Director: James Cameron Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
So, at long last, 13 years after Avatar hit movie screens and became in unadjusted terms the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron returns with a big, teetering second helping of adventure on Pandora. The interval was mostly forced by Cameron’s ceaseless push for technical advancement to outpace the ever-quickening assimilation of such achievement by the modern viewer. Meanwhile the intervening years have been made to feel even longer by all the cultural commentators repeatedly stating that Avatar supposedly left no cultural footprint, in contrast to other pop cultural colossi like Gone With The Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), which did indeed often generate quotes and directorial visions that sank deep into the popular consciousness. Certainly no-one’s been getting around saying “I see you” since 2009, but on the other hand the images of Avatar remain instantly recognisable. I made no bones about enjoying the film enormously back then and today still feel one of its best qualities is also its most salient feature of general criticism – Cameron applied his showmanship to a familiar space opera storyline and quasi-mythic template, engaging with fanciful scientific and mystical concepts but weaving it all around a story that paid many nods to pulp adventure and scientifiction writing like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom tales, whilst blending in overtones of revisionist Westerns like A Man Called Horse (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1990). There was, then, something wilfully classical about Avatar, coexisting with the cutting-edge showmanship and loopy blend of hi-tech dreaming and new-age mysticism, and that choice allowed Cameron to easily sell to the audience a lot of images and ideas that were actually extremely bizarre.
In that long interval much has changed: Cameron’s regular collaborator, the composer James Horner, died in a plane crash in 2015, and Twentieth Century Fox, the once-mighty film studio that backed Avatar, has now been redesignated by its new Disney overlords as merely Twentieth Century Film, as if to coldly declare anything it releases to be yesterday’s news. Some enthusiasm for an Avatar sequel probably has bled off in that time. But that’s arguably counterbalanced by a building mystique, fuelled by the prospect that whatever Cameron was cooking up, it wouldn’t just be any old buck-chasing rehash. It’s also left Cameron in an awkward position, appealing to a movie audience the greater bulk of which would have been kids when they first watched Avatar, or perhaps never saw it or barely remember it, and a pulse of anxiety has been amplified by the peculiar and worrying moment of cinema-going we’re currently in. It’s hard not to root for Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water, in part because whilst it is a sequel, it is at least Cameron’s sequel, based in his own material and tackled with all the outsized enthusiasm the man brings to his blockbusters, in an age where audiences have been depressingly eager to surrender any hint of artistic interest in cinema product so long as franchising is served up with consistent baseline competence. A sequel to Avatar must partly serve the purpose of reiterating the basic proposition and recapturing some of its more peculiar facets, particularly the way the original film offered a type of extended fantasy travelogue in its midsection. Cameron knows his way around sequels, with his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and his own Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). With each of those films, Cameron essentially reused the skeleton of the original film’s plot and essential elements, whilst riffing on them in other ways, greatly amplifying their scope and swapping in clever new variations on basic ideas, like the alien queen and the liquid metal T-1000.
So it didn’t surprise me that much when The Way of Water essentially does the same thing. Cameron kicks off the film with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed on what’s transpired since he was fully assimilated into the Na’vi and kicked the wicked human capitalist exploiters off Pandora. This opening narration immediately inspires a little narrative whiplash, particularly as Jake mentions that not only have he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had three children of their own – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – but they’ve also become adoptive parents to two more. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born out of Dr Grace Augustine’s mindless Na’vi avatar in a perplexing event, and a young human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind with Augustine’s scientific team by the fleeing humans because he was too young for cryogenic stasis. Spider splits his time between the Na’vi fort and the laboratory still run by Na’vi-allied human scientists including Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Max Patel (Dileep Rao). The question of who fathered Kiri and Spider is raised, although only that of Spider is answered in the course of the film: turns out he’s the son of the late Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a fact that sits uneasily in the back of the young man’s mind but doesn’t seem too important.
But then a fleet of human spaceships arrive again on Pandora, this time with the object of transforming the planet into a human colony to escape a dying Earth. With them comes a gang of “recombinants,” Na’vi bodies created from the genetic material of Quaritch and the other soldiers in his old squad and reunited with their saved memories and personalities, specifically to exploit their ingrained knowledge of fighting on Pandora. The reborn Quaritch, whilst readily perceiving himself as something different to what he used to be, nonetheless is exactly the same total jerkwad as ever, and delights in being set loose on Pandora to track down and kill Jake and Neytiri. Jake, Neytiri, their kids and clan recommence their guerrilla war on the invaders, but the children are captured by Quaritch and his unit. Jake and Neytiri attack and manage to free them all except for Spider. Quaritch intervenes to stop the new military commander of the invaders, General Ardmore (Edie Falco), from using torturous brain scans to force information about the family’s whereabouts from his “son,” instead using more psychological pressure to force Spider to become his guide and translator.
Meanwhile, realising the danger, Jake insists that the family flee their home and travel out to oceanic islands inhabited by the Metkayina, water-dwelling Na’vi who have evolved thick tails and arms specifically for swimming. They also have close relations with the tulkun, a species of whale-like creatures with advanced and communicative intelligence, but also an ethos of total pacifism that leaves them vulnerable to human predation. The Metkayina chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanka-like wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) uneasily let the Sully clan into their midst, and Jake in turn demands his kids toe the line with the Metkayina, but after being bullied by Tonowari and Ronal’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his pals, Neteyam and Lo’ak brawl with them. Under the guise of making peace, Aonung and his gang talk Lo’ak into accompanying them out to fish in the open ocean, but then abandon Lo’ak. He’s nearly eaten by a giant predator, but is rescued by a tulkun named Payakan, who’s an outcast from his kind because he once tried to fight back against human hunters.
The shift in locale from the lush forests of the previous film’s locations allows Cameron a new stage to purvey the pure immersive appeal of exploring his created environments, as the Sully clan are introduced to the oceanic environs the Metkayina live in. This entails challenges of adaptation for the formerly arboreal family, like swapping their pterodactyl-like, symbiotically-linked Mountain Banshee mounts for a new species that seem like cross-breeds of barracuda and flying fish, allowing them to not just wing over water but dive under it as well. As with the previous film, these environs and the creatures living in them are fantastically magnified versions of more prosaically familiar earthly things that gloss them over with a new coat of strangeness and luminous spectacle, even if the invention never quite gets as pleasantly nutty as the previous film’s floating mountains. Where the Na’vi were a melange of different indigenous American nations, the Metkayina are based pretty baldly on Polynesian and Maori culture (it’s also amusing to see the digitally transformed Winslet, who first gained attention in Heavenly Creatures, 1994, and Curtis, who became an international character actor on the back of Once Were Warriors, 1994, united in an accidental nod to the glories of mid-1990s New Zealand cinema — even if neither actor really gets much to do). Cameron treads oddly similar territory here to where his fellow digi-visionary blockbuster auteur George Lucas went with Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with his visions of wicked machines descending from the sky and torching the natural environment, and Cameron blatantly makes the similarity plainer when he repeats the “always a bigger fish” joke from the Lucas film.
The choice of shifting much of the focus of the story of The Way of Water onto the next generation is one that most clearly echoes what Cameron did on Terminator 2. Where young John Connor was a wayward product of a quasi-countercultural youth terminally on the outs with the square world he’s forced to subsist in whilst being constantly conscious of another, impending reality, the Sully youngsters are conscious of their status of mutts born between species and cultures, anointing with both burdens and special status, although Spider has some of John’s PG-swearing attitude. Cameron puts much emphasis on the youngsters of the family trying to find their way and negotiate familiar problems of growing up, particularly in the elder brothers’ clashes with the snooty local youths who like teasing and hazing the new kids on the block. Kiri, meanwhile, emerges as the most interesting of the new characters, with her bizarre birth and hazy heritage, adrift with a moony fascination for the world and stirring mysterious interactions with it, that even strikes the Na’vi as pretty odd. The sight (and sound) of Weaver rendered as an alien adolescent is amusing enough in itself, but also gives the part some curious note of pathos: where much of the recent craze for wielding de-aging digital technology has been applied for pretty cynical ends, or was used by Martin Scorsese on The Irishman (2019) for discomforting musing on aging on screen, Cameron seems genuinely delighted by the possibility of setting such things in flux.
Like many very successful late-career filmmakers, Cameron’s become relatively indifferent to expected standards of realism, going instead for instantly legible visual mystique and dialogue that, whilst inflected with contemporary argot, is pitched on a level designed to be accessible to the young and to resonate on an essential level. The Way of Water strongly reminded me of a brand of family entertainments that used to be reasonably common on screen and in books, those ones where a gang of kids would be living on a permanent safari or the like because their parents had a weird job, and their ranks would be both open and loyal in all sorts of all-together-now fun – actually, Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) is a good, if particularly unnerving example of that – as well as more reminiscent of classic Disney live-action adventure movies than anything Disney makes now. I sincerely mean this as a compliment. Cameron’s insistent (bordering on bullhorned) approach to his environmental themes, as the youngsters are appalled to register violations of the natural world they intermingle with, echoes those kinds of stories too. Not that Cameron’s gone entirely soft: The Way of Water is still a big, booming action-adventure movie where the audience is however ironically encouraged to cheer when the nasty, exploitative humans get their violent comeuppance. Indeed, he expressly set out to create an interesting tension between the idea that advanced intelligence leads to more pacifistic behaviour, as expressed through the tulkun, and its impossibility when faced with naked aggression.
A while ago I pondered the notion that Cameron might indeed by modern cinema’s preeminent, old-school, capital-R Romantic artist. The fascinating result of watching Cameron’s output back-to-back was coming to recognise this, not just in the vast concepts but in the sense of passion as a world-reshaping force, as expressed in his crucial relationships. Cameron certainly invites overt connection with some greats of the Romantic school, most obviously his variations on the Frankenstein mythos of Mary Shelley. Of course, that could be just the pervasive influence on the genre Cameron works in, but he’s also gone further, annexing the specifically North American mythos of the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville and their own engagement with ideas out of Rousseau. Cameron’s fascination for technology, the foe of the Romantic Movement when it emerged in the late 1700s, might seem to preclude that, but for Cameron technology is both the tool of realising his fantasies and, within the frame of those fantasies, a source of monumental contradiction. Indeed, it emerges that Cameron loves tech because it allows Romantic concepts to regain precedence from realism; whether positively or negatively or with aspects of both, the success or failure of the tech shatters the stolid world and unleashes his heroes and their passions. That aforementioned similarity to The Phantom Menace also recalls how that film dipped a toe into a Wagnerian sense of the natural and spiritual world being violated by the spirit of industrialised greed.
Most of Cameron’s films, ranging from the dread apocalyptic fantasies of the Terminator films to the disintegrating modern dream of Titanic that specifically kills off both the Romantic artist and the aristocratic world that couched the style, and the dreams of perfect fusion found in The Abyss (1989) and the first Avatar, contended with that ambivalence. For Cameron technology had the ironic promise of stirring atavistic potential, repopulating the world with demons like the Terminators and neo-knights like the steel-suited Ripley. Again, also pervasive in the genre, but Cameron seems highly conscious of the traditions he works in. Here he wades into the south sea dreaming of Melville’s Omoo and Typee before wholeheartedly offering a variation on Moby Dick as retold from the whale’s point of view. Cameron’s well-known passion for the ocean, which evidently combines a healthy sense of unease with awe, is worked through here at length, as it presents an obvious example of a world that is at once familiar but also eternally alien to humanity. Cameron nudged quasi-transcendental territory with The Abyss and the blatantly angelic look of the aliens in that movie who have developed their technology to the state where there is no tension between it and their natural environment, leading to his messianic climax, in a grandiose cinematic articulation of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that technology rendered on an unrecognisably advanced level might as well be magic.
Cameron was of course pinching heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) there, but Spielberg is less a Romantic than a curious blend of modernist sceptic and Old Testament thaumaturg. Cameron in Avatar finally went over his own theoretical horizon by presenting the fantasy of a natural system so complete and connected it essentially makes technology unnecessary, even primitive-seeming, so long as one developed sufficiently to meet it half-way: it was not so much an abandonment of technology as an attempt to imaginatively synthesis something that serves the same function. That system works not just as a great communication network but contains the memories of its world in a kind of spiritual database. Cameron tries to give this some specific new expressions in The Way of Water, particularly through Kiri, who has a peculiar relationship with Eywa, as the Na’vi call the planetary deity-consciousness that permeates all the life-forms of Pandora to some degree. Kiri’s first attempt to plug into the Metkayina’s local version of the spirit tree like the others can results in her suffering a seizure that gets diagnosed as something like epilepsy after having a vision of her “mother,” only for her to later try it under extreme pressure and reveal uncanny control that allows her to kill a couple of pursuers. Cameron keeps mum to a potentially frustrating degree about what’s going on here, which he plainly means to get into more in the next instalment. I could nonetheless venture a thesis – that Kiri likely had no father and instead is the spontaneously generated attempt by Eywa to reincarnate Grace, and came out connected to Eywa to a unique degree: she can’t link to the spirit tree because she is one.
Cameron seems to be pinching ideas from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels throughout here, with the recombinants reminiscent of Herbert’s gholas, Kiri resembling a less freaky variation on the super-consciousness-inheriting Alia, and the tulkuns as much friendlier sandworms. Fair play – Cameron seems more interested in those ideas and their potential that Denis Villeneuve’s recent hemi-adaptation of Dune was. The first Avatar came out at a time when the pervasiveness of the internet and the truth of a new kind of reality it was fostering had become undeniable, and Cameron’s portrayal of the human operators and their projected selves finding new truth in an extra-reality wonderland felt timely, even if he never let it get in the way of a good story. Today, the internet’s more unsettling traits have become plainer, but Cameron isn’t interested in reflecting on that, in large part because he’s now dealing with experience more explicitly related to the body, of changes to the body and its expressed meaning, which is also touching on fashionable concerns, if less encompassing ones. Repeatedly throughout Cameron explores the idea of a kind of afterlife made possible through both digital transmission and rehousing in the recombinants, and through the great neural function of Eywa, where consciousnesses live on and can be communed with in some form.
The release of the original Avatar inspired a fascinating variety of responses for what it entailed for the culture at large, ranging from right-wing readings dismayed by its environmentalist stance and borderline-misanthropic anger, to accusations from some leftists of dated racism and much musing over contradictions regarding Cameron’s imperial might as a film technician and what he chose to celebrate with it. Meanwhile its general success signalled that, over and above his great skill and showman’s instinct apparent purely on a filmmaking level, Cameron had the pulse of the mass audience still, speaking directly to common fantasies and worries. I don’t really know if The Way of Water will set any of that stuff in motion again. One of the values of sci-fi is of course that it offers a stage to explore such things on a quasi-abstract, displaced level: Avatar reflected on such things on the level of a parable, proposing what it would look if, say, one encountered an ecosystem as one, giant, literal living thing. The disparity with life as we know it is obvious: nature doesn’t work like that, at least no on this planet, and so we’ve been obliged to utilise the world to meet our needs, if indeed to the degree of forming contempt for it. The Na’vi are gifted a kind of exceptionalism because they know Eywa on a direct level, without which they might seem obnoxiously arrogant. Here Cameron does tacitly admit that they are a little, when he has the Sully children browbeaten by the Metkayina brats both as outsiders and as half-breeds. Their enclosed and sufficient world would likely to be even more, and not less, allergic to and intolerant of alienness and outsiders.
Which is perhaps the chief way The Way of Water is a trifle disappointing: Cameron backs away from offering any kind of dialogue or argument of values, of taking his concepts deeper. Even the Wachowskis with their forsaken The Matrix sequels dared to deconstruct their basic power fantasy, as did Lucas. Again, Cameron might be saving that for a later instalment, but I still felt a nibble of frustration as he shifted from an extrapolated “save the rainforest” message to “save the whales.” Quaritch and his team, meaning to track down the Sullys after catching wind of their general location, pressgangs some tulkun hunters into transporting them there and, once he grasps the power of the relationship between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, encourages the hunters to start killing close to the islands, to draw out resistance, and the Sullys very likely with them. Cameron stages a suitably spectacular and nakedly heart-rending sequence of the hunters, led by their ratbag captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), chasing down and killing a tulkun mother, a laborious process as the tulkuns have tough, bony bodies and have to be finished off with an explosive harpoon. Cameron gives a further kick in the ribs when he reveals the object of the hunt boils down to a couple of litres of brain fluid that has unique aging-halting properties, now the leading commercial prize on Pandora. This is nominally better as a plot propeller than the previous film’s notorious (perhaps unfairly so given its basis in theoretical physics) “Unobtainium,” and does actually reflect on some unpleasant facts about a long history of animal exploitation. Nonetheless it provokes many questions, as to when and how the humans discovered these properties, and how it became such a priority in the course of the very recent return of the colonial mission. It’s also very plainly there to make the audience whoop when the time to kick ass finally arrives.
Which takes some time, as The Way of Water resists simply leaping into all-action shenanigans, which could be a plus or minus depending on how it strikes you. Cameron deliberately stymies Jake, the accomplished swashbuckler, as he’s now a protective family man playing nice on someone else’s turf. After Lo’ak is nearly killed early in the film, when Jake and the Na’vi blow up a maglev train built through the jungle, Jake becomes increasingly concerned by his second son’s seeming recklessness in the face of danger, and his brood’s general difficulty with the concept of obeying orders. Lo’ak meanwhile feels like he’s considered less worthy compared to his more circumspect older brother, but his disaffection and determination to prove himself ultimately help him connect with Payakan, another being stray from his flock. Lo’ak tries to make others see the worth of Payakan, even as he’s told the reason why the other tulkun shun him. The chain of relations, elemental as they are, nonetheless accrue substance through insistence: connection, whether it be friendship, between Lo’ak and Payakan, synergetic, as between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, romantic, as between Neteyam and Reya (Baiey Bass), the chieftain’s willowy daughter, or familial, between the Sullys and even the Quaritchs, is a constant in this world, echoing in the mirroring father-son conflicts and played out on a more ethereal level by Kiri, who is at once an orphan and an expression of the very planet’s need for connection.
