Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Composed by John Williams

Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy came to an ignominious end with Rise of Skywalker. After the severe backlash to The Last Jedi, Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy hit the panic button and rehired J.J. Abrams. Abrams sought to backtrack on Last Jedi’s plot and revelations and win back fans with oodles of fan service. The film and its marketing screamed “here are things you know and love about Star Wars, please love our film!” By wiping out most of the development of the previous film and throwing in as much familiar crap as possible, Abrams succeeded in creating, in my opinion, the worst Star Wars movie ever. It’s the most creatively bankrupt, convoluted, nostalgia-tripping blockbuster I have ever watched. Aside from some of the Kylo Ren stuff, which is elevated more by Adam Driver’s acting than any actual good screenwriting, I felt nothing in this film. I did not feel absorbed into the Star Wars universe. I felt (accurately) like I was watching a cynically crafted product that assumed fans would just eat up and accept anything with a good degree of familiarity. This film even ruins the positive elements of the last two entries, because now they mean nothing. Rise of Skywalker is a film that can only be enjoyed ironically, as a case study of how far Hollywood has fallen.

I’m not going to care about spoilers in my review. That’s how little I think of this film. The general plot is that the Emperor is still alive (completely negating any meaningful sacrifice by Vader in the original trilogy) and has secretly created a new fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers. Rey and friends go on a quest to find out where his home base is so they can destroy the fleet. This leads to a treasure hunt sustained by a trail of improbable and convenient clues. The final battle and various dramatic moments are resolved through the use of new plot-convenient force powers. The film’s story is held together by contrivances, coincidences, and deus ex machinas and uses a breakneck pace to hide these storytelling sins. Amidst this mess, one wonder how John Williams would fare. Continue reading

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Composed by John Powell

The next Star Wars movie spin-off from Disney was also, at the time of this review, the last. Solo: A Star Wars Story is a prequel chronicling the start of Han Solo’s smuggling career. Producer Kathleen Kennedy was so disgusted with the original directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller that she fired them and hired safe choice Ron Howard to reshoot nearly the entire movie. An origin story, the film sees Harrison Ford’s beloved smuggler played by a younger actor, Alden Ehrenreich. Solo meets Chewbacca, gets into the smuggling business, and tries to woo back his old flame despite her affiliation with the crime syndicate Crimson Sun. Thanks to fan backlash after The Last Jedi, the heavy cost of reshooting the film, and the unwise decision to release the film in close proximity to Avengers: Infinity War, Solo became the first Star Wars film to bomb at the box office. Ironically, this is my favorite entry of the Disney era, something of a guilty pleasure. Han’s character development doesn’t gel with where he is at the start of the original trilogy (in how he’s already going out of his way to help heroic resistance fighters instead of looking out for himself) and there are still some annoying moments of shoehorned fan service and prequelitis. But the movie is just fun and avoids the emotional baggage of the Skywalker saga. The composer this time is John Powell, who has been acclaimed for his work on the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. Having hired the likes of Alexander Desplat (whose Rogue One score was lost to post-production), Michael Giacchino, and then Powell, Disney’s Star Wars has had a good habit of selecting from the small pool of composers who can still deliver big on thematic scores.

Powell’s score has Williamsesque brass flourishes, yet the composer maintains his style with his electronic accompaniments and rhythmic-based action and suspense cues (though in less quantities than he would in, say, one of his Jason Bourne scores). Powell’s use of themes is masterful. He makes them distinctive, but more importantly, to account for today’s noisy action films and tight post-production schedules, able to maintain their power and dramatic effect when used in brief bursts. In fact small pieces of the various themes often occur around each other. For example, Chewbacca and Beckett’s themes will take turns in an action cue that also contains the first motif of Han’s theme. In short Powell’s themes are liberally thrown into the score in small increments without losing their effect. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

