Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

Sent to resolve a taxation dispute with the Trade Federation, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) instead find themselves under attack as Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) orders an illegal invasion of the planet Naboo. The Jedi – along with exiled native Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) – escape with The Queen (Natalie Portman) and depart for Coruscant in order to find favour with the Galactic Senate. Forced to stop on Tatooine for repairs, the Jedi happen across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with whom The Force is unusually strong. Their discovery does not go unnoticed by Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), however, the political alias of a burgeoning Sith power.

Thirteen years ago, in a galaxy uncomfortably close to the bone, a loyal fan-base snorted in derision at a movie so apparently terrible that it not only made a mockery of their decades of devotion, but tarnished the memory of their once-hallowed original trilogy as well. Betrayed by the man to whom they had given years of their lives, a considerable sum of money and their first cinematic love, a generation found themselves sorely disenfranchised by the infamous phantom menace.

Except, they didn’t really. In the subsequent years, these individuals have upgraded their collection first onto DVD and then onto Blu-ray, continued to invest in expanded universe games and novels, and returned to watch the film’s two sequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. There is still great affection for George Lucas’ brain child, and where a generation was once inspired by the original trilogy, so too has a generation been enchanted by the new series of films. The franchise has endured, despite the continued resistance of a select few.

With Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace returning to cinema screens following a 3D overhaul, old wounds might once again begin to itch, however, as those once slighted by the film’s 1999 release question why they would ever wish to see the film again. After all, it is the same film, riddled with the same flaws, simply retrofitted in 3D. This is true, but with over a decade to let the old scars heal, I urge you to revisit The Phantom Menace and make peace with a film mired in unjustified contempt.

It’s ridiculous, after all, to think that George Lucas has somehow done his fans wrong by not making the movie that they wanted to see. It’s a shame to think that the man himself has been worn down to the point of retiring having been unfairly vilified by a group of people who just happen to have grown old and cynical faster than he can make movies. The Star Wars films have never belonged on a pedestal, their iconic status ultimately bestowed on them by misguided audiences determined to adopt the franchise as their own, resulting in a sense of entitlement that would see them become their beloved franchise’s own worst enemy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say the film is perfect, or even particularly great. Indeed, the problems with The Phantom Menace – and the prequel trilogy as a whole – have been well documented: the overly exclamatory dialogue that is rife with exposition, the embarrassingly wooden acting as actors grapple with excessive green-screen and a plot that gets too bogged down in pseudo politics to allow for any real momentum or character development. The truth is, however, that many of these criticisms can be just as easily levelled at the other films, and if we can overcome clunky dialogue and awkward plotting for them – anyone who denies there’s political jargon in A New Hope simply isn’t listening hard enough – then what’s stopping us here? Surely it can’t just be nostalgia alone?

Because – as I have already argued – there is so much to love in The Phantom Menace, particularly now that it has been spread over an extra dimension. The pod race, the lightsaber battles and the space dogfights are on a par with anything the series has to offer, and with the benefit of stereoscopy this is clearer than ever. This is one of the best conversions I have ever scene, the screen opening up to a degree reminiscent of the finest 3D experiences. Coruscant is quite simply breath-taking, while the underwater world inhabited by Naboo’s Gungan quotient dazzles as it looms into view. There is a size and scope to Lucas’ creation that is utterly cinematic – from Darth Maul to Sebulba, Mos Espa to the Galactic Senate – it’s pure genre entertainment.

But as ever, The Phantom Menace‘s biggest asset has never been the films admittedly stunning visuals. The film’s score is arguably one of John Williams’ finest; as the Star Wars theme blasts out over the opening crawl, it is impossible not to feel time rewind and yourself regress back to childhood once more. But unlike the film’s narrative – which riffs quite obviously (and unfortunately) on Return of the Jedi – this is no rehash. The usual leitmotifs are blended with a more diverse soundtrack, as the true operatics of this space opera come into play, crescendoing with the film’s piece-de-resistance: Dual of the Fates. Throw in Ben Burtt’s characteristically impeccable sound design and you have a film that is tantalisingly close to being note-perfect.

Revisiting Star Wars Episode I you will quickly realise that Jar Jar Binks is nowhere near as annoying as you remember him to be, that the midichlorians do little to demystify The Force and that the laughable Yoda puppet has been mercifully replaced with a decidedly more palatable special effect. Of course it could have been improved; the opening could be more exciting, the dialogue written by literally anyone else and Jake Lloyd replaced with someone who could actually act – if only Max Records or Dakota Goya had been around in 1999 – but even as it stands, The Phantom Menace is far from the mess your unfounded prejudices would have you believe.

