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Revenge of the Sith

June 26th, 2005

An interesting fold-out photo from Vanity Fair. Click on the image to see a larger version.

So today I saw the film, and felt like giving a review of it. I’ll make a general, non-spoiler review here, above the fold, and give a more lengthy, spoiler-laden commentary hidden under a link at the bottom of this entry (as seen on the main page).

In short, it is a lot like I expected–a special effects festival with mythological themes and the trademark corny dialog so much in Lucas’ style. There is a bigger story underlaying the usual Star Wars flash, the transformation of Anakin to the dark side, a dimension in excess of the past Star Wars films. And then there’s the stitching-together of the trilogies, with Lucas working to make the end of this film match with the beginning of the original film.

As a Star Wars film in the usual sense, the SFX & mythology, this film was brilliant. The visuals are both extraordinary and at the same time hardly worth noting because that’s what you’d expect from a Star Wars film, and no less. Special visual effects fill the movie, wall-to-wall, and it’s a treat for the eyes, from the beautiful to the gruesome. As for the mythology, much is made of that in this film; talk about the light and dark sides of the force, the nature of life and death, the corruption of jealousy and greed, of selfishness and selflessness. Even so, several answers that I expected to see answered in this film about the Star Wars universe were not–and even a few new questions were introduced. But if you like the speculation and the ability to play with the universe with your imagination, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In the sense of this film being about a man’s descent into darkness, Anakin’s transformation into the dark Lord Darth Vader, the film does well to begin and end the process, but falters at the key juncture right in the middle. All the elements, all the reasons are there for Anakin to make the leap–but this is not the kind of story that Lucas is adept at telling, and he falters here. Still, if you can get past that one critical point, perhaps filling in the blanks yourself, then the rest is very well executed.

And then as far as the film is intended to bring us up to the beginning of the original Star Wars film, everything is brought together very well. In fact, it may be brought together a little too well, as there are so many elements that had to be stitched together. It’s hard to be surprised by this film, because you already know exactly what’s going to happen. Still, many of these events are like a familiar echo, a nostalgia reaching back to the first time you went to see the Star Wars films, and are entertaining in that respect alone. When Padme names the twins, when you first see the Darth Vader helmet put on, when you see Obi-wan pick up Anakin’s light saber, knowing it will go to Luke–all of these are elements you expect and have been waiting for, and they work. But too much of the rest seems almost too intentionally laid out, like Yoda dictating where the children will go and how they’ll be raised–like Lucas needs to telegraph all the points, forcing them into their rightful places instead of being able to let the audience assume that things will happen naturally, as the logical thing to do. Again, if you’re able to set that aside, it’s great fun to watch it all come into place, even if some of the pieces are a bit forced.

So as a Star Wars film, it’s great; but as a drama with a believable storyline, it’s very good, but could have been better.

More below the fold…

*** *** WARNING — SPOILERS BELOW *** ***

There are a lot of treats in this film, in terms of visuals and the story, many of them harkening back to the original trilogy. You can see the evolution of the ships, uniforms and machines so they closely match the first movies. You can see, for example, the hangar bay of a star destroyer with the exact same grapple arms in it as the star destroyer in the original Star Wars. We get introduced to the rebel blockade runner, the ship Princess Leia is chased down in from the first film, complete with the high-contrast white hallways we saw Darth Vader stride down before. We even get to see the Millennium Falcon, briefly and small, in the corner of the screen as Anakin, Obi-wan and the Chancellor return to the city after crashing down in the broken starship at the conclusion of the initial action sequence.

The other connections to other films in the series are numerous. We see the TIE fighter develop from the Jedi fighter; the Emperor’s throne room from Return of the Jedi is re-created as Palpatine’s prison on Grievous’ ship; we see several mouse ‘droids flee before Anakin, just like the ones from the Death Star; the usual assortment of oft-repeated Star Wars lines; and we even see Leia’s cinnamon-bun hairstyle on Padme. We meet Chewbacca (which makes sense, as he was always referred to as a 200-year-old Wookie), and Bail Organa of “Princess Leia Organa” fame. We hear Yoda introduce Obi-wan to the paradigm of Vader “killing” Anakin, and hear Palpatine turn the Republic into the Empire with a single sentence. And seeing Vader and the Emperor on that familiar (hell, identical) star destroyer bridge as they witness the beginning of construction on the Death Star… and that double-sunset on Tatooine was perfectly done.

