Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Was This the Face That Launched a Thousand "Sith"?


directed by George Lucas
starring Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Samuel Jackson, Jimmy Smits, and old friends from Episodes IV-VI (Ian McDiarmid, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz)

The saga is now complete, and I have this to say:

Less is more.

Oh, it’s not that “Revenge of the Sith” is a bad movie. It’s riveting in parts, especially in the last half hour, and there’s something undeniably satisfying about seeing the final piece fall into place for those of us who grew up with Episodes IV-VI. And there is actually a pretty good story lurking in this final chapter of the (d)evolution of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader—or the elements of a good story, anyway.

Unfortunately, they’re all but smothered by two flaws that many others have pointed out before me: (1) Lucas’s obsession with CGI, which becomes as much a liability as an asset (2) Lucas’s *complete inability* to translate a good story idea into believable character development, especially through dialogue.

The second flaw is the more obvious of the two, if the frequent guffaws I heard from the otherwise-enthusiastic opening-weekend audience around me were any indicator. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the catalyst for Anakin’s fall is his desire to protect his wife, Padme (Portman), from dying. Fine, okay. I’d be perfectly willing to accept the premise that Anakin loses everything for love IF Lucas had established a love—and a threat to that love—that matched the enormity of its consequences.

But Christensen and Portman continue to interact like two dolls manipulated and ventriloquized by some eight-year-old who’s arbitrarily decided they’re supposed to be in love. Their romance is further undercut by the fact that Padme’s role is reduced from proactive queen in “Phantom Menace” to static senator/love object in “Attack of the Clones” to totally passive (and pregnant) damsel in distress here. Though Portman tries gamely to convey anguish and heartbreak, Lucas’s lead-footed writing prevents her from elevating the stilted pathos of her predicament into the kind of operatic tragedy that “Star Wars” requires. She doesn’t get much help from Christensen, who glowers sexily enough but delivers his lines of passion in the same monotone that he uses when talking to Obi-Won about deflector shields.

In fact, a truer tragedy—and more compelling story—lies in the dissolution of the relationship between Obi-Won (McGregor, ripened into a pleasing maturity) and his pupil, perhaps because we see it in the light of the final confrontation between Vader and his old master in “A New Hope.” There’s also some suggestion that part of Anakin’s inner conflict is due to his own ambition, and his anger at being relegated to the role of double agent between Supreme Chancellor/future Emperor Palpatine (a delightfully slimy McDiarmid) and the mistrustful Jedi (represented by Samuel L. Jackson, who’s never looked so stiff as he does in these films). This would have been a much more interesting angle to explore than the “all for love” line we’re expected to swallow instead.

Alas, Lucas—always more of an allegorist than a psychologist—insists on tying Anakin’s lust for power back to poor little Padme, who’s just too insubstantial (both literally and figuratively) to bear this burden. To borrow an idea coined by T.S. Eliot, there’s an objective correlative lacking here. So much so that it comes as a jarring disconnect when Darth Vader rises from the ruins of his former self and demands news of his wife. It’s a long way from “Where is Padme?” to “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” though the sonorous voice is the same.

As to Lucas’s other fatal flaw—his weakness for CGI—I can only repeat, less is more. Lucas has always said that when he made the original trilogy, he didn’t have the budget or the technology to realize his vision of “Star Wars” as he wanted it to be realized. He’s been busy making up for it ever since. But, at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I have to say the original “Star Wars” may have been better movies precisely because Lucas had to make do with less. I think at this point I’ve become inured to all the technical razzmatazz that Industrial Light & Magic can throw at me, at least when it comes to droids, clones, space battles, and yes, even lightsaber duels. (More on that in a moment.) Too much of “Sith” felt like a giant, spectacularly animated video game, and that includes the Heroism of Master Yoda.

I know many, if not most, “Star Wars” fans think the sight of Yoda bouncing off walls and whooping major ass with his lightsaber is the coolest thing to hit the franchise since Boba Fett. Surely, though, I can’t be the only one who finds every bit of it—from his lightning-fast swordplay to the narrowing of his eyes, Clint Eastwood-style, as he squares off—utterly false, even ludicrous. What made Yoda so fascinating a character was the sense that his power was rooted in something far deeper than mere physical prowess. It was better that we couldn’t see what he was fully capable of, only catching a tantalizing glimpse when he raised Luke’s submerged plane from the depths of a Dagobah swamp. At the same time, visually, the puppet-Yoda had much more tangible physical texture, depth and, well, presence—gravitas, if you will—than the smoothed-out, there-but-not-quite-there CGI-Yoda of Episodes I-III.

My curmudgeonly quibble extends beyond Yoda. The fights in the prequels generally are about ten times more physically dazzling than those in Episodes IV-VI. They’re also about ten times less emotionally charged—with the single exception of the final, furious showdown between Obi-Won and Anakin, which takes place on a lava-covered planet that puts “Lord of the Rings”’s Mount Doom to shame, and is the only fight that’s a genuine nail-biter. I couldn’t escape the feeling that a large part of what Lucas put into the prequels was to please fans of the original Star Wars who, in the interim, have come to expect much higher-level visual effects—the result being a premium on surface *cool* at the expense of *soul*. And even though Lucas supposedly conceived the prequels at the same time as, or perhaps even before, the making of the original trilogy, his attempts to integrate characters from the later episodes into the prequels are too strained to be anything but sops to the fans. (See, e.g., Boba Fett in “Attack of the Clones.”)

That tendency is at its laziest and most half-assed in “Sith.” It’s one thing to have C3PO and R2D2 as recurring minor figures that (somewhat improbably) connect the two trilogies, but then why give them next to no role of any significance in “Sith”? Same goes for the totally gratuitous appearance of Chewbacca and his fellow walking carpets as unexpected allies of Yoda. Goodness me, it just so happens that everyone who knows each other now will meet again in twenty years! I suppose one might say it’s the Force that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds all living things together...but to me, this kind of connectedness just reinforces my sense that Episodes I-III are really sequels, not prequels. Sure, they’re worth seeing—but do your kids a favor and insist that they watch Episodes IV-VI *first*. Only then can they even begin to understand what all the fuss was about.

RATING: ** 1/4

Favorite tie-in moment with “A New Hope”: Obi-Won, throwing away a blaster he’s just used to dispatch a villain, mutters “How uncivilized.” (In “A New Hope,” he discourses to Luke on the superiority of the lightsaber to a blaster: “An elegant weapon for a more civilized time.” I just remember that because of Alec Guinness’ diction.)

Favorite tie-in moment with “The Empire Strikes Back”: Anakin to Padme, echoing a much later invitation to Luke: “Together we can rule the galaxy as king and queen.” (Or something like that.)

Ok, so I’m a closet Star Wars geek. What can I say.


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