Best of 2020 | Every film I saw this year

2020 films top ten best of tenet shirley one night miami small axe palm springs midnight sky netflix alex moreland

I watched just shy of 75 films this year! Fewer than I’d have liked, as always, with more than one high-profile omission I’ll try and get to as 2021 begins, but I think it’s probably also the most films I’ve seen in a single year anyway.

Generally speaking, it was a fairly good year for films, for me anyway: I covered the London Film Festival, and Raindance Film Festival; I wrote a lot of reviews, and did some pretty high-profile interviews; and, of course, I saw a lot of films I actually quite enjoyed.

Collected below are my Letterboxd reviews, slightly revised and expanded in a few places throughout; I’ve also linked anything else I wrote about each film below. This isn’t a particularly strict ranking – there’s too many films for that to work, and the star ratings I gave each film were often fairly arbitrary – but I have included a ranked list of my favourite 2020 releases at the end.

You can also find my 2019 list here, which includes a couple of favourites from 2018 and 2017 too.


½ out of 5

How to Build a Girl (2020)

It’s aggressively annoying from the start, but by the end it’s a work of towering vanity and alarming narcissism – without even a hint of self-awareness. I am genuinely astonished at the depth of arrogance it must take to write a film this cloying about your own adolescence.

Beanie Feldstein, please, fire your agent before you find yourself in a sequel about flinging shit at Owen Jones on twitter.


1 out of 5

Artemis Fowl (2020)

I’d been awake for something like twenty-four hours when I decided to watch this, and I really should’ve just gone to sleep instead. Shame it was such a let-down, I used to love these books. Ah well.


2 out of 5

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Feels like two films that are sitting together quite awkwardly; there’s something oddly disjointed about how the two strands of the plot interact, neither really complimenting the other. The ending was a little trite, too.

The Prom (2020)

Watched this with my mum, who fast-forwarded through all the songs.

Stardust (2020)

Anyway, watch Velvet Goldmine.

Read More: You can find my review of Stardust, written as part of my coverage of Raindance Film Festival, here.

Death to 2020 (2020)

I’ve never been especially fond of Charlie Brooker’s Yearly Wipe shows, to be honest – they’re fine at best – but 2020 feels particularly ill-suited to his brand of snarky centrist liberal satire. The main takeaway though (aside from the fact that Brooker clearly doesn’t own the rights to Philomena Cunk outright) was that it confirmed, or at least added some weight to, a suspicion I’ve had for a while: we’re not going to get any good pandemic art from people who experienced 2020 from a position of relative comfort.

Borat: Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Funniest bit was the bear’s head in the fridge, I think.

Chemical Hearts (2020)

Lili Reinhart is good in this, I think, bringing a maturity the film would otherwise lack – but she’s not really the focus of the film, which is in every other respect an essentially very generic and throwaway bit of YA fare. It’ll find some dedicated fans I’m sure, but I’d be surprised if it made much of an impact.

Read More: I reviewed Chemical Hearts for Flickering Myth, and you can find that piece here.

Coalition (2015)

It doesn’t help that the cast is markedly weaker than that of the Peter Morgan films (no one here holds a candle to Michael Sheen or David Morrissey) but more than anything Coalition demonstrates the risk in writing these films so close to the events that inspired them. It ends seemingly convinced that Nick Clegg might genuinely become Prime Minister in his own right – in turn looking deeply, deeply naïve.

Read More: Coalition wasn’t the first of James Graham’s political screenplays I’ve struggled with, but I really loved his ITV miniseries Quiz, which I wrote about here.

The Front Runner (2019)

Remarkably lightweight. There’s probably an interesting film to be made about Gary Hart, but this isn’t that: it seems to mourn the failure of his campaign, with no investment in his actual policies – the closest was an offhand reference to “creating jobs in Mexico so that Mexicans don’t come here and steal American jobs” – and no sense of what it’s actually arguing for. These things should be in the public sphere! It is indicative of how a politician will go on to wield and abuse their power (see Clinton and Lewinsky), and all this “oh bluh bluh bluh, ideas have been lost out on” waffle is meaningless when the film doesn’t convey what those ideas are. Just empty posturing, in the end, nowhere near as weighty as they clearly thought it was.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

There’s a real sort of, like, “that’ll do” quality to a lot of this? Just a very offhanded quality, like all involved have finally realised it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, it’ll make a billion either way. (Was the production of this sped up so it could be released earlier? I feel like I read that at some point.) Anyway: too much CGI, not enough Zendaya, and Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely sleepwalking through it.

But! Tom Holland lives sorta near me, and was, I’m told, very polite to my friend Osbert when they ran into each other. So that’s nice.


2½ out of 5

Rose: A Love Story (2020)

It’s… okay. When it works, it’s because of Sophie Rundle’s performance, and there’s a neat little undercurrent of a relationship close to buckling under strain, but as a whole… I didn’t love it. I think mainly the problem is that it’s a little too long – it could’ve stood to lose about twenty minutes or so. Also wasn’t so sure about the closing scene – the film already had a great ending, they didn’t need to end it again. Would’ve lost that, I think.

Read More: I interviewed Sophie Rundle a few years back ahead of the second series of Jamestown.

Another Round (2020)

I’d like to rewatch Another Round, I think; in the weeks and months since I saw it, I’ve become increasingly aware of how out of step I was with general consensus. Not just in terms of the quality of the film – I was surprised to see so many people describe it as a comedy! So this is likely one that’d be worth returning to, I suspect.

Read More: Here’s my full review of the film.

The Boy with the Topknot (2017)

I have a lot of time for Sacha Dhawan – he’s a great actor, and a nice guy too – but I wasn’t so sure about this entirely. The girlfriend role was a little underwritten, mainly, but also… I’m not sure how involved the real Sathnam Sanghara was in this (he’s credited as a writer but that might just be because it’s based on his memoir), but the film did sometimes have the sense that he was too involved, that it didn’t have enough of a personal remove. Sometimes felt like it lacked perspective – becoming self-flagellating almost to avoid self-criticism, I suppose?

Dhawan really is great, though. More leading roles for Sacha Dhawan imo.

Yesterday (2019)

Mostly this reminded me of when Osbert used to insist (circa 2011) that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” and The Beatles stole it from him (when they released the song, circa 1969).

(And he was right, they did!)


3 out of 5

JoJo Rabbit (2019)

one time my sister asked me if actors needed stunt doubles to do the Nazi salute for them. thought about that a lot watching this

Rocketman (2019)

Entertaining enough, I thought. Mostly though I just truly do not understand how Bohemian Rhapsody managed to go the distance? Like, I reckon Rocketman probably benefitted from comparison to Bo Rhap, but even if they’d been released the other way around this is clearly better.

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Funnier than the first, in places, but seemed a little less coherent? The best bits are the guerrilla filmmaking stuff where it feels like it could be genuinely sort of dangerous for him, and I don’t know if they pushed that enough (certainly the more scripted, plot-heavy segments felt markedly weaker). It was also about twenty minutes too long, I think.

Maria Bakalova is pretty great though. I’d like to see her nominated for the Oscar.

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

This was nice, I thought. A little cheap occasionally, but it had a great cast and got a lot out of them. Enjoyable enough.

The Post (2017)

I think Meryl’s plotline sits awkwardly throughout – the film might’ve benefitted from giving her character more focus, or removing her entirely, rather than this sort of awkward half-measure. (Was that about her availability? Spielberg et al made this quite quickly, I seem to recall?) There’s a potentially quite nice parallel between Katharine Graham being unwilling to publish the story for fear of ‘losing’ the paper, and various Presidents unwilling to leave Vietnam for fear of ‘losing’ the war, but The Post doesn’t really push that enough for it to have any impact.

Lola Versus (2012)

Fun little glimpse at what Greta Gerwig would’ve done for twenty minutes a week if How I Met Your Father had gone to series, I guess. It’s basically fairly light and throwaway, but, well, why must a movie be good? Isn’t it enough to sit in a dark room and watch Greta Gerwig dance on a big screen?

