Stabilize your rear deflectors! From a galaxy far far away - the summer of 1977 - Star Wars is back, rebooted for the 21st century and in hopes that after a decade's time-out the series has shaken off its turn-of-the-century "prequels", agreed even by hardcore fans to have been disappointing.
Not that it made any difference to the grosses: One of the remarkable features of the franchise is its resistance to quality control. Sci-fi wasn't boffo before Star Wars - if anything, rather the opposite: It was regarded as the upmarket intellectual end of genre fiction. Then George Lucas came along, and hijacked the entire field, with little more than a guy with a bucket on his head, a dog with a stick-on moustache, a talking garbage can and a princess wearing two cinnamon rolls on her ears.
But what do I know? Star Wars is the most successful movie ever. It's supposed to be "epic" and "primal", but, if so, it beats me. A film such as, say, High Noon, which takes place in real time — 90 minutes — on one dusty monochrome main street lined with plywood house fronts and whose only special effect is Tex Ritter's plaintive rendition of the title song, is truly primal: it's big at its core. Star Wars, it seems to me, is epic only in the sense that the telephone book is epic.
But, like I said, what do I know? I haven't seen the new movie yet, but on the evidence of opening day its customer base is epic on a scale never before known - as four decades ago Lucas seems to have intuited it would be. Cunningly, he began the original film like a comic book or radio serial that's already been running ten years. Most movies are concerned to simplify — eliminate this character, combine those two — but Lucas hooked his Star Wars groupies with a Tolkienesque multitude of creatures, most of whom are entirely superfluous. Twenty years later, for a "special edition" re-release, he used state-of-the-art computer technology to insert Jabba the Hutt into a scene with Harrison Ford, but for no particular reason; just 'cause he could. Every background in the new version teems with computer-generated Jurassic Park dinosaurs, out for a stroll, retrieving newspapers, looking for Jurassic lamp-posts. Though distracting, they complete the sense that Star Wars is a tale assembled from bits of other tales . There's a Tin Man — the droid C-3P0 — and a Cowardly Lion — Chewbacca the Wookie; there's a bearded, robed Biblical sage — Obi-Wan; there's a Bogart figure, Han Solo, a hill-of-beans cynic played by Harrison Ford. "I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody," muses Princess Leia, although Han Solo's strangely Onanistic moniker should have been the first clue to his self-absorption. Late in the movie, Lucas suddenly remembers he's forgotten to introduce the hero's best pal, so belatedly shoves in Luke Skywalker's chum Biggs Darklighter purely for the purpose of killing him off two minutes later.
If the characters are generic, the dialogue barely makes that grade: "Either I'm gonna kill her or I'm beginning to like her," says Ford, from which I think we're meant to deduce that this is what they call a love/hate relationship. Ford's acting improved over the years; for Fisher and Hamill, this was as good as it got. Such acting honors as there were went to Britain's Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan. In that sense at least, the Empire struck back.
In the eleventh hour of the old century, Lucas re-opened his goldmine, and the stampede was bigger than ever. The build-up, the hype, the thrill of anticipation was going so well, you'd have had to be crazy to risk all that by opening the actual film. But after the Star Wars nerds had been camped out on the sidewalks of America for a couple of months - or was it years? - George Lucas decided to show 'em the picture. When I attended the premiere in New York, security was tighter than Ewan McGregor's buns and I was admonished not to spoil things for the fans by giving everything away. But what's to give? Lucas had gaily revealed not only the plot of this prequel, but also the next one, and the one after, and the next eight or nine pre-sequels: Anakin Skywalker, whom we meet here as an angelic young boy, will, alas, grow up to be Darth Vader, but not before having his way with Queen Amidala and fathering both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. An old-fashioned storyteller would hint at these developments, freighting Anakin's heroics in darker tones that presage his fall. But Lucas preferred to announce the plot in advance, thereby relieving him of the burden of characterization and enabling the rest of us to forget about the narrative and concentrate on the special effects - like, er, rubbery noses and floppy ears.
