Your overconfidence is your weakness.” — Luke Skywalker
I. The Phantom Sensibility
As the camera pans down, a gargantuan starship enters the frame. Drums echo on the soundtrack, a surefire antecedent to war. Engine screams announce the entrance of two one-man fighters, speeding unhesitantly into the thicket of battle beneath them. The score picks up a familiar theme, the anthem for the speeding warriors and for the series of films who tell their story. It blares brassily, triumphantly. And the fighters delve more deeply into the bowels of war, expertly parrying each laser-blast and explosion eager to engulf them. It takes well over a minute—in a single, unbroken take—for this spectacle to end. And when it does, we catch a first glimpse of our heroes, who’ve just made sight of the spaceship holding the kidnapped Chancellor they mean to rescue.
Depending on your investment in the Star Wars series up to this point, depending on whether your love weathered a storm of questionable storytelling choices or long since perished, this opening sequence to Revenge of the Sith will either thrill you or exhaust you. Yet one truth is certain: the opening scene—as written, as animated, as scored—comes with it the unmistakable charge of a director prepared to issue his final, lasting impression. He is ready as an artist to bid you adieu. He hopes to God the farewell is a fond one. Yet even if it isn’t, he at least wants his exit to be remembered.
George Lucas is known as perhaps the most significant voice in the history of mainstream cinema. And for once, such hyperbole is deserved. He helped to usher Hollywood out of its creative golden age and into the Reagan-era mass marketing and mass consumption. He has invested in the development of film technology, be it the proliferation of computer effects or the sophistication of sound design. The success of his work mutated the economic ambitions of Hollywood filmmaking.
And yet George Lucas is, among these other things, a filmmaker. Though he has directed only six feature films (Terrence Malick is officially a more prolific director), and though expansions of the universe of his most successful film account for half that output, Lucas will never not be a director. And just like Welles and Wyler, like Godard and Varda, his work warrants interpretation of his core creative interests and obsessions. Perhaps it’s hard to remember this (or perhaps it’s just hard for me) because Lucas’ will first and foremost be associated with his sci-fi series and as a profitable businessman who delegates his story ideas to storytellers. In the same way the Star Wars movies don’t always feel like movies, Lucas doesn’t always feel like an auteur. I confess I’ve seldom thought of him as one myself.
II. Attack of the Backlash
Evidence of Lucas’ artistic inclinations date back to his very first film, THX 1138. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I only recently watched it, for the express purpose of writing this essay. The movie, strangely, is at once unlike anything Lucas made since and a progenitor for much of what we see—for better or for worse—in his future output. It’s by design an emotionally sterile film; a Huxleyesque vision of a futuristic dystopia in which every choice is dictated. It sees the human condition as, well, conditioned. Though the movie itself is in many ways about the awakening of emotion, part of the reason Lucas thrives here is his ability to obsess over the particulars of his dystopia, letting the artifice of his premise lampshade his obligation to flesh-and-blood characters. Flesh and blood don’t immediately feel like a natural concern here for Lucas, who is undoubtedly more cerebral in his ambitions. Even the most emotionally potent moment, THX’s climactic escape-by-car, is exciting less for the desire to see the protagonist break from his dystopian shackles than to revel in the thrill of the chase itself. It’s stellar choreography and perfect editing, not character and emotion, what drive the climax. (Sound familiar?)
Unlike his debut, American Graffiti is a primarily emotional experience. A pre-Vietnam story of four friends on the verge of adulthood, trying (in vain) to get laid, nostalgia offers the movie’s dominating emotional force. What struck me on rewatch was how few scenes of his movie didn’t include pop hits of the early sixties playing, diegetically or not, in the background. The irony of its flat, almost deadpan ending—which kills half its leading characters in post-script—can’t quite pierce the wistful flow of the whole movie preceding it. American Graffiti loves every second of its existence, longing for a simpler time before Counterculture and Nixonian backlash shoved little Georgie Lucas into the adult world.
In many ways Star Wars is an alchemy of Lucas’ most distinctive sensibilities, a yearning for a simpler time by inventing a world borne of Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell’s dense mythological frameworks. Nostalgic yet modern, dense yet chaste. A tribute to the cultural artifacts of his childhood, perfected by his sophisticated ability to identify what made those stories great. Star Wars is the enduring legacy of George Lucas, and it is also his artistic masterpiece. It may be hard to remember the latter fact, if only because it’s so dominated by the former. But for everything else it was, and became, Star Wars is an immaculate presentation of core Lucasian obsessions.
Yet there’s no discussing the latter half of Lucas’ output without considering what Star Wars became. The more money it made, the more sequels it spawned, and the more Lucas seemingly found comfort as a movie exec instead of movie creator, the easier it has become to understand movie as its own unique thing, removed from cinema. It ceased to be known primarily as the brainchild of its idiosyncratic author. Perhaps this is why it’s most difficult to classify Lucas’ prequel trilogy as progressions of a traditional oeuvre; they’re not just movies, of course, they’re Star Wars! While I hesitate to lean too heavily on Lucas’ career trajectory or personal biography to explain the diminished polish between Star Wars and its prequels, it’s hard not to tailor to him some Ozymandias-like narrative, a mighty king whose hubris and unwillingness to question his impulses led to his inevitable (creative) downfall. A director whose Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, for many viewers, stand in the desert like trunkless legs of stone.
