• Film reviews

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

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

    Film review #507

    Director: Irvin Kershner

    SYNOPSIS: Three years after the rebel alliance successfully destroyed the galactic empire’s death star battlestation, the empire has been mercilessly hunting down the rebels and chasing them across the galaxy. The empire has chased them to their latest base in the Hoth system, and begin their assault. Luke Skywalker finds he must fulfil his destiny to become a true Jedi, and his friends evade pursuit from the empire as the stakes are elevated for all of the heroes…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes back is a 1980 sci-fi film and the sequel to the original 1977 film Stars Wars Episode IV. Set three years after the events of the previous film, we find the heroes of the first film hiding out on an ice planet with the rest of the rebel alliance, with the Empire in pursuit. Following their success at the end of the previous film, the title of the film quickly comes to fruition, with the evil galactic empire striking back with overwhelming force. It contrasts quite a bit with the ending of Episode IV, which felt very much like a decisive victory, but then again had Darth Vader survive and showed nothing of the fallout from the Rebel’s victory. The idea of there even being a sequel after the first one was very much in doubt, so it’s fair that there would have been a lack of foreplanning in that regard. The Empire Strikes Back immediately raises the stakes in the opening act, and thrusts our heroes back into action, giving them new motivations and resolve. There’s very little breathing room in the film’s script, and nearly every moment is filled with action and energy. From a story standpoint you could probably cut the Hoth battle down fairly easily, but it’s more of a spectacle than a story impetus, and opening the film with a big action sequence will quickly satisfy those looking for an entertaining film rather than hard science-fiction. Another vast improvement in the story is how the story isn’t stringed together by a series of huge conveniences of characters being in the right place at the right time. There’s a bit of that (Such as Luke happening to crash land at the exact part of a whole planet where Yoda is), but otherwise it’s not much of an issue here.

    When Empire Strikes Back was released, it received very mixed reviews: the change in tone from a more simplistic good vs evil story to a more complex world-building and darker tone might have alienated those who were simply looking for more of the same. However, that opinion has shifted quite significantly over the years, becoming a model for how sequels should be made. The film ups the stakes, builds the world, and shifts the tone to provide a new experience. The changes won’t be for everyone, but some amount of change is necessary to keep things fresh and justify actually making a sequel. Furthermore, this film has become regarded as one of the best in the series for these reasons, and it’s accomplishment in turning a fairly simple story  into a franchise. The darker tone might be seen as symbolic that the series has “grown up” in some way, and that certainly seems to be what The Empire Strikes Back has been going for.

     One thing that I noticed right away with regards to the characters is that even though three years have supposedly passed between this film and the last, the main characters don’t really seem to have changed in those three years. Their relationships all seem to be at a standstill waiting for this film to start. For example, the Luke-Leia-Han love triangle still seems to be a thing, which is something that seems an odd thing to string along for three years. Also that Han has still not paid Jabba the Hutt the money he is owed, despite it being stressed that it was a bit of an urgent matter previously. Apart from that, we get to see more of the character’s backstories and development, where they really start to emerge from their typical roles. Mark Hamil definitely delivers a much better performance than in A New Hope, and it’s clear to see he has been working on his skills. The new characters Yoda and Lando add in some more complexities, and Yoda is played very straight, contrasting with his appearance and clownish antics when he first appears. Obviously the big revelation that (spoilers) Vader is Luke’s Father is the biggest twist in the film, it’s definitely just a sting at the end of the film that sets the stage for the ending, with the heroes on the back-foot and out of options, ready for a redemption in the sequel. We still know very little about Luke’s Father with regards to what he did or who he was, so it doesn’t really change what we know in terms of the story, but yes it is definitely a high drama moment.

    The film keeps the very distinct aesthetic divisions between the Empire and the rebels, with the sleek, clean Empire ships contrasting with the more dishevelled, cobbled together Rebel devices. The sets have plenty of detail and complexity to build its world. It gives sci-fi fans plenty of spaceships, lasers, and the like, while still having a sensible story to follow. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a Star Wars fan, and there’s probably no film that is going to make me change my mind. The flaws I see in this film stick out because of this, but I can also see how this film works as a successful sequel: it expands the world, deepens the characters, and raises the stakes to give you more of what you like (if you already like it).

  • Film reviews

    #500 – Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

    Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

    Film review #500

    Director: George Lucas

    SYNOPSIS: A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…the plans for the evil galactic empire’s new battle station are stolen by the rebel alliance and placed in a droid to escape to the planet Tatooine. Luke Skywalker comes into possession of the droid and discovers a hidden message about the plans. With the droids in tow, Luke sets off to find Obi-Wan Kenobi and learn the ways of the force to bring down the empire, led by the ruthless Darth Vader…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Happy 500th film review! It’s been a long road to get here, and many hours have been invested into watching the best and worst (mostly the worst) of science-fiction films from all over the world over the last ten years. The plan was always to save this one for the 500th review, because I have famously never watched any Star wars film all the way through, and I have never had any real interest in the franchise, so this is a big milestone for me. So let’s take a look at why the film was so successful, why I was never interested in it, and whether actually watching the film has changed my mind shall we?

