Friday, February 2, 2018

Film Review: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars
  • Publisher: Warner Bros.
  • Production Studio: Lucasfilm Animation
  • Release: 15 August 2008
  • Genre: Action, Fantasy
  • Director: Dave Filoni
  • Producer: Catherine Winder
  • Writers: Helen Ginroy, Stephen Melching, Scott Murphy
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, finally wrapping up the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  But not quite... as the great philosopher Yoda once said, "There is another".  That would be Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a 3D-CG animated movie serving as an inter-quel between Episodes II and III, and as a prelude to the TV series of the same name.  Which confused me, because I thought there already was a 2D cartoon of the same name and concept, but apparently that one doesn't have a "the" in the title.  But no, they decided to start over with a 3D cartoon, because [verb] it, everything has to be 3D these days.  ...I don't want to do this.  Even people who have found something to like in either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones struggle to say anything worthwhile about this thing.  But, I set out to review all of the Star Wars movies, and since I already spent my "Get Out Of Review Free" card on the Holiday Special (Maybe some other time...), here we are.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you... Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

We open not with a text crawl, but with a narrator (Tom Kane) giving us a newsreel-style introduction of the titular Clone Wars.  I don't know about you, but speaking from a future perspective, I can't help but be reminded of the radio intros from The Legend of Korra, and subsequently, that I'd rather be watching Korra now.  But we're dropped into a battle in medias res, so at least The Clone Wars starts off better than most of the prequels.  Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter), with their clone trooper unit, have scored a small victory against the separatist droid army, only for their gains to be double-backsies re-taken by enemy reinforcements.

As the Republic soldiers regroup, they are joined by a messenger from the Jedi Council, in the form of Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), a teenage Jedi trainee who introduces herself, by decree of Yoda, as Anakin's new apprentice.  Ahsoka has a thing where she frequently argues with Anakin over their next course of action, and nine times out of ten, she just so happens to be right.  I would get annoyed over her personality, but considering that she's dealing with Anakin frickin' Skywalker, I'll give her a pass.  Oddly though, while a lot of the performances in this movie are totally phoned in, even from what few actors were willing to come back from the main movies, the guy who plays Anakin has a more engaging performance than either of his flesh-and-blood portrayals thus far.  He's no great shakes, but he at least does have an actual range of emotions, something like what real humans possess!  Funny how his new actor was also the guy whom Disaster Movie joked about ruining Star Wars, but I digress.  Anakin and Ahsoka Metal Gear their way under the shield -- no, seriously, they hide inside a box as the shield passes over them, in plain sight of the marching battle droids, no less.  They fight the droids, shut down their shields, and one again the day is saved, or something.

On a scale of "Jar Jar Binks" to "Han Shot First", newcomer Ahsoka Tano scores... an Ewok.  Not great, but could be worse.
So, why was the Republic in such a tight spot?  Well, there was a sub-plot which kind of becomes the main plot in the second act.  Chancellor Palpatine (Ian Abercrombie) and the Senate are trying to negotiate with Jabba the Hutt, the slug-like mob boss from elsewhere in the series, for use of his territory's airspace, for lack of a better term.  (Space-space?)  Thing is, Jabba has lost his infant son, Rotta the Huttling, who was kidnapped by the Separatists in order to have Jabba join their side.  So Anakin and Ahsoka are dispatched to the jungle planet Teth to find the Huttling, while Obi-Wan goes to Tattooine, to negotiate with Jabba and buy them time.  It starts out promisingly enough, with a fight scene in which our heroes defend a walker-tank climbing up a vertical wall.  They also try to set a lighter tone with comedic moments presented by some of the battle droids, of all "people", and the results are mixed.  Here's one of their better moments:
Droid Commander: Concentrate fire on sector 11374265!
Droid Sergeant: 1137... what was that, again?
Droid Commander: [pointing] Just fire right there!
But then our heroes actually find the Huttling, and we witness this film for what it really is... a baby-sitting plot.  They stress out over keeping that... thing alive, and they call it "Stinky" because... you figure it out.  I want to die.  Also, Anakin keeps calling Ahsoka by the nickname "Snips" because... it is the will of the Force, I don't know.  On their way out of there, they run into Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his new apprentice, Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman)  They escape the monastery aboard alien dragonflies, accidentally inspiring James Cameron's Avatar in the process, and a spaceship which the Huttling contrivedly managed to point out for them.  Meanwhile, Dooku and Ventress pay a visit to Jabba and convince him that the Jedi are to blame for abducting his son, thanks to a few contrivedly-captured voice clips of Anakin offhandedly expressing his dislike of Hutts.  With this, they hope to bring the Hutts' trade routes under Separatist control, and disgrace the Jedi in one fell swoop.  Good luck with that...

Ziro the Hutt?  More like Ziro out of ten!  ...I'll see myself out.
Meanwhile meanwhile, fearing the failure of Anakin and Ahsoka's mission, Senatore Padme (Catherine Taber) and the senate form a backup plan.  Coincidence of all coincidences, Jabba has a nephew, named Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton), operating on the very same planet as her.  So Padme pays him a visit and appeals for Ziro to put in a good word, but her pleas fall on deaf ears, assuming Hutts even have ears in the traditional sense.  After leaving, she eavesdrops on Ziro holo-chatting with Count Dooku, confirming their conspiracy to frame the Jedi for the Huttling's disappearance, but is captured for her efforts.  In an escape attempt, she tricks one of the battle droids -- with reverse psychology, no less -- into activating her communicator, letting her send a distress message to C-3PO.  If Ziro had any common sense, he'd have had Padme blasted right then and there, but this is not that kind of movie.

Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Anakin and Ahsoka crash-land on Tatooine.  They would've had a smoother landing, but he had her turn off the ship's shields, making Ahsoka right for, oh, the five hundred-seventy-third time in this movie.  Oh, I almost forgot to mention: the Huttling has been down with a sickness this whole time, but Ahsoka cures it with the help of a medical-droid-hologram which just so happens to be on the ship which they just so happened to fly out on!  But anyway, since Dooku and Ventress are on their tail, our heroes split up, with Ahsoka taking the Huttling in her care.  Anakin turns himself in to Dooku, only to reveal that he's been carrying not the Huttling, but a decoy.  And then... everything just resolves itself!  Ahsoka storms in with the real Huttling.  But when Jabba orders our heroes to be executed anyway, a hologram from Padme comes in, exposing Dooku and Ziro's plot against him.  Jabba states his intentions to discipline Ziro for his treachery, and to sign that space-space treaty with the Republic, while our villains plot ominously.  You are now free to turn off your TV.
This is supposed to be Count Dooku, not some creepy wooden Christmas decoration.  Could've fooled me.
You may have noticed that the flow of this movie's plot feels episodic, and that was by design.  These were actually meant to be first few episodes of the new TV series, but when George Lucas saw them, he was somehow pleased enough that he had them stitched together into a feature film.  It reminds me some anime OVAs from back in the day that did the same kind of thing.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of Sonic the Movie, a failed attempt at creating a Sonic the Hedgehog anime series, but that's a review for another day.  The show which spawned from The Clone Wars, on the other hand, was quite successful, lasting for six seasons and a follow-up series, Star Wars: Rebels.  I haven't seen either show, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, but based solely on this movie... what do people like about The Clone Wars?

