Thursday, January 29, 2009

REVIEW: Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

I think Darth Vader emoted better when he had the helmet.

So here we are, at the end of the journey. The end of the ordeal. The last movie before we get to the good Star Wars (well, not on this blog), chronologically speaking. Time to visit such classic characters as Padme Amadala, Jar-Jar Binks, Jimmy Smits, and Mace Windu for the last time. Time to prepare for the last stand of the Jedi and the inevitable descent of this colorful universe into cheap ‘70s sets, stop motion animation, and puppets incapable of twirling around mid-air. Time to bid farewell to the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Moving on.

Ah. These must be the so-called star wars I've been hearing about.

For the first time, the opening text crawl makes me want to see the rest of movie: WAR! it declares, making us wonder what in God’s name the previous two movies were about. The Clone Wars are raging on, with CGI storm troopers (Republic) and CGI battle droids (Separatists, although it‘s never clear who aside from the Japanese fish guys are doing the separating) doing battle all over the galaxy. The movie takes place near the tail end of the Clone Wars, with the middle portions having been chronicled in a variety of badly animated cartoon shorts, worsely-animated CGI movies, and unplayable video games. It’s a rich period for Star Wars fiction, where people you don’t care about do battle against things you don’t care about, with the incredibly wise Jedi serving as patsies the whole way. It’s such a rich period of history, full of lore and legends, that you don’t need to know a damn thing about it to understand this movie. All you need to know is that when the movie begins, cyborg Separatist leader General Grievous (…eh…) has kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from Coruscant, and now the Republic fleet is battling the Separatist fleet in the upper atmosphere, trying to board Grievous’ ship and kidnap their beloved traitorous leader back.
"Um, Master..." "You see, Anakin, when a droid and an ATM machine love each other very much..."

While big ships and little ships trade blows, two small Jedi fighters, piloted by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) zip their way around missiles and enemy ships toward the enemy flagship. These initial moments show the camaraderie of these two friends, trading boasts and bitchy complaints (“There’s too many of them!” “I have a bad feeling about this!” “I’m hit!” “Where’s my bowl of M&Ms with all the green ones picked out???”) as they go about their sacred task. Fortunately, they’re able to board the flagship because the forward-thinking Separatist engineers felt it wise to put the shield generator on the outside of the ship, allowing the Jedi to take down the shields, zip into the hangar bay, and start their journey through the hapless battle droids toward the bridge, where the captive Chancellor awaits, like a hoary old man version of Princess Zelda. But something else is wrong, and Anakin declares, “I sense Count Dooku.”
"Roger, Roger. Wasn't me."

I sense Count Dooku. Now I believe in keeping a low profile in the movie theater and letting people enjoy their movie uninterrupted, but I must admit that at that point, the snicker would not be denied. And in a movie that occasionally flirts with genuine drama, there are gems like this scattered all around to constantly remind you that George Lucas never wrote a line of dialogue that he felt the need to read aloud.

Um. I'll pass on this one.

After some hijinx in an elevator shaft and yet another demonstration of R2-D2’s fleeting combat prowess, the Jedi reach Count Dooku. Once again, Obi-Wan is knocked out (Count Dooku > Obi-Wan > Darth Maul?), but this time Anakin beats the crusty old fart, beheading him as Palpatine cheers him on. Anakin is distressed at his own act of revenge, but Uncle Palpy assures him that Dooku was too dangerous to live. Which I find a defensible enough position, so let’s move on. They wake up Obi-Wan and try to run back to their ships to fly out, but promptly get caught in a security force field. Obi-Wan says, “Wait a minute. How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!” and Anakin replies, “Apparently not.” At which point I check the credits list on the DVD box to see if I somehow contributed to the screenplay and just forgot about it. No dice.
"Please, Don Yoda, I implore you..."

They’re brought to General Grievous, who is a complex and original villain in that he’s very sure of himself, has a negatively-connoted word for a name, and hates good guys. The good guys break free from their captors in some inane way, so I’ll just lie and say they do so by having Palpatine seduce a guard, Obi-Wan hack the security mainframe, and Anakin stick a shiv in Grievous’ nuts. Grievous escapes in an, uh, escape pod, and the good guys have to land the ship safely as it hurtles toward the planet. They do. It's kind of like the ending of Airplane!, except slightly less dramatic.

Now that all that action is behind us, let’s get back to all the stuff we loved about Attack of the Clones. Senator Queen Padme Amadala (Natalie Portman), if you’ll remember, is secretly married to Anakin, and she announces to him that she’s pregnant. Now, the movie’s PG-13 this time, so as long as they’re married, it’s okay to suggest they made Wookiee, and it doesn’t have to be a virgin birth like Anakin’s own mother had. But Anakin’s still distressed about this, knowing that the union of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman could only produce a wooden robot as a child, and he keeps getting visions in his sleep of Padme dying in childbirth. The problem is apparently that Baby Mark Hamill and Baby Carrie Fischer are in there already getting stoned.

"Sorry I'm late. What did I miss?"

Meanwhile, the Clone Wars (all one of them) are in their last phases, with the Republic clearly winning, and the Jedi are out there sealing the deal:

  • Yoda heads off to the home planet of the Wookiees to support their war effort against the Separatists by standing around in the Swiss Family Robinson house and talking like an ass. He has a secret mission, though: buy the approval of disgruntled Star Wars fans by getting the Wookiees into the movie, even if it they have no actual relevance to the “plot.“ Apparently, one of them’s Chewbacca. I’m surprised they didn’t give Kevin Smith a role. Yoda watches as the Wookiees use weapons that look like they were built by the A-Team and battle the evil Separatists in their Jeep Wranglers. Imagine Command and Conquer with no strategy. Or Starcraft with strategy.

  • Obi-Wan’s goes to another planet, tracking General Grievous into a big alien inverse anthill thing. He sneaks around on the preferred transportation method of the future for great warriors on stealth missions: a giant, loudly chirping iguana. Hey, Hitchcock had his blondes, and Lucas has his people mounted on giant lizards. Obi-Wan engages Grievous in a duel, but finds that Grievous is capable of extending two extra arms, giving him four total, each with a light saber. So Kenobi uses the MacGyver-like tactic of slicing off the extra arms. Very clever. As the storm troopers drop in, blasting the Separatist forces, Obi-Wan finishes off Grievous by cutting off his armor, exposing his biological heart, and shooting it with a blaster. Man, Obi-Wan’s just full of great ideas. Sun-Tzu says that the art of war is the art of deception. That, or just hacking off their arms, ripping off their body armor, and shooting 'em in the chest.

  • A couple of other Jedi fight on other planets just long enough to get their action figures on the shelves.

    "No, I'm not an alien! I just fell asleep on my Foreman Grill, if you must know!"

Anakin, interestingly enough, gets the most harrowing assignment: becoming Palpatine’s assistant, so that he can spy on him for the Jedi, who are afraid that Palpatine will attempt to retain his iron-fisted rule after the crisis has passed. Anakin’s very upset about this assignment, not only because he respects the Chancellor, but because he’s being pulled away from Natalie Portman, in her pre-nursing phase, to work closely with an old man in a robe who’s very interested in him. Brrrr. Palpatine takes him to a kind of weird bubble opera thing, kind of a less pretentious Cirque du Soleil, and tells Anakin the story of the Sith lord Darth Plagueis. Yes, Plagueis. Is George Lucas trying to subtly suggest that this man was a less-than-upstanding citizen? I wonder if Maul, Tyrannus, and Grievous also had negative traits. Plagueis believed that the Dark Side of the Force could be tapped to grant the user healing and life-prolonging powers, which Anakin naturally becomes interested in for the sake of saving Padme from the difficult childbirth he’s prophesied. Too bad Plagueis was offed by his apprentice, who took the knowledge himself or something. Palpatine might as well have said: “Hey, I’ve this, er, friend who killed off his master and could give you, uh, eternal life. I tell you what: if you give me forty bucks, I’ll give it to my, hmmm, friend, and he’ll set you up with this Force power. Just don’t tell Samuel L. Jackson about it, capiche?” And Anakin still wouldn’t have figured it out.

Since Anakin’s dumber than a thumbtack, Palpatine has to just come out and say that he’s actually Darth Sidious, betrayer of Darth Plagueis and Dark Lord of the Sith. Anakin’s very confused, despite this all being painfully obvious, so he runs off to tell Samuel L. Jackson about it. Samuel L. rounds up a few Jedi to go arrest the old man, still not trusting Anakin to do something non-idiotic. But the worst idea was to leave Anakin alone to do his own thinking, so the kid follows, and as Samuel L.’s about to finish off Palpatine, at the tail end of a fight that leaves the other Jedi dead and Palpatine’s skin unmoisturized, Anakin slices off Samuel L.'s hand and lets Palpatine blast him out the window with lightning. Whoops.

You know, I wondered when Lara Flynn Boyle was going to make another movie.

Since he’s already screwed up, he might as well go whole hog. Anakin accepts his role as Sith trainee and a Sith name. Hmmm, I don’t know… Darth Vader has a kind of ring to it, even if it might be more confusing than Darth War or Darth Herpes or something. Convincing Anakin and the rest of the universe that the Jedi were about ready to attempt a coup, Palpatine dispatches Order 66 all his storm troopers (Wait, he’d only given 65 orders to this point? What is that, an order a month?), which instructs them to immediately kill all the Jedi they’re fighting alongside. Anakin, once again, gets the difficult job: leading a bunch of storm troopers into the Jedi temple and killing all the children. Or ‘younglings’ as all the Jedi call them, making them sound like some Zerg sub-species. Palpatine calls the Senate together and consolidates his rule by declaring himself Emperor, much to the delight of the Senate. Padme’s one of the few dissenters, quietly musing, “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.” It’s actually a pretty good line, one that I suspect Portman might have written herself, since she’s very politically active and thinks that V for Vendetta has an important lesson for the world.

Yoda and Obi-Wan are just about the only Jedi to survive their assassination attempts, and get together with Jimmy Smits, who’s apparently a good-guy Senator named Organic Bile or something. They decide that to make things right, they’ve got to kill Sidious and Vader. Because somebody decided that the “Yoda jumps around and kills people” joke hasn’t gotten old enough yet, he’ll go after Sidious, and Obi-Wan will deal with his former BFF, Anakin. Since they don’t know where Anakin is, Obi-Wan tells the conflicted Padme everything, then stows aboard her ship when she flies off to meet him on the volcanic planet Mustafar, where he’s gone to kill off the last of the Separatist leaders, now that they’re no longer needed for Palpatine’s big false flag operation. She’s going there to convince the man she loves and father of her unborn child to come back from the brink, and Obi-Wan has to deceive her in order to kill him. It’s a moral dilemma worthy of The Smurfs.

I used to wonder how Hayden Christensen got this part. Now, I wish I didn't know.

Yoda confronts Palpatine in this office, knocking out his guards in maybe the only genuinely cool moment of the movie, perhaps because it’s actually *gasp* a bit understated. Speaking of understated, by this time, Chancellor Palpatine has gone from a soft-spoken and manipulative “cool uncle” type of a villain to a cackling ninny, someone that even Chuck Schumer voters could recognize is kind of a creep. His dialogue with Yoda before (and during) the final fight goes something like this:

Palpatine: You and your friends shall DIE! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End, the Dark Side of the Force must.
Palpatine: There is no escaping me, foolish Jedi! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: Battle, we must.
Palpatine: There is no overcoming the Dark Side of the Force! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End, this shall tonight.
Palpatine: Dead, you shall be. Oh, wait, it’s my line, sorry. I mean, prepare to die, pathetic weakling! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: Fight me first, you must.
Palpatine: The end of the Jedi is at hand! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End now, your tyranny must.
Palpatine: Prepare for death, my old friend! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Yoda: End, this shall. It, I mean, really.

Poetic words, indeed. The puppet and the old fart duke it out in the empty Senate chamber, clashing sabers and spinning floaty hover-seats at each other. It’s actually not that bad a fight, though it’s a bit predictable, even considering that we knew exactly how it was going to end four movies ago. Neither one manages to do a lick of serious damage to the other, but Yoda falls out of the chamber, and being a damned coward, he decides, “Well, I gave it the old college try, so let’s just call it a day,” and flies off with Jimmy Smits to accept permanent exile. Nope, no need to try killing Sidious again, or helping out with the resistance or anything. We’ll find you if we need you, Yodes.
"Hey, it saves on gas, all right?"

Meanwhile, Padme’s ship lands on Mustafar, atop a platform above some kind of molten lava collection plant. (I can only guess that the stuff is shaped and cooled into collectible pottery, because there’s no other conceivable reason to do this.) Braving the 4,000 degree heat and 99% carbon monoxide air, she steps out, and is greeted by Anakin. Being a woman, gets all prickly about his plan to betray Sidious and become Galactic Demagogue. He gets miffed that his bride isn't supportive of his new career plan. He gets even angrier when Obi-Wan steps out. I’m not sure if he’s so angry about him coming here to kill him, or because he thinks he’s been doing his own light saber training with her. Either way, Anakin Force-chokes her unconscious, and the final battle is on.

