Return of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

From the moment I heard about the ‘reawakening’ of the Star Wars franchise, I wanted to love this movie and I was afraid that I wouldn’t. Rebooting a successful franchise is a chancy thing. Having assiduously avoided spoilers (not even watching trailers) I went to a screening very soon after it opened in Australia and I nearly cried when I heard the theme music and the familiar yellow lettering began to scroll up the screen.

Decades after the death of Darth Vader, the Empire lives on through the violent mimicry of the First Order. There is some version of the Republic in operation but it’s unclear how extensive its authority is and anyway, it seems disinclined to actively do anything about the neo-imperialistic organisation terrorising the galaxy, which leaves the work of actively fighting back to Leia Organa – now General Organa – and a new generation of rebels who call themselves the Resistance.

The First Order seem to blame the Jedi for all their problems, or perhaps more accurately, for them not being as big a problem as they want to be. They are ransacking the galaxy in search of Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi, who long ago performed a vanishing act so thorough that even Leia has no idea where he went.

Her most talented pilot, Poe Dameron, flies to the isolated desert planet of Jakku to meet with an old rebel, who I feel I’m supposed to know? But don’t, because he’s never been in the series before. Possibly he’ll show up in Rogue One. The old man has a piece of data that may lead to Luke Skywalker and he passes it into Poe’s possession. The First Order are hot on their trail; Poe’s little spherical droid BB-8 rolls up to warn him of incoming troops and Poe runs for his ship, but the initial attack damages it too badly for flight so Poe conceals the precious data in a compartment of BB-8’s casing and sends the droid away. “I’ll come back for you!” he promises, then joins the fight.

These stormtroopers are not Kamino clones. They wear the same uniform – partially, I’m sure, to both unify and dehumanise them, since they are brainwashed soldiers serving a meglomaniacal cause, but also to strike terror into anyone who remembers the might of the Empire. Marching into the desert encampment, they slaughter everyone in their path. One stormtrooper, however, breaks from the pattern. He stops to catch a fallen comrade and is marked by a bloody handprint pressed against his helmet. Staggering around the battlefield in a visible state of shock, the only reason he does not immediately draw attention is the dramatic arrival of a new First Order spacecraft. A man masked and hooded in black stalks out.

Watching this for the first time, my mother laughed at the sight of him and called him a wannabe Darth Vader. She has good narrative instincts

Wannabe-Vader calls himself Kylo Ren, though it is obvious that the old rebel who helped Poe remembers him as somebody else. “You cannot deny the truth that is your family,” the rebel tells him. Kylo Ren answers by cutting him down with a blazing red lightsaber shaped like a broadsword. Horrified, Poe breaks cover to try and shoot Ren, but the man he’s dealing with is a powerful Sith and he’s got all those stormtroopers to back him up, so that attempt goes about as well as can be expected.

Poe is taken for questioning (i.e. torturing) and on Kylo Ren’s orders, the remaining villagers from the encampment are lined up and shot. The stormtrooper with the bloodied helmet will not fire his gun. Ren looks straight at him, confused, but is otherwise occupied and stalks on by. He is going to regret doing that.

Returning to the First Order mothership, the renegade stormtrooper FN-2187 yanks off his helmet to reveal a terrified young black man underneath. It’s important to note two things here: contrary to some of the commentary around this casting decision, the clone troopers were played by a Maori actor and therefore have always been people of colour. But this is the first time a POC has played a lead in the Star Wars franchise, instead of a side character. There are actually two POC leads, if you count Poe Dameron, which I definitely do. It only took six movies to get here!

These new stormtroopers are not nearly as homogenous as the uniforms are meant to make them seem, on neither ethnicity or gender. For instance, FN-2187’s commander, Captain Phasma, is female (or at least vocally presents that way and is played by Gwendoline Christie). She demands that FN-2187 immediately replace his helmet and hand in his blaster for inspection, clearly suspecting that it was never fired. She also rebukes him for removing his helmet without permission and he obediently replaces it.

She is going to regret making him do that.

Meanwhile, on Jakku, we meet the young scavenger Rey. Left behind as a child and grown to adulthood still waiting for her family to come back, she spends her days picking through the vast, hollowed-out ruins of fallen Star Destroyers, remnants of a long ago battle that are by now half-buried in sand, consigned to the scrap heap of history. It was at this point that I realised I was irrevocably in love with this movie.

I also love Rey, who is resilient and agile and despite the incredible unfairness of her entire life – a whole day’s scavenging earns her barely enough food to get by – she still leaps to defend BB-8 when another scavenger snares the droid and Rey overhears its panicked beeping. Like Poe, she speaks fluent droid, among other languages. Once rescued, BB-8 follows her around like a lost puppy and the next morning she takes it into town to look for Poe. The scrap dealer there offers what to Rey is a small fortune if she’ll sell the droid. She is badly tempted, but refuses.

So BB-8 is doing okay, but Poe is in bad shape. Tortured for information by Kylo Ren, both physically and with the Force, he doesn’t so much give up the secret of where he put the data so much as have it torn out of his skull. He’s a mess when a stormtrooper enters his cell with orders to take him back to Ren.

Except, no. FN-2187 is breaking free of his brainwashing and has decided to bust Poe out too. “Why are you helping me?” Poe asks, bewilderedly. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” FN-2187 tells him. They steal a tie-fighter and Poe figures out how to fly the thing while in the air. He refuses to call his new friend by a number, nicknaming him Finn (checking first to make sure he likes it). They are both giddy with the shock of escape and they could not be more adorable.

Poe is determined to return to Jakku for his droid, despite Finn’s protests, but they are shot down just before they reach the atmosphere. Finn regains consciousness in the desert, amid the smoking remnants of the tie-fighter. It starts sinking into the sand and there’s nothing Finn can do to stop it, nor any sign of Poe. The only thing he manages to salvage is Poe’s jacket.

Devastated, he sets out alone, discarding his armour plate by plate. When he finally reaches a town, he practically drowns himself in the communal fountain, not caring how dirty the water is. He hears a scuffle and sees Rey getting jumped by a couple of other scavengers, who are trying to capture BB-8. Finn heads towards her, thinking he should intervene – and wow, what a strong moral compass this boy has, not even a lifetime with the space terrorists could cut it out – but Rey does not in fact need his help, handily taking out her assailants with her staff. Then BB-8 notices the jacket that Finn is wearing, gives a shrill squeal of accusation, and Rey goes after him, under the impression he’s some kind of grave-robber. She knocks him off his feet and BB-8 electrocutes his knee for good measure. Learning that Poe died in the crash, BB-8 droops miserably.

When Rey assumes that Finn is part of the Resistance, he goes with it. He is a dreadful liar but when he lets slip that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker, Rey is hooked. “I thought he was a myth,” she says eagerly. There’s not much time to talk, after that, because stormtroopers are already searching the town for the escapees. Finn seizes Rey’s hand and starts running. “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” she snaps. They keep perplexing each other with these gestures of kindness that they are unaccustomed to getting in return because they grew up in actual hell-holes with nobody to teach them proper humaning but they figured out how to be wonderful people anyway, and did I get this emotional this quickly on the first viewing? Yes. Yes I did.

Rey’s first choice of get-away ship gets blown up, so she diverts to Plan B, the one she dismissed as ‘garbage’. Otherwise known as the Millenium Falcon. She is a decent pilot but has never flown anything like this; it doesn’t help that the ship is in pretty poor condition and that it is being shot at by space terrorists. Finn is equally baffled by the antiquated defence systems. With tie-fighters hot on her heels, Rey flies through the interior of the crashed Star Destroyer that she knows so well from scavenging – an obstacle course only she is equipped to navigate – and successfully shakes off the pursuit.

Rey and Finn gleefully congratulate one another’s skill sets. Not to overstate this or anything, but they are so nice? Rey also checks in with an anxious BB-8, promising to get it safely back to the Resistance. They don’t have time to make a plan because a pipe breaks and Rey frantically tries to fix it before it can flood the ship with poisonous gas. Finn uses the distraction to make a deal with BB-8 – he acknowledges he’s not a member of the Resistance but offers to help out anyway and asks that BB-8 not reveal the facts to Rey. BB-8 is dubious but decides to trust Finn. Both are startled to learn that Rey doesn’t plan on coming with them. “Why does everyone want to go back to Jakku?” Finn moans, then adds “Do you have a boyfriend? Cute boyfriend?” He does not have subtlety. Rey tells him firmly that it’s none of his business.

Upon hearing that Finn helped BB-8 escape, Kylo Ren throws a flaming tantrum by slashing up a bunch of consoles and making everyone in his general vicinity wish they worked somewhere else. Between him and the stroppy General Hux, who poke jealously at each other’s authority whenever they’re in the same room, it’s like this joint is being run by extremely unpleasant children.

Poisonous gas is abruptly the least of Finn and Rey’s problems. The Falcon is seized by a tractor beam and dragged inside a much larger ship. Finn is terrified that they’ve been caught by the First Order. They hide together in a compartment under the floor as footsteps mark new arrivals, but it’s not stormtroopers. Chewbacca and Han Solo, greyed and weathered by the intervening years, have got their ship back.

They are unimpressed by the damage it has undergone and are even less impressed by its occupants. Rey can understand Wookiee, at least enough to recognise skepticism when she hears it. Finn is just grateful to meet somebody else who thinks Jakku is a junkyard. “Han Solo just stole back the Millenium Falcon,” Han informs the two of them, proving himself to be one of the galaxy’s legends, and promptly wrecks his first impression by planning to dump Rey and Finn on the nearest inhabited planet. Finn, who remembers the name Han Solo as belonging to a war hero – and it’s so interesting that he should phrase it that way, given which side he was raised on – tells him that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker and Han looks…hurt. “I knew him,” he concedes. “I knew Luke.”

Oh, honey. You’ve come such a long way since Tattooine.

Whatever questions might have followed this confrontation are abandoned when a clunk outside the Falcon catches Han’s attention and he runs out into his bigger ship, worried in case the Rathtars have got loose. Rathtars are huge tentacled beasties that eat people, you see, and he’s smuggling them because he’s an idiot. What’s more, he’s managed to doublecross two separate criminal organisations that catch up to him at the same time. Despite not wanting anything much to do with Finn and Rey, he hides them both in the under-floor compartments (I am convinced he does not fly in any ship without those compartments) while he deals with the gangs.

Unfortunately, the First Order has expanded its search and promised a hefty reward for the capture of BB-8 – plus two fugitives. Overhearing the speculation, Rey decides to try and trap the gangs by closing the blast doors on them, but in the process of resetting the fuses she accidentally frees the Rathtars. On the bright side, the gangs are no longer a problem! On the less bright side, Finn gets seized, but Rey quickly figures out how to close a door which cuts off the tentacle. These two are already very protective of each other. Which is lucky, because Han and Chewie are looking after themselves. Doesn’t work out so well. Chewie gets shot in the shoulder. When Rey and Finn catch up, Han assumes the role of captain and orders them into position for an escape on the Falcon.

When word of the failure reaches the First Order, it goes all the way to the top, this being Supreme Leader Snoke, who is…well. He looks a lot like Palpatine, only deader and a little bit rotten, but still alive and present as a giant hologram. I don’t think he’s actually Palpatine. Remember how I said Kylo Ren and General Hux acted like unpleasant children? They really look it here. Hux wants to use ‘the weapon’ to destroy the government that supports the Resistance. Snoke gives him a disappointed little handwave as permission and Hux gives Ren a meaningful ‘you’re in trouble’ look as he leaves. “The droid is aboard the Millenium Falcon,” Snoke says ponderously, “in the hands of your father.” “He means nothing to me,” Ren insists. The ‘you’re my new dad!’ is implied. And revolting.

The Falcon is in trouble. The modifications it underwent while on Jakku were all bad ideas, leaving Rey and Han scrambling around the cockpit trying to fix things while Finn attempts first-aid on a very uncooperative Chewie. But Han’s a lot more inclined to like confirmed fugitives and Rey has the sort of technological genius that impresses him very much, though he doesn’t want to show it. BB-8 shows them all the data. It’s incomplete, one puzzle piece in a wider map. “Why did he leave?” Rey asks curiously. Han explains sadly that Luke was training the next generation of Jedi when an apprentice turned Dark Side and destroyed everything. Guess who that was. Luke couldn’t deal with it. There’s a rumour he went looking for the first Jedi temple, but nobody knows where that is either, so it’s not enormously helpful as a clue.

Finn tries to convince Han that he’s a ‘big deal’ in the Resistance and a big target to the First Order – which is true in a sense but only earns him a mocking nickname. Han likes Rey in a grouchy sort of a way, offering her a job aboard the Falcon that she desperately wants to accept but can’t, for fear her family will come back to Jakku and she won’t be there waiting for them.

Han introduces Finn and Rey to his friend Maz Kanata, who runs a shady but nevertheless rather charming cantina on a planet so lush and green that Rey can hardly believe it’s real. Maz is tiny and intense. She likes Chewbacca (who stayed on the Falcon to recuperate) but is pricklier about Han, and who can blame her. Within minutes of BB-8’s arrival, both the First Order and the Resistance have been alerted. Kylo Ren goes to pray in front of Darth Vader’s warped helmet, begging for guidance on his path deeper into the Dark Side. I hope Anakin’s repentant ghost is bellowing insults at him from beyond the grave.

Maz, meanwhile, has been brought up to speed. She can get BB-8 to Leia – but she won’t. She thinks Han should face up to his issues and do it himself. Good on you, Maz. She also believes firmly that the First Order can be fought, but all Finn’s first-hand experience is telling him to run like mad. He grabs the earliest opportunity to get out. Confessing that he’s not part of the Resistance at all, that he’s just a soldier trying to escape, he asks Rey to come with him to the Outer Rim. She asks him not to leave, but he does anyway.

Standing there in misery, she hears a screaming child and turns around to follow the sound. It leads her down into an underground passage where she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and is confronted by a terrible vision of carnage. Kylo Ren is there, monstrous and terrifying. Then the vision changes and Rey is seeing herself, so small, abandoned on Jakku. A final switch to a snowy forest where Kylo Ren is once again waiting for her jolts Rey out of the vision and she crumples onto the floor, shaken. Maz is watching her. “Whomever you’re waiting for on Jakku,” she says gently, “they’re never coming back.” She tells Rey to take the lightsaber. Rey flatly refuses and runs out into the forest, too traumatised to take any more revelations. BB-8 trundles anxiously after her.

Hux is giving a hyperbolic speech to the First Order troops. As manifestos go, it makes no sense, but then dictatorial regimes don’t have to make sense and this group (as might be guessed from their name) is all about Order. Their order, specifically, and if the galaxy needs to be torn up in order to re-establish dominance, that’s what they plan to do. They have turned a whole planet into a war machine, powered by killing a sun, to wipe out whole solar systems. It’s an act of genocide that can be seen all across the galaxy.

Finn, who understands exactly what just happened, runs to find Rey but gets Han instead. They fight back when the First Order attacks. Finn takes up the lightsaber, but he’s so badly outnumbered; Rey tries to defend BB-8, but Kylo Ren just takes her instead. Just when it looks like all is lost, a fleet of Resistance ships come swooping over the water like the bloody cavalry, led by none other than the very much not dead Poe Dameron. “That’s one hell of a pilot!” Finn whoops, as Poe saves his life in a whirl of aerial derring-do. The First Order quickly retreat; they have what they want, anyway.

In the aftermath, General Leia Organa herself lands in the wreckage. She accepts a fond hug from Chewie then looks at Han with a sad, resigned affection. “I saw our son,” Han tells her. Yes, that would be the son who kidnapped Rey, dumped her in a cell and started an interrogation with all possible speed – definitely takes after Anakin’s side of the family, though to be fair we don’t know what dreadful relatives Han might have. But Rey proves a harder nut to crack than Ren was anticipating. Instead of getting inside her head, she manages to get inside his. First she offends him into removing his mask (revealing that he has a sullen face and great hair, also probably from Leia’s side of the family), then she taps into her own latent abilities with the Force to dig out his deepest fear: that he’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader. The look of shock on his face is SO SATISFYING.

Meanwhile, Finn is now more or less an official part of the Resistance. Brought back to their base, he is nearly barrelled over by BB-8, who reunites with a delighted Poe. Finn is overjoyed to see his friend alive; Poe feels the same way and they crash together in a bear hug. Realising that he’s still wearing Poe’s jacket, Finn offers to return it; Poe tells him “keep it, it suits you,” and it’s all just so sweet? Also, very flirtatious.

