Kondracke: Shallow ‘Star Wars’ Doesn’t Deserve Its Rave Reviews

Posted June 1, 2005 at 12:43pm

I went to see the final “Star Wars” movie on the strength of some reviews that raved about its profundity, rather than its special effects. But be warned: It’s psychologically vapid, theologically shallow and politically offensive.

One of the best movie reviewers in the business, The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter, compared writer/director George Lucas with Melville, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Shakespeare and Milton in confronting the question: What makes man evil?

“Star Wars Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” chronicles the transformation of Anakin Skywalker. As Hunter puts it, Skywalker, “the righteous pilgrim, so handsome, so brave, so noble, so committed, loses his way and becomes Ahab or Macbeth or Raskolnikov or Faust … a figure of power and strength and charisma and intellect, all of it invested in madness and destruction.”

I loved the first two “Star Wars” movies, with their then-pioneering special-effects space battles, their interesting theology (the “Force” as God in opposition to a “Dark Side” that is seemingly as powerful) and their epic depictions of the capital E-Evil (but ultimately redeemed) Darth Vader, not to mention the ultimate-in-diversity “meanest bar in the universe” and the fat-slob ball of decadence, Jabba the Hut. So after reading Hunter’s review, I felt I couldn’t miss this one.

After all, what would induce Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi knight on his way toward being the “Chosen One,” to go over to the “Dark Side” and become Darth Vader?

Well, the answer turns out to be a pathetic muddle. Partly, he has bad dreams — that his wife, Padme, will die in childbirth. Partly, he’s miffed that the Jedi don’t think he’s ready for their top Council. Partly, he’s seduced by the evil Chancellor Palpatine. And partly, he gives in to a lust for power.

Even this mélange of motives could have been brought off brilliantly, as in “The Godfather” — the best movie portrayal of the descent from good to evil that I can think of. Michael Corleone goes from World War II hero to murderous Mafia don initially out of fear, then out of family loyalty, then out of revenge and, finally, because killing is what Mafia dons do.

The descent of Anakin doesn’t work like that mostly because Lucas’ writing is so stilted. You can sit in the movie and predict what Padme and Anakin will say to each other before they say it. Shakespeare? Milton? There is no poetry here whatever.

For a movie that cost zillions to produce, Lucas surely could have found himself a top-notch writer to assist him. Rumors that Tom Stoppard had a hand in this can’t be true.

Then, too, the characters are shallow, or get portrayed as such. Ian McDiarmid doesn’t do badly as the Chancellor, but Mephistopheles he’s not. Hayden Christensen, as Anakin, comes off as pasty and callow — not in a million years a potential Jesus Christ. And you could never imagine the Obi-Wan Kenobi, played here by Ewan McGregor, ever growing up to be Alec Guinness, who played him in the original “Star Wars.”

Now for the theology. “The Force” is an interesting, if primitive, alternative to our Judeo-Christian-Muslim God — the Creator of the universe, the Author of goodness, truth and beauty, and personal Redeemer of humans.

Lucas’ theology seems derived from that of the poet Dylan Thomas — “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower … is my destroyer.” It’s Nature, although the twist is that it has a “Dark Side” that’s apparently as equally powerful as the “good side,” which curiously has no name.

The problem is that this theology (or cosmology) isn’t developed. We never learn how Lucas thinks the universe was created. We do know that Anakin is destined (when James Earl Jones was Vader’s voice, everybody was Destined) to be “the Chosen One.” But, if he’d fulfilled that destiny, what difference would it have made? We’ll never know.

Finally, there’s the politics. There are two sets here, one confusing and the other deeply offensive. As Yoda might say, confusing is the galaxy-far-away politics. Offensive is Lucas’s contemporary parallels between Palpatine and President Bush.

The bad guys are the Sith. What their story is, though, is never clear. Palpatine is the boss Sith disguised as a Senator of the democratic Republic. He evidently trumps up a war with other bad guys, Gen. Grievous and Count Dooku, and uses it to consolidate power.

But when those enemies are defeated and danger is presumably past, the Senate votes him dictatorial powers. Padme, a Senator, remarks “This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.” It’s the best-written line in the movie, but why it happens is a mystery.

What’s not mysterious is Lucas’ disdain for President Bush and the war on terror. On his way into the Dark, Skywalker says “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” a direct echo of Bush’s Sept. 20, 2001, line, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Where was Lucas on Sept. 11, anyway?

We’re meant to think that Bush is going to use the war on terror to snuff out liberty and convert our Republic into an Empire. The last I looked, though, we still had elections. And, in just three years, Bush will be out of office, not Emperor.

Just so you understand what Hollywood liberals really think about democracy, remember this: At the end of the day, the only group you can really trust to do right is the Jedi Knights — an unelected, self-selected, elite band of wise creatures who always have the Force with them, can just let their feelings tell them what’s right and, just in case, have mighty light sabers to whack the bad guys.

Who are the Jedi? The U.S. Supreme Court? Or the liberal cognoscenti? Whoever they are, Lucas doesn’t trust ordinary voters.