Archive for Star Wars

Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2018 by dcairns

I was pontificating about the season of Tuesday sci-fi movies I saw on the BBC as a kid, and Sheldon Hall was good enough to supply the exact schedule, which went as follows: FORBIDDEN PLANET (06/11/1974), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (13/11/1974), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (20/11/1974), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (27/11/1974), VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (04/12/1974), THEM! (11/12/1974) and THE TIME MACHINE (18/12/1974).

I now intend to blog about all of them.

I already wrote a substantial piece on the last-named, but will revisit it and see what happens. I should see if my Dad is up for watching any of these, since he accompanied the just-turned-seven me last time round, and helped explain some of the more difficult stuff. I might still need his assistance.

Seeing all those films for the first time in such a compact pattern and at such an early age was definitely eye and mind-opening. I was already a Doctor Who fan — that character was about to transform from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, which made me if anything an even bigger fan, but what impressed me about these movies was less the higher production values, which didn’t make any direct impression on me, and more the striking imagery and wild concepts. For sure, images like the decomposing Morlock or the invisible Monster from the Id outlined against a force field were made possible by the movies’ bigger budgets, but also by the greater imaginative scope.I can’t recall for sure, but I suspect FP was the first 50s sci-fi movie I ever saw, and I don’t see that I could have done better, even though the film must have been pan-and-scanned and seen on a b&w TV (I recall our first colour TV arriving a little later — I was excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Baker’s scarf in colour). By virtue of being set in deep space and in the far future, it hits the viewer with exciting imagery from the very start — a flying saucer piloted by a crew of staunch earthmen (did they back-engineer the Roswell UFO?), an exotic alien planet, and the first inhabitant we meet is a friendly robot. There wasn’t much chance of me getting bored. (But I was riveted by all the other films in the series, except the one I missed, and which I will be seeing… for the first time… in a few weeks.)

Before Leo the lion has even faded up fully, the beep-beep-bloop of Louis & Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities adds a sonic strangeness, and the first thing we see after our leonine emcee is not the main title, but a spacecraft. MGM evidently decided to make not only the biggest and most impressive of SF-SFX movies, but one with a hint of the unconventional. The score, like the costumes, would be recycled endlessly in future films, but the composers received no fees for the re-use, since their work wasn’t classed as music.

 

Four minutes into this upload of a Shirley Clarke experimental film you can hear more of the Barrons’ “tortured circuits” music

Before Robby, we get a bit of backstory setting up man’s hyperdriven expansion into the cosmos, and we meet the crew of Starship C-57D, including Space Commander Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The cast also includes Mr. Miniver, Steve Austin’s boss and Honey West, whose affinity for wildcats is first established here. The stuff about hyperdrive demonstrates the film’s seriousness and largesse: it feels the need to make interstellar travel in some way scientifically explainable — or, if it doesn’t really offer an excuse for faster-than-light travel’s existence, it at least acknowledges the need for an excuse, and uses the problem to motivate some neat VFX from Joshua Meador from Disney, and his uncredited team.The set-up is very Star Trek. Though there are no living aliens in this scenario, there’s a benign, American-dominated space force (maybe in the future EVERYONE is American?) and a tough ship’s captain and his chum the doctor. When they were trying to come up with ideas for Star Trek motion pictures, I thought they could do worse than remake FP. And as I recall, James Cameron wanted to. Maybe the scary lost alien civilisation stuff, which is very Lovecraftian, would have informed Del Toro and Cameron’s planned adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Much has been made of the connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though as with William Wellman’s western version, it’s not 100% sure who came up with the notion, or if it was even consciously in place. The story is credited to two special effects artists, Irving Block and Allen Adler, who seem to have made their brief careers as screenwriters by pitching stories based around effects they knew they could provide. Although Roger Corman, director of THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE LAND OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT, felt that he was essentially conned into making the movie on the strength of spectacular production art which was then impossible to realise. The smart dialogue (apart from Robby’s weird misuse of the word “monitor” and a few other odd touches) is by novelist Cyril Hume, whose The Wife of the Centaur was filmed by King Vidor in 1924. It has one IMDb review, by our old friend F. Gwyneplaine MacIntyre, which means it’s almost certainly a lost film. Hume sold his talent to MGM and became their go-to guy for TARZAN pics. It seems plausible that he noticed Tempest-like qualities in Block & Adler’s scenario, and emphasised them.Ariel and Caliban are sort of flipped here — Ariel, the good and faithful servant is Robby, the solid, earthly one,  whereas the rebellious native Caliban is the monster from the id, the floating spirit. But Robby is also someone else —

