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Who Am I to Doubt the Jedi? ‘Return of the Jedi’ Reviewed

Heaven knows I have fought the good fight against the Jedi — not in the name of evil, of course, but on behalf of a cranky adulthood hobbled by doubts and fears about the human condition and the social contract. The record speaks for itself: I was never stirred by Star Wars; I was never enthralled by The Empire Strikes Back. Thus it is perhaps fitting that Re­turn of the Jedi has arrived on the eve of 1984, and that, like Orwell’s battered hero, I have surrendered to the Force emanating from the myth-making factory of Big Brother George Lucas. The first sign that I was abandoning critical auton­omy in this matter came with my taking my young, intelligent, trend-setting god­son Ross to the ritualistic screening of Return of the Jedi. His critical verdict for which I waited with a pathetic mixture of humility and dependency was clear and lucid: Return of the Jedi was even better than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Now that I have thought about it, I tend to agree. Lucas and his collaborators have managed to sustain the psychic ten­sions in their mythological world through three films over eight years, and by the time the final returns are in from around the world, the gross receipts for Return of the Jedi should exceed the national debt of Nigeria.

There is already some grumbling over this latest joust of the Jedi, to be sure. With the critical crime of sequelitis, one is presumed guilty until proven innovative. One of my cranky adult editors has been heard to complain that Return of the Jedi is cutesier and furrier than its predeces­sors. The Ewoks, a tribe of Teddy bears with traces of both jungle savage and third-world instincts, may seem a bit much at first glance, as if the Star Wars series had been gobbled up by the Mup­pets. Ultimately, however, Return of the Jedi is less callow than Star Wars and less turgid than The Empire Strikes Back. Part of the difference can be attributed to Lucas’s shifting of the directorial reins from anti-genre director Irvin Kershner, who strained to inject complexities into the simplicities of the Star Wars formula for The Empire Strikes Back, to very straight-faced genre director Richard Marquand, who had poured the lushest World War II romanticism through Eye of the Needle, and who has thus managed to blend the Oedipal stirrings of the charac­ters with the moral symmetry of their universe.

What is most remarkable about Re­turn of the Jedi, however, is the canny exploitation of the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have aged eight years since Star Wars, and can thus no longer convincingly impersonate Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in outer space. Rather than resort to the painful younger-than-I-really-am masquerade of Diana Ross in the unlamented The Wiz, Lucas, Kasdan, and Marquand unveil Princess Leia’s legs at long last for a nifty harem routine in the evil lair of a globular intergalactic gangster right out of Lewis Carroll. The spectacle of Princess Leia in the evil clutches of a libidinously mis­shapen monster struck even this gray­beard as more of an erotic shock than any of Nastassja Kinski’s ridiculous fashion mag poses in Exposed. This only goes to demonstrate that whereas Lucas and Company are always one step ahead of Leslie Fiedler, poor James Toback is always one step behind. My aforementioned godson Ross, for example, has grown up on the Star Wars trilogy. All the young fans of Star Wars are now eight years older, and thus are prepared to accept some of the pettier, subimperial forms of grossness to which the Princess Leias in their own midst may be exposed. What is important, however, is that Luke Sky­walker and Han Solo do not make any fuss over what has presumably occurred to Princess Leia. They are still the same people with the same feelings toward each other. Indeed, the revelations of hidden family ties in Return of the Jedi take on the incestuous amplitude of Shake­speare’s late novelistic plays. By the end, however, all the loose ends left dangling in the deliberately open-ended The Empire Strikes Back have been tied so firmly together that it seems impossible for Sky­walker, Solo, and Leia to reemerge in anything but a Proustian recollection of the Jedi trilogy.

It should be noted that Luke Sky­walker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia preexisted Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars. As is not the case with the big-star movies, the iconography of the players was completely subordinated to the mythology of the characters. When kids talked about the movie, they used the names of the charac­ters rather than the actors. By contrast, when pop theoretician Lawrence Alloway asked some years ago what was the name of the character Marilyn Monroe played in Niagara (or in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits, for that matter), his question was clearly rhetorical. One might ask to the same point the names of the characters Robert Redford and Paul Newman played in The Sting. On the other hand, we have the reverse iconography of Rocky and poor Sylvester Stallone, who will probably have to be buried in his boxing trunks after playing a geriatric Rocky IX for the senior citizens circuit. In Return of the Jedi, we are at an in-between phase in the relationship of icon to character. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher have not become big enough stars to transcend their roles, but they are more recognizable presences with the ability to modify the characters they play with behavioral accretions acquired from other films. They seem more com­fortable with each other, and with their increasingly bizarre environments. For the first time I was aware of three dis­tinctive personalities, not the most over­whelming I have ever encountered, to be sure, but likable withal.