Wild Rose (2018)

Appreciably better than, say, Yesterday or Bohemian Rhapsody – mainly on the strength of Jessie Buckley’s performance, which really is as good as everyone says – though not quite as good as A Star is Born, which it’s probably most similar to of the recent musicals.

It falters a little as it ends – the last half hour or so not quite as sharp as what came before it. I’d have preferred it to be a bit more cynical, I think (although I think I’d like to see more cynical takes on this sort of premise anyway). Still, pretty solid overall.

Game Change (2012)

Great performance from Julianne Moore, but mostly struck by how 2012 this felt – both in how kind it was to McCain (uncritically recreating the “he’s an Arab” “no, he’s a nice guy” exchange was deeply telling about the film’s blindspots) and in how worried it still seemed about Palin specifically at the end. In 2020, it feels more than a little small.

The Deal (2003)

Impressive performances, but I think it needed a stronger sense of the actual political and ideological differences between Blair and Brown; as it is the film only really gestures at them, which leaves it feeling a little slight and insubstantial.

Booksmart (2019)

I don’t know, it was fine. Lots of individually quite charming moments, for sure – mostly down to the cast, who are pretty uniformly great. (Billie Lourd really is that good, I figured it might’ve been a bit overstated, but no, she’s brilliant.)

Otherwise, I’m a little surprised it was as loved as it was. It’s a strong directorial debut, yes, but definitely a debut, with some choppy editing and tonally odd music choices throughout. I also would’ve thought that its very, uh, Warren Democrat, privileged white liberal vibe might’ve come under more criticism than it did? It wasn’t exactly a dealbreaker for me – though it did grate at times – but I’m surprised that the film was as popular as it was, given that, if that makes sense at all.

No Fathers in Kashmir (2020)

One of the first films I watched in 2020. I quite enjoyed it, which is another reminder that across 2021 I should really try and watch a lot more international, non-English language movies.

Read More: I interviewed director Ashvin Kumar about the film, though I never managed to find a home for the piece; at some point I’ll try and arrange to have it published here, I think.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

Entertaining enough, and it (mostly) has a good sense of when to introduce a new idea and move onto the next joke, but I did get the sense watching it that it’d probably be better suited to a television series.


3½ out of 5

Happiest Season (2020)

I thought this was nice and basically charming, though I’m not surprised it caused as much of a stir as it did; definitely felt like the script was at odds with the direction a little, the former going for something much more heightened while the latter opted for something a bit more grounded. The mishmash strains occasionally, but for the most part I enjoyed it. Good cast! Always helps.

Official Secrets (2019)

I was just thinking the other day I’d not seen Keira Knightley in anything for a while, so I figured I should get around to this. Enjoyed it a lot actually. Good cast, pretty well made, entertaining couple of hours. Would recommend!

Lovers Rock (2020)

Lovers Rock is probably the most well-crafted of the films I saw this year, a really impressive achievement on the part of all involved; I think it’s always destined to be a film I respect more than one I straightforwardly enjoy, though, if only because I tend not to be particularly invested in films in this style, with so much more emphasis on mood and tone rather than character or plot.

The Flood (2019)

Could’ve done with emphasising Ivanno Jeremiah’s character slightly more than Lena Headey’s (or, I guess, giving her a slightly more well-defined arc – the balance felt a little bit off either way), but on the whole I thought it was quite a well-made, very slick film.

Five Dates (2020)

Surprisingly really engaging; I was watching this ahead of my interview with Mandip Gill, but I ended up getting invested in the plotline with Georgia Small instead, playing that through to the end. I’d recommend it!

Read More: You can find the aforementioned interview with Mandip Gill here; I was also quoted on the Five Dates poster, which was nice!

Supernova (2020)

Quite fond of this. Strong performances, great score; found it quite moving, even despite the… I suppose predictability of it all. It is basically exactly the film you’d expect it to be, but it is very good at being that film.

Read More: You can find my full review of Supernova here.

Marvellous (2014)

Stylishly made and consistently charming, Toby Jones gives a great performance, and the way Marvellous threads appearances from the real Neil Baldwin throughout makes for a nice departure from the more standard biopic fare.

Read More: I watched this because I’d interviewed Peter Bowker, the writer, a few weeks prior; you can find that interview, which I think is one of my best, here.

The Special Relationship (2010)

Politically much sharper than The Deal – hardly excoriating, but there’s definitely a sense that Peter Morgan soured on Blair in the years since the first film in the trilogy. Michael Sheen is more assured in the role too by this point, and together it makes for a much stronger film in general.

Vice (2018)

Self-indulgent, sure, but I didn’t particularly have a problem with that (think I might’ve preferred The Big Short though? Not sure). Do wish it had had a bit more focus on Bush/Cheney’s second term, though, and I do wonder if it being so singular in its focus on Cheney might’ve perhaps exculpated others involved, at least a little.

Read More: Not one of mine, but I enjoyed this piece (on Vice, The Report, and Oliver Stone’s W) a lot.

Just Mercy (2020)

It’s quite biopic-y in places, but that’s not a problem particularly, and even then it’s a far more emotionally involved & poignant film than “quite biopic-y” makes it sound, just bursting with empathy. Great performances all round, but especially worth highlighting Rob Morgan, who is both a) astonishing and b) probably a little less likely to be discussed in all this, relative to his more famous co-stars. He’s really, really good – very memorable supporting performance.

(Plus, there’s something quite endearing about Michael B Jordan playing a soft-spoken, nerdy lawyer, despite still being very obviously ripped. That’s fun.)

Read More: Many years ago, in January 2020, I interviewed Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Bryan Stevenson (producer of and inspiration for the film) about Just Mercy.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Not seen this before, and found it basically quite charming and likeable. Miracle I didn’t watch it a decade ago, mind, that could’ve done some real damage.

The American President (1995)

Just a very long episode of The West Wing – and I liked it for that reason!


4 out of 5

Ammonite (2020)

Curious to see how opinion on this one shifts and changes over the next few years; I do get the sense it’s been poorly marketed, and it’s probably suffering from the weight of those expectations. Although, I say that, has it even received a wide release yet? I’m not sure.

Read More: I wrote about Ammonite here.

One Night in Miami (2020)

I thought Kingsley Ben-Adir was really excellent in this, I’m hoping to see him at least nominated for the Oscar.

Read More: You can find my London Film Festival review of One Night in Miami here.

Shirley (2020)

Fun fact: This was the first film I saw at the first film festival I covered. Granted I’m not convinced it was a brilliantly written review, but it was a pretty brilliant film, and I suspect in the long run that’s probably what matters more.

Read More: Here’s the aforementioned review.

Tenet (2020)

I wouldn’t necessarily want to risk my life to see a Nolan film, but obviously I am much more willing to risk my life to see Alice, and she wanted to see this, so, you know.

It was good, anyway, I enjoyed it. Charming cast, impressive set pieces, I had fun with it. All in all I quite enjoyed TENET deyojne etiuq I lla ni llA .ti htiw nuf dah I ,seceip tes evisserpmi ,tsac gnimrahC .ti deyojne I ,yawyna ,doog saw tI

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Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Very charming; I’m always fond of Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson. It’s the only Trevorrow film I’ve seen, though it made me wonder – between how much I enjoyed this, and the reception to his subsequent movies – if perhaps he was poorly served by moving to blockbusters too early.

The Iron Lady (2011)

It’s to be expected, I think, that a biopic will respect or admire its subject, but it feels altogether rarer to see the depth of affection, warmth, and kindness that is extended to Thatcher here. The Iron Lady’s occasional inclination towards ‘girlboss’ feminism is easily dismissed, but the genuine love it has for Thatcher is nothing short of revolting.

The Big Sick (2017)

Found this a lot more affecting than I expected to. Loved it.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Hmm.

Interstellar (2014)

I’m surprised, a little, that Interstellar is spoken of as though it’s this very cerebral piece of Hard Science Fiction, when in the end it’s so warm, so much about The Power of Love. I’ve never quite bought into criticism of Nolan as being a cold or unemotive filmmaker, exactly, but this felt like the most heartfelt of his films that I’ve seen. My favourite of his, I think.