Imagined as the cinematic equivalent of a Saturday morning serial, The Phantom Menace serves its purpose completely. While the film may be juvenile, flawed and inconsistent, it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted, ruthlessly imagined and wildly entertaining piece of children’s entertainment. Not a travesty or a betrayal, just a perfectly serviceable slice of science fiction. Nothing more, nothing less.

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Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Arriving at its much anticipated third instalment, Star Wars had a choice of three trilogy-standard options: sell out, jump the shark or cast Sofia Coppola. Lucas, however – never one to meet audience’s expectations (ZING!) – decided instead to replace the previous film’s battle of Hoth with a giant intergalactic slug, pit our hero against a veritable geriatric, and end everything with cinema’s least welcome Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Have seen this coming, not even Yoda could.

The point, however, is that Return of the Jedi didn’t sully what came before. It might be the weak link in the original trilogy, but in relation to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back that’s broaching on a regrettable inevitability. Boasting its fair share of iconic moments and franchise highs, Return of the Jedi is still first-rate entertainment, and a film that – at the age of six – I honestly couldn’t get enough of.

R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) are once again wandering the Tatooine desert, bickering as though nothing has changed. The truth, however, is that everything has changed: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a now one-armed Jedi coming to terms with the revelation that his nemesis is also his father; Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is encased in carbonite and occupying prime space on Jabba the Hut’s mantle; and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) can’t find any shoes to go with her shiny new gold bikini. Inadvertently offering themselves to Jabba as gifts, R2D2 and C3PO could be forgiven for thinking things couldn’t get much worse.

When Jabba soon has near enough the entire Rebel Alliance captive, they begin an uprising which leaves Jabba choking on a slave-girl, Boba Fett waiting it out in the Sarlaac’s stomach and our heroes liberated and ready to fight another day. Departing once again for Dagobah, Luke says his goodbyes to Yoda (Frank Oz) and learns that he may or may not be related to everyone with a name credit in the entire franchise. Han and Leia, on the other hand, rendezvous with the rebel fleet and plan their latest assault on the Imperial Empire.

Landing on The Forest Moon Of Endor (clearly distinguishing it from all those other moons called Endor), our heroes befriend the natives and set about destroying the structure responsible for the new Death Star’s protective shield so that the fleet can attack. Luke confronts Vader only to find himself hauled before the Emperor himself, earning himself a prime view of the destruction of the alliance. When the shield is deactivated, however, Lando Calrissian leads the fleet into the Death Star aboard the Millennium Falcon, successfully destroying the main reactor. Saved from the Emperor by a repentant and injured Vader, Luke escapes in time to catch the fireworks with his friends in a cosy treehouse in the Endor woodland.

Many people chastise George Lucas for continually meddling with his creation, but really, who are they to tell the man how to do his job? It’s an issue that – with the release of the full franchise on Blu-ray – I think is of particular relevance. With the high-definition format suddenly shining a spot light on older movies’ unfortunate wrinkles, we should really be thanking Lucas for maintaining such a level of involvement in his creation so that it moves with the times. It’s value for money really, every time you revisit the movies there is always something new to spot.

I have found myself looking at this phenomenon as a microcosm for the prequel trilogy, the reactions of fans to these tweaks representative of their feelings towards Episodes I, II and III. Think about it, it isn’t that George Lucas has suddenly lost his mojo and decided to urinate all over your favourite movies; it’s just that nostalgia is blinding you to the director’s trademark style. The new song sung in Jabba’s chamber is no more or less awful than the song which preceded it. It’s you that has changed – and while you might have been willing to let the first one slide, having become too familiar to judge it objectively, there is no childhood nostalgia to blind you to the God-awfulness of its replacement.

Return of the Jedi is no better or worse for Lucas’ modifications, I’m just thankful to the director for showing such loyalty to his creation. Whatever Sy Snootles decides to sing, whoever plays Anakin Skywalker’s ghost, it really is completely inconsequential. For those watching the film for the very first time, these changes are likely to have no impact whatsoever.

What makes Return of the Jedi such an enjoyable movie has well and truly stood the test of time. It’s funny, exciting and resolves the numerous plot threads with total satisfaction. It is this dénouement, the final battle, that had – and still has – me foaming like an enchanted school boy. While Luke’s final confrontation with Vader may pail in comparison to the high-octane lightsaber battles of the prequels, it still packs a punch as Luke tries one last time to save his father. Intercut with a large scale ambush on The Forest Moon Of Endor and the second best space-battle this side of Coruscant’s atmosphere, it sees the franchise out on a pulse-pounding high.

