Star Wars original trilogy re-review

I recently watched the original Star Wars trilogy again and while I’ve seen all three movies multiple times before, I’ve never watched them back-to-back. How do they hold up to the grumpy, world-weary version of me in 2024 vs. the kid who marvelled to Star Wars in 1977? Let’s find out!

NOTE: I watched on Disney+, so these are the special editions. I’ll have more on that aspect of the movies in each review.

First, here’s how I rank the movies, in order and on a scale of 1 to 5 Ewoks shouting “Yub yub!”:

  1. The Empire Strikes Back (4.5 Ewoks)
  2. A New Hope (4 Ewoks)
  3. Return of the Jedi (3.75 Ewoks)

And in chronological order:

Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

This is a bit of a weird movie, because it feels like Lucas was still deciding how the characters should behave, so Luke starts out super whiny, then seems to settle down. Leia has a British accent that slowly goes away, maybe after Lucas decided all the bad guys should be British. Also, the light saber duel between Kenobi and Vader (spoiler!) is stiff and perfunctory. A light saber duel should never be perfunctory. This is corrected in all other Star Warts movies.

Still, there’s so much to like here. John Williams’ score, right from the opening fanfare, lifts so much of the movie beyond what Lucas shot. There’s a moment where Luke walks out to watch the twin suns of Tatooine setting. He stands with a hand propped on one knee, a gentle breeze riffling his hair, the glow of the suns washing over his face and the score swells, then fades, perfectly capturing Luke contemplating his life and if there’s anything more for him (hint: there is).

The lived-in look of everything here–the homes, bars, the ships, grounds the more fantastic elements. And those fantastic elements are at turns creepy (sand people), delightful (the jawas) and just weird (the cantina scene). There’s humour, derring-do, plenty of action and the good guys win. Really, what more could you want?

I am raising my own hand here. I know, I know! What you could want is a remastered version of the original print, because almost everything Lucas added or changed for the special edition is unnecessary or actively terrible. The worst list:

  • Greedo shooting first. The fact they that have tweaked this multiple times since shows how dumb a change it was.
  • Adding back the Jabba the Hutt scene with a crappy-looking CGI Jabba. Because the scene was cut, some of its dialogue was moved to the scene between Han and Greedo. So you end up with literal dialogue duplication. So bad.
  • Every bit of business added in the Mos Eisley street scenes, most of which seem to be designed to delight five-year-olds and annoy anyone else.

Adding the scene between Biggs and Luke was a nice touch, but I’d still have nixed it if it meant getting rid of all the other junk Lucas put in.

Overall, though, this is a terrific popcorn movie, elevated by effects that hold up surprisingly well, a rousing score and an appealing cast.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

This is a better film than Star Wars for a couple of reasons:

  • The script is smarter.
  • The actors are more comfortable in their roles.
  • The story is pretty good–being the middle part, there’s lots of drama as the rebels get pushed back by the Empire.
  • The effects and action scenes are well-executed and mostly still hold up.
  • Taun tauns!
  • Imperial walkers are cool. Don’t think about them logically. They are COOL.
  • Irvin Kershner is a better director than Lucas.
  • The light saber duel between Luke and Vader (spoilers!) is great and far more dynamic than the “wave sticks around while standing still” battle in the first movie.

Also notable is the special edition of Empire only tweaks a few things, the most notable being an additional shot of the snow beast eating before it decides to go chow down on Luke, suspended upside-down in its ice lair. I can see the argument that showing more of the monster lessens its menace and agree, but overall I am neutral to the addition. Kershner died in 2010 at the age of 87, so unlike Richard Marquand (director of Return of the Jedi), he was still very much alive when the special editions came out. I suspect Lucas used a lighter touch in deference to him.

While the nature of Empire is such that you can’t really recommend it for “if you’re only going to watch just one Star Wars movie”, it is definitely a great choice if you get the urge to revisit any of the original trilogy.

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Luke’s hair is shorter and neater, as befits a Jedi.

This is often placed third in rankings of the original trilogy and it’s easy to see why. But it’s still a good movie!

First, let me say this up front: The Ewoks are fine. Yes, they are cute, but they’re also weird, with their creepy big eyes and desire to eat our heroes when they first meet them. And yes, it’s hokey that they use literal sticks and stones against Imperial troops, but watch the battle scenes, and it’s made clear that a lot of their tactics are ineffective, while some work really well. They’re fine.

In retrospect, it’s a bit odd, perhaps, that they devoted the first act entirely to the rescue of Han Solo. It’s kind of a prologue for the rest of the movie. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as it gives the writers a chance to show off the characters in a different kind of action–all stealthy and sneaky. It’s also the kind of thing none of the new movies would have ever done. Characters over action? Never!

And while the third act is largely devoted to a retread of the original–take out the Death Star–it makes sense that the Empire would build another one, this time with better defenses. So I’m good with that. And having it be a) under construction makes for neat scenes inside its superstructure and b) allows for the surprise twist of “Oh yeah, we totes have the cannon ready to go, rebels!”

The speeder bike scenes on Endor remain highly entertaining.

The scenes between Vader, the Emperor and Luke are great. The duels between Vader and Luke (spoiler!) nicely demonstrate the growth of Luke into a full Jedi.

My biggest nitpick, apart from the special edition changes (see below), is that Han Solo’s character is just…off. Ford gives a weird, hammy performance, and I’m not sure if it’s him, the director, the script (which is not as sharp as Empire’s) or some combination of the three. He’s not terrible, but he was far better in Empire. A strange regression.

Overall, it’s a fun and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The good guys win. Again!

