(Not a) Rise of Skywalker review

sky1.jpgWell, no I haven’t seen it. Probably won’t until the New Year when the fuss has died down, and even then it might not be until March when the disc comes out. I’m a Star Wars fan from 1977 when I read the Marvel comics (we didn’t get the film here in the UK regions until early 1978). I’ve bought the films on every home format going and seen each one at the cinema until Solo. I’ve bought the soundtracks, wear the tee-shirts. If Disney can’t get my big arse on a cinema seat then somethings very, very wrong in a Galaxy far, far away.

The reviews, some positive, some negative, some indifferent, some absolutely apocalyptic, are pretty much everything I expected from the film. I have little tolerance for the methods of JJ Abrams, whose entire career seems to have been an exercise in polishing up and re-selling the creative genius of others, nor Kathleen Kennedy, a ‘safe’ pair of hands at Lucasfilm who mistook bullet-points and agendas for creative narrative.

Richard over at 100 Films in A Year has posted his review and its pretty typical. He raises a very good observation that the film-makers “forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers” which is something that Abrams has been guilty of before. The most telling one I recall is the Enterprise rising out of an ocean in Star Trek Into Darkness. It was totally idiotic (the excuse being the Enterprise was hiding from the native civilisation, when it would have been perfectly hidden up in orbit as it has been for several tv series and movies over the decades) and betrays Abram’s cynical method of putting ‘wow’ moments into his films that serve no narrative function or internal logic at all. First time around it distracts through surprise and spectacle but on repeat viewing it just rankles. Its curious that repeat viewings of his movies seldom go well and a lot of his films (the Star Trek reboots and The Force Awakens in particular) are subject to much revisionary criticism years later- they really don’t age well at all

He’s like some kid smashing all his toys up for the hell of it. The guys appropriates the worlds created by others and joyfully breaks them. Like another example in the same film when Khan transports himself across the galaxy from a shuttle down on Earth to someplace on Klingon, instantly, and immediately negating the need for space ships or FTL travel at all. A smarter hand on the script would have simply had him teleport to a ship waiting in orbit that then warps off to Klingon, a move that would have performed the same narrative function but stayed within established mythology and logic. Which is pretty much the same as that jerk Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi when Holdo jumps into Hyperspace through the First Order flagship and destroys the ship and most of the fleet. Its a big ‘wow’ moment, beautifully executed, certainly the one scene that provoked gasps of surprise and awe, but its also the one in which it broke the world. I wonder how many times in The Rise of Skywalker a situation arises in which had the good guys done the same manoeuvre they could have wiped out Palpatines forces? Or more tellingly, how many times Palpatine could have wiped out the rebel armada by one of his ships doing the same?

Its all very sad. I don’t want any Star Wars film to fail but neither do I want bad storytelling to be rewarded. Lucasfilm clearly had no plan for this sequel trilogy, and while I believe it went wrong from the start with The Force Awakens so cynically remaking A New Hope rather than moving onto new territory, it went doubly wrong letting Rian Johnson then break everything Abrams started with The Force Awakens, I mean, where did they expect the franchise to go after The Last Jedi? I sincerely wish, for all my dislike of The Last Jedi, that Rian Johnson had been left to make the third film and try to conjure up some satisfying conclusion himself. It was too easy and let him off the hook, he took so much pleasure breaking everything with The Last Jedi and he was able to walk away like some triumphant auteur and I almost feel sorry for Abram’s position with this third film. Johnson got away with it and didn’t have to ‘fix’ what he broke.

That all being said, the ultimate failure is surely of Kathleen Kennedy and the heads at Lucasfilm who failed in oversight of the trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels (and they are pretty awful) but Lucas clearly had a narrative arc for them, telling the story of Anakin Skywalker and how he became Darth Vader and the rise of the Empire. I don’t know what the hell this new trilogy was supposed to be about.

In both The Phantom Menace and A New Hope, the audience is informed of the political situation, whether it be of the troubled Republic of the first film or the established positions of the Empire and the resistance in A New Hope. Somehow between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the defeated Empire has arisen as the nonsensical First Order, and instead of the New Republic post-ROTJ defending against the new evil its left to some kind of new bunch of freedom fighters instead. Its never explained how things have turned out how they have or who’s bankrolling the First Order or who the hell Snoke was, except that I gather its ‘explained’ in Rise of Skywalker that it was Palpatine all along. Yeah, the same dude that was blasted by his own force lightning and hurled down into a blazing reactor core subsequently destroyed with its vaporised Death Star- I gather all this is ‘explained’ by the Great Bard Abrams and I don’t know how Palpatine gets defeated/killed in Rise of Skywalker  but I wonder whats stopping the bugger magically resurrecting himself again.

