Star Wars I-VI Project: Episodes III-IV

This was always the tricky double feature of this exercise, and, once I decided that I wasn’t going to watch all six of these movies in one sitting, it was actually the reason I didn’t really want to do three back-to-back viewings. Doing Episodes I and II together made sense, even if it’s a nasty four hours. And I’m looking forward to The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, which features everyone else’s favorite movie of the series and my traditional favorite movie of the series. But this one is awkward, and my plan, after suffering through Episode III (and trying to figure out how I felt about it besides “Hayden Christiansen is back on the hook”), was to watch Star Wars like it was the first time I’d seen it. (It’s not.) As I’ve mentioned in podcasts, my film reviewing ethos is to think about how well something has aged, or trying to predict what will age well or age poorly; this is a mild rejection of the point of view.

Making Episode III must have felt not unlike being down by like, six runs in the bottom of the ninth. It’s not that it’s totally out of the question to come back for a miraculous victory, but most of the people in the dugout are going to feel the letdown. After the perceived disaster of Episode I (which, as I’ve argued, has been totally overblown), and the genuine disaster of Episode II (which, if anything, is probably undersold), Episode III had nowhere to go. Everyone was always going to see Revenge of the Sith, but nobody was going in and saying, “This one’s going to be different.”

Here’s something I wrote for my last (first?) installment of this writing trilogy:

It’s sort of like watching the World Series of Poker on television: by knowing what everyone’s cards are, it’s much easier to follow, but it’s harder to build suspense when you know from the get-go that one guy has pocket aces.

This was my description of watching The Phantom Menace, but it could just have easily been applied to Attack of the Clones (which it sort of was), and it was what dominated my mind through my entire viewing of Revenge of the Sith. The key moment for me is the one where Anakin reports to Mace Windu that Chancellor Palpatine is, in fact, the Sith lord that they’ve been trying to hunt down since The Phantom Menace. Windu takes a team of three other Jedi – who are dispatched, like, weirdly quickly – before finally disarming Palpatine. Anakin, who has been ordered not to come, tries to convince Windu not to kill Palpatine, argues that the chancellor must be brought to trial. Windu disagrees, and so Anakin makes a move against Windu, leaving Palpatine just enough wiggle room to blast Windu out the window. This is the moment on which,  I think, the entire series pivots. (The new movie/trilogy which debuts in a week’s time might change the pivot point, but until then, this is the hour.) If Mace Windu strikes down Palpatine, then there is no Galactic Empire, no Order 66, no Darth Vader, no Death Star. Perhaps even the Sith are eliminated for good. The stakes are never higher than they are at this point. Everyone in the theater or at home on their couches should be standing up and going, “Holy crap! What’s going to happen! Everything depends on this moment!” But no one’s doing that. Everyone’s going, “Gee, I wonder how Palpatine is going to sneak out of this one?” It takes a scene that should be absolutely spellbinding and turns it into a scene that has nothing to drive our interest, other than to see what terrible way Mace Windu will die. Even as he stands over Palpatine with that purple lightsaber, we know he’s going to get blown away. And it happens, and the net change is almost insignificant.  The focus of the scene was never on how important this moment is in the Star Wars universe; it becomes trivia, a footnote: “How did Mace Windu die?”

The prequels had two problems, and while one of them is well-reported in the extreme, the other is brought up far less frequently. Just about everyone has discussed, some way or another, how the prequels simply didn’t live up to the first three movies. And that’s fair, because the original trilogy is better than the prequels both in the aggregate and on individual bases. But the problem with this line of thought is that, because people loved the original trilogy so much, I don’t think anything was going to live up to their expectations. (Regardless of whether or not The Force Awakens is a better movie than Revenge of the Sith, say, people are going to like the former more than the latter because it has Han Solo, X-wings, and a heavy helping of Abrams-fanservice.) But it’s far more interesting to read into the Star Wars prequels and wonder about how someone can build suspense (read: genuine audience interest) when everyone knows that Jake Lloyd is going to become David Prowse with James Earl Jones’ voice. That was the real problem all along: it was more than just the bad dialogue (and gadzooks, is Revenge of the Sith an offender when it comes to bad dialogue – somehow it’s even worse than Attack of the Clones!). No matter how shocking it is that Yoda can bounce around and fight with a lightsaber, or how surprising it is that Dooku gets offed in the first twenty minutes of Episode III after looking like he was going to matter for a while in Episode II, or how awesome it is that Qui-Gon and Darth Maul have a crazy battle at the end of Episode I, we all know the outcome: Qui-Gon and Maul aren’t going to make it to Star Wars, and neither was Dooku, and Yoda’s lightsaber isn’t going to stop the Emperor and Vader from installing the Empire while he’s in self-imposed exile on Dagobah. When the ending is already part of who the viewers are as people – and there may not be a film franchise that defines individual identity quite as pervasively or popularly as Star Wars – then the culmination of actions which create that end must be sparkling, be interesting for reasons beyond the fact that they are bulletpoints on the plot outline.

