Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Movie Review: "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith" by David Pretty

By the time the Sith hit the fans back on May 19'th, 2005, we were all feeling a little bit like battered spouses. Ignoring the persistent ringing in our ears, we dutifully returned to the theater, clinging to the vain hope that "things must have changed by now".

Yeah, um, no...

I will concede, however, that out of all the prequel films, this is the only one that vaguely approximates some of the potential inherent in a new series of Star Wars movies. Well, at least on a sub-atomic sorta level.

Awright, once more into the breach, dear friends...

Right out of the gate things makes little to no sense. Once again, Lucas does absolutely nothing to introduce or build "General Grevious" up as an interesting or intriguing villain. Ergo, why should we care more about him more then, say, "Major Asshole"?

Seriously, we don't know who or what he is, where he came from, how he became a Separatist leader, why he hates the Jedi and why he has asthma. I'm sure some book, comic, cartoon and / or video game out there answers all of these relevant questions but, hey, guess what? That does nothing to enhance my emotional investment in this two-hour-and-twenty-minute-long video game cut scene. The only thing we do know about Grevious is that he's a complete and total moron since he shows off his secret lightsaber stash to a pair of telekinesis-empowered Jedi.

This protracted opening scene is meant to introduce some sort of Machiavellian plot but it just ends up being confusing. If I understand this bone-headed conspiracy correctly, Palpatine deliberately lets himself get kidnapped because he somehow knows that Anakin will rescue him which, in turn, will lead to a final confrontation with Dooku, which, in turn, will result in Anakin murdering the Sith Lord which, in turn, will nudge him ever closer to the Dark Side, which, in turn, will make Anakin  Palpatine's new apprentice.

Well, if that's the case, Palpatine sure likes living the thug life. Because, in order for this hair-brained, one-in-a-million, Hail Mary, eleventh hour miracle scheme to work out the following things need to happen:
  1. No other Jedi except Anakin can come to his rescue.
  2. Anakin has to fight his way through the Trade Federation fleet and infiltrate Grevious's ship.
  3. Anakin then has to figure out where Palpatine is being held prisoner and then fight his way through a slew of battle droids (and presumably Grevious) to get there.
  4. Assuming that Anakin beats Dooku, Palpatine then has to convince the young Jedi to kill him without any Jedi witnessing this.
  5. While all of this is happening, Palpatine has to make sure that the Republic fleet doesn't start winning because if that happens they'll destroy the ship he's on and kill him.
  6. They then have to either escape and / or try to land the ship.   
Now, I'm going under the assumption that Grevious and / or Dooku know that Palpatine is Sidious, otherwise this insane scheme becomes even more ludicrous. What if they killed him by mistake during the abduction attempt? What if they decided to ransom him off to someone else? Or, better yet, what if they decided to execute the Chancellor, ISIS style? 

Okay, let's assume that Grevious and / or Dooku know that Palpatine is Sidious. It still makes absolutely no sense. What if Anakin wasn't available and that dude with the pointy head was the only one who could go? Or what if Obi-Wan, Mace, Yoda, Kit Fisto, Plo Koon, Saesee Tiin, and a half a dozen other Jedi went with Anakin as well? After all, this is a pretty damned important mission. What if Anakin was killed in the space battle? What if a battle droid got a lucky shot in on our "hero"? What if Obi-Wan hadn't been knocked out? What if Count Dooku whipped Anakin's ass? What if Anakin refused to kill Dooku?

Now, Lucas's lapdogs will probably argue that Palpatine can foresee the future, but there's a big difference between the gift of second sight and having the ability to bend the entire galaxy to your will. If that was the case then why would such a powerful being ever feel the need to go through all of these stupid machinations to gain power through legal / political means? Couldn't he just Biff Tannen his way to power?

No, there's only one power greater than a Sith Lord's influence and that's the deus ex machina of a profoundly untalented screenwriter. The most important question is: how did Palpatine know for sure that he wouldn't be killed during this incredibly dangerous "rescue" attempt? Did he also foresee that the ship he'd be held on would split in half Titanic-style, burn up on re-entry and then crash land? 'Cuz, if so, that took some Death Star-sized cajones to follow through on, my friend.

