1977, and a seven-year-old me, like a multitude of seven-year-old other people, falls under the spell of Sir George of Lucas. Star Wars has arrived and life will never be quite the same again. Suddenly there are spaceships and wookies and lightsabers and Jedi and strange figures called Darth Vader who dress all in black and breathe funny. Suddenly, science fiction is fun.

It’s easy to forget that there was science fiction before Star Wars. Lots of it, in factAt least, it was easy for a seven-year-old to forget. In 1977 the genre was reanimated completely, bathed in a new sense of wonder and imagination. Two men can take the credit for making Star Wars the phenomenal success it was. One is George Lucas, the other is Ralph McQuarrie.

Up until he was approached by George Lucas, McQuarrie had worked as technical illustrator and designer. Star Wars was the first movie that McQuarrie worked on, charged by Lucas to visualise his ideas in an attempt to drum up interest with prospective producers. Lucas himself admits that everything changed for him once he began approaching studios with McQuarrie’s conceptual drawings to hand, so vividly did they present the possibilities. And one has only to compare McQuarrie’s conceptual art with the finished movie to understand how many of his ideas became reality, including several that were replicated almost identically onscreen.

So, there’s the seven-year-old me, happily reading everything he can lay his hands on about the making of his new ‘favourite movie ever’, when he eventually stumbles upon the work of Ralph McQuarrie. What a discovery that was! I had always been a keen artist, always drawing or making something, and at that age inspiration is everything. Few figures inspired the artist in me like Ralph McQuarrie and his wonderful inventions, his strange worlds and his amazing characters. I would spend hours staring at those illustrations, marvelling at the movement, the detail and the beauty he brought to his work. I wanted to be that good, but of course, I couldn’t come close. There’s good and there’s Ralph McQuarrie.

It’s no accident that the three Star Wars prequels are unable to match the originals in imagery and design. McQuarrie was approached but declined, feeling his best work was behind him, and his absence is felt in every frame.

McQuarrie died on 3rd March, 2012, aged 82. He leaves behind a remarkable body of work, a celluloid legacy that few have matched and, back in the year 1977, a young boy who felt inspired to pick up that pencil and keep drawing. Thank you, Ralph McQuarrie.

Below is a selection of my favourite McQuarrie pieces from the Star Wars series. Each will open larger when clicked. Enjoy, and pay a visit to his site here, or his Facebook page here.

The classic. McQuarrie designs Darth Vader. It was McQuarrie who came up with the idea of Vader’s breathing apparatus.

I can’t tell you how many times I copied this one as a kid

This one appears in the movie almost exactly as seen here.

The Millennium Falcon. The greatest spaceship design in movie history.

A beautifully realised painting of Luke on a Tauntaun. I love the colours in this one.

Cloud City. Stunning, and almost impossible to realise to such a degree in the movie itself.

The AT-AT Walkers were a great invention, and McQuarrie uses distance to intimidating effect.

Okay, everybody. Altogether now, ‘I am your father’. Yay!

Ralph McQuarrie
1929 – 2012

Note: I wanted to post something to celebrate International Star Wars Day, but I’ve been way too busy. So I’m cheating a bit. This is something I wrote a year ago, which some of you may have missed. Enjoy.

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

And so it began, a generation lost in space. Our eyes were wide in wonder, our mouths were fixed in grins of joy, and our parents’ wallets did open up and spew forth dollars and pounds unto the profit margin of Saint George of Lucas. The age of Star Wars was upon us. Love it or loathe it, in 1977 Star Wars changed cinema forever, heralding the return of wonder and spectacle after a decade of dark, introverted American movies.

Here are some of the things that I love about Star Wars. And one thing that I really don’t.

Lightsabers

The weapon of choice for all Jedi knights, and without the doubt the single coolest weapon ever devised. Ever. Forget swords, forget pulse rifles, forget Uzi 9mm’s and forget Adamantium claws. This is cinema’s greatest contribution to iconic arsenal. They’re powerful, graceful, mobile, and they come in a range of colours. Who cares if they’re impossible? Who cares that you’d be more likely to cut your own legs off with it, than uphold galactic justice? They are just so damn cool. Who hasn’t, at one point or another, swung their clasped hands around and made ‘shwum mmmm shwum’ noises? Huh? Come on, admit it. Every little boy from 1977 onwards wanted one (myself included), and most men too (myself included). Christmas ‘77 probably holds the record for the highest number of household breakages, as millions of kids swung their plastic lightsabers around with gleeful abandon.

The lightsaber battles were pretty much the highlight of the three prequels. Having had to settle for the rather clunking battles of the original trilogy, which in contrast sort of resembled the fights you had with your mates when you stumbled upon a couple of long twigs, the prequels offered us fast, frenetic duels which fully utilised the fact that lightsabers were not made of wrought iron and could be swung around quickly. And Darth Maul had a double-ended lightsaber! Double the geekgasm!

Let’s face it, from a Freudian standpoint the lightsaber could be considered the ultimate in phallic symbolism, with the added bonus that this particular throbbing length between your hands lights up, comes in different colours, and makes ‘shwum’ noises. And they’re all the same length, which saves a lot of discomfort. All except Yoda’s, of course, which is smaller. But give the guy a break, he’s three feet tall.

Come on, admit it. They turn you on.

.

Star Wars Figures

There was movie merchandising before Star Wars came along, but it was this franchise that really turned it into the multi-million dollar industry it has become. George Lucas was canny enough to have the merchandising rights and profits written into his contract for the first movie, thus generating the huge piles of cash that he probably sleeps on every night, smiling the smile of the smug.

