The Zurich train station, the Hauptbahnhof as we world travellers would call it, had been partially blocked off for a makeshift movie amphitheater on May 19, so that Zurichers could participate en masse in the appointed Third Coming, the global premiere of Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Or so I gathered. I was not really interested. I was on vacation, and the last of the three prequels, evenly spaced out at three-year intervals, could very well wait for my return home. The previous prequels, after all, had struck me as perfectly awful, in addition to uncalled-for, so it was difficult for me to get swept up in the media groundswell. The media these days, forgetful of how swiftly the earlier episodes had been swallowed in the summer stampede, are not wont to temper their enthusiasm based on the worthiness of the enterprise. Not when there are prospective customers to be curried and coddled; not when there is a bandwagon to be boarded; not when there is a wind to be blown with. I myself, meanwhile, might have been said to be looking forward to the film only in the sense of getting it over with. More properly, I might have been said to be looking past it.
What is there, presently, to be looking at? Following one of those prolix prologues for the benefit of viewers like me who have done no boning up since 2002, the action picks up in medias res (standard practice for classical epics), with our master and apprentice Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan and Anakin, threading their way through an incoherent air battle to wrest the abducted Chancellor Palpatine from the clutches of Count Dooku and General Grievous. George Lucas's latter-day visual style comes back to us in a twinkling: the flatness of the humans and the overfertilized fluorescence of their computer-generated surroundings, something like sticks of wood in a stop-motion tomato patch. Even the most static scene of dialogue will be busied up in the background with clouds of spacecraft as thick as mosquitoes in a Minnesota August. The waxy, plasticky, rubbery flesh of the humans, in Lucas's state-of-the-art DV image, could be said to help them blend in with the cartoon creatures and contraptions; it could not be said to redeem their humanity.
But to return to the action: Anakin, as we all are aware ahead of time, is on course to explore the Dark Side of the Force, his personal Darth side, "motivated" by his impalpable passion for Padmé, the Senator formerly known as Queen, and by his premonitions of her death in childbirth. (She, having not seen the original trilogy, is more concerned with the fate of her offspring, little Luke and, in short order, little Leia.) "The fear of loss," elucidates Yoda, dropping his customary scrambled syntax for extra clarity, "is a path to the Dark Side." After the fact, he reverts to form: "Twisted by the Dark Side, young Skywalker has become." In truth, about the only fun in the film -- at its expense, not to its profit -- comes from the Little Green Man's fractured and re-spliced sentences ("For the Clones to discover the recalibration, a long time it will take") or sentence fragments ("A prophecy that misread could have been"). Even that unlovable cut-up, Jar Jar Binks, is brought back only to take part in a funeral procession and to keep his big mouth shut. This is a dark time indeed.
Looking more and more like Uma Thurman (pupils floating upwards) and talking more and more like Ryan Phillippe (pouty lips over tight jaw), the leading man, Hayden Christensen, appears to plumb the depths of darkness about as far as a college sophomore facing a term-paper deadline when he would really rather be chugalugging beer. It's true that he has a hand in a lot of carnage (personally dispatching a roomful of "younglings," sentimental overkill reminiscent of the slaughter of Macduff's family in Macbeth), and yet the dire warnings of the film's unsuitability for children seem a bit off base. Surely it's more suitable for them than it is for adults. Lucas's obsessive castration symbolism (a fear bordering on hysteria) may be over their heads, but on the other hand they will be less likely to carp at the murky exposition of the faux-Shakespearean political skulduggery, more likely to sit there in contented incomprehension, inasmuch as the murkiness, thick though it is, fails in the slightest to obscure the goodness of the good guys and the badness of the bad. So clear is this separation that Anakin's change of allegiance -- Jedi selflessness for Sithian selfhood -- reduces him to a dupe at best and a loon at worst. And, in the midst of what looks to be an erupting volcano, his climactic lightsaber duel with his mentor (has everyone remarked by now on the erectile properties of a switched-on lightsaber? -- the lengthening, pulsing, ready-for-action glow?) leaves him quite literally diminished in stature (or symbolically, once again, castrated). The operating-room followup does provide an explanation of Darth Vader's heavy breathing, without fully explaining why he thenceforth sounds like James Earl Jones. Any loss of luster in our Black Knight -- now a sort of Wizard of Oz with the curtain thrown back -- is no great loss to me. Never much luster in my eyes, he had to begin with. Needed to be under nine years old, perhaps I would have.
I was somewhat more interested, or thought I was, in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Paul Schrader's telling of the backstory to The Exorcist -- the Nazis, the loss of faith, the postwar archaeological dig in Africa, the first exorcism, the renewed vocation -- had been deemed unreleasable in its finished form, and been replaced by Renny Harlin's retooling of it from scratch, with the same star (Stellan Skarsgard) and same cinematographer (Vittorio Storaro). By the time the replacement version hit the big screen last summer, under the name of Exorcist: The Beginning, speculation was already afoot that the Schrader version would yet see the light of day on cable or DVD. And now here it is, a summer later, and a brighter day than forecast, on the big screen itself. I was not entirely sure what I was seeing. Or why. Storaro notwithstanding (who may have grounds for a lawsuit), it has the telltale look of cut-rate digital video: greenish flesh, shadelike physiques, fuzzy edges. This cannot be a fair representation.
Quite apart from their respective images, any comparison between the two versions -- they tell substantially the same story -- would be more interesting if the films themselves were more interesting. Such a comparison, as we doubtless should have divined, is only possible because they're not. We can now see for ourselves why the Schrader version -- solemn, slow, stagy, talky, listless -- was thought to be unreleasable. Why, though, it was thought to be remakeable, or for that matter makeable in the first place, is not so apparent. And why it was subsequently thought to be releasable after all, in light of the box-office egg laid by Exorcist: The Beginning, is an even bigger enigma. (Opening in the same week as Star Wars, it has pretty much skulked out of town already.) For those of us who boldly predicted that any Schrader film would be bound to be more interesting than any Harlin film, there is plenty of egg to go around. (Napkin, please.) If nothing else -- most especially not the computer-generated hyenas or the maggoty baby -- the evocative central image of a buried church, a desecrated church, a downward-facing church, is put over with more punch, more showmanship, in the Harlin.
The main claim to fame of the Schrader comes down to the distinction, if that's the word, of being the first Hollywood film to identify itself as a prequel in its very title. The further citing of another film title in the title, however, causes a crisis of typography which would seem to dictate an abrupt exit from italics: Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist. But how could you know for certain where the title ends? Perhaps a better alternative might be the adoption of negative numerals whereby a prequel such as this one would become The Exorcist -I: Dominion, or vice versa. (To be read as The Exorcist Minus One.... ) A trilogy of prequels, accordingly, would be obliged to take the form of a countdown, beginning, let's say, with Star Wars -III: The Phantom Menace and concluding with Star Wars -I: Revenge of the Sith. A still better alternative, a veritable rule of thumb, would probably be an abstinence from prequels altogether.