“Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith

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Despite being the continuation of George Lucas’ underwhelming prequel trilogy (and the last Star Wars film he’s directed), Revenge Of The Sith is not a fitting conclusion to this chapter in the Skywalker Saga. Why do I say that? Because, while it may be sacrilegious to some, I feel strongly that Sith is miles ahead of both its predecessors, and deserves far more praise than it has gotten (to be fair, its Rotten Tomatoes score is actually pretty good).

There are several things that make Sith the best movie in the prequel trilogy and a good movie regardless. The story has a singular focus on Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and all the other subplots, from the Clone Wars to the Trade Federation, finally find a way to tie into his story without Lucas having to force him into theirs. The themes are stronger than before, with Lucas finally plunging bravely into Anakin’s darkness – it’s too late to understand him or sympathize with his journey, but we’re no longer called upon to do so: instead, Lucas merely asks us to marvel at the horror and spectacle of it all. And isn’t that what moviegoers do best? And there are several scenes, characters and plot-points here that are among the strongest in the entire franchise.

The first and least surprising of many revelations is Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine a.k.a Darth Sidious. While Phantom Menace and Clones wasted the actor’s talents on rambling monologues about trade reform and taxation, he was gifted some of the trilogy’s best dialogue in Sith – where he also finally gets to shed his disguise and become the horrible, cackling, wild-eyed goblin we all know and love. In the scenes immediately preceding his grotesque transformation, where he slowly but surely seduces Anakin over to the Dark Side of the Force, McDiarmid is at his finest: a silver-tongued charlatan selling the promise of immortality with ease, grace and dignity. As the film’s title suggests, the power of the Sith has grown unstoppable: despite there only ever being two Sith Lords at a time, their ability to manipulate is their greatest weapon, as we learn that Palpatine has been using lies and deception to grow stronger in the Senate, until he finally takes the mantle of Emperor, and begins his reign of terror. And he has help from all over the galaxy, even briefly from Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) who fails him early in the film and is executed by Anakin, and the legendary General Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood), a lightsaber-wielding quadrupedal cyborg with a nasty cough, who lurches his way through a series of epic battles. And the Emperor’s most secret weapon, and the one which ultimately gives him the advantage over his age-old enemy, is Order 66.

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It’s one of those scenes that screams “instant classic”. Though we had heard of the Purge that wiped out thousands of Jedi across the galaxy, seeing it was something else entirely: John Williams’ haunting music, the beautiful imagery, and the sheer nightmare of watching vast clone armies turn against their commanders at the push of a button. Honestly, it’s even more painful to watch than the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord Of The Rings, where the Elves of Lórien are brutally slaughtered in battle, because of how quickly and easily this massacre is carried out: from Plo Koon’s violent death, blown to pieces in the explosion of his spacecraft, to Aayla Secura gunned down before she could even comprehend the click of loaded blaster-guns behind her, her body tumbling peacefully into a field of giant flowers. Only a handful of Jedi escape the purge, whether through their own quick-thinking – as in the case of Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) – or because of a very helpful accident, as with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor).

But despite how sad we all are about the Jedi Purge (or maybe because of it), we can’t help but love every second of Anakin Skywalker’s long, slow, agonizingly painful transformation from man to machine. Not only is it great to see him bested in battle by Obi-Wan Kenobi and left for dead, a burning husk of a ruined man, on the lava shores of Mustafar, but it’s fantastic to watch what happens next, as this man-thing is brought back from death’s brink, stitched together by the Emperor’s medics and minions, clothed in darkness and wreathed in horror – and also blessed with the rich, powerful voice of James Earl Jones.

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Anakin’s meandering journey through two previous movies left aside, Sith finally gives us what we were looking for from this character: an actual explanation for why he turned to the darkness, one that is every bit as dark, horrific and irredeemable as it needed to be. In this final movie, George Lucas works overtime to come up with a good reason for his hero’s sudden shift in loyalties, and he comes up with something that, while not startlingly original, at least feels legitimate, given what we know already about Anakin’s character, and the lengths he will go to to protect those that he loves. The explanation is simply this: Anakin, in his desperate need to save the life of his wife Padmé (Natalie Portman), ends up being lured to the Dark Side to explore the promise of immortality, a promise which he learns too late is nothing but a lie. Yes, stronger chemistry between Portman and Christensen would have gone a long way in selling this idea, and the prequel trilogy in general, but I can hardly fault the actors for not being able to conjure up much genuine emotion, considering the poorly underwritten dialogue. But at least it’s something – and Lucas, for what feels like the first time in this trilogy, understands that Anakin is a villain at his core. Rather than try to make him sympathetic or understandable, Lucas shows us just how irrational and horrible he is, even falling back on the Anakin-murders-innocent-children trope from the last movie, but this time without having anybody come up with stupid, clumsy excuses for why he did what he did. He’s not a good person: he never was. The evil spirit of Darth Vader always lived inside Anakin – it just needed to be coaxed out by the Emperor’s cunning words. I don’t even think that Anakin being a truly evil person makes his “redemption” and sacrifice in Return Of The Jedi unearned: as I wrote in my review of that film, I feel Vader’s choice to betray the Emperor was his attempt to do right by Padmé, who I think he truly loved. In Return Of The Jedi, he was motivated exclusively by his desire to save the life of his own children, not by any concern for the Rebellion, or the Jedi. He was a selfish and overly protective person until the day he died: was there light in him, as Luke claimed? I believe there was, but it expressed itself in his love for a woman whose death he had caused, and whose children he had tormented.

