Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Star Wars Saga

Back in December, I kind of punted reviewing The Rise of Skywalker, figuring that I'd see it on the big screen twice like I had every other new Star Wars movie in the Disney era, but never got around to it. So I figured I'd wait until it was on disc, but by then it was a pandemic and Amazon was playing its now-familiar game with Disney pre-orders and pricing the 4K versions of the prior movies that came out at full retail. I eventually caved when they had a 3-for-1 sale that included the 4K discs, although I didn't quite update everything.

At that point, seeing them all lined up on a shelf made me want to do a re-watch and I decided to do it in the "flashback" order Drew McWeeny described on Ain't It Cool way back when they were new - start with Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, then jump to the prequel trilogy in the wake of "I am your father", before seeing the fallout in Return of the Jedi. Now it makes sense to follow them up with the sequel trilogy, and while I was originally going to leave the "Star Wars Stories" out, I figured it would be fun to revisit them at the end, reaching back to Solo in the wake of how Han plays into the sequel trilogy, and finishing on Rogue One, so that we wind up coming full circle. If I had time, I might have tried to fit The Mandalorian in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, just to give a sense of a generation passing. Hopefully there will be good spots for the Obi-Wan (and rumored Lando) series in the future, although it's hard to imagine doing this sort of marathon again if there's not another pandemic. Every time I see people doing something like this - or even crazier, like rewatching a multi-season TV series - I wonder where they find the time, what with all the new material and reissues that are coming out all the time.

That said, it's something that's particularly interesting with this franchise because it gives you a couple chances to really see how things change both within an era and between them, even with the Special Edition coat atop the original versions. There has been so much talk of how Star Wars changed cinema over the past four decades that one can overlook that it is not so far from Silent Running (or THX-1138) as all that; it's just George Lucas squeezing as much out of the state of the art as he can and aiming at the mainstream rather than treating fantasy as a niche. You can see him pushing two generations' technology past their old limits in both the original and prequel series, too, inventing something new each time to get his ideas onto the screen. For the sequels, it often seems like there's not a lot of places new technology is needed, and it's just Disney/Lucasfilm pouring massive amounts of competence into the projects. There's something to be said for just being able to do stuff rather than having to innovate, especially for a mature franchise, but that means that there's only half as much chance to create awe and surprise in the new films, and only Rian Johnson has really managed it.

Apparently it will be a while before we can add more features to this sort of marathon (2023 at the earliest), although plenty of TV in the meantime. That's never not going to be weird for me, but truth be told, I wasn't expecting the rest - the relentless production of slick movies that don't have anything sticking out as bad should have kept it rolling a little more, even with the pandemic. I still wonder if pushing Solo to December 2018 would have kept the belt moving rather than the current situation where the movies seem up in the air.

I wish they were still doing "Star Wars every Christmas", though - just a couple days after finishing this, I found myself wanting to watch another Star Wars movie. I'm not going to dig around to find the more obscure stuff, but it suggests that I'll be up for more digs through various box sets and the like as the stay-at-home situation drags on, considering that I've usually got some trepidation about that.

Star Wars

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I wasn't quite old enough to see Star Wars in theaters when it first played - I would have been three and a half with no older siblings and I don't think it was really my parents' thing - so I'm just old enough that it didn't blow my mind as opposed to being a regular (if not every-week) part of what movies were. It also means that I never saw a lot of the science fiction that came before it, so it took me until now to really see how the look of it is not that far from other bits of 1970s sci-fi. There's a ton of kitbashing in the miniature work, cleverly repurposed items as props, a run-down aesthetic, plus tight quarters indoors and deserts outside. The 4K disc makes it more clear, with all that detail right in front of me, and finally getting to see the good sci-fi from the 1970s on the big screen rather than "so bad it's good" on DVD-at-best-quality video.

That aside, the movie works like few others do; Lucas and his team hit on a great combination of world-building, action, and character work that grounds the rest, and seldom falter despite it not really being done at scale that often before. It's fun in a way that works for kids and doesn't lose so much luster when seen through more mature eyes even if it doesn't quite reveal so many new depths as it maybe would like to. It's got the big themes if not the pointed ones that Lucas occasionally describes or which are more clear in the prequels.

One thing that strikes me more on this watch - and I don't know whether it's being older or the higher-resolution medium making the differences in age easier to see - but it's striking how much more clearly Luke and Leia scan as teenagers despite not being in the sort of situations that usually signify such than they did before. Maybe that's a side effect of having seen them as grown-up as a kid, or seeing young people more clearly getting thrown into terrible situations in the present and it seeming to fit more. It changes things up to see that clearly, and gives it an urgency and desperation that it didn't always have before.

