Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion
With the one-hour premiere of the TV movie Spark of Rebellion, Lucasfilm's new animated series Star Wars Rebels is off to an impressive start. The characters are interesting, the relationships promise tension and rewards, and the setting is both refreshingly new and tinged with the requisite amount of nostalgia. By focusing on a small team in a small region of space, Rebels promises to show us the Star Wars galaxy as we've never seen it before. Given how thoroughly this galaxy has been explored, it's high praise to say that, in its television debut, Rebels exceeds expectations in pulling off this task.
The first thing that must be said about this series is that it is dripping in an original trilogy vibe. From its beautiful color palette of faded pastels to the sounds of blasters and speeder bikes, Rebels kicks off with a powerful assortment of sights and sounds that ground it in a feeling of classic Star Wars. The very first scene shows Ezra looking up from the tower that he calls home to see a massive Imperial Star Destroyer hovering overhead, ominously and symbolically blocking out the sun as it appears in the sky about Lothal. However, it is the TIE fighters in this kickoff movie that do the most to establish that we are watching Star Wars. Their appearance in one of the opening shots, along with subsequent shots of them screaming through atmosphere and space, does more than most of the movie's other visuals and sound effects to anchor the viewer in the galaxy far, far away.
With Lothal, Rebels executive producers Dave Filoni and Simon Kinberg have found an excellent home base for the series. The blaster fire in the crowded alleys of Lothal carries a strong original trilogy feeling, and the brief interactions we see between the Imperials and the citizens of Lothal is enough to convince a viewer that the series will focus acutely on the real-world effects of the new regime. When the crew of the Ghost delivers food to the people who were ejected from their homes, Ezra -- and the viewer -- is exposed to the often unseen aspect of suffering that pervades planets like Lothal under the Emperor's merciless reign. I was already sold on the depiction of Lothal as a planet containing these fascinating hidden inequities even before I heard Sabine refer to the communities as "Tarkin-towns." I enjoyed this reference to the classic villain of the first movie. It is a nice piece of connective tissue that adds a new dimension to Tarkin's brutal doctrine of Imperial ruthlessness and efficiency. Unlike most of what the EU had to say about the Tarkin Doctrine, Spark of Rebellion showed us how Tarkin's policies, devised far away but implemented right before our eyes, affected real people in real and painful ways.
While there are numerous call-backs to the original films -- a Wilhelm scream at the end, a shot of the Ghost being tractored inside a Star Destroyer that could have been copied and pasted from A New Hope, and even an obligatory "It's a trap!" -- Rebels also does a pretty good job of establishing its own feeling. This is most obvious in the scenes with the series' vibrant and catchy new theme music. One such example is when Kanan refers to Ezra and motions toward his image on a cockpit monitor. The scene that cuts to Ezra and Zeb. Throughout this sequence, the Rebels theme jauntily accompanies the first interactions between some of our new heroes.
Perhaps the single biggest concern about Rebels prior to its premiere was the series' tone: Would this be the Star Wars that the original generation knew and loved, or would it carry the indelible and aggravating stamp of the Disney Channel? Based on the premiere, I can render this preliminary verdict: There is a lot for older Star Wars fans to love, but there are also the unmistakably Disney-fied moments that one might expect from a series with a young target audience.
Allow me to elaborate. Rebels is not a kiddy show by any means. Spark of Rebellion was full of violence, some of it surprisingly up-front. When Kanan is downing stormtroopers on Lothal, he's putting burn marks in their chest armor as he downs them. The series doesn't attempt to hide his remorselessness as he kills Imperial soldiers. This is a promising sign from Disney's first Star Wars outing: Lucasfilm remains just as committed to telling action-packed Star Wars stories as it always was, and its new owner isn't trying to pretty things up when it comes to violence.
This is also a funny show, and therein lies the danger. Several of the gags in Spark of Rebellion worked well, like Ezra's two conversations with ISB Agent Kallus. In the first one, he identifies himself as one "Jabba the Hutt," and the veteran Imperial believes him. In the second one, he is wearing a stormtrooper helmet, and by pretending to be a grunt reporting in to his commander, he manages to redirect part of an Imperial welcome party heading away from the Ghost's real landing site.