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Speaking of that particular woman’s death, however, we do have to address the biggest issue in Revenge Of The Sith: Padmé being fridged, or to be precise, pre-fridged. “Fridging”, a term which refers to a female character being killed or harmed to further a male character’s storyline, is not strictly applicable in this case, because it wasn’t Padmé’s death, but rather the fear of her death, that motivated Anakin to madness. But regardless of what happened when, Padmé is barely even a character in this movie, having little more to do than act as Anakin’s muse and the mother of his children. She makes one powerful decision near the end of the movie, when she chooses to leave her husband for good – but even afterwards, she’s still haunted by him. How she dies is something of a mystery: her doctor droid says something about her losing the will to live, but the clever juxtaposition of her death with Anakin’s painful resurrection, combined with Palpatine’s remark to Anakin that “it seems, in your anger…you killed her”, almost implies that it was Anakin’s grief and the burning fires of his anguish that somehow drained her of her stamina. A semi-telepathic link between the two is possibly teased earlier in the film, when Anakin and Padmé seem to “see” each other from opposite sides of the city of Coruscant, or at least can feel the other’s presence very strongly. While it’s not explained if this is the case, it makes more sense than the resilient Padmé Amidala dying of sorrow.

Another interesting fact about Padmé’s death, mere moments after both her children are born into the fluorescent light of the Polis Massa maternity ward: Leia is born just after her twin brother Luke, almost seeming to underscore her birth as the more notable of the two. Given everything we know about Leia’s character arc, it wouldn’t be entirely implausible to believe that this was yet another hint that Leia Organa was destined to be the true heroine of the Skywalker Saga. Just a thought.

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Finally, we have to talk about the film’s action sequences, which range from “meh” to “magnificent”. There are two in particular that stand out to me: the battle on Utapau that pits Obi-Wan Kenobi against Grievous, who, as previously mentioned, wields four lightsabers at once, with metal arms spinning and swirling like helicopter-blades as he uses all of Count Dooku’s fighting techniques. Kenobi has never been the franchise’s most skilled dueler, preferring brute force tactics, which makes the fight a little unbalanced until he wrenches open the cyborg’s chest cavity and puts a few laser-bolts into his heart – I’m not precisely sure on the mechanics of why Grievous promptly goes up in flames, with fire erupting from his eye-sockets, but it’s a cool visual. And then, of course, there’s a much bigger, more epic battle in which Yoda and Emperor Palpatine chase each other through the cavernous Senate Building, employing force lightning and insanely fast-paced lightsaber action. It’s Palpatine’s best moment in the series’ history, and McDiarmid (not to mention his CGI stand-in) nails it. After that high, the final battle between Skywalker and Kenobi on Mustafar is bound to be disappointing, not least of all because the CGI lava is spectacularly unconvincing.

So Revenge Of The Sith is not only a return to form for the franchise, but a fun, thrilling, and tragic conclusion to a trilogy that could so easily have ended with a resounding thud. It’s cool to witness Anakin’s ruinous downfall in real-time, as the whiny teen becomes the impressive Sith Lord we were all just waiting to see. It’s satisfying to be present at Luke and Leia’s birth, and see them brought to their new homes on Tatooine and Alderaan, respectively. It’s nice to be able to have seen this chapter of Star Wars history, even if it wasn’t always great, or good, for that matter. And it’s also nice to close out this chapter with a film that, for all the flaws it’s burdened with by two prior failures, somehow manages to tell a decent story about light, darkness, and the enduring nature of hope.

Movie Rating: 7.9/10

“Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

(Before we begin, be aware that I’m going through the list by order of release date: I understand that George Lucas wanted movies 4, 5 and 6 to be movies 1, 2 and 3 and to be treated as such – but they’re not good enough to warrant that distinction. Sorry, George).

Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi

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The final chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy sags under the burden placed upon its shoulders by the two previous installments in the Skywalker Saga. Why? Because it follows the same basic principle of The Force Awakens, but without the benefit of coming out some twenty years after the original film – rather than looking like a dreamy, nostalgic callback to former glory, Return Of The Jedi instead feels mostly like a frantic cash-grab, capitalizing on all of A New Hope‘s flashes of ingenuity but ignoring that they cease to be ingenious when repeated time and time again. It doesn’t help the film’s image when you discover that George Lucas rewrote the entire movie to maximize toy sales, something that we’ll discuss in detail.

