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Star Wars Retrospective: Part I (The Prequels)

It seems like hypocrisy to point out – in the opening sentence of a mammoth article on all three films, no less – that the Star Wars prequels (along with any other number of big-budget enterprises in the past few years, Matrix sequels and numerous Harry Potters among them) are among the most overly ballyhooed movies in recent memory (not to mention Star Wars in general). So why, you ask, am I giving them even more attention, with billions of dollars, thousands of reviews and endless fanboy debates having already come to pass?

For starters, I would like to tackle the more respectable original trilogy at some point on this blog, so it seems natural to cover all the films while I’m at it. Secondly, I’ve a younger brother with whom I will occasionally indulge his geeky prepubescent desires, and having just sat through the three most recent episodes of George Lucas’ saga, I may as well use the time invested to some sort of journalistic good. Finally, Star Wars represents, for me, part of my collective experience with cinema, and even though I have always generally liked the films, my adoration with them is at this point a thing of the past, and I feel that some sort of closure is needed so that, quite frankly, I can move the fuck on with my life. Antonioni awaits.

My cohort Paul Schrodt once described Star Wars as the greatest adult fantasy film(s) ever made, although his description was more intentionally derogatory than I might suggest. I’ve always enjoyed the films (particularly the first two), but with the mass hysteria accompanying the three most recent entries eroding away, so too has my passion for the saga. Approached without the cloud of the media spotlight (not to mention an increasingly dawning awareness as to the limitless possibilities of the motion picture medium), it doesn’t take much to see Star Wars for what it is: a well made piece of fluff. Entertainment value notwithstanding, the films are more easily likened to toys than films, and even the best toys wear out if played with too much. There is a place for every kind of film, and my aim is not to discredit Star Wars (nor its fans, for that matter, despite any generalized comments that might appear below), but to place it within a realistic context in the larger framework of cinematic history. In other words: the horizon doesn’t stop here, fanboys. There is no “holy trilogy.” Cinema is holy, period. Stop bitching about Greedo shooting first: get out and experience it.

A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back still sit proudly amidst the rest of my DVDs, although I doubt they will ever come close to returning to the level of adoration I once held for them (it is also worth mentioning that the rabid defensiveness of more pronounced Star Wars “fans” has largely scared me off as well, having once been nearly lynched for pointing out that I preferred E.T. to anything in George Lucas’ catalogue). Those first two entries are the only ones I will ever give full credence to. The prequels, while not entirely terrible, are far too synthetic to generate any long-lasting emotion, and frankly, as far as Return of the Jedi goes: Jabba’s palace gives me the heebie-jeebies in all the wrong ways, and the Ewoks irritate the shit out of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Later, after the appropriate revisitations, I will review the original trilogy and examine its own role in the world of film. For now, it’s on to Jake Lloyd, Jar-Jar and Hayden. Wish me luck.

The Phantom Menace (1999)

Of all the prequels, this is the one that the naysayers got right, but for all the wrong reasons. Fact: “Jedi” is an official religion in the United States. This kind of obsession indicates the amount of investment that people had in this, the most heavily anticipated movie of all time, and largely explains the vehemence of the backlash released upon George Lucas when his latest toy factory didn’t rekindle flames with the same intensity as they had been lit with twenty-two years prior. This feeds my misanthropy more than it saddens me as a cinephile, but what amuses me the most is the division between George Lucas’ take on his films and that of his fans. Far more humble than his products might suggest, Lucas is, more or less, a very lucky little boy who’s been able to play with some very expensive toys on the big screen and get paid lots of money to do so, and will freely admit how just how superior Kurosawa and Kubrick’s films are to his own without any disconcertment (one wonders how many of his fans have ever heard of them in the first place). The man knows what he does without any delusions of grandeur, and for that he has my respect.

Watching The Phantom Menace again, however, had me more inclined to reach for a bottle of Excedrin than to comment on Lucas’ down-to-earth attitude. Forgoing the carefree, ramshackle feeling of the original three films (more than anything, I always admired their complete lack of pretension), Episode I suggests that Lucas watched Barry Lyndon before every day on the set, in turn poorly replicating its artifice whilst disastrously mixing it with typical Star Wars juvenility. Stuffy and deadly self-serious in all the wrong ways, The Phantom Menace seems to think it necessary to lay down the beginnings of its pre-anticipated saga with the utmost seriousness lest it not appear legitimate, while the numerous appeals to childhood glee stick out with all the glamour of an unkempt tumor. The overly touted pod race is a visceral bore (watch Ben-Hur instead, please), but things pick up considerably, if only briefly, when Lucas indulges his phallic symbolism with a fiery light saber battle between Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn (a very good performance, perhaps, in a different film) and Ray Park’s insidious Darth Maul. Otherwise, by assuming no responsibility for establishing the pseudo-mythic undertones approximated by the original films (discounting the sad attempt at a scientific explanation for “the force”), The Phantom Menace’s pulse stops dead almost immediately from the outset. This is Star Wars given the period piece approach, and it’s an ordeal worthy of Mel Gibson.

Attack of the Clones (2002)

The first half of Episode II feels like leftovers from its predecessor; aside from a visually exhilarating chase through a high-rise cityscape, the film is bogged down with empty rhetoric, wannabe political exposition, and a love story hobbled together from the romantic junk drawer. Lucas has wisely lowered the sense of self-importance this time around, but somebody forgot to pass the memo onto the cast, the majority of whose deadweight acting is bad in all the right space-opera ways but far too wooden to elicit the earnest silliness it hopes for. Here, only Christopher Lee survives the blue screen world, his tongue placed in cheek just enough to convince us that he’s actually part of this long ago, far away world. Like Episode I, the landscapes are stunning and beautiful and the imagined creatures effectively realized, but to what extent do they serve within such an empty vessel (although, admittedly, Kamino’s cloners are perhaps the sexiest thing to appear in any sci-fi movie of recent memory)? Hayden Christensen’s angry ruminations as (a pre-Darth Vader) Anakin are the stuff of bad high school theater classes; angry moping and love stricken pontifications will have to suffice as the seeds for the screen’s most (undeservingly) infamous villain.

Ultimately, though, the first half stands as Lucas merely arranging his chess pieces for the climactic showdown, a visually delectable series of action set pieces that wonderfully captures the sprightly “gee whiz” sensibility Star Wars is rightly known for, with relentless efficiency. The heroes and villains are both exaggerated manifestations of good and evil, a good thing considering just how silly the whole toy factory is when you strip it of its cultural ramifications. Lucas’ sense of action and visual composition is masterful enough to compensate for his actors’ overall lack of enthusiasm, although Yoda certainly gets it on in all the right ways when he finally breaks out his own piece in a Tasmanian Devil-esque duel (after an all-too brief showdown between Lee’s Count Dooku and Anakin that showcases some of the most exciting usage of contrasting blues and reds since Terminator 2). To quote Ed Gonzalez of Slant: “It's a frank reminder that Lucas' toys always look better when keeping mum and waving their sticks around.”

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Lucas admitted during his press interviews for Episode III that out of the entire back story he envisioned to the original Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith encompassed about 60% of it, meaning that episodes I and II were a mere 20% each, padded out to feature length. I’ve always been surprised that this didn’t incite more anger from fanboys, although I doubt that information, were it known in both 1999 and 2002, would have prevented them from seeing the films anyway. Nonetheless, the drug-out, overly expositional nature of the first two prequels was only exacerbated more so in retrospect by the fact that Revenge of the Sith contains nary a dull moment. This was the story that Lucas wanted to tell when he first set out to make the prequel trilogy, and it shows; Episode III satiates its audience with the viscerally lined sense of nostalgia they crave while also setting up the plot of the original films with broad-sweeping earnestness. That it’s also a bit transparent and childish simply goes along with the territory; Episode III wisely mines theses faults for subversive grandiosity rather than attempting to pad them out.

The original Star Wars trilogy was more of a western-placed fantasy than it was pure science fiction, and while Revenge of the Sith’s obsession with space battles, aliens and droids is more incidental to its genre than it is necessary to its plot, the film is the one most fittingly described as a “space opera” out of the entire six-movie track. Practically bursting at the seams with vivid emotions, this episode doesn’t aim for anything in the way of nuance, instead opting to bold and italicize its characters and their relationships, and its all the better for it. Here, the actors finally get it right, in that they actually appear to be genuinely enjoying themselves (previously, one imagined Lucas just off camera with a pitchfork behind their backs), although that’s not to say the film is devoid of the occasionally embarrassing iteration (particularly any dramatically intended use of the word “no”) or flat-out cheesy line of dialogue (to be fair, nothing here bests Episode II’s unintentionally hilarious bit about sand, although the constant use of “younglings” comes close).

From the bravura opening sequence, Revenge of the Sith shamelessly indulges into the adventurous derring-do of its heroes’ exploits, while the epic scale second half is anything but lacking in kinetic action and frothy character conflict. Even as the inevitable (Anakin’s turn to the dark side and subsequent transformation into Darth Vader) approaches, Lucas’ interest in the complexities of good and evil (which culminate in a passive jab at Dubya, whose actions as President truly represent an eerie instance of life imitating art), as well as the frilled, no-holds-barred earnestness of the cast, allows interest vested in the outcome to remain even when we know that no other path is open. Perhaps unintentionally, this entry demythologizes its predecessors through its (relatively) restrained execution, positing enough importance to justify its existence but lacking the arrogance to suggest it is any sort of be-all, end-all creation. Now, if only Lucas’ minions would adopt the same attitude, the world would be a much better place.