Category Archives: Focus on a Franchise

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.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

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.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014)

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.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

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 LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)

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.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

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.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

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.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI

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?

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

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.

STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

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.

 STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

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.

 STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

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.

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

Directed by George Lucas

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

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

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

Directed by Irvin Kershner

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

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

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

Directed by Richard Marquand

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

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

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

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.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)

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.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006)

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?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (2007)

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.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011)

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.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017)

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.

 

Focus on a Franchise – The Dark Knight Trilogy

Before Marvel Studios set a new high standard for the super hero genre, and before DC Comics would constantly fall short of that standard as they’ve tried to keep up with their rival, there was only one true leader of the pack, and his name was Batman.  This was evident with the creation of what we know now as the Dark Knight trilogy, which was spearheaded by one of cinema’s most daring filmmakers in recent memory, Christopher Nolan.  He arrived on the scene at just the right moment for both the character and the super hero genre in general.  Both had reached somewhat of a low point in 1997 with the release of the disastrous Batman & Robin; a movie that many had considered a franchise killer.  Indeed, it took 8 years for Batman to recover from this low point, and the reigns to the series passed through many hands, including auteur Darren Aronofsky, before ultimately landing in Nolan’s lap.  And Nolan gave the character the revival he desperately need.  Perhaps the first thing one will praise about Nolan’s approach is that he grounded the character back into a real world setting.  Gone were the campy flourishes of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, and instead we were presented with a gritty reality that made the whole thing feel as plausible as a super hero movie could be.  But, one thing that I find so fascinating about Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is how well it tells the story of it’s main hero.  We delve deeper into the man that Batman is more than in any other previous version, guided by an “almost” always compelling performance by Christian Bale in the role (the voice could have been a little better).  In these movies, we finally get an understanding of why a man would fight crime dressed up as a bat, and that in turn helps us to examine our own societal responses to tragedy and hardship.  One of the larger themes that Nolan addressed in his movies is the effect of terrorism on societies, manifested through some of the iconic villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, and how the lines between good and evil get blurred under the guise of achieving justice.  Quite a hefty shift for this series to take, and one that has in turn made these three movies modern day classics and benchmarks for the genre as a whole.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

It’s surprising that up until this point, Batman’s origins had never been fully explored on the big screen.  Sure, his origins were alluded too in previous films, particularly with the essential element of his parent’s murder (which is also recreated again here too), but the actual details of Bruce Wayne’s road towards becoming the Bat had never been presented before.  Taking inspiration from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Batman: Year One (1987), Batman Begins fills in those gaps between young Bruce’s loss of innocence to his ultimate donning of the cape and cowl.  And it proves to be a compelling story on it’s own; to the point where you don’t even care that Batman doesn’t make his first appearance until 80 minutes into a 2 1/2 hour movie.  We see Bruce Wayne receive his training in the ninja arts taught to him by the mysterious League of Shadows.  There he is mentored by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul , who instills in him the idea that he must become more than a man to help stop crime in his home of Gotham City; he must become a symbol, and as a symbol, he can inspire the downtrodden and bring fear to the merciless.  This conflict between acting as a symbol and what cost that leaves on the man is a primary theme that Christopher Nolan would explore through all three Dark Knight films, but it’s foundation is laid out perfectly here in the first film.  We see how Batman’s moral code is set, choosing to fight crime just short of taking a life, and how that sets him apart from the other extreme characters who will populate his city as the story unfolds.  Nolan also gives us the added pleasure of watching Bruce Wayne build up the arsenal, with the help of his ever loyal butler Alfred (a delightful Michael Caine) and the resourceful Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).  He even manages to answer the age old question, “why bats?”  And the simple answer is, bats frighten him, and he wants to turn that fear around and make it the thing his enemies will fear.

The theme of fear would also prove an important element that would play out through the entire trilogy, and there was no better way to lay the groundwork for that piece than to embody it through an adversary whose whole identity revolves around it; the Scarecrow, played in a scene-stealing performance by Cillian Murphy.  His Dr. Jonathan Crane is a simplified version of the often caricatured villain from the comic books, but he’s nevertheless effective in this story, and is often creepy enough without the mask he dons for the persona.  What I appreciate is the fact that Christopher Nolan didn’t try to jump right in and revisit already established Batman villains for his movie (at least not right away).  Here he managed to elevate a lesser known villain from the comics and show that you didn’t need to make your baddies a freak show in order to make them memorable in your movie.  The same likewise goes for Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul.  A dramatic departure from the immortal antagonist from the comics, Ra’s purpose in this film is still no less effective in presenting a compelling threat to Batman and Gotham.  Ra’s Al Ghul begins for the series the continuing threat of terrorism that Batman will always be up against.  His terrorist ideals are based primarily around eco-centric philosophy, see himself and the League of Shadows as the ones who bring balance to the world once a major population center grows out of control, in this case Gotham.  And to destroy the city, their weapon as it turns out is fear itself, weaponized through Scarecrow’s toxic gas.  Through all this, Nolan perfectly touches upon heady themes, while at the same time making it a rousing adventure true to it’s comic book origins.  Up until the MCU began, this was widely seen as the greatest comic book origin movie ever made, and it still is one of the best.  I myself named it as my favorite film of the year 2005.  But, little did we know that Nolan had much more tricks up his sleeve in the years ahead.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

