May 17, 2000

A googie spaceship-- something you could imagine pulling into an interstellar drive-in-- floats onscreen, a ringed gas giant and a forested moon hanging whimsically in the background. We're on a road trip to the galactic rim, and the radio's blaring Jizz Fusion at eleven. They'd roll down the windows, but then everyone but the droids would perish.

Another moon comes into view, a bleak, gray sphere, redolent of the Death Star, alive only with pops and licks of volcanic activity.

Its shadow falls across the ship.

The first thing you notice is the return of the opening crawl. Episode I: The Clone Wars (1997) didn't have it because, of course, it was the first of the series. To bombastic fanfare the familiar font recaps Episode One, relating the Jedi triumphs in the Clone Wars, Mace Windu's heroic death, Obi-Wan Kenobie and Yeomi Nayinm's encounter with the young ace pilot Anakin Skywalker and his trusty pit crew, Owen and Beru, and the friendly Power Droid, GK-23. We get a brief summary of their triumphs, Anakin's training, and, of course, the rise of the Palpatine. Chancellor Palpatine has played the public's war-fears and alien distrust like a John Williams score; dark emotions are trumping reason.

Anakin Skywalker will be the next to fall.

The first movie felt comparatively light-hearted, a return to the adventures of the original Star Wars. The battles were fast and fun, with action George Lucas could only have dreamed of back in 1977. Only Windu's untimely demise and Palpatine's use of the Clone Wars Crisis to solidify his power as Chancellor darkened events-- and our foreknowledge that Anakin will eventually succumb to his advances.

This movie tells the more horrific second half of that story: Anakin's corruption, and his turning against the Jedi, once they break with the Empire.

Throughout, we have strong performances. Ewan McGregor continues to pour himself into Sir Alec Guinness's mould, playing the role with stout spirit. Kevin Durand finds his credible dark side as Anakin in an unnerving transformation from a young man wanting to do what's right for the Republic into a man convinced he must join the newly-proclaimed Emperor and force others into conforming to the Empire's "order." Jedi is a religion. We should expect fanatics, especially among new converts. A comparatively unknown actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, puts in a disturbing performance as the Emperor's chief Sith and Executioner, Darth Viäll. His master, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), hasn't changed; the pasty-faced, wrinkly-eyed Sith, at least, has started covering that bizarre chaff-coloured wig they had him wear in the first film with the cowl we'll see in those past, future films. Michelle Yeoh, meanwhile, continues to shine as Jedi master Yeomi Nayinmn, and her movement in the fight scenes remains the most impressive in the series.

It had been suggested that we would finally see the oft-quoted Jedi Master Yoda, but Lucas, showing characteristic discipline, keeps the little green man offscreen, awaiting his surprise reveal in Empire. Yeomi provides enough wisdom for now. We do, however, see (briefly) the enslavement of Wookies by the Empire.

A space adventure this dark requires comic relief. It comes in the interplay between Andy Serkis's lovable Ithorian clown, Dromord Ifplq’th, and Peter Dinklage's GK-23 Power Droid. Dinklage's ability to convey emotion while stuffed in a wastebasket and restricted to cries of "Gonk!" deserves applause, and I have no doubt the diminutive actor will grow in celebrity stature, a twenty-first century counterpart to the late, legendary Billy Barty. Dromord's antics border on the cartoony, but he's been restrained for this darker film, and even in Episode I he never went over the brink into the kind of jarring, infantile idiocy that might mar the tone of the Star Wars films, somewhere between serious pop myth and Saturday movie serial shenanigans.

Of course, we also have the mild courtship-bickering of spaceship mechanic Owen Lars and medic Beru Whitesun, once again played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. No, they don't look excessively like Phil Brown and Shelagh Fraser, but remember, we see Luke's courtesy uncle and aunt in A New Hope after they've spent twenty years on the desert planet that he will proclaim "farthest from" the hypothetical "bright center of the universe." Those incarnations have been weathered by their years hiding out beneath double sunrises and sunsets. It's clear in this film they're already becoming disenchanted with their adopted brother, and no longer holding with his ways, even before his full turn to evil. The film directs an implicit criticism towards bullheaded, take-charge heroism, while Lars half-jokes that, when it's all over, he's going to become a simple farmer.

The horrors of war and the manipulations of the Emperor work on Skywalker/Vader and, through several complicated but plausible (in context) steps, he turns to hunting the Jedi with his new Sith followers. Amadala flees him, without revealing her pregnancy. Aiding her escape we find some old friends, and one new one: Queen Breha Organa, a prominent opponent of Palpatine's power-grab.

The CGI evident in Episode One continues to amaze, though these spectacular settings always serve the plot, rather than distract from questionable writing, as has happened in some other recent films. The setting resembles Episode One's, with its ubiquitous "Gonk" power droids and retrofuturistic Googie and Art Deco architecture and design. The breathtaking Coruscant cityscape has grown slightly tarnished, however, while the Empire's new, stripped classicist architecture appears clean and menacing. We do see even more of the "R2" style units, however, and more human-shaped droids. Clearly, we're moving towards the world presented in Episode IV.

For those who want absolutely no spoilers, skip to the end. For those who want some discussion of events referenced by the original trilogy, read on.

Obi-Wan takes on Skywalker/Vader and leaves him a limbless, face-scarred torso on the volcanic moon. He is saved, of course, sometime later by Imperial agents, but his journey to the Dark Side is complete. We're left wondering if Obi-Wan's regret in Episode IV concerns his failure to properly train Anakin-- who clearly became a good friend in Episode I-- or his willingness to abandon him to what should have been a slow, horrifying death.

Of course, the other epic fight, brilliantly choreographed, explains why Viäll and Yeomi don't appear in future films.

Obi-Wan escapes on Queen Breha's royal space-ship, as a badly-injured Amidala goes into labor. "We saved her offspring," says a sad-eyed Beru. We never see "the offspring," since, of course, that would spoil too much for any future viewers who might be watching the episodes in their numbered order.

It's a bleak ending. Our heroes are in retreat. Darkness rises, and the central characters make a secret pact to disappear to obscure fringes of the galaxy until the time is right. How the series will fill the gap between these two chapters and the original '77 film remains anyone's guess, but rumours claim Episode III, due out in 2003, will be entitled Rogue One and may feature a completely new cast of characters. A bold movie, but one befitting a franchise that has never rested on its laurels and merely repeated itself.

Written and directed by George Lucas
Edited by Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, Richard Chew
Script doctoring by Carrie Fisher and Guy A. DeMarco

Kevin Durand as Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobie
Natalie Portman as Amidala
Michelle Yeoh as Yeomi Nayinm
Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine
Benedict Cumberbatch as Darth Viäll
Ethan Hawke as Owen Lars
Julie Delpy as Beru Whitesun
Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu
Peter Dinklage as GK-23
Andy Serkis as Dromord Ifplq’th
Rebecca Jackson Mendoza as Breha Organa
Hiroyuki Sanada as Luzât Krooqût
Terry I. Tedd as Yarñaits Gŕdṏshtfŕst
Koo Stark as Vajj Regent
Hiro Yamamoto as Uiŕh Blakholesun
Carla Collins as the Victualer
Haruo Nakajima as Sampoutine Taiga Creature
Ellen Page as Force-Sensitive Ac'cknu Child

For reQuest 2018, "Write a review of a movie that was never made."

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