Thoughts on ‘The Phantom Menace’

I called the original Star Wars a textbook example of storytelling. Well, if Star Wars was a textbook, The Phantom Menace is more of a case study: what happens when you give a vividly imaginative, but uneven writer unchecked control after years of being out of practice?

Let’s try to be fair here.

The film opens with the news that the Republic’s taxation policy has driven the Trade Federation to blockade the planet of Naboo, causing the senate to dispatch two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, to negotiate a settlement.

Okay, maybe you can see the problem there just from that description.

Granted we know this world better than in the first film, where it was simply “the Empire has constructed a weapon that blows up planets, the Rebellion has plans that might show a weakness,” but this is the sort of thing no one cares about in the real world, let alone in our fantasy space epic: an organization we don’t know is angry about tax policy, so they blockade a place we never heard of. Most people wouldn’t watch a news show about that.

Now, I will say that the plot, once you figure it out, is actually not bad, at least in conception. What’s really going on is that Senator Palpatine (more on him later) is manufacturing a crisis that will cause the Senate to elect him Councilor. It’s a multi-layer chess game where everyone is looking at the wrong thing. That’s a good idea for a story, especially as the prequel trilogy is structuring itself around Anakin’s rise and fall as a Jedi, while the whole series is being structured around Palpatine’s rise to and fall from power. Granting all that, though, they needed something that mattered a lot more than a stupid trade dispute.

Okay, okay; I’m getting ahead of myself. But that’s kind of indicative of the problem of this film. It has some decent ideas, or the bones of decent ideas, but the execution is almost universally terrible, and the core ideas are surrounded by an impenetrable boundary of unfathomably poor decisions on the part of the writer, who of course is none other than George Lucas himself.

I’m not going to pick on Lucas much, because God knows he’s been put through the wringer enough for his terrible writing choices. He badly needed a co-writer or a script doctor on this film: the plot is confusing and painfully contrived, the dialogue is often horrendous, and that’s not even getting to the acting or staging.

On the subject of staging, consider this: we meet the Jedi Council in this film, something that’s been hovering over us as an unseen image of peace, justice, and wisdom for three films. It’s a huge moment for the story, whether you want to see this film as the beginning of the series or a continuation for it. But all we get is a single exterior establishing shot of a bland building, the cut to the Jedi Council just sitting around glowering. Why? Why no build up, why no sense of grandeur, no sense of respect, nothing? Even allowing that the film is supposed to show a decayed Republic and Jedi Council that has lost its way, that should be for later: the first shot should be showing something of their grandeur and nobility, even if tarnished.

And there is some of that earlier in the film, with the Trade Federation’s reaction to the two Jedi and their tearing through the ship’s security with ease. We do fee this is the Jedi at the height of their powers as Obi Wan alluded to back in the original, but we should have had something like that for the whole council.

The Harry Potter books did this very well: the first half of the series is all about Harry discovering the wonder of the Wizarding World, and it’s only later that its rot becomes apparent. That’s the sort of approach this series should have had, but instead it just seems lazy.

Okay, so the Jedi go down to the Naboo to ‘warn them’ (by travelling with the invading army and apparently landing on the opposite side of the planet. Why didn’t they just say they needed to go down to rescue the Queen so she could tell the Senate what happened? That’s what they actually do in any case, so why the unnecessary nonsense about ‘warning’ someone of the army you are travelling with?). During their escape the ship is damaged and they have to ditch on Tatooine to try to get parts to repair it, where they meet Anakin Skywalker, who is a slave working for a junk dealer. Qui-Gon senses he’s strong in the Force and decides to take him with them.

You know, there are bigger problems with the film. I don’t even know if I can call it an objective flaw, but personally my biggest beef with this movie has always been why the heck did they cast Anakin as a ten year old?

The way the film progresses, especially with his semi-romance with the Queen (sort of: more on that in a bit. God, there are just so many things wrong with this film!), his flying a warship into battle, his being described as ‘too old’ to be trained, all of it feels like it was originally designed for a character about Luke’s age in the original film. That would make sense, that would have felt natural, that would have created a sense of a recurring pattern. But instead, it’s as if near the end of the writing process Lucas just decided he’d rather have a little kid on the idea that kids would want to see someone like themselves in the movie (by the way, has any kid actually preferred seeing a child hero on screen? I don’t think I ever did), so he went back and altered the description and a few of the lines.

See, the biggest problem with this (apart from making him irritating and raising questions about why the adults are putting him in these dangerous situations) is that it largely removes any sense of agency from what is ostensibly the film’s protagonist. He doesn’t make decisions with consequences, he doesn’t accept moral responsibilities (like Luke does), things just happen to him. Even his presence in the final space battle is sheer accident, as is his victory in it. He doesn’t achieve anything; he is simply given things. And you can’t really expect anything else because he’s a kid. It also prevents him and Obi Wan from having any relationship at all in this film, much less the close friendship they’re supposed to have.

In summary, Anakin ought to be the film’s protagonist; the equivalent to Luke in the original. But because they decided to make him a ten year old surrounded by adults (also because he doesn’t even appear until about forty minutes in), they removed that possibility. That kind of leaves the film without a real protagonist. Qui-Gon is the closest as he directs most of the story, but we don’t really know anything about him apart from the fact that he’s wise and good. He structured like a mentor character, but has to carry the whole plot himself.

