When it comes to the Star Wars franchise, there are two facts that most sane people do not deny. The first is that it is clearly the biggest science fiction franchise of all time, and will continue to be so in the future. The second fact is that (with one exception) these films are not actually good on a critical level. Both of these facts are credited to George Lucas, who by now probably holds the title of the most controversial filmmaker of all time, even amongst his fans. Lucas is gifted with an incredible imagination and, almost as importantly, shrewd marketing skills. What he fails to do is direct actors, create three-dimensional characters, or write good scripts. I believe it was Harrison Ford who said "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it." Even Lucas has said that he deserves to be known as "The King of Wooden Dialogue."
How fortunate it is then, that the original Star Wars movie was capable of surviving on its own without any such things. The key to enjoying this film in the modern era, after the incredible shock of its cultural impact has worn off, is to understand that the characters in these movies are not really characters. They are archetypes and stereotypes (and in the prequels, racist ones too). This stems from Lucas's affinity for old serial movies and foreign films (specifically Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress). Lucas cites this film as his primary influence, and it's more than evident. In fact, Star Wars might fall into the category of a "rip-off." But Lucas knew that in order for audiences to enjoy a film like The Hidden Fortress, it had to be made more accessible. So he picked up the story, reworked it, set it in a galaxy far, far, away, and forever changed the face of American cinema.
I can't even begin to imagine the sheer awe that audiences must have felt in 1977 when they first saw this film. From minute one, it's clear that incredible attention was paid to ensure that every scene in this film blew the audience away in some way. Lucas even went so far as to not include the standard credits at the beginning of the film, just to shock audiences with the suddenness and force of the film's opening. Almost 40 years later, and it's still the most iconic opening to any film of all time. Over the course of the rest of the movie, the film basically constructs everything about pop culture for all the years to come. It coins so many quotable lines, introduces so many amazing concepts, and most importantly, truly ushers in the era of the blockbuster to American filmmaking (for better or for worse).
This film could not have come at a better time. After the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency, the public needed a clear-cut, black and white story about good vs evil. And if Star Wars is anything, it's that. In this film, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a simple farm boy on the desert planet Tatooine, is thrown into the midst of a galactic rebellion against the evil empire when he inadvertently buys a droid encrypted with the empire's plans for a space station called the Death Star. The Death Star is a planet-sized weapon capable of destroying whole worlds, which is demonstrated to monstrous results. Luke teams up with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to stop the Empire and rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). The villain, Darth Vader, is iconic. The heroes are flat yet lovable. The story has just the right amount of campy fun and pitch-perfect adventurism to qualify as great. It's truly an enthralling experience.
I fear that in the future, large parts of this film will become so ingrained in pop culture that they will eventually lose their shock value. People will eventually forget how incredible it was to see the first lightsaber duel onscreen, or how incredible the visual appeal of the first dogfight in space was. But thus far, this movie only seems to have gained cultural traction, and I hope it continues to do so. I often get asked why I can't just have fun with a movie like Pacific Rim or The Avengers, and why I insist on overanalyzing it. Well, it's because movies like that might be fun, but they're no Star Wars. For a movie with acting that bad and a script that wooden to truly be successful, it would have to be the most influential film of the century. And it just so happens that Star Wars fits that bill. And gloriously so.
Final Score for Star Wars (not A New Hope, I refuse to call it by its slave name): 8/10 stars. I can't give this a really high score, because to be honest, a lot of this movie is crap. "But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!" Dear God. However, to deny this movie my unrestrained love would be to ignore everything it has done for movies in the past four decades, good and bad. Every big blockbuster since this movie has owed something to it, and even though I might not like elements of the era it ushered in, Star Wars is still the first of its kind. Watching this movie was like a massive flashback to my childhood, and I loved every minute of it. It's not dark, it's not brooding, it doesn't have a deeper meaning or message. At the end of the day, it doesn't have to. Because it's Star Wars, and such things would only drag it down.
Despite mixed reviews, I enjoyed last year's sci-fi Tom Cruise film Oblivion, as it's nice to see people making new and inventive (if not particularly original) science fiction movies nowadays. It seems as if more and more sci-fi films are either remakes (Total Recall, Robocop), reboots (Prometheus, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), or sequels (Transformers 4, X-Men: Days of Future Past). This isn't necessarily an awful thing, as remakes, reboots, and sequels all have their place, and can be good in their own right. But if I had to go a year without some new and inventive science fiction, I'd probably lose my mind.
Thank God for movies like Edge of Tomorrow, a movie that may not be smart on a philosophical level, but is inarguably smartly made. This film gave me hope for both science fiction films and action movies alike, using both old cliches and new ideas to good results. Edge of Tomorrow stars Tom Cruise as William Cage, a poster boy for a war effort against an alien invasion set in the near future. When he is unexpectedly sent to the battlefield, he accidentally gains the alien's power of reversing time when he kills one and is smothered in its blood. Essentially, he now has the video game power of infinite respawn-- Whenever he dies, he comes back to life at his save point. Emily Blunt, who had the power once but lost it, helps guide him on his mission to kill the alien's central control-hive-mind-thingy, and there you have your plot.
