Watching Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith as one who saw the original Star Wars when it came out in 1977 is like being Memento's Leonard Shelby, going forward into the past to get someplace he has already been. Twenty-eight years ago, did anyone think he'd be here three decades later, still playing with the same set of action figures? Did anyone think the Force would still be with him? Did George Lucas?
It's a curious thing, this pair of trilogies. See episodes I through VI in sequential order, and the first three appear the long windup to a sprightly tale of adventure, resistance, and the defeat of an evil empire. (Small wonder the media-savvy Reagan administration hitched its wagon to Lucas's comet in order to sell the Star Wars missile-defense system. Somehow, Revenge better suits the current White House.) View the movies in order of release, though, and they tell two different and somewhat depressing stories.
This way, the Star Wars series ends not with a bang but the whimper of countless casualties, as a noble knight-turned-galactic tyrant learns to stop worrying and build the Death Star. Even stranger, though, is the chronological career of an experimental-film fan who started out working with the Maysles brothers and went on to shoot his own arty, all-white Alphaville--a dystopian sci-fi movie, THX 1138, that decries a world of impersonal technology. Three decades and a billion dollars later, this guy is the biggest technocrat and toy-pusher on Planet Hollywood.
The question is: How far apart are these stories of men who gain unrestricted power over their worlds, and in the process become everything they seem to hate? Closer, perhaps, than their maker might imagine. Everyone has always assumed that Lucas's surrogate in his ever-widening Star Wars saga was the righteous Luke Skywalker, defender of the faith. Yet the story that has consumed the mogul in recent years--the one he once said he wouldn't tell without enormous advances in movie technology--is that of Luke's dad Anakin, known to box-office history and legions of Starlog readers as Darth Vader.
You'll hear a lot in coming weeks--trust me--about the "darkness" of Lucas's vision, and it's true that the director dips his toes in the Dark Side, at least as much as his afternoon-matinee contraption will allow. ("Dark" for Lucas means PG-13 instead of PG.) But it's the supposedly heavy Revenge of the Sith that shows how weightless that vision really is. Visually, the movie is astonishing--an entire biosphere created out of thin air and pixels. As entertainment, though, it's straitjacketed by its place in the series--both as the missing puzzle piece that connects the two trilogies, and as the colossally downbeat story of the triumphant rise of the universe's biggest fascist.
Sure, the whole saga ends in the warm Ewok fuzzies of Episode VI--Return of the Jedi. But if you look at Episode III as the last Star Wars movie, the series comes to its actual close with the good guys in flames, the Republic in the black-fisted grip of a dictator, and the Dark Lord holding sway over all. Not yet the Mattel-issue Ming the Merciless he'll become in the '77 Star Wars, Anakin (Hayden Christensen) emerges from the first trilogy's convoluted plot as a tragic hero--a regal warrior warped by fate, fear, and even love into a monster. Plagued by visions of his beloved Padmé (Natalie Portman) in peril, he earns only stony silence from the supposedly humane Jedi: In this boys' club, love only clouds the mind.
The Dark Side, however, is happy to console Anakin, especially after he's snubbed by the Jedi. Watched with worry by his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, as welcome an actorly presence here as Alec Guinness was in the original) and Padmé, Anakin allies himself with the sinister ruler Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who declares the galactic senate under siege and assumes a lot of wartime powers. Faster than you can say "homeland security," martial law is imposed; the next order of business is wiping out the pesky Jedi--a task accomplished in a flurry of crosscutting, a nod to the christening massacre in The Godfather (and to Lucas's own Jedi master, Francis Ford Coppola).
Even non-fanboys have to admit the scope of Lucas's achievement: The man has prefabricated an entire universe, from its history to its hardware. Looking back on the series, one sees that the antecedent to Star Wars isn't THX 1138, but Lucas's second feature, American Graffiti--that immersive ode to a SoCal gearhead's adolescence. Like those of Graffiti, though even more densely textured, the typical Star Wars shot locks the actors into center frame and keeps them at a careful remove; around and behind them are skies full of buzzing traffic, impossibly cavernous cityscapes, and streets that bustle with blue-collar robots.
Thanks to Lucas's ILM dream team and their digital back lot, most every voluminous establishing shot in Episode III has the equivalent of five of the original film's hologram chessboards. (And isn't that what everybody really remembers--the props, the cantina scene, the stuff on the edges?) Given the glaring changes in effects technology, comparing episodes I through III to IV through VI will be like putting Peter Jackson's new King Kong remake up against the 1933 original. Everything that popped into Lucas's head, he managed to doodle into the margins of the frame: The American cinema has its Sergio Aragones. I can't remember watching another movie and looking less at the center of the screen.
And that's the problem. The actors don't have the gravitas or the presence to fill in these cardboard characters--and when you have Padmé explaining away Anakin's turn to the Dark Side by saying, "He's been under a lot of stress lately," you need something more than Portman's mallrat simper or Christensen's pouty, petulant torment to put it across. Instead, Anakin's downfall has all the cosmic grandeur of a guy going postal because he was passed over for a promotion. Lucas gets exactly the performances he wants--ones that mesh perfectly with their digitized, mechanized surroundings. But is that any excuse to turn actors into human coat racks? Poor Samuel L. Jackson: As the Jedi Mace Windu, he gives roughly the same monotonous performance that Robert Bresson would've beaten out of him after 50 punishing takes.
Lucas has many eccentric gifts as a director, but tragic depth is simply beyond him: This is, after all, a series of movies that opened with the casual vaporizing of a planet. The shallowness of the characters is doubly frustrating in Revenge because they've been assigned grand passions they don't begin to possess. A hint of Anakin's darkest deed--a bit of lightsaber child care--is chilling, all right, but as much for the creepy affectlessness of Lucas's staging as for the act itself. And because we've known since 1977 how this story is going to play out, we're aware at every juncture of how it's being rigged to get us there. Anakin's premonitions, like his love for Padmé, are a convenience that gets Episode II to Episode IV. More than anything, Episode III just seems...obligatory.
At the start of the film, when the Star Wars logo appeared with that orchestral bampff!, I felt my heart in my throat. And that was pretty much the last emotional connection I had to anything onscreen. With his unprecedented clout and unlimited bankroll, George Lucas may be the only truly independent filmmaker at work today. This is freedom? Lucas has been the prisoner of his creation for 28 years. The creative recklessness and studio confusion of early '70s Hollywood enabled him to gamble (and fail) with THX 1138; ironically enough, the success of Star Wars slammed the door on scruffy, marginal studio fare, ensuring the terminal adolescence, effects-driven monotony, and emotional atrophy of mainstream American movies for decades to come. The dude in the black helmet couldn't have struck a more lucrative devil's deal.
But if Lucas is finally free of the Force--if he can reclaim the human warmth of American Graffiti or the experimental spirit of THX--then this saga may have a redemptive ending after all. Maybe, in the screwy chronology of Lucas's bookended trilogies, this closing chapter is the one that should be called A New Hope.
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