Cinematic Star Wars

***** If you’ve not seen Star Wars or any of its sequels, there may be spoilers ahead, so quickly; go watch ALL OF THEM RIGHT AWAY so you can come back and read this as soon as possible (hehe) *****

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Okay, now that we have that bit of business out of the way, onto this post’s topic at hand: the Star Wars movies.

Seeing the original “Star Wars” (pre-“New Hope” title change) back in 1977 at the tender and impressionable age of 10 was a life-altering experience; I realize that sounds like typical fanboy hyperbole today, but it truly was.   This was in the pre-internet time before CGI extravaganzas bombarded our senses every ten seconds.  The general experience of going to the  movies for young people then usually meant lots of movies about car chases, juvenile horror movies (“The Boy Who Cried Werewolf”), nihilistic sci-fi flicks where everyone dies at the end (Charlton Heston racked up a few of these) or vigilante anti-hero movies (“Serpico” “Billy Jack” “Dog Day Afternoon” etc).   Some of these became classics, and many rank among my personal favorites today (“The Godfather,” for example).   But for a 10 year old kid in 1977?   There wasn’t a lot going on cinematically.  There were cartoons (sometimes a Disney classic rerelease, like “Bambi”) or simpleminded live-action kiddie movies such as “Gus”, a movie about a football playing-mule (also from Disney, ironically).    Occasionally you had landmark science fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Forbidden Planet” (1956) but they were considered somewhat sophisticated for 10 year olds at that time, and they’d long gone out of theaters by 1977.   Quality theatrical movies for younger audiences in those days were few and far between.  Younger audiences didn’t really have much economic clout in those days either; we usually watched what the adults watched, or we watched… placekicking mules.

Then along came “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977 and everything changed. Moviemaking technology changed.  Special effects changed.  Pacing changed.   Merchandising changed.  Theatrical sound systems changed.   The entire experience of going to the movies changed.   Movies suddenly became event; not just  mild afternoon diversion.   Star Wars didn’t create the modern blockbuster; certainly “The Exorcist” and “JAWS” took care of that.   But Star Wars created a blockbuster that the entire family could enjoy without fear of traumatizing the kids with demonic possession or great white sharks at the beach.   Granted, I’d already seen both “The Exorcist” (at age 7!) and “JAWS” (at 9) because in the ’70s?  You saw the movie your parents or older siblings saw… period.   Trauma Shmauma.  But Star Wars was kind of unique; it was a wildly entertaining, meticulously crafted wide-audience movie where the lead characters didn’t break out in song every 15 minutes (that would happen a year later in 1978’s televised Star Wars Holiday Special, but that’s trauma of a whole different kind…).

“Star Wars” (I just hate the title “A New Hope” so I’ll use SW77 going forward) blasted on the movie screen with a powerfully brassy fanfare and an opening text crawl that seemed to go on into infinity.  Giant spaceships dominated the screen in pitched battle as my 10 year old eyes tried to take it all in.   The scale was unlike anything I’d seen before at that age.   Troopers boarded the smaller of the two ships, and deadly laser combat ensued.  Two droids escaped in a pod and landed on the desert world of Tatooine (filmed in remote Tunisia). The planet Tatooine looked like exotic desert pics I’d seen in National Geographic.  This was my 10-year old self’s answer to “Lawrence Of Arabia.”

On Tatooine, I saw a scruffy desert-based planetary culture that was not shiny or glamorous.  It was grubby and real.   Even the vehicles looked like my dad’s old station wagon; beat up, with a few dings here and there.  These weren’t the shiny space pods of Kubrick’s “2001” (another favorite of mine, but for different reasons).   This was a lived-in universe; right down to Aunt Beru’s plastic pitcher of blue milk.   These wasn’t the hyper stylized campy worlds of “Queen of Outer Space” or the shiny, shopping mall-brand of futurism I’d seen in “Logan’s Run” (1976).   This galaxy of SW77 was alien, but very familiar and organic as well.

