Jungle Garb: Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Star Wars VI - Return of the Jedi

Third, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… There was a jungle moon…

A glimpse at the original Episode VI, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.

Black shirt Jedi

IF NOTHING ELSE, RETURN OF THE JEDI BROUGHT SOUND TO CINEMA IN 1983. IT WAS THE FIRST ENTRY OF THE STAR WARS SAGA TO EMPLOY THX TECHNOLOGY. But more importantly, it was a closing chapter on the saga that had sent palpable shockwaves across Hollywood… And would influence film-making forever more.

It’s the one with the Ewoks, the one with the Emperor. The one that simply can’t live up to the promise of its two predecessors. Return of the Jedi completed what is no enshrined as the original trilogy exactly six years to the day after the first film’s release. And it was here that Star Wars became ever-so-slightly self-derivative; ruling out any similar accusations against the latest instalment, The Force Awakens. While the majority of the film is dedicated to completing the story in a huge multi-set-piece final act, it was happy to pick up the familiar and convenient elements of the Death Star and space dog fights from the first film. It continued the process of focussing the epic space opera through one bloodline that had been set by the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi took to some strange if strangely satisfying conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, the pressure on the production was immense. The Empire Strikes Back had built on the success of its predecessor, claiming around $450 million at the world box office and critical acclaim with it. The risk had been there, with maverick creator George Lucas financing the film himself, but he recouped his investment in months and had bona fide proof that his epic space opera was no mere flash in the galaxy.

Much like the Death Star, if you could solve a few technical issues, why not recapture that Force lightning?

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Vader’s early arrival and purpose is an unwitting mirror of the film’s production.

Waiting three years for a resolution to The Empire Strikes Back? How on Endor have we explained that to the generations that followed? After the vapid and rather obvious developments of the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens provided the experience closest to that long wait between 1980 and 1983, even if we’re waiting for jaw dropping revelations. If the new sequel trilogy manages to match the saber-dropping, hand-lopping twists that the original films managed, they’ve done very well indeed.

The sheer quality of Episode IV had managed to set Star Wars on an even greater course to immortality than the tremendous performance of the first film had managed. Having seen the Rebellion on the run after their unexpected victory and prematurely triumphant ceremony at the close of Episode IV, the odds seem even more stacked against the “small band of rebels” Jedi’s opening scrawl refers to. So, how surprising that at the head of the film we encounter a near completed new Death Star. The message is clear, despite the loss of ships, strategy, limbs and friends that battered our heroes in the film before, the real risk is that all their efforts might be in vain.

Read more…

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Snow Boots: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

A tale of Sire and Ice

Second, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

There was a planet of Ice…And then Star Wars became a franchise. A glimpse back at the original Episode V, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.

It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end…

HERE IT IS, EMERGING IN THE DEPTHS OF A DISTANT GALAXY WITH THE DEPLOYMENT OF A SPACE PROBE THAT THEN CRASHES INTO THE ICE SHEETS OF THE PLANET HOTH. Everything we might have assumed from the oddly triumphant and indulgent close of Episode IV wasn’t true. Everything Hollywood imagined about summer films was about to be blown out of the galaxy.

The Empire Strikes Back is legendary, there’s no doubt about it. Still quoted, among a select few, as a if not the premier example of a sequel that outdoes its original, the last three decades of try-hard comparators have failed to dislodge it. Its quality is far too enshrined to be knocked.

Here is where things began. It’s almost solely responsible for the early 21st century preoccupation with blockbuster trilogies, a neat model when it comes to actors, contracts and budgets. But just as A New Hope had slotted genres and intention together in ways never thought possible, Empire was just as ground-breaking in the way it seized and built on that position. It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end. But it served up two dramatic sledge-hammer blows at either end. And immediately, cockily, the threat level was deftly and massively raised as the audience discovers that the destruction of the Death Star had only served to annoy the Empire. Who could guess the twists, turns and ending that were to follow…

And it wasn’t just the threat that had increased.

Star Wars:  Episode IV – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The saga’s themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite

Come the end it’s easy to see that The Empire Strikes Back had no choice but to ramp up the drama. That it did it so well, following the simplistic, fairy tale plot of the previous film, is Empire’s considerable achievement. We join the Rebel Alliance in a far different state to the one we left it. On the run and in a make-shift soon to be discovered base; dug into ice foundations that are a metaphor for isolation. It’s cold in space, it’s colder on Hoth. We didn’t know it at the time, but the saga’s overriding themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite. So it’s little surprise that one route to that dramatic elevation falls to classical tragedy.

