Why JJ Abrams understands Star Wars better than George Lucas.

A film review in three parts.

Parte the Firste – Why George Lucas has forgotten what Star Wars is all about

It may seem difficult to believe these days, but George Lucas was once the hottest director in Hollywood. In 1973 Lucas produced and directed American Graffiti, a film which is still one of the most successful of all time – making back its budget over 150 times. It was the film that allowed Lucas to bankroll 1977’s Star Wars. It was not, however, the film that Lucas wanted to make. Neither was Star Wars.

George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon film.

Let’s face it though, he couldn’t have done better than this masterpiece.

As a child he was obsessed with the serial and its sequel Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe. These were pulpy, fantastical tales of heroes facing off against a maniacal evil emperor and his seemingly endless army of faceless soldiers. Morality was black and white, the heroes shot laser guns, and the each episode began with an opening crawl of text outlining the plot.

It’s clear then that Flash Gordon was a heavy influence on Star Wars, and Lucas has never shied away from this. Star Wars was the film he made when it turned out that the film rights to Alex Raymond’s books had already been acquired by Federico Fellini (of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 fame). Star Wars was Flash Gordon filtered through the 1970s, counter-cultural young mind of George Lucas. Who was a terrible writer. As Harrison Ford once quipped “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it!”. For example, who actually talks like this?

“Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

Much like that of its inspiration, the dialogue acted as clunky exposition. Telling rather than showing.

But where Lucas is an undeniably bad writer, he is also an undeniably good filmmaker. Star Wars worked because of its bold, new vision and strong use of montage. Recall the trench run on the Death Star – a breathless 10 minute montage cutting between a dozen starfighters, a battlestation and the moon base in its cross-hairs. It’s still one of the most exciting sequences in Hollywood entertainment, made possible through the power of montage.

So what went wrong with the prequels?

Too. Easy.

I’m not going to engage in a post-mortem of the prequel trilogy because frankly Red Letter Media has already hung, drawn, and quartered them in some of the best film analysis I’ve seen on YouTube. But the crux of the problem was this: Lucas kept the same exciting power of montage, kept the same bold vision, but almost completely moved away from the series’ pulpy origins. Instead of pantomime villains escaping to be fought in the next episode, clear heroes defying the odds in life-and-limb struggles, and a fast-paced adventure we got trade negotiations. Galactic politics. Overpowered heroes never in any real danger. By stripping away the comic book nature of the movies, Lucas created what he thought was a more serious, emotion-driven plot. But written by a dreadful writer. Who, when not informed by intimate knowledge of the format, could not create characters or dramatic tension to save his life. And without those two elements, no matter how good at filmmaking you are, you can’t get an audience invested in what’s happening on screen.

Which brings me at last to Episode VII and JJ Abrams.

Parte the Seconde – Why Episode VII is a great Star Wars film

JJ already demonstrated with his 2007 reboot of Star Trek that he *got* movie science fiction. He understood how to make an exciting action film. But what he demonstrated with Episode VII was that he understood Star Wars. And by comparison to the prequels, he understands it a lot better than George Lucas now does.

As many have pointed out, Episode VII is basically a re-hash of Episode IV. Our protagonist is plucked from a desert planet by a not-too-honest pilot on the Millennium Falcon. A girl is rescued from the innards of a massive, evil space station. Plans stashed in a droid are chased after. An old mentor is cut down by a black-clad evil-doer. But this, at least in my eyes, is totally fine! Star Wars was always meant to be episodic. Heck, each film even has an episode number in the title. And like Flash Gordon before it, both characters and plot elements are meant to be recycled – because Star Wars was never meant to be thought-provoking, high-brow cinema. It was meant to be pure fantasy, an escape from the real world for two hours – and an escape with the promise of further episodes yet to come.

If that is what Star Wars is, then Episode VII is an unmitigated triumph.

Much like Poe Dameron’s style. Hot damn.