This does not mean that I have sur­rendered unconditionally to the Force. Max Ophuls’s Liebelei at the Public The­ater (May 31–June 6) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums at the Film Forum re­main infinitely closer to my notions of grown-up sublimity than Return of the Jedi. Yet I must concede that Lucas and his associates deserve their huge success because they genuinely respect and understand the children in the audience, in themselves, and in all of us. As I watched Ross completely consumed by the absorb­ing spectacle of a son reaching out Christ­like for the mercy of his father, I was reminded of a time almost 46 years ago when my very little brother George screamed in terror at the sight of the evil witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The link jumped into my mind through the eerie resemblances of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor to the animated witch. Lucas has learned his lessons well from old movies. Nonetheless, he has also covered the few vulnerable positions on his ideogrammatic flanks. To the imputations of racist and colonialist overtones in Star Wars, he has responded by bringing Billy Dee Williams aboard again from The Empire Strikes Back, and striking a chic Viet Cong-Sandinista pose with his outgunned but not outfought Teddy Bear brigades. All in all, the com­mercial colossus strikes again, and this time it can claim me as one of its prison­ers, that is, if it even bothers to take prisoners.

As to where the Jedi are going from here, all I can think of is a growing ideo­logical rupture between the collectively­-oriented conscience of One-Worlder Luke Skywalker and the rugged individualism of confirmed Reaganaut Han Solo. Prin­cess Leia would find herself torn between these two divergent ideologies and manifestations of manhood. I’ll tell you what, George. Mail me a little front money so that I can take a leave of absence from the Voice to bat out a treatment. Say a cool million or so. After all, when I surrender, I like to surrender in style. ■

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Galactic Graffiti: ‘Star Wars’ Reviewed

You know the wife who nudges her husband into refusing a second peche melba at a dinner party. It’s only to­ prevent the overweight mate from popping a button or having a heart attack, but suddenly she’s the heavy: Everyone leaps on her as a “nag” while showering him with sympathy. Or the 14-year-old girl who scolds her kid brother for his childishness: Again, she becomes the obnoxious one while the world winks indulgently at the carnage of the bratty brother. By this standard of injustice, I don’t see how I can come out ahead panning Star Wars, George Lucas’s science-fiction film that has been ac­claimed by children of all ages as the Fun Movie of the year. How do you catch a falling star, or prick a helium-filled cartoon? Well, the reviewer’s lot is not an easy one and, at the risk of sounding like myself as a prissy 14-year-old, dammit, Star Wars is childish, even for a cartoon. And I don’t mean charmingly childlike, though occasionally — very occasionally — it is that, too.

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Lucas, who both wrote and directed Star Wars, is the young man who hit the jackpot with American Graffiti, a genuinely charming slice of teenage Americana. Though apparently unrelated to the science-fiction films that preceded and followed it, that midsummer night’s dream of lust and locomotion, coupling and uncoupling, now appears to have been transitional in its fusion of technology (the car culture) and humanity (the youth culture), culminating in the curiously tame toy-store fantasies of Star Wars.

I should admit at the outset that I am anything but a science-fiction aficionado, particularly in its extraterres­trial varieties. The instant little men in white diving suits appear on the horizon, I don’t much care where they’re from or what they’re doing or whose team they’re on. I can’t seem to finish a paragraph explaining the blue-­screen principle of special-effects cinematography, and I find the “revolutionary art” of holography even more boring than its “revolutionary” predecessor, 3-D.

Since reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainte­nance, I have made a serious effort to understand the classic and romantic aspects of my typewriter (no more infuriated pounding on its impervious metal frame), but that is as far as my truce with technology goes. Nor have cartoon amazons and supermen ever stirred my imagina­tion. I have never seen Star Trek nor followed the cartoon careers of supernatural adventurers. My power fantasies have entirely to do with earthly activities that can be satisfied on or within such relatively orthodox playing areas as tennis courts, telephones, cars, hallways, and auditoriums filled with clapping hands.

Consequently, I am not the person most sensitive to the newest wrinkles in either the technology or the mythology of the science-fiction film, but it strikes me that Star Wars works a rather odd double twist, becoming paradoxically the most ultra-modern and utterly old-fashioned film of its kind.

THX 1138, the science-fiction short that Lucas made while still in film school and later expanded into a feature, was a classy, high-gloss yet austere bit of futurism, a fantasy obsessed with hardware and “look,” very much in the style of the new sci-fi film. With it, Lucas became one of the directors responsible for the upward mobility of the genre, once among the lowest of the B-films, and its successful bid for A-film accreditation. Although THX’s vision of alienation, expressed in a white-on-white set of endless corridors and interchangeable cubicles, was in many ways extreme and mesmerizingly seductive, it retained the traditional ideal of freedom, in other words, the very same conflict between the individual and technology (or totalitarianism) that animated the science­-fiction films of the ’50s.

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Similarly with Kubrick’s 2001. Like THX 1138, it was more than half in love with the machinery, with the perfect, inhuman environment it ostensibly abhors, but there is in both films a sense of awe, alienation, fear — if no longer of technology itself then of the spaces between men it has created.

But somewhere between then and now, the hardware that was the subject and villain of the sci-fi film, the “monster” of outer (i.e., scientific) space, has become the architect and artisan of the film, and, through the back door, its subject once again. The computerized special-ef­fects wizardry is what Star Wars is all about and the reason armchair mechanics are enthralled. Technology is no longer humanity’s nemesis but its newest toy; the message has become the medium. (For me, though apparently not for others, the feeling of relativity, of entering another dimension of time is less overpowering in Star Wars than in earlier films where the effect was wrought less “realistic­ally” — as with the hologram, more realism is less. But then there is the “artificiality” of our spatial environment to consider — an extension, perhaps, of the avant-garde film.)

The technology in Star Wars, that is the computers that both run and populate the planets along with human and mechanical primates, is no longer eerie or chilling but familiar, lived in, downright cuddly. The inventory of this F.A.O. Schwarz of a movie includes chubby little tripod computers tooling around, buzzing and bleeping like house pets; intergalactic aircraft that are no longer dazzling models of mechanical perfection but showing signs of wear and tear; white-suited men, the soldiers/mainte­nance men of the space station, who trot around its circular corridors with the monotonously purposeful air of Central Park joggers.

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The war itself, a feud between two rival space clans, does not produce any real sense of danger. The combatants are the Imperialists, who bear a resemblance to the governors of the Holy Roman Empire in its last divided days, and the Rebels, followers of the Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and rightful heirs to the mystical “Force.” This is an “energy field created by all living things,” according to a Force-full relic of an earlier age (Alec Guinness), and seems to be a sort of hybrid of bio-feedback and Zen as it has been merchandized into a technique for winning at sports by not wanting to win. Between these two factions, the ideological differences are hardly more striking than those that separate the Greens and the Golds in prep-school athletics. What little tension there is is superficial, the work of sharp cutting between adversaries, a squared-off approach to plot, character, pacing that is the cinematic equivalent of a cartoon. The culminating battle scenes are modeled on World War II bomber movies. In fact, old movies are everywhere, providing a kind of instant camp mythology that enables Lucas to refer to old plots, situations, character types, without developing them. “I have seen the future,” says Lucas, “and it is a mishmash of old M-G-M and Warner Bros. movies.” But old movies extrapolated into clichés, into self-parody for the grown-ups, and for the kids, into the bland recognizable faces on drugstore paperback covers.

Do Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his cohorts, the Princess and the Soldier of Fortune, played by Harrison Ford, in a space-age rendering of the Arthurian triangle minus the conflicts that make it timeless, really have to be quite so charmless? There are cartoons and cartoons, and in Logan’s Run Michael York and Jenny Agutter performed a similar function much more gracefully. As for plucky cartoon princesses, I’ll take Farrah Fawcett­-Majors any time. Carrie Fisher, who made such an auspicious debut as the miserably precocious daughter in Shampoo, is merely supercilious as she reads the self­-mocking lines of Star Wars.

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What I find mildly depressing about Star Wars is that it seems to address itself, like more and more television programming, to a “family market” defined by its pre-pubescent age level, somewhere between 10 and 14. Lucas bridges the generation gap simply by providing a one-way ticket back to adolescence. Adults who have been complaining these many months that there are no movies to which they can take their children now are having their prayers answered. Why movies should be required to perform this cultural babysitting service I don’t know, but far be it from me to ban the magical formula that can keep the American family together and young forever! ■

STAR WARS. Directed and written by George Lucas. Produced by Gary Kurtz. A Lucasfilm Limited production, released by 20th Century-Fox. At Loews Astor Plaza and Loews Orpheum. 

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Fake George Lucas Talks “Solo” and the Two Things “Star Wars” Movies Are Really About

“There are two things that Star Wars films are really about,” says Fake George Lucas, a/k/a Connor Ratliff, the host of UCB’s long-running crowd-pleaser “The George Lucas Talk Show.” He continues: “That’s going fast and blowing things up. It’s interesting to me as we get into these in-between stories that sometimes now they’ll make a movie that’s just about one or the other. Rogue One was about blowing things up, but they don’t really go fast. Solo is about going fast, but they don’t really blow things up. I’m fascinated that they’re now taking the time to zero in. In the regular Star Wars movies, we never really had the time to explore the subtleties.”

Fake George Lucas returns to the stage at UCB Hell’s Kitchen this Friday, ready to talk all things Solo — and give out prizes to costumed fans — with guests including the comic Joe Pera, the journalists Lauren Duca and Brett White, and Chelsea Davison, a writer for The Opposition. That kicks off an auspicious summer at the Upright Citizens Brigade: Tickets have just gone on sale for the twentieth annual Del Close Marathon, which this year opens with a Carnegie Hall performance from UCB’s storied ASSSSCAT, featuring returning members Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser. Ratliff also appears in the excellent UCB improv shows “The Stepfathers,” “Asssscat,” and “Damned If You Do,” the last of which is decamping to the Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., for much of June. And here he is singing about Solo in the style of Iyaz.

The Voice checked in with Ratliff’s Fake George Lucas this week about Solo, Ron Howard, and just how bored Harrison Ford looks throughout Return of the Jedi.

The headline on Solo seems to be that it’s not living up to box-office expectations, a first for a Star War. After all the scorn you got for the prequels, do you find it gratifying to see Disney now in the hot seat, getting yelled at and second-guessed by fans?

When The Last Jedi came out and so many angry boys and manchildren became mad at Star Wars, that’s when I realized that Disney had finally started to crack it. I think if people are angry about Star Wars, you’re doing Star Wars right.

I will say this, though: The last three Star Wars have owned Christmas. No more throwing these Star Wars movies away when school’s just getting out. It’s hot outside — nobody wants to see a desert thriller in the middle of summer. There’s a golden Greedo in this movie, and nobody’s talking about it. I had somebody check, and there’s literally no one tweeting about it. That’s a sign that you’ve done something wrong. A golden Greedo at Christmas — now you’ve really got something.

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You did fine releasing your Star Wars movies in May.

Not anymore. Not in this day and age. We didn’t even necessarily consider that Star Wars could take over Christmas. Also, all those May releases were just rough cuts of the movies anyway. If they let me take another crack at special editions now, I’d put them all out in December. That’s a holiday gift that everybody can enjoy.

Is a Han Solo movie even a good idea?

Sure. We’re developing this new rhythm here. It was Episode One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six. Now it’s Episode One, Two, Three, Three and a Half, Three and Three-Quarters. I think with one movie a year, we have time to tell all the stories that need to be told. I do love the little origin story in this movie that he’s named by a guy at a check-in counter. That’s fun. It’d be like going up to Delta or United and you get your name when you check in for your boarding pass.

I think it’d be a good idea to do one where Han Solo is just a baby. It could be Sowo, before he’s able to pronounce his name. It would be long before he had that name, of course. What would it be like for Han Solo as a little baby? It doesn’t even have to have words in it.

But I don’t like that they call these movies A Star Wars Story. That’s a little clunky. I would call them Inbetweenies. That’s a very adorable name, and there should be creatures called the inbetweenies, cute little bug-eyed creatures with furs, and they should be telling these stories.

You’ve been Ron Howard’s boss on several projects, and now he’s made a Star Wars. Is this a case of the apprentice becoming the master, like a Padawan/Jedi relationship?

Ron is basically Lucasfilm royalty, the young prince of American Graffiti and the beginning of the Willow franchise. I hear there’s now some buzz that they might make a second Willow movie, which would be thrilling. He is a Jedi master at this point. You watch this movie, and it doesn’t feel like a Star Wars movie from the director of Parenthood. It feels like a Star Wars movie.

When I stopped by the set, they were shooting a scene where they had Han Solo hanging up one of Lando’s capes. I said to Ron, “Why don’t you have him throw it on the floor? That’s what Han would do. Han Solo is a complicated character. He’d never shoot someone first, but he’d throw a cape on the ground.” And that’s in the movie. That’s a little bit of Lucas magic. I know that Han does seem to shoot first at one point in this movie. That’s a classic Star Wars rookie mistake. But, again, this is a May release. There’s no reason you can’t put this out years from now where we see the person draw on Han just slightly before he pulls the trigger. For Christmas.

This is the first time that anybody’s made a Lucasfilm with a title that rhymes with another Lucasfilm. He’s now directed Willow and Solo. There are no others. Unless Rian Johnson or somebody makes a movie called A Sack of the Phones or J.J. [Abrams] helms The Burn of a Red Eye, it’s going to be hard to crack that record. Unless somebody makes a Star Wars movie that’s, uh, Radio Ham Girders.

Nerf herders.

Radio Nerf Herders. It’s not easy to rhyme a Star Wars title and have it make sense. Ron Howard did.

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Solo confirms what you established in the original Star Wars: that Han is a guy who always acts like he’s not going to do the right thing and then does anyway. Are you surprised that despite all these prequels we still haven’t seen what he does in that half-hour in A New Hope between turning his back on the rebellion and coming back to save the day?

I think it would be great to do an Episode Four-B. Han leaves, and maybe Chewie’s griping at him, maybe they meet a weird alien who does something bad and then Han learns by example. I bet Chewie gives him an earful during that half-hour: You always do the right thing. You know you’re going to go back. Why are you even having me chart a course away from here? Chewbacca knows that he’s got to do this dance.

Here’s something I’ve always wondered about Han Solo. Was it your intention that upon emerging from carbon freeze one looks a little bored?

Yes, it’s like being on painkillers. It changes you chemically, and it’s hard for you to engage in the way that you once did. After you’ve been frozen in carbon, you should look a few years older and like you’re there more out of a sense of obligation than actually wanting to be there.

There are a few other movies that Harrison Ford has starred in where I wonder if they cut the first five minutes of him emerging from carbon freeze: movies like Six Days, Seven Nights or Sabrina, where a lot could be done by adding one scene at the beginning where he unthaws. K-19: The Widowmaker would be another one. Hollywood Homicide. I’d be happy to do it for them — I’d add those scenes.

Are there moments watching Solo when you said to yourself — [chef’s kiss noise] — Ron Howard!

Who could forget the scene in Parenthood where Steve Martin accidentally picks up Dianne Wiest’s vibrator? She’s embarrassed by it, but everyone has a good laugh. What is a vibrator if not a droid? And there’s some fun sexual comedy having to do with droids in this movie, in L3’s relationship with Lando. Classic Ron Howard. When you put a robot in a Ron Howard movie, he’s going to make a sex joke.

Francis Ford Coppola wanted you to direct Apocalypse Now. Do you ever wonder what your version would have been like?

I kind of did make one. There’s Vietnam scenes in More American Graffiti. Francis did a great job, but every movie that I made in the Seventies changed the course of cinema. If I had made Apocalypse Now, most movies now would feel kind of like Apocalypse Now. Everything that Star Wars did, Apocalypse Now would have done in its own way. People would be playing with Kurtz action figures. Instead of C-3PO’s cereal in the Eighties, people would have had Dennis Hopper–O’s. Eventually Disney would have bought the rights to the Apocalypse Now trilogy — I would have made a trilogy. I would have gone back and made prequels that take place either during World War II or the Korean War. And now they’d be making new movies that take place between the Apocalypse Now movies: An Apocalypse Now Storys.

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Bring Me the Head of Han Solo

Harrison Ford has been a good soldier in the Star Wars. He did whatever was asked of him by his commanding officer, George Lucas, even when his commanding officer was wrong. Now that Ford is back in Star Wars, and J.J. Abrams is running the show, Abrams’s first order of business should be to give Ford what he’s wanted for decades: death. It’s time to kill Han Solo.

For the good of the movie. For the good of the movies, which changed after 1977, largely for the worse. To restore balance to the Force. To redeem the much-abused Star Wars brand, so tarnished by prequels and such that Disney paid $4.05 billion for it. (Technically for Lucasfilm, but that’s Star Wars, mostly.)

Abrams should welcome Ford back by rubbing him out. Honorably. Heroically. But decisively, and for the love of God, permanently. Not Spock-dead. Not Agent Coulson-dead. Dead. Solo? He gotta go-lo.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Ford built an airtight case for Solo’s demise in Return of the Jedi, the original trilogy finale that opened 31 Memorial Day weekends ago. From the 2004 making-of documentary, Empire of Dreams:

Harrison Ford: I thought Han Solo should die. I thought he ought to sacrifice himself for [Luke and Leia]. He’s got no mama. He’s got no papa. He’s got no future. He has no story responsibilities at this point. So let’s allow him to commit self-sacrifice.

Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan: I also felt someone had to go. . . . It should happen very early in the last act so you begin to worry about everybody.

Lucas overruled them, of course. He doesn’t bother to say in that documentary what his rebuttal to his star and writer’s fully-armed-and-operational-arguments was. Gary Kurtz, the producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back who parted ways with Lucas when they couldn’t agree on Jedi‘s tone — Kurtz wanted it more downbeat, and to include Solo’s death — said in a 2010 Los Angeles Times interview that Lucas forbade any plot developments that might cut into toy sales.

As someone who owned three different Han Solo action figures in 1985 or thereabouts — reflecting his very minor wardrobe changes in each of the three movies — I am the proof of Lucas’s instincts as a businessman. Not that I’d have ditched them if I had seen Han Solo die onscreen. I sold my Star Wars figures cheap at a yard sale when I was 11 or 12. Puberty was going to arrive whether Han Solo died or didn’t.

This might be why the hero of Ford’s other franchise with George Lucas, Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr., Ph.D., always mattered more to Ford than Han Solo did: It’s easier for a grown man to connect to his 12-year-old self than to his eight-year-old one. The Indiana Joneses are geared for a slightly older audience, whereas the heart of the Star Wars pictures is decidedly preadolescent. The difference, obviously, is sex. Indiana Jones has it. No one in the Star Wars universe does. (“When a man and a woman love each other very much, they lie down together and then, uh, Midichlorians, probably?”) Try to imagine Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in bed together and the viewscreen in your mind automatically flips to a musical number from the Ewok village. You can’t do it.

Lucas’s sudden artistic conservatism came at Jedi‘s expense. It was a massive hit, of course, but it’s a much lousier movie than it needed to be. Empire, the trilogy’s tense, frightening, mysterious, mythologically rich middle chapter, remains unimpeachable, a stellar achievement in fantasy filmmaking. But Jedi is a lumbering, repetitive, tin-earned toy ad, made all the poorer by a historically awful performance from Ford.

It isn’t his fault that he spends the first 19 minutes of this 134-minute picture as a wall hanging in Jabba the Hutt’s stately pleasure dome. (These time stamps reflect the “Special Edition” Jedi, as Lucas has made it tough to lay hands on the original theatrical versions, further alienating his constituents.) Or that Solo, so cocksure and unpredictable in A New Hope, so rakish and desperate and arrogant in Empire (Leia: “I love you!” Han: “I know.”), seems to have suffered a possibly carbonite-induced testosterone plunge reminiscent of that dispiriting moment when once-edgy stand-up comics start talking about their adorable kids. (In fact, Solo is the father of twins by Leia in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire, but Disney announced only last week that that’s officially non-canonical now — an “imaginary story,” in the delightful language of 1950s DC Comics.) We’ll forgive Solo his mojolessness during Jedi‘s first act — he can’t even see, when he’s first unfrozen. For a few moments, it seems his year or so as a conversation piece in Jabba’s lair had left him afflicted with space PTSD. Intriguing! Will the balance of the film explore this?