If Batman Begins made for a fantastic overture, this would end up being the magnum opus.  Here we have the reason why this series is dubbed the Dark Knight trilogy.  Interesting enough, Christopher Nolan never initially planned to make a sequel to Batman Begins, let alone a trilogy.  He was already completing his next film The Prestige (2006) and had Inception (2010) waiting in the wings.  But, the success of Begins was enough to convince him to return, and this time with the full support of the Warner Brothers studio behind him.  A little sight gag in the closing minutes of Begins, where Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) presents him a calling card of a criminal he should look into, which turns out to be a Joker card, easily gave Nolan the stepping stone for where to go next.  But, what ended up happening in the process proved to be very interesting.  For one thing, Nolan made one of the boldest casting choices in movie history by tapping heartthrob actor Heath Ledger in the iconic role of the Joker.  Many comic book fans were initially outraged by the choice, believing that Ledger was completely wrong for the character, but by the time the movie came out, all those naysayers would be silenced forever.  Heath’s performance as the Joker was not only perfect, it was transcendent.  His Joker is not only the most compelling villain we’ve ever seen in this genre, he may very well be one of the greatest screen villains of all time; in the same league as Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.  Watching him work of Christian Bale’s Batman especially provides some of the best moments in the movie, including the now iconic interrogation scene.  Mainly due to Ledger’s Joker, this movie has enjoyed the lofty reputation it has had over the years; topping many critics’ favorite films lists and often being considered the best film of it’s genre.  It even sparked the Academy Awards to change it’s rules, after it was snubbed for Best Picture, expanding it’s number of nominees beyond the limit of 5 per year.  Ledger’s performance did earn him a much deserved Oscar, but sadly it was a posthumous win as the actor died tragically before the film’s release.

But The Dark Knight is more than just a showcase for Heath Ledger’s Joker.  Nolan treated us to not only one iconic Batman villain in his film, but two.  Harvey Dent, aka “Two-Face”, is also featured here, and is in many ways it’s a cinematic redemption for the character.  After his terribly botched appearance in Batman Forever (1995), where he was played in a campy performance by an embarrassing Tommy Lee Jones, Two-Face finally gets an origin in this film that’s truer to his persona from the comics.  Played with excellent restraint by Aaron Eckhart, Harvey Dent represents the fine line that separates characters like Batman and the Joker.  He is at heart a good man with a conscience, but also flawed because of his temper.  And in the movie, we see how even good men can turn bad so easily as a horrific accident scars him physically, making him more susceptible to the Joker’s mental manipulation.  It’s a fine line that we also see Batman having to cross at one point too.  In order to track down the Joker, Batman uses cellular technology created by Lucius Fox to basically spy on every citizen in Gotham City, an ethical line that Fox is deeply troubled by.  At this point, we see how easily Batman can also be turned evil, as desperation has forced him into a situation where he has to abuse his power in order to win the day.  This brings us back to the overarching theme of the effect that terrorism has on society, and in Dark Knight, we see the most profound examination of this.  In the years after 9/11, the United States made many morally questionable decisions in the name of combating terrorism, and those same dilemmas strongly influenced the themes in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  The Joker is a threat unlike anything else that Batman will ever face, one whose villainy has no rhyme or reason; someone who as Alfred puts it, “just wants to watch the world burn.”  So, to combat an agent of chaos like that, is it possible to fight back without becoming a villain yourself?  That’s the brilliantly delivered question behind Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and it’s matched with a truly epic sized presentation.  This was Nolan’s first foray into IMAX film-making, which is masterfully put to use in some amazing scenes like the opening bank robbery and the semi-truck chase halfway through the film.  It’s a movie that really earns that masterpiece mantle.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

So, where do you go next after that?  That’s the dilemma that Christopher Nolan was tasked with after The Dark Knight.  The movie was an international phenomenon, and at the time, a record setting film in the super hero genre.  Not only that, but Christopher Nolan had built his reputation further as an unmatched cinematic artist of high ambition, with his popularity soaring after making The Dark Knight and Inception back to back.  Naturally, the need for another film to round out the trilogy was going to happen, especially with the cliffhanger ending of Dark Knight.  But the question remained, what was it going to be about?  You couldn’t revisit the Joker nor Two-Face again, so who was a big enough villainous presence to follow in the footsteps of those two?  Nolan eventually got the inspiration from his co-story writer David S. Goyer to take a look at an often under-utilized villain from the comic books; Bane.  This was somewhat of an odd choice, given how the steroid enhanced muscular adversary didn’t lend himself well to Nolan’s more grounded style, but the way they re-imagined the character actually proved to work to their advantage.  Gone were the luchadore style mask and plastic tubes that feed venom into his muscles making them grow huge, and instead we got natural muscles and a grotesque, face-hugging mask covering his mouth to define the character.  The right kind of actor was needed, and Nolan once again made a brilliant choice in giving the role to his Inception scene-stealer, Tom Hardy.  Hardy had the physical build perfect for the role, but it’s in the vocal performance where he truly makes the character shine.  Hardy’s Bane has a commanding presence, delivering several long soliloquies with absolute confidence, made all the more remarkable as he is left to perform with his mouth completely covered, relying more on his eyes and body language to do the heavy lifting.  Through all this, he becomes a threat to Gotham of a different type; a zealot bent on destruction.  Before, Batman had to deal with threats to his ethics and his soul; now it’s his threshold of pain that is challenged, and it may be one that will determine whether or not a Batman will survive.

