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Raking the myth
A film review of STAR WARS III: REVENGE OF THE SITH by Camus
 
"I'll take the bad guy."
"Why?"
"Because people will remember him."
David Prowse, being given the choice by Star Wars writer/director
George Lucas, of playing Chewbacca or Darth Vader

 

He got that right, so much so that for the last six years the general public has been offered about seven hours of narrative telling how the big 'D.V.' started as a tritely unconvincing moppet called 'Annie' and ended up limbless and breathless in a black mask raving on in a newly acquired rich baritone. In between, I and III he was also unfailingly and utterly unconvincing as a troubled, pissed off, love-struck teen (that's a handicap more to do with the writing than the performances. Nathalie Portman can act. See Closer). Darth Vader has become the ultimate pop culture bad guy and if the Sith Lord were layered and Lucifer-like, I'd see what all the fuss is about. Alas. What all the fuss was about was the lightning-in-a-bottle that was 1977's Star Wars.

Star Wars was delicate tissue, as profound as a paddling pool aimed squarely at those about to paddle in it. But it struck a global nerve, all of our most trusted and loved myths in one giant confection of a movie? We couldn't resist. There was one man (Alan Ladd Jnr. of 20th Century Fox) who had faith. Everyone else at the studio would have bet their cars on 'The Star Wars' with Luke Starkiller, being a very miserable turkey. Empire? It was that same delicate tissue but this time four men and a woman built a metaphorical cardboard box around it to protect it; Irvin Kershner directed with soul and gave its universe some weight. Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan created dialogue, a structural integrity (based on Lucas' plan of course) and added depth, humour, sexiness and dare I say 'realism' to the characters. Gary Kurtz (please, let's not forget this man's contribution) produced both IV and V and it's been said that without Kurtz, Lucas would not have been Lucas. Let's also acknowledge the improvisational instincts of a certain Harrison Ford. Two of the stand out moments in IV were his creations; "Great kid, don't get cocky!" and "We're all fine here… Uh, how are you?" Boom! But Lucas didn't like the arrangement, giving his baby to be breastfed (and best fed) by other strong creative talents. In my opinion, the more you bring in creative talent, the better your creation gets. You still get the credit…

So for VI he dispensed with his previous collaborators (d'oh!) and hired a proxy, a director who would shoot the storyboards while Lucas directed him. This in turn tore the protective cardboard box away from what had been established leaving the tissue inside limp and unexciting. There were Ewoks and tiredness inherent in a second sequel. It just wasn't the same as of course it could never be. It really should have ended then. But, no. Its creator was overwhelmed and seduced by its awesome power and already richer than most countries, he began to plan the domination of the world's box office trading on emotions and attachments to something very special indeed, something forged a long time ago in a social and cultural climate far, far away. As far as I'm concerned, the prequels are the tattered, wet rags of that original tissue smashed to pieces by a gold brick the size of four by four. Lucas has brutalised his magic with digital cascades of detail. What're left are the silly names and a surfeit of fluorescent fighting.

Let's briefly re-visit the late seventies and rake the myth… November 17th 1978: not a significant date by any means. However, in Star Wars terms this was the 'Neil Kinnock's 'Alright!' pre-Labour party conference speech embarrassment moment, Michael Portillo's Stephen Twigg experience, the Brit awards' Jarvis Cocker's extemporaneously wriggling arse to the Christ-wannabe Michael Jackson débacle: this was, dare I suggest it, the Howard the Duck of the ongoing phenomenon that is Star Wars. It was a day that showed emphatically that with all the right ingredients and the oh-so very wrong approach, Star Wars can be painfully unfunny, painfully un-dramatic, painfully stupid and, uh, just downright painful. I am talking about the TV show George Lucas regrets above all others, the Star Wars Holiday Special. Granted, Lucas had nothing to do with the two hour X-Wing smash up which features Chewbacca's father (Itchy) and son (Lumpy) on their Life Day holiday. You're not a true Star Wars aficionado until you are clockwork oranged into a chair and forced to watch a thousand times the scene when Harrison Ford hugs each Wookie in turn (yes, all the original actors appeared in this wart on science fiction/fantasy's abnormally smooth backside). I am not making this up. I remember sitting there with my jaw on the carpet watching what looked like a colourful, kitsch autopsy on one of the defining moments in my cinema-going career. It was like watching a specially extended Godfather themed Beadle's About… "What Don Corleone doesn't know is that…"

So let's zoom forward to four days before I get to see the final Star Wars movie. I visit starwars.com and find to my righteous horror (and yes, I do appreciate how naïve that makes me) I see that those in charge of the franchise actually celebrate their promotional tie-ins. Oh, dark times… The Pringles' Jedi Challenge: Chewbacca grunting at a microphone creating ringtones: Yoda using the Force to steal a cheeseburger, fries and a Pepsi: Kellogs's Saberspoons. I'll say that again. Kellog's Saberspoons. Jesus, and all four Quicktime commercials are on the site, one seemingly thrilled with its own promotional achievements.

There is no doubt that George Lucas plays the Hollywood game as well as any because he has the financial independence, the rights to a major franchise (oh, the even worse naïveté than mine of those 20th Century Fox lawyers in 1976) and the basic clout to do whatever the hell he wants to do. Now, if there was some public announcement that 70% of what he stands to make with all these tie-ins goes to kids' education or African AIDS prevention then I would be less scathing but as it is, if this is George setting up his great-great grandson with all the dollars he could possibly need to pay for his great grandson's education, then that's when I become a little testy. Screw it. It's probably envy. But then again, not.

The talented film-maker George Lucas has been hoist by his own franchise. If it wasn't such a trite comparison, you could say that his own emigration to the dark side was almost complete. Web movie George Lucas In Love is a charming tale of how George might have gained his inspiration for his universe; now, how about a darker one detailing his fall from creative grace or (if you look at it from the other side) his astonishing rise to corporate mogul-hood? I can still admire Lucas (the way Doctor Who admires his villains) but I just have such little interest in his saga's new-found significance injected in narrative protest into his profoundly flimsy, fantasy tissue-thin milieu. At the San Francisco premiere of III, Lucas was going on about Iraq, his movies a warning to Bush that the dark side can quickly overwhelm those with good intentions. Excuse me? What does he think is happening to the world? There is no Millennium Falcon swooping in to save the day. Darth Vader is not Faust. As far as I can make out he's a spoiled teen whose telekinetic powers are wayward and unfocussed (and who's losing limbs are an alarming rate). Now there's depth. He's the love child of Stephen King's Carrie and hypnotist Paul McKenna and boy, can he sulk.

This isn't cynicism as such. It's almost a prolonged (28 years since the one and only Star Wars) and weary sadness. It's merely a theory that Lucas' wealth and power have isolated him to the world. He thinks he's created something with great lasting resonance. He did but that was in 1977. And it was a fantastic accident. It's 2005 now. Everyone has moved on. I mean, Lucas is still wearing the same clothes. Hey, it worked for Einstein and still works for Steve Jobs. To be fair to Lucas, his prequels didn't become colossal successes because of his built in loyal fan-base, those disgruntled folks (like myself) who now control the media and like to prequel-bash. They flew financially because the kids loved them. I still think that this generation of children's Star Wars is called The Lord of the Rings… Jackson's passion shone through in every frame of a great story in the same way that Lucas' original just warmed every cockle of every heart. If any of us in our late thirties to mid forties need to re-visit the last vestige of that sense of 'Wow!' then listening to the complete soundtrack will usually do it. Despite William's flagrant 'borrowings', the score will sit you in that late seventies seat and on hearing certain orchestrations, you will time travel if only for a fleeting second. It is extraordinarily powerful.

