The star system for rating movie quality is predicated on the idea that every film possesses at least some merit. Showgirls has Gina Gershon channeling Tura Satana; Shakes the Clown, the ineffable Bobcat Goldthwaite; even Tarzan and the Lost City features a more or less constantly shirtless Casper Van Dien. But there is a greater and greater number of movies for which even half a star seems too generous, while others practically call out for a negative unit of measurement to warn viewers away. As the revived Star Wars series concludes its second trilogy, I can think of no better name for this new unit than the Lucas (I know it’s traditional to use first names for this sort of thing, but under present circumstances “George” is loaded with too many negative connotations, even for the man who saddled the world with Howard the Duck).
A Lucas I (a.k.a. “The Phantom”) shall hereafter denote the lowest common denominator in moviemaking banality. Like its title, its expensive but uninspired special effects and one-dimensional performances seem to evaporate on close inspection. Through their palimpsest we glimpse the tropes of a nearly forgotten previous film, itself a deliberately derivative fantasy, and further shrouded in the youthful nostalgia of a generation of critics that frittered away its discerning acumen in the long painful slide from The Godfather to Titanic to Untitled Charlie Kaufman Project 2005.
A Lucas II (a.k.a. “the Clone”) is an even greater crime against celluloid than an L-I, for the simple reason that it happened again. At the same time, a certain measure of ennui dilutes the impact. The imaginative investment in mise-en-scène in an L-II is smaller than in an L-I; consequently, the failings of story and character are more apparent. “Story” seems too strong a word to describe a series of action scenes that, in the wake of the genre-defining edifice of Hong Kong cinema, are almost embarrassingly flat; to make things worse, the romantic interludes that punctuate these sequences feature kisses and embraces compared to which Michael Jackson’s staged smooches with Lisa-Marie Presley seem, if not hot, than at least believable. Bridled with unparsable dialogue and blinkered by blue screens, half of the characters in an L-II are portrayed by talented performers who don’t quite seem to know what to do with themselves, while the remaining cast members are so talentless that their ability to memorize their lines leads only to the inevitable pain of them opening their mouths.
By contrast, a Lucas III is nothing more than a sigh-the sigh uttered by a terminally ill patient when, finally, the euthanasia is administered. Part punishment, part release (in the most scatological sense of the term), it’s no mistake that an L-III is known simply as “the Shit.”
The preceding paragraphs, of course, are about as relevant to the discussion of the last three Star Wars movies as the official announcement of the end of the search for weapons of mass destruction was to the soldiers and citizens being picked off in twos and tens in Iraq. From the get-go, we all knew The Phantom Menace was as barren of aesthetic merit as-well, in the interest of propriety, let’s not work the W.M.D. metaphor any further. Suffice it to say that Star Wars has long since passed from cinematic to cultural narrative, a story that won’t end with the last movie or the last few hundred million in action-figure sales, but with the as-yet-unforeseeable death of the much-larger phenomenon it initiated: the blockbuster era, which, like crack addiction, sustains itself on cycles of euphoria, amnesia and denial.
Certainly Attack of the Clones did nothing to change that assessment, and Revenge of the Shit, which opens on May 19, will surprise no one. In particular, the evolution of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader is dismally perfunctory. His bargain with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/The Emperor/Darth Siddius is not exactly handled with Faustian subtlety, while the physical metamorphosis from skinny Jedi warrior into wheezing, towering, black-suited monster is slapdash in its execution: When the mask does finally slip over Hayden Christensen’s face, Vader has managed to lose any fearfulness he once possessed. Mr. Christensen himself, despite a fine performance in Shattered Glass, is here wooden and unconvincing, seeming to have only one expression: a top-lit scowl that makes his forehead unnaturally protuberant.
The rest of the plot is even more mechanical: The destruction of the Jedi Order, formerly the mightiest fighting force in the galaxy, takes about three minutes; the transformation of the Republic into the Empire, presumably based on the Roman model, takes even less time; the death of Padme Many-Names in childbirth is chalked up to nothing more than “a lost will to live.” The dialogue is laughably bad (as in: the audience frequently giggled when the actors spoke); the sets have lost any wow factor they once had-no Death Star, no Cloud City, no Millennium Falcon-and there are many occasions in which it’s difficult to believe that the special effects were executed by Mr. Lucas’ renowned, groundbreaking company, Industrial Light and Magic. In particular, the giant rainbow-colored iguana that Ewan McGregor rides for much of the second act-besides being incredibly goofy-never once seems like a real creature.