The Dark Knight Rises is the most polarizing of the movies in this trilogy.  Some people felt that it was a let down after The Dark Knight, with many complaints stating that it had too convoluted of a plot, and that many of the changes that Christopher Nolan made were unfaithful to the essence of the characters and the legacy of what came before it.  But I found myself to be in the camp of people who outright loved this movie, and believed that it was a perfect conclusion to this particular story.  I believe that to really appreciate this film, you have to look at it’s context within the full arc of the trilogy as a whole.  The Dark Knight Rises closes out many of the grander themes that were laid out in Batman Begins and followed through with The Dark Knight, and that the toll that fighting back against evil takes on a person both spiritually and physically.  One thing that culminates in this film is the sense that by becoming Batman, Bruce Wayne has essentially been fighting back an internal struggle that has been damaging his mind slowly over the years, and that’s the fact that he never was able to cope with that loss of innocence as a child.  He has essentially killed off who Bruce Wayne was, and by becoming Batman, he is in turn welcoming death, a weakness that Bane is all too happy to exploit.  In a triumphant scene at the end of the second act, Bruce Wayne must climb out of an underground prison, and to do so, he must fear death once again, which means that he must have something to live for.  When he does, he doesn’t rise up as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne reborn.  And thus, we get a satisfying arc to the character of Bruce Wayne.  The entire trilogy is about him, not Batman.  With Dark Knight Rises, Nolan poignantly illustrates how a man can find purpose again by letting go of the pain that he once thought empowered him.  Perhaps many people didn’t like the fact that the movie concludes with Bruce giving up the Bat in order to live a normal life, and passing it on to a worthy successor, Robin (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  But the arc of the story was meant to show the power of moving beyond pain by embracing life, something which culminates perfectly the themes of all three films.  Sure it’s not a perfect movie; Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is kinda shoehorned in, despite a fine performance.  For me, it was a grand epic finale to one of the finest tales ever told in the mythic super hero genre.

One thing that I do love about the Dark Knight trilogy as a whole is the fact that it is a complete story.  There’s no grander cinematic universe beyond it’s narrative; no setting up of multiple franchises with Easter eggs or winking nods.  It’s just Batman, Gotham City, and the rogues gallery that means to terrorize them.  The whole thing is a story told in three acts, with Bruce Wayne working through a soul-searching journey to define himself.  Along the way, he faces foes that are not only great threats to him and his city, but also existential threats that force him to reconsider the kind of person he wants to be.  In Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face, and Bane, Bruce Wayne sees variations of the kind of person that he could easily have become had he made different choices throughout his life.  I believe that’s it was essential that these had to be the villains of this trilogy, as opposed to more conventional choices like The Penguin or The Riddler.  In each of them, we see the dark side of Batman manifested whole.  Ra’s Al Ghul is a Batman who believes killing is justifiable; Joker is a Batman with no moral code, working in the exact opposite direction as an symbol of chaos rather than order; and Bane is a Batman made a slave to a twisted ideology, believing right and wrong are irrelevant.  In a perfectly stated opinion from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, he says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  It’s a foreshadowing statement about himself, of course, but it could also apply to Batman as well.  He is ever so close to becoming a villain himself in these movies and the same can be true about all of us in our own lives as well.  That’s the greatest aspect about the Dark Knight trilogy; the ethical questions it leaves us about the true nature of justice, and whether or not symbols like Batman are as pure as we like to think they are.  Batman ultimately remains a hero by the end, but Christopher Nolan makes it clear in his trilogy that not every path taken is as morally clear cut one.  It’s a trilogy that will go on to remain one of the genre’s most triumphant, and also one of the most daring in all of cinema.  Whether you go in entranced by Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker, Nolan’s unparalleled sense of epic scale, or just the sheer  delight of watching the gritty bare-knuckle fight between Batman and Bane, this is a trilogy of classics that gives the Dark Knight true cinematic honor.

 

