Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Disney takes over.

When back in 2012, George Lucas decided to sell Lucasfilm for $4.1 billion, he couldn’t have imagined how things would turn out in the long run. To give him credit, he put Kathleen Kennedy in charge, whom he had worked with over the years, and whom he wrongly thought, would try to protect his legacy. He even wrote outlines for the new trilogy that Disney acquired along with Lucasfilm. It was clearly stated on the contract, though, that Disney was under no obligation to use these outlines, or any of the existing Star Wars Extended Universe books that had come out over the years, to develop the new trilogy. As soon as Disney took control of the property, all said Star Wars EU content was considered non-cannon, and only movies, films, TV shows and books produced under the Disney banner, would be considered cannon from then on. Before the ink on the contract was dry, Disney started working on a Grand plan to release, from 2015 on, one Star Wars movie per year. The idea was to make back their investment as soon as possible, as they though they had overpaid for the property. So, they would be releasing a Star Wars movie from the main storyline every two years, and in the intervening years, a spin-off Star Wars movie with characters and plots relating to the main story would also come out. In no time at all, the market would be overflown with Star Wars movies, and all the related merchandise. Gone were the days when people had to wait three years, or even 16 years, which was the time that passed between the release of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, to see a Star Wars movie. This, among other more damning circumstances, was what would eventually cause Star Wars fatigue, not only among the fans, but the occasional viewer.

Disney thought that the fans, being as dissapointed as they were with the prequel trilogy, would flock to see the new movies, as they wanted to go back to basics, and offer, both the fans and new generations, a new story, with new characters, and those characters from the first trilogy, that would hearken back to the look and spirit of the Original trilogy. All of this, in an attempt to wash out the bad taste left from the prequel trilogy. Even though I don’t agree with most people when it comes to bashing the prequels, I can see what Disney was trying to achieve here, and it does look like a sound approach, even working to some extent.

The good stuff

The Force Awakens is not objectively a bad movie. Far from it. It has all the thematic and visual tropes that a Star Wars movie would have. You’ve got your bad guys (The Empire/ The First Order), your good guys (the Resistance/Alliance), the plucky young man/lady, who’s destined for great things ( Luke Skywalker/ Rey), the cocky and daring pilot ( Han Solo/ Poe Dameron), the big baddie, complete with a mask and black outfit ( Darth Vader/Kylo Ren), and a massive threat to the Galaxy that must be eliminated at all costs, ( The Death Star/ Starkiller Base). It’s got excellent production values. Some of the biggest names in the industry like Production Designer Rick Carter, Costume Designer Michael Kaplan, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Sound Designer Matthew Wood, the natural heir to Ben Burtt, Creature and Special Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan, the great John Williams returning, once again, to the musical landscape of Star Wars, and an effective Director in J.J Abrams, supervising it all. So, what’s wrong with this picture?. It’s all too familiar, that’s what. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J Abrams and co, were so concerned with going back to basics, that they basically ended up re-hashing the first Star Wars movie. And that’s the problem right there. The film feels like a soft reboot of Star Wars. The characters, situations and conclusion to the story, a copy and paste of A New Hope. Sure, they change some things around, and rushly develop some characters, with no explanation whatsoever, but let’s discuss the positives first.

A return to basics, as I said earlier, is the most positive aspect of the movie. They went back to shooting in location, and built as many of the sets as they could. It was also the first Star Wars movie to be shot in film since The Phantom Menace, with a mixture of 35 and 70mm IMAX cameras. They also went back to using manually, and mechanically controlled puppets for most of the strange alien creatures seen on-screen. Actors performing in suits were also used for most of the creatures, with some added CGI to enhance the look, and some of the features. For the most challenging alien characters, like Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanada, they used Motion Capture. The marriage of both techniques produced unique results, and a seamless integration with the Live Action elements of the story. Most of the sets were recreated in Pinewood Studios, England, both inside the stages, and on the Studio’s back lot. The Millenium Falcon, the First Order’s Star Destroyer Hangar, the interior of the Starkiller base and the snowbound Forrest where the final confrontation between Kylo and Rey takes place, were some of the sets built there. There were also some small and larger sets built when Principal Photography in Abu Dhabi started, which was used to recreate to junkyard town on the planet Jakku.

The dynamic between the cast was also very good; especially between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Both actors have very good chemistry; their friendship totally believable. So is Boyega’s Finn relationship with Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Their comedic timing is great, and they play off each other very well. As for the old cast, we only get to see Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker at the very end, and with no dialogue at all. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford slip right back into their respective roles. C3-PO and R2-D2 are just as we remember them. So is Chewbacca, even though, due to age and injury, Peter Mayhew couldn’t get back into the suit as much as he wanted. Instead, Finish former basketball player Joonas Suotamo steps in to replace him for the most active scenes, and would come back for both The Last Jedi, and Solo, A Star Wars Story. But, who really steals the show for me is the new addition to the Droid family, BB-8. The spherical Astrodroid, which very much resembles a snowman, steals the limelight everytime it’s on-screen. A feat of engineering, they had to build several models, one to be carried around, a rod puppet operated by a puppeteer, to run around the sets, that would be painted off screen in Post-production, and a radio controlled one to move the different appendages and the rotating head.

The lightsabre fighting style was also a return to the old ways. More crude, rough around the edges, and not as stylized as the lightsabre fights on the prequels, it was more reminiscent of the Original trilogy than anything else, even though Kylo Ren’s overly designed lightsabre is, in my opinion, very impractical.

Overall, a wise mixture of old school techniques with Computer graphics, and the fact that it was shot on film, gives the final product a very filmic and organic look. They’re no flat looking digital landscapes. It has the feel of a lived-in world.

Final thoughts

Technical and artistic aspects aside, the movie is a bit of a let down. Basically, because they didn’t have a strong enough script. Sure, they’re some interesting ideas in there; Finn’s background as a former Stormtrooper being one of them, the mystery behind Rey’s parentage, and her relation with Luke Skywalker. The rest of it is just a re-hash of old ideas, which is quite surprising given Lawrence Kasdan was involved in the writing ( his was the idea of Finn being a defecting Stormtrooper). You would think that he’d be able to come up with a more interesting overall plot for the movie. No explanation is given for the current state in which the Galaxy finds itself. Who are the First Order?. Where do they come from?. How are they funded?. Was everything that Luke and Co go through in the Original trilogy, for naught?. The main villain of the story is another massive let down. This is, in no way, Adam Driver’s fault. He does what he can with the part, given how badly written his character is. He comes off as a whiny teenager in desperate need of recognition. His tantrum when he learns of Finn and Rey’s escape and pretty much, every time things don’t go his way, is laughable. Another annoying aspect of the story, and one that doesn’t make much sense at all, is how fast Rey learns of, and develops her skills with The Force. It took Luke three movies and the loss of a hand, to become a fully fledged Jedi Master. She pretty much masters her skills by the end of the first movie. Where do we go from here regarding her character arc?. Definitely not where we wanted to, as we learn on The Last Jedi, unfortunately. This, I blame on Producer Kathleen Kennedy. She was the one who was pushing for a strong female character, and made her stronger than she had any right to be. So strong, that once her journey is complete at the end of this movie, they’re no perils, no stakes, save for finding out about her parentage. Once that was so carelessly removed from the equation by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi, there’s no more interest for her character. That’s another issue. In spite of the good work by all the cast, the new characters just aren’t as interesting as the original ones. That is why I think the fans were so invested into this new trilogy; a last chance to reunite our heroes. That was squandered away by Abrams when he decided to kill off Han Solo. Was it a neccesary move. Some say it was. I don’t care one way or the other. It was inevitable that once they decided to bring the old guard back, some, if not all of them, would be killed. What bothers me the most, though, it’s the lost opportunity to do something interesting with these characters; something that would be further aggravated in the next movie. But that’s a story for the my next post.

Thanks for reading.

Return of the Jedi. Exciting Finale

The third and final Star Wars Original trilogy movie was released on May, 1983. Not surprisingly, it shot up to the Number One spot in the Box Office, accumulating a total of $480 million worldwide, a little less than the previous movie. As he’d done before with Empire Strikes Back, Lucas financed the movie himself, with a total budget of $32 million, and just like before, he went looking for a director to helm the proyect. His commitments with both the Star Wars franchise, and his companies, Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic, left him with very little quality time to spend with his family, which would end up taking its toll on an already shaky marriage. So, he decided to offer the director chair to someone he thought could handle the responsibility and pressure of working on a big budget feature. The director chosen for this task was British director Richard Marquand, whom Lucas had been impressed with after watching his film Eye of the Needle (1981). The WWII spy thriller proved to George that Marquand could not only handle the Suspense, but also deliver when working with actors to develop their characters, which turned out to be the best thing to come out of his direction. As Kershner before him, Marquand had ample experience working on character-driven stories, and all the emotional beats from the movie; the death of Yoda, Luke’s conversation with Obi-wan, Luke’s revelation to Leia that they’re siblings, his final confrontation with both Vader and the Emperor, are all good examples of heartfelt moments that further develop the main characters, bringing, at the same time, the best out of the actors who portray them. Unfortunately, Marquand’s limited experience with Special Effects meant that Lucas ended up being more on set supervising Marquand than he originally intended.

Family reunion

Pretty much all the original cast and crew came back for the third movie, with one important addition; the casting of Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. The British stage actor was cast by Lucas after receiving a call from his agent, who told him that Lucas was in England and wanted to meet him. They had lunch together, after which McDiarmid received a call from his agent telling him that he’d been cast as ”The Emperor of the Universe”. All of the recurring cast members had been contractually obliged, from the beginning, to do all three movies, save for Harrison Ford. It did take Lucas some convincing for Ford to come back; even though Ford, and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan both agreed that Ford’s character, Han Solo, should have been killed off at the end of Empire Strikes Back, or at the very least, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Shooting woes.