From the start this new trilogy has been lazily written, ill-reasoned, and hell-bent on just rebooting everything from the earlier films whilst arbitrarily ignoring established mythology and internal logic. Every narrative has a beginning, a middle and end with sensical narrative and character arcs, whether it be a single movie or three films telling a whole larger story. Did Lucasfilm start shooting The Force Awakens with no idea where the story went in films two and three? It seems patently obvious this was the case and insanely irresponsible and reckless. They got what they deserved, alienating the core fanbase while they were at it. I’m sure The Rise of Skywalker has it fans and will pass a billion dollars at the box office but I’m pretty confident its a bad movie.

Solo (2018)

solo1While watching Solo, I was reminded of something I read a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away- in 1978, infact, and inside the pages of the Star Wars official collectors magazine that Marvel published back then. At least I think it was in that mag, it was a long time ago after all, but anyway, it was some comment referring to a review that cited Star Wars as being the first Western filmed in outer space. Solo is just that- a space western.

So in the spirit of laboring the space western allegory, lets look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this Star Wars movie titled Solo.

First, the good. Well, its okay. If that’s damning it with faint praise, then so be it: its no disaster (In the words of fellow blogger Gregory Moss, it could have been worse) and certainly nowhere near as divisive as The Last Jedi proved to be. Solo doesn’t usurp franchise tropes or chronology as TLJ did-  Lucasfilm has (eventually, considering this films troubled production) crafted a stable, steady adventure with typically workmanlike direction from Ron Howard’s exceedingly safe directorial hands.

While some of the action stuff such as the opening speeder chase was fairly mediocre at best, I thought the train heist in particular was great -the strangely reduced colour-palette of the film actually helps the CGI enhancements look all the more real. Some of the imagery of the windswept characters on the roof of the train reminded me of the Frazetta covers for the Battlestar Galactica paperback novelizations of the late ‘seventies. I’m also glad that the finale was rather low-key, it was a refreshing thing for a Star Wars movie, I thought, especially as the CGI-fest Kessel Run was so boring.  If we’d cared more for the characters it might have been all the better, but that post-Kessel Run stuff was fine and suggested a second movie (which we’ll now never see) might have been worthwhile. Maybe Solo should always have been a mini-series rather than a movie?

Alden Ehrenreich is okay as a young Han, albeit never really convinces. I would have preferred to have seen Anthony Ingruber (already cast as young Harrison Ford in The Age of Adaline) or Ansel Elgort, who looked like a young Solo in much of Baby Driver, at least they might have physically matched Ford better. Although he performs well considering all the pressures and baggage placed upon him (its pretty thankless signing on for a role like this), Ehrenreich is clearly no Harrison Ford- if anything, he’s more a young Dennis Quaid, particularly whenever he smiles or turns on the charm (which reminded me, ironically, of watching Inner Space back in the cinema and thinking how Quaid could have played Han Solo back then). Although he never really convinces as Han Solo, thankfully this young Solo is not an obnoxious and irritating infant re: Jake Lloyd’s Anakin of The Phantom Menace. The art direction is okay (I always get a kick out of seeing original Star Wars-era Storm Troopers), the music feels like that of a Star Wars movie (indeed even is Star Wars movie music as it re-uses themes from the original scores).

solo2Now, the bad. Its all a bit ‘meh’ if I’m honest. Not once does it genuinely shock or surprise or shake expectations of what a Han Solo movie could be. Indeed, it largely spends its time ticking boxes: Han meets Chewie, Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, we get a game of Holo-Chess in the Falcon lounge, we get to witness the Kessel Run. Han is a scoundrel yes but at heart he’s a good guy and does the ‘Right Thing’. Nothing new that happens in Solo can really be important as it cannot retro-actively effect the cannon- nothing new in Solo can ever be referenced or name-checked in The Empire Strikes Back or The Force Awakens. Han doesn’t make some mysterious comment about someone named Beckett in The Force Awakens, for example (and if these new films were being masterminded properly, maybe he would/should). So we never really get any dramatic suspense. Which leads us to-

The ugly? Misguided. Cynical. A production nightmare that was always doomed to fail, whatever its success at the box-office (is it really fair to saddle this finished film with the purported $300 million cost of combining its production with the abandoned original shooting of the previously fired directors?). A salient lesson to Lucasfilm of how to make/not make a Star Wars movie.

Well, that is the whole thing with prequels, isn’t it? Dramatically they are always flawed because we go in with knowing how things end up. Han can’t die, Chewie can’t die, the Falcon may get some dents but it can’t be destroyed, etc . Prequels inherently are hamstrung by the Magic Reset button- whatever happens during them they have to leave the status quo in place for subsequent editions in order to maintain continuity. And likewise, they are weighed down by unfair expectations, comparisons to better films back when Star Wars was new and fresh and exciting, better directors, better actors, all looked at through rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia.

