Friday, May 20, 2005

Revenge of the Sith: Spoiler Alert!

Babble on.

If you're one of those folks like my brother K-Jan who doesn't want to see a single shred of information on the latest, and maybe last of the Star Wars double-trilogy, then don't read any further. I'm not going to reveal anything you couldn't find a million other places online, but I'm not going to tiptoe around the details either. Fair warning, right?

Driving home from the theatre late yesterday afternoon, I tried to figure out what I was going to say about the movie, but I never did get it straight in my head. I'm still not sure what I'm going to say, so I'm just going to start typing, and see what comes. (It's not like you're paying for this content, so pipe down.)

First of all, I'm not going to make fun of the movie. Star Wars is what it is. If you go into it looking for world-class acting, or snappy dialogue, you're setting yourself up for a disappointment. It's high-tech fantasy, science fiction in its purest form. Having said that, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and yes, even Hayden Christensen did a remarkably good job with typically awful Lucas dialogue. In fact, my hat is off to McGregor - I watched A New Hope with my son last night after getting back from Episode III, and he is Obi-Wan, as much as Alec Guiness ever was. It's uncanny the continuity in that character between the two series, and I give McGregor full credit for that.

Second of all, I'm not going to try to place the series in some sort of grand cultural context. Enough other people are doing that, or picking it apart from a literary point of view, or trying to put it into some sort of film-historical perspective.

Instead, I'm going to tell you what I liked, and what I didn't. More than that, I'm going to relate a little of how the movie made me feel, because in the end, that's why I watch movies - for the feelings they invoke in me.

The opening scene, a rescue of Chancellor Palpatine by Kenobi and Skywalker, was brilliant. Fantastic flight battle sequence, followed by a thrilling they-did-not-just-do-that tandem lightsaber-wielding fight through the innards of an enemy battleship to where Palpatine is 'held', and then the duel where Dooku is defeated and killed. Not to mention R2-D2 kicking some battle-droid can all on his own. This is among the best action sequences in the entire series, and it had the whole theatre oohing and aahhing.

Then the mushy stuff between Anakin and Padme - she's pregnant, but everyone's still in the dark about their relationship. To be honest, I always cringed at how central the love story was to Episode II, and this didn't make me any happier. Of course, while I'll freely admit it could have been done better - dialogue and characterization, again, are Lucas' Achilles heel - I also have to admit the love story was absolutely required for this movie to be believable. More on that as we go along.

Palpatine wants Anakin on the Jedi Council, and they reluctantly agree, but refuse to grant him the title of Master, which he takes as a slap in the face. Then they ask him to spy on the Chancellor, which runs against the Jedi code, and opens the door for him to split his loyalties with more than just immature petulance as a justification.

Anakin has also been getting visions of Padme dying during childbirth. After what he went through with the visions about his mother, this terrifies him, and he's determined not to have his visions come true once again. Palpatine starts telling him stories - "Sith legends" the Jedi would understandably prefer to ignore - about abilities apparently available to those willing to study both sides of the force in balance. Abilities like saving the lives of those you love: hook set. Anakin figures out Palpatine's the Sith Lord, and tells Mace Windu.

I have to tell you, Windu comes across through the first three movies as a blind fool. He constantly craps from a great height upon Anakin, with no regard at all to his feelings, and when he orders Anakin to wait by himself in the Council chamber while he and three other Jedi go to arrest Palpatine, it just leaves you shaking your head. What an idiot: don't even try to understand what motivates your subordinates, or what scares them - just expect them to blindly obey.

Good call, Mace *mocking thumbs up*. After Anakin cuts your sword arm off and Palpatine lightnings your sorry, obtuse ass out the skyscraper window to splat your crispy corpse on some flat surface below, I gotta wonder how that's working out for you. Lesson? Open your eyes, die a little less.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Palpatine kills the other Jedi quickly with surprise, then Windu manages to disarm him. Finger-lightning ensues, but gets reflected back on to the Chancellor, disfiguring his face. When Anakin arrives, scared senseless that the ability to save Padme's life will be lost if the Sith Lord is killed in the battle, Palpatine plays up how helpless he is at Mace's hands. Windu has changed his mind about arresting Palpatine, deciding he's too powerful to be let live. As he strikes to kill, Anakin snaps. Once that step has been taken, Anakin can't really go back.