But those special edition changes…

The reworked number in Jabba’s palace is terrible. The song is worse, the new character is a stupid-looking Muppet-like1I’m not dissing on Muppets. I love Muppets, but this one literally looked like it belonged on The Muppet Show, not in a Star Wars movie. thing that looks totally out of place and mugs, bafflingly, to the camera. Absolute garbage. Again, it seems like Lucas was aiming this directly at pre-school children for some reason.

Having Vader shout “No!” (twice!) while watching the Emperor zap Luke actually takes away from the moment, making it ham-fisted in typical Lucas style. We can see what’s happening. Vader literally turns his head back and forth between Luke and the Emperor before deciding to toss Ol’ Wrinkly Face down the tube. It doesn’t need to be further telegraphed. Unless you’re George Lucas.

The infamous “Yub yub” Ewok number at the end is also changed to something more prim and proper, and scenes of people celebrating on Naboo, Coruscant and Bespin are added (if you haven’t seen the prequel trilogy, these shots will be somewhat baffling as Naboo and Coruscant are not seen or mentioned in the original trilogy). Also, the old song had a choir that reached a crescendo just as the camera focuses on the gang posing for a group photo, leading directly into the credits, and it just kind of gives you goose bumps. The new song doesn’t really do this.

Lucas’ meddling can’t ruin the film, though, so it remains a somewhat flawed but still satisfying conclusion to the original saga.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture re-review

You’ll be seeing a lot of this ship.

I rewatched Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the first time in a while, catching it on Paramount+ (as an aside, my experience with Paramount+ has been pretty bad–videos crashing out, resetting your progress, no “Continue watching” which is either baffling or just open contempt for the viewer [or both], and movies or shows not showing up on the site but appearing if you do a search, which in this case specifically applies to this movie).

There are a few things most people remember about the first Star Trek movie:

  • It is deliberately paced (ie. slow)
  • The scene where the retrofitted Enterprise is revealed goes on for about five hours
  • Space pajama uniforms
  • Illia coming back as the galaxy’s sexiest alien probe

Now that it’s 44 (!) years later, how does it hold up? It’s…OK.

The problem isn’t that the pacing is slow (and it is slow), it’s that there’s a lot of padding where nothing much happens. You get the feeling that director Robert Wise was trying to really set the mood of travelling into an unknown and alien realm (boldly going), but you could probably lop off 10 minutes of the footage of the Enterprise moving deeper inside V’ger without it hurting the continuity at all.

And that initial pass of the Enterprise is silly. My reaction, even knowing full-well what to expect was still:

  • The new Enterprise. It looks nice!
  • Going around the ship, still looks nice!
  • Still going around the ship. Shouldn’t they have docked by now?
  • Why is this scene still happening?
  • I am going to the bathroom. Will the scene still be going when I return?
  • The scene still runs after returning from the bathroom for another minute before Kirk and Scotty’s shuttle finally docks with the Enterprise.

You could cut another five minutes from this sequence, and it would still be long, but it would end just as you started to get squirmy.

The effects are fine for a movie of this age–they should be, as they cost a fortune and made Paramount go cheap on every Trek film to make sure it didn’t happen again. The space pajama costumes are very 70s, and while I appreciate what they were trying, subsequent TV series (and movies) did a much better job of looking like uniforms, while retaining the colour and style of the originals.

The main issue with the movie, though, isn’t the looks or the pacing, or the effects–it’s the story, or more specifically, the execution of it. You basically have:

  • Unknown entity of unimaginable power is heading for Earth
  • It vaporizes every bit of technology it encounters
  • Only the Enterprise is in range to intercept before something probably really bad happens to Earth

This is a fine premise.

The problem is the way it’s presented, where the Enterprise crew gets pulled into the mystery box of V’ger, then just hangs around on the bridge while V’ger does stuff and they react to it, trying to figure out what to do next. Mostly they can’t do anything.

What this means is there’s a lot of nothing much happens. The cast sit and stand and talk about V’ger and that’s most of the movie. It’s just not very interesting, let alone exciting. There’s one scene where MCcoy comes onto the bridge–this is specifically shown. Everyone watches V’ger on the viewscreen. McCoy hangs around for a bit, never says, a word, then leaves the bridge. Why? Who knows!

Still, I admire the film for not having a typical villain or space shootouts and other stuff people usually expect to see in a sci-fi movie1These are not bad things, but they became super common after the success of Star Wars, which came out only two years earlier.. They tried going for “big idea” and while it doesn’t make for riveting viewing, it’s not bad, either. Some of the interior design of V’ger is downright funky. It was neat watching Kirk and others step off the saucer of the Enterprise to meet V’ger, giving a great sense of scale of the ship. There are a few funny lines here and there. The cast does what it can with a script that demands they mostly react to things they can’t see.

In the end, this was not really the way the Star Trek crew should have returned, but it did make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan look even better in comparison.

Mini re-reviews: Aliens and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’ve been on a science fiction movie nostalgia trek (ho ho) for a while now, and here’s a couple of mini review of two recent rewatches, both of them direct sequels to their first film.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). At the time this was pitched as the movie that “saved” Star Trek after the slow and, some would say, ponderous first film, which focused on a Big Idea. The sequel ditched the space jammy uniforms and brought back a classic villain from the original TV series, and swapped out the mystery of V’ger with a cat and mouse chase between Khan and Kirk.

