Category Archives: Focus on a Franchise

Focus on a Franchise – DC Extended Universe (DCEU): Part One

Roll back the clock to the mid 2000’s and the cinematic landscape was very different for movies based on comic books.  DC was still trying to find it’s footing again after the disastrous implosion of their Batman franchise with Batman & Robin (1997) while at the same time Marvel had their many characters scattered around Hollywood at multiple studios.  Then in 2005, Christopher Nolan launched onto the scene with his grounded re-imagining of the Batman character with Batman Begins.  The movie was both a financial success as well as a critical darling, which made Hollywood realize that comic book movies could be so much more than just standard popcorn entertainment.  Which then led to the year 2008, which was a touchstone year for the genre as a whole because it not only saw the premiere of Nolan’s monumental second film in what would be his Dark Knight trilogy, the iconic The Dark Knight, but it was also the year that Marvel premiered Iron Man, the first film in the ambitiously planned Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While Christopher Nolan’s trilogy was winning praise from audiences and critics alike, Marvel was also gaining attention for their attempt at a connected universe through multiple franchises centered around their different characters, and with the acquisition of Marvel by Disney, the comic book giant now had a home base to put that plan together without too much intereference.  This plan culminated in the team up film called The Avengers (2012), which broke multiple box office records, including those set by The Dark Knight.  Hollywood had now seen the concept of a cinematic universe work on a massive scale and many of the studios were eager to repeat the magic that Marvel had managed to conjure up.  It would seem that DC would be in the best position to match what Marvel had achieved, given that they had their own stable of iconic super heroes and were also riding on the high of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy at the time.

But, as many would find out, it was almost impossible to repeat the same formula as effectively as Marvel had been doing.  Even as many of the studios were trying to form their own cinematic universes, Marvel continued to build with every new phase.  Universal failed in spectacular fashion with their “Dark Universe” based on their stable of movie monsters.  Sony, clinging heavily to their rights to the Spider-Man franchise, have put out numerous failed projects centered around as many superfluous characters in the Spider-Man orbit as they can, with only the Venom films being mildly successful.  But no other studio tried harder to compete with the likes of Marvel than their rival DC.  Under the corporate umbrella of Warner Brothers, the DC Comics Studio was given a significant spotlight in the wake of the success of the MCU.  The pressure was on to have the DC characters to have a cinematic universe of their own that would be on par with Marvel.  But the question remained, who would be the one to lead the charge.  At Marvel, the reigns of the cinematic universe were not held by one film director, but rather by the head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige, who delineated with his inner circle what stories would be told and how all those story thread would be woven into a larger story.  Who would be DC’s Feige then?  After completing his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christopher Nolan was ready to move on and work on other projects he was interested in like Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017).  DC and Warner Brothers instead turned to another one of their rising star filmmakers to help set the tone for their planned universe.  That filmmaker was Zack Snyder, who just a few years prior made a statement for himself with faithful adaptations of graphic novels such as 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009).  With Marvel leaning more into the colorful and comedic, it was decided that DC would lean more into the dark and dramatic in order to differentiate their universe, which Snyder was a good match for.  And so, the beginning of the DC Extended Universe was set.  But, as we would see, Cinematic Universes don’t always go as planned.


Directed by Zack Snyder

There are many factors that went into making the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) the runaway hit that it was, but one of the undeniable factors of it’s success would be the solid foundation it was built upon with the success of it’s first film, Iron Man.  Had that movie not worked, it would have poured water on the whole plan moving forward.  So, a lot was resting on the results the movie that would launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).  It’s only logical that the starting point for this multi-year, multi-film plan would have to involve the most iconic super hero in the entire DC stable; Superman.  Superman of course already had a strong cinematic background before, with the classic Richard Donner directed/ Christopher Reeve starring 1978 original being seen as the film that launched this genre in the first place.  But, after the disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), the “man of steel” had been on a lengthy hiatus on the big screen.  The well-intentioned but ultimately dull Superman Returns (2006) likewise cast doubts on Superman’s box office viability.  But, his story does offer a great starting point to launch a cinematic universe, given that Superman is the world’s most recognizable super hero.  What DC wanted to do this time was to ground Superman in the same way that Christopher Nolan had with Batman.  Zack Snyder could certainly bring that grittier style that was needed, but is that a good fit for the character of Superman?  There are a lot of questionable choices made in Man of Steel, chief among them would be what was seen as gratuitous violence that felt out of character for Superman.  The film was controversial for it’s time given that the resulting fight between Superman and the villainous General Zod leaves the city of Metropolis in a smoky ruin, with uncomfortable echoes of the devastation of 9/11.  Also, Superman ends up stopping Zod by killing him, which according to comic book lore is very much the antithesis of Superman’s pure hearted character.  To many people, Snyder’s approach to the character seemed to more self-serving of the director’s style and less in line with who Superman should be.  But, the movie still managed to succeed at the box office, no doubt riding the crest of the wave made by the success of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises a year prior.  The movie also won praise for it’s casting of Henry Cavill as Superman, who most considered to be a strong choice, along with the casting of Michael Shannon as Zod.  But, the true test of the longevity of the DCEU would depend on what Snyder would do next as a follow-up.


Directed by Zack Snyder

Despite there being mixed opinions about the Man of Steel’s treatment of the Superman mythos, people were still thrilled to find out that the next film in the DCEU would see Superman going head to head with the Dark Knight himself in his next film.  Not only that, but this would be the clearest indication yet that were on our way to seeing the first true assembling of the Justice League on the big screen.  Plus, we would be getting our first post-Dark Knight version of the Batman, which it turns out would be heavily influenced by the famous Frank Miller run of the character in the comic books.  There were a lot of naysayers at the time when it was announced that Ben Affleck would be playing the caped crusader, but as it turns out, it would be the best choice Zack Snyder made for the whole movie.  While Snyder had the ingredients to make one of the most iconic comic book movies of all time, he sadly didn’t have a compelling story to center his movie on.  The key problem with BvS is that the whole plot to get his super heroes to fight one another is convoluted and non-sensical.  All of the story problems that plagued Man of Steel are amplified here, and the biggest problem of them all is the horrible mismanagement of the character Lex Luthor.  Luthor is one of DC’s most iconic villains, and most well known as Superman’s arch-nemesis.  Here he is played by Jesse Eisenberg who from the get go you can tell was horribly miscast.  His personality type is not at all like the cool, calculating super genius of the comic books, and it almost seems like Eisenberg’s direction with the character was to make him closer to the Joker with his out of place manic outbursts.  You can also see the flaw in DC being too heavy-handed with their expanded universe plans, as too much of the movie feels like a set up for future movies, especially in a painfully mediocre sequence where we see our first glimpses of Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman.  At least Wonder Woman does get something to do in this movie, as the heroine (played by Gal Gadot) joins the other two heroes in the final battle; and I won’t lie, the money shot of DC’s holy trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all standing together on the battlefield is pretty incedible.  Sadly, all the other potential is wasted as Snyder’s style over substance tendencies undermine any connection we have with the characters.  That’s why there was significant doubt about the future of the DCEU moving forward after this, as the movie was critically panned across the board.  It also didn’t help that Marvel released Captain America: Civil War (2016) a few short months after, showing the same concept of super heroes battling each other, but done much better.


Directed by David Ayer

If the heroes weren’t going to save the DCEU from floundering, than how about the villains.  Before the Justice League assembled on the big screen, we were presented with this team up of villains from across the whole DC rogues gallery.   The concept of the Suicide Squad from the comics is that when the government deems a situation too dangerous to risk the lives of their strongest heroes, they send in a team of criminals who lives they don’t mind sacrificing for the sake of the greater good.  It’s a fun concept that offers DC a chance to make use of the deeper bench of their collection of characters, many of whom would be making their big screen debuts.  This also being the first film in the DCEU not helmed by Zack Snyder also offered people the chance to see what a different directorial vision would look like in this cinematic universe.  David Ayer, who previously won acclaim for the films End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014) seemed like a good choice, as his style matched the grittier tone that DC wanted to continue, but was different enough from Zack Snyder to show more diversity of vision within the cinematic universe.  Again, like the movies that came before, DC had done a good job with their casting.  Will Smith gave a devilishly charismatic portrayal to the sharp-shotting Deadshot.  Margot Robbie seemed to have been born to play Harley Quinn.  And perhaps the most outstanding casting choice of them all, and the sole actress from this era to outlive the DCEU in this role, Viola Davis as the ruthless Amanda Waller, the squad’s agency handler.  But, not everything seemed to work out as planned; the common refrain of the DCEU thus far.  While the movie does work better than the Zack Snyder films in general, it also is frustratingly all over the place in tone.  Apparently during post-production, David Ayer had the film taken away from him and re-edited by the studio to give it a more comedic tone.  This was due in part because of the competition with Marvel, which had achieved enormous success with the mix of humor and action in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  It’s sadly ironic that years later, DC would tap James Gunn himself to direct the Suicide Squad sequel instead of David Ayer, who to this day insists on having his original cut see the light of day.  This was yet another example of DC’s inability to adequately build a cinematic universe, mainly due to them continually playing catch-up to Marvel.


Directed by Patty Jenkins

Three movies in, and the DCEU’s future was on shaky ground.  Their movies were performing well at the box office, but critically they were far behind where Marvel was.  And there seemed to be a lot of doubt whether their next film could pull them out of the slump, given that it centered on a heroine that up to now had never carried a film on her own before.  Wonder Woman carried a lot of uncertainties, given that no super hero movie before had centered on a female super hero, nor had been directed by a woman.  And Patty Jenkins, the director, had never attempted a film on this scale before, with her only film prior being the small independent flick Monster (2003).  And yet, with all of those factors weighing against it, Wonder Woman defied all expectations and became a critical and commercial success.  Many people point to this as the film that saved the DCEU (at least for a while) and it’s clear to see why.  For one thing, it is the first DCEU with a consistent tone and a cohesive story.  Set during WWI, it finds the Amazonian princess Diana brought into the human world in a quest to stop all wars by defeating the God of War, Ares.  Accompanied by her human guide Steve Trevor (a perfectly cast Chris Pine) we see Diana grow into the hero that we know as Wonder Woman, which Gal Gadot brings so much charm into, and that proves to be the key to the film’s success.  For the first time in the DCEU, we finally see a hero take action and use their powers in an unselfish way.  Patty Jenkins apparently fought to keep the No Man’s Land sequence in the film against the wishes of DC and Warner Brothers, and it’s wonderful that she did, because that’s the part of the movie where we see the super hero become who she was destined to be.  That’s what the DCEU had been missing before; the reminder that these heroes are larger than life and worth being inspired by.  It also helps that Patty Jenkins seems to have that reverence for the character as well, in a way that never feels artificial and surface level like it does with Zack Snyder.  And it also not only marks the first time that DC not only matched Marvel in their quality, but in some ways even surpasses them.  It would be two more years before Marvel had it’s own female led super hero movie with Captain Marvel (2019), so DC can proudly claim that they were the first to reach that benchmark.  Thankfully, it was also a benchmark that finally was worthy of the character and fulfilled the long awaited promise of seeing Wonder Woman brought to cinematic life.


Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon

But, just as quickly as Wonder Woman was able to put the DCEU on the right track, the Justice League pretty much immediately derailed it once again.  This film is notoriously known as one of the most troubled productions in movie history, and all of that misfortune is clear to see in the theatrical cut that we saw in the Fall of 2017.  Still reeling from the inability to compete with Marvel year after year, Justice League went through numerous rewrites and reshoots throughout it’s production, with DC constantly second-guessing itself.  Originally planned as a two part event, DC decided to take the full four hours of content that Zack Snyder had assembled in his cut, and demanded it be whittled down into a theater friendly two hour cut.  Unfortunately, a family tragedy prevented Snyder from being available to restructure the film according to those new demands in order to meet the deadline, so it was decided to give the film over to someone else.  That someone would be Joss Whedon, the man who delivered a monster hit for Marvel with The Avengers.  If he could assemble the Avengers successfully on screen, surely he’d do the same with the Justice League, right?  It turns out Whedon’s magic touch couldn’t save the sinking ship of the Justice League; if anything he made things worse.  Costly re-shoots didn’t give any added coherence to the story, but instead only added awkwardly shoe-horned jokes into the mix.  And in the years since, stories have come out about how bad of an experience the re-shoots were for the actors involved.  Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot pointed out the abusive and belittling behavior Whedon directed toward them on set, with Fisher pointing out how his Cyborg character (who was the main focus of Snyder’s cut) seemed to be diminished in the story completely in what seemed like retaliation from Whedon.  Joss Whedon’s reputation has never recovered from this disastrous production, and DC and Warner Brother’s bad decisions on this film would have a ripple effect across the remainder of the DCEU, particularly with fans.  I didn’t even get to the other problems with the movie, from Henry Cavill’s awful CGI upper lip to the bad animation of the villainous Steppenwolf.  Snyder still received sole directorial credit, but it’s unfair to call this his movie as it is more DC’s and Joss Whedon’s mess.  Of course, Zack Snyder would have his final word in the end, but that will have to wait for Part Two.

AQUAMAN (2018)

Directed by James Wan

If you were to make a guess as to which DC super hero would emerge as the box office champion in the DCEU from the outset, I don’t think anyone would’ve picked Aquaman.  But that’s exactly what happened.  Aquaman was the only DCEU film to ever cross the billion dollar mark at the worldwide box office, which was a welcome result for DC and Warner Brothers after they saw Justice League flame out the year before.  One thing that probably helped Aquaman get to a billion dollars was because it came out in the year that you could say was the peak of the super hero genre; 2018.  This was the same year that saw the record breaking success of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War from Marvel.  But it wasn’t just Marvel Studios making a killing.  Sony was also making a killing with their Spider-Man villain spin-off Venom, starring Tom Hardy, as well as their critically acclaimed animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  It was just the best time possible to have a super hero movie in theaters, and Aquaman was in the right place at the right time.  It also helped that Jason Mamoa was a genuine magnetic star who was more than capable of carrying a movie like this on his huge shoulders.  The film was definitely a big departure for director James Wan, who was better known up to this point for his work in horror, being the architect of the Saw and Conjuring franchises.  In my own personal opinion, I felt that Wan’s vision was a little scattershot in bringing the world of Aquaman to life, as the story feels overstuffed with too many elements.  It’s like Wan thought he was only ever going to get one shot at making an Aquaman movie, so he was determined to put it all into this movie.  There’s one too many villains in this film, with Aquaman battling both of his comic book nemeses, Oceanmaster and Black Manta.  The finale is also a CGI overload that is often hard to follow.  But, I know my opinions are in the minority as audiences still ate this movie up, and helped to elevate Aquaman into the upper tier of cinematic super heroes.  It also helped to secure the survival of the DCEU for a bit longer, especially in the wake of Marvel hitting it’s own mighty crescendo.

SHAZAM (2019)

Directed by David F. Sandberg

If I were to select a film out of the DCEU that would be my own personal favorite, it would be Shazam.  I think that this is the movie where DC finally hit the right note with their cinematic universe.  The movie was grounded yet still magical, funny without feeling forced, and more than anything represented what a DC film could be without living in the shadow of the Marvel.  This was what the DCEU should have been from the beginning.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with the heavy metaphors and symbolism of Zack Snyder’s films, nor has the awkwardly laid in humor of what Joss Whedon brought to Justice League.  It’s just a charming story told with enough visual imagination to make it feel like a true comic book come to life. The character of Shazam was always going to be a tricky one to pull off, so it mattered a lot in how they would cast the character, in both forms.  Teenage actor Asher Angel brings enough likable charm to the role of Billy Batson, and even manages to do well in the dramatic moments as he frantically tries to discover who he is after being orphaned as a child.  When he transforms into the super being Shazam, Zachary Levi takes over and does a magnificent job of portraying a teenager in a grown man’s body, with often hilarious results.  Helping to bridge the performance between the two actors in the role is the perfect chemistry both have with the character Freddy Freeman (played with perfect comedic chops by Jack Dylan Grazer).  What especially helps this movie to soar unlike so many of the other DCEU films is that it doesn’t feel as labored as the others.  This movie seemed to be detached just a bit more from the DCEU master plan, so it was able to stand out more and be it’s own thing, which helps the movie as a whole to feel more like a complete vision rather than just a cog in the machine.  This is what also helped Wonder Woman to stand out too, with the greater vision of the cinematic universe not getting in the way of telling a stand alone story.  The fact that they could do this with a character as obscure in the DC pantheon as Shazam just goes to show that when done correctly, any super hero can work on the big screen.  You just need to combine comic book action with a compelling story, especially one that’s an inspiring coming of age narrative like in this film.  At this point in time, it also looked like DC was set to compete with Marvel on relatively strong common ground in terms of tone and story.  But, the turn of the decade would bring it’s own challenges.


