Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith

A few days before the release of Star Wars/Episode III/Revenge of the Sith/etc., Star Wars creator and certifiable megalomaniac George Lucas offered his opinion on why so many fans of the franchise were disappointed with the prequels. According to Lucas, “”The older [fans] are loyal to the first three films I made, and they are the ones in control of the media. The films that these people don’t like—which are the first two prequels—are fanatically adored by the under-25s. They are always at each others throats about it.”

That’s right, it’s not Jews who control the media, like the stereotype says; it’s the Star Wars fans.

Unfortunately, Lucas is wrong. The prequels may be better liked by kids, but that’s because they don’t know any better—I watched and loved a lot of crap when I was a kid (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, anyone?). No, George, there is one very good reason the older, wiser fans don’t like your new movies: they’re bad.

For the five or six people who don’t know what happens in this movie, here’s a summary: the big bad guy, called alternately Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Sidious depending on how much wrinkle cream he put on that morning, tempts Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to the Dark Side. Anakin becomes very, very naughty, kills a lot of people, falls in lava and ends up in a big black suit with an inordinately loud respirator.

There are some great battles and a few effective scenes. Ian McDiarmid turns in a wonderfully hammy but effective performance as Sidious, a.k.a. the Emperor, and his seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side is actually somewhat convincing (from his side, at least—Christensen doesn’t offer much in the way of acting here).

As I’ve told many people—at length, and despite their pleas—I think the prequels could have written themselves. A problem with the prequels is that, according to the off-screen mythos established in the Star Wars lore (and Lucas takes all that stuff very seriously—he has an entire department devoted to “continuity” in the Star Wars universe of movies, novels, videogames, and so forth)—according to this mythos, Darth Vader hunted down all the Jedi and, presumably, slaughtered a lot of other people besides. So, by making the prequels about Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall, Lucas was essentially giving us a story about the rise of a Hitler. It doesn’t help that the films are loaded with strange lessons like “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”—I won’t argue with the last one, but there is such a thing as righteous anger, and fear is a natural human emotion that should be understood, not suppressed.

The prequels should have been about Obi-Wan and his failure with Anakin, not Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, with Obi-Wan as a supporting character. But there was a point in this movie when I thought, “Well, they haven’t made Anakin that bad…maybe, other than a few Jedi and a few strangled Imperial captains, he wasn’t as evil as all that, which could make this whole thing work…”

…and then he killed some kids.

That was about it for me. Child-murderers do not deserve sweeping six-film epics devoted to them, period. Near the end of the film, after Anakin’s pregnant wife Padme (a hapless Natalie Portman, clearly aware of how terrible her lines are) has found out about the children, she still tries to talk him into running away with her and leaving the Dark Side, which—after the child-killing—makes her seem like one of those women who clings to her abusive husband. It’s creepy and disturbing, and it doesn’t help that Portman’s dialogue seems to have been cobbled together from Lucas’s copy of The Big Book of Clichéd Dialogue.

Allegedly Tom Stoppard gave the Revenge of the Sith script a once-over. I don’t believe it. Lucas apparently said that these films should be considered “silent films.” Great idea, George—I could imagine the characters were speaking interesting, subtle dialogue, rather than the laughably bad material Lucas came up with. Did he really sit in front of a computer, cup of coffee in hand, and ponder over lines like “I don’t know you anymore”?

The original films actually have a number of funny lines—mostly coming from C-3PO and Han Solo. The prequels, sadly, have no Han Solo character at all. Han Solo is the Everyman character of the original movies; he’s the one people can identify with. He has no supernatural powers. He consistently points out how ridiculous every given situation is. He has real motivations—early on, he’s in it for the money, and later, for love.

Rewatching the original films recently, I’ll admit that there’s a lot about them that hasn’t held up. But they’re still far, far better than the prequels.

And Han Solo is still the man.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been around. It started out as a BBC radio comedy series written by Douglas Adams. Adams then wrote the radio plays into a series of novels, which were in turn made into a short-lived television series, a very early computer game, and now, the crown jewel: a movie, the last great frontier for selling out.

I’ve read at least the first three novels, but it was years ago and I don’t remember very much about them, so forgive me for not being the diehard HHGTTG fan that, say, my Caltech-alumnus girlfriend is, or for that matter, anyone who went to one of the major left-brain universities. I’ve seen Adams-scripted episodes of Doctor Who more recently than I’ve encountered any of his Guide work (I’m going to refer to it as Guide, because the actual title is too long to write, and because Hitchhiker’s contains that annoying hyphen and I always have to think twice about whether there are two H’s in the middle, and because HHGTTG is also hard to remember).

