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Star Wars at 35/ Lucas goes Disney?: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (1983)/ Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) ~ Review

May 28, 2012

(Return Of The JediDirected by: Richard Marquand; Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guinness, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Ian McDiarmid, James Earl Jones (voice), Frank Oz (voice and performer: Yoda); Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas; US; 136 minutes; Colour; Certificate: U

In the words of the irrepressible Lester Bangs from Almost Famous (2000), here ‘s a theory for you to disregard completely: Return Of The Jedi‘s biggest problem is not the Ewoks.

Yes, although the inclusion of the ursine aliens as significant supporting players was far from the wisest choice made in the making of this finale to the original Star Wars trilogy, there were arguably bigger mis-steps made by Lucas and co. in their conception and execution of this flick, ensuring that – while it’s still fun, exciting and engaging fare – sadly it’s definitely in the shade of forerunners A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

First, some background. Somewhat stung by the public and critical opinion that Empire wasn’t ‘as good’ as A New Hope (despite it making inordinate moolah at the box-office), Star Wars head honcho George Lucas seemingly decided to ‘give the people what they wanted’ with Jedi. So out went Hollywood heavyweight Leigh Bracket as script first-drafter (admittedly, she had died in 1978), in came Lucas on official screenwriting duties again with mate Lawrence Kasdan; out went the arty director that was Irvin Kershner, in came relative unknown helmer Richard Marquand; and, generally speaking, out went the darkness and depth of Empire, in came a more ‘kid friendly’ lighter and oft-comical tone.

To my mind, the – if you will – ‘Disney-ifying’ of Star Wars in Jedi is pretty clear to see – and pretty much throughout the flick. In reality, Kasdan was the film’s chief writer, his script growing out of a committee of ideas men (Lucas, Marquand, producer Howard Kazanjian and himself) throwing around notions to put more flesh on Lucas’s rather bare bones story outline for the film. The results, thanks to Marquand’s direction, included a Tatooine-set opening section at gangster Jabba the Hutt’s palace in which our heroes rather labour to free Han Solo from his carbon-frozen imprisonment and finally conquer Jabba and his goons out in the desert – a sequence that should be tense and exciting, but is mostly played for laughs (the jokey demise of the awesome villain that is Boba Fett is criminal).

Further errata include the featuring of not one, but two moving and impactful deaths of important characters (Yoda’s passing isn’t so much a foretaste of Vader/ Anakin’s as over-egging the pudding); Lando leading the outer space-set attack on the new Death Star as captain of the Millenium Falcon, ensuring that not only is hero-and-a-half Han removed from his natural habitat (which in itself feels a bit weird), but also he, Leia and Chewbacca are left with far from an impressive mission for most of the film (managing to break into a shield generator surely shouldn’t prove as much a challenge as it does for, by this time, such great adventure movie heroes?); and then, of course, there’s the Ewoks.

Initially, Lucas had intended Chewie’s race, the Wookies, would be the inhabitants of the world on which the land-based conflict of the film’s climax would be set, but – to appeal especially to the kids? – he and the other filmmakers opted instead for teddy bear sort-of savages. This factor, combined with the general comedic tone that  burdens this foresty section (clichés ticked off include the primitive race mistaking a character for a god – C3P0 – and someone executing a Tarzan yell as they swing on a grapevine – Chewie) mean this part feels less like the ebullient Empire than Carry On Up The Jungle (1970), but with cuddly, furry things instead of Valerie Leon and the sauciness of the latter movie – not a great deal in my book.

Less immediately obvious maybe, but just as (if not more) important is that unlike the sensationally well handled Han/ Leia relationship in Empire, the revelation to Luke that Leia’s his sis and, in particular, his revelation to her of this fact just doesn’t really hit you between the eyes – and in the heart – and that’s in spite of master composer John Williams underscoring the scene with his beautifully haunting new theme Luke and Leia. Frankly, to say it doesn’t blow the audience away like Vader admitting to Luke he’s his pop is putting it mildly. Fair dues, it would’ve probably never rivalled that moment, but it should be more emotionally satisfying.

And yet, despite all that, Jedi certainly does have its moments. As mentioned at the top of the review, in spite of its setbacks it’s unquestionably fun fare. Hamill, Ford and Fisher – looking older than in the previous two flicks and playing characters that have grown and been through a good deal together – are as charismatic and winning as ever. Meanwhile, those ILM bods out-do themselves once more with the outstanding effects they conjure up for the Rebel raid on the reconstructed Death Star and the Endor speeder bike chase, while the latex creatures created especially for Jabba’s palace certainly are, to quote Vader himself, impressive… most impressive.

But best of all – and significantly so – is Luke’s final confrontation with Vader and The Emperor. It’s a sequence brimming with The Force-fuelled themes of light versus dark, and love, forgiveness and family ties versus hate, revenge and alliances forged on arrogance, greed and thirst for power – that’s what Star Wars is all about, right there. And, of course, this climactic stuff is topped off with Vader’s transformation back into Anakin; a wholly successful and satisfying resolution to the series – especially when viewed in the context of the three prequels added into the Star Wars mix years later.

So, overall then, Return Of The Jedi is a decent watch and hardly, in the words of Admiral Ackbar, a trap, but it really should be more – and therein lies the nyub-nyub.

Best bit: Luke takes off Vader’s helmet and we finally get to see Anakin Skywalker (again)

Best line: “It’s a trap!” (Admiral Ackbar states the obvious and establishes an Internet meme, well, more than 20 years later – see video clip above)

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(The Phantom MenaceDirected by: George Lucas; Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson, Ray Park, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice & performer: Yoda); Screenplay by: George Lucas; US; 133 minutes; Colour; Certificate: U

Sixteen long years after Return Of The Jedi, punters around the globe finally got what they wanted – a sci-fi extravaganza that absolutely blew their socks off. Not only was this the first in a brand new blockbuster trilogy, it was also brimming with a brilliant concept, top characters, thrills, spills and mind-blowing special effects. It was a commercial and critical success with seemingly every cinemagoer the world over. And it was called… The Matrix.

Wait a tick, wasn’t the summer of ’99 supposed to be all about the return of Star Wars? Wasn’t it supposed to be all about George Lucas bringing us the first of the long-awaited prequels? Wasn’t it supposed to be all about The Phantom Menace? How come – despite it easily becoming its decade’s second biggest box-office hit after Titanic (1997) – did the movie that marked Star Wars‘ re-emergence get overshadowed by Keanu Reeves doing kung-fu in virtual reality? And, more than 10 years on, does the former really deserve the bad rap it still gets?

With the luxury of hindsight, the big clue was in the title. Nonplussed, many a Star Wars fan dismissed ‘The Phantom Menace’ as a title that lacked the punch and dynamism of those of the previous trio in the film series. They were absolutely right, of course – but, really, it was a most fitting name for this particular flick. For ‘The Phantom Menace’ actually suggests that the universe of its movie isn’t that of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance, where the former holds sway and the latter’s the only hope; where it’s all about simple good versus evil; where the word Jedi is mysterious and The Force an enigma. The universe we see in The Phantom Menace (and that of its two sequels to come) is that which came 30-ish years before; it’s that of the Galactic Republic where politics and democracy with all their complexities, potential duplicity and deceit are the norm; where the Jedis are a band of noble protectors of all that’s good and proper and where The Force is, er, a force for good. Or at least it’s supposed to be.

Put simply, unlike with Return Of The Jedi, George Lucas didn’t ‘give the people what they wanted’ in The Phantom Menace – he gave them what he wanted; the opening salvo in a trilogy of similar, but quite different movies to A New Hope, Empire and Jedi. In fact, with the second trilogy now well consumed, it’s pretty obvious this is what he had to give viewers. And yet for an audience so familiar for so long with the ‘old Star Wars‘, it was inevitably a hard sell. Why all the political shenanigans? Why does Obi-Wan have a pony-tail? What’s a padawan? And what the hell are midichlorians and why has The Force become a pseudo-science? (I recall certainly struggling with the latter question).

