Tag Archive: Soundtrack


Preview: Shin Godzilla.

The original Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954 and rich in thematic influences from the atomic bomb that ended the Second World War, is one of my favourite films; one I can still enjoy today despite its humble special effects. So it should come as no surprise that this is one of my most anticipated movies right now.

Shin Godzilla was released in Japan back in July, and had a limited theatrical run in North America as Godzilla Resurgence. Unfortunately there’s no word on a UK/ European release yet, and as of writing it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any time soon. But I am hopeful we’ll be seeing this film on the big screen over here at some point in 2017. An imported DVD/ Blu-ray copy would be a poor substitute.

In the trailer below you can decipher Godzilla’s iconic roar, almost unchanged from the 1954 original, and a similarly refreshing vintage soundtrack that feels reminiscent of the old monster movies from Godzilla’s peak years. His design, as well, returns somewhat to the roots of the franchise (now 31 films old, including this one), though this is apparently the largest version of the creature yet.

I can’t wait for some kaiju action when Godzilla eventually finds his way to these shores again – hopefully someone at Toho gets the message.

 

The Childhood of a Leader.

childhood-of-a-leader-pic-1

This is a curious one. The Childhood of a Leader chronicles events in the life of a child destined to become a fascist dictator. Growing up in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in WW1 and partly revolving around the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, parallels to Hitler’s rise are obvious. It is clear, however, that this child is not Hitler and the film shouldn’t be thought of as biographical pertaining to any one particular fascist leader; rather, it is like an amalgamation of them.

It is nonetheless fascinating to see a story told from this perspective; a character study as such, showing the elements that mix in this child’s life to help form what he will become. Can we blame nature or nurture? Could his parents and those around him have affected his life differently, or was his future inevitable due to his inherent ego and controlling personality (both of which we see form during the film)?

This movie does not necessarily attempt to answer those questions, but it does give us food for thought on the issue. Newcomer Tom Sweet plays ‘the boy’, named Prescott, and this kid is good; one of the film’s main strengths, as his onscreen presence helps communicate a sense of foreboding unease. He always comes across as naturally charismatic and charming, with an unnerving confidence and piercing stare to go with it.

Prescott shows impressive intelligence and alarming insightfulness for a boy his age; something he does not entirely share with either of his parents, one of whom is a caring mother wanting to be her son’s main influence, the other an overbearing father too busy and/ or unwilling to spend time with his son. The former is played by French actress Bérénice Bejo, best known for her role as Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Irish actor Liam Cunningham, whom many people may recognise from Game of Thrones, plays Prescott’s father.

One of the most immediately striking things about the film is its score by Scott Walker. Fast, aggressive, and intimidating, this soundtrack will be one of your lasting memories of the experience, as it captures the stark urgency and dread of what awaits in Prescott’s future. Though the film’s described as a ‘historical mystery drama’, one would be forgiven for thinking its score more in line with horror; and fittingly so, as we’re dealing with a horrific – if not overtly – overall theme.

Subtly touched upon, in one scene in particular, is the treatment of Germany in the immediate aftermath of WW1. It’s hinted that this harsh, bordering on arrogant tone from representatives of the rest of Europe (one of whom is Prescott’s father) towards their defeated foe influenced what Prescott was to become; a parallel to Hitler’s rise and the factors that led to WW2.

Debut director Brady Corbet has appeared as an actor in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (the 2007 version) and a selection of other films over the past decade, as well as appearing in American TV shows such as 24 and Law & Order; so this is an experienced hand in front of the camera if not behind it. For a first feature, The Childhood of a Leader is certainly an impressive feat; winning Best Debut and Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Rounding out the core cast is Stacy Martin, a young actress most recently seen in Tale of Tales, whose stock has been gradually rising since appearing alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac; and Robert Pattinson, whose role here is a considerable departure from previous projects. Pattinson, while initially seeming only a supporting actor with not much to do, has a vital role in the film’s final scene that justifies his ‘big name’ presence.

In the end this film may bring accusations of pretentiousness – it does not explain everything nor wrap up the narrative with a neat resolution – but the ideas that Corbet communicates are something to be admired. These and a thumping, unforgettable soundtrack carry The Childhood of a Leader along at a good pace. Ultimately, it’s hard not to appreciate the experience.

8 / 10

Chevalier.

chevalier-pic-1

A group of six men are spending time on a luxury yacht together, on a fishing trip. They like to play games, enjoying the opportunity to display their masculine talents and skills to each other. Each of them likes to think of themselves as the better man.

So when the suggestion comes up for a new game, to determine “who’s the best in general”, they agree to spend the rest of their trip comparing everything, from the way someone sleeps to how they eat, to how they speak or look at each other, and give a rating that, when tallied up, will show which of them is ‘the best’. That’s Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier.

Tsangari is a Greek filmmaker whose 2010 film Attenberg was nominated as Greece’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards. Chevalier is her third feature, winning Best Film in competition at the BFI London Film Festival last year and also this year’s Greek entry for the 89th Academy Awards.

This being an exclusively male-dominated film, it’s intriguing that it is directed by a woman, though one could argue only a woman is able to handle the issue of observing male bravado without accusation of falling into it herself.

