by Steve Habrat
You can’t call yourself a comic book fan if you haven’t seen Richard Donner’s powerful interpretation of DC Comics hero Superman, the first superhero epic ever projected onto the big screen. This 1978 blockbuster, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was marketed with the tagline “you’ll believe a MAN can fly” and to this day, despite dated special effects, I still do believe a man can fly. Donner’s Superman was the film that laid the foundation for superhero origin stories, one that taught Hollywood how to properly pace the origin tale of a crime fighter in tights, slowly and with a never-ending amount of care poured into each and every frame. Superman was born out of the explosion of fantasy films that came with a gigantic price tag, mainly science fiction films escapism like Star Wars. While I have never been big on Superman and I have never really been an avid collector of his comics, I will give his big screen debut credit as being one of the best big screen interpretations of his character as well as being one of the finest superhero epics ever made. I love the slow building story that arrives at an apocalyptic disaster that only the Man of Steel could prevent and the casting of Christopher Reeve is a stroke of genius as the hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”. I will even go so far to say that any director planning to make a superhero origin story should be required to watch this film before they even think about stepping behind the camera.
Superman begins with the destruction of our hero’s home planet, Krypton, and his father, Kal-El (Played by Marlon Brando), sending him to earth in an asteroid-like spacepod. Three years pass and Superman or Jor-El, as he is called on Krypton, crashes in the rural farming community of Smallville. Shortly after he lands, the kind couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) discovers the young Jor-El and proceed to raise him as a normal human being even though they are well aware of his astonishing superpowers. At age eighteen, Jor-El or Clark Kent, as he is now called, grapples with his superhuman abilities and his world is shattered when Jonathan collapses and dies from a heart attack. Shortly after his father’s death, Clark finds a mysterious green crystal in the Kent’s barn, a treasure that was aboard the ship that Clark arrived in many years ago. Clark says goodbye to the grief stricken Martha and sets out to discover who he really is and why he is capable of such incredible powers. He travels to the arctic where he uses the green crystal to build the Fortress of Solitude, a temple where he can communicate with a recording from his father. It is here that Clark begins learning about his abilities and responsibilities to the citizens of earth. More time passes and the adult Clark (Played by Christopher Reeve) arrives in the big city of Metropolis, where he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and he meets the striking Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder), who he quickly falls in love with. Clark begins to use his powers to help the people of Metropolis, which earns him the name of Superman by the press. Superman soon grabs the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman), who is developing a plot that could wipe California off the face of the earth.
Many may find Donner’s Superman a bit longwinded and slow to get to the action, but he really wants us to become attached to the Man of Steel. It is easy to like the guy, especially when Reeve steps into the character and lets his good-old-boy charm have some fun. As Clark Kent, he is an ungainly oaf who stutters through every word that pours out of his mouth. The employees of the Daily Planet march around him, barely even registering that he is actually in the room half the time. He scurries after Lois, who tries hard to humor him but also forgets about him like the rest of their colleagues. His confidence and warmth really takes hold when he rips open that button-up shirt to reveal that iconic “S” stamped proudly on his chest. He almost single handedly cleans up the streets of Metropolis in one evening and still finds time to rescue a kitty stuck in a tree. It is funny that Donner uses New York City as his Metropolis, a city that was slowly deteriorating from rampant crime during this particular era. He seems to literally be suggesting that this “Metropolis” could use a savior who is willing to clean up the streets and stand up to the grimy violence. That savior is a Christ-like alien from another planet who can see through walls, shoot lasers out of his eyes, deflect bullets, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman belongs to Reeve but his supporting cast is equally as brilliant as he is. Marlon Brando shows up as Superman’s astute father who is always offering up lessons to his pupil. When Brando steps into the frame, your eyes won’t be able to be torn away. About forty minutes into the film, he gets to deliver an unforgettable speech that compares the Man of Steel to Christ, something that may upset some viewers. Brando booms, “I have sent them you! My only son!” and you can’t help but get goosebumps. When Brando isn’t making waves as Kal-El, Gene Hackman cackles as the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, who schemes up a nuclear plot (Cold War willies anyone?) that would leave millions dead. A scene where he hacks into Superman’s head and threatens to kill thousands of people in New York City sends an icy chill through the lighter atmosphere that grips the middle part of the film. Margot Kidder is a throaty looker as the force that is Lois Lane. Moving at one hundred miles per hour, Lois is always in the wrong place at the wrong time but the scenes where she is in need of help never feel strained. A sequence where she dangles from the very top of the Daily Planet will take your breath away but you never fear that Supes won’t be able to catch his damsel in distress.