Still, in helping Lucas accumulate his bedding, we were able to spend our childhoods recreating all our favourite scenes, with 3” replicas of the characters, major and minor, from the movies. Well, at least some of the scenes. Obviously this excluded scenes that involved sitting down, since they had no knee joints. I mean, they could sit with their legs straight out, lying down wasn’t a problem, and they could goose-step, but it has to be said that the original figures weren’t exactly ‘fully poseable’. But did we care? Nah. I remember how excited I was to get my very first figure, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Old Ben came with a lightsaber which slid out of his arm, and a stiff plastic robe which made sitting him down, with legs straight out, even more difficult to accomplish. I spent hours making a cardboard version of the Cantina on Tatooine, only for most of the characters to repeatedly fall off their chairs. Trust me to recreate the one scene in the movie that involved sitting down and little else. Didn’t really think that one through.

Oh, but the thrill of separating that little plastic container from the card backing, and handling the 3” Han Solo (who looked even less like Harrison Ford than I did) for the first time. Oh, but the agony of realising that, a mere week after getting him, you’d already lost his little gun. Oh, but the sniggering amusement of putting Han Solo and Princess Leia into all manner of amorous positions. Damn those unbending knees!

Pure magic!

My legs are killing me.

.

Stormtroopers

In Episode IV, having discovered a group of slaughtered Jawas, Ben Kenobi sagely advises Luke that ‘only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise’. Luke then rushes home to find his elderly, adoptive parents have also been slaughtered. Truly, we imagine, these soldiers of the Empire are fearsome warriors. Truly, the universe must tremble before them. Except that, for the next six hours of the saga, they can’t seem to hit a damn thing, including a seven foot wookie standing about 10 yards away. Apparently, Imperial Stormtroopers are great if you want kids in hoods or a couple of geriatrics murdered, but once they have to kill moving targets and major characters, the soldiers of the Empire may as well have their helmets on backwards. Witness an entire platoon of these bozos getting their asses kicked by a bunch of teddy bears with rocks. Fail!

But we love them. We love them because, despite being utterly rubbish, they look so cool. From a design point of view, the Stormtroopers are classic. Like much of the design elements in Star Wars, they’ve endured so well without looking dated. They have kind of angry eyes, with a bit of a frown, and a sad little mouth that makes them look a bit lost. You just want to give them a hug, and tell them that it will all be okay, one day they’ll be able to hit a barn door with their eyes open. And there are variations on the theme, too. You have the black Tie Fighter pilots who can’t hit other ships, or the Biker Scouts who like to crash into trees, or the Snow Troopers who let the good guys get away. Again. Bless.

You lookin' at me? I can't tell.

.

Yoda

Somewhere there is a parallel universe where logic prevails, and a three-foot, olive-green, big-eared creature with a speech impediment, who is older than your Nan, isn’t the coolest character ever. In this universe, however, Yoda is King. Having seen this cool little Muppet for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, fans waited twenty-two years for the chance to actually see Yoda opening a can of whup-ass on someone. When he did, we weren’t sure whether to gasp in awe or laugh, as he leapt around like the Tasmanian Devil on acid. Still, he was the only Jedi who could unclip his lightsaber just by holding his hand out. Awesome!

Simply put, Yoda is the best of both worlds; he’s as wise as the ages and he could kick your ass without breaking a sweat. The interesting thing about him, though, is that, unlike Han Solo or Mace Windu, no-one really wants to be Yoda, they just want to know Yoda. People want Yoda to be there when things go wrong. Bad day at work? Talk to Yoda. He’ll say something extremely wise, backwards, and you’ll feel better. That gang of kids on the block giving you trouble? No problem. Introduce them to Yoda. He’ll say something wise, backwards, and then kick all their asses. Twice. The perfect friend, he is.

Okay, so he failed spectacularly to see the Emperor’s machinations until it was too late, then royally screwed up when charged with kicking the one ass that would have made all the difference, before sodding off to a big swamp and hiding for twenty years. Details, mere details. If that was your Nan, you’d forgive her.

Lookin' at me, are you? The only one here, I am.

Used Future and Design Classics

One thing that stood out about Star Wars was the ‘used future’ aesthetic which Lucas wanted to bring to the movies. Up until then, science fiction movies and visions of the future were pretty shiny and spanking. Spaceships were usually pristine, well kept and whiter than white. People wore clean, pressed jumpsuits or walked around half naked, with clean, pressed bodies. Then Star Wars came along and dragged the future (or technically the past) through the dirt. Hi-tech suddenly looked beat up. Here we had a vision of technologically advanced societies that were ‘lived in’. The clothes were crumpled, the droids were a little rusted, and the Millennium Falcon looked like a flying student’s bed-sit. It suddenly made the far-fetched seem everyday.

There were even little references in the script of Star Wars which hinted at technological advances as matters of everyday conversation. Disappointed at the amount of cash he gets for his Landspeeder, Luke turns to Ben and says, ‘Since the XP-38 came out, they’re just not in demand’. Ben clearly couldn’t care less. Probably still uses Windows ’95. Your powers are weak, old man.

The Star Wars movies, or at least the original three, are littered with enduring, influential designs. The Millennium Falcon was singular in that it was the first spaceship (that I’d ever seen) which was not completely symmetrical. It had its cockpit, not in the centre, but sticking out of one side. Unique! You may not find this particularly interesting, but I have distinct memories of studying the design and being totally blown away by that element alone. Yes, I was a strange child.

The taps leak, the TV doesn't work too well, and there's a bit of damp, but we're allowed to have parties!

.

But then there was…

The Star Wars Holiday Special

Oh dear Lord, where to even begin with this one. How about a little background? In 1978, the year following the release of Star Wars, CBS aired the two hour long Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas had no involvement in its production, but it did feature all the lead characters from the movie. It revolved around Chewbacca’s attempts to return to his home world, Kashyyyk, to celebrate Life Day with his family. Along the way, various guest stars made appearances, there was an animated adventure, and kids were glued to their TVs. Mostly, as it turned out, in abject horror.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is bad. No, it really is bad. It is not even bad in a way that is enjoyable. It’s the worst kind of bad. It is awful. It has never been aired again, never been officially released, and George Lucas won’t even talk about it. It’s that bad. Not funny bad, not bad in any way that could be considered endearing, just really fucking bad.

We open on a clip, from the original movie, of the Millennium Falcon being pursued by two Imperial Cruisers. Cut inside the Falcon to find Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who spends his time in this looking like he’d rather be anywhere but here) and Chewbacca sitting in the cockpit. Or rather, a rubbish TV studio mock-up of the cockpit. In fact, I think Han Solo is sitting on an office chair!

Then we get to meet Chewbacca’s family. Yep, Chewie likes to work abroad, and within five minutes it’s pretty clear why. There’s his wife Mallatobuck (Malla), happily pottering around in the kitchen, his father Attichitcuk (Itchy), sitting in an armchair grouching, and his son Lumpawarrump (Lumpy), running around annoying everyone. After about 10 minutes of watching these characters grunt and growl at each other, with no subtitles and no clue what they are saying, you start to wonder if there isn’t something better you could be doing with your time. Like, say, picking bits of fluff from the carpet and eating them.

Don't worry, Harrison. There really are better things to come.

And it gets worse. So much worse. Wait until you see the rest of the returning cast. Having just recovered from a car accident, and reconstructive surgery to his face, Mark Hamill was forced to wear extensive make-up, and what looks suspiciously like a wig. So, when the shaggy family contact Luke Skywalker on a screen, they find Hamill doing a passable impersonation of Mia Farrow. It’s shocking, to say the least. And Carrie Fisher’s appearances as Princess Leia are even more jaw dropping. Clearly high as a kite at the time, she can barely walk and wears a fixed, hazy smile that must have frightened most of the viewing kids.

Mark auditions for Rosemary's Baby 2 and Carrie is still singing five hours after everyone has gone home.

Slotted into all this fun and games are a series of ‘entertaining’ variety acts. We have Art Carney as a trader, helping out the Chewie clan. Bea Arthur sings a shit song in the cantina which seemingly last for hours. Harvey Korman presents a cookery show, in drag. And, in one of the most unintentionally disturbing scenes, Diahann Carroll turns up as some holographic singer, and apparently gets Grandpa Itchy off.

Then, when you think it can’t get any worse, Carrie Fisher, still floating on the ceiling, sings the Star Wars theme. Yep, someone wrote lyrics; terrible, awful lyrics, and Carrie Fisher sings them. It’s at this point that you have to remind yourself that you’re nearly at the end, and there’s no need to open up your veins and end your suffering.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is like nothing else you’ll ever see. And you have to see it to believe it. That the franchise survived this train wreck is surely a testament to its enduring magic.

George Lucas, having viewed the Holiday Special once too often.

..

..

.

.

Note: Click on all the images to see them full size.

If you love movies as much as I do, there’s a good chance that you love movie posters too. You probably have them on your walls, use one as your desktop wallpaper, and perhaps even collect movie posters like some people collect Picassos. I have a few myself, and why not? Some movie posters truly are works of art. Or at least, they used to be. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve got another case of that rose-tinted nostalgia-vision, but it seems that the hand-crafted movie poster has become an endangered species.

Growing up in the eighties, I spent my childhood in awe of the great movie poster illustrators, the artists whose work embellished the films I worshipped. I was a budding artist as well as a movie fanatic, and the eighties may have been the heyday of the movie poster artisan. It was, I see now, the perfect time for me to grow up in. Part of the excitement of any new movie, particularly those by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was that first glimpse of the new artwork by Drew Struzan or Richard Amsel. These were artists who created posters upon which their signature was redundant. You knew who had created it simply by the style of the illustrations. They were in a league of their own, and in my opinion will remain so.

Star Wars reinvigorated the movie poster, accentuating the concept of the one sheet as a collectible piece of artwork. That’s not to say movie posters weren’t collectibles before then but, as it did with so many other things, Star Wars set the bar a little higher. The movie poster was suddenly romantic and energetic again, and the best designs for Star Wars ably captured the film’s wonder, sweep and spectacle. The posters were not just promotional tools, but important artistic creations in their own right. Perhaps, the most famous is the image of heroic Luke Skywalker, complete with accentuated physique, holding his lightsaber aloft, with the giant head of Darth Vader in the stars behind him. Known as Style A, this was a poster design interpreted first by Tom Jung (who would create posters for all three of the original Star Wars trilogy) and then by The Brothers Hildebrandt, with dramatically differing styles.

Drew Struzan’s poster for the film, in collaboration with airbrush artist Charles White III, was a nostalgic piece harkening back to the Saturday morning serials upon which the movie was based. It has a torn poster on plywood effect that only came about because the original design had no room for the movie credits. The romantic design ethic continued with The Empire Strikes Back. Roger Kastel illustrated the classic poster for the Star Wars sequel (see below), having previously created the iconic image for Jaws. Again, it is an evocative illustration encompassing a montage of scenes and characters. The fantasy and romance pours from the poster and the colours beautifully reflect those of the movie. Tom Jung also created his own poster for the movie, featuring a striding Darth Vader holding out his hand, a pose reflecting the movie’s famous and oft-quoted line, ‘I am your father’.

…….………….

Richard Amstel produced two wonderful illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, having earlier worked on the poster for Flash Gordon (above). The Indiana Jones series, a natural successor to the romantic nostalgia of Star Wars, followed suit in utilising great artists to render promotional materials. Amsel’s work on Raiders still ranks among my favourites of all time (see his alternative version at the top of this page). The beautifully realised image of Harrison Ford lifting out of the sandstone (a mix of watercolour, acrylic, airbrush and coloured pencils) is not only iconic, but sets the tone and setting of the film perfectly. Again, Drew Struzan was given the chance to create his own design for the film, for its 10th anniversary re-release. Sadly, Richard Amsel died in 1985, only thirty-eight years old. Struzan then became the go-to guy for the Indiana Jones movies, as well as many others connected with the Spielberg/Lucas machine, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and the Star Wars prequels.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were many great artists working during this period. John Alvin created the famous poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which portrays the fingers of the alien and Elliot touching. The idea paid homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (suggested by Spielberg). Alvin was also responsible for the paws emerging from a box for Gremlins and the original poster for Blade Runner. Bob Peak created the art for each Star Trek movie poster, throughout the eighties. They, and many more like them, are the reason why movie memorabilia from that period is among the most sought after.

These days things are different. The ease and speed at which a poster can be knocked together using Photoshop means beautifully hand-rendered movie posters are a far rarer beast. To the men signing the cheques, it’s far cheaper to hire someone to sew together a couple of head shots or do a photo montage on the computer. I understand it, this is a business after all, but there was something about those old posters that fired the imagination and stoked the sense of wonder as you awaited your first screening of the next celluloid dream. They produced the kind of artwork that cannot be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, any more than an Impressionist masterpiece can be. The industry no longer seems to need the artists the way it once did, and it is always sad when an art form becomes surplus to requirements.

Struzan is still working, however rarely, and still producing immaculately hand-drawn posters. Hellboy was graced with his work along with, naturally, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the golden age of he and his peers is long gone. At forty, I may grumble about my age, but I will always be grateful to have spent my formative years during the heyday of these unsung artistic giants. And I will always remember how I was just as influenced and inspired by the artistry they used to promote the movies as I was by the movies themselves. Thank you, guys.

.

Drew Struzan’s website

A wonderful site dedicated to the work of Richard Amsel

Tom Jung’s page at IMP Awards

John Alvin’s website



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

And so it began, a generation lost in space. Our eyes were wide in wonder, our mouths were fixed in grins of joy, and our parents’ wallets did open up and spew forth dollars and pounds unto the profit margin of Saint George of Lucas. The age of Star Wars was upon us. Love it or loathe it, in 1977 Star Wars changed cinema forever, heralding the return of wonder and spectacle after a decade of dark, introverted American movies.

Here are some of the things that I love about Star Wars. And one thing that I really don’t.

Lightsabers

The weapon of choice for all Jedi knights, and without the doubt the single coolest weapon ever devised. Ever. Forget swords, forget pulse rifles, forget Uzi 9mm’s and forget Adamantium claws. This is cinema’s greatest contribution to iconic arsenal. They’re powerful, graceful, mobile, and they come in a range of colours. Who cares if they’re impossible? Who cares that you’d be more likely to cut your own legs off with it, than uphold galactic justice? They are just so damn cool. Who hasn’t, at one point or another, swung their clasped hands around and made ‘shwum mmmm shwum’ noises? Huh? Come on, admit it. Every little boy from 1977 onwards wanted one (myself included), and most men too (myself included). Christmas ‘77 probably holds the record for the highest number of household breakages, as millions of kids swung their plastic lightsabers around with gleeful abandon.

The lightsaber battles were pretty much the highlight of the three prequels. Having had to settle for the rather clunking battles of the original trilogy, which in contrast sort of resembled the fights you had with your mates when you stumbled upon a couple of long twigs, the prequels offered us fast, frenetic duels which fully utilised the fact that lightsabers were not made of wrought iron and could be swung around quickly. And Darth Maul had a double-ended lightsaber! Double the geekgasm!

Let’s face it, from a Freudian standpoint the lightsaber could be considered the ultimate in phallic symbolism, with the added bonus that this particular throbbing length between your hands lights up, comes in different colours, and makes ‘shwum’ noises. And they’re all the same length, which saves a lot of discomfort. All except Yoda’s, of course, which is smaller. But give the guy a break, he’s three feet tall.

Come on, admit it. They turn you on.

.

Star Wars Figures

There was movie merchandising before Star Wars came along, but it was this franchise that really turned it into the multi-million dollar industry it has become. George Lucas was canny enough to have the merchandising rights and profits written into his contract for the first movie, thus generating the huge piles of cash that he probably sleeps on every night, smiling the smile of the smug.

Still, in helping Lucas accumulate his bedding, we were able to spend our childhoods recreating all our favourite scenes, with 3” replicas of the characters, major and minor, from the movies. Well, at least some of the scenes. Obviously this excluded scenes that involved sitting down, since they had no knee joints. I mean, they could sit with their legs straight out, lying down wasn’t a problem, and they could goose-step, but it has to be said that the original figures weren’t exactly ‘fully poseable’. But did we care? Nah. I remember how excited I was to get my very first figure, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Old Ben came with a lightsaber which slid out of his arm, and a stiff plastic robe which made sitting him down, with legs straight out, even more difficult to accomplish. I spent hours making a cardboard version of the Cantina on Tatooine, only for most of the characters to repeatedly fall off their chairs. Trust me to recreate the one scene in the movie that involved sitting down and little else. Didn’t really think that one through.

Oh, but the thrill of separating that little plastic container from the card backing, and handling the 3” Han Solo (who looked even less like Harrison Ford than I did) for the first time. Oh, but the agony of realising that, a mere week after getting him, you’d already lost his little gun. Oh, but the sniggering amusement of putting Han Solo and Princess Leia into all manner of amorous positions. Damn those unbending knees!

Pure magic!

My legs are killing me.

.

Stormtroopers

In Episode IV, having discovered a group of slaughtered Jawas, Ben Kenobi sagely advises Luke that ‘only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise’. Luke then rushes home to find his elderly, adoptive parents have also been slaughtered. Truly, we imagine, these soldiers of the Empire are fearsome warriors. Truly, the universe must tremble before them. Except that, for the next six hours of the saga, they can’t seem to hit a damn thing, including a seven foot wookie standing about 10 yards away. Apparently, Imperial Stormtroopers are great if you want kids in hoods or a couple of geriatrics murdered, but once they have to kill moving targets and major characters, the soldiers of the Empire may as well have their helmets on backwards. Witness an entire platoon of these bozos getting their asses kicked by a bunch of teddy bears with rocks. Fail!

But we love them. We love them because, despite being utterly rubbish, they look so cool. From a design point of view, the Stormtroopers are classic. Like much of the design elements in Star Wars, they’ve endured so well without looking dated. They have kind of angry eyes, with a bit of a frown, and a sad little mouth that makes them look a bit lost. You just want to give them a hug, and tell them that it will all be okay, one day they’ll be able to hit a barn door with their eyes open. And there are variations on the theme, too. You have the black Tie Fighter pilots who can’t hit other ships, or the Biker Scouts who like to crash into trees, or the Snow Troopers who let the good guys get away. Again. Bless.

You lookin' at me? I can't tell.

.

Yoda

Somewhere there is a parallel universe where logic prevails, and a three-foot, olive-green, big-eared creature with a speech impediment, who is older than your Nan, isn’t the coolest character ever. In this universe, however, Yoda is King. Having seen this cool little Muppet for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, fans waited twenty-two years for the chance to actually see Yoda opening a can of whup-ass on someone. When he did, we weren’t sure whether to gasp in awe or laugh, as he leapt around like the Tasmanian Devil on acid. Still, he was the only Jedi who could unclip his lightsaber just by holding his hand out. Awesome!

Simply put, Yoda is the best of both worlds; he’s as wise as the ages and he could kick your ass without breaking a sweat. The interesting thing about him, though, is that, unlike Han Solo or Mace Windu, no-one really wants to be Yoda, they just want to know Yoda. People want Yoda to be there when things go wrong. Bad day at work? Talk to Yoda. He’ll say something extremely wise, backwards, and you’ll feel better. That gang of kids on the block giving you trouble? No problem. Introduce them to Yoda. He’ll say something wise, backwards, and then kick all their asses. Twice. The perfect friend, he is.

Okay, so he failed spectacularly to see the Emperor’s machinations until it was too late, then royally screwed up when charged with kicking the one ass that would have made all the difference, before sodding off to a big swamp and hiding for twenty years. Details, mere details. If that was your Nan, you’d forgive her.

Lookin' at me, are you? The only one here, I am.

.

Used Future and Design Classics

One thing that stood out about Star Wars was the ‘used future’ aesthetic which Lucas wanted to bring to the movies. Up until then, science fiction movies and visions of the future were pretty shiny and spanking. Spaceships were usually pristine, well kept and whiter than white. People wore clean, pressed jumpsuits or walked around half naked, with clean, pressed bodies. Then Star Wars came along and dragged the future (or technically the past) through the dirt. Hi-tech suddenly looked beat up. Here we had a vision of technologically advanced societies that were ‘lived in’. The clothes were crumpled, the droids were a little rusted, and the Millennium Falcon looked like a flying student’s bed-sit. It suddenly made the far-fetched seem everyday.

There were even little references in the script of Star Wars which hinted at technological advances as matters of everyday conversation. Disappointed at the amount of cash he gets for his Landspeeder, Luke turns to Ben and says, ‘Since the XP-38 came out, they’re just not in demand’. Ben clearly couldn’t care less. Probably still uses Windows ’95. Your powers are weak, old man.

The Star Wars movies, or at least the original three, are littered with enduring, influential designs. The Millennium Falcon was singular in that it was the first spaceship (that I’d ever seen) which was not completely symmetrical. It had its cockpit, not in the centre, but sticking out of one side. Unique! You may not find this particularly interesting, but I have distinct memories of studying the design and being totally blown away by that element alone. Yes, I was a strange child.

The taps leak, the TV doesn't work too well, and there's a bit of damp, but we're allowed to have parties!

.

