24 May 2005

Revenge of the Sith

Like children all over the world, my son has become infected with the Star Wars virus, a contagion put there by men in Hollywood publicity departments whose symptoms are severe and incurable. He was learning how to read a calendar so he could count the days to the opening date, which he learned from TV commercials and talk around the schoolyard. One way or the other, I knew I was going to be contributing to George Lucas’ vast fortune, and sooner rather than later. So on Saturday night, along with about half a million other people, we forked out a large amount of money to see “Revenge of the Sith.”

When I was not much older than my boy, I nagged my parents into taking me to the original Star Wars in 1977. I can remember sitting low in my chair and making sound effects along with the explosions on the screen, as Luke Skywalker blew the Death Star into a thousand sequels. As a kid, I recognised that Star Wars represented something completely new: a film made with passion and attention to detail that was aimed squarely at us. Hollywood movies would never be the same, because from that moment on, a Hollywood film was also at the same time a kid’s film, and it has remained so ever since.

Later, I became far more interested in darker stories — like Alien and Blade Runner — but Star Wars has remained a fond memory, not least because it’s beginning was simultaneous with my own as a movie-goer.

As I became more discerning, I came to see that as a director, George Lucas made a good producer. He is a great visual stylist and a marshaller of talent, but an appalling writer of believable dialogue and a poor director of actors. The best move he made was to turn the second film over to an experienced Hollywood hand to direct.

This harsh judgement was later vindicated when to everyone’s surprise, he announced he would direct the first of the new series himself, even though he hadn’t directed anything at all for over twenty years. And boy did it show. “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” are dogs with fleas. The first one in particular is just a god-awful mess — and what about those titles? They might as well have been called “Revenge of the Creature From the Black Lagoon.” It seemed like he was so intent on filling up his universe for the legions of fans that he forgot to make movies with characters anyone cared about. This was most obvious in the battle scenes, which were about as emotionally engaging as a video game. The films looked like commercials for Star Wars action figures and lunch boxes, rather than real flesh and blood movies.

So he has a great deal riding on the success of “Revenge of the Sith.” I don’t mean commercial success, since there hasn’t been a more certain sure-thing than another Harry Potter novel, but rather as an artistic and critical success, and this time not just in the eyes of fans, but among his filmmaking peers and discriminating audiences.

To my great surprise, he has delivered. “Revenge of the Sith” is a gripping and memorable morality tale, with all of George’s faults in evidence, but also his great strengths, too. As usual, the design is eye-poppingly good, but whereas in the previous two films it could be unintentionally hilarious as Queen Amidala emerged every thirty seconds in a new gown designed by Liberace’s Japanese cousin, in this film, the design is more subservient to the requirements of the narrative and the performance. Well, a little more.

Unlike the previous films too, the narrative line is relatively clear and unencumbered by pointless distraction, like that ridiculous attempt at comic relief Jar Jar Binks. (George, like his friend Steven, can’t do comedy).

The truly universal thing about the original Star Wars was it’s simpl(istic) story structure, amounting to something like a fairytale, with a princess in distress, a ruffian with a heart of gold, a naive hero, etc. This new story is about the dark knight Anakin Skywalker’s journey from confusion and distress to certainty and resolution, only at the expense of his principals and his humanity. Potentially at least, the film could have achieved the reach and universality of genuine tragedy, with an unspoken sympathy with contemporary political events. The fact that it doesn’t achieve this is sad, but we should be at least grateful that it seems to be aware of its own potential and makes a sincere attempt at achieving something George has always maintained was his ultimate intention: a universal story.

The most serious problem is that when Anakin turns — as we all knew he would — to the darkness, Lucas fails to convince us that it was a choice he could not have avoided. The story therefore fails to reach the depths of genuine tragedy. When Anakin goes bad, his actions don’t seem to be the actions of the character we’ve been investing in, not motivated by the same protagonist. In real tragedy, the hero’s flaws lead him and all he loves into chaos and ruin, a destiny that we the audience can see coming, but which we also understand to be unavoidable given his flawed character in those set of circumstances. Given who he is, the hero could not have chosen any other way. A tragedy is a good man doing evil, not because he intends to do evil, but because he compromises his principals to reach his moral goal, unleashing consequences he never intended.