It can't be for its looks.  George Lucas said he didn't want to have a realistic style of animation, as with Pixar or his own live-action Star Wars movies, for the sake of being different.  Instead, he did claim to draw inspiration from Japanese anime (pfft, yeah right) and British supermarionation, a la Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. [1]  ...Actually, that last one sounds about right, and not as a compliment.  The character models have this angular look to them, and there's a jerky stop-and-go flow to their movement, which make for decidedly unimpressive, even unsettling, animation.  You know, for a studio which goes to such lengths to make CGI creatures which kinda, sorta look and move realistically, they really weren't pitching their A-game this time around!  And yet, surprising as it may sound coming from me, I don't think the 2D animation of the 2003 Clone Wars was that much better, since it also had problems with over-stylising characters and moving them as little as possible.  You know, for a director who brought us the likes of Samurai Jack, he really wasn't pitching his A-game and didn't I just say that already?  Oh well, that's a review for another day.  Also, what's with all the Dutch angles?  I just noticed that all three of the screenshots I plucked for this article have them.  What is this, Battlefield Earth?

In conclusion, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a big, fat waste of time.  For all the bad stuff in the "real" prequels, there was interesting stuff in them, too.  Even Attack of the Clones had that "death sticks" scene!  But what do I remember The Clone Wars for?  Babysitting, and a sissy villain.  That's about it.  Yeah, maybe there are a few better bits here and there, but they aren't strong enough to elevate this movie out of its mire of mediocrity.  It's not Holiday Special bad, but unless you're a major fan of the TV show and absolutely need to know how it starts, there's no real reason to try this.  And don't tell me that this movie was aimed at children, because our Padawans deserve better, dangit!

Positives:
+ Visually-striking settings.
+ Anakin has better acting here than in any of the other prequels.

Negatives:
- Lame plot elements for much of the movie.
- A whole lot of problems simply resolve themselves.
- Lousy low-budget animation, by Lucasfilm's own standards.

Writing: 1 Huttling out of 5
Acting: 2 Huttlings out of 5
Animation: 1 Huttling out of 5
Visual Design: 3 Huttlings out of 5
The Call: 40% (F)

[1] Weprin, Alex. "George Lucas Talks 'Clone Wars'". Broadcasting & Cable, April 3, 2008.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Film Review: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Production Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Release: 19 May 2005
  • Genre: Action, Fantasy
  • Director: George Lucas
  • Producer: Rick McCallum
  • Writers: George Lucas (screenplay & story)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and... I didn't like it.  I believe the words I used to describe it were "so bad, it's... meh".  Well, we've got one more prequel to go, so let's see what we do with it.

I love how Revenge of the Sith's opening text crawl starts "War!", as if desperately trying to get our attention for once.  And considering how the other two prequels bogged theirs down with mentions of trade negotiations and senate votes, I'd say they finally have my attention.  We move from that to the first scene, a long one-take of a space battle already in progress.  The Separatist army, led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and a new villain, the kinda-sorta-droid General Greivous (voice of Matthew Wood), have kidnapped the leader of the Galactic Republic, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).  Our heroes, the Jedi Knights Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) fly in to the enemy's command ship to rescue him.  Between this, the opening text, and how quickly they get both the Wilhelm Scream and the line "I've got a bad feeling about this" out of the way, it's as if this movie is trying its hardest to get back into our good graces, and you know what?  I appreciate the effort.

This sequence is basically a James-Bond style adventure, something the past two movies have tried, but failed, to accomplish.  Maybe it's because it actually embraces the swashbuckling attitude, with Obi-Wan being the go-to guy for all manner of silly one-liners.  They've even got their own "voice with an Internet connection" support guy in the form of R2-D2!  Eventually they make it up where the Chancellor is held, and fight Dooku to free him.  Anakin disarms the Count and has him at his mercy; after some internal deliberation, he simply decapitates his foe.  This exercise in less-than-noble morality does a fair job of setting up this movie's theme, of Anakin's tragic fall from grace, but more on that later.  For now, our heroes get double-backsies re-captured by Grevious, but get out of their jam by crash-landing the ship.  I don't know about you, but a certain Airplane! clip comes to my mind...
Dr. Rumack: I just want to tell you both good luck, and we're all counting on you.
When the dust settles, Anakin reunites with his wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), who tells that she is pregnant.  At first pleased by the news, a nightmare of her dying while giving birth troubles Anakin, who seeks counseling from Palpatine.  Palpatine awards him a spot on the Jedi Council, who in turn assigns him to spy and report on Palpatine, who is continuing to build his own political power.  So while the plot is still a little political in nature, something which bogged down the other two prequels, the focus has been narrowed down to specific characters, namely Anakin and Palpatine, which makes it considerably easier to get absorbed into.  One night, he meets up with Palpatine at an opera (or a Blitzball match, I couldn't tell).  When Anakin expresses his fears about losing Padme, Palpatine tells him a story about a Sith lord, his old master, who could use the dark side of the Force to prevent his loved ones from dying.  I've seen a number of online critics, such as The Nostalgia Critic and Awesome Walter, praise this scene as the best moment in the prequels, and even one of the best from all of Star Wars.  I would argue, however, that this is yet another instance of George Lucas hinting at more interesting stories but not delivering them, but there's still a lot on hand to like.  I mean, he even gets away with mentioning midi-chlorians again, and no one has yet bat an eye!  Now that's some good will.
The story benefits from focusing more heavily on just a few characters, namely Palpatine (left) and Anakin (right).
Meanwhile, the Clone Wars open up on multiple fronts, as Obi-Wan leads a Clonetrooper unit in a sneak attack on General Greivous.  Yoda has an adventure of his own, joining forces with the Wookie race, including Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to defend against another droid front.  Back on Coruscant, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and some other Jedi move in to arrest Palpatine, before he can grow too politically powerful.  In the fight that ensues, Windu has Palpatine on the ropes when Anakin walks on the scene.  After some internal deliberation, echoing what he would eventually do again in Return of the Jedi, Anakin decides to disarm Windu -- almost literally -- allowing Palpatine to Force-lightning him out the window.  Newly-disfigured, Palpatine re-christens Anakin as Darth Vader, restructures the republic into the Galactic Empire, and enacts Order 66, a secret directive for his clone army to murder the Jedi Knights.  All of them.  The montage of massacred Jedi that follows is dramatic, yes, but of little value to anyone whose knowledge of Star Wars is just from the movies, and not any supplemental material made either before or after.  I, for example, recognise a couple of these locations from playing Star Wars: Battlefront II -- and before you ask, the GOOD Star Wars: Battlefront II.

Nonetheless, Obi-Wan and Yoda survive their respective assassination attempts, because plot armour.  They reunite on Coruscant and uncover the horrifying truth, that Anakin has indeed turned to the dark side, and even murdered a temple's worth of child Jedi trainees for good measure.  When they report this to Padme, she struggles to accept it, and flies off to Anakin to assuage her fears.  Obi-Wan stows aboard with her, while Yoda stays to fight the new Emperor.  If you liked the Yoda/Dooku fight from the last movie, this scene delivers many of the same goods, despite another... charmingly embarrassing one-liner:
Yoda: Not if anything to say about it, I have!
I'm just saying, I don't think Yoda used this sentence structure all the time before.  While Yoda holds his own for much of the fight, he takes one fall down into a hidden air vent, and decides now is a good time to play dead instead of finishing the job.  Meanwhile, Obi-Wan and Padme arrive at the volcanic planet Mustafar, where Darth Vader has just killed the last traces of the separatist army.  They try to convince Vader to ditch his descent into the dark side of the Force, but to no avail.  He chokes Padme around for a bit, and proceeds to duel Obi-Wan.  The fight choreography retains the high-energy pace of such scenes from the other prequels, with an added bit of improbability as the combatants balance atop pieces of the collapsing base.  However, I've finally noticed a flaw in this approach: everything goes by so fast that, combined with the camera angles they chose, it's hard to tell both sides apart.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if they had different coloured lightsabers, rather than both blue, because that's always been an easy indicator of telling who was who in these kinds of battles.  But, in the end, it's Obi-Wan who comes out on top.  Despondent, he leaves Anakin on the lava river's banks, legs severed and body burning, because somebody finally remembered what convection is.
As thrilling as the Jedi duels are, they aren't helped by giving both sides the same colour of lightsaber.
Afterwards, Obi-Wan regroups with Yoda and Padme as she gives birth to her twin children, Luke and Leia Skywalker, and promptly dies.  According to the robot nurse, she was physically healthy, but just gave up the will to live.  And I'm like... well, THAT's retarded!  I mean, yeah, learning that your husband went and betrayed everything you stand for would be crushing, but come on!  Did they just need to kill her off now because she wasn't in any of the next movies?  Why not just stick her on Alderaan with Leia and her step-father?  I mean, we never actually go there in canon, before it gets blown up by the Death Star!  Meanwhile, the Empire recovers Vader's body, and reawakens him in a new suit of armour.  When Palpatine informs him of his wife's death, he loudly shouts "No!", and a new Internet meme was born.  We end with the Skywalker babies being delivered to their new respective homes, ending on an homage of that classic shot from the first movie, where Luke's foster parents stare off into the distance of Tatooine, the planet's twin suns setting, or perhaps rising, on the desert horizon.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