Superman is loaded with sprawling special effects, destroying everything from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in between. These scenes of destruction still make us scratch our heads and say, “How’d they do THAT?” The most impressive has to be the wobbling Golden Gate Bridge, where the Man of Steel glides in and saves a bus of school children from tumbling to their death. The early sequences of Superman are appropriately trippy, fitting for their intergalactic landscape that looks like it would have been at home in something like Angry Red Planet or This Island Earth. These wondrous images are complimented by a trumpeting score that could only come from John Williams, who composes one of the greatest scores in the history of motion pictures. There are moments of Superman that are devilishly funny, lovingly winking at all the blue, yellow, and red clad fans that are hanging on every second of the film. My favorite wink has to be a scene where Clark is looking for a place to rip off his business attire to reveal the Superman armor. He jogs up to an exposed phone booth but opts for a revolving door that offers him some privacy for a quick wardrobe change. Yet the sweetest moments of the film are the ones where Superman literally sweeps Lois off her feet, taking her up into the clouds. These scenes show us that the Man of Steel has a mushy center.
Overall, Superman is grand achievement for the superhero genre. It proved that these stories could have intellectual ideas swirling below the special effects as well as breezy stories with tons of “WOW” moments. At two hours and twenty minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, something only Superman is capable of. In the end, the whole picture belongs to Reeve, who can’t be topped as the squeaky clean do-gooder. Surprisingly, he lets a small amount of darkness and rage slip into his soul, especially when someone close to him bites the dust in the final moments. You will be hoping that suppressed rage and darkness will be let loose in later installments. Donner’s Superman is a larger than life explosion of sheer superhero bliss that you will want to revisit again and again. Bring on part two!
Superman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
What a hypnotic and transcendent film that Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction/neo-noir film Blade Runner is. An entrancing genre mashing of sounds, images, words, philosophy, and artistic vision that finds very few challengers to this day. One of the biggest cult films around, Blade Runner was a polarizing film when it was first released but has since gained a wider audience who yearn to be transported to Scott’s twinkling metropolis where it always rains, femme fatales strut in smoke filled rooms, and large neon corporations bear down on the dystopian Los Angeles from all angles. If Blade Runner chose to not say anything at all, it could exist solely as a visual work of art that could hold us in wide-eyed wonder, making us nervous to even blink for fear we would miss a tiny detail. Released almost thirty years ago, the film still has some of the most breathtaking effects that I have ever seen (seriously), not aging a day while continuing to maintain their rusty allure. The film has managed to reverberate with a wide ranger of viewers, from intellectuals eager to decipher the deeper code to science fiction fanatics just looking for a spaceships and laser guns spectacle, for its grand approach and bold pairing of two different genres that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.
Blade Runner ushers us into the dystopian world of Los Angeles in 2019. We meet Rick Deckard (Played by Harrison Ford), a “blade-runner” who hunts down bioengineered beings known as replicants, who are banned on earth and incapable of showing empathy. These replicants are designed to perform tasks that could be dangerous to normal human begins and usually only live about four years. Deckard’s job is to track down and “retire” (kill) the replicants who get loose on earth. While dining on a meal of sushi and noodles one dreary evening, Deckard is detained by officer Gaff (Played by Edward James Olmos) and taken to his former supervisor, Bryant (Played by M. Emmet Walsh), and finds himself forced into taking on one last job. This one last job asks that Deckard track down four replicants who have come to earth to find their designer and are leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. These replicants, Roy Batty (Played by Rutger Hauer), Pris (Played by Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Played by Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Played by Brion James), are extremely dangerous and capable of blending in with normal human begins. This last job pushes Deckard to the edge and introduces him to Tyrell (Played by Joe Turkel), head of the Tyrell Corporation who produces Nexus 6 replicants, which is what Deckard may be dealing with, and falling for an advanced experimental replicant named Rachael (Played by Sean Young), who believes herself to be human.
