The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a stylish glimpse of an unusual love story set amid Cold War paranoia in Baltimore in 1962.

The Shape of WaterUSA
4*

Director:
Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters:
Guillermo del Toro

Vanessa Taylor
Director of Photography:
Dan Laustsen

Running time: 120 minutes

The wonderful thing about fantasy films is that the bar of realism is set slightly lower than in most other stories. It’s not so much that the filmmaker can get away with more but that we relish the deviations from the strictures of reality, or realism, instead of criticising them. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, in the midst of Cold War paranoia, with set design that is magnificent, rich in detail and full of colour, but the film is also indisputably a work of exuberant imagination.

We begin underwater inside an apartment filled with watery silence. A young woman is peacefully sleeping in mid-air (or, rather, mid-water) above a couch. At least, we tell ourselves she is only sleeping. The image is mesmerising, and it derives its power not from the visuals alone but also from the accompanying voiceover. The narrator, who will shortly reveal himself as the woman’s neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), asks us, “If I spoke about it… if I did… what would I tell you?” By framing the story through this voice-over and emphasising the act of telling, the film firmly establishes itself as a (narrative) tale.

The woman is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and she works as a janitor at the government-run Occam Aerospace Research Center, whose main goal seems to be to beat the Soviets at this whole space thing, although the film is light on details. Her best friend, whom she has worked with for a decade, is the garrulous Zelda (Olivia Spencer), who spends most days speaking enough to carry entire conversations all on her own. She has to, not only because Elisa is quite shy but because she is mute, and she has lifelong scars on the side of her neck to prove it.

One day, a giant water-filled container arrives at the research centre, and the many-starred military officials mention something about it being one of the most sensitive shipments they have ever received. It turns out to be an amphibious humanoid – a fish-man – that has the shape and size of a man but is covered in scales and has nictitating membranes, like windshield wipers, instead of normal eyelids. Most importantly, it doesn’t speak, although it does squawk.

Thus, rather predictably, Elisa and the creature strike up a relationship. She plays him music and even feeds him the eggs she packed for lunch. He shows very little caution and is almost immediately taken with her. The feeling is mutual. In a beautiful scene delivered in sign language to her neighbour, Elisa explains that, for the first time, lack of speech is not a “lack” at all. But she is not the only one to take an interest in the creature: By virtue of their own status as outcasts or outsiders (the mute Elisa, the gay Giles, the black Zelda and the Russia-born Dr Hoffstetler), a number of people around her are drawn to and sympathise with this foreigner par excellence.

With respect to these outsiders, the film gently sketches their hopes and dreams, with the exception of Zelda, whose race and its limited value in 1962 Baltimore are only superficially and indirectly implied, for example when others engage in casual racism. The most egregious behaviour in this regard is that of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), an odious man who only washes his hands before using the bathroom and rapes his wife in a very icky scene that takes place in broad daylight. He is the menacing power figure who looks down on anyone who doesn’t look like him, whether they are women, blacks or scale-covered critters.

Del Toro’s light touches throughout the film ensure more than a passing guffaw. One of the most cited moments is bound to be Elisa’s recurring masturbation in the bath tub every morning, which alternates with shots of eggs boiling in hot water on the stove. And most scenes involving one of the centre’s highest-ranking scientists, Dr Robert Hoffstetler, are precariously balanced on a knife’s edge between seriousness and uproarious comedy thanks to the facial expressions of actor Michael Stuhlbarg. And whenever he meets with a foreign power, the passwords that are exchanged at the rendezvous have something Coen brothers-esque about them. 

The director is also particularly sly with his transitions, and one example is the cut from severed fingers being dropped into a bag to Corn Flakes poured from another bag for breakfast. The implicit connection grosses us out even as we acknowledge the purely abstract connection with a laugh.

Elisa and the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones), as the credits call him, grow closer and eventually engage in an obviously consensual moment of bestiality that will undoubtedly draw laughter at every screening. Their silent bond is unbreakable and beautiful, although an imaginary black-and-white song-and-dance number late in the film feels wholly out of place.

Something else that feels out of place is the amount of access that the low-ranking Elisa has to what is supposed to be the research centre’s prized possession. She visits her amphibious friend nearly every day without ever facing punishment for trespassing. Fantasy films loosen the restrictions on how we perceive their realism but not their credibility, particularly if the story is set in a real world–like environment. And these visits in The Shape of Water push plausibility beyond breaking point.

While the meaning of the title is not at all apparent, the visuals are stunning, and not since Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations has there been a film so focused on reminding us of the colour green. From the doors at the research centre and the punch clock time cards to Elisa’s dress, any number of items of furniture and, of course, the blueish shades of green in the water are ever-present and frame the tale as something out of the ordinary that vibrates vital energy.

There is no question this is the most solid piece of filmmaking that Guillermo del Toro has ever delivered, and while it is much more mature than your average fantasy film, it has the kind of magic that transports the adult viewer to a wonderland most often associated with nostalgia for childhood.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2017

Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan’s big space epic tries to fly too close to the sun and fails to live up to expectations.

InterstellarUSA
3*

Director:
Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters:
Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan
Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 170 minutes

Interstellar takes us farther than we’ve ever been before, but it doesn’t take the medium of film quite as far as this production’s marketing department would like to have us believe. Director Christopher Nolan breaks through the final frontier – not space, but time – and delivers a product that has a couple of moments of genius but is bloated and saddled with too much dialogue, not to mention a family drama right out of a freshman course on Steven Spielberg.

The film opens with an image we don’t yet understand: a close-up of a row of dusty book spines. This is followed by interviews with a few elderly individuals reminiscing about their childhood on farms, and then we get to see one of them: a corn field stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps this is a sly wink at Superman’s early years on the Kent family farm in Smallville (an indication that great things lie ahead), but there are no firm geographical markers. That doesn’t matter, anyway, because the film has its sights set much farther afield than the United States.

Primarily a science-fiction film preoccupied with stars, planets, worm and black holes, Interstellar is built on the very credible premise that, one day in the near future, the Earth runs dry, for reasons not explicitly stated, and mankind has to start looking elsewhere for its continued survival. With the help of his scientifically curious daughter, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer who is making a living as a farmer, locates the headquarters of NASA, which ceased operations a long time ago because the country no longer saw the need to invest in science and space exploration.

The agency asks him to go into space and find a suitable planet whither humanity can be transported or where he could restart civilisation with a few hundred fertilised eggs. He gamely takes up the challenge and is accompanied on the journey by Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of his former science teacher, while his own daughter throws a hissy fit because she cannot see the bigger picture and believes her father is abandoning her.