Revenge of the Sith is, finally, the first Star Wars prequel movie I can comfortably call "good", despite the big hulking asterisk attached to that statement.  It still can't manage to shake off all of the baggage from its predecessors, such as a few odd scenes of so-called "romantic" dialogue between Anakin and Padme, but at least they actually serve the plot this time around, giving him incentive for exploring the dark side of the Force.  Perhaps the biggest problem is the chronic under-acting by many of its performers.  Yet, there are still some actors who manage to break out and have some fun with their roles, most notably Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine.  (Basically, if your name starts with a "Mc", you're in good hands.)  Yes, they delve into campy and even narmy territory once in a while, but I'll take that over dull surprise any day of the week.  And of course, the ending keeps piling on stupid moment after stupid moment.  But at the same time, George Lucas seems to be learning from his past mistakes, as there's a considerably better balance between exposition and action, and said action scenes feel more like the swashbuckling space adventure we've been starved of from the past two movies.  And last but not least, there's virtually no Jar-Jar Binks in this movie!  Yeah, he's got, maybe, one short line, and it's in plain English, not that Gungan patois.  Surely that would bode well for the future of Star Wars... if not for the fact that its eventual follow-up would be handled by a different director and writers entirely.  But that's a review for another day.  Until then...

This is IchigoRyu.

May the Force be with you.

Positives:
+ The plot is built around a distinct theme, of Anakin sacrificing what he loves for power.
+ A few good performances.

Negatives:
- Still a few weak performances.
- Multiple stupid moments near the end.

Acting: 3 out of 5
Writing: 3 out of 5
Special Effects: 4 out of 5
Visual Design: 5 out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Film Review: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Production Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Release: 16 May 2002
  • Genre: Action, Fantasy
  • Director: George Lucas
  • Producer: Rick McCallum
  • Writers: George Lucas (screenplay & story), Johnathan Hayes (screenplay)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  I finally posted it about a month after it would've been relevant, partly because I crammed it with enough words and thoughts to make it one of the longest reviews I have ever posted on this blog.  But its sequel, Attack of the Clones, is a different animal entirely.  Next to its predecessor, I remember very little of it, which could be indicative of its own unique form of failure.

I suppose I should start with how the plot starts.  A whole bunch of planets are withdrawing from the Galactic Republic and forming their own army, with the help of the Trade Federation from The Phantom Menace.  ...Yeah, if the political doldrums from that movie didn't do anything for you, then you ain't seen nothing yet, my Padawan.  It even slogs down the opening text crawl.  But the short of it is that with the growing separatist army threatening the Republic, Queen-turned-Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman) survives a couple of assassination attempts, and recruits Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as her bodyguards.  The two Jedi Knights chase one of the assassins across the cities of Coruscant, and we finally get shades of what these prequel movies should have been all along: swash-buckling adventures of the Jedi in their prime.  That said, my vision of this dream movie does not include Anakin at odds with Obi-Wan over his rebelliously rash decisions, but work with what you've got, I guess.  They chase her across flying cars and through alien bars, during which we get the only passage of dialogue throughout this whole film which stuck with me from day one:
Hustler: You wanna buy some death sticks?
Obi-Wan: [Using a Jedi mind-trick] You don't want to sell me death sticks.
Hustler: ...I don't want to sell you death sticks.
Obi-Wan: You want to go home and rethink your life.
Hustler: I want to go home and rethink my life.
That's our Obi-Wan!  [laugh track]  So anyway, he and Anakin corner the assassin, only for her to get silenced by yet another bounty hunter.  Obi-Wan goes off to track this mysterious new-comer across the galaxy, but before we get to see that, we have to join Anakin as he escorts Padme back to her home planet for safe-keeping.  And by "safe-keeping", I mean going on dates while exchanging dialogue that would make even the sappiest chick flick gag itself with a spoon.  Perhaps you're familiar with this infamous line:
Anakin: I don't like sand.  It's coarse and irritating and it gets everywhere.  Not like here.  Here, everything is soft and smooth.
Although, given his dialogue in the last movie, this is something we should have been prepared for.  Remember that one about angels on the moons of Iego?  ...Well, I do.  Between all this sickeningly-sweethearted purple prose, Anakin whines about how Obi-Wan doesn't respect his decisions all the time, and exposits how Jedi aren't supposed to fall in love with other people, except not really, maybe, it's complicated.  I suppose he's trying to set himself up as a tortured soul for fangirl bonus points, but his angsty charms are wasted upon me, as I keep thinking of him as a Twilight Saga reject.  Also, miss Amidala used to be a queen in the last movie, but apparently she was democratically elected, ran out her term, and then became a senator.  Umm... aren't kings and queens supposed to be kings and queens... for life?  Is Naboo a monarchy or a democracy?  Make up your mind, you dotty bint!

Anakin and Padme's so-called romantic dialogue is unbearably lame.
Meanwhile, over in the fun part of this movie, Obi-Wan tracks the bounty hunter to a mysterious factory on the water-logged planet Kamino.  The hunter, Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), has lent himself as the template for an army of clone troopers, secretly being built for the Republic.  The two have a kerfuffle, on foot and in their respective ships, as they chase each other to the arid planet Geonosis.  There's a bit in the asteroid field where Obi-Wan hides his ship behind some debris to play dead, getting Jango off his tail.  Jango's clone-son Boba Fett, on board with his father, notably does not fall prey to the same ploy in The Empire Strikes Back.  It's a little moment, but I thought it was a clever bout of continuity.  But, in the present, Obi-Wan discovers a meeting of the separatists, led by a Sith lord named... Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).  Not the most dignified-sounding name, I tell you what.  I mean, yeah, he does get some epic points for being played by the former Francisco Scaramanga, but how can you appreciate that when his name reminds you of... your favourite Green Day album?  (What did you think I was going to say?)  And he's got a perfectly good other name, too: Darth Tyranus.  Why couldn't they just stick with that?

Meanwhile, over in the not-fun part of this movie, Anakin takes a break from glurging it up with Padme to witness a Force-fueled nightmare of his mother in pain.  Against Padme's wishes, he flies off to Tatooine, meets up with his future brother-in-law, and learns that she was kidnapped by Tusken Raiders.  He makes it to their camp, too late to rescue his mother from death by... plot convenience, and blinded by rage, slaughters the camp's remaining population.  This is a distinct turning point in Anakin's character, as his retrospective bout of wangst makes none-too-subtly apparent, but in the context of the rest of this movie, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  (An expression which I don't quite understand, but never mind.)  The generally lighter-and-softer Attack of the Clones has not yet delved into Anakin's turn to the dark side, so this scene would have fit more congruously into its sequel.  But, that's a review for another day.  For now, let me just state that the line-read he did for this scene, and quite frankly 99% of all his scenes, was simply embarrassing.

