Star Wars: Episode V

Viewed  – 21 October 2011  Blu-ray

The Empire Strikes Back

When I was young, discovering these movies for the first time, ‘Empire was not my favourite.  I actually remember loving Return Of The Jedi most.  But I suppose with more mature eyes I have grown to appreciate just why this fifth instalment in the saga is regarded by so many as the best.  The rebels are hiding out on the ice planet of Hoth whilst evil lord Darth Vader is searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) following the destruction of the Death Star.  Luke is then told by the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) that he must seek out Yoda in order to be trained to become a Jedi.

Almost from the start, this is a movie that flows brilliantly and is very exciting.  Battle sequences and locations burst with imagination and awe (the Imperial Walker assault especially), and unlike A New Hope at no time has George Lucas’ unnecessary tinkering made the movie anything less than it originally was.  The acting here is particularly strong and the chemistry between Carrie Fisher & Harrison Ford can not be questioned and lends the movie much of its emotional weight.  Add to this a sterling job from Mark Hamill especially during his confrontation with Vader, and this makes for a movie that is really hard to fault.

Story-wise it does suffer from that in-between feel of any trilogy, and as a plot point, just how Vader even knows about Luke Skywalker is not explained.  Also compared to A New Hope this feels a much more serious and straight forward sci-fi melodrama than that of a light and fluffy fantasy.   It’s perhaps the reason I didn’t take to it as a child.  Yet I can now see that it really does have everything … grand action, great acting, a gripping story and well placed moments of humour and emotion – a genuine masterpiece.

The Blu-ray is a revelation.  This is possibly the best looking Star Wars movie in the saga, and unquestionably ‘Empire has never looked this vibrant or detailed before … showcasing the excellent set design and gorgeous cinematography.  Watching this feels like you are watching it projected in a theatre for the very first time.  Yes, there’s moments of softness to the picture, but overall this is top notch.  The same can be said for the sound design, with the dialogue especially clear compared to A New Hope and effects and John WIlliams’ score are all delivered brilliantly.  Extras consist of deleted scenes, interviews and plenty of concept art, all on a seperate disk, whilst two commentaries, one by Lucas and co, the other compiled from archive interviews, make this a brilliant package.

Verdict:  5 /5

Star Wars: Episode IV

Viewed – 19 October 2011  Blu-ray

A New Hope

The movie that started it all, and one of the most beloved fantasy-science fiction movies of all time.  Laying down a critique on this classic is not going to be easy.  But I’ll try … Set a number of years following the down beat ending of Episode III, we are reunited with droid buddies C3PO and R2D2 aboard a star ship when it is attacked by an imperial battle ship, lead by Darth Vader.  Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is taken captive but not before she can store secret plans inside R2, who along with his golden buddy escape to the desert planet of Tatooine.  Soon they come into the possession of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who discovers the Princess’ message and quickly seeks out Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who turns Luke’s humble farm boy life upside down and promises to train him in the ways of The Force.

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Star Wars: Episode III

Viewed – 11 October 2011  Blu-ray

Revenge Of The Sith

It’s easy to see what many Star Wars fan boys have taken issue with in regards to the new trilogy.  The reliance on CGI and poor dialogue and misplaced ‘comedy’ has seemed to take away much of the mystique and grandeur of the saga they grew up loving.  George Lucas whilst a talented visualist, is not really the best director of actors, shown with such seasoned heavy weights like Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson and even Ewan McGregor coming across as hammy and wooden at times.  Yet much of these complaints can’t be levelled quite as easily at the concluding first half of this epic saga.  Lucas and his talented staff of effects wizards and production designers seem to have finally delivered the Star Wars movie fans have been waiting for.

With the Clone Wars in full swing, Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are given a mission to rescue Chancellor Palpetine (Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of Count Dookoo (Christopher Lee) and droid leader General Grievous.  Yet the rescue of Palpatine causes Anakin to question his faith in the Jedi council as Palpatine begins to manipulate him with regards to his secret marriage to Padme (Natalie Portman).  Anakin’s journey to the darkside looms ever nearer.

Darker in tone and with a more confident performance from Christensen, despite still delivering lines like a spoilt brat … there is something about this third entry that feels much more akin to the Star Wars movies of yesteryear.  Anakin’s journey to the darkside is well written and convincing, with very emotional support from Portman and McGregor hammering home the real intensity of the situation, making this feel more like a Shakespearian tragedy than a throwaway sci-fi blockbuster.  The encounters, which are plentiful and brilliantly realised build with intensity and at times the action really took my breath away, helped immeasurably by John Williams’ epic score and some of the finest special effects I have ever seen.

Lucas’ struggle with dialogue still rears its head, with some laughable lines (and a little too many ‘classic’ quotes), but overall this is streets ahead of Episode I & II, and although clearly rushed towards the end, comes together well to make the older movies, set some time after this, fit seamlessly.

The Blu-ray is gorgeous.  This is probably the best looking of the newer trilogy, with little of the soft-focus of episodes 1 & 2, and with a vibrant colour palette and a booming soundtrack, this should please any cinefile out there.  Again we have commentaries and a whole extra disk of documentaries and interviews, so again any fan should have nothing to grumble about.

