October 2009

And finally, The Return of the Jedi, in which Frodo destroys the Ring and Aragorn becomes a Jedi.

I remember the first time I saw it, a friend complained that Luke had gotten “all spiritual and shit.”  Not at all; he’s become a hero, and just in time, too.  The first trilogy can be seen as a three-part exploration of the process of becoming a hero, while the second is that of becoming a villain and also sucking.  I don’t know if it’s easier to be a hero, but it sure seems that it’s easier to tell the story of one.

Why does Luke’s story work?  I suppose because we need heroes, and we can imagine, at least, that all it takes is resolve, hard work, and a bit of luck– all things that make for a good story.   But a moral fall– though all too familiar– takes wisdom to analyze, and George Lucas just doesn’t have it.  (Ep. III worked as well as it did only because Ian McDiarmid sold his role– he made the seduction to the Dark Side seem possible, at least to Anakin.)

The structure is cleaner than the last movie.  First we gotta clean up the mess ESB left us in; then we go win the war.  It’s a reprise of the first movie to some extent– blow up the Death Star– but with a twist that allows the extended sequence on Endor.  The story follows David Mamet’s proscription for tense dramas: make it look like the good guys will win; then reverse it so it looks like they’ll fail; repeat.  Does a number on the cheap seats every time.

Two major flaws, and one minor one, foreshadow the problems of the prequels. 

First, the cuteness starts to get out of hand.  C3PO is hard enough to take; the Ewoks are just silly.  It’s fine to have creatures that invite underestimation; but making them into teddy bears just seems like you want to sell toys.  Note that Tolkien put all the cute stuff at the beginning of the epic, not the end.

Second, the simplicity of Lucas’s moral universe: everything comes down to families– a too-easy tool of the screenwriter.  It basically leaves the movies at the level of space opera; they can’t teach us anything about real empires, evil politicians, or the loss of freedom.  It contributes as well to a significant diminishing of Darth Vader as a villain here.  Luke says he “sees good” in him, but of everything that Vader has seen and done in the last decades, everything he’s done for the Emperor, it all turns on this Dad business. 

Plus, Darth Vader makes a great villain because he isn’t fey or over the top in any way– he’s dead serious, and he’s got style.  The Emperor by contrast is your standard orcish overlord; Vader is diminished by standing in his shadow.

And the minor point is that Lucas keeps trying to write romances and failing.  There’s no actual love story here; just romantic tension that happens because of convention– princesses are there to fall in love with.  It doesn’t really harm the original trilogy because it’s only a subplot, but romance is central to the prequels.

Scene by scene notes:

