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Issue Date:  June 17, 2005

Fun in outer space

'Revenge of the Sith,' 'Hitchhiker's Guide' explore the universe; Argentinean 'Holy Girl' sticks to Earthly relationships


George Lucas’ Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith was the most ballyhooed opening of the year, and fans who camped out to see the New York premiere were quick to praise it as the best of the “Star Wars” prequels. Its huge presold audience came to the theater with the awareness of its background: Three years after the onset of the clone wars, the Jedi knights bring together an immense army to battle against the Separatists. The Republic has fallen, to be replaced by the evil Galactic Empire. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has defected to Sithdom and become the Emperor’s new apprentice. There are plenty of battles and deep-space dogfights, but a good deal of the attraction for in-group enthusiasts is their advance knowledge of how things turn out.

In contrast to other recent Star Wars episodes, there is plenty of action, with visually crowded set pieces and much lopping off of hands and legs. There is even some erotic charge to the seduction scene in which Anakin is lured to the dark side, but the central romance between him and Padmé (Natalie Portman) seems lifeless.

In fairness to the actors, it should be said that Mr. Lucas’ interest is not really in acting; his computer-generated villain, General Grievous, may be the film’s best performer. Even worse, Mr. Lucas seems willing to tolerate scene after scene of distressingly vapid dialogue. His energy has gone into creating florid dreamscapes that suggest a galaxy-spanning civilization with faster-than-light travel. The 2,200 visual effects shots give strong support to the claims of the old movie billboards: SPECTACULAR! An immense air battle features jets, huge airships and even footage of an eruption of Mount Etna.

“Revenge of the Sith” will be utilized by those who look for morals in movies, but the Jedi-Sith dualism seems almost Manichean. “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” exclaims Anakin, whose emergence as Darth Vader has occurred all too easily. His old mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) responds, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” If humorless, “Revenge of the Sith” remains good fun. Mr. Lucas’ vision of unpolluted good versus total evil, however, is too simplistic to be effective.

In contrast, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has plenty of humor but fewer sensational visuals. It will appeal to adults who have not read the book by Douglas Adams or heard the 1978 BBC radio series, and to witty older children. (At the performance I attended, a younger child, frightened by the announcement that the world was about to be destroyed, cried out, “I hate this movie!”)

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is understandably concerned when he sees his charming English cottage is about to be eliminated. He rushes out in his pajamas and bathrobe to stop the bulldozers, but soon learns that the earth itself must make way for a galactic highway. It is the only movie I know of in which the hero stays in his pajamas throughout, a calming influence. Ford Prefect (Mos Def), a friend he once saved, lends him a travel book with the same title as the movie, and the two hitch a ride into space. Unfortunately, they end up on a ship operated by the Vogons, repulsive creatures who make up most of the galaxy’s bureaucracy and are proof of the ingenuity of the Jim Henson Creature Shop.

Many of the book’s cleverest conceits don’t lend themselves to visual presentation, and some of the zaniness will seem boring or confusing as film. I found the dialogue of Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) rather strained, and the freaky bit of John Malkovich added nothing to the fun. But as a whole, “Galaxy” proves endearing because its scares are gentle, and Arthur meets up with Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), an ingenious young woman he had once met at a party. We learn that no matter what terrible threats we encounter in life, it is possible to maintain a gently amused English calm. As the legend on the cover of that travel book Ford lent Arthur put it, “Don’t panic.”

The Holy Girl, an Argentine film directed by Lucrecia Martel, has been hailed by some reviewers as a must for art-house patrons but was a disappointment to me. Not that the director doesn’t show considerable subtlety in presenting characters and backgrounds; indeed, there are so many threads in her story that it is often hard to follow.

Amalia (María Alche), the supposed holy girl, is a teenager first seen listening to a young woman proselytizing for religious vocations in a Catholic study group. She gives no evidence of the influence of an admired teaching sister or of Gospel wisdom. One day, however, she meets Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a participant in a medical conference on hearing at the hotel where she lives. When he rubs up against her, it arouses her youthful eroticism and saving the doctor from sin becomes her vocation. The situation is complicated, however, because Amalia’s best friend, Josefina, is overly affectionate with her, and Amalia’s divorced mother, Helena, who works at the hotel, is flirting with Dr. Jano.

What holds the movie together is not a reductionist idea of religious vocation but awareness of the complexity of hearing, which is the subject of the conference: How does one ascertain what is really heard, physically or spiritually? The director is digging at the mystery of the senses, but the approach of this film seems unduly oblique.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, June 17, 2005

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