Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace Review
The following synopsis review is taken from Cas’ and Chris’ respective individual reviews of the Prequel and Original sets that are also available – since the films, their pictures and sound tracks in this complete set are identical I have, with their kind permission, reproduced their work, and concentrated on the only difference which amounts to the three discs of extras. This set is epic and it has taken three of us to give it its full treatment.
It started off with the tale of a Jedi Master and his Padawan.
This concept, already innately Japanese in its tribute to the master-apprentice relationship, was morphed into what was, essentially, a reworking of a classic Akira Kurosawa samurai movie, only set in a galaxy far, far away. Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was about two bumbling peasants, who escape the aftermath of a battle but are captured by border guards and forced into slavery; eventually going on to join a Samurai General who is escorting the Princess (in disguise) of a defeated family, along with the gold required to rebuild them, across enemy territory. They are later joined by farmer’s child, who they acquire from a slave trader. Eventually the Samurai General is forced to confront an old rival of his (who is scarred by their last confrontation) who, in the eleventh hour, changes sides to help them; and so they are allowed to return the Princess and the gold, so that the family can be built back to strength. Hell, we even have an extended duel and signature Star Wars screenwipes here.
I’m not sure I really need to directly relate the events described above to the plot for Star Wars in order for you to see the striking similarities – it’s basically identical – but, just to be clear: the two bumbling peasants are the two bumbling droids; they escape the aftermath of a (space) battle but are captured by border guards (stormtroopers) and forced into slavery; eventually going on to join a (Jedi) General, who goes on to escort a Princess (Leia) – carrying with vital information that can help the Rebel Alliance – across enemy territory. The General has also picked up a farmer’s child (Luke Skywalker) and goes on to eventually confront his old rival (Darth Vader) who was scarred by their last confrontation. I think that there is a pretty clear argument that the first Star Wars film (and many of the elements of the subsequent films – including the Prequels) was basically a reworking of The Hidden Fortress.
In fact, originally Lucas even wanted to use the star of The Hidden Fortress, acclaimed Japanese actor, and long-time Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, High and Low) to play the equivalent ‘General’ role in Star Wars – the role which would eventually go to Alec Guiness: Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Apparently Lucas travelled to see Kurosawa in Japan long before he came up with the Star Wars concept, and discovered an even greater love for Japanese period dramas (normally involving Samurai), which are known as Jidaigeki. Some say that this is where the word ‘Jedi’ comes from. And Lucas’s Japanese Samurai references went beyond just the obvious – the Jedi dressing like Samurai; their code and honour; their master/padawan relationships; their lightsabers being the equivalent to Samurai swords; and their more intellectual approach to combat-as-a-last-resort (many directly taken from Bushido) – he incorporated ideas from many other Eastern philosophies as well, with his ‘Force’ powers symbolising ‘Chi’, and his concept of the light and dark-side duality mirroring an Ancient Persian philosophy which taught that dark and light forces are locked in an eternal battle, but that they also spawn from the same ‘force’.
There is also an argument put forward that many of the ideas Lucas used which were not spawned from The Hidden Fortress, or Eastern philosophies, were actually borrowed from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. Apparently Director David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) got together with Herbert one day and drew over a dozen points of convergence – the mind-tricks, the spice drug and spice mining, the moisture farming etc. – stating that the likelihood of these being a coincidence was infinitesimally small.
Lucas also did not wholly drop the side-stories and ideas from The Hidden Fortress which were not used in the first movie, and one has to wonder whether or not he always had it in mind to incorporate them at a later stage – most prominent amongst them: the notion that the Samurai General’s old rival (i.e. Vader), would, ultimately, switch sides.
Interestingly, Lucas wrote Star Wars (i.e. Episode IV: A New Hope) as a single story, with a final conclusion (i.e. the Death Star being destroyed), but realised along the way that what he was writing was actually part of a much bigger picture – initially the first part of a trilogy, and then the first chapter in the middle part of a trilogy of trilogies. Still, many of his ideas were not finalised until long after Star Wars had been released – for example, Vader himself was never intended to have been Luke’s father. This plot twist is never referred to, or even hinted at, in the first Star Wars movie, mainly because it was not written that way. Obi-Wan relates “a young Jedi named Darth Vader... betrayed and murdered your father.” And that was the truth. At the time. But, two years after Star Wars became a Box Office hit, another screenwriter suggested that Vader could be revealed to be Luke’s father, an idea which Lucas jumped on. And so began the underlying plot that would go on to fuel not only two sequels, but also a further three prequels.
With all the evidence before you, it is surely abundantly clear that Lucas is indeed not the master of original ideas. That said, he deserves a great deal of credit for taking the framework outlined by others and transubstantiating the characters and setting so as to make the whole thing seem completely fresh and unique – at the time, Star Wars was, undeniably, unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. It, along with Spielberg’s Jaws, formed part of something of a cinematic revolution, returning movies back to the Golden Era of grand spectacles.
After the Original Trilogy was completed, Lucas had the option to do a Sequel Trilogy, but, despite the massive commercial success of the original films, he decided to take a break, for one reason or another, returning only in the late nineties – and this time opting to make the Prequel Trilogy not only because of advances in CG technology, but because he had already mapped out some of the extensive backstories for the characters.
And so he returned to the original idea of a story about a Jedi Master and his Padawan.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (6/10)
In further expanding the origin story, which was once titled Star Wars – Episode I: The Beginning (a far better title than The Phantom Menace), Lucas pooled many ideas from the same sources that he had already used. Some would regard this as being as a result of his not being capable of a single pure original idea, but, at the very least, he was remarkably efficient – never letting a good idea, however ‘borrowed’ it may be, go to waste. Although many may find the similarities hard to see, as a result of the lack of the ‘Han Solo’ factor, and because they are films of a vastly different scale – the plot to The Phantom Menace is actually remarkably similar to the original Star Wars movie, Episode IV (and this would go on to become a common trait between the prequel movies and their equivalents in the original trilogy).
Yet again we follow a Jedi Master (this time with his young Padawan) who has to escort a Princess, in disguise, across enemy territory; along the way they pick up a farmer’s child, who they acquire from a slave trader. Seriously, that doesn’t ring any bells?