The second installment of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi established itself as the most controversial entry in the Star Wars saga. The film picks up right after the end of The Force Awakens. The Rebel fleet is fleeing the First Order, but is running out of fuel. Several of the new characters search for a way to disable the hyperspace tracking of the villains so they can make one final hyperspace jump to safety. Meanwhile, Rey tries to get Luke Skywalker to return to the fight, but he refuses thanks to a dark incident in his past. Director Rian Johnson took some narrative risks that divided fans. Many felt that the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as an embittered old recluse was a betrayal of the character and his development in the original trilogy. This was just the main point of contention, with audiences and fans dividing over other aspects of the film, from a large subplot on a casino planet to the unexpected death of a major villain. Also Carrie Fisher, Leia’s actress, passed away before the film’s release, simultaneously inducing both praise for her performance in Last Jedi and an awkward situation for the continuation of the sequel trilogy. Personally I like the film but it does have some major issues. Before diving into the music, I should provide a brief lists of my pros and cons of the film so readers will have a better perspective of my personal views going in. Continue reading

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) (Revised Review)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Having bought Star Wars, Disney was not content to just release a sequel trilogy. They wanted to milk the franchise with a cinematic universe akin to Marvel’s superhero brand. In the years between the main trilogy releases they would have standalone Star Wars films. The first such film was hardly “standalone.” Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance gained the Death Star plans. A team of Rebel agents and misfits, one of them the daughter of the Death Star’s main designer, dodge Imperial agents and, under the cover of a pretty awesome battle, manage to download the Death Star plans to a small drive. The movie is entertaining and is great on the visual and action sides, thanks to the efforts of director Gareth Edwards. The main problem is that one has to watch the original trilogy to actually get any emotional connection with it. It’s loaded with fan service, much of it awkwardly shoe-horned in. Also, most of the characters are pretty forgettable. It’s a bad sign when it takes me years to memorize the names of Star Wars characters. Perhaps it was easier to retain the names of such minor characters as Dexter Jettster and Momaw Nadon when I would get the DK visual guides and action figures.

One intriguing element of the spin-off films was the fact that John Williams would not score them, giving other established composers a chance to play with the Star Wars universe. Edwards originally had Alexander Desplat, who had provided a solid score for his Godzilla, on board. However, the film went through massive last-minute re-shoots, as evidenced by the abundance of trailer footage that was absent from the finished product. Desplat’s schedule did not allow him to re-score the film. As sad as it was to see one of Hollywood’s most respected composers drop out, his replacement was a logical choice. Michael Giacchino is an avowed fan of heavily thematic film scores and has created many of his own. His work on the Medal of Honor and Lost World: Jurassic Park video games brought to mind Williams’ own material and he had long been hailed as a possible successor to his legacy. For Rogue One Giacchino had the rough, yet opportune task of creating a Star Wars score within a few weeks. The final effort shows that he succeeded, but with some reservations. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

To the surprise of many, George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney for a whopping $4 billion plus. Lucas was at this point likely tired of the constant barrage of fan criticisms leveled at him for the prequels and various re-edits of the original trilogy. In fact many fans were excited to see Star Wars done by somebody else. J.J. Abrams was tasked with starting the new trilogy under the direction of producer Kathleen Kennedy. The first of the sequel trilogy, which wipes out most of the continuity of the original expanded universe, was a smashing hit and well-liked. The Force Awakens sees the galaxy plunged into a new war as the First Order, a remnant of the Empire, seeks to regain control with the help of Starkiller, a literal planetary Death Star. Both the First Order and the Republic-backed Resistance are after the last piece of a map that will lead to the missing Luke Skywalker. Young scavenger Rey teams up with Finn (a defector from the First Order) to bring the map fragment to the Resistance. Along the way they bump into classic characters like Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia, and confront Han and Leia’s dark side-wielding son Kylo Ren.

I was among the many that initially loved the movie and hailed the rebirth of Star Wars, but have come to actually dislike it. The magical feeling of seeing Star Wars back, with a heavy dose of nostalgia, fooled me into loving The Force Awakens. However, I realize that most if not all of the Disney trilogy’s flaws were a result of director J.J. Abrams’ usual hackery, starting with this film. By retreading the plotline of the first film and its rebels vs. empire conflict, he forced the Star Wars saga into a cyclical rather than progressing narrative. To the film’s credit, many of the new characters are good and full of potential, especially Adam Driver’s conflicted Kylo Ren. One aspect that is definitely praiseworthy is John Williams’ score. I was actually concerned that at this point in his life Williams would not be able to reproduce his musical magic, but I was ecstatically surprised. The soundtrack for TFA is abundant in both old and new themes and states them frequently while keeping them fresh. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