Compare this girl’s tantrums with the quiet determination of the budding scientist in Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 hit Contact, which incidentally also starred McConaughey, and it quickly becomes clear how little experience Nolan has directing children. The dialogue in general is also either overly explanatory or superfluous. In one scene, Cooper is told that the last thing people see before they die is their children’s faces, because it gives them a reason to hold on to life, and Nolan wastes no time in getting to us that point: Within five minutes, we have the scene we visualised just moments earlier, and the director doesn’t realise it would have been infinitely more powerful without the setup.

In one of its most effective tactics to speak to our emotions, Interstellar creates a time bomb: The exploration of space has to occur within a specific amount of time, lest Cooper never sees his children again because they would have aged too much. Here, at least, Nolan deploys the different time worlds of his film to great effect by adding a very human dimension to which the viewer can relate. However, why only one of Cooper’s children, and not both, is prioritised will leave many a viewer puzzled, especially when the daughter, Murphy, only has one bag of emotions.

What has been a major topic of discussion has been the film’s imagery, in particular the way in which a black hole is rendered, and Nolan and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema certainly deserve kudos for their work in this regard. More than one-third of the film was shot on IMAX cameras, and when displayed on an IMAX screen, the size of the frame changes between widescreen (2.40:1) and IMAX’s full-screen (1.43:1) aspect ratios.

Following the example of his imaginative 2010 film Inception, Nolan continues to make visible his fascination with spherical images, as we see here in the worm hole scene and another interesting construction towards the end of the film. However, Nolan’s vision of space is melancholic, and we get nothing that can be compared to the beauty of a 2001: A Space Odyssey Stargate sequence.

On the contrary, the planets the crew finds are desolate, uninhabitable, inhospitable wastelands of nothingness, and it would be up to mankind to make these places home. That is a surprisingly arrogant perspective, but one to which the film constantly returns. If there is any beauty in space, we cannot see it, because Nolan keeps hitting us over the head with talk of man’s indomitable spirit to survive and to explore and to thrive wherever he goes or whatever he faces. This is all mighty close to humanist propaganda.

Furthermore, the story makes some enormous, unexplained jumps across narrative chasms. When Murphy spots tiny dunes on the floorboards in her room after a sandstorm, her father goes to work and finds the sequence corresponds to numbers in code. He somehow immediately realises the numbers refer to latitude and longitude coordinates, and he sets off to the mysterious location. How he makes this deduction, and with such certainty, especially after he had rejected Murphy’s apparently airy-fairy belief that there is a ghost in her room, is completely ignored by the screenplay.

Hans Zimmer’s score relies heavily on the sounds made by the organ, and at times the music is visceral and moving as it conveys a spiritual dimension equal to the grandeur and the mystery of the night sky. However, the silence that was so useful to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is often missing from or spoiled by Interstellar, and at one point Nolan makes the unforgivable mistake of invasively adding some of McConaughey’s dialogue to an otherwise deadly silent shot of the outside of his module floating in outer space.

A particularly annoying aspect of the heavy talk that permeates the film is on full display in a scene in which Dr. Brand gushes about the need for love, as a way of exonerating herself and explaining her selfish decision to pursue a less scientific approach to the mission, which may very well lead to the deaths of her entire crew. This scene is absolutely cringeworthy, even though Nolan is using it to anticipate and perhaps even justify Cooper’s own behaviour in the last act.

Interstellar is no Gravity, and it doesn’t come close to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening interviews remove all suspense from the story by implying it all ends well, and the soppy, uninvolving family angle damages our ability to empathise fully with all the main characters. This may very well be a novel perspective on our place in the universe and our shared ability to survive no matter what, but just because Nolan can literally bend light to suit his needs does not mean his work is done.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

By the end of the origin trilogy, Star Wars had nowhere else to go but up, and George Lucas manages to complete Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader both believable and frightening.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SithUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII) 

“War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.
In a stunning move, the fiendish droid leader, General Grievous, has swept into the Republic capital and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate.
As the Separatist Droid Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jedi Knights lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor….”

Lightyears ahead of the two episodes that preceded it, Episode III reinjects colour, real drama and genuine filmmaking flair into the franchise that wilted with Episode I and was beaten to a pulp and left out to dry with the release of Episode II. Besides rounding out a number of character transitions and neatly completing the trilogy, it also answers many of the big origin questions that have hung around for more than 20 years, since the release of the original trilogy in 1977–1983.

From the very first moment, this third instalment in the so-called “prequel trilogy” marks a forceful departure from its dreadful predecessor. It is as simple as an unbroken take, one that is not only visually impressive (it definitely is) but also dramatic in terms of the presentation of its content. Even the opening crawl, provided above, boldly proclaims the nature of the situation in no uncertain terms: “War!”

The elegant unbroken take starts with utter calm, however, as the usual beach of starlight stretches out across the dark skies in front of us. The camera pans downward, as it does nearly every time (the exception was Episode II, when it panned up, but then the film lost its nerve and cut away almost instantly), to the giant dagger-shaped form of a Republic attack cruiser floating in near silence in outer space. The scene is peaceful and calm, and in the background we see the mighty planet of Coruscant with the blinding sun (dis)appearing behind its rim. Two tiny Jedi star fighters whizz towards is, and the camera follows them across the wing as they swoop around the front and down to reveal utter chaos below, where dozens of battleships are shooting at each other.

But this is only the beginning of the fun: The shot, which incorporates very mobile movements as the camera whooshes back and forth past obstacles and even through a cloud of fire, carries on until we spot R2D2 on the wing of a starfighter and immediately deduce this is Anakin’s. Without a moment of hesitation, the film cuts to Anakin’s face inside the cockpit. He is clearly enjoying himself, and for a change (given actor Hayden Christensen’s atrocious performance in Episode II) it is a pleasure to see him because he is fully engaged in the scene.

Anakin and his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are on their way to rescue Chancellor Palaptine, who has been kidnapped by Count Dooku, the leader of the separatists. And when they do, a mere 15 minutes into the film, the moment presents Anakin with a major quandary. Having been taunted throughout their fight, with Dooku nudging Anakin to come to the Dark Side, and having seen Obi-Wan injured in the fight with Dooku, Anakin eventually subdues him. He holds the two lightsabers – his own one, which is blue, and Dooku’s red one – in his hands and points them in the form of an X around his throat, trying to control his anger. He is filled with doubt and even says that killing an unarmed man would not be the Jedi way. Palpatine, shackled next to him, disagrees and urges Anakin to decapitate the shocked Dooku. Anakin follows through.