There are other Easter Eggs as well. Watch the hallway in the visual-opera hall (or whatever it is) just before Anakin walks in to see Palpatine. On the left you’ll see a blue-skinned alien. That’s George Lucas, in his only on-screen cameo. There’s the “Wilhelm” scream that has been slipped into every Star Wars film, and most action films in general. And did you happen to see Grand Moff Tarkin at the end? These and other Easter Eggs are outlined here.

A few stitches seem forced or arbitrary, however. Palpatine’s face transforms physically into the puffy/wrinkly-faced mask we see in the original films, almost instantaneously when his own dark-side-of-the-force lighting bolts are forced back upon him. Why didn’t Luke’s face undergo the same transformation in Return of the Jedi when he was subjected to a similar, or even more powerful dose? Some suggest that the effect is to reveal the person’s true self, but that sounds a little too apologetic. Maybe if you assume that Sidious is able to shape-shift, and his human face reverted to his Sith face when weakened by the attack–but nothing was said to make us believe this. Another continuity stitch was thrown in almost as an afterthought when Organa orders C-3PO’s memory wiped, for no apparent reason. It had to happen so as to explain Threepio’s ignorance of matters in the original trilogy, but all the same, it’s thrown in like a punch line without a joke to support it.

There are also some sequences which are pretty damned cool in and of themselves. The fight sequence between Obi-wan and General Grievous, with Grievous wielding four light-sabers with mechanical speed. The fight between Yoda and the Emperor. The tragic slaying of the Jedi, with Williams’ score delivering the emotional impact. The entire sequence on the lava world between Anakin, Padme and Obi-wan. And I’d imagine few fans could fail to find extremely cool Yoda’s move of throwing his light saber at the storm trooper, then climbing up his falling torso to retrieve it.

One action sequence did not live up to expectations, however: the fight between Mace Windu and Palpatine. I expected it to take a lot longer than it did. First, Palpatine does away with the three other Jedi masters who accompany Windu a bit too quickly and easily. Maybe this makes him seem a bit more scary, but I think the scariness could have been enhanced by some more wicked one-against-four fighting scenes (though Lucas has never been quite as good at portraying such scenes–as is often the case with similar scenes in Samurai films, too often it seems like the guys on the outnumbering side are holding back, each one waiting their turn). Certainly Palpatine’s initial acrobatic leap-and-hideous-roar set the tone well. But then we see too little of the fight between Windu and Palpatine before it ends. Even more disappointing is Windu’s death, by Palpatine’s lightning bolts. I fully expected Anakin and Windu to have their own duel a la Luke and Vader; I think this would have enhanced the feeling of Anakin making an irrevocable turn. Instead, he makes one split-second decision to stop Windu, and it’s even based on Jedi principles. That makes him seem less committed to turning to the dark side right away; a long fight with Windu, with dialog between him and Windu with Palpatine manipulating him from the sidelines would have been much more appropriate for this critical scene.

That leads me to my biggest problem with the storytelling, namely Anakin deciding to side with the Emperor. You just don’t get the impact that you should, to believe that it’s time for Anakin to make the decision. Yes, you see Anakin and Padme looking at each other across the city, and you get the fact that he doesn’t want her to die, and he sees Palpatine as his only hope for that. But the impact isn’t there. You just don’t feel it. It’s too sudden, from Anakin being the nice guy, humble before Obi-wan and dutiful to Mace Windu, and then suddenly he’s willing to go off and slaughter children and wipe out the Jedi order. He doesn’t appear to go through nearly enough agony to be consistent with how Lucas has drawn his character. Which is why I think the protracted light saber battle between him and Windu would have helped; it could have showcased his angst, and made his investment in stepping over the line to Sidious’ side far more believable.

Moreover, why did Anakin continue to trust Sidious even after he discovered he was a Sith lord? Anakin only had Sidious’ word that there was a way to keep people from dying by using the dark side. I know he was desperate to find some way to keep Padme alive, but shouldn’t he have at least considered the possibility that he was being fooled? And after he learned of Padme’s death, why didn’t he turn on Sidious then? After all, he must have realized that Padme died as a result of his turning to the dark side, and Sidious was responsible for that.