Quaritch in the first film was a heightened caricature of American militarist machismo, imbued with the traits of an explicitly Ahab-like character, scarred by his encounter with the fierce and ungovernable wildlife and determined to decimate it all in the course of asserting power. Here Cameron makes the connection more overt as Quaritch oversees the tulkun hunt, even if it’s only a means to end. Meanwhile his methods for interrogating and browbeating Metkayina villagers, where Spider’s presence influences him to avoid executing prisoners but still burns down their homes, confirm the Vietnam War is still on Cameron’s mind. Bringing Quaritch back smacks of waned inspiration akin to the way Agent Smith became a boring fixture in The Matrix sequels, but also understandable, as Lang’s marvellously sullen and contemptuous aggression in the role was one of the first film’s most potent if unsubtle elements. Cameron signals intention to take Quaritch to peculiar places. Even as for the most part he’s just playing the matinee villain again this time around, Cameron broaches some of this intent, now that Quaritch is inhabiting a life form built for a new planet and must soon or later respond to its wavelengths, whilst his son is still thoroughly human but identifies with the Na’vi. Cameron pauses to note the profoundly dislocating spectacle of Quaritch, after recovering the filmed record of his human body’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri, witnessing that death as a viewer locked in a new and alien body. The possibility that Spider’s presence coaxes something like humanity out of the now-inhuman Quaritch is dangled throughout the film, and whilst he remains a monster, he finally does prove to have this one, particular weak spot. Spider’s increasingly horrified response to both Quaritch’s methods and the hunting of the tulkuns eventually drives him to intervene on his adopted family’s behalf in the climax, but then also repays a debt by saving Quaritch from the fruits of his own malevolence.
One element The Way of Water definitely lacks that buoyed the first film had was the surreal, fetish-fuel romance of Jake and Neytiri. The love affairs here, such as between Neteyam and Reya and Spider and Kiri, are by comparison only glanced over, and don’t have the same playfully transgressive quality. The emphasis on Lo’ak’s journey also means that Kiri, who has the more intriguing story if less immediately important for how the plot resolves, isn’t given as much time as she deserves. Jake and Neytiri finally reclaim their eminence in the climax when they go on the warpath to save their brood from Quaritch, with Neytiri pushed to the edge of the genuinely unbalanced when the family take a brutal loss, reduced to taking Spider hostage to counter Quaritch and threatening to cut his throat. Which Spider seems oddly forgiving of later, but then again he’s not doing too well when it comes to parental figures. When push does come to shoot, the wrath of the Metkayina as they charge out to assault the humans is nothing compared to the show-stopping spectacle of Payakan launching himself out of the water and crashing down upon the deck of the hunting craft in trying to save his tiny friend, dealing out righteous destruction and turning Quaritch’s contrived trap into a chaotic free-for-all that also rewrites Moby Dick sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab from grim expression of cosmic indifference and chaos to act of direct and vengeful justice, even down to Payakan taking out his most hated foe by wrapping him up in his own harpoon line.
Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s extension of his mythos, it’s impossible to deny the man still knows how to make a movie on the biggest scale possible, and that’s become a rare gift even in an age where every two-bit director seems to fancy themselves a pontential special effects epic maestro. The years spent refining the special effects have paid off: even if they still sometimes look like what they essentially are, a very sophisticated CGI cartoon, they have a lustre, a richness of colour and grain of detail, that’s quite astounding, particularly with what must have been the excruciatingly finicky work of making digital effects interact with water. Cameron has one of the most clean and fluidic eyes for graphics of any director working, refusing at any point to let the movie degenerate into a jumble of shots for their own sake even as elements pile up to a crazy degree, so when the action finally, properly busts out in the climax it comes with exhilarating force: on a first viewing it leaves a delirious impression of charging flying fish rides and wild underwater battles with mechanical crabs and aerial assaults from a berserker Neytiri. Cameron has some fun tossing in touches ripped off from his own films, in his own aesthetic form of recombinant and daring the audience to call him on it – scenes recalling Titanic as the heroes and villains are trapped within the capsized and flooding hunting ship, Neytiri losing Tuk down a chute a la Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and nods to the angelic aliens of The Abyss as Kiri straps to her back a jellyfish-like creature that works like a scuba tank and spreads gleaming wing-like fronds.
The oddest and most stirring quality of The Way of Water is that it is, even more than its precursor, at once deeply misanthropic and perfectly idealistic, even corny (dig the Tinkerbell-esque way Kiri helps track down the trapped family in the ship), in the way it manipulates a puppet theatre of human facets, the clash between cruelty and empathy, destruction and protection, playing upon the desire for grand new landscapes whilst also insistently reminding us of how we’ve fouled up the ones we know too well. Cameron’s always been a fascinating bundle of contradictions, a male action movie director famed for female protagonists, who populates his tech-heavy films with some of the few memorable romances in recent popular cinema, a control freak who often delivers antiestablishment messages through the ungainly vehicles of colossal blockbusters. And he goes on being one even as the imaginative constructs of the Avatar universe labour so urgently to find some point of fusion for them all. Avatar: The Way of Water is also many warring things, a failure of imagination on some levels and a spectacular and hugely entertaining expression of it on others, a long and clunky example of franchise cinema but also a full-blooded, gleeful relief from it, a film that does its best to satisfy on its own merits whilst keeping on an eye on things still in the future.
aka Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (reissue title)
Director: George Lucas Screenwriters: George Lucas, Willard Huyck (uncredited), Gloria Katz (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
Most films lose their battle for cultural attention. Sometimes that proves an advantage. They’re free to be constantly rediscovered, to be alive for each viewer in a different way. Other films win the battle, and the price they pay for this can be they become so familiar they stop being seen, in the sense that, as a shared point of reference for a vast audience, they lose any quality of the unexpected, and instead become unshifting landmarks. This is especially true of Star Wars, which has been in turn celebrated and blamed for a monumental detour in screen culture in the years since its release. Decades after their first viewing my parents still mentioned the gobsmacking impact of the opening images of Star Wars, with the sight of a small spaceship fleeing a colossal pursuer, the passing of which unfolds on a new scale of imaginative transcription through cinematic technique. Suddenly the movies grew bigger than when D.W. Griffith besieged the walls of Babylon or Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea. There’s a video on YouTube presenting an audio recording made by a mother and her young son during their first viewing of Star Wars in a movie theatre in 1977. The whoops of joy from the audience greeting Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) cowboy yelp when he intervenes in the climactic battle, and the applause when the Death Star explodes, record a great moment in mapping the idea and ideal of moviegoing: you can hear the audience in the palm of a filmmaker’s hand, experiencing everything old being made new again.
That said, I would say the moment that makes Star Wars what it became arrived a little earlier in the film, during the scene where the assailed heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are trapped between two forces of enemy Stormtroopers whilst perched on the edge of a chasm. Whilst Leia exchanges fire with Stormtroopers on a high vantage and another band try to break through the sealed door behind them, Luke improvises a way of swinging across. John Williams’ music indulges a flourish of florid emphasis as the young would-be white knight and the lady fair in the flowing silk dress swoop across to freedom. This moment condensed generations of movies, serials, comic books, and their precursors in fantastical literature and theatrical melodrama and on and on back to classical folklore, into a new singularity. A moment that somehow manages to exist at once with scare quotes of knowing around it, an ever so slight tint of camp not really that far from the jokey, satirical lilt of the 1960s Batman TV series built around both puckishly mocking and celebrating juvenile heroic fantasy, whilst also operating on a completely straight-faced level: this is the universe Star Wars has successfully woven by this point, one where that heroism isn’t a wish but simply part of life.
The genesis of Star Wars is today just about as well-known as the movie itself. Young filmmaker George Lucas, taking time off after releasing his debut feature THX-1138 (1971), wanted to make a film out of the beloved comic strip Flash Gordon, but couldn’t afford to buy the rights. After rifling through the history of the subgenre commonly dubbed “space opera” the strip had sprung from, Lucas sat down and began dreaming up his own, working through variation after variation on his ideas until finally arriving at the form that would become so familiar. Even before Lucas scored a hit with American Graffiti (1973), he was able to convince 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to back his other, riskier project, and got American Graffiti’s cowriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to punch up the dialogue. That nobody quite knew what they had on their hands is made clear by the film’s first teaser trailer, which demonstrates in lacking Williams’ scoring that the images still had thrilling energy on their own, even as the trailer completely fails to communicate the tone of the thing. The roots of Star Wars are far more liberally free-range of course – Lucas took obvious and largely admitted inspiration not just from Flash Gordon but from DeMille, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, FritzLang, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Isaac Asimov, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, and a panoply of Saturday matinee adventure serials and 1950s war, fantasy, and swashbuckler films. The real trick was fusing them all together into something not just comprehensible and individual but, on the whole, original, something the audience that greeted its release in 1977 beheld as new and exciting despite its hoary components, and which instantly sank hooks deep into the popular consciousness.
The trick lay partly in the way Lucas made the film, with perfect confidence in the medium, but also in the way he packaged it. Those air quotes hover about the entire movie, as Lucas approached the material as if it was an artefact, designed to seem like it had an identity that existed long before Lucas stumbled upon it, a little like the hero of his other great pop culture creation, Indiana Jones, and the relics he plunders. Star Wars has an odd relationship today with its many follow-ups and imitations. It’s become a singular point of reference around which Lucas and others built vast fictional precincts. It’s a lot more complex than it’s often given credit for, but exceedingly straightforward in terms of its essential plotting, and built upon manifold reference points of its own. If Star Wars had failed at the box office it would still be perfectly sufficient unto itself, except perhaps in the detail of its major bad guy Darth Vader not getting a comeuppance at the end, and even that could be taken as a nod to the finale of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Anthony Hope resisted killing off his charismatic villain too (and indeed also brought him and other characters back for a follow-up everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen). And yet it’s conceived and executed as a story within a story. The in medias res plunge directly into a narrative already in motion not only nods to the storytelling method of ancient epics, but also to the more profane traditions of the serial drama. The branded title card, the fairytale-like epigram “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and in-universe flourishes, including character and place names that sound like they’ve been translated into some other language and back again, and the technological and architectural design – all cordoned the experience of Star Wars off into its own discrete space even as its roots lead off in every direction.
This aspect was greatly amplified when upon the film’s first rerelease in 1980 Lucas added to the opening explanatory crawl a new detail – suddenly the singular movie became “Episode IV,” specifically titled “A New Hope,” designating it as not merely a work in itself but part of what was then still an entirely theoretical legendarium. Compared to some of the films in the series it birthed, including the richer, darker palette of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), or the more lushly romantic and deceptively complex prequels, the original seems oddly stripped-down, absent some of the accumlated mythos, but it’s also that essentialised quality that helped it land so powerfully. Star Wars came out when dependable movie genres were dying and proposed a way to revive them through transposing their setting, freeing them from the constraints of real world reference points. The Western no longer had to be rooted in the increasingly, cynically questioned reality of the American colonial experience, the heroic war movie no longer the provenance of another generation. Star Wars was also a pure product of its cultural moment even as it seemed to reject that moment. Lucas based his all-encompassing evil Empire on the Nixon White House and the struggle against its predations in the Vietnam War zeitgeist, but with enough cultural echoes of other struggles – the American Revolution and World War II most obviously – to give a mollifying smokescreen. Lucas consciously turned the abstract, alienated parable of THX-1138 into something more readily engaging, more commercial, more communal, whilst still working with the same basic elements.
At the same time it can be said Star Wars grew conceptually out of the sporadic popularity of a certain brand of pop art-inflected moviemaking and TV that burgeoned in the late 1960s, encompassing the likes of the Batman TV series, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Richard Lester’s antiheroic deconstructions of adventure films like hisMusketeer movies and Robin and Marian (1976), and retro pulp tributes like Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) and Kevin Connor’s Burroughs adaptations. Moments like that swing across the chasm have a similar informing spirit to Lester’s films in particular, although Lester would probably have had them thud into the wall just to one side of the landing. The comedy in Star Wars helps build up the heroic infrastructure rather than question it ironically, lending it propulsion as the characters react to situation but also ultimately helping create credulity rather than undercut it. Lucas’ famous stylistic flourish in punctuating scenes with wipes rather than dissolves or jump cuts, nodding to both Kurosawa and 1930s serial forebears, had already been employed by Anderson in recreating the old serial style on Doc Savage, if to much lesser effect. Science fiction film in the first half of the 1970s has a largely deserved reputation for a thoughtful, clever, but often grim sensibility, although playful fare wasn’t entirely dead, and was chiefly hampered by budget restrictions and directors who had little technical facility: witness the way the Planet of the Apes movies remained popular but had their budget cut with each entry.
Along came Lucas, who above all had schooled himself in the nuts and bolts of film production like few directors before or since. Star Wars in its time connected with similarly successful works by Lucas’ friends – much as it translated the generational anxiety of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) into a radically different generic zone and also presaged Coppola’s mythopoeic war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), it also accompanied Steven Spielberg’s semi-incidental companion piece in baby boomer sci-fi mythicism, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), arguably the superior movie but much less influential, in finding a way of tapping into a cynical audience’s hunger for transcendental cinematic experience. Those genre, industry, and imagination-altering opening moments of Star Wars, as a colossal Imperial Star Destroyer chases down a much smaller rebel spacecraft, give way to more familiar precepts. A gunfight between Rebel warriors and invading Imperial Stormtroopers, a conflict highly recognisable from who knows how many low-budget sci-fi movies and TV shows where people fire ray-guns at each-other along corridors. Two comic relief factotums stumble through the struggle. The great villain of the piece makes his dramatic entrance, directing the unleashed carnage. The newness lay in the veneer of strangeness applied through the technological vision, informed by the tangible and specific atmosphere inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s design work and John Barry’s production design, and the canniness of the filmmaking.
Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, but in creating a fictional zone that does actually include magic, or something like it, Lucas and those designers moved instead to cut across the grain of that and make the craft, machines, and equipment look palpable, as gritty, purely fit-for-purpose, grimy, and banged-about as the technology familiar to us: the Millennium Falcon, one of the series’ enduring icons, complete lacks any appearance of streamlining or aesthetic edge, and its appeal lies instead in its steely-looking functionality, like a Frisbee with a golf club head stuck on the side and a giant blazing energy portal in back. The Star Wars films have long been talked about as vital creations of audio effect as well as visual, thanks in large part to Ben Burtt’s groundbreaking labours. The care for the effect of sound as a storytelling device is plain at the get-go, as Lucas builds tension through the eerie, threatening noises the rebels warriors hear as their crippled spacecraft is intercepted by the Star Destroyer and drawn into its docking back, the fighters grimly waiting for the assault they know will be coming through the airlock bulkhead. Suddenly, action – the bulkhead door cut through and blasted out in moments, invading Stormtroopers plunging through. The Stormtroopers would eventually become a kind of punchline in movie lore as easily killable enemy soldiers, but here they’re first introduced as blankly terrifying and competent enemies, suffering a couple of casualties whilst shearing through the Rebel ranks, quickly setting them to flight.
The film’s wit on a visual exposition level is also made apparent as Lucas seems to undercut the cliché of villains dressing dark colours whilst merging set decoration and costume design with a deliberation scarcely seen in cinema since the days of Lang and Eisenstein, by having the Stormtroopers clad in white armour that matches the polished white environs of the rebel spaceship. It’s as if they’re animated parts of the ship rather than mere invaders, the technological paradigm threatening the paltry humans. Ironically, the most “human” characters we get for much of the first part of the film are the “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), seemingly hapless pseudo-sentient mechanical beings caught in the midst of war and terror. This was in part the result of editing choices to make the early scenes more fluid, but the consequence was to provoke a distinct new idea of what a protagonist in a movie could be. The twist on cliché twists back as we gain out first glimpse of the enemy commander Lord Darth Vader, emerging from the blown bulkhead and resolving from smoky haze, pausing to survey the scattered corpses of the rebels before sweeping on. Vader is swathed in black like a superscientific edition of Dracula, the embodiment of evil from the very first, face masked, breathing registering as a hoarsely filtered sound. Here is a figure who exists between the two paradigms, a fusion of man and machine where the combination is most definitely malign, and whose appearance has been carefully engineered, both for the people within this particular world and for those watching it, for the pure sake of intimidation.
Whilst actor David Prowse, the actor filling out Vader’s costume, would have his voice dubbed over by the originally unbilled James Earl Jones, his talent as a mime is nonetheless very important to Vader as a character in his ability to convey a remorseless purpose, an inherent physical aggression and fixity of purpose, charging the way he moves, even before he’s portrayed as throttling and tossing about rebels and fearsomely confronting and accusing the captive Princess Leia. Leia herself, a diplomat and envoy for the newly defunct imperial senate, makes her own impression in standing up this figure of menace incarnate. The casting of Fisher, a 19-year-old progeny of Hollywood royalty invested with levels of knowing far beyond her years, proved perfect for amplifying the way the script plays updating games with the figure of the classical aristocratic heroine, inflecting the hauteur with pure ‘70s California sass. But Leia first enters the movie in the shadows. Like Vader, she is initially glimpsed amidst smoky haze as a figure, resolving out of the pure stuff of myth, the incarnation this time of good in her white silken garb, even as her actions are initially ambiguous: she’s seen from the bewildered viewpoint of C-3PO as she loads information into R2-D2, before gunning down a Stormtrooper and getting shot herself with a stunning blast. Leia condenses the movie’s whole frame of cultural reference into her petite frame, fulfilling a role directly out of legend and melodrama tradition, whilst also presenting modern spunk and attitude.
It’s well known that Lucas took strong inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the early sections and general narrative shape of Star Wars. C-3PO, and R2-D2, or Threepio and Artoo as they’re generally dubbed, are inspired by the two shit-kicker peasant antiheroes of the Kurosawa film, and their early travails similarly playing out in a desolate setting that eventually sees their path intersect with proper heroes. The differences are important, of course. Threepio and Artoo are robots, and instead of wandering medieval Japan, they eject from the captured spacecraft and land on the neighbouring desert planet of Tatooine. One thing that’s a little surprising today about Star Wars is how coherent and consistent the story is, despite the outlandish conceptual conceits, and when the need for such a thing is often casually dismissed as an interest in such genre zones. The plot stakes are initially vague, but soon gain shape and urgency as it becomes apparent Leia used Artoo as a last-ditch vehicle to try and get the plans for the Empire’s new, terrifying superweapon, the Death Star, to her fellow Rebels. The Death Star will soon provide both a partial setting for the story and the great threat driving the last act. Leia’s choice of Artoo as a messenger capable of slipping the net of Imperial scanning proves inspired and logical, where humans would be detected. Artoo is characterised as knowing in ways well beyond his nominal status and electronic twittering language, whereas Threepio, despite his effetely loquacious and pompous manner, knows even less than he thinks, and this disparity proves a propelling element for the story as well as a source of character comedy. The two split up once dumped by their escape pod in the desert, with Threepio furious at his companion for maintaining his wilful way, only for both to be quickly snatched up by a race of nomadic scavengers called Jawas, who specialise in selling on anything of value they find.