This is but the first of many powerful depictions of the internal turmoil that Anakin has to deal with throughout the development of this part of the story. The soft-spoken but serpentine Palpatine knows exactly how to play the game by gently dangling power in front of Anakin. He feels he deserves it by virtue of the chancellor of the Republic declaring it the right thing. And whenever he feels second-guessed or slighted by the Jedis, who can sense evil in Palpatine’s plans, he sides with the chancellor. But he is always genuinely conflicted as to where his loyalties should lie.

These scenes are riveting, even though we know that Anakin is fast on his way to becoming Darth Vader. This prequel trilogy was never about the destination, however: It was always about the journey, and thus the focus had to be on Anakin’s evolution, which in this episode is sharp and does not have the meandering qualities that made the first two instalments so exhausting.

In visual terms, this instalment leaves the previous two in the dust. Not only do we get the first glimpse of Padmé wearing her hair in the form of two bagel buns on either side of her head (as her daughter, Leia, did in the original trilogy), but the special effects are far superior to the mediocrity of the seemingly ever-present rear projection of Episode II, and the colour palette is colder but stronger: blacks, blues and purples seem to permeate the world this time around.

When Palpatine decides to appoint Anakin, who is not a Jedi master but merely an apprentice, to the Jedi Council (a decision that has major repercussions), they walk side by side inside the chancellor’s office, and shortly before the scene wipes to another location, the lighting makes them appear as two silhouettes – partners in darkness. It is a brief moment but speaks to a visual ingenuity that is unusual for Lucas.

With regard to the editing, Lucas also fashions two remarkable alternating sequences of lightsaber duels. The first contrasts the giant fight between Yoda and Palpatine after he has become the irrevocably evil Darth Sidious, first set inside the chancellor’s office and then in the middle of the Senate, and between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin, after he has gone to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. The second, only a few scenes later, is an interesting juxtaposition of Padmé giving birth and Darth Vader being fitted with his black armor.

The humour in the film is also much better integrated and does not draw attention to itself, as such attempts failed miserably in the first two episodes. The duel between General Grievous, the commander of the separatists’ Droid Army, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is light-hearted and reminds us that not all fight scenes need to be equally sombre. As Kenobi, McGregor is excellent in bringing this sprightliness to the fight, even in the face of Grievous’s four lightsabers.

Unfortunately, a few awkward attempts at romantic dialogue remain, as in this exchange:

Anakin: You are so beautiful.
Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No! It’s because I’m so in love with you…!

Poor Padmé also spends almost the entirety of the film locked up in her room on Coruscant, where she either waits in anguish for the return of her lover and father of her offspring or confronts him about putting up a wall between them out of fear.

The film regularly returns to the Prophecy, in which Qui-Gon Jinn had believed and which Obi-Wan also trusts, that Anakin will bring balance to the Force. However, while the Force will be brought back into balance thanks to Anakin, Yoda also points out that it is a “prophecy that misread could have been”, meaning the easiest explanation is not always the right one. Three more instalments await, and while Anakin is instrumental in returning balance, he will not do so alone, nor directly.

With the possible exception of Episode IV, this is likely the best Star Wars film that Lucas directed. Although still not far from laughable at many points, Christensen’s performance has improved, and we can hear his character’s frustration in his tired “Yes, master” whenever he is told to wait, to be patient, not to do what it is he feels entitled to do. He is racked with fear, confused and lost, looking for his place, but while the final scenes on the volcanic planet of Mustafar are too long and look rather uninteresting, the climax is exactly what we had been waiting for all along.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the longest of all the instalments in the franchise, is also by far the worst, as it flounders under the weight of a terrible actor, awful visuals and an all-round lack of chemistry.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the ClonesUSA
2*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriters:
George Lucas

Jonathan Hales
Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“There is unrest in the Galactic Senate. Several thousand solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the Republic.
This separatist movement, under the leadership of the mysterious Count Dooku, has made it difficult for the limited number of Jedi Knights to maintain peace and order in the galaxy.
Senator Amidala, the former Queen of Naboo, is returning to the Galactic Senate to vote on the critical issue of creating an ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC to assist the overwhelmed Jedi….”

Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the longest out of all the instalments in the first two Star Wars trilogies, is all about power. Unfortunately, it is also wholly pre-occupied with its main protagonist’s slide into arrogant delusions fuelled by his love for and loss of his mother. The protagonist, of course, is Anakin Skywalker, who even as this episode opens is a petulant little twerp seeking to undermine authority at every turn for the simple reason that he is a prodigy.

In this film, and its sequel, Anakin is played by Hayden Christensen, whose performance in the lead is so ham-handed it easily qualifies as the worst acting in any of the Star Wars films, handily beating out the amphibious, high-pitched, super-annoying Jar Jar Binks for this misfortune. He is on the ascent (he first appears in this film in a lift going up), seeking counsel from the Phantom Menace himself, Senator Palpatine, who has become chancellor of the Galactic Senate and is adroitly playing off many parties against each other, staying in control of both realms until the Dark Side triumphs.

A large chunk of the emotional core of this film is wrapped up in Anakin’s desire to see and save his mother, who had been left behind on Tatooine in Episode I. Anakin has nightmares, once conveyed by showing him alone in bed at night, sweating and writhing in anguish as the camera tracks closer on his face before he wakes with a start. No, George Lucas is not the most visually creative filmmaker out there, and this shot goes to show that.

The visual mediocrity continues as the colour palettes in scenes on many different planets comprise yellows, reds and browns. But while the visuals are uninspiring, the plot is packed with details that can sometimes be very dense for the uninitiated and include shifting alliances and the various characters’ opaque motives that make us question whether they can be trusted or not, and whether Anakin’s descent into darkness will sweep anyone else away with him.

The tipping point is Anakin’s mother, whom he tracks down after a long quest only to find her on the verge of death. Her long absence from his life, filled only by longing (both for her and, somewhat creepily, for Senator Amidala), and ultimately her passing fill him with enormous rage at his inability to control his own destiny and those close to him. It is plain to see that this anger, as Master Yoda predicted in Episode I, will lead to hate (which he targets at his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is wisely reluctant to let him do whatever he wants), and hate will lead to suffering. Shortly after his mother’s death, Anakin throws one of his frequent temper tantrums and yells, “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!”

As he did in Episode I, Lucas again places the viewer inside the film at unexpected and inexplicable points by very quickly showing us the points of view of both Anakin (inside the club in Coruscant’s Galactic City) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (upon his arrival at Dex’s Diner, in an industrial area of Galactic City), which means characters look straight into the camera. These moments last a very short amount of time and seem disconnected and at odds with the rest of the visual style. 

