Archive for the 'Star Wars' Category

Star Wars at 30: The Ratings Explained

I appreciate that a number of readers have pored their way through the many thousands of words that make up my Star Wars at 30 series, and some may disagree with how I’ve scored the films. The biggest headache must be the way I’ve rated the prequels comparably with the original trilogy, which suggests they’re as good, and in some cases better, than Episodes IV - VI. Perhaps a little more explanation is needed, and this brief article attempts to do exactly that.

First, it must be understood that these reviews represent my opinion. I don’t claim to be any kind of authority on the Wars. I like the movies, enough to read further on the saga and win frequently during games of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit (granted, this is often when playing my seven year-old Boy, but it’s all good). Basically, I call them as I see them. My belief is that the entire saga contains just one genuine classic, whilst the others have either diminished over time, or weren’t all that good to begin with.

I would also argue that the prequels generally weren’t quite the betrayal by Lucasfilm that harsher critics would have us believe. None of the three expensive movies deserve any kind of canonisation, and it speaks volumes that I consider the Clone Wars cartoon series to deserve its place within the series. But dire they most certainly weren’t. Even Episode I has its moments, though I consider it to be the least of the bunch, and unfortunately set the tone for fans’ feelings over the other two in the series.

The thing is I watch the saga in sequence, and find A New Hope to be overly simplistic, and identify the flaws in Return of the Jedi as overshadowing much of the good it does. Are these films really miles better than the prequels? I think not. They have little of the plotting complexities that lie beneath Episodes I - III, rarely rising above a rather black and white good versus evil trilogy. The other virtue of the pre-Empire yarns is that they shift the emphasis of the story, placing the focus firmly on Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader’s progress, from his innocent youth to ultimate redemption. Rarely has a movie character undergone such a journey through the fires of hell, and this in films often derided as childrens’ fare.It’s the prequels that do this, filling in the Dark Lord’s ambiguities to cast a new light on someone who started his celluloid life as the quintessential baddie. Watching Darth in the original Star Wars, it’s impossible to believe that here’s a figure with genuine depth. He’s bad to the core, and though there’s nothing wrong with showing us an irredeemable villain, the trilogy goes much further, making him three dimensional, whatever one says about the acting of Hayden Christensen.

In any case, and whilst trying to put out of my mind the ‘no stars’ shambles that it is the Star Wars Holiday Special, we reach the lowest rated of the movies, the commercially massive and critically reviled The Phantom Menace. It has its moments, but TPM remains a massive disappointment, mainly because Lucas intentionally plumped for a kids flick whilst paying the lightest of lip service to his long haul supporters. I think it was Alan Hansen who once said you don’t win anything with kids, and here it proves to be the case. Jake Lloyd, who was ten when the movie hit the screens, looks like he has a lot of fun portraying Anakin as a child, yet his is a thankless task, transforming Darth Vader into an annoying, all-American munchkin, which looks wrong even as a set of words on the screen. It just about stays within the realms of plausibility that he wins the pod race on Tatooine. However, once his larking around in space leads to him destroying the enemy starship, any viewer’s patience must have been stretched to breaking point. Throw in Jar Jar Binks (who is conspicuously reduced to cameo roles after TPM), a Jedi Council that does nothing but sit around prissily, spectacularly dull scenes set on Coruscant, acting that shows clear signs of nerves at being set against a green screen, Liam Neeson never looking that interested in his work, and the usual lame gags, and it’s obvious the film is in trouble. The proceedings are very nearly saved by the late appearance by Darth Maul, his sizzling lightsabre battle, and some rather gorgeous effects that are occasionally mixed in with the inspired use of Cesena’s Royal Palace as a location. None of these are quite enough. It’s Jake and Jar Jar that set the tone, and TPM gets a shabby two Darths for its trouble.

Ironically, the poorest entry after the first chapter is its finale. I struggled to complete my piece on Return of the Jedi. Trust me, the finished article here took days of ironing out, editing and omitting massive swathes of text as I tried to stay on track, at one point refusing to enter into an extended rant about a film I first saw when I was ten turning out to be so diminished when I sat through it last week. It’s true though. Of the three classics, this one has lost much of its impact over the years, and I’m quite staggered to find it occupies (at the time of writing) 110th place on the IMDb Top 250. Fargo and Donnie Darko are immediately behind it - where’s the justice? I expect it’s so highly thought of thanks mainly to nostalgia. The movie I remember is a lot better than the one I watched recently, and no amount of Lucas’s tinkering with the effects can have nosedived it so much. The impression I got this time was of a fairly flimsy piece of work. Once I cut out the stuff that wasn’t essential to the overall direction of the plot, there wasn’t much left, though it remains an entertaining romp for the most part. I also had massive problems with the Ewoks - at least you didn’t get a Jar Jar spin-off movie sloping on to the screen. As the episode that supposedly culiminates all the narrative strands, Return just about does its job, yet it has little of the power of, say, The Return of the King, which had Frodo literally crawling through the dirt to complete his errand.

More heavy going, and certainly the darkest of the saga, is Revenge of the Sith. There’s something quite tragic about Episode III, and I do not speak of the sombre mood at its close. For me, an absolute masterpiece of a movie lies at its heart - the effects are logically never better, it contains an opening scene of utter elan, and the turning of Anakin to the dark side carries massive emotional weight despite the way it happens. It remains stuck on three Darths because its technical achievements aren’t matched by its telling. Someone should have taken George Lucas to one side before production started and made it clear that writing and directorial duties ought to be handed over. In Lucas’s hands, the plot turns on too many inconsistencies, and potentially dramatic scenes have little of the power they ought to possess in spades. We’re talking about a massive exchange of power here, one that takes place after years of underhand tactics and the genocide of the Jedi. The story ought to tell itself. Yet it’s never as good as it could have been, and that’s a real shame. I would love to have seen ROTS in the hands of Bryan Singer or Christopher Nolan, proven hands at fantasy storytelling with a real flair for uncovering layers of plot. As it is, the film just about survives, but it’s no more than decent, when there’s enough narrative material to make for an utter gem.

A degree of class comes in the shape of A New Hope, the one that sparked the saga. As a story, it’s distinctly lightweight. The goodies stay good. The baddies are never less than rotten, which means the film relies on its degree of suspense, and the fledgling special effects. Thankfully, both are fantastic, and the latter almost impossibly realised for their time. That first glimpse of the enormous Star Destroyer looming overhead, obliterating any reasonable sense of scale, retains a great level of dramatic might even on the small screen, and the movie is filled with similar delights throughout. I love the scene where the Millennium Falcon is tractor beamed into the Death Star. As John Williams’s score thunders, the ship suddenly looks quite tiny as it is sucked relentlessly into the station. In 1977, you just didn’t see this kind of thing - it’s still good now. Much has been made of the fact that ANH’s worlds, spaceships and even its people look lived in, as though the movie is taking a peek into a galaxy that has worked for many centuries. Added to that are some excellent characters - evil Darth Vader, idealistic Luke Skywalker, prim C-3PO, and cynical, sarcastic smuggler, Han Solo. Carrie Fisher plays Princess Leia as sharp-tongued, quick-witted enough to match her beauty. She’s far from the screaming, wilting damsen in distress that her character might have been. Towering over everything is Sir Alec Guinness, injecting masterly class into his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s ‘Ben’ who does the most to imply a massive expanded universe that lies beyond the film, and therefore it’s him we must thank for instilling a desire to find out what happens next, and what took place beforehand. All this hides a movie that is really quite simplistic and obvious. You know just where the story’s going, and you’re never in much doubt over who’s who. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though a little like seeing a Jerry Bruckheimer offering, you might end up wondering where the substance is behind all that style.

Next up, Attack of the Clones, a controversial choice given the amount of flak it’s received. Yes, I agree that the Anakin-Padme scenes are generally horrible, another instance of Lucas entering into the sort of narrative waters he should have left well alone. Look beyond that, though, and you have an absolute joy of a movie, rollicking good fun from start to finish, and with a real sting in its tail. Though Hayden Christensen may struggle through his lines with Natalie Portman (she looks good, but she sure can’t say that shit), his banter with Obi-Wan is edgy and enjoyable, and the dynamic betwen the pair is never less than fun. Looking at it, Christensen really did have a poisoned chalice of a role. He has to speak in a kind of laconic drawl in a callow attempt to emulate Darth Vader’s deep tones. Because Luke has been told he was much like his father, he has to often appear whiney and impatient. It’s no fun being Anakin, especially when he has to woo a wooden Padme against the neutral green screen. Beyond that, you get Obi-Wan being embroiled in something of a ripping yarn as he gradually uncovers the killing of an assassin. What he discovers has a ripple effect throughout the movie as he finds himself more and more out of his depth, learning things about the Republic that were clearly meant to be kept a secret. Throw in his fight with the resourceful Jango Fett, and his verbal sparring with Count Dooku, and you have a riveting plotline. Christopher Lee adds gravitas as the stately Dooku, presiding over an exhilerating battle that brings a long awaited massive Jedi attack to the screen, not to mention the moment when Yoda gets to wield a sabre. It all looks great, and even then the movie has a final twist to offer, when we learn that the Jedi have been puppets all along, caught up in the scheming of Darth Sidious. Obviously someone who could teach Richard Nixon a thing or two about labyrinthine cover-ups, the Sith Lord’s machinations are so dense and precise that even when the film ends on the dawning of the Clone War, his alter ego, Chancellor Palpatine, is little more than a figure of vague mistrust, with his umasking some distance away.

Perhaps part of AOTC’s success is that it doesn’t need to introduce a new story, nor does it have to wrap things up. As the bridging episode, it can weave its yarn and exit stage left, the tension cranked up and a job well done. The same is even truer for The Empire Strikes Back, which is not only the best of the saga, but a great flick in its own right. If ever I get round to producing my Top 100, hell, my Top Ten even, it would be there, a true masterpiece that ticks all the boxes. Tellingly, Lucas supplied the story, with others writing the script and directing the project. Craftsmen with more of a grasp for snappy dialogue and well paced action that adds several notches to the tension with each passing scene are given more of a handle, which only benefits the finished product. Added to that are actors with a good feel for their characters, excellent effects, and a reining in of the cast of a thousand extra monsters. By the end of Empire, everyone - and I’d include Darth in this - has been on an emotional rollercoaster. They’re all damaged in some way, which builds up the suspense perfectly for the closing chapter. A pity about that one, but even with ROTJ’s flaws taken into consideration, the momentum carried from Episode V ensures it’s never that bad.

A quick shout out also for the Clone Wars cartoons, which on a miniscule budget next to the movies somehow turned out to be entirely at home with their more illustrious companions. Genndy Tartakovsky really ought to get back to wrapping up Samurai Jack, but in the meantime this more than does, a glance at each principal’s part in the war that moves at breakneck speed and shows just why the Jedi are guardians of the Old Republic.

We have more to come from the Wars. 2008 will see a new and allegedly improved edition of the Clone Wars hitting our television screens. From the looks of things, this will be a far more stately affair than the Cartoon Network filler, expanding both the universe and the characters involved. I’m looking forward to it in the same way as anything connected to the Wars makes me sit up and pay attention. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that and had my hopes cruelly dashed. Let’s hope those days ended with Lucas’s days as a director.