Artoo’s capture by the Jawas creates an unsettling atmosphere as Artoo makes timorous sounds as he becomes aware of hidden, watching beings in the desolate landscape around him, a little like a character from some early Disney animated short. A Jawa jumps up and zaps him with a paralysing ray gun, causing Artoo to topple over with a slapstick thud. This brief but ingenious sequence illustrates both Lucas’ talent at toggling swiftly between tones whilst kneading them into the unfolding narrative, switching between points of view and allowing the audience and onscreen characters to discover things in tandem. That the Jawas are themselves diminutive and faintly absurd in their frantic industriousness leavens the note of creepiness they initially strike. The process of them bundling Artoo to be sucked up into a huge tube connected to their giant crawling vehicle is allowed to play out without any dialogue necessary, using visuals to present the already rapidly expanding sense of this universe and the teeming oddity and wonder, and the oddly familiar opportunism, it contains. This evinces a sense not just of a variety of sentient species and their technology but also clues to the social setup on Tatooine, with its many kinds of survivors with different ways of weathering the blasted and seemingly dead landscape, and also the way this eventually feeds the narrative back from vacant outskirts towards the centres of power in the universe. Threepio’s own encounter with the Jawa sandcrawler sees him calling out to the distant vehicle in appeal, framed as he is by the huge skeleton of some long-dead creature. Once both Artoo and Threepio are trapped within the shadowy, sleazy space of the Sandcrawler’s belly, Lucas offers glimpses of the other robots of radically differing designs the Jawas possess, an early example of a motif taken up more vividly and strangely in the later Mos Eisley cantina sequence, where Lucas delights in showing off a vast array of peculiar beings.
Artoo and Threepio are soon sold to Owen Lars (Phil Brown), who lives with his wife Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and adopted nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who engage in what is described as “moisture farming” somewhere in this flat and barren zone. Here the narrative performs another zigzag whilst also reorienting to another viewpoint, and another genre: now we’re in the classic Western territory of the isolated homesteaders and the wistful young farmhand. Luke, like the heroes of American Graffiti, is on the verge of moving on. Where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt in that film suffered cold feet, Luke seems desperate to “transmit my application to the Academy this year.” Like the characters of American Graffiti and the protagonist of THX-1138, Luke’s voyage of discovery is announced via imagery of the sun, with a small but important difference. The rising sun in the first two films signalled the end of childish things and simple dichotomies of choice, whereas the setting sun(s) here preserve the dreaming: thanks to both the visuals and Williams’ plaintive, evocative scoring, this locks that pure moment of yearning in a crystal of expressive perfection. Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns setting is of course a singular character, a young man eager for experience and as much pained as excited by his dreams, and is also the audience itself, an essential avatar for every dreamer, every anxious eye turned onto the cinema screen looking urgently for transportation and release. It’s also a moment of incantation, immediately rewarded by Luke being presented with his mission, when he heads back into his repair space to find Artoo missing and Threepio hiding in anxiety. Hamill, doomed to be remembered for a long time as a failed star, was too perfect for the role in providing a ready connecting point for the audience: if Fisher was Hollywood royalty Hamill presents heroism as looking a bit like a SoCal surfer. But Hamill was crucially able to communicate Luke’s deep emotional need underneath the dreamy, frustrated optimism and youthful charm duelling with his early callow streak.
Generational tension is also in play. Owen doesn’t want Luke heading off to “some damn fool idealistic crusade” and is afraid that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” But Luke is bent on a course that will eventually lead him to the “dark father.” At this point the mythos of Star Wars was still evolving and things that are now set in concrete were still nebulous at this point, but the connection between Luke and Vader is already predestined, Vader identified as “the young Jedi” who “betrayed and murdered your father.” He is the ultimate and inevitable nemesis for the young man who has to find his way not just through space but pick his way through the wreckage of a collapsed political paradigm and a waned parental generation. Luke quickly gains the call to adventure when, as he cleans up Artoo, he accidentally plays the end segment of a holographic message recorded by Leia, addressed to an Obi-Wan Kenobi. The portion of Leia’s appeal with its looping, totemic phrase “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” gives Luke the first intimation that he’s stumbled onto something tantalising in its import. Moreover, it’s personally suggestive to him in the familiarity of the name Kenobi, making him think of the local hermit Ben Kenobi. This in turn gives Artoo a lead, and he quickly flees in his determination to fulfil Leia’s assignment to fetch the old sage and press him back into action for the Rebel cause, forcing Luke and Threepio to follow him into the rocky wastes.
But it’s the vision of Leia herself, beautiful, distressed, rendered ghostly in the flickering holographic recording, that powerfully evokes a fundamental psychological need, as if Artoo is projecting Luke’s own private anima, the pure spirit of romantic longing that is also a direct urging towards great things. If Darth Vader is the dark father, Kenobi is of course his counterbalance, part Gandalf, part guru, part aging but still able gunslinger from a Howard Hawks movie. These two spiritual parents supplant Owen and Beru, who are murdered by Stormtroopers on the trail of Artoo and Threepio, and are bent towards their own fatal showdown. Lucas presents a brief synopsis of that vital Movie Brat foundational text, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as Luke ventures out into the wilderness and encounters both savagery in the form of the Sandpeople, also called Tusken Raiders, another nomadic and larcenous desert race but these frightening, brutal, and seemingly subhuman, forms a bond with a protective paternal stand-in, and returns to the homestead to find it burning and the smouldering skeletons of loved-ones sprawled nearby. The pacing of Star Wars in this portion is a telling counterpoint to many of its imitations and even direct follow-ups. Where, say, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) crams four different special effects-heavy set-pieces into its first hour, Lucas’ template only offers one, at the very outset, and then a couple of minor tussles. The sequence in which Luke is attacked by a Sandperson whilst he think he’s safely surveying them from a distance is a good example of restraint as well as a spasm of violent action.
Lucas plays a game with viewpoint, harking back to the obsession in THX-1138 with viewing through technological detour as Luke spies on the Sandpeople through the fuzzy image of a pair of electronic binoculars, only for a strange rush of motion to rise into his field of vision – a Sandperson suddenly looms in front of him, the safe vantage suddenly and rudely swapped for imminent danger. This is impressive and clever not just on a visual exposition and drama-setting level but also on the thematic: this is the first, actual occasion where Luke is faced with a genuine danger in the course of his nascent adventure, as what was before remote and harmless is suddenly very real and deadly. It’s an early test Luke fails, as the Raider, swiping down at him on the ground, easily bests him, and the Sandpeople dump his unconscious form and begin looting his hovering “speeder” (the closest thing to a reliable old Chevy in this universe). The actual disabling blow to Luke isn’t showing, only the fearsome and disturbing image of the creepily masked Sandperson brandishing its club and releasing a triumphant, bloodcurdling cry that echoes off amongst the surrounding canyons, a recourse back to the mood of the early moments on Tatooine and the permeating mood of disquiet and dislocation in an oneiric space. For the first but certainly not for the last time in his career, to occasional disquiet, Lucas displaces the old, racist function of Native Americans in the Western narrative onto the imaginary race of the Sandpeople, who are daunting but are also small potatoes, displaced from their role in many Westerns as engines of turmoil and resisters of civilisation, whilst nominally defusing the cultural tension between myth and reality that was rapidly dismantling the Western’s pre-eminence. Here, instead, the Empire is both the zenith of civilisation and its purest foe. That it’s not just humans and droids who are jittery in this region is made clear when the Sandpeople are suddenly driven off by a weird cry and the sight of a weird being looming into view. This proves to be Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) himself. He quickly admits to Luke to being the former Obi-Wan, in one of those indelible little instances of various elements – Guinness’ incarnation of wistfully ruminative good-humour and Williams’ trilling woodwinds on sound – woven together to forge mystique and spark new mystery even as the answer to a propelling narrative question is resolved.
The reference point of The Searchers is purposeful not just in orientating the audience to a fantastical universe in terms of pre-existing generic touchstones, but also arguing with its essence, the source of the intimidating power it had for filmmakers of Lucas’ generation. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was above all a man, one with a history, who cannot erase his past mistakes but finally avoids making new ones, and provides uneasy mentorship to Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, who eventually learns to stand up for himself, but that means placing himself in the way of a bullet. The Searchers is a work for an age where the crux of drama fell to grown-ups, where Star Wars is the by-product of a youth culture, made for a generation for whom the most dramatic events of the average life take place between the ages of 15 and 25, and so the stress of the story moves from the older man’s experience to the younger’s. Star Wars presents the orphaned hero as severed from continuity, forced to essentially invent his own method of maturing when the adults are dead or dying: by story’s end he has lost all his elders, but the lessons he has learnt are literally ringing in his ears as he takes up the mantle. The killing of Owen and Beru invests all that follows with an emotional wellspring that doesn’t need reiterating. The grammar in the scene of Luke’s discovery of their remains is simple but enormously effective. The camera tracks in imitation of Luke’s point of view until he focuses on the scorched skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, and Lucas allows a medium close-up of Hamill as he registers the awful moment. Importantly, the rhythm of Hamill’s gestures are the same as in the earlier sunset scene — gazing on in fixation, dropping his gaze and hiding from his reaction for an instant, before resuming with a new glaze of acceptance, except this time with different, terrible, life-changing import. Lucas then cuts to a long shot of Luke before the burning homestead as Williams’ music swells. His solitude and complete excision from what was just a day earlier a stultifying but settled and stable life is encapsulated, before an inward iris wipe shifts the scene.
The depiction of consuming evil and raw violence visited by offended authority immediately segues into a sequence depicting Darth Vader preparing to use a hovering droid to torture Leia for information about the Rebels’ secret base. That’s soon followed by a sequence where Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), uses the threat of destroying Leia’s home planet Alderaan with the Death Star’s incredible firepower to get the information out of her. Leia gives an answer, albeit a deceitful one, but Tarkin still destroys Alderaan because it fulfils the basic function of the Death Star, which is to inspire fear, as a substitute for any lingering vestige of collaboration and consultation (“The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away,” Tarkin reports). Such moments obviously indict the Empire as a truly despicable beast one absolutely no-one will mind seeing taken down a few pegs, but also as one possessed of reasoned motives and a sense of what their force is intended to achieve. Which points to another peculiar aspect of Star Wars: as the title suggests, it’s preoccupied by war. Not a war like, say, the clash of civilisations in the Trojan myths, or a fusing of factional chaos into order as in the Arthurian cycle. Lucas instead presents a specifically modern political paradigm, however naively rendered: absolute authoritarianism versus romantic resistance. Not at all hard to see Lucas fretting over the military-industrial complex, with the Death Star as the atomic bomb, the deaths of Owen and Beru as suggestively My Lai-eque. Luke, Han, and Leia (and Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio) remain individuals even when they join a faction, a point underlined at the film’s end where the characters remain smirking and ironic even when being showered with rewards in the midst of martially regimented ranks.
Kenobi’s brief narration of the truth of Luke’s background and its connection to the current events, once Kenobi takes Luke to his remote domicile, is in itself a little marvel of screenwriting concision and general mythmaking, with its allusions to the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and the Clone Wars, all grounded not just in recent political history but in the personal identity of both old man and young. All of these have long since been elaborated upon, but here are allowed to float as grand things lost to time and nearly to memory in the age of the supplanting Empire. Kenobi hands to Luke his father’s lightsaber, a tantalising weapon, ridiculous but irresistible, humming with totemic power and meaning, a little bit Excalibur, a little bit Notung, a little bit the sword D’Artagnan’s father gives him. Guinness, not an actor who needed by this point in his career to prove himself in any fashion and easily the biggest name in the film, lends inestimable sagacious presence, encapsulating the nature of the Jedi, composed, restrained, intelligent, moral, and spiked with just the faintest edge of world-weariness and regret over the calamities of the past. Here finally the whole of Leia’s message is seen and its import processed. Luke displays the classic resistance to the call to adventure when Kenobi tries to enlist him in his looming mission to spirit Artoo and the stolen plans to Alderaan. Luke, who was champing at the bit to leave Tatooine hours earlier, still feels the tethers of responsibility as well as intimidation when actual adventure demands. Soon Luke has a double motive to join the Rebellion, as both the entity in large has killed his guardians, and a personal grudge against Vader.
When Luke sets off back home with Kenobi and the droids, they come across the shattered sandcrawler of the massacred Jawas. Luke, grasping the reason for their slaughter, rushes home too late. Finally and completely freed from who he was, Luke elects to “learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father,” and he and Kenobi make for the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” crawling with Stormtroopers looking for the droids, but also a motley collective of species representing a cross-section of the galaxy’s swarming populace. The cantina sequence, where in Luke uneasily mingles with a rough crowd of humans and aliens representing the demimonde of innumerable worlds whilst Kenobi looks to hire transportation off Tatooine, is another inspired, instantly iconic vignette. Again, it’s a fairly familiar situation, redolent of a thousand tough saloons in a thousand westerns, but transformed with the application of sci-fi elements. Here are manifold species, ingeniously designed and animated through makeup and puppetry, drawn together in one place by what is to a human eye at least a perfect logic, sharing a penchant for intoxicants and doing dirty business in a disreputable dive. There’s even, for added piquancy and indeed resonance, the spectre of seemingly arbitrary prejudice, as the bartender tells Luke the joint doesn’t serve droids, forcing Artoo and Threepio to withdraw.
Appearances can also be deceiving: one of these motley denizens, the huge, hirsute Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appears one of the roughest, but is actually an intelligent being who falls into conversation with Kenobi, and proves a link to the rest of the story. Luke is picked on by a pair of bullies looking for a fight, but gets one instead from Kenobi after he tries to defuse the confrontation. Here, for the first time, the lightsaber is seen in action, in a vignette that again utilises Luke’s viewpoint to underline the startling impression of the weapon’s deadly precision in the right hands, and alters the visual technique to effect: glimpsing a blur of motion punctuated by the already familiar sound and flash of the weapon and the dreadful scream of the suddenly curtailed thug as conveyed through a brief handheld shot, Luke focuses on his severed arm lying on the floor amidst drops of blood. Kenobi slowly eases from his tense and ready poise as he’s sure no-one else wants to try it on, and disengages the lightsaber. Whereupon everyone in the bar, momentarily arrested by the spectacle, goes back to what they were doing. Strong as lore-enhancing action; just as good as wry pastiche of classic gunslinging spectacle.
This sequence fulfilled a largely ignored promise of science-fiction cinema until this point in presenting a vision of a universe of deep variety and eccentricity that nonetheless evokes something amusingly familiar in its concept of sentience. It comes directly after Kenobi has given Luke a first demonstration of Jedi power, using psychic influence to get past some searching Stormtroopers with seemingly casual ease. The threat of Jedi power to the Empire becomes clearer here, and suggests a symbolic link with the artist’s relationship with power, dismantling it through artfully broadcasting on wavelengths incoherent to the authoritarian mindset. The first encounter with Han Solo is consequentially defined by him being at first just another of these shady characters in a shady den, so shady indeed he’s no sooner finished arranging to fly Luke, Kenobi, and the droids to Alderaan than he’s accosted by Greedo, an obnoxious, green-skinned, snouted bounty hunter who wants him dead or alive, preferably dead, to please their mutual master Jabba the Hutt, a gangster Han owes money too. Fans were understandably aggravated by the clumsy revision of this scene in Lucas’ 1997 special edition of the film, which tried to reforge this confrontation to make it seem that Greedo shot at Han first, where the point of this moment is defining Han as accustomed to dealing with dangerous opponents with both guile and brute force. Moreover, it established him as a character entirely adapted, just as Kenobi already has, to this environment, knowing precisely when and how to unleash deadly force. Han’s motivations are also plain enough, his motivation to make money not just pure greed, but necessary to extricate himself from a deep hole.
Han emerges from a different wing of pop culture to Leia, Luke, and Kenobi, and a nominally more modern one. He’s initially a film noir hero connected to Bogartian characters like To Have and Have Not’s (1944) Harry Morgan, putting both and craft on the line and urged on by his uneasy place in the food chain of profit motive, and whose streak of heroic decency only emerges over time. A sceptical figure for whom The Force has no meaning. Someone whose actions and reactions can be surprising, at least in his first outing, because his nature seems confused and dubious, his actual values concealed under a hard shell of wiseacre pith and stoic cool. Where Luke is pure youth and Kenobi is wise experience, Han lurks between, a player in the game who knows all too well how hard the game is and sees no way out of it. He’s the essential interlocutor in the drama, negotiating the perspective of the more cynical sectors of the audience. There’s keenness in the difference in dialogue patterns attached to each character. Kenobi’s speech is courtly, structured, replete with aphorisms and slightly archaic curlicues (and, it’s worth noting, sounds exactly the same as the dialogue in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), whereas Luke, Han, and Leia are more “contemporary,” particularly Han, who shifts from salesman lingo to gunfighter terseness on a dime. When Han improvises a line of verbiage after he, Luke and Chewbacca shoot up the Death Star prison command, in trying to keep more Stormtroopers coming to them, he reveals a more subtle survival skill than gunplay, and it’s a trickier one, one he doesn’t quite pull off. It’s a moment that became the seed for a more sustained comic streak to the character as scene in later movies, but the striking thing about Ford’s performance on his first go-round, and the character he’s playing, is precisely that hard, ambiguous, deadly edge he’s allowed, a quality that the notes of occasional diffidence in Ford’s performance only helps strengthen.
