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A "mixed" start, but the stunning conclussion makes for a rewarding trilogy!
on 26 October 2010
Episode I THE PHANTOM MENACE
Is it really 11 years since The Phantom Menace brought Star Wars back to the Cinema after a 16 year hiatus? The hype and expectation for this movie was probably greater than anything before or since in movie history. What film could ever hope to live up to this hype and expectation? No film ever could. The initial response from fanboys and critics across the world was cries of anguish and pain. Claims of childhoods being raped drowned out the more sensible reflections that actually this movie whilst not particularly great, was as bad as many claimed it was. Now, almost a decade on from the initial release, perhaps the time is right for a more considered view of this film?
The Phantom Menace is the very definition of a "mixed" film. It has both good and bad points, and whether you end up liking this film will depend on;
1. Do the bad points outweigh the good points for you?
2. Do the good points outweigh the bad points for you?
Thus you will find the answer of whether or not this movie works for you, somewhere in the balance of the two.
Some of the bad points; George Lucas's direction is stiff. Lucas hadn't directed a film since 1977 and it shows.
Jar Jar Binks is annoying and tedious and frequently gets in the way, however, as with so many complaints about this film, Binks is NOT as bad as some would have you believe, and you CAN enjoy this film despite the presense of JJB. Children will love Jar Jar, so if you show this film to your 8 year old child, please don't let your loathing of Mr Bink's ruin your child's love for this character.
Other bad points are that the pod race goes on too long (it went on too long in the theatrical release, and for some reason its been extended further for the DVD)
Ewan Mcgregor unfortunatly gets very little to do.
Natalie Portman shines as Queen Amidala, but as Padme she often leaves a lot to be desired. Jake Lloyds Anakin is given some annoyingly silly lines to read out (as with Binks, Lloyd is NOT as bad as outraged fanboys would have you believe)
The Gungans are probably the worse species in SW history (except for the Ewoks of course ;) ) and the final battle between the Gungans and the Battle Droids is unengaging.
Perhaps my main complaint about Menace is that the two characters that get the most screen time, Jar Jar Binks and Qui-Gon Jinn, are the two characters that don't really feature in the next two films. Thus, this is, I think, the central problem with Menace. Its mainly filler. Lucas needed "more" in this film.
Some of the good points; Liam Neeson is the glue that holds this film together. Anybody that says the acting was better in the OT, should look at Neesons performance. Its at least as good as anything in the OT.
The political sub-plot is interesting and engaging and seeing how Palpatine begins his rise to power is compelling. Ian Mcdiarmid is outstanding in the small number of scenes he is given.
The Mother/Son relationship between Anakin and his Mother is well done and you do feel a sense of Anakins pain at being parted from his mother and having to leave her as a slave. The twist of Anakin's origins (that he was born without a father) adds a mystical and mythical element. Deeply religious people may be offended, but "virgin births" feature in many mythical stories.
Seeing the workings of the Jedi Council and how the Jedi relate to the Senate is interesting.
Darth Maul is cool and The Duel Of The Fates is probably the most exciting lightsaber battle of the Saga. The piece of music that accompany's the duel is truely outstanding (otherwise John Williams' score on TPM isn't very memorable - Like Lucas, at times you get the sense he is warming himself up with this picture
The general time and effort and attention to detail is wonderful. For Amidala's gowns alone costume designer Trisha Biggar should have won an Oscar. ILM's special effects are amazing. The film looks outstanding and sounds wonderful. As a piece of art, The Phantom Menace is an awesome blend of creativity and artisitic inspiration. Too bad the final product ended up so mixed.
Episode II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
This is the Star Wars movie that possibly divide's Star Wars fans the most. With The Phantom Menace, most fans are united in their indifference to down right loathing. With Revenge of the Sith, most fans agreed that it was a huge step up in all departments. But with 2002's Attack of the Clones opinion was varied widely between those that hated it more then Phantom Menace right through to those that thought it was a masterpiece on a par with The Empire Strikes Back. Why such a range of opinion? My feeling is that this is perhaps the movie of the series that is closest to Lucas's personal desire to be a truly experimental film maker. Indeed, there's almost something of the advant garde about the style of Attack of the Clones, but at the same time Lucas has gone out of his way to listen and respond and correct much of the criticism of The Phantom Menace.