But first, because I don’t like to be negative about a franchise I love – does Return Of The Jedi have any redeeming qualities?

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Well, yes. Most films do. Even The Phantom Menace has some good moments (can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’ll have to think of some for my review of that film). But unfortunately, most of Return Of The Jedi‘s great moments are overshadowed by the larger flaws they contrast. For instance, having Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), and The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) get in a three-way battle to the death is a great idea, and lends itself nicely to some very cool scenes of action, lightsaber wizardry and Force-lightning madness. However, the fact that this battle takes place on a cheaper, less intimidating knockoff of the Death Star, whose crucial design flaw is basically identical to that on the first Death Star, rendering the object pointless and boring…well, that’s not quite as much fun. If you’re going to reuse old ideas, at least make them bigger and more epic – maybe don’t downgrade from “a weapon the size of a moon that can blow up other planets” to “a partially-constructed weapon the size of a large asteroid that can blow up spaceships one at a time”. Honestly, if you’re going to build a new Death Star, at least have the courtesy to give it to Alec Guinness (who reprised his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) after you’re done using it, so he can promptly annihilate the entire Star Wars fandom – how he got roped in to doing a third Star Wars film, I have no idea, but it’s evident from his bored, mechanical line-readings that he was doing his level best to make the film unwatchable (apparently, early script drafts had him joining the action as a Force-ghost and helping to defeat The Emperor, but Guinness didn’t like using special effects. You can’t have it both ways, Alec; you’re either an expository ghost or a CGI wizard – there is no middle ground).

Return Of The Jedi is truly disappointing because of how many awesome what-if scenarios were originally going to make their way into the film: scenarios that would have to wait until decades later to be realized onscreen, because George Lucas was afraid that taking risks would minimize the sales of toys, action figures and other Star Wars merchandise. Most shockingly, the trilogy was at one point intended to end with Luke Skywalker removing his father’s mask – and claiming it for himself, having been so corrupted in his fight with The Emperor that he became a Sith Lord, channeling the Dark Side of the Force to turn on the Rebellion, leading to Han Solo’s heroic death during a raid on the Imperial base. Even after Lucas scrapped that idea (it was too sad for a kid’s movie, he claimed), there were still plans for the film to end on a bittersweet note, with Leia in charge of a last, desperate band of Rebels and war-torn heroes, while Luke would abandon the cause and go into hiding. While many of these concepts later found their way into The Force Awakens, they don’t fit particularly well in that film, coming off a trilogy that actually ended triumphantly, with the Empire destroyed, the Jedi supposedly restored to power, and the galaxy at peace. J.J. Abrams’ sequel trilogy is largely founded on an alternative version of Return Of The Jedi that never saw the light of day, a version that allowed for a sequel.

Even Lucas’ film, however, feels like it has multiple parts that belong to a completely different movie. For instance, the thirty-minute long detour on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) might just be an excuse to revisit what is arguably the franchise’s most iconic locale, but it definitely seems to be setting up Solo’s story to actually…go somewhere. But beyond helping to shut down the energy-shields surrounding the Death Star, Solo is largely unimportant to the story. He’s still great, because he’s Han Solo – but why was it so important that we spend half an hour saving him from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, without any real payoff? Why, unless he was originally intended to do something essential, something heroic – something that would have resulted in his death, and thus fewer toys sold?

This is, unfortunately, the very same trap that J.J. Abrams and his team could fall into with The Rise Of Skywalker. Not with regard to toy sales, I don’t think, but they must similarly feel like ending their trilogy on anything other than a victorious high note would be disappointing after so much buildup. But I sincerely hope they have an incredible plan for the franchise’s climax, and it will be satisfyingly poignant, triumphant and original: if The Lord Of The Rings could end with a decent portion of the main cast setting sail into the West, than so can Star Wars!

There are a couple of characters for whom Return Of The Jedi is not a total mess: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who is finally revealed as Luke Skywalker’s twin sister, and has some strong emotional moments handling the ramifications of that revelation – not to mention more action scenes than she’s ever had before or since, from single-handedly strangling Jabba the Hutt to a crazy speeder-bike chase through the forests of Endor, picking off stormtroopers; C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who has one hilarious scene in which, mistaken for a deity by the Ewoks of Endor, he ends up nearly condemning Luke, Han and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to become the main course at a sacrificial banquet in his honor, because he’s too polite to refuse; and the oft-quoted Admiral Akbar (Timothy Rose), the Mon Calamari alien who becomes the first high-ranking non-human member of the Rebellion, gets one infamous line of dialogue, and then is seen afterwards partying with the Ewoks. Good for him.

