Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Original Trilogy

If there ever was a franchise that stood out in Hollywood above everyone else, it would be Star Wars.  Even the modern concept of what is considered a franchise uses Star Wars as it’s prime example.  It was the movie that launched the blockbuster era and began a revolution within the industry with everything from visual effects to merchandising.  Even more astounding is the long legacy that it has endured over the last 40 years since it’s premiere.  The franchise that Hollywood at one time dismissed as a science fiction folly now touches the lives of fans from across the globe, and has become one of the most profitable properties of all time, if not the most.  And to think, it all started with a fresh, young filmmaker who was nostalgic for the old sci-fi classics of his youth.  George Lucas, was raised on old serial sci-fi adventures like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and he held onto those memories as he began to devise what would become the movie that defined him as a filmmaker.  Hot off the success of the 50’s throwback American Graffiti (1973), Lucas began outlining what would eventually become Star Wars, and while he did have to scale back a lot of his original vision, he nevertheless stumbled upon a story that fit his desire to create a return to those serials of old.  Borrowing inspiration from things as varied as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, he crafted a basic story of good versus evil, where a young boy named Luke Skywalker rises up to challenge an evil empire that has conquered much of the galaxy.  Along the way, he is joined by mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda who teach him to harness the powers of the Force, a mystical source that grants him incredible power.  But he doesn’t go into danger alone, with colorful characters like Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2.  While still derivative of many different things, George Lucas still manage to frame all of it in a beautifully constructed narrative that not only grabbed a hold of audiences, but has spawned a whole mythology unto itself, much of which even exceeds what Lucas himself had originally envisioned.

With this being a particularly banner year for the Star Wars franchise, with the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga coming this winter with the release of Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker, as well as the much anticipated opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Disney World, I felt that it was a good time to look over the films that have made up this granddaddy of franchises in this series.  In particular, I will be focusing on the films that have made up what is now considered the Skywalker Saga, which has been the mainline narrative of the franchise.  This is the one that started with George Lucas’ original film and has continued through three separate trilogies from three different eras.  For a start, I will take a look at the original trilogy where it all began, and then hopefully by the time Rise of Skywalker comes out, I will be able to cover a second part, discussing the prequel trilogy, with a concluding one months after the release of the final film. Following the order of release allows me to look at how each film continued to build upon one another and look at how the series managed to build and refine it’s world with every subsequent release, as well as how it managed to both meet and subvert the expectations of it’s audiences over time.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at that mythic story from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE (1977)

Directed by George Lucas

It’s hard to say anything about this movie that hasn’t been said already.  Every once and a while, you have these movies that just come out of nowhere and change cinema as we know it, and Star Wars was one of those movies.  Nobody knew really what to expect about this movie at first; space ace adventures where all too common in Hollywood in the past few decades, most of them often falling into the B-movie bin.  But, Lucas had more ambition than just making another run of the mill sci-fi epic.  One thing that helped him achieve his more ambitious vision was the groudbreaking effects that were constructed for him by the upstart team at the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic.  Taking their cue from the groundbreaking work by Douglas Trumball in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), ILM crafted and even invented new ingenious ways to film little model ships to make them move more dynamically across the screen.  Also, in partnership with the people at the Jim Henson Workshop, they created creatures with puppetry and prosthetic make-up that looked unlike anything people had ever seen before on screen.  But, if there was anything that helped to set the movie apart more than anything else, it was the now iconic score that was composed by John Williams, who gave the movie the operatic feel that it very much needed.  And all these things working together is what helped to make this movie not just successful, but legendary.  People who saw it on the screen for the first time will always remember the rush they got from that first flyover of a Star Destroyer in the opening scene.  In that moment, you see everything, the score, the visual effects, and the scale of vision all working together to create a true cinematic moment.  The world of cinema would never be the same after those opening minutes.

But the true key to Star Wars success comes not in how it opens, but in how it plays through and that more than anything relies upon the real thing that makes Star Wars special; the characters.  Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy; these characters have become icons that have warmed their way into the hearts of multiple generations.  And no doubt, the perfect casting across the board played a big part in making these characters work.  Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were relatively unkonwn at the time of the movie’s release, and their fresh faces were exactly what the movie called for.  This was a movie that needed characters and not stars to drive it, and that has helped to make the actors who played these roles favorites to so many.  To this day, the actors who play a role in a Star Wars movie take that honor with special distinction, knowing that they are the stewards of a part of this growing and increasingly influential mythology.  The only part of the cast that was filled at the time with a noteworthy name was Alec Guiness in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which helped to give the movie some gravitas during it’s making as the Oscar-winning performer was well known to the Fox execs who were fronting the bill for the movie.  A mixing of performances also helped in a great way to bring to life the iconic villain of Darth Vader, with body-builder David Prowse giving the masked foe a massive physical presence, while James Earl Jones provided him an intimidating, powerful voice.  Really, everything about the movie has achieved iconic status on it’s own.  Every line of dialogue is quoted pretty much everywhere, and iconic elements like the Death Star, the dual suns of Tattoine, the Millennium Falcon, and the lightsabers are referenced everywhere in pop culture.  It’s a movie that has it’s roots deep in the collective culture and has a rightful place to be there.  Lucas, originally had planned for more of an epic story, but for the first Star Wars, he rolled everything back into just what ended up being the first act of his original story.  When the first movie broke all box office records, he was finally able to complete the rest of his story, now that he had seen it work the first time.  He rechristened the original movie Episode IV: A New Hope, cheekily referencing the old serials that had inspired him as a child, and began embarking on what was about to come next: Episode V.

STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

Directed by Irvin Kershner

The massive success of the original Star Wars put a lot of pressure on George Lucas and his team to make something that could reach those same heights.  Sequels were not uncommon, but rarely did they ever match the original, let alone exceed it.  Thankfully, George Lucas had enough story material still up his sleeve to continue the story even further, but interestingly enough, he decided to not continue on as the director.  Instead he brought on Irvin Kershner to direct, an up and comer from the Roger Corman class, known for comedies like A Fine Madness (1966) and S*P*Y*S (1974).  In addition, he hired other screenwriters to adapt his story ideas to the screen.  One was legendary writer Leigh Brackett, who had been one of the leading screenwriters of the Golden Era of Hollywood, writing classics like The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959).  She wrote a draft for what would be The Empire Strikes Back before she succumbed to cancer in 1978.  After that, Lucas hired Lawrence Kasdan to flesh out Brackett’s original draft and his input would even further leave an impact on this franchise going further.  Kasdan is much more of an introspective writer compared to George Lucas, who is more concerned with world-building, and what he brought to the table was very fleshed out character development.  The essential Star Wars elements are all still there, but we get more of a sense of the personal drama at play here, with Kershner and Kasdan offering a more intimate portrait of these characters than we’ve ever seen before.  And because of that, the movie not only matched it’s predecessor in the eyes of most fans, but it even exceeded it.  The Empire Strikes Back is largely considered to be the best film in the Star Wars series, and in many regards is considered to be the greatest sequel of all time; even eclipsing the Oscar-winning Godfather Part II (1974).  A New Hope may have been the movie that catapulted the Star Wars name to iconic status, but Empire Strikes Back is what cemented it forever there.

There are so many things that began with Empire that have now become legendary in the annals of Star Wars history.  It introduced characters like Lando Calrissian (played with suave gravitas by Billy Dee Williams), Yoda (puppeteered and voiced by Frank Oz) and Boba Fett to the narrative, all of whom have become icons in their own right.  It also paid off many story threads that audiences were waiting to see realized, like the budding courtship of Han and Leia which gave us the now immortal romantic exchange of “I love you,” “I know.”  We also are given Luke finally exercising his abilities as he trains in the art of the Jedi; the galaxy’s legendary warrior class who had mastered the Force.   Luke’s Jedi training scenes are particularly noteworthy as Mark Hamill often had to perform his scenes acting opposite what is essentially a Muppet.  Frank Oz broke new ground with his performance as Yoda, giving the sculpted foam puppet emotional resonance never seen before, showing that you could indeed give an Oscar worthy dramatic performance even through puppetry.  But, Empire’s emotional resonance became all the more important as the movie ended up resolving in the thing that it is most well known for; it’s shocking twist ending.  Luke faces his arch-nemesis Darth Vader in a long expected showdown at the film’s climax, and every known trope in science fiction tells you that this is where good will triumph over evil.  But, Luke fails in his fight against Vader, losing a hand in the process.  And then, the bombshell is dropped on him.  Luke had long believed that Vader had been the one who killed his father, but Vader shockingly reveals that (spoiler!), he is actually Luke’s father.  This revelation shook the world when it was first revealed.  Up until then, we had never seen our heroes be so thoroughly defeated, and to have our notions of good and evil challenged so much.  How can Luke be the chosen hero, when his father is the bad guy?  By the time the credits rolled, audiences were shocked, confused, and eager to see what was next.  Many films have tried to replicate this mother of all twist endings, but few have ever succeeded.  And with the status quo so thoroughly upended, anything could happen in what adventure came next.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Directed by Richard Marquand

No doubt The Empire Strikes Back left Star Wars in a rarefied place, but the only question remained was whether they could stick the landing with what was then seen as the final chapter of this story.  Lawrence Kasdan was again tasked with writing the script, but finding the right director proved more difficult.  Lucas originally wanted his colleague and friend Steven Spielberg to direct, having just come off their collaboration on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Spielberg, however, wanted to continue pursuing his own projects and opted to make E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) instead.  So, after an extensive search, Lucas eventually gave the reigns to Richard Marquand, another director like Irvin Kershner known for his more intimate and small scale films.  Return of the Jedi is decidedly less character driven than the previous two films, instead focusing on resolving all the plot threads set up in the past films.  For some, many of the resolutions are not as satisfying as one would’ve hoped.  Though not a failure by any means, Return is widely seen as the weakest of the original trilogy.  And where many of the complaints against the film lie is in the introduction of the Ewoks, cuddly bear like creatures that look like they were designed purely to appeal to younger viewers, and help sell merchandise.  The Ewoks themselves are not bad characters, but the abundance of their presence in the movie and the fact that they are instrumental in bringing down the empire does feel like a cop out as part of this epic story that had been building up to this point.  Also, the fact that character development basically just stops for Han and Leia is pretty disappointing as well.  Whether these shortcomings resulted from Star Wars perhaps becoming too big and unable to sustain it’s massive narrative ambitions is unsure, but at the same time, none of it ever breaks the series completely.