    Star Wars (subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope after the initial cinema release) is a 1977 science-fiction film directed by George Lucas. It is the first film released in the Star Wars franchise. The film starts off throwing us right in the middle of a story, as outlined in the title crawl: the rebels fighting the evil galactic empire have uncovered the plans for their ultimate weapon: a gigantic space station that can destroy planets. Princess Leia hides the plans in a droid, which is then sent to the planet Tatooine and picked up by a young farm hand named Luke Skywalker. Determined to deliver the message and plans to one Obi-Wan Kenobi, and embark on an adventure to save the galaxy. Originally released as a stand-alone film, Star Wars really throws you right into this “galaxy far away” without much establishing. However, as the film opens up with an entertaining action sequence that shows off the world and its inhabitants better than any exposition could do. The story is pretty much a simple “good vs evil” plot, and I feel like it’s a waste of time trying to find any deep allegories in the world or characters. maybe George Lucas tried to build something more deeper and significant in his constant re-edits (more on that later), but taking the film as a stand-alone feature, it sets its scene around it’s characters fine, but when they talk about the galaxy at large with regards to the senate or whatever, we don’t see or hear much about it, which is a bit disjointing. Personally, I was never too interested in the world-building of Star Wars as this “galaxy far away” was a bit too disconnecting for me as a kid, and especially with their being humans there as well just made no sense. Maybe it’s a small point to get hung up on, but that was the kind of kid I was.

    So after the first action scene, we start following the two droids that escape with the plans: C3PO and R2D2. We follow them for…quite a while actually: nearly half an hour of their bickering back and forth before the film moves on. honestly, I think the beginning could have been easily shortened to improve the flow of the film. If the aim was to show the droids and how they fit into the world, then there is certainly some of that in the beginning, but it isn’t really furthered in the latter part of the film. for example, there seems to be a deliberate show of how droids are treated as second-rate beings by humans in the beginning as if droid discrimination is rife in this galaxy, but it is completely forgotten about when the human characters become the centre of the story, and never confronted in the film. Maybe it would have been good for the contribution the droids made in defeating the empire could have been recognised and changed people’s attitudes towards them, but that doesn’t happen. Again, the film is basically a good vs. evil story that introduced a lot of things in passing, but were further explored in subsequent films and other media.

    One thing I noticed about the story is a lot of the plot points are strung together by a chain of massive conveniences. The droids are on a ship, which coincidentally has the man they need to find, and are caught and sold to Luke, who just so happens to know Obi-Wan Kenobi, and so on. It’s not really an organic method of storytelling that is quite absurd the more you think about it, and that’s even before you take into account the lore from the prequels and how Obi-Wan should know who C3PO and R2D2 etc.

    It is well known that George Lucas was inspired by watching the film serials of the 40s and 50s when he was a child, and that heavily influenced the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The fairly simplistic nature of the Star Wars “Good vs. evil” story does feel like it could have been the basis of such a serial. The characters too, are reminiscent of that: the characters are all white men, with one woman in the entire cast. Luke is the “blank slate” protagonist that people are to identify and project themselves into as he explores this new world with the viewer. Han Solo is the more typical, action-focused lead, and Leia is the only female character that unsurprisingly needs to be rescued. Darth Vader takes the role of the “masked villain” whose identity was often kept secret until the last chapter of the serial. His appearance is also highly reminiscent of the serial villain “The lightning” from The Fighting Devil Dogs: Who could fire lightning from his hand (A power not shown in this Star Wars film, but is in others), and flies around in a triangular plane that you could say is similar to the “star destroyer” ships seen in Star Wars. It’s difficult to say just how much of an influence these had, given that there would have been no way to re-watch these serials or dig up any information back in 1977 when there was no home releases, but the similarities are way to striking in some regards to be dismissed as coincidence. There is some effort to give some of the characters a more unique personality: Han Solo has a bit of an anti-hero edge that’s not too unique, but his character and performance by Harrison Ford are definitely memorable. Princess Leia too, while still being the sole female character that needs to be rescued from being kidnapped, but her snide remarks, constant backtalking and her eagerness to get stuck in the action with the guys definitely set her apart from the trope she finds herself in. I’m not sure the title of “princess” really helps her character in this respect though, as it isn’t really explained what or where is is supposed to be a princess of. nevertheless, Carrie Fisher’s performance is definitely a stand out from an acting perspective.

    There was apparently very little faith in Star Wars being a success, and George Lucas was given a “small” budget of eleven million dollars to work with, which in 1977, while not a big budget, is not nothing. What the film creates is a very unique aesthetic: not the pure, sterile white that is expected from sci-fi (most of the time), but a world covered in grime and dirt, and that feels lived in. The detailed textures on the models of the ships really bring the scenes to life, and it’s pretty impressive how much detail they get on them. there’s definitely a distinct vision in the film’s aesthetic, and for the most part, it is brought to life with no big complaints. The big budget film score by John Williams also provides a lot of memorable acoustic moments.

