Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Gunning for 'Star Wars'

INDIANAPOLIS - I approached the young man in the Chewbacca costume and didn't expect him to like what I was going to say.

I hate Star Wars, I said. OK, you hate Star Wars, he said, unimpressed. Sort of, I said. Why are you here then, he asked. We were at a Star Wars convention, after all, the biggest Star Wars convention and the only official one. It was called Celebration III, and was held a few weeks ago; the occasion was this Thursday's release of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. George Lucas said it would be the last Star Wars movie he would make.

I came to make peace, I said.

Climb to the mountaintop.

The man in the Chewbacca costume told me his name was Jake Kouwe. He had the stringy hair and casual drawl of a surfer, but was 18 and lived in Chesterland, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. His costume consisted of a monkey suit and light brown makeup on his face. The suit, he said, cost him $5. He found it at a yard sale in Cleveland. He was a true believer in Star Wars, but rather than be offended, he was curious and asked me to explain what I meant by "hating Star Wars." He seemed to understand where I was going with all this.

I told him it would not be easy to explain: Back in March, I was sitting in a theater on Monroe Street in Toledo, waiting for Robots to start, and one coming attraction was Revenge of the Sith. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. But this same thing has happened each time I've seen a trailer for the previous Star Wars prequels: Some Dark Lord of the Sith utters a sinister line, lightsabers spring to attention, explosions build with the orchestration into a crescendo, the title fills the screen, John Williams familiar theme erupts, trumpets blasting. I flash back to my childhood and feel a genuine shiver move through my body.

It happened in 1999 with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars film since 1983. It happened in 2002 with Star Wars: Episode II -Attack of the Clones. And both times, the actual movie proved, if nothing else, that the coming attraction is a seductive art. By reducing a ponderous movie to 120 seconds of peak after peak, the film it advertised could never compete. Both times I felt let down and drained of whatever excitement had been there, and this time, feeling a familiar shiver of expectation, I knew better.

I even had a revelation:

Star Wars is the new Red Sox.

Being that the Boston Red Sox broke its infamous cycle of tremendous expectations followed by crushing disappointments, Star Wars seemed its obvious successor. Revenge of the Curse of the Bambino in Space: Episode II - Return of the Jedi Jitters?

And yet, if Star Wars is the new Red Sox, The Revenge of the Sith is something similar to a hard-won World Series victory: it's far from perfect, but skillful enough to get the job done and redeem any dashed hopes. It's even quite good; not good enough to make my irritation evaporate entirely, but just engrossing enough to complicate that ambivalence.

As Senator Palpatine tells his young charge, Anakin Skywalker, soon to become Darth Vader, "You must appreciate a larger view of the Force." At last, I did.

At the time of Celebration III, however, I didn't know this yet. Kouwe laughed off my Red Sox analogy, but admitted he felt a lot of what I felt: "But it's way easier than that," he said. "Frankly, everybody knows the answer to why so many people hate Star Wars now: the old films were light and fun and the new films are dark and you already know what's going to happen."

That's kind of it, I said.

In the six years since Phantom Menace, the best Star Wars experiences, the ones closest to the spirit of the original films, have come from video games and the Clone Wars animated series on Cartoon Network. I find the new movies drained of wit, visually ugly, and overly busy. The breezy fun of the series has been replaced with pontificating dialogue and a gravity that doesn't suit it. Lucas has always had a tin ear, and yet he's relying on it more than ever. The originals carried you for minutes on end without dialogue, just the rush and warmth of images. The new ones are heavy with detail; they even give a pseudo-scientific explanation for the Force.

That's it in a nutshell, I said.

"I agree," he said. "The other thing is the special effects. The old ones felt real. I remember they made me feel like I wanted to be in those places. And because there were a lot of sets, I could have been, in a way. With these new movies, everything is digital. There's a debate going on between Lord of the Rings people and Star Wars people. Lord of the Rings people say when an army runs across a field a lot of those actors are real. And they're right. Lucas is too committed to digital effects and they ruin the films."

So why are you here, I asked him, dressed as Chewbacca?

"Oh, I like the new movies," he said. "I'm discriminating, but I like them as a separate thing. If this is what Lucas wants to do, it's fine. It's not Star Wars, but it is what it is. I can get into them."


Do you see?

Loving Star Wars can be as confusing as hating Star Wars. And it's inescapable. If you were born between Vietnam and Bill Clinton, you're probably in the same boat, even if you're not a hard-core fandroid. Star Wars was our defining cultural moment. We didn't have the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Woodstock or Elvis. We had Star Wars - in fact, Elvis died a few months after Star Wars premiered. And in the 28 years since the release of that first film, I doubt a day goes by when we're not reminded of its influence, subtly or literally.

Depending on whom you ask, Star Wars got them interested in movies, acted as the cultural center of their adolescence - or it's the film responsible for everything wrong with Hollywood, from its obsession with weekend box office to its franchise fever.