As Darth Vader would say: “Nooooooooooooooooooooo!”

As soon as the rebel scum regroup from rescuing Han, Jedi falls to pieces.

Q: Why do the rebels ask Han, their freshly thawed flying ace, to lead the rebel ground attack on the Imperial shield generator that’s protecting Death Star II: Ha, We Had a Spare?

Q: Why do they assign the bombing run on Death Star II to Lando? OK, yes, Han Solo won his ship, the Millennium Falcon, from Lando in a card game or something, but Lando’s recent job experience is as the administrator of a mining facility on the planet Bespin. (“If we are to take out the Death Star — again, yes — we’ll need someone with nerves of steel and a thorough understanding of the galactic tax code who knows how to take advantage of the incentives for tibana gas extraction facilities, which the Imperial Senate seems unlikely to renew at this juncture.”)

A: Because this is a movie, and moreover, a movie primarily for kids. Fair enough. But why then does Ford spend so many scenes shrugging and mugging and bugging his eyes? The moment that seems to foreshadow his death — minute 53, when he looks at the Falcon and says to Leia, “I just got a funny feeling, like I’m not going to see her again” — is Ford’s most convincing line reading of the film. It’s the only time he’s playing the arc he wants to play.

Imagine for a moment that the same strain of insanity that led Warner Bros. executives to envision Superman III, one of Jedi‘s competitors in the summer of 1983, as a Richard Pryor vehicle, had led Lucas to recast the role of Han Solo with Chevy Chase. What would that movie have looked like?

The correct answer is that it would be identical in every way to the Return of the Jedi we all saw. Harrison Ford is Chevy Chase in this movie. Whether this was an artistic choice or simply Ford’s unwillingness to conceal his boredom, Han Solo has been reborn as a neutered, hapless dad. Even his haircut is 70 percent less cool than it was in Empire. “Hey, it’s me!” he reassures Luke, seconds before stepping on a twig that gives his position away to an Imperial soldier. When it comes to guerilla warfare, Han Solo is one hell of a space pilot.

Ford’s voiceover for the original release cut of Blade Runner — which he’d famously made as dull as possible in the hope the producers who’d demanded it over director Ridley Scott’s objections would reject it as unusable — is better than his bored line readings in Jedi. His performance in the pilloried Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than his performance in Jedi.

You know what’s light years better than his performance in Jedi? His swaggering star turn in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only a year later. The violence and unpredictability of Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom is everything that Jedi‘s emasculated, minivan-driving, twig-stepping, Ewok-hugging, freely-sharing-his-feelings Han Solo isn’t. Same with the movie, which feels tense and dangerous and utterly bonkers. (And more than a little — what’s that word? — racist, but no more so than The Phantom Menace.) The point is that sneering, calculating, first-shooting, Nerf-herding Han Solo was still kicking around inside of Ford, but Ford wanted to save him for Indiana Jones. You can’t blame him, really. After the triumph of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas never really allowed Han Solo to become unfrozen.

Lucas has always been obsessed with control. After Star Wars, he risked his shirt to finance the three-times-as-costly The Empire Strikes Back himself so he could retain complete creative control along with sequel and merchandising rights — and take notes from nobody. Indeed, Lucas paid for the latter five of the six extant theatrical, live-action Star Wars movies out of his own deeper-than-a-sarlacc’s-belly pocket. They are as indie, in the most literal sense of the term, as it is possible for indie films to get. This means that all the fart and whoops-I-stepped-in-shit jokes in The Phantom Menace are there because they’re an essential part of Lucas’s precious creative vision. If he’s got a motto for Star Wars, it’s No Child Left Behind.

Last week fans thrilled to a black-and-white photo from the first table read of the script for Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII — which, if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, was penned by Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in addition to writing and directing many films that’ve probably sold fewer lunchboxes: Body Heat, The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, etc. Kasdan was in the photo. Fresh young faces Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Domhnall Gleeson were there. Familiar but unrecognizable faces (because usually they’re behind digital or physical masks, you see) Peter Mayhew and Andy Serkis, too. Oscar Isaac, the brilliant star of the brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis, showed up. And Abrams and R2-D2, watching from an open packing crate just outside the circle of chairs. (Droids get much affection but no respect.) Also present: Original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and, most surprising of all, 71-year-old Ford.

