Features

Much Ado About Star Wars

A Retrospective Analysis To Accompany The Impending Sequels.
By: Jack Dawson


Well it’s December, the heat has risen and the snow-themed decorations are everywhere, which means it’s time for that special occasion that comes around once a year.

I’m talking of course, about the release of a Star Wars film.

Starting this year, Disney will release one new star Wars film every year for the next six years, so now seems like a good time to take stock and look at the films that have come before, if only so we can have some ammunition to throw at Abrams if the film turns out to be a disappointment.

The Phantom Menace:

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now. The Prequels are not especially good films, ranging from pretty decent to unwatchable, and all stand as blatant failures to understand the spirit of Star Wars as well as a basic inability to direct or write on the part of George Lucas.

With that out of the way, I actually quite like Phantom Menace.

For one thing, I grew up with the film, it has as much nostalgic value for me as the original trilogy.
For another, it’s got some great music and some pretty decent art design (racist caricatures and dodgy CGI aside). For every moment that falls flat, the audience usually gets a visual treat that very nearly makes up for it. Yes there’s Jar Jar Binks, the Gungans, the seriously dated CGI and some of the flattest performances there’s ever been. But there’s also Pod-Racing, Palpatine, John Williams’ score, and the novelty of seeing how a hyped production with everything going for it can crash and burn so spectacularly.

There’s some good ideas at work behind the political machinations of the story, the idea of corruption infesting a republic being egged on by shadowy onlookers is rally novel when applied to the otherwise moralistic Star Wars series, and the Jedi being portrayed as flawed humans who are too divorced from everyday life is likewise fascinating.

But it becomes clear that George Lucas really doesn’t have the necessary expertise or nuance to effectively interrogate those themes, and so we got this mess of a movie. But more than a decade after the fact, I’d be prepared to argue that it’s a loveable mess.

Attack of the Clones:

I will make no such argument for this film.

In a franchise as venerable and prolific as Star Wars, Attack of the Clones must surely be the nadir.
It’s got the worst script, the worst direction, the worst performances, the worst pacing, the worst integration of the prequel trilogy’s ideas and themes, and actually caused me physical pain when I re-watched it.

And again, there are some great concepts at work, seeing the beginning of the fabled clone wars, the romance that would spell Anakin’s downfall, and even the origins of Boba Fett. And it’s all awful. I don’t think I need to talk too much about why the romance between Anakin and Padme doesn’t work, there’s no chemistry between the actors and their dynamic is more disturbing than it is endearing.

And that romance is one half of the emotional heart of the movie, which ensures that I’ll give a damn about the central mystery and the eventual war. The other half of this emotional heart is the friendship between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, which is represented here by the two of them snapping at each other, hurling insults behind the others back, and otherwise glaring at each other.

About the only good things to come out of this film are Christopher Lee, and the two animated series based on the Clone Wars as an event, which stand as some of the best products in the Star Wars Canon.
I only ever watched this film once as a child, and I never felt any inclination of watching it again until putting together this retrospective. And now I remember why.

Revenge of the Sith:

Of all the Star Wars films, I think I’ve seen this one the most, and I actually think it holds up well without any nostalgia on my part. There’s a lot to unpack in this film, but what I really took away from this film was that it finally learned from the mistakes of its predecessors.

Mostly.

The romance between Anakin and Padme is still a non-starter, and the CGI, while improved, is still distractingly bad. Plus, there are just a handful of lines that induce unintentional laughter even now (‘From my point of view, the Jedi are evil’ is a shining example).

But the good moments outweigh the bad, and for the first time in the Prequel trilogy, there are a handful of great moments. The opening sequence, the duel between Obi-Wan and Grevious, the tale of Darth Plagueis, the thousand yard stare between Padme and Anakin across the city, the final duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan, and every second that Ian McDiamond is onscreen, all of these moments are electrifying to watch.

Some people accuse Revenge of the Sith of trying too hard to make Anakin sympathetic, but after his portrayal in Attack of the Clones, I’d argue that it’s necessary to compensate. If I had to watch the Anakin from Clones burn alive in lava, I’d probably end up cheering instead of staring in mute horror like I usually do when I see the once Heroic Jedi screaming about how he hates his oldest friend.

You’ve got to be prepared to make a lot of compromises when watching the Prequel Trilogy, especially if you want to escape with your sanity intact. But with this last film, I felt like the exchange is weighed a little more in the viewer’s favour. But now we’re moving out of the uncomfortable disappointment of the Prequel movies, and into the rosy comfort zone of nostalgia.

A New Hope:

About Thirty-Five Years ago in a country a long way away, George Lucas was sitting on a sure-fire bomb. He’d directed a couple of films before, and had some talented friends in his corner, but things weren’t looking good for his passion project. The Special Effects team had been wasting months by ignoring the film in favour of dropping fridges from great heights onto concrete floors to see how they sounded, he’d cast a local Carpenter as one of the leads, The Classy British Actors™ didn’t think much of Lucas or his film, and nobody really expected it to make back its budget.