Focus on a Franchise – The Exorcist

What scares us the most as an audience usually differs from person to person.  Any one of us could be scared of anything, from spiders to ghosts to even clowns.  But, what ends up making us scared comes from a personal place and what baggage we bring with ourselves in everyday life.  Fear is a personal manifestation of the feelings of rejection, revulsion, and anticipation that coagulate beneath the surface, and are triggered by an external force that brings all those feelings out at once.  And the strange thing is that many of us like the feeling of being scared, as long as we know that we’ll be alright in the end.  That is the feeling that Hollywood seeks to exploit when they try their hand at horror, but again, everyone’s fears are different.  There are some instances when everyone’s fears do line up and it ends up driving the best of horror movies to great success.  But, which example in the genre has managed to do that best.  Well, given my own personal reactions, I can tell you that one of the most effective and interesting franchises to ever come out of the horror genre is the Exorcist series.  The original film that started the franchise is of course an all time great, but what sets it apart, along with it’s follow-ups, is the effectiveness of it’s atmosphere and iconography.  With it’s Gothic imagery, it’s almost oppressive use of darkness, it’s unrelenting look into the mind of pure evil, and it’s occasional use of shocking horrific moments, The Exorcist movies stand as probably the bleakest of all horror to ever come out of the Hollywood machine.  It’s also a franchise that has not been immune to highs and lows in quality, but even that disparity between each installment is fascinating in it’s own right.  In this article, I will be looking at the franchise as a whole (the good and the bad) and see how it has made it’s mark within the horror genre, as well as look at how the peculiar sidetracks it has taken over the years have made it one of the most unique horror franchises in the industry as well.

THE EXORCIST (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin

There are few if any horror films that can claim the kind of prestige that The Exorcist has.  It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of a film-making and an icon of the genre.  But, why did this film perform as well as it did?  To put it simply, it was a perfect example of everything falling into place at the right time, with a near flawless execution.  The story is simple enough.  A young child named Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of a famed actress (Ellen Burstyn), suddenly begins behaving strangely at home, which then evolves into violent behavior.  Soon after, supernatural events occur and it dawns on the mother that her child might indeed be possessed by something evil.  She resorts to calling upon the help of a tormented priest named Father Karras (Jason Miller) who finds that the demon possessing Regan is no ordinary spirit but something far sinister and powerful, which then leads him to calling upon a renowned exorcist who has had a personal history with this particular demon; Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).  What most people remember most from the movie is the now iconic Exorcism itself, as Fathers Merrin and Karras perform one of the most harrowing rituals every put on screen.  This scene is chilling on it’s own, but it’s elevated even more by the exceptional building of tension that we’ve seen up to that point, watching poor Regan become tortured by the demon inside her, transforming her into a literal unholy monster.  It stands out so much from horror movies before or since it’s creation, and that’s because of the “matter of fact” way it was staged.  Director Friedkin, coming straight off his Oscar-winning success with The French Connection (1971), made the brilliant decision to shot the movie like a drama rather than a horror picture, and that perfectly heightens the terror on screen, because it feels so unnatural.

One thing you’ll notice about the movie is the brilliance of it’s stripped back aesthetic.  The movie doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares, dramatic lighting, nor music cues to heighten the tension of the movie.  It all builds naturally through the atmosphere in the movie, and seeing the slow degradation of Regan over time.  In fact, despite having one of the horror genre’s most famous musical themes (courtesy of Mike Oldfield), the film is devoid of any background music, giving it a stark realism it might not otherwise have had.  The cinematography also brilliantly conveys a natural, unfiltered dread as well.  Shot with mostly natural, diffused light, the film has this coldness that permeates the entire movie.  By the time you get to the exorcism finale, you have already been immersed in this moody, oppressive atmosphere long enough that you forget you’re watching a movie and instead feel like your seeing real life unfold; and it’s terrifying.  The cast likewise brilliantly adds to the level of authenticity to the production.  While veterans like Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, and Lee J. Cobb all give exceptional performances, it’s Linda Blair in her breakout role that really makes the movie memorable.  The fact that an actress of her young age had to endure such painstaking feats in order to make you buy into her possession, including the groundbreaking make-up by Dick Smith, is really something amazing.  You see this little girl completely disappear into this demonic monster, and it is the stuff of nightmares.  Whether she’s mutilating herself with a crucifix, twisting her head all the way around, or floating feet off of her bed, Regan’s presence on screen has come to define the genre since.  Special mention should also go to actress Mercedes McCambridge, who went un-credited as the voice of the demon.  Her gravely delivery further drives home the chilling transformation.  The movie is considered a classic for all the right reasons, and it’s iconic status is rightfully deserved.  Few other movies in the horror genre can claim to be half as effective or scary as this restrained masterpiece.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)

Directed by John Boorman

Everything about the first Exorcist was justifiably celebrated; the atmosphere, the performances, the direction, everything.  But, what was most celebrated was the subtlety, and matter of fact-ness that it approached it’s subject matter with.  Now, imagine a sequel that was devoid of all that subtlety, as well as lacking any restraint whatsoever.  That is what we got with Exorcist II; not just one of the worst sequels to a horror movie ever made, but also one of the most baffling.  Director John Boorman brought his own cinematic style, which tended to favor the surreal over the terrifying, which he honed on quirky cult classics like Zardoz (1974).  While his style works just fine for films like Zardoz and later Excalibur (1981), it proved to be a terrible match for the Exorcist.  Linda Blair returns as Regan, who is now seeking therapy worrying that the demon who possessed her is still there.  She is also investigated by newcomer, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), who is seeking answers in the “spoilers” death of Father Merrin from the previous movie (Max von Sydow also returns in a few brief flashbacks).  The movie sets much of the action with the mental clinic that’s treating Regan, and the overly stylized setting as well as the flashy way in which it is used points to exactly why this movie failed.  It forgets exactly what made the original so terrifying, which was the show of restraint on the part of the filmmakers which heightened the realism.  Here, Boorman wants you to notice his direction, and while the movie is at times beautifully shot, it is never in any way scary.  The only redeeming value of the film is that it misses the mark so badly, that it can sometimes be hilarious to watch; but again that reflects terribly on it’s connection to the original.  It’s flashy and garish, and in no ways feels like a natural continuation of the original.  Richard Burton’s barely caring performance doesn’t help much either.  It should’ve been obvious to John Boorman that a swarm of locusts doesn’t come anywhere near as being scary as a possessed child vomiting green projectile while strapped to a bed.  And it’s a lesson in cinema showing that style cannot support moments of horror alone.  the more natural approach it turns out makes a movie much more terrifying.