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In Return Of The Jedi, George Lucas’ hand once again reaches in from the future to clumsily tinker with the special effects – and here, he has one particularly egregious use of CGI as well as one addition that I have to grudgingly admit is a nice way to keep continuity between all his trilogies. The former is the notorious addition of an entire alien musical number in Jabba’s palace, one which is apparently supposed to make the giant slug’s cavernous lair seem more like a family-friendly dance hall than a den of vice. The latter is the replacement of original Anakin Skywalker actor Sebastian Shaw’s Force-ghost with the likeness of Hayden Christensen, who portrayed Anakin in the prequel trilogy: while that change has always been controversial, I feel it’s actually a nice touch – as are the scenes of celebration in several prequel trilogy planets such as Naboo and Coruscant, lending the victory scene a larger, more epic scale. There’s also a couple of weird little alterations, from giving the Sarlacc a head to digitally shaving off Darth Vader’s eyebrows.

The connection between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is the original trilogy’s most powerful element, and the true heart of this story.  Luke is faced with many struggles and temptations, and is eventually brought face-to-face with The Emperor (who probably makes a lot more sense if you know who and what he is, thanks to the prequels). Luke’s battle to resist the darkness within him is fiercely compelling. Darth Vader’s redemption might seem to come out of the blue, but it does make sense when viewed in the context of future movies – as Vader watched his son writhe in agony beneath The Emperor’s whips of hellfire, it was impossible for him not to see in his child’s face the tortured eyes of Padmé Amidala, Luke’s mother and the love of Vader’s life – the person for whom he had turned to the Dark Side in a desperate attempt to save her life, only to realize that by doing so, he had actually brought about her anguished, ruinous death. Hearing his son’s pleas and realizing in a blinding flash that The Emperor was solely responsible for all the grievances, betrayals and nightmares visited upon him and his family, Anakin rebelled in that moment, ridding the Skywalkers of The Emperor, who had been their demonic guardian for three generations, giving up his own life to save his and Padmé’s children. It’s powerful stuff. Granted, audiences back in 1983 didn’t know any of that backstory: however, even without the assist of the prequels, you can easily understand and appreciate the poetry of The Emperor being destroyed by his apprentice, just as all Sith are and always have been.

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But of course, The Emperor is apparently returning in The Rise Of Skywalker…so does that make Vader’s sacrifice meaningless? Or is it a sign that as long as the Skywalker family exists in the galaxy, The Emperor’s malevolent spirit will haunt them? Probably best not to think about that yet.

In conclusion, Return Of The Jedi is not the best way to cap off a great trilogy, and not a good blueprint for The Rise Of Skywalker to follow – while there may be a handful of redeeming qualities in this movie, most of it is corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force.

Movie Rating: 5.9/10

“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

(Before we begin, be aware that I’m going through the list by order of release date: I understand that George Lucas wanted movies 4, 5 and 6 to be movies 1, 2 and 3 and to be treated as such – but they’re not good enough to warrant that distinction. Sorry, George).

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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In Star Wars, the successor is always stronger than the predecessor: this is symbolized in both the Sith and the Jedi religions, where the apprentice always overcomes the master eventually, whether by force or fate – and it is symbolized in the film trilogies themselves, where each successive sequel is better than its precursor. And if A New Hope is the wise old Jedi master of Star Wars, then Empire is their fiery, free-spirited student (and that puts Last Jedi somewhere on an Anakin Skywalker level of chaotic energy).

A New Hope played by the rules, establishing a handful of lead characters, giving them a couple of fun, exhilarating obstacles to overcome, and then leaving them (and us, the audience) with a happy, satisfied feeling as we watched our plucky band of heroes rewarded with the highest honors. The Death Star had been destroyed, the terrible Darth Vader had been sent careening off into the depths of space, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was, um, well, he was a Jedi or something, right?

Wrong. When Empire opens, it immediately establishes that the story is far from over, as the Rebellion finds themselves back on the battlefield, with Imperial forces surrounding them on all sides, hunting relentlessly for the man named Skywalker. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) is back, with a terrifying new overlord vaguely referred to as the Emperor, and worst of all, Luke himself is caught in a hurricane of new emotions as he struggles between his desire to fulfill his Jedi training and his instinctive need to confront the power of the Darkness. Yes, while he might have been a beacon of hope and moral purity in A New Hope, Empire finds Luke wavering between good and evil, just as his father before him.

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That balancing act makes Empire a thoroughly satisfying movie from a thematic point of view, and gives Hamill and the character of Luke Skywalker plenty of fascinating material to work with – watching Luke confront reality and slowly begin to understand that his youthful dream to follow in his noble father’s footsteps will in fact lead him to the Dark Side is utterly thrilling: and the movie ends just when it needs to, with Darth Vader finally breaking the young Skywalker’s steadfast resolve and destroying all of his last, desperate delusions – forcing the audience, along with Luke, to see that the concept of “destiny” can be a curse as well as a blessing. I say again, this movie is thrilling.

