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 glurge, 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 , 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.

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

- 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.

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

- 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.

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

- 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.

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

- 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+)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Film Review: Star Wars

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Production Company: Lucasfilm
  • Release: 25 May 1977
  • Genre: Action, Science-fiction
  • Director: George Lucas
  • Producer: Gary Kurtz
  • Writer: George Lucas
A new Star Wars movie is soon on its way to theatres as I write this, so you know what that means: more Star Wars reviews!  And to that end, I've got the urge to review the movies themselves.  All of them.  Well, all that matter, anyway.  I've had some personal debate as to whether to review them in order of release, starting with 1977's Episode IV, or in order of story, with 1999's Episode I.  Then I thought, there's still a story to be had by looking at it in terms of release order, as we can see how the crew behind the movies evolved, or devolved, their craft over time.  So, Episode IV it is, then!

The titular "star wars", at least in this particular trilogy, refer to a civil war between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.  The film starts when an imperial space ship, a Star Destroyer, captures a smaller rebel ship.  The boarding party, led by the general Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones), is in search of blueprints for the Death Star, a giant space-station superweapon, which were stolen by the rebellion.  But just in time, rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has hidden the plans with two droids named C-3PO and R2-D2, and ejects them to a nearby planet before she gets captured.  Landing on the desert planet Tatooine, the droids are picked up by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  He doesn't know what to make of them, until he brings him to his friend, the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).  Through Obi-Wan, Luke learns about the war raging across the galaxy, and about the mystical magical force known as... the Force.  After the empire finds and kills Luke's adoptive parents, it's up to them, the smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his furry first-mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to return the Death Star plans back to the rebels, and avert whatever the empire plans to do with it.

Star Wars's universe has copied from many sources, but in a way that still feels original.
There's just something primal and timeless about A New Hope's story; it feels like it's always been with us.  I'm not quite sure what I'm on about, but it may have something to do with the many sources from which it has blatantly borrowed inspiration.  There are parallels, admitted by George Lucas himself, between the Jedi Knights and the samurai of Akira Kurosawa films, between Han Solo and the heroes of various westerns, and between the Death Star battle and movies based on World War II.  There's even a book about how tropes from mythologies, religions, and literature have been repeated over the years, called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was also claimed as an influence on Luke Skywalker.  And I don't mean that any of that as a knock against Star Wars; it uses its many source materials in ways that feel completely new.  The best parodies are the ones where you don't have to be familiar with any one of its original materials to enjoy much of the humour, and in a sense that is true of more serious works like this.

When all these familiar plot aspects are injected into a new, foreign, science-fiction setting, it makes it easier for the audience to immerse themselves into the new world on the screen.  Breaking from the traditional trends of science-fiction films of the time, Star Wars pioneered the idea of a "used future", where despite the many technological trappings used by the characters, the loose parts and scrap strewn about the place shows, without words, how places like Tatooine are suffering under the empire.  When our heroes land in the empire's Death Star, the cold cleanliness of its set dressings provide effective contrast as well.  Although, one wonders why there have to be so many bottomless pits throughout the darn thing.  And ledges without railings, too!  Man, if OSHA existed in the Star Wars universe, the Empire would never hear the end of it.  And don't get me started on how they can have ship hangars open to the cold of space, but still have breathable, livable climates on the inside.  ...Seriously, don't get me started, because I have more important topics to get to.

Star Wars made astounding innovations in the field of special effects.
The world of Star Wars is brought to life by its special effects.  In 1977, computer-generated imagery was nowhere near the state it is in today; the best they could muster at the time was the wireframe model of the Death Star that the rebel pilots watch before the final battle.  Rather, the spaceships, as well as the world-famous opening text crawl, were "animated" by moving a camera around stationary models, and compositing them onto the backgrounds.  Other effects, like the glowing blaster bolts and Lightsaber blades, were accomplished by rotoscope animation.  Everything else, especially the various alien and droid costumes, was done physically on the set.  I imagine these effects must have been mind-blowing for 1977 audiences, because even today they still look quite good.  It helps that most of the animated objects were simple light blobs or vehicles with few moving parts, which didn't over-extend the reach of special effects from the time, but   Not all the effects stand the test of time today, but those that do hold up better than some of the CGI added for the special editions, although that's a diversion for another day.

