Sunday, August 2, 2015

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut

My partner and I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past in the theatre when it was released and we enjoyed it enough. The film was certainly not the world's greatest movie but neither was it the nadir of superheroics like Age of Ultron or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Part of what made X-Men: Days of Future Past (hereafter DOFP) so enjoyable was that the film did not have ridiculous ambitions of being part of a "cinematic universe." The film, in fact, reaches a complete and satisfying conclusion, rather than operates as a 140 minute trailer for another film -- or more accurately, a series of films. I wouldn't go so far as to say that DOFP was a standalone entry; the film relies too much on the viewers having seen the First Class entry from 2011. However, the main difference between the Marvel movies' reliance on returning viewers and DOFP's is that the X-Men film needs the audience to be familiar with thematic points rather than specific plot points. While this seems an unspectacular detail, this difference is huge in terms of my personal enjoyment of the film.

Historically, the X-Men comics have mired themselves in multiple bogs of sticky plot complexities, from alternate universes to time travel to mysterious backgrounds slowly teased out and then retroactively overwritten. Try following the comics' history of the Summers brothers or Jean Grey and Scott's child (who is possibly Cable or Nate Grey? I have no fucking clue). The X-Men films, by dint of being a different medium with different conditions of production and market necessities, streamline the jagged edges of 60 years' worth of history. The films are more a distillation of X-Men mythos than a series of films; they're a greatest hits package. The Marvel movies have tried, artistically unsuccessfully, to provide the complicated backstory and have tried to replicate the stickiness of comic book history (think of Hayley Atwell's 10 second cameo in Ant-Man). The X-Men film series is less interested in plot continuity and more interested in thematic continuity. The zenith of the film series, X2: X-Men United, pushes the central metaphor that mutants are marginalized populations -- such as queer folks; this is not the world's most complicated metaphor, but Bryan Singer's deft hand and queer subject position provide a more stable position for the metaphor.

I rarely read the X-Men family of comics. They felt like a rabbit hole of plot knots, forever being tied and rarely being loosed. I did read Grant Morrison's run, if only because I love the writer enough to follow him wherever. Additionally, I was always a casual fan of the films. I saw X2 and X-Men 3: Last Stand (which is as atrocious as you have no doubt heard) in the theatre, but I skipped First Class until home video release. Singer's return to the film series with DOFP brought back my excitement. While the original comic book is pretty cool, it's certainly not a story I ever feel the urge to read a second time. The allure of the film adaptation is in the return of the original cast and the new cast, an ambitious bridging of the two continuities, but without getting bogged down in specific timelines. The trailers for the film pushed the time travel hook and offered the idea that the film would explore the complicated ethics of the situation. In fact, it felt like an organic continuation of the thematic concerns of First Class. The previous film ended on an ambiguous note, leaving Magneto as the anti-hero, and Raven torn between Xavier's idealism and Erik's pessimism. DOFP looked to extend this conflict by forcing Erik and Xavier to reteam to stop Raven's attempted assassination and remind her of her essential humanity. So not only was the film advertised as having a complex plot, but also having complex thematic concerns. I was sold.

Luckily, the film mostly delivered on these promises. So rare is the superhero film that uses the climax for concluding a thematic arc, yet this movie tried valiantly to continue exploring the meaning of humanity in a post-human world. However, the central metaphor of Singer's previous series was discarded in favour of continuing Raven's arc from First Class. This was no tragedy; I have trouble imagining how Singer could have kept running with it. His exploration of Raven's humanity or lack thereof was quite compelling, especially when fleshed out a smidge more in the Rogue Cut.

Released a year after the theatrical cut, the Rogue Cut, as it's been known, adds around 20 minutes of footage to the film, specifically the addition of Rogue's subplot into the future timeline. Rogue's character in the original trilogy operated as the audience surrogate (a new pupil to the school) and as the central hinge upon which the metaphor of marginalization worked. Her power did not manifest in cool acrobatics or teleportation but rather left her adrift among humans and mutants alike; she could not have her skin touch other skin for fear of accidentally killing them. Her character allowed for the films to explore the idea that sometimes people don't want to be different, they want to be normal, but self-acceptance is healthy.

In the Rogue Cut, her subplot is essentially about match cuts. Previously, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her power to psychically send Wolverine back into his past body. However, when Wolverine sees a young Stryker in the past, he gets upset and his body in the future flails around. His claws extend; they cut Kitty; she is wounded and losing blood. The solution? Free the imprisoned Rogue from the X-Mansion and have her use Kitty's power so Kitty can heal. Not the world's most clever use of Rogue or Anna Paquin but it does allow for this pretty nifty sequence that I have lovingly screenshot.

We open in the past, with a shot of the X-Mansion in its prime.


A neat dissolve to the dystopic future with the scary ships hovering in the background.


A cut to inside a tunnel. We hear Xavier give telepathic directions to Magneto and Iceman.


Cut to Past Magneto entering a hallway.


Reverse shot, showing the obstacle that prevents Future Magneto's forward progress, specifically a large metal wall. Since he is the Master of Magnetism, this is not much of a problem.


A thematic match cut as the metal bar represents the same obstacle for Past Magneto. Here, though, we get a shot of him exercising his powers.


This is matched with Future Magneto pulling the metal wall out.


They walk down a hall. This shot shows all the pipes and whatnot, a set up for a payoff that comes at the end of the sequence. Here, the audience is primed to see these pipes.


This establishing shot is mirrored in a past establishing shot. The camera begins shooting 90 degrees down to the ground and...


...slowly pans up to show that Past Magneto is infiltrating the prison he just escaped.


Here we get a couple shot, reverse shots that's temporally distant. Future Magneto walks towards the camera....


...and in the past, Past Magneto walking away from the camera.


Another obstacle, this time guards. The previous shot (above) shows the audience two metal balls spinning above Magneto's hand.


