In what has now become an annual tradition, I found myself once again taking in the spectacle of a new Star Wars film on a Sunday in mid-December. The first time I did this was a bit unique in that I then hopped a plane to Peru that evening, the memories of the film dancing through my mind during a trip through the jungle. Last year’s experience had little of the build-up, nor the memory; Rogue One is a fine movie, it just doesn’t really make an impression on its own given that it’s solely in service to a greater film. Now, The Last Jedi is a film I’d been trying to temper my expectations for since the moment I walked out of that theater in 2015. The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite film of all time, so this new middle chapter had quite a challenge facing it and a bit of sequel-driven history to live up to. Let’s just say, it’s complicated. As I walked home from the screening, I was somewhat torn. There’s a lot of really awesome things that happen in The Last Jedi. There are also an excessive amount of minor things that really shouldn’t be in the film at all, or at the very least, odd decisions that should be toned down a smidge for the sake of tonal continuity. But most importantly of all, in direct response to the main criticisms of The Force Awakens, it doesn’t clone a previous film, but rather attempts to subvert its spiritual predecessor at every turn. Does it work? Let’s walk through it together and find out.
The ocean is magic. I don’t really know why. There’s always been an alluring imaginative aspect to gazing upon an apparently endless, vast, featureless and flat expanse.
There’s nothing obvious to gain by staring at the sea. Yet, often I’m pulled toward it by a mysterious psychic magnetism. I was raised not far from a water horizon on the eastern shores of Lake Erie which oscillated between a fresh water ocean in the summer and frozen, snowy reaches in the winter. A few years back, I moved my life to the Pacific coast, and I’d be lying if I said the pursuit of an abstract ideal influenced heavily by the memories of the western horizon had no effect on my decision. Almost three years ago, my latest relocation brought me to within a mere mile of the water’s edge, from where I can gaze out on the ocean at any time I so desire.
Whenever I step out of my home, I never fail to look upon the Pacific’s majesty at every opportunity that’s given during my departure.
But looking out from San Francisco, there’s something else there. On a clear day, of which maybe half of the year on the city’s western edge consists, one can spot something there upon the otherwise featureless horizon. Between twenty-seven and thirty-two miles offshore, not far from the continental slope, lie the Farallon Islands, an archipelago made of small islands, islets, and rocks spanning more than seven miles in the open ocean.
Given San Francisco’s propensity for producing fog, low-lying clouds, and marine haze, these relatively small and spread out islands are commonly invisible from the mainland. This can be true on any given day in any season; even when sun shines on the city, there’s no guarantee of a cloudless horizon. However, on the occasion that the marine layer or fog fail to make an appearance over the sea, these islands reveal themselves to the curious observer.
Their mystery is a product only of my own head, between the physical impossibility of my actually getting to these places, and a smattering of similarly unattainable islands, both real and fictional, within my own life. Of course, humans have not only landed on these islands, they’d even been settled there as a semi-permanent home in the 19th century. Only in the recent past have the islands become forbidden to laypeople as a protected wildlife sanctuary and research station, most notably Southeast Farallon Island, the largest and most prominent in the group. One can book a trip aboard a whale-watching vessel in order to have a close encounter with this place — for someone like me who has a healthy, respectful terror of the sea, this is among the last things I’d like to do.
Atop the islands’ tallest peak, there stands a lighthouse. It’s short, like most Bay Area lighthouses, in order to accommodate the lowest floating fog, and it doesn’t really look like anything other than a cylindrical concrete stump. But, on a clear night (and there are many this time of year), one can see its unmistakable beacon through the dark void to the west, shining out several times a minute. It’s a brief reminder that even in the apparent total darkness, something is out there to guide us to safety.
Of the fictional islands I alluded to above, there’s a very specific, extremely obscure reference that the Farallon Islands immediately called to mind the first moment I saw them with my own eyes. More than half my life ago, I used to enjoy playing the video game Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. At the turn of the millennium, it had a thriving multiplayer scene and mapping community. One of the highest rated community creations, and by far the most popular map to download, was Drazen Isle, a fully fleshed out, fairly large and Star Wars-y resort town surrounded by nothing but water and sky. And out on the horizon were these distant islands.
I’ve kept this nostalgia at the forefront of my mind in the years since I’ve come to live on the west coast. Incidentally, there are actually a handful of creative ways one can finally reach those islands, the easiest of which involves swimming below an incomplete blocking volume. And when you do, you have to face the reality of what’s really out there.
One of the islands is nothing more than a texture, an illusion on a skybox. The other is fully modeled, but not only is there nothing there, it’s buggy and unusable. The Farallons are much the same. They’re inhospitable, rugged, weather-blasted, isolated rocks with nary a tree nor shrub in sight. The weather is frigid; wet and windy. There’s no real place to land a boat. The waters are infested with sharks, as well as pollutants from garbage and nearby nuclear waste dumps. And while they look empty, the islands are covered in sea birds, and most disgustingly, an infestation of millions of invasive mice, which may or may not have been eradicated by now.
Thankfully, modern technology allows one to look upon these islands and their gorgeous views from the comfort of the indoors:
The California Academy of Sciences installed a webcam atop the lighthouse that gives curious viewers a peek at what it’s like in and around this formidable place. From here one can see the rest of the archipelago to the northwest, an amazing sunsets to the west, and the skyline of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge to the east — weather permitting of course. On a cloudless day, the views are a sight to behold.
From the islands, the western view remains unspoiled — there isn’t a single mark on the sea for thousands of miles beyond. It’s at once calming and unsettling, but these islands provide a mental and spiritual respite from the overwhelming existential terror and awe the ocean inspires.
I’m glad they’re there.
But I’ll never go to them. Sometimes its best to just let the mystery be.
I stamped my first drawings as a Professional Engineer today. It’s a little mind-blowing how many people have — by virtue of being a mentoring colleague, a member of the board of professional engineers, or the managers who have most recently hired me — deemed me worthy of having this responsibility. I still don’t really believe it. But what a thrill to finally flex my professional muscle.