To be perfectly honest, Star Wars does not have the strongest of starts, and that can be blamed upon the droid duo of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).  The partially prim and proper Threepio is almost constantly bickering with, and belittling the advice of, his robotic partner.   And since there's quite a stretch of film after they leave Leia but before they meet Luke, this nagging wears on the audience quite a bit. Artoo, meanwhile, only responds with a collection of beeps, which at least lends some degree of comedy to their exploits.  The human characters, however, are far more... human.  Luke has his own dreams for his normal life, and is reluctant to join Obi-Wan's mission until he discovers the death of his step-parents.  Han is only in this mission for the money, and even then only to pay off the mobsters on his back.  And Leia shows a tendency for quick-thinking action from time to time.  Even within the opposing forces, there are heated discussions between Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), and other Imperial officers over the effectiveness of the Death Star and of capturing Leia.

And, of course, it all ends with one of the tensest climaxes I've ever seen in cinema.  In the final battle, Rebel fighter-ships must destroy the Death Star, flying through the trenches along its surface to drop a bomb, before it can fire upon the planet of the Rebel base.  Even after all the times I've re-watched this movie, this part always leaves me on pins and needles.  Good thing, too, because Star Wars is worth re-watching, as you never know what new details you'll pick up from its plot or setting each time.  There's a smarmy sort of knowledge to be held once you've seen the later movies, and you go back to this one to find out what little facts were maintained throughout the series, and what eventually got changed.  But it doesn't take knowledge of the other entries to really enjoy Star Wars, and that's what makes this original entry special among all the others.

+ A simple but deep story.
+ Brilliant world-building, some of it completely non-verbal.
+ Innovative and still-solid special effects.
+ The pulse-pounding ending battle.

- The early exploits of C-3PO and R2-D2 are long and a bit annoying.

Acting: 4 Death Stars out of 5
Writing: 5 Death Stars out of 5
Special Effects: 5 Death Stars out of 5
Visual Design: 5 Death Stars out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Game Review: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

Shantae: 1/2-Genie Hero
  • Publisher: WayForward / Marvelous
  • Developer: WayForward / Inti Creates
  • Release Date: 20 December 2016
  • Systems: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, XBox One, Wii U, Switch
  • Genre: 2D Action (Platformer)
  • Players: 1
  • Cost: US$20
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mighty No. 9, a game that rode high atop a mega-bucks-earning KickStarter campaign, only to crash into a pile of manure upon release.  Another game that also went through the crowd-funding motions at the same time was the new sequel to Shantae, sub-titled 1/2-Genie Hero.  I, myself, contributed to that campaign, spending more on it than I did with Mighty No. 9, for the record.  Upon backing, I opted to receive the PlayStation 3 port, since I have seen no need for the newer wave of consoles.  But, that port got cancelled, along with the one for XBox 360.  I'll say one good thing about how Comcept handled Mighty No.9 -- at least they actually released the PS3 and XBox 360 ports!  But whatever, there's still the PC version, so that's what I fell back on.  #PCGamingMasterRace  So, was all that worry worth it?

The game starts with Tinkerbats invading Scuttle Town -- again.
The story starts with Risky Boots and her Tinkerbat pirates invading Scuttle Town.  Second verse, same as the first.  So it should come as no surprise that Shantae's Uncle Mimic has unveiled a new mechanical contraption, and sends Shantae to gather the parts for it so they won't be stolen by Risky Boots, only for the finished product to be stolen by Risky Boots in the end.  It's basically another one of those "Mad Libs" sequels, as I described Risky's Revenge before.  In your quest to find these machine parts, you will unlock a succession of five worlds, accessible through a map screen as opposed to one giant overworld.  In fact, there are no discrete dungeon areas this time around; instead, all the worlds are self-contained action stages.  This does make them seem shorter than in previous games, but there are still plenty of hidden areas strewn about for you to revisit after earning new abilities.  And, on the positive side, that means less faffing about with sidequests than there was in Pirate's Curse.

While the main story failed to engage me, personally, each world comes with their own sub-plots, which have a bit more going for them... okay, still not much.  For example, the bratty genie guardian who takes over Shantae's role as the defender of Scuttle Town is rather unceremoniously brushed off after clearing the desert world.  But they are tied in with some pretty novel settings, like a factory where young maidens are transformed into "counterfeit mermaids" by having big-mouthed fish latch onto their waists, or even a magic-carpet race, which is in essence just a forced-scrolling platforming segment.  It's nice to see that the quirky sense of humour the series has built up over the years is still in full effect.