This movie seems to invent the trope of the robot butler. As emotionless as Jeeves, Robby’s lumbering gait prevents him shimmering into existence like Wooster’s manservant, but he seems to have been inspired by the natural associations of butlers and desert islands which dates back to J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, first filmed in 1918, again as MALE AND FEMALE by DeMille in 1919, and at various times since. Unofficial adaptations abound, and there have been two actual robot Crichtons on TV — Jeff David’s obnoxious Crichton in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Robert Llywellyn’s timorous Kryten in Red Dwarf. It probably all goes back to Man Friday, though.

Robby is a great robot. If I had to choose a feature of A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert Kinoshita’s design that makes him most wondrous, I would be torn between his little stumpy arms and his big glass bubble head, both of which make him less obviously humanoid, although both are completely compatible with him being a man in a suit. In these dark days of robot rebellion, of T-1000s and EX MACHINAs, Robby reflects the comforting certainty of the fifties. Robby will never let us down.His ability to synthesise anything from bourbon to diamonds on demand anticipates Star Trek too — Gene Roddenberry did acknowledge the influence. The future seems to be without want, like Powell & Pressburger’s heaven, “with all our earthly problems solved and bigger ones worth the solving.” As Robby accompanies the surviving crew of the C-57D home at the end, he’s presumably going to put his awesome powers at the service of humanity. As a product of Morbius’s alien-boosted brain, he may bring some dangers too, but non-sequel THE INVISIBLE BOY fails to explore these promising possibilities.

Of course, he’s a mechanical red herring in this story, as the one visible suspect who could be responsible for the upcoming murders. Does Forbidden Planet fail as a fair-play murder mystery? Perhaps so, as by its science-fictional nature it depends on producing unpredictable elements which alter our understanding of the world we’re in — nobody’s likely to guess the presence of a monster from the id in this one, because the possibility of such things isn’t established at the outset.

Check out the two end ones.

So, now we meet the other inhabitants — Dr. Edward Morbius (great name!) and his comely daughter, Altaira, a very Star Trek female, with her miniskirts and what-is-love? naiveté. She also gets the best deliberately funny line in a fifties sci-ci flick as she admires the sudden influx of male specimens — “The two end ones are unbelievable.” It may not rival “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” but it’s highly amusing and a touch risqué.

If this is a whodunnit, then everybody immediately guesses that Morbius is the who who done it, though we can’t know how. Attempts to throw suspicion on Robby falter in the face of his portly benevolence, and a brief moment where Altaira seems to have a nightmare depicting the monster’s onslaught only hints vaguely that she might be involved. We know Morbius knows more than he’s telling, and once we learn about the lost Krell civilisation we know those guys figure somehow, but there’s no way to really guess it.

Possible explanation for Altaira’s psychic dream: did Morbius resist the temptation to brain-boost his young daughter? And perhaps the effects will only truly kick in as she attains full adulthood. Is the C-57D starship hosting a Midwich cuckoo in the nest?

Director Fred MacLeod Wilcox was something of a mystery to me — I’ve loved his film for over forty years without ever looking into his career. That ends now!

Charles Butterworth addresses Fred Wilcox’s sister, Ruth Selwyn, in BABY FACE HARRINGTON.

Wilcox was lucky enough to be brother-in-law of Loew’s Inc. chairman Nick Schenck. Actress Ruth Selwyn was one of his several sisters, wife of director Edgar Selwyn. His direction is better than workmanlike here, with a sure touch for generating suspense. No doubt he’s aided greatly by his effects artists, who find neat ways to portray the invisible enemy’s advances, including those subjective camera crane shots.