Here we see that they are weapons in the hands of the Master of Magnetism.


He reaches out towards the wall.


And the wall opens for him.


This was tough to get a screenshot of, but there's a cut a reverse shot of Future Magneto opening a door using his powers.


Reverse shot to over their shoulders. Two unfortunate scientists are working on experiments with Rogue's body. Here, we have another delightful thematic match cut.


A clear shot of poor Rogue, the subject of invasive experiments.


Back in the past, Magneto approaches a glass display case.


We have Havok's chest thingamajigger and one of Angel's wings.


A close-up of Magneto looking at something specific.


We get a slow push-in of the coin that he used to kill Kevin Bacon in the previous film. A coin that symbolizes invasive surgery, oppression, fascism, hatred, racism.


A cut to Future Magneto looking at Rogue's strapped body, reminding him of the horrors he's seen in the camps and throughout his life.


The helmet, the symbol of both his imprisonment (Kevin Bacon originally wore it) and his freedom (from telepathic interference).


Rogue sees Magneto and is frightened because as long as Rogue has known the X-Men, Erik has been the villain.


Past Magneto uses his powers:


Cut to the straps coming off Future Rogue.


The helmet comes out of the glass display...


... into Magneto's waiting hand. He is ready to turn things around.


Magneto, Iceman, and Rogue prepare to leave.


The music and Xavier opening his eyes signals to the audience that something is wrong:


Sentinels are awakening.


Iceman tries to hold them back but...


...he dies. His sacrifice is not in vain though...


...as the pipes we saw earlier light on fire.


The X-Mansion is destroyed. Xavier's legacy is blown away.


This, to me, is one of the better scenes of the film, along with the bravura opening fifteen minutes. It kind of captures a lot of what makes both Bryan Singer and the X-Men so alluring: a combination of neat action and moments of introspection, deftly juggled. The match cuts here are quite excellent (my partner is a huge fan of match cuts. I should convince them to make a film essay cataloguing their favourites).

This also sums up another reason why I enjoyed DOFP more than other superhero films: the stakes are high and maintained throughout the film.

Consider the second sequence from the film (I won't screenshot it): Warpath, Bishop, Iceman, Firedude (I don't know his name), Blink, Colossus, and Kitty infiltrate this place to do something or whatever (supplies I think?). They are intercepted by Sentinels. In a series of action beats, Singer both establishes that this second or third generation X-Men team have fantastic powers that are used quite cleverly (eg Blink uses complicated portals to increase Colossus's inertia, increasing his hitting power) and establishes that the Sentinels are unbeatable through normal means of force. The Sentinels kill each and every one of the X-Men and absorb their powers. The main threat is well established: traditional strategies will not save the heroes of the film and thus an alternative stratagem must be executed.

The "classic" X-Men arrive, along with Magneto (always ambiguously a member of the X-Men, which is what makes him so fucking compelling) and the plot of the film is sketched out. With some clunky exposition, Kitty explains her power for the audience and then Xavier explains his plan of action: send somebody to the past to alter the future. The film cleverly steps aside objections that Erik and Xavier would have previous memories of this by having Kitty state that the timeline is affected the moment the traveller wakes up, which creates a single but changed timeline. Now we have a time travel plot that's simple enough to be explained in a couple minutes but thematically complicated enough to sustain and even extend the themes of the previous film.

The true cleverness of the whole thing is that Wolverine has already been established to not age so it makes sense to send him back as he'll look the same in the past. I mean, let's not pretend that Hugh Jackman is ageless but he looks pretty close to his initial portrayal in 2000's X-Men (good god has it been 16 years?).

The rest of the film fulfils the classical Hollywood storytelling techniques perfectly. A main characteristic of this paradigm is the dual narratives, running parallel. Normally, this would involve an A-plot and a B-plot (sometimes a C-plot). In action films, the A-plot is the threat that the hero must stop and the B-plot is the romantic or interpersonal relationship problem to be solved. Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Indy must stop the Nazis from finding the Holy Grail and he has to mend fences with his estranged father. With DOFP, the B-plot is depicted concurrently, but not temporally as it occurs in the future. Cutting between the two allows for clever cross-time match cuts though perhaps not quite as cleverly as the climax to Inception (with its nested cascading movements), but it works.

Not perfectly, obviously. The problem with a film this size is that certain cast members will be cast aside. The same problem occurs with Age of Ultron: what character development does Thor have? Answer: none. Unfortunately, the same is true here; Wolverine undergoes little change, just as an example, though I could list the other dozen cast members where this is true.

Mostly, this is a film about the intersecting desires and motivations of Raven, Erik, and Charles Xavier. Though, even Magneto is barely changed by the end of the film. He begins angry and misanthropic and end feeling roughly the same about the human race. Of course, since this is a prequel, we already know that Magneto won't see the error of his ways until he is much older. But then, the same holds true for Raven, doesn't it? We know that the Mystique of the 2000's trilogy is mean, lean, and ruthless. How do we reconcile the Mystique of the 2000's with the Raven of the First Class trilogy? Unfortunately, this will have be reckoned with in the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s, also directed by Singer.

A few final thoughts: the digital cinematography of DOFP looks awful, really awful. As an avowed fan of Michael Mann and other digital film adopters, even I found myself turned off by the ugliness of the film. The camera cannot keep up with any change of light in a single shot, which creates a subtle strobing effect whenever the angle of light changes. The actors all look sallow or conversely caked in makeup. And the disparity between CGI and real life is increased. It doesn't help that the CGI in DOFP looks cheap as well. Though these superficial elements annoyed me, I was still entertained by the film.

I was especially impressed with some of Singer's more subtle stylistic tics. I noticed that Singer likes to use multiple planes of movement within a shot, one that gives his shots a dynamism (definitely something lacking from Age of Ultron and other Marvel movies -- which look like they were shot for television). He juxtaposes motion in the foreground with motion in the background, which increases visual interest for any given shot. Here's an example. 

This is the shot before the shot I want to talk about. Here we have "amateur" Super8 (or something like it) footage of the Past Sentinels starting their flight. Notice that they move from left to right.


Here, we cut to the future; Bishop and Storm notice the coming of the Sentinels.


We cut to what they are looking at.


Back to the X-Men. The following 6 stills are an unbroken shot that lasts about 3 to 4 seconds. Bishop says that they cannot stop them.


Storm says that they can slow them down.


She begins to levitate as the camera begins to move.


The camera moves to their left. Notice now that they are turned to face the same direction that the Past Sentinels were moving towards. In other words, Singer follows the 180 degree rule across time.


Storm levitates out of the frame while Bishop moves forward, to the left of the frame.


This opens space, compositionally speaking, in which Blink teleports in, filling that very same space.


This "call to action" shot is typical of Singer's work with the X-Men film series. In his other two previous films, the frame is usually quite busy with different X-Men moving in different ways. I'm somewhat reminded of Tony Zhou's observation of Kurosawa's planes of motion. In this case, it's a type of parallax motion. It works not only to increase visual interest but it also works thematically, as the different powers of the various X-Men manifest in different ways. Their combined difference is what gives them their edge in conflicts.

Finally, I did enjoy that the end of DOFP is not overly concerned with setup for the next film. There is not a moment where Xavier says to the audience, "there looms a larger threat than this" because that's a stupid thing to do in a story. Doing so undercuts the threat of the current antagonist, diminishing their effectiveness as villains. The Sentinels, in DOFP, share with Ultron only the fact that they are all robots. The differences are huge: Utron never stops talking (it is a Joss Whedon movie after all) and is presented as barely a threat (his drones are easily killed, even by Hawkeye, a dude with no powers whatsoever), and whatever threat he poses is immediately undercut by everybody going on and on about Thanos. Not only that, but DOFP doesn't take 40 minutes to establish the Sentinels as a substantial problem; in 15 minutes, not only are the Sentinels shown to be the primary antagonist but also shown to be pretty much unbeatable. The stakes feel real as opposed to AoU's placeholding status ("guys, just wait until the next movie; it's going to blow your mind").

The Rogue Cut is no substantial improvement over the first version, which I still quite enjoyed. However, it's nice to have if only for that complicated match cutting sequence that I detailed above. Overall, it's a better movie than I think people give it credit for, just because it's so efficiently executed. Also, it's not Age of Ultron; fuck that movie.

Friday, July 31, 2015

July Reads

T2: Infiltrator by S.M. Stirling
Artful by Ali Smith
A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández

and material from the following collections:
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird ed. Paula Guran
New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird ed. Paula Guran
Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror ed. S. T. Joshi
Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas
Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville

I also abandoned a few novels this month, including House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill (I've read one novel by him previously of which I had mixed feelings) and I also started with the intent to finish a few novels including Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville, The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

The Hernández memoir for my queer folks' bookclub and was the forth selection, if I recall. I had mixed feelings about it (as with most things) due to the unevenness of the memoir. It's more a collection of previously published essays than a self-contained memoir, which gives it a stuttering effect. The middle section, in which Hernández speaks candidly about her sexuality and its insipid fluidity was quite compelling. The first section, detailing her life growing up in a mixed language environment, was intellectually interesting but narratively stalling. I found the final section to have its moments, but otherwise a bit of a slog.

I read Stirling's authorized continuation of James Cameron's T2 because of the fifth film (which I really didn't mind). The novel, the first in a trilogy (that I found complete at a Value Village of all places), is a confused beast. It replicates a lot of the beats of the second film but also tries to carve new territory, as if the novel existed before Stirling was given the license, and he retroactively added the Terminator elements to the story. Though, perhaps this description makes the novel sound terrible. It really wasn't. I read it at the cabin and enjoyed my time with it. I've read copious amounts of licensed novels and have complicated feelings about the phenomenon; we live in a world that is essentially pre-established intellectual properties being controlled by adults who grew up with them, so everything ends up being a type of fanfiction. This paradigm is so ubiquitous that I find it difficult to muster outrage over it. When Internet commenters rage that every Hollywood film is a remake, I shrug my shoulders and point to the vast output of indie filmmakers and non-Hollywood production hubs (Europe, Bollywood, Asia, etc). If I enjoy a world, why not revisit it? I plan my trips to these corporate-owned worlds moderately, without addiction, without permanence, so who am I to begrudge others who do the same? Certainly, the artistic world would probably benefit from less corporatization, less novels made out of the rubble of other vacuous novels, but I can only control my consumption habits.

Ali Smith's book, which is neither straight-ahead fiction nor the advertised series of lectures delivered at a university, was typically perfect. Smith's reputation in my books has only risen through the years. I find myself proselytizing Smith to co-workers at the bookstore (have I mentioned I now work at a bookstore?), especially her award-winning How To Be Both. I still think The Accidental is her masterpiece, but everything else has been roughly the same quality, a rare feat indeed. Artful (which I had been waiting for in paperback for like 4 years) was classic Ali Smith: clever (painfully, exceedingly clever), heartfelt, affecting, and compelling. Her treatises on fiction increased my hunger for more non-fiction from her.

Paula Guran's collections of recent Weird fiction inspired by Lovecraft have been great. I love Lovecraft-inspired stuff and Guran has a crisp and clear eye for a good yarn. The collections mentioned above might not contain the more experimental or less conventional stuff (such as Nick Namatas's work), but they scratch an itch I'm happy to have. S.T. Joshi, a renowned expert on Lovecraft, assembles a bit drier collection (not surprising, there is overlap). In all cases, Simon Strantzas was a highlight. I purchased his (fourth, I believe) collection of stories based solely on his piece in Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume One and the announcement that he would edit Volume Three. So far, I haven't been disappointed.

