Archive for the ‘star war’ category

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

June 7, 2020

starwars9And so we return one final time to the Skywalker family. After Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we are told, there will be no more stories told about the spawn of Darth Vader and their various friends, spawn, and acolytes. With this, I officially lose interest in the Star Wars franchise; even back in 1983, when I thought Star Wars was over, I couldn’t find any hunger for the comics or the “expanded universe” novels or any of the other things Lucasfilm devised to keep the brand a going concern until George Lucas revisited the saga sixteen years later. So the multimedia Joseph Campbell rewrite will have to chug along without me.

This last go-round neither disappointed nor thrilled me; it just exists. There’s always something going on, and that’s part of the problem: there’s never not something going on, no pause for breath, no beauty or poetry. We ain’t got time for that now. The Final Order, a bunch of bad guys led by the Big Bad Guy, the resurgent Emperor Palpatine, plans to subjugate or destroy every planet everywhere. The Good Guys leap to the rescue — identity-crisis Jedi in training Rey (Daisy Ridley), rash pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Meanwhile, good-bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to save Rey from Palpatine. His deal is as tangled as ever.

Some thematic relevance could be teased out of the previous entries, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). The latter, which I consider the best of the new trilogy, dripped some poison into the ears of the faithful. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), like Achilles, renounced the heroic code; he literally tossed his lightsaber over his shoulder in disgust. Well, we’ll have none of that now, not with non-entity J.J. Abrams (who made the first of the sequel trilogy) at the helm. Abrams’ insight seems to be that the fans want endless lightsaber duels and shoot-outs and spacecraft looping around. Some of the action has a shoot-the-works electricity, but the special effects are as hectic, busy, and essentially insecure as anything in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Abrams strains so hard not to lose our attention that, through sheer narrative vehemence, he loses it anyway.

There are some pleasures. I felt it would be churlish to try to make out the seams in Carrie Fisher’s performance — cobbled together from unused footage — as General Leia. I was grateful for however much the moviemakers could give me of her. Billy Dee Williams, as the returning Lando Calrissian, comes through with a suave turn that helps to remind us that acting was once possible in these things. (Adam Driver just about sprains himself trying to make something real out of Kylo Ren’s nightmares of conscience, but he did better under the tutelage of Rian Johnson, a real director, on The Last Jedi.) The young trinity of new stars sprint this way and that, hopping from world to world, in search of a McGuffin called “the wayfinder” that will lead them to the lair of Palpatine. This dark emperor is as boringly eeeeeevil as ever, and his connection to one of the heroes feels underdone, as if Abrams and his writers were wincing and hoping the parallels to a similar revelation in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t strike us as too blatant.

We’re frequently reminded of the stakes — this needs to happen or the bad guys will be very bad and everyone will die — yet the demands of fantasy on this budgetary level guarantee there are no real stakes. People die but come back one way or another; the total outcome is never in doubt. Here and there, a bit of business tugs at the old nostalgic feelings or packs a sidewise punch: Daisy Ridley’s teardrop falling on Carrie Fisher’s (or a double’s) shoulder; a droid, cowed by past abuse, who declines a human’s touch with a prim but slightly panicked “No, thank you.” Even old Luke returns as a force ghost, reassuring Rey and us that he was wrong and it’s important for good to stand up to evil. That point is made here in the most generic of ways; it doesn’t risk resonating with the world we live in, which even Lucas’ goofball prequels at least tried to do. That much-derided “deathstick” bit in Attack of the Clones, for instance, at least tried to engage with human frailty outside the franchise, albeit in a laughable dad way. Nothing like that here.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

September 30, 2018

solo_edited The best performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as is often the case in these things, comes courtesy of someone playing a droid — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37, who navigates the Millennium Falcon for its pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). L3-37, who has a clever ambigrammatic name, has a revolutionary spirit — she’s always agitating for the freedom of any droid she happens across. She’s passionate about her cause in a way that nobody else in this overlong movie is — mostly everyone’s out for themselves.

Which might seem like the proper tone for a spin-off movie about the smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), but it seems like a regression coming after the rather more complex view of heroism over in the current sequel trilogy, where Luke Skywalker just brushes the saga’s Joseph Campbell worship right off his shoulder. And we know Han will grow and deepen as a character, so Solo can’t help coming off like “Come see Han before he became interesting!” Ehrenreich doesn’t ring many bells as Han — he neither looks nor sounds much like Harrison Ford, the character’s previous steward — and the grinning lightness of his performance makes us think he’s trying to ape not Ford but rather George W. Bush trying to play Jack Nicholson.

God help Lucasfilm if they try a young Indiana Jones movie and miscast it this badly while missing the appeal of the character so wildly. To be fair, some of the side casting works. Donald Glover is as charismatic as you’ve heard as Lando, and has a better grief-stricken scene than does Woody Harrelson as Beckett, a thief Han falls in with, when someone close to Beckett dies. The loss of that person also means the loss of one of the movie’s better actors before the film is a half hour old, but what are you gonna do? The movie, which was started by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) and then given the directorial equivalent of a page-one rewrite by Ron Howard, moves fast (for a while, before bogging down somewhere in the second hour) and is “plotty” in a hectic, meaningless way I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I couldn’t see how a movie like this could have been any better, either.

Like many prequels, Solo often seems more like a checklist than a movie. We gotta have the Kessel run in there somewhere, so let’s make that front and center instead of leaving it to the fans’ imaginations. And we know Han wins Lando’s ship in a card game, so let’s do that, too, but leave it till last, so the audience waits the whole damn film for something they know has to happen. These supposed stand-alone Star Wars movies (Rogue One was the first) are still chained to the larger narrative and events of the core Star Wars films. I think Lucasfilm, which apparently wants to take the movies in another direction away from Luke and anyone he knew, is going to find to its dismay that nobody outside the fandom cares all that much about stories that veer too far from Luke, Han, Leia and so forth. And, judging from this movie’s embarrassing status as the first bona fide Star Wars flop, they don’t even care about Han that much unless Harrison Ford is playing him.

Ron Howard does his usual proficient, zero-personality job of work. There are at least four in-jokes in the casting as it pertains to Howard’s past as a director — you start looking for Henry Winkler in there somewhere. It makes Solo play more like an Arrested Development episode than like a Star Wars movie. Han Solo has always been a hero in spite of himself, someone who could just as easily have been bullshitting the whole “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” thing. George Lucas even originally saw Han’s boast as a blatant lie meant to impress Luke and Ben Kenobi. What if the Kessel run had actually been a complete shambolic comedy of errors? Not in this movie, it isn’t — so it turns out Han’s claim is legit and not some bullshit meant to get Han a gig he needs. Solo doesn’t just make the young Han boring; it reaches back and retrospectively makes the older Han more boring, too. That’s some trick.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

April 1, 2018

jediSo much happens in these new Star Wars films, and at such a ferocious clip, you’d think Lucasfilm had enough material for another whole trilogy. (Many stand-alone “Star Wars stories” are planned, including Solo in May.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is also, at two hours and thirty-two minutes, the longest of the nine movies thus far, and deep into the second hour it can feel a little draining. There’s some stuff that feels extraneous (the whole Canto Bight sequence, which seems to exist to set up a new Lando-like character played by Benicio del Toro), and the cycle of attack and retreat — mostly retreat — gets a bit monotonous. But writer/director Rian Johnson pulls it together for the finale, unfolding on a planet with white salt coating red soil. The tracks of vehicles and feet scoring out crimson marks in the ground, as if slicing and drawing blood, has a poetry that matches the binary sunset of Tatooine, an image stirringly echoed here.

In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, only to tell us and his student Rey (Daisy Ridley) that he and everything he once stood for deserve to die. This is a real “there are no heroes” movie, although not in a nihilistic way. I was amused to see that Luke, all these years later, is excoriating himself for the hubris — the smugness, really — he showed in Return of the Jedi. Hero myths of the sort that fed Star Wars in the first place, we are informed, are lies. There are only flawed people (or aliens, whatever) trying to resist tyranny. Luke says to us, in effect, “You grew up looking up to me. You were wrong, but I was more wrong to accept that reverence. The fact is that I am a failure.” He’s wrong there, too — one of the movie’s gentler points is that someone who fails (meaning all of us) is not a failure. A failure is a failure, and victory proceeds by small and not always satisfying degrees.

The plot has what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher in a moving swan song), running from the relentless forces of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his soul-divided apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, one-time student of Luke. There’s an awful lot of back and forth, people hopping into ships and revving off for here and there, a good amount of pew pew and lightsaber hum, but the meat of the movie is a young man torn between good and evil, a young woman who feels he can turn to the good side, and an old man who has been there, done that, and takes a lot of convincing that any of it means anything. Johnson and his team (cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay) stage the action cleanly and sometimes with a cathartic swoop of exhilaration, but a good deal of it is the same pew pew and hum we’ve been seeing for forty years.

The currency here is the people. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taunting First Order General Hux (“Hi, I’m holding for a General Hugs”) is a risky but gratifying way to open the movie; returning stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), zipping around trying to crack into a tracking device, make a fun team in perpetual motion. The Vietnamese-American Tran is one of many women and/or people of color taking their places at the foreground of these new Star Wars movies, upsetting racist fanboys but pleasing everyone else. A most welcome addition is Laura Dern as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, whose command is gentle but firm — she bats away the indignation of hothead Poe without raising her voice. Whoever decided to bring the warmhearted, levelheaded Dern into the Star Wars universe deserves a good cigar.

Ultimately, The Last Jedi speaks for the strength of a united front against imperial aggression, and forget about elevating a few people to godhood — and that includes the villains, too. The final image leaves us with the assurance that young people tired of injustice will pick up the ball their elders dropped; the movie was filmed and released before the Parkland shooting and its subsequent students’ movement, but seems to anticipate it. The Star Wars universe is starting to mirror our own in that it is re-evaluating its holy trinity of heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — and advising their worshipers to look to themselves for rescue, redemption, and faith. The Force (whose power no longer seems to depend on the “midichlorians” of George Lucas’ doofus prequels) shares with Zen Buddhism a cleansing disregard for icons (foreshadowed when Rey hands Luke his father’s lightsaber and he tosses it over his shoulder): If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

Elstree 1976

April 10, 2016

cdn.indiewire.psdops.comA friend of mine collects Star Wars action figures, including custom-made figures of the more obscure characters, and likes to have the figure “cards” signed by the actors who played the obscure characters. I was with him at a local convention when he got an autograph from a guy who played, I think, some Imperial commander (I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong). People like that actor are the focus of Elstree 1976, a documentary about the bit players, masked heavies, and helmet-wearers who added texture to the tapestry that was the first Star Wars film. Extras, of course, have been the subject of other projects, including Ricky Gervais’ show of the same name, but the extras from any Star Wars movie, it seems, have the edge over any other extra. Thirty years from now, nostalgic fortysomethings will stand in line to get autographs from the guy who played the stormtrooper who bled on Finn’s helmet in The Force Awakens.

A crowdfunded effort from director Jon Spira, Elstree 1976 is largely a matter of talking heads, some of whom are more interesting than others. Most of the budget probably went to the rights to use clips from Star Wars that illustrate where, exactly, in a crowded frame a particular X-Wing pilot is, a nonspeaking role whose portrayer dines out on it to this day. At least the X-Wing pilot had his face on camera. Many others didn’t, including Paul Blake as Greedo, the green goblin who infamously shot first in George Lucas’ 1997 second draft of the dust-up between him and Han Solo. (The clip used here is the “special edition” Greedo-shoots-first version. If you have no idea why that’s an issue with fans — and there’s no reason you should — Elstree 1976 might not be for you.)

Spira’s biggest “get” is David Prowse, who wore the helmet and cloak of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones provided the voice). Prowse could probably anchor a documentary of his own, since his odd career straddles many fandoms (he worked for Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, played the Monster in two Hammer Frankenstein films, and appeared on Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Benny Hill). Like all the others here, he seems amiably resigned to having Star Wars on his gravestone, though there’s apparently no love lost between him and Lucas. The second biggest name here is Jeremy Bulloch, the man under Boba Fett’s helmet (he’s the only one from The Empire Strikes Back, making his sections of the documentary Elstree 1979). Most of you would recognize neither man if you tripped over him, yet they both make a living from signing at conventions for starstruck acolytes.