What I said when I saw it with the Boston Pops last year

The Empire Strikes Back

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

If Star Wars surprises in how much it still kind of looks like a 1970s sci-fi movie underneath Lucas's polish (and a later coat of mid-1990s CGI), Empire is the movie that still feels like it belongs to that era and the ones that came before, with stop-motion (and go-motion) animation, and casual darkness that isn't just used as an exclamation point. In a lot of ways, Star Wars changed the game, but Empire shows that what came before still had some influence.

It's a great refinement of its predecessor, too: The writing team of Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan takes the broad strokes that George Lucas has always been good at and makes everyone a bit sharper without losing their original voice, with the actors taking great advantage, and then director Irvin Kershner and company tie it together exceptionally well. They're filling in the corners a little better without going too nuts, and this is almost certainly the most stylishly-shot film in the series until The Last Jedi. Its occasional darkness and hellish color schemes are probably a large part of why it was mostly left alone for the Special Editions - the digital effects guys weren't quite so good at matching a specific style then, as one can see from the CGI shots of Cloud City that don't quite feel as tactile as the obvious models. The 4K disc really brings the way Kershner and his crew didn't neglect a bit of this movie out.

It's a bummer that the Boston Pops screening of this film scheduled for the spring was cancelled, although I'm kind of glad that my first time seeing this since TLJ wasn't there - it rhymes with that so well that I'm glad I had some time to notice the way Johnson did similar things without seeming to imitate this movie when I might have wanted to concentrate on the score.

The Phantom Menace

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Rewatching this in "flashback order" after Empire does it no favors; you're both following one of the most stylishly tactile of the films with one of the most weightlessly rendered and one of the most mature with one consciously designed to appeal to the younger end of its audience with the idea of them maturing until they're ready for Episode III six years later, and it's a heck of a downshift. That's before you get to the ill-considered caricatures used for a number of characters (probably the most generous reading); I wondered a bit before hitting play how this might work if Disney Special Editioned the stereotypes down to quarter-strength, but there's a lot of it.

And, besides, it's not like what's around it is any less rough. There's some weak acting (Jake Lloyd was really not up for this), stretching to cover all the set-up Lucas wanted to do, and more effects work than even ILM working at cost can manage at the time, though it was more than anyone else had done. Nothing can take the thrill away from seeing new Star Wars for the first time in years come 1999, even if Lucas's plan to focus on the next generation rather than be more obviously dark and adult for the kids who loved this the first time around was a mixed bag.

And there is still quite a lot to like about it. Much of the cast is pretty nifty, from the expected folks like Liam Neeson, Frank Oz, and Sam Jackson to how Natalie Portman really grabs how Padme is a queen but also a teen prodigy and runs with it, catching how she's smart and mature but also curious and very much aware of how out of her depth she is at times. She's able to make the character hit just the right note that we can forgive her for being played even though it's got to be made kind of obvious to fit into the movie. And, yes, Ian McDiarmid is great at building his two halves of the movie so that they work separately but come seamlessly together. To what extent Lucas figured on doing this when casting him 16 years earlier, I have no idea, but it worked out (or maybe just having some version of the whole thing in your head at the start gives you more to work with later).

Attack of the Clones

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

It's a shame that so much of what is done with Anakin and Padmé clangs here, because the Obi-Wan side of the movie is really my thing, far more than I remember it being. It's just a really fun mystery/adventure which pushes up the level of intrigue nicely, with some of the most enjoyable pulp sci-fi imagery of the whole saga, the sort that highlights how George Lucas used the prequels to show new things even as many of the other movies played the hits.

That Anakin side is kind of a mess, half Lucas realizing that he's got a lot of work to do to get the blank slate from Episode I to where he must inevitably end up and sometimes seeming to zero in on how, aside from how he's being manipulated, Anakin is kind of a familiar sort of too-cocky guy, kind of a parallel with Han & Leia in "Empire", except that Padmé seems more genuinely uncomfortable (saying as much in so many words), but still falling for him. Which happens, although it's the sort of attraction that doesn't play so well twenty years later, and it also has the first of the saga's women just keeling over dead once they're not of any use to the story.

You can really start to see what Lucas is doing here, though, and the stuff he nails, he nails well: The sudden brutality and ruthlessness of the action in the final act shows a kind of horror at the militarism that can often just serve as background noise in this genre, which makes the callous, murderous ambition of Sidious hit all the harder. For all the film's faults - and I suspect that of the series, none show both George Lucas's strengths and weaknesses as well as this one - it gets the audience to feel Yoda's despair at the end, wanting what the Jedi are supposed to be but realizing that it ultimately breaks down.

