Tag Archives: The Force

“STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE” Review (✫)

Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.

Never again. Don’t ever let this happen to Star Wars ever again. When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was announced, George Lucas’ fan base exploded with excitement, preparing themselves to witness the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s story before he became Darth Vader. Oh, are they going to be disappointed. This movie is every bit as stupid as the title sounds and then some.

Dating back 32 years before the events of the original Star Wars, The Phantom Menace finds the elder Ben Kenobi as the young padawan understudy Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor), serving under his master Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). They are assigned by the jedi order to defend Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman) from the vicious Trade Federation, a group of long-necked, bulgy-eyed aliens that are so bloated and ugly that a Jim Henson puppet would be mortified.

The Jedi meet an assortment of characters along their journey. A younger, more polished R2-D2 sits aboard a Naboo space ship. A C-3PO without any outer plating (or as he likes to call it, being “naked”) wobbles around in a tiny Tatooine hut. A clumsy, idiotic gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) bumbles and falls everywhere like a ragdoll. And, of course, a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) wanders around the dusty sands of Tatooine, illustrated here as a messiah-like figure to the force and the galaxy.

When I watched Star Wars many years ago as a small boy in Brownsville, TX, the thing I fell most in love with was its characters. The adventurous bounty hunters and princesses, the wise jedi, the noisy droids, the sinister sith, all of them enchanted me with their uniqueness and peculiarity. So many sci-fi epics rely too much on special effects to provide their spectacle. With Star Wars, the humans, aliens, and droids were the spectacle, and the groundbreaking visual effects complimented their presence without taking away focus from the story.

The characters were the best thing to come out of the original Star Wars trilogy. They’re the worst thing here. Oh my God, are they the worst thing. These characters are so bland, dull, and uninteresting that they could have all been replaced by droids and we wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

Take Liam Neeson as one victim, err, example. Here we have a fine actor, demonstrating his finesse in performances for movies including Darkman, Michael Collins, and Schindler’s List, the last of which earned him an Oscar nomination. In all of those movies, he has demonstrated an ability to express fear, anger, disappointment, courage, heroism, and earnest in both big, showy scenes and small, personal ones. Yet here, his ability as an actor is almost completely erased, being asked to throw on robes and swing around a lightsaber in the place of a performance. We have nothing from his character to make us remember or even care about him. He has one, cold-hard emotion throughout the film, and that emotion is serious. There is nothing else about him to make him either fun or fascinating, not in comparison with the charisma and calmness we got from Alec Guinness in the original series.

But Neeson is not the worst part of the movie. Indeed, he is only one victim among an entire assembly line of failures. Portman is plastic and looks like she doesn’t know why she’s on the set. McGregor is functional, but doesn’t demonstrate much purpose beyond linking this movie together with the original. I’ll cut Jake Lloyd some slack since he’s only a child actor at 10 years old, but I will say he did nothing to service his role and make me believe he’s supposed to become the most feared force in the galaxy. That’s not as much his fault as it is others though. I’ll come back around to that in a bit.

The biggest catastrophe in this movie is Jar Jar Binks, and he’s so damaging to the picture that I have to dedicate two paragraphs to his stupidity. He’s supposed to serve as the comedic relief, but believe me when I say there’s nothing comedic about this cretin. He bumbles and trips everywhere like a drunken idiot, speaking in nonsensical English so distorted that it would make Yoda want to take grammar lessons. “Ooey mooey”, “mesa” and “yousa” are not beyond his flawed vocabulary, and his voice is so whiny and high-pitched that it makes me want to strangle him by his flappy ears.

Compare Jar Jar to 3PO, a successful attempt at comedic relief in the series. 3PO is funny because he tries to be serious and fails. Jar Jar tries to be funny and comes off as annoying. If 3PO tripped and fell on himself as often as Jar Jar did, he would dent up his entire body plating and probably damage his processing core. Maybe that’s what happened to Jar Jar: he fell on his head so many times that he forgot how to use it.

Despite my hatred of all of these characters, I don’t blame the actors for their representation. I blame writer-director-creator George Lucas, who arguably had the most involvement in this film as opposed to the previous ones. How could he have misfired with this film so badly? 20 years ago, he gave cinema some of its most cherished characters, and now, he’s given cinema some of its most hated. With the imagination and the ambition he’s committed to the sci-fi genre for years now, I cannot explain how badly he’s written and directed this cast except for sheer lapse of judgement. There’s no other reason to explain how dull and uninteresting these characters are, or how moronic and insipid Jar Jar is.

