Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ranking the Star Wars films

Putting things in order is one of the most predictable habits of the common garden nerd, and one of which I'm not actually that fond, but I thought it would be amusing for me to "rate" the Star Wars films that currently exist in order, much as I "rated" the Doctors from Doctor Who some years ago, in terms of my personal preference. This should be noted: I am not by any means trying to rank these films in any kind of "objective" order based on a close and detailed study of filmmaking, because I'm not well informed about filmmaking. This order, rather, is from the film I like the least to the one I like the most. Like my list of Doctors, I'll also do it in "tiers", so you can imagine that groups of films are ordered as well. My reason for this is that I think that films made in the same era are more comparable than those made well apart, and because I think the Star Wars franchise currently lacks any substantial outliers which would make this not work.

Tier 3 (Bottom Tier): The Prequels

8. Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

You can read my thoughts here for why I think Revenge of the Sith is the worst Star Wars film. The main reasons, put simply, are because I think it looks horrible, it's poorly conceived and structured, and it features weak performances. I can't abide the overly-crisp, clean CGI look of everything, such as the opening battle and the clone troopers. I abhor the character of General Grievous, who is an unnecessary and stupid villain, and am consistently frustrated by how much time the film wastes on him and how absurd it is to kill off Christopher Lee's Dooku in the opening scene. Ewan McGregor is completely phoning it in as Obi Wan and Ian McDiarmid's extraordinarily hammy performance as Palpatine is cringeworthy. I really don't like this film at all.

7. Episode II – Attack of the Clones

This film is boring. That's the first and most vital thing that needs to be said about it. It's slow and dull. I'm not just talking about the ineptly-written romance scenes. I'm also talking about, for instance, the weightless and unbelievable CGI chase sequences and battle sequences, especially at the end. As is always said, Anakin is annoying and unsympathetic, with cringeworthy dialogue, while Christopher Lee brings presence but cannot redeem the weak and unbelievable script. Like Revenge of the Sith this also suffers from looking completely fake. Perhaps the only thing that elevates this above Episode III is that McDiarmid's performance is more restrained and it has Christopher Lee and not General Grievous, although there still isn't enough of Lee. The soundtrack also has at least one memorable new tune, "Across the Stars". Returning to negatives, however, I also dislike the depiction of the Clone Wars as clones versus droids, and this film establishes a trend continued in Episode III and the animated series of depicting a universe that I simply can't believe is the same one that is featured in the originals because of how it looks and feels.

6. Episode I – The Phantom Menace

This film is also very boring, being extremely poorly paced with weak direction that derives very unengaging performances from much of its main cast, but I've always been marginally more forgiving of Episode I than the other two. I still don't like the Trade Federation, including both the annoying Nemoidians and the lame battle droids, or the extremely tiresome podrace, but this is one in which I somewhat appreciate the depiction of a world we didn't get to see in the Originals. Naboo shows us a more "civilised" part of the galaxy without being too busy; I can almost see it fitting into the same universe. Of course the problem of an overly busy setting instantly occurs when we go to Coruscant, which always annoys me because I think "Why did we never see Coruscant in the Originals?" Jar Jar is annoying, but I've never found him that annoying; young Anakin is annoying too, but I find him to be less cringeworthy than teenage Anakin. I kind of like Ewan McGregor in this as Obi Wan before he's turned into more and more of a buffoon in the subsequent films, although like all the others his performance suffers from uninspiring direction. Also, while I think that the character of Qui Gon didn't need to exist, Neeson and McGregor make for more watchable leads than McGregor and Christensen in the subsequent films. Even though he's a complete waste, Darth Maul is kind of visually interesting. One of the biggest problems with this is how unnecessary it is, but the biggest problem is the poor pacing. The podrace is far too long, and is completely uninteresting, and too much time is spent with characters tiresomely planning things and discussing them rather than actually doing them, which doesn't work when the stakes are so low and the characters are uninteresting.

