A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
It is a period of gut-wrenching anticipation. ONE ROOM WITH A VIEW, writing from a hidden base, have decided to watch all six Star Wars films… In a row. Pursued by a nagging feeling that this isn’t how a twenty-four year old man is supposed to spend his life, I race home aboard my local Great Western branch line, custodian of the legendary films that can save my article and restore freedom to the galaxy…
Fade to starscape…
Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Yes, I’m going in episode order – mostly because I figure that between the eyestrain and the bedsores I’m going to need the quality of the later films to keep up my morale as this marathon progresses. Brace yourselves, then, as it’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace that kicks off this space odyssey. Although I know that this was the first Star Wars I ever saw as a child I don’t really remember it, my memories of the time being instead focussed on the Darth Maul Rubik’s Cube I was given that Christmas, an object that remains one of the most baffling presents I have ever received. Given the film’s reputation as the worst of the franchise, and, according to some, the worst thing ever created by humanity, I haven’t felt much of a desire to revisit it over the years so was curious to now watch and see if it really is THAT bad.
Conclusion: Yeah. Yeah, it really is THAT bad. The Phantom Menace’s long list of shortcomings include feeble villains, boring heroes, terrible dialogue, gaping plotholes, Anakin Skywalker, empty special effects and bafflingly racist aliens. I felt, though, that its biggest problem was that it just explained too much and showed us too little. There was no mystery or wonder in the Phantom Menace, just a lot of talking and exploding. Worse, it actually takes away some of the mystery and wonder of the original trilogy (forgive the skipping ahead here) by explaining mysteries that never need to be explained – like how The Force works and who built C3-P0.
There are some good bits, though. Darth Maul has an animal viciousness about him that sets him apart from any other SW villains, Coruscant is a worthy galactic capital and the bit in the submarine is fun, relying on a gloomy, paranoid atmosphere to convey a sense of peril much more real than any of the other big action scenes. Thinking about these stand-outs made me feel like Episode I must have had some pretty bright ideas behind it, which only makes the degree to which some parts of the film missed the mark seem even more puzzling – I mean, who thought that Watto was a good idea? I’ve seen subtler anti-Semitic cartoons on Second World War propaganda posters.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
I do actually remember seeing this one in the cinema and thinking, as a perfect-target-audience young boy, that it was pretty good, especially the ear-bursting asteroid belt battle (In space, no-one can hear you over the explosions). Although I wasn’t really expecting to finish today with quite the same positivity, after an extra thirteen world-wearying years, at least it couldn’t be as bad as Episode I, right?
Well… mostly right. See, if Episode I was a mountain range with a few impressive peaks and a lot of abyssal troughs, Episode II was more of a featureless swamp of mediocrity. It’s just boring. So, so boring. Do you remember anything that anyone said during this film? Like, one line of dialogue? I don’t and I only just watched it. The boring robot villains from the first film are back and now they’ve brought a whole council of boring villains, including Christopher Lee whose voice, normally as grave and arresting as a slamming sarcophagus lid, sounds so sick of it all as he lectures Obi-Wan and Yoda and anyone else who will listen about how evil he is. The locations are pretty boring, too, especially Tattooine. I never got why it is that they always decide to shoehorn that desert planet into every almost Star Wars film, despite the fact that the whole point of the place in the first film was that it’s supposed to be the most boring place in the galaxy. Then they add in another, rockier, desert planet and a water planet (which is basically the same thing but wetter) and call it a day. I wasn’t expecting Pandora but seriously, why are all the places in this escapist fantasy so bland? I suppose they wanted some consistency with the dialogue, plot and characterisation.
The best that can be said for Episode II is that it isn’t as offensive as Episode I. Although the sight of Yoda spiralling through the air like he’s made of Flubber still made me a little nauseous, at least no one mentioned midichlorians this time around. Best scenes include Anakin’s distraught massacre of the Sand People and… actually that’s about it. The asteroid belt dogfight is still really, really loud.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Now we’re getting somewhere. Whereas the last two films both opened with a diplomatic delegation arriving somewhere to talk to someone, Episode III drops from the title crawl straight into the biggest space battle of the entire series. Straight away the meagre set pieces of the other two prequels are blown out of the water and we actually get a proper war among the proper stars. Things are looking up as Christopher Lee is beheaded in favour of the much better General Greivous, a lightsabre-wielding cyborg with a breathing problem (sometimes it’s best to stick with what you know works) and neither Watto nor Jar Jar are anywhere in sight.
Meanwhile, fiction’s evillest man, Soon-to-be-Emperor Palpatine, seduces Anakin to the dark side by promising to save Anakin’s beloved wife. It’s a pretty simplistic reason to turn evil and Anakin’s tragic fall could definitely have been more convincing. It all seems a bit rushed as Anakin goes from hero to child-massacre perpetrator in one (admittedly pretty great) scene but, that said, it gets the job done and ticks the ‘tragic downfall’ box that the prequels were always leading towards. Palpatine himself is just perfect, finally reverting to the absolute bastard we see in Episode VI (Sorry, jumping ahead again) after being on his best behaviour in the last two films.
Episode III does have its shortcomings, however, the main one of which is summed up in a memory I have from the last time I watched this DVD: A point in a behind the scenes feature which reduces the film’s climactic lightsabre battle to two silly-looking men standing on a completely green table in a completely green room, hitting each other with green sticks. So much of Episode III feels fake and as the film wears on a lot of the action starts to lose any kind of meaning, culminating in the Wookie-dominated battle about halfway through that looks nice enough but carried absolutely no weight whatsoever.
So we’re seven hours in and the prequels are, mercifully, over. They got better as they went on but, as a whole, suffered from generally cheesy dialogue, boring subplots and empty action sequences. Deep breath. Things are about to get wonderful.
Star Wars AKA Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
It hasn’t been sixteen years since I last watched this one, I know what’s coming.
All of the mystery and wonder than were missing in the prequels are present in spades here, more so possibly than any of the other films. Episode IV begins in the middle of an ongoing story: We don’t know who C3-PO or R2-D2 are but we know they’re grubby and well-worn and when they say they have been through a lot together we believe them. Leia and Vader have had dealings before and Han Solo just oozes a lifetime of misadventures. Everything looks used and beaten and Obi-Wan’s wistful tales of the Old Republic all add to this sense of an ongoing universe that exists outside the film that anyone could be a part of. Add to that the mythology of The Force and the malevolence of the Empire and the seeds were sown for the largest multimedia franchise in history.
That aside, it’s the introduction of a ton of iconic characters that really make this film: Han and Chewie are just about the best pair of space scoundrels ever created, Tarkin is as efficient and sinister as the Empire he represents and Leia proves that princesses can be far more than damsels in distress. Even Luke, moany and slightly bland as he is, works well as a character that the audience can relate to and cheer for as he quickly develops over the course of the film. Best of all of them, though, is everyone’s favourite larynx-crushing cyborg wizard, Darth Vader. Forget the whiny prequel dweeb, forget the unending parodies, forget the merchandise and the Lego minifig and the Angry Bird – When Vader first appears, a jet-black juggernaut storming down that corpse-strewn corridor and the trumpets sound and the wheezing starts and he just looks from side to side, surveying the destruction: he is the most terrifying thing you will ever see in a PG film. I love Darth Vader; his jerky, unnatural movements, how he moves so slowly and then so quickly, his arrogance as he tells Obi-Wan that ‘Now, I am the Master’ and his disbelief as Obi-Wan magically vanishes, all expressed without any facial expression whatsoever. It’s no wonder he, who was originally scripted to die at the end of Episode IV, soon becomes the overall protagonist of the entire series.
Best bit? Luke watches the binary sunset over his home planet, frustratingly aware of just how little he matters to the galaxy. John Williams’ score here is heartbreaking.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Wow, Episode IV was great, all those brilliant heroes sticking it to the evil Empire, romping around the galaxy, saving the day… I do hope nothing bad happens to them in the sequel! Especially as my nine-hour film fatigue has left me in quite an emotionally vulnerable state.
Generally (though far from exclusively) regarded as the best film of the series Episode V is definitely the most grown up. The opening scenes on the ice planet Hoth are far more gruesome and violent than anything in the first film and Episode V only gets more dramatic from there. Set in gloomy swamps and smoky factories, this film sees Darth Vader – complete with iconic new theme song – get the upper hand on our heroes at every turn, subjecting them to torture, mutilation and THAT revelation. It’s a huge tonal shift from Episode IV which gives Empire Strikes Back a distinctive character of its own and allows it to move out from the huge shadow of its predecessor.
With the characters mostly already established, it is the locations that stood out most to me watching again. Bright and desolate, Hoth is great to show off the still-impressive special effects of the massive pitched battle that takes up most of Act I. The swamp planet Dagobah, refuge of exiled Jedi Master Yoda, is convincingly horrible and, at times, genuinely creepy. The film is stolen by Cloud City though, a place where grimy neon factories are hidden from view behind pristine offices – a clever reflection of the veneer of charm that hides the plots unfolding among the clouds.
That charm comes to you courtesy of Billy Dee William’s smooth administrator Lando Calrissian, my absolute favourite character in Star Wars. If Han Solo was a scoundrel turned hero then Lando is that squared. With a cape! Still no answer on why he wears Han’s clothes in that scene at the end though. The other major new character, Master Yoda, is even more iconic although thanks to the prequels his ‘Wars not make one great’ philosophy seems a bit odd when five hours ago I was watching him order an army of slavish clone soldiers to blow up everything in sight.
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Almost there! It’s the thrilling no-longer conclusion of the Star War series where Luke becomes a Jedi, confronts the Emperor and generally makes right all that went wrong in the last film, starting with heading back to Tattooine to bust Han out of his imprisonment in Jabba the Hutt’s cave of hedonistic disgustingness. I could have said cave of disgusting hedonism but I’m really quite tired now.
Jabba’s palace is a great look at the sleazy underside of the Star Wars universe and an interesting contrast to the sharp, sleek evil of the Galactic Empire. Luke’s transition from boy-in-training to mysterious warrior is a bit unexplained (unless you read the dozens of books that bridge the one-year gap between these two films) but there’s not much time to dwell on it as we quickly get swept up in a fun adventure featuring monsters, mobsters and a certain gold bikini.
From there it’s back to business as usual as there’s another Death Star to blow up, this time with the big, bad Emperor personally involved and a chance to cut the head off the snake and win the war for the rebellion. Just like in Episode III, the Emperor is one of the best things about this film – subtlety never was Star Wars’ strong suit so it makes sense that its ultimate villain is an unrestrained personification of total evil. He’s sarcastic, smug and vindictive but also ingeniously manipulative and terrifyingly powerful, not to mention powerfully terrifying. He is a worthy final villain in a series chock full of memorable bad guys.
There are things to criticise about Episode VI: The plot holes are numerous and confusing, the Ewoks always divide opinion and the reuse of the Death Star as the rebellion’s target seems pretty lazy. That said, Return of the Jedi is as worthy a final chapter as the Emperor is a worthy final enemy – it’s fun, a little goofy and wraps up all of the subplots nicely for a final happily-ever-after ending.
That is, until Episode VII…