In a way, it is not surprising to know that Blade Runner didn’t cause too much of a stir when it was first released in June of 1982. By that time, George Lucas had shown us what could be done with science fiction and special effects with Star Wars. Coming just two short years after The Empire Strikes Back and a year before Return of the Jedi, science fiction gurus were most likely not on the prowl for a much more thoughtful and meditative futuristic thriller. By the early 80’s, it was all about the action and while Blade Runner does have some action (it is sporadic), it doesn’t have enough to satisfy the lust for explosions that a Star Wars fan has. The film was attacked for having a weak storyline and poor pacing, which today seems just downright absurd considering some of the garbage of today that is disinterested in any sort of build up. The first time you see Blade Runner, you will be caught off guard by the slower pace of the film (I was), but Scott clearly understands what he is doing and each step he takes toward the big finish seems like it is a completely necessary one and he refuses stop to give us dizzying flashes and blinding bangs of action. In all the rusted steel, dangling wires, and pulsing lights, Scott gives us a never-ending string of conversations about emotion and memories, making Blade Runner a very intimate and human encounter in a world with shimmering artificial advancement and consumerism.
Ford’s performance as Deckard also adds to the hushed pace of the film, a hushed hero who has been forced into taking on a job he really doesn’t want. He finds himself falling for Rachael, which he grapples with until he cannot resist the urge anymore. He sulks through rain soaked streets atmospherically lit by glowing neon advertisements, pulsing strip clubs, and ominous hotel rooms that belong to fugitives. He is far from the grinning, rip-roaring action hero in Indiana Jones and Star Wars. He is absolutely unforgettable as the drained hard-boiled detective. When the film gets to the final showdown between Deckard and Roy, Deckard is a normal flesh and blood guy getting pummeled rather than a superhero who can keep up an ultra-strong being. There has been some debate over whether Deckard is a replicant but his character wanders a dreary, decaying landscape where nothing seems sincere, where corporations dominate the never-ending steel labyrinth. It seems like his character has numbed to his backdrop, a world that doesn’t require any real feeling at all.
The supporting cast of Blade Runner is also memorable, the best being Hauer’s Roy Batty, who never seems like he is in any big rush. He is a mysterious villain who claims he has seen unforgettable things in his existence and craves an extended life as he stalks Ford’s disoriented Deckard. He is a villain that fights with his words rather than his superhuman strength, which are both terrifying when accompanied by the absolutely flawless lighting scheme and the one-of-a-kind score that allows Blade Runner to take on a life of its own. Also notable are Daryl Hannah as Pris, a leggy replicant who enjoys slinking around like a spider and using her innocence to manipulate her frail prey. She is just as unpredictable and dangerous as Roy. You will also find Young’s Rachael grabbing for your sympathies as she comes to terms with the fact that she is a replicant implanted with someone else’s memories. You feel her longing to be human and her spark when she begins to fall for Deckard. We also get small but equally great performances from William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, a designer who works closely with Turkel’s businessman Tyrell.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Blade Runner is the marvelous lighting that is strung throughout, effective lit to give maximum ambiance. It can be harsh but often ethereal and strangely soothing. The final showdown between Roy and Deckard is without question the best lighting sequence in the entire film, one that finds our characters backlit by beams of white light in a derelict prison of chain link fence, wood, and checkered tile. The climax does swell into a crescendo of run-down beauty, a dazzling mixture of glorious rays of light, moldy darkness, swirling score, and heady ideas of death and memories. For the casual viewer, it may take a few viewings to really allow you to make a final judgment on the film. I myself was a little unsure of how I felt about it on my first viewing but as years pass, I have grown fond of the film’s technical accomplishments, its neo-noir story, and Ford’s controlled performance. A busy work of art that demands we look closer, Blade Runner dares to challenge the viewer and push the boundaries of science fiction, creating something that still feels fresh to this day.