But then there was…

The Star Wars Holiday Special

Oh dear Lord, where to even begin with this one. How about a little background? In 1978, the year following the release of Star Wars, CBS aired the two hour long Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas had no involvement in its production, but it did feature all the lead characters from the movie. It revolved around Chewbacca’s attempts to return to his home world, Kashyyyk, to celebrate Life Day with his family. Along the way, various guest stars made appearances, there was an animated adventure, and kids were glued to their TVs. Mostly, as it turned out, in abject horror.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is bad. No, it really is bad. It is not even bad in a way that is enjoyable. It’s the worst kind of bad. It is awful. It has never been aired again, never been officially released, and George Lucas won’t even talk about it. It’s that bad. Not funny bad, not bad in any way that could be considered endearing, just really fucking bad.

We open on a clip, from the original movie, of the Millennium Falcon being pursued by two Imperial Cruisers. Cut inside the Falcon to find Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who spends his time in this looking like he’d rather be anywhere but here) and Chewbacca sitting in the cockpit. Or rather, a rubbish TV studio mock-up of the cockpit. In fact, I think Han Solo is sitting on an office chair!

Then we get to meet Chewbacca’s family. Yep, Chewie likes to work abroad, and within five minutes it’s pretty clear why. There’s his wife Mallatobuck (Malla), happily pottering around in the kitchen, his father Attichitcuk (Itchy), sitting in an armchair grouching, and his son Lumpawarrump (Lumpy), running around annoying everyone. After about 10 minutes of watching these characters grunt and growl at each other, with no subtitles and no clue what they are saying, you start to wonder if there isn’t something better you could be doing with your time. Like, say, picking bits of fluff from the carpet and eating them.

Don't worry, Harrison. There really are better things to come.

And it gets worse. So much worse. Wait until you see the rest of the returning cast. Having just recovered from a car accident, and reconstructive surgery to his face, Mark Hamill was forced to wear extensive make-up, and what looks suspiciously like a wig. So, when the shaggy family contact Luke Skywalker on a screen, they find Hamill doing a passable impersonation of Mia Farrow. It’s shocking, to say the least. And Carrie Fisher’s appearances as Princess Leia are even more jaw dropping. Clearly high as a kite at the time, she can barely walk and wears a fixed, hazy smile that must have frightened most of the viewing kids.

Mark auditions for Rosemary's Baby 2 and Carrie is still singing five hours after everyone has gone home.

Slotted into all this fun and games are a series of ‘entertaining’ variety acts. We have Art Carney as a trader, helping out the Chewie clan. Bea Arthur sings a shit song in the cantina which seemingly last for hours. Harvey Korman presents a cookery show, in drag. And, in one of the most unintentionally disturbing scenes, Diahann Carroll turns up as some holographic singer, and apparently gets Grandpa Itchy off.

Then, when you think it can’t get any worse, Carrie Fisher, still floating on the ceiling, sings the Star Wars theme. Yep, someone wrote lyrics; terrible, awful lyrics, and Carrie Fisher sings them. It’s at this point that you have to remind yourself that you’re nearly at the end, and there’s no need to open up your veins and end your suffering.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is like nothing else you’ll ever see. And you have to see it to believe it. That the franchise survived this train wreck is surely a testament to its enduring magic.

George Lucas, having viewed the Holiday Special once too often.

As a confirmed movie fanatic, I naturally like to keep up with cinema’s upcoming features. Man, there’s nothing like having a movie to look forward to. So, last night, I went to some of my favourite movie sites to see what will be hitting the screens in 2010. A few treasures and a lot of shit, as it happened. Same old, same old, to be sure. But what really struck me was the sheer quantity of movies heading this way with numbers in the title. More specifically, movies with numbers after the title.

Here’s what I found. I’ve included the sequel number in brackets for those films that think they can dupe us by using a subtitle instead. Fools!

Piranha 3D, Hatchet 2, Cabin Fever 2, The Descent Part 2, Rec 2 & 3, Mirrors 2, Puppet Master: Axis Of Evil (10), Zombieland 2, Saw 7, 30 Days Of Night: Dark Days (2), Blair Witch 3, Cloverfield 2, Silent Hill 2, Friday The 13th Part 2 (technically Part 13), Jeepers Creepers 3, The Strangers 2, Hostel 3, Iron Man 2, Toy Story 3, Sex and the City 2, Shrek Forever After (4), Predators (5), Hairspray 2, Step Up 3D, Nanny McPhee 2, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2), The Howling: Reborn (8), Paranormal Activity 2, Tron Legacy (2), Hoodwinked 2, Free Willy: Escape From Pirates Cove (4), Little Fockers (3).

That’s an awful lot of digits, folks. The winning lottery numbers for this week are probably in there somewhere.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and rage about sequels. Not really. Well, maybe a little bit. I have nothing against sequels as a concept, okay? In fact, a few of those sequels are on my list of movies to see. Of course, the rest of them simply pull a weary sigh from me. I mean, do we really need a thirteenth Friday 13th movie, for fuck’s sake? The truth is, I can’t help but feel a pang when I remember that every single one of those movies represents an original idea that didn’t get made. And that’s sad, isn’t it?

The sequel is hardly a new phenomenon. The first movie sequel goes back to 1916 and Fall of a Nation, the film made to cash in on the success of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. And cashing in has usually been the single reason for the existence of the sequel. Although there are those which are presented more as instalments than sequels, such as the James Bond, or Indiana Jones movies, these franchises would never have made it past the first episode if they hadn’t made piles of money.

It’s simple maths for the people holding the purse strings. This made money, so it will make money again, and again, and again. Ba da bing, ba da boom. The problem is that, more often than not, it leads to an increasingly dreadful string of repetitive drivel, which gradually sheds whatever magic made the original such a success in the first place. Steven Spielberg, only too aware how awful the Jaws sequels were, made damn sure that no E.T. sequel was ever, or will ever be made.

