I appreciate that a number of readers have pored their way through the many thousands of words that make up my Star Wars at 30 series, and some may disagree with how I’ve scored the films. The biggest headache must be the way I’ve rated the prequels comparably with the original trilogy, which suggests they’re as good, and in some cases better, than Episodes IV - VI. Perhaps a little more explanation is needed, and this brief article attempts to do exactly that.
First, it must be understood that these reviews represent my opinion. I don’t claim to be any kind of authority on the Wars. I like the movies, enough to read further on the saga and win frequently during games of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit (granted, this is often when playing my seven year-old Boy, but it’s all good). Basically, I call them as I see them. My belief is that the entire saga contains just one genuine classic, whilst the others have either diminished over time, or weren’t all that good to begin with.
I would also argue that the prequels generally weren’t quite the betrayal by Lucasfilm that harsher critics would have us believe. None of the three expensive movies deserve any kind of canonisation, and it speaks volumes that I consider the Clone Wars cartoon series to deserve its place within the series. But dire they most certainly weren’t. Even Episode I has its moments, though I consider it to be the least of the bunch, and unfortunately set the tone for fans’ feelings over the other two in the series.
The thing is I watch the saga in sequence, and find A New Hope to be overly simplistic, and identify the flaws in Return of the Jedi as overshadowing much of the good it does. Are these films really miles better than the prequels? I think not. They have little of the plotting complexities that lie beneath Episodes I - III, rarely rising above a rather black and white good versus evil trilogy. The other virtue of the pre-Empire yarns is that they shift the emphasis of the story, placing the focus firmly on Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader’s progress, from his innocent youth to ultimate redemption. Rarely has a movie character undergone such a journey through the fires of hell, and this in films often derided as childrens’ fare.It’s the prequels that do this, filling in the Dark Lord’s ambiguities to cast a new light on someone who started his celluloid life as the quintessential baddie. Watching Darth in the original Star Wars, it’s impossible to believe that here’s a figure with genuine depth. He’s bad to the core, and though there’s nothing wrong with showing us an irredeemable villain, the trilogy goes much further, making him three dimensional, whatever one says about the acting of Hayden Christensen.
In any case, and whilst trying to put out of my mind the ‘no stars’ shambles that it is the Star Wars Holiday Special, we reach the lowest rated of the movies, the commercially massive and critically reviled The Phantom Menace. It has its moments, but TPM remains a massive disappointment, mainly because Lucas intentionally plumped for a kids flick whilst paying the lightest of lip service to his long haul supporters. I think it was Alan Hansen who once said you don’t win anything with kids, and here it proves to be the case. Jake Lloyd, who was ten when the movie hit the screens, looks like he has a lot of fun portraying Anakin as a child, yet his is a thankless task, transforming Darth Vader into an annoying, all-American munchkin, which looks wrong even as a set of words on the screen. It just about stays within the realms of plausibility that he wins the pod race on Tatooine. However, once his larking around in space leads to him destroying the enemy starship, any viewer’s patience must have been stretched to breaking point. Throw in Jar Jar Binks (who is conspicuously reduced to cameo roles after TPM), a Jedi Council that does nothing but sit around prissily, spectacularly dull scenes set on Coruscant, acting that shows clear signs of nerves at being set against a green screen, Liam Neeson never looking that interested in his work, and the usual lame gags, and it’s obvious the film is in trouble. The proceedings are very nearly saved by the late appearance by Darth Maul, his sizzling lightsabre battle, and some rather gorgeous effects that are occasionally mixed in with the inspired use of Cesena’s Royal Palace as a location. None of these are quite enough. It’s Jake and Jar Jar that set the tone, and TPM gets a shabby two Darths for its trouble.
Ironically, the poorest entry after the first chapter is its finale. I struggled to complete my piece on Return of the Jedi. Trust me, the finished article here took days of ironing out, editing and omitting massive swathes of text as I tried to stay on track, at one point refusing to enter into an extended rant about a film I first saw when I was ten turning out to be so diminished when I sat through it last week. It’s true though. Of the three classics, this one has lost much of its impact over the years, and I’m quite staggered to find it occupies (at the time of writing) 110th place on the IMDb Top 250. Fargo and Donnie Darko are immediately behind it - where’s the justice? I expect it’s so highly thought of thanks mainly to nostalgia. The movie I remember is a lot better than the one I watched recently, and no amount of Lucas’s tinkering with the effects can have nosedived it so much. The impression I got this time was of a fairly flimsy piece of work. Once I cut out the stuff that wasn’t essential to the overall direction of the plot, there wasn’t much left, though it remains an entertaining romp for the most part. I also had massive problems with the Ewoks - at least you didn’t get a Jar Jar spin-off movie sloping on to the screen. As the episode that supposedly culiminates all the narrative strands, Return just about does its job, yet it has little of the power of, say, The Return of the King, which had Frodo literally crawling through the dirt to complete his errand.
More heavy going, and certainly the darkest of the saga, is Revenge of the Sith. There’s something quite tragic about Episode III, and I do not speak of the sombre mood at its close. For me, an absolute masterpiece of a movie lies at its heart - the effects are logically never better, it contains an opening scene of utter elan, and the turning of Anakin to the dark side carries massive emotional weight despite the way it happens. It remains stuck on three Darths because its technical achievements aren’t matched by its telling. Someone should have taken George Lucas to one side before production started and made it clear that writing and directorial duties ought to be handed over. In Lucas’s hands, the plot turns on too many inconsistencies, and potentially dramatic scenes have little of the power they ought to possess in spades. We’re talking about a massive exchange of power here, one that takes place after years of underhand tactics and the genocide of the Jedi. The story ought to tell itself. Yet it’s never as good as it could have been, and that’s a real shame. I would love to have seen ROTS in the hands of Bryan Singer or Christopher Nolan, proven hands at fantasy storytelling with a real flair for uncovering layers of plot. As it is, the film just about survives, but it’s no more than decent, when there’s enough narrative material to make for an utter gem.
