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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode 3

Star Wars Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith.

The Short Review: Better than Episodes 1 and 2, not as good as Jedi. 2 ½ out of 4 stars. Maybe a 7 out of 10 if I’m in a Star Wars mood, more like a 6 if I’ve just watched a more capable action adventure like Lord of the Rings.

The Long Review: Well, the results are in, and George Lucas has indeed forgotten everything he ever knew about writing.

Sith has certain elements of greatness within it, trying their hardest to peek out, but they are inevitably stifled by inutterably ham-fisted dialogue and nagging logical holes in plot.

A Recap (Quite Spoiler Laden!):

Obi Wan and Anakin open the film by leading a rescue attempt of Chancellor Palpatine, who has been kidnapped by the evil Separatist Leader Count Dooku and his weirdo flunky, General Grievous. (Plot Hole #1: If the Jedi are so distrustful of Palpatine’s power grabs, why are they so bent on rescuing him? Plot Hole#2: Who are the Separatists? Why are they separating, and from whom? If they are separating, why are they attacking the central system of the Republic?)

Upon reaching the captive chancellor, the Jedi boys fight Count Dooku, leading to a mano-a-mano duel between Anakin and Dooku, while Obi Wan lays unconscious. Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands (seriously, this is getting old, George) and then beheads Dooku at the urging of Chancellor Palpatine. In the confusion, General Grievous escapes to live another day.

Upon their return to the capital, Anakin reunites with Padme, his secret wife. (Plot Hole #3: Lucas seems to go out of his way to establish that Jedi in general and Anakin in particular achieve some measure of fame through their deeds. Yet, why can he simply hang back froma big crowd of reporters and nuzzle his secret wife, who also happens to be a famous Senatorial leader herself?) He learns that she is pregnant, which leaves him quite ambivalent. (Plot Hole #4: With the level of technology established in the series, how can they not know that she is carrying twins?) He begins to dream about her death during childbirth, much to his torment. Anakin would do anything to prevent this fate from befalling her.

Relations between the Jedi and the Chancellor strain almost to the breaking point (See Plot Hole #1), with Anakin caught between. Palpatine wants Anakin to be his personal representative on the Jedi Council, while the Jedi would like Anakin to keep an eye on his erstwhile mentor. Palpatine uses this rift to begin sowing the seeds of doubt within Anakin about the Jedis' moral compass and the nature of the Force itself. Palpatine accuses the Jedi of conspiring to overthrow his rule, while various Jedi express their misgivings about Palpatine’s continued use of emergency powers well beyond his original term of office.

Obi Wan is dispatched to the planet Utapau to knock General Grievous out of commission, while Yoda heads to Kashyyk, the Wookie homeworld, to fight separatist forces there (Plot Hole #5: Why are we going to Wookie World again? This was pointless, if reasonably fun to watch). Obi Wan does indeed eventually succeed in destroying Grievous, thus dealing a death blow to the Separatist movement (Plot Hole #6: if this is such a huge secessionist faction causing wars on countless planets, why does the death of one or two leaders spell the movement’s doom?).

During his conversations with Palpatine, Anakin learns that the Chancellor is in fact a Sith Lord, with a deep knowledge of both the good and Dark Sides of the Force. He is alternately horrified and intrigued, since Palpatine promises him the power to stop the death of his loved ones. But, ever the good Jedi, he reveals his discovery to Jedi Council Leader Mace Windu, who thereupon leads a Jedi party to arrest Palpatine. Palpatine gets his Dark Side on, killing Windu’s companions and fighting Windu to a standoff using his force lightning.

Which leads to a confrontation in which Anakin must choose – allow Windu to kill Palpatine, or save the Chancellor in the hopes of learning his secret powers (Plot Hole #7: I thought the last two movies, and the scene in which Anakin beheads Dooku, have established that the Jedi do not kill unless necessary, and never execute unarmed prisoners? Yet here we have Windu, a respected and supposedly ethical Jedi leader, doing just that). Anakin chooses to defend Palpatine, leading to Windu’s death and Anakin’s conscription by Palpatine as a new Lord of the Sith, renamed Darth Vader. Palpatine commands Vader to help him destroy the Jedi, as they have proven to be usurpers against the Republic. Vader readily complies (a little too readily, in my opinion, for dramatic coherence). Palpatine orders the clone army to turn against their Jedi commanders, which they readily do as well. Vader is also dispatched to the lava planet Mustafar to kill the remaining Separatist leaders – with Obi Wan and Padme following close behind.

Obi Wan and Anakin have some serious words on Mustafar, Anakin believing that Obi Wan has turned his wife against him, which leads to their penultimate light saber battle, Anakin’s further disfigurement, and his being left to die by Obi Wan on the lava plains of the planet. Concurrently, Yoda duels Palpatine to an apparent standoff in the Senate chambers – after which, for whatever reason, he declares that “Into exile, I must go.”

Obi Wan whisks Padme off to the hospital to give birth to twins (See Plot Hole #4), but is saddened by her “lack of will to live” through childbirth, and her death (Plot Hole #8: In Jedi, Princess Leia remarks that she remembers her mother vaguely, as “very beautiful, and very sad.” Must be one of those regressed fetal-womb memories or something). Meanwhile, Anakin is transformed bodily into the Darth Vader we know and love from the original trilogy, and is informed by Palpatine that he in fact had killed Padme accidentally in his rage on Mustafar. Vader becomes Palpatine’s right hand man in the formation of the First Galactic Empire, and overseeing the construction of the Death Star (Plot Hole #9: It takes 20 years to build the first Death Star? It only took like 3 or 4 to build the second one, which was much, much larger. How did they keep a 20 year project like that secret until Episode 4?).

The twins are sent to separate destinations – Leia to Alderaan, finally pictured in this movie, to be raised by the influential (and apparently royal?) Organa family. Luke, on the other hand, is sent to the Lars homestead on Tatooine (Hugely Gaping Plot Hole #10: So let’s see. We want to hide these kids from their evil father and emperor so as to avoid their corruption. Where to? How About Darth Vader’s Old Neighborhood? Surely neither he nor the Emperor will think to look there, with the family that Anakin’s mommy married into.). Cue double sunset, swelling John Williams music, end credits, finis.

Whew. This is a long movie, and there is a lot of plot. Which is good, since Episodes 1 and 2 were so threadbare. The pacing is much snappier and there are many more “events” in this film than the previous two (one gets the impression that they could have been condensed into one movie – which may have been much more interesting, allowing a third episode to chronicle the formation of the Empire, perhaps). Lucas is not the most awful “plotter” in the world. But after watching this movie, one wishes he would just hand off an outline to some real writers, editors and directors, a la The Empire Strikes Back - because logical flaws, weak characterization, and groan-worthy dialogue crimp the drama in many if not most of the key scenes in the movie.

First, let’s look at what works.

From an acting standpoint, Obi Wan (Ewan MacGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are somewhat less wooden this time around. In early scenes, their camaraderie is actually fun to watch and lends some gravitas to later scenes of betrayal.

The plot as such does a nice job of showing Anakin as someone who desperately wants to find principles to cling to – even though he ends up backing the wrong side in the end, he did it because he wanted to maintain some kind of principles in his life. This gave a good depth to his characterization that his “romance” with Padme failed to bring. Anakin’s wrestling with ethics throughout the course of the movie is done relatively well, and lends an air of tragedy to the proceedings – I found myself hoping he would make different choices, even as I knew how things would eventually turn out.

Let it be said that some of the Anakin/Padme scenes actually work, too, and serve the purpose of drama and story – when they argue about events, and Padme admonishes him to be open and honest with her, they actually almost sounded like a human couple for a few moments.

As Palpatine seduces Anakin towards the Dark Side, he offers a few precious nuggets of Sith lore – what most fans have been yearning for, as opposed to the C-SPAN in Space they’ve been getting. The scene in which Anakin accuses Palpatine of being a Sith Lord and draws his light saber against him is one of the few truly dramatic scenes in the film.

The betrayal of the Jedi by the army, while not as good as it could have been, works pretty well. The montage of scenes is cool visually, and along with the music conveys a nice sense of mood. A little more explanation as to the mechanics of “Order 66” might be nice – are the clone troopers programmed to obey the Emperor, or are they just generally automotons?

Anakin and Obi Wan’s duel also works, owing to the reversal of the camaraderie they previously displayed. Thankfully, the dialogue ditches Lucas’ “using contractions is something that I can not do” convention and becomes more natural, with Christensen growling his lines at MacGregor with genuine emotion.

Now, the things that don’t work. (Sigh.)

As far as acting goes, Padme (Natalie Portman) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) don’t fare as well as MacGregor and Christensen – they look like their eyes are on the clock in the bluscreen stage – when can we get this over with? Palpatine (Ian McDarmid) is an enigma – his low-key dialogue scenes actually work – but when he is asked to emote, everything seems horribly off-kilter. I most sincerely did not want the Emperor to be a whiny bitch who whimpers that Mace Windu is about to kill him. Yikes.

Anakin’s beheading of Count Dooku (in the first 20 minutes of the movie, no less) is so quick and arbitrary as to be almost pointless. In addition to continuing Lucas’ nasty habit of eliminating potentially interesting characters way too quickly (Darth Maul, Boba Fett, Obi Wan Kenobi in Ep. 4), it sorely undercuts the characterization later built of Anakin as someone who wrestles with his ethics. Is he already this in thrall to Palpatine? If so, why? Why does he question he actions of the Jedi so deeply, but not question Palpatine’s order to kill an unarmed (literally) man?

Which leads us to General Grievous, who is aptly named, as his character does grievous damage to the credibility of the movie. Why is this video game level boss a better dramatic foil than a fine human actor like Christopher Lee (Count Dooku)? Palpatine’s betrayal of Dooku (evidenced for 2 seconds in a horrified look between them) would have been much more interesting had it happened later in the film and after more seduction of Anakin. Grievous looks phony and vaguely ridiculous, bereft of drama or any ability to be imposing as he crawls like a bug and twirls lightsabers like helicopter blades. He sounds even worse, trying to cough up a furball in all of his scenes. What’s worse, we get no insight as to his motive or origin. Why is he encased in this suit? What sort of creature was he? Why should any of us care?

The aforementioned plot holes and logical consistency errors hamper the drama of the plot. When you are built up to a confrontation between principals, such as the fight between Windu and Palpatine, it is quite jarring to be jerked away from the action by “things that make you go HMMM?” Many large scale action sequences end up being pointless tech demos because they happen for reasons we know not what and between factions we care not a whit about.

The effects, while mostly superb, fail in a few key areas. First of all, many scenes still have a “bluescreen” feel to them – many characters just do not seem to be in the rooms they are supposed to be inhabiting. I would guess computers and/or artists just aren’t advanced enough yet to depict all the subtleties of direction lighting, difraction, and reflection which play upon a person in a real setting. On a related note – attempts to graft real actor Temeura Morrison’s head upon CGI clone trooper bodies are not successful in the least. His head just floats there, too big for the armor it is encased in. Second, certain character designs (particularly Gen. Grievous) are less awe-inspiring than guffaw-inspiring. Thirdly, certain scenes just suffer from overload. Okay, George, we’re impressed by how many buildings and whizzing hover cars there are on Coruscant. Now get over it and hire a screenwriter!

Another "effect" which is overused are fast-moving lightsabers. I found myself longing for the more static fights of the original trilogy - boring as they might be visually, because the bevy of flips and twirls present in the current fights are so dizzying as to make them hard to follow dramatically. You don't "see" Obi Wan cut off Anakin's legs, you just realize that he did because whoops, there they go. A little more pacing would have benefited the action greatly (examples include the Luke-Vader duel in Jedi, and the Anakin-Dooku duel in Clones).

The worst offender in the film, though, is its dialogue. Some of it falls intot he “Show, don’t tell” category – Darth Vader’s comically stupid scream upon learning of Padme’s death, for instance. We know he’s upset, because nearby objects are being crushed by his force-enhanced anguish. Why add the scream? Near the end, a robot tells Obi Wan that Padme has “apparently lost the will to live.” Good god. While this line should not be uttered at all, it is even worse to have a faux-emoting robot deliver it. A veritable plethora or expositional clunkers similarly bog down this script. Worse than crappy expositional dialogue, however, is off character dialogue – words that should not be uttered in the sequence they are if an audience’s belief in the characters is to be preserved. Palpatine’s simpering during his action scenes falls into this category, as well as Yoda’s truly awful “fightin’ words.” “Not if anything about it I have to say.” Yes, Yoda, we wish you’d just shut the hell up. When Obi Wan yelps “I just can’t keep watching!” as he views security footage of Anakin killing Jedi, one is tempted to yell “Neither Can WE!!!” up at the screen. Every instance of the word "younglings" in the script when "children" would have done the job is like a bad-writing icepick to the brain. Awful romantic dialogue ices the cake: “You are so beautiful.” “Only because I’m so in love with you.” “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo.” BLEARGH. This sort of dialogue only further hampers scenes which were problematic to begin with because of poor logic or characterization.

As I look back, I notice that “What works” is about half the size of “What doesn’t work.” Yet I would still give this movie 2 and a half stars. Well, this is because the awful bits are outweighed in general by the not-awful. Until you are rudely ripped from the fantasy by an awful line or a terrible effect, the movie is enjoyable. So it’s kind of like Chinese Water torture combined with coitus interruptus. 10 minutes of pleasure, broken up by bursts of annoyance, and then an attempt to sink back into the enjoyable fantasy.

If this movie had come after the three-star Return of the Jedi (which was great for 90 minutes and just mildly dumb for the other 30), it would be lambasted as an utter failure. But since it followed the thoroughly execrable Episode 1 (1.5 stars in my book) and the improved but still constipated Episode 2 (an even 2 stars), it fares better by comparison.

I can’t help but wonder if this will cheapen the experience of the Original Trilogy. I also can’t help but think it will. While not Shakespeare or Citizen Kane by any means, the dialogue, acting and effects in those movies seamlessly meshed into a sum that was greater than its parts. The now-complete prequel trilogy, by comparison, can only honestly be viewed as a littered scrap pile of parts which never achieved anything close to a cohesive whole. And since there is only one man responsible for making the parts of a movie gel into a whole, Director George Lucas’ destiny is inescapable – he will be remembered as someone who squandered the incredible promise of his prodigious creative spark by reaching for too much, relying on too few for help, and brooking no criticism of his first draft of anything. And that, my friends, is a tragedy greater than any suffered by one of his characters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a “dramatic” scream to engage in: “NOOOOOO!!!!”


Anonymous Laz said...

Hmmm... could you be more specific, please?

3:17 PM

Blogger matthewweflen said...

I tried, but my computer kept shutting down with an error message that said "too many words, please condense" :P

10:13 AM


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