Another problem: their conception of Anakin’s origin basically removes Owen entirely. You know, his brother. The implications of the first film of a falling out, of the brother who went to war and the one who stayed at home, the subsequent implications that Owen was trying to keep Luke from becoming his father, all that is out the window now. Yes, it’s a little odd to be hung up on the fact that they didn’t make space to account for what, after all, was a minor character, but it would have been so easy to do and seems so obvious (there’s even a random kid who just hangs around with Anakin during his time on Tatooine: why not make him his brother?) that you just have to wonder why they didn’t. Why construct this over complicated, contrived origin story about a virgin birth (really) that raises a million questions instead of following the backstory you yourself created?

Okay, I’m going to limit myself to addressing three more major problems: the pod-race, the Queen, and a slightly more abstract idea of script contrivances.

The pod-race kind of exemplifies the film as a whole: visually it’s great, but on a writing level it’s awful. There’s probably no better way to explain why it’s so bad than to compare it to the race in Ben Hur, which Lucas is very clearly trying to imitate (yes, it’s unfair to compare The Phantom Menace to Ben Hur, just as it’s unfair to compare, say, Bill Nye to St. Bellarmino, but, hey, if they’re asking for it…).

In Ben Hur, the race was the culmination of the enmity between Judah Ben Hur and Messala. Judah has already sworn to kill Messala, and the circus is one of the few places he can do that legally. Messala, for his part, is equally ready to kill Judah, something he already tried and failed to do. The question, therefore, is whether either or both will succeed before the end of the race. This is further linked to the idea that Judah is racing for the honor of his own people on their own homeland against their occupiers, connecting the hero’s personal goals with those of his community (symbolized by the Sheik’s high-stakes bet with the Roman officers – “Ten to one: what a Roman is to a Jew. Or an Arab” – and further reinforced by Messala’s loud prayer to Jupiter, done deliberately so that Judah can hear it).

In The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, the race is simply a way to solve an already contrived plot thread designed solely to have the Jedi meet Anakin, a problem that could have been solved about a dozen other ways even given the provided scenario. The sole question is who is going to win, and as Anakin is the only actual character in the race, that is never really in question. Sebulba is not a character; he simply exists to be the jerk that Anakin beats. There is no emotional weight to what happens, no larger issues at stake, nothing but the fate of this one character: if he wins, he succeeds, if he loses, he doesn’t. Combine that with the fact that it goes on for about ten minutes straight, plus a lengthy introduction with flags and listing characters we’ve never seen before and never will again, and the whole thing is just an absolute train wreck in terms of storytelling.

(All that said, I do love the gag of Jabba the Hutt falling asleep during the race. Who would have ever thought he would be the audience identification character?)

Now about the Queen. If you’ve seen the film, you know that the Queen we spend most of the movie with (Keira Knightley) is actually a decoy, and the real Queen is her handmaid, Padme, played by Natalie Portman.

This raises so many questions, even beyond “who the heck thought the Queen’s dead-white makeup and ultra-elaborate costumes were in any way a good idea?” First of all, considering the real Queen is right next to her, as is captured along with her, what was the point of any of this? Isn’t someone more likely to kill her like this, when she’s off alone, less protected (even her bodyguards the Jedi aren’t told of the deception. That’s probably something you want to tell the people specifically tasked to protect you)? Isn’t it more likely that, in an emergency, her guards will end up leaving her behind or letting her get shot while they guard the fake Queen?

Also, the fake Queen does things like sending her off to clean a droid while she sits in council with the Jedi. Or the fake Queen is apparently the one doing all these important jobs and making all these crucial decisions while the real Queen just sits around in the background. Or the real Queen is the one who goes off into the dangerous city with the Jedi while the fake one sits safe on the ship.

She’s also apparently elected. Why? And how does that square with her daughter being a princess?

So, the whole Queen deception thing is unnecessary and stupid. Now let’s tackle the final matter: contrivance.

This basically is a catch-all term for the script handing characters things without them have to earn it. The infamous midichlorines are a good example of this (yes, there are also thematic problems with making the Force bacteria). This whole development has one purpose and one purpose only: so that they can take Anakin’s blood test and find out that he’s an ultra powerful force user who even surpasses Yoda. It’s a means of telling so that we don’t have to show. No need to convey this through action, through following him in his training and the Jedi and us slowly realizing they’re dealing with something they haven’t seen before; just declare he’s got lots of these things that give him Force.

The whole idiotic ‘Prophecy’ and ‘chosen one’ plotline is another example: a way to tell us that Anakin is special without actually having to make him be special. It raises so many questions (who prophesied? What’s he’s supposed to do? Why does it matter?) and, again, is just a lazy way to tell the audience that we should care (again, Harry Potter handled a similar plotline much better, where the prophecy isn’t revealed until late in the series and they discuss how it only matters because the bad guy thought it mattered and fulfilled the terms himself. It isn’t used to make the hero special, but to motivate the villain).

Again, this all comes down to the script giving things to Anakin rather than having him work for them, partly because he’s a kid. He’s not exactly a Gary Stu, because he doesn’t really do anything. He’s kind of like Mowgli in the animated Jungle Book: less of a character than a living prop for the characters to pass around and comment on. Not an auspicious start to the origin of Darth Vader.

(By the way, the same pattern plays out for Jar Jar during the final battle, where his ‘comic’ bumbling reeks havoc on the droid army. Again, not earned, not proceeding from any skill or insight that the film set up: it all works out in his favor because the writer says so).

Okay, so I could go on and on about how bad this film is. Is there anything to like about it?

Well, others have said it before now, but the sets and some of the visuals in this movie are often really, really good. Naboo is fantastically designed; the most paradisiacal, civilized world imaginable. So is the underwater city of the Gungans, so are the cool monsters inhabiting the depths, so, to a lesser degree, is Coruscant, the capital world, where the city covers the entire planet (yeah, some of the shots look ugly as hell, but others are very cool).

To his credit, Lucas actually did think through some of the sci-fi concepts. Like, for instance, we see the underwater city is protected by permeable energy fields. Then when these creatures go into battle, these same shields for a major part of their strategy. That sort of thing shows some thought, applying a piece of tech in multiple, though consistent ways. On a similar note I like how establish that Anakin is freezing in space because the temperature on the ship is so much less than he’s used to. I also like how they burn Qui-Gon’s body in the end, mirroring the burning of Vader’s corpse in Return of the Jedi and making it feel like a real cultural practice.

And though the acting and writing are bad, they take time out now and then to have quiet moments, to try to let the characters breathe a little. There are a few scenes emphasizing how much Anakin misses his mother after he leaves home, for instance. Anakin’s actual good-bye to his mother is also fairly well done, especially with her telling him to not look back as he leaves. And though it precedes the infamous midichlorian reveal, it is a nice moment where Anakin asks Qui-Gon about the stars and expresses his desire to visit them all, echoing Luke from the first film (though much more on the nose).

Similarly, though the dialogue is mostly terrible, there is a good line here and there. Like when Anakin insists “No one can kill a Jedi,” and Qui-Gon softly answers “How I wish that were true.” Or Palpatine’s comment that in the Senate “there is no civility: only politics,” which is kind of perfect.

Speaking of which, if there is one undiluted positive about this film, it’s Ian McDiarmid’s reprisal of his role as Palpatine. In a cast that predominantly reads their lines in a flat monotone, he actually injects some life in the role: I love his incredibly smug smile when he shows up at the end, or the subtle expressions on his face when he first appears. You can absolutely believe this is the same character we met in Return of the Jedi, only younger and obliged to hide his malevolence behind a mask of urbanity and kindness. Yet he still has the same satanic, spider-like machinations that made the character so intimidating in the first place.

As for the new characters, Qui-Gon is mildly memorable, just because Liam Neesan manages to convey a sense of actual wisdom and kindness through him. Watto the junk dealer isn’t bad; you certainly remember him and he’s not extremely irritating like Jar Jar. And though it’s an uncomfortable caricature, I do kind of like how the Trade Federation Viceroy is played as this gutless mandarin type: something different in terms of ‘Star Wars’ villains. And Maul, of course, continues the tradition of vivid ‘Star Wars’ bad guys. He doesn’t say much, but you sure remember him.

Speaking of which, yes, that final lightsaber duel is really good. One thing that struck me about it this time was how brutal it is; Maul and the Jedi are punching and kicking each other left and right, while Maul leaps and dances about like a wild cat. Add in that fantastic music, and it’s an honestly great sequence (if only we didn’t have to keep cutting away to the other three events going on around it).

So, on the whole, the film is pretty bad. Though I will say, it’s bad in a way that still lets you see flashes of talent. George Lucas, whatever his failures as a writer, is a fantastically creative person, and that creativity does come across on screen, with the creatures, the new worlds, and so on. He just needed someone to process his ideas into something workable, and to elicit decent performances out of his actors, and to tell him no when he has a terrible idea. The Phantom Menace is one of those fascinating failures: a movie that is more interesting to take apart and examine why it doesn’t work than it is to actually watch, yet not without some highlights of its own.

Nevertheless, having a film this bad as the opening act is an ominous sign for any trilogy.

 

Thoughts on ‘Return of the Jedi’

What started out as a simple fantasy adventure in space with Star Wars was turned into an epic by The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi faced the daunting task of bringing the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. For my money, they succeeded spectacularly, though not without a small, but noticeable dip in quality from the previous film.

The movie picks up where the last one left off; with Luke and his friends trying to rescue Han from the monstrous Jabba the Hutt. This opening almost feels like a full film in itself, especially as it both goes on for far too long and is rather severely disconnected from the rest of the film. In essence, it’s a self-contained story that takes up full the first half-hour of screen time.

That said, it’s not at all a bad sequence; there’s the fast-paced high adventure we knew from the earlier films, done with the same creativity and anchored by the same great characters. I’m not really sure what Luke’s original plan was, but the adventure serves to showcase how far he’s come. Despite his failure against Darth Vader, he’s grown from a naïve farm boy to a formidable warrior in his own right.

Characterization wise, the dynamic here reverses that of the previous films: in both the end of the original and beginning of Empire, Han had to save Luke. Then at the end of Empire Luke tried to save Han and failed. Here Luke succeeds, showing that he’s taken his place as the real leader and hero of their little band.

This jump in power and confidence from the previous film is a little jarring, it must be said, especially as we don’t know how much time has past. And that points to probably the biggest problem with the film as a whole: that despite the leisurely opening act, the film feels rushed. Plot threads set up in the first and second films are knocked down one after another in quick succession: Luke returns to continue his training with Yoda, only for Yoda to die after saying he needs no more training. Yoda’s cryptic words about “another Skywalker” are answered almost instantly with the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister (which is probably the weakest story development in the trilogy: nothing about their interactions indicated this and it raises big questions about the dynamics of their birth and early life). The Empire has built another Death Star and the Rebels have a chance-in-a-million to end the war once and for all.

Now, none of these plot threads are really bad or poorly done (well, the reveal about Leia is debatable), but having them all occur so quickly does feel contrived. This is another reason why it’s frustrating the Jabba the Hutt sequence is allowed to go on as long as it does: with so much story to tell, it’s strange to spend such a huge chunk of the film on what amounts to wholly different plot. But we’re clearly moving into the endgame here, and this does create a sense that things are marching to a conclusion one way or another.

There; I’ve basically covered the main points where the film falls short (well, save a debatable case which we’ll come to), and they do drag it down a bit, but they can’t really overcome the full weight of great storytelling that has been built up over the past two films, nor counteract the very real positives of this one.

In the first place, we finally have our reveal of the Emperor himself, always present as an almost-unseen force lurking in the background of the past two films. This (along with the reveal of Jabba the Hutt) is an almost perfect example of how to bring a shadowy character onstage without diminishing his mystique. Indeed, the Emperor manages the difficult task of being very nearly as vivid and intimidating as Vader himself, just from the first time he appears. We first have the opening scene of Vader arriving on the new Death Star to rebuke the commander for slow progress, then as the man tries to weasel his way out of it with one excuse after another Vader drops the information that the Emperor himself is coming, which causes the commander to look as though he’s about ready to wet himself. The message (reinforced with Vader’s darkly hilarious line “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”) is clear: scary as Darth Vader is, the Emperor is even worse. Then when the Emperor finally appears, he’s this withered, deathlike figure covered in a black robe, directing events with a satanic chuckle. We can well believe that this is the man who controls and directs the vast, evil armada of the Empire.

The character development of the previous film continues and reaches its conclusion in this one. Han and Lando, the two former scoundrels, have fully committed to the rebellion, as well as recommitting to their damaged friendship (exemplified when Han let’s Lando take the Falcon for the final battle). The reveal of just how far Han has gone respectable is done fantastically, with him first teasing Lando about being made a general just in time for a dangerous mission before it’s revealed that he’s one too, with an even more dangerous assignment. On that note, the film takes care to give everyone a major role in the climax; every character has a moment to shine and there’s a real sense that it could not have succeeded without all their contributions, which is exactly what we want from this group of characters we’ve grown and struggled with for so long.

Most importantly, the film spends a lot of time dealing with the consequences of Darth Vader’s reveal that he is Luke’s father. This is the main theme and driving force of the story: the huge, raging space battle ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what it means that these characters are father and son.

The dynamic here is frankly nothing short of fantastic. Luke and Vader aren’t just the ones that everything depends on, but they’re the only ones who fully realize what the relationship means.

Yoda and Obi Wan both want Luke to understand that it’s now more important than ever for him to confront and defeat Vader. Now that Luke knows Vader is his father, the question of whether he will follow in his father’s footsteps, present from the beginning of the series (recall Uncle Owen’s “That’s what I’m afraid of” comment, which, like so much else, takes on new meaning in retrospect), has become an active and urgent question. He has to face him to settle that issue once and for all.

On the other side, the Emperor is confused by the fact that Vader can sense Luke’s presence while he can’t, which raises his suspicions (for perhaps the first time in who knows how long) of just where Vader’s loyalties lie. Like the Jedi, he too needs this confrontation to take place to determine just what the relationship will ultimately mean to his plans. The difference is that the Emperor fully expects to win no matter what happens: either Vader will kill Luke, or Luke will kill Vader and take his place. Yoda and Obi Wan fear the exact same outcome, though they clearly think there’s a chance for Luke to kill Vader without succumbing to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, both Luke and Vader have their own ideas. Vader, as he expressed to his son in the previous film, wants to overthrow the Emperor and rule in his stead, with his son at his side. Luke, on the other hand, believes that Vader isn’t wholly lost; he’s felt the sincere longing in his father’s attempt to convince him to turn and believes that this tiny spark of love can restore the good man he once was.

The interesting point is that both Vader and Luke, despite the fact that each carries the weight of their respective war efforts on their shoulders, each has the other as their first priority. Each wants his side to triumph, but not at the expense of the other. It’s a brilliant bit of writing: this galactic war that we’ve been following for three films ultimately comes down to the connection of a father and son, something universal, instantly understandable, and packed with emotion.

That’s not to say the war is underwhelming. This film takes the ship battles to a new level, with some of the best effects in the series, culminating in an epic battle about the new Death Star. The Millennium Falcon, with Lando at the helm, leads the united rebel force in space (commanded by the instantly-memorable Admiral Ackbar). At the same time, Han, Leia, and Chewie conduct a commando raid against the Death Star’s shield generator in order to render the unfinished battle station vulnerable to attack.

And that raid brings us to one of the main things people tend to hate about this film: the Ewoks. On the one hand, yes, they are the most cartoony, childish element in the film, and perhaps the entire trilogy, and they don’t really fit into this otherwise-grounded world. They’re just too cutesy to completely work, and I especially don’t buy that they’re a legitimate threat to our heroes in the silly scene where they prepare to roast and eat them.

That said, I will raise a defense for the Ewoks. For one thing, their role in the story as the one concrete thing the Emperor didn’t take into account requires them to be somewhat silly creatures. There really wouldn’t be any excuse for him to ignore the Wookies, for instance, as they’re too obviously dangerous. But a bunch of little teddy bears with stone-age tech? That I can buy the Emperor shrugging off. Also, their very child-friendly nature fits with the idea that these are exactly the kind of humble, unpretentious people the Empire regularly stomp on, but who prove its downfall precisely because they were ignored.

Also, despite some slapstick, the film stages their battle with the stormtroopers in a fairly believable way. It’s made clear the Ewoks are only able to hold their own for two reasons: one they know the terrain and are able to perform hit-and-run tactics and set traps, and the other is their sheer numbers. These two factors, along with hi-tech support from Han, Leia, and the rebel forces, allow them just barely to squeak a win (watching the battle this time, I realized that a lot of the time they serve to distract and confuse the Imperial troops while the rebels hit them with blaster fire).

That, and the film goes out of its way to show that they are taking casualties; they are paying a steep price for their help. The bit where the one Ewok tries to get his friend to wake up and then just sits back and hangs his head in grief is genuinely affecting. Besides which, thanks to C3-P0’s abridged recap of the past two films, the Ewoks are shown to have an idea of what they’re fighting for; they’re not just serving as cannon fodder, they’re legitimately part of the Rebellion at this point.

Basically, my position on the Ewoks is that they’re very poorly conceived, but very well executed, especially once the shooting starts.

But all that serves as a side story to Luke and Vader, leading up to that fantastic final moment where Vader has to choose between power and his family, followed by that heartfelt last exchange between father and son.

In short, though it comes weighed down with heavier flaws than either of its predecessors, the high points of Return of the Jedi are among the highest in the trilogy, just as the climax ought to be. For me, that sense of finality and accomplishment is best shown (visual storytelling again) when we watch that miles-long Super Star Destroyer going down in flames, symbolizing that the seemingly-invincible Empire has fallen at last. The whole final act is like that; a thrilling and cathartic sense of having come a long way through all kinds of adventures, but having ultimately won the day in the end. After three densely packed films, it leaves us just where we want to be: Luke is a Jedi, Han and Leia are together, and the Rebellion has defeated the Empire against all odds, largely due to the fact that Darth Vader’s love for his son unexpectedly proved stronger than his loyalty to the Emperor.

That penultimate image of Luke seeing his father’s ghost joining those of his two teachers says it all; he’s redeemed his father’s legacy and can now feel as proud of him as he ever felt of his mentors.

Return of the Jedi isn’t quite a textbook example of how to conclude a trilogy, but it is very close, and, like the heroes, we are able to celebrate and come away feeling all is right with the universe.

 

Thoughts on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the ‘Star Wars’ films, and for good reason. This is where the fun space adventure of the original film becomes something grander: something epic, yet without losing the adventure and excitement of the original.

The film, as the title indicates, shows the Empire hunting the Rebels (something I noticed this time around is that the title scroll’s account of the Empire “driving the Rebels from their base” in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction makes perfect sense, since even though the Death Star was destroyed, the Empire still knows where the Rebels are now. Just the first example of the care that went into the film’s script). We open with the Empire dispatching ‘probe droids’ throughout the galaxy, followed soon by Luke, on the barren ice world of Hoth, being ambushed and dragged off by a huge yeti-like monster. This opening, though not as immediately striking as the original’s, sets the stage at once: we’re now in uncertain territory, with powerful forces lying in wait to prey upon our heroes, who have to rely on each other and, in Luke’s case, his emerging knowledge of the Force.

The cast we met in the first film are back, and their relationships have grown. The characterization here is really fantastic, especially with Han Solo. When we met him in the first film, he was essentially selfish and kind of a prick. Here, he clearly cares about the rebels, but is now seeking to return to his old life to try to square the debts he left behind (he briefly alludes to their having run into a bounty hunter in between films, showing that the as-yet-unseen Jabba is closing in on him). Basically, Han still wants to be able to save his own skin. But he’s grown to the point where he’s willing to risk his life for his friends (as when he rushes out into the blizzard to save Luke, foreshadowing how Luke will later rush to Bespin to save Han). Then from the point where they leave Hoth, his entire motivation is essentially trying to protect Leia and find a way to get her back to the main Rebel force (who have fled to a safe location). This further strips away his remaining selfishness until, even when it looks like he’s about to die, his first thought is still her.

Han really shines as a hero during the long middle section of the film, where, with his ship’s hypderdrive on the fritz, he has to rely on his wits and skill to escape the Empire at sublight speed. This part of the movie creates a real sense of being constantly on the ropes as one by one his gambits manage to only buy a little time for frantic repair attempts before the Empire closes in (by the way, this time around I realized the asteroid field is foreshadowed when the rebellion general comments on how much meteor activity there is in the area).

Meanwhile, Luke is going on his own journey, delving deeper into the Force with his new master Yoda (rightly celebrated not only for his unforgettable personality, but also for the wonderful puppetry that makes him seem little less alive than anyone else). In so doing, Luke learns not only more about the Force, but just how far he might be vulnerable to the influence of the Dark Side.

All the while, we spend much more time with Darth Vader, seeing him pursue the heroes across the galaxy, but always first and foremost after Luke. His almost fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is, at the end of the day, as a means to lure Luke into a trap.

Like in the first film, all this works fine on a surface level, but when you start to think about it, and especially after you learn the infamous ‘reveal’ at the end, it all takes on a new and stronger significance.

The main thrust of the film is the overwhelming power of the Empire, assuring us right away that, despite the destruction of the Death Star, the villains are still oppressively dangerous. Like in the first film, we have some excellent visual storytelling: early on we see a fleet of Star Destroyers, those same huge, terrifying ships we met in the opening of the first film. Then we see that one of them is being eclipsed by the shadow of something even larger, whereon we cut to a Super Star Destroyer some ten-times the size of the others. Even without the Death Star, the Empire is incredibly powerful.

On the subject of visual storytelling, consider the famous Battle of Hoth that ends the first act: we have the Empire coming out to fight in these huge, lumbering walkers like mechanical elephants. They’re monstrous and seemingly unstoppable, like something out of a kaiju film. Meanwhile, the rebels are just men in trenches, or in aircraft; not that far removed from wars we’re familiar with. Once again, the visuals alone tell us all we need to know about the situation (a side note; this is one reason the stormtroopers wear masks: to convey the faceless conformity of the Empire).