What I appreciate most about this film is its willingness to not take itself seriously. Cruise doesn't play his typical character, he instead takes the part of a wimpy, diminutive, whiny little press icon who has never actually seen battle. This is a bit of a stretch for the guy who always seems to get typecast as MAVERICK: The Cocky, Charming Pilot Who Plays By His Own Rules! His performance is one of the strongest ones he's given in years, and he hits every right note when it comes to how a real person would react in his situation. There's also a welcome amount of humor, mostly constructed around Cruise's constant deaths, and the movie doesn't shy away from poking fun at its central premise. In a time when most films are dark, Christopher Nolan-y exposition-fests, I couldn't possibly appreciate this more.
The action is equally strong, and is coherently filmed-- No shaky cam or quick-zooms to be found here. The director and cinematographer clearly understood that action isn't just about physical movements, it's about motivation (a concept that was lost on the creators of Transformers: Age of Extinction). There's a montage halfway through the movie that may just be my favorite action centerpiece of the year. What makes most of this film's gimmicks work are the constant, subtle jabs at the genre itself, and of course the legitimately entertaining action. The semi-futuristic world that this movie crafts is extremely imaginative and involving, from the alien designs to the mech suits worn by the grunts of the military. Altogether, it's a very well put-together film.
Towards the end, the movie starts taking itself a little too seriously, however, and it adapts the darker, explosion-filled style that we all too often expect of modern science fiction films. However, I can't deduct too many points for this, because as the stakes get higher the film clearly needs to have a more emotional climax than the rest of the movie. But did we really need to have a bunch of marines running around in the dark AGAIN? Also, I'm a little miffed at the way the movie uses a plot point that ends up in the vein of Deus ex Machina at the end. It's a little reminiscent of the ending to Source Code, except here it doesn't make any sense (no spoilers!). But since the rest of the movie is so strong, and because I just love movies like this, it didn't detract from my enjoyment much, and I doubt anyone else would say otherwise.
Final Score for Edge of Tomorrow: 7/10 stars. This is nothing more than a simple, fun summer blockbuster, but it really does wonders with its premise. There's a lot to love in this movie, and even if it isn't particularly highbrow entertainment, a lot of work and effort went into crafting it, and boy did it pay off. It's truly refreshing to see an action film that actually took some creativity to make. Take note, Michael Bay. All the makings of a sci-fi classic are here. The characters are relatable, the story is interesting, and the action is actually quite intelligent, unlike Tin Cans In A Blender 4. Altogether an entertaining and awesome experience that people will hopefully talk about for years to come.
Back in the 90s, there was a film known as Species, a laughable little B-movie that gave B-movies a bad name. In it, scientists cross alien DNA with the DNA of a supermodel, and create an incredibly sexy killing machine. This new creature then proceeds to rampage across Los Angeles, seducing men in order to try and find a viable mate and killing the ones that don't fit the bill. It is a cheesy, silly, campy load of shit, but at least it's a fun movie, which is more than I can say for 2014's more pretentious version of it, Under the Skin.
In this film, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien disguised as, well, Scarlett Johansson, and moves through Scotland killing people. It is not nearly as compelling as it sounds. Much like Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, a lot of this movie is stylistic filler. It's definitely more of an experience than it is a movie, but you really have to take the good with the bad when it comes to a film such as this. Despite being far more compelling than a certain other alien/beautiful woman hybrid flick, this film is not very approachable, at least on a surface level. Let's try to break it down a bit.
The main focus of this film is the alien's slow transformation as she interacts with humans. She becomes increasingly fascinated with human culture, but is not in fact capable of becoming fully human (as evidenced by a scene in which she fails at eating cake, which I'm not sure was supposed to be funny, but I laughed at it anyway). This kind of story has been done before: The visitor from another culture slowly absorbs the new culture into themselves, and realizes that what they're doing is wrong. Avatar, anyone? But the way in which this is presented in Under the Skin is far more interesting-When Johansson kills someone, they burst like a balloon and their skin floats away.
I must say though, despite the fascinating premise and interesting messages the film has, these scenes get old fast. Artsy-fartsy shock and awe will only get you so far, but at some point, you need to have another reason to keep people watching your movie than just "SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS NAKED!!! WOOO-HOOO!" That's the biggest reason why mainstream audiences watched this movie, I'm sure, and in a way it really does it a disservice. People can't appreciate the message of a film if they're too focused on the actress's titties. If you were to ignore the fact that Johansson is naked in the killing scenes, you'd realize how repetitive and truly dull they are. But hey, tits. So that's a plus.
SPOILERS AHEAD!!! If you have not yet seen Under the Skin, skip to the Final Score.
The film really lost me, however, at the end, when the alien tears off her Scarlett Johansson disguise and reveals herself for what she truly is. Any number of interpretations could be drawn from this, but none of them really satisfy me. It could mean, for instance, that the creature has given up on trying to be human and has decided not to try to be something she's not anymore. Or, it could mean that the creature no longer wants to lure innocent people to their deaths, and so she rips off her disguise in order to avoid that temptation. Either way, the metaphor doesn't quite work. This film is a commentary about predators in society, so what is it trying to say, at its core? That predators are inherently good inside and want to fit in? Or that they are truly dark and soulless creatures hell-bent on terrorizing humanity? I'm not convinced of either end of the spectrum.
Final Score for Under the Skin: 5/10 stars. I thought about bringing this up, partly because it's a fascinating movie and partly because the cinematography was so damn good, but really I can't justify giving this movie a positive score and meanwhile mocking Only God Forgives. Neither are particularly good at conveying their messages, and both favor shock, titillation, and artsy camerawork over actually making a decision on what they're trying to say. The difference is that Johansson does quite a good job in this film, with a convincing accent and a very emotionally involving character. But as for the story? Ehh... not so much.