THE EXORCIST III: LEGION (1990)

Directed by William Peter Blatty

After the baffling embarrassment that was Exorcist II, the franchise went into dormancy for over a decade.  Then, it found new life thanks to the efforts of the unlikeliest of saviors; it’s original creator.  Screenwriter turned novelist turned filmmaker Blatty was the man who crafted the original novel on which the first movie was based on.  When it came time to adapt The Exorcist’s literary sequel, conveniently titled legion, Blatty took it upon himself to not only adapt the book himself, but also assume duties as director as well.  And remarkably, he proved to be quite adept at it.  While, Exorcist III  is not as perfectly executed as the first movie, it nevertheless feels much closer in spirit to it’s predecessor.  It retains the right amount of atmosphere, it takes it’s story much more seriously, and it is genuinely terrifying at times.  The film centers this time around the character of Lt. William Kinderman, the detective from the first movie who was played by Lee J. Cobb.  Here, the character is played by George C. Scott, who does a commendable job of filling the late actor Cobb’s shoes.  In the movie, he’s investigating a series of murders that bear the trademarks of a notorious serial killer called the Gemini Killer.  Only one problem, the Gemini Killer has been dead for 15 years.  The investigation leads him to a mental hospital where he finds a horrifying discovery; one of the patients is the once thought deceased Father Karras (Jason Miller returning to the role).  Blatty’s film, whole not perfect, nevertheless does an excellent job of returning the franchise back to it’s roots.  In particular, the atmosphere is spot on, and subtle in all the best ways.  The movie also has what is widely considered to be the best jump scare in film history, which is a real testament to Blatty’s direction.  But, the movie’s true best element is the unforgettable performance of Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, who we learn is possessing Father Karras alongside the demon from the first movie.  Dourif is absolutely terrifying in the film, to the point of being hypnotic, and more than anything he is the reason this movie is worth watching.  It took a long time, but this was the movie brought this franchise right back to it’s place as one of the most terrifying in cinematic history.  Not bad for someone who literally wrote the book on this stuff.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004)

Directed by Renny Harlin

The franchise would once again take a long sabbatical again until Hollywood would once again come calling.  This time, however, the results wouldn’t turn out quite so well.  But, strangely enough, this would also prove to be the most fascinating years out of the franchise because what we got was an unexpected experiment in film-making out of the Exorcist franchise that I don’t think anyone ever expected.  Started by rights holders, Morgan Creek Productions, the series was about to look back in time and present the untold story about how Father Merrin became an exorcist in the first place.  After the first director dropped out, the project was given over to writer turned director Paul Schrader; best known for his darker themed films like Affliction (1998) and Auto Focus (2002), as well as the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).  Schrader faithfully executed the script he was given, but the producers had second thoughts when they saw his more cerebral approach.  So, they chose to re-shoot the entire film under the direction of Renny Harlin, whose better known for his work in action films.  This move didn’t exactly work out either, and the film unsurprisingly flopped.  This movie, again, showed us exactly what doesn’t work in this franchise and that’s the lack of subtlety.  Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is a loud, in your face  gore fest that felt more akin to the style of it’s era rather than a natural continuation of the franchise.  The scares are predictable, and it makes heavy use of some truly awful CGI effects.  The only thing it shares with the other Exorcist movies is it’s name as well as the character of Father Merrin, this time played by a rather lost Stellan Skarsgard.  Nothing is added by this film overall to the franchise, making it just feel like a shameless cash grab as a result.  And for that, it marks a low point in the franchise, one which could have resulted differently, which we would soon could have happened.

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)

