Archive for the ‘RetroViews’ Category

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Welcome back to RetroViews! I am officially classifying the currently non-released status of The Force Awakens as a war crime. The film is done! It exists! People have seen it! Why can’t I go see it right now, too? Oh, because I’m not a “professional critic.” That’s discrimination! When will someone stand up for the rights of Non-Professional Critic Americans? It’s time the Hollywood elites stopped paying so much attention to the one percent. It isn’t okay to do this to people! I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! 

Anyway, today’s entry: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

It all ends here — well, at least until Dec. 18, 2015. It’s the end of this series, anyway, and it’s been a ride. I’m glad I decided to introduce the RetroViews series; it’s been good for me. It’s served as a potent reminder that I should revisit old favorites too often; I spend far too much of my time solely on new releases or my determination to watch every moderately famous movie ever made. Neither of which is bad; just this week, the latter pursuit introduced me to The Wages of Fear, which was one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite a while. But I need to attend to the movies that made me. It’s been fun.

My relationship with Return of the Jedi is odd. You may have picked up on that the handful of times I referenced it in my review of The Empire Strikes Back.

The gist of it is this: Return of the Jedi is definitely the least of the original Star Wars trilogy, but it also contains most of my favorite moments in the entire Star Wars saga. On balance, it isn’t as fun as Star Wars or as interesting as The Empire Strikes Back. But it’s the Star Wars movie I’m most likely to put on when I just want to watch one or two scenes that I really like.

The problem, as I see it, is that Return of the Jedi isn’t a great standalone film. The original trilogy tells one continuous story, but Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are pretty self-contained — or, at least, self-contained in the way they need to be. Star Wars is a standalone movie in every sense of the word; I think we’d find it equally satisfying even if no sequels had ever been made. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t self-contained on the plot level — the beginning drops you right in the middle of the action, and the ending leaves you on a cliffhanger. However, it is self-contained on the emotional level, which I consider to be the more important one. While it builds on characteristics established in its predecessor, it takes a few brief moments to efficiently get everyone acclimated to the storylines it will be pursuing, and the ending, while technically a cliffhanger, resolves all of them, albeit tragically.

Return of the Jedi isn’t self-contained in either sense. The movie is a direct continuation of The Empire Strikes Back, both in terms of its story and in terms of its themes. The film picks up right where its predecessor left off, with the heroes arriving on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo. And the characters’ baggage is the same as it was in Empire: That movie tore them down, and Return of the Jedi rebuilds them.

Of course, that means the film’s character development isn’t all that interesting, because most of it occurs before the opening scene — there are only a few more pieces to slide back into place.

And it’s also saddled with some storylines it clearly doesn’t particularly want to explore. In large part, that’s the entire opening third, where the heroes infiltrate Jabba’s palace to save Han. In the grand scheme of things, the entire sequence — and the Empire cliffhanger — prove to be entirely pointless. It’s pretty obvious that it came about as a result of contract negotiations — no one knew if Harrison Ford would come back for the third installment, so the Empire cliffhanger was mainly there to provide a convenient way to write him out if the need arose. So Return just resolves it immediately and then gets on with the real plot. All of the scenes on Tatooine play out with an overwhelming disinterest, and beyond my investment in the characters, it was difficult to care. (It doesn’t help that the entire scene is a bit of a mess, especially since I only have access to the special edition DVDs, meaning I get to sit through the bizarre musical number involving tons of 90s CGI. But even beyond that, the heroes don’t appear to have any real plan, so most of what happens is completely arbitrary and unmotivated.)

And then, since Return of the Jedi is mainly the third act to the larger story of the original Star Wars trilogy, it immediately starts setting up the extended climax and basically does that for the rest of its run-time.

In short, it’s easy for me to see why someone who’s never seen a Star Wars movie might not be all that into Return of the Jedi. It’s equally easy to see why someone who has but places a lot of importance on the need for a movie to be its own entity might find it off-putting.

Me, I’m a bit more of a big-picture guy. The Star Wars original trilogy has always been it’s own entity to me, a story consisting of three parts. Maybe it’s because I live in a world where every major film series concludes with a two-parter and I’m just used to it by now. Would I like for Return of the Jedi to stand on its own? Sure — its predecessors manage to do so while also being part of a larger story. But I’m also content to view Return of the Jedi as the two-hour third act of a six-hour story.

And it’s really good at being that.

Apart from the needless diversion that is the Jabba’s palace sequence, I don’t have many complaints about Return of the Jedi. Watched as part of the series rather than a standalone film, it rarely misses a beat. It’s a perfect continuation of Empire’s story, one that’s smart about where it takes the character arcs and how.

Like I said in my review of Empire — that was the movie where the characters learned their lesson. Return is the third act of that movie — where the characters are tested one last time.

I love how completely different the Han/Leia relationship is at the start of this film. The Empire Strikes Back established that they have feelings for each other but are too immature, in their own unique ways, to deal with that intelligently. Han postures for attention and gets mean and entitled when that doesn’t get him anything. Leia still, on some level, views him as a lesser being and is cold and overbearing even when he doesn’t deserve it. And that came back to hurt both of them. They weren’t able to effectively communicate about their situation. When Han decided to head for Cloud City, his ego and determination to be right all the time made it impossible to change his mind. And why would he listen to Leia’s concerns about the situation anyway? All she ever does is shoot down his ideas and accomplishments. As such, they blunder straight into a trap.

The characters we meet in Return of the Jedi are fully ready for this relationship. In Empire, Leia refused even to address it; in Return, the first thing she does is profess her love for Han. She’s addressed the feelings she previously bottled up and understands what her sense of superiority almost took from her. She and Han still bicker — that’s pretty much the core of their relationship, after all — but both of them are far kinder about it. They aren’t targeting each other’s weak points and are clearly joking whenever they get going. During the climax, when Han is trying to hot-wire the shield generator and accidentally seals it up even more, she holds steady and continues to fight off the stormtroopers bearing down on them. It’s hard to imagine the Leia of Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back doing that.

And the Han who comes out of carbonite isn’t the same as the Han who went in. He’s mellowed out. He’s more of a team player. He doesn’t have to be right all the time. He’s just as capable of taking instruction as he is of giving it. At long last, everything isn’t about him. Of course, he’s still the confident, sarcastic, charming rogue we fell in love with — but he’s the best version of that character here, a version that’s truly altruistic and mature. In the end, when he mistakenly believes that Leia is in love with Luke, he decides to let go and tells her that he’ll back off. He no longer feels entitled to her affection simply because of his own emotions. In their last scenes in this movie, they’re meeting as equals for the first time, and that’s the moment when they truly click as something other than a fickle passion.

It’s Luke who gets the most attention, as you might expect. And on this point, I think Return of the Jedi just nails it. His struggle has always been about his recklessness and impatience, both qualities unsurprising in a person his age. The trilogy as a whole really is the coming of age story of Luke Skywalker, the boy’s journey into becoming a man. In Empire, he went to Dagobah and began his Jedi training with Yoda. When he received a vision of Han and Leia in pain, he did what any young man would do — rushed to their rescue, despite Yoda’s warning that he wasn’t ready. It’s arguable whether or not Luke made the situation worse by his presence, but he certainly didn’t make it any better. Most of his friends had already escaped on their own, and Han was already long gone. All Luke got for his trouble was an amputated hand and a complicated revelation received in the worst possible way from the worst possible person (whether the Jedi were right to hide it from him in the first place is another conversation entirely).

The character we meet at the beginning of Return of the Jedi is profoundly different. The new Luke is calm and cautious. He assesses situations instead of running into them guns blazing. He doesn’t allow his emotions to get the better of him. He’s found his way into the wisdom of adulthood.

The movie never directly shows us, but it implies that some time has passed since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s suggested that Luke, instead of rushing straight to Jabba’s palace to rescue Han, instead returned to Dagobah and completed his training, knowing that without it, his efforts might only doom his friend to an eternity on the Hutt’s wall. He knows because he’s already seen it happen.

But whereas Han and Leia mostly spend the movie expressing their newfound maturity without any significant development beyond that, Return of the Jedi has one last test in store for Luke. He must face Darth Vader. And now that he knows his mortal enemy is his father, Luke is considering whether it might be possible to redeem him.

The resulting battle of good vs. evil, the rebellion vs. the Empire, is, in my opinion, one of the highest points of the entire Star Wars saga — the perfect end to the story. It’s increased in scale, to be sure — there’s a big space battle and a big ground battle and an emotionally charged lightsaber duel. And if only The Phantom Menace had taken a page from Return’s book on the matter of multi-pronged climaxes with a ton of parallel action. There are three confrontations here, each of which has its own tone and emotional undercurrents — the space battle has more of the entertaining derring-do for which Star Wars is famous; there’s a little more humor in the ground battle; and the lightsaber duel is a complex and serious battle of the wills. And, of course, each one has its own arc — there’s a little darkness in the ground battle and a little despair in the space battle, and Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader and the Empire has big emotional climaxes and smaller moments where the three of them are simply engaged in a high-stakes philosophical debate. The movie balances all of it expertly — it’s carefully planned the cuts from one sequence to the next and has a very good sense of what tone it should be striking before and after the transitions and how to build up to and lead out of it in the interim. Each conflict has its own arc, but there are a lot of mini-arcs scattered throughout. It’s able to reach a certain feeling in one scene and maintain that feeling into the next, only to gradually dial it one direction or another until it’s ready for the next cut. It makes for a thrilling, emotionally varied, but ultimately consistent finale, one that feels appropriately sized to the needs of the story and its scope.

And it’s here that Luke faces his last trial. He gets off to a strong start, willingly turning himself over to Vader so that he can come face-to-face with the Emperor and make his final plea. He isn’t prepared for a duel to the death; he’s prepared to redeem his father.

Vader, of course, isn’t ready yet, and the Emperor certainly won’t have any of it. Luke intends to turn Vader to the Light Side, and the Emperor intends to turn Luke to the Dark. He has reason to believe he might succeed — he knows Luke’s weak points, and he goes right for the jugulars. The Emperor taunts him with the trap he’s set for Luke’s friends, tormenting him with the threat of their deaths, knowing tapping into his darker emotions will show him the power the Dark Side has to offer — and hopefully persuade him to join it. Luke halfway surrenders — he draws his lightsaber and begins to fight Vader, but he still appears to be in control of himself. He gradually becomes calmer as the fight goes on.

So, Vader fires the last salvo. He threatens Leia. And that’s when Luke snaps. That’s when he allows his anger to take control and attacks Vader. And everything he’s been told is true — his anger and hatred give him power. He absolutely destroys Vader, eventually knocking him down and cutting off his hand. Then, the Emperor makes his final appeal.

Luke faces that choice — the power of the Dark Side, or the redemption of the Light. Seeing Vader wounded on the floor, his empathy is awakened, and he chooses to throw his lightsaber aside. He decides that he’ll either die or save his father’s soul.

It’s hard to say exactly why it happens — maybe it was Luke’s final act of defiance. But ultimately, it’s the latter. The Emperor begins torturing Luke to death, and Vader comes to his rescue and throws his former master into the abyss, sacrificing his life in the process. Love defeats hate. Redemption defeats hopelessness. Light defeats darkness.