Jackie (2016)

Really beautifully made, with lots of nice, subtle details; I liked that it never shot JFK head on, always filming him from a slight angle, imposing that extra layer of remove. Quite neatly addresses an issue with all these relatively apolitical political films I’ve been watching recently, in that it’s not really political at all – it’s all imagery, all aesthetics, all iconography.

And Natalie Portman was stunning, of course.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Structurally very deft – a really controlled effort from Ryan Coogler, with quite an acute sense of tone. Great performance from Michael B Jordan, too, understated in a way that fits Coogler’s script really well – you can see why they went on to be such close collaborators after this.

Some of the criticisms about its accuracy and foreshadowing, for lack of a better way of putting it, strike me as unconvincing – I think any stray detail of anyone’s last day would take on a certain weight by virtue of being their last day, if nothing else. More to the point, though, I don’t think Coogler did labour the point particular: it’s a portrait of a life in motion rather than one on the precipice, I think. Which I suppose is why Jordan’s performance had to be pitched so precisely, because there likely was a version of this that could’ve been oversignified – as it is it’s a remarkably careful and conscientious bit of filmmaking.

Bad Education (2020)

Surprisingly engaging, I thought. Enjoyed it a lot – Allison Janney drops out of the narrative in the second half a little, which is a shame, but otherwise I quite liked this.

Clueless (1995)

So good, so immediately. Had lots of fun with it. (By somewhat interesting coincidence, I watched it on the film’s 25th anniversary!)

The Report (1995)

I liked it; I liked its cynicism, its willingness to criticise Obama (and, briefly, Feinstein herself), and how it positions itself against 24 and Zero Dark Thirty too. The ending I think was a little too triumphant though, a little too neat – the caption at the end not given enough emphasis, I suspect.

Little Women (2019)

It took me a little while to get used to the two timelines – and to get past the sheer, seething rage I feel whenever I see Timothée Chalamet; he knows why – but there’s clearly a lot of warmth, a lot of wit, and a lot of artistry to the film. Period dramas so often have a reputation for feeling staid and distant; Little Women is immediate and bursting with heart.

Read More: Only tangentially relevant, but some years ago I interviewed Robin Swicord – director of the 90s Little Women and producer on this version – about her film Wakefield.

Palm Springs (2020)

I really really liked this! Lots of fun, Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti are very charming, good time all round.

Red, White, and Blue (2020)

Always thought John Boyega was one of the best actors in the new Star Wars trilogy; nice to see him get a chance to really show that. Interested to see what he does over the next decade or so after this.


4½ out of 5

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Quite possibly an all-time favourite now. Justified that Britbox subscription all on its own, frankly.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

My favourite Peter Morgan script, by some margin; probably my favourite Ron Howard film too, though I’ve seen less of his work than Morgan’s (and less recently, too).

Mistress America (2015)

Borderline insufferable, but also really fucking funny; I loved it.

I, Tonya (2017)

Hell of a performance from Margot Robbie here, just a really remarkable achievement on her part.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

If I’d watched this in 2019, I think it would’ve been my favourite film of the year; certainly it was one of my favourite first time watches of 2020, as strong (if not stronger) than most of my Top Ten list this year.

Denial (2016)

I’m surprised I don’t hear this discussed more often; it’s got a great cast, a clever (and well-executed) new angle on courtroom drama, and it’s based on a true story too. Really enjoyed it, I’d recommend it.

Starter for 10 (2006)

God, I hate students. (And University Challenge.) But I did, admittedly, really love this.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Especially liked, thinking about it, that it didn’t end with everything entirely resolved – tidy but not too much so. It would’ve felt trite otherwise, and maybe a bit dishonest too.

Adult Life Skills (2016)

This was very good, in all the ways I needed it to be on that particular day. Jodie Whittaker is very much at her best here.

Mangrove (2020)

All of this is firing on all cylinders, always; not just in the obvious ways, but smaller details in the sound design, the lighting, the pacing. It’s almost a shame that the marketing focused so much on Letitia Wright (brilliant though she is), because it feels like it overshadowed how well much Mangrove owes to Shaun Parkes’ performance – the strongest of the Small Axe films, I think.


5 out of 5

Eighth Grade (2018)

Probably my favourite of the nominally similar ‘coming of age’ films I’ve watched this year, even though they’re not exactly especially similar; this struck me as a lot more thoughtful, and a lot more perceptive too. Elsie Fisher is brilliant, working with much more complex material than I realised – I’d expected the film to be, not lighthearted I suppose, but certainly some of what it touched on was a surprise. Really deftly and sensitively handled, anyway.


2020 Releases Top Ten

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  1. Shirley
  2. One Night in Miami
  3. Bad Education
  4. Palm Springs
  5. Tenet
  6. Mangrove
  7. Supernova
  8. Ammonite
  9. Just Mercy
  10. Another Round

I submitted my list for Flickering Myth’s end-of-year roundup before I’d seen Mangrove, which ended up knocking Lovers Rock (previously in the tenth place slot) off the list. I’ve also switched Shirley and One Night in Miami since the last time I did a ranking this year; I liked them each broadly the same amount, I suppose.

Otherwise, some particular favourites that weren’t first released in 2020 were Mistress America, Velvet Goldmine, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Eighth Grade, and The Squid and the Whale, I think.


2021

Looking ahead to next year, my plan is to try and catch up on a few of the recent releases I skipped – the obvious Oscar contenders, like Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey, I figured I’d watch closer to awards season since I knew I’d want to write about them anyway.

Also – though I know I say this every year and never do – I’d like to try and watch a more varied selection of films in 2021. More foreign language movies, more indie films, and in particular more older films. We’ll see how well that goes, I guess.

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Why the Star Wars Prequels are much better than everyone thinks

It’s become something of a truism to say that the Star Wars Prequels are pretty awful films. They’ve become concepts that slipped into popular culture and never really left. Even the people who don’t like Star Wars, and have never seen the films, know that these productions are the bad ones.

And yet, this critical consensus is in fact rather unfair.

Sure, the Star Wars Prequels are imperfect – no one’s ever going to really argue that they aren’t – but there’s still a lot to like about them. And when it comes down to it, they’re actually a lot better than people give them credit for.

A Star Wars article for Metro. I have something of a complicated relationship with the prequels, I guess. Obviously, they are not necessarily brilliant movies – in many ways, they range from dull and turgid to just straightforwardly bad. At the same time, though, they’re the Star Wars movies of my youth, and the ones I have a (slightly) more personal connection to, I suppose.

I’d argue, though, that there is a lot about them that’s very good – they’re genuinely creative in a way that sets them apart from the majority of the other Star Wars films, and I think the story they struggle to tell is a more interesting and engaging one than the story the original trilogy tells successfully. And the sequel trilogy, arguably, though I don’t think the sequel trilogy has an obvious overarching story yet.

Anyway, so, yeah. Here’s a bit of an attempt at defending the prequel trilogy, with a few thoughts as to why they’re a bit better than the reputation they have (which is more often than not a repeated meme rather than genuine critical engagement).

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Noel Clarke on Brotherhood, his acting career, and more

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Nah, I mean, making a movie is making a movie. You prep, you’ve got logistics to plan… I’ve worked in fast track, I’ve just filmed the Duncan Jones film Mute, and essentially the process is always the same, no matter what. Even the budget, it’s just that you have more money to spend on bigger issues, you know, it’s the same.

This interview was co-conducted by Jordan Hodges, who kindly asked Noel the questions I provided when I wasn’t able to make the interview. The picture above, meanwhile, was taken by Rob Baker Ashton.

Noel said some interesting stuff about the British Independent Film Awards in this one.

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Star Wars Retrospective: Rewriting the Prequels

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It is a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that the Star Wars prequel trilogy suffered from flawed execution. There’s debate as to whether or not the actual basic plot is any good; personally, I think it is, and with some refinement, the movies could have been perfect.