Disney’s Star Wars films have a problem, and it isn’t competing against fellow franchise juggernaut Marvel- its the ravages of time. Star Wars is now in its fifth decade and the world has moved on. The Matrix films, good or bad, were a Star Wars for a new generation, and maybe the Jurassic Park films were too, and while the jury is out on James Cameron’s Avatar films, I suppose it could well be argued that the Marvel Studios films are indeed a Star Wars for today’s generation of film-goers. Lightsabres and Jedi and droids and everything else wrapped up in Star Wars dates back to the days of Disco and can leave some of us original fans labelled as dinosaurs.

I have no issues with Disney shaking things up with its Star Wars films- its just that The Last Jedi, in my mind, was the wrong place to do it. If you’re going to have Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars movie then he has to act for good or ill as his established character would. For instance, if Han Solo were alive in The Last Jedi, would Rian Johnson have gotten away with making him a craven coward? Whatever Rian Johnson eventually does in his proposed future Star Wars trilogy is fine by me as long as its genuinely new and seperate from the established canon. I do feel that Disney might have been better off leaving the Skywalker saga and the Jedi etc well alone and not making Episodes  7-9 at all.

In anycase, returning to Solo, these standalone prequels of course cannot do that- by their nature they have to play safe with continuity and what constitutes a Star Wars movie. I’m a big fan of Rogue One and think its a neat film from a neat idea. Solo– well, we never really needed a Han Solo movie, did we? Maybe the whole prequel thing lacks sufficient ambition- maybe they should have looked further back to the days of the Old Republic and then been freer to play looser with chronology if only because the distant past is vaguer.

Solo is what it is. I would have preferred a different lead. I would have preferred a different arc- why not have made young Han a genuinely bad guy and used the prequel story to redeem him, perhaps explain why the smuggler in the 1977-1983 trilogy has a decent streak deep down? Otherwise, whats the real point of a prequel, other than showing us what we know and have come to expect?

As it turned out, few people really wanted a Han Solo movie and it largely turned out as mediocre as everyone feared it would- albeit better perhaps than the production woes would have suggested. Its box-office failure means it will likely lead to a rethink at both Lucasfilm and Disney, and that might be a good thing in the long run. That does return me to a question I raised earlier- maybe it should never have been a movie, but rather a mini-series instead? After all, Disney will have its streaming service/channel next year. Maybe that is where the future of these standalone Star Wars movies lies, in mini-series form.



Why I hated The Last Jedi


Following The Force Awakens, Disney gave Rian Johnson the biggest toy set a film-maker could have. He had a new villain, Snoke, with a blank-slate backstory he could fill, a new hero, Rey, with a blank-slate backstory he could fill, including her tantalising parentage and affinity for the Force, he had the mysterious New Order ready to fill the political void left by Republic planets being destroyed, a new rebellion. He had the return of Luke Skywalker for one last epic adventure, he had new heroes like Finn  and Poe Dameron, new bad guys like General Hux and Captain Phasma (a female Star Wars villain!)  to expand upon. But The Last Jedi is like the kid up the street taking your toys and wrecking them. Its vandalism, pure and simple.

tlj21: The Luke Skywalker Saga 

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was a farm boy who joined the rebellion to rescue a princess, whose bravery in facing and destroying the Death Star against incredible odds made him a hero. In The Empire Strikes Back, set some three years later, he faces down Imperial ground forces in the battle of Hoth, and while later in training to be a Jedi abandons that training when he learns his friends are in mortal danger. Indeed, even knowing it’s a trap he sets out on his rescue. In Return of the Jedi, he continues to save his friends (rescuing Han Solo) and even risks his life again in a mortal battle with his father Darth Vader and the evil Emperor, finally vindicating his faith in his father’s innate goodness by Vader turning from the Dark Side and destroying the Emperor and the Empire. Luke is an active participant in the story, he propels the story forwards and pretty much saves everyone, even Vader.

None of this in any way works with the ‘new’ backstory of Luke running a Jedi academy and when ‘seeing’ evil in Ben Solo deciding to immediately strike him dead with his lightsaber. I mean, this is the same Luke who couldn’t hurt Darth Vader, the guy who’d chopped off his hand, killed Ben Kenobi, tortured Leia and Han Solo, and murdered countless hundreds of innocents (billions if you include the destruction of Alderaan). Luke actually cast his lightsaber aside rather than strike Vader down. But he’s supposed to be so quick to strike Ben Solo down in his sleep? Remember, Ben Solo is even one of his family, named after his mentor. We’re really supposed to believe Luke would try kill him in his sleep? It doesn’t make any sense, is not in-character at all. Or, indeed, after Ben Solo has turned on him and destroyed the academy and killed most of the other students, Luke deciding that instead of facing down Ben Solo, after all the heroics he did in the Original Trilogy, he instead runs off to sulk on a distant Jedi Island hideaway.

