(Fourth or Fifth Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) I do have a soft spot for Return of the Jedi: I don’t hate the Ewoks as much as some pretend to do (heck, keep in mind that they’re probably going to eat those fallen Stormtroopers) and as a kid who was eight when the movie came out, cinema couldn’t get any better than the sequence in which the Millennium Falcon goes inside the Death Star to blow it up. Decades later, I still get a kick out of that sequence, especially given its place in the three-ring circus that is the last act of the film. Richard Marquand does a fine job directing a complicated film, and the result it still fun to watch. I’m not happy with some of the digital alterations made to the movie since its release—the celebration sequences set on planets that would be introduced in the prequels are the worst. Mark Hamill is a much stronger presence this time around (even though the short timeline between the two movies don’t support much of his growth), while Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are up to their standards. (Fisher never looked better than in this film, and I’m not talking about the Jabba-the-bikini sequence as much as her long hair extensions down in the Ewok village.) While revisiting the original Star Wars as a not-eight-years-old was a serious let-down, the two immediate sequels are still fine—as long as you learn to live with the various idiocies of the science-fantasy adventure tone requiring so many contrivances along the way.
(Fourth or Fifth Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Popular opinion has it that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, and even a recent look as a jaded middle-aged man (who’s happy not to be eight years old any more) does little to convince otherwise. The much-better dialogue helps a lot, but it’s impossible to discount the impact of three memorable locations (Hoth, Dagobah and Bespin) along with a sombre finale that raises the stakes for all characters. Irwin Kirshner is also a better director, and the actors understand what they’re trying to do—Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher still run circles around Mark Hamill, but the film benefits a lot from the addition of Billy Dee Williams as the truly cool Lando Carlissian. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett (a written SF legend) does her best work in spinning the Han/Leia romance carefully through a series of antagonistic interactions. The special effects are generally successful, and I’ll note that the 1997 digital enhancements seem more natural here than in the overstuffed re-edit of A New Hope. I hadn’t seen the film since its 1997 re-release in theatres and I found it much better than its immediate prequel.
(On Blu-ray, March 2018) So the newest mainline Star Wars movie is out and wow is it interesting. After criticisms that The Force Awakens was a carbon copy of A New Hope, here comes The Last Jedi, seemingly determined to outdo The Empire Strikes Back and undercut expectations at every turn. Never mind the mind-warping idiocy of the premise (space bombers requiring gravity? A space chase in which they need fuel to keep going the same speed? Why is this so dumb?) when the entire movie, from plot points to one-liners, seems determined to shake up the Star Wars legacy. Consider the repeated undercutting of the heroic male as represented by Poe. Consider the savaging of the idea that Rey’s parentage was important. Consider Luke as a reluctant mentor. Consider the silly humour of “general Hugs” or the milking sequence, at odds with the series so far. Consider the script, replete with dialogue along the lines of “I didn’t expect that,” “I assumed, wrongly,” “let the past die,” “It’s time for the Jedi … to end.” Heck, simply consider the misdirection in which a steam iron is momentarily made to look like a new ship. Most of the plans hatched in this movie are near-complete failures. Dozens of plot arcs launched in The Force Awakens are cut shot here, usually unceremoniously. The ending is the bleakest in the series so far, even in acting as a counterpoint to The Empire Strikes Back. This is no mere accumulation of coincidences: Official interviews confirm that there was very little overarching plotting for the trilogy—writer/director Rian Johnson was able to go wherever he wanted with this film, with little