If the movie has one thing that it triumphs at, it’s in resolving the Luke/Vader dynamic, which had been so memorably elevated in the previous film.  Much of the movie’s most memorable scenes revolve around the question of whether the light side or the dark side will win out in the end; with both Luke and Darth Vader trying to persuade each other to move from one to the other.  These scenes also introduce the incredible addition of Emperor Palpatine as the primary antagonist for this closing chapter.  Remarkably portrayed by actor Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor is an all time great villain; coolly manipulating these two Jedi warriors to his own ends, pitting them against one another in the hopes that he can wield his control over the victor, who will inevitably be the most powerful Jedi of them all.  Every scene with the Emperor, Luke, and Darth Vader is among the greatest in the series as a whole.  It’s not surprising that Lucas himself has wanted to revisit the Emperor several more times in films since, given the strength of McDiarmid’s performance.  The movie also offers up even more epic scale than what had previously been seen, with ILM having refined their techniques over the course of the series.  We not only get shootouts in the far reaches of space, but full on battles on a biblical scale.  Narrative shortcomings aside, Return of the Jedi is a culmination of everything that Lucas and company had learned to date.  Starting out as young upstarts, these film-making pioneers had grown by leaps and bounds and were now at the top of the ladder in Hollywood.  To see the level of growth over these three movies is really amazing to watch and that in many ways helps to make Return feel like a satisfying conclusion.  Same proved true for the characters; Luke has become a Master Jedi, the evil Empire is toppled, Han and Leia finally confirm their love, and Darth Vader even finds redemption in his dying moments.  All good stories come to an end, and Star Wars ended in a spectacular way, at least for a time.

The original trilogy has become the gold standard for franchise building for both Star Wars as a brand and also Hollywood in general.  It’s easy to see the influence that this trilogy has had on the world building, narrative progression and visual ambitions of epic franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so many more.  Even Empire Strikes Back downer ending has been influential for making middle chapters of these epic franchises darker than the rest.  Would Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War had ended on it’s shocking final note had Empire not tried to leave it’s audience stunned first.  There’s no end to the legendary impacts that the original trilogy left on the industry as a whole, and it certainly left a big impact on it’s creator as well.  George Lucas took the goodwill and earnings that his creation brought to him and used all that to create an empire all on his own, separated from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.  He established Skywalker Ranch up in Marin County, California, which is an all in one facility where his team of artists can create and work close to home, and where Lucas himself was able to fully craft the kinds of movies that he wanted to make.  Though Star Wars will always give George Lucas a hallowed place in the eyes of fans all over the world, repeating his past success has still proven elusive, and that’s probably why he allowed his creation to pass hands to someone else, knowing that he may never get a chance to let it grow the way it should.  With a landmark deal made in 2012, Star Wars became another shiny jewel in the Disney crown, as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm, the studio he built, to the media giant.  Though Disney is in charge of this franchise now, Star Wars will forever be seen as a Lucas creation.  It’s proof positive that the great stories of our time can come from the simplest beginnings; where a young man wanted to scratch a nostalgic itch and share a once forgotten inspiration with the world, and in turn make it feel new again.  He wanted to tell us a story, and in turn opened up a galaxy onto our world, with characters, creatures and worlds that will stand the test of time in all our imaginations.  The Force is forever strong with the legacy of Star Wars.

Dark Phoenix – Review

It can’t be underestimated the impact that has been left by the X-Men characters in the super hero genre of film.  The powerful team of mutant beings that have long been a favorite of comic book fans across the world finally made their way to the big screen for the first time in 2000 to wide critical praise.  The Bryan Singer directed film came at a crucial time for the genre, which had fallen on hard times largely due to the failure of DC’s Batman and Robin (1997), which turned the genre into a laughing stock.  Not only did X-Men bring back respectability to the genre, but it also gave it greater purpose than just entertainment.  For the first time, we saw a super hero film tackle heavy issues like social prejudice and personal identity in a serious fashion, while at the same time never loosing track of it’s comic book roots.  In many ways, this was the movie that laid the groundwork for the super hero genre to mature into a leading force within Hollywood as both a dynamic box office powerhouse, but also as a platform for dramatic social commentary.  Without the X-Men, we probably wouldn’t have seen the mature takes on other super hero mythos that have come to define the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), or even the Oscar worthy themes of Black Panther (2018).  In addition, the movie also did a number of other things.  It made an A-list star out of Hugh Jackman, and turned his character Wolverine into an instant icon.   It was also Marvel Comic’s first serious foray into film-making, which has created massive dividends to this day for the brand.  But, what is most remarkable about the X-Men movie is that it ended up spawning a franchise that has remarkably remained unbroken for nearly twenty years; more or less.  Sure the timelines are ludicrously held together, but the narrative of the series that started with the 2000 film has managed to continue on up to today, which is an enviable run for any franchise, especially in the super hero genre.  But, as it happens with all things, this too has come to an end.

