Monday, May 23, 2005

Star Wars redux

In the comments, VKW says:

I am fascinated by fans of Star Wars who insist that the movies are good or great even though they acknowledge that elements usually considered to be essential to a good movie, such as writing, acting, and direction, are relatively weak.

I was going to comment on this, but I forgot. I cited the technology as one attractive element of the series, but technology and eye candy aren't enough to carry a movie.

What's great about the original series, and what Lucas recovers here, is the storyline. Lucas does what Neil Gaiman did in the Sandman series, integrate the classic mythologies and the archetypical storylines into modern forms. While the writing doesn't match Shakespeare or Homer, I think the good Star Wars movies (excluding Eps 1 & 2) are better than, say, Troy. Troy took the story but left out the mythology. The acting was fine, the writing decent, but the heart of the story got lost. Where were the Gods? The passions? The intrigue? In the end, it was A to B.

Star Wars is A to B as well, but the good ones make you care about the path. Yes, the eye candy helps, but Lucas can weave together characters without the aid of brilliant dialog or exceptional acting. He's a story teller, and he knows how to use raw action and the magic of the cinema, the visual power of a scene, to move the story along. The good Star Wars movies would work well as cinema without the audio, while they would be deadly dull without the visuals.

In the original three, the compelling story is the arc of Luke coming into his own as a leader and a hero. While The Hero with a Thousand Faces line is a bit old, and it gives Lucas too much credit to claim that he wrote the series with Campbell's help, I think that he tapped into the same deep well of stories that Campbell synthesized into his opus.

In other words, Lucas was probably not inspired by Campbell, yet he still created a hero and a heroic story that matched the archetype Campbell was developing, and the enduring power of the story is demonstrated by the success of the Star Wars story.

Episode Three has a smaller arc. If the first two movies were better, the Anakin/Vader arc might have been even more fascinating than the Luke arc, because it's the hero who falls. Yes, he's redeemed in the end, but that's different. The first two failed to launch that arc, but the third delivers a powerful Anakin. Anakin is at the height of his power, he sees his potential, but he's not mature enough to see the pitfalls. His secret marriage and pregnancy and his anger over his mother's death are interesting, but not compelling. His struggle is with power.

He's an established hero, with power and wealth of a sort, but he wants more. He's shown a chance to control everything, even life, and he seizes it. You see it coming, but you don't care, because Lucas may telegraph every twist his story takes, but the story is interesting as it happens.

The politics of the story are minor, and if totalitarianism weren't in the air, no one would find the phrase "So this is how democracy dies – to thunderous applause" terribly deep. But we are cursed with a dictatorial president and a Senate content to confirm his worst abuses. The political commentaries on this movie are no more intrinsic to the story than Hamlet's Freudian analysis is intrinsic to Shakespeare. It's a strength of the work that unintended meanings can be found in it.

Anyway, the Senate will approve some of Bush's nominees, and others will get bottled up forever. James Dobson is pissed, Democrats are wary, and life moves on. There will be no thunderous applause from anyone for a little while yet.