Verdict:  4 /5

Star Wars: Episode II

Viewed – 22 September 2011  Blu-ray

Attack Of The Clones

I remember on first seeing this at the cinema, I really didn’t like it.  I enjoyed Phantom Menace, but this one really rubbed me up the wrong way.  Subsequent viewings have made me change my mind however and appreciate what this entry in the saga offers – but it can’t be argued, that like it’s predecessor, it still has significant problems.

Following an attempted assassination of newly elected Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are given the job of investigating.  Obi-Wan travels to a remote uncharted planet chasing a bounty hunter called Jango Fett, whilst Anakin protects Padme and begins to fall in love with her, leading to a forbidden romance.

One of the major things that lets this down where it should have triumphed, is the very mushy and totally unconvincing love story, which feels forced rather than natural.  This is not helped by the fact that Hayden Christensen’s performance is more bratty school boy than bad-ass Jedi.  Portman fares better and is sensibly more developed and centre stage than her thankless role in Menace, but even someone of her talent can’t make the love story work (but still looks hot throughout).  Ewan McGregor, now the teacher rather than the apprentice, is excellent and confident, proving himself admirably in the wake of Liam Neeson’s absence.  The action however, although spectacular and boasting some gorgeous special effects and set design, feels a lot like a video game meaning that at times it’s a little absurd.

Thankfully we have the presence of screen legend Christopher Lee as Count Dooku to show everyone how its done, and although his appearance is brief, it’s very memorable and shows that director / creator George Lucas still knows how to craft superb villains.  The story this time around is also more absorbing and moves along at a good pace, with little of politics of before.

So an improvement in some ways, but still stumbles in key areas where it really needed to impress.

The Blu-ray looks better than The Phantom Menace, and although still troubled by a soft focus look, certainly seems more detailed.  The sound of course like before is exceptional, with John Williams’ timeless score shining, and the action really booms around the room.  Again we have two commentaries, from Lucas as well as cast and crew, and that’s it until you delve into the wealth of extras on the other disks in the box set for your documentary and behind the scenes fix.

Verdict:  3 /5

Star Wars: Episode One

Viewed – 19 September 2011  Blu-ray

The Phantom Menace

The anticipation for this movie was ridiculous leading up to its relase back in 1999.  16 years since the last Star Wars movie, Return Of The Jedi, and many fans considered the original trilogy done.  Yet Director and creator George Lucas had always envisioned more than three movies, and so we come to this, Episode One, set over thirty years before the first movie.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is an apprentice to Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who stumble upon corruption and a planned invasion following a peaceful meeting with the evil trade federation.  Soon arriving on the planet of Naboo they choose to warn reining Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of the threat and soon help her to escape, hiding out on desert planet Tatooine, where Qui-Gon discovers a young boy (Anakin Skywalker) who may be the proficy that will bring balance to the force.

The Phantom Menace as with its two follow ups, can be seen as an origin story to Darth Vader, and the building blocks that eventually cause the rise of the empire.  The casting here is mostly impressive, with Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson perfect as two bad-ass Jedi’s.  Jake Lloyd however in the pivotal role of Anakin Skywalker struggles to hide his stereotypical basin-haired American child actor roots and is, in my opinion, mostly annoying … a travesty considering how important his role is to the entire saga.  This is not helped by the god-awful talent of the actress playing his mother, whose performance is so wooden I thought someone had dressed up a chair in Tattooine slave clothing.  The less said about Jar Jar Binks the better – he is pointless, especially when you consider C-3PO also makes an appearance here.

But lets not be too harsh.  This is a movie that above all else, looks the f****** nuts, with beautiful set design, gorgeous cinematography and stunning special effects throughout.  The design team here certainly breathed new life into a very old story, even if the script writer’s self-indulgence with sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and long-winded political debate often ruins the pace.  The action is good though, with a stand out being the exceptional pod-race which should easily showcases anyone’s home cinema system.  The final confrontation between Darth Maul and the two Jedi’s is also superb.

The movie has problems, is probably trying too hard in places, but sets up what happens in the next two movies well.  Yes sometimes it feels a touch too closely aimed at kids, the comedy moments fall flat, and supporting actors struggle next to their big-name counterparts, but overall this is fun, and has moments of brilliance … which is surely enough to make you want more?

Apparently this new Blu-ray release is a complete remaster of the original, but going by the overly soft, detail-light picture I see before me, I feel it isn’t a dramatic upgrade from the original DVD apart from looking, erm, cleaner.  That’s not to say it doesn’t look good – in many places it really does, but for a movie this visually dynamic, I expected much more.  Sound-wise there is no such issue, as this one jumps out of the speakers and shakes the room up brilliantly – something the Star Wars saga has always achieved admirably.  Extras are limited to a couple of commentary tracks on the disk containing the movie, one from George Lucas and some of the design team, the other from the cast.  Both well worth a listen, and when you consider the newly released Blu-ray box set is packed with documentaries and behind the scenes footage (on separate disks), there is more here than you’re likely to get through any time soon.

Verdict:  3 /5