Bittersweet Victory — Plan 9 from Outer Space

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Well, no film review website is complete without a review of this “gem”, so allow me to contribute one to the Silver Mirror.  Similar to my review of ‘Django’, there’s no point in reviewing this film seriously.  It’s cheap, it’s cliché, it’s meshing of gothic horror and science fiction feels awkward at best, and the story, if you’re determined enough to follow it, just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Yes, ‘Plan 9’ is a horrible movie, and its director, Edward D. Wood Jr., was a bad director; but you miss the point if that’s all you see.

Even as we mock and ridicule him, there is something to remember about Ed Wood before completing writing him off — he lived the dream.  Whether you can stand to watch his films or not, they are the hard-earned treasures for a man who fought against the studios and “won” (I use that term loosely.)

James and I can attest to this through our work in S&T Pictures: Even now, in a world of digital cameras and editing software, it’s not easy making movies.  They require time, money and resources; and for the silver screen that almost always means having to appeal to a studio, even if it’s just a small one, for funding and support.  And that’s not easy.  Studios, after all, are at least as interested in making a profit as they are in telling a story — often times more — and if you aren’t a big name, or your story doesn’t have enough commercial viability, you’re out of luck.  Heck, even being a big name won’t help you sometimes.  George Lucas, the man who almost single handedly reinvented Hollywood, was turned down by major studios for his film, ‘Red Tails’.  That shows you how unwilling most studios are to take the slightest risk.

This was the situation of Ed Wood.  The studios, even the independents, wouldn’t touch him.  His 1953 endeavor, ‘Glen or Glenda’ — a film of his that actually did have a separate producer — is bold, uncompromising and completely unwatchable.  It seemed to forever earn him hatred and distrust from studio Hollywood.

What was a man like Ed Wood to do?  Self-finance.  Sometimes he had to stoop pretty low to get money, but he got it, and he made his films.  Even if they’re considered the worst ever made, he did make them.  This is the American Dream, folks.  It’s not all glittery and made of gold, but it’s there and it works.

Sort of.

This brings us to ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, a film he supposedly made with funds from a church in Hollywood, promising them religious films with the profits from this one.*
The film’s premise of aliens resurrecting the earth’s dead (well, three people at least), combines sci-fi and horror mainly so that Ed Wood could continue to use actors he already knew and footage he had already shot.  Bela Lugosi of ‘Dracula’ fame, who had starred in two other Ed wood films, returns here as one of the resurrected dead, although this is really just pre-shot footage of him, done before his death in 1956 (three years prior to the film’s release).  Other actors include sexy television hostess Vampira, psychic Criswell and wrestler Tor Johnson.  It goes without saying, but none of these people, nor the “aliens” who look exactly like human beings, can act.  The footage of Lugosi, probably not amounting to more than three minutes (a double was used for the rest of the film), at least seems a little credible.  Lugosi had once been a good actor.

Should I talk about the effects?  It seems worth mentioning.  They are pretty bad, even by 1950’s standards.  Model spaceships fly on visible strings in front of obvious photos and paintings; the interiors of these space ships look like office buildings with giant radios sitting in the corner.  The graveyard set where the dead are resurrected is obviously fake, with plywood gravestones set on stands that are visible all too often.
The whole thing feels feigned and artificial, and believe me, it is bad.  But is it the worst? No.

Think about it: Ed Wood may have been a skilless director, but then again, his films were made on budgets of mere thousands and schedules of mere days.  He didn’t have the time for reshoots, nor the money for special effects. T hat he produced what he did given those limitations is actually sort of impressive.  Compare this to ‘The Room’, a film that far more deserves the title of worst movie ever made; if for no other reason than because Tommy Wiseau somehow sank six million dollars into it; and that movie didn’t even have any special effects.  Or compare ‘Plan 9’ to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie.  Can you honestly say that THAT movie makes any more sense than ‘Plan 9’ does?  That it’s any more watchable?  That it’s any less stupid, cliché?  And that movie had a budget of hundreds of millions.  Pound for pound, there are a good many movies that are better qualified to be called the worst ever.

Ed Wood was a man who was rejected by the system, fought back, and had something to show for it.  That he hung in there for as long as he did is commendable, even if his films are not.  Still, there’s a certain hilarious charm to them, and ‘Plan 9’ in particular.  So, if you can stomach it, you might just enjoy giving this one a go.