Directed by Cathy Yan

The mouthful that is this movie’s title gives you a bit of an indication of the whirlwind of mayhem that this movie ultimately ended up being.  It follows up the events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, but also goes out of it’s way to indicate that this is very much not a sequel.  The movie was mainly produced to be a showcase for Margot Robbie in the role that turned her into a star.  Most people just refer to this as the Harley Quinn movie, and that’s an apt description.  She is undeniably the centerpiece of the movie, with the titular super girl team being the background players.  Margot Robbie makes the most of this film, as she is a hilarious delight playing Harley Quinn in all of her madcap madness.  Of all of the DCEU films, this is the one that is undeniably a comedy first and foremost; with the Deadpool films being the closest spiritual inspirations to this movie in the genre.  Unfortunately, this tone made the movie receive a mixed reception from fans who were not fully on board with this kind of cartoonish shift in tone for the DCEU.  It was also the first DCEU film released theatrically with an R-Rating, which also was a major shift in strategy for DC.  If you take it on it’s own outside of it’s place in the DCEU, this movie is a fun subversion of the super hero genre, with Margot Robbie’s game comedic chops delivering a lot of laughs along the way.  But, this was at a point when the DC fandom itself was greatly fractured, with the “Release the Snyder Cut” movement hitting it’s highest point and Zack Snyder stans angrily rejecting the sillier tone that this movie was starting to put forward.  Sadly, a lot of factors worked against Birds of Prey’s favor, especially the looming disaster that was the Covid-19 pandemic that ultimately cut it’s time at the box office short.  Of all the official DCEU films, this is the one that most people forget about, and it’s too bad because on it’s own it’s a funny little film with a hilarious performance by Margot Robbie as Harley.  I would like to think that the confidence she built as a comedic performer in this film and the Suicide Squad movies would eventually help her deliver the iconic work she did in Barbie (2023) a few short but arduous years later.

At this point, we break this overview of the DCEU into separate halves.  These first few years show DC struggling to find their way into getting a cinematic universe to gel together on the big screen with a lot of bad choices in the beginning leading to some gradual successes.  The second half of this retrospective, which I will get to later this year, will show how the DCEU inevitably came apart in a post-pandemic world, leading to what now will be a complete overhaul and reboot.  You may wonder why I didn’t include the Oscar-winning Joker (2019) starring Joaquin Phoenix in my retrospective.  This is because DC themselves have classified that particular film as an “else-worlds” story disconnected from their cinematic universe storyline; so it doesn’t count as an official DCEU film.  The same will still apply to the Matt Reeves directed The Batman (2022), which opened alongside the second half of movies in the DCEU slate.  What is definitely clear from the overview of movies in this article is that DC was consistently running from behind in the race against Marvel, and they never quite caught up to their rival.  Though there were certainly bright spots with Wonder WomanAquaman, and Shazam, the fact that the build-up and failed execution of a Justice League movie clouded so much of their reputation just showed that the DCEU was always doomed to fail.  More than anything, it was  the mess that was the Justice League movie that dragged everything down with it.  But it can also be said that the lackluster results of Man of Steel may have caused the ripple effects of failure from the very outset.  The Hall of Justice could never stand on a faulty foundation.  Even with all that, the DCEU still gave us some individually strong movies that are still worthwhile to watch on their own.  This, as I’ll point out in Part Two, is even true of some of the movies in the back half of the DCEU, even if they failed to deliver at the box office.  I will always be entertained by the charming innocence of Shazam, and the inspiring heroism displayed in Wonder Woman.  The latter’s No Man’s Land sequence I would argue stands up as one of the greatest scenes ever in a super hero movie, right alongside iconic moments like the train fight in Spider-Man 2 (2004) or the Airport fight scene from Marvel’s Civil War.  The story of the DCEU still has more stories to tell, but from these first eight films, the definite impression left behind is one of valiant efforts made to work with a flawed plan that was never going to pan out like it was intended to.

Focus on a Franchise – The Matrix

You’ve got to hand it to Keanu Reeves.  The man is very good at remaining relevant as a movie star over the course of a nearly 40 year career.  Often derided for not being the most versatile actor in the business, the man is nevertheless a good judge of projects to attach his name to.  Starting off as one half of a goofy duo of dimwitted teenagers in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Reeves successfully made the jump to action movies with the box office hit Speed (1994).  In an era when the action movie star fit a specific mold, mainly muscle bound stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean Claude Van Damme, Keanu Reeves was very different.  His more lean build allowed him to feel like a more natural, everyday hero than the He-Men that normally appeared on screen.  But, even if Hollywood wasn’t satisfied with him yet as an action movie star, Keanu still proved to be a surprisingly forward thinking movie star.  He wisely turned down appearing in the ill-fated sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997), which proved to be one of the biggest box office disasters in history.  Over the years, he’s also developed a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the business; using his stardom to uplift others and creating a generally positive atmosphere on whatever set he works on.  It’s probably why his recent success with the John Wick movies has been so fruitful, because so many of the best in the business wants to work with him.  He may not be a Shakespearean level performer; though he has done that as well, appearing in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) early on in his career.  But, he has shown through his own example how best to exemplify the meaning of movie stardom and, more importantly, earn it as well.  When looking at Keanu Reeves career as a movie star, many highlights come to mind, but the movies that will likely be what defines his place in the annals of movie history are the films in the Matrix series.

It can’t be understated how earth shattering The Matrix proved to be, not just as a film series, but as a cultural touchstone.  The Matrix is one of the most oft quoted and referenced films in cinema history.  It also sparked a revolution in visual effects, as audiences were wowed by new techniques that truly defied the laws of physics in a way thought unimaginable before.  And it also sparked a renewed interest in new age philosophies and sociological theories.  Not bad for an R-rated studio film that was dumped off in the box office wasteland of April.  Initially, Warner Brothers didn’t have much faith in this film connecting with audiences, but afterwards it became a different matter.  Suddenly they had a new IP that could take on the likes of Star Wars, which while The Matrix didn’t overtake the juggernaut at the box office, it ended up sweeping them in the awards season, with The Matrix winning a respectable 4 Oscars and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace going home empty handed.  Of course, this kind of success demanded a sequel, and Warner Brothers called upon the filmmakers, The Wachowskis, to deliver.  Instead of just one sequel, the Wachowskis convinced the studio to make two back to back.  It’s not an uncommon practice, as Back to the Future shot two sequels back to back, and of course The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot as a whole together.  But the interesting thing about The Matrix was that both films would be released in the same year (2003 to be exact) and only months apart.  It was ambitious to say the least, but Warners was confident that all the hype would deliver them huge results.  While the two films didn’t exactly loose money, they also didn’t deliver as big as the studio hoped it would either.  As a result, The Matrix would also prove to be a text book example of failing to harness lighting in a bottle a second time.  Of course, that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from trying again almost 20 years later, and the result also spoke for itself.  Still, The Matrix series is a fascinating oddity in film history, and examining each film offers some interesting insights into the ups and downs of building a franchise.


The one that started it all.  Before The Matrix came along, The Wachowskis were still fairly new on the filmmaking scene.  They had only made one film prior; the erotic thriller Bound (1996).  But, their pitch for a cyberpunk thriller set in the virtual wonderland existing within the realm of the internet was ambitious to say the least.  It also made the film a hard sell.  What ultimately helped the Wachowskis sell their vision was getting the assistance of illustrators like Steve Skroce and Geoffrey Darrow, who together created nearly 600 storyboards and concept drawings for the filmmakers to show to interested parties.  Eventually Warner Brothers gave them the green light and they were allowed to make their vision a reality, with a surprising amount of free reign.  That amount of creative freedom proved to be useful for the directors, as they used their film to experiment with new filmmaking techniques.  The most noteworthy technique, and the one that is today synonymous with The Matrix itself; bullet time.  This was different from the slow mo we had been accustomed to in the movies.  Here, the Wachowskis could freeze the action on screen and yet still move the camera around in a three dimensional action, creating a hyper-surreal visual on screen.  This was accomplished by having the actors perform an action within a rig of cameras mounted in a circular ring around them.  Each camera would snap a picture all at the same time, each from a different angle, and then the images would be combined together digital creating the illusion of movement around a static image.  Of course, “bullet time” got it’s name from a specific moment in the film when it appears that Keanu Reeve’s Neo is moving so fast that he can literally dodge bullets.  The were many other ground breaking effects, some of which look quaint over 20 years later and others that have held up pretty well.  This stuff alone would’ve made The Matrix noteworthy, but the film was much more than that.

The story itself, about a mild mannered computer programmer named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) suddenly being thrust into a mind-altering adventure where he learns that the life he knew was all a simulated lie blew away many audiences minds when they first saw this film.  The Wachowskis didn’t just make a movie; they started a conversation, about society, the meaning of life, what our identities are, and what responsibility we have over our use of technology.  It helps that the Wachowskis assembled an ideal team to get their vision onto the big screen.  Keanu Reeves was ideal for the role of Neo, the reawakened protagonist that was formally known as Mr. Anderson.  Reeves limitations as a dramatic actor actually proves to be an asset in his performance here as his stilted demeanor gives Neo a more hard edge identity.  But it’s not just Keanu that stands out.  Carrie Anne Moss became an instant star with her scene stealing presence as Trinity, the skilled freedom fighter that recruits Neo.  Laurence Fishburne completely re-invented his already varied career with his personification of the wise and steadfast Morpheus. And not to be overlooked, but Australian rising star Hugo Weaving delivered a truly unforgettable villainous turn as Agent Smith, one of the programs designed to keep order within the Matrix while having a sneaky agenda of his own.  While Warner Brothers liked what they saw with The Matrix, they were also hesitant.  An stylish R-rated, effects heavy film was not not an easy sell in the late 90’s, so they cautiously opened it up in a quiet Spring box office weekend.  That strategy proved to be wise, as the film managed to stand out immediately and gain attention from audiences.  By the end of that summer, even with a new Star Wars in theaters, people were still talking about The Matrix.  It was immediately clear, The Matrix had started something new in Hollywood.  Particularly when it comes to visual effects you could see the Matrix effect, as CGI took over in a much bigger way.  The Matrix would also be parodied relentlessly in the next few years, particularly with variations on the “bullet time” effect.  But, the question remained, what would the Wachowskis do next now that they had a film that changed the face of cinema as we know it.


It didn’t take long for a sequel to be assembled for a groundbreaking film like The Matrix, and like mentioned before, Warner Brothers granted the Wachowskis’ wish to film both movies back to back.  Looking at the two movies that released months apart, it’s clear that the two were meant to be a continuous narrative broken into two parts.  The Wachowskis wanted to keep expanding upon what they had built with the first movie, giving the world more definition than what we had seen before.  For the first time, we would be seeing Zion, the stronghold of all the humans who had freed themselves from the Matrix.  The cast would also be expanding, with actors like Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau, Monica Bellucci, and Lambert Wilson taking on new important characters.  By the time the movie was ready to release in theaters, the amount of hype was definitely at the peak for Matrix mania.  The first film, The Matrix Reloaded, broke numerous opening weekend records, especially for an R-rated film, grossing an impressive $91 million.  But even though the movie found financial success, the reception from audiences and critics became a different matter.  It was almost universal that people felt Reloaded lacked the magic of the original film.  While the production values in the action scenes were impressive, now that the Wachowskis were given the full confidence and support of Warner Brothers, people felt that they were too noisy and lacking in gravity.  The whole film felt like a watered down version of the original movie.  It also didn’t help that the movie seemed a little too self aware and up it’s own ass when it came to the philosophical elements of the movie.  The scene where Neo meets the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) particularly drove audiences nuts because they felt it ground the film to a halt in order for the Wachowskis to inject even more sermonizing about the nature of reality, which is not what most people came to these movies for.  Despite The Matrix having the reputation of being a thinking man’s action film, the audiences unfortunately were unforgiving of a movie that was attempting to be too smart for the room.  They just wanted to see Neo kicking more butt on screen.  So, despite strong box office, Reloaded was ultimately greeted as a disappointment among fans.  Which did not bode well for a third film.


It seemed like every problem that plagued Reloaded upon release was carried over into Revolutions and amplified.  To spread their vision across two movies, the Wachowskis likely struggled to figure out an interesting angle to build their character development on.  Ultimately, and possibly pressured by Warner Brothers, they ultimately decided to play things safe.  Neo’s journey to becoming “the One” doesn’t exactly deviate into any new territory that we’ve seen in the heroes journey found in so many other action films.  He, in the end, basically becomes no different than Superman, with a little not too subtle Christ allegory thrown in.  And that becomes a fairly disappointing final destination for this series to head towards as the culmination of this trilogy.  The movie more or less ends not with mankind overcoming the oppressive machines that threaten them.  The war pretty much ends on a truce, with Neo sacrificing himself to the machines in exchange for their promise to leave the Zion settlement alone as a bargain to unify against a common enemy; that being an out of control Agent Smith who has evolved into an apocalyptic computer virus.  While the movie does have an effects heavy show down between humans and machines in the climax, it ultimately feels pretty hollow and cliched.  The movie’s saving grace though is Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith.  Elevated from a standard action film baddie into a near god like threat level villain by the end makes him the only character that got more interesting as the series went along, and Weaving relishes every moment he’s on screen.  He truly makes Agent Smith one of the great movie villains, and the showdown with him and Neo feels epic in the right way, and also eerie with all of the Smith clones standing by to watch the battle to end all battles from the sidelines.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to salvage the film as Matrix mania had fully died down in the wake of Reloaded.  Revolutions opening in November of that year, and was beaten by of all things the Will Farrell Christmas movie Elf (2003).  It was perhaps wise to make both movies back to back so that the downfall of the series would be swift and not dragged out over several years.  As much as cinema changed in the wake of the original Matrix, the industry also changed to where a movie like The Matrix wasn’t going to cut it anymore, especially with franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings beginning to take hold.


A lot happened in the 18 years since the Matrix trilogy came to a close.  Perhaps the most astonishing change came with the Wachowskis themselves.  Originally known as the Wachowski Brothers during the making of the original trilogy, the duo surprised everyone by coming out as transgender over the span of a couple of years.  First Lana made the big step during the making of their epic film production Cloud Atlas (2012), and a couple years later Lilly would make the transition as well.  One thing that the Wachowski sisters revealed during their public announcements was that working on The Matrix was instrumental in helping them grow more comfortable in expressing who they really were and gave them the drive to transition in front of the world and set an example.  They confirmed the theory that their trilogy was a metaphor for transitioning, as Neo and the other humans shed the programmed life they knew before and embraced and fought for the identity that they knew to be true.  Sadly, that theory is one that many in the Matrix fandom rejected outright; a fandom that unfortunately turned toxic in the two decades since the movies released.  This is likely what prompted Lana Wachowski to step forward to make a fourth film on her own.  Too many people had been co-opting The Matrix and all of it’s quotes and iconic scenes for their own toxic ideologies, and Lana wanted to reclaim some of that legacy back.  Working solo without Lilly, Lana Wachowski managed to get the greenlight from Warner Brothers for a fourth film.  What likely helped to move the project forward was Keanu Reeves having a career resurgence thanks to the John Wick films, and having him return to the role of Neo was too good to pass up.  Carrie Anne Moss also thankfully agreed to return, though they were unfortunately without Laurence Fishburne, so Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stepped into the role instead.  The film unfortunately ran into trouble with the Covid-19 pandemic delaying it’s release, and sadly it was one of the films undercut by Warner Brother’s disastrous decision to release all of their 2021 films in both theaters and streaming day and date.

The resulting film is certainly a mess and very much doesn’t re-capture the magic of the first film.  But, it’s also the most fascinating film in the series since the original, and that’s largely due to what Lana Wachowski did with the movie.  The film is less of a continuation of the Matrix trilogy and more of a meta commentary on not just toxic Matrix fandom but also of the corporatization of franchises in general.  Neo finds himself back in the Matrix, after having seemingly dying in the fight with Smith at the end of Revolutions.  Not only that, but he has no memory of before and works as a video game developer.  In this life, he has created a successful trilogy of games called “The Matrix,” and as his boss (played by Jonathan Groff) says to him, “our parent company Warner Brothers is demanding a sequel.”  You could say that Lana is biting the hand that feeds her, and that’s probably the point.  She also takes aim at people who misinterpret the meaning behind The Matrix, getting all of the philosophical questions wrong and using the Matrix as an excuse to justify their own toxic ideas.  There is a story in this film, with newly resurrected Neo trying to bring Trinity back to reality, but it seems like it’s just there to get the movie rolling to what Lana Wachowski really wants to say with this movie.  In the 18 years, she has seen her films be co-opted by bad faith actors who misquote and reference the original films all the time in the online atmosphere.  The utilization of the red pill metaphor as a recruitment message for online right wing agitators must really upset Lana, given that so many in that community are actively hostile to the transgender community.  By calling out the misuse of her movies and in turn deconstructing the legacy of The Matrix as a whole, it’s as if Lana Wachowski is purposely burning down the house she built so that the wrong kind of people cannot make a home in it.  It makes Matrix Resurrections not very good as a continuation of the Matrix series, but in turn it’s also a brave defiant statement against the reality of toxic fandoms, and honestly I respect the hutzpah it took to make a movie like this.