It doesn’t add up. Even at the end of TLJ, he doesn’t raise his X-Wing from the ocean and fly off to save his friends from mortal danger. Instead he pulls some Jedi Force-Hologram bullshit, does a virtual meet-and-greet with his sister, faces off the bad guys whilst not really facing off the bad guys, and then dies anyway. How is that good writing? How does that reflect the heroism Luke displayed in the Original Trilogy? How does it add anything to the saga? Surely when Snoke and the New Order showed up to hold the galaxy under evil dominion during The Force Awakens or prior to its events, he’d have returned to do some good, to help his friends? What kind of Jedi is he?

tlj3Aha, thats the crux I guess. These new films are intent on subverting the Star Wars saga by calling time on the Jedi. Wiping the slate clean for the sake of being new, radical. Nevermind that it undermines a trilogy of films and prequels and books etc. and, indeed, what the Star Wars saga even is. Or even undermines the previous reboot.

2. Out with the old, in with the old.

The Last Jedi is bold, exciting, it moves Star Wars into a whole new level of storytelling by subverting/destroying the old and replacing it with the new- but no, Disney doesn’t destroy the Millenium Falcon, because it still wants to sell the toys. Indeed, every trope of the old saga so royally cast aside is replaced by a new one, the ‘newness’ simply being a lie. BB8 is a new R2D2, Rey is a new Luke, Kylo Ren is a new Darth Vader, maintaining the old tropes whilst it purports to be bold and subversive.  We have the outstretched gloved hand of one character offering “join me, together we can rule the Galaxy!”, we have rebel troops in trenches facing giant mechanical walkers, we have the Millenium Falcon racing through canyons and tunnels with TIE fighters exploding behind.  For all it claims to be new, it ends with an Evil Empire and a bunch of freedom fighters and two protagonists on opposite ends of The Force. It’s a big cheat claiming change when it’s just a reboot of a reboot.

My issue is this: if Disney wants to go ahead and make a ‘new, bold’ Star Wars, go ahead and makes something set 100 years in the future.  But don’t try to have your cake and eat it, by bringing back the old characters from the Original Trilogy and then destroy and subvert them and everything they stood for. That’s not clever writing or bold storytelling. Its stupid, its disrespectful, it’s wiping out everything achieved in the OT or anything the characters did or believed in. Its an attempt to rewrite history, destroy the past, exalt in the new simply because it’s new. Why even re-watch the destruction of two Death Stars if we’re only going to end up watching Luke fade away on a distant planet while a New Empire dawns?

TLJ even gets stuck into undermining and wiping out any progression from The Force Awakens- Captain Phasma is disposed with like she’s an embarrassment (she didn’t sell enough toy figures?),  Snoke is destroyed avoiding answering the mysteries of his background (who was he? What was he? Where did he come from?  Didn’t he sell enough toy figures either?), and ignoring Rey’s parentage and why she was drawn to Luke’s lightsaber (complete with visions/warning voices during TFA). We are expected to believe it all meant nothing?  If that’s the case, why invest in anything Disney does now with Star Wars?

Which is where I am now. Disney’s Star Wars is pretty much dead to me now. I could forgive them the soft reboot of TFA because that’s what the new Disney project is, a reboot of the whole franchise and series. In hindsight they should have refrained from bringing any of the old cast onboard. Afterall, they haven’t done anything at all with C-3PO or R2D2 either so why bother with any of the old characters? They should have jumped forward a century and done something new entirely. I suppose a ‘soft’ gradual reboot via TFA made business sense, edged Disney’s bets. But that does not excuse TLJ.

Adding insult to the injury is the reaction to the fanbase backlash, arguing that the fans are ‘self-entitled’ or stuck in the old ways and resistant to change. This is nonsense. I was all onboard for new Star Wars films and going in new directions with a fresh creative team. But I am not onboard the good ship revisionism, or undermining the successes and values of what went on before. Or having Leia pull a Mary Poppins impression in a dead vacuum.

Imagine a new Star Trek film, in which Kirk and Spock are openly gay and in love and have a relationship. I’m not homophobic or against gay characters or relationships, but that would not be true or representative of the original Star Trek or it’s characters (whatever the fan fiction would say). So if I or a group of fans called Paramount out on such a film, would that simply mean we are stuck in the old ways and resistant to change? If you want to make a film about gay men in space, go ahead, but don’t hijack Star Trek to do it.

Imagine a Superman film in which our hero allergic to cheese as well as Kryptonite, and fans raised their voices to the nonsense and lack or respect to the character and its history by depicting our hero injured by Lex Luthor shooting him with a cheese gun. Would the fans be berated for being stuck in their ways?

tlj4The Last Jedi is a pretty poor film. It is overlong, poorly constructed, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, there are loads of plotholes and coincidences glossed over with explosions and special effects. We see the rebel cruiser bridge explode and Admiral Ackbar killed and Leia do that Mary Poppins moment. A little later Holdo tells Poe to get off her bridge. I mean, what bridge? Didn’t we see it get wiped out? How is the cruiser even operational when the bridge got took out by the TIE fighters? On the casino planet, our heroes free the animals but leave behind the slave children?