The movie holds up remarkably well 41 years later. Some of the effects work is dated, but the scenes of the Enterprise and Reliant flying blind in the nebula and nearly colliding, are still thrilling to watch (just ignore the fact that no one actually looked out a real window to see where they were going). Kirk struggling with mortality and getting older is a great emotional frame for the film, and Shatner doesn’t ham it up under the hand of director Nicholas Meyer.

Ricardo Montalban clearly relished playing Khan, and Meyer allows him to ham it up–but never to the point of making the character appear a fool. He also gets the most quotable lines. “Revenge is a dish best served cold. And it is very cold in space.”

Still recommended after all these years, and probably still the best of the original cast movies.

Aliens (1986). What an odd movie series this is. The first two films are great, the second two are pretty bad, and they all have weirdly long gaps between them, defying Hollywood convention to crank out sequels. The gap between the first and fourth Alien movie is 18 years!

But here we have the first sequel, coming in seven years after the original and in terms of the timeline, 57 years after the events of Alien, when Ripley’s pod is found, and she is brought out of hypersleep.

For some reason, Disney+ (where I watched it) does not offer the Special Edition, which is both good and bad. You miss the early scene of the colonists going about their business before the alien infestation, which helps to give context to what comes later (though you can also argue it also kills the mystery when the marines first arrive at the settlement to find no one there). Likewise, there’s a terrific sequence with automated turrets missing from the original cut, where you see their ammo get depleted…and the aliens keep coming. AND you also don’t get the scene where Burke confirms to Ripley that her daughter had died two years earlier, which really helps provide motivation to her character for the rest of the film.

All that said, everything else that makes this a great sequel is still there. Effects-wise, it mostly holds up, though some of the models are clearly models (in the same way that today’s CGI is often very clearly CGI) and any shot of the dropship where it is not shot against the starry expanse of space looks shockingly bad, to the point of distraction. Everything else, crucially including the aliens themselves, still looks great.

I’d forgotten what a complete spaz Bill Paxton’s character was. Several others in the movie repeatedly tell him to shut up and calm down. It’s great. This film is definitely a James Cameron joint, as he loves his military hardware and foul-mouthed grunts. There are scenes where weaponry is lovingly explained. There’s testosterone spilling all over the place. And it is all neatly undercut when the characters realize what they are up against.

Sigourney Weaver gets a lot more to do here, and this is clearly her character’s film and story. She makes it work with a terrific performance, aided by a solid supporting cast. Paul Reiser, better known as the lovable, quippy husband on Mad About Her, is perfectly slimy as the human villain, cold and calculating until his inevitable and appropriate end.

I could quibble about a few plot contrivances and conveniences, but they ultimately don’t detract from a story that expands on Alien, while providing its own terror-filled ride. Still very much recommended, although watch the Special Edition if you can, the added scenes really do flesh the story out more.

I watched Prometheus again

For the first five minutes, then I stopped.

I was trying to remember exactly how it opened, and now I have a newly-refreshed memory of it. Some weird albino dude chugs something weird, and it changes his DNA, and he dies and goes over a waterfall, then his magic DNA spreads out all over or something.

Shortly after, we’re introduced to the spaceship Prometheus (and why did they name the movie after the ship, anyway?) with its crew of 17 human drumsticks. The next few minutes are a sequence wherein the android, played by Michael Fassbender, does quirky android stuff, then the ship approaches some planet and Charlize Thereon wakes up early to do an extremely sweaty workout in her hypersleep skimpies. She asks the android if there are any casualties and he’s confused, so she clarifies and asks if anyone died and he says, “No, mum. Everyone’s fine.” And I thought, “OK, that’s enough quirky android for me.” But then I went back and replayed the bit with closed captions on, and he actually says, “No, ma’am, everyone’s fine.” But it sounds like he is saying “mum” and he’s a quirky android, see? So I think the closed captions are wrong.

Anyway, this was sufficient to sate my need to rewatch Prometheus again. For reference to my first viewing, see here.

For the best scene in Prometheus, see here.

May the 4th (be with you): Star Wars movies ranked

From the Star Wars page of Disney+

Continuing the trend of bad puns, this time in written form, it’s Star Wars Day. You know, May the 4th be with you, see? It’s funny to everyone except Jedi, and they’re not real, anyway.

Combining Star Wars and lists, here are all the non-animated Star Wars movies, ranked from best to worst, in my very much not humble opinion:

  1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  2. Star Wars1Purists note: I am going by the original release title (1977)
  3. Return of the Jedi (1983)
  4. Rogue One (2016)
  5. The Force Awakens/The Last Jedi (tie2I will explain the tie below) (2015, 2017)
  6. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
  7. The Phantom Menace (1999)
  8. Solo (2018)
  9. Attack of the Clones (2002)
  10. The Rise of Skywalker (2019)


  • The top two picks are non-controversial, though some says Star Wars: A New Hope is the better movie, and I can be swayed by these arguments if I’m in the mood. I still give the edge to Empire because I feel it’s a richer experience, with a more assured director at the helm.
  • Yes, Return of the Jedi ranks #3, even with the Ewoks. Yub yub! And this is for the original, not the special edition, where all the changes were uniformly awful.
  • The Force Awakens is a shameless retread of A New Hope, but if you accept that, it’s generally pretty good. I previously ranked The Last Jedi higher, but in retrospect, I think Rian Johnson may have pushed a little too far in subverting expectations for the middle part of a trilogy.
  • Yes, I really do think Revenge of the Sith is better than four other Star Wars films. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a great movie.
  • Regarding the above, even my second-worst pick, Attack of the Clones, is still a lot better than the gormless Rise of Skywalker, some of the most ham-handed, graceless “summer blockbuster” film-making ever. The only Star Wars movie where I left the theatre unambiguously disappointed and shaking my head. I am still shaking my head.
  • Some of these movies I have never seen more than once. If I revisit them, the order above may change.