So, it may not be the perfect series that many had wished for with the promise of the original movie, but there is no denying that The Matrix is one of the most monumental cinematic statements we’ve ever seen committed to celluloid.  The Wachowski Sisters had a bold vision that could not be easily categorized, and yet it found it’s audience and forced a change within the industry as a result.  Even to this day one can’t think of a more iconic image in cinema than that of Keanu Reeves in the black trench coat and shades bending over backwards to dodge the bullets in slow motion.  What really helped to define The Matrix the most was it’s bold experimentation.  It dared to be different in every way, both in visuals and in it’s story-telling. It was also a big budget action film that also dared to ask bold philosophical questions.  For the Wachowskis, it was also a bold expression of the challenges they were facing in finding their true selves, and thankfully they have remained powerful voices in the transgender community.  The two sequels from 2003 may be a perfect example of how the pressure to build a franchise out of something that defied conventional wisdom in the first place often leads to disappointing results.  Reloaded and Revolutions are by no means the worst sequels ever made, and often they have moments that really shine; but they are also rudderless and conventional in ways that the original was not, and that’s likely the thing that led them to be disappointments in the end.  On the surface, The Matrix Resurrections seems to be a shameless cash grab, and it is for the most part, but Lana Wachowski utilizes her moment with the film to air our her frustrations at all of the pseudo-intellectuals who misquote her film all the time online, and it kind of gives Resurrections  this hidden subversive element to it that I kinda love.  Lana probably saw too many “red pill” tweets from Elon Musk and wrote this movie as a cinematic middle finger to faux “geniuses” like him who proclaim to know the “truth” of the Matrix. There’s a lot to say about the Matrix  movies, and there will likely be debates that will happen for as long as there is discourse about cinema, but it’s a series that for the most part helped to push the movies in the right direction.  Having an action film that made you think was definitely something desperately needed going into the new millennium, and while many may have taken the wrong message from the movies, another large part of the fandom has picked up from it’s example and strived to make better action movies that were more than mindless entertainment.  We certainly wouldn’t have gotten to John Wick had Neo never worked on the big screen.  The Matrix is a lot of things, and all of it is enough to make you go, “Whoa.”

Focus on a Franchise – Planet of the Apes: The Caesar Trilogy

Back in the 1960’s, as the world became embroiled in a number of on-going tragedies, from the ongoing war in Vietnam to numerous assassinations of political and social movement leaders, there was also a major shift going on within Hollywood.  The mega-budget, opulent and airy musicals and epics that dominated the early part of the decade were suddenly out of flavor with audiences who now wanted what they saw on the big screen to better reflect the harshness of the world that they were currently living in.  One of the places that best represented this shift in a microcosm was 20th Century Fox.  In the latter part of the 60’s, Fox began to hit hard times as their expensive old-fashioned musicals like Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly (1969) ended up flopping at the box office.  To better connect with a newer, more cynical audience, they had to adjust quickly and find a new type of movie to help salvage their brand into the future.  Strangely enough they found that film in a strange little science-fiction thriller called Planet of the Apes (1968).  Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and starring the king of epics himself Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of it’s time.  The story itself is pretty simple, an astronaut lands on a planet where apes have become the dominant species, but it’s execution on all fronts (writing, direction, performance and especially score) that helped to make it resonate even more.  And then of course there is that legendary twist ending which has been parodied relentlessly over the years.  The success of the movie led to a series of sequels, though none made the same impact as the original film did.  For a while the franchise went dormant, though the first movie remained a mainstay in Science Fiction circuits.  Eventually, Fox believed they could do something once again with the property, which led them to greenlight a remake in 2001, under the direction of Tim Burton.  Unfortunately, that film turned out to be a colossal mess, neither capturing any of the cinematic wonder of the original, nor showcasing any of Burton’s trademark weirdness.  And once again, the Apes franchise was abandoned.

But, in the early 2010’s, a new team at Fox decided it was time to undertake another chance at rebooting the Apes franchise for a new generation.  This time around, the filmmakers would be utilizing the latest in motion capture animation to bring their apes to life. Fox approached Weta Digital, the New Zealand based visual effects studio behind the Oscar-winning CGI of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sought their expertise to pull off a different way of creating life-like apes that evolve to be more human like.  With The Lord of the Rings, the Weta Digital team made ground-breaking use of motion capture to make their digital creations come to life in a way never before imagined.  The most astonishing achievement from those films was in the remarkable creation of the creature Gollum; a digital character so lifelike that it proved to Hollywood that yes, even a visual effect could carry a dramatic performance on screen.  Seeing how well the Weta team brought Gollum to life, Fox believed that this would be the best way to take their Apes franchise in a whole new direction.  In the original films, the way that the filmmakers were able to bring these humanized apes to life was through ground-breaking make-up effects, courtesy of Oscar winner John Chambers.  But, as impressive as the make-up was, there was still the tell-tale signs of the actor underneath the make-up that made the illusion work only to a point.  Now, with motion-capture, the filmmakers could take the movements of real actors and fix a photo-realistic digital skin of an ape on top of their performance.  Thus, Fox could have a Planet of the Apes movie where the apes indeed looked like the real thing.  But, as good as the animation would be, it would still be dependent on the actor who was performing the role.  Thankfully for Fox and the new Apes franchise filmmakers, they managed to get the actor who had plenty of experience performing within the confines of motion capture technology; the man who brought Gollum himself to life, Andy Serkis.  And as we will see, his contribution would launch a whole new era for the Planet of the Apes franchise with a trilogy centered around his character; the Ape known as Caesar.


Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Instead of following immediately after the last canonical film in the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), or after the terrible Tim Burton version, this new reboot wisely rolls things back to the beginning.  And by beginning, I don’t mean back to when the original film started.  For Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the story actually brings us to where it all began; before the Apes evolved into their humanized form.  We all know from the original movie that the Planet of the Apes itself is our own Earth after a cataclysmic even caused most human life to die off, with Apes rising up to become the dominant species.  With that knowledge in hand, we get to see how that apocalyptic future came to happen.  At the heart of the story is a chimpanzee named Caesar.  Caesar is discovered to have been born with unnaturally high intellect as a result of experimentation from the lab he was born into by doctors seeking a cure for dementia related illnesses.  Caesar is capable of communication with his caretakers through sign language and he displays evidence of critical thinking and human like emotion.  But, corruption at the lab leads him to be sold to a zoo, where he begins to turn resentful of the mistreatment of his fellow simian-kind there.  Eventually, he steals the drug made his brain more human-like and uses it on the other apes, leading them to revolt en masse.  Eventually Caesar does lead his band of apes out of the city and into the wild, but his actions also came at a steep cost.  The pathogen that increased the apes brain activity also unleashes a deadly virus on the human population, leading to a catastrophic global pandemic that plays out in the end credits.

For a reboot of this longtime franchise, this was a pretty successful end result.  The thing that really helps this movie stand out is the stellar performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar.  The actor, of course, disappears into the character as it is a digital overlay over his physical pantomime, but even still there is such skill in how he is able to bring so much personality into the role even through that digital skin.  It’s the subtleties of his performance that really sells his work here, especially in the facial acting.  Andy Serkis, when not performing in motion capture, is a very expressive actor physically, and the command that he has in his facial action is particularly on a different level.  Often the Lord of the Rings animators had to exaggerate the Gollum model in order to have it rise to the level of what Serkis gave them in his original on set performance.  Naturally, he refined this skill working within the confines to motion capture, and Caesar is a testament all those years of experience.  The one downside to his strong performance in this movie is that it outshines everything else.  Caesar is almost too strong of a character, as most of the human characters are flat or uninteresting.  James Franco is fine as the scientist that helped raise Caesar, but his character is more or less just a function of the story and has little in the way of an arc.  The one other downside is that despite the motion capture animation looking quite impressive throughout, the compositing to Caesar and the other apes into the scenes is still not as good as it could have been.  You are still very much aware that you are looking at visual effects, as the seam lines between digital characters and the real world environment still don’t quite blur.  Even still, for a franchise reboot that had a lot prove to audiences, it’s a commendable starting point.  And as we would see later, this franchise would not only survive into the new millennium, but thrive as well.


Directed by Matt Reeves

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a general, by the numbers action flick that did it’s part fairly well, Dawn would see the franchise not only reach it’s potential, but it would even supplant the original series as the most ideal telling of this story.  This was the Planet of the Apes movie that every dreamed about but was only now fully realized.  Andy Serkis returned once again to continue Caesar’s story, and this time the rebooted series would have Matt Reeves behind the camera.  Reeves made a splash a few years prior with his ground-breaking found footage film Cloverfield (2008), which showed his mastery in making digital effects feel incredibly real and life-like.  While the compositing of the apes didn’t quite work as well as intended in Rise, the animators thankfully were able to refine their tools to make the animation of the apes look better this time around.  The hard work paid off, because Caesar and the other apes are astonishingly well animated here.  The compositing is so good that it indeed looks like they are occupying the same space as the live action actors, with the seams basically gone.  Matt Reeves style of filmmaking is particularly well used here.  He does a great job of making the world look bleak and wild in this pandemic affected not too distant future.  The tone is especially set up perfectly in the opening scene of the movie as we observe the Earth from space, watching the lights go out on the power grid and the chatter on the radio frequencies growing quieter and quieter; a chilling representation of mankind’s downfall.  This is not the campy, minimalist version of Planet of the Apes that we’re all familiar with from the 60’s.  Reeves take on the franchise treats the premise with absolute sincerity and seriousness, and with the visual effects being as good as they are, that serious side to this story actually works.

Striking that more serious tone in turn elevates the concept of the story even more.  Before the franchise thrived off of it’s weirdness and campy elements.  Reeves took this franchise in a different direction, treating it more like a war movie, but with intelligent apes.  What’s interesting is that the movie manages to find even more character development to give to Caesar as part of his ongoing narrative.  In the last movie, we saw him lead a revolt.  Here we see him be a pragmatic leader, choosing to avoid conflict with the surviving humans as a means of protecting his community.  He’s fully aware of his status as a leader and here we see him use that title responsibly.  It’s very much in contrast with another ape named Koda (Toby Kebbel), who is very much out for cold-blooded vengeance, and thus he becomes the antagonist of the film.  Kebbel does a fairly good job himself in portraying Koda, especially with the gnarly character model put onto his motion capture performance.  It’s interesting that a couple year later, Kebbel would play another motion capture animated ape named King Kong in the film Kong: Skull Island (2017), a role that Andy Serkis also filled in 2005 remake by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.  The one downside to the movie is that the live action human characters are nowhere near as compelling as the apes are; a problem that the first film also shared.  Even a great actor like Gary Oldman feels wasted in a thankless role that means little to Caesar’s own story.  Had the conflict mainly stayed on the rivalry between Caesar and Koda, the movie might have been less uneven.  Even still, it’s an incredible tonal reformation of this series, and one that really delivers on what a Planet of the Apes movie should be.  Where Matt Reeves really excels the most is in his portrayal of the action scenes, which have the intensity of a fully immersive war movie.  As we would see moving ahead, this kind of style would continue to build into an even more compelling portrayal of Caesar’s story.


Directed by Matt Reeves

Both Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis return to pick up right where Dawn left off, and not only do they match the high standard left by the previous Apes movie, but they also managed to improve upon it.  This concluding chapter in what would be known as the Caesar trilogy brings his story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.  What is left of humanity has grown hostile to the Apes who are rising in power, and now Caesar and his community finds themselves being hunted.  Leading the blood-thirsty band of mercenaries is a man known simply as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  In confronting the Colonel, Caesar is tested like never before, seeing so many of kin falling victim to the Colonel’s cruelty while trying to maintain his own restraint in rising above his own animal instincts.  What makes War work so much better than the other films in this reboot comes down to one important thing; compelling human characters.  Woody Harrelson makes the Colonel a terrifying villain, and one that especially raises the stakes of this series even more.  His introduction into the movie, where his troops invade the Apes sanctuary and begins to slaughter them is a particularly harrowing scene, especially with the eerie shadows they cast in the moonlight reflecting off a waterfall.  The movie also shows the great advancement that has been made in motion capture animation in the years since the reboot began.  The uncanny valley has been fully crossed and there is no visible seams that manifest that makes the apes look anything other than fully physical characters.  The subtlety of acting from Andy Serkis is fully on display through the Caesar model, making his performance all the more compelling.  The intensity of the performance also comes through, especially in the moment when he’s at gunpoint.  You see everything read through Caesar’s face in that moment, which is something that I don’t think would’ve been done without manipulation a decade prior.

The movie also closes the chapter of Caesar’s story in a satisfying way, while also at the same time setting the stage perfectly for what will inevitably be the beginning of the setting for the original movie.  Caesar doesn’t know the direction that the planet Earth is going to go with Apes now in charge, but his whole story has been about finding a safe place for his kind to call home, and the story concludes with Caesar in his final action, walking his fellow apes into a safe haven where they can build their future.  I think the reason why these movies succeed as well as they do is because of the focus they all have in telling the full story arc of this one central hero.  We don’t see much outside of Caesar’s own internal environment.  The vision of a decaying world is entirely through his own local community; mainly around the San Francisco Bay area.  There’s no intercutting to ape uprisings across the globe; none of that matters at all because it’s Caesar’s control.  This is his story, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they found such universal themes salvation, humanity and courage in just the story of this one important ape, and that they could maintain that story across a three film arc.  Sure, the setting of a decaying world is bleak, but there is hope in that story too as Caesar proves to be an aspirational figure of clear-minded civility in an increasingly uncivil world.  It is also interesting that this movie legitimizes the trajectory of the story into what would be the original film, and at the same time ret-cons the sequels it spawned out of canon.  Clearly Matt Reeves and company wanted to honor the movie that spawned the series to begin with, but with the skills they have now, they are clearly showing that this is by far the more fully realized version of this concept.  Regardless, for an exploration of just one character’s journey through this apocalyptic world, it is a triumph of a complete narrative, with Serkis’ performance being the key ingredient.

The Planet of the Apes franchise has an over 50 year legacy in Hollywood, but I think that it can be argued that the Caesar Trilogy of the 2010’s is the pinnacle of the franchise when it comes to storytelling.  With state-of-the-art visual effects making it possible for human actors to fully act within the skin of the apes they are playing, the artificiality that came from the original series goes away and we see the franchise brought to us in the most earnest way possible.  The trilogy started off solidly enough, but Rise was just an average action flick compared to the two Reeves film, which really elevated the Apes movies to the compelling epic dramas that they are.  They take the basic premise of these movies and strip all cynicism and campiness away, treating the Apes’ stories with the same level of seriousness that you would get from a war flick.  It of course is not just the director’s vision that makes that take on the concept work.  Andy Serkis, digging into all the acting expertise he has while wearing his motion capture suit, just brings Caesar to devastating life, complete with all the emotion shown across his face rendered in remarkable detail.  You really wouldn’t expect any less from the man who made Gollum leap off of the computer screen and into cinemas in a stunningly life-like way.  This trilogy is honestly a text book example of doing justice to a backstory in a prequel to the story that spawned it.  We know where the Earth is headed, with it being ruled by “damn, dirty apes.”  But what the team behind this reboot, and especially director Matt Reeves, showed us is that how the Planet of the Apes came to be is a compelling story in it’s own right, and one that features a surprisingly complex character at it’s center.  Is there more to explore with the world of the Planet of the Apes?  Time will tell what Fox and their new parent company Disney plan to do with this title in the future, but regardless, the Caesar Trilogy is a full and complete story that on it’s own proved that this was more than just popcorn entertainment; this franchise could indeed be a strongly themed, character driven drama on par with some of the best to ever come out of Science Fiction.

Focus on a Franchise – The Hobbit Trilogy

From the moment the credits rolled on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), the entire Middle Earth fandom began to chatter all at once, “When are we getting The Hobbit.”  It’s understandable that the demand would immediately be there for more adventures on the big screen within this world from the creative mind of J.R.R. Tolkein.  Director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkein’s trilogy did an amazing job of making the immense world of Middle Earth feel real and immerisve, and it was a world that audiences were very much in favor of revisiting.  Thankfully, Tolkein had given his world plenty of extra lore to draw from.  In fact, The Lord of the Rings itself was a literary successor to Tolkein’s first ever published novel, The Hobbit.  First hitting bookshelves in 1937, The Hobbit became an instant hit in what was considered “children’s literature,” and it would become a highly influential book in the history of 20th century fantasy writing.  Tolkein was of course pressed upon by his publisher to write a sequel, and Tolkein would spend the next 20 years developing the three volumes that make Rings.  Though The Lord of the Rings is still considered to be J.R.R. Tolkein’s magnum opus, The Hobbit is still a treasured story in it’s own that thankfully has thrived outside of Ring’s shadow.  In 1977 in fact, The Hobbit was the first Middle Earth story to receive a cinematic treatment, with the Rankin Bass produced animated feature, long before The Lord of the Rings would ever get it’s own film treatment, despite many attempts.  It is interesting, however, that so many filmmakers bypassed The Hobbit so many times in favor of the Lord of the Rings.  It’s understandable, Rings is the grander story, but at the same time it’s also built upon the foundation laid for it by The Hobbit.  One can’t begin the story without addressing the events that came before in The Hobbit.  Even Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy calls back to events in The Hobbit, which of course didn’t exist as a movie yet.  So, once the Rings trilogy was complete, it’s only natural that long time fans would want to have The Hobbit adapted too as a way of completing the saga, even if it meant going backwards.  However, getting there was easier said than done.