Leviathan Wakes, by the pseudonymous James S.A. Corey, has been a frustrating read. I yearn for an excellent space opera, but I have not found the one that I need (I might need to just write my own at this point). The reputation for the Expanse Series is verging on hysterically positive, and this should have been my first clue. The novel is aggressively middlebrow, in both execution and concept. The "banter" if you can call it is somebody's shitty impression of Joss Whedon, and the characterization is closer to stereotype than fully realized person. I will say that the plotting is... decent enough, but everything else is just simply so conventional. It feels like it's marketing executive calculated work, designed to appeal to the largest mass. The "moral ambiguity" of the protagonists feels market-driven, in the sense that white hat protagonists simply aren't fashionable. So instead of truly exploring a complicated moral universe, Corey plays it safe. I'll quote myself (I posted on Jonathan McCalmont's essay on the allure of ambiguity):
I was especially struck by the blandness of the worldbuilding, specifically that the political concepts put forward are so simplistic and binary; the audience is expected to root for the heroes if only because the alternative is so cartoonishly evil (“terrorism is bad you guys”). However, what makes this even more egregious is the author’s attempt at introducing ambiguity in its protagonist — but only because the market demands it. No longer are white hat protagonists fashionable, so the narrative shoe horns in some reductive child’s play level thought problem that one of the heroes has had a hand in fascism. But this is countermanded by the fact that we’re repeatedly told “he felt bad about it.”
Of course, I'm only 300 pages into a (so far) five novel series. I've heard it gets better with the second novel, so I'll keep going, but I'm not impressed so far. I might also add the prose is beyond colourless. I'll have examples when I eventually review it in full.

I will read Moby-Dick this year. I will do it. So I'm reading some Melville in preparation; I'm revisiting Billy Budd, Sailor, and started reading one of his few nautical novels, Pierre, or The Ambiguities. I read the story about the sailor in university and like all of my other interactions with Melville, I was blown away. The allegory is deep and wide, allowing for a multiplicity of meaning, and the prose is baroque and stunning. Melville is truly one of the best authors I've never really read if only because his difficulty is quite daunting. I read Gravity's Rainbow this year so I wonder if I can check off the other two that have been waiting years for me: Infinite Jest and the aforementioned novel about whales.

Again, it's a slow month because I've watched dozens of films. I've never watched so many films in my life. And it's not just shit that I've been watching, but proper cinema too!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Thoughts on Star Wars

Introductions

I wrote a long essay on Star Wars about 3 years ago on the now popular blogging site Medium. It can be read it here. To sum up, I root for the artistic failure of Star Wars because I believe it represents the apotheosis of culture's obsession with nostalgia. However, I can't help but be excited by the two trailers (two as of July 10th -- I assume the panel at SDCC will reveal another -- probably tonight); I can't help but be swept up in the nostalgia myself. I love Star Wars despite hating it at the same time.

Recently, my partner asked if we could watch the Original Trilogy in advance of the upcoming film. Of course, any excuse to watch Star Wars is an excuse I would jump at. For background, I've seen the Original Trilogy probably around 40 times apiece. On the other hand, my partner doesn't believe they've watched any one of the OT in its entirety. Thus, watching it would be a new experience for them.

I let them know that the only way I will watch the OT is if it's the untouched version. Not because I'm a purist, but because I find the additions to be rather superfluous and unmotivated. And, as every SW fan knows, the only legal way to watch the untouched versions is to have the DVDs released in 2006. So my reader must mentally substitute these particular versions when considering my comments on the films themselves.

On these two disc sets, the Special Editions are remastered and featured on the primary disc. However, the true value of these DVDs are that the theatrical editions are included as a special feature on the bonus disc. Oh but wait -- these aren't quite the theatrical editions. In typical Lucasfilm fashion, these special feature versions are actually the non-anamorphic Laserdisc versions. Which is interesting.

To be specific, anamorphic cinematography means that the image is being filmed on the entire cell of the filmstrip, distorting the image vertically, but providing higher resolution. The playback of this strip through the proper lens will adjust the image, resulting in black bars across the top and the bottom (usually). The method, which was standard for a long time, is meant to increase the resolution and amount of details in the image and film at a wider screen ratio.

Televisions these days are almost all 16:9 which is remarkably close to 1.85:1. On a 16:9 TV, the anamorphic image will be displayed at a 2.35:1 ratio, resulting in black bars along the top and bottom, but delivering higher resolution in the image and (obviously) a wider canvas for composition. The anamorphic image will adjust according to the display. Which is the key to its standard issue.

However, the non-anamorphic versions of the OT are not going magically fit the screen. The images will stay as a small box without adjustment unless your TV allows you zoom in or manually change the display ratio. My partner's TV had the "Cinema Zoom" option which changed the DVD image to fill up about 1/2 of the screen, resulting in a black frame around the entire movie.

Star Wars (before it was called A New Hope) was released in a 2.35:1 ratio, which is a current standard. Thus, the DVD preserved the aspect ratio but at the cost of a smaller image. Here's a picture of the TV displaying the film.

Unfortunately, this is the only way I will watch these films. I cannot abide the Special Editions, no matter how good they might look on the screen. In fact, since the 2006 DVDs are the only way I've watched Star Wars since 1999 (ie The Phantom Menace ie the Year I Gave Up on Star Wars), I'm become quite attached to the utterly low fidelity image quality. These films look terrible in this version and counter-intuitively, this increases their charm. Star Wars is supposed to look lived in, gritty, grimy, and opposite to the antiseptic austere aesthetic of futurist visions such as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The OT were meant evoke the golden age of serials, with their ramshackle sets and dirty locales. Thus, the grain of the film in the digital image, for me, increases this feeling.

