Friday, September 17, 2004

'Star Wars' isn't king anymore

—Originally published 9.17.04

I remember how excited I was for the theatrical re-release of George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy back in 1997. My friends and I bought tickets early and sat outside the theater for more than an hour playing cards, just to make sure we got the seats we wanted.

And I remember how excited I was when the "special edition" was released later that year on VHS (boy, do those three letters seem like they came from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). I put an advance payment down a month early and picked them up the day they came out.

Now, as we near yet another release of the trilogy -- this time on the infinitely superior DVD format -- it's surprising to me that I could really care less.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure the box set will end up on my shelf at some point, if for no other reason than to watch them in widescreen with surround sound (the old VHS are pan and scan and will never look or sound as good).

It would stand to reason that movies I loved as a child shouldn't grab me the same way as an adult. And that's a good thing -- I like movies now that I never would have sat through 10 years ago.

But simple maturity isn't the reason, either, because I still like the first two "Die Hard," "Terminator" and "Alien" movies; the quality of their craftsmanship appeals to both raging-hormone teenagers and hoity-toity movie critics.

No, the real reason for my lack of enthusiasm boils down to two entities: The "Star Wars" prequels and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

First, those dreadful prequels:

Other than last year's "Matrix" sequels, I can think of no other movies in my lifetime that came with so much hype and turned out so badly. With every film he makes, Lucas is looking more and more like The Luckiest Man of All Time. The original "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" -- particularly the latter -- are excellent films; but things started to slip with the fuzzy-wuzzy "Return of the Jedi" and collapsed with the phenomenon known as Jar Jar Binks from 1999's prequel "The Phantom Menace."

Although there was mercifully little Jar Jar in 2002's "Attack of the Clones," the movie was still a clunker, bogged down by an impossibly stiff script that led to horrendously stiff performances from every actor. It's the only "Star Wars" installment I've seen only once; the scene where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is having a "nightmare" about something or other is burned into my memory as particularly painful. I was so irritated by the nonsensical plot and awful dialogue, when the climactic battle came around, all I wanted was to get the heck out of the theater -- lightsaber-wielding Yoda or not.

Lucas used to be the indisputable king of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, with his technical wizardry and indelible characters (read the "expanded universe" books from the last 10 years, and you'll see just how great his creations are). But his actual filmmaking skills get more and more suspect all the time.

Consider jolly ol' Peter Jackson, who came along and blew Lucas out of the universe.

As if the "Star Wars" prequels weren't bad enough, when compared to the work Jackson and his mates did on "The Lord of the Rings" cemented for me that Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the rest were no longer the standard-bearers for the genre. It's no mistake that "Return of the King" was honored with a best-picture Oscar while the "Star Wars" flicks were ignored -- there's really no comparing them in quality of storytelling, production or credible performances.

I can see the apologists lining up to defend Lucas: He wasn't out to make an "epic" in the first place, they'll say, just an old-school, rollickin', good-time popcorn movie. That argument would work if the filmmaker had not gone completely away from that line of thinking himself -- with the obsessive-compulsive, self-involved special editions and especially the prequels, which are neither fun nor rollickin' (Han Solo, where are you?).

This discussion probably doesn't matter in the long run, because the fans will be out en masse Tuesday and "Star Wars" sets will be flying off the shelves like so many X-wings; in the meantime, the anti-fantasy slugs will continue their decades-long defamation of the entire genre as worthless pap, citing Lucas and "Star Wars" as Exhibit A.

Me? I'll buy them at some point, sure, but I kinda wish I could see them through those 15-year-old eyes again.

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