Friday, 30 April 2010

How Avatar Saved Star Wars

Yes, you heard me correctly. Avatar saved Star Wars, but how, you ask? First a little background. Growing up, I, like so many others, was a Star Wars fan. Perhaps Fan is too weak a word. I wouldn't say that I was an obsessive to the point of excluding other interests, but my fan tendencies maintained themselves well into the era when Star Wars merchandise was practically non-existent, and even rumours of the Timothy Zahn sequel trilogy of books hadn't begun. That was the period when the true fans kept the faith, so to speak. When we were still obsessed with collecting and enjoying Star Wars, even though the public had forgotten. When being a Star Wars fan was no longer common enough to be a humorously accepted state, the way it was, or has now returned to being. It was seen as a strange and unusual obsession to maintain.

I collected the toys and other merchandise, scouring old shops, looking for the long forgotten relics in sun bleached boxes, hidden at the backs of shelves. I recorded the Soundtrack LPs onto audio tape, to listen to again and again. I recorded the films on video from the TV, when Star Wars was shown every Christmas. It was a time when the final official release of Star Wars on VHS (yes, I'm that old) was as manna from heaven!

So what happened? The eternally rolling force of Star Wars, like death and taxes, had not stopped. It had merely slowed to an imperceptible crawl for a few years, only to once more gain momentum. First we had the Special Editions re-released at the cinemas. Some of the changes were galling (We all know the Greedo fiasco, and if you don't, you should!), but we didn't care, Star Wars was back on the big screen! It was a chance to recapture the winsome memories of childhood, and once more publicly appreciate that world. Then Lucas announced the Prequel Trilogy. It was music to our ears, a return to the wonderment of youth, but something was starting to sour...

The planet Naboo, in The Phantom Menace

Firstly, the casting appeared somewhat odd. Ewan MacGregor as Obi-Wan, taking over the mantle from Sir Alec Guinness? Natalie Portman as Luke and Leia's mother? Was 'The Phantom Menace' a good enough title for a Star Wars film? Then the adverts with those terribly over-the-top costumes on Queen Amidala, and finally the release. Anakin Skywalker, A.K.A. Darth Vader, perhaps the most fearsome villain of film history, had become a little boy called 'Annie'. Yoda looked like a badly constructed puppet that would be embarrassed to appear in a Roger Corman film, silly jokes abounded, and... Yes, you know it... Jar Jar Binks.

What had happened? Some terrible flaws had marred our dreams. Many of us felt such disappointment. The second and third films improved exponentially, till the third was almost, but not quite, on a par with it's progenitors. But the damage had been done. They still had moments of childishness that even the cheesiest moments of the originals had avoided, such as robots behaving like the three stooges, or lines that were for blatant comedy, rather than more subtle character humour.

The planet Coruscant, home of the Republic in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

It was difficult to hate the prequel trilogy, but it's difficult to say they started with anything but sigh-inducing disappointment in many ways. They were fun, but they were not the gems of old. Was it because we no longer possessed the youthful eyes of wonder that we once had for the originals? Or were they genuinely poorer films? It's a difficult question to answer. The unfortunate truth, however, was that they also tainted the originals by association. I know it's easy to say that they are still the same films (Ignoring the Special Edition alterations) and that the prequel trilogy doesn't change that, but the truth is that it shines a completely different light on the stories told. In that respect, they can't help but change them.

So it was that although I still retained my love of the originals, my fan tendencies waned somewhat. Star Wars was no longer the near-perfect entity it had once been. I found myself no-longer watching the originals much, because I couldn't separate the influences the prequels had on the characters (as well as the Special Edition alterations). It had become a different story.

The planet Geonosis in Attack of the Clones

Then rumours surfaced of a new film. A film from a director who had been waiting for the right moment to return to the silver screen, with a movie of wondrous new excitement that promised to be as ground breaking and fantastical for the new generation, as Star Wars had been in 1977. You guessed it, Avatar, by the director of Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2 and... okay, Titanic, so not a perfect record, but almost. James Cameron was promising a film that was revolutionary in not only its creation, but in its imagery, utilising CGI and the newly improved 3D techniques in a way never before seen.