But, then again, these are precisely the sort of inconsistencies, logical loopholes and dangling questions that we've all come to expect from the prequels. Some are a lot more minor but no less irksome. For example: did you know that, as far back as twenty years ago, R2-D2 had the ability to fly and shoot lightning from his head? Man, that could have come in handy in, oh, I dunno, THE ENTIRE ORIGINAL TRILOGY.    

Not only do the storytelling sins pile up in quick succession they also escalate in magnitude. Even after three films Lucas has utterly failed to explain the motivation of the Trade Federation. Seems to me that all Nute Gunray and company got for hitching their wagons to a Dark Horse of the Sith is a lifetime of being a meat-shield and / or an interstellar punching bag. Curiously enough, I also have no clue as to why someone would ever want to become a Sith. Or even a Jedi, for that matter.   

Then there are those blatantly obvious things that would make anyone with a body temperature over thirty-seven degrees Celsius sit up and take notice. For example: the entire Galactic Senate seems completely nonplussed by the fact that Palpatine's face suddenly looks like a half-chewed caramel. Shouldn't they be thinking: 'Hmmmm, maybe we shouldn't blindly follow this guy with the fucked-up face and T-Pain style auto-tuned voice anymore. He seems super-evil now. And not just default-level politician evil..." 

Here's another doozy: wouldn't it make sense for Yoda and Obi-Wan to make a billion copies of those incredibly incriminating Jedi Temple holotapes and just scatter them all across the galaxy to show people what happened? Maybe leave a few lying around the Senate canteen where they break for lunch? Oh, what's that, you say? 'Stop asking questions and buy more action figures.' Okay, right. Sorry, I got it.

But wait, why does Padme find it so hard to believe that Anakin "killed younglings"? After all, didn't he kill a whole mess of of them back on Tatooine? Or do brown, bandaged younglings not count? Also, wouldn't it just suck to be the poor clone trooper assigned to "Order 66" Yoda? The dude can't be liking his odds. Maybe Palpatine should have put his big hitters on that particular assignment.

But all of this pales in comparison to this movie's worst offense: the death of Padme. It would have made a lot more sense if Anakin just killed her by mistake in a fit of rage. Instead The Flanneled One wimps out and invokes the whole "she died of a broken heart" bullshit which is supposed evoke the whole "fairy tale" angle, I guess? Instead it reveals more of George's boundless ignorance of female psychology. If anything, I should think that giving birth to two, beautiful, healthy babies would have given Padme a renewed reason to live.

Rising to the complaints of the fanboys, Lucas made Revenge of the Sith the "darkest" Star Wars movie yet but he still can't commit to a consistent mood. What follows is a list of all of the schizophrenic tonal shifts that diminish any tension and peril generated during the film:

  • The voice-over work for the battle droids, the Trade Federation pilots and General Grevious is so goofy and overwrought that you can't take any of it seriously. Speaking of, I sincerely hope that the Trade Federation filled out all of those battle droid warranty cards. The Jedi cut through them like butter and, as a result, they're about as menacing as Jack McBrayer. 
  • The "high-stakes" rescue mission that kicks off the film is completely deflated by slapstick, pratfalls and "funny" dialogue. In fact, this scene is best watched with the Benny Hill chase music playing in the background. That is until... 
  • ...Anakin suddenly and viciously dismembers and then decapitates Count Dooko just seconds later. *cue the sound of a needle being abruptly lifted off a turntable*
  • Referring to Anakin as "Annie" wasn't cute when it was used in reference to Jake Lloyd. At this stage it's just wince-inducing.
  • Coruscant is apparently none the worse for being the epicenter of a galactic civil war. Everything is still new, orderly, prosperous, plentiful and well-maintained. People are in such good spirits, in fact, that the space ballet is apparently doing booming business.
  • Remembering how Chewie's Tarzan yell really amped up the drama in Jedi, Lucas decides to give it to us again during the wookiee / droid dust up on Kashyyyk. "Gives it to us again", indeed.
  • Ewan McGregor doesn't even flinch when Grevious suddenly turns into a giant, lightsaber-armed Cuisinart just meters away from his bearded face. So either the tall guy on "set" in the green unitard with the tennis ball glued to his forehead failed to yell "BOO!!!" during that particular take or Obi-Wan has already seen this parlor trick before. I think it's safe to assume that George Lucas would probably argue the latter. 
  • Giving praise where it's due, I really loved that series of smash-cuts back and forth between Anakin and Padme as they look with trepidation across the city towards one another with John William's eerie score playing in the background. The scene where the Jedi get felled by "Order 66" is also rather stirring. Unfortunately these two fleeting moments of genuine tension and pathos are lost amidst a vast wasteland of epic stupidity. 
  • Even though Ian McDiarmid's performance as the gleefully evil Palpatine / Sidious is one of the few bright spots in the prequel trilogy, Lucas lets him go completely off the chain during the arrest scene. Indeed, every one of McDiarmid's line readings are so over the top that he's virtually out of sight. This is magnified by a pretty bad makeup job which makes him look like a half-melted nutsack novelty candle. What's even funnier is that he's completely nonplussed by all of this. Shouldn't he pause for a second at least and say something like: "Man, my face feels kinda flushed. Hold on a sec, I just gotta check myself in the mirror here, just to make sure that I...SWEET BABY SPACE JESUS, what the f#ck happened to my face?!?"
  • Anakin also seems nonplussed by the fact that Palpatine's forehead now looks like Martin Landau's gonads. Shouldn't he pause for a second and say something like: "OooOooo, shit, dude. Your face is like totally...ummmmm. Okay, hold on, stay right there, I'm just gonna grab some Polysporin..." Sorry, but I find all of this deliriously funny and it completely catapults me out of the film every time. 
  • Even though Lucas still maintains that these movies are for kids he includes a downright traumatic scene of Anakin firing up his lightsaber in a room filled with terrified younglings. Even worse, later on we're treated to the delightful image of dead children scattered all over the floor of the Jedi Temple. Keep in mind that this is in the same movie with R2-D2 kicking another droid in the crotch, a Tarzan wookiee yell and a bad guy who bears a striking resemblance to a desiccated scrotum.
  • Even James Earl Jones can't make the name "Padme" sound anything but patently ridiculous. Worst still, Vader's Frankensteinian stumble off the platform and subsequent "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!" is the worst indignity that this once-terrifying movie villain has ever had to suffer. That is until those execrable Star Tours musical numbers became a thing. 

But it's not just drunken tonal shifts that kill the film, several opportunities for dramatic impact also fall limply by the wayside. Only in the very last reel does Lucas stumble upon the potentially-powerful conflict inherent in the Anakin / Obi-Wan / Padme relationship. Pity that such a fantastic opportunity is squandered away as a simple afterthought. 

And then, when Anakin tells Mace Windu that Palpatine is a Sith lord, Samuel L. Jackson reacts with the same level of excitement normally reserved for the announcement of another Michael Bay Transformers movie. Just once I wanted to see a Jedi character react with a hint of passion and urgency. Pity Samuel L. Jackson didn't lobby to play the scene as John Shaft. Wouldn't it be great if he whipped out his lightsaber, racked it, yelled "It's Giuliani time!" and then rushed off to kick Palpatine's ass? Instead he's relegated to pushing out passionless, oblivious, workmanlike dialogue like "I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi". Wow, really? No shit, Captain Obvious.

Continuing the trend started in the two previous films, the script for Revenge of the Sith depicts the once-wise guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic as the dimmest bulbs imaginable. Mace, Yoda and Obi-Wan all express doubts about pairing Anakin up with Palpatine yet they go ahead and do it anyway. And, honestly, I don't blame Anakin one bit for refusing to spy on Palpatine. After all, the Jedi have done nothing but act like emotionally distant, socially stunted assholes who apparently have no problem sharing the galaxy with human slavers. 

The script also continues to shove Yoda down a regrettable character spiral which can best be described as incongruous action hero, befuddled Alzheimer's patient and complete and total asshole. When a visibly-shaken Anakin goes to Yoda begging for guidance all the jive-talking salamander does is coldly tell him to abandon his loved ones. Jesus, even Dr. Phil would have been more helpful!