Although this was the premise, Lucas obviously elaborated on the skeleton to make it a part of a much bigger picture. He had more than just the world before him to play with, he had the whole Star Wars universe. Although initially interested in focussing on a young Obi-Wan, he eventually settled on a different, but simple story arc: plotting out the rise, and eventual fall, of the young child who would grow up to be Darth Vader. This was his central theme – the start of a story of pure tragedy; ultimate downfall, and one which married up well with the ultimate redemption that Vader finds in the Original Trilogy. These were all good ideas, and, as stated, Lucas could bring anything to the table to further embellish them. To this end, he created vast new worlds, beautifully realised using the latest CG technology; he detailed the backgrounds to all of the characters that we already knew and loved, starting them off right at the beginning, and giving us new, great characters, who would go on to form great parts of the ongoing Star Wars legacy. He furthered the allusions to Japanese Samurai tradition (now we see that Padawan have a small ponytail which, we later find out, is removed upon their graduation to Jedi Knight) and now incorporated more overtly Christian elements – like the virgin (Seriously? “There was no father?” You expect us to buy that answer?) birth of a child saviour (who would later go on to be tempted, and eventually redeem himself in sacrifice), and the evil devil-like Darth Maul.
This time round, however, Lucas made the calculated decision to make a movie which was not necessarily all that respectful towards all the fans who had grown up with his Original Trilogy – it was respectful, but to a point – and focussed instead on introducing whole new (and, thus, younger) generations to this fantastic universe. You can’t blame the guy, but it is as a direct result of this decision that we ended up with perhaps the most loathed Star Wars character of all-time: Jar-Jar Binks.
Apparently there is a fan-made version of The Phantom Menace where all of the Jar-Jar Binks scenes have been cleverly edited out. I’ve never seen this, but I can only imagine that it is a great deal better than Lucas’s finalised version. Jar-Jar Binks was a horrible miscalculation for all the veteran Star Wars fans. He was a bumbling idiot; a slapstick fool whose painful dialogue and incompetent actions were beyond unfunny. Yet the kids loved him – and still do. For some crazy reason, this semi-racist character (many of his features, as well as his contrived accent, are easily comparable to those of Jamaicans – dreadlocks and Creole, respectively), who basically ruined the first movie for the rest of us, actually worked for many children under the age of about 10. Commercially, it was a great tactic to widen the audience appeal of these movies – and probably remains the reason why Binks continued to be prominent in the sequels, despite the negative feedback from the first movie – but it is one of the biggest reasons why this ‘new’ Star Wars entry would never be exalted as a great chapter in the franchise.
Lucas had plenty of great ideas (cough, cough), but he eschewed streamlined, effective simplicity, in favour of convoluted, overly extensive backplots. In my opinion, he went too far back. In The Phantom Menace, we are confronted by trade embargoes and political infighting, none of which bears any obvious significance other than in the ‘grand scheme of things’. Basically, The Phantom Menace was uneventful: an overlong podrace, far too much screentime for Binks, and overly complicated political machinations as a backdrop. Yawn. Lucas probably thought he was being clever, sowing the seeds of what would eventually go on to be his ‘Hitler’ story arc (Chancellor Palpatine / Darth Sidious), but he did not populate his story with well-orchestrated action and adventure; he populated it with an irritating little pod-racing kid and an irritating CG fool.
In the background we had a great, and massively underdeveloped, sub-plot which crescendos into the appearance of the first Sith in over 1000 years – Darth Maul – and his subsequent death, at the hands of Kenobi, who would be promoted to Jedi Knight as a direct result. So much happens to these characters within this subplot, that it is just shameful that more time was not spent here. Who is Darth Maul beyond just being the new Sith apprentice to Darth Sidious? Where did he come from? Why does he have all those striking tattoos, and the horns on his head? His opponents – the two characters we are first introduced to: Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi – are also given scant backstory. Even if Ewan MacGregor (quite rightly) chose to adopt a fairly youthful approach to his portrayal of the young character of Obi-Wan Kenobi (barely comparable to the Alec Guiness incarnation), Liam Neeson’s Jinn could have been a meaningful, fully rounded entity in the Jedi universe – one of the scant few opportunities to do so – but, whilst Neeson does give it his all, there is simply not enough here to flesh out the character. Still, he is one of the strongest points, and a great foe for Maul – far more interesting than Kenobi, whose final death-blow is undeniably anti-climactic, given the skills of his opponent; although the entire three-way fight between them is amidst the best Jedi saber-fighting in the entire Saga – in a large part thanks to Ray ‘Darth Maul’ Park’s extraordinary choreography, shamefully diluted by being interspersed with shots of a lacklustre strategic manoeuvre by Natalie Portman’s Senator Amidala. A little more focus on the whole Jinn-Kenobi-Maul conflict could have truly improved the entire piece (it should also be noted that, for as much as kids loved Binks, they also loved Maul – and unfortunately, as a character, he was – quite literally – cut short in his prime).
Still, one could posit the ‘what if’ argument until the end of time – my personal favourite is “What if Lucas had streamlined his first movie, and absorbed Attack of the Clones into it, culminating in the Battle of Geonosis? Then he would have an entire second movie to devote to an epic, World War II movie-esque exploration of the pivotal Clone Wars.” – but, at the end of the day, The Phantom Menace was always destined to fail, both critically, and for fans. Arguably the most over-hyped movie ever, the expectations exceeded anything remotely possible in the final product, and so, obviously, we were going to be disappointed. It’s just a shame that Lucas got so much wrong (don’t even get me started on the awful comedy droid voices he selected: Roger, Roger). Yet, he had the chance to correct it...
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (7/10)
Immediately after The Phantom Menace was released, it was not wholeheartedly derided by critics and fans alike – it took a while for people to accept that it really was that bad – and Lucas completed his first draft for the sequel just after release, loosely based on an idea that he had back when he was writing the Original Trilogy: the origin of the clones referred to in Episode IV when Obi-Wan Kenobi mentions the ‘Clone Wars’. These, of course, were never intended to be the stormtroopers seen in the Original Trilogy, although this began lore after the fact. The script wasn’t finalised for the best part of another two years, and, rather than learning from his mistakes, calling the film simply ‘The Clone Wars’, and telling the how they started, as well as what happened during them, we instead got another oddly contrived back-story – following on ten years after the events in the first movie and yet, strangely, being, at least for the first two acts, just as uneventful.
