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George Lucas

HIS DARK MATERIALS: a slick adaptation lacking in magic (Season 1 – Review)

Until the BBC, in league with HBO, decided to tackle Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it remained one of the greatest, unfilmed epic adventure stories in modern literature.

There was, granted, an attempt in 2007 with The Golden Compass, directed by Chris Weitz, but despite starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and a host of talented thespians in support, it failed to capture enough critical acclaim & audience imagination (and crucially box office) to warrant adapting not just Pullman’s first novel, Northern Lights, but the subsequent two sequels – not to mention launch the career of star Dakota Blue Richards, playing central heroine Lyra Belacqua. On the face of it, His Dark Materials should be a slam dunk as a success story; a plucky heroine, a quest narrative, magical realms, talking bears, witches and megalomaniacal villains. Except it isn’t quite that simple.

Though this kind of genre may lend itself to family friendly entertainment, a Harry Potter-esque story of good vs evil, Philip Pullman’s books are incredibly dense, complicated and challenging pieces of world-building crammed with the kind of philosophical ideas that your JK Rowling’s or George Lucas’ do not touch. His Dark Materials, over the three books, goes to some seriously dark places – the climax of Northern Lights is built on such a moment. Adapting these books is not nearly as easy as they may look from the outset, bucking convention in the ideas Pullman presents. The Golden Compass proved one film was not enough space to pull this off. The BBC’s His Dark Materials suggests even an eight-part television series might not be up to the challenge.

As despite the fact Jack Thorne’s scripts put everything from the first novel (and a bit from the second) on screen, the first season of His Dark Materials lacks the key component present in Pullman’s writing: magic.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

From the Vault #21: STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 20th, 2017, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.

Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.

The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.

From the Vault #20: STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 17th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

A million voices suddenly cried out, not in terror, but rather jubilation, upon watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The most hyped, anticipated and promoted motion picture probably in the history of cinema came with enormous expectation and pressure on JJ Abrams, an oft-divisive filmmaker (though heaven knows why), to equal the original Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas, which again are probably three of the most beloved, iconic movies in the history of the form.

What people wanted perhaps even more, however, was the lingering stench of Lucas’ three prequels to be expunged, having disappointed an entire generation of fans with three stilted, lacklustre additions to the Wars canon. Upon Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm three years ago, and Lucas’ subsequent relinquishment of the reins to his creation–having long insisted he would never make sequels to his original trilogy, even claiming so much as no plans ever existed (a blatant lie)–the universe lay open once again, ripe for reinvention and reintroduction. In a world of Marvel cinematic universes and multi-film franchises, Star Wars returning to claim global cinematic dominance was an inevitability. Multiple generations now, from kids new to the world to grandfathers who saw the movies as children themselves, all asked one unified question… would the Force be with a new trilogy?

The answer, resoundingly, is yes.

From the Vault #19: STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 4th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Can you imagine Return of the Jedi being named ‘Revenge of the Jedi’? Directed by either David Lynch or David Cronenberg? No. Well there’s probably an alternate universe where all of those things happened, as Episode VI very nearly took several different paths to the Star Wars cinematic conclusion we know so well, a conclusion in 1983 anyway.

George Lucas obviously recognised the strengths in The Empire Strikes Back and pulled away yet again from the directors chair and primary script duties, Lawrence Kasdan again taking up that mantle, but truthfully, objectively, Jedi is the weakest of the original – which admittedly is akin to pointing out the ‘worst’ of the Three Stooges, they are all fine in their constituent parts. Richard Marquand, taking the helm, crafts a piece which has much clearer DNA to the first movie, lightening the tone and the visual pallet after the relative gloom and edge of Empire, allowing for a rousing flourish of a finish in which, it’s no spoiler to reveal, good naturally triumphs over evil.

In such an epic saga of derring do, you’d expect nothing less.

From the Vault #18: STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 4th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Nobody anticipated the success of the first Star Wars movie. George Lucas’ paean to the adventure serials he grew up loving as a boy, daring tales of dashing heroes fighting evil empires in fantastical worlds, was to a cynical, gloomy late 1970’s anathema, certainly to studio heads reared by Godfather’s & French Connection’s, and indeed to many of Lucas’ illustrious luminaries, the American ‘New Wave’, making such legendary pictures. The people thought otherwise.

A New Hope was an instant success, and triggered a new age not just of science-fiction filmmaking but helped shape the modern blockbuster. A sequel was inevitable and by this point, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, was being considered as the middle point of an epic trilogy telling the story not just of Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi Knight, but his connection to Darth Vader.

Such a decision helped shape the key iconic moment everyone remembers from Empire, helped fashion the second film into, many have come to agree, not just the best Star Wars film to date but one of the finest pieces of science-fiction, adventure cinema of all time.

From the Vault #17: STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 4th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’ are the first words we see before John Williams’ iconic leitmotif blasts theatrically and introduces Star Wars, later given the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, and immediately George Lucas sets out his stall: this is fantasy, a space-born piece of future history independent almost of time itself, existing in a place where gigantic spaceships and planet killing machines fuse with kidnapped Princesses, evil Empires, daring rebellions, heroic pilots and dashing troubadours.

Much has long been written about the first of Lucas’ trilogy (later to become a trilogy and indeed a franchise), about its touchstones of mythology, of influences such as Joseph Campbell or Kurosawa, and indeed how it single handedly created not just a sub-genre that has persisted across the last four decades, but the most recognisable piece of cinematic pop culture of the 20th century.

The reason is simple: it’s about as charming and fun as motion pictures get.

From the Vault #16: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from Dec 19th, 2016, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

For a while, let’s be honest, we didn’t know if the Force was with Rogue One, did we?

The first in Disney/LucasFilm’s attempt to build an extended Star Wars universe, in the vein of Marvel Studios, was for many an anthology story we didn’t need telling – specifically how the Death Star plans came not to be in the main computer at the very beginning of George Lucas’ opus in 1977’s A New Hope. Would it launch a brand new approach to the revived Star Wars franchise or would it be a pointless, bloated stain to sit alongside the painful prequels? All the news of Gareth Edwards being locked out of the editing suite, Tony Gilroy coming in to film extensive reshoots, they all suggested a misconceived project which many would have considered a mistake.

Here’s the great news: Rogue One isn’t just the prequel you never knew you wanted, the kind of prequel which makes the official episodic prequels look increasingly paltry, but it’s also quite possibly almost almost as good as A New Hope itself.

From the Vault #15: STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 28th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

It was back in 1973 that the beginnings of what would become Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith came to life, as George Lucas roughly mapped out the entire Star Wars saga without specifics four years before Episode IV would take the world by storm and create a cinematic legacy unlike perhaps any other before or since.

Much as the previous two prequels underwhelmed significantly from a creative standpoint, leaving many fans with a sense of caution going forward, few would deny Revenge of the Sith remained much anticipated. This was the story we had all been waiting for – forget the preamble and effectively set up of The Phantom Menace & Attack of the Clones, this would be where it all came together, Lucas ready to show us just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader & the Galactic Empire rose from the ashes of the Jedi. How could such an epic tale three decades in the making fail? The good news is, well… on the whole it doesn’t.

Revenge of the Sith is by some distance the finest Star Wars prequel and though it can’t quite sit on a par with the original trilogy, it skirts close with a combination of epic visuals, narrative power and finer characterisation than the previous two movies combined.