Movie re-review: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Yesterday, I spontaneously decided to start watching The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on Prime Video. My plan was to split it up over a few days, because even this original, non-extended version, is about three hours long.

I ended up watching the whole thing, of course.

It still holds up. The special effects mostly still hold up, too.

Let me start with a few aspects I didn’t care for, which match my recollection from when the film first came out in 2001 (22 years ago!). Peter Jackson does a great job here, but his strength seems to lay more in the character moments than the giant action set pieces. These set pieces are still well-done, but he has a penchant for showing cuts of slow motion action, which is really hard to pull off without looking hokey. There are times when it just looks hokey.

The score also swells just a bit too much at times, a case where I think less would have been more. But it is still an excellent score, and this is perhaps more something of personal taste.

I’m still somewhat divided over Hugo Weaving’s Elrond. On the one hand, his arch, exaggerated performance does fit with the idea of a thousands-year old elf not exactly being like your regular guy, but it still seems a bit hammy. Just a bit, though.

The cast, in general, though, is outstanding. Jackson knows what he wants from each of them, and he expertly draws great performances from everyone. Ian McKellen provides a definitive performance as Gandalf, and I love that Aragorn is played by Viggo Mortensen, who does not have a typical “hero” voice. Sean Bean dies, of course, but the death scene is both touching and ridiculously over the top. The actors are just fun to watch.

The other two things I’d highlight are the pacing and the writing. The film is a masterclass in moving between quiet, character moments and large (or small) scale action scenes. There is, despite the running time, no flab here, where scenes linger too long, or exist for no reason. The thing moves at just the right speed for nearly three hours.

The writing stays true to the original book (as far as it matters), and the dialogue manages to avoid sounding arch, again mainly due to the great performances of the cast.

Jackson uses the rugged scenery of New Zealand to great effect, of course.

I think I might have an even more favourable view of this movie now because it takes place in an entirely different world with no connection to a larger universe. It’s nice to just soak it in without worrying about how it ties into 500 other LOTR movies, TV shows and whatnot. The characters are not glib, quipping superheroes, which I feel like I’ve seen enough of to last this and several additional lifetimes.

Overall, this was and remains a delight. On a scale of 1 to 10 Gollums Lurking in the Shadows, it rates a 9.

Blockbuster burnout

I have a folder for blog ideas in Obsidian (my latest attempt to unify my note-taking with a platform-agnostic solution) and this is what I wrote for reference:

  • Jurassic World movies
  • Marvel movies
  • Star Wars
  • 16 Avatar sequels

Am I suffering blockbuster fatigue? Let’s find out!

One small pandemic changes everything

Another topic I pondered was how the pandemic cured me of going to the theatre to see movies. In early March 2020 a friend and I went to see Onward, which was a perfectly cromulent second-tier Pixar movie. A week or so later, all theatres shut down and by the end of March Onward was already streaming on Disney+. It would be a long time before theatres opened again.

Before that happened, I got a mirrorless camera (January 2021) and Nic and I substituted birding for going to movies. I find the birding a lot more enjoyable:

  • More exercise
  • We get outside
  • You don’t have to be quiet for multiple hours, which is a weird way to socialize when you think about it
  • Birds are neat! And real!
  • I enjoy going out and shooting photos in a general sense
  • Most stuff ends up on a streaming service or can be rented on-demand just a few months later (or even sooner)

Now that theatres are open again, I have no desire to go back, because birding is better and I’m fine waiting for big releases to come to streaming later (or skipping them entirely). Why is that? Let’s go through my bullet list in order.

Dinosaurs went extinct, dinosaur movies refuse to die

  • Jurassic World movies

I saw the original Jurassic World in 2015. To me, it felt like a basic retread of the original, albeit with the twist of adding “What if they actually opened the park, THEN everything went wrong?” but with unappealing or uninteresting characters. It also felt a bit mean-spirited and cynical. I had no interest in seeing the sequel Dark Kingdom, and even the usually faithful pull of nostalgia couldn’t convince me to see Dominion, either.

All three movies still made a ton of money. I just didn’t care about them anymore. They felt like product, not actual stories that needed to be told. Maybe I was becoming cynical!


  • Marvel movies

The fact that we have an abbreviation–MCU1Marvel Cinematic Universe to the one caveperson reading this and didn’t know.–to describe Marvel movies says a lot about how they are intended to be consumed: fully and completely. I did my part, watching all the movies as soon as they came out, starting with Iron Man in 1899 and going up to Avengers: Endgame in 2019 (I also saw Spider-Man: Far From Home in theatres, but this felt more like a dénouement to everything that came before). Then the pandemic hit, though the MCU movies still released in theatres, starting with Black Widow in July 2021.

With Disney+ arriving just before the pandemic, the MCU became even more of an obligation if you wanted to keep up on all the continuity. Now you had the movies (Phases 3, 4, 5, 297, etc.), plus Disney+ series that sometimes led directly to movie plots, with TV series WandaVision leading to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness being a prime example. I kept watching the movies (on streaming) and shows (also on streaming) but started to let things slide. I skipped The Eternals entirely. I have not watched Wakanda Forever, and I don’t give a flying fig about the new Ant-Man movie (which is apparently a not-uncommon sentiment).