Leia has heard enough of Finn’s recent decision-making to thoroughly approve of him, but though she sympathises with his urgent need to rescue Rey, that’s just not possible right now. The piece of map is virtually no use, the First Order might at any time destroy another solar system, and the very sight of Han is getting on Leia’s nerves. Like a child hoping for a hug, BB-8 rolls eagerly up to an immobile R2-D2 – who remains immobile. He’s been like that for a while, ever since Luke left.

Side note: I realise that BB-8 is referred to as male within the story and I’ve been using gender neutral pronouns in this review, but it’s a bit weird that all the droids are guys and this is my little protest.

Leia blames herself for her son turning out…the way he did and thinks there’s still a chance for him to turn to the Light Side. Oh, Leia. You haven’t witnessed his latest hobbies. She blames everything on Snoke. Han is less convinced, but Kylo Ren used to be their Ben and neither of his parents can let go of the idea that he can be that person again. Nor are they the only ones to prioritise hope over good sense. Finn pretends to know a lot more about the First Order’s shield system than he does in order to join the mission, so that he can save Rey.

Kylo Ren and General Hux have another spat in front of Supreme Leader Snoke as Ren has to admit he’s not only failed to get anything useful out of Rey, he didn’t bring back the droid either. He insists that he can train Rey into an asset for the First Order and Snoke demands that she be brought before him. That’s going to be tricky, though, since Rey is not where Ren left her. She clearly knows the stories of Jedi mind control and finds an easy mark in her stormtrooper guard. Kylo Ren’s tantrum when he finds out she’s gone is epic.

Legging it out of there with a gun, Rey crashes into Finn. She is overwhelmed to know that he came looking for her; nobody has ever done that before. Everything about these two is SO PURE. Finn’s way of disabling the shields is ambushing Captain Phasma and making her do it. With a clear path down, Poe leads an aerial attack. “As long as there’s light, we’ve got a chance,” he tells his team, but the First Order fleet are quick to counter-attack. It falls to Han, Chewbacca, Finn and Rey – and the bag of bombs Finn is carrying – to take out the weapon, if they can.

Finn gives Rey his jacket. I just feel that’s very important.

They start laying the explosives. Kylo Ren, though, senses his father’s presence through the Force. Han confronts him on a narrow walkway and Ren removes his helmet at Han’s request, begging for help. Han reaches out to him – and Ren stabs him through the heart. Rey screams. Chewbacca howls, a sound of pure betrayal, and fires on the boy who was once like a nephew, who is now his worst enemy. Across the galaxy, Leia feels the impact of loss and nearly collapses.

But Chewbacca was always more than Han’s friend. He’s a rebel. He takes down stormtrooper after stormtrooper and hits the detonator. While the weapon’s oscillator is damaged, it’s not destroyed, and Kylo Ren survived the explosion. He cuts Rey and Finn off in the forest, the snowy trees and blood-red lightsaber straight out of Rey’s vision. Only Finn wasn’t there, in that image. When Ren throws Rey into a tree, Finn is there to defend her. Ren has the GODDAMNED GALL to lay claim on Luke’s lightsaber (in his mind, it’s probably Anakin’s lightsaber) and he fights Finn like he’s waiting for him to just give up. Finn doesn’t. It takes a terrible blow to the back to bring him down, and by then Rey has regained consciousness. The sight of her friend on the ground brings out the steel in her. She takes up the lightsaber herself for the first time – it comes to her hand, not Ren’s – and they fight savagely, right to the edge of a cliff. Ren is still, impossibly, trying to talk her into joining his side and letting him train her. She answers by slashing a scar across his face. NO MEANS NO, KYLO.

Poe seizes on the opportunity Han and Chewbacca bought him with the detonation and finishes the job, setting off a chain reaction that takes out the entire base. As explosions tear through the system, Hux obeys Snoke’s last directive to retrieve Ren and leave the sinking ship. Rey is left with Finn’s limp body, so badly hurt that she doesn’t know what to do for him. And yet, she is not abandoned. Chewbacca comes for them both, alone in the cockpit of the Falcon.

Despite heavy losses, the mood at the Resistance base is jubilant. The First Order has suffered a massive defeat. Chewbacca and Poe carry Finn to medical treatment and Leia, with so much to grieve herself, hugs Rey tight like a lost daughter. What’s more, R2-D2 revives to give the best news Leia could hear right now: he has the rest of the map. They finally have a way to find Luke.

R2-D2 has always been there for Padme’s children.

Rey leaves Finn still unconscious, but recovering, piloting the Falcon with Chewbacca at her side. The world the map takes them to is blue with ocean and dotted with islands. The one they land on holds the ruins of some ancient civilisation, steps leading up and up and up…and at the top is an old man with sad eyes. The legendary Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, is not the optimistic farmboy he used to be, but Rey holds out the lightsaber without hesitation. It’s time.

Rogue One opens in Australian cinemas tomorrow. Star Wars is going back to its roots with the story of how the Death Star plans that Leia sacrificed so much to hide were stolen from the Empire in the first place. I’ve seen the trailers for this one. I’m going to do my very best to avoid spoilers.

I’m ready to cry in a cinema over a galaxy far, far away.

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Return of the Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

If there’s a bright spot in the universe,” Luke once said, when he thought he’d be stuck on Tatooine forever, “this is the planet it’s farthest from.” For a backwater wasteland run by a mob of giant slugs, however, it gets a lot of narrative attention. Having left Cloud City with Han Solo (frozen solid in a block of carbonite and allegedly alive) Boba Fett delivered him to Jabba the Hutt’s palace, where Han is now on display as both trophy and warning. This is what happens if Jabba gets fed up with you.

But the Rebellion has bigger problems. In what is not the most original plot twist George Lucas could have come up with, the Empire has started construction on the Death Star 2.0 and are a startling way ahead of schedule considering the last one took them twenty odd years to develop. Darth Vader comes to see the progress and he’s a lot less impressed than I am. When the commander overseeing construction protests that he needs more men to get the work done on schedule, Vader pulls out the ultimate threat: the Emperor is coming to view the operation personally, and he does not accept excuses. Or other people’s opinions. Or any reality that doesn’t fit with what he wants.

Meanwhile, on Tatooine, C3-PO and R2-D2 are once more walking through the desert, this time towards Jabba the Hutt’s palace. They are carrying a message on Luke’s behalf. C3-PO’s hopes of this mission being a complete non-starter are dashed when they are allowed into the palace, and I don’t blame him for the reluctance – it’s a horrible place, full of horrible people and other people having a really horrible time. Having what is probably the most horrible time of all is the Twi’lek slave girl sitting at Jabba’s feet. Her sole purpose in this movie is being something beautiful that he can break. Did Jabba really need to be an inter-species sexual predator as well as a violent and capricious mob boss? Really?

The two droids don’t actually know what Luke’s message says. R2-D2 has already been fondled by Jabba’s creepy lackey by the time they reach Jabba and C3-PO is poised for a full on panic attack so the realisation that Luke doesn’t intend to get them out – that they are in fact gifts for Jabba, to more easily facilitate negotiations for Han’s release – is a dreadful shock. It’s hard to tell whether this is a ploy on Luke’s part or not. Despite delivering a sickening amount of flattery in one short message, he could not look more stony.

He’s also introducing himself as a Jedi Knight these days. That doesn’t mean much to Jabba, who keeps the droids but has no intention of giving up his favourite statue. On the way through Jabba’s extremely inhospitable halls, C3-PO and R2-D2 are brought to a torture chamber for droids (it is really disturbing) where C3-PO is fitted with a restraining bolt and sent back up to act as Jabba’s interpreter. R2-D2 is taken off to wait tables on Jabba’s barge. They are both terrified and this is not okay. I am disappointed in you, Luke.

Jabba hosts a party that night – or maybe it’s not a party, maybe he always has a live band performing non-stop for his entertainment and skimpily clad dancing girls in chains performing at his whim, I don’t know. He’s the type. Boba Fett is in attendance, a little separate from the rest of Jabba’s crew and radiating a vibe of disinterest. When Jabba hauls the Twi’lek girl off the dance floor towards him, practically salivating at her distress, she fights back as hard as she can and I really want to rescue her from this story, because she DESERVES BETTER. Jabba gets bored with her struggles. He opens a trapdoor and drops her into the pit beneath the floor, to be torn apart by the monster he keeps beneath the palace.

The ‘entertainment’ is distrupted when a short-tempered bounty hunter in a helmet and body armour comes down the stairs, hauling Chewbacca along with them. There’s a price on his head and the bounty hunter has come to collect, using a thermal detonator as inducement for Jabba to up the sum. Jabba is amused. He agrees to hand over half the demanded (presumably exorbitant) price and the bounty hunter stays afterwards to join in the party. Chewbacca is towed off to the dungeons. One of the guards is a disguised Lando Calrissian, who watches but doesn’t act, not yet.

When the party is over and the palace is quiet, the bounty hunter slips back into the dark throne room and goes to Han, adjusting the settings on the carbonite to unfreeze him. Han tumbles out, unconscious, shaking and temporarily blind from hibernation sickness. He’s scared and confused. Pulling off the helmet, the bounty hunter is revealed to be Leia – but she’s shown her hand too soon. Jabba suspected a trick and set up an ambush. Han immediately tries to fast talk his way out of it, but no dice, he’s dragged off to the dungeons. Leia is forced to take on the vacant role of dancing slave girl, chained to Jabba’s side and stripped down to the infamous golden bikini.

Let’s not mince words: this is a narrative choice based on sexism. Leia’s treatment is specifically, sexually denigrating when there is no good reason for her to be treated differently to the male prisoners. I can’t watch this movie without remembering what it was like, as a little girl, to see my favourite character treated as a thing and to understand that she was being treated that way because she was the same gender as me. What’s worse is that I wasn’t surprised. Because I already knew that’s what happened to women when the story wanted to hurt them: their clothes got taken away and so did their strength.

I sincerely hope this trope dies a swift and merciless death.

In the dungeons, Han reunites with a jubilant Chewbacca, who explains that Luke is going to come and rescue them – an idea that Han is tremendously doubtful about, as he still thinks of Luke as a good-hearted but naive farmboy. Luke is not that person any more. He walks into the palace shrouded in a dark cloak, sweeping away the guards with easy gestures, like he’s swatting flies. Unfortunately, Jabba is not as susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. It’s strange to think he’d remember the ways of Jedi, that it’s actually only a generation ago that the Jedi were a legend everybody knew and respected. Jabba probably remembers little Anakin Skywalker the impossible Podracer – I wonder if he ever joined the dots? Probably not. He may not be swayed by mind tricks, but he’s not bright.

Luke is calm in the face of Jabba’s…everything. He does not speak directly to Leia and she does not look happy to see him; she’s still chained up, there’s nothing to be happy about yet. And Luke is not an all-powerful legend, he’s a well-trained man surrounded by professional killers. Jabba activates the trapdoor and Luke falls into the pit along with an unlucky guard, who is immediately devoured by the monster. As Luke is hoisted toward the Rancor’s maw, he stabs it in the mouth with an old bone and runs, but there’s no way out. So instead he smashes the portcullis gateway and brings it down on the Rancor’s head, much to its keeper’s distress.

His first attempt having failed, Jabba comes up with another exciting execution for his prisoners. Luke, Han and Chewbacca are taken out to the Dune Sea, where they will be hurled into the nest of the Sarlaac while Jabba’s crew watch on from his barge. Luke keeps his chill. Leia is disgusted with everything. R2-D2 serves drinks.

Lando has managed to get aboard the smaller craft that is transporting the prisoners. When they reach the Sarlaac (another enormous monster that is all tentacles and teeth) a gangplank extends over its snapping mouth. “Jabba, this is your last chance,” Luke calls out. “Free us or die.” Jabba laughs. Luke is prodded out onto the gangplank. He nods to Lando, flicks a salute to R2-D2 and does a Force-powered backflip as the Skywalkers’ guardian droid sends his lightsaber flying into his hand. A free-for-all breaks out as the other prisoners fight off their guards. Boba Fett flies down to deal with Luke and is accidentally knocked into the pit by a half-blind Han. Leia, with enormous pleasure, loops her chain around Jabba’s neck and throttles him to death. R2-D2 then busts her out. Team Rebellion leave Jabba’s barge in flaming smithereens as they fly away.

Upon departure from Tatooine, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando and C3-PO go to join the Rebellion forces in the Millenium Falcon while Luke travels back to Dagobah with R2-D2. Meanwhile, at the construction site of the second Death Star, everyone is assembled to greet their Emperor. He casually delivers his orders to Vader as they walk between ranks of stormtroopers: they are going to wait for Luke to confront them, and then claim him for the Dark Side of the Force. After all, the Emperor has already turned one Skywalker. Why not get the latest model?

On Dagobah, Yoda’s nine hundred years are weighing heavily on him. He tells Luke that his training is complete, then gently mocks him for the awestruck statement “So I am a Jedi.” Yoda insists that Luke must defeat Vader before he can truly call himself that and Luke quietly brings up the question of his parentage. Yoda tries to avoid answering but has to admit that it’s true, Darth Vader is Luke’s father. He pleads with Luke to pass on what he’s learned, his last, choked words being, “There is another Skywalker.” Then he’s gone. His blanket collapses as the body underneath it fades away.

Leaving the hut, Luke is joined by the ghostly presence of Obi-Wan. Luke angrily demands to know why he lied about who Vader really was; Obi-Wan unapologetically explains that it was true ‘from a certain point of view’. “He’s more machine now than man,” he says sadly. Luke is convinced that there is still good in Vader (where is your EVIDENCE, Luke, he put your best friend in a FREEZER) and is unwilling to kill him. Obi-Wan then reveals that Luke has a twin sister, kept separate from him since birth. Luke guesses, instantly and correctly, that it’s Leia. It’s a Force thing. Obi-Wan tells him to be cautious of his emotions, lest the Emperor use them against him.

Aboard the Rebellion flagship, Lando has been made a general (to Han’s genuine delight) and Leia has got hold of proper clothes again, thank goodness. The rebels have learned the location of the new Death Star and also know that the weapons systems are not yet operational. Most importantly, the Emperor will be aboard. They have a small window of time in which to attack. The energy shield that defends the Death Star is generated on the forest moon of Endor, and has to be taken out before the station itself can be destroyed; Lando volunteers to lead the attack on the Death Star while a strike team led by Han goes after the energy shield. Han wouldn’t commit Chewbacca to such a dangerous mission, which is really adorable, but Chewie exasperatedly insists on going and Leia volunteers as well. Luke arrives in time to join them. Leia can immediately tell something is up with him but it’s not the right place for explanations.

Han practically orders Lando to take the Falcon, like it’s a lucky charm between them that will make sure his friend comes back in one piece. They’re pretty cute together now that all the betrayal and back-stabbing is out of the way. The Emperor, however, is by no means as unprepared as the rebels think. He has the imperial fleet waiting on the far side of Endor, where it won’t be detected.

Han’s team approach in a small imperial shuttle in the hope that they can use it to land undetected. Last time Han posed as an imperial officer, it didn’t go well, but this time everything goes to plan – until Vader senses Luke’s presence. When the rebels land on Endor, there are stormtroopers in the forest looking for them. Luke and Leia are separated from the rest of the group as they try to stop two scouts getting away; they are then separated from each other when they run into more stormtroopers and Leia is knocked unconscious.

She’s found by an Ewok. Ewoks are an indigenous species on Endor, who are basically walking, talking, spear-carrying teddy bears. Star Wars fandom does not seem to like them. I DO. So does Leia. She befriends this one by communicating through the medium of biscuit and they fight a stormtrooper together, which is a proven bonding experience. The Ewok decides she’s friendly enough to take back to his village. This apparently necessitates another costume change, Leia’s third so far in the course of the movie. The rationale behind the Ewoks just happening to have a dress in Leia’s size, designed for her species, goes unexplained.

In the search for his sister, Luke finds Leia’s discarded helmet and Han finds the ruin of the speeders she took down. Chewbacca is distracted by the smell of meat, suspended from a branch. It must smell incredible to him because he reaches out without thinking and the whole lot of them are scooped up in a net. Eternally resourceful, R2 cuts them free, but they are quickly surrounded by Ewoks, and they don’t pass muster nearly so well as Leia does. Then C3-PO sits up and the Ewoks mistake him for a god. It’s a pretty racist bit of storytelling, actually, relying on the trope of ‘gullible natives’. The trope is carried further when Luke, Han and Chewbacca are transported to the village to be cooked. The Ewoks’ reverence doesn’t go so far as listening to what C3-PO actually wants, so Luke fakes a divine rage by lifting C3-PO into the air with the Force. That’s enough to convince the Ewoks, who free their prisoners.