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Beyond Tatooine, the movie arrives at the Death Star; a space battle fortress that is dark and sterile.  The Death Star is also hollow at its core; much like the planet- vaporizing fascists who inhabit it.

At the climax of SW77, the moon-sized battle station is vaporized by the farm boy flying a dinged up X-wing fighter for the first time (!) with his trusty, eccentric little droid riding shotgun.   The strangely-but-aptly-named villain Darth Vader hurtles off into deep space; defeated, but promising a return (this was long before sequels were as automatically assured as they are today).   Our ex-farm boy hero Luke Skywalker returns to the verdant, hidden rebel base as a hero.   Medals are awarded.  Triumphant John Williams score fills the air (a score that would soon be a must-have soundtrack).  The End.

My 10 year old synapses were thoroughly blown.  I couldn’t even articulate the experience of this movie to anyone else, except for those who’d also seen it and knew the secret handshake.

SW77 was “The Wizard of Oz” for the age of disco, feathered hair, Orange Julius and 8-track tapes.   All of which it would outlive, thankfully.

Even today, with its rejiggered visual FX (via the 1997, 2004 ‘special editions’) and rough edges rounded, it’s still a powerful experience; especially in an age where watching it at home is technically superior to seeing it back in 1977 at a cruddy, low-rent multiplex.  Like the movie’s scavengers, the Jawas, my sister and I began collecting memorabilia & toys of this life-changing experience as much as we (and our allowances) could then afford.   The crappy toy-replication technology of that time didn’t do SW77 justice, but it gave us some tangible pieces of the experience (this was pre-VHS tapes and decades before DVDs and blu rays).

A year later Alan Dean Foster’s spinoff novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye” came out, and it was kind of disappointing.  No Han Solo or his wookiee sidekick Chewbacca (!).  I thought, at that time, this was going to be the sequel.  I didn’t realize that this was only a tie-in book (though I learned years later that it was based on a proposed cheap sequel idea, if the movie failed to yield a healthy profit).

I later learned that a REAL sequel was in the works and my heart began to beat faster in anticipation…

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^ The Empire Strikes Back (1980). This was the sequel that changed everything…

In the summer of 1980 the sequel came out and a slightly more grownup 13 year old version of me couldn’t wait.   “The Empire Strikes Back” soon shattered every expectation of what I thought a sequel could be.

  • It had all-new planets, all-new experiences, new characters.   It didn’t rehash the familiar; it greatly expanded upon it in a way that the following Star Wars movies rarely would again.   From the icy cold world of Hoth, to the murky swamp-world of Dagobah, to the climactic character reunion in the wonderfully ’30s art-deco/futuristic metropolis of Cloud City (the one locale in the original trilogy that actually looked the way I used to imagine futuristic cities would look someday).
  • Yoda.  I know he’s just a glorified muppet, but he looks amazing.  Even with limited mouth/lip articulation, he is as much a ‘real’ character as Luke Skywalker.  Frank Oz’ manipulations and voice create a living, three-diemensional being that computer graphics took a LONG time to match (and arguably still haven’t).
  • The snow battle on Hoth with the giant, elephantine AT-AT walkers (done pre-CGI with glorious stop-motion miniatures) is even more visually stunning than the Death Star attack of SW77, and it comes in the first half hour of the movie (!).
  • There is also a terrific cat-and-mouse chase between Imperial starships and Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford’s) rickety, light-speed challenged Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field that is an unbridled thrill to behold.
  • Han and Leia’s romance.   For once, a science fiction/fantasy romance that is playful, antagonistic and has the audience rooting for both of them to just say the words (which happens later, in a uniquely Han Solo-way).
  • “Empire” also boasts the most riveting and personal lightsaber battle of the original trilogy saga; the one where Luke finds out Vader is his mysterious, presumed-dead father.