As with the previous two movies, the bulk of the production was shot once again in Elstree Studios, in Borehamwood, England. Additional shooting took place in Yuma, Arizona, for the Jabba the Hutt Sail Barge rescue action set piece, and in Redwood Forrest, California, for the scenes set on the forest moon of Endor. One of the main challenges regarding special effects this time around was the creation of Jabba, the Hutt. The massive puppet was created, as the Yoda puppet had, by british Creature Designer, Stuart Freeborn. The size of the puppet required, at least, five people to control it. In addition to Jabba, other creatures needed to be designed and built for the large menagerie of strange alien creatures that were part of Jabba’s entourage. Phill Tippett and Joe Johnston were in charge of these, and they came up with some nifty ideas for creatures like Selacious Crumb, the musical band, and the Gamordian guards. But the most challenging of them all would be the Rancor monster, to whom Jabba would feed all of those who displeased him. The idea, at first, was to have someone play the monster wearing a suit, and although this idea was tested with Tippett wearing said suit, the process became too cumbersome, and like the Wampa suit in ESB, it was discarded in favour of filming a model at a higher frame rate, blending it in, later on, with the live footage. The whole of Jabba’s Sail Barge set was built in the Arizona desert in Yuma, where the actors and crew would experience the opposite weather conditions they had while shooting in Elstree. The stifling heat wreaked havoc among the actors and crew, and made the shooting conditions unbearable. The creation of the Ewok suits would also prove to be a pain. Even though the casting of short people in the UK had been successful, the fitting of the actors inside the suits was another matter entirely. The actors had to wear rubber suits to bulk them up beneath the furry outer suits, and the combination of the two made them too stiff to move around in, and too hot to stay inside of them for long periods of time. Fortunately, they came up with a lighter fabric that gave the suits more flexibility, and made them more breathable.

Right before the filming crew moved to the Redwood Forrest location in California, and in order to avoid being overcharged by supplying companies on the grounds of being the Star Wars crew that was shooting the next Star Wars movie, the crew decided to change the Star wars name on the vehicles, and all filming material used in the production. The production was given the bizarre name of “Harvest Moon”, which was supposed to be a low-budget Horror film, thus avoiding at the same time, prying eyes. Of course, all this would come to naught once Ford, Fisher and Hamill arrived at the location to start shooting.

Another stand out moment in the movie was the Speeder bikes Chase scene through the Endor Forrest. To achieve the speed of the Speeder bikes on the scene, a Steadicam operator started walking, and filming along a previously laid out path in the forrest filming at a rate of 1 frame per second, which, when played back later on at 24fps, would result in the shots going at a speed of 100 miles per hour. Side shots would be achieved by an operator shooting from the side of a truck, and rear shots would be achieved by just playing the forward shots backwards. The actors would then film their live action scenes on top of life-size Speeder bikes against blue screen in the Studio. The footage from both sources would later on be edited together resulting in one of the most dynamic action set pieces ever to be shown in a Star Wars movie. For the final Battle in the movie, a mix of miniatures, matte paintings and optical effects were used to achieve the grand scale and visual majesty of the Grand Finale. As before, the visual effects technicians shot the whole sequence of the final attack on the unfinished Death Star with miniatures, models and cardboard cutouts representing the characters. The crude animatic was used as a visual guide to shoot and edit the sequence later on in Post-production. This whole approach would be changed when Lucas got about working on the Prequel Trilogy, which would use computer graphics instead, thus saving time and money in the process.

Financial and critical reception

The movie, as I mentioned earlier, was a financial success, even though it earned less money than the previous movie, and markedly even less money than the first Star Wars film. On the critical front, the movie was better received than its predecessor, and nicely tidied up all the story’s loose ends, giving the whole trilogy a fittingly exciting and spectacular finale. On a side note, right before the release of the movie, it had been decided that the chapter title of the movie would be Revenge of the Jedi, as the working title Return of the Jedi was deemed too weak by producer Howard Kazanjian. On the grounds that a Jedi would never seek revenge, Lucas pulled the title Revenge of the Jedi, and changed it back to Return of the Jedi. That meant changing up the whole marketing campaign from the posters and trailers at the last minute. Funnily enough, George Lucas would come back to the title for the third episode of his prequel trilogy, changing Jedi for Sith.

Special Edition

As far as added CGI and scenes, this movie has a couple of moments that are cringe worthy, to say the least. The new musical number in Jabba’s palace, where Lucas changed the alien singer for a CGI version of it, and the horrendous song, along with the decision to change Sebastian Shaw’s old Anakin Skywalker Force Ghost for that of Hayden Christensen’s, are two of the worst changes ever made to the Original Trilogy. Other changes, like giving the Sarlacc pit monster a beak, and more tentacles, and changing up the final Ewok song for another, vibrant composition by John Williams, and showing off more planets from the prequels to show the Galaxy wide celebrations of the Alliance’s final victory against the Empire, are welcome changes, and are not as bothersome.

Personal thoughts

The movie is awesome. There are no two ways about it. It does slow down considerably once our protagonists get to the Endor moon, right after the amazing Speeder bike chase scene, when we’re first introduced to the Ewoks. This, in my opinion, is the weak link of the film. To me, this teddy bear-like creatures, are nothing but an excuse to sell toys, even though they play a pivotal part in the last showdown against the Imperial troops, and one could argue that if it hadn’t been for them, victory would have been all but impossible, but, then again, the same thing could’ve been achieved just as easily, using Lucas’s original idea of using the Wookies, and their home planet Kashyyyk, as the setting for the final confrontation. That little hiccup out of the way, the action set pieces are a joy to watch. Luke’s fight with the Rancor, the rescue scene on Tatooine, the Speeder bike chase scene through the Forrest on Endor, and the two-pronged final battle, both on the planet Endor, between the Rebels, Ewoks and Imperial Troops, and the the space battle in and around the unfinished Death Star.The movie starts very strongly with the rescue of Han Solo by his friends from the clutches of Intergalactic gangster Jabba the Hutt, and after a brief interlude in which Luke returns to Dagobah, and his final mission is revealed to him by Yoda, right before he dies, the movie immediately kicks into gear once more, and our heroes land on Endor for the final showdown with the Empire. Save for the slowing of pace after the encounter of our heroes with the Ewoks, the rest of the movie plays perfectly, it’s got a breakneck speed pace for the final act, the acting is very strong, possibly the best performance by Mark Hamill in the Original Trilogy, top notch production values, and an excellent soundtrack by John Williams to boot. On another level is the final face-off of Luke with both his father and the Emperor. The last duel between them is a momentous event, and one of the saddest and, at the same time, uplifting scenes in the entire saga. Could have done without Darth Vader yelling Noooo!!, right before throwing the Emperor to the chasm, George. That was an unnecessary change, if there ever was one. But still, the movie is a blast, and a spectacular, exciting and moving film.

Thanks for reading.

The Empire Strikes Back : Or how to make the sequel better than the original.

On May 21st, 1981, The Empire Strikes Back, the most anticipated sequel to the monster box office hit Star Wars, was released. After the massive success of Star Wars, and having already written a first draft for the upcoming sequel, Lucas recruited screenwriter Leigh Brackett, to help him refine the screenplay, and decided to offer directing the movie to somebody else, as he’d be too busy setting up his Special Effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, and wouldn’t have any time left to supervise the movie directly. He offered the job to experienced director Irvin Kershner, who had ample experience in directing small, character-driven features, but had never done a big -budget, special effects movie. Kershner was reluctant to accept at first, as he thought that no sequel could better what had already been done in Star Wars. Fortunately, a chat with his agent convinced him otherwise. After reading Brackett’s screenplay, and being unsatisfied with it, but unable to make any changes, as Brackett prematurely died of Cancer, Lucas was on the lookout for a new screenwriter. The job would fall in the hands of director and screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan who, at the time, was working on the Raiders of the Lost Ark script. It was with his help that Lucas further fleshed out what would be the main twist of the story, the discovery of Darth Vader being Luke’s father. The whole of the cast returned, with a few new faces. Clive Revill put voice to the holographic image of the Emperor, while renown British actors would play the different parts of the Imperial Officers; among them, Michaeld Sheard as Admiral Ozzel, Kenneth Colley as Admiral Piett, and Julian Glover as Commander Veers. Other additions would be Billy Dee Williams as former smuggler and now regent of the Cloud City of Bespin mining facility, and Jeremy Bulloch as the Bounty Hunter, Bobba Fett.

A cold start

On March 1979, the crew moved to Finse, Norway, where Principal Photography was to begin. Unfortunately, they hit one of the worst snowstorms in 50 years, and for the first few days were unable to leave the hotel where they were staying, and were resigned to shoot the first scenes from the back door of the hotel, and never being able to venture out more than a few feet from there. Temperatures below 26 degrees, incidents of frostbite among the filming crew, and malfunctioning equipment and props were, once again, the norm. A whole set of scenes that involved the Wampa creatures attacking the Rebel Base on the planet Hoth, had to be eliminated from the final cut, due to the bad quality of the Creature design and performance. In 1997, the Wampa would be included in an additional scene for the Special Edition re-release, with a much better design this time around. For the ground battle scene on the planet Hoth, the Norwegian Red Cross Rescue troops were used as extras to play the parts of Rebel soldiers. It was a gruelling shoot for all those involved.

Back in England

The bulk of the production was, once again, filmed in Elstree Studio, Borehamwood, England. All of the sets, from the Rebel base on Hoth, the planet Dagobah, the interior of the Millennium Falcon, and Vader’s Superstardestroyer bridge, to the Cloud City of Bespin, were all faithfully recreated, and later on enhanced with matte paintings. The biggest challenge that the crew would face, though, would be the inclusion of a new character, that had to be created from scratch, and brought to life thanks to the skill of Puppet Master, Frank Oz. In the end, Master Jedi Yoda would prove to be a feat of engineering, as the Dagobah set had to be built a few feet off the ground, to allow Frank Oz and the rest of the puppeteers to control the Yoda puppet from underneath the floor. Due to the separation between Oz, who was underneath, and had to recite the Yoda lines, and Hamill who was on top of the stage, and couldn’t hear what Oz was saying, an earpiece was given to Hamill, so he could hear Oz’s lines, and better interact with the puppet. On many an occasion, Hamill voiced his frustration in saying that, for many weeks, he was the only actor on the Call sheet; the rest of the elements being the Yoda puppet, and the numerous props.