With that in mind, then, we’re going to engage in a little bit of dramaturgery. It’s like “dramaturgy”, but with surgical elements, because we’re fixing the movie. In this instance, an important stipulation remains: I’m going to try and adhere as closely to what’s laid out in the prequels as I can, without making too many major changes. The idea is to adjust character arcs, and individual aspects of the plot, to give us a movie trilogy which could still believably have been something we’d see on screen. For the most part, then, my prequel trilogy will still mirror the originals; we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. (Mind you, if you are interested in some more dramatic departures and rewrites, I’d suggest checking out some of these reddit threads, which have some pretty cool ideas in them.)

The Phantom Menace

Primarily, the changes I’d make are ones which would impact the later films, in the hopes of bringing together a stronger prequel trilogy overall. For the most part, I did enjoy The Phantom Menace, after all. There are three key areas I’d want to change, though: Padme and Anakin, the Jedi Order, and the Trade Federation.

For Padme and Anakin, it’s largely just a case of simplifying and streamlining. I’d make Padme senator from the beginning, and excise the Keira Knightley plotline. Also, I’d try to make Padme a lot more proactive, as a character; there are elements of this in The Phantom Menace, but I’d want to play that up a lot more. Anakin I think should be aged up a little bit; it’s not that I had a problem with Jake Lloyd, but I think that an older Anakin (played by the same actor across all three films) will give us the opportunity to get to know the character much better. Anakin would need to be rewritten somewhat too – more Han Solo, less whiny brat – but I’ll cover that some more in Attack of the Clones. I also think it’s important for him to have some scenes with Obi-Wan, because their friendship is a really important thematic thread throughout the prequels. Anakin and Padme will need a lot of scenes together, too, to establish some chemistry and a close bond between them.

(Oh, and Anakin should build R2-D2, and C3PO should be one of Padme’s droids. That makes a little more sense.)

The Jedi Order, then. Two principal changes here, both of which are really presented in terms of Qui-Gonn Jinn. I’d emphasis the fact that Qui-Gonn is a bit of a maverick, and doesn’t necessarily agree with the Jedi council on a lot of things – or, really, anything. Perhaps he’s the only Jedi with the rank of Master who isn’t on the Council, because he consistently makes a nuisance of himself. It’s something that’s touched on a little bit, with his insistence over training Anakin, but once again, I’d want to emphasis it, just to make it a little more obvious. The second change would be in the presentation of the prophecy of the Chosen One; I actually like this idea, just not so much how it was used.

In The Phantom Menace, we’ll have prophecy as a secret; something Qui-Gonn knows about, and something the Jedi Council knows about, but it’s kept secret from the audience. When Qui-Gonn is trying to convince the Jedi Council to let him train Anakin, Obi-Wan and Anakin will be sat outside, and we can watch scenes of them bonding. Even when the council does eventually let Obi-Wan train Anakin, they don’t tell him why Qui-Gonn wanted to train the boy so much.

(Also, Mace Windu leads the Jedi Council. I’m not sure if Yoda would necessarily be in this film, but we’re positioning him more as… more Pope Emeritus than Pope, if you like. Yoda is trusted advisor and weirdo hermit, who’s trained lots of Jedi over the years, but isn’t the leader of the council. He has been in the past, but not for the last century or so.)

With regards to the Trade Federation… I’d alter the plot to make them Separatists. It establishes the basis of the conflict in the next movie, for one thing, and gives us a central plot across all three films: the Separatists vs the Republic. I think it’d also be worth changing Naboo to Alderann; Senator Amidala of Alderann is going to have a greater emotional impact, I think, given what we know from the Original Trilogy. Maybe we can introduce Bail Organa as leader of Alderann (I think Bail is a title rather than a name), and Palpatine can already be the leader of the Republic.

Oh, and Qui-Gonn isn’t going to be cut down by Darth Maul. He can lose, say, an arm or some such, and it’ll be heavily implied that he died, but all we’re going to see is him falling down the central shaft that Maul fell down. Also! Maul will appear to be working alone, without any appearances of a shady Darth Sidious type. Maul will be hunting Anakin; the implication at first will be that he’s hunting Padme, but it’s eventually revealed that he was after Anakin all along. This will serve to set up a bit of a mystery around Anakin; Qui-Gonn wants to train him, but won’t explain why. The Jedi Council don’t appear to like him, but won’t explain why. A member of a long thought dead Sith cult has appeared to try and kill Anakin, but it’s never revealed why.

The film will end with Anakin and Obi-Wan (firm friends by this stage), ready to embark on more adventures, and begin Anakin’s training… yet, at the same time, remaining in the dark about the mystery of Anakin Skywalker.

Attack of the Clones

It’s quite important to me, actually, to really emphasise that Obi-Wan and Anakin are close friends. I don’t think that Attack of the Clones did a particularly good job of doing this, so I’d want to open this film with the pair of them on some ridiculous adventure. Possibly on a jungle planet, something like that. It should take about twenty minutes tops – we’re essentially coming in at the end of another movie, watching their daring escape from whatever peril they were in.

When they’re back in their spaceship, laughing together, they can get their communication from the Jedi Council – they need to come back and help protect Senator Amidala of Alderaan, because it seems the Separatists are making attempts on her life, because of an important upcoming vote. Here we also learn of the existence of the mysterious Count Dooku, a shady figure about whom little is known, who has become leader of the Separatists in the three years since the end of The Phantom Menace.

Things proceed similarly to how they do in the actual movie for a while; attempt on Padme’s life, investigations, etc etc. It’s important that Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme all get scenes together; I want the three of them to be close friends. Think of the scene in A New Hope, after the Death Star has been destroyed, and Luke, Leia and Han are all happy together. It’s also important, of course, that we pick up where we left off with The Phantom Menace; Anakin and Padme are both very attracted to one another. It should be obvious to the audience – bluntly, Anakin and Padme should be everyone’s OTP, as it were. Every single audience member has to be saying “oh they love each other so much, I hope they can have a happy ending together!”

We’ll separate the three of them at this point; Anakin and Padme are sent to Alderann together, back to her home, and Obi-Wan continues his investigations. It’s the same as the actual movie, basically. While on Alderann, Anakin is significantly less creepy to Padme, and the pair get much closer to starting their relationship. Padme can actually suggest a relationship, but Anakin turns her down; he loves her, he knows he does, but he has a Jedi code. Obi-Wan goes off to Kamino, and finds out about the Clone Army… which was, apparently, ordered by Qui-Gonn Jinn? Shocking revelation! Obi-Wan is horrified and confused, especially since he ‘knows’ Qui-Gonn is dead.

We’re going to cut the Tattooine arc with Anakin’s mother, and continue to follow Obi-Wan to Geonosis – the base of the separatists. Then, Anakin has visions of Obi-Wan being in danger, at which point he contacts Mace Windu to let him know. Mace Windu listens to Anakin, but doesn’t really give any indication he actually gives a damn. Padme wants to go, Anakin also wants to go, but at first wants to follow his orders. In the end, though, Padme convinces him to go with her to Geonosis, similarly to the original movie.

Cut to Geonosis, where Obi-Wan is listening in on a Separatist meeting. He realises he’s in the presence of Count Dooku, the leader; the Republic has never been able to identify him before, so this is pretty important. Count Dooku is speaking, Obi-Wan is reckless, and jumps down, threatening to arrest Dooku. “Who are you?”, Obi-Wan asks, and a voice replies… “I am your master.” Dooku steps forward into the light, and we see… it’s Qui-Gonn Jinn! Older, greyer, and with a robot hand, and yet unmistakably Liam Neeson. Obi-Wan attacks him, immediately, out of rage and passion and confusion, but Qui-Gonn has him disarmed and knocked unconscious with ease.

