Film reviews

Deadpool.

Deadpool pic 3.

If, like me, you’ve recently found yourself becoming tired of the increasingly redundant superhero/ comic book movie formula that has come to prominence in the film industry over the past fifteen years, rest assured that Deadpool shares the sentiment. This is a movie that fully embraces its role as the black sheep of recent superhero studio offerings, reflected in its self-referential, irreverent attitude and crude content.

Deadpool is, much like its title character, a reluctant, outrageous and mostly hilarious instalment in the expanded X-Men film series – one that shows as little loyalty and respect for its own expanded universe as it does for other supposedly wholesome family-friendly superhero movies that have come before. The film’s stylish opening credits set up its smart-ass, self-deprecating tone in referring to cast and crew by stereotypical tropes – e.g. “directed by an overpaid tool”, featuring “a villain with an English accent” and also starring a “hot chick” – rather than their real names.

Note that such stereotypes are common throughout other superhero movies, not least Marvel’s own; the main difference between them and Deadpool is not so much that this film breaks away from the typical formula (without its sense of humour it would undeniably appear as formulaic as anything else), but that it is excessively self-aware of that formula. It openly embraces the subsequent shortcomings of its own genre before inverting those conventions upon themselves.

Deadpool himself often looks to the audience, casually breaking the fourth wall as he shares in-jokes that play off our preconceived notions of what to expect from this kind of movie. He throws out quips regarding the lesser budget of his film in comparison with the larger ‘franchises’, his own character history (including that misjudged appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that you’d think he’d rather forget), and even acknowledges the naysayers who claimed Deadpool would never get his own movie nor would Ryan Reynolds be a successful casting choice in the central role. Here he goes some way to proving them all wrong, flipping a middle finger in the process.

The coolest thing about Wade Wilson, the quick-witted mercenary who becomes ‘anti-hero’ Deadpool, is that he’s largely a spokesperson for those of us who roll our eyes when the Avengers continually come out on top in perfectly choreographed set pieces; or when Hollywood flippantly destroys entire cities and incurs several casualties that we’re not supposed to care about because the camera doesn’t focus in on them.

In fact perhaps the best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s not, despite initial appearances, simply out for those kind of mindless thrills. Violence, while at times bordering on excessive (though trust me, there’s much worse to be found elsewhere), is not simply there – it has a point. That it’s done in somewhat flippant and comical fashion is what will offend more conservative viewers; that its point is, in the end, to ridicule the high-minded moral compass of other movies is what will turn others off because here they can’t sit quite as comfortably in their seats as when they’re watching the good guys win.

Whether this character resonates with you or not (and by his offensive nature, there will obviously be some with whom he doesn’t gel), one can’t deny that he is a gifted individual; which indeed, for some, will make it all the more galling that he willingly chooses not to perform the noble heroics we’ve come to expect from such a character. He could be a hero… but hey, the world has enough of those anyway.

I think there are two main groups Deadpool will especially appeal to. The first and most obvious are those who simply wish to lap up the dirty jokes, half-naked attractive people on screen, and all-round tone of underworld seediness. Come to it just for those things and you certainly won’t leave disappointed. The second, a group in which I fit quite easily, are those jaded by the repeated formula we’ve become so used to seeing and who find it refreshing to have something different on offer from a major studio.

This is, after all, a superhero/ comic book movie not for kids, but adults – adults who may realise now just how watered down those other movies are. Here is one with excessive swearing, violence, and a potential heart of gold that it willingly – and repeatedly – rips up in front of your eyes for the sheer fun of it. Featuring a protagonist who is, in stark contrast to a ‘true hero’ like Captain America, a rather shallow man (the choice of Ryan Reynolds for the role is itself the subject of self-deprecating humour at one point) using his newfound powers for personal gains, namely revenge motivated primarily by the loss of his good looks.

The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is inverted time and again – even the usual redemptive character arc is neatly avoided at the last moment. Wade Wilson remains the same ‘Merc with a mouth’ at the film’s conclusion that he was at the beginning; the movie retaining its stubbornly flippant attitude to the end. In this case, it fits, and for me it worked out brilliantly.

Tonally and stylistically, I found the whole movie to be well-crafted and immensely enjoyable. Be aware that it is likely to offend if you don’t share its sense of humour, or its thoughts and opinions on the genre of which it is an entertaining part. But of course, there is also another element to all this; what some people might consider the ‘elephant in the room’.

That is the undeniable fact that this is still a movie by a major studio. While it is essentially making fun of its own methods, it is profiting by doing so, and those profits will ultimately go towards making movies in the same vein that may return to the same old habits. I do however feel that this is a different, bigger conversation for another time. And really, there was no better way to tackle this particular Marvel character than the way in which they did so here.

As a standalone film and all-round experience, I can’t deny the great time I had with Deadpool. There will surely be a sequel; I hope they push the anti-PG bar even further with it. For right now I don’t mind backing Hollywood to do so, even if they have got to a point where they’re selling our own jaded attitudes back to us.

8 / 10

Film reviews

Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Force Awakens pic 1.

The Force Awakens is quite possibly the most anticipated movie release since The Phantom Menace (1999), and unlike the first episode of the prequel trilogy, this is a Star Wars film that fully justifies its hype. This feels like the film people would have wanted when they first entered movie theatres 16 years ago expecting the series to pick up where it had left off.

There’s little doubt for me that most Star Wars fans will lap up what this movie offers. Yet that’s not to say it’s just two-plus hours of fan service. There is a genuinely gripping, fresh story here; the older characters we once loved are now mythic in a similar way to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original, with the narrative instead driven by newcomers Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those new additions to the cast are all, frankly, amazing. They give astounding performances and encapsulate characters that fit perfectly into the Star Wars universe while moving it forward to the next generation. Daisy Ridley especially, who is an absolute revelation and the centrepiece around which the entire film revolves. She played my favourite character in this movie, closely followed by Ren who feels like a refreshing, original villain.

Within the first ten minutes of The Force Awakens I already felt it was better than anything the prequels had done. Characters feel like real people; even the Stormtroopers, previously no more than cannon fodder, are portrayed from a human perspective, and in fact a main character’s back story involves working for the ‘First Order’ (this film’s equivalent of the Empire) in this capacity before leaving the profession behind.

Dialogue is refreshingly engaging too, free from George Lucas’ insistence on explaining everything to the audience while his characters stand around talking. Here there are still explanations offered for what’s been happening in the intervening 30 years between Return of the Jedi and this film, but exposition is delivered with a sense of urgency; something the prequel trilogy severely lacked.

There’s also not too much CGI used in this movie; certainly less than you’d expect from the biggest science fiction franchise of all time. Another issue I had with the prequels was the over-reliance on blue screens; not a problem here. Real environments were used for shooting, and it helps give the film a true sense of authenticity. Everything, for the most part, feels so much more real.

So let’s cut to the chase. Will you enjoy this film if you are not a Star Wars fan, and do you need to have seen the previous films in order to appreciate this one? This being the start of a brand new trilogy, you really get the sense that it is its own self-contained narrative. I believe you could get invested in this particular chapter of the universe and mythology even if you come to it with no prior knowledge.

At the same time the nostalgic throwbacks are likely to please fans, but they never feel forced. There is an all-round organic feel to the film – one of the most important aspects of any cinematic experience for me. Having said that, if one was going to search for any criticisms it may be for certain aspects of the movie that reflect the original Star Wars; some may accuse it of a slight lack of originality in places.

