Retro review: STAR WARS EPISODE III

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(Originally Published May 19, 2005)

May 1999 was an awful month for many Star Wars fans.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first movie in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy to his revolutionary Star Wars films, was hitting screens. It was getting thrashed by critics and disappointing many fans. I know, because I was among the critics thrashing and the fans disappointed.

At the time I had a job at an online entertainment magazine in Los Angeles. The critics’ screening was in San Francisco seven days before the release, but I loved these movies enough to think driving 350 miles was no price to pay. Afterwards a fellow editor and I drove back through the night, talking Episode I the whole time.

Gone were the charms of the original Star Wars. No mythic portent of a Luke Skywalker driving toward his destiny. Gone was the strut of a Han Solo. A quick mouth like Princess Leia’s couldn’t be found. In their place was a shiftless story, the awful acting of Jake Lloyd as proto-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker, and the noxious pratfalls of Jar Jar Binks, an offense to race, comedy and special effects all at once.

By the time we arrived in Los Angeles, the shock of seeing a bad Star Wars film had morphed into an examination on the insanity of fandom. Why did anyone place such devotion to movies, TV shows, rock bands and sports teams when those things could not love you back? Was this our lot in life?

We drove past Grauman’s Chinese Theater and saw the rabid fans camped out for tickets, sleeping with their plastic light sabers and chest-covering Darth Maul tattoos like kids on Christmas Eve.

Santa was coming with a lot of coal.

With a job covering Star Trek, The Matrix, The Simpsons and all things nerd, I was used to talking to geeks about the loves the rest of the world abused them for. Now I was wondering if I was a fool to love Star Wars as I did.

My non-fanatic friends tried to console me with “it’s just a movie.” The sentiment seemed false. Popular culture can mean a lot more than a fun night at the movies or a great summer read. If someone dismissed Casablanca or The Shawshank Redemption in the same way, I’d rightfully wonder if they knew anything about the heartbreak of struggle or the better parts of human nature. The Great Gatsby was a smash on the best-seller charts. Isn’t this why we have culture?

It’s a hard argument to make given the world Lucas’ success has wrought. When Return of the Jedi left screens in 1983 and the studios rushed in for those blockbuster dollars, most of what followed was nothing more than teen boy revenge fantasies. Enter the murdering robots of The Terminator, the gunmen of The Matrix and the vapid noise of Hollywood’s Michael Bay quarter.

It irked me because when you really talk to Star Wars fans, they don’t talk about light sabers or space battles. They talk about that moment in the original film, when farm boy Luke Skywalker stared off at a twin sunset wondering if he’d be able connect the dreams of his youth to the years of his adulthood. It doesn’t inspire cruelty or cheap irony but a durable, hopeful outlook that even if your dad is evil and cuts off your hand and it turns out you’ve had a crush on your sister, if you work hard and use the Force, everything can come out OK. Let’s see this summer’s Batman Begins do that.

Since 1999, being a Star Wars fan has been a mixed bag. Once the cool fans of geekdom, we’ve watched as The Matrix Trilogy made off with our zeitgeist swagger and The Lord of the Rings outstripped the Original Trilogy’s sweep. Once a phenomenon, where everyone was a Star Wars fan, we were now seen as being a mild kind of crazy, consigned to sit with Star Trek fans who have seen their franchise turn into something akin to a computer trying to write poetry. Many have made the same charge about Lucas’ prequels, with wooden acting and stilted dialogue marring 2002’s Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and so there’s not much hope for Episode III.

So now, really, how is Revenge of the Sith?

In a word, awful. Awful in the old sense, terrible and spectacular, where doom and hope claw it out, and we learn lessons by seeing doom prevail. Awfully good. Awful in the Empire Strikes Back sense of the word. But no, it’s not that good.