Yes the Ewoks are about as agreeable as asbestos; yes Boba Fett bites the Sarlaac without much of a fight; yes that shot during Luke’s tussle with the Rancor still makes no sense (seriously George, all that tinkering and you still haven’t fixed that!?), but I still wouldn’t believe you claimed not to punch the air every time the Falcon escaped the exploding Death Star. Liar liar TIE Fighter on fire.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Call me sheepish (or a bog-standard copy-cat), but having kick-started HeyUGuys’ Video Vault tribute to the Star Wars saga with my own take on A New Hope, I have found myself unwilling to relinquish my soap box just yet. As a result, here’s my retrospective review of the second film in George Lucas’ (largely) esteemed franchise: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, about to arrive on Blu-ray in every half-decent retailer near you.

Now, for a long time Empire Strikes Back was my least favourite film in the original trilogy – I know, kids are stupid – it spent half its time in tedious conversation with a rubber puppet and the rest being all dark and serious and (forgive me) boring. Where was the swashbuckle? The happy ending? The Ewoks? Naturally I have grown to love Irvin Kershner’s sequel – joining the rest of the civilised world in championing it as not only the best in the series, but one of the finest movies ever made.

Having relocated to Hoth for a bit of a winter break, the Rebel Alliance is regrouping after the events of the first movie. On a routine surveillance mission, Luke Skywalker is preparing to return to base when he is suddenly clawed off his taun-taun by the planet’s abominable snow-thing. Han and Leia have problems of their own, as they intercept an Imperial signal and destroy a probe droid, but not before it has alerted the Empire to their location.

Saving Luke from his predicament in time to take on Vader’s infantry, the rebels separate when their defences prove futile. As Luke heeds a ghostly vision’s advice and heads to the Degobah system, Han and the others depart Hoth with the Empire in hot pursuit, taking refuge first in a dubious asteroid and then on the mining colony, Bespin. Betrayed by acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han is subsequently probed (literally) for information regarding Skywalker.

Alerted to his friends’ situation while learning about The Force from Jedi Master Yoda, Luke departs for Bespin against his teacher’s wishes – promising to return and complete his training once his friends are safe. Ambushed by Vader, and too late to save Han from being encased in carbonite, Luke loses his arm in battle, learning a terrible truth in the process: that Darth Vader is in fact his father. Taking a leap of fate and escaping death, Luke reunites with his friends (sans Han), whose own escape was facilitated by a repentant Calrissian, and prepares to save Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut.

The thing I love about The Empire Strikes Back – and the thing I missed during my informative years – is how funny it is. Obviously, I’m not talking hysterics or giggles of the inadvertent variety, but a good humoured script that plays its characters off one another to charming – and occasionally comic – effect. While A New Hope was a particularly massive technical achievement, it is hardly famed for its adept characterisation. A cast of archetypes, it worked because it attacked its story with infectious bravado, more than happy to accept its standing as a fairy-tale in space.

Kershner, however, injects a welcome dose of soap opera into Lucas’ universe, beautifully complimenting the creator’s expanding mythology and increased interpersonal conflict. Han Solo and Leia Organa in particular benefit from this greater emphasis on character, their relationship deepened through Lando’s intrusions and their unrequieted feelings for one another, ultimately leading to a very real emotional climax – important because of the lack of story resolution come the closing credits. R2D2 and C3PO continue to brim with personality, too, with the former’s resolve and the latter’s prissy pessimism comprising an engaging double team, C3PO’s ability to rub everyone and their space-ship up the wrong way leading to some of the film’s most entertaining scenes.

For many, however, it is the narrative expansion that gives Empire its edge. By introducing Yoda and the Emperor, Lucas teases a history that will not be further explored for another thirty-odd years. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the whole story, but it nevertheless manages to deliver an accomplished and hugely satisfying story in its own right. In willing to not only tease a wider mythology but leave the story in disarray and its heroes in transit, Empire is the main argument for the saga being more than just children’s entertainment. For better or worse, it is Star Wars at its most mature.

From Hoth to Bespin, Yoda to Lando and the frying pan to the fire, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute delight. To the tune of John Williams’ Imperial March, Kershner duly rises to the challenge and delivers the movie George Lucas never could. Sure, I never grew up wanting to be a two-foot tall frog puppet living in exile on a swamp planet but, like I said, kids are stupid.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

A long time ago, in a living room far, far away (well, Elgin), I remember sitting down to watch Star Wars for the very first time. Now, twenty-odd years, a full franchise and hundreds of pounds worth of merchandise later, I am sitting down to watch it again in anticipation of the saga’s encroaching release on Blu-ray.

The problem with Star Wars, however – and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type – is that it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like so much more than that. A childhood spent mimicking the sound of a YT-1300 light freighter (not) making the jump to lightspeed; the rush of endorphins that dutifully follows the recitation of the series’ theme music; a deep conviction that Han Solo shot first; and a general aversion to any religion which doesn’t grant you Force powers and a complimentary lightsaber. It’s a part of who I am.