For the majority of it’s time on the big screen, the X-Men franchise has been under the banner of 20th Century Fox, and not by Marvel itself.  Marvel, in it’s earliest days in Hollywood, licensed their characters out to multiple studios, hoping to fast track their brand presence in the industry at a time when it was mostly the characters from their competitor, DC Comics, that dominated the box office.  Multiple studios over time had their hands on at least one Marvel character, but no singular studio had them all.  For Fox, they came into possession of the X-Men, as well as the Fantastic Four and Deadpool.  Out of these, the X-Men looked to be the most viable choice to build a strong franchise around, and Fox for a time did very well with the characters.  The franchise spawned two successful sequels, but as the genre began to change during the mid-2000’s, the franchise began to show signs of fatigue.  At the same time, Marvel, which had began to take more charge with how their characters were portrayed on screen, launched their own studio and soon after were bought by Disney, who were intent on consolidating all the Marvel characters back under one roof.  Many studios relinquished their control over the characters, like Paramount and Universal, but Fox was less compliant.  As Marvel Studios began to rise, the X-Men franchise began a bit of a Renaissance as they successfully relaunched the franchise with X-Men: First Class (2011).  Followed up with acclaimed films like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Deadpool (2016) and Fox believed they could form a cinematic universe with their own X-Men characters that they still owned the rights to.  However, the disappointing returns for X-Men: Apocalypse (2017) dampened those expectations, and soon after, Disney ended up buying Fox completely in a landmark acquisition, further spelling out the end of the line for the X-Men franchise.  Only one movie was left over in development that could give closure to this long running franchise, and the question remains; does Dark Phoenix send off these X-Men with a bang or a whimper?

The movie carries over the consistent gimmick of the past three X-Men movies, in that it jumps ahead ten years to use another decade as it’s setting.  First Class started of in the psychedelic 60’s, then Days of Future Past jumped to the turbulent 70’s, and Apocalypse brought us up to the colorful 80’s.  Dark Phoenix now sets the story in the early 90’s, with the X-Men firmly established as a beloved crime fighting force, using their powers for a good purpose.  Led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the headmaster at a special school for mutant children, the X-Men are sent on a special mission to space to save a stranded crew of astronauts who were attacked in orbit by an unknown, alien force.  The recovery team, led by team leaders Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), take the X-Men’s jet to orbit and have the teleportation powered Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bring the astronauts safely out of the damaged ship.  Meanwhile, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) tries to buy time, using her powers to hold the ship together, but while the astronauts are saved, it ends up being too late for her.  The mysterious cloud that attacked the ship suddenly rushes to her and absorbs itself completely into her body.  Worried that she’s been killed the other X-Men retrieve her from space, and to their surprise, she is not only alive but seemingly unharmed.  Back on earth, Jean starts to experience strange changes to her body.  Her powers are enhanced and uncontrollable, turning her into a menace wherever she goes.  She leaves the X-Men, seeking refuge with former X-Men foe Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who also casts her out when her new powers begin to wreck havoc.  Xavier and Jean’s boyfriend Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) hope to find and comfort the troubled Jean, but things are complicated once an alien race of shape-shifters, led by the power hungry Vuk (Jessica Chastain) have their eye on gaining Jean’s Phoenix force for themselves.

If you have been following the X-Men franchise up to this point, you are probably already familiar with the Phoenix Force story-line, as it also provided the plot inspiration for the problematic X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the not so loved third film in the series.  Last Stand was rightly condemned for it’s mishandling of the beloved story-line from the comics, both in straying too far from the actual origins of Jean Grey’s transformation and for mishandling all the careful character development that had gone into establishing the X-Men over the last two films.  Knowing fully well that fans were upset with how this was handled before, Fox planted the seeds for a do-over in their relaunch of the X-Men franchise with their new cast, especially with the obvious hints shown in the movie X-Men: Apocalypse.  However, with the off-set turmoil going on behind the scenes, with director Bryan Singer no longer acceptable to helm the picture because of his alleged sexual misconduct and the upcoming Disney/Fox merger further complicating matters, Dark Phoenix’s road to the big screen was very troubled.  Delayed multiple times, this film has finally made it to theaters, and the off screen problems are very apparent.  Not only did Fox not get the Phoenix saga right the second time around, they somehow made it even worse.  I’m sorry to say that this is not the ideal closing chapter for this long-running series, and in fact, it may be one of the worst super hero movies ever made period.  This is nearly Fant4stic (2015) bad, and is worse in some ways to that rightfully malinged cinematic travesty.  While Fant4stic was a horribly made movie for a franchise that never was going to exist at all anyway, Dark Phoenix is sadly built upon a franchise that has created some of the best super hero movies of all time.  It’s tragic in a way that a franchise like this, which did a lot of stuff right up to now, especially with the characters, fails so badly at the end, with no way of redeeming itself, now that this is the end of the line for good.

Here’s where the problem lies.  Because original helmer Bryan Singer is out of the question, and standby director Brett Ratner who took over for The Last Stand is finding himself in a near similar situation, Fox left the entire project into to the hands of series writer Simon Kinberg.  Kinberg is a fine screenwriter, having penned most of the films in the series, as well as acting as a producer for the franchise as a whole.  It’s clear that he loves the characters, but he also sadly lacks any cinematic vision.  This movie is clearly directed by someone who doesn’t feel comfortable behind the camera, and that becomes apparent in the pacing, the blocking of shots, and most sad of all, in the performances of the actors.  I watched this movie just absolutely baffled at how amateurish it felt.  I know that much of the blame for movies like these fall on the director, but at the same time, I feel bad for Kinberg, because he only acted as director because nobody else would step up.  And to me, it became less of a cinematic exercise over time and more of a studio mandate, as Fox was forcing more and more out of this franchise just so they could hold onto the rights and spite Marvel.  Those circumstances don’t always translate into a cohesive film, and that’s apparent with Dark Phoenix.  The strange thing is that Kinberg, who has set up the arrival of the Phoenix Force in previous movies, completely disposes of it, instead taking his cue from the comic books, which in this version of the story, makes no sense.  In the cinematic timeline for Dark Phoenix, which remember is still connected to The Last Stand, it should’ve been shown that the Phoenix Force was always a part of Jean Grey this whole time, fueling her telekinetic powers.  But even despite that already having been established before in Last Stand, the movie dismisses this right away and explains that the Phoenix came from outer space, which yes is closer to the comic, but is completely contradictory to what’s been established up to now in the films.  Maybe Kinberg was told to change course, but if not, this is yet another example of the movie just becoming careless about what it wants to be.

