Sunday, July 18, 1999

Film: Star Wars - The Phantom Menace

In a galaxy far, far away, a huge Publicity Department set about devising a way to sell work produced by the vast Special Effect Department. The Plot Department was happy, their week's work had been done. In fact most of it had been done 20 years ago. All they had to do was include all of the references made in the original. Hell, they wouldn't even have to make up any major character or planet names. Their only real work was shoe-horning in two very popular characters from the original film, that really had no place to be there. But that did not matter as the Genre Department had decided it was to be pure kids sci-fi adventure. The Characterisation Department had the biggest laugh of all. No character had enough screen time (not including battle scenes) to really warrant anything beyond a one line description. Even the character misguidedly given (what seems like) the most screen time, Jar Jar Binks (so called because he jars twice as much as any other character ever seen before), has a simple description: Clumsy and irritating. The Comedy Department, chuckled to himself because two paperclips had fallen onto the floor. Two paperclips! Why is that so funny? he asked himself. He was proud of his work on the film.

After the hype. After the pre-release merchandise. After the queues. Then there came the film. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The prequel to begin all prequels.

The film is a looker. If you saw it propped up against a bar, you'd possibly admire it from across the room, maybe you'd even go over and engage it in small talk, but you know there would be little point in brining up Noam Chomsky or the thawing in US-Soviet relations.

It looks very good in places. Of course, it has that strange, faint, not-altogether unpleasant odour that computer-generated images produce. But, every year, with every film, the smell reduces. And sometimes, it is impossible to tell.

With all these special effects, all you need is a decent story, and a solid set of characters. Had George Lucus wanted I would have gladly sold him my screenplay: 'Star Wars Episode 1: The Panting Princess'. He could have saved a fortune on sets, special effects, and would only have needed to employ a handful of the cast: Ewan McGregor, The Princess, and her hand maidens. But, he didn't.

So, what's in the film? It has a couple of silly in-jokes, and a few sub-spaceballs spoofs. (A two-headed alien sports commentator, bantering with itself, is a great concept, but comes across as irritating.) In fact a few things in the film are nothing more than irritating. The boy who will one day wear all black and develop the voice of James Earl Jones, is an irritating little brat. And he gets up to some 'Flight of the Navigator' spaceship mishaps, which are, of course, irritating. These mishaps, naturally, save the day.

Prescription Required
Who the Phantom Menace of the title is, is not clear. It's either the holographic form behind the dastardly invasion of the planet Greebo, or whatever it's called; or it's the evil Syph Knight with the Chessington-zoo-style face-painting. The Syph are dark Jedi knights, or rather they are Jedi Knights who have caught the Syph, and failed to take the penicillin in time. They are bad karma, and they fight with two light-sabres cellotaped together. But this knight of the Syph (I remember it well) was not really a menace. He came along, did a bit of fighting, killed someone who from what you knew of the future, had to die anyway, and then was dispatched by Obi Wan. Obi Wan then dropped his light-sabre down a murky toilet and dived in to get it. Hang on, I'm getting confused here.

The one good thing in these silly stories is The Force. The Force allows things to happen in these films which in other films would be a ridiculous coincidence or unbelievable piece of fate, to have been ordained by the force. They also allow the heroes to have much better reflexes than anyone else. The Force is not only all of this, but it is the glue that holds the plot, and indeed, the series, together.

Hence Obi Wan's rant at the beginning of the next film choosing the force, choosing Jedi training, choosing double-edged light-sabres, and how he chose not to choose the force, he chose the dark side. Hang on, I'm getting confused here.

It is the force that draws the Jedi to Manikin Skywalker, the Jedi subsequently known as Darth Vader. And it is the force that allows Jedis to survive battles against huge odds. Young Manikin was readily accepted as having the force, but he was not the only non-Jedi in the film who displayed very high degree of Forceness. One other character was drawn to the Jedi by fate. One other character survived a battle where the odds were very high, and killed many, many enemy without seeming to try. One other character starts off an unwanted loner and at the end is lauded as a hero. Ladies and Gentlemen, hate him or detest him, loath him or despise, there is no denying the facts: "Jar Jar Binks sun has the Force huge big in him." Let's hope he gets his own animated series.

In short, the Star Wars series is best not viewed as dynastic space soap opera. It is best not viewed as a multi-volume children's fantasy adventure yarn. It is actually best viewed as something akin to the series of 1940's Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour "Road To..." movies with CGI. Bob Hope is C3PO, Bing Crosby is R2D2, and Dorothy Lamour is the backdrop.

Well, that's what I think, anyway.

Preventative Medicine
For those of you who haven't seen it, I'm going to spoil it for you: At the end of the film, Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda and the boy who will be Darth are all still alive.

© 1999 Peter More.