*The wondrous trust and gullibility of people before the Internet…

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

Revenge Of The Sith (Episode III)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  Big darn space tragedy.  It’s a been a long wait, and I’m satisfied.  Thanks, George.

Oh, yeah.  That's what this movie really needed.  Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Oh, yeah. That's what this movie really needed. Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Review: By the time the esteemed Mr. Lucas got around to unleashing the final produced installment in ‘Star Wars’, the Prequels already had a pretty mixed reputation among hardcore fans, for varying reasons. It’s safe to say you can’t please everyone, and the expectations were so high that it was all too easy for Lucas & Co to let the audience down. The biggest complaint I remember ringing in my ears, as a young ‘Star Wars’ nut, was not in regards to plot or character or even Jar Jar Binks; it was the lack of Darth Vader, arguably one of the greatest bad guys ever put to celluloid. After ‘The Phantom Menace’, I think people understood that George was going back and telling the origins of Vader specifically, and that would be the dominant story arc over the Prequels. In Episode II, when Hayden Christensen — who is not a bad actor — showed us an Anakin Skywalker that was less cool than we had expected, I think folks were just ticked and wanted their favorite helmeted villain back.

Unfortunately for the large population of the movie audience that wanted all the Vader they could get, Lucas had other things in mind, and we were just going to have to live with it. To the satisfaction of many, however, Episode III proved to be the best of the Prequels, making up for our disappointment pretty well. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is much better conceived and executed than its Prequel predecessors. It’s the most fun, the most emotional, and the most like the Original Trilogy.  It also provided me with an Eureka moment about Lucas, the Prequels, and really the entire saga.

Lucas is actually a whole lot more clever then people give him credit for.  The melodramatic hammy dialog of the Prequels is apparently by design.  I don’t have this confirmed exactly when it comes to the screenplay, but I do have a yes in regards to how the dialog is delivered on screen.  Considering that he had a major hand in writing all of the Original trilogy — especially Episode IV — I think it’s safe to say he does know the difference between good and bad dialog.  The huge effort creative effort he put into realizing the Prequels is indicative of his lack of laziness when it comes to ‘Star Wars’.  It appears to be that the melodrama is intentionally operatic and expresses a different kind of story than the Original trilogy did with its witty banter and frontier mentality.  Sometime during the production, didn’t any one of the very competent actors turn to George and give him the classic “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it”?  My impression is, they didn’t.  Lucas probably clued them in on what they were doing.  The Prequels are truly space opera; the Originals are space adventures enriched by space opera.

Episode III is very good.  It shows how well Lucas’ intentional “mistakes” work.  The exaggeration prevents the intense tragedy from punching us in the heart, but the tragedy still works phenomenally well, and reminds us that yes, Lucas does know how to write an effective, emotional story.  Even with a sad lack of suited Darth Vader, it feels like a fitting bridge to end the saga, and it has become my second favorite ‘Star Wars’ movie after Episode VI.

Philosophically, this is one of the richest of the saga.  Anakin’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader is predicated by the fear of loss.  We already know that “Fear is the path to the dark side!” According to Master Yoda, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate… leads to suffering.”  Yoda adds in Episode III, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side… Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”  This is closely related to Buddhist and Orthodox Christian philosophy.  In Orthodoxy, the triumph of Christ over death is paramount, and says that death itself is dead.  It’s unable to truly destroy any longer.  The fear of death and loss, then, is a perversion of the truth and is a path to suffering and evil.  To let go and trust God in the face of death is essential.  The next major theme is Darth Sidious’ rise to power and the creation of the evil Empire.  Lucas based its evolution on the creation of real dictatorships.  When a person is given power in time of crisis, what guarantees that they will let it go when the crisis has abated?  What happens when the leader created the crisis as a power grab?  History and the Prequels both testify that it is terrifyingly easy for a corrupt leader to engage in a Xanatos Gambit and twist their organization to their own ends.  Other themes also exist in the film, but I covered them in my review for Episode II.

I’m very glad the Prequels were made.  They’re highly imaginative and they really do feed into and enhance the awesomeness of the Originals.