A note of discord is struck when Angus MacInnes, probably the most steadily working bit player to come out of Star Wars, sends some darts of resentment towards those who work the autograph circuit without having received a screen credit for the film. (He played Gold Leader, in case you were curious; I wonder if my friend has his autograph.) Mostly, though, the folks in Elstree 1976 (including a lone woman, Pam Rose, who played an alien in the cantina scene) are friendly and grateful for the opportunities their glancing brush with film history has afforded them. They seem happy to bring some joy to fans, and I suppose it’s better to have been Third Rebel Soldier on the Right in Star Wars than to have been Third Civilian Casualty on the Left in Batman v Superman.

All these people are part of something larger than themselves, and so someone like Garrick Hagon (who played Luke Skywalker’s mostly-edited-out friend Biggs Darklighter) has something in common with, say, Harrison Ford, although Ford will never need to make ends meet by signing posters in hotel meeting rooms. None of them, including Ford probably, had any idea that the thing larger than themselves would become so large as to dominate multiple industries. But so it has, and so here we are, living in a Star Wars world where the already-hyped Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is coming this Christmas, and perhaps the extras in that film will want to have a long cold look at this documentary and their futures.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 27, 2015

Scene for scene, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as heedlessly entertaining as anything that’s emerged from the franchise. As a whole, though, its relentless pace resolves in memory as a blur. A great many things happen, and the movie scarcely takes a breath to register the import of the events. It’s enjoyable in the moment but leaves us little to chew on, to dream on. Even the much-ballyhooed final shot is needlessly goosed by the camera chasing itself around a cliff, as if director J.J. Abrams had handed the keys over to the 360-addicted Peter Jackson. “Stay calm,” says defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). “I am calm,” says Finn’s new buddy, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). “I was talking to myself,” Finn says, and the movie likewise seems to be checking its insecurity.

Calmness is in short supply here, which is a shame, because I got a welcome sunshiny vibe from much of the film. Here, after the tone of George Lucas’ prequels, which darkened and sickened into a saga of the degradation of a hero, is once again a Star Wars film full of goodness and optimism. Finn, kidnapped and trained from childhood to be a foot soldier in the bloodletting of the First Order (the new update of the evil Empire), finds himself unable to kill, and leaves his post. Which brings me to wonder how many other stormtroopers have second thoughts about their line of work but don’t get a chance to nope out of the corporation. They remain targets, as always, brainwashed or not. But never mind.

Some of the film meditates, albeit in rushed abbreviated form, on what it takes to become a reformed blackhat versus a fallen angel. The latter is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked baddie with a fixation on Darth Vader that will go unexplained here (we are in spoiler-free territory). Unmasked, Ren looks as much “just a kid” as the unmasked Michael Myers did in the original Halloween. He is torn, and chooses the dark side, as Finn opts for the light. The inherited royalty of the Force takes something of a back seat here; I didn’t hear the word “midichlorian” once, thank the Force. Whether or not one has the Force, what matters is the choice one makes in the crunch: will you use your power, whatever it may be, for good or for its opposite?

J.J. Abrams mostly uses his for good. Mostly. The movie has a nice, warming devotion to filling the screen with non-white-males, not only among its leads but in bit roles everywhere you look. At times, though, The Force Awakens is like an omnibus of favorite bits of business from the original trilogy, and Abrams drags the old hands on whenever possible, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The gravitas in the reunion of Leia and Han is due to these actors as these characters, not due to anything in the script, really. Ford seems awake and engaged, and can still get his voice up to a lion’s roar in the din of battle. Where’s Luke Skywalker? Well, he “has vanished,” as the opening crawl tells us, and most of the film is a chase after the map that may lead to his doorstep. This quest doesn’t seem as urgent as simply avoiding the clutches and blasters of Kylo Ren and his cadre of fascists, and when Finn just wants to run, we can understand why.

The movie’s restless motion can sometimes produce not heat but a kind of coldness that doesn’t take the full measure of death (although there’s a strong moment when Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the film’s emergent heroine, plugs a stormtrooper and then pauses a second — this is, after all, the first life Rey has taken). The new kids are fine: Boyega afraid but bravely pressing forward, Ridley vital and amusingly impatient at times, Isaac as uncomplicatedly moral here as he was complexly amoral in Inside Llewyn Davis and other films. Abrams more or less leaves his actors to their own considerable devices; as Richard Brody has pointed out, Abrams is a nostalgist and pastiche maker, not a visionary. But for the first time in at least a decade, this old Star Wars skeptic felt not resentment at more star wars but a sense of gratitude for the return of a corporate concern that at least gestures towards the possibility of altruism and redemption.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