C3-PO recounts their adventures to date, complete with precise sound effects. He has an appreciative audience; the Ewoks decide to adopt them all, including the rebel cause. Luke slips away from the festive atmosphere and Leia follows him, sensing that he’s in an odd mood. He asks if she remembers her mother. She tells him that she remembers a woman who was kind and sad, but that can’t have been Padme, as she died when the twins were born. Luke tells Leia that Vader is on Endor. He explains that Vader is his father – and that Leia is his sister. She claims to have always known, which is total nonsense and probably just her way of handling all the awful of the situation. Luke insists on leaving. Han comes bumbling up while Leia desperately wants to be left alone, and his jealousy jumps to all the wrong conclusions. Despite his confusion, he does try to be supportive.

Luke surrenders to Vader. He is determined to reawaken the Light Side in him, just as Vader is determined to bring out the Dark Side in him. Vader turns almost plaintive as he tells Luke that he must obey the Emperor – Luke is right, the little slave boy from Tatooine is still in there, but that doesn’t change any of Vader’s innumerable murderous life choices and he makes a new one by hauling his optimistic son off to face the Emperor.

Han’s team prepare to take out the shield generator and Lando leads the rebel fleet towards the Death Star. With a clever diversion tactic courtesy of their Ewok allies, Han and Leia reach the control bunker where the generator is located, but it is a trap set up by the Emperor. They are quickly surrounded by stormtroopers and when Lando reaches the Death Star its shield is still operational. Realising that the imperial forces are prepared for them, Lando tries to call off the attack. It’s too late. Suddenly, they are all stuck in a last stand.

Aboard the Death Star, Luke is calm in the face of the Emperor’s…everything. He tries not to react when the Emperor gloats over the imminent failure of the rebel attack, but he’s rethinking his pacifist approach. Why he considers killing the Emperor to be crossing a moral line when he’s been totally fine with killing stormtroopers is a mystery to me – he killed Jabba’s people without any visible qualms either – but probably it’s something to do with setting a Good Example to Vader, who has been making querulous comments on how irresistible the Dark Side is ever since he came into the Emperor’s presence, like he’s trying to convince himself as well as Luke. The Emperor has a lot to say about Destiny, and how Luke’s Destiny is to become a Sith Lord like his father. To drive home Luke’s despair, he reveals that the Death Star’s weapons system is up and running – maybe not at full strength, given that it only takes out a single spacecraft, but certainly capable of decimating the rebel fleet when the Emperor gives the order.

Destiny, though, has failed to take the Ewoks into account. No doubt the Emperor thought of them as inconsequential, but the terrain is in their favour, they are small and fast enough to easily disappear when they want to, and there are enough gaps in stormtrooper armour that bows and arrows shot by expert marksmen have a good impact. You get the feeling that they have been watching the imperial invaders closely and planning all of this in detail. Chewbacca provides their small army with extra muscle. Han hotwires the control bunker doors while Leia covers him and they gain entry, setting the place to blow up.

If Luke wants to save his friends, he has to take out the Emperor. When Vader reads Luke’s mind and learns that Leia is also a Skywalker, Luke very nearly kills him. He cuts off Vader’s hand, he has him pinned – but when it comes right down to it, he will not kill his father. That’s just not who he is. Seeing Luke’s unwavering commitment to the Light Side, the Emperor tires of his game. He tortures Luke with Force lightning, delighting in it, while Vader stands silent behind him. Luke weakly pleads with his father to save him and something, finally, finally, snaps. Vader is not strong enough to stop the Emperor, but he’s strong enough to lift him. Hoisting his master into the air, somehow walking while wreathed in lightning, Vader hurls the Emperor into the Death Star’s power core, to his death.

With the shield down at last, Lando flies into the Death Star to aim for the power generator. He sends back most of his team, there’s no space for the fight in here. One pilot takes down a Star Destroyer and sends it smashing into the Death Star, and the station is in chaos as Luke staggers for a hangar bay, more or less carrying Vader. At Vader’s insistence, he removes the helmet, revealing the damaged human underneath. Luke wants to save him. “You already have,” Vader says. “Tell your sister…you were right.” He dies there, and has someone to mourn him.

The rebels take out the power generator. Luke escapes just in time and Lando bursts through the flames with a triumphant shout. To those watching on Endor, the explosion means victory. Han tries to reassure Leia that Luke wasn’t on board the Death Star when it blew and she calmly agrees that he wasn’t, that she can feel he’s still alive. Han misunderstands again. Leia spells it out with unnecessary patience, like he’s a bit thick for not having worked it out already: Luke is her brother.

Luke brings Vader’s body to the moon surface and builds a pyre to burn it. He stands vigil while the rest of the universe celebrates the end of the Empire, in a retconned montage that includes Coruscant and Naboo. It is an outpouring that cannot be stopped. The Ewoks celebrate in their own way, lighting bonfires and dancing, using stormtrooper helmets as drums. Han and Chewbacca grab onto Lando like family, and Leia yanks Luke into a hug. When he looks back at the night, he sees Obi-Wan and Yoda watching him – and his father is with them. The young, hot version of his father, because this is on DVD and George Lucas got at it. Still, it’s kind of fitting. It wasn’t Vader that Luke saved, it was Anakin. And Leia pulls Luke back into the revels, because this is the family that Luke saved himself to rejoin.

I have such mixed feelings about this movie. I can’t watch it without feeling my mother’s quiet and fierce disappointment on Leia’s behalf and my own sense of betrayal as an adult; I also have a lot less patience for Darth Vader getting every second chance that Luke can muster after so many people suffered and died at Vader’s own command. At the same time, Luke’s stubborn insistence on forging a new way, on being a better kind of Jedi, brings a deeper sense of relief after seeing the terrible mistakes made by his predecessors.

Which does not mean he can’t make terrible mistakes of his own. But he’s begun the right way.

Return of the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

I am watching this one on DVD, which means I’m getting all the digital enhancements George Lucas could not resist. By the way, have I mentioned yet that I love the opening credits? It wouldn’t work for most cinema, but in Star Wars it’s like getting a Galactic newsreel before the movie starts, and means the actual characters can get straight to the action because we know what’s going on.

After the destruction of the Death Star, imperial forces have redoubled their efforts to crush the Rebellion. Darth Vader’s obsessive interest in Luke Skywalker has made him a prime target and so Luke, together with a small group of rebels, have gone to ground on the remote and inhospitably icy planet of Hoth. They use a native species called tauntauns for transport in the difficult terrain. Luke is riding one in a reconnaissance mission – he is now Commander Luke – when he sees an imperial probe land in the snow on a nearby ridge. He mistakes it for a meteorite, but goes to check it out anyway and is attacked by a huge white-furred predator called a wampa. It kills his tauntaun and hauls Luke back to its den.

Han, also out on recon, gets back to base safely. The Falcon has been damaged and Chewbacca, doing the bulk of the repair work, is prickly and frazzled. He and Han intend to leave Hoth and the entire rebellion as soon as the repairs are done; Han has a price on his head until he pays off a debt to Jabba the Hutt, and he never planned on becoming a freedom fighter anyway, but Leia is deeply disappointed in him. She gives him chilly sideways looks until he comes over to say goodbye.

He’s decided she fancies him, probably so that he can pretend he’s not crushing hard on her. She’s trying to overthrow a dictatorship and can’t believe he’s running out on her when the Rebellion needs help so badly. They yell at each other in the middle of the corridor while Rebellion personnel edge tactfully around them, clearly used to this sort of thing.

It’s possible Chewie doesn’t share Han’s desire to get away, because he’s gone and taken apart some key components of the ship behind Han’s back. Which means Han is still there when Leia sends C3-PO and R2-D2 as her go-betweens to tell Han that Luke is missing. Han immediately hits papa bear levels of anxious and goes out into the tundra to find Luke himself, despite the onset of nightfall and the rapidly dropping temperature. It’s lucky he does, because Luke is in deep trouble. He’s been hung upside down from the cavern roof in the wampa’s lair while it devours his poor tauntaun, his lightsaber stuck in a snowdrift just out of reach. Drawing on the Force, he pulls it into his hand just in time to cut himself down and disable the wampa before it tears him apart too. So he’s not going to get eaten, but the odds look good that he’ll freeze to death.

The temperature drops so low that the shield doors of the base have to be closed. Leia is quietly frantic. Chewbacca is less quietly frantic. R2-D2 and C3-PO make dire and quite unhelpful predictions. Lost out in the snow, Luke has a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system to learn the ways of the Force from a Jedi Master called Yoda. Luke is currently a bit more interested in just staying alive, but fortunately Han shows up at that moment. Less fortunately, definitely for the tauntaun, Han’s mount keels over, killed by the cold. Han cuts the poor beast open to push the now mildly delirious Luke into its innards, which is revolting but means he’ll keep warm enough overnight to survive.

The next morning, rebel pilots go out to search for the missing men and bring them back to base. Luke is given medical treatment and gets a stream of anxious visitors, but Han and Leia predictably make the whole thing about their – whatever their relationship is and Leia tries to drive home the point that she is not interested in Han by grabbing and kissing a very surprised Luke. It’s not like Luke objects, he smirks at Han afterwards, but this is so uncomfortable to watch. When did Lucas decide to make those two siblings, before or after he decided to have them kiss?

Also, unrelated, Han’s pick-up lines are really bad. Chewie finds the whole thing hilarious.

An imperial code is picked up, transmitting from Hoth. Han goes to check it out and the probe self-destructs at his first shot. The rebels prepare to evacuate, but a fleet of Star Destroyers are already on their way, led by Darth Vader himself. It’s clear that everyone aboard the command ship is weirded out by Vader and his Force-induced hunches, but when he doesn’t agree with a general’s attack strategies he’s prone to choking them to death from the other side of a communication screen, so it’s safer to keep your opinions to yourself.

Han and Chewbacca are still trying to fix up the Falcon when Luke passes by underneath to say goodbye. There are enough lingering looks in this scene alone to justify the Luke/Han slash out there, and to make me doubly irritated that Luke and Leia are related because this would make a perfect OT3 (that’s fanfiction talk for a three-way relationship, incidentally). Leia is busy prepping her pilots on how to get out in one piece – the rebels have ion cannons and a powerful energy shield, but that’s not much against an imperial fleet. Whoever makes it out will meet up at the rendevous point. The first rebel transport gets away but on the ground, Vader has sent in AT-ATs, war machines so big their movement makes the ground shake. Luke is among the pilots sent out to deal with them.

Side note: the imperial commander leading the AT-AT assault? That actor played the last of the Jagaroth in the Doctor Who story City of Death. The more you know!

Leia won’t leave with the rest of the evacuees, running communications with a skeleton staff until Han comes to physically pull her away. The energy shield is hit and the base starts to collapse. Vader and his stormtroopers sweep through the tunnels and the Falcon gets airborne just in time, propelled by Han’s persistence. But the repairs were not completed; the Falcon can’t make the jump to lightspeed. There’s a fleet of tie-fighters on its trail and an asteroid field dead ahead. Given the choice of literal rocks and a hard place, Han goes with the asteroid field.

Leia is very, very unimpressed. Han’s pick-up lines remain terrible.

Meanwhile, having done all he can on the battlefield, Luke takes off on his own to follow Ghosty-Wan’s directions. He lands in the middle of a swamp on Dagobah. He won’t be getting his ship out of there again in a hurry, and now he’s soaked to the skin on a mildly inhospitable planet with swamp creatures that want to eat his droid. R2-D2 is very, very unimpressed.

Luke glumly sets up camp with what supplies he can salvage. He’s quick to pull his gun when an unexpected visitor appears. It’s a little green person in a robe who mocks everything Luke says, which is fair, because Luke is being a bit snobbish. “I’m looking for a great warrior,” he tells his visitor, who pokes around Luke’s things and aggravates R2. “I’m looking for a Jedi Master!” Luke adds, exasperated. That gets more of a reaction. He is led to a little hovel in the swamp, where he is fed stew and told to be more patient.

The Falcon is hidden in one of the larger asteroids while C3-PO talks to it, ascertaining exactly what repairs are needed for a jump to lightspeed. Han finds Leia irritably working in a nook of the ship and starts needling her again, like he just can’t help himself. “Admit it, sometimes you think I’m all right,” he tries. She grudgingly acknowledges he has his moments, but calls him a scoundrel. He takes that as a compliment, and takes her hand too. “I happen to like nice men,” she says, not sounding too sure about it, and he responds with, “I’m nice,” before kissing her. C3-PO ruins the moment by barging in with news on the repair work and Leia walks out, unwilling to add her complicated feelings for Han to the very long list of things she has to deal with.

Vader is ordered to make contact with his Master. This is the first time that the Emperor appears in person in the original trilogy and he doesn’t do idle chatter. He, too, has sensed the disturbance in the Force and is confident enough in his grip on Vader to theorise that Luke is ‘the offspring of Anakin Skywalker’. The Emperor is determined to get rid of Luke before he becomes a Jedi. Vader wants to turn him to the Dark Side, and gets permission to try.

Luke, meanwhile, is sick of his host’s giggly non-answers and throws down his bowl in exasperation. The facade of silliness suddenly drops. Yoda was testing his patience, and Luke just failed. Which is unfair, I think, because Yoda hasn’t fought in this war for a long time – Luke is a key player in the Rebellion and his time is measured in other people’s risks. Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice stands up for Luke. “For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi,” Yoda snaps, not remotely disconcerted at arguing with a ghost. He critiques Luke’s age, his reckless streak, his restlessness, while Obi-Wan inserts gentle phantasmic rebuttals to each argument. “I’m not afraid!” Luke says at last, desperate. Yoda turns a very unpleasant look on him and promises, “You will be.”

In that moment, you can see him remembering the frightened little boy who was ‘too old’ for training, and hating Luke at least a little bit for it. Yoda was never as serene as he thought he was.

Yoda’s ‘training’ involves yelling into Luke’s ear about the consuming tendencies of the Dark Side while Luke carries him around the swamp like a grumpy green backpack. “There is no why,” Yoda informs him, which explains everything that went wrong with the Jedi Temple, ever. ‘Do or do not, there is no try’ is also a really crappy philosophy. Getting fed up with Luke’s perfectly reasonable questions, Yoda sends him into a corner of the swamp where the Dark Side of the Force is very strong. Luke sees an alarmingly convincing vision of Darth Vader there, duels with it and beheads it, only to see his own face under the helmet.

In the asteroid field, Leia sees something pass outside the cockpit window and goes out into the cave with Han and Chewie to find out what they’re dealing with. The ground is wet and unstable. There are winged rodent-type things called mynocks attached to the hull, but the real problem is that they’re not in a cave at all – it’s the mouth of a giant space monster. They’re lucky to get out of there alive.

Vader has other plans for catching them, however. He calls together a gang of bounty hunters to track down the occupants of the Falcon, his only stipulation being that they are brought in alive. “No disintegrations,” he says chidingly to Boba Fett, like maybe they’ve had this talk before. This being a post-prequels edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Fett has been dubbed over to match the New Zealand accent given to his childhood self in Attack of the Clones.

Hiring the bounty hunters looks like wasted effort, since the Falcon still can’t jump to lightspeed and a Star Destroyer is right on its tail. Showing just how sneaky he really is, Han turns around and lands on the Destroyer’s hull, going undetected. Leia is a bit impressed. The Falcon floats away when the Destroyer dumps its garbage, undetected. Han decides to go to ground with an old gambling buddy, Lando Calrissian, who runs a mining colony called Cloud City.

Yoda is back to Force aerobics but Luke is more worried about his ship sinking irretrievably into the swamp. Instructed to pull it out with the Force, Luke manages to draw out part of the wing before it’s too much for him; exhausted and frustrated, he walks away from Yoda’s lecture, only to see Yoda lift the ship free of the water and bring it to land with his mastery of the Force. Well, he only has nine hundred years of experience! More experimentation gives Luke a better grasp on the ability, but his more receptive mental state brings him a vision of the future and a sudden fear for Han and Leia’s safety.

Han doesn’t get a warm welcome on Cloud City. They are escorted in to land by security spacecraft and there’s an ominous pause before Lando comes storming out wearing a jaunty blue cape and a grudge. Turns out, the Falcon was originally his before he lost it to Han in a bet. He then dismisses the whole thing with a laugh, hauling Han into a hug, greeting Chewbacca cheerfully and hitting on Leia. She’s quite amused by Han’s reaction. As they walk through the city complex, Han and Lando catch up but C3-PO wanders off and gets shot. Only Chewbacca notices his absence, because Chewbacca is the best, but the pieces of C3-PO are swiftly concealed before he can find them.

