Battle Beyond the Stars is the rare bad movie worth experiencing. How can you not be at least a little curious about a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars pastiche, starring John-Boy from The Waltons, Hannibal from The A-Team, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects by a young James Cameron?
Like Starcrash a few years earlier, Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars crassly copies a number of superficial elements from Star Wars: sassy robots, radial wipes, exploding planets, severed arms, and heavy borrowing from Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in this case). But it betrays a total cluelessness regarding the real feat George Lucas pulled off: iconic characters, mythic underpinnings, and a tantalizing sense of a larger world worth exploring. Its spaceships, lasers, and robots are all in service of the story, not the other way around — otherwise you wind up with Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially a special effects reel with cursory linking material. As much as Star Wars gets right, Battle Beyond the Stars gets wrong.
As for those aforementioned James Cameron special effects, there sure are a lot of them. The ratio of effects shots to live-action studio footage must be near-equal. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the level of effort expended on the models and matte paintings, vs the dialogue, characterization, and story.
The performances certainly don’t commend it. Robert Vaughn sleepwalks through it, and George Peppard hambones as an Earth cowboy. Richard Thomas doesn’t seem to have a handle on his character, which I suspect is due to a lack of clarity in the writing & direction. Like Luke Skywalker, he’s an everyman farmboy with aspirations to be a pilot. What appears to make him unique among his people is his ability to pilot a A.I.-powered spaceship, but he later claims to not know anything about computers. He’s also an embittered jerk who seems resentful for the ragtag army that sacrifices everything for his world.
And it would be a waste of time to outline the ways in which it is ridiculously sexist. It’s only 3 years younger than Star Wars, but decades more retrograde.
After writing and directing three Star Wars prequels between 1999-2005, it’s easy to forget that back in the 1980s, series godfather George Lucas opted out of directing Episodes IV: The Empire Strikes Back and V: Return of the Jedi. Now Lucas appears once again to be ceding control over his most famous baby. He’s back to shepherding along splinter projects like The Clone Wars from the more aloof role of Executive Producer.
For anyone else confused, as I certainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003-2005 Cartoon Network television series “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” in turn followed by a second series with the same name as the movie. Got that? There are much bigger differences than swapping a colon for a definitive article, starting with the visual look itself. The best thing about the original series was its bold, striking visual style, realized in a hand-drawn line-art look similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s previous show Samurai Jack. From what little I understand of the process, CGI animation created in 3D can still be rendered in a flat 2D style, giving it the look of traditional hand-drawn cell animation. So the characters in the original at least appeared hand-drawn even though they almost certainly weren’t.
However, the feature film sequel looks like director Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and render the characters with full 3D shading. The result resembles a rough animatic or a throwaway videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aiming for photorealism, which becomes very creepy when approaching the uncanny valley – the point where animated characters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the nightmarish zombie horrorshows Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the latter being a huge step forward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars’ particular brand of stylization just seems cheap to me; I would have preferred the cool-looking 2D characters as they appeared in the TV series.
The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars universe, but no one (probably not even Lucas himself) would ever consider it as primary as its six older siblings. One advantage to being relegated to the second tier is a freedom to violate venerable Star Wars traditions. The classic opening crawl is gone, replaced with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel catching the audience up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splosions. That particular change is a shame, but brace yourself for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather welcome: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the soundtrack of my childhood (my entire generation can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones themes a cappella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blanket of redundant music that threatened to drown out the already almost overwhelming Saving Private Ryan.
The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chronologically between the events of Episodes II: Attack of the Clones and III: Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which nothing of import really happened in Star Wars continuity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basically war stories. This is actually a good thing in light of how the prequel trilogy often became bogged down in tedious political procedure involving interplanetary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the feature film still feels like an episodic tour through a number of spectacular battles. A particularly gripping and exciting battle takes place on a vertical cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “camera.” Lucas was sure to conceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allowing for carnage and huge body counts without a drop of blood (not to mention the economical reuse of costumes, and now, digital models). I remain puzzled, however, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and varying skill sets. This writer grew up with the original trilogy, and still has trouble accepting stormtroopers being on the side of the good guys.
The TV series focused mostly on the battles, but the movie squeezes a fragment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Skywalker is inconveniently charged with training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), an annoying teen “padawan learner” (a Lucasism for “apprentice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush malapropism). I still find it difficult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tipping point to absolute corruption that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embodiment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetuous kid horny for the girlfriend he left behind on Naboo. Being responsible for the spunky, goodhearted Ahsoka certainly does little to help him attain the state of emotional detachment Lucas equates with goodness.
Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expensive technology behind this kind of animation, it’s still cheaper than mounting a live-action production. Animation, where anything is possible, is also the best way for the Star Wars franchise to expand the stories of its existing characters, when the original actors have aged, become too expensive, disinterested, or passed away. So why focus only on the prequel characters? Why not tell more tales starring the trinity that everybody really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han? Is Lucas afraid that messing with the canonical heroes generations of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wounding their deep emotional connection to the mythos? Or to be cynical, he may always utilize the various masked characters (Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in anything at any time without clearing actors’ likenesses. That said, some of the original cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee. James Arnold Taylor does an excellent impression of Ewan McGregor’s excellent (in turn) impression of Alec Guinness.
One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars without at least one offensively characterized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is inexplicably voiced as an old Southern queen.
In order to catch up on the overwhelming backlog of movies I intend to cover here on this blog, this blogger is going to keep it brief with a few disconnected bullet points:
• Re-watching the original trilogy as an adult is an interesting experience; even the first time around as a kid I was right: Raiders of the Lost Ark is excellent, rip-roaring fun, The Temple of Doom is borderline offensive crap, and The Last Crusade is thankfully a return to form. Gone are the annoying kids and mean-spirited xenophobia, and back are the Nazi-punching and Judeo-Christian overtones.
• After a fun pre-credit sequence set in 1912 Utah (featuring the late River Phoenix doing a brilliant Harrison Ford impression), The Last Crusade is set in 1938. The previous installment was set prior to the first, neatly sidestepping any hint of Indy dumping Marion (Karen Allen). Apparently Spielberg and Lucas stopped caring, and this time just went ahead and implied that he did, after all.
• The biggest area of improvement over the lamentable Temple of Doom is in the “Indy Girl” department. After the spunky Marion and the ditzy Willie, we were due for a third stereotype: the femme fatale. Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) is both a worthy love interest and nemesis to Indiana Jones. And Henry Sr. (Sean Connery) totally hit that! Way to go, old man.
• Why did Elsa wait until the most dramatic moment to reveal her true identity, and capture Indy and the diary? The woman has a knack for melodrama.
• Fun fact: Each film in the series starts with the Paramount logo mirrored in a landscape or prop.
In order to catch up on the overwhelming backlog of movies I intend to cover here on this blog, this Dork Reporter is going to keep it brief with a few disconnected bullet points:
• An opening caption places the action in “1935.” Raiders of the Lost Ark was set in 1936, so, The Temple of Doom is actually a prequel! Interesting, but why? Everything is basically the same, except for the absence of Marion (Karen Allen). Had that caption not been there, Indy would have seemed to have unceremoniously dumped her, offscreen.
• On the topic of “Indy Girls,” how could Steven Spielberg and George Lucas trade in the spunky, resourceful, independent, strong Marion for the helpless screaming ignorant bimbo Willie (Kate Capshaw)? It’s a crying shame only partially excused by Marion’s belated return in the fourth installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
• In the DVD bonus features, Spielberg and Lucas both desperately defend Temple of Doom’s “dark” tone, comparing it to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This is puzzling, as to my eyes, The Temple of Doom is notably more jokey and cartoony than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Worse, it is casually sexist and racist, and not to mention, quite unkind to the cuisine of India.
• The globe-trotting begins in Shanghai, with an old-school Hollywood musical number. Jonathan Ke Quan (Short Round) is actually Vietnamese, and clearly a good sport.
• Hey, it’s that guy! Can you spot the Dan Akroyd cameo?
• The Temple of Doom has the least compelling MacGuffin of all the Indiana Jones films. While the others concerned the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy freakin’ Grail, and UFO artifacts, this time Indy must recover and return a stolen relic to a starving Indian village. He only learns of the injustice in the first place by accident.
• It must be said that this is the only film in the series that has Indy grapple with the moral grey areas of his profession. Not exactly a stand-up model archeologist, he explicitly vocalizes his motivations for the first time: “fortune and glory.” So this time around, his relic-hunting is in the service of justice and not his own personal gain.
• Indy and pals stumble upon a sacrificial pagan ceremony dead for only 100 years? That’s not very exciting. If you’re making up a fake religion, why not make it a thousand or more?
• One of many tragic flaws that cripple this film is the obvious tinkering with the formula, made in the mistaken belief there would be more for the kids to identify with. Yes, I’m talking about all the annoying children running about the place: obviously Short Round, but also the horde of child slaves toiling in a mine (a straight lift from Pinocchio). Memo to Spielberg and Lucas: kids had no trouble flocking to Raiders of the Lost Ark, so you don’t need to give them an on-screen cypher.
In order to catch up on the overwhelming backlog of movies I intend to cover here on this blog, this blogger is going to keep it brief with a few disconnected bullet points:
• The 2008 DVD reissues of the classic Indiana Jones trilogy have terribly designed menus; it looks like everything’s been overprocessed with Photoshop’s “Dust and Scratches” filter.