May 19, 2005

sith_wideweb__430x292And so it ends where it began. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is meant to close the loop, to explain how a once-virtuous and powerful Jedi Knight named Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) became the heavy-breathing, basso-profundo Darth Vader, destroyer of worlds. Does it? Structurally, it does practically nothing else; both rushed and overlong, the movie is as packed as were the theaters playing it during its opening weekend. Emotionally, though, George Lucas’ latest folly reads at zero. Anakin’s turn towards the Dark Side of the Force is supposed to be driven by fear and loathing, but since the character is so amateurishly written and played, he’s little but a cautionary stick figure. The effect, not only of this film but of the previous two, has been to rob one of cinema’s most iconic villains of his mystery.

Sith, like Lucas’ other effects-laden returns to the lucrative Star Wars well, is a pinwheel in frantic motion, except for the dialogue scenes, which stop everything dead. And those are the scenes meant to give this saga thematic weight and resonance, to create a plausible path from light to darkness for a young, impulsive hero terrified of losing his pregnant wife Padmé (Natalie Portman). It’s pretty clear that Anakin’s mind is being controlled by a two-faced agent of the Sith — the anti-Jedis who are seduced by the forcible aspect of the Force. That would explain some of Anakin’s behavior, but it works only on paper. Given a hundred years of cinema language with which to make us feel Anakin’s turn, to make us experience his dread and suffering, Lucas decides instead to play in the sandbox of the future. He gives us lots of twinkly CGI light shows, most of which are so cluttered and hyper-edited we don’t know where to look.

The story of Sith really should’ve been spread out over the previous two movies; we didn’t need to pick up Anakin as an insufferable little boy winning pod races. Most of the point of these three prequels is shoehorned into this last film, yet often Lucas even loses the basic thread. Time better spent fleshing out Anakin’s character is frittered away on gee-whiz fight scenes — Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against the new character General Grievous, a clanking, wheezing precursor of Vader — and fan-pleasing excursions to the planet of the Wookiees, just so Lucas can bring Chewbacca back again. I’m not saying the movie needed to enter the brooding territory of Ingmar Bergman (though that might’ve been interesting); The Empire Strikes Back managed shifts in tone and consciousness without sacrificing popcorn thrills. Maybe Lucas needs all these fancy distractions so that he won’t have to look too closely at the Vader-as-Lucas subtext that, by this point in the saga, is all but unavoidable.

Fans will project 28 years of their own longings onto the finale, which pits Obi-Wan against his former apprentice Anakin on a planet seemingly made of lava. But even here, Lucas succumbs to effects addiction and robs the duel of any humanity. The sight of a lava-ravaged Anakin, flesh ruined and soul consumed by rage, may produce a slight frisson — you’re watching the birth of a monster. (One wonders, though, why Obi-Wan wouldn’t have simply mercy-killed him, rather than leaving him to die in agony — or, as it turns out, to be rescued and given the familiar black metal raiment of Vader.) But perhaps all of this should have remained in the imaginations of the fans, who probably wouldn’t have dreamed up such ghastly dialogue, or such annoyances as Jar Jar Binks (who, thankfully, is reduced to a two-shot, no-lines cameo here).

I couldn’t spot him, but Lucas is rumored to be in the movie himself, as a character named Baron Papanoida. Father of the nerds? Paranoid pap? It’s no small irony that a California geek who probably got stuffed into his share of lockers now commands the biggest franchise in the galaxy. Sith, which broke all kinds of box-office records, confirms his grip on the dreams of people worldwide. I suppose I can be forgiven for hoping that this final panel of the saga represents the release of Emperor Papanoida’s grip, and that we can return to movies that don’t have to be blockbusters, adventures that don’t have to be aggressively hectic, and fantasies that don’t have to be seemingly written for, and by, slow children.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

May 16, 2002

Here we go again: Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones has landed, and all the fans will have to activate their denial shields anew. You may recall that some fans of George Lucas’s saga, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, accepted the long-awaited first episode, 1999’s The Phantom Menace, as if it were something more than … um … well … crap. Indeed, it was as if Obi-Wan Kenobi had used a Jedi mind trick on the weak-minded throngs: “It’s a Star Wars movie. You think it rules.” “It’s a Star Wars movie. We think it rules.” “You don’t need credible dialogue or a coherent plot.” “We don’t need credible dialogue or a coherent plot.”