Perhaps not for audiences worldwide, but for me, it was possibly a victim of its own hype. You can read my separate review of Avatar for my views on it, but I found it a disappointing lacklustre film. Full of its own self-importance, but ultimately a shallow fair-ground ride with insipid one dimensional characters, not particularly inspired or original visuals, and a heavily recycled plot. Not to mention being more preachy than a Southern American minister exorcising demons in a big white tent with a tub full of serpents.

The planet Kashyyyk, homeworld of the Wookies in the Star Wars films

What amused me post-Avatar, was that when I read a lot of comments and views about the film, those defending it rather vocally used the 'Star Wars Defence'. Let me explain... There are those who feel that the story of Star Wars is especially unoriginal, and that its claim to fame is based around its ground breaking special effects. Especially so the prequel trilogy, claiming that the stories were poor, and it was all about the CGI effects. Then there are the endless discussions about how no story is truly original, all stories have been done before, and Avatar was simply taking an established (and therefore easily accessible) story but repackaging it in the same way Star Wars did. It made its story 'new' by changing the setting.

So the 'Star Wars Defence' is in essence the claim that you cannot complain about an unoriginal film with fancy special effects, if you also say you like Star Wars. It's a difficult argument to counter, as it is true, to some extent, that every story has been told in one form or another (Except possibly the occasional truly original science fiction idea). Having said that, it's like saying 'think up a new piece of music. You can't, because all the notes have been used before.' It's an argument that is impossible to argue against, being simultaneously true and utterly pointless.

The planet Saleucami, in Revenge of the Sith

Personally, I feel that while yes, like any many films, Star Wars can trace its routes to numerous past influences on George Lucas, that is the main point. Many influences. Not one. Like any writer, his stories come from all of the different films and books and experiences he had up till that point. On the other hand, Avatar is a one story film. Dances with Wolves. It follows the template so closely it's like watching a replay with a blue tint.

The computer generated forest of 'Pandora' - Clearly unlike any world we've ever seen before.

On the visual side, Avatar has been praised enormously. People rave about its wonderful exotic alien world to such an extent that I wonder how many science fiction films those giving it praise have seen. It is a world of humanoids, barely different to us apart from their blue skin. A world of blue horses and blue monkeys. Of forests that look like human forests. The only major difference was the 'bio-luminescent' theme that Cameron has become obsessed with from his underwater adventuring. Yet the Star Wars movies have a wealth of worlds of every kind, and especially in the prequel trilogy, worlds that are utterly different to our own.

An Avatar 'horse' - Clearly unlike anything we've seen before.

I read a comment by one individual, stating that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was especially unoriginal, because it was yet another 'messiah' story. I had a think about that. When was the last time you saw a film with a messianic figure, who turns to evil and almost completely destroys the forces of good? It was a minor point, but it got me pondering the prequel trilogy again. The Phantom Menace was clearly aimed at a (primarily) young audience, yet beneath its story of pod-races, fun aliens and adventure, you've got a tale of political intrigue and manoeuvring that is quite intricate. How many kids films do that? Even the story of the human-like Naboo and the Gungans, has a quietly inserted sub-plot of putting aside racial prejudice and fighting together for the greater good. Okay, I'll admit, it's not a big point in the film, but it is a subtle one told through humorous characters, that almost slips by unnoticed (unlike the heavy handed statements from Avatar). It shows how the Star Wars movies can make subtle story points without preaching, or slamming things in your face with a sledgehammer.

Then we move on to Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Through all three films we have the running story of how Senator Palpatine is gradually eroding the foundations of the Republic. The political intrigue, the collapse of a free society into a dictatorship. We have the moral ambiguity of the Jedi, the upholders of peace, using an army of clones to protect the Republic. An army of sentient free-willed beings, essentially enslaved to fight and die in a war to protect a way of life they don't even know. We also have Anakin's gradual fall from grace, as both love for a partner and love for his mother pulls him from the path of the Jedi. I don't know about you, but from a character perspective, it is rather unusual to see a three film story arc (six, if you include the original trilogy and Anakin's return), about the positive attributes of love resulting in all-consuming emotions of fear, guilt and anger that turn a film's central heroic figure into an evil character so terrible that he slaughters defenceless children. It seemed to me, that of the complaints that can be levelled at the new films, a predictable and simple plot is not one of them.