I was wondering how Lucas was going to handle Anakin's turn to the Dark Side, and this turn of events was more believable than I'd expected. He makes a classic Deal With The Devil: Padme's life for his fealty and the lives of the other Jedi. It's consistent, and it's a conscious choice - the wrong one, but a choice nonetheless. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the fact that Lucas tells us the circumstances that put Anakin in this situation - the death of his mother, the pressure of being the Chosen One, always striving to live up to expectations and always falling short, having to hide his relationship, etc - but reminds us that each of us that despite our circumstances, evil is always a choice. Good stuff, that.

The one scene in the movie I had trouble watching comes right after that: Anakin goes into the Jedi temple with a bunch of clone troopers, and kills everyone there. Including the little ones. I saw a young blond boy actor pretending to be a padawan, and it was like seeing my son - trusting and about to get ruthlessly massacred along with his classmates. Don't worry, it's not graphic, but if you have strong momma-bear or papa-bear tendencies as I do, it's a difficult scene. Again, this is only believable if it's in the context of Anakin paying a price for Padme's life.

Jedi away from the temple, leading troops in battle, get cut down by their own men. The only two to survive are Yoda - two clone heads, one sweep of the lightsabre! - and Obi-Wan. Oh, I've forgotten to highlight Obi-Wan's battle with a four-sabre-wielding cyborg named General Grievous (creative naming your villians Grievous, Tyrannus, Sidious, and Vader, eh?). They show that while Obi-Wan's key strength is his ability to strategize, when he needs to, he can be audacious. After defeating Grievous, clones try to kill Obi-Wan, but he escapes.

Palpatine sends Skywalker (newly renamed Darth Vader) to a lava-world where the separatists formerly led by Dooku and Grievous are hiding to kill them. No need for a separatist movement now that Palpatine has eliminated the Jedi and consolidated his hold over the Senate, declaring himself Emperor. Anakin goes through them like a hot knife through butter. He very obviously hates himself for doing it, but if it's the price he has to pay, he will. Watching the character let go of what emotional restraint he's had, watching his passion feed his power with the Dark Side, is downright spooky. Hayden Christensen is at his most convincing when his character is at his most mercurial - emotionally frayed and unbalanced seem to play to the actor's strenghts.

Yoda decides to go after Sidious, and sends Obi-Wan after Anakin. There's a cool fight scene between the two heavy-weights, that ends up set against the Colliseum-like backdrop of the Senate chamber. Yoda has to bail out, with the help of Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa.

Obi-Wan stows away aboard Padme's ship as she goes to confront Anakin. You see some good acting though some cheesy lines by Natalie Portman - the way her face cracks when she realizes Anakin has completely turned is compelling. Anakin sees Obi-Wan, thinks Padme has betrayed him, and chokes her in his now-unbridled rage.

Then the sabre-duel between Vader and Kenobi. Egad. As in holy frickin' crap. I happen to own the DVD set of Episodes IV-VI, and it includes a Special Features disc that has a profile of the lightsabre through both halves of the series, and a preview of Episode III. You see Christesen and McGregor practicing with sticks in sweats, overlayed by Lucas saying they'd practice for hours at a time, almost in a trance for this final battle. Watching the final version, all I can say is that all that practice sure paid off. In the story, the characters have been paired with each other for decades - most of both of their lives. They know each other's moves and style, strengths and weaknesses intimately. It's fantastically quick, often at extremely close quarters, and it's thrilling to watch.

In the end, Obi-Wan wins not because of any superior skill, but because he makes a strategic move to higher ground, and Anakin ignores his warning and lets his emotions spur him into a disastrous attack. By disastrous, I mean Anakin ends up without a single limb intact, then catches fire and burns on the edge of a river of lava, while Obi-Wan leaves him to die. Unlike the scene in the Jedi temple, this one is extremely graphic. You see Anakin's leg stumps start to burn, and then watch the fire consume his entire body as he uses his prosthetic hand to try to claw his way up a slope. By the time the Emperor reaches him, he's pretty much a lump of tattered, screaming flesh, and you see it all.