At an undefined point, the fun of watching started to feel more like an obligation. I don’t want everything to be connected. I just want separate, entertaining stories. I don’t need Easter eggs, I want a self-contained plot that works without having to reference everything that came before it. I get that some people absolutely adore the continuity, but for me, it now feels more like a burden that gets in the way of simply enjoying the movies and shows. Also, it doesn’t help that a lot of the Marvel stuff has become fairly empty CGI spectacle, the formula well-honed and predictable.

I had to look up what the next film is (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) and it’s another that I will get around to watching eventually. Maybe.

I have a bad feeling about this

  • Star Wars

You could argue that Disney has cranked out too much Star Wars stuff–and there is merit in that argument–but the biggest issue is that after acquiring the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas, they started with a new trilogy of movies with no vision or purpose for being, other than to be more product and sell more merchandise. The first movie (a monster hit, showing the pent-up demand for more Star Wars) was a retread of A New Hope, but had some engaging new characters and held out some promise. The next two movies undid that promise, the first (The Last Jedi) by trying to deconstruct Star Wars a little too much, and the last (The Rise of Skywalker) by being a relentlessly stupid and inept piece of film-making. After that movie, I had no confidence in what Disney might do with Star Wars, so I’ve only dipped my toes in other efforts:

  • Rogue One. A standalone (!) story that serves as an immediate prequel to A New Hope. Pretty good.
  • Solo. Completely unnecessary and a mediocre movie. The first real sign that the Star Wars franchise had no firm creative control at the top.
  • The Mandalorian. Pretty good, actually! Set in the post-Return of the Jedi era, it riffs on the familiar, but has lapses into shameless fan service.
  • The Book of Boba Fett. Also known as Mandalorian Season 2.5. Just OK, really, and annoying that they tied the ongoing Mandalorian storyline into it (there’s that continuity thing again).
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi. Not bad, but a downer, despite the fact that I love Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Kenobi.

I’ve yet to watch Andor (which I hear is quite good, but also, understandably, also a downer). Overall, it feels like the TV part of Star Wars has fared better than the vision-free, fan service-heavy movies. Not all hope is lost, here, though I have to admit, I would still be reluctant to see a new Star Wars film in a theatre. I can’t imagine anything at this point that would spark more interest in me than, “hmm, interesting.”

James Cameron’s head in a jar to direct Avatar 17

  • 16 Avatar sequels

I saw an interesting line about how the Avatar sequel, The Way of Water, could gross $2 billion (as of this post it’s just under $2.3 billion worldwide) and still be culturally irrelevant, and I think that’s accurate. People will watch it and its inevitable sequels. They’ll make billions of dollars, but they’ll have no real impact otherwise. They’re just big movies with dazzling effects and technology, telling familiar stories in entertaining and, dare I say–crowd-pleasing–ways. And that’s all fine! But it’s not enough to get me into a theatre because I’m way past “dazzling special effects” being a draw. Good writing may not be something sexy you can market, but it’s a lot more appealing to me now that I’m not a hormone-boosted 15-year-old. But even good writing probably wouldn’t get my butt into a theatre seat.

It might get me to check out a film on streaming, though.

In the meantime, most of my current movie-watching has been a very specific kind of nostalgia, re-watching science fiction movies of varying quality from the 70s through the 90s. I started watching Independence Day again, which in many objective ways, is a bad movie. Heck, the disaster porn doesn’t even start until 45 minutes in (1996 was a simpler time). And yet, I watch because it’s dumb, but easy to digest, with no commitments. It’s anti-MCU.

And for now, at least, that’s enough.

Movie review: TRON

Technically, this is a re-re-review, because I saw this when it was originally released in 1982, then again in 2009 in anticipation of the sequel, TRON: Legacy, and again just now, in the year 2023.

It holds up! I’ve seen comments about how the plot is nonsensical or difficult to follow, but it’s really not. If you listen to what the characters say, they provide all the details you need. Basically, the programs need to blow up the Master Control Program (MCP) to clear the name of real-world Flynn, and to free all the programs being held under the MCP’s giant virtual thumb, so they can work for their users again. It’s basically a quest to defeat the Evil Wizard, but in a mainframe.

The dialog and exposition can be a bit clunky at time, and the religious references seem a little weird, like an idea not really fleshed out, and you really do need to just give yourself over to the whole system of metaphors they use to depict the inner world of the computer and programs. But if you get past these things, everything else holds up surprisingly well, more than 40 years later.

The good guys are earnest, particularly Bruce Boxleitner’s Tron character. The MCP is a complete bastard right from the start, gleefully blackmailing Dillinger in the real world and literally torturing his counterpart Sark to keep him in line in the virtual one. His dismissive “End of line” when he’s done speaking is awesome.

Jeff Bridges, who was in his early 30s, looks incredibly young and plays Flynn with the breezy goofiness that says this is Jeff Bridges.

The electronic score (with some orchestral parts done at the insistence of Disney) is perfectly pitched at capturing the otherworldly feeling of Tron. Its main theme is one I have been able to recall easily since first hearing it in 1982. The video game-inspired sound effects are also deployed to terrific effect, with buzzes, burbles and blips underscoring how different this world is, yet being perfectly suited to it.

And of course, the visuals. In 1982 CGI was new, expensive and labour-intensive. Stuff that can be rendered on a home computer today in minutes took hours for a single frame back then. And still, two things really stand out for me: The design of the CG world, and especially the vehicles, and how the simplicity of everything is actually a strength rather than a liability. Today, everything could be rendered in far greater detail, but in a way that would take away from the virtual verisimilitude. The simple clean lines and curves of the light cycles, or the minimalist design of the tanks makes them fit into this stark world of lines and shapes, pulsing with light. A denser, more sophisticated look would probably have been distracting. The people behind TRON had limited resources, but used them to great effect.

