It’s the Story, Stupid!

Summer’s arrival means one thing to Hollywood: money. For decades summer blockbusters have represented both Hollywood’s largest budgets and revenues. Not looking to impress the Academy with thought-provoking scripts or virtuoso acting performances, movie studios offer roller-coasters not Shakespeare-in-the-park.

Perhaps no movie franchise better embodies summer more than Star Wars. Providing a heroic tale of good versus evil in a fanciful environment, George Lucas caught the jaded 1970’s audience by surprise and created a cultural marker especially for the young American male. After quickly creating another summer movie staple – the bankable sequel – Star Wars’ success made movie studios desperate to discover the show’s “secret.” Duplication proved elusive though because most have misunderstood what made Star Wars so attractive. Considering the formula, Hollywood remains fixated on the fanciful, while rejecting heroism and the idea of good versus evil. Therefore, every year moviegoers are provided an endless parade of tormented “heroes,” religious villains, and ambiguous moral choices surrounded by outrageous special effects and computer generated illusions. Admittedly, publicity machines and compliant media generate enough interest in these train wrecks to turn enormous profits but if Hollywood wants to actually produce films that become cultural signposts, it will have to offer stories with resonance, not just relativity with volume.

By the new millennium, Lucas himself proved that he too did not understand what made his original trilogy successful by producing a “prequel” trilogy long on special effects and short on story. With Revenge of the Sith, 2005 may see the final installment of Star Wars (that is currently Lucas’ claim) and while going out with a financial bang, the story ends in a moral whimper.

[Warning:  Movie “spoilers” revealed in the following three paragraphs]

For those interested in computer generated effects, Sith will not disappoint.  However, those looking for inspiration must go elsewhere. This film was to explain why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader (one of movie history’s greatest villains) but unfortunately, the first two sequels already established that Anakin/Vader was nothing more than a whiny punk. This movie tries to make his turn tragic by revolving the decision around Anakin’s attempt to keep his wife Padme from dying, but while there is potential for meaningful tragedy here, stiff acting and Lucas’ stilted dialogues keeps believability far at bay.

The climatic face-off between Obi-wan Kenobi, Anakin’s mentor, and the newly “turned” Vader provides the opportunity to convey the movie’s most “poignant” messages. However, it only reveals what C.S. Lewis might call Lucas’s “muddy heathen mysticisms.” As the two clash, Vader, in words reminiscent of Christ, declares that “you are either for me or against me” giving the “wise” Obi-wan opportunity to retort that “only the Sith deal in absolutes.” This obvious attack on Christianity is offensive but loses its sting since with his next breath Obi-wan himself declares that the “Emperor is evil” while Anakin the relativistic postmodern proclaims that “from my point of view the Jedi are evil.” Consequently, while seemingly wishing to endorse relativism, Lucas inadvertently proves its untenableness. Regardless, watching two relativists fight to the death over belief fails to inspire, entertain, or make sense.

Finally, Revenge of the Sith has received some criticism as just another Hollywood attack on the Bush administration. Since Lucas has had at least the outline of these stories for years and the political plotline actually mirrors Hitler’s rise to power, this criticism appears unfounded. However, Natalie Portman (one of the most vocal Hollywood Bush Bashers) delivers exactly one line with feeling in the movie and she probably has Bush in mind. “So this is how freedom dies…to applause” is her character’s reaction to the granting of additional authority to the Emperor in a time of war and was her personal reaction to the popular vote going to President Bush in 2004. Putting aside the bitter politics of the most recent election, political conservatives should actually welcome this philosophical stance. After all, the Founding Fathers recognized that the mob could be just as tyrannical as a king and so embraced republicanism not democracy. And, even if one wants to just play party politics, in the twentieth century, President Bush’s constitutional liberties during war pale in comparison to Democratic icons such as Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson.

Revenge of the Sith generated over 700 million dollars in less than a month, providing a triumphant financial conclusion to one of the movie industry’s most successful franchises. However, for those actually interested in story and not spectacle, the movie represents only Lucas driving the final nail in the coffin of his once splendid tale.

Jason R. Edwards

Jason R. Edwards

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with The Center for Vision & Values and a professor of history at Grove City College. If you would like to reach Dr. Jason R. Edwards for comment, please contact him at [email protected]

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