The planet Felucia, in Revenge of the Sith

I decided to give the prequel trilogy another go, and after such a long gap of time, I felt myself once again being drawn into that wonderful world of excitement, mystery, danger, imagination and creativity. I could see those points above when I first saw the prequel trilogy, but at the time I felt they were overshadowed by the faults. Watching them once again, after time for the hype to die down, I found the story was capable of overshadowing the flaws.

I'm not blind to the problems (Which I won't go into, they're well documented by many others over the years). They're still terribly flawed in many ways, in comparison to the original films, but they are worthy of standing beside them. And their story provides an interesting new perspective on those old films, especially when we once again meet Darth Vader, Yoda, The Emperor, and Obi-Wan.

The planet Utapau, in Revenge of the Sith

My conclusion? That beneath the flawed surface of the prequel trilogy, is a wealth of ideas and characters of interest and enjoyment. Whilst Avatar is just someone else's story told with blue people, with the most elaborate of fa├žades. Avatar has helped show me by comparison the depths of the prequel trilogy, both in their superior story telling, and their superior visual splendour and imagination. As a result, I have also been able to recapture my joys at watching the original trilogy. In short, for me, Avatar saved Star Wars.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Shutter Island (2010) – Movie Review – 5/10

You'll See it Coming

Set in 1954, Shutter Island is an asylum for the criminally insane. An isolated facility far off shore, where the worst of the worst can be held, and escape is impossible. Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, Blood Diamond, Romeo and Juliet) is a Federal Marshall by the name of Teddy Daniels, sent to the island to investigate the escape and disappearance of a female inmate. As things progress, he discovers all is not as it seems...

For director Martin Scorsese (famous for films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) this is his second foray into what could loosely be described as 'Horror Movie' territory (His other being Cape Fear). Though personally I would call it a psychological thriller, it has been filmed more like it was intended to capture a horror movie atmosphere, and seems to have been classed as such. So I will cover it in that context.

It's a strangely mixed bag. The cinematography for the most part is excellent. It looks superb, but the pacing and editing never quite gel. A perfect example is the introductory scene as DiCaprio and Mark Rufullo (playing DiCaprio's sidekick, Chuck Aule) arrive at the gates to the asylum. The 'menacing' music is so over-the-top and heavy handed, not to mention jarring and unnecessary, to the point where it immediately ruins any feeling of menace, creepiness and suspicion that it is supposed engender. It is edited together and filmed in a way that feels as though someone who has never been a big fan of horror movies, thinks horror movies are made this way. A feeling that pervades the entire film.

As a result, few if any of the moments that are meant to be 'scary' or 'creepy' ever achieve their goal. The film has very much the same tone and pace from beginning to end, where the viewer feels like they are being lead by the hand very slowly through a path they can clearly see the end of, and make their own way to, much more quickly

Unfortunately this is also one of those films that succeeds or fails on the strength of its 'surprise twist' ending (If it was not intended to, it was certainly filmed and edited that way). The problem being that said-ending stands out a mile after about the first ten to fifteen minutes or so. I won't give it away, but it feels as though it were taken from a book entitled: “How to end a movies with crazy people and an asylum - Ending #1”

The conclusion, such as it is, is also drawn out and ponderous beyond need. A single line by DiCaprio's character adds an interesting note to the very final moments, but beyond that it is simply a relief to finally reach the conclusion.

DiCaprio's acting is functional, but a little forced, Ruffalo plays his part well enough, and Ben Kingsley (playing one of the head doctors) turns in a performance that, depending how you view it, could be seen as quirky or camp. Meanwhile the ever-reliable Max Von Sydow (Playing another doctor) is sorely underused.

From an artistic perspective, it would be very easy to become blind to Shutter Island's faults, and convince oneself that it is an interesting work of art. However, if one stands away and judges it objectively, you quickly realise that it is simply a predictable and drawn out mediocre thriller with a polished sheen.