Wilcox started as an assistant to King Vidor, who gets everywhere, doesn’t he?

His other best-known film is LASSIE COME HOME, and he helmed a couple of later pics with the heroic trans dog, who moved through spacetime as fluidly as Doctor Who, turning up wherever s/he was needed. Wilcox makes a better brother-in-law than he does an auteur, but we can guess that his favourite actors may have been Edmund Gwenn and Ralph Meeker, who each worked with him twice, and Pal, who played that dog for him three times. Themes recurring in his work include the perils of the wayward mind, afflicting Pigeon here and Meeker in SHADOW IN THE SKY, and hydrophobia, afflicting Meeker in that film and Lassie in HILLS OF HOME. As a kid, I was amused by Walter Pidgeon’s name, but thought him a fine actor. Anybody who could play someone called Dr. Morbius HAD to be a fine actor, to my seven-year-old brain. I was probably right, but not in the way I thought. Pidgeon’s stiff manner is fine for producing gravitas, though I find his pausing a little off today — he breaks up sentences not like a man thinking where his next thought is leading, but like an actor trying to remember his lines. It’s skilled subterfuge, but not as invisible as the id-monster. Today I imagine someone like Charles Laughton in the role… William Powell… James Mason…Leslie Nielsen, who joked in later years that his early career all looked like comedy to him now, is perfectly adequate as the starship commander, though he’s no Shatner (the Shat is animated by a WILL TO GREATNESS that he may not be able to make good on, but which makes him kind of exciting and risky). The character is pretty much an asshole, punishing one of his crew for being asleep OFF duty, and slut-shaming Altaira because he simply doesn’t understand how innocent she is. Screw that guy. And when he tries his IQ on the Krell Test-Your-Strength brain machine, his brain fails to ring the bell. (Current reading: Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which contains the apt line during a fairground scene, “That bell will never ring again.”)Asides from Robby, Anne Francis gives the best performance — if you get a chance to see the pair reuinited in the documentary The Android Prophecy, it’s really sweet (she asks him for a new dress, translucent, with sequins round the nipples). Her “nude scene” here is a tease, and just as with Amanda Barrie rising from the milk in CARRY ON CLEO, the invention of VHS and the pause button allowed my teenage self to be disappointed at how much she’s actually wearing during her skinny-dip. A lot more than sequins.The Krell subterranean power station is a fantastic setting, a mixture of sets, matte paintings and miniatures (allowing vertiginous roving POV shots. It’s very clean and bright, but still scary because it’s ancient and deserted and we know something bad happened here. While showing a lot of state-of-the-art 50s FX, the movie also enlists the audience’s imagination. We never see a Krell. We see the outlines of an invisible monster from the id, created by Disney animators but looking a little like the bulldog in MGM’s own Tom & Jerry toons, but is this the accurate image of a Krell or merely Morbius’s imagining of one? That middle image is VERY Death Star chic, isn’t it? George Lucas certainly saw and admired this movie too.

The solution to the mystery — Morbius’s id runs amok — the sleep of reason brings forth monsters from the id. The image of him slumped over his desk seems a direct nod to Goya. Fiona and I still love the protective steel panels that appear around Morbius’s pad, slamming into place by jump cut, but Fiona is today unimpressed by the rubbery distortions when they buckle under the force of an id-attack. The wobbly material gives itself away. But I still remember how thrilling it seemed to me at age seven, so I don’t really mind.As a kid, the thing that baffled me was, is Morbius dead at the end? Obviously he is — he’s not on the spaceship, his planet blows up, and Commander Drebin talks about how he’ll be remembered. I think what puzzled me was his CAUSE of death. He isn’t obviously struck down by the monster from his id, so his death doesn’t have the visceral, physical quality of previous victims (even the offscreen ones described as “torn limb from limb” etc). The destruction seems to be mental, the forces of his mind turned against one another — just like Robby’s sparking circuits when he’s given an order that violates his Asimovian programming. That earlier scene works as foreshadowing here.

