Monday, May 23, 2005

That's a lot for a film series to bear, especially one wrapped up in the animated noise of a tech-crazy age, and partly pitched to children. As Lucas warned, this film is darker than any of its predecessors, showing Anakin Skywalker's descent into hell (almost literally, in the fires of a volcanic planet.)

Revenge of the Sith is packed with space battles and enough fast moving shots per minute to quench the quick-image hunger of the youngest video game-raised fan, although it tends to bludgeon older viewers into sullen impatience. There is likely to be some discomfort with the acting---more Anakin the manikin talk---though there were more effective moments in this film. But the political applicability is inescapable and explicit in the dialogue. "Only the Sith see the universe in black and white." However it's more complex and subtle than an anti-Vietnam or anti-Iraq war screed.

As the chancellor is moving quickly towards becoming emperor, the capital city starts to look less cleanly futuristic and more garish, with lots of neon. Anakin talks to him at a Senate session during what appears to be some sort of stadium light show. It is the manipulation by means of misdirection and imagery (also a Bush administration characteristic, thanks especially to a compliant media)which leads directly to one of the more quoted lines in the film, Queen Amidala as she observes Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine declare the Empire to a palpitating throng in the Senate: "This is how liberty dies---to thunderous applause."

Pretty nervy stuff for a film that is getting thunderous applause at the box office. The film is also likely to offend some self-described Christian fundamentalists, with lines like Yoda's, when he questions whether the prophesies of the Chosen One were misinterpreted. Though the basic moral message of what turns good into bad does jibe with much of what Jesus says in the gospels, and what early Christians believed, it is not the kind of doctrine today's so-called fundamentalists are likely to embrace. Especially when the people who talk like this today are mostly Buddhists. It is actually a pretty subtle philosophy (having really not much to do with religion) about how things work.

It also is conspicuously counter to the motivation of heroes in recent action films, who usually wind up blowing stuff up and killing a lot of people not for king or country or even their religion, but to save their family. That in essence is what Anakin wants to hold onto as his core value, and it leads to his downfall.

Beyond politics and religion as well is this film's function within the six-film cycle of the Star Wars saga. Located at dead center in the myth, this is an authentic tragedy. It concerns a great man with a fatal flaw: the classical Greek formula. We are meant to feel pity and terror, not only for Anakin but for ourselves.

The political complexities within the film will also likely have fans talking about what was really going on for some years more. Were the Jedi Knights just a little past their prime? Was Anakin rightly confused by the Jedi's bending their own rules, or was this a matter of thinking only in black and white?

It's fascinating that it will likely be the real fans who will engage in actual moral and political discussion, with this film as text. Beyond those invested in this story universe, many are too into their ideological identity to allow doubt or argument. In America at least, the audience seems split between angry triumphalism and forlorn, global-cooked dread. It's the Rapture red staters versus the apocalyptic blues. Even Lucas will probably not be surprised if this essentially moral message is lost or, as in the Reagan 80s, co-opted.

It may take seeing these six films in sequence for the moral themes to fully emerge (and the prophesy perhaps to be fulfilled.) Even the enormous gap in movie technology from the first trilogy to the second may emphasize the themes, as grand digital landscapes suddenly become more human, with human virtues regaining their Samurai/Jedi power. It may look like decadence yielding to simplicity and conscious innocence. The implications of the fall should be sobering, but there's both hope and instruction in this humbler resurrection. If Lucas himself succeeds in doing what he's announced, which is to make smaller, more personal films, it may be a prediction of his future as well.

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