Friday, September 16, 2011

Movie Review: "Star Wars" Original Trilogy by David Pretty

Greetings, Aspiring Jedi and/or Sith!

Well, in light of the tremendous digital fart the new Star Wars Blu-Ray set is about to unleash into the poorly-ventilated bedroom of geek opinion, I thought I'd take it upon myself to review the three original films in the saga. Ready?  Then grab your lightsabers, jump into your X-Wing and let's jump into cinematic hyperspace!

Star Wars Episode I "A New Hope"                                   Release Date: May 25'th, 1977

The reason the first two Star Wars flicks are so good compared to the prequels is because they weren't the product of one man's limited talents.  Lucas is admittedly a great conceptual and visual genius as well as a crackerjack editor but he's a wretched actor's director and also terrible with dialogue.

When Lucas was trying to get Star Wars financed he was on still on shaky ground.  As such he was forced to listen to backers demanding that he let better writers take a pass on the script.  He also found himself surrounded with strong-willed actors like Harrison Ford who constantly lobbied for better dialogue.

Star Wars suceeds because it's the collaborative effort of many talented people.  By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, Star Wars was a franchise and Lucas had hoodwinked the movie-going populace into believing that he was the single creative force behind the trilogy.  However, when the prequel films were released, audiences quickly realized that "Emperor Lucas" had no clothes.

Everything works in Star Wars (to hell with this Episode IV crap). The production design was original and has since been copied ad nauseam.  The bluescreen/motion control/model effects were trailblazing at the time and are still seems somehow more "real" than current CGI.  The pacing is flawless, giving the film a cinematic roller-coaster quality.  

The story is epic and sees many of the characters complete a genuine arch of growth. The triumverate of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher arguably compromise the best chemistry amongst actors in a sci-fi flick. The film evokes child-like imagination without being childish. The mythological underpinnings of the film make it good universal viewing for just about everyone.

Sure some of the dialogue is a bit ripe.  Yes, some of the hairstyles and special effects are a bit dated.  But even after admitting to these minor faults, Star Wars is still a pinnacle in terms of a purely visceral cinematic experience.  People have to remember that the first film didn't spring from obligation or marketing.  It came from a place of passion by a visionary film-maker who was forced to collaborate with others in order to turn a B-grade concept into a modern mythology.

I haven't reviewed too many films that I consider life-altering.  In 1977, everyone loved Star Wars, not just geeks.  It gave an entire generation fodder for imagination and creativity.  As such, Star Wars certainly deserves my highest possible rating.

Star Wars Episode V "The Empire Strikes Back"            Release Date: May 25'th, 1980

Without a doubt, the best of the Star Wars films.  This is a perfect example of how a juvenile concept can reach a high-water mark with a good screenwriter and director at the helm.

Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan adapt a solid story by Lucas; a formula fans vainly hoped would be repeated for the prequels.  This episode didn't just trowel on a second helping of the first flick, it gave us diverse new worlds, original action set pieces, fantastic creatures and mysterious new characters like Boba Fett.  Unrelentingly bleak, Empire pulls our beloved heroes through a terrible knothole of pain, betrayal and shocking revelations which will alter them forever.

Yoda is the biggest revelation here and imparts more Zen Buddist wisdom in his short screen time than any other character in cinema history.  It's downright sad to witness this character get increasingly underwritten and dumbed down in later entries at the hands of less-talented screenwriters.

Which brings me to another point: the thought that anyone would consider those rare moments of character development in the first two Star Wars films "boring".  The reason the prequel trilogy is so poorly regarded is because they're designed for people with the attention span of a squirrel.  If a film has no decent dialogue or investment in character development, the result is paper-thin automatons who we just can't sympathize with.

Those precious introspective beats (Luke's lesson at the Cave, Yoda's Zen-like observations about the Force, Leia and Han's genuine sexual tension) create resonance with an audience.   If this doesn't happen in a movie then the audience starts to feel disconnected from what's going on.  They become disengaged, like the filmic equivalent of sitting around and watching someone else play a video game.