The scene between Obi-Wan and Count Dooku from Attack of the Clones plays out similarly, except with Qui-Gonn. We learn that Qui-Gonn survived, and due to the corruption of the Jedi and the Senate (hinted at in the previous movie) he joined the Separatists and slowly rose to be their leader. Obi-Wan feels completely and utterly betrayed, because Qui-Gonn seems to be the villain. He accuses him of trying to kill Padme, Qui-Gonn has no idea what he means, but Obi-Wan thinks he’s lying. Qui-Gon leaves Obi-Wan.

We don’t have the clones, yet; Padme and Anakin rescue Obi-Wan on their own. They get him out quietly, without any confrontation, and return him to the Jedi Council. We end up with a meeting between the council, our three heroes and Palpatine. Discussion turns to the Separatists; Mace Windu suggests using the Clone Army (which belongs to the Jedi now) to attack the Separatists. Obi-Wan and Padme are against it, Anakin is hesitant to commit either way, but Palpatine is ultimately persuaded by Mace Windu.

The Jedi launch an attack on Geonosis, then. The Separatists have their droids (this is important) and the Republic have clones. I’d like it if Anakin and Obi-Wan actually got to know a pair of clones in this movie; it’s really important to humanise the clones, the same way they were in The Clone Wars cartoon, to emphasise the fact that these are still real people living and dying.

On Geonosis, the clones and droids fight; the Jedi are also involved in the fighting. Anakin and Obi-Wan are there to lead an attack on one specific part of the Separatist base, but Obi-Wan sneaks away to find Qui-Gonn – and his best friend Anakin joins him. (This will be an important moment in terms of their relationship.)

They find Qui-Gonn, and the fight with him is not dissimilar to the original fight with Count Dooku. We’ll ask him about his motivations – Qui-Gonn thinks the Senate and the Republic is corrupt, wants to start a new government. (”You want to make yourself ruler of the galaxy?” “Perhaps”.) Crucially, though, Qui-Gonn won’t cut off Anakin’s arm. In fact, Qui-Gonn uses the force primarily, rather than his lightsabre – which is Darth Maul’s red one from the last movie, because he lost his green one in the fight. Qui-Gonn appears to be a Sith – and when he throws some Force lightning, this is borderline confirmed. For most of the audience, then, it seems like Qui-Gonn is to be the Emperor.

(“It is naive to think of the force in terms of light and dark, my old Padawan. You know I have always studied the ways of the Living Force, trying to find balance. There are depths of the force the Jedi have never studied, powers they have never known. The ability to bring life itself. But, then, surely your Padawan knows this, yes? After all, he is the Chosen One.”)

During the fight, Qui-Gonn reveals to Anakin and Obi-Wan the existence of the prophecy, explaining the mystery we set up at the end of the previous film. Both Anakin and Obi-Wan feel betrayed, and, given how shocked they are, start to lose the fight. Yoda comes in to save them; things proceed as they did in the original movie. When Qui-Gonn has left, Obi-Wan and Anakin ask Yoda if this is the truth. Yoda, wise old Jedi that he is, is able to shed some light on the prophecy of the chosen one who will bring balance to the Force. Maybe he was there when the prophecy was first made, that could be cool.

With Geonosis sorted out, we return to Coruscant. A few important scenes; Padme in the Senate, listening to Palpatine discussing the war. We’ll have a conversation between her and Bail, about the separatists, and the corruption in the Republic Senate. Obi-Wan and Anakin talking to the Jedi Council about the prophecy. Anakin is furious at Mace Windu, and has an angry (not whiny) outburst. He leaves; Mace Windu begins talking to Obi-Wan, who cuts him off, and says he thinks Anakin is right. Obi-Wan leaves as well. Mace Windu can talk to Plo Koon or Kit Fisto or someone… and it’s revealed that they, the Jedi Council, ordered the creation of the Clone Army. Why? We’ll find out in the next movie.

The final scene, then, is Anakin going to see Padme, just after his outburst. He explains that the Jedi, for all their moral code, are seemingly corrupt. Anakin and Padme begin their relationship at this point.

Revenge of the Sith

The first half hour or so of this movie can be essentially the same, with the mission to rescue Palpatine, but with a few slight changes. Qui-Gonn remains our Dooku figure, but General Grievous is cut; Qui-Gonn is going to take his role in the movie as well. We’ll have a second in command type figure, though, a humanoid that Anakin can kill. Not at Palpatine’s command, though – just in a fight on board the ship. Over the course of the Clone Wars, all the Jedi have had to do things like this. (Palpatine will ask Anakin to kill Qui-Gonn, but he’ll refuse.)

Anyway, when we return to Coruscant, Padme and Anakin can meet up, as in the original. She’s pregnant! Surprise. How wonderful. But it’s revealed that this is in fact their second child (Anakin: “Maybe it’ll be a boy this time. I like the name Han.” Padme: “Don’t be ridiculous, we’re not calling him that.”), because in the intervening years between now and the end of the last movie, Anakin and Padme have already had a daughter – Leia.

This is, I think, the most significant of the changes I’ve made so far, but hopefully it’ll be an important one, in terms of Anakin’s fall to the dark side. Most of the restructuring of this film that I’ll be doing is, essentially, to try and make Anakin’s fall to the dark side a little more organic and natural.

It does get a little complicated from hereon out, though. I think Palpatine’s revelation about the powers of the Sith come too early; he ends up being very suspicious, and Anakin starts to look like an idiot for not doing anything earlier. Also, I actually quite like the idea that, thus far, we’ve been suggesting that Qui-Gonn was to become the Emperor; hopefully Palpatine has seemed relatively innocuous so far.

Anakin can still have his visions of Padme dying in childbirth, but I think also we’ll include a vision of the death of Leia too. Remembering what Qui-Gonn said in the last movie, Anakin goes to the Jedi Archives, and starts checking out some Holocrons on the Sith. Initially, the Archives won’t let him – his access was restricted by another Jedi – but Anakin bypasses it with his tech skills. Perhaps the Sith Holocrons were last checked out of the Jedi Archives by Qui-Gonn Jinn, again indicating that he’s the Big Bad Sith.

From there, we’ll go to a droid/clone battle on some backwater planet. Anakin is leading the charge; when he’s in battle, fighting against the droids, you can see there’s a lot of fury in him, and rage as well. It’s clear that years of war have changed him. Soon enough, though, he finds himself in a position where he’s protecting some innocent family from a large army of droids. Just using his lightsabre isn’t enough; he needs to do more. And so, in a moment of desperation, he throws some force lightning at the droids, destroying them all in one go.

This is where Anakin starts to be seduced by the Dark Side, we can say; at the minute, he’s going to be quite conflicted about the nature of good and evil. He doesn’t trust the Jedi council, as he knows they’ve been lying to him about his position as the chosen one. And he knows that Qui-Gonn was once a good man, who he looked up to – if he’s tapping in to the dark side, is it really that bad? And, surely any power that brings life cannot be evil? And, again, if he is the Chosen One, then should he not be using all aspects of the force, in an attempt to bring balance?

After this, the movie can run similarly. Anakin returns, and is made member of the Jedi council by Palpatine; Obi-Wan goes off to find Grievous Qui-Gonn Jinn. Mace Windu asks Anakin to spy on Palpatine, which Anakin thinks is ridiculous; Palpatine is a friend of his, and a nice enough fellow, who’s clearly pretty stressed by the war. This drives the wedge between Anakin and the council further.

I want Padme to have a plot, though, because I didn’t feel like she had enough to do in this movie. So, we want some scenes of her and Bail Organa, discussing the war and the Republic. Padme, we come to see, is disillusioned with the Republic, and wonders if the Separatists did in fact have the right idea. Bail Organa finds her disillusionment quite interesting, and gets her to come with him in his spaceship – we don’t know where they’re going, though. (Baby Leia was left with R2-D2 and C3PO, which can be a good opportunity for humour.)

From there, we follow Obi-Wan to Utapa. It’s going to go similarly to the way it did in the original Revenge of the Sith; he ends up in a lightsabre duel with Qui-Gonn, his old master. The pair are relatively evenly matched, but Qui-Gonn is noticeably holding back – he doesn’t want to hurt Obi-Wan.