There has not, in fact, been a good Star Wars movie since the first one. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, despite the presence of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, the hologram of Alec Guinness and the voice of James Earl Jones, are rote elaborations of a story arc that was pretty thin to start with. Like the prequels of the last six years, they were made primarily to gratify a marketing line and, possibly, their creator’s ego. Yet, although their props and characters-from Cloud City to the Ewok Village-ultimately seemed to have been designed with toy stores firmly in mind, Empire and Jedi still managed to convey a sense of Mr. Lucas’ childlike thrall to all things gadgety and goofy, a loss much lamented in a Simpsons episode that lampoons the diminutive director of a Star Wars –type movie.
But the real loss in the immediate sequels was the cantankerous sexual triangle of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia that had given Star Wars a recognizable and genuinely compelling psychological frisson. This was partly a casting problem: Neither Mr. Ford nor Ms. Fisher seemed to take much interest in the later endeavors, and Mark Hamill couldn’t carry the movies’ ever-more attenuated storylines on his own. The problem stemmed from the fact that Mr. Lucas seemed all too aware that the big money was made not through ticket sales to adults or even teenagers, but through toy sales to children (his decision to forgo his director’s salary on the first movie in exchange for a piece of merchandizing is one of Hollywood’s fondest myths of its own beneficence).
As a consequence, Mr. Lucas jettisoned the sex stuff, along with any other traces of personality that had crept into his original story, in favor of poorly conceived Manichean tropes about paternity, empire, and the light and dark sides of the Force, plus a lot of warm-fuzzy thrown in for the kids. Post-hippie, pre–New Age (yeah, the first three movies really were that long ago), this bathetic balancing act subjected viewers to teddy-bear warriors and a Muppet Zen master on the one hand, and, on the other, one of the kitschiest pseudo-revelations of modern cinema: “Luke, I am your father.” Or is it “No, I am your father”? Or “No, Luke, I am your father”? Like “Play it again, Sam,” Darth Vader’s line is one of those iconic phrases whose misquoted version is better than the original.
There’s something to that misquoting. Whether a movie is as great as Casablanca or as mediocre as The Empire Strikes Back, Hollywood’s most successful products have always merged inextricably with the nation’s broader cultural identity. In the case of Bogart’s quip, a bit of straight dialogue was tweaked into an aphoristic expression that captures the way art triggers powerful emotions but also distorts them. There is a simultaneous solidity and evanescence to the original scene that allows this to happen: Rick has forbidden his pianist from playing “As Time Goes By” because it reminds him of his lost love, but with Ilsa’s return the song has the opposite effect, and serves as a buffer between himself and the woman he still can’t have. In either case, art is seen as a measure of loss or lack, causing pain when we expect it to comfort and assuaging us when we think it should rankle.
By contrast, Darth Vader’s line-so awkwardly phrased it had to be fixed by forces outside the movie-is divested of any contextual meaning. Indeed, according to one of the many legends that cloak Star Wars in a haze of adoration, an entirely different line was uttered during filming in order to prevent the secret of Luke Skywalker’s paternity from being leaked before the movie’s release. This would seem to indicate a belief that certain characters and events have a prima facie value regardless of the circumstances in which they occur, which is, of course, true: They’re called archetypes, a term that is the first line of defense against charges of flat characterization and storytelling. What Mr. Lucas seems not to realize is that archetype is the animating principal of all narrative art, and the artist’s job is to harness that energy in contextually relevant, creative ways. Otherwise, instead of archetype you get stereotype, and you might as well watch or read Sophocles’ Oedipus for the original and still-untopped father-killing moment.
It’s hard to know what sort of contemporary relevance Star Wars was meant to have by its creator, or what resonance it had for an audience who, whether they were critics or regular ticket buyers, seemed to confine their reaction to oohing and aahing. Like Casablanca, Star Wars is a myth of resistance to an oppressive government. But where the earlier film tempered stoicism with cynicism (or perhaps vice versa), positing the necessity of right action despite enormous personal cost, the original Star Wars trilogy promulgates the comforting illusion that righteous rebellion is always an ennobling act. Mr. Lucas has said the inspiration for his story was the innocence of the sci-fi serials of the 30’s-bad movies whose influence is in fact the worst part of Star Wars-but his nostalgic revival reminds me of another, more proximal transfer: namely, the displacement of national anxieties about Vietnam onto the Korean War in the movie and television versions of M*A*S*H.