There doesn’t even seem to be a time limit on the cash-in philosophy. 46 years elapsed between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Return to Oz (1985), 25 years between The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986), and 23 years between Psycho and Psycho II. And then there’s the Disney factor. Not content with making sequels to their own ideas, Disney takes it upon itself to create sequels to movies which were based on classic literature; The Jungle Book II, The Little Mermaid II, 101 Dalmatians II, even The Hunchback of Notre Dame II! One can only imagine that Disney would make The Bible II, if they thought it could get away with it. Perhaps it’s no accident that Spielberg’s worst movie was Hook, an attempt to make a sequel to Peter Pan.

Sequels have a place in our viewing pleasure. Some of my favourite movies are sequels. But while you’re enjoying Iron Man 2, or (if you have no discernment at all) Saw VII, spare a thought for what could have been a great, original, movie made in its place, if only some producer out there had decided to take a risk.

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Five First Sequels That Worked

Aliens

Seven years after Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and fresh from the success of The Terminator, James Cameron decided, for the second time in his career, to make a sequel to someone else’s movie. Fortunately, this time he did a far better job than he had done on Piranha 2: Flying Killers. But let’s be honest, he had slightly better material to work with this time around. Fucking flying piranhas, I ask you.

Cameron’s masterstroke was to take the basis of Alien, which was to all intents and purposes a horror movie, and switch genres to an action movie. Rather than retread the monster-stalks-humans set-up that made Alien so scary, Cameron introduced soldiers, multiplied the monsters, and gave us humans-stalk-monsters-stalk-humans instead. In addition, he took the character of Ripley and, with Sigourney Weaver, evolved her into one of cinema’s most iconic female characters. I defy anyone not to hoot with joy when Ripley marches up to the alien queen in the power loader and barks, ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’ Yay Ripley!

Debate rages over which movie is the better, Alien or Aliens, but since they are such different movies it’s really a moot point. But Aliens is that rare beast, a sequel that can stand on its own as a great movie in its own right.

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The Bourne Supremacy

In 2002, Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity came out of nowhere and single-handedly managed to revolutionise the espionage movie, leaving the James Bond franchise to play catch-up. Taking the title of Robert Ludlum’s book, a few characters, but little else, The Bourne Identity introduced an amnesiac government agent as far removed from 007 as possible. Where Bond was all swagger, playboy looks and total lack of remorse, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne (same initials) was a dressed down blank page who could blend into a crowd, and felt shame and guilt as he came to realise who he was. The movie was a hit and we wanted more.

Liman, disinterested in making a sequel, stayed on as producer and handed the reins to British director, and one-time documentary maker, Paul Greengrass. The Bourne Supremacy surpassed its progenitor in every way, emerging as far more than simply a rerun of the same story. Ruthlessly killing off a major character in the first 10 minutes, introducing the excellent Joan Allen as CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy into the mix, and culminating in one of the best car chase sequences put on film, The Bourne Supremacy is a thrilling piece of cinema which never forgets it has a heart. Greengrass uses handheld cinematography expertly, putting us right in the middle of events, and Matt Damon anchors the movie with very human hero. It’s a credit to all concerned that the franchise ended on such a high note, with the equally accomplished The Bourne Ultimatum. Talk of a fourth instalment persists but it’s hard to see where it could go, The Bourne Ultimatum ending as perfectly as it did.

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The Empire Strikes Back

1980, and Star Wars 2 (or 5, whatever) is due for release. We were excited, but apprehensive. There was no way Star Wars could be bettered, right? The movie had been a phenomenon, had launched a thousand space ships. How could you top that?

Well, if you’re George Lucas, you simply step back and let someone else do the hard work. Having written and directed Star Wars, Lucas came up with the story, handed over scriptwriting duties to Leigh Brackett and (in the wake of Brackett’s death) Lawrence Kasdan, and gave the helm to veteran Director Irvin Kershner. As a result, The Empire Strikes Back is the most mature and accomplished movie of the series. For all his ideas and creativity, George Lucas simply cannot write dialogue. So why he didn’t repeat this method for his recent prequels is a mystery, especially since the dialogue is one of the latter trilogy’s greatest weaknesses. In the words of Harrison Ford, ‘You can write this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it’.

However, there is no such weakness in The Empire Strikes Back. And this is the film that gave us Yoda, Boba Fett, our first glance of the Emperor, and the immortal line, ‘I am your father’. And the AT-AT walkers are super cool.

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The Godfather Part II

The success of The Godfather in 1972 practically guaranteed a sequel. Ka-ching! However, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo clearly took the task seriously, and rather than churn out a rerun of the original, they built upon it. What they delivered was a rich, layered epic, which contrasted Michael Corleone’s rise as Don of the family with his father’s rise, a generation earlier. Taking unused parts of the original novel, together with new material weaved around historical events in Cuba, The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are mesmerising, and carry their respective stories completely. Every bit the celebration of the Italian American family, and ruthless deconstruction of the American dream, as the original, The Godfather Part II is required viewing for any student of the cinematic arts.