Kinberg’s severe lack of experience in the director’s chair is most apparent when it comes to the actors performances.  The thing that will stand out to most people who watch the movie is just how out of it the actors are in this movie.  Their performances feel emotionless and inconsistent, like their just reading off their line for the camera, which is pretty much exactly what’s going on onscreen.  An experienced director’s job includes helping the actors find their right head space, in order to make them feel the moment they are in and think like the character they are portraying.  The right kind of director can do this with just about anybody, no matter what their experience is, and the great thing about the super hero genre is that the choice of performer and the quality of their performance has helped to bring these super heroes triumphantly off the page.  In Dark Phoenix, you have this incredibly talented cast of performers who are just lost, because they are clearly just not being directed, leaving them to rely upon their own instincts, which are sadly not all aligned together.  It’s also apparent that some of them are already checked out, having moved on to bigger and better things and are just here as an obligation as part of their contract.  Jennifer Lawrence clearly wanted to have this over and done with quickly, which is apparent based on the reduced make-up job done to turn her into Mystique.  I don’t blame any of the bad performances here on the actors, because I’ve seen them all do better in other films as these characters; some of which were powerfully delivered.  But, when they have nothing to work with, you can see just how much that hurts the actors’ abilities to perform.  Sophie Turner, who has to do much of the heavy lifting of this movie, is sadly reduced to repeating the same character beats throughout the movie as Jean Grey, mainly just being reduced to “I’m scared.  I can’t control it.”  Jessica Chastain is especially wasted, playing one of the blandest villainesses in recent memory, which is profoundly disappointing for an actress of her talent and prestige.  James McAvoy’s image obsessed Charles Xavier is especially out of character, and more than anything represents how these characters became less important as individuals and more as functions of a plot.

An even bigger problem arises from the film’s peculiar adherence to the convoluted rules of the franchise.  I still don’t know why the movies continue to leap ahead in time, just so that it can represent another decade.  The rule worked out for First Class and Days of Future Past, which were narratively very much tied to the years that they were set.  But, with Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, you begin to encounter more problems.  One, those movies don’t really need the time period to give flavor to the story they’re telling.  Dark Phoenix in fact treats it’s setting as so inconsequential that you wouldn’t even realize it’s set in the 90’s unless you were told.  Second, the leap forwards run into the problem of having actors who look too young to play the same parts.  Remember, 10 years have passed between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, and yet all the actors look about the same age.  Jennifer Lawrence and Nicolas Hoult haven’t even turned 30 yet as of this writing, and yet their characters should be pushing 50 in the timeline of this movie; yet they still look like they haven’t aged a day.  At least McAvoy’s Charles Xavier has gone bald over the course of the movies.  It all makes the decade changing motif feel like it’s working against the progression of these characters; especially when characters like Jean, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler should all be in their mid-20’s at this point, and yet are still acting like teenagers.  And third, skipping 10 years at a time also robs the story of significant character development.  What has exactly been going on over 10 years, because the movie still treats these characters like nothing has changed since Apocalypse.  I would think that some major things would have happened to these characters during that time, but none of it is ever addressed.  So for all the things that Dark Phoenix sought to do differently in the story-line, namely the origin of the Phoenix Force, why did they still feel like they needed to jump ahead in time like the previous films had.  It’s another baffling choice that ultimately contributes to the laundry list of problems that this movie has.

The one good thing that I can say about this movie is that they wisely left Wolverine out of it.  Hugh Jackman thankfully got to hang up the claws in the far superior Logan (2017), leaving the character he played for over 17 years on a graceful note.  Sadly, for the actors involved here, some of whom have played these roles for the last 8 years, this is a less than ideal exit.  Dark Phoenix is a depressing end to a franchise that, while not always perfect, still managed to leave a positive impact on the genre as a whole.  For the most part, it’s most disappointing in the way that it once again squanders the opportunity to do the Phoenix Saga story-line once again, making it feel small and inconsequential.  But what I hated most about it was the amateurish way that it was constructed, failing in almost every department of film-making.  The camera work is uninspired, the musical score (surprisingly from the usually reliable Hans Zimmer) is a dreary bore, the visual effects are incomprehensible, and the actors performances are lazy and completely out of character.  The movie isn’t even bad in an entertaining way; it’s just a sad waste of very talented people.  Dark Phoenix, more than anything shows why this version of the series needed to come to an end.  It just became a tool of the ever defiant Fox studio to deny rival Disney a chance to take ownership of these once powerful franchise characters; a tact that also resulted in the disastrous Fant4stic.  Now that Disney and Fox have merged into one, Marvel Studios now has creative control once again of the X-Men, and no one doubts that we’ll see these characters once again.  The sad part is that the failure of Dark Phoenix all but ensures that none of the same team will carry over into the future X-Men movies, which is a shame because some of these actors have been quite good in the roles.  But, just like the ancient legend of the Phoenix bird, it has to die in order to be reborn, and that is what ultimately has to happen to this version of the X-Men.  The original X-Men deserved better closure than what we got with Dark Phoenix, but their legacy as a part of the super hero genre will always be remembered, especially when it was at it’s height.  And hopefully, what ends up being reborn after this will be the best we’ve seen yet.

Rating: 3.5/10

Off the Page – Dune

Science Fiction is largely seen as a primary genre within cinema, but it doesn’t quite get the same amount of respect as a great pillar of the literary world.  Sure, sci-fi literature is as successful of a genre in bookstores as anything else, but it’s only in recent years that science fiction has gained the due respect of the literary world that usually has been reserved for what is considered “high art.”  Now no longer dismissed as commercial, science fiction writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury are now spoken about in the same esteem as the likes of Dickens, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Faulkner.  And indeed, the influence of the 20th Century’s most celebrated science fiction writers are having a profound effect on cinema itself, as their work is sought after more and more for adaptation, and is often referenced multiple times by filmmakers who were inspired by their work.  Of all the most celebrated works of science fiction from the last century, one that particularly stands out as the most fascinating and influential of all is the 1965 novel Dune, written by American author Frank Herbert.  Herbert’s Dune is so highly regarded in literary circles that it’s often been called the Lord of the Rings of science fiction.  That comparison is fairly apt because like J.R.R. Tolkein’s masterwork, Dune is a immensely detailed chronicle of a people, a culture, and a place that feels foreign yet familiar, and it absorbs the reader into it’s world.  Upon reading Dune, you become wrapped up in the internal politics of a galactic empire that spreads across the cosmos and take in the sights, feels, and yes even smells of each new planet the story visits, as Herbert spends a meticulous amount of time describing his world to you, in that same Tolkein-esque way.  it’s a masterpiece of world building literature and rightly has earned it’s reputation as a touchstone of science fiction.  But, as remarkable a reputation Dune has claimed within literature, it’s road to the big screen has been a problematic one, even though it’s influence throughout the sci-fi genre is widespread.  And in one particular case, we’ve also seen how difficult it truly can be to do the writing of Frank Herbert justice through a cinematic interpretation.

Dune is, like Lord of the Rings, a dense and complex book, though not particularly in a narrative way.  It’s basically an Arthurian legend combined with super hero origin.  The stakes are made very clear, and the heroes and villains are easily defined.  Where the complexity rises is from the way that Herbert describes the internal politics and the ecology of the desert planet that makes up the setting of the story and it’s title; the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.  Arrakis is one of the most fantastic worlds ever dreamed up for any form story-telling; a desolate world that holds so much influnence for the whole of society because it’s primary export, the Melange spice, is the most important resource in the galaxy, and it is only produced on Arrakis.  The spice heightens mental consciousness, enhances human evolution, and enables interstellar flight, and the galactic empire that has discovered how to mine the spice has thrived because of it.  But, the result of the spice’s importance has been the growing desire to control it, and this has led to a feudal society where great houses go to war with each other in order to gain control of the spice.  In particular, the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen are the ones jostling for power, with the emperor, Shadam IV, using the governance of Arrakis as means of subduing a potential rival to the throne.  At the same time, a coven of spice enhanced witches named the Bene Gesserit have been managing selective breeding among the noble houses in the hopes of creating the next step in human evolution, creating a super being known as the Kwisatz Haderach, who can channel mental awareness beyond the limits of both male and female consciousness.  And despite their intentions of finding this being among the Bene Gesserit themselves, the most promising candidate has instead turned out to be the son of Duke Leto of House Atreides; Paul.  Paul Atreides rises to become a messiah like being through the course of the story, gaining immense mental powers as well as the loyalty of the native people of Arrakis, the Fremen, and with that, he challenges the hold of the empire over the planet and proves once and for all that he indeed is the Kwisatz Haderach, with the power to both control and destroy the production of the spice.

“Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet. Your time has come.  A storm is coming. Our storm.  And when it arrives, it will shake the Universe.”

