Your humble blogger has occasionally demonstrated an interest in the Star Wars saga, and, alas, I see over the weekend that a lot of nonsense and some occasional brilliance has been written about this topic. Let's dive in!
While Star Wars devotees are a cantankerous, obsessive, socially maladjusted and generally the-worst-parts-of-Kevin-Smith lot, but there is general agreement on two statements:
1) The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the movies;
2) None of films in the "prequel" trilogy are better than any of the films in the older trilogy.
Both of these statements might seem so obvious that they can usually be asserted as axioms without justification. These canonical statements have been challenged this week, however. Kevin Drum bravely and gamely tries to argue that Return of the Jedi is the best film in the series. I won't quote him here but urge you to read the whole post. It's not a bad argument per se, if it wasn't so horribly, horribly wrong.
Basically, Drum argues that the film's strengths (the opening, the cinematography, the story arcs, the finale) outweigh the weaknesses (the Ewoks). OK, but Drum elides Jedi's other major weaknesses, which include:
A) Leia's transformation from powerful princess to earth mother of Endor (seriously, her hair alone during the scenes in the Endor village knocks Jedi down a peg);
B) Luke and Leia having The Conversation, which even by Lucas' standards is badly-written and contains a statement by Leia that gets totally contradicted later in Revenge of The Sith; and
C) The Ewok attack on the shield generator. As a kid, I always wondered why the Storm Troopers would wear what looked like bulky and awkward plastic armor that didn't seem to stop blaster fire. I figured, "well, it's gotta be effective against more primitive weapons." Nope, it turns out Ewok arrows can penetrate the stuff too! WTF? Did the Emperor get a special deal on the stuff from some Kamino contractors or what? Even if the $852 quadrillion Death Star itself might have been cost-effective, Storm Trooper uniforms are a classic example of bloated Imperial procurement patterns.
D) Lucas f***ing up this movie even more with the special editions. Oh, yay, now Vader says something in the climactic final sequence with the Emperor! Thank the heavens, we now see Hayden Christensen's pouty face at the very end of Jedi, which, by the way, makes no f***ing sense whatsoever!!
Now, all of this said, I think Drum provides a vigorous defense of Jedi's worth -- I think better of it now than before. It's just that in comparison to Empire, it still falls short. Why? First, in contrast to Jedi, there really aren't any Ewoks to apologize for -- Episode V has none of those howlers. The only weakness I can really think of in Empire is the slightly dodgy Imperial strategy involved in conquering the rebel base at Hoth.
As for the strengths, there are many. Beyond the surprising plot twists and climactic duel at Cloud City, Empire has three sequences that are worth watching:
1) The pursit of the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. Just a top notch action sequence. What the Falcon finds in the asteroid field -- and how they escape the Imperial fleet -- are also pleasant and jolting surprises.
2) Luke confronting the Dark Side in the Dagobah swamps. This also contains one of the lovelier pieces of dialogue in the films (LUKE: What's in there? YODA: Only what you take with you.) It also deftly captures the dangers Luke faces as he learned the ways of the Force.
3) Han and Leia deepening their relationship. Contrast their interactions in Empire with, say, Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. Wait, no, that's too low a bar. Here's another way of thinking of it: with the exception of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, one would be hard-pressed to find a burgeoning romance handled so deftly in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Now some of these strengths are more, shall we say, grown-up strengths. As a kid, I recall being frustrated by Empire because of how it left everything at loose ends. Still, I would argue that the payoffs that come from Return of the Jedi are only as sweet because of The Empire Strikes Back.
Still, bravo to Kevin for defending Jedi, because apparently there are some who would dare to argue that Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi. Which would be easy to ignore, if it wasn't a friggin' political scientist making this claim:
I would submit that "Revenge of the Sith" is actually a better film that "Return of the Jedi." I recognize that this view, while probably not as controversial as Drum's, is still not the mainstream one. But the "Sith"story is much more coherent, staying fully focused on Anakin's fall. And the fall is masterfully executed and so complete in its outcome....
And Anakin's final fall is so complete, leaving him a smoldering, limbless pile of hate, screaming impotently at the best friend he'd been manipulating into despising, while the woman he was trying to save lays dying. And Obi Wan's final words to Anakin involve (finally!) something like acting. Ewan MacGregor somehow achieves the impossible, delivering an impassioned performance in a George Lucas film, venting both his disgust in Anakin and his own remorse for having trained him
Mercifully, "Sith" doesn't try to distract us with humorous or furry creatures. Jar Jar is silent. The droids do their jobs. The film is dark and bleak and allowed to remain that way. The few final scenes not focused directly on Anakin -- finding homes for the twins, the remaining Jedi going into hiding, the Death Star under construction -- serve only to set up Episode IV.
If I squint very hard, I can see Masket's arguments. Several things hold me back from agreeing in any way with his conclusions, however. First, the script in Revenge of the Sith is just so much worse than Return of the Jedi that I don't know where to begin. In the last 40 minutes of Sith that almost doesn't matter, because the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel and the Emperor/Yoda clash are pretty good. The problem is that, again, except for the bit that Masket references, practically every line of dialogue uttered in this film is either hackneyed or just God-awful. It's not like Return of the Jedi, when you'd cringe at the occasional leaden sentence. In Sith, it's Every. Friggin'. Sentence.
Second, the character development in the prequel trilogy is so bad that it's tough to even care about Anakin's turn to the dark side. I'd wager the only reason Masket cares is because he saw Episodes IV-VI first. Only if you see them first would there be any reason to give a whit about what happens -- which, by the way, is an excellent reason to read this brilliant exposition of how a newcomer should watch the entire series.
The conundrum that political scientists face is that even though the original trilogy contains the better films, the second trilogy has the better politics. There are no politics in Episodes IV-VI, unless one counts Vader and the Emperor's wooing of Luke. In the prequel trilogy, however, there are lots of parliamentary machinations, tussles between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor, Anakin's lust for power, and Darth Sidious' grand strategy for converting the Republic into an Empire.
To a political scientist, that's good stuff. To human beings interested in enjoying a film, it's tissue paper without things like strong characters, a good screenplay, and decent plotting.
So, no, I must take the Very Brave and Contrarian position of defending the conventional wisdom. The best movie is still The Empire Strikes Back, and while Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequel trilogy, it doesn't hold a candle to Return of the Jedi.
Oh, and this time... I don't care what you think.... because you do agree with me. Move along, now.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.