I give TRON 4 out of 5 glowing discs.

The Black Hole: Not quite a review

The Cygnus, full of surprises and murder bots.

I saw The Black Hole originally in 1979, when I was 15 years old. I thought it was great. I bought the novel!

I never read the novel.

I wonder if I still have it stuffed in a box somewhere?

Last year, I watched the movie again on Disney+. I think it was the first time I had seen it all the way through since 1979. It’s goofy and weird, very un-Disney in many ways. I suspect it got the green light due to the success of Star Wars, but at its core, it’s actually more of a horror/fantasy film dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Yesterday, I saw a YouTube video about it and thought, “I’ll just watch the opening sequence” and ended up watching the entire movie again and going to bed late. And it’s not even a good movie, really.

This isn’t a review, as such, but I wanted to collect some thoughts on the movie while it was fresh in my mind. This may be a bit scattershot!

  • The film starts with a black screen while music plays over it for about two minutes. I have no idea why. Are they trying to set the mood? Are they showing just how black a black hole really is?
  • They obviously had no actual visual reference for a black hole in 1979, but I like to think they could have come up with something better than what appears to be blue water swirling down a kitchen sink drain.
  • I like that they did some scenes in zero gravity, even if it looks a little goofy. There’s at least a pretense to realism here.
  • The cast is chock-full of big stars, very unusual for any Disney pic back then.
  • Maximilian Schell is great. I love his giant mop of hair and intense gaze. I also like that the killer robot also has the same name.
  • Speaking of the robots, it’s super obvious that none of them are made of metal, though they are obviously supposed to be. Vincent and BOB come off the worst here, each of them looking like painted wooden toys. With lasers.
  • And speaking of lasers they have this satisfying sound that is like a thunky pew-pew.
  • The scene with Vincent and BOB playing what amounts to a video game with the menacing former head robot is just weird. I’m not sure why it’s even in the movie. Maybe they felt they built all these cool robots, they were going to use them, dammit!
  • The Cygnus is an amazing ship design. It’s been described as a cathedral in space. If they ever did a remake, the ships need to be miniature models, not CGI. Get Chris Nolan to direct, he’s totally into that stuff.
  • The special effects are all over the place in terms of quality. The matte paintings (of which the film had roughly a billion) are for the most part excellent. The meteor tumbling down the interior of the ship could pass for an FX shot made today. But other stuff, notably most of the green screen work, is terrible, like they either ran out of money for those shots, or handed them over to an intern who never got hired on full-time.
  • The score (by Bond composer John Barry) is as weird as so many other things in this film. During action scenes, the score picks up, but it doesn’t really reflect the action, it’s just bombastic music.
  • I love how Schell scolds the robot like a misbehaving child after it slices and dices Anthony Perkins’ character. “Maximilian, you shouldn’t have done that!” Maybe this is where J.J. Abrams got the idea to name his company Bad Robot.
  • I love the initial mystery of discovering a ship that’s been missing for 20 years, hanging out next to a black hole without getting sucked into it. Alien (released the same year!) has the same kind of vibe in its early scenes, but with a lot more swearing.
  • The ending is still totally bonkers no matter how many times I see it. Schell and Maximilian appear to embrace while floating in space, then, uh, merge? So now Schell is inside Maximilian, his eyes looking about frantically from inside the robot’s visor as it stands on a rocky spire in…hell? Then there’s a long glass hallway (?), an angel (?) and suddenly the surviving members of the Palomino crew are A-OK and heading peacefully toward a shiny planet somewhere on the other side of the black hole. If they do a remake, I’d love to see how they’d handle the ending, though I suspect it would end up being a lot more conventional.

Is The Black Hole a good movie? No. It feels like it wants to be a bunch of different things–a fantasy epic, a horror film, a disaster movie, and the science fiction part is kind of bolted on. It’s an odd, uneven mix.

But the design is fantastic, the effects, though mixed, generally hold up, and the initial mystery is captivating. After that, the film gets a bit thin, and it’s only Schell’s scenery-chewing, the ever-present threat of what will Maximilian do, and Roddy McDowell making pithy remarks that really keeps you interested. And I’ll give a few points to the general destruction of the Cygnus as it drifts to its doom.

Why did I sit through the entire movie again, though? I really can’t say. I will ponder this.

Movie review: Deep Impact

Yes, here I am reviewing a movie a mere 24 years after release!

NOTE: Spoilers ahoy if that matters to you.

Deep Impact is the “emotional” (I’m using Netflix’s word here) giant space object threatening Earth movie that came out in 1998. The other one and the #1 movie of that same year was Armageddon, which I’ve only seen the last 20 minutes of for some reason (it did not inspire me to watch the previous 120 or whatever minutes). Armageddon takes a more hands-on approach to its giant space object destruction, while Deep Impact actually reserves the disaster porn for the very end (spoilers!)

My summary would be: This was fine, but the investment in the characters just wasn’t there for me. I mean, none of them seemed like horrible people or anything, I just felt no real connection to them because the movie jumps from scene to scene quickly and features a fairly large cast of characters. It also has these weird tonal shifts where it goes from a hammy TV movie vibe to something more grounded and sober.

The score was distracting and nearly ever-present. This was probably the best example I’ve seen (heard) in a long time of a movie telling you how you should feel. THIS IS SAD. THIS IS EXCITING. THIS IS SCARY. THIS IS SAD. If there had been a score mute switch, I would have used it. EDIT: I looked at the credits and the score was by James Horner, who I usually like! Or so I thought. Anyway, I stand by my assertion that the score was heavy-handed all to heck and back.