But even should that criticism be justified – and I found it had no lasting impact on my overall enjoyment of the film – it is vastly outweighed by the strength of the characters portrayed and the sheer pace of the action. There wasn’t a single moment in this movie where I felt it was starting to drag; though it lasts close to two and a half hours, you likely won’t notice the time going in.

Obviously at this point I won’t touch on the plot to any great extent. Suffice to say, I felt it delivered in all the right areas – there is an issue that I had with one particular part, but I’ll touch on that another time. Beginning, middle and end are all handled brilliantly. At no point do you feel the film is rushing through a checklist of what it feels it needs to include (hello again prequels), instead confident enough to hold off on certain things until the right time. Oh, and it ends on a brilliant cliffhanger that is likely to leave some feeling they’ve been sold a little short… but let’s remember how a certain other Star Wars film ended as well, and many people consider that the best one.

I honestly believe this one, The Force Awakens, is the finest instalment in the Star Wars saga since The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, in my opinion it’s superior to Return of the Jedi and (as if it needs to be said) all three of the prequels. Perhaps after another viewing or two I’ll update you on where I stand on this, but for now I’m willing to say there’s a chance this could end up being my favourite Star Wars movie overall.

That’s the kind of potential I knew this production had with J.J. Abrams at the helm, and for now, going on first impressions, it seems he’s delivered. I already can’t wait to see what he does with the next one. The force has indeed awoken, and you’ll be relieved to know it’s as strong as ever.

9 / 10

Film reviews

Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Revenge of the Sith Palpatine.

The dark side is a pathway to many abilities; some considered to be unnatural.”

Let’s rewind ten years. I was fifteen years old. Had enjoyed the first two Star Wars prequels but knew, deep down, they weren’t perfect films. Despite the disappointment that had greeted those movies across the board, anticipation for Revenge of the Sith was pretty high. This was, after all, the episode on which the entire saga rested; the one we had all wanted to see coming into the prequels from the start. Anakin was going to become Darth Vader. The Jedi would be wiped out. The Republic somehow twisted into the Empire. This was the film in which it was all going to come together.

It opens three years after Attack of the Clones, in the midst of a space battle that looks better than anything its two predecessors had done. This film is still full of CGI and that undoubtedly causes issues (some CGI environments are so blindingly obvious that certain scenes lose any sense of realism or immersion), but here it isn’t quite as jarring or intrusive on the whole.

You immediately feel that Anakin has also matured from the whiny, tantrum-prone teen we knew previously, now more Obi-Wan’s equal as a Jedi. Hayden Christensen’s portrayal remains a point of contention, but he has improved, and much of his problem again stems from the material he’s given to work with here.

One of the biggest issues I have with Revenge of the Sith, in fact, is Anakin’s eventual turn to the dark side, which feels abrupt and slightly forced when it eventually happens. In the course of a few moments Anakin goes from saying “what have I done?” in horror, having prevented Mace Windu from killing Chancellor Palpatine, indirectly causing the Jedi Master’s death, to then kneeling and pledging himself to the Sith, agreeing with Darth Sidious that all Jedi should be eliminated.

No real person would act like this. Once again this film, like its predecessors, suffers greatly from a lack of organic development in its plot and character arcs; always coming across as if it’s heading towards some fixed destination and needing to tick off various checklist points on the way there.

Some sequences, including the first twenty minutes when Anakin and Obi-Wan are rescuing the Chancellor (which reportedly lasted over an hour before being edited down), feel excessively cut to the extent that you lose much of the emotional substance they otherwise could have had. George Lucas’ original version of this film was apparently four hours long, and that we ended up with a running time half this amount sums up, for me, the main problem. Lucas simply left himself with too much to get through in Revenge of the Sith, and seemingly wasn’t willing to stretch the film’s length to what it arguably needed to be to do itself justice.

Having said that, there are some surprises lurking here that automatically put this film above the other two Star Wars prequel movies. For example: the soundtrack – not so much in what it adds, but the times when it remains quiet. This is probably the quietest Star Wars film, with certain scenes completely absent of sound apart from the characters voices. The scene where Darth Sidious reveals himself to Anakin is most evident of this, as it begins without any sound, and the soundtrack subtly starts to build as Sidious builds up to revealing his true identity.

Speaking of Darth Sidious, Ian McDiarmid is once again excellent in this movie. Go back and watch the scene where Palpatine is talking to Anakin at the opera – probably the film’s best scene overall – and observe what he does with his inflections and subtle facial expressions. In that one scene you see him play his two characters at once; the gentle, kind Palpatine, looking out for Anakin as one would show concern for a nephew; under the facade, Darth Sidious, who shows the slightest hint of glee as he recounts the story of Darth Plagueis and remembers killing his former master.

Due to the film’s use of silence, its soundtrack is all the more effective when it is used. Seeing the clone troopers turn on their Jedi generals via Order 66 is especially poignant and harrowing thanks to John Williams’ score, while the iconic Duel of the Fates makes a return in the final climactic lightsaber battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan.

That final fight itself is a disappointment though. Yes it’s long and epic… but most of all, it’s over-choreographed to the point of absurdity. We don’t get the sense that this fight is real, or that there is any genuine emotion involved outside of dialogue and close-ups on the actors faces.

The dialogue is, I’m afraid, still unreasonably bad. It’s a slight improvement over the two films that preceded it, but George Lucas insists time and again on verbalising certain emotions and actions rather than trusting his actors to convey them.

Padme, for example, has to spell out for Anakin (and the audience) that “you’re breaking my heart” after hearing that he’s turned to the dark side and killed younglings. Honestly, watching the film back now, I almost feel sorry for Natalie Portman because of the numerous occasions she has dialogue fed to her that completely negates or undermines any acting on her part.

There’s another simple scene that exemplifies this issue, and it makes me want to punch the screen in frustration more than any other in this movie: it is when we see Darth Vader in his full body suit for the first time. He asks ‘where is Padme?’ and is informed that, in his anger, he killed her. Vader is angry and heartbroken. We see him crush the environment around him through the force; showing that his power is as strong as ever. And then, as if we hadn’t received the message, he shouts, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” The scene immediately becomes almost comical with that line.

But despite these misgivings, what I was saying earlier still stands: this is the best of the prequel trilogy. It is the darkest Star Wars film, and was the first to receive a PG-13 rating – after all, its plot deals with the Sith exterminating every Jedi; the Empire standing tall at the end, with Yoda and Obi-Wan, facing defeat, forced to go into exile. Within the first fifteen minutes Anakin, one of the film’s main protagonists, beheads his adversary Count Dooku in cold blood. Throughout the entire running time there’s an impending sense of unease, the likes of which Star Wars viewers hadn’t truly felt since The Empire Strikes Back twenty-five years earlier.

Of course many of this film’s fans, including myself, were not alive when the originals had their first theatrical run. I must admit, at fifteen years old, I considered Revenge of the Sith my favourite film of 2005. For me it more than delivered on its hype. With each subsequent viewing over the intervening years I’ve increasingly found little annoyances with the film that almost spoil my memory of enjoying it so much first time round. But I will say in its favour, even now, it’s hard to dwell on those flaws for too long – because it goes along at such a pace that you’re unable to. There are five separate lightsaber fights in this film, and while some of them really aren’t great at all (Obi-Wan against Grievous technically shouldn’t even count), this is what the essence of Star Wars was all about.

So where does it rank in the overall saga? For me it’s just a notch short of Return of the Jedi, as even though I prefer the tone of this one, the problems with its script and the fact that Lucas simply found himself with too much to get through in the plot almost cripple the finished product. It’s a good Star Wars movie – but could potentially have been a great one.