Anakin spends the whole movie agonising about how he can stop events he has foreseen from happening, but then brings those very events about apparently without grief or distress. For some reason I can’t understand, Lucas doesn’t bring this potentially shattering Judas-like moment out, as if it never occurred to him to do so. It seems like the end of the film (and the cycle) is too busy tying up loose bits of plot business to really capitalize on its own obvious potential. A pity, since I would have thought the Methodist George Lucas would be right at home in the language of the Bible.

Even more irritating is the complete lack of irony or humour throughout the film, which unfortunately leads to moments of unintentional hilarity. When Anakin dreams of violence and terror, the images look like flashbacks out of “Days of Our Lives.” When the new Darth Vader breaks his bonds and takes his first steps, the only things missing are bolts in his neck and Colin Clive shouting “It’s Alive!!” Everyone lives in sterile little cubicles filled with molded plastic chairs and shiny surfaces, as if the future looks like a cross between an Ikea catalogue and an 80s perfume commercial.

If I sound disappointed I am, only because I feel that in more capable hands it could have been much better. If I’m pleasantly surprised, it’s because my expectations were so low. Despite the river of money flowing into Lucas’ bank account, the times don’t really suit him any more. Peter Jackson has taken up the challenge of George’s original idea of the contemporary epic and made Star Wars look tacky and simple-minded in comparison. I truly hope Lucas has the good sense to pack up his ego and continue making a contribution as an occasionally visionary producer, and leave the directing to younger hands who grew up in his shadow, but who have long surpassed the Jedi master.


hot soup girl said...

I did see an interview with Lucas on 60 Minutes or something where he claimed that, now that his debt to Star Wars fans was paid, he intended to spend the rest of his life making tiny, daring, independently funded art films that no one would want to watch. I almost believed him.

I went to see 'Revenge of the Sith' last night, and my impressions were somewhat similar to yours. These were, however, my thoughts:


1. Hooray for low expectations! I mean, oh sure, if I compare this film to actual GOOD films, it's sub-so-so. But if I compare it to my expections based on the previous two pieces of dreck, I love it.

2. I liked the Frankenstein reference, though I did think the anguished 'NOOOOOOOOOO!' a little excessive.

3. I was pleased that a couple of things were taken to extremes: in particular, Vader's slaughter of a room full of children, and his ultimate physical destruction. A limbless torso, singed by molten larva and engulfed by flame. Nice.

4. McGregor finally got to act a bit, which was a relief. The conflict between Obi Wan and Anakin was, I thought, almost believable.

5. On the other hand, the relationship between Anakin and Padme wasn't. Why is Padme so bloodless? While I've enjoyed Natalie Portman in other roles, her senator is certainly no Leia. And honestly, if I ever discover that my secret husband, to whom I'm pregnant, has just murdered a bunch of magical children, remind me to be really, really upset about it. I thought Padme took it a little too well - apart from the dying-of-unhappiness, of course.

Okay, I'm done.

Enzogopher said...

I think padme's hair in this one is so much better- you can tell it's real hair. Im glad ewan could actually say something, and no offense to him, but Christopher Lee has put on a bit. I mean, he looks OLD not like someone in their late thirties who has just happened to have dyed their hair white.

Crritic! said...

Hot Soup Girl, you're so right about low expectations. You sit there thinking how this is actually quite good, until afterwards when heartburn sets in like bad Chinese food.

I fear George's idea of a little art film is "THX-1138". If you've actually seen it, you'll know why that thought makes me anxious.

I also thought Obi-Wan took it rather too well. Had I just found out my apprentice had killed a room full of children, I would have been crying like a baby with shame and failure. Obi-Wan, you're fired!

hot soup girl said...

I have seen "THX-1138": bleh. However, I am a fan of American Graffiti.

Anyway, it hardly matters, since none of us are obliged to see another George Lucas film ever. Our fandom responsibilities have now been fully met.