Friday, August 19, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)

Now that I have seen the final installment of George Lucas' Star Wars saga, it seems clear to me that the decision to create three films chronicling the events leading up to the original 1977 hit was a rather major miscalculation. It was seemingly a can't-miss proposition, something almost everyone wanted to see. After all, part of the joy of the first films was the way they plunged us into a universe that seemed to have a rich mythology and history. In additional to the stellar action sequences, audiences took great joy in discovering how all of these colorful characters interrelated. They hopped from planet to planet across the galaxy, yet it was not uncommon to bump into a long lost family member, an old rival, or a droid previously owned by your father. Word got out that George Lucas had envisioned Star Wars as a nine-part saga. The possibilities were exhilarating! What other mysteries and adventures awaited us?

Now that the prequels have been realized, the reality is far less appealing. Though they had their faults, the early films were clearly a labor of love. The three most recent films have felt increasingly like the fulfillment of an obligation. The first three films worked in large part because of their rich subtext. Now Lucas has taken that subtext and squeezed out three more big budget films. Despite being about 20 years older and (presumably wiser), Lucas really had nothing more to add to the Star Wars philosophy that was already starting to wear thin by Return of the Jedi. "Don't give in to your hate ... let the force guide you ... wax on, wax off ... etc, etc." Instead, Lucas seemed content to play around with new technology. The Star Wars films were never 'message films' anyway, so what the heck? Give the people what they want and have a fun time doing it. Yet, in undertaking this project, Lucas was giving himself an absurdly difficult task: to match the expectations of our imaginations. Imaginations that he had so successfully stimulated in the first place.

...which leads me to Revenge of the Sith...

There is not much about Sith's plot that is surprising. If you've made it this far in the series, you likely already know the film's major plot points before you set foot in the cinema. What is surprising is the film's tone, which, far from the swashbuckling spirit of the originals, is cold, humorless and occasionally cruel. Some may suggest that this is to be expected. After all, we are witnessing the creation of Darth Vader, icon of our childhood, representative of darkness and evil. However, the complete absence of comic relief does nothing but rob Lucas' universe of depth and humanity. Perhaps the universal hatred of Jar-Jar Binks has made Lucas a little gun-shy. At any rate, it's like watching an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet where the two lead actors play every moment as if they know they are going to die in two hours. Human beings are not tragic because they suffer or because bad things happen to them. They are tragic because of their hopes and dreams. In Lucas' film, we do not feel the full force of his scharacters' tragic fate because it has not been sufficiently contrasted with moments of lightness, hope and optimism.

Part of the problem lies with Hayden Christensen, whose Anakin seems remote and half-robotic long before he is fitted for his famed dark helmet. How might we have cared for an actor able to effectively convey both sides of Anakin? An actor with charm and charisma that could help us to see the good in him that other characters see? Without humor and joy and the element of surprise, Lucas' characters are left simply to progress methodically towards their fate. Knocked up for the final episode, Portman's character is mostly relegated to the sidelines to fret and worry. Given her third shot at the role of a queen, Portman still seems nothing close to royalty, particularly in the laziness of her dialect ("What are you gonna do, Anakin?") Ewan McGregor, usually a fantastic actor, seems to have completely lost interest in the project, approaching Obi-Wan's dramatic scenes like a man anticipating a root canal. There is a kind of nostalgic joy in watching Ian McDiarmid perform a reprise of his gloriously over-the-top villian, but once his transformation is complete, we know essentially everything that he is going to say before he says it ... ("You must die ... Give in to your hate ... I must break you.") The innovation of CGI has launched the character of Yoda firmly into the realm of absurdity and that backwards talking is, like, sooo 1980.

Much has been made of Sith's political overtones and the way it references George W. Bush and the war on terror. Though there are a few sentences that may resonate for contemporary audiences, it would be a huge stretch to say that Lucas' script had anything insightful to contrubute to the present-day political situation. Two characters locked in a duel shouting, "Your side's evil! ... No, YOUR side's evil! ... No, you're evil TO INFINITY!!!" does not an allegory make. Up until this point, Star Wars has steered clear of tangible connections to real-life politics. The half-baked effort here seems intrusive and distracting. I would love to see a blockbuster action film that also served as a scathing political commentary, but it's too late to start with this series. And I sincerely doubt that George Lucas is the screenwriter to pull that off successfully.

But the most unforgiveable moment of all comes during the scene that you would think would be impossible to screw up: the moment where Vader dons his famous black armor. It is a moment that I predict will live in infamy, even for fans who have embraced this final effort as a return to form. It is a decidely uncool moment for a seemingly untouchably cool character. It is a single word -- a moment that lasts for just a few seconds -- and yet I suspect it will be difficult to return to the original Star Wars and not remember Vader during this moment. It is a moment so lazy and silly that it borders on insulting. Those who have seen the film will know what I am talking about. Those who haven't will have to brace themselves and experience it for themselves. I take it as evidence that while Lucas still seems to care about the technical side of movie-making, he has lost interest in the characters that he created 30 years ago. Knowing this makes it slightly less painful for me to admit that I have too.

It gives me no joy to speak unfavorably about this final installment in the Star Wars saga. I've never dressed up as a Stormtrooper and waited in line for six days, but I do consider myself a fan. My earliest memory of going to the movies is going to the drive-in to see the original film when I was 4 years old. I fondly remember waiting in line for the sequels and watching all three in succession with a friend of mine. I took great joy in playing through Knights of the Old Republic, a computer role-playing game based on the Star Wars universe. I say this in order to assert that I am not trying to turn up my nose at Lucas for his mainstream aspirations, or demand that he make a 200-million dollar arthouse film. Perhaps more than Star Wars, it is me that has changed. Plenty of others have been excited and satisfied by this film. I envy them. But I would also warn them that a film like Revenge of the Sith may not be the kind of film that will last a lifetime. Enjoy it while it lasts.



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