Having Tsangari at the helm is certainly one of this film’s greatest strengths. A deadpan sense of humour accompanies what could otherwise have been an aggravating experience watching a group of men being, well… men. The film isn’t afraid either of exploring the crude conversations and language that men use in the absence of women – this is a director who knows men perhaps even better than they do, including those moments in private when they feel no one is looking. Chevalier willingly and freely throws political correctness out the window to make its point.

The result is a film that is equally hilarious and insightful in its portrayal of modern day masculinity. Some may even feel embarrassment at its unnerving accuracy.

A strong cast helps of course, and each of them brings unique qualities to the film. This includes Sakis Rouvas, perhaps the best known of everyone involved, who represented Greece at the 2009 Eurovision song contest and is considered one of Greece’s top stars. There’s also an unforgettable rendition of Minnie Riperton’s Loving You – though not from Rouvas – in what may be the film’s best scene, and the high point of its lean soundtrack.

Chevalier is one of the standout hits of the year; not only that, but its international trailer is also one of my favourites this year, and I’m going to put it below. If I haven’t sold you on this film yet, I think that will.

9 / 10

Miles Ahead.

Miles Ahead pic 2.

You’re going to hear critics declaring Miles Davis as the role Don Cheadle was ‘born to play’ after seeing Miles Ahead; a biographical film focusing primarily on two separate periods of the influential jazz musician’s life.

They’d be right. Cheadle as Miles Davis feels completely natural, and the movie is worth watching for his performance alone. But will it hold your interest beyond that?

Not only does Don Cheadle star as Davis himself, but this is also his directorial debut. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden, whose pursuit of and subsequent interview with Davis during the musician’s barren years or semi-retirement between 1975-79 is the main anchor of this film. The narrative jumps between that present time period – with McGregor and Cheadle playing well off each other in a number of entertaining scenes, as they deal with Davis’ producers who are pressuring him to release his comeback record – and flashbacks to the peak of Davis’ early career, revealing details of his passionate and tumultuous relationship with his wife.

Needless to say the film may appeal most to fans of Davis, or at least anyone with the slightest interest in jazz music. Having said that, as a standalone drama this story is entertaining and occasionally hilarious; on that note it’s worth bearing in mind the movie takes some creative liberties with its subject.

Within Miles Ahead undoubtedly lies one of Don Cheadle’s best-ever performances; a fine turn from McGregor alongside him; and a script that holds your intrigue from beginning to end. This is a strong directorial debut from Cheadle, one in which his passion for the subject shines through.

8 / 10

Marguerite.

Marguerite pic 1.

Loosely inspired by the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (who coincidently and rather confusingly is also the subject of an upcoming biographical film starring Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep), Marguerite is a light-hearted drama set in the ‘golden twenties’, about an aspiring opera singer who believes she has a beautiful voice that everyone loves to listen to.

Believes is the key word there, as the truth – which no one has the heart to tell Marguerite – is that her singing voice is, in fact, horrible. The singer’s appeal, the thing that brings her the success she attributes to her vocal talents, lies in her likeable personality and refreshingly naive attitude. Her audiences find entertainment in the fact that she clearly believes wholeheartedly in how good she is, both on stage and in offering advice to inexperienced singers as if she’s an expert, and the film plays up this aspect for comedic value throughout.

This is a movie primarily for those who don’t take life too seriously and can find humour in this kind of self-deprecating entertainment. Also for those who either love opera – though the plot focuses on someone who doesn’t perform it well herself, the soundtrack is otherwise full of vintage classical music – or the period in which the film is set. If any of that sounds appealing to you, you’ll have a great time with Marguerite.

Even for myself, someone for whom 1920s opera wouldn’t necessarily represent a good time on paper, this movie was strangely comforting. There’s something undeniably likeable about these characters… Marguerite’s close friends and family care deeply for her; even her husband, who shows disdain for his wife’s lack of talent and is also having an affair on the side. Marguerite herself, for all her blind naivety when it comes to her singing, shows alarming insight at other times that helps make her increasingly endearing as the film goes on.

Though it ends on a slightly bizarre note (pun intended I guess), Marguerite is on the whole an eccentric and curiously beautiful character study of a woman whose blind confidence overrides lack of talent. The music’s great, period detail immaculate, and there won’t be much else quite like it in cinemas this year.

8 / 10

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

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

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.

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

Empire Strike Back - Yoda.

No, not try! Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Just what would American cinema be without the wisdom of Jedi master Yoda? Without the saga-defining twist that shook audiences around the world? Without the iconic Imperial March accompanying the Galactic Empire in their relentless pursuit of the Rebel Alliance?

With the widespread success of the first Star Wars film in 1977, George Lucas didn’t take long in getting to work on the sequel – while forming ideas for a possible seven further films to come. It was here, with The Empire Strikes Back three years later, that the entire saga really found its narrative footing, providing the backbone on which both Star Wars trilogies rest.