The titular Clone Wars, of which this film only shows the first clash, involves a clone army cultivated on a distant planet named Kamino. While the Republic was facing challenges and a potential schism, a former Jedi Council member had started breeding a vast army of clones (made from a prominent bounty hunter, Jango Fett), and now that the separatists were gaining in strength, this army appears to come in handy. However, its existence has remained a mystery to even the Jedi Council, which realises the Dark Side’s strength has managed to blind them to developments in the galaxy.

These developments also include the rise of Chancellor Palpatine, who in this film manages to secure emergency powers that puts him in complete control of the Republic, and his first action upon taking power is to “create” an army (albeit one that already exists in the form of clones and already numbers in the hundreds of thousands) to beat back the separatists, led by Count Dooku. Dooku is perhaps the film’s most complex character but is woefully underdeveloped. He used to be a Jedi and trained as a Padawan under Yoda, but he left the Republic and became a Sith. In other words, Dooku gets his power from the Dark Side. And yet, he tells the truth when he informs a sceptical Obi-Wan that the Republic is falling into the hands of a Sith, although his motivations are unclear, because this Sith (Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious) is also Dooku’s own master.

The film’s highlight, without a doubt, is the lightsaber scene in which Yoda takes on Dooku. It is the first time we see Yoda, the grand Jedi Master, wield the sword of the Jedis, and his quick manoeuvrability is as impressive as it is unexpected for this tiny, slow-speaking creature that usually moves about with a walking stick.

But this is by far the worst Star Wars episode, and the myriad reasons are all tied up in Anakin Skywalker. Christensen does not have a single elegant moment, save when he is lying lifeless after his arm has been severed in a lightsaber duel. His whiny character’s public displays of arrange and hysteria are unbecoming of an adult that the viewer can take seriously. He is devoid of self-reflection and stubbornly assumes he will get his way, like a spoilt brat. Also, his relationship with Padmé is based on obsession rather than dialogue, and her pledge of love to him when they are captured rings hollow and reinforces the feeling that we are watching a soap opera powered by lightsabers.

Although rich in detail, the story is poorly told, the images are terribly boring, and the central relationship plays itself out on very implausible terms while one-half of the couple simply cannot connect with the viewer because of his revoltingly ineffective portrayal of a being with human emotions. This is not only an attack by the clones but an attack on the pleasure the Star Wars in its other instalments represents for a world of fans.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Despite its long gestation and its release more than a decade after the original trilogy, the Star Wars origin story (Episode I) is one of the worst instalments in the entire series.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom MenaceUSA
2.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….”

Thus reads the opening crawl of the first instalment of the Star Wars series. It is lengthy (that final paragraph is a single, 35-word sentence), mentions taxation in the opening paragraph and is generally uninspiring. All in all, this is a terrible way to start a franchise, but luckily Episode I had history on its side: A trilogy of films, Episodes IV–VI, released between 1977 and 1983, had already gained a mass following and laid a firm fictional foundation by the time this origin story was released in 1999.

Episode I contains its share of dramatic irony, because thanks to the other films we have the benefit of foresight regarding many of its characters’ destinies. Nonetheless, it is surprising that director George Lucas presents key moments with a complete lack of energy or flair. Consider the first meeting between Anakin Skywalker, here an 8-year-old boy, and his future bride, Padmé, or the first time the astro droid R2D2 lays its eye on C3PO, its eventual partner through thick and thin. These moments are not visually highlighted, and there is nothing to suggest their future importance, even though Anakin asking whether Padmé is an angel is kind of cute.

But then, it is generally accepted that the instalments directed by Star Wars creator Lucas were mostly dull in comparison with those that were not. Episode I, in the works for a decade and a half after the original trilogy, disappointed many people who had grown up on this series loosely based on Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人 / Kakushi toride no san akunin). Lucas fumbles with comic timing again and again and again, mostly because of the ludicrous character named Jar Jar Binks, a creature that is both physically and tonally awkward and reaches for laughs at many an occasion by saying “How wude!” with a pout that does not elicit a single laugh but rather a queasy shrug from the viewer.

The plot in this first film revolves around Queen Padmé Amidala, who is strung up so tightly in a variety of elaborate costumes that she can barely speak a word when she opens her mouth. This gimmick gets old very quickly and minimises the charm and sparkle she has when she is out of her costume, as in the first half of the film when she pretends to be a hand maiden and spends a great deal of time in the company of the young Anakin Skywalker.

Queen Amidala’s planet of Naboo has been taken over by a Japanese-accented Neimoidians. They are receiving guidance from a shadowy figure who only appears to them as a hologram (thus, he is the “Phantom Menace” in the title, although this term never appears in the film), whom we know from later films as the Emperor. Lucas finally reveals the identity of this individual during the final moments thanks to a quick pan that ends on the face of someone who has gained more and more power throughout the film. 

In the meantime, the origin story of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming a Jedi starts with a chance stop on the planet of Tatooine, where two Jedis, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, are seeking help while the queen’s planet is under occupation. They meet Anakin, whose midi-chlorian levels are off the charts, meaning not only that the Force is strong with him but also that he might very well be “The One” who will “bring balance to the Force”. Although just 8 years old, he is remarkably gifted at podracing (the film’s podrace is shown in full and lasts an exhausting 10 minutes) and has even built his own droid, C3PO.

Qui-Gon is so sure of himself that he decides to buy Anakin’s freedom and take him to the Jedi Council on the city-planet of Coruscant, where the boy undergoes a test not unlike the one the Tibetan lamas administer to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Master Yoda, who cannot see into the future but can sense negativity radiating back from it (possibly by means of past films), says Anakin may very well be The One, but his anger and fear, tied to his mother who was left behind on Tatooine, could lead him to the Dark Side. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

This may be one of the worst chronologically first films ever in a series. While the technology in 1999 had certainly improved over that of the 1970s and 1980s, and Lucas was able to bring to life a civilisation like Coruscant and stage a fast-paced (albeit overlong) podrace inside canyons, there are major flaws. For one, the humanoid characters like Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padmé all look above the faces of the CGI characters, like Jar Jar, when they are speaking to each other. That is very distracting and should not be happening.

Another problem is the chemistry between Anakin and his mother, Shmi. Although the latter was played by the legendary Pernille August, she speaks her dialogue as if she is performing a line reading. Meanwhile, Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd, is at times perfectly restrained, but when he is called on to show any kind of emotion ranging from sadness to elation, he rushes headlong towards the histrionic side of the spectrum. And when these two characters interact with each other in the same scene, the result is absolutely frigid and unaffecting.