The difficulty in taking Dune and translating it for the screen is that no one can match the imagination of Frank Herbert’s writing.  He details so much in his novel with regards to the state of his characters thought processes, the many cultural traditions that they adhere to, as well as the epic scale in which he describes the immensity of Arrakis itself.  For a movie to work, a filmmaker needs to condense a lot down into something palatable and cinematic to make the narrative work for the screen and that is a lot more daunting than you would imagine.  Upon the book’s original publication, it caught the imagination of the counter-cultural movement of the late 60’s, especially with it’s emphasis on using substances to heighten one’s mental awareness.  One filmmaker especially interested in Herbert’s novel was Chilean avant garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Jodorowsky had an ambitious vision for his take on the novel, expanding Herbert’s themes to represent a more new age spiritualism, and he managed to put together a remarkable cast and crew that included actors like David Carridine, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, as well as artists like Jean Giraud (Moebius) and H.R. Geiger.  But, just as the film was entering the final stages of development, the funding dried up and no studio wanted to make it, especially given Jodorowsky’s vision for a 10 hour run-time.  Soon after Jodoworsky’s Dune was shelved, the rights fell into the hands of legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis.   Laurentiis spent many years of serious development on the project, including having Frank Herbert himself draft a script, but again the project lingered in development hell as the project became too daunting for some.  Ridley Scott, hot off the success of Alien (1979), was at one point attached to direct, but he opted to make Blade Runner (1982) instead.  So, with the rights about to fall out of their hands, the De Laurentiis Company needed to think outside the box in order to make their project a reality, and their search ultimately led to the most unlikely of candidates; avant garde director David Lynch.  Lynch had made a name for himself as a master of the bizarre and grotesque on the silver screen, but science fiction was new territory for him, but he accepted the job nevertheless, seeing the potential to expand his unique vision on a much larger scale than he ever had before, and while it was fortunate for him, it may have been the wrong choice for the story he was about to tell.

“I must not fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.”

Here’s the thing that will jump out the most to first time viewers of David Lynch’s Dune; the movie is a fascinating look at what at what happens when you give a subversive, avant garde filmmaker a big budget to work with, and will please people who are fans of that style.  But, if you are someone who has read the book and wanted to see it faithfully brought to the big screen, you will be incredibly frustrated with the results.  David Lynch took the job of directing this film and insisted on writing the script himself, even though he had never read the book or was familiar with the story.  That lack of insight is palatable when watching the movie because the film cares little about the important things within the novel like character motivations, pacing, establishing a sense of time and place, and so much more.  It essentially is David Lynch playing around in a literal and metaphorical sandbox where he gets to indulge in his cerebral weirdness while only using the framework of Herbert’s novel to guide the movie.  It’s one of the most bizarre mismatches between director and source material that I think Hollywood has ever seen, and the story really suffers because of it.  One of the things that particularly lacks in Lynch’s take on the novel is it’s sense of grandiosity.  When you read the novel, you have this sweeping epic of vast expanses of desert and opulent palaces described to you, like something out of a film by David Lean (who was also approached to direct at one point, but quickly refused).   Lynch vision works in a more out-of-the-ordinary field which is best realized in movies like Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001); creating nightmares made real.  His style doesn’t translate into Herbert’s world, because it’s too constrained and focused on the wrong things.  He spends more effort portraying the oddities of the world and less on the drama and the character development, and that’s where the movie ultimately fails.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Lynch’s adaptation comes in the way that it takes narrative shortcuts in order to condense the entirety of Herbert’s novel into a quick 2 1/2 hour run-time.  Anyone who was frustrated with the seemingly rushed final season of Game of Thrones would be even more infuriated by the way that Lynch’s Dune jumps ahead through the story without any regard for the story, especially when you’re already familiar with it.  To make things worse, he adds this weird internal monologue for every character into the script, having the characters state the obvious in a eerie whispering tone over the action that is taking place.  This internal monologue with the characters, by the way, appears nowhere in the novel.  What Frank Herbert does is detail what the characters are thinking, but he never has the characters actually voice them out to the reader themselves.  It’s something that in many ways can only be done on the page, and it’s an effective tool for authors to add character development that helps the reader identify with the characters more.  Herbert even included the effective trick of multiple points of view within his chapters, which allowed him more creative freedom to jump around in the story from one location to another, something that author George R.R. Martin has also effectively used in this Song of Ice and Fire novels, the source material of the Game of Thrones series.  But, David Lynch shoehorns the inner monologues in a strangely invasive way that it cheats the movie of any real mystery and holds the characters at a frustrating distance from the viewer.   Not only that, but significant plot details are ignored or minimized.  Paul is inducted into the Fremen’s ranks with little resistance.  Baron Harkonnen’s torture and exploitation of the Arrakian citizens are barely even mentioned.  Paul’s love story with the Fremen girl Chani is laughably brushed off in a quick montage.  It’s a strange way to adapt such a complex novel and shows just how much more interested Lynch was in indulging his own desires for the story.  A longer cut of the movie exists, but it’s one that David Lynch, strangely enough, has disowned, seeing as he prefers the shorter, less faithful adaptation.

“They tried and failed?” “They tried and died.”

The cast of the movie also represents a problem with David Lynch’s portrayal of the story.  Lynch chose actors that less fit the roles they were playing, and fit more into the kind of story he wanted to tell.  That’s why you get a more passive portrayal of Paul Atreides through Kyle MacLaughlin.  MacLaughlin can be a good actor, and he would go on to have a prolific creative relationship with Lynch years after with both Blue Velvet and the series Twin Peaks.  But, his portrayal of Paul is so stilted and uninspired that he makes none of the transformations that the character goes through remotely interesting or surprising.  Paul is supposed to be this inspiring figure with supreme intelligence, the finest training in all forms of advanced combat, and charisma that can inspire the revolt of a once forgotten people.  Herbert’s writing even offers up the interesting introspection of the character as he realizes that his rise in power and influence will have it’s own dark consequences in the future, as zealots will commit atrocities in his name as he becomes a new god to the known galaxy, based on his foresight into the future.  The movie forgets all that and Paul becomes this all powerful figure purely because the plot says so.  MacLaughlin does attempt to look the part, despite being several years older than the actual character is in the book, and he does capture some wide eyed wonder that you’d want your protagonist to show in such a fantastic story, but at the end when he claims his status as the Kwisatz Haderach, you are left with this empty sense of what it really means, because nothing up to that point made him special.  The movie does better at portraying the villains, who feel more at home in Lynch’s nightmarish vision, though they themselves also feel like they don’t match up with Herbert’s depictions of the characters.  Baron Harkonnen should be this morbidly obese, grotesque monstrosity, but instead Lynch cast heavy set but not fat actor Kenneth McMillan, who doesn’t quite command the evil presence in the story that he should, though his hammy acting does help.  The movie also slightly elevates the character of Feyd-Ruatha, who goes from a minor villain in the novel to a more significant threat in the film; but that’s only because he’s famously portrayed by recording artist Sting, whose steam bath scene has developed a notorious reputation all on it’s own.   Mostly it’s less how Lynch cast his film and more how he wastes characters that fails the film, as important characters like Chani, Kynes, Stilgar, and Alia are brushed aside, because they don’t fit the narrative that Lynch wants to tell.