I do know that the film, directed by relative unknown Garth Jennings (who has virtually no information on his Imdb entry), is based primarily on a script by Adams, and that the inclusion of a new character named Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) was Adams’ invention (and, I suspect, mainly a plot device to remove Zaphod Beeblebrox’s extra head, which Adams no doubt realized would be a difficult and perhaps annoying special effect in a live-action film–which, indeed, it was).

The storyline of Guide is ostensibly simple: the Earth is accidentally destroyed to make way for some sort of interstellar highway, and the only humans to escape is one Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Arthur is rescued by Ford Prefect (Mos Def), an alien traveler who works for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, making Ford the intergalactic equivalent of a Let’s Go writer. The two escape the destruction of Earth and end up on a spaceship piloted by Zaphod Breeblebox (Sam Rockwell), the President of the Galaxy and a complete flake, who has also spirited Trillian away. The last member of this motley crew is Marvin the Paranoid Android, who is voiced by Alan Rickman, with Warwick (Willow) Davis in the robot suit.

The rest of the plot concerns something about figuring out the meaning of the universe, which is apparently the number 42 (beloved reference of nerds everywhere). All sorts of strange things happen, revelations are…revealed, and the marvelous Bill Nighy shows up as designer-planet-builder Slartibartfast (who gives my favorite performance in the film).

So the screenplay is messy, even taking into account the story it’s based on. It’s also a little rushed, but I wouldn’t advise trying to follow the plot too closely anyway. Instead, sit back and enjoy the weirdness and the performances, most of which are top-notch. Zooey Deschanel continues her quest to take Reese Witherspoon’s place in the celebrity cosmogony. Martin Freeman makes a fine Arthur Dent. Mos Def looks nothing like I envisioned Ford Prefect, but few actors (with the exception of Tim Quill) would, and Def does fine with the role. Rockwell’s Zaphod is suitably annoying, and Rickman and Davis unsurprisingly steal the show.

The humor is hit-and-miss. The Macromedia Flash-style cut scenes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide are pretty reliably amusing, and the film does some wonderful things with the Infinite Improbability Drive, which allows Zaphod’s ship to travel instantly across time (with the unfortunate side effect of temporarily turning the ship into animals, flowers, and in one amusing case, fabric sculpture). And anything with Marvin is funny.

The film makes an effort to make more of a romantic arc with Arthur, Trillian and Zaphod–allegedly something Adams wanted into the film version. I’m not entirely sure it works, however; all too often, the romantic moments feel a little perfunctory.

But the film offers some lovely eye candy, and the performances ensure that fans are satisfied and non-fans are entertained. The end of the film makes it clear that we’ll be seeing more of Arthur & friends, so in parting I’ll say, see you at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

sith

The acronym for Revenge of the Sith is “ROTS.” I just wanted to point that out.

So I saw Lucas’s latest tour de Force. For the record, I hadn’t planned to see it for at least a few weeks, being entirely unenthusiastic about the prospect. But as it turned out, my girlfriend was seeing it (not necessarily voluntarily) with the rest of her lab at grad school on opening day; and since I would have found it annoying for her to have seen the film and me not to, I decided to get it over with.

My conclusion? The line I’ve been giving people is, “I don’t like the storyline Lucas went with for the prequels, but if they’d all been like this movie, I wouldn’t hate him so much.” Faint praise, I know. The dialogue is painful–Lucas’s ear isn’t tin, it’s titanium. Several scenes–in particular, anything between star-crossed lovers Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman)–consist entirely of the worst, hoariest cliches in the book.

But there are a number of exciting scenes, and I enjoyed Ian McDiarmid’s hammy-but-effective portrayal of Palpatine, the chancellor and Sith Lord who would be Emperor. But before he can get there, he has to seduce Anakin to the Dark Side, which he does in fairly unconvincing fashion (but for that, I blame the writing and portrayal of Anakin, rather than anything to do with Palpatine).

I’m just glad this whole prequel mess is over. Now, if the united Star Wars Nation can just convince Darth Lucas to release a “Star Wars Classic Edition” DVD set, consisting of the same versions of the original films as seen in the pre-Special Edition VHS set that came out around 1995-6 (or the laserdiscs from the same era), I’ll be all set.

Personally, I’ve always felt that Lucas made a number of wrong decisions from the very beginning. First, the prequels have no Han Solo character. Han was the most human character in the prequels, the Everyman who had no supernatural powers (a la Luke) and wasn’t royalty (a la Leia). He was easy to identify with, and was played by Harrison Ford, an actor with a gift for playing a regular guy in strange worlds. But most of the major characters in the prequels are Jedi–that is, sorcerers and superheroes–so we can hardly identify with them.

