The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
In the fall of 2012, the Walt Disney Company dropped a four-billion-dollar bag of money on George Lucas’ desk and took ownership of Lucasfilm Ltd., the company that he’d spent decades building. Disney wasn’t paying all that money for Lucas productions like Howard The Duck or Tucker: The Man And His Dream or even Strange Magic. Instead, the Mouse House flexed its world-domination powers to take full control of the Star Wars franchise, the George Lucas brainchild that had changed the face of cinema 35 years earlier.
This was a case of a massively wealthy and impersonal conglomerate assuming ownership of one man’s strange, idiosyncratic personal vision—the big company finally making the artist an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was commerce overwhelming art. And in most of the internet-borne reactions that passed in front of my eyeballs, people were extremely amped about it. In virtually every case, most of us don’t like to see an artist’s work becoming part of a corporate machine. But with Star Wars, Lucas had already blown his massive public goodwill. People were ready for the Disney version.
Years after the release of his beloved original trilogy, George Lucas had set out to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader—a three-film arc of cosmic corruption and operatic tragedy. The franchise that defined whiz-bang blockbuster cinema came back into operation to tell a long, fatalistic dirge about a young man breaking bad. Virtually all the other big movie franchises of the early 21st century—Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings, Spider-Man, The Matrix—told stories of sincere young men discovering that they’re special and learning that their specialness brings the weight of obligation. In those other stories, the young men all step up and become heroes. In the Lucas version, the young man goes into a destructive paranoiac spiral and destroys everything that he loves. Laid out like that, the Star Wars prequel trilogy looks amazing. But Lucas made three movies that stank like ass juice.
Each of the Star Wars prequels was a tremendous hit, and two of the three were the highest-grossing films of their respective years. (Attack Of The Clones suffered at the box office for being the worst of the three.) Those successes say something about the way the first three Star Wars movies had captured the public’s imagination. My little mini-generation was the first to grow up with VCRs in the house, and everyone I knew watched those things over and over, then still paid to see the special edition re-releases in the theater. The pre-release hype for The Phantom Menace was deafening, and even those of us who hated that movie kept going back to the later ones, mostly based on some illusory idea that they’d get better. It never happened.
I remember the drive back from Revenge Of The Sith—my friend and I spluttering at each other, demanding to know how they could’ve fucked this up so badly—more than I remember watching the movie itself. It was unfathomable. We’d fooled ourselves into optimism, thinking that even after the CGI-vaudeville hijinks of the first two prequels, Lucas would bring the commanding darkness for the one where Anakin Skywalker truly goes evil. And Revenge Of The Sith really is dark; it’s a movie where our protagonist calmly walks into a Jedi temple and massacres a whole mob of adorable kids. But darkness alone, we learned, would not save these movies.
Revenge Of The Sith never earns its darkness. In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas had depicted baby Anakin Skywalker as a blandly plucky little slave kid who mostly seems excited to join the space swashbuckling. In Attack Of The Clones, he’s a moody, huffy, obnoxious teenager, but he doesn’t seem like a monster in the making. Lucas made the frankly catastrophic decision to cast the young Canadian actor Hayden Christensen as Anakin. Christensen had done some promising work, but he proved utterly incapable of selling Lucas’ ludicrous dialogue or holding the center of the spectacle. In his attempt to play Anakin as a talented, arrogant young man, Christensen mostly just comes off as someone who doesn’t want to be there.
Those problems get worse in Revenge Of The Sith. Christensen is a brittle, sulky non-presence. He’s unpleasant company. In between Clones and Sith, Christensen had done impressive work in the film Shattered Glass, playing a promising young man who does morally indefensible things because they’re easy. But Shattered Glass has a script that follows a story coherently. Revenge Of The Sith has something else. Even with two and a half movies of groundwork, Anakin’s Sith heel turn is abrupt and baffling. In the space of one scene, Anakin goes from being a disgruntled but loyal Jedi to a force of pure child-slaughtering evil.
Anakin goes evil because he’s having visions of his wife dying during childbirth and because this guy Chancellor Palpatine mentions that an old Sith Lord once figured out how to prevent death. That’s apparently enough for Anakin, who promptly loses all his protective instincts once he joins the dark side. Within a few scenes, Anakin is Force-choking the woman he did all this to protect. None of it works. She dies anyway, and Anakin is left screaming “noooo!” with all the hammy theatricality that a 74-year-old James Earl Jones could muster.
To make that character work, Hayden Christensen would’ve had to play him as a desperate man who can’t accept the limits of his own control. Instead, Christensen moves through the movies with bored, icy reserve. When he’s chopping up robots and cracking one-liners, he only seems mildly interested in what’s happening around him. When he attempts to recite Lucas’ preposterous lovey-dovey pillow talk, he appears utterly detached. And when he goes full evil in record time, the one thing that really changes is the color of Anakin’s eyes. Really, the only time Christensen shows the slightest bit of fire, it’s sadly literal—when Anakin has been hacked into pieces, looking like the Black Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
There are some cool things about Revenge Of The Sith, but those things tend to be sideshows or distractions. John Williams’ score works overtime to make the movie seem more dramatic than it is. Ian McDiarmid, the veteran British stage actor who plays Palpatine, clearly has a blast as the world’s hammiest and most obvious villain. I like the sweep of the CGI-tracking-shot opening, even though it’s too cluttered, and I like the film-noir lighting in the scene where Yoda tells Anakin to accept the inevitability of death. And when Palpatine gives the order to liquidate the entire Jedi Council, the death-montage has enough tragic weight to bring to mind the baptism scene at the end of The Godfather.
Of course, a scene like that raises difficult questions. Like: Were the Jedi really dumb enough to leave themselves open to that seemingly inevitable betrayal? Why did they try to use the clearly rebellious Anakin as their double agent in the first place? Were these Jedis ever as impressive as they were supposed to be? Revenge Of The Sith rattles on quickly and smoothly enough that those questions never become too glaring, but Lucas makes so many baffling storytelling decisions that they barely register anyway.
Those decisions start with the opening crawl, a list of names and events that would’ve been utterly meaningless even to anyone who’d seen the previous two movies. There’s a droid separatist army now? And they’re kidnapping Palpatine? The feared General Grievous is an oafish robot with a hacking cough and a Dracula accent? It just goes on from there. By the time the climax hits, Lucas cuts back and forth between two lightsaber duels. In one, we’re watching a CGI bouncy ball fighting a stuntman with an old man’s face superimposed over his own. In the other, it’s two guys on hoverboards, zipping around a volcano planet with all the pixelated majesty of a No Limit Records album cover.
Lucas also twists himself into cutesy narrative knots trying to jam in as many nods to the original trilogy as possible. The idea of a battle on a Wookie planet is cool, but why does Yoda have to be best friends with Chewbacca? Why can’t Chewbacca just be some smuggler who never did anything of galactically historical importance before he and his partner picked up a kid, an old man, and two droids on Tatooine? At the end of the movie, Princess Leia’s adopted father orders C-3PO’s mind wiped, an act of random cruelty that only really makes sense because Lucas needs an excuse for why the robot doesn’t remember any of what happened before he meets Luke.
Despite all this, Revenge Of The Sith was, in its moment, a fairly well-received movie. It did tremendous box-office business. Reviews were mostly good. As with the other prequels, it still has a serious fanbase. Some of the film’s adherents saw it when they were young enough to form nostalgic connections, but some of them also like the storytelling audacity that Lucas showed. All the prequels have been meme wellsprings, and Sith, in particular, has cast a shadow over The Mandalorian. In the second season of the series, we learn that Grogu, the baby-Yoda figure who might currently be the biggest star in all of popular culture, mysteriously escaped Anakin’s temple massacre. That revelation had more emotional impact than anything that actually happened in Revenge Of The Sith.
But has Revenge Of The Sith left any actual cultural impact? I honestly don’t know. George Lucas never directed again, but that was a personal choice, not a case where people didn’t want to hire him. Ewan MacGregor and Natalie Portman both came out of the prequels just fine, but Hayden Christensen’s career dissolved in slow motion in the years afterward. Ewan MacGregor is making a Disney+ series about Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Disney recently announced that Christensen would rejoin him on the show. When it comes out, we’ll really see how much lingering affection people have for those prequels. Maybe Disney will tell the characters’ stories better than George Lucas did.
The runner-up: Two of 2005’s biggest box-office hits are flawed, effects-heavy monster-movie spectacles from A-list directors going full populist. Peter Jackson followed up his Lord Of The Rings triumphs with his own remake of King Kong, which was briefly the most expensive film ever made. Jackson’s version of the old Hollywood myth is ponderous and overlong and, in moments, wildly racist. But when that big fucking gorilla fights those dinosaurs? When he slides around the frozen pond with Naomi Watts? When he’s jumping up from the Empire State Building roof to slap at biplanes? That’s the good shit right there.
But I prefer Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds. The movie has plenty of problems of its own: the cloying family-bonding moments, the second-half pivot to action heroics, the vast shrug of an anticlimactic ending, the whole thing about the basement and Tim Robbins. War Of The Worlds is also the film that led to Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. Still, when it goes, it goes. The early scenes of destruction and carnage are intense, gripping filmmaking—the purest horror movie that Spielberg made post-Jaws and maybe the first truly great cinematic use of post-9/11 hysteria. It’s hard to imagine that sort of vast-scale feel-bad spectacle coming out today.
Next time: Disney follows up on the unexpected success of one of its theme-park-ride adaptations by going really, really big on aquatic silliness with Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.