The cantina scene is also an example of a renowned aspect of the film’s aesthetic, its presentation of a convincing physical universe, where the technology, no wonder how fantastic, and the settings and life-forms have a solidity and a feel that evokes some inchoate need for a splendid diversity of life. The close-ups of Artoo and Threepio present the tiny scratches and dents all of their bodies, looking just like what they are, machines who have been working since the moment they were first switched on. That first shot of the Star Destroyer completely rejects what had been the general sci-fi movie faith in sleekness as the totemic quality of the futuristic, appealing instead to everyday associations in the age of technology and industry where things are busy and functional, their workings often obscure to those not directly engaged in the making or upkeep. Moreover, the special mystique that distinguished Star Wars then and now is evinced not merely in the busy paraphernalia of set, costume, FX, and makeup design, but in the careful construction of mood, and the connection of that mood to the deeper underlying aesthetic. Artoo and Threepio’s desert wanderings, Luke’s venture out after Artoo and his encounter with the Sandpeople, the meeting with Kenobi – all of these scenes weave a sparse, dreamlike mood, nudging the realm of fairy-tales where the young and vulnerable venture into the dark woods alone, whilst also evoking the vast spaces of Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Lang and DeMille’s oversized, monumental evocations of past and future.
This pervasive mood continues even when the heroes are trapped within the “technological terror” of the Death Star, a place containing pockets infested with nightmarish monsters and tremendous canyons of space, where crucial mechanisms seem to have been deliberately placed to make them difficult to access without master control of the apparatus. From the careful downward pan from deep space to a triptych of tantalising planets that sets up the inimitable opening, we are drawn in two different directions, at once tactile and subliminal, where both the evocations of scale and the ghostly image of Leia touch the boundaries of a Jungian zone. In this regard Star Wars rearranges the spare, haunting, submerged imagery explored in THX-1138 for clear narrative ends – it feels very telling, for instance, that the sight of a flashing point far away in an otherwise featureless zone, the sign that helped THX and his companions escape the void prison in that film, is here recreated when Threepio sees the Jawa sandcrawler miles away in the deep desert. The underlying oneiric quality is rendered more literal in the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comments that the planet Dagobah is like out of a dream, before heading into a place that makes the stuff of his subconscious come to life. In this manner, despite its bright and jolly visual palette and love of chitinous technology, Star Wars is in essence a full colour distillation of the early Expressionistic urge in cinema: the entire design of what we see is an animation of a psychological zone. It adds another axis of torsion to the film as a whole, working in synchrony with the multi-genre play, travelling back to the point where all stories become one somewhere in the subbasements of the consciousness.
The gathering crew of Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, and Threepio, with Kenobi at first and later Leia, forge a core gang of heroes, at once describing a child’s idea of adult life, and an updated take on teamed-up heroic bands ranging from the Argonauts to Dumas’ Musketeers. Luke’s first glimpse of Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, sparks his inimitable comment, “What a heap of junk!” only for Han, with ever so slight irritation and a dash of professional smarm, to talk up his souped-up hot rod (this is also the viewer’s first glimpse of the ship, unless one has only seen the reedit, which clumsily inserted a cut scene featuring Jabba). Han boasts that his ship has accomplished legendary feats, like a sword in myth, and that’s pretty much the function it has here, as a tool of greatness, serving for Han as the lightsaber does for the Jedi, albeit simultaneously deglamourized as the tool of a roguish smuggler and a mutt of machinery. Things of value in Star Wars often turn a slightly absurd face to the world, in a way that, whilst the overall story seems to be bending reality towards a romantic vision, the nuts and bolts cut across the grain of the traditionally heroic. The “your kind” droids are dynamic players. The nobody farm boy is a future hero. The old hermit is a great warrior. The shady loser in the bar is a man of myriad gifts and his “piece of junk” a ship out of folklore. All require only the correct stage to operate and interact upon. The Falcon also signals that Han is essentially a spacefaring version of the drag racers in American Graffiti, keeping one step ahead of the cops in his workshop-cobbled racer: Ford, who had played Bob Falfa, the blow-in challenger to the local racing champ, in the precursor film was here promoted to a lead role, initially just as slippery and ambiguous, but showing his true mettle when he unleashes thunderous havoc on the Stormtroopers who try to intercept them before fleeing at top speed.
After the thrills of escaping Mos Eisley and the Star Destroyers patrolling around the planet, the voyage on the Millennium Falcon provides a respite, but still provides important character and scene-setting elements, particularly as Kenobi uses the time to start introducing Luke to using The Force, including learning how to defend himself against beam-shooting drones without using his sight. The idea of The Force provides the essential new aspect of the appeal of Star Wars, distinct from its precursors. Of course, Lucas hardly invented science-fantasy as a subgenre, and space opera had sported quasi-supernatural and magical powers since its earliest exemplars. The Force owed a little something to the role of the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a device charged with metaphysical vitality occurring in a universe otherwise defined by technocracy, and perhaps the Ninth Ray in Burroughs’ Barsoom novels too. But The Force provided Lucas with a supple tool, one that gives definition to both story and character. The Force is itself a distillation of traditions, part wuxia film chi power, part 1970s New Age creed (Guinness found himself fending away offers to become a guru), with a description as “an energy field created by all living things” that evoke the craze in those heady days for things like auras and Kirlian photography and biofeedback. Lucas offered a version of it anyone could get on board with, given the very faintest lacquer of rationality in stemming from the life-force of beings rather than being a power working on them (Lucas would firm this up to much complaint in his prequel trilogy). The Force also operates on the same quasi-medieval level as other elements of the story, echoing an age of human thinking where faith in unseen forces was immediately connected with perception of the world, and renders the good-vs-evil motif more than symbolic: those extremes of action and principle are instead literal powers in the world that become more significant, more dangerous, more cruelly tempting, the more one becomes attuned to its workings.
At the same time, The Force is also a metaphor for the screenwriter’s power, drawing its heroes together and gifting them with advantage in situations where they would otherwise flail and die, and excuses coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. That Kenobi experiences the extermination of Alderaan resembles an artist’s capacity for pure empathic connection. It’s also chiefly registered in this original outing through its absence. The Force, along with the Jedi Knights who once wielded it as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” has slipped beyond the horizon of general cultural memory. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” is all Owen has to say about Kenobi. Han disdains Kenobi’s championing of it, claiming to only put faith in a good blaster. The only force user in their prime on hand is Vader himself, who casually throttles Imperial Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier) from a distance, after he echoes Owen’s description of Ben in referring dismissively to Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” in comparison to the Death Star’s encapsulation of technical and military might. This scene makes the strength of the Force, even its “dark side,” very clear, and establishes that not only does Vader adhere to it but considers it a higher loyalty than whatever political faction he works for. One reason, perhaps, Tarkin is described by Leia as “holding Vader’s leash,” nominally holding him, as a kind of discrete weapon himself, in obeisance to the needs of the military hierarchy and the more stolid precepts of the era he is ironically trapped in enforcing. In the following films Vader ascends to sole command once it becomes clear another Force user has come onto the scene. Kenobi’s demonstrations of The Force are craftier. Even in the climax when Luke decides to trust his primal, mystic intuition rather than technology at Kenobi’s unseen insistence, it’s a matter of a slightly heightened edge of awareness added onto skills and talents he’s mastered through his youth on Tatooine: he’s already an experienced pilot and a good shot, tested in both indeed in by the extremes of his home planet in a way that proves to transcend tamer learning processes.
Tarkin himself represents authority at its most icy and contemptuous, a pure minister for technofascist force and the relish of wielding it, to the point where he’s able to boss even Vader around with supreme confidence. Cushing’s presence in the role provided an authentic link to some of Lucas’ genre film touchstones, and much like his characterisation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series, Tarkin acts like a surgeon remaking the universe in his own image, entirely divorced from any sense of consequence: he plainly gets more satisfaction from shocking and tormenting Leia than from exterminating millions of Alderaanians. The heroes’ journey to Alderaan goes all wrong as the Death Star is still hovering near the field of debris left from the planet’s destruction, and the Falcon and its crew are scooped up in a tractor beam and brought forcibly aboard the awesomely massive station. It’s a pity that, by necessity, the Death Star had already been glimpsed by this point, considering the effective pitch of ominous realisation that something incredible and indelibly threatening looms before the hapless heroes, captured as Kenobi murmurs in awe, “That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” the Falcon already having ventured too close to avoid capture.
Han’s quick thinking as a professional evader of authority helps them escape initial discovery by hiding in smuggling compartments, and the heroes infiltrate the Death Star, managing, in the early glimmerings of a theme flowing right through the initial trilogy of films, to turn their nominal disadvantage of small numbers to great effect with guile and improvisation. Whilst trying to work out a way of escaping the station, they’re distracted when Artoo plugs into the station computer network and finds Leia is a prisoner aboard. Han, Luke, and Chewbacca take the chance to rescue her, whilst Kenobi moves to shut down the tractor beam. Compared to the careful story, character, and mythos-building of the film’s first half, this portion becomes something of a tour through the hub of different but connected genres, like innumerable war and adventure films where the heroes put on enemy livery and sneak about, before invoking classic cliffhanger situations, as the foursome dive into a trash compactor when it proves the only escape route only to find the walls closing in, and when Luke and Leia encounter the aforementioned chasm. True to the essence of such adventure stories, the characters emerge most fully reacting to peril, from Han’s edge of aggravation ratcheting higher along with the danger and as Leia’s presence perturbs him, gaining a head of madcap steam useful for the fight, to Leia revealing her own talents for quick thinking and unexpected gutsiness in a laser battle, and Threepio cleverly adlibbing in a tense situation when Stormtroopers burst in on him and Artoo. There’s an edge of comedy to much of this, in the queasily funny diminuendo where Threepio thinks the whoops of joy he hears from the quartet in the trash compactor are their death throes, and Han howling in trying to seem like a small army to intimidate some Stormtroopers only to be forced to retreat when he runs into a squad room, and the Stormtroopers themselves trying to seal off his escape only to foil themselves. Except again perhaps in that chasm-swing, the humour is blended into the texture of the action, rather than commenting on it – a subtle but important distinction, as the characters are absurd within these situations rather than the situations themselves kidded.
The high spirits dampen when the other thread of character drama reaches its climax, as Kenobi, who’s been sneaking about the Death Star interior with all his Jedi art, encounters Vader, who has sensed his presence and lies in wait. The sight of Vader on the vigil, clutching a lit lightsaber, this one glowing a malefic red, and guarding the way out from within the Death Star’s labyrinth, returns after the jaunty swashbuckling to the innerverse of myth and dark fairy-tale. Like the Minotaur in the labyrinth, the dragon on the road through the forest, Death waiting at Samara, Vader is a malevolent force at the height of his powers and cannot be escaped. But Kenobi is the smarter and braver opponent, knowing exactly what he needs to do, in providing a key distraction for the other heroes to get back to the Falcon, and to complete his new mission of helping Luke become a Jedi. Kenobi proves unafraid of perishing upon Vader’s saber, indeed confident that he will ascend to a new kind of strength and influence in death, and after giving Luke a knowing sidewards glance lifts his lightsaber and takes the death stroke. Luke unleashes his anguished wrath on Stormtroopers and manages to cut off Vader by forcing a bulkhead to close (I love the shot of Vader still advancing with unnerving fixity until the doors shut tight) and he and the others finally flee on the Falcon, with the effect of Kenobi’s sacrifice already clear, as Luke hears his disembodied voice guiding him on. They manage to destroy a flight of four small Imperial ‘TIE’ fighters sent after them, but Leia correctly suspects they’ve been set up by Vader to lead the Empire to the Rebel base.
Again, the plotting here is sensible despite all the fun derring-do. Moreover, the mythos is again still expanding even as it seems to be resolving. The clash between Kenobi and Vader, whilst far less physically dynamic than many subsequent, presents the first true lighsaber duel, suggesting the fierce concentration and skill required to fight in such a fashion, as well as revealing the powers of the Jedi extend beyond death. The fight with the chasing TIE fighters is a vivid piece of special effects staging, but is most important as the moment that sets the seal on the bond between the heroes, with Han simultaneously congratulating Luke and warning him against cockiness, and Leia joyfully embracing Chewbacca, who she called a walking carpet not that long before. These particular Argonauts are fully defined. They reach the Rebel headquarters on a moon of the planet Yavin, a jungle zone where cyclopean ruins are repurposed as the operating zone for the Rebels, another fittingly dreamlike zone that also again visually underlines the dialogue between the arcane and the futuristic. The contrast between the teeming greenery of Yavin with the desolation of Tatooine also speaks to Luke’s evolution, arriving in a place where he’s no longer faced with a paucity of options but an overwhelming explosion of experience.
On his first two films Lucas had mediated a spare and evocative style, employing subtle zoom lensing and layers of mediating effect, both visual and aural, with a documentary-like effect, at once seemingly happenstance and carefully filtering, with manipulation of the captured images in the editing room to imbue them with a density accruing a very specific mood, the fractured reality of THX-1138 and the seamless melting between vignettes in American Graffiti. Star Wars inevitably wanted a more forceful touch, and getting the right editing approach proved difficult until Lucas assembled a team including his then-wife Marcia. Lucas’ choice of a clean, bright, easily legible look, achieved in uneasy collaboration with the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, imbued the film with comic strip-like fluency that sometimes look like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art panels filmed (particularly in the whaam!-rich climax), and the varying wipe techniques that simultaneously provide keen brackets for each stage in the journey whilst also constantly urging the story on. The best, wittiest example of this comes after the attack by the sandpeople when Luke and Kenobi retrieve Threepio, who’s been sundered in pieces in the melee, and as the two men pick up his top half the screen wipes up as if daintily covering his sorry state. If the landscape shots were patterned after maximalist talents like Lang, Ford, and David Lean, the interpersonal scenes and character group shots have a stark, clean hardness and efficient use of the frame more reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.
The stylistic rules Lucas set down dispensed with slow motion, Dutch angles, zooms, non-linear or associative edits, and anything but the most functional tracking, handheld, and crane shots. This approach harkened back to another age of cinema, rejecting much of the New Wave stylistic lexicon that had infiltrated Hollywood even if the film’s overall glitz seemed cutting-edge, wringing all the visual energy from the interaction of elements within the shots and the rhythm of the cutting. It would be borderline ridiculous to talk about Star Wars without talking about Williams’ score in more depth, as well-trodden a topic as it is. The mission brief Lucas handed Williams, recommended to him by Spielberg, was to provide a score reminiscent of the kind Erich Wolfgang Korngold did for the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Whilst he had already provided some major hit films with scores, including The Poseidon Adventure(1972), TheTowering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975), it was with Star Wars that Williams made himself a genuinely rare thing, a star composer, and almost single-handedly revived the ideal of the big orchestral film score at a time when most were rather spare, pop-inflected or muted and atmosphere-chasing. This in turn had an impact that’s sometimes been less than salutary in terms of the bombastic strains that decorate many a recent blockbuster-wannabe. Listening to Williams’ score in isolation is an instructive experience in distinguishing it from pale imitations, in encountering the dense layers of instrumentation as well as the illustrative cunning invested in each motif and phrase, the evocative tenor of even the most casual passages as well the instantly recognisable, quite Pavlovian intensity of tracks like the title theme, Leia’s theme, and the scoring for the setting suns scene, as well as the skull-drilling catchiness of the oddball space jazz played by the cantina band. Star Wars would still have been a success without the music, but the film with the music became something else: Williams allowed Lucas to plug more directly in the purest language of fantasy.
Despite being remembered as the film that enshrined the ideal of the special effects blockbuster, Star Wars was hardly a huge-budget film, costing half of what Irwin Allen spent on his marvellously awful The Swarm (1978) around the same time. Lucas had a specific desire to create special effects on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but didn’t have the time or money to pursue the same painstaking work as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull had achieved. So the special effects team (which included new luminaries of the field John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, and Phil Tippet) took advantage of evolving technology and created the motion control camera, a computer-guided mechanical system that allowed photography of model work to be made vastly easier and briefer. Which helps the overall aesthetic of film more than simply in being dynamic and convincing: the action scenes are the moments when the camerawork becomes unfettered, tracing vivid lines and arcs of motion, most impressively in the climactic Death Star attack as the camera adopts a fighter-eye-view of plunging into the equatorial trench, visuals that have an immersive vigour barely seen in cinema before. The impact of these effects in 1977 was colossal, and they still, despite the odd awkward shot, look very good: indeed the original work has aged far better than the terrible CGI inserts Lucas purveyed in his special edition.
But a great part of the texture and pleasure of Star Wars lies in its small touches. Threepio laying slain Jawas in a pyre with paltry but definite sense of duty. The tableaux of the aliens in the cantina locked in conversations of varying intensity. Luke chasing away Jawas who take too much interest in his speeder, and the long-snouted spy who tracks the heroes through the busy alleys of Mos Eisley. Chewbacca playing a variety of animated, 3D chess with the droids. Shots of Imperial soldiers perched on catwalks and work stations beholding awesome vistas of space and colossal energy surges. So much of this stuff bolsters the impression of richness and incidental commotion in the Star Wars universe, even as it never feels tempted, as many such movies do, to collapse into a succession of world-building exercises. That’s largely because of the basic plot, which resolves in an attack by the Rebels in small fighters and bombers trying to take advantage of an identified weakness in the Death Star, working according to the information Artoo has brought them, with Luke volunteering to pilot an “X-Wing” fighter amongst their ranks. Before setting off to war Luke has a charged confrontation with Han, who seems determined to return to type and declines joining the Rebel assault, but offers Luke a salutary “May the Force be with you,” to the young tyro – a vital concession for the arch cynic, underlined when it’s hinted he might have other intentions in mind. A fine little character moment that also has inevitably large consequences for the way the story plays out.
Perhaps the only addition for Lucas’ special edition I feel was effective is the restoration of the subsequent vignette of Luke encountering his old friend from Tatooine, Biggs (Garrick Hagon), giving context to Luke’s early mention of him, and bolstering our sense of Luke’s movement as a character. Biggs goes to bat with a superior in assuring him of Luke’s great piloting talent. Notably, in the coming fight Biggs’ death and Han’s resurgence are signal moments, one leaving Luke to find the nerve to survive alone and the second proving he doesn’t have to. The Rebel pilots try desperately to fend off the Imperial fire long enough to deliver a hit that can ignite the station’s reactor. As a climactic sequence this has many forebears in classic war movies including The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), The Dam Busters (1956, which Taylor also shot), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and 633 Squadron (1964), as the impossible mission to knock out the enemy extermination machine comes down to the wire. The obeisance to this specific wing of the war film makes sense – this is, after all, a film about war in the stars, as well as handing Lucas a situation easy to make sense of and render propulsive and exciting. But it also stands to a degree at odds with most of its follow-ups, in winnowing down the concerns to a single act of martial courage, where in the later films the schism between the Force users as a microcosm of conflict and moral contention, and the more standard warfare as macrocosm, would become a consistent contrast and finally, in Return of the Jedi, pulling ethically and imperatively in differing directions.