This film loves using CGI where it isn't even necessary, like entire settings for even slower scenes like this.
The two stories finally converge when Anakin picks up a transmission sent by Obi-Wan, who was captured for his efforts.  Anakin, Padme, and the droids fly over to Geonosis to rescue him, sneaking through a droid factory's assembly line in the process.  At this point, I'd like to comment on this film's over-reliance on CGI backgrounds.  The Phantom Menace had a few, but mostly saved them for more outlandish settings, such as the Gungans' underwater city.  In contrast, Attack of the Clones goes overboard with this trend, in the most unnecessary of situations.  They do this for several scenes around the Jedi temple on Coruscant, even for scenes where characters are just walking and talking in a normal hallway!  And that library set looks like it could have been built for real, and would look really impressive if that were the case, but again, it's fake.  Couldn't they have just built part of these locales physically on the set, and saved the CGI for extending them into the background?  And those steadily-swooping camera angles they use don't help these scenes look any more real; quite the opposite, somehow.  As for the factory scene I'm now coming back to, I get that it would have been dangerous to have the actors interact -- or hopefully, not interact -- with all those deathtraps, but again, couldn't they just add the smashy bits in post-prod, while building everything else?  This problem goes back to the old special editions -- the creative power offered by CGI is only as good as what you do with it, and Lucasfilm has shown a distinct lack of restraint in that regard.

Speaking of a lack of restraint, there is yet more political wrangling we have to sit through.  With the help of the newly-appointed senator Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), because [verb] you, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian MacDiarmid) is appointed emergency powers, and forms a new Army of the Republic with the aforementioned clone troopers.  They are dispatched to Geonosis, but until they can get there, Anakin and Padme get captured in turn, and are brought out with Obi-Wan to a colosseum, where they are to suffer death by space-animals.  Their escape actions are quite improbable, and their CG-assisted stunts are quite more fake-looking, but soon enough, the cavalry arrives!  Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), the Jedi Master who was sadly relegated to a non-action cameo in the last movie, finally comes into his own in Attack of the Clones.  He slices droids and blocks blaster bolts with the other Jedi, and even kills Jango Fett, all the while wielding a pimpin' purple lightsaber.  It is cool because Samuel L. Jackson is cool; that's just how it works.  Oh yeah, and C-3PO got his head swapped with a battle droid's while he was following our other heroes.  I thought it was worth a chuckle, at least until he started delving into cliched one-liners to describe his situation.
The early 2000s were a simpler time, where all a gal had to do to make herself lustfully attractive was show a little bit of midriff.  Padme shows us how it's done.
We also get more scenes with Yoda (voice of Frank Oz), who was portrayed as a computer-generated character for the first time (not including later re-releases of The Phantom Menace).  Far-removed from the over-acting floppiness of Jar-Jar Binks and the other Gungans from before, Yoda's animation is quite more subdued and refined, befitting of the character's old age.  That is, until he and Anakin square off against Count Dooku for the final fight, where the diminutive creature leaps about to clash with his human foe at eye level, occasionally breaking to deflect objects thrown his way by the Force.  It's actually quite awesome to see Yoda, a character whom we've grown to love in other ways, get an action scene all of his own.  But, in the end, Dooku manages to hold them off and escape, the Chancellor ominously oversees his new army, and Anakin and Padme get married.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

As with the last movie, Attack of the Clones has its own fatal flaw that I picked up on, and it is one of not having its priorities in order.  It wastes so much of its 2 hour and 20 minute runtime on politics and romance, both handled as ineptly as your average stormtrooper handles a blaster.  All the while, there are hints of other, more interesting stories, both existing scenes and throwaway bits of dialogue, that aren't developed nearly as well as they should have been.  For example, this film does mark the beginning of the Clone Wars, which was referenced all the way back in A New Hope, but it doesn't actually take place until near the end.  To quote Zero Punctuation (yet again), "Is this the most exciting part of our character's life?  If not, why aren't we witnessing it?"  But for what we got, I just don't feel any interest for Attack of the Clones.  Yeah, The Phantom Menace was bad; I've finally started to internalise that concept.  But it was a more engaging kind of bad, the kind that stuck with you, so I can't really stay mad at it.  A lot of the bad James Bond movies were like that too, as I have extensively documented.  But Attack of the Clones lacks anything that sets it up as "so bad, it's good".  Really, it's just "so bad, it's... meh".  And that can be even worse... from a certain point of view.

Positives:
+ A few good action scenes.
+ A decent performance from Christopher Lee's Count Dooku, name notwithstanding.

Negatives:
- Grating dialogue and performances, especially from Hayden Christensen's Anakin.
- The incessant political intrigue fails to... intrigue.
- Too many fleeting glimpses of what would have been a much better story.
- Overuse of unnecessary CGI, especially on backgrounds.

Acting: 2 Clonetroopers out of 5
Writing 1 Clonetrooper out of 5
Special Effects: 2 Clonetroopers out of 5
Visual Design: 3 Clonetroopers out of 5
The Call: 45% (D-)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Film Review: The Phantom Menace


Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Production Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Release: 19 May 1999
  • Genre: Action, Fantasy
  • Director: George Lucas
  • Producer: Rick McCallum
  • Writer: George Lucas (screenplay & story)
Previously on the SDP, I wrote about the changes made for the Star Wars special editions, which indicated Lucasfilm's growing addiction with CGI.  Let's see what that led to.

I did reviews for the first three Star Wars movies, but they weren't easy to write about.  For lack of a better description, they were all good in a sort of non-specific way.  I did manage to find running themes to base my reviews on, but those came along mid-way through the writing process.  But now that I'm entering the prequel trilogy, I think I'm in for smoother sailing because... hoo boy, I've got some quite colourful opinions on these movies.  On top of that, I'm more familiar with them, especially The Phantom Menace, it being the first Star Wars movie I saw in theatres.  So I kind of want to defend this movie, but as my last few reviews have demonstrated, nothing in life is ever that simple.  So let's see how I manage to divide up the good and bad from this infamous entry.

We start off on a ship orbiting the planet Naboo, which the Trade Federation have put a blockade over and are about to invade.  Two Jedi knights, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his senior partner Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) are dispatched to talk them out of it, but their demands only result in them almost getting killed.  They escape, of course, and sneak aboard the planet along with the Trade Federation's landing party.  Their army consists of many battle droids, a decision which not only lets the effects team add loads of via CGI, but are also a handy way of ramping up the action, while keeping the actual level of violence against humans down.  Gotta maintain that PG rating somehow!

