Star Wars movie series


Star Wars: The Phantom Menace


A long time ago, in our own galaxy and on our own planet, three movies became so popular that they created an intense amount of anticipation and hype for what would come next. The long wait is finally over with the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the fourth installment released by creator George Lucas. Chronologically, it is the first episode in the Star Wars universe.

Could the movie live up to such hype? I wasn't sure but I didn't care. I went into the movie with the greatest amount of anticipation and I figured if George Lucas could live up to my high expectations, it would make this movie an incredible experience for me (more so than if I had gone in with lower expectations).

I came away from the movie thinking it was perfect (I'm completely ignoring Jar Jar Binks here). That in and of itself isn't so unusual (recently, I felt the same way about The Matrix) but it is rare (many films in my mind have failed to live up to hype, including the recent Saving Private Ryan). What makes Star Wars: The Phantom Menace special is that I had to overcome my bias against the hype to think it was perfect, since it was undergoing a more critical initial viewing than most films do.

The plot is one of the most complex among the four movies, rivalling the rich dialectic observed in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and definitely superior to the fourth and sixth episodes. Lucas takes advantage of the fact that a lot of the famous characters, such as Jabba the Hut, Yoda (voice by Frank Oz), R2-D2 (voice by Kenny Baker), C-3PO (voice by Anthony Daniels), and the evil Emperor, are already familiar to us and narrates a story where these characters and the ancestors of the primary protagonists in episodes IV-VI interact together in an incredibly natural fashion.

In the film, we're introduced to Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy who is freed by two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). We're introduced to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) who we later know marries Anakin and gives birth to Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. We're also introduced to Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a Sith Lord, who later becomes the evil Emperor (aka Darth Sidious), slowly consolidating his power.

The film is primarily about Palpatine's first efforts to gain control of the Galactic Republic (while remaining consistent with the first three films and telling a self-contained story). In order to do this, he pitches the Trade Federation against the planet Naboo (ruled by Queen Amidala). When the planet is overrun by the Trade Federation droids, Queen Amidala and the two Jedi Knights sent as ambassadors flee but end up being briefly stranded on the desert planet of Tatooine, where they run into Anakin. Anakin is recognised by Qui-Gon as having an unusual concentration of the force within him. After freeing Anakin, the Jedi go back to Coruscant to warn the Jedi council of Darth Maul (Ray Park/Peter Serafinowicz), an apprentice of the Sith Lord trained in the ways of the Jedi. Qui-Gon also asks the permission of the council to train Anakin. The final confrontation features the Knights, the Queen and her aides, and the Gungans, a group of amphibious creatures living on the planet, together trying to re-take control of Naboo.

There have been several criticisms about the film but I find them baseless. The notion that this is a film for children for example only serves to illustrate, as I have long believed, that most adults are incapable of comprehending such subtle complexity. The movie adds just a bit more knowledge to our understanding of the Zen-like nature of the force and builds upon the previous mythology in an exciting manner. The effects are terrific but they are not over used. Lucas takes his time telling the story and fleshing out the characters slowly, and the pacing is just right. Each character is extremely well-developed yet the amount of time spent on a given character is perfect. For example, when the focus is on the evilness of the Senator, it's just enough to let us realise he is not what he seems to be but yet it's not so blatant as to be insulting.

The look and feel of the film is exceptional and retains the same comfortable aesthetic we're familiar with from episodes IV-VI. The Darth Maul character is extremely effective and Ray Park's stunt work in this regard is brilliant. The martial arts-inspired fight sequences are extremely well choreographed. The acting is excellent---Liam Neeson is aptly cast as a stubborn Jedi Knight and Ewan McGregor is perfect as an earnest Obi-Wan. Jake Lloyd does a great job as young Anakin Skywalker and even at his age the chemistry between him and Natalie Portman is readily apparent. And the score... while the heavy passage announcing the arrival of Darth Vader in episodes four through six is barely present, the other parts of the score by John Williams, mixing the old with the new, sent shivers down my spine.

The reason this movie worked so well was because it induced goose bumps in me on several occasions. These thrilling moments included the pod race which determines Anakin Skywalker's fate, and the battle scene at the end where Anakin destroying the droid control ship, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battling a ferocious Darth Maul, and Queen Amidala taking control of her throne, are all juxtaposed with each other. This is the reason also it was able to live up to my expectations--it was exactly like I was watching the original trilogy when I was twelve or so. I can't think of a single thing that is wrong with the film and I can't wait to see it again.

(I should say that that on my second viewing, I found the character of Jar Jar Binks so annoying that I'm currently afraid to see this film again; I do believe that if he were edited out entirely, this would be a great film to watch.)


Star Wars: Attack of the Clones


Star Wars: Attack of the Clones advances the Star Wars mythology considerably, making it one of the better films in the series. The movie focuses less on the icons that have made the series popular and more on the story line involving the Skywalker family, though there are plenty of special effects here to please any Star Wars fan.

In the fifth film of the series, we learn how Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) fall in love in secret, how Anakin turns towards the Dark Side even as he outgrows his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobe (Ewan McGregor), and how Chancellor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) plays everyone in an elaborate game to gain absolute power. Besides the movie's focus on romance, the Chess-like manipulation by Palpatine is one of the bigger happenings: On the one hand, Palpatine encourages governments to rebel against the Republic, but on the other, he encourages Jedi going after the rebels knowing that it will thin their ranks. In this manner, he not only eliminates those who would oppose, but also turns those could assist him toward to the Dark Side.

While the movie advances all these plot details, sometimes the results are not satisfactory. Believe it or not, I felt the movie had too much great special effects and didn't spend enough time exploring the plot twists. For example, the fact that Anakin is a bit psychotic seems to be ignored by everyone except Palpatine. Nor is there too much time spent on how Yoda was able to acquire command of the clone army and who placed the order for them in the first place. Also, the romance portion could've been significantly edited (or made more convincing).

In my view, the appeal of Star Wars has to do with its rich and varied mythology and setting, which lets other creative minds take the reins and run away with their imaginations. It lets one think of a galaxy that used to exist but where the events that occurred are just visible to us now. Needless to say, this movie is much better than its predecessor, even though the first episode was good simply because it reintroduced us to light sabres and Jedi Knights and the concept of the Force.

There are other nice touches to the film: it was great to see why Yoda (Frank Oz) is considered one of the greatest Jedi Master, to compensate for the lack of good aphorisms delivered by him. Padme looks like Princess Leia when she's jumping around fighting the droids. Director George Lucas gives us another reason to dislike Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), since he ends up being partly responsible for Palpatine's rise. We are also introduced to Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and a young Boba Fett (Daniel Logan). In terms of effects, the water planet where the clones are being manufactured, the initial chase scene with Anakin and Obi-Wan on the airways of Coruscant, and the fight between Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus (Christopher Lee) and the Jedi are amazing.

It's kind of strange to me why there is so much focus on family in these kinds of epic stories. Consider the The X Files: what started off as two agents' quest to find the truth ends up with them fathering a baby together created by an extremely incestuous conspiracy. Similarly with 24, where the show is about different families with different, and sometimes conflicting, interests. Likewise, Star Wars is about a family that's dysfunctional from the start though we don't realise it until Episode V (and the incestuousness is even stronger here).

The tagline for the film ("A Jedi Shall Not Know Anger. Nor Hatred. Nor Love") as well as the many Zen-like ideas permeating the mythology seems to suggest (rightfully) that the desire is the cause of suffering (this is one of Buddha's "truths"). It's a lesson worth keeping in mind as we go on about our daily lives. In the end, Anakin becomes Darth Vader because he's like everyone else, yearning for the mundane, which causes him to be weak-minded (though Luke does avoid the same problem).

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is definitely worth watching; Star Wars: The Phantom Menace set such low expectations that this is sure to please. I recommend checking it out on the big screen.


Star Wars: A New Hope


If you've never seen Star Wars, I think you're in an enviable position, as I consider it one of the most impactful sci-fi movies of all time. If you've never seen it on a big screen before, you've not seen Star Wars. Before I left to see the show, I was told by a friend: "What's the point? It's a 70s movie with a 70s story. You may as well just go out and rent it." After seeing it on a huge screen sitting in the fourth row with THX sound, I can safely say that the experience far surpasses a rental experience.

The plot is simple, and as a pre-teenager, it had a magical appeal to me (a flashlight was my light sabre, and I personally preferred playing the role of Darth Vader): the evil Galactic Empire attacks Princess Leia Organa's (Carrie Fisher) ship and captures her. Leia is the leader of the Rebel Alliance fighting against the Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is recruited by Obi-Wan Kenobee (Alec Guinness) to rescue her and aid the Alliance. Luke is instructed by Obi-Wan in the ways of the force (an idea borrowed from various Eastern philosophies) and with the aid of his new found knowledge, he must destroy the Death Star, a massive space station built by the Empire that can obliterate entire planets.

While I was thrilled whenever I watched the movie on video and heard Darth Vader say "I find your lack of faith... disturbing" 10 years ago, for some reason it seemed really corny when I saw it in the theatre. In fact, the rest of the plot also seemed pretty much dated and out of touch with the times, and the underlying philosophy (which I could now seriously appreciate having actually read some Joseph Campbell) was what moved me this time around.

Many people complain about the 4+ minutes of added footage. I personally thought it did little, if anything, to hurt the movie, and for the most part, actually enhanced it. George Lucas, the original director, has played it safe here. I think the real test for Lucas will come when the prequels are released---whether viewers will be able to reconcile the technology used to make the prequels with the technology in episodes IV, V, and VI remains to be seen.

Besides the overall improved quality of the film and the sound, the parts I liked the best were limited to the extra 4.5 minutes. I was impressed with the interaction between Han Solo (a young and dashing Harrison Ford) and Jabba the Hutt. The crowded Mos Eisley spaceport is another enhancement that I particularly liked. The music by John Williams is incredible, and listening to it through a high-quality sound system is a definite plus. The one enhanced part I didn't like was the scene between Han and Greedo the bounty hunter (Diana Sadley Way), which I think totally was out of sync with the rest of the other changes.

Watching Star Wars, you can easily see how hundreds of sci-fi movies that followed it have borrowed from it, and sometimes even improved upon it. It pioneered a new way of sci-fi film-making. I can't wait for the next two episodes (which, in terms of story, I consider better than this one). Until then, may the force be with you.


Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back


Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is my favourite Star Wars movie. By now, you probably know about the anticipation and excitement generated at the prospect of seeing a movie like this on the big screen with digital sound. Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed.

The Death Star has been destroyed, but Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) hasn't given up. He sends droids to the far corners of the galaxy in order to track down the Rebel Alliance. Meanwhile, on the icy planet of Hoth, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who has been working with the Alliance is getting itchy feet and plans to leave. Before he does, he blows up the droid sent by the Evil Empire, which alerts Darth Vader to the presence of the Alliance camp. Darth Vader attacks the base and our favourite characters escape just in the nick of time.

While everyone in the Rebel Alliance heads to the designated rendezvous point, Luke Skywalker goes off to the Dagobah system where he encounters Yoda (Frank Oz), a Jedi Master, and undergoes the training necessary to become a Jedi Knight. In the midst of his training, he sees a vision of Han Solo and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in pain at the City in the Clouds and rushes to save them. Unknown to him, it is a trap set by Darth Vader to capture Skywalker and to coerce him to serve the Dark Side of the Force.

The most brilliant aspect of this movie is the resolution (or lack thereof) of this plot. People (who saw this in 1980) might have suspected about the connection between Vader and Skywalker, but here is it made clear, just as Vader manages to injure Skywalker. The tying together of the two parallel threads in the movie leads to Skywalker uncertain about his commitment to the good side of the Force, Han Solo in suspended animation being taken to Jabba the Hut, and the Alliance is in a disarray (needless to say, the romantic triangle between Leia, Solo, and Skywalker isn't resolved either). It is a most unsatisfying ending, and when I first saw it, I couldn't wait to put part three of the trilogy in the VCR to find out what happens next.

The ending is a tribute to Lucas, who traded his Director's fee to ensure the next two sequels to Star Wars: A New Hope would be made. This foresightedness ensured that an excellent story would not be sacrificed to please the audiences.

The enhancements made in this special edition are minimal. The sound is spectacular, and for this movie, I'd argue it made the experience more worthwhile than the presence of the big screen. I must point out after having seen the actors who play Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the characters have lost some of their charm for me. The theatre wasn't as full as it was for the screening of Star Wars: A New Hope, which reflects the dark nature of the story line. The good thing is that we don't have to wait three years to see the next episode.


Star Wars: Return of the Jedi


After Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, it was clear that George Lucas had something hot in his hands. At this point, Lucas was under some pressure, and it would've been easy to produce a followup that was a disaster and let everyone down. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi shows Lucas' ingenuity: he combines the best elements of the previous two episodes and produces a movie that is not only technologically advanced, in terms of special effects, but ties the loose ends together in a consistent whole.

The plot is similar to Star Wars: A New Hope. The Evil Empire has built a new killing machine, much more powerful than the Death Star (even though it has the same weak points as far as blowing it up is concerned). The Rebel Alliance must destroy it before it destroys them.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), along with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) tie up the first loose thread by rescuing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of the evil Jabba the Hutt (Toby Philpott). Then Luke returns to the Dagobah system to finish his training (thread number two) with Yoda (Frank Oz) and makes it there just in time. The nine-hundred-year-old Jedi Master dies and joins Obi-Wan Kenobi in the great beyond. Luke learns from Yoda that he has a twin sister and must confront Darth Vader before he can become a proper Jedi Knight (and that's two more threads tied up for you).

Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance begins planning their attack on the Empire's weapon. Luke and his friends are responsible for destroying the shield protecting the new weapon so Lando and the Alliance crew can destroy the revamped Death Star. As they approach Endor, the moon containing the shield controls, Darth Vader (David Proust, voice of James Earl Jones) and Luke sense each other's presence. Luke then confronts Darth Vader and tries to convert him to the good side.

Up till now, the most fearsome villain in the Star Wars movies was Darth Vader. But Lucas manages to create an even more impressive one, just as he begins to change Darth Vader into a good guy. The new villain is Darth Vader's master, the evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), who looks feeble and old but possess extraordinary Jedi powers (presumably from his alliance with the dark side). When the Emperor realises he cannot convert Luke to the dark side, he begins to slowly and painfully kill Luke. Darth Vader, seeing Luke lying helplessly on the floor while the Emperor exhibits pure evil, feels a spark of compassion and kills the Emperor (a little too easily, but it's better than having a sustained fight). In doing so, he finally redeems himself and joins Obi-Wan and Yoda.

Burning questions remain: how did the evil Emperor rise to power? How did Darth Vader convert to the dark side and become his slave? How were the Jedi Knights wiped out? It is good that we see the middle three episodes first, before the prequels, as a lot of suspense about Darth Vader's and Luke Skywalker's origins would've been removed. George Lucas timed the release of special editions well. After seeing Return of the Jedi, I can't wait to see the prequels.