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Many Bothans Died to Bring You This Post

26 December, 2017 (22:21) | Star Wars | By: Ian Burdon

After my initial thoughts on The Last Jedi (spoilers) I’ve watched all 9 of the Star Wars movies in timeline order and seen The Last Jedi a second time. I don’t think I’ve done that before and most of the earlier movies I haven’t watched for some time.

This post is the result of that immersion. I’m not going to claim there are any great insights ahead, it’s just my thoughts. Nor am I going to attempt a ranking of the films other than to say the prequel trilogy and The Return of the Jedi are, for different reasons, the weakest of the series, and that’s hardly a controversial view.

If you haven’t seen it yet, this post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi

I acknowledge from the outset that the films are adventures for children not old farts like me. Lindsay said she loved The Phantom Menace when she was eleven, but doesn’t have the same sense of enjoyment now, so mission accomplished by George Lucas in that sense.

Lindsay is responsible for the production stills used below.

The Prequels

Bruce Lee as Obi-Wing Chunobi, in Enter the Jedi (1973), an early inspiration for Lucas’s Star Wars

I’ve written previously that I liked Star Wars because of its call backs to Saturday morning serials in the cinema when I was 10 or 11. There was little or no attempt at any more backstory than absolutely necessary for a simple tale. The prequels differed in that they were a deliberate attempt to add a complex history to turn the six films into the saga of the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

I watched all of the movies for this post on my laptop on DVD, except Rogue One which I played on Blu-Ray with the sound through the HiFi, and The Force Awakens which I have on Blu-Ray but watched on Netflix. I watched The Last Jedi at the cinema, first in 3D then on an IMAX screen. It was obvious from the beginning that the prequels do not play to best effect on the laptop screen. They are the most heavily digital of the movies and it showed. Effects shots just didn’t look great, and the matte scenes looked like gameplay rather than cinematic. That wouldn’t matter if the story held your attention, but…

Tony Curtis as Long-Gone Jones in the 1958 original of The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace. Good story, but not well executed. There is far too much exposition and explanation; ‘show don’t tell’ holds as true for the cinema as for prose. The dialogue is as wooden as a forestry plantation. A tighter edit might well improve it a lot. And then there’s Jar-Jar Binks who, if nothing else, stands as testimony that George Lucas learned nothing from Ewoks about putting stereotypes on screen.

Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers never felt the need to delve too far into the history of the villains, or to turn their stories into redemption arcs. If the Saga had started with The Phantom Menace in 1977, there would never have been any subsequent movies and this would be an oddity shown late at night on obscure cable channels.

Attack of the Clones. I enjoyed this much more than The Phantom Menace. It is quick to action and Ewan McGregor comes into his own when Obi-Wan gets to go off on an adventure of his own. Another wooden script, though, and I’m not in the slightest bit surprised Anakin got shirty when continually patronised as ‘my very young padawan’ and condescended to by Obi-Wan and everyone else on the Jedi Council.

Revenge of the Sith. The first 15 minutes are good, though perhaps a little overdone. Throughout the film the beats are slightly off, somewhat too plodding, like when Eric Clapton ditched the original Layla for his acoustic dirge rendition. Too digital, and the soundscape is not great, at least on headphones. The dialogue is stilted. In terms of Star Wars lore, though, this is the one that suggests that Anakin is the creation of the Sith Lord Darth Plagueis, meaning that the entire Skywalker line is a creation of the Sith. The digital Yoda is crap.

Douglass Montgomery and Katherine Hepburn in the 1933 Children’s Film Foundation production of Little Jedi (aka The Younglings in UK cinemas)

Overall I’d say the prequel trilogy is three potentially good movies trapped inside three mediocre ones. Annoyingly, given the whole point of the trilogy is to set up the tragedy of Anakin and Padme, it was those scenes I ended up fast-forwarding through. Natalie Portman was better than the scripts deserved.

Rogue One. And boom! When I saw Rogue One in the cinema I emailed some friends to say “the first third is a bit clunky but the final third is pure Star Wars.” My view has changed; I like Rogue One more and more every time I watch it. Deliberately, it plays on a very different set of tropes to the first Star Wars; it is basically The Battle of Britain, 633 Squadron, Where Eagles Dare and Sands of Iwo Jima. It also reminded me a little of 13 Assassins, though I’m not sure why.

Olivia de Havilland, the original Jyn Erso, with Errol Flynn; production still from the 1935 Captain Rogue

In an earlier age this film would have had Richard Widmark and Clint Eastwood as leads, with Yul Brynner, Richard Burton, Tony Curtis et al as the ragged band of heroes. Telly Savalas might show up. Ingrid Bergman or similar would have stayed at home to wring her handkerchief and bear her loss stoically. Rogue One instead has Felicity Jones being fab and carrying the movie. In terms of action, script, cinematography, story beats and all the rest it is leagues ahead of the Prequels and only let down by the digital-overlay Leia. The perfect beer and pizza movie, and we even have Darth Vader in Barad-dûr.

Star Wars. Where it all started. I expected this to pale somewhat on the back of Rogue One, but it holds up really well. It is straight in with action, no messing. Although it is an earlier generation of effects, it looks much better than the prequels. The back story is minimal and honed down to the point necessary to keep the story going, but no more than that. Where it falls down is the dialogue is not great (and some of the additional dialogue doesn’t quite synch. with what’s happening on screen). Also, Hamill, Fisher and Ford in their earliest film appearances are still learning their trade. I’ve never liked the medal awards thing at the end, even when I first saw it. However until that moment the film never loses focus on the primary story for a second, and, quibbles aside, it still hits the spot.

The Empire Strikes Back. Often cited as the fan-favourite of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back also starts in with a WW2-movie vibe, very well done, and sharply edited. The Empire Strikes Back starts to lay the mythology in place in the way Star Wars didn’t. Luke is set up in a way that comes to be mirrored in the prequels (much anger in him, like his father), and Yoda initially declines to train Luke, who is shown to be flawed in this film.

Kirk Douglas as Darth Spartacus in Revenge of the Vikings, after his seduction by the Dark Side.

Hamill and Fisher are still finding their way as actors, and the dialogue is hokey. It’s a good movie though, entertaining to watch, and worthy of the high regard in which it is held. See also my thoughts on The Last Jedi below.

The Return of the Jedi. This is a strange one. The opening, as you might expect from the final film in a trilogy, expects you to know what happened in the first two films. Even allowing for that, this felt to me like an episode rather than a fully formed movie. There are a lot of creature effects and, looking at them now, after The Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, and Planet of the Apes, they are embarrassingly poor. Notably Jabba isn’t very good. The matte art looked really bad on my laptop screen.

And then there are the Ewoks; not only do they look ludicrous, there is a dismaying play on colonial tropes of bumbling, comedic natives.

Somewhere in all of this is the final encounter between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, but for me it gets a bit lost in the Tarzan pastiche.

There are interesting bits of lore in the movie, and, as with The Empire Strikes Back, various cues that Rian Johnson picks up and plays with in The Last Jedi. It is in this movie that Yoda says to Luke When gone am I the last of the Jedi you will be. And it is Obi-Wan who comments that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Also, no one can watch Return then complain with a straight face about the recent ‘Disneyfication’ of Star Wars; Lucas did this all by himself.

In the 1961 blockbuster El Cith, Captain Phasma was a hero, played by Charlton Heston

The Force Awakens. It is apparent right from the opening that this is an order of magnitude different to the older movies. It’s not just that film making has moved on over forty years; we have good actors delivering plausible dialogue, great cinematography, and a presentation of the First Order drawn on contemporary experiences of terror and oppression. John Boyega makes an impact even while wearing a helmet; Rey is introduced brilliantly and with economy; Daisy Ridley is believable from her first scene and never lets go. Even bit players deliver their lines with conviction.

There was a lot of talk at the time of The Force Awakens as a remake of Star Wars, as a JJ Abrams reboot. But I don’t think it is that at all. It obviously takes its cues from Star Wars, but it plays with them for its own purposes rather than replicates them. Rey is not Luke, and her journey is different. In a way it pays homage to what Star Wars is in the childhood memories of its creators, and what an homage it is.

The Force Awakens is a very, very good Star Wars movie that doesn’t neglect to stir mysteries into the pot of Star Wars lore (why does the light sabre choose Rey over Kylo Ren? Is it because it is Anakin’s light sabre not Vader’s?). Crucially, the film gives us no serious expository set up other than The First Order are on the up using the Dark Side of the Force, Luke has disappeared, and Leia’s band of rebels are in trouble; enter our new heroes.

The Last Jedi

Kirk Douglas as Mac Windows in Clone of Spartacus, before his seduction by the Dark Side of the Force.

The Last Jedi is a thing of wonder. On my first watch I enjoyed it but had reservations; I was spellbound on my second viewing.

Rian Johnson takes his cues from The Empire Strikes Back but refashions them into something very special. Importantly, this is not a remake of Empire, but the conclusion to it. Just as Yoda first refuses to train Luke in Empire, Luke first refuses to train Rey, but for different reasons, and Luke’s hesitation, his lack of belief in himself, is exactly the same lack of belief that plagues his training in Empire. Always with you it cannot be done, says Yoda in Empire, adding that Luke fails because he doesn’t believe.

In The Last Jedi, Luke has to face his failure to train Ben Solo, just as Obi-Wan failed in his training of Anakin. Yoda finally helps Luke complete the training he started all those years ago, and complete his own arc, finding for himself the truth in Yoda’s words in Empire: luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

In Empire Luke confronts the Dark Side in a grotto and kills an image of Vader only to see his own face beneath Vader’s mask; in The Last Jedi, Rey confronts the Dark Side in a cave and, asking to see her parents, sees herself. Luke sees his fear realised in his own face, Rey sees something else, something puzzling, and her destiny goes its own way, setting up something special, I hope, for Episode IX.

The Last Jedi is visually gorgeous and pretty much perfect tonally throughout. It is both a serious film in its own right and a fitting second part in a trilogy. It engages deeply with Star Wars mythology, and also opens up a grand toy box of possibilities for future writers and directors to go and play.

Marlon Brando as Carlo Renson in 1953’s Rebel Without a Mask

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega impress again, as do all of the lead and supporting cast. I still have some quibbles but they are precisely that, quibbles. The main one is I remain unconvinced that Kylo Ren is a big enough villain, however superbly Adam Driver plays him. But that is one for Episode IX to deal with.

I’ll take The Last Jedi as it is, a wonderful addition to the canon.

***

Finally, something occurred to me only as I was revising this: when Star Wars was released in the US in 1977 (78 in the UK), it was only five years after Cernan, Schmitt and Evans flew the last of the Apollo missions to the moon. Space flight was a real thing in our minds, especially all of us who’d been woken up to watch the first moon landing in 1969. Return of the Jedi was released after the Space Shuttle programme was flying, but before the Challenger disaster of 1986. The modern films are for an audience of children who were not witnesses to the Apollo landings, and who have no experience of spaceflight outside of near-earth orbit.

For us fifties (just) kids, space flight was a real and present thing, and a source of optimism in the future, not a thing to read about in history books. Perhaps like Luke we have to face our own failure as a generation to shape the future of which we dreamed.

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