Lucas also made the peculiar choice to break the fourth wall and put the viewer in the position of a droid, C3PO, on three occasions during a scene when Anakin is speaking to him (and looking directly at it/him). This feels completely out of sync with the rest of the filmmaking style and is not grounded in any apparent perspective.

The highlight of this first installment is the climactic lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the one side and the evil Sith, Darth Maul (basically, a nemesis of the Jedis), who wields a red double-sided lightsaber, on the other. While the location is limited, the stakes cannot be higher, and for those who have already seen Episode IV, the death of Qui-Gon will have at least a narrative, if not a visual, parallel with the death of Obi-Wan, who survives the attack here.

Episode I lays some of the groundwork for the rest of the story, but despite having a wealth of elements at its disposal and knowing full well that most people who saw it at the time were already familiar with the characters’ eventual development, the film is disappointingly reticent about presenting its material in a way that would enthuse its base. Lucas’s almost laser-like focus on mining for a laugh at the end of scenes, usually by deploying Jar Jar Binks, is as misguided a strategy as he could have embarked on, and ultimately the film feels exceptionally inept.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

The first Star Wars trilogy comes to an end with a sputter in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, which aims much lower and takes far fewer risks than its predecessor.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediUSA
3.5*

Director:
Richard Marquand

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan
George Lucas
Director of Photography:
Alan Hume

Running time: 130 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
– Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.

When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy….

The Ewoks are unduly demonised. These furry little koala-like creatures living on the forest planet of Endor and bubbling with curiosity may have very primitive tools at their disposal, but they quickly rally behind the rebels and ultimately help win the war against the Empire. They are harmless and act as a very effective manifestation of one of the metaphors that run through the franchise: They are the Davids to the Empire’s Goliath, especially as the monstrous Death Star II looms right above Endor. Contrary to their detractors’ assertions, they are not at all comparable to the pitiful Gungans of Episode I.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the third and final film of the original trilogy, may have some of the worst special effects in the entire franchise and acting that is not quite up to snuff, but it gently winds down the story by answering important questions and slaying Luke Skywalker’s two primary nemeses: Darth Vader and the Emperor. Most importantly, it also shows the very real struggle inside Luke, who gets to face his sworn enemies and has to decide whether to yield to anger or not: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

On the latter point, a return visit to Yoda, the source of this quotation, proves just as influential and revealing as Luke’s first interaction with the old Jedi master in the previous instalment. Self-deprecating and impish, Yoda is still the same delightful creature we know from earlier episodes. But this is the end of the road for him. His 900 years of existence have caught up with him now that he has set Luke on the path to realise his own potential and draw positive energy from the Force even as he confronts his inner demons:

“No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need … One thing remains: Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.”

and

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

He confirms that Vader is indeed Luke’s father, and before he literally dissolves into the afterlife he mentions that there is another Skywalker, who Obi-Wan confirms is Leia. Of course, this is the film that provides us with Leia’s most celebrated appearance in the franchise: Dressed in a skimpy bikini as crime lord Jabba the Hutt’s body servant, she is manacled next to him but ultimately uses the chains as a means to take sweet revenge.

When Jabba sentences Luke and Han to a grisly death by 1,000-year digestion inside the desert monster called the Sarlacc, we get to see the franchise’s worst special effects in action. In fact, the quality is so bad that even the most recent update to the instalment looks mediocre. Scenes in which the dunes of Tatooine whiz past in the background look like very bad blue screen work, and the visual compositions showing the Sarlacc’s gaping mouth of the Sarlacc (also known as the Pit of Carkoon) are mostly wide shots that make it look small, almost innocuous, and far from frightening.

Luckily, there are the Ewoks who pop up in the final act. They may look cuddly and are not particularly bright, but they do remind us of the goodness in the universe. And their emotions are pure and affecting, as we see them react with unmistakable sadness when any of them dies in battle. Such goodness, of course, is lacking (though not entirely) from Vader, who has to choose whether to side with his son or with the Emperor.

The film’s treatment of Vader is both surprising and deeply satisfying. We know he used to be Anakin Skywalker, but his mask is incredibly effective at dehumanising him. And yet, the mask is also a blank screen onto which we project our own desires. After Luke confronts his father by saying he still feels “the good” in him, the camera stays on Vader. We cannot see his face. We only hear his familiar and unsettling breathing. But we are almost certain that he is anxious and uncertain, that Luke has triggered real, previously suppressed emotions.

Episode VI‘s indisputable action highlight is the exhilarating chase scenes between the rebels and the Stormtroopers that take place at high speed among thick forest foliage. The film struggles to combat some second-rate effects shots, as it did in the Tatooine desert scenes in the first act, but the point-of-view and reverse POV shots of the speeder bikes more than make up for it and get the adrenaline pumping.

This being the final film of the trilogy, however, the screenwriters (and presumably, George Lucas) obviously assumed it should end with a great battle. This is wholly unnecessary, and the “big battle” is both overlong and on too small a scale to make much of an emotional impact. While Vader, Emperor Palpatine and Luke duke it out on the Death Star, Leia, Han, Chewie and the Ewoks are taking on the Stormtroopers on Endor. But both battles keep getting interrupted by the other, thus fracturing and destroying the inherent tension in the one and the anticipation in the other.

With the Emperor and Darth Vader dead and the Death Star destroyed (again), the Empire is no more, and the rebels have won. On Endor, Luke sees the Force spirits (or ghosts) of the three major Jedis: his father, Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the restorations since 1997, the final scenes show us celebrations across the galaxy, and in the versions released after the prequels, Anakin’s spirit curiously takes the form of Hayden Christensen rather than Sebastian Shaw.

This is definitely not on the same level as Episode V. The visual effects quality is inconsistent, the Leia–Han relationship has lost its comedic spark, and moments that should be intimate (like Leia recounting her memories of her birth mother, Padmé) are weighed down by dialogue so terrible it could have been written by Lucas himself: “She was very beautiful. Kind. But sad.” On the whole, the film plays it very safe as it moves inexorably towards its happy ending, but it certainly benefits from putting a neat bow on a story that would not continue for nearly 35 years with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

The first (i.e. the fourth) Star Wars changed the space film forever, and while it makes a few missteps, the strides it took have enriched mass entertainment to an incalculable degree. 

Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
Gilbert Taylor

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
– The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

This is where it all started: in the middle. In 1977, George Lucas, who had turned 33 just a few days earlier, released his third feature film, the first part of what would become a trilogy, and ultimately the first trilogy of three. It featured three main characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – and would become not just a cult science-fiction but also an incredibly popular film overnight, racking up more than $300 million at the time. For a film made for just $11 million (around $46 million in 2017), that is quite an achievement.

Star Wars has gained a major following over the years, even though its status as a foundational piece of blockbuster entertainment was slightly tarnished by the “origin trilogy” (the so-called prequels: Episodes I, II and III) released 1999–2005. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (originally released as “Star Wars“), the cornerstone of the series, the story starts in medias res, and there are frequent reminders of events the viewers of 1977 had no knowledge of. Mentions of the Clone Wars or dramatic irony would only be revealed with the release of the prequels many decades later. Thus, while the film slots well into the overarching story, it can also be rather frustrating for the uninitiated.

But that is quite beside the point. Those unfamiliar with the back story might be slightly misled, but the result is slight mystery instead of confusion, and the effect is a desire to know more. By contrast, Star Wars fans who have seen the earlier episodes will be up to date on the details of the Empire, but the mystery will turn into an appreciation of why certain kinds of information are being misrepresented or withheld. And the experience is at times incredibly moving.

Such is the case with Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom we get to know here as “Uncle Ben”, a solitary individual who has lived for decades deep inside the rocky region on Tatooine called the Jundland Wastes. At the beginning of Episode IV, the small but chirpy R2D2 unit is given a hologram message by Princess Leia of Alderaan to deliver to Obi-Wan. Thus, this droid, along with its gold-plated humanoid robot companion C3PO, arrives on Tatooine, where it is promptly abducted by the tiny cloak-wearing Jawas and sold to the Lars family, to whom Obi-Wan had delivered Luke as a baby.

Luke’s family is his uncle and aunt, and whenever his father comes up in a conversation, usually very obliquely, Luke is all ears, but there is no mention of him beyond his death. Thanks to earlier episodes, we know something the character does not, which is very effective in setting up expectations and creating tension. Viewers of the film back in 1977 did not share this knowledge, and thus the revelation of Luke’s heritage in Episode V would come as a complete surprise. At last, watching this film in the correct chronology (after the earlier episodes), we immediately understand why Obi-Wan responds with such a chilling silence when Luke tells him: “I wanna learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”

Episode IV reveals what an important role the droids, R2D2 and C3PO, play in Luke’s evolution. An orphan raised on an isolated farm somewhere on the dusty planet of Tatooine, he appears to be stuck in a rut until the family needs a new droid. When he and his uncle go shopping, they buy C3PO, but instead of his trusted companion, they opt for R5D4, a red-coloured droid. Fortunately, this R5 unit malfunctions (the film doesn’t show this, but there is widespread suspicion, based on subsequent novelisations and radio performances, that R2 sabotaged the droid on purpose), and R2 ends up in the hands of the Larses.

Arguably, without R2D2, Luke would not have seen the hologram destined for Obi-Wan, in which Leia begs the old Jedi master for help and requests that he go to Alderaan to deliver the plans hidden inside the droid. Taking a fancy to Leia, hearing about the Force from Obi-Wan, receiving his father’s lightsaber and losing his adopted family, he decides to set off for Alderaan. In no small measure, all of this is thanks to R2D2.

But to get there, they need a spaceship and someone desperate enough for money to steer it. They manage to persuade Han Solo, a full-time smuggler (emphasis on the “smug”), who brings along his giant hairy companion, Chewbacca. While Han Solo’s gift of the gab ensures a constant volley of good-natured insults that he lobs with both charm and admirable dexterity, he should not be underestimated. Inside the Mos Eisley cantina, shortly after Han strikes a deal with Obi-Wan, he is confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter who has come to collect him dead or alive. Han shoots Greedo point-blank without blinking.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that, in the version released in 1977, Han Solo shot first. It is clear as day. Greedo was fighting with nothing but his rhetoric. But George Lucas, who loves to tinker with his own work, creating a new director’s cut as technology allegedly catches up with his vision, had Greedo shoot first (with a gun that appears out of nowhere) in the 20th-anniversary re-release in 1997. In yet another release, the two seem to shoot simultaneously, but Greedo misses. Whether this is of any consequence is a good question, although Lucas seems to think it does. Then again, Lucas has changed or added so many (often extraneous) details that we should honestly ask whether his vision will ever be complete, and whether his vision even matters. Probably not. But this was obviously not a question of technology catching up; this is just blatant re-directing.

What everyone remembers about Han Solo is not his indifference to killing people but his pointed quips, which, whether delivered to an enemy, a friend or a potential love interest (he keeps referring to Leia with variations of “Your Worship”), never cease to entertain us.

Lucas’s streak of comedy here is much stronger than his subsequent, fatally cringeworthy attempts in the origin trilogy, and the only reason is Harrison Ford’s comedic timing. Leia’s unflappable demeanour goes a long way towards establishing her stability amid the adrenaline, the hormones and, frankly, the emotions of the men around her.  

But the director, here as in most of the other episodes he helmed, with the possible exception of Episode III, is hopelessly inept at staging action scenes. Blaster bolts usually shoot into all directions, no matter how much training the one behind the trigger has, and the shootouts aboard the mammoth Death Star space station are particularly slipshod when the images recede behind a blur of seemingly random streaks of red plasma.

In other respects, however, the film’s undeniable visual effects accomplishments had arguably as much of an impact on the genre as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obi-Wan, in perhaps the most understated but most important line in the franchise, tells Luke, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.” In a way, all viewers of Star Wars were uninformed and weak-minded before they laid their eyes on this raucous space opera. But Lucas fixed that, and this single episode would continue to make ripples decades down the line.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first of three new Star Wars films, offers new hope for a brand tarnished by George Lucas’s prequels by hewing close to the original trilogy.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensUSA
4*

Director:
J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan

J.J. Abrams
Michael Arndt
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

“Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….”

“Luke Skywalker has vanished”, declares the first line of the opening crawl in the early moments of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The text that sets the scene follows the same pattern as in all previous instalments — we get full names, even if the characters are familiar to most of us, and the sentences are presented as three short paragraphs — but that is not where the similarities end.

