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The power of the dark side
George Lucas hasn't yet done what every "Star Wars" geek probably assumed he would've done the moment he completed "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith."
He hasn't watched the six-movie "Star Wars" saga in chronological order.
"I don't know when I'll get around to doing that, but I will at some point," the 60-year-old filmmaker said Wednesday while sitting in the sunroom of the red-brick Technical Building at his Skywalker Ranch.
But . . . how could he wait to see his grand experiment played out at long last -- how the prequel trilogy of "Episodes I-III" (released in 1999, 2002 and 2005) informs the viewing of "Episodes IV-VI" (released in 1977, 1980 and 1983)?
"I'm in the delayed-gratification business," shrugged Lucas, his hair still youthfully wavy if mostly white. "I don't even get to see the shots until about a year later" -- that is, after he shoots them and every single frame is altered through special effects. "I prefer to sit down in a calm period and do it rather than actually just do it as a race-through-it, get-it-over-with kind of idea."
"Star Wars" fans have been in the delayed-gratification business as well, hanging in there for 28 years as Lucas has slowly unfolded his epic about fathers and children -- how the heroic actions of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in "Episodes IV-VI" redeem the sins of their dad, Anakin Skywalker, who descends from brave Jedi Knight to the monstrous Darth Vader in "Episode III" -- though Darth also redeems himself by the series' end.
Many "Star Wars" die-hards feel their gratification has been especially delayed because they didn't much like the kiddie-oriented "Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," which chronicled Anakin's days as a little brat (played by Jake Lloyd), or "Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," which focused on the programmatic love story between sullen teen Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and stiff Princess Padme (Natalie Portman). Both entries had little of the sass that enlivened the first trilogy.
So "Revenge of the Sith" not only serves as the final piece of the "Star Wars" puzzle, connecting the prequel trilogy to the series' first movie (the original "Star Wars" a.k.a. "Episode IV -- A New Hope"), but it also aims to reach those fans of the first trilogy who lost faith in the newer one.
"Especially hard-core fans, they're saying, `Please, let this be the one,'" said Joshua Griffin, co-owner of TheForce.net, the largest "Star Wars" fans site. "Part of that is there was something about those original films that blew us away as kids, and now it would take a miracle to please fans."
So does the new movie deliver?
Ah, let's delay gratification on that matter as well.
"Star Wars," you see, long ago achieved official status as a Cultural Phenomenon, a point emphasized ad nauseum by us journalists quizzing writer-director Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, Christensen, Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid (who plays Palpatine, the evil chancellor/emperor) and a couple of Industrial Light and Magic special effects guys last week at Skywalker.
The first "Star Wars" movies often are credited (or blamed) with encouraging Hollywood's blockbuster mentality -- opening movies on lots of screens at once, emphasizing profitable franchises, chasing the billions of dollars Lucas earned by retaining the "Star Wars" sequel and merchandising rights. The "Star Wars" movie with the lowest overall gross, "Episode VI -- The Return of the Jedi," still managed to scrape up more than $475 million worldwide.
The human side of the Force
More important, the films, conceived by Lucas as "Flash Gordon"-type serials with mind-blowing production values, got under our collective skin. Darth Vader became an iconic villain. Light sabers were seen as the coolest weapon ever. "Evil empire" and "May the Force be with you" entered our lexicon.
The movies (and the Force) grew out of Lucas' fascination with "mythological motifs that have been around for thousands of years. I think emotionally we haven't changed very much in the last 3,000 years, and I think our deep-seated feelings about things and need to know how things work in terms of a family, in terms of our place in society and that sort of thing is exactly the same. That's why people relate to it."
What's harder to gauge is the cultural impact of the prequel trilogy. Lucas stressed that the story is enhanced by moving beyond the first trilogy's redemption theme to the thornier issues of how good people turn bad -- and how democracies become dictatorships.
"Ultimately I hope the thing will be seen as one movie," Lucas said, "so whatever cultural artifact it is, I hope it's one cultural artifact, not six."
Producer/former Universal movie chief Tom Pollock, who was Lucas' lawyer when "Star Wars" originally was conceived, said he couldn't begin to assess the second trilogy until he sees how "Sith" completes the picture. Either way, though, the newer films couldn't possibly have a comparable impact to the first ones.
"These are coming into a vastly different cultural world," Pollock said. "That not only includes the `Star Wars' movies but so many other large, long trilogies, Asian movies, epic movies. . . . Did `Lord of the Rings' have the impact that `Star Wars' had? No -- not because it isn't as good. I loved it dearly. But it came into a world where `Star Wars' existed and so many other things too."