regard to the intentions of the previous film. Considering that, it’s easy to understand why a number of Star Wars fans were infuriated at the result—it certainly doesn’t fulfill expectations, and arguably destroys quite a bit of the Star Wars mythos in the process. On the other hand … for jaded viewers who have been contemplating a yearly Star Wars franchise unable to take risks, this is a welcome shot in the arm. It’s worth reminding everyone that the trilogy isn’t complete—there may be retractions and further revelations to build upon the earthquake seen here. It’s all very interesting, which wasn’t necessarily something to be said about The Force Awakens (although it was one of the strengths of Rogue One). It helps that the film itself is reasonably made, although with significant issues. At nearly two hours and a half, it’s too long by at least fifteen minutes—the last act in particular feels like an afterthought after the climactic throne room confrontation. The idea of Canto Bight is far better than its execution, and while cutting off dramatic arcs in unexpected fashion is intriguing, it’s also frustrating—the case example here being the somewhat unceremonious end for Captain Phasma. The special effects work is fantastic, the Porgs aren’t as annoying as expected, and the actors aren’t bad either—among the newcomers, the ever-interesting Laura Dern makes a good impression in an unusual role, while Kelly Marie Tran brings a bit of welcome diversity (not simply in ethnicity, but also in class) to the usual cast. Mark Hamill makes the most out of his acting repertoire, while Adam Driver is a bit more than an angsty antagonist this time around. Still, the star here is the plot and its willingness to go against expectations. I’m not entirely happy with the results, but I’m far more interested in seeing where the next episode will take us than I was at the end of The Force Awakens. I’m still bothered by a lot of the world building, but, eh, it’s Star Wars after all. Plausibility doesn’t factor in.
(Seventh or eighth viewing, On Blu-ray, May 2017) Well, well, well… Star Wars. The original. A fixture of my childhood, to the point where I long thought of the movie as review-proof: what would I possibly say about a film I watched every time it played on TV when I was a boy? I last saw it in theatres when it was re-released in 1997, and before then in the mid-nineties in a campus theatre with a bunch of animation students enthusiastic about the 1993 Definitive collection laserdisc, and before that nearly every broadcast on Radio Canada… But as I sat down to celebrate the 40th anniversary “May the Fourth” to watch the latest 2011 Blu-ray release of the 1977 film, I realized that there is, actually, quite a bit to say about Star Wars from a critical perspective. I’m not seven anymore, and the flaws of the film are more glaring than I expected. The story is simplistic. George Lucas’s dialogue, other than some oft-quoted lines, is frankly terrible. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford have charm, but they were not gifted actors at the time (they got better, or more accurately grew more comfortable with their chosen screen persona). The universe is bare-bones and at time nonsensical. The special effects are all over the place, a flaw actually magnified by the hodgepodge of changes made to the film through the years, most notably in inserting now-dated CGI in the 1997 version of the film. The results clash, all the way to the overwhelming grain of 1977 film stock being blurred with 1997 digital makeup. The Blu-ray transfer of the film may be too good—much of the low-budget origins of the film clearly show, and harming the look of the film isn’t a good thing given that its substance is so lacking as well. Now, I still do like Star Wars—but I’ve become less and less of an uncritical fan over the years, and refreshing my memory of the first instalment does nothing to reverse the tendency. What may remain from Star Wars eventually is not much more than the launchpad of a much bigger and deeper shared universe. I’ll be watching the original trilogy in the next few months to officially log my reviews along the way (I saw them all last before I started keeping track of reviews), but I’m not going to be surprised if I end up re-evaluating the prequel trilogy based on my adjusted impressions of the three original films.
