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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (2005)

6. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Everything that has a beginning has an end. When “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” came out, it was the end of an era. It didn’t matter that the previous two prequels were mediocre and perceived as such. “Star Wars” was and is a genuine pop culture phenomenon and, as far as we knew at the time, this was going to be the last “Star Wars” movie ever made. That alone warranted a huge amount of hype, maybe even more then what proceeded “The Phantom Menace.” When “Episode III” received easily the best reviews out of the entire prequel trilogy, it only seem to confirm fans’ anticipation. Time has passed and there’s a new “Star Wars” movie just around the corner. Now, the opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” is less unanimous.

The galaxy is gripped by war. The war between the Galactic Senate and the Separatist Armies has drained the resources on both sides. Senator Palpatine has been granted more and more power. When Chancellor Palpatine is kidnapped by the Separatists, Jedi Knights Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent in to rescue him. A relationship between Skywalker and Palpatine begins to form. Anakin is haunted by nightmares that Padme, his pregnant wife, will soon die. Palpatine lures Anakin over to the Dark Side, with a promise of powers that will allow him to prevent this premonition from coming to pass. With Skywalker by his side as his new apprentice, Palpatine reveals his master plan: To destroy the Jedi order and rule over the galaxy as an all-powerful Emperor.

Since the beginning of the prequel trilogy, George Lucas has been insisting that the entire “Star Wars” cycle is the story of Anakin Skywalker’s rise, fall, and redemption. If one takes this idea seriously, then “Revenge of the Sith” is the fall part of the cycle. Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side for all too human and understandable reasons. He fears death and loosing the ones he loves. Instead of accepting the Jedi’s mystic belief about accepting death and moving pass loss, he is consumed by them. “Star Wars” has never been an especially deeply emotional series. It botches in some other ways too. Yet “Episode III” is built upon some sturdy, strong ground. The film also shows the rise of the Empire, setting up the original series by chopping away all the fat that clogged up the last two pictures.

Before we can get to the truly compelling stuff about Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side or the destruction of the Jedi, we have to first get on with all that business about wars and stars. Large portions of the film are concerned with the same intergalactic battles and political hand wringing that characterized Episodes I and II. The opening battle scene has the camera swooshing around Anakin and Obi-Wan’s star ships as they cruise through a crowded, CGI battle field. The escape from the ship is full of dramatic dives down elevator shafts and yet more droids being sliced through with ease. Once again, the light saber duels are too acrobatic, fighters swirling their blades around in an unnecessary ways. Or spinning through the air in ridiculous manners. There’s far less focus on the Separatist Army and Galactic Council, as if even George Lucas was growing tired of such matters.

Since this is a “Star Wars” movie made after 1983, there’s a gimmicky element to the movie. As always, Lucas is deeply invested in introducing new characters, vehicles, and aliens that can be made into toys. General Grevious had previously been introduced on “The Clone Wars” animated series. Within the movie, he’s a wheezing, towering robot who spins pilfered light sabers around like a cyclone. Like Boba Fett or Darth Maul before him, Grevious is another visually compelling but kind of useless villain. His role is rather small, his contribution to the plot is minimal, and his death scene lacks impact. There are robe-wearing droid sentries, grappling hook guns, and spinning wheel vehicles that seem unlikely to function. Obi-Wan spends a large portion of the battle riding a giant lizard that makes an annoying noise. All of these things make bitching action figures but limp characters. Further fan pandering comes when the Wookie home planet is visited. A whole race of shaggy bigfoots is fine. Chewbacca appears, as seemingly the only original character that hasn’t shown up in some form yet. Yet I wonder if this stop was necessary.

“Episode III” roots itself in some honest emotion and features some satisfying pay-off, correcting some flaws of the previous two episodes. Yet one major problem remains intact. Hayden Christensen continues to be a massive weenie. Even after a movie that ends with him becoming the most iconic cinematic villain of the last century, Christensen is still not convincing. His performance evolves in new, awful ways. Anakin grows from the petulant, whining teenager of “Attack of the Clones’ into the dull, constipated adult of “Revenge of the Sith.” The opening scene, where Skywalker scraps robots off Kenobi’s space-jet with his space-jet, Christensen seems visibly bored. After killing a man in cold blood, he acts more confused then shocked. He brings no pain to Anakin’s descent, making the character seem more self-assured then conflicted. His fears, grief, and pain comes across as gassy whining.

“Episode III” is the first “Star Wars” movie to be rated PG-13. (Considering the current state of sci-fi/action flicks, it is unlikely to be the last.) This is a break from the previous films’ PG ratings. On the page, “ Revenge of the Sith” is no more violent then the earlier movies. Limbs are still cleanly, bloodlessly hacked away with light sabers. Robots, spaceships, and droids die harmlessly in explosions or via laser blasts. However, the film’s treatment of violence is different. There’s a cruel streak to what happens. This is basically a kids’ movie that has the main character murdering children. When Anakin strikes down the Separatist warlords, the camera lingers on their pain as he wantonly cuts them down. When the Jedi Order is exterminated, the murders are focused on, the heroes of the Republic betrayed by their friends. One Jedi is gunned down. Another is cruelly exploded. The violence is not especially explicit. But it has weight and effect, driving home a point.