In a story sense, Attack of the Clones is closest to The Empires Strikes Back. It's a bridging movie that must act both as pathway from Episode I to Episode III and at the same time it must be an interesting and entertaining movie in its own right. It must deepen and flesh out the characters and take the plot in new and surprising directions - Clones achieves all of these things to varying degrees of success. Clearly Lucas realized this film was in some ways connected in story terms to Empire, because he put in a couple of elements from the 1980 movie. So, we have incredibly cool looking Bounty Hunters, a very youthful Boba Fett and his father Jango Fett and a chase through an asteroid field (though the CGI asteroid chase of Attack of the Clones is not a thrilling or exciting as the asteroid chase in Empire)
Attack of the Clones is basically a love story set against the backdrop of war and this is where a lot of the complaints come from. The love story is played out as a very old fashioned, formal courtship, almost in the spirit of King Arthur or Romeo and Juliet. The dialogue is deliberately flowery and over the top. Unfortunately Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman do not have the range to pull off some of the lines they are given. The actors should have had a sense of humor about the guff they have to say, and that would have helped the audience relax into the scenes. As it is, everything is played out very seriously and on one or two occasions the scenes simply become a bore. Listen out for a stunning, melancholy love theme (Across The Stars) composed as ever by musical legend John Williams. This sad piece hints at the tragedy that will await Anakin and Padme....
Juxtaposed to the love story we get a mystery story, where Obi-Wan Kenobi goes off on his own to investigate who is trying to kill Padme. The mystery deepens when Obi-Wan stumbles across a Clone Army that is being developed for The Republic, supposedly at the behest of the Jedi Council. Soon Obi-Wan finds himself caught up in a war beat that explodes into life on the hot and dusty planet of Geonosis. This story is much more interesting than the love stuff and on a number of occasions when the movie is with Anakin and Padme, you'll find yourself wishing to get back to Obi-Wan. Ewan McGregor has a much expanded role, and he shines. This is McGregor's movie and he completely steps up to the plate. Rumor has it that Ewan wasn't particularly happy with this movie, but in my opinion he delivers his best work of the Prequel Trilogy in Attack of the Clones.
As the movie develops Anakin and Padme leave the safety of Naboo (Lake Como stands in for Naboo in this film and looks absolutely beautiful) and travel to Tatooine. This is the part of the film where Clones truly comes alive. The acting level rise's all round as we return to the Lars Homestead (the places and sets so famous in the original Star Wars movie) We meet up with C3PO and find out that Anakin's mother has been kidnapped by Tusken Raiders. As his beloved mother later dies in arms, Anakin lashes out in an uncontrollable rage (listen out for a ghostly voice crying out at this moment) and his downward spiral to his ultimate fate has begun. These scenes and a confession scene (set in the Lars garage - another famous set from Star Wars) are played out excellently. Christenson and Portman really act well in these scenes. The movie rise's to a whole new level at this moment, and the rest of the film just fly's by.
The final action scenes take place on Geonosis as Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme join up and take on monsters and Battle Droids. They are then joined by Clones Attacking (fancy that) and 500 Jedi Knights, including much expanded roles for Yoda and Mace Windu. All this is overseen by evil Count Dooku, played with great style by horror legend Christopher Lee. Indeed, the climax of the movie is an iconic face off between Dooku and Yoda. The lightsaber fight itself leaves a lot to be desired, but the build up is masterful. The roof, literally, comes down! As we go from one action scene to another in true cliffhanger/Saturday matinee style, the action becomes breathtaking and you'll be exhausted by the end. Finally people get to see why Star Wars is such a special series of movies.
The acting is generally better in Clones than Menace. I've already picked up on McGregor, but Portman and Christenson also do good work outside of some of the love scenes. Ian McDiarmid is again solid as ever as Palpatine (look out for the now Supreme Chancellor to take a further step towards Galactic Domination in a scene that actually justifies Jar Jar Binks's presense in this series) Samuel L Jackson enjoys his expanded role. Tem Morrison as Jango Fett and Christopher Lee both enjoy their villainous roles.
So, what are those experimental elements? Well, firstly the film was the first ever motion picture to be shot entirely with digital cameras. This is problematical as it adds a shiny, somehow false element to many of the scenes. Almost like everything is a little bit too clear - Only when the action moves on to the grimy planet of Tatooine (Tunisia) does it finally look like a proper camera has been used.
The editing is also done in a very abstract way. This was Ben Burtts first movie as a solo editor and many of the cuts, whether deliberately or not, do stand out. There's almost something about this film that jerks you around - This is almost entirely deliberate. Right from the opening pan the camera motion is up rather than down (or is it just that the camera is up side down????) and from that moment on its clear that nothing is what it seems.
