Happy Anniversary to Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Every nerd of a certain age today commemorates the release of a film that led to one of the deepest rifts in any fandom, and in the nerd sub-culture as a whole. I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about it because I’ve written about it before.

Most people will say “happy birthday,” but I consider May 19 more of an anniversary. I think a film’s birthday is more akin to when the picture is locked, not when it’s released. That’s just the first day that you got to celebrate it – if celebrate it, you did.

And I’m one of the ones that does celebrate The Phantom Menace. I always have been. I enjoyed that first screening at 12:01 a.m. and have loved it more with each passing year.

There’s no sense of irony here. There’s no “because of when it was released in my life” or “nostalgic” aspect to this. If anything, The Phantom Menace was released at a time in my life I’m not in too much of a rush to remember. (An important qualifier is that I’m not one to dwell on the past at any rate, even when it was a good point.)

I simply love Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace because it is an amazing and important work from a tremendous filmmaker. George Lucas is one of the greatest filmmakers in history, and The Phantom Menace is a testament to what he is willing to achieve. I wish he was still making films – any films –  because I’m bereft at the thought of what I could see him produce.

I’ve written about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace a lot. A good sampling of my writing about The Phantom Menace can be found all throughout this blog. A select sampling is below.

Trust me, that’s just a sampling. There’s even more if you want to use the site search and find it. I think it’s worth a read, but I’m a little biased.

The Jedi Council in Star Wars Episode One The Phantom Menace which is a Star Wars movie called The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars saga featuring the Jedi Council.
Anakin before the Council.

 

The Fact of The Phantom Menace

The point is that I’m no stranger to trumpeting what I see as the under-appreciated genius of George Lucas’ re-entry to directing in 1999. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.

I’m also no stranger to being maligned, insulted, and dismissed for loving it.

I’ve been called a “fanboy” for defending it, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’ve been told that I’m lying (to myself and/or others) and only claim to like it, that I’ve “committed” to the opinion and won’t back down out of pride. I’ve had a friend directly say that “only an idiot” could like The Phantom Menace, then failing to understand why I took that as a personal insult.

In short, the people who think that the fight over The Last Jedi was the worst it got for Star Wars fans, are either too young to remember the fight(s) over The Phantom Menace, or it’s so long ago that their memories have faded.

It was pitched, it was ugly, and it was personal. It went on for years.

I still don’t care.

I love Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’ve always loved it. I will always love it. I will always be grateful for its place in cinema history, in Star Wars history, and in my personal history.

Just like the lauded “Original Trilogy,” it will always transport me to a different time and a different state of mind.

So happy anniversary, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The world is a vastly different place than it was when you debuted, and somehow you’ve only become more relevant. Sadly, strangely, and beautifully relevant.

Thank you, George Lucas, for a work of art disguised as mass media.

Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine in Star Wars Episode One The Phantom Menace which is a Star Wars movie called The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars saga featuring Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine but not Craigula.
Yes, the point of the shot is that he’s in focus. I said good day, sir!

Can Droids See Force Ghosts?

Netflix recently unleashed the entire run of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, including the sixth and final never-before-seen season, which dominated my weekend watching habits and has doubly reinvigorated my mental pursuit of esoteric Star Wars questions on top of the recent exchanges on Words With Nerds.

Often I promise these sorts of blogs will be brief musings, but then I start writing and I can never predict their final length. I like to think as I write on these things instead of coming into it fully-formed. Let’s see where we go this time!

What I’m Wondering This Time

One topic I’m not sure has ever been explored fully, is whether ‘droids see Force Ghosts. For those who don‘t immediately understand that phrase (really?), I mean things like the ghostly blue apparition–figures that appear after certain Jedi deaths.

Obi–Wan is of course the first we ever saw as an audience. Yoda followed by the end of Return of the Jedi, along with Anakin. The prequels later teased out the fact that this was a rare occurrence. I think that as an audience most presumed all Jedi could come back in this form. After all, our sample size of Jedi was fairly small, and they had a 100% return rate.

So anyway, I was wondering while watching one of the season 6 Clone Wars, could R2 see Obi–Wan on Dagobah? Yoda was talking to Luke as he boarded his X–Wing and he was joined by Blue Ben® trying to impel the youth from rushing off to face Vader at Cloud City.

Luke spoke to both, and Ben’s voice is heard very clearly by Luke and the audience. But if Obi–Wan is using some ancient art to communicate with another Force User via his connection from the Cosmic Force to the Living Force, could a ‘droid even hope to hear or see him?

As Obi–Wan explained to Luke, the (Cosmic) Force is generated by all living things. The living things are loosely explained in the prequels to be the Living Force, emphasizing the theme of duality Lucas was exploring in The Phantom Menace.

The key function of all this is, of course, the fact that the physical aspect of the Force is living.

As endearing as the ‘droids are, as key as they are to the motion of the story, they are not alive. There is no “living circuitry” to them. They may have intelligence artificially engineered into them, but they are in no way organic. Therefore, they are not alive.

If you want to play semantics, they are less alive than fire, which eats, breathes and grows. (Thank you, Backdraft!)

No Ghosts For R2!

So to my mind, R2 would be ruled out from seeing Obi–Wan in either The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. He does not possess the correct antenna to see him, which is a connection to the living Force.

R2 can feel the effects of the Force when he is lifted in the air. He has personally witnessed the tremendous abilities of the Jedi. So he is aware of the Force, and has seen evidence of its existence, but cannot ever hope to participate with it on an intimate level.