From the first scene, with Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) flying through a spectacular space battle to rescue the kidnapped chancellor Palpatine (the wickedly good Ian McDiarmid), this episode flies like a laser shot. Gone are the stilted political maneuverings and meandering spectacles of Episodes 1 and II. Here the fights are great and terrible, striking down, twisting or tarnishing forever the souls of Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin and his secret wife Padmà. This is the prequel where all the emotional punch lies, and it’s almost been worth the wait.

Since returning to directing with 1999’s Episode I, Lucas has slowly been getting back the chops he showed in the 1970s, with pitch-perfect blends of technical artistry and emotion in American Graffiti and Star Wars. While Episode II: Attack of the Clones was a vast improvement from Episode I, it still had too few personal consequences to move much emotion. Episode III is a flourish of Lucas’ biggest strengths and weaknesses. The action sequences are better than they’ve ever been. And the nimble clarity he shows jumping his plot from thread to thread to thread reminds us how he acquired his filmmaking empire.

The acting however is … not great. The scenes between Anakin and Padmà (a weirdly flat Natalie Portman) underwhelm when they should be heartbreaking. But the imperfection is not enough to mask the real heartache and tragedy of a man turning his back on his wife, his brothers in arms and even himself. And let’s be honest: The acting in the original Star Wars was similarly ungreat.

The final fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin is as harrowing for its emotions as its spectacular danger. As the climax of seven hours of prequel events, it delivers. And while most of the movie seems a half-step too fast, Lucas still respects his story and fans such that he spends as much time on the ripples of aftermath as the fight.

Still, there are a few moments that strike notes so off-key (one with the newly helmeted Darth Vader nearly sinks the enterprise) they oddly make me thankful so much of this is so good. This is not the film fans had a right to expect after the wasteland of The Phantom Menace. And yet here it is.

So what’s it all come to? Episode III is not as good as those in the Original Trilogy, but it is good enough to closely miss the cut. Given what passes for blockbusters these days, it’s nice to have one last real visit to the galaxy far, far away.

May the Force be with you.

Score: 7/10

Feel like arguing about this? Come over to my Letterboxd page and let’s fight. Or, if you only have time for 140 characters, find me on Twitter at @JettJergens

The phantom STAR WARS

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(Originally published in EonMagazine.com on 05-23-1999)

Writing every word of this will hurt.

I saw STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE a week and a day before it came out, and I’m sorry to say it’s not good. It might even be terrible, but I can’t really bring myself to realize that now. I was a boy of the STAR WARS generation and a lot of my life, like many of you reading this now, was formed and sprang from the inspiration of George Lucas’ vision of a galaxy far, far away.

Now, the disappointment is bitter. The mistakes, flaws, and weird insets into his galaxy are there, in stone. They’re undeniable and marring in their starkness, clumsiness and, as confounding as it is even now to write, what I can only call racism.

I’ll spend the coming weeks and months explaining, but here’s my start.

In the years leading up this fever dream of anticipation and speculation,
this giddy time when the promise of a new STAR WARS is close but not yet here, I was careful to distance myself from the spoilers, the increasingly accurate web leaks, and the stolen photos and pirated scripts. If I could not relive my childhood surprise at discovering STAR WARS unexpectedly I could sure do my best to at least protect my surprise at the plot and events. Why science fiction fans, STAR TREK fans especially, read spoilers or even complete scripts before their big events is beyond my understanding.

I saw the trailers and the 60 MINUTES interview, and the images mixed in me childlike thrills and subtly disturbing earmarks of things to come. The pod race stuff looked amazing. The moment in the trailer where Anakin asks his mother, “Will I ever see you again?” twisted in me a childlike fear of loss. Jar Jar looked so cloying and cartoony I cringed. Maybe it would work in the full movie. Outside of that, I ignored the coming wave and waited.

My waiting ended Tuesday, May 11, 1999 at 7:30 p.m. I went into the theater expectant and ready for what might come. This was Lucas’ game, and I was ready to play by his rules. I wasn’t one of these fans who’d already made the prequels in my mind. I couldn’t have made the original trilogy a millionth as good as did Lucas, so I was content to let him paint his picture.