A degree of class comes in the shape of A New Hope, the one that sparked the saga. As a story, it’s distinctly lightweight. The goodies stay good. The baddies are never less than rotten, which means the film relies on its degree of suspense, and the fledgling special effects. Thankfully, both are fantastic, and the latter almost impossibly realised for their time. That first glimpse of the enormous Star Destroyer looming overhead, obliterating any reasonable sense of scale, retains a great level of dramatic might even on the small screen, and the movie is filled with similar delights throughout. I love the scene where the Millennium Falcon is tractor beamed into the Death Star. As John Williams’s score thunders, the ship suddenly looks quite tiny as it is sucked relentlessly into the station. In 1977, you just didn’t see this kind of thing - it’s still good now. Much has been made of the fact that ANH’s worlds, spaceships and even its people look lived in, as though the movie is taking a peek into a galaxy that has worked for many centuries. Added to that are some excellent characters - evil Darth Vader, idealistic Luke Skywalker, prim C-3PO, and cynical, sarcastic smuggler, Han Solo. Carrie Fisher plays Princess Leia as sharp-tongued, quick-witted enough to match her beauty. She’s far from the screaming, wilting damsen in distress that her character might have been. Towering over everything is Sir Alec Guinness, injecting masterly class into his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s ‘Ben’ who does the most to imply a massive expanded universe that lies beyond the film, and therefore it’s him we must thank for instilling a desire to find out what happens next, and what took place beforehand. All this hides a movie that is really quite simplistic and obvious. You know just where the story’s going, and you’re never in much doubt over who’s who. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though a little like seeing a Jerry Bruckheimer offering, you might end up wondering where the substance is behind all that style.
Next up, Attack of the Clones, a controversial choice given the amount of flak it’s received. Yes, I agree that the Anakin-Padme scenes are generally horrible, another instance of Lucas entering into the sort of narrative waters he should have left well alone. Look beyond that, though, and you have an absolute joy of a movie, rollicking good fun from start to finish, and with a real sting in its tail. Though Hayden Christensen may struggle through his lines with Natalie Portman (she looks good, but she sure can’t say that shit), his banter with Obi-Wan is edgy and enjoyable, and the dynamic betwen the pair is never less than fun. Looking at it, Christensen really did have a poisoned chalice of a role. He has to speak in a kind of laconic drawl in a callow attempt to emulate Darth Vader’s deep tones. Because Luke has been told he was much like his father, he has to often appear whiney and impatient. It’s no fun being Anakin, especially when he has to woo a wooden Padme against the neutral green screen. Beyond that, you get Obi-Wan being embroiled in something of a ripping yarn as he gradually uncovers the killing of an assassin. What he discovers has a ripple effect throughout the movie as he finds himself more and more out of his depth, learning things about the Republic that were clearly meant to be kept a secret. Throw in his fight with the resourceful Jango Fett, and his verbal sparring with Count Dooku, and you have a riveting plotline. Christopher Lee adds gravitas as the stately Dooku, presiding over an exhilerating battle that brings a long awaited massive Jedi attack to the screen, not to mention the moment when Yoda gets to wield a sabre. It all looks great, and even then the movie has a final twist to offer, when we learn that the Jedi have been puppets all along, caught up in the scheming of Darth Sidious. Obviously someone who could teach Richard Nixon a thing or two about labyrinthine cover-ups, the Sith Lord’s machinations are so dense and precise that even when the film ends on the dawning of the Clone War, his alter ego, Chancellor Palpatine, is little more than a figure of vague mistrust, with his umasking some distance away.
Perhaps part of AOTC’s success is that it doesn’t need to introduce a new story, nor does it have to wrap things up. As the bridging episode, it can weave its yarn and exit stage left, the tension cranked up and a job well done. The same is even truer for The Empire Strikes Back, which is not only the best of the saga, but a great flick in its own right. If ever I get round to producing my Top 100, hell, my Top Ten even, it would be there, a true masterpiece that ticks all the boxes. Tellingly, Lucas supplied the story, with others writing the script and directing the project. Craftsmen with more of a grasp for snappy dialogue and well paced action that adds several notches to the tension with each passing scene are given more of a handle, which only benefits the finished product. Added to that are actors with a good feel for their characters, excellent effects, and a reining in of the cast of a thousand extra monsters. By the end of Empire, everyone - and I’d include Darth in this - has been on an emotional rollercoaster. They’re all damaged in some way, which builds up the suspense perfectly for the closing chapter. A pity about that one, but even with ROTJ’s flaws taken into consideration, the momentum carried from Episode V ensures it’s never that bad.
A quick shout out also for the Clone Wars cartoons, which on a miniscule budget next to the movies somehow turned out to be entirely at home with their more illustrious companions. Genndy Tartakovsky really ought to get back to wrapping up Samurai Jack, but in the meantime this more than does, a glance at each principal’s part in the war that moves at breakneck speed and shows just why the Jedi are guardians of the Old Republic.
We have more to come from the Wars. 2008 will see a new and allegedly improved edition of the Clone Wars hitting our television screens. From the looks of things, this will be a far more stately affair than the Cartoon Network filler, expanding both the universe and the characters involved. I’m looking forward to it in the same way as anything connected to the Wars makes me sit up and pay attention. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that and had my hopes cruelly dashed. Let’s hope those days ended with Lucas’s days as a director.