Thursday, May 12, 2005

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Directed By: George Lucas
Written By: George Lucas. Sigh.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, and George Lucas' ego.
Synopsis: Anakin finally becomes Vader. We've waited 30 years for this, people, you don't need me telling you.

I don’t believe you can really imagine my level of disappointment after watching Revenge of the Sith for the first time. Understand, I had no real preconceptions of this movie – I knew what the plot was going to be, naturally, but I’d intentionally avoided listening to rumors about the film – which turned out to be a good thing. I heard vague reports that the opening firefight was going to be breathtaking (it wasn’t), I knew Lucas was finally going to reveal the secret of how some Jedi vanish and some Jedi’s bodies remain (he didn’t), and similar bits and pieces (I also heard Jar-Jar was going to be wasted. What happened?). And so I came into the theatre, wary from past Star Wars prequel missteps but hopeful for better things. In fact, my main hope was that it would just be as good as Attack of the Clones. If it was that good, I would be more than satisfied. I wasn’t satisfied.

(Before I go further, I do want to address Attack of the Clones. It’s time that people stop knocking that film. When it came out, it was lauded to the skies – a few nasty missteps on the romantic dialogue, but otherwise, the general consensus was that Episode II the best since Empire Strikes Back. So why the backlash? Everyone now talks about how awful it was, and all they ever mention was that terrible montage on Naboo. The rest of the film has disappeared from most people’s minds. Ask someone what he remembers of Attack of the Clones, and he’ll tell you about a film in which Hayden Christensen mumbles about sand. But try to think back – when you saw Episode II in theatres, it was stunning, it was breathtaking, it was everything you thought a Star Wars film should be. I state this as a fact: Though its translation to the small screen was roughest, Attack of the Clones was the best big-screen movie of the entire series. Period)

To continue: having been so disappointed the first time through, I vowed to look again with fresh eyes and just try to enjoy myself. Fortunately, the second time turned out to be a much more enjoyable ride, mostly because I made some new discoveries about Revenge of the Sith along the way, the main one being that: it's pretty good. I didn't see that one coming.

Why the change in heart? There's a number of reasons for it, each one of which I didn't notice the first time through but became much more apparent the second time through. Let me contrast it for you.

Original Impression: Hayden Christensen is the worst possible choice to have played Anakin. Lucas likely held auditions just for this purpose, and when he saw how awful Christensen could be, which is apparently even worse than Jake Lloyd, it was decided. Perhaps choosing Christensen is some sort of in-joke over at the Skywalker Ranch, where they're still giggling to this day at Christensen's selection, as people the world over stare at the screen in bewilderment and try to figure out if they're supposed to take him seriously or not.

Current Impression: Christensen is a great deal smarter than most people - for example, you and I - and he sees facets of Anakin which we never understood. Let me try to explain this to you, as this is a complicated theory: everything which we have disbelievingly shook our heads at throughout the prequels - the bad dialogue, the stilted acting, and so on - are actually calculated attempts to make us understand better the fate of Anakin.

Stick with me here. The first thing to understanding this theory is to consider all six movies in their chronological rather than created order. When you do that, you begin to understand that Star Wars is not about Luke, Leia, or Obi-Wan, but is in fact in its entirety about Anakin. Star Wars plots his rise, fall, and ultimate redemption, all other characters are merely taking part in his story.

Got that? Now, consider how Anakin relates to people. Throughout all of Star Wars (which, from now on, will be referred to as one continuous movie), Anakin's thought pattern is trapped into the framework which he learned as a child - you are either slave or free. As a result, he treats every person he meets as if they are beneath him and should be ignored, or above him, and should be deferred to (Obi-Wan, Yoda, Palpatine, even Padme). For example, his relationship with Obi-Wan is completely unlike any master-padawan relationship in all of Star Wars - Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan seem more like brothers, Obi-Wan and Luke are like father and son, and Yoda treats everyone like a favorite student. But Anakin can't fathom that sort of relationship, despite all of Obi-Wan's best efforts. When he reaches out to Anakin in friendship, which he does for most of Revenge of the Sith, Anakin still sees him as a master trying to control him - therefore, when Anakin complains "the whole Council's against me," he isn't merely being petulant. He really believes that you are either with him or you aren't, there is no in between. Obi-Wan assumes that "only a Sith speaks in absolutes," but he's mistaken - only someone who sees everything in black and white can truly reject all light as darkness. A more circumspect individual would have had to have admitted that yeah, maybe Mace Windu was wrong to have a hack at Palpatine when he was down, but it still seems a better option than executing eight-year-olds. Anakin's descent into becoming Darth Vader is less an example of how a good boy went bad as it is how misguided thinking creates misguided actions.

Which leads me to my next point, which is that Anakin isn't really all that evil at all. Even when he's turned so completely that he's even abandoned Padme, it's still fairly obvious that maybe if he had a good night's sleep, a round-table discussion with all the Jedi to clear the air a bit, and maybe a little racquetball to work off the stress, Anakin would've still stuck around on the Jedi side of things and he wouldn't have had to have gotten fitted for those robotic pajamas. In fact, the real message of Revenge of The Sith is basically that Darth Vader was really, all along, just a big dork.