University of Southern California English professor Leo Braudy, one of the featured talking heads on the "Star Wars" DVDs, labeled the prequels "more of the same," singling out "Attack of the Clones" as "such a bust."
"I think it means nostalgia to people now," said Braudy, who had yet to see "Sith." "I think it means a sense of the simpler world and the battle of good and evil. People can transfer it in some way to any worse situation they want to. The simplicity, the ease of taking care of the threats has a nice consoling feel to it."
To Harry Knowles, who runs the movie fan site www.aint-it-cool-news.com, the second trilogy's biggest legacy is digital filmmaking, with "Clones" and "Sith" shot entirely on high-definition digital cameras. Otherwise, he said, the newer films have "underlined the inherent need for fresh voices to approach the world of grand science fiction."
"A lot of people who have were waiting around for `Star Wars' to be their everything have met a degree of disappointment with the films, but the hope is it can be something bigger," Knowles said from his Austin, Texas, home. "Now in fan culture you can almost anticipate the postpartum depression; there's almost that sort of feeling among fans because that's going to be it for this."
But writer-director Kevin Smith ("Clerks"), who has peppered his movies with "Star Wars" references and last week wrote a rave review of "Sith" on his View Askew Web site, argued that the newer "Star Wars" movies will get their due just as the older ones did.
"`Star Wars' is already more than just a series of movies," Smith said in an e-mail exchange. "Just as it took distance for the world to look at `Citizen Kane' as something more than a Welles-ian vanity project, we're seeing the first trilogy now revered as so much more than just a popcorn movie that some folks have turned on the prequel trilogy, so protective are they of `their' SW."
Smith continued: "Lucas and company reinvented the cinematic special effect, then reinvented it again in the digital age, using bytes as their canvas on which they painted `Sith,' one of the most visually arresting films I've ever seen. Nobody looks at these films as mere movies -- they haven't since the opening weekend phenomenon of the first `Star Wars' back in '77. And the older these flicks get, the more respect they'll garner from stodgy cineastes who'd try to dismiss them as popcorn flicks."
The growing clamor for `Sith'
The public certainly is energized to see "Sith." Art Levitt, head of the online movie ticket company Fandango, said "Sith" has sold more than four times as many advance tickets as any other movie previously sold by Fandango.
He said he couldn't offer dollar figures, but even more than two weeks before its May 19 opening, "Sith" was accounting for 90 percent of Fandango's ticket sales.
"This is not just the die-hard fans," Levitt said. "It's a much broader audience. It's a major cultural event, and people are buying their tickets in advance and online because they want to participate in this event."
What they'll see is a movie that acts like a bridge between the trilogies in more ways than one. Unlike its two immediate predecessors, "Revenge of the Sith" moves; it's easily the zippiest and most assured of the newer films.
With Anakin finally experiencing a character arc of Shakespearean proportion, Christensen is liberated to give a full-blooded performance rather than the formal line readings that Lucas' "Clones" script imposed upon him. Then again, the plot and screen get so busy early on that you may quit trying to sort out the creatures, spaceships and conspiracies being thrown at you.
And the laughs remain scarce -- you're always aware you're watching the tragedy installment of "Star Wars." "Sith" is the series' first PG-13 entry, and given how this trilogy began by appealing to little kids, some parents may cry foul over the graphicness of Anakin's ultimate mutilation and the wickedness of his deeds.
"I had to turn him into a monster," Lucas said. "It's a tough story. You can't make a guy evil without having him do evil things."
Viewers may debate whether the filmmaker has properly motivated Anakin to turn so dark so quickly, but there's no denying that "Sith" packs the emotional punch previously missing from this trilogy. What's interesting is that the source of this power is, in large part, those older "Star Wars" films that take place later.
It means something when you see the Darth Vader helmet being lowered onto Anakin's burned head or when you see the newborn Luke and Leia. The sense of tragedy is offset by the knowledge that the children eventually will lead the father back to the path of light -- which is how Lucas planned it all along.
And now he's finished with "Star Wars" at last and promises to return to his experimental-film roots more than 30 years after he abandoned them. Of course, he did recently reveal that the "Clone Wars" animated series will continue and that a new live-action "Star Wars" TV series is being considered -- despite fans' fears that "Star Wars" will degenerate into "Star Trek."
Then there are the plans eventually to rerelease all of the "Star Wars" films in digital 3-D. But Lucas feels a sense of closure. Really.
"`Star Wars' isn't going to suddenly disappear from my life, but I'm not going to be doing it on a day-to-day basis," he said. "I'm going to be in my own little world doing my own stuff, but it doesn't disappear from my reality at all. It never will."