But in time, the film was released, Lucas took a holiday to de-stress and avoid the scorn he’d no doubt receive, and the entire film industry was turned on its head. Jaws might have defined the Summer Blockbuster model that we’ve all come to expect/dread, but it was A New Hope that brought about the merchandise racket, resurrected Science Fiction and Fantasy as profitable genres, and solidified Lucas as an A-List Director.

I don’t really need to justify the film’s clumsier moments (anyone remember that slow-paced duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader?) or point out that interviews from the time period prove that no one had any idea about any kind of over-arching story or epic character arc for the next two films; the film’s influence and value is evident in nearly every blockbuster movie we see today.

The Empire Strikes Back:

Nowadays, nearly everyone designates this film as the best Star Wars film, in large part due to its dark themes, dire stakes and one of the greatest twist endings in all of cinema. And leaving aside the fact that a lot of critics disagreed with this sentiment on its initial release, I’m inclined to agree.

While the first film has a few crow’s feet to show, Empire Strikes Back has aged spectacularly well. The action, the effects, the romance (which I’ve been told was mostly improvised by Ford and Fisher), the side characters, it’s all still as thrilling to watch now as it was then.

And I guess now’s as good a time as any to quickly address the changes made to the original footage in the original footage. I grew up with the 1997 special editions, and I have mixed feelings on some of the changes. Han not getting to shoot first is an awful change, Ewoks having eyelids doesn’t bother me one way or the other, and I think that Darth Vader unmasked looking more like a burn victim than Fester Addams is a massive improvement.

At their best, the added footage and revisions that comprise most of the changes improve the original films, giving them a chance to go over previous mistakes and even include more characters from the Expanded Universe. At worst, they intrude on the pacing of the films and even undermine some signature scenes.

And for a movie that stands on its own so well, these changes feel unnecessary.
I’m not really sure what else there is to say about it, it’s just a damn good movie with only a few faults that you should definitely go watch, see if it holds up as well as your remember.
Because this next one didn’t hold up nearly as well for me.

Return of the Jedi:

Now just to be clear, I’m not saying this is a bad film.

But I would probably rank it lower than Revenge of the Sith.

There are some great scenes in Return of the Jedi, and then there are some that make you wonder why we didn’t see the faults of the Prequel trilogy coming. The biggest problem is, of course, the Ewoks. I don’t even mind them that much as creatures, carnivorous Teddy Bears are kind of a fun idea. But the scenes where Luke and the Rebels bond with their Fuzzy Friends are so boring that I wanted to skip over them straight to the climax. And then I remembered doing just that as a kid.

I dunno about you, but two-fifths of a movie failing to excite the interest of the viewer sounds like a pretty big problem to me. Though honestly the entire film kind of feels like a non-starter, especially compared to the previous two films, and I don’t know why.

Maybe it’s the pacing, maybe it’s the moralising, maybe it’s just an internal caving to pressure from the broader geek community about how annoying Ewoks are, but Return of the Jedi never really grabbed me in the way the other films did.

But it wouldn’t be Star Wars if I didn’t have to deal with disappointment. We’ve kept buying into this decades old franchise on the promise of films just as good as the first two, and even if we didn’t get that, we did get a lesson in coping with disappointment in a meaningful way. That’s not a terrible legacy for a franchise to leave behind, and I’d like to think that in addition to tempering our expectations, we’ve also learned to not take the films so seriously.

Of course if you need help with that, Mel Brooks can help you out.

Spaceballs:

What do you mean this shouldn’t count?! Next you’ll tell me that the Star Wars Holiday Christmas Special isn’t an integral part of the Star Wars Canon!

Never forget.
Never forget.

Actually it’s amazing how well this film holds up. A lot of people remember the 80s as a golden era for comedy, but I’ve always seen it as hit or miss. Some of the old ‘classics’ really haven’t aged that well, from the punching-down sensibilities (hello National Lampoon’s Vacation) to the irredeemably illegal actions that we’re supposed to find endearing (hello Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to the moral myopia where the main character is never wrong (hello all of the Police Academy movies).

But Spaceballs is one of the more consistently funny films of the era, if a little underwhelming compared to Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. There are a few flat notes, but the jokes that work usually knock it out of the park. The set pieces are legitimately impressive, Dark Helmet is one of the most consistently funny characters I’ve ever seen, and even the out-of-nowhere dining scene is too funny to object to.

And if you are familiar with Star Wars, you get to laugh at the hokey plots, the obscene amount of merchandise, and the simplistic morality that Spaceballs pokes fun at like it was going out of style. But none of this ever feels mean-spirited or unfair, instead it’s the kind of playful ribbing that’s borne out of true affection for the source material.

Plus, Spaceballs seems to have predicted a lot of modern movie trends. Remember the Spaceballs Flamethrower?

image a

Well guess what hot new item is available now?

image b

What about the pathetic sight of Dark Helmet conversing with inanimate objects in a private space?

image c

Well, get ready to see it again.

image d

Or what about an integrated Stormtrooper legion in the desert?

Image E

Looks like Abrams also thought it was an evocative image.

Image F

And what other film could have foretold the laughingstock that the Alien series would become thanks to inane repetition and a complete misunderstanding of the basic tenants of horror?

Image G

All I’m saying is, if the giant ‘Not-A-Death-Star-Really’ turns out to be a giant robot maid, I know I won’t be surprised.