Of course, fans wanted to see Peter Jackson return as a director for The Hobbit, but after devoting five tiring years of his life to this one production, it was very understandable that Jackson initially chose to step aside and let someone else take charge.  He instead chose to stay involved as a producer, but before any movement could be made on the project, a long rights battle behind the scenes had to be resolved.  One point of contention was the feud between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema over the profits made on the Rings trilogy.  I wrote more at length about it in my breakdown of the failed launch of The Golden Compass here, and suffice to say New Line brought about their own downfall over the situation, as parent company Warner Brothers took charge and resolved the matter themselves, effectively diminishing New Line’s independence in the process.  At the same time, Warner Brothers had to deal with the fact that while they held the rights to The Lord of the Rings, the rights to The Hobbit belonged to MGM, who had made the Rankin Bass feature years ago and still firm ownership, given that they received the rights from Tolkein himself.  Knowing the value that they held, MGM were keen to make sure that Warner Brothers were not going to short change them if they sought to get the rights from them,  This became a long, protracted battle that took many years to resolve, with some fans worrying that this studio war over this valuable IP could make it impossible for The Hobbit to ever be made; especially in the way they wanted it, as a companion to Jackson’s trilogy.  Eventually, a deal was cut and The Hobbit could finally move forward as a WB/MGM co-production.  Meanwhile, Jackson and his team were working hard to make up for lost time.  As a replacement in the director’s chair, Jackson found an ideal candidate in Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro, who shares many of the same cinematic qualities as Jackson does.  Alongside returning co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, Jackson and Del Toro worked out a script for a two film adaptation of The Hobbit.  The casting also began in earnest, with the team managing to secure returning cast from Lord of the Rings like Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom, and even then 90 year old Christopher Lee.  The production team, also made up of Rings alum also got to work in earnest.  However, the long delays due studio driven turmoil would eventually become too much, and Guillermo sadly had to step aside. In order to keep this troubled project from falling further apart, Peter Jackson reluctantly stepped back into the role of director, hoping to guide this massive project to the finish line.  And, in 2012, a decade after the The Lord of the Rings made it’s debut, audiences finally made their return to middle earth.  Looking at each film now, we see an interesting examples of all the rights and wrongs that can happen in trying to pick up where one massive success began.


Even with The Lord of the Rings being as wildly successful as it was, there’s still a lot of pressure to setting the tone right in the beginning of another story within this world.  It becomes even more treacherous when the audience is already aware where the story is ultimately headed, as Rings preceded this as a film adaptation.  At the start of the first film, An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson does deliver a bit of fanservice and table setting, with a prologue narrated by Ian Holm, who played Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.  For good measure, we also get to see Elijah Wood return as Frodo, as it becomes clear that the prologue takes place mere moments before The Lord of the Rings begins.  But, once that scene does it’s job, and the opening title has been cast upon the screen, then Jackson returns the movie to where it needs to be, ripped right from the text of the book.  We flash back 70 years to Bilbo in his younger days, and it’s here that the the movie establishes what it needs to be; that it is firmly Bilbo Baggins’ story.  For the adaptation of The Hobbit to work, there had to be a lot of pressure in finding the right actor to play Bilbo Baggins.  Thankfully, they found him in beloved British character actor Martin Freeman.  Freeman, best known at that point for his comedic work in shows like The Office, was certainly a popular choice for the part, and he perfectly fit into the mold of what was needed for the character of Bilbo.  Building upon what Ian Holm already brought to the character, Freeman really imbues Bilbo with an everyman likability; quirky, but relatable, and capable of balancing screwball comedic timing with heartfelt pathos without losing any integrity in the performance.  It’s an especially strong performance that arguably is even better than any we’ve seen before in The Lord of the Rings, and it’s even more remarkable that he’s able to shine so much in this movie, given how busy and jam packed it is.

Not only do we get the story of Bilbo Baggins, but also that of his 13 Dwarf companions.  One of the best aspects of The Hobbit is that it focuses so much on the people and culture of the dwarf race of Middle Earth, something that The Lord of the Rings barely touches upon with only Gimli there to represent it.  Peter Jackson manages to expertly balance each of the different dwarves personalities, helping to distinguish them from one another.   But, despite creating entertaining characters, there’s also needs of the story to lay out in this first chapter, and this is the point where some find fault with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit.  The original book is 350 pages long, which is very slim compared to the 1400 page behemoth that is Lord of the Rings.  For Peter Jackson, he was under pressure to make The Hobbit feel as grand as Rings, but the source material by it’s very nature is much more modest.  So, to satisfy the need for a bigger story, Jackson included other elements from Middle Earth lore to build up the story much more than what was originally on the page.  That way he could get the film to a bulkier six hour run-time spread over two films.  However, the downside of that leads to a film that feels more bloated and languid than what we saw in The Lord of the Rings.  Pacing is a problem, with some scenes long over staying their welcome, and side tracks in the story that feel more laborious than they should.  The extended section of the movie in Goblin Town and a side track to Rivendell in particular feels a lot less magical than they should have been.  However, when the movie needs to focus on the moments that should be the highlights of the whole story, it doesn’t let down.  Chief among them is the Riddles in the Dark segment, one of the most foundational chapters of all of Tolkein’s writing, as it is the moment that sets off the events of Rings.  The scene brings us into cave dwelling of the creature Gollum, with Andy Serkis returning to his iconic role and not missing a beat.  The scene has Bilbo and Gollum exchanging riddles as a way of bargaining for safe passage, and the tension comes from Bilbo realizing that he’s found Gollum’s “precious,” which the latter will turn into a murderous rage in order to get back.  With Freeman and Serkis acting in pitch perfect harmony, along with a much improved digital model for Gollum, the scene that is so crucial to this film is done to perfection, and is a treat for long time fans.  While there were pacing issues, audiences generally loved this first chapter of The Hobbit, as An Unexpected Journey did deliver all the moments that people loved from the books and more.  But, of course, there would be more surprises on the horizon, even to those making the movie.


As An Unexpected Journey was in it’s final stages of production, a surprising decision came down from Warner Brothers with regards to what was going to come next in the series.  The Hobbit was no longer going to be broke into two halves, but was instead going to become a trilogy just like The Lord of the Rings.  Now, it was already a stretch to spread the 350 pages of The Hobbit out into two separate movies.  Peter Jackson was now in the position of having to fill out three.  And for a series that was already going to suffer pacing issues, this was only going to complicate things further.  So, the film that was originally going to be titled The Hobbit:  There and Back Again now had to be reworked into two films instead of one.  So, a year after An Unexpected Journey hit theaters, we were presented with a middle chapter that a year before wasn’t even in the planning.  And much like the middle chapter of The Lord of the Rings (that being The Two Towers) Jackson had to find creative ways to make a story without a beginning and an end work.  In all honesty, that’s what helps to make The Desolation of Smaug the highlight of this whole trilogy.  It’s freed up from the burden of setting up the narrative from the first movie and it doesn’t have to reach too high for a crescendo of finale either.  Smaug as a result feels the most complete of all the Hobbit movies.  One thing that this movie benefits from is that it’s the movie that introduces us the most to new parts of the Middle Earth map that we have yet to visit.  Unexpected Journey tread a lot of the same ground as The Lord of the Rings.  In Desolation of Smaug we see a whole host of new places like the realm of the Northern Elves, the mangled interior of Mirkwood Forest, the sprawling decaying structure of Lake Town, and of course the primary destination of Erabor, the Lonely Mountain.  You can tell that this is the part of the story that Peter Jackson was most excited to get to, because these are the most iconic elements of Tolkein’s original story.  All the while, we still never lose track of Bilbo’s story, as he not only endears himself more to his Dwarf companions, but he also discovers the increasingly dark hold that the ring he found in Gollum’s cave has on him.

But of course, the real highlight of Desolation of Smaug, and really the entire trilogy as a whole is the introduction of it’s namesake; the terrifying dragon Smaug.  Described in the book as the “greatest of dragons in his day,” Peter Jackson’s vision of Smaug is truly epic in scale.  Smaug is a tour de force of computer animation, and is in many ways the best entirely CGI character since Gollum from the original Lord of the Rings.  In addition to the remarkable efforts to bring him to life by the animators at Weta Digital, Smaug is also given an incredible booming voice courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch, who also did reference motion capture performance in person for the movie to build off of.  All these elements work together to help make Smaug one of the most memorable movie monsters ever in cinema, and his presence really helps to give the film an engaging finale where Bilbo and the Dwarves do battle with this foe many hundred times their size.  Apart from Smaug, there are other elements of the story introduced here that are brought to effective life from the book.  The internal politics of Lake Town are given plenty of life to delve deep into; especially with the introduction of a key character named Bard (played by Luke Evans) and his antagonistic history with the Mayor (played with perfect pompous absurdity by Stephen Fry).  The only things in this film that don’t quite work as well are the things added that are not from any Tolkein text.  In particular, a needless romantic subplot is added, involving one of the Dwarves named Kili (Aiden Turner) and a newly created for the film warrior Elf maiden named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).  I can see the addition of a character like Tauriel in the story, as there is a significant lack of female representation in the story as a whole, but to tie her into a love story subplot seems very reductive and distracting to the narrative as a whole.  Regardless, of all The Hobbit movies, The Desolation of Smaug is the one that fulfills most of the promise of a big screen adaptation of this story, and feels overall the most satisfying.  But, of course, there’s still one more movie to go.


There’s a line that Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins says in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001) regarding how old he feels inside.  He describes that he feels “thin” like “butter scraped over too much bread.”  That’s a statement that feels especially descriptive of the third and final film in The Hobbit trilogy: The Battle of the Five Armies.  What was originally just the three final chapters of J.R.R. Tolkein’s, Peter Jackson was now forced by Warner Brothers to stretch out this section into it’s own movie.  And try as he might, even Peter Jackson couldn’t overcome the challenge of stretching out so little story over such an epic length.  The Battle of the Five Armies is far and away the most problematic film of the whole trilogy, as well as throughout the entire Middle Earth saga.  Now, at the same time, it’s not an absolute failure of a movie either.  Peter Jackson does do the best he can and the movie does have some moments.  But all the problems about pacing and needless subplots that have plagued the trilogy so far become even more pronounced in this conclusion.  What the biggest problem is with the narrative of The Battle of the Five Armies itself is that at this point in the narrative of the book, Bilbo’s journey is complete.  He no longer has any urgency over what happens next in the oncoming battle, and thus he just remains an observer of a struggle that’s out of his control.  For a narrative that was so crucially tied to Bilbo Baggins before, it becomes frustrating to see him become more or less a supporting character in this final chapter of the trilogy.  Another thing that also becomes annoyingly pronounced in this movie is Peter Jackson’s over reliance on CGI.  The original Lord of the Rings had a perfect balance of computer animation mixed in with real world environments and hand crafted sets.  Throughout The Hobbit, it seemed like CGI became far more of a crutch to help Jackson speed up an already complicated production, and as a result the titular battle has this unfortunate blue screen detachment that makes it feel less real.  Other parts of the trilogy certainly felt that way, but it’s almost overwhelmingly obvious in this final film.  There are plenty of moments here where it just feels like you’re watching an animated film rather than an immersive, tactile world.

Though a lot of problems arise in The Battle of the Five Armies, there are some things to still admire.  Chief among them is actor Richard Armitage in the role of Thorin Oakenshield.  Thorin has up to this point been a strong presence in the trilogy, giving Thorin a very regal and dignified presence.  But, it’s in The Battle of the Five Armies that he really shines, as the narrative focuses more on his character.  As Thorin finally retakes his throne after the defeat of Smaug, he descends into a greed induced mania, which puts him at odds with everyone around him, including friends and kin.  Armitage does a remarkable job of portraying this change in the character, never taking it over the top and giving the descent this tragic poignancy that really brings depth to the character.  Of course, The Hobbit is first and foremost Bilbo’s story, but Thorin is an important character in that narrative, and also throughout all of Middle Earth lore.  The Battle of the Five Armies is at it’s best when it gives focus to Thorin’s story, even though his ultimate challenge in the end is comparatively weak compared to everything else we’ve seen in the Middle Earth saga.  In a trilogy that features Smaug the Dragon, and a dark force known as the Necromancer (who turns out to been the reincarnation of the Dark Lord Sauron), it’s kind of anti-climatic that the final battle to cap this trilogy is against a lame orc commander named Azog the Defiler.  Present in all three films, we are to believe that Azog is the primary antagonist in Thorin’s story, and it just feel underwhelming.  Overall, we see The Battle of the Five Armies reveal the pitfalls of trying to spread too little story over too lengthy of a time frame.  Warner Brothers thought that they could repeat the same formula that carried Lord of the Rings to great success, and Peter Jackson certainly tried his hardest to please, but ultimately The Hobbit trilogy revealed why taking this route with the material was not a great idea.  The focus on what matters the most in the story gets lost in the noise as the film tries to fill itself more with needless filler.  Ultimately, The Battle of the Five Armies falls well short of giving this trilogy a satisfying conclusion, though there are still admirable elements within it.  I especially like how it perfectly folds into the start of The Lord of the Rings by the end, which works well if the viewer is seeing all the movies in chronological order.  But, a Return of the King this is not and it only reminds us of why it’s better to not chase after more riches when you don’t need to.

I for one am more happy that we got a big screen Hobbit from the same team behind The Lord of the Rings than not.  Unfortunately, the whole drama behind the scenes made the trilogy more trouble than it’s worth.  Peter Jackson’s insistence on using new high speed, 3D photography may have undermined the production a bit, as it meant much more reliance on CGI to bring Middle Earth to life which as I stated before, gave the movie this unfortunate detached feel to it.  It didn’t help that Jackson also wanted to present his film in theaters with a new 48 frames per second mode, which audiences ultimately rejected for not looking cinematic.  There’s also the unfortunate collateral damage that resulted from this often chaotic production.  Sir Ian McKellan became so frustrated with the new process of shooting the scenes in 3D, which required him to film his part of Gandalf in a separate green screen room away from the other actors, that it nearly broke him and he strongly considered retiring afterwards (which thankfully he didn’t follow through on).  And then there’s the very problematic action taken by Warner Brothers where they pressured the government of New Zealand to change their labor laws and diminish the power of the unions there, otherwise they would move their production elsewhere.  Given that The Lord of the Rings is such a monumental part of New Zealand’s cinematic legacy in world cinema, the country sadly relented so they could keep the production home.  It’s a particularly egregious and greedy move by a major studio and one that I’m sure Peter Jackson was not at all happy to comply with.  In many ways, this trilogy also might have broken Jackson’s confidence as a filmmaker, as he has not made a narrative film ever since, instead focusing his attention to found footage documentaries like They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) and The Beatles: Get Back (2021).  It seems like The Hobbit was just too grueling an ordeal for the legendary filmmaker, and I hope someday he finds another project that helps reinvigorate his creative impulses.  The Hobbit trilogy has many problems, chief among them it’s length.  But, with Martin Freeman’s incredible performance as Bilbo, the amazing realization of Smaug the Dragon, and the glorious opportunity of seeing more of the unseen parts of Middle Earth brought to life, there is still plenty to love about The Hobbit trilogy.  Any opportunity to revisit the rich and textured world of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth is an expected journey that people everywhere will be all too happy to go there, and back again.

Focus on a Franchise – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

There have been some works of literature that have proved to be too daunting for filmmakers to adapt for the big screen.  The works of J.R.R. Tolkien for many years proved to be one of the most notoriously un-filmable projects in the history of film.  Tolkien himself let the film rights go almost for nothing during his lifetime, because he was confident that an adaptation could never be done.  His immensely detailed fantasy saga, complete with it’s own unique cultures, languages, and deep rooted history that spans over five published novels, just could not be contained within a mainstream Hollywood film.  That’s not to say there weren’t many tries.  One of the most interesting “what if?” scenarios in movie history was an attempt by the Beatles to adapt Tolkien’s magnum opus, the three volume Lord of the Rings, starring the Fab Four and directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick.  The still living at the time Tolkien dashed those hopes unfortunately.  After Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the animation duo of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass took it upon themselves to adapt the first book in Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit (1977), and it became a beloved classic for both long time fans and young audiences getting their first exposure to Tolkien’s imaginative world.  A year later, another independent animator, the provocative Ralph Bakshi, made his attempt at adapting The Lord of the Rings into a film, adapting all of the first book and half of the second into one ambitious film.  Unfortunately, this version had a mixed reception and Bakshi was never able to complete his second part.  Rankin/Bass instead closed out the saga with their adaptation of The Return of the King (1980), picking up more or less where Bakshi had left off.  Though the animated medium managed to bring Middle Earth off the page in a beautiful way, there were many people who still wanted to see Tolkien’s masterpiece fully brought to life in a live action fantasy epic.  Eventually, a bold group of filmmakers did finally pick up the torch for that dream and ran with it, finally giving us that grand big screen epic that we always wanted.  But, what shocked many people was the person who ended up being the one to deliver on that promise.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson was probably not on anyone’s radar as the man who would bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen in a big way.  Jackson was up until that time known as a schlock horror filmmaker, with titles like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Dead Alive (1992) to his name.  A sudden shift to drama with the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures (1994) helped to give him some attention outside his native country, including earning a Oscar nomination for his screenplay, which he co-wrote with his wife Fran Walsh.  It was after the warm reception to Heavenly Creatures that Jackson decided to pitch his dream project of adapting The Lord of the Rings to all the Hollywood studios.  Eventually, he was granted a development greenlight with Miramax Studios, under the tyrannical eye of future disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein.  At the time, knowing that it would take several years to refine the final script and get all the effects up to the level that he needed, Peter Jackson worked on another film called The Frighteners (1996), using it as a test run of sorts for the CGI and practical effects that he would need for The Lord of the Rings.  Afterwards, it was full steam ahead.  But before the movie could enter it’s final stages of development, namely casting and location prep, Miramax decided to abandon their involvement in the film.  Though disheartened, Jackson nevertheless didn’t give up and he was allowed to shop the project somewhere else.  Eventually, it found a home at New Line Cinema, the studio behind Freddy Kruger and Austin Powers.  Initially, the movie was planned as a two picture deal, but New Line had a different idea.  The simply told Peter Jackson this: there are three books that make up The Lord of the Rings; why not make three movies?  It was music to Peter Jackson’s ears, and his dream project was now becoming a reality, with the creative freedom to devote an entire film to each of Tolkien’s books.  Three films filmed together over an 18 month period was unprecedented, and a huge gamble for both New Line and Peter Jackson.  But, as we would soon see, it would be a movie series that would change cinema forever, and is still regarded as a landmark 20 years later.


Looking over the trilogy as a whole, it’s important to examine how crucial the first chapter in the series was to everything that followed.  It should be noted that The Lord of the Rings is in fact a sequel to Tolkien’s The Hobbit; a sequel that is 5 times the length of it’s predecessor and took Tolkien 19 years to complete.  It’s a mammoth story, and one that needs the proper context.  Remarkably, Peter Jackson created his Lord of the Rings without the context of a Hobbit to support it (at least initially).  This was going to be our first foray into Middle Earth and for Peter Jackson, the crucial thing that he had to get right from the very first start was the world-building in his film.  One of the brilliant choices on Jackson’s part was to rethink the whole idea of how to film a fantasy narrative for the big screen.  Fantasy films were nothing new to cinema, but many of them were too cheesy and/or obtuse to ever be considered serious cinema.  Jackson on the other hand decided to do away with the camp that defined the genre and instead took inspiration from historical epics like Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Zulu (1964).  In his vision, they were filming The Lord of the Rings like they were recreating history, treating their fabricated sets and props like they were on real locations with real swords and armor.  That was the approach that he set out to uphold through all three films, and nowhere was it more important that with the first film in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring.  From the pivotal opening prologue that sets the stage and onward Peter Jackson takes the audience on a journey, putting them in the middle of a living, breathing Middle Earth.  Utilizing the amazing craftsmanship of his crew at the in-house Weta Workshop, Jackson was able to create everything he needed to give his Middle Earth a lived in feel.  And to capture the grandiose expanse of Tolkien’s world, he didn’t have to look any further than his own native soil, with New Zealand providing every picturesque location he needed.  The Lord of the RIngs would set a new high bar for world-building that would define the next 20 years of cinema.

But, on top of establishing it’s world in such a remarkable way, The Fellowship of the Ring also put the series on solid footing with it’s introduction to the cast of characters.  Just as crucial to the series as the work put into creating a believable Middle Earth was finding the right people to play these iconic characters from the novel.  And in this regard, the movie managed to aim high and still get the perfect choices for each role.  In particular, getting the titular Fellowship was pivotal for the movie’s overall success.  Former child actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, now in their twenties, landed the highly coveted parts of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, the trilogy’s most pivotal set of companions.  Iconic Shakespearean actor Ian McKellan was a natural choice for Gandalf the Wizard.  Fresh faced character actors Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd were cast as the affable duo of hobbits, Merry and Pippin.  Soon to be heartthrob Orlando Bloom became the elf warrior Legolas.  Renowned character actors John Rhys-Davies and Sean Bean stepped into the parts of Gimli the Dwarf and Boromir the Gondorian knight.  Unfortunately, due to creative struggles, the crucial part of Aragorn, the exiled heir to the throne of Gondor, had to be recast at the last minute.  To the relief of everyone, actor Viggo Mortensen not only stepped in on short notice, but hit the ground running once he was there.  Couple this with a supporting cast that included heavyweights like Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Cate Blanchett, and you have one of the most astonishing casts ever assembled.  Even with big names like these, the movie still puts the world of Middle Earth front and center, taking us from the simple beauty of the Shire, through the majesty of Rivendell, down the perilous passages of the mines of Moria, and onward to the dark realm of Mordor.  And at no point does the movie take you out of it’s firmly established world.  Peter Jackson succeeded immensely at his goal of making the audience believe that Middle Earth was real and that the characters that inhabit it were worthy enough to follow along on this journey.  And with the foundation firmly established in this first chapter, Jackson had to confidence to continue building more with the remainder of the story.


The Fellowship of the Ring became an overwhelming success, even in the face of direct competition from another high profile fantasy series released only a few weeks earlier; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).  It even earned an unexpected Best Picture nomination from the Oscars, while at the same time snagging a few technical award wins in the process.  But, it was only the first part of a three movie arc.  In some ways, the second film, The Two Towers, was going to always be the trickiest movie in the trilogy to get right.  Like most middle chapters, it’s a story without a beginning or an end.  It’s sole purpose is to keep the story moving while at the same time raising the stakes.  So, how does Peter Jackson make this middle chapter stand on it’s own?  For one thing, he had to find the core of what the story needed to be for this section overall narrative.  And not only that, he had to find it while cutting back and forth between two different parallel plot threads.  In one, we continue with Frodo and Sam, after they have broken away from the Fellowship to continue onto the realm of Mordor alone in order to destroy the “One Ring,” the ultimate evil weapon in all of Middle Earth.  The other, we follow Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas as they search for the kidnapped Merry and Pippin, and find themselves in the Kingdom of Rohan, a horse based society that roams vast open fields of prairie.  Within Rohan, we are introduced to a new set of pivotal characters, including the noble King Theoden (Bernard Hill), and his niece and nephew, Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Eomer (Karl Urban), and a re-awakened purpose begins to bloom in Aragorn as he realizes that Rohan needs help to defend itself.  Saraman the White Wizard (Christopher Lee) is acting on the orders of the Dark Lord Sauron, the true owner of the One Ring, and is amassing an army of specially bred monsters known as Urak-hai.  With eyes set on Rohan, Saraman’s army pits our heroes in an almost unwinnable situation.

Here, Peter Jackson finds the conflict that defines the narrative of The Two Towers  and helps to set it apart.  The movie culminates in a grand, epic battle scene at the fortress of Helm’s Deep.  It’s here that we find the influence that Peter Jackson drew from historical epics of the past come to full fruition.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep is a master class of build-up and payoff in staging a cinematic battle scene.  It’s huge in scale, and yet we never feel lost or overwhelmed, as the human conflict remains primarily in focus.  And all the tricks of the trade that Jackson and his team refined over the years with practical and visual effects are fully utilized throughout the more than 40 minute battle sequence.  Creating the setting of Helm’s Deep itself, which was accomplished through a combination of full sized sets and scale models, is particularly impressive.  But, if the movie had an even more groundbreaking accomplishment than Helm’s Deep, it’s something (or someone) introduced in the Frodo and Sam story thread.  After being lost in the mountains, the two hobbits encounter another character out to capture the ring for himself; the miserable creature Gollum (played by Andy Serkis).  Gollum, an entirely CGI animated character, is a remarkable creation, and became a groundbreaking advancement in computer animation.  Never before had it been possible for an entirely computer animated character to coexist alongside live action actors and feel genuinely authentic and capable of delivering a dramatic performance.  But with Gollum, the team at Weta Digital managed to do the impossible and turn Gollum into a character that felt shockingly real.  It helped that Andy Serkis, who was initially just hired to do the voice, provided motion capture reference for the animators to work with, including several scenes where he was on set interacting directly with the other actors.  It’s a tour de force performance that carries through right into the final digital model.  One scene in particular, where the dual identities of Gollum and Smeagol carry on a back and forth conversation is an especially memorable highlight.  With the groundbreaking work on Gollum and the raised stakes established in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Peter Jackson not only made The Two Towers stand on it’s own as a movie, but he possibly maybe even made the most impressive film in the entire trilogy, from an execution standpoint.


Of course, the only reason why you make The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers is so you can get to The Return of the King; the climatic finale to Tolkien’s monumental work.  And if you look at cinematic inspiration manifested through the trilogy so far, with Peter Jackson channeling David Lean a bit with Fellowship and John Ford a bit with Two Towers, it’s obvious that with Return of the King that he’s going full blown Cecil B. DeMille.  The Return of the King is biblical in it’s epic grandeur.  Here, Jackson knew that he had to bring everything to the table in his epic final chapter, and that meant utilizing every he and his crew learned up to this point.  Leaving the wildness of the Kingdom of Rohan behind, our characters journey forth into the mighty Kingdom of Gondor, and it’s great white seat of power, Minas Tirith, the city of Kings.  Minas Tirith was no doubt designed to be the grandest location in the entire trilogy, and most of the final film is set there, with an epic battle taking place outside it’s mighty walls.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep was a brutal intimate affair in comparison to the immensity of the Battle of Pelannor Fields.  And again, Peter Jackson masterfully never loses sight of the human story taking place amongst the mayhem of the battle.  In particular, like all great epic movies that have been building up to something, this movie has bucket loads of moments that make audiences stand up and cheer.  There’s the Riders of Rohan charging the battlefield; there’s Aragorn arriving with the army of the dead; there’s Legolas taking down a giant elephant (or Mumakil as they are known in Middle Earth) by himself; and of course Eowyn, who entered discreetly into the Rohan army, slaying the Witch King, who legends say “no man could kill.”  More than anything, this is what drove so many epic filmmakers to want to bring this story to the screen for so long; to create a scene of this scale and magnitude come to life.  Really, only the biggest possible screens available can do this segment of the movie justice.

But, the Battle of the Pelannor Fields sequence only matters if everything else around it still manages to be engaging.  And Peter Jackson manages to stick the landing for the most part.  The emotional core of Frodo and Sam’s journey into darkness as they head deep into Mordor and up the slopes of Mount Doom where the ring was originally forged.  Even though it’s a simple story thread in comparison to what’s happening on the outskirts, it probably packs the biggest emotional wallop of any part of the trilogy.  Elijah Wood in particular perfectly encapsulates the deteriorating state of Frodo both physically and mentally, as being the Ringbearer takes it’s toll on him.  Likewise, Sean Astin does a remarkable job of conveying the limitless sense of loyalty that Sam devotes to Frodo.  The scene where Sam lifts Frodo onto his back after they’ve reached a breaking point, declaring “I can’t carry the ring for you Mister Frodo, but I can carry you,” is one of those cinematic moments that’ll make grown men cry in a theater, along with most everyone else.  And it leads to the climatic end that we’ve waited two and a half films for; the destruction of the ring and the triumph over evil.  Even here, Peter Jackson keeps upping the ante of epic grandeur, with the destruction of Sauron and Mordor taking on Biblical proportions.  Beyond that, a protracted denouement concludes the trilogy.  Some have complained that it’s too many endings, but when you see it as finale to a three film narrative arc, the lengthy epilogue makes a lot more sense.  It is particularly refreshing to see Peter Jackson stick closely to Tolkien’s final chapters, including the very final words spoken, “Well, I’m home.”  It’s a simple, innocuous statement given the story that preceded it, but it’s a sentiment that mattered a lot to Tolkien himself.  J.R.R. Tolkien went through hell when he fought in the trenches of the First World War, losing friends along the way.  For him, the feeling of returning home through all that trauma was a very profound thing for him, and it’s something he carried throughout his life.  For him, home was life, and recognizing the value of what it meant to go back home is what propelled him to fight harder for the things he loves.  That, in essence is what the story of The Lord of the Rings is all about; finding the will to live, and fighting to make your way home.  For all of us, we must make our own ventures into Mordor if we are ever to come home to the Shire.  And that’s why Jackson knew it was the perfect note to close out his epic trilogy on.

There really is no other way to look at the entirety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy than to see it as one of the greatest cinematic success stories of all time.  Not since Star Wars had a movie franchise captured the imagination of audiences so immensely and changed the face of cinema as a result.  It removed the stigma that surrounded the fantasy genre in Hollywood; so much so that The Return of the King made history as the first fantasy film to ever win the Best Picture Academy Award, along with tying Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997) for the most awards won in a single night, with 11 in total.  Even twenty years after it first launched, The Lord of the Rings is still the high water mark for fantasy in Hollywood, and even a highly influential benchmark in epic filmmaking in general.  You can see it’s footprints even in something like Avengers: Endgame (2019), particularly with the staging of it’s battle scene.  There was even a brief proliferation of new fantasy franchises that sprung up in the wake of The Lord of the Rings, though few managed to make it past a single film.  Tolkien’s contemporary C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series almost came close to capturing the same success, but it unfortunately ran out of steam after three films in a planned seven story arc.  Though The Lord of the Rings stood spectacularly on it’s own, there was demand for many years for Peter Jackson to return to Middle Earth with an adaptation of The Hobbit, which did eventually happen, but that’s a story worthy of it’s own article.  Looking back on The Lord of the Rings trilogy as it marks 20 years since it’s beginning, I can tell you personally that this trilogy had a profound effect on me.  I had already begun to get interested in filmmaking at that point, as I was entering my college years at the time, and the trilogy became a flash point moment in re-affirming my dream to be a part of the movies.  The movies themselves were glorious experiences, but what I loved the most was the fact that Peter Jackson went out of his way to document the process with which he made these movies.  The Collectors Editions of the trilogy that were released on DVD are remarkable for the breadth of their behind the scenes supplements.  Many have commented that they are essentially a film school in a box, and it’s easy to see why.  From concept, to script, to principle photography, to final edit, every step of the films’ making are chronicled in these DVD box sets.  It makes you wonder how many filmmakers of this generation were inspired just by pouring through all the features on those sets.  Peter Jackson changed cinema forever by breaking down the conventions of genre, sparing no expense, and also by providing a compelling window into the process itself after we see the final films.  The Lord of the Rings not only does justice to Tolkien’s monumental work, but it also stands as a shining example of filmmaking at it’s absolute peak.  It’s a trilogy that really is worth going “there and back again.”

Focus on a Franchise – Toy Story

There’s no doubt about it.  The moment Computer Generated Imagery was adopted as a tool for filmmaking, cinema was forever changed.  Though visual effects had been around since the advent of celluloid, the digital age opened up so many more possibilities for filmmakers to make the impossible appear possible.  Of course looking back on early computer imagery compared to what is possible today, you can certainly see where even in the beginning there were limitations.  And yet, the technology took the industry by storm and is now an integral part of the filmmaking process, no matter how big or small the movie may be.  But, perhaps the most profound area in which CGI left it’s mark the most was in the field of animation.  What was once a tool to enhance traditional animation to make it more dimensional (such as with the ballroom sequence from Beauty and the Beast) evolved into the very thing that would drive the hand drawn medium to near extinction in less than a decade.  In the 21st century, practically every animated movie now is produced with computers; a far cry from the pencil and paper method of the previous century.  Luckily for the industry leader in animation, Disney, they saw the writing on the wall early, and made sure that they had partnered with the studio that was at the forefront of this new frontier.  Pixar, founded by software engineer Ed Catmull and former Disney Animator John Lasseter, with financial backing by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, quickly rose to prominence in the 80’s and 90’s as the leaders of the burgeoning computer animation industry.  Having picked up a couple Academy Awards along the way for their acclaimed shorts, they were approached by Disney to take the next step forward and partner up on what would be the first ever feature length animated movie.

But what would work as the subject for the first ever computer animated film.  The traditional Disney fairy tale would not have worked, as it was too complicated to animate given the limitations of the technology at the time.  And Pixar was looking to define it’s own identity outside of what Disney was famous for making.  The inspiration for what they would ultimately make would come from their 1988 Oscar-winning short subject, Tin Toy.  In that short, the main character is a little tin drummer toy that comes to life, something that CGI could give stunning, life like reality to.  From that, Pixar devised the idea of a story centered around what toys do when people aren’t around, and imagined if they come to life and play around on their own.  Thus, we get what would ultimately become the first ever computer animated film, Toy Story.  But even after devising that concept, making it a reality would prove even harder to pull off.  Pixar was about to push the medium of computer animation further than it had ever been before; both in environmental design and in constructing character.  New rendering programs would need to be invented on the fly, just to make the characters feel like they were actually alive.  And it had to work as a story as well.  A near disastrous first pass at the story almost got the movie canceled by Disney, as the movie was deemed too slow and it’s main character was viewed as too mean.  Ultimately, Pixar managed to figure it all out, and Toy Story not only managed to become a success, it also began a revolution in animation that continues to this day.  What’s even more remarkable is that even a quarter of a century later, Toy Story is still just as powerful today as when it first came out, and even managed to a continue on as a franchise where each new film is equally as celebrated as the first.  Looking at each movie in the franchise, let’s see how exactly each movie managed to build on the one before, and also display the incredible advances that computer animation went through over the same amount of time.

TOY STORY (1995)

The one that started it all.  You’d probably have to go all the way back to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to find another movie that left as much of an impact on animation as this one did.  With Pixar founder John Lasseter at the director’s helm, and future Pixar titans like Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor involved in crafting the story, Toy Story would become the standard bearer that would define every movie that would come after it.  It’s deceptively simple story, about a cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) being replaced by a space based action figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) as the new favorite toy of a young boy named Andy, reveals surprising layers of emotion and complexity as it goes along; something that would be a Pixar trademark.  What is striking about Toy Story is just how well it all comes together.  Even with the primitive capabilities of computer animation at the time it is amazing how the movie still holds up all these years later.  I think it’s because that plastic-y look of early CGI just works for characters that are made of plastic, so even after over 20 years, the characters still feel authentic.  But as mind blowing as the animation was for it’s time, what really makes the movie work as well as it does is the dynamic between it’s two leads.  Woody and Buzz are a film duo for the ages, and their growth from adversaries to friends over the course of the movie is what carries the heart of the movie.  Hanks and Allen are also perfectly matched voices for these two as well, and their casting couldn’t have been more fortuitous for Pixar as by the time Toy Story hit theaters, Hanks had won back to back Oscars and Allen had the #1 sitcom on TV.  A well rounded supporting cast that included comedy legends like Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, and Jim Varney also helped.

