The 2020 sci-fi movie project continues! I’m watching all 50 movies listed in the cool book from Turner Classic Movies (TCM) called Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies that Are Out of This World by Sloan De Forest (Running Press, 2018; available at Amazon.com and Shop TCM). The complete list of 50 films is here.
Here’s the rundown of this month’s movies (with two of the four sections courtesy of my Instagram feed).
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Logan’s Run (1976)
Star Wars (1977)
One of my all time favorites (although I consider it more of a “space opera” than science fiction).
Evil Emperor Palpatine is back and our heroes embark on a big adventure to save the galaxy in Episode IX of the Star Wars Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The latest Star Wars film has a big task—not only is it the conclusion of this latest “sequel trilogy” of films (2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi), but it is also intended to serve as a conclusion to all eight of the episodes that preceded it. A tall order indeed.
As you may recall, the big baddie of the both the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) and the prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) is Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (played with ghoulish delight by actor Ian McDiarmid). It turns out that Emperor Palpatine followed his own counsel that he gave to a young and conflicted Anakin Skywalker in Episode III, in that the “dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural…” (including cheating death).
So, with Palpatine back in the picture, our new set of heroes—Jedi master-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), former stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), hotshot and hotheaded pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and rolling droid BB-8, joined by long-time favorite Star Wars characters Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels)—set off to find the location of the Emperor, take him out, and restore peace and order to the galaxy. On the darker side of the galaxy, the tempestuous and newly-ordained leader of the First Order Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) isn’t so happy that the Emperor is back in the picture and he sets out to find him, too.
As was explored in the last two episodes, Rey and Kylo Ren have an unique connection through the Force that continues in this story. Their relationship and their respective character arcs are probably the most interesting of the film and are definitely a representation of the key Star Wars themes of good vs. evil, light vs. dark (particularly within one’s self), and finding one’s path in the world.
The film is loaded with returning characters from the Star Wars universe, including General Leia (again played by Carrie Fisher using cut footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and beloved droid R2-D2. We also get to meet a few new characters, including First Order Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), Resistance fighter Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan), warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie), spice runner Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), and a cute little droid named D-O.
Overall, the film feels like an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure, not unlike Episodes IV and VI from the original Star Wars trilogy or the classic movies and serials that inspired George Lucas in the first place. It’s a big movie and there’s a lot to digest. I can’t say that I loved every creative decision that was made; however, I was grateful that the big questions posed in the previous two sequel trilogy films were answered to my satisfaction and things eventually all come together in a Star Wars-y kind of way.
Director J.J. Abrams and his signature style are very prevalent in the film which is a good thing. The production looks fantastic and the special effects are, again, second to none. I’m sure this film is going to get heaped upon with criticism, but, truly, the creative team had an impossible task to bring a conclusion to this series, let alone satisfy the large and diverse fan base. And although I’m still not convinced that the current team at Lucasfilm ever had a solid vision or a cohesive three-film strategy about what they wanted to accomplish with this sequel trilogy, it was their task, not mine.
The ending of this film series is bittersweet. I’ve loved spending time with these characters new and old and have been entertained and inspired with the storytelling, artistry, and filmmaking for most of my life. It will be exciting to see what is ahead for new stories and adventures within the expansive Star Wars galaxy. (The Mandalorian TV series on Disney+ is a great start.) I’m full of, dare I say, hope.
In preparation for the upcoming release of Episode IX of the Star Wars Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I recently re-watched all eight films. Here’s my journey via my social media feeds. Enjoy.
Also of note, I watched all three prequel films on Blu-ray with the director/filmmaker commentary track, which was a godsend.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is a gangster/action movie hybrid that is just pure, unadulterated fun.
The second of Lucasfilm’s “anthology” series of films set in the Star Wars universe but not part of the saga’s episodic storyline (2016’s Rogue One was the first one of these anthology films), Solo is an origin story of sorts, recounting adventures in the early years of the life of the smuggler Han Solo.
The daunting task of playing the beloved character iconically established in the series by actor Harrison Ford goes to Alden Ehrenreich and he does a terrific job in not only emulating Harrison Ford, but in making the character all his own. Check out this clip when Harrison Ford recently crashed in on one of Alden Ehrenreich’s press interviews:
Han’s co-pilot and BFF Chewbacca is also, thankfully, in the pic and is played again by the extremely tall Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo (follow Joonas on Twitter to see some hilarious pics of him overshadowing, well, most everybody). Also returning for this origin story is gambler and playboy Lando Calrissian brilliantly played by the brilliant Donald Glover.
The film has a slew of new characters, too–both digitally created and real. In the digital category is Lando’s sidekick robot L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and an alien pilot named Rio Durant, voiced by Jon Favreau.
In the real category, the main cast is filled out with some very cool actors, including Woody Harrelson as Han’s mentor Tobias Beckett, Thandie Newton as Beckett’s partner in crime Val, Emilia Clarke as the femme fatale Qi’ra (pronounced “Kira”), and Paul Bettany as crime lord Dryden Vos.
The film is set in between Star Wars – Episode III : Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope (sorry about the timeline error in my original post). At the beginning, we meet a young Han Solo who is trapped in a horrible work camp on the planet of Corellia. He decides to break out and join the evil Galactic Empire so he can become a pilot (and for that reason alone; he hasn’t jumped teams, he’s just looking out for himself). While as a soldier in the Empire, he teams up with criminals Beckett, Val, and Rio on a smuggling mission which then sets his course into becoming the Han Solo that we know and love.
As mentioned previously, the film really is a glorious combo of a gangster movie (some are calling it a Western, and that works, too) along with a deliriously entertaining action movie. The action scenes truly are breathtaking (just wait for the infamous Kessel Run as mentioned in Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope). And the film’s plot is both clever and comfortable, staying interesting while also staying firmly planted within the Star Wars mythology. Kudos are in order to the great Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan who wrote the terrific script.
