Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)

Star-Wars-Rogue-One-Felicity-Jones-as-Jyn-Erso

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The evil Galactic Empire is building a planet-killing weapon, so the Rebel Alliance sends a young woman called Jyn Erso to talk to her father: the man who designed it…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is simply Rogue One.

GOOD GUYS:

* Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a young woman who can handle herself in a fight and has an independent spirit. As a child she saw her father arrested and her mother killed, so went on the run. Now, 15 years later, she’s a prisoner of the Empire. She’s soon rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who convince her to find her estranged father. He designed the Death Star, an enormous space station capable of destroying entire planets, and they want to know its weaknesses. Joining forces with a Rebel captain and a few others, Jyn eventually tracks down her dad on the planet Eadu, but he’s then killed in front of her. Helpfully, she’d earlier seen a message he pre-recorded which explains how the Death Star can be destroyed. So Jyn tries to rally the pessimistic Rebels: she pitches that they steal the station’s blueprints from a heavily guarded Imperial planet. When the Rebel bosses say no, she goes anyway with her newly formed gang, giving some rousing motivational speeches along the way… Sadly, Jyn is a character who’s very difficult to care about. Actress Felicity Jones is one-note, remorselessly dour and barely shows any emotion other than frustration. This might be relevant for a woman who’s living a harsh life, but it hardly makes for engaging viewing. Compare her with Luke and Leia from the original Star Wars or Rey and Finn from The Force Awakens, characters full of vim and verve and energy and charisma and likeability. They feel so much more alive because they attack each scene full on and have dynamic emotional journeys. They also drive their own stories: they have desires and goals, and we experience their adventures with them. Jyn, meanwhile, takes about half the film to show *any* fight. It’s only after her father dies that she starts being pro-active; before then, she simply gets dragged along by circumstances outside of her control. The character nominally carries the whole story, yet coupled with a boringly introverted performance, her early passiveness means there’s a big, blank hole where our heroine should be.

* Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) used to work for the Empire as an engineer. At the start of the film he’s hiding on a farm with wife Lyra and daughter Jyn, but the Empire soon come looking. They coerce him into finishing work on the Death Star, a project he once headed before feeling guilty about, you know, building a WMD. So, because he knows they’ll go ahead with or without him, he deliberately adds a design flaw into the blueprints then sends word to the Rebels that they can destroy it. (Yes, that’s right: the narrative thrust of this film is based on explaining away a plot hole from the original Star Wars movie. Ever wonder why the Empire’s most important weapon self-destructs after a laser bolt is fired down a small exhaust port? Now you can find out!) The character doesn’t actually appear that much – just the prologue, a hologram message, a quick flashback, and his death scene – but Mikkelsen is good value and implies a lot with little screentime.

* Lyra Erso (Valene Kane) is Jyn’s mother. She’s killed by the bad guys early on.

* Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is a Rebel who helps the young Jyn escape in the prologue scene. He then raises her (off-screen) before a parting of the ways. When he returns to the story – as a stepping stone on Jyn’s quest to find her dad – he’s in a bad way. He has mechanical legs and wheezes into an oxygen mask at regular intervals; he’s also broken from the Rebel Alliance and gone solo (and a bit loopy). It’s been rumoured that Gerrera was originally going to have a much bigger role in the story, but reshoots watered his contribution down. He certainly feels like an underdeveloped character who’s more of a diversion than a vital bit of storytelling. Whitaker opts for an irritating, raspy-voiced performance. (The character previously appeared in the animated TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where he was voiced by Andrew Kishino.)

* Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) rescues Jyn from the Empire and takes her to a Rebel Alliance powwow to discuss the crisis. He’s a no-nonsense soldier who’s willing to kill an ally for the greater good. He then leads the mission to track down Galen – but unbeknown to Jyn, he’s been ordered to murder her father not rescue him. He later helps Jyn steal the Death Star plans. This theft involves playing a Crystal Maze skill game where he has to operate a mechanical arm in a giant multi-stack archive. Andor is the film’s Han Solo equivalent, though – like Jyn – is a relentlessly sombre character. The actor plays every scene, every moment, with the same level of energy. “You seem awfully tense all of a sudden,” Jyn says to him at one point. It’s an odd comment to make given that his behaviour and demeanour haven’t changed one iota since she met him. There’s no charm in the performance, no charisma, no irony, no fun.

* Tivik (Daniel Mays) is a nervous Rebel informant who doesn’t last very long: Luna executes him rather than risk him giving them away to some Stormtroopers.

* Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebels, bringing with him a message from Galen that explains all about the Death Star’s in-built weakness. He’s initially held by Saw Gererra, who treats him like an ISIS hostage (and exposes him to a slobbering monster with tentacles that can shred his mind; thankfully for Bodhi, it leaves him compos mentis). After Gererra is killed, Bodhi joins the missions to find Galen and steal the blueprints. He also gets to name the film when he improvises a call sign for the team: rogue one. It’s a fun, jittery performance from Ahmed. It deserves more focus.

* K-2SO (voice and mo-cap performance by Alan Tudyk) is Andor’s sidekick, a former Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed by the Rebels. He’s humanoid but about eight feet tall and very strong; his specialty is strategic analysis; and he says what he thinks. In a film populated by po-faced characters, K-2SO sticks out like a hilariously sore thumb with his deadpan humour and comedy timing. A CG creation, he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk with an English-ish accent. The actor has form for this kind of work – he also played a likeable android in 2004 film I, Robot.

* A number of Rebels attend an executive meeting at their Yavin IV base – ie, the one seen in the original Star Wars movie. Ooh, look, there’s the guy with a white beard who gives the briefing in the 1977 film (he’s been recast, of course). Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) crop up too and are cutely played by the actors who played them in the early 2000s Star Wars prequels. It’s a neat way to connect that trilogy with this new phase of movies.

* Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind mystic who Jyn and Andor meet on the planet Jedha. He seems drawn to Jyn, helps her evade some Stormtroopers, then joins the gang. He has a mantra (“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”) and is very handy in a punch-up or gunfight. He also says he’s one of the guardians of the Whills, which is an obscure reference to early drafts of the original Star Wars script. The character is an interesting addition to the team, giving this muscular war movie a nice dose of mysticism and ambiguity.

* Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is Chirrut’s mate, a dryly funny mercenary who carries around a huge backpack like he’s a Ghostbuster. He also joins the gang.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) share a throwaway cameo. It’s there solely to maintain the characters’ record of appearing in every Star Wars film. They play no role in the story.

* Gold Leader (Angus MacInnes) and Red Leader (Drewe Henley) are fighter pilots seen when the Rebels attack Scarif, the planet that contains the Imperial archive. The footage of these characters was actually filmed during the 1976 shoot for the first Star Wars movie. New backgrounds have been added to shots intended for that film’s climax. It’s a fun, subtle way of reinforcing that we’re in the same time period as the original trilogy. Drewe Henley coincidentally died while Rogue One was being filmed.

* Princess Leia (Ingvild Deila; voiced by an archive clip of Carrie Fisher) only appears in the final few seconds of the film and takes possession of the stolen Death Star plans on behalf of the Rebels. Because the scene is set literally minutes before the opening moments of the original Star Wars, Leia needed to look as she looked in that film. Therefore, CGI has been used to recreate a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher’s face and superimpose it onto a body double. It’s emblematic of Rogue One’s biggest problem: it’s so desperately eager to make references and connections to previous films that it doesn’t stop to consider that less is sometimes more. The moment smacks of over-explaining a joke or underlining the subtext, and Leia suddenly cropping up, having only been obliquely referred to, is pretty meaningless in the context of this story. (Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of viewers will still know who she is – but she’s played no role in Rogue One’s story at all.) Also, while the CG work is an astonishing achievement, it’s a tad unnerving too. The character’s baby-fat face glistens like she’s had plastic surgery, and the fact Fisher died while this film was on general release only adds to the sense that this well-intentioned idea should have been shelved.

BAD GUYS:

* Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star construction. He forces Galen to work for him, then later demonstrates the station’s capabilities by destroying the city of Jedha. But Krennic is royally pissed off when his colleague Tarkin takes all the credit for the project’s success. So he kills his engineers, including Galen, out of spite. He’s a terrifically nasty character, who snarls his way through the movie. Mendelsohn is very watchable.

* Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry) is the officer in charge of the Imperial forces, reporting directly to the unseen Emperor. He clashes with Krennic and, in a rather strange decision, chooses to destroy his own archive *after* the Death Star plans have been stolen. (Hope they had everything else backed up.) Obviously, the character was one of the main baddies of the original Star Wars, so – as with Princess Leia – CG technology has been used to recreate how he looked in 1977. Holby City actor Guy Henry played the role on set, mimicking the late Peter Cushing’s voice and posture very entertainingly. Then a digital reconstruction of Cushing’s head has been superimposed onto his body in post-production. This kind of thing has been done before in the Terminator series and a recent X-Men film, but never for a character with so much dialogue and so nuanced a performance. It’s a really brave attempt at something genuinely ground-breaking (and something that will presumably now be done more and more in these kinds of films). But because it’s only 95-per-cent photorealistic – it’s the lip-sync that lets the side down – you do question whether they’d have been better off just having Guy Henry play the full role.

* Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous; voiced by James Earl Jones) is the Emperor’s hatchet man. He lives on the planet Mustafar (last seen in Revenge of the Sith) – and when we first meet him he’s out of his famous battle suit and submerged in a tank. He’s summoned Krennic to a meeting to make sure he knows that the Emperor wants results. At first, the scene appears to be little more than a fan-pleasing cameo – it ratchets up the pressure on Krennic a bit, but could be deleted with no damage to the story – then you realise it’s also seeding the character for his role in the climax (see Best Action Sequence below)…

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The final few minutes of the film knock your socks off. For its third act, Rogue One becomes a full-on action movie and the intensity levels rise significantly. The Death Star plans have been stolen and the Rebels are attempting to flee the archive with them. However, Darth Vader is on their tail. He boards the Rebel ship and savagely, relentlessly cuts soldiers down with his lightsaber and Force powers: it’s a violent, intense sequence. The plans are finally smuggled on board another ship – which of course we recognise from the opening scene of Star Wars – and it flies away, Vader watching on… Run Rogue One and Star Wars back to back and the action flows across the two movies brilliantly.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: K-2SO gets more funny lines than the rest of the script put together (and by some distance). A random gag: “I’ll be there for you,” he says to Jyn at one point. “Cassian said I had to.”

MUSIC: Not being part of the main Star Wars series, Rogue One doesn’t feel obligated to have a score by house composer John Williams. In his place comes Michael Giacchino (Lost, Jurassic World, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Star Trek reboots). He provides some very John Williams-ish incidental music, which quotes and echoes the original trilogy a fair bit. The main theme is a bit underwhelming, but generally the music is very effective.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw Rogue One on Thursday 15 December 2016 at the Everyman Baker Street in London. I went with my pal Fraser Dickson and it was a significant day for us both. We’d just completed the final ever issue of All About Soap, a magazine we’d worked on for the previous 10 years.

REVIEW: This movie has a significantly different tone from the original Star Wars films or 2015’s series relaunch, The Force Awakens. It’s a tougher, harsher, less fun world populated by earnest characters dealing in life-and-death situations, and the swashbuckling zip of those earlier movies has gone missing. So has a sense of joy. Rogue One has regularly been called a war movie, so it was never going to be a laugh-a-minute. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be humourless or that the lead characters have to be so bland. Compare Rogue One with, for example, Aliens (1986). Both are science-fiction war movies, but Aliens is full of vibrancy and attitude and gallows humour and characters who grow and develop and who you care about. In contrast, Rogue One is disappointingly one-dimensional. The second half of the film is exciting and engaging, but before we reach the assault on the Imperial archive there’s over an hour of scenes where our heroes achieve little and learn even less. The story happens to them, rather than them being in control of events. Jyn is captured by the Rebels, blackmailed into going on a mission, stumbles across Saw Gererra by accident, can’t save her father… She’s not so much a character as a piece on a chess board, being moved around simply to keep the game going. (The reason the second half of the plot is more entertaining is because Jyn and Andor *decide to do things*.) Perhaps it would work better if those heroes were more interesting people, but the leads lack any personality beyond being moody and sullen. Some of the secondary characters fare better, especially the droll K-2SO and the twinkle-smiled Churrit, but they get little screen time in comparison. Another huge issue is the movie’s dogged obsession with other films. Rogue One is the cinematic equivalent of a tie-in novel, where providing cheeky in-jokes and dropping hints for fans is more important than telling a decent story. The connections to other Star Wars films (especially the 1977 original) soon mount up: a prop bottle full of blue milk, a pointless cameo for the bully who squares up to Luke Skywalker in the first film, a hologram of Jabba the Hutt’s dancing girl, an oblique mention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a pointless appearance for C-3PO and R2-D2, repeated shots and sets and lines… Some people have criticised The Force Awakens for aping the earlier Star Wars films, but that movie was reusing themes and motifs, not shamelessly nodding and winking to the audience. And as well as specific postmodern nods, Rogue One is also hamstrung by being as prequel-y as a prequel can be. The plot is as much dictated by what needs to be in place for the ‘next’ film as it is by character choices – more, in fact. We can’t see the Death Star destroy a planet because the weapon’s use in Star Wars is its first ever, so here it just levels cities. The story’s heroes have to all die because otherwise literal-minded viewers would ask why they’re not in the 1977 movie. Tarkin has to take over running the Death Star so he’s there for the next film. It’s far from organic or breezy drama. But despite all that, there is a lot to admire in this movie. It’s never boring and has a real polish to its visuals. There’s a fantastic fidelity to the design work of the original Star Wars and also numerous striking images along the way: the barren, windswept planet seen in the prologue, an enormous collapsed statue of a Jedi in a desert, the apocalyptic finale. CGI is used with great discretion. The action scenes are often busy and well staged. The sound design is excellent. And the cast is the most culturally diverse yet in the Star Wars series. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have more heart.

Seven Kyber crystals out of 10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, JJ Abrams)

ForceAwakens

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, resistance figurehead Luke Skywalker has gone missing. When a map of his location falls into the hands of a scavenger, she’s hunted down by the evil First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

GOOD GUYS:

* BB-8 is a cute, very emotive, football-sized droid with a free-moving head that seems to defy the laws of gravity. His owner, Poe Dameron, gives him a map leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts, but BB is then separated from Poe and meets a young woman called Rey… Creating a droid that could match the popularity of C-3PO and R2-D2 was an enormous challenge. BB-8 is an enormous success.

* Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) is an elderly man living on the planet Jakku who has information about Luke. He passes it on to Poe before being killed by the First Order, the fascist military organisation that has replaced the Empire defeated in the original trilogy. You can’t shake the feeling that Tekka should be more important than he probably is.

* Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a pilot working for the resistance movement. He’s a boys’-own-adventure hero with a cool jacket and a winsome smirk. At the start of the film he’s collecting a zip drive from Tekka, but then the First Order attack. To keep it safe, Poe gives the information to BB-8 and is then captured. He later escapes with the help of a defecting stormtrooper called FN-2187, who Poe renames Finn… But Poe is seemingly killed when they crash back on Jakku (boo). Later, it’s revealed that he survived (yay) and we next see him leading a fleet of X-wings in to save our heroes from the bad guys. He also leads the resistance’s assault on the First Order’s base.

* Finn (John Boyega) is introduced as a stormtrooper called FN-2187. During his first ever mission, a colleague smears blood on his helmet so we can see which one he is (helpful!), but FN recoils at the horror of having to kill innocent people so decides to go AWOL. He helps prisoner Poe escape (because, he admits, he needs a pilot) and they quickly form a bond of friendship; Poe even suggests a new name: Finn. After Poe apparently dies, Finn wanders the desert planet of Jakku then bumps into BB-8 and a young scavenger girl called Rey. Together the trio do a runner when the First Order arrive looking for the droid. Embarrassed about his past, Finn lies and says he’s from the resistance. He fancies Rey but is scared of being caught, so soon decides to leave for a distant star system. However, when the First Order activate a weapon that can destroy entire planets, he chooses to stay and fight. He’s soon reunited with Poe, who didn’t die, and their manly hug is… sorry, there’s something in my eye. Teaming up with two legends from the old rebellion, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Finn heads off to rescue Rey, who’s been captured by the bad guys. During a final confrontation with lead baddie Kylo Ren, Finn is badly injured.

* Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a young, feisty, brave and resourceful woman living alone on Jakku. She survives by scavenging junk from crashed star destroyers; she lives in a derelict AT-AT walker; and she has a homemade doll of a rebel pilot. (She sure likes things from the original trilogy.) We learn that she’s been waiting on Jakku for her family to return, but it’s been a very long time since they abandoned her there. Joining forces with Finn and BB-8, who are on the run from the First Order, she suggests they steal an old, decrepit star ship to flee the planet. (The moment when the camera pans left and shows us the ship she means – the Millennium Falcon – made my cock surge when I first saw this film.) However, after leaving Jakku they’re very quickly captured by – how’s this for a coincidence?! – Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Falcon’s old owners. Han is soon impressed with Rey’s know-how and attitude so offers her a job. Later, while hiding in a friendly bar, Rey is drawn into a basement by distant voices. She finds a lightsabre in a chest, touches it and hallucinates: she sees a First Order ship, a hooded figure with a droid, bad guy Kylo Ren, and herself as a child being left on Jakku. (She also hears voices, which we recognise as Yoda, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi – the first two are clips from old films but Ewan McGregor recorded new material as Kenobi.) The bar’s sage owner, Maz, explains that the lightsabre belonged to both Anakin Skywalker and his son, Luke. Presumably it was found on Bespin after Luke lost it in The Empire Strikes Back. (Maz says that’s a question for another film– I mean, time.) Freaked out, Rey runs off but is captured by Kylo Ren. She uses her nascent Force powers to resist his telepathy-rape, then to trick a stormtrooper into letting her go. She ends up fighting Kylo with Luke’s lightsabre; because she’s awesome she wins. (Oh, how John Williams’s music swells when she uses her telekinesis powers to pulls the weapon into her hand!) After the resistance’s victory over the First Order, Rey sets off with Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker…

* Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has, since we last saw him, lost three of the loves of his life – he separated from Leia, his son turned evil, and someone stole the Millennium Falcon. At least Chewbacca is still at his side. When he finds the Falcon again, Han meets Rey and Finn, who recognise him as a smuggler, a general and a war hero. He’s about to throw them off his massive freighter when they let slip they’re on a mission for the resistance. At the mention of his old friend Luke Skywalker, Han confirms that all the myths about him are true. He tells us Luke’s star pupil defected to the bad guys, so Luke fled in shame – reportedly to find the first Jedi temple. Later, Han is reunited with Leia Organa – they clearly still love each other – and together with the rest of the resistance they plan an attack on the First Order base. Han leads the team sent to deactivate the planet’s shield (well, he did the job so well in Return of the Jedi) and the mission brings him into contact with his son – Kylo Ren. Han tries to get through to him, but Kylo kills him with a lightsabre. (I was just numb with shock when I first watched the death of my childhood hero – I had no idea it was coming.)

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is still hanging out with Han. He’s injured in a fight with two rival gangs who want BB-8, then is later enraged when Han is murdered.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is a short alien with sphincter-like eyes hidden behind massive glasses. She runs an out-of-the-way bar on a planet called Takodana. When Rey, Finn, Han, Chewy and BB-8 arrive, two customers of the bar clock the important droid – one reports back to the resistance, the other to the First Order. Maz is a CGI creation, but there’s no Jar Jar Binks dislocation here. She fits in with the real actors splendidly.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) arrives on Takodana to rescue our heroes when the First Order attacks. There’s a touching reunion with Han and Chewy, who she clearly hasn’t seen for ages. Leia is more world-weary than the last time we saw her, but still a bad-ass leader: she ably co-ordinates the resistance’s attack on the First Order planet. When Han is killed, she senses his death via the Force and has to sit down. When Rey returns from the mission, they share their grief with a wordless hug. (Chewbacca, meanwhile, wanders off unnoticed. JJ Abrams has since admitted that Leia’s apparent lack of interest in him was a mistake.)