Drawing in elements of the American Civil War – the Separatist ‘Confederacy of Independent Systems’ being the equivalent to the Confederates, and the ‘Grand Army of the Republic’ given the same name in both entities; as well as the way in which Palpatine obtains extensive war powers and simultaneously suspends many Civil Rights, which mirrors similar action by Abraham Lincoln during the War – Lucas also clearly derived Palpatine’s rise to power, and subsequent behaviour (creating an Army of ‘perfect clones’ from Hitler’s progress before and during World War II. Hitler was, after all, an undeniably effective politician – his plotting and machinations leading to a ‘conquering’ of the world not wholly incomparable to the what was perpetuated by the likes of Alexander the Great or Ghengis Khan – and Palpatine is certainly shown to be just as sneaky and manipulative, and just as intent on creating an Empire.
All of this was a good foundation for his story, but, once again, Lucas became distracted by frivolous, pointless spectacle, and forgot that the majority of ‘grand scenes’ in the Original Trilogy actually served a greater purpose – they actually had a point. Here we are treated to an unnecessary chase sequence across the beautifully realised futuristic city-scape of Coruscant during the first act, as well as a ridiculous ‘droid factory’ sequence during the third act which was actually never in the original script. Shot long after principal filming had finished, it was added into the final film purportedly to give it more impetus, but it actually had the opposite effect, distracting from the more important plot elements in a damaging fashion.
Whilst the irritating returning character of Jar-Jar Binks was largely – and wisely – relegated to the side-lines for this sequel; the role that he did have to play here was, unfortunately, of far greater significance. Lucas chose to feature him as the temporary replacement for Senator Amidala during her absence – and you have to wonder why anybody in their right minds would ever sanction Jar-Jar Binks’ promotion to acting Senator. Worse still, after getting into such a prominent position, Binks proceeds to foolishly hand over extensive powers to Palpatine – directly leading to the Clone Wars and the subsequent destruction of the Republic. And what else did you really expect from such an idiot? Resting this pivotal decision on the shoulders of Binks massively diminishes the value of this turning-point, as, rather than seeing the tragic irony in what is, essentially, the start of the end, we just balk at the fact that they let Binks be the cause of it all. Idiot(s).
Replacing Binks in terms of the most irritating actor (and winner of numerous Worst Actor Awards) we got a grown-up Anakin Skywalker played by the hollow, wooden Hayden Christensen. It was a terrible casting choice, which threatened to undermine the second and third prequels, irrespective of their increasing attempts at serious, substantial storylines. Christensen’s Anakin is not only incapable of emoting, he does not manage a single line in the entire movie (or the sequel) which does not sound both whining and bored; and his interaction with Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala is stricken by a complete and utter lack of chemistry – which derails any chance of substance in their poorly conceived love story. It’s truly painful to endure, and it was a terrible decision to cast Christensen, particularly when you consider that his is supposedly the most important character in these prequels (the whole pivotal and tragic sub-plot which sets up Anakin’s dark side – i.e. the vengeful slaughter of those that killed his mother – is utterly ruined by his acting)
On the plus side, and despite all that it had going against it, Attack of the Clones was still a marked improvement, even getting better and better as it went along (the expansion of the ‘Fetts brings back a great fan-favourite character, and allows for one good confrontation with Obi-Wan), and eventually culminating in the fantastic ‘Battle of Geonosis’, which included some epic World War II-styled battles between the two armies. Without the funding, and quest for grander and grander effects (Clones was the first of the Prequel Trilogy to be shot digitally, and benefited from this greatly when compared to the often relatively dated ‘look’ of The Phantom Menace, which was the last to be shot on 35mm film), we would not have been privy to some of the most expansive future-war sequences ever brought to the Big Screen. If anything, it was a frustrating teaser to something which would never satisfactorily be realised (The Clone Wars), but some of these moments were still magnificent to behold.
The whole end-run double-climax is also really quite well-realised: from the Gladiator’s Arena-styled confrontation, initially between Obi, Anakin and Padme, to the outright slaughter of the rescuing Jedi, and the arrival of the cavalry; from the fight between Obi, Anakin and Dooku, to the surprise subsequent face-off between Dooku and a remarkably spritely Yoda (sure, some did not like this illogical ‘expansion’ of Yoda’s character, but it’s still a pretty cool battle between two kick-ass force-wielders).
The good ideas in Attack of the Clones certainly boded well for the last entry in the Prequel Trilogy, which, I’m sure, was highly anticipated irrespective of the lacklustre preceding movies. People wanted Revenge of the Sith to make up for everything that had come before it; to capitalise on the best parts of Attack of the Clones, and learn from the mistakes of both earlier movies, jettisoning all wasted baggage in favour of a wholeheartedly eventful, significant plot. We wanted ‘The Clone Wars’. Well, we got them, in a fashion, but not within the realms of a Lucas movie. Instead – in the intervening years between the release of Episodes II and III, Genndy ‘Samurai Jack’ Tartakovsky’s fantastic Animated micro-series Clone Wars (not to be confused with the recent Lucas-backed “The Clone Wars” animated series, which takes place roughly between the two seasons of Tartakovsky’s original series) brought these troubled times to life; introducing us to some great new characters – including cyborg bounty hunter Durge and dark jedi Asajj Ventriss, both of whom were never brought into the movies; as well as the menacing General Grievous, who was superbly introduced in these cartoons – further expanding on previous fan-favourite characters like Obi, Yoda, and Mace Windu; and treating us to some truly epic battles between the two warring sides. Of course, although we would not know it until the time of release, what we were actually watching was all that we were – at the time – going to get in terms of Clone Wars action.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (8/10)
Skipping the three – arguably most important – years during which the Clone Wars raged, ‘Sith immediately got off on the wrong foot, throwing us straight into the midst of a poorly-explained kidnapping plot which happens to be going on during the final months of the Clone Wars. We skip over the countless battles on countless planets which were fought over the preceding years; we forgo a proper introduction for the great character of General Grievous, who never reaches his full potential as a result; and we jump right into Anakin and Obi doing the same thing they did at the end of ‘Clones, i.e. confronting (and immediately, anticlimactically, dispatching) Dooku. You have to remember, this was not even how Lucas originally envisioned it – his first draft detailed an opening montage of seven battles on seven planets, which was dropped in favour of this single, more personal story-arc.