That twist fit so well; Luke’s nameless dad who was first mentioned in SW77 (“the best star pilot in the galaxy… cunning warrior… good friend”), had fallen from grace and became the monster of the series.   WOW!   That was the motherlode of all plot twists (even if I’d spoiled for myself back then by reading the novelization first… oops!).   It’s a twist that’s right up there with the Statue of Liberty in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” (oops again…).

“Empire” ends on a cliffhanger; Han Solo is in a block of carbonite offered as bounty to his former employer, Jabba the Hutt.  Luke’s life is upside down (he is also sans a right hand too; handily refitted with a bionic prosthesis).   At the time, my impatient 13 year old self was incredulous; we’d have to wait THREE LONG YEARS to find out what happens next!   As golden protocol droid C3PO would say, “This is madness!”

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1983’s “Return of the Jedi”; the first Star Wars movie to break the spell a little bit…

Well, 1983 came around and dropped the final movie of the trilogy onto our laps (or so we thought in those days).   “Return of the Jedi” was my first big lesson in SW disappointment (I don’t really count the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special).    I was 16 years old at the time, and life was filled with distractions like high school, being a nerd, making friends, having acne and painful, unfulfilled crushes on girls (oh man, those days were awful… you couldn’t pay me ENOUGH to be a teenager again).  I thought seeing “Return” would recapture some of that wide-eyed exuberance I first felt previously in 1977 and 1980.   I certainly wanted to feel that, but the movie just didn’t play along this time:

  • Instead of new vistas to behold, we got a lot of the same; the movie goes back to Tatooine (in what would be a recurring problem in Lucas’ prequels as well), back to Dagobah (just in time to see beloved Yoda croak out his last), and back to a new nearly-completed Death Star (guess they began building a spare just in case…?).
  • There was a new forest moon of Endor which looked very much like the California redwoods (lovely yes, but not quite as exotic to me as the ice fields of Hoth, or the floating skyscrapers of Cloud City).
  • And the menagerie of exotic creatures looked like the Muppets; and so help me, one of them was just a small blue elephant playing a damn xylophone.
  • The heroic little Ewoks looked far too much like teddy bears with zippers up their backs and fixed, unblinking button eyes.  “

“Return” felt like a SW movie rushed out to cash in on the previous two and meet a deadline.   The Ewoks felt like a cheap marketing ploy, even in those days.

Yes, there were great scenes scattered throughout the movie, such as the speeder bike chase through the trees, Luke’s final three-way confrontation with his father and the dastardly Emperor, and the amazeballs attack on…. well, Death Star II (at least this Death Star attack sequence benefitted from 6 years of R&D from the previous movies).    So, after two spectacular, life-changing preceding films, the Star Wars trilogy ended on a decent but disappointing note.

Cartoons, novels and merchandise would fill the void in the long years between SW movies.

Cut to May of 1999.  16 years (and a wonderful new fiancee in my life) later, and the era of the prequels officially began.  My wife-to-be was also a diehard SW fan (that helped!) and we even planned our wedding so it wouldn’t cross with the opening of the interestingly if ambiguously titled “The Phantom Menace” (1999).

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With “The Phantom Menace” (1999) we now move into soul-crushing disappointment…

Turns out that “Phantom Menace” was aptly named, largely because it gnaws at you throughout its ruling time; teasing you with hints of brilliance (Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jinn, the dazzling lightsaber choreography) but ultimately taxing your patience with utter inanity.

