I admit it. My heart still starts to beat faster when I see those words: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” And it beat faster still when I read the opening crawl and found not a single reference to tariffs or other mind-numbing political intrigue. This last of the second trilogy is the story that takes us from talented but hot-tempered Jedi Anakin Skywalker to helmet-headed Darth Vadar, of the deep, deep voice and the traveling iron lung. Just as in the original (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), we start right in the middle of the action. Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDairmid) has been taken hostage and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and his teacher, Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) have been sent to the rescue.
Here is the good news:
- There is a lot to look at. Those computer geniuses have spent many hours in front of banks of terminals banging away at zeroes and ones with excellent results, eye-filling vistas rich in detail.
- The action scenes are exciting and well-staged. There are chases and light-saber fights, and battles with creatures and robots in the air, in the water, and over racing rivers of lava.
- It ties things together nicely, meshing with the first “Star Wars” (which is now the fourth). You’ll see how Luke and Leia and the robots and Obi-Wan all end up right where they need to be in time to meet up with Han Solo and go after that deathstar.
- Jar-Jar Binks appears only for a moment and is gone before he has time to be annoying.
Now, here’s the bad news. George Lucas is much more interested in making sure that the reflection of some planet’s third moon on a window than he is in some of the other reasons people go to movies, like acting and script. This means that:
- The dialogue is dreadful. It’s bad enough when the characters are talking about politics and when Yoda is croaking on in that corkscrewed syntax verb-at-the-end style. But it actually gets teeth-grindingly painful when Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman) are talking about their feelings. Here’s one exchange: “You are so beautiful.” “That’s because I’m so in love.” “No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.” And later: “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love.”
- Christensen does not have the acting chops to make use believe in Anakin’s conflict. He is supposed to be a passionate and brilliant but deeply conflicted hero with a tragic flaw. He acts like a petulent teenager who’s just been told he can’t drive the family car.
- I miss Han Solo. He’s the best and most interesting and appealing character in any of the movies, and there just isn’t anyone in this movie with his charm and brio.
- And, I’m sorry, I know they’re dying to see it, and have all the toys and the pajamas with Ewoks or whatever, but it’s not for young kids. Anakin has to do some very, very bad things to gain the power of the dark side of the force, and even though the worst of them are off-screen, it is still very disturbing. This is also more graphic than the previous films, both in the fight scenes and in one scene of burning flesh.
- Finally, it just does not have the emotional resonance of the original trilogy. Yoda tells Anakin that “attachment leads to jealousy” and he should train himself “to let go of everything you fear to lose.” I’m sorry, the Jedis are not allowed to fall in love? What’s that about? And Padme says Anakin is under stress? She sounds like the wife of a guy who’s been working too late reviewing auto insurance claims. All of this undermines and trivializes the movie’s salutory attempt at grander themes, like sacrifice and honor and surrendering the perils and risks of freedom for the seductive security of dictatorship.
Parents should know that this movie is more intense and violent than the PG-rated earlier films, with graphic injuries and disturbing themes.
Families who see this movie should talk about the conflicts Anakin faces and how he decides what matters most to him. Why doesn’t he realize how Padme will see his decision?
Families who enjoy this movie should see the entire series. They may also enjoy reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other books by Joseph Campbell that influenced George Lucas in creating these stories. Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth includes an interview with Lucas about “The Mythology of Star Wars.”