There is a universal story at the center of the movie that no doubt played a part in making it appeal to all audiences.  But it is surprising that it took a while for Pixar to find that heart at the center of the movie.  Initially, Woody was portrayed as a bit of a bully in the original pass of the story, as the filmmakers believed that they needed a protagonist with a little bit of an edge to him.  Unfortunately for them, it made the character too unlikable.  Apparently, Disney CEO Michael Eisner hated the original script of the story and threatened to shut the project down because of this hard cynical take on the character.  And thankfully, Lasseter and Company were in agreement.  They recognized that there was no place for a mean spirited character at the center of their movie.  They needed to soften the character in order to make it work, and that’s just what they did.  One thing that helped is that they centralized the movie more around both Woody and Buzz, with Woody’s fear of replacement driving him down a bad road and Buzz slowly realizing that he is indeed a toy and not a real space ranger.  As the movie goes along, that character dynamic drives the heart of the film, and we as the audience grow to love both of them, both for their faults and their strengths.  They are perhaps two of the most well-rounded characters that you’ll find anywhere in the medium of animation, and that’s saying something for characters that are essentially play things for children.   The thing that made the movie soar most of all was that the team at Pixar just followed their guts and made the movie that they would enjoy watching, which really gave it it’s universal appeal to audiences of all ages.  It’s funny and charming, and remarkably timeless in a way you wouldn’t expect from a groundbreaking experiment in new technology.

TOY STORY 2 (1999)

Naturally when one movie becomes a smash hit, talk of a sequel is inevitably going to follow.  Unfortunately for Pixar, the beginnings of sequel talk came at a time when Disney was deep into it’s Direct to Video sequel phase.  The studio was resoundingly criticized for it’s heavy reliance on cheap sequels to it’s beloved classics during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and shockingly it was moving in that direction with Toy Story as well.  A follow-up to the box office hit was quickly put into production with the same team, but as development went along, it became clear that a movie like this shouldn’t go straight to video; it belonged on a big screen.  So, Toy Story 2 was spared the indignities of Direct to Video hell and was given the full blown sequel treatment.  And it’s a good thing too, because Toy Story 2 not only matches it’s predecessor, it surpasses it in every way.  The idea behind the sequel is a brilliant one; delving deeper into Woody’s character as he learns that he’s a highly prized collectors’ item with a long history.  Through learning more about his place in the world, Woody is confronted more with the fact that Andy will one day be too old to play with him, and that would be the end for him.  It’s strange to think that a movie about talking toys would involve a deep existential questions about loss and finding one’s purpose, but that’s what Toy Story 2 manages to include in it’s narrative.  It also expanded the story in a profound way, with the addition of a key new character in the yodeling cowgirl Jessie.  Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack) is a vibrant, funny new addition to the cast, but she has a tragic backstory of abandonment that also defines her.  The highlight of the movie comes in the form of a song written by Pixar stalwart Randy Newman and performed by Sarah McLaughlin that shows how Jessie lost her favorite child owner.  In that singular song, Pixar would establish the one other trait that would define them as a studio; it’s ability to bring an audience to tears.  Quite a place for Pixar to be at with only their third ever feature (after the original and A Bug’s Life).  They were called upon to make a cheap, throw away sequel by Disney, and instead they made on of the best sequels of all time.

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

For the decade that followed, Pixar would spend it’s time building it’s reputation further with a flurry of brilliant original new features before they even entertained the idea of trying another sequel.  It would be a full 11 years after Toy Story 2 that a third movie became a reality.  By this time, the other two movies had become beloved and untouchable classics, so a third Toy Story seemed to some to be a little superfluous.  But, under the new guidance of director Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 would again prove that this franchise still had more surprises left up it’s sleeve.  One of the things that surprisingly worked in the movie’s favor is the lengthy passage of time.  Here, we find Woody’s worst fears finally coming to a head, as Andy is now all grown up and ready to give up all his toys.  Thanks to his growth since the last movie, Woody is more or less prepared for this inevitable day, but it’s the fate of the other toys that are his family that drives his concern throughout the movie.  The film theorizes the different kinds of fate that the toys might face when they no longer have a home.  There’s a preschool where the toys are treated more like inmates at a prison, and there’s a fateful near annihilation that they also almost face in an incinerator.  The toys are given a loving new home once Andy passes them along to a sweet little girl named Bonnie in the end, and the movie ultimately shows how to let go of a loved one in a way that ultimately feels fulfilling and hopeful.  The final note that the movie leaves on, with Woody and Andy saying their goodbyes is a perfect coda to the arch that they’ve been on for the past three movies.  That’s ultimately what makes Toy Story 3 so worthwhile in the end.  It also gives us the best villain in the series as well, with the subtle brutality of Lotso Huggins Bear (voiced brilliantly by Ned Beatty).  Toy Story had a passable heavy in the demented boy next door Sid, and 2 even gave us a trio of villains (Zurg, Al, and Stinky Pete), but Lotso comes with the most compelling backstory and most dominant presence within the series, and he is likewise the best new addition to the series.  Also of note is the hilarious performance of Michael Keaton as the Ken doll.  Even with all that, it’s Pixar’s unshakable ability to do right by their beloved toys that ultimately makes this third film a worthy addition to this franchise.

TOY STORY 4 (2019)

You would think that it would be crazy to go beyond the absolutely perfect final note that Toy Story 3 left us on, with the completion of Woody and Andy’s story.  But, for Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it’s not where he envisioned Woody’s story would end.  After another 9 years since the last installment in the series, we were given a follow-up to the adventures of the toy gang in Toy Story 4.  With director Josh Cooley this time at the helm, the story written by Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom brings a surprising new angle to the forefront, and that’s the underlying love story between Woody and Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts).  Bo Peep had been there for emotional support in previous movies, but here, she is given the full spotlight alongside Woody, and their relationship is focused on with more importance than ever before.  Her life outside of the world of Andy’s Room opened her up to more possibilities and she ends up sharing those with Woody, further showing him a different outlook on what he could be doing with his life.  As we see, despite trying to put the most positive spin on it, Woody is not being played with by Bonnie in the same way that he was by Andy, and Bo Peep ultimately shows him that life outside the play room is where he should be.  Remarkably, it manages to breath new life into a series that most of us long thought had exhausted all of it’s best tricks.  We thought that saying goodbye to Andy was where it should have ended, but the real true ending is Woody saying goodbye to the other toys.  I dare any of you to not tear up the moment Woody and Buzz have their final hug together.  It really honors the lengthy history that these two character have had together and shows that, yeah, this is a fitting ending to this story.  Toy Story 4 also shows just how far animation has come since the first film, as this is probably the most gorgeous looking film in the series.  The nighttime scenes lit up by carnival lights in particular stand out.  And even still, these characters still feel just the same as when we first met them.  Fun new addition include a hilarious daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (with the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves as the voice) as well as Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), probably the strangest character in the entire series overall.  We all believed that a movie like this was impossible, but Andrew Stanton indeed showed there was more story worth telling, and we’re all rewarded for having it come true in the end.

A movie like Toy Story really is one of those once in a generation kinds of phenomena that changes cinema forever, so it’s even more remarkable that they’ve managed to make four of these movies of equal quality.  They not only managed to make a sequel that surpassed the original, but they made another one a full eleven years later, and even a fourth nearly as long after as that and in defiance of a near perfect ending.  There is no doubt that just like the original Toy Story stands as a pinnacle in the history of animation that the franchise as a whole is without equal amongst all other animated franchises.  Each one adds something overall to the franchise that is indispensable, and it largely has to do with the different emotional turns that it takes the characters.  I don’t think any of us would have cared this much about the lives of toys like this movie makes us do.  And that’s largely because through the eyes of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the like, we see our own anxieties and passions reflected.  How many parents out there have connected with the journey that Woody and Andy go through in this series.  So many parents know that their time with their children is fleeting, and that ultimately there will come a time when a child grows old enough to live their own life separately, and Toy Story is ultimately about accepting that inevitable step in life with a positive outlook for the future.  It’s also a series about finding one’s family, even when it’s not the one you expected.  As it stands, Toy Story has concluded it’s tale on just the right amount of story, and anything after 4 would indeed be overkill.  There is, however, room for alternative takes on these characters, which is indeed what Pixar is working on now with the spinoff Lightyear, which is an in universe exploration of Buzz’s journey to become a space ranger, played in his early years by actor Chris Evans.  For what it is, the four films of the Toy Story franchise are as near perfect of a story arc as anyone could ask for with a story based on toys.  While Disney and Pixar set out to put computer animation on the map, the team behind the movie went to infinity and beyond and delivered more than one classic for the ages, all of which will stand the test of time and continue to hold the bar high for this legendary animation studio.

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Sequel Trilogy

What a ride the Star Wars universe has been on in it’s 40-plus years of existence.  When George Lucas wrote out his first draft of his intergalactic space opera back in 1977, I don’t think he ever thought that it would be a movie that would change cinema forever, let alone build it’s own empire.  He was just looking to make a movie that would satisfy his own interests; namely making a throwback to the movies that he grew up with.  Nevertheless, Star Wars changed everything, and it launched George Lucas into an entirely different path in his life.  He stepped away from the director’s chair and instead focused on managing this ever growing movie empire that spawned from the success of Star Wars.  He built Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) into an industry leader special effects studio.  He helped to put the Bay Area on the map as a film-making destination with his establishment of the Skywalker Ranch compound, and also with his early investment in Pixar Animation.  But, it was always the continued influence of Star Wars that fueled George’s many projects thereafter.  Eventually, he did return to the director’s chair and expand the Star Wars mythos even more with his prequel trilogy.  The results, however, divided the Star Wars fan-base.  Older fans saw the prequels as a betrayal, while younger fans embraced these new adventures much in the same way that the past generation had.  For Lucas, the movies proved financially successful, but he was also receiving backlash for the first time for making the same kinds of movies he had made all those years before.  As a result, Lucas again retreated from directorial duties, and instead focused on maintaining what he had already built before.  In time, he managed to win around more goodwill with his efforts to expand the Star Wars universe outside the main saga films with animated series like Star Wars: The Clone Wars as well as with well received video games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  But, in 2012, Lucas stunned the world by declaring that he was handing the reigns of empire over to a new master.

With a deal valued at just over $4 billion dollars, George Lucas agreed to sell his studio and all of it’s assets over to The Walt Disney Company.  Though the sale came as a surprise to many people within the industry, the fact that it was Disney who were behind it was less surprising.  Lucas and the Disney Company had collaborated before, mainly on theme park attractions based on Lucasfilm properties.  Disneyland won out over other heavy hitters like Universal to become the home of rides based on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties, and it was mainly because Lucas himself just believed Disneyland would be a better home for his characters.  For nearly 30 years, it was already commonplace to see Star Wars characters represented alongside those of Disney at the parks.  Now, with the deal in place, Disney was making all of Star Wars officially a part of the Disney family.  But, was Disney just buying Star Wars in order to capitalize on already established products.  Of course not.  Just like with Marvel, Disney intended to put their newly acquired asset to work, and they did so by announcing that they would be making a whole new series of Star Wars movies.  Not only that, but they would be picking up where George had left off in 1983 with the ending of Return of the Jedi.  This was exciting news to Star Wars fans across the world, but it also came with a grain of caution.  The backlash against the prequels was still fresh in a lot of people’s minds, and many were wondering if making Star Wars without the guidance of George Lucas was even possible.  Still, Disney wasted no time, enlisting widely celebrated filmmakers to undertake their reboot of the series, with J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Colin Treverrow put in charge of what would be the new prequel trilogy.  To the delight of many, Disney also managed to talk all the former cast into returning, including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.  Even ailing Peter Mayhew was going to don the fur once again as Chewbacca for a couple scenes.  But, even with all that talent, a lot rested on how audiences would embrace this new era of Star Wars.  So, let’s take a look at the completion of the Skywalker Saga with this retrospective of Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.  And caution, spoilers ahead.


Directed by J.J. Abrams

The way you make or break a franchise is in how you approach the way it starts.  Some franchises just like to jump out of the gate running, delivering every bit of information we need to know right from the beginning, which unfortunately robs the movie of any mystery.  J.J. Abrams rightly assumed that everyone who was going into his seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga was already familiar with the world of this series, so he focused instead on the thing that mattered more; the characters.  In a wise gesture to the past success of the franchise, Abrams enlisted Empire Strikes Back (1980) scribe Lawrence Kasdan to help him with the script, and this made a big difference in the end.  If there was ever someone who knows this universe as well as George Lucas, it’s Kasdan, and with his help, the script was able to capture that past glory of what made Star Wars so memorable in the first place.   The story picks up 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and all that time is perfectly summed up in the succinct opening scroll; Luke Skywalker has vanished, a zealous group known as the First Order have risen out of the ashes of the fallen Empire, and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is once again leading a rebellion.  That’s all we need to know before the movie begins, and the rest of the movie can breeze along.  The one major complaint that I hear about The Force Awakens is that it’s too familiar, and it’s hard to argue against that.  The movie does, for the most part, play like a retread of A New Hope, almost beat for beat.  And yet, J.J. Abrams was able to make that work to his advantage.  What people wanted to see was that it was still possible to make a Star Wars movie that felt like a true Star Wars movie, and to the tune of record smashing box office, J.J. proved that it was indeed possible, if a little overly derivative.

What makes The Force Awakens work as well as it does can be found in it’s opening act.  Before Abrams starts to drop all the heavy nostalgia nuggets into his film, he devotes the first 30 minutes to establishing the newest characters to the series.  In the first act, we meet Poe Dameron, the cocky rebel pilot, Finn, a disillusioned storm trooper ready to defy the First Order, Rey a mysterious, young orphan scavenger on a desolate planet, and Kylo Ren, the First Order’s Sith Lord commander.  The stakes are made clear and every new character’s wants and needs are defined very well; with much of the same economic efficiency as George Lucas had in the original film.  After all the introductions are made, and we are abe to sympathize with our new protagonists, we finally get our first taste of the series icons, starting with a hilariously casual reveal of the Millennium Falcon.  From then on, Abrams lays on the nostalgia pretty thick, but it feels earned at that point.  We’ve already grown attached to the new characters, so we’re able to both enjoy the nostalgia points while also remaining invested in this new adventure.  Even the most hardened critic will find it difficult not to smile when Han Solo and Chewie reenter the Falcon for the first time in years and with a smile Han says, “Chewie, we’re home.”  At the same time, Force Awakens is not afraid to take some chances, primarily with some of the legacy characters.  Han Solo meets his end in this film, at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren, in a extra tragic twist.  No matter what, it was crucial for Abrams to put the series on solid footing on it’s first time outside of George Lucas’ control, and he managed to do just that.  In particular, he did a marvelous job of establishing the new generation that were going to be the standard bearers of this series, with Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver all delivering stand out performances that both stand on their own, but also do justice to the series that they are in.  The only question is, did Abrams play it too safe by repeating much of the same notes as past Star Wars movies, and would it be possible to make a Star Wars movie that felt a great deal different.


Directed by Rian Johnson

The table was perfectly set for Rian Johnson (Looper, Knives Out) to pick up where J.J. Abrams left off.  Rey, having learned that she is sensitive with the Force, goes off to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), so that he can train her to be a Jedi.  Meanwhile, Leia and the rebel force continue their offensive against the First Order, with the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) taking on a more active role after the destruction of the Starkiller Base.  So, what does Johnson do with the narrative that’s been laid out for him; why he completely upends everything we expect we know about Star Wars.  Johnson took this opportunity to rethink what a Star Wars narrative could actually be.  Here, we have a Jedi Master in Luke Skywalker who has lost his faith and wishes to live in solitude.  Snoke, who was established to be a new big bad for the Star Wars universe, is quickly tricked and disposed of by his own apprentice; Kylo Ren.  Poe Dameron learns that it’s to the best interest of the rebellion that you shouldn’t try to take on the First Order alone, and instead fight to protect the things you love instead.  The Last Jedi takes every expectation that we have about Star Wars, and flips it on it’s head, raising some very provocative questions.  Unfortunately for Johnson, this was not the movie that many Star Wars fans were wanting or expecting.  Of all the movies in the Star Wars franchise, this is the most polarizing one, with people falling into either the loved it or hated it camps, with almost no in-between.  For me, I actually fall into the former.  The Last Jedi is not my favorite film in the franchise, but it’s the one that I admire the most, because it took the boldest chances.  The moment that Luke tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder like it’s trash was when I knew we were in for a whole different Star Wars movie, and I was all for it.  For a series like Star Wars to grow, it needed to redefine itself, or otherwise it would just keep repeating the same notes over and over again.  But, alas, a lot of vocal critics were not pleased with this choice.