Jar-Jar Binks is this movie's source of shoehorned-in comic relief.
Amidst all the mechanical chaos, our Jedi also find and rescue a new friend... the infamous Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who takes them down to his undersea community of fellow Gungans.  *sigh* Believe it or not, I used to really like this guy.  Look, I was ten years old, and I had a thing for silly speech patterns!  Even now, I consider myself a bit more tolerant than most, but he's still not something I'd want to look in the face for too long.  And some Gungan-to-English subtitles wouldn't have gone amiss, either.  I have no frickin' clue what Jar-Jar said when explaining how he fell out with the other Gungans:
Jar-Jar Binks: You could say, boom de gasser, then crashed into the boss's hayblibber, then banished!
...I got nothing.  And all that said, the plot certainly could have done without him.  Sure, he guides Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to their destination of Naboo's capital, but they very well could have landed closer to the city, eliminating the need for this diversion to begin with.  And incidentally, it's said they are driving their ship through the planet's core, but, uh... no.  If Naboo is anything like Earth, the actual core of the planet is gonna be immensely hot and immensely hard.  They'd all fry up, get crushed from the gravity pressure, or otherwise die before they got a few miles down.  And even if they didn't, we're talking a journey of thousands of miles -- the latter half of which would be spent fighting against the pull of gravity, by the way -- so by all accounts it should have taken them forever!  And they started pretty much where the Trade Federation's army landed on the planet, so surely it can't have taken them that long, since they're there before Qui-Gon and the others!  Basically what I'm saying is:
Jar-Jar Binks: Theysa settin' yousa up.  Going through the planet core?  Bad bombin'.
Dang straight.  But whatever, they snatch up Queen Amidala (Keira Knightley) from the Federation's clutches, and fly her off into space.  Their ship's hyperdrive engine got damaged in the escape, so they are forced to land on the nearest planet... none other than Tatooine.  Qui-Gon, Jar-Jar, the handmaiden Padme (Natalie Portman), and R2-D2, here one of Amidala's service droids, venture out into town to find some new parts for their ship.  It is here that they meet the future Darth Vader himself, a 9-year-old slave by the name of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).  Y'all gonna hate me for saying this, but his performance kind of, sort of... works.  At least Jake Lloyd acts something like a real human his age.  His lines are awkward at best, but do at least show the perspective of a kid who doesn't fully understand how the world works.  Compare that with all the other big-name performers they roped in to this thing -- Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Keira Knightley, even Samuel Frickin' Jackson -- who deliver 90% of their lines in what we MSTies can only describe as a "dull surprise".  Even Jar-Jar Binks has more spirit put into his (no less annoying) performance, and he's a computer-generated character!  Basically, what I'm saying is that in the land of the blind, the man with one eye and twenty-thousand midi-chlorians is king.

Speaking of, I'm not going to dwell on the subject of midi-chlorians.  The truth is, I couldn't care less.  But so we're on the same page, allow me to summarise what problems this brings up, according to everyone else.  Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms which, in large enough quantities, serve as a conduit for the host person to use the Force with.  No, they do not actually replace the Force itself.  But they do restrict who can actually wield the Force.  Where formerly, anyone in the Star Wars universe could earn this power through the right kind of training, that is no longer the case because they weren't born with the right genetic makeup or whatever.  What problem I do have with the concept of midi-chlorians is from a narrative standpoint.  They are used to tell the audience that a character is strong with the Force, but not to show it.  If they just wanted to set up power levels for everyone, they could have just measured Force energy in some consistently arbitrary units, without needing to tie it in to some explanation of how the whole Force thing works.  But hey, if no other (canon) works want to address the darn things, then I'm perfectly fine with it.  In fact, so will I!

No matter how cool the big setpieces are, the plot was made to serve them, not the other way around.
So how does Anakin show his set of talents?  He is a genius mechanic, having created C-3PO in a brief scene which is essentially a spot of plot-irrelevant fanservice.  He also built a pod-racer, a craft pulled from the front by a pair of jet engines, and possesses the super-human reflexes required to drive it.  To raise money to repair our heroes' ship, he enters himself in a race event, because somebody had just seen Ben-Hur the other day.  While this is a fun and tense sequence, it sprung in my mind this movie's fatal flaw, or one of them anyway.  I imagine they designed the setpieces first, and wrote a story around them.  This mentality also explains the narrative slog we have to deal with after our heroes finally leave Tatooine.  For your sanity, allow me to summarise.  Amidala tries to get the Galactic Senate to send an army to help out her home planet, but the Trade Federation blocks her motion, so she manages to get the chancellor replaced with Senator Palpatine (Ian MacDiarmid), a.k.a. the future Emperor.  Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan try to have Anakin trained by the Jedi Council, but Yoda and the others refuse, on the grounds that Anakin has too many conflicting emotions (read: he's gonna become Darth Vader in a few movies).  Qui-Gon insists on them doing so, because he believes that Anakin will fulfill a prophecy to restore balance to the Force, a concept which I have trouble grasping because nowhere is it ever made apparent how this affects the film's universe.  Again, too much telling, not enough showing.

In the end, the heroes return to Naboo, and take back the planet on their own terms.  They manage to form an alliance with the Gungan tribe, once Padme reveals herself to be the real Queen Amidala, the apparent queen just being a decoy.  This was another homage to Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, a film which had already inspired many other elements from the previous Star Wars trilogy.  It's a nice concept on paper, but as executed here, there was no foreshadowing to be had, so it's just kind of random.

This finale represents a culmination of a problem that has been steadily growing throughout the Star Wars movies thus far.  In A New Hope, there was only one thread of scenes in the finale: the battle above the Death Star.  In The Empire Strikes Back, there were two threads, one following Han, Leia, and Lando, and one for Luke.  One lead into the other at such a pace that you got time to absorb both stories equally.  Return of the Jedi had three threads: Han and Leia on Endor's surface, Luke aboard the Death Star II, and Lando commanding the space battle above it all.  We are kept waiting a bit longer, but they still use certain turning points as moments to cut from one scene to the other, to keep the action going.  But now, with The Phantom Menace, we have four such plot threads: the lightsaber duel with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, the palace infiltration with Amidala, the field battle with Jar-Jar and the Gungans, and the space battle with Anakin.  And with the frequency which the film cuts between each of these scenes, oftentimes without waiting for a turning point, we don't get the chance to absorb ourselves in any of them.  For a film with such a devotion to spectacle, it fails to leave an impact.

As for that space battle, what is usually the highlight of any Star Wars film... it's just lame this time around.  Anakin flies up in a starfighter he was hiding in, taking off completely by accident.  His ship is on autopilot for much of the scene, and even when he shuts it off, there's nothing here to impress.  He contributes nothing to the battle until the very end, and none of the other Naboo pilots even acknowledge his presence.  And when Anakin does fire the fatal shot which ends up destroying the enemy space station -- which, coincidentally, also shuts down the battle droids on Naboo's surface, by the way -- he had no idea what he was doing.

And another thing, the Gungans suck at this whole war thing.  Their only weapons are these exploding energy balls, and they'd be bound to run out of them sooner rather than later.  But there's this one scene where Jar-Jar, ever the clumsy goofball, gets his foot stuck amidst the wiry guts of half a battle droid.  When he trips, the droid's blaster goes off, shooting another droid.  Jar-Jar does this again and again, taking down more of the enemy.  Now, if he managed to figure that out, then why, pray tell, doesn't anyone else on his side think to just take the droids' guns and use them against them?  Yeah, even in my less-critical youth, that bit always bugged me.

This three-way lightsaber duel is one of the few things about this movie that everyone seems to agree is still awesome.
The saving grace of this finale, at least, is the duel our Jedi heroes find themselves caught up in.  For one, their enemy is Darth Maul (Ray Park), who looks wicked awesome with his red-and-black face paint and the horns pasted onto his shaved head.  On top of that, he uses a double-bladed lightsaber, which opens up new opportunities for fight choreography.  The kinetic, acrobatic fighting style on display is a step above what was on display before, where the moves were slower and more calculated.  They say the fights from the old movies were better for that reason, and in a way I can see that, with the fighting styles serving the personality of the characters.  This is especially true for the end of Return of the Jedi, where Luke's strikes are calm and decisive, until Darth Vader gets into his head and he just snaps, carelessly wailing on the guy.  But I think the fight in The Phantom Menace captures this theme as well.  Where all the lightsaber users in the old trilogy were either aged or inexperienced, the prequels capture the Jedi Order, along with the Jedi Knights themselves, in the prime of their lives.

At the end of it all, Darth Maul eventually defeats Qui-Gon, only to be killed in turn by Obi-Wan.  The leaders of the Trade Federation are arrested by Padme and her squad, ending the invasion of Naboo.  And Obi-Wan adopts Anakin as his Jedi apprentice.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

I wanted to be nice to The Phantom Menace, I really did.  Fanboys have been using this movie as a whipping boy for everything wrong with the world, not just Star Wars, whereas for the longest time, I've preferred to defend it.  Maybe it's because I was young enough when I saw it in theatres, and because I've re-watched it on video so often since, that I've developed a sort of possessive admiration for it, like older fans have with the first trilogy.  But then again, all those repeated viewings have made me question quite a few things, and you know what?  I'm glad I now have the chance to air them all out.  I'm not mad at The Phantom Menace; I'm just... disappointed.  When this Star Wars movie actually wants to be Star Wars, it can be quite fun.  But it lacks the discipline to focus on those good aspects, and that's the biggest shame of all, really.

