Looking back at the Star Wars saga: Part One: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith

The new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, opens on the 17th of December and like most sad auld bastards that saw the first Star Wars film on a cold December night in 1977 I’m positively excited for a new film that looks like it might, just might, be decent at least.The reason for this severe trepidation is the rightfully maligned prequels that started with the complete mess that is The Phantom Menace.

I decided to go back and rewatch all the Star Wars films, and to be fair, the prize for utter ineptitude does go to Attack of the Clones (more of that in a bit) but The Phantom Menace isn’t as bad as I remember it, which to be fair, isn’t saying much as it’s still a terrible film. But I get what Lucas is trying to do by making it an accessible kids film (which is what Star Wars should be) but a film that opens talking about taxation and trade sanctions becuase there’s nothing I loved more as a kid than to talk about taxation and trade sanctions.

Now for a brilliant criticism of the prequels I suggest going to Red Letter Media and looking at their excellent (and funny) reviews because they’re the best reviews of the prequels I’ll ever see. For myself the problem I had with The Phantom Menace was that after seeing it with a load of mates when it first came out, I (like probably millions of others) didn’t say ‘it’s shite’ but lied and said I enjoyed it. That’s not to say there’s good in it. The pod race is fine.The end lightsabre battle is fine. There’s the odd decent scene,I even don’t mind Jar Jar Binks and certainly don’t hate the character because it’s a kids film, but it’s painfully, tediously boring.

The Phantom Menace is dull. For an action-adventure film that’s death but it is. From the opening crawl there’s a lot to take in that’s tedious because here’s the thing; I go to a Star Wars film to escape things like taxation, not have it as a major plot point!

Yet the film could have been saved if somebody had the bollocks to tell George Lucas his script was rubbish. I mean, at what point did he really think that Padme (a girl supposedly in her late teens) would fall for Anakin (a child not even in his teens) in a relationship that is the core of the prequels? It’s all a mess and I recommend watching the making of documentary because you can see it all unfolding in front of you as if it was an episode of The Office, but instead of Ricky Gervais, it’s George Lucas as it’s star.

I once drunkenly came up with a better plot years ago. Naboo could be blockaded because it has some MacGuffin it refuses to share with the bad guys and the bad guys are cracking down on Naboo because they’re bad guys. We’re introduced to Padme from the off as a wise beyond her years leader, who is rushed off planet to protect her but her chief pilot is killed by whatever is more effective than those shite robots, so young Anakin steps up to fly them out of the blockade and to any safe backwater where they can meet with the Jedi sent to help protect them and bring them back to Coruscant.

From the off we see Anakin as a ‘great pilot’, a good guy and Padme is taken by his heroism, plus you could play up a Princess and the Pauper vibe here so you’re making it clear this is a fantasy film as opposed to a tax return. When they meet up with the Jedi, they see the force is strong with him but they need to get off planet so you still have your pod race and all that before Darth Maul turns up and chases them across the galaxy as he tries to kill Padme.

Then the film goes pretty much as it does except you’ve curbed all the bollocks about L’il Anakin, and you’ve got a more exciting first half of a film that doesn’t involve people standing around in rooms talking and talking and talking.

But if The Phantom Menace is rubbish, Attack of the Clones is just inept.

Like the previous film there’s some decent set pieces that are fun I suppose, but on the whole I just look at it and think that poor old Ewan MacGregor thought these films would be more fun than they were. The big problem with Attack of the Clones is Hayden Christianson.He’s not a particularly bad actor, nor is he a good one but he’s a young actor here speaking some complete pish for dialogue not to mention being badly directed.