The big twist

Hamill, with the help of fencing master Bob Anderson, had undergone 6 months of rigorous swordfight training before shooting even started. He also took up Kendo and Karate, to further enhance his fighting style for the Lighsabre duel scene between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Even in between rehearsals and shooting, he still trained an average of 6 hours a day, divided up into two 3-hour sessions. He had great difficulty in trying to memorise the different moves, and his dialogue, but did his absolute best, and tried to do as much of the stunt work as he could. The secrecy surrounding Luke’s surprising parentage was kept to a minimum number of members of the crew. Only Lucas, Kershner, Kasdan, James Earl Jones, who once again returned to voice Darth Vader, and Hamill, were in the loop. The rest of the crew and cast were given false information to keep the reveal from leaking to the media. Imagine trying to do that in today’s Twitter/ Instagram landscape.

Our heroes get separated

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie was that our main group of heroes would end up spending most of their screen time separated from one another; Luke would go on to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training, and Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the Droids would wind up being pursued by the Imperial fleet on a faulty Millenium Falcon, giving us some truly amazing sequences along the way; the Chase through the Asteroid Field, their hiding out in a cave inside one of the larger asteroids, that would end up being the stomach of a giant space slug, and their arrival to the Cloud City of Bespin. Han Solo and Leia also start developing a romantic relationship, which also led to both Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan having the idea that Han Solo should die to add up to the stakes, and amp up the emotional impact of the story. The reasoning behind this, was that Ford thought that Han having no family and no emotional ties to anyone but our main group of heroes, served up the perfect opportunity for Han to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Lucas, on the other hand, was adamant that the fate of Solo didn’t change, as he had plans for him in the next movie, which turned out not to be the case.

Visual artistry taken to another level

The likes of Phill Tippet, Dennis Muren and Ben Burtt, just to name a few, really outdid themselves this time around; producing some of the best work of their careers. That, and the amazing work Dennis Muren and Co did in the Planet Hoth ground battle sequence was truly remarkable. To produce the movement of the AT-AT Imperial Walkers, they used a new state-of-the-art motion capture camera method called Go Motion. The movements of the Walkers would still have to be done manually, one frame at a time, but the motion capture on screen would be more fluid and less jerky, once played back on the screen at 24 fps. To achieve the dynamics needed for such a complex sequence, the storyboard artists and animators created Animatics, which are basically animated storyboards that were used as a tool to plan out and execute said scenes, and aid in the editing process.

Problems in Paradise

But not all was good and well, and as Lucas had decided to invest his own money in the movie, thus not having to ask the Studio for money to pay for it, and at the same time, avoiding Studio interference over the final product, he would end up securing a loan from a bank that, as shooting went on, would prove not to be enough to finish the film. The final budget would end up being in the neighbourhood of $25 million. Unfortunately, he finally did have to turn to Fox to ask for more money to finish it, but in a way that would not jeopardise either his vision, or his final cut of the movie. He would also run into other financial misfortunes; the DGA ( Directors Guild of America), were pressuring Lucas to put the main credits at the very beginning of the movie, right before the crawl, as they thought it was disrespectful not to have the people who worked on the movie listed, as per Union regulations, at the very beginning of the movie. Lucas refused to give in, as he thought that this decision would severely hamper his vision. He was fined $200.000 because of this, and disillusioned with what the Industry had to offer, he decided to pay the fine, and cut all ties he had with them, and abandon the DGA and SGA ( Screenwriters Guild of America), as well.

Critical and financial reception

Although the movie was generally loved by fans the world over, it didn’t make as much money in the box office as the first one had, grossing approx $530 million worldwide, a little over $200 million less than Star Wars. It also received mixed reviews, as many critics emphasized on the fact that being as it was, a middle chapter, it didn’t have a satisfactory resolution as Star Wars had, and the tone was definitely darker and more adult oriented this time around. Despite all this, overtime, fans and critics alike have come to regard Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie of the whole franchise.

Special Edition

When the Original Trilogy was re-released back in 1997, Empire was also given the full Image and Sound quality clean up treatment, but surprisingly, of all three movies, it was the one that suffered the least amount of changes in regards to added CGI and scenes. In terms of added scenes, we only get the additional bit showing us a full on Wampa chomping on some food, while Luke is strapped to the ceiling of the Wampa cave, with the unnecessary shot showing us the Wampa with his arm cut off, after Luke escapes from the cave. Other than that, the Cloud City of Bespin is expanded upon with digital matte paintings, showing off the rest of the city, making it seem larger, and not as claustrophobic as the original set was; which was a welcome addition. There is also a whole new scene with Vader leaving Bespin on his Shuttle after his Lightsabre duel with Luke, and landing on the Superstardestroyer deck. Some of his original lines were re-dubbed for this scene for the 2004 DVD release of the OT. That Lucas struggled to find things to change on Empire is a testament to the great work that the technical crew did on this movie.

Personal views

I think that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie in the whole franchise, hands down. The pacing, action, character development, and overall emotional rollercoaster that this movie is, has never been equalled over the years with either the prequels, or the new batch of movies that Disney have been churning out, ever since they bought out Lucasfilm. Everything from Production Design, Special and Visual effects, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Design and so on, are top notch. The cast do a wonderful job with their respective parts, the stakes have never been higher, danger lurks around every corner, and even though the film ends on a sour note, there’s still a glimmer of hope that our heroes will overcome the difficulties, and come out on top in the end. All of this is rounded up with a wonderful soundtrack by John Williams. On this occasion, he delivers, what I believe, is his best soundtrack for the entire Saga. Iconic tracks like the Yoda theme, and the Imperial March theme, along with all the whimsically descriptive tracks used for all the different action set pieces, like The Asteroid Field Chase, are foverer etched in our minds once you’ve heard them. As I said, an emotional rollercoaster ride.

Thanks for reading.

Hush. Soundless world

Hush would at first look like your regular Slasher movie with a twist, and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that. Fortunately, it’s much more than that, and even though I still think that it had the potential to be even greater, it’s a very competently made thriller, with some very good ideas behind it, but regrettably, not used to their fullest.

The story revolves around Maddie, a deaf and mute writer, who lives alone in a house in the middle of the woods. She does have neighbours, though, whom she’s befriended, and come to visit her from time to time; so she isn’t completely isolated from civilization. The reasons behind her isolation are never clearly explained, but through some e-mails and Skype chats with her sister, we learn that she used to live in the city, and that she also had a boyfriend. The latter might be the reason behind her sudden reclusiveness. We just don’t know. Anyhow, she’s working on her latest book, and is struggling to come up with an ending for it. During a conversation with her neighbour, we find that ever since a childhood disease that rendered her deaf and mute, she’s had this voice inside her head, that very much sounds like her mother’s, which basically speaks and advises her on how to write and finish her books. It also brings with it a lot of alternative endings, from which she can pick and choose, to finish her novels. Remember this, because it will come in handy at the end of the movie.

One night, Maddie is stalked by a misterious man wearing a mask. He, at first, kills Maddie’s neighbour, who was rushing to the house to try and warn her about him. Then she receives an e-mail sent by the Stalker, which includes a picture of her from a few seconds ago, sitting on the couch, working on her computer. She immediately shuts herself inside the house, and quickly realizes that, without being able to hear her Stalker coming, she’s gonna have to use her wits to escape from her predicament alive.

That is pretty much it. The novelty approach that the movie uses, is that the main protagonist is unable to hear. Now, as interesting as this idea may seem on paper, it’s not , in my humble opinion, executed in the most satisfying manner. The director Mike Flannagan, from Netflix’s TV Show, House of Haunted Hill fame, chooses at first to isolate both the Viewer and Maddie from the Stalker, and pretty much everything else around her and us, by cutting off the sound, or muffling it from the soundtrack, so we’re, more or less, in her shoes. And you would think that he’d do this for the rest of the movie, right?. Wrong. He only does this in a few scenes, which, in my opinion, diminishes the suspense and emotional impact that the story could’ve had. Had it been up to me, I would’ve chosen to muffle the sound mix when it came to her scenes, or her POV, and crank it up for the Stalker scenes. That being said, with such a simple set up, Flannagan does wonders. The protagonist tries every trick in the book to try and escape her attacker, failing every time. It is then, than she’ll start listening to her inner voice, and running through her head all the posible outcomes of her escaping her attacker alive, very much like she would when finding that elusive ending for her last book.

Most of the strength of this movie hangs on a very believable performance by Kate Siegel, very solid direction and editing by Flannagan, and a very simple, but very well put together script, penned by both Flannagan, and his wife and main protagonist Kate Siegel, resulting in a very entertaining movie. It’s just a shame that Flannagan wasn’t willing to risk it, and go one step further.

Thanks for reading

Star Wars. The Space Opera to end all Space Operas

On March 25th 1977, Star Wars was released. It immediately became a financial success, grossing over $750 million worldwide in the box office, and becoming a social and cultural phenomenon. But how did this come about?.

Genesis

While shooting only his second feature film, American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas, a film student from USC ( University of Southern California) from Modesto, California, begin to toy with the idea of shooting a Sci-fi movie that would closely resemble the Saturday morning Flash Gordon serials he’d watched as a child. His original idea had been to secure the rights to adapt Flash Gordon to the big screen, in the first place, but when that failed, he started working on his own Sci-fi story, with the title Star Wars. Along his friend and producer, Gary Kurtz, he started going around the Studios to try and sell his idea, but none of the mayor studios wanted to have anything to do with it, which was kind of a relief for George, as he wanted to have as much control over his work as he could, with as little Studio interference as possible. This was the result of a very bad experience Lucas had had with Warner Bros, which had decided to re-cut his first feature film, THX1138, before it was released, without his consent. He finally managed to pitch the idea to then, Head Producer at Twentieth Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr, who recognized Lucas’s talent after seeing his previous movie, American Graffiti, which had been a box office success; even though he didn’t understand the idea behind the concept Lucas was trying to sell. Ladd took the idea to the Board of Executives, and they approved a budget of $8 million for the movie. A fee of roughly $200 was agreed to be paid to Lucas for writing, producing and directing the movie. Ladd thought this was too low a fee, and convinced the board to re-negotiate the terms of the contract. When they sat down with Lucas to discuss it, he said he didn’t want more money or premium options. He just wanted the revenue derived from merchandise sales, and a chunk of the profits from marketing. He also wanted creative and final cut control over any possible sequels. The Studio was only too happy to agree to those terms, as they thought that the movie would make back its production cost at best, or be a flop, at worst. This re-negotiation turned out to be a wise move on Lucas’s part, and it would be the way in which he would gain his financial freedom to break out of the Studio system, and have total control over his movies.