From Bar to Bard

In Empire our Hamlet, position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost

Indeed, Empire pushes Shakespeare to the fore. We join the Rebel troops on the battlements of Elsinore, unknowingly waiting for a ghost of Hamlet’s father that is a far more powerful and compelling than it appears in massed stop-motion and snowtrooper-clad force. That establishes a heightened universe where Vader, seen for the first time in communication with the Emperor, the father figure he rushed to with indecent haste, can get away with the use of “thy”. But the Bard’s influence is greater than choice words. We have expanded the atavistic palette of Biblical quests and Campbellian monomyth to include the nearer world of Greek tragedy and the great playwrights in general.

In Empire our Hamlet, his position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost at the climax of the film; and in so doing he creates one of the most famous sequences in film history. That sets the tone for the concluding part of the trilogy to examine the consequences of those revelations as the tightening familial loops meets the return to a leaner structure. By Return of the Jedi, Luke would be fully formed as his black robed Hamlet, wavering not between action and indecision but the universal spiritual concepts of light and dark. The story of how he got there just feels so much more compelling…

Holiday destinations

This is a huge galaxy… Episode V is intent on using the Battle of Hoth to force our apart.

The change to ice from the cold space and hot desert of the first film sits prettier in the hindsight of Vader’s fiery creation on the planet Mustafar, committed to film over two decades later in Episode III. The switch stands up to scrutiny in much the same way that themed ice and fire levels do in videogame platformers; it was something that no space operas had the vision or finance to attempt before, even if such intentions existed on screen, and rammed one thing home: This was a huge galaxy. And every entry in the saga would widen it further up until The Force Awakens chose familiarity. That’s a central tenet to George Lucas’ Star Wars films that he always stayed true to, and no doubt one of the reasons behind his inability to withhold criticism of the most recent instalment. The subtlety of that film’s Jakku being a cold desert planet compared to Tatooine’s hot and arid desert eco-system is lost against the broad palette of the original and prequel trilogies. But as iconic as the Battle of Hoth that opens Empire is (albeit 25 minutes in), the film doesn’t feel the need to stay there for long. While Episode IV brought our heroes together, Episode V is intent on using that battle to force them apart.

Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope

Behind the scenes consistency

Nature may abhor a vacuum, Star Wars makes a meal of it.

The original Star Wars trilogy benefits from a remarkable strength of consistency.  That overcame the uncertainty that run through the first film’s production all the way up to release, the three-year gap between each sequel and the changing personnel behind the scenes. Lucas was a constant of course, although as he stepped back from directing and writing chores. And it’s clear that The Empire Strikes Back’s benefitted from the addition of some high quality creators. Nature may abhor a vacuum; Star Wars makes a meal of it. And some of those new creators came from unexpected quarters.

Far from the beach retreat that marked the end of Lucas’ short film career in a parallel universe, the few years that followed the release of the first Star Wars film found the producer-director in wildly different circumstances. His science-fiction project had vastly exceeded expectations, unleashing a phenomenon and changing Hollywood in the process. And against the norm, Lucas proceeded to finance the sequel himself, all $30-odd million of it. Not having had the easiest ride directing the first instalment, and having taken on increasing responsibilities producing the work of his freshly minted special effects company ILM as well as the brewing Indiana Jones franchise, he sought a new director. And who better than someone who tutored him at film school? Against early protestations, Lucas insisted Irvin Kershner, previously known for smaller, character-based fare, helm the hottest sequel in Hollywood.  Kershner would make a name on action franchises through the next two decades, including the rogue James Bond film Never Say Never Again three years later, but Empire remained his finest hour. Read more…

Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “I’m Going to be King. Run!” (Whovember #10 Omega)

Tenth Doctor and his Zygon 

New Whovember continues. The second of two Tenth Doctor retrospectives looking at the strangely linked world of his celebrity historicals. As the knocks tolled for this Doctor it was clear that he still had a thing for Royals. But would we ever find out what?

IN THE FIRST PART OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE WE VISITED THE SECOND AND THIRD SERIES OF NEW WHO – TACKLING WEREWOLVES, FIREPLACES AND BARDS. When Martha left, halfway through the Tenth’s chronological tour of duty, there was no way that trips to the celebrated past would leave with her. Series Four presented two historic adventures, both with celebrities of sorts and both landing in the top half of that year’s most viewed. While they proved to be excellent farewells to the Russell T Davies era of historical adventures but they left some plot strands… Although the Eleventh Doctor may have upped the stakes with Marilyn Monroe and River Song, the riddle of Queen Bess was asking for a conclusion.  And what better time than the Doctor’s Golden anniversary?

In this installment a look at:

A mixed bag of Fire, Myth and gold.  But are there any other patterns? “No, no, don’t do that…”

The Fires of Pompeii (Series Four, 2008)

Capaldi isn’t alone…

Series four still sticks out in the run of New Who. It’s resplendent, with only Series Eight matching its appearance. The fifth series would take a strange decision to mute the colour palette and it would take some time to return to this sheer variety. Companion-wise, initial disappointment that Donna reneged on her excellent choice not to join the Doctor gives way to undoubtedly the best character development seen in the show. And yet, it never quite hits the high-points of Series 3 despite serving up two celebrity histories.

Again, The Fires of Pompeii ramps up the production quality with astonishing set design thanks to BBC co-production Rome. Ancient Rome on Doctor Who once again, except it isn’t – it’s Pompeii and “it’s volcano Day”. Once again this is the first main trip for the Doctor’s companion and a rough ride of conscience and choice awaits. It may be the weakest grasp at celebrity, but its warranted. Lucius Caecilius Lucundus’s house still stands in Pompeii. And with the actor portraying him latterly rising to the rank of Time Lord it’s got to be a cert. Capaldi isn’t alone, sitting in a fine cast that also features Phil Davis, Phil Cornwall and Phil ‘The Power of Kroll’ Taylor. I might have made one of those up. Read more…

Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “Stepped through in either direction” (Whovember #10 Alpha)

Tenth Doctor and his future 

New Whovember continues with the first of two Tenth Doctor retrospectives. To begin, the strangely linked world of celebrity historical that prove, if nothing else, that there are few people the Tenth Doctor likes to hang around with more than Royals.

IT’S NOT EASY TO FORGET THAT THE DOCTOR’S FIRST ADVENTURE TOOK HIM BACK TO THE DAWN OF HUMANITY, BUT THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TIME VORTEX UNDER THE BRIDGE SINCE THEN.  When it returned in 2005 the new series established a formula it’s virtually kept to of kicking off each series in the present day, then speeding forward in time before dipping back into the past for the third episode. While purely historical adventures may not have existed in the show since the early-1980s, the successful return has shown that they remain a crucial part of the show.  Indeed, few things sum up the Russell T Davies era of New Who like the celebrity history. And as the longest serving Doctor of both Davies’ tenure and New Who it seemed natural to look at the Tenth Doctor’s brushes with the celebrity shoulders of times past…

In this installment a look at:

Broadly, if you’re not royalty of the writing or properly regal kind you’ll have trouble getting in. Things have changed considerably since the Seventh Doctor couldn’t quite place Queen Elizabeth II’s face in Silver Nemesis. But are there any other patterns? “No, no, don’t do that…”

Tooth and Claw (Series Two, 2006)

A Victorian household named Torchwood

Tooth and Claw unmistakably kicks off in the Highlands. The setting for the Second Doctor adventure The Highlanders, where it was ably doubled by Surrey. Here it’s Merthyr’s turn to stand in for the timeless landscape. Timeless that is until… Slow-mo kung fu monks appear to commandeer a Victorian household named Torchwood. It’s a strange but thrilling start to the Tenth Doctor’s first historical, climaxing in a classic cage reveal pre-title cliff-hanger. The clue to cage’s the inhabitant is in the title you know…

Set loose from introducing this incarnation, Davies shows a playful and confident hand. Ian Drury makes an unexpected but welcome appearance aboard a TARDIS heading for 1970s Sheffield while Rose calls the Doctor a big old punk. But amid the fun of a vortex crash and the Doctor’s astute use of his Rhythm Stick, they end up in 1879. The Tenth Doctor’s first historical makes more than a nod to the Second Doctor’s 1966 Scottish outing – the last completely historical serial of any real length – when the Doctor introduces himself as Dr James McCrimmon. That takes in the PhD the Second Doctor once established that he’d earned and as a cover it gives David Tennant the chance to use his own accent (and then when Rose matches him, start the “Don’t do that” trope that will become very familiar). It’s fun but it’s also a sign that things are about to become a little too coincidental. The auspicious bump into Queen Victoria send the TARDIS crew into a tale of werewolves, long laid plans of revenge and assassination set mostly on the Torchwood Estate. Read more…

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