Lynch’s version of Dune does at times come close to reaching the vision of Herbert’s novel, and it’s largely through the stuff that fits more closely to Lynch’s own tastes.  For one thing, the movie thankfully does justice to the one element of the books that the story is most famous for; the mighty sandworms of Arrakis.  The sandworms are probably among the most imaginative creatures that have ever been conceived for science fiction, or any fiction really.  The are much like the regular earthworms that burrow underneath the soil here on earth, but they grow to an almost unimaginative scale.  Imagine if an earthworm were the size of the Empire State Building, and could swallow entire villages whole in it’s gaping mouth full of razor sharp teeth.  That’s what the Sandworms of Arrakis are like, and to portray them as any less would be a great insult to the imagination of Frank Herbert.  Thankfully, most of the film’s special effects budget went into portraying the worms with the sense of scale that they needed, and the effect is pretty impressive.  You really feel the size of these things, and their importance in the story is adequately portrayed, both as a threat and as a necessary component of the ecology of Arrakis.  Being the primary native species of the planet, everything on the planet revolves around the worms, including the production of the spice.  Lynch’s portrayal of the introduction of these creatures is the one point in the movie that lines up exactly with the novel.  Duke Leto and Paul Atreides are taken to observe production at a spice mine, only to have a worm sighting cut their visit short.  They watch in amazement as the vast jaws of the monster rise out of the surface of the sand and swallows the mine factory whole.  It’s an unforgettable scene in both the book and movie, and I do give Lynch the credit for doing that part justice.  But, even despite the effectiveness of the worms, the rest of the movie feels unimaginative.  The ducal palace of the capital city Arakeen feels uninspired, as it is literally just hallways carved into rock, and Baron Harkonnen’s industrial inspired palace feels like it belongs in another movie entirely.  The costuming also is basic and unimaginative, as the water preserving stillsuits just look like glorified scuba gear.  It all falls to the fault of misplaced ambition in the story-telling, as some parts of the movie get due respect, while others are treated as an afterthought.

“We have wormsign the likes of which God has never seen.”

I haven’t even touched upon all the other bizarre creative choices that plagued Lynch’s version of Dune, including the odd choice of rock band Toto to do the music (yes, the same guys who sung about blessing the rains down in Africa).  Long story short, David Lynch was never the ideal choice to bring Dune faithfully to the big screen.  And that was well reflected in it’s reception.  The movie was a critical and box office failure.  Strangely enough, the movie was heavily criticized for being a pail imitation of the more celebrated Star Wars (1977). Which is ironic since Dune the novel was one of the inspirations for George Lucas with his own story, and there are many parallel elements found in both; the desert planets of Arrakis and Tatooine, both Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker learning to master their super powerful abilities, grotesquely fat antagonists with Baron Harkonnen and Jabba the Hutt, an evil empire, the list goes on.  The legacy of Frank Herbert’s Dune can in fact be felt in most modern science fiction, and quite honestly it’s Lynch’s film that shares the least of that impact.  One surprisingly influential byproduct of the novel’s legacy was Jodoworsky’s unmade version.  All of the pre-production material made for the movie has since been visual inspiration for a number of other things.  H.R. Geiger, who first worked on designing for Dune would later famously provide the visual look for Ridley Scott’s Alien, including the now famous design of the xenomorphs, which were actually spiritual successors to designs he made earlier for Jadoworsky.  There was an incredible 2013 documentary made about Jodoworsky’s Dune that your should definitely check out.  Also, even after another long development period, we seem to now be getting a new adaptation coming soon that will attempt to more faithfully adhere to Herbert’s vision.  After directors like Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, and Peter Berg all flirted with the project before dropping out, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) is the one now tasked with the job, and he seems to be taking the role very seriously.  The cast he’s assembled, including Timothee Chalamet, Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem is one of the most impressive in recent memory, so a lot of hopes are high for this one.  Though David Lynch’s Dune has a somewhat small cult following, most people view it as a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a complex science fiction epic into such a narrow and uncharacteristic mold.  Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is a story that demands a grand cinematic treatment, and with David Lynch what we got instead was weirdness for weirdness sake.  And great science fiction rises above the confines of weirdness, and makes the reader and the viewer find truth in the unbelievable, which is exactly the majesty found in the pages of Dune.

“And how can this be?  For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”