The terrible transfer of the film means that glaring problems with the special effects are noticeable -- and exacerbated on a big screen. The technique of transparent images layered onto the film cell is even more noticeable when the stock of the image and the stock of the film differ! When TIE-Fighters are zooming across a matte painting of the Death Star, this effect is more noticeable and less immersive, but still, charming.

As for the films themselves? This is the first time I've watched the OT since 2010 I think?

Star Wars

The first film is a mixed bag. The slavish following of the Chosen One narrative is a bit hard to swallow, especially when Mark Hamill's Luke is so whiny. "But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!" remains one of my all time favourite film lines -- if only because it's so wonderfully whiny and wonderfully empty of meaning. The first film has all sorts of random nonsense science fiction stuff that sounds cool but doesn't really have denotative meaning. The Kessel Run sounds cool but it's meaningless. The line has two meanings: to indicate the speed of the Millenium Falcon and to indicate Han Solo's boastful nature. It accomplishes both connotatively, but nothing denotatively. In other words, it's one of the rare cases that Lucas manages to show not tell. 

The middle of the film really bores me. Specifically, the infiltration of the Death Star just leaves me cold. Obviously, the plot demands the rescue of Princess Leia and the destruction of Obi-Wan in order to advance both story and character. However, I don't find any of the sequences to be filmed in any compelling way. Nor do I find the sequences very suspenseful.

Really, the magic of the first film is in the coordinated attack on the Death Star. Allow me to put on my David Bordwell hat and try to unpack why this sequence works so completely. Here's Bordwell talking about Mission: Impossible III:
a great many scenes of physical action depend on a basic narrative principle: overcoming obstacles. The action scenes in M:I:III are little stories in themselves. Each one is governed by a goal, an effort to achieve it, a conflict with circumstances that block achievement, a redeployment of efforts in light of the obstacle, and so on….until the goal is definitely achieved or not. These mini-stories often operate under a deadline as well.
With the attack on the Death Star, we know exactly the objectives and the parameters of those objectives. Okay, so let's go over the basics of the parameters. The Rebel base is located on Yavin IV, a moon orbiting the planet Yavin. A homing device planted on the Millenium Falcon allows the Empire to discover the location of the Rebel base, which results in the Death Star being moved into position to obliterate the moon. Thus, we have a deadline, a clock ticking down to when the Death Star's weapons will clear the planet and strike Yavin IV. Here's an image from the film:



This image is from the Empire's perspective, on the Death Star. At the bottom of the right side, a clock ticks down to the moon's position. The Rebels, with their only base, have only this one chance to destroy the Death Star or else the Empire will destroy them. These are absolutely clear objectives: kill or be killed. There are few conflicts more immediate and accessible than this.

The entirety of the film previous to this has been about putting Leia and R2-D2 in position with the Rebels in order to transfer the secret building plans of the Death Star in the Rebels' hands. Many spies lost their lives to give the Rebels this information, which is that there exists a vulnerable exhaust port that connects to the main reactor. The pilots must fly down a trench and at the right moment, fire a photon torpedo down into the exhaust port which starts a chain reaction.

During the expository scene, the commanders explain to the crew of pilots -- and to the audience -- how this destruction will come about.


In order to explain this to the audience, the film uses an early computer animation of the exhaust port and the photon torpedo necessary to ignite the reactor's core, resulting in the total destruction of the imminent battle station. Here is a screenshot of the computer animation indicating the trench the pilots must fly down:


Here's a series of screenshots during the closeup on the computer animation of the photo torpedo's ideal trajectory:





To recap: the objectives are to destroy the Death Star. The parameters of the objective are that the exhaust port must accept the photo torpedo. They must complete this before the deadline of the Death Star's orbit overlapping with the Rebel base on Yavin IV. All very crisp and clear and accessible.

Once the X-Wing fighters (the Rebels) arrive in the vicinity of the battle station, TIE fighters are deployed to thwart their efforts. Now the proper action sequence begins. I won't bother going shot by shot, but I will talk about the structure of the sequence.

There exists something called The Rule of Three that posits we find things more satisfying, more funny, more effective when depicted in a series of three rather than two or four (or more). A great example of the Rule of Three in action is the classic three wishes joke, in which the two wishes set a pattern only for the third wish to contravene, overturn, and/or surprise the audience's expectation of how the pattern will assert in the third iteration.

Three works perfectly because two is enough to establish a pattern which primes the audience. Three is the lowest number required by the human brain to establish this pattern. Bordwell's work is based on the idea of cognitive participation in the making of meaning in the film, for example in that the story relies on the audience's knowledge of conventions. If the story wants to use new conventions, it must set them up, typically using a pattern. In the three wishes joke, the audience parses the pattern in two steps, resulting in humorous disharmony with the final item in the series by contravening the audience's expectation of the direction of the series.

In other words, at its most simple and biggest functions, stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We find the fulfilling of the pattern, the end of the pattern, satisfying. Allow me to digress even further and pull apart the word "satisfaction." Satisfy comes from two Latin root words: satis for enough and facere for make. To make enough. So, to satisfy is to fulfil, to make enough. The Rule of Threes satisfies because it makes enough for the audience -- not too much and not too little -- just enough.

The beginning, the middle, and the end are enough to tell the story. Remember that Bordwell called the action scenes of Mission: Impossible III "mini-stories"

The approach:


The X-Wing fighters approach the Death Star and fire at the "turbo lasers." After some shots of various X-Wings attacking the battle station, there's a cut to inside the Death Star. A commander approaches Darth Vader and tells them that the X-Wings are too small for the larger guns.


Vader then says they must destroy the X-Wings on a ship to ship basis. He orders the TIE fighter crews to mobilize. Here we have the mini-story starting to play out: the X-Wings approach, they attack, the Empire responds, creating conflict with circumstances that block the achievement of the objective. And this is only the first five minutes of the sequence.

