Elstree 1976 (2015)

2017 #18
Jon Spira | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 12

Elstree 1976

In a studio near London in the summer of 1976, filming took place for a movie that the crew regarded as a children’s flick and several cast members assumed would be a flop. They couldn’t’ve been more wrong, because that film was Star Wars, probably the most influential movie of the last 40 years. You know the names of many of the people who were there: George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness… But there was also an army of supporting actors and extras. This is their story.

Here’s where the point of Elstree 1976 runs aground for some viewers. It is not The Making of Star Wars; nor is it The Secret Making of Star Wars, where the “little people” dish the dirt on what really happened. There is a bit of that in here — a section where the interviewees tell their tales from the set — but it’s not what the film is about. Rather, it’s a study of what it’s like to be tangentially attached to something great; to be a bit player in a cultural phenomenon. Most of the contributors here just took any old job to earn some cash, but by happening to be in the right place at the right time they found themselves attached to something huge for the entire rest of their lives. How does that change the course of someone’s life? How does it change the very fabric of who they are as a person?

What it's actually like being on a film set

There are reviews of Elstree 1976 that espouse a “why should we care” perspective. “These people aren’t the leads, they were just little people, why should we give a hoot about their lives?” Well, isn’t that the point? They’re people, like you and I — people who have lives. They were involved with one of the largest, most enduring pop culture events of our time, and yet they were so on the periphery that it’s a tiny part of their lives… or it should have been. Star Wars may be this huge, defining thing for its lead actors and high-profile crew members, but there were also dozens (probably hundreds) of people who “just happened to work on it”, and who otherwise have led ordinary lives. Or haven’t, because of the effect the film has had.

You see, here’s the thing: some of these people were only on screen for a frame or two, or they were hidden under a prosthetic that means you never even saw their face… and yet they still attend conventions where people want to meet them, get their autograph, all that jazz. For all the people who don’t understand the appeal of a movie telling these performers’ life stories, there are fans who are so much more interested in them for so much less. I don’t know how much the documentary actually explores the psychology of that, but it does touch on some aspects — the behind-the-scenes hierarchy of conventions, for instance, and how some actors don’t think others are worthy of putting in an appearance.

Extras, extras, read all about it!

Providing you approach it with the right expectations, Elstree 1976 is interesting in its way. As a portrait of ordinary lives that were touched by something extraordinary it’s got an interesting thematic point to make, but the lives covered are still ordinary, and we therefore hear a lot about that ordinariness. Well, maybe that’s harsh — some of these people certainly have stories to tell. Still, it’s probably a bit too long, and a greater focus on the behind-the-scenes stories and conventions, plus a trim to the general life stuff, might’ve been beneficial. Nonetheless, it offers a unique perspective on a much-discussed movie and the culture that surrounds it.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Star Wars (1977)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #88

A long time ago
in a galaxy far, far away…

Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 121 minutes | 125 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1977 (USA)
UK Release: 27th December 1977
First Seen: VHS, c.1990

Stars
Mark Hamill (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Star Wars: Episode VIII)
Harrison Ford (American Graffiti, The Fugitive)
Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally…, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai)
James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, The Lion King)

Director
George Lucas (THX 1138, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)

Screenwriter
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones)

The Story
When he discovers a distress call from a beautiful princess, a young farmhand joins forces with an old warrior, a roguish pilot, his bear-like first mate, and a pair of bickering robots to rescue her — which involves taking on the evil galactic Empire, and in particular their chief enforcer: Darth Vader.

Our Heroes
Farm boy Luke Skywalker just wants to go off and join the rebellion, but little does he realise how much that path leads to his destiny. Helping him get there is smuggler Han Solo, who may come from a wretched hive of scum and villainy and is happy to shoot first at the same time as his opponent, but has a heart of gold really. The object of their mission, and both their affections, is the strong-willed Princess Leia.

Our Villains
A man in a black suit with breathing problems might not sound like one of the most effective screen villains of all time, but that’s what you get when you come up with pithy descriptions like that. In fact, Darth Vader is so badass, he’s not above choking members of his own side, the evil Empire — and they’re evil.

Best Supporting Character
R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are also introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi. A mysterious old man who inducts Luke into the ways of the Force, Obi-Wan is played by veteran character actor Alec Guinness, meaning he is bestowed with instant awesomeness. Not as handy with a lightsaber as he used to be, mind.

