I'd like to spank the Academy

Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Star Wars (1977)

star warsDirected by George Lucas

Happy Star Wars Day! Because it’s May the Fourth, I decided I needed to review Star Wars today. Yes, it was nominated for best picture. Even though Star Wars is an awesome movie, it seems kind of odd today when Star Wars is just a fact of life. Also, the Academy doesn’t always recognize the amazing science fiction blockbusters; it tends to skew towards the brooding independent dramas nowadays. Anyway, Star Wars blew everyone away when it came out. I’m too young to remember that. Like most of my generation, I grew up watching Star Wars. I literally don’t remember not knowing that SPOILER ALERT Darth Vader is Luke’s father. My personal favorite of the original trilogy was Return of the Jedi, because I really liked watching the primitive Ewoks destroy the Stormtroopers. Also, the Ewoks are cute. But I grew up watching them all. Often. I was incredibly excited when the movies were rereleased on big screen in 1997, although I was incredibly disappointed at some of the changes George Lucas made. I was super excited for the new trilogy that started with The Phantom Menace, but now I pretend those movies just don’t exist. I cried last December when I sat in a theatre and watched those yellow letters move across the screen. I cried when Han and Leia saw each other again. So yeah. You could say I like Star Wars. That made it really hard to write an objective review. But I have tried my best, and for those who think I am being too hard on Star Wars, reach out with your feelings, and you’ll know the truth.

So what’s the story? For those of you who don’t know, farm boy Luke Skywalker accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for the freedom of the galaxy when two droids with the plans to destroy the evil Empire come into his life.

The Good: There really are many amazing things about Star Wars that I think even a non-fan would admit to. The soundtrack, for example. John William’s score may be one of the best movie scores ever written. I love that many of the characters have their own musical themes, or leitmotifs, if we want to be fancy about it. And the orchestrations are wonderful. It seems like the perfect instrument is always chosen to play at a particular time. It’s truly a magical soundtrack.

For the most part, the acting is good. Alec Guinness was apparently annoyed that he was remembered for Star Wars instead of his other movies (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend Kind Hearts and Coronets; it’s hilarious and Guinness is amazing), but he did a good job anyway. Harrison Ford was perfectly cast as Han Solo, the mercenary smuggler with a conscience. Carrie Fisher is fabulously fierce as Princess Leia, a princess with attitude who withstands torture to protect what she believes in. Leia may be a diplomat, but she’s not a prim and proper princess. She’s fantastic. All of the other roles, from the droids to the aliens to denizens of the Empire, are also well cast. There are too many people to mention in one post, but everyone does wonderful work (with one exception that I discuss later).

Once again, special effects win over CGI. Most of the special effects still look good almost forty years later. That’s just amazing to me. When so many movies nowadays looking dated after two or three years because they used CGI, it makes me happy that older movies still look realistic because of old-fashioned effects. The sound effects were also ridiculously good. Every alien race, every droid sounds different. That must have taken some serious creativity to be able to come up with sounds for all of those different creatures.

The story might not be original (more on that later), but the screenplay is. Lucas managed to balance humor and seriousness perfectly. I also think that it’s very clever how George Lucas let us know what Chewbacca and R2-D2 are saying by the reactions of Han Solo and C-3PO, respectively, instead of using subtitles. It draws the viewer more into the movie, I think. And honestly, who doesn’t know at least one quote from Star Wars? It’s a very memorable screenplay.

All of these elements – the music, the acting, the special effects, the screenplay – are great, but what really makes Star Wars so special is the world building. George Lucas created an entire galaxy and filled it with all sorts of different aliens and droids and humans. He imagined different sorts of planets, from planets that are nothing but deserts to swamp planets inhabited by seven-foot-tall furry aliens to planets that are completely peaceful and have no weapons. He imagined a princess who rescues her rescuers when their plan goes wrong. There are good guys and bad guys, yes, but there are also people who couldn’t care less about the Empire and are just trying to live their lives the best way they know how. The many books that have been written that take place in the Star Wars galaxy is a testament to what a fertile field it is for all kinds of stories. To me, that is the most amazing thing about Star Wars.

The Bad: The story is completely unoriginal. George Lucas himself has admitted that he closely followed elements of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he wrote the story of Star Wars. Of course, having Luke follow the same familiar pattern that we’ve seen heroes go through throughout literature for thousands of years may be what makes the story so endearing. One could argue that even though much of the “far, far away” galaxy is unfamiliar, placing Luke in the story pattern as many of our myths connects the story back to us. Still, if you’re looking for story originality, you will not find it in Star Wars.

Like I said before, most of the actors are great. However, Mark Hamill has some cringe-worthy moments as Luke Skywalker. He doesn’t do quiet sadness very well. He’s not terrible throughout the entire movie, but sometimes it’s so bad.