In order for Star Wars to become the viable franchise it still is today, the first sequel had to be just as good if not better.  Talented director Irvin Kershner, with his artistic eye and tremendous work with the actors, delivered a truly magical film that actually manages to eclipse the original in many ways.

It's a pity that Lucas didn't have enough respect for his own creation and continue to collaborate with talented people.  As Lucas slowly began to alienate his collaborators one at a time and assume totalitarian creative control over Star Wars, the series begin to betray the worst qualities of the Saturday morning serials that first inspired it.  Slowly, it would devolve from a timeless, elegiac modern myth and veer dangerously close to the realm of shlock.

But this doesn't diminish the accomplishments of The Empire Strikes Back.  For being more then just a rehash of the first film and for raising the entire concept above and beyond it's B-grade origins, the first Star Wars sequel deserves the highest possible plaudits as well.

Star Wars Episode VI "Return of the Jedi"                      Release Date:  May 25'th, 1983

Rumor has it that George Lucas was unhappy with Empire director Irvin Kershner for allocating all that extra time with the actors on set, as well as his "unnecessary" artistic flourishes and the liberties that were taken with the original script.  If Lucas had his way we might never have been treated to Harrison Ford's classic "I love you"/"I know" ad lib between Han and Leia.

By the time Jedi rolled around Lucas had the economic clout to make the other films exactly as he wanted: as high-priced remakes of the borderline cheesy chapter-play serials of this childhood. As a result, we're treated to some of the worst dialogue and most stilted scenes of the original trilogy.

Compare the Luke/Yoda sequence in Empire and Jedi and you'll understand what I'm talking about.  In the prior film Mark Hamill interacts with Yoda (essentially a rubber muppet) as if both are master thespians.  In the Jedi Master's death scene in the sequel, suddenly everyone is talking with faux formality and lack of contractions.  The hokey crash course in exposition with Obi-Wan that follows is equally clunky.

There are a multitude of similar scenes in the film.  Han and Leia's interactions as a "couple" are uncomfortably similar to the Anakin/Padme scenes in the prequels.  The family history discussion between Luke and Leia is painfully stilted.  The initial scenes between Luke, Vader and the Emperor also suffer to an extent from the same pall of stiffness.

There's also a pronounced and unexpectedly slapdash quality to the film.  Jedi features some of the worst matte paintings and creature designs in the entire saga.  Put a real-looking creation like Jabba in a room full of fake-looking muppets and the illusion is quickly destroyed.

And then there's the...*sigh*... Ewoks.  What makes them even more hateful is the fact that they might  have been Wookiees instead, but I suppose this just wasn't marketable enough to kids.  If you don't think the Ewoks were overly marketed just consider this: the work "Ewok" is never once used in the movie yet everyone on the planet knows what the furry little bastards are.

Indeed there are many omens here which pre-sage what's to come in the prequels: critters passing gas, inappropriate humor dismantling dramatic and tense scenes as well as loads of expository and/or socially retarded dialogue.

Mercifully Lucas hadn't purged all the talent out of his inner circle just yet and there are still some awesome things about the flick.   The FX in the final space battle and the scout walker attack are still stunning.  Ian McDiarmid's gleefully evil Emperor is a joy to watch.  Also, when Luke finally snaps yet still manages to redeem his pappy the audience can't help be moved.

Even though Star Wars went to ground for sixteen long years, its fandom continued to grow.  Despite being marred somewhat by unnecessary and wrong-headed digital "improvements", the late 90's re-release of the Holy Trilogy whipped anticipation for a whole new series of films into a palpable mania.

But in 1999 fans would truly know the meaning of the timeless phrase: "Sometimes wanting something is better then having it."

  Tilt: up.


  1. 3 stars for Returne Jedi? Ha! Haters going to hate..

  2. You're right, John. That was a tad harsh.