Incredibly, TFA was probably a better film, as it at least had a modicum of a coherent plot and less awkward humor, and General Hux less of a moron. But at least TLJ  has an apt title, as its likely to be the last Star Wars I’ll go to the cinema to see- even the prequels didn’t do that to me. Time for another reboot then. Over to you, Disney.




Disney’s $50 million insurance payout

cf1I see in the news there are reports that Disney is set to receive an insurance payout of $50 million following Carrie Fisher’s death. The company took out protection cover incase the actress was unable to fulfill what was apparently a three-film deal. Her scenes in Episode 8 are all complete (she is said to have a more substantial role than she had in The Force Awakens) but it is unknown what impact her passing will have upon the script for Episode 9, or indeed how much it will impact on how Episode 8 was intended to dovetail into Episode 9.

Such insurance policies are nothing new in Hollywood- if you are shooting a major motion picture there are obvious implications in the event of a major actor dying during production. I recall MGM trying to shelve Brainstorm when Natalie Wood died during production with some scenes incomplete, back in 1981. Its only natural with films going episodic in nature that such cover becomes even more paramount.

I think Disney have a major opportunity here. Rogue One is taking a massive haul at the box office, $790 million globally now, with it yet to launch in China, and indeed in America alone Disney films made over $3 billion during 2016. So Disney hardly need the money. I think it would be fantastic for Disney to use that $50 million to set up some kind of Carrie Fisher Foundation, or donate the majority of the money to various suitable charities. It would be a fitting tribute to the author and actress and would mean a great deal to the Hollywood community and Star Wars fans worldwide.

How realistic such idealistic things are is a matter of conjecture. Disney is a business afterall and that insurance policy likely wasn’t cheap, but with the company having such riches in 2016 at the box office, and with what Star Wars is likely to bring in revenue over the ensuing decades, I think it would be a fantastic gesture. I am sure I am being hopelessly naive and such thinking deserves to be left in the fantasy world of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but anyway, it’s just what I’ve been thinking today. Perhaps I’m just trying to think of ways to bring something positive from what happened, but it would be nice, and although we may not be living in that nice world,  we can still aspire to.



Terminator Genisys (2015)

2016.1: Terminator Genisys (Blu-ray)

tg1We’re living in a strange time of reboots of the franchises we grew up with. Maybe its a sign of growing old (in fact I’m certain of it) but it’s strange indeed. Hollywood over the last few years has been revisiting all the expired franchises of the last few decades and attempted to put a fresh spin on them, reinvigorate them and  make fresh money off them.

When I say ‘expired franchises’ I count Star Wars among them. We’ve had reboots of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Mad Max, and most recently Star Wars over the past few years. Yes, there are obvious financial advantages of rebooting established properties- its certainly easier to market a film that has a recognised identity.  Artistically I can see the creative bonuses of revisiting something and giving it the advantage of modern technologies. The best example – and quite possibly the most successful reboot of all of them- is the Planet of the Apes series.  The original Planet of the Apes films were fine, considering the limitations of actors under make-up playing the apes, but it’s evident that there are considerable improvements from motion capture tech and having photorealistic CGI apes onscreen that enable more sophisticated storytelling and heightened drama.

tg3Terminator Genisys received plenty of ire from fans and reviewers in how it revisited events from the first two Terminator entries, but I see little difference in that to how film-makers revisited events from the Jurassic Park movies in Jurassic World or the original Star Wars trilogy in The Force Awakens. Its fine to have a droid holding secret data being hunted by the bad guys or the good guys to blow up another planet-destroying super weapon in Force Awakens, or genetically-built dinosaurs to run amok in yet another Jurassic theme park in Jurassic World, but it’s wrong to have time-travelling terminators hunting Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys? Of course its hardly original, thats the whole point of reboots- a lack of creative originality. Most of the creativity is in establishing an excuse to go through those old tropes. Whether its fine to expect a fifth Terminator movie to make $500 million worldwide, or to measure its failure to do so as some measure of the quality of the film itself, is something else entirely. Does the fact that The Force Awakens is already  close to $1.4 billion worldwide some measure that it is the best of all the Star Wars films so far? Of course not. It just means that the public were hyped/ready/excited for a new Star Wars film but less so for a new Terminator film. The critical reevaluation of The Force Awakens will come in several months, I’m sure. Maybe Terminator Genisys will get one too.

Whether Terminator Genisys needed to cost some $155 million and therefore needed to be a huge hit to break even (and if that were even possible)  is another matter, and a question for the producers to answer. Some of these bloated budgets these days are quite irresponsible and smaller films would not necessarily be any worse for being more financially viable.

tg2To be clear, I rather enjoyed Terminator Genisys, much to my surprise. From the reviews and word-of-mouth on its release, I gathered it was yet another tired attempt to relaunch the Terminator franchise and so I didn’t bother seeing it at the cinema. Now, lower expectations often give rise to pleasant surprises and this is such a case in point having received the TG blu-ray for Christmas. I thought TG was fun. I thought it was a rather clever attempt to revisit the events of the first film and its sequel using the time-travelling mechanism central to the story. It didn’t feel overly manipulative or cynical- indeed it seemed rather honest and respectful, and it offered a new twist on old events and fresh possibilities for a ‘new’ timeline. Was it perfect? No. There were likely one too many twists and too much thrown into it, including an unnecessary physical embodiment of Skynet/Genisys which would possibly have been best left for a second film. Not all the casting choices worked, but criticising Emilia Clarke for not being Linda Hamilton is like criticising Chris Pine for not being William Shatner. Those original casting choices are like lightning that can never strike twice, and I almost pity the actor who gets to play a young Han Solo in the future Star Wars spin-off.