And that’s the moment the Jedi truly return.

Next time: Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Um, but not as a RetroView, obviously.

P.S. I plugged the movie title into Google to find an image to run with the review, and 95 percent of the results were bikini Leia and people cosplaying as bikini Leia. Stay classy, Internet.

Yoda-Empire-Strikes-Back-image   Welcome back to RetroViews! Is The Force Awakens out yet? I’m not sleeping properly. I can’t focus. It’s only Tuesday, but it feels like it’s next month. Who keeps letting me out of the cryofreezer? I specifically told you Friday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. (I saved up vacation days for this, because I am a loser.) Anyway, today we’re talking about Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

I wonder if I’ll ever make up my mind whether I prefer Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. I’m capable of making that decision on a temporary basis. Right now, it’s Star Wars. But you shouldn’t put any stock in that whatsoever. I change my mind about which one is my favorite almost every time I marathon this series. Up until the RetroViews marathon, it was The Empire Strikes Back. Before that, it was Star Wars. Early in college, it was The Empire Strikes Back. Late in high school, it was Star Wars. And so on. A year from now, I’ll probably be back on The Empire Strikes Back. But on this viewing, it’s Star Wars.

And I think that may just be the circumstances of my life right now. Star Wars was just what I needed at the moment, something light and fun and hopeful. That’s the main difference between it and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as the most important factor in which of the two plays better for you personally. Star Wars is fun, uncomplicated, funny, and stuffed with spectacle. The Empire Strikes Back is complex, weighty, sometimes slow-moving, and a bit dour. You go to the former for a blast of pure entertainment; you go to the latter for the storytelling. It’s all in what you want at the moment.

And The Empire Strikes Back delivers in a big way. There’s a reason it’s widely, almost overwhelmingly, believed to be the best of the series.

There are a number of more superficial — for lack of a better word — ways in which it’s an improvement over its predecessor. That may be because George Lucas worked on this movie in the capacity where he seems to fit best — the ideas guy, the guiding hand, sketching the universe of the film and the broader scope of the story, supervising writers and directors who bring their own talents to the table as well. That shows mainly in how sharp the dialogue is here. Most of the great lines in Star Wars were improvised by actors who didn’t want to say what Lucas wrote. The acting is stronger here, too — the slightly over-the-top performances in Star Wars largely matched its broad, goofy tone, but the characters here are far more human. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford seem to have settled into their characters in The Empire Strikes Back; they’re capturing the complexity alongside the spirit.

The addition of Irvin Kershner as director isn’t quite an improvement, but he does have an interesting touch that fits the universe. He seems to share Lucas’s instincts toward action — Lucas is a diehard fan of Akira Kurosawa and old Japanese samurai movies, so he tends to film action a little more distantly, letting it play out within a wider frame, as though you’re watching it on a stag. There’s a balletic quality to the way he shoots things. Kershner leans the same direction with the action beats, so there’s very much a sense in which The Empire Strikes Back still looks like a George Lucas movie. Kershner, though, has a stronger talent for spicing up the other scenes — not that he lathers them in immediately noticeable Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino flair, but he keeps in mind that he’s working in a visual medium. My observation here is that his greatest talent is establishing depth within the frame. It’s a shame that the 3D remasters of the Star Wars series never really went anywhere, because I suspect The Empire Strikes Back might actually look pretty good. It already has a three-dimensional quality. I think of how Kershner moves the camera in the opening scene so that it’s following the descending probe droid and getting closer to it at the same time; I think of the shot in the wampa’s ice cave, where he sets the camera just behind a row of icicles and pans it over to Luke, who’s further toward the wall. The Empire Strikes Back feels like a diorama, as though you could reach into it and touch the trees and snow and technology and architecture.

But what really impresses me about The Empire Strikes Back is that it’s so unlike the typical sequel — by the standards of its time as much as today. The instinct is usually to do the same thing in terms of structure and tone, but bigger — more battles, more explosions, more expertly choreographed lightsaber duels, more Force powers. The Empire Strikes Back is interesting because it’s almost the diametric opposite of Star Wars.

Star Wars keeps its plotting tight and structured — there’s always a goal, and every scene feeds into it. It’s very propulsive storytelling. The Empire Strikes Back is more freeform — it doesn’t give off the sense that it has no idea where it’s going and is just making up its plot on the fly, but it’s looser and more character-focused. If you summarized the plot of Star Wars, you’d say something like: “Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, who convinces him to join an adventure to rescue a princess, during which he learns that the Empire is obliterating planets with a new superweapon and teams up with the princess and an army of rebels to destroy it.” If you summarized The Empire Strikes Back, you’d say, “Well, the rebels are on Hoth, but the Empire finds them, so they run away, and then they run away some more, and Luke hightails it off to Dagobah to do something else while Han and Leia go to Cloud City and mess around for a while before Darth Vader shows up and everyone has to reunite to stop him.”

The Empire Strikes Back lacks the drivenness of Star Wars. The latter is always going somewhere; the former is content to sit around a bit longer. It’s much more character-driven. Han and Leia’s scenes on Hoth and the asteroid don’t have any particular plot function; those scenes are focused on exploring and developing them as characters. The same goes for the scenes between Luke and Yoda on Dagobah — they’re not immediately necessary in any objective sense. The goal is, superficially, for Luke to pick up some new skills that will be important later in the series and, more importantly, to examine his flaws.

I think the film makes a really smart move in pursuing that angle. Luke’s flaws — his impatience, his recklessness, his immaturity, his uncertainty — are introduced in Star Wars, but they’re never really resolved. The first film is more about giving him a chance to shine. Presumably, everything else is still there, and The Empire Strikes Back deals with it more directly. So, he’s forced to make tough decisions, decisions that require him to exercise caution, to wait, to make sacrifices.

He always chooses wrong.

And that’s what really sets The Empire Strikes Back apart from Star Wars. Star Wars is one of the happiest films in the series, a jovial, lighthearted, adventurous romp. The Empire Strikes Back is a tragedy. There’s no forward motion here, no end goal that the heroes are pursuing. It’s a movie in which characters are presented with difficult decisions, universally make the wrong ones, and end up in a worse place than where they started.

Luke takes his weapons into the cave and has a terrifying vision of himself as Darth Vader. Han’s relationship with Leia remains a bit testy — even though they’re starting to have feelings for each other — and he ignores her instincts about Cloud City, leading them all into a trap. Luke receives a vision of Han and Leia in pain and decides to go rescue them, even though Yoda and Obi-Wan both warn him that he won’t be strong enough to face Darth Vader and might doom them all. In the end, at the very least, Luke’s involvement in the incident on Cloud City changes nothing — he’s unable to rescue Han, and Lando has already rescued Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO. All he gets for his trouble is an amputated hand and the devastating revelation that Darth Vader is his father.

The characters screw everything up, and by the time the film ends, they’re scattered and on the run, with Han’s fate unknown.

That’s the other major difference from Star WarsThe Empire Strikes Back isn’t very self-contained. Star Wars has a clear beginning and a clear end, and even though it leaves Darth Vader alive for future adventures, it doesn’t leave many threads hanging. If it had never gotten a sequel, we’d all have contented ourselves with the knowledge that, sure, Darth Vader lived, but Luke destroyed the Death Star and maybe the Empire as well, for all we knew. The Empire Strikes Back, on the other hand, drops us right in the middle of things — Luke and Han show up immediately, within thirty seconds of their introduction, they’re endangered and adventuring. Then, there’s a major battle, and the movie just keeps going. It definitely presumes you’ve seen the last one. And the ending is a cliffhanger; there’s a touch of hope in it, but the heroes are nevertheless left in a very bad position.

The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi really are a double feature. I almost wish they were one movie (more for the latter’s sake than the former’s, since it’s the one that, if memory serves, struggles to complete itself thematically). Return of the Jedi carries over the character development of its predecessor.

Luke has seen what comes about as a result of youthful ignorance and recklessness. Han has seen what comes about as a result of his ego and childish sense of entitlement. Leia has seen what comes about as a result of her frostiness and condescension, as well as her distaste for her own emotions. Lando has seen what comes about as a result of his cowardice, cutting deals with the enemy for what he perceives as the greater good. The Empire Strikes Back is a tragic learning experience that positions all of its characters to be better people at the onset of Return of the Jedi — and they are. That leaves Return of the Jedi in a weird position where it’s more a third act for the trilogy than its own film, which I’ll probably discuss in more depth next time. But in the moment of The Empire Strikes Back, it’s very satisfying — in that it’s exactly as dissatisfying as it intends to be. Star Wars built these heroes up; The Empire Strikes Back tore them right back down. It’s a dark tale, but an extremely effective one nevertheless.

I’ll conclude on a few random notes that I didn’t find room for in the larger review:

• Lando Calrissian is one of my favorite fictional characters. In fairness, so is everyone else in this movie. But I can’t express to you how much I enjoy every second Lando is on screen. On a deeper level, it’s because there’s something about the character who wants to do the right thing but finds himself in an impossible situation that I find inexplicably compelling. But it’s mostly because he’s just so cool. He’s no different than Han; his suave, sensitive masculinity is transparently an act, but it’s an act that he presents knowingly, with a touch of self-deprecating humor. And even though it’s an act, it’s such a charming one. You want to be taken in by it even though you know it’s basically a glorified joke. Lando is the smoothest smoothie who ever smoothed, and I love him.

• Speaking of awesome fictional characters: Yoda. I imagine the twist that the annoying muppet was a Jedi Master really played well to audiences in 1980, but I also appreciate it as a kid who grew up in a post-prequels world. It’s the one thing that the prequels didn’t ruin. They allowed me to find much more humor in the world-class trolling Yoda gets up to when Luke arrives. And having been exposed to a fully CGI Yoda, I have much more appreciation for the puppet version (okay, not all of the improvement was intentional). Seriously, the puppet is something you might find on The Muppets, but it fits surprisingly well into the world of the film; it doesn’t feel like a silly diversion from the otherwise serious tone. Also, would it be possible to get a puppeteer nominated for an acting Oscar? Because Frank Oz’s work here is just tremendous. He finds so much life and personality in Yoda; before we learn that the character is Yoda, he does a great job injecting slightly over-the-top humor into him, and afterward, he convincingly sells Yoda as a wise, somewhat melancholy old mystic. The process behind contorting a puppet’s face to convey complicated, human emotions has to be the most subtle, involved, and difficult thing ever. I don’t think Oz gets nearly enough recognition for it.

• Also, the production design is fantastic, and the effects are extremely well-incorporated. It’s a Star Wars review; I have to say that eventually. But seriously, there are matte paintings in this movie that look like a seamless part of their environment. There are one or two effects in this movie that don’t hold up all that well today (the tauntauns, mainly), but it impresses me how many of them still do.

Next time: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

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Welcome back to RetroViews! I’m still working on my Star Wars series, in an effort to get pumped up for The Force Awakens (clearly, I am not already pumped up enough). This time, I’m finally getting around to the good half of the series, starting with the movie that started it all: Star Wars.

