Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Next Generation

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I find it harder with every passing year to take an interest in new release movies, and even I was more interested in newer films I would need them to sink in before reviewing. However, this is Star Wars we’re talking about! When it was first announced back in 2012 that a new trilogy of Star Wars movies was to be made, my initial reaction was “It will be better than the prequels, but will still suck”. The filmmakers had the gargantuan task of winning back all the cynical, jaded Star Wars fans like myself; I don’t think many people were jumping for joy when a new trilogy was announced. As more announcements about Episode VII came to light such as the film’s apparent use of practical effects and that it was going to be shot on film I compared it to a politician making false election promises; in other words, it’s a trap! Then came the first teaser and I couldn’t complain. It actually looks like what I want a Star Wars film to look like, but no, I’m not getting sucked in that easy! With the second teaser, I finally gave up; “shut up and take my money!”. While counting down the days towards this film’s release my love for Star Wars was reawakened.

I almost love The Force Awakens, I almost think it’s an excellent film. 80% of aspects in the film I am over the moon about and exceeded my expectations; 20% I am indifferent towards. As the movie begins there is no 20th Century Fox fanfare, but the silence over the LucasFilm logo works in its own way; plus at least there isn’t an insane amount of opening logos like most movies today. As soon as I seen “A long time ago…” and the opening crawl I was in full goosebumps mode. Although why does the crawl state “Episode VII” when the marketing does not? Due to this, I expected the crawl not to state the episode number, which means they’re acknowledging the prequels as canon, but whatever, those are in the past. The text in the crawl was perfect and the opening shot of a star destroyer hovering over a planet in the background, such striking imagery. The opening with the attack on the Jakku village actually reminded me of Apocalypse Now, surprisingly intense and even a bit violent. When Finn has the blood of another stormtrooper draped over his helmet, I already became emotionally invested in this character, and I haven’t even seen his face; if that’s not impressive then I don’t know what is. The landscapes of Jakku themselves had that sense of Laurence of Arabia grandeur and those shots of the downed star destroyers in the background are poster worthy material.

From the trailers, I got the impression the movie achieves the right balance between offering nostalgia but also giving us something new. The classic characters aren’t just there for nostalgia’s sake but they actually have important roles in the story. However if you told me that I would be raving more about the new characters as opposed to revisiting the old characters, I would have had the reaction of “yeah right!”. I can’t decide which character I love the most. Daisy Ridley without a doubt steals the show while her banter with Finn couldn’t be more fun to watch. Poe Dameron on the other hand, what a cool MF. He’s not necessarily the most complex character but he doesn’t have to be. He has that adventure serial, flyboy, pretty boy type charm; a guy you would just love to hang out with.

Captain Phasma, dam! I remember when I first saw her in the second trailer my instant reaction was, “Wow! that is freakin’ badass!”. She has the same type of appeal Boba Fett has, a ‘man with no name’ type who has few lines and only appears in a handful of scenes but leaves an indelible impression. I know this will sound like sacrilege to Star Wars fans but screw it, Captain Phasma > Boba Fett. I also loved the other notable villain General Hux, a character who is one dimensional in the best possible way. He’s just so delightfully evil and his speech on Star Killer Base in which he lays on the full Nazi vibes gave me the chills. I’m so glad they brought back the British bad guys, one of many aspects of Star Wars sorely missed in the prequels. To me, Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without generals with sinister English accents.

I wonder if Kylo Ren is intended to be a satire on fanboyism with his extreme idolisation of Darth Vader. Talk about a villain you feel sorry for, you condone his actions but completely understand why he does what he does. But what really fascinates me about Kylo Ren is the fact that he’s a whiny teenager, and when you think whinny teenager and Star Wars you probably think of Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III – except Kylo Ren is Anakin Skywalker done right. With Kylo Ren being the son of Han and Leia I can now say the Star Wars saga is a soap opera centered on the Skywalker/Solo family, making Star Wars the only soap opera to date I can say I like (well from Part IV onwards). Which brings me to my next point, Han Solo died! My favourite movie character of all time, killed by his own son. As soon as Han steps on that platform with no hand railings and a chasm below him I just knew this is it, he’s going to die. Chewie’s roar in response to witnessing Han’s death says it all; Han Solo (1977-2015). Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, is in the film at the very end for about 20-30 seconds and doesn’t speak, yet his appearance in the movie is still strangely satisfying. This along with Han’s death shows this movie has balls, and I respect it so much for that.

The Force Awakens is the darkest Star Wars film to date, even more than The Empire Strikes Back, but they still manage to counter this with the lightheartedness and the humour. Speaking of humour, I can say this is the funniest Star Wars film to date. Rey knowing more about the Falcon than Han and BB8’s using a lighter to give a thumbs up, comic brilliance.

So what am I indifferent about in The Force Awakens?  One of my issues with is the CGI standing out among the practical effects. The character of Maz Khanta for example, she seems like an interesting character but her computer-generated appearance takes me out of the film. Couldn’t she be a puppet or a person in a costume? I feel the character’s appearance could and should have been accomplished with practical effects. Yoda was a puppet in Episode I and CGI in Episode II, perhaps this trilogy could do this in reverse? Granted I am a practical effects purist (and of course I am overjoyed by the film’s extensive use of practical effects), and any use of CGI in a movie which is a follow up to a trilogy features the greatest and most memorable practical effects in cinema history is going to stand out. When I first saw Supreme Leader Snoke I was almost about to lose it. Are you kidding me? A giant humanoid who is 100s of feet tall in Star Wars? It was like nuke the fridge all over again. However, when we see Snoke is a giant hologram, I had a huge sigh of relief and even thought “that’s actually pretty clever”.  However, I do still find his CGI appearance to be problematic. I also wasn’t keen on Han escape scene; the CGI creature appeared rather generic and the action in the scene itself was not well executed.

The John Williams score itself does not particularly stand out. While it’s always nice to hear classic Star Wars themes again, the new compositions aside from Rey’s Theme are not very memorable. They get the job done but I doubt you’ll find yourself humming them like every piece of music in the original trilogy. Although the truth I wasn’t expecting any of the new compositions to stand out as John Williams hasn’t composed a truly great film score in my opinion since Catch Me If You Can.

Perhaps the film’s biggest fault is that it will never be the original trilogy, it will always be in its shadow; well for me at least anyway. The Force Awakens may grow on me more with when I see the bigger picture unveiled with the next two films, but I can say two hours flew by. I did check the time once, but because I didn’t want it to end. I was craving answers and wanted more. The movie leaves questions unanswered and lets your imagination fill in the blanks, unlike the prequels which spoon-fed information. I still want to see The Force Awakens again. Reviewing any Star Wars film is no easy task as I could literally write pages and pages of thoughts. Just like the original trilogy, I could take any scene and talk about it in depth and talk about every little moment or touch I loved.

In short: Star Wars is back baby!

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Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Luke Be a Jedi Tonight!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It’s not easy calling Return of the Jedi your favourite Star Wars film. Were as when someone says The Empire Strikes Back is their favourite they get cheers from the crowd. Call Return of the Jedi your favourite you get boos and hisses followed by a rigorous defense of your opinion. Well, it could be worse; those who call the prequels their favourite usually get stoned or hanged by a lynch mob.

I find Return of the Jedi to be the film in the series which satisfies me the most in this swashbuckling space adventure. I like how it combines elements from both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back from Hope’s light-hearted nature and the nostalgic return to Tatooine, to Empire’s darker nature with Luke confronting Vader and the Emperor. But when I think Return of the Jedi I think redwood forests. The forest moon of Endor is such a splendour to look at, and once again proves that Planet Earth is the greatest movie set of all.

Let’s talk about everyone’s favourite addition to the Star Wars universe, shall we? I am indeed speaking of the Ewoks. The dismissive statements towards these creatures that the empire was brought down by a bunch of teddy bears I find to be very close-minded. I completely agree with George Lucas that they showcase how it is possible for a primitive race to bring down a technologically advanced superpower such as the empire is inspired by the Viet Cong’s offense against the Americans during the Vietnam War. I like this message as it’s true that the most advanced technology isn’t always the best means; sometimes less is more. I know many say the idea of Ewoks helping bring down the Empire was highly improbable. Well, my answer to that is remember Yoda’s lesson in The Empire Strikes Back, “Judge me by my size do you?”. The cute nature of the Ewoks (along with their whimsy yet epic theme music) provides a counterbalance to the darker scenes in Return of the Jedi. Yet the Ewok’s themselves are not without their own darker side. At one point in the film, they have no remorse when they intend to burn out heroes alive and notice how they use the helmets of dead stormtroopers as musical instruments.

Likewise, Return of the Jedi has too many puppets? I’m used to hearing people complain about movies which use too much CGI but a movie using too many practical effects – that’s a new one. The creature department and their astounding levels of creativity employed for Return of the Jedi hit it out of the park with creations such as the odd-looking yet enamoring fish create that is Admiral Ackbar. It’s just a shame people look at this cynically and say they were just trying to sell toys.

Return of the Jedi does not disappoint in its reveal of Jabba the Hut. The space gangster whose name is mentioned in the previous two movies with no indication as to whether or not he was a human, an alien or something different altogether (at least in the original theatrical versions). In a masterwork of puppetry, Jabba is a wonderfully, horrendous creature design; an extreme, gluttonous version of Sydney Greenstreet. Return of the Jedi also contains the iconic bikini Leia. More than just a sex symbol (insert Tex Avery wolf here), it also gives way to the powerful image of Leia strangler Jabba, her enslaver with the very chains attached to her body.

My favourite action scene in any movie ever is a toss between the final car chase in The Blues Brothers and the escape from Jabba in Return of the Jedi (with the later speeder bike chase not being far behind). Talk about a “How are they going to get out of that?” moment; in which they do in a convincing, heart racing like crazy manner. I love how the escape is one big elaborate plan which all our heroes are in on, not to mention the introduction of Luke’s green lightsaber in a shot that couldn’t look more majestic. Also, I never understood people’s love affair with Boba Fett, so his death didn’t bother me. To the contrary I find his death to be interesting in how unconventional it is; this tough badass who doesn’t go out with a bang, but rather dies in a humiliating fashion. I was more concerned with Lando being on the cusp of death!

The second half of Return of the Jedi is one of the most intense, involving and grand cinematic experiences. Cutting between the assault on the imperial cruisers and the second death star, the assault on Endor and the powerful emotions when Luke is confronting Vader and the senile, scenery chewer that is Emperor Palpatine; it perplexes me that people can put down this movie so much. Having a second Death Star sounds like a lazy idea on paper but I fell they get away with it due to the immaculate execution. I love the incomplete appearance of Death Star II and the film’s final battle involves ships navigating through the tunnels and into the center of the battle station makes for a dogfight even more exciting than that from A New Hope. Likewise, while it’s near impossible to go into these movies for the first time fresh unless you’ve spent your whole life under a rock, but I didn’t have previous knowledge that Luke and Leia are brother and sister; which is one surprise the original Star Wars trilogy had for me.

Science fiction cinema had never seen a finer moment between the final confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor. The optimism of Luke Skywalker to find the good in someone as evil as Darth Vader and bring him away from the dark side is inspiring in this powerful arch of redemption as Vader returns to the light side just at the very end of his life; a life he sacrificed in order to save Luke’s. The unmasking of Vader is enough to make grown men cry, and seeing the ghost of Anakin Skywalker played Sebastian Shaw (sorry Hayden Christensen) appear to next to the ghosts of Obi-wan and Yoda is awe inspiring. Revenge of the Sith, a Shakespearean tragedy? Pfft, please. This is proper storytelling tragedy. I couldn’t ask for a better finale to a better trilogy. Ah, Return of the Jedi, I know people give you flak but to me, you’re perfect the way you are – Ewoks and all.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back, With a Vengeance!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Empire Strikes Back is my least favourite of the original trilogy, I guess I just prefer the more light-hearted nature of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi (plus when has darkness become a measure of quality?), as well as the sense of closure given by those films but calling it my least favourite is like saying this pizza with 19 slices of pepperoni is it not as good as this pizza with 20 slices of pepperoni. It’s appropriate that the second part of the three-act story is the dark entry so the more light-hearted third act can act as a release from the darkness and despair.

Imagine if Star Wars went in the direction of The Planet of the Apes franchise? It’s a miracle the studio had no input into the film, creating the movie sequel all movie sequels aspire to be. What if it was a rushed out sequel titled Star Wars II? If Jaws started the trend of blockbusters and Star Wars cemented it, then The Empire Strikes Back was the final step in the birth of the blockbusters, by cementing the rules behind the art of the movie sequel (and creating the subtitle any movie sequel wishes they had). However, could the film’s quality also due to Lucas not having any input into the writing or directing of the film?

The Empire Strikes Back is a film of more advanced directorial prowess than A New Hope in this ridiculously fast-paced movie. Right from the start, you can tell the characters within The Empire Strikes Back are much deeper than the first film. Han and Leia are simply one of the greatest romances in all of cinema; the classic tale of two who pretend to hate each other but are secretly in love, a trope as old as cinema. Watch as the two engage in the hottest moments of a generally a-sexual franchise. It’s no surprise the two are posed in the manner of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara on the film’s poster. Yet The Empire Strikes Back introduces the closest thing to rivaling the coolness of Han Solo in the form of Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams, to inject some smooth blaxploitation vibes into the Star Wars universe (not to mention the beauty of the Cloud City theme).

The planets in Star Wars are like characters themselves from the tundra of Hoth providing a counter to the deserts of Tatooine, to the intimacy and poignancy to the scenes on the swamp planet Dagobah and its one (as far as we know) lowly inhabitant. Yoda really is a perfect creation, like Obi-Wan, you do wonder if everything he says is full of nonsense when you break it down but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a shame the perception of the character has become bastardized because of the prequels. Plus what is it about stop-motion that is just endlessly appealing to look at from the long shots of the Tauntauns to those majestic herds of impending was elephants known of AT-ATs during the Battle of Hoth. The manner in which the stop motion doesn’t have the full fluid motion of live action movement but not to the point that it looks choppy is a visual I never tire off.