In fact, in numerous respects, this latest episode was clearly made with the Star Wars fan in mind. Unlike the unmitigated disaster that was most of the “prequel trilogy” (episodes I through III, released 1999–2005 under the direction of series creator George Lucas), Episode VII is cut from the same cloth as the original trilogy, and not just because it uses wipes to transition between scenes. The events may be set decades into the future, and our friends have become old, but this is still the same galaxy, and even the narrative takes its blueprint from the first film, released in 1977 as Star Wars and subsequently titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

In broad strokes, without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the quest to locate Luke, the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy. To this end, characters like Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca make a return, which is no surprise, as they have featured prominently in the trailers. They join up with some novices, including a disillusioned Stormtrooper, FN-21871 or “Finn” (a mostly winsome but sometimes overly enthused John Boyega), and a young woman named Rey (an absolutely stunning turn by Daisy Ridley) who lives in solitude in the desert landscape of Jakku.

Their enemy is the force that has replaced the former Empire and calls itself First Order, led by a physically towering individual, at least from the looks of his hologram, titled Snoke (created by motion-capture performer Andy Serkis), who serves as the order’s supreme leader. His apprentice is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who with his black cloak and facemask resembles the man he adulates: the original trilogy’s villain, Darth Vader. Ren’s origin story is one of the film’s big twists, and its shock value almost rivals that of the narrative reveal in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, namely the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader.

The screenplay, co-written by director J.J. Abrams along with Episode V scribe Lawrence Kasdan and Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt, marks a pleasant departure from the Lucas tradition of bad sci-fi screenwriting. While the opening line of the series in Episode I was the detached and uninspiring “Captain … tell them we wish to board at once”, Episode VII gives us Max von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, an elder on Jakku who is helping the resistance. We meet him and the young pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in the middle of the night at a secret meeting where Tekka speaks the first words while handing Poe a small object: “This will begin to make things right.”

In a way, Tekka’s words are applicable to the entire film, which obviously sought to right the ship after Lucas had tarnished his own brand, and Episode VII’s determination to stay close to the original trilogy pays off handsomely. The desert planet of Jakku calls to mind Luke’s home planet of Tatooine; the inside of a bar on Takodana, a planet so verdant it leads Rey to exclaim she never knew there existed so much green in the entire galaxy, looks a lot like the notorious Mos Eisley cantina from Episode IV; and the First Order’s callous, indiscriminate annihilation of entire planets obviously references the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s Alderaan.

And speaking of Leia, who is now a general, actress Carrie Fischer’s scenes with Harrison Ford — who reprises his role as Han, the galactic cargo smuggler and proud pilot of the Millennium Falcon — have a breathtaking poignancy to them that nonetheless eschews easy sentimentality. Naturally, those who are familiar with the original trilogy will take away much more from these scenes than those who are not, but the honesty of the characters and their deep connection to each other make for some of the most powerful moments in the entire film.

The two other characters whose return is much anticipated are the two droids, C3PO and R2D2, although even diehard fans would be hard-pressed to ignore the loveable new addition, BB-8, which consists of an orange ball that rolls and acts as the “body”, with a small, mobile, domelike structure on top that functions as the head. It is an astonishing feat that we sometimes forget that this droid is merely a machine, and even though it does not have any facial expressions, its sounds and movements are enough to communicate exactly what it is “feeling”.

Whether the faces we see belong to humans, droids or other creatures we recognise from earlier instalments, the moments in which they are revealed are as striking as they should be. It is like a quick blow to the chest when you unexpectedly see an old friend again, and even the appearance of the Millennium Falcon will have this effect on the viewer who watches the film as a longtime fan.

In general, as Abrams did with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise, the action appears to zip along at a much more dynamic pace than was the case with the original films, admittedly made for a pre-MTV, non-ADHD generation. There is never a dull moment in this film, and even the rare examples of less-than-stellar dialogue or overacting, usually featuring Boyega, are kept to a minimum.

This episode is better than at least three (some might even say all four) of the episodes that Lucas directed, and it is a very robust work of entertainment, but newcomers might be a little nonplussed at all the fuss. It remains to be seen how the two subsequent episodes, scheduled for release in 2017 and 2019, will develop the setup that culminates here in an unforgettable cliffhanger.

Those who were mumbling “I have a bad feeling about this” had no reason to worry.

Wind River (2017)

When a young Native American girl is found dead and barefoot in the snow inside the Wind River reservation, her death brings back terrible memories for one officer whose daughter met a similar fate years earlier.

Wind RiverUSA
3.5*

Director:
Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Ben Richardson

Running time: 110 minutes

Everything the characters in Taylor Sheridan’s début feature film, Wind River, do happens against the backdrop of crushing whiteness. Even in spring, snow is ubiquitous inside the expansive Wind River Indian Reservation, which is more than twice the size of Rhode Island and located in the middle of Wyoming. And besides the handful of Indians (Native Americans) living off the land and according to their own rules and often abusing alcohol or harder drugs, the demographic landscape is as white as the physical one. Officially, the reservation is Indian territory, but the most gruesome things here are inevitably inextricably linked to the more powerful white population.

The opening scene is enough to send a chill down our collective spines. A young woman, visibly terror-stricken, is running through the snow barefoot as she tries to get away from something we can’t see. It is dark, and she is exhausted, but she keeps running, until she inhales the cold night air but exhales only blood. We never see anyone, or anything chase her.

The following day, by pure luck, a wildlife officer and professional hunts find her corpse as he tracks a puma that has been killing a nearby farmer’s steer and bringing its young along to teach them how to hunt. Although he is white, the officer, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), knows the reservation like the back of his hand and has a child with a Native American. We soon learn another child, his daughter, had died under similar circumstances a few years earlier. This is federal land and not under his jurisdiction, but he focuses his attention on solving this mystery of the barefoot woman, named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille).

The autopsy reveals that Natalie died from a pulmonary haemorrhage, just as Cory had suspected. But more shockingly, we also learn that Natalie had likely been raped shortly before dying in the snow. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a fish-out-of-water FBI agent used to much warmer climes, is sent to investigate, as the bureau has jurisdiction in the case of a homicide on the reservation.

Unlike in Sicario, however, which Sheridan also wrote, the female character is not the prime focus. Women and their grim prospects on the reservation are an unmistakable undercurrent, but Cory’s silent struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter intelligently informs the way in which this plot develops. He may be a white character, but the death of his own daughter is no less important than Natalie’s death is to her father, Martin (Gil Birmingham).

The stern but soft-spoken Martin turns out to be one of Wind River‘s star attractions. The first time we meet him, he is very reluctant to share any of his thoughts or emotions with Jane, who is a stranger to the area. The atmosphere inside his house is cold, and all her attempts to gather information are fruitless. But then Cory arrives, and Martin’s tough façade suddenly crumbles. The entire scene offers a masterclass in gradually revealing the layers of emotion that can be hidden just beneath the surface but require the right person to draw them out.