Memorable Quote
Darth Vader: “Your powers are weak, old man.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I have a very bad feeling about this.” — Luke Skywalker

Memorable Scene
It’s fair to say Star Wars is loaded with memorable scenes, but for pure effectiveness you’d have to go a long way to beat the opening sequence: giant spaceships flying overhead, blasting laser beams at each other; walking, talking robots bickering; a gunfight between men and armoured soldiers; and then Darth Vader, stalking into the movie like a sci-fi vision of Death himself.

Memorable Music
George Lucas wanted a score reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies to help inform audiences about what they were watching — that although it was set on alien worlds with giant spaceships and laser swords, it was a familiar kind of heroic adventure tale. Composer John Williams delivered exactly that, drawing on influences including classical composers, like Stravinsky and Holst, and film composers, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (King’s Row) and Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won). He produced not only a great soundtrack all round, but arguably the most famous movie theme of all time.

Truly Special Effect
Star Wars did so much to break new ground in special effects, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of it’s a little skwiffy (the lightsaber effects are notoriously problematic, their colours varying even in recent remastered versions), but the model work — the spaceships and their battles — is fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Han shot first! *ahem* Yes, A New Hope is definitely the movie where Lucas’ unpopular Special Edition fiddling is it at its least liked, primarily for that bit where Han no longer shoots Greedo in cold blood. What do you have to do to get a merciless good guy these days, eh? Other changes have varying degrees of effectiveness: having extra X-Wings in the Death Star battle looks pretty neat, but the CGI Jabba the Hutt — complete with Han stepping jerkily over his tail — is terrible.

Making of
George Lucas screened an early cut of the film for a group of his director friends, most of whom agreed with him: it was going to be a flop. Brian De Palma even called it “the worst movie ever”. There was one dissenting voice: Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be a huge hit. As if that man’s entire career wasn’t proof enough that he knows what he’s talking about…

Previously on…
Star Wars’ influences can be clearly traced back to the sci-fi cinema serials of the ’30s and ’40s, like Flash Gordon. In-universe, the saga begins with the Prequel Trilogy, and there’s shedloads of other spin-off media. Most pertinently, this December’s first live-action non-saga Star Wars film, Rogue One, should lead more-or-less directly into the start of A New Hope.

Next time…
Star Wars essentially inspired the next 39 years (and counting) of effects-driven summer blockbusters. It also started a mini-industry all of its own — well, quite a large industry, actually: films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, board games, role playing games, toys, clothes, lunch boxes… anything you can imagine, I’d wager. Primarily, the story is directly continued in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and resumed in The Force Awakens, with more to come in 2017 and 2019.

Awards
7 Oscars (Editing, Score, Sound, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, Original Screenplay)
2 BAFTAs (Music, Sound)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Editing, Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
13 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (tied with Spielberg for Close Encounters), Writing, Music (John Williams tied with himself for Close Encounters), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Set Decoration, Special Award for Outstanding Cinematographer)
4 Saturn nominations (Actor (both Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill), Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Peter Cushing))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“The battles, the duels, the special effects — and what special effects! Swords made of light, blasters shooting laser beams, exploding planets — it goes on and on. All the aging acid-heads who tripped out to Stanley Kubrick’s overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, will go bananas over Star Wars. Not to mention comic-book freaks, science fiction and fantasy fans, lovers of old westerns, romances, mysteries and movies about the Crusades. In addition to being a slickly produced and highly entertaining adventure suitable for the whole family, Star Wars is richly evocative of a whole range of old film forms and I predict that entire books will be written on the sources, the religious symbolism, the mythological and historical allusions, and so on and so forth that Lucas has incorporated” — Robert Martin, The Globe and Mail (This review from the original release, before it was called Episode IV, also notes that it “opens like Episode 6 of a serial”. Good call, sir.)