Which reminds me, in case I haven't mentioned it yet: this movie is most definitely not for kids. Really and truly, people. I'd let a kid watch Lord of the Rings before I let him watch Revenge of the Sith. Both emotionally and visually, this is an adult movie. Period. End of lecture.

Back to the flick: Padme goes into labour induced by the trauma of getting choked by Anakin. She dies because she's lost the will to live. If you think about this, it's...tragic, ironic? I'm not sure of the correct term, but here's how it works out: Anakin goes over to the Dark Side because he has forseen Padme's death and wants to prevent it, but if he hadn't gone over to the Dark Side, he wouldn't have caused Padme's death. Nice twist, eh? After getting the black suit and helmet put on him, he freaks out when he finds out, but by then it's too late.

The only thing left is for baby Leia to go to Alderaan, and Luke to go to Tatooine. Oh, and for Yoda to tell Obi-Wan that the spirit of Qui-Gon is going to teach him how to live on in death. It was good of Lucas to tie up that loose end from the original movies.

The one point that's not addressed explicitly in the film is the prophecy of the Chosen One that predicts Anakin will defeat the Sith and bring balance back to the Force. At the end of their epic duel, Obi-Wan even bemoans Anakin's betrayal, not just of himself and the Jedi, but of the prophecy. The thing is, Anakin eventually ends up fulfilling it in Return of the Jedi: he kills the Emperor, and dies in the attempt, taking the last of the Sith knowledge with him. Cool, albeit in a roundabout sort of way.

As well, the way Anakin is turned in Episode III makes his final act in Episode VI more plausible. He has known for decades now that he made the wrong choice going to the Dark Side and losing Padme and all that he held dear, but with nothing left to lose, it's too difficult to break free of the Emperor's shackles. Then Luke comes along, and when presented with the same choice, does the right thing. Anakin sees in his son a nobler version of himself, and if he lets the Emperor kill Luke, he will have compounded his original mistake. Once you've seen the rest of the straws heaped upon that camel's back, the last one assumes a more appropriate weight. Otherwise, why fight back now? Fatherly love? He was just battling Luke to the death a few seconds ago! No, this just makes more sense - twenty years after the fact.

When I arrived home after the show, Litlbit asked me how it was. I replied that it was like watching a train-wreck in slow motion: horrible but fascinating at the same time. I came away vaguely depressed, and I'm still trying to figure out how much of that comes from the story's predetermined descent into evil and darkness, and how much comes from the absence of anticipation in this story for the first time in my living memory.

You see, while I suffer no illusions regarding Star Wars' weaknesses any more, it remains one of the few stories that have captured my attention for my whole life.

I was seven when I saw A New Hope, over the objections of my mother. We played Star Wars in the schoolyard at recess and lunch hour, with action figures as props, and without. The only things I've ever stolen in my life were tiny guns for those figurines, surreptitiously prying as little of the plastic shell off the cardboard as I could, and taking only the weapons I'd somehow lost from my own collection. If you had asked any of my friends in grades five and six what we wanted to be when we grew up, Jedi Knight would have been the unanimous answer. If it were possible, I'm not so sure Jedi Knight wouldn't trump insurance broker even now.

You can pick apart Revenge of the Sith, and all the Star Wars movies if you want, but for me, the story has been a treasured constant in my life. I'm not going to engage in any mock-introspective speculation as to why that's the case; suffice that it is.

To all those involved - actors, special-effects artists, the guy holding the boom mike for twelve hours of shooting, and George Lucas himself - I'd like to offer a heartfelt thank you. I am a richer person because of what you have shown me, and I am grateful.

Babble off.

Update: Paul Tuns points out just how mind-crampingly stupid some folks can be.


At 11:03 a.m., Blogger BCM said...

Well, Anakin did bring "Balance to the Force". At the end of the movie, there are only two jedi, and only two Sith.

Perhaps the Jedi should have though it through a bit more.....

At 11:40 p.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

I know it's snarky, but I loved the New Yorker review. I don't think was necessarily accurate in all respects, but his takedown of the various characters -- and especially Yoda's syntax -- is just plain priceless.

For the record though, I did enjoy the movie.


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