Director Ron Howard, who was brought on the film late into the process after the film’s original directors were fired due to creative differences, delivers a home run. While it’s unclear to those of us outside of Lucasfilm what scenes were reshot after Howard took over the director’s chair, he was still able to deliver a supremely entertaining and very Star Wars-feeling summer movie (and he brought the movie in on time, too, which I think was a Herculean feat). And it goes without saying that all technical aspects of the film are absolutely marvelous, thanks to the technical wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, a group that I hope we will never take for granted.
Overall, Solo is an extremely entertaining romp through the Star Wars universe. It’s so much fun to have new big screen experiences like this in the galaxy far, far away. Get some popcorn and a soft drink of your choice and go have a wonderful time at the movies.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of the Star Wars saga that began with George Lucas’ original film from 1977, hit theaters last week. The internet has been abuzz about the movie (to say the least; more on that at the end of the review). More importantly, the world has another Star Wars film to enjoy, dissect, and ponder upon. The fact that in 2017 we have yet another all-new Star Wars movie in theaters is a modern-day miracle which I definitely do not take for granted.
The new film begins right where 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (aka Episode VII) left off. The evil First Order is still ruling the galaxy with an ever tighter grip, even after their Starkiller Base was destroyed by the Resistance fighters. Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) has been tasked by General Leia (in the late Carrie Fisher’s final time in the role) to go to the ancient Jedi temple on the planet of Ahch-To where her brother Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) has been in hiding for years to try to recruit him back into the fight and restore hope to the Resistance. As we saw in The Force Awakens, Rey arrives on the island, hands Luke his family lightsaber, and awaits for his response.
What follows is an unconventional, thought-provoking, emotional, surprising, and highly entertaining cinematic adventure. Writer and director Rian Johnson (and, clearly, the story group at Lucasfilm) made some bold and controversial choices for the film’s narrative and for all of Star Wars moving forward. And, frankly, as the stewards of the Star Wars universe, the choices were theirs to make.
First, the decision to portray Luke Skywalker as a broken, bitter man was an unorthodox one. Devastated that his nephew Ben Solo (played by Adam Driver) turned to the dark side of the Force while under his tutelage, Luke carries a burden that completely shuts him down. He retreats from the Force and from life, existing in a state of numbness. When Rey shows up and basically wakes him up out of his deeply depressive condition, Luke has some decisions to make. Should he return to his sister Leia’s side and to the Resistance? Should he train Rey in the ways of the Jedi? Or should he continue on his current path of nothingness?
It’s difficult to watch your fictional childhood heroes go through a painful, and very human-like, trial. Yet, by making Luke more human, he ultimately becomes more heroic. After Luke re-opens himself to the Force, his Jedi master Yoda (again voiced by Frank Oz, and in puppet form!) visits him as a Force ghost and, in his inimitable style, frees Luke of the burden he’s been carrying. The burning of the Jedi tree and library looked to me like a representation of the Resistance symbol and, more importantly, of a Phoenix rising.
Next, the “wars” part of Star Wars is in full force, so to speak, as the Resistance continues their losing battle against the First Order. After General Leia gets severely injured, Vice Admiral Holdo (played by Laura Dern) takes her place. Hot-shot (and hot-headed) pilot Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) clashes with her on how to run things. When it’s discovered that the First Order can track the Resistance fleet through light speed, Poe secretly sends former stormtrooper Finn (played by John Boyega) and Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) on a dangerous mission to disable the tracker.
This subplot with Finn and Rose was also an interesting decision. While some (myself included, initially) might view this as a waste of time and space, upon further reflection, I believe this part of the storyline was crucial in Finn’s character arc of figuring out how he fits in to the overall picture of the Resistance. It helps him solidify what he believes in and what’s he willing to sacrifice for it. When the mysterious DJ (played by Benicio Del Toro), a rogue that Finn and Rose meet on the casino planet Canto Bight, teaches Finn about the complications of war and how both sides are buying weapons and machinery from the same people, Finn’s eyes are opened and he is able to make a more informed decision about how he wants to live his life.
The most dynamic and interesting relationship in the film is between Ben Solo/Kylo Ren and Rey. Both characters are on parallel paths with different destinations. Kylo has chosen the path of the dark side of Force, while Rey continues to be a ray of light. When Supreme Leader Snoke (played in performance capture by Andy Serkis) uses the Force to bring the two of them together in multiple conversations and interactions during the course of the film, the chemistry between them is electric. The story effectively gives both characters the chance to switch alliances, so to speak, in a compelling way that furthers the storyline and shows what Rey and Kylo are truly made of. (And get ready for one of the coolest fight scenes in any Star Wars film when Rey and Kylo join forces for a moment to fight against Snoke’s Praetorian Guards.)
For me, The Last Jedi was a continual wonder. The plot and decisions were logical yet unpredictable. The production design, art direction, and all special effects were top notch. If I have a complaint, the runtime of The Last Jedi was perhaps just a bit too long.
About the internet backlash surrounding the film, the New York Times has a nice summary about what’s been going on. I’m sorry that something as marvelous and miraculous as a new Star Wars movie has made people so angry and sad. I mostly just wish that people could evaluate something on its own merits rather than putting their individual expectations on something that they had no input in creating. And I wish for civility and decency in all online communications from all sides and from all viewpoints (myself included).
Go see The Last Jedi on the biggest screen possible, leave your preconceived notions at the door, and enjoy the ride.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Bonus Posters! Here are three fantastic posters for Star Wars: The Last Jedi designed by Japanese artist Kaz Oomori for PosterPosse.com.