The assault on the Death Star is nonetheless one of the great movie sequences, thrilling and, as clear-cut as it is conceptually, impressively intricate as a feat of filming, editing, and scoring. Part of the beauty here is the way the outcome is kept in contention, as in The Guns of Navarone, until the very last seconds of the battle as the Death Star looms closer and closer to blasting the Rebel moon and the attacking force is whittled down. Tension constantly whips up as Luke is finally left almost alone, Biggs is killed, and new comrade Wedge (Denis Lawson) is forced to withdraw after saving Luke’s life, whilst Vader leads a tag-team of TIE fighters taking out the small foes. In their brief moments between life and death the Rebel warriors become shining avatars of heroism whilst they’re chased down by enemy pilots who wear black, grinning skull-like masks (one of many nods to Eisenstein’s stylisation of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, 1938). Artoo is badly damaged by Vader’s gunfire. Luke again experiences Kenobi’s guidance and switches off his targeting computer, signalling his new confidence in using the way of the Force, pure instinct, for the last possible chance at a day-saving shot, which he’s only saved to give thanks to Han’s intervention, which accidentally saves Vader in turn when his fighter is flung off into space. There’s an extra edge of malicious pleasure supplied by Tarkin, as intense and nervelessly cool as ever, calmly ordering the moon’s destruction and confidently expecting victory until he and everything else that comprises the Death Star explodes like a small sun, spraying the void with a trillion gleaming pieces of superheated matter – the end of evil and the death of thousands becomes a brief vision of strange and perfervid beauty.
This all works on both the level of pure myth – the pure knight guided to victory by the hand of his magic guardian and the aid of his fated companion. And on a rather more profane level, a very American story of the star quarterback scoring the winning touchdown thanks to his own personal Jesus and his defensive tackle. The film’s last scene sees Han and Luke presented with medals by Leia and the fully repaired and lively Artoo making his presence known, before they’re applauded by the ranks of Rebels. This climax has been a strange object of contention despite seeming to offers plain old heroic validation, as snarky commentary has been levelled at this noting its seeming similarity to some shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Most likely, the reference points are the same, both drawing from Lang’s rectilinear framings and fascination with a finely balanced tension between order and decay as the ranked humans and the grandiose cyclopean surrounds, as well as the Michael Curtiz swashbucklers that drew on Lang. In that regard Star Wars is of course much truer to the source, particularly as, again, the tone here is at once officially noble but also comedic. Han, Luke, and Leia can’t keep a straight face through the ceremony, Han winks at Leia, and Luke gives Threepio the nod to let Artoo come out, shattering the formality of the proceedings, telling us these heroes remain themselves and not puppets of power.
No-one looks at Star Wars as a work of private imagineering and pop art anymore; it’s become its own sequestered thing, practically a substitute for the mythologies it references. How well Star Wars works, then and now, depends on one’s attachment to the fantastical, to that state it evokes that’s located in the subliminal zone between childhood and adulthood, the place of epitomes and symbols and the need for excitement and release, even as it masquerades as a story. Such art is generally described as escapist, but there’s no such thing, really, as escapism, as such works simply transmute experiences into other less immediate, less realistic, but, conversely, more powerful forms. It’s a truism now to state that Star Wars begat a specific style of cinematic blockbuster that gained a complete stranglehold on pop culture. What’s more peculiar, though, is that it didn’t. Certainly Star Wars gave science fiction box office voltage for a time, proved that special effects could be a force equal to star name marquee appeal in drawing people into movie theatres, and inspired a host of cash-ins ranging from cheap and cheerful to monumentally expensive. But for decades after Star Wars most successful movies were still in old-fashioned genres driven by old-fashioned filmmaking precepts, in large part because aspects of it were too hard to mimic. Rather than revive space opera, Star Wars permanently foiled it by assimilating it all into an essential glossary. Star Wars rather laid a seed for imitators constantly trying to revisit the specific feeling it captured, a feeling it was trying itself ironically to recall. Which is perhaps the deepest underpinning reason for Star Wars’ indelible success, on top of all the basic cinematic things it leverages to effect. The ultimate act of homage it tries to pay is to the cinematic experience itself.
Director: Denis Villeneuve Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars,The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.
And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’sIt (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.
It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.
We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.
Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.
Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.
Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.
What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.
The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.
Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.
Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.
But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.
This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.
The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.
Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.
One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.
And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.
Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.
A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.
Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.
As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.
Director: Peter Jackson Screenwriters: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair (The Two Towers only), Fran Walsh
By Roderick Heath
For over forty years, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings defied all efforts to adapt it as live-action cinema. The requirements of such an adaptation, including a large budget, advanced special effects, and an intelligent filmmaker with a feel for the fantasy genre, put it beyond the scope and interest of movie studios, although a fascinating array of directorial talents, particularly John Boorman, confirmed a desire to try. Stanley Kubrick, an admirer of the novels, turned down an offer to film them because he thought it impossible at the time. There was even an aborted attempt to make a version starring The Beatles. Tolkien, a philologist, Oxford don, and First World War veteran, spent most of his adult life creating his beloved and endlessly influential legendarium, drawing on the classical and medieval myths that were the marrow of his intellectual interests along with the languages they were told in. Tolkien’s stated aim was to synthesise a specifically British equivalent to the tales of Homer and the Norse sagas as he felt the cultural core of the ancient land had been erased by the Romans and subsequent invaders.
Tolkien’s earliest forays on this project were scribbled out when he was serving in the trenches during World War I, at first for private amusement and then with increasing purpose that crystallised when he wrote a short novel for young readers, 1937’s The Hobbit, rooting it in his invented world. That book’s success spurred him to start work on The Lord of the Rings, which took nearly twenty years. An immediate hit as the three volumes were published, the work only grew in popularity, particularly as its themes and imagery concurred with the emerging counterculture in the 1960s. Tolkien gave new and powerful life to the fantasy genre, which had its roots in the backwards-looking wistfulness of late Victoriana and branched off into the arcane macho fantasias of pulp magazines. Tolkien was dismayed by the first BBC radio adaptation in the mid-1950s, a version that no longer exists: it took time for the lexicon of high fantasy which Tolkien had all but birthed to permeate pop culture enough to be used to retranslate his imaginings into other forms. Maverick animation director Ralph Bakshi bypassed many of the difficulties by making an animated version, but the result, released in 1978, told only half the story of the novel and its indifferent reception meant the project was left unfinished. The BBC’s second radio adaptation, broadcast in 1981, was on the other hand richly detailed and much admired.
The man who finally talked a studio into backing a multi-episode adaptation produced on the most lavish of scales was as unlikely in his way as Tolkien’s diminutive, world-defying heroes. Peter Jackson had made his name in low-budget, freakish punk-gore comedy-horror films in his native New Zealand, beginning with 1987’s incredibly cheap and patchy but ingenious Bad Taste and pushed to an extreme with 1992’s Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive), strongly influenced by fellow no-budget provocateur Sam Raimi but with new, baroque dimensions and a gift for blockbuster-like narrative intensity and spectacle. Heavenly Creatures (1994) marked Jackson’s sudden swivel towards international respectability in tackling a notorious and deeply tragic true crime tale, whilst still drawing on a fabulously fecund and bizarre imagination, as well as the new realm of digital special effects through the burgeoning Weta Workshop, to illustrate the hothouse bond of two young women who committed a murder in 1950s Christchurch.
Jackson’s first film made for Hollywood, if still shot in his homeland, was The Frighteners (1997), a return to his earlier gore-comedy fare, only slightly toned down for a wider audience. It proved a flop, but Jackson, undaunted, gained the approval of rights holder Saul Zaentz and got Miramax and New Line Films to fund his grandiose Tolkien venture. Some of Jackson’s value for money would still have been obvious. He was a hot young property despite a commercial stumble, he proposed making the films back to back in New Zealand to save costs and exploit its variety of locations, and knew how to ride the cutting edge of digital special effects. The novel’s popularity also promised a ready-made audience. To a certain extent. The Lord of the Rings had to win over the ordinary moviegoer as well, something fantasy film had long had a hard time doing, without a major hit in the genre since John Milius’ take on its gamier, pulpier wing, Conan the Barbarian (1982). But 2001 was an auspicious year, also seeing the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and for a while at least pure fantasy became a popular movie genre. Jackson, his partner and collaborator Fran Walsh, and writer and fellow arch Tolkien fan Philippa Boyens, approached their adaptation with wise scruples.
The challenge, and the films’ subsequent success, can be summarised with one key word: balance. Jackson and company had to even the scales between the many frames of reference that had become part of the mystique of The Lord of the Rings as well as the intricacies of its writing and story. Jackson avoided either becoming mired too deeply in the esoteric aspect of Tolkien’s tales or trying to revise them into something more contemporary, finding more room for creativity in extrapolating and amplifying the action aspect of Tolkien. The books had become signal works for fans in their preoccupation with a fictional world where everything has multiple dimensions of history, language, and symbolic portent, and the protective concept of nature as an interconnected system matched to a hostility towards industrialism. This also lurked behind the material’s popular perception as something beloved by asocial nerds and patchouli-soaked collegians, an association Jackson played up with unobtrusive mirth in making the Hobbits’ tobacco-like “leaf” rather more suggestively pot-like. In any events, the three films’ success made them an immediate pop cultural standard, the third instalment netting the Best Picture Oscar for 2003 and the trilogy more or less defining for the last generation or so what people think of as epic cinema. The Lord of the Rings incidentally created instant visual clichés of the new digital effects era, like the opening shots of CGI armies marching across the screen.
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment, grabs attention nimbly from its opening moments, utilising Cate Blanchett’s sinuous narration in playing the lovely, ageless Elf lady Galadriel, to narrate and with Howard Shore’s tingling, elegant, gently foreboding string scoring lacing around the images like the curlicues of medieval penmanship. The quasi-mythic background of the ensuing drama is sketched in a few brief, spectacular scenes, as the Dark Lord Sauron, a fallen angel-like being who served the Legendarium’s great Satanic figure Melkor until his defeat, and then tried to gain control of the world called Middle-earth by sharing out magical rings of influence to the lords of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, all bound secretly to his own ring which can subjugate others to his will. The kings of Men given the rings became the Nazgûl, undead, completely enslaved beings, but the various races of Middle-earth formed an alliance to take on Sauron and his army of brutish beings called Orcs in their hellish wasteland home of Mordor. In the final battle Sauron seemed completely unstoppable thanks to the ring, until the human king Isildur (Harry Sinclair) managed to slice off Sauron’s fingers along with the ring. Sauron’s physical form exploded and the armies of darkness were pushed back, but Isildur, ignoring the pleas of the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to throw the ring into the volcanic pits of Mount Doom where it was forged, decided to keep it. But the ring, an object inculcated with the pure malice and treacherous wit of Sauron as well as his life-essence, contrived eventually to bring about Isildur’s death and be lost, eventually claimed by Sméagol (Andy Serkis), a being so susceptible to the ring’s consuming power he is taken over by a rival personality calling itself Gollum, and becomes its perfect protector in the long wait for Sauron’s power to re-emerge.
The theme of the cursed ring, based on several mythic objects including Andvaranaut from the Völsunga Saga which also supplied Wagner with the chief basis for his version of the Nibelung legend, is used in Tolkien’s story rather differently to its source, where it was an object hazily symbolising greed, misused authority, and grave legacy. Tolkien reforged it into a catch-all symbol of demonic corruption, working insidiously on every psyche it encounters. The abstract power of the ring was one of the more difficult ideas to communicate cinematically, with Jackson pulling every trick in the book to give it a menacing gravitas, from shots using forced perspective lensing to capture its mysterious and subordinating charisma, to menacing, simmering voices heard on the soundtrack when its power is stirred, as well as dramatically stylised visions when people don the ring and behold the shadowy world of spiritual energy usually cloaked to mortal eyes. The ring eventually came into the possession of a Hobbit – a race of very short and stocky people who like to live prosaic lives on the fringe of the great world of Middle-earth – named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who found it during an encounter with Gollum. But the story only truly starts when the ring is passed on to his nephew and ward Frodo (Elijah Wood), a gambolling innocent who proves, thanks in part to his native Hobbit qualities and his own character, the only being capable of resisting the ring’s influence long enough to stand a chance of taking it back to Mount Doom and destroying it.
Sauron, still only a spiritual entity after losing his body, has nonetheless regained enough power and dread purpose to manifest as a cloud of fire shaped like an eye atop his grim fortress in Mordor, and it’s time for him to send out his minions in search of the ring and unleash his new project to enslave the world. The ring’s true nature is recognised by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) after Bilbo bequeaths it as well as his underground house Bag End to Frodo on his 111th birthday. Once certain of its identity he urges Bilbo to carry it out of The Shire to Elrond’s home at the Elf city of Rivendell. Gandalf pressgangs Frodo’s friend and gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) into accompanying him after catching him eavesdropping on their conversation. Frodo gains more company when they run into his relatives, the perpetually hungry gadabouts Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took (Dominic Monaghan) and Meriadoc ‘Merry’ Brandybuck (Billy Boyd), on the road. Eventually the foursome are taken under the wing of a friend of Gandalf’s, an enigmatic warrior commonly called Strider but actually named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who tries to lead them safely through the increasingly rugged and dangerous country east of The Shire. Meanwhile Gandalf, planning to rendezvous with the Hobbits, visits the most powerful and respected of Middle-earth’s small clique of wizards, Saruman (Christopher Lee), at his tower in Isengard, to warn him of the portents of Sauron’s return, only to find Saruman has already cast his lot with the Dark Lord, and Saruman uses his superior power to imprison Gandalf.
The central metaphor of Tolkien’s story, that the little people – the figurative made literal here, in a touch at once faintly ribbing but also self-mythologising in its attitude to Englishness as a pure-sprung virtue – are the most truly heroic, was never meant to be subtle, and it’s a deep-wound part of the story’s universal appeal. The Lord of the Rings plays with the usual substance of warrior culture hero myths to place the usually unheroic at the heart of the tale whilst the emissaries of martial vainglory are more often than not held in suspicion until they prove worthy. Crucially, Jackson purveyed the twee existence of the Hobbits, with their idyllic version of a rural English lifestyle, and the mock-classical speech and concepts with dashes of good-humour but without any concessions to modern incredulity. Jackson himself swore off inserting any message of his own in tackling Tolkien, but there is, in the first film’s quick portrait of The Shire and its denizens, dashes of the satirical eye Jackson turned so scathingly on the New Zealand bourgeoisie in his earlier films, in the glowering Hobbits who dislike any sign of disruption or peculiarity. For Tolkien the road out from The Shire was a fraught and half-dread one for a man who knew what marching off to and home from danger felt like; for Jackson, there’s the squirming provincial creative person’s suspicion the risky path is the only way out. Jackson’s directing approach is quickly in evidence in the thrusting camerawork and wide-angle lensing to give the actions and objects a looming, overlarge force, giving the expensive blockbuster much the same visual energy as Jackson’s marauding B-movies.
The sequence of Gandalf’s return to Frodo’s home after confirming what the ring is an excellent thumbnail of Jackson’s technique. After creating the sense of looming and imminent danger with a vignette of one of the mounted Nazgûl questioning a hapless Shire farmer, Jackson depicts Frodo coming home after a night drinking with his friends. A lurking presence is suggested via hand-held camerawork peering through a grill. A long shot of Frodo entering the house dollies slightly to note papers flitting about in the breeze and then then forced-open window it blows through. Frodo pads into the darkened house, the camera moving hungrily from behind Frodo to before him: a hand reaches out of the shadow behind him, grasping his shoulder, with Gandalf suddenly looming out of the dark, his face lunging forward and the camera moving to meet him so his dishevelled, wild-eyed visage entirely fills the screen, before his totemic question – “Is it secret? Is it safe?” The actual revelation of the ring, performed by throwing it in fire so that the ancient words written on its surface are revealed, and Gandalf’s grim news about how the Nazgûl know it’s now in the hands of a Baggins, is then followed by a swift cut to one of the searching Nazgûl beheading a challenging watchman somewhere out in the Shire night, a jagged illustration of nightmarish danger moving inexorably closer: cut back to Frodo’s panicked reaction and his plea for Gandalf to take the ring.
The visual and storytelling cues here are all straight from horror cinema, nodding to Dario Argento and John Carpenter’s use of negative screen space as the place where threat lurks as well as Raimi’s hypermobile camerawork. Expectation is raised only for what is suggested to be a lurking danger to prove a friend, but the danger is real and now feels omnipresent. Such a trick Jackson plies arguably once or twice too often but certainly as a consistent tactic to keep the narrative in agitation, playing games throughout with his style of set-up and follow-through, in contrast to traditional approaches of screen epics and fantasy. The style informs the sudden transformation of The Shire from a place of hermetic stability into one charged with threat, but doing so in a manner that emphasises the building menace as intimate: the colossal, world-reshaping supernatural force lying out in the vast wilds in the east manifests locally to Frodo through troubling portents and roaming assassins. The actual trek for Frodo and Sam is momentarily halted when Sam notes they’ve reached what was previously the furthest point he’d ever travelled from The Shire’s centre, the moment of leaving behind home and known things and venturing into the world identified as something crucial in the course of the quest and the heroes’ concepts of themselves. Soon they’re eluding the Nazgûl on the road, Frodo resisting the urge to put on the ring as they come close, and racing to beat them to the only ferry across the bordering river.
A heavy dose of jolly comic relief counterpoints the high drama, largely provided by Merry and Pippin, whose minds initially, scarcely rise above their stomachs and thirsts until they’re immersed in the great conflict, and even once they join battle they still know how to take time out for a puff of weed and a spot of carousing. The Hobbits hover on the border of the childlike in their personas and wide-eyed approach to life, an aspect Jackson emphasised by casting youngish actors in the roles in contrast to other envisionings that often made them lumpen. They’re also in their provincialism ideal tourists in this world to discover everything for the first time, insular in the best sense in representing homey values almost undiluted, and good for speaking exposition to. As innocents abroad they need a protector and find one in Aragorn, introduced as a shadowy, knowing figure who embodies the promise of classical heroism but disdains the trappings of it, for very good reasons. Aragorn saves the Hobbits from an assault by the Nazgûl, but Frodo is stabbed with a cursed blade, beginning his slow transformation into another wraith. Luckily, the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), Aragorn’s lady love and Elrond’s daughter, intercepts them on the road and makes a gallop on horseback with Frodo to the safe harbour and healing arts at Rivendell.
