Last Friday night, my friend C. and I found ourselves amidst a cacophony. C. teaches piano for a living, so she’s used to enthusiastic children, but it’s been a while since I’ve spent much time around large groups of kids. We were inundated with toys, shrieking children, popcorn, Hot Tamales (the candy, not the food), pizza, and laughter. Every time I walked to the kitchen or the bathroom, I was afraid I might crush a little hand or trip over a pillow.
A coworker had invited me to his house to watch, on a big-screen TV, episodes I and II of Star Wars with his wife, kids, and several other kids who were neighbors and/or friends of the family. I didn’t expect much from the movies themselves—The Phantom Menace was so god-awful that I hadn’t bothered to see Attack of the Clones—and I was reluctant to spend a precious weekend night with a cluster of people under twelve years old. Then again, I had no plans other than a library book, my recliner, and a vodka martini. So I went.
It was a total blast.
This was not, of course, due to the movies. The Phantom Menace is still plagued by atrocious acting, clunky dialogue, slapdash direction, and too many whirring gizmos that distract you from what could be a fascinating story. George Lucas feels the need to fill the screen with every conceivable idea he has, no matter if it’s good or bad, so long as it’s bright and colorful. Something’s always whizzing in the background, blipping around at the edge of the screen, and swooshing dramatically in the CGI landscapes.
Attack of the Clones ups the ante. The battle scenes are more chaotic and incoherent than ever before. The camera never stays still when it can swoop in circles; explosions and multi-colored laser blasts are ever-present; battles feature hordes of indistinguishable soldiers; lightsaber duels, used so sparingly and dramatically in the original trilogy, are now stopgaps in the narrative. The cityscapes, teeming with glowing lights and malevolent-looking skyscrapers, are constantly animated. Even the quiet romantic scenes are set against landscapes that look and move like they’re designed by rococo painters. The idea of “Less is more” has never entered Lucas’s brain—he’s like a hyperactive kid with a $115 million Lego set.
That childlike mindset is why he’s so loved. The gang at my coworker’s house hooted with delight at every lame, flatly delivered line. (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” “Uh-oh!” “This is not good.” I could go on all night.) They’d never heard them before. One girl cried “It’s so sad” when young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) left his mother for parts unknown. When Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) sliced Darth Maul in half, the kids clapped. We erupted in cheers when Anakin won the pod race in The Phantom Menace. And I mean “we.” It’s easy to get caught up in the fervor of true believers.
And, besides, that pod race is the one true grace in the entire second trilogy. Lucas cuts back and forth from the race itself to the onlookers, ratcheting up tension. His on-the-go camerawork is actually appropriate here. Finally, he displays real wit. As the racers make their way around the track, we suddenly hear pok! pok! pok! High up in the cliffs above the race, Sand People are shooting at the racers, and cheering whenever they hit someone. Why do they do this? Because they can. It’s the same absurd, half-crazy instinct that drives people in my neighborhood to shoot stop signs on New Year’s Eve or shoot their shotguns at interstate mileage markers on I-20. It’s inexplicable, bizarre, and just like something some bored kids might do on a Saturday night.
The Star Wars sextet is not a serious epic, though Lucas probably thinks it is. There’s no real whiff of sex or an understanding of the subtleties of love. The violence doesn’t sting. The politics are dull, muddleheaded, and almost entirely unnecessary. The moral framework doesn’t dig deeper than platitudes, and it’s cobbled together from older, better epics, anyway. I worry about all these people who prattle on about Lucas’s vision as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces; I doubt most of them have actually read the book.
But seeing it through those children’s eyes made me appreciate what Lucas has accomplished. Star Wars is grandiose and chock-full of the greatest toys, funniest-looking creatures, and neatest adventures that a kid could ask for. There’s not much stuff there that’ll bore them, or make them uncomfortable. (Even the few kisses are chaste, and Anakin is apparently an immaculate conception—never mind that he turned out to be a pretty shitty Christ figure.) There’s no room for contemplation, just stimulation. I watched it in a room full of kids in the dark, who talked at the screen as if the characters just might talk back, with toy lightsabers glowing, and pizza being munched. The atmosphere crackled with energy, so much energy, like a sugar rush that lasts all day.
And that, ultimately, is the perfect way to see the Star Wars series. It’s a fantastic, outsized Saturday morning cartoon, one that delights but does not edify. It’s a cluster bomb of dazzlement—but nothing more than that.