Another moment anticipating the later developments is when Altaira’s tame tiger pounces at her, apparently failing to recognise her. She can’t understand why, and Drebin expresses a kind of wonderment at her inability to see the reason. It’s because she’s with him, I guess. Either her awakening to womanhood has confused the tiger who genuinely no longer knows who she is, or he’s jealous. (In a deleted scene, the doc equates the cat’s tameness to that of the unicorn who is in thrall to the purity of a maiden — so that must be what the script intended — an implication that Altaira has lost her purity through her association with the commander.) Which is interesting when you think of it in terms of the monster’s motivation. Is Morbius at some deep Krell sub-level of his mind as jealous of his daughter as he is off his planet paradise and his ancient alien knowledge? The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

“After all, we are not God.” Seems like almost a genre requirement to invoke the deity in the closing words of an sf thriller of this era — see also WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Let’s see if this holds true in subsequent films. It may be the result of nervousness about drama in which the recognized norms of earthly existence are subverted or vanished — a reminder that, after all, the big beard guy is still in charge, even if our characters are IN the heavens and see no sign of angels. And, well, MGM was the most conservative studio. Jere, the dumb hero triumphs and the alien tech is destroyed — something a man like Morbius would NEVER do. Outside of their musicals, they’re not my favourite dream factory by a long chalk, but still, this is one I love.

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Stupidity of the First Order

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona dragged me to see… no, I’ve got to stop saying that. I was curious to see the new Rian Johnson film too — big fan of BRICK, LOOPER, and THE BROTHERS BLOOM may be a misfire but it’s the kind of misfire I’d welcome more of. I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to see the film RIGHT AWAY, but what the heck, it is a big screen spectacular…

There are spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to be discreet.

And some of the reviews were very good — though Peter Bradshaw bemoaned a major section of the plot being essentially a pointless side-trip. But that side-trip may be the most Johnsonian section of the narrative, a decadent art deco gambling world milieu. It inspires him to replay a shot from Wellman’s WINGS, soaring over the tables and between the customers. And it looks very much like it’s setting stuff up for the next film: the entrancing child actors from this sequence are coming back, it seems. But yeah, there’s too much of this film, and whole planets exist just to get the heroes captured so they can escape so they can get captured again. This is what happens when you don’t have enough real story.

Actors! Daisy Ridley seemed fine in the J.J. Abrams opener, but she has some very poor moments here, notably her first big speech. She’s cursed with a flat voice and an inexpressive face. That tiny cute scar on her cheek is her claim to interest. Though she’s not as bad as early Keira Knightley so maybe she’ll get there. John Boyega is fine in the non-eggy moments, Oscar Isaac is good but we know he can be better. Laura Dern continues her bold hair colouring from Twin Peaks. Hamill is good and Carrie Fisher’s valedictory turn is touching. Benicio Del Toro is the one bringing the real entertainment though I think giving him a stammer was over-egging it. He’s a natural eccentric already. Kelly Marie Tran is an unusual and charming presence and I was really interested in Veronica Ngo who has all too brief a role but gets to do the most affecting heroic stuff in the movie.

Andy Serkis is a CGI creation AGAIN, and I really don’t know why. The icky subtractive scar effect modelled by Frank Langella in the otherwise stultifying THE BOX is much more disturbing on a real actor than it is on a thing of pure pixels. Look at Voldemort in the HARRY POTTERs (there’s some quite Potterish stuff in this one) — a real actor rendered digitally noseless. As a voice performance, Serkis’ is a very generic baddie, and as a physical performance, he sits in a chair. And Adam Driver still feels too peevish and adolescent to be our boss villain, especially in a plot that basically has him outsmarted a lot.

Yoda and Maz Katana’s fleeting bits are just fan service. Chewbacca and the droids are barely more.

But there are some nifty set pieces — maybe the best light-saber battle ever, staged on a red set like something out of an MGM musical by way of Kurosawa. The opening dogfight has one very good thing going for it: it’s coherent. I wasn’t bored as I was with ROGUE ONE but I was ready for the movie to be over long before the makers apparently were. Then it would manage to muster my interest again. There’s a bit where the heroes escape on space buses. I was waiting for Princess Leia to say, “What am I, Carrie Fisher, doing playing piano on a bus to the moon?” I’ll be surprised if more than a couple of you get that reference.