  • “Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them”… Darth is so behind the times on effective management.
  • Mark Hamill looks like a ’70s priest here, ready to revitalize Catholicism for modern youth.
  • Droid torture?  That’s pretty low, I guess; also pretty weird.
  • The music scene at Jabba’s place is a little too muppetty. 
  • I totally fail to understand why Hutts drool for human women. 
  • I’m not following why it’s a good idea to get Chewbacca into prison. 
  • Ah, the famous fan service.  An embarrassing moment for all concerned.
  • The Rancor is a good deal scarier here than in KOTOR.  Though it does help to have a light saber when you’re facing one.
  • The crying rancor wrangler is a nice touch.
  • The whole Hutt sequence is weird.  It’s a nice set piece, but kind of a distraction…. remember that Vader fellow? 
  • Luke’s whole plan depended on R2 being in position?  Seems a little risky.  What if Jabba hadn’t bothered to take him along to the execution?  Still, his bravado is intriguing.
  • Boba Fett turns out to be somewhat less badass than advertised.  It always felt to me like he was there to sell action figures anyway.
  • Nice swashbuckling.  I like Luke here, even in his black Nehru jacket.
  • “Bury your feelings deep down”… kind of an odd philosophy, especially for the ’70s.  Jedis can be a real bringdown sometimes.
  • Lando is a general?  Did no one worry about his betrayal of Luke to the Empire?  All right, all right, that was so last movie, he’s a hero now.
  • Never say “It’ll work!” if you’re a character in a movie.
  • Sending one stolen shuttle in is bound to look suspicious.  The Rebels would never be good TF2 spies.
  • The forest chase scenes are fun, but hard to swallow.  Going that speed, your reaction time just won’t be fast enough.  And it only takes one mistake to go splat.
  • Teddy bears.  I don’t know about this, George.
  • Did Lucas just read King Solomon’s Mines or something?  We’re suddenly in a ’30s Heart of Africa movie, complete with cannibal chiefs.
  • Oh fuck me, C3PO is recognized as a god.  This is getting too twee for me.
  • Carrie Fisher’s worst hairstyle yet, and that’s after the hair buns.
  • “I’m sorry.”  “Hold me.”  Ergghh.
  • When did Luke find time to have that suit tailored?  Still, he’s the best thing in the movie.  He actually has a character arc here.
  • OK, the ewok on the speeder is kind of amusing.  The one who hits himself with his own bolas, not so much.
  • The shields are up!  How entirely unexpected!  Next time, maybe wait for the hyperspace jump till Han tweets that he’s got the shields down.
  • Wait, wouldn’t Luke get Light Side points for killing the emperor?  I don’t see that anger per se would pull Luke darkward.  The scene works as suspense but not as seduction– I don’ t believe for a minute Luke is tempted to join Mr. Emperor.
  • The lassooed stormtrooper spiralling round the tree– ouch. 
  • When did they have time to build all these traps?
  • See, Luke loses his control– Darth found his weak spot.  Maybe the Jedi are right to downplay emotional attachments.
  • Lesson for Sith Lords: maybe don’t suggest to your Jedi challenger that he replace your #2 while #2 is standing right there.  It’s bound to make #2 think about blocked career paths.
  • The music at the end isn’t as horrible as I recall; I wonder if they changed it.  (This isn’t, thankfully, the edition with Hayden Christensen photoshopped in.)
  • On the whole Ian McDiarmid actually did a better job in the prequels.  He’s a cackling old goat here– no hint about what might make evil seductive.
  • They finally spelled Denis Lawson’s name right.

I checked out something in the Wookiepedia while writing this.  I looked into the trap, Ray.  Check out Han Solo’s biography… there’s enough events for about five human lifetimes there.  And really, despite their execrable management techniques, you have to hand it to the Sith for stick-to-it-iveness.  You just can’t put those guys away: every fifty years they’re back.  I do not, however, have to read about them any more.  For  me Star Wars is the original trilogy, plus KOTOR.

What about the new Bioware game?  We’ll see.


On to #2, or #5, which as you may know is called The Empire Strikes Back.

Not the satisfying simple story of A New Hope, and that can be bad news for an adventure story; plus we’re now dealing with a trilogy and the second film pretty much has to get Our Heroes deeper in trouble.  But it’s never dull, there’s more money than ever to pour into the backgrounds and special effects, and there’s some very good bits.

It’s something of a chess game between the heroes (now divided in two parties) and Darth Vader.  Move, countermove, with the strategic goal changing or unclear.  Seen that way, some of the characters’ dumb decisions make more sense: sometimes people make bad moves.  Still, in general the Rebels seem to be quite a bit stupider this time around.  They don’t have a clear plan (much less a war-winning idea) unless it’s “get somewhere safe for awhile”, and even that rather taxes their skills.

More precisely Obi-Wan, though dead, does have a plan: get Luke trained as a Jedi.  Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that movies don’t do well… all they can really do is show key moments… study, practice, and spiritual awakening aren’t very cinegenic.  A book could describe Luke’s struggles much more convincingly.

The Force is essentially treated as magic, and I’m going to start sounding like a Kevin Smith movie if I worry too much about how it works.  Some creators can get away with completely unexplained magic (Neil Gaiman has a gift for this), but in general, narrative demands that we understand what the limits are– otherwise every use of magic comes as a cheat.  So far Lucas plays– well, more or less fair, in that major uses of the Force are foreshadowed by earlier ones.  

It’s not exactly a deeper movie, though it’s more complicated.  It’s a bit more bruising, as some bad things happen to the heroes and they’re not resolved… but then, it’s really part 1 of a two-part story.  So, more on that later.

On to scene by scene observations…

  • The romantic banter is pretty embarrassing.  The writers should have  studied screwball comedy.  Han doesn’t come off as a lightly bantering rogue; he sounds like an egotistical dick.
  • “The chances are 725 to 1″… you’re a help, C3PO. 
  • Han, why not ride up right next to Luke?  It’s very theatrical to walk the last bit of the way, but you know, you have to drag him that much farther.
  • The initial scene, though full of adventure, is completely disconnected from the rest of the movie… we’re not even going to stay on Hoth. 
  • Darth’s voice has lost that British edge; he just articulates very precisely.
  • There’s no nonsense this time around about Vader being “the last of your religion”, someone an Imperial general might mouth off to.  He’s entirely in charge.
  • The Walkers… come on.  A victory of set design over common sense.  Any number of things could topple these things.
  • X-wings have hyperdrives?  I guess so!
  • When you have these pretty models you want to show them all off; but surely space fleets will be more like WWII naval battles, in which enemy ships rarely actually sighted each other. 
  • I also don’t buy tiny little asteroids zipping by the big ones.  A belt this dense couldn’t last for long.
  • The bickering is cute– I like Han being sometimes a step ahead, sometimes a step behind events.  The romantic bickering, still stupid.
  • The first scene with Yoda is still hilarious.  (Though the joke would be entirely spoiled if you already know who he is from the prequels.)
  • Han’s kissing Leia is decidedly retro.  No means no, dude.
  • Vader’s conversation with the Emperor doesn’t cohere with the prequel either.  Or with the Big Reveal later in the movie, for that matter.  Neither party has any need to hide who “Anikin” is.
  • Lots of fog = can’t see the studio floor!
  • Leia is supposed to be feisty, but she’s really kind of a bringdown.  She represented an advance 30 years ago– she does pick up a blaster rifle now and then.  But by today’s standards she has to spend too much time as a passive love interest / kidnapping target.
  •  So what does Mr. Asteroid Worm live on?  Oh never mind.
  • If I’d managed to move the ship with the Force but not lift it out, I’d be pretty stoked.
  • Vader believes in fear as a motivator.  How’s that work out for you, Darth?
  • When the Falcon lands, it activates little tiny jets.  Why, when it’s almost infinitely maneuverable?  They’re obviously not strong enough to slow the vessel.
  • “Don’t give in to hate”… huh, Obi-Wan?  Impetuousness, maybe.
  • It’s dramatic and all, but why design the carbonite sandwich to leave 1/3 of the victim hanging out of it?   If nothing else, you won’t be able to stack your victims.
  • I can buy Han foolishly believing that Lando will help out.  But it looks like Obi-Wan was right– this was not a smart move on Luke’s part.  The story isn’t so much the Empire striking back as the Rebels striking out.
  • The light saber duel is about a thousand times better than Obi-Wan’s in the last movie.  Somebody hired a fight choreographer.
  • Hint to heroes: don’t disengage the light saber while walking around searching for the bad guy. 
  • I’m not sure how to take Lando.  He does one nasty betrayal, then suddenly turns into a good guy.  I can’t work out a psychology for him such that his actions make sense.
  • Luke seems to deal pretty well with losing his arm… perhaps light sabers neatly cauterize the wound.  He has an awfully snivelling reaction to learning about his father, though.
  • Three times the hyperdrive doesn’t kick in.  Look, this isn’t rocket science.
  • Uh oh, this looks like bad news for Admiral #3.  No wait, he survives for now.
  • The final shot of the galaxy is neat, but I’m afraid an actual galaxy seen from that distance would be an enormous disappointment.  We see bright images of galaxies because we expose the film for hours at a time.  Look at it this way: the Milky Way is so dim that we can barely see it in these days of omnipresent street lights, and we’re in it.

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