But I am rather keen to watch TG again. Of course its no patch on the originals but it’s far superior to T3 and Terminator Salvation. It feels rather like a ‘proper’ third Terminator film that honours the first two while spinning off into a new timeline. Perhaps the negative word-of-mouth that TG received has more to do with fan expectation than reality.  Is it even fair to expect any Terminator film to be as good or better than T2? Isn’t that just setting up unrealistic expectations that no film can really measure up to? I didn’t expect The Force Awakens to be as good as The Empire Strikes Back and certainly don’t expect Blade Runner 2 to be as good as the first.

tg4Happily, the fact that Terminator Genisys’  struggle at the box-office seems to have nixed any further film doesn’t really hurt how the central narrative of the film finishes- throughout watching the film, I feared some kind of cliffhanger or lack of proper conclusion (a failing of so many of these intended trilogies that never happen, like The Golden Compass) but TG ends fine. I appreciate the film-makers for managing that. There were obviously fresh adventures ahead, further planned movies we will never see, but that’s ok, a story has been told with a beginning, middle and fairly emphatic end (even a mid-end credits coda doesn’t harm things). The Terminator franchise may eventually get another reboot down the line (it seems one of those properties that Hollywood just can’t let die) but I do think this particular franchise is rather uniquely situated in this- I think all the sequels are separate timelines, parallel universes and all the recasting and twisted logic can be explained by that. As it is, whenever I think of the franchise in future, I’ll think of it as Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Terminator Genisys, and pretend the other two don’t exist in my own particular timeline, and be fine with that.

…and the best film of 2015 is….

I’m rather torn on this one. On the one hand, the biggest film of the year (The Force Awakens) turned out to be a flawed, ‘safe’ reboot/continuation of the beloved Star Wars saga that didn’t deliver everything it promised, and the years perhaps most audacious film, Mad Max: Fury Road, was a veritable tour de force and more daring than I could have possibly hoped. And yet my best film of 2015 is neither of them. Instead, it’s…


 yes Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, something I would never have believed twelve months ago. Somehow I find it hard to believe even now. Indeed, many of you are probably thinking I’ve had too much to drink over the holidays. Somehow though it is indeed my favourite film of the year. Its just one of those films that simply delivers- it is what it is; a daft spy caper with lots of high-octane thrills, quite a few laughs and a great cast. It can be argued that it is the film Spectre should have been, and it does share many themes and plot devices with that Bond entry (so much so that it rather stole Bond’s thunder, what with its central hero going rogue in order to uncover the existence of a shadowy super-criminal organisation). While Spectre was generally grim and moody with at least a passing nod to realism, Rogue Nation is wildly over the top fun and great entertainment because of it. I recently watched Rogue Nation again following its Blu-ray release and yes, it was huge fun all over again. High art it isn’t, and neither is it sophisticated or thoughtful, but it is a much better film than it possibly has a right to be. The script is tight with plenty of twists and turns, the cast is terrific (particularly Rebecca Ferguson), the stunts are fantastic and the direction by Christopher McQuarrie (who is, thank goodness, returning for the next film) is a genuine marvel. Even Tom Cruise outdoes himself. Frankly, it blew me away and it really surprised me how much I enjoyed it. It delivers from start to finish everything you’d expect from a Mission Impossible film, leaving me eagerly anticipating the next in the series.


Revisiting ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

empire1The Empire Strikes Back is, for me,  the best and bravest of all the Star Wars films (so far, anyway- and isn’t it strange yet so nice to add that little caveat?). It seems to me to encapsulate what the Star Wars films/saga should have been. Its the one that still melts my heart and makes me feel like a teenager. Its Star Wars but its somehow not a kids movie, it’s a grown-up film, it is bigger and darker and feels more real. It’s witty, it’s emotional, its audacious, it’s accomplished. It isn’t a remake; Lucas doesn’t come up with a Death Star 2 and rehash the ending of Star Wars, its something new, a continuation. It moves the overall arc of the saga forward and teases a bigger world, introducing new characters and dynamics, suggesting things that, frankly, Return of the Jedi later ignored or simply slammed the door shut on.

Return of the Jedi, it feels like the elephant in the room when one talks about Empire. I know some prefer it; some love it. But to me it always seemed to ignore so many of the lessons of Empire, ignore what Empire did so right.  I can’t bear to think about what Jedi could have been, indeed should been had it followed the model of Empire. Lucas evidently got tired of his fantasy opus (or more likely intimidated/scared by it as it mushroomed into the huge global cultural icon it increasingly became) and decided to call it a day and close out the plot threads and be done with it. As I got older I later began to sympathise with how Lucas must have felt at the time (the Star Wars saga simply taking over his life and him wanting that life back) but I well remember the genuine feeling of betrayal I felt back when I saw Jedi and read that Lucas wasn’t intending to make any more Star Wars films.

The irony of course is that after Empire, perhaps he should have just done that- stepped away and let others carry the films forward, in a similar fashion to how Disney have now moved on with it without him. I guess he didn’t feeling willing or able to do that, or maybe the businessman in him knew it was to much to lose or risk ruining in other hands. But anyway, back to Empire

empire3Just imagine the pressure. It is 1978, and Star Wars is the biggest film ever. Not just the biggest box-office hit but this huge cultural event, worldwide. Beyond all the merchandising, Star Wars and its dialogue and characters has somehow become part of everyday discourse, quoted in media and in newspaper cartoons and television programmes… Avatar may be top of the box-office now, but it never became part of everyday culture like Star Wars did. Few people wore Avatar t-shirts or quoted its dialogue even during that films release, and it could well be argued that that films biggest legacy is nothing in the film itself, more its use of 3D. Few people could name any Avatar character, but it seemed everyone in 1977-1978, even those few who hadn’t even seen the film,  could name Darth Vader or Han Solo or R2 D2.

So imagine making a sequel. Imagine having to meet the expectation, on an artistic and popular level, to match Star Wars. I think with Empire Lucas and his colleagues met that expectation and more. You can sense the effort in everything you see, everything you hear, everything is taken to some other level. For all its obvious achievements, the 1977 Star Wars often seems self-conscious at times, the tone a little off, some of the cast and crew clearly a little uncomfortable about what they are doing-  some of the dialogue delivered as cheesily as it perhaps merits and it is obviously pushing the technical envelope as far as it can, the effects teams learning their craft as they go along. Empire is simply more confident, technically more audacious, visually more breathtaking, while at the same time usurping the usual dynamics of a film, placing its major climax (the Battle of Hoth) early in the film and then closing the film with something of a cliffhanger after hitting the audience with a major revelation that turned around everything we’d seen before.

empire2Just think where films were with effects and everything back in the late seventies, and imagine the sheer ambition of the Battle of Hoth. Giant walkers striding across the snowy plains, the snow-speeders, the Tauntauns… its not like nowadays when everything is pretty much possible, just a matter of CGI trickery. Think something up now and some young guy with a mouse and keyboard can create it if given enough time. The guys back then had to craft it with their hands; had to somehow get decent mattes with bluescreen photography to generate composites over a white background (a big no-no), with miniatures shot in stop-motion projected up onto the big cinema screen. And then they had to composite complex passes using the optical printers of the day for the chase through the asteroid field, create the swamps of Dagobah on a soundstage and bring a small puppet to life for a central character named Yoda. It’s so brave. It’s such genius stuff, a level of creativity beyond Star Wars that Jedi three years later didn’t match. Sometimes I think films just get made at the right time, with the right people in front and behind the camera. I think thats the case with Empire just as it was with Blade Runner a few years later, only with Empire you clearly had them rising to the challenge of making a sequel to the biggest film on the planet. Jack Lemmon used to have a saying about acting, about magic time. Empire was, well, magic time.

If only that ambition had continued through to Jedi. In a perfect world, the follow-up to Empire would have been an adventure just about rescuing Han Solo, chasing Bobba Fett and thwarting Jabba the Hut, while continuing Luke Skywalker’s arc, training him to be a Jedi and developing the ramifications of Empires climactic revelation about the Skywalker family. I don’t think it should have ever been considered a trilogy- the whole Emperor/Death Star 2 thing should have been a whole fourth (Episode 7) movie for me. Somehow Jedi feels tired, forced. The magic is gone somehow. It sort of reminds me of how Gene Roddenberry seemed to lose interest in the original Star Trek by its third season, walking away from it and ensuring it was the weakest and last.

But with Empire you’ve got Lucas with something to prove. Star Wars wasn’t a one-off. Infact it wasn’t as good as everyone was saying, Lucas could do better. His team could do bigger, better.  And Empire was. It was pretty much perfect. The performances were better, the photography more beautiful, the scale and complexity just a whole other level, the John Williams score just sublime. Everything just seemed to come together. Alas it wouldn’t ever again. Well, not up to now, anyway.

I don’t expect The Force Awakens to be as good as Empire. I think the day a Star Wars film could be as good as Empire are long gone. Films have changed so much now. Films are too big, too fast-paced, to ever match what Empire was.  I only hope the new film and those after, follow the model of Empire, suggesting a bigger and more complex saga, with more exotic characters, more exotic places. We’ll see pretty soon. Well, I guess some of you reading this already have. I see the new film tomorrow. A new Star Wars film! Weird. But however it turns out (and I have my doubts about the film), we’ll always have Empire.

