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By Jason Apuzzo. It’s by far the biggest, best and most surprising entertainment news of 2012, yet still no one knows quite what to make of it: starting in 2015 we’re getting a new Star Wars trilogy, beginning with Episode VII, supervised by George Lucas and produced by Disney.

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As Darth Vader might say, there’s “a tremor in the Force.” The question is: what will this new Star Wars look like, now that we don’t have Emperor Palpatine to kick around any more?

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There’s certainly been nothing like this news in Hollywood in years, with rumors swirling around about the new Star Wars films almost on a daily basis. What will the new storyline be? Who will direct the films? Will Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford make a cameo? Did Boba Fett survive the Sarlacc Pit?

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And will SPECTRE or the Miami Heat be the new villains?

Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.

It seems incredible that overnight Star Wars has managed to reinvent itself – again – and become the biggest, most talked-about sci-fi franchise around. (Imagine what James Cameron must be thinking right now.) The question on everyone’s mind, though, is what exactly a new Star Wars trilogy will look like with limited involvement from George Lucas, the original cast having hit retirement age, many crucial characters gone, and having to pick up where 1983’s Return of the Jedi left off – i.e., with Ewoks playing victorious drum solos on Stormtrooper helmets.

In other words, what is the ‘essence’ of a Star Wars film now that the series can’t lean on standbys like Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi or exploding Death Stars anymore?

For clues to this mystery, it’s best to go back to the 1970s, the fabulous era – at least, for science fiction fans – when Star Wars was born.

Although the 1950s are justifiably regarded as science fiction’s Golden Age, the era of the 1970s easily rates a close second. It was the period when science fiction finally replaced the Western as the great American movie genre.

From "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century."

To be fair, what we’re calling ‘the ’70s’ here probably began around 1968 with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and didn’t end till around 1984, with the release of The Terminator. So maybe we should call this sci-fi’s ‘modern’ era – or simply ‘the Star Wars era.’ Science fiction had a distinctive flavor during this period – it was darker, more realistic, and also more emotional – and Star Wars set the tone for the time.

It was also during this era that science fiction became more popular than ever – more popular even than comic book movies are today – dominating both the box office and prime time television.

Of the top 15 highest grossing movies of all time adjusted for inflation, four are sci-fi films from this period: the original Star Wars trilogy, plus Steven Spielberg’s E.T. A host of other films from this time – Alien, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, just to name a few – are similarly regarded as classics. Plus, television series like The Six Million Dollar Man (and its spin-off, The Bionic Woman), Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were huge hits – with the Galactica franchise still around with us today.

So how did they do it back then? What made sci-fi of this period so wildly popular?

The key thing to understand about ’70s or Star Wars-era sci-fi was how it revised and updated a genre that had gotten old and slightly creaky (think Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). It did so in three major ways:

From Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

1) Science fiction became more realistic.

The big leap forward in sci-fi ‘realism’ came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Kubrick made after consulting with scientists and engineers at NASA and MIT, and after devising new visual effects techniques like front projection. After 2001, which played out like a Cinerama documentary shot in space, sci-fi films couldn’t afford to look anymore like they were shot in your parents’ garage (even if they were). Continue reading »

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By Joe Bendel. Does this sound familiar? A little dude with big feet saves the world. A magic ring is involved. Welcome back to Middle Earth. After the complete triumph of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a big screen treatment for The Hobbit was almost inevitable. Fortunately, after a complicated development process, Peter Jackson retook the reins of what is now a prequel trilogy. As most anyone remotely connected to the media culture knows, Jackson’s The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey opens today, just about everywhere.

Blink and you might miss him, but Frodo appears in passing early on. Of course, The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins’ story, which he is writing out for Frodo’s edification. In his younger years, Baggins was recruited by Gandalf the Grey to aid a company of dwarves in reclaiming their ancestral home from an ancient dragon. A bookish homebody, Baggins cannot fathom what he would bring to the expedition, but Gandalf just seems to think it will be helpful to have a hobbit along. Thorin Oakenshield, the fiery heir to the Dwarvish throne, is openly contemptuous of Baggins, but several of his compatriots eventually warm to their halfing compatriot.

Thorin also makes no secret of his resentment for the Elvish kingdom, whom he blames for turning their backs on the Dwarves in their hour of need. However, Gandalf insists they will need their assistance deciphering a certain magical map. They could also use a hand with the orc hordes pursuing them through the mountains. Frankly, there should not be so many trolls and goblins roaming about the foothills. There seems to be an evil agency at work, with most signs pointing to the former Dwarvish homeland.

Considering The Hobbit is just one average sized book and The Lord of the Rings is a fat trilogy, one would expect a lot of filler in Unexpected Journey. Yet, since about seventy-five percent of the film consists of the orcs chasing or battling the dwarves, its nearly three hours do not seem so excessively padded (as long as you enjoy fantastical action).

Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

All that melee looks great in 3D. No lame 2D fix-up (like Clash of the Titans), Journey was clearly conceived for the format. However, the High Frame Rate (HFR) gimmick is another story. Frankly, the super sharp clarity of the image often makes the effects look more fake, rather than the opposite. Also, the early scenes in Bag End lack the warm, cozy vibe one would expect.

Even if HFR is more of a distraction than an attraction, Jackson gets the bigger Tolkien picture. He understands and always remains true to the series’ themes of sacrifice, faith, courage, and humility. Fans trust him adapting this world, with good reason, so if the HFR experiment is the price to pay for Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, it is probably worth it.

Journey might not be as epic as its LOTR predecessors, but it does not disappoint. Martin Freeman (Sherlock’s Dr. Watson) has the right everyhobbit presence and looks quite credible as Sir Ian Holm’s younger analog. Most importantly, Sir Ian McKellen is back as Gandalf, a role he was probably born to play. Hammer fans will also be pleased to see Sir Christopher Lee return as Saruman the White. It is sort of more of the same, but Jackson makes it feel right even when it looks a little weird. Recommended for fantasy fans, The Hobbit is now playing on over 4,000 screens nationwide, including the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on December 14th, 2012 at 9:45am.

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