We were planning to go see The Force Awakens, and then had the idea to see all the previous ones again, in order, to get up to speed on the history. Neither of us are exactly Star Wars fans, though we enjoyed the series well enough. It turned out to be a good idea, as neither of us recalled much at all about the three prequels. Great stretches of all three movies were like seeing brand new films, they were that vague in my memory. In fact, I started to question if I had seen The Phantom Menace at all. That was both good and bad news. The upside was that some of the settings and space and ground vehicles were pretty awesome if you don’t remember them. The sour note was that I got to dislike Jar Jar Binks all over again.
Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) The big question, of course, is why is Jar Jar Binks so irritating, so universally hated? It’s not so much the speech pattern, which is even more annoying than Yoda’s, which I found annoying all the way back in The Empire Strikes Back. (He’s such a super-smart little shit, why can’t he learn to put the verb in the middle of the sentence? What is he, German?) Some have even suggested Jar Jar’s character is racist, harking back to Stepin Fetchit, what with his shuffling and silly remarks. I can see that, a little, but that’s not really it, either. What I think turned me off the most is that he is so obviously comic relief. He might as well be wearing a T-shirt with KICK ME written on it. He blunders around wherever he is, and for the life of me I can’t figure why Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor keep him around. He’s useless, except for getting laughs. And there is the core of the matter: He’s not funny! That is an unforgivable sin for a comic foil.
Little Anakin is about as annoying as children of that age used to be in films of the ‘40s. George Lucas is not an actor’s director, that’s always been clear, the action and the setting has always been much more important to him, and children are the hardest to direct.
So the biggest set piece here is the big race, and it’s a stunner. Also, it’s pretty ridiculous, with a seven-year-old driving one of the racers. But I was able to forget that and just enjoy the action. As, indeed, I’ve usually been able to do in this series. But I do get pretty bored with light sabre duels. I mean, you’ve seen one and you’ve seen them all. If I was handing out grades, I’d give this one a B-, or maybe a C+. Let’s face it, the best thing about this first episode is Natalie Portman’s hair.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) So somebody is making 10,000 soldier clones on an ocean planet. It’s not clear just who they are going to be fighting for, but I have my suspicions. (What I hadn’t realized the first time around is that 9,000 of the clones were played by Tatiana Maslany in really good make-up. And she was only seventeen years old!) (Okay, kidding.) Jango Fett is there, and his little son Boba, who I remember from the original trilogy. And we get our first look at the adolescent Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader. I disliked him more than Jar Jar Binks. He’s headstrong, a complainer, petulant, a real pain in the ass. No wonder he was so vulnerable to the Dark Side of the Force. I have no idea why the level-headed Senator Padmé Amidala fell for him, except that I know some girls can’t resist the bad boy. He is handsome, in a brooding, James Dean sort of way. And, of course, we know she has to produce Luke and Leia in time for Episode Four. Question: She is now an ex-queen, on a planet that is bragging about its democracy. What, they elect queens on Naboo?
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) This one exists mostly to chronicle the final descent of that betraying prick Anakin Skywalker, his being sliced and diced by Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his transformation into Darth Vader. Tell you the truth, I’m not even sure who the Sith are. And by this time we were pretty bored with space battles, no matter how complex and thrilling, and way beyond bored with light saber battles. So, on to the next, the granddaddy of them all …
Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) There’s a serious disconnect here if you are watching them in order. Since they were filmed IV, V, VI, I, II, III, the state of the art of special effects had evolved tremendously in almost thirty years. Don’t forget that the original film didn’t have an astronomical budget. It had been a hard sell, and most people didn’t believe in it. SF was cheap monsters in rubber suits and phony spaceships, except for 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Not that Star Wars is science fiction. No way. It repeals about a hundred basic laws of physics. I think of these films as heroic fantasy.) Even so, it blew our minds back in the day, because we had never seen anything remotely like it.
