Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas...?

My visit to "Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars" earlier this week reminded me of the two nights I spent sleeping on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., in anticipation of Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace. My friend, Justen Bennett-Macubbin, a Star Wars mega-fan, persuaded me to join him and his friends as a placeholder in the middle of the night. I enjoyed both nights immensely, and put together a thick album of photos (which I will someday scan but ...)

Anyway, that experience led to two articles for The Metro Herald, one about the crowds of fans lined up to get tickets and see the movie, the other a review of the film itself.

To my disappointment, I have been unable to unearth copies of those two articles.

I was somewhat relieved to find my review of Star Wars - Episode II: The Attack of the Clones, which I wrote immediately after seeing the movie in May 2002. I decided to reprint it here in an attempt to make up for my tongue-in-cheek comments about "mothers' basements" in my previous post.

So here is that review, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on May 17, 2002:

Star Wars Episode II: Far Exceeding Expectations
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Although 1999's The Phantom Menace was anticipated more eagerly, fans of George Lucas’s Star Wars series will have their best expectations exceeded when they see Episode II: The Attack of the Clones, which opened on thousands of screens nationwide on May 16.

Three years ago, The Metro Herald ran two lengthy reports about the hordes of fans camped out on the sidewalk outside Washington’s Uptown Theatre, awaiting both ticket sales and the first showing of the long-delayed “prequel” to the Star Wars trilogy that debuted in 1977 with Episode IV: A New Hope. That movie – starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Alec Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi – was a great risk for its producers and its visionary director, George Lucas.

Science-fiction films had not had much success in the years preceding Star Wars’ initial release. But Lucas wanted to put on the screen his vision of a “space Western” that also conveyed broad ideas of the great myths of human history, as explained by classicist Joseph Campbell. He used archetypal characters and images and came up with a story that resonated with audiences worldwide. It didn’t hurt that the United States was emerging from a dark era that included the Vietnam War, the shame of Watergate, and a faltering economy, and so could use a dose of good old-fashioned optimism.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace was delayed for some 16 years after the release of the third Star Wars film, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, because Lucas felt that filmmaking technology had to catch up to his creative vision. The film, though technically excellent, was greeted by fans and detractors alike with some indifference. Lucas was accused of writing a workaday script for wooden actors. The character of Jar-Jar Binks was widely derided.

It becomes clear with Episode II: The Attack of the Clones that Lucas was not being careless with his talent. With more subtlety than anyone could perceive, Lucas used Episode I to set the stage for the rest of the series. Episode II lets us in on the secret – sort of.

When I returned from Episode II after a midnight show on May 16, I immediately sent this e-mail to friends: “Don’t believe the naysayers: this is a far better movie than many people will give it credit for.”

Among other things, you’ll read the critics’ complaints about George Lucas’s screenplay. This is one of the most tightly scripted movies I’ve seen in recent years, on a par with The Sixth Sense and The Others in that regard. It is as well-written as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. When film critics accuse Lucas of settling for mediocre performances from his actors – some say he actually ignores his actors completely – they forget that, for Lucas, it’s all about the story. The actors play characters whose lines and actions advance the plot and take the story where it is meant to go. To that extent, they are either expendable or interchangeable. As long as they get their point across, Lucas has achieved his purpose through them.

Episode II continues many of the libertarian themes we saw in Episode I. Lucas uses this picture to paint “all politicians [as] corrupt,” and he tries to show how a Republic degenerates into Empire by way of corruption. (McCain-Feingold fans will enjoy a reference to the corrosive effect of campaign contributions, but I digress.)

Libertarians in particular will enjoy the lengthy debate about whether the Republic should establish a standing army, and the secessionist movement vaguely appears to be based on trade and tax issues. There are references to term limits, the dangers of concentrating too much power in an executive, a judicial system that fails to enforce laws, and the difficulty of maintaining republican government over large geographic (galactic?) regions. Already imbued with The Golden Bough, Lucas now seems to have been reading The Federalist.

Where the second trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and IV) was based on large mythological themes, this first trilogy is showing itself to be based as much on Plato's Republic as on tales of gods and heroes. And I don’t just mean in terms of politics – while Anakin Skywalker expresses support for the concept of a philosopher-king (in a conversation with Senator Amidala), he also demonstrates an inability to balance his passions, appetites, and reason.

Episode II is complex, multilayered, and interwoven with references to the previous and forthcoming episodes. Much of the layering occurs in visual language, but the screenplay itself includes it, too. By the climax of the movie, not only does the audience not know who the good guys and the bad guys are, neither do the good guys and the bad guys. Lucas has laid the foundations for a huge climax in Episode III, something we never would have known from Episode I.

A lot of the critics are selling Lucas short. Their inability to see beyond the surface – the special effects, the stilted language, and apparently two-dimensional characters – blinds them to the deeper complexities of Lucas’s vision.

If you haven’t seen Episode II yet, run, don’t walk, to your nearest cinema.
For those of you interested in my reaction to Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, take a look here, where I compare it to Downfall, the German film about the last days of Adolf Hitler.

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