Blade Runner is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After the numbing Attack of the Clones, it was anyone’s guess where the Star Wars saga would go next. Would Lucas improve it and finally catch the rollicking spirit that made the original three films great or would he continue to bog every frame and actor down with relentless CGI garbage? The answer is that he would do both with Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. The third entry in Lucas’s modern trilogy would be the closest to the original films, both visually and spiritually, but the film would also suffer from his refusal to ease up on the CGI that practically splits every frame of this overly busy and rocky final installment. In the time between The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, one would think that Lucas would try to improve his communication with his actors, fine tuning how to instruct them to be somewhat believable, especially with the misguided Hayden Christensen, who acts more like a rebellious teenager rather than troubled man consumed by demons, both internally and externally. Instead, Lucas seemed to be more interested in making Darth Vader unintentionally funny and dreaming up CGI aliens.
Revenge of the Sith opens with the Republic and the Separatists still waging the Clone War. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) have been sent to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the dreaded half alien and half robot General Grievous. After a narrow escape, Anakin returns to his wife Padmé (Played by Natalie Portman), who reveals to him that she is pregnant. Anakin has recently found himself suffering from visions of Padmé dying during childbirth. Soon, Chancellor Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, the man controlling the conflict between the Republic and the Separatists. Darth Sidious begins convincing Anakin to become his Sith apprentice in the absence of Obi-Wan, who has gone after General Grievous. As Anakin slowly falls under the spell of the wicked Darth Sidious, Obi-Wan returns to try to save Anakin before he is consumed by the dark side of the force. Anakin, however, believes that Darth Sidious is the only one who can save Padmé’s life.
Lucas includes a few more of the original characters in Revenge of the Sith. We get a brief cameo by the Wookies and a quick glimpse of Chewbacca, one of the greatest characters from the original trilogy. Yoda begins to seem weaker and appear much more feeble than in the previous two installments. R2D2 and C-3P0 have heavier roles here and seem more at home in Revenge of the Sith over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Even Emperor Palpatine pulling the dark hood over his head will send an electric jolt of excitement through you. It also doesn’t hurt to finally have Anakin in the iconic costume of Darth Vader by the finale. Yet Lucas poorly paces much of the action in Revenge of the Sith, making it incredibly difficult to get excited about the events setting the stage for the classic trilogy. A battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan is way too short and unsatisfying. A brief showdown between Anakin Skywalker and Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee) seems thrown in just to let us know that Dooku is still in the picture. Even the climatic showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan is lumpy and inconsistent, a bit too cartoonish and by the end is just the two men glaring at each other as computerized lava splashes around them.
The bane of the first half of the Star Wars saga has been the acting, an issue that I still can’t believe that Lucas overlooked. It’s been about the visual effects with Episodes I-III and sadly, the same problem plagues Revenge of the Sith. Here we have epic shots of planets that largely failed to capture our imaginations that feature characters we are only slightly acquainted with getting killed. Lucas is convinced that if the score mourns for these characters, so will we. He gives us several shots of the Jedi being wiped out, Jedi that we only see from time to time, but not ones we know. He fairs better with the departure of Yoda and the death of Mace Windu (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). Christensen fairs no better in Revenge of the Sith, his acting actually being worse here than in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas slaps some red contacts in Christensen’s eyes (Actually, he probably just digitally made his eyes red. Lucas wouldn’t dare do anything authentic. Who am I kidding!?) and expects us to quiver in our seats. He didn’t frighten me in the least, but when the Vader suit emerges, you will quiver. That quiver will quickly fade into laughter when he delivers the worst line of dialogue ever written (“NOOOOOOOO!”). It’s the furthest thing from a Vader response and ruins a tense emotional moment. Way to go, Lucas!
