James Rolfe: In the history of cinema I can't think of any franchise celebrated as much as "Star Wars". It's more of a phenomenon than I can even begin to recap. It seems everyone's seen these movies at a young age and they leave a big impression in our minds. There's an overwhelming abundance of fan films and parodies.
(Clip from "Spaceballs" where Dark Helmet struggles to breathe under his Darth Vader-like mask)
Dark Helmet: I can't breathe in this thing!
James: People like to discuss these movies in great detail. People talk about the characters, the weapons, the vehicles, the planets. It all takes a life of its own that expands well beyond the six films it encompasses. Fans pick the movies apart in every detail. You could probably have a 2-hour conversation about that tree in the background. [referring to a random tree in the forest of Endor]
So what can I say about "Star Wars"? Is there anything that hasn't been said? Well, I feel the only thing I can offer is my own personal impression and try to explain what makes these movies so important to me. I'm not gonna talk about the "Holiday Special" or any of the animated epics and I know a lot of you might be disappointed by that, but you gotta understand I'm only talking about the six feature films and not every series and spinoff that comes along with it.
The original trilogy
Well, my story begins in 1983. You know that annoying little kid in the movie theater who cries and screams? Well, I was one of those kids. My parents took me to the movies all the time. Two movies I saw that year was "Return of the Jedi" and "Mr. Mom" – but I think "Return of the Jedi" was much more cool. Though my memory is pretty vague I can still see the image of Luke and Wader's lightsaber duel on the big screen. It was loud, it was larger than life and it made a permanent impression on me forever.
Throughout the 80's I saw the trilogy on VHS and television many times growing up. I didn't always pay attention to the story. I didn't know why they had to go to the planet Endor, I didn't know why Luke had to find Yoda – at the time, all I cared about was how amazing it was. I'll always remember the bar scene from the first movie. Never before have I seen so many imaginative characters, some of them which only appear for brief moments. In "The Empire Strikes Back" I'll always remember the battle of Hoth. The Walkers are still spectacular. In "Return of the Jedi" I'll always remember the speeder bike chase in the woods. When they pass in the distance, that sound effect they make always lingered in my mind. Even small things were memorable, like that frog outside of Jabba's palace. I always loved how distinct the three movies were from each other, each with their own landscapes. The first one made me think of desert, the second made me think of snow and the third made me think of the woods.
In the 80's often they aired a special documentary about how they did the special effects. It was cool to see how creative they were, how everything was all miniatures, the puppets, the animatronics... Even the sound effects were all done using really creative, organic means. It sparked my imagination and it made me interested in filmmaking.
But once the three movies settled in I asked my dad "Why isn't there a fourth movie?" and he said "There just isn't". So, waiting for the next film, I finally thought: "Well, it's not gonna happen". So I slowly lost interest in "Star Wars" and moved on to other things. By the time I reached my teenage years I was kind of a film snob and I went through a bit of an anti-"Star Wars" phase. I didn't understand why people still talked about those movies so much. There were a lot of silly moments that stuck out in my head, mostly from "Return of the Jedi". The stupid-looking blue elephant thing, the guy with the dick around his neck, Admiral Ackbar who I like to call 'Captain Fishhead'. There were just a lot of weird characters. Perhaps I felt it was a kids thing and I grew out of it. But another thing that may have attributed to my brief disinterest in "Star Wars" was how unoriginal the movies seemed to me at the time. It's true that George Lucas was influenced by several films, but that's only what makes the movies so great. </p>
In 1995 the pre-special edition trilogy was re-released on VHS for the last time. This is when I saw the movies again and realized how amazing they really were. From a more mature perspective I was able to understand how it paid tribute to movies of the past. The "Flash Gordon" serials are the prime example, right from the opening title scroll; that's exactly where it came from. Even Cloud City was from "Flash Gordon" and all the wipe-transitions. And the whole idea of the serial was that it happened in episodes – it was all part of one larger story. "Star Wars" sort of picked up with the same idea. The way the first movie begins it puts you right into the action to make you feel like there's a lot of backstory that you missed. That's how it was in the 30's and 40's; you'd go to see a movie and before the feature presentation you might see an episode of "Flash Gordon". But unless you went to the movies all the time you're probably going to only see a few episodes – that's how it was. But no matter what you were always able to get right into the story.
And let's not forget "Metropolis", one of the most famous science fiction films of all time. It was one of the first to create a separate reality the way it did – a world run by technology. The robot Metropolis bears a close resemblance to C-3PO. The Walkers of course are very much like martian war machines in the H.G. Wells novel "War of the Worlds".
It also reminds me of "Wizard of Oz". I can't help but feel that C-3PO is the Tin Man and Chewbacca's the Cowardly Lion. The way they meet all these different characters as they go along their journey – it's classic. The jawas are like the munchkins, the hologram of the Emperor is like the hologram of the Wizard. Yoda and Obi-Wan disappear when they die, so does the Wicked Witch. When they disguise themselves as stormtroopers is like when they disguise themselves as the witch's soldiers.
There's of course many references to the Kurosawa films, most notably "The Hidden Fortress". It's about a princess leading a gang of rebels against an evil empire. It tells the story from the point of view of two humble characters the same way as R2-D2 and C-3PO. We have samurais whereas in "Star Wars" we have Jedis. We can't help but make the connection between lightsabers and swords. The severing of arms is also something you'd see in a samurai film.
There's also a lot of references to western films. The bar scene in Mos Eisley is right out of any given classic western. "The Searchers" is one that gets brought up a lot. The scene where Luke's home gets raided and his family burned; that's the same thing that happens in "Searchers".
There's also a lot of references to horror films. The casting of Peter Cushing alongside David Prowse as Vader I feel is no coincidence. In "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell" Cushing was Dr. Frankenstein and Prowse was the monster. But also it's worthy to mention that Peter Cushing often played Dr. Van Helsing in Hammer's "Dracula"-series. And Christopher Lee who played Dracula is now Count Dooku – no coincidence. Even Darth Vader rising from the slab is a scene right out of "Frankenstein". And you can't help but feel Vader's cape comes from "Dracula".
Dracula (1931 version): I am Dracula.
James: And notice how the titles are all inspired by B-movies, especially the new ones like "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith". There's this old serial called "The Phantom Creeps" starring Bela Lugosi. The name of the first episode is "The Menacing Power". Hmmmm, 'Phantom'? Hmmmm, 'Menace'? The characters are all famous archetypes. Luke is the classic hero, Obi-Wan is the classic mentor, much like Frodo and Gandalf from "Lord of the Rings" or King Arthur and Merlin from "Sword in the Stone".
But there's so much more to it. I've barely scratched the surface. And it's not like nobody knows about this. There's a wealth of information on Star Wars influences all over the Internet. But the fact that "Star Wars" takes old ideas and makes them into something new shows how ingenious it really is. It's not like it's plagiarizing, it's just that all ideas in general come from somewhere. It pays tribute to all these old movies, literature, folklore, mythology and ultimately reflects our culture. It perfectly blends science fiction and fantasy. The science fiction element is obvious; it deals with technology and things that could possibly exist. But the fantasy element comes into play with the Force for example. It's a less technological thing and more of a magical one. Of course they had to ruin that in "The Phantom Menace" with the biological explanation of how the Force works.
It funny how many people think "Star Wars" takes place in the future even though the beginning clearly says: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." – it's a fairytale. But it's also interesting to think how history repeats itself. Lucas said he based the Emperor off of historical figures from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler. He said: "You start out in a democracy and democracy turns into a dictatorship and then the rebels make it back into a democracy". So it's like there's always gonna be rebels. It's like a cycle. This also applies to the character arc of Anakin Skywalker. He's a tragic hero and his son Luke begins to follow the same footsteps, doomed to take the same path. It's like a cycle again.
It takes classic science fiction, Japanese culture, western culture, biblical references and retells them all at the same time. It's every epic story ever told rolled into one. The common audience doesn't notice this but it all seems so familiar in your head and that's why I think these movies have such a powerful appeal. "Star Wars" is more than just movies – it's everything! It's the force that binds us.
Yoda (while slapping R2-D2): Mine, mine, mine! Huehehehehe...
– PART 2 –
James Rolfe: I have to say I'm reluctant to talk about the new "Star Wars" movies. I already explained what the original trilogy meant to me and to the art of filmmaking in general. I feel like I should stop right there and leave well enough alone. But I know a lot of you might be wondering what I think of the newer "Star Wars" and the changes done to the original trilogy, so I might as well. Like I said, the first three films that were made were all solid A+ pictures; 10/10, five stars out of five, whatever... They held a place in our hearts for so long. It was real exciting when the news came that there was gonna be a theatrical re-release of all three films plus three all-new prequels. </p>
Star Wars 4, 5 & 6 re-release
The original trilogy hit theaters again in 1997. Wow! The joy of seeing these movies up on the big screen was something I thought I'd never have the chance to experience. During "Return of the Jedi" I almost flashed back to my youth seeing it 14 years ago. But of course these were the special editions with new enhancements. This wasn't the first time changes were made to the films. In fact, every time they've ever been released, there's always been minor changes. For example the opening title-scroll of the first movie didn't originally say "Episode IV", that was added in later.
But in the new special editions there were a lot of major changes. A lot of digital effects were added, which I thought were interesting to see, at first, but I prefer the original unaltered films because the digital effects just look synthetic to me. They clash with the organic effects that characterize the rest of the films. It's so obvious when there's a new scene added in – it sticks out like a sore thumb. All these added scenes in Mos Eisley have no purpose. I know they're supposed to make the town seem busier, but I feel that they add nothing to the film.
The only part I really liked was the Jabba scene because it was a missing part of the story and to see it put back in felt more complete. And it was just nice to see old footage of Harrison Ford I never knew existed. It was like stepping into a time warp. The only thing I wished was that they could have somehow gotten Jabba to look more like the way he did in "Return of the Jedi". Because when there's really something in front of the camera you believe it, but here he's just a digital image that exists inside a computer. In the 2004 DVD version they fixed up the texture a little more – he looks okay.
Now, uh-oh! Warning, controversial moment!! Of all the changes they made to the whole trilogy, the one that seems to cause the most fuss was a moment that only lasted a fraction of a second. This, of course, is all about who shot first; Han or Greedo. Well, it's plain and simple. Not only does Han shoot first – he's the only one to shoot!
(Clip from the original 1977 cantina scene)
Greedo: (subtitled) I've been looking forward to this for a long time.
Han Solo: Yes, I bet you have.
(Greedo gets shot by Han)
James: It's like a classic western. In fact it comes directly from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Just watch.
(Clip from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" where Tuco, while taking a bubble bath, is confronted by the One Armed Man)
One Armed Man: Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. And I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left...
(Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam)
James: And check out this scene from "A Fistful of Dollars".
(Clip from "A Fistful of Dollars" where Blondie wins a duel with his .45 against a man with a rifle)
James: Yeah, the good guy has to shoot first. But in the special edition Greedo does.
(Clip from the 1997 special edition, where Han Solo casually dodges Greedo's shot slightly before shooting him)
James: I thought it was hilarious how Han's head digitally shifts to the side. Like, wow, it looks terrible! And it's also pretty impressive how casually he dodges a blast from such a close range. In the 2004 DVD version it was changed again – this time making them shoot almost the same time, but still Greedo shoots first.
(Clip from the 2004 DVD version)
James: Of course Lucas' reasoning was that he didn't want Han to seem like a heartless killer and that he wouldn't be a good role-model for kids or something-- But I don't think it's about that, I think it's about being smart.
Tuco (from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"): When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
James: Couldn't have said it better...
But I think the worst of the new scenes by far is the dance scene in "Return of the Jedi". Seeing all the new digital creatures dancing and singing into the camera, I don't care for it.
The 2004 DVD versions made some other changes just for the sake of consistency. But the most striking to me is that the end of "Return of the Jedi" with Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan; Lucas felt the need to replace the actor who played Anakin, Sebastian Shaw – now it's Hayden Christensen. I always felt it should have been the older Anakin. I know the logic is that he reverts to the way he was before he turned to the dark side, but didn't he turn back just before he died? And I also think it makes it even more inconsistent by having two actors play Anakin in the same film. But of course I am aware there were slight changes made to Anakin's face during the unmasking scene.
The other thing I find really unsettling is the addition of Jar Jar Binks. Sure he's far in the background, but you can even hear his voice.
Jar Jar Binks (on top of a building, highlighted): Weesa free!
James: Think about this for a moment: Jar Jar Binks is now in "Return of the Jedi"...
Jar Jar Binks: Meesa Jar Jar Binks.
James: That is unbelievable... George Lucas says "Films are never finished – they're abandoned", which only raises the question "How many times are these movies going to be changed?".
Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
James: Well, I better start talking about the new movies or else I'll never get done. "Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" – I was really excited to see this. After waiting 16 years to see a new "Star Wars" movie I thought this was going to be just as good as the originals. Why else would it have taken so long?
I went to see the movie with a bunch of friends. The title screen came up, everybody applauded. It felt like time never passed. Like, "Wow, holy shit! We're watching a new "Star Wars" movie." Then the opening scroll came up and it was about as exciting as reading a history book... I mean, come on!? 'Taxation', 'Trade Federation'?! Those aren't the kind of words you wanna hear. What followed was 2 hours of eye-candy. Every single shot seemed to have some kind of digital effect. After my friends and I walked out of the movie we were just like "Eh, it was good, I guess..." I couldn't even remember the plot. I remember the pod-race – that was okay. And the lightsaber battle with Darth Maul was pretty cool. I really wanted to love this movie, but somehow it fell flat. I felt I got myself too hyped and had unreasonable expectations.
