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!

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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.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #72

The Return of the Great Adventure.

Also Known As: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Country: USA
Language: English (and German, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic & Nepali)
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1981) | PG (1987)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 12th June 1981
UK Release: 30th July 1981
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Witness)
Karen Allen (Animal House, Starman)
Paul Freeman (The Long Good Friday, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie)
Ronald Lacey (Take a Girl Like You, Red Sonja)
John Rhys-Davies (The Naked Civil Servant, The Lord of the Rings)

Director
Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn)

Screenwriter
Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard)

Story by
George Lucas (THX 1138, Return of the Jedi)
Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Right Stuff)

The Story
1936: adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US Army to retrieve the mythical Ark of the Covenant, which they believe is on the verge of being uncovered in Egypt, before the Nazis can get their grubby mitts on it.

Our Hero
Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities, Indiana Jones. Good with a whip; not good with snakes.

Our Villains
Dr. René Belloq, essentially the evil Indy: a fellow archeologist with fewer scruples, who often takes credit for Indy’s hard work and is now in bed with the Nazis. They’re most memorably represented by creepy Gestapo agent Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, who was cast because he reminded Spielberg of Peter Lorre.

Best Supporting Character
The daughter of Indy’s mentor, and his one-time love, Marion Ravenwood, who’s roped in because she happens to possess an artefact with a clue to the Ark’s location. Feisty and capable of holding her own (some of the time, anyway), it’s a shame she didn’t appear in the initial sequels — at Lucas’ insistence, apparently (he also kept her out of the spin-off novels). She eventually returns in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the only character from the first three films to be brought back for that adventure (besides Indy, obv.)

Memorable Quote
Sallah: “Indy, why does the floor move?”
Indiana: “Give me your torch… Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Memorable Scene
Goodness, where do we start? Well, how about the start! Having made his way safely through a boobytrapped cave, Indy switches a bag of sand for the idol he’s come to retrieve. Unfortunately the trap is not fooled, and Indy has to run out as the place collapses around him and all the traps are triggered — including, most famously, a giant rolling boulder.

Write the Theme Tune…
It’s only one of the greatest movie main themes of all time. Composed by John Williams (of course) it’s technically called The Raiders March, and is a combination of two ideas Williams wrote for Jones’ theme that Spielberg suggested be put together to make one piece.

Technical Wizardry
The film is naturally packed with stunts, one of the most memorable being when Indy is dragged under and out behind a moving truck. To achieve it safely, more clearance was created under the truck by constructing one that was higher than normal and digging out the centre of the road. The shot was filmed at 20fps, lower than the standard 24, so that when played back the truck appeared to be moving faster. The feat was performed by stuntman Terry Leonard, but Harrison Ford was actually dragged behind the truck for some shots. When asked if he was worried, Ford replied, “No. If it really was dangerous, they would have filmed more of the movie first.”

Truly Special Effect
The climax, when the Ark is opened, was a field day for ILM. Techniques used include “animation, a woman to portray a beautiful spirit’s face, rod puppet spirits moved through water to convey a sense of floating, a matte painting of the island, and cloud tank effects to portray clouds.” Plus the villains’ heads melt (a gelatine and plaster model exposed to a heat lamp), collapse (a hollow model with the air sucked out), and explode (which nearly landed the film with an R rating).

Making of
Have you heard the one about the scheduled sword fight and everyone being ill? You have? Oh, okay then.

Next time…
The film was a massive success, so has spawned tonnes of media. Primarily, three direct sequel films, with a fifth set for 2019. Then there’s the three-season TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, 13 adult novels, 33 Young Indiana Jones novels, 11 “choose your own adventure”-style books, eight German novels (which have never been translated into English), numerous comic books, and 19 computer games, including nine with original storylines and two Lego Indiana Jones games. Also, a stunt show at Walt Disney World in Florida based on Raiders that has been running for 27 years. Whew!

