May The Tenth Be With You: Star Wars Holiday Special

James Proclaims (4)

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Can you truly call yourself a Star Wars fan if you’ve never seen the 1978 ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’?

Yes.

Of course you can.

Indeed for your own sanity, you should avoid watching this at all costs.

And back before the Internet, it was easy to not watch this. It was only ever shown on TV once. And that was a year before I was born. And also in the States, which is not where I live.

It was never made available to buy on VHS, or DVD.

So without the Internet I would never have been able to see this.

The Internet is, in many ways, a wonderful creation that has made possible many things that were once inconceivable. But being able to watch the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’ whenever and wherever you want is not one of the more positive aspects of the current age.

I first watched it on YouTube a few years back. At the time, the only way I could find to access it was by watching it in ten minute instalments. On the first instalment there were lots of comments underneath by bewildered people, wondering what it was that they had let themselves in for. As I moved through the different instalments, the number of comments below the videos began to decrease and it was almost a ‘badge of honour’ to make it to the end, where there were very few comments indeed.

These days you can watch the whole thing, uninterrupted, on a variety of platforms.

I’m not sure that actually represents progress.

I didn’t want to watch it again.

But for the sake of completion in my quest to write about everything Star Wars, I felt I was morally obliged.

Plus it was something to do.

On re-watching it, I discovered it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.

It was much much worse.

I don’t think I could watch it for a third time.

And the next time I hear anyone moan about ‘The Phantom Menace’…

Anyway, time for the pretty pointless spoiler alert:

Spoiler Alert: It is possible that I will reveal plot details about the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’ in the text that follows. But I won’t be doing it on purpose, because I didn’t actually notice a plot when I watched it. So if there are any plot details and I reveal them and that is what ruins this absolute car-crash of a TV show for you then I’m sorry. But it seems unlikely.

Oh it starts promisingly enough. The opening shots are of the Millennium Falcon outrunning some Star Destroyers. We see Han and Chewie in the Cockpit. The dialogue isn’t the most convincing. But it’s Han and Chewie! From actual Star Wars!

The premise is set, Han is trying to get Chewie back home for ‘Life Day’, which is presumably the Wookie equivalent of Christmas.

It’s a bit stupid, but this is fundamentally a Christmas Special so no-one was expecting ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ at this point. It was a bit of harmless fun. Everyone loved the 1977 movie so why not make a Christmas Special? Something for all the family to watch together.

And the premise of getting Chewie back home seemed reasonable. After all, the ‘difficult journey home for Christmas’ has proven a winning formula for many a Christmas movie and TV special.

Naturally you assume you’re going to be with Han and Chewie on their adventures.

Shortly after that opening scene we’re sort of given the opening credits. A loud TV announcer tells us what we can expect from the upcoming spectacle. And we can definitely expect to see all of the original cast. Luke is there, Leia is there, we’ve already seen Han and Chewie and we’ve also got C3P0 and R2D2 (although Kenny Baker, who played R2D2, was not involved and so we’re told that R2D2 is playing himself. Which is an early indicator that all is not as it should be). But that’s not all, we’re getting Darth Vader too, voiced by James Earl Jones no less. Sure there are a lot of guest stars, most of whom I’ve had to look up, but they mostly seem to be people who were well-regarded in either film or television. Oh and there are some music acts, which is another alarm bell really, but at this point there doesn’t seem to be too much to worry about. This isn’t going to be a sequel to the 1977 movie. This is going to be something else. But it could still be fun right?

Oh you poor misguided fool. This is not going to go the way you think…

So, the opening credits end and we join Chewie’s family.

That’s right. Chewie has a wife and child. And also a father who appears to live with his wife and child. They were actually introduced in the opening credits, but they came after the original cast. So we knew we were going to see them, but it’s a surprise to see them this early. But perhaps we’re just checking in with them before we return to the main adventure.

And that belief will keep you going for a few minutes until you realise that, no, this is it. This is where we’re going to be for the whole thing.

We’re not going on the adventure with Chewie. We’re stuck at home with his stupid family.

And for about ten minutes they talk to each other. In Wookie. Which is not English. So you sit watching three actors, in costumes that are a good deal cheaper and less convincing than those used in the movie, growl at each other. And the costumes don’t allow for much in the way of facial expressions so it’s not all that easy to work out what’s going on. Also, although Chewie’s family home is in a tree, it does look, on the inside, like the kind of home that someone who lived on Earth in 1978 might have. Rather than someone who lives in, y’know, Star Wars…

And it really doesn’t get any better.

The original cast pop up for unconvincing cameos as we’re told the story of Han and Chewie’s situation through poorly written dialogue, some of which is in the aforementioned ‘Wookie’. There is literally no action. There are some skits involving the guest stars. None of which are especially funny. There’s one particularly surreal bit when Chewie’s dad (who is called Itchy) watches Diahann Carrol via a ‘virtual reality’ headset, in which she describes herself as ‘his fantasy’. And he does seem quite turned on. Which is unsettling on a number of levels.

It is beyond terrible. I’d say it’s ‘so bad that it’s good’ but it’s really hard to watch so I’m not sure that it even merits that dubious accolade.

And Darth Vader is not in it! There is one scene, which is essentially an unused scene from the original movie, and which has been dubbed so that the original dialogue has been replaced to something that better fits whatever narrative we’re supposed to be watching here. And yes, James Earl Jones does say the words in this updated dialogue but it’s very disingenuous of them to have claimed, in the opening credits, that Darth Vader was in this. And in that scene he is talking to a character that definitely died in the first movie. And he’s quite recognisable because he’s the guy that shortly before the Death Star is blown up, warns Governor Tarkin that, in fact, there is a possibility that the Death Star might get blown up.

Darth Vader does also briefly show up again in the only good bit of this atrocity. Which is a short cartoon. But even in that he only has one or two lines. And actually it’s not a great cartoon, but in the context of everything else on screen, it is a masterpiece of storytelling. It’s mainly about Boba Fett, and to be fair he’s much better in this cartoon than he ever was in the movies.

But aside from that happy interlude, everything else is awful.

Obviously Chewie does make it home, as do the rest of the original cast, even though it was clearly only Han that was travelling with him. Indeed that’s a point that’s reinforced multiple times throughout the running time, so I’m not sure how Luke and Leia end up there at the end.

But they do.

Which means that Leia can sing.

Because that is how the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’ ends.

With Princess Leia singing to Wookies.

Best character – Animated Boba Fett

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As the only remotely good thing about this whole thing is a fairly bad cartoon predominantly about Boba Fett then he gets the dubious honour of being the best thing in it. Because I couldn’t, in all honesty, credit any of the characters in the live action bit as being anything other than genuinely dreadful.

Worst character – Lumpy

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It’s a tough one, as no-one emerges from this with any credit. But if one character annoyed me slightly more than everyone else, it was Chewbacca’s son, Lumpy. It’s no wonder Chewie stays away from home so much.

Unsung hero – The audience

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Anyone who manages to sit all the way through this is a hero in my book. And I’ve sat though it twice now. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I suspect that calling myself a ‘hero’ at this point would be selling myself short…

And that’s all I have to say about the very worst thing to ever be produced in the name of ‘Star Wars’. Tune in tomorrow when I’ll be writing about something that was better.

Only a little better though…

 

 

 

 

 

May The Ninth Be With You: The Rise Of Skywalker

James Proclaims (4)

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So here we are, on the last of the Star Wars movies, collectively known as ‘The Skywalker Saga’.

Episode IX of IX.

The official ‘end of the story’.

The culmination of a journey some 42 years in the making. And by definition the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. No, wait, that’s a different space-based adventure. But still, 42…

No pressure, Mr Abrams, but the world was watching and if you got this wrong…

Of course he got it wrong.

How could he have got it right?

Star Wars fans have got used to disappointment over the years, but we still always seem to be surprised when the next disappointment comes along.

And ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ seems to have come in for the same level of vitriol as ‘The Phantom Menace’ in some corners of the internet.

But it’s not that bad.

Before we get into all of that though, it’s time, once again, for the spoiler alert:

Spoiler Alert: There will be plot details in the ensuing text. And as this film is but a few months old, it’s more than possible that you haven’t seen it yet. But plot details won’t ruin this movie for you. What will ruin it for you will be the unrealistic expectations you had before you sat down to watch it.

It probably goes without saying that I liked this movie. I liked ‘The Phantom Menace’ so I was always going to like this, because, for all its faults, it’s much much better than ‘Episode I’.

It looks, feels and sounds like a Star Wars movie. There are no ten-year-olds in it. There are certainly no gungans in it. And yes the Ewoks pop up briefly but I always quite liked those little guys.

It has a relentless pace, there is a ton of action, and there are lightsabers aplenty. The main characters, as they have throughout the sequel trilogy, remain immensely likable. The dialogue is well-written. When the movie tries to be funny, it is, for the most part, quite funny.

There are camoes from Luke and Han, even though both characters died in previous movies. Luke is obviously a ‘force ghost’ and Han is…well I wasn’t quite sure what Han was meant to be, but I’m never going to begrudge anyone giving Harrison Ford screen time in a Star Wars movie. Carrie Fisher is also back as Leia, which is no small feat given that she passed away in 2016. Somehow unused footage from ‘The Force Awakens’ was able to bring her back for this movie. It works well for the most part, though in some scenes her dialogue seems to only just about fit. But, under the circumstances, it’s an appropriate send off for one of the best characters in the whole franchise and far better than having her character killed off-screen.

Lando is also back for this one, and his inclusion is a nice touch for those of us who watch Star Wars as much for the nostalgia as for the story. Unlike most of the original characters, Lando actually manages to survive this one too. As does Chewie, and given the apparently ageless nature of wookies,  and the fact that presumably anyone tall enough can play him, we might yet see Chewie in future Star Wars movies and TV shows.

Because while this is notionally the end of ‘The Skywalker Saga’ it’s certainly not the end of Star Wars. And, let’s be honest, it might not even be the end of ‘The Skywalker Saga’. We’ll all need a bit of time, but I can well imagine episodes X-XII being mooted in a decade or so. And we’ll all flock in our droves to see those too.

And that is really the problem with ‘Episode IX’. It tries way too hard to be ‘the end’. ‘Return of the Jedi’ was a fitting end to ‘The Skywalker Saga’. The sequels needed to be something else. By all means call them ‘Episodes VII-IX’ but tell a different story.

And actually have some idea of  what story it is you’re trying to tell before you start making the movies.

And if you’re going to have different writers and directors for each of the instalments then you absolutely need a George Lucas figure to oversee the whole thing and tell those writers/directors what they can and and can’t do. Obviously not George Lucas himself, not after the prequels, but someone surely needed to have overall responsibility for the story.

Otherwise you’ll just end up inexplicably bringing back the bad guy that was definitely killed off in ‘Episode VI’.

And that’s going to annoy everyone, especially if he wasn’t even mentioned in ‘Episodes VII and VIII’.

Palpatine was the ultimate bad guy. But he was definitely killed in ‘Return of the Jedi’ and his reappearance here is a problem because it massively undermines everything that has gone before. Also it’s not properly explained in the movie how he’s managed to come back. Yes it has been explained since, but it should be abundantly clear in the movie how he’s not only managed to return from the dead but also, how on earth he ended up with a  granddaughter.

Because that was, of course the other ‘big reveal’. Completely contradicting the revelation in the previous movie that Rey wasn’t the offspring of anyone important, which I personally thought was a nice touch, we now have the revelation that she’s the granddaughter of someone that was old enough to be her grandfather when Darth Vader was a little boy. And I know that this too has been explained elsewhere, but I don’t want to have to read a novel to understand a movie.

And frankly if she is also a Palpatine, then why are we even calling this set of movies ‘The Skywalker Saga’. Because at this point in the narrative, the Skywalkers look very much like secondary characters. Surely this is now ‘The Palpatine Parable’.

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ just tries too hard to be bigger and better than anything that has gone before. As I’ve said before, if the first movie has a weapon that can literally blow up a planet, you are not going to top that. And having lots of weapons that can blow up planets is no more ‘topping the Death Star’ than the weapon that can blow up several planets simultaneously in ‘The Force Awakens’. It’s all just variations of the same thing.

But if you ignore all the plot holes and the fact that the sequel trilogy just doesn’t work as a trilogy and you take ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ as just another Star Wars movie, then it’s fine. It’s not the best, but it’s by no means the worst.

It all depends how invested you are in the notion of there being a complete story that is being told in nine episodes. If you are, then I can’t see how ‘the Rise of Skywalker’ could be anything other than a massive disappointment.

If, like me, you just like watching Star Wars films, then it’s an entertaining couple of hours that is a nice homage to, but nowhere near as good as, the original movies.

Which is absolutely fine.

Best Character – C3PO

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No-one is more surprised than me about this, but I really liked C3PO in this movie. There were moments when he actually made me laugh out loud in this and, even though he’s an ever-present of all nine movies, that’s never happened before. Also, he is quite heroic in his own way and he does play a much more pivotal part to this story than he does in any of the others, when he’s normally just there to provide misguided comic relief. Actor Anthony Daniels is pretty much ‘Mr Star Wars’ as he’s in all nine movies plus he always does the  voice of C3PO in associated cartoons and video games. And as I’ve mentioned before, I saw him when he narrated ‘Star Wars in Concert’ a few years ago and he was excellent. So I’m glad there was finally a movie in which I really loved C3PO. But I never thought it would happen.

 

Worst Character – Palpatine

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Much like I never thought I’d ever list C3PO as my favourite character, I’m genuinely surprised that one of my absolute favourite characters was the one that I didn’t like in this movie. But Palpatine is the worst thing about this movie and why it doesn’t really work. Ian McDiarmid does his best to make it work, and I certainly wouldn’t fault his performance, but this was not the end we were looking for.

Unsung Hero – Hux

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Partly because Hux does betray the First Order to help the Resistance, although he appears to be motivated more by his dislike of Kylo Ren than any altruistic rationale. But mainly he’s the unsung hero because he spent two movies positioning himself to be the main bad guy once Kylo Ren turned good again (which he was always going to do) and then he gets upstaged by some bloke called Pryde, who we’d never seen before. And to make matters worse, given that the aforementioned Pryde is the bloke who shoots him, it appears Pryde really does come before a fall for poor old Hux.

And that just about wraps up ‘The Skywalker Saga’. But worry not, there are plenty of other Stars Wars movies and TV Shows for me to write about. Tune in tomorrow to see if I’ll be writing about one of the good ones.

Or one of the shockingly bad ones…

May The Eighth Be With You: The Last Jedi

James Proclaims (4)

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Expectations were quite possibly at an all time high when this one hit the cinemas. Not only had 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’ been generally well-received by fans and critics, but the first standalone Star Wars movie of the modern era (though not, of course, the first standalone Star Wars movie ever), ‘Rogue One’ had also enjoyed a lot of good publicity.

And then came ‘The Last Jedi’.

And depending on your point of view, this was either the moment when Star Wars movies hit an all-time high or conversely this is when they hit rock bottom.

But before we get into all of that, I should probably issue another spoiler alert:

Spoiler Alert: Plot details will follow. This may ruin your enjoyment of the movie if you haven’t seen it yet. And given that it’s a movie that only came out in 2017, it is perfectly reasonable for you not to have seen it. Although I’ve seen it a few times now. I don’t wish to brag or anything, but I have. Anyway, plot details probably won’t ruin this movie for you because simultaneously nothing much happens at all and also lots of things happen which seem to defy explanation. And you’re either going to love this movie or hate it and nothing I can write here will change that.

Obviously, I loved it. And not just because I love anything that is remotely linked to Star Wars but also because I did genuinely think this was a great film.

It will never topple my ‘top two’ of ‘A New Hope’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and it probably falls short of ‘Return of the Jedi’ because of my childhood investment in that one too, but out of all of the other Star Wars movies that exist, I think this is my favourite.

But I completely understand why some people hated it.

The biggest issue with it really is that this was the first time it became apparent that, although we had been promised a new trilogy, there were no over-arching plans for the story. Say what you like about George Lucas, but he always had the whole story in mind. He changed things as he went along and created some plot-holes, made them worse when he went back and re-edited the first trilogy and then created some absolute howlers when he made the prequel trilogy. But there was still a fairly strong narrative ark throughout the first six movies.

And the arrival of ‘The Last Jedi’ began to raise suspicions that this new trilogy had not been properly thought through. We began to sense that a lot of the questions that we were asking when we watched ‘The Force Awakens’ did not have answers.

And really, after all the build-up, that wasn’t good enough.

But, taken as a stand-alone movie, I still think ‘The Last Jedi’ is brilliant and I’d refute some of the other criticisms that have been levelled at it.

The main one being the depiction of Luke. I know we were all hoping that the return of Luke would be the return of the hero we imagined he would become after the original trilogy. And instead we were confronted with a bitter, cynical, downtrodden Luke who was, in many ways, the antithesis of everything we dreamed he would be. But the version of Luke we wanted could only really exist in a ‘happily ever after’ that you don’t ever get to see on screen. For there to be any kind of story to be told, there can’t have been a ‘happily ever after’ and in any case, we already know that there wasn’t because his nephew had gone over to the dark side. This version of Luke makes the most sense narratively. And it’s a great performance by Mark Hammill so, much as I loved Luke in the original trilogy, I’m perfectly happy with this version too.

Other problems appear to be linked to perceptions of ‘what the Force can do’ because we see things in this that we haven’t come across before. From Leia surviving in space, to Rey and Ren being somehow able to do a kind of Force empowered ‘Face Time’, to Luke’s ability to project himself physically to another place, it all seemed a bit far-fetched.

Then again this is Star Wars, it’s hardly meant to be realistic.

And maybe people were right to question all of those things, but I’m not a Jedi, so I don’t know what’s possible and not possible when using the Force.

So, I didn’t mind any of that stuff.

I also quite liked the big ‘reveal’ that Rey wasn’t actually the offspring of anyone important and I was quite disappointed that that was undermined in the next movie. And Snoke’s death, while leaving me with lots more questions, was quite an effective moment too.

Writer/Director, Rian Johnson, seemed to enjoy diverting expectations in this movie, and after the relative safety of ‘The Force Awakens’ and the entirely predictable narrative of the prequel trilogy (which in fairness is one aspect of the prequels it’s hard to be too annoyed about because they were always essentially telling a story that we already knew), I found ‘The Last Jedi’ to be a refreshing change.

And visually the whole thing looked spectacular, particularly the scenes on Crait at the end.

And despite the slight sense that ‘nothing much has actually happened’ and most of the movie was just one, very slow, chase, there is actually quite a lot of action throughout the running time and the finale is up there with the best of them.

There were bits I didn’t love. The whole ‘casino’ escapade just seemed like a way of giving Finn something to do, because he was not essential to the main two storylines, but he was too good a character to leave out completely. Then again, we’re introduced to Rose Tico through that sub-plot and she’s a great character too and one would imagine it would be hard to leave her out of the next one…

Really the biggest problem that I have with ‘The Last Jedi’ is not about the movie in itself, but where it sits within a trilogy. And clearly it does not sit well because we know what came next…

Best character – Luke

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I know this version of Luke didn’t please everyone and he may not have been the Luke we all wanted but I really feel he was the Luke that we needed. And in some respects, I actually like this Luke better than the Luke in the original trilogy. Certainly, in the original movies there were characters I liked more than Luke but he was head and shoulders my favourite in this one. And whether you bought into the whole ‘Force Projection’ thing or not, it’s hard to deny that he was every bit the hero we were hoping he would be at the end.

Worst Character – Snoke

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Has there ever been a character so built-up only to be so unceremoniously dispatched without us ever really knowing who he was? He was always a poor man’s Palpatine but by the time we’re done with him he’s little more than a poor man’s General Grievous. I didn’t mind that he died, but the resulting plot hole was, unfortunately, too big to fill and Supreme Leader Snoke is one of the main reasons we ended up with such an unsatisfactory trilogy.

Unsung Hero – Paige Tico

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She’s only in it briefly at the beginning but has there ever been a more compelling and utterly moving scene in the whole of Star Wars? Paige is the embodiment of heroic as she sacrifices her own life to ensure the safety of her comrades. And yes, she is mourned by her sister afterwards, but she’s not mentioned by anyone else. Ever.

 

And that’s it for the penultimate episode in the ‘Skywalker Saga’. Tune in tomorrow to discover the extent to which I was disappointed by ‘The Rise of Skywalker’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May The Seventh Be With You: The Force Awakens

James Proclaims (4)

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‘Return of the Jedi’ is the end of the story. It wraps everything up neatly. The Empire is beaten, the rebels are victorious, Luke is a Jedi, Han and Leia are in love and Darth Vader has found redemption. In 1983 Star Wars was pretty much complete. What we didn’t need were any prequels. But the first three films were episodes IV-VI so there was always a chance that someone would think making episodes I-III would be a good idea.

And they made them.

And it was not such a good idea.

But those prequels did make a lot of money.

So, it was presumably only a matter of time before someone thought sequels would be a good idea.

Particularly as George Lucas sold the rights to Disney. Who are never averse to making money.

But how would it work?

All the main bad guys were dead. The Empire was defeated. What story was there left to tell?

We should have been worried.

But like everyone else, I was actually quite excited when I heard there was going to be a new trilogy. I was particularly excited when I heard the original cast were going to be in it.

And then, in December 2015, we were given ‘The Force Awakens’.

And now for the obligatory spoiler alert:

Spoiler Alert: I’m definitely going to discuss some elements of the plot and this movie only came out four and a half years ago, so you genuinely may not have seen it yet. Although if you haven’t seen it but you have seen the original 1977 movie then you basically have seen ‘The Force Awakens’. Because they are exactly the same.

Well, not exactly the same. But it’s fair to say that JJ Abrams learnt the lessons of the prequel trilogy quite well and he set out to please the fanbase from the off.

But maybe he was a little too focussed on giving the fans what they wanted, because ‘The Force Awakens’ really is a lot like ‘A New Hope’. And maybe that is what the fans wanted but there are times when it feels more like a reboot than a sequel.

Nonetheless, I did really enjoy the movie. And I still enjoy it now when I re-watch it. But I don’t feel like I’m seeing anything new. And say what you like about the prequels, but they were different to the original trilogy.

There is a lot to love about ‘The Force Awakens’. In trying to channel the spirit of the original trilogy (by essentially copying the original trilogy) it really does feel like a Star Wars movie. It’s fast-paced, full of action and the dialogue is so much sharper and wittier than the prequels.

The new characters, Rey, Finn and Poe are immensely likeable and while Kylo Ren does feel like a poor man’s Darth Vader, he is supposed to be a poor man’s Darth Vader. Worrying about ‘not being quite as good as Darth Vader’ is central to his character’s whole identity in this movie. So, we can forgive him for not being quite as good. He does have an interesting looking lightsaber though, which was important from a toy retailer’s perspective if nothing else.

Toy retailers must also have been thrilled that the Storm Troopers look a bit different from the original trilogy too.

It is brilliant to see the return of Han, Leia and Chewie (and to a lesser extent C3P0 and R2D2, because obviously they were inexplicably in all the prequels too). Luke is not really in the movie until the very final scene, although he is referenced a lot throughout the story. His absence was a bit of a kick in the teeth but it set up the next movie nicely (obviously we’ll deal with that movie tomorrow).

As a spectacle, it’s hard to fault the film, but it doesn’t’ stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. The Starkiller Base is basically just another Death Star and we’ve had two of those already. Making it bigger doesn’t make it worse. The Death Star could blow up a planet. The Starkiller Base can blow up several planets simultaneously. Does that make it worse? Technically yes, but really it’s exactly the same thing. At least ‘Return of the Jedi’ had a brilliant showdown between Vader and Luke to offset the fact that it was just another Death Star. The showdown between Kylo Ren and Rey is a perfectly acceptable denouement to ‘The Force Awakens’ but we’re nowhere near as invested in their narrative arks at this point so it holds less value. Perhaps it would have been better to not have been quite so reliant on another Death Star for the climax of this film.

The scene between Kylo Ren and Han is quite powerful, because we are obviously quite invested in Han as a character. His death was quite predictable but no less effective for that.

Aside from that one scene though, it’s all just a lot of lightsabers, spaceships and explosions. This is no bad thing in itself, indeed it’s mainly what I want from a Star Wars movie, but I walked out of the cinema with a lot of questions.

Who is Rey? Who is Snoke? Why, after the Empire fell, are the First Order so powerful (because they seem to be a lot like the Empire but with better funding). How did Ben Solo end up going to the Dark Side and becoming Kylo Ren? And obviously what has happened to Luke?

‘The Force Awakens’ was partly loved because it gave the fans a lot of what they wanted, but it also suggested that what was to follow was going to be even better.

And with the benefit of hindsight, it was less than honest in that respect.

 

Best character – Rey

 

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I liked all the new characters, but Rey was the most interesting. Yes she does seem to be a bit too good at using the force, according the rules established in previous films and she’s obviously way too old to be trained to become a Jedi, but she can fly the Millennium Falcon like nobody’s business and she’s pretty handy in a fight even without a lightsaber. Plus the mystery surrounding her backstory is interesting. Obviously the subsequent movies would manipulate that intrigue to take us on the most unwanted of rollercoaster rides but that element of mystery does help to establish her as a compelling character in this movie .

 

Worst Character – Captain Phasma

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Gwendoline Christie is great in ‘Game of Thrones’ and she deserves better than she’s given here. Phasma looks really cool, but is essentially just another action figure waiting to be sold. She promised a lot in the build up to the movie but on-screen she doesn’t really do anything much.

Unsung Hero – Chewie

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I never thought he was especially overlooked in the original movie, (he got to stand on the stage afterall  – maybe they just didn’t have enough medals to give out – the rebellion was quite cash-strapped I’d imagine) but Chewie does get a bit overlooked in this one, with everything else that is going on. But without his timely arrival in the Millenium Falcon, Rey and Finn would have perished on the soon-to-explode Starkiller Base. Also, prior to that, he sets off the explosives that take out the shield that was stopping the Resistance from blowing the thing up in the first place, and this shortly after seeing his best mate get murdered. And he shoots and seriously injures Kylo Ren, which probably contributes to Rey beating him in their subsequent lightsaber dual. So Chewie is fundamental to the success of the Resistance and no-one really seems to notice. Although no-one gets a medal this time around because the Resistance appear to be even less financially solvent than the Rebellion was.

And that’s all I’ve got to say on ‘The Force Awakens’. Tune in tomorrow to find out whether I was one of the people who loved ‘The Last Jedi’ or one of the people who hated it. Because there’s no middle ground on that one apparently.

May The Sixth Be With You: Return Of The Jedi

James Proclaims (4)

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And so, to the last of the original trilogy, a movie that is not quite as good as its predecessors but still much better than the prequels. Which is not necessarily much of a compliment, but this is a good film with some really great bits that more than make up for the ‘not great’ bits.

As a very young child I might even have claimed that this was actually my favourite, but that’s only because I had the opinions of a small child. Still, I did see this at a young enough age that nostalgia helps me to overlook some of this movie’s worst faults.

And now to the spoiler alert:

Spoiler Alert – I expect that I’ll be revealing some plot points in the text that follows. This may ruin your enjoyment of a movie that came out it in 1983 but probably much less than the Ewoks will.

This movie is not about someone giving back a Jedi that they borrowed like a library book– George Lucas reserved those kind of perfunctory plotlines for the prequel trilogy. No, this is either about the notional return of the Jedi order, as Luke completes his training, or possibly about the return from the dark side of Anakin Skywalker. And if it is the latter you could argue that it is, in fact, about someone giving back a Jedi that they borrowed like a library book. But you would be wrong to argue that because Palpatine doesn’t give Anakin back at all. Anakin chucks Palpatine into the reactor of the Death Star. Library books don’t tend to do that. At least not in my experience. Although I did borrow a book on ‘referencing’, when writing my MA dissertation, which was so dull it made me want to hurl myself into the nearest Death Star reactor. So, it was lucky for me that Death Stars don’t exist in real life.

‘Return of the Jedi’ is mostly brilliant and some of the best moments of the whole franchise happen in this one. But it’s also the first to confirm that once you’ve established a weapon that can literally blow up planets in your first movie, there’s nowhere else to go in terms of raising the jeopardy. So, the main threat in this is just another Death Star. The main difference this time is that that Death Star is still under construction. Or is it? Well yes it is. But also it isn’t.

It’s not really the point anyway. Blowing up the second Death Star just gives the rest of the good guys something to do while Luke is dealing with the main bit of the story, which is the build up to, and realisation of, his final battle with his dad. Because Luke can’t become a Jedi until he defeats his father in battle. Which is a pretty demanding final exam really. Obviously, Luke doesn’t kill his father in the end. But he does beat him, fair and square, in a pretty fantastic lightsaber dual which is up there with the best of the franchise.

‘Return of the Jedi’ also introduces us properly to the real villain of the saga, one Emperor Palpatine. He popped up briefly in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ but he’s centre stage here and tremendous fun. In the most evil of ways. And he can shoot lightening from his fingers, which is quite a skill. Obviously ‘force lightening’ has featured in a few Star Wars movies now, but this was the first time we’d ever seen it. And Luke certainly didn’t see it coming. Just as well his loving father was there to save him. Good old dad…

Compelling though those final scenes in the Emperor’s throne room are (quick note to Mr Palpatine, probably best not to have a direct shaft to the core reactor of the Death Star in your throne room. Because if it’s not there, no-one can throw you into it…), the rest of the action is pretty great too. Sure, the Death Star is nothing new, but you can still have fun blowing it up and we mostly do.

Except down on the forest moon of Endor, where Han, Leia et al. are trying to destroy the shield generator which protects said Death Star. It’s a compelling enough adventure, no doubt, but these furry little things show up called Ewoks. And they aren’t great. It’s almost as if they were only put in the movie to sell toys.

And as a kid, I loved those toys. I had loads of them before I even saw the movie for the first time. Indeed, I saw the first stand-alone Ewok movie (the first of two no less) long before I saw ‘Return of the Jedi’. So, I didn’t hate them at all, and now they are protected from my wrath by the power of nostalgia.

And if you don’t hate the Ewoks, then there really isn’t much to dislike about Return of the Jedi.

At least there wasn’t, until George Lucas decided to tinker. To be fair, ‘Return of the Jedi’ was not badly affected by the nineties CGI ‘amendments’. There’s the stupid song and dance routine in Jabba’s palace at the beginning, which is pretty irritating, but it didn’t make me apoplectic. I could live with it.

But then he had to mess with it again. With almost the final shot of the movie. As the victorious rebels are celebrating, Luke looks over to see the ‘force ghosts’ of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and they are joined by the spirit of the now redeemed Anakin Skywalker. And this incarnation of Skywalker senior was played by Sebastian Shaw, the same actor who we see earlier in the movie as the unmasked Darth Vader, shortly before he dies. But for some reason, Lucas thought that we hadn’t all been upset enough by the prequels so he digitally replaced Shaw with the visibly much younger Hayden Christensen. Which is just a kick in the teeth really. It should be noted that Christensen was not complicit in this ‘update’ and it was archive footage of him that was used. But he was still rubbish in the prequels, which is partly why this change hurts so much.

Still we shouldn’t let the fact that George Lucas desecrated the final scene of his original trilogy, detract from the fact that, as the last chapter of epic sagas go, ‘Return of the Jedi’ was a fitting finale.

Because let’s be honest, this is where the story should have finished…

Best character – Princess Leia

ROTJ_Han-and-Leia

Much like Han in the preceding movie, Leia steals the show in this one. And not just because of ‘that outfit’. Although I was a fan. But from her initial rescue attempt of Han dressed as a bounty hunter, to strangling Jabba, to a reckless highspeed chase through a forest and finally casually shooting two stormtroopers immediately after she has been shot and wounded, Leia is pretty unstoppable throughout this one.

Worst Character – Admiral Ackbar

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I loved his action figure as a kid and he does say the immortal line “It’s a trap!”. But he’s pretty useless in the final assault on the Death Star and if it was down to him the rebels would all have retreated long before they had any chance of victory. There is a moment when it seems like he has been quite astute in his military tactics, when his plan results in two Star Destroyers crashing into each other but it’s not down to him at all. Essentially his plan only works because one of the rebel pilots loses control of his ship and crashes into one of the Star Destroyers. And in light of that gruesome death, the look of relief on Ackbar’s face shortly afterwards is really in very poor taste.

Unsung Hero – Wedge Antilles

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Yep it’s Wedge again. After being overlooked in the original movie, I’m not sure he’s given due credit here either. Ok, it is Lando Calrissian, ably assisted by Nien Nunb, who fires the shots that ultimately destroy the second Death Star, but shortly before that Wedge destroys the power regulators. Now I’m no Death Star engineer, but my understanding is that he’s not doing that for fun, it’s a pivotal part of the plan to destroy the Death Star. So, he makes another massive contribution to the rebel cause and all he gets for his troubles is a hug from Chewie. None of us had a Wedge Antilles action figure when we were children and I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about that.

And that wraps up the original trilogy and frankly it should wrap up the whole saga. But it doesn’t because someone thought it was a good idea to make another trilogy.

And whether that was a good idea or not, that’s where we’re off to next.

 

 

May The Fifth Be With You: The Empire Strikes Back

James Proclaims (4)
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Today is not Star Wars Day. That was yesterday. But I’m still writing about Star Wars. Because I’m doing that all month. Or for as much of this month as I can manage. I explained why I’m doing this in a previous post, but in all honesty it’s not for any good reason at all other than that’s what I feel like doing at the moment.

Today I’m not writing about the original movie, the one some people call ‘A New Hope’ but which I still refer to as ‘Star Wars’. Today I’m writing about the movie which came next.

Which, to be clear, was not the atrocious 1978 ‘Holiday Special’ because that isn’t a movie. That’s something which defies explanation.

The second movie proper was ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Although, of course, it is notionally ‘Episode V’ in the whole ‘Skywalker Saga’.

I love ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. It’s my second favourite of all the Star Wars movies and there was a time when I did pretend it was my favourite. But it wasn’t, because I always really preferred 1977’s ‘Star Wars’. I just said I liked ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ better because I wanted the cool kids to like me…

Anyway, as is now becoming a kind of unwarranted tradition, I must issue a ‘spoiler alert’.

Spoiler Alert – I’m definitely going to refer to plot details at some point and there is a chance that could actually ruin this movie for you. Because there was quite a shocking twist in this one. But it was probably only really shocking if you saw this film in the cinema in 1980, because frankly, since then, that once surprising revelation has become so ingrained in popular culture that even if you have no interest in the Star Wars franchise, you probably already know it.

As a follow-up to the greatest film of all time, this was a sensational effort (unless you’re of the incorrect view that ‘Citizen Kane’ is really the greatest movie of all time – then ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ would be an appalling follow-up). Most sequels rarely manage to live up to expectations but this one surpassed any expectations anyone could realistically have had. I imagine. I wasn’t actually alive when the first movie came out and I was only a little past my first birthday when this came out so I really had no expectations at the time.

One of the obvious highlights of the whole movie would have to be the climactic battle between Vader and Luke, which of course culminates in the former chopping off the latter’s hand and then telling him he’s his dad. Not the warmest of family reunions but still marginally better than when the same pater stood next to his daughter while his boss blew up her whole planet. Yes, he didn’t know she was his daughter at the time but it’s fair to say we’re not talking about ‘father of the year’ here.

Although the father-son relationship is not the only dysfunctional family dynamic on screen, given that Luke clearly fancies Leia, who is his sister and she is quite happy to manipulate this attraction by snogging him to make Han jealous. Now, obviously at the moment this particular kiss happens, they don’t actually know they are brother and sister. And it’s never officially revealed in this movie. But there are some pretty heavy-handed hints, so it’s obvious that George Lucas has already made that particular narrative choice. And I know Lucas didn’t actually direct this one, but it’s hard to believe he was ever that far away from the project.

But incestual kisses aside it’s all good.

This is, after all, the movie which introduced us to Yoda for the first time and very cool he was. Although I’ve read that he was viewed at the time by some fans with similar animosity to that levelled at Jar Jar Binks. But people grew to love Yoda quite quickly whereas some 21 years on, you won’t find too many people championing Mr Binks. Which seems about right.

Much of this movie is actually taken up by the romance between Han and Leia. Romance doesn’t always work especially well in Star Wars movies, so it’s a testament to how well this is done that so many people champion this as being the best movie in the franchise.

It’s hard to find fault with any of it really. If I was to level a small criticism at it, it would be that Darth Vader doesn’t show up until we’re twenty minutes in. But he’s well worth the wait, so it would be churlish to dwell on his tardiness.

I don’t think George Lucas really messed it up too much with his nineties CGI tinkering either. There are a couple of moments when it’s obvious but it’s not too distracting. The most noticeable change that I can recall is the insertion of Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine in place of the original combination of Marjorie Eaton in a mask as his face and Clive Revell as his voice. Which is fine, given that McDiarmid plays every other live-action version of Palpatine. Also, Boba Fett’s voice appears to have been altered to that of the bloke who played Jango Fett in ‘Attack of the Clones’, which seems a fairly unnecessary change but Boba Fett is so irrelevant that it’s hard to care.

I suppose one negative that I could throw at ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is that this was the movie that made the prequel trilogy an inevitability.

Because although the first movie was always notionally, if not always explicitly, ‘Episode IV’, if there had never been an ‘Episode V’ then we’d have all just gone along with (what I believe was) Lucas’ original concept that it was a stylistic choice to suggest the original 1977 movie was a smaller part of some bigger space opera. Once you’ve established an ‘Episode V’ to go with ‘Episode IV’, then people are naturally going to want to see ‘Episodes I-III’. Until you make those episodes obviously. Then most people wish they could ‘un-see’ them quite quickly…

Having said that, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ also ended on the cliff-hanger that made ‘Return of the Jedi’ an inevitability. And Ewoks aside, that is also a great movie.

And regardless of its legacy, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ still has to go down as one of the best movies of all time. The second best in my humble opinion…

Best Character – Han Solo

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Carelessly gets himself frozen in carbonite some twenty-five minutes before the end of this movie, but up until that point this is really Han’s time to shine. Although Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi is part of what makes this movie great, it’s really the scenes on the Millennium Falcon that are the most fun as they go from one hazardous scenario to another. And it’s Han’s mercurial ways that get them in and out of most of that trouble. Plus, his response when Leia tells him she loves him is one of the great lines of the whole sage. Although I should add a cautionary note that it’s not a line that works in real life particularly well.

Worst Character – Boba Fett

boba

Seriously cool action figure, easily one of my favourites as a kid. But he does nothing of any note on screen. His stupid death in ‘Return of the Jedi’ would make him a contender for worst character in that movie too, but he’s not in that one long enough and he’d already disappointed me so much in this one that my expectations were already much lower for him by the next one. His most irritating moment is when, shortly after Darth Vader has effortlessly deflected laser shots with his hand and used the force to steal Han’s blaster, Boba rushes in and stands menacingly by Vader’s side. Like Darth ever needed his help. Boba does look cool. But he isn’t cool.

Unsung Hero – Captain Needa

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With Darth Vader murdering his own crew for fun half the time, it takes real guts to admit your mistakes. But Captain Needa takes one for the team by assuming responsibility for losing track of the Millennium Falcon. He apologises to Lord Vader and to be fair, after he has choked the poor captain to death, Darth does accept his apology.

And that’s it for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Tune in tomorrow to see if I liked ‘Return of the Jedi’. Although I’ve obviously already acknowledged that I do in this post…

 

 

 

May The Fourth Be With You: A New Hope

James Proclaims (4)

StarWarsMoviePoster1977

Happy Star Wars Day everyone!

When did this become a thing?

I think I first came across the notion that the 4th May was considered to be Star Wars Day around eighteen years ago when a colleague (in whatever mundane admin job I was doing at the time) told me their birthday was on Star Wars Day.

Having no idea what they meant (but equally very excited about the idea that there might actually be a Star Wars Day) they told me it was this date. Indeed if I was remotely still in touch with them I would wish them happy birthday but I’m not. So I won’t.

I still needed it explaining to me though.

And I sort of get it. ‘May The Fourth’ sounds a bit like ‘May The Force’ so I’m ok with it. Indeed I’m using it as tenuous rationale for writing about Star Wars a lot this month.

But, until this year, I’ve never really ‘celebrated’ Star Wars Day. Does one celebrate it? And if so how?

Probably not by writing a load of blog posts about Star Wars throughout the month of May. That would just be stupid.

But here we are and today I get to write about the original Star Wars movie, now known as ‘Episode 4’ and/or ‘A New Hope’. Which it was always technically called. But I only remember people really embracing those titles when the prequel trilogy arrived.

And for me it will always be ‘Star Wars’ really.

If someone asked if I’d seen ‘Star Wars’ I wouldn’t ask which movie. I’d assume they meant this movie.

Now, as I have with all of my Star Wars posts to date I have to issue a spoiler alert:

Spoiler Alert – I’m going to write about the original ‘Star Wars’ movie now and I may well reveal some plot points, which could ruin the movie for you. But they won’t because this movie is so good that nothing could ever ruin it. I’ve seen it so many times I can probably recite the entire script, but I still enjoy it. It’s just that good. So relax, you can keep reading knowing that nothing at all could ever make watching this movie anything less than awesome.

Now I’m not going to do anything silly like pretend this is the greatest movie ever made.

Because I don’t have to pretend.

It really is the greatest movie ever made.

I remember a few years back that ‘Citizen Kane’ was declared the greatest movie ever made. And if Orson Wells had wielded a lightsaber in that film I’d be open to a conversation about it. But he didn’t. So 1977’s original ‘Star Wars’ is the greatest movie of all time.

“But James,” I hear you cry, “surely you can’t mean that! Even Star Wars fans don’t think this is the best. Clearly ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is actually the best?”

And if you think that then I’m not going to argue. I love ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Indeed, if I compiled a top ten of my favourite movies of all time then ‘A New Hope’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ would be my top two. But in that order.

“But ‘Empire’ is better,” I hear you continue to argue, in spite of my obviously resolute position, “because it’s darker!”

Is it?

Is it darker than a movie in which the one of the main characters discovers the charred skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle (the only parents he has ever known) mere hours after he last saw them alive and well?

Is it darker than a movie in which one of the other main characters witnesses the mass genocide of her entire people, including everyone she has ever called family, when her planet is literally blown up in front of her very eyes?

Is it darker than a movie in which, during the final battle that the good guys admittedly emerge triumphant from, most of said good guys actually die violent and horrifying deaths?

Is it darker than that?

No it isn’t.

Mostly people think of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ as being darker because it ends on a bit of cliff-hanger. But aside from a fairly ‘tacked on’ happy ending, the first movie is just as bleak for the most part.

And yes, there is ‘that revelation’ in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, but a lot of the groundwork that goes into making it so shocking actually happens in the first movie too.

So basically ‘A New Hope’ is the greatest movie ever made and there’s nothing more to be said.

Except George Lucas didn’t agree, so he decided to ‘upgrade’ the original movies in the nineties. He didn’t need to, but he did it anyway.

Mostly it was by sticking in a lot of CGI. Which was unnecessary and looks a bit weird when juxtaposed with the original footage. But over the years I’ve learned to live with it and although he continued to tinker for a few years after his original ‘updates’ most of them have been there now for longer than they weren’t. Indeed it must be over twenty years since I last saw the un-updated versions of the original movies.

He also put back a few previously deleted scenes but, although the insertion of a CGI Jabba the Hutt was probably not necessary, the additional scenes do add a little context to the characters we know and love, so no problem there really either.

The main irritation for most fans was the decision to change what was once a ruthless assassination carried out by Han Solo into an act of self defence, by altering the scene so his victim, Greedo, appears to shoot first. That upset a few people. When I recently watched this movie on Disney Plus I noticed it has been amended again so that Greedo and Han shoot at the same time, thus returning some of Han’s original coldness but also still offering the moral loophole that he would have been killed if he hadn’t struck first. But the way the original scene played out, was that Han was never in any mortal danger and he shot Greedo in cold blood. Like most people, I prefer the original version of that scene, but honestly I wouldn’t get too hung up on it. The one thing George Lucas couldn’t edit out of that scene was Harrison Ford’s acting and he is absolutely playing someone who would happily kill Greedo in cold blood. View it that way and it’s irrelevant who shoots first because Han was going to kill him either way. Indeed in the versions where Greedo does shoot first, he misses by a mile, so you could decide to interpret it that he’s noticed Han positioning his gun under the table, panics and fumbles his shot before Han coolly does what he was always going to do. Which is murder Greedo in cold blood.

But regardless of Lucas’ tinkering, the original and best Star Wars holds up remarkably well for a movie that has, for the most part, been around since 1977. The original visual effects and costumes were always pretty ground-breaking, and it moves along at a fair old pace.

Obviously it’s not the kind of film that requires you to use all of your brain cells. It’s an action-packed adventure set in space. And it’s not the boring ‘space’ of a movie that relies heavily on science to underpin the key concepts. Star Wars isn’t Science Fiction. It’s pure fantasy. All it’s meant to do is entertain and it does just that.

I’m not sure I could find fault with it if I really tried, but I have no intention of trying. It’s more than a movie, it’s a fundamental part of my childhood.

And if there were no other Star Wars movies, if this was all there had ever been, it would be enough.

Best character – Darth Vader

darth vader

It could be any of them really and I doubt anyone would object if I picked Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan or Chewbacca. They’re all memorable in their own way. But this was the first movie which ever featured Darth Vader and the moment he appears through the smoke in that opening scene, I still get goose bumps. Well I don’t, but metaphorically I do. And some of his most quotable lines are from this movie. Plus the bit when he casually chokes one of his colleagues to near-death because he insults him is awesome. Although that guy was asking for it – why would you insult Darth Vader? Even if he didn’t have ‘the force’ he’s a massive bloke who dresses up…well…like Darth Vader. When he’s at work! Definitely not a man to pick a fight with.

Worst Character – C3PO

c3po

A few years back I went to see something called ‘Star Wars in Concert’ which was mainly a live performance of the John Williams score for all of the (at the time) six movies. But there was also someone narrating a summary of the storyline of the movies. And that person was Anthony Daniels who plays C3PO. And I was genuinely excited by this fact. Nonetheless, C3PO is my least favourite character in the original movie. It’s not that I actively dislike him, but he is a bit annoying at times and if there is a weak link it’s him.

Unsung Hero – Wedge Antilles

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One of the very few good guys to survive the final battle, other than the main characters. A lot of people moan that Chewie doesn’t get a medal at the end of the movie, alongside Han and Luke, but neither does Wedge. And he actually does save Luke’s life early on in the battle. Which is all Han and Chewie do later on. At least Chewie got to stand on the stage at the end. Poor Wedge is just in the rank and file. He doesn’t get deterred though and goes on to be awesome in the next two movies too. What a guy.

And that’s my take on the very first Star Wars movie to be made. Tune in tomorrow to see what I thought of the second cinematic release in the franchise.

May The Third Be With You: Revenge Of The Sith

James Proclaims (4)

star-wars-episode-iii---revenge-of-the-sith-52130347679d5

So we get to the last of the much-lamented prequel trilogy.

This one did at least have a slightly better title.

And clearly no-one learned anything from the preceding two films about managing expectations because there was a massive hype surrounding this one too.

To be fair, it actually did deliver in some respects. Although it was not without its failings.

And so to the obligatory ‘spoiler alert’.

Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t seen this movie then I’m going to spoil it for you if you keep reading. But if you haven’t seen it, it’s fairly likely that’s because it’s not your kind of film. So we probably shouldn’t worry too much about me spoiling it for you.

Part of the reason that we were all excited about this movie is that we assumed that we’d get to see Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. And that totally happens.

So, irrespective of anything else, it did its job.

There were some great fight scenes in this one.

And we get to see Yoda fight the Emperor, which was pretty cool.

Haden Christensen still fails to convince anyone that he can actually act, but using the barometer test of Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, it’s still reasonable to assume that the poorly written dialogue does him no favours. He is still worse than either of them though.

There is, again, way too much CGI, which was a hallmark of the prequels that more recent efforts seem to have mostly kicked into touch.

And there are, as per the preceding movies, some unwarranted attempts to shoehorn in characters from the original trilogy who don’t really need to be there. In this case Chewbacca turns up for a bit and does nothing. It was, admittedly, quite nice to see the Wookie home world presented in a slightly different manner to it’s previous incarnation in a live-action offering (which was 1978’s misguided ‘Holiday Special’ – more of which in a couple of weeks), but Chewbacca didn’t need to be there and his presence contributes nothing to the plot, except the suggestion that he is somehow friends with Yoda. Which raises unnecessary questions.

Also Padme’s death, at the end of the movie, kind of works within the narrative of this specific film, but as this was a prequel to a much beloved trilogy, her death actually renders quite a poignant scene in ‘Return of the Jedi’, where Leia remembers her mother, as somewhat less significant because we assume at the time she is telling Luke about his mother, which obviously now can’t be the case as she must be remembering her adoptive mother who had nothing to do with Luke whatsoever.

On the whole though, ‘Revenge Of The Sith’ was much better than might have been realistically expected, based on the preceding two films. The rise of Palpatine and his Galactic Empire and Anakin’s fall to the dark side are more compelling stories upon which to base a movie, rather than a trade dispute. That both ultimately feel a little rushed is because the previous movies didn’t develop the story enough so there is a lot to fit in to this movie. Clunky dialogue doesn’t help but there are some genuinely emotional moments and when a triumphant Palpatine issues the now infamous ‘Order 66’ and we see the Jedi being systematically picked off it’s hard not feel moved.

The much darker tone does help the film, and Ian McDiarmid makes the most of Palpatine’s more central role to completely steal the show. However, Anakin’s fall from grace is maybe a little too spectacular. We know Darth Vader is a baddie, but he’s also a baddie who is supposedly redeemed in the original trilogy. When we first saw ‘Return of the Jedi’, most of the really bad stuff was hinted at rather than shown on screen. Sure, he sadistically murdered a few of his own men because they failed to meet their performance management targets and he cut off his own son’s hand, but the very worst stuff done by the Empire tended to be carried out by someone else – Governor Tarkin in the original movie and Palpatine himself in ‘Return of the Jedi’. So, while it was always a stretch to claim that Vader could genuinely find redemption, it was vaguely possible if you suspended your disbelief. But then, in ‘Revenge of the Sith’, he brutally murders a load of children. And the evil becomes rather less implicit when you do that. He is definitely a wrong ‘un and frankly there’s no coming back from that kind of atrocity no matter how many times you chuck an Emperor into the reactor of a Death Star.

Whatever criticisms you can level at this movie though, the pacing and the action are significant improvements on what came before and it’s hard to find too many moments that are boring. And while ‘not being bored’ are the minimum expectations one should have of a Star Wars movie, by the time we got to this one, it was something off a relief.

Best Character – Palpatine

palpy

The unwieldy dialogue that cripples the other characters, seems to sit rather well with Palpatine. Maybe it’s McDiarmid’s years of working as a stage actor, but he thoroughly enjoys himself in this movie and an over-the top performance is exactly what was needed to make that most nefarious of bad guys really shine. He is the ultimate pantomime villain except, y’know, actually quite evil too.

 

Worst character – General Grievous

GeneralGrievous

Presented as a new bad guy, presumably with half an eye on selling more toys, he’s easily the least threatening of the antagonists in all the movies. I just found him a bit annoying really. I can sort of see why it was helpful to the story to kill off Count Dooku in an earlier scene, but really General Grievous just highlights the stupidity of having killed off Darth Maul in ‘The Phantom Menace’. And actually, given that they managed to bring Maul back for the cartoon series, it’s a shame no-one had the foresight to consider resurrecting him for this movie too.

 

Unsung hero – Bail Organa

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Princess Leia’s future adoptive father doesn’t have much to do in the preceding movies (indeed he’s not even in ‘The Phantom Menace’) but does manage to save the lives of both Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi in this. Not that anyone really thanks him for it. Also, it would have made way more sense as a lead in to the original trilogy if he’d offered sanctuary to Padme rather than her dying. But he doesn’t even get that level of narrative importance. Because she dies. Special mention in the unsung hero category should also go to Owen and Beru, who don’t even get any lines to say in this movie, but still agree to take responsibility for raising Luke, even though it’s abundantly clear that they only met Anakin once and didn’t really like him.

 

And so ends the prequel trilogy. Join me tomorrow when I tell you all about how awesome the first Star Wars movie is. And how George Lucas tried to ruin his own masterpiece in the nineties.

May The Second Be With You: Attack Of The Clones

James Proclaims (4)

star-wars-episode-ii--attack-of-the-clones.13950

Three years after everyone got upset by ‘The Phantom Menace’, we all failed to learn our lesson and flocked to the cinemas in our droves to see ‘Episode II’, the equally badly titled ‘Attack of the Clones’.

I actually went to a midnight showing, so I could see it before everyone else.

And I thought it was brilliant.

I was clearly wrong, but that’s what sleep deprivation will do to you.

Going to see films at midnight is not a good idea.

It was genuinely better than ‘The Phantom Menace’ though.

Now I’ve got to offer the obligatory spoiler alert.

Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t seen this movie then don’t worry. It’s not going to change your life. But if, some eighteen years after its release, you do still fancy giving it a go, then I’m possibly going to ruin it for you by revealing some plot details. Honestly, it won’t ruin it that much – it’s all quite predictable really, but it only seems fair to warn you.

The main benefit was that Anakin Skywalker was no longer ten years old. Not that Hayden Christensen’s version is much less annoying than Jake Lloyd’s incarnation (I’ve no idea if Christensen is a good actor or not because I’ve only really seen him in the Star Wars prequels. He’s not great in this, but there are times when Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor also seem quite wooden and they are both generally great in most things, so it could be the script rather than Christensen’s acting that’s the problem). But he is slightly less grating and far more plausibly someone that could become a bad guy. It’s still a stretch from this version of Anakin to actual Darth Vader, but we’re closer in this movie. Which was something.

Also, there was far less Jar Jar Binks. He’s barely in it. Although he is still in it a bit. And his main contribution is to allow the main bad guy of the whole ‘Skywalker Saga’, a certain Mr Palpatine, to establish a dictatorship of sorts. It is a necessary plot development, but it seems pretty stupid that Jar Jar Binks was ever in a position to be that influential.

Don’t worry though, in the absence of Jar Jar, there is still all kinds of stupid in this movie. In particular, C3PO, a character who I initially disliked and then grew to quite like during the original trilogy is back to his annoying worst in this. George Lucas just cannot do comic relief.

The plot is still generally quite feeble but there are no trade disputes in this one. Which is also a bonus.

Too much screen time is dedicated to the love story between Padme and Anakin. It’s never especially convincing and it’s one of the places where the poorly written dialogue really hurts. It actually physically hurts to listen to it.

But they have to fall in love. It’s quite important. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia need parents after all. Although Anakin got by with only one parent, lest we forget, so maybe they didn’t need a mother. But there would be all kinds of biological questions to answer if Anakin was established as the sole parent and I’m not sure ‘midi-chlorians’ would cut it.

So we needed Anakin and Padme to fall in love. I just wish they could have done so without me needing to vomit.

Like Han and Leia managed in Empire Strikes Back. Proving it is possible to have a compelling love story in the Star Wars universe. Surely, given that template, the Padme/Anakin love story could have been better.

But the love story in ‘Attack of the Clones’ is definitely the worst bit of this movie.

Although there are other bad bits.

If there was too much CGI in ‘The Phantom Menace’ then ‘Attack of the Clones’ takes things up a notch. It sometimes looks like the most expensive cartoon ever made. Which it sort of was at the time. It’s technically very impressive but it’s just too much.

The whole ‘Clone Army’ thing is quite weird. I know ‘The Clone Wars’ are referenced in the very first Star Wars movie (known back then as ‘Star Wars’ but now oft-referred to as ‘Episode IV’ and/or ‘A New Hope’). And you do need to be able to suspend your disbelief when watching Star Wars movies – they were never meant to be realistic. And it was nice to see Storm Troopers after the annoying droid armies of ‘The Phantom Menace’ (although the droid army is still around and as annoying as ever and the Storm Troopers are called Clone Troopers and look ever so slightly different, presumably so more action figures could be sold). But the fact there appears to be a service where you can just order an army seems to be quite thin as plot developments go. And if it is that easy, why haven’t other people also ordered armies? And I don’t care if this is all explained in some novel or in the cartoon series, it should be clear in the movie. It was lazy writing.

And for some reason George Lucas persisted in trying to explain things from the original movies that just didn’t need explaining. Like pointlessly giving a minor character from the original trilogy (Boba Fett – cool action figure, little more than a prop in the movies) a back story. And the Death Star apparently being invented by the Geonosians (the CGI insect creatures who talk with weird clicking sounds). It was unnecessary, pointless and distracting.

Conversely the introduction of the characters who would go on to raise Luke Skywalker, Owen and Beru, is unsatisfactory and massively underuses the considerable acting talents of Joel Edgerton. That was actually a backstory I would have been interested in seeing develop but they barely feature.

But there were some good bits. If you’re going to stupidly kill off Darth Maul, the coolest and most marketable character in the first movie, then Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku might have a ridiculous name, but he was not a bad replacement as antagonists go. Coming across as an evil version of Alec Guiness’s original incarnation of Obi Wan Kenobi, Lee steals pretty much every scene he’s in. And he survives! Admittedly only to be killed off ridiculously early in ‘Episode III’ but at least we know we’re going to see him again.

The main progression from ‘The Phantom Menace’ is that there is a lot more action. And way more lightsabers.

Also, we see Samuel L Jackson’s Mace Windu fight with his purple lightsaber for the first time. And we see Yoda fight. Admittedly he does look a bit like a video game character but I remember an audible cheer in the cinema when we saw that scene for the first time. Granted it must have been near enough 2am at that point and we weren’t responsible for our actions, but it was a definite fan-pleasing moment.

Best Character – Obi Wan Kenobi

obi

Obviously not Ewan McGregor’s finest on-screen performance, but he does his best with some quite shockingly bad dialogue. The majority of the movie either deals with Anakin and Padme’s romance or Obi-Wan’s hunt for the bad guys. And it’s definitely the latter which is far more interesting. I actually like Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Obi Wan Kenobi in all three of the prequels but in this movie he’s at the heart of most of the action and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

Worst Character – Jango Fett

JangoInfobox

Controversial choice this, given that a lot of people love Boba Fett. And I liked the action figure, but I never thought the character did anything much on-screen and it felt to me that Jango Fett was only ever put in this movie because George Lucas realised he should have done more with Boba in the original trilogy. But he didn’t, so there was no need for an origin story. Jango Fett, much like his offspring, looks cool, but he doesn’t really do all that much apart from an admittedly fairly good fight with Obi-Wan. And he takes his helmet off way too much, which inherently makes him less cool.

Unsung hero – Zam Wessell

zam

Because bad guys can be unsung heroes too. And Zam Wessell seems to do all the heavy lifting in the early part of the movie in terms of villainy, only for Jango Fett to swoop in, kill her, and take all the credit for her hard work.

 

And that concludes my views on ‘Attack of the Clones’

Tune in tomorrow to see what I thought of ‘Revenge of the Sith’.

May The First Be With You: The Phantom Menace

James Proclaims (4)

star_wars_episode_1_the_phantom_menace

Thus, begins my mission to write about Star Wars for days, if not weeks, on end.

And where better to begin than Episode One?

That would seem like the obvious place to start.

Except for two important reasons:

  1. As most people know, it wasn’t even close to being the first Star Wars film to be made.
  2. It’s not a very good film.

Allow me to deal with both of those points.

With regards to it not being the first film to be made, I’m working on the assumption that everyone knows that and I’ve decided to deal with the nine episodes of the ‘Skywalker Saga’ before looking at other movies and spin-offs. And I’m doing that in episodic order rather than release date order for the very simple reason that it naturally allows me to write about the very first Star Wars film on May the fourth. Which as everyone knows is Star Wars Day.

With regards the second point, if I restricted myself to only writing about the good Star Wars movies, then I’d have to rule out quite a few. Indeed, based on the various opinions that seem to float around the internet, I could perhaps find myself only writing about two movies. Which doesn’t seem in the spirit of this endeavour at all.

And while I acknowledge that ‘The Phantom Menace’ is objectively not a very good movie, I still quite like it.

No, I love it.

I love all things Star Wars, therefore I love this.

But also, I really do love it.

However, it is a bad film and if you’ve never seen Star Wars before then probably best not to start with this one.

Even though it is technically supposed to be the first episode.

Nonetheless, it is the movie I’m writing about today and why I love such a bad film will hopefully become apparent as we go on. Before we go any further though, I should probably issue that whole ‘spoiler alert’ thing that people do when writing about films.

Spoiler Alert – There is a more than reasonable chance that I will reveal some plot points in the subsequent text. Whether this will genuinely spoil the movie for you is anyone’s guess. It’s such a bad film that there is every chance that nothing I could write here would make the viewing experience worse. Also, it came out in 1999 so really you should have seen it by now if you were ever going to bother watching it. Although if you didn’t bother watching it then no-one would judge you. It’s a really bad film.

And so, on to ‘The Phantom Menace’.

‘The Phantom Menace!’

Even the title annoyed people.

Before the movie came out, back before we knew what a colossal disappointment this film was going to be, there were mutterings about the title.

‘The Phantom Menace’? Really? Is that the best George Lucas could come with after eighteen years?

Oh, those halcyon days when all we were annoyed by was the title.

Because this movie was a big deal.

Arguably no Star Wars movie has ever been this anticipated. Possibly ‘Return of the Jedi’ might have been. But in truth, however big Star Wars was in 1981, it has become bigger. And this was the first Star Wars movie to be released since ‘Return of the Jedi’ (if we don’t count the Ewok films. Which I do. But more about them in a couple of weeks). Maybe 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’ was awaited with similar anticipation, but I suspect the disappointment surrounding the prequels quelled expectations a little. Plus, the gap had only been ten years between movies at that point.

No, I’m pretty sure that the expectation surrounding the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ was massive. I doubt any movie has ever been quite so overhyped as ‘Episode One’ was.

So, when it came out, and it was a bit rubbish, the vitriol of the response was all the more acute.

And perhaps the vitriol was a little unfair with the benefit of hindsight.

Because it is a bad movie as a whole, but there are some good bits.

No, really there are.

More than anything it is a movie of missed opportunities.

It could have been so much better.

The reality is that George Lucas had a bit too much control over ‘The Phantom Menace’. Why wouldn’t he? Not only did he bring us the original trilogy, but he was also the brains behind Indiana Jones (another legacy he would go on to tarnish but not until 2008). Before ‘The Phantom Menace’ the man could do no wrong.

But in those earlier films, he collaborated with other people. Notably for the original trilogy, script doctors were employed to improve the dialogue he wrote. Because George Lucas cannot write dialogue. As not only ‘The Phantom Menace’ but the ensuing prequel movies confirmed.

Also, he got a bit overexcited about CGI. We’d already seen this when he decided to ‘improve’ the original trilogy by unnecessarily inserting CGI creatures (and some other changes that we’ll get onto when I write about those movies) but he really went to town on the prequel trilogy. To the extent that they look like cartoons rather than live action movies at times.

But this could all be forgiven if the plot had been any good.

And for ‘The Phantom Menace’ it cannot be overstated how dull the plot is.

It revolves around a trade dispute.

A trade dispute!

In Star Wars!

Ok there are more nefarious dealings going on in the background, all controlled by our friend, the actual ‘phantom menace’ whose identity was a secret to no-one who had seen the original trilogy.

But it was still a bit dull.

Nonetheless, a boring storyline wasn’t even perceived as Lucas’ biggest crime. That fury was reserved for one character who irritated like few others can.

And his name was Jar Jar Binks.

I get why people hated Jar Jar. I didn’t love him. He was beyond annoying. And far too much screen time was given to him and his ‘exploits’ and too little to a character that had been heavily utilised in the promotion of the movie and who has gone on to become a fan favourite in spite of hardly being in the movie at all – one Darth Maul.

But to blame one stupid character for this film’s failings is to miss the point. And in any case, if you blame Jar Jar Binks, then you really are blaming the wrong annoying character.

Star Wars films have always had irritating characters (C3PO and the Ewoks spring to mind). Comedy is also not among Lucas’ arsenal and whenever he has introduced ‘comic relief’ it has only ever served as a distraction and irritation. It never actually made anyone laugh. When Star Wars has succeeded with comic relief it was usually because someone else was at the helm and/or the aforementioned script doctors had made the dialogue wittier.

Jar Jar Binks perhaps still stands head and shoulders above all the others as the worst and most misjudged attempt at comic relief in cinematic history, but if he was the only problem there would be no problem. People would have got over the gungan if the rest of the movie worked.

And it doesn’t.

Really, what Lucas actually got spectacularly wrong was a failure to acknowledge that a core section of the movie’s audience were not going to be the kids he appeared to be pitching this towards but adults who loved the original movies. People who probably by this point remembered the finer details of the early films in greater detail that even he did. And narratively he made some huge mistakes.

What George Lucas needed was someone to tell him when he was getting it wrong.

“George, mate, you know those midi-chlorian things you’ve come up with?”

“Yes,”

“The things that apparently mean you can do a bloodtest to see how ‘strong the force’ is with someone?”

“Yes, I know. Great idea eh?”

“No George, totally rubbish.”

“Oh”

“Also George, while we’re on the subject, why would Obi Wan Kenobi already know the results of Yoda’s blood test? Wouldn’t that information be highly confidential?”

“Nope, you’re right. Midi-chlorians are rubbish – I’ll take them out. The movie will work just as well without them. Probably better in fact.”

Those conversations needed to happen a lot more than they apparently did.

But the worst thing about the movie was Darth Vader himself. Or as he’s known in this abomination, ‘Little Anni’.

Why the decision was taken to cast a ten-year-old as the young Anakin Skywalker is anyone’s guess. It makes no sense narratively and massively undermines the original trilogy. If ‘Little Anni’ is deemed to be already too old to be trained to be a Jedi, then why wasn’t Luke too old in the original trilogy (I know Yoda says he is too old in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ but Obi Wan certainly has no qualms about his age in the first movie)? He was obviously significantly older when he started his training so a precedent had already been set in the Star Wars mythology that roughly sixteen years old was about right for Jedi-training (admittedly it also sets the rather worrying precedent that killing your father is the only way to complete that training…). It would have made far more sense to have had an older Anakin, who was already established as petulant and angry. ‘Little Anni’ is far too innocent for us to believe that he would eventually become cinema’s ultimate bad guy. Plus, he is really annoying.

I feel sorry for Jake Lloyd, the actor who played the part. He must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when he was cast in Star Wars and to play the young Darth Vader of all things. But it was wildly misjudged and from what I’ve read, the impact on Lloyd’s life post-Star Wars, given the hatred directed towards his portrayal, was nothing short of horrendous. It wasn’t his fault was it? He was, to be fair to him, only ten.

That casting decision is really what undermines the whole movie more than anything else. Plus the whole ‘immaculate conception’ thing. Utterly unnecessary. There are ways to explain it that kind of fit with other narrative points within the saga as a whole but it would have been better if Anakin had just had a father. We’d all have been more comfortable with that.

So why do I love this movie?

Nostalgia really. I remember when it came out, and it was a pretty rubbish time in my life. A new Star Wars film always perks me up, but this was the first new Star Wars film in eighteen years (again not counting the Ewok movies. Which I do. But I shouldn’t) and I didn’t really have much else going on. I was properly excited about this. And I enjoyed all the hype. I knew, deep down, that the movie could never really meet my expectations, but I loved all the build-up.

For that, I’ll always be grateful to ‘The Phantom Menace’ and watching it now still brings back all of those feelings, in much the same way that a song from a particular era, whether you loved it or not, can evoke the emotions of that time. ‘The Phantom Menace’ makes me feel weirdly optimistic about life. I can only imagine how I’d feel if it was any good.

Plus, as I’ve said before, there really are some good bits. Darth Maul was massively underused, but he was really cool. And Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman are all good actors who really do the best with what they’re given (which isn’t much admittedly). And the whole thing looks fantastic. Better when there is less CGI, but there are some spectacular scenes in this movie. And the final lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and the two Jedi is easily the best lightsaber fight in any Star Wars movie. I’d have bought tickets to see the film for that bit of it alone.

Also the double-bladed lightsaber – just awesome. Probably quite impractical as a weapon in reality but it looked amazing.

 

Best character – Darth Maul

220px-Darth_Maul

Not in the movie enough, and stupidly killed off at the end (I know that according to ‘canon’ he survives and comes back in ‘The Clone Wars’ cartoon and also makes an inexplicable cameo in one of the spinoff movies, but as far as the main saga is concerned he dies here. And he is cut in half so he should be dead). Ray Park is a fantastic martial artist and Darth Maul moves and looks like a total bad-ass. However much people hate this movie, most people love Darth Maul.

Worst Character – Anakin Skywalker

547720-anakin-skywalker

It pains me to say it but Anakin, not Jar Jar, is why this movie is not good. Without wishing to repeat what I’ve already said, if he’d been older it could have made the movie much better and also stopped the unnecessary and somewhat cruel anger aimed at a real life ten year old boy.

Unsung hero – Captain Tarpals

tarpals

Not all the gungans were idiots and bless him, Captain Tarpals seemed like a pretty nice guy who was half decent at his job. And he had to answer to the newly promoted ‘General’ Jar Jar Binks in the final battle, which was a total slap in the face. Frankly, he conducted himself with aplomb. Deserved far more credit than he ever got.

 

And that pretty much concludes my views on ‘The Phantom Menace’. And I didn’t even mention the Battle Droids. Which were also rubbish.

You’d imagine it could only get better from here really.

But you’d be wrong. ‘The Phantom Menace’ is not the worst thing ever produced in the name of Star Wars.

But it probably is comfortably the worst of the nine ‘episodes’ that make up the ‘Skywalker Saga’.

Although ‘Attack of the Clones’ was only a bit better really. Tune in tomorrow to find out what I thought of that one.

Spoiler alert – I’ll be saying it’s a bad film, but I still love it.