Posted on 24th June 2007
Under: Star Wars | 4 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: ‘Return to a Galaxy… Far, Far Away’

The Interweb age is in full swing, and consequently hype has become quite a different thing to what it was in 1983. With each of the Star Wars prequels, we have been able to watch endless trailers and teasers on the web, and access the official Wars site for further reams of information. Rumours, leaked images and the like filter through onto the online world regularly, and it’s now more possible than ever to find out everything about a movie long before seeing the finished product.

Return of the Jedi - sorry, I prefer this posterBack then, the leak of data seemed far more under control. Though you could learn much from newspapers, and television fed a limited number of updates to viewers, it was less easy to be prepared for the film to come. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back made for a heady broth of hype. The third part, or Episode VI, was as breathlessly awaited as any movie, a promised culmination of the saga that had led to welters of toys, books and other merchandise. Known until only weeks before its release as Revenge of the Jedi, the final chapter promised much, showing us the images of horrible looking new beasts, like Bib Fortuna, the albino butler to Jabba the Hutt, and the imposing looking Imperial Guards, with their flowing red robes and a single black slit where their eyes should have been.

The film’s title changed slightly, once George Lucas pointed out that the Jedi didn’t, in fact, get any vengeance, but more controversial was the alleged stretching of its BBFC ‘U’ certificate. Apparently, the movie was going to serve up fresh horrors, testing its audiences with adult themes, scenes of violence and a loathsome slug that had a liking for the ladies. The rating stood. Millions flocked to the theatres, making for a wildly profitable episode that wound up the series and wasn’t overly damaged for being directed by a relative novice, the Cardiff-born Richard Marquand. A virtually critic-proof movie in 1983, time hasn’t been altogether kind to it, with critics highlighting its flaws as irrevocably damaging to its climactic content.

But are they? Is the sixth - and numerically final - chapter a last let down from Lucas, or a masterpiece? Is it ruined by Ewoks, or saved by the epic confrontation between the only remaining Jedi knight and his nemesis?

Episode 6 - Return of the Jedi (1983)

At least the ‘U’ rating furore died down quickly, once people had been to see the film. If anything, Return of the Jedi panders to its younger viewers far more than its prequels, diluting the weighty issues set up in Empire with teddy bear heroes and a welter of puppet extras. The latter pop up en masse in ROTJ’s early scenes, set in the world of gangster, Jabba the Hutt. Following an impressive opening, which gives us the dramatic image of a new and incomplete Death Star, the action moves to Tatooine, and a rescue attempt by our heroes. The object of their labours is Han Solo, still encased in carbonite and literally part of Jabba’s furniture. In succession, the regulars make their way to his palace, get captured and conspire to set Han free.

A breathtaking space scene

During the original story discussions, the prospect of killing Solo off at the end of Empire was mooted. The character turned out to be far too popular to let that happen, yet you wonder how Episode VI might have developed if they hadn’t thrown in this largely unnecessary episode. As an action set piece, the rescue is thrilling enough, but it doesn’t advance the plot, and the characters never seem to be in any real danger. Besides, you’d think Admiral Ackbar and his Council cronies might have something to say about prominent Rebellion soldiers wilfully putting their lives in danger before the big push against the Empire. All churlishness aside, the ‘Jabba’ story only works sporadically. The Hutt lives in a darkened chamber, which is populated with a range of colourful animated aliens. It’s all too much, an overbearing of muppets that might be all right in a Jim Henson production, but speaks of overkill here. Though the Wars has always had its fair share of weird and wonderful monsters, the assortment collected in Jabba’s lair stretches the boundaries of fantasy. It looks less a hive of scum and villainy, and more like a zoo. As for Jabba himself, the man whose scene in Episode IV was cut has by now been re-imagined as a giant slug, replete with warty, leathery skin and mucus spilling from his enormous mouth. The wonder is that the animated creature doesn’t look instantly laughable. Teams of puppeteers operated Jabba from the inside, and the effect isn’t as bad as you might imagine. Again though, is it really necessary? As difficult as it is to imagine a big turdlike creature occupying a position of power, questions must be raised over the fancy he takes to Leia, who is far from sluglike in appearance. What’s that all about?

The result of all this is a first third that entertains and is almost entirely meaningless. What makes it worse is that they’ve saved a diluted Han Solo, someone who is a mere shadow of the rogue from past episodes. The reasons for this are never entirely explained, almost as though his character was written in as an afterthought. Probably just as likely is the fact that by now, it’s Luke Skywalker who is the centre of attention, the focal point in the battle between good and evil. Nothing wrong with that, though Mark Hamill worked best when he was the serious side to Harrison Ford’s lighter and better fun protagonist. In ROTJ, Solo is reduced to a comic foil, a walking bag of clichéd tics, mannered banter and a wounded soul as he suddenly becomes less sure of himself in his quest to woo Leia.

Ewoks = Wrong

For all that, even an emasculated Han is better than most morally dubious heroes, and as always he gets the pick of the film’s comedic lines. Elsewhere, it’s up to Luke to save ROTJ, and a manful job he does. A shame it is to see the demise of Yoda, certainly a highlight of Empire, and killed rather abruptly in his one scene here. It’s a hallmark of both trilogies that characters who have been developed carefully are suddenly removed from the story. Consider Count Dooku in the prequels. Here, the Jedi Master has nothing more to do than answer Luke’s - and our - questions that are left hanging from the previous instalment. Yoda reveals that Darth Vader is indeed his father, no doubt breaking several thousand kids’ hearts who were hoping it was an elaborate lie, yet maintaining the story’s weight and momentum. We also learn that Luke has a sister - Leia, which adds a slightly unsavoury dimension to one or two of the kisses shared by the siblings prior to the revelation, but at least shows why Darth was willing to fling his entire fleet after the escaping Millennium Falcon in Empire.

From there, ROTJ enters its extended final act, a three-pronged assault on our senses as the Rebels throw the dice one last time. It’s an ambitious and spectacular hour of film, cranking up the tension mercilessly with each group of friends trying - and often failing - to help the others in their quest for survival. The best, largely because it can’t go wrong, is the attack on the Death Star led by Lando Calrissian. Billy Dee Williams is nobody’s idea of a convincing leader, but he doesn’t really have to be, settling back into the seat of the Falcon and letting ILM’s superb effects carry the burden. For the most part, Lando’s leg of the tail involves him and the Rebel fleet dovetailing around much bigger ships as they wait for their pals on Endor to destroy the Death Star’s shield. Once this happens, they’ll be able to fly into the structure and destroy it by knocking out its reactor… just like in the original movie! We all know that the Emperor’s over-confidence is his weakness, but surely planning a battle station with the same soft underbelly as its predecessor borders on the reckless. Or, dare I say, a shortfall in the plot…

While Lando ducks and weaves in space, Han and Leia lead a strike team on Endor, the forest moon where the Death Star’s shield happens to be located. Some of the action here is fantastic. The speeder bikes are inspired inventions, accelerating through the jungle maze at an impossible pace. But then, you get your first glimpse of an Ewok and all the goodwill built up by the bikes and Han’s sarcastic wit is tarnished. I often wonder who at Lucasfilm thought that cute teddy bears were a good idea, how they were greenlit beyond the drawing stage until their ultimate insertion in the movie. A lot of people considered the final form of the Ewoks to be viable, and they were all wrong. There’s something to be said for the ‘heart versus technology’ conflict that decides the battle on the forest moon, and the Ewoks certainly turn their natural environment into a series of clever traps for stormtroopers to walk blindly into. However, they’re so cheesy, so loveable and cornball that nobody over the age of 10 should have anything but disdain for them. The scene where C-3PO recounts the heroes’ adventures thus far to the Ewoks is toe-curlingly embarassing, as is the way they keep butting into the main characters with their little bodies and shrill voices. It’s all a frustrated Han can do not to batter them senselessly once they’re within a three-feet radius. Just like in Jabba’s palace, there’s no need for this plethora of new creatures where the main players might have prevailed. As they romp across the screen, emitting strings of unintelligible dialogue, you can almost hear the crisp flicking of many banknotes as Lucas explores the merchandising opportunities they bring.

That leaves Luke’s impossible mission, his attempt to destroy the Emperor and be reunited with his father. In ROTJ, Skywalker bears little resemblance to the callow youth from A New Hope. Mature, solemn and having swapped his desert whites for a familial all-black outfit, the movie’s hero actually seeks Vader out, outlining his intentions from the start. What seems like a fool’s errand actually has a spark of hope, as it’s made clear Darth isn’t quite as single-minded as we may have believed. He senses Luke’s presence when the Emperor does not. When he tells his son that it’s too late for him, the words sound almost like a plea, the first time he’s shown any sign of weakness in the entire trilogy.

As the battle rages on, Luke is brought before the Emperor himself, Darth Sidious. Bizarrely, Ian McDiarmid looks somehow older in this than in Revenge of the Sith, despite the actor being 22 years younger when filming ROTJ. As always, he makes for a fantastic villain. You can see the confidence visibly sap from Skywalker as Sidious reveals the extent of his plans for both the Rebellion and himself. Later, he will coerce the young Jedi into a final scrap with his father, the culmination of another scheme gone horribly right… as long as the pair don’t team up, of course. In any event, it’s a grisly plan. Luke is intended to kill his own dad, and from there become the Emperor’s new apprentice. As unlikely as this sounds, it almost works. Darth’s power has diminished. His offspring’s has grown, and the really awful part is that, whatever else happens, the older man is quite accepting that he won’t come out of this alive.

The collected cast, sans Ewoks

I found myself getting a little emotional as the Sith Lord threw his master over the side of the endlessly deep Death Star shaft, the sort that’s obviously favoured by Imperial architects. It was six movies in, a long haul viewing session through an uneven body of work, yet here we were, at last finding that Anakin Skywalker was indeed the one to bring balance to the force, albeit after going through hell to get there. And he didn’t do it through any high minded ideal, but for his boy, to save Luke from being pulverised by Sidious’s lightning attack. However you choose to look at it, the ending is packed with emotion, a high point that isn’t sustained when Luke pulls Vader’s mask off, or with the rather standard celebrations across the galaxy that close both the film and the saga.

The latter is the most visible instance of fresh CGI being inserted into the ‘Special Edition.’ I remember the party at the end of the theatrical version being confined to Endor, Alliance bods and Ewoks enjoying a few mutual backslaps and fireworks. Suddenly, this has extended across the known galaxy. Mos Eisley, Naboo, Cloud City and Coruscant are all shown in ‘VE Day’ style dancing in the streets, which adds another image to the catalogue of suggested ‘Us versus the Nazis’ parallels thrown in throughout the series. It’s all fine, if horribly overblown, and I would similarly question whether Lucas really had to alter the closing song, which is no better or worse than the schmaltzy pap that signed off the 1983 edition.

More clumsy is the attempt to round off the series with its links to the prequels intact. Luke sees the ghostly images of past Jedi. Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin smile back at him, a job well done and balance duly returned to the force, but wait! That’s not Luke’s dad, the genial one from behind Darth’s mask - it’s Hayden Christensen, looking a bit embarassed to be there. As well he might - what was the point in including the younger Skywalker at the end? What would seeing him mean to Luke, when surely Sebastian Shaw is a far more appropriate fatherly figure? If you’re going to show Christensen, why does Obi-Wan have to appear in the ghostly shape of Alec Guinness? Why not the more youthful Ewan McGregor? An explanation for young Anakin’s reappearance is offered on the IMDb FAQs. It’s suggested that, having returned ultimately to the good side, Skywalker Snr is able to revert to the state he was at before joining the Sith. Had Shaw’s image been used, the FAQ argues, logically he would have had to appear without an arm and his legs, a consequence of his physical condition at the time. As sound enough as this reasoning appears to be, it’s still true that for many viewers, the moment is one that jars horribly. I’m yet to be convinced that Christensen’s cameo is anything more than a gimmick.

Griping aside, and attempting to ignore Lucas’s relentless larking around with his films, what’s left is a mixed bag of a movie. There isn’t much to the final chapter, once its superfluous Jabba sequence is filtered out. Everything significant happens in the last hour. Luke’s story arc, and the space battle, are impressively worked. The former has emotional power; the latter looks great. Admiral Ackbar should have featured more regularly. It’s not often enough that you see thousands of men being led by a shrimp. On Endor, the Ewoks are an insult to most viewers’ intelligence, but at least the chemistry between Leia and Han remains intact, and a break comes for the smuggler once it’s conveniently revealed that his young rival for the princess’s affections is actually related to her. The effects work in ROTJ is generally stunning, ILM clearly in full swing by this stage. Yet too often, the action defers to its younger audience, patronising everyone with a galaxy of weird and wonderful extras that, whilst looking good, distracts from the action and comes across as dispensing plot in favour of visuals. Sadly, this is a template that was carried into Episode I, sixteen years later.

 

And with that, my work on the Wars is done. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and my apologies for spending longer dwelling over the chronologically later episodes. The truth is these are films I’ve watched many times, and my wish to find critical comments to make has to be measured against the fact I love them helplessly. They’re part of my childhood, after all, which makes me wonder sometimes if the slating of the prequels comes perhaps from adults who are finding the Wars to be generally a lot less weighty and meaningful than they were when the reviewers themselves were youths. Certainly, I find the only genuinely excellent piece of work throughout the entire saga to be The Empire Strikes Back. The others all have their moments, and their low points, and I suspect Episodes I - III might have turned out to be much better movies if Lucas had deferred on script writing and directorial duties, handing them over to more competent craftsmen. It’s his vision, his story, and his technology behind it all - did he really have to work on areas of the production where he clearly wasn’t the best man for the job? I guess we’ll never know what the flawed prequels could have been in different hands, though Empire - and to a lesser extent, the competently directed ROTJ - were by no means harmed for Lucas taking a back seat.

Despite this, by most peoples’ standards the movies still carry all the power of a good blaster. It’s a testament that though many film makers have tried to outdo the Wars over the years, it’s only The Lord of the Rings that has left it in the shade. Peter Jackson, an admirer of Lucas’s world, put together an epic that has finally surpassed it, which isn’t bad going for a series that began three decades ago. Then again, the screenplay for the Rings was laboured over for years, and it just so happened to enjoy perfect examples of casting, featuring actors who wore their parts like favourite slippers. These elements, crucial in Jackson’s films, just as they were glossed over in Lucas’s, show where the Wars occasionally went wrong.

For all that, seeing them over again was always fun, and never a chore. I’ve watched better movies, many times, but I keep returning to them. The Boy loves his Wars also, considering the thirty-year old A New Hope to be his favourite. They might not be perfect films, but they have staying power, and are obviously guided by a force that is too powerful for my weak mind. May it be with you, always.

Posted on 19th June 2007
Under: Star Wars | 1 Comment »

Star Wars at 30: ‘The Adventures Continues…’

So how do you follow a film like Star Wars? George Lucas could have approached the sequel to A New Hope by rehashing the original, and no doubt the film would have made its millions in both box office receipts and spin-off merchandise. Instead, he wanted something that weighed in with a heavier blow, an altogether deeper movie experience that would wow fans with its technical prowess and narrative virtuosity.

The Smpire Strikes BackAs it turned out, the making of this sequel would turn out to be stuff of arduous legend. Almost as problematic as the production of Episode IV, difficulties on location, special effects woes, a budget that was spiralling out of control, and endless headaches over the script turned the project into a true labour of love.

Not wanting to handle the writing duties himself, Lucas handed the task to Leigh Brackett, the author of various noir screenplays, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. Brackett turned in a first draft and then died of cancer before work could continue. Rookie screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan, was then commissioned to polish it off, despite only having a screenplay for a film ‘in production hell’ called The Bodyguard to his credit. No one knows precisely how much of the work belongs to Kasdan, Brackett, or Lucas himself. Rumours abound that the former developed a full script written by Lucas, after the latter ditched Brackett’s draft as being ‘too wordy.’ However, it seems too much of a coincidence to listen to the crackling dialogue between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher without thinking of Brackett’s words being spoken by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Whatever the truth, the screenplay turned out just to be the crowning glory in a movie that is now routinely considered to be the finest entry in the entire saga. We know it better as…

Episode 5 - The Empire Strikes Back

When I watched The Empire Strikes Back for this review, it occurred to me that the last time I caught it must have been nearly three years ago, when the box set of the trilogy was first released on DVD. I didn’t know how the so-called ‘better than even Star Wars’ would hold up, but as it happened I found myself grinning inanely throughout. The snappy dialogue entranced me. The effects had me at the first appearance of an imperial probe droid gliding across Hoth’s icy surface. The film’s emotional weight was heartfelt and logical. I cared about the characters, and suffered as Luke ended his adventure in heartbreaking fashion.

Empire, for all its production pitfalls, came across as the result of everyone involved being at the top of their game. The actors clearly knew their characters and wore them easily and assuredly. ILM had come on so well that dazzling effects from A New Hope now looked routine and unremarkable. Most of all, the story was an absolute delight. Not only did it show the success at the end of Episode IV to be a fleeting victory in the face of insurmountable odds for the Rebellion, it was also packed with a variety of creatively delicious moments. The Millennium Falcon, desperate to elude capture by Star Destroyers, plunges itself into an asteroid field, and finds refuge in a cave inside one of the bigger rocks. But Han Solo’s luck runs true as his ship hasn’t flown inside a cavern at all, but an enormous space worm that takes a bite at the fleeing Falcon. Later, Han realises he can’t run a Destroyer any more, and turns round to attack the much larger vessel. Suddenly, the Imperial officers on board can’t find the Falcon… because it’s clamped itself to the hull of the Destroyer. The latter scene is a genuine triumph of the imagination. It also offers an insight into why a smuggler like Han has managed to stay alive for so long, and thus stays true to the character.

Luke on a Tauntaun

The flight of the Falcon underlines the feeling of desperation that courses through the movie. A New Hope didn’t give much insight into the imbalance of power between the Empire and the Rebellion. Here, it’s painfully clear from the start that things are grim for the good guys. In an effort to hide from Darth Vader’s Imperial forces, the Rebels set their base up on the ice world, a place so inhospitable that going out after dark spells almost certain death. At all times in the film, the villains have the upper hand. As Han pulls every trick in the book to escape, the Empire is always one step ahead, making all his wily ingenuity meaningless when he is betrayed on Cloud City by someone he considers to be a friend. Back on Hoth, Darth realises he can’t attack the Rebels by simply firing on them from space. No matter! Where are those AT-AT Walkers when you need them? Tanks on giraffe-like legs, the baddies have the perfect weapon to deal with those pesky insurgents, leading to one of the most visually exciting moments in the film. The battle between the Walkers and Luke’s speeder fleet is like the overall fight in microcosm. Those fast little ships are nifty enough, but the Rebels are no real match for Imperial might, and their gallant effort against the scary AT-ATs only ends one way as the latter make their ponderous, inevitable way towards their target. Comparisons between this scene and those big elephants in The Return of the King are more than a coincidence, which surely attests to its visual power.

On paper, Luke gets something of a raw deal in Empire. While Han, Leia and Chewie feature in an exciting chase through the stars, young Skywalker travels to Dagobah to learn his Jedi trade from Yoda. Despite the fact his destiny is central to the plot, a potentially slow side of the yarn threatens to engulf him as he is forced to listen to the cajoling, harsh lessons and Jedi soundbites endlessly pontificated by an aged and bad-tempered Master. Yoda turns out to be a two-foot high muppet, one of Jim Henson’s finest creations, and a nightmare to operate as a temporary floor had to be built above the Elstree stage to accommodate his puppeteers. Interaction between Luke and Yoda was difficult as neither character could hear the other properly. And then there was always the problem that this was a muppet! The whole film could have unravelled if they weren’t able to breathe life into the character. Step forward Mark Hamill, who somehow plays alongside the foam and latex character as though he really is talking to an ancient Master. It’s Luke that gives Yoda his sense of credibility, responding suitably to his pronouncements and acting with appropriate awe when the other rescues his X-Wing, showing him the true power of the Force.

As for the Dark Side, the film defers to its fans by ensuring Darth Vader is ever centre stage. This time, the Dark Lord doesn’t have Grand Moff Tarkin ‘holding his leash.’ With the Emperor putting in a fleeting appearance, the emphasis is always on Vader, who gets an iconic, imposing new theme tune by John Williams. Clearly, being an Imperial Officer comes with a very limited life expectancy. Vader methodically works through cut glass English-accented humans as he is outfoxed by the Rebels again and again, demonstrating that in the Empire, failure is simply not an option. We even get to see under the mask briefly, a glimpse of Vader’s head from the rear revealing the yellowed skin and scar tissue that shows he was once human, if little of his humanity now remains.

The brilliant AT-AT Walker

Frustrated by his troops’ inability to capture the Falcon, Vader resorts to recruiting bounty hunters to assist him in the hunt, introducing a wonderful array of ne’er do wells that made for some of the most imaginative Star Wars figures available. The bare-footed alien is one thing, but it’s here the film belongs briefly to Boba Fett. With his battle-scarred armour and hard-bitten vocal tones (Temuera Morrison redubs Fett’s speech in the new version, a nice nod to his clone roots), the character looks every inch the hard-boiled space bandit, and proves his worth when he figures out how to track Han Solo.

Comedy moments are provided once more by the triumphant reappearance of droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. As before, the pair retains all the quality of an odd couple double act, ever sniping at each other. Yet it’s Anthony Daniels as Threepio who really raises a smile. Whether shouting the odds at Solo’s latest antic, or whining over his lot once he’s been blasted into pieces, he’s always good fun. The scene where he demands that Chewbacca has a responsibility for him, whilst in bits and strapped to the Wookie’s back, during a crucial Cloud City moment is a classic of ill-timed comic moaning.

As if all this excitement and derring-do wasn’t enough, Empire manages a finish that raises so many questions over the finale that it’s impossible not to feel the grim suspense. Being the middle episode, everyone’s fate is left up in the air, and certain characters find themselves in the sort of cliffhanger limbo that raises serious doubts over their future. Poor Han, for all his efforts, winds up frozen in carbonite and handed over to Jabba the Hutt. For a young viewer, the scene is a hard one to take. We’re told he’s in perfect hibernation, yet it’s tough to imagine a more horrible fate for a hero who’s so very much alive for the rest of the movie. As for Luke, who would wish his ending? The film’s young star gets to take on Vader himself, showing that he’s capable of holding his own before the Dark Lord starts employing dirty tactics. Having duelled across various chambers within the bowels of Cloud City, in a fight that puts Obi-Wan’s tussle with Darth firmly in the shade, Skywalker loses a hand, a moment that stretches the film’s ‘U’ rating to its limit.

That momentAnd then we get the revelation, one of those incredible instances of movie magic that retains all its power after several watches. There’s no preparation for ‘I am your father.’ Until now, Vader has always appeared to be nothing less than the ultimate villain, a ruthless killing machine that’s virtually unstoppable. Suddenly, his character has enormous depth, an entirely new dimension that colours everything he’s done, and all he is yet to accomplish. The scene is framed perfectly by James Earl Jones’s imposing vocals, which enunciate every word with all the impact each deserves. Skywalker’s strangled rebuttal captures entirely the disbelief of the pronouncement, and also proves its truth. Even more than Han’s meeting with the carbonite freezing chamber, it makes the three-year wait for the climactic act an unbearable one. It does its job sublimely, and Lucas showed uncanny astuteness in wrapping it up in secrecy before it was unleashed on the world.

It’s a testament to the overall brilliance of Empire that of the three original films, this one is subject to the least amount of ’special edition’ tinkering. For the most part, its upgrades are largely unobtrusive and add a logical degree of continuity from the prequels, such as in the use of Morrison’s voice for Boba Fett, and Ian McDiarmid’s cameo appearance as Darth Sidious. The CGI also touches up some of the movie’s 1980 effects, and adds some luscious shots of Cloud City that would have been impossible to achieve for the original cut. Occasionally, the changes jar. There’s an added scene with Darth, in which he sounds just like a bad impression of James Earl Jones.

The odd slight niggle shouldn’t get in the way of what is an immense achievement, not only a great sequel but a rare instance of the follow-up improving on the original. Considering the love people have for Star Wars, this is a feat indeed, and I think even the most die-hard fans of Episode IV would struggle to argue that Empire adds depth to the froth of 1977’s offering. It’s also thrilling, visually wonderful and effortlessly well written, and the latter aspect makes the screenplay weaknesses of the prequels so hard to take. There’s just no comparing the insipid Anakin-Padme courtship with the sizzling chemistry shared by Han and Leia. Neither can Episodes I - III come up with a baddie that matches the menace and layers of Darth Vader, or a hero as well rounded and ready to run an emotional gamut as Luke Skywalker. Then again, the same is true for the instalments immediately surrounding Empire. It’s here that all the characters hit their heights, where the plot developments make their hardest impact, and where things are left so neatly on a knife edge. Star Wars lovers can debate this one all they like, but the truth is simple and stark - Empire is the best episode in the saga, and a smashing film in its own right. The Force is most definitely with it.

Posted on 13th June 2007
Under: Classics, Star Wars | 6 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: The worst programme ever made

There are some moments that change your life forever - a near-death experience perhaps, or maybe the irreplaceable experience of being so bored that the clock seems to go physically backwards. Well sir, I’ve had both of those things happen to me, but now I feel I’ve truly arrived. Because I’ve seen the worst programme ever made.”Wow!” you exclaim. “I witnessed the fourth series of Teachers too, but it wasn’t that bad, was it?” Hey, it was pretty cruddy, that’s for sure, and worse because you might have expected something half decent, but it looked like the collaborative output of Scorcese, Eisenstein and Orson Welles compared with…

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

I downloaded the Holiday Special for the sake of completism, and also because I’d heard it was quite bad and wanted to know for myself. The show was broadcast in November 1978, for American audiences bloated on Thanksgiving, and sated their desire for Star Wars, by this point at its peak. Conceived as a tangential episode to the overall Star Wars mythology, it was intended by George Lucas - who came up with the story - to keep the fans happy while The Empire Strikes Back was in production, and as a consequence it enjoyed a good share of the ratings.

A heavily made up LukeBut why haven’t we seen this? What’s the reason for a legitimate slice of the Wars, featuring all the main actors, not being released for British audiences, indeed for virtually suffering from a cover-up from the makers (it’s conspicuously absent from the ‘Empire of Dreams’ documentary on the trilogy DVD, which covers every other wart connected with the series)? Here’s the reason. It’s very bad. Very, very, very, very bad indeed. In fact, I’ve never known anything that’s made me want to tear my eyes out more, or at least force me to rush upstairs and explain to said eyes that I was really sorry and it wouldn’t happen again, honest. And it won’t.

The sad thing about the Holiday Special is that it ain’t just bad, in a Phanton Menace type sense of irritation, but it’s boring and meaningless too. It makes the prequels look generally like they were written by Harold Pinter. I’m almost at a complete loss to emphasise so completely what was wrong about it; indeed Lucasfilm have exorcised it from their collective. Heck George, I can forgive you for Jar Jar, because I know how bad it can really get…

The 90-minute show opens with a scene about the Millennium Falcon escaping from Imperial spaceships. Han and Chewie are on board, and for a short, blissful few seconds everything seems present and correct as the pair banter and argue about how they’re going to get out of their predicament… but wait! Is Han wearing a mass of make-up? He is! And as the credits roll, highlighting each member of the star cast, all just as tarted up (everyone from the film is in it apart from Alec Guinness, whose character presumably had the good sense to be dead at the time). Mark Hammill looks as though he’s been liberally coated in plastic, like a version of the toy figure that was hitting the stores at the time… but further horrors await.

The tale follows Chewbacca trying to make it back to Wookie World to participate in Life Day (no idea what this means) with his family, and so we get to meet his nearest and dearest. There’s Chewie’s wife, Malla, who at least looks like a Wookie and has a Wookie-ish name. His dad is called Itchy(!), and turns out to be a curmudgeony, randy old ape-type thingy. Finally, there’s Lumpy, Chewie’s son, a horrendous proto-Barney creation who’s supposed to be cute, all-American and a Wookie to boot. The first 15 minutes of the programme is dominated by their waiting for the, umm, Wookie of the house, as they communicate in growls and, er, that’s it. I mean, I’m sorry, but 15 minutes of this? It’s just a bunch of monsters talking to each other! The grown-ups try to placate Lumpy (I can’t type that word without a shudder echoing through my frame) by sitting him in front of table, upon which a series of green-clad acrobats appear in an effort to entertain him. I don’t suppose I need to add they didn’t do the same for me.

Gormaanda - that's Hedley!It gets worse. Malla watches a video of Gormaanda, a female chef played by Harvey Korman (in a personification of the mighty falling, he was once Hedley “It’s Hedley!” Lamarr in Blazing Saddles, and also shows up later in the show as a love struck alien, falling for Golden Girls’ Beatrice Arthur as an alien who drinks from a hole in the top of his head(?) - incidentally, Beatrice plays the barkeep of the pub at Mos Eisley, getting shot of her customers by singing to them, and hey, it works - who subjects her to an increasingly hysterical cooking lesson (”Whip… spin… beat… whip… whip… spin…”). And then, for no apparent reason, up pops Art Carney as Saun Dann, an intergalactic trader, who gives each of the Wookies a gift. The most incredible of these is a sort of virtual reality thing that looks like one of those old hairdryers, which is dished out to Itchy and shows him an image of Dianne Carroll. Real-life soul singer Carroll plays Holographic Wow (I’m not joking), who talks dirty to Itchy for a few minutes and then sings a song about something utterly unconnected with the plot.

Shortly afterwards (mercifully), a troop of Imperial guards enter, again without just cause, and proceed to ransack the place. They’re led by Colonel Camp, as I am wont to call him, clearly someone who relishes wearing his starched uniform of the Empire and barking out commands in what can only be described as a gay way. For reasons we’re best kept out of, Dann gives one of the imperial troops a videotape, which inexplicably introduces a performance from those well-known intergalactic rock maestros, Jefferson Starship. In a manifestation of torture, they play for what seems like a short eternity.

There’s more, much more, including a cartoon that features the very first appearance of bounty hunter, Boba Fett (it says something that the animation sequence is by some distance the best thing about this whole deal), and cameos from Luke and a clearly mid-Postcards from the Edge Princess Leia. Eventually, Han comes and sorts the troopers out, tells Malla and her hairy mates that they’re the closest thing to a family he has whilst trying not to look hugely embarassed by being involved in such cobblers, before leaving Chewie to it. What follows can only be described as a war crime, a diabolical plan to wipe out humanity.

Life Day, and - ulp! - Leia singsThe Wookie joins his family in a steam-filled room of, er, more Wookies (this involves a stereophonic Wookie whine) around something called the Tree of Life (scriptwriters at their most imaginative here), and then Leia starts singing. That’s right! And not only does she sing, but it’s a love ballad crooned to the Star Wars theme tune, a little like Anita Dobson and the Eastenders music, except worse. Worse! It’s not that Carrie Fisher’s bad, just the sheer audacity, shit lyrics and the sense you’ve been pounded by over an hour of improbably worse than Fresh Fields telly add up to a sense of bemusement and blasphemy that by all accounts had George Lucas declaring he’d like to burn every last copy of the film.

By now though, it’s nearly over. All that remains is for Chewie to reminisce over the broad sweep of Star Wars’s action (i.e. your series of clips, which translates as a merciful release) and finally for him to look as though (no! Horrible! My eyes!) he’s about to indulge in some Wookie love with Malla.

Words barely describe how bad this is. The really sad truth surrounding the Holiday Special is that despite all the web-based bile regarding it, if you see it’s available somewhere you will watch it, won’t you? Maybe you’ll believe the show isn’t as bad as all that - TPM was slated, and it was a better movie than its critics would have us believe, right? So why not the Holiday Special? Why not, huh? Why? Because those were my exact feelings as I waited for it to become available, gentle readers. I was eager and mad for it. The great lost episode of the Wars! I found myself dreaming, not prepared for one moment for the utter Corner of Wrong that awaited. I’d give it one ‘Darth’ for effort, but the truth is it’s so appallingly horrible that it wouldn’t be deserved. Think of the cliche ’so bad it’s good,’ remove the last two words, and you have the Holiday Special.

Posted on 7th June 2007
Under: Telly, Bobbins, Star Wars | 9 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’

Do you remember the first time? I can’t. My uncle took me when I was four, and apparently I spent most of the time chatting to a girl in the row behind, which must have delighted the other patrons. On another run before the sequel was released, I tried sitting through it again, and was entranced. There was little to beat the sight of a starship that went on forever passing overhead, the horrific majesty of the Death Star, the scores of different races in the canteen, Chewbacca, the dogfights, the lightsabre duel, robots that talked and interacted with each other and their human masters, that whole ‘force’ business, the stormtroopers, the Millennium Falcon, the checkerboard effect that ended one scene and introduced another. Oh yes, and Darth Vader, an impossibly bad baddie, whose heart was as black as his uniform. Darth could deal out death and judgement with a contemptuous flick of his wrist, which - like his voice - was both cool and terrifying.

A New HopeMy first introduction to Star Wars came before the movie itself, when I was given a series of action figures. I had Darth (obviously), R2-D2, C-3PO and a stormtrooper. Later, these would be added to with Chewie, the bland human goodies, various others, a TIE fighter and a cardboard Death Star. The issue of scale wasn’t much of a problem back then. No ‘Why is the TIE fighter nearly as big as the Death Star?’ queries arose, which was just as well, considering how large the latter would have needed to be in order to meet proportional correctness.

Star Wars appears to have made some sort of impression on everyone who was around to see it. There might have been better movies, bigger epics, and certainly we hear about box office records being slain on a near-monthly basis, as if the Wars was just another flick that made lots of money. Yet even where something as universally acclaimed and well attended as The Lord of the Rings trilogy is concerned, it still can’t be compared with the effect of the original Star Wars. Quite simply, there was nothing like it. From endless queues to see it at the cinema, to the tie-in merchandise, disco records, and the playground games, it was a genuine phenomenon, so massive and all-pervading that nothing is ever likely to match it.

Is it worth all the fuss? 30 years on, and a five-day party is taking place in Los Angeles to celebrate the anniversary (Natalie Portman is said to be disgusted at not being invited). Magazines are finding any old excuse to churn out retrospective content about it, and even sites like this get a bit more attention than normal by promising to celebrate the thing. In fact, the only one not sharing the excitement would appear to be George Lucas himself. Despite being handed a meal ticket for life, Lucas has done everything to downplay its importance, relegating it to a mere fourth instalment within the story arc and taking away its very title. The brand name ‘Star Wars’ now covers the lot – all the movies, the books, everything that has some connection with a galaxy far, far away. In contrast, the film that kickstarted everything is now rather shabbily known in official circles as…

Episode 4 – A New Hope

The problem with writing about ANH is that it’s been covered in exhaustive depth, so what else is there to say? It’s a little like having to write an English Literature essay on Hamlet - pretty soon, you’re poring through criticism after criticism, finding every line has been covered to such a degree that there’s nothing left to add.

To begin with, watching it now is a galaxy apart from seeing the thing twenty something years ago. Both from the perspective of an adult viewer, and having experienced the latest CGI outputs, Star Wars seems so very different. On the latter point, I don’t think the effects have dated all that badly. Maybe this is because Lucas has a tendency to tinker with his movies, and their look, years after their initial release. My version is the one that came with the Episode IV - VI boxset released in 2004, which means I pay witness to the odd instance of Obi-Wan and Luke speeding past a freshly CGI’d Mos Eisley, and the like. Most of these 21st century additions to the effects suite aren’t too shabby. On other occasions, they jar, such as the stormtroopers sitting on giant lizards, set against a horribly bland sandscape. The poorest is Han’s encounter with Jabba, reprising a deleted scene during which the Hutt was originally just another bloke. It’s rubbish, made worse when Solo steps on Jabba’s tail, and gets away with it! Surely, an instance of best left well alone.

The X-Wings line upElsewhere, we get cleaned up effects work from the 1970s, and it still looks okay. The rich detail from the prequels is conspicuously absent, yet that works in ANH’s favour. Instead of Coruscant’s ‘Metropolis with flashing lights’, we get a Tattooine setting that is notably shabby. When we arrive at Mos Eisley, junk is piled up everywhere, giving the place a rough, lived-in look that adds authenticity to the movie. Once the film moves onto the Death Star, detail is kept to a minimum, the Empire going for austere grandeur, just like you imagine it would.

Another great pleasure about watching ANH now is to wonder at what story lay beyond it. These days, we know exactly what happened before and after the original chapter. Comics and novels have plugged even more gaps in our knowledge, and if all that isn’t enough, you can spend hours poring through databases of worlds, races, characters, factions and histories on the web. The Wars is now almost Tolkeinesque in its copious richness of information, but it wasn’t like that in 1977. Then, we had it all to speculate over - what does the Empire want? What is the Rebellion fighting for? Why did all the Jedi knights die? What’s the Kessel Run? Why does Darth Vader need buttons and a mask to keep him alive? What’s the big deal with Luke’s father? How does the force work? All this is vaguely teased at in ANH, but it opens up a whole raft of questions to those who would wish to explore an expanded universe. Clearly, the movie comes with a great wealth of ‘previous.’ Like the Rings, these are characters inhabiting a working galaxy, one that hasn’t just opened for business when the screen comes to life but with a heritage of its own.

It’s performed with a perfect feeling for their characters by the actors. We’ve read the praise for Harrison Ford many times, but seeing it again, I realised how much the film depends on Mark Hamill’s wide-eyed turn as Luke Skywalker, the movie’s focal point. Every inch the idealistic innocent, the sheer bewilderment on his face upon seeing Owen and Beru as charred corpses is beautifully judged, as is the way he quickly latches on to Obi-Wan as a figure of respect, even when nobody else does. It’s easy to spot the chemistry between the three leads - Hamill, Ford and Carrie Fisher - and the authenticity they bring to their parts. Clearly, they became friends off the camera and developed a canny sense of mutual understanding, as witnessed in the very last moment of the movie. As Han is awarded his medal by the Princess, he gives her a cheeky wink - clearly, he knows exactly what the trinket means in the greater scheme of things. Luke, in contrast, looks like someone who’s just won his first 1500m.

The whole thing is given a touch of class by Alec Guinness, who brings a stately gravitas to the affair as Obi-Wan. Ewan McGregor spent three entire movies attempting to emulate Guinness’s performance in one, and you can see why he did it. There’s a sense that whereas the younger actors don’t take themselves too seriously, it’s the older heads - Guinness and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin - that centre the film, adding a degree of dramatic weight to its proceedings. By all accounts, Sir Alec came to loathe the fame that came with being Obi-Wan, yet Star Wars wouldn’t have been the hit it was without him.

Despite Lucas’s efforts to place ANH within a story arc, it still works better as a single piece of work. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the movie was planned as just one chunk inside a larger tale, as we are told it was. Perhaps Lucas had the rough outline of an ‘expanded universe’ sketched out at this stage, but surely it was little more than that. It’s for this reason that the links between the film and those around it gel less easily than elsewhere in the trilogy. For one thing, it’s more of a romp than its sequels, a boy’s own adventure where the good guys and villains are clearly drawn and unambiguous. There are none of the heavy going revelations that are still to come here - the relationship between Luke, Leia and Darth Vader is far, far away.

The presentation ceremonyAs for the ties with the prequels, the main concern when making the newer films was a technical one - surely, given the advances in digital technology over the years, ANH would look like the step back in time that it was after Episodes I - III. Yet this works surprisingly well. The ‘look’ of spaceships in the prequels is gradually evolved so that by the close of Revenge of the Sith, we’re watching the natural predecessors to ANH’s Star Destroyers, fighters, etc. It’s in a narrative sense that the jarring takes place. The emotional weight of the events at the end of ROTS bears little similarity to what happens in this chapter. Shifting from Padme’s death and Anakin’s transformation to the light entertainment here makes the saga appear inconsistent and contrived. There aren’t too many obvious plot holes, but the patient viewer is asked to accept a lot of coincidences, such as the unbelievable long-shot that C-3PO and R2-D2 somehow manage to find themselves in the hands of Darth’s son at the start of the movie. I mean, had they gone anywhere else, anywhere else at all, the story would have turned out very differently. What are the odds?

But that’s hardly this film’s fault, rather that of a production company that tried to weld a five-part epic onto it. ANH is good fun, exciting and lacking the flab of its prequels. Its production was famously a series of trials for George Lucas, who faced on-set problems, difficulties with studios, and the fact that everyone involved seemed to have a feeling of ‘What is this nonsense?’ Clearly, very few people had much faith in the project, believing they were working on some inconsequential babble and far from the biggest film of all time. It must have been a massive test of faith for Lucas, who invested so much personally, and faced derision and setbacks on every corner. Mr Star Wars might be slated these days for his over-protective attitude to the saga, but given the uncertainty of ANH’s prospects in the build up to its release, I find it difficult to blame him. The film could have turned out much worse. After everything that went wrong in its production (a series of mishaps and technical problems that cropped up frequently - watch ‘Empire of Dreams’ on the boxset for more), it’s surprising to find the end result is as tight, consistent and magical as it turned out to be.

Posted on 6th June 2007
Under: Classics, Star Wars | 7 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: ‘The Saga is Complete’

What is it with the Star Wars prequels that have divided the public so greatly? Viewers either appear to be prepared to overlook their faults in favour of having the story wrapped up, or believe they’re out there with the dire side of the force. Nobody in their right mind would see them as masterpieces, though the use of increasingly realistic and fluid CGI certainly comes close to ‘masterly.’ Me? I’m with the former group. I can forgive some of the appalling acting, the lumbering dialogue, the way certain lines appear more than once in a movie, the obvious allegories, the plot holes, the inconsistencies, the fact its meanings and symbolism are hammered home with all the subtlety of a swerving juggernaut. None of this spoils the overall effect. For me, these faults are just as prevalent in the original trilogy. I accept Episodes I - III come without Harrison Ford, and that’s a big minus. However, there’s a tendency to over-romanticise the older bunch, for audiences that are all grown up now to project themselves back into the past, when they were kids and Star Wars meant an awful lot more.

Revenge of the SithLike many people, I would suppose I will never be quite as blown away as by the shot of that star destroyer, which keeps flying across the screen during the unforgettable opening of A New Hope. It’s cinema lore, but elsewhere I’d have it that Episodes IV - VI contain little of the sophisticated story that runs throughout the more recent series. The old films are a very straightforward yarn about good versus evil. In contrast, the newer series blurs the edges, giving us a hero only to make us watch helplessly as he falls into inevitable ruin, whilst the real villain’s plans come to horrible fruition, the culmination of careful scheming over the course of three movies.

And it’s for this reason, along with enough industrial light and magic to make my eyes water that I view the prequels affectionately. There’s little doubt I’ve seen better films. It’s more than likely I will watch a more valuable piece of cinematic art within the next seven days. Yet there’s something that keeps me coming back, a mystical energy that made slipping a certain disc into the DVD player a no-brainer, a disc that just happened to feature a familiar black-robed figure, one who appears right at the end of…

Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

When Revenge of the Sith originally hit a cinema near you, its official website carried a number of online documentaries you could access, tasters to get you in the mood for the real thing. One was all about Ewan McGregor’s transformation into Obi-Wan Kenobi, in particular the extent to which both the actor and production team assimilated him as seamlessly as possible into the shoes of a young Alec Guinness. It turned out that McGregor and Guinness had heads and facial features that were shaped almost identically, which was seen as a triumph for the production team, ever wishing to make the character’s ageing process as smooth as possible. As the Scot tried in his performance to emulate Guinness’s mannerisms and dialect, and later documentary footage showed how they adapted his hair and attire appropriately, it was clear the extent to which no technical stone had been left unturned. However, my burning response to this has been to cry ‘Brilliant! Why didn’t you spend more time on the script, fools?’

It was by no means the last time I had this feeling. Everywhere I looked, ROTS was a triumph of science, a technological terror in which the hordes of production people had a perfect right to feel proud of their accomplishments. The brilliant feature on the DVD, Within a Minute, shows the development of a 60-second slice of footage from the perspective of everyone involved, highlighting the vast effort that went into making it look as good as it does. What it also did, unintentionally to a large degree, was make clear the relative unimportance of the screenplay. As someone in the programme says, usually the script is the Bible, but here it was simply part of the process, and boy does it show. George Lucas has confessed to finding that writing malarkey a chore; in Within a Minute, he emerges with a completed screenplay, sheepishly confessing that he skims over bits (e.g. covering a fight scene by typing ‘They fight’). You have to wonder why he bothered, certainly when you consider there must be a clone army of willing writers out there, all capable of turning out a neat bundle of dialogue, and checking their drafts to make certain various lines aren’t repeated throughout, as though it’s never been properly proofed…

Treating the script like a second class citizen really is unforgivable. I appreciate Star Wars isn’t exactly Tolstoy, and that nobody goes to see one of Lucas’s epics with the expectations of a screenplay worthy of the Coen Brothers. All the same, a side effect of the amazing visuals, dazzling costumes and intense action is that any shortcomings will come into ever sharper relief. The dialogue seems flatter and lifeless, and it isn’t helped by the millions of dollars of thrills thrown around it.

Harsh critics have picked on the standard of the acting as another major shortcoming. They’re certainly right where Hayden Christensen is concerned. Here, he is supposed to have the weight of Anakin’s previous and the ramifications of being ‘the Chosen One’ on his shoulders. As the movie’s main focus, he should have the presence of Russell Crowe, someone who can carry a big budget film with his brooding, smouldering presence. But he doesn’t. Instead he looks nothing more than confused when questioning his own loyalties, whilst in the presence of Padme he wears the same half-smile throughout, as though he can never quite believe his own luck. It doesn’t help that he’s given some awful, hammy lines to deliver. I suspect the intention was to have him speak epic dialogue, the kind of ‘worlds colliding’ bobbins Darth Vader used to come out with. If so, he simply doesn’t have that level of power, coming across as a spoiled child rather than the potential ruler of the universe.

'I am Mannequin Skywalker...'The fact that this was a major criticism of the previous installment makes this crime even worse. Clearly, Lucas learned nothing from things that had gone wrong before, and in this respect Natalie Portman fares no better, alternating between doting on Anakin and making platitudinal criticisms of the political arena. Even the ballsiness of her performances in Episodes One and Two are yesterday. Pregnant ladies don’t fight, so there’s little for her to do apart from get more disillusioned with her sad lot.

And you’re telling me that the woman who led the assault on Naboo, and who helped the Jedi in their tussle with the droids at Geonosis, dies in childbirth? Of a broken heart, you say? It all sounds very far fetched, even in a galaxy far, far away. You’re asked to accept a lot of plot holes in ROTS, from Anakin’s rather easy conversion to the Dark Side, through to three of Mace Windu’s Jedi Master pals being dispatched with a growl and a summary stabbing motion by Palpatine. It’s a sin that Count Dooku - effortlessly the best thing in Attack of the Clones - is offed almost as soon as he appears. Similarly General Grievous gets handed his cards way too quickly. Anyone who’s seen the superior Clone Wars series will have been given the impression he’s far too powerful to be bumped off after a brief playground scrap with Obi-Wan, yet that’s what happens. Then there’s the whole muddled ending - couldn’t Kenobi have put poor Anakin out of his misery as he’s slowly turned into toast? Certainly by a Jedi’s standards, leaving him to fry seems rather cruel, even if killing him would have left a fair amount to explain between episodes three and four. I’m sure Sidious could have brought him back to life, or something, especially after he delivered that yarn about the Sith Lord who could do just that earlier in ROTS. How ironic would that have been, considering what he tells his charge about Padme? Also, why does Yoda just tittle off to Dagobah? He gives up a bit easily, after more than matching the Emperor in that battle of the force…

I’m being overly critical, I know, but then these are the brickbats the knockers have thrown at ROTS, and there’s substance behind their caustic comments. For all that, there’s clearly something about the thing that makes it more than a complete waste of space. Yeah, I’m a fan of the series, but I’m not stupid. I expect some quality to go with my latest Wars. It’s not like when I was 10, and devoured Return of the Jedi, Ewoks and all because, well, it’s Star Wars, and a new film meant a whole extra range of figures and replica ships available from Middlesbrough’s cavernous Romer Parrish toy store (not that big, really, but then again neither was I at the time).

ROTS possesses one of the most relentlessly exciting opening sequences I have ever seen in a movie. After the usual preamble, the camera tracks two fighter crafts flying through a space battle in a single, continuous take. To a martial drumbeat, the tiny spaceships weave through much bigger cruisers, all firing on each other in a mess of explosions, missiles and warheads. There’s so much to see that the Encarta definition of ‘feast for the eyes’ could link to a media clip of this scene. But this is only the beginning. The first twenty minutes of ROTS is a series of action set pieces, a blistering video game involving piles of dismembered robot limbs, Jedi gymnastics and a recreation of those Airport movies from the 1970s. Whether you like this sort of stuff is up to you, but the kinetic fun of it can’t be argued with, nor can the fact that this shows the characters - all stunts and wisecracks - at their best. Similarly impressive is what’s happening in the background. As Anakin and Dooku fight in the bridge of his ship, outside the windows can be seen the battle raging on, more vessels, laser beams and annihilations. Though the eye’s naturally drawn to the sabres, it’s bewildering to think of how much work must have gone into producing those ’secondary’ effects.

Things slow down afterwards, as we start to deal with the way Palpatine subverts Anakin. This is broken up with Yoda’s trip to help the Wookies and Obi-Wan’s pursuit of Grievous. Both storylines are largely unnecessary as plot drivers, but well conceived, and give the audience some titillation amidst the somewhat ponderous Anakin scenes. In particular, Ewan McGregor puts in by some distance his most accomplished turn of the series. Previously, a combination of stilted, forced lines and green screen acting had him looking uncomfortable, but here he’s every inch the Jedi Master. Overshadowed he is only by Ian McDiarmid, up until this point something of a bit part player in the trilogy, albeit the pivotal figure. His Sith anecdote, shared with Skywalker, is one of the few occasions in ROTS where it’s worth slowing down the action for a scene heavy in dialogue. Palpatine’s is a film of two halves. In the first, he’s the slimy politician. His implorings for Anakin to trust him jar with the malevolent designs he has for the Republic, and it’s that other side of his personality that comes out in the second half, after he’s been scarred by Mace Windu.

Yoda looking ready for actionThe ‘Execute Order 66′ sequence of events is one of the most emotionally effective in the entire trilogy. It could have been made awfully badly, yet it hardly puts a foot wrong, showing Jedi being killed on a number of gorgeous locations whilst John Williams comes up with a suitably funereal score. There’s something horribly sinister about the Clone army, serving their Jedi commanders doggedly until a brief order from Palpatine changes their focus entirely. Even Anakin can’t ruin the moment. In one grisly scene, he shows just how far he’ll go in servitude to the dark side, slaying a roomful of ‘younglings’ without a flicker of conscience.

Then there’s the epic finale, the fight between Yoda and Palpatine/Sidious as Obi-Wan takes on Anakin within the lava fields of Mustapha. The dismissive way Yoda deals with the Emperor’s guards is a joy, but the focus is really on the confrontation between two protagonists who, until now, were friends. This is astonishing, a masterclass in choreography that must have involved painstakingly long rehearsal times for McGregor and Christensen. It’s spoiled slightly by the videogame hazards in the shape of random lava attacks, but the power of the fight doesn’t let up until the end, when Obi-Wan finds himself on higher ground.

What follows, the arresting and rather horrific downfall of Anakin, is never less than powerful. Allow yourself to care for these characters, and it all packs an emotional punch, as does the series of scenes at the very end that are intended to ‘bridge’ the prequels with Episode IV. More than the rather downbeat sights of the baddies very much on top, what really clicks here is Williams’s music, which provides a seamless link with the sound of that 1977 movie. It just goes to show how crucial the composer is to Star Wars. Though there’s a tendency to overuse his score in places (sometimes, already busy scenes have music fiddling away unnecessarily in the background), when it counts Williams can pack a punch, and does so here.

In terms of numbers, ROTS cost over a hundred million dollars to produce (less than half of Spider-Man III’s price tag - I just can’t work that one out) and made that much fourfold in box office receipts alone. Given the adult nature of its content and the fact that this is the single episode that has the older fans in its thoughts, it must be viewed as a commercial triumph. From what I can tell, it was critically received better in the States than in Britain, where I can’t help thinking the knives have been out from the prequels’ start. The trouble is that one-star reviews tend to bring out the belligerent side in ROTS’s supporters. Reading the comments of average fans, it’s possible to get the impression that this is either terrible bobbins, or seriously misunderstood. What it happens to be is okay, a decent movie with glaring flaws but equally standout moments of brilliance. Watching it again last night, I fast forwarded through the Anakin-Padme stuff, and afterwards didn’t feel like I’d missed a thing. At other times, I was captivated, whether by what was happening on the screen, or its effectiveness in rounding off the trilogy, a trilogy that I, like many of you no doubt, have spent time with through much of my life.

Posted on 2nd June 2007
Under: Star Wars | 7 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: ‘The Revenge Begins’

No sooner was Revenge of the Sith on general release that George Lucas proudly announced the future of the franchise. There were to be no more movies (yeah, course; I expect to be sitting down to Episode VII in 2021 - let’s see if I’m right), but the Wars were never going to be far away. A television series covering the Clone Wars was in the pipelines, alongside the usual slew of video games, and very recently fans could view the trailer for themselves - click here.

As promising as it looks, the question of how necessary it is should be asked. After all, cast your minds back to 2003, when the long, long build-up to Episode III was just starting. With Lucasfilm making us wait three years for each slice of movie midichlorian magic, a series of animated shorts was released as a promotional tool, and also no doubt to ensure that none of this was ever going to be out of our minds entirely. Cue the frustration of fiddling around with video timers and Sky + as the three-minute episodelets blinked on to our screens each evening. I couldn’t keep up with it, missing whole swathes of the plot (not that there was a lot of ‘plot’ to speak of, more a series of brief action sequences) and scrabbling around for online versions. It was, of course, the Genndy Tartakovsky directed…

Star Wars: Clone Wars

I admit I got excited when I read Tartakovsky was the man to realise the Clone Wars. Like any Dad who has to spend time watching telly with his child, I found the lousy early days of enduring Teletubbies, Tweenies, Dora the Explorer and the dread evil that is Barney, gave way to the sort of stuff I actually quite liked. The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and especially Samurai Jack were all brilliant series, and I live in hope to this day that he’ll at least complete the latter’s odyssey. Mako may be dead, but that’s no reason for ending Jack’s adventures in mid-air. We need to see him vanquish Aku and get reunited with his family, damn it!

Clone Wars Volume OneIn any case, Tartakovsky’s animation impressed me greatly with its signature bold lines, colourful images and endless homages scattered within the stories. Jack referenced Star Wars no end, so it wasn’t a great surprise to find him slated to direct two series of mini-shows depicting scenes from the Clone Wars, events that bridged Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Intended as extended adverts for the upcoming movie, the shows were aired on Toonami (Cartoon Network in America) at the start of the peak viewing period. A third and final series consisted of five twelve-minute episodes, allowing for more narrative development, and leading to the very start of Sith. Miss the show, and you could find it on the official Star Wars site - if you were really lucky, you didn’t even have to subscribe to bleed-you-white Hyperspace for the privilege of watching an episode because Video Plus had failed to pick it up in the first instance.

Of course, with all three series being released on two DVDs, you can see the show in its glorious entirety. ‘Volume One’ covers the entire run of three-minute mini-epics, making for 67 minutes of top drawer animation. With access to John Williams’s score, and the various Wars sound effects (voices were supplied by suitable soundalikes, apart from Anthony Daniels, who is obviously proud/skint/sad enough to appear in person to provide the ‘Terry Scott’ tones of C-3PO), Tartakovsky was able to come up with something that sounded authentic. His animation style suited the action also, which focused on extended action sequences at the expense of plot development, a good thing considering the virtual impossibility of watching the series in its linear form when it aired on television.

The story focuses loosely on Obi-Wan and Anakin, who are sent to a world under the control of the Separatists. Kenobi commands the ground troops, whilst his Padawan looks after things in space. With them go an army of clones, and we get to see the effectiveness of the Republic’s forces as they beat back rank after rank of droids. In the meantime, a Sith wannabe named Assajj Ventress is recruited by Sidious and Dooku to kill Anakin. No slouch with a lightsabre herself, the albino warrior is a stooge. Either she’ll complete her mission, which will suit the Sith fine, or she’ll die trying, because in slaying her young Skywalker will need to tap into the darker side of his powers.

But this is only part of the show. One of its greatest strengths is its willingness to move away from the traditional main characters, and focus on those the films have chosen to ignore, or underdevelop. Green-skinned Jedi, Kit Fisto, is involved in an excellent sea-based adventure. Two Jedi priestesses fight destructive droids in the cave where the crystals placed inside lightsabres are found. Best of all is Mace Windu’s battle on Dantooine. We see exactly why Samuel L Jackson was fully justified in etching ‘BMF’ into his sabre, as the Master uses the force to deal with hundreds of battle droids and a craft that pummels the ground, sending everyone flying. Fast-paced and epic, the action scenes are scintillating, and at times put the movies to shame. It’s not often we see the Jedis at their most potent. Here, they really are super beings, capable of reducing entire armies with their abilities.

Characters from the Wars

Haters of the slower moving moments in Star wars will love this. Given the lack of plot development, expositional scenes and those lambasted Anakin-Padme wooings are notable by their absence. It doesn’t mean that Skywalker is any less difficult to deal with. Saving his men with daring stunts in one moment, acting up to Obi-Wan the next, the show gets him about right without having to labour the point. His duel with Ventress is genuinely riveting, a battle that starts in the trees and moves to a Yavin temple. As the opponents regard each other, Leone style, it starts raining, water causing little bursts of steam to sizzle into life on the lightsabres.

A series highlight occurs towards the end of the volume with the sudden arrival of General Grievous. This is our first glimpse of Episode III’s main baddie, and an impressive sight he is. The General doesn’t have his bad cough until the movie (we find out how he gets it during a gripping finale on Volume Two), and here he’s one dangerous mother, turning the fight against the Republic almost single-handedly. For the first time, the Jedi have an enemy they can’t beat easily; indeed his hobby is collecting the sabres of warriors he has vanquished, and he seems to genuinely relish dealing out death to the beleaguered good guys.

Grievous arrives!The final five episodes, collected in ‘Volume Two,’ are no less thrilling, and manage to tell something of a story. Whilst Anakin and Obi Wan are fobbed off into visiting a world believed to be Grievous’s location, the Separatists invade Coruscant. Their aim is Chancellor Palpatine, who is protected by several Jedi as the General and his bodyguards pursue. This plot involves orange-skinned Jedi knight Shaak Ti, a character dealt with so shabbily in ROTS that her scene was deleted, but here she’s a star. Their breathless chase through the streets of Coruscant is easily the more entertaining half of the yarn. As for the other, our heroes come across a tribe of natives that has been losing its menfolk. Anakin goes off to investigate, and sure enough finds they are being used for nefarious purposes by the Separatists, who for good measure are tampering with the environment. The plot seems to be a set-up, however, for the ‘vision’ Skywalker has in a cave that provides him with a nightmarish look into what the future holds. It also gives us a glimpse into the young Jedi’s uneasy maturity, a point marked with him becoming a Knight.

In total, the running time for Clone Wars extends to over two hours, or the length of an average Star Wars movie. The extent to which you believe it can be compared with the films is entirely to the viewer’s discretion; personally I would no longer be able to contemplate sitting through a Wars marathon without including it, and in its right place. Clearly, Lucas believes the story is worth retelling. The trailer to the upcoming series suggests it tracks the same events as depicted here, which implies the people who matter at Lucasfilm think little of Tartakovsky’s offering. They’re wrong. It’s solid entertainment that often raises the standard to a similar level as the films themselves, and occasionally higher still.

Posted on 31st May 2007
Under: Animation, Telly, Star Wars | 2 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: ‘The Clones Are Coming’

2002, and the world had new movie trilogies to get excited about. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the first episode of the everywhere wizard’s adventures, whilst The Fellowship of the Ring offered a breathtaking realisation of J R R Tolkein’s words from the so-called unfilmable The Lord of the Rings.

All of a sudden, Star Wars held no monopoly over the domain of epic trilogies. No wonder then that the second of the prequels was shipped out amidst little of its predecessor’s fanfare. Save for a neat poster campaign, featuring main characters from the film standing before rows of lightsabre wielding Jedi knights or ranked clone troopers, it was a muted release for George Lucas’s latest attempt to provide a backdrop to his 1977 masterpiece, the original Star Wars. Given the ominous working title of ‘Jar Jar’s Big Adventure,’ we now know it better as…

Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones (2002)

There has always been a tendency with the prequels to focus on their negatives. Attack of the Clones has a major one in the shape of one of its main stars, yet on the whole it’s a blast of a movie, a real return to form after the insipid Phantom Menace. The fun is put right back into the Wars, and the action rarely lets up. What’s more, it has a jaw-dropping finale that both works in its own right and sets us up neatly for Episode III. It’s a far more grown-up experience than TPM, earning the franchise’s first ‘PG’ rating, and that’s no bad thing as the plot throws in a number of adult themes alongside the usual child-friendly moments.

Attack of the ClonesBut first, the ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ effect. Lucas searched far and wide for his ideal Anakin ‘as a young man’, settling ultimately on the virtually unknown Hayden Christensen. According to the director, Christensen’s chemistry with Natalie Portman won him the role, and this was pivotal as one of the story’s main strands concerned his character’s growing relationship with Padme Amidala. Unfortunate then that not only is this ‘chemistry’ non-existent (Portman and Christensen always appear awkward together, more in a ‘What do we do now?’ sense than that of nervous lovers), the scenes themselves are badly written disasters, by some distance the dullest episodes in the movie.

Lucas aims to provide a sequence of vignettes that develop the sexual tension between Padawan and Senator. To do this, he contrives a storyline that sees Anakin spending much of his time as Padme’s personal bodyguard, with unlimited access to her and many an opportunity to woo the woman he’s loved since he was a small boy. However, there’s so little spark to be found on the screen that it’s hard to care what happens to them. Mostly, I found myself wanting the action to switch back to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who’s embroiled in a blistering detective yarn that finds him unraveling all sorts of dangerous truths that have been hidden from the Jedi Council.

It doesn’t help Anakin that Christensen plays him as a brattish youth. Presumably, we’re supposed to be watching a character torn between his desire to do good, and an element that’s irrevocably drawn to the dark side. What we get is someone who blurts out lines like ‘It’s not fair!’ and sounding for all the world like Harry Enfield’s grotesque Kevin the Teenager. At certain points, I thought the film should have been called ‘Slap of the Drones’ and featuring shots of Obi-Wan giving his apprentice the clip around the ear hole he clearly deserves.

I don’t know where it went wrong for Christensen. Clearly a decent actor (he blew me away in Shattered Glass) when not donning the Jedi robes, I’m left wondering how much of his troubled performance was down to him, or Lucas’s wayward directing talents. Though he at least looks good in the film’s action scenes, and works well alongside McGregor, Anakin’s inability to create any sense of believability during his time with Padme is quite unforgivable. Should he have been replaced? After all, Stuart Townsend was Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings until well after shooting had begun. Only then was he sent home, and in a casting decision of unparalleled genius/good luck had his place taken by Viggo Mortensen. Here, we can only speculate, though his difficult moments with Padme - which, in fairness, don’t bring the best out of Portman either - crucially undermine the entire project.

I’ve spent a long time discussing this point, but I thought it was important to highlight exactly what I think is wrong in AOTC. Because that’s it. The rest is fantastic, a breezy science fiction opera that makes great strides in terms of its effects work, and manages to bring the best out of sidelined performers in Episode I like McGregor, Samuel L Jackson and a newly digitalised Yoda. The action starts on Coruscant, where Padme’s shuttle is blown up. She isn’t in it, but the scare this provokes leads to Obi-Wan and Anakin being assigned to protect her. We get some nicely written banter between the Jedi and his apprentice, which adds depth to their relationship. Lucas was helped in his scriptwriting duties by Young Indiana Jones veteran, Jonathan Hales, and the touch of a screenplay professional is evident, as the latter gives the pair some spoken tension and a good deal of affection.

Hold up your sword if you can act!Soon enough, they’re off on an awe-inspiring high speed pursuit through the streets of the city, an explosion of CGI that must have stretched the digital technology to its limits. The Jedi catch up with the assassin hired to kill Padme, but before they can question her, she in turn is offed. From here, Kenobi is charged with figuring out what’s going on, a search that leads him to the mysterious Kamino, and a clone army that is allegedly being built for the Republic, though the man who ordered it has been dead for years. Who’s behind all this? Obi-Wan watches the worryingly large clones forming ranks, collecting guns, etc, in powerful scenes that are no doubt deliberately reminiscent of Triumph of the Will, then meets their template, Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), a bounty hunter who’s clearly a wrong ‘un. Fett eventually jets off for Geonosis, followed by the Jedi. There, Kenobi comes across Separatist leader, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and learns that the galaxy is in a heap of trouble as war looms…

It’s a gripping plot, told in breathless scenes and effortlessly more suspenseful than those involving Anakin. Notable is Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango in the rain of Kamino, which brings out both the former’s Jedi training, and his opponent’s inventiveness. Fett’s a worthy adversary. As Kenobi is discovered to be in pursuit, Jango attempts to see him off with seismic charges, blue-coloured bombs that gloriously explode with an absence of sound before the ‘charge’ kicks in. When these don’t work, the bounty hunter fires a heat-seeking missile, which Obi-Wan is only able to stop with some trickery of his own. At last, we get a hint of the creative highs of The Empire Strikes Back, as Kenobi hides from Jango’s missiles behind an asteroid, having to jettison his spare parts to provoke an explosion.