Portman and McGregor are the true veterans who deserve a round of applause. They do a fine job with the hodgepodge that Lucas hands them. By the end of this film, I had grown to care about Kenobi. McGregor injected a soul into his character and made him more than just a sloppy outline. Portman isn’t the strong female force this time around, which was slightly depressing, but understandable due to her character’s pregnancy. Lucas did not execute the shift from strong to heartbroken gracefully but Portman handles it like a professional. You catch brief glimpses of regret for putting her heart on the line and devastation that the man she loves is filled with brimming such cruelty. Jackson’s composed and astute Mace Windu is also a standout here, another character that worms his way into your heart. It was truly difficult to watch his final moments unfold on screen. This credit should go to Jackson, though, because I’m sure Lucas was more concerned with how many spaceships he could think up and cram into the background.
Another problem that has plagued Episodes I-III is the fact that Lucas hasn’t truly given us multifaceted villains to fear. They have become iconic strictly in physical appearance. Personality wise, they have been stiffs who are only present to cackle menacingly and serve as the other end in a lightsaber battle. Revenge of the Sith shakes this curse in the final moments when Vader stands next to Emperor Palpatine as they watch the construction of the dreaded Death Star. Familiarity was key for Revenge of the Sith, which is what ultimately allowed the film to be slightly better than Attack of the Clones. It still lacked a truly adventurous side–the one that I believe saved The Phantom Menace from truly sucking. Yet in a strange way, familiarity is what also gave The Phantom Menace another leg to stand on. I felt like I was watching a Star Wars film the first time I saw it and I still do when I see The Phantom Menace, a plus that allows me to overlook Jar Jar Binks. I can’t say the same for Attack of the Clones, a film that felt like a knock off of Star Wars film rather than actually seeming like one of the installments in the series. In Revenge of the Sith, I sometimes felt like I was watching one, and half is better than none, in my opinion. Revenge of the Sith is painfully middling, but it is worth sitting through the monotonous to get to that familiar and proficiently composed fifteen-minute finale.
Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith is now available on Blu-ray.
by Steve Habrat
If Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace troubled fans about the intentions of George Lucas, then Episode II-Attack of the Clones, boasting a B-movie title that seems like a forgotten Cold War science fiction film from the 50’s, solidified concerns. In the wake of the backlash against the fourth Batman film, Batman & Robin, Chris O’Donnell famously said, “I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.” I wonder what everyone thought on the set of Attack of the Clones, a soulless action film that seems like a cross between a video game demo and a toy plug, all while Lucas laughs in the faces of his loyal fans. Everything in Attack of the Clones is a mess, from the script, to the muddled plot, to its creepy romance that sparks between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé, the intentions of Lucas are simple—make more money! Even the spirit of adventure, was still alive and well in The Phantom Menace was removed and instead, the film resorts to auto pilot and disjointed segments of action that seem like they were designed for video games rather than a feature film. Going back and revisiting the film in Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but think of O’Donnell’s famous recollection of his experience on Batman & Robin. Instead, I didn’t feel like I was making a toy commercial but I felt like I was watching the most expensive one in the history of commercials.
Attack of the Clones picks up several years after the events of The Phantom Menace, with Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) now barely an adult, undergoing Jedi Knight training from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor). The opening reveals that the Galactic Republic is in crisis and is now facing a separatist movement lead by the evil Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee). Padmé Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman), now a senator, makes an appearance at the Galactic Senate to cast a vote against the creation of an Army of the Republic, which sparks several assassination attempts aimed at Padmé. Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) demands that she be placed under the protection of Obi-Wan and Anakin. Soon, Anakin and Padmé find a forbidden romance blossoming between them and Obi-Wan sets off to investigate and track a mysterious and lethal bounty hunter called Jango Fett (Played by Temuera Morrison). His investigations of the assassination attempts lead him to the planet of Kamino, where he discovers the creation of a clone army. He also learns that Count Dooku and Trade Federation Vicory Nute Gunray are redeveloping their dreaded droid army and are dead set on killing Padmé.