As with before, we’ll cut to Anakin and Palpatine talking. Again, as with the original, Palpatine will reveal himself to be a Sith – ideally though, this scene will be much more subtle, and it’s clear that it’s meant to be an attempt to manipulate Anakin, rather than just force his hand. Also, obviously, it’s a big surprise reveal – so far we all thought Qui-Gonn was the Emperor. Things run slightly similarly to what originally happened; Anakin flees, getting Mace; Mace tells him to stay behind, simply because he doesn’t like Anakin, but also because he’s arrogant, and believes he can take Palpatine without the help of the Chosen One.

The fight between Mace & his accompanying Jedi and Palpatine goes well for Mace at first; the four of them are very clearly winning, and Palpatine is only just holding his own. You’d intercut this of scenes with Anakin getting increasingly worried and conflicted internally; eventually, he goes to the Senate Chamber to watch. And that is when Palpatine starts to win the fight – he decimates Kit Fisto and Shaak Ti and the other one, fights Mace to a standstill, then electrocutes him, torturing him. Mace is writing on the floor in pain; Palpatine is using the force to hold Anakin against the wall, immobile.

Being tortured, then, Palpatine forces Mace to reveal that he resents Anakin and always has; that he deliberately kept details of the force from him (hence the restricted access in the Archives), and, finally, the revelation that Mace created the Clone Army. He can’t explain why, though, and that’s when Palpatine reveals he’s been influencing the Jedi council. At that point, Mace is killed. Thrown out the Window, beheaded, whatever.

Palpatine begins to spiel; “the Jedi are powerless against me”, and etc. He executes Order 66, and we have our cool montage. After several shots of dying Jedi (intercut with a grieving Yoda; I don’t know if he’s on Kashyyk, maybe just a meditative retreat), we cut back to Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn, still mid duel.

The Clones begin to attack the pair of them; they try to hold them off, but can’t. They escape together in Qui-Gonn’s ship, and Qui-Gonn takes Obi-Wan to the Separatist base. Qui-Gonn explains some more about his politics and what the Separatists do, and Obi-Wan starts to realise maybe his old Master isn’t the bad guy in all this. (At some point, we reveal that the Separatists have been using droids to try and minimise the casualties of the war, emphasising that they’re the good guys here – after all, the Republic created life and treated it essentially as expendable, something we already have a problem with after having got to know the Clones in the last movie.) As they touch down on the planet, we return to Bail Organa and Padme; they’re on the ship together, heading to some planet somewhere. As they touch down, we realise they’re on the same planet as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn – the Separatist base planet. This is confirmed when the four meet, and Qui-Gonn and Bail begin to talk; Bail has been working with Qui-Gonn for a long time. It’s also revealed that this is Yavin IV – and we start to realise that the Separatist Movement now is also the basis of the Rebel Alliance. It might be nice to see a young Mon Mothma or Captain Ackbar hanging around, but that could be pushing it a little.

Back to Anakin, then. Palpatine is torturing him, and taunting him as well. He’s destroyed all the Jedi – that’s the power of the Sith. Palpatine reveals that he has a spy within the Separatist ranks; he taunts Anakin further, telling him that Padme and Obi-Wan have betrayed him, joining his sworn enemies. His best friend, and his wife – yes, Palpatine knows about that. But that’s not all he knows about:

Baby Leia is brought in, kicking and screaming, held by a pair of clone troopers. Anakin screams – but Palpatine keeps torturing him, laughing. I think perhaps he will fill Anakin’s mind with images of baby Leia dying painfully, that sort of thing – Anakin is being driven insane, and not necessarily cognizant of the full truth. We want shades of what happened to Luke in Episode VI, before Darth Vader stepped in; with no one here to save Anakin, and his whole world crumbling around him, having already felt the power of the Dark Side… he falls. I’d put a “NO” in here, but we want something blood-curdling and guttural and disturbed.

We cut to Obi-Wan, Qui-Gonn and Yoda now, all at once. Possibly three faces on screen at once. They all felt it – they felt the power of the dark side. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan begin preparations to leave at once; they don’t know exactly what has happened, only that they must head to Coruscant immediately. Unbeknownst to them, Padme sneaks aboard (haha, parallels).

Palpatine sends Anakin away to Yavin IV, to destroy the Separatists. When Anakin has left, though… enter Yoda. He’s emerged from the depths of the Jedi temple, in the hopes of rescuing the child and defeating the Emperor. The Yoda/Emperor fight proceeds similarly to how it did in the actual film; I’d take out the lightsabres, and emphasise their knowledge of the force. Yoda “loses”, in the end, when he realises he cannot defeat the Emperor and save Leia – he takes the child and runs. When he gets outside, two soldiers can approach him and say they’re from Bail Organa, sent to find Yoda, so they go off with them. Easy.

We cut to space, then; two ships, one belonging to Anakin, the other two Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn. Short orbital battle, before the pair of them crash on a planet below – Mustafar. Emerging from the damage, we get Obi-Wan, Qui-Gonn, Anakin… and Padme. Things proceed similarly to before; Padme pleads with Anakin, but he force chokes her and tosses her aside. The final battle is essentially a mash up between the Duel of the Fates from the real version of The Phantom Menace, and the final battle from Revenge of the Sith; Obi-Wann and Qui-Gonn vs Anakin, before Anakin kills Qui-Gonn and it’s Obi-Wan on his own.

From that point on, then, the movie proceeds very similarly to how it did in the original. Obi-Wan, enraged, defeats Anakin, leaving him to burn; he escapes in one of the ships, bringing Padme with him. They get to Yavin; the film continues as normal from there on, Padme giving birth to Luke, Anakin being made into the Darth Vader we all know and recognise. Notably, there isn’t a “NO” here, to show that Darth Vader doesn’t care.

We end with the same Obi-Wan/Yoda/Bail Organa discussion from the original. Yoda will explain, though, that both Qui-Gonn and Anakin misunderstood what it meant to bring balance to the force; it’s not about unifying the Light and the Dark, but destroying the Dark. The Dark is a corruption, an unnatural intrusion; the Force is balanced without the Dark. They decide on the same plans; to hide the children, away from the Emperor. We have the same concluding scenes, essentially, though there’s one new one – the same soldiers who rescued Yoda bring the broken pieces of R2-D2 and C3PO along, explaining they found them in Padme’s home. (They couldn’t find C3PO’s shin, though, so I guess he’ll need a new silver one!) The robots are taken away to be repaired and placed in the employ of Bail.

And so the movie ends, with the Jedi destroyed, and the Empire established…

Now, I readily acknowledge this isn’t perfect. Looking back over this, I think it needs to be tightened up in a little places, refined somewhat, clarified to a degree. I have, after all, done it relatively quickly. I’m not 100% happy with the final resolution of Episode III, actually, but we’ll leave it for now.

Whilst I do think this is a better overarching plot than what we got in the prequels, it’s important to stress that it’s very easy for me to extrapolate and create new plots by refining that which was already available to me. It’s not the same as creating this whole cloth, which is what George Lucas had to do.

Still, though. I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into what might have been!

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Star Wars Retrospective

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Star Wars Retrospective: Revenge of the Sith

star wars revenge of the sith review logo episode iii george lucas prequel trilogy

This is an interesting one to have reached, because a lot of my own cultural zeitgeist understanding of Star Wars comes from this film in particular. It came out in 2005, and aligned with the peak of my own personal interest in Star Wars – or, rather, was responsible for the said peak in interest. Star Wars was able to have a constant presence in my life because of the buzz around this film; I collected the lightsabres in cereal boxes (still have the Anakin Skywalker one, actually), little Burger King toys, and, of course, the Panini Sticker Albums. Loved those sticker albums.

And of course, I was also looking forward to this one because it’s supposed to be the “good” prequel. By a lot of people it’s considered to be almost as good as some of the original trilogy; if you go by Rotten Tomato scores, it’s supposedly as good as Return of the Jedi. (They’re both at 79%, if you’re interested.) Now, that was interesting in and of itself, to see how closely my views would match the commonly accepted consensus… but frankly, I also just wanted to watch a movie that was just, like, good? After Attack of the Clones, and to a lesser extent The Phantom Menace, I was really sort of losing enthusiasm for these films. I was actually worried I didn’t like Star Wars anymore. Which would have been pretty shocking.

