Reviews and Analyses

It’s Terrible, It Really Is (Ghostbusters, 2016)

Intolerably loud and garish. The original was set in a semi-real world, the support characters were played straight, while the leads were unique characters in a unique situation and the comedy came naturally from this. This is set in a full-on comedy world, or more accurately, a full-on ‘bad’ comedy world. OTT characters spout nonstop cringe-inducing jokes, utterly brain-numbing compared to the dry wit and sarcasm of their forebears and relentless in their awfulness; the only interruption coming from the even more dire cameo appearances. The most embarrassing material is given to Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ dim-witted secretary, who confusingly has a dog named Mike Hat. Yes, it sounds like ‘my cat’, that’s the joke! The bombardment of awful visuals is almost as sickening as the verbal diarrhoea spewing from the characters’ mouths. The bright, shiny, CGI ghosts look pathetic compared to the graphic and, in some cases, genuinely horrific creatures from the original, and the cartoony action sequences again rob the world and characters of any realism.

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Stuff of nightmares vs. puff the magic dragon.

As well as brainless comedy, there’s also plenty of brainless morality on display. Okay, the morality of the original is questionable, with Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman coming across as a bit of a sex pest, but this is just mean-spirited in the extreme. The ‘Big Bads’ from the first two films were mythical demigods, creatures that thought themselves above ordinary humans but who were defeated by heroic underdogs. In this film, the underdog’s the bad guy. A recluse, an outsider, a loner, driven to take revenge on society because he doesn’t fit in (judging by their disrespectful comments against fandom, perhaps he’s intended to represent the kind of person the filmmakers think will dislike their awful movie). I was waiting for an acceptable payoff for this, hoping the Ghostbusters, characterised in some ways as outsiders themselves, would help or embrace their familiar. But no, instead they offered a cruel joke about his assumed virginity and then blasted the poor bastard to hell. The final line of the film is “that’s not terrible, not terrible at all”. Sorry, but it is, it really is.

Mutant Theory (The X-Men Franchise) – Part 2

Part two of my look at the X-Men franchise. Here’s part one and my look at the first film.

Mutant and Shameful – X-Men: First Class (dir. Vaughn, 2011)

Ridiculous from a historical and political perspective, but that’s not my expertise, check out Jack Graham’s post for a more educated opinion on these topics. I’d like to go back to what I was saying in my Last Stand post about Magneto being a more sympathetic and interesting character than Xavier and any of the X-Men, and there’s no better example of this than this movie. We are introduced to Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as children. Xavier is in his mansion, whining because his mother won’t make him a sandwich while Magneto is at Auschwitz, having his mother shot in front of him by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a sadistic maniac who wants to experiment on him. Twenty years later, Magneto is on the hunt for Shaw and the other Nazis that slaughtered his people. That’s right, Magneto is a badass Nazi hunter on a just cause to make evil men pay for their crimes. Meanwhile, Xavier is chugging lager at his toffee-nosed university and attempting to manipulate women into sleeping with him by raping their minds, which apparently we’re supposed to find highly amusing. Magneto is on a heroic mission, and we sympathise entirely because we’ve seen the hardship he’s been through and Shaw is a genuinely evil man who’s trying to destroy the world. Yet we’re supposed to side with Xavier, judging from his position of privilege, when he tells Magneto not to kill Shaw? When Shaw is attempting to kill Magneto, I might add. And Why? Because it’ll send Magneto down an inescapable dark path? His logic makes no sense to me. I mean, is anyone really hoping that Magneto spares Shaw’s life? No, I didn’t think so. If you want an audience to side with your hero, make sure their cause makes sense, and cutting out any mind rape might help too.

A badass, and just an ass.

One thing that doesn’t make sense to me about Magneto’s cause, though, is why after he’s killed Shaw does he want to kill all humans? I understand sending the ships’ missiles back at them, that’s perfectly reasonable, they started it. But why all humans? Shaw was a mutant. The man responsible for all his suffering was one of his own kind, so why decide to carry on his cause and wipe out all human life? Magneto’s hatred for humans made sense in the original trilogy; they killed his family, his people. Making the author of his pain a mutant really confuses things. But apart from that, he’s totally badass, and I’ll support anyone with a theme this cool.

Sadly, although Magneto remains a badass, his previous (or future, depending on which way you look at it) ally, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), has lost all her edge. There’s an attempt to give her depth by showing her at odds with Xavier’s more passive attitude, as it won’t allow her to show her true self, but what it all boils down to is she turns evil because Xavier doesn’t fancy her. Just one example of the atrocious gender politics in the movie. This, along with the mind rape and the female cast being perennially dressed in their underwear, really doesn’t support the series’ central theme of equality. Neither does the one black character being fridged halfway through.