There’s little that delights me more than discovering that a favorite childhood film is aging like a fine wine. I’ve done that a few times over the course of these RetroViews, particularly my series on the Pixar canon. But Star Wars is a bit different.

It’s always a thrill to return to a movie you loved as a child and find that you love it exactly as much as an adult. But usually, when that happens, the specifics of that love have changed — you love it the same amount, but for different reasons. Look at my RetroViews of the Pixar canon — surprise, surprise, I was not at all attuned to the thematic undercurrents of Toy Story and Finding Nemo when I was a kid. Back then, I liked those movies for the characters, the story, the humor, the adventure. I still enjoy all of those things, of course. But mainly, my enjoyment of the films as a whole stems more from the adult elements you don’t notice as a kid.

Star Wars is unique in that not only do I love it exactly as much as I did when I was a kid, I love it for exactly the same reasons.

It has been a stalwart in my life. I watched it all the time when I was a kid, I watched it all the time when I was a teenager, I watched it all the time when I was in college, and I’ve watched it a few times as an adult as well. At no phase of my life did my feelings toward it, or my assessment of the reasons for those feelings, change.

It’s basically the perfect four-quadrant movie, appealing to almost every audience member in exactly the same way. In that sense, it’s a bit of a rarity — a movie that gets its viewers on the same page. Go read a positive review, professional or otherwise, of Star Wars. Now read a few more. Did you notice that all of them praised it for the same things and usually to the same extent? How many movies have that kind of consensus?

And that’s the interesting thing about it. Whether you’re a critic or the most casual moviegoer alive, whether you’re an adult or a child, Star Wars plays on the feelings you share in such a pointed way that all of you walk away from it having enjoyed the same things, regardless of how well you’re able to articulate it.

There’s a reason just about every screenwriting book, good or bad, gets to Star Wars within the first two or three chapters. It’s simple but extremely effective storytelling that works equally well at almost all levels of cinematic comprehension. It’s an enshrinement of the basic tropes that have defined our storytelling since the dawn of time, delivered in the form of an idiosyncratic sci-fi vision.

That has the side effect of making it difficult to properly review it in this day and age. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Or that you wouldn’t already know, even without someone telling you? I could talk about the mechanisms of the story and how great the movie is at dramatizing its basic plot elements. I could talk about the well realized and endlessly fascinating world this film inhabits (I have seen every movie in this series a thousand times, but every time I watch them, I find things I never noticed before lurking about in the background). I could talk about the then-groundbreaking effects and how the movie still manages to feel so tactile in its presentation, so filled with places you feel like you could visit, with animals you feel like you could touch, with technology you feel like you could wield (and I could also talk about how amazing it is that George Lucas and his team created all of it on a less-than-impressive budget). I could talk about how flawlessly it controls its tone — it belongs to a genre of truly lighthearted, broad, goofy, but emotionally grounded and character-centered films that don’t really exist anymore, even among the studios and filmmakers that are actively trying to recreate them.

But I’ll keep this review uncharacteristically short (for a RetroView, anyway) and focus on what truly makes me love Star Wars — the characters.

Has any movie seen even half the number of characters in Star Wars ascend to the cultural canon of great heroes and villains? Every member of this movie’s core cast — and even, arguably, a few characters outside of it — became an icon. And now, nearly forty years later (holy crap), they remain that way. Who among us doesn’t know who Luke Skywalker is? Han Solo? Princess Leia? Darth Vader? They’ve practically become the modern blueprints for their character types. Lucas used them in roles that play on traditional myth-making; little did he know that he was about to make his own.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the most crucial difference between the original and prequel trilogies, and the one thing that might have saved the latter.

It’s interesting — everyone willingly says that the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels and the Luke Skywalker of the originals are whiny. But we forgive Luke for it and hate Anakin for it. Why? Well, because Luke is whiny in an age-appropriate way, one that we recognize from our own young adulthood and empathize with, on some level. We’re led to believe that he’s 18 or 19 years old and shown that he’s chafing under the rural farm life his aunt and uncle enforce upon him. He feels held hostage by his desire for approval and his good-hearted need to help his family. He wants to do something more with his life, but one door after another gets slammed in his face. Luke is in the middle of an emotional crisis that we all went through at that age, to some extent or another. In addition to that, there’s a fundamental good-heartedness to the whining that makes it tolerable — his ambitions center on doing something for the greater good. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

And that’s why he makes for a great hero — we like and understand him, yes, but we embrace his flaws as well. We see a bit of ourselves in him — adults because we remember being that age and kids because they share his desire to grow up, be independent, and do important things.

It’s also why he and Han Solo make such great foils for one another. Luke is a wide-eyed dreamer, caught up in adventure, longing to be a hero. Han is cynical and unpleasant; there isn’t much altruism in him, and he seems to snuff out what little there is the moment he feels it bubbling to the surface. It’s interesting how much perspective on Han has changed over the years. When you’re a kid, he’s the coolest guy ever. He’s got a cool ship and a sweet laser gun. He’s detached, snarky, and above it all — nothing gets to him! He doesn’t take orders from anyone!

When you’re an adult, on the other hand… Well, it becomes clear why kids think Han is so cool — Han’s understanding of what it means to be cool is very childish. As an adult, the character comes off as a bit of a buffoon — a preening, posturing loser trying desperately to be the manliest guy in the room. And that’s probably why he’s so at war with his conscience — nothing’s more effeminate and uncool than caring a whole lot about something. But it’s an act, and that act is hilarious unraveled throughout the film.

Mainly because of Princess Leia. She might fill a pretty traditional damsel role, but it’s nevertheless surprising what a progressive character she was for 1977. Heck, she’d be a halfway progressive character right now. She’s not just a love interest (this movie doesn’t even have one, which is unusual in itself); she’s a fully formed character with a personality, her own motivations, and a life outside of the protagonist’s. She’s the one who gets the ball rolling in the first place, getting her hands on the Death Star plans and trying to run it to the rebels. The first thing we see her do in this movie is shoot a stormtrooper and then insult Darth Vader to his face. In essence, the only reason she needs to be rescued is that the keys are on the other side of the door, and you’d need superhuman strength to get through it from her side. Once, she’s out of there, she’s dealing with the situation herself, thank you very much.

And that fact alone is a threat to Han’s ego, made worse by her determination to keep needling him all the time. Look at the difference in Han’s character before he meets her and after — before, he’s smooth, smug, and above it all; after, he’s following her around and complaining loudly about how he doesn’t take orders from her and SHUT UP YOU’RE NOT MY MOM. Once she’s out of her cell, it takes Leia all of two seconds to decide that this rescue has been horribly mismanaged and wrestle control of the mission right out of Han’s hands. And since Han is determined to be the toughest guy in the room, he doesn’t take it too well that this random princess is running roughshod over him.

It’s not the first time — Obi-Wan has already been taking potshots at his ego. Han wants people to think he’s above it all; it’s Obi-Wan who actually is — albeit in a mature, adult way. He’s compassionate and does what’s right; his detachment is not in that he doesn’t care about his principles and about other people, it’s in that he doesn’t care if people think less of him for it. Obi-Wan is difficult to faze. Insults don’t get through to him. Odds are he’s smarter than you. He doesn’t waste time explaining his plans to people he knows will never get it. Trying to prove him wrong will eventually get you embarrassed. He’s the embodiment of “killing them with kindness” — he responds to criticism and personal attacks with light barbs and soft-spoken counter-arguments, then waits for the cards to fall. He’s a model of maturity, self-control, and openness, and that’s something that Luke and Han both need in different ways. Luke worships the ground he walks on, and Han finds him pretentious and irritating, but his presence is important for both. In that sense, he’s the perfect mentor — not only because he embodies the typical traits of the mentor character but because those traits are pitched directly at our protagonist and semi-co-protagonist.

Then, you’ve got the supporting characters. They’d always been around, but R2-D2 and C-3PO put a permanent new face on the Those Two Guys trope, the comedy duo tagging along with the main plot. I’m still fascinated at how much personality the film gives R2-D2 despite him being a round garbage can with no ideas or facial features that communicates exclusively in beeps and whistles. He’s one of my personal favorites in the Star Wars saga (admittedly, I have, like, a dozen personal favorites); there’s something about him that I find inherently amusing. He’s this adorable, chipper little robot with absolutely no tolerance for anyone else’s BS. He is determined to accomplish whatever he sets out to accomplish and simply does not care about your objections or the things you do to stop him. Since C-3PO’s main purpose in life seems to be “objecting to things,” that makes him a great comedic partner for R2-D2. R2-D2’s the one you laugh with, and C-3PO’s the one you laugh at. He’s likable, in a weird way, so you don’t want him to suffer too much, but he’s fussy, uptight, and a bit annoying, so you do want the other characters to continue crossing his boundaries and making him uncomfortable. Which they are mostly glad to do.

And, of course, Chewbacca, the family dog. Who doesn’t love Chewie? The “family dog” description isn’t appropriate solely because he resembles one; his personality is, essentially, that of a sentient dog. Like a dog, he’s loyal and friendly to all those who are in his good graces, but he’s a tiny bit unpredictable and doesn’t seem to be invested in what’s going on around him. He follows the heroes because they are his friends, but he doesn’t seem to care what they’re doing. Like Obi-Wan, he’s pretty hard to faze, unless you make him angry.

You can see why these characters are the heart and soul of Star Wars and, in my opinion, why it’s as great as it is. It’s not just that they have lively, enjoyable personalities; it’s that the way they relate to one another is surprisingly nuanced and multilayered. Despite the fact that they conform to a lot of ancient storytelling archetypes, no one seems to fit any role precisely. Luke is the hero, but he’s also naive and even a bit dumb, and there’s an unusual subservience to his personality; he seems to go through a hero worship phase with everyone he meets. Han is the grumpy sidekick, but he’s also a protagonist in his own right — the film actually ends on the completion of his arc. His return during the Death Star battle is the biggest moment of triumph in the movie. Leia is the damsel, but she’s such a forceful personality that she immediately humiliates and sidelines her rescuers. And the characters don’t have any one relationship — no member of the cast is all things to all people, and even on an individual basis, the relationships change over time. Luke reveres Obi-Wan as a saint; Han finds him tiresome; Obi-Wan uses those attitudes to impress change upon both of them. I don’t think Leia respects Luke, but she does like him; she definitely doesn’t respect Han and makes no secret of it, but she develops enough of a subconscious regard for him that his departure comes off as a sort of betrayal. R2-D2 is his own entity, not really attached to anyone or anything other than his own mission. He’s only friends with C-3PO, and that’s mainly by proximity. Chewbacca is mainly a fixture at Han’s side, but he’s a bit of a morality pet in that sense — he’s more open than Han is and embraces the others a bit more readily. He’s defined mainly by his ability to treat everyone as equals — he doesn’t seem to have any more respect for Obi-Wan than he does for Luke.

Their motivations, their personalities, and their relationships with one another circle around and intertwine and change things and, ultimately, establish a palpable group dynamic from which tension, drama, camaraderie, and chemistry emerge very naturally. You know who everyone is, what they want, and how they feel about each other, and that makes it easy for the movie to drop inciting incidents into their laps and push things in a certain direction. You can guess how you’d react or be treated if you stepped into this group.

