Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Review: Star Wars

I just saw a series of six movies called Star Wars , directed by George Lucas (American Graffiti).It's a science fiction adventure series set, or so it tells us at the beginning of each movie, "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." But it's not steampunk or alternate history; it's your basic futuristic space opera.

There are six movies that follow roughly one main story arc through two generations of characters, approximately 30 odd years, in total. The main character of the first three films is a boy soldier who becomes evil owing to his own character flaws and the machinations of a tyrannical man. The second three films focus on the soldier's son, who, through various coincidences, ends up fighting his father in an attempt to overthrow the tyrant.

The Plot (contains spoilers)

The main story takes place against the backdrop of an historical war, which goes as follows: Tens of thousands of planets across the galaxy form a great Republic. So great, that the Senate which allegedly governs them is ineffectual. One man, Palpatine, decides to take over the Republic and set himself up as Emperor.

Palpatine has mystical telekinetic powers, having been trained to exert mental control over tiny sub-microscopic bacteria that exist in literally every corner of the galaxy. The ability to exert this control is called "The Force".

A select group called Jedi learn how to control this Force. Jedi act as advisers to the Senate, and occasionally assassin, diplomat, or armed guard. They wield nifty energy swords called light-sabers. Palpatine was once Jedi, but used his powers for selfishness, hate, anger, and so on, which is called "the dark side of the Force", a Jedi no-no. People who use the dark side of the Force can shoot lightning bolts with their fingers.

Where was I?

Palpatine commissions some cloners to create an army out of some Australian New Zealand dude named Jango Fett. The clones are altered to be crack military troops, but Jango gets to keep a little, unaltered, clone for himself, name Boba.

Palpatine (aka Sidius) establishes control over a few dozen member of the Senate, including members of something called the Trade Federation. He has the Trade Federation invade a planet called Naboo.

The point of this arranged invasion is to show up the powerlessness of the Senate in dealing with it. When this happens, he manipulates a vote for a new Senate leader, and gets himself elected. While secretly strengthening the Trade Federation and other separatists, he complains to the Senate that they need to give him emergency powers to control the "uprising".

They do, whereupon he brings in his clone army, dissolves the Republic and establishes himself as Emperor, all the while in the name of bringing "peace" to the galaxy.

The empire levels martial law around the galaxy, and everyone begins to realize their mistake, but it is too late. The emperor builds a big moon/weapon called the Death Star which can blow up an entire planet. The separatists become "the Rebellion", led by a number of star systems and some sympathetic senators.

They steal plans for the Death Star, and are chased around the galaxy. Eventually, the rebels blow up the Death Star, but still have to flee as the Emperor still has general control and a vastly larger clone military.

The rebellion get chased around again, only to discover that the Emperor has yet another Death Star in development. This time they manage to destroy it with the Emperor on it, and then the last movie ends and you don't really find out what happens next.

So who is this father and son dude?

Anakin Skywalker is a young boy when the Naboo crisis happens. He joins the story when two Jedi - master Qui Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi - are sent to Naboo to defuse the crisis. They fail but succeed in getting Naboo's queen, Padme, off Naboo. They stop on a planet called Tatooine to repair their ship, and discover Anakin, who is strong with the Force. They collect him on their way to the Senate.

The Senate is useless, as predicted, so they head back to Naboo, and chase the Federation away. (Movie 1)

Padme's term as queen ends and she become senator. Ten years later she and Anakin meet again, and Anakin is now a Jedi apprentice to master Obi-Wan. Unfortunately, Anakin is a thick-headed ill-willed, arrogant, fearful and hateful young man, which anyone except for Obi-Wan and Padme could see in a moment.

Anakin is sent to protect Padme who is receiving assassination attempts, and so takes her home to a remote country where the two of them fall in love. Since a Jedi is supposed to remain free of relations, and a Senator is a busy person, they resolve to put their feelings on hold.

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan discovers the clone army, and gets captured by the separatists who are planning their next moves (under coordination from Palpatine). Anakin goes to rescue his mother he left behind on Tatooine, and fails. She dies. This begins his slide into the dark side of the Force. He and Padme go to rescue Obi-Wan but get captured.

Yoda, head of the Jedi council, swoops in at the last minute with the clone army and all the Jedi to rescue them and to fight the separatists. The war between the clone army of the Republic and the separatists commences. Anakin and Padme, seizing the day, secretly marry and Padme becomes pregnant. (Movie 2)

Palpatine finds Anakin teetering on the dark side of the Force and turns him completely by promising him the ability to save his wife who is augered to die in childbirth. He can do this only with the powers he can learn from the dark side of the Force; Anakin longs for this power as he was unable to save his mother from dying. Palpatine/Sidius renames Anakin "Darth Vader" and takes him as his new apprentice. Anakin/Vader, and the clone army, turn on the Jedi, killing all of them except for Yoda and Obi-Wan, who escape. Palpatine and Anakin "crush" the separatists, but the Emperor, who has complete military power, won't give it back, citing threats and traitors to the Republic.

Obi-Wan and Padme show up to confront Anakin/Vader about his actions. Anakin, in his madness, nearly chokes Padme to death, thus ensuring that she will die in childbirth. He blames Obi-Wan, and they fight. Obi-Wan wins and leave Anakin/Vader cut up and burning at the edge of a lava pit. Palpatine/Sidius saves Vader and dresses him up in a black electronic suit within which he must live for the rest of his life. Anakin/Vader is crushed when he finds out that Padme died after all.

Before she died, she gave birth to twins; a boy, named Luke, who is hidden with Anakin's mother's husband and kids on Tatooine, and a girl, named Leia, who is hidden with the leaders of the rebellion, Senator and Lady Organa. Yoda flies off to hide on a planet in Degobas, and Obi-Wan changes his name to Ben and settles on Tatooine to watch over Luke from a distance. (Movie 3)

Leia grows up as a princess and takes her part in the rebellion. She is caught smuggling plans to the Death Star while (coincidentally) flying over Tatooine, but ejects them onto the surface, where they are found (coincidentally) by Luke. She also sends a message for Obi-Wan to deliver the plans to the rebellion as she has failed. Luke and Obi-Wan meet, while the empire searches for them.

They escape with a space pilot named Han Solo who is on the run from a mafia guy named Jabba the Hutt. Together they get caught on the Death Star where they rescue Leia. Obi-Wan fights Darth Vader again, but this time purposely loses the fight. Somehow, although he dies, this allows him to go on living as a spirit who visits Luke intermittently over the course of the rest of the movies.

Luke, Han, Leia, et al escape the Death Star and bring the plans to the rebellion and then Luke, aided at the last moment by Han, blows up the Death Star. Luke, under tutelage and guidance from Obi-Wan's spirit, is beginning to learn how to use the Force. (Movie 4)

The rebellion jumps around, with the Empire always hot on their heels. Eventually Luke gets a message from Obi-Wan's spirit to go to Yoda and learn how to be a Jedi from him. Han and Leia begin to fall in love, but get caught in a trap by Vader. Han is tortured so that his pain will spiritually call to Luke to come rescue him, which he does despite Yoda warning him not to go before he had completed his training.

Vader freezes Han in carbonate and sends him off with Boba Fett who was sent by Jabba the Hutt to capture Han. Luke confronts Vader and learns that Vader is his father. He is bested by Vader, but he and Leia escape. (Movie 5)

They go to rescue and unfreeze Han, and it appears that Luke is now nearly fully-trained in his Jedi powers. Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt die during the rescue.

The Emperor purposely leaked fake plans for his new Death Star in order to lure the rebellion into attacking it. Han, Luke and Leia go to take down the defenses, but before they do, Luke realizes that he has to confront Vader and see if he can get him back from the dark side of the Force. Before he goes to do this, he tells Leia that she is his sister, which he learned from Obi-Wan's spirit.

Luke surrenders to Vader, sure that Anakin, his father, can't kill him. Vader and the Emperor are counting on Luke turning to the dark side, while Luke presses Anakin/Vader to find the good within him. Luke won't turn, so the Emperor begins torturing Luke, who pleads with his father for help. Anakin/Vader decides to kill the Emperor rather than let his son suffer, which supposedly brings him back from the dark side just before he dies.

Meanwhile, Han and Leia disable the Death Star's defenses, the rebellion blows up the new Death Star with the Emperor still on it (already dead), and Luke manages to escape at the last minute. Han and Leia begin a new relationship. Some scenes show people on different planets celebrating the death of the Emperor, but it's not clear exactly what will happen next to the vast army and empire that remain. (Movie 6)

Reactions to the Story

First movie (The Phantom Menace)

This was a neat movie. The good guys and their light swords are ubercool. Obi-Wan, Qui Jon, Yoda, and Palpatine are all played well enough, although they don't exhibit much more than one-dimensional personalities. Padme is a feisty heroine, but she really doesn't have much to do or say in the movie. She just wanders around.

It culminates in a battle to recapture the Naboo palace, and a wicked fight scene with light sabers.

Unfortunately, the actors who play Anakin and his mother are pretty bad, as are some of the hokey lines of dialog. Some of the dialog is inconsistent. For instance, the mother lets Anakin go off with Qui Gon Jinn to be a Jedi, and then two seconds later Anakin asks if he can go. Du-uh.

The Trade Federation's droids are supposed to be menacing, but they're fairly ineffective and say a lot of things that don't make sense for a droid, such as "Uh oh". And there's a race of annoying aquatic people on Naboo who talk with Jamaican accents and blubber a lot, added as comic relief. They were dispensable.

Second movie (Attack of the Clones)

This one is about the same as the first, with the light-saber coolness ratcheted up a notch. Palpatine and Obi-Wan are the same as the last movie, and Yoda also does some serious butt-kicking. The Fetts are introduced but don't add much to the movie. The fight scenes are elaborate and engaging.

This time Anakin is played so poorly, I found myself squirming when he was on screen. His delivery is constantly like a pouting crybaby, and he so overdoes his spoiled arrogant nasty behavior it's inconceivable that anyone would allow him to continue to be a Jedi in training.

His partner, Padme, is just as difficult to watch, but this seems more to do with the stupid lines she is given to deliver. And let's not forget that she's not supposed to be leading him on, but they spend their time in hiding together barely dressed, romping around, play fighting, and saying mushy things to each other; big surprise that they fall in love. When not in a love scene, Padme's back to feisty and gets to kick some serious butt.

All signs point to various lapsed Jedis causing havoc, but each time they discover something gone wrong that only a Jedi could have done, Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi are surprised and confused.

Third movie (Revenge of the Sith)

This was a pretty dark movie, with lots of dying and betrayal. Anakin still doesn't know how to act, although now he can glare with his eyes rolled up into his head. Palpatine spends a lot of time transparently telling him how wonderful he is and how little the Jedi really care for him. Anakin laps it up, as if Obi-Wan never told him to beware of flattery.

Anakin's conversion to the dark side was somewhat lame. Anakin is this arrogant guy who thinks he should be emperor, but then he meekly submits himself to obeying any orders the Emperor gives him. He's still asking himself why he did such bad things, but immediately becomes an automaton and goes off and does even worse things.

Padme now has not much to do.

The fight scenes in this movie don't add much to the ones that were in the previous one. It just seemed like they were hurrying to finish the movie and get on with the next one. And how Obi-Wan could walk away from a dying, but not dead, Anakin to slowly burn up on the shores of a lava lake makes no sense to me. Kill him and put him out of his misery, or rescue him while he's crippled; but leave him to slowly burn to death? Sheesh.

Fourth movie (A New Hope)

This movie introduces the second main set of characters: Luke, Leia, and Han. This trio has a lot more on-screen charisma than the first trilogy's (Anakin, Padme, Obi-Wan) does. Obi-Wan has turned into a kindly old man. Leia is a serious fighter, although she ends up having to be rescued. Han is a reluctant hero.

The pacing is slower in many areas, and the film quality is dirtier but richer for that.

The movie introduces a number of new inconsistencies with the previous movies. For instance, Obi-Wan meets a droid he met many times in the first few movies but can't remember it. Also, he's been hiding out on Tatooine for thirty years not doing anything about the Empire because he and Yoda couldn't face the Emperor on their own, and now he expects Luke to get involved and learn to be a Jedi and fight the empire, on his own.

Also, if Luke is supposed to be hiding from Anakin/Vader, why did he adopt the name "Skywalker", which was Anakin's last name?

The light-saber fight scenes and the space combat scenes have slowed down considerably since the first trilogy, and were not impressive.

Fifth Movie (The Empire Strikes Back)

Another dark episode, although not as dark as the third movie. The characters continue to appeal, and the acting is generally ok. But Yoda, who was a wise and awesome figure in the first three movies now looks like a Muppet and appears to be half-crazed.

The plot in this movie is tight. Like the second movie, you get to see a Jedi in training (Luke), who is tempted to the dark side. Only this time, it's not a foregone conclusion that he is going to fail (as his father did).

The light-saber fight scene is back to being cool, as is an asteroid chase scene midway through the movie. But the battle scene at the beginning of the movie where the empire rides around in clumsy armored elephants with no maneuverability and the ability to only see and shoot forwards was just plain silly. Even more silly that the rebellion fighters fly at them from the front and sides, instead of just parking behind them and shooting.

More inconsistencies: Obi-Wan in spirit form implies that Yoda is the one who taught him how to be a Jedi, when we already saw that Obi-Wan learned from Qui Gon, who learned from Duku, who learned from Yoda. A few teacher/student relations seem to have gotten lost.

And the timing seems to be off, too. Han escapes from a planet at the same time that Luke does at the beginning of the movie. Han seems to take about one or two days to get to a scene near the end of the movie, while Luke seems to take a few months to get to the same place at the same time.

Once again, it's not clear why Yoda (and Obi-Wan's spirit) are training Luke to face Vader and the Emperor when they both ran away from him in the prime of their powers thirty years earlier.

Sixth movie (Return of the Jedi)

The fight scenes are pretty cool, but the acting suddenly got really bad. In particular, Leia, who was once a feisty fighter is now a maudlin soap-opera actress.

The opening scenes at Jabba's estate in particular were pretty nifty, except for a horrid horrid dance and musical number at the beginning, which looked like a Pixar movie superimposed on the real movie.

Vader/Anakin's propitious turn from the dark side to suddenly turning on the Emperor seemed as unbelievable as his turn to the dark side was thirty years earlier. I guess we are supposed to believe that he saved his son because he failed to save his mother and wife?

The cute little furry characters who help Han and Leia deactivate the Death Star's shields for a good fifth of screen-time were also pretty annoying; like watching the Teletubbies.

Update: forgot another big inconsistency: Leia claims to have vague memories of her mother, when her mother died while giving birth to her.

The Characters

Palpatine/Sidius - This guy's character is pretty straightforward, but no reason is given for his intense evil. He's acted well enough.

Anakin/Vader - From boy to dying, he's supposed to be the complex character, but he's simply jolting. He was born to follow the dark side, and it seems impossible for no one to have noticed it until it was too late. Then he tromps around outrageously for thirty years serving a master even less generous than Obi-Wan, until the very last second where he kills the Emperor and himself at the same time. It's a nice idea, but some actual conversation and believability would have been nicer.

Obi-Wan/Ben - He sees most things except his student's character flaws. His single-minded devotion to his job gives us little insight to his character. Think paladin.

Padme - Eminantly watchable, except when on-screen with Anakin. But aside from her devotion to being a senator, some nice gymnastics and shooting, and then a lot of fretting at home pregnant, she doesn't get a lot to do.

Yoda - Short and cerebral, Yoda can soar and fight like a whirling dervish when he has to. He spends more time thinking than doing, however. At the end, he became a bit crazed. Well acted, I guess.

Luke - Innocent and determined, he radiates hero. He struggles through many battles and emerges changed after each one. And he's well acted, too.

Leia - Leia starts off fierce and commanding in the fourth film, then becomes a bit of a tagalong in the fifth film, and a hopeless wreck in the last one. Great to watch in the fourth and fifth, painful to watch in the sixth.

Han - Han is a "scoundrel", the reluctant hero, in the fourth movie. He tries to stay the reluctant hero in the next two movies, too, but it becomes less believable each time. This is not a problem, however, as that is exactly his character, becoming more and more involved with what he claims to not care for. He's also well acted, and pretty cute sometimes, too.

Droids - The two main droids in the movie are C3PO and R2D2, They're kind of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the main action. C3PO especially just wanders around, on and off the screen, being frightened and saying double-entedres. R2D2 actually plays a helpful role on occasion, usually with a spare arm ready to hold down a broken wing on a spaceship, blow a smokescreen, or tap into some computer and do something ridiculous. Other droids also wander around, mostly in order to get blown up.

Minor characters: Lando is a pilot friend of Han's who helps rescue him in the fifth movie and then helps the rebellion in the sixth; not much to say about him. Jango/Boba are the models for the clones. Jango tries to kill Obi-Wan at one point, and Obi-Wan has surprising difficulty dealing with him for some reason. Later on Boba is a bit of a nusiance, but then dies. Chewbacca is Han's tall furry co-pilot. He yowls and yips a lot, but doesn't do much else. And many others.


It's flawed, and has some bad acting, but overall the story is mythic and rich and the action scenes are fun to watch. The ideas behind the characters succeed somewhat more than the characters do themselves, leaving you to wish that they had been acted and/or written somewhat better in this regard (Luke and Han being the exceptions). The movies, although paced differently in different movies, tell really good stories, and reach tension and climaxes at all the right times.

Many of the lines are great, but many are forced or just painful. I wish the movie would have slowed down for a few scenes here or there and given the characters consistantly better lines. And too much of the movies seems aimed at small children.

There's also a rich and varied world of technology (ships, weapons, and so on) and aliens (all types, shapes, and sizes, although most have plastic faces and little facial expressions, and the others move and act like cartoons), which should please some people.

Overall recommendation is positive, especially if you're into action scenes.


meowsqueak said...

The actor who played Jenga (Temuera Morrison) is not an Australian, he's a New Zealander. BIG difference.

Allen Varney said...

I've heard about this series off and on for years; seems to be a cult classic. Your review makes me want to see it at last. This isn't the one where they go on a five-year mission, right? Where one of them has pointy ears?

While I'm at it, I need to look for this book, or two-book series, I heard about a few times -- Bibble, I think? It's about a god or something. Maybe you could review it too?

Anonymous said...

Wow! That was really amazing. I can't tell if you're joking or if you're serious. If it's a joke, it's a great one, if you're serious...dude you're blowing my mind.

I'm a big fan of the original movies (the last three with Luke in it. Came out in 1977). Not so much a fan of the new ones (the first three with Anakin). I think they ruin the story with all the inconsistencies. Some of the lame extras George Lucas stuck in Return of the Jedi are also really dumb. You might find it interesting to see if you can find an unaltered version of the original three.

If you're joking, you really got me good.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Allen: David Plotz of Slate reviewed the bible here. I don't always agree with him, but it may give you enough to decide if you want to read it yourself.


Chris said...

Like Luis, I find it impossible to tell if you are being serious or sarcastic, but surely, surely, you are having a laugh. :)

I think many of your criticisms come down to not appreciating the form. Bad dialogue, for instance, is part and parcel of space opera, and can be found in all six films. It makes me laugh, so I love it. :)

As for why Luke would still take the name "Skywalker" if he was in hiding, you ignore the possibility that "Skywalker" might be a common name on Tatooine. ;) One of the interesting questions for me is how Darth finds out his kid(s) are still alive, as this is left unanswered.

Anyway, Star Wars remains the greatest space opera story ever told (better than the Lensman books they are based in part upon). The prequels suffer mostly from sloppy editing (cutting 30 minutes from each would improve them all) but successfully invoke the Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire vibe that is tilted at. I would rate any one of them above Act II and III of Return of the Jedi, though, which is farcically tedious to my tastes.

Anyway, a fun read. :)

Best wishes!

meowsqueak said...

"Star Wars remains the greatest space opera story ever told"

Personally, I think Babylon5 is a much better story than Star Wars, and it's told very well. It's just a pity the acting is so bad in the first series.

ScrappySPJ said...

6 comments, and nobody has pointed out that you misspelt Leia. What are sci-fi nerds coming to?

Bay said...

Though you spelled Jenga correctly (if you are referring to the stacking game).

David Klein said...

Wow, have you ever had a post with 8 comments before? (If yes, what about 9 comments :-) )

MaksimSmelchak said...

Hi Yehuda,

Great post. I really enjoyed reading it and plan to link to it as soon as I get off my tuches.

I always enjoy reading a critical review of Star Wars since it's so universally adored that fans often overlook its shortcomings.

One of Lucas's shortcomings is that his romance is exceeded in emotional content by Halmark cards and the sort of greeting issued by strangers to one another. Episodes I through III really suffered from horrible writing.

There is a joke out there that the newer films can never go longer than ten minutes without some sort of spacecraft landing or taking off... I'm not sure how true that might be, but I did find those latest three films to be paced for the Ritalin ADHD generation and was summarily disappointed in them.

The beauty in the original three films (Episodes IV to VI) is in the stories and not in the special effects. Lucas was heavily inspired by a writer named Joseph Campbell who writes a mean book. If you heaven't read JH yet, please do so. He spent a good part of his life studying religion, beleif, and myth... which makes for a good read. I enjoyed his books at any rate.

Sorry for not getting back to you more about gaming lists... Life is keeping me very busy. Just got back from a wedding...

Blessing upon you and your family, Yehuda!


Anonymous said...

It was fun reading the reviews. It's very interesting to see how someone who's never seen the movies before and watches them "in order" can see things from a different perspective.

-you said episodes IV,V,and VI introduced inconsistencies, well as I'm sure you know, they were made first- so it's the prequels that bring the inconsistency.

-Yoda starts looking like a muppet in episode V...well that's because he is a muppet! :) It's funny, you saw slick cool Yoda in the prequels and then lame muppet yoda in the original movies, while I see "realistic" yoda in the originals, and lamer cartoony Yoda in the prequels.

-Agree whole heartedly on Anakin being horribly acted and written for in the prequels. The only thing his performance is unintentional comic relief.

-Interesting observation on Obi-Wan not killing Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith to put him out of his misery. That really would have made sense for his character to do.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Thanks for correcting the spelling of Leia and Jango.

Wulfgar: These were my observations watching, for the first time, the six movies from first to last, as Lucas apparently intends them to be viewed. Yes, it's strange how a prequel can cause the original to seem to be inconsistent.