7 / 10

Film reviews

Attack of the Clones (2002).

Attack of the Clones pic 1.

I killed them. Not just the men… but the women, and the children too. They’re animals, and I slaughtered them like animals! I hate them!!” (said by the teenager who, three years from now, will become Darth Vader. The illusion is shattered…)

So this is it. Having stuttered through Anakin Skywalker’s childhood in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars fans were eager to see how the character’s inevitable path towards the dark side would progress in Attack of the Clones. George Lucas’ answer was to insert a love story around which this sequel would revolve – a love story that begins weird on Anakin’s side and evolves in a way that doesn’t make much logical sense.

After the disappointment expressed towards the first part of the prequel trilogy, everyone was hopeful that Lucas had learned his lesson and that this sequel would be a much improved addition to the Star Wars universe. And in some crucial ways, it is. This film goes along at a much better pace than its predecessor – there is rarely a let-up in the action. Acting is also marginally improved, though still often held back by the fact that everyone is expressing themselves in front of blue screens or reacting to CGI that would be inserted in post production.

Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) takes more of a central role here as Anakin’s master, and you do get the sense that the two men have developed a bond in the intervening ten years between Episode 1 and this film. For me Hayden Christensen is not quite as bad as some say – unless he’s “looking longingly” at Padme (Natalie Portman), which comes across more like he’s preparing to rape her than falling in love with her.

Still, Christensen’s main problem is the material Lucas gave him to work with here. Anakin’s portrayal as a whiny, slightly creepy lovestruck teen is not quite the prelude to Darth Vader that we all imagined.

There is one brief moment in which we get a cruel hint of the Anakin we actually wanted to see. It is when he finds his mother on Tatooine, who has been held captive by the ‘sand people’, and she dies in his arms. For a moment Anakin gets a certain look – a look of anger, of hatred, of wanting to hurt people very badly – and the soundtrack picks up in a way that makes you think ‘yes, finally we’re going to see some edgy shit’ go down around here.

So what does Lucas do? Well as this film is primarily for the kids, he cuts from the scene immediately as Anakin cuts through his first victim. The next time we see Anakin, he’s crying and spitting in front of Padme, his outburst with the sand people seemingly the result of a tantrum.

Whatever intensity existed in the previous scene is quickly extinguished in favour of painting his character as a boy with emotional problems, perhaps still at the tail end of puberty. Lucas tried to get us to feel sorry for Anakin when most people surely felt Darth Vader should have been a more rogue-like Jedi whose edginess covered a kind-hearted nature deep down.

Once again in Attack of the Clones, as with its predecessor, we’re presented with logic that insults our intelligence. Despite knowing from the opening scene that Anakin clearly has feelings for Padme, and having warned his padawan that his commitment to the Jedi Order means he’s forbidden from acting on such feelings, Obi-Wan nonetheless approves a mission in which the two are sent off alone together to her home on Naboo.

Anakin is appointed Padme’s personal Jedi protector. Did Obi-Wan ask himself what they’ll do together on Naboo I wonder… you know, when it’s just the two of them, and Anakin has to make sure he stays close ‘for her protection’? Someone needs to think logically here, as it seems the Jedi don’t bother… because logic would only get in the way of the script, after all.

On Naboo, Anakin and Padme have romantic dinners and picnics in the sun. They roll around and play together on the grass. They sit by a fire in the evenings. Padme wears increasingly revealing clothing during their time together. It all seems so perfectly crafted… as if to make it seem like, say, I don’t know, they were going to fall in love or something.

This gets cringeworthy real fast. That George Lucas sees fit to blatantly spell everything out for his audience is infuriating. That he doesn’t know how to write a decent love story in the first place is irritating. Less is more with this kind of thing in a Star Wars movie – Lucas himself should have known that after The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Han and Leia never needed this treatment to fall in love… but then again, their love story felt organic. Anakin and Padme’s love story only happens because the plot needed a vessel in which to insert Luke Skywalker into the continuity later.

Another major part of Attack of the Clones is, as the title suggests, the introduction of the conflict we heard about from Obi-Wan in the original trilogy: the ‘clone wars’. Its set-up in this film left a fairly major plot hole that was never resolved: that of Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas and Count Dooku’s involvement in the commissioning of a ‘Grand Army of the Republic’. Incidentally, these details were explored in the Darth Plagueis novel (published in 2012 and, for what it’s worth, an immensely enjoyable read in its own right), but as that is no longer considered canon – nor should viewers be expected to go elsewhere for such a crucial plot point – it isn’t a valid excuse for Lucas brushing over these details.

In fact this entire plot thread is again indicative of a script that is forcibly driven towards a fixed future destination rather than allowed to develop organically (my biggest criticism of the entire prequel trilogy if you hadn’t noticed). Logical jumps can be found all over the place if one looks close enough.

We learn at the end of this film that the whole thing was a plan masterminded by Darth Sidious and helped along in its execution by Count Dooku, which is a nice idea, but it breaks down to an extent when one stops to think about the factors that went into it.

Obi-Wan discovers the planetary system Kamino only because of a toxic dart used by Jango Fett, the bounty hunter commissioned to assassinate Padme. He then discovers Geonosis, the planet on which the clone wars begin when the Jedi all rush to rescue him, because he manages at the last moment to lob a tracking device on to Fett’s ship as the latter escapes. Fett then almost succeeds in killing Obi-Wan in an asteroid field (with very cool sound effects); had he done so then the plot would have ended there. The Jedi would have had no way of knowing where Jango Fett had fled to.

Then we have the Jedi themselves. Oh boy. Once again the Jedi Council shows a complete lack of logic in almost every department, from letting Anakin (a nineteen year old padawan who still bears the unresolved emotional issues Yoda perceived in him ten years before) escort Padme across the galaxy by himself, to then sending their entire force over to Geonosis to save one Jedi and attempt to wipe out all those who had decided to secede from the Republic. They jump into full-scale war so fast that you wonder how exactly they managed to be the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ for a thousand years beforehand.

Yes, on one hand it’s nice to see more action in this film. It’s cool to see Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) whip out his purple lightsaber and to see the Jedi do something other than sit around in a circle talking. But the lack of critical thinking on their part is absurd – it’s something we’re not really supposed to notice as those cool elements distract everyone from it, and George Lucas certainly isn’t going to let critical thinking get in the way of the direction in which he wants his story to go.

Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid give admirable performances as Count Dooku and Chancellor Palpatine respectively; the latter again making an otherwise drab political backdrop bearable. Jar Jar Binks is instrumental in helping Palpatine secure power in this film, meaning the character was indirectly responsible for the rise of the Galactic Empire and over twenty years of tyranny in the galaxy. Maybe that’s some kind of karma at work or maybe you consider it an insult that he was given such an important role in the saga. Make your own mind up.

In a lot of ways this film was all about fan service. Harking back to The Empire Strikes Back, we get another sequence in an asteroid field – though I’ll leave you to work out for yourself which one is clearly superior. Jango Fett plays a significant role, as does his son Boba Fett in Empire; both are involved in those respective asteroid scenes.

Most of all though, many fans wet their pants at the prospect of Yoda whipping out his lightsaber in a confrontation with Count Dooku towards the end of the film. The fight itself is easily the weakest of the prequel trilogy; fan anticipation and excitement once again helping to paper over an underlying lack of substance.