Casting

When Lucas started casting for the three main roles in the movie, he wanted unknown actors to play the parts. With the help of his friend and fellow director, Brian de Palma, who was also conducting casting sessions for his upcoming movie Carrie, they tried out lots and lots of new faces, among them Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. Ford had already worked with Lucas in American Graffiti, and though he was reluctant to cast him for that very reason, he asked him to stay on, and help the other actors with the reading of their lines, and to explain to them the script and their respective characters. He became so familiar with the material, and proved to be so good with it, that he wound up winning Lucas over, who finally ended up casting him as rogue Space smuggler Han Solo. Carrie Fisher, who came from Hollywood royalty, the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds, was also an easy pick for Lucas. She had all the qualities that Lucas required; she had the right age, and had the charisma and presence to hold her own against strong actors. Hamill also proved to have a good handle of the heavily space-jargon-filled script, and got the part. For the parts of the bickering duo of androids, Lucas cast British actor Anthony Daniels as protocol droid C3-PO and the 1.12 m British comedy actor Kenny Baker as R2-D2. Daniels was chosen on account of his slender size, which was perfect for him to fit into the C3-PO costume, and his expertise on miming techniques, that would help him with the robot mannerisms. Baker’s manager told him that a guy called George Lucas, and his American filmmaking crew where in London auditioning short people for the part of the Astrodroid. As soon as the crew saw him, he was picked; as he was the only person who was small enough to fit inside the R2-D2 robot. They were looking for someone not only small, but also strong enough to be able to move the prop around. Peter Mayhew was chosen to play the part of Chewbacca, co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. Lucas cast him right away when he walked through the door of the room where Mayhew was waiting for him to be auditioned, and Mayhew got up to greet him. For the parts of the villains, Lucas went for two British actors; Hammer horror, and Stage actor Peter Cushing, got the part of Governor Moff Tarkin, the Commanding Officer in charge of the Death Star, and former Bodybuilder, and also Hammer actor, David Prowse. Prowse had the phisyche to portray the character, but due to his thick Northern English accent, Lucas was forced to look elsewhere for someone who could dubb him, and bring a menacing tone to his voice. The honour fell on Afroamerican actor James Earl Jones, who would provide one of the most instantly recognisable voices in Cinema History. The Studio was concerned that without any known actors in the movie, it wouldn’t do any good. That’s why Lucas offered the part of Master Jedi Obi-wan Kenobi to famous British stage and film actor Alec Guiness, who at first was reluctant to accept the role, as he’d never done any Science Fiction before, and found the dialogue in the script to be weird. The deciding factor, though, was George Lucas. He’d heard of him, and his success with American Graffiti, and wanted to give it a try. He made a deal with the Studio to receive a percentage of the box office profits on top of his salary, which would make him a very wealthy man. With the cast locked, it was time to begin shooting.

Shooting in Tunisia

Shooting started on March 25th, 1976. Pretty much from the beginning, the crew started to have problems; mal-funtioning props, high temperatures, and a rainstorm, that all, but destroyed the sets, were the norm. Conditions didn’t improve once they moved to Elstree Studios, in England, either. The strict British Union regulations dictated that the English crew stopped shooting at 17:30, unless Lucas was in the middle of a shot. Lucas would always try and negotiate for a few extras minutes, but the crew would always vote him down. Lucas got increasingly nervous because of the budget restrictions, and the small amount of time he had to shoot the movie. Pressure from the Studio to get things done in time, and not go over budget, didn’t help things either. His relationship with the cast was also difficult. Extremely shy, and not comfortable around large groups of people, the actors often complained about Lucas being unable to give them proper direction. ”Faster” or ”More Intense”, were words that were well known to the actors. The intense pressure to get the movie done in time, also meant that Lucas was almost always in a somber and sad mood. The actors would try to unsuccesfully cheer him up . Despite all of this difficulties, and going over budget, Lucas managed to finish the shoot in time. But another whole new set of problems was waiting for him at home.

Post-production mayhem

Before he left to shoot in Tunisia and England, Lucas had set up his own company of Special Effects; Industrial Light & Magic, in an old warehouse in California. Special Effect houses were a thing of the past at the time, due to the fact that Hollywood was going for more gritty, realistic and down to earth movies, that didn’t require a great deal of visual trickery. As most of the old guard in the business was either retired, or on their way out, Lucas recruited most of his staff from USC, where he had studied, and most of these technicians would later become some of the most recognisable names in the industry when it came to Special and Visual Effects, Stop Motion and Sound Design. Names like Dennis Muren, John Dykstra, Phil Tippett, Rick Baker and Ben Burtt, to name just a few, would become the foremost experts in their respective fields.

With the setting and the stuff in place, and with the help of Concept Designer’s Ralph McQuarrie paintings, they started building models for the Special Effects sequences, and matte paintings that would later be added onto the already shot live footage. Unfortunately, by the time Lucas arrived there, hardly any usable special effects shots had been done. The whole company was in disarray. With no one to oversee their work, they pretty much did what they wanted, and their work ethic was very relaxed. Already nervous for the production delays, Lucas had a nervous breakdown, and had to check into hospital. He was told by his doctor that he had to reduce his stress levels and take it easier. He went back to the company, and started to personally manage the stuff to get things back on track. That wasn’t the least of his worries, though. He already had a rough cut of the movie ready, that he decided he would show to his closest friends, to get an opinion. He was already displeased with the previous cut, and had to let his editor go, and edit the movie himself, whenever he had time. This rough cut had none of the special effects added, and almost none of the assistants to the screening liked it. Devastated by this news, and almost out of money to finish the money, as the special effects crew had spent half the budget in unusable effects shots, he was pleasantly surprised when one of the executives from Fox came up to him, and told that it had been the best screening experience he’d ever had; enough to agree to give him another $3 million to finish the movie. He had to have the movie ready for release for the Summer of 1977, though. It had previously been scheduled to have come out on Christmas of 76. Unfortunately, the numerous delays in production had made that impossible. With more money and a new release date, it was up to Lucas and Co, to get back on track. With the help of editors Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch and his wife, Marcia Lucas, who was editing Martin Scorsese’s film New York, New York at the same time, the editing process started moving along at a brisk pace. To help his technicians and editors get a feel for the Space Battle sequences, Lucas edited together old footage from WWII aerial dog fights. Only one thing was missing.

For the soundtrack of his Space Opera, Lucas wanted to have an orchestral score. Orchestral scores were not very much in vogue in those days, but he, nonetheless, managed to hire John Williams, fresh off winning an Oscar for his soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Williams would come up with an array of action packed, melodious and uplifting tracks, which would forever leave their mark in the memories of all those who saw the movie.

The big day comes.

Finally release day came and, against all the odds, the movie was a massive success. The main stars of the movie became instantly famous worldwide, and this one movie would give a great push to Harrison Ford’s career, that would be further solidified when he played the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg (1981). The rest, as they say, is History.

Personal Opinion

This movie is, without a shadow of a doubt, a huge cinematic accomplishment. Not only did it pave the way for what Science Fiction movies would look like from then on; it also cemented the career of George Lucas, and all those who helped him bring his Vision to life. Everything about it is spot on. The Story, the Cinematography, the Special and Visual Effects, the Characters, the Production Design, the Editing. It moves along at a very swift pace, the characters are charismatic and engaging and it’s got a terrifyingly evil villain in Darth Vader. He’s the iconic character of the whole saga, and a character with whom fans will associate and compare every other Star Wars villain that came after. What is there not to like?. It is a movie that grabs you from the first frame, and doesn’t let go of you until the very end. This movie doesn’t have as many action set pieces as the sequels would have, but, if I had to choose one scene, it would have to be the very first shot of the movie. That magnificent shot of the Republic Blockade Runner being chased by a massive Imperial Star Destroyer over the planet Tatooine, is the one thing that makes this movie so special, and informs the audience, right away, of what they’re in for. Another stand-out moment would be the scene when we see the Millenium Falcon in all its scruffy and worn out glory, and the escape from Tatooine. There are so many great moments to choose from, that it’s really hard to. The Mos Eisly Cantina Scene with its menagerie of strange alien creatures, the scene where the Millenium is trapped in a tractor beam and we see the massive bulk of the Death Star ( to think that this shot was achieved with blue screen and models), and let’s not forget, the last Space Battle; a bunch of X-Wing Fighters against the immense Death Star, and a lethal squadron of Tie Fighters led by Lord Vader. All of this rounded up with the amazing soundtrack by John Williams. What else can you ask for?. Honestly, if you’ve never seen this movie, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.

Special Edition

Regrettably, I’ve never had the chance to see this movie in Theaters. Two years before the first of the Star Wars prequels came out, and while he was working on the pre-production of these movies, Lucas decided to go back to the Original Trilogy, do some restoration work, and re-release them in Theaters. He not only cleaned up the image and sound on all the movies, he also did some digital tweaking, and added some extra scenes. Star Wars was be the movie that would suffer the most changes, some of them, in my opinion, unnecessary. This has been a massive point of contention with fans for years, as they want Lucas to preserve the movie as it was released back in the day, with none of the extra CGI additions. I can sympathize with that, as that was the way I grew up watching them. But, then again, we’re talking about a crusty VHS Pan& Scan copy of the movie, most likely taped from a TV airing of the movie. The first time I really had a chance to sample the movie in Widescreen, was when I got my Special Edition copy of the Trilogy set. Even by VHS standards, that was very much well received. I later on got into DVD, a few years after the craze had started, and finally, in 2004, I got my first digital version of Star Wars. That was a very nice upgrade, indeed; but I’ve always regretted not being able to watch the movies in Theaters, even with all the silly changes. So, what’s so special about the Special Edition?. Well, you’ve got the Dewback scene in Tatooine ( now there’s more than one, standing still on the far side of the frame, and they move), Mos Eisly is expanded upon, and we’ve got more creatures in the foreground and background, the brand new scene where Han Solo talks to Jabba the Hutt ( this scene was shot back in 1976 with an actor and not a puppet, as the character would become later on in Return of the Jedi) ; unfortunately the CGI Jabba the Hutt that was added to the scene for the 1997 Special Edition re-release, wasn’t very good, and it would be improved upon for the 2004 DVD release, another brand new scene of the Millennium Falcon taking off from the Mos Eisly Spaceship Dock, now we can also see the X-Wing Fighters taking off, and flying by the camera in Yavin IV, and we also have a plethora of new and improved shots, from all angles, of the X-Wing Fighters Squadron attacking the Death Star. The Explosions of both Alderaan and the Death Star are more spectacular. When the movie finally came out on Bluray in 2011, it had even more tweaks, but the improvement in both picture and sound, is a step above the DVDs. So, what is my favourite version of Star Wars in home media?. Here is the thing; a few months ago I started looking on eBay for a copy of the unaltered trilogy on Laserdisc. I’ve had a Laserdisc player, even before I had a DVD player, but, for some bizarre reason, I never got a copy of the trilogy on Laserdisc. Weird, right?. So, I finally got my hands on one ( these things go for quite a bit of money, by the way), and, I must say, I really enjoyed it. Seeing that green Lucasfilm logo at the beginning was a treat. I didn’t even remember that existed. It’s an analogical format, so there’s always going to be drawbacks when it comes to image quality, but it was quite nice, for my money. Even as used to pristine HD images as I am now. As for the sound mix, I imagine that it’s quite akin to what you would have gotten back in 1977, in those first Dolby Stereo equipped Theaters. Quite robust and front heavy. Something I see myself going for when I’m feeling retro. But I must give my nod to the Bluray. It blows all the other versions out of the water, in both Image and Sound quality. Ok, so it’s not technically accurate, but I’m not a sound purist, and I believe that everything can be improved upon. I’m one of the very few who actually likes the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix that was done for the 2001 Special Edition of Superman: The Movie, on DVD and later on, Bluray. The DTS HD MA 6.1 audio mix done for the Original Trilogy is a winner for me, and the movie has been lovingly scanned in HD. So, no complaints there. Now, I only have to get my hands on a copy of the 1997 Special Edition trilogy in Laserdisc and I’ll be set.

Whichever way you choose to watch it, it’s always gonna be a treat.

Thanks for reading.

Gerald’s Game. Dangerous mind games.

This review contains spoilers

I recently saw and wrote a review about Stephen King’s latest book adaptation to the big screen; Doctor Sleep, directed by Mike Flannagan. Since I liked that movie so much, I immediately became very interested in the previous work of its director, seeing as he seems to have a knack for the Horror genre. I wasn’t wrong, as most of his body of work seems to be focused in that direction. This Netflix exclusive movie adapts another one of King’s novels, the 1992 book Gerald’s Game. The movie revolves around a married couple, Jessie and Gerald, who are having sexual problems, and decide to spend the weekend in their remote holiday retreat in the middle of the woods, to try and spice things up. Gerald comes up with the idea of playing a sexual game that involves cuffing both of Jessie’s hands to the bed and engage in a little role play. Jessie starts feeling uncomfortable with the situation right away, and asks Gerald to unlock the handcuffs; but before he can do it, he suffers a heart attack and drops dead. Now, completely isolated in the middle of the woods, handcuffed to a bed, and with a hungry stray dog roaming around, things are about to get really ugly.

Now, as simple as the story may seem at first; there’s actually more to it that you would think. Trapped in an impossible situation, Jessie’s mind starts playing tricks on her. She first sees her husband get up from the floor and begin speaking with her, after the hungry stray dog gets inside the house, and starts feeding on Gerald. But this is just Jessie’s mind messing with her. So is the appearance of her alter ego, telling her what she must do to survive her ordeal. Through this imagined conversations, we soon learn the origin of her sexual discomforts, and her marital problems as a consequence of that. She also has to contend with an apparently supernatural presence, that has got inside the house, and could attack her at any given moment. This is more than just your average Horror story. Thanks to a solid script adapted by Flannagan himself, along with Jeff Howard, Flannagan’s great use of the one set he has, a very compelling and convincing performance by Carla Gugino, and a very claustrophobic atmosphere, we get one of the most interesting Psychological Thrillers of 2017. In the end, Jessie’s fears and demons come to the fore, and she realises that these fears have set the tone for her life, ever since a paedophile incident she suffered when she was a teenager; that drove her into an unhappy, but economically comfortable marriage, and a repressed sexual life; and that it is up to her to break free from both her physical and imaginary shackles, if she ever is to live a happy life. It is in the supernatural element of the story, though, that we find the creepiest moments of the film. The figure of a being with unnaturally enlarged limbs, simply called “Moonlight Man”, and all of its appearances throughout the movie, are the stand-out scenes; and its final reveal is nothing short of shocking. Good movie, with a surprising twist. More than meets the eye.

Thanks for reading.

Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith Journey to the Dark Side

This review contains spoilers

May 19th, 2005, saw the release of the last entry in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Of all the films in this new trilogy, this one was, by far, the most anticipated. Lucas had already touched upon the main themes of this new trilogy; the introduction of Anakin Skywalker, his training as a Jedi Knight and friendship with Master Obi-wan Kenobi, Senator Palpatine/ Darth Sidious’s machinations to tear the Republic apart, and provoke a Galactic Civil War, Anakin and Padmé’s love story, and the beginning of the Clone Wars. There was just one more piece to finish the puzzle of Lucas’s vision and for the complete story arc to be fulfilled; that of the turning of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, and his final reveal as Darth Vader.

Here we go again

Pretty much everyone, from the technical crew to the cast, who had been involved in the previous two movies, came back. The bulk of the production was, once again, shot in Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, and some additional pick up scenes and reshoots were done in Shepperton and Elstree Studios, England. It was once again shot with digital cameras and by then, the crew had grown quite adept at using the new format.

As this last movie was going to be the darkest of all three, the cast and crew, and especially George Lucas, would have to take it up a notch to really convey the sense of loss and desperation into which The Republic would fall once the Empire takes over. I’ve already talked about the technical merits of these movies in my previous reviews. There’s nothing new here. The Conceptual Design department came up with some nice ideas for Creature and Planet Design; the aliens we can see on the planet Utapau; a brand new planet on which the inhabitants live in a kind of sink holes, into which buildings are constructed, the home planet of the Wookies, Kashyyyk ( for which a second Unit travelled to Thailand, to shoot some footage, and take some pictures of the landscape to use as background plates), the volcanic planet Mustafar, where the fateful lightsabre duel between Anakin and Obi-wan takes place; for which another filming crew went to Mount Etna, Italy, to shoot images of the erupting volcano, and last, but not least, they came up with the design for a new villain, General Grievious. His appereance, half robot-half alien, was a clear precursor of what Darth Vader would come to be. A being that needed artificial assistance to live via cybernetic implements ( his coughing resembled Vader’s mechanical breathing).

Lucas also wanted to boost the lightsabre fight scenes in the movie in both choreography and speed, especially for the last duel between Anakin and Obi-wan. With the assistance of Stunt Coordinator Nick Gillard, who had worked in the two previous movies, the actors underwent months of rigorous swordfight training. With the help of a small crew, and in a very crude way, Gillard would record these sessions following Lucas’s storyboards for the Mustafar duel scenes and, apparently some behind the scenes suggestions by filmmaker Steven Spielberg. This recorded material would then be delivered to the Editing and Animation departments to be better refined and turned into Pre-viz footage, that would be later used as a visual guide by Lucas and the editors to, not only, plan out the sequences, but also use as reference for the editing of the scenes later on.

Journey to the Dark Side

This time around, Lucas delivered a much stronger script to work with, and even though there’s still the feeling that there’s still too much stuff crammed into it, the overall pacing and character development is way better than in the previous movies. There seems to be a better sense of direction by Lucas of his actors, the dialogue is much better and the movie is, in the whole, jam packed with very strong scenes and action set pieces.

On the acting side, Hayden Christensen really delivers when it comes to showing Anakin’s frustration and resentment with the Jedi Council, his fear of losing Padmé, and his Fall into the Dark Side, justified as a means of saving her, and a consequent lust for power, when he realises that he has the power to rule the Galaxy. The scenes between Anakin and Padmé, with a few exceptions, don’t come off as cheesy and cringe worthy as on the previous film, and the scenes in which they discuss the state of affairs in the Republic, and the effect the Clone Wars has had on it, and Padmé’s overall sense that things are taking a turn for the worse, are really revealing of the ideological rift that’s being created between them, and that the influence of Chancellor Palpatine is really beginning to takes its toll on Anakin.

Ewan MacGregor does a superb job as Obi-wan Kenobi. He’s fully embraced the role and made it his own. At this point, his physical resemblance with Alec Guinness is uncanny. He’s got the voice and the mannerisms of a young Obi-wan down to a tee. He oozes with the wisdom, confidence and wholesome nature of the character.

But who really goes to town with his performance is Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine/The Emperor. The English stage actor is having the time of his life, and on this movie he really has a chance to shine. The different scenes in which he tries to seduce Anakin, and bring him to the Dark Side, are superbly shot and executed. Chief among them, is the one that takes place in The Opera House of Coruscant. The eerie atmosphere of the place, coupled with the weird nature of the Calamarian Water dancing play they’re watching, makes for a perfect setting for the legend that Palpatine tells Anakin about an all powerful Sith Lord, who had the ability to keep those closest to him from dying, and the not so different nature of the Jedi compared to the Sith. This piece of dialogue is fascinating, and both actors performances are perfect. The subtlety with which Palpatine tells the story, knowing, as he does, the profound effect it will have on Anakin, is brilliant. Preying on his fear of losing Padmé, as he did his mother. You can see how, little by little, Palpatine starts, first; undermining Anakin’s confidence in the Jedi, then; hinting at them being unable or unwilling to teach him everything that there is to know about the Force, and also; appealing to his vanity to become more than he is, what he’s meant to be; the most powerful Jedi in the Galaxy. All these elements combined make for very enticing reasons for Anakin to heed Palpatine’s advice and teachings. But, as seductive as these things can be, Anakin still struggles between choosing a Power, however dark it may be, that can ultimately save Padmé from dying, or listen to his conscience and do the right thing. Once the true nature of Palpatine is revealed to Anakin, he decides right away to turn him in, and tells Master Dooku about it. He’s forced to remain behind, in the Jedi Temple, while Mace Windu and a group of Jedi go to the Senate to place Palpatine under arrest. Palpatine is playing a dangerous game, but he knows that the wedge between Anakin and the Jedi Council has already been placed, and once Anakin is confronted with the possibility of Palpatine dying at the hands of Windu, he gives in and makes the ultimate choice; to turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. All the scenes leading up to his decision, be it his conversations with Padmé or Palpatine, the refusal of the Jedi Council to grant him the rank of Jedi Master, his jealousy and mistrust of Obi-wan, are all very well placed in the narrative structure, and Hayden Christensen makes the most of them exhibiting a wide range of emotions throughout; anger,resentment, mistrust, doubts, concern, hopelessness and desperation. He conveys all of this and more. One of the most beautiful, and sad scenes in the movie, is when he’s waiting in the Jedi Temple for news of Palpatine’s arrest, and he can see, on the other side of Coruscant, Padmé’s apartment. He’s observing her from a distance. The shot is repeated in the reverse order, and now is Padmé who is observing Anakin. There’s a sense of longing and desperation in that scene, helped in no small measure by a haunting cue by John Williams. That scene sums up beautifully what both Padmé and, especially, Anakin are feeling, and what he ultimately has to sacrifice; his Soul, to save her. Even after he’s helped kill Windu, he’s still tormented by his decision.

What happens afterwards; the destruction of the Jedi Temple, the slaughtering of all the Jedi Knighs by Anakin and the Clone Troopers, and the execution by order of the Emperor of Order 66; the Galaxywide destruction of all Jedi Knights, is one of the saddest moments in all of the Star Wars movies.

Final thoughts

This episode is, in my opinion, the best in the prequel trilogy. It delivers in spades everything that we ever wanted to see regarding the end of the Clone Wars, The Rise of the Empire, and Fall of the Republic, and the Downfall of Anakin Skywalker and his transformation into Darth Vader. Visual and Special Effects, as per usual, are top of the line, the performances are solid (especially Ian McDiarmid; he’s having a field day), the music is brilliant (special mention to Battle of the Heroes), Cinematography, Sound Design by Ben Burtt, Conceptual Design, Costume and Production Design…all the usual suspects, are top notch. And the action set pieces are amazing and brilliantly executed; the Space Battle over Coruscant, the lightsabre duel between Obi-wan, Anakin and Dooku, the rescue of Chancellor Palpatine, the battle scenes in both Utapau and Kashyyyk, the duel between Obi-wan and Grievous, Mace and Palpatine’s lightsabre duel, Yoda vs Palpatine, and most of all, the top set piece of the movie; the lightsabre duel between Anakin/Vader and Obi-wan on the volcanic planet of Mustafar; brilliantly choreographed, shot and edited. For some strange reason, this movie seems to flow better than the other two. No much chance for respite. No dead spaces. No unnecessary scenes. It only took him three movies to do it this time, but Revenge of the Sith is one of the better Star wars movies, and definitely, the best in this trilogy. One minor complaint, though. When we finally get to see Vader in the suit, he asks about Padmé and upon learning of her death, he yells: Nooooooo!!. That’s a big no,no, for me. Lucas should have never included that dialogue, and that emotional outburst. It goes against everything that we know about the character. But, that being said, what follows brilliantly connects the new trilogy with the old one, with a brilliantly assembled montage of scenes that will tug at your heartstrings. That’s the way I see it.

Thanks for reading.

Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. A middling second chapter

This review contains spoilers

May 16th, 2002 saw the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the second chapter in George Lucas’ prequel Trilogy. Much anticipated by the fans, as it would further develop the story of Anakin Skywalker, and would finally show a chapter in Star Wars lore that the fans had been fantasizing about ever since Lucas started working on a second trilogy; The Clone Wars.

Mentioned briefly by old Ben-Kenobi (Alec Guiness) in a conversation with young Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars (1977), the Clone Wars represents a turning point in Star Wars history, in that is the point where The Old Republic starts falling apart to slowly, but surely, eventually make way for the Galactic Empire. So, how this came about and what happened before it did, to end up in a galactic Civil War, was something that had always appealed to the fans of this new trilogy, and the main selling point of the new movies, along with the turning of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, and his eventual transformation into the dreaded Darth Vader.

Lucas also had to contend with a love story in this movie, that of Anakin and Padmé Amidala that will result in the birth of the heroes of the OT, Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker. So, as you can see there’s a lot of storylines that Lucas had to get through for this movie and, as a result, we get a lot of stuff crammed into an already long-running movie, that doesn’t get sufficient screen time to breathe and fully develop. The love story, though, would be the weakest aspect of the movie. More on that later.

The gang is back together

In addition to getting another screenwriter, Jonathan Hales, to help in the development of the script for Episode II, Lucas pretty much assembled the same creative team with whom he had worked on the previous movie, those being; Doug Chiang as Conceptual Artist, David Tattersall as Director of Photography, Gavin Bouquet as Production Designer, Trisha Briggar as Costume Designer, Ben Burtt as both Sound Designer and Editor, John Knoll and Pablo Helman as Visual Effects Supervisors, Ben Coleman as Animation Supervisor and John Williams as Music Composer. There were a few additions to the cast as well; Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, Christopher Lee as the devious Count Dooku, Bonnie Piesse and Joel Edgerton as both Beru and Owen Lars, Daniel Logan as a young Bobba Fett and Jimmy Smits as Senator Bail Organa.

But the most crucial piece of casting would be, once again, of the actor who had to portray Anakin Skywalker all the way up to Episode III, and who would eventually wear the mask of Darth Vader at the end of this trilogy.

That honour would fall on the shoulders of a very young Canadian actor, Hayden Christensen, who had limited experience on the big screen, but had been working on TV since the age of thirteen. He was chosen among a cast selection of 1500 candidates.

With the cast and crew pretty much in place, shooting started in locations in Spain and Italy for the Planet Naboo-set scenes and, once again, in Tunisia, Africa for the scenes set on the planet Tatooine. The bulk of the shooting was done in the Fox Studios, in Sidney, Australia, and some additional scenes were shot in Ealing Studios, in England. This would also be the first Star Wars movie to be shot entirely with Digital Cameras, as Lucas thought that this would speed up the process in the Editing room, and make it easier for the Sound Designers and Visual Effects artists to work on the movie. As the filming with Digital Cameras was relatively still in its infancy, the amount of connections needed for each camera and the dimensions of the these, would prove to be cumbersome when it came to handling and moving them around. Despite all this, the shooting moved along at a swift pace.

Lucas also became more ambitious in the kind of shots and effects he wanted to achieve, almost all of these regarding creature design and animation, and the final ground battle on the Planet Geonosis between the newly discovered Clone Army and the Separatist Droid Army. But one major change was on the cards that would give Lucas and the Animators more than one sleepless night; the creation of a fully functional digital Yoda.

Pushing the envelope

With the use of Digital Cameras, Lucas wanted to push the boundaries of what could be achieved in the digital realm; so for this new entry his Animators started working full gas on the development of a complete CGI recreation of Yoda that could, not only move faster for one pivotal scene at the end of the movie, but further enhance the body language and facial expression nuances of the character, without divorcing it completely from what Frank Oz had achieved with the puppet back in 1981 with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Months of painstaking computer animation work went into the development and refinement of ,not only the body movement, but also the recreation of the fabrics of the clothing that the character would wear while on-screen. This same process would also be used for the animation of CGI characters like Dexter Jettster, some facial replacement for Christopher Lee’s character for the light sabrefight scenes, and to be used as CGI stunt doubles for Temuera Morrison, Ewan Macgregor, Samuel L. Jackson and Hayden Christensen in some of the most demanding and dangerous action set pieces. In almost all the cases the end results blended seamlessly with the live action footage, but in other cases, like the interaction of Obi-Wan with short-order cook turned spy, Dexter Jettster, the results were not so good, and it can be clearly seen that the technology still had a while to go to be perfected.

That nitpick aside, it was clear that the advances in digital animation and computer graphics had advanced to such a level, that the Visual Effects Supervisors started using Computer Graphics as a tool to pre-visualize CGI-heavy sequences in order to better plan out and execute said sequences later on in Post-production. This process would come to be known as Pre-viz, in which the technical crew themselves would dress up as the main characters and act out certain scenes with the aid of practical models and props. That footage would later on be digitally added to previously shot digital matte paintings or miniature models, and Computer Graphics would then be used to enhance the animation. Up until that point, animatics (small vignettes animated as cartoons), and storyboards, had been used as reference for the animators and special effects guys to serve as a visual guide on which to plan out the most daring and difficult action set pieces. This process was exactly the same, only it was less time-consuming and laborious for the technical crew. Plus, they saved money and time, which are the two things filmmakers don’t have in abundance when making a movie.

