Friday, May 20, 2005

Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith

SPOILER Alert—If you haven’t noticed, I write these reviews with little concern about revealing the details of the film’s characters, plot, or conclusion. Same goes here. So if you are at all worried about someone ruining the movie, see it first and then read this review.

I am working on a review of P.S. as part of my four-part analysis of last week’s movie rentals, but I thought I’d take a brief interlude to comment upon Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Since I'm old now, I didn’t join the other freaks (love them) at the midnight showing, but I did manage to get to the film on opening day. Still freaky enough to qualify as a fan, I hope.

A disenchanted fan, that is. The first two films seriously disappointed me, perhaps in large part because the romance between Amidala and Anakin was developed so poorly. Easily among the worst scenes ever in a series full of scenes with silted dialogue and awkward acting, the love scenes between the couple lack any sort of sparkage. My own imaginings about how Luke and Leia came to be were cruelly shattered as Anakin spoke sweet nothings about the harshness of sand: “I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.” Could that possibly be the worst line of dialogue ever in the history of the spoken word?

George Lucas’ prudery is part of the reason why this couple lacks any chemistry. Considering the forbidden nature of their relationship, and the fact that their affair leads to such despair, Amidala and Anakin do not seem like the kind of couple who should get married. Where’s the transgression in that? Sure, they marry in secret, but everything in their relationship stinks of conformity, at least according to our traditional mores. What sort of conflict arises from a couple with no internal conflict? Rather, they merely react to events outside of themselves.

I’m disappointed because I had an idea of a powerful Amidala being drawn to the equally powerful and passionate Anakin (in my mind, more of a Han Solo type-guy). With her rank and his talent, these two should have taken on the world and set fire to the screen. Instead they retreat to a quiet and traditional marital relationship, with Amidala waiting at home for her working husband to return.

Lucas chickened out with this relationship. I am annoyed that he made them get married, you know, to make the (hushed tones) s-e-x okay, but that doesn’t mean Amidala can’t challenge her husband. That doesn’t mean they can’t fight and disagree and recognize their differences. The true offense in this marriage is that Lucas has created a union of children rather than adults. What is this, 7th Heaven, a television show in which every child character has married before finishing school because the show’s writers don’t know how to deal with sexuality?

Interpersonal conflict is the basis of drama—two people with conflicting needs, trying to accomplish their goal with, through, or over the desires of the other person. Lucas does not always understand this: a scene featuring someone purely good against someone who is purely bad only achieves a certain level of interest. For we know all there is to know about each person and we have a strong idea of what the outcome will be whoever wins.

But when one or both characters evidence layers, or dimension, the scene becomes more interesting. Watching a person struggle against an external foe while also battling internal demons heightens the stakes. Hence, drama. Not to sound too much like an elementary school drama teacher, but Lucas might benefit from revisiting these basic dramatic elements.

We all have heard how actors in the Star Wars series tend to be “wooden” because Lucas focuses more on technical effects than coaching his stars. Yet even within the script he overlooks opportunities to examine the complexity of human nature. Consider this moment of Anakin’s journey to the dark side: Anakin enters the Jedi headquarters to murder the younglings. Do we then see him question whether this is a good idea? Do we see him enjoy the murder? Does any one of the children challenge his sense of right and wrong? Do we have any sense of how difficult this task might be to accomplish? Nope, cause Lucas takes the camera away and only shows the results of Anakin’s act rather than the act itself.

Heck, even if Lucas wanted to avoid the grotesquery of staging the murders, he could have portrayed Anakin experiencing some struggle before the murder. Maybe he could have debated the value of this effort with the chancellor. Perhaps Anakin might have offered to turn all the younglings evil and therefore create an army of bad Jedis. Whatever the excuse or the delay tactic, Lucas missed an opportunity to demonstrate the process of Anakin losing his soul.

As I write this, I am sure one could argue that once Anakin makes his choice to learn from Palpatine, he resigns his soul. But Lucas makes a point of twice showing Anakin with a tear running down his cheek—to make sure we know the compassionate human continues to reside within. So why make his “descent” less of a process than a hurried decision without obvious consequences? So much of Anakin’s fall takes place within his own mind or off-screen—how is that dramatic?

Another overlooked opportunity occurs when Lucas chooses the cheapest and easiest way to reveal Anakin’s betrayal. Get this—Obi-Wan discovers that it was Anakin that killed the younglings by watching a security hologram. Hold on—a security hologram? I mean, how did he even write that without feeling like a sellout? So when Obi-Wan learns his pupil has committed a terrible atrocity, he interacts with…a hologram. Again, Lucas forces a character to react internally rather than externally. What if Obi-Wan had found Anakin as he exited the Jedi temple—the potential for drama there is ripe. Actually, the possibilities for this reveal as moment of conflict between human characters are endless, but Lucas chooses the weakest possibility—he’s a lazy writer. And, of course, Lucas doesn’t get drama.

I could nit pick forever—Lucas is an easy target and his ego almost demands a comeuppance. But I wanted this film to be great. Having read the many of the reviews (Variety, Time, NY Times, New Yorker, EW, etc.), I knew what I was getting into in watching this movie: the good and the ill. Yet after leaving the film, all I could say was, “it didn’t suck.” High praise, indeed.

So let’s talk about what works. Yoda is cool, as always. Sure his inverted way of talking detracts from the seriousness sometimes, but that is in part because we don’t buy these movies as easily as we used to. Lucas has something to prove now, so we can laugh at the movies with impunity.

That said, Yoda’s fighting style kind of rocks. Watching the little guy kick ass is always fun. But the most poignant moment of the entire film features Yoda, having run from his fight with the now Emperor Palpatine, despairing that he has failed. This is a character layer. This is an example of a wounded soul, an ego tested, and a power challenged. I know more about Yoda than I used to. Thanks, Lucas.

The opening battle scene impresses with its enormity, the parallel fight sequences of Yoda versus Palpatine and Obi-Wan versus Anakin bring the film’s tension to a fever pitch and reach an impressive climax in the complete bodily destruction of Anakin. R2-D2 steals the show, as always, and Chewbacca makes a completely cheesy yet somehow oddly satisfying appearance. And Jimmy Smits, the future president of the West Wing, survives the film. He’s this movie’s Wedge.

As a feminist film review, I should mention poor Natalie Portman, hung out to dry by her bad dialogue and her pregnancy. I guess Lucas is part of the old school that believes pregnant women are physically fragile or something, cause Amidala shares in none of the action. Sure, she gets one of the best lines in a movie with few great lines, “This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.” And I have to admit that the politics was rather interesting in this movie: after all, the leader of the democratic senate defeats the apparent bad guys: the droids. Anakin defends the Republic against the Jedi, whom Anakin sees as a threat to the democratically elected power: the chancellor. Democracy wins—sort of. (Yes, I love the Bush comparisons.)

Considering the important role of politics in this film, one wonders why Amidala, a key player in the political scene in earlier films, stays home from the office so often. And when she does go to the senate, she remains silent. Why not challenge the chancellor? Why not negotiate in the background with those that might also fear his growing power? Amidala’s role in this film is lover and impending mother—Lucas seems to forget she is a politician and a leader. She’s a true Disney princess: wearing the pretty clothes and living for her man alone.

Amidala expresses concern that her pregnancy will prevent her active involvement in the senate, yet the fasionable robes of the period indicate that she could hide that baby for quite a long time, should she choose. Rather, she stays home and worries about her husband. In fact, virtually every scene of Amidala takes place in her home. No wonder Anakin fears he has to protect Amidala—she clearly has forgotten how to protect herself or her people. Amidala is the worst stereotype of fragile, worrying, sick with love femininity. She needs one of Leia’s blasters.

One final, odd note. Amidala gives birth to the twins with a full audience. Yoda, Obi-Wan, Senator Organa, even C3-PO sit behind a glass window, watching a droid pull out each baby. What’s with the male gaze imposing upon a decidedly feminine realm? Is this a metaphor for how male MDs took over for female midwives? Or in my friend’s words, is this just proof that Amidala is merely a vessel to bring the new hope to life. The weak woman dies, and the celibate men take over as guardians for the children. Just though I’d throw that out here.

In the end, is the movie worth seeing? Sure. Is it all it could have been? Heck, no. Is it enough? Maybe. Hayden Christensen isn’t as awful as they say, McGregor does his best with what he has, and Ian McDiarmid gives a totally creepy and evil performance as the emperor.

And of course, I will always have parts IV-VI.


At 1:04 PM, Blogger Marshall said...


I agree with some of your points on Ep. III.

However, I must ask -- if one is a fan of the original Trilogy -- and, to some degree, a fan of the Prequels -- (as I am and I assume you are) -- how can one be truly critical of this film, with any degree of objectivity?

I wanted to read about your thoughts on the Emporor and Palpatine's transformation -- the best part of the film, really. This film belongs to Ian McDiarmond, and of course to Ewan and Hayden, both of whom display a full degree of bad-assness.

Also -- what about the birth droid -- wasn't it a woman's voice?  Are you sure it was a guy?

There was a slew of tiny rewards for fans, like the Blockade Runner at the end with Bail Organa and Yoda, the setting sun on Tatooine perfectly linking episodes III and IV, the brief appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin, the lightsaber fights . . . and that, in a way, Obi Wan DID witness Anakin's move towards the Dark Side when he killed Count Dooku.

I'm fine with Obi-Wan and Yoda watching the hologram -- nice use of big brother's technology of 2005, what with traffic cameras and iPass driver logs. Everything we do is constantly recorded to be mined later, either in southeast Asia or the Jedi Temple.

All in all, I loved the hell out of Episode III, and think there are a few strange elements in III (Darth yells "Nooooo" ?? Well, of course he does -- he's Anakin), they're not nearly as obvious or mind-numbing as those in I and II.

Lucas makes his movies the way he wants to, Hollywood, the World, and Fans be damned. He really doesn't care. Case in point: Jar Jar and Young Annie.

The same criticisms were made of the first three movies, and I think you can either accept them or you can't. Even "Empire" has some odd moments here and there, but they add to the charm and intentional 40's throwback style of moviemaking that Lucas has developed.

Thank God, III was the movie we've been waiting for.

If only there were an Episode III.5.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger Feminist Film Critic said...

From my brother:

...Certainly, you've given voice to the dramatic shortcomings of the picture in a way that I only could sense, but not express. Of course, in hindsight, it becomes clear why Lucas's quest to make the first three episodes was doomed from the beginning. The first three episodes are essentially the telling of a single character's development (at bottom, this is just Macbeth with light sabers, right? And Obi Wan is Macduff.

I guess this all falls apart with Padme, doesn't it? At least Shakespeare had the sense to give us a Lady Macbeth who earned her stagetime!) Why Lucas ever thought he was the person to tell such a tale is beyond me. (Or maybe he has given us Macbeth afterall. Certainly, Lucus has given us a poor player, and sure enough, he's strutted and fretted his hour upon the the stage (and with any luck he'll be heard no more). Oh, nevermind--all we have here is a tale told by an idiot.)

My assessment upon leaving the theatre was that the film has all of the excitement of the first three (episodes IV-VI), but none of the wonder. The first three films began with a mundane, tedious, and wearisome world that became increasingly magical. The most recent films began with a foreign and magical world that became increasingly familiar. The first three hinted at a momentous past that captivated with its centrality and elusiveness. The recent film offered ony the cheap thrill of connecting the dots to a future we already know.

If nothing else, these movies have demonstrated beyond doubt Harrison Ford's status as the indispensable man of episodes IV-VI. Would those movies have amounted to much absent Harrison Ford's believeability and chrisma as Han Solo? Would Empire be as tragic without the sacrifice of a beloved character? Episodes I-III provide the answer: No way. When Anakin fell, I felt nothing.

All that said, I enjoyed this movie. I was moved by its sadness and devastation. I was moved by Obi Wan's dilemma in having to kill his former pupil and his courage to go through with it. And I was even more impressed when Obi Wan actually defeated Vader. He prevailed not by being more powerful, but by being more patient. He gained the
upper hand not by attacking, but by retreating.

At bottom, I agree with your assessment 100%. The film was supposed to be about the development of Anakin, but it was Yoda and Obi Wan who underwent the only developments that we could appreciate and relate to. The conclusion I've come to is that, after all these years, Lucas still hasn't figured out why Anakin turned, and his movie reflects that.


At 4:16 PM, Blogger Tracey said...

Nice review on the Star Wars movie. Also really liked the comment by Brian especially the last paragraph. If Lucas can't figure out how Anakin turned, how could any of us hope to get it from the movie? I am writing a post on this myself and found this blog by googling Anakin, Amidala, and Sand. I would like to ask you if there is a trick to getting on a google search. I can't search for my own blog and find it but I somehow found yours. Any idea why that is?


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