Essentially, the movie works not just because Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO are likable and interesting but because, by the time the credits roll, you feel like they’re your friends. You can examine this group dynamic, these personalities, and decide which one you are in your own social circles. Which is all to say that, despite the film’s simplicity and goofiness, there’s something authentic at the heart of it — something about these oddball characters that registers with us more deeply than we realize. We come for the adventure, for the effects, for the unique universe, for the intriguing mythology — but we stay for these characters. We remember these characters.

And that is why Star Wars is friggin’ awesome.

Next time: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

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Welcome back to RetroViews! Every day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not in theaters seems to last a week. To occupy my mind, I’m going through the entire saga to date. Today’s entry: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

If you’ve kept track of the personal stuff I included in my RetroViews of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, it won’t come as a surprise to you that Revenge of the Sith is close to my heart. Attack of the Clones was my introduction to the saga, and I spent the interim collecting and watching all the other movies enough times to memorize most of them. I was around 13 years old when Revenge of the Sith hit theaters, and it was the first time I really got wrapped up in the hype machine: I read basically every piece of official news about the film, and most of the absurd rumors as well. I was fully involved in the speculation process. I went into the film spoiled on absolutely everything. It was basically the polar opposite of my hype for The Force Awakens: Right now, I’m on a complete Star Wars blackout. I’m not reading news, I’m not reading speculation, I’m even skipping the TV spots whenever possible. I want to go into this one as unspoiled as humanly possible. But with Revenge of the Sith, I just couldn’t wait.

In spite of that, I suspect this will end up being one of the shorter RetroViews in this series. It’s not that there’s nothing in Revenge of the Sith worth talking about, whether positive or negative. It’s that I’ve said most of it already. Re-watching Revenge of the Sith with adult eyes, my main observation is that it’s pretty much the same movie as Attack of the Clones — it does some things better and some things worse, but the core of those things remains the same.

The things it does really well are the things all the prequels do really well. Say it with me — design and music. The new vehicles and technology are very cool (it’s the first time in the saga that we’ve seen a fully-involved space battle, and it is, at least conceptually, pretty awesome); we get even more alien species; and I absolutely must live in Padme’s apartment (though I might consider installing a few more guardrails). And John Williams brings his A-game once again; I think I might prefer Attack of the Clones’ score by a hair, but that takes nothing away from the excellence of his work here. I’m starting to think Williams might be the MVP of the Star Wars prequels; I wonder if a lot of scenes work only because the music does the emotional heavy lifting for you.

And, of course, Revenge of the Sith gets wrong the things that all of the prequels have gotten wrong. The dialogue is lousy. The story needs work. The direction is often static and uninvolving.

The dialogue, I think, might actually be worse than it was in Attack of the Clones, albeit more as a whole than in specific moments. There’s only one scene with dialogue bad enough to match the romantic scenes in Attack of the Clones; little else is quite that cringeworthy (though Anakin does get another childish “it’s unfair waaaaah” moment, and the philosophical dialogue during the final duel is basically “well, so’s your mother.” And then there’s the part where Anakin’s witty response to General Grievous is “LOL you’re short!” And also… Hmmm. Maybe I do need to reevaluate exactly how much of this dialogue is cringeworthy). However, in Attack of the Clones, the dialogue outside of the romantic subplot is mostly fine — not particularly impressive, but not especially bad either. Revenge of the Sith makes you cringe a little less, but it’s also mildly bad a lot more often. (You know you’re talking about the Star Wars prequels when you’re evaluating things in degrees of cringing.) I think it’s because it attempts to be funny much more often. I appreciate what George Lucas is trying to do here — he knows the film is going to end on a really dark note and wants to contrast it with something lighter in the beginning, particularly emphasizing the fun, entertaining bits of the characters’ relationships. That was, in my opinion, the right call; the movie just doesn’t do it very well. It’s mainly banter between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and it struggles partly because the writing isn’t good (“How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!” is basically Obi-Wan breaking the fourth wall to set Anakin up for a lousy joke) and partly because, for whatever reason, Hayden Christensen almost always plays sarcasm as bitter and mean, like he’s personally offended every time Obi-Wan gets a little lighter.

The story is roughly as bad as it was in Attack of the Clones, just for different reasons. There are a few structural issues: the opening space battle could easily lose 15 minutes with only a little rearranging to establish the basic elements, and the entire Kashyyyk subplot is just an excuse to have a Chewbacca cameo. Its main problem, however, is that it’s hamstrung by its need to get everything to square one for the original trilogy. Revenge of the Sith really makes me wonder exactly how much of a plan Lucas had going into the prequels. They drag their heels for two movies and then try to do absolutely everything in the space of one installment. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin gets one scene, where he kills an entire tribe of Tusken Raiders after they kill his mother, and that’s all the closer he gets to the Dark Side in that movie. In Revenge of the Sith, he goes from being troubled but generally a good person to murdering children in what appears to be three or four days.

Lucas hasn’t left nearly enough room to explore Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, so he spends the entirety of Revenge of the Sith introducing new complicating factors that had never so much as been mentioned before. All of a sudden, we’ve got the implication that the Jedi Order isn’t perfect, and not everyone trusts it; that’s an extremely interesting idea with a lot of potential (the prequels would be a lot better if they not only showed Anakin falling to the Dark Side but also allowed the Jedi to be partially responsible for their own destruction — imagine how that would change the subtext of Yoda’s scenes in the original trilogy). It’s also an entire that’s presented totally devoid of context, a dialogue-only theme that exists solely as an on-paper justification for Anakin’s doubts and eventual downfall.

Anakin, by the way, seems like an idiot in this — he’s never come across as particularly smart, but the film’s need to set the stage for the original trilogy forces Lucas to double down on his stupidity. His fall to the Dark Side requires very blatant manipulation on Palpatine’s part, so obvious that there’s no way a functional human would fall for it. He gleefully instructs Anakin to kill Count Dooku, he tries to persuade him to leave Obi-Wan to die, he randomly tells Anakin a story that just so happens to pertain directly to his deepest secret, and he’s fine with appearing to know a lot about Sith lore. Anakin not only falls for this hook, line, and sinker but accepts sudden and massive change to his worldview, loyalties, and surroundings without hesitation. Plus, his fall doesn’t build on any of his established traits; the film has to introduce another new element, Padme’s potential death, in order to motivate that.

A lot of other things happen too quickly. It’s not enough to imply a transition that takes place after the film because of the Sith coming to power; Palpatine has to stand in front of the Senate and declare that the Republic is now a dictatorship, and the Senate has to burst into applause like, “Yeah, we’re all pretty much ready for an empire; democracy sucks!” The Jedi Order can’t peter out gradually; instead, thousands of them in the Jedi Temple have to suddenly lose their ability to take on dozens of clones per person and one single Sith Lord.

The movie also wrestles negatively with the plot holes some of the other prequels introduced. Attack of the Clones establishes that Anakin is aware he has a step-family on Tatooine, and Revenge of the Sith never bothers to explain why the Jedi think it’s a good idea to hide Luke with them. Even Leia’s hiding place is questionable now that we know Anakin has a good relationship with Bail Organa. Plus, since the droids turned out to be heavily involved in the prequels, C-3PO’s memory has to be erased, but R2-D2’s can’t, in order to get everything ready for the original trilogy. Why the characters consider it important to wipe C-3PO’s mind but not R2’s is never explained. The movie even blithely introduces entirely new plot holes of its own — the pointless Chewbacca cameo means he and Yoda now know each other, so it’s weird that he never mentions that to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. And obviously, the birth of the twins opens up a wealth of holes in the larger saga, mainly that Padme briefly looking at her newborn daughter is apparently enough for Leia to remember her mother a full 20 years later. Seriously, I’m not sure why they didn’t just let Padme survive this movie and imply a death somewhere in the interim.

I didn’t mean to spend that much time on the story. Sorry.

On the visual end, I think Revenge of the Sith is a bit better than Attack of the Clones. Lucas is still following the rules, and his direction is still a bit lifeless and unimaginative. It sometimes seems as though he was only excited about certain scenes — the big action sequences and key dramatic moments are considerably more inventive than the smaller bits. I don’t know for sure, obviously. However, for the most part, Lucas is a bit more on-point here. The action sequences are still a lot of fun (though I think his proclivity for spectacle overwhelms the emotional needs of the story during the final duel), and there are one or two dramatic moments that are surprisingly good — the almost scene where Anakin is alone in the darkened council chambers, trying to decide between Palpatine and the Jedi, while Padme watches back from her apartment window, is ominous and powerful and probably the single best-directed scene in the entire prequel trilogy (I know, I know, it’s not a high bar, but I still mean that sincerely). There’s some interesting cinematography here and there as well. There was one shot that particularly struck me — the camera above Anakin on Mustafar, slowly zooming in on him as he stands silently on the balcony. Everything is bathed in bright orange because of the lava; the gothic architecture contrasts with the rugged nature beneath; and Anakin is ruminating at the center of it all; it looks like a frame out of a comic book. It’s a great shot, and there are a few others like it.

The CGI is better, too. That’s partly because the technology evolved but also because the film seems somewhat less reliant upon it. It’s still overused; I’ll never understand why the clone troopers in the prequels are effects. However, there are no shots like the Geonosis troop ship disembarkation or the Jedi Temple corridor conversation in Attack of the Clones that just immediately get on my nerves.

Short version: Revenge of the Sith is bad, and in largely the same way as the other prequels. However, like Attack of the Clones, it isn’t quite terrible enough (at least in the ways that matter most to me) to overpower my nostalgia for it.

Now that I’m done with the first half of this RetroViews series, I can safely say I’m glad I was a kid when the prequels were released. If I were an adult, I’m certain they’d have left me as broken-hearted as they did everyone else. But because I was coming of age in that era, the prequels were always a part of the Star Wars experience for me. And I suspect that in their own goofy, stupid, haphazard way, they always will be.

Next time: The good ones. Beginning with, well, Star Wars.

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Welcome back to RetroViews! I’m continuing my Star Wars series in preparation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After all, I’ve got to do something to take my mind off the interminable two-week wait that yet lies ahead. Also, I’m pretty sure I’ll actually finish on time this round! I’ve done the math, and if I stick to my schedule, I’ll post a RetroView of Return of the Jedi on Dec. 16. As we all know, life never interferes with such things. Anyway, today’s entry: Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

In my previous entry, I shared my minority opinion that The Phantom Menace was the least-objectionable Star Wars prequel. However, I expressed a slight suspicion that my opinion could change, since my stance on The Phantom Menace degraded significantly on this latest re-watch, with most of the criticism centered on its convoluted, unfocused, and pointless story. That suspicion, it would seem, was well-founded.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones still sucks, but watching it again has me convinced that everyone was right the first time, when they considered it a slight improvement over its predecessor, albeit still miles away from where it needed to be. More or less the same things are wrong on the surface level (though I’d argue most of them aren’t quite as bad here), but like I said, that doesn’t concern me overmuch. The success or failure of a movie, for me, is predicated on the machinery underneath and whether or not it functions.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones…well, it doesn’t function. Duh. Like I said, there’s a lot wrong with it. Fortunately, all of it is less wrong, which, admittedly, isn’t exactly the highest praise.

Basically, Attack of the Clones is, like The Phantom Menace before it, terrible, but it’s un-terrible enough that nostalgia still allows me to enjoy it a little. (Though, again, I wasn’t feeling well when I watched The Phantom Menace for this series, which may have prevented the little kid in me from taking the reins.)

I sort of alluded to the importance of Attack of the Clones in my childhood in my RetroView of The Phantom Menace. 20th Century Fox spared absolutely no expense on the marketing end; even as a child with no prior experience with such films, I had seen enough of it that I was pretty sure I needed to see it in theaters. It ended up being my first Star Wars movie, and in a weird way, I think you could say it changed my life. Prior to that point, I had been a Disney kid with only a handful of deviations: I liked animated films and had little if any interest in other genres or styles. Attack of the Clones was a completely new experience to me, and it made me realize that I liked new cinematic experiences. Not only did it make an obsessive Star Wars geek out of me, it graduated me to live action and genre films and was likely the impetus behind me eventually becoming someone who loves all types of movies and pounces on everything new or unique. And considering how that interest has affected me outside of entertainment — the way it’s shaped my philosophy, worldview, and talents — that’s not insignificant. The Star Wars prequels are probably the dumbest possible films to be considered foundational in someone’s cultural experience, but I’m not sure how else to describe my relationship with them. And I think that just highlights how wonderful movies are at every level, from the all-time masterpieces to the garbage: Even the Star Wars prequels can make someone’s life better.

There’s been pretty widespread agreement, from initial release until now, that Attack of the Clones is at least a small step up from The Phantom Menace, even if it’s far from being a good movie. Most of that consensus continues to focus on the obvious, surface flaws, which are somewhat less blunt here than they were in The Phantom Menace. Of course, the romantic dialogue here is absolutely horrific; I cringe and look away from the screen during those scenes. But the dialogue elsewhere is fine, for the most part — it isn’t memorable or particularly lively, but it gets the job done. Lucas has cut down (though not abstained from) the contraction-free dryness of all the dialogue in The Phantom Menace; there’s a touch more personality here. There are even one or two jokes that are actually funny in the way they intend! I’m personally partial to Obi-Wan’s exasperated “Good job” when Anakin declares that he’s here to rescue him. The long-suffering look in Ewan McGregor’s eyes really sells it.

He’s one of the reasons the acting is a bit better this time around. There are still some very bad performances here, and I’ll get to those in a minute; however, unlike The Phantom Menace, there’s some acting here that’s relatively strong and memorable. McGregor is, for me, the main draw in Attack of the Clones. We didn’t really get to see him shine in The Phantom Menace, where he was given absolutely nothing to do until the climax. Here, he nails the feeling of a young Obi-Wan: fun, if a little uptight; dryly funny; a little cynical, but without the shades of brokenness that color the character in the original trilogy. I’ve been saying that if we absolutely must have Star Wars spin-off films, I’d really like one about Obi-Wan that allows McGregor to explore the character in a good movie. Ian McDiarmid also makes more of a mark here; you can see a little more of the performance he gave in Return of the Jedi behind his take on Palpatine in this movie. The menace is necessarily subtler, but he finds it in a way that nevertheless allows his “kindly old man” facade to remain convincing. I like Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, too; his countenance is naturally hard-edged, battle-worn, and intimidating, and since the Boba Fett spin-off movie is inevitable, I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the part. And every now and then, you get a minor supporting character who shines: Jack Thompson is surprisingly affective in a two-scene role as Anakin’s stepfather; there’s history behind the sad, weary quality with which he carries himself.

Also: Jar-Jar is only in three or four scenes! (And one of them feelings like a self-aware acknowledgement of how annoying he is, in that his stupidity literally sets an iron-fisted dictatorship in motion.)

Either way, I think it’s the story that keeps this movie watchable for me — well, nostalgia, and nothing much else, keeps this watchable for me; the story just helps. And the story here isn’t good; there’s a lot wrong with it that we’ll get to in a moment. But I’ll start with what elevates it far above The Phantom Menace: Purpose.

That’s it, really. Attack of the Clones’ script has purpose. Everyone has a goal; everyone is taking steps toward that goal; and everything that happens to them is the result of what they did previously. It’s cause-and-effect storytelling. Only rarely does it invoke a new element out of the blue to get the story somewhere it needs to go (i.e. Anakin’s random nightmares about his mother that offer an excuse to move the story from Naboo to Tatooine). We’re introduced to a situation (there’s a Separatist movement; Padme plans to vote against a bill to create an army for the Republic; Obi-Wan and Anakin are assigned to protect her); there’s an inciting incident (an assassination attempt that prompts Obi-Wan into an investigation and sends Anakin to Naboo on security duty); both of them pursue their respective goals from there on out. That’s not to suggest there aren’t pointless scenes here and there (when Obi-Wan goes to Yoda and says, “Hey, there’s supposed to be a planet where the gravitational forces on this map are located, but there isn’t; where is it?” and Yoda’s like, “Dude, it’s totally right there; are you stupid?”) but there’s generally more drive behind them.

It helps that it’s a little less convoluted as well. The Phantom Menace had a multitude of characters who were all involved in their own subplots and had to fulfill their own arcs, whether or not the film made that clear or developed those ideas sensibly. The movie ground its heels forever, trying to decide what it was about. Attack of the Clones has two main storylines, Anakin/Padme and Obi-Wan, and very rarely, it jumps back to the Republic to take care of some purely informational stuff. It’s a lot easier to follow emotionally, in that each scene is directly pursuing a lead from the previous one and resolving/developing things that have already been established.

The stakes are somewhat better defined as well. Attack of the Clones, like The Phantom Menace, doesn’t really explain the politics behind the Separatists; however, unlike the Trade Federation, these villains have a plan, and it’s mostly clear what both sides have to do and what they stand to win or lose in the big climax.

Even so, the script is…a mixed bag. It’s still pretty bad, just for less noticeable reasons. For starters, despite following the film’s best character, Obi-Wan’s subplot has absolutely no emotional drive or thematic subtext. He’s on a mission and learns things. There’s no arc there; he just moves from one location to the next, does a little espionage, and occasionally gets in a fight. There’s no reason to care about any of it. It has enough narrative drive behind it to keep from being a total loss, but there’s no underlying feeling whatsoever.

And then there’s Anakin’s subplot, which… Boy howdy, it’s pretty dang bad. Partly, that’s script issues, but there are some casting, acting, and directing problems as well. There’s the obvious, surface-level problem of the terrible dialogue, and because it’s more directly related to the functionality of the story than the bad dialogue that appears elsewhere in the film, it’s pretty debilitating. Though even then, the problem isn’t the terrible dialogue so much as the amount of terrible dialogue. George Lucas seems determined to tell the story of these star-crossed lovers exclusively through scenes where they bluntly explain their dumbest emotions to one another and the audience through incredibly stilted, goofy attempts at poetic dialogue. This is a severe “show, don’t tell” situation. And the content of what’s said throws off the story as well — in their early interactions, Padme’s dialogue can’t be interpreted any other way than her acting like Anakin’s mom, viewing him as a good-hearted but generally immature kid. Their first kiss is weird — Anakin’s affection for her is obvious, but it’s impossible to say when she begins to reciprocate, especially since the actors have no chemistry.

The acting has a lot to do with why this storyline doesn’t work. Natalie Portman seems really confused here, like she can’t find a way into her character that responds appropriately to Anakin, delivers the condescending mothering and the passionate romance with equal believability, maintains her established traits, and matches Lucas’s direction at the same time. Anakin’s crush on her is a bit obsessive and more than a little creepy, and Portman seems to realize that, as well as the fact that Padme would surely notice it and respond accordingly; at the same time, she knows she ultimately has to fall in love with that character. So, the performance wavers back and forth and never really finds itself.

As for Hayden Christensen…well, I’ll let everyone else decide whether he’s a good actor to begin with. I haven’t seen him in anything other than the Star Wars prequels, which are a bad metric by which to judge an actor’s talent. He definitely isn’t getting many favors from the material — it’s one thing that Anakin is whiny, so was Luke, but Anakin is whiny like a third-grader, at one point even shouting out a blubbery, “It’s not fair!” I’m not sure how anyone delivers that in a convincingly adult way.

But I will nevertheless say that, at the very least, Christensen is miscast in the part. If the story of the prequels was intended to be that of a clearly bad guy losing the few good parts of his character and becoming an outright villain, he’s perfect for the part, but if The Phantom Menace is anything to go by, that doesn’t seem to be what these movies were aiming for. It’s supposed to walk a good person through a number of crises that transform him into an evil one.

Attack of the Clones just adds more ammo to my argument that The Phantom Menace is an entirely pointless movie. If the prequels are trying to show us a good-to-evil evolution, they shouldn’t have skipped the part where the majority of that happened. The Anakin of The Phantom Menace was a sweet, kind, gentle kid who meant no harm and only wanted to do the right thing; the Anakin of Attack of the Clones, as played by Hayden Christensen, is an obsessive, temperamental, entitled creeper who complains about everything and seems to care only a little bit about people who aren’t him. It seems as though most of the crucial development happened off-screen. It was hard to imagine how Jake Lloyd’s Anakin would ever become Darth Vader; Christensen’s Anakin only needs the right push.

It’s a big part of the reason why the romance never works. In addition to being artlessly expressed, it’s impossible to understand why Anakin’s love is anything other than unrequited. It’s clear why he loves (or thinks he loves) Padme — he latched onto her over a decade ago and has spent the years since obsessing, fantasizing, and dreaming. When they meet again — for the first time in 10 years — he immediately gets creepy; he stares, hits on her as awkwardly as possible, and generally makes every situation uncomfortable. His professions of love all sound crazy, desperate, and potentially dangerous. And Padme even seems to notice at first. But eventually, she’s in love with him, for no reason whatsoever that makes sense from her perspective. It’s a romance that’s doomed from the start — not only in literal, in-universe terms but from a storytelling perspective as well.

Then, we get to Lucas’s direction, which is…both better and worse, somehow. It’s generally more competent than in The Phantom Menace, not as many jump cuts or weird angles. He uses the incessant wipe cuts a bit better, defining them by the motion within the frame. There are a few scenes that conclude on characters awkwardly staring at each other while the shot slides away, but not nearly as many and not nearly as unintentionally hilarious. In short, Lucas is following the rules…but he is doing absolutely nothing else.

Only in the action sequences does his direction have any real life in it. Everything else is static and unimaginative. If two characters are talking — camera over one shoulder, camera over another shoulder, that’s a wrap. No one ever talks and does something at the same time; they either do something and then talk or talk and then do something. There’s no energy to the film’s style; when there’s no action, you might as well be reading the film novelization. It simply isn’t taking advantage of its visual medium. Like I said, Lucas isn’t doing anything that would get you marked down in a college film course, but he isn’t adding any distinctive voice to the proceedings.