I came out of the screening numb. An hour later, I was disappointed. Two hours later, I was stunned. And now I live in a world where there’s a STAR WARS movie that flat out sucks.

For all you, who like me, tried to forgo the plot points, let me just sketch them out generally. The film opens with a blockade of the peaceful planet of Naboo by warships from the sinister Trade Federation (STAR TREK jab anyone?). When the Galactic Senate based on Coruscant sends Jedi’s Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi to mediate the crisis, their presence actually prompts an invasion. Unable to fight off the droid army of the Federation, they rescue Queen Amidala, hoping to take her to the Senate to plead her case. On their way, they have to stop off on Tatooine for repairs, where they meet a young Anakin Skywalker. The rest, I’ll leave up to you to find out.

Now, the high points. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor shine as master and apprentice Jedi’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. While there’s already been criticism that McGregor’s stunningly Guinness-like reinterpretation of Obi-Wan goes to waste as he’s relegated to fixing ships and bowing to Qui-Gon’s wishes, what comes across is a Jedi coming into his own under the wing of a more learned, more world-weary trainer. The give and take between Neeson and McGregor is interesting, strong and tender to watch. McGregor is the best thing in the movie, easily giving the sense of a great Jedi warrior to come.

Natalie Portman is less even, but still engaging and hooking in the dual roles of Queen Amidala and Padme. At once she is vulnerable and tough as she tries to hold the idea of her pastoral planet together under mechanized attack. The few moments with Jake Lloyd’s Anakin, though fleeting, begin to lay down the foundation of the troubled romance in chapters to come. Outside of Neeson and McGregor, Lucas didn’t make a better casting choice than Portman.

Then, of course, Darth Maul. As stark a villain as he’s portrayed to be in the trailers, Ray Parks’ screen time is slim, and Maul’s lines are slimmer. Though he gives Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon a run for their money in saber fighting, the verbal exchanges that made the duels crackle in the classic trilogy are absent here. Nearly all his lines are shown in the commercials and trailers. That being said, his acrobatics (as computer aided as they are) are eye-popping to watch.

Now what’s not good, and chillingly bad. First, Jar Jar Binks. It’s not that he’s a cartoon, and despite the digital mastery displayed by Industrial Light and Magic, he does come across as a bubbly, rubbery cartoon. Despite their boundless talent with painting him realistically, Jar Jar has all the bulgy-eyed, bouncing motions and hyper extended expressions of a bad Don Bluth character. It was like watching AN AMERICAN TALE: FIEVEL GOES TO TATOOINE. This is to say nothing of his irritating, comically overdrawn actions. Gone are the subtle, character derived humor of C-3PO and Chewbacca of the original trilogy. The comic relief provided by Jar Jar is at first fumbling, then overkill, then surreal.

But what’s worse, what’s the worst thing I’ve yet witnessed in any of the
STAR WARS movies is Jar Jar’s speech. He sounds like a GONE WITH THE WIND style Negro-era racial stereotype, with his “We’sa ganna dieee!” and “Dissin berry good” I’m sure I didn’t, but there were moments where I thought I heard Jar Jar refer to his Jedi savior as “Massa.” Beyond being a bad oversight or wrong creative choice, this puts a chilling, fun-curdling pall over THE PHANTOM MENACE that I will never be able to shake. Piled onto this are the bad, broadly Asian stereotypic voices of Trade Federation baddies Nute and Rune. As they talk to Queen Amidala, they seem to display the same vocal stylings as a bad World War Two era “jap” heavy, with the dropped “r” sounds and breathy “ahs” thrown into their lines. Piled onto Jar Jar’s
already warping presence, this firmly plants MENACE in racially questionable territory that makes me wish this chapter were only marred by cute Ewoks and a few plot holes.