Equally tempting is to consider these are the first of his movies not to be edited in some capacity by Marcia Lucas, who also happened to be George’s wife for the first phase of his career. Gossip abounds with Marcia’s unsung record of rescuing George from his own worst impulses, and helping to clarify his intent as a storyteller. To point out their marriage reportedly ended bitterly isn’t a remotely fair read on Lucas’ prequel mentality—he spent his directorial hiatus building Lucasfilm and raising three adopted children—but one wonders whether Lucas had lost most vital asset: his editor. (Imagine how much rougher and more indulgent, say, Scorsese movies would feel without Schoonmaker, or Tarantino movies without Sally Menke.) Such stories of Lucas’ impulses being tempered feed nicely into the narrative that, liberated from any creative or editorial strictures (replacing Marcia as editor was his sound designer Ben Burtt, replacing Gary Kurtz as producer was his Special Edition colleague Rick McCallum), Lucas got bogged down, THX-style, with his universe’s mythological and political mechanics, to the detriment of the emotional tale at its core.
Yet those first two prequels are, for better and especially for worse, truly singular visions; part and parcel of the imagination of George Lucas. As unkempt as unwieldy as they can be. No doubt it hurt cinema’s erstwhile King of Kings to see himself regarded as Ozymandias, whose mighty works his audience did look on, and despaired. Hoo-boy, did they despair.
III. Revenge of the Author
Which brings us, finally, to Revenge of the Sith. In light of the $4 billion sale of his assets to Darth Mickey, we now can comfortably regard this as the swan song of George Lucas. As much flack as Lucas gets for self-certainty outpacing his self-awareness, the progression his movies doesn’t really suggest a man fully isolated from reality. For evidence, look to Jar-Jar Binks, whose prominence in the series shrank considerably after his relentlessly derided debut in Phantom. He was the joke only George Lucas seemed to find funny. Yet he seemed to accept this, and so we bid Jar-Jar farewell with but a brief glimpse of him in Sith looking sad at Padme’s funeral. For Clones he brought on Jonathan Hales to lend a second set of eyes on his script, not that it did much good. With certain revealing choices, Lucas betrays an understanding his fans’ perception of his genius had taken a hit. Lucas was not exactly in a bubble. Which isn’t to say he lacked confidence in himself.
This is why the go-for-broke nature of Sith’s elaborate single-take opening—and so much of what follows—feels so much like Lucas’ crie de coeur. A certain indifferent energy permeates Phantom and Clones, an energy or vitality zapped from most scenes thanks to vanilla cinematography and stiff writing/acting. “Vanilla” is nowhere to be seen in Sith, even though the writing and acting haven’t exactly improved. Lucas finally seems energized, and not simply because his story affords more battle scenes or gets the dramatic hook of finally showcasing Darth Vader’s birth. He brings a rigor to many of his sequences, with a heavier reliance of montage, and a stronger grasp of visual language. (His two pivotal montages coupling Anakin and Padme are the series’ strongest encapsulations of their love and their tragedy). He allows for even a soupcon of ambiguity, allowing the viewer to interpret the myth of Darth Plagueis as literally as they see fit. (Soliloquized by Ian McDairmid, it’s the movie’s best scene.) He needlessly pairs Yoda with Chewbacca, yet he seems delighted to do so. He needle-drops John Williams’ “Force Theme” as often as possible. Like Graffiti, the music never seems to cease. He packs these moments more densely than he has in any movie he’s made. He is relentless.
The movie is at points exhausting, frankly. Anybody who hates it is likely to find themselves exasperated. Those who love the movie or, are simply keener to forgive Lucas in this final lap, surely thrilled to the experience. I know I did. The movie boasts a valedictory quality, even if a post-Force euphoria suggests that quality wasn’t fully earned. But even if it falls well short of triumph, it remains a forceful, even thrilling directorial mic-drop. We know Lucas, the director of American Graffiti, is a man powered by nostalgia. Revenge of the Sith shows Lucas as nostalgic as ever, only this time not for his youth. It is a nostalgia for a time the world still took him seriously as an artist, as a visionary, as a master of popular entertainment. He badly wants you to know the Force will never not be with him.
As somebody who’s seen Revenge of the Sith, it’s your prerogative to remain unconvinced. But for an auteur, even one as shamelessly business-oriented George Lucas, rarely does a bidding of “adieu” feel more sincere.
This is the sixth in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Darth Vader is a Terrible Boss in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Downside of Safe Choices
- How The Phantom Menace (1999) Compensates for a Lack of Mystery
- In Attack of the Clones (2002), John Williams is Smoother than Sand
- Essay on Revenge of the Sith (2005) — TODAY’S ESSAY
- Essay on The Force Awakens (2015) — Tuesday, December 12
- Essay on Rogue One (2016) — Wednesday, December 13
- Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14