Celebrating The 40th Anniversary Of The Empire Strikes Back

Today marks the 40th anniversary of what is widely considered to be one of the best if not the best film sequels of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. What was known as the second Star Wars movie before it was released and is now Episode V of the Skywalker Saga. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back it should be noted this film is iconic and highly regarded both as a followup to George Lucas’ wildly successful first Star Wars film and also, on its own. a sci-fi classic. It also demonstrated, both in its story and ideas, how to make a successful follow up in contrast to other “part 2s” that merely regurgitated what came before.

The story picks up three years after the destruction of the Death Star in the first film and has the Rebels hiding on the ice world of Hoth, and Luke Skywalker continuing his training as a Jedi Knight. The epic ground battle that ensued between the Rebels and the Galactic Empire on Hoth was a highlight and something unique in action films where a climactic battle happened near the beginning of a movie. This is something that sets The Empire Strikes Back apart from other films, and also lets the audience know that Lucas was doing something different.

Rather than just make a carbon copy of A New Hope, George Lucas was building a universe and telling a long-form story; The Empire Strikes Back was the second act or a larger tale, not just your typical sequel. This was shown further when our heroes Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca escaped to the cloud world of Bespin and meeting Han’s old smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian. They then encountered danger and despair at the hands of legendary villain Darth Vader, who carried out his search for Luke and showcased his sinister dark side powers to the extreme. Meanwhile, Luke journeys to the swamp world of Dagobah and meets the now-famous Jedi Master Yoda, who deepened Luke’s training and understanding of the Force. Eventually the protagonists met up on Bespin, but still found defeat and uncertainty at the film’s conclusion.

This is another unique aspect of The Empire Strikes Back, in that it concluded with a cliffhanger ending and a shocking plot twist with Vader revealing that he was Luke’s father, all of which is well known now, but at the time was very risky for Lucas to do. Sequels usually just retell the same story but add a few extra things. This Star Wars sequel really changed all of that and broadened the scope of the mythology of Star Wars and led to pretty much everything that Star Wars is known for. From John Williams’ iconic Imperial March theme, to the towering AT-AT walkers on Hoth, to Master Yoda, as well as other fan favorites like bounty hunter Boba Fett and the aforementioned Lando.

All of these events and people in this film now define the franchise and continue to influence Star Wars films and TV shows. Rey’s journey to Jedi Knighthood in the sequel trilogy echoes Luke’s which really jumped into high gear in The Empire Strikes Back. The success of The Mandalorian TV series obviously is due to the big appeal of Boba Fett and his mysterious nature, which again got started in The Empire Strikes Back. Also, Lando’s return in The Rise of Skywalker was a treat to see, since it harkened back to his introduction in the very first Star Wars sequel.

Overall, the appeal and influence of The Empire Strikes Back is massive and long lasting seeing as how it is just as beloved now 40 years later as ever. It is now commonly considered as the best Star Wars film and will probably continue to claim that mantle for the foreseeable future. There are many reasons why the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back is being commemorated. This is a character driven film that also has exciting set pieces, as well as interesting and thoughtful ideas. The Empire Strikes Back paved the way for other Star Wars and genre films, and set the bar incredibly high for all sequels to follow.

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The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy: An Honest Assessment

With the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy and the entire nine-film Skywalker Saga has come to an end. The film has had its share of controversy, scorn and praise from all parties. Despite what trolls hoped for, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an actual hit film. Now as to its quality, that is another story. Personally, I truly enjoyed the film but am honest enough to admit the latest Star Wars film is riddled with plot holes and faults. Still it did enough to entertain me and others and provided closure to the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Looking at the three films in this trilogy it is fair to opine that on the whole, the trilogy was badly flawed and can be considered to be the weakest of the three Star Wars trilogies. And that is due to many reasons, especially one: it is clear that Lucasfilm and its owners Disney did not have a clear plan for the sequel trilogy and it hobbled the films overall.