Both of these scenes were funny, but they were also somewhat unbelievable. A seasoned intelligence officer like Kallus hadn't heard of one of the biggest crime lords in the Outer Rim, while a boy who had never left his homeworld had? A single trooper could redirect a squad of soldiers with an unverified report?
There were also a few moments that seemed outright forced or cheesy. Kanan distracted an Imperial on a speeder bike by pulling up alongside him and saying, "Okay, I give up, you caught me." Then he pulls out a thermal detonator, tosses it to the confused trooper, and says, Just kidding!" before speeding away. I could have topped a thick slice of baguette with that cheese. It wasn't enough to draw me out of the scene, but it made me file a mental note under the heading, "Disney."
I could only be so bothered by that interaction, because I understood that the gag was meant to amuse young children. On a similar note, I disliked but did not begrudge the overwrought dynamic between young Ezra and the Wookiee child he rescued on Kessel. It was a necessary but tedious way of cementing Ezra's altruism, and it was a very Disney way of showing character development. No doubt creating a young and out-of-sorts victim for the similarly naive Ezra to rescue will go a long way toward convincing young viewers that Ezra is very similar like them.
A similarly forced moment came toward the end of the movie, when Hera asked Ezra where his parents were. Perhaps no interaction was as momentarily groan-worthy as when Ezra replied, "I don't have parents," and Hera's face visibly softened, a pose she held for an uncomfortable few seconds. I enjoy learning about characters' backstories, but I prefer it when it is done in a novel way, one that is better integrated into the main action. In almost every other case in this movie, the exposition was handled brilliantly. I just wish I could say the character development was a 100% success, but alas, there were those scenes between Ezra and Hera and between Ezra and the Wookiee kid.
Thankfully, as I said, Spark of Rebellion generally excelled at showing us a team that had been working together for a significant period of time. From Ezra's first glimpse of their Lothal operation, the viewer notices several signs of careful planning and time-tested coordination. There's Kanan patting his leg to signal the others to move into position, and later, Kanan giving Zeb wordless directions while they're racing through Lothal on speeder bikes. There's the "rare hairless Wookiee" improvisation that Kanan attempts when stormtroopers greet the team at the airlock to the prisoner transport. Zeb's attempt at a growl, followed by Kanan giving him the side-eye, demonstrates that this team has a comfortable, easy dynamic and a history of trust and cooperation. With all of this excellent exposition, Kanan's use of a tactical maneuver code name -- the "22 Pickup" rescue plan -- seemed almost superfluous in its reflection of the team's history of devising and executing operations.
This review has gone on long enough without discussing the characters at the center of Star Wars Rebels. The movie focuses mainly on Ezra Bridger, and so too will this review. Ezra is unquestionably a young man in the mold of Luke Skywalker. He says of himself, "I'm not looking for trouble, but it still has a way of finding me." While he is a good pickpocket and has excellent sleight-of-hand skills -- which he demonstrates by lifting first an Imperial's comlink and then Kanan's lightsaber off of the Jedi's belt -- Ezra doesn't use these skills to help others, or to be a hero. He uses them simply to survive. The series drives this point home from one of the earliest scenes, where Ezra uses a fake transmission to save a fruit vendor's life and then takes perhaps more than his fair share of fruit as a reward (payment?) for his actions.
Ezra is quick on his feet, as we see when he tricks a pair of stormtroopers into freeing him from his cell on the Star Destroyer. He is perceptive, as we can tell when he notices Kanan's team preparing for action. He's also in the narrative sweet spot between a naive kid and a bitter orphan. He has a weapon, but it's just a laser slingshot, capable of doing damage and downing troopers but not very lethal on its own. Simon Kinberg has said that the team gave Ezra a slingshot instead of a blaster because they wanted to show him fighting back but without assigning him the cynicism and darkness that carrying a blaster would imply. I was initially wary about this decision, but I have to say that it worked well in the movie.
Overall, I was very pleased with Ezra's temperament, a subject which has caused no shortage of anxiety among fans who remember the initial introduction of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He has a childish curiosity about him, but, at least in the movie, it's directed in meaningful ways. This curiosity is what sparks his first tense meeting with the Ghost's crew, after he hijacks their hijacking of Imperial supply crates. It was a nice way to contrast their cooperative, altruistic efforts with his instinctive, even careless selfishness. Ezra is impetuous and sarcastic, but he's not as annoying as Ahsoka was at first -- which, given that the movie showed us Ezra at his most immature, is a very good sign. Ezra cracks wise, but, in a way not too dissimilar from Han Solos' roguish charm, you can actually appreciate the kid's need to cover his insecurities with a dash of humor.
The writers did a good job of showing Ezra's evolution from selfish street urchin to open-minded, compassionate team player. While Ezra boarded the Ghost with an impressive, even brave display of skill -- one that earned some visible appreciation from Kanan -- he spent most of his early interactions with the crew making a fool of himself. The tension between Ezra and the others wasn't unpleasant to watch -- I particularly enjoyed his clumsy attempts at flirting with Sabine -- but it was a significant marker of how much change was ahead for him. As he stood by on Lothal and watched the crew hand out food to residents of the Tarkin-towns, he had the profound experience being mistaken for a helpful person and being showered with erroneous but heartfelt gratitude. This visibly humbled the young man, making him realize that what the Ghost's crew was doing was more meaningful than anything he had ever done. From then on, Ezra's vague understanding of the crew's mission began eating away at his selfishness.
Ezra remained noncommittal when it came to teamwork even after that revelatory moment. Mostly, he was just curious, sneaking around the ship in an attempt to listen to the team's planning. When he was confronted with the opportunity to help others, his excuse for trying to opt out sounded eerily familiar. As soon as he said, "I'm not against sticking it to the Empire, but..." I flashed back to Luke Skywalker's argument for staying out of Ben Kenobi and Princess Leia's business: "It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it. But..." Like Luke, Ezra faced a clear moment of choice: whether or not to risk his life "for a bunch of strangers." Unlike in A New Hope, however, Spark of Rebellion dramatized his moment of choice by interspersing shots of the Ghost's crew running, unknowingly, toward danger with Hera's voice reprimanding Ezra for being selfish.
As he ran to alert the others, Ezra couldn't believe he was helping them. He was drawn to it by instinct. Hera understood that what was driving him was his need for companionship, but so far, Ezra didn't seem to realize this. Throughout the movie, Ezra gained more confidence as he helped more people. After freeing a group of Wookiee prisoners from their shackles at the spice mines of Kessel, Ezra turned to Kanan and adopted the confident stance of someone who was beginning to appreciate what playing the hero felt like. Even so, he still seemed to be playing at heroism rather than truly understanding what it meant.
What I enjoyed most about Ezra's role in the movie was his discovery of the Force and his position as the audience's eyes and ears in the events of the story. His innate Force sensitivity alerted him to Kanan's presence on Lothal, led him to find the hidden drawer with Kanan's Jedi equipment onboard the Ghost, and signaled that Kanan was standing behind him in his home at the end of the movie. These scenes showed us a young man gradually discovering one of the biggest things in the universe, and they were handled excellently.
In a series that attempts to recapture the magic of the first movie, Ezra is an incredibly valuable focal point for the story. It is through his experiences that the audience enters into the series. On the Ghost, his role as the central point-of-view character is profound. His exclamations of fear and excitement are the way we see the dogfights and dangers. His wide-eyed amazement as he sees hyperspace for the first time is exactly what audiences in 1977 felt as Han said, "Punch it, Chewie!" In this regard, Ezra's perspective was hugely successful in bringing the viewer into the world of Star Wars Rebels.
If Ezra was the main character in Spark of Rebellion, the gallant Jedi Kanan Jarrus was not far behind in importance. Kanan is a realist -- "It's not who's first, it's who's last" -- but he has evolved dramatically from where he was in the Del Rey novel A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller. He's no longer a loner; he has a new family now. Ezra even impresses him enough with his crate maneuver to get Kanan thinking about something that he hasn't considered in a long time: taking a Jedi apprentice. Although Kanan deals coldly with Ezra when he first catches the boy holding his lightsaber, the audience learns that he was expecting something like that from Ezra. This dynamic yields an impressive payoff at the end of the movie, when Hera reveals that Kanan has been testing Ezra all along. When Kanan puts his hand on Ezra's shoulder after a job well done, the viewer can see a master/apprentice dynamic forming, even if Ezra cannot.
