May 25, 2005

My Stolen Episode III Review

Regardless of anything else, you can say that Episode III was better than Episodes I and II. That's about all you can say. This was no great work of American cinema, and the only way one can claim it "rocked" is if you defined "rocked" as "having a lot of super cool special effects." Steven Goldman writes The Pinstriped Blog about the New York Yankees, but he also puts pop culture stuff in there as well. He has written the most intelligent review of the movie that I have read. I have little to say about the movie that he hasn't already said masterfully. Since I can't figure out how to put an enduring link to his review of Revenge of the Sith, I will copy it below. I'm warning you now: Do not read what you see below if you haven't seen the movie. It gives away the whole thing and is not meant to be read unless you've seen it.

STAR KABUKI: THE LOVE SUICIDES AT CORUSCANT
As with the two films that preceded it, "Revenge of the Sith" is a mixed bag. There are many scenes that offer compelling excitement. There are many more that not only fall flat, they crash through the floor. Whether the scales balance closer to good than bad is almost too close to call; the fall of Anakin Skywalker is affecting, but George Lucas really makes you work to feel it.

The current film has more good in it, to paraphrase a Star Wars locution, than the other two combined, but it still has many, many scenes in which the actors comport themselves, in dialogue, behavior, physical movement, as if the filmmakers had no experience with the way people actually behave. Specifically, any scene between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman is like a window into a parallel universe where everyone has an IQ of 75 but are still allowed to serve as politicians and police officers. If you had never seen these actors in other films, you would have no clue that either of them could act. These are career-breaking parts, acts of pure assassination by the writer/director. Forgive me if I paraphrase the dialogue between the two - I wasn't taking notes:

Anakin: You look beautiful today.

Padme: That's because I am in love.

Anakin: No, I am in love, and therefore beautiful as well.

Padme: We are beautiful because we are in love. Hold me, like you did at the Red Roof Inn in Rapid City.

In one of their scenes, Portman, who spends most of the film hanging out in her apartment, is wearing an odd bit of leather headgear that suggests she is either about to go out for a scrimmage with Red Grange or will be joining Snoopy to hunt for the Red Baron. The distracting wardrobe choices are almost as sloppily inattentive as the dialogue. In the "Star Wars" cycle, the characters speak in lofty, greeting card language that is to actual English what Albert Speer's Nazi monumentalist buildings were to architecture. Yet, as long as everyone talks in this odd sort of way, at least the film has an internal consistency. That goes out the window twice in "Sith," when Portman is momentarily receiving signals from a John Hughes film. "I'm pregnant. What're we gunna do?" she asks. Gunna? Ms. Portman, you're the princess of Nabu, not Jersey City. This doesn't take you out of the film nearly as quickly as Chewbacca's Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell in "Return of the Jedi" (repeated here, just in case we didn't get it the first time), but it's close.

The descent of Anakin Skywalker into evil, supposedly the whole point of this second trilogy, is breezed past as if Lucas never thought through the reasons for the change. Since one goes into these films knowing that they are watching the origin of Darth Vader, suspense isn't a big part of the transformation. What maintains dramatic interest, then, is the tragedy of Skywalker's fall. The film gets only about halfway there, but then the tragic aspect of the character was fatally compromised by the previous film, "Attack of the Clones," in which Skywalker was portrayed as a petulant, moody, humorless, arrogant, unlikable brat. We can't be watching a hero fall into evil if he seemed to be more than halfway there already. "A good man who went astray" is a compelling story. "A bad man who got just a little worse" is not.

In interviews, George Lucas has responded to this criticism by saying, in essence, "Hey, I was depicting a teenager, and guess what? Most teenagers are whiny, self-centered, and irritating." True enough, but most teenagers are not the main characters of an epic story. If your typical shallow teen was meant to be the main character of a movie, you wouldn't need a script or special effects; you could just set up your camera at the local mall on Friday night and see what transpired. We're supposed to be dealing with exceptional people here, or to put it more directly, your story either has a hero or we can stay home. Lucas didn't get this, and because of it, his saga has a hole in the center.

Lucas's failure to come to grips with his own hero's journey (reference here to Joseph Campbell is made pointedly) is hit home in "Sith." Anakin's slide into evil is then presented as a series of shrugged-off decisions. "Now, Skywalker, you will join me," says Chancellor Palpatine. "Yeah, okay," says Skywalker. In a few wholly unconvincing scenes he appears to agonize over the decision when in actuality he made the call quite casually, about 15 minutes into the film. Any regrets expressed thereafter are strictly pro forma.

Because Lucas himself is aware that Skywalker's turn appears to be unmotivated, he tries to give him some extra incentive. Skywalker dreams that Padme will die in childbirth and comes to believe that only the dark side of the force can save her. Later, he is told by Palpatine that his fellow Jedi are threatening to overthrow the state and he must choose between his loyalty to democracy and his loyalty to his religious order. Yet, Skywalker knows from the outset that this is not true. Again, we are robbed of the chance to view the story as that of a hero who went astray despite noble intentions. He is not seduced by the dark side, he does not do the wrong thing because he believes it to be right. He merely acquiesces. The greatest evil the galaxy has ever known is born because Anakin Skywalker has expectant father syndrome.

That's not tragic, it's pathetic. Our main character isn't a man of destiny, he's a patsy. Imagine if the anxiety over Padme's delivery was never mentioned and the revelation of Palpatine's revelation of his Sith-hood to Anakin was saved for the end of the film, not the beginning. The makings of a true tragedy reveal themselves. Anakin trusts Palpatine, who has become his second mentor. Palpatine tells Anakin that the Jedi are involved in treasonous activity. Normally Anakin wouldn't believe him, but because the Jedi are suspicious of Anakin's closeness to Palpatine, they close themselves off from him, which serves only to lend credence to Palpatine's story. Now misconstruing everything he sees, Anakin turns on the Jedi. Believing in democracy, he slaughters its protectors in the service of a man whose intention is to become dictator. And the slaughtering part it's strangely compelling, kind of a turn-on. By the time he finally learns the truth he has sacrificed everything he believed in. His teachers are dead, his friends and loved ones betrayed. He is stuck in a metal suit because he believed a lie and acted out of good intentions. He has killed and enjoyed it. He is lost. That's tragic.

The political and philosophical aspects of "Sith" have been much commented upon. They're really not worth the time. Jedi Manichaeism is contrasted to Sith relativism. The former is naïve and the latter would have been more interesting had Palpatine meant it sincerely, but Palpatine is (again) not a megalomaniac taking over the government because, he, Hitler-like, thinks he's the only one who can do the job. He' s just a comic book villain, in the worst meaning of that expression, with a blind lust for power. That characterization renders his motivations utterly unimportant. Crazy people don't need thoughtful motivation. Their condition is self-justifying.

In one of the film's most facile scenes, Anakin goes to Yoda and professes that he's a bit anxious about losing someone or something. The cat. Yoda's comeback is out of Stoicism for Dummies: Fuhgeddaboutit. Let it go. Learn to live without the, um, cat. This is not necessarily a bad point, but it's the beginning of a long lecture about emotional self-denial, not the end. It begs a follow-up: "In the short term, try this…" "This" isn't forthcoming, because Lucas doesn't know what "this" is.

The film's climactic battle takes place above, on, and around a river of molten lava. It's strange what your willing suspension of disbelief can and cannot endure. Force powers, sure, I'll buy that. Hanging around a lava flow like it's the Danube, sorry. Your lungs would suppurate moments before your flesh burned from your body, and that's without ever touching the lava.

What is left then, is the ghost of Lucas' intentions. Skywalker's tragedy can be moving if you let John Williams' score take you along and convince you that it's supposed to be. Ewan McGregor's semi-Alec Guiness Obi-Wan Kenobi is well done. He has some fun moments chasing down a vicious droid with emphysema. It's not really relevant to anything, but it's amusing. Samuel Jackson is good, as always, and he has a truly tragic part - a powerful man who lives just long enough to see that he wasn't paranoid - they really were out to get him. And if you dig light saber battles, well, this is the film for you. There's one approximately every two minutes, for a total of 73. Finally, of course, seeing Lucas set up his linkages to the second/first trilogy makes for a nice game of mental trivial pursuit as the characters sweat what they're gunna do.

Those of us grew up with the original Star Wars, for whom the film was almost a religion, perhaps we're living the real tragedy. We invested a lot more thought, emotion, and rationalization in these films than Lucas did. He had a fully realized universe, however cardboard its structure in places, and millions of people ready to believe in it. He even had a compelling story to tell, a classic of rise, fall, and redemption. In the end he had less regard for his creation than we did, building it into a baroque edifice of merchandizing and special effects, one without a message to convey or a story to tell. It's insincere and betrays a disdain for the audience. His emperor has no clothes, so what did we bother for?

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