Luke is leaving Dagobah, driven by worry for his friends. Yoda tries to convince him to stay and the ghost of Obi-Wan returns to make the same argument. Both are afraid that Luke will be captured by the Emperor if he leaves now and do not believe he is strong enough to take on Vader, but Luke promises to return when he can and goes to save his friends. Yoda bitterly remarks to Obi-Wan that all Luke’s training has only made the situation worse; Obi-Wan points out the dearth of other options, but Yoda only replies, “There is another.”

This scene makes it clear that they both fully expected Luke to quietly study on Dagobah after receiving a warning that his friends, basically his family at this point, were in immediate danger. Yoda may be an extraordinary master of the Force, but he sucks at all things emotional. As for Obi-Wan, he really should have known better.

Meanwhile, on Cloud City, Lando continues to flirt with Leia via a fresh and elegant new outfit (I assume he gave it to her, it’s not like she’s had time to go shopping) and has his people complete the Falcon’s repairs. Han is in a great mood. Leia isn’t.

“Something’s wrong here,” she says angrily the second Han comes near her. “No one has seen or knows anything about 3PO. He’s been gone too long to have gotten lost.” Leia is also the best. Han attempts to calm her down with a kiss on the forehead and assures her he’ll talk to Lando before they leave, but she does not trust Lando and when they do leave, Leia is returning to the Rebellion – and Han isn’t.

While this conversation is happening, Chewbacca is ransacking a scrapyard and finds C3-PO’s dismembered body on a conveyer belt. He bundles all the pieces up, despite the proprieter’s objections, and takes them back to the others. Lando arrives while Leia is fuming; he gets her chilly politician face, but she’s too polite to refuse his invitation to refreshments. Or maybe she’s just hungry. Who knows what the kitchen on the Falcon is like.

On the way, Lando explains that Cloud City is too small to attract the interest of the Empire and is not a part of the Mining Guild, flying under the radar as much as it can. So all that about him being a stable and responsible citizen these days is a total front. “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever,” he tells Han. The next pair of doors they go through lead into a banquet hall, where Darth Vader is waiting.

Han shoots him. Well, tries. Vader Force-yanks the gun out of his hands and Boba Fett emerges along with a squad of stormtroopers to surrounded the rebels. Lando admits, bleakly, that the imperial forces arrived just before Han did. While it’s a terrible betrayal, Lando has a lot of people to protect – an old gambling buddy and a group of strangers are the sacrifice he’s prepared to make. Han understands that. He takes Leia’s hand and they face Vader together.

Chewbacca is imprisoned in a cage thing with the bits of C3-PO and he distracts himself by starting repairs. I love him so much. Han receives nastier treatment; he’s tortured while Lando paces unhappily outside. Boba Fett, also listening to the screams, wants to take Han to Tattooine, where Jabba the Hutt still has a bounty on him, and he’s unconvinced Han will still be alive once Vader is done with him. It’s the first Lando’s heard of that arrangement, but honestly, what was he expecting to happen? That Vader would have everyone sit down for an actual civilised lunch? Though Lando is angry and ashamed, he knows better than to confront Vader directly.

When the torturers are finished with him, Han is thrown into the cell with Chewbacca and Leia is pushed in behind him. “They never even asked me any questions,” Han says dazedly, while the other two hover over him anxiously. Lando comes in to pass on the deal he’s made: though Han will be taken by Boba Fett, Leia and Chewbacca will stay on Cloud City under arrest. He’s heard that Vader is really after ‘someone called Skywalker’. Han’s torture was just bait to draw Luke in. That knowledge is enough to shift Han from grim resignation to hazy rage and he punches Lando, whose security immediately lay into him. Lando calls them off and leaves.

Vader is preparing a carbon freezing chamber with the intention of incapacitating Luke for transport back to the Emperor. It’s an unexpectedly level-headed plan from him; a human statue can’t pull unexpected tricks, the way Luke always does. To be sure that the basic facility available on Cloud City won’t damage Luke permanently, Vader even organises a test run first…on Han. Boba Fett is assured compensation if it doesn’t work out.

Chewbacca tries to fight back. Han shouts him down, begging him to stop, to save his fight for protecting Leia. She moves to Chewie’s side and gives Han one last kiss before he’s dragged away. “I love you,” she tells him. “I know,” he tells her sadly, and keeps his eyes on her as he’s lowered into the freezing chamber. Chewie howls his despair as the fumes rise. When Han emerges from the chamber, he is frozen in carbonite like the effigy on a tomb. He’s survived the process and is in hibernation; there is nothing anyone can do as Boba Fett takes him away. Hearing that Luke has just landed, Vader orders the chamber be reset and breaks his deal with Lando, demanding that Leia and Chewbacca be taken to his own ship.

When Luke makes his way into Cloud City and a battle is staged to lure him in, Leia screams “it’s a trap!” as she’s dragged away. He proceeds with caution. Vader appears before him in the carbon freezing chamber and Luke faces him, lightsaber drawn. Vader’s first attack is more experimental than anything, testing Luke’s abilities. After all, Vader is a master of this weapon. But he has one huge weakness: he’s a terrible judge of people. Lando is a deal-making, rule-breaking, loophole-finding type of a man, and he bends his morals where necessary, but after seeing the atrocities of the Empire up close and personal, he won’t be a party to this any more. He arranges an ambush with his personal security, whisking away Leia and Chewbacca before they reach Vader’s ship.

The second Chewbacca’s restraints are removed, he attempts to throttle Lando and Leia all but cheers him on. Lando manages to choke out directions, offering a chance at stopping Boba Fett before he leaves with Han, and Chewbacca reluctantly releases him. On the frantic dash across the city, the Falcon crew are joined by R2, who got left behind when Luke met with Vader. C3-PO, strapped to Chewie’s back, rapidly catches R2 up on recent events.

They do not arrive in time to rescue Han; now all they can do is rescue themselves. Lando sends out a warning across the city, advising his people to get out before the Empire takes full control, then he leads the way to where the Falcon is docked. R2 accesses city security to engineer an escape route. Pursued by stormtroopers, they take off.

Luke is losing his duel. The lightsaber skitters out of his hand and he’s edged into the carbon freezing chamber, but he’s learned a few useful tricks from Yoda and levitates straight out again, retrieving his weapon. Vader goads him, telling him to release his anger. He uses the Force to hurl heavy debris at Luke and by the time they return to hand-to-hand fighting, Luke is in very bad shape. They have moved onto a walkway, a precarious place for a sword fight. Vader corners Luke and in one easy stroke, slices off his hand.

He thinks this is an appropriate time to remind Luke of his potential and the awesome career he could have with the Dark Side, like a sadistic guidance counsellor. He offers to complete Luke’s training so that they can bring order to the galaxy together. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father,” he says, deceptively mild. “I am your father.” Luke is devastated. Vader pushes his advantage. If Luke joins with him, they could take down the Emperor together. The perfect family bonding activity!

Luke chooses to fall instead, down the endless chute at the centre of the city. He winds up hanging off a weather vane, seriously wounded, bitterly cold, emotionally wrecked and alone. In his extremity, he reaches out to Leia with the Force. She asks Chewbacca to turn back and search, disregarding the danger; Chewbacca snarls at Lando when he protests and follows Leia’s directions. They collect Luke just before he falls.

Leia takes him to the Falcon’s somewhat crude medical bay and returns to the cockpit, where Chewbacca and Lando have just discovered that the hyperdrive still isn’t working. Lando yells that it’s not his fault. Chewbacca bellows what’s probably a really foul-mouthed insult in Wookiee. Leia is beyond fed up. It genuinely isn’t Lando’s fault, though, Vader’s people disabled the hyperdrive as a precaution and the Falcon tells R2-D2 so. I love that scrappy, argumentative little R2 gets along better with Han’s ship than C3-PO.

Luke staggers into the cockpit, looking like the walking dead. Vader is talking to him through the Force, insisting that it is DESTINY for them to work together. The Falcon is almost in range of Vader’s tractor beam, but R2 reactivates the hypderdrive in time and the Falcon disappears. Everyone on board the imperial Star Destroyer cringes as the thwarted Vader stalks away.

From there, the Falcon heads for a proper medical facility where Luke’s injuries can be treated. Leia stays with him. Lando changes into what looks like Han’s second favourite outfit and arranges with Luke and Leia to rendevous on Tattooine. Chewie appears to have got over Lando’s betrayal; for the time it takes to find Han, anyway. A robotic hand now fitted to his wrist, Luke comes over to stand with Leia as she looks out into space. They’ve taken losses, but they’ve got each other. That is a combination not to be messed with.

I have doubts about all the parallels drawn between the original trilogy and the prequels. Did severed hands really have to run in the family? What all those lines of correlation do, though, is really drive home the differences between Vader and Luke. Even as Anakin Skywalker, Vader could not handle defeat and his response to painful revelations was catastrophic. He had so few genuinely beloved people in his life that he put each of them on a pedestal of mixed love and awe, and the prospect of losing any of them shook him with an almost existential terror. Luke is not like that. He grew up in a stable home where his personhood was respected and his abilities were nurtured instead of exploited. He makes friends easily and accepts his loved ones for who they are; even while he’s dealing with his own emotional crisis, he lends what support he can to Leia, and she gives what she can in return. And neither Luke nor Leia have it in them to just give up.

Return of the Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

I’m watching the original Star Wars movie on the original 1992 video tape, which amazingly still works. The cover art on the VHS tape is – hm, interesting. Luke is a sword-and-sorcery type with his shirt ripped open, raising aloft a blinding white sword while Leia drapes herself in front of him with a split skirt definitely not seen in the movie. Han doesn’t feature at all. Nor does the title A New Hope, it’s just called Star Wars. The movie is prefaced by a hilarious ad for Lost in Space, another science fiction landmark from my childhood that I may end up reviewing someday. And there’s the 20th Century Fox music that I still associate, indelibly, with Star Wars. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The Galactic Republic is long gone, the galaxy now controlled by Emperor Palpatine and his vast armies, but civil war has broken out once again as rebels seek to overthrow him. They score a significant victory when agents of the rebellion manage to steal plans to the Emperor’s most secret, and most powerful, weapon: the Death Star, a military space station with enough destructive force to obliterate an entire planet. The plans are given into the hands of Leia Organa, a Senator and Princess of Alderaan. Her spaceship is boarded by imperial soldiers in a swift and brutal attack led by Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right hand, but she manages to hide the plans inside her droid – R2-D2, at the scene of pretty much every important event in Skywalker family history – and together with a confused, amnesiac C3-PO, R2 escapes the captive spaceship in an escape pod. They land on that most inescapable of planets, Tatooine.

Surrounded by clone troopers – now known as stormtroopers – with the rest of her crew either imprisoned or dead, Leia doesn’t give an inch. “Darth Vader,” she says coldly. “Only you could be so bold.” She claims to be on a diplomatic mission. Vader calls her a traitor and arranges for a false story to be distributed that all aboard the ship were killed, presumably in some sort of freak accident, to prevent Leia’s supporters in the Imperial Senate generating sympathy for the rebellion. When the missing escape pod is noticed, a detachment of stormtroopers are sent down to recover its contents.

R2-D2 and C3-PO have a bilingual confrontation, in beeps on one side and insults on the other – C3-PO won’t followed R2 down what looks like a more difficult way (it’s ALL SAND DUNES, there is no easy way) and is promptly seized by Jawas. To be fair, so is R2. I seriously love Jawas. They’re tiny and a bit dangerous and they have the best language. On a completely unrelated note, the first computer I ever used had a Star Wars screensaver and if you left it unattended too long the Jawas would steal bits from all over your desktop. It was brilliant. I’m feeling the nostalgia today.

Anyway! The kidnapped droids are taken to a moisture farm and offered for sale to Owen Lars, who initially picks a different droid. That one malfunctions. Present for the exchange is Owen’s nephew Luke Skywalker, who takes C3-PO’s advice and suggests they get R2 instead. Luke doesn’t actually want to be there. He wants to be hanging out with his friends instead of cleaning up a pair of talkative droids and sulkily swoops a model spacecraft around while C3-PO chatters, though he laughs when C3-PO gets mixed up and calls him Sir Luke. Could it be any more obvious that this is a fairy tale with spaceships?

While he’s fixing up R2-D2, he accidentally switches on a projection of Leia, looping through the same few seconds of her recording. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she says, over and over again. “You’re my only hope.” Luke is instantly captivated. R2 claims to be the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke connects the name to an eccentric hermit known to live around here, called Ben Kenobi. Cunningly, R2 convinces Luke to remove the Jawas’ restraining bolt, and Luke is subsequently distracted by his aunt Beru calling him inside to eat.

It’s a tense meal. First, Luke mentions Obi-Wan and his aunt and uncle exchange very shifty looks. Next, a well-worn argument erupts as Owen tries to convince Luke to stay on at the farm for another year. Luke wants to submit an application to the Imperial Academy to become a pilot and Beru is inclined to let Luke have his way. “He has too much of his father in him,” she points out, when she’s alone with her husband. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Owen says grimly. Fair enough, considering. Frustrated, Luke walks out into the evening, where the twin suns are setting. He learns that R2 has taken off on a hare-brained quest to find Obi-Wan for himself.

Luke gives chase early the next morning, once it’s light enough, and soon catches up, but is ambushed by Tusken Raiders. He appears to have no self-defence training and is promptly knocked out. Fortunately, Obi-Wan arrives while the Tusken Raiders are, well, raiding Luke’s possessions and scares them off with a predator’s mimicry. He’s unsettled by Luke using his name, a name he has not used in a very long time, and isn’t sure what to make of R2, but takes them and C3-PO (who was damaged in the fight) home with him. Having seen the prequels, it’s doubly sad to see how isolated Obi-Wan has become – also, it’s noticeable how the time-frames don’t quite match up, with Obi-Wan claiming to have gone by the name of Ben since before Luke was born.

Other lies fit better into the narrative. Luke has been told his father was the navigator on a spice freighter, but Obi-Wan tells him that Skywalker Senior was a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars, the best star-pilot in the galaxy. He leaves out ‘genocidal cyborg Sith Lord’, but hands over Anakin’s old lightsaber. “Not as clumsy or random as a blaster,” Obi-Wan says wistfully as a shimmering green blade bursts from the hilt. “An elegant weapon from a more civilised age.” Luke is rather enchanted. His mood turning darker, Obi-Wan speaks about the persecution of the Jedi and claims that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader, which is only true in a poetical sense. He also tells Luke about the Force, an energy that ‘binds the galaxy together’. How much of my life have I spent quoting bits of this movie?

Obi-Wan watches Leia’s recording. She is aware that he served with her father in the Clone Wars (good on you, Bail Organa, for raising this excellent human being) and asks him to take the Death Star plans to Alderaan now that she’s unable to do so herself. Obi-Wan takes approximately one minute to make up his mind, and tries to recruit Luke for the mission with the promise of teaching him how to use the Force. Luke, though torn, feels a duty to his family and feels helpless against the overwhelming monolith of the Empire. The best he can offer Obi-Wan is a lift to the nearest town.

Meanwhile, the imperial officers aboard the Death Star are arguing over what they should do next. When Vader doesn’t like the direction this dispute takes (a casual dismissal of the Force that really drums home the radical social shift since the very title of Jedi commanded awe throughout the galaxy) he chokes a dissident half to death until Grand Moff Tarkin, the person who is actually in charge around here, calls an end to the ‘bickering’ with elegant distaste. The Emperor has just dissolved the Senate for good – he is that powerful – and is relying on the Death Star to keep the star systems in line. That means they have to find out where the plans went, and fast.

On their way across the desert, Luke and Obi-Wan find the wreck of a Jawa vehicle, its occupants slaughtered – seemingly by Tusken Raiders, but Obi-Wan sees at once that the attack came from stormtroopers on R2-D2’s trail. Horrified, Luke makes a frantic dash for home. It’s too late. The farm is on fire; his aunt and uncle are dead. As he stands there staring at their bodies, it is unnerving how much he looks like Anakin.