This time, to combat the evil of the Trade Federation (Lucas seems to have made, entirely by accident, an intergalactic Euro-allegory) there was Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his protege, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Qui-Gon is full of wise Jedi insights for his callow chum: "Your focus determines your reality," he points out, accurately enough. Neeson himself seems woozy and distracted for most of the picture, as if there's something more interesting going on in an adjoining galaxy. His detachment is surely deliberate: if your focus determines your reality, then maybe if you're determined to stay as unfocused as Neeson is the reality of your having agreed to do this picture won't be quite so painful. Taken 3 would have been a better film had Neeson's daughter been kidnapped by Lucas for a Star Wars prequel and Neeson had to take out 7,000 Jar-Jar Binkses played by Albanian extras.
In fairness to him, there isn't that much for Qui-Gon to focus on: most of the other characters are computer-generated, except for Jabba the Hutt, here played by Larry Flynt. Stung by criticism that he was a space-age Woody Allen whose films you can only get a part in if you're white or a Hutt, Lucas introduced a stereotypical "shif'less Negro", like Stepan Fetchit in the films of half-a-century earlier. He originally called in an African-American actor to get a loping shuffle down on film for Jar-Jar Binks, before eventually replacing the black guy with a computer-generated space alien. Even though Jar-Jar was meant to be a "Gungan", African-American groups denounced Lucas for peddling outmoded racist images. If you're going to be outmodedly racist, you could at least be funny. But Lucas doesn't do humor: The audience is begging for relief from the "comic relief".
Three years later, Lucas was back, but Binks wasn't. Attack of the Clones was the latest stage in Star Wars' remorseless degradation: a gazillion-dollar budget deployed on behalf of an episode of "Today In Parliament" from some country you've never heard of. The first hour or three mostly consists of talking-heads sitting around saying things like "I remain confident that if the Senate authorizes the Chancellor to continue negotiations with the Trade Federation we can emerge from the hearings with a revised treaty in the best interests of the Republic." True, some of the talking-heads are green or blue or have three eyes and scales, but, when they open their mouths, they all sound like deputy assistant G20 trade ministers staying robotically on message. Romance? Honor? Love? Sacrifice? Human drama? Hah! Lucas scoffs at such trifles.
With any fantasy, you want to know that the invented world is real - that, say, Ruritania has a history, with previous kings and political settlements and ethnic conflicts.But by 2002 Star Wars was all backstory and no front story. This time round, a decade after The Phantom Menace, the Republic is under threat from "separatists" who are threatening to separate because, er, well, um... I'm a Quebecer, so in theory this theme should have had a certain homely appeal.Instead, I began to realize what a Canadian political discussion must be like for non-Canadians. In this instance, it's a Canadian political discussion with a budget, so it's punctuated every 15 minutes by flying-car chases through a soaring futuristic cityscape or light-saber duels on the rain-lashed launch pad of a distant planet, which ought to be an improvement, but, in fact, makes little difference: if you were told that, say, the fellows in the spaceships firing on each other during the asteroid storm were the Heritage Minister of Quebec and the Deputy Finance Minister of Manitoba, it doesn't make it any more exciting, does it?
Lucas was by now a director without peer when it comes to getting bad performances out of great actors. Does anyone remember when Ewan McGregor was one of the sexiest actors on the planet? As Princess Anydulla, Natalie Portman looks cute in her skin-tight sweater but is the fair Miss Frigidaire, frosting up the joint whenever a little human warmth's required. The kid who plays Anakin (Hayden Christensen) seems like he should be the shy fellow in the back in some hot boy band but instead his agent stuck him with some lousy movie gig: he's apparently a newcomer from Canada, but, despite his lack of experience, he can already hold his own with the veterans when it comes to elocutionary stiffness. Only Christopher Lee (Count Dooku) and Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine) have the measure of Star Wars: go with the hokum, have some fun doing the standard creepy-snooty Brit shtick, and cash the check.
Lucas had three decades to figure out how to wrap the thing up by resolving the biggest question of all: what drives Darth Vader? Revenge of the Sith was, so the director assured us, a "tragedy". It might have been wise to have stationed an announcer at every movie house to announce this fact over the PA system since it eluded the audience I saw it with. When the Sith hits the fan, the fan bursts out laughing. Oh, to be sure, they were diverted by the opening dogfight and Obi-Wan Kenobi riding a wild four-legged space beast to hunt down General Grievous. But the final descent of Ian McDiarmid's Chancellor Palpatine into Darth Hammitup was a massive titter-fest, as was the moment when Anakin attempts to talk Padmé into joining him over on the Dark Side:
"Together you and I can rule the galaxy," he snarls. Well, tries to snarl.