Shantae's dance transformation ("Danceformation", then?  ...I'll see myself out.) powers make a return after an absence in Pirate's Curse, where... she had a little run-in with the plot.  How they work this time is you hold a button to bring up a menu, and press a direction for the form you want to take.  It's sort of a hybrid of the transformation systems in the first two games, and is one of the more elegant solutions I could think of, since it lets you page through many options at a fast enough rate, while not forcing you to memorise a button sequence like in the first game.  And there are over a dozen transformations for you to unlock, although a little more uniqueness and utility would be appreciated.  Some of them are useless apart from specific situations, especially the mouse, who can go through tiny, maze-like passages and do little else.  And why do we need two separate forms for moving about underwater?

The new method of selecting transformations is both quick and convenient.
The Shantae games seem to go back and forth as to whether its attack items are consumable or meter-limited, and this time around they are once again limited by a magic meter.  As in Risky's Revenge, I like this because it encourages their use, especially since magic pickups are so common.  Then again, you'll be able to deal more damage faster just by upgrading your hair's damage and attack speed.  But late in the game, after completing an arduous collection quest, you can unlock a tiara that gives you infinite magic power, and this combined with the other items, especially the invincibility shield, make 1/2-Genie Hero game-breakingly easy.  I suppose it contrasts with the slightly harder difficulty at the beginning of the game, where you start with fewer heart containers than before, and must rely more heavily on consumable healing items until you start to upgrade yourself.

Freed from the limitations of past 8 and 16-bit platforms, the character art has been completely redone with hand-drawn animations, and it looks gorgeous.  Their animation is extremely fluid, even on huge boss characters like the Giga Mermaid.  On the other hand, the backgrounds are done with 3D models, and they look extremely basic in comparison to the pristine 2D art, their relative lack of detail fits with the cartoonish art style.  This is the same setup that WayForward has used in games like DuckTales Remastered, so you'd think they'd have come up with some way to spice up the backgrounds somehow, but apparently not.  And why is it that when we return to certain worlds, especially the desert world, the backgrounds have so much detail removed from the first time around?  Maybe it's just a bug in the version I played, I don't know.  #PCGamingMasterRace  The soundtrack, once again composed by Jake Kaufman, brings back many melodies from his songs from previous games, but with slight variations. I think its quasi-chiptune sound has a bit of a Sonic influence to it this time around, and coming from me, that is high praise.

Sprite animation is fluid and expressive, especially on bosses like the Giga Mermaid.
1/2-Genie Hero is not the longest game on the market, but none of the other Shantae games are either.  Expect something in the neighbourhood of 6 hours for a 100% clear playthrough, or 3 hours for a speed run, which is shorter than Pirate's Curse was, but less padded.  Alternate modes have been added since the game's initial release, such as the Hero Mode where all your transformations are unlocked from the start, and Hard Core Mode for extra difficulty.  And if you missed the gameplay revolutions brought on by Pirate's Curse, they have been brought back for the alternate campaign, where we play as Risky Boots and unlock her pirate gear for alternate movement techniques.  However, it is sold as separate DLC (US$10), although people who backed the game when it was on KickStarter got it for free.  While I am lucky to count myself as one of those people, this "sectioning off the best parts of the game as DLC" is a troubling habit for WayForward to start picking up, and especially for my beloved Shantae series.

Come to think of it, as a whole, 1/2-Genie Hero puts the Shantae series at a crossroads of concern.  WayForward's approach to sequels is starting to become formulaic.  If WayForward will ever make a sequel to this, they're going to need some cracking good ideas to elevate it above the status quo they've built up, as they did with Pirate's Curse.  That goes doubly if they choose to crowd-fund it, since it's our money on the line.  But don't be too afraid about it just yet, since 1/2-Genie Hero is still quite good.  It's a short, snacky kind of game, but it's incredibly sweet while it lasts.  If nothing else, playing 1/2-Genie Hero, and knowing that there was at least one good game to come out of crowd-funding, allowed me to end 2016 on a much-needed high note.

+ Streamlines many of the series' more time-wasting mechanics.
+ Astounding character animations.
+ The Risky Boots campaign.

- Some combinations of upgrades break the game's balance.
- The backgrounds seem a little basic in comparison to the character sprites.
- The Risky Boots campaign as separate DLC.

Control: 5 counterfeit mermaids out of 5
Design: 4 counterfeit mermaids out of 5
Graphics: 4 counterfeit mermaids out of 5
Sound: 5 counterfeit mermaids out of 5
Value: 3 counterfeit mermaids out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

You might also like: Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, DuckTales: RemasteredShovel Knight