With all this digital power at his disposal, Lucas felt for the very first time that he now actually had the creative freedom to do pretty much as he pleased. With the advent of digital filming came digital editing, that further simplified the Post-production process by being able to change and tweak things till the very last minute. The overall output by Industrial Light & Magic was once again, outstanding. Scenes like the Speeder Chase throughout Coruscant, the new planetary additions to the Star Wars Universe; The Planet Kamino, which is basically a huge ocean, the Cloning facilities inside the Citadel of Kamino, and the Termite-like structures of the planet Geonosis with its underground Droid Factory and the Sports Arena, that resembles a Termite Colony, not to say anything about the vast array of alien creatures and monsters that our heroes face in and out of the Arena. All in all, excellent production values.

The good and the bad

As I mentioned earlier, the movie has too many storylines to fit into a two-hour movie and unfortunately, some of those storylines suffer for it. Not only does all the addicional plot points make the movie longer, but as they’re so constricted with the running time, some of those plot points, like the love story, for instance, are not given enough time to develop and the characters to be fleshed out properly. Thus, the dialogue scenes come across rather stiff and un-natural. And here is where the movie falls into a pit from where the brilliance of the action set pieces and visual effects rescue it.

Let’s get this out of the way first; dialogue, except in a few occasions, is not very good on these movies. Let’s be honest. This is a recurrent theme that the prequels would suffer from for all three movies. And the main culprit here is George Lucas. In his obsession to control every little aspect of these movies, and not seek out the help of better prepared screenwriters to suggest, improve or even tweak some of his writing, he ended up drowning his characters, who are supposed to come out as heroic, charismatic and larger-than-life, with dry, lifeless, flat, and sometimes even downright cringe-worthy dialogue. This is especially true during the romantic exchanges between Anakin and Padmé. The man doesn’t know how to write a love scene. His concept of romance is old-fashioned and his prose is stilted. Like something out of time. Nobody speaks like that in real life. Not in a romantic situation, anyway. It sounds like some kind of heightened Theater. Of the bad kind. Now, you could argue that he’s pulled it off before with the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia, but he had help on that. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan were brought in to iron out the wrinkles on that script and Lucas came out the better for it. Ok, so he had a collaborator this time. By the looks of it, he had little to no input when it came to the dialogue and was merely brought in to help out with the developing of the story. Whatever happened, it is quite clear to me that the script needed a few more drafts before shooting started. Another major issue is Lucas’ directing. I think I mentioned in my previous review that Lucas has never been very good at directing actors. He has been proven over the years through numerous interviews with some of his actors and crew, and even from on-set footage that it is something he’s never learned to do. I’m sorry, George, but; ”Faster”, ”More intense”, doesn’t cut it. He could learn a thing or two from Steven Spielberg.

Some actors need more direction than others, some, very few, need none at all. This is not the case with Hayden Christensen. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a very capable actor; Life as a House, Irwin Winkler (2001), comes to mind. He unfortunately, in this case, lacked a strong guiding hand that could get the better of him. He does get there sometimes, though. But more by sheer talent than anything else. More on that later.

The love story was a plot point in the movie that needed the most attention in order to believably convey the feeling that this momentous, doomed love affair was bound to happen. Unfortunately, neither the actors nor the awful dialogue helps the cause. Lack of on-screen chemistry between both actors doesn’t help either.

Much better resolved, though, is the plot revolving around the asassination attempt on Senator Amidala and Obi-Wan’s investigation into it, resulting in the uncovering of a secret Clone Army being developed on the faraway planet of Kamino at the behest of the Republic, and the discovery of a plot to form an alliance between several disgruntled galactic Systems under the order of a mysterious Sith Lord, Darth Tyrannus. This is what really drives the story along.

There’s one more plot point we have to talk about, and that is the one involving Anakin returning to Tatooine to rescue his mother. And that one falls into the good category.

As I said earlier, I don’t think that Hayden Christensen is a bad actor. Quite the opposite. Fortunately, he gets to prove his acting chops right where I wanted him too. Via a misguided direction and weak dialogue, Anakin, at first, comes across as a cocky, complaining adolescent who thinks that his master his holding him back. But he also has frequent nightmares of his mother being in some kind of danger and he’s torn between his duty to protect Padmé and his desire to go back to Tatooine to rescue his mother. He finally goes, only to find out that she’s been kidnapped by Tusken Raiders and has been missing for months. He tracks her down with the aid of some local help, but comes too late and just in time for her to die in his arms. Now,on this one scene, is when we get a taste of Anakin’s Dark Side. Heartbroken and overwhelmed with grief and hatred, he massacres the whole Tusken village. Retrieves his mother’s body and returns to the Homestead. There he confesses to Padmé what he’s done, and his innermost desire to become the most powerful Jedi ever to stop those he cares about from dying, which is the vow he makes on his mother’s grave. That, I believe, more than anything else we see later on in Episode III, is what marks the turning point for Anakin and his downward spiral path toward the Dark Side. These two scenes are the stand-out dramatic moments of the film and a testament to Christensen’s acting skills, which would see more of in Episode III.

As for the rest of the cast, they do their best considering what dialogue and character development they had to play with. Of all of these, the one that probably comes off best is Ewan MacGregor. He’s clearly more comfortable in the role this time around and oozes charisma as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s the one actor from the prequel trilogy, along with Ian McDiarmid, to really shine throughout, and is still, to this day, talked about . Fans have been clamoring for an Obi-Wan stand-alone movie for ages.

We’ve already talked about the technical merits of this movie, but another saving grace for, not only this movie, but the entirety of the Star Wars Universe is Composer John Williams. His classic themes still resonate with fans and casuall viewers of Star Wars alike and have become an indispensable part of the tapestry that is this Sci-fi saga. This time around he composes one of the most beautiful and haunting love themes ever written. The rest of his repertoire; like the Chase through Coruscant track and the Asteroid Field Chase, to name just a few, are full of the rhythm, color and cheerfulness we’re so used to.

Final thoughts

Not much else to say about it, really. The movie’s got top notch production values, a great score, a few stand-out dramatic moments, a few scenes with Jar Jar Binks ( thank God!!); even though one of them turns out to be a pivotal moment for the whole saga, who knew?, a kick-ass final battle on the Planet Geonosis between a Battle Droid Army and like a hundred Jedi Knights ( Awesome!!), an even bigger Ground Battle between said Droid Army and the newly appointed Republic Clone Army (jaw-dropping), a face-off between Anakin and Obi-Wan and Count Dooku (good, but short), and the end result of bringing Yoda into the digital realm; getting to see him wield his lightsabre and give Count Dooku a run for his money ( I always geek out at this point). I don’t care what any die-hard Star Wars fan says; that was the single most awesome moment in the entire film and worth the entry fee just to see that.

As for the rest, the Droid Factory fight scene was very well done, but was basically filler; which the movie could have done without, the Asteroid Field Chase was great, but the Speeder Chase through Coruscant was equally good. The film has got lots more action in it, a weak and poorly developed love story result of an equally weak scrip that clearly needed more work done on it, a few surprising appearances and an awesome last scene that makes you wish for more.

So, in spite of the many weaknesses I’ve pointed out, I still enjoy it. So, shoot me.

Thanks for reading.

Doctor Sleep. On the footsteps of Kubrick.

When the non-at all-awaited sequel to Stephen King’s 1977 book The Shining came out back in 2013, it was inevitable that someone, in the not too distant future, would try to adapt the book for the big screen. Not surprising, considering that the book quickly rose to the top of the best-sellers list that year.

Warner quickly secured the rights for a movie adaptation and along came Mike Flannagan, creator of the Netflix TV show, The House of Haunted Hill, and who had also adapted for them another Stephen King book; Gerald’s Game.

Now, is the movie any good?. And how does it stack up against the book?.

The answer to the first question is: Yes, it is a good movie, with solid performances from all the cast (a special mention to Rebecca Ferguson’s Rosie The Hat), very nice Cinematography, a very creepy soundtrack by the Newton Brothers, which closely resembles Wendy Carlos’ work for Kubrick’s The Shinning, and an overall very uncomfortable and eerie atmospheric tone that gives off some of the hypnotic vibe that made Kubrick’s movie such an iconic piece of Cinematic Horror.

With that out of the way, Flannagan doesn’t manage, at any moment, to better Kubrick’s work. Trying to better or even replicate Kubrick’s film would have been an exercise in futility. But he does try to replicate some of his imagery, though. In several instances, Flannagan does a very nice job of trying to replicate Kubrick’s shooting style with the heavy use of the Steadicam, especially in those sequences that take place in The Overlook Hotel during the third act, and with some of his editing choices; the fades come to mind. That being said, Flannagan is doing his own thing while trying to be reverential to the original movie. His is a more visceral and visual take on King’s material, which Kubrick’s film wasn’t. Kubrick leaned more heavily on suggestion and psychological drama. Flannagan’s movie has some cool imagery of its own; the scene when Rosie tries to invade Abra’s mind, but has her own mind probed instead; Abra rifling through thousands of files in Rosie’s cathedral-like memory depository, is a nicely put together scene and probably the best in the movie, as it gives the viewers a taste of how strong the psychic powers of both woman and child are. Flannagan also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, either, as seen in the very unsettling scene when The True Knot kill the Baseball boy, without falling into Gore territory.

As for the second question, yes and no. The movie does try to follow the main bits of the storyline as presented in the book, especially for the first two acts of the movie. But, as the movie also wants to be a direct follow-up to the storyline as presented in Kubrick’s film, and given all the changes that Kubrick made to the story in the book when writing his screenplay, in order to be faithful to that storyline, said changes had to be kept in place, thus drastically changing the third act of the movie. Does it work?. I think it does. I’ve been reading Stephen King books for many years now, and although I’ve accused the Studios and screenwriters in many occasions of making such drastic changes to the source material that ended up causing a major shift between what was presented in the book and what was finally seen on-screen, I have to give a nod to Flannagan, on this occasion, in that he tries to present a final product that would generally agree with both die-hard fans of the books and those of Kubrick’s work. I, myself, have never been able to bring myself to read The Shining, as I’m both a King and a Kubrick fan, and I’m afraid that reading King’s book would severely undermine my appreciation for Kubrick’s movie. That being said, I did read Doctor Sleep a few years ago, and even though the movie deviates quite a lot from the book, I could appreciate these changes as a by product of trying to follow through with what Kubrick had laid out in the previous film, and not be bothered by them. This, as always, is my own appreciation and doesn’t necessarily reflect the general opinion on both the movie and the book.