Inconsistent Characters

Looking at the past three films (standalone films aside), it was difficult to tell what was the main story. The only consistent arc that flowed logically was Rey and Kylo Ren’s personal journeys in their understanding of the Force. Not surprisingly, this storyline is what received the most praise. Everything else, not so much.

future jedi finn

Look at Finn’s story in the films. He had a brilliant setup, the world of Star Wars told from the POV of a normal Stormtrooper, and how he comes to believe in a greater cause than his lot in life. As well as his story was set up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it stagnated in the followup, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where he became a bumbling comic relief shuffled off to a pointless side quest. Then in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, his story arc had a radical course correction as we are tantalized with him developing Force sensitivity, which hinted at his potential future as a Jedi.

Even more jarring was figuring out who was the main bad guy in these films. Kylo Ren’s story was fine and flowed smoothly as he struggled with his conflicting emotions. But he was set up to be the main villain according to The Last Jedi. In that film, he killed the supposed main boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, and took his title. Meanwhile, Snoke was dispatched too early and the filmmakers were left scrambling to find another villain for the final film. This is why director J.J. Abrams and others hastily resurrected the long-dead Emperor Palpatine. As great as it was to see him cackling and oozing evil on the screen again, his reappearance into Star Wars lore was sloppily handled. If he had been hinted at in earlier films, his revival would have made more sense and not come off as a desperate plot ploy.

Then there are the other supporting characters who were treated as disposable plot beats. Take poor Rose Tico, first introduced as an annoying and self-righteous wannabe crusader in The Last Jedi, which led to toxic online backlash from misogynistic and racist trolls attacking the actress. In The Rise of Skywalker, her role was noticeably reduced to that of a glorified extra and any hints of a romance with Finn alluded to in the previous film were gone.

Aside from Rose, the most contentious character introduced in The Last Jedi was Admiral Holdo played by a badly miscast Laura Dern. This supposedly brilliant military leader did not exude any kind of gravitas as a leader, which infuriated many viewers and emboldened Internet trolls. But hey, at least she had a cool death scene where she used her ship to take out the ginormous uber star destroyer.

Then there was Hux, the First Order leader who instead of inspiring dread and fear like Grand Moff Tarkin became an ineffective joke in The Last Jedi. His character was so mangled that he was mercifully killed off in The Rise of Skywalker after he nonsensically was revealed to be a spy working against the First Order.

Contrasting Visions

The fault for the way they and other characters turned out has to be with the scripts, which reeked of being written on the fly. Another important reason for the disjointed feel of the sequel trilogy was the contrasting visions of the directors of the films, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson.

abrams johnson

Although both men are talented directors who brought good ideas to Star Wars, their viewpoint clashed wildly. With The Force Awakens, Abrams was clearly doing an homage to the original films, especially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

A valid criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was too similar to A New Hope: both films opened on a desert planet where good guys and bad guys sought a droid that held vital information. The heroes run into an older mentor type who gets killed and the films end with a space battle to blow up a superweapon planet. Be that as it may, The Force Awakens was a fun film that served as a soft reboot and reintroduction to the world of Star Wars for a new generation. It also set up many plot threads that Abrams left for future directors to follow up.

The problem was that the next director, Johnson, obviously was not interested in doing that. Instead he had a mindset of doing a deconstruction of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, set up as a long-lost would-be savior in The Force Awakens, turned out to be a bitter old man without any hope. His final moments disappointed fans who were itching for him to decimate the First Order.

rey the last jedi

Rey, who was to be the next generation of Jedi, had a mysterious past and was seeking to learn about her parents. Was she related to anyone in the Original Trilogy? Why was she so powerful with the Force? Johnson obviously did not care with the casual dismissive announcement that she came from a family of nobodies. Something that had to be retconned later.

Supreme Leader Snoke was introduced as a trilogy’s final threat was unexpectedly killed by Ren. Meanwhile, Ren was hinted at in the film of having a redemptive arc but instead turned his back on Rey and embraced the dark side of the Force.  Both films are clear evidence that there wasn’t a coherent vision with the trilogy.