The movie also seems overconfident in its CGI. There are effects in The Phantom Menace that don’t quite hold up, but at the time, they were groundbreaking and, as such, used pretty sparingly. In Attack of the Clones, CGI is absolutely everywhere — including scenes where it is almost entirely unnecessary. A few decisions seem almost lazy — mainly that the clone troopers are all CGI. I know that wasn’t the only option on the table, seeing as how there were real ones in the original trilogy. There are two short scenes in particular that really agitate me — when Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Mace Windu are walking through the Jedi Temple and everything is obvious CGI; and when Mace and a few other Jedi hop off the troop carrier on Geonosis and meet with the clones. The ship is CGI, the clones are CGI, the desert is CGI; and I’m thinking it wouldn’t have been impossible to have done any of those things for real. It’s not only that some effects don’t hold up — the movie came out over a decade ago; of course some of its visuals aren’t nearly as impressive now. It’s the overarching sense of artificiality that pervades it; it not only draws negative attention, it makes the movie feel disinterested.

Still, there’s stuff I like unreservedly. There are two things in particular, both of which are things all three prequels do extremely well — the production design and the score.

I forgot to mention John Williams’ contribution to these films when I reviewed The Phantom Menace, so let me set the record straight right now — he brought his A-game to all three. I’ve discussed the prequels with a number of people and have yet to find anyone who dislikes the score, no matter how much they hate the movie it’s attached to. Williams does great work in all three, but he absolutely kills it in Attack of the Clones. He incorporates the classic themes in key moments and adds a lot of new ones, with multiple variations for different emotional states. This is some rousing, moving music; it has such conviction in this silly movie that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn it’s the reason I still like it. It sure does make up for a litany of flaws.

And there’s the production design, which I did mention last time. I don’t have a lot to add, other than that it’s still fantastic. Even the parts of this movie that are rendered in subpar CGI are, if nothing else, very well-designed on paper. There are more alien species, new and old, in this one, every single one interesting. As a little kid, I got really excited when all the weird new alien Jedi entered the arena to rescue the main characters, and I still do. The vehicle and technology design is the true strength of Attack of the Clones; it’s so good at offering a wide variety of functional machinery that still adheres to certain themes based on its planet, culture, or organization of origin. A special shout-out goes to sound designer Ben Burtt, who supplemented all the cool weapons and vehicles with immediately memorable and appropriately intimidating/inviting sound effects. Jango Fett’s seismic charges. That is all.

Essentially, it’s my usual spiel — Attack of the Clones is bad but has overlooked merit in places. Despite how terrible they are, the Star Wars prequels have interesting ideas and do one or two things decently. In the case of Attack of the Clones, it’s enough to supplement my leftover nostalgia and allow me to enjoy it in spite of my intellectual recognition that what I’m watching is awful.

Now to find out if the same holds true with Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

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Welcome back to RetroViews! As you may have heard, there’s this little independent film releasing to theaters exactly two weeks from today, Star Wars: The Force Awakens or something like that. Personally, I’m predicting it’ll make a modest profit, but I could be wrong about that. Yeah, I’m so hyped I’ve officially evolved into a higher being, living elsewhere in the cosmos, outside of time, because I no longer process my activities as hours or days or weeks but as a span of time between now and December 18. If Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t amazing, I don’t think I’ll be able to recover. Anyway, of course I’m going to build up to the big day with a series covering the six Star Wars films we already have. For crying out loud, I went through the Jurassic Park series before Jurassic World, and I only like one of those. As for format: I debated the order in which I’d be watching these. You could go chronological, from Episode I to Episode VI, or you could go in order of release, Episodes IV-VI, then Episodes I-III. I’ve also noticed that it’s becoming increasingly popular to watch Episodes IV and V, then the prequels to get the full story of Darth Vader, and finally Episode VI. Ultimately, I’m taking the first option. I just like chronological order, seeing things leading into one another — if I’m doing a Marvel marathon, I start with Captain America: The First Avenger even though it was the last Phase I movie before The Avengers. And anyway, I want this series to end on a more positive note, and that probably won’t happen if I conclude it with the prequels, so… Today’s review: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

So, The Phantom Menace was kind of a big deal when I was a kid. Like, a really big deal. I wasn’t allowed to watch the Star Wars movies until I was about 10 years old (the year Attack of the Clones came out). The inescapable marketing had latched onto my 10-year-old brain, and I was pretty sure I had to see it. I got permission, and Attack of the Clones ended up being my first Star Wars movie (I know, I know — don’t feel bad for me; I ultimately turned out all right).

I was hooked. Understatement of the year, actually. I was obsessed. The day before the release of Attack of the Clones, I was a normal child with varied interests. The day after, I was totally out of mind, unable for years afterward to process thoughts that weren’t Star Wars-related. I immediately borrowed the other movies off of friends and plowed through them. Then I acquired my own copies. And I began devouring all things Star Wars. I watched the movies a completely absurd amount of times, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Rain outside? Looks like a Star Wars day! Sunny outside? …Eh, still a Star Wars day. Toys, video games, books, I was into everything. I became a member of the official freaking fan club so all the latest Revenge of the Sith news would get mailed directly to me (we had a computer and Internet access, but it was dial-up because I’m oooollllllddd).

And since I was 10 years old, there was a time in my life when The Phantom Menace was my favorite Star Wars movie. Oh, I was head over heels in love with all of them, but The Phantom Menace was, as far as I was concerned, the pinnacle of the series. It’s not too hard to see why — it’s broad and goofy, it has a lot of slapstick, there’s a lot of superficially cool stuff in it, one of the heroes is a kid your age. I watched it a lot. If you ever want to have a depressing day, ask me to act out the entirety of the film. I’m pretty sure I could do it. I can even recite most of the alien languages to the exact syllable.

What can I say? I was 10. What 10-year-old understands the finer points of storytelling, characterization, and direction? How was I suppose to know that The Phantom Menace sucks?

Because it does. It’s terrible. It’s fascinatingly awful. Its two-hour run-time is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It’s a bad movie for the all-time list.

And for a movie buff, that isn’t always a pleasant experience. We’ve all likely had to face the moment when we get older, watch a movie we loved as children, and think, “Wow, this is spectacularly appalling.”

You tend to develop a weird relationship with those movies — I certainly did, not only with this but with all the Star Wars prequels. They were such a fundamental part of my childhood, so I had a problem where I still had a great time watching them even though I knew intellectually that they were just the worst. Eventually, you just make your peace with it — I know what it is, I know what’s wrong with it, but it brings back all the feelings I had as a kid, so I’m going to keep watching it.

At least, I thought I’d made my peace with that. But after this latest viewing, I’m not so sure.

It really hasn’t been that long since I last watched these movies. It couldn’t possibly have been more than two years, and it might be less than that. I’ve learned and grown in that time, but how much could I really have changed? The last time I watched The Phantom Menace, it was the same old thing: “Wow, this sucks; why am I enjoying myself right now?”

But this time, I didn’t even get that far. My nostalgia went right out the window. I just plain did not enjoy the movie I watched last night. Maybe it’s just the week I’ve been having. I’ve been a bit under the weather for a while now, and it’s affecting my mind a bit; I’ve watched a few movies I love unreservedly and found the experience a little less enjoyable than usual. I hope that’s what it is, but given that The Phantom Menace is the polar opposite of a great movie, I’m concerned that it isn’t.

A lot of people like to focus on the obvious problems — the annoying comic relief, the embarrassing dialogue, the lousy acting — but that doesn’t interest me all that much, partially because it’s been said enough already but primarily because I don’t think any of those things had to be dealbreakers. Don’t get me wrong; they are problems, but they’re problems that could easily have been forgiven. There’s a lot of wooden, awkward dialogue in the original movies as well — not to the same extent, but it’s there. The leads found their rhythm as the movies went on, but some of them gave clumsy performances in A New Hope. The original trilogy admittedly didn’t take on any annoying comic relief until the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, but most people seem willing to forgive them.

The thing is, we’ll forgive a lot of surface problems if what’s underneath moves us. We love Star Wars because it’s good storytelling with lively, interesting characters — we accept the off-kilter acting and occasionally stupid dialogue as part of the film’s universe, whether it’s intentional or not.

So the obvious things aren’t really the problem with The Phantom Menace. We all harp on the skin-crawling awkwardness of the “Are you an angel?” scene, but if we really, truly cared about Anakin and Padme as characters, we’d cringe and then move on. We’d still be fundamentally involved in what’s happening on the surface.

The problem isn’t what everyone fusses about; that’s just an easily identifiable scapegoat by which to express our distaste. The real problem is what’s going wrong beneath the surface.

And The Phantom Menace just does not work, on any conceivable level — the story, the characters, the themes, anything.

Let’s start with those characters, because they’re kind of an obvious problem. Bad characterization doesn’t usually leap out at you unless you’re looking for it; it’s rare for it to rise to the surface to the extent that it does in The Phantom Menace, to the point that even the most inexperienced filmgoers recognize that they don’t care a whit for these characters.

The basic problem is this: The characters in The Phantom Menace either have no personality or an absurd excess of it. Basically, they’re Qui-Gon Jinn — stoic, reserved, and slow-speaking — or they’re Jar-Jar Binks — loud, manic, and over-the-top. Jar-Jar is on the receiving end of plenty of justifiable criticism, but if I’m being completely honest, I prefer his company to that of most of the other characters. At least he’s energetic, has a personality, and seems to care about what’s happening around him.

Every other character seems to be here only to do jobs they don’t want to do and couldn’t care less about. All of them are stodgy, postured, and refuse to include contractions in their vocabulary. They have no chemistry with one another and no interesting relationships. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are master and apprentice, but their interactions are the same as the queen’s are the same as the villains’ are the same as everyone in the senate are the same as everyone but Watto and the Gungans, who are annoying and weirdly racist. Qui-Gon talks to Anakin and Obi-Wan in exactly the same way, even though one is a child and one is an adult and one has known him a lot longer. There’s no texture in any of these characters or their relationships. They are flat and boring and completely interchangeable. They seem totally disinterested in what’s going on, which makes it extremely difficult to empathize with their plight.

This is part of the reason The Phantom Menace’s badness is so confusing. Characters and relationships are among the things the original trilogy does really, really well. I suspect we’ll talk more about that later in the series.

I think the characters are bad enough that a good, well-written, well-structured plot with rich themes wouldn’t make all that much difference in the grand scheme. But I’m going to talk about that anyway, because it needs discussing:

Seriously, what the frick is this movie actually about?

I mean that both on the literal and thematic levels. On the former: Can anyone, without citing supplemental materials, tell me why the villains are doing what they’re doing and what their ultimate endgame is? The opening crawl tells us they’re protesting the taxation of trade routes (high adventure and all that), so they blockaded and invaded Naboo, seemingly at random, with the goal of…what, exactly? True, the original trilogy never really delved into the politics of the Empire or the Rebellion — they’re political systems, so what do they actually disagree about? But it doesn’t really matter as far as the story’s immediate needs are concerned — the Empire is bad; they’re planning to use the Death Star to destroy the Rebels. That’s all you need to know to get involved in what’s going on.

The problem with the villainous Trade Federation is not that the movie doesn’t explore its politics but that it doesn’t give you any clue whatsoever what they’re actually going to do. Not in the sense that there’s a mystery with a reveal at the end — the movie just plain never tells you, and none of the characters ever wonder about it. It’s hard to be invested in a big action climax when I have no clue what the stakes are.

