He hurts me so bad, yet I keep coming back for more…

George Lucas
George Lucas, Inveterate Tinkerer

Despite the fact that George Lucas has repeatedly beaten my inner fanboy like piñata at a birthday party, I still take my place in line every time he releases something new. I did it for The Phantom Menace, I did it again for Attack of the Clones, and today I’ve forked over still more of my money for the DVD release of the “original” Star Wars trilogy.

It all started with Greedo. The slimy Rodian has always been a troublemaker, but the extent of his ability to vex wasn’t evident until the Special Edition in 1997. Suddenly, his trigger finger was slightly more itchy, and it was this that began (though we didn’t yet realize it) Lucas’ descent into madness. Not content to take this plunge alone, the man opted to drag my beloved trilogy along with him.

Perhaps we should have seen it even earlier. Perhaps even in 1983, when we first witnessed this exchange on Endor’s forest moon:

LEIA: Luke, don’t talk that way! You have a power I … I don’t understand… and could never have.

LUKE: You’re wrong, Leia. You have that power, too. In time you’ll learn to use it as I have. The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it, and … my sister has it… Yes. It’s you, Leia.

LEIA: I know. Somehow … I’ve always known.

If that wasn’t warning enough, the following scene with Leia and Han should have driven it home. But I was ten, then. It wasn’t until later that I recognized just how bad the acting in those two scenes was, and I wrote it off as a fluke.

Then came The Phantom Menace. I had convinced myself in the year leading up to its release that cute little Jake Lloyd could act. I had assured myself that the prequel would manage to capture the magic of the originals … magic that I still see when I watch them today. I did such a good job that I talked myself into a year of denial after Episode I was released. I saw it in the theater three times, not recognizing that each consecutive viewing chipped away at the fine, delicate and oh-so-fragile construct of faith I’d created. Then, I bought the DVD and it all crumbled, the shards of my deception repeatedly lacerating my psyche like a shower of razor blades.

Still, I saw Attack of the Clones on opening day. By now, though, the veil had been lifted. I watched in horror as Lucas’ pawns played out his demented game. Anakin and Amidala were like zombies, loving one another not because of any magnetism or attraction, but because their wicked houngan master commanded them to. When the characters opened their mouths, it was as though they spoke the words of a crazed abductor, pasting words and letters cut from a newspaper onto the script. Special effects were at one turn impressive and another dismal. Each passing moment saw Lucas grind his bootheel viciously into the small of my inner fanboy’s back. My disillusionment was complete, utter, and irreversible. Or so I thought.

In days gone by, I shook my fist with impotent ire when Mr. Lucas declared that the original trilogy would not be made available on DVD until after the prequels were complete. Then my heart was lit with a piercing ray of hope when he announced that the trilogy would, in fact, be available much sooner. I longed to see each frame of The Three rendered in flawless, digital brilliance. The promise of this buoyed my faith once more, faith I had thought crushed and broken, lying in ruins beneath a sea of injustice and callous disregard.

I remain forever weak and easily manipulated. George rings the bell of promise and my mouth is filled to overflowing with the saliva of blind, eager hope. I kneel before him in humble supplication to his will, and once more taste the bitter steel toe of his boot as he delivers yet another punishing blow. Rumors trickle in, whispers of changes beyond those made in the Special Edition. Greedo will forever shoot first. The ghostly visage of Sebastian Shaw’s Anakin Skywalker will be replaced with that of Hayden Christensen. Boba Fett’s voice has been redubbed by Temuera Morrison. In the name of continuity, of course.

Lucas argues that the completed saga will be more cohesive with these changes in place. A fair assertion, but would it be so difficult to include the “alternative version” of the original trilogy? These three films, six hours all told, have integrated themselves so thoroughly into my life over the past twenty-seven years that I daresay I’d not be myself were their influence somehow expurgated. This statement is not mere hyperbole, it is reality. It is also an inescapable fact that there are those whose lives have been even more influenced by the phenomenon that is Star Wars than my own. It is at once sad and reassuring to recognize this, for whatever the length and depth of my own fandom, I am comforted to know that I am—at the very least—not as bad as that guy.