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Is Star Wars Losing Its Luster?

 

The title of this post sounds click baity, but it brings up a nagging thought among many fans over the beloved sci-fi franchise. There are many indications that Star Wars is losing its luster with the general public. No need to worry, Star Wars is not going anywhere, but the property just doesn’t seem to be capturing our excitement these days. Instead that is going to Disney’s other blockbuster IP, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Star Wars is still a behemoth that brings in tons of dollars to Disney, but the evidence is becoming more clear. Let’s look at some facts:

  • The property has been swept up in the toxic culture wars that is strangling our society. It started with the release of the controversial Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has enraged many conservatives fans who accused it of being too politically correct.
  • The mixed to negative reaction to The Last Jedi, not just from haters but many die-hard Star Wars fans helped lead to the failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story. That in turn led to the cancellation of planned Star Wars films.
  • Disney head Bob Iger admitted that too many Star Wars films were being released too quickly and cited this as a reason for Lucasfilm to cut back on Star Wars films.
  • Even though there is another Star Wars film coming out later this year, the enthusiasm for it is not as high as it was for previous Star Wars films.
  • Merchandising sales are down, with many retailers severely discounting Star Wars toys, especially those related to the Disney-era films.
  • The recent opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland has not brought in the massive crowds that Disney anticipated.

So, what is happening and why? The answers are not quite simple and it really depends on context. Yes, Star Wars is a victim of the stupid culture wars going on but that has affected other properties and franchises as well. Yes, there are too many sites and videos from haters infesting the web, but they also target Star Trek and even Marvel. Then the fact that these places champion underdog properties indicates that many of them just want to kick at the top dog of the moment. What didn’t help Star Wars is how Rey was written to be a Mary Sue and how the deconstruction of Star Wars in The Last Jedi alienated many die-hard fans who hated what writer/director Rian Johnson did with the characters.

There are many reasons why Solo didn’t perform well. A big part of it was due to the backlash of The Last Jedi, which is unfortunate because Solo was actually a fun film that evoked the traditional adventurous Star Wars films.

The scaling back of Star Wars films is a natural reaction to the mixed reception of recent films. However, more films are still being planned and the Disney streaming service, Disney+, will premiere this year The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars film and it is highly anticipated. Plus, the same service will include a new season of the beloved animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which has many fans excited. So, for now, Star Wars’ future lies with television to keep us satiated until the next standalone or saga film.

All this hand wringing over the property could wind up being silly if the next film, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, recaptures the magic and leads to new films coming out sooner. Given how Star Wars: The Last Jedi turned out, it is nearly certain that The Rise of Skywalker will play it safe and give fans what they want. In the long run, it could wind up hurting the franchise in the same manner that some were ultimately turned off by Star Wars: The Force Awakens because it was too derivatives of A New Hope. But a short-term win is called for.

Let’s face it, Disney went overboard with the marketing and merchandising of the property At first, it worked wonders for the company when they acquired the IP in 2012. The build up to The Force Awakens was immense and was a genuine phenomenon. Unfortunately, this led to Disney slapping the Star Wars label on practically everything. If we thought creator George Lucas was bad with the merchandising when he owned the property, Disney took the marketing to the nth degree. it is only natural that there would be a backlash and this led to lowered sales.

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A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Celebrating The 40th Anniversary Of Star Wars

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” those simple words, projected on movie screens, would herald a phenomenon in theaters on May 25, 1977. Forty years later, Star Wars is celebrating its 40th anniversary and just like the time when it was released, it’s as popular and beloved as ever. So what makes this franchise so iconic and successful? For starters, when the original film, which was later given the subtitle A New Hope, was released in 1977, the state of cinema was very different than today. With the exception of the Planet of the Apes films, there were no major blockbuster franchises. Sci-fi as a genre was stagnant and the only major film in this area was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 almost a decade earlier and the Apes films, which had wound down by the mid 1970s. Movies those days were dominated by dark and violent anti-heroes which reflected the cynical mood of society. Genuine movie heroes and feel-good films were a rarity before Star Wars.