Later, Yoda actually gets a decent scene where he makes short work of Palpatine's Royal Guards and then gets sucker-punched by the Emperor. For a second there I actually thought the character might be redeemed somewhat but instead he gets into yet another tiresome lightsaber fight. Words can't describe how disappointing it is for me to see this. Given how powerful Yoda and the Emperor are, wouldn't martial combat be waaaay beneath these two guys? But since lightsabers are like nerd Viagra, why not jettison the last chance to make these characters interesting and give 'em what they want, right?

For the record, Obi-Wan doesn't come off much better. I'd like to think that the line "Wait! How did this happen? We're smarter then this!" was just something that Ewan McGregor said to the other actors between takes and it mistakenly got edited into the film. But, in reality, I know that it's just another example of Lucas's shitty dialogue and his complete lack of self-awareness.

I love how Obi-Wan's idea of stealth is riding into Dodge City astride a giant, constantly-braying lizard. Then, seconds later, he ignores all of the collective advice he's ever given to Anakin and jumps down into the middle of about one-hojillion battle droids. Now, since we've already established that Grevious is a rank coward, you'd expect the General to order his troops to open fire and turn the cocky Jedi Knight into a hippie briquette? Right? Right! 

Nope! Instead, Grevious acts totally out of character in order to:
  1. Bust out his four-armed party trick.
  2. Kick off yet another meaningless lightsaber duel.
  3. Initiate a tedious gun battle between a faceless army of clones and droids.
  4. Segue into a boring, protracted, fake-looking race between Grevious's Mecha Hula Hoop and Obi-Wan's pet iguana. 
I can just picture Lucas bobbing up and down in his chair, clapping his hands together like a six year old kid and shouting "MAKE THE LIZARD FIGHT THE ROBOT WHEEL!!!" at his CGI team. *sigh*
Even worse, Obi-Wan comes off like a complete and total douche. It was kinda cool and hipster-y back in A New Hope when he called blasters "clumsy" and "random", but then, when he actually uses one to save his own skin during the Grevious fight, you just wanna punch him in his cocky bearded mush. Especially after he sniffs "so uncivilized!" and then throws the thing away. Considerably more terrible is when he leaves his so-called "brother" Anakin limbed and burning to death on a lava bank. Personally, I wish Anakin had just fallen off a cliff during the duel into the lava and was presumed dead. Or Palpatine intervened at the last minute and forced Obi-Wan to retreat. 'Cuz the way it is right now, that shit is cold.

Indeed, it's the character of Anakin who suffers the most damage here, and not just at the hands of his on-screen brethren. All too late, Lucas realizes that he's completely failed to establish Anakin as a sympathetic three-dimensional human being over the past two movies. So, his hamfisted solve for this is to give Anakin a couple of throw-away lines about helping anonymous clone trooper # 237,760 during the big space battle at the start of the film. But then, two seconds later, the guy dies anyway and, assuming that he's done enough to establish Anakin as a brave and noble hero, Lucas moves on to more gratifying digital distractions.

Anakin's preordained character arc, I.E. taking him from Light Side to Dark Side is about as believable as a Donald Trump's hair. Even at the mid-way point in the film, when Anakin and Obi-Wan part ways, they're still on better terms with each other then they've ever been. Needless to say, it's pretty hard to swallow that within thirty minutes of screen time they're gonna be trying to murder one another. Even as late as the one-hour-and-forty-eight-minute-mark, Anakin is still soundly in the Jedi camp, going so far as to reveal Palpatine's true identity to Mace.   

Which brings me to another point: just like all of the other other Jedi, Anakin is a rank and file moron. Doesn't he get a creepy Phil Spector vibe off Palpatine when he orders him to murder a prisoner in cold blood and then abandon war hero Obi-Wan Kenobi to certain death? As if that's not enough to get Anakin's spider-sense a-tinglin', Palpy starts prattling on about "old masters", Sith legends, the Dark Side, death denial, life creation and some shady cat named Darth Plagueis. Why Anakin doesn't just up and give Palpatine a lightsaber enema right there in the theater is beyond me.

With Palpatine constantly droning on about the Dark Side, dressing up in the latest Sith haute couture and poking his dim future protégé in the ribs with an elbow, Anakin finally puts two and two together and figures out that he's Darth Sidious. Incidentally, this is the exact same friggin' thing we've been yelling at the screen for the past six years! Seriously, how we sympathize with characters who are this friggin' thick? 

