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The Force Awakens a hit of nostalgia

Before the 17th of December the world was in overdrive with speculation and we all wondered whether J.J Abrams could deliver on the hype. After the disappointment of the prequels many fans were sceptical of a new Star Wars movie especially with the recent acquisition by Disney a brand who has always focused on targeting a younger audience. The involvement of the original cast helped convince many of us that “The Force Awakens” was going to be different as it suggested a more respectful approach to the original movies. Ultimately this is what Abrams has been able to deliver a continuation from “Return of The Jedi” that feels like a Star Wars movie and generally gives a balance between something new and a strong shoot of nostalgia.

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This mentality is obvious from the film’s opening scene to the start of the credits elements of the story, settings and even specific shots are all reminiscent of the originals but slightly different. The perfect example of this without giving anything away is Jakku, a sand covered backwater planet that looks remarkable like Tatoonie. The film draws the similarities together through the establishing shots of the scenery and the costume design of its inhabitants while emphasising the differences like the remains of a past battle. The result is a setting the conjures up memories of “A New Hope” while not simply reusing the same familiar places like Episode 1. A trend continued throughout the film, this is the Star Wars we know but different.

The overall storyline of “The Force Awakens” follows this same principle as it obviously borrows elements from all of the original films. The overriding structure of “A New Hope” mixed with the intensity of a character driven story like “The Empire Strikes Back” and just a dash of “Return of the Jedi” finished off with a couple of changes to make it different. It’s a combination that works well for most of the film as it allows fans to get comfortable, embrace new characters and be satisfied with a thoroughly genuine Star Wars experience. However, it’s a difficult balance which shifts a little too far for my liking in the films climax and just needed to be a little more unique to deliver the same intensity of the original trilogy. This is less of a problem with the more personal part of the storyline which tries to deliver a few twists and surprises much like “Empire”. Overall this part of the plot is done well yet, personally I found a few of these surprises a bit more predictable than Luke’s parentage and perhaps removing some of the sign posts would have increased their impact for the audience.

The main source of originality in “The Force Awakens” comes from the introduction of a new cast and well developed characters. Daisy Ridley gives an especially praiseworthy performance as Rey the resourceful scavenger on Jakku ends up being thrown into the conflict between the Resistance and The First Order. The character is unique in the Star Wars universe as she distinguishes herself from Leia through her background, resourcefulness and the profound sense of abandonment which Ridley doesn’t overplay as is the custom in many Hollywood blockbusters. Rey’s backstory is only partially revealed in the film suggesting that her history is going to be a focus for the rest of the trilogy however these gaps were well thought-out and don’t leave the audience feeling let down like something was missing. Rey’s struggle against the First Order is well supported in part by Poe Dameron played by Oscar Isaac whose delivery of refreshing one-liners makes sure he leaves an impression as the ace x-wings pilot. However, it is Rey’s more direct sidekick in Finn a Stormtrooper with a conscious fleeing the First Order (John Bodega) who threatens at times to steal the show. Bodega does well early in the film to portray the character’s sense of fear through a rushed and panicked demeanour but is equally effective in representing the characters shift to a more driven antagonist. The strength of these characters are at the core of “The Force Awakens” positive reviews as they are a noticeable improvement on a key failure from the prequels and don’t fit into any preconceived imitations of the existing characters.

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On the other side Kylo Ren is possible the most well characterised villain in Star Wars history as he has a well-defined backstory, clear motivations and inner conflict. This is in stark contrast to the prequels which failed to even give Darth Maul anything resembling a character. Perhaps the only downside is that Ren’s backstory develops so quickly that the film loses this possible source of tension. Despite this he is well-conceived as weaving in a helmet and voice distortion that resembles Darth Vader gives the character presence and ultimately fits well with his motivations so that it doesn’t seem like the filmmaker just tries to capitalise on the past success. Adam Driver was well cast to fill the role as he seems to personify the uncertainty that plagues the character and is equally believable earlier in the film with youthful confidence in his abilities. Unfortunately, Ren is not as well supported by his fallow First Order leaders, General Hux is given some clear characteristics as the traditional soldier in uniform who follows orders and clearly resents Ren for his methods and position but he is only really partially defined. Next to Hux the characterisation of Supreme Leader Snoke and Captain Phasma is non-existent and perhaps are the result of the filmmakers fixing plot holes or developing a means of introducing information. In the case of Snoke this is a clear limitation of the film and may have been more effectively introduced while Phasma is an opportunity lost as the idea of a female Stormtrooper was intriguing. Hopefully, these failings can be improved upon in Episode 8 as without any support from existing characters The First Order needs to be more clearly defined.