The release of this swashbuckling outer space adventure transformed the landscape of films and singlehandedly reinvented genre films in the ensuing decades. It was a simple story of good vs. evil with now legendary characters like Luke Skywalker, the simple farm boy whose destiny would change the galaxy; Han Solo, the roguish space pirate turned into a rebel with a cause; Princess Leia, the indomitable leader of her people; Chewbacca, Han’s yeti-like buddy and partner in crime; Ben Kenobi, Luke’s wise mentor and warrior of the Old Republic; and everyone’s favorite robotic duo R2-D2 and C-3PO. All of them are instantly recognizable to literally everyone in the world. Their struggle against the most famous villain in movie history Darth Vader was set against a backdrop of a fully realized universe meticulously crafted by creator George Lucas.

a long time ago

The film director was inspired by classic myths and stories and successfully merged them into something new that was magical to audiences back then, and still feels that way even now. Basically, he took the timeless elements and themes from these tales and put it into an appealing and original backdrop. The settings were literally out of this world, yet had a gritty and realistic touch that made everything seem relatable. All that caught everyone’s attention, but what enchanted people the most were the interesting characters who we could identify with as they struck a chord within us. That is quite an achievement considering that many characters were not even human. To an outsider, Star Wars and its extraordinary trappings may seem bizarre but at its core it has easily relatable themes and subtexts.

Lucas directs C3P0

Seeing how influential the film was and continues to be, it is baffling to ponder that many film studios passed on George Lucas’ pet project. Back then he was a young up-and-coming filmmaker and had a hit film, American Graffiti, under his belt. Yet, he had a hard time convincing skeptical film executives to greenlight his film. It seemed so strange to them, a space fantasy without any references to our civilization, one almost cannot fault them for not wanting to take the risk. But thankfully, 20th Century Fox saw the Lucas’ visionary potential and took a chance. Even then, few imagined Star Wars would explode like it did. That includes Lucas himself who hoped that his film would make just enough money to bankroll a sequel. Hardcore fans know that the original Star Wars novel that was released shortly after the film, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, was supposed to be a low-budget Star Wars sequel. Of course, the monster success of Star Wars meant that Lucas could fully realize his vision of a sprawling galactic epic without any limits in terms of budget and special effects.

Another aspect that made Star Wars so hugely influential is that it had revolutionary special effects. The many scenes of outer space combat enthralled audiences with X-Wings and TIE fighters clashing in dogfights, along with the iconic shots of enormous Star Destroyers and let’s not forget Han’s Millennium Falcon, the faster piece of junk this side of the galaxy. They were such a spectacle to watch and entirely different from earlier sci-fi films that had cheap models hanging on strings. The editing and camera work was also incredibly done. Take for instance, the POV shot of Luke piloting his ship into the Death Star trench, it seems like you are flying right into the trench. The model and puppet work of the many aliens on the desert planet Tatooine in the famous cantina scene were also a real spectacle and added to the feeling that these were real places you were looking visiting. Many of these effects are rarely seen these days since Lucas took it upon himself in the 1990s to update the original Star Wars films with updated CG effects because the original effects work had become dated. Ironically, many of the CG effects now look dated themselves and proved how fruitless it was to tinker with classic films just to embellish them with the latest in special effects.

What Star Wars also accomplished was the film ushered in a whole new era of sci-fi and related genre films. This industry is still going on to this day. The huge success of Star Wars proved that genre films could be massive hits and led to other filmmakers and companies to try to do the same thing. As a result, sci-fi and fantasy films are now the major genre in Hollywood that studios all try to have in their portfolio to keep things going. We all know that the big tentpole films for studios these days are big-budget genre spectacles. The whole concept of having huge summer films with the accompanying merchandise, as well as the idea of ongoing sagas that span multiple movies and other media can all trace their paths back to that movie that came out on May 25th 1977.

