Tuesday, February 2, 2016
REVENGE OF THE SITH
I started a series of posts on the Star Wars Prequel trilogy in December, and I never got around to the last chapter. I realize this post is a tad late (heck, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS isn't even the No. 1 movie at the box office anymore), but hey, what can you do?
Does REVENGE OF THE SITH serve as a validation of the Star Wars Prequel trilogy? Ummm....not really. Just like ATTACK OF THE CLONES was better than THE PHANTOM MENACE, REVENGE OF THE SITH is better than ATTACK OF THE CLONES. But it is still nowhere near the high standard set by the Original Trilogy.
This one begins with a huge battle in space--the type of battle George Lucas always wanted to show on screen--between the Separatists and the Republic's Clone Army, led by the Jedi Knights. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are on a rescue mission to save Chancellor Palpatine, who has been "kidnapped" by Separatist leader Count Dooku. Of course Palpatine is really the Sith Lord behind the whole Galactic Civil War. This opening sequence is impressively mounted, but it is so hopped up on CGI that, as usual when it comes to the prequels, one doesn't get much of a thrill out of it. The two Jedi find Palpatine on the Separatists flagship, where they duel once again with Count Dooku. Obi-Wan is knocked out during the fight, but Anakin defeats Dooku, and, goaded on by Palpatine, kills the Count.
Let me say here that if you like lightsaber duels (and who doesn't?), you'll love REVENGE OF THE SITH. There's more lightsaber action in this film that just about all of the other Star Wars features combined. That's nothing to complain about, is it? Welllll.....to me, a lightsaber duel should be something special--it should be a treat, like ice cream. Like lightsaber duels, everybody likes ice cream. But what if you had to eat ice cream 5 or 6 times a day? All of a sudden it's not that much of a special treat anymore. There's so much lightsaber action that the final duel--the duel that is supposed to be the most important lightsaber duel in Star Wars history--kind of loses impact.
The two Jedi and the Chancellor try to escape the Bad Guy spaceship, but they are caught by those pesky Trade Federation droids and brought to General Grievous. With Dooku dead, Grievous takes his place as lead enemy. Grievous is a cyborg--"He's more machine than man"--and he also happens to be a fully-CGI rendered character. In other words, he's basically a cartoon--and, since he is a Star Wars prequel baddie, he has the now-obligatory "Foreign Bad Guy" voice. Grievous is supposed to be looked on by the audience as a major threat, but he's more dud than fireworks.
Anakin and Obi-Wan manage to fend off Grievous (who basically runs away), and the Jedi successfully land the damaged Separatist spaceship on Coruscant. After the landing Anakin is reunited with his secret wife, Senator Padme Amidala. (Okay....Anakin is constantly surrounded by Jedi Knights--and every single one of them can sense the thoughts of others. None of them have figured out Anakin and Padme's relationship?) Padme informs Anakin that she is pregnant. (Is she sure the midi-chlorians didn't have something to do with her condition?)
While on Coruscant Anakin stays at Padme's luxurious high-rise apartment (none of the billions and billions of Coruscant citizens have noticed a Senator and a Jedi Knight shacking up together?). Anakin starts to have nightmares about Padme dying in childbirth, just like he had visions of his mother in pain on Tatooine. Anakin's determination to stop his wife from dying becomes the main reason for his turning to the dark side of the Force.
And in my opinion, it is not reason enough. As I wrote in my post on ATTACK OF THE CLONES, if you don't buy the relationship between Anakin and Padme, then you're not going to buy into Anakin's turn to the dark side (which is what the whole Star Wars Universe revolves around). You can understand why Anakin would want to save his wife, but is he so desperate he would destroy the entire Republic to do it? Obviously when Palpatine tells Anakin a legend about a powerful Sith Lord being able to stop beings from dying, he's stretching the truth....but shouldn't a Jedi as powerful as Anakin sense that?
There should be more to Anakin's turn to the dark side than pining for Padme. Lucas drops hints that Anakin is unhappy with the Jedi Council--in the story Palpatine personally names Anakin to the Council so Anakin can inform on them, but the Council turns around and asks Anakin to spy on Palpatine. It would have been more effective if Anakin's decision was based on his frustration over the Jedi being arrogant hypocrites, instead of his faith in a fairy tale.