Tier 2 (Mid Tier): The Disney Films (so far)

5. Rogue One

In my "Initial Impressions" post I pointed out that I think Rogue One, in contrast to all the praise it's getting, is quite a dull film. My main problem with it when I saw it, and a problem I still feel now, is that the main protagonists are not very interesting and engaging, and I didn't care about them. That's my immediate reaction. There's some decent enough action, and some of the fan service is successful while some isn't. CGI Grand Moff Tarkin looks weird, but I like the inclusion of the character. Vader looks and sounds off, but again I like the inclusion of the character. Jyn Erso and her gang I simply didn't find interesting enough; we're offered a few scraps like Cassian's remark about his life in the rebellion and Bodhi's character development, but I found it insufficient. I mostly kind of enjoyed K-2SO and Chirrut because their pronounced traits gave me something to latch onto, but they were just supporting characters. Jyn and Cassian needed more. All that being said, I can't rate Rogue One lower than any of the Prequels because, even though it suffers from one problem they also have, being boring, this has far less cringe and overall it's more competently made.

4. Episode VII – The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens has a lot of problems, largely being the laziness of the plotting and some unnecessary CGI. If this film had replaced Maz Kanata with something else, had Snoke as an actor in makeup rather than a fake-looking CGI character, scrapped the rathtar sequence and replaced Starkiller Base with a plot point that wasn't just another Death Star, it'd be a much better film. It also suffers from having a somewhat weak soundtrack lacking in memorable new tunes. All that being said, what elevates this substantially above Rogue One in my opinion is that I personally found the characters to be far more likeable and interesting, particularly Rey, but also Finn and Poe. Finn is probably the weakest of the new characters as he's used too much for comic relief, but overall I find the characters sufficiently entertaining to watch. I also think that the film is visually fairly pleasing in terms of its cinematography, colouring and the like. It's a somewhat decent piece of action sci-fi cinema let down by a number of annoying elements.

Tier 1 (Top Tier): The Original Trilogy

3. Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

The received wisdom is that this is the best of the Star Wars films, but it's not my favourite of the original trilogy. I still like it a lot and think from a technical standpoint it's probably the strongest. It also has a number of classic sequences. Things like Han being frozen in Carbonite, Vader force-choking Admiral Ozzel, the AT-AT assault and of course the final duel are all extremely well realised. Yoda is a particular highlight, benefiting from a superb performance both vocally and in terms of puppetry by Frank Oz. The reason this one isn't my favourite is because at times I feel like it's just a little bit too slow, particularly the opening sequence up until Luke's rescue and some of the scenes when the Millennium Falcon is hiding in the asteroid belt. I also think that the development of the characters and progression of the story is just a touch more understated than is effective, because to me the "failure" of the characters in this one could be a touch more prominent in its representation. I'm sure there are plenty of arguments for why the "craft" of this film is the best; my personal reaction to the film is simply not quite as high as many people's is. That being said, it also has a terrific soundtrack and the all-time great moment of Vader revealing that he's Luke's father. This is the film that made Star Wars what it is today.

2. Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

In some respects, Return of the Jedi is my "favourite" Star Wars film because I greatly enjoy Luke's character development in this one, as he becomes a more confident character with greater wisdom. The scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor are classic, as is Luke's initial confrontation with Vader on Endor. I also rather enjoy all the puppetry used in the opening act of the film at Jabba's Palace, which is convincing and amusing, although I'm not the biggest fan of the rancor fight. The film's biggest weaknesses, obviously, are the Ewoks and the fact that Han and Leia have nothing to do as characters. I don't hate the Ewoks. I just think they go a little too far, and the earlier idea of setting that part of the film on Kashyyyk with the Wookiees would have been much better. The Battle of Endor, however, is my favourite space battle sequence of the films. Overall, I think this one could have been better in some respects, but is elevated by some extremely strong aspects, the most important of which being that it gives a satisfying ending to Luke's story.