The prequel trilogy came to its long-awaited conclusion with Revenge of the Sith. Despite a poor reaction to Attack of the Clones, audiences were still excited to finally see the birth of the Galactic Empire and the rise of Darth Vader. The film has just as much bad dialogue as the previous two entries and the lightsaber duels at the end, while fun, are a bit ridiculous. Yet by comparison the movie is much better. Ian MacDiarmid hams it up wonderfully as Emperor Palpatine, the darkening atmosphere of the story is actually well-done, and the film focuses more on the action scenes, which were already one of the prequels’ stronger suits (also check out the novelization, which is legitimately great to the point that George Lucas considers it canon rather than his own film). John Williams’ score is suitably epic, but was the first Star Wars score to foster real critical debate amongst film music fans. It was the first in the series to garner 4 out of 5 star ratings (an 8 or 9 out of 10 on this blog) among some critics. So why was this and where does my opinion fall?

Well, I think Williams’ Revenge of the Sith exists in a weird spot. On the one hand many of the individual pieces of music are great. Williams really plays up the epic fall of a galaxy into tyranny with epic action cues and an abundance of choral pieces. When I get lazy and just start selecting tracks from the prequel trilogy to listen to, I usually turn to this one. On the other hand ROTS is supposed to link the two trilogies. For some reason Williams did not build a strong thematic connection. Original trilogy themes are there, but they aren’t evolving into their prominent roles. With a lack of prequel themes carrying over to this film, this renders ROTS very messy and weak on the thematic front. As with Attack of the Clones, there is also a wealth of cues edited in from previous scores, again leading to speculation that there is more thematically cohesive material that was cut out late in post-production. What’s frustrating is that some of the edited-in moments result in missed opportunities. The most egregious is Darth Vader’s march on the Jedi Temple. One would think that, representing Anakin’s new allegiance to evil, Williams would have at least edited in the opening of the Imperial March, but instead there’s the Arena march from AOTC. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

Despite a mixed reaction to The Phantom Menace, fans and moviegoers alike were still excited to see George Lucas’ second installment of the prequel trilogy. Attack of the Clones moves the story ten years later. Anakin is now a grown-up Padawan (a name for a Jedi apprentice) to Obi-Wan Kenobi. He reunites with Padme from the first film and serves as her bodyguard. Unfortunately he falls in love with her, violating a Jedi code against emotional entanglements. While one of the worst movie romances of all time ensues, Obi-Wan investigates an assassination attempt and learns of both a secret clone army and a Separatist plot headed by the ex-Jedi Count Dooku. The film ends with the beginning of the Clone Wars, an event name-dropped in the first Star Wars movie. Attack of the Clones was for a time considered the worst Star Wars film of all time. It’s at least still in top contention, even with many fans turning most of their ire towards the sequel trilogy. The romance is cringe and slows the pace of the movie, Anakin is whiny and unlikeable, and the dialogue in general is bad (at least in an unintentional funny way). This film really cemented fan backlash against George Lucas. Thankfully John Williams still delivers, albeit with a score that takes things in a new direction.

The album arrangement for Attack of the Clones is nearly chronological, a real departure from previous Star Wars soundtrack releases. There are also only 13 tracks since many of the cues are lengthy. Thanks to its mostly chronological presentation, I will take a mostly chronological approach to reviewing it. Pretty much all the known highlights are here. When I use the word “known,” I am referring to a theory that there is unreleased material. Bits of the film, and the last act in particular, are scored with inserted cues and edits from The Phantom Menace, as well as re-edits of “The Arena.” This has led to some fan speculation that Williams had some new material that was cut out late in post-production. I find it more likely that Williams simply chose not to score much of the last act under the assumption that last-minute edits would interfere with his material as they had with the previous entry. It would be astonishing to learn that 20 to 30 minutes of great Williams music has never come to the surface in any way. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

As the Star Wars franchise experienced a revival in the 90s, George Lucas decided to finally bring it back to the big screen. He chose to go back in time, to show how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader and how the Galactic Empire rose to power. The Phantom Menace steps in when Obi-Wan is still a Jedi apprentice and Anakin is a ten-year old slave on Tatooine. Critics and fans alike initially gave the film a warm reception, but soon many began to realize it was a far cry from the original trilogy. Much of the blame for the new Star Wars’ creative failure was hoisted upon comic relief Jar Jar Binks. While the amphibious alien is a horribly obnoxious and unfunny character, the film’s flaws are much deeper than that with a load of underdeveloped characters and a central conflict that’s head scratching (namely how a business federation is able to get away with blockading and then occupying a planet within a democratic republic). Still praised was John Williams’ fourth Star Wars score.