Things get even better once Christopher Lee enters the fray. His arrival almost makes up for Christensen’s failings, so much gravitas does he add to his part as the film’s major villain. He’s almost the opposite of TPM’s Maul, an elder statesman who projects sheer charisma in his dealings with others, and a masterly use of the lightsabre that completely baffles both Obi-Wan and Anakin. As he duels with Obi-Wan, crowing ‘Master Kenobi, you disappoint me,’ you know this is a contest that is only going to go one way. Even Yoda struggles against him, having to dip into his full repertoire of stunts to get any purchase against his old student. And incidentally, isn’t Yoda’s fighting a true highlight for the fans? At last, we get to see exactly why the green-skinned one is a Jedi Master’s master, and not just some muppet with a unique take on grammatical structure.

All the while, what the film has been uncovering, in layers of dense plotting, are more of Palpatine’s machinations. We only see the old baddie in his Sidious guise at the movie’s end, yet his presence is never far away, and we see just how deep his planning has gone. Even when the Jedi appear to have won the day at AOTC’s close, all that has happened - and only Yoda seems to get this - is everyone has played into the hands of the dark side, producing a war that will ultimately turn out to be a decisive invention of the Sith. In one sinister scene, we learn that Palpatine has already started to work on Anakin - clearly his promise of following the Jedi’s career ‘with great interest’ wasn’t just a blithe comment. The great manipulator has his claws firmly into the man he sees as his long-term apprentice. Such is the ingenuity of his scheming that even Dooku doesn’t know he is being set up as the patsy, falling to the sword once he’s outlived his usefulness.

No matter how you choose to look at it, the ‘backstory’ running behind all AOTC’s revelations is riveting stuff, offering a plotting sophistication far in advance of anything the series has tried previously. It doesn’t all ring entirely consistently. For one thing, it’s difficult to believe that nobody suspects Palpatine of being behind everything. Yoda might fix the Chancellor with the occasional sly, sideways glance, but he’s obviously in the dark, despite Episode I’s conclusion proving that a Sith Lord is in the mix somewhere at the highest level.

Amazing battle fareStill, does any of this really matter when we get so many money shots? The movie’s climax on Geonosis is almost worth the ticket price on its own. It start promisingly with the natives’ attempts to kill Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme in a gladiatorial contest. When this doesn’t work, it looks like they’re going to be shot by Droidekkas, only for an army of Jedi to wade in at the optimum moment. Suddenly, Mace Windu has an action part to play, offering a glimpse of his awesome power as he falls a hundred feet to the floor, landing easily on his feet. As if a mass Jedi v droid army showdown isn’t enough, we then get the entry of the clone army itself, from which point the film turns into pure and impressively rendered science fiction as arsenals of wonderfully conceived weaponry get it on against each other. Dooku’s fights are still to come, as is the closing shot of the clone army ranked en masse, apparently on the side of the goodies, even if the music suggests otherwise.

Much to enjoy in this episode there is. AOTC has dramatic weight, a genuine welter of suspense and some superb action set-pieces that suggest the series is back on track after a dodgy start. It’s not perfect. The Anakin-Padme sequences ensure it’s far short of the sublimity we experienced during The Empire Strikes Back, its closest equivalent in the earlier trilogy, and when you think that the main love story in Episode V was the delicious vocal foreplay between Han Solo and Leia, you see just what you’re missing here. For all that, it’s a fine entry, tremendously good fun, and sets us up nicely for the tragic denouement to come…

Posted on 29th May 2007
Under: Star Wars | 4 Comments »

Star Wars at 30: ‘Every Saga has a Beginning’

Ver WarsThe idea is simple enough - Star Wars is 30 this month, and to celebrate the franchise that has spent more time on my television than most things, I’m going to watch all six films and review them here. Hell, if I can be bothered, I’ll do one episode per day, and let’s throw in Genndy Tartakovsky’s superior Clone Wars series also.

So join me, in what I hope will be a highly opinionated gloss over this much discussed series, and see which Wars I think rules, which doesn’t, and just who is more annoying - bloody Jar Jar, or the flipping Ewoks?

Like any fan, I start my viewing with the first instalment, not in order of release. That makes today’s subject the critical un-darling that is:

Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Whether any title was doomed to critical flagellation to quite the same extent as The Phanton Menace remains to be seen. Certainly, with George Lucas making us wait sixteen years for a new Wars, the hype surrounding this one reached ridiculous proportions. When it turned out to be somewhat less than a miracle in celluloid form, the knives were out, both from audiences, and from a press that doled it the sort of beating normally reserved for something that tried to argue racism isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Is it really that awful? With the dust long settled where Episodes I - III are concerned, it’s far easier to see TPM for what it is - a genuine attempt at providing something for kids’ matinees, which is pretty much all that IV - VI tried to be. For the adults, there’s a story about a labyrinthine intergalactic trade dispute to follow, one that masks the megalomaniac scheming of Darth Sidious/Chancellor Palpatine. Despite those weighty issues, it’s all worn lightly within a movie that’s clearly intended for younger audiences. The focal characters are Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), who was 15 when TPM was released, and child prodigy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Surrounding the pair is an internationally renowned cast, but it’s these on whom the camera rests the most. These are people with whom the target audience is expected to find the greatest degree of empathy.

The Phantom MenaceAll of which is well enough, and TPM certainly made its gajillions at the box office. It’s just a pity that those writing the reviews and providing the most articulate opinions aren’t young children. Though there’s always a tingle to be felt when the 20th Century Fox logo is followed by the timeless legend ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ it’s clear that, as far as grown up viewers were concerned, something was wrong with it all. To begin with, TPM was quite dull in places, filling large blocks of time with Senatorial debate or Jedi banter, both of which seemed to be written as overly formal dialogue that was going nowhere. There’s just no comparison between Samuel L Jackson as Mace Windu, and as Jules Winnfield. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, he’s the deliverer of clever line after clever line, jawing with John Travolta at one point, outlining Biblical text as a portent of doom the next. In TPM, his character - a high ranker within the Jedi Council - has almost nothing to do, mumbling a few comments to Anakin and Yoda, but very little else. In other words, he’s wasted, as is Liam Neeson as Jedi knight, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ian McDiarmid as the slithery Palpatine.

The twin accusations of poor plotting and terrible dialogue - which would dog Episodes I - III - were seen as being allowed to occur as a consequence of the CGI budget. Though by this stage, computer effects were well established, TPM clearly pushed the envelope in terms of what it showed, beginning with a brilliantly realised spaceship once the initial credits had passed, and moving on quickly to the breathtaking shots of Naboo. Amidala’s home world looks like it belongs atop Mount Olympus, the Royal Palace in Caserta, Italy being used as a backdrop to millions of dollars of CGI that produces an earthly paradise. Later, we get characters that have been created entirely by digital effects, not to mention detailed views of the city world of Coruscant and the gleaming silver ship used by our heroes. TPM looks fantastic, granted, but its beauty just seems to bring into sharp focus the weaknesses mentioned above. Added to this, some of the actors appear to have real difficulty interacting with their computer-generated peers, in particular Portman, who is often as wooden as the materials used to create the models of old, before CGI took over the effects department of Industrial Light and Magic.

Then there’s the Jar Jar syndrome. Forget that the maligned Gungan is the first ever occasion that a photo realistic CGI character interacted with live actors in a movie. What remains is the impression we get of an ill-conceived alien that speaks some form of Pidgin English, is a bit dopey in general, continually gets into unfunny scrapes and epitomises the dumbing down of the franchise. Lucas argued that Binks was intended for kids to have a laugh with, but for everyone else, it’s difficult to be anything other than irritated whenever he pops up on the screen to provide a moment of slapstick. Worse still, his dialogue led to quite serious accusations that TPM was racist, Jar Jar sounding and moving like a black stereotype. This, accompanied with the assertion that money-obsessed Watto was mimicking Jewish clichés, led to the kind of questioning of TPM’s imagery and motives that must have made for uncomfortable moments where Lucas and his ILM boffins were concerned.

For me, it’s hard to believe that TPM, a film made to shift as many tickets as possible, wouldn’t have this base firmly covered, and that Jar Jar was conceived with only innocent comedic intentions in mind. Still, given the character’s spectacular failure, you have to wonder how he made it through the obligatory slew of sketches, paintings, animation sessions, and so on, without someone, at any given point asking what this shower was doing in the Wars. R2-D2 and C-3PO - the comedy interest in the ‘old’ trilogy - were still around, so why did we need a new character to laugh at?

That said, as bad as Binks is, we also get one of the best baddies within the franchise here, in the shape of Sith apprentice, Darth Maul. Performed by dancer Ray Park, and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, Lord Maul’s crime is that he doesn’t appear in the movie long enough. When he does, the catlike, tattooed villain brings fight scenes that are balletic and a genuine sense of menace to the proceedings. There’s little doubt that his climactic tussle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) is the best conceived of either trilogy, that it is the definite highlight of the film’s battle told from three different perspectives, and that his double-edged weapon is a superb piece of Sith kit. When he springs into action, Maul is electric to watch, a somersaulting dervish who could have just about anyone, and is despatched by what can only be described as an exceedingly lucky shot. It’s sadder still that he could - and perhaps should - have survived throughout the first set of episodes. But oh well. Perhaps it is in fact Maul’s blessing that less is more, and we get a few very, very good scenes instead of overkill.

That's Lord Maul to youTasked to provide the back story that leads up to the state of affairs in ‘A New Hope’ Lucas comes up with a political theatre, behind which the workings and devices of Darth Sidious are bent towards creating a set of circumstances in which the Galactic Empire will ultimately be instilled. This story - one running through all the ‘prequels’ - is very subtle in TPM, showing how Palpatine engineers a situation that will lead to him being made Chancellor. Though some of this appears to be a little ambitious - are we really supposed to believe that Palpatine is cunning enough to foresee Amidala escaping with two Jedi once her home world is invaded, leading her to Coruscant and eventually to no-confidencing the incumbent Chancellor? - it’s always good stuff, suggesting a Machiavellian presence working quietly behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, this careful unravelling of the power story behind Star Wars is undermined by much of the lazy plotting to be found within TPM. One example - Anakin destroys the trade ship blockading Naboo, but does so by happy accident, which kind of rubbishes all the build-up that has taken place beforehand, including his own performance in the spectacular pod race. Another - what’s the deal with midichlorians? Why do we have to have the motivating power behind the force explained to us? And another - why does the Jedi Council do a sudden about-turn regarding Anakin’s training after Qui-Gon’s death? And so they continue - inconsistencies that insult the audience and show where the money went in this movie. It’s a rather sad reflection on I - III that for all the attention and planning that went into making the films look as good as possible, the same wasn’t often done in regard to the script, though things do go uphill from here.

A flawed first effort then, one with some very, very virtuous moments, but is let down by elements fairly basic to good film making - plotting, acting, dialogue. For all that, as a kids’ movie, it works just fine. You can imagine TPM playing to perfectly satisfied young faces on Saturday morning showings. Sadly, it also just happened to be the latest instalment in the most eagerly awaited franchise of all time. Fans who were children when the original Star Wars movie came out expected the series to grow up with them. It didn’t, hence the backlash.

Posted on 28th May 2007
Under: Star Wars | 5 Comments »

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