Is Star Wars actually a kind of antidote to the pessimism of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate generation? A movie that allows conservatives to believe in a just war and liberals to believe that resistance can, finally, lead to victory? A movie that reassures both sides that good deeds need not come at the expense of personal happiness? You could certainly make that case, and it’s by no means the worst thing in the world-whatever else it is, Star Wars is hardly reactionary. At the very least, it pays lip service to the idea that corrupt or unjust governments should be removed from power. But what, then, is the context of the current trilogy? What is it that compels millions of fans to shell out billions of dollars on tickets and movie-related paraphernalia for three of the worst films to plague theaters in recent memory? What is it that led a handful of diehards to pitch a tent outside the Ziegfeld weeks before the movie opened, so that they could buy the first tickets when they went on sale?
Like the misquoted father line, the poor schmucks in the Boba Fett and Anakin Skywalker costumes tell us a lot about the way people think of the Star Wars movies. Or, rather, the ways in which they don’t think of them, but think rather of some idealized version of the moviegoing experience. In the first place, a box office is not, in the age of the Internet, the place where the first tickets to a movie are going to be sold. And if the campout was really about getting into the theater before anyone else, then the proper thing to do would have been to manufacture a press credential from some podunk or nonexistent magazine or other-certainly an easier task than finding a public restroom on the Upper West Side. But Star Wars fans are less interested in seeing the movie than in having seen the movie, say, 25 or 37 or 56 times, or however many screenings it takes to adequately convey one’s sense of enthusiasm or, better yet, receive some kind of public acclaim for that enthusiasm. This is not so much the Force at work as force majeure, or mass hysteria.
Or perhaps it’s merely a kind of cultural utilitarianism. The American century was, for better or worse, the Hollywood century, and both concerns were fueled by the idea that unlimited expansion and cultural hegemony were practically moral imperatives. America’s strength as a nation has always been its malleability, its ability to absorb exogenous elements and subsume them to the primary cultural narrative of manifest destiny. This is as true of the national art form as it is of the national character. Like every culture, America writes its myths of itself, but we’re remarkably efficient at the process; indeed, with Hollywood’s help, we often write history before it happens, and regardless of what plays out, we tend to remember the spin rather than what actually occurred.
George Bush has been not one but three or five or seven different Presidents, all of them mutually exclusive entities and none of them (at least in the slim majority of the electorate’s view) canceling the others out or challenging their central figure’s authenticity. George Lucas’ six-movie cycle is, depending on whom you talk to, the highest of the high or the lowest of the low: a work of popular metaphysics that verges on a new religion (in yet another anecdotal legend, Mr. Lucas is said to have arrived in a belief in the Force after a severe car accident in his youth) or a marketing juggernaut that quashed all competitors and amassed its creator a personal fortune valued, according to some estimates, at $3 billion. L. Ron Hubbard or Bill Gates, Scientology or Microsoft: The analogies distract us from the fact that the only thing real about most things in America these days is the amount of money they’re worth.
Well. People who do stupid things and fail are called fools; people who do stupid things and succeed are called visionaries; the people who buy into this stupid binary are called consumers. But consumers exact their revenge. They torture their celebrities mercilessly: stalk them with paparazzi, dissect their every move and speculate wildly about their motives, force them to diet and suture themselves, encourage their excesses, fan their idiosyncrasies and insecurities into outright perversion, and, most of all, glut in their fall. We live in a discriminatory era whose prejudices are cruel but whose love is even crueler. Witness Howard Hughes; witness Princess Diana; witness Michael Jackson. We prefer these more flamboyant or grotesque examples of egomania and destruction to the more straightforward banality of greed-which, when you get right down to it, is the only real explanation for the making of all six of the Star Wars movies, and the success of the last five.
It was Liberace-an early genius of cross-platform branding, and one of its first victims-who coined the showman’s retort about “crying all the way to the bank” before dying in his mirrored Las Vegas palace, wig still firmly glued to his bald head and God knows how many rings on his fingers. It’s hard to imagine any other inscription will appear on George Lucas’ tombstone other than “May the Force be with you,” yet I would suggest a more telling line, one that Queen Padme says to Anakin Skywalker after his inevitable but still incomprehensible turn to evil: “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” Beneath which, perhaps, some dissenter can one day scrawl the only appropriate answer: