Well, since this page seems to have become the Revenge of the Sith confessional booth, I guess I’ll check in with my toosense. The Mrs. and I screened Attack of the Clones Saturday night as a sort of warm-up—she’d looked at The Phantom Menace a couple of weeks earlier, but at that movie’s first mind-fogging mention of viceroys and suspension of trade routes I ran from the room and into the arms of Jimmy Stewart in The Far Country. Where I’ve never had much of anything but disdain for Menace, I remembered enjoying Clones quite a bit way back when I first saw it in 2002, so I looked forward to seeing it again, and I genuinely wondered why most of the talk I’d heard about Revenge of the Sith was prefaced by how rotten both Menace and Clones were-- I recalled at least three smashing action sequences that seemed to make up, in my memory, for the limp, terribly acted romance at the movie’s heart, and for George Lucas’ timidity as a storyteller when it came to retreating from showing Anakin’s slaughter of the Tusken Raiders in the aftermath of his mother’s death. This refusal to own up narratively to Anakin’s murderous rampage—he merely tells Amidala (and us) of his deeds— is a crucial mistake, as it might at least have made us believe in the character’s ferocious, pent-up anger in a way that Hayden Christensen’s high school thespian glowering could not.
The DVD began to spin, and I wasn’t 15 minutes in before I began to realize that Clones was indeed pretty bad. None of the sequences I liked before—Obi-Wan and Anakin’s pursuit of Amidala’s would-be assassin high above the streets of Coruscant, the duel between Jango Fett and Obi-Wan on the ocean planet where the clones were created, the big arena monster smackdown at Count Dooku’s place—seemed any better than routine, and more often just distended and lifeless, this time around. And the Anakin/Amidala courtship was even worse than I remembered. Add to the agony Lucas’ metronomically unimaginative swinging back and forth between Obi-Wan’s pursuits and the Tiger Beat in Space section—one scene with Obi-Wan, then cut to smoochies, then cut back to Obi-Wan, then cut back to Anakin and his dead-eyed, Cyrano de Bummerac proclamations of love, then back to Obi-Wan, then back to Amidala and Anakin giggling as they frolic through the Nabooian fields, ad infinitum (or at least it seemed). I sat through Clones in awe that such flatfooted nonsense could have ever seen the light of day, and amazed that I originally thought it was in any way good. The entirety of Clones would have taken up about one-quarter of the screen time of any well-constructed movie, which would have given Lucas more time to make Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader at least slightly believable. Yet I kept thinking, well, I know of several folks, writers and friends, who really seem to love the new movie, and even those who aren’t too enthusiastic about Revenge of the Sith have all been pretty uniform (with the exception of Anthony Lane in The New Yorker) in their assessment that Episode III was better and more satisfying than the previous two.
Well, I agree with that assessment. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is better than either Menace or Clones. In fact, it’s probably better than the slim virtues of both combined. Yet, all things being relative, for me the trade-up from the colossal failure of imagination of the first two episodes has been not to a sense of satisfaction but one of indifference and, finally, exhaustion. The cumulative effect of all the technology that has been poured into the prequels is to make the original movies (at least Star Wars and The Empire Strike Back) look somewhat quaint and appealingly uncluttered. But during Sith, even though I was aware that Lucas had marshaled his resources into a tighter package this time around, I found myself shutting down on a psychological level to the overly busy design and the incessant, and insistent, artificiality of the CGI landscapes. Certainly, if you’ve followed Lucas’ story through its peaks and convolutions and tacked-on mythology (is there anyone who believes the company line that Sir George had the story line of the six movies all mapped out back in 1976, but he just never thought he’d get to make them?), you’ve got a certain amount of emotion at stake in seeing just how this third episode gets all the puzzle pieces in line and attempts to butt them up against what we know of the events of the 1977 film and its conspicuously unbusy, comparatively Luddite technological trappings. But just because you get a chill at the sight of Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia being born, or goose bumps running down your back at the sight of a horrendously disfigured Hayden Christensen snapping on the Darth Vader mask and morphing into James Earl Jones, doesn’t necessarily mean that Lucas has got his shit together here.
This movie slogs through an awful lot of the same kind of inert scenes that smothered the first two episodes like a lot of rampant interstellar overgrowth: the Jedi council sitting around making ominous pronouncements and obvious statements (“I sense Count Dooku” says one Jedi, upon entering the spaceship of Count Dooku); Chancellor Palpatine attempting to lure Anakin into his clutches with lies about the Jedi Council’s treasonous intentions like a salacious old queen with his eyes on a very juicy prize (Anakin’s dull-eyed receptivity to these fabrications go further even than Christensen’s monotonous performance toward making the character seem none-too-bright very early on); and the conspicuously ignorant Amidala, who has little to do here but sit around waiting for her hubby’s fatal premonitions regarding her fate to be fulfilled, and taking wa-a-a-a-ay too long to come to the realization that her brooding dreamboat is a petulant mass murderer who hasn’t even yet risen to the full potential of his calling.