Wednesday, July 07, 1999

Film: The Matrix. Ted's Bogus Sci-Fi Adventure

I find it very hard to see Keanu Reeves and not think of the Bill and Ted movies. I don't think Keanu can either. Whenever he delivers a line, you sit there waiting for him to add a 'dude' to the end of it. At one point in The Matrix, Keanu very nearly does. Upon seeing Lawrence Fishburne jump from one sky-scraper to another he says "Woah," and then only just stops himself from adding the epithet.

It's not this that stops you taking him seriously. Well, okay it is. But it is also the fact that he does like his thrillers silly. Speed was hokum, but very well done hokum. The Matrix is hokum, and would be called a triumph for video techniques over content, except that it is not a triumph. I was expecting silly, but stylish and enjoyable sci-fi in the mode of The Fifth Element, but although The Matrix had some style imposed on it, and there were elements that were enjoyable, there weren’t nearly so many as five.

It’s not just his films that are not so good. Keanu has his own band, and I was privileged to hear them live just over a week ago from the luxury of my tent. They aren’t very good. All I could think was, I’d much rather be listening to Bill and Ted’s band, Wild Stallions. They weren’t much good, but they were entertainingly bad. Anyway, that’s an aside.

The central idea of The Matrix is a sturdy old sci-fi reliable, that is common in books and in the imaginations of paranoid teenagers, but that rarely gets seen on the big screen. Life as we are experiencing it is not really life at all, but a computer-generated illusion fed into our brains by computers bent on world domination. Or in this case, who have already achieved it.

Keanu is selected and woken up into the real world. The transfer from artificial world to real world (and vice versa) has to be via a telephone line. At both ends. In other words, telephone lines in the artificial world are more than a computer-generated concept, but are physically or mysteriously or even magically connected to those in the real world. I should not really analyse it, but it's the kind of superficial logic you would ignore if it weren’t for the films pretensions.

In the real world, Keanu is seen as 'The One.' A saviour figure who can rescue us all in the computer-generated recreation of the world circa 1999. A Jesus in the machine. Sound like hokum, yet? He can save us because he can bend the rules in a way the computers who built and run the network can't. I never really saw how something the machines created not be subtly adapted to suit their needs. They already broke some rules when it suited them, why not others? It seemed the kind of bad planning machines wouldn’t do, but humans would.

If a film is going to make you question things, then it should a) answer most of the questions it raises about it’s own world, b) ask you questions about yours. In the first category there are many unanswered questions. In the second there are two questions that you ask yourself: 1) Is life really just a figment of our imagination in the way the film suggests or another? (A question I used to ask myself when watching Carry On… films.) 2) If it is, does it really matter given that as portrayed in the film, what we see as life, is actually pretty darn good compared with the real world which is all, about living in a dark, dank, cramped hovership with a bunch of geeks and hiding from killer androids? It doesn't take you long to realise the central idea is only there to serve some state of the art video techniques.

These same video techniques have already seen the light of day, to brilliant effect, in a Schmirnoff advert. And what's more they worked better in the advert because in it they were justified by the plot, or at least the cuts. In The Matrix they serve solely to stylise it. And after a while, you found yourself going, "yeah, yeah, a slow motion camera twist as the guy flies through the air, what about some conflict other than the obvious (a) fighting and (b) "Oh, my god, one of them is a traitor. Who'd have thought it in a film like this." Actually, the most original thing in this film is that you know that the traitor is going to be as such the moment you lay eyes on him. The Matrix isn't about shock plot twists.

It is not a bad film. It's diverting. If you got rid of the attempt at clever sci-fi and just had lots of super-human fighting, it would, ironically, be a much better film. There are one or two really good bits. There's a helicopter set-piece that is pretty darn spectacular. But I'd say, wait for it on 'Hollywood's Greatest Stunts' or, rather, 'Hollywood's Greatest Video Effects.'

The best characters are the Computer's Sentinel programs, who appear as Men in Black. They dress identically, but the computer has made their faces different for some reason. The character of their leader is great, whilst still being essentially a robot. Yes, it's sad to say Keanu was out-acted by an android, but so he was in the second Bill and Ted film.

So who does the film appeal to? Well Spods for one. The central message of The Matrix is this: as the world as we know it is not real, so neither are the names people use in it. Therefore the names people use on the Internet, through which our Keanu discovers the existence of the real world, are actually our names in this real world. Thus, in the real world, 25 percent of us are named after characters from fiction written in the artificial world. The film’s pre-climax line says it all, "Call me Bilbo!"

In short, don’t go and see this film. Get a video tape and record on it the following items: The introductory dialog to Plan Nine From Outer Space (For the silly sci-fi element); 20 minutes of frenetic Kung-Fu fighting from any Jackie Chan film (Just to see it for real, and not all done with computer techniques); Ten minutes of a gun battle from any John Woo film; and the whole of that Schmirnoff advert. Pad the whole thing out with assorted bits from the Die Hard / Lethal Weapon series, and half way through slip in a short clip from THX 1147. Watch this instead. Once you’re done, wipe it all and watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but just those bits where they’re flying through time in a phone box. After all, that is essential what the Matrix is all about.