Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Star Wars Saga" Retrospective - #3: Revenge of the Sith.

After the premiere of Attack of the Clones, Star Wars fans came to the inevitable conclusion; George Lucas just wasn’t the filmmaker he used to be. With two prequel films that ranged from thoroughly mediocre to complete disaster, the same timeless quality of the original trilogy was simply gone. It certainly didn’t stop Lucas from monopolizing on the two films, including and especially in the timeline gap between Attack and the inevitable Episode 3. These included a hand-drawn animated micro-series, and Cartoon Network’s long running Clone Wars TV series (which is surprisingly, infinitely better and more like Star Wars than any of the prequels).

So with the utter disappointment of those two movies, anticipation for Episode 3 was justifiably low. Sure, we’d see it, but it was more based on obligation so that we could finally put this new trilogy to rest. This third prequel, which would be named Revenge of the Sith, was going to bring the entire saga full circle, and showcase the formation of the Empire and the near-eradication of the Jedi, and the test of willpower between friends Anakin and Obi-Wan.

But to everyone’s surprise, the movie was actually well-received. Often praised for its dark tone and significant improvements in storytelling, Revenge of the Sith to this day remains the best of the Star Wars prequels… even if that’s not a high bar, and it only occasionally flirts with greatness, for it still has several of the same problems as Menace and Clones.

In the midst of the war between the Republic and the Separatists, the film opens with Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen, respectively) leading a mission to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and after its successful completion, Anakin is plagued with premonitions that his now pregnant wife Padme (Natalie Portman) may die in childbirth. In fear of this, he continually finds himself subtly manipulated and seduced by the abilities of the Dark Side. When it’s discovered that Palpatine is the Sith lord Darth Sidious, a series of escalating events lead Anakin to become his new apprentice Darth Vader, leading to the downfall of the Old Republic, and Obi-Wan will eventually have to do battle with and kill his old apprentice and friend.

Despite there being every reason to expect that the movie would fail, its good word of mouth and praise was a welcome turnaround from its predecessors. It actually feels like George Lucas took criticism of his previous films to heart, specifically in how neither of the two felt like true Star Wars films. Granted, his writing still leaves a fair bit to be desired, but for the first time in this trilogy, it actually felt like we were watching a Star Wars film.

This immediately becomes evident in the opening dogfight sequence, which carries reminiscent hints of the Death Star trench sequence from A New Hope. First starting with a lengthy extended take, even though it’s all still obvious that the sequence is CGI, more of an effort has been made than anything in Attack of the Clones to make it resemble more the miniature effects of the original films, and Lucas actually manages to shoot all of the movement with swiftness and appropriately dizzying rotation. This is followed up by some fun vehicle acrobatics, tension with Obi-Wan’s fighter being sabotaged by buzz droids, followed by the ships crash landing in the hangar of an enemy flagship.

In these early stretches, Anakin and Obi-Wan’s friendship feels much more genuine and vastly less acidic than their appearances in Attack of the Clones, with the two making witty small talk with each other, complementing the weaknesses and strengths of the other, and have a real connection established by feeling rather than talking. It’s very important that the movie does this as early as possible, making it all the more heartbreaking when these two will ultimately have to clash with each other.

Throughout this rescue, Obi-Wan and Anakin have another bout with Count Dooku, reprised by Christopher Lee, who Anakin bests in battle, and is then manipulated by Palpatine to kill his old apprentice, in one of the more gruesome deaths in Star Wars history. It’s on this flagship that they also meet Separatist commander General Grievous (voiced by supervising sound editor Matthew Wood), who acts as an object of foreshadowing Skywalker’s ultimate fate, and has an intimidating and delightfully hammy presence, first in a flashy and briefly thrilling escape from his crumbling warship, and then much later on when Obi-Wan tracks him to the Utapau system, dueling against his four lightsabers, and then hand to hand on Grievous’ personal landing platform. Plus it helps that the effects work on him is always fantastically detailed and fluid.