The rest of the crew plays second fiddle to Kanan and Ezra in Spark of Rebellion, but they are sufficiently interesting to suggest great things from them in the episodes to come. Hera is the wise leader of the team. She has a relationship with Kanan that begs to be explored further: she calls him "love" at one point and, although she exasperates Kanan at times, she clearly enjoys it. She's also wise and perceptive, and she sees a lot of early Kanan in Ezra when the crew first meets him. "Very creative," she says after Kanan relays to her what Ezra did with the crate. "Sounds like someone I used to know." Kanan's only response is more exasperation: "Ugh."
Zeb is caricatured as the brute at first, but he starts to care about Ezra when he is forced to leave the kid in Kallus' clutches. He is visibly conflicted about doing so; the regret in his eyes is obvious. As the Ghost rockets away to safety, Zeb looks sorrowful and slumps to the ground as he realizes what he did. Later, when Zeb tells Ezra to "try not to get dead," it shows that he's gone from disliking the kid to adopting the hard-edged tone of a slightly annoyed, mostly bemused older brother. When Ezra thinks he's about to part ways with the team, Zeb tries to muster a disinterested demeanor, saying, "Finally, right?" Ezra takes him at his word, but Zeb is clearly conflicted about the prospect of losing Ezra.
Of all the organic members of the crew, Sabine received perhaps the least attention in Spark of Rebellion. Ezra's first glimpse of her face was accompanied by the requisite lovey-dovey music, but to its credit, Rebels moved quickly past that moment and thrust Sabine into the gun turret operator's chair and the pitched combat of a space dogfight. The only other thing we learned about Sabine in this movie, besides the fact that the Empire took her family away from her, is that she likes to watch her explosions. This quirky personality trait, which was teased in the series' preview materials, was handled well in the series. It's only natural that someone dedicated to the half-art, half-science of demolitions work would develop an appreciation for a job -- that is, an explosion -- well done.
Although his appearances were brief, the cantankerous droid Chopper established himself as a welcome source of comedy in Spark of Rebellion. Although his personality is perhaps the least developed of the core characters so far, he made his intentions clear on several hilarious occasions. My favorite remains when he blocks Ezra from following Sabine, as if telling the young man, "Don't even think about it." Chopper's laughter at Hera's defiance of the Imperials likewise helped establish his personality, suggesting that he took pleasure in disobeying the law.
The Imperials on Lothal are almost caricature-like. The two officers we meet at the beginning are the perfect odd couple: one a big brute, the other a sniveling, overbearing bully. Perhaps this level of simplicity is necessary to establish the Empire as a menace for the younger viewers. Regardless, the arrival of Agent Kallus mixed things up a bit. He brought much-needed professionalism to the Empire's depiction in the movie, and his status as a representative of the fearsome Imperial Security Bureau showed that the top brass was watching. In just a few brief scenes, Kallus demonstrated that he lived up to the ISB's reputation. Ezra underestimated the Ghost's crew, saying, "They're not going to come for me. People don't do that." Kallus, however, knew better. The Imperial also recognized the explosive powder in the landing bay, proving himself to be well-versed in demolitions material.
Given how terrifying Agent Kallus is supposed to be, I was surprised to find that he featured prominently in the funniest moment in Spark of Rebellion, and the one that garnered the loudest laughter at the New York City press screening where I first watched the movie. It's the scene where Kallus and a stormtrooper are holding onto the scaffolding of the Kessel platform. The stormtrooper says to Kallus, "First Jedi you've ever seen, sir?" Kallus then kicks the trooper off the scaffolding to his death. It was a funny, if grim, moment for the Imperials. The unexpected nature of the moment was humorous enough to momentarily smother the sheer callousness of the ISB agent's action. I confess that I hope we see more of that dark humor from Imperials. It would be an interesting way to develop them into well-rounded villains and avoid the stereotypical space-fascist archetype that is so often lazily applied to bad guys in good-vs.-evil stories.