The cast was strangely unremarkable. No one stood out, everyone just blended in. I mean, you can’t top Morgan Freeman as the President (ten years before Obama would win), but he didn’t really do much other than make speeches on TV and look presidential (remember how high a bar that was just a few years ago?)

The opening sequence, with (spoilers) Charles Martin Smith’s character getting early warning of the doomsday comet, was completely unnecessary, since it has no bearing on the rest of the plot. It was cute watching him type “Connect to server” to try to email his findings, but the server was down, ono. So then he copied the info onto a floppy disk (all of this is lovingly shown as it’s so very hi-tech and all), tosses it into a manila envelope, then dashes off in his Jeep down the long, scary mountain road to deliver the news.

Why he never used a phone is not explained.

Anyway, he and a driver of a big rig both coincidentally become distracted at the exact same moment, there is a collision and the Jeep goes tumbling down the mountain, exploding like it was carrying several tons of TNT, and the information is lost.

Again, this has no effect AT ALL on the rest of the movie. The movie picks up a year later, they still have had enough time to build a spaceship (spoiler) to plant nukes on the comet and divert it (spoiler). I have no idea why the scene with Smith was included. It’s like someone wrote an early draft and this scene accidentally got left in the shooting script.

The movie does pick up as the comet nears and every plan to get it out of the way fails. It looks bad, and there are noble sacrifices to save babies and kids. The spaceship crew, led by crusty old Robert Duvall, sacrifices themselves in order to nuke the larger chunk of the comet. It’s not explained why this works perfectly and failed totally when they did it earlier and just split the comet into two pieces, a little one and a big one. But with only a little chunk, the death toll is reduced to mere millions instead of becoming an Extinction Level Event (ELE), life goes on, and President Freeman gets to make a speech at what appears to be a terrible matte painting of the Washington Capitol under (re)construction and the babies will go on to grow up and post reminisces on TikTok or something.

Also, Freeman’s second to last speech is a bummer because he says the US and Russian missiles failed to stop the comet (this was when Russia was almost viewed as a good guy–again, how times change!) but now they know where the pieces will hit, and the little one is going into the Atlantic, so goodbye US east coast! The effects here are perfectly serviceable and relatively restrained compared to, say, 2012, but the scene in which Elijah Wood, his new wife and his new wife’s mother’s baby are literally running up a hill to escape the massive tidal wave reminded me of people trying to outrun the deadly cold in The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a good comparison.

Overall, on a scale of 1 to 10 asteroids nuking the dinosaurs into oblivion, Deep Impact rates 6 asteroids.

Mini movie re-reviews: Star Trek: Into Darkness, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I’ve actually watched a few movies recently, perhaps finally feeling the pangs of not seeing a movie in a theater since March 2020 (it was Onward, which was on Disney+ by the end of the month as all movie theaters shut down for pandemic fun times). Now, I don’t actually miss seeing movies in theaters (hell is other people), but movies themselves? Yeah. And I’d been wanting to indulge in some science fiction. It didn’t even have to be good. Which leads me to my first mini re-review:

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013): I mostly remembered this one as being inferior to the 2009 remake origin story, and it still is. There is plenty of silliness to be had, from re-purposing bits from the original Khan storyline to no good effect (the Spock/Kirk death reversal, which lands with an utter thud), Khan now a supremely white Benedict Cumberbatch (though he is wonderfully slimy and weird in the role) and once again using improbable devices to propel the plot forward, like having all the Starfleet bigwigs conveniently meet in a room lined with huge windows and completely vulnerable to attack (guess what happens next?!)

Still, J.J. Abrams is adept at keeping the action rolling, and there is plenty here. This is basically an action movie in sci-fi clothing. There is also some nice interplay between the cast members (I could watch Karl Urban as McCoy all day long) and everyone just seems to be having a good time in their roles. The effects are big and loud and very Abrams.

In the end it’s not a bad movie per se, even though there are any number of weak points, but this is a case where Abrams’ approach of “more is more” somehow manages to hold together till the end.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Director’s Cut (1977): Spielberg wanted to fix some issues with the original film and asked the studio for money. They agreed with one condition–that he show inside the mothership. He reluctantly agreed, giving us the “special edition” of the movie. That’s also included on the Blu-ray I have, but I skipped it in favor of the Director’s cut, which is essentially Spielberg’s fixes, but with the mothership interior rightfully cut.

Some effects, particularly the matte work and the painfully obvious set that comprises the mountain road where the police chase a group of UFOs, do not hold up very well, but this movie is now 44 years old, so I’m willing to cut it some slack. Other effects still hold up decently and the mothership’s arrival at Devil’s Tower is still spectacular.

There’s a lot of very Spielberg stuff here–the camera dollying in to a character (or out), overlapping dialogue, quirky people who feel real, not out of Casting 101. There’s also something almost painfully authentic about the domestic scenes involving Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family. In one early scene, one of the boys climbs into the daughter’s playpen in the living room and starts bashing apart a doll on the rail. Why? Because that’s the kind of mindless, attention-seeking destruction kids engage in. It’s great.

You can quibble with some actions of the aliens–Spielberg is clearly more interested in setting a mood than being logical, but the moods he creates work so well–from the subtle horror of screws on a floor vent unscrewing themselves and toys coming to life, to the child-like wonder of watching the mothership interact musically with the scientists gathered at the Devil’s Tower landing site.