Directed by Paul Schrader

When we hear about re-shoots, we often speculate about an alternate version of a movie that we’ll never be able to see.  Most of the time, a re-shoot happens to alter one or two scenes to help a struggling film feel more cohesive.  Rarely do you see that happen to an entire movie, and even rarer do you see that alternative version make it to theaters as it’s own film.  But, that’s exactly how we got this fifth installment in the Exorcist franchise; one that should’ve never happened in the first place.  After Beginning’s failure at the box office, Morgan Creek realized too late that they may have made a mistake shelving Paul Schrader’s version and decided to give it a theatrical release of it’s own.  Schrader was given the most minuscule of post-production budgets in order to finish his film, and while it does present something closer to his original vision, it still feels like one that is compromised.  Still, Dominion does have one benefit, which is that it feels more in character with the spirit of the franchise.  The film is interesting to watch alongside Renny Harlin’s version, because it shows how two different directors can take basically the same plot, which has Father Merrin investigating a submerged church in the Egyptian desert that’s built upon a pagan temple, and come up with a completely different feeling movie.  While it still pales in comparison to the terrifying moments of The Exorcist and Exorcist III, it does much better at maintaining a sense of Gothic atmosphere that Renny Harlin completely ignored.  Skarsgard also is much better in this version, bringing a lot more depth to the character of Father Merrin, as we see what evil drove him back into God’s service.  Neither this or Beginning stand very strong as horror movies, but together they make for one interesting lesson in storytelling on film; contrasting Schrader’s more subtle approach with Harlin’s flashier one.  Dominion did only slightly better among critics than Beginning, but it did receive some welcome praise from a high place, and that was from William Peter Blatty, who commended it as a film in the true spirit of the original.  Regardless, it’s still something of a miracle that Dominion saw the light of day at all, even with a rather lackluster roll out by the studios.   It’s not anywhere near the height of the franchise, due to it’s still lackluster story, but it at least made an attempt to feel like it belonged in the same family as it’s predecessors and not feel like a lame attempt to follow a trend.

So, while the results have been wildly incoherent, the Exorcist miraculously has become a franchise that still has legs many years later.  The original of course is a timeless masterpiece that still manages to remain chilling even today.  And Exorcist III has managed to climb out of the shadow of it’s predecessor and become a beloved cult hit in it’s own right.  The best thing though is that you don’t have to watch the whole of the series in order to appreciate it’s finer parts.  The first and third installments stand perfectly well on their own apart from their lackluster follow-ups.  Exorcist II basically serves as a bizarre cautionary tale about how not to make a sequel, and the two back to back prequels offer an interesting look at how a movie can differ so greatly depending on who’s directing it.  But, personally for me, I admire The Exorcist franchise (at it’s best) for taking it’s scares seriously and not exploit them for shock value.  I grew up in the Catholic church, so some of the themes and iconography were all very familiar in the films.  As I’ve grown older, my views on religion have changed significantly, but at the same time, it’s still be a part of me, and it’s what follows me into my experiences viewing these movies.  It’s my own kind of baggage that these movies prey upon to bring out my fears, and that’s probably why I find The Exorcist one of the most frightening films ever made.  For me, it brought out my worst fears, of losing my soul as well as control over my own self, and that’s what keeps it resonating for me so many years after viewing it for the first time.  I still marvel at the incredible seriousness that the movie takes with it’s subject, which as we’ve seen can be mishandled to the point of silliness in other films.  The Exorcist franchise is horror film-making taken beyond the point of simple scares, and into the realm of creating genuine dread.  Exorcisms may not in fact be a real thing, but these movies have sure convinced us all that they could be.  Nothing is scarier than feeling the sense that our worst fears can manifest into real terror, and The Exorcist managed to turn that kind of fear into high art and an unforgettable experience.

Focus on a Franchise – The Alien Quadrilogy

For as long as science fiction has existed as a genre in film-making, there has been a long tradition of movies centered around extra-terrestrial life.  The concept of life beyond our own planet is a compelling one, and there are certainly many avenues to explore with it as well.  There’s the peaceful visitor angle explored in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and of course E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  There is also the hostile threat angle explored in War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing (1982), and Predator (1987).  Oftentimes, the most popular alien based movies fall under the monster movie angle, making the creatures symbols of terror meant to frighten movie goers everywhere.  No where else have we seen this type of movie realized more vividly and more frighteningly than in the Alien franchise.  The brain child of writer Dan O’Bannon, the Alien series is among the most of sci-fi pictures ever made, taking the genre out of it’s goofy, B-movie past and turning it into the stuff of nightmares.  This was largely due to the completely earnest efforts of it’s filmmakers to never sugarcoat the terror and to fully immerse the audience in an atmospheric dread the likes of which we had never seen before on film.  The other interesting aspect of the Alien franchise is how it evolved over the years; sometimes in good ways like with the beloved sequel, Aliens (1986), and other times in bad ways, like with the two follow-ups there after.  In this article, I will be looking at what is called the Alien Quadrilogy, which is the set of 4 films that launched the franchise and were centered around the character of Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver).  So, I won’t be including the Alien vs. Predator spinoff series here, nor the recent prequel films, Prometheus (2012) or Alien: Covenant (2017), since they are unrelated to the Ripley story-line.  So, let’s head into the darkest reaches of space and learn why in space, no one will hear you scream.

ALIEN (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

It’s hard to believe now how daring a movie like Alien was when it was made back in the late 70’s.  For the longest time, science fiction was a pool of campiness and cheap special effects.  And only two years prior, Star Wars had revolutionized the genre with an emphasis on action adventure.  But, the makers of Alien had a different outlook on the genre that would end up making it really stand out in the grand scheme of things.  Dan O’Bannon’s original concept called for a vision of alien life that was far darker than anything we had seen before; a destroyer of civilizations and something far better left undiscovered.  While the concept was watered down over many subsequent drafts, the idea still struck a cord in Hollywood, and the film managed to make it’s way into 20th Century Fox, who were already hitting a high after the success of Star Wars.  Thankfully for O’Bannon’s script, Fox brought on board a director who could do justice to the bleaker vision of the story.  That director was newcomer Ridley Scott, a visual artist turned filmmaker with only one other film made before this (1977’s The Duellists).  Scott drew inspiration not from the sci-fi genre during his production, but from horror flicks that were beginning to become popular at the time, such as those from the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven.  As Scott saw it, this was a haunted house movie set in space, and it gave him the right frame of tone to craft his movie around.  And to make that vision feel even more effectively disturbing, he called upon the skills of artist H. R. Geiger to design much of the movie, including the alien himself.  Geiger’s neo-gothic designs in particular help to set the Alien movies apart, and their deeply unsettling nature is still iconic to this day.