Attack of the Clones is more of a project that gives fans a look at early designs of the storm troopers and the early days of the popular bounty hunter Boba Fett. It all amounts to a bunch of relentless CGI battles, hammy acting, and unexciting explorations of insipid planets. It features perhaps some of the worst acting in the saga, mostly stemming from Christensen’s Anakin, who whines all of his dialogue and sounds like a teenager who hasn’t hit puberty trying to deepen his voice to sound intimidating. I absolutely detested his character and the half-assed attempts by Lucas to show fleeting signs of the darkness in him. It never put fear in my heart and Attack of the Clones fails to make us truly like him. That was the point, after all, that when his inevitable fall comes in Episode III, it would overwhelm us with grief for his character.
There is much more profession in the work from Lee’s Count Dooku as well as returning cast members Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, McGregor’s Obi-Wan, and Portman’s Padmé. They all seem to understand that Lucas has little to no interest in them and their performances carrying any emotional weight so they put in their own individual effort. The main problem with Dooku is he isn’t really explained and is instead just the accepted bad guy. Matching Christensen in the unconvincing acting department is Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, who is like an exaggeration of a villain. He tries so hard to be bad and suspicious that it comes off as a joke. He gives mock “muhaha’s” along with his son Boba (Played by Daniel Logan) as they relentlessly try to kill Obi-Wan in air chases and lightsaber versus laser pistol battles.
Lucas tweaks the story to make it a bit more accessible to casual viewers, even more so than The Phantom Menace, which is perplexing due to the darker tone of Attack of the Clones. He pours more attention into his CGI critters that scamper and fly around, none that are remotely impressive or noteworthy. Yoda ends up being his greatest success but I still wish he had used a puppet in the spirit of The Empire Strikes Back. Here Yoda finally throws down and fights, a scene that drove the diehard fans wild when I saw it opening day all those years ago. Every other alien, vehicle, or battle sequence exists simply to end up being an action figure or instruct children on how to play with the toys that will be made in the wake of the film’s release. Nothing seems to be there to aid in telling a worthy story. It doesn’t help that he poorly edits his battle scenes, making them too short, anti-climatic, or just plain monotonous. The final clone battle resembles cut scenes from a video game. I kept waiting for Lucas to come barging through my front door and toss me a video game controller.
In the end, Attack of the Clones is a victim it’s own excesses. Every shot echoes with the cries of Lucas demanding more! It never filled me with childlike awe, got my adrenaline pumping, or whisked me away on the wings of adventure. In fact, I find myself largely blocking the film out, straining to remember certain aspects of it. The film droned on and on but never said much. It is a bloated project that ambles towards the finish line and coughs up an awkward attempt at romance that I never bought into for a second. Furthermore, Lucas doesn’t even come close to matching the climatic lightsaber battle in The Phantom Menace. In my opinion, I found Attack of the Clones to be the lowest point of the Star Wars saga, a film that should not have began with the famous introduction, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but rather “Right now, on a video game console just in the other room…”
Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the Star Wars Saga boxed set.
by Steve Habrat
If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.
The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.
Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.
The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.
The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.
The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.
by Steve Habrat
If you are someone who is familiar with the evolution of the horror genre on film, you understand that horror underwent a massive metamorphosis in the 1960s. The more traditional approach to horror films, which means the use of monsters and mutated freaks, was beginning to diminish and the interest in the human monster was growing at a rapid rate. There had been serial killers (Whitman and Gein) and the true embodiment of evil (Nazi Germany) which had shown their ugly mugs to the citizens of America. Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster simply no longer freaked us out and we were instead cowering at the average Joe that lived down the street. One of the first films to openly address the death of one movie monster and the birth of another was Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, which features Boris Karloff playing a version of himself and a Charles Whitman-esque serial killer. Prosthetic movie monsters just weren’t relevant and as times became more and more violent, so did the horror movies. They were unpolished and tattered, grainy and off-putting, economical but effective.