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“To this day, A New Hope is used as a primary example of storytelling. It perfectly establishes a world and introduces audiences to a protagonist that goes on his hero’s journey. There’s a reason that so much pop culture parodies and pays tribute to this film and it’s because of how near perfect it is. You have the Princess in peril still holding her own against what will always be one of the greatest movie villains of all time in Darth Vader. That is also one thing the prequels do that take away from this movie and the two that come after: They soften Vader. Vader is cold, ruthless, robotic, and menacing. Not someone who cries about his girlfriend. […] A New Hope just does everything the right way. When it wants you to be excited, you are. When it wants you to be sad, you are. John Williams contributed to this a great deal with his score; and Lucas’ use of practical effects to tell his story make it a masterpiece.” — Reed, We’re Not Sorry

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of A New Hope’s modified DVD version, I said that “there are a few extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release.” Then, treating the film as the fourth part of the saga, I wrote that “the biggest change [from the prequel trilogy] is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power.”

Verdict

In my post on The Empire Strikes Back, I said it wasn’t actually my favourite Star Wars film. For all the popularity the series has as a whole, there’s only really one other possible contender for that crown: the first one. By which I mean this one, not Phantom Menace. Here, Lucas almost instantly conjures up a universe that feels wholly-imagined and genuinely lived-in (which is part of the reason people ended up so disappointed by the made-up-as-they-went-along, fill-in-the-blanks prequel trilogy). Throw in an array of likeable and entertaining characters, plus groundbreaking special effects, and you’re on to a winner. The plot may just be a classical hero narrative, but it’s in space and has laser swords — that counts for a lot.

Next: #89 ! Fuck yeah!

Return of the Jedi (1983)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #73

Return to a galaxy far, far away.

Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes | 135 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1983 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd June 1983
First Seen: VHS, c.1990

Stars
Mark Hamill (The Empire Strikes Back, The Guyver)
Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Patriot Games)
Carrie Fisher (The Empire Strikes Back, The ‘Burbs)
Anthony Daniels (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
Peter Mayhew (Star Wars, Comic Book: The Movie)

Director
Richard Marquand (Eye of the Needle, Jagged Edge)

Screenwriters
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Silverado)
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith)

Story by
George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Radioland Murders)

The Story
As the Galactic Empire construct a new Death Star, Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker — the Rebel Alliance’s best hope of defeating the evil Darth Vader — is busy rescuing his friend Han Solo from the clutches of crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, the powerful Emperor waits, intending to convert the young Jedi to the Dark Side…

Our Heroes
Luke Skywalker: Jedi Knight.
Han Solo: defrosted resistance captain.
Princess Leia: sister, love interest, bikini-wearer. Is it just me or does Leia get a pretty poor deal as the trilogy goes on?

Our Villains
Quite possibly the greatest villain ever created for the movies, Darth Vader. Here he’s on an arc of redemption, so there’s also the Emperor, who has the appearance of a wizened old man but is strong in the Force. As Vader himself puts it, “the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” Uh-oh!

Best Supporting Character
R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are introduced to Jabba the Hutt (well, unless you watched Episode I or the New Hope Special Edition first). A giant, fat, slug-like crime lord who is impervious to Jedi mind tricks and apparently has a fondness for metal bikinis, he’s as physically repulsive as are his methods and mores.

Memorable Quote
“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” — Mon Mothma

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“It’s a trap!” — Admiral Ackbar

Memorable Scene
The speeder bike chase — arguably the best action sequence in the entire original trilogy. Considering this is a series of films that include three or four duels with frickin’ laser swords, that’s some feat.

Memorable Music
John Williams’ music is an essential part of the Star Wars experience. While no single tune in Jedi is as iconic as the Main Theme from A New Hope or the Imperial March from Empire, the overall score is as good as ever.

Technical Wizardry
The background plates for the speeder bike chase were captured by having a Steadicam (operated by the system’s creator, Garrett Brown) walked through a forest while filming less than one frame per second. When played back at regular 24fps, this 5mph stroll came out more like a 120mph hurtle. They spent three days filming to get enough footage for the whole sequence.

Truly Special Effects
These days, the answer to the question “how did they do that?” is “CGI”. Back in the ’80s, however, they had to be a bit more creative — leaving an abundance of achievements worthy of inclusion here. For example, the shot where the Imperial fleet spring their trap on the Rebels was the most complex matte shot ever attempted, with dozens of separate model elements having to be printed in. Or there’s the puppet work. Jabba was full-size, of course, and the 2,000lb costume was operated by four puppeteers: one for his right arm and jaw, another for his left arm and tongue, both of whom moved his body; another had a cable control to move the mouth and nostrils, using his feet to work bellows to simulate breathing; and the fourth moved his tail. Plus the smoke for when Jabba uses his pipe was apparently created by someone smoking a cigar and blowing it up a tube. For the Rancor, on the other hand, Lucas wanted to use a Godzilla-style man in a suit, but the tests didn’t work very well. The final result is not stop-motion, as you might expect, but an 18-inch rod puppet. Filming it was treated as a live-action shoot, though various techniques were used to conceal the methodology, like slow-motion or running the film backwards — anything they could think of to help remove the sense of “Muppet-ness”.