Hayden Christensen’s lead performance may be a joke. As with all of the prequel films, the quality of the other actors are all over the place. Natalie Portman mostly worries for the men in her life, her ability further strangled by Lucas’ stiff dialogue. Samuel L. Jackson seems barely interested in the material. Other supporting turns are better. Ewan McGregor embraces his inner swashbuckler, imbuing Obi Wan with an adventurer’s spirit the movie needed more of. His cocksure performances is the most interesting thing about the movie’s overly long battle scenes. Frank Oz turns Yoda into a fully formed character with only his voice. Christopher Lee, though his role is small, still brings plenty of dignity and grace to the part.

One actor clearly dominates the film. Ian McDiarmid has had to hide his sinister intent under a smile in the last two films. His master plan fulfilled, McDiarmid can cut loose as the Emperor. Boy, does he ever! He decimates the scenery, screaming about “unlimited POWAH.” Even when buried under the Emperor’s make-up, he hams it up furiously. I don’t know if it’s a good performance. It’s certainly not a subtle one. Yet it’s definitely an entertaining one and enlivens whole portions of the film.

Though “Revenge of the Sith” has its problems throughout, the film comes together for a truly satisfying last act. The Republic as we know it is destroyed. The Emperor assumes power. The Jedi is hunted down and exterminated. Anakin has committed fully to the Dark Side. The newly christened Sith Lord even neatly handles the dangling subplot of Padme. All that is left are two fights. Anakin and Obi-Wan duel over a lava planet. They leap on moving platforms over the molten magma, not unlike video game characters. In the Senate, Yoda and Palpatine come to blows. Seeing the two elderly master fight is surprisingly powerful. These are strong characters, unleashed, pulling no punches. I especially like Palpatine tossing around the floating platforms or Yoda shrugging off Force Lightning. Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight is less visually dynamic. However, I admire the film taking its time. The fight goes on for several minutes, going in all sorts of angles. While Christensen’s performance is typically flat, Ewan McGregor brings some much needed gravity to the scenes.

“Revenge of the Sith” could have easily been titled “The Birth of Darth Vader.” The movie grants Vader’s creation the proper weight. We see Anakin’s visceral transformation, his skin burning off from the lava’s heat. (Never mind that the heat would have roasted him alive long before this.) Strapped to a table, his surgery is painful, Skywalker screaming in pain. Vader’s mask being lowered onto his face is given the attention this obviously momentous occasion needs. He rises from the slab, like the Frankenstein Monster. A low key version of the Imperial March plays on John Williams’ score. He breathes through his iconic breathing apparatus for the first time. Anakin Skywalker is dead. Darth Vader lives.

And then the movie undermines the drama of this sequence with some unintentional comedy. Yes, I’m talking about the “NOOOOO!” scene. Such an overwrought dramatic cliché being inserted into such an effective sequence sinks the scene. There are other moments of unintentional humor in “Episode III.” Stumbled or awkward lines bury key scenes. “Killing younglings!” Or “To me, the Jedi are evil.” The audience shouldn’t laugh when a hero becomes a villain. Or when children are killed. The writing of George Lucas makes both of these things so.

What perhaps saves “Revenge of the Sith” is a strong sense of dramatic ironies and parallels. Early on, Palpatine tells a story about his Sith Master, Darth Plagueus. He mentions how his lord conquer death for everyone but himself. Likewise, Anakin ends up bringing about the events he worked so hard to prevent. Originally, the film was going to include a scene where Palpatine informs Anakin that he created him, manipulating the Force to lead to his birth. In other words, he’s his father. That would’ve been distracting and relegating the revelation to subtext is ultimately more effective. As Padme gives birth, squirming on the operating table, Anakin’s transformation into Vader happens on a different operating table. These are two births of different types. In the film’s final minutes, two people look ahead to different futures. Vader and Palpatine glare at the under-construction Death Star, foreshadowing the Empire’s reign. Meanwhile, Uncle Owen holds a baby Luke in his arms, the sun rising before him. An empire rises while a new hope looms in the distance.

“Revenge of the Sith” is easily the best film of the prequel trilogy. Many of the ridiculous story decisions of the last two pictures are dealt with. The story builds a satisfying, dramatic scenes unseen in the last two movies. There are still problems, mainly in the acting and dialogue sections. Yet it successfully concludes one story while setting up another. This is probably not anyone’s ideal conclusion to the epic “Star Wars” cycle. But Episodes I and II prove that it could have been a lot worst. At times, it’s even pretty good. [Grade: B]

As a director, George Lucas seems more-or-less retired. Disney owns "Star Wars" now and is determined to release as many new films as possible. Lucas himself has been kicked upstairs, his own creation taken away from him. It's actually kind of sad. He created something that millions of people love dearly but eventually became incredibly bitter about that fanbase. Though he occasionally mentions wanting to return to making small, experimental movies, I think the odds of seeing "Directed by George Lucas" on a movie again is extremely unlikely. "Star Wars" will continue on without its father.

Thus concludes my retrospectives for both Lucas and "Star Wars," at least until that new one comes out. I've got some more stuff planned for November so stick around. 


Sean Catlett said...

What, no Red Tails? Racist.

Bonehead XL said...

Heh. Thought about it but decided to randomly select 2005 as the cut-off date. Which is why I also didn't review the "Clone Wars" cartoon movie. (Also because I really had no interest in it.)