The cosmic generational comedown of the prequels remains fresh in our memories. The last and least terrible of them, Revenge of the Sith, hit theaters nine years ago this month, which means any Blade Runner–type critical reconsideration suggesting that perhaps we judged George Lucas’s busy, noisy, lifeless latter-day movies too harshly would’ve happened by now. What enthusiasm there is for the upcoming films — and there is a lot — is on account of the still-strong residual affection for the original movies, though Lucas can’t stop tinkering with them. And because Abrams seems like he just might have a clue how to inject some life back into Star Wars, as his two Star, er, Trek films have demonstrated.

And because of the return of the original cast.

Don’t squander this opportunity to restore balance to the force, J.J. Abrams. The last thing the tarnished Star Wars brand needs now is another bored and noncommittal Harrison Ford performance. (If he wants to walk on and transform into a werewolf, like he did in Anchorman 2, that’d be fine.) The pattern set by the first two trilogies is that in the first chapter, a mentor is sacrificed: Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. In fact, Qui-Gon’s slaying by Darth Maul, and the thrilling lightsaber duel surrounding it — more athletic than the one in Empire — is one of only a handful of scenes in the entire seven-hour prequel trilogy that achieves any emotional heft. The big Obi-Wan vs. Anakin fight two movies later, wherein Anakin sustains the injuries that will result in his rebirth as that mouth-breathing cyborg Darth Vader, needed to feel exponentially more dire than that earlier melee, given its significance in the saga. It didn’t.

But then, Anakin lived — in the literal sense, anyway. And death is powerful. Especially in a genre where it’s so rare and reversible.

To save Han Solo, we have to kill him.

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

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Indiana Jones and the Perils of Humanistic Decency

The story goes that while filming in Tunisia in the summer of 1980, Steven Spielberg avoided the dysentery that afflicted most of the cast and crew of Raiders of the Lost Ark by holing up in his hotel room with a suitcase full of SpaghettiOs. Like most studio-approved behind-the-scenes errata, that anecdote’s edges have been worn off, and it’s probably more cute than true in the first place. Still, something in it smacks of truth: the gee-whiz everykid of the Arizona suburbs stuck in the kind of locale white folks used to call “exotic,” gritting his way through it with good ol’ American junk culture. Indiana Jones manages something similar, just with two-fisted comic book scrappiness rather than crappy canned dinners. The results, though, are the same: The not-especially-curious Westerner braves the East, gets what he came for, and emerges untouched by the cultures he outwits.

This is an observation, not a complaint. The colonial assumptions of the first two Indiana Jones pictures have not aged well, of course. (If you want to argue that those movies aren’t full of, um, racial insensitivities, I urge you to check out online the transcript of early story conferences between Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan wherein the young Lucas calls the non-Nazi bad guys “Third World local sleazos, whether they’re Mexicans or Arabs or whatever.”)

But Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at least somewhat send up the xenophobia at the heart of so much adventure literature, and they serve as playful, perhaps even self-aware, records of how the world was so often dreamed of by young Americans and Western Europeans back before everyone grew up and read Orientalism: as full of great treasures and wild places whose natives might benefit from a spot of lashing.

In short, there’s something disreputable about Raiders, which returns this week to theaters, blown up to IMAX proportions. (Because the original is a comparatively humble-size 35mm movie, and because the IMAX version was not screened for critics, we’re taking their word for it that it looks good.) For all its bravura chases, just a bit grittier than it needs to be violence, and fully immersive mise-en-scène—has any haunted house on-screen ever been as perfectly shadowed and booby-trapped and clearly laid out as the cave of the opening reel?—all of Spielberg’s top-flight technique is still in the service of the adventures of a grave robber, one introduced in shadows himself, and one just as sneaky and lethal as the poison darts he dances past.

This is a film made by a kid eating SpaghettiOs, a kid who knows it’s hilarious for the pragmatic American hero to just cold pop the Arab swordsman still enamored of ritual and time-wasting displays of grace. The latter two Jones pictures, in which the grave robber has become a gently unpleasant preserver of trinkets, were made by a grown-up, a serious artist, a good liberal, a citizen of the world, an ambassador of his culture, and a good-hearted boomer bonhomie. Just as it’s hard to picture the Spielberg who made the tony, undervalued War Horse hunkering down with some Chef Boyardee, it’s impossible to picture the Indiana Jones of the tepid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull willy-nilly murdering Lucas’s sleazos.

That Spielberg is now above such nastiness is a net gain for his soul but a serious a loss for adventure movies. An Indiana Jones who plays by our rules of humanistic multiculturalism is like a James Bond who isn’t a misogynist—what’s the point?

Fortunately, whatever they might have done to enlarge its frames, Raiders will always be Raiders: two hours of the finest possible kids’ stuff, boasting Harrison Ford at the peak of his curly charisma; Karen Allen out-drinking the heavy in ravishing silks; serious contenders for Hollywood’s best car chase and fistfight; the wicked and witty cave adventure and snake pit sequences; a score butchered every summer at every pops concert; Paul Freeman soldiering through a scene in the desert even as an errant fly buzzes right into his mouth; that incomparable gag—cut from Spielberg’s 1941—where Ronald Lacey’s coat hanger at first appears to be an instrument of torture; and some charmingly risible impossibilities, like the fact that Indy and his retainers troop for what seems like days through the jungle to get to that cave, but then he has a buddy in a seaplane waiting to pick him up within jogging distance. Oh, and a literal deus ex machina, frying up Nazis Old Testament–style. At some point, even the truly noble-spirited viewer must admit: This shit’s too awesome to worry about its politics while it’s on. And because 2016: Obama’s America is still out, it’s not even this week’s least-charitable on-screen depiction of the Middle East.