And it all started here: in garish yellow print before a jaw-dropping pan through space, right into the centre of a heated exchange between an asthmatic masked invalid and a princess of dubious nobility. Right in the centre of the action are two droids – the heart and mouth of a franchise that is taking its first gasps of life. R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) – or The Simpsons’ gay droids from Star Wars – are given a message meant for Alec Guinness (Alec Guinness) and carted off to the nearby planet of Tatooine, where they are quickly captured by a gang of intergalactic hoodlums and sold to a young farm-boy (Mark Hamill) and his Aunt and Uncle.

When Darth Vader (David Prowse) and Darth Vader’s voice (James Earl Jones) realise that precious information has been leaked, he sends his gleaming white Stormtroopers in search of the escaped droids. R2D2, determined to complete the mission set him by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and deliver the plans to Mr. Guinness, leads Luke Skywalker and C3PO away from the farm moments before his relatives are searched and killed by Stormtroopers. United in the desert, Alec Guinness tells Luke that he once knew his father, having fought with him in the Clone Wars (you had to be there…or maybe you didn’t) as Jedi Knights.

With nowhere else to go, Luke accompanies Alec, along with chauffeurs Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to the planet Alderaan aboard Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. Finding the planet in ruin, literally, they encounter a fighter ship nearby and inadvertently follow it into range of a giant, moonlike structure’s tractor-beam. Captured by this Death Star, Luke and Han discover that the princess is being held captive and is to be executed. Setting out to save her while Alec Guinness disables the space-station’s tractor-beam, they run afoul of a group of Stormtroopers and are forced to make an immediate escape. Fleeing aboard the Falcon, minus Alec Guiness who was killed in battle with Darth Vader, our heroes are followed back to a rebel base on Yavin IV, where they are forced to stand up to the Death Star before it can attack, and destroy Vader’s Empire once and for all.

As if you didn’t know. Star Wars, and this original film in particular, has punctured public awareness and dominated pop culture like no other. Phrases like “May The Force be with you”, “These are not the droids you’re looking for” and “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories” (OK, maybe not so much) have become common-place, almost independent of their source. While Trekkies hid in their basements, practising their Vulcan nerve pinches and sharpening their home-made bat’leths, the masses embraced Star Wars completely, as the droids left their mark on the Hollywood walk of fame and Jedi even became a practised religion in its own right.

A beautifully organic high-concept that kicks the traditional fairy-tale into orbit, George Lucas has created a film that speaks to people of all ages, helping to form the blockbuster concept and inspiring a generation of filmmakers to pick up the mantle. The film’s legacy is incredible, not only making way for another five instalments but sowing the seeds for Pixar (through Industrial Light and Magic) to later reap, patenting a lived-in future to be fervently mimicked by everyone from Ridley Scott and James Cameron to Joss Whedon, as well as instigating  innumerable other stylistic and technological innovations without which modern cinema couldn’t conceivably exist.

While there may be naysayers who claim Star Wars to be derivative, poorly written and over-blown (and who may, dare I say, even have a point), there is no denying that Star Wars is much more than the sum of its parts. Taking characters from The Hidden Fortress (1958)scenes from The Dam Busters (1955) and elements of the setting from Dune (1984), Lucas has nevertheless worked his influences into something endlessly compelling, beautifully realised and utterly timeless; something that has inevitable gone on to pay its own dividends in terms of homages (take a bow, Robot Chicken and Family Guy). Star Wars may just be a kids movie, a Saturday morning matinee in the vein of Flash Gordon, but it’s so rewatchable, so entertaining and so completely majesterial that that is of no consequence whatsoever.

Laying foundations that will be built upon (and…well, the opposite of built upon) by its two sequels and three prequels, Star Wars has continued to represent the very best in sound design, special effects and blockbuster filmmaking, overcoming its flaws with an inherent quality that is perhaps best evidenced in John Williams’ continued loyalty to the  franchise. Say what you will about clunky dialogue (who wouldn’t have a bad feeling about this?!), infantile comic relief (BUT SIR! C3PO remains my favourite character) and Lucas’ incessant tinkering that accompanies every re-release (OK, I’ve got nothing), but only a crazy person could find fault in a film which has brought us Williams’ titanic ‘Main Title’ and iconic score (‘The Imperial March’ didn’t come until later, the unmatched ‘Dual of the Fates’ until even later still).

But, whatever Star Wars means to cinema, however much money it made George Lucas (at last count: lots) and regardless of how thankful James Cameron might be that he was spared a career as a truck driver, I will always remember Star Wars as that little film that blew my mind. For years all I wanted was to be a Jedi, a Corellian spice smuggler, or, Hell, a Jawa if I flunked school. I loved Star Wars like I’d never loved a film before, and continue to love it to this day. Seriously, just ask my lightspeed impression, it’s very convincing.