Positives:
+ A few brilliant action setpieces.
+ Another knockout score by composer John Williams.
+ Some stylish set and prop designs.

Negatives:
- The plot was built to serve the "brilliant action setpieces" without any care.
- Too much telling, sparsely any showing.
- Awkward comic relief.
- Whatever performances aren't annoying are just boring.

Acting: 1 midi-chlorian out of 5
Writing: 1 midi-chlorian out of 5
Special Effects: 3 midi-chlorians out of 5
Visual Design: 4 midi-chlorians out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Editorial: The Star Wars Special Editions

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, where I made a few passing comments about the Special Edition changes.  Since those took place, chronologically, before the next movie, let's deal with them now.

If you have been reading along with my Star Wars movie reviews and decided to follow along by watching the movies themselves, odds are good that you will not be seeing them as they were originally presented in the seventies and/or the eighties.  See, in the winter of 1997, in the lead-up to Episode I: The Phantom Menace a few years later, Lucasfilm went back and did some work on the original trilogy, re-releasing them in theatres under the "special edition" banner.  These versions became the standard for all home-video releases from then on.  Further changes were made for the DVD release in 2004, and the Blu-Ray release in 2011.  Far from just simple restoration jobs, the changes that were made for the Special Editions have divided fans, so speaking as a Star Wars fan myself, where do I stand on the issue?

Now, it is quite common for old movies to be updated in some form or another, especially when they are prepared for a new video format.  Sometimes, they also re-cut the movie, adding or deleting scenes, in what is often known as a "director's cut".  Off the top of my head, one of the best examples I can think of is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), which got not only a director's cut 10 years after its first release, but a "Final Cut" after 25 years.  But what Lucasfilm did to the Star Wars trilogy transcends all that.  With the increased abilities of computer-generated imagery, they used this technology to add and change various elements throughout the movies.  Now, speaking as an artist of various formats, I do like this idea on principle.  As Yahtzee once said, "99% of creators claim to loathe everything they made more than five years ago, and the remaining 1% are liars".  But creative freedom is only as valuable as what you do with it, so let's go over their decisions.  If you'd like to follow along, someone made a (rather biased) list of changes made across all four versions for each of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, plus the prequel trilogy, which also got some changes of its own.

(NB: All screenshots below are from the 2004 DVD editions.)


I suppose I should get the big ones out of the way first.  In A New Hope, a scene where Han Solo is cornered by and shoots the bounty hunter Greedo (1977) was changed so that Greedo shoots first (1997), or both shoot roughly at once (2004).  The problem everyone has with this is that it lessens Han's evolution throughout the film from anti-hero to hero.  I, for one, think it's all overblown.  One, the affected scene lasts less than a second.  Two, there are other ways that Han establishes a less-than-reputable reputation, such as when he expresses reluctance in saving Princess Leia, until Luke floats the idea of getting a reward from her.  Personally, I'm more offended with how they made that edit in the first place, by shifting Han's head in such a way that no neck could comfortably re-create on such short notice.  But that was for the first Special Edition; in the DVD version, both Han and Greedo shoot at almost the same time, and Han's upper body shifts along with his head.  Well, it's better than nothing, I guess.

Speaking of A New Hope, they put a couple of deleted scenes back in.  One of them is a conversation between Han and Jabba the Hutt, the latter added by CGI.  It was originally shot with a human stand-in for Jabba, and they meant to add the creature with a model during post-production, but they couldn't make it work back then.  There's a bit when Han walks behind the stand-in, but Jabba's character design was later settled on as a fat slug creature, they made it so Han appears to step on Jabba's tail while doing so.  The Jabba model, as it originally appeared in 1997, wasn't all that great... okay, it was totally off and also kind of creepy, but it was updated in 2004, to better match the real thing.

In a few other scenes, various alien creatures were added to the backgrounds.  It does try to flesh out the world on screen, but they way they're animated sticks out like a sore thumb, due to the relatively primitive rendering technology of the mid-90s.  It's not all bad, however.  Some of the best changes were made to the space battle scenes, where they were able to animate more ships and with more complex camera angles.  I said before that the original effects were good enough because they didn't bite off more than they could chew, and the same is true of these particular CGI additions.  After all, the best CGI is the kind you don't notice.

The Empire Strikes Back got off the easiest in terms of changes.  They added a few brief scenes with the Wampa, the snow monster that captures Luke early on, as its costume could not be completed in time for initial filming.  The hologram of the Emperor was re-shot with Ian McDiarmid, the same actor who would play him in Return of the Jedi and the prequels.  In the DVD version, Boba Fett's voice lines were re-recorded by Temuera Morrison, the New Zealander who played his identical father Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones.  And some hallway shots on Bespin's Cloud City had windows added, fleshing out the backgrounds.  All in all, the changes are largely subtle, and do a fair job of expanding the world.

There was a bit of a row with how they adjusted some of the colours for the DVD version of this and Return of the Jedi (pictured), so that Darth Vader's lightsaber appears solid pink, instead of a white core with red glow as with most other lightsabers.  A careless mistake, I must say, but ultimately minor.

Speaking of Return of the Jedi, that one got hit pretty hard as well, and this time I'll work backwards... you'll see why.  At the end of the movie, we see Force ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker look upon our heroes.  In the original and special editions, they were played by Sebastian Shaw, who played the unmasked Anakin/Darth Vader in that same movie.  But from the DVD version on, the Anakin ghost was replaced by Hayden Christensen, who played him in Episodes II and III.  Maybe it's because this was the last "snapshot" of Anakin, so to speak, before he turned to the dark side of the Force.  But really, we all know the real reason this was done: to advertise him in the then-upcoming Revenge of the Sith.

Apart from Greedo shooting first, this one little change seems to have garnered the most virulent hatred from what I've read.  For starters, it's one of the very last scenes in the original trilogy, leaving viewers with that as the figurative taste in their mouths.  But on a more substantial level, people say that it undoes the character arc Anakin/Vader just went through, because him turning back and killing the Emperor should still count as another "snapshot" of him being on the light side of the Force.  I mean, yeah, this scene still raises a lot of questions, but ultimately it's short enough that I can let it slide.  They also replaced the song for the ending celebration, and added a montage of post-imperial jubilation across other planets in the Star Wars galaxy.  I actually like both of these changes, for the added world-building and for bringing more impact to the victory we've just witnessed.

But then... back at the beginning, there was a musical number in Jabba's palace.  In the original version, the song was performed by a band of three fursuited or puppeted aliens.  It was dated, perhaps, but in a delightfully 80s kind of way, and didn't stand out any more than the band from the Mos Eisley cantina, for example.  But for the special edition, they re-did this scene with a new song and a new band of CGI creatures.  Both this new song and the new effects are way in-your-face this time around, literally even, in the case of the two singers who go mugging at the camera.  It is just excruciatingly painful to sit through.  Out of everything changed in the name of George Lucas's artistic vision, this is the one change I have the biggest problem with.  Greedo shooting first?  Fine.  Han Solo stepping over CGI Jabba's tail?  Fine.  Hayden Christensen Force ghost?  Fine.  But this, ladies and gentlemen, is where I draw the line.


