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“Can You Help Him?” The Millennial Malaise of “The Phantom Menace”…

It is almost a cliché to say it, but 1999 was an amazing year for movies.

No, really.

Of course, everything is subjective and different people have very different tastes, but there was something special about that year. There were traditional crowd-pleasers like The Green Mile and The Cider House Rules. There were young poppy disruptors like Go! or Run Lola Run. There were formative films from era-defining directors like The Sixth Sense, Magnolia or Election. There were epoch-defining hits like The Matrix or Fight Club. There was a wave of teen movies serving an underserved audience like Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You or The Virgin Suicides.

And there was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. It was comfortably the most anticipated movie of the year, to the point that its teaser trailer became a cinematic event that arguably inflated the box office of Meet Joe Black. It seemed perfectly timed. The generation of fans who had grown up with Star Wars were now old enough to have their own families, with which they might share the experience. The public’s appetite had been whetted by theatrical re-releases of the original films to prove that there was still a hunger out there for the franchise.

Not quite a duel in the franchise crown.

However, The Phantom Menace is very rarely discussed in the context of the cinematic marvel of 1999, despite being crowned the year’s box office champion. There are plenty of reasons for that, of course. Most obviously, it wasn’t very good. Perhaps more importantly, it aggressively upset the established fanbase who promptly made very silly statements about how George Lucas had “raped their childhood” by continuing to make films that weren’t to their specifications. As such, The Phantom Menace is primarily notably as a failure and disappointment, which it undoubtedly is.

That said, there is something very interesting happening beneath the surface of The Phantom Menace, and something that perhaps merits discussion in the specific context of its original release. The Phantom Menace was the only Star Wars film to be released in the nineties, serving as both the cornerstone and the capstone of what Star Wars looked like during the decade. The films that would follow were shaped by the concerns of their own era, warped and informed by the War on Terror. However, in hindsight, The Phantom Menace is very much a 1999 movie, through and through.

Anakin, not Anakin’t.

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Non-Review Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a very pretty mess.

Atomic Blonde is a stylistic showcase for director David Leitch and star Charlize Theron, a bruising and beautiful ballet of brutality with a killer soundtrack. Atomic Blonde is a film set in a funhouse mirror version of Berlin in November 1989, a movie that argues its location is more a state of mind than a physical place. The violence in Atomic Blonde is visceral, the mood tangible, the soundtrack delectable. Atomic Blonde is a feast for the senses.

Seeing red.

However, Atomic Blonde also makes next to no sense. The film is an action movie dressed in the attire of a nihilistic espionage thriller, and a little narrative confusion inevitably comes with the territory. These films are all but obligated to have twists and betrayals, macguffins and revelations, switches and levers. Atomic Blonde embraces that zany approach to plot and structure with relish. However, the problem with Atomic Blonde is more fundamental than all that. It often struggles to remain coherent from one scene to the next, from one set piece to another.

Atomic Blonde is beautiful chaos, an exploding collage that probably didn’t make any sense to begin with.

Putting her turtleneck on the line.

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The X-Files – Drive (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

In many ways, Drive feels like an episode that tackles the move to California head-on.

After all, the plot of Drive essentially finds Mulder trapped in a car heading westwards through Nevada and into California. The episode even lingers on a “welcome to California” sign, tacitly acknowledging the massive change that had taken place behind the scenes between the fifth and sixth seasons of The X-Files. It is a very clever way of addressing a major change to the production of the show, one that is candid and open about the fact that things are inherently different now.

"Running out of west..."

“Running out of west…”

More than that, Drive figures out how to build an episode of The X-Files around the change in production location. The sixth season often finds the production team struggling to find the right tone and mood to match the new location; after all, the show cannot simply pretend that it is still filming in Vancouver. California is sunnier, hotter and drier than Vancouver ever was – the sixth season of The X-Files spends a little time trying to adapt to those new filming conditions.

This challenge is arguably most obvious in the string of (literally and metaphorically) lighter episodes in the first stretch of the season. The sixth season is quite controversial among fans of the show because there is a period of time where it seems like The X-Files might transform itself into a quirky romantic sit-com. Episodes like Triangle, Dreamland I, Dreamland II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and The Rain King would be the lighter episodes of any previous season; they seem to pile in on top of one another at the start of the sixth season.

Feels like going home...

Feels like going home…

In contrast, Drive is very much a quintessential episode of The X-Files. It is a classic episode of the show. It is scary, it is tense, it is meticulously constructed. There is humour to be found, but the stakes feel real and personal. Writer Vince Gilligan very shrewdly plays into the constraints of the new Los Angeles production realities. A lot of Drive takes place during the day on long desert roads. It takes advantage of California’s impressive interstate system, with twenty-five highways covering almost two-and-half thousand miles.

However, Drive is more than simply a demonstration that The X-Files can still work in its new home. Drive is a superb piece of television in its own right. It is highly regarded as one of the finest episodes of The X-Files from the second half of the run. It is notable for a wonderful premise, a great script, and a mesmerising guest performance from Bryan Cranston. Drive would be the first collaboration between writer Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston, but not the last.

Drive of your life...

Drive of your life…

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The X-Files – Synchrony (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Time travel is one of the great science-fiction tropes.

Although magical or metaphorical time travel has long been a part of literary tradition, pseudo-scientific or pseudo-rational versions of science-fiction really took root towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although H.G. Wells blazed a trail with The Time Machine, Edward Page Mitchell actually beat him to the punch – he published the short-story The Clock That Went Backward fourteen years before Wells wrote The Time Machine. Nevertheless, time travel quickly caught on as a literary device.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

There are films, television show, novels, comics and songs all playing with the idea of moving through time. Although there is considerable debate about the feasibility of actually travelling backwards through time, time travel serves as a wonderful narrative device. It opens up all sorts of possibilities for structure and style; it provides some pretty heavy themes; it opens up a myriad of settings and possibility. It is no surprise that there have been so many variations and permutations based upon the idea of going backwards in time.

Indeed, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before The X-Files got around to telling its own time travel story. Synchrony was as inevitable as the decision to close the episode with a clumsy hint toward predetermination.

Ghosts of future self...

Ghosts of future self…

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