On the surface Attack of the Clones is an improvement over its predecessor. One can sense here that George Lucas was getting closer to the story he really wanted to tell, and the one we really wanted to see (that being the fall of the Jedi and rise of Darth Vader). Getting to that point, however, proved a bit of a problem, certainly when you peek behind the curtain to find the rather flimsy skeleton around which this film is built.

Sure it was technically an improvement, undeniably fun in places, but I’m a sucker for good storytelling and well written characters… unfortunately those elements are what this movie lacked most.

4 / 10

20 Years of PlayStation, Video Games

Metal Gear Solid 2: A postmodern deconstruction of 21st century culture.

MGS 2 pic 3.

What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context.”

Over the next few months I’ll be looking back at some of PlayStation’s most significant titles as the console celebrates its twentieth anniversary in the UK this year (by year in this case I count from September 2015 to September 2016).

On this occasion I’ve selected a game that was both ahead of its time and simultaneously very much a product of its time; a project the likes of which simply wouldn’t be possible in today’s gaming industry, and not in the way you might imagine.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released in late 2001/ early 2002 (depending on whether you were living in America or Europe respectively) around the time the PlayStation2 was starting to really hit its stride. You could justifiably argue this was one of the titles that helped kick start the console’s mainstream popularity – indeed it was widely regarded as the PS2’s first ‘essential’ game; the first to receive truly widespread critical acclaim.

It’s almost impossible now to capture the sense of anticipation that surrounded this game pre-release. To claim it was the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster released during the peak summer months is no overstatement. For many gamers it was even more than that: think almost as big as the hype and expectation that is currently greeting The Force Awakens and you’d be pretty close. While there have certainly been bigger and better games since, I don’t recall this kind of attention ever greeting another video game in history.

This was a time before publishers generally marketed their games as if they were a big deal. Today we see major game studios scrambling every year to make their generic first-person shooters or action-adventure games seem relevant, and it’s not at all surprising to see cinematic game trailers appearing in your local movie theatre before the film. This wasn’t the case with video games before Metal Gear Solid 2.

Creator Hideo Kojima knew exactly how BIG his new game was. He turned this enormous hype against those responsible for it; using the marketing campaign and then the content of the game itself to dupe the series’ own fans in a way that remains unprecedented to this day.

In a move that took a definite amount of balls (which may have seemed almost career suicide to a director-designer less confident and capable than he), Kojima switched out the protagonist fans knew and loved from previous games – chain-smoking mercenary Solid Snake – for an unknown and less aesthetically pleasing rookie with a whiny voice and shoulder-length blonde hair.

No one saw it coming. Not only because the marketing campaign gave no glimpses or made any mention of this new character – named ‘Raiden’ – whom you were to spend three quarters of the game controlling, but also because that same marketing had made it appear as if you were instead going to play the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 2 in control of the aforementioned Solid Snake, the same way you did in the original MGS three years earlier. As it soon turned out, all of the game’s promotional material had been taken exclusively from its prologue tanker level, which made up barely an hour of the overall playing experience.

This wasn’t just a case of withholding plot information – it was dangerously close to deliberately misleading consumers, and some of the anger directed towards Kojima afterwards was from the very same fans who had been eagerly preparing to sing his praises…

Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2... but in the end, that was kind of the point.
The character of Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2… but in the end, that was kind of the point.

Most of the hype surrounding this game was due predominantly to the impact of the first Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 for the PlayStation. At the time it was labeled the ‘greatest video game ever made’ – which held true as the closest thing to an objective opinion the industry has ever had (I was never quite on that bandwagon, but I could see where they were coming from). In this sense it was almost like the Citizen Kane of video games; a somewhat appropriate comparison seeing as the game gave off extremely cinematic vibes.

This was, after all, a time when the video game industry was obsessed with trying (and largely failing) to emulate films. Metal Gear Solid was the first game to do that convincingly, and this sequel even more so. The trajectory on which it sent the industry is polarising for many; as it seems a lot of players today generally still judge game quality on how ‘cinematic’ they are.

In some ways this is concerning. Yes it has given us some visually beautiful and well acted games, but it also prevents many more original titles from getting noticed – and often it is those more original titles that capture the true essence of what video games can achieve. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a fabulous recent example of a game that told its story primarily through gameplay mechanics rather than exposition-heavy cut scenes – something which the MGS series has traditionally been infamous for.

But that present concern does not stop me from reflecting on the sentimental attachment I have to this particular cinematic game; and acknowledging just how well it turned out as a self-contained, narrative-driven experience.

The success of MGS (itself the third part in a previously Japanese-exclusive Metal Gear series dating back to 1987 on the lesser known MSX2) made the mainstream world really take notice of Hideo Kojima’s talents. For this sequel he was able to hire Hollywood composer Harry Greyson-Williams to help give Sons of Liberty an even more important, cinematic feel – and it shows from the game’s impressive opening sequence. To this day the soundtrack for this game remains one of the PlayStation’s most memorable, and it was certainly among my favourites growing up. It gave MGS2 a sense of gravitas that very few other games had.

What also added to this sense was the fact that the game took itself so seriously. A risk considering some of its characters and plot elements; one that could have fallen flat if the whole thing was not executed well. Fortunately it was, and while the jury is still out for a lot of people on whether Hideo Kojima is actually a good writer, one can’t help but appreciate the immaculate level of polish he puts on all of his games. MGS2 was a shining example of that polish.

The game’s story, for all its Hollywood production values, may appear unnecessarily convoluted in places. You could argue the overall experience is unbalanced, with most of its narrative exposition and main themes coming in the final third. Indeed, this rather crippled the pacing of the gameplay towards the climactic final boss fight. That’s without taking into account another crucial point: unless you’re already invested in the MGS universe, most of this game is unlikely to make the least bit of sense.

After all, your adversaries include an immortal vampire who runs on water, a woman who can’t be hit by bullets, and a literal ‘fat man’ on skates who is also an ingenious bomb expert. An anonymous Russian ninja occasionally pops up to help you out of rough spots. The leader of the game’s villainous group wears a full body armoured suit with two tentacles attached, which he uses to suffocate people and out of which he can even shoot missiles.

His right-hand man – Revolver Ocelot, who was a major character in the first game as well – is at times subject to mind control from the inhibited consciousness that exists in his forearm. This, an arm which previously belonged to the now deceased main villain from the original MGS and has since been surgically grafted onto Ocelot – who had lost his own arm in the first game when it was cut off by a different ninja, though one that bore a striking resemblance to the ninja appearing in this sequel.

So you see how this game might be a little hard to follow for the uninitiated? Hell, even for long term fans it takes a bit of effort to keep track.

Without doubt it was mostly those familiar with the first game who Kojima had in mind while making Sons of Liberty. One can’t help but experience a strong feeling of nostalgia while playing as Snake on the tanker, and there is a similar (but at the same time unmistakably separate) sense of deja vu in playing through Raiden’s espionage mission. Well of course, you might say, this is a sequel after all!

Yes, it was as much a sequel as sequels can get, and in certain ways it felt almost like a lazy one. In fact it’s the very definition of a fan-pleasing experience from beginning to end of the opening tanker chapter; at which point Kojima stops pandering and proceeds to give fans the proverbial middle finger instead.

The game drastically changes in both tone and pacing with Raiden’s appearance. Here you find yourself forced to play as a rookie, not only within the context of the plot but as a player too; having to go through the same basic setup that you’ve already been through in the original MGS with Snake.