The also-undervalued The Adventures of Tintin exhibits the brio and inventiveness absent from much of The Last Crusade and all but the opening reels of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Tintin feels not like the work of a kid but of a nostalgic adult, which means it’s mostly safe, and it never dares the darker fantasies that adults know to hide. It’s the work of a lauded chef, free to create anything in the world he might want to, blowing a kabillion dollars to whip up some SpaghettiOs.

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Side by Side

It’s a credit to Side by Side—an impressively thorough, expertly assembled survey of the debate surrounding the movie industry’s transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking—that even disinterested viewers will have complicated feelings about the aesthetic, practical, and philosophical questions director Chris Kenneally poses about his subject. It’s not as heavy as all that: Producer Keanu Reeves plays interlocutor with a number of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, and Lena Dunham, adding a certain chumminess, and the history of the digital-image revolution is laid out in illuminating rather than stultifying terms. Reeves’s contraction-free, schoolboy narration suits some overly basic explications (“One of the first steps of the production process,” we are informed, “is capturing the image in camera”), but there’s too much substance here (plus the reliably tart presence of David Fincher) for Side by Side to get all tied up in its couple of kinks. If loyalties are staked, few are ironclad; cinematographers, camera makers, and color correctors chime in about shifting film-crew dynamics. At its most fascinating, Side by Side examines the idea that changing formats means changing not just the way movies are made but also watched, adjusting the essence of what looks and feels “real.”

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AMERICAN IDOL

Since Indiana Jones first appeared on-screen with his fedora, bullwhip, and leather jacket in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, his character has inspired a slew of films, television shows, video games, toys, and theme-park rides. But it will always be the first film, directed by Steven Spielberg and co-produced by George Lucas, about a snake-hating archaeologist who goes in search of a golden idol in an ancient Peruvian temple and ends up fighting the Nazis in the Egyptian city of Tanis that holds a special place in fans’ hearts. Tonight, hop aboard for adventure with Indy and his crew. But go with caution—Bryant Park might be booby-trapped.

Mon., Aug. 20, 5 p.m., 2012

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The Deepest Play Ever Wanders Through the Post-Apocalypse

An erudite and goofball concept—mashing up Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare with George A. Romero and George Lucas to decry the death of culture in a world filled with violence — disappointingly derails in The Deepest Play Ever. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans and Jordan Seavey, there are fitful laughs to be had in this CollaboractionTown show, which imagines a Mother Courage–like figure’s journey with her children through a Zombie-filled wasteland. But Geoffrey Decas O’Donnell’s bloated script proves almost unbearably wearying before it has run its two-and-a-half-hour course.

Thankfully, Michael Wells’s original songs (added since the piece debuted at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival) help to lighten some of script’s heft. The composer combines the harshness of Paul Dessau with Broadway razzmatazz to ingenious effect throughout, and particularly in “Happiness Does Not Last Long in the Post-Post-Apocalypse.” It’s a giddy confection that Emily Walton, playing hardened camp prostitute Yvette, delivers with flair.

Yvette’s just one of the characters who becomes part of the quest that Mother LaMadre (Chinasa Ogbuagu) spearheads to save what remains of world literature from destruction by the failed artist turned undead culture tsar Dalvador Sali (playwright O’Donnell). He needs the tomes she’s collected to fuel his bomb, which after incinerating the volumes, will allow him to create culture, as he sees fit, anew. O’Donnell is certainly on to something with this idea of wanting to create art without precedents, which only makes this play’s unwieldy stew of literary and pop-cultural allusions all the more curious and frustrating.

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The Hidden Fortress

Dir. Akira Kurosawa (1958).
The director’s first wide-screen picture, his lightest film, is set in the 16th–century civil war period and concerns two greedy peasants, a dethroned princess on the run, a treasure of hidden gold, and a dashing hero played by the great Toshiro Mifune. George Lucas has made no secret of the fact that Kurosawa’s film was a major influence on Star Wars.

Sat., Jan. 16, 1, 3:40, 6:20 & 9 p.m., 2010

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‘Star Wars in Concert’

The music really was the best part of the Star Wars franchise. John Williams delivered a space opera that was brilliantly intricate and yet immediately accessible—he merged the emotional wallop of Wagner and Strauss with George Lucas’s crackpot pop philosophy, thereby inflating the latter to epic proportions. This tour, featuring excerpts from each of the six films, pits Dirk Brossé’s 86-piece orchestra and 60-voice choir against a three-story HD LED super-screen, but we can go ahead and call Leia’s metal bikini the unanimous winner here.

Fri., Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m., 2009