Entertaining because of Magneto (Fassbender’s performance, especially when he’s interrogating the Swiss Bank Manager, makes him my favourite for the next Bond), but one day I’d really like to see him win, or at least see the series add some ambiguity and sympathise with his cause more while highlighting Xavier’s hypocrisy and immorality.

What Kind of Monster Are You? – The Wolverine (dir. Mangold, 2013)

A competent action movie, an immeasurable improvement from Origins, but not really that interesting. Wolverine, mourning the loss of Jean in Last Stand, must prove to himself that there’s injustice worth fighting. He does this by going to Japan and finding and saving a new love interest. It’d all probably be a lot more effective if the love story held any weight, but it’s pretty standard fare. In fact, I can’t even remember the name of the love interest, can’t even picture her actually, and I only watched it a week ago. The plot doesn’t really make any sense, but you don’t notice when watching, only if you start deliberately pulling it apart afterwards, and it ends with your typical showdown with the ‘Big Bad’. Perfectly enjoyable stuff, though. Clearly a concerted effort’s been made to add a bit of style and class to proceedings and to return some mystery and respectability to the tormented hero after the embarrassment of his previous solo outing, and that’s something to be praised.

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A Darker Path – X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Singer, 2014)

Here we go again. Killing truly evil people will send you down an inescapable dark path to damnation. Blah, blah, blah. This time, it’s Mystique who must be saved from killing the bad guy. In the comic, the bad guy is Senator Kelly. In fact, he’s not a bad guy as such, he’s described as “a decent man, with what he feels are legitimate concerns about the increasing number of super-powered mutants in the world”. A man who has the power to change, who the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (they really need to speak to their PR guy about that name) plan to kill, which will result in the public turning against mutants and electing a president with extremist views, which results in an apocalyptic future. Sounds like something worth fighting against. In the movie, the bad guy, Trask (Peter Dinklage), is bad, in fact, he’s pure evil. He’s a monster, a psychopath who experiments on, tortures and kills people without reason or remorse, and he plans to enslave an entire race and give them the same treatment. The thing is, if Mystique kills Trask, it’ll turn the government against mutants, she’ll be captured, and her DNA will be used to develop the Sentinels; robotic, mutant killing machines that will threaten to end the world. Well, the right path is clear isn’t it. Kill him without being seen or captured! This would solve everything! The Bastard deserves to die! Sorry, but I can’t help thinking this as there’s nothing redeemable about him. Let him live and he’ll carry on being evil. He deserves to die, and Xavier and Wolverine are hypocrites for stating otherwise. “It was the first time she killed”, says Xavier, “it wasn’t her last”, says Wolverine, bitterly. You monumental hypocrite! You kill three people as soon as you’re sent on your mission to stop Mystique, and how many have you killed in the past in defence of yourself and your people? And what more is Mystique doing than defending herself and her race? What more was Magneto doing when he killed Shaw? Perhaps if the X-Men’s deeds were shown to change Trask, I could appreciate their perspective, but he’s beyond help, so screw him, and these passive, sissy hypocrites. Magneto was right.

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Sparing Psychopaths – Deadpool (dir. Miller, 2016)

Simple themes – love conquers all, it’s what’s inside that counts, you can’t run away from your problems, stick by the one you love – a nice restrained plot (no apocalyptic threats), and a story that’s not preachy or pretentious (although sometimes it thinks it’s a lot funnier than it is and verges very close to cliché considering how subversive it thinks it is). Its greatest moment comes when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) holds a gun to the villain’s head, Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) gives a big speech about what it means to be a hero, and then Deadpool just shoots the villain in the head. This criticism of the X-Men films’ ridiculous, trite moralising is the highlight of the film, and if the sequel concentrates more on this kind of genre subversion and satire while avoiding cliché, we’ll be onto a winner.

If wearing superhero tights means sparing psychopaths, then maybe I wasn't meant to wear them.

If wearing superhero tights means sparing psychopaths, then maybe I wasn’t meant to wear them.