The much maligned Godfather Part III followed 16 years later and, while not as good as the previous two films, is certainly a lot better than its reputation suggests.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In the wake of the success of Star Wars, and with a huge following built up from re-runs of the TV show, Star Trek finally returned in 1979 with The Motion Picture. It received a critically lukewarm response because, while it carried the series’ themes of exploration and discovery, it had none of the humour and fun of the original show. As a result, series creator Gene Roddenberry was ousted from production of the follow-up, and Nicholas Meyer was brought on board to finish the script and direct.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was not only a sequel to the first movie, but a sequel to one of the original episodes, Space Seed. Ricardo Montalban returned as the deliciously hammy superhuman, Khan, seeking revenge on Admiral Kirk. Exploration was abandoned in preference to military engagement, which made for a far more exciting picture, and the chemistry between the lead characters was restored. To top it all off, a major character death at the end, although he was revived in the subsequent sequel, still stands as one of the most moving scenes in any of the Trek movies to date. With J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek movie counting as number 11 in the series, it still never got better than this.

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And Five That Really Didn’t

Blues Brothers 2000

Why, oh why, oh why? The Blues Brothers was one of the greatest comedies of all time, successfully mixing music, action and laughs in a way that few others have ever managed. Its success hinged on many things, but one of the most important aspects was the presence of John Belushi. His death in 1982, two years after the release of The Blues Brothers, should have ruled out any thoughts of a sequel. It would be like making a sequel to Lethal Weapon without Mel Gibson. Worse, in fact. It just couldn’t work, right?

Right. It couldn’t and it didn’t. Writer Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis, unable to replace John Belushi with his brother, James, due to scheduling conflicts, decided to introduce a new character, played by John Goodman. It doesn’t work. There’s a convoluted plot involving a third ‘brother’, the Russian mafia and a new ‘mission from God’. Which doesn’t work. Most of the actors from the first film return. But it is all very desperate stuff, with none of the charm, wit, pace or fun of the original. Simply put, it doesn’t work. And the introduction of a precocious child into the mix doesn’t do it any favours either. Get him out of here! He’s annoying me!

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Jaws 2

According to Richard Dreyfuss in the untouchable Jaws, the great white shark ‘swims and eats and makes little sharks, and that’s all it does’. Well, according to Jaws 2, and the increasingly ludicrous series of sequels that followed, they also come looking for their mates, they hold grudges, and they manage to identify and hunt down family and friends of the people who kill their kids. Rubbish! Boo!

Director Jeannot Szwarc, who is no Spielberg, does the best he can with a lame script, which includes a laughable scene where the shark manages to drag a helicopter under the water, but Jaws 2 is severely lacking the chemistry between characters that so drove the original. With a very similar storyline, only with added annoying teenagers and no Dreyfuss or Robert Shaw, Jaws 2 is basically Jaws without any of the magic of Jaws. It leaves you with a montage of fat people in 70s bathing costumes and a crap looking shark. Funny how you can forgive those things when you watch the original.

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The Matrix Reloaded

When The Matrix arrived, in 1999, it was one of the most fresh and original science fiction movies for years. Like all good sci-fi it had brilliant ideas, which were well executed, and it stirred the brain cells as well as the adrenaline. Then The Matrix Reloaded arrived and the franchise promptly disappeared up its own asshole. And then some. If there was one thing the original suffered from, and apart from Keanu Reeves this was the only complaint, it was an overblown pomposity and a complete lack of humour. Reloaded took that malaise to the nth degree and crafted a triumph of plodding self-importance.

For all its grandeur, The Matrix Reloaded is ultimately a tedious exercise in style over content. Show without the tell. Everyone looks very swish in their long coats and cool sunglasses, but someone forgot to include a coherent plot. By the time the old guy in the white hat turns up to ‘explain’ what’s going on, you just want to put Star Wars on. Matrix Revolutions followed, and was a better stab at continuation, but when you look back at the ending of the original, what else was really needed?

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Ocean’s Twelve

Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack movie of the same name, was a star-studded piece of entertaining fluff. It didn’t take itself too seriously, had a great chemistry between the big names onscreen, and remembered to allow the audience to have as much fun watching it as the cast clearly had making it. It was better than the Frank Sinatra original because it avoided the smug, self-indulgence which made that movie simply an exercise in Ol’ Blue Eyes and his mates having a lark.

However, the follow-up, Ocean’s Twelve, somehow manages to repeat the mistake of Sinatra’s movie, leaving us feeling as if we’ve been invited to someone else’s party, and no-one wants to talk to us. It’s like watching Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Roberts and their pals go to Europe for a holiday and send us their snaps. They all have as much fun working together as they did in the first film, but somehow they forget to include us. The story ambles, pretty much going nowhere, with none of the tension that the heist scenes of the original delivered, and the movie ends coming across as cynical, self-satisfied and inaccessible. Ocean’s Thirteen was an improvement, but the spark from the first outing never really returned.

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Speed 2: Cruise Control

Who would have thought that the absence of Keanu Reeves from a movie would be a bad thing? That’s how dreadful Speed 2: Cruise Control is.

There have been some sequels that were never intended as sequels at all, they were merely original scripts reworked as sequels. The ultimate cash-in. Speed 2 comes across as one of those movies. Without the lead character from the excellent Speed, played with wooden abandon by Keanu Reeves, Speed 2 simply has Sandra Bullock’s returning character Annie hitched up with someone else, Jason Patric’s cop. She looks hot, he looks hot, they go on holiday together on a big ship which is taken over by Willem Dafoe (who may or may not look hot) and the big ship goes really fast. That’s about it.

Bullock runs around doing very little, but makes a few referential jokes, to remind you this is a sequel. Poor Jason Patric, who is better than this tripe, is saddled with a dullard of an action role, which could have been filled by just about anyone, even Keanu Reeves. And everyone gets wet in thin clothes, making them all look a bit hotter. Speed 3 never arrived. Can’t imagine why.