Yeah, I did all the stuff a 16 year-old did. I queued, I marvelled, I fell to the might of the phenomenon (and for good reason, Star Wars - or IV, ugh – allowed one of those moments in my personal cinematic history, falling in love with a strip of plastic, just under two miles long). Millions before me thousands of years ago fell for it too but then they weren't called Star Wars, they were called myths. Joseph Campbell, and his well-publicised tome on heroes around the world, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, was one of Lucas' primary sources in creating the melange of heroics that was the original Star Wars. So how far have we come since the Ewok party at the end of VI? Yuk, yuk indeed.

The Phantom Menace was a hollow disgrace, a plastic mish-mash of "Look what we can do!" special effects married to a human story of such vacuity and paper thin profundity that I was actually severely pissed off leaving Mann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles in 1999. Let's not bring up the subject of Jar Jar Binks or I shall really become upset. Damn, I already did. Attack of the Clones (apart from the awful dialogue and acting; has there ever been a less convincing cinematic romantic pairing?) was detail overkill. Again, because it is possible, does it mean it has to be done? The best parts of II were close ups of actors in a struggle of life and death. So I creep hesitantly towards III. I try not to pre-judge but I just know from the trailers that it will be over flowingly full of detail, something I usually champion but in Star Wars' case, a definite negative. I just want to care not to be awed by detail into a hissy fit. Someone give Lucas back some celluloid and an optical printer…

"Darth Farmer…"
Carrie Fisher's nickname for Vader on
hearing Prowse's west country accent.

And then the nub of the matter: who cares how Darth Vader became Darth Vader? It's a safe bet that the profundity and importance of Vader's origins is necessitated and dictated to by the direct proportion of the box office from the original trilogy. In other words, if Star Wars had tanked, Lucas would not have had a smidgeon of interest in telling Darth's story. So for all those burgers, Pepsis and ringtones that have to be sold, here's George's final opus, Revenge of the Sith.
 
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD:
 
As I feared, it's a digital explosion of detail so if you like that sort of thing, Sith is for you. The opening shot is a real stunner except that I want to be moved and I couldn't work out what the hell was going on. That's my problem. The work that has gone into this film is extraordinary on almost every level (EXCEPT the dialogue. "It's my point of view that the Jedi are evil," says Annakin as he floats down a lava river, sheesh). I may not like visual overkill but the talent on display here is wondrous. There are still a few too many digital human beings around but that's small potatoes. Annakin's turning to the dark side is so clumsily reasoned (the senator offers to teach him the dark art of resurrecting the dead so he happily slaughters all and sundry including children - it's a week for me of seeing movies with children being murdered, see Downfall). Oh, Lucas can't bring himself to call them children. They are 'younglings' - eeuch.

Sith is so full of wondrous machines, robots and digital sets that I had a little epiphany. In Star Wars, you knew who was who and you could work out which ship was which etc. You had the time to isolate your feelings for everything. Now Lucas will say that he wanted so much more for Star Wars but FX-wise, it wasn't possible. Thank you, Obi-Wan, for it not being possible. In Star Wars you love the Falcon, the X-Wings and the Imperial Fighters, damnit, even the bloody lightsabres. In Sith, you cannot get a single fix on any piece of hardware etc. because there's so much of it so it loses an individual identity. The characters are long gone in your mind if you've seen the other prequels and every time someone pulled out a lightsabre in Sith, I groaned.

Maybe I am just 'too old for this Sith'…

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

USA 20055
140 mins
director
George Lucas
producer
Rick McCallum
screenplay
George Lucas
cinematography
David Tattersall
editors
Roger Barton
Ben Burtt
music
John Williams
production design
Gavin Bocquet
starring
Ewan McGregor
Natalie Portman
Hayden Christensen
Ian McDiarmid
Samuel L. Jackson
Jimmy Smits
Frank Oz
Anthony Daniels
Christopher Lee
Bruce Spence
review posted
19 May 2005