A Poor Manâ€™s Spaceballs
by Nick Pinkerton
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Dir. George Lucas, U.S., 20th Century Fox
The Star Wars brand name fills the screen then recedes into the cosmos, trailed by that famous crawl of backstory, while John Williamsâ€™s familiar score oversees the proceedings with the pomp of a graduation recessional. And I think that a graduation or a wedding or some other starchy, important ceremonial event is a good frame of reference to use when talking about the Star Wars movies, especially those that have emerged after the 16 years of dormancy following Return of the Jedi. These movies are something youâ€™re expected or obligated to attendâ€”how else to explain why I found myself watching Revenge of the Sith in the face of overwhelming experience and antipathyâ€”and their every aspect is utterly chartered, expected. Yoda flicking on his lightsaber is no more surprising than the groom catching his traditional faceful of cake.
I saw Episode III with a modestly sized crowd at a Times Square multiplex, a couple of weeks removed from the attendant blitzkrieg of media hysteria. From this vantage point, not distracted by costumed obsessives or a gawping, shoulder-to-shoulder mob, all that attention seemed a little silly: itâ€™s a slight, callow film, a fact that I suspect most of those swept up in all the hoopla are at least covertly aware of. The audience at my showing seemed almost catatonic through the movieâ€™s insistently buoyant, repetitive scenes of laser swashbucklingâ€”the fights are shabbily blocked and uncomfortably quiet, with vanquished droids not so much clattering to the ground as melting away. The zippy, heroic soundtrack to all the deeds of Jedi derring-do even felt a little muffled, as though coming from a neighboring room, and the opening interplanetary battle between swarms of megalithic ILM spaceships, aiming to overwhelm, just sputtered like damp fireworks.
The narrative is exactly what weâ€™ve come to expect: characters with preposterous D & D names go on preposterous D & D adventures while the fate of the free something-or-another hangs in the balance, and everything is sprinkled liberally with bizarro aliens, inspired bits of gadgetry, etc. Itâ€™s the grand irony of the fantasy genre that its name suggests the unbound imagination but its formula, in practice, is the most calcified of all. Amidst a swarm of bravura CGI the man who will be Vader, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, delivering his line readings with all the thoughtful modulation of, say, Josh Hartnett), exchanges milk-white romantic platitudes with his galpal PadmĂ© (a unappealingly-shot Natalie Portman) in a dumb, moony love story that no adult could possibly concern themselves with. In a high school stage production the earnest clumsiness of Christensen and Portmanâ€™s work might be touchingly amateurish; at the heart of a $115 million investment, itâ€™s just a little quizzical. Lucas is considerate enough, at least, to give the couple a penthouse apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows in downtown Coruscant, so you can let your attention wander out onto the cityscape and its meticulously-rendered veins of hovering traffic during their episodes of wafer-light emoting.
The rest of Revenge of the Sith has a palpably â€śreunion tourâ€ť aspect. All of the key players step forward for their requisite solo, including a Chewbacca close-up with trademark roar, a pipping-and-squeaking R2D2, and a syntax-bungling Master Yoda. Itâ€™s only in the final half-hour that Episode III registers anything like a pulse when, against all odds, the movieâ€™s denouement acquires a twinge of emotional force. Thereâ€™s a climactic battle on the surface of some storm-wracked fire planet, with Ewan McGregorâ€™s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin both adrift on a magma ocean, dueling from two bits of floating debrisâ€”you can be sure itâ€™ll make a great final stage on the video game. Kenobi leaves his pupil crippled, broken, and burning on the fiery shore and McGregor, in his third Star Wars outing, suddenly lets loose with a gravitas that the movieâ€™s unworthy of. Here, and in the dialogue-light concluding passages, Lucas brings the full heft of over a quarter century of myth-building to bear, even managing a few lovely images, like PadmĂ©â€™s catafalque moving across the very Venetian streets of a dusky Naboo. Itâ€™s hard not to take a certain satisfaction in watching the two trilogies being knit together, even if itâ€™s just the satisfaction of watching the keystone being lowered onto some unwieldy, ugly, but undeniably big architectural abortion.
A lot of critics who couldnâ€™t find much redeeming in Lucasâ€™ last two Star Wars outings seem to have softened up for Revenge of the Sith, and I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the ways that Chancellor Palpatineâ€™s usurping of the galactic Republic in Sith invites comparison to the leftist reading of Bush-dynasty American politics. â€śSo this is how liberty diesâ€”with thunderous applause,â€ť says PadmĂ© in response to one of Palpatineâ€™s power-grabbing speeches, a line thatâ€™s sure to warm the heart of any liberal critic. Most pointedly, Anakin later tells Obi-Wan â€śIf youâ€™re not with me, then youâ€™re my enemy,â€ť earning the rebuke that â€śOnly a Sith deals in absolutes.â€ť But we always know who to root for; it seems that this afterthought introduction of nuance comes too late-in-the-game to disturb the long-established good guy-bad guy dynamic of Lucasâ€™ sextet. So not five minutes later we get an exchange where Obi-Wan, clearly forgetting his anathema to absolutes, implores that â€śthe Chancellor is evil!â€ť Any recasting of Star Warsâ€™ clash between the mystic Jedi in their roomy earth tones and the orderly, S&M Sith as a politically-engaged conflict is problematic at best. Much was made of Ronald Reaganâ€™s characterization of the Soviet Union as an â€śEvil empire,â€ť pitching his heightening of Cold War antipathy in blockbuster language, but letâ€™s remember that self-important mall-agitproppers Rage Against the Machine titled their sophmore album â€śEvil Empire,â€ť using that same term to refer to the American capitalist oligarchy. Ignoring claims of a liberal or conservative bent inherent to the Star Wars movies, one thing becomes evident: their obvious, binary oppositions are childishly simplistic, and appeal to the worst on both sides of the fence.
Itâ€™s close to impossible to talk about the relative virtues and failings of Star Wars with a level head. Fanboy partisans will just babble from their bathyspheres of nostalgia (positive reviews that donâ€™t mention the authorâ€™s boyhood relationship with Han Solo & Co. are rare indeed) while haters will overstep the movies themselves to launch some anti-blockbuster screed paraphrased from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, convinced that Lucas alone poisoned the well of American film culture. About the best, most direct critique of the series that I can remember came from a friend of mine who, prior to the release of The Phantom Menace, decided that he would watch the original trilogy, front-to-back. He was about a half-hour deep before realizing that heâ€™d gotten himself in an awful mess: â€śIt was kind of boring.â€ť Worship or vitriol just serves to loft these overlong, overstuffed, silly little movies even higher in our national conscious; indifference is the only proper response I can imagine.
After Revenge of the Sith I crept past the multiplexâ€™s 24 other screens, looking for something appealing to slip into so that I could squeeze the maximum worth from my $10.50 ticket investment. No luck. Star Wars seemed to be playing in every single theater. So I took the escalator out and walked over to New York harbor on the West Side; it was Fleet Week and I wanted to take a look at the ships. Docked there was the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier, from which combat missions to Fallujah had flown, looking like nothing so much as one of those armed-to-the-teeth floating monstrosities crowding the stratosphere in Lucasâ€™ universe. And taking all that in, Star Wars had never seemed more insignificant.