Monday, May 23, 2005

American Sith

The wife, kids and I did our civic duty yesterday and went to the local megaplex to see the final (middle) chapter of "Star Wars." My son, nearly 9, was pumped. He loves light saber duels and the various creatures that inhabit George Lucas's world. My daughter, 14, broke from us as soon as she could, so she could sit away from her uncool parents (yes, the teen rebellion thing is in full bloom, and the wife and me couldn't be more excited). My spouse came out of curiosity. She liked "The Empire Strikes Back," but prefers the first two "Alien" films and the original "Terminator" to most of Lucas's saga. She'd also read that some Bush lovers are squawking 'cause they think that the new installment is filled with anti-Bush slams. And being even more antiwar than me, she wanted to see if that was so.

Well, kinda. Lucas admits that he's fascinated with how republics become empires, democracies give way to dictatorships. And there's a lot of that in "Revenge of the Sith," including Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader telling Obi Wan, "If you're not with me, then you are my enemy!" A midnight campus audience would howl and applaud that, given how transparently Bushian it is. But our early afternoon crowd was mostly suburban parents with young kids. If they are as apathetic and willfully unaware as many of the suburbanites I regularly encounter, then I doubt that Lucas's little jabs at Bush mean all that much, esp when your kid is screaming for a refill of frozen Coke.

In fact, the audience reacted more to Lucas's corny humor than anything else. And it's this element of "Star Wars" that has always driven me nuts. I enjoy a lot of sci fi and space fantasy -- not to the Comic Book Guy's degree, but in the general vicinity. My fave themes are time travel and parallel universes. "Star Wars" doesn't meet many of my sci fi criteria, but I'm taken with its overall narrative. And given that Lucas began the series in 1977 with an Empire battling rebels loyal to a fallen Republic, he's not suddenly twisting his story to meet his current political mood. Indeed, when "Sith" ends, we're nearly back to where we came in 28 years ago.

Unlike my son, I get easily bored with light saber battles. Same ol' zmmm zmmm brrk zmmm. Some variety on this front would've made the "Star Wars" enterprise less sluggish and more engaging. But then, Lucas seems to like repetition, and the first two-thirds of "Sith" convey the same tone as the other films. But when Anakin makes his choice to join the Dark Side, this film gets very interesting very fast, and it teases us with a darker, more dramatic version of "Star Wars." As I watched, I thought to myself, "Jeez, why couldn't the whole series be like this?" Granted, had Lucas gone in a darker direction, he wouldn't have made the mojo coin he has. Plus, you're not gonna get a lot of product and ad tie-ins by taking average American moviegoers down a twisted narrative path. But still . . .

My daughter agrees. Afterward, once the coast was clear for her to rejoin us, she and I talked for about an hour about how we'd make "Star Wars." We would keep the general storyline, lose a lot of the cute diversions and distractions, and we'd cast better actors to play Anakin and Padmé. Hayden Christensen can certainly play petulant anger and frustration, but after awhile, that's all his character is. When he turns Sith, he's not nearly monstrous enough (despite being a child killer), though he gives it his all. Natalie Portman may as well be a plank of painted wood. She supposedly loves Anakin despite his emerging evil consciousness, but the passion, fear and doubt are never present. The same is true with Christensen -- his love for Padmé is apparently so intense that he sells out to the Empire in order to keep her from harm. But again, no sparks. Theirs has to be one of the worst (non?)-acted love affairs in recent film history. One of the main reasons why Anakin is so easily manipulated into becoming Darth Vader just isn't believable. For any of this to dramatically work, Anakin and Padmé must melt the screen. In Lucas's version, they keep it well-chilled.

In a contemporary political context, however, Anakin/Vader would be most welcome in the Republican Party and among those who admire Bush. As Obi Wan tells him before their climatic battle amid the lava, "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," which is a guaranteed winner with those Americans loyal to the Empire. Now if only Vader could affect a Texan accent and clear some brush with a light saber, the possibilities would be limitless.