It still holds up well, I think. The story is really simple, but it’s pretty easy to get behind these comic book characters if you just sit back and let the visual feast roll over you. I didn’t have a lot of trouble ignoring the most annoying character in all six movies, which would be C3PO. What a whining, complaining, irritating bucket of bolts! I ignored the fact that the constant bickering between Han Solo and Princess Leia was all on the level of junior high school. I thought that the goddam Wookiee was annoying, too. And yet it all worked. I was on the edge of my seat for the final battle with the Death Star.
Somewhere along the line George Lucas tinkered with the original trilogy, beefing up a lot of the special effects, adding a few scenes and background stuff like the big alien animals. A lot of people didn’t like that, and I’m not crazy about it, either, but hey, they’re his films. The versions we just watched were on Blu-ray, the doctored versions. Luckily, I also possess LaserDisc versions of all three, so I can see them as they were originally shown if I want to. So far I haven’t wanted to.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) May critics have selected this as the best of the whole series. While I agree that it’s one of the best, to me it is ridiculous to think that any sequel to the original could top it. You can never recapture the magic of seeing this stuff for the first time. You just can’t. Originality trumps all, in my opinion. Plus, this is the first appearance of that annoying little syntax-challenged homunculus, Yoda. Of course, seen in sequence, we already know him pretty well. The difference is that in the trilogy of I, II, III he was computer generated. Here, he is a Muppet. He is even voiced by Frank Oz, who was Jim Henson’s most important collaborator.
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) I guess we can conclude the list of characters I found annoying in these movies (and the list is long, as you have seen), with the Ewoks. I was pissed off from the moment I saw these cuddly little hairballs. It seemed to me to be such a blatant bid for even more tie-in products; in this case, cornering the teddy bear market.
One thing I did realize in watching this marathon that surprised me a little. These six films are not really about Luke Skywalker and his battles at all (though I can see he will probably play a part in VII, VIII, and IX). These films are the epic story of Anakin Skywalker, AKA Darth Vader. It’s a story of temptation, a fall, and redemption. One of the “fixes” Lucas did to this episode was to erase whoever it was who played the phantom Vader here originally and replace him with Hayden Christensen, from II and III. That was okay with me. The unmasked Vader in the original was super creepy. He looked like some sort of worm.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) So now at last we arrive at the reason for this retrospective. We saw it in 3D, no less, but I didn’t think that really enhanced it much. I will join with many others in saying that I didn’t think it showed me much new or original—in fact, in many ways it is almost a re-boot of the first movie, just with a bigger Death Star. The new Darth Vader substitute, Kylo Ren, is just not up to snuff. The new ultra-cute robot, BB-8, who carries the same sort of McGuffin entrusted to R2-D2 in the original, didn’t really charm me all that much. And yet again, I was bored to tears with the light saber duels, and not much impressed with the space battles.
So that’s the bad stuff. It’s really not all that bad. So, good stuff? Yeah. Basically, I had a good time. We saw it in a theater that was almost empty, but I can just imagine how the crowds must have reacted when Han Solo and Chewy made their dramatic entrance. The director even left a small pause for applause, and I’ll bet there was plenty of it. Same, to a lesser degree, with the appearance of that cowardly metal wimp C3PO, and General Leia Organa.
I thought there were two things that were great improvements over the other six. First, I always wondered what was inside those Imperial storm trooper uniforms. They are such total cannon fodder. Are they real people? Now we learn that they are raised to be soldiers, have no real names. The one who deserts just has a number, FN-2187, and comes to be known as Finn. I felt that if one of them could rebel against his training, maybe others could, too. The disappointment, for me, was in the character of a storm trooper officer, Captain Phasma. I wasn’t sure at first that this was actually a woman, and was startled to learn later that it was the amazing, 6’ 3” Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. What a waste to keep her hidden behind a metal mask for the whole movie!
But that is the second thing that was a big improvement, for me. I guess it took a new director, J.J. Abrams, to discover girls in the Star Wars universe. George Lucas never did. In the first six pictures there are really only two female characters. This time around we see that at least some storm troopers and X-wing fighter pilots are female.
Summing up: It’s fun, and there’s really nothing original in it. I’ll go see the next one, no question, but I’m not counting the days.