The Ugly: Even though Star Wars takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, the men all have Earth-style 1970s haircuts. The style isn’t really flattering on anyone, even the swoon-worthy rogue Han Solo. That was a bad call by the hair and makeup people.

Another thing that I find terrible is how hard it is to find the original 1977 theatrical version instead of the updated one released in the late 1990s. People should be able to have access to the movie that they fell in love with. My theory is that once an artist releases his work to the public, it belongs to the public as much as it belongs to the artist. Thanks to my awesome brother who was far-sighted enough to snap up the originals on DVD during the short time they were available, I was able to see the movie I grew up with (Thanks, Jon!). But even on those DVDs, the original movies are only on the bonus disc. They aren’t the main event. I would really like to see a beautifully restored edition of the original versions on DVD. (Are you listening, Disney? Or Fox? Or whoever owns the original movies? It would be a big money-maker. Lots of people would love you. Please?)

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best sound; best film editing; best effects, visual effects; best music, original score; special achievement award for Ben Burtt for sound effects for the creation of the alien, creature, and robot voices.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Alec Guinness); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

ETDirected by Steven Spielberg

Even though I am a child of the 1980s, I didn’t grow up with this movie. I’d seen it a few times, but not a lot. My mom didn’t approve of some of the language the kids used, which is fair. (For some reason, people in the ‘80s thought it was really funny for kids to use bad language. I’m so glad that phase of our society is mostly over.) It was interesting to go back and watch it as an adult with a different understanding. I felt like even though E.T. is about kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only for kids.

So what’s the story? A bunch of aliens come to Earth to collect plants. They are interrupted by a group of alien-hunters, who cut one alien off from being able to return to the ship. He is left behind when the ship takes off. He makes his way to the suburbs, where he is found by Elliott, an unhappy young boy. Elliott and the alien, whom he christens E.T., form an unshakable bond as Elliott tries to keep E.T. a secret from adults and help E.T. return home.

The Good: It’s scary to make a movie about children. Child actors can make or break a movie. The children in E.T. were breathtakingly good. Henry Thomas is completely convincing as Elliott. Little sister Gertie is played by Drew Barrymore; this is the only role of hers that I think she does a good job in. Robert MacNaughton is big brother Mike. He has a couple of rough patches acting-wise, but nothing terrible. The three kids truly act like a family. They squabble, they call each other names, the little sister can’t be trusted with secrets, and they pull together when they need to. They know they can depend on each other when it’s important. That’s what a family is.

Of course, this isn’t only due to the acting; the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, had a lot to do with that. Her screenplay is fantastic, even if she does occasionally have the kids say things that I don’t think they would say in real life. The story could have been bogged down in cheesiness, but the screenwriter managed to keep the movie balanced on the fine line between heartfelt and ridiculous. She also manages to give a sense of backstory without bogging down the movie, which can be another hard thing to balance.

John Williams’s musical score is glorious. I can’t get it out of my head, but I don’t mind too much because it’s so beautiful. Not only is it beautiful, it fits the movie perfectly. It doesn’t overwhelm the movie at all. Williams is a master at using the orchestra, too. The instruments he uses are always the right ones for his themes.

This movie is thirty-three years old, but the special effects hold up. My brother would say that that’s because they don’t use CGI, and I think that’s a good explanation. As CGI gets better and better, the older CGI things end up looking fake, where a well-done robot alien or the overlay of one shot over another to change the background will always look real. I was impressed.

The cinematography was exceptional, also. Part of the reason the adults are so threatening is that no adults (with the exception of Henry’s mother) have faces until close to the end of the movie. The first scene is especially effective because of this. It’s shown from E.T.’s point of view, and we see that he is an intelligent, but frightened, being trying to reunite with his people. It’s heartbreaking and scary all at the same time.

The Bad: Everything worked well, but it can be stressful to see these kids trying to keep E.T. a secret from the adult world. Kids in danger movies are hard for me sometimes, and in this case, while I completely understood the reasoning behind their actions, that didn’t stop me from wanting to step in and help them. I know that won’t bother everyone, though.

The aforementioned children-swearing thing did bug me. I was glad to know that Henry Thomas actually objected to some stronger language and pointed out that he would never say that, so his character shouldn’t, either. And it’s not so much the language I object to, although it’s not my favorite. I hear worse than that every day at work. It’s just that it makes everything feel less realistic for words like that to be coming out of a nine-year-old’s mouth.

The Ugly: I have to go with “nothing” for this one. E.T. is an incredibly well-made movie.

Oscars Won: Best sound; best effects, visual effects; best effects, sound effects editing; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best film editing.