I REMEMBER THE BEGINNING, long, long ago, as if it happened just last week.
Not the actual movie, which I'm sure I saw contemporary to its original release. I remember Deb Patterson, who was obsessed with the damned thing, and who ambled the halls of our college dormitory, imitating her beloved C-3P0.
A few years later I met R2-D2. Not Kenny Baker, the guy inside the tinny outfit, but Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning Lucasfilm sound designer, who provides the organic element of Artoo's blips and squeaks. Ben synthesizes his own voice to achieve the inimitable sound. We went to the same college, half a decade apart.
But now it's over. We know how it all ends -- or, strictly speaking, how it begins. Almost 30 years have passed at hyperspeed since the 1977 release of Star Wars, which is properly called Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. And that's exactly how you write the title of a Star Wars movie, right down to the punctuation and spacing. George Lucas says so, and he's the munificent-cum-demanding God of this very particular universe. If I could, I'd have these words in front of you scroll up and off the top of the page.
I can imagine some day in the future when kids, if they watch the movies at all, won't watch them "out of order" beginning with Episode IV. Some day we'll see 24-hour Star Wars marathons on TV. Some day soon you'll buy a boxed set of DVDs with all six films and plenty of extras.
For the record, here are the three greatest Star Wars moments. No. 3, in Episode VI: Han Solo learns that Luke and Leia are siblings. The look on Harrison Ford's face -- a booty call of sorts -- might be his best piece of acting in the series. No. 2, in Episode V: "I am you faaaather." My mother saw the movie first and ruined it for me. No. 1, in Episode II: Yoda fights with a light saber. Priceless.
And now, in Episode III -- the middle that's really the end -- comes the longest greatest moment: How did Anakin Skywalker turn into Darth Vader?
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REVENGE OF THE SITH opens with an action sequence void of tension because we know what won't happen: It's Anakin, Obi-Wan and Artoo in battle and, of course, outnumbered.
But this is a story of how, not what, so Lucas still manages to give us a moment when Anakin (Hayden Christensen) saves Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) from certain death. The two then return to the planet Coruscant, where they (and we) revel in the warmth of their burgeoning fraternity, which takes the playful form of a "no, you're braver" mutual admiration society.
Then things go all historic on us. Anakin has a dream that his pregnant wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman) will die in childbirth. He's in love, so this makes him afraid. At the urging of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who's secretly the evil Darth Sidious, the Jedi Council allows Anakin to become a member but not a prestigious Master. He's young and impatient, so this makes him angry.
And there you have it: anger and fear, the two things a Jedi cannot indulge. It doesn't take long for Sidious to promise Padmé's safety and convince Anakin that the Jedi Council plans to seize power from the Republic Senate. When the ruse succeeds, and the Senate welcomes his authority, Padmé coolly observes: "So this is how liberty dies -- by thunderous applause." (If this is a nod to modern American times, then good for Lucas. If.)
What happens after that -- aside from the always-enjoyable alien worlds of digital imagination, and Johnny Williams' thunderous music -- is everything we've waited to see for almost 30 years. Maybe you have to want to see such things, but for me, Lucas achieves a stirring intimacy during his many sobering speeches and legendary battles. He moves back and forth between paired climaxes in obvious but necessary ways: Yoda fights Sidious while Obi-Wan fights Anakin; Padmé gives birth to twins and dies while Sidious gives rebirth to a conflagrated Darth Vader.
Lucas has never been much of a philosopher, and nothing his characters say here changes that. He even makes a startling mistake: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," Obi-Wan tells Anakin, and that's just plain wrong. The Jedi see the world in black and white. The Sith see gray, and they use it to confuse vulnerable people (like Anakin).
This is, I think, the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars mythologies. For Trekkers, humanity is the balancing temperament of the universe: passionate, rational, fair, courageous -- we've got it all, including the occasional and surmountable lapse into selfishness and evil. But in Star Wars we have to check our humanity in favor of something nobler. Jedi philosophy feels for the many, not for the one, and you never mourn the dead because death is part of life. It's a steely humanism at best, and it's not good enough for a lovesick young man who believes his wife will die very soon.
If Yoda's syntax in Revenge of the Sith has become strained to the point of parody -- he even seems to make fun of himself once or twice -- then Ian McDiarmid makes up for it as Sidious, whose hissing rictus delivers one of the movie's most thrilling and dramatic turning points. McDiarmid would be another talented unknown British actor save for his fortuitous casting in Star Wars. Now, in the finale, he gives what may be the only Oscar-worthy performance in all six movies. So it seems that even long ago, in a galaxy far away, the bad guys got the good parts.