Your Colonel unnecessarily tells you basic controls. In baby steps you’re taken through the opening sequence alongside Raiden as if you, like him, are new to this kind of thing – despite the fact that you’ve just played the prologue level as a veteran in control of Solid Snake, picking up where the first game left off. You’re taken from that to literally starting afresh, and the experience was almost as jarring as having the Snake character yanked from your fingertips.

Suddenly it’s almost like you’re playing a version of the first game over again – though one that doesn’t feel quite as authentic. On the surface, most of Raiden’s campaign seems an unoriginal retread of a path you already walked in Metal Gear Solid; the deja vu you feel in this case is not the same nice nostalgic feeling present in the previous tanker chapter, but a rather more unsettling one.

This game’s main villains, Dead Cell, are uncannily similar in their eccentric curiosity to the Foxhound group from the first game. There’s also the return of a mysterious ninja; in both games an ambiguous individual with ties to neither side. And your Colonel? Just so happens to (seemingly) be the very same one who helped guide Solid Snake through Shadow Moses in that first title.

The whole thing felt like too much of an echo back to Metal Gear Solid – close to a simple copy and paste in certain respects. It is only in the plot’s final third that this all brilliantly unravels; when it is revealed that ‘recreating Shadow Moses’ was precisely the intention of a shady organisation that had been manipulating both sides all along to further their own plans for society.

You find out that your Colonel, whose orders you’ve been following on the mission to which Raiden is assigned, is actually an A.I. (or something…) operating on behalf of the Patriots; a group of individuals who control the United States from the shadows, from whom even the President receives orders. The game’s main villain – at least, you’ve been led to believe he’s the villain up to this point – proposes to break the Patriots’ rule over the country and set everyone free from their control (hence becoming the Sons of Liberty of the game’s title).

Your real mission is to eliminate him before this plan comes to fruition – though you only find this out toward the game’s conclusion, up until which point you had been fed a convenient and rather typical espionage cover story regarding hostages, ransom demands and nuclear bombs.

At the same time, it is revealed that the Patriots set up the conditions for the entire operation from the beginning – indirectly giving Solidus (your adversary) the means by which his plan could progress to its later stages – as part of a test to see if a typical rookie operative could be moulded into a legendary mercenary, similar to Solid Snake but this time created on their own terms, if placed in the right environment. This operation is codenamed the ‘S3 plan’, which stands for ‘Solid Snake Simulation’.

Yes, the conventionality of it all – from the game’s plot outline to its blatant comparisons with the original, via a ‘rookie’ in the form of Raiden – had been a setup; not only from the perspective of the game’s characters but for the benefit of the player. We’re the real test subjects for the S3 plan – how successfully the game manages to pull the wool over our eyes and keep up the illusion is the litmus test that shows its effectiveness.

This sequel played on and caught you up in your own expectations. Raiden is informed towards the end of the game that his Colonel, a man he had never met in person, was, in part, a projection of images cobbled together from his own subconscious expectations. In a way this is true for the player as well; the Colonel sounds exactly like the one we knew from the previous game because our expectations from that game told us this is what a Colonel should sound like. It becomes blatantly apparent that the two characters are different entities, so Kojima had no other reason to re-use the same likeness than to make this point – at the same time putting us in the same state of unease as Raiden; the only difference being that the player senses this unease from the beginning. But it’s something you put to the back of your mind, at least until the in-game characters become aware of their situation later.

In the end you realise we, as players, were duped as much as the fictional characters in this game. The prologue tanker level was everything fans wanted and had asked for, picking up where the first game left off with two of its most popular characters in a brand new, visually pleasing scenario. You strap yourself in and get ready to enjoy an indulgent sequel experience that will leave you feeling your expectations have been met.

Hideo Kojima shows here that he was fully aware of what those expectations were, and teases you with the intention of meeting them for all of an hour’s playing time before pulling you out of the illusion.

Then, you’re in his game. A game that repeats much of what you saw first time round, but in a way that isn’t quite as authentic. Suddenly you’re back to roaming claustrophobic corridors and learning guard routine patterns. At times it feels almost like a parody of what came before, while also forcing you to play as a less accomplished character than your previous protagonist… but whom you play as anyway because that’s the game you’ve been given, and even though things are not exactly how you’d like them to be, this is still Metal Gear Solid after all.

So everything’s not quite as you’d like or imagine it to be – but this version is crafted to show you just how willing you and every other player is to accept what you are given. It’s a copy, albeit not an exact one. Merely a recreated scenario; one that becomes almost dream-like right before the end, at which point you ‘wake up’. Seriously, the ending cut-scene to this game feels so tonally contrasting to what came immediately before it that it feels like stepping back into reality from what had become a nightmare.

Before fighting the final boss, the Patriots’ blatantly reveal their intention for you to succeed in your mission by killing your adversary. While Raiden protests at this, saying “I’m through doing what I’m told” and even claiming “we’re not puppets in some game, you know”, the game nonetheless throws you into the fight; a fight to the death which you willingly comply with because it’s the scenario that presents itself.

You aren’t going to turn the game off now if only for wanting to see how it ends. While playing through the final sneaking section leading up to this point, the malfunctioning Colonel A.I. dared you, the player, to “turn the game console off right now”, or suggested “you shouldn’t sit so close to the TV”, or commented “you’ve been playing the game for an awfully long time… don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

These comments showed the game’s awareness of its own place within its medium, playing on concerns that players may be facing outside of its universe… are you sitting too close to the TV? Are there better things you could be doing with your time? The answer to both is, probably, yes.

Through it all you keep playing anyway, because “this is a game after all. It’s a game, just like usual” (to use another of the quirky Colonel’s quips) – as if you needed reassuring that, despite its self-awareness, you were still just playing a game to have fun. Of course, this kind of experience was far from typical.

When people claim this is a ‘postmodern’ game they aren’t simply saying it has certain postmodern threads or thematic elements. The entire experience is, in a sense, a reflection of the original, which itself was heralded as a masterpiece of modern gaming. It was postmodern in the purest sense of the term – coming after the modern, it offered context by which we could judge what came before.

This concept of ‘creating context’ is taken even further in a revealing conversation with your Colonel after the plot’s main points have been divulged. It becomes apparent that he is more than just an ‘A.I.’ during this final reveal. He first explains ‘their’ true origins:

“To begin with, we’re not what you’d call… human.

Over the past two hundred years, a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House.

It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago.

We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often.

How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.”

Now, to grasp what’s going on here you need to understand we’re no longer really talking in tangible terms. What this is referring to is not any single character or being, but to human culture itself – the culture around which modern society has been circling for quite some time. A culture in which following certain rules and holding objective beliefs is rewarded; indeed, the idea is that we need those things, organised in a structure, to survive as a species.

MGS2 was released just after the turn of the Millennium; a time when the world was in the midst of transitioning to a more ‘digitised’ age. With this new flow of digital information came a unique challenge to the cultural pattern referred to above, and it is this challenge that ‘the Patriots’ are responding to during the course of this game. Their answer is an advanced A.I. that will control the flow of information so it doesn’t overwhelm humanity. The ‘Colonel’ goes on to explain this:

“In the current digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness, never fading, always accessible.

The S3 plan does not stand for Solid Snake Simulation. What it does stand for is ‘Selection for Societal Sanity’

You seem to think our plan is one of censorship?”

Raiden: “Are you trying to say it’s not?!”

Colonel: “What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context…

The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths; everyone withdraws into their small, gaited community, afraid of a larger forum.

They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever truth suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.

The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh; no one is invalidated, but no one is right.

Not even natural selection can take place here; the world is being engulfed in ‘truth’.