No, really. See, all this time we thought what Anakin was saying was just bad dialogue, poorly written, with no snap to it. The truth of the the matter is - that's how Anakin talks. He's just a dorky kid, with kinda sucky social skills. He can't really relate to people, least of all Padme, whom he adores but always feels inadequate around. We all believed Darth Vader was the greatest of bad guys, pure badass evil enfleshed. Revenge of the Sith is about how there's just this... guy in there, forever captured by the stupid mistakes he made when he was dumb kid and sorta-accidently destroyed a republic. As my dad put it "Darth Vader has Asberger's Syndrome! It all makes sense now!" Touche.

Original Impression: The acting in Revenge of the Sith is, across the board, terrible.

Current Impression: The acting in Revenge of the Sith is, across the board, mediocre, with some bright spots and some flinch-inducing moments. I first of all want to congratulate Ewan McGregor, who clearly had no direction whatsoever on some of his lines but did a marvelous job anyway. Often he'll emphasize the wrong word, because he doesn't understand that he's dangling upside-down in an elevator shaft while the whole world is blowing up. This is the trouble with blue-screen technology - the actors cannot correctly convey to the viewer what their character feels about the current event because they have no clue what is going on. For not paying enough attention to such details and making sure that each actor's lines fit with the cinematic splendor that would later be appearing around them, Lucas deserves a healthy swat to the side of the head. I only wish I were there to give it to him.

Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) and Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine) are both mostly solid throughout, particularly McDiarmid in an excellent turn as the face of ultimate evil veiled as good intentions - though they do have their moments of hammy lunacy. The dramatic scene in Palpatine's office where Mace Windu tries to arrest and later execute Palpatine is perhaps the best example of both actors at their absolute worst: Jackson phones it in while McDiarmid performs with all the reserve and subtlety of an epileptic fit. It's a terrible scene in all regards, and features one of the biggest black marks on Revenge of the Sith - Anakin's final change to the Dark Side is a hamhanded, throwaway scene. Aim another swat at Lucas.

Natalie Portman (whom I desperately admire and hate to criticize) is mostly invisible throughout. Everyone else is computer animated (Yoda, the sadly not-dead Jar-Jar Binks) or so utterly blank that they might as well be (Jimmy Smits as a thoroughly useless Bail Organa). I'd give Lucas another swat, but he did give a cameo to Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), making this the third straight film that he's disguised a talented, beautiful actress behind white make-up so that the viewing public has no idea that they're even in the film (Keira Knightley in Phantom Menace, Rose Byrne in Attack of the Clones). That's so strangely counter-intuitive that I have to give him credit: he really is making films with utter disregard to how Hollywood does anything. That's a worthwhile endeavor. We'll leave it at two swats.

Original Impression: The special effects in Star Wars are mere flash-and-dance, they don't help tell the story at all.

Current Impression: Lucas is so determined to be cutting-edge with his CGI that he sometimes missteps, and sometimes creates scenes of compelling emotion. Ultimately, it's worth the risk. Look, sometimes, it doesn't work, and the opening scene is the best example of this: the firefight as the Jedi try to find their way into General Grievous' ship, R2-D2's fight with the battle droids in the hanger bay, Grievous' escape from Anakin and Obi-Wan's clutches, the crash landing of the ship - it's a heckuva try, but there's nothing there. It's all thunder and tempest with no real plot behind it to interest the viewers who like that sort of thing. And what's more, it looks like a cut scene from the latest LucasArts video game.

And then, sometimes, it does work, to glorious effect. Obi-Wan battles Grievous in the Outer Rim, and it ranges all over the various levels of the city - it's fun, it's exciting, it's pure eye-candy, and you actually care about the outcome. Lucas keeps forgetting this important facet - that the audience wants to give a damn - during battle footage, so he shows us Wookies battling droids on Kashyyk, even though everyone knows that the outcome of the battle means absolutely nothing to the plot. He just wanted an excuse to jam Chewbacca in there. For shame, George.

Much better is the final battle scene on Mustafar, as Anakin battles Obi-Wan as lava surges all around them. Emotions are high, the fight sequence is frankly stunning (excellent work by Christensen and McGregor), and the CGI complements (hey!) the story.

Honestly, the problems of the CGI in Revenge of the Sith are a fitting metaphor for the problems of the rest of the film. Sometimes Lucas pushes beyond his limits and gums it all up, and it all falls flat. Sometimes he finds a new way to do things that is so provocative and stunning that it truly grips you with its emotion, without ever losing track of the fun of it all. There's no way to deny that as flawed as Revenge of the Sith is, it's still the same thrilling ride that A New Hope was a generation ago. Bravo.

Three and a Half Stars


Blogger GUNNY said...

I about came out of my seat in the cinema during Obi-Wan's fight with Anakin when he implored him to give it up, since he had "the high ground."

I thought, "You kidding me? That's the best they can come up with. Didn't Obi-Wan smoke Darth Maul when he was hanging down below and flew up to slice him in half?"

That was almost as bad as Obi-Wan's comment when Luke called him out for lying to him about Darth Vader killing his father: "So, what I said was true, from a certain point of view."

Fortunately, Luke called "bogus" on that excuse.

May 30, 2009 5:06 PM  

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