Now, I know that this is the big finale of the series, with two iconic characters going at it in an oppressive and visually striking setting. And it’s fairly exciting. But really, how many times can we see a light saber duel before it wears out its welcome? I think there was about one of these fights per movie in the original series. Those movies had space pirates and gangsters and big monsters. The new movies have endless scenes of homeless-looking people hacking each other. But the movie’s almost over. Almost over.
"This is OnStar. How may I assist you, pathetic weakling?"

The fight takes a while, and the whole time, neither of them get fatigued, injured, frustrated, or anything else. Although plenty of machinery gets carved up and let loose down the lava river in the process, it’s pretty obvious that neither Anakin nor Obi-Wan is really making the slightest progress towards defeating the other one. They fill the time with Firing Line-style debate. To rebut Obi-Wan’s assertion that Emperor Palpatine is evil, Anakin unleashes the rhetorical bombshell, “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”

So the fight’s not going to end when one really gets beaten, but only when the film's editor says that this nonsense has gone on long enough. And that happens when Obi-Wan ends up on a bank beside the lava river, and Anakin’s still standing on a robot platform hovering above the lava (this isn't the easiest thing to describe, okay?). Obi-Wan declares, “It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!” High ground? What is this, a Civil War board game? Apparently he’s right, though, because when Anakin tries to do a somersault jump over him, Obi-Wan slices through him, hacking off his remaining non-robotic arm and his legs. Well, that’s pretty decisive.

I'm inclined to agree with her.

Anakin slides back along the loose sand toward the lava, in pain not just from the searing wounds, but from the lecture Obi-Wan inflicts upon him. It’s actually fairly moving, and well-delivered by Ewan MacGregor. Anakin continues to slide down, and while he never immerses himself into the lava, he apparently does get close enough that he bursts into flames. And Obi-Wan just walks back towards the ship, leaving him there. I can understand how he’d be pretty confident that being dismembered and engulfed in flame would be enough to kill the guy, but not taking the five seconds to go stab him in the head with a light saber is one of those Bill Buckner moments. You’d think he might have mercy-killed him, but no. Doing the obvious thing would have maybe hurt the series continuity a bit.

The good guys regroup at some out-of-the-way station as Padme goes into labor, learning that she’s having twins; apparently, in this galaxy, faster-than-light speed is invented prior to the sonogram. And she names the kids Han and Chewie. Or something like that. Since she dies during labor, Jimmy Smits gets to take one for himself, while Obi-Wan’s stuck with the other one. So he dumps the kid off with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine, and resigns himself to twenty-or-so years of living in caves in the desert and learning to act like Alec Guiness. The man’s got some work ahead of him. Earlier, Yoda had told him, much to his delight, that Qui-Gon Jinn (from the first movie) had figured out how to come back from the grave and appear as a spirit, and that he’ll be around later to pass on this secret to Obi-Wan. I think this exchange is in the movie to explain why, in the upcoming/previous trilogy (whatever you want to call it), all the good Jedi learned how to do this, but characters like Darth Maul can’t come back to give people the finger or yell out numbers to confuse the Jedi when they’re doing their tax returns or something. But don’t take this as meaning that Liam Neeson’s back. Oh, no he’s not. Having endured roles in both The Phantom Menace and The Haunting, I don’t think you were going to get him back into a crappy CGI blockbuster for all the whiskey in Ireland. Nope, he was going back to a combination of serious movies and blockbusters, like Narnia and Batman Begins, that didn’t ask him to make serious conversation with characters straight out of Super Mario Bros. 2.
"Anakin, forget what he's saying about your acting! We have a scene to do!"

As for Anakin, he’s gotten his second wind and crawled out of the fire. Palpatine arrives and has his men transport him to a medical facility, where they start slapping cyborg parts on him. I think you see where this is going. I just know that Lucas was dying to have him transformed into some CGI creation that looks like Optimus Prime, but no, that might have finally broken the fans’ will. So he’s old Dark Helmet again, complete with boxy, multi-colored 1970s buttons on his chest, like he’s a damned ATM machine. He stands up and lurches off the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster, now voiced by James Earl Jones (who probably would have been more convincing as a white, teenage Jedi than Hayden Christensen if they had just given him the entire role). And what’s the first thing that Darth Vader says, finally in his iconic form, with his iconic voice?

“Where is Padme? Is she safe? Is she all right?”
I don't think I like this remake of Flashdance.

Yes, I want the legendary film villain’s first words to include the name “Padme” and the term “all right.” It would only have been worse if Palpatine had replied, “Hunkily-dorily, Darthity Varthity!” Instead, he tells Vader the truth, that his choking thing wound up killing her, to which Vader responds with the most embarrassing eighteen letters in film history:


And that’s that. The Galactic Republic’s a dictatorship, Palpy and Vader are in power, a fake Peter Cushing’s on a Star Destroyer’s bridge, everybody’s uniform and workstations have gone all gray and retro all of a sudden, budget setbacks have forced all the storm troopers to resort to being played by actual actors in actual suits, and the Death Star’s half finished. What? Already? To clarify, the shot revealing this fact actually comes in the film before we see baby Luke dropped off on Tatooine, so it’s not like this was supposed to have happened years later. So if they’re already so far along building the Death Star while Luke's still a baby, why’s it going to take them 18 or 20 years to finish the bleeding thing? Is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in charge of it?
Certain people aren't letting me make Karen Allen jokes anymore, so I'll have to say, "Stupid Hobbitses!" instead.

Anyway, that’s the end. I think I’ll stop these reviews short of going into the good movies in the series. To be fair, this movie has its moments, and the series had been climbing, one step at a time, up from the eleventh circle of Hell that was The Phantom Menace. But the entire series was still far too concerned with explaining Star Wars mythology, showing off technology, and appealing to kids, than it was with creating rousing action scenes or memorable character interaction. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that went wrong with this prequel trilogy, but I think there are two big losses:

  • The puppets. As corny as they might have been, all those aliens and droids you saw for about three seconds in the original movies were pretty interesting to look at, and the fact that they didn’t play much of a role in the plot made you wonder about them; I kind of liked how the tadpole naval commanders (including the legendary Admiral “It’s a Trap!” Ackbar) and Lando’s Chinese frog-man co-pilot were just sort of weird and just sort of there for a bit. Here, all the weird aliens are few and far between, and when they appear, they’re either just minor variations on things we’ve either seen, or they’ve got abrasive enough personalities that they get old real quick. Sorry, Jar-Jar. I never understood why people thought you were an idiotic character, but now I see a kernel of truth.

  • No Han and Chewie. Not to say that the prequel trilogy needed to have a cast of characters that mirrored the original series, but taking out the space pirates really hurt. Face it: Luke and Leia were dull. Godawful dull. You might have liked them, and rooted for them, but they were dull. It was Han and Chewie, always in over their heads and always trying to get their run-down ship working, that made the series so fun, breaking up the serious Jedi stuff. Count Lando in there too. In the prequels, nearly all of the main characters are either monks or politicians, with the one attempt at a major lighthearted character being a complete ignoramus. I’m sorry, Jar-Jar, but it needed to be said. Multiple times. R2-D2 and C-3PO are in the prequels, and actually fairly amusing, but they don’t really feel like part of the group. They’re off doing their own little skits, far removed from the main action.

Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff wrong with these movies, but aside from the general drop-off in writing and acting, which was a mixed bag to begin with, those are my two main points. On a higher level, I had a problem with the films’ “explanation” as to why a great hero like Anakin Skywalker could turn into a total villain like Darth Vader, which was the whole key to the series, dramatically. To me, Anakin seems like kind of a dick to begin with, and doesn’t seem any better a person or more dedicated a Jedi than anyone else. When he turns to the Dark Side as a result of his arrogance, fear of loss, and frustration with the Jedi, the surprise isn’t how a great hero could fall so far, it’s how dumb the Jedi must have been for not seeing it coming.

"...I love ya, tomorrow! You're always a day awaaaaaaayyyyy!!!"

But to sum up this exhaustive review, let’s end with my ten favorite lines of dialogue in Revenge of the Sith, all courtesy of the once-interested screenwriter George Lucas:

10) Obi-Wan: I have seen a security hologram of him… killing younglings!
9) Padme: Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love. No politics, no plotting, no war.
7) Obi-Wan: Wait a minute! How did this happen? We’re smarter than this!
6) Anakin: I sense Count Dooku!
5) Padme: I want to have our baby on Naboo.
4) Obi-Wan: It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!
3) Anakin: From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!
2) Palpatine: NO! NO! NO!
1) Vader: NOOOOOOOOO!!!
Um. Maybe the movie should have been more about her.

Not quite “May the Force be with you,” any of them, but at least they tried. Then again, do or do not, there is no try.

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