But, thankfully, Revenge of the Sith was actually genuinely pretty good. It was a real and significant improvement over its two predecessors, that’s got to be said. Right from the beginning, actually, it starts really well, with a really impressive opening sequence; an aerial space battle that has a wonderful visual feel to it, and still looks beautiful nearly ten years later. The CGI in general throughout this movie is typically pretty good, in fact, and the movie retains a nice visual feel throughout; in terms of the actual direction, it is markedly better than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

star wars revenge of the sith space battle opening sequence cgi hayden christensen ewan mcgregor obi wan anakin r2d2

As it happens, Revenge of the Sith does a pretty good job of picking up on and improving the issues that plagued the previous two movies. A flaw that I picked up on with both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was the run time; neither film was able to properly sustain their story for the full two and a half hours that they played for, and definitely started to drag on around the 90-minute mark. Revenge of the Sith was in fact much better paced than the prior prequel movies; it moves along surprisingly quickly (there were quite a few moments that I expected to happen later in the film than they actually did) and it manages to maintain a pretty high level of interest throughout. There’s never anything boring happening on screen, and that’s rather commendable; it’s a marked improvement over the previous movies, and a reasonable achievement in its own right.

The second improvement is the portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. Now, it wasn’t perfect, I’ve got to be upfront about that; I’ll be commenting on a few issues that I took with Hayden Christensen’s performance in a moment. But, for now, I think it’s worth acknowledging that he did a much better job in this film than in Attack of the Clones (where Anakin was, frankly, intolerable). He did a decent job of portraying an older, more experienced Anakin, and actually managed to maintain a commanding screen presence as ‘Darth Vader’. Christensen’s actual performance, after Anakin had turned to the dark side, had an impressive level of intensity to it, which I honestly didn’t think he’d be able to pull off, given his performance in Attack of the Clones.

In fact, Revenge of the Sith does a pretty good job of showing the sheer brutality of the eponymous revenge, but also emphasising the tragedy of Anakin’s fall. The massacre of the Padawans is actually quite distressing in some ways – a little detail that stood out to me is the fact that the young boy called Anakin by his name, “Master Skywalker”. Clearly the younglings knew him and trusted him… and then he kills them! It’s a fairly well presented sequence, with most of the violence relegated offscreen, and left implicit by the slow activation of the lightsabre. It’s a nice touch.

Similarly, the execution of Order 66 is really well presented; there’s an excellent musical score, playing over scenes of the Jedi being utterly decimated, all intercut with sequences of Yoda feeling their deaths through the force. I’d say it’s actually one of the best sequences in the prequel trilogy; it does a great job of conveying the scale of the destruction of the Jedi order, and quite how far they fell. Honestly, it’s quite an emotive sequence – effectively presented, and ultimately rather impactful.

star wars revenge of the sith anakin skywalker hayden christensen kill the younglings padawan

Admittedly, though, the movie is still flawed.

The principal flaw remains Anakin. In this instance, it’s the actual situation leading to his fall to the dark side. On paper, the fact that his love for Padme drives him to the dark side in the end is, actually, a pretty good idea; as with many of the good ideas in the prequels, though, the execution is lacking at best and fundamentally flawed at worst.

Anakin’s descent, and tragic fall, takes place too quickly; it should be far more gradual, giving us a depiction of an inexorable decline into darkness, rather than a ridiculous about heel turn. Throughout the whole movie, it’s essentially presented as Anakin going “eh I guess I’ll listen to Palpatine”, and then “huh that was kind of a bad idea”, until it finally becomes “sod it, I’m going to murder a bunch of 9 year olds”. Anakin comes across a naïve, confused… idiot. Too many of the choices he makes are dependent on his being too trusting of Palpatine (who straight up admits to being a Sith Lord) or just not really making any independent choices of his own. Essentially, Anakin spends a lot of this plot carrying around the Idiot Ball, as it were, and it means that when he eventually becomes Darth Vader, the whole transition is undercut significantly.

I was a little disappointed with how they handled Padme in this movie as well. It was nice to see her being a little more proactive, ish, but in the end she didn’t have a huge amount of impact on the narrative; her plotline in this movie was essentially just an extended Fridging. Her death – signposted from the beginning with Anakin’s visions – was only about Anakin’s angst, and her character arc in this movie was simply to die. I think there was a cut scene somewhere, at some stage, where her and Bail Organa start the rebellion… but given that’s not even in the finished movie, it must be sad, Padme (and Natalie Portman) was dealt a pretty poor hand across these three movies.

Dooku and Grievous are also pretty weak, as antagonists go. Neither of them really have the requisite amount of screentime to have any genuine impact; you would have been better off, I think, cutting Grievous and expanding the Dooku role. (Or… well, I actually have another idea which I think is even better. Follow me and check back later today for a post rewriting the prequel trilogy).

But, on the flip side, Palpatine is actually a rather impressive villain. Ian McDiarmid gives a really skilled performance; he’s definitely the best villain of the prequel trilogy, I’d say. The character is really effective, for the most part, and has a great screen presence. Admittedly, some of his impact is undercut by the script, and Anakin’s interactions with him, but we do get to see a rather manipulative, even Machiavellian, figure, which is an impressive move from Revenge of the Sith.

star wars revenge of the sith review retrospective obi wan kenobi anakin skywalker darth vader mustafar duel fight lava planet

The film’s denouement, with the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan, is actually fantastic. As a fight, it looks impressive – it’s well choreographed, and the CGI stands up well, making Mustafar an excellent setting for the climax of the movie – but it’s made much more effective by the fact that there is some emotional weight to it. We started the film with Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting side by side, and end it thusly, with the pair in a fight to the death. It does work quite well, even despite the aforementioned flaws with Anakin’s fall to the dark side.

Ewan McGregor, it’s worth noting, does some great work with these scenes. He’s was a little limited by the dialogue at times (it’s not great), but it does have to be stressed that his performance as Obi-Wan is one of the best things about this movie. I’d really like to see him appear as Obi-Wan again, actually; I’m sure with all the Anthology movies that are supposed to be coming out under the Star Wars brand, there’s room for an Obi-Wan Kenobi movies set between Episodes III and IV.

So, Revenge of the Sith, then. It is actually a genuinely entertaining and enjoyable movie; I don’t think that can – or should – be disputed. There’s lots of impressive little directorial flourishes (like Anakin’s rebirth as Darth Vader taking place inside the imperial symbol), and some genuinely clever and effective presentation of different sequences – like the execution of Order 66, or intercutting Anakin’s rebirth as Darth Vader with Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia. I do think George Lucas did a pretty good job of directing this movie (albeit perhaps not writing it) and it’s clear that he had learnt from mistakes made with the prior prequel movies.

I do think this film can get an 8/10, actually. I genuinely did enjoy it quite a lot. In many ways, though, it highlights the most fundamental flaws of the prequels; with a little more work, and a little more consideration, these three films could have been damn near perfect. They could have been the best films ever.

And the biggest shame is the fact that they weren’t.

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Star Wars Retrospective: Attack of the Clones

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I was watching an interview with Steven Moffat yesterday, where he was talking about the Time War, and why he thought it’d never be shown on camera – the version you see on screen could never live up to the version you’ve had in your head for all these years. Obviously, there’s a certain irony to that, but what was interesting to me was that he used the Clone Wars as an example.

You sit there thinking ‘wow, the Clone Wars, that sounds awesome’, and then you see it, and it’s all just bloody meetings!”

That was interesting to me though, anyway, because it highlighted the differences in how I’m watching the Prequels, and how a lot of other people would have seen them. I mean, I wasn’t born until a little before The Phantom Menace came out, and I definitely wouldn’t have started watching Star Wars until after Attack of the Clones had come out. I never had any grounding in these movies, or expectations that the prequels could let down.