Worse, the ostensible protagonist of the films is Anakin Skywalker, a character who, as we know ahead of time, will grow up to be an intergalactic Hitler. I think this was a big mistake. It would have been much wiser to make Obi-Wan Kenobi the hero of the films, and use Anakin as a buddy-turned-antagonist. The prequels should have been about Obi-Wan’s failure, not Palpatine’s boring political machinations and Anakin’s predictable, yet still unconvincing seduction to the Dark Side.

Then there’s Yoda. In the original films, Yoda serves as the archetype of the wise old master, the hermit who lives out in the middle of nowhere. The idea with that sort of character is this: if your instructors have taught you all they can, but think you show promise of more, they send you off to the 900-year-old hermit.

Fine. But what Lucas is asking me to believe is that at the spring chicken age of 880, the Aged Master isn’t out on the mountaintop, but serving as Dumbledore in the School for the Force-Sensitive. I don’t buy it–enjoyable as the Yoda fighting scenes were, I don’t buy it.

Worse, the prequels are loaded with coincidences. It seems everyone in the universe has met R2D2 and C-3PO, despite Kenobi’s line in Star Wars that he doesn’t “recall ever owning a droid” (a line that is now yet another lie, or at the very least, a misleading truth–he knows who Artoo and Threepio are, unless he’s had his memory wiped as well). Oh, and…

(spoiler warning)

…Chewbacca’s met Yoda. Right.

(end spoiler)

As I’ve gotten older, I have to admit I’ve become a bit less enamoured of Star Wars as a whole, including the original films. Back in 1999, science fiction author David Brin wrote an article called “Star Wars despots vs. Star Trek populists” which I think makes some pretty good points (though, to be fair, I’m not as fond of his Lord of the Rings critique).

Star Wars has been called “science fantasy”–but it’s mostly just fantasy. As several reviewers have pointed out, we’re dealing with a civilization that can cross galaxies in days, but apparently doesn’t possess ultrasound technology. For all its galactic politics and incredible technology, the world of the Republic is no more evolved than that of ancient Rome–and no more morally complex than a Saturday morning cartoon.

That’s fine for a series of fun movies intended to evoke the spirit of the old matinee serials (and you’ll note no one ever harps on the Indiana Jones movies). But for something that has grown to such enormous, bloated cultural significance as the Star Wars franchise, even a fan like me has to admit it’s a bit disconcerting.

Hwaet

In college, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf–or more specifically, on what happens to the narrative structure of the poem when it is adapted as Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, and then when that novel is adapted into the film The 13th Warrior.

The 13th Warrior was a huge flop, and so far, Troy, King Arthur, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven haven’t exactly been doing gangbusters. Of the huge sword-wielding epics, only Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings have warranted this slavish studio attention to these sort of films.

Now there are no less than two Beowulf films coming out this year. One, which supposedly comes out in October, I hadn’t heard anything about until today. Beowulf and Grendel stars Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley, so it isn’t necessarily going to be a B-film. From the photos and information on the site, it looks like it could be good. On the other hand, after a look through the site’s discussion forums, it looks like there may have been some significant changes to the story, so we’ll see. Having tried my hand at adaptating literary works to film, I have sympathy for the screenwriter.

It also seems there’s some question whether the film will even be released in the U.S.–here’s hoping. It may only get a limited release, but fortunately, I live in Boston, so there’s a good chance it will play here.

But that’s not all. Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman are also working on a script for a Beowulf film, currently scheduled for release in 2007. There are a lot of rumors floating around on the Internet, so I’m not sure what’s true and what isn’t, but allegedly the film will be animated.

Beowulf’s been having a pretty good run lately. I’m very fond of the “HBO Animated Epic” version of the story–a half-hour animated short that features Joseph Fiennes and Derek Jacobi as voices, among others.

I still may try my hand at some Beowulf-related writing, someday. Technically, I already have–but good luck tracking that down.

As for all these other films–why did Lord of the Rings and Gladiator succeed where the others failed? Well, in the case of Gladiator, I think Russell Crowe–an actor at the height of his popularity–helped an awful lot. Also, the story, while not exactly Shakespeare, had a lot of visceral, entertaining aspects–it was essentially the modern equivalent of watching real gladiatorial combat.

As for Lord of the Rings, well, I think those films are their own deal entirely. They’re well-made films with a great cast; they deserve their acclaim without need for talking about trends or audience psychology.

As for Troy and King Arthur–I think these films did themselves a disservice by neglecting the mythological or supernatural elements of the stories they were based on. Excalibur did well in 1981, so it’s not as if audiences don’t want to watch Arthurian films. As for Troy, I think avoiding the mythological elements was a bit cowardly on the part of the filmmakers. They wanted to make one of those sword-and-sandal epics from the fifties and sixties, and that’s exactly what they did–made a sword-and-sandal epic from the fifties and sixties. Being honest to the supernatural element, or finding an interesting and compelling way of making those elements work and be relevant to modern viewers, would have made for a braver and more contemporary adaptation. Just my two cents.

truancy

Sorry for the long absence–I’ve had a tough couple of months. But I’m back and, while not better than ever, I’m at least better than never.