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Importantly it is these characters rather than the old favourites that carry the film at the start as Abrams obviously recognised that an audience needed to be invested in Rey, Finn and BB-8 before the appearance of familiar faces. The current internet buzz about Rey’s backstory demonstrates the overall success of strategy. When it happens the introduction of the old heroes generally works well as Han Solo is as roguish as ever and C-3Po still wins the prize for worst timing awards. The only miss step is the films use of Princess Leia as her role in the Resistance is poorly defined and she doesn’t seem to add much to the story. Conversely, the appearance of Luke Skywalker was perfect as the central hero of the original trilogy he more than anyone needed to take a step back but still remain important. The result is a clear point of suspense for the next film and a good starting point to transition Luke into a mentoring role previously filled by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The other main element that has contributed to “The Force Awakens” success in the past few days is the return to practical effects. This was the hallmark of the original films using models and wires rather than the modern CGI which nearly destroyed the Star Wars universe in the prequels. Embracing these techniques means that Episode 7 feels and looks like a Star Wars movie and not just any big budget action flick made in the last 15 years. It does mean Maz Kanata does standout a little for the wrong reasons but overall the different elements are blended well by a director with a history in science fiction including Star Trek, Fringe and Lost. This feel is capped off the customary John Williams score and the sound team who bring the universe to life.

Overall “The Force Awakens” is a very successful continuation of the franchise that uses nostalgia effectively to satisfy existing fans and introduce the new characters that will drive the series forward. It’s not perfect with a few plot holes and some characters that aren’t properly defined but these don’t detract too much from the whole package. I’ll be definitely going back for a second viewing in the coming weeks and might update this review with a few more specifics so keep checking. Until then let me know what you think as I’m always keen to discuss anything Star Wars or check out these reviews over at the movie guysThe .

8.5/10

Jono

 

The Empire Strikes Back – 1980

My personal favourite it is hard to put a finger on a specific element that makes “The Empire Strikes Back” any better than the original as for the most part it relies on similar strengths. The model for educating the audience about the Star Wars universe, the cast of familiar characters and an extension of the techniques that brought “A New Hope” to life. However, to suggest that Episode V simply relies on its predecessor would be a disservice to a movie that alongside “The Godfather: Part 2” and “Judgement Day” I count as one of the best sequels in cinema history. One thing these films all have in common is a willingness to expand upon the existing context and add complexity to the storyline through plot twists.

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A sequel is often grander than the original as one method of expanding on an existing idea is to scale it up. In some ways the “The Empire Strikes Back” does follow this principle as the epic Battle of Hoth dominates a good portion of the film and the story develops over a wider expanse of space as Darth Vader chases the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City. Despite this I would argue that the film does the opposite as the plot is in fact more personal than the central storyline behind “A New Hope”. Since the main plot is focused on Luke’s developing connection to the force and Darth Vader’s plan to trap him using his friends in order to turn him to the Dark Side. The personal nature of the film is embodied in the climatic lightsabre duel leading to the most quoted lines in pop culture “Luke I am your father” it is a stark contrast to blowing up the Death Star. In this way the film takes what we expect from “A New Hope” by starting with Hoth before turning it on its head.

The emphasis on character development is not limited to the major plot and Luke’s training as a Jedi as there is an obvious focus on developing the relationship between Han and Leia. This interplay begins on Hoth with both characters’ exchanging jibes but develops while they are on the run from the Empire. The sarcastic banter between the two is a long established technique for developing romantic tension dating back to Shakespeare. However, it needs the on screen chemistry between Ford and Fisher to make it believable and it is ultimately Fisher’s ability to portray Leia’s resistance and final acceptance of her feelings that makes this work. Ford’s stoic response cements this scene as one of the emotional climaxes of the film and turning point in their relationship throughout the saga.

