Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm

Three Science Fiction Movies

This is my column in today's Bartcop-E (updated daily so after 5/23 it will in the archives, accessible near the bottom of the page) and I think it will be of interest to my Live Journal friends. I've stripped out some of the html etc. Thanks to minnehaha K for the Pitman cite.

I'm going to try to avoid major spoilers, but frankly the plot is secondary in all three films so a minor spoiler or two might drop in. If you don't want to know anything, skip the review.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels, but that's not saying much. George Lucas is going to make a billion dollars or so on marketing, but is that a good reason to see the movie? I'm discovering a phenomena that shouldn't have been quite so surprising: People who haven't seen Episode II and wondering if it's worth seeing III. I don't blame them at all for skipping II -- I was one of the harshest critics -- but it's still surprising that science fiction fans haven't shared the experience at some point. It was like discovering that there were people who haven't read The Lord of the Rings. Ah well, life's short, and that's why there are film critics.

Fewer people have seen the ancillary material. I've ignored most of it, but some are good and some are useful to understand the galaxy far far away. Set in-between II and III, Star Wars: Clone Wars is a series of animated shorts seen on Cartoon Network and directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls). The DVD of the first 20 (about three minutes each) was released in January. You don't really need to see these to understand III: The crawl at the beginning of the movie covers the plot. Mostly, you get to see Jedi kick ass. Kinda fun, really, and you get to see individual fighting styles. Many of the Jedi in III have no speaking parts but have larger roles in the animated series.

All of which leads up to the movie that leads up to the original Star Wars trilogy. For me, it was a big disappointment... and I had very low expectations. The acting is horrible (with a few exceptions), the dialog unforgivably bad, the special effects are surprisingly sloppy in too many places and the main thing you know will happen -- Anakin becoming Darth Vader -- is handed very poorly. The first trilogy works on a mythic, Joseph Campbell, level. The second trilogy doesn't even work as movies.

The basic force that drives the plot is never explained. We don't find out much about the Sith except that they're not Jedi. We get hints of Palpatine's background and motivation, but only hints. Everyone's motivation is just assumed by what side they're on I wonder why they build anything. In any battle, the appearance of a Jedi or a Sith almost immediately decides the outcome. The only real battles are between Jedi and Sith. Everything else is mere destruction.

In II, we got hints as to how Anakin would be turned. What happens in III doesn't follow, and his soulless verbal exchanges just don't reach the visceral level one needs for a complete life change. It doesn't help that Hayden Christianson can't act.

Revenge of the Sith gets better in the last third. Lucas is a film buff, and little hints of all sorts of movies brighten the day. It's clear Lucas has seen The Lord of the Rings movies. There's a bit of The Matrix, even a quick mention by Obi Wan in the beginning to his fellow fighter "Oddball" reminded me of Kelly's Heroes. The film is dark, especially near the end. The climactic fights are directed well. In the last five minutes Lucas realizes he is making a prequel and has to clean things up. Frankly, I could have lived without any of that -- we already know.

On the Shockwave Radio Theater scale of 9 to 23, I give the two-punctuation marked Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith about an 18. That's rounded up at least two for the last part, and I may round it down again if I use my feelings and the Force guides me so. If you're a fan and have faithfully followed the series from the beginning, you will need to see this one just to get some sort of closure. If you haven't seen any of the other Star Wars Movies, for heaven's sake go and see IV, V and VI and ignore the prequels.

I find, after several weeks mulling it over, that I don't have a lot to say about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie. It's my least favorite version except maybe the Infocom game. All of the versions are different and mutually exclusive and all have something to recommend them. My favorite is still the original 1978 BBC radio play with the 1981 tv series and divers books coming shortly after. Still, if you're unfamiliar with any of the other versions, you might as well see the movie. That's not to say there aren't fun things that zip by. Signs on the Vogon ship are in Pitman Shorthand. According to a friend who knows such things, the signs include "Fire Exit Escape Map" (over a hopelessly complex map that says "You are here") and "Are you depressed? Try Destruction Therapy."

On the Shockwave Radio Theater scale of 9 to 23, I give tHHGttG about a 14. I'd strongly recommend waiting for the DVD which is sure to have a staggering amount of fun extras (he says, crossing his fingers).

I'm a major fan of Federico Fellini, but I don't fall all over 8 1/2 as do some. I think it's a good movie, but misses being a great film... I thought so when I first saw it in college and still think so after seeing the DVD, but it keeps getting better the more I run it through my mind.

Famously, Fellini went into production without knowing what he was making. Therefore, he made a movie about making a movie... specifically, he made a movie about making 8 1/2. It's a truly wonderful voyage of self-loathing and self-discovery by the Fellini-surrogate Marcello Mastroianni in the role of director Guido Anselmi. Guido is making a science fiction film and this huge spaceship is one of the few aspects of the movie-within-a-movie that is visible. Most of the film works on several levels simultaneously, with scenes that include Fellini's wife, Anselmi's wife and actors playing the role of the wife in the film Anselmi is making who spout lines Anselmi's wife said last night. Got it?

Now, I'm going to talk about the ending of a film made in 1963, so it's technically a spoiler, but...

Here is my interpretation of 8 1/2: It's all about coming down to earth. Much of 8 1/2 has people going up and coming down. Not always by choice. In the opening dream sequence, Anselmi is caught in a traffic jam. He leaves his car and floats above the cars to the ocean, carefree. He is pulled down to earth by the producer and the star's agent. He resists, but eventually comes down and wakes up. In another phantasmagoric scene, Anselmi is surrounded by all the women he has ever known. The older women object to exile "upstairs" just because they've turned 30. All the women start complaining and a riot ensues. When they're all downstairs and Anselmi has capitulated, the women switch emotions and vow to take care of him.

In the middle of 8 1/2, we finally get to see the spaceship that will be the centerpiece of the movie that Anselmi/Fellini is spending money on but has no idea how to complete. He takes cast, crew and visitors up and up and up the scaffolding surrounding the spaceship. At the end, in another surrealistic scene, everyone we've seen in the movie, including Anselmi's dead parents, dances around the set. In the final climactic moment, a child in white (Anselmi/Fellini as a child) opens a curtain and everyone comes down to earth from the spaceship. Even the ones who were on the ground moments ago.

In his introduction to 8 1/2 on the DVD, Terry Gilliam says that 8 1/2 may not be his favorite Fellini, but it's the one that influenced him the most as an artist and the one with the most bits that stick with him. 8 1/2 has the director flying high but ultimately being pulled back to earth by production details, memories of his past and his ultimate failure as a creative soul. As noted in the commentary track, Fellini finished his film while Anselmi didn't.

Even though he didn't have an idea what the movie was about or where it was going, Fellini tapped into his artistic emotions and the film turned out wonderfully. Within him, the Force was strong. He knew the answer but was searching for the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Fellini explores the edges of artistic and personal success and failure using the fantastic and the sftnal. Perhaps this shouldn't be your introduction to Fellini, but it should be high in the queue. I've now seen this movie twice (three times counting the commentary track) and it gets better the more I think about it. On the Shockwave Radio Theater scale of 9 to 23, I give 8 1/2 about a 20. In a good mood, closer to a 21.

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