Admittedly, Sith is more fleet of foot in the action department than its predecessors—the opening rescue of Palpatine from a staged abduction by Count Dooku, and Obi-Wan’s pursuit of and final battle with the deadly mantis General Greivous (has anyone in the history of fantasy film come up with clunkier, more obvious names for his creations than Lucas?), are very entertaining, especially compared to any from the first two episodes, and despite the familiarity of that space rescue to any number of battles from any of the previous films. But Lucas has spent an awful lot of time trying to convince us (and himself) that his movies have a deeper foundation than the rickety old movie serials that were their inspiration. It’s not unreasonable for audiences who hold these movies (or at least some of them) dear to expect that by this episode we ought to be experiencing some kind of emotional crescendo created by the movie itself, and not just by our nostalgia for feelings that Lucas’ first installment generated for us back in 1977, or our hopes and expectations for the fulfilling of a cycle started when most of us were far more impressionable.
In reality, by the time Obi-Wan and Anakin get to their big number on the volcano planet, the indifference I spoke of earlier had already settled in. I knew the film had not cast the spell on me that I was expecting/hoping for when my first thought upon seeing the magma-covered surface of this world, with its curious industrial structures intended for the gathering of molten lava (to what purpose I remain unclear), was, Gee, what an unstable world on which to try to run a company or build a civilization. And during the mano-a-mano between Obi-Wan, the master who hasn’t a clue where his training went wrong, and Anakin, his traitorous padawan who still believes Palpatine’s blathering about the Jedi trying to take over the Republic, all the CGI-enhanced acrobatics as the two bounce along and balance on chunks of apparently heat-resistant rock on the surface of the lava flow became distracting and unconvincing. Again, rather than being enthralled by this scene, which I had imagined myself for years (it was described briefly by Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars), all I could think about was, Why are these two acting like it’s only 85 degrees? Why aren’t they sweating? (Frodo and Sam sure did.) Why, given the fact that they’ve spent the better part of their scuffle mere inches from thousand-degree heat, didn’t they both simply erupt into flames before the first cries of betrayal or swings of light saber? Oh, Lucas saves that bit for Anakin’s crispy defeat, but when it happens, it just highlights again the fact that, by the elemental laws we know to be true and that Lucas himself has just acknowledged, both these guys should have been reduced to rapidly vibrating particles in the lava landscape long before.
And in the aftermath of Anakin’s apparent destruction and Amidala’s death during childbirth, Yoda decides that the newborn twins, who will fulfill the empire-destroying prophecy that Anakin did not, should be separated for their own protection and raised where no Sith would think to look for them. So where does he ship them off to? He gives Leia to a high-ranking Republic senator who has openly aligned himself with the remaining Jedi, and the other to be raised on the very planet of Anakin Skywalker’s origin, apparently mere footsteps away from where Anakin was raised! Talk about keeping a low profile. If the movie, and Lucas’ highly publicized abilities as a master storyteller (a bigger load than this in cinema lore exists not, in the parlance of our little green friend), had really been firing on all cylinders, I wouldn’t have been thinking about stuff like this.
But so it goes. Lucas has said all along that all six movies have been pitched to 12-year-olds, but despite some clunky comedy, usually involving those damned droids, the best parts of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back never felt like that. They may have appealed to me in ways that only an adolescent can be appealed to in great, or even merely good movies, but I never felt I was being pandered or condescended to. That all changed with the downright ugly design, frenetic action and blatant over-Muppetization that was the hallmark of Return of the Jedi, and that’s, to answer a question recently posed on the Salon magazine Web site, where I parted ways with the Force. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones ramped up the cutesy characters, made even more overbearing and unbearable through the alchemy (or should that be malchemy?) of Industrial Light and Magic’s fetishizing of computer-generated imagery, but also ladeled on a barge-load of bogus political posturing that, for all its “complexity” and machinations, ended up exposing Lucas as a true simpleton incapable of composing the grays in between the blacks and whites of a truly compelling and turbulent universe. (Just what 12-year-old was supposed to be enthralled by all this malarkey, anyway?)
Return of the Sith finds Lucas butted up against his own legacy and scrambling, in that none-too-urgent way of his, to link up the dangling ends of his tale in a way that would make rational storytelling sense and honor the investment so many viewers, casual ones as well as the fanatical hordes whom Lucas seems to loathe and love in equal measure (just listen to his audio commentaries on those DVDs if you don’t believe me), have made in his epic, self-serious fable. But to say that in some measure he succeeds is not to admit that that success is much more than a Pyhrric one. The genuine emotion I felt as the slaughter of the Jedi commenced was unexpected and, given my reaction to the rest of the movie, overwhelming, but its origins, I think, came from two separate places. There was sadness, and exhaustion, in seeing the first raging of the Empire that was born of my foreknowledge, as a viewer familiar with the remaining three chronological episodes, of the trials that would have to be endured before any real triumph, personal or political, could be achieved. But that dramatically-inspired exhaustion eventually got all entangled with the other kind of exhaustion I felt, a weariness with Lucas’ excessively detailed, yet tinny galactic universe, and the overwhelming relief that it was all finally over, that there was now some closure, some escape from a cycle that ensnared me when I was a young film fan, ready to be amazed, astonished and inspired.
