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THE JEDI IN THE RADIATOR: EPISODE VI REVISITED

I’m an old-school Star Wars fan.

I’m talking about the original movie now, before the sequels and prequels, and even before it was called Episode IV: A New Hope.

When Star Wars came out in 1977, it changed my life.

My best friend had seen it on opening day and told me it was great, but nothing could have prepared me for the full 70mm, Dolby experience.  It didn’t hurt that I lived near Hollywood and was lucky enough see it in the perfect conditions of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

I remember there wasn’t even a big line for the matinee—the movie hadn’t exploded yet.

After that, I saw it at least forty more times, usually in less ideal mall cinemas, but never tired of it.
That movie was my escape from the hell of junior high.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, some friends and I cut school to see it on opening day.  We joined a massive crowd at L.A.’s Century City, some of whom had camped out all night—it was like a rock concert.  We waited in line for hours, but it was worth it to share the excitement in that theater when the lights went down.

But it’s a strange thing.

The movie didn’t thrill me…not the way I hoped it would.

And after the initial cheers, the rest of the crowd was oddly subdued as well.  I know Empire is regarded as maybe the best Star Wars movie, but for me it was a bit of a letdown.  There were great scenes, some things I really liked, but nothing that blew my mind the way the original film had.

Maybe I just didn’t need it as badly.

By the time Return of the Jedi (Star Wars Episode VI) came out, forget it.

I don’t even remember where I saw it.  I do remember I had very clear expectations:  The Rebel Alliance had to finally confront the Emperor at his lair, which would no doubt be some fantastic space fortress that would make the Death Star look like a wind-up toy.

I remembered a line in the first film about the Emperor dissolving the Imperial Senate, so I imagined him living all alone in some spooky deserted castle, like Charles Foster Kane in his Xanadu—maybe a castle sprouting like a tumor out of a huge asteroid, surrounded by belts of space-docks that are the shipyards of Imperial Fleet.  The Rebels would know they can’t defeat the Emperor’s home base in all-out frontal assault, but if they can destroy Vader’s flagship in a sneak attack, the diversion might be enough to smuggle a small team in to assassinate the Emperor.  A team led by Luke Skywalker.

At great cost, the rebels destroy Vader’s ship—it looks like the Dark Lord is dead.  Now Luke has the Emperor cornered.  But wait!

A red lightsaber flashes in the shadows—Darth Vader is still alive…and Luke must fight him to the death.  Etcetera etcetera.

That was my hope, anyway.

Needless to say, I was less than delighted by the actual film, with its redundant Death Star and annoyingly cuddly Ewoks.  Make it a Wookiee planet, for Christ’s sake!  Then you not only get to develop Chewbacca’s backstory, you also make it halfway plausible that they can defeat armored stormtroopers.  Aw, what’s the use?  What’s done is done.

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But there’s one thing I can’t stop thinking about.

Before hiring Richard Marquand to direct Return of the Jedi, George Lucas approached David Lynch to do it.

Whoa.

Crazy idea…or maybe not.

After all, at that point David Lynch was hot off his Oscar-winning adaptation of The Elephant Man, so he wasn’t exactly the hardcore space cadet we now know and love.  Before Elephant Man, Lynch’s only other feature film was the little-seen cult object, Eraserhead.  But anyone who had seen Eraserhead, as George Lucas must have, would know this guy was a curious choice for the Star Wars franchise.

Then again Lucas was once a bit of a weirdo himself, having dabbled in psychotronic cinema with THX-1138.  In fact, there were already incongruous nightmare elements in both previous Star Wars films, such as the needle-bearing torture droid, the gory skeletons of Luke’s aunt and uncle, the spurting guts of the Tauntaun (into which Han Solo shoves Luke’s body), the phallic Moby Dick that almost swallows the Millenium Falcon, or Luke’s dream of chopping off Vader’s head and seeing his own face under the mask.

It was these sorts of grotesque images that made Star Wars more than just kiddie crap, and Lucas wanted plenty of them in Return of the Jedi.

How else to explain making Princess Leia a sex-slave to a giant slug?  Or having men be swallowed whole by a monster vagina in the desert?  The problem with Jedi was not a lack of interestingly perverse ideas, it was a lack of style, and Lucas knew that David Lynch was a master of style.

Knowing what we do now about David Lynch’s subsequent career, we can imagine the Episode VI he might have made:

Luke having visions of stars swirling like smoke, with Vader’s helmet floating like a planet in space and repeating “I am your father”; Ben Kenobi in front of a red velvet curtain, intoning, “It is happening again,” and Yoda talking backwards; Jabba the Hutt as a repulsive, diseased fat guy under buzzing, flickering fluorescent lights, surrounded by vile sycophants, one of whom is singing a Roy Orbison song; Luke forced to watch as Leia is molested, and both of them later succumbing to forbidden desire when she begs him to hit her; the Emperor taking hits of Sith gas and screaming, “Don’t you fuckin’ look at me!”

“She looks like Padme Amidala, no?”

It would have been awesome.

But George Lucas would have never allowed it to be Lynch’s movie; Lynch knew that.  So he turned Lucas down.

David Lynch had his own agenda, and it had nothing to do with being a cog in somebody else’s empire.  If he was going to make an epic science fiction film, he was going to do it his way, without compromising his artistic vision for some megalomaniacal producer.

So David Lynch went to make Dune for Dino De Laurentiis.  Ouch.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mike White

    February 16, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Say what you will but I consider Dune (in all its incarnations — Lynch or Smithee) brilliant.

  2. Walter Greatshell

    February 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Mike, I couldn't agree with you more. Despite its flaws (most of which are not David Lynch's fault), Dune has some of the greatest scenes of any science fiction movie. I'd go so far as to say that the first half of Dune (not the Smithee version) is my favorite science fiction film. The Guild navigator sequence, the grotesque Baron Harkonnen yanking that guy's heart plug, the old man who has to milk a cat for the poison antidote–it is brilliantly strange. I just think there's enough stuff there for three movies, and it collapses under its own weight by the end.

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