Saturday, June 20, 2009

Movie Review: Revenge of the Sith

Episode III posed an unenviable challenge for Lucas and Co. They had to depict some of the most significant moments of a well-loved cinematic mythology. The film had to deliver a long anticipated emotional payout. It had to convincingly depict the transformation of Anakin Skywalker, the end of the Republic, the fallout between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the exile of Yoda and the almost-complete extermination of the Jedi.

The filmmakers were in very easy danger of overshooting the mark. They could have ended up with an overly sentimental and clichéd (recall RotK) transition. On the other hand the filmmakers also had to be careful not to rush through the most important moments. They had to take the time to provide the set-up and structure that is necessary for the credibility of these transformations.

There is no doubt that Lucas delivers a film that is visually spectacular and wonderfully choreographed. The pacing of the action is quick and the screen is always packed with detail and movement. Lucas gets a lot of things right in this department.

However he also gets a lot of things wrong and these mistakes come at the most critical points of the story. The expectations from the film required subtle writing and skilfully consistent acting performances. Instead these legs crumble under the weight of the burden. The uneven acting of all the major characters and much of the clichéd dialogue mar what are sometimes competently built-up moments.

The central arc of the story, and one which the movie needs to get right, is the creation of Darth Vader.

The plot gave enough reasons for Anakin to join the Dark Side. His mother’s death and the massacre of the Tusken raiders should have been the launching pad that I expected this episode to capitalise on. They should have started with an ostracised Anakin. They should have begun by portraying his relationship with Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi as distant and cold. This, in addition to his doubts about the motives of the Jedi Council, his fears for Padmé’s life, his frustrations at not being able to control his ego and his other failings as a Jedi, should all be enough to lead to The Fall.

Instead we find him being on the best of terms with Obi-Wan, Windu and Yoda. Lucas had just wastefully reverted all that progression made in Ep II.

The overwhelming feeling, helped none by the acting, was that there just wasn’t enough of an impetus for him to attack Mace Windu or to commit those atrocities. It is true that losing faith in one’s own goodness can lead the person to do terrible things. However Christensen fails to sell this resignation and as a result I couldn’t buy the fact that he would submit completely to the Dark Side or massacre the younglings in the Jedi Temple.

The realisation of Palpatine’s betrayal and deceit should have driven Anakin away from his secret mentor and back to the Jedi fold. His continued allegiance to the chancellor was confounding.

All this made what was always going to be a challenging problem impossible to overcome. It would have taken a special performance by Christensen to make the transformation work but he isn’t up to the task.

The fault doesn’t lie with actor. It lies with the direction and editing. And it lies with the writing. The lines get so clunky that no one can deliver them without engendering a snicker (“from my point of view the Jedi are evil”).

Also, having gotten used to the cold ruthless half-man-half-machine of the Black Suit, that reaction to Padmé’s death was comical. The reaction to Padmé’s death should have been dealt with while he was being operated on, before he gets into the suit. Once he is in that suit he is restricted by the imprinted image of who is possibly the most famous cinematic villain.

The scenes between him and Natalie Portman, even those that were meant to be the most poignant, ended up inducing smirks. The chemistry between the two was non-existent and the uninspired writing of these scenes made it seem like a corny chic-flick.

Cheesiness pervades most of the dialogue, especially the ones given to McGregor. Although I liked the way he manages to change Obi-Wan from being an impatient Jedi Master to the Ben Kenobi of Alec Guinness (the beard probably had a lot to do with it), his reaction to the security hologram, a major emotional point in the film, was given too little time and directed in exactly the wrong manner. Again we are left without the required emotional payout.

The other pivotal character, Palpatine, was given some justice this time round. McDiarmid was poor in Ep II, but I think he manages to regain some lost ground with his performance in this film. His seduction of Anakin is admirably and seductively rationalistic. On this I must commend both the actor and Lucas, who chose not to take the easy way out on this particular point.

Unlike Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine remains a worthy villain for this epic. His deceit is subtle and ambiguous, his reason is almost justifiable, his motives almost understandable and as a result, his character, on a majority of occasions, remains credible.

On to the secondary characters.

Samuel Jackson is thankfully given a larger role. If I had my way it Samuel Jackson would be given all the roles. He is awesome and so was the duel. Jackson should be happy with Mace Windu’s death, it established him as the most powerful Jedi (although the possibility that Palpatine might have lost to sucker in Anakin is interesting to consider).

You know who else is awesome? Yoda. Yoda is super-awesome. Yoda is awesome incarnate and that’s all I have to say about Yoda.

General Grievous on the other hand sucked. Starting with that stupid name, General Grievous annoyed me constantly. Even the scenes without him were scarred by the memory of that annoyance. I laughed out loud (with much annoyance) when Grievous comes to the rescue by saying something that went along the lines of “I’ll take him myself”.

Bail Organa’s character conveyed the correct sense of stateliness and calm and his increased role was much appreciated. However he made me miss Mon Mothma. (She is credited on IMDB but I can’t remember her being there. Did she have a “Captain Antilles” type cameo?)

Speaking of cameos, I loved the opportunity to see Kashyyk but the way Chewbacca was introduced felt a bit forced. The collective “look it’s Chewie!” gasps from my fellow audience members would suggest that they disagreed with me.

As it has become typical of Lucas, the best parts of the films are those that rely on visual effects. The CGI, although not quite as seamless as in that other major motion trilogy (you know, the one that won 17 academy awards), it is still quite breathtaking. The two highly anticipated lightsaber duels between Kenobi and Skywalker and Yoda and Sidious was choreographed and edited with skill. They were brilliantly inter-cut and well set; one in the volcanic planet of Mustafar and the other on the very floors of the Galactic Senate. What could be more poignant?

A lot of the visual allusions in the final three films to the original trilogy were tastefully done. For example there was a sequence in Ep II where the camera scans through a large army of Clones and then rises to the sky, capturing the sinisterly familiar triangle shapes of Republican Assault Ships carrying them to battle. It made the hairs stand up. However that final shot of Lars and his wife looking out at the Tatooine sunset was just hammering it over out heads.

The opening sequence was thrilling. I had to take in a breath when the camera followed the two Jedi over the Star Destroyer and into a very full battle sequence. Then it started dragging on for a bit. The part where those droid thingies got onto Obi-Wan’s ship was unnecessary and a little bit silly.

So was that giant iguana.

And so was the dialogue. One of the reviewers felt that Star Wars would be a perfect candidate for a silent movie. I would’ve agreed if it weren’t for that fantastic score.

The criticism over the overbearing politics in Ep II arose mainly from the poorly written and delivered lines. I like politics and I saw great potential for Ep II and III to explore the way the senate had been crippled, the reasons behind the separatist movement, the increasing mistrust in democracy and the birth of the Empire. But again the execution was clumsy. The whole “you are either with me or with the enemy” allusions get was far too obvious for my tastes. I was wincing through most of that “so this is how liberty dies” stuff.

The clumsiness and heavy-handedness of the film does have one positive effect. It makes one appreciate the light-footed grace of the original trilogy. There was something in the banter of Han, Luke and Leia that all the advanced CGI just could not re-create.

It is true that the prequels, by the very nature of the plot, had to be darker, heavier and more ominous. But did it also have to be so plodding and forced? It felt like we were just slowly ticking off a list of things to get through before we can arrive at that ‘this-is-were-we-came-in’ point again.

6/10 stars

ED: This was written right after release. Reposted.

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