So. It has arrived and we have seen it. The last Star Wars, like everything Lucas has produced since Ewoks, leaves Generation Jedi with mixed feelings. (Yes, it's the best of this trilogy. No, that isn't saying a lot.)
For anyone out there sharing my ambivalence and dissatisfaction, some new DVDs might scratch those remaining itches:
Spaceballs (MGM) is the most obvious tie-in of the month, the spoof that waited a decade to arrive, allowing the Star Wars phenomenon to reach full bloom before ridiculing it. The Mel Brooks film doesn't fall into his most inspired period, but it's hard to find fault with casting Rick Moranis as "Dark Helmet." The new, two-disc edition boasts a Brooks commentary and more than enough behind-the-scenes stuff.
Universal just reissued another space-faring film, though this one substitutes real life for the Millenium Falcon's breakdowns. Apollo 13 is history, not sci-fi, but its look at an ill-fated NASA mission is one of the more gripping stuck-in-the-cockpit stories captured on film.
For those who have whined since 1977 that Luke Skywalker's adventures aren't "real sci-fi," I offer the special edition of an imaginative doozy: 12 Monkeys (Universal), in which the visionary Terry Gilliam applies his visual style to a wonderful science-fiction tale that, while mainstream, just about qualifies to be called an art film.
But let's get back to what the new Star Wars is, not what people want it to be. George Lucas started his saga by copying from Akira Kurosawa, and one wonders if lately he's been watching the latest crop of martial-arts films. House of Flying Daggers (Sony Pictures Classics) is, for good and bad, an appropriate comparison. Zhang Yimou, like Lucas, creates visually stunning settings for his action and gets lost in the technology that enabled them. Showcase scenes like one involving beans tossed against a huge circle of drums sacrifice drama for flash just as the most epic lightsaber battles do, and by the end we're expected to care about characters who haven't given us a reason. Still, it's lovely to look at.
One of the new trilogy's biggest gaps is the lack of a Han Solo character, a rogue who can deflate some of the pompousness. Harrison Ford's Solo was cut from the same cloth as '70s brethren-in-crime Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, reminding me that Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, an obscure prequel to the hit film that was directed by the freewheeling Richard Lester, was recently DVD-ified by Anchor Bay.
Speaking of prequels: One of the richest ideas in Revenge of the Sith is its determination to show how an icon, Darth Vader, evolved from a man (albeit one played by a cardboard actor). The same task is tackled in The Motorcycle Diaries (Focus), which takes celebrity revolutionary Che Guevara and makes him more than a black-on-red screenprinted image. Gael García Bernal is wonderful in the film, as he is in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education, which along with the filmmaker's The Flower of My Secret, just hit disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Speaking of cardboard acting, the Skywalker die was cast back in the '70s by the oh-so-mockable Mark Hamill. Hamill's career basically died thereafter, until he resurfaced in the '90s as a go-to guy for cartoon and video-game voiceovers. But he did co-star in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (Warner Bros.), which recently got a celebrated makeover produced by Richard Schickel. Schickel swept the cutting-room floor, finding scenes from Fuller's war epic that had been cut against his wishes and reintegrating them. The result is an extremely personal war movie that gets the most out of its real star, Lee Marvin.
Moviegoers who appreciate the 10-year-old adventure component of the Star Wars films might check out National Treasure (Disney), which places the credibility bar way down low and borrows heavily from the Lucas-produced Indiana Jones series without living up to that saga's wit and craft.
Finally, a film makes its way onto this list for largely pessimistic reasons. There aren't a lot of surface similarities between The Life Aquatic (Criterion) and Star Wars, but cinephiles with an eye for career arcs may see some parallels between George Lucas and Wes Anderson. Both men started out with small, visually inspired films that felt like nothing else on the moviescape. Both hit it big (Lucas with ticket-buyers, Anderson with critics) when they dove into their idiosyncratic imaginations. And both - if the sadly lifeless Aquatic portends things to come - became so enamored of their quirks that they stopped caring about the audience's needs. George Lucas, master merchandiser, built an empire despite this failing. Wes Anderson, whose films are nowhere near as commercial, still has time to reject the Dark Side. •
By John DeFore