1. Star Wars (or Episode IV – A New Hope)

Star Wars (or A New Hope if you prefer) isn't strictly my favourite but at the same time I think it's the most consistently enjoyable of the Original Trilogy. It has good music, good effects and engaging, likeable characters. The opening sequence is exciting, Luke's journey as a hero is a classic tale, the stuff aboard the Death Star is very fun and the final battle, featuring superb model shots and Vader himself manning a TIE Fighter to take the combat to the Rebels is all extremely entertaining. What I think elevates this film above the others in the Original Trilogy is that in addition to our consistent cast of Luke, Leia, Han and Vader (plus R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewie), this one also features Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin and the largest role in the trilogy for Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan. These two bring an extremely watchable level of old-school class to the film that you don't get anymore and just elevates it slightly above the other two in my view.

One thing that has greatly improved my experience and enjoyment of the Original Trilogy is the release of the "Despecialized Editions" of the films, and I would highly recommend watching them if possible. I personally think that these are the best way to view the original films and appreciate their achievements and best qualities without the distraction of elements changed or added later.
"Who?"

Friday, December 16, 2016

"The Force Awakens" Redux: One Year On

"They used two different fonts in the earlier films!
How can I complain that they chose the wrong one!?!"
In my "Initial (Bad) Impressions" post on Rogue One, I said that I'd "mellowed out" towards The Force Awakens, after initially disliking it, and that's more or less true. When I first saw it I was unimpressed. I enjoyed it more on rewatch. Then it came out on Blu-Ray and when I watched it then, I liked it less. Then I rewatched it again the other day and I liked it more. I wonder if it's a situational thing; when I settled down the other day and watched it over a beer (and perhaps a couple of whiskies) it seemed far more agreeable than when I watched it the previous time. I watched Star Wars (or A New Hope if you prefer) the other day as well, and I had a beer (and perhaps a few whiskies) then too and I greatly enjoyed it. I watched The Empire Strikes Back the following day stone cold sober and enjoyed it less. So perhaps when I say enjoying a Star Wars film is situational, I mean that it's best consumed with alcohol. Maybe next time I watch The Phantom Menace or, heaven forbid, Revenge of the Sith, I should do ten shots of vodka beforehand.

"My nose hurts."
As usual, my opinion seems to fail to align with the consensus, which I don't object to, but becomes exasperating at times nonetheless. When The Force Awakens came out, everyone was raving about it, and I was frustrated because, while I thought the film had strengths, it didn't deserve the level of praise people were giving it. A year on, it seems that there's been something of a backlash. Now when I say "something of a backlash", I mean "on the internet". I bet if you asked your average punter who didn't spend all their time arguing with people in comments sections what they thought of The Force Awakens they'd probably still say "I liked it" or "it was pretty good". I'm not saying I'd wholeheartedly agree; I just think that's what most non-internet-lurking viewers would probably still be saying. The denizens of the internet, by contrast, seem to have collectively (and it worries me how collectively these people think) decided that The Force Awakens was bad for various reasons and that, by contrast, the Prequels are good. For my part, I probably find the Prequels to be less enjoyable than ever now, while, as I say, I've softened towards The Force Awakens. As such, here are my thoughts about twelve months down the track.

Things I Still Don't Like About The Force Awakens

"I'm as real as Grand Moff Tarkin."
Maz

I don't like the idea of some know-it-all character who appears out of nowhere, is wise in the force, knows what all of the protagonists ought to do in order to fulfil their character arcs, and possesses Anakin's/Luke's lightsaber. She comes across as a stereotypical "wise old lady" to me and I think the character is a cheap and lazy invention intended to force a vague sense of mystery into the story. She's annoying.

Snoke

There are only practical effects,
and those too weak to use them.
I hope they do something interesting with Snoke, because at the moment he just feels like "the Emperor's substitute". This is going to sound a bit mean-spirited, but I also wish they'd cast someone with a bit more presence than Andy Serkis in the role. I feel like he was cast just because he's an experienced motion capture actor and Snoke is a motion capture character, not because he'd be good at playing an evil supervillain.


"If you join our crew, you have to be
in the young adult novels about us."

Maz and Snoke

I still don't like how these characters are CGI motion capture creations. It seems unnecessary to me and they look too fake, which takes me out of the film when so many practical effects were used at other times, yet inexplicably were often relegated to the background. It doesn't make sense to me that they would leave detailed, believable practical effects work in the background, and have the focus be on computer-generated characters who look fake. There's a rumour floating around that Snoke is going to be performed through practical effects in Episode VIII, and I hope that's true.