This fight also continues the surprisingly grounded nature of the world; there was care taken in thinking how these ships work, and making them look battered and used. The Rebel base, like the ones in the first film, is crowded and busy, and throughout the film we have plenty of scenes of Han, Leia, and Chewie fiddling with the guts of the Falcon, trying to jury-rig the battered ship into working. We have no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like the sort of thing someone would have to do to fix a real spaceship. There’s one bit where Leia tries to force a stiff part of the ship back into place, then winces as she sucks a pinched finger. It happens incidentally, while she’s talking to Han, but it feels so real because we’ve all had moments like that. It’s just another little detail that makes this world feel so much more alive than most fantasy films (or most non-fantasy films for that matter).

Then, of course, there’s that twist. I don’t think I need to caution you on it; rare is the adult who doesn’t know it. This reveal may rather raise some questions about the earlier film (though I don’t think any that can’t be smoothed over), but that really doesn’t matter compared to just how much it benefits not only this movie but the series as a whole. Luke’s vision in the cave, Yoda’s sad likening him to his father, Vader’s fanatical pursuit of Luke, his arguing to turn him rather than kill him, and the way he holds back during their fight, all of these work fine the first time; you don’t question them, but they then rise to new levels of significance when we learn the truth.

Not only that, but they hint at something else; even as Darth Vader is being one of the most intimidating villains in all of cinema, murdering his subordinates with nothing but wry comments and pursuing and torturing our heroes with cold implacability, this reveal hints that his motives were not wholly malevolent. That, perhaps, there is something else still in there.

All that will be built on in the next film, but for now perhaps an even bigger twist is that the film doesn’t have a happy ending. Most of the heroes escape to fight another day, but they do so wounded in body and spirit, and the future is very much in question. You could have stopped at the end of the first film and people would have been satisfied with the story (though Vader’s escaping would have been a dangling thread people would wonder about). Not so here; here there is clearly an ending still to come.

So, in summary, yes, this is a fantastic movie and one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the original film and builds on it in ways the audience probably didn’t expect, deepening the relationships and themes while giving us more of the same action, adventure, and humor we loved in the first film, but in different ways and different doses. There’s less ship combat and more Force powers, for instance; more monsters and less alien communities. If the first film was a textbook in general storytelling, this one is a textbook in how to do a sequel.

Thoughts on ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d including the Holiday Special in my Star Wars rewatch, for the obvious reason that it’s not really part of the series proper. But, in the end, I decided that, since I had it (in the Rifftrax version), I might as well take another look in context of the rest of the series.

I’ve written about this one before, so there will be some repetition, but basically…yeah, it’s incredibly bad. Not just bad in terms of writing and execution, but bad in some really strange ways. Like, one of the first things that happens is that Chewie’s son, Lumpy, and father, Itchy stand around watching a hologram of a circus act for three minutes straight. Who would think that was good idea for any show, let alone a ‘Star Wars’ entry? Kind of a step down from the attack on Princess Leia’s ship.

Of course, that stems from the fact the special is structured as a standard variety show, only set within the ‘Star Wars’ universe. That itself is just such a strange idea; it’s as if, between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, they did a special where Frodo and Sam ended up on a game show en-route to Mordor: why would anyone even think to do this, let alone take the time and spend the money to bring it to life?

Apparently, George Lucas meant this as a way to keep the brand in the public mind and continue to sell merchandise in between films, though it seems he wasn’t directly involved in either the writing or directing of this one, beyond the initial concept. The actual writers, I can only imagine (and at least one has confirmed), were all higher than satellites, to judge by the results. Among other things, we have about a quarter of an hour of Chewbacca’s family, done entirely in Wookie language. So, those growling noises Chewie makes? About half the special is done in that, without subtitles (this, apparently, was entirely Lucas’s idea). Then there’s the softcore porn film starring Diahann Carrol that Itchy gets from Art Carney. Believe me, I wish I could make up something as crazy as that.

Again, why is Chewbacca’s father watching a porno film? Who would even consider filming something like that? Not only in a ‘Star Wars’ entry, but in a ‘holiday special’? Also, that’s not an interpretation: the producers are on record saying that’s exactly what the scene is supposed to represent.

The plot (involving Chewbacca trying to get home to spend ‘Life Day’ with his family) is paper thin, and serves only to provide an extremely flimsy pretext for the skits. Though, even then the skits just sort of come out of nowhere, only occasionally with any justification whatsoever. Like, the Jefferson Starship musical number (no, not making that up) is Art Carney trying to distract an Imperial patrol…only, nothing comes of it; there’s no purpose to the distraction. It just eats up time.

Then there’s the cartoon short, showing a side-adventure of Luke, Han, and the droids, wherein they meet Boba Fett for the first time. This comes about simply from Lumpy watching a video player. Why is he doing that while there are Imperial troops sweeping his house? And why does he even have a cartoon of his father and his friends on an adventure in the first place? Why would such a thing even exist in this universe? You see, even as a framing device, the story is terrible.

As for the cartoon itself, it’s…pretty lame. The animation is terrible (Han in particular looks downright grotesque). The plot, involving a magical talisman that contains an Imperial bioweapon causing a form of sleeping sickness in humans, is at once too complicated and too silly to work even in a cartoon. Boba Fett doesn’t really do anything cool and his plan is foiled in a painfully lazy way, though admittedly it is kind of interesting to see him here before his official introduction in Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of the main cast, they’re barely in the special at all. They just show up now and again for a couple minutes to remind us that ‘oh yeah, this is related to something we liked.’ Not only that, but they’re all kind of…strange. Mark Hamill is buried in very visible makeup meant to hide the effects of a recent car crash. Carrie Fisher, clearly at the height of her drug addiction, is visibly unsteady on her feet and stumbles over her lines. Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is clearly growing more and more bored as the show goes on, until he seems barely able to muster the energy to get his dialogue out. As for James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (who gets a special “and” credit in the opening), he has two scenes, one of which is in the cartoon and the other a dubbed scene from the first film.

Of course, saying the Holiday Special is bad is like saying the original Star Wars is good: it’s pretty much established fact at this point. So, is there anything positive to say about the special?

Actually, there is.

First of all, I really like the fact that the special actually shows the Empire from the point of view of the ordinary people of the galaxy. In the films, we see them doing terrible things, but mostly in the form of broad, specific outrages, mostly directed against the rebels themselves. Here, we get to see Imperial tyranny in the form of small, day-to-day injustices. For instance, there’s an early scene where Art Carney’s character (a trader) shows his wares to an Imperial officer, who, deciding he likes one of the items, simply declares, “I’ll take it” and walks off without paying. That’s a perfectly well-conceived (if not especially well-written) scenario, demonstrating just what the Empire means to ordinary people.

Likewise, a large part of the special is taken up by the Imperial Troops searching Chewie’s house for signs of rebel activity, threatening and abusing his family the whole time. The way Chewie’s family, with Art Carney’s help, have to tread carefully even as they’re tying to get the troops out before Chewbacca comes home is fairly well conceived and again captures that sense of powerlessness that comes from being under a tyrannical government in a way that’s not really seen in the films proper. There was some coherent thought put into this scenario.

Then there’s a late scene where the Empire imposes a curfew that forces the cantina on Tatooine to shut down. This creates a real headache for the owner (Bea Arthur), who finds herself forced to find a way to throw all her low-life customers out without offending them. But, again, there’s nothing she can do about it except to grumble resentfully and try her best.

On that subject, Arthur’s segment in the cantina is easily the best part of the special. Unlike just about everyone else (which includes some fantastically talented people, like Art Carney and Diahann Carrol), she actually puts in a legitimate performance, has some decent material to work with, and is honestly entertaining. There’s a particularly good line where, after being obliged to bribe her customers out with another round of drinks, she complains “I’m running a tab for the Empire.” She even elicits some honest emotions in the scene where she bids her staff goodnight before turning back into the now-empty bar. The whole segment feels refreshingly honest and human, not to mention it’s possibly the only piece of the whole special that actually seems like it fits in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. I can absolutely see Bea Arthur being the owner of the Cantina from original film, and that this is the sort of thing she deals with on a regular basis.

And I will say that the final shots, of Chewie and his family sitting quietly and enjoying ‘Life Day,’ are rather sweet. The preceding scene of Wookies marching through space in robes and Carrie Fisher singing, not so much.

So, yeah, in summary, this is an incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid piece of work, the kind of thing where you really wish you could see the making of, just because you want to know what kind of thought process could have led to some of these scenes. I really hope someone, somewhere does a full-blown research project on this so that one day we can get a full documentary on just what they heck happened to bring this thing to life.

Lazy Writing and Lack of Consequence

Something I’ve noticed about a lot of contemporary films is that they seem to have an almost childish inability to consider real-world consequences. I’m not talking about complex things that the average person wouldn’t think of; I’m talking major factors about how people behave or how the world works.

Let me illustrate with two particularly egregious examples from two popular films.

The first is in The Force Awakens. Midway through the film, the ‘First Order’ activates a weapon that destroys an entire solar system in one shot, wiping out the New Republic (we’ll leave aside the question “so, the Republic ruled over a single solar system and had no assets, presence, fleet, etc. anywhere else?”). Now, there are many, many things wrong with this, including that it’s a lazy attempt to one-up the original Star Wars, and the fact that it’s patently absurd that a small splinter group could create such a monstrosity without anyone in the galaxy being aware of it. For right now, however, we’ll focus on the consequences.

The world-building in the Star Wars sequels is terrible to an embarrassing degree, but the idea seems to be that that First Order is a relatively small, covert group of former Empire troops and officers. In any case, they do not have a great deal of power or presence in the galaxy, only in certain portions of it. They’re like ISIS, for a real-world comparison.

Now, imagine that ISIS got hold of and detonated nuclear weapons in, say, New York, Washington, and London. Millions of people dead, the world rattled. What do you think the reaction would be from the world at large to this kind of monstrosity? The rubble wouldn’t even have begun to settle before half the planet came roaring to their doorsteps. No nation would dare harbor them, and it would only be a matter of time before they were wiped off the face of the globe.

In The Force Awakens, the universe at large apparently ignores the event, leaving the couple-hundred survivors of the Republic to go after the First Order with a fleet of twelve small ships.

You see what I mean? The Force Awakens was written with absolutely no idea of how people and nations actually behave in the real world, or even with the idea that they’re a factor at all. It’s a child’s perspective: whoever has the biggest gun can do whatever he wants. The big kid can demand your lunch money simply because he’s big and can hurt you.

Now, you might say “it’s Star Wars: it’s not supposed to be realistic.” Except that the original film actually did take this sort of thing into account. For one thing, it was conceivable for the Empire to create a weapon like the Death Star because it ruled with an iron fist and controlled most of the galaxy. But even so, the word of the weapon got out before it was quite finished and the Rebellion moved to stop it, being hampered by their own comparative smallness.

What’s more, the film makes it clear that the Death Star is a gamble for the Empire. We learn early on that there is, or has been, an Imperial Senate, which could make trouble for the Emperor if it found out about his plans. Later some of the Imperial officers are shocked to find that the senate has been dissolved and wonder whether they’ll be able to maintain control without it.

So, the original Star Wars, often seen as a simple adventure for children, had a better sense of how the real world works than The Force Awakens.

Now another example: Black Panther (yes, I do rather like picking on that film). The plot of that movie is kicked off (about two-thirds of the way through) when Killmonger returns to Wakanda and takes the throne from T’Challa. We won’t discuss how stupid it was for T’Challa to even accept the challenge in the first place, nor question how our hero managed to lose to a guy who had never trained with the weapons they were fighting with. Let’s just pick up at the point where Killmonger becomes king.

