I saw Revenge of the Sith Monday night, so I guess Star Wars is officially over. And I guess it was a pretty good send-off. The theater was more crowded than you’d expect to see on a Monday night, if not as crowded as you’d expect to see on the week of a new Star Wars movie. The crowd clapped for the Lucasfilm logo and the opening crawl, and again for particularly satisfying deaths and fight scenes. It seemed as if they were clapping to build up their enthusiasm instead of out of genuine enthusiasm, but it’s the same idea.
I’ve got two big “event movie” memories: one was waiting in line for four or five hours to see The Empire Strikes Back at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, the only theater that was showing it, on its opening night. All thoughout the movie, there was no question that this was A Major Event. During the opening crawl, during big fight scenes, whenever a main character appeared on-screen for the first time, there was applause and cheering. Whenever Vader made an appearance, there were jeers and booing. During the big revelation, there were genuine gasps from everyone. No one was thinking about Joseph Campbell, or the demise of the art film in favor of commercial summer blockbusters, or merchandising deals, or implied racism, or any of the layers of irony and distance we’re supposed to look at Star Wars with now. Everyone was just there to get caught up in the spectacle and melodrama and wonder of it all, and it all just worked.
The second memory was of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Tate Center student theater at UGA; it wasn’t released on video yet, so this was the first time any of us had seen it since its original release. The theater was packed, and you got the same reaction from all the self-important, jaded college students. People cheered for Indiana Jones, hissed at the villains, laughed, applauded, and just enjoyed the thrill of seeing a classic action movie. The audience was used to big summer blockbusters by that point, and knew the movie inside and out, and of course as a college crowd was watching it with some since of liberal over-analysis and ironic detachment. But it still just worked.
It’s pretty much impossible to get that from a Star Wars release anymore; it’s been ruined not just by George Lucas himself, but by decades of over-analysis, artificially high expectations, over-familiarity, accusations of plagiarism or shallowness or whatever else people want to throw at it, and just age. There wasn’t so much a sense of wonder out of seeing Revenge of the Sith as there was a sense of inevitability, or of closure. It was just a case of wrapping everything up. “We’ve got to end a war, start an empire, have a bunch of lightsaber battles, kill a bunch of Jedi, get this guy into a respirator suit, and get these babies off to their respective home planets, all in about 2 hours. Let’s move, people!”
Still, while it didn’t manage to have the resonance or wonder that the original trilogy did, it did deliver on the spectacle. It was better than the first two, by far. But at this point, that feels like describing lessening gallstone symptoms to a doctor. It sounds like damning with faint praise to say that “there was nothing in the movie that outright sucked,” but with the Star Wars movies, the quality of the effects and the depth of the world has never been in question. So not sucking is a pretty big achievement. I’d say that Revenge of the Sith is good enough that it’s not a closer to the first three episodes, but it stands as a good prequel to the original trilogy.
In fact, it makes me wish that Lucas had just made the one movie as a prologue, and left all the Clone Wars and Fall of the Republic stuff to other people, like Genndy Tartakovsky. Where Revenge of the Sith really excelled was where it was like the Clone Wars animated series — minimal dialogue, minimal back-story, quick cuts between action scenes all across the galaxy. And maybe most importantly, staying true to the nature of the old serials on which the whole thing is supposedly based, where heroes and villains became resonant not by virtue of what they say but by how they look and what they do. The coolest characters are the ones with the least back-story and the least dialogue, from Boba Fett to Darth Maul to Count Dooku and General Grievous. And Darth Vader was a more interesting character in the first 15 minutes of Star Wars than he was in any of the six hours of Episodes I, II, and III.
But you could spend hours talking about what Lucas could’ve done with the prequels, which is something people are doing all over the internet and will most likely keep doing to a depressing degree. So I’ll just write my one recommendation: if you start the opening crawl with “War!” then you really should follow it with “Huh! Good God!”