While Palpatine works to take advantage of Anakin, Obi-Wan is set off to Utapau where General Grievous is hiding. Despite Grievous' reputation, Obi-Wan handles him fairly easily (their lightsaber battle fizzles out and turns into a goofy CGI-drenched chase). It is at this point that Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is a Sith Lord. Anakin goes to the permanently grumpy Jedi Master, Mace Windu, and informs him of the Chancellor's true nature. Windu decides to arrest the Chancellor (the Jedi have the power to just go into the Chancellor's office and slap the cuffs on him?), and he takes three top Jedi with him. Needless to say, Palpatine chooses not to go quietly, and within seconds, the Chancellor takes out Mace's buddies in (you guessed it) a lightsaber duel. A number of Star Wars fans, such as my friend Paul G. Lyzun, found the idea of Palpatine taking out three major Jedi in an instant ridiculous (yeah, I know he's a powerful Dark Lord, but...).
Anakin shows up just in time to see Mace Windu getting ready to put the kabosh on Palpatine. Anakin doesn't want Palpatine killed, because he thinks the Chancellor can tell him the secret of how to stop people dying. Anakin turns on Windu and cuts his hand off (AGAIN with the hands!), and the now disfigured Palpatine zaps Mace to death with a batch of Force lightning.
After all this, Anakin's listless "What have I done?" fails to have the same effect as Alec Guinness' recitation of the same line at the end of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Anakin bows down to Palpatine and swears loyalty to him. Hayden Christensen's line readings during this scene are decidedly half-hearted....was the actor trying to put over the idea that Anakin was being controlled by Palpatine? (That idea should have been played up by Lucas, because it also would have made Anakin's decision more believable.) Palpatine names Anakin "Darth Vader" and tells him to go to the Jedi Temple and destroy the rest of his former brethren.
Palpatine then orders the Clone Troopers throughout the galaxy to execute "Order 66"--the immediate destruction of all Jedi Knights. What follows is probably the best sequence in the entire prequel trilogy. Backed by John Williams' poignant music, we are shown a number of Jedi shot down in cold blood. Order 66 also affects Obi-Wan on Utapau and Yoda, who happens to be on the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk. Obi-Wan manages to survive and escape, and Yoda gets away with help from the Wookies, including good old Chewbacca. Nothing against the big guy, but the revelation that Chewbacca and Yoda are on a first name basis is one of the most egregious examples of contrived connections to the Original Trilogy.
Obi-wan and Yoda meet up on Senator Bail Organa's personal ship (better known as "The Blockade Runner" or, the first thing we see in the first Star Wars film), and decide to go back to the Jedi Temple--not exactly the best idea in the galaxy. There the surviving Jedi discover Anakin's betrayal. Obi-Wan goes off to find Anakin, while Yoda confronts the now Emperor Palpatine in the Senate Chamber.
Palpatine's ascendancy to ultimate power is the scene that gets what may be the prequel trilogy's most famous (as opposed to infamous) line of dialogue: "So this is how democracy ends...with thunderous applause." Every so often this line gets used on the internet in conjunction with current political events. The irony of the line is that the Galactic Republic didn't seem all that democratic. Anyway, Obi-Wan goes to Padme to find out where Anakin is at. Of course, she doesn't tell him, but she rushes right away in her shiny spaceship to where Anakin is--the volcanic planet of Mustafar. Anakin--excuse me, "Darth"--was sent there by the Emperor to kill the remaining Separatist leaders. Obi-Wan stows away on Padme's ship.
In the ATTACK OF THE CLONES blog, I mentioned that Padme had about thirty different costumes and about thirty different hairstyles. But at least in that movie she got to take part in the climatic battle. In REVENGE OF THE SITH, Natalie Portman really has nothing to do but look glamorously pregnant--or is that pregnantly glamorous? Padme is reduced to being the outer space equivalent of Kate Middleton. (In fairness, I have to point out that in one of the movie's deleted scenes, Padme is seen discussing the shaky status of the Republic with other senators, including Mon Mothma.) When Padme does get to talk, she's given dialogue that makes her sound as whiny as Anakin. Padme's confrontation with Anakin on Mustafar reminds one of two teenagers arguing over a misunderstood text. Obi-Wan shows himself, and.....we're all set up for the lightsaber battle of all time.