For 30 years George Lucas has dangled the possibilities of Star Wars in front of his audience like the promise of a most delectable meal, and there are those who will continue to insist, now that it’s all done (until he starts futzing around and re-releasing everything in 3D in a few years, that is), that Lucas has served up a great piece of filet mignon, or at least a darned good, honest steak. For me, as good as was The Empire Strikes Back, the taste left in my mouth in the wake of Sith is that of an average flame-broiled burger served to accompany the cool toys at the drive-thru that seem, far more than the riches of a great narrative, to be the series’ raison d’etre. That burger patty only looks like our tragic antihero Anakin Skywalker as he comes up well done and left for dead by Obi-Wan. Bite into it, and it tastes like any other sandwich at any other joint. In much the same way, Star Wars has ended up, with Revenge of the Sith, only slightly more resonant and powerful than any of the average, and seemingly endless, diluted copies of the Lucas formula that have clogged our imaginations, and those of an endless rank of storm-trooper/clone filmmakers, ever since that first title crawl, and the sight of that first overwhelming Imperial cruiser, made us shrink in our seats in amazement 28 years ago. Yeah, Sith is better than the first two episodes, but it turns out that's not really saying much.
Well, this is the big weekend, when audiences will finally see the latest (but will it really be the last?) chapter in a popular saga that had its dawning back in the “golden age” of 1970s American cinema. It’s a saga that has been embraced by many, but derided by just as many others who have laid the diminishing returns of its genre at its feet and blamed it for helping to shift the economics of American film into the blockbuster mode from which it has never recovered. It’s the story of the classic battle of good versus evil. Its iconography is as old as the origins of mythmaking.
I’m speaking, of course, of Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, one of the most highly anticipated, and unprecedented, releases in cinema history. Never have audiences been able to see the auteur theory so clearly at work as they will by comparing this movie to Renny Harlin’s ghastly 2004 release Exorcist: The Beginning, a full reshoot of the same material Schrader submitted to his producers. Schrader’s version, rejected for not being scary enough, was worked over by Harlin and refashioned with action-hungry horror fans in mind, and with some of the same cast (Stellan Skarsgaard played the young Father Lancaster Merrin in both versions.) Now audiences will be able to judge for themselves whether Schrader’s vision was the scarier and more worthy, or whether perhaps both versions should have been abandoned.
But if your tastes run a little more toward the center than a brooding, arty rumination on religion and psychology, perhaps there might be something else on which to spend your hard-earned dollar (or perhaps ten of them, plus snack fees) this weekend.
For those who just can’t wait for the curtain to ring down on the third (sixth) chapter of George Lucas’ space opera, and for those who are eagerly anticipating it, there’s a very funny discussion between filmmakers Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma), Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (writer-star and director, respectively, of last year’s brilliant Shaun of the Dead) about the whole Star Wars thing and how it has informed, affected, and possibly ruined their lives. You can read it here, or print it out and read it while you wait on one of this weekend’s endless lines at your local googleplex.
One fella who likely won’t find himself in line is friend and fellow blogger Loxjet, who posted a spirited (or should that be dispirited) anti-Lucas rant on his Wailing and Gnashing site a few days ago. Those of you who remain unimpressed by Lucas’ deft handling of actors and his nimble way with words may want to check out Loxjet’s thoughts entitled ”I Am Your Father, Luke – BFD!” Who knows, even the Lucas faithful may get a grin or two out of Loxjet’s rage against the machine.
For Loxjet, and those who bemoan the drift of science fiction from the order of actual science-based fiction to an almost exclusively space fantasy-oriented realm, I heartily recommend Shane Carruth’s dazzling, confusing and exhilarating Primer, in which two fledging inventor/entrepreneurs inadvertantly construct a time machine. There are no wacky Back to the Future exploits here—it’s a movie primarily about the boundaries of trust and the fuzzy spot on the horizon where innovation gives way to too much knowledge, and the prickly question of what to do with it. It’s also a movie that demands your attention. The movie’s science seems plausible enough, but you’d need a degree in, or at least a proclivity for engineering to know just how plausible. Primer’s strength, and the source of its maddening philosophical quandary, is its deft structure, its criss-crossing and back-tracking on itself until it threatens to swallow its own tail. You may feel completely caught up in it and satisfied by it, as I was, without fully understanding more than about a third of its complicated narrative. But not to worry—at 74 minutes, it is brief enough that a second, cerebral cortex-clearing viewing is not out of the question, and Primer is good enough that you may very well want to press “play” again right away.