Thursday, March 15, 2018

Much Ado About Nihilus - Part One

Beware: Mild spoilers for The Last Jedi

So I should start by saying I don’t know anything about the Old Republic – particularly as may pertain to the popular Knights of the Old Republic video game franchise. While I pray my readers can forgive this lapse I beg their humble forbearance as I explain myself. 
As a kid I guess you could say I liked video games as much as any other kid – except, well, maybe just a tiny bit less. I had the video games but my tastes were pedestrian. If it wasn’t available to rent it or wasn’t one of a small handful of titles I saved to buy, I remained ignorant. 
The easiest way of understanding my relationship to video games is that video games are the things that you see ads for in comic books. There are really only two categories of items in the universe: comic books and things advertised in comic books. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy. 
I was an only child. My parents were a tiny bit older, also, than the parents of the kids I went to school with. I was maybe raised with different expectations regarding what exactly was supposed to happen in terms of the social interests of my peer group. So as I grew up I kept expecting video games to get left behind by my demographic – that is, my precise cohort, people who were born just a couple years to either side of me. And it never really happened. My generation would in fact be the last generation to even play lip service for a sweet second to the idea that video games were something that was supposed to be left behind when you got older. 
This was easy to believe at the time – that would be, the mid-90s – because the fact was that I had been disengaging with video games for a while. I still played but what I played was very much in line with what I loved playing when I started: side-scrolling adventure games with a smattering of strategy. My tastes, aside from an Atari when I was very young, were shaped almost completely by Nintendo. 
In hindsight small things stand out for larger movements. I went over to a friend’s house, someone I hadn’t seen in a while. He was pretty much the archetypal neighborhood Cool Guy – had always been into sports and girls and movies at just the right time and in just the right proportion. He listened to the kinds of music cool people listened to. And I went over to his house and was surprised to see that he had bought a new video game console – a Playstation. The first Playstation. And I was confused – wait a minute, we’re still doing video games now? And it kicked in a while down the road that, huh, my friend here was probably going to keep playing video games as long as he wanted. And that meant a lot of people were going to do that with him, and weren’t going to think twice about it. 
It has proven a prescient insight. No one younger than me would think it unusual that anyone was still playing video games in high school. Honestly, the idea was kind of fusty even when I was a kid, most likely – but like I say, I was an only child. My parents had prepared me for the adolescence and teenage years of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, not Clinton. People weren’t growing up the same way. 
And I’ve mostly been OK with that. I remember that first (of only a couple) experiences with the first Playstation, playing some racing simulator that seemed to be nothing but picking out and customizing famous cars. And my friend sat raptly scanning through the different kinds of expensive sports cars – and he wasn’t even particularly a car guy, was the thing. But he liked this really quite stunning driving simulator that let him drive a really nice car, and honestly, more power to him. It’s really not my cup of tea – and I think that tells you a lot about me. My tastes in video games are basically frozen at the point where, mentally, I was ready to say goodbye to them – somewhere late-ish in the life of the Super Nintendo system. 
I didn’t have any interest in a realistic car simulator. I didn’t want to play a horror game, or a crime game, or really any of the things that seemed to have taken a sudden and somewhat vertiginous step upwards in terms of presentation. It didn’t seem particularly fun anymore, at least not to me. I hardly lost sleep. 
The last Nintendo I had was a Nintendo 64 but I already felt the spirit of the times moving away from me. I could finish neither the Mario nor the Zelda games that came out around the time of the Nintendo 64 – my hands were no longer patient, my mind wandered instead of growing more fascinated by repetition. I did have a lot of fun with friends playing wrestling games. We had the WCW game, which seemed more fun than the dour promotions the WWF (was it the WWE by then?) was putting their heat behind in the late 90s. 

My favorite Star Wars video games – besides the original arcade cabinet of the Death Star approach (quickly evolving geometric patterns made of green lines supposed to approximate the Death Star trench run) – were the Super Star Wars games made (naturally) for the Super Nintendo. They are completely representative of the kind of extraordinarily taxing side-scrollers I loved at that’s age. There was no way to play other than to do each level over and over and again, memorizing every challenge in order and learning as you went. (The few times I’ve ever had the opportunity to play Sonic the Hedgehog it has baffled me that you aren’t supposed to stop and look around. It goes against every instinct I have!) This was the reality: if you were going to risk a Christmas or birthday present from a flush relative on a video game it had to be one that was going to keep your attention for a while. The Super Star Wars games were a safe bet because they took literally hundreds of hours, or seemed like it at the time. 
But no matter how tedious and completely tangential to the spirit of Star Wars the proceedings may have been – like the long levels with Luke Skywalker exploring the many kinds of blaster power-ups found hiding in the crevices of the Wampa’s very confusing and well-stocked maze-like cavern – it remained deathlessly fascinating because it had the Star Wars logo. That’s why the Super Star Wars games were the last video games I got excited about before the hobby lost a lot of its luster for me.
It was the 90s, and for most of that decade Star Wars was as close to cult as it ever got. It spent just enough time out of the mainstream, an eternity in contemporary terms, that by the time it crept back in the later part of the decade there was a genuine desire. We suffered through things like Shadows of the Empire and Prince Xizor because they seriously didn’t know how people felt about Star Wars and needed to test the waters. In hindsight, yeah, it seems hilarious. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere: things used to go away. Star Wars had gone away. We were lucky to get Super Star Wars and Shadows of the Empire. Star Wars was almost cult, almost kitsch – people still remembered it, but it was starting to fade a bit. Just a bit. Just enough.
This experience should tell you my bias when it comes to Star Wars video games: I learned at a young age that even if they might be fun they didn’t matter. They were stuffed with adventures that were explicitly non-canon and could therefore be ignored. (The extended cut of Star Wars with all the side missions detailed in the first Super Star Wars is eight hours long, but Luke kills a lot of weird quicksand monsters in that running time.)
I mean, I’m old school. I know the only Star Wars that counts is Star Wars on a screen – be it on film or on one of a handful of TV shows. I could afford to be picky about novels and games because they didn’t count in the same way. (I mean, except for the novelizations, which always oddly have counted [and even continue to count under Disney] in a weird way for such seemingly tangential items [but not actually tangential if you know the franchise’s early history].)
If you’re a fan of anything you will relate to the quandary. This is especially important if you’re a fan of something intensely popular like Star Wars: you have to pick and choose what you obsess about because you can’t pick everything. There are only 24 hours in the day still, right? 
Let me now tell you about Darth Nihilus. 
Darth Nihilus showed up in my game a while ago – maybe half a year, a little more as of this writing. I had no idea who this guy was. He was trailing a few other strange folks like the Sith Assassin and Sith Trooper – gah. Old Republic
Now, I’m going to crack on Darth Nihilus a bit here, because Darth Nihilus – can I call you Darth? Really, Nihilus seems so formal. Darth. Because I know you’re very chuffed that you actually get to be a Darth . . . 
As someone with very little understanding of the Old Republic material, much of it strikes me as stylistically at odds with Star Wars. It seems to stand in relationship to the original Star Wars in much the same way that X-Force stood in relationship to Claremont & Byrne’s X-Men: you can see the familial resemblance but the overall guiding principle behind every aesthetic decision appears to have been that the original model was just not cool enough. 
So Darth Nihilus – well, first. Nihilus. Nothing. Was Darth Nietzsche taken? (Or at least Darth High School Understanding of Nietzsche?) I mean, don’t get me wrong – Darth Vader wears all black too. But Darth Vader wears all black like every shred of color got scared shitless and called in sick except for those little buttons on his chestplate. Those guys can stay. Darth Nihilus wears all black like he threw some dye in his laundry and his mom got SUPER PISSED. You know depression really sucks, right? Depression sucks. 
One of most valuable and underrated aspects of Star Wars is that while powerful people in these stories are destroyed by power, the power itself really only accentuates preexisting character tendencies. Whether a character in Star Wars comes down on the dark or light side depends on personal inclination and circumstance. There’s something tragic in the makeup of every Sith, some quite boring classical flaw, be it pride, wrath, or greed, buckled inward by the immense weight of a great power that practically begs to be used in incriminating ways. Even as fantasy powers go it’s more metaphorical than most. Luke’s great dilemma in Episode XIII arises from a principled decision not to use his power. He knows he’s not a worthy vessel – because, of course, there can be no worthy vessel for power of that kind. Which makes sense . . . except for the fact that few unworthy vessels practice similar restraint. 
This is another thing I thought The Last Jedi got exactly right – but also why, after only one viewing, I find my mind not lingering over the movie. Perhaps that’s been because of other problems in my life – it’s been a busy period. But there’s also an element to the movie’s generally well reasoned if slightly scattered delivery that I found satisfying in a way that left me more or less completely – sated. For once, even after all my love for the Prequels – to say nothing of Rogue One, a film that grows immensely in my recollection every time I think about it – I felt as if I understood everything happening onscreen. As if it were completely in line with my own very idiosyncratic feelings on the subject of Star Wars. 
This was an odd feeling, to say the least. Somewhat vindicated and somewhat disappointed. The Star Wars on display in The Last Jedi was very much a Star Wars informed, both thematically and visually, as much by the Prequel as by the Original Trilogy. It was not, I believe, a movie Lucas could have made because it’s far too stormy, the character beats in distinctly minor keys. But it’s a movie made in Lucas’ idiom, one where any seemingly superfluous visual detail can be important at any time – and sometimes the little dude getting wasted in the casino isn’t important and sometimes the crystalline foxes in the ice caves are, but ultimately every single detail feels like an independently real and lived part of this universe into which you’ve been given a window. 
That’s not something Abrams really “got” except in the same way a kid “gets” wanting to show off his action figures. To be fair he had some really cool action figures. Rey, Finn, & Poe – and everyone else, for that matter, felt right. It felt like a Star Wars movie. But it was visually inert in a way I think mars basically every aspect of Abrams’ career. Lucas can’t fall out of bed without framing a shot – be they stiff or theatrical or a winking F. W. Murnau reference that eight people will ever get – but Abrams couldn’t frame any shot as if his life depended on it. He lets the scenery do the heavy lifting, which isn’t bad as filmmaking philosophies goes if your skills lie more in the realm of production.
Where I think The Last Jedi felt most like a departure for the series was visually. The Force Awakens was certainly heavily indebted to the original films (oh gee really? I had no idea!). That’s a big reason those characters really look sharp in every sense, put together in the way that every character in the original series just effortlessly was all the time. But there’s not a lot original about how they look or their world – really, an intentional effect, and the designs and characters hold up a lot better than the film in many ways because of it. 
(As much as I love the Prequels, the costuming was – functional. The heroes were people who wore their work uniforms all the time, and those work uniforms were brown robes. The Academy was not kind.
This movie added things to the Star Wars visual vocabulary. Too many things to list – one of the fun parts of any Star Wars movie is guessing which parts are going to burn in your memory. There are a few scenes I already think rank with anything else in the series and I’ve still only as of this writing seen it the one time.      
But in terms of character motivations? I didn’t care much for Kylo Ren the first time around but I realized as The Force Awakens aged a bit that this was intentional. There was something delightful about Kylo Ren wanting so badly to be a badass Sith lord and coming across as a petulant child. The Last Jedi seemed to understand the character better than the first movie, though, because it understood he wasn’t going to actually get anywhere by cosplaying Darth Vader. 
Sometimes evil really is as one-dimensional as it seems. People try to make it complicated. And that’s not to say that there aren’t complicated situations in this world. But people aren’t situations. People should know the difference between right and wrong. People should be able to see the consequences of their actions. Kylo Ren knows. He takes his mask off and realizes he’s not a villain because he wants to be tortured and emo, he’s a villain because he’s an asshole. He has power and he can use it pretty much without consequence, so why not? What I like about the movie is that it understands that sometimes, for whatever reason, people just make the wrong choice with full knowledge of the difference between good and evil. 
This is also a good reason why Snoke’s status as a cipher makes sense. You didn’t know anything about Sheev Palpatine until 1999. He was the Emperor and the only thing you needed to know about the Emperor in the Original Trilogy was that he was a creepy asshole who really like turning vulnerable kids with daddy issues into murderers. That’s what he tried to do to Luke in Jedi, what he succeeded in doing to Anakin in the Prequels, and what Snoke was apparently trying to do with Kylo Ren: gaslight them into becoming emotional fragile (and therefore malleable) attack dogs. The movie ends after Kylo learns a valuable lesson about the difference between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The one who actually ruled the galaxy wasn’t the one who spent a lot of time crying in his bacta tank about his dead wife (who he also killed) spoiler alert send tweet. 
So when I see Darth Nihilus – I see someone going all in on the whole “Kylo Ren in Episode VII” vibe. You’re trying too hard, friend. Let’s look at the names of your Attacks & Abilities: Ceaseless Craving, Drain Force, Annihilate, Lord of Hunger, and Wound in the Force. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, those were Evanescence song titles. Or were they??? You know depression really sucks, right? Depression sucks. 

The overall look, the aesthetic – it’s all just a bit much, don’t you think? 


Galaxy of Zeroes

4. Much Ado About Nihilus - Part One 
5. Much Ado About Nihilus - Part Two

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