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I caught a preview screening of Star Wars Episode III this morning. I’m having a tough time formulating my feelings on the film, and the Star Wars experience as a whole, so pardon me while I ramble a bit.
The first film (Episode IV, for those of you who were born after 1977) was as close to a religious experience for me as I’ve had. I was 9 and I can still remember waiting in line at the Tara Theater on Cheshire Bridge Road with my father. The line wrapped around the building and after a while a guy came around and pointed to a spot in line ahead of us and said something like “These people might get into the 9 o’clock show. From here back, you’ll have to wait for the midnight screening.” We were probably there for the 7 PM showing.
My father wasn’t willing to wait and, though I was disappointed, it was probably a good thing.
When we finally got to see the film my father said something like, “Not bad for a film with only one guy who can act.”
”Who?” I asked.
“Alec Guinness.”
“Which one was that?”
Hey, give me a break, I was 9.
I didn’t notice any bad acting, all I saw was the incredible special effects, stuff better than I ever could have imagined from the science fiction books I’d been reading. The story was simple and the characters all easy to understand.
A few years later things got a little muddy with Empire Strikes Back. By then I’d switched from mostly fantasy novels to mostly science fiction, in large part due to Star Wars, but in some part due to my own age. The fantasy stuff seemed so wimpy compared to battles in space. Knights in armor and unicorns seemed no match for things like The Death Star. I couldn’t recognize at the time that they were, in essence, the same tales, just with slightly different armor.
Hey, give me a break, I was 12.
Empire Strikes Back brought with it more action, better effects, and the first crack between me and my new religion – I couldn’t believe Vader was Luke’s father.
It seemed an eternity before Return of the Jedi came out. By then I’d aged enough to be ok with the idea that Luke and Leia were brother and sister and would not end up together happily ever after. Han Solo was cooler than Luke anyhow. But even cooler than any of the good guys was my favorite bad guy, Boba Fett. In Empire, he’d been cold, calculating, inhuman, and smarter than any of the good guys. Only he could capture Han and get away clean. But Lucas had to go and kill him in Empire Strikes Back, and I couldn’t really forgive him for that. I told myself Fett wasn’t actually shown dying, so he could have, in theory, escaped the belly of the beast into which Lucas had unceremoniously dropped him.
I was almost heartbroken when I found out Return of the Jedi was the final chapter in the series.
Hey, give me a break, I was 15.
About then, I discovered fireworks and skateboards and alcohol and Dungeons and Dragons and had plenty of hobbies to distract me.
Fast forward many, many years later when I heard Lucas was working on the prequel films leading up to Star Wars, a trilogy that would cover the Clone Wars, mentioned only in whispers in the earlier films. I was concerned – this was, after all, my childhood he’d be toying with.
My concern was justified when he did some modification to the original films for re-release. There were extra things on screen here and there, usually just an extra creature or two in the background or something flying by. These things were not welcome in my mind. They were uninvited intruders. Even if he’d meant for them to be there all along but couldn’t afford to do it the first time around, or wasn’t able to do it technically, it didn’t matter to me, I’d seen those films dozens of times over the years and they were codified in my mind. It was like strangers joining the congregation at your family church.
But worse, he made slight plot changes. One of my favorite scenes, when Han is confronted by a bounty hunter, Greedo, in the cantina, had been mutilated. In the re-release, Greedo shoots first, making Han’s shot seem like self-defense. What the fuck? This was no minor redecoration to the church façade, this was throwing away a commandment and adding a new one – thou shalt not be such a complex character.
The cracks in my religion grew re-release by re-release.
I had big fears, and hopes, as I sat in the theater in Midtown, anxiously awaiting the screen to flicker to life for Episode I. The thundering music brought back a giddy, childish feeling and the scrolling text brought on a sense of profound déjà vu.
Then my hopes were utterly dashed and my fears not only realized but exceeded tenfold. It was Lucas nailing his manifesto to the door of the church, a revolution against my orthodoxy. I could rattle off a dozen or more reasons I hated the film, but long time subscribers have read them before, close friends have heard me rant on and on about it before, and fellow geeks have polluted the web with millions of messages and blogs about it. The details are really unimportant. What’s really important is the crushing disappointment.
Sure, I should say “But could anything live up to the hopes built up in a 9 year old’s brain? Give me a break, you’re 37, what did you expect?”
Obviously, I expected better.
But it’s not just that Episodes I-III didn’t blow me away. It’s that each of them glaring problems I could’ve easily fixed MYSELF, and I’m no creative genius. Plots that get overly convoluted in some parts, but overly simplified in others. Actors that can’t act. Reliance on computer generated characters and special effects that aren’t nearly as special as some of the simple costumes and makeup of the earlier films. Characters that appear in the plot when they shouldn’t. Characters that don’t appear in entire films when they should. Scenes stolen directly from other films with nothing new added.
Oh. I’m ranting again, aren’t I, even when I said I wouldn’t?
So… Episode III?
You already know how this one looks if you’ve seen Episodes I and II – everything is computer generated, even when it doesn’t need to be. It’s impressive in some places, an annoying distraction in others.
It’s darker, as all the other critics have been saying, but that’s really more in terms of plot and content than visual design.
I think the acting and direction in this one is the worst yet. Some of the lines are delivered as flat as a middle school play.
And you already know what happens if you saw the other films. This one just fills in the details about exactly how it comes to pass. There are no surprises on that front. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as surprises can lead to things like Jar Jar Binks. But since you already know the outcome it would be nice to have something unexpected along the way.
With my previous disappointment after Episode I and II I didn’t think I could be any more let down with Episode III, but I was wrong. So I suppose that is a surprise.
But I had to see it. Sometimes you still go to church on Sunday, even when you’re not a believer any more. Sometimes you want to believe, even when you find out the priest has been screwing the choirboys…

Saturday we returned to Trader Vic’s for the one year anniversary of Tiki Torch Nights. A horde of local hipsters were there, in addition to a large contingent of out-of-towners from some trade show or something so the place was packed to the gills when I walked in the door. I found other degenerates huddled in a back room, unable to bear the crowd in the bar area where Tongo Hiti was playing and the hula girls were dancing. We sent runners back and forth to the bar for drinks, since we couldn’t get service in the back room. The staff was obviously unprepared for the onslaught. Later in the night they began to run out of their signature glasses, then limes, then crushed ice. On one hand, it sure slows things down when they mix each and every drink individually. You’d think on nights like that they’d have a big batch of pre-fab drinks. On the other hand, it ain’t no Fat Tuesdays/Buckhead bar and the hand made drinks are part of the charm.
Tongo Hiti did the usual fare, joined by Richard Launan from Hawaii who’s act I barely got to see due to the crowd. But later the crowds thinned and Mike and the guys did some of their more eclectic material and the rum-soaked faces in the crowd all turned to smiles.

BLASPHEMY has an interesting interview with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who explains why God is a delusion, religion is a virus, and America has slipped back into the Dark Ages. Here's one of my favorite passages:
Salon: Fifty years ago, philosophers like Bertrand Russell felt that the religious worldview would fade as science and reason emerged. Why hasn't it?
Dawkins: That trend toward enlightenment has indeed continued in Europe and Britain. It just has not continued in the U.S., and not in the Islamic world. We're seeing a rather unholy alliance between the burgeoning theocracy in the U.S. and its allies, the theocrats in the Islamic world. They are fighting the same battle: Christian on one side, Muslim on the other. The very large numbers of people in the United States and in Europe who don't subscribe to that worldview are caught in the middle.
Actually, holy alliance would be a better phrase. Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The delusional "next world" is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much better place without either of them.


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