Wednesday, May 25, 2005

George Lucas Is Darth Vader

I know I've been rather slow with coming up with posts of late. This is not for lack of ideas. In addition to a score of incomplete posts, I'm presently working on a substantial book review involving complicated ideas that require explanation.

In the meantime, I hope a short topical comment can tide you over. It's difficult, even for someone as isolated from popular culture as I, to miss the advent of the latest and final installment of George Lucas's Star Wars films. A work associate of mine evaluated the film thusly: the special effects were stupendous, not only in themselves, but also because they crowd out the wooden dialogue that plagued the previous two films. (He's a big fan and plans to go back several times.) Admittedly I haven't seen the film (I bailed out after Episode I), but I am toying with the idea of seeing it on the big screen for the SFX.

I thought this would make a great occasion to step back and think about the artistic arc of the whole Star Wars enterprise. Like so many children of the day, I could only find the first film enchanting. I disliked The Empire Strikes Back initially; it took me several years to arrive at my current position: that it was by far the best of the bunch.

The series took a serious dive with Return of the Jedi (1983). As a teenager, I didn't see a reason that the film didn't meet my inflated expectations, but in retrospect, it's apparent that in this film Lucas began to engage in what Mel Brooks's parody of Yoda called "moichandizing":

Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made. Spaceballs-the T-shirt, Spaceballs-the Coloring Book, Spaceballs-the Lunch box, Spaceballs-the Breakfast Cereal, Spaceballs-the Flame Thrower.

Ten years later, the New York Times's Stephen Holden put it this way:

In one sequence after another, you can sense that the story is being compressed to make room for increasingly flashy special effects. No sooner have the characters landed on that moon (a spot that bears more than a passing resemblance to Northern California) than the narrative comes to a dead halt, so the characters can be shown scooting around a redwood forest on jet-propelled air sleds.

It is also at this point that the trilogy's fascination with alien life forms turns mushy and cute with the entrance of the Ewoks. Those plucky little teddy bears with their bows and arrows belong more to the world of "The Wizard of Oz" (or on safari with Abbott and Costello) than in a "Star Wars" movie.

I've heard that Lucas had originally planned to have the wookies (Chewbacka's people) fill the role that the Ewoks occupied. Holden exceeds his insightful comments on Jedi with a broader cultural perspective on the trilogy:

One way to look at the story is that "Star Wars," which was released midway between the heyday of hippie culture and the rise of the yuppie, looks in both directions at once and decides to have it both ways. The story is an elegy to a hippie dream of a planet saved by flower children wielding light sabers. At the end, Luke, the idealistic peacenik who rejects anger and hate, so moves his square, warmongering father, Darth, that the father impulsively saves his son's life (and sacrifices himself) by killing his evil imperial boss. The hippies take over, Dad dies and the world is made safe for peace and love to triumph.

But in unraveling its sci-fi dream, the "Star Wars" trilogy did more than any films in the history of Hollywood to dehumanize movies by ushering in the brave new world of "Mortal Kombat," Terminators, "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and "Independence Day," with its plastic little humans staring up at a new and scarier version of the fearsome Death Star.

The transformation from imaginative storytelling to extended infomercial was complete by Episode I: Phantom Menace: in contests pointless to the plot, the main character was a child through whom audience of children triumphed vicariously. And not coincidentally these same children would be the ones to buy (with their parents money) the video game-versions of these contests. (It is interesting to note that before World War II, businesses never advertised directly to children. There was wisdom in this forebearance.)

Change in the aim of an artist necessarily accompanies change his worldview. Episode I also reduced the religious mysticism that transfused the original film ("the Force") into biological mechanism ("mitichlorians") as well as flattened the backstory (i.e., "layering"). While I'm certainly no fan of new-age religion, these two ingredients gave the films a sense of authenticity, as if the characters occupied a real three-dimensional world, instead of a paper-thin video-game backdrop.

Lucas's evolution from underdog filmmaker to ruler of a mechanized commercial empire roughly parallels Anakin's transformation from childlike innocence into the imperious Darth Vader.

Mel Brooks, Spaceballs (1987).

Stephen Holden, "The Euphoria of the Force, or, So Long, Darth Vader and Company," New York Times. (New York, N.Y.: Mar 14, 1997, late edition), p. C3.


Lawrence Gage said...

There's a reason they chose someone as wooden as Hayden Christensen to play Manakin Skywalker.

Lawrence Gage said...

Clever review by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang:

Making sense of "Matrix Revolutions"