In many ways, Empire is the precursor to the premise of The Last Jedi – it takes the established Star Wars canon, takes one look at it, and tosses it over its shoulder. But whereas the new trilogy has been plagued by a mess of many conflicting directorial visions and an unwillingness to follow through with Last Jedi‘s promise, George Lucas’ original trilogy wasn’t afraid to “go there”. It broke the sheen of romanticism that it had built around itself, took risks, and changed the direction of the franchise – for the better. But since it was only the second movie in the entire series, fans were willing to “forgive” all of that: eight movies in…not so much.

And it’s not like Empire just made the series a little darker and more mature. It did a lot – from introducing the series’ first black character in roguish, charming heartthrob Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), to retconning one of the first film’s central plot points and making Darth Vader Luke’s father without any explanation (nowadays, Fantastic Beasts fans complain about having to wait a year or two to find out how Credence is a Dumbledore: original Star Wars fans had to wait about two decades to get answers – no wonder they’re embittered!).

In The Empires Strikes Back, the Star Wars story also moves away from the science-fiction serials and TV shows it had been based on, by taking what could very easily have been an episodic story and turning it into…a story that is definitely not episodic, but still insists on categorizing itself into episodes anyway, even forty years later. Empire builds the foundations of what would become the Skywalker Saga, by giving Luke a personal stake in the story and pitting him against a worthy enemy in Darth Vader.

Duality. Remember that from my A New Hope review? Empire expands upon the concept by throwing in the big shocker that Darth Vader is Luke’s biological father, his mirror image on the Dark Side of the Force, and supposedly the destiny that awaits him too. Vader and Skywalker orbit each other in Empire, waiting for their inevitable moment of eclipse when one will destroy the other. They are two inextricably linked forces of nature, and the greatest champions that the Force can conjure (though, there’s been a lot of theorizing recently that The Mandalorian‘s Baby Yoda, born in roughly the same year as Anakin Skywalker, might actually have been Vader’s true equal and nemesis: a bit late for that reveal, I think, but interesting nonetheless).

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The theme of duality is also seen in the characters of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who have a tumultuous and similarly circuitous trajectory toward becoming the series’ defining love story. While they’ve definitely got a lot of chemistry and romantic tension as they huddle in the frozen tunnels of their Hoth base-camp, it’s only when they’re separated from Luke that things get really interesting in their relationship – not only because it prevents all the awkward accidental-incest that might have otherwise resulted, but because it gives Leia and Han a chance to solve problems on their own, without Skywalker flying in to save the day every two seconds. And it only gets more romantic when, after nearly being crushed to death in the mynock-infested mouth of a giant space-slug, Han takes Leia to safety in the Cloud City of Bespin, only to be betrayed to the Empire by his best friend, turned into a tabletop, and sold to another giant space-slug on the far side of the galaxy. Meanwhile, on a much smaller scale, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), everyone’s favorite comedic duo, are separated and forced to survive mostly on their own – unintentionally mirroring each other’s hijinks from across the galaxy.

In Empire, we also get our first hint of Leia’s importance to the story and her mysterious connection to Luke, as she taps into the Force to see him hanging from the underbelly of Cloud City, just in time to rescue him (and yet we still pretend that Leia using the Force in The Last Jedi was a retcon). She is, of course, the infamous “another” that Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) spoke of – the Skywalker who would outlive and outlast Luke, and maybe – just maybe – save the entire universe in its darkest hour. Since Empire, that has been Leia’s established destiny: her character arc, from those first few moments of force-sensitivity, has been leading her to a confrontation with the Dark Side, just like her brother. It’s no secret anymore that, if Carrie Fisher had not tragically passed away in 2016, she would probably have been revealed to be a Jedi in The Rise Of Skywalker, getting her very own lightsaber and wielding the Force. Depending on how much footage director J.J. Abrams was able to use of her in this film, she still might do some of that – but it’s hard to believe that we’ll see a conclusion to her story that doesn’t disappoint, considering what could have been.

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Well, that’s depressing. So…um…space battles, anyone?

Empire features some of the franchise’s most impressive action sequences, from the siege of Hoth (featuring one of my favorite Star Wars droids, the Viper probe) to the incredible, gravity-defying lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Cloud City engine rooms, where words cut just as deep as weapons. It also introduced the world to bounty hunters like Boba Fett, who was so epic, he actually made a deal with Darth Vader to have Han Solo turned into a carbonite table and shipped to Jabba the Hutt in a flying iron, before being pushed into a Sarlacc pit on Tatooine and eaten…okay, forgive me for asking, but why did we all collectively decide to idolize Boba Fett? We’ve all been wondering why The Mandalorian is a pretty boring character, but has it occurred to anyone that they were never all that interesting? If I’m being honest, I was always more intrigued by that weird insectoid bounty hunter who showed up in one scene – who apparently was named Zuckuss? Yeah, I cared more about a bug-man named Zuckuss than I ever did about Boba Fett. Or his flying iron. Is no one going to explain why his spaceship was designed to look like an iron?