With nothing left to lose, Luke recklessly pledges himself to Obi-Wan’s mission and they travel to Mos Eisley spaceport to find a pilot who will take them as far as Alderaan. Stormtroopers are searching the place, but Obi-Wan gets them through with a tidy Jedi mind trick. They end up in a cantina full of disreputable-looking characters, where Obi-Wan gets talking with a very familiar Wookiee. Though it would seem they’re not familiar to each other. Chewbacca is now co-pilot on the Millenium Falcon, working with his friend Han Solo. The cantina has a rigid no-droids policy but is well-populated with thugs; the one who picks a fight with Luke gets his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan (his old go-to attack move, if history serves). Luke is awed.

In quite a rush to get off the planet, Obi-Wan accepts Han’s opportunistic asking price in return for a rapid departure and no questions asked. Han would also like admiration for his reputation as a pilot, but Luke’s being indignant about such obvious fleecing and Obi-Wan hasn’t been impressed by anything in decades. Plus Han has his own problems. He gets cornered by a bounty hunter called Greedo, who has tracked him down on behalf of crime lord Jabba the Hutt after a business transaction gone very sour. This scene got notoriously edited in later editions of the movie, but Han DEFINITELY SHOOTS FIRST. In fact, I don’t see any evidence that Greedo got the chance to shoot at all, only that he really wanted to. The extended editions also include a personal confrontation with Jabba that Han manages to talk his way out of, but the original skips straight to a shoot-out with stormtroopers just as the Falcon is taking off.

Han and Chewbacca are a formidable team, though, even with Luke peppering questions at them in the cockpit. The jump to lightspeed gets them away.

Darth Vader has tried and failed to torture the location of the rebel base out of Leia. Tarkin takes a different tack. “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash,” Leia bites when she’s brought before him. “I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board.” He’s already decided to execute her, but has brought the Death Star into the Alderaan system to test its weaponry on her home planet first. Appalled, she chokes out the location of a base on Dantooine, but Tarkin fires on the planet anyway. It is destroyed instantly before her eyes.

On the Falcon, Obi-Wan has begun Luke’s lightsaber training, trying to teach him to act on instinct, and R2-D2 is beating Chewbacca at a holographic board game. Obi-Wan crumples suddenly as the shockwaves in the Force caused by Alderaan’s destruction hit him hard. He doesn’t know what has happened, only that many people have died. Han jeers the very idea of the Force. The only greater power he believes in is luck. When they arrive at the co-ordinates for Alderaan, however, all that’s left of the planet is a field of debris.

Leia may have been devastated, but she did not give Tarkin what he wanted. The rebel base on Dantooine has been deserted for a long time. Tarkin is ridiculously indignant about this.

A short-range imperial fighter ship attacks the Falcon and Han chases it towards a small moon, hoping to destroy it before it can report their presence. Obi-Wan is the first one to realise that they are not heading towards a moon at all – it is a space station of previously unheard of size, and it sends out a tractor beam that drags the Falcon in towards it no matter what Han does. Once they have the ship captive, stormtroopers board and search it. They’re dealing with a higher level of sneaky here, however. Han conceals everyone in the floor compartments he uses for smuggling and together with Luke, overcomes two stormtroopers to steal their armour. They also manage to take over the communications centre overlooking the hanger bay. Obi-Wan slips off on his own to disable the tractor beam, gently dissuading Luke from following him. “The Force will be with you,” he says before he leaves. “Always.”

Han slouches grumpily in a chair and Chewbacca mutters darkly. R2 is more constructive. Having found Princess Leia in the computer system, the droid pinpoints her precise location and her dire circumstances. Luke is determined to rescue her. He wheedles Han around with promises of a hefty reward and they march off with Chewbacca as a fake prisoner between them, leaving the droids to hide as best they can. The three rescuers manage to claim another control centre on the way to the cell blocks, but the commotion is overheard and Han completely stuffs up subtlety by shooting out communications mid very awkward conversation. Luke gets to Leia, who spots the height discrepancy between him and his armour at once (“aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”). Upon hearing he’s here with Obi-Wan Kenobi, she launches out of the cell at top speed.

She’s not the only who knows Obi-Wan is aboard. Vader feels his presence through the Force. His imperial colleagues are more skeptical about it, insisting that the Jedi ‘religion’ is extinct, and are much more concerned with Leia’s escape. Vader storms off to face Obi-Wan himself.

Another shoot-out takes place in the cell block as stormtroopers corner the escapees, and Leia is amazed by the sheer incompetence of her new allies. “This is some rescue,” she snaps, and leads them down into the garbage chute. They end up in a sort of disgusting swamp. And they can’t get out. Han and Leia start screaming accusations at each other and an unidentified thing drags Luke under the filthy water. I hope he’s up to date on all his vaccinations, because the number of diseases he’s being exposed to is mind-boggling.

Leia and Han scramble to help him, but they soon have bigger problems. The thing releases Luke and disappears, aware of what the sudden clunking means – the garbage disposal is compacting, i.e. the walls are literally closing in around them. Luke shrieks urgent instructions to C3-PO while the others try vainly to brace the walls apart. Just in time, C3-PO gets the message (he’s been busy talking his way past stormtroopers, quite effectively I might add) and turns off the garbage disposal. The elation of unexpected survival doesn’t hold their group in harmony for long; being prickly people, Leia and Han soon fall into argument.

The rescue party head for the Falcon and split up when they are attacked again – Han runs headlong towards a mini-blockade of stormtroopers, loyally followed by Chewbacca, only to turn and hurtle in the opposite direction when it’s clear he’s too badly outnumbered. Luke and Leia, already getting along very well, take a different route. Leia proves handy with a blaster and Luke gets creative with a grappel hook, swinging them across a chasm to safety. She kisses his cheek. It would be a sweeter moment if they knew they were siblings, but it’s a tad awkward with that knowledge.

Obi-Wan, meanwhile, has reached his goal and disabled the tractor beam. On his way back, he meets with Darth Vader, who is triumphantly certain of victory. They battle in the corridor, red lightsaber against blue. The stormtroopers guarding the Falcon see the duel and move away to handle that crisis instead; Luke sees it too, just as Obi-Wan shuts down his lightsaber and allows Vader to strike. His cloak is empty before it hits the ground. Vader pokes it just to be sure. Han and Leia yell at a stunned Luke to get moving and they bolt for freedom.

On board, Luke sits grieving and Leia joins him in silent sympathy. Within the space of a day or two, they have both lost everyone they loved at the whim of the Empire. There’s no time to mourn yet, though, with imperial fighters surging in pursuit. Han and Luke command the Falcon’s gun towers to combat them and Luke shows talent; the Falcon gets away unimpeded. And that’s exactly what Vader wants. He’s put a tracking device aboard the ship. Leia suspects something of the kind. Her pragmatism isn’t what Han wants to hear and he reminds her that he’s not a part of her cause, he’s in this for the money. Her response is a chilly withdrawal. Luke is bewildered by their mutual antagonism, and quietly possessive of his princess when Han speculates idly over his own relationship potential with her.

They land on a moon around the planet Yavin, true location of the rebel base. It is a hive of activity. The leaders greet Leia with relief. As they hoped, the Death Star has a weakness – a small fighter ship, considered to be no threat against the huge space station, can travel through trenches in the exterior armour to a thermal exhaust port. A precisely aimed shot should set off a chain reaction that will destroy the entire station. The rebel pilots are doubtful that such a shot is possible, but Luke is optimistic. “May the Force be with you,” a rebel leader says as the pilots are sent off, proving that not everyone sees the Jedi as extinct.

Han is preparing to leave with his reward. Luke is hurt. He’s jumped headlong in the cause and rejects Han’s offer of crew membership out of hand, pointing out how badly the rebellion needs their help. “May the Force be with you,” Han says, by way of goodbye and apology. Luke goes to complain to Leia, who kisses his cheek again (it’s faster than therapy) and C3-PO bids an anxious farewell to R2 as pilot and droid get ready with the rest of the rebel fighters. As he takes off, Luke hears an echo of Obi-Wan’s voice as ghostly encouragement.

The Death Star arrives in the Yavin system and prepares to fire on the planet. If the rebel fighters fail, everyone they’ve left behind is going to die. It’s a desperate obstacle course just getting past the initial defences and that’s before the imperial fighters head out to do battle directly. Vader leads the counter-attack personally. Everything else may have changed, but he’s still a lethal pilot. The rebel fighters are picked off one by one. Leia listens helplessly from the planet while Tarkin scornfully rejects any notion of an evacuation protocol.

No one has successfully made the shot. It’s Luke’s turn to try. Vader guns straight for him but is sent spinning off into space by a blast from the Falcon as Han changes his mind and comes back to help. I think Chewbacca’s discontent may have had a part in that, also the enormous soft spot Han tries to pretend he doesn’t have. At the last minute, Luke hears that echo of advice from Obi-Wan again and impetuously decides to listen, turning off his targeting computer and relying on the pull of the Force to make that crucial shot. R2 is damaged in the approach. Luke is alone now. It is a matter of seconds before the Death Star fires on the base.

Luke takes his shot. It goes in like a dream. The Death Star explodes into fiery wreckage and Luke lands to wild celebration, hauled into a group hug with Han and Leia. They are seriously adorable as a trio. R2 is taken off for repair, C3-PO worrying all the way, and a ceremony is arranged to honour the two pilots who brought down the Death Star between them. Leia presents Luke and Han with a medal each (and a little smile). It remains one of the inexplicable injustices of the Star Wars universe that Chewie doesn’t get one.

There’s a much bigger war to win. But this is a victory worth celebrating.

Return of the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

It should be admitted up front, before we get stuck into the third installment of my Star Wars rewatch, that I do not like this movie, and I will probably be crying. The final movie in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, it brings us into a galaxy torn apart by war. The Republic is led by Chancellor Palpatine, the Separatists by Count Dooku. When the terrifying Separatist general Grievous manages to abduct Palpatine the very heart of the Republic, a ferocious battle is fought above Coruscant. This scene shows the viewer immediately what warfare in the Clone Wars looks like – the galaxy is on fire.

Among the combatants are Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. Anakin, particularly, is in his element here – even R2-D2 has had a few lethal upgrades (behold a cute moment in this otherwise doom-laden movie when Obi-Wan and Anakin yell praise at R2-D2). Thanks to Anakin’s sharp-shooting, the two Jedi get aboard Grievous’ ship and fight their way up to the level where Palpatine is being guarded by Dooku himself.

Dooku is – just really excellent. Obi-Wan is knocked out early on, leaving Dooku and Anakin to battle it out. At last, Anakin gets revenge for his severed arm with a wicked blow that takes off both Dooku’s hands and then, on Palpatine’s order and against his own better judgement, Anakin cuts off Dooku’s head. Palpatine also tries to abandon the unconscious Obi-Wan, insisting there’s no time to help him, but Anakin won’t leave him behind. Not that the gesture really helps, as they are all swiftly recaptured by Grievous, a huge insectoid cyborg-type creature with a lightsaber fetish. Once more R2-D2 saves the day with a well-timed distraction, allowing the Jedi to slash their way out of there and land the badly damaged spacecraft safely on Coruscant. Though Grievous got away, it is still an important victory for the Republic, confirming Anakin’s war hero status.

But he has other things on his mind, like a reunion with his secret wife. In a really public location, behind a Very Discreet Pillar. Anakin feels Padme shaking and assumes the worst (this is a very bad habit of his), only to be told that she is pregnant with his child. Which is – not the best news, under the circumstances, what with her being a high profile, already controversial Senator and him a supposedly celibate Jedi, how is it that they can build advanced prosthetics and sentient droids in this society but have not mastered reliable contraception? Anakin tells her not to worry about the future. Spoiler alert, he will not take his own advice.

Grievous, now leader of the Separatist droid army, is instructed by Darth Sidious to move their base of operations to the Mustafar system. Sidious does not consider Dooku’s death to be any great loss, telling Grievous that another Sith Lord, younger and more powerful, is already waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, Padme has not taken Anakin’s advice either, being her usual proactive self and planning where she’s going to have her baby (on Naboo, somewhere quiet and peaceful) while Anakin gazes at her with burning intensity. They argue over who loves who more. The happy interlude lasts until Anakin falls asleep, when he has traumatic dreams of Padme dying in childbirth. He is terrified they will come true. WHAT KIND OF FUTURISTIC SOCIETY DO YOU CALL THIS? You can have CLONE ARMIES but not safe childbirth? What the hell does that say?

(Sexism is the word you are looking for, sexism is what it says, and lazy plotting, and the unquestioned narrative expectation that childbirth is a medieval torture scenario. I am not crying, I am enraged. What’s more, Padme admits that her Queen will probably not allow her to continue serving as a Senator when news of the pregnancy spreads. Apparently maternity leave is not a thing. )

Padme is gentle with Anakin, since the last time he had dreams like that they heralded his mother’s death, and suggests bringing Obi-Wan in on the secret. Anakin dismisses that idea at once. He does go to Yoda, to ask as vaguely as he can about premonitions, but Yoda’s response is to tell him that death is a natural part of life and Anakin should rejoice for those who ‘transform into the Force’. He advises Anakin to focus on letting go of ‘everything you fear to lose’. Yoda, frankly, sucks at advice.

Anakin’s next difference of opinion is with Obi-Wan, who is troubled by the accumulation of new powers that wartime has given Palpatine. Anakin sees it as a necessary cutting of red tape; summoned to speak to the Chancellor in private, it is clear he doesn’t so much see Palpatine as a friend but as a mentor, like a morally questionable grandda. When Palpatine appoints him as his personal representative on the Jedi Council, the rest of the Council are just as outraged as you might expect and take it out on Anakin by refusing to make him a Jedi Master. Obi-Wan (also on the Council, as an actual Master) later confesses that the only reason Anakin’s appointment was accepted at all was in the hope he would turn spy against the Chancellor.

It is a terrible thing to ask of Anakin, who is fervently and unflinchingly loyal to those he considers worthy. Obi-Wan is also in a difficult position, defending his former Padawan against Yoda and Mace Windu’s suspicion and distrust. When Anakin shares his unhappiness with Padme, she offers an even more unpleasant view of events: that the Republic itself may have twisted out of all recognition, becoming its own true enemy. She asks Anakin to speak to the Chancellor, to persuade him to reopen diplomatic relations with the Separatists, but of course Anakin sees the request as another exploitation.

Palpatine offers a different way to end the war: Grievous has been found and Palpatine wants Anakin to be the one sent to deal with him. He tells Anakin of his fear that the Jedi Council want full control of the Republic, not just its armies; Anakin doesn’t know what to think. “Good is a point of view, Anakin,” Palpatine continues, and relates the legend of a Sith Lord so powerful he could keep loved ones from death. Instead of wondering just how the Chancellor of the Republic knows so much Sith history, Anakin’s attention zeroes in on the promise of miraculous power. It is a tantalising possibility.

With resources stretched thin, Yoda heads out to Kashyyyk to support the Wookiees, but joins the Council from afar as a hologram to discuss what to do about Grievous. Anakin unwisely announces Palpatine’s request that he should take this mission; predictably, the Council goes against him, choosing to send Obi-Wan. Yoda then turns to the battle at hand, and we get to see an army of Wookiee warriors tearing apart war machines WITH THEIR BARE CLAWS.

Obi-Wan tries to downplay the snub to Anakin, and gently counsels him to have patience. Anakin appears to take his words to heart. They separate on excellent terms and Obi-Wan heads out, bantering cheerfully with his clone lieutenants. Anakin, however, is in no such light temper. He feels Obi-Wan doesn’t trust him, knows the Council don’t, and has become so obsessed with the idea of ‘saving’ Padme that he doesn’t seem to understand she’s still very much alive and well.

Landing in a remote settlement to refuel for his search, Obi-Wan is told that the people there are being held hostage by Grievous and his battle droids. Obi-Wan sends his fighter craft back to the main ship to fetch reinforcements while he remains behind; riding the most incredible lizard, he scales the sheer rock of the settlement’s walls to reach the level where Grievous is based and jumps out of hiding to face him and a circle of battle droids all on his own. The only reason he isn’t shot down straight away is that lightsaber fetish Grievous has – he wants to defeat Obi-Wan personally and claim his weapon as part of the super creepy collection he’s got going. Whirling a lightsaber from each of his four limbs, he turns into a glow-in-the-dark scything machine and Obi-Wan is doubting his life choices.

A few well-aimed strikes even the odds, though, bringing Grievous down to two lightsabers and distracting him while Obi-Wan’s clone forces move into place. They launch their attack; Obi-Wan uses the Force to throw Grievous into a wall. Grievous calls it a wash and makes an escape, with Obi-Wan in hot pursuit on his (really, really adorable) lizard. The clone leading the attack reports to the Jedi Council and Mace Windu orders Anakin to pass it on to the Chancellor personally, alert to any tells Palpatine may let slip. The Council is so concerned about Palpatine’s personal authority that they have begun talking about how to remove him…just as he told Anakin they would.