"Obi-Wan was right. You've changed," says Princess Padmé. "I don't know you any more." He used to look like Princess Di flashing those big eyes from under his hair. But suddenly he looks like Princess Di with too much kohl and in a peevish mood. What can this mean?
It means the young Jedi knight is en route to his rebirth as the evil über-Sith Darth Vader. As I always say, one must respect a hit — Star Wars has been going gangbusters for 38 years, which is over two-fifths of the entire history of talking pictures. But the heart of its mythic pretensions is the transformation of Anakin, boy hero of the three "prequels", into Vader, black-hatted villain of the first three movies. For Lucas, the revelation of this degeneration was supposed to bring the Star Wars story full circle and explain the primal forces driving the original film. And what does Lucas come up with? Well, Anakin's worried that his beloved Padmé might die in childbirth.
Padmé promises him she won't die in childbirth. "I promise you I won't die in childbirth," she says. George Lucas characters always have to spell out what they're thinking and feeling because he's incapable of showing it. Presumably actors say yes to Lucas because they figure Star Wars will do for them what it did for Harrison Ford. Instead, Lucas turns everyone he touches into Mark Hamill.
So even though his hand-me-down Faustian bargain-basement plot motivation has been a surefire firecracker down the ages, it's a damp squib here. And Anakin's attempt to butch up his voice sounds like a boy soprano trying to growl "Ol' Man River". "I have brought peace, freedom, justice, security to my new empire," he cackles, trying to sound like one pithed Sith. "If you're not with me, you are my enemy." Uh-oh. Anakin seems to be transmogrifying into Darth W Bush.
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes," scoffs Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Oh, put a lightsaber in it, will you? The allegedly anti-Bush "subtext" won Lucas the unlikely approval of the Cannes Film Festival crowd, but honestly: how desperate do you have to be to applaud mockery of Bush for seeing everything in black and white from a guy who's spent 38 years peddling a fairytale so basic the good guys and the bad guys are called the Good Side and the Dark Side.
Other enduring pop-culture yarns get going because some fellow comes up with an idea, rattles it off, no big deal — and, if it takes off and hangs around for a few decades, what began as necessary functional plot mechanisms gradually deepen and darken: hence, all those gloomy Batman "reinventions" in which the "dark knight" sits hunched in his cape on a Gotham City rooftop brooding over the death of his parents, his inability to form lasting relationships, etc. Many of us think the conversion of great junk into self-conscious art is not altogether a blessing, but nonetheless it reflects a basic truth: that simply by sticking around long enough, a two-dimensional comic-book character becomes real. With Star Wars, the opposite happened: over the decades, Lucas's characters grew more cardboard than ever. All his energy went into ever more elaborate computerized backdrops, while up front Obi and Anakin faded to ever more witless sharpie outlines. In 1977, the original movie said only that Darth Vader had been "seduced by the Dark Side of the Force". But Lucas can't do seduction: Anakin is played for a sap and suckered by Sidious. He's Dork Vader, all-time fall guy for the machinations of another. Even for a paint-by-numbers space opera, that doesn't pass muster.
The series' effects? If there were an Oscar for Best Shot Of A Sleek Silver Craft Shooting Through Space Toward A Distant Planet, Lucas would win them all. It's better to travel computer-generationally than to arrive a dialogue scene. As for the setpieces, they must have sounded great at the drawing-board stage, but they're a little fuzzy in execution. They never really leap out at you the way the Quidditch match in Harry Potter did. The ideas are neat - a planet where it's perpetually pissing down with rain - but, unconnected to plot point or character motivation or emotional moment, it remains just an effect. The space-age diner with an alien short-order cook was a nice touch, but also a poignant reminder of a much better Lucas film: American Graffiti (1973) - no money, great characters, muscular dialogue, terrific diners. A long time ago in a galaxy he'll never get back to.
But, to get back to where I came in, what do I know? Three stinkers in a row didn't kill Star Wars but only made it stronger. Driving back from Montreal last night, I crossed the border and a mile or two down I-91 was greeted by a roadside message from the Vermont Agency of Transportation:
DRINK AND DRIVE?
PATH TO DARKSIDE IT IS
There are times when I'd like to be in a galaxy far far away...