Letting the Side Down
When it comes to Lucas’ Special Edition fiddling, most people focus on the “Han shot first” complaint. Personally, I find the change at the end of Jedi — where Hayden Christensen has been pasted over Sebastian Shaw as Anakin’s Force ghost — more egregious. That said, the stupid song & dance number in Jabba the Hutt’s palace runs it a close second. On the bright side, the added shots of planets around the Empire celebrating the destruction of the Death Star helps aggrandise an otherwise low-key post-climax celebration.

Making of
So, that metal bikini, eh? What a blatant bit of fan service by that dirty old George Lucas! Well, apparently it actually came about because Carrie Fisher herself complained about her all-covering costumes in the first two films meaning you couldn’t tell she was a woman. Costumer Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ design was inspired by the work of famed fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, but whoever decided it should be made as such a rigid piece wasn’t thinking ahead: the solidness of the top meant it didn’t move with Fisher’s body, and she refused to use double-sided tape, so before each take someone from wardrobe had to (to quote IMDb) “ensure that her breasts were still snug inside the costume”. Nice work if you can get it. Nonetheless, several scenes had to be reshot due to what we now call “wardrobe malfunctions”.

The Ewok Line
To quote from the How I Met Your Mother Wiki, “The Ewok Line correlates the birth year of a person and the subsequent appreciation of Ewoks […] Those born on or before May 25, 1973 have a low appreciation of the film’s creatures, while those born after this date have an affinity for them. This is because those who saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, which was released theatrically on May 25, 1983, who were 10 or under still loved their teddy bears, giving them an increased appreciation for the Ewoks.” I was born in 1986 and, yes, I love Ewoks. I mean, how can you not enjoy their silly mix of teddybear cuteness, gobbledegook language, and Empire-beating military competence?

Previously on…
Return of the Jedi picks up on the cliffhanger from The Empire Strikes Back, which of course continued the story of Star Wars. Many, many other films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, and whatever other media you can think of, take place before and around these movies.

Next time…
Ooh boy… Well, primarily: 16 years later, George Lucas returned to the world he created for the infamous Prequel Trilogy, finally filling in those missing first three Episodes. Chronologically, the saga picks up after Jedi with last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and will continue in Episodes VIII and IX. Aside from those main tenets, there’s an unimaginable mass of stuff in what’s known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe: TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, and anything else you can imagine — and it’s only going to continue growing in the future. Most of what was generated before Disney bought Lucasfilm may have been wiped out by whoever’s in charge now, but that doesn’t mean people don’t care about what went on in it. Of particular note is Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy of novels, which kickstarted the prominence of the Expanded Universe, and which many fans used to view as effectively being Episodes VII, VIII and IX.

Awards
1 Oscar (Special Achievement in Visual Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA (Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Make Up Artist, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor (Mark Hamill), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects)
5 Saturn nominations (Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Billy Dee Williams), Director, Writing, Music)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“The characters and dialogue get lost somewhere between the bug-eyed monsters and the exploding spaceships, but it is all so much fun it probably really does not matter a whole lot. […] Because so much of Return of the Jedi concentrates on makeup and special effects, and perhaps also because much of the dialogue (and acting) is so bad, it is pretty hard to get too involved with the characters, who came across with much more human interest in The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the movies. In a sense, the extraterrestrials are a lot more human than the people.” — Harper Barnes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“[A] thing I like about the scene in Jabba’s palace is the teamwork between all of the heroes in their mission to rescue Han Solo. It reminds me of a heist in way, since you got the droids, Chewbacca, Lando, Leia and Luke all working together and serving different purposes in rescuing Han. I also love the fact that the reason they are all working together is because they all care about Han. It just goes to prove that Star Wars isn’t just a huge spectacle but a story about family and friendship, which makes it a lot more personable.” — Jacob Bartley, Apocaflix! Movies

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of Return of the Jedi’s modified DVD version, I said that “there seem to be only minor differences or effects improvements here — it does make you wonder what the fans were kicking up such a fuss about”, and noted that “the speederbike chase is one of the trilogy’s greatest action sequences. And Ewoks are cute.” Then, treating the film as the sixth part of the saga, I wrote that it had “the biggest failing of the films as a single series: the prequel trilogy is endlessly obsessed with the prophecy about Anakin bringing balance to the Force; it isn’t mentioned once here. A dubbed line or added shot with Yoda saying something would’ve been nice.”