Up until now, I have avoided discussing one of the most monumental characters in Spark of Rebellion. This is a character that has appeared in every single Star Wars movie, even if viewers rarely consider it to be a "character" per se. I'm referring to the Force itself. One of the most extraordinary things about the movie is how it personifies the Force using the rustling of the wind and a variety of musical cues from the original trilogy. It is this rustling, combined with the music from Ben Kenobi's Episode IV debut, that alerts Ezra to Kanan's presence on Lothal. The same stirring feeling draws Ezra inside the Ghost to check out Kanan's quarters later in the movie. This brief, almost tantalizing use of the rustling wind and John Williams' iconic music is a fantastic way to thread the Force throughout the story.
The Force is instrumental in several of the best scenes in Spark of Rebellion. One such scene is the audience's first glimpse at a lightsaber. Ezra's discovery of this mysterious object is accompanied by the iconic Binary Sunset music, which grows steadily more powerful as Ezra gets closer to activating the weapon. Interestingly, in this scene, the music is accompanied by a more child-like twinkling sound, perhaps suggesting the collision between this powerful object and an unassuming but equally powerful young man.
Ezra's accidental activation of the holocron is even more exciting. It is one of the standout moments of the movie. I had goosebumps as Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared via holoprojection to deliver part of the warning message that has been referenced and discussed so many times since Revenge of the Sith premiered in 2005. This is the first time we see on screen how Obi-Wan delivered the news of Order 66 to the few distraught Jedi who survived it. In a sense, this one scene in Spark of Rebellion connects the era we just left behind with the end of The Clone Wars to the era we are now about to enter with Rebels. It is no understatement to say that Ezra's wide eyes are our wide eyes in that scene.
As soon as the viewer sees Kanan's lightsaber, he or she begins wondering when Kanan will have to reveal himself by using it. Rebels didn't make us wait too long. In the middle of a pitched blaster fight with Kallus' stormtroopers on Kessel, Kanan had had enough. "I'm about to let everyone in on the secret," he told Ezra. Heavy, almost mystical music accompanied Kanan as he stood up in front of the Imperials and drew and activated his lightsaber. Once again, Ezra stood in for the viewer, managing barely more than a stunned "Whoa." The Wookiees were surprised, the Imperials were amazed, and Kallus could barely believe his own words as he told the troopers to aim at "the Jedi."
If I had to pick a favorite scene, however, it would be Kanan watching Obi-Wan's holographic message in his quarters at the end of the movie. This time, I had twice as many goosebumps. The brief scene showed Kanan exploring a private moment, one that linked him to a once-massive organization that was now at its lowest ebb. For a brief moment, as Obi-Wan's words filled the room, Kanan ceased to be an individual and became a symbol of something bigger than himself. Then Luke's musical theme from Tatooine joined Obi-Wan's voice, and we saw shots of the rest of the Ghost's crew doing their jobs. The message was clear: Kanan understood what he needed to do. This scene essentially kicked off the entire series, showing that, while Kanan has a past he doesn't like to discuss, he has found a new family and is doing good things.
When the dust of Sabine's explosions and the Imperials' blaster fire finally settled, Spark of Rebellion had delivered a solid opening salvo for Star Wars Rebels. The choice that Kanan laid out for Ezra -- keep my lightsaber as a stolen trinket or make something of your life and your skills -- was the classic jumping-off point for the hero's journey, and Ezra made the right choice. Sabine was right to call the Ghost's crew "in some ways, a family," and with Ezra aboard, that dynamic promises to grow much more interesting.
By combining familiar elements from the films with elements from the EU -- like Kessel and the ISB -- Rebels demonstrated that it understood its heritage. By focusing on one planet and committing to developing the inter-trilogy period on a human level, it also broke away from The Clone Wars and the grand scale of the prequels to return to the roots of the Star Wars saga. The fact that Spark of Rebellion's final scene introduced us to the Inquisitor and suggested dark times ahead for our heroes almost didn't even matter. I was already strapped in and ready for a wild ride.