It’s not often that I feel self-conscious about my pop culture pursuits. I was happily watching cartoons back when it was not socially acceptable for an adult (nor even a teenager) to do so, and I like a good chick flick now and then, and when Warren Ellis suggested in Transmetropolitan that “TV wrestling is phallocentric soap opera for retards and intellectually lazy intelligent people who get off on cultural slumming,” I may have laughed knowingly and conceded his point without protest, but I still tuned in for that week‘s episode of Monday Night Raw.
Indeed, only one thing embarrasses me: I have become a Star Wars fan.
Consider Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, pretty much unanimously held aloft as the most triumphant entry in the entire Star Wars series. Here you have a movie which admittedly boasts wildly imaginative creatures, vehicles and set designs, but which offers not a single memorable line of dialogue. Oh wait, here‘s one: “I don‘t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.”
“Laser brain”? And this is one of the world’s most celebrated works of science fiction?
A buddy of mine likes to argue that the dialogue in the Star Wars series is intentionally limp and uninspired, the better to reflect the spirit of the pulp serials that inspired the saga in the first place. I don’t want to say that my friend is wrong, necessarily. But his claim is either nonsense because he‘s wrong, or it‘s nonsense because he‘s right. Either option points to a seriously disheartening bout of creative bankruptcy on the part of George Lucas; Star Wars is intended to be the apotheosis of science fiction pulp sagas, and anyone who decides to produce the definitive space opera should also endeavor to imbue it with memorable dialogue. After all, the Indiana Jones movies are no less cheerfully absurd and delightfully over-the-top than Star Wars, but they offer dialogue that dares to make you believe in the story.
It’s difficult to imagine Han Solo, for all his ostensible edginess, saying anything so menacing as what Indy says to taunt Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “You want to talk to God? Let’s go see him together. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
That said, the triumph of the dialogue in the Indiana Jones series is that it treats high drama with such frivolous nonchalance. As a teacher and a parent, my most recent favorite example is from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wherein Indy admonishes Marion to take it easy on her son, Mutt, who should be allowed to drop out of school, by Indy’s reasoning, in order to pursue his own interests. Moments later, Marion reveals that Mutt is Indy’s son, to which Indy indignant replies, “Why isn’t he in school?!”
However, the funniest dialogue from the Indiana Jones series might be from The Last Crusade. Captured by villains who threaten to hunt down his friend Marcus Brody, Indy boasts, “He’s got a two day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom. He’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.”
Soon after, Indiana’s father Henry pleads, “But you said he had a two day head start. That he would blend in, disappear,” to which Indy replies, “Are you kidding? I made all that up. You know Marcus. He once got lost in his own museum.”
The dialogue in the six Star Wars movies, by contrast, is distressingly dull, self-serious and somber.
Roger Ebert wrote something interesting about the underrated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May 2008: “The movie isn‘t a throwback to the Saturday serials of the 1930s and 1940s. It‘s what they would have been if they could have been.” (“I admit it: I loved ‘Indy’”, 19 May 2008)
It would obviously be foolish to suggest that any director of a sci-fi or adventure serial from the early 20th century would not have been thrilled beyond measure to have produced anything half as visually arresting as Star Wars. But while Star Wars is, perhaps, like Indiana Jones, what the serials of the ‘40s and ‘50s would like to have been, it is also clearly not all that it could have been.
Still, I found myself unaccountably drawn to the series, and so I revisited first the original trilogy, and then the prequel trilogy. My initial reaction was to concede that perhaps I’d been mistaken about the Star Wars films, which are enchanting despite their shortcomings. My second reaction was to note that everyone else is wrong about the Star Wars films, too.
For one thing, the best movie from the original series is not The Empire Strikes Back; it is Return of the Jedi. Why? There is more at stake in Jedi, if not where the plot is concerned, then certainly within the characterization, which raises another point about which the majority is mistaken: Luke Skywalker is more compelling than Han Solo.
Now clearly, Han Solo has more street cred than Luke Skywalker (and we all know that street cred is all that matters in a children’s space opera), but while he is easily ten times cooler than Luke Skywalker, Han Solo pretty much remains what he is throughout the trilogy; he changes, sure, but from a smug, vainglorious, cocksure pirate of muddy morals to a more selfless and heroic pirate who is otherwise still smug, vainglorious and cocksure. Luke is the only character in the entire trilogy to undergo significant change.