On the other side, the film develops our knowledge of Darth Vader who is seen largely as a blunt instrument in “A New Hope” searching for the stolen plans and doesn’t really come into his own until his conflict with Obi Wan. This is dramatically different in “The Empire Strikes Back” as it is Vader making the decisions and punishing the failures of his subordinates. These instances reveal his ability to visualise opportunities and use different resources to get the job done including bounty hunters and manipulation rather than the one size fits all approach employed by Grand Moff Tarkin. In addition, we get a clear understanding of his servitude to the Emperor and his schemes to draw Luke to the Dark Side in order to overthrow his master. He is also shown at his most vulnerable when his helmet is refitted on board the Super Star Destroyer this cleverly alludes to the fact that there is a man behind the mask which is important for the development of the climax and ground work for “Return of the Jedi”.

While the plot may have narrowed onto a personal scale the film still expands on the Star Wars universe through the introduction of Yoda, Buba Fett and Lando Calrissian. All of which play a significant role in the plot and add to the development of the existing characters. The most iconic of these is undoubtedly Yoda voiced by Frank Oz with his unique speech patterns and limited physical stature. Like with Obi Wan in “A New Hope” he is reasonable for Luke’s training and continues to unveiled the power of the Force to audiences. It’s hard to imagine anyone else other than Frank Oz delivering that backwards dialogue and his ability to shift from the comical nuisance to a series tone really sales the deception to the audience. Conversely, Billy Dee William’s portrayal of Lando Calrissian raises the right amount of suspicion when Leia and Han arrive at Cloud City. Beyond their own characterisation Lando and Buba Fett also act partially as a demonstration of Vader’s will and also explore Han’s back story therefore adding to the overall depth of the film.

It would be impossible to review “The Empire Strikes Back” without a closer look at the Battle of Hoth. At its core the Battle is a complete reversal of the climax of “A New Hope” with the Empire now trying to attack a small Rebel target the difference is that they never appear as underdogs due to the military might of the ATATs. Unlike the destruction of the Death Star it is also not a complete victory as the majority of the Rebel Alliance escape, a clear juxtaposition to Grand Moff Tarkin’s refusal to evacuate. Hoth demonstrates a real challenge for the visual effects team as the white background manipulating objects difficult as imperfections are more obvious especially in the shots through the speeder cockpits. The result in 1980 was always good enough for audiences but remained a frustration for the effects team and was an element addressed in the special edition demonstrating the dedication of the whole filmmaking team to the project.

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After reflecting on it perhaps the reason I prefer “Empire Strikes Back” is the added complexity and character development which all culminate in the plot twist. It could be simply as they put it in “Clerks” that it just ends on such a downer which is more realistic than the big against the odds victory of “A New Hope”. Whatever the case there is very little to separate the first two Star Wars movies and they are a must watch for any film buff.

10/10

Jono

A New Hope

In preparation for the release of Episode 7: The Force Awakens on the 17th I thought it was about time to look back at my favourite movie franchise of all time. Like many other people born in the 80’s I grew up watching the original trilogy and have memorised nearly every second of these timeless classics. I would not have been the only one that got excited with the release of the prequel trilogy only to be momently disappointed by the result but hopefully this time will be different. This has raised a serious question for me regarding viewing order ever since and thanks to a few hints online I have settled on IV – V – (I)II- III – VI with the prequels acting as a flashback after the plot twist of “Empire Strikes Back”. My purpose in giving this little preamble is to offer a suggestion to fallow fans trying to introduce Star Wars to others as Episode IV is a much better hook then the prequels while also being much more satisfying for die hards. Considering this I have chosen to review the saga in this order and hopefully if you have any doubts by the end you might give it a try.

Episode IV: A New Hope – 1977

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I can only imagine how the opening of “A New Hope” first memorised audiences in 1977 from the characteristic scrolling prologue to the opening space battle but it was a masterful piece of film making. The iconic scene with its chasing Star Destroyer filling the screen is often not given enough credit for hooking audiences. The sequence in its entirety is the perfect start to a film introducing a whole new galaxy as it not only gets the blood pumping but it importantly leaves the viewer with a plethora of questions not the least of which is based around the central plot and the plans which are ‘not in the main computer’. In addition, it gives a glimpse of the Star Wars universe from Stormtroopers and Darth Vader to the rebellious Princess Leia. Combined these elements engages an audience and leaves them wanting more over the next 120 minutes which is a lesson for any filmmaker.