  • The once-regal villain Darth Vader is reduced to an obnoxious kid.
  • There is the walking/talking ethnic/cultural slur known  Jar-Jar Binks; the Ground Zero of the prequel’s wrongheadedness.
  • The computer graphics looked slick (for 1999), but were somewhat light on gravity.   There was no heft to them.  People twirled in the air like pinwheels.  They had little more substance than the screensaver on my iMac today; pretty pixels, nothing more.
  • The overly long Tatooine pod race in “Phantom” feels like an interminable video game.  Since “Phantom” is a prequel?   We kind of assume the kid is going to win anyway… not a whole lot of suspense, really (certainly not enough to milk the sequence for what feels like eternity).
  • Worst offense of all: “Phantom” completely destroys the wonderful mystery and ambiguity of the force by mansplaining the s#!t out of it.  Turns out Yoda and Ben Kenobi were all wrong…it wasn’t some mysterious energy field the surrounds us and binds us; it’s all about parasites living in one’s blood.  The more parasites you have, the better you’ll be at lightsaber-wielding and levitating furniture.  This was (IMO) the movie’s single worst offense; pissing away the awe and magic of the force (and I say this as an avowed nonbeliever in the supernatural) and reducing it to a line of Star Trek-style technobabble.  I love Trek, but as TV’s Seinfeld might say, you gotta keep the worlds apart…

“Phantom” was  profoundly disappointing but it was also like reconstructing a mid-air collision.  And for some bizarre reason (the music?  The opening crawl?  The lightsaber fights?)  I had to see it multiple times just to figure out exactly where it went wrong.

Three years later in 2002, we saw “Attack of the Clones.”

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2002’s “Attack of the Clones”; my least Star Wars movie of them all…

Full disclosure; we actually saw this one on a bootleg DVD copy before I saw it in theatres.  I know it was wrong, and my wife and I wouldn’t dare do that kind of thing anymore. Stealing movies is theft; plain and simple, no matter how you justify it.  But at that point, it didn’t really matter since we knew we were going to see it in a theatre anyway, and we did… only to discover that a theatrical presentation did little to change our initial disappointment.   For the record, “Attack” is my single LEAST favorite SW movie and I’ll explain exactly why:

  • The romance between grownup Anakin Skywalker (the stiff Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman, who’s done much better) is just ruin-the-whole-movie awful.  They have the chemistry of two department store mannequins at closing time.
  • The acting is terribly wooden all around; and these are GOOD actors too (Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor).  But for some reason, director Lucas seems to prefer a stilted, stagey style of acting in the prequels that is very much at odds with the warmth of the originals.   That  acting style reaches a cardboard apex in “Attack.”  And it doesn’t help that Lucas’ tin-eared dialogue is about as romantic as the instructions to my satellite TV receiver.  Most of the dialogue in this movie is unspeakably awful (Anakin’s sand moment, for example…).
  • Anakin Skywalker comes off as a brooding, angry teenage stalker boy more worthy of a restraining order than unyielding love (Padme still loves him even after he admits to slaughtering innocent women and children!).
  • The CGI FX are the tail wagging the dog by the time of this movie.  And all of those FX look synthetic and unrealistic.
  • The title is very misleading, since the titular ‘clone attack’ of the stormtroopers is more like able support to rescue the heroes at the movie’s end.
  • Yoda’s fight with Christopher Lee’s “Count Dooku” looks like a spastic frog running away from an angry French chef.   It should come with a laugh track.
  • The look of the movie is all wrong; it looks like the digital video that it is (DV is a format Lucas was very keen on at that time).  It lacks the warmth and texture of its filmed predecessors (and Episode VII’s “The Force Awakens”).

To summarize: “Attack of the Clones” is just dreadful.  It is the SW movie I’ve seen the least, and I’ve rewatched them all many times; yes, even the lesser ones.  There are moments of this movie that, even for a diehard SW fan, are just roll-your-eyes bad.

Now onto the last of the SW prequels (until 2016’s “Rogue One,” that is): “Revenge of the Sith” (2005):

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2005’s “Revenge of the Sith”; better than the previous two, but that’s not saying a whole lot…

And this ^ was the one we’d really waited (or waded) though the previous two movies for; the one where Anakin finally goes medieval on our asses and becomes Darth Vader (whose impact by movie’s end is severely diluted).   This is the best of the three prequels overall, but nowhere near the giddy excellence of SW77 or “Empire” (I’m not sure any SW sequel or prequel will ever reach the dizzyingly high standards of those first two movies).