Episode VII picks up about 30 years after the Return of the Jedi, coincidentally about 30 years old, and is peppered with callbacks to the original trilogy that have Star Wars geeks tripping over themselves (the chess set, the training droid, the Falcon gas masks) as well as plot elements and sequences almost in full such as the TIE fighter chase. So the universe that we are shown very much feels like a continuation of the Star Wars universe that we are familiar with, both in minor details and in broad strokes. The Millenium Falcon is back! Han Solo! Admiral Ackbar! Other traditions are also silently observed – every single Star Wars movie begins with a crawl, followed by a tilt down to show a planet and a spaceship, while the last shot shows a group of people. Without making a fuss about it, Abrams ensures that Episode VII continues these traditions.

This extends beyond the script however, with Abrams demonstrating both visually and acoustically what makes a Star Wars film, a Star Wars film.

Visually Abrams worked with long time collaborator Dan Mindel, of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III fame. The announcement of this left many people worried that the JJ Abrams lens flare would dominate the visual style.

It’s literally a miracle that anyone could see anything on that bridge.

But of course both Abrams and Mindel are far too smart to use a visual motif so completely at odds with the visual style of the original films. Episode IV was shot by Gilbert Taylor (who, incidentally, went on to DP the 1980 Flash Gordon adaptation) in a classic Hollywood style – while all the ground-breaking special effects wizardry was happening, Taylor was relatively conservative in terms of framing, movement and colour. Mindel carried this on, and again used a traditional look (shooting on 35mm) somewhat different to his previous work – while not many shots are on a tripod, the excessive camera shake and operator noise seen in some of his other work is gone. A lot of space-based shots are lit through grilles, a technique used in Episodes V and VI. The one framing addition that I personally think really gels with the Star Wars look is the inclusion of POV shots from X-wings and their pilots, making the dogfights seem much more immediate.

To preserve the classic look Mindel even went so far as to design new lenses with Panavision that emulated the warm, forgiving feel of the original films, but only for scenes involving the Resistance. For scenes involving the First Order harsher, more modern lenses were used to emphasise the visual contrast already created by different colour schemes. It’s a breathtakingly subtle technique, but it works – the feel of scenes involving the two parties are completely different.

Of course no discussion of the cinematography of the film would be complete without talking about THAT shot of Kylo and Han on the bridge. As the sun outside is being eaten by Starkiller base, the light shining on Kylo in his confrontation stutters and fades, leaving his face illuminated only in red, and poor Han gets turned into a lightsaber kebab. It’s great, great visual filmmaking that makes sense within the story. But it only works as the culmination of a lighting strategy that exists throughout the film. In most shots of helmetless Kylo Ren, his face is illuminated by red and white in different proportions, representing his internal conflict. I wasn’t paying too much attention on either of my viewings but I’ll happily bet that the proportion of red increased steadily as the film went on. It’s a really simple technique, but the simple ones are often the most effective.

Much like the ol’ lightsaber to the chest.

That’s enough about visual storytelling. It would be remiss of me to not mention what Episode VII sounds like. As John Williams is the man, it sounds amazing, and a fluid continuation of the series. The music is so effective that you barely notice it’s there, with the exception of famous motifs such as the force theme swelling as Rey goes on the offensive with Luke’s lightsaber. I honestly wonder if there is any point in making Star Wars after Williams passes away – his music is so linked to the films that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else scoring a Star Wars. With Rogue One coming out this year being scored by Alexandre Desplat, I guess we’ll find out soon enough if another composer can step into the giant shoes of probably the greatest film composer in history.

Likewise to Williams, there can be little doubt that Ben Burtt is the greatest sound designer in movie history, with the way that Star Wars sounds almost entirely resting on his and Williams’ shoulders. And because Burtt came back for Episode VII, it sounds exactly like a Star Wars movie should, but still moves forward – for example with the adorable puppy droid of BB8. But some traditions can never die – did you spot the Wilhelm scream?

So between plot elements, cinematography, sound, and the much-lauded return to practical effects, Episode VII is a perfect entry into the Star Wars canon. But that doesn’t make it a perfect film.