That’s one subplot. There are a bunch. Most of them are functional in terms of the information imparted, but they’re totally arc-less and emotion-free. Everyone has a role to play, but no one grows, changes, or is significantly challenged along the way. Qui-Gon seems like the main character (it’s very difficult to make that determination), but why? He barely even reacts to what’s going on around him. He doesn’t really have an overarching mission. At the start, he has to help out the queen; he does that for a while, then gets distracted when he discovers Anakin’s Force sensitivity; then focuses on that for a while; then, completely voluntarily, decides to accompany the queen’s war party back to Naboo; then dies. At best, he’s purely in a mentorship role, which means the story really needs to be anchored in the perspective of a student — most advisably, Obi-Wan, but Anakin would be a possibility as well.

Anakin is the other potential option in the search for The Phantom Menace’s main character (the main argument against him is that he doesn’t appear until 45 minutes in). So, what’s his story? “Well, he’s a slave — hey, that’s a potentially interesting motivation!” Well, they only talk about it, like, twice, and it doesn’t seem to be all that different from employment. It’s only there to provide enough complications to extend the scenes on Tatooine. “Well, why would they want to extend those? Something important, I bet!” Probably the podracing scene. “Cool! What purpose does that have?” It’s fun, I guess, but you could cut it without affecting the plot one bit. “So…basically, Qui-Gon could land on Tatooine, find Anakin just standing there, and tell him to hop aboard without any significant impact to the rest of the movie?” Yeah, pretty much.

“Well…what does Anakin do after Tatooine?” Oh, he goes before the Jedi Council and gets tested to find out if he’s the Chosen One. “The Chosen One? Ooh, prophecy! That could be an interesting bit of mythology. What is the prophecy?” I have no idea. The movie never says. “You’re kidding.” Nope. Even the sequels don’t say a word. He’s supposed to bring balance to the Force or something. “What does that mean?” Hell if I know. “Does Anakin at least do something after that?” He mostly hangs out with the main characters, goofs off, and accidentally saves the day through the power of randomly mashing some buttons. “…Would we have lost any important information at all if we’d just started this series at Attack of the Clones?”

Absolutely not.

There are a few other storylines slammed in there, most of them not worth talking about at much length. The queen mostly has to talk politics and convince the Republic to help (she doesn’t succeed, rendering her entire journey largely pointless). Her big moment is flipping the bird at the Republic and calling for a vote of no confidence in a supreme chancellor who has been a friend to her in the past. We know this because we’re told this. It takes her all of two scenes to make this decision. The supreme chancellor has, like, four lines. Such character development. Obi-Wan shoulders an entire section of the climax on his own, but he spends the entire movie being “the guy who stands next to Qui-Gon.” He’s a complete non-entity of a character. Jar-Jar says he’s been banished because he’s clumsy; his journey has him proving himself to the other Gungans and becoming accepted again. He does this by…standing near the queen while she gives a cheesy speech that gets the humans and the Gungans to set aside their differences. And then screwing around and tripping over himself and basically doing nothing of value during the final battle.

I think the film is most focused on the human/Gungan relationship — I say that only because the final scene shows the two races celebrating their unity in the capital city. You wouldn’t know it by the rest of the movie. We’re told, not shown, that the Gungans and the surface-dwellers do not like one another. No one says why. It takes all of one scene, late in the game, of the queen bowing to the Gungan leader, for whatever their differences are to be resolved. Then the final scene banks entirely on that through-line, as though this barely-established, seemingly minute detail was secretly the entire movie.

And in case you haven’t guessed, yes, in all that poorly explained, unmotivated chaos, it’s impossible to find a thematic through-line to carry you through things. I can’t even begin to guess what this movie is about. It’s a two-hour series of unrelated events that aren’t even important in the series canon. It’s one thing for a movie to have a few scenes that could’ve been cut with no problems; it’s another thing entirely to make a movie that’s nothing but those scenes.

Even on the visual end of things, The Phantom Menace is underwhelming. True, it deserves some credit for its then-groundbreaking effects, and the film generally holds up okay today — some of the fully CGI characters don’t look quite right, but even that’s a scene by scene thing. There are plenty of scenes where Jar-Jar looks very convincing. Admittedly, this might purely be personal taste on my part — today’s technology allows us to create characters done to the most minute detail, which, to me, only means that you can see every muscle, bone, hair, and skin cell and notice how all of them are just barely off. Older CGI avoids that for me — it’s broader and less detailed, so, used well, it doesn’t risk the uncanny valley as readily.

Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly well-directed. I don’t think George Lucas has been a particularly inspiring visual stylist since the THX 1138; the original trilogy films he didn’t direct look better than the others, even A New Hope. The Phantom Menace is directed about as clumsily as possible. It’s edited very strangely; there’s one dialogue scene where he cuts at a 30-degree angle, like he positioned two cameras right next to one another and just jumped between them. It’s jarring and pointless.

And then there’s his inability to actually transition a scene. It’s harder than it looks, but most directors have at least developed a basic sort of science to ending a scene organically and cutting to the next without pulling the rug out from underneath the audience. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas doesn’t seem attuned to that, so he over-relies on his old staple — the wipe cut. And there’s a context in which it works, but you definitely shouldn’t be using it almost to the exclusion of everything else. There’s one big risk associated with it — you can’t do a wipe cut quickly or it looks comical, like Speedy Gonzalez just dashed across the screen. You have to do it slowly, which means there’s going to be awkward silence at the end of your scene if you do it too late or don’t direct the actors appropriately.

There are some really awkward silences in The Phantom Menace. The scenes end, and the actors amble around; sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Lucas knows when to cut it and just gets angles of forced facial expressions. Sometimes, the awkward silence stretches to the beginning of the next scene, as characters halfway through a wipe will be standing there, doing nothing, only to suddenly start talking in a way that implies we’re jumping into a conversation that had begun off-screen. It’s like it’s a live production, and the actors are all standing around with mics in their ears, waiting for cues, only for the director to turn the lights on before everyone’s ready. While watching this movie, I actually identified my favorite wipe cut awkward silence — it’s the scene when Padme meets Jar-Jar. They talk for a bit while she cleans up R2-D2, Jar-Jar says something unintentionally “amusing,” and the movie cuts to Padme looking up at him with the toothiest, most awkward grin and holds that for a few seconds before the wipe cut comes in. It’s just very uncertain, very haphazard direction.

Lucas also seems disinterested in building atmosphere or really letting things sink in. I was surprised, watching this again, how breakneck this movie is, how it just rockets from one scene to the next, some of them only seconds long. For example, the introduction to Otoh Gunga — Jar-Jar does a silly leap into the water, the Jedi follow him, the “wonder and mystery” music starts the second they go under, there are two or three shots, we see the city, we enter the city. It probably takes 10 seconds altogether. It’s a scene that needs a gradual reveal but just throws everything at you all at once.

All of that said.

There are times when I think The Phantom Menace is the least bad of the prequels. That’s an opinion I may revise as I revisit the other films — particularly since my main observation (and problem) with The Phantom Menace was its unfocused, meaningless story; for all their flaws, I mostly remember Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith following only one or two threads and being slightly more purposeful in their structure. But based on memory, I think The Phantom Menace is better, if only by a slim margin.

It isn’t nearly as ponderous, for one thing. It’s lighter, breezier, and a lot more fun. It’s stupid, but it’s not trying as hard to be smart.

Despite the clumsy direction, The Phantom Menace has some interesting visual ideas, a number of scenes where you can tell he’s experimenting and trying to find unique shots and edits. And there are a few moments where he succeeds, especially when he’s telling the story visually instead of through dialogue. For all its flaws, there’s some really interesting spectacle in The Phantom Menace — the podrace sequence is ludicrous, goofy, and entirely pointless in the grand scheme of things, but it’s nevertheless a ton of fun to watch. So is the final lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul.

The production design is great, too. That’s true of all the Star Wars movies, even the prequels. Lucas has a great team behind him. But it’s especially noticeable in The Phantom Menace because of how much of it is practical — there are a lot of sets, a lot of locations, a lot of on-set visual trickery. The locations — Theed City and palace, the inside of the Trade Federation blockade ship, the houses and shops of Tatooine — are palpable and textured; you feel like you could live there. Whereas Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were shot inside a giant green box.

Like I said, my opinion may change once I return to the other prequels (not that it really matters all that much which Star Wars prequel I think is the least bad), but momentarily, I think there actually is merit in this movie that gets overlooked because of its reputation. That reputation is, of course, at least partially deserved; I’m just finding the bright side because I’m obligated to do so as a 90s kid who grew up on these.

As for my feelings, who can say? Maybe this was just a fluke and I’ll someday return to it for a brief nostalgic rush. Or maybe it wasn’t, and I’ve officially reached the point where The Phantom Menace is always a rough stop along the way to a full Star Wars marathon. Either way, I’m grateful for the childhood it gave me, and it’ll always be close to my heart — even if it ends up being far from my eyes.

Next time: Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

And yes, absolutely all of these will be a thousand pages long.

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Welcome back to RetroViews! Despite my best efforts, I’m a little late for the release of The Good Dinosaur. But I plan to finish this, and I may be doing so today. My intention was to go through the entire Pixar canon (barring Inside Out, since I just reviewed that a few months ago), but I was only ever able to guarantee that the series would get as far as Toy Story 3 — that’s where my Pixar collection stops. I would still like to cover the others, and maybe I will, someday, if I have the opportunity. But, for the moment, consider this the end of the Pixar series. Today’s review: Toy Story 3.

Man, I really ought to know better than to watch this movie immediately before I have to be around other people.

I’ve said before that I’m not really someone who cries at movies. I don’t wear that as a badge of pride in my stoic masculinity or anything; it just isn’t how I respond. I can get really, really sad while watching a movie, as much as anyone else. It just doesn’t make its way to my face.

Except for Toy Story 3. Out of all the movies I’ve seen in my lifetime, this one — this one, the one where sentient toys have adventures at a daycare and battle an evil teddy bear — is the one that got me. This is the one that finally shattered my defenses. I wasn’t broken down sobbing or anything like that, but my eyes were definitely a little wet, which is a pretty big accomplishment for me. It’s never the sad scenes in movies that get me; it’s the bittersweet ones. And since Toy Story 3 is basically Bittersweet Moments: The Motion Picture…well, what can I say? It got me. I have never been so grateful for an extended credits sequence; it gave me just enough time to compose myself before the people I saw it with noticed anything was amiss.

Toy Story 3 is easily one of my favorite movies. At the same time, I don’t know that it’s one of the best movies. Oh, it’s good — it’s great, actually. It’s nowhere near the level of WALL-E, but what is? Still, I’d dispute its relationship with Up, Finding Nemo, and even its own predecessors.

As a result, Toy Story 3 is one of the films I’d submit as proof of my own artistic philosophy: There really is no such thing as a good movie or a bad movie, and no movie is really “better” than another; I only use those words as shorthand to express my own feelings. So much of storytelling depends on what you bring to it — your proximity, or lack thereof, to the experiences it depicts; your own tastes; the balance of elements that most moves you (i.e., one person might really, really love great acting and feel as though a movie that’s strong in that department easily makes up for other flaws, whereas someone who’s more interested in the substance of the script might consider that same movie a bad one).