Awards
5 Oscars (Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Visual Effects, Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Score)
1 BAFTA (Production Design/Art Direction)
6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Artist (Denholm Elliott), Cinematography, Editing, Music, Sound)
7 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Actress (Karen Allen), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
2 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Freeman), Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Yes, it’s as entertaining as you have heard. Maybe more so. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in fact, about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be. What is it? An adventure film that plays like an old-time 12-part serial that you see all at once, instead of Saturday-to-Saturday. It’s a modern Thief of Baghdad. It’s the kind of movie that first got you excited about movies when you were a kid. (Translation for today’s children: It’s better than anything on TV.)” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“Spielberg and George Lucas had, in the same year, rewritten the rules of the science fiction genre; Lucas with Star Wars and Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what could they do together? Greatness, it turns out. Their contribution: Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best, most exciting, most brilliantly written action movies of all time. It’s fun, it has a great sense of wonder and adventure. It’s scary, it’s bloody, it’s violent but you never come away feeling unclean. It has a hero, Indiana Jones, who is fallible but not a wimp. […] I can talk all day about Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I must simply conclude that the movie is just plain fun” — Jerry, armchaircinema

Verdict

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up for the first time here, recycled elements from movies beloved in their youth, and produced something new and exciting that is still a reference point for blockbusters 35 years later. (We’re getting homages to homages now, aren’t we? Weird.) It’s pretty much a perfect adventure movie: relentlessly paced, packed with action, lightened with humour, full of likeable heroes, who are brave and competent but also a little bit flawed, and hissable villains, with scene after scene of imaginative situations and fabulously staged derring-do. It’s perfectly distilled pulp adventure, and pure cinematic entertainment.

Many Bothans… died to bring us #73.

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.

Willow (1988)

2015 #132
Ron Howard | 121 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

WillowWarwick Davis is the farmer who must return an abandoned baby, unaware it’s heir to a throne evil queen Jean Marsh doesn’t wish to relinquish. Intermittently aided by Val Kilmer’s Han Solo-ish vagabond, they must elude the queen’s forces, led by her daughter, Joanne Whalley.

A fantasy adventure with a tone and pace reminiscent of Indiana Jones — no surprise it was conceived by George Lucas — Willow somehow passed me by during my prime “watching ’80s genre movies” phase. It’s just a fun romp, but Howard’s direction is slick, everything’s glossy and exciting, and there’s a last hurrah for practical effects.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Returning to Jedi (2007)

2015 #91
Jamie Benning | 148 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

Returning to Jedi completes fan/editor Jamie Benning’s trilogy of documentaries about the original Star Wars trilogy with a look at the making of… well, obviously. In case you’ve forgotten, Benning’s “filmumentaries” are most succinctly summarised by the documentary’s own introduction:

Returning to Jedi is an unofficial commentary. It contains video, audio and information from over one hundred sources taking you deep into the making of Return of the Jedi.

I’m not entirely sure why, but it felt to me that this might be the best of all Benning’s Star Wars filmumentaries (he’s also completed ones for Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s not that anything’s drastically different (the format works), it’s just a certain something that made it the most engrossing. Perhaps there was more material to work with — the result is something like 20 minutes longer than Jedi itself, and a good ten minutes longer than the other Star Wars filmumentaries. Doesn’t sound so much when put like that, so maybe I’m making a spurious correlation.

There’s certainly tonnes of behind-the-scenes footage in this one, more so than the other two. Much of it concentrates on the creation of the special effects, as usual, with particular attention paid to Jabba, the Rancor, and the speederbike chase. As all are noteworthy achievements in effects work, they merit the focus. Audio snippets from various interviews down the years provide some more varied detail. There’s a fair bit of information on variations to the story that were considered and rejected, though it does make it sound like Lawrence Kasdan was desperate to kill someone off: he kept suggesting the likes of Han, Lando, and even Luke should make the ultimate sacrifice, while Lucas maintained no one should die. Kasdan wasn’t alone — Harrison Ford also thought Solo should die, and Mark Hamill expected more darkness for Luke — but I guess they weren’t to be heard by an increasingly autocratic Lucas (reports of him essentially directing Jedi for Richard Marquand, or of his clash with the Directors’ Guild that prevented Steven Spielberg from directing the film, go unmentioned here).