If THE FORCE AWAKENS was a slavish remake of STAR WARS (you know, the first one, the film called STAR WARS), which it sure as shit was, Johnson’s opus is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in its broad strokes: the Rebels/Resistance have to flee their base, a young Jedi gets training from a Master while other characters go to a gambling planet but are betrayed; the heroes regroup at the end but face an uncertain future. Concurrent with these familiar beats are callbacks to memorable bits from the first film (Obi-Wan faces his pupil; garbage hatch escape; parental revelations; a hero disconnects his comms link while gunning for the weak spot of a huge weapon…), some deliberate, some maybe more desperate or resulting from the filmmakers running out of new situations.

But there’s stuff we haven’t seen before: super-fast dissolves as characters in different scenes exchange telepathic glances. A visual rebuttal of Lucas’s midichlorians bullshit, showing the force connecting all things with a nature montage suggesting the welcome influence of King Hu and A TOUCH OF ZEN. And I have to be cheered by so much of the film being set in Ireland, even if it’s meant to be Space Ireland.

There is some uncertainty of tone: is the movie duty-bound to feel like the old STAR WARS? Giving women and people of colour stuff to do is a welcome departure from Lucas’ films, but otherwise? One of the (innumerable) things that seemed wrong about Lucas’ own prequels was the stuff that just didn’t belong in the universe he’d created: fart jokes, the comedy sports announcer, that kind of stuff. There’s more of that here — a gag with what’s set up as a spacecraft but turns out to be a robotic iron pressing First Order uniforms seems more like a Richard Lester joke, and isn’t really connected to anything else the film attempts. There’s a relentless barrage of quips and many of them are not good. Though at least they don’t tend to paint the heroes as sadistic Man With No Name/James Bond thugs, as the quips in ROGUE ONE do: Poe Dameron doesn’t make mocking remarks to random stormtroopers as he’s killing them.

So it’s a mixed bag of Jedi mind tricks. Entertaining enough — if I had kids I would feel I was poisoning them if I let them watch the prequels, but this would get a pass. Not an exact clone,  for all its harking back, so that counts for something. But then, not as emotional as FORCE AWAKENS was. Watch this space, but I think I’m done with seeing this series on the big screen. But I’d like to see Johnson build a universe of his own.

Episode 3.5: An Old Hope

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2017 by dcairns

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Spoilers in this one — don’t read it if you’re ever planning to see ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.

THE FORCE AWAKENS had some kind of vestigial appeal for me because I was ten when STAR WARS came out. But it was also frustrating because, like most JJ Abrams joints, it was just a remake and remix of its original. Another, even bigger Death Star? Again? Are ideas so scarce?

This new one didn’t awaken the same sentimental warmth in me because there were fewer of the original actors and less of the original John Williams leitmotifs. I enjoyed all the design and the environments (though two rocky planets in the first act was a mistake: should’ve differentiated them more). They picked up the best designs elements of the Lucas-Kirschner-Marquand trilogy, ditched the dodgy bits, added a bunch more that were stylistically in keeping and of a high standard. But the characters and plot and dialogue — ugh. OK, dialogue was never the series’ strong suit, but one does remember a few lines. There’s basically one good line in this, from the blind guy.

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Just one of the many exciting action sequences in ROGUE ONE.

I think it’s maybe a good thing that this one was less good vs. evil, black-and-white. There’s more conflict within the Rebel Alliance. But the story is very fragmented. After the first sequence we flash forward fifteen years or so. Then we start following several plotlines at once — quite different from the neat, WIZARD OF OZ like linearity of Lucas’ first effort. We meet the hero quite late in that one, because Lucas realized he had to use the robots to guide us through the story — as memory serves: when the droids meet Princess Fisher, we can then follow her and meet Grand Moff Cushing, and from then on we can intercut between droids, Fisher and Cushing. Then the droids meet Luke Hammillwalker, and we can intercut between his POV and the others (but sparingly). Luke meets Alec Kenobi, and then they meet Harrison Solo and Mayhewbacca. We don’t meet anyone before the droids meet them, except the baddies, who we meet via a kind of relay with the Princess.

Here, we just meet people all the time, whenever the committee in charge of the film feel like it, so it’s a jumble. And though the threads do intertwine more tightly to bring us to a climax on one planet, it still results in one of those horrible intercutty all-at-once climaxes that became a problem around RETURN OF THE JEDI. (STAR WARS has one climax, EMPIRE has two, JEDI has three). And it features the most ludicrous data retrieval system ever conceived, basically based on that arcade game with the claw where you try to pick up gifts.

(I think the awful inefficiency of the filing system must be why the cloned Cushing blows up the Empire’s entire records office at the end, along with the planet it’s on. There is no other possible explanation. I mean, it can’t have been in order to get the two surviving rebels, can it?)

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WARS and TREK both tend to deal in a mixture of one-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. Monsters and robots are mostly one-dimensional. C-3PO has one characteristic, he’s prissy. Chewbacca is large. Yoda is wise. The flesh-and-blood actors who show their own face-skin have slightly more facets, partly because Lucas realized they needed more, but also just because human beings tend to bring additional messiness to anything they play. Harrison Ford tends to sound bored, so his character becomes cynical and also crooked but also bored. Luke is noble and naive but also shrill and whiny.

In ROGUE ONE, the blind guy believes in the force and his pal is defined entirely by his faithfulness to the blind guy. The actors bring a little more to the table with individual line readings, but really that’s all they get to work with. It’s hard to say what makes the nice English girl in this different from the nice English girl in FORCE AWAKENS, other than backstory. The robot sounds like C-3PO only an octave lower, to which is added Chewie’s signature character trait of largeness. I can’t put any names to any characteristics of Diego Luna except he’s brave and a little ruthless. Riz Ahmed gives the best performance but it’s a miracle, since he has almost nothing to work with. Fairly early on, his brain gets tentacle-raped by Forrest Whitaker’s fat squid, and he’s a bit traumatized for the duration of a scene. Letting his combat shock last throughout the movie would have actually given him a part to play. What we get in the end is a pretty magnificent example of an actor bringing an empty outline to life by sheer force of commitment to inhabiting it with his humanity.

And then there’s Forrest Whitaker’s cyborg guy — a one-dimensional character with a two-dimensional head.

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Elsewhere we have the CGI Carrie Fisher about which all one can say is it doesn’t work, and the CGI Peter Cushing which doesn’t work and is an insult to a fine actor’s memory. I don’t care that his secretary gave permission. The idea that a bunch of nerds at computers are going to turn another thin actor into Cushing is preposterous and offensive and the results bear that out. Martin Scorsese said that as a kid seeing Hammer movies, he admired Cushing and “the precision of his movements within the frame.” The clone version certainly moves precisely — but the result is just “cut scenes” from vidgames only with a more detailed complexion.

So, my question is — given the movie’s commendably bold decision to basically kill all its characters, did someone say, “Better not make them too appealing, or people will be upset?” That doesn’t seem likely, but it’s what it felt like when I watched the film.

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Toallow a positive note — when Brian DePalma saw a rough cut of STAR WARS, the ever-obnoxious auteur sneered, “THAT’S your bad guy’s entrance?” as Dave Prowse in a plastic hat stepped into view at the end of a long corridor. This movie does give Darth Vader a much better entrance. First there’s a teaser of some guy living in a glass of milk in a big lava tower — Who lives in a house like this? The lava tower is actually an early Lucas idea for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and the partially-glimpsed, helmetless figure is actually a swipe from EMPIRE. A couple more bits. And then he gets a great action sequence at the end which sadly involves to actual characters but is very well staged, although not as good as the comparable fight in OLDBOY. But if you graft this one onto STAR WARS, Darth finally has a really strong, hissable entrance.

Did that make it worth twenty quid of our money? Hell no.