Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sith Sliding Away

There is a moment of dialog when Darth Vader sounds like George Bush and mutters, "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy," which comes off a bit unfair because most of the time our president sounds like Yoda – "Freedom, weapons of mass destruction is." But if the moral glue between the latest three Star Wars films and the original ones is (besides the importance of familial microcholridians) that there are shades of grey then my opinion of the last film is also in that murky limbo.

The film is about a man struggling to manage his career with his impending fatherhood and making some rather bad choices. Puff Daddy Vader is Othello in a galaxy far, far away. Not only because both rolls have been played by James Earl Jones, but because they share a nasty temper. No one criticizes Shakespeare on plausibility, but basically one misplaced handkerchief leads to a large body count. Lucas has better special effects, not all of which go into Natalie Portman's hairstyles, to make that same character transition, but lacks the playwright's language even if he did get the author of Shakespeare in Love to assist him with the script.

There was no help for the acting.

I think the first three films worked the best because Lucas had the fortune of casting two of the most archetype actors of the last century – the thespian's thespian in Alec Guinness and the intellectual action star in Harrison Ford. I think only Larry O. and Bogart would have been better, but I don't think either would have worked for scale. Ewan McGregor's wonderful smile is perfect when singing Elton John love songs to Nicole Kidman, but comes off as out of place as Chewbacca doing a cell phone commercial. It is a hard film when I think the actor that does his best work is R2D2.

So while I don't think Lucas did a very good job of capturing Shakespeare's themes, he does a much better job of playing to the front of the audience. The effects are amazing to the point that unbelievable becomes real. For the first film he had to put a couple of fur suits on elephants from Marine World to create mounts for sand people, but now he lives in a world of pixels where someone can ride on a lizard and there are neither wires nor seams to see. The animated character of General Grievous is so well done that we forget than he is descent of the same technology that gave us Jar Jar Binks and Ally McBeal's Dancing Baby.

Yet at times the technology almost too dominated the film – I think Lucas would love to replace everyone in the cast with robots if he could. (I see the continued casting of Jude Law in movies (but not in this one) as part of the same larger trend).

I went back to see the original's light saber battle and while it looked so grounded, because it was after all two old guys just taking hacks at each other, it felt more emotionally fulfilling. Now the rattling of swords are almost secondary to the mid air flips. The fencing has been reduced to rhythm gymnastics, and has the same gravitas shift from a battle where warriors clash to a competition where costumes matter. The Lord of the Rings is such a superior filmmaking effort not because Legolas can do a better triple pike, but because Peter Jackson has the common sense to use the effect sparingly. In one of his better sword fight plays, Hamlet, Bill wrote, "brevity is the soul of wit," and George seemed to miss all three – the brevity, the soul and the wit.

The best that can be said is that we get closure on that far away land (far better than we will ever get in Iraq). There is no surprise that Vader is going to have twins, but it was nice to know why Luke got screwed with being stranded on a desert planet with the last name equivalent of Stalin, and Leia got to be a princess. I think this movie has a great sequence for the fate of the various Jedi, which is better than anything in the prior two films, and seeing the helmet put on Vader is more devastating than any of the carnage done to a death star.

I am not with the new film nor am I its enemy; I am not Mark Anthony seeking to bury Lucas nor praise him. The movie is worth a couple of hours of summertime and the price of a ticket, but I don't think it will linger in my subconscious. Perhaps it is the final end of the nostalgia for being a child during the seventies, that I, too, like Vader will need to put on the heavy gear of responsibly and sigh frequently at work. But I think that there still will be magic out there, even if I have to wait a few more weeks for the next thing at the multiplex.