Less a movie (or even an "event") than the alleged concluding session of George Lucas' arrested-development therapy, the final Star Wars installment, subtitled Revenge of the Sith, is finally in theaters. As always since Lucas decided to resurrect the series in 1999, the work itself is but the climatically anticlimactic culmination of the prolonged striptease that was the publicity campaign of teasers, magazine covers, newspaper spreads, comic books, primetime TV softballs, cereal boxes, soda bottles, S&M gear, et al. Far be it from me, practically a Thesaurus illustration of the species Mayor Quimby in a Simpsons episode once dubbed "dateless wonders," to look down on the folks who take time off from their rigorous bong-hitting schedule to stand in line for half a year, but this is just so much cultural retardation. People blame Spielberg for spawning the whole corporate-blockbuster mentality, but it was really that original lightshow-pacifier back in 1977 that broke the spine of the newly politicized, self-searching American cinema and sent it packing into the dark '80s, Reagan, Indiana Jones and filmmaking-by-computer. To follow the reverberations is to understand what Abbas Kiarostami meant when in 10 on Ten he said American movies ultimately can do more global harm than American armies.
The movie itself? Meh. It is a huge improvement over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, probably because there's less torturous exposition to sit through, and even audiences not into the Jedi mythology might groove on the thrills, which are abundant and faithful to Commander Cody, Lucas' unacknowledged source. In fact, the film's continuous cut-to-the-chase zipping, bouncing from duel to duel, brings to mind the baptism-slaughter montage at The Godfather climax, particularly as the evil Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), at last melted into the Emperor, seizes control by ordering the treacherous killings of all Jedi knights, including Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Obi-Wan survives, of course, only to learn that young apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has been lured to the Dark Side, mainly to prevent the death of beloved Princess Padmé (Natalie Portman). The corruption of the seemingly forever eighth-gradish Anakin into that Nubian-Nazi daddy-o Darth Vader is as unlikely as imagining Christensen's spatula-enunciation growing into James Earl Jones' bass-heavy grumbling, though Lucas takes his own writing very seriously, and in the end the boy's stumpy remains, still smoldering, are fitted into the dark mask, treated like a Mahler aria.
Goaded by Palpatine's slurpy sneer, Anakin scissors off the head of Christopher Lee's Count Dooku, the first of the many castrating amputations befitting such an epic oedipal saga. No blood, though -- Lucas' universe remains as scrubbed as the dentist's waiting room. (Sex is also verboten, which makes Padmé's bums-in-the-oven bewildering, but Luke and Leia have to spring from somewhere.) Still, Episode III's "darkness" has been cranked up to PG-13 level, decimated younglings, General Grievous overcompensating for his wheezing cough with a quartet of light sabers, the Ben-Hur chariot race re-staged between motorized unicycles and limo-sized iguanas, robot-sentries that go "Uh-oh," and all that jazz. Even odder than this talk about the "darkening of Lucas' vision" is the digging for political subtext within the movie's pinball theatrics, which, as in The Day After Tomorrow last year or Kingdom of Heaven now, just goes to show how hungry many American critics are for a work, any work, that touches on current issues. "So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause," Padmé sighs as the Senate is corralled under Palpatine's cape, yet the rise of fascism in the picture is still safe, a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Yoda's ass-backwards syntax is probably the closest the film comes to Darth George, even with the intergalactic war described as "failure to listen."
"'Good' is a point-of-view," pars the Emperor to his prey, though I leave the Shakespearian evocations to Kevin Smith. (Tom Stoppard has reportedly touched up the screenplay, probably the romantic interludes between Anakin and his bride: "You're so beautiful." "That's because I'm so in love." "No, that's because I'm so in love with you.") It's beyond criticism, because, again, this is not a film, but the newest version of the medium's most rapacious product crafted for audience consumption. Lucas sold it but we bought it, and, really, how clean are my hands? I was born the year the first Star Wars came out, and, as much as I loathe the stunting effect it's had in cinema, the dog fights and the light saber duels and the Wookies and the gay robots and "Luke, I am your father" are all part of my youth. I wish all the attention spent on the digitalized banalities of Revenge of the Sith would have instead gone to Turtles Can Fly, La Niņa Santa, Ā Tout de Suite, Sequins or The Best of Youth, immeasurably more interesting works playing right now with one-hundredth its commercial support, yet part of me just cannot keep a chill from slipping down my spine as Darth Vader watches the construction of the Death Star or enfant Luke Skywalker gets cradled by new parents at sundown in Tatoonie. The pop shrewdness that's made Lucas a billionaire movie-arranger (as opposed to a filmmaker) has always seeped into my DNA, and that's why I must fight it so vigorously.
Fellow '70s New Waver Paul Schrader is one of the self-styled mavericks given the backseat in bottomline-driven, post-Star Wars world and, according to the director's version of his martyrdom, the persecution continues with Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Famous as the film shelved by Morgan Creek after the director had already finished it (only to be shot from scratch with juiced-up gore by hackmeister Renny Harlin as Exorcist: The Beginning, last year), it has snowballed a bit of a reputation as some kind of art-house dark jewel perversely delivered where a jazzy pandering horrorfest was expected, a middle-finger outstretched at the Man, the System, at Them. The film's actual theatrical release is a Pyrrhic victory, since its brooding is just as tedious as Harlin's trashiness, only more self-regarding. Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) is still scouting the North African caves in the 1940s, bumping into demons both spiritual and human, the nature of Sin and Evil mumbled over in typically notional Schrader fashion. Lucas waves a hand and fashions infantilized universes while Schrader has to fight to get a project financed and released, and I know I should side with the "dangerous" ponderer over the facile entertainer, but the truth is that Revenge of the Sith forces me to grapple with my own political-cultural demons in ways the shoulda-gone-straight-to-video Dominion can only muse about.
Reviewed May 25, 2005.