Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Farce Awakens

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a movie I’m apprehensive to review; perhaps more than any other film ever. I only review movies if I feel I have something to interesting and unique to say. What unique viewpoint to do I have to give to the Star Wars prequels? –  possibly the three most heavily critiqued films ever. I decided to watch all three prequels again (and hopefully for the last time) in order to get a fresh perspective on them. I believe I may have some unique points of view to offer; plus I am among the populace who is addicted to discussing every aspect of George Lucas’ pop culture behemoth.

Don’t be too surprised when I tell you I hate the prequels – big shocker, right? However, The Phantom Menace is the prequel I dislike the least. The major aspect I find The Phantom Menace does have going for it over the other two prequels are the aesthetics. It comes the closest to resembling the original trilogy, if still incredibly far off. The Phantom Menace was shot on film and does feature on location filming and even some practical effects here and there, so the whole thing doesn’t come off looking like a video game as Episodes II and III did. There is a lot of eye candy to behold, such as the locations such as the Palace of Caserta in Italy (why do you want to film everything on a green screen when beautiful places like this exist in the world?), while the costume design – not something I would normally comment on – is very pleasing to the eyes. The only two scenes in The Phantom Menace which has a little bit of that excitement that I get watching the original trilogy are the pod race and final lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul; an impressive display of acrobatics and is it’s not choreographed within an inch of its life like the duels in Episodes II and III. But even these few aspects of the film I do enjoy are ultimately superficial as there is no internal conflict nor am I emotionally invested.

What surprised me watching The Phantom Menace for the first time in a decade was just how incredibly frustrated I got. I’ve seen and read more reviews of this film over the years, analysing it to death and mocking every aspect of it. Watching the film again I expected to have reactions of “yeah it sucks, what else is new”, but sitting down and watching the entire thing my brain became so numb from the never-ending monotone exposition. I’m not even that keen on the John Williams score; it’s not bad by any means – far from it – but it feels too dark and moody for a Star Wars movie. As fine a piece of music as Duel of the Fates is, those booming choirs feel out of place for Star Wars. In regards to the most hated fictional character of all time, I don’t think Jar Jar is the absolute worst thing ever, I can at least tolerate him (if there’s any character in the prequel trilogy that bothers me for how ridiculous they are: its General Grievous). Plus at least he’s responsible for the only line from this film I like; “The ability to talk does not you intelligent”.

All three prequels lack the space western elements of the original trilogy, and I recall a comment that George Lucas intended The Phantom Menace to play out like a costume drama. Perhaps it’s own such a direction could have worked if you know, the execution wasn’t total pants. I can see what Lucas was perhaps going for in the story in trying to portray the fall of a democracy; the idea of radicals using political unrest as a means of coming to power – such as the Nazis using the turmoil caused by the great depression to amass power. Perhaps the empire isn’t such a bad thing, it appears under their command the universe became a more interesting place.

As someone who is interested in the relationship people have with popular culture, I find the most interesting aspect of The Phantom Menace is nothing in the film itself but rather its place in history. Think about it, the most anticipated movie of all time and it was a colossal letdown, and this occurring during the early days of the internet. What would the world of geekdom be like if The Phantom Menace actually lived up to expectations? Would an entire generation be less cynical?  Would internet culture be the same as it is today, possibly for the better?

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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!

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. 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 red wood 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. 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. The film’s final battle involves ships navigating through the tunnels and into the center of the battle station making for a dogfight even more exciting than that from A New Hope. This movie also has Bikini Leia, just saying.

Let’s talk about Ewoks, shall we? 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 the empire as 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 so you?”.  George Lucas is alot of things (most anger-inducing) but a greedy businessman who would create characters purely so he could market them as toys is not one of the; just look at the man’s charitable activities. If he really wanted money he would have released the original unaltered trilogy on DVD. At least the Ewok’s reputation has improved a little bit over time with fans now redirecting their hatred towards Jar Jar Binks; plus they’re cute little guys! 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; it’s just a shame people look at this cynically and say they were just trying to sell toys.

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 speeder bike chase being not far behind that). 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. 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 band, but rather dies in a humiliating fashion. I was more concerned with Lando being on the cusp of death! While it’s 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.

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 Emperor; it perplexes me that people can put down this movie so much. Plus if Vader’s unmasking doesn’t get you teary-eyed then there is no hope for you. 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 but could the film’s quality also due to Lucas not having any input into the writing or directing of the film?

Right from the start, you can tell the characters 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 of hate each other but are secretly in love, a trope as old as cinema, it’s no surprise the two are posed in the manner of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara on the film’s poster. The planets in Star Wars are like characters themselves and Degobah is the perfect example of this. There is such intimacy and poignancy to the scenes on Degobah. Yoda really is a perfect creation, like Obi-Wan, you do wonder if everything he says is full of crap 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? The way that is doesn’t have the full fluid motion of live action movement but not to the point that it looks choppy.

Although the darkest, The Empire Strikes Back is the funniest of the series.  C-3PO constantly telling people about the improbability of escaping the situation they’re getting themselves into 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 satisfying when you finally do get to see it.

“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 Force Will Be With Us, Always

***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 (don’t let us down J.J!) 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 parodies. It’s hard not to get caught up in a five-hour conversation about these movies, talking in depth about every single frame; these movies turn adults into big kids.

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 has 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.

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. But If I’m going to really talk about one Star Wars characters it’s Han Solo. Simply put Han Solo is my favourite movie character of all time. He’s badass, cocky, funny, has a legendary vest, is the most handsome man ever (no, really) and every word of dialogue he utters I would frame and hang on my wall. Yes, he is God himself. 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.

The other thing I love about Star Wars which like many things was sorely missed in the prequels is the entourage of British actors. I don’t want to endorse typecasting but it just isn’t Star Wars without an imperial star destroyer on which every commander on board has an English accent.

The confrontation between Obi-wan and 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 being 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.

The People Vs. George Lucas (2010)

A Sad Devotion to an Ancient Religion?

In this day and age when people use pop culture as an extension of themselves, it surprises me there haven’t been more documentaries like this (how about a documentary about the decline of The Simpsons?). I hate what has happened to the Star Wars franchise beginning with the special editions in 1997 as much as the next fan, and The People Vs. George Lucas helps ventilate the anger but it is so much more than that. It isn’t just mindless Lucas bashing but does give the man a fair shake.

The documentary raises many thought-provoking points of speculation about the man. Does he believe that what he’s doing to Star Wars is the right thing? Is he getting revenge on a franchise which turned him into the thing he hated and promised himself he would never become, a corporate entity. It goes to show you how the man is a much of an enigma as the characters in his films, as pointed out in the documentary, the rise and fall of George Lucas parallels Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the dark side. By the end of the documentary, I felt as one of the fans interviewed puts it, “I love/hate George Lucas”. The other major debate raised in the documentary is that of who owns art, the artist or the public and does the public have the right to the material of its own culture?

You don’t have to start a Star Wars related conversation before people start talking about their disdain for the prequels or the changes to the special editions, yet no official Star Wars documentary is certainly going to address this, nor do I doubt this documentary would be shown at the annual Star Wars convention Celebration.

The People Vs. George Lucas showcases a large range of fans from the mature to the more childish, to those defending Lucas. The documentary both celebrates fan culture as well as makes fun of it, whether intentional or not (I wonder if the guy who compares Lucas to a Holocaust denier regrets it?). My favourite part of the documentary is the section which perfectly captures the anticipation and undaunted optimism towards the release of The Phantom Menace and the following disappointment and disenchantment.

Intercut between the interviews are an astounding showcase of fan films (recreating scenes from the movies, telling their own Star Wars stories and those ridiculing George Lucas). This along with the perfect balance between the more serious debates related to artistic ethics all the way to the more trivial, such as whether or not George Lucas raped people’s childhoods, makes The People Vs. George Lucas immensely entertaining to watch, as I’ve now done so several times, making this my personal favourite documentary.