The funny thing it that Anakin's intelligence level completely bottoms out just a few seconds later. It happens when Sidious admits: "Um, okay, so this kinda awkward but y'know what I said earlier about that whole 'saving Padme's life thing'. Well, kind of a funny story there, I don't actually know how to do that yet. But, hey, if we both put our heads together, champ, I'm sure we can come up with something. Yeah, it shouldn't take much more then say, oh, I dunno, a month. Maybe two. Yeah, that's the ticket..."

The trend of piss poor dialogue certainly doesn't help with out these wafer-thin characterizations. Granted, it's not quite as awful as the last two entries; in fact, some of the banter between Obi-Wan and Anakin is actually reasonably good and the performances are serviceable. But when Anakin reunites with Padme, Lucas somehow finds a way to trump the shitty dialogue between them in Clones. I dare you to sit through the following pitiful exchange and not feel your own pull towards the Dark Side:

Anakin: You are so... beautiful.
Padmé: It's only because I'm so in love.
Anakin: No, it's because I'm so in love with you.
Padmé: So love has blinded you?
Anakin: Well, that's not exactly what I meant.
Padmé: But it's probably true.

I mean, c'mon, George! You're not even trying here! By the time Anakin shouts "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy!" I really wanted Obi-Wan to come back with: "Only a Republican deals in absolutes!"

So what do we get instead of decent character development, story and dialogue? Why more pointless action scenes and CGI demo reels, of course. In addition to the aforementioned Obi-Wan versus Grievous chase scene, there's also the completely superfluous R2-D2 / Buzz Droid fight which has zero impact on the plot. Nevertheless, Anakin and Obi-Wan get more wrapped up in it than a ringside Mickey Goldmill in a Rocky movie. Um, hey, guys, instead of watching this episode of BattleBots you might wanna keep your eyes on the sixty million other enemy ships that are trying to blast you into oblivion.

Even the final lightsaber duel at the end of the film turns out to be a crushing bore. What should have been a short, vicious, economic confrontation between two hated enemies becomes a comically protracted, fake-looking exercise in advanced choreography. By the time the two of them are bobbing around on tiny video game-style platforms in what amounts to a lava level, I was like "Check, please!"

My final bitch about Revenge of the Sith concerns the alternately drab, ugly or forgettable design work. Thanks to super-talented artists like Ralph McQuarrie and unsung hero Joe Johnston, the original trilogy had some iconic, beautiful, "real"-looking ships. But nearly everything in the prequel trilogy, particularly crap like the super-ugly ARC 170 star fighters, look like an ass with landing gear. Needless to say, as soon as we're shown the familiar white corridors of that blockade runner ship, I'm right back in my happy place.

There, I did it! I managed to watch all of the Star Wars prequels with some of my brain cells still intact. And, honestly, the experience was rather cathartic. Looking back on it, I'm actually kinda glad that the prequels sucked so much since it cured me of my addiction to that galaxy "far, far away. Prior to 1999 I used to buy anything with the words "Star" and "Wars" printed on it, but thanks to some tough love I've moved on to bigger and better things. 

After watching the prequels I've come to the conclusion that George Lucas doesn't look at Star Wars the same way the fans do. Diverse audiences from all over the world fell in love with Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back because the limitations and the teamwork required it make those films happened to produce two of the best movies ever made, sci-fi or otherwise. But that was never Lucas's intent. He wanted to make big-budgeted versions of the dumb, junky chapter-plays that he was weaned on as a youngster. So, after purging all of the strong-willed and talented nay-sayers out of his inner circle, he made the prequels exactly the way he wanted to. Which is to say, very poorly. 

In fact, he probably thinks that the first two movies stick out like sore thumbs. Which kinda explains his "keep-away" attitude towards releasing properly-restored, high-def, anamorphic transfer home video versions of the original trilogy's theatrical cuts.

The bottom line is: I don't see the prequels as crushing disappointments like so many other fans do. I just see them as tremendously wasted opportunities. And that's just about the saddest thing I can say about it...

           Tilt: down.

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