Anakin is very uneasy about Obi-Wan going into battle without him; I get the impression that they usually fight together (I haven’t watched the animated series The Clone Wars, so I can’t say for sure). Palpatine hones in on that anxiety, and on Anakin’s growing feeling of isolation from his fellow Jedi, assuring him that the Council are envious of his power. Palpatine reveals that he, too, has studied the Force, both the Light Side and the Dark, and offers – sounding deeply reasonable – to widen Anakin’s horizons. Anakin puts it together and draws his lightsaber. “You’re the Sith Lord,” he accuses, and Palpatine calmly asks if Anakin is going to kill him.

Anakin does not. He doesn’t know what to do. Palpatine may be a Sith Lord, but he offers a chance to save Padme…who is STILL NOT DEAD, for pity’s sake, Anakin, just research some decent medical care!

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is battling Grievous. He’s not doing too well. Hanging over the edge of a cliff, he manages to draw a gun to his hand and sets the flesh sections of Grievous on fire – the Separatist general falls to the ground, very dead. Mace Windu has just been informed of that when Anakin arrives to impart what he’s learned about Palpatine. Responding in true ‘I suck at basic human relations’ Jedi Councillor fashion, Windu first refuses to bring Anakin in on the arrest of Palpatine and then makes it clear that he’s only now coming to trust Anakin’s word (because Anakin has told him what he wanted to hear…). Left alone to brood on Palpatine’s promises, Anakin’s internal conflict reaches fever pitch. Hayden Christensen is a brilliant actor, conveying the internal breakdown without dialogue or action, just through the desolate look on his face. Anakin was the boy who could do anything. Now he is the man who might do anything.

Mace Windu brings a group of Jedi to apprehend Palpatine, who responds by drawing a red lightsaber and launching into a dizzyingly swift attack. Windu draws his own lightsaber (purple, the coolest lightsaber of them all, bar none) but Palpatine is unstoppable, taking out all three of Windu’s Jedi and pushing Windu’s own abilities to the limit. Anakin, having decided to disobey his orders, arrives in time to see Palpatine disarmed, to all appearances terrified under Mace Windu’s descending lightsaber – until lightning bolts shoot from Palpatine’s hands. Using this power drains the life out of Palpatine’s face, ageing him rapidly, but Mace Windu is being forced backwards. Each one is calling the other a traitor, looking to Anakin for help.

And Anakin tries. He wants Palpatine to stand trial; Mace Windu, pointing out Palpatine’s power in both the Courts and the Senate, wants to finish this now. When he brings down his lightsaber, Anakin cuts off his arm, and Palpatine kills him with a massive jolt of lightning. The loyalties that held Anakin to the Jedi Council have snapped. He is Palpatine’s creature now, a slave again, this time in his own head. The only thing he asks in return is to keep Padme alive. Palpatine takes him as his apprentice, and renames him Darth Vader.

It is a choice. Everything that happens afterwards, happens not because Anakin made that choice – it happens because he never once looks back, just wades deeper into bloody waters, and every step he takes is his own choice. I will be calling him Vader now.

Palpatine tells Vader that the Jedi will kill both of them once the truth of their actions is known (probably true) and kill all the Senators (definitely not true, though Vader swallows it down without effort). When Palpatine orders the destruction of the Jedi Order – including the death of Obi-Wan – Vader accepts that too. Leading a battalion of clone troopers, Vader walks through the doors of the Jedi Temple and commits a massacre. He kills everyone there, people who had trusted him, including the children. Across the galaxy, the clone armies receive a secret order from Palpatine and turn on their Jedi leaders. It is a betrayal monumental in scope, and I do not want to be watching it.

I really do not like this movie.

The shockwaves of so many deaths hit Yoda in an almost physical way. He is very small, and very old, and he is very, very hard to kill. When his clone troopers turn on him, he fights back and the Wookiees help him. Am I crying? Yes. Yes, I am.

It is at such times that you find out who is willing to stand up and take a risk. Bail Organa, an ally of Padme’s in the Senate, goes straight to the Temple to find out what is happening and sees a Jedi child gunned down in front of him. He gets away with the knowledge this wasn’t a rebellion, it was a slaughter.

But Obi-Wan has survived; he crashed into deep water, though that gorgeous lizard was not so lucky. The Wookiees help Yoda escape in a shuttle. One of those brave allies is Chewbacca – it’s not the last time he’ll have to make choices about which side to take in a battle over the Force, only unlike Anakin Skywalker, Chewbacca has EXCELLENT JUDGEMENT. Bail Organa, bless that man forever, reaches out to find any Jedi who may remain alive and gets through to Obi-Wan, warning him of what’s happening on Coruscant.

Padme, who only knows that there was an attack on the Jedi Temple, gratefully welcomes her husband’s return. He feeds her the propaganda about a Jedi rebellion and announces his intention to serve the Chancellor, overriding Padme’s concerns for Obi-Wan. This entire scene is desperately creepy. Telling her that he’s going to the Mustafar system to finish off the Separatist leaders (also on Palpatine’s orders), Vader leaves. Padme lets him. She trusts him.

R2-D2 has doubts. Always the voice of reason, that droid.

Obi-Wan and Yoda meet up aboard Bail Organa’s spacecraft and the full scale of the disaster begins to sink in. Learning that a coded signal has gone out, calling all the Jedi back to the compromised Temple, Obi-Wan is determined to get to Coruscant and disable the signal in case it lures in any other survivors. Bail Organa receives a summons of his own to an emergency Senate meeting.

In the Mustafar system, Vader enacts another massacre, this time of the Separatist leaders. Among them is the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, who has been Palpatine’s pawn all along and now dies for it. It is notable that Vader leaves R2-D2 with the ship – his droid has more of a conscience than he does. And might tell Padme.

At the Temple, Yoda and Obi-Wan cut a path through the clone guards to get inside. They walk among their dead. When they find the bodies of children killed by a lightsaber, they know the betrayal came from among their own. In the Senate, Palpatine declares that the fractured Republic will be pulled back together as a Galactic Empire. “So this is how liberty dies,” Padme says bitterly to Bail, “with thunderous applause.”

Obi-Wan recalibrates the code to warn any survivors to stay away from Coruscant, then recovers footage from the attack. He is horrified to discover that the traitor is his own former student. He knows the Sith have to be stopped but begs Yoda to send him after Sidious instead – Yoda, however, knows he is not strong enough to take on the Master. Obi-Wan will have to kill the man he thought of as a brother. He goes to Padme, telling her what Vader has done; she frantically tries to deny it and when Obi-Wan has left, sets off for Mustafar to question her husband for herself, taking only C3-PO with her. Of course, Obi-Wan stows away on board her spacecraft.

Padme pleads with Vader to come away with her, to leave this hellscape behind. How she could still want that after he borderline confirms he killed the Jedi, I don’t know. Maybe it has not sunk in yet. When Vader eagerly expounds on his new abilities, however, Padme starts backing away, seeing what Obi-Wan has seen. This is not the man she loves. “Don’t you turn against me,” Vader threatens her, which says absolutely everything about the type of ‘love’ he is capable of. When he sees Obi-Wan emerging from the craft, he assumes she has betrayed him and chokes her unconscious with the Force – would have kept choking her, from the look of it, if not for Obi-Wan’s intervention. Predictably, Vader blames Obi-Wan for everything. He shouts about the lies of the Jedi while Obi-Wan checks that the woman he’s supposed to love above everything else is even still alive. That’s the real motto of the Dark Side: there is always somebody else to blame.

Vader attacks. There’s something terrible about seeing two blue lightsabers fighting against each other. It is savage, fought above the lava flow of a volcanic planet. On Coruscant, another duel explodes between Palpatine and Yoda, within the Senate building itself. Both sets of combatants are very well-matched. Palpatine has lightning; Yoda can contain it. Vader is an expertly-trained warrior; Obi-Wan trained him that way. But Palpatine has the stronger position, and Yoda is forced to flee with Bail Organa’s help. On Mustafar, Obi-Wan gains the upper hand, giving Vader near-fatal wounds, but can’t bring himself to strike the killing blow. The lava sets Vader on fire and Obi-Wan walks away, unwilling to help, unable to watch.

He returns to Padme. She is in a bad state of what looks like shock and they leave the planet at once. Palpatine, meanwhile, arrives on Mustafar and finds Vader horrifically burned, but living. Obi-Wan rejoins Yoda and Bail Organa, bringing Padme to a medical facility for treatment. It’s not enough. She has lost the will to live. While Palpatine rebuilds Vader with a new body of metal, the medical droids operate to save the twins Padme is carrying. Obi-Wan, a true friend to the end, stays with her. He is the first person in the world to meet her children, Luke and Leia. He is the last person in the world to see her alive. She insists to the end that there is good in Anakin; Vader’s only question on waking up is where Padme is, and is told that he killed her. Which is more or less true.

The people who really care about Padme take her body back to Naboo and decide how best to keep her children safe. Leia is taken in by Bail Organa. Obi-Wan agrees to take Luke to Shmi Skywalker’s family on Tatooine. Why they imagine Vader won’t look there, if he decides to start looking, I don’t know, it seems obvious to me. But Obi-Wan plans to stay and keep watch over Luke. Yoda tells him that in his self-imposed exile, Obi-Wan will be training with…Qui-Gon…dead Qui-Gon, who is a ghost now? Immortal, in that ‘one with the Force, can’t actually help anybody’ kind of a way? It’s really, really weird, but it makes Obi-Wan a tiny bit happy on the worst day imaginable, so let’s let that one go.

Vader is at Palpatine’s side aboard a Star Destroyer, overseeing the construction of the Empire’s ultimate weapon: the Death Star. Bail leaves C3-PO and R2-D2 with Antilles, one of his captains, with an order to wipe C3-PO’s memory, clearly not trusting in the droid’s discretion. On Naboo, a funeral procession is held for Padme, the escort including her old friends Jar-Jar Binks and Boss Nass. I’ll say it again: these are the people who loved her. And her babies are safe in other arms.

The original trilogy is a very simple story, really, running on fairy tale logic: heroes versus monsters, good versus evil. Our protagonists are comfortingly attractive while Darth Vader, the Emperor and Jabba the Hutt are suitably grotesque. The prequels, however, are a more complex myth. Yes, our hero is a beautiful man with a charming smile, but he is not to be trusted. The Jedi Order are stagnant in arrogance; the Republic is corrupt. The only thing that makes a person good is their choices, and Anakin Skywalker chose to destroy everything he ever loved. And the prophecy fulfilled itself, simply by existing, because prophecies are not to be trusted either. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Force is indeed in balance: two Sith, and two Jedi.

But that is all about to change.

Return of the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Previously: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Welcome back to my Star Wars rewatch, and May the Fourth be with you! This time I’m revisiting the second prequel movie, Attack of the Clones, which begins with fracture lines forming in the Republic. Led by the charismatic ex-Jedi Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee, which explains why people do what he wants), thousands of systems are threatening to separate from the Galactic Senate. In a time of such unrest, the resources of the Republic’s traditional peacekeepers – the Jedi – are strained thin and the Senate is about to vote on the creation of an official armed force.

Senator Amidala, once queen of Naboo, is in adamant opposition to such a decision and comes to Coruscant to give her say, but upon arrival her spacecraft explodes and the handmaiden who was acting as her decoy is assassinated. The Jedi believe the attack originated with ‘disgruntled spice miners’ from her own planet, but Amidala (whom I shall refer to as Padme from now on, as Amidala is more like a title) doesn’t buy that for a second. She thinks Count Dooku is responsible. Gently, patronizingly, the Jedi tell her that as a former Jedi, Dooku could never ever be involved in murder. Inciting a massive political movement that could reshape the galaxy just shows how idealistic he is. Adding a further layer of insult, they take up Chancellor Palpatine’s suggestion to impose bodyguards on Padme against her will. To forestall further protests on her part, Palpatine arranges the return of two old friends – Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan, Anakin Skywalker.

It’s been ten years since Naboo was freed from the Trade Federation’s blockade and Anakin has grown from a sulkily precocious child to a sulkily gorgeous nineteen-year-old. His old crush on Padme hasn’t gone anywhere and Obi-Wan is torn between amusement and mild disapproval about it. Anakin keeps fidgetting with his clothes, but he should be more worried about his hair, which is in the traditional, hideously embarrassing cut Jedi inflict on their apprentices. Not that Padme cares. She’s warmly pleased to see Obi-Wan and openly perplexed by this version of Anakin, who now towers over her and makes awkward remarks about how beautiful she is. Her mental image of him as a sort of adorably spiky stray kitten is clearly shaken.

Jar-Jar Binks is also in this scene. I’m not sure why anybody let him be an official representative of anything, but apparently he is. I’d like to note that R2-D2 is another member of Padme’s entourage – as Tumblr reminded me a while ago, he was always Padme’s droid, not Anakin’s.

Rewatching this, Anakin is such an embarrassing teenager. His hair is nothing in comparison to what COMES OUT OF HIS MOUTH. He hasn’t seen Padme in ten years, but uses her private name in a public context; contradicts his Master by promising to investigate the assassination attempts instead of just guarding Padme, and stares broodingly the whole time. Or maybe that’s just how his eyes function. Obi-Wan is increasingly exasperated as he tries to reassert his authority, and everyone else just looks really awkward as the public dressing-down goes on. Padme tries to smooth things over and leaves the room as soon as she can.

She may resent the increased security, but she needs it. Elsewhere in Coruscant, the bounty hunter Zam Wesell is meeting her partner to explain Padme’s continued survival. Zam Wesell is one of the minor Star Wars characters that I love, not because they do anything particularly amazing but because they simply exude cool. Also, she’s a girl, and this franchise doesn’t have nearly enough of those. She gets a second chance at the assassination when her partner hands over a pair of toxic worm-like creatures in a vial. She sends them to Padme’s building in a drone, which cuts right through the window and releases the worms onto Padme’s sleeping body. Anakin and Obi-Wan are too busy arguing over whether politicians can be trusted to notice.

At the last minute, Anakin senses something is wrong and leaps into her room to sever the worms right over her face. Obi-Wan sees the drone and jumps through the window to catch it – in mid-air. Not unexpectedly, it flies off with him and Anakin runs to get a craft so he can catch up. Are they as ridiculous as each other? Yes. Yes they are.

The denizens of Coruscant are just as dismayed by the antics of Team Reckless as I am, and Zam Wesell cannot believe how badly her night is going. Anakin does some clever flying to catch Obi-Wan before he falls to a painful death, and some very stupid flying to catch up to Zam, and I’m mostly admiring the Coruscant cityscape as this point because it’s just really gorgeous. Crash-landing on a busy street, Zam flees into a nightclub. Obi-Wan lures her out by looking unsuspecting at the bar (and advising his fellow patrons to reconsider their life choices), then he cuts off her ARM and hauls her outside for questioning. It doesn’t take long. She collapses, a poisoned dart in her throat. Her partner doesn’t like loose ends.

During this sequence Obi-Wan remarks irritably that Anakin is going to be the death of him and Anakin responds by saying that Obi-Wan is ‘the closest thing [he has] to a father’, but I read their dynamic as much more fraternal. Obi-Wan is in a position of authority over Anakin, certainly, but he comes across more like an exasperated older brother, accustomed to his rules being flouted, than a parental figure accustomed to respect. And while he complains about Anakin’s attitude all the time, he’s hardly a stable and responsible role model.

Anyway. Taking their account to the Jedi Council, they get approval to investigate further. Showing their typical cluelessness about all things emotional, Yoda and Windu arrange for Obi-Wan to do the investigating and for Anakin to guard the young, attractive Senator he has history with. He gets a paternal pep talk from Palpatine, who assures him of his guaranteed future greatness, and Obi-Wan’s concerns get completely ignored. You can absolutely see how Anakin got to be the way he is from these scenes.

Padme, immensely fed up about being sent home to Naboo, makes the inexplicable decision to place her vote in Jar-Jar’s hands. WHY. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT, PADME. She passive-aggressively packs while Anakin vents his own frustrations. Hayden Christensen does a fantastic job in this, because what Padme is seeing is a handsome, impatient boy wanting more independence, but there’s danger underneath, a vicious edge to his complaints. Padme’s mental dissonance between the little boy she promised to remember and the young man who has come back to her becomes uncomfortable when Anakin’s intensity turns on her. They leave Coruscant together with R2-D2, disguised as refugees.

Having seen them off, Obi-Wan goes to visit an old friend who is running the intergalactic version of a greasy spoon and who has a suspiciously excellent knowledge of weaponry. I love this exploration of Coruscant’s day-to-day living, from glimmering towers to scrappy corners. Also, the fact Obi-Wan has friends! I suspect most Jedi do not have enough of those. Obi-Wan shows Dex the dart that killed Zam Wesell and is told it comes from Kamino, a planet known for its state-of-the-art cloning facilities.  Attempting to locate Kamino in the Jedi records, Obi-Wan is told by the very snippy archivist that it does not exist. He goes to Yoda for a second opinion, who in turn hands the question over to a roomful of adorable little Padawans. The consensus is simple: the planet is there all right, but somebody doesn’t want it found. Yoda sends Obi-Wan to find out why.

Meanwhile, Padme and Anakin are drifting into dangerous waters with a debate on the nature of love; more precisely, whether Jedi are allowed to love or not. Anakin argues that he’s supposed to care about everybody, it is attachment that is forbidden – a rule that is destined for failure, incidentally, people being people. He’s completely unsubtle about his feelings for Padme, and she doesn’t know quite what to think about that. She has her own doubts about her place in the world, how she should best serve her people now that her time as queen is over, and Anakin’s complete faith in her brilliance is obviously reassuring – especially as she’s unable to put that brilliance to any use, dragged away from the debate in the Senate to hide in retreat on Naboo.

Meanwhile, on the ocean planet of Kamino, Obi-Wan’s investigations are given an unexpected in when the cloners mistake him for the representative of a different Jedi – a Master Sifo-Dyas, nearly a decade dead, who secretly commissioned the creation of a clone army on behalf of the Republic. With their accelerated growth and advanced training program, the clones are nearly ready for service. They are the perfect soldiers: capable of creativity and limited independence, but conditioned for perfect obedience. Slavery from conception. IT IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF AWFUL. And yet also kind of fascinating? Like, Obi-Wan is not horrified. He doesn’t exactly approve, but this falls within the boundaries of his understanding as a thing that can and does happen – from the way the Kaminoans describe their procedures, there are other cloners out there, though they might not work on such a large scale – and his focus remains on the mission.

The clones are based on the template of a bounty hunter, Jango Fett, who asked in return for one unaltered clone to raise as his son. Jango and little Boba are deeply suspicious of Obi-Wan and his questions. Obi-Wan has his suspicions confirmed when he recognises Fett’s armour. This is the bounty hunter who killed Zam Wesell.

The safe house on Naboo looks more like a luxury hotel for honeymoon romance. On their very first day, a seemingly innocuous conversation about the landscape leads to kissing on the balcony and while Padme tries to stamp down the sparks of sexual attraction flaring up between them, absolutely everything is against her. Anakin loves her and he loves Naboo and he’s never been more playful, more easy to get close to. But even as they flirt in circles around each other, there’s something more serious under the surface. Padme might be fed up with the ponderous political system of the Republic, but she trusts in the foundations. Anakin doesn’t. Maybe it’s rooted in his childhood as a slave, or in the gentle dictatorship of the Jedi Order, but he doesn’t have the patience for democratic process. He wants a leader with more power, someone who will make the hard decisions and make the squabbling rabble of the Senate do what they’re told.

The sexual tension comes to a head one evening when Anakin pours out his longing and desperation and Padme admits that yes, she feels it too – but what are they supposed to do with those feelings? Her life is committed to politics, his to the Jedi Order, and their paths don’t align anywhere. The only option would be to keep their relationship a secret, and they both see how corrosive a lie that would be.

Relaying his discoveries to Yoda and Mace Windu, Obi-Wan gets the go-ahead to capture Jango Fett. Only that’s not an easy ask. The Fetts are a flawless father-son team: Jango armed and in the air, Boba firing the cannons on the family spaceship. Is it wrong that I find this quite adorable? Obi-Wan is thrown off the side of the landing platform, dangling over Kamino’s wild seas. Jango leaves him for dead. Obi-Wan hauls himself back to his own ship and pursues them towards the planet Geonosis. He manages to survive another tangle with their vicious ingenuity, faking his own demise a second time, and lands on the planet surface undetected. Inside the hive-like buildings he sees another army in the making, a production line of battle-droids ready for war. The Separatists are meeting with Count Dooku to decide on their next move and, surprise surprise, the Trade Federation are right in the thick of it, sour-grapesing about how much they want Padme dead.

I am aware that sour-grapesing is not a word, but it should be.

On Naboo, Anakin’s misery is twofold. He’s tormented by dreams about his mother Shmi and a conviction she’s in pain. When he shares his fear with Padme, she insists on going with him to Tattooine to find out for sure. That’s mostly for Anakin’s benefit, but Shmi was once very kind to a fourteen-year-old queen. Arriving on Tattooine, they find the once-successful Watto is now reduced to doing his own grunt-work. It’s odd seeing Anakin interact with his former owner; there’s resentment, but also a grudging sort of affection. Anakin didn’t have many people in his life as a child, after all. Shmi is no longer in Watto’s possession – she was sold to a moisture farmer called Lars who freed and married her, but she’s not with him either. Tusken Raiders took her, and despite the best efforts of her new family, rescue seems hopeless. But Anakin doesn’t accept that. He takes a speeder and goes after her himself. The light turns red; the music is the same as for Darth Maul’s duel. Failure is not an option.

He finds Shmi. She is savagely bound, barely hanging on after weeks of torture, and she dies there in his arms. Afterwards, it is not a Jedi who cuts his way through the camp. It is a living inferno of grief, guilt and rage. By the time he returns to the Skywalker farm with his mother’s body draped over the speeder, not a single Raider is left alive. Anakin confesses as much to Padme in a fury of despair.

There are several important facts to remember when analysing this scene: the fact that the Raiders have killed nearly everyone who tried to rescue Shmi (Padme is fully aware of that), the long-standing enmity between the Raiders and the rest of Tattooine’s population (perhaps something to do with colonisation? It’s never explained in the movies but probably there’s material in the expanded universe), and the incredibly low expectations Padme has of Tattooine’s local justice, formed on her first visit and compounded now. But most importantly, she loves Anakin and she still sees him as needing protection. So when he tells her that he committed a massacre, that he has killed children, she swallows down her horror and goes to comfort him.

Just in case you thought this was a movie for little kids? IT IS NOT.

It is at this point, when Anakin is too numb to give a damn about anyone, that Obi-Wan runs into trouble on Geonosis. He gets a message out before he’s captured, but help will not come from Coruscant in time. Padme is determined that her small team – herself, Anakin, R2-D2 and a newly reclaimed C3-PO – should go to the rescue. Meanwhile, as Obi-Wan’s message is relayed to Jedi and Senate alike, it is agreed that the urgent threat of the Separatist movement requires dramatic action. To approve the deployment of the clones, the Chancellor needs emergency powers. And to get those, a Senator has to make the proposal.

Padme would never do it. But Jar-Jar Binks is listening, and he’s already seen the Trade Federation’s droids in action once. It hardly takes any pressure at all for him to make the decision, and once the proposal is made, it rapidly gains support.

Dooku makes an effort to recruit Obi-Wan onto his side, telling him that the Republic is already under the control of a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. Obi-Wan somehow resists Christopher Lee’s resonant tones, and gets casually handed over public execution in a gladiatorial arena. Padme’s hope is to negotiate a peaceful settlement is also a bust; she and Anakin survive an up close and personal experience of the battle droid foundries – an encounter, I may add, Padme only survives thanks to R2’s quick action, proving more than ever that he is HER droid – only to be imprisoned and sent out into the arena with a very unimpressed Obi-Wan. When you’re about to be shredded for popular entertainment, it makes you focus on the important things. Padme tells Anakin that she loves him, and they face near-certain death together.

Fortunately, Padme doesn’t rely solely on her diplomatic prowess when going into life-threatening situations. Using a lock-pick, she slips her chains while Anakin swings astride one of the creatures sent to kill them. Obi-Wan does a lot of running. Jango thinks this is A-OK viewing for his young son, and Boba is loving it.

Dooku has a distant sort of admiration for his prisoners’ survival skills, but eventually loses patience. Droidekas roll out into the arena, ready to finish off the trio; and that is when Mace Windu walks out onto the balcony behind Dooku. He’s always exuded awesome, but now he gets to DO awesome. Lightsabers flare to life all around the arena. The Jedi have come to rescue their own. They are literally taking on an army and I get really emotional about impossibly unwise acts of courage, this is catnip to me. Padme and Anakin prove an unexpectedly excellent fighting duo, her with a blaster, him with a borrowed lightsaber. Jango Fett tries to set Mace Windu on fire, and Windu cuts off his head. (In front of Boba. Another child witnessing their beloved solo parent’s demise; parallels much?) The Jedi prove they are worthy of their reputation, cutting down battle droids in swathes.

They are amazing. But it comes down to numbers – they are simply too badly outmatched. Surrounded, it’s the last moment of a last stand when suddenly ships start descending from the sky and a new force troops out: a clone army clad in white, led by Yoda. They quickly collect Padme and the surviving Jedi, and set off in pursuit of Dooku. Now the Separatists are the ones on the back foot, their leaders scrambling to escape. Anakin and Padme are separated when she falls from one of the open-sided clone ships, but Obi-Wan insists on chasing Dooku and Anakin very reluctantly concedes; Padme is picked up by a clone trooper (huh, phrased like that it sounds a completely different situation…) and immediately starts giving commands.

Obi-Wan and Anakin catch up to Dooku inside a cavern, where he coolly proceeds to school them on what Force mastery really looks like. Flinging bolts of Force lightning, he leaves Obi-Wan bleeding on the ground and severs Anakin’s arm, but has no chance to finish them off because right then, Yoda arrives. And…look. Yoda is fantastic. I love Yoda. But it’s hard to describe his fighting style as anything other than really fierce bouncing. He can keep up with his former apprentice just fine, so Dooku exploits a different weak spot; dislodging a heavy column, he leaves Yoda with the choice of catching him or saving the two injured Jedi. Yoda lets him go.

Dooku goes straight to Coruscant to meet with his Sith Master. Unaware of how close their enemy really is, Obi-Wan and Mace Windu stand in the Jedi Temple, watching clone troopers march past below. The only one in the room who sees this army as a terrible thing is Yoda, but by now it’s too late. The war has begun.

Anakin escorts Padme back to Naboo, where they marry in secret, witnessed only by R2-D2 and C3-PO. Of course, if they really wanted to keep their relationship under wraps they wouldn’t have kissed in front of Obi-Wan in the aftermath of Dooku’s escape, but Obi-Wan was admittedly distracted, and besides, he’s accustomed to looking the other way for Anakin.

This is also the beginning of something terrible. But they don’t know that yet.

A lot of people do not like the prequel movies. They do have a lot of flaws. Being unable to decide on a target audience, for instance, so that the plots are too violent for children and much of the humour is too childish for adults; messy scripts, too, though all the Star Wars movies share that. But what the prequels do so very, very well, is explore the ways in which a civilisation can fall. How do terrible things happen? Because good people make bad choices. Or think they have no choices at all.

Because nobody knows what’s coming, except us.

Return of the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Return of the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

There are people who will tell you not to start with the prequels when experiencing the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars. I watched A New Hope first, as it happens, on a VHS tape with my brother and sister, and played with action figures from the original trilogy – one of my favourite toys as a child was a Ken doll-sized Luke Skywalker, who promptly fell to the Dark Side because my brother had a Darth Vader with cool gloves – but I also grew up watching the prequels at the cinema and humming Darth Maul’s theme tune when I needed an energy boost, so I really can’t tell you what order is best. Maybe I’ll figure that out by the end of this rewatch.

 

There are also people who will tell you to avoid the prequels altogether, with an almost evangelical hatred, like making more movies poisoned a perfect universe. As far as I am concerned, watch whatever you want. I will state here and now, though, there will be no prequel hate on this blog. I love Star Wars for the endearingly ridiculous, messy, unstoppable adventure that it is, and that includes Gungans and Ewoks. You have been warned.

 

The Phantom Menace

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a dispute over trade taxation has flared into political turmoil as the powerful Trade Federation forms a blockade around the planet of Naboo to prevent any ships except their own from coming and going. While the Congress of the Galactic Republic talks itself in circles, the Supreme Chancellor secretly sends a pair of Jedi Knights to negotiate a peaceful resolution: Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan, or apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Qui-Gon is sure of a swift settlement. He is the sort of person who is sure about everything. Obi-Wan has doubts, which are completely ignored.

 

They are welcomed into the blockade, but their hosts are slow to appear. The reasons for that quickly become apparent: their ship is blown up, then their anteroom is flooded with poisonous gas. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight their way out through a crowd of battle droids and the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, beginning to have doubts of his own, has the bridge sealed off. “That won’t be enough,” mutters his second-in-command. The Jedi are legends, and these two are living up to the reputation. Qui-Gon jams his lightsabre into the bridge doors, cutting them open; when the blast doors are sealed, he starts melting them. Only when two droidekas, shielded by force fields, come to the attack do the Jedi withdraw, escaping through the ventilation shafts. They stow away on battle ships bound for the planet surface. Meanwhile, the Viceroy denies the existence of any ambassadors to Naboo’s elected ruler, fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala. She is an impressive figure, masked in face paint with a towering headdress. Later, while she is talking to Senator Palpatine, a supporter from the Senate, his hologram abruptly stops transmitting. A block on communications can mean only one thing: imminent invasion.

 

I love this opening sequence for a few reasons. It sets up the world of the Republic very effectively through the intricacies of interplanetary diplomacy. That the dispute is over taxation just delights me – it has echoes of the infamous East India Trading Company, not to mention the modern day global corporate monoliths that have such influence over our daily lives. This is what power looks like, specifically the abuse of power, and I believe it. Also, the way the Jedi are introduced shows they are not only powerful figures on the political scene but are also shrouded in urban myth, the subject of awe and fear. This is a very different universe to that of A New Hope and I fell in love with it from the word go – I am still in love with it.

 

The invasion begins in the swamps of Naboo, war machines mowing down tracts of forest as they go. Qui-Gon, fleeing from the destruction, rescues a Gungan – a semi-aquatic biped native to Naboo – called Jar Jar Binks, who promptly declares his love and loyalty and insists he owes the Jedi a ‘life debt’, which is a ridiculous notion clearly designed to keep him in the movie. (Nor is it the first time George Lucas used ‘life debt’ handwavery; Chewbacca owes a similar bond to Han Solo, or did when they first met anyway.) Qui-Gon is tersely ungrateful for the offer, but warms to the idea when Jar Jar lets slip there is a Gungan city hidden underwater. Despite his banishment from aforementioned city, Jar Jar reluctantly agrees to guide the Jedi there. Using extremely useful little respiratory devices, they follow him underwater and are led to a cluster of beautiful plazas surrounded by golden force fields that are permeable to the touch. Neither Jedi comes across as very nice at this point, it has to be said, bullying the only local they’ve met into breaking his own people’s laws and ignoring his religious beliefs about life debts – I know there’s an invading army on their heels and all, but really, they come across as believing rather too much in their own superiority. Obi-Wan at least has a sense of humour about it. Qui-Gon gives off a powerful vibe of ‘let’s get back to civilisation’.  Unfortunately, Jar Jar is not at all welcome and neither are his guests. On the plus side, Obi-Wan’s indignant expression when Jar Jar is prodded with an electrified spear shows he cares what happens to their guide.

 

The Gungans, it turns out, have little fondness for the surface-dwelling humans. They consider their culture entirely separate and therefore outside the current conflict. A few Jedi mind tricks on Qui-Gon’s part ensure a quick departure on a borrowed craft and he asks to keep Jar Jar on as a guide rather than leave him to face punishment with his people. Not that he’s any safer with the Jedi – the fastest route to the capital of Naboo is through the planet core, where vast water predators see the bright little craft as prey. Temporarily losing power in deep water, Obi-Wan jumpstarts their craft into life and pilots it to the surface while Jar Jar flails and Qui-Gon makes wise remarks about the circle of life. This basically sums up their dynamic for the entire movie.