Highlights include: a look at the set for Jabba’s sail barge and the Sarlacc pit, an enormous raised construction in the Arizona desert that looks incredible; the fact that they consulted a child psychologist, who told them under 12s would think Vader being Luke’s father was a lie unless it was unequivocally stated, hence the scene where Yoda does just that; and a selection of interesting deleted scenes. The wisest deletion was an early scene of Luke building his new saber and hiding it in R2-D2 — how much would that undermine the reveal that Luke had a plan all along? — though also of note are a sandstorm before they leave Tatooine (deleted for pace) and a full-on shoot-out as Han and co enter the bunker on Endor.

Whether Returning to Jedi is the best of Benning’s work or not is neither here nor there, really. Although their length and the fact they sometimes focus on minutiae probably rules them out for the casual observer, who might prefer a shorter making-of overview if they’re even interested, his trilogy of Star Wars filmumentaries are consistently fascinating for fans.

4 out of 5

Returning to Jedi can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK at midnight tonight, and in the US on Friday. It will be reviewed at a future date. (Possibly Christmas Day. We’ll see.)

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Building Empire (2006)

2015 #71
Jamie Benning | 137 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

The first of Jamie Benning’s “filmumentaries” looks at the making of sometime Best Film Ever, and widely-accepted Best Star Wars Ever, The Empire Strikes Back (as it used to just be known). To quote the documentary’s own intro:

Building Empire is an unofficial commentary to The Empire Strikes Back. It contains video clips, audio from cast and crew, alternate angles, reconstructed scenes, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

It begins with director Irvin Kershner explaining how he came to be involved, though my main observation was how much he sounds like Yoda. Maybe that’s just me…

From there, there’s a focus on the special effects and how they were achieved. There’s a lot of detail about the myriad effects on Hoth, the creation of the asteroid field, and the puppetry of Yoda, as well as boundless trivia, like detailing the set-extension matte paintings. Other major themes include changes from early drafts and in deleted material; audio differences between the many different versions (not only the various release prints and Special Editions, but audiobooks and the like); commentary from actors on the evolution of their characters; plus detail on the actual filming, including the terrible weather on location in Norway (they were able to shoot some of Hoth’s desolate ice fields within feet of their hotel) and the rigours of the Luke/Vader lightsaber duel.

My personal highlight of the documentary comes in Cloud City, at the point Lando’s betrayal is revealed. Benning inserts a “deconstruction of an action scene” (Han shooting at Vader; Vader Force-stealing Han’s gun), using uncut footage and B-roll to quickly glimpse how such things are achieved — or were, before “with CGI” was the answer for everything. Here, Benning’s work transcends merely placing rare interviews or behind-the-scenes footage at the appropriate juncture, instead using that material to create something genuinely new and insightful.

Assuming you’re interested in snippets of minutiae and amusing trivia (if not, these filmumentaries definitely aren’t for you), the downsides are few. It’s a shame that, just occasionally, there are stretches with no additional material (though never for long) when at other times the additions race by in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash. There are also quite a few instances labelled “restored music”, but there’s no comment from John Williams, Kershner, or anyone else on why so much was removed and/or changed.

Niggles aside, I felt like I enjoyed Building Empire even more than its later predecessor (how very Lucas). I’m not saying it’s fundamentally better — just as with Star Wars Begins, for those who love making-of details and trivia, Building Empire is a delightful grab bag of such bits and pieces.

4 out of 5

Building Empire can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Star Wars Begins (2011)

A Filmumentary

2015 #63
Jamie Benning | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

This year, I finally got round to watching the Star Wars Blu-rays I bought back whenever they came out, so I thought what better time to also finally watch Jamie Benning’s trilogy of “filmumentaries”. What’s a filmumentary, you ask? Well, here’s the opening text of the film itself:

Star Wars Begins is an unofficial commentary on Star Wars. It contains video clips, audio from the cast and crew, alternate angles, bloopers, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

For those familiar with (Warner) Blu-rays, it’s essentially a fan-made Maximum Movie Mode, though drawing on a wealth of archive resources rather than newly-recorded material. In practice, it plays less like a cohesive “making of” and more like a trivia track on steroids. Only rarely do we learn something fundamental; mostly it’s interesting titbits. But then, this is a documentary made by a fan for fans, and fans love minutiae. Consequently, it sometimes comes from a place of deep fan-ish-ness. For example, it refers to and uses clips from the “Lost Cut”, but never bothers to define or explain what that is (or if it did, I blinked and missed it). Conversely, it occasionally transcends “Star Wars trivia” to unveil general “moviemaking trivia” — how different on-set audio sounds to the final mix; demonstrations of how editing can affect the flow and pace of a scene; and so on.