As the plot expands to further detail Anakin’s fall to the dark side, it becomes apparent that the twisted reason for why he is so utterly seduced is actually out of utter love for his wife – cursed by recurring nightmares about her dying, he decides to turn ‘dark’ so that he can develop the powers to save her, should the nightmares come true – little knowing that he would actually be the one to put kill her in the first place. This was another 11th hour decision by Lucas, and you have to, once again, play the ‘what if’ game, and wonder how his first cut of the movie played out. Yes, that’s right, I said ‘first cut’. He didn’t even make these changes at the script level, he actually waited until principle photography had been completed (as he had done in Attack of the Clones, but to more diminutive effect) and then used both newly filmed scenes and the editing of the originally story to strip Anakin’s reasons down (from a more extensive plot which involved his genuine belief that the Jedi were wrong) to just an unquenchable desire to prevent harm from befalling his wife.
Still, Revenge of the Sith remains easily the best of the Prequel Trilogy.
Whilst we do miss out on the requisite character introduction/development associated with Dooku and Grievous, they are still undeniably great characters to have on board – the former marking one of the milestones in Anakin’s descent to the dark side (and further marrying up nicely with Christopher Lee’s comparable, parallel ‘dark turn’ as a fallen Wizard in LOTR), and the latter at least making for a decent final act confrontation with Obi-Wan (even if Lucas downplays Grievous, and consequently undermines the fact that Kenobi must be have been a highly skilled lightsaber master in order to tackle the cyborg – a creation who, in the Animated Clone Wars series, is seen to be capable of taking on numerous Jedi, simultaneously). Ironically, the new 9-disc mega-release sports a Spielberg-directed animatic for an alternative Obi/Grievous battle which, whilst quite over-the-top, would have at least been far grander than the somewhat anticlimactic sequence they went for. It’s good, but it doesn’t fully respect the character of Grievous enough, nor the skills of Obi-Wan.
Furthermore the Mace Windu / Darth Sidious confrontation is also quite a good scene, but is also let down marginally by some confusion over who the hell was winning. Just to set the record straight – in terms of the ‘known’ Star Wars universe – Mace Windu, as a character, has never lost a lightsaber battle. He has bested Jango Fett and Count Dooku (during the off-screen Clone Wars period), and here he defeats Darth Sidious in sabre combat, something which even Yoda could not do. However, Darth Sidious has arguably better control over ‘the force’, and hence his ability to feign death when being electrocuted by his own force lightning. Personally, I don’t think any of this is made particularly clear in the climactic scene where Windu confronts Sidious – at the end of it you wonder whether Sidious was even trying at all, or whether he always intended to pretend to be defeated, so Anakin would have to help him, and, unknowingly, commit to the dark side – but, on reflection, it’s the most logical explanation.
Of course, this is the only PG-13 entry in the Star Wars Saga, and understandably so, since it features the darkest themes of all of the films – and includes the graphically horrific fate of Anakin. Still, it was a perfectly acceptable commercial gamble: after all, what parents could refuse a child sight of the third movie after having shown them the preceding two?
We get the fateful Order 66, which turns the Clones upon their unsuspecting Jedi Generals – although you really do have to wonder just how good some of these Jedi are, as, arguably, some of them should have been capable of defeating a bunch of Clone Troopers (to be fair, in the expanded universe, far more survived – it’s just a shame that Lucas’s explanation for where all the Jedi went was not quite as satisfactory as it could have been). Still, the Order 66 plot point does allow for a sorrowful montage of tragic moments featuring Jedi – who you may or may not recognise – getting slaughtered. This harks back to Lucas’s samurai overtones – in history, the great Samurai died out as a result of guns becoming more prolific, a fact which is clearly referenced here)
Oddly, this culminates in Anakin’s raid of the Jedi Temple – and you have to wonder how Anakin went from ‘I don’t know which side I’m on’ to ‘I’m off to slaughter some children, be back in time for dinner’. It’s a ridiculous contrivance which harks back, no doubt, to whatever tinkering Lucas did between the end of principal photography, and his re-edits and re-shoots when he decided to change the script in relation to Anakin’s character. For all the time spent showing Anakin’s fall – his final step appears to be followed by a sheer drop to pure evil, and I’m not sure the first act he could be convinced to commit, following the indirect dispatch of Mace Windu, would be to go off and kill a bunch of innocent Jedi kids. What do you think?
But this does, in the fullness of time, lead to one of the greatest confrontations in the Star Wars Saga – the climactic sabre-battle on the lava-based planet of Mustafar between the now High General Obi-Wan Kenobi and his former padawan-turned-dark-Jedi, Master Anakin Skywalker. Many underestimate this extended fight, but I think it’s one of the high points of the Prequel Trilogy, a scene which, for once, actually does fulfil the potential of the legend set up by the Original Trilogy, and fully explain the ensuing events which take place. Sure, Padme’s death is silly – “she just gave up the will to live” is a poor excuse for somebody, apparently, otherwise in reasonable health, to just drop dead – and, sure, it doesn’t make much sense that Leia, in the Original Trilogy, recalled for Luke some vague memories of her mother (what, from the womb??); but this is just a badly-conceived setup for what would go on to be one of the best lightsabre duels in the entire Saga. And that final shot, as Anakin, reduced to having no legs and just one arm, desperately tries to crawl away from the lava which, eventually, sets him on fire – well, that’s the reason why this movie is PG-13 right there. It’s a devastating moment, and one which works extremely well. Obi, unable to finish off his once brother-in-arms, once best friend, and former padawan student, leaves Anakin to die – only for him to be picked up and rebuilt into the person we know as Darth Vader.
Rounding off these eventful times we have a series of LOTR-styled endings, designed to tie the movie in closer with the chronologically subsequent Original Trilogy. Whilst I quite enjoyed Yoda’s duel with Dooku in ‘Clones, his final battle with Darth Sidious – The Phantom Menace himself – is not, in my opinion, as good as it should have been. They totally go at it, and, sure, we all know that Yoda has to end up exiled on Dagobah, and Sidious has to survive to become the Emperor, but surely it could have been more grand a set-piece than just having these two, the ultimate force wielders, fight it out in the Senate gallery, hurling things at one another, with Sidious scowling and spitting like a rabid wildcat.