After that rescue, things do get a bit less entertaining and slow, but never to the degree of outright boredom. The effects themselves do look very good, with many of them still holding up today. As said before, more effort has been made to mask the obviousness of the CGI and make it reminiscent to the scale-model style filming that Star Wars has become famous for, with Lucas integrating many of them seamlessly and going nuts with the imagination of a child. Also, it’s nice to see that, despite every single image having “so much going on”, it’s nice that Lucas keeps the focus directly on where it’s necessary with the smaller details not distracting from the action too much. That being said, are there still hiccups in the effects? Absolutely! For as many great effects that there are, there are also a lot that haven’t aged well. Plenty sequences appear quite cartoonish or unfinished, the overabundance of blue screen becomes a bit disenchanting, and Lucas still drags portions of the movie out to show off more of what he can do with the digital tools. Anytime Obi-Wan rides the reptilian-esque Boga, it feels like the movie has turned into How to Train Your Dragon in the blink of an eye. It’s toned down to be certain, but still going overboard.

And once again, the film becomes a much stronger showcase of audio than visuals. Ben Burtt of course provides the same incredible quality we all expect when we think of Star Wars, but it’s the music by John Williams that becomes the film’s most valuable asset, and is actually better than I remember it. Being that this was the last Star Wars movie at the time, Williams had the unenviable task of tying up every single loose end of both trilogies, working more new material alongside his classic melodies, and providing a ton of foreshadowing for Episodes IV-VI. That’s exactly what he did, capping off his legendary collection of symphonies with a massive and rousing series of compositions, cementing Star Wars as the greatest musical continuity of any film series in history.

Even the characters have made an improvement. Ewan McGregor turns in another impressive performance, showcasing more and more of his effortless Alec Guiness personality, embodying more of the endearing wit, commanding assertiveness, and graceful wisdom. Even Hayden Christensen has managed to improve over his far too whiny and egotistical earlier interpretation. He still comes across as a bit wooden, but does feel more like the noble friend Obi-Wan always spoke highly of, and that’s largely thanks to an improved and fast sense of humor. Even so, his romance with Natalie Portman’s Padme, now reduced to a passive observer, never directly serving the plot until the very end and exists solely to be a plot device, is still boring and lifeless, with the realizations and argument between the two on Mustafar being one of the more laughably corny moments of the saga.

However, it’s an unapologetically theatrical and vile Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine who steals the movie anytime he’s on screen. For everything that these prequels got wrong, I always felt like the Emperor was one of the few things the films always got right. Palpatine has never been the type to get his own hands dirty so easily. He’s always been at his best when he’s worked like a puppeteer, manipulating the individuals around him at will to further his own agenda, and only took direct action as a last resort, which was when you wanted to run for your life. The prequels did well in building up a tender, almost surrogate father-figure status for Anakin, with it even being implied that he played a key role in his conception in the standout Opera house scene, which is about as perfect a genuinely well-written, well paced, mysterious, and mythological sequence that the prequels had ever seen. This is how you add energy to talking heads scenes.

In fact, this film felt much more wholly realized in its deconstruction of the oft-hypocritical Jedi code, and the blurred lines between Sith and Jedi than anything in Attack of the Clones, particularly when Jedi master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, so poorly used in these movies) attempts to strike Palpatine down with the same hatred and uncontrolled emotion that his own code preaches are the values of the Sith. McDiarmid clearly loves those stretches of the film where he becomes much more alike the sinister and vile incarnation of Return of the Jedi, and once the film reaches its midway point, with the man becoming disfigured at his own hands, the film takes on some truly grim and unnerving life, especially with the lengthy and brutal Order 66, in which the hundreds of thousands of Clone troopers turn on their Jedi Generals, as well as storming the Jedi temple, following afterwards, and might even be the emotional peak of the film.