This is a tight-knit community dealing with many problems relating to poverty and the lack of prospects all the way from cradle to (usually, an early) grave, and with a local police force of just six officers patrolling an area thousands of square kilometres in size, many crimes, from petty to gruesome, tend to fall through the cracks. Wind River is loosely based on a true story but is more effective if viewed from farther away, as a closing title card underscores how little the United States’ justice system thinks of its original peoples: Crime statistics are not compiled on the number of Native American women who go missing every year.

One big mistake the film makes is on the level of form: Towards the end of the film, it provides us with the point of view of an odious rapist. For a few inexplicable seconds, we see events from his perspective, which makes absolutely no sense in the context of this otherwise cautious and respectful production.

On the whole, however, Wind River‘s heart is in the right place. It surprises us in subtle ways and tells us its characters are complex, even if we don’t necessarily get to see what this complexity entails. A flashback towards the end of the film is gruesome but reveals that one individual is much more sensitive than others had said, which underscores the importance of digging for the truth. And the truth is that Native Americans in the United States, a little more than 100 years after the Congress rejected the idea of allowing the proposed Indian state of Sequoyah to join the Union, continue to be treated as a matter of the fringe. This has to be remedied if the country is ever going to be serious about forming a more perfect Union.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The best instalment of the entire franchise reaches beyond the stars to bring us giant revelations, confrontations and set pieces that firmly establish Star Wars as an unrivalled space epic. 

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackUSA
4.5*

Director:
Irvin Kershner

Screenwriters:
Leigh Brackett
Lawrence Kasdan
Director of Photography:
Peter Suschitzky

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

OTHER LINKS

“It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.
Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth.
The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space….”

Wholly unexpectedly for a franchise’s second film, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is better than its predecessor. But there is more to its greatness: This instalment is also a very strong contender for the best film overall in all three Star Wars trilogies. Not only does it contain one of the biggest plot twists, but it introduces us to Yoda, shows the meaty part of Luke’s development as a Jedi, interweaves three major storylines, builds on and improves Harrison Ford’s already superlative comedic performance in the role of Han Solo and shows us an unforgettable city in the clouds.

And yet, the start is far from promising. On the ice planet of Hoth, where the rebel Alliance is hiding from the Empire, the décor looks wildly underfunded and makes us wonder for a moment whether we are watching a ground-breaking space epic or a cheap studio-bound production with people walking around inside stuffed animals. For a moment, the latter is true: The stalagmites and the stalactites look ludicrously plasticky, and when Luke is attacked by a snow monster called a wampa, it might as well be a child’s version of a white woolly mammoth/yeti/polar bear monster – not as imagined by a child, but as built by one.

Fortunately, things quickly pick up from there, and in the first act in particular, we have Han Solo and Princess Leia to thank for the entertainment. The sexual tension between them, lightly veiled in a cloak of insults, is just about thick enough to cut with a lightsaber, and it becomes ever clearer their verbal altercations are in fact merely attempts to persuade themselves they don’t really like each other.

The film is tightly wound around the stories of three characters or groups of characters: Darth Vader, Luke and the crew on-board the Millennium Falcon. This is the first time we get a proper look at the full reach of Vader’s power, and the scenes in which he kills incompetent underlings simply by raising his arm inspire real fear. At the same time, however, Vader gradually reveals his obsession with tracking down Luke, and it is only late in the film that we realise (at least, without the foreknowledge provided by the origin trilogy) why this is. Meanwhile, Luke is on the swamp planet of Dagobah training as a Jedi, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, who fled Hoth along with the Rebels after a violent attack, make their way through an asteroid field, where the fireworks between the smuggler and princess finally go off.

Out of these three story lines, the one with Luke and Yoda is absolutely mesmerising. Not only are we seeing a young fighter come into his own by trial and error, but we learn a great deal from the tiny and wise green man with the funny ears who speaks with the very unusual speech object-subject-verb pattern. Perhaps the most important sentences in all of the Star Wars films come from Yoda, strapped to Luke’s back while he is running through the Dagobah jungle:

“A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger… fear… aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” 

This tension between light and dark is, of course, the major theme throughout the prequels, and while Yoda may at first appear to be a playful jester, his words are saturated with the wisdom of his 900 years. He is a delightful creature, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen him before, and much of this instalment’s greatness is a direct result of the interaction between him and the young Skywalker.

But these scenes on Dagobah are also profound for another reason: They contain the only instance of slow motion used in any of the Star Wars films, when Vader appears to Luke in a dream. This moment comes shortly before Luke sees his own face inside Vader’s mask. In a way, this scene is not far removed from Jesus Christ being tempted in the desert, and the second half of the film is a remarkable depiction of Luke’s resistance to the power that the dark side promises to offer those who yield to it.

The reason Episode V is one of the major narrative accomplishments of the franchise, however, is the big revelation that Darth Vader is, in fact, Luke Skywalker’s father. As Luke hangs on for dear life after losing his right hand to Vader’s lightsaber, dangling above a seemingly bottomless reactor shaft, and receives the shattering news of his heritage, the moment marks the culmination of the first meeting between father and son. Although this is not the full story (the second penny drops at the start of Episode VI), the impact is enormous.

Added to this development, there is also the first kiss that Han and Leia share, even as they continue to taunt each other and thus create, by a long way, the funniest instalment of the franchise. My personal favourite swipe comes from Han, who has no time for Leia’s cautious rationality in the midst of a crisis and shuts her down with: “No time to discuss this in committee”. Simultaneously, Luke and Leia are (for the moment) inexplicably growing closer as well, and the princess’s ability to sense that Luke is in danger proves to be one of the film’s instances of emotional magic.

And lastly, this episode is notable for its inclusion of the all-terrain armored transports, or AT-ATs, which look like giant metallic chameleons with four legs and no tail. Used by the Empire, they appear on the planet of Hoth and inspire another biblical comparison – to Goliath. And of course, David (the rebels) wins because Goliath cannot see properly and moves about too awkwardly to gain much of an advantage in a battle.

Episode IV may have laid the groundwork, but Episode V builds a mighty palace full of details, drama, comedy and the deeply credible development of its characters. It is not a mere bridge between the beginning and the end of the overarching narratives: It gives us plenty of connections between people and shows us things we never thought possible, including the first glimpse of Darth Vader without his helmet. Yoda’s famous command to Luke – “You must unlearn what you have learned” – applies to us, too. This is a brand-new world, and it is so gratifying to have Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and the droids be our guides on this journey.