Worse still, when all is said and done, Yoda had no reason to give up and go to Dagobah. There were plenty of Jedi still out there trying to fight and survive. Obi-Wan had just defeated the last two remaining serious opponents to the Jedi – Anakin and Grievous. At the start Dooku had been killed, and who was left but Sidious? Surely Yoda and Obi-Wan could have taken on Sidious together and defeated him? Wouldn’t that have been a better decision than just ‘we’ll go our separate ways and remain in hiding for a few decades whilst the Empire rises and kills countless people?’ I just don’t think that this ending – clearly another Lucas afterthought, necessary only because he had to explain why Yoda is next found on Dagobah – stands up to inspection. Yoda wasn’t even particularly badly injured. He just got knocked off a platform, and decided to run, and then immediately decided to go into exile. For a little wise guy who spends the entire Saga saying stuff like: “Meditate on this, I shall” it seems a pretty reckless, foolhardy, and ill-considered decision. Oh and Darth Vader’s rise and ridiculous ‘Noooo’ moment (the source of newly-kindled hate amidst fans, what with its integration into the latest versions of the Original Trilogy), which has to be the most unintentionally hilarious scenes in the entire Saga (ok, so pretty-much anything with Anakin in it was a contender for that award, but this one surely wins it), well that was not a good way to end things.
With all that said, Lucas did at least answer most of the questions that he set for himself, however inadequate some of the answers were: we found out who Vader was, where he came from, what made him the scarred, ultimately remorseful helmet-wearing uber-villain who subsequently dominates the Original Trilogy; we found out about where all the Jedi (previously, hundreds if not thousands) went to – Order 66 was a clever idea, even if not fully realised; and we saw a fitting expansion of Obi-Wan’s character and story, involving at least some of his experiences in the Clone Wars, and bringing full-circle the backdrop to that final moment where he succumbs to the Force and disappears under Vader’s final blow. Sure, fans would have loved more – or better – explanations for the events in the Original Trilogy (like Yoda’s aforementioned exile), but Lucas’s Prequel Trilogy certainly delivered a whole lot of extensive, reasonably well thought-out backstory.
See the funny thing is, despite my pointing out the many flaws across the Prequel Trilogy, I actually prefer it to the Original Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I know that they are worse movies, but I still prefer them: after all, I not a child of Star Wars – I came into it too late, a good few years after the Original Trilogy had been released; at a time when, to me, they had neither the gloss sheen of something shiny and new and never-before-seen, nor the fond memories which ‘children of Star Wars’ associate with them (a similar thing happened when I was born into the Roger Moore era of Bond films – which, to this day, have that nostalgic edge that the Connery efforts, whilst vastly superior, failed to imprint upon me). Conversely, I was in my early 20s when I saw the Prequel Trilogy, and the hype and furore swept me up. Sure, the movies were, on reflection, far worse than first impressions would lead us to believe but, at the time, it was just all Star Wars Star Wars Star Wars. I remember a friend going all the way to the US to queue up for 48 hours just to see The Phantom Menace. And he wasn’t in the least bit disappointed by the end result – he got what he wanted: he got to return to the origins of the characters that he knew and loved, and he got some kick-ass Jedi lightsaber-duels.
It was during this period that I started to ‘get into’ Star Wars, full and proper, particularly with the easy comparisons to Japanese Samurai and Bushido and other such elements which I already had a great love and respect for; and, after Attack of the Clones – where so many more Jedi were introduced (however briefly) – I became more than a little bit obsessed with the Clone Wars. All of a sudden I was interested in how Mace Windu was originally the Master of the Jedi Order (i.e. higher up even than Yoda), but then went on to relegate this position to Yoda, and how he was the one who – during the Clone Wars – force-crushed General Grievous’s chest, causing him to have the perpetual cough that he has in Revenge of the Sith (which is never explained in the movie); and how Obi-Wan’s mastery of his particular swordfighting-style (it was a primarily defensive one, which Obi-Wan was better at than any other Jedi) made him the perfect choice to confront Grievous.
The endless intricacies in this expanded Universe made it easily one of the most enjoyable franchises for me to get caught up in – more so than LOTR, which is perhaps the only other Saga of comparable backstory. The Jedi were future-Samurai and, like the Samurai, they were once great honour-bearing, code-following, sword-wielding warriors who were eventually wiped out in large part at gunpoint. The great thing about the Prequel Trilogy for me is that, despite its faults, it opened the doors to allow us access to a much wider universe; with many more characters to love; and with both The Force and lightsaber duelling at its absolute peak.
It should be noted that this release has been privy to some of Lucas’s infamous tinkerings. Thankfully, unlike with the Original Trilogy, the changes made here appear to be much more subtle and, thus, effective. So much so that the only notable one to point out is the change from puppet Yoda to CG Yoda in The Phantom Menace, something which I think fits in much better with the rest of the Prequel Trilogy. In any event, the rest of the ‘tweaks’ made, whilst arguably unnecessary, are purely aesthetic touches, and few fans should have any problems with them.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away … there were three little films that literally changed the way we looked at Cinema. Under the ever-dabbling hands of their creator, they too have been changed and altered and doctored and modified in the years since they first wowed the world. Now unleashed onto Blu-ray in possibly the most eagerly mass-awaited release since the format was born, we can see if any of the old magic remains in any recognisable form.
Like I'm going to bother introducing these movies to you.
So, basically, all that follows is my own personal view on the cult phenomenon that is Star Wars, as someone who was there at the start and has, literally, grown up with it. And, like all role models, such as your own parents, I went through a phase when I turned my back on it, poured scorn over my earlier obsession with figures and playsets and collectible cards, and sought imaginative sustenance elsewhere. In fact, it wasn't until George started tinkering with the Special Editions back in the nineties that my passion for the Force was reignited with the warm, organic hum of dancing lightsabers. Although I could quote all three original films, word for word, on my death-bed even if I never saw them again until that moment, I actually haven't sat down to watch them properly for a few years. The only Star Wars-related stuff I've seen lately is Family Guy and Robot Chicken … which does make seeing them now a somewhat awkward pleasure. In other words, I'm already half-laughing at them.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (10/10)
“You came here in that thing? You're braver than I thought.”