But, all in all, Alien is an iconic film because it is so thoroughly is confident in it’s identity.  You never feel for once while watching the movie that your experiencing a compromised vision.  It is dark, disturbing, and relentless in it’s tension.  O’Bannon’s deeper mythology may have needed to be parred down, but it doesn’t ruin the experience one bit, and it even makes the film feel more mysterious as a result; making us ask who or what was the Space Jockey and how did this alien creature destroy so much life?  The cast of the film also help to fit within the tone of the film.  Since the story is centered around a group of space freighters, it makes sense that all of them have a grittier sense of character to them, and the movie does a great job of making them all feel authentic and personable, and more than just lambs to the slaughter.  And every death in this movie is more than impactful, especially the iconic chest-burster scene with the late John Hurt.   That moment in particular is probably the first thing that comes to mind when anybody mentions this movie, and really it’s the thing that cemented this film’s legendary status.  Ridley Scott’s direction also perfectly captures the atmosphere of the story.  It’s bleak, but oddly beautiful at the same time.  He not only set a high standard for the sci-fi genre hereafter for this movie, but with horror films too.  His use of oppressive darkness and misty steam filled corridors is amazingly effective.  Not only that, but he has the good sense to keep the “Xenomorph” alien creature hidden in the shadows until shown for maximum impact, like in the vent chase scene.  The first Alien alone is a compelling story of survival, and probably unbeknownst to Scott and his team, the lone survivor of this story, Ellen Ripley, would go down as one of cinema’s greatest heroines; but her time was still yet to come in this series.

ALIENS (1986)

Directed by James Cameron

The success of the first Alien left a strong impression on Hollywood, showing that audiences were willing to see darker films within the sci-fi genre.  It also set the bar pretty high thereafter, leading to a lot of pressure on Fox to make a follow-up sequel that could live up to the original.  After Ridley Scott passed, choosing instead to make films like Blade Runner (1982) and Legend (1986), Fox looked elsewhere for someone to guide the franchise.  James Cameron, who was hot of the success of The Terminator (1984), was tasked with the role of making a sequel to Alien.  To many people’s surprise, not only did he accomplish this, but some would even say that Cameron made an even better movie than the original.  Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, works as well as it does because he made the smart choice to not just copy what had been done before, but instead make a different kind of movie altogether.  Aliens is completely different in tone, style, and plotting than the original film.  Where Ridley Scott attempted to make a horror movie, Cameron instead made an action flick; just set in the same universe.  And it completely works.  The Xenomorph creatures are still just as terrifying, especially the monstrous Queen, but the film spends less time building the dread around them and instead finds it’s energy with the characters engaging these monsters in combat.  The plot is very different too, with less emphasis put on the different ways that the characters will die in the film, and more centered around how they can strategize their chances of survival and be able to destroy these creatures.  We are also introduced in this movie to the idea of the Weyland Yutani corporation as this antagonistic force (personified through a sleazy corporate representative played by Paul Reiser) who we learn are somewhat responsible for spreading the Xenomorph’s presence across the galaxy.  Here we find Cameron injecting some political subtext into the franchise, that more or less enriches a standard good vs. evil plot.

But what really makes Aliens an iconic film more than anything is then character of Ellen Ripley.  Though already established in the previous Alien movie, Ripley didn’t really come into her own as a character until this sequel.  We delve far deeper into her character, finding that she is far more than just a survivor, but a resourceful fighter as well.  Sigourney Weaver makes a triumphant return here, emboldening Ripley with far more grit and resolve than any heroine that we had seen in a movie up to that point.  Strong female protagonists have long been a common motif in James Cameron movies, like Sarah Conner in The Terminator or Rose in Titanic (1997), but Ripley is his true greatest achievement in writing character, and she has since become an influential character for all cinema.  Before, Hollywood didn’t believe that action films headlined by women could never work, and both Cameron and Sigourney Weaver proved them all wrong.  That alone is a great legacy for this film.  Weaver was praised so much for her standout work in the movie that it even earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the first of her career.  At the same time, her performance is perfectly balanced with a strong cast around her.  Each actor in the ensemble manages to rise above the stereotype of tough guy space marines and actually become interesting individuals in their own right.  Particularly memorable are Michael Biehn as the noble Corporal Hicks and the late Bill Paxton as Private Hudon, who nails some of the film’s sillier lines (“Game Over Man!!”).  There’s also a tender, emotional performance from young Carrie Henn as the orphaned child Newt, who manages to turn into a surrogate daughter for Ripley.  Their relationship gives the movie surprising heart at it’s center, and makes us feel more connected with their plight.  It also gives more weight to the iconic confrontation between Ripley and the Queen, with Ripley uttering the now legendary line of “Get away from her, you Bitch.”  Captivating in it’s action, progressive in it’s themes, and unafraid of changing the course of it’s franchise, Aliens is a textbook example of how to do a sequel right.

