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Sith Happens

March 11th, 2005

Last night saw the television premiere of the full trailer for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. It certainly looks incredible, though I’ve been fooled before.

I approach this “final” chapter with a mixture of anticipation, dread and ennui. (Is that even possible?) Star Wars has been a significant part of my life for so long that a part of me can’t help but be excited by the opportunity to visit that universe one last time, yet, like many others, I’ve found myself generally disappointed with these prequel films.

The original Star Wars premiered at a time when I really needed it. It was 1977, and I was twelve years old and miserable. It’s a familiar story–awkward and ostracized child falls in love with a fantasy world–so I’ll spare you the details. The important thing is that Star Wars gave me something to daydream about and fueled my creativity. I spent my junior high and high school years rattling on with my geeky friends about such burning issues as whether Boba Fett was “the Other.”

When Return of the Jedi debuted in 1983, with it came the word from George Lucas that he was taking some time off from the Saga. This was a matter of great concern: would he ever complete all nine films? Would I live long enough to see them?

Years passed. I saw Lucas in person at the 10th anniversary Star Wars convention, when he promised that he would return one day to the galaxy far, far away. Though, he joked, not before he completed one more Indiana Jones film and eight more Howard the Ducks. It was funny at the time.

Still more years passed. Hasbro began making new action figures to swell the ranks of my collection. Post-Jedi continuations began to roll off a literary assembly line, but no movies were in sight.

Finally, there came the Announcement. The rumors were over, and production of Episode I was underway! Again came the anticipation and the geek chatter, but with it a certain fear. I recall a disturbing dream in which I went to the premiere only to realize that the film was terrible. Little did I know…

Meanwhile, the luster began to wear off what had been my unconditional love for Lucas and his world. First, there were the “special editions” of the old trilogy. Digitally pissing over my childhood wouldn’t have been so bad if Lucas, the film preservation activist, hadn’t attempted to ensure that his own movies would never again be seen in their original form. Then came the word that the nine films had been cut to six. Actually, there’d never been any plan for nine films, Lucas told us. Just ignore the dozens of interviews he did in 1977. Historical revisionism became one of the prime exports from Skywalker Ranch.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in May, 1999. I drove out with my friend Doug to the Lorraine Theatre, an old movie house in the middle of nowhere which just happened to have the best sound system in Illinois. At last, I would have a chance to relive the excitement of seeing a new Star Wars film for the first time!

You can guess what happened next. About 15 minutes in, nagging questions began to invade my thoughts. “What’s with these Yellow Peril aliens?” “What the hell is Jar Jar saying?” “Why is it that no one seems to be having any fun?” “What the hell is Jar Jar SAYING?”

It was a shock. I had fully expected to stay for the second show, but found myself driving back to Champaign, wondering what had happened. Emperor Palpatine had no clothes.

My wife likes to say that George Lucas is a hack and a ne’er-do-well. I always respond, “He’s not a ne’er-do-well. American Graffiti was good.” But I find that I have to admit the part about the hack.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Lucas’ film successes have been happy accidents, owing to a combination of outside help, budget constraints and blind luck. It’s telling that as he’s gained the technical freedom to tell exactly the story he wants, the story itself has become less satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. I still give Lucas his due; he changed the ways in which movies are made and marketed, and he’s done a great deal to further their technical advancement. And I still love Star Wars, despite his best efforts. Whatever disappointments the prequels have presented, there are moments and creations within them that are as wonderful as anything from the old films.

I believe that there are two primary reasons that the prequels haven’t engaged me as much as the classic trilogy. (Three, if you count the fact that I’m now 40 years old instead of twelve.) First, it’s difficult to relate to these new characters. A collection of nobles and royals, their interactions are formal and stilted. There’s no haughty Princess Leia or wisecracking Han Solo to prick their pomposity.

Second, and perhaps most damaging, is that the story revolves around Anakin Skywalker, a highly unlikable person whose “hero’s journey” has taken him from dull child to sullen teen and now to psychopathic Jedi-killer. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, and later Han Solo (once I realized that Han had the cooler ship, the cooler companion, and the girl). I can’t imagine wanting to be Anakin. “Mommy, when I grow up I want to slaughter my friends and rule the Empire with an iron fist!” I’m uncertain how I feel about his adventures. Should I root for young Anakin in the Podrace? Or would it be more appropriate to hope that he suffers a fatal crash? Can I be invested in his romance with Padme, even though I know that the path inevitably leads to bitter tragedy?

Maybe that sense of tragedy is the real problem with the prequels. The first Star Wars was a ray of hope in the aftermath of the turbulent Vietnam War. These films, however, seem to verify the unpleasant truths around us: that politicians are inevitably corrupt and manipulative, that “freedom” is an illusion crafted to meet their ends. Institutions crumble and good people die. Things might work out in the end, but in this case, the end was more than twenty years ago.

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