Farmboy Luke Skywalker (Mark Ham – oh forget it, you know who everyone is!) runs away and joins the rebellion to fight the tyrannical Empire. He gets a five-minute tutorial in martial arts, falls-in with some rather dubious characters of ill-repute, causes trouble with the authorities and commits vandalism on a cosmic scale. Well, we've all been there, haven't we? But instead of an ASBO, he gets a great big medal, a new wardrobe and his own X-Wing!
Lucas definitely hit the ground running with his opening gambit. The 70's were already full of Sci-fi movies, but the genre was running out of that grand old escapism that had been the province of the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. It had gotten all heavy with social comment, environmental warning and learned speculation. We'd had Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris, Logan's Run and his own THX1138 – now it was time to light up the stars with laser-bolts and mighty explosions and to dodge dastardly baddies in constant cliffhanging set-pieces, and to laugh-along with a couple of cute, loveable robots. His great conceit was to blend in a used, retro-tech sensibility with all the shiny stuff, and to embed Samurai nobility and mysticism with all of those spectacular space-battles because these elements elevated the inherent hokiness of the simple good versus evil narrative into something altogether more mythic, and affecting. Of course, he would go on to blur these distinctions much, much further as the story progressed and evolved over the two movies that followed, but basically he was telling a fantastical parable of what it is to simply “grow up” with the fate-bound innocent of Luke just standing in for us.
Ostensibly a rescue mission, ANH gathers almost every convention and cliché going from Westerns to War flicks, and uses them all to its endless advantage. Luke's moisture-farming days are over the moment the Jawas stop by to haggle. He's “not such a bad pilot” himself (a bit like his Daddy – hint, hint!) and he's an extremely quick learner too. I mean once he's taken his first steps into a larger world … well, he can do anything. He can work the canons on the Millennium Falcon without even having been shown where they are. He becomes a master of on-the-hoof planning, his rescue of Leia a storming achievement for such a short stormtrooper who'd never before set foot off the dust of Tatooine. He can even climb aboard a Rebel X-Wing Fighter and blow up the Empire's showboating new Death Star whilst pretending that he's just going after Wamp-rats in his T-16 back home. Not bad for a rural hick-from-the-sticks.
Together with Obi-Wan Kenobi (“I wonder if she means old Ben Kenobi?” Well, duh, how many other Kenobis do you know, Luke?), smug pirate Han Solo and lumbering, stretched-ape Wookiee Chewbacca, they blast off in the sexiest, coolest space lozenge ever to make the Kessel Run in a handful of parsecs. They might not be singing from the same hymn-sheet regarding the Force, but this disparate gaggle of soon-to-be-heroes swiftly come to the same conclusion when they slide out of hyperspace - “That's no moon.”
Battle-stations, tractor-beams, detention centres and trash compactors soon become grist-for-the-mill as Luke learns to use the Force and become the gullible patsy for the Alliance. Han learns the meaning of honour, even if that entails incurring the wrath of despicable mob-slug, Jabba the Hutt, and Chewie discovers that he will always win at Harryhausen Chess. And old Ben Kenobi gets to feel a presence in the Force that he won't soon forget.
As much as we love to mock Lucas' skills as a writer and director, he was ingenious at world and character creation. I don't mean the crazy topographical one-stop-shop – desert planets, forest moons, ice-worlds, city-globes – but the genuine lived-in aesthetic and cosmopolitan vogue he was able to invest his cultures, environs and creeds with. When we land on Tatooine, there is a real sense of the otherworldly. John Williams' exotic and playfully mysterious music enveloping the dunes as the utterly bizarre Jawa sandcrawler makes its entrance helps make this one of the most realistic of alien worlds that we've seen. Hardly any gimmicks – no intricately elaborate Pandora here. Just a desert and an ungainly, distinctly un-ergonomic vehicle. The opening act of Planet Of The Apes and the Nostromo's landing on the-then unnamed LV-426 in Alien are the best other examples of the unbelievable simply made believably out of this world. And we only have two funky looking robots as our conduits into this tale – and one of them is just a whistling bucket, whilst the other is gleaming, golden Dale Winton. Nobody had experienced anything like this before. No, no not even Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. The Mos Eisely Cantina is another hallowed example of how we were, collectively, sold into this fantasy, hook, line and sinker. It was the Western saloon, and the set-up hadn't changed since the days of the Duke. Familiar to us, then, but completely subverted. I know they don't serve droids in here … but I wish George would reinstate the wolfman to his colourful menagerie of jazz-loving patrons.
While we all adore Hamill, Ford and Fisher, dodgy hair and puppy-fat and all, one of the greatest elements of ANH is the presence of Peter Cushing. Whilst renowned fellow thesp Alec Guinness couldn't really mask the embarrassment he felt at uttering such whimsical, fairytale dialogue even during the first production, Cushing simply excels as the apparently “smelly” Grand Moff Tarkin. Giving the best performance in the entire trilogy, Cushing totally inhabits the harsh Nazi-like character with absolute conviction. He's quite happy to trade sarcastic quips with the imprisoned Princess, but he's far more eager to show-off his big new weapon to her. Naughty Grand Moff Tarkin. And soon there are Aldaraan chunkseverywhere. Cushingfell back on his clipped, single-minded arrogance from Baron Frankenstein and marshalled it with his customary supreme intelligence and erudition. We always think of Vader as the main adversary, but Tarkin was infinitely more callous at this stage in the game.
The final attack on the Death Star is, without doubt, one of the most exhilarating sequences in motion picture history. Iconic. Exciting. Reverent. And ultimately cathartic to a degree that very few other films have been able to match. There's poor old William Hootkins getting turned into “Porkins-scratchings”. He didn't have much luck with flying did he? A Great White Shark made mincemeat out of him and his little Coastguard helicopter in Jaws 2, as well. Luke's big buddy, Biggs, getting barbecued so soon after their little reunion – and then swiftly forgotten about … even doddery old Ben got more respect and Luke had only known him for a few hours! Lucas absolutely nailed this finale, and it is difficult to imagine a more rousing wallop of universal crowd-pleasing.
A walk on the Darth side ...
You know, I look at Vader now and I wonder just how I ever feared him. An asthmatic control freak who obviously never listened to Edna Modes' warnings about wearing capes, he struts and finger-points, his head-turning so exaggerated at times that you'd think Dave Prowse was performing in a silent movie. Let's be honest, the former body-builder and Hammer monster must have felt like a complete idiot on-set. His face hidden away, his voice overdubbed – it could have been anybody in that costume. Except Kenny Baker.
Seriously, though, there was a time when he was the ultimate villain. Raising the Rebel commander off the ground and audibly crunching the guy's neck before hurling him into a wall. There would have been a few parents squirming a little uncomfortably during that classic early scene back in the day. Mind you, the Dads would have been too distracted by Carrie Fisher's jiggling royal boobies to have cared. (Taped down? Look at them go!)
Although we understand little bits about where Vader hails from – this “old religion” malarkey – ANH benefits from the mystery that surrounds him. Sadly, his confrontation with Obi-Wan is poor. It was actually pretty poor even back in 1977, but we were all too smitten with the sight of those glorious lightsabres to notice.
Leaving him spinning off into space at the end, crippled and defeated, but not gone … was pure genius.
The Boys in White …
Something went very badly wrong in the cloning lab, didn't it?
The Imperial Stormtroopers, so feared throughout the galaxy, have little in common with their illustrious, super-agile, deadly accurate and battle-hungry Clone Trooper predecessors, save for a similar fashion sense and an obvious love for breathing-in their own sweat. Forget what Obi-Wan says about the precision of their blasting, these chumps couldn't find their own backsides with both hands and a homing beacon. “Look, sir … droids,” one marvels at his own deductive powers. What's he found, anyway – a droid-dropping?
These guys lurch about on Dewbacks, fall for the oldest Jedi mind-trick in the book, roast a couple of desert-dwelling OAPs and pick on some much smaller people. However, when it comes to catching the Empire's Most Wanted, Vader would be better assigning Stevie Wonder or even Stevie Hawkins to do the job. Searching through the shanties of Mos Eisely it appears that the only “locked” door for miles around is not enough to trigger any suspicions in their minds. Not even clonking his noggin on a blast-door can knock any sense into our favourite “Clumsy-trooper”. And yet they can still evoke a shudder or two when we see them en masse, all gleaming with Emperor-approved Daz-White, or running about in squads as Death Star klaxons sound. The persistent buggers who keep blasting away at Luke and Leia as they prepare to do an Errol Flynn across the chasm have plenty of raw aggression, as do the ones hefting open the door behind them and shooting through the gap. These guys, at least, demonstrate some of the right stuff, even if their brothers-in-arms prefer to talk about drills, worry about a prisoner they've just stunned and actually run away from one howling idiot and an elongated werewolf. Actually, we'll let that last bit go because Han's comedy-kamikaze act is one of the film's most cherished moments, even if Georgie-porgie has gone and embellished it with an unfeasible number of goons filling a hangar that wasn't there previously.
Variations on a theme.
One of the best angles of Lucas' creation of enemy forces are their various roles and specialities.
If only an orange tab on the shoulder denotes you as being a Sand Trooper, it is still a distinctive slice of insignia. But then there's the TIE Fighter pilots, with their grey or black suits and super-cool helmet design. Their craft all seem to have a loose wingnut on the dashboard, though, because they're forever trying to tighten it whilst they're flying.
And let's not forget the Teutonic flavoured Imperial Officers, the kepi-wearing yes-men that Vader likes to practice his Force skills upon, and those black-garbed Death Star Commanders, with their salad-bowel helmets. Not so long ago, and a galaxy a little bit nearer, these boys would be wearing sombreros!
Music of …
John Williams was already a prime composer for the movies by the time he made the jump to hyperspace for Lucas. Personally, I cannot abide the “actual” main Star Wars fanfare, the bit that even newborn babies recognise, but I do dearly love his vast and deeply lush thematic scores for the Original Trilogy as a whole. Highlights from ANH would have to be alien weirdness he creates for Tatooine when Artoo and Threepio first arrive there and encounter the scrap-hungry Jawas, the Force theme, which creeps into your blood and stays there and, best of all, his super-dynamic action motif for the TIE Fighter Attack as the Falcon is pursued away from the Death Star.
He would give the tuba the best role it has played in the movies, that's for sure, and he would develop these themes as the trilogy went on, and greatly add to the Star Wars repertoire with even more grand Wagnerian pomp and power … as we shall see.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (10/10)
“And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!”
Now I know that it is trendy and cool to cite this Irvin Kershner directed instalment of the Original Trilogy as being the best of the lot … but I honestly can't argue too much with that. For me, personally, it has always been my favourite entry. Of course it suffers from the “Curse of the Middle Movie” syndrome, having to slot in after the pretty much complete ANH and to climax both unfulfilled and on a bit of a downer, but note-for-note and scene-by-scene, ESB delivers some of the most audacious and exciting set-pieces of the entire series, boasts infinitely superior character work and humour, possesses a genuine sense of important plot development and, yep, you guessed it, gains strength from that deliciously darker and more mature aspect.
Let's face it, the majority of this movie is nothing short of magnificent.
Our initial act, on the white-out world of Hoth, is both economical and epic. Within minutes we are right back in the thrall of the main characters. Without any naff exposition, we can suss out the burgeoning relationship between Han and Leia … and it doesn't feel at all awkward, wrong or contrived. In fact, it would have been quite easy to have ditched Leia almost altogether and just carried on with the blokes and the derring-do, the Princess merely acting as one of their commanders-in-chief. But feisty Fisher could never be sidelined or shelved. Her sparring with Ford is brilliantly done, despite Leigh Brackett's screenplay having to adhere to the dialogue of lumpen wordsmith, Lucas, and a real sexual tension exists between the two. An opportunistic shelter-from-the-storm snogging session sets the tone, and that pivotal scene in the carbon-freezing chamber … yeah, Han, “I know”,mate. It gets me every time. Gone is the frivolous Boys Own attitude from ANH, replaced with a spark that carries a little bit more heat and depth than we would have expected. Both his arrogance and her nobility are credibly undermined, the galactic class-divide breached. Somehow, Han Solo found a way to extend the bridge across the emotional chasm.
The film is superbly paced too, despite a lot of the big stuff occurring in the first third.