(On Blu-ray, April 2017) As much as I fear that Disney’s plans to release one Star Wars movie a year for forever will dilute the impact of the original trilogy, I’m relatively happy with the results so far. While neither The Force Awakens nor Rogue One are great movies, they’re decent films and, in the case of Rogue One, actually try something somewhat ambitious. As a putatively standalone story (but a backdoor prequel to the original film), Rogue One plays with big icons and sets a war story within the context of the Star Wars universe. It’s far from being perfect: the characters are rather dull (although it’s nice to see a Zatoichi homage in the Star Wars universe), a lot of plot-building moments are merely serviceable and there’s a scattershot nature to the plot that may be explained by the rumoured production difficulties of the movie. There are far too many dull moments where we’re waiting for the next thing to happen—and the longer you think about some of the set-pieces, the less they make sense. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stuff to like. The battle of Scarif repurposes iconic images in a tropical context and makes them feel fresh again. Many of the special effects are terrific. The production design and cinematography make impressive efforts (down to the grainy film stock) to deliver a conclusion that fits seamlessly with the 1977 original. The diverse cast is a welcome evolution. I also like the daring of using an entire film to bring further dramatic heft to the original film, transforming a few vexing plot holes into plot engines along the way. The attempt to digitally re-create two actors of the original film is admirable, even though the result doesn’t look quite right. Diego Luna, Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk deliver good performances—I wish I could say the same about Felicity Jones, but her character is written so flat as to be playable by just about anyone. Director Gareth Edwards obviously has some fun as an ascended fanboy, but I look forward to later editions of the film detailing the reshoots and arguments whispered about. Rogue One certainly could have been significantly better (tighter, punchier, wittier) in other hands, but what actually made it to the screen is surprisingly effective in its own way. Despite stiff odds, it looks as if Disney knows what it’s doing so far with the Star Wars series—now let’s see if other standalone stories will be as effective.
(On Blu-ray, April 2016) It’s not that The Force Awakens is un-reviewable—it’s that there’s so much to say that a full review would take a few pages, encompass the recent business state of Hollywood, meander on commodified nostalgia, indulge in insufferably nerdy nitpicking, and yet deliver an assessment not that far removed from “wow, competence!” This is a capsule review, so let’s start cracking: My first and biggest takeaway from The Force Awakens is that I’m not 7 years old, watching Star Wars on French-language broadcast TV and being so amazed that I can’t say anything bad about it. The Force Awakens is far from being perfect, and it doesn’t take much digging to find it crammed with problems. Even on a first view, I’m not particularly happy that thirty years later, The Rebellion hasn’t managed to establish a workable government and seems stuck in an endless echoing battle against evil. (Heck, they still haven’t changed their name, apparently.) My mind boggles at the economic or political absurdities of what’s shown on-screen, and the moment I start asking questions about basic plot plausibility is the moment I start making a lengthy list of the amazing coincidences, contrivances and plain impossible conveniences that power the plot. The jaded will point out that director J.J. Abrams has never been overly bothered by plotting logic and The Force Awakens certainly bolsters this view. Worse, perhaps, is the pacing of the film, which often goofs off in underwhelming ways rather than go forward. Then there’s the way this return to the Star Wars universe seems unusually pleased in echoing the first film’s elements, all the way to another who-cares run through a Death Planetoid’s trench. On the other hand, echoing is forgivable when the point of this film is to reassure everyone that the soon-to-be-endless Star Wars franchise is safe now that Disney took it away from George Lucas. In that matter, The Force Awakens is a success: it feels like classic Star Wars, from the visuals to the music to the elusive atmosphere of the first three films. Sometimes, a bit too much so: The decision to shoot the movie on actual film introduces film grain issues that sometimes vary from shot to shot, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. (Witness the Rey/Finn shots in the cantina…) Star Wars clearly isn’t as much about story than characters and set pieces, and that’s also where The Force Awakens succeeds: Harrison Ford seems timelessly charming as Han Solo, while John Boyega, Daisy Williams and Oscar Isaac are also easily likable in their roles. (Boyega and Isaacs are effortlessly cool, but Daisy Williams has a more delicate role as a stealth superhero.) Adam Driver has a tougher job as the intriguing Kylo Ren, riffing but not copying the series’s iconic villains. Then there are the set pieces, which often work despite shaky logic, implausible premises and nonsensical engineering. Coring a new planet-killer out of a planet may not strike anyone as the best plan, but it’s good for some fantastic images and at some point, that’s what really counts. Especially when, in the end, we’re left satisfied that this seventh Star Wars film is better than the prequel trilogy, and are left looking for more. Mark these words: There will now be a Star Wars movie every year for at least a decade and probably more. This one’s special, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t age well once the sequels start piling up.