The heart of The Last Jedi is found in it’s portrayal of Rey’s growth as a character.  We learn that Rey’s path towards becoming a Jedi is not going to be as easy of a road as it was for Luke.  Luke recognizes the dangers of tapping too deep into the powers of the Force, and that’s what has made him disillusioned for all these years.  He sees the potential for Rey to be drawn to the Dark Side, just like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader had been, and more troubling is just how unchecked her powers are and how her desire for purpose is fueling that dangerous road towards the darkness.   Many critics have found Rey to be a “mary sue,” but in Johnson’s narrative, he makes that point as the danger always lies in the fact that Rey is too powerful for her own good, and her naivete could drive her more easily towards the Dark Side, making her a potentially threatening presence.  It’s that fine line between heroism and villainy that Johnson wanted to explore, and show that any one of us could also mistake purity as security.  Rey’s search for identity endangers both herself and those she loves, and the fact that she steps back and accepts that heroism is  more about selflessness than glory, she ultimately manages to distinguish herself as a hero.  In turn, Luke finds a way to believe in himself again.  Though Johnson does flip the narrative around, he does leave us with Luke Skywalker once again facing down the Empire by himself, only in a self-sacrificing way that doesn’t stop the bad guys so much as it gives the good guys a fighting chance.  Luke learns to fight for what he loves, and that is where the heart of the movie lies.  At the same time, The Last Jedi may also be the most gorgeously shot movie in the entire series, with the contrasting red and white’s of the Planet Crait being a particular standout.  Sure, The Last Jedi is divisive and challenges everything we believe about the universe of Star Wars, but honestly, it’s the change that Star Wars needed and I for one welcomed it.  With the bold choices made by this movie, you would think that the final chapter would carry it forward and continue to push the series to newer heights, right?  Right?


Directed by J.J. Abrams

From the get go, The Rise of Skywalker was destined to be the problem child of this new trilogy.  Colin Treverrow was let go from the project right after delivering his first draft of the screenplay.  At the same time, Lucasfilm also removed a number of other directors from their selective projects; most notoriously Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were nearly two-thirds of the way through shooting their stand alone film, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), and also had to do numerous re-shoots in order to salvage the troubled production of Rogue One (2016).  The backlash over The Last Jedi didn’t help, and it seemed like Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy was doing a lot of last minute re-thinking that was shaking up the Star Wars universe in a bad way.  J.J. Abrams was brought back to salvage the Episode IX project, but instead of working with Treverrow’s own treatment, Abrams elected to start from scratch, while at the same time, meeting the same Christmas 2019 release date without delay.  This was a recipe for disaster, as it gave Abrams so little time to get the movie done right, but he was kind of stuck.  That release date was set, because it had to line up with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in the parks and the premiere of The Mandalorian on Disney+.  As a result, The Rise of Skywalker ended up being a mess.  It might have not been so bad if this was any average sequel, but by being a closing chapter in a saga that has been strong for forty years, as well as the culmination of the story delivered through The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, it made the end result especially disappointing to long time fans.  It wasn’t as polarizing as The Last Jedi as this time almost everyone didn’t like Rise of Skywalker, including myself.  Is it the worst Star Wars film; no.  I will say that I never found myself bored watching the movie, like I had while watching Attack of the Clones.  But, Skywalker may be the most disappointing of all the Star Wars movies because of all the blown potential.

It’s clear that J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson are two entirely different filmmakers, as their approaches to the same story take wildly different trajectories.  But as Johnson’s subversion of tropes worked well after Abrams infusion of nostalgia, it doesn’t make much sense for Abrams to re-contextualize everything Johnson laid on the table in order to better suit his vision.  I almost believe that it might have been better to have left Colin Treverrow on to help the series flow better with a different vision for every movie, even if Treverrow’s script would’ve been messy in it’s own right.  The problem begins from the very start, as Abrams shoe-horns the presence of Emporer Palpatine into the narrative, which is indicated no where in any of the previous two films.  I do acknowledge that it is nice to see veteran actor Ian McDiarmid back in the role that he’s played ever since Return of the Jedi, but it makes no sense for Palpatine to re-enter the story at this point in time.  It takes away much needed time to further establish the growth of our cast of characters in order to change the stakes once again.  It’s a plot reset that cheats the narrative flow of the new trilogy and feels like an act of desperation on Lucasfilm’s part; hoping to bring disgruntled fans back to the flock.  Plot points are completely dropped and nothing feels earned.  The movie also has the uncomfortable aspect of using stock footage of Carrie Fisher in order to complete her role as Leia, after her untimely death before the release of The Last Jedi.  J.J. does the best he can, but her presence here feels less graceful than it should be, and it might have been better served to have had Leia pass away off screen.  The biggest insult to the fans is that the 9 film arc of this story only led up to something so hollow and manufactured.  At least The Last Jedi was trying to say something.  The goal of The Rise of Skywalker was to please everybody, and in the end it pleased no one.  Look no further than the completely insulting final kiss between Rey and Kylo Ren to see just how shamelessly pandering this movie was to being a manufactured product rather than a movie worth celebrating.

When all was said and done, was Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars’ Skywalker Saga a success or a failure.  It depends on who you ask.  Some would say that it betrayed the fundamentals of the series, while other believe that it took Star Wars into bold, brave new territory.  Regardless, I don’t think anyone can safely say that Disney stuck the landing.  Their stewardship of the Star Wars universe certainly got off on a rocky start, but the future still remains bright.  The Mandalorian received almost universal praise upon release, and there are still plans for many more stand-alone Star Wars extended universe projects on the horizon.  But the mixed results of the sequel trilogy may leave a bad taste in the mouths of several fans, because this was the saga on which the foundations of the universe were built upon.  It involved the original characters, with the performers of that trilogy delivering their swan songs as Han, Luke and Leia all meet their ends in this new trilogy.  There is still a lot of good things I can say.  The performances are strong throughout the trilogy, even with the lackluster script they had to work with on Skywalker.  Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in particular delivered truly iconic performances as Kylo Ren and Rey resepecively, and they remain two of the past decades greatest cinematic characters, as I stated in my lists here and here.     Though Poe, Finn, and especially Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) get pushed to the sidelines in Rise of Skywalker, their selective actors’ performances remain strong right to the end.  And visually, each of the movies still maintain that great sense of wonder that every Star Wars movie has, as we jump from one world to the next, each with it’s own identity.  Disney certainly wants to see Star Wars live on forever; why else would they spend billions on it.  Hopefully the lesson they take from this is that they should never launch a trilogy without a unifying vision from the very outset.  By giving too much leeway to each individual director, they may have undermined the trilogy from the outset.  Even still, I enjoy most of this new trilogy, even parts of The Rise of Skywalker, and that’s mainly because I liked the different ways that Disney and Lucasfilm set out to expand this universe.  That’s the genius of George Lucas’s creation in the end; it’s endless possibilities.  Disney may need more time to get it completely right, but I think that Lucas put his universe in the right hands, and I have no doubt the Force will be strong with Star Wars in the decades ahead.

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy

Be careful what you wish for.  There’s no doubt that cinema was forever changed by the release of Star Wars (1977) and it’s two follow up sequels.  But fans everywhere were left with one striking question after creator George Lucas made the peculiar decision to rename the original film that launched the trilogy Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  And that question was, what ever happened to Episodes 1-3.  Initially, Lucas probably made the choice to rename his film that way as a nod to the old sci-fi serials that Star Wars clearly drew inspiration from, and that his trilogy was just a small part of a bigger narrative, some of which he hints at throughout the movies with the many characters’ backstories.  But, as time went on, Lucas indeed began to ponder more about what those first three episodes might be, as did many of the fans of the movies.  Over time, Episodes 1-3 took on this mythic status for Star Wars fans, with fan fictions and published novelizations doing much to fill in the gaps of the history of this universe that Lucas had created.  But, after a successful re-release of the original trilogy in theaters, albeit with controversial “Special Edition” changes, Lucas determined that the time was right to finally make the first three episodes of his Star Wars saga a reality.  Now we were finally going to see the story about the rise of the Empire, the fall of the Jedi Order, and most importantly, the events that turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  It was destined to be the cinematic event of the century, rivaling even the likes of the original trilogy, and fans eagerly anticipated it; some even camping outside movie theaters for weeks on end just to be the first in line to see it.

The day finally came on Memorial Day weekend 1999, with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  But, as with everything in life, what goes up must inevitably fall down.  Reactions to Episode I were decidedly mixed, verging towards the negative.  Longtime fans in particular were upset by a number of things that felt off about this version of Star Wars; the lack of focus on the story, the stilted performances by the actors, the overabundance of CGI, Jar-Jar Binks, etc.  This was not the Star Wars they grew up with, and that reaction would end up clouding the perception of the new prequel trilogy all the way up to it’s completion with Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Though the movies were still financially successful, they were nowhere near as loved as their predecessors, and even today, you still see a divide among fans that at times can turn pretty toxic.  But, are the prequels to Star Wars really that bad?  I think there is agreement that they certainly don’t work as well as the original trilogy, but individually do they still work as a satisfying cinematic experience.  That’s the hard thing to determine when the movies are serial parts of a much larger narrative, and that aspect may have had to do with why people rejected these movies initially.  It’s hard to write a compelling narrative when you already know the fates of all these individual characters.  It’s interesting that younger viewers who were first introduced to the movies through these prequels have a much rosier view of the trilogy than older fans do.  Is it a generational bias thing that has split the fanbase in two?  To see how the prequel trilogy stands on it’s own, let’s take a look now at the individual films of the first three episodes of the Skywalker Saga with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.


After a 22 year absence, George Lucas stepped behind the camera once again to relaunch the franchise that made him a household name.  Drawing from the intricate backstories that Lucas had hinted at in his original trilogy, he was finally going to make the kinds of Star Wars movies that he always wanted to create, but was never allowed to because of the limitations of budgets.  He could now show us the full expanse of space, explore many new worlds, and even show the extravagant regalia of the Old Republic in it’s heyday.  Indeed, where George Lucas shows his brilliance in is with his world building.  There are so many imaginative new worlds explored in these new adventures, including the lush green serenity of the planet Naboo, as well as the intricacy of the city planet Coruscant, the seat of power of the Republic.  But, while the new movies show off his imagination in creating new worlds, they also reveal his shortcomings as a storyteller.  Let’s just say The Phantom Menace is far more style than substance.  This immediately becomes clear when the movie gets bogged down by talks of trade alliances, treaties and embargoes.  It’s not like the original trilogy was not without political intrigue, but it was balanced with action set pieces and character development.  Phantom Menace leaves very little time for us the audience to find our footing and immerse ourselves in this world and the characters.  Lucas just seemed too preoccupied with setting up the rules of his world that he forgot to give any detail to everything else that normally made a Star Wars film engaging.  That’s what made collaborators like Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan so valuable to the process, because they could explore those depths of character more closely while Lucas occupied himself more with creating this universe.

But, is The Phantom Menace a complete failure of story.  It’s hard to say.  The ingredients are all there, but the way it’s structured just feels off.  We are introduced to both new and familiar faces.  Liam Neeson does carry a strong presence as jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, delivering adequate enough chemistry with Ewan McGregor, doing a credible imitation of Alec Guiness as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Had these characters been the focus of the movie, things might have worked better, but that’s not the case.  The movie keeps jumping from world to world without giving much time to settle the characters into their place in the narrative.  It’s like everyone is just there to play their part and nothing else.  We barely get to know key characters like Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala, and iconic characters like R2-D2 and C-3PO are almost shoehorned in without much purpose to the story.  Also, the boy who would be Darth Vader is presented here as a precocious little child, not once indicating the monster that he will one day become.  At the same time, Lucas also devotes a needless amount of time to the comic relief character of Jar-Jar Binks, who to many a fan, is the most reviled character in the entirety of the Star Wars series.  I agree that Binks is not a great addition to the Star Wars mythos, but it has less to do with the actor’s performance (Ahmed Best, who does try hard) and more to George Lucas’ shortcomings as a writer.  What bothers me more about the movie, however, is that it demystifies aspects of the Star Wars lore that had always made the series so intriguing.  Specifically, it’s the introduction of the midi-chlorians that I think is the worst thing ever added to the Star Wars series.  Here, Lucas tries to give a biological explanation to the Force; that it’s something in a person’s bloodstream that can be quantified, as opposed to a mystical force that binds all life together.  That spiritual aspect was so key to the original movies, and in one misguided swoop, he undercuts it completely, just so he can show us how powerful little Anakin really is before he becomes a Jedi.  The movie has bright points, including an exciting pod race scene halfway thru, and an interesting if underutilized antagonistic threat from Darth Maul (played by Ray Park).  Disappointing yes, but the low point for Star Wars?  Well, we’ll have to see where it goes from here.


The backlash against The Phantom Menace was strong, but not enough to keep the movie from reaching box office records.  As a result, Lucas was given the go ahead to continue on with the trilogy, with the second chapter taking us ten years beyond the events of the previous film.  And you would think that with that amount of time George Lucas would learn from his mistakes and craft a more cohesive film the second time around.  That notion unfortunately goes right out the window once the movie immediately as Lucas again puts too much focus on the plot elements and not on the characters.  Only this time, he mistakenly tries his hand at making a love story too.  Anakin (played by Hayden Christensen, who takes over from Jake Lloyd) is now a fully trained Jedi under the mentorship of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his relationship with Padme deepens into a budding romance.  These so-called “romantic” moments are so contrived and labored that they hamper the entire movie, and in my opinion, make this the least engaging movie in the entire Star Wars franchise.  Phantom Menace at the very least had that exciting pod race and some cool battle scenes.  Clones sadly is bogged down by too much moody whining from Anakin Skywalker.  It seems impossible that this obnoxious brat would become the most feared menace in the galaxy one day, and with Lucas’ terrible writing, he undermines the development of what is supposed to be one of the most important characters in the entire saga.  Christensen unfortunately is still too green of an actor to make any of this material work, and his performance is sadly the most wooden within the entire film.  There’s also a severe lack of urgency to the entire movie, with most of it devoted to Anakin returning home only to find his mother brutally murdered by Tuskan raiders, which triggers his own murderous instincts.  At the same time, Obi-Wan Kenobi is tracking down a rogue assassin named Jango Fett (Temura Morrison) who has something to do with the Separatist movement at war with the Republic.

Interestingly enough, the stuff with Obi-Wan Kenobi is the only mildly interesting part of the movie.  Acting as a bit of detective story within the overall narrative, the film at least gives us a bit more development into his character.  Unfortunately, it is overshadowed by the duller Anakin/Padme story-line.  Eventually, the movie does lead to an admittedly exciting conclusion, as the Republic built clone army does battle with the Separatist droid forces.  At it’s center, there is a great battle between the separatist leader, Count Dooku (the legendary Christopher Lee) and the Jedi.  Another thing that is so unfortunate about the lack of development in this movie is the fact that Lee’s Dooku takes up so little screen-time, much like Darth Maul in Phantom Menace.  Creating interesting new villains and then not taking full advantage of them is a common theme found in this trilogy.  All that said, the light-saber battle between Dooku, Anakin and Obi-Wan is satisfying enough, and Yoda (voiced again by Frank Oz) even gets in on the battle; even though I’m not a big fan of the new computer animated version of the character, despite it being necessary for his fight scene.  It’s unfortunate that so much time is wasted in order to get to that conclusion, and you have to wonder if all of this is just padding in order to get the movie to trilogy length.  It seems possible, as nothing really is changed by the end, other than Anakin being short one limb after his encounter with Dooku.  Everything else has this inevitability aspect to it, because we all already know where it’s going to lead; Anakin and Padme’s courtship, the rise of the clone army, the schism between Obi-Wan and Anakin, it’s all just set up.  And none of it is remotely interesting.  To me, Attack of the Clones is rock bottom when it comes to Star Wars because it commits the greatest sin of all within the series; it’s boring.  The Phantom Menace is flawed, but has points where it comes alive.  Clones is just a bridge between movies and nothing more, watched only for the sake of completion of the story.  Hopefully it all leads somewhere.


Now we get to the movie that plays the most important role of all; connecting all the threads into the original trilogy.  A lot of things have to happen here; the fall of the Jedi, the rise of the Empire, the corruption of Anakin into Darth Vader, and finally, the birth of Luke and Leia.  And for the most part, the movie actually succeeds.  There are flaws to be sure; Hayden Christensen’s performance is sadly still lacking, as are most of the still stilted performances throughout.  The movie also devotes far too much time towards developing the internal politics of the world, and not enough on the characters.  And again, Lucas sets up yet another interesting new villain, this time General Grievous, and does too little with him in the overall film.  But, these problems are not as egregious as they were in the previous two films.  When the movie needs to get serious, it gets serious, and it thankfully devotes the right amount of time to establishing the needed gravitas to the moments that matter.  The things that really makes this movie work so well though is that we finally see the villainous presence of Emperor Palpatine unleashed.  Ian McDiarmid, reprising his role throughout the trilogy that he first played in Return of the Jedi way back in 1983, finally takes center stage here and he steals every single moment.  Perhaps that’s why so many of the other villains in this trilogy were so underutilized, because Palpatine is the only one that matters.  After working within the shadows for most of the trilogy, we finally see him in his full evil presence, and his rise into power is frighteningly potent.  He even has a surprising confrontation with Yoda late in the movie, which is one of the film’s best parts.  More importantly, his presence finally gives us the true menacing presence of the Sith that we had been severely lacking in the previous films.

