on his hands as a soldier, and no one who is dedicated to creating a weapon of crushing, unheard-of power can be considered a noncombatant. Such scientists, as paid employees of a government’s war machine, are civilians only on a technicality; some of them are not even that, being formal members of the military. Why should scientists be entitled to safety while they facilitate the slaughter of millions?

And yet assassination is always a dirty business, cold, cold killing.

Rogue One raises a thorny moral question but never reflects on it. It offers the briefest, blandest justification for the assassination (basically he’s a weapons scientist who builds weapons and those kill people) and then just sort of assumes that it’s wrong. I’m not sure the filmmakers even knew they had a complex moral question. This is why Rogue One, despite reports, is no more thoughtful than the supposedly “unreflective” classic Star Wars trilogy. It is not enough that stories raise a difficult question, nor is it necessary that they answer one; to be reflective you have to, well, reflect.

Just as Rogue One is not a particularly thoughtful movie, neither is it really a complex one. Oh, there’s plenty of ambiguity, which is interesting and, yes, realistic. But ambiguity is not the same as complexity. complexityIt may even be the opposite of it, to the extent that it is simply a muddying of the waters. True complexity requires greater clarity and more distinction, and it doesn’t discard simplicity.

The plot of Rogue One carries the potential for certain moral complexities – that being on the right side does not ensure righteousness, that victims are not necessarily innocent, that war is so terrible it can degrade even heroes. That potential is never developed, partially because the movie is devoted to rushing action and not fine moral points, but also because heroes and the right side are lost in the gray. There’s too much moral ambiguity for moral complexity. Good and evil mix in strange and tragic ways, but to see that requires a distinction between white and black where they do not simply swamp together into gray.

Rogue One is a new kind of Star Wars movie, less of a space opera and more of a war film, and above all a (very competent) action movie. But it’s a mistake to assume that any story will be more reflective because it is gritter, or more complex because it is ambiguous.

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.