It’s almost impossible to watch Revenge of the Sith out of context, but it’s actually relatively easy to watch Star Wars that way. (Duh.) Trying to watch it without knowing certain facts – that Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, for instance – is difficult. I confess that I found myself wondering about Force sensitivity, for example (it’s never explicitly stated that Han couldn’t become a Jedi if he wanted to work at it), or about how Obi-Wan must have spent about nineteen years in the Jundland Wastes, wondering about the great risk of teaching a nineteen-year-old the ways of the Force when the nine-year-old he taught decades ago became the hammer of the Sith. But I tried real hard. And from there I tried to get beyond the mere “Wow this is cool!” reaction and on to something different; ironically, the “different” idea I landed on had to do with what got me into the movie in the first place.

When The West Wing came on television when I was much younger, my dad and my older brother were both big fans, and taped all the episodes. I would be forced to go upstairs (read: incredibly bored) while they watched, which vexed me, because upstairs was less entertaining than downstairs.

“I don’t like The West Wing,” I said to my mom once.

“Why not?”

“It’s not very colorful,” I said. I don’t know that as an elementary schooler I could express that “This show is filled with concepts that I don’t understand and thus cannot get into,” but I could express that one of the key colors of that program, which seems to take place mostly in fluorescent lighting at around 4:30 on an afternoon in late December, was ochre. 

“It’s a colorful show for adults,” my mom said, a little cryptically.

Star Wars has never received that criticism from me: the planetary sameness principle that dominates the Star Wars universe is one of my favorite issues to bring up about the franchise, but what it does marvelously is inflect the screen with overwhelming color. There couldn’t be a more different setting from Tatooine’s sandy, coruscating, burned orange than the gray and black sheen of the Death Star, unless you count the healthy emerald canopies of Yavin IV. A short list of favorites:

  • the lightsabers – the unreplicated white-blue of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber, the red (who knew it would be red?!) of Darth Vader’s.
  • the lasers – all orange for blasters and Rebel spaceships, but green for Imperial spaceships, so that makes sense
  • the red of the targeting computer in Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced x1, which alternately glows on the bottom of his helmet or shows the nifty little design of Y-Wings or X-Wings trying not to get blown up, has always struck me. It’s even more striking with the jet black background in his cockpit – this says nothing about the fiery explosions in the black of space or on the gray of the Death Star.
  • the white-armored stormtroopers surrounding Darth Vader in that iconic black costume.
  • even the droids provide splashes of color: C-3PO and R2-D2 are totally different colors than anything else in this movie, and they look different.

As a director, and especially as a director in the 1970s, George Lucas’ movies were so good at using color. This sounds lame, and yet it’s massively important for a film that wants to tell a story visually first, audibly second. I’ve been on the record saying this since I was a kid, but while the special effects in Star Wars aren’t state of the art at all, they still look good in the present day; they don’t look cheap. In terms of using special effects to move a story, Star Wars is in elite company, unsurpassed by any other film, with the possible exception of Avatar. Avatar is maybe the most impressive movie of the 21st Century so far, the feelies from Brave New World come to life, but it’s impressive in a totally different way than Star Wars is. Avatar is every bit as animated as a Disney movie, and the fact that a movie can look that good when so little of it was filmed in like, the real world, is stunning. That, of course, is the problem with the movie: it’s so good and so obviously fabricated that the viewer exerts oodles of energy thinking about the guy at the computer who had to put it all together. Star Wars, with its reliance on models, provides the viewer just a shade more realism: someone had to make the Tantive IV with his bare hands in a way that the Hallelujah Mountains simply weren’t created. For me, at least, this is more inviting; it’s easier to buy into something “realistic” when you can imagine how it was made. All of this is, basically, just to say that the look of a Star Destroyer is so much more important than any line of dialogue that happens in the Mos Eisley Cantina. People didn’t come for the dialogue, and they didn’t stay for it either. “May the Force be with you” is an easier vocal handshake than the way one feels watching the camera swoop into the Death Star trench, but I’ll tell you what, I could watch – and have watched – that suicide mission over and over again, and it’s as exciting and stirring as an adult as it was as a kid.

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