Perhaps the highlight are some early deleted scenes. Featuring Luke, Biggs and their friends on Tatooine, and placed to intercut with the droids’ progress and Vader’s search for them (i.e. before we even meet Luke in the finished film), the sequences were removed en masse due to execs’ fears they made the movie feel like “American Graffiti in space”. And for once, an exec was right! They give the movie a completely different tone; more grounded and less mythic. Thank goodness they were done away with, to be honest.

Another personal highlight was a snippet from a 1978 interview with Harrison Ford, in which the Han Solo actor says Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s science fantasy. He’s bang on the money — it’s a distinction I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I’d always thought it was a more recent argument, but there he is expressing it right after the film came out, not as some decades-later revisionism.

This is actually the third of Benning’s filmumentaries — he started with Empire and followed it with Jedi, only then going back to where it all began. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe a greater behind-the-scenes scrutiny on the sequels gave him more to work with, producing more in-depth making-ofs, and when he went back to the first he just had to work with what he could find. Or maybe the disjointed trivia grab bag is his style, and here it reaches its apogee. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Star Wars Begins may not be the first port of call for anyone looking for an overview of the making of Star Wars, but it’s a goldmine of behind-the-scenes titbits and occasional candid revelations for anyone with a strong enough interest.

4 out of 5

Star Wars Begins can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

What price a ‘Definitive Cut’?

Provoked by, of all things, the Blu-ray release of The Wolfman (this started out as the opening paragraph of my review of that — oh how it grew), I’ve once again been musing on one of my ‘favourite’ topics. No, not “what’s TV and what’s film these days?”, but “which version of a film is definitive these days?”

I apologise if I’ve written extensively on this before; I think I’ve only had the odd random muse in a review, at most. So, much as I got the TV thing out of my system (a bit) in that editorial, here’s an attempt at the “definitive cut” one:

The age of DVD has managed to throw up all kinds of questions about what is the definitive version of a film. Never mind issues of incorrect aspect ratios, fiddled colour timing, or excessive digital processing — these are all potentially problems, yes, but usually quite easy to see where the correct version lies. The question of a ‘definitive version’ comes in the multitude of Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts, Harder Cuts, Extreme Cuts — whatever label the marketing boys & girls slap on them, Longer Versions You Didn’t See In The Cinema is what they are. But are they better? Or more definitive? Does it matter?

So many consumers hold off for the DVD these days, especially with the added quality offered by Blu-ray, that the old answer of “what was released in the cinema” doesn’t necessarily hold true any more. Filmmakers know some will be waiting for the DVD, so are less concerned with releasing a studio-mandated, shorter, mass audience friendly cut into cinemas when their fuller vision can be found on DVD. Equally, the PR people know that “longer cut!” and “not seen in cinemas!” and other such slogans can help sell DVDs, and so may be forcing needless and unwelcome extensions onto filmmakers. Then there’s all those older directors who think they’re doing a good thing finally getting to tamper with their film 30 years on, who may well be misguided.

Some make it nice and clear for us. Ridley Scott, for example, is particularly good at this: Blade Runner has taken decades to get right, but The Final Cut is quite obviously the last word on this; he was well known to be unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven, and was vindicated when the aptly-titled (for once) Director’s Cut received much improved reviews; conversely, he’s been very clear that the Director’s Cut of Alien and Extended Cut of Gladiator are not his preferred versions, just interesting alternate/longer edits.

On the other hand, Oliver Stone has now churned out three versions of Alexander [2015 edit: now four], each with significantly differing structures and content. None have received particularly good reviews. Is one the definitive cut? Or is it just a very public example of the editing process; what difference inclusions, exclusions, and structural overhauls can (or, perhaps, can’t) make?

The issue is somewhat brushed aside by two things, I think. Firstly, most stuff that suffers this treatment is tosh. Who cares which version of Max Payne or Hitman or Beowulf or either AvP or any number of teen-focused comedies is ‘definitive’ — no one liked them in the first place and they’ll be all but forgotten within a decade or two, at most (well, not AvP, sadly — its connection to two major franchises will see to that).

Secondly, more often than not both versions are available. Coppola may have vowed never to release the pre-Redux Apocalypse Now ever again, but the most recent DVDs [and, later, Blu-rays] include both cuts — listen to him or go with the original theatrical cut, it’s your choice. The same goes for Terminator 2, or indeed a good deal of the rubbish listed above. Rare is the film that doesn’t fit into one of these two camps, or the third “it’s been made clear” one.

So, with all that said, does it even matter? If we can choose which version we prefer, is that the right way to have things? Because, having gone through the options and examples I can think of, it’s not often that there’s not an easy way to resolve it — by which I mean, if the film is good enough to want the clarity of “which version is final”, we tend to have a way of knowing; and if the film’s tosh, well, what does it matter which we choose? There’s every chance no one involved in the production cares anyway.

There remains one argument for clarity, I think. How does one guarantee that, in the future, the ‘correct’ version remains accessible? With new formats always coming along, there’s no assurance that every cut of a film will be released; with TV showings, there’s no assurance the preferred version will always be the one shown (though there’s another argument for how much the latter matters considering they already mess around with aspect ratios and edits for violence/swearing/sex/etc.) But then, even if a filmmaker makes it clear that their preferred version is the one that only came out on DVD/Blu-ray, what chance is there that unscrupulous disc / download / unknown-future-format producers or TV schedulers won’t just revert to the theatrical version by default?

Sometimes one longs for the simpler age of a film hitting cinemas and that being that. We wouldn’t have had to suffer Lucas’ Star Wars fiddles, for one thing. But then nor would Ridley Scott have been able to redeem some of his films, or Zack Snyder treat fans to an improved Watchmen, or Peter Jackson truly complete The Lord of the Rings. If some level of uncertainty is the price we have to pay for these things, then it’s one even my obsessive nature is willing to pay.

There are 20 different films featured in this post’s header image.
Anyone who can name them all wins special bragging rights.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

2010 #16
Dave Filoni | 98 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

Star Wars: The Clone WarsThe Clone Wars can boast an awful lot of firsts within the Star Wars franchise: the first animated Star Wars in cinemas, the first not to feature Frank Oz as Yoda, the first not to open in May, the first not to have a text-crawl intro… It’s also the first not to open at number one at the box office. None of these facts are likely to endear itself to die-hard Star Wars fans. I’m not one, but it did little to endear itself to me either.

Things go wrong immediately. For fans, the Warner Bros. logo is horrendously incongruous (so I’m told — the original six films were all released by Fox), but for even the casual viewer there’s something seriously odd within minutes: no opening text crawl! This is meant to be Star Wars? Instead, a chunk of exposition — which sounds exactly like the opening crawl would, and so has clearly been designed to replace it — is read over a montage of the events it describes. Do they think children can’t read? In fairness, I’ve been to Star Wars screenings where there were children young enough that parents were having to read the crawl to their kids… but considering the live action films are “kids’ movies” too (as Lucas was so keen to remind us when everyone hated the prequels), surely what’s good enough for them is good enough for this?

Omissions such as this could be forgiven if more important aspects went well. But they don’t. The script is so good it could’ve been written by George Lucas himself. There are too many weak dialogue exchanges to even consider listing them, but Ahsoka’s habit of calling R2-D2 “Artooey” is memorably grating. Much of the voice acting is just as bad, with James Arnold Taylor’s Obi Wan accent particularly off-centre. Catherine Taber’s Padmé impression is probably the most convincing of the lot and, coincidentally sharing the same scenes, Corey Burton’s Truman Capote impression as Ziro the Hutt is entertainingly obvious. Count Dooku doesn’t particularly benefit from the involvement of Christopher Lee, but at least Samuel L. Jackson is vaguely recognisable lending his actual voice to Mace Windu. Most of the cast deliver the kind of performance you typically find in kids’ cartoons — i.e. not all that good, no doubt due to the pressures of producing as many episodes as possible as cheaply as possible. Dubious line readings abound, though in fairness this may be down to the awkward lines they’re forced to deliver.

In between the poor dialogue there are plenty of action sequences. The first battle is a bit dull: masses of troops just firing at each other, until the bad guys suddenly decide that actually they ought to retreat because of the cannons — cannons that have been firing on them throughout. At least the repeat performance ten minutes later features some tactics and diversions. Later fights are better, though not by a huge amount. There are certainly a fair few, though there’s little real variation between them. The big battles and space dogfights are adequate, if lacking in focus, but the lightsaber duels miss the heft of their live-action equivalents, animation robbing them of the physical skill involved in a real sword fight (even if those in the prequels involve a fair degree of CGI themselves). The much-trumpeted vertical battle is a great idea that’s competently executed, but the change in perspective is too little used — apart from the odd moment or shot, they may as well be progressing slowly on a horizontal plane.

All of these sequences are scored by stock-sounding ‘epic action music’. Kevin Kiner’s music is nothing like as original or distinctive as John Williams’ work on the main series. Other than re-using some of Williams’ themes, it’s a rather generic action score — perfectly pleasant for what it is, but not particularly memorable. A slight remix of the main Star Wars theme gives the opening a distinctive air… as if the Warner Bros. logo, war talk over the Lucasfilm logo, and lack of text crawl didn’t do the job by themselves.

The animation itself is certainly stylised, which annoys some, but then it’s not billed as an Avatar-esque “it’s real, honest” style, or even the lower level achieved (if one can call it an achievement) by Beowulf. It’s surely a sensible decision — look how far from real Beowulf turned out to be on a feature budget and timescale, and when you’re churning out a weekly series (as this was always intended to be) such aspirations as photo-real CGI are far too lofty, not to mention expensive. Personally, I quite like the style. The painterly textures are slightly odd, but probably preferable to flat slabs of colour, while the cartoonisation of the cast (allegedly inspired by Thunderbirds) fits the lightweight tone and keeps things visually interesting. Besides, as noted, the visual style is the least of the film’s problems.

It may sound like a piece of trivia that this was originally conceived as three episodes of the TV series that now follows it, but where the breaks would fall is disappointingly clear — note, for example, that at around 25 minutes the first battle is won, Anakin resolves himself to teach the Padawan he previously objected to, and Yoda arrives to kick off the next part of the story. It could only be more like the end of an episode if credits rolled. It’s also the apparent need to fit two or three action sequences per episode that keeps them coming at regular intervals in a film which sticks three back-to-back.

There’s an overarching plot, thank goodness, which is immediately established… before being put on hold for half-an-hour while the events of what-would-have-been-episode-one play out: a battle that isn’t particularly significant in itself and has absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story, immediately betraying the three-episode origins. After that’s done the main plot resumes in two clearly-divisible chunks — the precise moment of the second transition isn’t as obvious as the first, but which subplots belong to which half is. Maybe the story joins are invisible to those who don’t know the production’s history or something of narrative structure (i.e. normal people), but they were blatant to me. It particularly shows in the final act/third episode, as the story switches from epic battle sequences to some out-of-nowhere political wrangling and lower-key lightsaber-based confrontations.

Although it has high-quality animation, a largely cinematic scale, particularly in the battles, and direction that isn’t as obviously TV-only as some TV-bound productions, The Clone Wars still feels like watching a compilation of TV episodes rather than a film in its own right. It’s partly the episode structures that remain unconcealed, partly the shortage of real voice talent indicating a lower budget, partly the relative insignificance of the story — it just doesn’t have the epic quality that imbued all the other Star Wars films. Not every film has to be an epic, even ones set within the same universe/storyline, but by wheeling out all the main characters and then showing them complete just one moderately low-key mission, The Clone Wars does feel like a single instalment of a TV series and not an appropriately-scaled cinematic experience.

This might’ve made a pretty strong set of opening episodes to a half-hour TV show, and I hear the series has gotten quite good as its first season progressed. If that’s true, it’s a shame such a weak beginning will have put so many off giving it a go, because as a standalone film The Clone Wars falls far short.

3 out of 5