Let's remind ourselves of the 180 degree rule. Here's a picture I made in Paint, the world's greatest image toolkit.


The 180 degree rules asserts that in order for the audience to maintain understanding of the spatial relation between things, an invisible line is drawn on the set. The camera can move along the 180 degrees of the half circle, only ever shooting what is occurring in the other circle. In the case of this sequence, the camera will always shoot from the left side of the circle in the image and shoot what occurs in the right side of the circle. Obviously, this is backwards in the above shot because this is an establishing shot. Once in the trench, a reverse shot will establish the 180 degree rule. The characters will always keep the camera 180 degrees on their left.

The first attempt:


Here is the first sequence that will begin to establish the pattern. Here is the announcement that the attack will commence.


The trench from the outside that the X-Wings or Y-Wings in this case will fly down.


The character announces the switch to the targeting computer. This computer will allow the pilot to fire the torpedo at the right moment. The leader of this squad commands all three Y-Wings to switch it on, implying that the targeting computer is necessary and mandatory to succeed.


A cut to inside the Y-Wing and a shot of the targeting computer. The red lines on the outside move in slowly as the fighter approaches the exhaust port. Notice that the distance is also, in a way, a ticking clock, a countdown to the achievement of the objectives.


Here is a shot of the Y-Wing fighters. This shot and others like it help establish that the movement is always going to be right to left in the trench, helping the audience maintain spatial awareness and coherence, an important and necessary component of a successful action sequence.


The team of TIE fighters led by Darth Vader (in the visually distinct fighter on the left of the screen) approach the trench in order to stop the Rebels from achieving their goal. Notice that the TIE fighters also move right to left across the screen. Since this shot comes after the Y-Wings have entered the trench, the audience understands that the enemy ships are behind them. 


A shot inside Darth Vader's ship. He also has a targeting computer. This specific screenshot identifies the moment the computer has "locked" onto the Rebel fighter.


The destruction of the Y-Wing. This is repeated as the other two (of the three) fighters are destroyed. Attempt number one is a failure thanks to Vader's superior piloting skills. 

The second attempt:


A reminder of the ticking clock, reminding the audience that defeat is imminent if they do not succeed in their attempts.


Three X-Wing fighters, repeating the pattern from the first attempt.


Down the trench, not breaking the 180 degree rule.


A reminder that the TIE fighters thwarted the previous attempt.


Moving right to left, not breaking the 180 degree rule.


The targeting computer is activated.


A shot of the targeting computer's display. Again, a countdown.



Vader has the X-Wing locked on, indicating to the audience that this X-Wing will be destroyed very soon. 


This time, the X-Wing pilot makes it further and fires.


A shot of the photo torpedos going towards the exhaust port. Again, not breaking the 180 degree rule.


The attempt is a failure. 

The third and final attempt:

Now, the audience has expectations. They expect to see: the trench, three fighters, a targeting computer, a countdown, enemy fighters, an enemy targeting computer, and thus a failed trench run. The Rule of Three will dictate that the third attempt is the successful one (it's successful because the tone of the film indicates that the heroes will succeed) and the third attempt will deviate from the pattern.


The score, using a past motif (the main theme), cues the audience that this will be Luke's attempt.


A reminder of the ticking clock.


A callback to Luke's past on the planet Tatooine when he was one of the best pilots.


Three X-Wing fighters. The pattern begins to assert itself.


Approaching the trench.


Moving from right to left again.


A reminder that the TIE fighters are close behind.


Here, we skip ahead a smidge. One of the fighters has already left the arena (Biggs, I believe) and the other fighter has been destroyed by Vader. Thus, Luke is all that remains. He is the last hope of the Rebel movement.


Countdown again, reminding the audience and increasing suspense. Will Luke be able to fire the shot in time?



The targeting computer makes it return. The pattern continues to assert...


...until the ghostly voice of Obi-Wan tells Luke to use the Force. This is a callback to Luke's training with Obi-Wan, when he fights a drone with his eyes closed. The eyes can deceive, Obi-Wan taught Luke and the audience. Better to trust the Force than computers.


Darth Vader senses the Force in Luke. The pattern is starting to contravene audience expectations. Previous pilots did not have the Force, or at least, not enough for Vader to explicitly comment on it. This indicates to the audience that Luke is different than the other pilots and that he might have a chance.



A few shots to establish that Luke is no longer using the targeting computer, which the audience has come to expect as necessary and mandatory.



The Rebels' time is up. The Death Star is going to fire their planet. The subsequent shots mimic the first time the Death Star powered up and destroyed Alderaan. The audience recognizes the sequences of shots and knows that the main gun will fire any moment. 


Vader's targeting computer locks onto Luke. The audience has come to associate this locking on gesture with failure. The pattern might reassert itself....



Until Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon appear, firing at Vader and taking him out of the trench.



Luke fires the photo torpedos. The audience has seen this shot before....


But not this shot, which indicates that the photo torpedos have successfully entered the exhaust port, igniting the chain reaction, resulting in....


Success! The Death Star is destroyed.

Notice that each attempt has a beginning, a middle, and an end, like a mini-story within the larger story. The beginning has the fighters, in a team of three (not coincidentally) approach the trench; the middle overturns their ease of approach by introducing enemy fighters; the end features the attempt at firing into the exhaust port and either their failure or their success. The mini-story repeats, but with a difference, with each iteration changing slightly but not altogether. Only the third attempt, which gathers up the loose threads of the narrative (Luke's nascent understanding of the Force, Han Solo's selfish behaviour) completes the series and completes both the mini-story (exhaust port penetration) and the overall narrative (the Rebels' fight against the Empire). 