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, the only actor to be in all seven Star Wars movies) has lost an arm at some point since we last saw him. Its replacement is red for some reason. He hangs out with Leia at the resistance’s base. Also there is R2-D2, but he’s been in a low-power mode since Luke left. He switches back on near the end of the film to complete the map. (Now in his eighties, Kenny Baker couldn’t play R2 this time. He’s credited as a consultant.)

* Kalonia (Harriet Walter – yes, they cast Harriet Walter for a nine-word role) plays a dryly funny doctor who tends to an injured Chewbacca.

* Temmin ‘Snap’ Wexley (Greg Grunberg) is an X-wing pilot we see a couple of times. Grunberg is an old pal of JJ Abrams, who has cast him in many TV shows and films.

* Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose) is still helping out the resistance, as is Nien Nunb (Mike Quinn). Both characters were in Return of the Jedi.

* Statura (Ken Leung) is another member of the resistance’s executive committee.

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)… I’ve thought long and hard about this and have concluded that my single favourite moment in all of cinema – the most emotionally affecting, the most audacious, the most successful – is the final scene of this film. Rey uses the map to track down the planet where Luke Skywalker is in exile. The Millennium Falcon lands on a rocky island, and Rey begins to climb a steep footpath. There’s no dialogue, just bewilderingly emotive music. She climbs and climbs until finally she reaches the plateau, and standing on the cliff is a man in a hooded cloak. Slowly, he turns round to face her (and us) and pulls down his hood… Now, I’ve known who Mark Hamill is since I was a toddler. I’ve seen masses of behind-the-scenes footage and read many interviews; he was probably the first actor I knew by name. But when the character on the cliff turns round, it’s not Mark Hamill standing there. It’s *Luke Skywalker*. I can’t find a better way to explain this. In the moment I first saw this scene I was totally transported into the fiction: the real world didn’t exist. There was LUKE SKYWALKER, a hero of my childhood back after more than 30 years. Bear in mind that Luke had been absent from all the trailers and TV spots and promotional posters. And they’d held him back until the last few seconds of the film. He looks at Rey as she holds up his old lightsabre. Neither of them says anything… And roll credits. A stunning bit of storytelling.

BAD GUYS:

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) dresses all in black, wears a scary helmet and speaks in a deep, synthesised voice: he might be the film’s villain. There are early references to him having a mystery past, and then later we learn that he’s the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. He looks about 30, so perhaps he was conceived on Endor after his parents first got some alone time. They called their child Ben. Yes, he was named after the pseudonym used by Obi-Wan Kenobi – a bloke Leia never met and Han knew for an afternoon. Luke tried training the lad in the ways of the Force, but it went wrong and Ben turned evil; he renamed himself Kylo Ren and rose to be a bigwig with the fascist First Order. He gets angry very easily and talks to the burnt helmet of his grandfather Darth Vader: FRUITLOOP. After capturing Rey, who has seen the map leading to Luke, Kylo is frustrated when she resists him. He then encounters his dad, Han, for the first time in a long while. After a heart-to-heart, Kylo kills him, which pretty much guarantees that the character can never be redeemed a la Anakin Skywalker. (Some things you can’t forgive.) He then confronts Rey and Finn, injuring them both before Rey fights back.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is a silver-suited stormtrooper leader. She’s basically Guard #1.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is the military leader of the First Order, who butts heads with Kylo Ren. They seem to be of equal rank. He later gives a foaming-mouth, Hitler-like speech to thousands of soldiers.

* Colonel Kaplan (Pip Torrens) gets a line or two. Another First Order officer-type is played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, while Daniel Craig did an uncredited cameo as a stormtrooper.

* Supreme Leader Snoke… or possible Snote? Smote? Snate? Spoke? Spote? Stoke-on-Trent? Why can’t I lock this name in my head? …(Andy Serkis via motion-capture-driven CGI) is the shadowy boss of the First Order. We only ever see this alien creature via a hologram projection, so we don’t know if he’s actually 50 feet tall or whether he has his communicator’s settings too high.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: How to pick just one? For the sheer elation it creates, the X-wings gliding across the water is worth mentioning. But the action is uniformly excellent.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Oh, so many choices. Finn not being able to find a specific tool (Rey: “No. No. No. The one I’m pointing to!”). Finn colluding with BB-8. Almost anything BB-8 does, in fact. Finn giving Chewbacca medical attention. Kalonia giving Chewbacca medical attention. Han and Leia’s good-natured bickering (thank you, the universe, for letting me live long enough to see more of this). The hynoptised stormtrooper dropping his gun. The stormtroopers turning round and walking away when they hear Kylo Ren throwing a tantrum. Finn taunting Captain Phasma. And much more. It’s the funniest Star Wars film yet.

MUSIC: Well, it was never going to be shit, was it? John Williams continues his monopoly of scoring Star Wars. The use of classic themes from the original trilogy works sensationally well.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this movie on Friday 18 December 2015 at the Everyman Baker Street in London with Fraser Dickson. The film had been released the day before and I’d spent 24 hours avoiding spoilers. It was worth it. Seeing this film knowing next to nothing about the plot was one of *the* joys of my adult life.

REVIEW: As soon as it starts you know you’re in safe hands. The standard Star Wars opening – logos, burst of music, crawl of text with full-cap words and ellipsis – is in place, and it’s followed by an opening shot full of scale. This movie looks like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, and it feels like Star Wars. Part of the reason for that is because the film deliberately echoes elements from the 1970s/80s trilogy. The story, the dialogue, the character types, the production design, the cinematography, the locations… I won’t attempt to list all the specific correlations between this film and the originals, but there are many. (A Google search throws up numerous lists.) It’s in keeping with the storytelling formula used by George Lucas, the former creative boss. Similar things happen to different generations. And this new generation – courageous Rey, headstrong Finn, dashing Poe, adorable BB-8 – are charismatic, fun, interesting and worthy successors to Luke, Leia, Han and co. Speaking of those characters, what a brave choice it is to hold them back. Han and Chewy don’t appear until the 38-minute mark; Leia and C-3PO not until 76 minutes, Luke not until after 121 minutes. It’s amazing chutzpah to resist showing Luke Skywalker for over two hours. It builds a wonderful tension in the plot, and brilliantly the classic characters are not just meaningless cameos. They’re integral to the story, and are found in instantly interesting situations. In the 1990s there were Star Wars spin-off novels set years after Return of the Jedi. Han and Leia were happily married with twins on the way; the Empire had been defeated; everyone had puppies. This film wisely ignores all that. *Of course* Han and Leia wouldn’t last, it says. *Of course* Han would go back to smuggling. *Of course* there’d still be bad guys in the universe. The Force Awakens might be a love letter to the first three movies, but it’s still a drama. On a technical level, the film is even more impressive. For a start, it’s just so wonderfully *there*. It feels physical, palpable, with heft and weight and a sense of reality. After the cartoony artifice of the prequels, this makes a geek’s heart sing. Also, like in the films directed by Abrams’s hero Steven Spielberg, the frame is often packed full of detail yet – crucially – never feels cluttered. There’s great energy in the direction, but it’s always controlled and focused. The camera moves for good reasons: to tell us about character, to develop the story, to sell a gag. As good as many recent genre films have been, this is just a more polished style of filmmaking. Many shots take your breath away with either their audacity or their economy – or both – but the film is never showing off. It’s a film where the focus-pulling is impressive, for pity’s sake. Are there flaws? Probably. There’s too much quoting of old Star Wars movies. The First Order’s planet-destroying weapon is Abrams plagiarising himself (see 2009’s Star Trek). It’s sometimes not clear where planets are in relation to each other. Snoke doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. But do I care? Not in the slightest.

Ten moof-milkers out of 10

Spaceballs (1987, Mel Brooks)

spaceballs

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this spoof of the Star Wars movies, the president of the planet Spaceball plans to steal the clean, fresh atmosphere from their neighbours on Druidia. In order to extort the king, Spaceball military leader Dark Helmet is sent to kidnap Princess Vespa…

WHICH VERSION? The cut released in cinemas in 1987 and on DVD in 2004.

GOOD GUYS

* Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is the film’s Princess Leia equivalent. She’s a spoilt brat of a young woman with a flash sports spaceship. In the opening scene, she’s being married off to a dull, yawning prince called Valium, so does a runner. After meeting up with the roguish Captain Lone Starr, the pair bicker in a we-clearly-fancy-each-other way.

* Dot Matrix (body: Lorene Yarnell, voice: Joan Rivers) is the C-3PO of this story – a female, gold android with a droll sense of humour.

* Barf (John Candy) fulfils Chewbacca’s function as the hero’s co-pilot. He’s a ‘mawg’ – half man, half dog, who is his own best friend – and has a big appetite. He and Lone Starr travel round the galaxy in Eagle 5, a Winnebago motorhome with wings.

* Captain Lone Starr (Bill Pulman… or is it Bill Paxton? Jeff Bridges?) has a combination of Luke Skywalker’s destiny-driven purity and Han Solo’s edgy anti-hero charisma. Hired by Druidia’s King Roland to save Princess Vespa from the Spaceballs, Lone Starr tracks her down and rescues her – but they then crash-land on an unnamed desert planet (not unlike Tatooine). There, some cloaked midgets (not unlike the Jawas) take our characters to an underground temple where they meet a guru called Yogurt (not unlike Yoda). Later, Lone Starr confronts the bad guy Dark Helmet, who reveals that they have a familial connection: he’s Lone Starr’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

* Yogurt (Mel Brooks, in one of two roles he plays in this film) is, as mentioned, the film’s version of Yoda. A short, green alien played by Brooks on his knees like someone doing a Toulouse-Lautrec impression, Yogurt teaches Lone Starr in the ways of the Schwarz (a mystical energy field not unlike the Force). He’s also managing a range of Spaceballs: The Movie merchandising. When Lone Starr leaves the temple, Yogurt hopes they’ll meet again… in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.

* John Hurt shows up in a scene at a space diner and comically recreates the iconic chestburster moment from Alien. “Oh, no,” he says mid-birth, “not again!” (I never spotted this when I was a kid, but the people he’s with are specifically cast and costumed to resemble Kane’s crewmembers in Alien.)

BAD GUYS

* Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) is one of the Spaceballs military officers, usually seen at Dark Helmet’s side. His name has seemingly been chosen solely so there’s an extra laugh when Dark Helmet accuses him of being ‘chicken’.

* Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) is obviously the Darth Vader of the story, though a lot shorter than his inspiration. And clumsier. He has an enormous helmet with a retractable visor (when it’s down he sometimes struggles to breathe). He enjoys playing with his Spaceballs action figures.

* Pizza the Hut (voice: Dom DeLuise) is a large sentient mass of cheese, tomato and bread. Like Return of the Jedi’s Jabba the Hutt, he’s a gangster who wants some money from the scoundrel in the cast. He has a robotic Mafia-like sidekick called Vinnie.

* President Skroob (Mel Brooks again) is the leader of Spaceball City. He’s a man of no principles – a smarmy 1980s businessman of a character. He likes sniffing air from cans of ‘Perri-air’ and having threesomes with twins. (Skroob in an anagram of the actor’s surname, of course. Well, I say ‘of course’. I’ve only just spotted it. And I first saw this film 27 years ago.)

* Michael Winslow has been brought over from the Police Academy series to do exactly the same kind of vocal-gymnastics jokes he was doing there. He cameos as a radar technician.

* Gretchin (Brenda Strong, who was later in Seinfeld, Sports Night and Desperate Housewives) is a sexy nurse in a scene where the Spaceballs threaten to reverse Princess Vespa’s nose job.

* The captain of the guard (Stephen Tobolowsky) is very smug when he thinks he’s captured Lone Starr, Barf, Vespa and Dot Matrix. When they turn to face him, however, he realises he’s actually imprisoned the characters’ stunt doubles.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: During Lone Starr and Dark Helmet’s duel (using beams of energy not unlike lightsabres), Dark Helmet accidentally kills the movie’s boom operator.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Another, more inventive, fourth-wall-breaking gag is when Colonel Sandurz suggests they watch a VHS copy of Spaceballs: The Movie in order to find out where the missing Vespa has gone. As indicated above, the film is littered with self-aware references to it being a work of fiction.

MUSIC: The score is by John Morris and is pretty good.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I saw this film a silly amount of times as a child, but this was my first viewing in God knows how long. A lot of it was still familiar to me.

REVIEW: The Star Wars-spoofing elements are all obvious but generally funny – the wordy crawl of text that starts the film, the ridiculously enormous spaceship seen in the opening shot, the character types and mysticism… But it also pokes fun at Star Trek a few times; has a completely delete-able scene taking off Alien; and also has a Planet of the Apes gag. There are a lot of jokes and they come at a relentless pace – and most are successful enough for the film to gallop along enjoyably. Whether it’s characters being laughably earnest or making intertextual asides, it’s all great fun.

Eight virgin alarms out of 10

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005, George Lucas)

Revenge_of_the_Sith

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The galaxy is in chaos: a separatist droid army is waging war with the republic, and Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker is feeling torn between the two sides…

WHICH VERSION? The 2005 DVD release, which was more or less the same cut as the theatrical version. (Apparently Darth Vader’s infamous “Nooo!” is shorter on home video.)

GOOD GUYS:

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is often at Anakin’s side, especially during the opening action sequence.

* General Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is on Jedi business at the start, saving Chancellor Palpatine from the bad guys. Obi-Wan lets Anakin take the credit for the rescue, but can afford to be magnanimous because he’s now a member of the Jedi Council. Later, when droid leader General Grevious is located, Obi-Wan is sent to kill him – he does so by shooting him after a long lightsaber fight. (“So uncivilised,” he says, nodding towards dialogue from Star Wars.) However, Obi-Wan’s life is threatened when stormtroopers – under orders from Palpatine – start to assassinate all the Jedi. Obi-Wan then learns that Anakin has gone over to the Dark Side. He finds his old friend on the planet Mustafar, where they have an epic duel. After Anakin is defeated, Obi-Wan leaves – but only after collecting his padawan’s lightsaber so he can give it to Luke in 20 years’ time.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) coordinates the Jedis’ efforts in defeating the separatists. When he learns that Palpatine is a member of the evil Sith religion, Windu goes to arrest him but then realises the Chancellor is too deranged and must be killed. However, Anakin comes to his new master’s aid and helps him murder Windu.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is gold and shiny now. He’s seen by Padmé’s side a few times, then has his memory wiped at the end of the film (because in the original movies he doesn’t remember the events of the prequels).

* Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) gets more to do than in Attack of the Clones. He could hardly have less. He’s loyal to the Jedi, and they use his space ship – THE SAME ONE FROM THE OPENING SCENE OF STAR WARS! – as a refuge. At the end of the film, he takes the newborn Leia home to Alderaan.

* Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now secretly married to Anakin. She also tells him she’s pregnant, but they need to keep the news under wraps. If it were public knowledge, he’d be kicked out of the Jedi club, while she’d have to give up her job. She’s already showing, however, so maybe she’s telling friends that she’s developed a love of cake and beer. The character isn’t in the film a huge amount, goes missing for long stretches, and does a lot of wimpering. (Princess Leia must be turning in her mum’s womb.) When she’s told that her beloved Anakin has gone evil, Padmé goes off to find him – he responds by assuming she’s betrayed him and throttling her. She later goes into premature labour and gives birth to two enormous CGI babies. She has just enough time to make sure we all know their names before she dies. (So how come Princess Leia says she can remember her mother in Return of the Jedi, then? EH, GEORGE LUCAS?!)

* Yoda (Frank Oz) tries to offer guidance to a clearly stressed Anakin, but is unhappy when the young Jedi is given a seat on the Jedi council. Because he has an established relationship with the Wookies, Yoda then takes a battalion of troops to their home planet – Kashyyyk, last seen in The Star Wars Holiday Special – to reinforce a rearguard action. When the stormtroopers turn evil, Yoda senses the danger. With the help of ally Chewbacca, he manages to escape. He confronts Palpatine and they fight, but Yoda can’t beat him so has to go into hiding.

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) features briefly in the scenes on Kashyyyk, where the combined Wookie/republic forces are repelling the rebel droids. There were plans to feature a 10-year-old Han Solo in this sequence, but they were dropped. Probably for the best.

* Commander Cody (Temuera Morrison) is a featured stormtrooper. He’s Obi-Wan’s mate until Palpatine sends the coded message – order 66 – that turns all the clones into murderous brutes.

* Tion Medan (Bruce Spence, who was the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2) is an alien whose people are being held hostage by General Grevious.

* Luke and Leia are Padmé and Anakin’s twins, born near the end of the film. In order to protect them from their evil father, the babies are split up and hidden. The girl is given a home by Bail Organa and his wife (we skip over the conversation where he pitches *that* idea to her). The boy, meanwhile, is taken by Obi-Wan Kenobi. His brainwave is to hide the child… on Anakin’s home planet… with Anakin’s stepbrother… on the farm where Anakin’s mum used to live… growing up with Anakin’s surname…

* Captain Antilles (Rohan Nichol) appears briefly. He runs Organa’s ship and was also seen in the first Star Wars film, being throttled to death by Darth Vader. The process of writing this review has been the first time I’ve ever realised that the guy being strangled (“We intercepted no transmission… Argh! This is a consular ship!”) is the Captain Antilles that C-3PO later mentions to Luke Skywalker. It’s taken me over 30 years to spot that.

* Beru (Bonnie Piesse) and Owen (Joel Edgerton) appear when Obi-Wan shows up to give them the baby Luke. They’re not surprised to see him, so presumably he called ahead and asked them to spend the rest of their lives raising the secret child of the galaxy’s most murderous maniacal murdering maniac.

BAD GUYS:

* Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is more or less a good guy at the start of the film. He mounts a daring rescue of Chancellor Palpatine after the republic’s leader is seemingly kidnapped by the separatists. (It’s actually been staged by Palpatine.) During the mission, Anakin is ordered by Palpatine to kill head ‘kidnapper’ Count Dooku. Anakin’s conflicted… but does it anyway, severing Dooku’s head just to make sure. Later, after learning that he’s going to be a father, Anakin is dogged by prophetic nightmares about Padmé dying in childbirth. Meanwhile, Palpatine engineers it so Anakin gets a seat on the Jedi Council; but *they* meanwhile want him to spy on the chancellor. Palpatine drips poison in Anakin’s ears, stokes his anger, and also dangles the power to save Padmé in front of him. Anakin deduces that Palpatine is the Sith Lord they’ve all been searching for, but rather than hand him in he helps the chancellor kill Mace Windu. Anakin feels guilty, bless him, but still becomes Palpatine’s apprentice in exchange for the skill to save Padmé from an early death. So Palpatine gives him a new (Sith) name – Darth Vader, which he seemingly picks out of his arse. Off the deep end now, Anakin murders a load of Jedi (including some kids, though the one with dialogue is a precocious little shit so let’s not be too judgemental). Anankin also goes to the volanco moon of Mustafar and wipes out the separatist conspirators. But when Padmé and Obi-Wan arrive, Anakin thinks they’re against him so begins to throttle Padmé. After a long, epic, mostly green-screen-shot lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan, Anakin loses his limbs (he’s now more Monty Python Black Knight than Jedi Knight) and is burnt by lava. Obi-Wan leaves him to die (harsh), but Palpatine shows up, takes him back to Coruscant and encases him in a full suit of sleek black armour. Now recognisably the Darth Vader from the original movies, the character’s dialogue is voiced by James Earl Jones. (Or is it? He’s not credited and Jones himself was evasive when he was once asked about it.)

* General Grevious (Matthew Wood) is the leader of the separatist droid army. He’s a droid himself, though has organic elements (such as a heart and real eyes). He wheezes and coughs a lot. When Obi-Wan tracks him down, Grevious reveals his USP: he has four arms and can wield a lightsaber in each one. He’s a totally CG character.

* Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been captured when the film begins. But Count Dooku has only pretended to take him – it’s all a ruse, staged by Palpatine himself. As well as playing both sides of the war off against each other, the chancellor is plotting to make Anakin his new apprentive *and* manipulating events so he can have even more power. His to-do list must be massive. When his real agenda is discovered and Mace Windu tries to arrest him, Palpatine shows us he’s shit-hot with a lightsaber. But during the fight with Windu, the chancellor is aged by exposure to an energy beam so he now looks more like he does in the original films. Anakin finally becomes his apprentice (“You’re hired!” “Thank you, Lord Sidious!”) and gets a new name. Together they start to wipe out their opponents. Palpatine then declares a new Galactic Empire to replace the old republic, with himself as Emperor. After relatively minor roles in the previous two films, Palpatine gets a lot of screen time here – and McDiarmid is a terrific panto villain.

* Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is in one scene, just enough time for Anakin to behead him on Palpatine’s orders.

* Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) is on the brains trust of the separatists, but then Anakin kills him.

* Grand Moff Tarkin (Wayne Pygram) makes a mute cameo in a scene of the Emperor (as he is now) and Darth Vader looking at the shell of the under-construction Death Star. Hang on, so that means it takes the Empire 20 years to build the first Death Star, but then they knock up the second one in a few months. Perhaps the original involved a lot of R&D work.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The opening is pretty spectacular. It’s a tremendously detailed 74-second CGI shot, which takes us through an enormous space battle going on above Coruscant.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: R2-D2 gets some entertaining slapstick in the first act.

MUSIC: Another excellent score.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this movie on Thursday 19 May 2005. My pal Simon Guerrier had got us tickets to the first showing of the film’s first day on general release – at the ginormous Odeon Leicester Square. I was so nervous that morning, because we all assumed it was the last time we’d ever see a new Star Wars film. The 1,679-seat auditorium was full. When the caption ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ came up, someone shouted out, “I’ve seen this one!” and we all laughed. It broke the tension brilliantly. I really, really enjoyed seeing the film that day.

REVIEW: The drama is basic and clunky, but at least it’s there. This is a story based on character choices, which means that while not perfect the film is more watchable and engaging than its prequel cousins. There’s a vivid sense of events spiralling out of control; an awful inevitability hangs over everything. Meanwhile, as with every Star Wars film, the design work is really smart. It tells story just as well as dialogue or acting – better, probably. The good guys’ space ships are starting to precursor the Empire models, for example, while Anakin’s costumes are now from Gestapo’R’Us. Also, the series’s obsession with CGI is better handled here than it was in Attack of the Clones. The action feels weighter and a bit more physical, while environments seem less cartoony for the most part. (It helps that the whole film has a darker, moodier colour palette.) The same old problems remain – terrible dialogue, wooden cast members – but this is the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.

Seven younglings out of 10

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

Attack_of_the_clones_1

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various planets are planning to leave the Galactic Republic, putting strain on the Jedi knights and threatening civil war. A republican army is proposed, but someone is trying to kill its main political opponent…

WHICH VERSION? The 2002 DVD release, which made some minor changes to the theatrical release.

GOOD GUYS:

* Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is no longer Naboo’s… Hang on a sec, her first name is actually Padmé? The name she was using when she secretly disguised herself as her own handmaiden in The Phantom Menace? It wasn’t a pseudonym?! That makes even less fucking sense now. Anyway, she’s no longer Naboo’s queen (which is actually an elected position). She’s replaced Palpatine as her planet’s senator in the galaxy-wide parliament and is said to be the leader of the opposition. She’s still using the decoy trick, though, and her unfortunate stooge is killed in the opening scene – it’s just the first of two assassination attempts. After going all the way to Coruscant to vote against the creation of a new army, the threat to her life means she flees home before the division is called. Old pal Anakin Skywalker acts as bodyguard and – despite his dialogue seeming like quotes from Fascist Nutjob Monthly – they fall in love. Disappointingly, Portman is astonishingly terrible in this movie. It’s a dull, listless, placid performance. When Anakin confesses that he’s killed some bandits and their children in a violent rage, she *barely reacts*. At the film’s end, Padmé and Anakin secretly marry: droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only guests. In the plus column, the character’s costumes and hairdos often echo Princess Leia’s from the original movies, which is a cute touch.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is still by Padmé’s side, even when she has to go into hiding. On Tatooine, he forms a double act with fellow droid C-3PO and they get some comic-relief action beats in the final third. In this film, R2 has hitherto unseen booster rockets, which means he can fly. Those would’ve been handy in the original series.

* Captain Typho (Jay Laga’aia) is Padmé’s latest head of security. And yes, his name is actually Typho. He can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though, because as soon as Padmé’s life is threatened, the job of guarding her is given to the Jedi.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) is deeply suspicious of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine and his politicking. Near the end, the Jedi turns up on the planet Geonosis – he’s brought the other knights with him to save the day. “This party’s over!” Windu says in an attempt to feature in the film’s trailer. He also unleashes his lightsaber, which is uniquely purple. Is this a hint that his loyalties lie somewhere between Jedi blue and Sith red? No, it’s just that Jackson wanted a cool-looking weapon.

* Master Yoda (Frank Oz) is now a totally computer-generated creation. It’s a remarkable achievement, which clearly took many talented people a lot of time and effort. But doesn’t everyone miss the puppet version? We see him leading the Jedi council and training a group of ‘younglings’ (kid students). For the climax, he goes and fetches the new clone army and leads them into battle against the bad guys: as he says, begun the clone war has. In a moment that is as gleefully wonderful as it is laughably ridiculous, we see Yoda draw his lightsaber and duel with the six-foot-plus Count Dooku.

* Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) is a politician from Alderaan. If you know your Star Wars, you’ll know he’ll later be Princess Leia’s adoptive father. But he’s a spectacularly redundant character in this film.

* Dormé (Rose Byrne… Sorry, my mind wandered there for a moment) is Padmé’s handmaiden.

* Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) has had his contribution reduced, presumably because the character went down so poorly in The Phantom Menace. When Padmé goes into hiding on the eve of a crucial vote, she asks him to take her place in the senate. (She can do this, can she? Just appoint a proxy?) Jar Jar fucks up his responsibility, however, when Palpatine cons him into kickstarting the vote that gives the Chancellor dictatorial power.

* Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) has, in the last 10 years, grown a beard, grown a mullet, and grown some balls. Ewan’s much better in the role this time round – he has fun with Obi-Wan’s wry humour, sarcasm and pensive anger. Kenobi is assigned to protect Padmé, but breaks off that mission to investigate her would-be assassin. He then gets a subplot where he plays private detective, following one small clue to the heart of the conspiracy. It’s maybe the film’s best element in conception, yet sadly consists mostly of McGregor staring into the middle distance and trying to act opposite aliens who’ll be added in post-production. His investigation leads to the rain-lashed planet Kamino, where tall, long-limbed, serene creatures are cloning a 200,000-strong army. The fully grown soldiers all look like Dr Ropata from Shortland Street. That’s because they’re being cloned from bounty hunter Jango Fett. They’re also being kitted out in white armour – THE CLONES REFERRED TO OBLIQUELY IN STAR WARS ARE THE STORMTROOPERS! What a great subversion of expectation that is. Obi-Wan then tracks Jango to a planet called Geonosis, where he overhears the bad guys spelling out their evil plan. He radios for help from apprentice Anakin – and after a lengthy Ray Harryhausen-influenced action sequence, our heroes fight back. Obi-Wan corners evil leader Count Dooku and they duel. Obi-Wan is about to be killed when Anakin saves him.

* Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has been Obi-Wan’s padawan apprentice for 10 years now. He’s in love with Padmé, but is gutted when she patronises him during their first meeting in a decade. He’s also been having nightmares about his mother. (Shouldn’t have abandoned her to slavery, then, should you?!) Anakin’s headstrong and impetuous, which doesn’t reflect well on Obi-Wan’s 10-year training regime; has been getting chummy with the clearly evil Palpatine; and has a nasty right-wing attitude to law and order. When he guards Padmé as she returns to Naboo, he wears her down with his stalkery whining and they fall in love. But he’s still having those mum-related dreams (paging Dr Freud!). On the basis of this, he risks Padmé’s life by taking her to Tatooine. He finds his mum’s new home, a farm run by the Lars family. Anakin’s old droid, C-3PO, is also there. But Shmi has recently been snatched by bandits and is presumed dead. Anakin hunts the bandits down and finds his mother in a bad way; she then dies in his arms. Going ape-shit, he murders the bandits, then risks Padmé’s life even more by going with her to rescue Obi-Wan. Anakin ends up fighting bad guy Dooku, but has his arm chopped off. Ouch. Hayden Christensen gives an atrocious performance in this film. When you see the list of actors auditioned or considered for the role – Paul Walker, Colin Hanks, Jonathan Brandis… *Leonardo DiCaprio* – it’s all the more mystifying what they saw in him.

* Sio Bibble (Oliver Ford Davies) is still doom-mongering on Naboo.

* Queen Jamillia (Ayesha Dharker, who was later in both Doctor Who and Coronation Street) is the new leader of Naboo. They like voting for teenage girls on that planet, it seems. Bit dodge.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) has been finished off by someone since the last film: he now has a metal casing, though it’s not yet the shiny gold we know and love. A thought occurs: given that the droid clearly spends time living with the Lars family, why doesn’t Owen recognise him in Star Wars? After hooking up with R2, 3PO gets dragged along to Geonosis for unexplained reasons.

* Owen Lars (Joel Edgerton), girlfriend Beru Whitesun (Bonnie Piesse) and invalid dad Cliegg (Jack Thompson) are Shmi’s new family. Cliegg bought her from slave-owner Watto, freed her and married her. When they sit Anakin down to tell him that Shmi’s missing, they do so at the same table that Luke has breakfast at in Star Wars.

* Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) has one scene before dying.

BAD GUYS:

* Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is in charge of the senate now. He has his eye on Anakin, who he reckons will one day be the most powerful Jedi around. As well as campaigning for a new republican army, he’s secretly growing a clone force as well. He wants a civil war so he can manipulate events and take absolute power. He’s aged visibly in the 10 years since he got the top job. So did Tony Blair, I suppose.

* Zam Wesell (Leeanna Walsman) is a bounty hunter hired to kill Padmé. When her attempt fails, Obi-Wan and Anakin give chase. Zam is a shape-shifter and we see her face go reptilian before she dies.

* Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) is a bounty hunter who wears the same kind of armour we saw Boba Fett sport during the original movies. That’s because Jango is Boba’s dad – well, his clone source anyway. You see, some aliens have paid Jango for his DNA, which they’re using to create a massive clone army. As well as the fee, he’s asked for one clone who he can keep for himself. Let’s be charitable and assume he’s feeling paternal. Probably the film’s best dramatic scene is between Jango and Obi-Wan when the latter comes to investigate: both characters know more is going on than they can admit, and their chat is frosty and guarded. Jango has a space ship, Slave I, which Boba uses in the original movies. During the final battle, Jango is beheaded by Mace Windu.

* Boba Fett (Daniel Logan) is a young clone – in effect, the son – of Jango. He witnesses his father’s death and we see him retrieve his iconic helmet from the battleground. Hopefully Jango’s severed head has rolled out beforehand.

* Watto (Andy Secombe) returns from The Phantom Menace.

* Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is the leader of the separatist movement, but is basically a puppet for Palpatine’s Sith alter ego, Darth Sidious. He’s been building a droid army, ready for when the republic votes to have one. After fighting with Yoda, he escapes so he can be in the next film.

* Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) also shows up again. He’s still the Trade Federation viceroy, despite numerous attempts to indict him.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango in the rain on Kamino. Obi-Wan loses his lightsaber, which means it’s more of a punch-up than is usual in Star Wars.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: It’s slim-pickings, but Ewan McGregor gets some dryly amusing lines. “Why do I get the feeling you’ll be the death of me?” he sighs prophetically when Anakin pisses him off. A moment later, he has a comedic chat with a black-market conman: “You want to go home and rethink your life,” Obi-Wan says, using a Jedi mind trick.

MUSIC: The score is most fun when it’s quoting stuff from earlier movies – such as the ‘Luke stares at the twin suns’ cue from Star Wars, the ‘Darth Maul fight’ theme from Phantom Menace or the ominous notes of the Imperial March.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film at a cinema in Derby on Tuesday 21 May 2002 with my ex-housemate Hilary and her friend Giles. But I’m going to use this category for a rant. Is it just me or do the Americanisms in these prequels seem really incongruous? In film one, Qui-Gon spoke of “an odd play for the Trade Federation”; in this film, we learn that Padmé had to stop being queen because of a presidential-style term limit; and in the next film, Anakin will refer to himself as a “poster boy”. In the originals, talk of senates and regional governors felt more Roman than Washington, but maybe that was my misplaced assumption. Did those films feature Americanisms too, but I was just so young I didn’t spot them?

REVIEW: One step forward, one step back. There *are* improvements from The Phantom Menace. This one gets going more quickly, with intrigue and mystery being set up straightaway. There’s a better plot here with twists and turns, and it’s basically a more engaging story. Also, there’s some lovely thematic rhyming going on. The same kind of events keep happening in this series, but in interestingly different ways. However, visually speaking, it’s all so bloody *artificial*. Watching Attack of the Clones is like watching a computer game play itself out. There are CGI backdrops, CGI sets, CGI creatures, CGI extensions to virtually every shot, at times 100-per-cent GC sequences… It’s exhausting and relentlessly distracting, especially for those of us who grew up on the physical, palpable, visceral special-effects movies of the 1970s and 80s. It’s also horrendously ‘indoors-y’ – only on location in Italy and Tunisia does the film get out of the green-screen studio and blow some real life through the scenes. Another perhaps unavoidable problem is the curse of the prequel. By showing us backstory, the mystery is considerably lessened. When Luke Skywalker casually mentioned the Clone Wars in the first movie, it felt so evocative. By not explaining it, it seemed huge. But now we can see it, and it’s CGI soldiers shooting at CGI robots, it’s rather less exciting. Most disappointingly, though, the drama is still brain-curdlingly dreadful. It makes it almost impossible to care about what’s happening. The writing is especially pungent during the stilted, sparkless romance between Padmé and Anakin. Two wooden actors trot out hackneyed lines and hammer away at any subtext until nothing is left but a desire to switch the film off.

Six death-sticks out of 10

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

It’s around 30 years before the destruction of the Death Star… While rescuing a queen from a blockaded planet, two Jedi knights find a young, talented and possibly very important boy called Anakin Skywalker…

WHICH VERSION? I watched the 2001 DVD release of the movie, which added some extra footage to the 1999 theatrical version (in the pod-race sequence, chiefly).

GOOD GUYS:

* Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) is a Jedi knight who’s sent by his bosses to sort out a trade dispute centered on the planet Naboo. He’s confident, a bit cocky, can handle himself in a fight, and brings some much-needed swagger to the movie. When the nasty Trade Federation attack Naboo, Qui-Gon and apprentice Obi-Wan manage to rescue the planet’s queen. During a stop-off on Tatooine for supplies, Qui-Gon then finds a boy called Anakin who he thinks has great untapped Jedi potential. He presents the lad to the Jedi council – but when they refuse to train him, Qui-Gon says he’ll take Anakin on as his new apprentice (ta-ra, Obi-Wan!). He then returns to Naboo with the queen and, with the help of the locals, they defeat the Trade Federation. However, Qui-Gon is killed by an agent of the evil Sith. He uses his dying breath to beg Obi-Wan to look after Anakin… Jinn doesn’t fade away when he dies, like Ben does in Star Wars or Yoda in Return of the Jedi. Does he not have the right credentials?

* Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is Qui-Gon’s ‘padawan’ (Jedi apprentice). He’s young, still in training, and has a silly haircut. McGregor is doing a distracting impression of Alec Guinness’s distinctive voice, and is sadly unsteady in the role. To be fair to him, the character is lightly written and doesn’t get much to do: he follows Qui-Gon around, meets Anakin, then is very upset when his master is killed. He becomes a Jedi Knight proper at the end, and takes Anakin on as his padawan.

* Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is the elected leader of Naboo, despite being a teenager (she’s meant to be 14, according to internet sources). She dresses in elaborate Oriental-style outfits with some outrageous headwear. And for some reason, she speaks with a strange bass-deep voice. Once captured by the Trade Federation, she noticeably changes – especially her face. That’s because she’s actually swapped places with her handmaiden Sabé (Keira Knightly in an early film role), who then acts as a decoy. Amidala now uses the name Padmé and slots in place as one of the queen’s entourage. It does genuinely seem like this is meant to be a unspottable plot twist, despite Natalie Portman’s fame and recognisable face. All the characters seem duped – except maybe Qui-Gon, who drops hints that he’s seen through the ruse. As ‘Padmé’, the character pretends to be a lowly lackey, even cleaning R2-D2 when ordered to by the ‘queen’. She ends up on Tatooine and insists on going with Qui-Gon when he searches for supplies. She meets Anakin, a young boy, and they make a friendly connection. Once the gang get back to civilization (on the capital planet Coruscant), she and Sabé switch places again; Padmé is said to now be on errands. After a bit of politicking, she returns to Naboo to help with its liberation… and switches back to being ‘Padmé’ again. It seems she does this solely so there can be a ‘dramatic’ reveal, which surprises other characters but none of the audience members. Portman is absolutely rotten in this film. It’s a soulless, lethargic performance.

* Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is a bumbling, clumsy, foolish, irritating, childlike Gungan. His people are an amphibious, humanoid race of beings who share Naboo with the human queen and her subjects. Soon after bumping into Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Jar Jar takes them to the Gungans’ underwater city. After that, he kind of hangs around for the rest of the story – only in the final-act battle does he get stuff to do. Famously, justly, rightly, accurately, importantly, Jar Jar has been seen as one of this film’s mortal wounds: a moribund character who is as annoying as he is probably racist. The actor’s only doing what’s scripted, so we can’t blame him.

* Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) is Amidala’s head of security. Quarshie, now of Holby City, uses an American accent.

* Sio Bibble (Oliver Ford Davies) is one of the politicians on Naboo. Davies doesn’t use an American accent.

* Boss Nass (Brian Blessed) is the leader of the Gungans. What accent Blessed is using is anyone’s guess. But he’s good fun.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is one of the service droids aboard Amidala’s ship. He excels during a crisis, so is promoted to the queen’s retinue. He later takes part in liberating Naboo.

* Ric Olié (Ralph Brown) is the pilot of Amidala’s ship. Brown also uses an American accent.

* Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is the young boy who Qui-Gon finds on Tatooine. He’s about nine years old and is a slave who works for a trader. Despite his youth, he’s a very talented pilot – AS BEN TOLD US IN THE FIRST STAR WARS FILM! – and knows his technology. He offers to take part in a dangerous ‘pod race’ – Formula 1, Star Wars-style – in order to raise the cash Qui-Gon needs to fix Amidala’s ship. Even though a competitor sabotages Anakin’s pod, the lad still wins. As part of Qui-Gon’s bet with Anakin’s boss, Anakin is now freed from his slavery; having spotted his potential, Qui-Gon plans to train him as a Jedi. Anakin meets Obi-Wan, then helps to free Naboo – he ends up in a star fighter and actually destroys the Trade Federation mother ship. Sadly, Jake Lloyd is pretty terrible in the role. He was young, granted, but his acting is barely to a professional level. Why did they start with Anakin aged nine – couldn’t he have at least been a teenager?

* Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) is Anakin’s mum. She tells Qui-Gon that the boy was conceived immaculately. “I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him; I can’t explain…” she says sheepishly. Yeah, right. That, or a drunken night out in Mos Eisley – you decide. When Anakin is freed of his indentured service, Shmi isn’t. But rather than simply take her with them – why are Jedis caring about the rights of slave owners?! – Anakin has to leave her behind.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is a human-sized droid that Anakin has been building in his spare time. He’s not the finished article yet: he has no ‘skin’ and is shaky on his feet. As he’s the same type of droid as one we’ve seen earlier in the film, presumably Anakin is building the equivalent of a kit car. C-3PO meets his future partner-in-bickering, R2-D2, but gets left behind when Anakin leaves Tatooine.

* Wald (Warwick Davis) is a young friend of Anakin’s; he seems to be the same race as Greedo, the heavy from the first Star Wars movie. Davis also cameos as a pod-race spectator (without a mask this time).

* Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) is the leader of the Galactic Republic’s senate. He seems to have executive political power *and* act as the legislature’s presiding officer. Why an actor with Stamp’s ability was needed for such a perfunctory role is hard to imagine.

* Master Yoda (Frank Oz) is the leader of the Jedi council. He’s slightly spryer than he was in the original trilogy, and we even see him walk in a CGI long shot. When Qui-Gon presents Anakin, Yoda is skeptical, saying the boy’s future is uncertain.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) is Yoda’s right-hand man (well, he sits to Yoda’s left actually). He tells us that there’s a prophecy about a boy who will “bring balance to the Force,” but doubts that it’s Anakin. (Is the point here that the prophecy is actually about Luke?) I remember seeing Jackson on TFI Friday a couple of years before this film came out, saying he was desperate to be in the new Star Wars. “I’ll play Luke Skywalker’s slave!” he cried.

* Fighter Pilot Bravo 5 (Celia Imrie) is a pilot who takes part in the attack on the Trade Federation fleet. I’ll repeat that: Celia Imrie.

BAD GUYS:

* Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) is the leader of the nasty Trade Federation, who are blockading the planet of Naboo. (The Trade Federation’s representative in the senate, Lott Dod, is voiced by the great Toby Longworth.)

* Lord Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) is a shadowy figure pulling all the strings behind the Trade Federation scenes. He clearly has an agenda: he wants power and he wants rid of the Jedi. When Senator Palpatine – Naboo’s apparently benign politician – shows up, anyone who’s ever a) seen the original trilogy, b) paid attention to Sidious’s face and voice, or c) SEEN A FILM BEFORE, will realise that they’re the same person. Yet like with Amidala and Padmé, it’s played like a Usual Suspects-style plot twist. As Palpatine, the character skillfully engineers a coup in the galactic senate. The president is ousted and Palpatine, seemingly reluctantly, takes his place. As in Return of the Jedi, McDiarmid knows what he’s doing: he’s good fun.

* Darth Maul (voice: Peter Serafinowicz, body: Ray Park) is Sidious’s evil Sith apprentice. A man of few words – and when he has them, they’re voiced by Duane Benzie from Spaced – but much attitude. He’s sent by his boss to wipe out the Jedi; after tracking them, they finally come face-to-face-to-face on Naboo. Darth Maul is revealed in a deliberately arch ‘hero’ shot scored by macabre choral music. He then switches on his double-ended lightsaber. After an epic duel, he cuts Qui-Gon down, but then is killed himself by Obi-Wan.

* Watto (Andy Secombe) is a flying alien with a dodgy Italian-type accent who has Anakin and his mother as slaves. He runs a trading business on Tatooine. Qui-Gon’s Jedi mind tricks won’t work on him because he’s a Toydarian. However, Qui-Gon later manages to con him by blatantly fixing a dice roll…

* Sebulba (Lewis Macleod) is an alien thug on Tatooine who is Anakin’s main competitor in the pod race.

* Jabba the Hutt is spotted during the pod-race sequence. His hangers-on seem to include Bib Fortuna, who’ll still be with him come the time of Return of the Jedi.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The pod race was thrilling in 1999 and holds up really well still. It’s dynamic, well edited and exciting. And it sounds great too: each pod makes its own distinctive noise. (Whether we need Greg Proops as a hammy American-TV-style sports commentator is a different matter.)

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: It’s not this film’s strength, humour. Liam Neeson’s generally louche demeanour is quite amusing.

MUSIC: Excellent, of course, especially when quoting themes from the original trilogy. John Williams has written some tremendous new stuff too – the Soviet-sounding Duel of the Fates cue, which scores the Jedis’ fight with Darth Maul, was everywhere for a while. Quite right too: it’s terrific.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film at a UCI cinema in Derby on Friday 16 July 1999. I went to a morning screening with my pal Will Haywood. Despite every negative point made in this review, I did really enjoy experiencing it for the first time. The build-up had been a long time coming. I remember Empire magazine printing the first publicity photos months before the release: they were images of the Naboo fighters in their hangers, and some of Anakin’s home on Tatooine, I think. Then the trailer was a revelation. I’d sat in my university computer room and waited for 23 minutes for it to download. When it played, it juddered and froze – but I was still agog.

REVIEW: Blimey, there’s CGI everywhere! Ships, planets, aliens, robots, even characters. It takes some getting used to after the physical ‘there’-ness of the original series. But on the whole, this both looks and sounds like Star Wars. The Art Deco-influenced stuff on Naboo is really smart, implying a grander, more artful age before the grimy, battered world we saw in the first movies, while Ben Burtt’s sound design is sensationally inventive. However, there are some serious issues with this film. A bland, muddled story that needs spelling out doesn’t help. Neither does the decision to turn the Force (described in such pleasingly vague terms in the original series) into a dull blood disease. But sadly the worst aspect is the cast. The dialogue is dreadful, even by George Lucas standards, but they just can’t find a way to power through it. There are a few actors who know what they’re doing – Liam Neeson, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson – but too many flounder, presumably directionless. The whole thing is crying out for the energy, charm and wit of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.

Six midi-chlorians out of 10

Return of the Jedi: Special Edition (1997, Richard Marquand)

MosEisley-celebration

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? This is a look at the notable changes made to Return of the Jedi for its 1997 special edition. For research, I watched the film on a 2004 DVD, for which some additional alterations were made. My review of the original cut can be found here.

* The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos have been updated.

* Although I’ve not seen it, the 2011 Blu-ray release altered the shot of C-3PO and R2-D2 approaching the entrance of Jabba’s palace – it’s much wider now, so the droids seem even more dwarfed by the door.

* Inside Jabba’s palace, the house band now performs a different song. Additionally, whereas there used to be three musicians – called Max Rebo, Droopy McCool and Sy Snootles, according to the internet – there are now loads of them. The most heavily featured new member is a CGI creation called Joh Yowza, who sings the lead vocals. The replacement song is high-tempo tosh called Jedi Rocks. The way it’s staged and filmed like a music video is horrendously out of place for the scene.

* Some new close-ups of dancing girl Oola were specifically mounted for the special edition (the same actress returned after 14 years).

* New cutaways of Boba Fett in Jabba’s palace establish his presence a bit more strongly. In one of them, he’s flirting with two of the dancers. The dog.

* There’s a new shot of Tatooine’s surface, which features a herd of banthas (woolly mammoth-type creatures also seen in Star Wars).

* The Sarlaac has been significantly changed. Rather than just a big hole in the ground, the creature now has a CGI beak and extra tentacles.

* The scene with an unmasked Darth Vader was untouched in 1997. For the DVD release seven years later, however, Anakin’s eyebrows were digital removed because the upcoming prequel, Revenge of the Sith, had the character being heavily burnt. His eyes have also been tinted to match those of Hayden Christensen, the actor who played the character in the prequel series.

* The Death Star blows up with that favourite effect of the special editions: an energy ring.

* As well as celebrations on Endor, the downfall of the Empire is marked by new CGI shots of people cheering and dancing on the planets Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo and Courascant. Whether the tone of the Tatooine image – a mass outpouring of civic jubilation – fits what we know of its seedy, crime-driven streets is another matter. The Naboo footage was only added in 2004, after the planet had been seen in the prequels. A Gungan shouts “Weesa free!” – is it meant to be Jar Jar Binks? The Courascant shots were tweaked in 2004 to take into account some design decisions from the prequel films.

* The distinctive Ewok music (“Jub jub!”) has been thoughtlessly ditched, which might be the most objectionable change in the whole trilogy (that doesn’t feature Han Solo not shooting first). In its place is a new panpipe-laced theme, written and recorded especially for this special edition. It’s pleasant enough but, vitally and sadly, is *not the Ewok celebration music*.

* In the versions of the film released from 2004 onwards, Anakin’s ghost is played by Hayden Christensen. It’s a bit nonsensical, this. Both Yoda and Ben look as they did when they died – whereas Anakin looks like he did when he became Darth Vader. It ties the film in more closely with the prequels, but it does rather undercut Anakin’s redemption within Return of the Jedi itself.

REVIEW: A mixed bag. The new Sarlaac is an improvement, while the celebrations on other planets help round off the trilogy’s story arc. But the tiresome song in Jabba’s palace, the loss of the Ewok music and the addition of Hayden Christensen mean a mark gets knocked off from the original cut’s score.

Nine delusions of grandeur out of 10

 

The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997, Irvin Kershner)

OneArm-ESB

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? The special edition of The Empire Strikes Back, which added computer effects and new footage to the original version, was released in cinemas in 1997. For this review, I watched the DVD that came out in 2004. As I’ve already discussed the 1980 cut of the movie, this is a list of the notable changes made in the 1990s and since…

* The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos have been updated.

* During the early sequence where Luke is attacked and captured by the bear-like wampa, newly filmed inserts give us a better look at the creature. After Luke cuts off its arm – seriously, what is it with George Lucas’s obsession with dismemberment?! – we see the wampa writhing in pain. The 1997 footage cuts in seamlessly.

* The scene between Darth Vader and the Emperor was untouched in 1997. However, there were significant changes when the film was prepared for DVD release in 2004. The original performance of the Emperor (by extra Elaine Baker and voice actor Clive Revill) was replaced by newly shot footage of Ian McDiarmid, who played the character in every Star Wars film from Return of the Jedi onwards. Bringing this film in line with the others is a nice move. Lucas also took to opportunity to tweak the dialogue so the Emperor now specifies that he knows Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker.

* Although not altered in 1997, when the Special Edition came out on DVD Boba Fett’s dialogue had been dubbed by Temuera Morrison (the actor who had recently played the man from whom Fett was cloned in Episode II).

* The lengthy sequence in and around Bespin’s Cloud City has had a picturesque overhaul. Existing exterior scenes have been graded to push a more sunset-time vibe; a few new simple CGI shots establish the Millennium Falcon coming in to land; and whenever the city is seen in the background of shots or through windows, it’s now busier, even more artful and tonally warmer. All the additions work really well: they open out the previously studio-bound city and, by being so summer-evening-y, provide a nice contrasting bookend with the Hoth sequence.

* There are new shots – one of real actors, one a CG cityscape – showing people reacting to Lando’s panicked Tannoy announcement on Bespin.

* In order to salve a plot hole, Darth Vader’s dialogue has been changed from “Bring my shuttle” to “Alert my star destroyer to prepare for my arrival”. We then see him boarding his shuttle and arriving on the mother ship (in footage stolen from Return of the Jedi). It’s not subtle, but it does tidy up the moment in the original cut where Vader appears on the ship rather suddenly. The new dialogue sounds awfully like someone doing an impression of James Earl Jones…

REVIEW: There are far fewer changes than there were in the special edition of Star Wars. And the big, noticeable alterations actually enhance what was already a pinnacle of popular culture. Childhood nostalgia is the only thing that stops me admitting that this version might be the better one.

Ten negative power couplings out of 10

Star Wars: Special Edition (1997, George Lucas)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? In 1997, writer/director/producer/corporate-bigwig/beard-wearer George Lucas returned to his masterpiece and rejigged it for a cinematic reissue. This new edit added some then-state-of-the-art special effects and features some never-before-seen footage. Irritatingly, this ‘special edition’ has since become the default version of the movie for home-video releases and TV screenings. Further minor tweaks were made for a 2004 DVD (that’s the version I watched for this write-up) and again for a 2011 Blu-ray box set. I’ve already reviewed the original film – so instead this is a discussion of the changes made in the 90s. It’s not a definitive list; just a look at the ones I spotted and thought interesting…

* The vintage 20th Century Fox logo has been updated, while a Lucasfilm logo has replaced its old text credit.

* The film has the subtitle ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’, which had actually been on the original too from a 1981 rerelease onwards.

* We get a few new establishing shots of Tatooine. They’re nice enough. R2-D2’s encounter with the Jawas has been colour-timed to make it seem more like dusk.

* The scene of Stormtroopers finding the crashed escape pod has had an overhaul. It’s longer now, with some newly filmed Stormtroopers and computer-generated dewbacks (we only had static models of these elephant-like creatures in the old version). They’ve been digitally added to some existing shots too.

* A nice model shot of the Jawas’ huge sandcrawler vehicle has been replaced by a CGI version, which is pleasant enough and more dynamic.

* Similarly, there’s a new establishing shot of Ben’s house, which is more detailed (and more digitally) than the old one. It tells us that his hideaway is on top of a hill and he has a nice view across the wastelands.

* Luke and Ben’s arrival at Mos Eisley is a lot more elaborate now. There’s new CGI footage of the city streets as their speeder drives into town. It’s crammed full of people and creatures and vehicles – some on newly shot film, some computer-generated. There’s even a bit of comedy. Great in theory, as it expands the city and brings it to life, but the additions stick out a mile – especially the cartoony shots of the speeder.

* In the cantina scene, one of the strange creatures seen in the montage of customers – a wolfman – has been replaced by a new frog-headed hipster alien who’s wearing a beret and smoking a pipe.

* In Han Solo’s confrontation with Greedo, Han no longer simply kills the guy rather than deal with him. He now shoots only in self-defence, after Greedo takes a shot at him. At point-blank range. And misses. This is a justifiably ridiculed, infamously unpopular change, which undermines Han’s entire character arc for the film. It’s like painting in eyebrows on the Mona Lisa or dubbing a new bassline onto a Beatles song.

* The Stormtroopers searching Mos Eisley now have little floating devices following them around (cameras, I guess?).

* An entire unused scene from the 1976 shoot has been added in. Han returns to the Millennium Falcon to find Jabba the Hutt and his cronies waiting for him, and has to use his silky charisma to buy more time before he has to pay off his debt. Jabba is a computer-generated character and is pretty corny-looking (he was even worse in the 1997 cinema version, but the DVD I watched carried out some repair work). The raw footage featured actor Declan Mulholland playing Jabba, but George Lucas claims he shot the scene that way only as a guide. The notion, he says, was that Mulholland would be replaced in post-production, probably by a stop-motion puppet. Well, that’s clearly bullshit. Not only was Mullholland is full costume, but Harrison Ford walks behind and in front of him and even touches his chest at one point – not things you’d get an actor to do in 1976 if the intention is to matte in a special effect. (Han also calls him a ‘wonderful human being’ in the dialogue, though admittedly he’s being sarcastic.) The whole thing is awful. On a story level, it adds little and slows down the momentum. It robs the viewer of first seeing the Millennium Falcon through Luke’s eyes. And the clash of 1970s film and 1990s technology is nothing but distracting. The worst moment comes when, in the original shot, Harrison Ford walks behind Jabba. When later designed for Return of the Jedi, Jabba was given a huge tail – so how can Han avoid it? The solution – to have Han walk up and over it, and for Jabba to grimace in pain – is a pathetic idea and looks absolutely terrible. On the plus side, although not part of the original shoot, Boba Fett has been digitally added to the scene. Nice touch.

* There’s a new shot of the Millennium Falcon taking off.

* When Dantooine explodes, it does so mainly with a focused arc of energy for some reason. The Death Star does the same later on.

* The Death Star hanger now looks more like it does in Return of the Jedi.

* The gag of Han turning a corner on the Death Star and bumping into six Stormtroopers has been altered: he now finds dozens of them.

* There are some new CG shots of the Falcon approaching Yavin.

* The Aztec-style temple on Yavin 4 now looks a lot more weatherworn.

* In the original cut, Luke goes from maudlin about Ben’s death to excited about the upcoming battle very quickly. Now we can see why: a deleted scene of him bumping into old pal Biggs Darklighter has been slotted in. (Biggs’s other deleted scenes from the shooting script haven’t been used – it seems the footage hasn’t survived in good enough quality.)

* We get new computer-generated shots of X-Wings taking off from Yavin 4, then shots of them approaching the Death Star have been replaced by CG versions with significantly more craft. A few CGI shots have been slipped into the main battle montage too. As a surgical bit of editing, it works really well: the geography of the dogfight is a bit clearer and none of the urgency is lost.

* James Earl Jones is now credited for playing the voice of Darth Vader. It’s astonishing to realise he wasn’t listed originally.

REVIEW: First and foremost, it’s really enjoyable to see a good quality copy of Star Wars. Little restoration work was done to the 2006 DVD release of the original cut, allegedly because Lucasfilm felt guilt-tripped into releasing it. So it’s smashing to see the movie shining and gleaming and popping through the TV screen. Most of the alterations in this version are good in theory and liveable-with in practice, but the two big changes to the Mos Eisley sequence – Han and Greedo, Han and Jabba – damage the film significantly. Let’s knock a mark off because of that.

Nine explosion rings out of 10

Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985, Jim Wheat and Ken Wheat)

Terak_battleforendor

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When the Ewok village is attacked and Cindel’s family are killed, she and best mate Wicket must go on the run…

WHICH VERSION? This TV movie was first broadcast on ABC on 24 November 1985. It got a UK cinema release in April 1986.

GOOD GUYS

* Wicket (Warwick Davis) can now speak fractured English, which presents something of a problem when dating these films. He clearly can’t talk like a human in Return of the Jedi, yet everything else – including Lucasfilm’s official publicity – places this film as a prequel to Jedi. Maybe he forgot what he’d learnt by the time Han Solo and co turn up? Anyway, captured by the bad guys, Wicket and Cindel escape to a cave. He then knocks up a skin-glider, A-Team-style, from some discarded bones. It comes in handy when Cindel is snatched by a dragon-type monster and Wicket has to give chase. When Cindel is later captured by the bad guys (again), Wicket and new pal Noa sneak into a castle to save her. The plan involves the old standing-on-someone’s-shoulders-and-using-a-long-coat-to-disguise-the-fact-there-are-two-of-you trick. Our heroes then retreat to Noa’s starship, where there’s a rerun of Return of the Jedi’s improvised-weaponry battle.

* Cindel Towani (Aubrey Miller) and her family are preparing to leave Endor as the movie begins – it seems to have been a while since the events of Caravan of Courage. However, her parents and brother are murdered by, and Cindel needs rescuing from, the evil Sanyassan Marauders. She and Wicket then encounter a grumpy old man called Noa, but Cindel is soon captured again. Miller is just as rubbish as she was in the first movie.

* Jermitt Towani (Paul Gleeson) has been recast with a more famous actor, but he’s quickly killed off when the marauders attack and steal his ship’s power unit.

* Mace Towani (Eric Walker) also dies in the opening-act attack. So does the family’s mum, but we only see her corpse in order to avoid paying an actress.

* Teek (Niki Botelho) is a bizarre little creature about the size of an Ewok who can run at lightning speed. After bumping into them, he shows Cindel and Wicket an apparently abandoned house in the woods, which they take over as their own.

* Noa (Wilford Brimley) owns the house and isn’t happy when he returns to find it occupied. He chases Cindel and Wicket away, but soon mellows. He has a secret: he’s hiding a star cruiser in the forest. He crashed on Endor years earlier, but his ship is now powerless and his co-pilot, Salak, went missing. When Cindel is kidnapped, Noa and Wicket mount a rescue. Afterwards, Noa’s able to restart his space ship (thanks, MacGuffin!) and he leaves Endor with Cindel in tow.

BAD GUYS

* The Sanyassan Marauders are a group of post-apocalyptic thugs who torch the Ewok village. They look like medieval knights kitted out as Mad Max-style vigilantes. Assuming the knights were ape-like aliens, that is.

* Charel (Sian Phillips) is the (human) leader of the marauders. She can transmogrify into a crow, but is terrified of her boss, Terak.

* Terak (Carel Struycken) is the marauders’ king. He has a faded blueprint of a starship and is obsessed with learning the secrets of technological power. After Cindel – who he assumes can teach him about technology – escapes, he gives chase and ends up fighting Noa mano-a-weirdo. (Noa wins.)

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The Marauders attack the village.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: The shot of Salak – a cutaway to his manacled skeleton in a dungeon – made me laugh out loud, though it wasn’t meant to.

MUSIC: The score is by Peter Bernstein and is decent enough.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I saw this when it came out on video in the mid-80s. In 2004, I bought both Ewok films on DVD, but doing these reviews was the first time I’d put the disc in the player.

REVIEW: The first Ewok special had a twee, Disney vibe, but this is more in keeping with macabre 80s kids’ films such as Return to Oz or The Dark Crystal. Cindel’s family are killed off violently in the first 10 minutes, for example, while there’s plenty of old-school stop-motion monsters. There’s basically a general sense of *strangeness*, which works really well. The production designer was Joe Johnston – who went on to direct the fun Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the stylish The Rocketeer and the terrific Captain America: The First Avenger – and he really went to town on the brutal, twisted, scary look of the bad guys and their trappings. Thankfully, there’s also more of a robust plot than Caravan of Courage had. It’s both darker and more engaging than that first one.

Five power things out of 10