Lucas’ writing benefits largely thanks to the overall darker presentation. With the fitting grunginess of the Star Wars universe restored, Revenge of the Sith has a difficult task of wrapping up all of the loose ends of the prequels, and also implement natural foreshadowing of events to come in the original trilogy. Granted, such a thing is hit or miss, with moments like Bail Organa and the Tantive IV playing crucial parts in the story, while those the likes of Chewbacca feel like blatant fan-service. Dialogue is also quite flimsy and ridiculous. The cast at least do a respectable job of making it easier to swallow, but no matter how many areas Lucas has improved in, he’s still terrible with beating the viewer over the head with exposition and forced subtext, which hardly qualifies as subtext once it’s been spelled out to the audience in big, bold, red letters. In fact, some of it is so poorly worded that in one scene, McGregor actually has to place his hand over his mouth to hide the smirk on his face.

The action can be just as hit or miss, with the aforementioned opening 25 minutes, Obi-Wan’s face off with General Grievous, and the devastating Order 66 being highlights, but then others are poorly filmed, such as the duel between Sidious and Windu in the cramped Chancellor’s office, which has to make extensive and jarring use of cuts to mask Ian McDiarmid’s inefficiency with a lightsaber.

In fact, both the writing and the action suffer from inconsistencies in the final thirty minutes in particular. The whole film has been building to the epic confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and despite the film making a great effort at building an emotional core into it, the scene is undone by the fact that this duel stretches out so long, and spreads to so many fantastical and flashy locations that it becomes cartoonish, and slowly wears its welcome out. Despite the aftermath delivering a deeply heartbreaking gut punch, there’s no reason that this duel couldn’t have lasted five minutes, been self-contained in one or two locations, and had just as much, if not more impact. On top of that, I can’t give stunt coordinator Nick Gillard enough credit for the obviously painstaking lengths he went to choreograph this sequence, but the fight begins to feel so flawlessly staged that it begins to feel more like a dance. Lightsaber battles were always about the story and the emotions that were unfolding, and not about the choreography. It’s the reason why the duel between these same people in A New Hope is so much stronger, and carries far more catharsis.

At the same time, an epic clash between Yoda and the Emperor unfolds, with the two dueling in the Galactic Senate building, first with lightsabers, and then using the powers of the force. The lightsaber portion still bothers me as much as it did during Yoda and Count Dooku’s showdown, as both Yoda and the Emperor are two characters that absolutely should not be using lightsabers. That being said, they do give up that style of fighting midway through, where Palpatine and Yoda’s Force abilities are put to the test, and this test of might and willpower becomes a much more fascinating battle.

The story then proceeds with Luke and Leia being born, Padme losing the will to live after giving birth (Yeah, no will despite having just given birth, real nice), and Anakin being reborn as Darth Vader. Or at least we finally get to hear James Earl Jones, as this Darth Vader only has the most superficial connections to the original character, whose credibility completely vanishes once it utters the now infamous “NOOOOOO!” Blah, blah, blah, Luke and Leia are adopted by separate families, and the film ends leaving an entire trilogy of potential squandered in its wake.

So that was Revenge of the Sith, and I’m honestly conflicted on it. I can certainly appreciate and understand why many viewers loved it at the time. I myself used to love this movie back in the day, but despite those fond memories I once had, it’s unfortunate that the film has not held up as strongly with age. To call it the best of the prequels isn’t really saying much, for while it is the darkest and the most entertaining of the three, it’s still littered with and burdened by all of the same issues. Its effects artistry has improved over Attack of the Clones, but just as many effects have slowly started showing their decay. Despite the story and characterization having more built up emotion, its wooden dialogue makes for some unintentionally hilarious moments that sour its tone. This was clearly the story that Lucas wanted to tell from the very beginning, but with how much potential the story had, and with the amount of closure it necessitated, for it to settle on above average is intensely disappointing.

Well, whether you liked it or you didn’t, at least these movies were finally over and done with. There will likely be more films as highly anticipated in the future, but I highly doubt any of them will match the crushing mediocrity these movies subjected us to. Even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with all of its mixed word, wasn’t half as underwhelming. There’s never been anything like them since, and there’ll likely never be anything like them again, essentially becoming the definitive example of what happens when a man gets far too much creative control.

Now that all that bitterness and negativity’s been thrown out the window, join me next week when we’ll get to talk about the movies that everyone actually likes…

*** / *****

No comments:

Post a Comment