Revenge of the Sith

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Man, this is almost great in so many ways. Lucas really should have found something for Natalie Portman to do throughout most of the movie or tweaked a few bits - imagine if Anakin's first force choke had caused an aneurysm rather than someone dying of a broken heart and how that would add to the operatic finale, for instance. There are a lot of little things like that, none that really crush the film, but which at the time made it pretty easy to look at how it wasn't quite like the Star Wars we remembered (even as bits try and force their way to it) and just dismiss the prequel trilogy.

Still, 15 years on, it's pretty clear George Lucas had his finger on something, enough that I wonder if, after the rough start with Episode I, seeing where the country went after 9/11 gave him a certain sort of focus. This is an angry movie, and a tragic one, and I don't know that I fully saw the anger behind the Star Wars mythology coming full circle back then. Watching it now, it's clear, but I can also see where J.J. Abrams saw an opening for where he wound up going with Rise of Skywalker, and I think it's telling that he chose the mythology rather than the metaphor.

I kind of wish that Disney had dug out the 3D conversions that were done for the prequels rather than issuing them on 4K discs - the early-aughts digital capture doesn't have the same sort of detail and richness that the film-originated films do, but the action scenes and world-building feel like they would really pop in 3D, almost like they were being made with an eye toward that.

What I said way back in 2005

Return of the Jedi

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I suspect that I like Return of the Jedi at least a little more now than I did before the prequels; they make the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker more explicit and less cobbled-together. It's an insert that makes this movie feel more like the culmination of a continuing story rather than something that shows how it was made up as it went along, what with the sudden "I've always known" and entire first act spent reversing the last film's cliffhanger. It's not the case that it took 20 years and a decade of retcons to feel complete, but it benefits from having those later bits inserted more than its predecessors.

It's still a satisfying film on its own and finale for those of us that didn't know there would be more on top of that. George Lucas and his collaborators have finished building the modern blockbuster here, where the previous entries were in large part polishing and evolving the previous era's style, but now you've got serial structure, effects that may not be seamless but don't look like something made separately. It's a fun adventure movie that smartly doesn't get too heavy as it wraps up a trilogy. Industrial Light and Magic builds some big action without ever going overboard, and John Williams rises to the occasion with a great score.

The Force Awakens

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

I hadn't necessarily planned to upgrade this one because buying three copies within five years is a lot even for a guy who likes physical media as much as I do, but for all that this probably has the 3D shot I like more than any other, it's a clear step down visually from the 4K discs of the rest. I guess I'm just going to have to resolve myself to buying multiple copies for as long as they're making 3D discs.

Picture quality aside, watching this for the first time in a couple years actually has it improving a bit for me, in that the back half which I often dismissed as copying the original trilogy too closely works better than I'd thought. There's never a hard shift, really, and while Poe's sudden, unexplained return kind of foreshadows the mess that J.J. Abrams would make a couple years later as he desperately tries to give everyone what they want, you can see what he's seeding for later a little better, and fitting together counts for a fair amount. Everything that works in this movie works all the way through. And some bits - like Hux and Kylo communicating with Snoke in what is clearly a ruined, empty legislative chamber of some kind - works even better, demonstrating just how desperately the people involved are trying to concentrate power.

One thing that really stands out watching this so soon after the original trilogy is that, much as I complained at the time that Abrams mostly copied the visuals rather than really adding anything new, he and his team did establish a somewhat different aesthetic: It's still generally X-Wings, TIE fighters, and a lot of designs from the original trilogy, but there's a brushed-metal look to them that speaks to a less explicitly kid-targeted set of movies. Nothing looks kit-bashed anymore, even the Star Destroyers; between how effects have improved over the past decade and the amount of money Disney is willing to throw at the films, they seem to be building things full-size and then able to use the CGI to capture the full detail. There's no compromise related to how much can be done with either models or CGI, something I didn't much notice when seeing The Force Awakens alongside other blockbusters from the mid-teens but which sticks out more when seen after Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi.

Full review from 2015

The Last Jedi

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Revisiting this one a couple years later, it is still easily the best film of the series since the original, or maybe since The Empire Strikes Back, since one can see how much its outline owes to that movie watching them so close together, and even if I don't necessarily expect everyone to agree with this, I'm still shocked at the level of vitriol it received. Did folks really look at the end of The Force Awakens and think "Luke has been training a secret Jedi army or is otherwise eager to get back into the fight" was how this was going to go? Heck, watching it again, I'm even more ready to defend the Canto Bight sequence - it's not nearly as long as people say, and when you put it next to The Force Awakens, it's pretty crucial for getting Finn from being the guy who is reflexively bullshitting people about his motivations to being someone whose beliefs align with the Resistance.

