At the Premier: Star Wars Episode III

It was a night like any other Hollywood premier: lavish parties, hundreds of fans crowding police barricades surrounding the theater, stars sauntering down the red carpet, paparazzi yelling at them: "Turn to the right! No, my right!" But few premiers feature Imperial Storm Troopers, Wookies, and Darth Vader himself working the crowd.

Such was the scene Thursday night at the Mann Village Theatre in Westwood, California. One of three nearly simultaneous premiers (the other two were held in New York and San Francisco), the event was a fundraising benefit for Artists for a New South Africa, a charitable non-profit organization led by Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Jedi Mace Windu in the second Star Wars trilogy) and his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, along with honorary chairs Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his wife Leah Tutu, and Her Excellency Barbara Masekela, Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the United States. A long list of co-chairs includes many of Hollywood's brightest stars supporting ANSA's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, assist children orphaned by AIDS, advance the cause of civil rights, safeguard voting rights, educate and empower youth, and build bonds between our countries. In fact, all of George Lucas' movie-premier events are charitable fundraisers, and every seat is paid for, no matter how famous you are. (Many thanks to Texas Instruments, who funded my seat.)

Speaking of TI, the movie itself was presented in 2K DLP Cinema. The picture was absolutely gorgeous, stunning, stupendous, (insert favorite glowing adjective here). The color was rich and vibrant, the detail was razor sharp, and the blacks (of which there were plenty) had nothing to apologize for. And I'm not just saying this because TI paid for my ticket. I've been a big fan of digital cinema since it began several years ago, and it just keeps getting better and better. Of course, it helps that all the live action in this movie (what little of it there is) was shot on Sony CineAlta HD video equipment, which, when combined with all the digitally generated effects, is best experienced with digital projection. I highly recommend that you seek out a digital presentation as you go out to see it starting Thursday, May 19, when Star Wars: Episode 3—Revenge of the Sith opens nationwide.

L to R: Jimmy Smits (Senator Bail Organa), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (wife of Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jedi Mace Windu), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) at the VIP pre-show reception at the W Hotel. Photos provided by BEImages

Mark Hamill discusses the finer points of Star Wars with John Ratzenberger during the pre-show reception.

I've been following the Star Wars saga from its beginnings in 1977, when I saw Episode IV in San Francisco. Since then, it has become part of our cultural mythos, and rightly so. As Samuel L. Jackson said in a pre-recorded introduction before the movie began Thursday night, "In case there's someone in the theater—or left on earth—who hasn't seen the other five movies, I'll let you in on a little secret: the good guys win in the end. A rag-tag group of rebels, some unusual wise men, and a group of unsung heroes join together to fight against a powerful evil empire and, in the end, emerge victorious. It's sort of a space-age version of South Africa's victory of democracy over apartheid. It also reminds me of our own civil-rights battle, where ordinary people joined together to defeat segregation. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.' It seems as though Dr. King, Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and George Lucas are all talking about the same thing. When human beings join together for the greater good, there's nothing that we can't do."

I also recognize the weaknesses of the Star Wars movies, such as blatant stereotypes (greedy junk merchant Watto modeled after unkind caricatures of Jews from 1930s Germany, buffoon Jar-Jar Binks obviously based on "step-n-fetchit" African-Americans from the same period), disturbing misogynistic metaphors (lots of tiny spaceships swarming around a huge spherical target with only one able to get in, which then destroys it), and the piss-poor writing and acting, especially in the second trilogy. When I saw Episode II in a New York theater, the audience was laughing out loud during the love scenes between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala—it was that bad.

Even among Star Wars fans, Episodes I and II rated fairly low. (Does anyone remember The Simpsons episode in which Lenny and Carl beat each other up in an argument over which movie sucked more?) So I'm happy to report that Episode III sucks way less than I and II. It's still not great moviemaking—for example, the dialog between Anakin and Padmé is still poorly written and stiffly delivered—but there are many things to enjoy, such as all those dazzling effects and the ultimately satisfying wrap-up of a story that's been told over the past 28 years. In fact, the end of Episode III meshes perfectly with the first movie, Episode IV, tying up all the loose ends and forming a closed loop that can now cycle through eternity.

I'm certainly not giving anything away to say that Anakin becomes Darth Vader and Padmé bears twins by him named Luke and Leia, thus setting the stage for Episode IV. How Anakin is drawn into the Dark Side of the Force is interesting, illustrating that the ends do not justify the means. And in what I interpreted as an "f--- you" to those who hate Jar-Jar Binks, Lucas brought the reviled character back in a cameo appearance near the end (though, thankfully, he doesn't speak).

Apparently, the blogosphere is abuzz about the movie's supposed anti-Bush sentiment. The only obvious evidence I saw of this was in one showdown between Anakin and his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. As they fight, Anakin says, "You're either with me, or you're my enemy!" To which Obi-Wan replies, "The Sith only see things in absolutes!" (I'm paraphrasing here; I don't recall the exact words, but it's something close to that.) I've certainly heard George W. Bush say things like Anakin's remark, and Anakin does end up becoming the ultimate bad guy (Darth Vader) who helps create and maintain an evil empire, so maybe there's some truth to what the bloggers are saying.

This is the only Star Wars movie with a PG-13 rating; the others are all PG. In fact, George Lucas himself has said that small children should not see it (merchandising to that demographic notwithstanding), and I have to agree with him. There's much more literally depicted violence in this one (decapitations, lots of limbs hacked off, close-ups of a live person engulfed in flames)—too much for my tastes, that's for sure.

Oh yeah, one more thing: be sure to visit the restroom before sitting down. At two and a half hours, Episode III is a bladder buster. But once you're settled into your seat, you're in for a wild ride, so enjoy!

After the movie, the crowd moved over to the Armand Hammer Museum for the "Intergalactic After-Party," which was held in the museum's open-air courtyard.