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Star Wars

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.

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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.

From the Vault #13: STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

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 25th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

In 1987, after a costly divorce settlement that undoubtedly dampened his enthusiasm for playing in a fictional universe, George Lucas unofficially cancelled his long-held plans to produce a prequel trilogy to Star Wars, his magnum opus & arguably the most iconic Hollywood movie franchise in cinematic history. It didn’t last long.

The technology Lucas felt wasn’t around to realise his grand vision for the series was becoming a reality thanks to leaps forward visible in such movies as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park and by 1994, imagination forever burning to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker became cinema’s most infamous villain, Darth Vader, he was writing what would ultimately become The Phantom Menace. To say ‘Episode I’ was anticipated would be an understatement – millions spent on marketing, thousands queuing for weeks outside cinemas for tickets, the press in a frenzy. Star Wars had struck such a chord from 1977 onwards that by 1999, as the internet was exploding into the household, fandom was at its expectant peak.

Think back… how old were you? What were you doing? And when you finally saw The Phantom Menace, did you wonder why you’d spent so long excited?

Origin of Species: X-Men – First Class (2011)

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 Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class

As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.

To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel *and* prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.

The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.

In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.

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.

Oh, Brother! Star Trek: Discovery (Season 2)

If there is one criticism many fans would struggle to level at Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, it would be the classic “this is not Star Trek”.

You can understand, to a point, why some fans shouted that from the rooftops about Season 1. Bryan Fuller’s initial vision for Star Trek’s long awaited return to television alongside Alex Kurtzman resolutely set out to buck the storytelling trend you had come to expect from a franchise last on television at the tail end of a very different age. Season 1 was heavily serialised, darker, had a protagonist who had mutinied by the end of the second episode, didn’t even introduce the main ship until episode three, and had the ships Captain end up being the villain.

With hindsight, however, we never knew we had it so good with Season 1. Yes, it was a season compromised by behind the scenes complications, which may have resulted in the fractured balance of the Federation-Klingon War and Mirror Universe stories, but Season 1 pushed the boundaries of what we expected Star Trek to be. As the 90’s era wasn’t your Dad’s Star Trek, then Discovery was proving the 90’s *was* now your Dad’s Star Trek. It dropped the F-bomb. It went hard to starboard on serialisation. And it wasn’t afraid to craft protagonists like Michael Burnham or Saru (or naturally Gabriel Lorca) who were hard to like and who had to grow on us.

Season 2 in the wake of this spends fourteen episodes systematically undoing everything that made, or could have made, Discovery something special and unique. If Season 1 wasn’t Star Trek enough, then by Kahless, Season 2 absolutely was much “too Star Trek” from start to finish.

A Slayer Reborn: Buffy and the Reboot Question

Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.

More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.

Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.