There is a tremendous sense of jeopardy to Luke's capture by the Wampa, real unease as the Probe-droid rises from its crash-site, and then the sheer rampaging brilliance of the AT-AT attack, the Norwegian Army providing a neatly robust gung-ho attitude to the frozen Rebel defenders. The fact that ESB kicks-in with a big battle, as opposed to ANH which ended with one, showed real nerve. But the truth is that even though the rebels lose this time, we can still regard it as a victory … from a certain point of view … as it is really a tactical retreat. But this reversal of narrative momentum reveals that overarching climb of George's bigger picture beginning to take effect.
The escape from the wreckage of Echo Base and lift-off for Han, Leia, Chewie and Threepio, and their subsequent evasive flight on the Millenium Falcon through the asteroid field, whilst being pursued, hell-for-leather by fighters and Star Destroyers is possibly my favourite sequence of all set in Lucas-space. This is real edge-of-the-seat stuff. A perfect blend of humour in-extremis – the bloody Falcon's stubborn refusal to work properly - devil-may-care model-stuntage, incredible visual effects and sheer, heart-in-mouth excitement. For every sharp manoeuvre, there is a quip and a perfect spat between Han and everyone else, the set-piece thundering along with exquisite timing and spot-on character beats. Love that shot of the Falcon spiralling down out of the way of three Destroyers on a collision course! As much as I can enjoy and admire the action in the prequels, they have nothing to match this. No soul, by comparison.
There is a definite foul-up, time-wise in ESB, though. Luke manages to go all the way to Dagobah, meet up with Frank Oz in Shrek's back garden and train and train and train until he is good enough to cut his own head off … and, at the same time, Han and Leia have a smooch in a space-slug's gullet (that old rogue really knows how to treat a lady – she must have felt like royalty!), sit off on the backside of a Star Destroyer and float away with a stream of Imperial poodoo. Now, I know how they get around this - different star system, different time-scale – but it still rankles (or should that be Rancors!). But you have to forgive this streamlining for Luke's quasi-esoteric relationship with Yoda. As a kid, I was always bored by this section, but now I adore it. The wizened imp's masquerade is wonderful, his mixed-up patois something I think works well with the character's age – almost like a galactic strain of dementia – and the reveal is spellbinding. Luke's special Forces training is fun … and I love the fabulous setting. The concept of the deep Dark tree is a bravura element of surrealism, an almost Tolkein-esque episode that works on many levels. The way I feel now, I rather wish that there were more scenes set on Dagobah.
But, hey … two words – Boba and Fett.
Wow! For a guy that does virtually nothing other than stand around looking immeasurably cool – well, immeasurably cool for a bloke in padded dungarees and wearing a missile on his back and a TV antenna on his head – he has the biggest profit margin in this or any galaxy you care to mention. So much adoration and celebrity built up around this really rather inept mercenary that you can truly imagine him on the cover of GQ. Mind you, he's certainly more impressive than raspy reptilian Bossk or the subliminally glimpsed Arab fat-boy, Dengar, as they leer down at the snooty Imperials from the poop-deck of the Executor. I like the way that Vader singles out the Fettster for the stern “No disintegrations!” As a kid you really felt like he was “one of us”, always taking the joke a bit too far and getting into trouble with the teachers.
I will say that parts of the Cloud City act can be a little clunky. Billy Dee Williams is smarmily charismatic as Lando Calrissian, but he does shift the balance of the Force with regards to the main ensemble. It is very easy to resent him coming in to the established group, and I don't just mean his legendary betrayal of Solo, either. This was our first taste of the general expansion of the Star Wars universe. Yoda was something else entirely and a focal addition to the narrative. Lando ended-up running and fighting with our heroes in Han's place! In ROTJ he even flies the Falcon! As a kid I really didn't trust this guy at all, and I still don't. For some reason, I wish Chewie had kept on squeezing when he took him by the throat.
But, Bespin proprietor be damned, Cloud City saw Luke donning those classic khaki fatigues and facing-off against the Sith Lord in one of the most thrilling and game-changing set-pieces the genre had, up to this point, ever delivered. Of course we all love the three-way stand-off between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and twiglet-headed, face-paint champion Darth Maul in TPM, but this remains my favourite lightsaber duel of them all. It covers some ground – the atmospheric carbon-freezing chamber, Luke getting sucked out of the Big Round Window, the perilous gantry – and it features some decent choreography. Vader taunts and Luke wrestles with his anger. The “lost limb” device is brought in very keenly indeed, but not before Luke puts the hurt on Darth with a shoulder-sizzle that has the Dark Lord smarting with a highly amusing “OOOOHHH!” Like you're going to feel that little chafe on your ravaged body, Darth. And then we get the family news! Young minds were never the same again.
Other bits that loiter in the imagination …
Lobot is a great little reminder of Robert Duvall's THX1138 and actor John Hollis provides some startling presence with just some wacky head-bling and a couple of controlled hand-signals. The ghastly little Ugnaughts teasing a frantic Chewie with bits of Threepio's blasted body. The great shot of a hologram officer winking-out as, in reality, his command bridge has been obliterated by an asteroid. Julian Glover's steady determination as AT-AT chief, General Veers, and little Yoda prodding the ground with his Gaffi Stick to distract himself from Luke's head-scrambling encounter in the Dark Side Tree. But the little secondary glance that Vader gives to the point in space into which the Falcon has just vanished, and Admiral Piett's breathless anticipation of a mental choking is, perhaps, the most well-constructed and cleverly reflective.
A walk on the Darth side ...
Vader is awesome in ESB. His despatching of practically every Imperial Officer in the fleet makes him one seriously badass boss. If he's going to waste you for losing someone in an asteroid field, what chance does a real enemy stand? But this was when we first peeked beneath the helmet to survey a month old pizza and a fried egg slapped on the back of his head. The poignant and eerie reveal made us stop and think … and, at from this point on, we could no longer regard him as merely a comic-book villain. We'd seen the inner vulnerability. Admiral Piett, who also spies this state of meditative undress, conveys our twisted and confused feelings perfectly with his awkward but restrained reaction.
And there's a lot of even more mixed-up emotions dancing together when father and son confront one another. You still can't help thinking that George was making this up, film by film, as he went along, and not playing from some larger, dream-spun canvas as he claims. Ha-ha, he was laughing, I've just dished-out the biggest genre shock of all time. Oops, how do I get out of this now?
The Boys in White …
I don't think that the Stormtroopers are any clumsier this time out. They still can't shoot to save their own