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Boba Fett’s iron isn’t the only weird thing about Empire, a movie that also features: Luke being abducted by a yeti and shoved into the stomach of a space kangaroo; Muppets from space twenty years before Muppets From Space; and Darth Vader’s bizarrely well-choreographed surprise dinner party. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy this deliciously unpredictable morsel of a movie – one that makes you want to wash it down with a tall glass of Last Jedi; the only other movie in the Star Wars…(frantically searches for a word describing a group of nine)…nonad that mixes wonderment, drama and originality so perfectly.

Movie Rating: 9/10

“Star Wars: A New Hope” Review!

We are officially in the last leg of the long journey to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, which means that the mighty Skywalker Saga, a story spanning forty years across films, books, comics, cartoons and video games is finally coming to a close – which in turn means that it’s time to reflect on that nine-part saga and take a good long look at the films that predate and inform Rise Of Skywalker‘s epic conclusion.

To do that, we’re going to have to discuss spoilers for each of the eight films in the Saga, so…SPOILERS AHEAD.

(Before we begin, be aware that I’m going through the list by order of release date: I understand that George Lucas wanted movies 4, 5 and 6 to be movies 1, 2 and 3 and to be treated as such – but they’re not good enough to warrant that distinction. Sorry, George).

Star Wars: A New Hope

"Star Wars: A New Hope" Review! 15
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The movie that started it all: not just the opening chapter in the story of the Skywalker family and their tumultuous game of tug-of-war between opposing sides of the Force, but also the movie that birthed Hollywood’s current blockbuster trend (apart from the prequels, which were crushed under the hairy heels of hobbits, every Star Wars movie in the Skywalker Saga has been the highest-grossing movie in the year of its release). Star Wars is one of the defining checkpoints in cinematic history, and it will always have that distinction – few other films have shaped the entertainment industry, and pop culture in general, in the way that Star Wars did. Even in the days before the internet and social media, the film permeated every aspect of society, spawning merchandise, mantras, mannerisms, and that notorious Christmas special that George Lucas wants you to forget about. It makes Rise Of Skywalker all the more frightening – for the first time in forty-two years, the Star Wars franchise will have no clear direction, no overarching story, no Skywalker to follow into the future.

But as that future is still more than a week away, let us savor this moment of blissful ignorance and return to the craggy deserts of Tatooine, a remote planet nestled in a forgotten corner of the Outer Rim, somewhere long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away – an inconspicuous space rock that, for whatever reason birthed the Star Wars franchise’s most iconic hero and villain. The harsh sand is illuminated by the planet’s dual suns (duality is Star Wars‘ most constant theme: make a note of that), and crawling with Jawas, Tusken Raiders, and the handful of moisture farmers who call the desert home. It’s probably the most iconic locale in all of science-fiction. But after all this time, surely both Tatooine’s rugged charm and Luke Skywalker’s simplistic journey to heroism have been antiquated by the deluge of even larger, more epic sci-fi stories that erupted in the film’s wake?

Nope. That is to say: yes, some parts of A New Hope maybe aren’t quite as spectacular and compelling as they were in 1977 – but all in all, the film is still extremely entertaining, ridiculously fun, and brilliantly unique. There are things I love about the movie – there are also things that I strongly dislike. And, in a couple of situations, there are things which would work, but don’t anymore because of the events of other Star Wars movies. Let’s run through the list.

What is still great about A New Hope? So much. But above anything else – the film’s story. I called it simplistic, and it is: but it’s archetypal, so it has to be. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was never a very complex character in the original film – he was the standard white male protagonist whose inferior knockoffs have since infested every inch of genre fiction. Morally pure but headstrong, loyal but self-doubting, readily equipped with magic sword and grappling hook but pacifistic nevertheless (okay, the grappling hook is actually one of Luke’s more unique accessories: shamefully, it was only ever used once). Most of the ensemble cast are also fairly ordinary: the rogue with a heart of gold, the princess, the mentor figure unwillingly called out of retirement, the bumbling comic relief characters. And the film never does anything particularly unexpected or extraordinary with any of them – they go about their quest, and achieve it with a minimum amount of casualties (except for the mentor, of course: the mentor always dies). But there’s nothing wrong with a classic Hero’s Journey, and A New Hope arguably tells it better than almost any other example out there. And you have to first build a myth if you’re going to start deconstructing it.

