Paradise Lost: Star Wars at 30

| May 26, 2007

I can thank my old friend and, at the time, fellow BYU computer science undergrad Mark Savon for setting me on the path of having seen every Star Wars film on opening day. Mark told me about this nifty new movie that was coming out, Star Wars, and suggested we double-date (with our wives) to go see it up in Salt Lake City on a big screen. The ladies were skeptical, to say the least, but allowed us to drag them along (along with our nine-month-old daughter, Jacqui Beth). So, on May 25, 1977, we all were sitting in the pre-multiplex Century Theater (just one large screen — what a concept), waiting for the film to start.

The resurrected Fox fanfare was fun, and the scrolling text at the opening was great. Pan down to a planet…a space ship being fired upon…the pursuing ship coming onto the screen — and coming — and coming — and coming, while the Century’s great sound system let me feel the near-subsonic rumbling of the Imperial Star Destroyer in my chest. I was blown away and, by then, completely lost in the film. The rest of the movie flew by, and we left the theater laughing and talking about what fun it was. My wife and I would go back and see the film six more times during the year or so it was in theatrical release — which still remains a personal record for the number of times I have seen a given film in theaters. In those 30 years since, only one other film has made my jaw drop the same way in its opening sequence: Raiders of the Lost Ark. And my now-former wife Marla and I still quote Star Wars lines back and forth at each other, even 30 years later.

The second film, The Empire Strikes Back, was even better, which I attribute in part to the change in directors (Irvin Kershner) but even more so to the influence (albeit disputed) of Leigh Brackett on the screenwriting team. Nobody wrote dark, flawed-and-reluctant-hero space opera like Leigh Brackett, and the film itself remains my favorite science fiction film of all time, edging out even Serenity. In fact, TESB is my second-favorite film of all time, bested only by Casablanca, with which it shares a few striking similarities in setting, tone, and characters (e.g., compare Rick with Han Solo — and note that both shot a man in cold blood).

The third film, Return of the Jedi, was great, but it could have been even better that TESB if (a) Leigh Brackett had lived and (b) Lucas hadn’t insisted on the damned Ewoks. Even space opera has to play within certain rules, and the idea that short, slow, waddling Ewoks with clubs, spears and stone could slow down, much less defeat, even the nortoriously bad-shooting Imperial Stormtroopers was just silly. Still, the final endpiece, with the confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor, with Luke’s willingness to die rather than kill his father and convert to the Dark Side, was very powerful, and it was a great wrap-up to the series.

We should have had some warning of what was to come with the special editions of the original trilogy. While (unlike some) I thought the new and improved special effects were great, I was appalled at Lucas changing two of the key character defining moments in the films: Han pre-emptively shooting Greeto in the cantina, and Luke dropping silently to his death within Cloud City rather than joining Vader (Lucas added him screaming as he fell). (I believe there was yet another change in ROTJ along the same lines, but I can’t recall what it is as I sit here.)

And then we get to the prequel trilogy: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. With these three films, George Lucas managed to take what was probably the most beloved series of films in cinema history and turn them into a train wreck, a laughingstock. A very lucrative train wreck/laughingstock, it’s true — but these are films that become even more painful and/or boring on repeated viewing.

Example #1: I saw Attack of the Clones on opening day at the Uptown Theater in Washington DC (a wonderful theater, and during our last four years in DC within walking distance of our house). While there were some great moments (most notably Yoda’s fight with Count Dooku, though even that had a plot hole or two in it), there were far more wince-inducing moments (e.g., virtually every scene with Anakin and Padme). Wanting to ensure that I wasn’t just dealing with overly high expectation, I saw it two more times while it was in theatrical release. During the third viewing — a digital projection out in Northern Virginia that my daughter Salem and I went to — I found myself dozing off during the film, and that in spite of having consumed a large (theater-sized) diet Coke.

Example #2: Some months back, I was traveling on business and happen to come upon Revenge of the Sith playing on HBO while flipping through channels in my hotel room. Shorn of widescreen presentation and thundering sound, the film was almost unwatchable; I changed the channel after a minute or two.

The phenomenon is not unique to Lucas; Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski created one of the most delightful and watchable films of the past 20 years, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, then followed it up with two bloated, turgid (but lucrative, I must confess) sequels. I have watched the original Pirates, piecemeal or in its entirety, many times on cable and DVD; like About a Boy, it is one of those rare films that you can pick up and watch at any point and still have a great time. By contrast, I think that I have watched the second film (Dead Man’s Chest) a grand total of three times (twice in theaters, once on DVD), and I’m not entirely sure that I’ll go back to see the third film (At World’s End) a second time in theaters (yes, saw it on opening day yesterday).

But one has to wonder: just as Lucas paved the road for the summer blockbuster with Star Wars, did he likewise pave the road for the wretched follow-up with the prequel trilogy? And who will break the curse? ..bruce..

For lots and lots of thoughts on Star Wars, check out the Star Wars Blog-a-Thon over at the Edward Copeland on Film blog.

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Category: Main, Movies, Reviews, Star Wars

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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