The Third One’s Always the Worst – X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Singer, 2016)

“The third one’s always the worst”, says Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) as the young X-Men leave a showing of Return of the Jedi (dir. Marquand, 1983). This is supposed to be a dig at Last Stand, but the joke has backfired, as this third in the First Class trilogy approaches X-Men Origins: Wolverine levels of badness. There is no debate here, just a series of unmemorable action sequences as the X-Men attempt to stop Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the ‘Big Bad’, from destroying the world (the most cliché of all movie villain motivations), and mutant after mutant is introduced (so they can show off their powers in the trailer) without any of their characters being developed in any interesting ways. True, we’re used to underdeveloped characters in this series, but X-Men: Apocalypse goes one better (or worse), it destroys the series’ most sympathetic character. Yep, they turned Magneto into a pussy. He’s given a family just so they can be fridged, which apparently justifies him bending to Apocalypse’s will. At first, I thought Apocalypse must be brainwashing him, but no, the main plot revolves around Apocalypse trying to steal Xavier’s psychic abilities, so clearly Magneto freely chooses to follow Apocalypse, without question. This just makes him look stupid, weak, and completely robs him of his agency. The one character left in the series who had any! There was always reason behind Magneto’s motivations, however wicked the end results, but not anymore.

These are not the only problems. The dialogue is atrocious, reminiscent of Colossus’ speech in Deadpool, which was meant as parody. Like Origins, it’s more interested in needlessly joining the dots together so everything fits neatly with the rest of the series than with telling a proper story. The tone is all over the place. A prime example is a sequence played for laughs where Quicksilver (Evan Peters) saves students from the X-Mansion before it explodes being followed by jarring seriousness as it’s revealed he failed to save Cyclop’s (Tye Sheridan) brother, Havoc (Lucas Till) – a character killed off for convenience in a far less delicate manner than anything in Last StandXavier is worse than ever. Not only is Cerebro corrupted by the bad guys again and its morality is still not brought into question, but the honourable Professor commits his worst case of mind rape yet. This time, on the woman he supposedly loves! He robs Moira (Rose Byrne) of her memories without permission because he thinks it’s best for her! He is never judged for this, in fact, it’s joked about, and when he tells Moira, her response is to passionately kiss him, and we’re supposed to go all gooey over this romance! Boring, cringeworthy, and insulting.

I think I rolled my eyes more than Apocalypse.

I think I rolled my eyes more than Apocalypse.

Mutant Theory (The X-Men Franchise)

Over two years ago, I posted about X-Men (dir. Singer, 2000), pointing out the contradictory cause of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is against the government’s mutant registration act but sees no problem with using his machine, Cerebro, to keep a register of all humans and mutants against their will. With the release of the latest X-Men film, X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Singer, 2016), now seems like as good a time as any to give my opinion on the rest of the series.

Behind Ice – X2: X-Men United (dir. Singer, 2003)

The best of the series. Slickly produced, well staged action sequences (the attacks on the White House and the X-Mansion, and Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) prison break standout in particular), and a solid story arc for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who must learn that the actions he takes in the present and his loyalty to the X-Men are more important than uncovering the secrets of his past. This is effectively shown when Wolverine confronts Stryker (Brian Cox) during the attack on the X-Mansion, and his past is separated from him by a wall of ice, like the secrets that lie beneath Alkali Lake. Here Wolverine is given the choice of staying to discover these secrets or leaving to help his friends. He chooses the latter.

WOLVERINE: “Go, I’ll be fine.”

ROGUE: “But we won’t.”

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This scene is later mirrored during Stryker and Wolverine’s confrontations at Alkali Lake. Twice Wolverine is given the chance to follow Stryker instead of his friends. At first, he does abandon them to pursue answers, but returns to help them when the dam bursts.

STRYKER: “Come with me and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. You can’t help your friends. They’re as good as dead.”

During their final confrontation, Stryker tempts Wolverine again, but he chooses to leave with his new family, who hold the real answers he’s looking for, symbolically abandoning his past by leaving his army tag with Stryker to drown.

STRYKER: “Who has the answers, Wolverine? Those People?