Starkiller Base

Three years until Indy V.
This giant planet-destroying weapon is still an annoying rehash of the Death Star and I don't like it. I don't mind a snowy planet with an enemy base on it but it frustrates me that the film pulls a Death Star out of its arse halfway through. I also don't like Hux's over-the-top speech on it to the troops. I know it was meant to be over-the-top, but I still find it a bit cringeworthy, like one of those grandstanding speeches from New Who that are meant to sound impressive but aren't.

It's got physical immunity and magical immunity.
Han's Ship and Takodana

The sequence in which they're being chased around Han's other ship by the "rathtar" monsters doesn't feel right; the closest thing I can compare it to is the fight with the rancor and the sarlacc sequence from Return of the Jedi, but more drawn out and using annoying CGI. This combines with the boring stuff featuring Maz on Takodana, particularly Maz's mysterious-sounding dialogue and Finn and Rey's simultaneous freakouts, which makes the middle of the film feel slow and turgid to me. If something different happened between Rey and Finn leaving Jakku and the Resistance arriving to attack the First Order on Takodana, I'd find the film more consistently entertaining.

The Lack of Worldbuilding

"How many assholes we got here?"
"Yo!"
It still bothers me that the film doesn't go into more detail about why the Resistance is the Resistance and how the Republic and the First Order relate to each other. This is spelt out in spin off material, and I've looked it up and it seems to largely make sense, but the film still suffers due to lacking these pieces of explanation. It would have only taken a few remarks here and there to fill in the details.

The First Order can't afford the special
pen pockets the Empire uniforms had.

Some of the Dialogue

I think some lines in the film, especially quippy exchanges between characters, are a bit unbelievable and are less funny or clever than they think they are, like "You have to hide" "You have to leave" and "You're not hauling rathtars on this freighter are you?" "I'm hauling rathtars." This takes me out of the moment a bit because in my experience real people don't speak like that.

Anyway, those are my continuing gripes with The Force Awakens. Moving on...

Things I Like About The Force Awakens!

Rey!

"Gosh, it's rather nice out here in space, eh what?"
I like Rey. I think she's an effective protagonist; she's fairly likeable and pleasant and competent. Her rather delusional belief that her family will one day come back is a less effective piece of characterisation, in my opinion, and some of the character's critics argue that she's too competent, but I think her competence is either self-evidently explained or sets up things that I expect to be explained later. I think it's a bit rich to say that she's "too competent" or is some kind of flawless female empowerment symbol when she's psychically overcome by Ren on Takodana and carried off in his arms in a classic "damsel in distress" pose. That makes her seem pretty vulnerable to me. She also accidentally released the rathtars, didn't she? I'm looking forward to seeing her being trained by Luke in Episode VIII and I hope they have an interesting on-screen relationship.

"They brought me back using CGI."
Poe! (and to a lesser extent Finn!)

I like Poe. I think the character again comes across as likeable and I rather wish we got to see more of him in the film. Again, I hope more use is made of the character in Episode VIII. I think perhaps that he's a little too glib towards Kylo Ren at first, but by and large I think his characterisation as a cocky but not overconfident pilot is effective and his relationship with Finn is good. Finn is probably my least favourite of the new three largely because I don't think his characterisation is particularly consistent with his background (he seems awfully humorous and normal for an indoctrinated soldier) and I think his role as comic relief is heavy-handed, but I find him somewhat endearing and he has an good rapport with the other two.

Supporting Characters!

Isn't having your whole body roll
an incredibly inefficient way of moving?
I like aspects of the use of Chewbacca, even if I think he's used for comic relief too much, and I somewhat enjoy the sparing use of R2-D2 and C-3PO. I think BB-8 was an effective invention as well. I particularly find that having C-3PO talk to BB-8 in a familiar way makes the viewer feel more familiar with the character, which is sensible. Han and Leia are the two I can take or leave, really; it's nice to see them, but their presence still feels perfunctory to me, like they don't really need to be there.


Ship, sweet ship.
It Looks Nice!