One of the very first things he does is order the destruction of the flowers that convey the Black Panther powers, thereby effectively ending the continuity of the monarchy (again, we won’t discuss how stupid the flower thing is. You starting to see a pattern?). The next thing he does is inform the high council that they’re going to abandon their tradition of isolation and lead a global war of genocide against the white race and anyone else who stands in their way, explicitly promising to kill women and children.

So, a complete outsider who has never lived in that country comes in, assumes the throne, destroys the monarchy, and announces they’re going to abandon all their traditions in favor of mass-murder of the innocents, all in the space of about a day, and no one does anything about it? He doesn’t instantly lose the support of the army, the governing council, the priesthood, or any of the civilian population; they all just go along with it except a handful of die-hard T’Challa loyalists? The only time anyone even questions any of this is when the one lady protests the flower burning until he chokes her into complying.

Again, this is a child’s view of kingship: he’s the king, so he can do whatever he wants and everyone else has to obey. That’s not how real monarchies work. If a guy no one’s heard about comes waltzing in and somehow takes the throne, then suddenly orders them to start a campaign of genocide with nothing better than “I killed this one guy you didn’t like,” he would instantly lose all authority. Assuming the military didn’t rebel against him for ordering them to commit atrocities, the council would decide that someone else actually has a much better claim to be king and depose him.

Heck, something like that happens in the film, with T’Challa’s friends going to the gorilla guy. Realistically, the entire Wakandan government should be knocking on his door begging him to take the throne and promising the support of the entire military. Actually they should never have allowed Killmonger to even approach the throne in the first place, as they guy is practically wearing a neon sign that reads “angry psychopath.”

Real-life kings can’t just arbitrarily order their subjects to do terrible things or abandon all their traditions, or destroy the continuity of the government in the space of a single day and expect their people to put up with it. Even Hitler had to work his way up to genocide through propaganda and building a powerbase, and he still had to give his people an at least semi-plausible pretext for war. Killmonger just goes in and says, “you’re going to murder the innocent because I say so,” and Wakanda is only too happy to comply, even though it’s contrary to how they’ve done things for thousands of years. Considering they’re supposed to be the most civilized and advanced nation in the world, their government structure is more primitive and has fewer checks and balances than that of an actual tribal monarchy.

You see my point: these kinds of big-budget, hi-profile blockbusters all too often read like they were written by children, with only the broadest, vaguest idea of how people behave or how the real world works. Things happen because we say they happen; if we want the bad guy to have a super-duper weapon, he’ll have it. Never mind how he would have gotten it or how the rest of this world would react to his using it. The bad guy is in charge, so he can do whatever he wants, even if it’s to effectively destroy his own government while ordering the army to commit genocide.

This is the kind of thing meant by ‘lazy writing:’ the writers want something to happen, so they simply declare that it is to be, without considering how it fits into the world of the story.

For a contrast, consider Rampage; the goofy video game adaptation starring the Rock. It’s a silly movie, but plot-wise it’s actually fairly solid. For a specific counterexample of what I mean, the entire plot is kicked off by an evil corporation performing illegal genetic experiments. Yes, that old cliché, but note how it proceeds: they don’t just get to do what they want because they’re rich (contrast Ready Player One, where the corporation had it’s own prisons), they have to do their work undercover, on the side. As soon as their secret begins to leak, they have the FBI show up and demand all their computer servers in no uncertain terms, and that’s even with their attempt at a cover story.

A lazy writer would have made them impervious to official harm, leaving our plucky heroes to take them down, maybe giving them their own private military or something equally stupid. This film presents a more realistic image of a fairly normal company run by a sociopath who runs covert illegal operations on the side, but who has to tread carefully lest the law come calling.

Rampage is a film that, for all silliness, was clearly written by adults. The Force Awakens, Black Panther, and similar films feel like they were written by children, or tossed off in a first draft because the writers figured they could rely on the other elements to carry them through.

 

Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

When Reviews Are Meaningless

A lot of times people (myself included) will say of some film that they’re on the fence about seeing ‘it depends on what the reviews say.’ If the general consensus appears to be that it’s worth seeing, then we’ll go see it. If not, we won’t.

When it comes to something like Star Wars, though, the initial reviews are essentially meaningless.

You see, a Star Wars movie is an event: the franchise is so big, its following so devoted, and its name so famous that it’s all-but guaranteed a strong opening reaction, in terms of both box office and critics. Fans are liable to be so excited and, consequently, so invested in having a good time that they’ll enjoy it almost no matter what (don’t think I’m mocking anyone: I’m the same way. If there’s a new Godzilla movie coming out, I’m going to see it and I’m going to like it unless it tries very, very hard to convince me I shouldn’t).

It pays to remember that Phantom Menace got glowing reviews when it first came out (for instance, Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars) and is now regarded as one of the most famously bad films ever made. Likewise Force Awakens still has lots of defenders, but not nearly as many as when it first came out.

Going to see the new Star Wars is like going on a date with Miss America; unless she starts stabbing you with a fork you’re probably going to come away saying you had a good time no matter what happens.

But after the initial excitement of the event wears off, after you’ve dated her for a few weeks and gotten used to the sight of her perfect face and body, that’s when you start to have a serious, sensible assessment of the event.

So, I’m sticking with my decision not to see The Last Jedi in theaters, no matter what the critics say. I’ll check back in a few months, when the excitement has worn off, and see what people are saying then. My guess is that a lot of people who are saying they liked it now are going to be a bit more critical later.