Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Sith - the verdict 

Well, it had to happen - went and saw "Revenge of the Sith" last night. What can I say? It's visually stimulating (although often feeling overcrowded), but in a fine "Star Wars" tradition the script and acting are abysmal. As Mark Steyn wrote in his review of the remastered and re-released original, "At the time [in 1977], some critics reckoned the acting came in somewhere around the level of a Monogram B-western. But that's unfair to B-westerns: the clunky banter between Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill is more like the badly dubbed chat-up scenes of a Swedish porn film." Nothing has changed. Contrast with "The Lord of the Rings" where you remember the clunker lines (such as the "what does your heart tell you?" exchange between Gandalf and Aragorn) because there were so few of them - in "Star Wars" you remember not even the great ones but merely the normal ones, and for the same reason (and the only line I'm going to remember from "Sith" is "So this is how democracy dies...").

The movie is not overly political - you can easily blink and miss the now famous "if you’re not with us you’re against us" line - the erupting lava in the background, and the foreground, and everywhere in-between, is just too distracting. But the overall message - republics become evil empires - is a very familiar one, going back as it does to the old Roman times. In the modern context, the fear that the American republic will turn itself into an imperial tyranny is as old as the American republic itself. For the first century or so it was a domain of populists and nativists, subsequently, of the left.

It's true that the price of liberty is the eternal vigilance, but for the left the price of the eternal vigilance, in turn, has been the eternal paranoia, and the eternal tendency to see its own government as a greater threat to America and the world than any of the actual, existing, reality-based totalitarian tyrants that have ever roamed the earth. One can have reasonable discussion about the growth in size and reach of the government over the past two centuries, but the left's role in this debate has always been a boy who cried empire. Thus (to is critics) the United States seems to be perpetually on the verge of tumbling into tyranny (the Civil War, the Gilded Age corporatization, World War One, News Deal, World War Two, Vietnam, the war on terror, or generally whenever the Republicans are in the White House), but somehow it never does (except to some of these critics, for whom it already had).

Lucas might feel he's quite cool to have dreamed up the concept of "Star Wars" around the time of the Vietnam War as a cutting-edge commentary on the political trajectory of the United States; he might feel he's even cooler to have dreamed out a concept that still resonates (at least with him and the left) decades later. To everyone else, the never-ending carping about the slide into tyranny might sound dated, silly and self-absorbed, while the world outside of Hollywood witnesses the procession of real-life Evil Empires and their minor clones.

By the way, this piece is six years old, but I still think the SF author David Brin makes some of the most interesting critiques of the "Star Wars" moral and political universe.


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