And this is the way the world ends… not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Bear in mind this was before the rise of social media. Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist, but MGS2 foresaw their emergence with alarming insightfulness. Are they not guilty of promoting the very things described in the above dialogue?

Selectively rewarding convenient half-truths… everyone afraid of a larger forum, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into society at large… no one is invalidated, but no one is right… the world being engulfed in ‘truth’.

Let’s be honest: this is social media in a nutshell. Social media itself is representative of the Internet in a nutshell.

You’ve probably complained about it yourself. Look at how social media trends develop; observe how they eventually die out; see how someone will ‘share a link’ of a tragedy in the Middle East and, with their social justice fingertips at the ready, point out to everyone that it doesn’t get the same coverage as a similar tragedy in Europe… and point out how much of an injustice this is.

To some the flow of ‘trivial’ information over the Internet represents freedom. Others ridicule and scoff at it, indirectly revealing that they think it should be controlled; advocating the kind of ‘S3 plan’ the Patriots had in mind.

I admit I’ve fallen on both sides in the past. I know that for all the amazing bits of useful information to be found online, there is much more ‘rubbish’ one has to wade through. That ‘useless’ information (one of the biggest enemies of productivity if nothing else) is precisely the kind that the A.I. in this game was proposing to filter out.

Isn’t the main problem with a lot of online information that it often appears on our news feeds without appropriate contextualisation? Isn’t the problem then exasperated by everyone reacting to it without bothering to look into that context?

Maybe the Patriots were right after all. Many of us crave the context they proposed to create. But there will always be a side of us that misunderstands context for control over that same information. Or perhaps, from another point of view: there’s a side of us that prefers reacting to things free from context – because context can affect our ingrained sense of ‘truth’ in a way that could make us revaluate what we believe or how we live. And to do that is uncomfortable.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty ends with Raiden completing his mission, but having gone through an identity crisis in the process, he finishes with a question; “who am I really?” A question Kojima was posing to the player as much as the protagonist.

The game doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, finishing in open-ended fashion that encourages you to find truth for yourself. Snake gives you this gem in conclusion to the game’s events: “what you think you see is only as real as your brain tells you it is.”

It’s worth pointing out that Hideo Kojima originally envisaged the Metal Gear series ending with Sons of Liberty. If you’re wondering why he had the balls to try pulling this off, it is quite simply because he wasn’t relying – as so many major studios and developers are – on milking this thing any further as a franchise. Which made its status as a ‘blockbuster’ game even more unique.

Indeed Kojima was convinced later to make more games in the series, and the sequels that followed MGS2 included considerably more fan service than we see here – not to mention an overarching plot that pretty much retconned the final twenty minutes of MGS2. Kojima made those other games for the fans, whereas here he wasn’t particularly concerned with pleasing anyone. For that reason I consider both the original MGS and this sequel to be the truest portrayals of his vision we’ve seen.

With MGS2 he was encouraging players to really think about what they were doing; what had led them to play this game; how they consume what they see online and in the media; even how they were living their lives and what the future might hold. Here we had the video game equivalent of a major Hollywood movie franchise (the biggest name of its time) tackling convoluted themes such as freedom of choice and the subjectivity of truth, without having given its audience any indication beforehand that it was going to do such a thing. Many were not so much left unsatisfied as left flat-out baffled by the experience.

This remains one of the most complicated game plots of all time. In my eyes it represents a masterpiece – not strictly a ‘gaming’ masterpiece, but certainly in how it sets up and tells its story, as well as how it manipulated players before and after release. That’s a bit of a controversial opinion in some circles, with many considering this game not even the best in its series. But I think it’s a game everyone should experience, even if you go away feeling slightly exasperated by it.

Furthermore, if you’re ever going to start playing the MGS series, do yourself a favour and start with the original before moving on to this one. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005) is a prequel and, although arguably a better game overall, its story went some way to changing how you looked at everything that came before. The first two games should be taken as separate entities before they’re later considered in the context of the series as a whole.

Even today I still frequently go back to MGS2 to re-live a game that is as simple in its gameplay as it is complex in its storytelling. It features one of the most unique plots and some of the most challenging themes ever included in a video game, and it’s undoubtedly one of my personal favourites.

Film reviews

The Phantom Menace (1999).

Darth Maul pic 1.

At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.”

Let’s establish something straight away. There are certain things about The Phantom Menace that are just atrociously bad no matter what way you look at it.

One of those things is dialogue, which is not only written badly but delivered in the same bland style by every character. With the monk-like Jedi, who are taught to keep their emotions under control, one can maybe let it pass – but they lose their sense of uniqueness when you have Natalie Portman as Padme and even a nine year old Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd, who we’ll be getting to later) also talking like they do.

It’s telling that this film’s best character is one who only has a few lines of dialogue in one scene. Darth Maul is a badass for this very reason – in his case, the lack of character development only adds to his shadowy mystique. Everyone else in this movie wasn’t so fortunate.

Liam Neeson, when he heard about the chance to play a Jedi knight in a new Star Wars film (the first in a trilogy of prequels intended to fill in the backstory of iconic characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, as well as show what led to the fall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire), reportedly accepted the role without first looking at George Lucas’ script… which may hint at one of the main reasons why things went south with the finished product.

You had a writer-director at the helm who was responsible for conceiving what became one of the biggest franchises in cinema history. His record for making successful movies spoke for itself; and who was really going to turn down the chance to be involved in the hotly anticipated next instalment? Moreover, who was going to stand up and tell him some of his ideas sucked when he seemed so childishly excited about the whole thing?

This documentary about the film’s production sums up why we got all the bad – and admittedly some good – parts of The Phantom Menace. Coming alongside Lucas for this film after working with him on the similarly polarising Star Wars special editions was producer Rick McCallum, who was clearly as excited and passionate about the project as its original creator.

McCallum’s favoured area was CGI, and his extensive work on The Phantom Menace went some way to ushering in the new era of digital filmmaking that is so prevalent today. If one is to praise the film for anything they must surely start here – though it’s debatable whether it has aged well overall.

Many shots in the film are so clearly dominated by CGI, and acting performances suffer as a result of often being placed in front of a blue screen rather than in real environments. In time The Phantom Menace risks looking increasingly dated, whereas the original trilogy for the most part is still enjoyed by many today. The reason for that perhaps is; while the original trilogy was certainly also impressive in its use of special effects for the time, it relied more so on strong characters and an engaging script to connect with its audience. Here we don’t find any such luxuries.

Indeed this film is at least significant within the context of cinema history in that, among other digital advances, it featured the first fully computer generated character: Jar Jar Binks. Many people have criticised this infamous character extensively – and their issues are largely justified. Sure, you rarely hear anyone complaining about Jar Jar because of a terribly unconvincing design. On a technical level the character is undeniably impressive. The problems most people had pertained not to this aspect, but to pretty much everything else about him.

When I recently viewed the film again for this review, the first moment at which it loses me completely is that same moment when Jar Jar first appears on screen. Master Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, who along with his ‘padawan’ Obi-Wan Kenobi has just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, is running for his life from the droid army that has just touched down in the forests of Naboo. The tone is reasonably well set in this opening sequence – while the dialogue may be dry, it is (as I’ve alluded to) more forgivable when spoken by a Jedi.

Seeing Jar Jar standing there like a goof with his hands in the air, unable to decipher Qui-Gon’s simple command to ‘get out of the way’ while making all sorts of embarrassing noises, I find my feelings change instantly. Jar Jar Binks, each time he unceremoniously appears in any given scene, turns me into an angry viewer – because if I’m being totally honest I think everything about his character is utter trash, garbage, outside of his aesthetic value as a piece of CGI. And that is a very shallow defence.

I realise his main purpose was to appeal to the kids. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like him. Perhaps some adults may say they find him funny; that Lucas’ cringeworthy attempt at ‘comic relief’ actually worked on them here – though I dare any grown man with a sense of self respect to admit to that.

Jar Jar’s presence offsets the tone for the entire film. One could argue; if the rest of this movie had been superb, most audiences may have been prepared to look past their gripes with this irritating, child-friendly ‘gungan’. But I’m not sure this film was even capable of being good once George Lucas had uttered the line “Jar Jar is the key to all this” (check the documentary). Lucas was right – Jar Jar was the key… to why The Phantom Menace sucked so badly in the eyes of so many people.

In a way the Jar Jar character perfectly sums up how and where it all went wrong. During production of this film, George Lucas came across as a big child; one with lots of unquestionable influence over others. While that is no bad thing in itself – Hollywood could do with more independently minded directors like him – I think it had a large part to do with why he thought his sillier ideas for The Phantom Menace were good, and why they all made it into the finished product.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not closed-minded towards this film’s appeal. Indeed from my own experience I can say yes, it is actually rather good from the perspective of younger eyes.

When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, I was at the prime age for it, and I still remember enjoying my time watching it at the cinema. As a nine year old I was blown away by the action sequences; the Jedi seemed cool as hell; I ended up owning the action figures and played the video game based on this film. Even buying and reading the novelisation was pretty exciting.

Back then I glossed over trade disputes, political meanderings and any related dialogue in favour of cool lightsaber battles and an exhilarating pod race; things that people often point to in defence of this movie. And make no mistake: the climactic lightsaber fight in The Phantom Menace is hands down the best one in the entire saga – on a technical if not emotional level – though looking back at the pod race, I can’t help but think that particular scene is overrated (every shot is from the right, often panning right to left as it follows the pods, and as a viewer the scene quickly becomes bland when you realise that).

As fun as they are, what these well executed set-pieces highlight is how poorly paced the rest of the film is. Watching it now feels like a grind before Darth Maul’s appearance, as his appearance signifies something’s going to happen soon; his first fight with Qui-Gon is pretty damn thrilling, though far too brief. It does leave you wanting more, but honestly, if the second lightsaber fight towards the end wasn’t there to look forward to, it’d be somewhat of a struggle to keep watching all the way through on repeat viewings.

Almost every scene is filled with exposition, and not the exciting kind. When we first see the Jedi council on Coruscant, over an hour into the film, we discover their main purpose is to sit in a circle and talk. They discuss Anakin Skywalker and the return of the Sith in a calm, collected manner.

There’s no urgency in any of these performances, and I think that can be attributed more to the director than his actors. You get a strong sense that they’re all following a tightly laid out process, with little room for improvisation or manoeuvre. Lucas knew exactly what he wanted to achieve on paper and everyone followed it almost too rigidly in practice. Ewan McGregor, though reaction to his casting as Obi-Wan is mixed overall, is one of the few actors in the movie to show some much-needed urgency in his performance towards the end.

Then, of course, we have Jake Lloyd as a young Anakin, who perhaps would have become known as the most irritating aspect of this movie if not for Jar Jar taking the spotlight. This is the ‘boy who will become Darth Vader’, whose origin story was among the main attractions of these prequel films. The biggest criticism of his performance is, again, attributable to the dialogue fed to him by his director – dialogue which simply doesn’t fit. No normal nine year old boy would talk like that.

Furthermore, seeing a nine year old Anakin leaving his life as a slave on Tatooine to become a Jedi creates a slight continuity issue (I say ‘slight’ because there are bigger ones to be found elsewhere in this prequel trilogy). In the original Star Wars, both Luke’s uncle and an older Obi-Wan speak of his father as if he was a young rogue-like man who followed Obi-Wan off on a journey to the stars. His uncle never approved of this way of life, feeling Luke’s father should perhaps have stayed and helped out on the farm. There was never any mention of him being a slave.

In The Phantom Menace, we get little indication from his portrayal that Anakin is set to become a villainous tyrant in the future, aside from what Master Yoda describes as ‘fear of losing his mother’ (which apparently will lead to anger and then to hate); a mother who he has had no problem leaving behind to start training as a Jedi on the other side of the galaxy. This fear never comes across from Anakin himself and we once again have to rely on being told rather than shown what is supposed to be a vital element of his character.

Also, having spent his childhood as a slave on a desert planet, a far more humbling upbringing than the privileged, detached surroundings of the Jedi temple, one would think Anakin is in a better position to become a thoughtful, kind, understanding Jedi than most?

But let’s say it’s true – that Anakin is at risk of ‘turning to the dark side’ due to his inner fears. Are we to believe then, that the Jedi do not have some sort of counselling service to help their younger members deal with such issues? That a Jedi counsel full of wise sages, one of whom has 900 years experience, couldn’t come up with ideas for combating an issue that they themselves acknowledge could eventually lead to evil?

And then, that the Jedi would just approve his training anyway at the end of the film (presumably because the plot needed to move forward), having seen firsthand the dangerous untapped emotions in him? Their policy of simply avoiding the issue is a terrible example to set.

This whole situation was nonsensical, and it is indicative of a plot driven by the fixed destination George Lucas saw ahead of him, rather than organically developing in its own right. Numerous parts of this film don’t make narrative sense (and its sequels would be worse when it comes to this kind of thing) unless you come to it knowing yourself where it’s heading and therefore justifying it in the same way Lucas must have done when he was writing it.

Now, here’s the thing; for all the criticisms I’ve thrown at this film, I don’t hate it. I don’t even consider it ‘bad’ overall. Part of me still looks forward to watching it even today. My reasons for this are slightly unconventional.

First, I kind of like that The Phantom Menace inverted certain rules that most other mainstream films follow. For example, there is no real central protagonist in this movie. And the Jedi, the perceived good guys, are vastly overpowered compared to their flimsy adversaries – at least until they come up against Darth Maul.

Speaking of which, the Sith are the underdogs in this trilogy. The roles we saw in the original films, in which the Rebel Alliance was up against the oppressive, unstoppable Galactic Empire, are here reversed: the Jedi knights and the Republic are the major force in the galaxy, and it is the Sith planning to overthrow them.

Second, I must admit to actually (almost) enjoying the political backdrop against which this film is set. In large part this can be attributed to Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine. Even at my young age when I first watched this movie he quickly became my favourite actor, based on his performances in The Phantom Menace and its two sequels. Also, on that first viewing – and even up until I saw Attack of the Clones – I didn’t connect the dots that this guy was the same evil Emperor from Return of the Jedi. This part of the plot, with Palpatine’s subtle manipulations in the political background, I thought was executed well, though much of that rested on McDiarmid’s capable shoulders (undoubtedly the best performance in the film). People can say the focus on politics was boring – but I think that was the entire point from the perspective of a Sith.

That awkward dialogue, the terrible pacing… these things contribute to what I’d say is essentially one of the most unconventional mainstream films ever released. For all of the criticisms you could justifiably throw at George Lucas, his outright boldness in making this film the way he did is something one can almost respect – at least until you remember… Jar Jar was the key to all this.

5 / 10

Film reviews

Return of the Jedi (1983).

Emperor Return of the Jedi pic 1.

Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey towards the Dark side will be complete!”

So, remember how I said I loved the tone of The Empire Strikes Back? Well the final part of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, went a considerably different route for a good portion of the film.

Many people claim this is the weakest movie of the trilogy – and I’m not going to disagree with them here. While there are certainly parts of it I still love, there are also parts of it I really don’t. Return of the Jedi is the first ‘polarising’ instalment in a saga that would struggle to find its footing from this point onwards; its best days (from a critical viewpoint at least) already behind it.

But let’s begin with the good. Like any good conclusion to a typical trilogy, this film went back to where it had all started six years before: on Tatooine, with C-3PO and R2-D2. They’re back to help infiltrate Jabba’s Palace and rescue Han Solo from his clutches – who is still frozen in carbonite by the way; C-3PO makes sure to unnecessarily spell it out for us once they’re inside.

This was the first time audiences had seen Jabba the Hutt (unless, like me, you had seen the 1997 ‘special edition’ of the original Star Wars beforehand – in which George Lucas had seen fit to insert a CGI version of him for no narrative purpose) and his slug-like character design would become almost as iconic as Yoda.

Soon Luke Skywalker turns up at Jabba’s Palace as well, having sent the droids with a personal message that he was on his way. Luke in this movie is now an authoritative ‘badass’ Jedi knight; a far cry from the slightly whiny teenager we were first introduced to in the original Star Wars. You really get the sense from his first scene that Luke has come a long way as a character – his arc being another trait this final instalment nails perfectly, and overall this is probably my favourite version of Luke in the trilogy.

Needless to say, the confrontation between Luke and Jabba does not go well, and within the first twenty minutes we’re treated to another memorable opening action sequence as was the case in Empire (though not quite on the same scale). With Han Solo freed from the carbonite, and the three main protagonists (Luke, Leia and Han) back together for the first time since the start of the preceding film, it’s hard not to get caught up in the feel-good nostalgic sentiment of Return of the Jedi’s opening sequence.

From Jabba’s palace to the edge of the Sarlacc pit (in which people are thrown to be ‘slowly digested over a thousand years’), it starts off at a pace that makes you believe you’re in for one hell of a ride throughout the rest of the film. To be honest though, one of the main issues I have with Jedi is its pacing; as it struggles to maintain this momentum going into the rest of the movie.

This is evident from Luke’s very next scene. Fresh off of rescuing Han, he sets off with R2 to return to Dagobah and complete his training with Master Yoda. Except when he gets there, that’s not what happens.

Instead, they talk. Yoda reaffirms that Luke needs to face Darth Vader again and defeat him if he wants to be a true Jedi, before revealing a significant plot detail that ‘there is another Skywalker’. Then he dies rather abruptly – barely thirty minutes into the film. It all felt a little… rushed. Almost as if Lucas had a checklist of things he wanted to get through in this film and he therefore wanted to get Yoda’s death out of the way early.

Outside Yoda’s hut, Luke meets Obi-Wan in spirit form again. Obi-Wan’s spirit feels it necessary to sit down on a rock as he talks to Luke… I could dwell on that, but I’ll move on. Obi-Wan and Luke talk. Obi-Wan tells Luke he must face Vader again. Then he reaffirms it one more time for effect, before confirming Luke has a sister: Leia. Not quite the emotional slobberknocker of a twist that we got in Empire, but something at least.

Luke’s entire visit to Dagobah, though brief, exemplifies another problem with Jedi: exposition. So many scenes are, for me, too concerned with communicating what’s going on to the audience in words rather than action, as was more the case in this film’s two predecessors. While I said this version of Luke was my favourite of the trilogy, one is left with the feeling that we just don’t see enough of what he can do as a Jedi, after those new skills were hinted at in the opening sequence. We’re left wanting more that, until near the end, we don’t quite get.

Some character interactions are also far less convincing here than in Empire. Han Solo, for example, seems once again to be best buddies with Lando Calrissian, despite the latter having betrayed him to the Empire on one of their last meetings. While it’s understandable that the two would reconcile and rekindle their friendship, I feel the film misses an opportunity to make it more of an interesting arc that could have been developed further.

This would also be the case with Leia in a later scene, when Luke reveals to her that not only is Darth Vader his father, but she is also his sister – which makes Vader her father as well. The emotional resonance of this reveal never quite comes across from Leia’s perspective, which is disappointing, especially considering it played such a major role in Luke’s character arc in the previous film. A little knowledge of Leia’s character history also suggests that if anything, she should be more horrified than Luke at finding out such news. She was fighting against the Empire long before Vader invaded her rebel cruiser and held her captive for a whole two thirds of the first film, after all.

Obviously Lucas must take some of the blame for these gripes (especially the points at which exposition is heavy), but I also have an issue with how this film is directed by Richard Marquand, with whom the main responsibility must lie for the niggling problems in the aforementioned scenes. Return of the Jedi suffers due to a less ‘daring’ directorial style than we saw in Irvin Kershner’s Empire Strikes Back.

This is all before I’ve even taken those creatures known as the Ewoks into consideration. Now, when most people quote their reasons for disliking Jedi a little more than the other instalments in the trilogy, these furry little teddy bear-lookalikes are never far from the conversation.

It’s not just that they’re clearly a nod to the younger members of Jedi’s audience, but more that their inclusion around the mid-way point of the film absolutely kills whatever pacing it had up until that point. Tonally, the Ewoks just didn’t fit in Return of the Jedi. The movie didn’t really need them.

Here’s a major part of the issue: on one hand, you had the despicably evil Emperor’s first appearance in person, magnificently and sinisterly portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, and on the other you had the Ewoks helping take out what he himself claims is an “entire battalion” of his absolute best troops. Sorry, but I call bullshit on that one.

It didn’t make sense, even if I kind of understand what George Lucas was going for. Yoda had taught us in the previous movie not to judge by appearances and to be wary of underestimating others based on size; Lucas saw another opportunity here to reiterate that point again in more of a feel-good manner than the dark tones of Empire.

But let’s dwell on the Emperor for a moment. Perhaps the single biggest reason I enjoy returning to Jedi so much now is to see McDiarmid’s original characterisation of a man he would play again in the prequel trilogy almost twenty years later. Here we truly see the Emperor’s powers in action for the first time; realising exactly how and why the Empire has managed to maintain its tyrannical hold over the galaxy for this long under his rule. The final climactic fight between Vader and Luke is made to feel all the more epic with his manipulative presence in the background – a presence that you feel has really been there, unseen, throughout the entire trilogy.

No doubt remains in this final movie; we see a delicately balanced three-way conflict between these three main characters. Darth Vader himself is no longer the true main villain, no longer quite the badass we knew in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, with the Emperor revealed as the manipulator pulling his strings.

For a few moments the Emperor almost convinces Luke and the audience that the young Jedi will indeed take his father’s place by his side. But of course we know how this story ultimately ends; with Anakin Skywalker killing his ‘Sith’ master, as he would later be prophesied to do in the prequels. This ending sequence, from Vader’s sacrifice and redemption up to Luke standing by his funeral pyre (the only person there, which shows Vader was feared rather than liked by his subordinates), is the film’s emotional high point.

Return of the Jedi undoubtedly showcased some of George Lucas’ bad habits (childish elements, exposition overload, dodgy pacing), along with some better ones in action sequences and production design. It is, on balance, still an immensely enjoyable movie, though falls short of the excessively high bar set by the other two films in the trilogy. This is Star Wars; not quite at its best but, as most people would say, to be treasured and appreciated for what it is… considering what awaited in the saga’s future.

8 / 10