Monday, July 07, 2008

Movie Reviews: Star Wars, Episodes I-III

I'm reminded of a line from "Down Periscope" when it comes to the Star Wars prequels: "It's running like a"

Once upon a time, George Lucas was in touch with how to move people or at least tell a decent story. "Star Wars," despite the half-@$$ed acting and physics-defying space battles, moves you, goes like gangbusters, and has a cast with a certain chemistry, emotive energy, and charm. He then made the wise move of allowing a couple of other directors direct the next two films. "The Empire Strikes Back" is without a doubt the best dramatic film of the lot.

But then Lucas went on to other projects. Howard the Duck. Tucker. Willow. You know: the classics. They moved along like cars on octagonal wheels.

Then, sometime in the late '90s, he got the idea to revive his most successful commercial franchise. He (co-)wrote(!) three bad scripts, and then hired a wooden actress (Natalie Portman), a whiner (Hayden Christensen), and one good sport (Ewan McGregor), whom he took upon himself to direct. Typical example from Episode I: young Anakin Skywalker--ten years old--asks, "Does every star have a system of planets?" when most kids or normal humans would ask, "Does every star have planets?" Does the idea of a trade dispute sound like a particularly interesting or believable means for overturning a galactic republic? And, as one reviewer I read noted, Lucas's handle on politics is somewhat shaky. Where else but in the Star Wars universe would queens be elected and senators be appointed? Lucas was safer when he followed the story arc he stole from Asimov's Foundation trilogy or Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When he tries to resurrect his vision of the Nixon administration by superimposing it on a stolid, Rennaissance (or Roman)-like culture in space, he fails utterly.

I tried to give Phantom Menace the benefit of the doubt, even with Jar-Jar Binks around as some sort of dyslexic, fishheaded comic foil with a taste for reggae. I respected Liam Neeson, who like Alec Guinness before him added a little class and gravitas to what was, in essence, a kid's adventure story. But (spoiler alert) we knew he was doomed going into it.

And you know, I could tell Episode I was in trouble when I bought the soundtrack a couple weeks before the film came out. It had the familiar opening theme music, and one kick-@$$ piece of music ("Duel of the Fates"), but that was it. The rest of the soundtrack dozed along. A warning from John Williams, maybe? "I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced." Now, see: that's a line I could dig, and it came from the first film.

Episode II was bad enough to make me think Episode I was charming. Attack of the Clones reached an especially uncomfortable level of awfulness when we delve (so to speak) into the courtship of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. Would a haughty, highfalutin' princess really fall for this yutz? One might see where Luke's whininess in A New Hope comes from, but that mercifully disappears by the middle of Empire Strikes Back. The action sequences, particularly the ones on the Imperial Capital world, Coruscant, are dazzling and fast-paced. But the characters don't come across as natural. Ewan McGregor is about the only highlight, though Samuel L. Jackson adds a nice dose of bad-@$$ to the Jedi Knights at the height of their powers, and Yoda made a welcome least until the little guy started hopping around with a lightsaber. I mean, come on! Shouldn't he be on Dagobah somewhere, boiling bad cabbage?

Lucas could have redeemed himself by having his buddy Steven Spielberg direct Episode III, a film so bad that I had to look it up to recall the title: Revenge of the Sith. Revenge is supposed to close the Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader story arc, pack the biggest emotional wallop, and set the stage for the original film, "Episode IV." Alas, no. Instead, the audience is treated to more confusion, more baffling battle scenes, and more turgid prose spilling out of the mouths of actors who desperately need to jump to light speed and get the hell off the screen. Thus we have a train wreck (speeder wreck?) every time Natalie Portman opens her mouth: "Anakin, you're breaking my heart!" Barf.

And let's look at "the force" as it is depicted in the prequels. Did it not make more sense and have more coolness when it was just "an energy field created by all living things that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together"? Or when Yoda said, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter," you could almost buy it. Heck, it was almost spiritual! Then, in Episode I, we suddenly learn of "midichlorians," which were "symbiotes...organisms living together for mutual advantage...without them, we would have no knowlege of the force." So now the force wasn't something cosmic holding the galaxy together, but more of a natural function (secretion?) of living cells. How disappointing. And, again, how clunky in its exposition!

When the first trilogy came out, my mother refused to watch them, convinced they were more about special effects than story. And yes, I freely admit that the acting in the first and third films (what Gen Xers would call Star Wars and Return of the Jedi) was probably on par with a high school or college play. Empire, while dark and leaving a lot of questions hanging out there, stands out for its pacing, acting (mostly--Mark Hamill's "Nooo! Nooooo!!" on the precipice is nearly Shatneresque in its hamminess), and love story. Jedi ends the series nicely, albeit a bit cutely (Ewoks, f'r gosh sakes???) and gives us an interesting view into the soul of Darth Vader. But we left the theater with a feeling of uplift, of catharsis, of a story drawn well to a satisfying conclusion.

It is not until one goes back and watches Episodes I through III, the "back story" of the original trilogy, that one truly understands what is meant by films that are dominated by special effects to the detriment of story. What are we to make of the philosophy articulated in Episode I ("Feel, don't think")? Or the twisted politics of Episode II? Or the tortured civil war of Episode III, where "there are heroes on both sides"? What is one to make of Anakin Skywalker, a slave "conceived by the force," who goes off to become a Jedi Knight? He constantly fights his passions, disrespects his elders, misses his mother, is easily susceptible to flattery from higher-ups, and has a wicked, murderous temper? What the hell would possess a planetary senator to fall in love with, marry, and have the children of this character? A writer or a director with a sense of accurately portraying human motivations could have answered these sorts of questions in a satisfactory way, even through the lens of a space-fantasy-action-adventure movie. Alas, Mr. Lucas is not such a writer or director, and did not answer these questions well.

The loyal fan in me has all three of these DVDs on my shelf, but the story teller in me allows them to collect dust or, if I feel compelled to watch one of the prequels, skips past large sections of the story for sheer sanity and taste's sake. I don't hold out a great deal of hope for the new animated Clone Wars movie coming into theaters next month, but then again, maybe Lucas finally got someone else to write and direct. Somehow, I've got a bad feeling about this.

No comments: