Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Anyone who even thinks of the word "midichlorians" is not welcome here.

(Yes, I know it's been the best part of a year since I posted here. No, this probably isn't the start of a resurgence in posting. Sorry to disappoint.)

As a fully certified geek, it is not at all surprising that I'm entirely familiar with the Star Wars universe. I hear and recite quotations from the films frequently, I own two of the video games, I can give you a potted summary of the "Han shot first" controversy at the drop of a hat — I have certain credentials here, is what I'm saying.

So I was rather surprised to realise recently that not only did I not own any of the films in any format, it had actually been well over ten years since I had seen any of them. (We're talking the original trilogy here, of course — my geek cred extends far enough to know that the recent prequels, aka abominations against the very concept of cinema, don't count.) So, taking advantage of the January sales, I headed into London to pick up the DVD box set, and spent a reflective couple of hours the other night watching Episode IV.

It took me a while after finishing watching it to decide what I thought of it. Given that the established wisdom of...well, pretty much everyone I know, with the exception of my mother, who wanted to take a tin-opener to C-3PO when she first saw him...is that the original films are classics of modern cinema, masterpieces that soar above lesser films like an X-Wing twisting between bursts of turbolaser fire, it's difficult to have any kind of unbiased viewpoint here. Nevertheless, for what it's worth, here are my conclusions. (One note on formatting in this post &mdash I'll use the italicised Star Wars to denote Episode IV, as that's its original theatrical title, and plain Star Wars to denote the franchise.)

1. Good grief, this is EPIC.
From the opening shot, as an Imperial cruiser (I don't think the term "Star Destroyer" is mentioned anywhere in the first film) slides almost endlessly across the top of the screen, to the climactic battle above a space station the size of a moon, Star Wars has a sense of scale unlike almost any other film. This continues almost everywhere &mdash our heroes move between entire star systems, at speeds greater than light, landing on worlds that consist entirely of desert, fighting an Empire that, we're told, spans the galaxy. Lucas went all-out to create this compelling atmosphere, and he pulls it off admirably.

2. Intergalactic Planetary Planetary Intergalactic
An essential element of the sense of scale throughout Star Wars is John Williams' score. It's utterly beautiful, moving from urgency to wonder to triumph to shock with ease. I was surprised that even after having so long over the years to become sick of it, the mournful theme as Luke looks out over the desert he's so desperate to leave behind was still really moving. As with his score for Jurassic Park, Williams came up with something at once unique and yet very obviously his own.

3. It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know
As Ben Kenobi strode onto the screen, I began to wonder "how did they persuade Alec Guinness to appear in as large a gamble as this?" I think the answer has to be that Guinness could tell he was among people who knew what they were doing. All the casting is inspired — Mark Hamill probably wouldn't thank me for saying that he really looks and sounds very ordinary in this film, but that's precisely what was required for the role of an everyman farm boy, caught up into something larger than himself. Carrie Fisher is as Princessy as you could wish for (in looks, if not in character — more on that later). Even the Rebel fighter pilots and the various generals on the bridge of the Death Star are well-portrayed. (And, as Eddie Izzard is fond of pointing out, they're all British.)

As for Harrison Ford, well, it's a shame that he picked up the "action hero" stereotype in this franchise, because he really can act. There's a scene towards the end, when Obi-Wan has just died (or been absorbed by the Force, or whatever — the film's intentionally ambiguous here) and Luke is sitting on board the Millennium Falcon, stunned and unable to take it in ("...can't believe he's gone."). Han Solo comes down the ladder to find Luke, as he's going to need him to fend off Imperial fighters, and he says just one thing: "Come on buddy, we're not out of this yet." It's a simple line, over almost immediately, but Ford's delivery of it is pitch-perfect, conveying kindness without being at all sentimental, and still maintaining the urgency required by the situation. It's worth noting here that the script is also better than one might expect from a sci-fi blockbuster — I'm not certain, but I think this is the first time Solo refers to Luke as "buddy" rather than "kid", and the quiet character development signalled by that tiny change is significant.

4. My Explanations, Let Me Not Show You Them
One of the most surprising aspects of Star Wars, for me, was the extent to which it doesn't fall into the trap of so many bits of sci-fi, that of over-explaining everything. We're treated to practically no backstory for any of the characters, at no point does anyone tell us just how a lightsaber works, the Force is vague and mysterious. The most stunning example of this was when Han Solo talks to Greedo and then Jabba — there are no subtitles, despite both the characters he meets speaking completely alien languages, and we're left to decipher what they must have said from Solo's side of the conversation. (Come to think of it, my DVD-playing setup is a little ropey, so the subtitles may simply have been broken. If that's the case, then feel free to disregard this point!) This general attitude towards the viewers — that they are intelligent enough to figure out what's going on, and that the story is more important than explaining the fine details of the setting — is refreshing, and really helps to move things along.