Attack Of The Clones (Episode II)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Still plagued with problems similar to its mixed predecessor, ‘Clones’ shows us just a little more of what we wanted to see, and when it works, it works.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Review:  As the ‘Star Wars’ Prequels carried on, Lucas kept pushing technological innovation, enabling the crew to achieve a vision of the space opera that is much closer to Lucas’ original conception of it.  Circa 1974, Lucas had written a spectacular and veritably impossible-to-make film called ‘The Star Wars’, which included hundreds of elements that would show up in all of the final films.  The technology necessary to transfer this rough draft to the screen in a convincing manner wouldn’t exist until the early 2000s.  Along with its wild action and splendor came story elements, especially in the second Prequel, ‘Attack Of The Clones’.

The Jedi protagonists, Anakin and Obi-Wan, inherited the relationship between the “Jedi Bendu” master and apprentice in the original ‘The Star Wars’.  Their bickering, Anakin’s desire to be free of Obi-Wan’s wise restrictions, etc. are all there.  This works pretty well in the ’74 script, but seems kind of out of place in this film because Anakin and Obi-Wan have been master and padawan for about 12 years, while in the ’74 script the apprentice had been transferred from the tutelage of his dying father to this new master, and was bitter about it.  No such bitterness aught to be here.  This criticism aside, once again, the master-apprentice relationship is the strongest interplay of the movie.  The other relationships are somewhat lacking, or just bad.  In particular, and infamously, the romance between Anakin and Padme, which is pretty badly written.  The weakest aspect of Lucas’ original ’74 ‘The Star Wars’ draft was the dialog, and it comes back from the dead to torment the Prequels.

Thankfully, though, the technology had finally caught up with Lucas’ idea of what the action should look like and feel like.  The visceral scope and feel of the birth pangs of the Clone War are pretty spectacular.  Their main weakness is a lack of the warm character interplay familiar to the Original Trilogy.  Part of this weakness is again the dialog, especially in how the actors choose to deliver it.  It comes across as either stilted or overblown, most of the time, and the actors who seems most comfortable with the material and sound more convincing are Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Frank Oz (Yoda), and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).  These folks are good enough at their trade that performing against a soulless blue screen — a major drawback to the new tech — doesn’t hamper them too much, even when the writing lets them down.

The best part of the movie, the part worth seeing, is Obi-Wan’s travels across the galaxy to unravel the mystery of the Kaminoans and their clone army.  The action is much, much closer to the tight, visceral tone of the Original Trilogy in his scenes, and he’s a likable guy going up against a well-done enigma.

Philosophically, the film suffers a bit, because the romance is so trite (despite being of great importance to the story), the clone army isn’t examined in the ethical light that it should have been, and the Separatists bad guys are never given a sympathetic light that would have explored the degeneration of the Republic.  Nevertheless, I will do what I must.  I’ll try to dig in and infer things from the narrative.

The forbidden romance seems to be an attempt to explore the ancient struggle of love vs. duty, which also shows up in classic works like ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’.  Is following one’s feelings, especially love, more imperative than performing one’s previous high obligations?  A possible solution is to suggest that the particular duty be judged in a utilitarian manner, which, in addition to being hilariously ironic if you know anything about ethics, would allow a person to weigh the benefits of either path without a blind devotion to his duty, or his love.

The clone army is pitted against the Separatist’s mechanical army.  The clones, being human beings, can react rationally and creatively to any number of situations, despite being genetically altered to be obedient without question.  The droids are easily taken by surprise and require a great deal more control from their flesh-and-blood masters.  The clone army contrasts with the droids while shedding light on something more terrifying, something directly connected to the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire:  The blending of machines and mechanical principles with sentient beings, a kind of “Anti-Force”.  The clone army are created with mechanical manipulation, they eventually lead to the creation of the Empire (which dominates and manipulates people as if they were mechanical), and the Empire is also created with the help of Darth Vader, who is transformed into a person who is mostly machine.  The enemy droids themselves are just a part of the Sith gambit to capture the Republic.  To contrast with the Sith use of machines to manipulate life, Lucas holds up the pristine planet Naboo in the Prequels, and the planets Yavin, Endor, and Degobah in the Original Trilogy.  They each are tied to characters that represent biological communion with the Force and oppose the Empire, the Sith, and the perverse use of machines.  Here’s what I think Lucas is saying:  Biology and spirituality are symbiotic, but machines should never have this kind of relationship with biological beings.

The Separatists, an evolution of the villains from Episode I, are the great dupes of the Prequels.  They’re portrayed as unsympathetic and unjustified in their separation from Republic control.  The only time that a major character makes a statement that shows some understanding of their point-of-view is in Episode III.  The Separatists are basically greedy.  There’s no indication (in this film) that they have a good reason for waving goodbye to the Republic.  So, we’re never able to explore in greater detail the real underlying problems with the present system that Darth Sidious exploits.

I’m surprised I was able to get that much out of it.  This is a good movie, but it could’ve used a rewrite.

(Future me:  Actually, I had a chance to read the whole second draft of this movie, and was very impressed.  It dragged on at a couple points, but was overall much better than the final film.  Ironically, the rewrite might have hurt it this time, though it was probably necessitated by length.)

The Phantom Menace (Episode I)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Though suffering from lackluster characters and a plot that lacks common sense, ‘The Phantom Menace’ still manages to get back some of ol’ ‘Star Wars’ charm.

Such a great poster.  Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any film.

Such a great poster. Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any franchise.

Review:  I admit it.  I’m a sucker for ‘Star Wars’.  I’m a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, but I was also one of those people whose childhood was jazzed up considerably by the anticipation and experience of the new Prequels, and who then ungratefully proceeded to denounce them as inferior.  I think it’s totally fair to say that the Prequels are inferior, but in a stunning twist, I’ve finally made peace with my generation’s installments of the beloved space saga.  I don’t hate them anymore.  In fact, I like them.  A lot.  The trick is to recognize what exactly Lucas was going for.  It’s supposed to be his own kind of ‘Flash Gordon’ or ‘Buck Rogers’, not an airtight, gritty sci-fi movie along the lines of ‘Blade Runner’ or something.  These are family-oriented fantasy films, so ‘kiddy-ness’, in varying doses, is to be expected.  The bad writing is another issue, but we’ll tackle that film-by-film.

‘The Phantom Menace’, while a great, accessible sci-fi adventure in the same vein as the Original Trilogy, has one central weakness:  It lacks a strong dramatic train of thought.  The Originals all had their great focuses that fueled the action.  This first Prequel starts off with a pretty good pace and suspense, but this kind of erodes, only to return at the end of the film.  It gets bogged down.  The podrace sequence is pretty cool and dangerous, but should have been less of a detour.  It is necessary to the plot, but lacks the tightness and character impact that practically every moment has in ‘A New Hope’.  This signals the beginning of a problem that plagues all three Prequels, that of a sense of unpolished scripting that could’ve been fixed by a rewrite or two, or three.  Episode IV, by contrast, was practically overwritten, and was fully mature as a story.  It’s not that George Lucas is a bad storyteller, but I suspect that he was unwilling to replicate the painful process that created the Original Trilogy, which I can’t blame him for.

Anyway, nevertheless, the film is pretty strong.  Liam Neeson plays the best character in the piece, as Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon.  Actually, that master-apprentice relationship is the best written part of the movie, with a pretty good conclusion in their duel with Darth Maul.  Which segues me to the villains, the weakest aspect of the film, and of the Prequels in general.  Darth Maul makes an excellent Sith villain, mysterious, dangerous, and used like a potent seasoning.  The shadowy Darth Sidious, later the Emperor in the Originals, is great.  The problem is, they’re mostly in the background in this film, and the up-front bad guys — the Trade Federation — are pretty darn lame.  They are not intimidating in the least, and suck the urgency right out of the movie.

The other supporting characters are also pretty weak, especially the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks, who isn’t that bad, except for being slathered all over the movie like barbeque sauce.  Young Anakin and his mother, Shmi, are actually an exception to this rule.  They do pretty well — despite slowing the pace down far too much.

Philosophically, here’s my take on it.  An interesting — and very controversial  — addition to the Force mythos is the idea of a biological connection to it through “midi-chlorians”, apparently symbiotic creatures that live inside of everyone’s cells in differing concentrations.  There is some complaint that this saps the mysticism out of the Force/person relationship, but it can be argued that this was a pretty clever way of showing synchronicity between science and spiritually in ‘Star Wars’.  Because the midi-chlorian count in Anakin’s blood is the determining factor of his special identity, this shows that this new take on the Force is a subtle but central theme in ‘The Phantom Menace’.  Lucas has said that part of his motivation for making ‘Star Wars’ was to reintroduce a mythological and religious logic to youth of his generation.  Since he’s continued to be interested in educating young people, it may be that ‘The Phantom Menace’ includes this theme in order to combat a burgeoning anti-spirituality, embodied in “The new atheism” of my generation.  It certainly seems consistent with Lucas’ understanding of fantasy that transforms real paradigms.