This is also a very 70s movie. The pace is deliberate at times. There is no build-up to a final big action scene. The story ends gently, and there are no real villains. It presents the idea of aliens wanting a kind of cultural exchange. It’s hopeful and just nice.

Also, despite coming only two years after Jaws, the fashions hold up much better than you might expect. Maybe the 70s have just become hip (or groovy) again.

Movie review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

UPDATE, December 21, 2023: I have made a few tweaks to the review, but rest assured, I still think THIS IS A VERY BAD MOVIE.

This was a bad movie and a bad Star Wars movie.

I was excited when it was announced that Lucas had sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney. Disney has been making extremely competent pop movies for a while now, so I was confident they would do a good job here–and better than Lucas had with the prequel trilogy.

(To give Lucas credit, for all the problems the prequels had, there is a defining vision that underlies all three movies, and each builds on the other. This leaves aside the quality of execution and a lot of curious design choices, but the vision was there.)

So in 2015 we get The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams is the director and I actually felt at the time that he was a good choice–Star Wars is big, kid-friendly fluff and with a good script and cast, it’s the kind of thing Abrams can do well. The Force Awakens borrows copiously from the original Star Wars, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a little eye-rolling (please please please no more Death Stars or Death Star substitutes), but the new characters are engaging and fun to watch, and it feels like Star Wars. Everything you want is there.

The Last Jedi is more like a modern Star Wars–less fluffy, more gritty, with more consequences. It deliberately plays against some of the established tropes, even as it copies beats from The Empire Strikes Back. By the end, I was wondering how the rebellion would come back in the third movie after being reduced to what seemed like a room full of people by the end. Ho ho, if I had only known. EDIT: In retrospect, I feel The Last Jedi tried a bit too hard to deconstruct Star Wars, which may have pushed Abrams and crew to basically create an almost standalone film to close the trilogy.

And then we have The Rise of Skywalker, or Star Wars as Written By a 15-Year-Old Star Wars Nerd.

There are things I liked. The effects were nice. The cast, although let down by a generally awful script, remain fun to watch. Ian McDiarmid still chews scenery with unbridled glee. Some of the lightsaber fights were entertaining (I especially liked the one on the wreck of the Death Star1Neat visual, but ugh, with Rey clearly fatigued).

But everything else ranged from okay to just bad. Oh, so bad.

The scenes with Leia felt awkward, because all of her dialog was generic (for obvious reasons). I would have preferred they recast her role for the final movie or just not featured her character at all (have her join with the force in an early scene or something).

Rey turns out to be the granddaughter of Palpatine instead of a scrappy scavenger who just happens to turn out awesome. Bleah.

And the lineage of Rey underlines my central complaint with the film (apart from its relentless pacing, which was more exhausting than thrilling): The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed full of plot devices that are made just for this film, that have not been built on or even mentioned in previous movies. The stakes feel non-existent because everything is just thrown at the viewer out of nowhere.

  • The Emperor somehow survives or gets cloned, despite last seen falling down some giant shaft in a Death Star that exploded minutes later. But this is actually not the dumbest thing in the movie. Palpatine’s resurrection would have worked a lot better–along with the whole “I’m stuffed full of Sith, haha!” thing–if it had been set up from the first movie and played out over all three.
  • Hyperspace skipping, or whatever it was called. Why? So dumb. The last jump should have had them slam into the wall of a canyon and die, ending the movie early and saving everyone a lot of time.
  • If General Redhead had held up a sign, Wile E. Coyote-style, that said “I’m the spy!” it would not have been any more dumb than him blurting it out the way he did. It would have been better, really. Also, why did he believe Kylo Ren had to be stopped? Why did he say he didn’t care who won? Why was his character sacrificed for this dubious plot? And who was the grumpy old man who shot him? Like so many things in this movie, grumpy old man is just there with no explanation.
  • Abrams, never a master of subtlety, decides to give every Star Destroyer the ability to literally destroy stars. Or planets. Why? As Poe says, “Sure, why not?” Because it’s so cool (if you are a 15-year-old Star Wars nerd).
  • Speaking of, I literally rolled my eyes when the surprise fleet of ten million ships magically shows up at the final battle. Very good timing there. Good thing it was telegraphed heavily multiple times beforehand, so it wouldn’t seem at all like an actual surprise. I’ll pretend the boy sweeping at the end of The Last Jedi was on one of those ten million ships.
  • Finn keeps saying he wants to say something, then he never says it. WHY?! It’s the last movie, have him say it! There is not going to be a Finn spinoff series, sorry.
  • Rey kissing Kylo at the end was grossbuckets.
  • Rey proclaiming herself Rey Skywalker at the end also made me roll my eyes.
  • Space horses.
  • The new droid should have had a price tag on it, since its only purpose was to enhance merchandising.
  • Did I mention the pacing? The movie never slowed down and ended up feeling shapeless, just careening from one action scene to another, with tiny bits of character moments squeezed in-between.
  • Rose is reduced to almost a cameo for no apparent (or good) reason.

On the plus side, they couldn’t think of a way to bring back Jabba the Hutt or have someone frozen in carbonite. If only J.J. Abrams had been frozen in carbonite.

Anyway, this was a disappointing end to what could have been a great trilogy. I’ll conclude by damning it with faint praise: for all its excesses, missed opportunities and general level of dumb-even by Star Wars standards–it was still better than Solo.

BUT NOT BY MUCH. In hindsight, I was mistaken. Solo is not a good movie, but it is still better than this sloppy, shoddy excuse of a film.

Also, here are 23 of the worst parts of the movie (some of which I highlight above), and I agree with all of them: The 23 Worst Parts of ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’