Requiem for Star Wars?

In the 1980's Pat Riley reigned supreme. His Lakers won four National Basketball Association titles, and Riley was considered the best coach of his generation. If he had retired at the end of the decade, his reputation would have remained intact. But he didn't. He continued coaching, and although his teams usually made the playoffs, they never achieved the greatness of his old Laker squads. Now many focus on Riley's failures more than his successes.

You can see a similar pattern with George Lucas and his Star Wars franchise. Star Wars, Episode II -- Attack of the Clones will likely finish with approximately $300 million in the North American box office. While that figure would be impressive for most films, it is considered disappointing for Star Wars. Episode II will not even come close to the box office of Episode I -- The Phantom Menace. It will also be the first Star Wars film that is not its year's box office champion. More important than the money was how Episode II never seemed to capture people's attention. The film received some buzz upon release, but that quickly shifted to other films.

What's wrong? I've read a few different explanations:

  • There is much more competition this year than for the original trilogy or even for Episode I.
  • The amazing success of Spider-Man stole some thunder from Clones.
  • Reacting to some of the media backlash against the overhyped Episode I, Lucasfilm drastically scaled back marketing efforts, which may have backfired.
  • People have simply grown weary of Star Wars -- "franchise fatigue."

To some the explanation is much simpler -- Clones is a piece of junk. Certainly that's what some major critics thought, including Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, David Ansen of Newsweek, and Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post. Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Journal even went so far as to write two scathing pieces.

If I believed Clones was simply a lousy film, I would stop this piece right now. But I don't and I'm not alone. For all of the film's negative reviews, there were just as many good notices. In fact, the "Rotten Tomatoes" Website, which tracks movie reviews, lists approximately 60 percent of the reviews as positive. Granted, charting critical opinion is not that simple, but at the very least the "Rotten Tomatoes" figure shows that the reaction to Clones is not as one-sided as some doomsayers would have you believe.

Now that we have examined box office and critical response, let's look at the film itself. Episode II at times overwhelms you with sheer spectacle. Once again, Lucas excels at creating vibrant new worlds and landscapes. Particularly inventive was Kamino -- a "rain planet." The digital characters blend perfectly with the human actors. Clones does lag at times but goes at a breakneck pace for the second half, concluding with dazzling fight scenes that show the Jedi in all their glory. Thankfully, you also get much less Jar-Jar Binks.

As he did with Episode I, Lucas masterfully lays the groundwork for what we know must come -- specifically the transformation of the Galactic Republic to the Imperial Empire and of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader. He capably builds up the tension between Anakin and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. He also illustrates the forces (no pun intended) within Anakin that will lead to his future treachery -- hate, jealously, but also love. Hayden Christensen's performance skillfully portrays the conflict within Anakin. Ewan McGregor again shines as Kenobi, echoing Sir Alec Guinness's masterful work in the original trilogy.

That's not to say there aren't problems. As with Episode I, the dialogue falls flat. There's no sparkle and only the faintest touches of wit. The lines come off as purely functional. The Star Wars movies have never been known for repartee, but the dialogue in the first three films was far superior. Any die-hard Star Wars fan can recite many lines from the original trilogy. But you'd be hard-pressed to recall a single line from Phantom Menace or Clones. The uninspired dialogue makes it more difficult for the audience to relate to the characters or get involved with the story.

The other striking flaw is the absence of a Han Solo character. In the original trilogy, Han was the most American character -- the cowboy, the wisecrack, the skeptic. While Obi-Wan and Luke would speak in grand terms and discuss the Force, Han would say what you or I might if we were there. Audiences identified with Han probably more than any other character. As such, he opened up the movies to those who weren't Star Wars fanatics. But there's no one to play that role in the new films. This void creates a distance between the audience and the movies instead of the intimacy of the original films.

Then there's the unavoidable "prequel" issue. The very definition of the term means we already know what happens later. Lucas skillfully sets the story in motion, putting the pieces in place. But try as he might, there's really no mystery. With the original trilogy, we could wonder where it was going. Now it's just a question of how it will get there. This problem was compounded with Clones. At least with Phantom Menace we could get a sense of how everything started. Afterwards, we already knew the beginning and the end. Clones showed how the saga went from point B to point C.

Finally, there's something that's not quantifiable. Let's call it "magic," or, better yet, "charm," a certain spark from the original trilogy that you just don't find in the new films. In Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, everything came together so beautifully -- myth, mysticism, knights, samurai, Kurasowa epics, and Saturday morning serials. Lucas blended all these elements together to create captivating tales that drew you in from the start. He leavened the excitement with just the right amount of humor. Just look at Chewbacca. How can you not love Chewbacca?

We have a paradox. The original trilogy was open to everyone. The new films, as backstory, are more for the tried-and-true fans. The absence of a Han Solo character, the flat dialogue and other factors make it harder for casual audiences to embrace the new films. But while Phantom Menace and Clones work best for the die-hards, these fans are the ones most likely to compare the new films to the originals. And the new films simply don't measure up. In 1997 millions flocked to see the original Star Wars, then a 20-year-old movie. If Lucasfilm rerelased Clones in 2022, how many people would show up?

So where does this all leave us? Comparisons between the original trilogy and the new films are inevitable, but in the end they're pointless. Yes, the new films could have been better than they were, and I've already given examples, but they will never be as strong as the originals. Phantom Menace and Clones have interesting stories, astounding effects, mediocre characters and functional dialogue. In short, they are good summer films, nothing more. The Star Wars franchise is not dying; it's just coming down to earth. It's another franchise now. Maybe we would have been best served if George Lucas had stopped after Return of the Jedi. We all wish that peak performers, be they in sports or entertainment, quit while they're ahead, but that rarely happens. Think of Godfather III or Rocky IV. We might as well enjoy the new films on whatever level we can. I will. I'll be first in line for Episode III, even if I'm the only one.

Adam Spector
July 8, 2002

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