The second time I saw it in 2017, I spent a lot more time talking about the new theater than the film in large part because I gushed so thoroughly the first time and didn't have a whole lot to say, and I find myself in the same situation here, even if it is right up there with the ones I love the most. I've got a couple of nits that I maybe didn't have before - for as much as Johnson recognized that most of the First Order characters don't have much to them and was ruthless in exploiting that, either by making Hux mostly comic relief and recognizing that Phasma needed to be tossed aside once Finn wasn't afraid of her, he really boxed whoever was going to follow him in, although that was made worse by Abrams and company making a lot of other dumb mistakes. But I found things I liked a bit more, too, like how Snoke's throne room is kind of a ridiculous bit of pretension and the big fight shreds that. Abrams will kind of run with that bit, at least, although more as mythology than something grounded.

What I thought back in 2017

The Rise of Skywalker

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I said back during this film's theatrical release that it was probably going to take me a second viewing to decide whether this movie is genuinely bad, with most of what I enjoyed being a Pavlovian reaction to John Williams's score, or just a decent movie that is nevertheless a massive letdown because it follows (and in some ways undermines) the series's best entry in 40 years. It says something that I'm willing to consider that second viewing - it's Star Wars, and even the messiest and most flawed movies in the franchise have had something to impress - but probably something else that I didn't get around to it while it was still in theaters and instead waited until the home video release was on sale for a reduced price. For a movie that should have been a triumphant finale along the lines of what Disney's Marvel office achieved with Avengers: Endgame earlier in the year, it winds up forgettable, and lucky to be so, because it's filled with decisions worth forgetting.

Since the events of The Last Jedi, a message from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been broadcast across the galaxy, despite his winding up pretty unequivocally dead at the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, both Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has seized control of the tyrannical First Order, and the Resistance fighters led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) scramble to follow a trail to Sith planet Exegol. Ren has a massive head start, while the team of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Tuotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8 must follow a trail hinted at by a series of lost artifacts.

It's a structure that winds up chopping the film up into a number of distinct sections, at least for the heroes, and that's okay, but it also leads to each section feeling lightweight, especially once the moment in one that was supposed to elicit a bit of strong emotion is undone in the next. It's a structure that gets more obviously rickety as the film goes on and the whole premise becomes even more far-fetched even by the genre's own standards, but which makes things feel less exciting and impactful even as the stakes get higher and the ticking clock counts down. As has often been the case over the course of his career, co-writer/director J.J. Abrams often seems to know what a great movie moment looks like but isn't quite so adept at connecting that big moment to smaller ones on either side that support it.

He has, admittedly, been given a tremendously difficult task - not just crafting a film that can serve as a suitable finale to a trilogy, but to a trilogy of trilogies, but being asked to step in when another filmmaker was dismissed from the project, giving him a year less time than is typical for this type of movie, while also dealing with death of an actor who was going to have a major role and an extremely polarized reaction to the previous entry. Some of the compromises made are primarily awkward, like how every attempt to build something coherent out of what little unused footage of Carrie Fisher from previous movies does little but demonstrate that they probably would have been better off just saying she was busy on another front. Sometimes he and his co-writers bend over backwards to have the same situation lead to a different outcome as The Last Jedi; sometimes they don't even bother. These filmmakers get that "fail the first time, succeed the second" gets a cheer, but don't do much to earn it.

Instead, they undercut the broader themes Rian Johnson made a huge part of The Last Jedi that moved the franchise away from chosen ones and lineages, and for those who were impressed by Johnson's take on the series, it feels a bit like rolling back changes that made the franchise feel more modern. Instead, Abrams goes hard on legacy and something called a "Force Dyad" which, in terms of reducing the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of The Force to nuts and bolts, is right down there with "midichlorians". He even undermines his own good work from The Force Awakens, a movie built around an indoctrinated Stormtrooper listening to his conscience and the child of heroes choosing evil, by reducing both choices to supernatural influence. The prequels had their own issues, but Anakin's fall was his own.

If rough casting choices were what hurt the prequels the most, that's certainly not a problem with the sequel trilogy; the cast Abrams and company assembled for The Force Awakens is still strong and charming and completely committed to their parts even if the material isn't nearly as good. There are a number of new additions that are also pretty good, even if they are by and large redundant. The way they bounce off each other is generally fun to watch. By this movie, the audience is as comfortable with them as with John Williams's score, and nobody is slacking off or otherwise doing anything to sacrifice that trust.

