Wednesday, May 25, 2005
"Mad About Me"
Well, I'm still not convinced this is any sort of a quality review, but I'm not sure reading over it more times will help anything, either, so here is my review of Star Wars, Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. I welcome your thoughts on the film. Particularly if you can talk me out of some of mine.
I came into Star Wars geekery fairly late in life. I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater and remember thinking it was sort of cool but a little hard to follow. Certainly it wasn't the life-changing experience a first Star Wars viewing apparently is for most people. John tried through high school to get me into the movies but, again, I guess I just wasn't yet ready to handle that level of advanced coolness. I was conversant with them; I knew the plots and the major plot twists and could tell Jabba the Hut from Wicket the Ewok on sight, but that was it.
When I finally did enter into life as a Star Wars geek, though, I did so with a vengeance. Sometime during my sophomore year of college it clicked, and now I'm one of those uber-nerds who's no fun to play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit with (as are most of my friends - makes for very boring games. "Who wants to go first? Okay, you win."). I've watched the movies a couple of zillion times, read the novels, played the role-playing game, bought a couple thousand of the CCG cards, etc., etc. I'm one of those people who knows the "stats" for the various ships and debates how actual dogfights would go. The kind of person who agonized with friends over Luke's direct attack with the Force on the Gamorrean guards at Jabba's Palace ("but that's a Dark Side point!"). The kind of person who gets why the title of this post is a Star Wars reference. It's a proud, if often poorly-dressed, club and I'm honored to name myself among its nerdly ranks.
I mention this by way of building up to (and providing a reference frame for) my thoughts about Revenge of the Sith. I've seen it twice now (both times on Opening Day) and I'm torn. I want to love this movie - it's the film that ties the new trilogy and old trilogy together, a fan's chance to see the battle that created Darth Vader in all his black-caped COPD-ish glory, the last Star Wars movie there'll ever be (unless Lucas decides to make more, but I'd be surprised if he does) - and there is certainly a great deal there to like, but there are many things wrong with this movie, too. I've tried a couple of times now to put together my thoughts in a coherent review-y fashion and I find the challenge a bit much for me, so I'll use the time-honored blogger's cheat of making a list of my thoughts on the movie. These are the things which I found noteworthy; some good, some bad. There are quite a few spoilers, too, so if you're hoping to see the movie sans expectations better to hold off on reading this post (and I apologize for already ruining the surprise that Vader becomes the Vader we know from episodes 4-6).
- On the upside (I want to start out with a good point about the film), it was visually spectacular. Lucas has an excellent feel for visuals and this movie - as Star Wars has since 1977 - pushed the limits of what can be done on-screen. The settings were rich and detailed, the CGI characters almost believable, and the climactic lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan was, quite simply, awesome. On the other hand, though...
- The script, on the other hand, was awful. Really really putridly bad. Lucas's dialogue has always been a bit clunky, but faced with the challenge of portraying complicated emotional things like going to the dark side (and all the little battles with discipline and control that entails) or developing a love story he just falls flat on his face. The Anakin/Padme love story is absolutely critical to the plot of the movie. Anakin's love for Padme (which he's always just sort of had - none of the three prequels have bothered to explain it any further than that - but that's pretty common in films and not an indictment of the film unto itself) is both the one emotion he can't control that keeps him from attaining complete Jedi focus and it's the direct reason he voluntarily opens himself to the dark side, "nobly" accepting that any price is worth paying if it brings him the power to save her from dying in childbirth. Lucas knows that, you can tell he knows it, but he has no idea how to put it onscreen, so he settles for just having them say it over and over. Anakin talks about how he can't lose Padme and Padme either says horrendously cheesy lines like, "Those days by the lake on Naboo, where all there was was our love," or demands that he not shut her out. Twice during the film they have that conversation - Something's bothering you/It's nothing/Don't shut me out! They don't seem to get along very well, really - they haven't since the big sister-little brother relationship in Phantom Menace. Makes one wonder where the deep love that will almost single-handedly bring down the Republic is. I generally find Natalie Portman quite a good actress - in fact, I think she single-handedly saves Attack of the Clones's love story from being similarly horrible - but there's nothing she can do with this one. Hayden Christiansen is just in over his head. His job is to have smoldering eyes (especially at the end...) and be angry and generally look hunky, and he does those things well but none of them really forward any emotional development. It's sort of sad, really, that Vader becomes a much better emoter in the next movie when James Earl Jones takes over the vocal acting even though he no longer has any ability to have facial expressions.
Lucas also isn't funny but seems to think he is. To steal an idea from Ain't It Cool News, one line like "Boring conversation anyway" would have gone far towards saving the script. It wasn't as horrid as the C-3PO "comedy" bits in Attack of the Clones, but still some very poor and quite forced humor.
And while I'm discussing the script, I know that Anakin becoming evil was a foregone conclusion but still it would have been nice to have some sort of build-up to it. It's very sudden, jarringly sudden - one minute he's aghast at having been part of Mace Windu's death, the next he's off to the Jedi Temple to carve up some little kids. Some sort of transition would have been nice. In the novelization of the movie, it's made clear that Anakin's only able to defeat Dooku by tapping into his inner anger, which apparently he's been fighting with for his whole life. He learns that using the pent-up rage he still carries from a childhood as a slave and from watching his mother die can bring him great power. I want to make a "great responsibility" joke here, but I'll restrain myself.
- The characters in this movie just aren't interesting. Lucas seems not to realize that viewers are much more interested in watching characters they like do something somewhat cool than they are in watching characters they don't care about do something spectacular. Stephen King is an extremely rich man because he's figured this out as a horror writer - his novel's aren't scary because the monster is especially icky, they're scary because a character that you the reader are invested in is frightened. Friends became the most successful (financially, at least) sitcom ever in spite of only average writing and acting because they made people interested in the characters. Lucas doesn't seem to get that, at least not with the three prequels. He'd rather have one-dimensional characters do visually stunning things. There isn't a Han Solo anywhere in these prequels - no character who we're really interested in seeing develop and grow. Instead we have Anakin, whose whole character is to be moody and act like a petulant teen. We have Palpatine, who should be a fascinating character but just becomes weird and annoying as soon as he reveals himself as Darth Sidious (I actually heard someone gasp with surprise in the theater when he told Anakin he was a Sith Lord. I hope it was sarcastic). The closest we get is Obi-Wan, and that largely due to Ewan McGregor's exceptional work.
- Swinging back to a positive, the story itself is very good - better than the story of the orginal trilogy. The way Palpatine manipulates himself into Emperorship (that arc carries over all three movies), the don't-mess-with-prophecy plotline that sends Anakin to the dark side, the Chosen One prophecy, and the Clone Wars themselves (which are just part of the aforementioned Who Wants To Be An Emperor? plot) - all very good and very nicely intertwined. For all his staggering weakness as a scriptwriter, there's no denying Lucas's genius as an idea man.
- The very odd way Lucas ignored realism - particularly as it applies to time - bothered me a great deal. I'm willing to accept basically any premise in the realm of science fiction or fantasy, but I find inconsistency within that premise very annoying. Starships that travel the galaxy? Okay. Mysterious Force that allows people to have amazing powers? No problem. Sound transmission in outer space? You betcha. But once your framework is established, stick to it, for Pete's sake! Star Wars has established that hyperspace travel isn't instantaneous. The Millenium Falcon is renowned for her speed, and yet there's time for people to hang out, play some holo-chess, and generally be cool on the Tatooine-Alderaan route. Anakin and Padme have time to kick it in the cargo hold of their freighter on the way from Coruscant to Naboo. And yet in this movie Lucas ignores that and has Coruscant (the capitol planet where the Senate offices and Jedi Temple are located) and Mustafar (the volcanic planet where Anakin and Obi-Wan throw down - which is clearly stated to be on the Outer Rim - half a galaxy away from Coruscant) located close enough that travel's basically instant. After Palpatine senses Anakin's in trouble (which is after he's had his legs cut off and started to catch fire from the red hot molten magma), he hops in his shuttle and is at Mustafar in time to save him. That kind of breakdown in consistency drives me nuts. Also, the whole film seems to take place over maybe a couple of weeks, and yet when Anakin hugs Padme early in the film he apparently doesn't notice that she's almost full-term pregnant with twins. I know guys are stereotypically unperceptive, but that seems a bit much.
- There's also weak continuity with the old trilogy. I know that's unavoidable to a degree, but it still grates. In Return of the Jedi, Luke asks Leia if she remembers her mother and she replies, "Just a little bit. She died when I was very young." The second part is so very true - she dies when Leia's minutes old - that the first part seems implausable at best. Also Lucas's decision to make R2-D2 and C-3PO part of the prequels (an inexplicable decision at best) opens up all sorts of questions. Why doesn't Obi-Wan remember them when he meets them again in A New Hope? Where do Artoo's jet boosters go? In Revenge of the Sith he takes on 2 super-battle droids himself; where does that combat ability go? Now that we know that Yoda is the galaxy's premiere lightsaber warrior, why doesn't he just go with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back? Was the entire Kashyyyk scene put in just so we could meet Chewbacca a little bit early? Since Vader knows Beru and Owen Lars and it's been made clear that (at least early on) he still feels a great deal of attachment to his old life, is it really unlikely that he might come back to visit his mother's grave and note with surprise that the blond-haired kid on his way to Toshi Station for power converters has his old last name? These are all little things, but many of them would have been avoidable if the droids hadn't been in the prequels and Anakin hadn't been originally from Tatooine. There are some very cool nods to the old movies - Bail Organa and Yoda coming through the same door onthe Tantive that Vader would later stride through on Tantive IV (the blockade runner captured at the beginning of A New Hope) was a neat scene. Obi-Wan picking up Anakin's lightsaber as he leaves so that he can give it to Luke in A New Hope was a neat scene. The Death Star framework with a young Tarkin standing there was a neat scene. Creating an entire scene so that Yoda can say the word "Chewbacca" was lame. Having Padme name the babies with her dying breaths was lame - anyone who couldn't pick up on who the kids were over the course of the six movies needs a good old-fashioned dope slap anyway.
- There's some forced (no pun intended) awkwardness because of the transition to the old trilogy, too. Not as big a deal, but while I'm ranting I'll go ahead and mention it. Obi-Wan and Yoda obviously have to leave and go into hiding so that things can wait for the old movie gang to show up, but still it's pretty hard to defend within the framework of the film. "The Galaxy needs us now more than ever! Quick, let's go build huts!"
- I read the novel before I saw the film, and perhaps that affected my enjoyment level - took away any suspense and made it harder to get lost in the film. I don't know. There are certainly some things better explained in the book than on the screen, though. For instance, the reason Anakin is so thrown when he's told he won't be a Master is that he's already learned about Darth Plagueis and his ability to forestall death. He wants access to the Jedi records to learn this secret for himself, but only Masters can study records of Sith Lords. He sees being a Master as a way to save Padme - his driving ambition through the whole movie - and when that's suddenly pulled away from him he snaps. He's not (entirely) just being a whiny little kid who thinks he's cool enough for the big-boys table. For instance, Dooku is betrayed by Palpatine; his battle with Anakin is just a way for Palpatine to put Anakin into a fight where he needs to tap into his anger to win. Dooku thinks he's going to help bring Anakin to the dark side. For instance, the reason that the Jedi Council sends away Yoda - their most powerful Master - on a mission to Kashyyyk is to try to lure out Darth Sidious. (And to let Yoda say, "Chewbacca." Grrr...) For instance, the entire reason the Clone Wars were fought was so that Palpatine could have at his command an army of clones to attack the Jedi; clones have no emotions about their orders, so there's no warning for the Jedi to pick up on. For instance, the reason Yoda runs away from Palpatine is that he suddenly figures out the secret to defeating the Sith (this time he had it, and he knew it was right and that no one would need to be nailed to a tree...) and knows that if he loses the secret will die with him. Since he's losing already he runs off instead.
- And finally, this may be a nitpick-ish point, but I'm stunned and aghast and amazed and even a little surprised that they didn't get James Earl Jones to do Vader's voice. Certainly plenty disappointed. The entire Kashyyyk storyline could have been scrapped to clear up budget room, if need be. All they had to do to make Vader's first lines sound like the Vader we grew up with was have him phone in three or four sentences; instead we get a Vader that sounds like someone wearing one of those voice-modulating plastic masks. I have to assume that Jones was unavailable or (perish the thought) unwilling; Lucas went to such over-the-top lengths to include every tie-in to the old trilogy he possibly could, including having the same actors inside the R2-D2 and Chewbacca costumes. I could even have forgiven the Principal Skinner "Nnnoooooooooo!!" if it had just been Vader's voice doing the no-ing.
Does the dark side of the Force "possess" its users? For example, in RotJ, the Emperor tells Luke that Luke is becoming "[his] servant" because Luke is getting angry about all the awful stuff the Emperor is doing. Now, living for anger, letting it control you, yes, that probably means you're going to do some evil things, but Luke seems to have the definition of righteous anger going here. So, if he gives in to anger and murders someone while using the Force (rather than shooting stormtroopers by the boatload), is the danger that the dark side will just swallow him up and turn him evil? That might account for Vader's remorseless slaughter of children.
Just a thought.
John - yes, according to the roleplaying sourcebooks and rules for the CCG and the graphic novel Dark Empire, "possess" is a pretty apt word. I'm sure you're right - when Anakin became Vader he was basically just a dark side automaton and not himself anymore. Indeed, RotS makes Luke's battle with himself in RotJ that much more interesting, since we the viewers have seen how suddenly a Jedi can fall. Still, though, it happened way too fast on-screen. We never see Anakin struggling with his anger, really. The one time he lets go - in the Tusken Raider village in AotC - he doesn't go to the dark side, he just ends up feeling bad about himself.
According, again, to the various nerdly tomes I've read, anytime anyone (but especially Jedi, since they're more attuned to the Force anyway) attacks in anger it moves them towards the Dark Side. (Directly attacking someone with the Force - like the long-distance choking Vader does to Padme and Motti or Luke does to the Gamorreans - used to be an automatic step towards the Dark Side. Letting the Force guide one's lightsaber was one thing, but actually harming someone directly with the Force was bad bad bad. That rule seems to have gone out the window with the prequels.) When a Jedi fights stormtroopers or when Luke's running around Jabba's sail barge performing amputations there's no anger so it's not Dark Side-ish. The Emperor is playing on Luke's anger over losing his father, trying to get him to strike him down (or try to) and start on the slippery slope.
I haven't seen the movie, yet, for the record.
Also, just to clarify, I said I thought it might be a combination of Hayden and James Earl. Or it could be that Jones just imitated Christensen's adolescent speech pattern because he was playing a younger version of Vader.
And look, here I am, up on top of Geek Mountain with you.
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