With me and Toy Story, it’s personal. They’re not my favorite movies of all time (though, if you’ve been paying attention to the RetroViews archive, you’ll know that they’re up there), but they’re nevertheless very special to me. In a way, it feels as though they were made for me. I feel very lucky that these movies were made when they were made, that I was able to have the experience of a beloved film saga growing up alongside me. I’m 24. That means I have always been exactly the perfect age for these movies. I was at precisely the right stage of my life to most appreciate each installment as it was released.

I was four years old when the original Toy Story reinvented cinema. I had a VHS tape of it as far back as I can remember, and it was one of my absolute favorites — I watched it so often that I’m still able to recite most of it. I was a little kid, still learning to discern fantasy from reality, and this movie played perfectly to my young imagination, building on an idea every child has at some point — your toys are alive. A few years later, Toy Story 2 was released and presented the story from a somewhat more adult perspective — I was still very young but slowly finding myself. I had a good sense of the world around me, and adulthood was a more realistic possibility than it had seemed a few years prior. I was still young enough that my interests were strictly childish, but I understood the fantasy behind it all and was aware that it wasn’t going to last.

And then we waited for a decade. I was entering my sophomore year of college — a year earlier than anticipated — when Toy Story 3 hit theaters, telling the story of the long-neglected toys preparing for Andy to start his own college education. The movie is about talking toys on an adventure, but the metaphor behind it is clear — leaving behind a part of your life, never to return, and finding yourself somewhere new, somewhere exciting but also a bit frightening. I was already exactly where I needed to be for Toy Story 3 to speak directly to me. Then, you add a cast of characters I’ve loved and followed my entire life, and you’ve got something that’s destined to leave me in shambles.

Which Toy Story 3 did. Again and again throughout its runtime. Time and distance have mitigated the effects somewhat, but only by a slim margin. There’s nothing quite like a Pixar movie to completely strip you of your adulthood. I can’t imagine having to explain to a sane person why the movie with the funny cowboy doll and the space guy utterly ruins me.

I’ve seen a number of people criticize Toy Story 3 for covering the same thematic ground as Toy Story 2, and I strongly disagree. They’re hovering around the same subject, but they’re exploring it from different angles. Toy Story 2 is the experience of standing in the middle of a wonderful thing, knowing it won’t last forever, and figuring out what that means for the present moment. Toy Story 3 is about what happens after the wonderful thing has finally, inevitably ended. It’s about what it means to have a healthy relationship with that part of your past and how best to move forward into the next chapter. The most obvious metaphorical implication is the one that most got me five years ago, when I first saw this — the end of childhood, the specter of adulthood hanging over, starting over from scratch and essentially creating a new self as you determine what the future, the rest of your life, holds. But watching the movie again, I think there’s another, equally direct metaphor — it’s about the parents in the audience, too, dealing with the major transitions that come about as a result of their children approaching adulthood. That metaphor may be even more direct — the toys speak of Andy using a lot of the same language with which parents speak of their children.

There’s obvious specificity to the emotional core of Toy Story 3, but in the most general sense, it’s about change — closing the book on one phase of your life and trying to find yourself in the next one. And what I like about Toy Story 3 is the way it uses nostalgia to bring you along to its overall point but ultimately comes out as a bit…not anti-nostalgia, I suppose, but pro-nostalgia-in-proper-perspective.

I don’t need to tell anyone that we live in an overwhelmingly, almost exclusively nostalgic culture. There have always been remakes and sequels and adaptations from other media, but never have they been anywhere near as pervasive as they are now. Look at the major blockbusters of 2015: Almost all of them are sequels, remakes, or reboots. A few of them are adaptations. I can’t think of a single one that’s original (although that might depend on how you define “blockbuster”). Don’t worry; I’m not going off on some rant about the good old days. There’s a lot of great stuff now. Every generation of artists has its problems; nostalgia just happens to be ours. And there are a lot of original ideas; they just come at lower budgets.

Right now, it seems as though the prevailing message is this: “Hey, you know this thing you liked? Well, don’t worry — it will never be over. You never have to move on or expand your horizons! You will always have a repackaged version of this, every few years for the rest of your life!” Nostalgia isn’t inherently a problem — I mean, I’m going to be there with the rest of you on opening day for The Force Awakens. It’s about perspective and proportion. Sometimes, you have Creed, which continues the story in an interesting way and doesn’t simply maintain the status quo so future installments can keep doing the same old thing. But most of the time, you have Terminator Genisys, a movie that screwed up its entire canon in order to make room for further sequels and rewrote its timeline so previously dead characters that fans loved get to be alive again for more adventures. Status quo is king. Our nostalgia is only rarely inspiring us to actually build on our artistic formations; it’s driving us to stay huddled around the same core elements that must never change because it might damage our collective childhood if they do. And it’s fencing out even more original ideas — we’re not taking risks on anything new, because we’ll always bet on the comfortable but boring before we’ll go with something potentially fantastic but uncertain. It’s the reason Edge of Tomorrow flopped in the same year that Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blew up the box office. No one knew what to expect from it, while the others had massive built-in fan-bases who knew exactly what they’d be getting. I suspect it also explains the phenomenon I see in a lot of places online — there seem to be many more people complaining about how Hollywood is all out of ideas than there are people buying tickets to the few original ideas it does have. It’s not hard to do that math.

So, my favorite thing about Toy Story 3 is that it keeps the nostalgia so well in balance. It understands that, given the span of time between installments in the series, it’s going to mean a whole lot to many, many young adults. If ever a movie were to bank exclusively on nostalgia, trying to make the audience feel the same things they did when they were children, this would be it. I’m so glad Pixar didn’t do that. It didn’t give people who grew up on the first two films — i.e., me — what they wanted, but it gave them what they needed, and judging by the overwhelming critical and popular response with which it was met, I’d say it was the right call.

In one sense, nostalgia is its lifeblood — it returns to familiar characters in a familiar environment, and a lot of its emotion is derived from that history. But it’s a movie about changing and moving on, and it understands its own role in realizing that. There’s no hypocrisy. It changes the status quo. It adds to the story. The characters end up in a different place from where they started. And then… It ends the story. It doesn’t conclude on a sequel hook; it wraps things up. (Yes, I know there’s going to be another one; yes, I strongly suspect Disney, not Pixar, made that call; and yes, I’m pretty mad about it, but it doesn’t change the intent or effect of this film).

It casts the toys as a metaphor both for childhood and for the young adult leaving it. Woody and the toys are still clinging to Andy, trying desperately to make things the way they used to be. Their arc involves them coming to realize the full implications of their stated purpose in life: “To be there for Andy when he needs us.” They have to determine the extent of that need and be aware when they’re only holding him back. Just as young people need to realize that they can no longer live as children. Just as parents need to realize that they can’t continue to hover and micro-manage. Just as filmgoers need to realize that they’re beating a dead horse and further cheapening it with each blow.

Just as in Up, Toy Story 3 approaches this in the form of a parallel arc, with the heroes and the villain struggling with something fundamentally similar but responding to it in different ways. Woody, Buzz, and the gang need to embrace the fact that Andy no longer needs them and that their role in his life will never be what it once was. On the other side, you’ve got our villainous teddy bear Lotso, who hasn’t embraced change, who hasn’t gotten over his need for things to be the way they used to be, who’s trying to remake his present into his past. It’s made him abusive and controlling, and it ultimately leads to his downfall.

Woah, heavy stuff there, right? Pixar movies always sound so much more serious when you cut straight to their core, don’t they? That remains the brilliance of what they do — they package serious issues that we all deal with into bright, fun, entertaining packages. Toy Story 3 still has a lot of humor (though it’s admittedly less effective than in a lot of other Pixar films). There’s a lot of rip-roaring adventuring — as little as it has to do with the rest of the plot, I still unashamedly love the 15-minute stretch of this film that abruptly turns into an absurd prison break movie.

But it’s also…pretty intense, even for a Pixar movie. I mean, it’s emotional right off the bat, with the formerly bright and sunny characters wallowing in misery now that the kid they loved is no longer interested in them. (Followed, of course, by the realization that only the core characters are left, that Bo Peep and Lenny and RC and Wheezy are all gone and won’t be coming back.) And that’s before you even get to the climax, which includes a scene where the toys friggin’ accept their deaths and join hands as they’re sucked toward an incinerator. They’re saved at the last minute, but still; it’s weird that these characters had to confront their own mortality at all. And the ending is lighter but still deeply felt. The movie goes from comedy to sincerity to adventure to outright existential horror on a dime but always seamlessly.

By the time it gets to that ending, it’s fully earned its resolution. There’s another character arc, too, and it belongs to Andy — it’s the first time these movies have really allowed him to be a full character on his own. And since he’s moving out and heading to college, it’s no surprise that his arc also parallels those of the heroes and villain — particularly since their experiences are a direct metaphor for his. When the toys finally make it back to Andy’s, having accepted the change and prepared themselves to grow wherever they’re planted next, it’s Andy who has to decide what happens next. He chooses to give them away, to Bonnie, the little girl who briefly took care of Woody and appeared to be both imaginative and gentle with their toys. He accepts that his path will take him elsewhere and that the toys’ path will take them elsewhere, and both make the decision to embrace the end of another phase and the beginning of a new one.

The ending is touching particularly because it acts as a microcosm of the effect the film as a whole is having on its audience — measured nostalgia, in perspective. Andy turns the toys over to Bonnie, introducing them one by one. And then, he joins her in giving the toys what they longed for from the beginning — one last playtime with Andy. That’s how he says goodbye. He moves on to college, and the toys move on to the new child they have to take care of.

And darn. That’s me crying again.

That’s what’s so beautiful about Toy Story 3. It treats its audience, even though it’s composed mainly of children, like adults. It isn’t a sequel for its own sake, a sequel designed to continue feeding the nostalgia machine, one that just puts the characters through their paces and then resets the board. It’s a callback to childhood, yes, but it’s one that views it in retrospect, from a place of having moved on — cherishing the memories but ultimately pointing toward the future and passing the torch. In the grand scheme of its own series, it might not be all that important, but what it signifies gets to the heart of something vital. I respectfully think Benjamin Franklin only had it half right — change is also certain. No one makes it through life without having the rug pulled out from beneath them, whether they have time to prepare or not. We all enter new circumstances and leave old ones behind — including some of the ones that we love and wish we could return to. But clinging to them only clouds our past and restrains our future — we become comfortable but meaningless, holding onto inferior and impossible-to-maintain versions of what we had instead of chasing after something better. We all have to adapt. We all have to move on. We’re never finished — we’re always becoming something new, something more. It’s one of the most universal human emotions I can think of.

And that’s why Toy Story 3 makes me cry like an idiot.

This (maybe) concludes our Pixar series! Next time… Well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say you probably know exactly what my next RetroViews series will be…

The films of Ingmar Bergman!

Just kidding; it’s Star Wars. I’m going to be reviewing the Star Wars movies.