As some modern films are (and many aren't), The Force Awakens is largely a visually pleasing film. I'm not talking about the use of camera angles or anything in particular. I just think that the film quality, the texture of the sets and costumes, the use of colour and so on make the whole thing quite appealing and in some respects comfortable to look at and watch even if I think some of the designs (particularly for the First Order's gear) are not entirely successful (seeming somewhat like arbitrary tweakings of what has come before).

Conclusion

Did he shoot this wearing a green glove?
As should be evident I've mellowed, and that's largely due to the film's pleasant look and effective characterisation, the latter being a strength of The Force Awakens which at first glance Rogue One appears to be lacking. One thing I want to see in the next film (besides plenty of Luke) is for Rey to interact with Poe in some capacity. I'm interested to see Episode VIII and I hope that something interesting is done with the next step of the story. Then again, I said that before. I still think The Force Awakens is flawed and could have been better, but let's say that I can live with it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"Rogue One" Initial (Bad) Impressions

Note spelling, please.
I wasn't remotely enthused by the trailers for Rogue One, but because I'm a pathetic consumerist stooge I went to a midnight screening anyway because with something inevitable like this I feel like it's better to stick your hand into the boiling oil straight away rather than waiting for other people to tell you how much it's going to hurt. I tried to give Rogue One the benefit of the doubt, but I'm afraid to say that I didn't enjoy it very much at all. I'll give my first impressions as two categories and sub-categories within them of things I did not enjoy and things I did enjoy. Spoilers beware!

Things I Did Not Enjoy In Rogue One

The Protagonists

Another sci-fi film in which he gets killed.
Rogue One introduces us to a gang of new protagonists, the main one being Jyn Erso, but none of them (including her) are very interesting. The reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO, is kind of amusing but his role as the "funny character" felt forced to me, as if the writers were trying too hard to make him into comic relief. There's a rogue Imperial pilot named Bodhi who undergoes a bit of character development, but "a bit of character development" really wasn't enough for me. The two major heroes, Jyn and Cassian, didn't come across as engaging to me; they seemed serious and dour and uninteresting. I almost wondered if the film was deliberately making the heroes a bit dry so that when they were all killed off we wouldn't care. I guess I thought the character of Chirrut, the blind force-sensitive warrior, was kind of okay too, but his (at the risk of being tautological) endlessly-repeated mantras about the Force became rather tiresome fairly rapidly.

The Plot

"It's okay because it's the same
Death Star as before."
The story is a bit of a foregone conclusion: they're trying to get the Death Star plans and that's what they do. There's some mucking around with trying to find Jyn's father, who is the chief engineer, and the rebels being divided between those who think action, in some cases violent action, is necessary, and those who seem to be seeking a peaceful political solution, but we know it's going to be resolved in the end with them taking the fight to the Empire. The only real tension comes from wondering whether any of the heroes will survive, and given that they have no bearing on the plots of films set later it's fairly predictable when they don't.

Darth Vader's Neck

"And this scene explains what inspired Vader
to make a fist when he said 'You don't know the
power of the Dark Side!' It's like poetry."
Did no one in filming notice that Darth Vader's neck should be fairly flush with the chest/shoulder piece of his costume? It's not stuck down as such; he's free to turn his head, but there's not much of a gap between the parts. The neck piece is sticking up in this and looks really distracting, as if the actor's head was too big or he didn't have the helmet on properly or something. In general the physical performance of the actors playing Vader in this feels awkward and off, making the character seem like he's not the same character we see in the original films. It's understandable given his age, but James Earl Jones doesn't sound quite right as Vader anymore, something also evident in Season 2 of Star Wars: Rebels. I also didn't like the silly tower Vader appears to live in, which looks nothing like anything one could imagine fitting into the universe of the Original Trilogy and which looks like Vader rents it from the Dark Lord Sauron, replete with lava rivers. I know it's from old concept art, but there's a reason that stuff didn't make it into any of the Original films. Vader should have been off hunting rebels or something when Krennic caught up with him.

The Music
The original music to me mostly sounded like slightly-altered John Williams themes from the Original Trilogy and the Prequels; that is, they sound like someone took some of the old music and just replaced a few of the notes.