Although the darkest, The Empire Strikes Back is the funniest film of the series. C-3PO constantly telling people about the improbability of escaping the situation they’re getting themselves into, to Han’s many sarcastic whips never fails to get a laugh. Plus the movie keeps teasing you that you’re going to get to see that iconic jump to light speed shot from the first film, making it all the more satisfying when you finally do get to see it.

Even Darth Vader is significantly deepened as a character in The Empire Strikes back, thanks in part to him getting his own theme music to strike the fear of impending authoritarianism into your heart, but also thanks to certain plot twist.“I am your Father”, the most well-known piece of pop culture knowledge. Is there anyone in the civilised world who doesn’t know Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father? Should we try and preserve the secrecy of these plot twists so future generations can enjoy the surprise?

Star Wars (1977)

The Greatest Story Ever Told

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Reviewing the might that is Star Wars; part of me wonders if there is even any point. You know that cliché review term “what can I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before?” Should I pretend its 1977 and I’m just back from the movie theatre – if only I could have experienced it firsthand. With the hype underway for the upcoming The Force Awakens, I’ve been rekindling my love for Star Wars (the good trilogy, not the crummy one) so allow me to be the zillionth person to give their own perspective on Star Wars. Before I had ever even seen Star Wars I felt like I had watched it before. You could probably recreate the film from the parodies it has received. It’s hard not to get caught up in a five-hour conversation about these movies and talking in depth about every single frame. From the archetypes, the plot structure, the glorified B movie tropes and the inspirations coming from the Bible to ancient mythology to westerns to Japanese Samurai films; Star Wars is the story of stories.

I can’t help by getting tearful over the beauty of the original trilogy; whether it’s the introduction of Luke Skywalker to the achingly beautiful John William’s score, or Luke and Leia’s scene in which they try to get away from oncoming Star Troopers by swinging on a rope over a drop – but not before she kisses him – such a classic image taken from any swashbuckler. The sights and sounds of lasers blasting or dogfights in space have an aesthetic and a charm which I could never tire from. What makes the Star Wars universe feel so human? There is advanced technology but it feels used and it doesn’t always function properly. Also, I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: CGI isn’t anything on practical effects. Part of me doesn’t want to know how they did these effects just to be kept alive the thought of “how did they do that?!” I can still enjoy the special editions despite the changes (it would take a lot more CGI to entirely ruin a film like this), yet the original theatrical versions do have a charming, 70’s hokeyness (particularly during the Mos Eisley scenes and the final assault on the Death Star), which the special editions take away.

What imagination or imaginations can come up with something so wonderful, which raises the question of just how much of genius within Star Wars can be actually credited to George Lucas? Is the guy an untalented hack who got lucky by being surrounded by talented people? It’s disheartening to think the man may never have been the genius we all thought he once was making the man as much of an enigma as the fictional universe he came up with.

Is Mark Hamill’s performance in the original Star Wars the greatest? No, but I feel it works in the trilogy’s favour as his performances in Empire and Jedi are much improved just like how the character of Luke matured and even within the original Star Wars by itself, I do get a sense of enjoyment from how charmingly amateurish Hamill’s performance is. Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, however, is by far the most tender performance ever given by an actor in a Star Wars film; the comforting mentor and father figure who is wise without any pretension. Also what gives C-3P0 and R2-D2 such a great dynamic? They’re both robots and one is essentially a talking fax machine, either way, best robot chemistry ever.

But If I’m going to really talk about one Star Wars characters it’s Han Solo as played by the greatest of all time, Harrison Ford. Simply put Han Solo is my favourite movie character of all time; the cinematic embodiment of masculinity and individuality. He’s badass, cocky, funny, has a legendary vest, is the most handsome man ever and every word of dialogue he utters I would frame and hang on my wall. Yes, he is God himself.

The other thing I love about Star Wars which like many things was sorely missed in the prequels is the entourage of British actors. To me Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without an imperial star destroyer on which every commander on board has a sinister English accent. Even the presence of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin I feel elevates Episode IV over other films in the saga.

The confrontation between Obi-wan and Darth Vader still remains my lightsaber duel in the series. Two old men, minimal movement, no music, choreography as basic as it gets, yet it is infinitely more emotional and substantial than Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen doing somersaults inside a volcano for five hours.

Star Wars changed cinema, pop culture and the world as we know it for a reason. Something which has brought joy and happiness to myself and millions around the world (as well as much anger and despair). Many film snobs will dismiss Star Wars as the film which ruined cinema helping bring about the end of the New Hollywood era which it total tosh. I could go on and on and on with this review, adding more to it like Lucas likes to add changes to his already existing films but I feel the best way to review what Is one of the most talked-about films of all time I too try and convey the sense of emotion and euphoria I get from watching such a film.