Anakin and Obi-Wan's ultimate duel is very well done....but, it doesn't move me the way Luke and Vader's battle on Cloud City did. Maybe it's because we all know how it will end--Anakin falls into lava, gets burnt real bad, gets turned into cyborg--or maybe it's because the battle is too drawn out, or maybe it's because Yoda's lightsaber battle with the Emperor is going on at the same time. (Remember what I said about ice cream?) Once again Lucas uses CGI to take a nifty sequence on paper and turn it into something way over the top--and he does this with both battles. Anakin and Obi-wan not only have to deal with each other, they have to deal with giant machines that appear to be refining the lava, and the Yoda/Emperor match goes totally off the rails. (I have to interject here that once Palpatine becomes the Emperor, Ian McDiarmid totally goes off the rails as well--just listen to how he says the line, "My little green friend!!!")
Yoda cannot defeat the Emperor, so he gets away with help from Senator Organa, who appears to be driving the Coruscant version of a '57 Chevy (these "Servants of the Republic" sure are livin' the high life). Obi-Wan takes down Anakin, and while the new Dark Lord lies a'burning, the two former friends scream at each other like a couple of yuppies who just broke up over the weekend. The Emperor takes Anakin's charred carcass and fixes him up into the Darth Vader we know and love. (Here's something that has come to my mind while writing this. Who chose Vader's outfit & helmet? I mean....was it all set to go? Did the Emperor have it lying around, in case someone close to him happened to fall into a lava pit?)
This is another very momentous occasion in Star Wars history--the exact time when Darth Vader becomes Darth Vader. And what do we remember of this? Vader acting like the Frankenstein Monster....and yelling "NNNNOOOOOOOO".....Too, too obvious. If George Lucas wanted to rip off Frankenstein, he should have taken a page from James Whale and done it this way--cut to a scene of the Emperor looking worriedly offscreen, and asking, "Lord Vader--are you ready?" Then we hear the familiar breathing....then a silhouette of Vader's form....then three successive close-ups of Vader's helmet, and Vader saying, "Yes, Master..."
The one good thing about the "Vader becoming Vader" sequence is that it coincides with Padme giving birth and then dying, which is fitting and ironic at the same time. (I'm sorry, but I've always wondered, how did Padme come up with the names Luke & Leia so fast?) Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Senator Organa discuss what to do, and the Senator volunteers to raise Leia, while Obi-Wan says he will take Luke to Tatooine and give him to the Lars family. (I'm no fan of Jon Stewart, but I'll give him credit for publicly asking what all Star Wars wanted to know: If you wanted to hide the children of Anakin Skywalker, why take one of them back to Anakin's home planet and give him to people Anakin personally knows? And allow the kid to carry the last name of Skywalker?)
And finally we come to the end of the prequels. (And I'm sure some of you may be thinking, the end of this series of blog posts.)
If many of you out there are thinking I've been far more sarcastic and nit-picky than usual, I'll plead guilty to that. It was my weak attempt to bring some levity to a subject that, as I wrote at the beginning of all this, has already been done to death. The prequels are what they are, and we all have to live with them. I seriously doubt that the prequel era will be "rebooted" by Disney--but when it comes to any major film franchise, never say never about any future money-making opportunity.
The thing that needs to be pointed out is--the prequels could have been mounted more successfully. The animated series STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS is proof of that. That series is set during the prequel era, and it is far truer to the spirit of Star Wars than any of the prequel features. Not only did the series adequately portray Anakin as a non-annoying character, it also created Ahsoka Tano, a new figure who has been embraced by Star Wars fans. I've suggested that the prequels may have been doomed to be unpopular no matter what--but I have to say now that isn't necessarily so.
I also have to point out that even though the prequels have an undesirable reputation, all three of them made tons and tons of money--and they are still making money. Calling the prequels "bombs" is a bit unfair--to me a definition of a movie bomb is a title that is lousy and doesn't perform at the box office.
What annoys people most about the prequels is that they are official chapters of Star Wars--but it's not the Star Wars we want it to be. Is STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS the Star Wars we all want? It would seem so, at least for now....but only time will tell. One day we may be complaining about the Disney Star Wars movies the way we complain about the prequels.