Once Frodo recovers, and Gandalf joins them after escaping Saruman, they call a meeting of envoys from the various Middle-earth races, including the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the human knight Boromir (Sean Bean), who represents his father Denethor (John Noble), steward of the Italianate human realm of Gondor. These three join Gandalf, Aragorn, and the four Hobbits in a Fellowship that sets out for Mordor. During an attempt to make passage through the Mines of Moria, a subterranean former Dwarf city now abandoned to Orcs and an enormous fire demon called a Balrog, Gandalf seems to die fending off the Balrog. The rest of the Fellowship find refuge briefly with another Elven commune ruled over by Galadriel, with her great arts as a seer and sorceress. After boating downriver, Frodo, with Sam in tow, is obliged to split from the Fellowship when Boromir, unbalanced by the ring’s influence, tries to snatch it, and they trek off alone. The others in the Fellowship are attacked by a new breed of Orcs reared by Saruman called Uruk-hai: they kidnap Merry and Pippin, think them to be the Hobbits carrying the ring, and kill Boromir. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas set out to save the two captives, ending the first film. In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam continue their arduous trek and form an uneasy partnership with Gollum, who’s been tracking them across country. Stricken by the pathos of Gollum’s state and feeling discomforting kinship with him, Frodo agrees to let him guide them to Mordor. They’re briefly held captive by Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham), but eventually he is convinced of the necessity of letting them go.
Whilst Frodo is the linchpin of the narrative, he is bound through his general if tested decency and enforced passivity to be the least compelling figure, worn down to a husk by the weight of the burden and the effect of the ring: the challenge of his character is not his growth but his need to remain the same, to retain his essential goodness and optimism. The former child star Wood’s innate likeability and large blue eyes go a long way, but it is nonetheless not an easy part to play, as Frodo’s deterioration and increasing attitude of grim knowledge, in both his sense of impending personal doom and his battle with the ring, demands careful shading. Meanwhile Sam, his most stalwart companion, grows ever more valiant as the quest unfolds, until the dramatic crescendo when Sam, unable to carry the ring himself, decides instead to carry the exhausted Frodo on his back. By contrast, the humans are more fretful, complex creatures most vulnerable to the ring’s predations because their best motives are often close kin to their worst, the temptation to try and wield its power to protect their communities the most devious potent of its manipulations, the one that ruins Boromir.
But the most heroic human characters like Aragorn, Faramir, Théoden (Bernard Hill), and Éowyn (Miranda Otto), are defined as such in overcoming their sense of inner frailty and unsureness in their identities, a process of becoming that makes the humans, by the tale’s end, the inheritors of a world where the fixed and unchanging races are moving on to “undying lands,” fading in their power and relevance. Aragorn is very much the central figure in this, a man who steadily resolves from a shadowy outsider by choice to a nascent warrior-king as it emerges he is the descendent of Isildur, the line of kings having abandoned the throne of Gondor, but still retains a quiet fear he will ultimately prove as weak as his ancestor, a fear he must eventually quell when he faces situations requiring exactly his gifts. With Mortensen expertly depicting steely fighting pith balanced by a rather gentle, philosophical spirit, Aragorn represents the complex balance of forces required in being a civilised and civilising man, whilst possessing all the ancient virtues, the ideal fighter and eventual king because of, rather than in spite of, his complexity. He’s also the only true romantic figure in the film, once who suffers as well as feels anointed through his apparently impossible love for Arwen.
Gandalf, based broadly on versions of Odin in his wanderer guise in Norse tales, is the chief engine of the storyline as the being who urges the others into the quest and who knows a deeper lore about the world, from his introduction where he seems little more than a gentle entertainer and old smoking pal of Bilbo’s, through to his rebirth as a white-robed, priestly figure who barely remembers his old identity and represents a divine promise throughout the fearful onslaught. McKellen was cast with surprising astuteness (considering he had revived his movie star fortunes playing the relished villainy of Richard III, 1995) as the inscrutable but paternal wizard, a figure who much like the other characters must pass through his own trial forcing him to evolve into something else, but in his case treads somewhat closer to an outright act of transcendence. McKellen provides the three films with their backbone of gravitas and authority infused with a gruffly avuncular streak and a dash of plummy humour. Gandalf’s travails as a large man in Bilbo’s burrow as built for small people provides more than a dash of slapstick, as it helps underline his position as the figure providing a vivid connection between a world like our own and the larger fantastical zone.
There’s a fascinating, likely coincidental similarity between Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog and the scene in Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) where McKellen’s character Cuza stands up to the demonic entity Molasar. Both scenes involve McKellen’s aged, wizened, but uncorrupted character standing up to a monstrous avatar, wielding a totemic object – in Gandalf’s case his staff, in Cuza’s the cruciform talisman that keeps Molasar imprisoned – and rising to a titanic pitch of resistance in facing down all the evil in the world personified. Both scenes require McKellen’s capacity to turn his voice from something soft and reassuring to a booming, powerful device. Gollum, a creation that broke ground in the mostly seamless fusion of digital effects and Serkis’ brilliant performing, is by contrast one of the great screen grotesques, representing debased spirit. Gollum alternates shrieking, cringing pathos and crafty malevolence depending on which personality is in charge, delighting in his diet of raw insects and animal flesh, singing ditties to himself when happy, and speaking in mangled syntax often delivered in a sibilant purr. Serkis surely built upon Peter Woodthorpe’s characterisation from the 1981 radio version but added his own, most insistent quality in emphasising Gollum’s own, aggressively perverse childlike streak, often acting like a playground tyke, sometimes taking delight in petty cruelties and his peculiar appetites, other times viciously jealous of Frodo. Gollum counterbalances the Hobbits with a different brand of essentialised human nature, driven back into a kind of prelapsarian innocence except one that’s cruel and driven by a singular elemental need that has displaced and combined all the others.
Gollum winnows the vast world and grand military, political, and spiritual crises down to one fixated urge, plotting to regain the ring and revenge himself on the “filthy, tricksy Bagginses,” with Sam warning Frodo all the way and Frodo daring to take the chance because he knows the way but also because of Gandalf’s prediction that Gollum’s role in the drama might still be crucial, and indicative of Frodo’s own fate. Sméagol briefly resurges thanks to Frodo’s kindness, but when Frodo is obliged to betray him to Faramir’s men to save his life, Gollum returns more dominant than ever. Serkis’ genius in the role helped it do something that the Star Wars prequels failed notably to do with Jar-Jar Binks, in making a CGI character substantial and dramatically dominating. Jackson starts The Return of the King with a prologue flashback to Sméagol and his friend Déagol (Thomas Robins) first discovering the ring: the bauble’s immediate, deadly effect on Sméagol drives him to strangle Déagol and claim it. This scene turns the movie immediately towards a film noir-like underpinning in noting that obsessive jealousy and greed motivate one of its most crucial elements. It also lets Serkis appear on screen as the character.
Whilst Jackson and his co-writers reshuffled some events and employed a cross-cutting structure more reminiscent of the Star Wars films than Tolkien’s segmented narrative, and stealing some of the fire of those films with their heavy debt to Tolkien back, the three films correspond generally to the three volumes of the novel. The Fellowship of the Ring offers a pure, picaresque quest structure after its carefully laid story gambits. Jackson’s translation of Tolkien’s concept of an Anglocentric folklore presents its mythical, distorted prehistoric Europe as a place of untold ancient wonders and malignancies, monsters and spirits permeating taboo places, Elves lurking in woods and hills trying to maintain natural balance, and the industry of the Dwarves with their works remaining long after their builders have been wiped out by dark monstrosities. The beautifully blasted visions of arcane ruins, deserted chthonic cities, swamps littered with preserved corpses from long-ago battles, and volcanic wastelands, are always counterpointed with scenes of fecundity and splendour, particularly the Elven realms. Rivendell, pitched somewhere between storybook illustration and Chinese scroll painting in visions of jagged gables and hewn-wood decoration hovering weightlessly amidst soaring mountains, foaming waterfalls and delicate footbridges and shafts of soft light tickling gleaming bowers in the gloaming. The demesne of Galadriel with homes woven around and dug within the trunks of colossal trees. All filmed with unstinting excellence by the late Andrew Lesnie.
Another consequential choice Jackson and company made was to minimise the impact of the background lore on how the plot onscreen plays out. The film still retains constant hints of this extra dimension in the dialogue, so the random references to Melkor or Helm Hammerhand or Númenór mean something to people immersed in the books, but don’t trip up entirely fresh viewers. Such streamlining is one of the trickiest of arts in adaptation for this sort of thing and one the filmmakers did exceptionally well from one point of view, compared to, say, David Lynch’s zealously detailed yet corkscrewed approach to Dune (1984). Despite the general determination to stay true to the defiantly anti-modern lilt of the source material, they also sheared away some portions of the story, most particularly the puckish sprite Tom Bombadil, most likely to turn off a contemporary mass audience. The arguable unfortunate collateral cost of this is subtle: for Tolkien, the lore, the world that surrounds his characters and provides them with their legends and histories and reasons why things stand as they do in Middle-earth, was as much the point as the immediate melodrama, if not moreso. By stripping away Tolkien’s songs and parables and hushed little reveries on the meaning of things the heroes witness, a crucial part of his work essence is minimised. It also, to a degree, makes Tolkien’s world over in the image of some of its lesser imitators in the world of fantasy, where things simply are what they are in obedience to general generic dictum: Sauron is the Dark Lord, and that’s that.
And yet Jackson, as a director in full command of his medium, is able to communicate much of this flavour through his imagery. Sights like the grand statues of the ancient Gondor kings called the Argonauth looming from cliffs in the midst of wilderness, or the decapitated head of a statue and other ruins littering the landscape, convey the impressions of this vast and layered history as well as a dozen pages of written lore, a world pitted with the scars of primeval wars between demons and archangels and the refuse of civilisations risen and fallen. This connects with Tolkien’s obsessive refrain of damage and regeneration, sickening and healing, permeating both the storyline’s preoccupation and its visual realisation, inculcated in very human incidents like Frodo’s poisoning and revival and Théoden’s recovery from his withered, enslaved state, through to entire socio-political structures, in Aragorn’s coming presaging the recovery of Gondor. Just a little too often, Jackson uses bright glowing light to signal the presence of the ethereal, although it’s certainly in keeping with Tolkien’s imagery chains and Manichaean conceptualism. The trilogy also constantly sees Frodo swooning and falling when he feels the ring’s influence for little good reason except to amp up the drama, to the point where you wonder if he actually has an inner ear infection.
The Two Towers sees Merry and Pippin escape from their Orc captors when the raiding party is attacked by horsemen from Gondor’s neighbouring human kingdom, Rohan. After encountering Gandalf, reborn as a higher order of wizard through defeating the Balrog in battle, the two Hobbits are taken in hand by Treebeard (voiced by Rhys Davies), a member of a species called Ents who look like walking, talking trees and consider themselves shepherds and protectors of the forests. Merry and Pippin set about trying to convince the lethargic but hulking Ents to attack Saruman’s stronghold. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas also meet up with Gandalf, who leads them on a visit to the king of Rohan, Théoden, knowing that human realm lies in the path of Saruman’s legions. They find Théoden has become decrepit and wizened, as Théoden’s minister, the magnificently named Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), a minion of Saruman, has helped the evil wizard control Théoden as a puppet. Gandalf proves now powerful enough to break Saruman’s hold over Théoden and he returns to his normal state, whilst Gríma is exiled. With an army of Uruk-hai marching their way and many of his best fighters exiled by Gríma including his heir apparent Éomer (Karl Urban), Théoden decides to hole up with his populace in a fortress called Helm’s Deep, where they’re reinforced by Elf warriors come to honour their old alliance, but thanks to Gríma’s advice Saruman mixes up an explosive device to shatter its defensive wall. The defenders prevail thanks to the last-minute arrival of Gandalf with Éomer and a force of Rohan’s mounted riders, the Rohirrim, whilst the Ents, stirred to wrath by Saruman’s predations on their forest, assault Isengard and lay waste to the wizard’s doings.
In The Return of the King, the Rohirrim move to help Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith which comes under siege by Orcs out of Mordor led by the strongest and most evil of the Nazgûl, the Witch-King of Angmar. Gandalf’s efforts to stir the city to defence are treated disdainfully by Denethor, who mourns Boromir’s death and has heard about Aragorn. Pippin volunteers as a warrior of Gondor to pay the debt he feels he owes as Boromir died saving him. Consumed by a need to enact the world-ending sorrow he feels as a literal cataclysm, Denethor sends Faramir out to die in a suicidal assault on the advancing Orcs, and then arranges a funeral pyre for them both despite Faramir, as Pippin notices, not being dead. Meanwhile Sam and Frodo are led into a trap by Gollum, who promises to show them a pass over high, jagged mountains in Mordor, neglecting to mention it’s inhabited by the huge, carnivorous spider-demon Shelob, as Gollum hopes Shelob will eat the two Hobbits so he can claim the ring out her spoor. Realising the Rohirrim aren’t strong enough to defeat the Orc army, Aragorn, with Gimli and Legolas in tow, heads into a haunted cave inhabited by the men who broke their oaths to Isildur to fight for him only to be cursed and linger in an undead and abhorred spectral state. Wielding Isildur’s reforged sword, gifted to him by Elrond as a totem of hope, whilst also testing the strength of the legitimacy of his claim on the throne, Aragorn obliges the dead men to follow him to help lift the siege of Minas Tirith.
Middle episodes of movie trilogies often represent a special challenge, and The Two Towers struggles with a disjointed narrative line including Gandalf’s deus ex machina return, a relative lack of real drama for the two pairs of Hobbits to play out, and the introduction of many characters of consequence to the rest of the tale, particularly Théoden, Faramir, and Théoden’s niece and ward Éowyn, who yearns to fight and falls for Aragorn. Jackson’s desire to hit the ground running is made a little too literal as he opens with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas jogging endlessly in their pursuit of Uruk-hai with Merry and Pippin: where Conan the Barbarian made its montage of its heroes dashing across the steppes lyrical and ebullient, here it feels oddly laborious and overextended, like fantasy workout video, despite Gimli’s comical complaining. The little dramas playing out in Théoden’s realm have to be quickly sketched. The structure, unlike the open-road narrative of the previous movie, demands more attention to the slow build of suspense before the final battle, with relatively little action in between. Nonetheless, The Two Towers eventually turns most of these potential problems into unusual strengths, allowing for Jackson’s most poetic visual flourishes and character touches, like Theodon holding a flower whilst standing before his dead son’s grave, and Gríma making a romantic overture to Éowyn so surprisingly lush in its longing that it momentarily arrests Éowyn’s justified loathing of him.
Particularly effective in this manner is the mid-film sequence where Elrond, trying to convince Arwen not to remain in Middle-earth pining for the mortal Aragorn, paints a picture of future grief as the unchanging Elf weeps over Aragorn’s sarcophagus under billowing wintry leaves, one of the many images in Jackson’s repertoire that seem stolen from some pre-Raphaelite painter. Jackson’s approach had plenty of cinematic forebears too. The feel for grandeur both natural and architectural and the basic lexicon of this kind of screen fantasy can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), and some of Jackson’s shots might as well have been clipped out of it. There’s also the strong imprint of Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur (1981) with its careful visual contrast between sleek and brilliant, fashioned textures of armour and gleaming pseudo-classical buildings and the crude earth and fecund nature, but Jackson can’t quite reproduce the directness of Boorman’s gleaned concept of the human social order and natural flourishing as entwined. There are flashes of Conan the Barbarian and Krull (1983), along with King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasy films: Kong shaking the log informs Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog whilst the heroes sailing past the feet of the Argonauth nods to the equally dwarfed heroes of Jason and the Argonauts (1963). There are some tips of the hat to Hong Kong wu xia cinema in the gravity-defying athleticism and deftness of Legolas as well as the balletic camerawork, harking back to Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1980) and Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), an influence that would grow more pronounced in the prequel The Hobbit series.
The battle scenes draw on suitable models ranging from Alexander Nevsky (1938) to Seven Samurai (1954), Spartacus (1960), Zulu (1964), and Waterloo (1970) with their sense of how to handle large masses locked in deadly, diagrammatic symmetry, delivering moments of raw cinematic spectacle like the defenders of Helm’s Deep beholding the awesome host of their enemies in flashes of lightning, before Kurosawan rain begins to fall upon the assembled armies. The war movie influence becomes stronger in the second and third episodes of the trilogy as the narrative switches from quest to combat. Jackson’s most vigorous innovation on his influences lies in his attempt to make the films studies in near-constant motion both narratively and stylistically. He exploits the digital effects to present an unfettered use of the camera, whilst still trying to retain a sense of contiguous gracefulness, creating something distinct from the increasingly hyperactive approach of some Hollywood directors in the 1990s whilst still declaratively modern. One great example comes when Saruman stands atop his tower using incantations to foil the Fellowship’s progress, the camera sweeping down with a bird’s-eye-view, conveying all the wild drama and shamanic natural communion inherent in the scene. Another, more traditional piece of camera dynamism comes in the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring with a long tracking shot that starts on ground level and soars to high overhead, following Uruk-hai as Boromir blowing the Horn of Gondor brings them running to that fight.
The combination of CGI and model work is used to deliver breathless spectacle, like the flying explorations of Saruman’s underground works where Orcs labour constantly, before going in closer for memorable visions of the Uruk-hai being born out mud. Certain sequences in the trilogy have the kind of breathless, super-cinematic power once reserved in reference for the likes of the parting of the Red Sea from The Ten Commandments (1956) or Kong on the Empire State Building or the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and they’re liberally scattered through all three instalments – the chase through Moria and Gandalf’s stand-off against the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring and the return to at the very start of The Two Towers as he and the beast plunge into the bowls of the earth; the ride of the Rohirrim climaxing The Two Towers; just about the whole battle for Minas Tirith in The Return of the King including Éowyn standing against the Witch King and Legolas clambering up the back of one of the monstrous elephant-like creatures called Oliphaunts and felling the beast and all its crew. The heavy emphasis on special effects to make all of this work on screen sometimes results in some tacky interludes, like the visualisation of Frodo’s delirium whilst arriving at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring with faces looming in a digital blur overlaying Elvish architecture captured in swooning camerawork, looking like a TV commercial for a day spa. Similarly misjudged is the depiction of the Dead Men in The Return of the King, who look like day-glo ghouls off the back of some trading cards.