• The zippy, witty screenplay is by Laurence Kasdan, known to genre geeks as the beloved writer of the best Star Wars script, now and forever: The Empire Strikes Back.
• Hey, it’s that guy! A young Alfred Molina briefly appears in his first film role. In the DVD bonus features, he recounts an amusing tale involving his lack of difficulty in evoking fear in his performance as a batch of real tarantulas scrambled across his face.
• Karen Allen is really winning as the hard-drinkin’ Marion, and it’s a pity she never became a bigger star, or at least appeared in the second and third installments. She was robbed!
• Does the Indiana Jones franchise really give the field of archaeology a good name? Indy is motivated by money; he loots relics without the permission of indigenous peoples, and sells them to a museum associated with the university where he teaches. It’s implied his job or tenure – and that of his boss Marcus – depend on it.
• I think I had the official coloring book as a kid, and I recall being fascinated by the concept of lost cities buried under sand.
• For better or for worse, the practical details of the phantasmagoric climax are left unexplained: why is the Ark empty, why does it make bad guys’ heads explode and/or melt, why does it matter if your eyes are open or not, and how does Indy know all this information?
• There’s lotsa drinking, gunplay, gore, and German profanity – in other words, all the stuff kids love! They don’t make PG movies like this anymore.
• Kids, the moral of the story is: anyone with an accent is not to be trusted.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is ultimately disappointing, especially if one reflects too much on its plot and basic plausibility, but it has some to commend it. It is also far from the worst entry in the franchise (that would be Temple of Doom – blech! stay tuned for our forthcoming teardown of that stinky turd), which admittedly isn’t saying much.
The basic concept (reportedly conceived by producer George Lucas and viewed askance at by director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford) is sound. The original trilogy was set in the 1930s, and as such the first and third films mostly concerned Indy battling the Ratzis. So, whom better for an older Indiana Jones to face off against in the 1950s than Commies and UFOs? No really, sounds like fun to me! Unfortunately, the end result is muddled with bits of business about El Dorado, and saddled with a disappointingly conservative tsk-tsk disapproval of the rascally Indy’s wayward ways with women. But perhaps the focus on marriage and the restoration of a broken nuclear family was also a conscious allusion to the conformist 1950s?
Cate Blanchett is far and away the best thing in it, but then again, she usually is. Rocking a severe bob and outrageous accent (the subject of Indy’s best gag: “Well, judging by the way you’re swallowing your wubbleyous, I’m guessing Russian”), Blanchett can take a line as boring as “Take the thing and put it in the car” (I’m paraphrasing) and steal the scene with it. However, this blogger is puzzled by the ubiquity of sudden A-lister Shia LeBeouf. He is not especially handsome, funny, charismatic, or even a skilled action performer. But Stephen Spielberg seems to have a man-crush on him, so here he is. Let’s hope saner heads prevail and don’t make him the star of future sequels. There can only be one Young Indiana Jones; we miss you, River Phoenix. It’s a treat to have Karen Allen back at last. Unfortunately, there’s no John Rhys-Davies or Sean Connery to be had, but in a pinch, Ray Winstone will do fine.
Of course modern action movies get compared to video games all the time (often derisively, mostly deservingly), but The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of the most overt offenders I’ve seen yet. Sequences like the one in which the gang must solve puzzles like racing down a spiral staircase as the steps retract and the ground falls away will no doubt translate more or less intact into the film’s official game.
The biggest classic Indy theme missing from Skull is that of religion. In the first film, Indy tracked down the honest-to-Moses Ark of the Convenant. The MacGuffin of the second film was a set of Hindu (well, a derogatorily fictionalized version thereof) sacred stones. The third installment went back to the franchise’s Judeo-Christian roots and had Indy pursue none other than The Holy Grail. Indy sometimes dismisses religious traditions as myth, but usually doesn’t have any trouble accepting that the 10 Commandment tablets and the Grail are anything less than actual objects. There are no mere metaphors for Indiana Jones!
In keeping with the religious overtones, all three parts of the original trilogy end in psychedelic freakouts: witness an empty Ark explode Nazi heads, sacred stones magically relieve a village’s famine, and a Grail cause an earthquake. So as much as I may have hated Skull’s mystifying, CGI-drenched finale in which a bunch of alien corpses become one living being that does something glowy to Irina Spalko and launches his spaceship off into another dimension (all of which is like an unholy love child of the X-Files feature film Fight the Future and Spielberg’s own A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), it is actually in keeping with the endings of the original three films (even the “good one,” of course, Raiders). If you don’t believe me, go back and watch them again.