Star Wars and Jaws kicked off the special effects boom in the mid 1970s but it truly gained momentum in the 1980s. This movement did not just mold the blockbuster genre, but it touched horror too. The horror films of the 1980s were loaded with gruesome special effects and new advances in make-up that left audience member’s stomachs churning. We had everything from Freddy Kruger to Evil Dead. We also had 1985’s Fright Night. Fright Night took the old fashioned concept of vampires and smashed it together with the monster in suburbia. The results are a half campy, half eerie merger that stands as a minor classic in the eyes of horror buffs everywhere.
Fright Night kicks off with a collage of shots of quiet suburban streets that look like they could have been plagiarized from John Carpenter’s Halloween. We climb into the bedroom of Charlie Brewster (Played by William Ragsdale) who’s necking with his gal-pal Amy (Played by Amanda Bearse). While they are preoccupied, we see Charlie’s television playing Fright Night, a horror show that presents old fright flicks that feature Peter Vincent (Played by Roddy McDowell), the self proclaimed vampire slayer. Charlie soon realizes that his debonair new neighbor Jerry (Played by Chris Sarandon) isn’t just a smooth ladies man, but a ferocious killer with something to hide. He happens to be a vampire. Jerry realizes that Charlie has discovered his dirty little secret and begins threatening Charlie (One scene involves a petrifying transformation that will knock your socks off), his mother, and his girlfriend. But when Jerry encounters Charlie’s girlfriend, who resembles a woman from his past, the terror around Charlie escalates even further.
What makes the original Fright Night work is its sleepover appeal. It’s a movie you could pop on with a bunch of your friends and watch with beers in hand. It packs a handful of memorable creep outs and some remarkable monster make-up effects. One lady vamp in particular will be etched into your brain for the rest of your days. The effects have aged well since 1985 and will satisfy the skeptics. Remember, they weren’t making movies like Transformers during this era. Yet the effects, which sometimes consist of claymation techniques, are often scarier than the rubbery CGI that’s slapped onto movies these days. They are at least guaranteed to gross the viewer out.
Another reason to seek out the original Fright Night is the panting, wild-eyed performance from Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed, Charlie’s smartass chum who at first provides sarcastic advice on how to dispatch a bloodsucker and then turns into one himself. Ed comes equipped with an icky transformation scene and the neatest make-up of all the demons lurking in the film. Geoffreys disappears into the performance and becomes one of the more memorable bloodsuckers in the history of vampire cinema. The film also benefits from the anxiety-drenched performance from Ragsdale, who is all twitchy desperation. Sarandon is magnetic at the beginning but he seems to run out of steam and he lets his make-up do the work in the climax. It’s a shame because he is uncannily imperturbable at the start.
Director Tom Holland effortlessly mixes gothic horror with suburban normalcy. Jerry’s home is shrouded in mist and moss. I admit I half expected to see toppled graves and headstones littering the backyard. It’s delightfully old fashioned. The film is however derailed by it’s shameless 80s flair, making the film a complete relic of it’s own era. The score is all thumping synths and blaring saxophones, which cause the film to seem painfully dated. It’s also loaded with the expected pastel color palette, especially in a wobbly club sequence. Yet Fright Night is still a relic worth digging up. It has truly classic moments that I’m sure fans that saw the film at the lap up with glee again and again. The film can also be seen as a minor little commentary of belief in good and evil, which suits the conservative Reagan era quite nicely. Furthermore, its use of a more traditional menace makes the film all the more stirring against its political backdrop. It has moments of pure cheese and it will cause you to giggle, but that isn’t a particularly bad thing. It’s a spooky, kooky good time you won’t mind reliving. Grade: B