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A New Hope also does a good job of disguising the fact that its characters are archetypes: for example, while Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is technically a “damsel in distress”, she never actually stresses or cracks under pressure. She resists the interrogations and torture methods employed upon her by the greatest Sith Lord in the universe, and even dares to lie to Grand Moff Tarkin (the fabulous Peter Cushing) in order to buy time for her friends: and once freed from prison, she grabs herself a blaster gun and takes part in the action. As soon as she returns to her Rebel hideout, she takes the reins and orchestrates the daredevil raid on the Death Star. And of course, she was the person entrusted with the Death Star plans in the first place.

And even if monomyths and archetypes are too cliché for some, they’re made new and invigorating by the story’s bold, high-concept sci-fi – a genre which has largely been synonymous with Star Wars ever since the first film’s release. George Lucas could easily have adapted the sleek, shiny, futuristic look of Star Trek into his own universe: but instead, he chose to go for a more realistic “used future”, one full of grit, grime, and rebel scum. This same basic principle – that a fantasy universe should and could feel lived-in, with a little help from a willing crew of craftspeople, costume designers and prop-makers –  would later be adopted by Peter Jackson when making The Lord Of The Rings, which is why I felt it was necessary to add to my list.

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Building off of that: spaceships and aliens. From the film’s opening shot (which has been mirrored and referred back to many times since), Star Wars has always been, at least partially, about building bigger and bigger spaceships and then finding ways to blow them up – after all, there wouldn’t be any star war to speak of if the Empire didn’t have a gazillion TIE-fighters and star destroyers, or if the Rebellion wasn’t armed with their battered fleet of X-Wings (and one Millennium Falcon). A New Hope has some great scenes in space, and some incredible spaceships – not to mention the mighty Death Star, a weapon of mass destruction that would be a lot more intimidating if it wasn’t basically the only idea the Empire ever had. Every ship in Star Wars, whether built to weather the sands of Tatooine or the cold void of space, has its own little quirks and characteristics: even if it’s often impossible to remember every spaceship’s name (the Falcon, Tantive IV, um…), they’re all still easily distinguishable.

The aliens, while undoubtedly being some of Star Wars‘ most iconic characters, are rather few and far between in A New Hope. With each new movie in the franchise, the Rebellion has become more and more diverse, but the original film’s trusty team of fighter pilots consisted entirely of white men. Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew) is the only alien present in the film’s epic finale (and it feels mean to call him an alien: Chewie is part of the family). This is something that feels even weirder when you consider that the crew of pilots and soldiers in Rogue One (which is set only about a week before the events of A New Hope) is much more diverse, with women, people of color, and aliens all piloting spaceships and taking part in the Rebellion. But there are enough aliens packed into the Mos Eisley spaceport on Tatooine to fill roughly thirty who’s-who books: Figrin D’an and his groovy band, the Modal Nodes; Greedo, the rubbery green rat who may or may not have shot first (more on that in a moment); Jawas, furtive junk-traders and robbers eternally swaddled in dark robes; the barbaric Tusken Raiders, who are indirectly responsible for Darth Vader; and of course, the mighty Jabba the Hutt, who was digitally added into the film during one of George Lucas’ many attempts to retouch the original trilogy with fancier special effects.

And now we have to get into the bad stuff: specifically, the awkward mishmash of VFX and practical effects that Lucas’ tampering is responsible for – in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, not content with allowing the original films to age gracefully, Lucas, who was at that point busy suffocating his prequel trilogy in horrendous CGI nonsense, decided to go back and insert some of his new favorite ingredient into the older films: the result is…unfortunate, to say the least. Not only because the CGI is bad, inconsistent, and messily applied, but also because it robs A New Hope of a lot of its charm. Is it kind of silly that spaceships and entire planets explode into sparkling smoke in the original film? Yes, of course: for example, it’s a bit of a downgrade to go from watching 2016’s Rogue One (which, again, is set only a few days before A New Hope), which does a great job of displaying the Death Star’s horrific powers – to the original Death Star, which just zaps planets out of existence in two seconds with a pyrotechnics flash, before itself being zapped. But that wasn’t even the only sort of thing that George Lucas was interested in changing: apparently dissatisfied with the story he had crafted, he also edited scenes differently to present different narratives – which is how we ended up with the “Han shot first” debacle.