Like so many awkward, confused young men, Luke Skywalker has a capital-L Legacy he feels compelled to defy, and partly as a result, he relies largely on friends and surrogate family members to provide the guidance a father is supposed to offer. Obi-Wan and Yoda serve as mentors for a young, naïve, impressionable Luke, while his father is little but a distant, ominous shadow. Still, and again like so many awkward, confused young men: Luke needs his father.
Meanwhile, the Emperor, a symbolic Grandfather Skywalker of sorts, makes the obligatory space opera references to “evil”, but he places stronger emphasis on something far more commonplace and relatable: anger. Indeed, when is Luke at his weakest? When he triumphs over his father in their final light saber duel; each blow he rains down on his father’s fallen form represents more loss of Luke’s self-control. There’s a reason the Emperor applauds the young man’s victory.
For me, Return of the Jedi calls to mind Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s The Incredible Hulk series, for if The Incredible Hulk could be said to boast a single, defining statement, it would be summarized by the first two or three seconds of footage in the opening credits sequence, as ANGER flashes in red, then the camera pulls back to show that what we’re seeing is a warning button in a science lab, which reads DANGER.
This could also be the Return of the Jedi thesis: ANGER = DANGER.
Before succumbing to his fury, Luke pleads with his dad to escape the Emperor with him. Anakin responds, “It’s too late for me, son,” which is exactly the self-pitying copout you would expect from an absent father; “it’s too late for me” sounds like something you might hear from Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, or from real-life pro wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the Beyond the Mat documentary, wherein we see Jake flee his grown daughter to smoke crack in his hotel room. (Meanwhile, I asked some friends what they thought might have happened had Luke had been successful in his attempt to persuade his father to flee the Death Star with him before their confrontation with the Emperor. My friend Chip‘s answer: “Weird ride home.”)
Luckily, Anakin rescues Luke from the deadly consequences of his own anger when Luke himself proves incapable, leading to the most poignant exchange George Lucas ever penned:
Luke: I’m going to save you.
Anakin: You already have.
I am a very lucky son, for I got to enjoy just such a cathartic moment with my own dad, and in our case we have enjoyed the happy aftermath for 15 years now, rather than the few hurried deathbed moments the Skywalkers are allowed. Is it because my own troubled relationship with my father rebounded in such a wonderful fashion that the closing moments of the Skywalker father/son saga struck me (to my surprise and near-embarrassment) as so touching? (If so, what feelings does the Skywalker conflict and its resolution stir in my friends who are enthusiastic Star Wars fans whose fathers are absent?)
Or is it just that George Lucas paints his father-son drama in such broad, mythic strokes that it cannot help but feel powerful? (I am reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Once More With Feeling”, which creator Joss Whedon suggested was a fitting and inevitable episode because the characters in his series were so histrionic that you’d always kind of expected them to break out in song.)
So Luke and Anakin Skywalker save one another; the father saves the son’s life, the son saves the father’s soul. And along the way, both men change and grow. “Vader” learns to love again, and while Luke’s furious denial of his father in The Empire Strikes Back is like a caricature of a typical teenager (“These are not my parents!”), he learns, like so many young adults, to reluctantly accept (and even stubbornly insist) that “there is good” in his father. Really, Luke Skywalker’s arc calls to mind an old quote that is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
But if fans are mistaken about Return of the Jedi and Luke Skywalker (they dismiss Jedi because of its Ewoks, and Skywalker is often deemed a wuss), might they also be wrong about the prequel trilogy?
The author and his daughter as Luke and Leia, from
Disneyland’s Star Tours
First, though, let us all agree on something: the Star Wars prequels are painfully corny and overwrought. But so was the classic trilogy. Since I’d always derided the entire six-film series, I feel no sense of betrayal when viewing the prequels. I lack the powerful emotional attachment that most geeks my age bring to these films, and so just as I can admit that the old Star Wars movies are good despite their glaring flaws, I can admit the same about the prequels.
Especially the most derided of the bunch: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.