The Force may have lost its original vigor Big box office, incredible merchandising, but does "Star Wars" really still matter?

Posted: May 15, 2005

Come Thursday, the Sith will hit the fans.

From Alderaan to Tattooine, moviegoers across the galaxy will see the sixth and final chapter of George Lucas' space epic about how Anakin Skywalker became a despot and his son, Luke, a revolutionary. Cultists and critics will test whether the Force is with Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.

Two filmmakers who cite Star Wars as a life-altering experience answer differently. Sith is "awesome!" says Kevin Smith, director of Clerks and Chasing Amy, who declares it "the prequel the haters have been [aching] for."

But the saga's last two episodes have tried the faith of M. Night Shyamalan, maker of The Sixth Sense and Signs. "The first Star Wars was religion, the second one was a great ride," he says. "But by the third, the series began its slide."

He has not yet seen the final chapter in Lucas' astral sextet, but asked, "Has the Force lost its force?" Shyamalan replies: "Who would not answer 'yes'?"

Worldwide, Star Wars has sold $3.3 billion in movie tickets and $9 billion in merchandise. To borrow Yoda's inverted syntax, an economic force it has become.

Yet to the PlayStation generation weaned on Harry Potter, Matrix and Lord of the Rings, does Star Wars matter?

A NASA scientist credits the saga with inspiring two generations of astrophysicists. A federal judge holds it responsible for "ramped-up" courtroom theatrics. And Hollywood executives blame it for turning movies into feature-length ads for toys.

"Star Wars transformed Hollywood from a moviemaking town into a synergized marketing town," says Steven Bach, a producer and biographer.

Moviemaker Lindsay Doran distinguishes between Star Wars the movie and Star Wares the merchandising machine.

"Star Wars matters because it is superior pop entertainment, which seems to be the easiest thing to make but is actually the easiest thing to fail at making," says Doran, the Oscar-nominated producer of Sense and Sensibility. "It proves that in a genre where one might think that all that matters is special effects, character and storytelling are what matters most of all."

But, she adds, "It also proves how quickly everyone involved with a movie like that can forget what made it special and unique in order to turn out sequels that can make a lot of money. . . . And it proves that the audience is willing to forget right along with them."

No contest, Revenge of the Sith is better than the other films in what hardcores call the "PT," or prequel trilogy (Episodes I, II and III) chronicling Anakin Skywalker's devolution from gallant knight to corrupt lord. Still, few outside the fan world of TheForce.net think that Sith ranks up there with any chapter of the "OT," the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI), about Luke Skywalker's evolution from farm boy to Jedi hero.

Listen carefully to Star Warriors - when they speak about the OT, they talk from the heart and when they speak about the PT, they talk technology.

Star Wars "inspired fledgling scientists to imagine what would come next," says Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA, who sees Star Wars as the agency's unofficial recruiting film. "It inspired them to think not in terms of micrograms of fuel but in terms of people and interplanetary political systems."

And there's the indirect effect: "Some of the things we do now in robotics, we saw imagineered in the robotics system first seen in Star Wars."

Michael Malin, whose San Diego, Calif., company builds and operates cameras for NASA's deep-space missions, was stirred by Star Wars in 1977. "It very much reinforced my excitement about space exploration," he writes by e-mail. "Advances in computer graphics that were a natural outgrowth of the special visual effects seen in Star Wars . . . led me to take a sabbatical . . . at [Lucas'] Industrial Light and Magic's Pixar division."

Those advances in graphics helped propel video games from an arcade diversion to a multibillion-dollar industry.

"Star Wars didn't create video games but it totally influenced them," says Peer Schneider, senior publisher of IGN.com, a Web site for video gamers. "The Death Star trench run in the original Star Wars is the archetypal video game climax: Fire a missile, hit a weak spot, and everything gets destroyed."

That hit-and-run pace has accelerated the tempo in court, says U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell, an unapologetic Star Wars devotee who thinks that the "glitzy technology" in the courtroom - "all the PowerPoints and the highlighted documents" - testifies to the Star Wars effect. "I haven't seen a hologram in court yet," says the judge, "but I see these ramped-up presentations every day."

For Dalzell, it's the characters that count - Harrison Ford's Han Solo and Natalie Portman's PadmĀ - not the technology.

He's not the only one who thinks that the techno-wizardry is eclipsing the human factor. Where Star Wars-inspired franchises Terminator and Matrix located their villains in machine culture, critics of the newer Star Wars movies think that digital technology is suffocating them.

"Once a body onscreen is hurled faster than gravity would permit it on this planet, once a film fails to obey the laws of physics, it sends a subliminal signal that it's a cartoon," says cinematographer Garrett Brown, inventor of the SteadiCam and SkyCam. He shot the backgrounds in Return of the Jedi where the Ewoks on speeders zip through redwoods.

"Some of the effects in the prequel trilogy - like the pod race in Episode I that went on and on - are the technological equivalent of overacting," he says.

That may be true, says Jeanine Basinger, film historian and Wesleyan University professor, "but franchise staying power is a matter of grabbing the heart as well as the eye."

Revenge of the Sith is a graceful suspension bridge that connects two tales. But you can't help noticing that each trilogy has the character of its hero - the OT's Luke Skywalker, young and nimble, idealist and fighter for the Light Side; the PT's Darth Vader, battle-weary and mechanical, technocrat and avatar of the Dark Side.

"When George started, the main purpose was to recreate the Flash Gordon-type space opera of his youth," recalls Tom Pollock, a movie producer who in 1976 was Lucas' attorney and negotiated the lucrative Star Wars merchandising rights for his client. "I doubt he dreamed he would create a mythology."

"He created a religion," says Shyamalan. "No other filmmaker has ever done that."

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/carrierickey.

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