Progress has continued on my Dunwich Horror screenplay, primarily because it has to (I’m writing it for a class). Fortunately, it seems to be going fairly well–I’m not getting bogged down anywhere, and I think I’m finally getting a good grip on the characters.

The big news is that I’ve changed my graduate thesis plans. Instead of writing Tales of Atreval, a collection of linked short stories, I’m going to write the first Jon Shade novel. I made this decision for two reasons. The first is pure self-interest; novels are easier to sell than collections of short stories, particularly for new writers. The second reason is, I recently read Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (as well as re-reading The Maltese Falcon), and those books reminded me that I grew up on novels rather than short stories, and when I write, I have a tendency–or used to, anyway–to write longer works.

In other news, I finally got out to the theater to see a movie–Sin City. I’d read the first graphic novel (which matches the first story in the film, the one featuring Mickey Rourke as Marv). I enjoyed it, though by the third story, it all was getting a bit tiresome and repetitive. It’s a beautiful film and is probably as close as one can get to an image-to-image cinematic translation of a comic without resorting to animation; but it’s so faithful, it shook my long-held preference for uber-faithful movie adaptations of literary works.

As one reviewer wrote (I think it was in Newsweek), if adaptation is good enough for Jane Austen, it should be good enough for Frank Miller. I’m a big fan of both the Hellboy comics and the film version, but the film is its own entity, and both versions have their strengths and weaknesses. The same goes for the Lord of the Rings films; to say the film is better than the book, or vice-versa, is an apples-and-oranges comparison. I’m not sure the same could be said of Sin City.

Still, I recommend it. The second story, which stars Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro, is particularly interesting. Visually, the movie is stunning, and I expect it will be fairly influential.

slatch

Progress continues on “Advanced Operators.” I’ve got three or four other stories pounding at the door of my mind, demanding to be written, but AO is filling up the creative room, floor to ceiling, door to window, like an overfed shoggoth. Nothing else gets written until this beast is finished.

But Jack Sheed wants in, let me tell you.

I’m still going back and adding scenes, plot points and character development to AO (how much of the language of fiction writing has been replaced by that of film?–or perhaps they’re both in debt to drama). Thus, making forward progress has been difficult. But now I have only one major aspect of the plot to figure out, and once that’s done, the rest of the story should (in theory) unfold fairly easily.

In other news, finally decided on a screenplay for my screenwriting class. I’m going to do an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” The story has been filmed before, as a 1970 teen horror flick starring Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee. But that movie has little in common with Lovecraft’s story other than a few names.

I’m sure there are many screenplays out there based on “Dunwich”–independent filmmakers love him, for some reason–but I’m going to write my own anyway. My plan is to do it Lovecraft-by-way-of-Hammer Films (similar to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow). The protagonist will be, in true Lovecraftian fashion, a middle-aged scholar. Perhaps, after Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness comes out (and I sincerely hope he sets it in the thirties), Lovecraft will become a hot property in Hollywood, as Stephen King was in the eighties and Jane Austen in the early nineties.

As usual, I’ve already envisioned a movie trailer. I tend to enjoy movie trailers as much as (if not more than) the films they advertise A few of my favorites are the trailer for Sleepy Hollow and the teaser trailers for Gladiator and Star Trek: First Contact. The latter two benefited greatly from music borrowed from other (better) films–Basil Poledouris’s soundtrack for Conan the Barbarian and James Horner’s soundtrack for The Wrath of Khan, respectively (for my trailer, I’d swipe the music from Sleepy Hollow).

In my trailer, we see a montage of brief, bizarre images from the story, such as a huge man in a trenchcoat trying to check out a book at a library, a meadow with a great swath of crushed grass, and a close-up of a worried-looking man in front of a crumbling rustic house on a misty New England morning. At the end of the trailer the screen goes dark, and we hear the climactic dialogue of the story: an unearthly voice crying “F-f-f-father!” followed by (in a horrific roar) “YOG-SOTHOTH!” Then, in thin orange letters, the words “YOG-SOTHOTH IS THE GATE” fade in and out, followed by “YOG-SOTHOTH IS THE KEY”; and then the date the movie comes out.

In class, we have to “pitch” the story, as we would to a group of producers. Since one of the scenes in Lovecraft’s story takes place at Harvard’s Widener Library, where I’ve worked for nearly eight years, I began my pitch by describing the scene as if I’d actually witnessed it. It worked well enough–though when I got to the part about the guy dissolving into a ichorous mass of putrescence, with tentacles visible beneath his coat, everyone became a bit incredulous.

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