Star Wars 40

It’s not an exaggeration to state that Star Wars basically caused a figurative earthquake not only movies but in the culture at large. Look around, you’ll see Star Wars everywhere. Certainly that is due to Disney, who after buying the rights from George Lucas earlier this decade for billions, wanted to get their money’s worth and went into merchandising overdrive. But this means that Star Wars will have a long-felt presence in our global society. As cynical as that sounds, keep in mind that in order for film to resonate long after it has left cinemas, it has to be great and unique. Star Wars is that and much more and is why it is so pervasive. For the few that have never seen Star Wars, even they know exactly who Darth Vader is and can pick out R2-D2 in a picture. That kind of recognition means that this movie has transcended its medium and, like other epic tales of old, has now passed on to the realm of legend.

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Some More Thoughts On Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star wars 7 montage

*NOTE: The following will contain spoilers about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, should stop reading from this point on.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has just become the biggest selling domestic movie of all time. The hype machine about the film isn’t letting up and probably won’t for some time. A lot of fans are drooling about the film like it’s the greatest thing ever made, George Lucas be damned. Others are not so enthusiastic and have a wide range of opinions about Star Wars: The Force Awakens and its lasting impact on the franchise. So here are some of my thoughts on the seventh Star Wars film.

hans last moments

As a sci-fi adventure, it does the job and is a good movie. I can enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens for what it is. A return to the style of the original films with updated special effects. However, it suffers from being too derivative of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It also suffers from a lack of imagination from director and co-screenwriter JJ Abrams with not only the recycled plot, but also the new tie fighterlook of the film. There are not any really amazing new designs of starships and aliens that were a staple of each new Star Wars film. Basically you see repainted X-wing and TIE fighters. Now, the special effects and camera work of the dogfights are quite good and is a definite positive for the film. It’s always nice to see the Millennium Falcon soaring through space again. It would just have been better to see maybe a new Letter fighter (such as a T-wing) and truly bizarre aliens and planets. Perhaps Episode VIII will rectify this.

wimpy ren

Another issue is the portrayal of new Sith villain Kylo-Ren (Adam Driver). His temper tantrums and such are not really good at showing him as a source of menace for the heroes of the film. The exceptions are his actions at the start of the film where he murders Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow) and has his troops massacre an entire village and his brutal execution of his father Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The scene where this occurs had me on the edge of my seat and is an emotional highlight of the movie. But right after this happens, Kylo is shown beating his chest like a gorilla as he fights and loses against Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is a novice at using the Force. His screaming fits when he receives bad news from subordinates is more a source of humor rather than fear. One wonders why Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) went into hiding when, as a Jedi master, he should have had no problem against Ren.

captain phasmaCaptain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) was another villain that was somewhat misused. She is the commander of the First Order’s stormtroopers and was described as being somewhat like Boba Fett. But in the movie she is captured by Han, Chewie (Peter Mayhew) and Finn (John Boyega) and forced to lower the shields of the Starkiller Base and is then thrown in the garbage compactor. Not exactly a great way to start her off. Again, I think the next film should fix this by showing her to be as a dangerous foe and top level leader out to destroy the Resistance.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

Basically, I see Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a somewhat missed opportunity. The basic story is an interesting take on what happens after the fall of the Galactic Empire, and I do like the way the First Order is portrayed with their Nazi-like rallies and efforts to destroy entire star systems, thereby showing them to be a big threat to the New Republic. han and reyIt’s just that J.J Abrams and Disney were so keen to play it safe that it detracts from the final product. Hopefully the next film will be willing to take at least a few more chances and truly take the franchise to new and interesting places. This is what I think creator George Lucas was trying to do with the prequels and while the results were mixed, I can appreciate his vision for his universe and his ability to world build. The emphasis on practical effects and a simplified story are somewhat understandable given the backlash against the prequels, but they should be able to do this and still expand the Star Wars universe and really push the boundaries of the genre. This is just what the original trilogy did and is a reason why it is so revered to this day.

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