Verdict

Once upon a time I decided Return of the Jedi was actually my favourite Star Wars movie. I watched them again last year and changed my mind again, and wondered quite what I’d been thinking before. Jedi does have a lot to commend it, from multiple memorable set pieces to some effective character work with most of the principals, but it’s certainly not without its flaws, which have only been exacerbated by the prequel trilogy — as the climax to a mythic six-film saga, the finale of Jedi lacks some heft. Arguably it only reaches towards classic status by association with its two predecessors, but on its own merits it’s still an exciting space adventure.

#74 will be… six weeks on the road in the winter of 1931.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #27

The Star Wars Saga Continues

Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

(I may be a young whippersnapper, but I’m old enough that, when I was a kid, we still called it just The Empire Strikes Back. I thought that would be a nicer place for it among my 100 Favourites, therefore.)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 124 minutes | 127 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 21st May 1980 (UK)
US Release: 20th June 1980
First Seen: VHS, c.1990

Stars
Mark Hamill (Star Wars, The Big Red One)
Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Air Force One)
Carrie Fisher (Star Wars, Hannah and Her Sisters)
Billy Dee Williams (Mahogany, Batman)
Frank Oz (The Muppet Movie, Monsters, Inc.)

Director
Irvin Kershner (Never Say Never Again, RoboCop 2)

Screenwriters
Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wyatt Earp)

Story by
George Lucas (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Willow)

The Story
After the evil Galactic Empire uncovers the Rebel Alliance base on Hoth, our heroes flee for the stars. Guided by a message from beyond the grave, Luke heads to meet an old Jedi master. Meanwhile, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids hide for a bit, then go to meet the only black man in the galaxy…

Our Heroes
Luke Skywalker: ace pilot; Jedi in training.
Han Solo: reformed criminal.
Princess Leia: wait, hold on, her planet was destroyed — surely now she’s either Queen Leia or, y’know, nothing?

Our Villain
Darth Vader: daddy issues personified.

Best Supporting Character
R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are introduced to Yoda. Looks like a Muppet, as cheeky as a Muppet, much wiser than a Muppet. Probably. It’s hard to be certain.

Memorable Quote
“Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
Leia: “I love you.”
Han: “I know.”

Memorable Scene
After a dramatic lightsaber duel, Darth Vader lops off Luke’s hand, his weapon disappearing with it. As Luke dangles over an endless fall to Certain Death, Vader decides this is the perfect moment to impart a big secret…

Memorable Music
The Star Wars Main Theme is all well and good, but here regular composer John Williams introduces us to arguably an even more iconic tune — it certainly gets played outside of the films more often, as a universal signifier of evil. That’s right, it’s the Imperial March! All together now: dum dum dum dum-duhdum dum-duhdum…

Truly Special Effect
To animate the tauntauns, Phil Tippett and ILM pioneered the use of go motion, a version of stop-motion animation that moves the puppet while the frame is being exposed so as to create motion blur, thereby making the effects more realistic. (It purposefully wasn’t used for the AT-AT walkers, to emphasise their mechanical movement by keeping it slightly jerky.) Go motion would go on to be used on films including Dragonslayer, E.T., RoboCop, and Willow. It was going to be used for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but then someone had another idea…

Letting the Side Down
Lucas’ Special Edition fiddling isn’t as prevalent in Empire as in its original trilogy compatriots. If anything, the big windows in Cloud City are a nice touch.

Making of
The crew took crates of simulated snow from the Hoth set to the shoot in Norway, in case there wasn’t enough real snow on location. Somewhat ironic, then, that the location was hit by a snowstorm, coating the region so thoroughly that some of the scenes set in Hoth’s wilderness were filmed right outside the crew’s hotel.

Previously on…
The story begins, of course, in Star Wars. There’s tonnes of other material set before Empire, not least the infamous prequel trilogy.

Next time…
The Star Wars universe is immense, so don’t expect me to even attempt a summation of it. At the most essential, Return of the Jedi picks up the dangling threads of Empire and completes the trilogy, while last year’s The Force Awakens continues the narrative decades later, with more instalments to come in 2017 and 2019.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound, Special Achievement in Visual Effects)
2 Oscar nominations (Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
1 BAFTA (Music)
2 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound)
4 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor (Mark Hamill), Director, Special Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Billy Dee Williams), Writing, Music, Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
1 WGA Award nomination (Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — yes, really)

What the Critics Said
“It’s almost too much to expect that a sequel can ever top the success of the original, and I suspect that this will prove the case with The Empire Strikes Back […] While Empire doesn’t quite measure up to Star Wars in the freshness and originality of its script, and the plethora of space operas that has been jamming the screens ever since Star Wars has somewhat lessened the novelty of city-sized ships sailing the stratosphere, nevertheless this 20th Century-Fox release remains a rattling good entertainment, a worthy successor to the original — and far and away the best of its kind since Star Wars itself.” — Arthur Knight, The Hollywood Reporter (This original 1980 review also mixes up Yoda and Boba Fett. Fun.)

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“the movie suffers from as uneven a vibe as its forebear, with, especially, the midsection lacking in elements designed to wholeheartedly sustain one’s interest. This proves to be especially true of Luke Skywalker’s ongoing (and less-than-captivating) training at the hands of Frank Oz’s Yoda, as such interludes suffer from a lack of momentum that bring the proceedings to a dead stop at each and every turn. […] an erratically-paced yet consistently entertaining installment in a not-quite-great sci-fi series.” — David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews (This site gives Episodes III, IV, V and VI a rating of 3/4, but Force Awakens a full 4/4. Just so you know.)

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of The Empire Strikes Back’s modified DVD version, I said that “the big change comes in dubbing both Boba Fett and the Emperor with appropriate actors from the prequel trilogy […] Other than shunning the poor original actors in such a way, Empire is much the same as ever.” Then, treating the film as the fifth part of the saga, I wrote that “a variety of elements […] have a very different impact in light of what we’ve experienced in the first trilogy. The most obvious is the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father: it’s no longer a twist, of course, but the emotional impact on Luke still makes it an important moment. Yoda […] seems to have gone a little loopy after several decades alone on Dagobah”.

Verdict

What more is there to say about The Empire Strikes Back, really? According to some polls, it’s the greatest movie of all time; even if you don’t go that far, it’s a masterpiece of blockbuster science-fantasy adventure. Every moment is tuned to tickle the thrill-glands; every special effect a labour of love that, with their inventiveness and genuine physicality, remains largely impressive today. And it’s so well paced that most people completely overlook that the storyline is chronologically challenged (Luke travels to Dagobah, meets Yoda, learns a bunch of tricky Jedi skills, and heads off to Cloud City, all while the rest of the characters hide in an asteroid field and are locked up for about five minutes). Plus it has the audacity to end on an almighty cliffhanger/revelation double-header! And in that spirit: it’s not even my favourite Star Wars movie. But I’ll tell you about that another time.

#28 will star… Travolta/Cage.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Star Wars Series

Introduction

While my main quest this year has been to see 100 films I’ve never seen before by the end of 2007, I’ve obviously seen other films around this. One of these has been to watch all six Star Wars films in their narrative order, over a three-day weekend. This turned out to be the weekend just passed, from Friday 10th to Sunday 12th. This special entry documents my thoughts on the films when viewed back to back in such a way.


Star Wars

Of course, everyone knows that these films were made ‘back to front’, in that 4 to 6 were made from 1977 to 1983 and 1 to 3 were made from 1999 to 2005. One might argue that there are reasons for viewing a story in such an order (for example, Memento works because it’s back to front), but the fact that the films are numbered so suggests they should be watched that way. I’ve tried to view them with this in mind — not as two trilogies from 4 to 6 and 1 to 3, but as one continuous story across six films, 1 to 6. Hopefully my comments reflect this. To help bolster this illusion, I watched the first two on Friday, the next two on Saturday, and the final two on Sunday.

For the sake of clarification, the versions of 4 to 6 watched were the most recently remastered DVD releases, complete with all sorts of controversial changes. Details of them can be found on sites such as IMDb.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....


Episode I
The Phantom Menace
1999 | George Lucas | DVD

The Phantom MenaceEverything you remember about Episode I is still true: the plot is too mired in political machinations, the dialogue is truly dire, the acting frequently wooden, the direction flat, and Jar Jar Binks is as annoying as ever. There are some good bits — the pod race is exciting and the four-way climax works, especially the excellent lightsaber battle. A lot of the CGI holds up remarkably well, but equally a lot of it wouldn’t pass muster for a computer game now.

If you’re a 10-year-old it all might be fine: you’ve grown up with CGI everywhere, you won’t notice the dialogue, most plots wash over you anyway, the action is cool, and you’re the same age as Anakin so you might not find him as whingeingly irritating. The Star Wars series would never have taken off (probably at all, let alone to the degree it has) if this had been the first entry we all saw.

2 out of 5


Episode II
Attack of the Clones
2002 | George Lucas | DVD

Attack of the ClonesTen years on from Episode I and Anakin’s a fully fledged Jedi (almost), Padme’s a senator, and Obi-Wan has a beard. Episode II benefits from improved dialogue and performances. Unfortunately it’s still far from ideal — the overuse of CGI leaves much of it looking fake (this is, almost, an animated film with a few real actors in) and the first hour is blighted by a slow pace, too much plot, and the allegedly all-important love story in which Anakin and Padme fall in love because, well, the plot says they do.

There’s also a building sense of the connectedness of all the films… well, obviously, because the Clone Wars kick off here; but it also more subtly lays the groundwork for other plot and character developments. It’s a film still filled with flaws, but it still feels a lot better than the previous one in spite of them.

3 out of 5


Episode III
Revenge of the Sith
2005 | George Lucas | DVD

Revenge of the SithThe sextet reaches its darkest point: Anakin turns to the Dark Side and slaughters the Jedi younglings before burning in the fires of Mustafar. It’s all very depressing. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t conclude; that’s to say, as the last film to be released you might’ve expected Lucas to bring things to a definite conclusion, but instead it ends with a sense that there’s more to come — exactly how things should be at the halfway point!

The rest of the film is a mixed bag. The opening and closing 25 minutes are action-filled excellence, all epic space battles and lightsaber duels; Obi-Wan vs. Anakin even manages to pack an emotional punch. But the Anakin-Padme love story still rings false, and the latter is wasted, sitting around in her apartments waiting for updates and then dying of Plot Implausibility. In trying to make Anakin a Complex and Divided character, Lucas instead makes him seem fickle and underwritten. The simpler, action/adventure-orientated characterisation of the later films is actually stronger and deeper.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: Revenge of the Sith is undoubtedly a better film than the two that precede it, but we all really know the best is yet to come.

3 out of 5


Episode IV
A New Hope
1977 / 2004 | George Lucas | DVD

A New HopeHere it is: the big crossover; the moment of truth. How does it fare? Pretty well, actually. A long time has passed since the dark finale of Episode III and there’s undoubtedly a lighter feel (despite the Empire being in control!) C-3PO and R2-D2 are onboard the ship from the end of Episode III, a useful visual link as things almost start over — it’s Luke’s story now, and, with a new actor as Obi-Wan, it’s only the droids and Darth Vader who are recognisable from before.

The events of the previous trilogy add weight to Guinness’ performance, as well as to the mythology that gets thrown about. Obi-Wan’s final duel may not be as visually stunning as the one on Mustafar, but there’s added emotion now we’ve seen the character develop. Real sets, costumes and models largely look better than CGI, though there are a few dodgy effects that you’d think they’d’ve fixed. Sadly, the CGI added in 1997 doesn’t seem to have been improved for the 2004 release, so things like Jabba look pretty dreadful; that said, its presence helps smooth the link between the trilogies, as does the music, a couple of plots (Obi-Wan vs. Vader; the Death Star) and some ship designs.

However, the biggest change is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power. It’s all the better for it — even without glossy CGI and choreographed lightsaber duels, this is by far the most fun film so far.

If anyone’s only seen the prequels they may be baffled why so many people love Star Wars. This is the answer.