Similarly, the film is slickly-produced enough to go down fairly easy. A ton of resources are thrown at Industrial Light & Magic, the various other effects houses, and I wouldn't be surprised if the producers hired the absolute best pre-visualization crews in the business. It's a terrific looking movie with a lot of creative and stylish action, and while the only intermittently has enough heft to it to truly delight, it's never short on spectacle. Even in an era when new blockbusters come out every week, Star Wars still manages to make an argument for being the gold standard.

Disney paid too much for Lucasfilm to let one bad movie sink the franchise for good, and over the past few years, they've shown great willingness to spend a bunch of money and hire enough good people to prevent the sort of unwatchable debacle that damages the investment. The Rise of Skywalker is a bad movie, but it's one a viewer can get through without it tainting the rest of the series, even as the conclusion.

Also at eFilmCritic

Solo: A Star Wars Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

After all the chaos that Solo went through over the course of production, leading to a movie that stumbled hard enough at the box office to make Disney pause the theatrical franchise so that they could spend a couple years figuring out just what to to with it after the end of the Skywalker saga, it's kind of funny that this is the movie that threw Disney for a loop, because of just how conventional it winds up being. It is, as I said at the time, probably the most fan-servicing movie of the franchise, but it's also the one that most feels like it could have been the result of taking a non-franchise script and putting a coat of paint on it.

That's no bad thing, though; if what the original directors were planning was (as has been speculated) a self-aware riff on unnecessary origin stories, that might have been a step too far for the franchise, the sort of thing I'm already leery of when I see jokey appearances by Darth Vader and Stormtroopers at sporting events. As with The Rise of Skywalker, Solo makes it pretty clear that Disney will throw not just enough ability to get the job done and move on at a foundering Star Wars product, but an arguable excess of competent craftsmanship.. It works here; Solo is a fun movie that looks pretty great on its 4K HDR disc; I'm curious how many people who had issues with less-than-great projection will find it in their own living rooms where they can turn the brightness up or where they've just got more raw resolution than 2K theatrical projectors. It's a good movie that's maybe not what it could have been had Lucasfilm either stuck with Lord & Miller or hired Ron Howard to play the Kasdans' script straight to start with, and might have done better if released in the fall with enough time for talk of it being a troubled production to die down, but it still works pretty darn well.

What I thought in 2018

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

I'm mildly surprised that I didn't write about this upon its release; it appears to have fallen through some pretty tight cracks between eFilmCritic, this blog, and Letterboxd. In this case, that may be for the best; I wasn't exactly down with it being so different in tone than other Star Wars yet, I would have given the way that some of the most striking moments from the previews didn't make the film a little more emphasis than was probably merited (review the movie you've got, not the one you wanted), and a couple other issues.

On second view, though, it turns out to be a really electrifying look at what Disney could be doing with the "Star Wars Story" movies, from the first sharp chord of Michael Giacchino's soundtrack to the ground-down amorality of everyone involved, which is a different sort of compromise than the smugglers and mercs we've seen before. It takes a turn toward being more intense when even the more intense movies in the Skywalker Saga would be fun, and it's impressive that director Gareth Edwards (and Tony Gilroy on the reshoots) never wavers on that different tone.

Part of what makes it so memorable is how this is the film which most pointedly brings the galaxy's civil wars home to its people; most of the time it's attacks on isolated bases, outer space, or at such scale that there never seem to be ordinary people around. This one reminds me of footage from relatively current middle-eastern conflicts, and not just because Jedha is a desert environment and that's where a lot of contemporary combat footage comes from - it's how Scarif in comparison looks like one of those absurd cities on the Arabian Peninsula like Dubai or Doha, gleaming metal towers that seem more like a statement than something sustainable.

I was surprised at just how badly the digital Peter Cushing has aged, though - I recall it being fairly convincing in 2016, on an Imax-sized larger screen, but looked awful plastic-y in my living room. It's a different sort of misfire now than it seemed to be then - where before I just wanted more room for Ben Mendelsohn to be the film's primary villain, now I'm more intrigued at how Mendelsohn' Krennic chafes at Tarkin taking over his project, and the friction is something robo-Tarkin can't contribute to. It's a more extreme version of how none of the cast are really as vibrant as they perhaps could be, with the exceptions tending to be momentary rather than any one sticking out.

There's also not nearly enough of Donnie Yen beating the crap out of Stormtroopers with a stick, and given that this was one of my main reasons to be excited for the movie, I probably wouldn't have been fair to it on that count either.

No comments: