Monday, May 02, 2005

Revisiting Star Wars

Yes, everyone and anyone is posting about Star Wars right now. Darth Vader even has a much-linked blog of his own. My excuse is that I watched the previous five Star Wars films out of professional obligation over the last two weeks, to prepare for reviewing Revenge of the Sith, and now I feel the need to unburden myself. I hadn't seen the original trilogy since its last theatrical release in 1997, and Episodes I and II since their original releases in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Were it not for the aforementioned professional obligation, I doubt I would have watched the films again for a long time, if ever. I notice, though, that George Lucas has this way of re-packaging his movies every few years, so that even those without professional obligations feel the need to watch the movies again, whether for geek cred or just to keep up with pop culture or mainstream cinema. The point is, I resent being made to watch these movies so many damn times as some sort of cultural requisite.

Not that I hate Star Wars. I'm a sci-fi fan and, sure, a geek, so there's a certain inherent appeal for me in movies about space ships and laser blasters and aliens and cyborgs and all that. I like a popcorn movie if it's done well, and while I vastly prefer Star Trek or Blade Runner or the Alien series or the first Matrix, I can appreciate the appeal of the original trilogy on a fun, adventure-serial level. But the cultural weight and fannish obsession attached to Star Wars just baffles me. Sitting down with these movies again, I was struck first of all by how hokey, stilted and amateurish the original trilogy, especially A New Hope, is. The writing, even when Lucas handed off screenplay duties to others, is atrocious. So many of the complaints lodged against the newer films are easily borne out in the original trilogy if you take off your nostalgia blinders. Anakin is whiny in The Phantom Menace? Check out how whiny Luke is in A New Hope. The Anakin/Amidala love story is stiff and underdveloped? It's Romeo and Juliet compared to the Han/Leia love story, which amounts to two or three scenes of bickering followed by a declaration of love.

A friend of mine kept insisting to me, while I was complaining to him about watching these movies, that The Empire Strikes Back really does live up to the hype, that it alone is a truly great movie. And, sure, it's the best of the original trilogy and probably the best overall. But it's only the best because it's an incomplete picture of Lucas's vision. It ends on a down note, but that's only to set up the redemption in Return of the Jedi. It's not a movie with a sad ending, or a movie in which the bad guys win; it's a transition between two movies with uplifting, happy endings in which the good guys triumph. It would never exist on its own, and all of its great story beats are either great in how they contrast to what happened in A New Hope, or undone by what comes later in Jedi.

As for the newer films, I do think they aren't nearly as inferior to the old ones as people make them out to be, but that doesn't mean that they're any good. The Phantom Menace is easily the worst of the whole series, although it's got a few thrilling sequences (the pod race, the battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn) and the effects and design sense are breathtaking. Not only are there obvious improvements in technology, but I think in general the design of the sci-fi elements (droids, ships, aliens, cities) in the newer films is superior to the older ones. The main problem, of course, is the plotting. Even in Attack of the Clones, when there is a clearer villain and a clearer engine driving the story, it is harder to tell immediately what is at stake and what drives the characters to do what they do. In the original trilogy, the breakdown is simple: The Empire is bad, the Rebels are good, and the Rebels must defeat the Empire. Black and white (for the most part), just like the old serials that Lucas was emulating. But in the new trilogy, the threat is more subtle: It's about backroom political dealings, business alliances and subtle shifts of power. Not that subtlety is bad; it's just that it certainly isn't something that Lucas does well, and what should be subtle comes off only as confusing. I challenge you to give me a concise summary of the plot of The Phantom Menace.

Maybe Revenge of the Sith will change all that. Despite my better judgment, I find myself getting a little excited about it. It will, like Empire, be dark, even if that darkness is only in transition to the triumph of the original trilogy. It will have a clear plot, with clearer good and bad guys (or so it seems). Maybe it will have some better writing and acting, although with Lucas handling the screenplay and direction, I'm skeptical. Mostly, though, it'll mean that once I see it, I'll be free of my obligations to watch these damn movies again.

Until, that is, the 3-D versions come out in 2007. Damn you, Lucas!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the main problem with the Star Wars series is the hype, which is also a plague that applies to all movies. I find myself getting excited about movies because the trailer is cut well, or the premise is just cool, but invariably I am left disappointed (although not all the time, of course).

Episode III is no different, and I too find myself getting excited about it. The problem is, I was just as stoked for Episodes I and II. Admittedly, I will never escape the hype of Star Wars in the sense that its context within popular culture has affected me in ways I could probably never understand.

Unlike you, I enjoy watching all of the movies out thusfar, even though I do recognize their (often severe) shortcomings. I will watch the movies again without professional obligation, but it will be after long periods of time have elapsed.

I am glad this saga will finally end though, unless Lucas decides to adapt the official books for 7,8, and 9. If he does, fuck him!