Lucas does at least realise his faults. He introduces Christopher Lee as Count Dooku as the central baddie here, but if Lucas had planned ahead he’d have stuck Dooku in the previous film as a bit of bait and switch. Make audiences watching this in order (episodes one onwards) think that Dooku is the baddie that turns into the Emperor and make Palpatine the real phantom menace. Of course if you’ve seen the films in order you’d know who the baddie really is, but it’d have been fun to see a mystery unfurl for fresh viewers. Nah, Lucas didn’t think of that. He just threw in lightsabre fights (oh that Yoda fight, dear god, that Yoda fight) , big creature battles and lots of shite that looks like cut scenes from an average PS2 game.

Attack of the Clones sucks. It’s a bad, bad, bad film. By now though Lucas has at least realised he needs to have his characters in certain places by the end of the prequels but because he’s clearly not planned all three films out carefully, he throws virtually everything into the last prequel, Revenge of the Sith.

This is the least bad film of the prequel. Again there’s some decent set pieces, but it’s a bad film. MacGregor at least has a bit to do as an actor, but he’s chronically wasted in these films but at least here he’s allowed to act a bit rather than just say his lines and then fuck off to have a wee cry in his trailer.

Problem is that by now thanks to Lucas being unable to think ahead, everything gets crammed into it’s running time so Anakin being a great pilot and a hero? Cram that in quickly. Padme being pregnant? Cram that in quickly. The end of the Clone Wars? Cram that in quickly. Anakin turning to the Dark Side? Cram that in quickly. The death of the Republic? Cram that in quickly?

Yet Lucas has time for a lightsabre duel between Anakin and Obi Wan that should have been the emotional centre of the prequels. It should have been epic instead of tiresome. At no point did I give a single flying fuck about anyone in this duel and instead I remember sitting in the cinema wondering if this was a good sign that the film could nearly be over and I could nip for a piss. Nope. Once the duel is over, there’s more exposition crammed into the final minutes of the film including the extraordinarily offensive Padme death scene where she just dies because the story requires her to. Here’s where my drunken idea idea at the time can be repeated. Padme and Anakin have a psychic link because although Anakin is strong with the force, Padme is also sensitive so they link with each other utterly. They could have set that up in the previous film so you’d have all these romantic scenes played out without the need for terrible dialogue. Just allow actors to act.

Anyhow this bond would weaken if one was threatened with death and you you could establish at the end of the second one that as Anakin is having his arse handed to him by Count Dooku that Padme is also affected. So going into the last one when Anakin turns to the Dark Side, it acts as a cancer in Padme that starts to kill her faster as Anakin commits more and more atrocities in the name of Darth Vader until the moment he puts on the armour and then she dies as the Dark Side infects her system completely. Effectively Anakin kills his beloved Padme but by this point Anakin is gone, replaced by Darth Vader. Play up the fantasy/fairytale aspect. It’d have been grim, but still within the rules set up by the series and for people watching it in order that haven’t seen the original films it sets Darth Vader up as one evil bastard.

But no, Padme just dies a pointless empty death. Darth Vader does his McBain scene, the films end, the credits roll and those of us with full bladders empty them in an act symbolic of the prequels themselves as after all they were full of piss too.

The Star Wars prequels are examples of dreadful filmmaking not to mention how to take a talented cast, not to mention a much loved idea and waste it because nobody’s sat down and even done a basic plot of all three films. People aren’t excited by endless scenes of people sat down at desks talking unless you’re David Mamet writing something like Glengarry Glen Ross then it’s dynamic but Lucas should never have been let near scripting or directing these films. They’re the cinematic equivalent of being stuck between floors in a lift knowing you’ll move eventually but you’ve not worked out when you will, but you’ll get there.

Thankfully signs are that J.J Abrams has at least worked out in advance with his collaborators where the new trilogy will go so there might be a bit more going on, but one thing to come out of revisiting the prequel trilogy is that I have no urge ever to see these films ever again.  I don’t think I could manage to sit through them again without falling over like a dead Padme.

Next up, the original trilogy gets rewatched…….

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Simon Pegg’s comments about SF and comic fans are actually right

Simon Pegg had an interview in the Radio Times that the American site IO9 picked up that led to this quite extraordinary piece by one of IO9‘s bloggers Katherine Trendacosta in it’s knee jerk defensiveness that proves Pegg has a point about how some ‘geeks’ (a term I despise) have a lack of self-awareness about how actually childish some genre material actually is.

For example, this:

Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie And Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed … I don’t know if that is a good thing.

… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.

Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.

Is entirely correct. For Trendacosta and the majority on IO9 it isn’t as she says:

It’s internally inconsistent to say that adults are taking “childish” things seriously, and say that this is making us dumber.

Something instantly contradicted by the next point:

  • It’s clearly not impossible to have a film with the Hulk fighting a robot and come out not thinking about real-world issues, or emotional journeys. If nothing else, the strong polarized reaction to Black Widow in Age of Ultron proves that.

The Hulk hitting Iron Man in the latest Avengers film isn’t going to make anyone think of real world issues unless their perception of that world has been so infanitlised and dumbed down to the point where a fight scene speaks about the world. The reaction to Black Widow is interesting but it’s not because of any deliberate or unintended message the film wanted to make, but instead is a reaction of the endless echo chamber politics that is genre fandom and Twitter.

That isn’t to say a piece of genre fiction can’t hide or discuss serious issues. It can and the likes of  Star Trek or Quatermass did this often on television, while something like Planet of the Apes is a fantastic allegory not to mention a fine work of satire, but the Hulk fighting Iron Man is really only the Hulk fighting Iron Man. Nothing especially wrong with that but it’s not exactly Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern using the medium to tell us something about us. It’s fun and that’s good, fun is good but we can’t live on that alone or we do end up seeing the world through different eyes ending up in a situation where people seriously think the world can be seen as well through genre fiction as more obviously serious material.

The next point is bizarre:

The whole history of film before Star Wars did not consist of “gritty, amoral art movies.” Let’s put aside that it’s completely bizarre to call The Godfather an “art movie”

No it isn’t. It’s considered one of the finest films not just of it’s decade, but ever. It is essentially an art film played as a blockbuster, and remember the idea of a blockbuster in the 1970’s before Star Wars is entirely different to that of today. Even today The Godfather stands as a superb work of art that does speak of evil and power, and how that power corrupts but suggesting it’s ‘bizarre’ to call it an ‘art movie’ shows a bit of ignorance of film history but a narrow point of view.

This is compounded with the next point:

  • Is Simon Pegg taking the side that Star Wars was the turning point for the dumbing down of movies? That simultaneously gives George Lucas too much and too little credit.

To an extent he is, and he’s sort of right as most critics and historians will point at Star Wars for creating the turning point, but the real culprit lies with Spielberg’s Jaws. That film redefined the idea of a ‘blockbuster’ from something like The French Connection, or All the President’s Men (films steeped in reality) to Jaws and Star Wars (films steeped in fantasy). so the focus moved from the real to the fantastic and again, there’s nothing wrong with that in doses small enough that you’re not swamped in robots smashing the fuck out of cities in every other film at your local multiplex.

Moving to the last point worth dealing with is entering a world of brain damage:

  • He’s also acting like comics and science fiction haven’t always dealt with very serious issues. X-Men is pretty famously in that category. And so was, oh, what was the name of that TV series? The one Pegg’s writing the next movie script for? Oh, right, Star Trek.

First of all, yes, the X-Men has dealt with serious issues. On rare occasions the comic has done it well, the God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel for example,

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On the whole the X-Men, and most superhero comics, are glorified soap operas with fight scenes. You’re not going to find out the realities of life in Middlesbrough or Cleveland or anywhere by seeing Wolverine fighting ninjas, or Cyclops moping around for the 400th time.

It’s the defensiveness of the entire IO9 piece that’s extraordinary as not for one sentence does it even remotely think that perhaps Pegg just has a point, partly because I assume the writer and staff are too closely connected to the material they clearly love so they see Pegg’s comments as an ‘attack’ on them themselves rather than a general discussion of genre culture and of course, Pegg’s career.

And here’s the thing, Pegg has taken crap in his career before. I remember Pegg as he started out in comedy as one of many accused of following in Steve Coogan’s shadow, but it wasn’t Spaced that showed Pegg’s real talent (as good as that series is) it was his work in the superb Big Train that sealed the deal for me in regards Pegg’s clear comedic talent.

Not to mention his often forgotten about part in the Paedogeddon episode of Brass Eye.

Pegg’s career before being known as a ‘geek’ icon is steeped in the world of comedy, and his work with Chris Morris shows he’s not scared of getting involved with something that was comedy, but dealing with serious issues as the media’s handling of paedophilia was. Obviously that’s not as serious as Iron Man fighting the Hulk, but there you go…

This article prompted Pegg to reply in a thoughtful way. It’s clear he does love things like Star Trek but like most people, he realises that isn’t, nor should it be the only thing they take in, and here’s the point in all of this. The fact is that for Pegg having to explain himself fuller shows that ultimately he’s right. People are dumbed down and they are hiding behind The Avengers or Harry Potter or anything popular that doesn’t set out to do anything but primarily entertain, but the moment when your primary view into the world is defined by Iron Man then perhaps you have made yourself infantile. Perhaps you have succumbed to the commercialisation of genre fiction which is ‘geek’ culture, an example of how consumerism eats everything and spits it back at you.

Now I’ve spent large chunks of my life working in comics be it retail or publishing. I still enjoy reading the works of Jack Kirby as much as the works of Charles Burns, but as a quick shufty through my blogs will show I don’t talk endlessly about comics unlike some fans now that do only speak about the comic, telly or films they endlessly consume, and in doing so, have allowed these things to completely define them which has sucked the sheer fun from it because it’s become them.

Conventions now look less than the often shambolic events of old as seen in this rather glorious old BBC programme about the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton.

Now conventions are less about fans making it for themselves in an almost punk/DIY ethic to one where their entire identity is defined by the things they buy and the endless state of nostalgia this form of consumerism brings. The point is that Pegg is right. People have been dumbed down because they’ve lost perspective and don’t have the mixture of backgrounds that Pegg had as he was starting his career. People now choose a tribe, and defend it to the bitter death even if that means that often smart people end up proving the point they’re fighting against.

So don’t just see the world through the latest Avengers film or an X-Men comic, but have something else to your diet apart from endless sugar. Have some serious substance and challenge your own worldview because otherwise you’ll be one of these fans that comments from people like Pegg as a personal insult when they’re not. The moment you see comments like that as insulting to you and the stuff you like then it’s time to step back, go outside and understand the world through your own eyes, not that of Iron Man or Black Widow.

My Top 20 SF Films-11-The Star Wars Trilogy

I’ve recently dived into doing ”best of’ lists, so as I’ve explained, I’ve decided to do my top 20 SF films. This is my personal list, so feel free to disagree with it and of course, you’ll be horribly wrong.

Previously at # 20, The Matrix19, Seconds, 18A Boy and His Dog17Sunshine16Dark Star15Rollerball14 Altered States13, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 12, Forbidden Planet. 

At #11 it’s not one, not two, but three films (and some prequels I’m going to imagine didn’t happen), it’s the original Star Wars trilogy.

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Right, let’s get one thing out the way. The prequels are crap. Really, really crap examples of how to make really, really bad films. There may be the odd scene that’s good, or even more shockingly some acting may break out at a few points in the three films but they’re pish, sheer and utter pish. They

Now that’s out the way let me tell you what you probably know which is that these three films are the defining moments of a lot of people’s childhoods. The first one used to be mine but over the years I’ve become less enamored of it due mainly to the almost cultish devotion of a number of it’s fans, but that aside these three films are the best examples of the sort of 1930’s style Space Opera you’ll see.

Star Wars (pffft to this A New Hope subtitle) is a simple fairy tale. The good guys are good, the baddies are bad. We cheer the goodies to victory and everyone leaves the cinema happy! The Empire Strikes Back fills out the simple story with angst, parental abuse, a lot of plot and the best film of the three not to mention a rare time when the sequel is better in a lot of ways to the original. By the time we get to Return of the Jedi, the series reaches a natural end with a series of climatic battles and sadly, Ewoks. Those bloody Ewoks….

Watched as a whole it’s a bloody great time. These are just fun films which are well made, enjoyable and although they’re essentially kids films (that’s going to make a few fans wet their knickers with rage) they can be enjoyed by everyone as these are simple films that never become simplistic. They were unspoiled wonders til the day The Phantom Menace hit our screens and it all went horribly wrong…

My favourite bit in all the films? The fight between Luke and Darth Vader at the end of Empire Strikes Back. It sums up the series message of hope and heroism against the face of evil and corruption. It’s also beautifully shot. Compare it with the dreary, endless fight at the end of the third prequel which goes on and on and on and on while saying nothing.

Right now these films are outside my top ten, but they might sneak back in someday……..

Next time, we go across the 8th dimension….

Star Wars Day

Star Wars Day is sucking the joy out out of something that was, once, a huge source of joy and fun, scrunching it up, wiping it’s arse with it, and selling it back to people who really should know better.

There’s an amazing snippet at the Wikipedia article for Star Wars Day where it’s apparently considered ‘‘anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement” and this utter snippet of horror:

”Current day Star Wars fans were not the first to introduce the line “May the fourth be with you”: when Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first female Prime Minister on May 4, 1979, her party placed an advertisement in The London Evening News that said “May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie. Congratulations.”[3]This reading of the line has also been recorded in the UK Parliament‘s Hansard.”

This is giving greater meaning to something owned now by Disney, and is being marketed and exploited to an inch of it’s life at the expense of anything new, original or risky because most people bleating ‘May the fourth be with you’ only want more of the same over, and over, and over, and over again until they have Wookies coming out their ears.

Where’s the next Star Wars? Where’s people and studios taking risks? Where’s the ability of fans not to give importance to something that’s a film about a boy beating an evil Empire and snogging his sister? Why try to label something with an importance and a message which isn’t there?

Star Wars wasn’t anything more than well made children’s films that everyone could enjoy but it gave meaning and hope to people because the 70’s and 80’s were bleak. It’s escapist fun and to see it being given religious meaning is frankly, bollocks, because it’s turned into a monster of marketing to geeks can be sold shite which makes Disney and George Lucas another squillion quid.

I enjoyed Star Wars as a kid. I still watch those original films every now and then to cheer me up because it reminds me of a happier time, but now it looks like that girl you fancied at school who’s grown up and become a prostitute selling herself for another hit of crack because she can’t stop.

So yesterday was one of those times where you wonder if the 21st Century is really going to be worth it if all we can do with our culture is recycle the past and weld on meaning to make it important to adults who’ve grown up and still want to enjoy the stuff they did as a kid, but don’t want to admit it’s kids stuff when really the fact it’s kids stuff is what makes it fun because it is timeless. Though it has been soiled, used and abused to the point where what made it great is a distant memory, not to mention there’s some weirdness about this whole Jedi as a religion stuff that reminds me of how cults like the Jesus Army or any of the New Age cults work.

And as for ‘May the fourth be with you’, the first time I remember anyone saying it was bearded accused sex pest Dave Lee Travis on his radio programme in 1978.

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There you go; the whole thing could well be invented by the man who popularised darts on the radio, smoking pipes, and allegedly having gropy hands round women.

So just enjoy the films for what they are. Don’t go mental for the sake of a film!

However if anyone slags off Suspira I will rip their liver out…