The Star Wars Prequels, Duty Strikes!

Hello, welcome to my last installment on the Star Wars franchise in honor of May the 4th. Only took six days, and I still got the final three movies to cover. Not my best work. But as they say, we all have lives. Well, some of us do. For those who have nothing better to do than read what I write I can only say… you poor things!

In any case, I promised when reviewing the originals that I would dedicate at least one post to the Star Wars the prequel trilogy. But one can scarcely do that without getting into the whole Star Wars legacy and addressing questions about Lucas himself and the directions he’s taken. Love them or hate them, the prequels remain a bone of contention for original fanboys and the new generation of acolytes.

To start, I’d like to give a very quick recap of the three movies before saying what was good and bad about them.

The Phantom Menace:
This movie was without a doubt one of the most anticipated releases in the history of cinema. After years of waiting and hearing that Lucas intended to revisit his universe with some prequel pictures, fans finally got their big break in the summer of 1999. If you’ve seen some of the footage of opening night, where people were lining up around the block, in costume, kissing the floor upon entry, and waving around multicolored lightsabers inside the theater when the movie came on, then you’ve got idea of just how raw and powerful the atmosphere was.

And yet, the Phantom Menace would also go down in history as one of the biggest disappointments of all time. One could easily say that all the build-up made that inevitable. But there were clearly some other factors as well, and people would spend years speculating on them. Of that, more later. First, let’s recap the plot.

The movie opens with the declaration that there is a taxation dispute going on and that the “greedy Trade Federation” has decided to blockade a remote world named Naboo in protest. Sounds a little dry and implausible but okay. We see two Jedis, Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn, being sent to reach a settlement with said Federation.

But once they get aboard, things get hairy. The Feds destroy their ship, on the orders of some “Phantom” dude who’s clearly manipulating things back home. He orders them to begin an invasion of the planet while he covers their asses in the Galactic Senate. Meanwhile, they try to kill them using poisonous gas and some rather inept robots.

Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn manage to escape, relaying on some sweet combat moves and Jedi springing, stow away on one of the troop transports, and are taken down to the surface. Somehow, they are landed on the other side of planet and must find a way to reach the capitol to “warn the Naboo”. Uh, what good does it do to warn people in the midst of an invasion? And why are they on the other side of the planet if the robots are invading the capitol anyway? Bad navigation console?

They come across a glaring stereotype named Jar Jar, a bumbling Gungan idiot who tells them his people can help. They swim underwater to the Gungan city where the Boss Nass, through a little force persuation, gives them a pod and lets them take Jar Jar with them, mainly because he owes his life to Qui Gonn (echoes of the Wookie life-debt there). They make it to the capitol and manage to the save the princess, a monotone teenage Geisha named Amidala. Turns out, royalty is elected on this world, and she agrees to go with them to Coruscant to plead their case before the Senate.

After a daring escape, which is facilitated by R2, they make it to space. However, there hyperdrive is damaged and they must land on nearby Tatooine. Qui Gonn goes off to find a parts dealer and meets another stereotype, an alien named Watto (who might as well be called Shylock given his caricatured appearance and character). He won’t take their credits, and since they don’t have anything to barter with, Qui Gonn concocts a needlessly convoluted scheme.

Yes, instead of simply going to another dealer or hiring a ship (a la Star Wars I), he decides to back Watto’s slave (a boy named Anakin) in a pod race using his ship as collateral. If the boy wins, Watto keeps the money and Qui Gonn gets his parts. But after determining that the boy is force sensitive – via a midichlorian count, one of the biggest let downs ever! – and (according to his mother) the result of immaculate conception, he decides to up the ante. If the boy wins, he gets to take him and the parts with him. For some reason, he seems completely remorseless about seperating the boy from his mother, but whatever.

Oh, and did I mention he built 3P0 – a factory model protocol droid – from spare parts to help his mom around the house? Weird, I thought these things were designed for, you know, protocol, as opposed to doing dishes! But whatever… He meets R2 and the they have immediate chemistry 😉

After the big ass pod race, clearly inspired by Ben Hur, Anakin wins using his Force abilities and Qui Gonn has his bounty. Their departure is momentarily interrupted when a Sith named Darth Maul shows up, seeking the princess, and Qui Gonn must fight him. They make it out and head to Coruscant, which is introduced for the first time in the franchise, and begin to attend to all the dry political crap that is waiting for them.

There, Senator Palpatine, representative of Naboo (and the man posing as the “Phantom”) tells them they’re in the thick of it. The Chancellor could force the issue but can’t since he’s been marred by accusations of corruption. Palpatine recommends calling a vote of non-confidence to unseat him so that someone less weak-kneed will take over. After finding nothing but gridlock in the Senate, Amidala concedes and makes the motion. Palpatine is happy, since he (surprise, surprise!) gets nominated!

Meanwhile, the Jedi Council has a look at Anakin, and is worried. It seems his fear of losing his mother is a bad thing, at least according to Yoda. Fear, through commodius viccus, leads to the Dark Side. Seems harsh, but this combined with his age, leads to their decision not to train him. Qui Gonn goes to bat for the little kid, but they are stubborn.

However, things change when Amidala decides she must go back home and the two Jedi are ordered to go with her. For some reason, they take Anakin and his two droids too, and Jar Jar is coming too to provide more slapstick. When they arrive, they begin plotting how their going to overthrow Federation occaption. The Gungans are recruited to help, and agree to lure the droid army into a battle as a feint to leave the capitol open. They decide to make Jar Jar, the idiot they exiled for being clumsy, a General and charge him with leading their attack. …Really?

Meanwhile, Amidala, the Jedi and a handful of her security people infiltrate the capitol. After Amidala and her people take the throne room though a little decoy and switch, Qui Gonn and Obi-Wan come face to face with Maul. A brilliant duel ensues, Qui Gonn dies, and Obi-Wan defeats him by pulling a flip and slice routine that frankly, Maul should have been able to prevent. Hell, its the same thing Anakin tries in the third movie and Obi-Wan lopped both legs and one of his arms off! And Maul’s way more badass!

But the really objectionable part comes when Anakin, through sheer dumb luck, ends up commandeering a fighter and flies into orbit with the Naboo fighters to engage the Fed command ship. Those watching couldn’t help but notice that the other ships have all left for some reason, but again, WHATEVER! Anakin, despite the Feds claim that nothing can get through their shields, manages to do just that when he accidentally flies his fighter into their bay and fires some torpedoes into their main reactor. The ship blows up just as Anakin flies out.

Down below, the Gungans are having a hard time tackling the droid army, and Jar Jar’s constant slapstick and bumbling aren’t helping things much. But somehow, he manages to stay alive, and eventually the destruction of the command ship renders all the droids inoperative. The day is won and the capitol celebrates. The Jedi have a memorial and speculate on how Maul must have had an accomplice, since Sith always work in twos. The camera then pans to Palpatine to let us know, as if we hadn’t figured it out already, that he’s baaaad!

And that’s how the movie ends. With lots of fanfare that calls to mind the medal ceremony of the first movie, we see Gungans, the Princess, Obi-Wan and Anakin all standing on ceremony as people cheer and blow horns. The credits rolled, and audiences everywhere were left speechless…

The Reception:
After the movie finished on opening night, it was like the fans everywhere were going “uh, what just happened?” Seriously, if you watch the documentary footage, you can’t help but notice how underwhelming the mood was once the movie was over, nothing close to the electricity that there was going in. It was as if they’d come to witness the second coming and were forced to watch cheep parlor tricks instead. The critics weren’t too kind either, most giving it mixed reviews based on its weak scripting, the inclusion of Jar Jar, the dry political content, and the saccharine character of Anakin.

However, there were good things about this movie too which did not go unnoticed. Just about everyone acknowledged that the pod race and lightsaber duel were worth the price of admission. But overall, this movie fell far short of expectations. And with the benefit of hindsight, the weaknesses became all the more apparent.

  1. The plot stunk of duty: This is something that would become more apparent as the trilogy went on. For all three movies, the entire plot seemed like a set-up for a bunch of explanations. This is a weak basis for a story and makes the audience feel like the movie is plodding along out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to tell a story. In the Phantom Menace, the focus was overwhelmingly on explaining how Palpatine got into power, even if that was only a small part of the story. Aside from that and the introduction of Anakin, there was nothing of importance happening elsewhere. I mean seriously, a taxation dispute? A blockade of a remote world? THESE things put the Galactic Republic in turmoil? I know this was all meant to show how inefficient and corrupt the Republic had become in its dying days, but c’mon! Give us something of consequence!
  2. The plot just plain stunk!: Throughout the first half of the movie, so much happens for which there is no decent explanation. Mainly, audiences just followed it along, waiting to see where it went and only realizing with hindsight that it didn’t make any sense. For starters, why did the Trade Federation agree to this risky scheme when they didn’t even know who they were dealing with? Were they that desperate to getting out of paying their taxes? Second, why was it necessary to fly to the surface to warn the Naboo if they were already being invaded? Third, why did Qui Gonn go through all that trouble just to get some parts? Why not go to another dealer, find a smuggler, agree to pay them ten times what they wanted once they got to Coruscant? Why sponsor a pod race, plot to free a boy, use his force power to manipulate the situation, and ultimately leave the boy’s mother behind in the end? It all seemed so reckless and silly, not what you’d expect from a Jedi Master. What’s more, everybody and their brother was warning him against taking on Anakin, saying they foresaw danger in his training. So why then was he so obsessed with training him, because of that vague prophecy? If this is such an important factor, why weren’t audiences made aware of what that prophecy was? Maybe then we might understand why he was so intent on seeing Anakin become a Jedi and the Council was not. But this was never done, not in this movie or its sequels. And Qui Gonn’s death-bed request that the boy be trained was a pretty weak excuse for the Jedi Council accepting him after all.
  3. One-dimensional characters: There’s this hilarious clip over at Red Letter Media where a guy asks a bunch of people to describe characters from the Star Wars universe. The rules are, say stuff about them without mentioning what they look like or what their job is. In the case of the originals, the people selected could say volumes about Han, Luke, Leia, et al. But with the prequels, they couldn’t say jack! There’s a reason for this. Beyond their basic roles, every character in this movie had no real substance or character. Hell, it wasn’t even clear who the main character was. So many people are the focus of the film and doing things to advance the plot that it doesn’t feel like their is a protagonist at all. Ah, which brings me to point 3!
  4. Who’s the focus here? All good stories have a protagonist. A person’s who’s journey is the focal point of the story and helps the audience to identify with them and become emotionally involved. In the originals, that person was Luke Skywalker. By no means was he the only character, but he was clearly the focus of the story. His own journey of self-discovery was the main driving force of the plot, and his battle with his own demons and his past provided the resolution. In the Phantom Menace, all we get is snap shots of different people doing things to advance the plot towards a resolution, which feels too tidy in the end.
  5. Too much reliance on CGI: It’s an easy thing to criticize a director for relying on CGI, but when you consider the fact that Lucas managed to capture lightning in a bottle using nothing but stop-motion, animatronics and puppets, you have to wonder why he was so obsessed with using the latest technology. Granted, it allowed him to do things he couldn’t before, but it also limited his shoots and made the movie feel incredibly sterile. In just about every shot in this movie, you don’t have real sets and actors on location. You have actors walking in front of a green screen and looking at hanging lights instead of physically real stand-ins. And no matter how advanced the technology, people will always know what they are seeing isn’t real. And when all the backgrounds look so perfectly glossy, clean and packed to the hilt with digital effects, it all just feel fake.

Some Possible Explanations:
As all fans of the Star Wars franchise are aware of by now, Lucas was never that good at scripting or directing. In fact, it was well known that in the first movie, help needed to be brought in to complete the film. In the second movie, that help was on hand from the beginning and it showed. But by the third, Lucas was clearly back at the helm and making the big decisions. With this in mind, it’s little surprise why the Phantom Menace was the way it was. With the success of the original franchise, Lucas had grown richer and more powerful than anyone thought possible, and with companies like Lucas Arts and Industrial Light and Magic behind him, who the hell is going to question him? He’s George freaking Lucas!

Surely, the man must have thought himself immortal by the late nineties when he began writing the script. All those people who used to tell him what to do or challenge him were now gone, replaced by sycophants and suck ups who grew up idolizing him. And can you blame them? It’s George freaking Lucas! How could the creator of Star Wars be wrong?

Sure, there were plenty of cool action scenes and the new technology was pretty damn effective at letting Lucas do all the things he couldn’t do before. But this was Star Wars, dammit! Where were the classic characters, the epic storytelling, the stuff that went beyond special effects and eye-popping visuals? Part of what made the originals so damn good was the depth that went far beyond the ships, guns, and lightsaber duels.

When you look at the originals, at all the things Lucas wanted to do but got called on, you begin to understand. According to rumor, Luke Skywalker was supposed to be a half-cyborg, Han was supposed to be a green alien, and the dialogue was supposed to be a lot more wooden and cheesy than it turned out to be. But thanks to dedicated professionals who knew how to rely on Lucas’ strengths and help him with his weaknesses, something truly awesome and classic was made.

But, as with most things, this success proved to be the downfall. Like Lucas, we all seemed to think he was solely responsible for the creation of Star Wars. Granted he was, in his own words, “the creator as well as the decider” (a cheesy reference to that awful Bushism), but he was never the sole voice of the project. Literally everybody, from the co-directors, co-writers, and even the actors themselves had a role in helping him to make his movies. Without them, we are left with Lucas as he is, warts and all. And after years of success and a growing obsession with the latest special effects, that’s not a very pretty sight!

Well, that’s what I thought of Phantom Menace. Stay tuned for Attack of the Clones… This aint gonna be pretty! But in the meantime, here’s some funny news. It turns out Topher Grace, who played Eric on That 70’s Show, has made an 85 minute editors cut of the three movies. Follow this link to read more on this interesting and funny story:

http://www.bestweekever.tv/2012-03-07/topher-grace-edits-star-wars-prequels

Return of the Jedi

Well, Star Wars weekend is passed, and my final review of the original lineup is long overdue. Been that kind of weekend, unfortunately, a constant flurry of visiting family, friends, and then coming home to be drowned in Spring cleaning. Luckily, I got some time with my keyboard today and decided I’d dedicate some time to the third and final movie in the trilogy.

And much of this is still fresh in my mind, seeing as how my wife and I were driving up island on Star Wars day, and I spent much of the ride recounting the plot to her. She never saw the original trilogy (crazy, I know), so I’ve been trying to fill her in. Appropriate, no?

Return of the Jedi!
Last time, I mentioned that Lucas claimed that he was following the three-act model when he made this trilogy. Thus if Act I could be considered the intro and Act II the dark chapter, then Act III would serve as the culmination to the whole thing. And that’s exactly what happened. In addition, the film had multiple story arcs towards the end the movie, all of which came together in a single, grand conclusion.

In fact, that’s something I forget to mention last time. You may recall that in the first movie, there was a single, all encompassing climax involving all the main characters, and that was the assault on the Death Star. In movie two, there were two strands, Luke’s confrontation with Vader which ran alongside Leia and Chewi’s escape from cloud city. And in this final film, there were three: the battle on Endor, the battle in space, and Luke’s final confrontation with Vader and the Emperor.

An act of symbolism, no doubt, but it’s also what worked best about this last film. With different things happening in different locations, audiences were kept intrigued and on the edge of their seats, watching how one climactic fight interacted with the next. And since we were emotionally involved with all the characters at this point, each one was about as tense as the last.

Alright, let’s get to the plot of this badboy and see why it worked so well!

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens with the new Death Star being introduced. The new weapon of terror is apparently nearing completion and Vader has flown in to inspect things personally. After letting the station commander know that it must be completed on schedule, he lets him know that the Emperor himself is on the way. He is naturally frighten and rightly so, as we are made aware for the first time that even Vader is a pushover compared to the big man himself!

Cut to Tatooine where Jabba’s Palace is located. R2 and 3P0 have entered, apparently to deliver a message to Jabba. Said message consists of Luke Skywalker opening a dialogue, asking to bargain for Han Solo, and concludes with him offering R2 and 3P0 as “a gift”. Jabba’s response is that no deals will take place, as he’s become quite fond of looking at Solo’s carbonite-frozen body. He’s even placed it against the wall like its some kind of artwork. Creepy, though it did bring the room together though 😉

Little by little, the others enter the picture. Leia comes in disguised as a bounty hunter and trade Chewi in for his bounty. As Han’s companion, he too is worth quite a bit of money to Jabba. At the same time, we learn that Lando has already infiltrated the place posing as a mercenary. In the middle of the night, Leia sneaks into Jabba’s palace room and thaws Han, who appears to be blind and sickly from hibernation. They have a passionate reunion, but it’s quickly cut short…

Beginning with a dark, evil laugh, Jabba reveals himself from the corner where they were hiding. Han tries to bargain with him, but Jabba’s pretty intransigent at this point. He has him thrown in the same dungeon as Chewi and Leia is forced to wear a funky-looking bikini (to the delight of nerds everywhere) and become his palace slave. This consists of wearing a choke chain and lying beside him on his floating couch.

However, Chewi let’s Han know that Luke will be along shortly,  and that he’s a Jedi Knight now. And he does, looking a lot more badass than he did last time! After making his way in with some subtle force tricks, he confronts Jabba and demands Solo’s release. However, things go awry when the minds tricks fail to sway Jabba and he sends Luke and one of his henchmen him into his Rancour pit below.

After a tense few minutes, Luke manages to kill it by dropping the cage door on its head. Jabba is pissed, and orders the whole bunch to be put on his barge and flown out to the desert. Seems they are going to kill them in a big ceremony by being tossed into the Sarlacc pit. No shortage of weird aliens or convoluted death schemes in this one!

Once arrived, and overlooking the sucking Sarlacc pit (some people have suggested Lucas might have some issues with female genitalia!), Luke and the others stage their counterstroke. This consists of R2 firing Luke his lightsaber, who then starts cutting through henchmen with it. He then works his way to the other escort, eventually reaching Jabba’s own sailbarge. Meanwhile Han, who’s eyesight has been returning, manages to take out Bobba Fett’s jetpack through blind luck. He flies into the side of Jabba’s barge and falls helplessly into the pit. But of course, he will survive!

Leia manages to turn the tables of Jabba by getting a hold of her choke chain and wrapping it around the big slugs neck. R2 breaks her chains and shoves 3P0 and himself off the barge, leaving Luke and Leia to rendezvous on the top deck where they use the barge’s cannon to set the place to blow. They make it back to their barge with Lando, Chewi and Han, swing around to pick up the droids, and get the hell out as Jabba’s barge is blown to hell.

Once they retrieve their ships, Luke and the rest dust-off from the planet. The Millennium Falcon heads off to join the Rebel armada while Luke, in his trusty X-wing, sets course for Dagobah. Seems he has a promise to fulfill, and some questions he needs answered. Arriving to find Yoda sick and weak, Luke manages to get the answers he needs. It seems that he’s finished his training, but that one final test remains: he must confront Vader again. Yoda also confirms that Vader is in fact his father, a fact he and Obi-Wan withheld. Yoda then warns him one last time of the perils of the darkside, but also that there is another Skywalker. He dies uttering these last words, and then fades away…

Back in the swamp by his X-wing, Luke feels incredibly alone. First Obi-Wan, then Yoda; but wouldn’t you know it, Obi-Wans specter appears and tells him Yoda isn’t really gone, kinda like him! Luke demands to know why Obi-Wan lied to him, to which Obi-Wan replies that his version of events – i.e. “Vader betrayed and murdered your father” – was true… in a sense.

Luke expresses his doubts about being able to kill his own father, but Obi-Wan says a confrontation is inevitable. He also confirms what Yoda said before he died, that there is indeed another Skywalker that was kept seperate from Luke to protect her identity. Luke concludes it’s Leia, which isn’t a stretch seeing as how she’s been the only female lead in this entire universe so far!

Back at the fleet, we are treated to a briefing. Seems the Alliance is poised to strike at the second Death Star before it is operational. Since the Emperor is overseeing the final phase, they plan to kill him and destroy his weapon of terror in one fell swoop. The plan involves two phases: in one, a small team or commandos will land on Endor and disable the shield generator that’s protecting the Death Star.

In the second, the fleet will jump in and send their fighter squadrons into the center of the station to take out its main reactor. Lando is set to lead the fleet, and Han is leading the planetary assault. Chewi and Leia volunteer to help, and so does Luke. Han is also sure to lend Lando the Falcon for the attack, which he promises to take good care of. The mission is on!

After narrowly making it to Endor aboard a stolen Imperial shuttle, Luke sense his father through the Force. Vader has the same experience, detecting him on the shuttle which, for some reason, is allowed to land. He informs the Emperor and asks for permission to confront him. On the surface, their party’s progress is interrupted when Leia gets lost chasing down some scouts. She is rescued by a strange, furry indigenous creature known as an Ewok. After helping her thwart some more scouts, he takes her back to his village.

Luke, Han and Chewi also come into contact with the locals, but in their case, it involves a trap involving raw meat and a net. Once they spring free, they find themselves surrounded by the furry guys, but they turn up their spears when they see C3P0, whom they believe to be a god. They too are brought to the village, and after enforcing some ground rules (no eating of his friends!), they begin conducting some cultural exchanges.

The Rebel party are welcomed into the tribe and the Ewoks volunteer to help them rid their world of the Empire. Meanwhile, Luke and Leia have a private chat where he reveals to her that she is his sister, and that he must go off to confront Vader. He believes he can turn him back, and as long as he remains with them, they will be in danger. Leia is tearful, but can’t stop him from going.

Luke surrenders to the first patrol he can find, and they take him to Vader. During their little reunion, Luke tells Vader that he intends to turn him back to the good side, but Vader is intransigent. He will take Luke to the Emperor where we will either turn or die. It’s clear he’s torn by this decision, but tells his son it’s too late for him to turn good again.

Together, they travel to the Death Star and meet with Palpatine himself. He repeats Vader’s ultimatum, turn or die, to which Luke boasts that soon, they’ll all be dead. The Emperor laughs and reveals that he knows of the attack and that it’s a trap! Cue scary music! It seems the Emperor allowed the location of the Death Star to fall into Rebel hands in the hopes that he could lure them into an attack and crush them all at once. Luke is understandably dismayed…

Han and his party, with the help of the Ewoks, find their way to the back entrance of the shield generator. After making their way inside, they are promptly surrounded and taken prisoner. R2, 3P0 and their Ewok scouts can only watch in dismay, but the Ewoks hatch a plan and run off. They return with the entire Ewok nation, and spring a trap of their own on the Imperial troops. A massive fight ensues, with the Ewoks and Rebels gaining the element of surprise but slowly losing out to the Imperial troops superior weapons.

Meanwhile, the fleet jumps in as planned. On approach, Lando’s helmsman tells him they can’t get any reading on the Death Star to know if it’s shields are still active. His helmsman concludes they are being jammed, but Lando knows this can’t be unless… He orders the fleet to pull up, and they narrowly peel off before slamming nose first into the shields. No sooner do they get their fleet reoriented than the Imperial fleet shows up out of nowhere to seal off their escape. Ackbar yells his iconic catchphrase: “It’s a trap!”

Lando and the fleet begin combing through wave after wave of TIE fighters. Despite their superior numbers, he and the other Rebel squadrons manage to hold their own. However, he grows suspicious when he notices the Star Destroyers are not moving into attack range. However, according to the commander of the Executor, their orders are to hold while the Emperor unveils something “special”.

Cut to the Death Star, where the Emperor lets Luke know, in the latest frightening revelation, that the Death Star is also fully operational. He orders them to fire. The big gun blazes up and destroys the nearest Rebel Mon Calamari cruiser. Lando and Ackbar realize the terrible truth. Ackbar orders a full retreat, but Lando insists they won’t have another chance to assault the Death Star, and simply must give Han more time to bring the shields down.

On the Death Star, Luke is finding it increasingly difficult to resists the Emperor’s taunts. He knows the Emperor wants him to give into his hatred, but he must resist or risk falling prey to the dark side. In time, he gives in and takes his lightsaber and tries to strike the Emperor down. However, Vader interferes and the two begin fighting. Luke turns up his sabre several times, but Vader continues to press him and force him to defend himself.

After they lose a second Mon Calamari cruiser, Lando tells Ackbar to move the fleet into attack range of the Star Destroyers. As long as they are tangled with the Imperial fleet, the Death Star won’t be able to shoot them, and at least they’ll be able to kill a few enemy ships in the process. The two fleets close ranks, and all hell breaks loose! Ships on both sides are destroyed, but at least they are buying time…

Back on the surface, the Ewoks and the Rebels manage to turn the tide. Chewi and some of furry friends commandeer an AT-ST and begin using it against Imperial forces. The Ewoks defenses also prove effective once they put away the rocks and wooden arrows and break out the logs. Once they realize that they’ve won but can’t make it back into the bunker, Han hatches a plan. Using the AT-ST’s communication system, he tells the commander inside that they’ve beat the Rebels and need reinforcements. The Imperial commander orders the doors opened, and Han and the Ewoks take the base and plant their charges.

The place blows up and the shield comes down. Ackbar orders all fighters into the Death Star to take out its reactor. On board, Luke continues to try and elude Vader. However, Vader senses his fear and is able to read his thoughts. He realizes Luke has a sister, and threatens to turn her instead. Luke loses it and attack Vader, pulverizing him with lightsaber blows until he takes off Vader’s hand. The Emperor laughs and tells Luke to take his father’s side, but Luke turns back at the last second. He is now a Jedi, he says, and will never turn to the dark side.

The Emperor is… pretty pissed! He replies that, as promised, Luke will be destroyed if he won’t turn. He begins electrocuting him with lighting from his finger tips, and Luke begins to beg Vader for help. Vader intervenes, grabbing hold of the Emperor and tossing him off a catwalk into the depths of the station below. He explodes in a massive cloud of Force Energy. Unfortunately, Vader’s suit has been irreparably harmed by the Emperor’s electrical storm. Luke comes to his aid, but it seems like ol’ Darth’s ticket has finally been punched!

Inside the Death Star, Lando and the Rebel pilots manages to reach the main reactor and hit it hard. It collapses, triggering a chain reaction which begins to destroy the station from within. Outside, Ackbar and the Rebel fleet manage to bring down the Executor through smart tactics and dumb luck. The Super Star Destroyer loses control and crashes into the Death Star. The whole place begins to fall apart.

Luke manages to reach a shuttle with Vader in tow. However, with his suit irretrievably damaged, Vader tells Luke to take his mask off so he can see him once with his own eyes. Luke obliges, and sees the scarred pale flesh that is Vader’s true face. He then tells Luke to leave him, that he already saved him, and to tell his sister what he did. He then dies, in a scene with is truly tearful… Luke and Lando manage to escape as the station explodes, Lando howling a triumph cheer as the Falcon clears the flaming exit tunnel.

Luke makes it to the surface, where victory celebrations are already underway. Leia tells Han about Luke and her being related, and gives him a big kiss. Their little triangle has become a twosome at last! He arrives in the Ewok village amidst music, dancing, and has a final communion with the specters of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and his father. The final shot shows the entire cast sitting together and smiling broadly as the music reaches a crescendo. The trilogy is done!

What worked and what didn’t about this last installment:
As I said already, this movie packed a triumphant climax that really worked. After two big installments, audiences got to see everything come together with three separate battles, all of which succeeding in capturing a different kind of tension. For example, the battle on the planet was a real heart string puller since we all wanted to see the indigenous furry creatures overcome the imperialistic bad guys. The battle between the two fleets was fast-paced and visually stunning, and the way they were entirely dependent on Han’s ban on the surface made it all the more tense. Finally, the confrontation between Luke and Vader was a whole different kind of action, a battle of wills as much as weapons.

Of course, there were weaknesses. For one, the whole convoluted plot to free Han seemed to contain a few too many twists to be a considered a crafty plan. It was like, why didn’t R2 just give Luke his lightsaber when he fell into the Rancour pit? Why did they need to wait until they were out in the desert? Second, the whole plot involving Ewoks was pretty kid-centric. Originally, Lucas was planning on using Wookies, but decided that something for the kids was in order, reworked the name Wooky into Ewok, and history was made!

And finally, there was some lazy acting this time around that survived the cutting floor. Second, there was the sheer implausibility that a race of small furry creatures armed with sticks and stones could overcome a legion of troops that the Emperor said were his best. And once you took away all the shooting and explosions, this movie really wasn’t as emotionally involved as the other two. Overall, the focus seemed to be on visual effects and action.

Combined with the kid-centric elements, it was clear that by this point in the franchise, Lucas was retaining creative control. So in a way, this movie was a preview of what Lucas would go on to with his prequels. In the end, this movie still kicked ass and was climactic to the point that audiences were blown away and all its weaknesses were overlooked. It was only with hindsight, perhaps with the help of such flops as Phantom Menace, that they became apparent.

But that’s something for the next post. Right now, I must go off on a triumphant note, much like this film! It was a triumphant conclusion, the action rocked, and holy crap that musical score was great! Even now, I find myself humming it as I recount the events of the movie. Epic! So really, this is and shall remain an enduring classic with many memorable scenes. Especially the one near the end where Lando and the Falcon clear the Death Star as its exploding. YEE-HA!

Yaaaay! The good guys one! The Empire has fallen! Bring on the wine and the Ewok music! And until next time… nope, still can’t say it! Good-bye y’all!

The Empire Strikes Back or Happy Star Wars Day weekend!

Well, it’s officially the day after Star Wars Day, so now what? It’s the perfect time to review the sequel to the time-honored classic, that’s what! And I did promise to cover this rare example of a movie that managed to exceed the original, didn’t I? Hell, I would even if I hadn’t, its a freaking cool movie! And the nostalgia appeal alone makes it worth revisiting, time and time again.

And as I might have mentioned last time, The Empire Strikes Back benefited from several advantages which weren’t initially available during the shooting of the first film. This included help with direction, writing, and of course he had the musical score from the get go, which really didn’t suck! But on top of all that was the fact that in the second movie, things had a much darker and more mature feel.

Lucas acknowledged this in a series of interviews and indicated that this was his intention all along. Following the conventional three act formula, Act II is always the darkest of the chapters, where things go bad for the main characters and escalates the dramatic tension. As such, he needed to turns things on their head after the first movie’s happy conclusion, and threw in some big revelations and twists just to make the ride especially fun.

The Empire Strikes Back:
Plot Synopsis:
The opening crawl once again tells us what we need to know, that despite the destruction of the Death Star, its a dark time for the Rebels. The Empire is still a force the dominant power in the universe, after all, and since their loss at Yavin 4, they’ve been pursuing the Rebels without fail. At the same time, Darth Vader has taken an unhealthy interest in finding Luke Skywalker.

Cut to Hoth, where we see an Imperial probe landing on the surface, and Luke and Han who are out on patrol on the back of some weird looking beasts. Luke spots what he assumes is a meteor and tells Han he is going to check it out, but is unfortunately laid out when a big furry Wampa (aka. a Yeti) sets upon him.

Next we see the Rebel base, where Han checks in and let’s Rebel General Rieekan know that he’s got to leave. Essentially, his time with the Rebels have only made things worse with Jabba and his considerable debt. Rieekan is understanding, but his farewell speech to Leia leads to a rather serious argument. Seems she’s unhappy about his decision, and he’s convinced there’s something other than professional admiration motivating her feelings.

Luke wakes up later in the Wampa’s cave, and relies on his newfound knowledge of the Force to free himself and slice off the Wampa’s arm. He escapes into the frozen wastes, but nighttime is descending and the temperature is dropping! Han realizes that Luke hasn’t checked in and decides to head out into the cold to find him. After several hours, the Rebel base is forced to seal its doors and lock them out for the night. Luke and Han are on their own, and odds of their living through the night are slim!

Out on the frozen wastes, Luke is near death and experiences a vision. Obi-Wan comes before him and tells him he must go to Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Master Yodah. He passes out just as Han comes over the horizon to find him, but the two are kinda stuck when Han’s Tauntaun dies from exposure. Luckily, Han gets the bright idea to cut his beast open and stick Luke inside, thus keeping him warm and alive until he can build a shelter. Come morning, Rogue squadron finds them and picks them up! The boys are saved!

Back to the base where the Rebels learn that there’s an Imperial probe droid in their midst. Yes, that little spindly thing from the beginning has not only been getting around, it’s been taking footage of their shield generator and broadcasting it to the Imps! Han and Chewi manage to take it down, but it seems that the damage has been done. The evacuation begins…

Then comes another moment in cinematic genius, the scene where the Imperial fleet is shown and the Executor (see More Cool Ships) is introduced. After seeing many massive Star Destroyers pass each other in the starry night, several of them are suddenly overtaken by a huge shadow. Naturally, the audience can’t help but wonder, what the hell is no big that it can cast a shadow capable of blacking out a whole fleet worth of Star Destroyers? A Super Star Destroyer, that’s what! We then cut to the bridge where Vader is watching the fleet, all to the tune of the evil Imperial music!

And of course, it seems the footage has reached them, and upon seeing it, Vader comes to life and orders the fleet there immediately. Admiral Ozzle, the aging stereotype of the arrogant and incompetent British officer, seems pissed at his subordinate for finding this out and gives him a hard stare. Oh we just know that’s going somewhere don’t we? Meanwhile, the Rebels are preparing to leave, and Han and Luke have an awkward moment as they once again say good-bye to each other and wish each other luck. Seems they’re always saying good-bye…

Shortly thereafter, the Imperial fleet arrives but has alerted the Rebels to their presence and have raised their planetary shields. Vader concludes that Ozzle jumped them in too close to the planet, and decides some disciplinary measures are in order. This consists of him choking him to death over a video conversation and promoting his immediate subordinate, Captain Piett, to the rank of Admiral. Here too, the scene was perfect! One man listening in, trying to ignore the fact that his superior is slowly asphyxiating and dropping to the floor, and appearing both flattered and terrified that he’s now in charge.

The first salvos begins as the Rebel ships begin to fly for deep space, X-wings and the planetary Ion cannon providing cover. Meanwhile, General Veers, commander of the Imperial troops, lands beyond the shield and begins sending his walkers into the fray. This is the first appearance of the AT-AT’s, and they were pretty chilling to behold. The Rebel troops meanwhile dig in while Rogue Squadron engages them in their attack speeders.

However, things don’t go so well. The AT-AT’s are too heavily armored to destroy with blasters, and the dug-in defenders weapons are similarly ineffective. Luke comes up with the bright idea to trip up the walkers using their tow cables, but this too begins to falter after the majority of Rogue Squadron gets shot down.

Luke himself is shot down and is forced to bail, taking out a second walker with a grenade from the underside. However, in time, General Veers walker gets in range of the shield generator and delivers the death blow to it. The Imperial forces move in and begin attacking the command center itself.

Back at said center, Vader and an Imperial garrison walk in virtually unopposed, and all forces are ordered to being a full retreat. Han grabs Leia, who is still at her post, and compels her to join him, Chewi and the droids aboard the Millennium Falcon. As the last ship to leave, they are barely out of the bay as Vader walks in. Luke similarly gets to his X-wing out on the wastes and dusts off from the planet. The Imperials have won, but the good guys have once again lived to fight another day.

Luke meanwhile tells R2 that they are not going to rendezvous with the fleet. Seems he’s got another destination in mind, the planet Obi-Wan told him to go to in his vision. Arriving at Dagobah, Luke’s ship is disabled by a storm and he crashes into a fetid swamp. He and R2 are unharmed – well R2 almost gets eaten! – but his ship is marooned and he now seems stuck on this new planet. In the course of setting up camp, he is snuck up on by a tiny little green man, an annoying little creature who seems to know who Yoda is. He promises to take Luke to see him, but only after they’ve had supper!

Meanwhile, it seems that the Imperial fleet has zeroed in on the Millennium Falcon. Han and crew try to escape them, but it seems that ongoing mechanical issues are preventing them from jumping into hyperspace. They pull a trick by pulling into an asteroid field and hiding on one of the larger rocks. Pulling into a cave, they set down to make their repairs.

Back on Dagobah, Luke discovers that the little green man is Yoda, and that his constant pestering was a way of testing his patience, a test he failed. However, Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice insists that he has confidence in the boy, but Yoda is unimpressed by Luke’s insistence that he’s not afraid. He insists, in a very chilling line, “You will be… you will be.” They begin his training, running through the woods as Yoda explains the mysteries of the force and the danger of the dark side.

Luke confronts his first test when he senses a cave filled with dark energy nearby. Yoda tells him he must go inside, and that the only thing in there is “only what you take with you”. After crawling through creepy lizards, snakes and slimy walls, Luke comes face to face with his nemesis – Vader! They exchange blows with their lightsabers and Luke is victorious, cutting off Vader’s head and watching it roll to the ground. However, he is dismayed when the helmet blows open to reveal… Lukes own face! Dun, dun, dunnnnnn! Foreshadowing!

While in hiding, Han and Leia finally come to terms with their feelings for each other. After sensing that there was something going on there, only to see the sparks fly with fight after fight, the two realize that they actually love each other and have themselves a passionate kiss. Unfortunately, the moment is interrupted when a very rude droid announces that he’s found the problem with the hyperdrive and they can get it working again!

Meanwhile, Vader orders the fleet into the asteroids to pursue. Despite taking severe losses, he presses his commanders to keep on them. However, the Executor must pull out of the field when Vader is alerted that the Emperor himself is making contact. In the course of talking with the massive hologram of the Emperor’s hooded face, he learns the Luke Skywalker is officially a threat. The Emperor insists he must be dealt with, but Vader assures him he could be turned. He will do so, or kill him in the process, Vader insists.

Back in the cave, repairs are proceeding, but things get a little odd when they realize that their hiding place doesn’t react too well to blaster fire. They board again and make it out seconds before the “cave”, which appears to have teeth, closes on them. Back on the Executor, Vader has called in some added help, a slew of bounty hunters which includes Boba Fett. The Falcon pops out of the asteroid field and is once more pursued and can’t withdraw, so Han decides to pull a daring maneuver by charging the pursuing Star Destroyer. After slipping over the bridge, the Falcon “disappears”.

The Captain of the pursuing Star Destroyer goes to apologize to Vader, and is killed. Vader orders the fleet to break up and track every possible trajectory. However, seems the Falcon is actually mounted on the back the Star Destroyer’s bridge where its been hiding the whole time. Han plans to float off as soon as their host dumps its garbage before going into hyperspace, which is apparently standard Imperial procedure (not so environmentally conscious that!) They begin to float off with the junk, but it seems they have a tail… Boba Fett in his ship, The Bounty!

They set coarse for Bespin, to a place known as “Cloud City” –  a floating metropolis built around a gas mining platform, where Han has a friend who he thinks will shelter them. This “friend”, who goes by the name of Lando Calrissian (whom he won the Falcon from years back) appears to be running the place now. And despite their bumpy past, Lando seems happy to see him. Leia, however, has a hard time putting her trust in him.

In time, she realizes just how right she was not to! After C3P0 disappears and turns up in pieces, Lando invites them to a dinner banquet, and Vader appears to be the guest of honor! Turns out Boba Fett tracked them there and alerted Vader, who showed up just before they did and threatened to destroy the place unless Lando turned them over. The torturing begins! But it seems that Vader has a larger agenda than extracting information or punishing a few rebels. The real aim of this little “deal” is to prepare a trap for Luke, whom he knows will not be able to resist.

Back on Dagobah, Luke has a vision of the future in which Han, Leia and Chewi are suffering. He is unable to shake the vision and decides to leave. Yoda and Obi-Wan plead with him not to go, telling him he’s not ready and that he cannot hope to defeat Vader. But Luke is intransigent, insists he will come back, and that he won’t fall to the Dark Side. Once Luke leaves, Obi-Wan laments that they might lose their only hope, but Yoda reveals that there is another… hinteddy, hint, hint!

Meanwhile, Han is put into carbon freezing, a way of testing the process Vader intends to use to capture Luke. He is then handed over to Boba Fett to take back to Jabba. Having had all he can take of Vader’s treachery, Lando pulls a double cross and springs Leia and Chewi from capture. Chewi tries to take Lando’s head off, but stops when he tells them they can still save Han. They arrive too late, and Fett gets away… Luke has also arrived and Leia tries to warn him, but they are separated by too much blaster fire.

Luke continues to search the city, and finds his way to Vader. The two draw and begin dueling, and Vader is impressed by Luke’s growing abilities. However, before long, he wears Luke down and eventually takes his hand off. Beaten and helpless, Luke crawls to the end of a catwalk overlooking Bespin’s central mining shaft. Here, after much time and waiting, he learns the truth of what happened to his father and why Vader has been obsessed with finding him…

Vader did not murder his father, you see. Vader IS his father. More than that, he doesn’t want to destroy Luke, but to recruit him. Together, he believes they can destroy the Emperor and “rule the galaxy as father and son.” Luke is overwhelmed and possibly even tempted, but chooses death rather than surrender and capture. Jumping into the shaft, he falls but is pulled into a side passageway which dumps him outside. Hanging on for dear life on the edge of an antenna, Luke begs Obi-Wan for help. However, Obi-Wan already told him he wouldn’t be able to interfere if he confronted Vader. With no one else to call to, he reaches out to Leia, who appears to hear him. She order the Falcon to turn around and picks Luke up. They blast for orbit and prepare to make a daring escape.

However, the Executor is pulling into position and Vader reveals that the Falcon’s hyperdrive was disabled. They need only close in and board them now. However, R2 already found out about the hyperdrive from the station’s computer and zooms in to make a hasty field repair. He managed to put things back in order just in time, and the Falcon blasts off! Admiral Piett watches in horror as he sees them escape, and waits for Vader’s vengeance. But Vader, solemn and saddened, merely wanders back to his quarters…

Back at the fleet, Luke and Leia are tending to his lost hand. Lando and Chewi have meanwhile hopped back onto the Falcon and are going off to find Han. The movie closes with a hopeful scene of Luke, Leia and the droids watching the Falcon leave against a backdrop of the Galactic Core. The shot widens to show the rest of the fleet as it drifts away. Though they’ve suffered a beating and many set backs, the good guys are still alive, and hope remains…

What Made This Movie Even Better!:
As every fan of Star Wars and classic cinema is no doubt aware, this movie is considered one of the few sequels that actually surpassed the original. The reasons for this are pretty plain and I’ve already gone over them, so I think I’ll skip them and get right to the specifics.

For starters, the cinematography was masterful. Again and again in this movie, the music, camera angles and dialogue all coincided to create the perfect atmosphere of tension and impending doom. The opening scene where the Executor is introduced, the build-up to the battle on Hoth, the sense of defeat as the Rebels are forced to retreat, the terror Luke feels as he confronts the Dark Side, the fearful moments as we wait for the trap to close around the main characters on Bespin, and the growing desperation as Luke fights Vader… All of it culminated in the massive revelation that Luke was in fact Vader’s on. It was one of the biggest twists in movie history, and it was absolutely awesome! Years later and I still get the willies just thinking about it.

And in the end, this movie really captured the essence of dark second act. After the introduction and brief victory of good over evil in the first movie, we get a dose of hopelessness and soul-shattering revelation in movie two. Not only did it chill the bones and impress audiences with its mature themes, it also made us wonder just how the good guys were going to turns things around in the end. And it was only because the two movies were so character driven that we cared about what happened so much. Luke’s coming of age, Han and Leia’s budding romance, Chewi’s fierce loyalty, and even the droids quirky antics; we all felt a sense of attachment to these characters and wanted to see them come out okay.

Little wonder then why audiences were on the edge of their seats for the next three years. And granted, the third and final installment had its share of weaknesses, by then the momentum and following had become so strong that it seemed like nothing Lucas did could be perceived as wrong. And honestly, the third and final movie was so climactic and emotionally involved that they really just disappeared didn’t they? But more on that next time.

Happy Star Ways Day Weekend everybody! Enjoy yourselves and… well, you know the rest 😉

May The Fourth Be With You!

Yes, it is now May 4th, making it officially Star Wars Day! And in honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to dedicate the next few days to reviewing the classic movies which started it all. Yes, those movies, the ones that made Lucas filthy freaking rich and perverted his sense of creativity.

But I’ve already ranted enough about those… ahem, other movies. Today is all about honoring the good things about this franchise and pop culture phenomena. And it really was a phenomena wasn’t it? When it comes to setting trends, box office records, and inspiring an entire generation of movie makers and movie-goers, few things can measure up to Star Wars.

In fact, part of the reason the fanboys reacted so badly to the prequels was because they loved the originals so much. Were it not for the intense love inspired by the originals, the new ones would never have been able to inspire such hate. Funny how that works…

First up, and in honor of May the 4th, is the original Star Wars, or as its extended title reads:

Episode IV: A New Hope
Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with a crawl that divulges the bare bones of the movie’s premise. Basically, there’s  an evil Galactic Empire, a band of Rebels, and things are pretty tense ever since the latter won their first victory against the former. But in truth, the audience got all they needed from the opening visual sequence, a touch of cinematic genius if ever there was one!

For starters, we see a small ship running for its life, being pursued by a very large ship that is chasing it down. This tells us two key things: the Rebels are a small but committed band that are fighting for their existence against a very large, very powerful foe. The massive ship and the way it is making a slow, lengthy crawl over the camera lets us see the power and reach of the Empire, and establishes some dramatic tension which last well past the first few minutes.

Meanwhile, the ship is disabled and boarded. Imperial troopers, decked out in their white suits of armor, very clinical and faceless looking, board and kill all the defenders. Then in walks Darth Vader, who stands a head taller than the rest, is clad all in black, and very clearly means business! Cut to the droids odd-couple, C3P0 and R2D2, who’ve been scurrying around since the action started. Though we don’t know who she is at first, we see Princess Leia giving something to the latter, which under the circumstances, is of obvious importance. Shortly thereafter, they eject in an escape pod to the planet Tatooine, located below.

Leia gets her formal introduction after Vader kills the ship’s Captain and brings her forward to demand answers. She’s a member of the Imperial Senate, and apparently also a member of the Rebel Alliance. The reason their ship was boarded was because a certain set of plans, pertaining to the Death Star, were stolen and traced to their ship. After getting nothing from her, the Imperial officers deduce that the escape pod must have contained them and pursue it to Tatooine’s surface.

In time, C3P0 and R2D2 wind up becoming the property of a moisture farmer named Owen Lars. His nephew, a young man named Luke, quickly establishes himself as the movie’s protagonist. In addition to wanting to get off Tatooine, he also dreams of being a pilot and finding out more about his father, a man whom he knows virtually nothing about. Like all classical heroes, his will be a journey of self-discovery which will take him across the galaxy and fundamentally change him.

Naturally, his surrogate parents are afraid to let him go, alluding to the fact that his father’s legacy is not something they want him to be a part off. But in the meantime, Luke has a more immediate problem on his hands. After seeing a fragment of the recording of Princess Leia and learning that R2 was intended to meet a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man whom Luke suspects is actually Ben Kenobi who lives in the deep desert. After hearing of this, R2 runs off, forcing Luke and C3P0 to run after him…

They find him, and Ben Kenobi, after a near-death encounter with some Sand People. After chasing them off and tending to Luke, Ben reveals that he is in fact Obi Wan, and takes Luke and the droids back to his pad to talk. Luke learns, much to his delight, that Obi-Wan knew his father and that he was in fact a war hero and a Jedi Knight. His lightsaber is still in Obi-Wan’s possession, which he gives to Luke to play with. This was audiences first glimpse of one of the coolest weapons in sci-fi history, and impressively, it was done on a rather meager budget!

In any case, Obi-Wan sees R2’s recording in full. Leia reveals that she has come into possession of the Death Star plans, intended to deliver them to her father on Alderaan, but was intercepted in transit. R2 now holds them, and they still must be delivered. The recording ends with her pleading with Obi-Wan to help the Rebels. He asks Luke to accompany him so he can learn more about The Force and his father, but Luke is naturally reluctant. He can’t leave so long as he has ties and family on Tatooine that need him… Ooh, foreshadowing!

Cut to the Death Star, the infamous Imperial weapon of terror. Its commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, makes his first appearance, as do the other senior commanders. After some exposition on just how freakishly powerful the Death Star is, it is also revealed that until the plans are found, there is a danger. On top of that, there’s also the consensus that the Death Star needs to be tested by blowing up its first planet. Also, with Leia aboard and not talking, Tarkin concludes that they can kill two birds with one stone.

Luke and Ben meanwhile find a wreck in the desert, a Jawa landcrawler which had been destroyed by Imperial troopers. Luke quickly realizes that the Imperial troops were searching for his droids. He rushes home to find his uncle and aunt dead and their home destroyed. He then returns to Obi-Wan to tell him that he will come with him after all. The two then travel to the planet’s spaceport, Mos Eisley, to find a spacer who will take them off planet.

After getting past Imperial guards, they are forced to contend with some tough barfolk. Obi-Wan quickly dispatches them with his own lightsaber, and they meet Han Solo shortly thereafter. After being treated to some not so idle boasts about his ship (the Millennium Falcon), Obi-Wan determines that Han’s the man to take them to Alderaan. We, the audience, also learn that he clearly has some debts, and an angry creditor named Jabba. Before he can leave to check on his ship, he’s forced to gun down one of the men Jabba sent to collect.

Getting into orbit and away from the planet prove a might bit difficult given the presence of Imperial troopers and Star Destroyers. But Han wasn’t bullshitting when he said his ship was fast. They dust off, jump into hyperspace (another cool visual experience) and elude their Imperial chasers.

Meanwhile, Takin has the Death Star parked in front of Alderaan, which he threatens to destroy if Leia won’t divulge the location of the Rebel base. She does, telling him their on Dantooine, but Tarkin orders Alderaan destroyed anyway. Seems Dantooine is too remote to provide an effective “demonstration”. But it’s okay, since she was lying through her teeth. When Tarkin learns of this, he’s naturally pissed and orders that Leia be executed.

However, this order coincides with the arrival of the Millennium Falcon. Since their destination has been blown to pieces, the crew fly into a complete and utter debris field, and soon find themselves face to face with the Death Star itself. After getting nabbed with a tractor beam and brought aboard, they are forced to stow away in the Falcon’s secret compartments, where Han usually puts his “special” cargo. After popping out and sneaking past more Imperial troopers, they learn that Leia is aboard the station. Obi-Wan heads off to disable the tractor beam, while Luke convinces Han to take part in a daring rescue. Hijinx ensue!

First, we have Han, Luke and Chewi’s rather clumsy attempt to get Leia out of her cell block. The first phase, getting in, goes off without much trouble (unless you count all the shooting). Unfortunately, phase two, getting out, proceeds less smoothly. After being cornered my reinforcements, Leia orders them to jump into the trash compactor to escape. Only the timely intervention of R2 and 3P0 prevent them from being mashed.

Second, Obi-Wan succeeds in shutting down the tractor beam, but comes face to face with his old apprentice, Darth Vader. A lightsaber duel ensues, crossed beams providing a metaphor for the internal struggle between the righteous teacher and the student who went bad. As they head for the ship, Luke sees Obi-Wan locked in this duel, and is forced to watch as Obi-Wan puts up his blade and lets Vader kill him. But of course, he warns Vader that this will only make him more powerful… something we will understand very soon.

Ultimately, the good guys get away, short on crew member, but it seems their escape was allowed to happen. Knowing that they will set course of the Rebel Base, Vader has a tracking device placed aboard the ship, and the Death Star follows them to a small moon called Yavin 4.

Once there, Leia meets with the Rebel command staff and shares the plans. Knowing that the Death Star is likely en route, they prepare a desperate plan to destroy the Death Star using the one weakness they can discern. An exhaust vent located along the station’s central axis, at the end of a long, well-defended trench! Some two dozen Rebel pilots suit up for the mission, Luke volunteering to help, and asking Han to do the same. But, having been given his reward and eager to pay off his debts, Han says good luck and leaves with Chewi.

After slipping past the Death Stars shields, the Rebel pilots begin fighting it out with the station’s defenses and defenders. However, the assault on the vent itself does not go well. One wing of pilots is shot down trying to make the run, and the one pilot to get off a shot misses and is killed shortly thereafter. It now falls to Luke and what’s left of the attack wing, which includes his old friend Biggs Darklighter. Biggs is killed covering Luke, and he himself appears about to be gunned down by Vader’s own fighter, until someone new shows up and saves his ass!

Seems Han had a change of heart, and after blowing up Luke’s tails and sending Vader’s ship into a tailspin through space, Luke fires off his ordinance and hits the vent dead on! They break off and get away just in time to avoid the massive shock wave that blowing up such a massive station produces! The Rebel Alliance is saved, and the Empire has been dealt a mighty blow. However, as we see, Vader is still alive and makes it away, letting us know that the war (and movie franchise) will go on…

What Worked So Well About It!:
Where to begin. You know, its always at this point that critics and fanboys say what was so good about the original movies by comparing them to the new ones. To avoid this needless cliche, and perhaps to be a good sport, I’ll keep comparisons to a minimum. Suffice it to say, part of the reason why the first movie was such a smashing hit was because it tapped in to a certain need which was becoming apparent in the movie-going community. In terms of science fiction, audiences were becoming just the slightest bit tired of dystopian stories and dark visions of the future.

After so much technophobia and misanthropy, the stage seemed set for something positive and heroic to come along and renew people’s faith in humanity and the future. So in a way, Lucas’ masterpiece benefited from good timing, arriving exactly when people needed it to. Such timing had not been seen since the arrival of the Beatles to America, an event which came after the assassination of JFK when young people were looking for something happy and joyful to focus them onto new and positive things.

Another thing which worked in its favor was the fact that Lucas had to contend with limited budgets, an largely inexperienced cast and crew, and just about every mishap imaginable. Being in the position of the underdog, having little expected of him, and having to contend with all kinds of difficulties, what came out of it all is best labelled “art from adversity”. There’s just something so purifying about a noble effort which succeeds despite difficulty, isn’t there? It was like Lucas’ movie was living out its own plot, the committed band of Rebels fighting an evil Empire being a metaphor for Lucas’ own fight with the studios and production companies.

The Weak Parts:
But of course, Lucas also benefited from a great deal of help, which came from the highly experienced and talented hands of John Williams, the cinematography of Gilbert Taylor, and a host of editors who helped clean up his movie once the raw footage was slapped together. Arriving just a few months shy of the films theatrical release, these people saved production of the film in many ways, and demonstrated to Lucas that when it came to shooting and dialogue-writing, he needed some help to make it all work (something he forgot in more recent years!)

In fact, it was because these individuals had arrived late to the production that many weaker elements of the movie survived and became part of the original movie. In several scenes, actors and extras made mistakes which Lucas didn’t notice because he was not accustomed to shooting films. Two prime examples are when a Storm Trooper walks head first into a sliding door on the Death Star, and Mark Hamil yells “Carrie!” to actress Carrie Fisher while they were shooting. These were never edited out, as was some of the lazier acting and poor dialogue.

In fact, Lucas gained a reputation for writing wooden dialogue as he was making this movie. During their initial readings, many of the actors complained that it was unrealistic, unnatural, and completely awkward. These sentiments were brilliantly captured by Harrison Ford when he confronted Lucas and told him, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”.

The Enduring Legacy:
Of course, I could get into all the cultural and cinematic influences that were apparent and helped make the movie such a box office hit. But let’s face it, that’s been done to death! I shall just say that in the end, Lucas knew where to borrow from and could make it all work together. Combining elements like westerns, samurai movies, and allusions to ancient and modern history with an epic story of good versus evil, Lucas’ creation tickled all the right bones and gave audiences what they wanted when they wanted it.

And really, it was one of those rare movies where people felt that there truly was something for everyone. It was not strictly a kids movie (despite what Lucas would later claim) because there was simply so much material and attention to detail which no child would have been able to appreciate. So while the kids (and kids of all ages!) were dazzled with shoot outs, dogfigths and lightsaber duels, the adults were able to appreciate aesthetics borrowed from such classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Seven Samurai, Metropolis, and costumes and themes alluding to WWII and Nazi Germany.

And of course, with its smashing performance at the box office, Lucas and his crew now had the freedom and the street cred to make some follow up movies and see his vision through to completion. And in no time at all, all the studios and production companies which had doubted him or told him no were lining up to imitate him and finance whatever Star Wars clone they could find. Lucas, I imagine, got a real kick out of that!

Anyhoo, having spilled so much metaphorical ink on this movie, let me just wrap things up by saying Happy Star Wars Day and be sure to check back soon. Next up, I will be covering the even more famous The Empire Strikes Back, one of the few movies in cinematic history to ever be credited as being “better than the first”. In the meantime, check out this shot from the blooper reel. Keep your eye to the right as the Stormtroopers walk in…

 

Even More Cool Ships!

Dang it, this is fast growing into a theme of its own, outgrowing the whole “conceptual” thing by leaps and bounds! But there are always more contenders, and people have been nice enough to leave suggestions with me. So the list must go on, taking into account more spaceships, aircraft an assorted vehicles that come to us from a variety of franchises. Some are fast, some are scary, some are just really, really neat to look at! But they all have one thing in common, they are all cool!

Here’s the latest, as assembled by me and with the help of some helpful suggestions!

Cylon Base Ship:
cylon_basestarIn my first post, I mentioned the Galactica and how it had evolved from its original self to become the aged but enduring vessel that we saw in the new series. Well, when it came to the Cylons, the artists seemed to go in the opposite direction. Rather than making the Cylon Base Ships less advanced-looking, they opted instead for designs that looked sleeker, updated and more organic.

This was in keeping with the updated concept of the Cylon race. Whereas in the original series, the Cylons were slow, lumbering robots who simply followed orders and sounded very machine-like, the new Cylons were fully organic beings that could easily pass for humans.

The Centurions, much like their predecessors, remained loyal robots, but were also a hell of lot more streamlined and dynamic in appearance. The Base Stars were said to be constructed out of a cartilage-like material that was soft and organic, but became solid and super-tensile once it hardened. And of course, the Cylon Raiders were themselves equipped with organic parts, living brain tissue inside a metal hull.

Of course, the new Base Ships were downgraded in one respect. Much like the Galactica, the new designers decided to forgo the idea of lasers for something a little more realistic. In the case of the Cylons, this meant missiles instead of flak guns and cannons. However, everything else was significantly more advanced than the original, including the appearance and the scientific foundation on which it rested. Basically, the new Base Ships looked organic because they were organic. Instead of being built in a shipyard, they were grown in them. That’s some advanced shit right there!

All of this were quite ingeniously attributed to technological evolution. The old Base Star and Centurion designs were said to have been what the Cylons looked like during the previous war. Toasters was the term used to describe them, given their chrome exteriors and campy-retro look. Their new designs were the result of over twenty years of progress, going from constructions of metal and silicate materials to biometric tissue which was grown in vats. A very cool concept, and in keeping with the latest updates in the fields of science and science fiction 😉

The Discovery:

Discovery, front view

Cue classical music soundtrack! The Discovery is sailing by… in excruciatingly slow motion! Yes, I’m sure I speak for all those who have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey when I say that the story was brilliant, the cinematography superb, but dammit, did they have to do so many long, drawn out space sequences? Well, as someone very wise said, this movie was made back when people still had attention spans!

But on the plus side, the long sequences allowed audiences to truly appreciate the design and concept of this ship, and many others in the film. In what can only be described as a caterpillar (or ball and chain) type design, the Discovery was originally designed for cargo hauling, but was converted to deep-space exploration when Earth scientists needed to mount a manned mission to Jupiter in a hurry.

One can see without much effort how these concepts overlapped in the design. Being made up of many segments, the spine of the ship was clearly designed to hold detachable cargo pods, whereas the crew and navigation team would hold up in the spherical section at the front. Once converted, this frontal section was given pod-bay doors, a compliment of small explorer craft, and a large scanner array mounted along the dorsal section. The engine compartment at the rear was built for heavy thrust, alluding to the fact that this craft was intended for deep-space missions.

rear view

In addition to all that, the ship came equipped with vast stores of food, cryogenic pods, and an onboard AI known as the HAL 9000. During the better part of its deep space missions, the crew would be kept in cryogenic suspension, HAL would pilot the ship, and they would be thawed once it came close to its destination, or in case an emergency situation arose. Also, its contained rotating sections which would become active once the crew was in a waking state, ensuring that they didn’t succumb to muscular atrophy due to weightlesssness.

Simple, straightforward and technically practical, The Discovery was everything one would expect from the future of space travel, at least from a 1960’s standpoint. And granted, we weren’t exactly building ships like this when 2001 rolled around. But we weren’t exactly fighting the Cold War or discovering aliens on the Moon either. In either case, you’d be hard-pressed to find hard sci-fi like this anywhere today. RIP Arthur C. Clarke. You too, Kubrick! You’re genius is sorely missed!

Draconia 1:
Credit for this one goes to Victor of Victor’s Movie Reviews. Initially, I was hesitant when he suggested I post something from the Buck Roger’s universe, but quickly changed my mind when I saw it. Thanks for the suggestion and the links man! Enjoy this one!

Just to be clear, I got nothing against Buck Rogers, I’m just relatively ignorant about the franchise. And after combing through a couple databases, I’m still pretty ignorant. Whereas I thought this was just a popular movie and tv series from the 80’s, I’ve since learned that its roots go way deeper than all that! Originally, Buck Rogers was a novella named Armaggedon 2419, a dystopian story that appeared in an issue of Amazing Stories in 1928. Since that time, the story has been adapted to comic books, radio, television, and with the success of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica in the late 70’s and early 80’s, a feature film and a TV spinoff.

Known more popularly as “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”, it is from this point in the series that this megalithic ship known as a Draconian battleship comes to us. Named in honor of the empire that built it, Draconia 1 was the flagship of the Draconian armada and the flagship of the franchise’s chief protagonist, Princess Ardala. , to conquer Earth and make Buck Rogers her consort. And given its size and imposing nature, I’d say the artists captured these intentions quite perfectly. With a name like Draconi 1, you gotta figure the ship is going to look stern, sharp, and geared up for war!

Earth Force Thunderbolt:
ThunderboltAnother happy contribution from the Babylon 5 universe! An upgraded model that was meant to replace the older Starfury-class fighter, Thunderbolts were two-person aerospace fighters that were had boasted extra firepower, better navigation, updated systems, and the ability to navigate inside atmospheres. Yes, unlike the earlier models, these things could operate in space and in the air.

This was made possible by the addition of extendable airfoils which were attached to the ship’s four engine mounts. In addition, the hard mounts on these wings were capable of holding up to ten missiles. These, combined with its four uni-directional pulse cannons, gave it a serious firepower advantage over its predecessor!

Making their debut in the second season of the show,  the Thunderbolt would play a pivotal role in the Earth Alliance civil war, which broke out shortly thereafter. Thanks to a shipment that arrived on the station before B5 declared its independence, and the addition of several squadrons of defectors from the Earth Force destroyers Alexander and Churchill, Sheridan and his forces were not at a disadvantage when President Clarke’s forces came knocking!

According to the B5 Wiki, the Thunderbolt represented the third incarnation in the Starfury series. In terms of design, they were clearly inspired by their namesake, the P-47, and other WWII aircraft like the P-51 Mustang. In addition, inspiration was probably owed to the F4 Phantom of the Vietnam Era, which also boasted a two-seat configuration and also had the same mouth and bared teeth design on the front. A good thing too, for credit should always be given to the classics!

The Eclipse:
What could be more terrifying than a Super Star Destroyer? THIS, that’s what! And like a Super Star Destroyer, it comes to us from the expanded Star Wars universe. Known as the Eclipse, and taken from the Star Wars: Dark Empire comic series, this vessel was the latest incarnation of Imperial terror technology at its best (or worst)! Originally intended as the resurrected Emperor’s new flagship, the Eclipse II quickly became the symbol of resurrected Imperial might in the comic series, dwarfing even the Executor and all other classes of Super Star Destroyer that preceded her.

Little wonder then why they called it the Eclipse. Park it in orbit over a planet, and boom! Lights out! And much like the Death Stars and Executor-class Super Star Destroyers that preceded her, the Eclipse was nothing short of a vanity project by Emperor Palpatine, its size and awesome power reflecting his megalomania and maniacal ambitions. But regardless of how overcompensating it seemed, this ship was still a behemoth and a real slugger when it came to firepower!

Measuring 17.5 km in length, the Eclipse was absolutely fearsome in terms of its overall displacement, tonnage, and raw firepower. In addition to over 1000 turbolasers, laser cannons, and ion cannons, the ship also came equipped with a superlaser that was mounted on its prow. In essence, this ship was like a mobile Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet as well as an enemy’s armada. On top of all that, it also came equipped with 50 squadrons of TIE fighters and bombers, 100 tractor beams (the better to capture you with!), and its own gravity-well generators.

These last items are devices which appear quite frequently in the expanded SW universe, usually on Interdictor-class Star Destroyers. Basically, they allow a ship to generate a gravitational field which, when activated, prevents an enemy from jumping to hyperspace. So in addition to being impregnable, this ship could also prevent enemies from withdrawing from a battle. Hmmm, can’t beat her, can’t run away. Not exactly built for a fair fight, was she? But much like her terrifying predecessor, she was eventually destroyed in circumstances which couldn’t help but be embarrassing. I guess the old adages are true: the bigger they are…  etc, and pride cometh before a fall! Or in this case, a really big explosion!

The Nebuchadnezzar:

picture by Aquatium at deviantArt

Now here’s a franchise that hasn’t made the list yet. Taken from the Matrix franchise, the Nebuchadnezzar is a hovercraft and, along with others like her, the primary means of transportation and resistance for the people of Zion. Named after the (in)famous Babylonian Emperor who conquered the Levant, this ship made its first appearance towards the end of Act I, right after Neo was unplugged and had to be rescued.

According to Morpheus, her Captain, the ship is their means for reaching “broadcast depth” in the underground tunnels and hack into the Matrix. Beyond this basic role, it is also a primary defender whenever the sentinels begin to venture too close to Zion. In the first movie, its only means of defense was its EMP. However, in the second and third movie, it was upgraded to include defensive gun turrets.

The second and third movie also introduced many other versions of this hovercraft. Apparently, every ship is unique, each one boasting its own structure, profile, and size; variations on a theme rather than based on a standardized model. Clearly, nobody is Zion believes in assembly lines, at least not where their ships are concerned!

SA-43 Hammerhead:
HammerheadTaken from Space: Above and Beyond, the Hammerhead is an aerospace fighter and the mainstay of the future US Navy and Marine Corps. Named because of its configuration, front and back, this ship is not only cool to look at, but is quite practical from a hard science standpoint.

For example, the front and rear wings are not strictly for artistic purposes. In addition to serving as weapon’s mounts, they are the platform for the ship’s many retro-rockets. In the course of the show’s many action sequences, you always see these ships moving about as if they are truly operating in vacuum. In other words, they don’t swoop around like regular jets or have to roll to turn around. In space, all you got to do is fire your lateral rockets and let your axis spin around!

In terms of armaments, the Hammerhead packs a rather impressive array. A forward mounted laser turret is supplemented by a dual one mounted at the rear, giving the ship a near-360 degree range of fire. It also has hard mounts under its wings for missiles, bombs and rockets. These come in handy when facing down multiple squadrons of smaller, faster, but less heavily armed Chig fighters.

The Excalibur:
excalibur_2Back to the B5 universe yet again! Don’t blame me, they make a lot of cool ships. Anyhoo, this time around, the ship in question is the prototype White Star Destroyer The Excalibur. Designed to be a bigger, heavier version of its predecessor, the Excalibur was similarly based on Vorlon and Mimbari technology, incorporating organic hulls and Mimbari energy weapons.

A joint venture between the Earth Alliance and Mimbari governments, the interior of The Excalibur resembles that of most Earth Force ships. It’s controls are human-friendly, making it a quick study for crews who are used to serving on Earth Force vessels. This came in handy on its maiden voyage, when Sheridan and a crew of EF personnel were forced to commandeer it and its sister ship, The Victory.

It’s weapon consisted of multiple turret mounted beam cannons mounted all over the hull, but concentrated near the front and rear. On top of that, it also boasted a massive energy cannon similar to the kinds found on Vorlon warships. Unfortunately, this weapon was such a drain on the ships power that it could only be fire once in any battle, since its use would result in a systems blackout that could last several minutes. In addition, its ample bays could hold multiple squadrons of Starfuries and Thunderbolts, which were deployed by a pylon that extended from the hull.

In addition to playing a key role in defeating the Drakh, The Excalibur and its crew were also tasked with finding a cure for the plague they viciously unleashed on Earth. Though this spinoff series (Crusade) was cancelled partway through its first season, sources from the expanded universe indicate that it was eventually successful. So in addition to being able to kick some serious ass, this ship was also a capable exploration vessel and a mobile research station.

Spaceball One:
spaceballs6ts4uwDespite odd name and it’s whacky nature, Spaceball One is actually a pretty cool ship! In addition to being able to exceed the speed of light and go both “Ridiculous Speed” and “Ludicrous Speed”, the ship is capable of converting into a giant, robotic maid which, when armed with its megavac, is capable of sucking up an entire planet’s atmosphere. Tell me that aint a terror weapon!

A parody on the Star Destroyers from the very movie it was meant to parody, the design elements of this ship also seemed to pay homage to a few other unlikely sources. One suggested influence is The Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while another is the Nostromo from Alien. Given the comedic references to both these movies – the alien bursting out of a guy’s chest and performing a little ditty over lunch, or the “plaid” scene in space – this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Thanks to Rami Ungar for (repeatedly) suggesting this one. We consider the matter closed, please stop sending hate mail! I kid of course, keep sending it! We like to hear from you ;)!

UD4L Cheyenne Dropship:
DropShipLast time, it was the USS Sulaco that made the list as a example of a cool ship from the Alien universe. This time around, I thought I’d look a little closer, specifically to its cargo bays. Because it is here that we find those cool Cheyenne-class dropships, the ones that carry Marines, APC’s, and a f***load of munitions to their targets.

Capable of atmospheric and space flight, the dropships are typically deployed from high orbit and extend their wings once they hit the atmosphere in order to maintain lift.The Cheyenne serves primarily as a troop transport, a role it is well suited for since it can take off and land vertically from unprepared areas.

However, it’s nose mounted gatling gun, weapons pods and large compliment of rockets also mean it can attack in a supporting role, namely as a gunship. Once its deployed its compliment of Marines, typically inside of an M579 Armored Personnel Carrier, it will retire to a safe landing zone or offer active support until all enemies in the area have been suppressed.

X-wing:
X-wing_SWGTCG“The Incom T-65 X-wing is the fighter that killed the Death Star. An almost perfect balance of speed, maneuverability, and defensive shielding make it the fighter of choice for Rogue Squadron.” This is how General Carlist Rieekan described the final entry on my list, the venerable X-wing starfighter!

Based on captured designs and built by specialists who defected to the Alliance, the X-wing played a pivotal role in the Galactic Civil War and would form the backbone of the Alliance’s Starfighter Corps. Possessing deflector shields, a hyperdrive, an R2 astromech for repairs and navigation, and a complement of proton torpedoes, the X-wing allowed the Rebellion to launch raids deep into Imperial space and stand toe to toe with its TIE fighter squadrons.

In addition to providing escort to Alliance vessels and conducting raids on Imperial ships and installations, its long list of accomplishments include destroying the first Death Star, proving cover for escaping Alliance ships after the Battle of Yavin and at the Battle of Hoth, and defeating overwhelming Imperial forces at the Battle of Endor. After the formation of the New Republic, the X-wing would go on to play a pivotal role in many subsequent battles and engagements, mainly against the remnants of the Empire.

Featured heavily in the original movies, the X-wing would also go on to become the only Star Wars fighter to get a videogame named after it! Not bad for the little “snub fighter” that could!

Final Thoughts:
And wouldn’t you know it, it seems I have actually have some insight to offer today. Must be on a count of how many ships I’ve reviewed by now. For starters, I think that while aesthetics and artistry count for a lot, some serious props need to be given for a hard sci-fi foundation. Ships that incorporate realistic features, like retro-rocket mounts, wings that only deploy if you’re expecting atmosphere, and practical hull designs, are usually what make the biggest impact. Not that we don’t all love freaky looking spacecraft, it’s just that dropships, hammerheads and starfuries seem somewhat more plausible than saucer sections and mega-dreadnoughts.

At the same time, its fast becoming clear to me that when it comes to designing cool sci-fi ship concepts, the only limits are those imposed by our own imaginations. Really, there are no rules or strictures when your painting with an open canvass, and sci-fi has always been the perfect forum for venturing into the realm of the implausible and impossible. And given the exponential rate at which technology is progressing, dreaming big doesn’t exactly seem unrealistic anymore. If anything, our dreams seem to be coming true faster than we could have imagined. So really, with the possible exception of FTL, nothing we can imagine right now should seem too farfetched. If anything, we should encourage dreamers to dream!

Until next time, and keep those suggestions coming! And maybe come up with some original designs, I’m feeling in the mood for evaluating something new and inspired here 😉