 

The Trade Federation are not running this invasion alone. A hooded hologram they call ‘my lord’ appears with orders, assuring them they will easily gain control over both Queen Amidala and the Naboo System. The Viceroy avoids mentioning the missing Jedi. Amidala herself silently watches the invading aircraft roll through the streets of Theed. Surrounded by her loyal handmaidens and impotent security guards, she sweeps disdainfully down the palace stairs with an escort of battle droids. The Viceroy plans for her to sign a treaty that will make this invasion look legal with the Senate; she point blank refuses. Prisoners are already being divided up into camps. En route to their assigned camp, the queen’s party are ambushed by the Jedi, who make short work of the battle droids. With communications knocked out, the only way to reach the Senate on Coruscant is to physically evade the blockade. Qui-Gon advises Amidala to accompany them rather than waiting with her people. While the Trade Federation are pushing for that signature, she should be safe, but there are too many unknown factors to be sure of anything.

 

Amidala looks to her handmaidens for advice and one quietly says, “We are brave, your Highness.” The queen agrees to go to Coruscant. Qui-Gon distracts the battle droids while Obi-Wan comes from behind to free the captive pilots. Battle droids are basically useless but look good when they’re cut down by a lightsabre. Once the queen’s ship is in the air, Obi-Wan pushes Jar Jar into a bay of repair droids where he can’t do too much harm and goes to join the pilot as they seek a way through the blockade. When the ship comes under fire, the repair droids are sent onto the hull to fix the shield generator. They are quickly picked off by Federation guns, but one droid manages to complete repairs and the ship powers through the blockade.

 

There is not enough power to reach Coruscant and the hyperdrive was also damaged. Obi-Wan suggests they stop at Tatooine, a galactic backwater controlled by the Hutts (giant warlord slugs, if you didn’t know) where the Trade Federation have no foothold. No one likes this plan, but can’t think of a better one either. Meanwhile, on the blockade, the hooded mastermind is extremely displeased at his underlings’ failure to keep hold of Amidala. A second hologram appears behind him: the tall, menacing figure of his apprentice, Darth Maul. I have ridiculous feelings for Darth Maul. He exudes cool. He will be taking over the search for Queen Amidala. “This is getting out of hand,” the Viceroy realises. “Now there are two of them.” Deals with the devil are like that.

 

The droid that saved the queen’s ship is brought before her to be personally praised and rewarded, which is charming. The droid, called R2-D2, is placed into the care of the handmaiden Padme (who made the remark about bravery on Naboo). While she’s cleaning the droid, she encounters the irrepressible personality of Jar Jar Binks. From their exchange, it’s clear how segregated the two dominant species on Naboo really are – she is so surprised to see him there that she has to actually confirm he’s Gungan.

 

When the ship lands on the outskirts of a desert settlement on Tatooine, Qui-Gon sets off to see about repairs and is displeased to be stopped by the queen’s head of security, Captain Panaka, who explains that the queen wants Padme to come with him. Given that Qui-Gon already has Jar Jar and R2-D2 in tow, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on in argument and reluctantly allows the handmaiden into his little entourage. It looks fiendishly hot but no one is wearing a hat. I’m a Queenslander! I notice these things! Arriving in the settlement, the whole party goes into a dealer to find parts. The shop’s proprietor – a blue, winged fast-talker called Watto – calls a boy out to mind the counter while he talks with Qui-Gon. A good idea, that, because Jar Jar promptly activates a droid and can’t shut it off again; the boy comes to the rescue but is more interested in Padme. He thinks she might be an angel (apparently angels live on the moons of Iago, who knew?) and she thinks he is adorable. He casually reveals that he and his mother used to belong to the Hutts but were lost to Watto in a bet. “You’re a slave?” Padme asks, shocked. “I’m a person,” he replies stormily, “and my name is Anakin.”

 

Her conversation is at least going better than Qui-Gon’s. The good news: he’s found the one dealer hereabouts with the parts he needs! The bad news: Watto won’t accept his currency and Jedi mind tricks don’t work on him. And since mind tricks are pretty creepy, I’m kind of pleased about that. Qui-Gon stalks out of the shop, trailed by his companions, and checks in with Obi-Wan, who points out their main hard financial asset is Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. Away from the Republic, they are skint.

 

On their way through the settlement, Jar Jar gets into new and exciting forms of trouble. His role in this movie doesn’t extend much beyond comic relief, leaving him careening about the screen like an oversized toddler while the actual child of the piece, Anakin, has to step in and save him. It’s actually tragic that Anakin’s defence of Jar Jar relies on his own worth as a slave. To hurt him would be expensive. This second meeting allows Anakin to tag along with Qui-Gon’s group and when a violent sandstorm sweeps in, Anakin invites the group of weird strangers home with him. He immediately hauls Padme off to look at the protocol droid he’s building while Qui-Gon exchanges awkward introductions with Anakin’s mother Shmi. She handles the influx of unexpected guests with admirable grace. Another set of introductions are made when the half-made protocol droid, C3-PO, meets R2-D2. Anakin explains he’s also made a podracer for the highly profitable local races.

 

Back at the queen’s ship, an incoming hologram begs for her return, claiming the invasion has resulted in countless civilian deaths. Obi-Wan insists it is a trick, but he can’t be sure. (I noticed for the first time that in the scene where he relays this information to Qui-Gon, Jar Jar is helping Shmi with dinner. There’s a disaster waiting to happen.) On Coruscant, the Federation’s puppetmaster sends Darth Maul out to deal with the Jedi. The communications blackout proved no impediment to them; they have tracked the queen to Tatooine.

 

Now, I am personally very much against the term ‘Mary Sue’, because it’s sexist and a cheap umbrella insult that can cover any character (but almost always a female one) that the user doesn’t like. That said, Anakin kind of is one. It’s not enough that he’s building droids and podracers from scratch, he’s also apparently the only human who can race with the best of them, and can I just point out that he is nine years old? We later find out he is actually a child of immaculate conception. YES REALLY. He basically has ‘saviour figure’ tattooed on his forehead.

 

Getting with the program, Qui-Gon casually attributes Anakin’s unusually quick reflexes to latent Jedi ability. “You’re a Jedi Knight, aren’t you?” Anakin replies. He thinks Qui-Gon has come to free the slaves. Oh honey, if only. Padme looks incredibly guilty at this point, to her credit. Between them, she and Qui-Gon explain their predicament in very general terms and Anakin promptly offers a solution: Qui-Gon should claim Anakin’s podracer as his own, convince Watto to let Anakin fly it in the next day’s race and then pay for the parts they need with the prize money. Shmi is horrified by her son’s plan, but has to admit there’s no one else around likely to help. Anakin shamelessly parrots her own words back to her – “Mom, you say the biggest problem in this universe is that nobody helps each other” – and she caves.

 

Qui-Gon may be won over; Padme isn’t. “The queen will not approve,” she points out. She does not approve. Qui-Gon, who goes serenely mulish when confronted with other people’s opinions, goes on to make the deal with Watto, then ups the ante on the day of the race by making a new bet: Watto will hand over Anakin and Shmi if Anakin wins the race, and Qui-Gon will hand over the queen’s ship if Anakin loses. Padme is appalled at the risks he’s taking. Qui-Gon, as usual, just tells her to trust him. That’s hard, because podracing is brutal. Anakin is sabotaged right off the starting line but manages to catch up, partially due to skill, partially because his competitors keep getting blown up. It comes down to a vicious two-man race, and Anakin draws on the Force to survive his way to the finish line. Watto is furious, having bet on someone else, but he coughs up the parts and – even more reluctantly – the boy. The look on Shmi’s face when she learns her son has been freed says it all. It’s a chance in a lifetime for her boy, but they’ve been a team for so long and now she will be alone. What’s more, Qui-Gon intends to take Anakin to Coruscant for training in the Force and the Jedi Order frowns on its disciples having contact with their family so it’s possible Anakin won’t ever see his mother again.

 

On an entirely tangential note, Liam Neeson is ridiculously tall compared to the women he’s acting with so whenever he tries to look comforting he has to bend almost double.

 

C3-PO remains behind with Shmi. Anakin sets out with Qui-Gon for the ship in the desert but they are intercepted by Darth Maul, who immediately engages Qui-Gon in a vicious lightsaber fight. Qui-Gon sends Anakin aboard the ship with an order to take off and Obi-Wan brings it low over the battle so that Qui-Gon can leap onto the landing ramp, escaping a very disappointed Darth Maul. Introductions are then formally made as a rather quizzical Obi Wan shakes hands with a beaming Anakin.

 

On the way through space, Padme and Anakin are both badly homesick. He gives her a carved token, so that she will remember him. She smilingly accepts it.

 

On Coruscant they are greeted by Senator Palpatine and Valorum, Supreme Chancellor of the Senate. I LOVE CORUSCANT. It’s a jungle of skyscrapers, the air whirring with gleaming aircraft, and it’s even more impressive in the night scenes when everything is light and movement like an Impressionist painting. There is a sad little moment here, though, when Qui-Gon lingers behind to talk to the Chancellor while Amidala’s retinue moves off and Anakin doesn’t know where he’s meant to go. He ends up following Padme. Which means kicking his heels while Palpatine explains the road blocks between Amidala and the Senate’s assistance for Naboo, because Valorum’s support won’t get her far and every official avenue will take far too long to get results. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon is having problems of his own. The Jedi Council are troubled by his report of the well-trained assassin on Tatooine but do not believe it can be a Sith Lord, representing the Dark Side of the Force, because they are Jedi and they would know. As for Qui-Gon’s plan to bring Anakin into the Order, nobody on the Council likes that idea. Qui-Gon believes Anakin is the central figure in a prophecy, making it is his destiny to bring balance to the Force – whatever that means – and it is only very reluctantly that the Jedi Masters agree to see the boy at all.

 

Amidala addresses the Senate. Representatives of the Trade Federation loudly decry her allegations and the best offer Valorum can make is to send a commission to Naboo to confirm the invasion. Like everything else, that will take time Amidala cannot spare. Her people are suffering. Her home is being torn apart. At Palpatine’s suggestion, she moves for a vote of no confidence in Valorum, hoping the shock move will secure a stronger Chancellor.

 

Anakin passes all the Council’s tests but wins no approval. The Jedi prefer their students to enter the Temple very young. This is a process called indoctrination, and it is SO DODGY. Anakin is full of opinions, and as Yoda remarks, fear. Hello, he is nine, he has never been off his homeworld before, he misses his MOTHER. But all those considerations are emotional, and the Jedi Council do not approve of emotions. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side,” Yoda declares, which I suppose is why he and the other Jedi Masters are doing their level best to intimidate a pre-teen ex-slave.

 

Jar Jar is telling a dejected Amidala about Gungan warrior culture when Palpatine sweeps triumphantly into her chambers, nominated as the new Supreme Chancellor. Though hopeful he will soon be able to send help, Amidala decides she’s already waited long enough. She’s going home to fight. Qui-Gon is staging his own battle in the Jedi Temple. When the Council refuses to train Anakin, he announces that Obi-Wan is ready to become a fully fledged Jedi Knight, which leaves the position of Padawan vacant. The decision is deferred (clearly even the imposing Jedi Master Mace Windu finds arguing with Qui-Gon an exasperating task) since Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are both required to return to Naboo with Amidala and hopefully root out the mysterious assassin. Anakin goes with them. Qui-Gon immediately starts his definitely-not-Jedi-training by informing Anakin that “your focus determines your reality”, and advises the boy to watch him closely. Anakin actually ends up in the cockpit, chatting eagerly with the pilot and learning how to fly a Naboo spacecraft.

 

The first step in Amidala’s plan is to employ the eternally indiscreet Jar Jar to guide her party through the forest to a sacred place where the Gungans have taken refuge. The Gungan leader’s initial disinterest in an alliance is shaken when Padme steps forward. She is the true queen – the other is her handmaiden and bodyguard, a decoy. Padme courteously apologises for the deception and pleads with Boss Nass to help free their planet from the invaders, going down on her knees with passionate conviction. The rest of her party follows suit. The Gungans quite like this gesture and Obi-Wan is delighted with Padme’s diplomacy. Having convinced the Gungans their help is necessary and appreciated, Padme sets the rest of her plan in motion. Joining forces with an underground resistance movement of escaped guards, she plans to break into her own palace and capture the Viceroy of the Trade Federation. His battle droids will be distracted by the Gungan army, while Padme’s pilots try to knock out the droid control ship. The Federation do not take the Gungans seriously at all, calling them ‘primitives’, but Gungan force fields are actually ingenious and while they are seriously outgunned, they stand their ground.

 

(This is a spoiler if you are unfamiliar with all the films, but that moment when Sidious/ Palpatine orders the Gungans to be wiped out? That’s when you see the attitude Boss Nass spent a lifetime protecting his people against. Palpatine grew up on Naboo, remember. That attitude doesn’t come out of nowhere.)

 

Qui-Gon, in a spectacularly poor display of guardianship, takes Anakin along to storm the palace and instructs him to ‘find a safe place to hide’. Padme is taking lead on this in fabulous style, quickly taking over the palace landing bay so that her pilots can reclaim their ships. Anakin’s idea of a ‘safe place’ is of course in one of those ships, which unfortunately for him is set on an automated flight path…right into the space battle. At least he has R2. The rest of the fighters head inward and come face to face with Darth Maul. The Jedi move in to confront him; Padme’s people take an alternative route. It’s probably inappropriate to mention at this point how cool Maul looks…but he looks very cool. And the music starting during this scene is extraordinary, it makes you want to duel with Sith Lords.

 

Padme and her team rappel up the palace walls to escape a firefight. Anakin joins the pilots closing in on the droid control ship. The young actor’s skills are not quite up to the task of conveying the severity of his situation. Jar Jar is also failing in that regard as the Gungans fight for their lives. Battling between massive energy cylinders under the palace (I think? The architecture is impressive but confusing) Obi-Wan is thrown backwards by Darth Maul and intermittent force fields prevent him from catching up, meaning Qui-Gon must fight Darth Maul alone. It’s going badly everywhere, in fact – the Gungans are forced to retreat, Padme’s team are captured, the pilots can’t penetrate the droid ship’s defences. Anakin spins out of control into the ship, taking everybody by surprise, particularly himself. Meanwhile, Darth Maul gets the better of Qui-Gon. With a savage turn of his lightsabre, he runs him through.

 

Above, Padme’s decoy distracts the Viceroy so he’s not sure who to target and in the moment of confusion Padme retrieves fresh weapons from inside her throne (excellent planning, your Highness!) quickly taking her enemy captive. “Now we will discuss a new treaty,” she says coolly. In space, Anakin more or less accidentally sets off a chain of destruction inside the droid control ship and the droids on the battlefield abruptly deactivate. Below, Obi-Wan hurls himself back into the fight with ferocious intent. He slices his opponent’s double-bladed lightsabre in half, reducing his advantage, but is knocked over the edge of the platform and has to cling on while Maul slashes down at him. Drawing on the Force, Obi-Wan springs back onto the platform and summons Qui-Gon’s lightsabre to fight with instead. He cuts the incredulous Darth Maul in two (RIP, coolest Sith Lord of them all) and runs to his dying master, who has just enough life left to demand a last favour: Obi Wan must promise to train Anakin. He promises.

 

The invaders are sent off-planet to face justice; Palpatine, newly elected Supreme Chancellor, greets Obi-Wan warmly and smiles at Anakin before going to join Queen Amidala – the real Amidala, that is. However great the victory for Naboo, Obi-Wan has other matters on his mind. He wrestles permission from a very disapproving Yoda to train Anakin, despite his own earlier misgivings, and the new Jedi Knight takes his young ward to Qui-Gon’s funeral. Unlike the Jedi of the original trilogy, Qui-Gon’s body does not disappear when he dies; he is burned while those who loved him look on. That’s…intense. Yoda and Mace Windu are very troubled by this re-emergence of the Sith. Darth Maul may be dead, but there are always two – was he the Master, they wonder, or the apprentice?

 

But Naboo’s spirit of celebration is infectious. When the victory parade marches through the streets of Theed, the triumphant queen stands before her people with Boss Nass at her side. She throws a smile to Anakin, who looks borderline worshipful. In this time, in this place, they have shaped a peace to glory in.

 

I watched this movie for the first time when I was around seven or eight, and was besotted with it. I have a very clear memory of lying on the floor at my grandparents’ house, watching it on a VHS tape, having decided to share the joy with them. Whether they understood what on earth was going on, I don’t know. The Phantom Menace has its flaws. Some of the humour misses the mark, and a child actor with a greater range of facial expression could probably have been found to play Anakin, but this is a good movie. It shows a universe of infinite complexity and no matter the order in which you watch the Star Wars series, how can you not fall in love with that endless horizon?