How few installments of a series can you enjoy while still claiming to be a 'fan'?
It's yet another closing time for nerds; Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith is upon us. Allegedly the final Star Wars film, it is something of a "do or die" event for George Lucas and his hardcore fans, alternately worshipful and furious, sometimes both at the same time. Many fans were disappointed by Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) and Episode II -- Attack of the Clones (2002); according to conventional wisdom, Episode III is the last chance for Lucas to make a great Star Wars movie, and the last chance for fans to enjoy one.
But I'm not really here to write about Episode III (although I am anticipating it wildly). I'm here to make the case for my belief that Menace and Clones were good movies.
I hesitate to use the word "belief," because it conjures images of the most common Star Wars defenders: fans willing to defend anything and everything Lucas has done or will do. If Star Wars is a religion for some, it seems there are two major sects: the fundamentalist true believers for whom the word of Lucas is final, and those dismayed by what they perceive as corruption of their church; though jaded, they're eager to believe again. Most media outlets adopt this position, usually a month or two after the movies are released. My own faith in Star Wars lies somewhere in between. I am a churchgoer with conviction, but not unshakeable devotion; I love my church, even if I don't agree with every decision.
The first two Star Wars prequels actually earned decent reviews at first. Episode I scored a 62 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes; Episode II scored a 65 percent, both within the realm of positive, if not ecstatic, notices (60 percent or greater is considered "fresh" on the site). On metacritic.com, both movies scored in the low 50s ("mixed or average"). The first prequel passed $400 million at the domestic box office, and the second passed $300 million; while there have been plenty of $100 million or $200 million grosses achieved primarily through smash-and-grab hype, every other recent movie making Star Wars-level money (Pirates of the Caribbean; Shrek 2; the first Harry Potter; the Lord of the Rings series) has been portrayed in the media as a major crowd-pleaser.
I won't argue that box office equals quality, only that it's statistically unlikely that as many viewers disliked the prequels as the entertainment media would have us think. A common rejoinder to these wholly respectable numbers is that audiences (and critics who praise the films) are "drinking the Kool-Aid." Hardcore Lucas defenders are accused, on message boards and the like, of watching (and re-watching) the movies with slavish desperation.
I didn't repeatedly re-watch the original trilogy until high school, before, during, and after the re-releases, and through the infectious enthusiasm of brilliant and nerdy friends. I approached Phantom Menace with high expectations, then, and found them mostly met. The movie feels like Star Wars, even -- maybe especially -- in its flaws, like some awkward dialogue and the blithely irritating Jar-Jar Binks, whom I found more or less analogous to Chewbacca or C-3PO in the original trilogy. Chewbacca is inexplicably beloved for yowling and 3PO for being whiny, even downright nasty, especially in The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas has never been known for his subtle sense of humor.
Neither is he a particularly strong director of actors, though his casting makes up for some of that: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jin) and Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) share an unforced chemistry. Natalie Portman has been derided for her wooden delivery in Menace, but many of the Queen's most stilted lines (making proclamations in full royal regalia) are actually spoken by Keira Knightley, who plays her double. Portman's own scenes, showing tenderness opposite young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and a furrowed look of annoyance towards Qui-Gon, bring real sweetness.
As its detractors will point out, Phantom Menace is a movie geared to children, with robots, creatures, slapstick, and an impossibly heroic eight-year-old. But this is precisely what's so charming about it. The Star Wars series embraces a mixture of serious and silly, visually inventive and verbally clunky. If the pacing is a little uneven and Jar-Jar's Q-rating severely misestimated, the movie is still full of amazing sights (the Senate chamber; a three-way lightsaber duel; the underwater Gungan city) and Saturday-matinee thrills.
For thrills, I like Attack of the Clones even more. The much-maligned relationship between an older Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padmé is admittedly the weakest thread of the film, a showcase for some particularly ill-thought-out Lucas dialogue, including a treatise, now somewhat famous, comparing sand and Portman's skin (sand, not surprisingly, is not favored). But the love stuff is at least enjoyably campy, and doesn't take up much of the film's running time.
In fact, the final hour of Clones is astonishingly kinetic, racing through four or five stunning set pieces. Especially in light of the turgid sameness of those thousand-man battles in Lord of the Rings, the Clones action sequences are inventive: a Looney-Tunes-like chase through a massive droid factory; man-versus-creatures gladiatorial combat; and Yoda's athletic acumen. Even the Anakin-Padmé relationship works better during battle; as they race around to save each other, the attraction makes more sense.
The best performance in both films is Ewan McGregor's as Obi-Wan Kenobi. His appeal throughout the series has been criminally underrated; he may not be as blatant as Han Solo, but watch the way he deals with an intergalactic drug dealer early on in Clones, dispatching a Jedi mind trick with sly (yet straight-faced and virtuous) casualness.
The appearance of this drug dealer demonstrates Lucas' affection for entertaining seediness. One of my favorite prequel characters is Watto, a sleazy junk-dealer on Tatooine, sort of a small-time Jabba the Hutt (who makes a briefly hilarious appearance in Phantom Menace, looking bored by the pod racing sequence). While Star Wars indulges in a familiar good-versus-evil battle, there is greater attention to gray areas than many will admit.
This is especially true in the prequels, where so much of the story is rooted in the heroes' flaws. This is a series, really, about bad judgment despite good intentions. Qui-Gon insists on taking on the doomed Anakin as a pupil; the Jedi council has a difficult time detecting and curbing the Sith forces; Jar-Jar is pressured into putting the Senate on a path toward dictatorship; Anakin reacts to the death of his mother with senseless vengeance. This complexity is not enough for many cineastes, who insist Lucas has sullied his original creations with the new films. Never mind that these films feature their share of clumsy writing; some hardcore "fans" don't like Return of the Jedi, either.
And so we might wonder: is fandom eating itself? How few installments of a series can you enjoy while still claiming to be a "fan"? This is not to say that any Star Wars fan must kowtow to anything Lucas puts out. But if we can acknowledge that the prequels lack novelty, we can also say they maintain a sense of wonder absent from so many recent blockbusters. Maybe wonder isn't so appealing anymore. Witness the credit given the Shrek movies just for appropriating the rhythms of a snarky sitcom. Or think of those childhood Star Wars fans who now prefer Terminator 2 and The Matrix.
Those last two are certainly more adult-oriented movies, and may be "cooler" than Menace or Clones. But my joy in watching Episode I and Episode II taps into my earliest experiences watching movies, that time when you kinda liked any movie you saw, because going to the movies was so much fun. Star Wars overcomes years of maturing critical faculty, not by being perfect, but by staying true to itself. I can accept some cumbersome dialogue here or some Jar-Jar there, because Lucas has such conviction in his world, down to the silliest details. While re-watching Episode I in advance of Sith, my eyes fixed on a trio of chattering pit droids during the pod race sequence; one is sucked through a pod engine and spit out the other end, singed and screaming. I laughed, not just because a robot getting sucked into an engine is funny, but because Lucas put this wholly unnecessary scene in the movie in the first place. Even after many viewings, these films feel alive with possibility.
If the prequels can open that door for me, they must be doing something right. For some, such regression might be uncomfortable, but I'm happy to admit that's not the case for me. The story of the new trilogy ends, as everyone knows, on a tragic note, and doubtless many will prefer this new, darker material. I'm looking forward to it, too. But I'm glad for the un-darkness first. Episode I and Episode II start off brightly, progressing into the tragedy of Sith. The eight-year-old in me thanks them.