There's a water planet (Kamino) where the Clones are being created. Inside the building on Kamino, everything is brilliantly white and sanitized and this environment definitely evokes memories of Lucas's first film, THX-1138. That, set against the hot and mechanical world of Geonosis and the droid factories (where Anakin and Padme have a long action scene) these environments are both much more abstract than any other enviro's in the Star Wars Saga.
Lucas has always said Star Wars is a silent movie, but with Attack of the Clones he pushes that to an absolute limit. The last 40 minutes is essentially a silent movie. Yes, there is still some dialogue, but out of 40 minutes, I would guess the total amount of dialogue would come to less than 5 minutes. Instead, the story is told entirely through movement, sound and music. This is absolutely the heart and soul of George Lucas the film maker. Telling stories visually and through sound and music. NOT dialogue. There's a fabulous moment during the lightsaber duel between Anakin and Dooku, where all you see is a black background and the protagonists faces, lit up by the red and blue of their lightabers. No music, no dialogue, just the iconic sound of their sabers and the striking visuals. Almost like a little tone poem. This is surely the most advant garde scene in the whole of the Star Wars Saga?
As well as pushing the silent movie element to its limit in the last 40 minutes, George Lucas also pushes the cliffhanger style to its limit. The final 40 minutes is basically one cliffhanger ending after another after another after another and its all done in true Saturday Morning Matinee style.
So this is definitely George Lucas's most abstract Star Wars movie. And this weird blend of the abstract and the commercial makes for an odd combination. As I said at the start, some people love Attack of the Clones and it now has a cult following among a small number of fans. At the same time some people loath it. Like all the Star Wars movies it should be seen at least once and watch with an open mind.
The production is as good as ever. The costumes look great; the CGI (whilst not to everyone's tastes) is as expertly done by ILM as ever. The musical score is better than on The Phantom Menace, despite some poor editing from Burtt. The acting is better. The script is generally better (though Star Wars is NOT about dialouge and if more people understood this they would probably appreciate the Sage more)
Attack of the Clones itself is much darker than The Phantom Menace and has a melancholy feel about it. The ending is a true downer. First we have the realization that the Clone Wars have begun and the Sith are in total control of events. Then we get our first true blast the legendary Imperial March, followed by a doomed wedding set against the symbolism of a setting sun. As Anakin and Padme turn their backs to the camera, their fate is sealed. Episode III awaits....
*PS, Attack of the Clones has a multitude of references to other films, so if your a movie buff, its worth watching purely to see how many references you notice*
Episode III REVENGE OF THE SITH
The story of "Revenge" is basically Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side and embracing his destiny - Darth Vader. However, this film actually belongs to The Emperor, aka Darth Sidious, aka Palpatine. Its Ian Mcdiarmids outstanding performance of Palpatine that is the glue that holds the film together. As Paplatines plot finally falls into place and we understand at last just who The Phantom Menace is, Mcdiarmid totally eats up the screen. From the early scenes where Palpatine subtlely sucks the unsuspecting Anakin into his dastardly plot (look out for a particularly stunning scene between Anakin and Palpatine early in the movie, where Palpatine relays the legend of the tragedy of "Darth Plagueis The Wise" to Anakin. This is possibly the best acted scene in ANY of the six movie Saga) through to the hackling, insane and unbelievably evil Emperor literally trashing democracy itself as he battles Yoda in The Senate, this is Mcdiarmids movie and does he rise to the occasion! This is surely the best Star Wars performance since Guiness in Star Wars and Ford in Empire Strikes Back.
However, ALL the acting performances are better in this film. Natalie Portman, Hayden Christenson and Sam Jackson deliver much more solid work than they did in Attack of the Clones. Ewan Mcgregor, if not quite as good as in Clones, is still excellent. The actors clearly relish have more dramatic material to work with, and aside from the occasional poor line here and dodgy acting there, everyones work rises to a better standard in this film.
The film starts with an epic space battle as The Clone Wars reaches its final cresendo. Palpatine has set up his kidnapping and Anakin (now a Jedi Knight) and Obi-Wan Kenobi stage a desperate bid to rescue him from the clutches of Darth Tyrannus (Christopher Lee) and new villain General Grevious. The first twenty minutes is non stop, classic Star Wars action. Look out for the shocking moment when Tyrannus is executed at the hands of Anakin. - This is the first indication of just how dark Revenge of the Sith is.
The film for me really picks up after the opening action when Anakin returns to Coruscant and is reunited with his wife Padme. He finds out he is to be a father and its at this point he begins to have visions of Padmes death - Which takes us back to his mothers death in Attack of the Clones. This sets Anakin on a journey to stop Padme from dying as his mother did. A journey that sees him selling his soul to the devil and desending litterally into hell. For the knowlage to save Padme Anakin must betray his Jedi comrades and become Sith Lord Darth Vader.