Revisiting ‘Star Wars’ (1977/1997)

sw-1With Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens coming up, I’ve decided to try and watch the Original Trilogy over the next few weeks. Partly to properly ‘prepare’ for the new film like every Star Wars geek must be doing over the next few weeks, partly because…

Well, its Alien and Prometheus all over again isn’t it? For good or ill, after SW7 hits, watching the original characters in the first trilogy just won’t be the same again. Its hard to watch Alien now without dwelling on the knowledge that the Space Jockey is just a bald giant in a space suit and the Nostromo crew weren’t (apparently) the first humans to explore the derelict. Likewise whenever we next watch the original films in 2016 and later, it’ll be in the knowledge of what comes after, what became of our heroes and the Empire etc. In a sense its exciting, but it’s also rather scary. I doubt that SW7 will be a disaster, but for so many decades now, we’ve all had our dreams of what follows Jedi.. will the ‘reality’ of a whole new series of movies measure up? Likewise, prequels featuring the theft of the Death Star plans and adventures of a young Han Solo… how much will these impact on our enjoyment of the Original Trilogy (as if Jake Lloyd being the origin of Darth Vader wasn’t bad enough)?

So anyway, before all that nonsense inflicts further damage on my childhood love affair with Star Wars, I shoved the Blu ray disc into my player and settled down for one more trip down the Death Star trench…

The thing that bugs me about watching Star Wars these days -and I do so rarely, this occasion being the first time in quite a few years- is that when I’m watching it, it doesn’t feel like Star Wars. At least, not the film I remember from when I was a kid in 1978 (to paraphrase the film itself, I hear Obi-Wan intoning “this is NOT the film you have been looking for…”). Of course what we watch now is the 1997 Special Edition… well, that plus whatever changes were made when the film got released on Blu-ray a few years back. The Star Wars I fell in love with, warts and matte lines and all, well, thats up in the loft somewhere on VHS tape; the Star Wars I have on DVD and Blu-ray is something else entirely.

sw1But that’s a gripe we’re all bored of by now so I won’t dwell on it. If the Force is with us (sorry) Disney will eventually release those original editions of Star Wars, Empire and Jedi – there’s been plenty of rumours circulating over the past few years, indeed, it now just seems a matter of when rather than if. I wonder if, when it eventually comes, it’ll be a case of be careful what you wish for? I’m sure those of us of a certain age who grew up with the originals will greet them with wild applause, but I do wonder if younger generations will moan at the dodgy effects and miss the fancy cgi shots.

Funny thing is, three things crossed my mind watching Star Wars again. First, Lucas really didn’t have a lot of coverage when he finished filming. You can see that only careful editing saved some sequences. I spotted a Stormtrooper dead on the floor one moment and up shooting back at Luke and Leia the next, and several shots extended by fast cuts to and fro (a Stormtrooper taking forever to fall over during the Falcon’s escape from Tatooine), and careful editing of the same life-size X-Wing taking off several times to give the impression of a fleet of them. I can imagine Lucas and his editors trying to make sequences work with the barest minimum of shots. Trying to make some of the space battles make sense must have been a huge headache. It’s a potent reminder of the difficulties making the film, that the cast and crew were making it up as they went along, that it really was the first of its kind, almost a prototype Star Wars. The leap in sophistication between Star Wars and Empire is huge.

sw3Second, well, frankly, what brass balls Lucas had to even attempt it. Watching Star Wars this time, I was so aware of how ahead of its time it was, how much of a leap of faith it must have been. Its so silly really, all that Force mumbo-jumbo, robots and aliens, a captive princess in white and a big bad guy in black armour. Of course as a kid I lapped it up, it made perfect sense for someone growing up on Marvel comics, but to world-weary adults, particularly in the fairly grim 1970s it must have seemed absolutely nuts making it. How many times did Lucas doubt what he was doing would ever work? Even the simplest thing, giving character to R2 D2 and C-3PO, one a robot that beeps and the other an English guy in a gold suit. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Lucas has come under so much criticism over the years, what with the prequels and special editions and everything (if SW7 is bad, imagine the ire Lucas will get for ‘selling out’ to Disney’s Evil Empire) but it has to be said, the guy was something of a genius with Star Wars.

Third, and this is a strange one after all these years. The score by John Williams. Its just too good. Imagine watching the film with just dialogue and on-set sound effects prior to dubbing etc. How cheap and tacky and daft the whole mad thing must have seemed. Yet John Williams created this huge gorgeous symphonic score with all his sheer sincerity that the story was real and epic and operatic. Frankly, Star Wars didn’t deserve such a fantastic score, but thank goodness it got one. The music elevates it, to, well mythic opera. Imagine it with a cheesy Disco score… the mind boggles.