“Revenge” is also the first of the prequels to directly segue off of a SW tie-in; it follows the Genndy Tartakovsky “Clone Wars” cartoons (the first series of 2D hand drawn cartoons, not the all-CGI Clone Wars/Rebels cartoons that continue today).  The movie begins with a rescue mission of Chancellor Palpatine (played throughout the prequels by the wonderfully hammy Ian McDiarmid; who first played the role under heavy makeup in 1983’s “Return”).   And once again, since this is a prequel, the rescue is somewhat tension-free, as with much of the prequel trilogy’s events; it’s padding to delay an inevitable conclusion.

Ultimately Anakin Skywalker finally becomes Darth Vader, Padme gives birth to the twins Luke and Leia whose stories we follow in the original trilogy.

“Revenge” does have a few saving graces…

  • A darker tone (the first PG-13 SW movie, in fact).  Anakin’s gruesome dismemberment and immolation near a sea of molten lava is good nightmare fuel.
  • A rich, scene stealing (and more than a teensy bit homoerotic) performance by Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine.   His seduction of Anakin, while straining credibility at times, is still wonderfully played.
  • A cool dialogue-free scene as both Padme and Anakin, in separate locations, look out across the a sunset on the city-world of Coruscent; their lives and futures drowning in uncertainty and indecision.  It’s one rare (thankfully wordless!) moment that actually feels vaguely adult.
  • Vader’s emergence edited within the birth of his twin children.   Granted, Padme (a young, seemingly healthy woman) suddenly just ‘losing the will to live’ during childbirth is absurd (especially since her daughter Leia seems to ‘remember’ her in “Return”).  But I did enjoy how their births coincided  with the ‘birth’ of Anakin’s ferocious new id monster, Darth Vader (even if that moment is somewhat undercut by Vader’s overly melodramatic line delivery of “NNOOOOOOOOO!”).   The sight of smoky air being gently displaced as Vader takes his first bionic breath is pure, unadulterated fan service.    It really works, even if it’s only for a moment…

Cut to 10 years later in 2015, and after a welcome Disney buyout of George Lucas’ Lucasfilm and Star Wars seems to be back on track.   The franchise in the hands of those who love it best; the fans and the generations of filmmakers, such as JJ Abrams and Gareth Edwards, who grew up loving the original movies as much as I did.   Many of the current wave of those making Star Wars movies were directly inspired to become filmmakers by the original trilogy.   This love is evidenced by the first two Disney made Star Wars movies; 2015’s “The Force Awakens” and 2016’s prequel to SW77, “Rogue One.”

Since I’ve already written extensively about Rogue One in my previous post, I’ll go just jot down a few quick things to say about last year’s “The Force Awakens” (2015).

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^ The title says it all: the force truly awakens in this movie.  Goodbye and good riddance, midichlorians; and don’t let the door hit your tiny asses on the way out…

Let’s get the gripes out of the way first:

  • Yes, the movie is a quasi remake of 1977’s Star Wars.  Though that’s not such a bad thing when you’re trying to make audiences remember what they LOVED about Star Wars, after three mixed-to-awful prequels.
  • The character of Rey (played by the wonderfully charming Daisy Ridley) is a bit of a Mary Sue-type character; she’s skilled at piloting, can repair almost anything and is pretty handy in combat.   To me, this is no worse than a farm boy from Tatooine who blows up a moon-sized Death Star while flying a fighter for the first time, so I wasn’t really bothered by her seemingly limitless abilities that much.   Mary Sues (and Gary Stus) are fantasy staples.  And Ridley’s terrific acting chops more than makes up for any character oversights/deficits.
  • The Empire–er, First Order, has another giant, space-based planet/star killing machine.  Okay, if someone (anyone?) out there can figure out a way to theatrically top a massive weapon that can destroy planets (or suns) at the flick of a few switches?  I’m listening…

Okay, now onto the things that Force Awakens does right:

  • Film, instead of HD video.   A good start; texturally it matches better with the originals.
  • REAL stormtroopers in the opening live-action shots; not CGI masses of stormtroopers, but actors in suits.  There is a difference.
  • Warm, sympathetic characters that seem three dimensional; from the willful, sardonically defiant rebel Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), defecting stormtrooper Finn (a wonderfully human John Boyega) and Rey (the aforementioned Daisy Ridley), who is the unintentional epicenter of this story (she she carries it well, too).   The characters are so rich and vibrant that they hold their own (and often surpass) when interacting with returning veterans Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Carrie Fisher (Leia).
  • Han Solo and Chewbacca are back on the Millennium Falcon!!  So help me, that damn near brought a tear to my eye.   Like seeing a pair of beloved friends straight from childhood.  “Chewie, we’re home” indeed!

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  • Strong villains.   Han and Leia’s tortured and twisted son, Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo (played by the very impressive Adam Driver) is everything that Anakin Skywalker SHOULD’VE been in the latter two prequels.   His interrogation chamber scene with Rey is amazing.  With no visual FX at all, the two actors clash in a battle of wills that seems to fill the screen with almost visible tension.    This was one key ingredient that is so desperately missing in Lucas’ prequels… acting.  Real bona fide acting.

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  • Rey’s flashback sequences.   Great material for future exploration in future sequels.  Enough to keep the audience guessing, but not too much.   Loved the Cloud City confrontation reference as well (I have an inkling of what that may suggest…).
  • Humor!   Real, honest-to-goodness humor.   Not lazy stereotypes or weird jokes that fall flat, but actual character-driven, organic humor.   Not so much that the movie lapses into self-parody, but enough to make these characters feel like human beings worth spending time with instead of stilted humorless mannequins.
  • Han Solo’s death at the hands of his son.   A shocking moment that still makes me gasp a bit inside, partly for the emotion of patricide, but also for the tremendous courage it took for the filmmakers to do that.   It also gives the movie much needed gravitas and elevates it to “Empire Strikes Back” levels of epicness.
  • The lightsaber battle in the snowy forest of Starkiller Base.  While the lightsaber choreography in TFA is nowhere near the balletic levels of the prequels, it is also much more real and visceral.   These actors aren’t pirouetting around each other; they’re trying to land blows with energy blades.  It’s messy, it’s brutal and (for the first time since the original trilogy) it feels DANGEROUS.  When Rey finally summons the blue-bladed lightsaber into her hand,  it sails right past the surprised face of Kylo Ren and creates the kind of truly ‘Star Wars-y’ moment rarely experienced in the prequels.

“The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” bring back much of what I loved about the original trilogy; the warmth, the humor, the exotic locations, the genuine sense of threat (big detriment of the prequels), and the right balance of practical and computer FX that make the worlds of this ‘galaxy far, far away’ feel both real and tangible.   A distance universe that is only a short hyperspace jump away at the local multiplex.  That is what Star Wars did to me all those decades ago; it made that far away galaxy a real place.   And it turned my eyes towards the possibilities of both the universe itself (a major factor in my current fascination with outer space) and affirmed my love of geeky entertainment (which I share in this blog).  Both are constants in my life today largely because of that 1977 movie that changed my life, and the lives of so many others.

Final note: there is ONE wonderful constant in the first seven films, and one that is powerfully absent in this year’s “Rogue One” and that is the gorgeous, lush, and triumphant music of John Williams. His gatefold double LP was the first movie soundtrack I’d ever plunked down allowance money for. To this day, Williams’ music is the one steady heartbeat even in the worst of the Star Wars films; that opening blast and triumphant march of fanfare forgives a LOT of movie sins. There’s a good reason he’s won multiple Academy Awards.

John Williams conducts music for “The Force Awakens”…

Hats off to John Williams.  The force is still with him.   Here’s hoping he returns for Episode VIII next year…

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