But other effects are consistently remarkable, particularly the motion-capture work applied to Serkis to realise Gollum and the techniques used to place the actors playing Hobbits and Dwarves in shot with those playing normal-sized folk, effects that are virtually seamless and let the actors interact believably. Most importantly, the effects come on with a level of giddy enthusiasm directly tied to the storytelling, and Jackson’s capacity to make them serve his impeccable sense of staging, particularly when used with a dash of appropriate poetry, as when Arwen summons a flood upon the pursuing Nazgûl, the wave plunging upon them forming foamy shapes of horses on the gallop, or the flood of dazzling light that cascades down the hillside with the Rohirrim charging the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. One critic at the time of the films’ release cleverly likened the smaller, more fleeting effects dropped seemingly casually into shots to Sergio Aragones’ margin doodles for MAD Magazine, like Legolas managing to swing himself up onto a charging horse with a casual show of his superhuman dexterity, and one of the Ents rushing to douse his burning head in floodwater.
Despite all the outsized trappings and showmanship, the three films nonetheless usually retain a canny sense of when to slow down and contemplate, in vignettes like Gandalf’s famous speech to Frodo about weathering terrible times and deciding “what to do with the time that is given us,” or Gríma’s appeal to Éowyn, and Théoden mourning his son, slain in combat with the Orcs. Whilst it’s not exactly a character drama in the fullest sense, The Lord of the Rings keeps the human level in focus. The sense of the characters’ purpose as mythic emblems is wielded with a Dickensian sense of potent caricature and constantly mediated by humour, preventing any hint of characters becoming frieze blocks of nobility. Merry and Pippin are mostly comic relief figures at first, as is Gimli, whose very real prowess as a warrior is given a constant edge of irony by his need to talk himself up with his outsized pride matched to his small stature, engaging in a running competition with Legolas. Bloom was immediately, if briefly anointed with matinee idol status in playing the longhaired, eternally poised, stoic-faced but mischievous-eyed Legolas, the character in the trilogy most in touch with swashbuckling spirit of movies of yore, thanks to Jackson who hands him some of the movies’ most inventive action moments, as when he surfs down a flight of stairs to save his friends during the Helm’s Deep battle, and the more elaborate set-piece of him bringing down the Oliphaunt.
Jackson was one of the first directors to truly exploit the new DVD era as he prepared considerably longer versions of the three films for home viewing release – The Return of the King was the first film to capture Best Picture whilst still technically being in production. Not everything added to the extended editions works, like a silly scene with Merry and Pippin in the forest under Treebeard’s watch, and the scene where Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are chased off by the Dead Men at first with a cascade of skulls is rather pointless. They’re also inevitably less smoothly paced, playing more as TV series-like, and in their way probably helped give birth to the age of binge-watching. Nonetheless, the extended versions are considerably more dense and coherent works, making many relationships and moves of the plot more intelligible as well as more sharply defining the character and events in the context of their world. Particularly valuable is the restored scene where Saruman and Gríma, trapped by the Ents in the sorcerer’s tower, fall out and Gríma kills Saruman before being struck by one of Legolas’ arrows. The scene’s absence from the theatrical version was particularly egregious not dealing with the fates of two of the trilogy’s major characters, and the performances by Dourif, adding to his great gallery of on-screen weirdos, and Lee, capping his career with a role that was important to him as a great fan of Tolkien.
If there’s a lack in The Lord of the Rings, it’s one inherited in large part from the source material. We’re certainly in mythopoeic territory where the characters, both humanoid and other, exist in emblematic dimensions, ranging from Gollum as pathetic-malevolent greed to Gríma as political corruptor to Shelob as septic sexuality, Middle-earth conceived as a grand Jungian world of archetypes and Freudian dream-symbols. And, of course, a large part of the reason why the story is loved is precisely for the deliverance from sordid realities and entrance into a realm where the beauty and purity of the Elves and humble fortitude of the Hobbits coexist, where the valiant arrive on horseback to charge the lines of pure malice, and the entire universe trembles like a spider’s web to the palpable ruptures of good and evil. The Lord of the Rings, both books and films, is often criticised for black-and-white moral schemes, which isn’t entirely accurate: what it tries to do is allegorically dramatise moral ideas, like Gollum literally split between his good and bad streaks, and the confrontation with evil involving a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, in a manner that is authentically mythic. But it does lack some of that vital fire of human behaviour that drives great epics, both literary and cinematic, particular romantic and sexual desire, and protagonists who battle deep flaws.
It’s worth noting how vivid the human characters in authentic great myths and sagas tend to be. Any glance at some of Tolkien’s sources like the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga Saga, the Arthurian cycle, Beowulf, and the Greek myths is to behold tales filled with spectacles of human perversity, savagery, interwoven with civilising traits, the tales of mad kings and wicked queens and perfect knights who are imperfect men, wild passion, incest, ego, greed, treachery, murder, and most particularly warring value systems, an essential ingredient of classical myth and tragedy. By creating Sauron and the Orcs Tolkien purposefully removed a rival moral and social faction to the heroes, presenting instead a catch-all Other to be resisted and slain without compunction. In terms of epic movie tradition, too, there’s a lack. There isn’t anything as elemental as the clash of personal and politico-religious urges in The Ten Commandments, or as fervent as Rhett and Scarlett or even Jack and Rose, or the pointed political subtexts and well-parsed metaphors for maturation of the Star Wars films, and despite the similarities in story it never explores the social meaning of a warrior creed like Seven Samurai. The Lord of the Rings accepts the medieval proposition that government is just about as good as the individuals holding power, and whilst Frodo and the other Hobbits all learn they’re stronger than they think, there’s no psychological process to their growth. When characters behave ignobly, like Boromir, it’s the external influence of the ring that causes their lapses. The notion of a personified and objectivised evil is very much at the heart of the story but also one that helps keep the story and its dimensions in the childlike. There is passion, but it’s relentlessly chaste: Éowyn’s love for Aragorn remains unrequited; Aragorn’s love for Arwen is given some body by Mortensen and Tyler but remains an almost entirely ethereal idea. The Lord of the Rings leans heavily upon its audience’s presumed fondness for virtuous simplicity and a boyish idea of the adult world.
Jackson and his fellow writers mediate the simplicity in this regard by fleshing out the characters’ needs and anxieties. Gríma’s desire for Éowyn is noted as his motive in the novel but given extra dimension in the films. Aragorn’s self-doubt is a recurring note that pays off in one moment of significant suspense when he seems to be arrested by Sauron’s whispered offerings, only to turn his comrades a smile before launching into battle. Perhaps Jackson’s most ambitious moment of grand and lyrical pathos comes in The Return of the King where Denethor, having ordered Faramir’s suicide attack, sits down for dinner and makes Pippin sing him a song to leaven the oppressive mood. Juice from his meal dripping like blood from his lips, Denethor listens to Pippin’s sad, spare lament, intercut with the defeat of the knights. It’s not a subtle scene – the eating is either a bit much or perfectly in tune with the kind of morality play the story emulates, depending on your point of view. But it works a powerful spell thanks to the crafting, the way Monaghan’s beautiful singing is used over images of defeat and death, and the spectacle of the aged potentate’s oblivious arrogance. Jackson touches upon a sense of futility and regret in the warfare the rest of the series generally delights in, examining the difference between selfless communal bravery and the misuse of power, presenting not a meaningful warrior death fighting against bottomless evil but something more familiar, young men dying to satisfy the egotisms of their rulers. Jackson may well have been moved to include the scene given the films’ release amidst the furore of the post-9/11 moment, a moment the films somewhat incidentally fed into and when some critics took aim at the films’ enshrining of martial valour.
Denethor’s presence in The Return of the King gives the trilogy something it otherwise lacks, a character who might well have stumbled of a Norse saga, embodying the more familiar evils of human nature but also with flashes of its more pitiable side, a wounded overlord whose decline is tied to the teetering state of his realm. To a certain extent Gríma inhabits a similar zone, but he might as well have “villain” tattooed on his forehead: even his last stab at redemption is a pathetic murder. Denethor is splendidly awful with his consuming blend of bitterness, pessimism, pain, and cruelty, constantly belittling Faramir as a fool and weakling, and venerating the fallen Boromir. His gestures of grandiose, nihilistic impulse reach their apex when he tries burn himself and Faramir alive together, only foiled through Gandalf and Pippin intervening to save Faramir. Denethor’s end makes a good example of the adaptors’ augmenting touch: where in the novel Denethor dies in the full grip of crazed will, Jackson votes him a moment of clarity and then pity, noticing Faramir is alive and for the first time seeming to actually love his son, just before he catches fire and dies falling from the city battlements. Denethor’s subordinating use of his sons as mirrors to his own vanity and self-loathing has a clear connection with Jackson’s previous studies in sick psychological dynamics, like the relationship of the two girls in Heavenly Creatures where the offspring elect to annihilate their repressing elders, and in Brain Dead where the son’s squirming Oedipal repression is finally dramatized when he’s swallowed back up his zombie mother’s womb.
Tolkien always rejected the idea his novel was a metaphor for World War II and Sauron a Hitlerian figure, but it still feels likely the logic of his own time thoroughly informed that of his book as well as his understanding of the historical perspective of ancient Britons. The story recreates a certain parochial vision where evil is out there in the simmering east and south, with the abhorred land of Mordor, and the Orcs, a race of diseased and devolved beings, representing everything foreign and threatening. Tolkien was despite his overall conservatism reputedly firmly anti-racist, and the storyline reflects that, presenting the different ‘races’ who overcome all their sometimes vast differences in worldview and understanding and fractious history to work together, embodied most crucially by the slow-warming friendship of Legolas and Gimli, as well as the army of Elf warriors who come to fight with Men at Helm’s Deep, and the ultimate choice of Théoden to ride to Gondor’s aid despite them doing nothing for Rohan. Another one of Jackson’s great visualisations, something of an apotheosis of epic moviemaking, comes when Gandalf, ignoring Denethor’s hostile refusal, gets Pippin to light a signal fire, one of a chain set up to communicate between the two kingdoms and call for aid: Jackson’s soaring aerial shots of jagged mountains and remote sentries lighting each fire, all set to Shore’s most lushly momentous scoring, capped by the long, boding pause as Théoden is told “Gondor calls for aid,” before he answers, “And Rohan will answer.”
When anticipating the third film’s release it was difficult to see Jackson topping the Helm’s Deep battle, but then came the battle in and around Minas Tirith, a sequence marked by ever-ratcheting levels of beautifully choreographed craziness, complete with Nazgûl riding their flying dragon-like creatures to maraud over the city, and the onslaught of the Oliphaunts. Théoden leads the Rohirrim in a grand charge, and Éowyn and Merry, both forbidden to enter the fight but doing it anyway, weave their way through the carnage before finally facing down the Witch King after he attacks Théoden and mortally wounds. Éowyn is close to being my favourite character in the trilogy, first glimpsed as the picture-perfect Saxon princess struggling to stay out of Gríma’s clutches and trying to stave off a depressive stupor, before eventually donning armour and riding secretly to war with Merry at her side as another of the heroes determined to prove she’s stronger than anyone knows. Otto, despite a scene when she lapses into a strange mid-Pacific brogue (perhaps a sign of the production’s occasional shifts in direction), is a luminous presence, and gives the film one of its major sources of heart, building to the moment when she reveals herself to the Witch King and declares, “I am no man,” the greatest moment of on-screen girl power since Ripley’s choice words to the alien queen in Aliens (1986).
Whilst much smaller in scale, Frodo and Sam’s encounter with Shelob, into whose lair Gollum successfully tricks Frodo into entering after separating him and Sam through conniving, is just as potent a scene, thanks largely to the incredibly good effects used to realise the monstrous arachnid and the sickly intimacy of the struggle: the sight of Shelob silently stalking Frodo through crags is something I can easily imagine sending arachnophobes into fits. Sam’s reappearance just as Shelob is about to consume the paralysed and trussed Frodo is the best of Jackson’s many last-second interventions, Sam’s emergence as the ideal yeoman hero crystallising as he confronts the monster with sword and bottled starlight, a magical gift from Galadriel painful to the dark-dwelling monster. Jackson’s gift for staging extends in the final, depleting trek to Mount Doom, whilst the survivors of the great battle at Minas Tirith, led by Aragorn, march to Mordor’s gate to distract Sauron and his legions and give the Hobbits a chance to gain their goal. Jackson’s elaborate tricks to make the experience ever more agonising are deployed to their best effect here as the final yards prove the most gruelling, not just in physical exhaustion but the bitter final twist of Frodo finally succumbing to the ring’s influence and refusing to throw it into the lava, closing the circle as he stands in the same place as Isildur millennia earlier and falls prey to the same, undeniable influence.
Only this time the joker in the deck proves to be Gollum whose need for the ring seem to even exceed its creator’s, assaulting Frodo at the threshold and biting his finger off to get the ring, only for the enraged Hobbit to push his doppelganger into the fiery chasm, Gollum so lost in his utter joy at reclaiming the precious he doesn’t even notice as he falls, finally burning up with the ring in the lava. Jackson gleefully goes for broke in the sight of Sauron’s tower collapsing, his great eye quivering in agony and despair before exploding, and the ground swallowing up the Orc army, before Gandalf flies in to rescue Sam and Frodo before the perish in the lava streams. The final passages of The Return of the King, which frustrated some in offering several potential endings, see Aragorn installed as king of Gondor and marrying Arwen and obliging everyone to pay homage to the heroism of the Hobbits, who then return home and try to settle back into life, something Frodo eventually finds he can’t do. So Frodo is invited to leave Middle-earth with Elrond, Galdriel, Bilbo, and Gandalf and head off the Undying Lands, making his farewells to Sam, Merry, and Pippin. The embrace of a melancholy tone in the concluding scenes, the awareness of the great conflict claiming costs from its hero that can’t be healed, invests the trilogy with its last and finest flash of stylised truth, Frodo’s ascension to the status of a legendary figure one that also cleaves him from the living, growing, dying world. It’s left to Sam, naturally, to return home and resume the business of living. It’s a reminder that for all the heroic lustre and otherworldly lyricism invested in the material it’s a work written by someone who knew how hard coming home from war could be, and it’s this final motif, at once sobering and yet also deepening the mythopoeic resonance, Jackson respects to the utmost.
The Lord of the Rings has proved both the great moment and a bit of a millstone in terms of Jackson’s career. His subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14), were all greeted with varying levels of disappointment, in large part because each of them was beholden to pre-existing material Jackson’s approach strained against, but also all sported passages of great filmmaking. Whilst there was some legitimacy to complaints The Hobbit films were overindulged, and the attempts to synthesise an equal kind of epic story out of a slim book could not match what came before it, nonetheless Jackson used the second trilogy to explore the troubles afflicting Middle-earth largely skimmed over in The Lord of the Rings films, like the schism of Elves and Dwarves and the general spectacle of greed, and giving greater psychological dimension to figures like Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield, the latter emerging as an authentic antihero. Jackson dug deeper to find the material to find more of the satirical aspect he once thrived on, at the risk of spurning the lustre of heroic escapism the first trilogy so perfectly enshrined. The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy has its missteps and hyperbolic passages, but they’re a part of its overall, giddy texture. There were and are few cinema experiences to match it, an achievement that, so far, set the bar for Hollywood just a little too high to reach again.
Although primed as the eagerly awaited follow-up to a hugely successful blockbuster and instant pop culture fixture, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a daunting job of work ahead of it. If J.J. Abrams’ franchise-reviver The Force Awakens (2015) proved as tepid as often as tantalising in its effort to give fresh impetus to George Lucas’ canonical science-fantasy series, it did at least manage the task of introducing a new, appealing selection of heroes, and set them up as focal points for a grandiose cosmic drama, conveyed in lovingly produced and crafted cinema. But these exciting qualities weren’t particularly well-served by a new plotline that seemed determined to scrub the series blueprint down to its most simplistic outlines, and recycle familiar and comfortable looks and sounds from Lucas’ first trilogy without bringing any fresh ideas or conceptual zest to the table. .
New helmsman Rian Johnson took on the challenge of dragging this new trilogy, laden with expectation and the inertia of franchise property protection, into richer, more novel, more genuinely epic territory. Johnson, a very talented filmmaker, turned heads with his 2005 gambit Brick, a film with the memorable conceit of having high schoolers play the protagonists of a noir film, a unique way of mediating the thrilling intensity and melancholy of teenage life. His second two films, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012), were entertaining but flawed attempts to expand his palette, radically different in tone and style but linked by efforts to blend his love of bygone ephemera and old movies with authentic efforts to tap the wellspring of emotions they stir in him, and his delight in telling tales of labyrinthine cunning. His best work post-debut was actually on several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad, including “Fly,” a memorable instalment regarding its antiheroes’ efforts to catch a dogging fly in their underground meth lab, provoking all their festering anxieties to hatch out, as well as the pivotal episode “Ozymandias” where their lives actually fell to ruins. The Last Jedi actually takes on themes similar to those episodes, as it puts the Star Wars characters old and new in a pressure cooker and slowly but surely forces them to make choices regarding their lives, their beliefs, their loyalties, whilst their world topples. .
In the wake of the briefly operational but catastrophically effective Starkiller’s destruction, the pulverised remnants of the restored Republic government and their Resistance warriors are forced to flee base after base, pursued by the First Order, the ruthless renascent offspring of the old Imperial forces led by the malformed but immensely powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Famed Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a determined attack on a formidable First Order warship of a “Dreadnought” class, sporting giant energy weapons, to give time for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Resistance leaders to flee. Poe ignores Leia’s commands to abort the mission, and instead calls in a flight of heavy bombers to pound the Dreadnought until the determined, self-annihilating efforts of one bomber pilot, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), succeeds in destroying the craft. Poe is put on the carpet and demoted for wasting too many good fighters and ships by Leia, and the Resistance fleet eventually finds itself crawling through deep space with the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), in close pursuit. .