Now knowing Star Wars would be a trilogy at the very least, Lucas felt more free in his storytelling. Empire truly feels like the middle part of a trilogy in the best possible sense. The screenplay is full of action, wonderfully paced, not having to rush through plot details to wrap up the story before the film’s end, while also dropping several hints about where the next film would go. One memorable scene (though are there really any scenes in this movie that aren’t memorable?) even employs metaphorical imagery; something one doesn’t attempt in a major Hollywood movie unless they’re supremely confident in their film.

Confidence is something George Lucas has never lacked, and that didn’t always work in our favour, but when combined with certain other essential elements in 1980, it helped create what most would say is the best Star Wars movie of all. One could argue it belongs alongside the all-time greats in any context.

The film opened on the ice planet of Hoth; a stark contrast to the sandy deserts of Tatooine in the first movie. Though Star Wars climaxed with a major victory for the Rebel Alliance as they managed to destroy the Death Star, you get the sense in this sequel that all their victory served to do was anger the Empire – and now the Rebels are on their radar like never before.

In fact The Empire Strikes Back couldn’t have had a more appropriate title, because from the start that’s exactly what the Empire intend to do. Having just been introduced to the Rebel base on Hoth, the first major piece of action we see there is its evacuation, in a scene that rivalled the final twenty minutes of Star Wars – the difference being, of course, that this was the first twenty minutes of Empire.

The famous, intimidating AT-AT Walkers were introduced in Empire's opening action sequence - setting the perfect tone for the rest of the film.

The famous, intimidating AT-AT Walkers were introduced in Empire’s opening action sequence – setting the perfect tone for the rest of the film.

No doubt about it; The Empire Strikes Back was a much darker movie than its predecessor, with its characters under greater threat from all angles. Even the usually trustworthy Millennium Falcon refuses to work properly for most of the film. From the moment Luke lands on Dagobah to find Jedi master Yoda, who will instruct him on his way to becoming a Jedi knight, the harsh environment is against him. And we see Darth Vader systematically kill off any Imperial troops who fail him as they pursue the protagonists.

One of the nicest touches to this film for me was actually that aspect of showing you the inner workings of the Empire – the Imperial troops come across as real people with genuine concerns for their life when something goes wrong, knowing they have to face Lord Vader at the end of it.

Needless to say the film was – and still is – astoundingly beautiful and brilliantly well shot. Most of the credit for this must go to director Irvin Kershner, whom Lucas hired when he decided to focus more on producing (having directed the original film himself). Apparently Kershner appealed to Lucas because of the director’s focus on character development, and it was a wise choice across the board considering the finished product.

But let’s not pass over the soundtrack. Once again John Williams provided a score that was as iconic as Star Wars, and I would argue he even outdid himself in this sequel. Is that Imperial March not one of the most iconic pieces of music in cinema history? It’s one that always remains in my head for at least a few weeks following any viewing of The Empire Strikes Back, and when I’m sitting in the cinema waiting to see The Force Awakens a few weeks from now, I guarantee you it’ll be going through my mind on loop as I ponder what a high bar has been set.

Though this movie carried an unmistakably darker tone, it was also a funnier film than its predecessor. C-3PO is on top form with his sarcastic quips and sense of self-importance, while Luke’s encounter with Yoda is hilarious before we find out that this little green creature is in fact the grand master Jedi we’d been hearing so much about.

That was the entire point of course; to show us that one shouldn’t judge on appearances, and although Yoda only features for barely more than a third of this movie, the amount of wisdom he is able to impart not just to Luke, but to all of us in that time is astonishing. For any typical kid growing up, they couldn’t have found a better teacher in the world of film than little master Yoda, who taught as much in what he left unsaid as in what he did say. His design, though not overly elaborate, was Lucas’ finest moment as it pertains to creature creation.

While the action zips along (you hardly notice the time going in), a subtle plot point appears out of the blue mid-way through the film, when we get our first glimpse of the Emperor, mastermind behind the Galactic Empire and the only one Darth Vader answers to. They discuss the ‘new threat’ of Luke Skywalker and speak of the possibility that he could be turned to the dark side; a brief scene but a vital one for getting the audience emotionally invested in the showdown between Vader and Luke to come – and to tease the involvement of the largely unseen Emperor, whom we know must come into play at some point if the Rebels are to ultimately win this fight.

It ended – rather frustratingly for audiences at the time, who would have to wait a whole three years for the next film – on one of the most iconic cliffhangers ever; Han Solo frozen in carbonite, his fate unknown as he is taken to Jabba the Hutt by the renegade bounty hunter Boba Fett, while Luke and Leia recover from what amounts to defeat at the end of the movie. And that’s after Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke’s father before inviting him to overthrow the Emperor so “we can rule the galaxy as father and son”.

Audiences were left somewhat unsatisfied with Empire's ending - but that only built anticipation for what was to come...

Audiences were left somewhat unsatisfied with Empire’s ending – but that only built anticipation for what was to come…

In contrast to the first film, this wasn’t a battle the good guys won. The Empire really did ‘strike back’ for most of the movie, and a lot of the time was spent fleeing or hiding from them. At the end of this sequel, audiences were left with the uneasy feeling that the score was level at one apiece; and something would have to give in the third and final part of the trilogy.

10 / 10