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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: Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

Whatever its faults, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a fond farewell to the original cast of Star Trek, giving the ensemble one last epic adventure before heading off into legend. Chancellor Gorkon suggests that the “the undiscovered country” that lends the movie its title is “the future.” Most Shakespearean scholars would argue that it is “death.” Perhaps they need to – as Gorkon argues – “experience” it in “the original Klingon”, or perhaps there’s more to it than that.

Perhaps the undiscovered country can be both – the death waiting for all of us eventually, the “chimes at midnight” that Chang alludes to after a disastrous diplomatic dinner. Probably not. Still, The Undiscovered Country does represent a death. It’s the end of an era, the extinguishing of a torch that had already been passed. It’s the last adventure of Kirk’s starship Enterprise, and it feels appropriate that it serves to end the Cold War raging between the Klingons and the Federation.

It’s a beautiful farewell to the crew, to the extent that even the actors’ decision to “sign” the closing credits doesn’t feel over saccharine or manipulative. The movie has more than its fair share of narrative flaws, neither as tight as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan nor as energetic as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. However, it hangs together remarkably well, in no small part thanks to a solid premise, a strange honesty and a deep affection for the cast and crew.

We're having some old friends for dinner...

We’re having some old friends for dinner…

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Non-Review Review: World War Z

World War Z is a lesson in compromise, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together out of necessity with the lines very clearly showing. It goes this way and then that way, never really sure where it wants to be in the next act, save that it’s a safe bet there might be zombies. World War Z isn’t as bad as it might have been, but the problem is that it feels like it’s trying so hard to find an ending that it never bothers to excel. It’s not that World War Z is bad, it’s a competently made thriller that works as well as it can with a script that spent most of production in triage. The problem is that it’s never bold enough to do anything genuinely exciting.

Pitting our best man against the zombie horde...

Pitting our best man against the zombie horde…

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Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Hair. Shoulderpads. Nukes. It’s the eighties. Everything’s bigger!

– the Doctor

The theory that this fiftieth anniversary half-season is intended as an homage to Doctor Who‘s rich and varied past holds up with Cold War. If The Bells of St. John was a Pertwee-era invasion tale, and The Rings of Akhaten was a shout-out to classic Hartnell world-building, then Cold War wears its influences even more brazenly. It’s the archetypal “base under siege” story popularised in the Troughton era, to the point where it even brings back one of the era’s most iconic monsters.

Indeed, the “Troughton base under siege by classic monsters” story is the only classic Doctor Who formulation that this half-season visits twice. While Cold War is easily weaker (and less ambitious) than Nightmare in Silver, it still fills that niche remarkably well. After all, if any Doctor Who writer can channel nostalgia, it’s Mark Gatiss.

Going green...

Going green…

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Doctor Who: The War Games (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The War Games originally aired in 1969.

Well, what was happening? Why was it so difficult to move?

It was the Time Lords.

But they’re your own people, aren’t they, Doctor?

Yes, that’s right.

Why did you run away from them in the first place?

What? Well, I was bored.

What do you mean, you were bored?

Well, the Time Lords are an immensely civilised race. We can control our own environment, we can live forever, barring accidents, and we have the secret of space time travel.

Well what’s so wrong in all that?

Well we hardly ever use our great powers. We consent simply to observe and to gather knowledge.

And that wasn’t enough for you?

No, of course not. With a whole galaxy to explore? Millions of planets, eons of time, countless civilisations to meet?

Well, why do they object to you doing all that?

Well, it is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved with things.

– Jamie, the Doctor and Zoe

The War Games represents the end of the era. It is the last appearance of Jamie as a regular companion. It is the last show featuring Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, although he would return for the occasional guest spot, celebration or charity episode. It was also the last of the series to be shot in black and white. The transition from Troughton to Pertwee would arguably be one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of the show. Not only would the show suddenly be broadcast in colour, and not only would it feature a new lead actor, but it would also have a new focus, grounded on Earth, and with that a new status quo and new rules. The show was only six years old at the time, but the change must have seemed radical to those watching.

The War Games isn’t the perfect episode – it’s too long and too plodding – but it is a lot more entertaining than some of the longer adventures, and it serves as a fond farewell to the “cosmic hobo” interpretation of the Doctor. Indeed, the episode probably seems a great deal harsher than it did in hindsight, with the specifics of regeneration not quite codified, the Doctor’s forced transformation seemed less like a formal execution than it does to modern audiences who watched the Tenth Doctor plead for more time.

The War Games is an effective and fond farewell to not only a particular iteration of the title character, but also a version of the show as a whole.

Run!

Run!

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 25 (Review/Retrospective)

DC have done a tremendous job with their Spirit Archives collection. Twenty-four volumes collecting the twelve years of the Sunday strip is quite an accomplishment, and they’d be forgiven for stopping there. No other character in DC’s back catalogue has such a consistent collection of their early years. (Batman and Superman might have similar volumes of material collected, but somewhat haphazardly.) It’s to the company’s credit that they decided to close out their collections of Eisner’s work on the character with what might be considered two appendices. The next collection will include most of Eisner’s post-1952 work on the character, but this hardcover collects each and every daily Spirit strip published between 1941 and 1942. While it might not be the most essential collection every published (whether in terms of the character or in the history of daily newspaper strips), but it’s still nice to see it collected with the rest of Eisner’s work.

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 12 (Review/Retrospective)

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 12 marks Will Eisner’s return to the strip. To be fair, the writer and artist had returned for the last two entries in the previous volume, but this is the first book entirely composed of Eisner’s post-war Spirit stories. While I don’t think Eisner had quite found his groove yet – the best was still yet to come – it’s amazing how dynamic the comic feels after reading the non-Eisner material. It’s easy enough to point to the Eisner-esque tropes and tricks, the techniques and the plot devices and the philosophy that faded from the strip in has absence, but there’s also something much less tangible here. There’s certain energy, a je ne sais que, that had been absent for the previous couple of years, returning in force.

Eisner is back. And, in a way, so is The Spirit.

It’s like he was never gone…

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