ALIEN3 (1992)

Directed by David Fincher

Unfortunately, future installments of this series would fall way short of Aliens example.  A third film in this franchise wallowed in development hell for several years, with no one knowing quite what to do with it.  Several directors were brought on board at various times, including Ridley Scott mulling a possible return.  Eventually, Fox landed the project into the hands of commercial and music video director David Fincher, who was to make his feature film debut here.  Fincher unfortunately found that he had been saddled with a project that was doomed from the beginning.  The film started shooting without a finished script and the entire run of production found Fincher being inundated with a ton of studio interference.  Sigourney Weaver also made a lot more demands this time around as a condition of her returning to the franchise, and some of them (like the insistence of not having gun violence present in the story) ended up neutering the gorier vision that Fincher wanted to put on screen.  It all makes the film feel far more compromised a vision compared to it’s predecessors.  While some of the ideas present are interesting, like Ripley finding herself in an all male prison, which is a scary place on it’s own even without the Xenomorphs, the movie never gels into a compelling film overall, nor works as either horror or action adventure.   Sigourney Weaver is still okay in the film, but it gives her nothing worthwhile to do like Aliens did.   The film even alienated audiences further by killing off the beloved characters of Hicks and Newt right from the beginning, completely wiping all development for Ripley’s character, giving her nothing to fight on for. Fincher’s direction is unfocused, which is not surprising since it’s his first feature.  He has since disowned the movie and now looks back on it as a learning experience in how not to make a film.  Still, the movie does earn points with the extra polish given to it’s visual effects.  The Xenomorphs in this film are outstanding, and genuinely terrifying.  If only the film around them didn’t look so drab, and the story wasn’t so boring.

ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Several more years would pass before Fox decided to revisit the Alien well again.  This time, they were eager to return to the more horror driven thrills of Ridley Scott’s original.  And when you think of someone who can pull off a sci-fi horrorshow, you instantly think of the director of Amelie (2001), right?  Okay, French director Jeunet is an odd choice to give the reigns of this franchise over to, but no one can deny that he is a strong artistic eye, something that he showed off well in his earlier films Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1997).  In truth, there are some interesting artistic choices in Alien Resurrection too, but that’s about it.  Resurrection is a very fascinating failure, mainly in the fact that so many talented people involved managed to make such a horrible movie.  The story itself is pointless, finding Ripley revived centuries after her death in Alien3 thanks to genetic cloning.  But Ripley here is not the same Ripley as we’ve grown to love before, mainly due to the fact that her genetic code is mixed with that of a Xenomorph alien.  It could have been an interesting character element, but the movie never explores it fully, instead focusing too much on tired action scenes that we’ve seen a million times before.  Weaver in particular seems very disinterested this time around, and it’s clear that she returned just for the paycheck only.  The movie really is just a whole lot of unnecessary retreading of stuff already done better in other alien movies.  It’s surprising that such a unoriginal script would come from the likes of Joss Whedon, who’s clearly better off working with vampire hunters and Marvel superheroes as his subjects.  But, even with a messy production as it stands, the film does come off as a beautiful trainwreck at times, taking the series into some demented places, which is somewhat better than the dreary dullness of Alien3.  Still, it’s a big drop-off from the stellar heights of where this series began.

Despite the ups and downs that the Alien franchise has experienced over the years, it is still as influential today as it was when it first began.  Countless sci-fi horror blends made in the years since have the original to thank for showing Hollywood that it could work.  The series is also responsible for propelling the careers of two of our greatest filmmakers, Ridley Scott and David Fincher, although Scott looks back more fondly on his experience than Fincher does.  Scott in fact has managed to find his way back into this world and explore it even further with his prequel set of films, finally being able to explain more about this world that he could only hint at before in the original Alien.  Now, some would argue that he was better off leaving some of those things a mystery and that these new films, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are unnecessary retreads, but that’s up to debate (personally I thought Prometheus was alright; not Alien or Aliens good, but not bad either; I have yet to see Covenant as of this writing).  The best thing about this franchise, however, is that it’s a series that pushed boundaries and changed Hollywood largely for the better.  The original showed that you could make a movie that was horrifically gory without being schlocky.  The franchise also showed that you could switch genres midway through and still retain the same identity.  And most importantly, it made Sigourney Weaver the first ever female action movie star, and showed that in an era dominated by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone that women could headline an action flick just as effectively.  That, in the end, could be Aliens’ most honorable legacy and female action stars today like Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson have Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Ripley to thank for that.  In addition, H. R. Geiger’s designs for the Xenomorph alien continue to be a work of pure nightmarish genius.  Honestly, if that design hadn’t captured our imagination as well as it did, there probably wouldn’t have been a franchise at all.  The Alien Quadrilogy stands as a truly iconic series, with daring visuals, one hell of a great heroine, and probably the most terrifying monsters we will ever see on the big screen.