Beyond this development is a truly perplexing one. Despite my self-imposed moratorium on net info, I’d have to be deaf to not hear the rumblings about how Yoda looks in this movie. Well, it’s worse than I could have imagined. The new Yoda puppet looks half finished, glossy somehow and unpainted. It’s all the more frustrating that this should stick out as a drawback, given his character was done in such a realistic, satisfying way in EMPIRE and JEDI. I remember reading interviews with Lucas about his concerns centering so much of EMPIRE on a puppet, because if it didn’t work, the scenes would lose their believability. There we know his fears were unfounded, but ironically they come true now, with 16 more years experience in puppetry and special effects. While Frank Oz’s voicings are good, one can’t help but notice Yoda looks not like a wise master, but an animatronic creation greeting you at Star Tours.

Then there’s Anakin. I’m sure Jake Lloyd tried his best, but almost every moment with him plays like the more cartoony patches of HOME ALONE. Worse than Lloyd’s child actor mannerisms is the fact there is no real hint, besides some enigmatic musings of Yoda and Mace Windu, that he’ll amount to anything we recognize as Darth Vader. He’s the most cheerful of kids, and again it should be dropped on Lucas’ doorstep that when Anakin gets the news he’ll be going to become a Jedi his reaction is, literally, “Yippee.”

Finally, fatally, the plot holes. While this entry is a lot talkier and politically minded than the first trilogy, this script’s main weakness is not plotting but logic. Specifically, there are two holes that so dramatically mar the action it’s hard not to feel like Joe Eszterhas got a hold of Lucas’ word processor. When Anakin returns to Naboo with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, he’s taken into the heat of danger, and only then told by Qui-Gon to find a safe place to ride out the battle. This begs the obvious question, why bring Anakin to Naboo at all? Why not leave him on Coruscant with Yoda while the older Jedi’s save the day? Because Lucas got lazy as a writer and he couldn’t abandon the child character he’s so desperate to use to connect with the youngsters of this generation. That may sound jealous, i.e. that the movie is not aimed at those of us who first loved it in 1977, but it isn’t. This is tragically bad writing that breaks the carefully spun spell of Lucas’ universe. In the past he’s always been so careful to create logically and believably flowing stories. Of course, on the previous three installments, he wasn’t the sole writer. Here’s hoping with EPISODE TWO and THREE he’ll hire a writing partner. Wait though — this isn’t the worst.

To be fair, if you haven’t seen it, I can’t tell you the worse point. I’ll just say this: If Luke had destroyed the Death Star by accident in the original STAR WARS, there would have been no EMPIRE striking back. The fact Lucas toiled for so many years and left such gaping holes in his work is truly discouraging.

It’s a weird place to be, in a world where there’s an episode in that mythic saga that is no good, but here it is. It’s like waking up in a mirror universe, where right is wrong and those you love become those you hate. It’s disorienting in a sharply specific but also elusive way. On seeing some of the choices Lucas made with his creation, I now wonder if he ever understood what he had in the first place.

In recent weeks, as in recent years, he’s talked of the fans of his WARS in much the same way someone would speak of an irritation. He stressed to remind them it’s only a movie, a harmless Saturday afternoon children’s lark. Well, bullshit, and he knows it. I’m not saying the mythological and religious undertones in the classic trilogy could form the basis of a real religion, as Frances Ford Coppola tried to convince Lucas in the late 1970s, but he’s talked at length about the carefully constructed values and messages he wove into his work. It’s no accident Yoda is a most beloved teacher. Lucas created him that way. It’s not in doubt when Obi-Wan says several times in STAR WARS, “Trust your feelings Luke.” It’s no chance event Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES before setting to work some 25 years ago. He meant for STAR WARS to be more than a popcorn movie, and he succeeded brilliantly. What he has done to his saga now, we’ll only fully know after EPISODES TWO and THREE come out, but for the first time I look to the future with fear, and a little anger.

I can thank Lucas, Yoda and Obi-Wan that I know not to let those emotions dominate my destiny.

Score: 5/10

Feel like arguing about this? Come over to my Letterboxd page and let’s fight. Or, if you only have time for 140 characters, find me on Twitter at @JettJergens