    I should probably mention something about the edits to this film: George Lucas has made many modifications to this film is particular since it was released as a standalone film in 1977. Some of them are cosmetic and actually enhance the world, such as recolouring and adjusting contrast on some of the scenes and models, which I think helps them stand out a lot better. Some of the additions though are pretty pointless, and sometimes harmful to the film. The constant reworking of Han shooting Greedo first is infamously silly and in my opinion just didn’t need to be done. The added CGI characters in some of the establishing shots look really outdated and out of place in the film, and while I get that they are there to make the world more busy, it just ends up being distracting. The added scene with Jabba the Hutt was cut from the original, which I think made sense, as it messes up the reveal of the Millennium Falcon when we see it with Luke for the first time. Out of all the changes, I still don’t get why all the dialogue with Luke being attracted to Leia wasn’t altered or removed, since it’s just weird when we know they are revealed to be siblings in the sequels (spoilers, sorry). I know that they also don’t have any idea about their relation (I don’t think they were supposed to be related when the film was written, but it still seems a bit odd that the whole thing has been left untouched while so much of the rest of the film has been cosmetically altered for no real benefit.

    Overall, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is a perfectly serviceable film about good versus evil in a science-fiction setting. It has it’s own unique aesthetic and vision, and adds in enough character development and drama to make it interesting for viewers of all demographics. the influence it had is undeniable: it was a landmark moment in sci-fi that allowed the genre to be taken seriously again, after the low budget, b-movie monster films of the 60’s. However, I do still hold the opinion that part of that was good timing on the film’s release, rather than anything in particular that the film accomplished: it was expected to be a mediocre performer that no one wanted to take a chance on, and I think science-fiction fans were waiting for a film like Star Wars to get into. watching the film properly hasn’t changed my opinion of the franchise, and I’m not suddenly interested in watching the other films or exploring the franchise (although I will get around to viewing the other films eventually), but yes, it is a decent sci-fi film that breathed new life into the genre and was able to fire people’s imaginations, as well as being entertaining. There are plenty of problems with it though, such as the ridiculous reliance on chance encounters for plot convenience, some wobbly acting in parts, and pacing, so all in all, it has done little to sway me, but I see why people would and could enjoy it.

  • Film reviews

    #12 – THX-1138 (1971)

    THX-1138 (1971)

    Film review #12

    Director: George Lucas

    From the creator of Star Wars comes a science-fiction film exploring the darker side of the imagined utopia…

    THX 1138 envisions a future where everything is automatised. It is a departure from the traditional utopian visions of American culture, such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, of which a clip is shown at the start of the movie. This is a very clever way of questioning our pre-conceived notions of the future.

    The story centres around a man named THX 1138, who is a resident of a futuristic society, where the populace is forced to take drugs to suppress their emotions in favour of efficiency, productivity and order. THX unknowingly stops taking his drugs thanks to his roomate LUH, who he starts to have feelings and impulses for. He also meets SEN, who is able to hack into the mainframe of the city to get things he wants. After THX nearly causes a meltdown after not taking his drugs and therefore being unable to perform at his job, he is put on trial and sentenced to confinement. After which he tries to escape the city and find LUH.

    I think the most important aspect of THX 1138 is how de-humanised everything is: Sterile white walls cover everything, the only colour being in the pills the citizens take. There are no personal effects, the living quarters are as empty as everywhere else, and everyone has a shaved head, so identity is suppressed at every level possible. This shows in the dialogue in the movie too, which is staggered, fragmented, and just plain unnatural. Even the police force which enforces the law is made entirely of robots: People building there own regulators and taking the notions of justice out of their own hands seems to show a system where technology has taken control. The film could perhaps be seen as a commentary on communism and the power of the state too?

    Even the notion of religion is seen as controlled by the all powerful computer. OHM 1190 is the state-sanctioned religious icon, and booths are available around the city for the residents to talk to and confide in, to which OHM will occasionally spout computer generated phrases such as “Yes, I understand” or “Excellent”. These booths are adorned with an image of Jesus as depicted in Hans Meming’s painting Christ Giving His Blessing (1478), which further that notion of a religious icon. Though one has to wonder what use a religious icon is in a city where every aspect of humanity is suppressed? Perhaps its random computer generated responses are appropriate for a population without humanity, and it is another way for the state to spy on people…Being made in 1971, the movie still stand the test of time well, possibly because there is not much in the movie which can age. Everything is neutral and bland by design, and so is resistant to ageing in the eyes of the movie-goer. Another reason for its lack of ageing may be the fact that I watched the directors cut, which has updated CGI and some re-filmed sequences, of which the director George Lucas is notorious for editing and touching up his old films (See the uproar over the constant remastering of Star Wars).

    So overall, we have a very disturbing vision of society in the future in THX 1138, its strange, inhuman concepts address just what it means to be human amidst our technology, and whether that technology could ever control us? It seems to me that as a departure from the views of the future in American culture at that time, THX 1138 serves as a powerful alternate perspective on the future and still maintains that relevancy today.