4 out of 5


Episode V
The Empire Strikes Back
1980 / 2004 | Irvin Kershner | DVD

The Empire Strikes BackThere are a variety of elements in the series’ penultimate film that have a very different impact in light of what we’ve experienced in the first trilogy. The most obvious is the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father: it’s no longer a twist, of course, but the emotional impact on Luke still makes it an important moment. Yoda’s line, “There is another”, is less mysterious, as is Luke’s ability to telepathically alert Leia near the end. Thank God their kiss is only a brief moment of humour though!

Speaking of Yoda, he seems to have gone a little loopy after several decades alone on Dagobah; the odd little green puppet is quite far removed from the wise old CGI sage we’ve seen before. His first mention (by a ‘hallucination’ of Obi-Wan) is also far less mysterious considering we know who Yoda is.

The film finds itself lacking in the lightsaber duel department — after the long, complex fights of the prequels, the Luke/Vader duel looks decidedly weak; though, at the end of it, Vader exhibits characteristics which are very reminiscent of Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. Also, Han and Leia’s burgeoning romance is infinitely more believable than Anakin and Padme’s in only a fraction of the screen time.

With Yoda, Boba Fett, the Emperor and Jabba all cropping up, threads planted and grown in all four preceding films are coming together, and things are in place to be wrapped up in the concluding film…

4 out of 5


Episode VI
Return of the Jedi
1983 / 2004 | Richard Marquand | DVD

Return of the JediConsidering it’s the grand finale, it’s perhaps surprising that Episode VI is largely the lightest of all the films, filled with extra humour and all those cute little Ewoks. Personally, I like the Ewoks — they make me laugh, go “aww”, and it’s sad when they die! Yoda’s death is another sad moment, and even more so having seen him in full action in the first three films. The threat posed by the Emperor is also even more apparent, there’s more of a sense that Luke truly could follow in his father’s footsteps, and there’s added poetic irony in Darth Vader’s final decision — it is the same thing that caused him to turn to the Dark Side that saves him from it.

Here is also the biggest failing of the films as a single series, however: the prequel trilogy is endlessly obsessed with the prophecy about Anakin bringing balance to the Force; it isn’t mentioned once here. A dubbed line or added shot with Yoda saying something would’ve been nice. Instead, the major change at the end is adding Hayden Christensen over Sebastian Shaw. It’s a dreadful idea on paper… and so too in practice. He looks out of place and doesn’t at all match with the man we just saw die in Luke’s arms. Seeing celebrations across Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo and Coruscant neatly ties this right back to Episode I and shows the larger impact of the end of the Empire in what is an otherwise surprisingly brief and low-key post-victory epilogue.

Another thing worth a quick mention is the speederbike chase through the forests of Endor — one of the series’ very best action sequences, and all the more effective for being entirely practical instead of CGI. When all’s said and done, I think Jedi is actually the most underrated of all the films.

4 out of 5


Final Thoughts

So, does it work?

As with most things it’s a case of yes and no. As I’m sure you’ve seen, my review of A New Hope covers many of my thoughts on the changeover between the two trilogies, and my comments on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi elaborate on how things progress across the final two episodes. In short, it is, perhaps surprisingly, not the haircuts or quality of effects that really give away the change between the two trilogies, and the 28-year gap between Episodes III and IV; rather, it’s the dramatic shift in tone, away from epic fantasy into thrilling action/adventure. This is not a bad thing, but when viewed in order it leaves you longing for Yoda and Obi-Wan to start wittering away about the fulfillment of prophecies and whatnot at the end of Episode VI.

The other thing potentially bothering is how some of the original trilogy’s plot explanations come off, considering we’ve just seen them spelt out in almost seven hours of detail. Pretty well, as it turns out — most of Obi-Wan’s explanations to Luke are surprisingly brief, coming over more as gentle reminders to the audience, or at worst well-handled instances of those always-awkward cases of “Character X must be told Information Y that audience already knows”. There’s the odd reference that doesn’t quite gel with what we’ve seen (for an example, Leia having some vague memories of her birth mother) and the lightsaber duels aren’t up to the calibre of those in the new trilogy, but that’s hardly bothersome.

If you’re a fan of the films it’s an interesting exercise to watch them in this order, and I’d recommend giving it a go. If you know someone who’s never seen them before, especially if they’re young enough to not be aware that Vader is Luke’s father, I’d say they should still watch the original trilogy first — it may still be effective in numerical order, but nothing beats that as a shocking revelation!