Quite a few of these changes, particularly in Empire and Jedi, were made as connections to the prequel trilogy.  I've read opinions from Star Wars fans who hate these changes for trying to tie the two trilogies together.  I don't know, there's just something... self-righteous and possessive about that statement.  Yeah, the prequels aren't the most respected films in cinema, especially not when compared to their predecessors, but who are you to decide what is canon?  Honest to blog, youse guys are worse than Sonic fans sometimes, and I'm speaking as a fan of both myself!

That's not to let Lucasfilm off the hook, either.  Creative control is only as good as what you do with it, and while I'm tolerant enough to write most of these changes off as inconsequential, a lot of them were still careless in their planning and/or execution.  They embraced CGI without considering the limitations of the time, which made some of its creations look completely unnatural, especially when juxtaposed against live-action footage.  And when the time came for additional revisions, their priorities seemed all over the place.  They broke the lightsaber colourings and couldn't fix them across the board, but they had the time to make the Ewok's eyes blink?  Man, I would love to know what was going on in their heads of theirs...

All of this wouldn't be so bad if we had the original, unaltered versions to compare the changes against, but Lucasfilm has been quite reluctant to provide us with that.  The last time they were made available was in the 2006 DVD reissues, where the original versions were bundled with the special editions as a bonus disc.  I myself was lucky enough to snap them up, and having taken in both versions for myself... their execution left something to be desired.  It was just a copy of the LaserDisc prints they made back in the '90s, so the picture quality is a bit scratchy and faded.  Plus. the image is a letterboxed 4:3 ratio, meaning if you're watching it on an (increasingly common!) widescreen TV, you'll have to digitally zoom in, making the picture quality suffer further.  Again, I have no understanding of Lucasfilm's priorities.

That said, it was quite interesting to witness this evolution for myself, having not been alive when these movies first premiered in theatres.  And now that I've had the chance to compare the two versions, I do have some degree of appreciation for what Lucasfilm were trying to do.  While the effects in the original version were innovative, they still had some rough edges here and there.  Literally, in some cases, such as the slightly off-coloured "boxes" surrounding objects that were composited onto the base footage, such as the ships in space scenes.  In an ideal world, someone would go back to the original version and do a fresh remastering of it, making the subtler changes needed to improve the general picture and sound quality, while leaving out the more in-your-face but out-of-place CGI additions made for the official special editions.  Hey, a guy can dream...  But in the end, let us not forget that it's still Star Wars.  I had to re-watch these movies again to prep for my reviews, and even with all those changes, I still found lots to love.  And in the end, that's what's important, eh?  I'm not saying we shouldn't ask for more, that we shouldn't demand better handling of our beloved franchise.  But we should still be strong enough to recognise and take the good with the bad.

Oh, and about that prequel trilogy...  You'll find out what I think about that soon enough, starting with Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, next time on the SDP!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Film Review: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Production Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Release: 25 May 1983
  • Genre: Action, Science-fiction
  • Director: Richard Marquand
  • Producer: Howard Kazanjian
  • Writers: Lawrence Kasdan (Screenplay), George Lucas (Screenplay/Story)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, in anticipation of the new movie coming out.  And now, the saga continues.

Previously on Star Wars, our heroes of the Rebel Alliance narrowly avoided capture by the Galactic Empire, with the exception of smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who was frozen in carbonite and delivered to Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like mobster.  The film starts with our heroes, including Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  Leia does manage to find and revive Han, but gets caught in doing so, and is taken as Jabba's slave.  You know what's coming next.

You're welcome.  In fact, this fanservice almost, nearly almost, makes up for the musical scene done for the Special Edition onward, which is one of the most excruciatingly painful moments I've ever had to sit through in all of Star Wars.  And this coming from a guy who... kind of likes Jar Jar Binks, just a little bit!  But I'll deal with the Special Editions in a separate article.  For now, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) bursts in and tries to negotiate for his friends' release.  It does not end well; first, he falls into a trap and has to fight off a big monster, which he does.  That taken care of, he and his friends are "rewarded" by being taken out into the desert for execution.  They work together to survive the trap, and bring down Jabba while at it.  It is a scene of swashbuckling satisfaction, although one wishes they gave a more climactic send-off to Boba Fett.

After that burst of excitement, the movie takes a break when Luke diverges to Dagobah, the swamp planet, intending to pick up on his Jedi training where he left off in The Empire Strikes Back.  He returns, only to find his master Yoda on his deathbed.  Before the old Jedi expires, he confirms to Luke that Darth Vader is indeed his father, as well as that he has a sister, whom Luke deduces correctly is none other than Leia.  As with the same scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, this moment is slow on action, but pay attention and you'll really get a feel for the stakes at hand.

When Luke finally returns to the other heroes of the rebellion, they plan a new operation to bring down the Empire.  There is a second Death Star under construction over the forest moon of Endor, which is personally being overseen by Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) and the Emperor himself.  It is protected by a shield generator on Endor's surface, so Luke, Han, and Leia lead a strike team to shut it down.  If they can do that, a fighter squadron led by Lando will swoop in and destroy the Death Star II from within.  Upon landing on Endor, the good guys engage in a speeder-bike chase through the forest, which features some nifty backgrounds shot with time-lapse photography, and run into the planet's natives, a tribe of tiny, furry, teddybear-like creatures called Ewoks.

I have nothing against the Ewoks themselves, but their scenes do drag down the plot.
Back in the good old days, Return of the Jedi was seen by fans as the "bad" Star Wars movie, and the presence of the Ewoks is an oft-cited reason for such.  I imagine their heavy merchandising back in the day didn't help matters.  They had their own cartoon, for the Force's sake!  Of course, now that the prequels are a thing, and the franchise has moved onto bigger and badder things, the Ewok hate seems to have died down.  Maybe it's because I grew up during that post-prequel period, but I never had a problem with the little guys.  Yeah, they do try to kill our heroes at first, and that misunderstanding is kind of a jerk move on their part.  And some of their scenes bring the action down again, without the plot significance of the Luke-and-Yoda scenes.  But, at least, the Ewoks pull their weight in a battle against Imperial reinforcements, taking down Stormtroopers and even a few walker mechs with makeshift wooden weapons.  Implausible, maybe, but establishing the heroes as underdogs, facing a vast power gulf between them and the villains, makes for dashing good storytelling.

Supporting characters like Han, Leia, and Lando have less character development than in the previous films, now that they've been firmly established.  Fortunately, all that evolution has gone to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Once on Endor, Luke surrenders himself to Vader and is brought before the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid).  The Emperor taunts Luke with the impending failure of the Rebel's attack, and dares him to treat him with a lightsaber facial, as it were, but Luke holds out as long as he can.  At first, I never realised why Luke wouldn't just kill the Emperor and get it over with.  Not only does the Rebel Alliance want him out of the picture, but he's also the pre-eminent Sith (the evil branch of Jedi) Lord of the times.  But after having watched Return of the Jedi again after reviewing its predecessor, I finally get it.  It was a test to turn Luke Skywalker to the dark side of the Force.  Surely a good Jedi wouldn't kill someone with such a passion as the Emperor tries to evoke, assuming it's okay for them to kill at all.  As for the whole "getting himself killed" thing, maybe he was counting on Darth Vader to protect him, which indeed he does.  But even if Luke was actually to kill the Emperor in such a manner, it would only lead to him taking control of the Sith, essentially moving the universe from suck to different suck.

Return of the Jedi takes themes from Empire and turns them up a notch.
This theme had already been explored in The Empire Strikes Back, but is taken even further here.  Just as the Emperor tries to draw out the darkness in Luke, Luke in turn tries to draw out the light in Darth Vader.  In the end, it is Vader who finally kills the Emperor, dumping him down one of those bottomless pits that litter the Star Wars worlds for some reason, and then only out of a desire to protect his son.  Sure, he himself dies from his injuries, but As Vader himself said, "the circle is now complete".  And then he reincarnates as his twenty-something self because... the will of the Force?