So I went to see it again, this time by myself. I just sat back, accepted what I saw and just tried to appreciate it for what it was. But, again, I felt something was lacking. I just put it out of my mind and figured that it needed some time to grow on me. Well, it's been 10 years and this movie still sucks the big one!
Jar Jar Binks: Uh huh!
James: It seems to me it put special effects before story and the effects themselves have no charm. It all looks like a cutscene from a video game. The effects in the classic trilogy were so awesome to look at. With those you know that all the creatures were actual physical things that were made to perform in front of the camera. There was a lot of mystery. It still makes me wonder how they did a lot of that stuff. But with the new ones you just know it was all done with a computer. I didn't care for the story and I know it had to set the groundwork for the rest of the series, but I just didn't feel "Episode 1" needed to start where it did. Sure, maybe it was cute seeing C-3PO meet R2-D2 for the first time, but for a prequel to one of the most awesome film series, it didn't tell me anything I cared to know. The characters were boring; Anakin just didn't do it for me.
Anakin (as he flies a spacecraft): This is tense!
James: Yeah, we all know he's gonna be Darth Wader. Get on with it.. Obi-Wan was alright, Qui-Gon was just there – didn't have anything interesting to say or do, Darth Maul was useless, Jar Jar was the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life. A lot of people feel the same and I don't need to kick a dead horse, but there it is; "Episode 1" I can do without.
Star Wars – Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
James: "Episode 2: Attack of the Clones" – This one was okay. Christopher Lee was in it; that alone makes it worthwhile. The love scenes between Anakin and Padmé were cliché and all the dramatic elements were pretty dull.
Anakin: Here everything is soft... and smooth.
James: But the action scenes were pretty good. The highlight was seeing Yoda kick some ass. Other than that I really don't have much to say about this one. It was entertaining but nothing special. So there you go; shortest review ever.
Star Wars – Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith
James: "Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith" – This one was pretty damn good. I was surprised. It redeemed the whole prequel-trilogy. It was as if Lucas had two strikes and then a home run. Sure there are some things to nitpick, like some of the dialogue.
Anakin: You're so... beautiful.
Padmé: It's only because I'm so in love.
Anakin: No. No, it's because I'm so in love with you.
James: But this one's got it where it counts. There's a lot of action but this time it compliments the story. The battle between Obi-Wan and General Grievous, the duel between Yoda and the Emperor and the final lightsaber battle with Obi-Wan and Darth Vader were all riveting. Each scene felt important rather than just flashy effects for the mere spectacle of it. This time I just cared more of what was going on. I was hoping for more scenes with Darth Vader in the costume. After all he's one of the best villains in the history of film. It was great just to see him at all and voiced again by James Earl Jones. Unfortunately they didn't give him many lines.
Darth Vader: NO!!
James: We waited like 20 years just to hear him say that?! But Ian McDiarmid is the one who steals the show. He's so creepy you can't take your eyes off him. What makes a good villain is something I can't answer, but I know it when I see it.
As a prequel it was more satisfying than I could have possibly expected. I like how dark it gets at the end and how it segways into "Episode 4", which now we can fully grasp why it's called "A New Hope". It was great to have that Star Wars feeling one more time and for it to tie so nicely with the original trilogy.
James: Children growing up today now have six "Star Wars" films to watch, which makes me wonder what the younger generations are gonna think. "Episode 1" will no longer have the hype it once had, which means new audiences will have a fresh new look and may even like it. Speaking of which, does it mean they'll watch "Episode 1" first? If you're a mom or a dad have you thought about how you wanna expose these movies to your kids? Will you show them in chronological order or the order they were made? Will you show them the special editions first or the original unaltered trilogy? Will you let them see it their own way or the way you first saw them?
For audiences in 1980 seeing "The Empire Strikes Back" for the first time it was a complete shock to find out Darth Vader was Luke's father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No, I am your father.
James: That was one of the greatest movie twists of all time. But today's audiences have a completely different perspective. If you saw episodes 4 through 6 first it makes Vader out to be a badass villain and in the end it was more powerful, to me, to see him turn good. But now, seeing how the first three episodes focus on Anakin, it makes him out to be more tragic.
Either way, future generations are gonna have completely different point of views. And that's the same way that "Star Wars" took classic stories that had been retold through the ages. It started before any of us can remember and it'll go on till the end of time.
May the Force be with you – always.