The middle of the film, where Anakin makes his choice to turn to the dark side, is where Revenge of the Sith lifts from just being a good Star Wars film to being a great film in its own right. A slient moment of rumination between Anakin and Padme offers one of the most haunting moments in Star Wars history. As Anakin and Padme connect silently across the bustling cityscape on Coruscant, a silent voice wails in pain. The sun sets on the galaxy and on our doomed lovers and Anakin makes his decision.
The rest of the film sees the destruction of the Jedi and Anakins appalling betrayal. A pivitol scene between Anakin, Palpatine (now transformed into the warped Emperor we knew from Return of the Jedi) and Mace Windu is really the key scene to understanding just how deep Anakins betrayal was and that he was given the chance to do the right thing, but made the wrong choice - Leading to the quite shocking death of Mace.
The final part of the movie is where all the loose ends are tied up. From Palpatine becoming Emperor of the Galactic Empire through to the end of the Clone Wars, through to the mythic and long awaited lightsaber fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan against the volcanic, hellish backdrop of Mustafar, through to the birth of Padmes children, Luke and Leia and the death/birth of Padme/Anakin/Darth Vader, Revenge of the Sith delivers in spades.
The shocking irony of Anakin himself making his nightmares come true and lashing out at the woman he turned to the dark side to save takes "Revenge" to the level of greek tragedy. Christenson and Portman are stunning in this scene. The way their relationship just disintergrates is so well done and seeing Anakins rage and anger is really quite disturbing.
The tragedy continues with Anakins downfall at the hands of his former friend and mentor Obi-Wan. The force with which Ewan Mcgregor delivers his parting words to Anakin are just fantastic and you'll find the immolation of Anakin, even if you know its coming, both shocking and moving. Even though at this point Anakin is throughly evil, you'll still feel, through the music and Mcgregors performance, a great sense of compassion for Anakin plight.
So what about the technical aspects of this film? Firstly Lucas's direction is superb. If he was rusty for Phantom and going somewhat through the motions with Clones, then with Sith he definatly rises to the occasion. This is the film he made the Prequels in order to make. This is the tale he's been waiting 30 years to tell. The how and why Star Wars happened.
Like Lucas and all the actors, John Williams delivers his best Prequel work on this film. Many of his pices of music are by turns operatic and tragic. The music that accompanys Anakin and Padmes silent ruminations, the fall of the Jedi, the disturbing "Godfatheresque" moment of Palpatines triumph as Anakin wipes out the remaining Sepratist leaders and the music that accompanys the battle of Anakin/Obi-Wan and Sidious/Yoda are all notable musical highlights. Listen out at the end of the film and during the credits for pieces of music from "Star Wars" itself - Hinting at the hope to come and taking the movie full circle.
The special effects, sound effects and costumes are outstanding as ever. Its easy to take ILM's fabulous special effects for granted, but the fact is they produce jaw dropping scene after jaw scene. How/why they never won an Oscar for the Prequels is totally beyond me!
The editing from Roger Barton and Ben Burtt is much improved on Burtts solo edit for Attack of the Clones.
Also greatly improved is the digital camera. Where Attack of the Clones had a some how false and shiny look to it, Revenge of the Sith looks much more gritty and realistic. If you didn't know, you would definatly think this movie has been shot using regular "film" cameras, rather than groundbreaking digital cameras.
Revenge of the Sith is a fantastic contrast to The Phantom Menace. If the colour of Phantom is all greens and blues, this film is all blacks and reds. Where Phantom was light, this film is dark. Where Phantom was goofy, this film is mature. There is, very much a sense of despair and desperation about this film and this contrast actually makes The Phantom Menace more interesting, in my opinion. It doesn't negate all the many problems Menace has, but it at least justifys through contrast, the tone that Lucas chose for Epsiode I. Aside from brief chinks of hope with the arrival and splitting up of the twins right at the end of the film, Revenge of the Sith is unremittingly dark. Some scenes, such as the creation of Darth Vader are actually quite disturbing.
Along with The Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Sith is my personal favourite Star Wars movie. The visual poetry of the final scenes (first dealing with the mother, then the father, then the daughter and finally the son) is just beautiful. As we arrive at the final scene where baby Luke is delivered by Obi-Wan to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and the twin suns set over Tatooine, we come full circle and you'll have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the sheer beauty, opera and poetry of it all.
It may not have been a smooth ride, but this film made the Prequels a worthwhile project.
Thank you George Lucas for the wonderful ride that is the Star Wars Saga.