Some other things in the film do not make sense, like Anakin getting pissed off that he’s not been made a Jedi Master after being appointed to the council by Palpatine. One would naturally expect the title of Jedi Master to be assigned through a long series of difficult accomplishments, not to mention a heightened state of self-control and wisdom–not through a purely political appointment. It’s as if Lucas felt he had to set Anakin off against the Jedi, and this was the best he could come up with. One of the other points in the film that makes it a bit clunky is how Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious/The Emperor manipulates the situation. He does it in a somewhat ham-handed way, buttering up Anakin, and playing his role over the top otherwise, with the Jedi constantly “sensing” something wrong but not quite figuring it out; you kind of get a bit tired of this.

But the biggest disconnect for me was when Obi-wan left Anakin to die. Yes, it had to happen that way in order for continuity to work. But if he cared about Anakin as much as he claimed–and didn’t know Sidious was on his way to save Anakin–then it was intolerably cruel for Obi-wan to just leave Anakin sitting on the bank of lava, on fire, legs and arm cut off, to slowly die in agony. Sure, Obi-wan didn’t want to kill Anakin. But leaving him there to suffer was gutless.

And then there’s the politics, inserted as subtly as any of the other dialog: not very. Anakin’s Bush-like “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” answered by Obi-wan’s “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Oooo. Darth Dubya! Much less clunky, but still sticking out, was Padme’s commentary on the transition to Empire: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.” Just as fitting, but more compellingly introduced commentary on present-day social issues.

And finally, the mythology of Star Wars. We were supposed to hear an explanation of why Obi-wan simply vanished (later followed by Yoda) when Vader cut him down in the first film. Okay, Yoda tells Obi-wan that Qui-gon Jinn has found a way back from “the nether-world of the Force,” and we know how Obi-wan spends those years on Tatooine, communing with Qui-gon and learning how to survive after death. But not only is that a quick, off-camera cheat, it doesn’t tell us why Obi-wan and Yoda disappeared when they died–or why Vader didn’t, even though he also survived after death as a Jedi ghost–even without communing and training to do so. And would it have been so impossible to get Liam Neeson to do a cameo? That would have been much cooler, for him to actually appear and explain a thing or two.

Still, we are introduced, not to an answer, but to possible speculation on why and how Anakin was born in the first place. We learned in The Phantom Menace that Anakin had no father, and was conceived by the Midi-chlorians. Here, Lucas introduces the story of the Sith lord Darth Plagueis the Wise, who we learn was Sidious’ master. Palpatine claims that Plagueis learned how to use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life (as he rather meaningfully looked over at Anakin). He also claimed that Plagueis’ apprentice, in fact Palpatine/Sidious, learned “everything he knew,” suggesting that Sidious also could create life and keep people from dying. Which both answers and opens up the question, how was Anakin conceived?

Lucas coyly keeps the answer open to interpretation, saying that he prefers to let fans come to their own conclusions. So did Plagueis or Sidious use the Force to conceive Anakin, and why? Others point to this power when you see Sidious touch Anakin’s head after Sidious finds Anakin near death; but it is too similar to Obi-wan touching Padme’s head in the same way: a Force trick to put someone to sleep, which we saw Qui-gon do to Jar-jar. But the whole angle of Anakin’s conception will leave fans to imagine what they will–and may well open up the book and comic series to new story possibilities. Not to mention what Lucas himself has announced as a possible live-action Star Wars series, which could answer a lot of these questions, especially if the series is set either during or before the Clone Wars.

So in review, I seem to have had quite a few things to say. You may have noticed a lot of it is critical. However, that doesn’t mean I disapprove of, or did not greatly enjoy the film. I did. It’s a great film. I’ll be seeing it again in a few weeks with my brother, and will certainly get the DVD, which Lucas has hinted will be ready by Christmas.

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  1. Suzanne Lord
    June 26th, 2005 at 08:25 | #1

    G’Day Luis, Like you my husband and I went to see Star Wars Episode III yesterday (Australia). As we were leaving the cinema my husband commented that he had seen the first Star Wars in the 70’s as a young teenager, and now – the final. There was a brief pause in his sentance, and I sensed a sadness in his voice, as though this film had marked the end of an era (his childhood?)
    We both agreed that this one is too graphic and confronting for our 5-year-old who is Star Wars “Mad” and who was pumping us for all the details when we arrived home. Hope the DVD is out by this Christmas or he will drive us mad with his questions! For now the Star Wars website will have to do.
    Cheers, Suz.

  2. Tim Kane
    June 26th, 2005 at 09:35 | #2

    Good art has good timing. I always look at a movie and contemplate the times it is made in.

    This started for me in with the release of Independence Day. It was a “war of the worlds” but it was America-centric big time, I thought. America leading the world as if the rest of the world was like the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to the U.S. But then I noticed, at the time it was made, that that was kind of the way things were at the time. America was in the midst of the glorious Clintonian boom then and so the self-centric confidence of Independence Day was somewhat warranted. And the movie, was quite fun in an over the top way – also warranted.

    Then right before the Iraq invasion the movie “The Quiet American” came out. A faithful enactment of Graham Green’s book of the same name. The story uses the relationship between an older British Gentlemen journalist, A younger American doctor/cia operative, and a beautiful Vietnamese Mistress that they compete for as a metaphore for the megapolitics that was just emerging in 1954 when the book was published. But the book was conceived in 1952 after Graham Green had made just a few visits to Vietnam. The story illustrates the clumsy sometimes brutality of American idealism. In short, after only a few short visits to Vietnam Graham Green was able to predict the history of the next twenty years in Vietnam. (Makes you wonder about the rightwingnuts who blame Vietnam on liberals/nixons impeachment etc…). The beauty of that story is that it came out right before we were marching into Iraq – as if to give Americans one last shot at recognizing what they were jumping into. To little, to late. The uncanny thing is that it was supposed to be released in 10/01. But because of 9/11 – and the patriotism back then, it was delayed a year and a half: voila – the timing perfect.

    Now here we have Star Wars III being released right when the Senate in the United States was contemplating the nuclear option. Keep in mind, Lucas story had been developing and conceived nearly 30 years ago. Well,that is good art, in my mind. The mega story of Star Wars is the collapse of a Republic. That mega story began in 1977. Perhaps motivated by watergate, more probably Germany in the 1930s, at least Vader’s helmet suggest that. Yet we are experiancing a political Crisis that is really only about 4 1/2 years old. A right wing extremist wanting to take control through massive deception and coniving.

    Unfortunately Lucas is a bit over the top with this theme, and with the dialogue – but that can’t take away from the delicassy of the mega-theme. Having worked as an analyst in computers for 20 years, I have known and befriended my share of geeks, and my brother is an uber-geek working over at Intel – his son (quite brilliant) at two had better communication skills than he. And Lucas’ awkward geekyness is woefully exposed in the romantic scenes between Padme and Anakin. There is absolutely know charisma or chemistry on hand at all there – in fact, none. In Episodes 4 & 5 he’s able to pull it off because (a) he had help in writing and didn’t even direct in episode 5 and (b) the romantic tension (between Laia and Han) were based on competition, rivalry and denial between the two, and so, quite fun even. Here in episode 3 the whole plot pivots on the relationship between Padme and Anakin. The way it works in good movies is: you have to believe in the relationship – you have to fall in love with Padme yourself (just like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca) (or if your women, you have to fall in love with the male lead). You have to like them both genuinely. Then you have to fall in love with the idea of them falling in love, and the sparks between them need to fly on film all over the place. The first time I saw Casablanca I realized on a deep level what Humphrey Bogart was giving up – a sort of sweet bliss heaven on earth sort of thing. Star Wars 3’s whole plot depends upon that dynamic, indeed the whole saga does, so it is terrible that Lucas couldn’t find a way to make it work. As a geek Lucas should have recognized his limitation (a man, mind you that so gave up on having relationships that he adopted Children to have a family without getting married) and brought in some help. The communications between Padme and Anakin look just like the kind of communication you might expect to see between a geek and Cindy Crawford, which is why Geeks so rarely get the girl. The only time they do, is when the Girl finds themselves so utterly depended on technology, and can’t make it work, then the Geek gets to ride in like a white knight on his mighty steed, slaying the dragons of technology. It happens in the real world, I can testify, but these guys write code, not dialogue.

    The idea, the mega theme, that one compromises virtue for vice, good for evil, in the name of love is hugely important. And especially so for our times. I live in St. Louis Missouri. St. Louis is a Catholic town. We had a Bishop that was outspoken about Catholics voting for Kerry. If you voted for Kerry you couldn’t go to communion, you would have to go to Confession, and if you voted for Kerry for the wrong reasons it was a very grave sin, indeed. I know lots of Catholics that hated Bush that couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Kerry because of this. This parallels Lucas’ theme. In the name of saving the innocent unborn, people sided for the dark side. I can just about gaurantee you that this was the difference between Missouri going for Bush over Kerry. Nearly half of St. Louis is Catholic. Anakin sides with the bad side, and stilll loses Padme. Anti-Abortionist probably don’t know, but under Bush, the abortion rate has gone up to the extent that had he kept it at the rate of Clinton’s at the end of Clinton’s second term,there would be 50,000 less abortions in the United States. But one also has to consider that under Clinton the abortion rate was declining, and had Clinton stayed in office a third term, or Gore had been elected and continued the momentum, the difference might be something like 75,000 abortions. So you see, this was an excellent mega theme, and so you can see why I dearly do wish that he could have executed this better.