The next major theme I want to cover is the titular threat, ‘The Phantom Menace’.  There are several interpretations of what this refers to, the most common — and possibly canon — guess being that it is Darth Sidious, the evil Sith pulling the strings to topple the Republic.  Or, I would suggest, it refers to Anakin Skywalker.  Lucas has stated that the story of ‘Star Wars’ is all about Anakin, and since this is the chronological first in the series, it would make sense to refer to the protagonist.  Yoda states, when young Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council, that he senses a dark and evil future for the boy, or, one could say, a phantom menace.  This nagging fear of Anakin’s evil fate will eventually swallow up the story of the Prequels, as it rightly should, so even though Darth Sidious becomes the mechanism by which Anakin is brought into his destiny, it’s reasonable to conclude that the phantom menace is Anakin himself.

Anyhow, this is actually a pretty good and fun ‘Star Wars’ movie.  It’s arguably the most kid-friendly (the intense climatic lightsaber duel notwithstanding).  Certainly, there’s no good reason to be bitter about it or condemn George Lucas to fanboy hell for “ruining your childhood”.

Classic Review: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Stars: ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  It is indeed a triumph of escapist entertainment, that cemented the ‘Indiana Jones’ legend.

This poster, like Led Zeppelin, gets me pumped.  I think I'll go out, and kick ass or something.

This poster, like Led Zeppelin, gets me pumped. I think I'll go out, and kick ass or something.

Review:  Back in the day, this installment of the Lucas/Spielberg adventure film series was the most controversial among fans.  Some people loved it for its guts (in the sense of gumption) and its gore (not in the sense of Al) and its rousing sense of catharsis.  Others hated it for its darkness, horror sequences, and its difference in style from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Of course, it has been retroactively absolved of its sins by the fan community at large since the release of the similarly controversial ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’.  Nevertheless, here’s where I stand in the argument.

The first thing that must be done in the viewer’s mind before experiencing ‘Temple of Doom’ is the realization of a simple fact: This film is not ‘Raiders’.  All four ‘Indiana Jones’ movies have their own rules, textures, and stories that distinguish them rather largely, even though they are (arguably loosely) connected by inner continuity.  The second thing is that the viewer must not go in unprepared for the film’s darkness.  I do sometimes wish they had stuck with the original title, ‘Temple of Death’, because the frankness and implications of it are more in line with the film’s tone.  The tone, however, is the film’s greatest cinematic weak point.  It swings very broadly from a zany sense of comedy-adventure akin to mainstream 1930s films of the same vein, and a bleak, horrific atmosphere more akin to horror films of the 1980s.  The clashing sensibilities of these two tones is what has made the film so controversial.

What the movie communicates, though, by contrasting the two, is Indy & Co’s journey into (basically) Hell and back.  The established lightness of the film gives the heroes something to go ‘back’ to once the conflict is over.  ‘Temple’ does take risks, but it takes them only so far.  If you’re prepared for what’s going to happen, the horror sequences, while disquieting, only serve as a backbone for Indy’s roaring rampage of revenge on the villainous Thuggee cult, which is what we’re hoping to see.  The bad guys nearly triumph, but the good guys do win in the end.  As a distinct story, this is what makes ‘Temple’ worth seeing: It’s an update of the classic myth of the hero’s journey into the underworld.  Though ‘Temple’ has Hindu sensibilities on account of its Indian setting, the story has a pronounced Christian flavor.  The notion of Christ’s decent into Hell to rescue the captives is, in a way, mirrored by Indy’s rescue of the slave children.  To quote St. Cyril’s words about Christ, ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.  In the same way, the only thing left in the devastated and emptied Temple of Doom is the lonely statue of Kali, with no one to worship it or satisfy a demonic blood lust.  There’s a purely human hope expressed in seeing the Hero return from Hell with a train of freed captives.  We have to believe that even the most horrible things that exist can be destroyed by a bond of love and nobility.

The controversial nature and timeless tone of ‘Temple’ cemented what ‘Raiders’ had begun.  Indy’s legacy was established, though the series now had the scent of smoke.