The film largely follows a linear storyline from this point forward with only a few brief exchanges between Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia on the Death Star interrupting the main plot. Besides these moments the plot maintains a fairly classical formula with a young hero found in the middle of nowhere on the planet of Tatooine adopted by a wise mentor and drawn into a galactic conflict by forces outside their control, the arrival of R2-D2 and C-3PO. The journey to answer the Princess’s distress call leads them to the egotistical Han Solo and his co-pilot before escaping the clutches of the Empire. There escape is short lived as they run into the Death Star and must disguise themselves to save the Princess and escape, before returning for the climatic final battle. In many ways’ the main storyline is actually reminiscent of mythology as the characters are on a quest to deliver the droids but are forced to face several challenges to prove themselves before a heroic victory.

The characters are only a slight deviation from this as Luke is perfectly characterised by Mark Hamill who optimises the naïve young upstart dreaming of adventure. Harrison Ford’s casting as Han Solo was truly inspired as he represents the character’s conflict between his instinct for self-preservation and noble delusions of grandeur. It’s no wonder why he has become an in during fan favourite ever since with his ability to delivery witty insults and appear aloof from those around him while still remaining irresistible charming.  The difference is in Princess Leia who refuses to be the traditional damsel in distress as Carrie Fisher gives her a sharp edge fitting for someone who believes in a higher cause. Not only is her passion obvious when confronted by Darth Vader and the threat to her home planet of Alderaan but later in her dealings with Han and Luke during their rescue attempt. Beyond this key trio R2-D2 and Chewbacca are something of an oddity as it is impossible to think of another movie where the audience cannot understand two of the principal characters by design, this places a lot of importance on the actors’ delivery and their interaction with each other. In the case of R2 his constant companion C-3PO while doing some translations for Luke, normally carries on the second half of a conversation allowing the audience to infer what has been said in the odd collection of beeps. The overall success of this is a combination of good script writing and excellent delivery by Anthony Daniels with the right insinuation in his tone. This talented cast and their on screen chemistry is a large part of the franchises success and is unfortunately something missing from the prequel trilogy.

The importance of relatable characters and a reasonably straightforward plot cannot be overestimated in a movie like “A New Hope” which is intruding audiences to a whole mythology. These elements have allowed people since 1977 to focus on understanding the back story including the nature of the Force and the way of the Jedi. Most of this information is given to the audience through the instructions of Obi Wan Kenobi as he begins Luke’s training. Alec Guinness is perfect for this role as he brings a real gravitas and is also able to communicate a sense of the burden he carries due to the character’s past failures. One thing that Star Wars does well is that although it needs to communicate a lot of information to the audience it does not bore us with any long explanations as the training is interspersed and involves some development of the plot, for example Obi Wan’s decision to leave for Alderaan. Lesser films often try to explain everything rather than using these little tricks like a remote training exercise to show an audience that a lightsabre can defect blaster fire, this is one area where “A New Hope” really distinguishes itself as most of the context be it the Force or the Rebellion evolves gradually out of the plot.

It may have aged since its release in 1977 but the original film smashed onto the screen with revolutionary special effects, precise film editing, well-crafted sound, fantastic set and costume design. Unlike today it was a combination of body suits, prosthetics and miniatures which gave us the look with a combination of wires and blue screen for visual effects. Meanwhile the sound designers gave use the unmistakable sound of a lightsabre while seamlessly blending in all the little background ticks that make a movie. This is capped off by John William’s masterful score which produced the most recognisable movie theme of all time, one that represents the scale of the film and gives that uplifting sense of triumph needed for the final scene. Possibly the greatest example of their efforts is in the Rebels attack on the Death Star as it started out in a parking lot with a collection of model kits on a couple of table tennis tables filmed from a jeep driving past. This raw footage comes to life with the addition of sound effects and the expert editing to quickly cut between shots of Luke’s  X-Wing, Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, the rebels on Yavin and the count down clock to add the perfect amount of tension. Finally, Williams score echo’s the movement of the fighters through the trench and is simply the exclamation point making for one hell of a climax.  It is the hard work of all these teams that were ultimately responsible for creating the Star Wars universe by making George Lucas’ vision a reality and it is not surprising that they were recognised by claiming 6 Oscars in 1978.

Writing this review, I have been trying desperately to think of anything that could have been improved and coming up with only minor adjustments. One that stuck in my mind was the characterisation of Grand Moff Tarkin as despite his position ‘holding Vader’s leash’ he is never really developed in any detail. These little things don’t detract from the movie in the least and are more observational then critical as I can’t imagine how Tarkin’s role could be developed without impacting the screen presence of Darth Vader. As such I still consider “A New Hope” to be one of the most complete films I have ever seen. 

9.5/10

Jono