5. I Am No Man
Speaking of subverting expectations, I was really impressed by the role of Leia. The word "princess", when applied to a film role, is usually code for "fairly drippy character whose involvement in the plot is restricted to a) getting captured and/or rescued, and b) falling in love with the male lead". And yet our first sighting of Leia is when she is confronting the 7-foot tall, half-man-half-machine-all-evil Darth Vader. And it is a confrontation — she chews him out for boarding a diplomatic vessel, threatens him with the wrath of the Galactic Senate, and shows no fear whatsoever. This kind of can-do attitude isn't a one-time thing, either — she's the one who gets them out of the detention levels, she's the only character who cottons on to the fact that their escape from the Death Star was too easy, and she's pretty handy with a blaster too. Even though there is a romantic subtext between her and Han, it's never over-the-top, and she maintains the upper hand throughout — note that in the ceremony at the end, it's Luke and Han who have to walk up to Leia to receive their reward, not the other way around.

6. Aaaaaaaagh I'm Running Out Of Time
And so we come to the only thing I really didn't like about Star Wars. At the end of the film it took me a while to put my finger on why, though I'd enjoyed it a lot, I'd also found it a bit disappointing. I think the answer can be summed up in one word: Pacing.

The impression throughout the film is that, much like me when starting to write one of these epically long posts, Lucas thought he had all the time in the world. We spend seemingly forever in and around Luke's home, meeting Obi-Wan, and following the droids. Oh, man, the droids. Is there any particular reason why we had to go through the whole "R2-D2 and C-3PO go off in opposite directions, complain for a few minutes, get captured by the same set of characters and have a glorious robotic reunion" storyline? It has precisely no bearing on any of the rest of the plot, and could equally well have been done by simply having the Jawas find the escape pod as soon as it landed. As it stands, this and other scripting and editing decisions mean that the first half of the film moves glacially slowly.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a film that runs slowly to give the audience time to take in the atmosphere. Nor is there anything wrong with a film that builds pace throughout. But Star Wars does this to a ridiculous extent, such that it takes at least a good quarter of the film before we've met all the main cast, while the final battle, from the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin to the destruction of the Death Star, takes place in-universe in less than half an hour.

Even the pacing within some of the scenes is odd. Take the destruction of the Death Star, for instance. Luke drops his bombs into the shaft, he and Han fly off, Vader spins away, we cut to the people on the Death Star looking unconcerned, and then it immediately blows up. The whole sequence has taken a couple of seconds at most. No anticipation, no time to wait for it, just BOOM. For me, at least, that took a lot away from what should have been the climactic shot of the film.

For much the same reason, the final ceremony is unsatisfying, because it feels forced and tacked-on, leaving completely unresolved the question of what the Rebels are going to do next, how the Empire is going to be destroyed (it's only lost one of its weapons, and is far from powerless) or even how the various character relationships are going to work. From a position of knowing that there were two more films, it's not so bad that things haven't been resolved — we know there's more story to come. But if you're going to do that, you surely have to either do an explicit "to be continued" type of ending (as the Lord of the Rings films did) or make the films stand entirely on their own (as the Matrix films would have done, had there been any sequels). Star Wars, however, doesn't know what it wants to do and it ends up falling between two stools, with a rushed and unsatisfying ending that leaves too many questions open.

Obviously, given that I've just spent 1800 words discussing this film, I found a lot to enjoy, and I'm certainly glad I came back to revisit this touchstone of geek culture. If you agree or disagree with me, feel free to argue violently in the comments. And maybe — just maybe — come back soon when I re-watch The Empire Strikes Back...


Mary said...


Second, I have to admit that the last time you watched Star Wars was probably the last time that I watched it, and I was two years younger. I remember very little of the first one.

However, I agree with your show me don't tell me policy: I watched 'Push' a while ago, and thought it was really clever, not giving me any subtitles during the extensive scenes in Hong Kong. I was working out what was going on. I felt not-pandered-to. Then I realised that the aspect ratio on the tv was wrong, and I had missed massive chunks of plot. Disappointing.

Lizzie said...

I think you should make this blog into Phil Re-Watches (or Watches For The First Time) The Classics And Then Discuses Them. It'd be like Film 2011, except you'd be reviewing films that were in the cinema 15+ years ago.