By the late 90s Williams’ musical tone had changed, some may say matured. He engaged less in rousing blockbuster fare and when he did there were notable differences. His score for the Lost World: Jurassic Park was very dissonant and even his score for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade seemed restrained in relation to its predecessors. His score for Star Wars’ prequel trilogy is also notably different from the original. His score for Phantom Menace is the closest in tone to the original trilogy, with a considerable set of recurring themes and motifs. Even his album arrangement is heavily reminiscent of those for the original releases of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. The tracks are not chronological and cues from different parts of the film are edited together, though thankfully much more smoothly this time. Continue reading

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (1996) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

In the mid-1990s, Star Wars fandom was experiencing a large revival, with hundreds of new action figures, many new video games, and a whole new expanded universe in the form of novels and comics. George Lucas, who by now had become the ruler of a marketing empire, decided to select an upcoming novel and treat it like a movie. This meant that for a novel there would be toys, a video game, a comic book adaptation, a making-of book, and, most unusually, a soundtrack!

That’s right. A soundtrack would be created for a movie that doesn’t exist, though parts of it would be present in the video game. Lucas picked Shadows of the Empire. I guess the fact that Darth Vader was still alive in said novel probably helped it. The multimedia event would ensure that this book became one of the most highly praised among fans, particularly nostalgic ones that played the video game. The novel is pretty decent, with a good story, but there are many Star Wars novels I would rank higher (Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy and the novelization of Revenge of the Sith among the top). The novel takes place between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker and friends are trying to rescue the carbon frozen Han Solo, but get sidetracked when assassins start coming after Luke. The mastermind is Prince Xizor, a reptilian crime lord who, out of a past grudge, is trying to destroy Vader’s favor with the Emperor by ensuring that Luke could never be captured and brought to the Dark Side of the Force. The comic tie-in heavily features several sub-plots absent from the novel, Boba Fett’s desperate attempts to deliver Han to Jabba being the most famous. Other bounty hunters try to kill him and take his prize for themselves. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

Return of the Jedi, the conclusion to the original trilogy, is widely regarded as the weakest of those films. I have to agree with that assessment, but I don’t think it’s as big a dip in quality as some people think. One flaw is a plot twist regarding Luke’s family that’s rushed and is just there to avoid any romantic love triangle. The other is the use of Ewoks, cute teddy bear aliens, in lieu of the originally planned Wookiees. However, the Ewoks’ ludicrous victory over the Empire does tie into the theme of oppressed underdogs taking down a tyrannical galaxy-spawning regime. Also, the rehashed plot of a Death Star portended the nostalgia-baiting of later entries. Otherwise I still love this movie. The Jabba subplot at the beginning seems extraneous, but was necessary to bring back Han and also showed how Luke has matured since Empire Strikes Back. The final space battle is neat and the three-way interaction between Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the gloriously evil Emperor is as good as Star Wars gets. The music isn’t too bad either.

Return of the Jedi’s assembly of themes both old and new is very impressive and Williams does a good job balancing all of them out. The new themes aren’t as strong, but seeing how this is Williams at his prime that’s faint criticism. There are three new major themes. The one that gets attention on general John Williams compilations is the Luke and Leia theme. Leia is revealed to be Luke’s sister and Williams chose to create a new emotional theme. It’s a theme that’s emotional and melodic, but not romantic to show how their relationship has been reoriented. Its actual appearances in the film are sadly scarce, probably because they don’t actually share too many personal one-on-one moments. There is the glorious concert arrangement which of course is not in the film, but is echoed in the end credits. Its key appearance is in “Brother and Sister.” After that it appears briefly in “Leia’s News.” Despite its scarcity, this theme makes the strongest impression on an emotional level. Continue reading