With Attack of the Clones, the mantra (seconded, sadly, by many critics) is more like “This is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s better than Phantom Menace.” Both of which are correct, actually — it would be hard not to be the best Star Wars entry since Empire, given that Empire‘s two follow-ups (Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace) stank like the restrooms at a leper colony, and more difficult still to be worse than Phantom Menace. Still, with the saga’s increasingly out-of-it guru George Lucas back in the writing and directing saddle, there’s a sharp limit on how good Clones can be. Lucas doesn’t direct a movie so much as manufacture it, and this time he has corralled a writing partner (Jonathan Hales), who seems to have done nothing but enable the Master’s foibles. You may have boggled at the following exchange already (it’s in every radio promo):

Padmé Amidala
You’re not all-powerful.

Anakin Skywalker
I should be! Someday I’ll be the most powerful Jedi EVER!!

That’s about as good as it gets. Ten years have passed since the events in Phantom Menace, and the annoying Jake Lloyd has been replaced by the annoying Hayden Christensen, whose performance as the sullen, impatient late-teen Anakin (destined to become Darth Vader) is, to put it bluntly, terrible — with his flat, uncomprehending delivery, he comes across like the worst actor in a high-school play, whom everyone indulges because he’s also the star quarterback. Anakin has a serious crush on former queen turned senator Padmé (Natalie Portman, politely composed throughout), who eventually gives in to his pathetic cajoling because — well, because Lucas decrees it; I can see no other reason. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, relegated to a supporting role in a movie he’s first-billed in) zips here and there looking for bad guys who tried to assassinate Padmé and tracking down the hidden planet where an army of clones is being readied.

The clones don’t quite attack, though they get off a few shots during one of the film’s 51 climaxes. Instead of reducing the number of groaningly boring dialogue scenes in which members of the Jedi Council sit around grimly discussing matters of grave intergalactic significance, Lucas arrogantly throws in yet more civics lessons and then aggressively bombards you with action, as if to make up for all the yapping. The action did less than nothing for me. There’s no sense of awe or terror or grandeur in the imagery. It’s all so smooth and fast and hermetically-sealed it makes you feel trapped inside a private PlayStation game set on demo in Lucas’s head.

Even when the ridiculously named Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, underused but always nice to have around) faces off against the wizened Yoda, in the sort of moment that separates the fans from the unbelievers (I thought the duel looked immensely goofy), Lucas can’t bring himself to crack so much as a smile at what he’s wrought. Not that there aren’t sad stabs at humor; C-3PO is the foil for much indignity, as when his head is placed onto a Battle Droid and vice versa, and R2-D2 drags C-3PO’s head away while he says — I wish I were making this up — “Oh, this is a drag.” Does Lucas actually think that’s funny? Is there no one in his sphere bold enough to tell him his writing sucks?

Attack of the Clones is pop junk taking itself with deadly messianic seriousness, as if the morals in these movies would instruct children for generations to come (there’s even a cheesy just-say-no scene when Obi-Wan declines “death sticks” from a scuzzy dealer). The movie never lingers on any identifiable emotion, even when Anakin goes ballistic and avenges his dead mother on a bunch of Tusken raiders, or when he and Padmé end up married in a final sequence full of computer-tweaked beauty but no love whatsoever. I have no particular hopes for Episode III, in which Hayden Christensen will be even whinier, Natalie Portman will be visibly counting the days till she can get back to real movies, and George Lucas will be busily designing new toys and action figures but forgetting to come up with a good film to showcase them in.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

May 19, 1999

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s here. After 16 years of anticipation, and at least six months of airhorn hype, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has actually descended to Earth in physical form, lightly touching the faithful fans on their fevered foreheads …. Oh, and how is it as a movie? Bad. Very bad. Terrible, juvenile, tedious, empty. In that order. Does that matter? No. It’s a new Star Wars movie, and it’s there, and people will have to see it if only to be able to say they’ve seen it. Whether they’ll be able to say they enjoyed it is another story.

After 22 years away from the director’s chair, George Lucas has returned to it, in his first full-time gig behind the camera since the original Star Wars. He has also penned his first all-by-himself screenplay in 22 years. Taken together, the script and the direction are proof positive that Lucas should never again be allowed behind a camera or a keyboard. The dialogue is a medley of flat, cringe-inducing platitudes or lame stabs at humor. The action scenes go by in a hectic blur; the people scenes drag on into infinity. The most memorable performances are by computer-animated aliens — one of whom, the clumsy Jar Jar Binks, may entertain very small children but will send anyone over 12 into exasperated fits of eye-rolling.

The “story,” such as it is, involves Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), Luke Skywalker’s future mother, who wears Noh-flavored gowns and kabuki make-up; her chalky face is brightened with a crimson dot on each cheek and a dainty blood-red smear bisecting her bottom lip, as if the actress bit it to stay awake and bore down too hard. Queen Amidala refuses to sign a corrupt trade treaty, so the Trade Federation wants to persuade her. Enter Darth Maul (Ray Park), Mr. Persuasion. A horned, red-faced Sith assassin, Darth Maul has very little to do in the movie except look fierce and sell action figures and T-shirts.

The Queen’s only hope is two Jedi Knights — the veteran Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor). They take her to Tatooine, where they encounter the nine-year-old prodigy Anakin Skywalker (amateurish Jake Lloyd), the future Darth Vader. There is a pod race, there are lightsaber duels, there is a computer-generated battle between computer-generated aliens and computer-generated battle droids. If you are easily impressed by special-effects whiz-bang, Phantom Menace may be your cup of adrenaline. But the consequence of the restless editing and the ceaseless CGI is an overall thinness. The movie has no heft, no weight — it’s a giant PS2 version of itself.

The actors get lost in the design. Lucas makes a fatal error in placing the bland Jake Lloyd and the annoying Jar Jar Binks so centrally, while keeping fine actors Neeson, MacGregor, and Portman under his thumb. These actors look demoralized and bored, as if they knew that the thin air they’re emoting with will be filled by the CGI critters Lucas really cares about. Meanwhile, Lucas gives the crowd-pleasing Darth Maul a bare minimum of screen time and resorts to a lot of cheap jokes. What was he thinking? If Phantom Menace is meant to be the start of a fresh trilogy, and the genesis of the entire six-part Star Wars saga, it’s an awfully shaky start.

George Lucas had the money and power to do exactly what he wanted to do in Phantom Menace, and that’s the most depressing part: you stare at it and say, “This is what he wanted to do?” You’d hate to see a movie he didn’t want to do. Or perhaps this is actually a movie he didn’t want to do. Perhaps Lucas feels trapped in the universe he created — perhaps he resents having to go back to this well three more times. If so, he has no one to blame but himself.

Return of the Jedi

May 25, 1983


It’s clear that George Lucas had more or less run out of ideas by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around. You have the destruction of a new Death Star, a return to Dagobah (all so that we can watch Yoda croak out a few hints and then die), another Luke-Vader duel, another familial revelation (Leia is Luke’s sister!) — we’d seen it all before. The only truly new element — and isn’t this a sad commentary — was the teddy-bear-like (and much-derided) Ewoks. Dramatically and imaginatively, Jedi is on about the same level as the Lucas-produced Willow. Despite all the characters and crosscutting and shifting allegiances, Lucas really didn’t have enough story for a trilogy (let alone two trilogies).

Jedi kicks off with a visit to Jabba the Hutt’s lair (of course, Jabba’s appearance here is now robbed of its mystery because Lucas inserted him into the Special Edition of Star Wars, but never mind) and some Raiders-style swashbuckling aboard a desert skiff. Director Richard Marquand tries for Spielbergian thrills and mostly botches them — with Luke improbably deflecting laser blasts from mere feet away and Han slowly, slowly regaining his sight, the action is just flat-out clumsy — but at least it’s a shot of adrenaline, if a derivative and shallow one. Once it’s over, though, Jedi plunges into boredom, never to return.

The boredom infects the actors. Harrison Ford shows it most obviously, sometimes looking downright disdainful of his surroundings; the raffish grin of Han Solo has been replaced by the sarcastic I’m-getting-paid-for-this-shit grin of a furiously bored Jack Nicholson straining to keep himself amused in the hallways of the Overlook. Ford never looks so disgusted and lost as when he’s surrounded by the nattering teddy-bears of Endor: he may have been receiving a dark vision of his future as a half-an-actor headlining kiddie movies (possibly why he went for Witness with such gusto two years later). Carrie Fisher has never looked more radiant than she does here, not just in her fan-favorite slave-outfit scenes but in the forest of Endor, her hair cascading down her back; she looks like a faerie princess, and by then Fisher had completely dropped the clipped diction she employed in Star Wars — she sounds womanly, earthy. But she, too, sounds bored. She can’t even manage to work up much surprise at the news that Leia and Luke are siblings. (Ironically, Ford’s best moment here comes when Han finds out; he seems more stunned than Luke and Leia.)

As for Mark Hamill — what the hell happened? He gives what is immediately recognizable as the most irritating lead performance in a blockbuster film in recent memory. What happened to the eager Luke of Star Wars or the frightened, unsure Luke of The Empire Strikes Back? His Jedi prowess has made him smug and arrogant. “This is the last mistake you’ll ever make,” he snorts at Jabba (“Yeah, and this is the last blockbuster you’ll ever make,”¹ the less charitable among us may retort to the screen). Yet if we’re meant to see that Luke is heading for a fall because of his new cockiness, nothing comes of it. He flies back to Dagobah to finish his training with Yoda, and he also apparently has premonitions of his own death (“Soon I’ll be dead,” he tells the Emperor, “and you with me”) that don’t come to pass. Exactly how much of this script was rewritten and then not reshaped? We’re continually set up for a darker denouement than we get. (Recall, too, that for a while the pre-release title was Revenge of the Jedi, even though Luke takes no revenge — though he may have at some point in the early drafts, I assume.)

Jedi is an indistinct blur of event and hype (yes, hype — the script keeps hyping itself, telling us of terrible things that are going to happen but never do). The luscious visual majesty of Empire is gone, replaced by lots of blinking-lights interiors and leafy Endor exteriors (it was a bad mistake to set most of the outdoor scenes in a forest that looks pretty much the same from scene to scene, and aren’t there any life forms on this moon of Endor besides the Ewoks and some lizards?). We waste some time when Luke, Han, C-3PO and R2-D2 are captured by the Ewoks (gee, some Jedi — Luke can’t get out of a crude net?), and we waste some more time when the Ewoks take C-3PO as a god and decide to sacrifice Luke and Han to him. Meanwhile, Lando Calrissian and a gloopy-faced alien command the Millennium Falcon, leading Rebel forces into the Death Star Version 2.0. (Despite Lando’s and Han’s checkered pasts as mercenaries and scoundrels, they have conveniently been made generals in the Alliance, which apparently isn’t too picky about leadership.)

What we’re all here for is the final confrontation between Luke and Vader, which doesn’t have a tenth of the emotional heat and urgency of the duel in Empire. Luke keeps saying he feels the goodness in his father, which is mighty big of him considering dear old Dad was responsible for the deaths of Luke’s aunt and uncle, and the destruction of his sister’s adoptive home planet. (If Leia has any feelings of revulsion at the news that the man who made her watch the genocide of her people is her father, we aren’t briefed on them.) The climax is ridiculous — the Emperor is the embodiment and vessel of the Dark Side, and Vader just picks him up and drops him down a hole? Yeah, that’ll take care of him. But, improbably, it does, and we get a scene where Luke sees Vader — Anakin — with his helmet off. What’s underneath is just a bald guy who went wrong; I think his countenance should’ve been left to the imagination, but then one of the selling points of Jedi (as if it needed any) was that we’d finally get a peek behind Vader’s mask.

The real mask, though, is Lucas’s. If Luke is Lucas, then what we see onscreen is an arrogant man whose triumph comes with little effort — Dad saves the day, redeeming both himself and Luke’s idealism. What little idealism there was left in Lucas, anyway. Jedi expresses nothing so much as distrust of the audience to the point of giving it whatever worked before. Lucas had started to become Anakin — tired-looking here, and ready to leave. Lucas was certainly ready to leave the Star Wars saga behind, but he would later return to it, of course, seeming more tired and insecure than ever. Excitement, adventure — Lucas craved not these things, not any more.

¹Until 2015, anyway. That’s still a long, arid 32 years, man.