This is why the Battle of Yavin is the best action sequence in the entire Star Wars franchise. Other sequences have increased the intercutting, the scale, the stakes, but none of the narrative streamlined so well. None of the other sequences use the triads nested within triads and repetition as well. In fact, I'm reminded of the opening sequence to Revenge of the Sith, which follows a huge space battle and then the Jedis rescuing Senator Palpatine. There's a lot of sound and fury, but none of it has any narrative momentum because a) we know Palpatine is evil and has engineered this fight and b) the characters jump from bit to bit without any overarching structure. It's a cartoon. It doesn't work.

Not all action sequences must mobilize a triad structure to be effective. However, good action sequences should be mini-dramas in of themselves. Consider the climactic sequence of Back to the Future. A mini-drama unfolds when Doc Brown observes a fallen tree disconnect the cable running from the clocktower to the street. A beginning, then. He must climb the clocktower and plug the cables together. Yet, when he arrives at the top, the fallen tree has caused the street's end of the cable to be slightly too short. There, the middle. Finally, he connects the cable at the moment the lightning strikes the clock (the end, and a deadline). This sequence does not need to happen in threes, but it should have the structure of a story in order to be effective.

The first film is not my favourite but it certainly has the best climactic sequence, and probably, one of the best climactic sequences in movie history. 

The Empire Strikes Back 

Rest assured, I won't be delving into the remaining two movies with the same intensity. 

The second one is the superior one, without a doubt. This is not a controversial opinion, I should think, as many people agree with me. However, this begs the question of why the second film works so much better than the other two. Firstly, getting George Lucas out of the director's chair made a huge difference. While Lucas might be adept at concepts and marketing, his skill with composition and other filmic tools are less than optimal. Lucas put Irvin Kershner at the wheel; Kershner might not be the greatest director, but it was a serendipitous and fruitful move. Additionally, Leigh Brackett (a super talented and bankable screenwriter) and Lawrence Kasdan (co-writer of the upcoming Episode VII) crafted the screenplay from Lucas's story. These two differences from the first film elevate it over anything else ever produced in this franchise.

While the composition is the most noticeable improvement (Kershner knows how to use shadows, lighting, angles, and implication to great effect), the more subtle improvement is in the dialogue. There's still the same empty sci-fi nonsense that I can help but be charmed by, but it's more effective because it's either narratively motivated or character developing. For example, the famous line of "scruffy nerf herder" makes little denotative sense, but the connotative meaning is quite clear. Through a combination of the words and Carrie Fisher's delivery (which is stumbling on purpose), the audience understands that Leia is attracted to Han but also needs Han's expertise to achieve the Rebels' goals.


Over at Deja Reviewer (whatever that is), Robert Lockard breaks down the structure of the second film to show how perfectly balanced the film is, how moments at the beginning of the film are mirrored through the form of the chiasmus (which we can helpfully define as two things related to each other in reversal). Lockard shows that moments and actions that occur at the beginning are mirrored at the opposite end, cascading outwards. Here's a screenshot (apologies for the weirdness of the .gif) that shows three different actions with the beginning on the left and its mirror on the right near the end of the film.


I hadn't ever noticed this, so I'm grateful to Lockard's work. Go on and click the link and read how tightly constructed the screenplay is. The chiasmus structure helps echo elements for the audience, even if they do not consciously notice it (I certainly didn't!).

While the script and the structure are more subtle, the composition and other visual elements are more noticeable. Here, then, is the best single shot in the entire film:


Everything is so dynamic. Notice, also that the shot uses the rule of thirds (the compositional rule, not the rhetorical rule). If you overlaid a grid -- three lines horizontally and three lines vertically -- you'd see the crossed lightsabers are in the very centre square of the grid. Notice too the depth of the image. Vader and Luke are in the middle, with the stairs in the foreground and the structure in the background. Notice also that the figures are in silhouette, making the lightsabers not only the focal point of the composition but the brightest element of the image. Notice that the orange of the stairs contrasts perfectly with the blue of the background (on the colour wheel, orange and blue are opposites and thus provide the deepest contrast). It's a great moment both aesthetically and narratively (the film has been building to this moment).

However, all is not perfect with The Empire Strikes Back. The middle is in sore need of a trim. Lucas's insistence on a 120 minute running time feel artificial, a solution in search of a problem. Nothing would be lost if things were nipped and tucked here and there. Consider the Millennium Falcon in the asteroid. This detour is essentially placeholding, eating up time while Luke trains on Dagobah. Sure, it's a credit to the film that Luke's training isn't a montage sequence, but the consequences of that decision is that the other storyline feels unmotivated.

My partner enjoyed the second one the best -- not just because of the aforementioned improvements, but because Yoda is a cool character and the puppetry was state of the art.

Return of the Jedi

I wonder what it must have been like in 1983, waiting three years to see the epic conclusion. The excitement must have been at a fever pitch. I can only imagine the glee and stomach butterflies as the opening crawl brings the audience up to speed. Likewise, I can only imagine the audience's confusion when the film introduces a race of cuddly teddybears who coincidentally are able to defeat the Emperor's best soldiers. The commercialization of the franchise, already begun, reaches full steam with the Ewoks. They are awful.

However, the third film has the best opening sequence: the protagonists' infiltration of Jabba the Hutt's palace. The sequence mirrors, in many ways, other sequences from the previous two films. Let's dive in, shall we?

In the first film, the Mos Eisley Cantina scene performs a multitude of narrative, thematic, and character labour (it also functions to subconsciously remind the audience of the Western and the genre's use of the saloon as dangerous space, the only space in town where the legal and the illegal mingle). In terms of character, the scene functions as the threshold between the known and the unknown for Luke's Hero's Journey. The numerous shots of the aliens works to indicate that this is alien territory and that there is not way but forward for Luke. Additionally, the Cantina scene demonstrates Obi-Wan's prowess as a Jedi through the severing of an alien's arm. Finally, in terms of character, Han Solo is introduced as a braggart, an ace pilot, and as ruthless (the murder of Greedo).

Jabba the Hutt's palace mirrors this sequence in various ways (eg. both sequences use an alien band performing a (now famous) John Williams piece) but most importantly, it mirrors in reverse Luke's movement between the known and the unknown. Jabba's palace is back on Tatooine, Luke's former home. Recalling the old adage, "you can't go home again," Luke is completely different. His movement into the palace is more confident, more assured. He mirrors Obi-Wan's Jedi mind trick ("these aren't the droids you're looking for) when telling that weird neck guy that Luke will be shown to Jabba's throne. Additionally, his response to the aliens is no longer fascination but considered and patient. He no longer dives in, impulsive, but slow and confident.

The other echo is to the tripartite structure of the Battle of Yavin. This time, instead of ships, the approach is people. First, C3PO and R2D2 approach the palace. They have never been here before so their experience and affect (intrigue, disgust, fear, suspense, confusion) matches the audience's. There are more shots of the doorway, the hallway to the throne room, and more establishing shots of the room itself this time. The second approach is Leia in disguise as a bounty hunter bringing in Chewbacca. There are less establishing shots. The third and final approach mirrors not only the first approach, but mirrors the final trench run during the Battle of Yavin: the musical cues are different, Luke's approach is different (Jedi mind tricks as opposed to diplomacy or subterfuge), and the end result is categorically different (Luke ends up in the Rancorr pit).

Everything about the Jabba sequence is great (except for maybe the Slave Leia thing and only because what that has wrought upon the imagination of the male nerd) so it's all the more disappointing when the protagonists all split up, with Luke returning to Dagobah and Han and Leia... going back to the Rebel Alliance. Luke's return to Yoda is narratively sluggish, longwinded and awkward with dumped exposition. Then, this redundant exposition is doubled as Obi-Wan appears to Luke and gives the audience no new information that they haven't already gleaned or inferred.

However, the script introduces the major goal of the film quite well (as well as introducing Ackbar, one of my favourite character creations). The Rebels find out another Death Star is being built. This time, however, a straight assault on the battle station is not going to work. Because that would be boring for the audience. Rather, the script introduces the complicating circumstance of a shield generator that must be destroyed on the "forest moon of Endor." The protagonists volunteer to disable this generator (which allows for the film to depict the interaction between famous character and Ewok toy).

To the script's credit, the assault on the Death Star uses pre-established characters and circumstances, such as Lando and his previous ownership of the Millennium Falcon (mentioned in the second film). In order to break up the main pack of protagonists, the film has Luke surrender to Vader to force the conflict to come to a head. Which is really the only conflict between characters.

To recap: Luke's training is complete (he is self-actualized), Han and Leia have announced their love (2nd film), Lando and Han have made up (third film), C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca have no arcs. There are no more character dramas to be played out beyond Luke's conflict with Vader.

There are narrative stakes in the Battle of Endor (the shield generator must be destroyed) but only the one. The climaxes of the other two films juggled multiple narrative and character strands expertly (consider Han's 11th hour return to the fray during the Battle of Yavin); the third film has empty action scenes. Lando's not really motivated by redemption because he's already been made a general and nobody gives a shit about his betrayal. Han and Leia are only motivated by the objectives, not by character attributes. Frankly, what character attributes does Leia have beyond strong-willed and competent?

However, the intercutting between the three different narrative strands during the climax is a great example of how to maintain audience interest. While the confrontation between the Emperor (the second worst part of the OT; Ewoks as the first) and Luke is dragged out, it's dragged out organically, as in Luke is fighting his temper and impatience (a character trait established and developed all throughout the trilogy). The Rebel assault tries different manoeuvres and gambits as the shield generator hasn't been turned off. Each little space fight is its own little mini-drama. Likewise, on Endor, the protagonists team up with cuddly store ready teddy bears (who have zero motivation nor character traits) to defeat what the Emperor refers to as his elite squad.

The Ewoks also demonstrate the jarring tonal shifts in the film. While the Emperor, scary and disgusting, is plotting the total annihilation of the Rebel Alliance, the teddy bears are swinging around using rocks to clobber soldiers. It's tonal whiplash. It doesn't work. It's especially jarring when two Ewoks are caught in a blast, one gets up and thinks his buddy is still alive, only to be tragically made aware of the cost of war. It's a weird scene and it doesn't work. It reminds me of Jurassic World's brontosaurus death scene. We've been gleeful watching dinosaurs fuck up this park which the film encourages and then without warning, the film wants us to feel extreme pathos for a dinosaur we don't know about or care about.

The third film is the worst of the bunch, I'm afraid, but it's still lightyears ahead of the garbage that is the Prequel Trilogy.

Conclusions

The Original Trilogy is a masterclass in conventional classical Hollywood storytelling techniques and formal elements. It's like distilled Hollywood -- built out of the parts of other cultural objects (Kurosawa, serials, monomyth) and cranked up to the maximum setting. I've watched these movies probably 30 to 40 times apiece. I know all the beats, I know all the characters, and yet, I can still find stuff to talk about.

I hate and love Star Wars. As a franchise, it's as soulless and rapacious as any capitalistic structure, engineered only to acquire more capital. Yet, as individual films, they're charming and effective (mostly). I hate what the franchise has wrought. Though, it's hard to chastise the franchise for its sequels as the serial aspect is built into its very nature (it opens in media res with Episode IV). Its constitutive elements are all nostalgia based, and despite my virulent dislike of nostalgia, I still watch these damn movies. Hate and love, co-mingling forever.

I wonder, like so many of us, if we'll see the Original Trilogy restored when Episode VII is released. I hope so; I wouldn't mind watching them in ideal conditions (ie anamorphic, 1080p, etc).

I wonder if I have the stamina to watch the Prequel Trilogy (for the record: I enjoy the second half of the second one and parts of the third one.... the first one can go fuck itself) and do the same analysis that I did here. Probably not.