The movie, for me, succeeds as both a Stephen King adaptation and a Horror movie; more than It: Chapter Two succeeded, in that is a more satisfying and rounded effort, whereas Andrés Muschietti’s movie resulted a bloated and over-the-top visual extravaganza, with very jarringly misplaced sense of humour and spectacle for the sake of spectacle. I haven’t had a chance to watch any of Flannagan’s previous work, especially his Stephen King adaptation of Gerald’s Game, but I will be doing so in the near future, as I think he is a very interesting prospect for the future. Something we’re sorely lacking in the current Industry.

Thanks for reading.

Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. An interesting but irregular prequel.

In light of the upcoming release of the most maligned Star Wars: Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker movie, I’ve decided to go through all of the Star Wars movies, and give my personal take on each one of them. And I’m going to begin in the most unlikely of places. I’m gonna do a run down of the Prequel Trilogy, and make a case as to why they’re so underrated and more engaging than people may think.

The Elephant in the room

Let’s start with the Star Wars movie that, up until recently, was regarded, by many fans and casual viewers alike, to be the worst Star Wars movie ever produced. That is, until Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi came out.

Regardless of what you may think about the movie as a whole, it is quite clear in my eyes, and in spite of its many screenwriting and filmmaking shortcomings, that this is a movie that’s got more merits than many people would like to admit. Let’s start with the obvious. The movie is the first chapter of a, according to George Lucas, larger story that, due to the technological constraints at the time, had to be abandoned until such time when technology would be able to catch up and Lucas’ vision could be completed to his satisfaction. Whether you believe that he had this 6-part-story arc in mind back in 1976 when he started shooting Star Wars or not, is really up to the viewer. I, myself, highly doubt it. From what I’ve gleaned from documentaries and interviews with Lucas from back in the day, I firmly believe that he didn’t have the Prequel Trilogy in mind at the time ( the Episode IV: A New Hope title wouldn’t be added to the opening crawl until the 1981 re-release of Star Wars) and that, given the consequent massive success of the first Star wars movie, he just started adding to the mythos and the backstory of the characters as the sequels came along. What he had in mind after the release of Return of the Jedi was another thing altogether, and by then, I believe, he had a clearer idea of the direction in which he wanted to move the story for Episodes I to III.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the genesis of this new trilogy.

The Origin

On November 1st 1994, George Lucas finally started writing the first draft for Episode I. He already had a 15-page-outline for all three episodes. All he had to do was develop and expand upon that outline, which he would do over the next three years. He would also assemble a very skillfull team of conceptual artists and model makers around him to help him realize his vision.

Casting

Lucas had a pretty good idea of who he wanted to cast for the main parts; so slowly, but surely the likes of Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin, Ewan MacGregor as his Padawan learner Obi-Wan Kenobi, Natalie Portman as Queen Padmé Amidala, Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine/ Darth Sidious, Ray Park as his apprentice Darth Maul and Ahmed Best as the most derided by fans Jar Jar Binks. Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker would both reprise their roles as the most bickering robot couple in Cinema History, C3-PO and R2-D2. But what would prove to be the most crucial piece of casting was that of the actor who was to portray an 8-year-old Anakin Skywalker. The casting crew went scouting worldwide for potential child actors who could play the part. As many as over 3.000 candidates were interviewed and screen tested for the role. In the end, they managed to narrow it down to three actors; of which Jake Lloyd, who had some previous experience on the big screen ( he played Arnold Schwarzennegger’s son in the Christmas flick Jingle all the Way) was chosen.

Neeson, MacGregor and Park would undergo rigorous sword fight training needed for the elaborately choreographed Light Sabre fight sequences, and Natalie Portman, on her part, would be subjected to endless Wardrobe fittings for her role as Queen Amidala of Naboo. It would be several months until actual shooting started.

Problems in Africa

With cast and crew pretty much locked down, the movie started shooting in location in Caserta,Italy, for the scenes that took place in Queen Amidala’s palace in the planet Naboo, and in Tunisia, Africa, for all those scenes that took place in Anakin’s home planet of Tatooine, like some exterior shots of the town of Mos Espa, and especially the crucial Pod Race sequence. All the different life size Pod Race models were built in England and flown over via Cargo Plane to Africa. Unfortunately, an overnight rainstorm would blow away most of the sets and the Pod Race models would suffer the most, as most of them were so badly damaged, they would have to be haphazardly re-assembled from existing parts from other models. The Pod Race sequence, which was one of the first on the shooting schedule, had to be placed last, in order to give the crew time to repair what damage had be done. Lucas, on the other hand, considered this hiccup to be a good Omen for the success of the picture, as the same thing had happened to him back in 1976 when they were shooting the original Star Wars in Tunisia and an overnight rainstorm had flooded the Luke Skywalker’s Homestead sets. After this, shooting resumed as normal without further incidents. These, though, would be the only in location shooting that would take place. The bulk of the production would be filmed on sets constructed in Leavesden Studios, on the outskirts of London, further enhanced by the use of miniatures, digital matte paintings, puppetry (Frank Oz was brought in once again to reprise his role of Master Jedi Yoda), and especially, computer graphics.

Visual artistry

It was in the digital realm, especially on the part of Special and Visual Effects wizards, Industrial Light & Magic, that the most astounding results would be achieved. In the intervening years since the release of Return of the Jedi, technology was leaps and bounds ahead of anything that could’ve been achieved back in the mid 80s, and the time was right for Lucas to unleash his imagination in ways that he’d never been able to before. Pretty much everything that was put on the page and later drawn and modeled, could be brought to life with the aid of CGI (Computer Graphic Images). Sights like the Federation’s Control Ship, the wonderful vistas of Naboo, the Underwater City of the Gungans, the surface of the Planet Coruscant, that was comprised entirely of buildings of all shapes and sizes, the Pod Race sequence, the ground fight between the Gungas and the Droid Army, the Space Battle over Naboo, are but a few of the examples that we can see throughout the movie.

Personal thoughts

Let’s get the bad out of the way first; from the initial crawl we immediately can see that the movie has got a completely different feel to the previous movies; its gonna be more on the political side of things, and not so much about the all-out adventure that the first trilogy was. That, in my opinion, bogs down the proceedings somewhat, and makes it loose the carefree spirit that the first movies had. It gets too mired in political issues that don’t seem to belong in a Star Wars movie. It is true that Lucas explains in the Audio Commentary to this movie that he had to try to get as much of the exposition and the political issues that are engulfing the Galaxy, out of the way in this movie. But surely he could have devised a way of getting through all of that without all the extremely talkative, politically-driven conversations between Queen Amidala, Senator Palpatine and her advisors. Those scenes only slow the movie down and distract from what should be the main plot point of the movie; the introduction of Anakin Skywalker. Once the first half of the movie is done, his character is pushed to one side and forgotten about, only to resurface during the last battle on Naboo, making him a surprising participant in said battle, for the sake of doing something with the character, if nothing else.

The other big point of contention, and the reason this movie is so derided by fans, is because of the introduction of Jar Jar Binks. Lucas’ obsession with this character and his decision to push him so heavily as an important element of the story, is something that baffles me. This character and, by association, the Gungan race, could have easily been excised from the movie without any lasting damage to the overall narrative of the film. His is a very annoying character, who is only there as doubtful comic relief. Fortunately, Lucas listened to the complaints of the fans and wisely decided that it would have a minimal role in the subsequent entries.

The issue of charisma, or lack thereof on the part of the actors for this new trilogy, is another problem. Unfortunately the flat nature of the dialogues don’t help the actors in this regard, and we don’t get the spark and wit we got in the OT. Everything is one-dimensional and straightforward. We get the occasional rare dramatic moment; Anakin’s farewell to his mother, the deliciously devious nature of Ian McDiarmid’s performance as both Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious, but these moments are few and far between.

On to the good stuff; the special and visual effects, as per usual with Star Wars are top notch. Lucas surrounded himself with the best in the business to help him bring his vision to fruition. The likes of Doug Chiang as Chief Conceptual Designer, Gavin Bocquet as Production Designer, David Tattersall as Director of Photography, the legendary Dennis Muren and John Knoll as Visual Effects Supervisors, Trisha Briggar as Costume Designer, Ben Coleman as Director of Animation, not to mention the great Sound Designer and Co-editor Ben Burtt, who throughout the years, and from the very beginning has helped shape Star Wars through his Sound Design and Editing, as much as Lucas has helped it with his imagination and direction. Last, but not least, we have the legendary Composer John Williams, who once again brings his enormous talent to the table and helps round up the Star Wars Musical Universe.

The movie may be lacking a strong script, charismatic characters and be tonally quite different from the OT, but it more than makes up for it with its assemble of great action set pieces. One thing that, for me, immediately comes to the fore, is the amazingly dynamic and impactful light sabre fight sequences. Darth Maul versus Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is the stand-out fighting sequence in the movie; brilliantly choreographed and executed, the Pod Race sequence on Tatooine is another mesmerizing show of brilliant action and astounding visual effects; easily the best sequence on the movie and both the final Ground and Space Battle on Naboo. Those are the moments the movie is worth watching it for.

Then we get the best animated character in the movie, and the best non-live action character we’d seen on the big screen until Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy showed up; Watto, the owner of Anakin and his mother and junkyard dealer, with whom Qui-Gon must negotiate to get the spare parts to repair the Queen’s broken down ship. The animators did a brilliant job giving it a grumpy, uncanny and very clever nature, making him, in many instances, outstage the live-action characters. Who would have thought?.

All in all, a very worthwhile entry to the franchise, with some script and pacing issues, but brilliantly executed action set pieces and top notch production values.

Thanks for reading.