Much Of The Fan Service

"The Empire loves big polygonal shapes because
of what's explained in this novel..."
Given that it's a prequel to Episode IV and a bridge between the prequels and the originals, there's a tonne of fan service, some of which I actually liked, but there were some less good parts, such as unnecessary cameos for Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, as well as (perhaps inevitably) R2-D2 and C-3PO. There's also an extremely fake-looking CGI Leia at the end which looks like something from one of those disturbing Robert Zemeckis films. I'll get to that more shortly...


Things I Did Enjoy In Rogue One

Grand Moff Tarkin

"You would prefer another target, a military target?
Then name the... name it! Now!"
I hate to say it, but the repeated scenes featuring a creepily CGI-recreated Grand Moff Tarkin (aka "Moffball"), fully voiced by a reasonably accurate Peter Cushing impersonator, were my favourite parts of the film. Even though Tarkin himself looked absurd – obviously motion-capture with a computer-generated face in rooms full of physically-present actors – and the voice wasn't quite right, the film captured the effortlessly engaging nature of a classic Cushing character surprisingly well, and I appreciated that the film didn't try to bullshit around the fact that Tarkin would have to be important given his importance in Episode IV, yet the actor who played him died decades ago. That being said, the CGI really just isn't up to snuff, and is deep in uncanny valley territory. They should have used an actor in makeup and prosthesis and touched it up with a little CGI as necessary rather than going the full CGI facelift route; Tarkin looks practically like he's just stepped off one of the episodes of Star Wars: Rebels that he's in, just with more detail. Nonetheless I liked seeing him (even if it wasn't really him); even as a CGI recreation he has a presence that most of the film's other characters lacked.

Darth Vader Killing A Bunch Of Dudes

"I will only give you an audience with the Emperor
if you find me some glue for my neck piece."
I don't know if I actually like this because it's inconsistent with his behaviour in the Original Trilogy, especially Episode IV, in which he seemed content to allow stormtroopers to do most of the dirty work, but I somewhat enjoyed seeing Vader lead the assault on the Rebel flagship and massacre some hapless Rebel blokes with a combination of the Force and his lightsaber. It feels very fan-service-oriented, and reminds me strongly of a piece of artwork used in Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars games more than anything you'd ever see him do in the films.

The Death Star Blowing Some Stuff Up

"My emotional state really isn't the greatest."
They can't show the Death Star destroying an entire planet, because it's set in stone that Alderaan was its first (and, indeed, only) planetary victim, but the film skirts around that by having the weapon use a less powerful superlaser attack to cause massive, but not fatal, damage to a large region of a couple of planets. I felt that this was a reasonably effective way of having the Death Star feel threatening and useful without interfering with the established narrative. It's another thing that feels inconsistent, however; I've always felt in Episode IV that the Death Star was more or less brand new and hadn't seen action yet.

That's About It, Really

"It's totally implausible that a device this enormous
and complex would have any weaknesses –
unless someone designed them into it!"
"Thank goodness for that."
There are a couple more things I could mention, like seeing Bail Organa reappear from the Prequels, which I found weirdly effective even though I don't really like his character in the Prequels, the use of the young Mon Mothma from the Revenge of the Sith deleted scenes, which sure is Disney being devoted to the franchise, and the use of Rebel leader Jan Dodonna of whom I'm only aware because of his role as a character in the Star Wars: Rebellion board game. That, however, is what Rogue One is: a string of fan-pleasing moments held together with a bunch of uninteresting characters having boring adventures. I mellowed towards The Force Awakens, so I might mellow towards this, but this feels to me like even more of a licensed fan-film than Episode VII did, and the use of CGI, impersonators, stand-ins, body-doubles and the like reminds me of things like those flashbacks in the X-Men films or maybe that Underworld prequel. It's a weird film that doesn't know what it wants to be: a serious film set in the Star Wars universe with a narrative largely independent of the rest, or a piece of flagrant fan service that largely exists to titillate nerds. It's fortunate that it tries to do the latter, because I feel that without those elements it would be unwatchably dull.