What of the visual effects? The cinematography? The editing? The score? Read my previous reviews. You know what I think of them. A potentially good movie can be produced poorly, but likewise, a bad movie can also be produced wonderfully. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is some of the best-looking garbage you’ll ever see. To quote one of Jar Jar’s companions in the movie: “Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.” In English, that means you’re in deep… well, you know.

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“STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The Galactic rebellion intensifies.

How do you improve upon perfection? The second installment in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, answers this question with profound confidence, wiping away any doubt with the swift of a lightsaber and the influence of the force. It’s hard to imagine that at one point, creator George Lucas doubted the impact his series would hold. And now here stands The Empire Strikes Back, not only every bit as strong as its predecessor, but also cementing its influence on cinema forever.

Taking place a few years after the events of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back follows its core characters as they continue the intensified conflict against the empire. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is viciously in pursuit after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has a debt he desperately needs to pay off from a criminal overlord. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has a war she’s still trying to fight. And while all of this is going on, Luke receives a message from his long-deceased friend, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), telling him to go to the Dagobah system to train with the only Jedi master left in existence. Now all on separate paths towards their destinies, these rebels and friends must complete their own journeys as they continue to fight the empire and save the galaxy from its evil clutches.

After the massive success of Star Wars, you’d wonder how on Earth George Lucas would be able to provide a follow up to his science-fiction saga. Yes, he had created these wonderful characters, but character appeal can only last for so long. You have to give them something to do to test the strength of their resolve and the changes that they go through. For the sequel to work, Lucas needed to not only reproduce his memorable heroes: he needed a story just as compelling to allow them to grow and evolve.

Thankfully, Lucas delivers just that alongside director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. One improvement that The Empire Strikes Back has upon its predecessor is in the scope of its storytelling; in the stakes that it sets up and in the challenges it pits against its characters. That’s perhaps the most noticeable way in how this movie excels, is in its buildup and anticipation.

Take, for instance, the dynamic that pits Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader. As the movie builds, you quickly realize how similar Luke and Vader are to each other, and how dangerous of a path Luke is on if he isn’t careful. Luke is training to become a jedi. So was Vader, at one point. Luke is very strong in the force. So is Vader. Luke wants to get powerful fast so he can protect his friends. So did Vader, before he turned to the dark side. The parallels this movie draws on its protagonist and antagonist are very strong, and Kershner is effective in highlighting the conflict going on inside of Luke. It shows that if Luke isn’t careful, the greatest thing he will lose is not his friends, but his soul.

The other characters are just as great as they were the first time we became acquainted with them. Han Solo is still the smug, over-confident rebel, Leia is still the stubborn and headstrong leader that gives a good name to female protagonists. Darth Vader, however, is just as imposing and fearful as he was when we first met him. I would argue even more so, given more of the history we learn about him in this movie. When listening to him, I had forgotten how pivotal James Earl Jones was in his character conception, how his voice lends so much to his performance and his agony. It isn’t just the deepness of Jones’ voice that perfectly encapsulates Darth Vader: it’s in the sincerity of his words, how he says some lines with intensity and quietly utters others in softness. In the first movie, we got a great introduction to Darth Vader as a villain. Here, we’re beginning to understand him as a character, and Jones continues to be pivotal as that comprehension continues to be constructed.

What of the technical elements? Read my first review. You know what I think of its technical elements. The landscapes are vast and barren, contributing to a deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability. The action is exciting and suspenseful, teaming our heroes up against near impossible tasks, then having them find solutions in the most creative and dynamic ways possible. John Williams’ score doesn’t even need any elaboration. Can’t you remember the emotions you felt the first time you saw the words “Star Wars” on the screen and heard the horns blasting proudly in harmony?

This movie is just as strong as the first film was in its production value. Yet, production value means nothing without a strong arc for our characters to go through, and The Empire Strikes Back has that in spades. On the surface, it’s another sci-fi action blockbuster not too dissimilar to its first entry. In deeper insight, it’s a character conflict on how these heroes and villains react to stakes rising and how similar they are in their struggle and in their pain.

There are other characters and story elements that I would like to talk about, but doing so would cheat you of the experience and take away the enjoyment of seeing it for yourself. Star Wars was a masterpiece. The Empire Strikes Back, even more so.

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