Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

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.

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 #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 #14: STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

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 26th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Unlike the incredibly hyped, feverish release of The Phantom Menace three years earlier, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones loomed large with more a muted sense of expectation, a ‘new hope’ as it were that George Lucas might have learned a few lessons from the severe disappointment his first prequel in the planned trilogy turned out to be, due to cardboard dialogue, stiff acting, leaden plotting and a remarkable lack of fun.

Perhaps aware of his own shortcomings behind the typewriter, Lucas hired a young writer, Jonathan Hales, to help him pen this second instalment but in no uncertain terms, two heads were not better than one. Attack of the Clones desperately wants to be this trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back – it’s immediately darker, it seeks to be edgier, it balances plot shenanigans with a central romance, and it builds to an ominous, open-ended conclusion. The only difference is that it’s a soul crushing experience to sit through until that end point – perhaps even more joyless than the previous movie, with only the barest hints of the chutzpah the original trilogy exhibited, and yet again a raft of immensely wooden performances by talented actors struggling with a script that is banal in the extreme.

Considering the promise of what could have been, it’s yet again another enormous clusterf*ck.

Movie, TV, Book & Podcast Roundup: September 2019

Welcome to October! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on the blog but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black. This edition covers September which, well… ended up being quite a difficult month for several personal reasons, which means we’ve both digested far less than we normally would have. So this may be a shorter piece this time around!

Let’s start this month with Film *and* TV…

The Third One is Always the Worst: X-Men – Apocalypse (2016)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to describe X-Men: Apocalypse is as the film X-Men: The Last Stand wanted to be, which is a significant amount of damning with faint praise.

Apocalypse is a clear and visible step down from X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is, easily, the weakest X-Men movie since X-Men: Origins Wolverine. It is also the most cleanly and directly an X-Men film since The Last Stand, and to an extent the more logical sequel that we could have been given after First Class had Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and the rest of the team had gone in a different direction. First Class introduced the idea of the X-Men as a functional unit but, in order to facilitate the darker, multi-generational, time-spanning narrative of Days of Future Past, chose to roll back on their development in order to provide an origin story for Charles Xavier as Professor X. First Class placed everyone where the needed to be for Apocalypse to happen but this film benefits from the depth of characterisation given to characters such as Xavier, Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme.

Where Apocalypse stumbles is how it attempts to start re-creating the conditions of the first two X-Men movies while lacking their depth of subtlety or clear dramatic through-lines. X-Men had the X/Magneto conflict fully formed at the turn of the millennium whereas, in Apocalypse, X is still building Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the functional X-Men team we saw in the 2000 film, and Erik has attempted to abandon the Magneto persona after the events of Days of Future Past instead of becoming the ideological, anti-human uber-villain he was in Singer’s first film. Apocalypse wants to be both a First Class-style groundwork-laying origin story *and* a functional, standard X-Men film—a counterpoint to how offbeat and format-breaking DOFP was—all in one go, and as a result it ends up a busy, silly, often unfulfilling concoction recalling the heady vacuousness of The Last Stand. The fact it also wants to be meta and subversive at the same time just adds to the cluttered mix.

Apocalypse *is* a better film than The Last Stand. It is not, however, the sequel that either First Class or especially Days of Future Past deserved.

From the Ashes: X-Men – The Last Stand (2006)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand

If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.

Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.

Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.

Shock and Awe: X2 – X-Men United (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

Plugging Gaps: How backstory is *becoming* story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.