In some ways, that’s akin to a point I’d touched on in my Phantom Menace retrospective, which I posted yesterday. But it’s particularly notable here, actually, and I think more worthy of comment, because it’s with this movie that the prequels really start to draw upon the iconography of the original trilogy. You have the Clone Wars, you have Owen and Beru Lars, you have Jango and Boba Fett, and so on and so forth. Moreso than The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones really is dependent upon the original trilogy.

And… well, in theory, that’s not actually such a bad thing. Drawing on something familiar, and presenting it in a different way, can be a great way to present an effective and compelling narrative – and it’s always exciting to get more information about the mysterious backstory from the originals.

Actually, to be honest, I think even in practice, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Flawed though the film was, the flaws didn’t come from the references to the lore of the original trilogy.

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Well, I say that, but that’s not strictly true. Because the biggest flaw with this film was Anakin Skywalker. This is not a new observation, nor a particularly original one. It’s a complaint I was very aware of going into the film, and actually assumed I wouldn’t really have a problem with – you know the internet, full of hyperbole. After all, I hadn’t found Jake Lloyd as Anakin to be particularly unbearable.

But Hayden Christensen as Anakin is The Literal Worst.

It’s difficult to say how much of it is down to his acting (a terribly wooden performance) and how much of it is down the writing (exceptionally bad dialogue, amongst other things), but it all comes together to create a character who is simply excruciating to watch. Anakin is a whiney, mopey teenager, who’s irritating at best and extremely aggravating at worst. Mostly, he’s boring – it’s very difficult to give a damn about anything he does on screen, because he is such a difficult character to actually like.

Weirdly, the other characters seem to act that way as well (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment). Obi-Wan and Anakin have a contentious relationship, to say the least; Obi-Wan doesn’t seem to actually like him, most of the time, and it’s clear enough that the rest of the council take a dim view of Anakin. Which makes sense, really, because he’s so irritating.

What’s worse, though, is that Anakin is exceptionally creepy towards Padme! That actually genuinely unnerves me. Their interactions together were just so deeply uncomfortable, and extremely poorly written. There’s just no natural progression to it whatsoever; we spend about half the movie watching Anakin be creepy and Padme feeling uncomfortable, and then it’s like a switch was flipped, and suddenly she’s okay with him being a creep. The whole thing is just distinctly uncomfortable in every way.

And that’s such a huge mistake! Anakin should be our hero here – we should really, really like him as a character. Frankly, he should be everyone’s favourite character… but he’s just so dislikable! It’s exceptionally poor.

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That’s just one problem, mind you. It’s far from the only one.

Like The Phantom Menace, this film is way too long. This is actually longer than The Phantom Menace though, and it’s even more painful to sit through it. I defended the CGI in The Phantom Menace, but that’s much harder to do with Attack of the Clones; it’s much more prominent in this movie, and somehow seems to have aged more poorly as well. As much as I still think we should credit George Lucas for pioneering this style of CGI in movies, Attack of the Clones really does show that it is genuinely overdone in some instances. It must have been a nightmare for the actors at times, actually, and it’s often very offputting – I’m pretty sure that there are several rooms in the movie that don’t even exist physically, let alone all the different characters who weren’t really there.

The villains are poor too – mostly Count Dooku, but the Separatists as a whole are weak. It’s because they’ve come essentially from nowhere, and then proceed to play a fairly limited role in proceedings; Christopher Lee is a great actor and all, but he has very little screentime, and there’s not exactly much character to Count Dooku at all. The whole plot is weak as well, actually – things just sort of happen, all the time. It’s not really a strict progression of cause to effect, more a string of unrelated incidents occurring – there’s no plot impetus or anything – which eventually results in a final confrontation.

And actually, speaking of the plot, there’s a huge gaping plot hole which actually annoys me in terms of how lazy it is.

When Obi-Wan goes to Kamino, he finds out that the Clone Army has been commissioned by a Jedi Master by the name of Sifo Dyas. This Jedi, it’s implied, is the fellow who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives Data Bank. But none of this is ever addressed! Obi-Wan basically just rolls with it on Kamino, so do the Jedi Council when they find out, and then the Clones have become the army of the Republic – without anyone ever questioning their mysterious origins!

Sifo Dyas, of course, is a character we’ve never seen before. He died ten years ago – around the time of the Battle of Naboo. Are we supposed to think it’s Qui-Gonn Jinn? Possibly. Although maybe it’s actually Count Dooku, because he’s an ex-Jedi as well, and he’s definitely evil.

I googled it, and it turns out, Sifo Dyas is a typo. Originally, it was Sido Dyas, as in a corruption of “Sidious”, and the Sith Lord would have created the Army. Mace Windu would have explained there was never a Sido Dyas, and so on and so forth. Except at one point George Lucas accidentally wrote Sifo Dyas, preferred that name, and just sort of rolled with it. And clearly did a remarkably lazy job of rewriting the script! That’s the sort of thing that really annoys me, because it is honestly, genuinely, just laziness. (And George Lucas obviously did work really hard on these movies, I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise… but there are definite areas of sloppiness.)

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I wanted to like this one, really. I was expecting to like it – not love it, true, but at the very least, I figured I’d enjoy it. After all, I thought The Phantom Menace was alright, and Attack of the Clones does have a significantly better reputation than its predecessor… so why wouldn’t I enjoy it?

Because it’s just an awful film. I’m sorry, but it is. Yes, there are good elements – Ewan McGregor remains a wonderful Obi-Wan, and it’s rather cool to see all the lightsabre battles at the end (with Mace Windu’s purple lightsabre ooh ahh) – but as a whole, the film is just sort of awful.

And that’s a genuine shame, it really really is.

This film gets a 4/10 – it actually really isn’t as good as The Phantom Menace, to be honest. Though, as with Phantom, had it been an hour shorter, I may have been willing to bump up the score by one point.

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes

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Okay, so, I watched this film this morning for the first time, and thus I have Some Thoughts Upon It.

Generally, it was pretty good. Just that though, nothing more. “Pretty Good” is my verdict. There were lots of things that came together which were all good things, and came together to be… pretty good.

I liked Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes, I thought that was a good choice, as was casting Jude Law as Watson. They both did really, really good work. (Incidentally, this is the first, and thus far only, iteration of Sherlock Holmes where I’ve understood “shipping” the pair together. I got that subtext from here. Although only for about half the film.)

This film’s version of Irene Adler was, I think, a much better version than the one from Sherlock; not from the acting, but the relationship between her and Holmes was a better one in this film, I think. The rivalry-stroke-friends kind of thing, where they like each other, but not necessarily the way the other operates, and gravitate (?) between friends and enemies. I like that sort of relationship between characters. That’s how the Master and the Doctor should be portrayed, I think, and it’s similar ish to Clark and Lex in the middle seasons of Smallville.

(Also, speaking of Irene, there didn’t appear to be as many issues with her as the Sherlock version, though if there were, please someone point them out to me)

The other big thing was Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood, which I think was one of the best things about the film. In making him a more supernatural character, it gave the film a sort of Indiana Jones-y feel – our normal (ish) character, facing the unknown. So, yeah, that was pretty cool. It’s also, I think, quite unique to this film – it’s not really something Sherlock or Elementary could pull off, not really.

(Something that I didn’t initially notice, but saw on the Wikipedia page for the film, is that this is quite like The Hound of the Baskervilles; a potentially supernatural threat which is eventually explained away as natural.)

My one complaint about the film is that the first two thirds or so weren’t particularly engaging – and I think that’s why the film is only “pretty good” and not “pretty awesome” which it really could’ve been. I’m not sure why it wasn’t engaging – maybe it was just me, I suppose. But… I guess it’s because they were just “doing stuff” and not really getting to the heart of the issue, which was Lord Blackwood. So I suppose if the Supernatural aspect had been really played up a lot more, then it would have been a much better film.

Also, that shot of Lord Blackwood hanging from the partially assembled Tower Bridge should have been the closing scene. It was a pretty haunting image.

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