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The “Han shot first” debacle is the Star Wars fandom’s equivalent of “do Balrogs have wings?”, or “how did Steve return the Soul Stone?”. Back in 1977, it wasn’t even a question: when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was accosted by the green space alien mercenary Greedo (Paul Blake) in the Mos Eisley cantina, he undeniably shot first, before Greedo had a chance to move. And for most people, that was perfectly fine: it was totally in character for the rogue, and it was a cool, tense scene. But for George Lucas, it painted Han Solo as a merciless killer, so he tinkered with it to add in a few frames where Greedo shoots first, missing Han (which doesn’t even make sense, considering he was sitting about two feet away from him), and giving Han justification for firing back. In 2004, Lucas changed it again, having both Han and Greedo fire at the same time, with Han somehow dodging Greedo’s shot. And now, the controversy has been stirred up again by the Disney+ version of the film, which gives Greedo an added line of dialogue, in which he threatens Han with the menacing word “maclunkey” before shooting. The debacle has sparked outrage on both sides of the argument: Lucas claims that it was always meant to be that way (despite original scripts proving otherwise); Paul Blake is outraged that his character shot first, saying it makes Greedo look pathetic for missing at such short range; and Harrison Ford doesn’t know or care who shot first. The question of which version is “right” is bound to linger for many more years to come. For more info on the subject, you can check out Wikipedia’s entire article on “Han shot first”.

Lucas’ meddling has done a great deal of damage to the franchise: the attempt to blend the styles of the first two trilogies into one cohesive whole isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it doesn’t work; Lucas’ insistence that 1977 audiences accidentally fell in love with only “half a completed film” feels like a slap in the face to the franchise’s earliest fans; and his eventual decision to step away from Star Wars entirely seems, in hindsight, like sore losing, as if he can’t quite understand that his films don’t need to be 100% perfect in order to be good. They’re beloved classics already: they should remain classic.

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So does A New Hope still hold up after all this time? I think that, if you can look past the film’s very few flaws (most of which are the fault of George Lucas’ perfectionism), then you’ll find that the very first Star Wars movie is still one of the franchise’s very best. It’s not as visionary as The Empire Strikes Back or The Last Jedi, nor even as complex as The Revenge Of The Sith, but it’s still just as much (if not more) fun than all three of those entries.

Movie Rating: 8.5/10

“The Lion King” Trailer!

For one of the most highly-anticipated movies of 2019, the marketing for The Lion King has been virtually nonexistent up until today. One teaser back in November, and then just…nothing. Until today. And today, they made up for all that with this.

It starts off nice and slow, tingling with suspense: young Simba and Nala are scampering through the Outlands beyond Pride Rock. Hyenas dart around them in the shadows, and the two lion cubs cower as a voice narrates to them about how “life’s not fair” for those who “spend their lives in the dark, begging for scraps”. Then the hyenas approach, and with them comes their leader: Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor). He looks terrifying: the way his tattered ear twitches as he advances on Simba; his ragged and disheveled coat of fur; his cold, malevolent voice. He’s perhaps lacking just a little something of the original, that almost exaggerated Shakespearean vibe to the character as voiced by Jeremy Irons, with his wild black mane and angular shape, but those are minor nitpicks – Scar looks absolutely awesome.

Then the trailer briefly turns into a nature-documentary: Mufasa brings Simba up onto Pride Rock, and in the voice of James Earl Jones tells us how the Pridelands exist in a “delicate balance”, while the music swells up, scenes flash by of Simba playing with other animals (including Zazu, voiced by John Oliver), and antelope prancing around. In this tranquil and idyllic corner of the world, we see Scar’s words made clear: Mufasa’s evil brother is bitterly jealous of this beautiful, bountiful kingdom – must be hard, when you live with a pack of ratty hyenas and your brother is living it up in this exquisitely-lit CGI paradise.

(I am aware of the fact that Mufasa and Scar apparently aren’t brothers, or are brothers, depending on which Disney executive you ask: I’m calling them brothers, for simplicity’s sake).

And, because Disney is evil, they even have the audacity to show us glimpses of a certain scene…hmm, is this a spoiler? Technically, I guess it is, so I won’t clarify exactly what this spoiler is, just that this scene in the trailer happens to involve a canyon, and a herd of stampeding water-buffalo. Yeah, they show us part of that scene.

In a throwback to the original animated feature, there’s a scene of Simba, Timon and Pumbaa walking, while the background behind them changes, and Simba grows older. I’m still left wondering how much of this film will literally just be a copy-and-paste of the original, but, hey, it looks beautiful.

We get our first good look at Nala, voiced by pop icon Beyoncé, and she looks…like a lioness. Not much more to say about her than that. She doesn’t sing, if that’s what you were expecting.

But, on that note, the trailer is not entirely without some lively song-and-dance: it closes, in fact, with Timon and Pumbaa skipping merrily along through the jungle, singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which is peculiarly hilarious.

It looks good. It looks really good, in fact. There’s an epic quality to all the scenes, or maybe that’s just the brilliant visual effects, but it has beauty and atmosphere. The tone is perfect. A better voice-cast could not have been assembled – though I still have some reservations about Donald Glover voicing Simba himself. The movie looks like it will be incredible – or, at the very least, it looks like it will look incredible.

Trailer Rating: 8/10