This has to be troubling to a sentient machine. R2 would even see Luke conducting conversations with the dead while seeing nothing except a living person talking to thin air. That has to be maddening, even possibly causing logic conflicts that a mere ‘droid cannot resolve!

That opens other possibilities as well with ‘droids that would develop a deep resentment of living creatures in general and Force Users in specific. So perhaps, though I’ve spoken about the unfair treatment of ‘droids in the past, there was a practical reason for the bartender (Wuher) in A New Hope to have a “no ‘droids” policy.

After all, people couldn‘t know whether seeing someone doing one more thing they couldn’t would cause automata to snap finally. Imagine how messy it could get if a bunch of machines wigged out and started killing patrons. Very bad for business.

Loopholes

The one loophole I see in this would be that possibly a ‘droid could see the Force Ghost but not hear it. Then, at the very least, it would be able to reconcile why otherwise–sensible beings occasionally sat down on logs and talked into space.

Or perhaps there is a threshold of impact for Force Ghosts at first, but the more they exert their influence on the physical realm the more non-Force Users can interact with them. But then they become full–on poltergeists and then we have to speculate that possibly there is some Star Wars version of the Ghostbusters out there, whose actions inadvertently cause them to be evil since they’re interfering with the “light side” interacting with the living.

See? I never know where I’m going with these things either.

Another Unanswered Question from The Phantom Menace

Let’s see if everyone behaves themselves and stays focused on just the question at hand and can resist the urge to take cheap shots at my love for the prequels.

But to make sure the whole series is intact, and I ask questions from all six, I really pondered on something that would be a good question. Possibly an unsolvable question?

Possibly!

Was there a press corps in the Galactic Republic?

I mean, let’s think about this. The Fourth Estate, even if it fails in its duties and occasionally becomes the sycophantic lap-dog of an administration, is something of a stabilizing force for politics. At a bare minimum, they’ll carry water for a charming politician who gives good speeches and disseminate his will to the far corners of the world (or, in this case, galaxy). So even if they fail in their charge of scrutinizing those in power, they get information to the masses.

But in The Phantom Menace, despite the massive Senate, we see no press. (Truthfully, in none of the Star Wars films.)

We see ‘droids that record the proceedings, watch things that are happening all around and presumably broadcast and/or record the proceedings. Is it possible that, in theory, the people of the Star Wars universe have, at the time of The Phantom Menace, felt they reached an era of such transparency that they no longer need the press? Does the government simply go to whatever social media there is and get people supportive of their initiatives to act as their mouthpieces for them?

It’s a question that I’m not sure we can answer. There is always room on the margins, and I believe that there is a press represented in some non-film material. But going only with the text of the films, I see a world lacking a press – at least a skeptical one.

Is it possible that this was a subtle cultural warning from Lucas?

What say you?

The Real Chosen One: Introduction

Some of you reading this may be (hopefully) people who just discovered this blog recently thanks to WordPress’ kind featuring of my last piece on Freshly Pressed. If so, welcome. It’s not always about Star Wars and Star Trek, but trust me, most of the time it is. Just with a fresher perspective of things.

This piece is something I’ve mulled for some time. It’s an examination of Star Wars that came to me as I was re–examining a lingering point from the prequels.

I started to think about a question that’s sort of plagued me in recent years as I think about the “Prophecy of the Chosen One” in Star Wars lore.

Namely, was it really Anakin? Was his accomplishment of really the one that the prophecy foresaw?

To approach this completely, I want to hit on two benchmarks of dialogue from the films.

In Episode I, Yoda muses to Obi-Wan, “The Chosen One, the boy [Anakin] may be. Nevertheless, grave danger I fear in his training.”

Yoda does not share the now–deceased Qui–Gon’s enthusiasm for the child, and the Council at this point has overridden his objections to allow Obi–Wan to train him. “Agree with you the Council does” is an important distinction for Yoda to draw. He doesn’t say “I” or “we” agree with you [Obi–Wan], but that the Council does. The cranky old muppet got out–voted.

So from the beginning we have doubt about Anakin’s true nature and the role he will truly play.

Revenge of the Sith

Moving past the fact that Anakin is a “slow learner” and has yet to mature into his role as a Knight, much less the Chosen One (a point which Mace Windu raises) we get to the heart of where the question really blossoms.

The deepest verbal doubt was further cast in Episode III with this exchange:

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Anakin did not take to his new assignment with much enthusiasm.
Mace Windu: It’s very dangerous, putting them together. I don’t think the boy can handle it. I don’t trust him.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: With all due respect, Master, is he not the Chosen One? Is he not to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?
Mace Windu: So the prophecy says.
Yoda: A prophecy that misread could have been.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: He will not let me down. He never has.
Yoda: I hope right you are.

And it was reviewing that exchange that got me thinking, if the prophecy is wrong, then who is the Chosen One?

Mulling it over, it came to me that a potential alternative answer is there for us, if we look at it from a certain point of view.

The real “Chosen One” may be Qui–Gon Jinn.

I know, I know. Not even he would expect that to be the case, as he’s the one that discovered Anakin and proclaimed him to be.

He’s the first Jedi known to achieve true immortality, the one who listened to the will of The Force (God) without hesitation and who accepted all things on calm, assured faith. And again, without him Yoda and Obi–Wan don’t receive the gift that is retaining individual consciousness after death.

From there, I started really thinking about it.

Qui-Gon Considers Things
Even Qui-Gon is taken aback by the concept that I’m about to lay out there.

Next blog: The Real Chosen One: Building the Case for Qui–Gon Jinn

An Unanswered Question from Attack of the Clones

Once more, I wade into potentially troublesome territory. But everyone stayed nice and on-topic with An Unanswered Question from The Phantom Menace—or resisted the urge to walk into my brazen trap like Jar Jar Hater and KCSMM—so let’s continue the series to its logical conclusion.

Today’s question is from Attack of the Clones. Like the previous, I have my own answer/response in mind, but want to see where anyone/everyone else goes with it. And since I’m gamely attempting to figure out again if Google+ is anywhere near worth the effort, I’m going to re–post it there.

Why Didn’t Dooku Sense Obi–Wan from Ten Feet?

Vader sensed Obi–Wan/Luke from outside the hold of the Falcon.

Obi–Wan sensed Sidious at work through the Force from across the galaxy in The Phantom Menace.

Vader sensed Luke hiding like a little Pinkman in the Throne Room in Return of the Jedi.

So why couldn’t Dooku, walking about ten feet away from Obi–Wan, sense him? Here was this venerable fallen Master of the Force, trained personally by Yoda as a Padawan and now a full–fledged Sith, turn and burn him to the ground?

Obi–Wan also hides in an alcove right above the conference of Separatists and Dooku doesn–t bat an eye.

Obi–Wan then runs off to his ship and sends a signal out to warn the galaxy about the construction of a top–secret army of Battle Droids Dooku is supervising.

So what say you? Was Dooku unable to sense Obi–Wan Kenobi, later to be venerated as one of the greatest and most powerful Jedi in history, hiding within arm’s reach?

What does that say about his connection to the Force? Was Palpatine really just keeping him at arm’s reach and using him as a place holder until a true inheritor to Darth Maul could be found?

Again, I have my own line of answers and I think they’re pretty firmly supported by the “text” of the films. But this series is about what you think.

An Unanswered Question from The Phantom Menace

Well, here there be an invitation to pain. I’ll be stunned—yes, stunned—if anyone/everyone who comments stays on topic. Let the games begin!

At the outset I have to give credit to The Clone for this question, as he ponders some interesting angles having to do with everyone’s favorite Space Saga. I was fairly dismissive of the question, citing numerous factors—all of which I’m remaining silent about due to the fact that I don’t want to bias potential comments/answers to this question.

Does Anakin’s High Midichlorian Count Constitute a Performance–Enhancing Drug?

The Clone maintains that it does, in fact, constitute a PED on the basis that it enhances his natural abilities above those of a normal being (regardless of race/species). To quote Qui–Gon:

He can see things before they happen. That’s why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait.

Now, this is undeniably an advantage to a being regardless of age. While Anakin may not knowingly manipulate the Force at this tender, untrained stage in his life, he nevertheless has an innate ability to react to events quicker since he can see things coming before they actually happen. He may consider it instinct, but it’s really a Force–based ability.

So Is It An Unfair Advantage?

The main counterpoint to which I doggedly return in conversations with The Clone is that it’s not so much an unfair advantage as something by which the playing field is leveled. As Anakin notes, he’s the only human that can do it. Is that true or just vain braggadocio? I suppose that’s left up to interpretation; Qui–Gon may be gently trying to play a hunch about Anakin at that point as he plies him with the follow–up line that he “must have Jedi reflexes.”

However, isn’t that really what a PED is? Something by which you ‘close the distance’ between yourself and your opponents, and possibly overtake their own natural abilities, in an effort to win. Most importantly, you’re supplementing your own innate abilities as a human being.

To wit, on a level playing field of age and fitness, I might be unable to outrun Usain Bolt naturally due to my own physical limitations. However, if I supplement my training to ‘close the distance’ in our abilities with a PED, I can. Or I can recoup from injuries quicker, build more muscle mass to help the Steelers win Super Bowls in the 1970s or whatever.

Still…

I can’t escape the fact that the kid wasn’t injecting himself with midichlorians. And, midichlorians are a part of all life; they just manifest in greater numbers and with deeper Force connections within other beings. And besides, who’s to say another racer didn’t have a latent Force ability? They just may not have had a connection as strong as Anakin’s.

In other words, Anakin did nothing to change his midichlorian count, nor to knowingly enhance it. Therefore, he’s not “enhancing” himself, therefore it’s not a PED but rather a natural characteristic.

I say that I’ve got a logical counter–argument, of a rather iron quality.

What say you?

The Phantom Menace: My Multi-Dimensional Review

Given: I am a Star Wars fan.

Given: I am a fan of the prequels. I’m a fan of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as much as (if not more than) A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Given: If you give me a chance to see any of the six movies in theatres again, for any reason, I will go. I’m honest about it, and if you have a problem with it, well, I don’t care.

Given: I am skeptical at best of the 3D experience and/or its ability to enhance a film not originally shot for the format.

Given: I went to go see The Phantom Menace in 3D this past weekend.

What was the result? Only those who dare view the whole post will know.

Which Version?

The greatest question any Star Wars fan can ask when going to see a modern re-release is, “Which version of the movie will I see in 3D?”

Now, set aside the petty quips about Special Editions, DVD variances and Digital Tinkering. It becomes a more valid question, actually, because the recent 3D re-release of Beauty & the Beast was the non-DVD version without the additional musical number “Human Again” (which, actually, is the only version my girls watch anymore). Strangely enough, I also learned while going through final edits for this blog that Disney® ™ had released a 3D BluRay edition of Beauty & The Beast before even releasing it to theaters. Not a peep from people about .

So all fans can rest assured that the cut released in 3D is the superior BluRay version complete with digital Yoda (best digital character I’ve seen yet), smoother conversation edits, alternate reaction shots and the music soundtrack re-timed and re-mixed to maximize the emotional undercurrent of dialogue scenes.

Does It Improve the Experience?

It’s kinda neat. I’m still not sold on 3D, and I think that audiences are going to get tired of it.

But when the opening title crawl rolls up, against the star field, it’s immediately cool. I saw it opening day with my daughter, and she thought that was pretty neat. In fact, she liked the film so much that she’s watched the BluRay three times since.

Which actually brings me to my next point. There are some sequences that are extremely cool in 3D. For example: the pod race, space battle and lightsaber battle at the end do indeed pop, and there is actually some background “stage business” that comes out in some scenes that makes them flow more organically. There are actually some reaction shots and character interactions that are different takes and/or enhanced by the background characters having, at turns, more and less emphasis.

But for all of the neat 3D effects that happen whenever there are digital characters or a lot of effects layering, you do in fact lose a lot of the color vividity. When I re-watched once with Maddy, the colors in HD on the BluRay just smoked the 3D print.

So it does underline the trade-off: what’s most important to you? HD picture and breathtaking color? Or sitting in a theatre enjoying popcorn and enjoying the ride?

(Tangentially: I said to a friend that Titanic is going to be the watershed moment for the re-release formatting: if that 3-hour behemoth can draw people back in (who have seemingly since soured on the experience and opinion of the film based on my anecdotal conversational evidence), then 3D re-releases and the 3D format will stick around for a good long while. If Titanic fails to open in the Top Five, then we could see the format fade more quickly.

Of course, please remember that when Disney® ™ and James Cameron® ™ re-release things in 3D, that’s OK. But never George Lucas.)

The Final Lesson

Again, 3D post-processing is not perfect and I’m not a particular fan.

But I figure if you’re going to re-release a film for the fans to come see in the theatre, what the heck.

At least it’s something different.

And as I pointed out above, any shots with a lot of layering look pretty cool.

Given that Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were basically shot in front of green screens, I’m anticipating that the post-processing method will actually work even better. And I’m definitely looking forward to the key sequences from Revenge of the Sith like the opening space battle.

It was $10 a ticket when I went to a morning show with Roo. Granted, we went pretty early in the morning, which isn’t always practical, but it was still fairly equal to the average ticket price. It was cheaper than the $11.50 I encounter normally for a ticket, so cost wasn’t a factor this time.

Will it change anyone’s opinion of the film, or 3D post-processing in particular? No.

Did I enjoy it? Yes.

But I enjoy The Phantom Menace genuinely, and this more–tightly–edited version in particular. To me, it was worth the time and effort, and I got the surreal experience of taking Roo to a Star Wars film in the theatre the way my dad took me all those years ago.

And it’s kinda more about our experiences than the things that spur them anyway…but that’s a blog for another day.

Jedi Pride

Recently I was watching The Phantom Menace again and in particular (as everyone does) took special notice of the lightsaber battle at the end. That’s not really a revelation; even the haters love the lightsaber battle in this one. But I gleaned a new insight to the film I think.

I don’t know if it was my mood, that I was looking at things from a different perspective, or what, but I took notice of something that drastically echoes as a theme through the prequels; previously it didn’t seem to be a real factor until Attack of the Clones, but it jumped out at me this time.

I don’t think I’ll be able to watch the final duel in quite the same way again.

Jedi Pride

In this expression of it, Jedi Pride (hubris actually) is what got Qui-Gon Jinn killed. Throughout the rest of the series, it’s clear that it left the Sith in a position to ruin the galaxy and inevitably placed Anakin on the path of his downfall.

It also evolves some theories about his character that I’ve had.

What led to this thought was that, while watching, I noticed that Qui-Gon’s death was eminently avoidable in the final battle if he did only one thing.

It’s something that he espouses (albeit most strongly in a cut scene) but like the rest of the Jedi fails to practice.

Restraint

Yes, restraint.

At a very specific point in the battle with Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are separated from him by the plot devices energy doors. They are likewise separated from each other; Obi-Wan is too far (too young? too untrained?) to cover the distance necessary to be physically next to Qui-Gon, which leads to Maul being able to face the older Jedi alone.

But Qui-Gon had the opportunity during the fight to step back, draw Maul toward Obi-Wan, and tip the balance of the fight back in their favor.

I grant that Qui-Gon is established as one of the pre-eminent Jedi swordsman. But he was fighting a warrior younger and fresher, with a weapon specifically crafted to give an advantage in one-to-one combat. Qui-Gon should have had the wisdom to fall back and give Maul no choice but to fight both he and Obi-Wan together.

Had he not taken it upon himself (pridefully) to think he could single-handedly defeat such a young, energetic and obviously-skilled opponent, the story has a different ending. One with potential implications not just for Qui-Gon but Anakin and the galaxy at large.

Further Support from the Text

The prequels, more than the original trilogy, tend to function as one “text.” As a result, more than the others, material across all three supports previous episodes much more robustly. I point this out because the quote I’m using in support of this blog is actually from Episode II.

Obi-Wan: But he still has much to learn, Master. His abilities have made him… well arrogant.

Yoda: Yes. Yes. A flaw more and more common among Jedi. Too sure of themselves they are. Even the older, more experienced ones.

—Episode II

What turns it on its head, though, is that previously I approached Qui-Gon’s character as somehow “above” the pride argument about the Jedi. In some way, that he was “The Last Samurai.” But now I’m starting to see his death at Maul’s hands to be the first example of the pride that leads to the Jedi downfall.

Kinda depressing, really. It speaks to earlier arguments that “had Qui-Gon lived” Anakin would have fulfilled his destiny in a much less tragic way.

Now I wonder.

Darn It, Where Are My Expanded Soundtracks?

I’m going to be brief, but a bit nerdier than usual today.

Expanded soundtracks have been released for Episodes I, IV, V and VI. Empire Strikes Back‘s expanded offering features alternate music that got “spotted” out of the film in favor of silence or more subdued cues (one of which, I disagree with, but it’s not a big deal). Return of the Jedi‘s expanded soundtrack includes music that was likewise altered, and a musical cue for a scene that didn’t even make the final cut. A New Hope‘s featured music from an entirely cut sequence that was later re-purposed for an expanded entrance to Mos Eisley in the Special Edition.

Episode I‘s is pretty much the entire musical audio reel for the film, including background music that I didn’t even notice was there until I heard the disc for the first time (I can’t not notice it when I watch the film, now).

Episodes II and III, however, have gotten the single-disc treatment and have never been expanded. This is kind of bogus, for someone who’s a real fan of the music. Williams’ scores provide the heart and soul of these films – to the point where you have to admit they wouldn’t succeed without them – and I want every single ding-dong-doo-dah note.

There’s a beautiful cue at the end of Revenge of the Sith that’s truncated and it just irks me because…well, I’m a nerd. But aside from that, it’s one of the most stirring pieces and I want to hear it. There are incidental cues from Attack of the Clones that are terrific, and I’d also like to hear any alternate track treatments, like they have on the other expanded soundtracks.

For that matter, while every one else complains that they can’t (yet) get the “unaltered” films on disc – though technically they were released, just not to everyone’s satisfaction – the soundtrack thing is a gripe I have.

Make no mistake, it’s not because I can compose music or play an instrument. It’s because I thoroughly enjoy the music and it relaxes me. And when I’m working on something, it helps me focus and get things done. The unaltered soundtrack is a way for me to have the movie playing in my head while doing something else, so I’m coming at the sometimes-tedious work of scanning HTML or tweaking a design from a happy place. And I want Clones and Sith expanded soundtracks, but no one joins in it with me when I register those gripes on the Web site, or directly at Lucasfilm employees on Twitter.

I know it’s not the worst thing in the world, and obviously I can survive without them. But as a fan(atic) about the music, it’d be nice to get a little bit of love here.

Flashback Blog: Why I Love Grievous

It’s pretty self-explanatory. However, it’s also fun to look back and see how “prophetic” I was about the greatly expanded role Grievous would enjoy in the not-yet-airing Clone Wars series that’s now de rigueur viewing for any serious fan, and even reclaiming fans who’d turned their back on the franchise.

In a nutshell, I love Grievous for one basic reason…but then it’d be more fun to have you read my thoughts as I laid them out little more than five years ago.

Fun side note. Apparently I posted this for the first time on the one-year anniversary of the release of Revenge of the Sith, also the sixth for The Phantom Menace. Neat coincidence!

Enjoy!


Flashback Blog: Why I Love Grievous

Originally posted May 19, 2006 at the original kessel korner.

General Grievous – a character that could have gone oh, so wrong and completely wrecked a terrific film. A completely CG main character, but not a good guy this time – a major villain. Considering that the villains had to be the ones to make Sith shine, this was an incredibly risky move. I’ll share with you here why I think he worked so well.

First and foremost, he was not cookie-cutter. He was not yet another calm, completely-in-control bad guy. We had that with Dooku. We had that with Palpatine. In Episodes IV and V, we had it with Vader. No, Sith needed a different ingredient – a villain that harkened back to the Snidley Whiplash-type, moustache-twirling villain who always got away just when it seemed they were about to be smashed by the heroes.

Grievous was a lot of fun. There is a sense of whimsy about him – a machine that has all the trappings of a failing human body. A cheesy, 1930s vampire accent. A cough that was explained to the die-hards, and left completely open to interpretation to the casual viewer. In short, he had a real character about him; he was more than the sum of his lines.

He gave Obi-Wan a chance to shine on his own. The fight with Grievous on Utapau established, without a doubt, that Obi-Wan was one bad mammajamma. Few people have the wherewithal not only to face an 8-foot cyborg, but remain calm about it.

And finally, because of the fight itself. I had a friend nitpick my review of King Kong, accusing me of showing fan favoritism; I had picked on Kong because of its ridiculous over-the-top action – he’s fighting a dinosaur! No, two! No, wait, three!

“Well,” my friend reasoned, “it’s no different with Grievous and the four sabers.”

“That’s not true, it is different,” I protested.

“Just because you’re a fan,” he retorted. My friend thought this was witty. I realized that he fell back on an argument everyone loves to use when I defend a piece of one of these films. The “He-Lost-Perspective-Because-He’s-A-Fanboy” argument.

At that time, dinner was served and we had to table the discussion. I had no chance to prove him wrong at that moment as he so richly deserved- my wife listens to enough Star Wars jabber that when she called us to the table, I chose to drop the discussion.

Well, here is my formal reply. (Since I am sending a link to this out to him, I’d like him to know that no matter how wrong he was that night, I forgive him.)

The Obi-Wan versus Grievous fight starts out with Grievous’ arms splitting into four, wielding lightsabers like a “windmill of doom.” Had it worked where the fight started with one saber versus one, then escalated to two, three and finally four, I would agree with my friend.

But it does not. The fight takes the opposite approach, with Obi-Wan calmly disarming Grievous (a pun!) of two of those sabers and the fight eventually boiling all the way down to a hand-to-hand match. A straight-up, honest-to-goodness fight, with two opponents simply doing everything they can to stop the other’s heart. Like a real fight to the death would be.

No rules, no flashy steps, no twirling like a gymnast. Just two opponents throwing down with anything and everything they can use, or that’s within arm’s reach. The fight is actually a move in restraint, because instead of starting small and building up to craziness, Lucas got the craziness out of the way and then boiled it down to mano a mano. A seeming lesson to other filmmakers that you can practice restraint, and wisely.

On top of that. the hands-on fight was filmed…with one actor and a CG character. That’s just frickin’ cool. Find me one other film that has ever had such smooth hands-on interaction between a CG character and a live person. There is none!

Sure, it’s unfortunate that Grievous only appeared in one of the films. But you know what? Cameo excepted, Tarkin was a character who had a part of consequence in one film only, and it’s okay to like him.

So Grievous has quickly and decidedly rocketed up my list of favorite Star Wars characters, and is likely to stay entrenched there for some time. I even bought one of his action figures to add to my “pantheon of evil” (I collect only cool bad guys and Jedi) and placed him next to Tarkin.

Here’s hoping we’ll get more Grievous in the TV show that takes place during the Clone Wars era – I suspect we will.

Great Expectations

With summer movie season starting up again, and with some of the discussions I’ve had with Mike through the years, the thought of expectations floated once again to the top of my mind.

This of course isn’t restricted to this one conversation, or even movies in specific. It’s an epidemic in a culture conditioned by advertising to expect nothing less than a biblical revelation in everything from entertainment experiences to burger taste to underwear fit.

It’s an old conversation. I’ve often harped about the fact that The Phantom Menace had a rough go of it because of the high level of expectation. The majority of people couldn’t be satisfied because they wanted too much from it. Of course, as with any movie, the marketing blitz was epic, but let’s face it: the point of marketing is to get us to buy. As a result, expectations get built and ironically can work against the very thing they’re trying to sell you.

Just go read The Space Merchants, watch Fight Club and have a stiff drink.

Of course, though there are those who will completely misinterpret what I’m saying here, let me try to be clear: enjoyment is a multi-factorial thing. Expectations can be overcome. I’m merely laying out that in terms of factors, expectations carry a great weight as pertains to your initial reception of anything (not a revolutionary concept), but that their importance is overlooked as regards movies.

Conversely, when expectations are lower – for instance, The Matrix or Iron Man – the movie becomes much more of a “must see” event and more of its sins and/or pretensions are forgiven. To a great extent, the new Star Trek movie enjoyed the benefits of lowered expectations. The majority of the Next Generation movies stank so bad (Insurrection in particular), and it had been so long since there was a Star Trek worth seeing and accessible to a general audience (though I still defend Nemesis, it was not appealing outside the fan base) that when there was a real, fun, adventurous Trek, we overlooked the lens flares and enjoyed the ride.

Again, this doesn’t mean I disliked 2009’s Star Trek – quite the opposite, I really enjoyed it. What I’m saying is that even if it hadn’t been all that good, it had the advantage of “not needing to be great.”

Baselines and Equations

But if the baseline expectations are not met, the reception of the film is much harsher. It makes inordinate sense, and again it doesn’t even apply just to films or products. Although as an interesting corollary, I’d say that films have helped to ruin the relationships experience in general. Again, by raising expectations of conditional results.

Thinking through the discussions of expectations and results, I decided to formulate an equation (you’re welcome).

S =(E/2 * P) / TASTE

In other words, your satisfaction is equal to half your expectations, multiplied by the actual product, and that result is then divided by your pre-determined tastes. So if I go into the next Star Trek movie expecting the next Wrath of Khan (E), and they deliver an adequate but not genre-transcending result (P), but I’m pre-disposed to liking Star Trek (T), then the end result is a somewhat dissatisfied fan who still liked the movie. But if any one of those factors alters then the outcome is different, sometimes radically so.

Say I’m just expecting the next Insurrection (though if I am, why would I pay money to see it?), well then “S” will turn out as a much more positive result.

Side Notes

I recognize that I still have to refine the equation somewhat, however. There are outside factors such as “I saw it on my first date with someone,” “I had just had a bad argument with my parents” or “world view” that need to be factored in, but I haven’t quite figured out how to weight those as part of the equation yet.

The irony of that is that the very world view we carry in to viewing movies is also skewed by watching movies and television.

A lifetime of watching filmed entertainment colors your world view. Watch enough chick flicks, ladies, and you’ll be shocked when your husband/boyfriend decides to let you know that, in fact, what you just said was one of the stupidest things he’s ever heard. Jacob and Edward would never say that, and with good reason: they don’t exist and never will.

Field Testing

The best field test for this is to watch about five movies that you’ve seen in the last several years, where your reactions were anywhere from lukewarm to enthusiastic. Strike movies from your typical milieu – for instance, if you know what LARP stands for, don’t watch the Lord of the Rings movies as part of this experiment.

My theory is that upon re-viewing a film, once expectations become a lesser part of the equation, the outcome is different. To go back to the example of The Matrix, I went back and watched it a few years ago. Granted, the result is skewed because I disliked the sequels very much, but the result was, I didn’t have as positive a reaction to it as I did initially.

Of course, I’m also a different person now than I was in 1999. That’s likely got something to do with it as well. If I hadn’t shifted my perspective on things in general (world view), or grown in some substantial way, perhaps my reaction to the film would have been constant.I suspect that will be the same for most everyone. I’d be surprised if anyone’s tastes are exactly the same as they were 10 years ago.

So the question remains, how to refine the base equation?

What Have I Become?

I will point out that I made a smart move years ago when I imitated Mike in this regard: I don’t want people to tell me what they thought of a movie if I haven’t seen it (unless it’s an absolute disaster and I need to save the time, money and effort). Even more than knowledge of the plot, this colors my own expectations a great deal; so I steer clear if I can help it. I make a mental note that I want to see something, then avoid news and reviews of it as much as possible.

However, I blame my desire to work out an equation for this on my lifetime friendship with Mike. So direct any and all biting comments toward him. He reads this blog, so feel free to deposit your snark in the comments area.

Seriously, I feel dirty. I have to go paint something now. Math? I’m using math every day now?

Ugh, thanks a lot, Mike.

My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

To wrap up the reviews, we turn to the third film released in the series, sixth in the chronology and a guaranteed fanbase-splitter. Return of the Jedi is essentially the second half of The Empire Strikes Back, which unfortunately gives it the great burden of resolving every plotline opened in the previous. Will Han Solo return? Will Princess Leia return to his arms? Will Luke return to Dagobah to complete his training? Will Darth Vader return with the Imperial forces to tempt Luke again? So there really is a lot of returning involved in the story. The title seems like a natural fit. There’s another level to the title as well, with the return not just of the Jedi through Luke, but the return of the fallen Jedi, Vader. The hero returns from the Dark Side thanks to the loving redemption of his son.

Jedi also has to concern itself with resolving the rebellion’s war against the Empire since this is the last film. This winds up complicating Jedi by a fair amount, which plays into the fanbase split over it.

Empire is a much more personal story. Jedi has to sacrifice some of its intimacy for the sake of moving the larger background plot along. Instead of getting a resolution scene between Han and Lando, for instance, we all just have to assume that Chewbacca filled him in that Lando had made moves to redeem himself. Instead of a more intimate reuniting between the three leads at the end, it’s couched within a larger celebration scene.

What Works

These are not knocks against the film. In fact, for me it’s what makes it work. The entire story is about resolution and there’s not a plot stone unturned. Vader’s story is both expanded and resolved; everything we knew about him from the previous films is turned on its head when we meet the Emperor (referenced briefly in A New Hope). Though we see him kneel before a hologram in Empire, we actually see someone so unafraid of Vader as to chastise him openly. Moff Jerjerrod actually mouths off to Vader a little bit at the beginning of the film, whereas mere mention of the Emperor makes him practically wet himself.

That was off-putting enough for the producer of the first two, Gary Kurtz, to walk from the production to pursue other projects. According to at least one source I’ve read, Kurtz adamantly disagreed with Lucas diminishing Vader in such a way.

I never had any problem with it. Jedi came to be my favorite of the original three films, largely for a lot of these story aspects. Now that it’s couched in the larger saga of all six films, the story works even better. Again, to draw a comparison to the Lord of the Rings book, I imagine that if you read Return of the King without Fellowship of the Ring, certain story elements would be off-putting. Tom Bombadil once again comes to mind.

What Could Have Worked Better

Most everyone loves to knock on the Ewoks, but they make sense in a certain way. If you look at the Emperor scenes, Jabba the Hutt’s court, the battle at the Sarlacc, Yoda’s death, the revelation of Vader being Luke’s father, Luke nearly going to the Dark Side and the intense action of the space battle, Jedi actually skews darker than Empire. The Ewoks lighten the tone a bit and evoke the Munchkins from Wizard of Oz; Lucas has also said that they’re supposed to evoke the Vietnam war, which seems a little insane.

I also like to throw out there that if you really watch the battle, the Ewoks were getting their asses handed to them until Chewbacca jumped in and took over the AT-ST. Just saying.

Matte painting of the Mon Calamari Hangar
Seriously, I know it’s weird. I just don’t like this matte painting, or the one behind Lando in the next few shots. They don’t match the models.

The design sensibilities seem a bit off in Jedi, which is unfortunate. The Rebel cruiser briefing room, for instance, is pristinely clean and sterile. The walls are unmarked white. The uniforms are pressed. This reads inconsistent visually with the rest of the rebel forces we’ve ever seen. The cinematography is a bit off on the indoor “outside” sets as well, especially when Luke talks with Leia and Vader. Whether this is because for those scenes they wanted so much secrecy and so had a skeleton crew, I don’t know. I hope that at some point that question gets answered.

I’ll also say that the matte painting of the rebel hangar drives me insane and I wish they’d “Special Edition” it. It’s always bothered me.

The pacing after the escape from Jabba the Hutt is also disjointed. From the gathering at the rebel fleet to Luke’s departure to see Vader, the story feels a little forced, as if they were struggling with how to get the characters where they needed to be. There are some terrific moments, such as the Speeder Bike chase and Vader sensing Luke’s approach to Endor, but the flow is not what it should be.

Special Edition Changes

The improved Sarlacc is a non-event for me. I could have lived without it, I don’t care that it’s there.

The improved celebration montage is exactly that: improved. I never disliked the Ewok celebration, but the new ending actually brings the entire series together and gives a real sense of the scope of the victory. The musical scene at Jabba’s palace, including the extended fate of Oola the green dancer, is another one of those things that I could have lived without, but I like the sense of fun and whimsy attached to it. Also, as much as I have an emotional connection to the song Lapti Nek, it was a terrible 1980s synth-laden workout song, so I’m not one to mourn its passing.

Three Blue Ghosts
The Real Anakin appears to Luke, not the broken shell who caused him pain and sorrow. I imagine that if I become a horrible person before my girls ever know me, and I find redemption and have the opportunity to show them who I was before I was terrible, I’ll take it.

Which brings us to Hayden Christensen’s insert at the end for the 2004 DVD release. I like it and not just to be contrarian as at least two of my friends have accused of me. it rings more true for at least two main reasons. The first is, as a spiritual projection, Anakin is making an effort to show his son what he looked like before he was a hideously disfigured half-machine monster. The second is that, when I “see” relatives who have died, I don’t see them as they were at the end. I see them as the vibrant people of the happy times in my life. I’ve actually blogged about this in greater detail before, in the first blog I ever wrote.

To anticipate a certain counter-argument, Obi-Wan and Yoda knew Luke in life and had a positive influence on him in such a way that there’s no need for them to appear in a way he never knew.

The Final Analysis

As I said earlier, Return of the Jedi came to be my favorite of the original three films. It remains so, thanks to its place in the larger story arc formed by all six. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect enough. Williams’ theme for the Emperor is freaking awesome, a perfect zombie horror counterpoint to the gentle serenity of Yoda’s theme. The theme actually sounds like the music you’d expect for the Lord of the Undead.

There are missteps in the middle again, as there were with Empire, but Jedi has some moments of editing wizardry that blow my mind to this day. The Battle at the Sarlacc is amazingly perfect; according to notes from the annotated screenplays, the negative processors sent a note back with the final version that said that one sequence contained more cuts than most films. Much like the Factory scene in Attack of the Clones or the desert truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it holds up as one of the most tightly-edited action sequences ever.

So that’s it. I’ll be taking a break from Star Wars for a little bit now, but I just got a wild hair and promised myself I’d write these this year.

Now I can focus on more important things like beating up on Star Trek fans.

My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Sequels usually follow the law of dimishing returns. Look at The Matrix sequels, which went from pretentious fluff to execrable nuisance in record time. Starting from Star Trek II (because honestly, who really wants to start with The Motion Picture?), the next time we got a truly worthwhile Star Trek film was VI; I may have emotional attachment to The Final Frontier and Star Trek IV was an entertaining “expanded television episode,” but the truth is the truth.

The Law of Increasing Expectations

The Empire Strikes Back is arguably the first film to really buck the trend. It not only bucks it, it raises the bar for what a good sequel to be. It’s not just a re-hash of past triumph; the characters go in interesting directions, the villain is given a more robust treatment and the technical craft is refined.

This is not to say that Empire is completely flawless, as many fanboys would like to proclaim. Even hinting this can often lead to heated arguments, if not other fans proclaiming your apostasy. The Party Line is that The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film. Kevin Smith said so!

The part where Luke is attacked by the Wampa feels unnecessary. The legend of Mark Hamill’s accident that left him so scarred they had to adapt the movie for it notwithstanding, it feels crammed into place. There are many other ways that they could have had Ben appear to Luke, in many other circumstances, and they would have rung just as true and would have gotten us to the meat of the story a bit quicker.

After the thrilling battle with the AT-AT walkers, the pacing suffers a bit in the middle. The story loses a little focus, and while Han and Leia’s love story becomes more Gone with the Wind, it feels like there’s too much time spent getting there. Luke’s time on Dagobah is momentous, but there’s some dawdling while Yoda espouses philosophy like a stoned college roommate.

The only slow part I won’t particularly hound upon is where Chewbacca re-attaches C-3P0’s head. To borrow the words of the director, the scene is supposed to call to mind the “Alas Poor Yorrick” scene from Hamlet. It does, and when viewed through that lens, it’s actually fairly brilliant.

Where It Delivers

What Empire does have is a brilliant ending. The duel is thrilling, the chase is magnificently executed and a lot of the choices are unexpected. There’s an element of complexity introduced that shows more confidence in having mutliple storylines and resolutions; whereas A New Hope is very linear, Empire experiments with more parallels.

It also introduces some truly interesting side characters. Lando Calrissian is on deck and ready to replace Han Solo should the position open. Boba Fett struts onto the scene, with awesome armor and the sound of gunfighter’s spurs when he walks. The Imperial Captains and Admirals add a flavor to Vader that gives him a much more sinister edge than the original, when he was seemingly restrained by Governor Tarkin.

Of course, who doesn’t love Yoda? A wise muppet, brought to life not only through technical expertise but the subtler interactions from Mark Hammil. I could muse a bit on how a fictional character speaking in fortune cookie feel-good sayings seems to have shifted the spiritual beliefs of an entire generation, but that’s another topic for another time.

Special Edition Changes

I’m not a huge fan of the Wampa insert just because they didn’t get the lighting right. The other changes, especially the expansion of Cloud City, I welcome. And the mystery of Luke’s 1997 yell as he fell? To quote a poster from my old days at the starwars.com message boards: “Best Un-Change Ever.”

The other small changes took a little adjustment. Of course, no one was going to complain when they fixed the problem of reversed film with Admiral Piett at the end. Digital trickery saves the day! (Now if only they’ll do the fix for Obi-Wan’s braid in The Phantom Menace and Threepio’s eye wires in A New Hope.)

The Final Analysis

What they had the sense to do with Empire was to finish strong. The audience walks out of the theatre wanting more. In a sense, that’s how Attack of the Clones mirrors this one: exciting open, wandering middle and thrilling end.

But that wandering middle does get to me. I’m no enemy of exposition, but what really makes the middle of Empire a sticking point for me is the part where they’re stuck in the slug’s belly. Not so much being detoured into the cave, but the forced point of making it a worm’s belly that suddenly they have to escape to further the plot along. Seems to me that there should’ve been a lot of other possibilities there.

And of course, even though it’s been played into the ground, The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) remains one of the greatest musical cues in the history of anything.