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Despite these qualities, the film definitely has its downsides. Cerebro being corrupted by the bad guys to serve their cause is a prime opportunity to retcon the attitude of the first film and draw attention to the immorality of the device, but this is glossed over. The biggest issues for me are the changes from the source material, the classic graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills (Claremont, 1982). Now, I’m in no way a big comic geek or purist. I’ve read a select few, ones I’ve seen hailed as the best or featured in top ten lists. This just happens to be one of the few, and there are many examples of how X2 has watered-down the material. God Loves, Man Kills draws attention to religion being perverted for hateful causes (a continually relevant theme), the main villain, Stryker, being a televangelist on a mission to wipe out all mutants, who he believes are the seed of Satan, as they’re not made in God’s image as man is. Stryker killed his son at birth, not understanding his mutation and thinking he was a demon. His hate for mutants and belief that religion is on his side is born out of feelings of guilt and a need to justify his actions. This offers far more depth than the movie’s simple anti-prejudice message and more complexity than the movie Stryker’s basic undeveloped prejudice and stereotypical evil military man characterisation (nothing against Cox’s excellent performance). In the comic, as in the movie, Stryker attempts to gain control of Xavier’s mind, but instead of using a cliché ‘creepy child’, the comic contains horrific hallucinatory imagery. Xavier is placed in a sensory deprivation chamber by Stryker and experiences visions of himself crucified, being tormented by demonic X-Men, who rip out his heart. He’s repeatedly visited by a messianic Stryker, to whom he must give his hand and thus hand over his obedience and power. This imagery shows Stryker acting as a false God, manipulating religion and people for his own selfish gain. I can understand why the studio would choose to exclude this edgy, politically loaded material from a commercial blockbuster, but I don’t have to like it.

Under Fire – X-Men: The Last Stand (dir. Ratner, 2006)

I don’t understand the hate towards this one. Not saying it’s great, not at all, but I really don’t see a huge difference in quality between it and the rest of the series. We have the ‘cure’ debate at the centre, just like the ‘registration act’ and threat of ‘mutant/human war’ before, which provides the film’s moral centre. We also have a character arc for Wolverine that eclipses the other characters’ stories, as his tragic love story with Jean (Famke Janssen) comes to an end. But, on the whole, the film is just a series of effects based action sequences, featuring superhumans fighting and blowing stuff up. So business as usual then. The only reasons I can see for people not liking it quite so much are the action sequences aren’t quite as memorable as in X2 (although some are pretty damn good), and the regular cast is quite liberally disposed of throughout. But apart from Cyclops (James Marsden) – and who gives a toss about Cyclops? – they all get epic send-offs, so what’s the problem?

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Just like the other films, though, there are a number of things that could have been done to make it more interesting. There is an X-Men: The Animated Series episode called The Cure in which Rogue (Lenore Zann) is faced with the dilemma of whether to take the mutant cure or not. In the end, after using her powers to help others, she realises how important her difference is, and doesn’t take the cure. In Last Stand, Rogue (Anna Paquin) moans a bit about being different, then takes the cure, and it’s really unclear what point, if any, is being made. Again, Xavier’s morality is brought into question, as it’s revealed he’s been suppressing Jean’s abilities. Magneto accuses him of trying to control the X-Men to serve his cause, telling Wolverine he has tamed him. Now Magneto has a really good point here, as this is exactly what Xavier did in the first film when he read Wolverine’s mind without his permission to gain information that he, does indeed, use to manipulate him into joining his cause. But this great possibility for adding some much-needed ambiguity to the series is ignored in favour of the continued characterisation of Xavier as a pure and noble father figure and Magneto as the purely evil villain.

I hate the X-Men for doing this. Look how sad he looks, bless him.

I hate the X-Men for doing this. Look how sad he looks, bless him.

Finally, Mystique’s (Rebecca Romijn) fate is another huge missed opportunity. Now Mystique, as played by Rebecca Romijn, is a character I have quite a fondness for. This could be because she spends most of her time naked, but also because, along with Magneto, she is one of the only characters with any purpose; a goal that she is actively trying to accomplish. This is incredibly important for getting an audience to get behind and support a character. I mean, who’s interested in passive characters who just let things happen to them and make no attempt to change things? Not me, which is a big part of the reason I find myself supporting Magneto and his Brotherhood in all these films. They’re fighting for change, and often for good reason. While Xavier and the X-Men just sit back and let stuff happen, trying to defend their stagnant behaviour with trite moralising. Plus, Xavier is a manipulative arsehole who invades people’s minds, controlling and wiping them without permission. I feel far more sorry for Magneto and Mystique when they lose their powers than I do for Xavier when he’s killed or for Wolverine when he’s forced to kill Jean. How about you? Anyway, back to Mystique’s fate. When Mystique loses her powers, she quite boringly and predictably decides to turn against and betray Magneto. From what we know of the character, I find this quite unbelievable. After despising humans all her life and believing unequivocally in mutant superiority, would she abandon her beliefs so easily? Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting if she didn’t abandon them, and stayed loyal to Magneto, perhaps sacrificing herself for him even though she’s turned human and he’s turned his back on her, proving to him that it wasn’t her mutant ability that made her who she was? A far better way to put the film’s point across, surely?

Koo-Koo-Ka-Choo Got Screwed – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (dir. Hood, 2009)

Nothing good to say about this one. It’s unfair that Last Stand gets lumped together with this as the nadir of the series. Again, not saying Last Stand is an underappreciated classic, but at least it had understandable character arcs (mostly), and there was some sort of debate going on. This exists solely to introduce as many new mutants as possible so they can show off their powers in the trailer (admittedly, Last Stand had a bit of that too, but not to this extent). Wolverine’s past is needlessly revealed so it joins up with the previous trilogy, which really spoils the mystique (no pun intended) of the character instead of adding to it. And it’s all told in the most cheesy way possible, with a fridged love interest, cliché action movie dialogue, embarrassing CGI, and a series of ridiculous plot twists that some idiot working on this obviously thinks constitutes good storytelling. Just awful in every conceivable way. So bad, it often feels like parody.

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Return of the Return of the Star Wars (Star Wars: the Force Awakens)

*CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Here are some more of my thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. Abrams, 2015). I liked the not so subtle digs at the prequels. The first line of the film is, “this will begin to make things right”. The Star Killer Base blows up the Republic and thus the Senate (they’ll be none of that talky politics crap in our Star Wars). I believe I also heard some dialogue criticising the inferiority of a clone army in comparison to Stormtroopers. The humanising of the Stormtroopers again seems like a reaction against the prequels. Finn (John Boyega) shows us they’re human beings with feelings, not disposable duplicates, which raises the stakes of the war. Plus, other Stormtroopers have emotional reactions, showing us Finn is not just an anomaly.

Finn, I’d say, is the best of the new characters. His disreputable past, humour under pressure and strained bravery have their roots in Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) original character, but his youthful inexperience and Boyega’s performance distinguish him. Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) roots are more evident, being a blatant Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) clone, but with a greater sense of sadness about the loss of her family and less enthusiasm for adventure. Making her more of a reluctant hero makes her eventual bravery seem more heroic, and her stronger connection to her home makes her leaving more moving. Also, it’s good to see a woman in a traditionally male role and not appear at all out of place (why would she?). Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) struggle with the dark side seems far more genuine and nuanced compared to Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) sudden conversations. I know we’re bound to see more of her in the future, but Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) did nothing except look cool. I think they were going for a Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) vibe but throwing her down the trash compactor kind of diminished that. If you want a character to look cool, don’t throw them in the garbage. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) also does very little. The writers obviously decided to make the other characters think he was dead for half the movie, not for suspense, but because they could think of nothing to do with him. Max Von Sydow’s character is entirely superfluous. All the information he conveys could have been told visually. Han Solo is as fun as he’s always been and it’s sad to see him go, as his relationship with his son and split from Leia (Carrie Fisher) added new dimensions to the character that would have been nice to explore further. His death is unearned, being the culmination of a story we haven’t been given time or reason to care about. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll care because it’s Han Solo, not because of anything the film has done. I wish we’d seen less of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), possibly even nothing at all and just have him talked about to build an aura around him. I think it would have been far more interesting and darker to have Kylo Ren talking to Vader’s dead skull, which only seems to be in here so they can get that one shot in the trailer and probably on a bunch of merchandise.

The CGI used for Snoke is nothing new and looks out of place with the retro vibe the film’s going for. In fact, things start to really go wrong with the sudden introduction of Snoke and other CGI elements. We also have a pointless runaround on a freighter with CGI tentacles. It seems to be there so we can have some last bits of fun and humour with Han and Chewie (Peter Mayhew), but it serves no plot purpose apart from the bounty hunters inform the First Order of BB-8’s whereabouts, but they’re already able to track him, so this makes little sense. Maz Kanata (Lupita Kanata) is another out of place CGI creation that seems utterly pointless. The time spent with her really bogs the movie down. All the emotional issues and plot points brought up during these scenes could be worked out on the Falcon, perhaps while being pursued by Tie Fighters and Star Destroyers à la The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Kershner, 1980). I don’t see any reason why Han couldn’t have picked up Luke’s lightsaber somewhere, and Finn couldn’t just ask Han to take him away from the war instead of propositioning other characters. Maz’s cantina-esque home seems to have been included just so another box can be ticked on the film’s list of essential Star Warsy stuff.