Oh, and the shield around the Death Star II finally goes down, allowing Lando and the other pilots to fly inside the half-finished space station and destroy it from the core.  The space battle that takes place in this movie is basically an evolution of A New Hope's capstone conflict, but the grander scale makes a world of difference.  We get to see far more ships on-screen at once, zooming in and out of hyperspace, and executing more complex maneouvres.  They even find a way to bring down one of those giant Star Destroyers, a little moment which is both clever and heavy on impact.  When we first met Industrial Light and Magic they were but the learner, now they are the master.  ...Only a master of special effects, but still.

As for Return of the Jedi as a whole?  After the one-two punch of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, it's hard for this three-quel not to feel like a disappointment.  However, watching those movies beforehand may help you better appreciate its strengths.  The pacing does feel like a roller coaster throughout much of the run time, with more than a few slower moments throughout.  Return of the Jedi is a good ten minutes longer than either of the first two films, and one wonders if maybe some scenes deserved to be cut.  I, for one, would start with the Max Rebo Band scene because, like, gag me with a spoon!  But valley-girl-speak-inducing rage aside, Return of the Jedi offers a mighty payoff for the end of a mighty trilogy.

Positives:
+ An expansion of The Empire Strikes Back's theme of moral duality.
+ More intense and creative battle scenes.
+ Leia's slave outfit.  'Nuff said.

Negatives:
- Some characters have more development than others.
- The pace drops a bit much in the middle.
- The Special Edition changes are, IMO, the worst out of the trilogy.

Acting: 4 Ewoks out of 5
Writing: 3 Ewoks out of 5
Special Effects: 5 Ewoks out of 5
Visual Design: 5 Ewoks out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Film Review: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Production Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Release: 21 May 1980
  • Genre: Action, Science-fiction
  • Director: Irvin Kershner
  • Producer: Gary Kurtz
  • Writers: Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan (Screenplay), George Lucas (Story)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, in anticipation of the new movie coming out.  And now, the saga continues.

Previously on Star Wars, the Rebel Alliance succeeded in destroying the Death Star, a super weapon of the Galactic Empire, but have been chased to the ice planet of Hoth.  Our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), starts off the movie by patrolling the snowy wastelands, when one of the Empire's probe-droids crash-lands on the planet.  As he goes to investigate, he is knocked out by a furry ice-monster, but eventually overpowers it through his limited training in the Force.  On the way back, he has a vision of his old recently-deceased teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), instructing him to continue his training as a Jedi Knight on the planet Dagobah.

An early highlight of The Empire Strikes Back is the battle of Hoth, where Rebel forces try to hold off the Empire's assault.  Building on the technical tricks developed for the first film, little Snowspeeder ships fly around AT-ATs, the giant Imperial walker mechs, which were animated by combining stop-motion animation with motion blur effects, to create a smoother motion than would otherwise be possible.  The David-and-Goliath aspect of this battle is brought about by the clever way in which the Rebel pilots bring down some of the AT-ATs, by shooting harpoon-cables into their legs and flying circles around them to trip them up.  But alas, this does not help the Rebels win the battle, just to buy enough time to help as many of their number evacuate the planet as possible.

The Battle of Hoth displays an evolution in special effects.
Once the Empire finally catches up with them, our heroes split up into two groups.  Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) fly off in the Millenium Falcon.  There is a sub-plot running throughout the movie where the Falcon's hyperdrive engine is on the fritz, preventing our heroes from fleeing danger via lightspeed jump, and forcing them to rely on their own ingenuity.  I especially liked the moment where they hide right behind one of the Empire's Star Destroyers, and take off as it ejects all its space junk.  Eventually, they make it to a cloud city on the planet Bespin, and seek refuge with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), an old smuggling mate of Han's.  Though initially friendly, Lando reveals that he had to cut deals with Darth Vader and the Empire to make ends meet, and thusly, is forced to get Han frozen in carbonite and delivered to the bounty hunters after his head.

Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker heads off to Dagobah, a swamp planet, where he resumes his training under the tutelage of the diminutive yet wise (and wise-acre) Yoda (voice of Frank Oz).  Through Yoda's exposition, Luke (and the audience) learns more about the nature of the Force, specifically on the schism between the light and dark sides of the Force.  This drives home a running theme throughout the film, one of duality, of the darkness encroaching upon the spirits of good people. Luke's decision to abandon his Jedi training and save Han, Leia, and his other friends from a trap causes tension between him and Yoda... somehow.  I mean, Luke does promise to return to Yoda and pick up where they left off.  Maybe it's because he fails to exercise the patience needed of a true Jedi.  Maybe it's because they know that the trap Han and Leia have fallen into is also a trap for Luke himself.  But, for whatever reason, the lingering possibility of Luke falling for the dark side creates an undercurrent of tension.

This tension comes to a head when, towards the end of the film, Luke has his first face-to-face showdown with Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones).  The power that Vader possesses also keeps us on edge, as he pelts Luke with telekinetically-tossed machine parts, and almost traps him in the same freezing chamber that claimed Han Solo.  At the same time, the fight alternates between this action and quiet moments where the two are briefly separated, and no one seems to know when one or the other will show up.  This battle ends when Vader drops one of the most famous plot twists in cinema.  I don't know if I should bother with spoiler tags, because everyone seems to be familiar with it.  But then again, surely not everybody in the world has seen this movie yet, and this is the sort of moment you can only experience once.  So if somehow you have never before seen The Empire Strikes Back, or any other Star Wars movie besides the first, stop reading this review now and go watch it.  Everyone else, say it with me: Darth Vader turns out to be Luke Skywalker's father.  He tempts Luke with the power of the dark side of the Force, even offering the chance to overthrow the Emperor together, but Luke would rather (and indeed, does) almost die instead of accept that fact. He does manage to get picked up by his friends in the Millenium Falcon, and together they finally fix the ship's hyperdrive engine and take off.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

Empire expertly builds up tension ahead of the Luke/Vader fight.
Characterisation was one of the strong points of the first Star Wars, but The Empire Strikes Back takes it to the next level.  There's Luke's internal struggle, as I discussed.  Lando, having been forced to betray his friends, eventually turns the tables back on the Empire when given a chance.  Even Darth Vader seems to get a character arc of his own.  As his underling officers keep making mistakes here and there, he shows a bad habit of Force-choking them to death.  But at the very end, as the Millennium Falcon escapes through hyperspace, Vader simply walks off the scene in silence, with nary a constricted throat to be had.  It shows a hint of humanity which may or may not pay off in the next movie...!

The Empire Strikes Back may no longer have the benefit of a self-contained story, but there's something more poignant, even poetic, about this approach.  What successes are achieved by the protagonists are far smaller in scale, but manage the same degree of catharsis when they finally pull them off.  Despite not ending with the joy that comes from a decisive military victory, just knowing that our heroes are safe and sound again (for the most part) still evokes warm and fuzzy feelings, especially after all they've been through.  Between that and the moral duality of pretty much all its characters, The Empire Strikes Back takes a darker and more mature approach with its story, but in a good way.  Having clear-cut good guys and bad guys is all well and... good for fiction, and no diss to the first Star Wars for taking that approach, but it does not reflect the real world very well.  Admitting that there is both good and bad in every person is an important part of growing up, and The Empire Strikes Back does not sugarcoat this message.  This willingness to take chances, combined with the improved production techniques, shows how to do a sequel right.

Positives:
+ A brilliant running theme of moral duality.
+ More ambitious and improved special effects.

Negatives:
- The scenes on Dagobah are a bit slower on action, but serve their purpose.

Acting: 5 AT-ATs out of 5
Writing: 5 AT-ATs out of 5
Special Effects: 5 AT-ATs out of 5
Visual Design: 5 AT-ATs out of 5
The Call: 100% (A+)