In the end, I will always do as I have done today. I curse myself under my breath as I lay my money down and take this latest offering from Lucas and his band of rogues. The attraction of experiencing these three movies in DVD format far outweighs the disappointment I feel in witnessing further changes to what I feel ought not have been so sullied in the first place.

You win, George Lucas. I have taken yet another step on the path to the Dark Side.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Giovanni Ribisi,  Ling Bai and Sir Laurence Olivier

Directed by Kerry Conran

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is an homage to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear. It is filled with giant robots, ray guns, island fortresses, space ships and just about every other staple of the genre imaginable. What makes Sky Captain unique is the manner in which it is all brought to life.

Apart from the actors, almost nothing in Sky Captain actually exists. If an actor isn’t touching it, chances are it is an entirely digital construct. Every frame of this movie has been altered in some way during post-production, whether it be a simple softening of the focus or the insertion of a wildly stylized set. The end result is a feast for the eyes; so much so that I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes getting used to the visual style.

Thankfully, the story is pretty straightforward. This really is an homage, so there’s not really a whole lot of depth to the plot. The viewer can afford to get lost in the visuals for a while without fear of losing track of the story.

Which is not to say that Sky Captain doesn’t spin an entertaining yarn; it certainly does that. Though it suffers from some less than stellar dialogue, the combination of breathtaking visuals, ripped from a pulp magazine story and all around decent performances by the cast was enough to keep me engaged throughout the entire film.

At this point, there are so many things I liked about Sky Captain that it becomes difficult to sort them out and determine where exactly they should be plugged into the review. First, there are the characters. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins and Jude Law’s Sky Captain (AKA Joe Sullivan) are each a spot-on tip of the hat to the stereotypical nosy reporter and dashing hero that the aforementioned serials helped create. Ditto for Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, the genius mechanic. The only role I haven’t really been able to pin down a stereotype for is Angelina Jolie as Captain Cook, but she wears an eye patch and, well, that’s enough.

Then there is the enigmatic Ling Bai, who portrays the nameless but thoroughly deadly adversary with whom Sky Captain and company must constantly contend. She’s part Darth Maul, part ninja, part Marcel Marceau and all woman. Sort of. She doesn’t utter a single syllable throughout the entire movie, but her presence is guaranteed to make things interesting.

Finally (as far as characters are concerned) we have Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr. Totenkopf, whose diabolical scheme the heroes must thwart. Olivier died in 1989, so his appearance in Sky Captain is certainly noteworthy. Conran tips his creative hat to The Wizard of Oz in bringing Olivier back to the screen.

Next, the style of the film. It may have been enough to borrow story elements and characters from those classic serials, but Kerry Conran went a step further. Every scene, every cut and every fade utilizes some mechanic that hearkens back to 1940. Whether it be a newspaper montage, a radio tower broadcasting concentric circular signals, three hands pointing skyward to herald the arrival of Sky Captain or lines of longitude and latitude superimposed over the Earth to show the journey of a flying airplane, it is all another, superbly executed nod to the black and white adventures that drew people back into the theaters week after week.

There’s very little that I didn’t like about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I thought that Michael Gambon, portraying Polly Perkins’ gruff-yet-caring editor, could have used some more screen time. There was also a line (in Tibetan) about Gwyneth Paltrow’s nipples that seemed rather out of place. Finally, there was a horribly disfigured man whose makeup/mask was a little too over the top for my liking. In a movie where nearly everything is over the top, that’s saying a lot. The difference is how well everything else blends in, and how this particular effect did not.

Some will probably say that Sky Captain is an example of using visual effects to compensate for a lackluster story. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While the story certainly isn’t fantastic, it’s definitely passable. The visual effects simply allow Kerry Conran to present the story in a manner the audience has never experienced before. It’s bluescreen film-making done right, and with spectacular results.