Its success became the model for every blockbuster since and altered our pop DNA. But if influence is hard to quantify, the money involved is not: Star Wars has earned $3.5 billion - in ticket sales alone. That doesn't include action figures, bed sheets, video games, amusement-park rides, DVDs, soundtracks, Halloween costumes, holiday ornaments, fast-food endorsements, novels, calendars, Legos, and buzzing plastic lightsabers. Does your pet have a Jedi fetish? There's a Princess Leia costume for dogs ($15). And don't even think about buying Darth Tater, a new Mr. Potato Head from Hasbro in Darth Vader garb ($7.99). It's been sold out since last winter.

None of this bothers me.

The influence and box office has never felt as strong as the simple appeal of the actual films. Familiarity has not bred contempt. No, my Seven-Years War against Star Wars is about disappointment. At Celebration III I approach Lindsay Crochey and Megan Moore, both from Oklahoma, and Crochey says she finds herself defending Star Wars on Star Wars online message boards all the time: "Why am I defending it there of all places? Agreeing one film is better than another when they're all good?"

"Because that's the thing about Star Wars," Moore says. "Everyone insists they own it."

I approach Bill Macallister, 37, from Denver, and we talk about how Star Wars created a culture where you never put away your childhood things. Well, he said, "that means the older you get the more you're likely to feel disappointed by it, doesn't it?

"I still feel the same way about it as I did when I was a kid. But I see it as one long story. Not two sets of movies. I see it as a big experiment, George Lucas' baby. But some people take it to heart because they came to it when they were young and they expect it to grow with them, and maybe it was never intended that way."


So whose Star Wars is it? This goes to the root of the problem: Is Star Wars just a bunch of adventure flicks, some great, others truly boring? Or is it a single movie that happens to be filmed over 30 years, its two-hour chapters released out of sequence?

Star Wars fandom, if pressed, will insist on one of two things: The original '70s-early '80s Star Wars is the true Star Wars; to these fans, the new trilogy of prequels is also Star Wars. It's just different, another species.

Kind of the way pineapple-bacon pizzas are pizza, too. They're just not, you know, real pizza.

The more generous camp considers all Star Wars films to be of a piece: a single work that must be taken chronologically. To these fans, Star Wars (the George Lucas movies, as opposed to the larger realm of novels, animated series, comics, and so on) are the six two-hour pieces of a cycle.

Lucas, for his part, is no help.

He seems to agree with both arguments, showing a nostalgia for the first trilogy and a businessman's practicality for the latter. At Celebration III, the man himself said his original intention was to "start in the middle," to jump right into a Saturday matinee serial and pay homage to the jazzed invention of '30s pulp sci-fi and have fun.

In summer of 1977, that's the way Star Wars was greeted: a summary of a century of cheap old sci-fi-western-adventure cliches, improved upon with a lot of wit. (Time's Richard Schickel wrote that it was a "subliminal history of the movies.") Star Wars was even introduced as A New Hope, "Episode IV." Empire Strikes Back (1980) was "Episode V," Return of the Jedi (1983) was "Episode VI."

"I did this and I was done, and then the technology came along," Lucas said. Star Wars didn't have to look as phony as the serials it once aped. "I also came to grips with the fact I was George 'Star Wars' Lucas."

So starting with Phantom Menace in 1999, he made Episodes I, II, and III - the latest film serving as a bridge between the new trilogy and the beloved original trilogy. It tells the story of how Anakin Skywalker went to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader - whose son, Luke Skywalker, would eventually redeem him.

These days, Lucas says, he now considers the six Star Wars episodes a single film, a grand narrative arc that happens to divide across four decades. But the idea raises thorny questions that go beyond a director's right to digitally fiddle with classic images. Of course he has the right to do whatever he wants, but does Star Wars work as an unbroken plot?

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Ring movies were shot during a single two-year production; they implicitly play like three chapters of a larger story. Lucas' friend Francis Ford Coppola filmed the first Godfather pictures a few years apart, yet the effect is seamless. He even gave us a prequel of sorts: those flashbacks in Godfather Part II with Robert DeNiro as a young Don Corleone. He once re-edited it all chronologically for television.

You don't see that version of The Godfather much anymore. Without those flashbacks buried in the latticework of the second film, Coppola's series loses some of its potency: the young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) becomes less of a Hamlet, haunted by his inadequacies and the ironies of his family's violent rise to power. In the first film he is anxious to remove himself from his legacy and prove he's self-made man.

By Part II Michael's destiny is inescapable. There's a lot of talk in Revenge of the Sith about destiny. And there are echoes of it in the original series. But they're not a seamless match. Having now seen all six films in order - I watched the first two before a screening of the third, the originals immediately after - I can say Lucas has given us brilliant moments and a schizophrenic epic: a tragedy that becomes a comedy but insists it's a tragedy.

Anakin is haunted by the spectre of his future evil, which is dramatically sound until we watch the older movies. Deep down, they're about a boy named Luke haunted by his father. The new films bring that poignancy to the surface with a weight the old films are too flimsy to support.

Cheerfully flimsy.

"Lucas is nuts," said Janet Peters, 42. "He's messed up a good thing. His dialogue is awful, and there's just so much of it now."

She stands with her 16-year old son, James. "We love Star Wars," he said, "but expect more, and I don't care about the story. The best part of the last two films was when Yoda started fighting."

"You know, I don't even remember the rest, to be honest."

"See it nine time. It helps."

"Well, you love it. I hate it."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.

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