    As far as Darth Vader not abandoning the dark side after his wife died, my guess is that he was too hacked up, and the good guys left him to die, (as Luis points out) and the bad guy came and rescued him, so I understand his loyalty, and also,you have to figure that joining the dark side is a bit like joining the Mafia. Once you are in, it is almost impossible to get out.

    Despite the flaws, Lucas has produced an excellent work of art that is appropriate for our times. I now wonder what it will be like for future Generations that come to view Star Wars chronologically. There’s might be a better experiance, for even though the technological polish of the movies moves backward, each movie seems to be an improvement on the last in story telling and in charisma etc… Just think – many future generations will look upon the last 40 years of the 20th Century the way we look upon Shakespear. Rock and Roll music and great flicks.

  3. Brad
    June 27th, 2005 at 16:19 | #3

    Most interesting, both your and Tim’s comments.

    I’m basically disappointed with the entire first trilogy, it has no ‘soul’. Even looking at the third one (Sith) on its own, trying to forget the abortion that was Jar Jar and the mess of the second movie.

    I don’t know … maybe it’s because I was younger when I first saw them, but the ‘first’ movie trilogy – episodes 4-6 – captivated my attention at a much higher level than this first trilogy ever did or will. As Tim I think mentions, the whole Han/Leia romance came over very well in Empire Strikes back and Jedi, whereas the Padme/Annakin pairing left me totally unaffected. Bad acting, bad dialogue, bad plot/context … I just know that I only saw Revenge of the Sith yesterday, about 18 hours before reading your blog today, and already I’m forgetting most of the movie, and it’s left my ‘short term memory’. Whereas I’m sure I walked out of the screening of Empire Strikes Back with stars in my eyes, thought about it off and on for some time afterwards, and the first movie trilogy was what got me into reading some of the books based in the Star Wars universe (most of which is bad, in my opinion – or not good – except for the six most excellent Timothy Zahn novels which kick-started them all).

    I’m not particularly ‘deep’ or sensitive, and even I would squirm in my seats for the movies of the first trilogy. As you (Luis) said, some of the key plot points – like Annakin’s transition to the dark side – must have surely been able to have been portrayed much more realistically/deeply. Rather than being ‘wrapped’ in the movie as a whole I’m instead tempted to go through it point by point and just dismiss the various mistakes that were made (like you have done :-) ) on their technical merit.

    I *did* like the ‘force battles’ between Yoda and Palpatine. I’ve always wanted to see how a Jedi would combat the dark-force lightning – Luke didn’t have a defence – so enjoyed seeing Yoda endure and overcome Sidious’s attack. A couple of other points in the battles were equally enjoyable from a fanboy’s point of view on how the Force could really be employed in battle.

    They didn’t go far enough, of course. In the Zahn novels you realise just why the Jedi roamed the galaxy carting around such an anachronistic gadget as a lightsabre, a very short-range weapon. In his books a lightsabre, wielded telekinetically through the Force, is a whole different kettle of fish. Such a pity Lucas never made that sort of leap in the movies and just had all this same-old same-old jazzed-up fencing and leaping around instead.

    My last fanboy gripe about the Force – why all this fancy jumping when a Telekinetic could presumeably just levitate himself – i.e. ‘fly’? “Size matters not” … if Yoda can lift spacecraft and hurl those Senate seats around then he would surely be able to levitate his own body about quite comfortably – and fast, too. But I guess, movie wise, we’re approaching super-hero territory and it wouldn’t wash with the customers.

    Anyway, basically, I agree with what you both have said here. The movie will be fun to watch when it comes out on TV, but for a ‘real’ Star Wars experience these days I read the Zahn books, or watch Empire Stikes Back. There was too much wrong – or not enough right – with this first trilogy of movies for me to rate them very highly. More effort to try and rationalise them into ‘good’ movies, explain away the mistakes, than is warranted.

    Pity, isn’t it?


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