With the amount of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the original films, I’m beginning to think it was genuinely the filmmakers’ plan to subconsciously trick us into thinking The Force Awakens was a great Star Wars movie by using as many familiar aspects as possible. It’s got everything you like about Star Wars, how can it be bad? The logic makes sense, and I think after the disappointment of the prequels, they were right to go back to what we love about Star Wars. I just wish there could’ve been something really original and different to make it stand out from the past films, but they played it safe. A sensible marketing decision, not a very exciting artistic one.

Return of the Star Wars (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. Abrams, 2015) is undoubtedly a Star Wars movie. What I mean by that is a real effort was clearly made to make it like the Star Wars you love and remember, i.e. the original trilogy. In terms of visuals, it was refreshing to see such heavy use of real sets, locations, animatronic creatures and a lack of CGI. However, this did make the two CGI creatures they did use stand out (why couldn’t they have gone the whole hog?). It also had a genuine sense of humour and adventure that the prequels sorely lacked. In terms of the plot, almost every element had an air of familiarity about it, and this is where the real problems lie. There were no risks, no subversions and no surprises. It was really good at being the Star Wars we know, but it brought nothing new apart from a more gender and racially diverse cast; which again was very refreshing. So, in the end, it sorely lacked what was so engrossing about the original trilogy, its excitement and originality.

Below this picture of the Star Wars are twenty-two very familiar things in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m sure there were a lot more, but this is enough to be getting along with.

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  1. Desert, snow and forest planets.
  2. A hero’s journey for a young outcast who lives on a desert planet and yearns for adventure.
  3. The information we want is in the little droid!
  4. Bad guy in a black mask with family issues, struggling between the pull of the light and the dark.
  5. Hero is led to adventure by little droid.
  6. Hero then meets an older mentor, who takes them away from the desert planet, teaches them about the force and talks of mythical past adventures.
  7. Stormtroopers burning people on a desert planet.
  8. Finn’s first view of the Niima Outpost mirrors Luke’s first view of Mos Eisley.
  9. The Millennium Falcon flees from TIE fighters by flying inside something large.
  10. Shooting TIE fighters from Millennium Falcon gunner bay.
  11. Interrogation and torture while strapped to a technological rack.
  12. A cantina scene with a diverse range of aliens, including an alien band.
  13. A diminutive, wrinkly alien encourages hero to learn the ways of the force.
  14. Evil mentor appears via giant hologram.
  15. C3PO comically interrupts tender moment between Han and Leia.
  16. Giant, planet-sized, super-weapon with a weak point that must be destroyed by an X-Wing assault and Han laying mines.
  17. Flying down trenches.
  18. Hero’s friend with less than perfect past, at one point, threatens to leave and abandon the cause but returns to rescue the hero and save the day.
  19. On enemy base, the hero witnesses their mentor being killed by the villain from a distance and screams.
  20. Body falling down deep chasm inside a large technological base.
  21. The hero, who doesn’t know everything about their family, learns the ways of the force and faces the villain (who – in all likelihood – is a family member), who asks them to join the dark side and be trained by them.
  22. The last of the Jedi must complete the hero’s training in part two.

The Light and the Dark (Star Wars: The Original Trilogy)

So, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. Abrams, 2015) is out today. I have my ticket for an 11 am showing and plan to post about it soon after, but until then, let’s talk original trilogy. So much has been said about these three films that I could easily start regurgitating oft-heard opinions, so I’m gonna stick to a single feature of each film I particularly like and one I particularly dislike. A light side and a dark side, if you will (see what I did there?).

Not Getting Any Action (Star Wars)   

What I dislike about Star Wars (dir. Lucas, 1977) is Luke’s (Mark Hamil) lightsaber never sees any action, and before you all start shouting that the original trilogy isn’t all about dumb action and lightsaber duels like the prequels, hear me out. If you consider that the film was intended to function as a standalone piece – with the prospect of sequels in no way a certainty – then Luke’s lightsaber really should see some action. I mean, he’s given it, told its backstory, trained with it, and then he never uses it. It doesn’t make any sense. Some heroics on the Death Star featuring Luke whipping out his weapon to fend off some Stormtrooper fire, proving Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) right about its superiority over a blaster and silencing Han’s (Harrison Ford) mockery, seems like the obvious payoff to this lightsaber setup.

What I like about Star Wars is Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Leia is set up as the damsel in distress whose heart will be won upon her rescue by the brave hero. This doesn’t happen, but I’m not gonna complain about the lack of payoff because, in this case, Luke not getting any action is a good thing. Luke’s fantasising about rescuing the Princess is presented like your standard fairytale adventure, with the hero believing he will win the Princess as a reward upon her rescue. It’s made immediately clear upon her rescue that Leia has no interest in falling into the arms of her rescuer, in fact, she’s sure she could’ve done a far better job if the roles were reversed. Showing Luke’s beliefs were wrong draws attention to the sexist ‘women as reward’ trope, acknowledging the belief that women are just objects to be won is pure fantasy. In the end, no one wins Leia, and the heroes’ rewards are the friendships they’ve formed and their personal growth.  Oh, and shiny, shiny medals. Look at them shine!

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The Wrong and the Right Kind of Force (The Empire Strikes Back)

What I dislike about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Kershner, 1980) is Han and Leia’s relationship. I can hear the boos from fandom again, but again, hear me out. Why does Leia fall for Han? All he does his pester her about his belief that she has feelings for him, when she seems adamant she doesn’t, and jibe her with misogynistic remarks. And somehow this courtship technique works? What? Did he force her into submission with his sexism? What kind of message is that? No matter how many times a girl says no, just keep pestering them and acting like a jerk, and eventually they’ll give in, because every girl, deep down, loves a bad boy. I’m not adverse to the idea of them having a relationship, just the way it’s presented. Han does nothing to deserve Leia; he doesn’t change his ways and he’s too arrogant even to tell her he loves her when he may never see her again.

Princess Leia: “I love you.”

Han Solo: “I know.”

There’s a suggestion in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (dir. Marquand, 1983), when this famous exchange is reversed, that Han loves Leia for her ruthlessness and ingenuity as a fighter. These are attributes she has in common with Han and ones that Empire would have done better to draw attention to, to make their relationship more believable and morally credible.

What I Like about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is its energy. There is no sitting down to work out emotional issues, it’s all worked out during the action, which makes it really exciting. We also have an exuberant Yoda (Frank Oz). The Yoda in Empire is fun. He laughs, cracks jokes, is surrounded by nature, full of energy, and is enjoying life! The stiff, humourless Yoda of the prequels, who spends his time sitting in a big metal tower with a bunch of other stiff, humourless characters, makes the light side look a lot less appealing.

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Strangle that Slug, Sister (Return of the Jedi)

No, I’m not gonna hate on the Ewoks. Yes, perhaps their defeat of the Empire is slightly ridiculous, but it has symbolism, drawing attention to the series’ theme of technology vs. nature; as the equally ridiculous destruction of the Death Star in the first film did, which is not criticised nearly as much. Plus, they’re damn cute! No, what I dislike about Star Wars: Return of the Jedi is Leia’s reveal as Luke’s sister, which is far more ridiculous than teddy bears beating up space Nazis. This revelation was clearly just included in an attempt to rival the ‘I am your father’ twist from Empire, and it fails miserably. Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) revelation came out of nowhere, but still had credibility, a big emotional punch, and consequences (the bad guy’s the good guy’s dad? Oh no! How can he keep fighting him now?). Leia being Luke’s sister was clearly never the intention of the filmmakers while making the previous films – Luke’s attraction to Leia being a main story point of the first film – and doesn’t really change the character dynamics (the heroine is the hero’s sister! Well, I guess he’ll carry on caring for her just like he did before. Just with less kissing). Furthermore, when Leia is told she’s Luke’s sister, she doesn’t react to the fact that this also means Darth Vader is her father. What’s all that about? Lazy writing, that’s what that’s all about.

What I like about Star Wars: Return of the Jedi is, well, it was a lot harder to think of something, to be honest, and what I eventually thought of is still connected to something I dislike. I dislike Princess Leia’s slave girl outfit. Leia has gone from a strong female character, who would not be the reward for any man, and who would always stand up for herself with her actions and her words, to being dressed up like a prostitute for an obese space slug and seemingly shocked into silence by the trauma. The one thing I do like about this is Leia gets to strangle her male oppressor with the very chains he imprisoned her with. It’s something at least. I’m hoping in the Force Awakens, Han will get some similar treatment.

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Happy Halloween! Today I’m posting about that terrifying Halloween classic, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (dir. Speilberg, 1982). E.T. is the tale of a parasitic alien from the darkest depths of space, who infiltrates a family home and attaches itself to a small boy, forming a symbiotic relationship that drains the boy’s life-force. A brave group of government agents must battle to save the boy and defeat the monster; before it’s too late! Okay, that might be the story told from an adult character’s point of view, but E.T. is not a story told from an adult’s point of view. E.T. is a story about empathy, an attribute we see facilitated through childhood innocence and impeded by adult ignorance and misplaced authority that must be rebelled against. Immediately upon being stranded, E.T. is hounded by a group of adult hunters, viewing his otherness as dangerous to their way of life and something to be extinguished. E.T. is able to find refuge with a child, Elliot (Henry Thomas), who hides him from adult persecution. Elliot does not see E.T. as a monster, but as a person in need of help who has been separated from their home and family. Elliot is able to empathise with E.T., having recently had a split in his family, with his father leaving his mother (Dee Wallace). Before the arrival of E.T., Elliot is insecure and lonely, being picked on and excluded by his older brother Michael (Robert Mac Naughton) and his friends. He is also immature and inconsiderate, bringing up the fact that his father has run off with another woman in front of his younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore). This upsets his mother and angers Michael (“Damn it. Why don’t you grow up, think how other people feel for a change?”). The arrival of E.T. sees Elliot take Michael’s advice, as having to care for someone in a similar position, sees him mature and gain confidence and purpose.

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E.T. does indeed form a symbiotic relationship with Elliot, but there is nothing sinister about it. Instead, it is used to emphasise the importance of empathy. E.T. and Elliot share emotional and physical experiences; getting hungry, scared and ill together. Seeing them share these experiences reminds us that although E.T. is different to us, he still feels the same and should be treated equally. E.T. and Elliot’s empathy goes beyond consideration for intelligent life, as an affinity with all of nature, including animal and plant life, is displayed. E.T. is able to live in harmony with all living things, caring for them as though they were part of him. This is shown through his ability to heal, as he mends a cut on Elliot’s finger and brings a flower back to life. Thanks to his relationship with E.T., Elliot develops empathy for other life, freeing the frogs that are about to be dissected in science class and starting a youth revolt against the ruling adult teacher (Richard Swingler). The teacher is another example of adult cruelty and detachment. He treats the frogs as just things to be experimented on; just as Elliot fears the ‘adult’ authorities will treat E.T. (“they’ll give it a lobotomy or do experiments on it”).

Freeing the frogs.

The film expresses the importance of family. Separated from his family, E.T. grows ill but recovers upon their return. The family home is used to symbolise an ideal empathetic environment; there E.T. is safe and cared for by those who treat him as kin. Childhood is used as a symbol of virtue, as E.T. is taught about the world through the use of toys, watching kids TV shows and reading children’s books, and his idea to “phone home” is inspired by a children’s comic. He is also, at one point, mistaken for a soft-toy, an item that is the focus of childhood love and care, but that is later abandoned by adults. This shows the importance of carrying childhood empathy into adulthood and bringing the love and care shared within a family into the outside world. When the government agents track down E.T. to Elliot’s home, we see the devastating effect a cold-hearted ‘adult’ view of the world has. They transform the warm, empathetic environment into a sterile laboratory; intending to experiment on E.T. just like the frogs in science class. They believe they want to understand E.T., but unlike Elliot, they do not try and communicate with him; their lack of empathy means they only know how to take apart and destroy. Again, a youth revolt saves the day, as Elliot, Michael and his friends rescue E.T. from the government agents and return him to his people.

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E.T. is a messianic figure. He comes from the heavens, heals the sick, dies and is resurrected. Upon his resurrection, we see him dressed in white robes, and finally, he ascends back into the heavens. Unlike most messianic figures, his message is simple, as simple as his last words to Gertie, “be good“. A message of empathy. Spielberg has described E.T. as “a minority story“. E.T. is a minority on Earth, Elliot is also a minority, beginning the story as a loner. Through empathy, they are able to ignore their surface distinctions and join together to overcome adversity. That is the film’s message to the world – to put aside our difference, embrace our commonality and have compassion for one another. As E.T.’s spaceship departs, it leaves a rainbow in the sky; a symbol of universal harmony, unity and hope.

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Additional Points

  • Elliot has rainbow curtains in his bedroom – symbolising his empathetic outlook.
  • I don’t like that the girl Elliot kisses in class (Erika Eleniak) is seen standing on a chair, screaming when the frogs are freed. It’s a sexist stereotype (girls are fragile little things, afraid of creepy critters). It would make much more thematic sense if the large boy who struggles with Elliot to keep his frog in his jar was scared of the frogs – cruelty comes through fear and ignorance.
  • Gertie is read Peter Pan. Specifically, the scene where Tinker Bell is brought back to life by children’s belief in fairies. This fits with the film’s theme of the virtue of maintaining childhood innocence. Later, the children fly on their bicycles and are silhouetted in front of the moon; another nod to Peter Pan.