The movie is also not afraid to take the story into dark, depressing territory.  The fall of the Jedi is dealt with in a rather shocking way, with the Jedi being betrayed by the very same Clone troopers that they had fought alongside.  The fact that Anakin Skywalker, corrupted by the influence of Palpatine, is the one leading the slaughter is also effectively shocking.  But the movie likewise makes his reckoning feel appropriately tragic.  Finally, the turn into Darth Vader makes more sense, as we see the tragic flaw of Anakin’s character, his arrogance and fear of losing what’s important to him, lead him to the dark side.  Lucas thankfully fulfills all those aspects within this story, including the long desired for confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the volcanic planet Mustafar.  I should point out that one of the things that has remained constantly strong throughout the trilogy had been John Williams incredible music scores.  Continuing on from his work in the original trilogy, Williams never let audiences down with giving adequate epic grandeur to the music in these films.  His work in Revenge of the Sith is especially effective, including the battle theme called “Battle of the Heroes,” which underscores the epic fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  It might even be one of his best pieces he’s ever written, which is saying something.  Revenge also does an excellent job of tying the trilogies together.  Anakin’s final transformation into the Darth Vader we all know is dealt with in a very chilling scene, albeit undercut by the now infamously lame moment where Vader cries out, “NOOOOOO.”  But the final shot of the movie, where Obi-Wan hands off baby Luke to his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a wonderfully done echo of the famous double sunset scene from A New Hope, leaving this trilogy on a near perfect note.  So, despite a lot of problematic hurdles along the way that have tarnished a bit of the old Star Wars magic, Lucas did manage to stick the landing when it came to bridging the two trilogies together.  Revenge of the Sith is not perfect, but it gets the job done and easily is the best of the prequels by a long shot.

For a while, this looked to be where the saga of Star Wars would end.  Lucas had completed his full vision of this universe, showing us the rise and fall of the evil Empire, and the redemption of the Jedi Order after being brought to the brink of collapse.  But, his return to the series unfortunately showed his weaknesses as a filmmaker as well.  His long gap away from the directors chair may have unfortunately robbed him of some of the insight he needed to make the movies work more cohesively.  His instincts for one were undermined, as he relied too heavily on cinematic shortcuts like green-screen and CGI to bring his vision to life.  What made Star Wars so appealing in the first place was the fact that it had this tactile, lived in feel to it, which was dictated by the limited budgets and film-making capabilities it had to work with.  Here, the prequel movies look too clean and ultimately fake.  Sometimes it’s better to work within constraints because it allows for more creative thinking. Still, with the prequel trilogy, there were enough bright spots that made the movies financially successful, and it enabled Star Wars to stay relevant into the new century. But, it would not be the end for long, as Disney picked up where Lucas left off and continued the story even beyond those first six episodes. Now, the Skywalker Saga has been rounded out to a total of nine films, with the concluding chapter, The Rise of Skywalker only a week away from its premiere as of this writing. Any movie franchise that makes it that far on this kind of level is really something special. Though as disjointed and meandering as they are, the prequels do serve the purpose of giving us the full story of the Skywalker family, and their pivotal place in the Star Wars mythos. The only regret is that George Lucas’ imagination was too expansive to contain within even just three or six movies. We unfortunately had to go outside the saga to see the full story of the Clone Wars and the Age of the Galactic Empire, which spinoff series explored more extensively. But, even with that, there’s no denying that the prequels give more to Star Wars than it takes away, and it still remains an integral part of the full story. Let’s just hope that Rise of Skywalker leaves the saga on a fitting final note, and doesn’t result in the same polarizing pitfall. Help us Skywalker, you’re our only hope.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Focus on a Franchise – Pirates of the Caribbean

The old phrase “dead men tell no tales” could also easily apply to forgotten genres within cinema.  And then, somehow miraculously, some genres rise from the dead.  That was the case with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; the unlikeliest of blockbuster phenomenons in movie history.  You have to look back at the time in which the Pirates franchise first premiered to really understand just how unusual it was.  Pirates movies, as a genre, was all but dead around the turn of the millennium.  Once a wildly successful part of early Hollywood, with renowned classics like Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), the genre fell off deeply in the decades after, with only a handful of noteworthy films in all that time.  The final nail in the coffin came with Cannon Films notorious box office flop Cutthroat Island (1995), which all but spelled out for Hollywood that Pirate movies were poison in the cinema.  So, the fact that Disney not only took another shot this troubled genre but also poured a substantial budget behind it makes the creation of these movies all the more puzzling.  Couple this with the fact that the source of inspiration for these movies wasn’t a novel or a notable historical figure, but a theme park attraction.  So what exactly happened to make everything go right.  Turns out the “X” factor for the franchise’s success was an oddball, unconventional actor by the name of Johnny Depp.  Depp was not a box office draw at the time, but somehow he struck a cord with this role, and created one of the most original characters to have appeared on the big screen in quite a long time; the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow.  And not only did Jack Sparrow strike gold once for the Disney company, but he would continue to do so for a whole decade after.  But, like most other things, even this couldn’t last, and now the franchise is at a crossroads.  Because of waning box office, and Depp’s own off the set issues becoming a liability, it seems like Jack Sparrow’s days on the big screen are over.  So, let’s take a look back at the franchise that briefly resurrected the Pirates genre and turned Jack Sparrow into a household name.


Directed by Gore Verbinski

When action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer walked into then Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s office and pitched this idea of a movie based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name starring the actor best known for playing Edward Scissorhands, it seemed only logical to give the idea a heavy no.  And yet, Eisner bit and gave the go ahead to make this movie.  But, even with the project funded and well into production, the prospects still were negative given the recent box office flop of The Country Bears (2002), another movie based on a Disneyland attraction.  Eisner even intervened numerous times, raising serious questions about the direction that Johnny Depp was taking his eccentric performance.  But, probably to the surprise of everyone, including I’m sure even the people that made the movie, the film was a smash hit with audiences.  And Disney had no one better to thank for that than Johnny Depp.  Depp’s Jack Sparrow gave this movie, and the subsequent franchise, it’s identity and made it instantly stand apart from both the Pirate movie genre and all movies in general.  Like a mix of Errol Flynn and Inspector Clouseau, with a little extra inspiration from rocker Keith Richards, Jack Sparrow is equal parts the greatest and worst pirate you’ve ever seen.  Bumbling his way through harrowing situations, teetering between drunkenness and sobriety, Sparrow somehow seems to luck his way through any situation, making him the unlikeliest of heroes.  Depp’s performance embodies every bit of this and it’s easy to see why he was so endearing to audiences.  He’s also given one of the greatest character entrances in movie history, sailing triumphantly into port on a sinking boat; a perfect encapsulation of the character, and really of the impact he would have for the Pirates genre in general.  And the best thing is that, even with all the questions raised beforehand, Depp was still able to form the character his way and was free to experiment and improvise throughout filming.  It was risky, but rewarding as Jack Sparrow commands every scene he is in.  His performance even garnered a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars (his first) which once again just shows the unprecedented success this movie had surprisingly found.

But, it’s not just Depp alone that made the movie so memorable for audiences.  Director Gore Verbinski drew heavily from his background in visual effects to craft a movie that was not only felt epic, but was also effective as a showcase for cutting edge technology.  The movie’s central gimmick, the curse that haunts the crew of the Black Pearl, is effectively realized through some beautifully rendered CGI which transforms the villainous pirates into skeletal figures in the moonlight.  Though the effects are cool to look at, they are not distracting either, and actually mix in well with the period detail in the production design.  Verbinski also draws heavy inspiration from pirate movies of the past, delivering epic sea battles that would feel at home in an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.  The whole movie beautifully delivers on that mix of the old and the new, helping to remind audiences of what Pirate movies used to be like and what they could be in the years to come.  Johnny Depp also gets worthwhile support from the other cast members as well.  Keira Knightly saw a major career boost thanks to this movie, which propelled her into leading lady status in Hollywood.  Orlando Bloom luckily stumbled onto this new franchise just as his work on The Lord of the Rings was coming to an end, and he makes a perfect straight-man for Johnny Depp to work off of.  Other supporting players like Kevin McNally, Zoe Saldana, and Jonathan Pryce also stand out in the film.  But, it’s Geoffrey Rush who almost matches Depp in his equally eccentric role as the villainous Captain Barbosa.   The scenes with Depp and Rush alone are worth the price of admission, seeing two veteran character actors clearly having fun playing these characters.  Naturally, the success of Black Pearl opened the door for this phenomenon to become a franchise, and that would indeed happen, with Disney again taking another big risk with the sequels.


Directed by Gore Verbinski

Shortly after the release of Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney made the logical choice to produce a sequel.  But, what many people didn’t expect was that not one but two sequels were planned, shooting back to back with a half a billion dollar price tag for both.  This was another costly gamble, but this time Disney had more belief in this property, especially now that they had a household name character like Jack Sparrow to carry it.  And indeed, the gamble not only paid off, but even better than they expected.  The first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, remarkably grabbed the opening weekend crown with a then staggering $134 million three day haul.  And it’s easy to see why this became the high water mark for the franchise, because it’s, in my opinion, the best in the series.  Everything that made the original film a classic is ratcheted up in this sequel, with bigger set pieces, amazing visual effects, and a deeper mythology.  There are many things that makes this movie work so well, but none more so than the addition of a great and memorable villain; Davy Jones.  Actor Bill Nighy steals the movie with his wonderfully over-the-top performance, which remarkably still comes through even underneath the motion captured digital masking that creates the final look of the character.  Motion capture was still in it’s infancy at the time, but it saw a huge step forward with Davy Jones, who looks about as authentic as he possibly could be.  An equally memorable edition is the Kraken, a remarkable CGI creation that earns it’s rightful place alongside the most memorable of giant monsters on the big screen.  Hans Zimmer’s musical score also hit it’s peak with this film, with his already popular Main Theme from the original joined by memorable themes for the two villainous elements; Jones and the Kraken.  The film won a well-deserved Oscar for it’s visual effects, and became the highest grossing film ever for Disney at the time, cementing it’s place as key part of the company’s legacy.  At this same time, Disney even took the step of putting the characters of Jack, Barbosa, and Davy Jones into the park attraction that inspired them all in the first place.  With all this, and another sequel around the corner, nothing was going to slow these Pirates down in Hollywood.  Right?


Directed by Gore Verbinski

Released less than a year after Dead Man’s ChestAt World’s End looked primed to cap this trilogy off strong.  In a post-Lord of the Rings world, much became expected of trilogy enders, as The Return of the King (2003) was easily the biggest film of that epic series.  As a result, it appeared that Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to go out on a similar note, taking the franchise to even further epic heights.  Unfortunately, the end result did not have the same effect as Return of the King.  At World’s End is by no means a bad movie, but it doesn’t have the same focus that it’s predecessors had.  The movie is bloated, running nearly 3 hours long, with a lot of unnecessary sidetracks that lead nowhere.  The movie starts off promising with a beautifully constructed set piece recreating Singapore in the era of Pirates, which also brings in legendary Hong Kong cinema icon Chow Yun Fat as a nice addition to the cast.  There is also a wonderfully weird sequence of Jack Sparrow stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, which seemed to be heavily inspired by the work of another favorite collaborator of Depp’s, Terry Gilliam.  But, after a strong opening, the movie sags as the uneven plot looses balance.  Alliances break down, characters plot behind others’ backs for no reason, and there are just too many scenes where there’s a lot of talking and not enough action.  Also, some of the pirate lore and magical elements are never fully realized, making the whole thing hard to follow.  Still, Depp shines as Jack Sparrow, and his final showdown with Davy Jones in the middle of a storming Maelstrom is breathtaking to watch.  While the whole is a convoluted mess, there is still a lot to like in the movie, and it does tie up the trilogy effectively enough.  But, it is still the weakest of the trilogy under Verbinski’s direction.  The movie made less than it’s predecessor, but still well enough to keep Disney in the black.  For the time, this should have been the time to hang up the swords and leave the franchise complete as is, because it was clear that by the end of At World’s End, the series was loosing it’s momentum.   But of course, with a property as profitable as this one, Hollywood just can’t leave well enough alone.


Directed by Rob Marshall

After taking a much needed break, Disney went right back to the well to get more out of this franchise.  Verbinski had moved on, and was already deep into development on another collaboration with Disney and Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), so the studio turned to a different director in their stable to tackle this next chapter.  Rob Marshall had already made a splash in Hollywood with his Oscar-winning musical Chicago (2002), but had yet to apply his cinematic skills into an action film.  And that inexperience is the biggest problem with On Stranger Tides.  The whole movie is a pale imitation of it’s predecessors precisely because Marshall can’t stage the film’s action set pieces with the same flair that Verbinski had.  There is just a severe lack of fun to the whole movie, and Johnny Depp especially is shackled by this movie’s lack of creative drive.  More than anything, this movie feels like it suffered from the most studio interference, as the whole thing comes across as a paint by numbers rendition of all the thing that had come in the series before.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is the movie’s villain; Blackbeard.  Casting a great, larger than life actor such as Ian McShane in the role should have made this character legendary, and yet Blackbeard is just a shallow, uninspired baddie that utilizes none of McShane’s charisma or menace.  Davy Jones he is not.  The addition of Penelope Cruz as a love interest for Jack Sparrow fairs a bit better, and the movie briefly comes to life whenever her and Depp share the screen.  Also, Geoffrey Rush returns as a more grizzled Barbosa, and is by far the best part of this movie.  Watching his work here really convinced me that Barbosa is my favorite character in the entire franchise, mainly because he can still shine in even the most mediocre of films.  Stranger Tides is rock bottom for the Pirates franchise, mainly because it makes the cardinal sin of being boring and safe, which is contrary to what made these movies work in the first place.  With bland action set pieces (apart from a sequence that miraculously makes mermaids scary), a wooden cast of new characters, and no real reason to exist, this was the worst possible direction that the studio could have taken their cash cow of a franchise.


Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

A full fourteen years after the launch of the franchise, Disney believed they could wring just a little more out of these Pirates.  But given Stranger Tides lackluster results, was it really worth the risk.  Johnny Depp did not have the same box office appeal anymore after a string of costly flops (The Lone Ranger among them) and his recent bad behavior making headlines was also not beneficial to the prospects for a continuation of the franchise.  But, Disney still saw the potential.  They made the right choice and hired Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg, who gained notoriety for their critically acclaimed sea-faring Kon-Tiki (2012).  And while their grasp on Pirates convoluted mythology still wasn’t good enough to right the ship completely, they at least staged their action set pieces better than Rob Marshall did, especially a really clever one involving a gag with a guillotine.  The movie also benefits from a charismatic villainous turn by Javier Bardem as the half dead Captain Salazar, who at least comes off as more menacing than McShane’s dull Blackbeard.  Sadly, these are the only positive things to say about the movie, because the rest of the film is just the same old tired tricks again.  Johnny Depp especially looks bored in this movie, and while he still has moments that shine, it’s clear that the Jack Sparrow shtick had run it’s course.  Apparently he even needed an earpiece to feed him lines during filming, showing just how little he cared at this point.  The movie’s convoluted plot also drags the movie down, and even tries to drag up past plot points that we thought were done and over with (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly both appear in pointless cameos that add little to their character arcs).  And again, the mythology just feels lazy at this point; once centered around incredible icons like the Kraken and Davy Jones’ Locker, the series now wanted us to care about Neptune’s Trident, which I still don’t understand how the mechanics of it works.  And you bring Barbosa back to life, just to kill him off again? Seriously?  It was clear that this ship was wildly off course and should have been left in the harbor.  And given it’s lackluster box office performance, that seems to be the message that it left on Disney afterwards.

It is still remarkable that a movie that should have never worked managed to do just that, and spawn a five film franchise that spanned over a decade.  But, the Pirate revival was short lived, even while Pirates was still riding high.  Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t have the same carry over effect on the industry that other genre revivals like Gladiator (2000) and The Lord of the Rings had around the same time.  Other studios didn’t set out to make Pirate movies of their own.  Pirates of the Caribbean ended up just sitting on it’s own as an anomaly within the industry.  But, it was one that did help the Walt Disney out in a transitional time in their history.  As the Michael Eisner era gave way to the Bob Iger era, Pirates was the single biggest source of income for the studio, and it helped them gain the capital they would need to further expand in the years ahead with Marvel and Star Wars, and weather the disappointments along the way.  Though the decline of the series was disappointing in the long run, the fact that these movies exist at all and were worth seeing is a  miracle.  Pirate movies were a dead franchise, and yet somehow this franchise bucked the trend and became a success.  Finding the buried treasure in the character of Jack Sparrow was a key part of that, and I love the fact that he now is as noteworthy a part of the Disney legacy as the likes of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.  Also, the franchise was at it’s best when it had confidence in it’s own identity, even separated from the Disneyland ride.  The references in the early films were easy to spot, like the dog with the keys and skeleton Barbosa drinking a bottle of rum, but they didn’t distract from the story at large.  Pirates was it’s own unique thing, and the only thing that anchored it down in the end was it’s inability to be anything else.  I think that’s why Disney is deciding to retire Jack Sparrow as a character and relaunch the series anew.  But, the era that Jack Sparrow reigned was a weird and adventurous one, and even though the rum’s run dry on this series, it’s will still hold an infamous place as a true Hollywood original.  Drink up me hearties, Yo Ho.