Parte the Thirde – Why Episode VII isn’t perfect

When you’re making the most talked-about film of the decade the biggest problem is always going to be anticipation. Every single Star Wars fan had a pre-conceived notion of what Episode VII would be like. And somehow, miraculously, the film seemed to live up to people’s expectations. But there’s a second kind of anticipation that is just as important, and it’s this form of anticipation that Episode VII falls down on. And that’s, within the film, the anticipation of the next act.

Typically films follow a three-act structure, with the first act given over to introduction, the second act to an initial conflict or journey, and then the third act to a climactic confrontation or struggle, the resolution of which has profound implications. In the case of Episode IV act one corresponds to Luke leaving Tatooine, act two to the rescue of Leia from the Death Star, and act three to the trench run and destruction of the Death Star. This structure is effective because its one that the audience is familiar, though most likely on an unconscious level, from other stories. The story of the hero’s journey in three parts features in most works of mythology, as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and when we’re watching a film one thing that we’re doing is subconsciously anticipating the next act. When watching Episode IV while you may be watching Leia being sprung from her cell and flown away by Luke and Han, you’re subconsciously expecting the events of that act to influence some as-yet unseen final conflict.

In Episode VII act one corresponds to Finn meeting Rey and them stealing the Falcon, act two to the journey returning BB8 to the resistance, and act three to the destruction of Starkiller base. The problem is that there simply isn’t enough dramatic tension to clearly delineate the three acts. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but in particular between acts two and three there is a certain something missing that should tell you “what you’ve seen so far has been building up to this attack, buckle up cowboy”. If I had to guess, I would say that it was a lack of peril for the main characters – at no point in act two did I feel that the main characters were in any real danger, with the relaxation from that danger then setting up the even greater danger of act three. Or perhaps the death of Han Solo was misplaced? In Episode IV the almost exact analogue is the death of Obi Wan at the hands of Darth Vader, and it occurs at the end of act two. This then raises the stakes for act three, having demonstrated that main characters are not invincible.

At any rate, the lack of antipation for the next act of the journey hampers how effective Episode VII is at engaging with the audience.

Further criticism could be levelled at how slavishly the movie stuck to the plot of Episode IV, and while I said before that the episodic nature of Star Wars encourages callbacks and re-use of plot elements perhaps the film took it too far and was not inventive enough. For a film that is clearly trying to get the taste of Episodes I-III out of the public mouth however, a traditionalist approach is completely understandable. If Episode VIII makes the same mistake though then we know we’re in trouble.

On an editing point there were at least three sequences that were almost comically drawn out sequences of near-identical shots of people staring at each other – Rey and Kylo duelling, Rey returning Luke’s lightsaber, and Kylo force torturing Rey. I’m honestly not sure what editor Mary Jo Markey was thinking but it jolts you right out of the film – you’ve made your point, move on to the next bloody shot!

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Seriously. Either say something or end the movie here!

Lastly while the new lead characters are great (I’m a big fan of how Furiosa-esque Rey is) the supporting cast didn’t really get enough to do. Both General Hux and Captain Phasma for example are left woefully underdeveloped – I wanted to see a new Admiral Piett and Boba Fett respectively out of those two, and Phasma in particular barely gets enough screen time to register on the eyeballs, let alone be a badass. And while I like Andy Serkis as much as the next man I’m not wholly convinced by Supreme Leader Snoke. Something about the character or maybe just Serkis in general has the stench of The Hobbit all over it. Hopefully in future films we’ll see more of the character (and the awesome basso profundo piece that Williams wrote to accompany him) and find out what kind of dude specifically requests a chamber built so he can be hologrammed three stories high.

For all of these criticisms though, I enjoyed Episode VII immensely. It is a good film at the end of the day. It represents a huge return to form for one of the most significant film series in history, and nicely sets up what will hopefully be equally good sequels. If the sound of JJ Abrams kicking himself for not signing on to do more isn’t enough proof, then I think Episode VII shows that the creative heads behind the scenes have moved past Lucas’ mistakes with the prequels and made Star Wars great again.

In fact the very first line sums up the film’s contribution to the Star Wars saga perfectly well – “This will make things right.”

Two and a half hours later, I was inclined to agree.


The Little Mermaid – Best Disney villain ever?

I’ve been a fan of animation for as long as I can remember, though modern Disney wasn’t really a part of my childhood. Despite (or perhaps, because) Pocahontas was the first film I saw in the cinema, we didn’t really have modern Disney in the house. The Aristocats, One Hundred and One Dalmations and The Jungle Book were regularly in the VCR machine, while the renaissance-era classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid went sailing by my pre-adolescent head. Having now caught up with these titles I think that was a great shame. And The Little Mermaid is a classic example of what I was missing out on.

A good Disney film in my opinion has to check multiple boxes – good soundtrack/songs, visually engaging, a solid plot (for a kids’ movie), and perhaps most importantly a GREAT villain. The Little Mermaid checks all of these boxes and so definitely deserves the cult following it seems to have among university students, though falls short of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast on most fronts. With one exception – The Little Mermaid has what I think must be one of the best Disney villains of all time. The scheming Ursula has it all – megalomania, a lust for power, being (briefly) all but omnipotent, and having freaking octopus tentacles for legs.

Take that, Scar.

When I was a kid I would have been scared of Ursula, and that’s one box on the Disney list very definitely ticked.

The plot is serviceable – Ariel, the daughter of the sea king (having evolved from Goldeen) Triton, falls in love with the unfortunately named Prince Eric. Unfortunately Eric is a landlubber and Ariel is a mermaid who has a confusing respiratory system that allows her to breath water and air, and a fish tail for legs. Ursula sees her predicament and offers her a deal with a short fuse and horrible consequences… which I won’t ruin if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s a simple plot but not to the point of condescending its target audience, and moves along at a fair clip after a sluggish start. Without much fat at all, the plot gets a tick.

Visually The Little Mermaid is a great example of what traditional animation is capable of. While it might suffer by comparison to Pixar’s Finding Nemo in having sparser frames and a less engrossingly underwater feel, it is still a gorgeous picture to look at. Specifically, art directors Michael Peraza Jr. and Donald Towns use abstract images of sometimes just two tones to create really visually striking frames. In particular the storm sequence in the first act and basically any scene involving Ursula (especially in the final act) is visually gorgeous by being pared down to such a limited palette. While this is possible in live action, and directors like Wes Anderson are known for doing it, the king of this kind of visual abstraction is traditional animation. Another technique which animation allows, and this film in particular uses to lovely effect, is matching scene transitions – to see how another great of animation, Satoshi Kon, uses this I highly recommend this excellent video essay from one of my favourite YouTube channels, EveryFrameaPainting. Visuals – tick.

Lastly, and to many people most importantly, what does the film sound like? Pretty good, is the short answer. While composer Alan Menken doesn’t produce his best work for the score (that accolade definitely belongs to Beauty and the Beast) the score is still good, and his decision to use a simple leitmotif to connect the plot together works very well. The songs however, written by Menken with Howard Ashman, are really top notch. The film is credited with bringing the Broadway style into Disney films, and with musical numbers such as the famous ‘Under the Sea’ you can easily see why the style was copied by the other films of the Disney renaissance, and is still copied to this day with releases like Frozen. The last tick goes in the box.

I do still have issues with Disney animation. The overly simplistic (even for a kids’ film) world view, the emphasis placed on the need for women to make love fall in love with them, the white heteronormativity (though this is hardly exclusive to Disney films from the era), and the unrealistic body expectations portrayed still rankle me. But The Little Mermaid is a good film. Well made, and historically interesting for representing a return to form for the studio. Give it a watch, especially if you are a fan of the style of music in early 90s Disney films. Or if you like badass villainous women. Especially that.

I mean, come on! Look how EVIL she is!
I mean, come on! Look how EVIL she is!