Desperate to come up with a way to get the First Order off their tail, Poe and pal Finn (John Boyega), who’s just awoken after spending months in care having terrible wounds repaired, team up with Paige’s low-ranked, hero-worshipping sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who has a brainwave about the method the First Order is using to track them, and decides they need to sneak aboard their command ship and shut it down. Together, Finn and Rose take a fast, small ship to a nearby planet, Canto Bight, a playground for the super-rich, to find a codebreaker who might be able to penetrate First Order security recommended to them by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Thrown into prison for a parking violation before they can make contact, they encounter in their cell the scruffy, nefarious DJ (Benecio Del Toro). DJ casually breaks them all out of their cell to demonstrate his own talents at subverting authority, and soon they form a pact and flee the planet after raising some hell. Meanwhile, budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his hermit existence in a remote Jedi temple on a lonely island and return to breathe new hope into the Resistance cause. But Luke is filled with regret and self-recrimination after his failure to revive the Jedi order and loss of young Ben Solo to Snoke’s influence and the mantle of his assumed evil guise as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey finds herself dogged by unexpected moments of psychic connection with Kylo, whose conflicts after killing his father Han seem to be boiling over. .
If the most interesting subtext of The Force Awakens was its “tell me a story, grandpa” angle in contemplating chains of storytelling and their personal meaning, be it old war stories in the context of the on-screen drama and in meta terms the movies and other artworks you loved as a kid, The Last Jedi makes it clear that ardour for things wrapped in the comforting lustre of legend and period glamour must yield to a new and often dismaying reality. So Johnson commences with a mischievous assault on Abrams’ nostalgia, as he returns to the momentous final gesture of the first film, with Rey holding out to Luke his old lightsaber, that technocratic Excalibur: Luke takes the weapon, gives it a cursory look, and then tosses it over his shoulder in contempt. This is a great moment that signals Johnson’s theme, worked on several levels in the movie that follows, that his characters and their hopes can no longer be sustained by stale myths and old paradigms, and must jettison all that baggage to start again from scratch, to cleanse their temples and reinvent their institutions. It’s an intelligent and appropriate and, dare I say it, timely theme. It’s also, unmistakeably, a message aimed at the franchise itself. If Lucas’s prequels chased the ye-olde-timey ring of courtly sagas and his original trilogy evoked ‘40s screwball spark in their romantic scenes, Johnson’s dialogue and humour style here bring the series to a more definitely current, fashionable style. A joke early in the film sees Poe mock Hux by pretending to have him on hold on a speaker phone. .
This is a funny moment that also signals, a touch annoyingly, that the Star Wars universe is being more exactingly annexed by a certain glib contemporaneity. Star Wars is no longer a legend of dreamtimes past; it’s a wing of modern pop culture founded by the likes of Joss Whedon. I suppose that’s inevitable to a degree, given that Lucas’s shift to set his tales entirely in a pseudo-historical zone with the prequels was the most fascinating and most ruthlessly rejected of his efforts. The opening sequence with the bombing raid is both thunderous spectacle but also rather senseless – the series has long been sustained by the unlikely notion of WW2-style aerial dogfights in space, but Johnson takes that here to a perfectly improbable extreme by reproducing that era’s style of bombing, with bombs dropped straight down with the use of gravity that doesn’t exist in space. On the other hand, the film’s central movement involves the agonisingly slow chase through deep space between the Resistance and First Order fleets, the latter maddeningly unable to catch the former at subspace speeds but only seeming to fend off the inevitable, in a plot motif bizarrely reminiscent of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in imposing clear physical limitations and cold equations upon the spacefaring (there are many yawning plot holes in the story, but I won’t carp on those). After Leia is almost killed in rocket attack on her ship, tensions mount in this agonising situation. As there doesn’t seem to be any way out save his friends’ risky plan, Poe feels provoked to rebel against acting fleet commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when she seems to be intending a dangerous evacuation upon shuttle craft. .
. Star Wars has always been a bricoleur’s assemblage, defined by the ingenuity with which it mixed and matched classic film and pulp literary genres and a trove of mythological motifs. Abrams clearly worshipped at the altar of Lucas’ 1977 series foundation, but that seemed to be the limit of his referential frame. Johnson, on the other hand, is the sort of creative hand hip to Lucas’ method, at least to an extent, as Looper spliced incongruous motifs – time travel and psychic powers, gangster and hitman melodramas, old Hollywood and Anime – into an impressive if lumpy chimera. His preferred modes are classic noir and expressionist dramas rather than the swashbucklers, war movies, westerns, and sci-fi flicks Lucas took most inspiration from – screwball comedy is one significant overlap in their lexicon. This new influence is immediately apparent in the scenes on Canto Bight, where the grand casino inhabited by the smug-ugly has a veneer of ritzy glamour that proves instead to be a den of iniquity in a manner reminiscent of something like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). A pivotal incident in the past that caused Luke and Kylo’s break and the destruction of the fledgling Jedi renaissance is seen three times in revised flashbacks, a touch that echoes many a noir film’s sublimation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and Kane and Welles are more clearly echoed in a sequence in which Rey attempts to confront her own nature as a creature of the Force and instead finds herself confronted by an endless hall of mirror selves, threatened like Welles’ antiheroes with mistaking her own ego for the state of the universe. .
Johnson also emphasises the inequality and sleaziness pervading corners of this universe. Lucas’ vision for his future-past was always one of a society with a cynically profiteering sector – witness Han’s travails with Jabba the Hutt and Anakin’s lot as the slave of businessman Watto. Johnson tries to indict the forces at the centre of the Galactic community and their willingness to make money out of war. DJ highlights for Finn and Rose that the fortunes of Canto Bight’s denizens have largely been made selling arms to both the First Order and Resistance. The visit to Canto Bight finds Finn and Rose observing the brutality towards both animals engaged in racing, and the young human thralls used to prop up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and the plucky Resistance warriors make common cause with both. The sequence in which Rose releases the racing animals is both fun but also a little too Harry Potter-esque for this imprimatur, whilst Johnson’s attempts to work up some of the sort of resurgence-of-the-repressed drama Lucas was so fond of – see THX-1138 (1971); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – manifests in offering up a few waifs straight out of ‘30s Our Gang shorts making gosh-jeez faces. Johnson wants these kids to represent the notion that the Resistance instils hope and the basis for future resurgence, blended once again with the notion of loving this fantastical material as a viewer for its uplifting and dream-stirring cache, and the film’s very ending points directly to this process taking root in the minds of these young people. .
This notion doesn’t land nearly as strongly as Johnson intends it, however. He wants us to feel the illicit rush of this rebellious spirit in his tale and also the daring in his lack of cool. Given that Lucas was flayed alive by the modern cool police by his choice to move entirely into the imaginative realm of kids on The Phantom Menace (1999), Johnson’s efforts feel only crudely calculated and tacked-on in skirting the same territory. Where the film is on surer ground is Rey and Luke’s tetchy, mutually frustrated relationship, which evokes but also revises Luke’s encounters with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Luke is a shambolic, self-exiled husk of his former self, detached from the Force and subsisting with hopes the Jedi way will die with him. Confronted by Rey’s raw natural power, he’s both impressed and terrified, as he’s already seen the same abilities in former pupil Kylo. Rey attempts to prod the Master back to action provoke scorn – “Did you think I was going out to take on the whole First Order with my laser sword?” Luke questions in derision. Hamill, whose performance is often taken as a weak link in the original trilogy, nonetheless matured into an excellent character actor in the course of his spotty career. He’s very good here, better indeed than Harrison Ford’s much-hailed equivalent turn was in The Force Awakens, as he invests his aged and haggard Luke with glimmers of his old, dreamy romanticism even as the damage his life failings have done to him gnaws incessantly at his core being. Of course, the question as to whether Luke will return to the fight isn’t really a question, only how and at what suitably dramatic juncture of the story. .
One sharp failing of The Force Awakens was Abrams’ neglect of coming up with any genuinely inspired new technology or alien species. Johnson is more vigorous with the aliens, particularly on the temple island where Luke takes milk from giant, lolling walrus-like creatures to drink, and the Porgs, a race of small, furry, but relatively aware critters who object with memorably abject horror when Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) proposes to eat one of their fellows. But there’s still a notable failure to do much that’s interesting or properly, dramatically engaged with the new alien characters. Even Chewbacca, who has long stood vitally on the divide between sci-fi grotesque and beloved supporting character, is marginalised here, and his reunion with Luke is a paltry scene. Johnson does offer up one lovely dollop of fan service as Yoda (Frank Oz) appears to Luke when he’s determined to destroy the last of the Jedi’s founding texts. Rather than try to stop him, Yoda brings down a bolt of lightning to do the job for him, and patiently instructs him in the film’s theme, that faith has to be in the living avatars of the creed rather than relics of the past. Kylo, confronting Rey, makes the same point, encouraging to spurn her past and claim the future as her rightful possession. .
This endlessly reiterated message feels as much like a poke in the ribs to cranky old fans like me as a dramatic imperative, and it might have had more impact if the film wasn’t trapped resolutely within the resolutely unimaginative framework Abrams and Lucasfilm-Disney provided. The new series has not just paid attention to all the criticisms aimed at the prequel trilogy but taken them so deeply to heart it’s caused creative rictus, in stripping things back to essentials: although there are little flourishes in the margins here, it’s still basically just an extended chase movie. The First Order, whose resemblance to a Khmer Rouge, Taliban, or Daesh-like force of fanatical opportunism has faded to leave them purely as Empire wannabes, represent the biggest failure in this regard. There’s still no inkling given of their aims, their credos, other than being the Bad Guys. Snoke is the Emperor without Ian McDiarmid’s wit and relish in instilling dimensions of Machiavellian smarts and rancid perversity in his character; Hux and Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are still just sneering snobs. One quality that distinguished the Star Wars series under Lucas’ hand was the way it steadily evolved, accumulating lore, complexity, and emotional heft, even whilst maintaining an open, light touch for the broadest possible audience. Yes, the original film was a fleet, glib space western, but it laid groundwork quickly and deftly to suggest greater dimensions to everything we saw and felt, and then each of the following five films added something new. But in spite of Johnson’s calls to bring something new to the table and forget the past, he resolutely avoids the hard work of actually doing this. .
Johnson indeed seems plainly impatient with much of the infrastructure he inherited from Abrams and Disney’s focus groups – very early in the film, he has Snoke mock and Kylo destroy the incredibly uninspired mask Kylo wore in The Force Awakens, and the path Johnson’s storyline cleaves through the set-up he was stuck with is similarly dismissive. One great task always facing Johnson was to try and come up with a twist as memorable as Darth Vader’s great reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson does provide a twist; several in fact, but not only do they not approach the momentousness of the model, they don’t really add up to much, in large part because they eventually cancel each-other out and leave the story precepts pretty much what they were at the outset. Much like Rey in her hall of mirrors, Johnson falls into the trap of merely deflating or offering slight tweaks on familiar moments. The flight to battle in rickety spaceships proves a tragicomic joke. The bad guy who becomes a good guy proves then to still be a bad guy – not once but twice. The pivotal scene here involves Kylo’s assassination of Snoke, a gleefully nasty if not total surprise, and one that concedes Snoke was just a ranting placeholder in the role of ultimate evil. Johnson’s staging of this sequence, and Rey and Kylo’s subsequent battle with Snoke’s bodyguards, is definitely the highpoint of the film, one that seems finally to engage with the sheer swashbuckling verve and operatic swerves of human nature of the series. And yet Johnson quickly undercuts its impact by having Kylo prove to be merely calculating rather than complex, and he ascends to the status of unchallenged bad guy, one who is apparently still enough of a sucker to not notice the difference when someone is projecting themselves on the astral plane. .
The major subplot involving Poe’s clashes with and eventual mutiny against Holdo is another potentially intelligent story thread that doesn’t quite work, particularly as its raises a worthy and legitimate new theme about types of leadership. Poe, used to command and chafing against his reduction, becomes increasingly angry with the taciturn Holdo, and both fail to a certain extent in arguing for their positions. Johnson seems to be pitching here to launch a thousand think pieces on female leadership and male intransigence, which feels in a way a bit treacherous to the series’ comfort with women as leader figures (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala), which means ironically he’s had his talking point theme at the expense of this creative universe’s established, blithe indifference to contemporary gender politics (none of Padmé’s soldiers questioned her commands). Dern also feels rather miscast in the role, too, as it seems to demand someone with thorny hauteur and icy-eyed determination along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas. That said, Holdo’s climactic act of vengeful self-sacrifice, ramming her space ship into Snoke’s at high speed, shattering the First Order fleet to smithereens, is a great piece of spectacle, made more effective by Johnson’s removal of all sound, simply observing the surge of pulverising energy and splintering metal. Here he really grips the quasi-Biblical scale of action and destruction matched to grandiose human will in the series forebears by the throat. And yet, again, Johnson doesn’t follow through with any clear depiction of the effect this has. Indeed, it has none on the First Order hunt and core villains. .
Ridley and Boyega are still real finds for this series, and both of them display a developing touch in making their roles effective audience stand-ins who nonetheless have properly defined characters. But the way Finn and Poe are handled here makes them feel increasingly like fifth wheels. Finn is proved a dupe who flits about the margins and Poe’s struggles lead him into a position of new authority by the end that feels more accidental than earned. Finn’s final battle with Phasma aboard a disintegrating Star Destroyer is effectively melodramatic, but proves a little scanty. Johnson sets up a romantic triangle of sorts between Finn, Rose, and Rey – or rectangle if one counts Rey’s fleeting if finally extinguished attraction to Kylo. But it’s a long way from the smouldering love-hate of Han and Leia or the guilty, transgressive passion of Anakin and Padmé. Now we’ve got the adorkable pairing of Finn and Rose, which does lead into a gripping sequence in which Rose performs a staggeringly risky manoeuvre to save Finn from his own kamikaze gutsiness, but otherwise feels entirely too cute. Lucas’ characters were archetypes and naïfs, but they were also solid adults who had sex and dashed and dazzled. Everyone in this seems restricted, repressed, stymied. Part of what made The Empire Strikes Back as beloved as it is in spite of its nominally downbeat narrative of calamity and mutilation, was because it was the most authentically dreamlike of the original trilogy. The cavernous spaces and hovering beauty of Cloud City, dragon-riddled asteroids, haunted swamps, and spaceships roaring through twilight skies burned with ardour in authentic fantastical horizons. Nothing here even approaches, at least until the very end when Johnson evokes Lucas’ crucial images of setting suns and dissolution of the flesh, such a state of transcendental beauty. .
Rey was and remains the best new character – I’ve heard many invocations that hold her as the sole real achievement and best reason for loyalty to the new series from fans both casual and hardcore – and The Last Jedi does drag her evolution to interesting new places. She’s the voice of a new and ardent breed who craves leadership and direction, appealing to a crusty old warhorse in the form of Luke in a manner that feels true to a real-world context today where the young have looked to older voices of undiluted radical vision. Rey is also beset by her mysterious bond with Kylo, with glimmers of erotic interest and tactile communion as they try to connect psychically (including Rey being distracted by the sight of Kylo sans shirt, a funny moment that also conveys a blessed note of the erotic, otherwise desperately missing from Disney Star Wars) coexisting with fierce antipathy. The film’s ultimate solution to the raised mystery of her parentage feels like another dodge, as her parents were just wastrels who sold her for coin, and her abilities are purely her own provenance. This is neat on a symbolic level, as it underlines Rey as the embodiment of the new and of re-founding rather than legacy, but it’s also rather, well, lame and anti-climactic. Luke reiterates a belief that the Jedi must end, but what exactly what might take the creed’s place, and what Rey in particularly could bring to it, again isn’t given any thought. .
. The Last Jedi does give Fisher a strong last go-round as Leia, who stands alone as a figure of stature and authority for the first time, running the Resistance cause with a sinking heart and guttering fire of determination. Leia gains some appropriately great moments, including one in which she utilises Jedi gifts surprisingly to save herself from a seemingly inevitable death. She also has a funny exchange with Holdo as they both admit their simultaneous irritation with Poe but also common love for his kind of bad boy. A running joke about Rey’s belief that the Force is the ability to make rocks float builds to a punch-line at the end involving her do just that. That’s about it. And this moment crystallised the way Star Wars has been vampirised by those pretending to reinvigorate it. There’s painfully little wonderment or fantastical beauty left in this universe. Johnson’s film looks good in a way, chasing a quality of desolate, dusky beauty, but too often it looks rather too often grey, dusty, and more than a little dolorous. Compared to the astounding opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith (2005) with it monumental, intricately staged, kaleidoscopically colourful space battle, Johnson’s paltry fleets slowly chugging through space are clunky and dully pseudo-realist. Of course, The Last Jedi is supposed to be set in a different, more run-down and wearied age, but that only covers a genuine paucity of real layering and ingenuity in effects and world-building so far. .
The mantle of the Jedi no longer carries with it the scent of green bamboo shoots they inherited from their wu xia and samurai epic models nor the red petals of chivalric romance, and with them goes the very element that elevated Star Wars above its rivals in the modern special effects cinema arms race. And as dynamic as these cinematic inheritors try to be in filling its place, this absence of an elevated plane to the drama, a yearning for higher ideals and the resonance of myth, never mind Lucas’ attempts to encompass his ideas on history and society and the linkages of both to identity, depresses me deeply, as does the refusal to engage in the creative universe beyond the immediate survival drama beyond canards like some of the rich are bad. I might seem to be castigating The Last Jedi more harshly than it perhaps warrants: it’s still easily the best of the three entries (which also includes Gareth Edwards’ mediating one-off Rogue One, 2016) in the reinstituted series. It boasts a handful of powerful sequences, and although it features a finale that goes on a few scenes too long and tries playing the same hand over and over again, and builds to a properly momentous confrontation of Luke and Kylo, it’s only to, once again, reveal itself as a kind of a cheat, failing to deliver Luke to a consummation even close to what he (and the audience) deserves. The universe should shake to its foundations when Luke Skywalker dies. Instead, Johnson merely has him run out of puff. The new series has closed The Last Jedi tells me the series has plateaued in terms of what it can accomplish and how it’s going to do it, and that reasons why I’ve loved this material in the past are slowly but surely being neutered. Where the prequel trilogy has only doggedly and insistently earned my admiration for their achievement over the past decade or so, these new films lay all their cards on the table instantly.