And I also remember coming away from my first viewing of The Phantom Menace thinking that all the political talk and machinations left one feeling like they’d just watched a cross between Star Wars and Star Trek. But the plot of this film – and that of its sequels – necessarily involves politics, as the whole thing’s the tale of the gradual fall of democracy and the rise of tyranny. Yet, the trouble with The Phantom Menace (mostly based around the discovery of a boy hero, young Anakin Skywalker) is that it’s hard to accept that all the Republic- and Jedi-related, grown-up talky guff and the slow, at times rather plodding pace and studious tone this inevitably brings is necessary – until, yes, you’ve seen the next two movies, of course.

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And, talking of young Anakin, that’s another problem. The Phantom Menace immediately garnered criticism that it was too skewed to a kiddy audience (the majority of Star Wars‘ audience had grown up with the original films, after all). And yet, ambitiously and admirably, Lucas intended the prequels to tell Anakin’s entire story, which means they had to start with his discovery by mature if maverick Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn and the beginning of the his journey into the ways of all things Jedi. Thus, The Phantom Menace has to feel like a ‘Disney flick’ because its main hero is around 10 years-old. Although, methinks this would have been less an issue if Lucas had cast a better child actor than Jake Lloyd. And that’s a shame – Lloyd looks fine, but much of his acting is forced and far from naturalistic. Mind you, he wouldn’t be alone among Anakin actors in that respect…

Moreover, the movie further suffers from its writer-director’s odd insistence that its thesping (and that of some of the two sequels to come) should come off like ’30s/ ’40s Saturday morning serial-esque stilted acting, rather than the charismatic playing that characterised the original trilogy. This was a major mis-step, no question. For instance, it makes Ewan McGregor look at best average  as the young Obi-Wan, which is a big waste of such a talented chap (admittedly, Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon overcomes this – maybe he smartly ignored most of Lucas’s direction?). At times, the flick is in dire need of a flip, loose, cynical, wisecracker among its heroes (read: a Han Solo), but there’s nobody like that in sight in the Galactic Republic, it seems.

However, it’s certainly not all disappointment when it comes to The Phantom Menace. Best of all, it looks brilliant. With the controversial additions made to the 1997 Special Edition re-issues of the first three flicks, there was a hint of how far ILM had come since the original trilogy and proof they were now capable of realising the visual breadth and detail of the Republic era – before The Empire stamped out all its colour and variety. With The Phantom Menace this proof became self-evident – we go to Naboo with its underwater Gungan world and to Coruscant with its metropolitan high-rises and spires, enjoy the genuinely impressive mid-section highlight that’s the Ben Hur-inspired pod race and witness not just a space battle, a lightsaber- and blaster-based palace duel, but also a battle on a grassy plain against an entire droid army. All this makes for an impressive, thrilling climax of various parts (like in Jedi) – and, in fact, is just a foretaster of the digital effects-driven wonders to come in the next two films.

And, for me, the final word has to go to that lightsaber duel Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan throw themselves into against the cool-as-hell Darth Maul (the movie’s best character?). Yoda may look too young and a little weird and Jar Jar Binks may annoy the hell out of everyone (he doesn’t kill the prequels for me, though), but backed by John Williams’ awesome Duel Of The Fates theme, this lighstaber duel is pure Star Wars. If The Phantom Menace possesses a fist-pumping moment that pulls you out of all its disciplined dialogue and plotting, then this is it. It’s fast, frenetic, thrilling stuff and boasts an unexpected finish – Han Solo would love it.

Best bit: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan get it on with Darth Maul (so to speak) – see video clip above

Best line: “Always two there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice/ But which was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?” (Yoda/ Mace Windu)

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