Thursday, November 03, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith arrived in the mail a day ago. Yes, I know, it’s the sort of movie you’re supposed to see on the big screen with surround sound and all, but I’m not that much of a purist. Sorry!

I saw the first installment of the Star Wars sextet when it first came out, and I was 17 or 18. That was a good age to see it. I’ve now been around for long enough to see the final installment.

Let me say at the outset that this is easily the best installment since The Empire Strikes Back. It has a real plot and a lot of drive. It’s a great movie to look at.

The basic problem with the Star Wars saga is the standard of reference. How are we supposed to judge it? Are we supposed to compare it with serious cinematic art, treat it like popcorn movie fare, or something in-between?

Lucas has certain artistic pretensions, and whenever he takes his work too seriously it instantly sinks under its own dead weight--like a gold-plated fortune-cookie.

One can never tell the target audience Lucas has in mind. At what age level is he pitching his stuff? Much of it is frankly childish, and it’s hard for a reasonably intelligent viewer to assume a consistent point of view.

The general quality of acting has been a typical weakness in a Star Wars movie, and it’s more damaging in Revenge of the Sith because the theme of this film is the tragic downfall of a decent, well-meaning man. Beginning with the best of intentions, he gradually passes the point of no return.

The problem here is that such a theme requires fine acting on the part of the lead to chart the inner turmoil and transformation. He also needs a strong supporting cast to play off against. In this film, Palpatine is the only character (played by McDiarmid) with the thespian resources to do his part.

Christensen was cast for his looks, not his talent. What we get is a mix of adolescent angst and a white boy pretending to be a gangsta rapper.

McGregor is too younthful to be a convincing mentor, and he also lacks the kindliness and gentle touch which Alec Guinness brought to the part.

In addition, Christensen and Portman (as Padmé) have all the spark of two wet dogs in a downpour.

On a related note, the actors and characters are just not as likable as the original trilogy. This leaves the film with a dead-centered deadness.

There are other irritants. Lucas has a magnificent eye for imaginary landscapes and cityscapes. But he’s so itchy to show off his digital effects that he constantly litters the panorama with a swarm of gnat-like little shuttlecraft.

Yoda began life as a Muppet, and the spectacle of a digitized Yoda in a swordfight with the Emperor is just a computerized Punch & Judy show—or should I say Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog?

The willing suspension of belief is an act of trust between moviemaker and moviegoer. It cannot be abused too often without fostering a certain level of resentment.

The idea that Palpatine is a Sith Lord in disguise has definite dramatic potential. Great cinematic villains achieve their villainy through sheer acting ability alone. Unfortunately, Lucas doesn’t trust actors and acting to get the message across. Instead, he has to dress up the villain in a Halloween costume and make him spit out his words in a reptilian tone of voice just in case the audience is too obtuse to get the point.

However, the most revealing failure is a moral failing—the lack of a consistent moral vision.

For Lucas, presumably, the heroes are the republicans and the Jedi knights. But what’s so great about the old republic, anyway? Lucas’ idea of representative government is modeled, not on the American experiment, but Athenian democracy, the Roman senate, and the House of Lords. These are aristocrats and royalty. Padmé dresses like an empress and lives in a palace that makes Versailles look like the slave quarters.

And despite Yoda’s Dalai Lama rhetoric, the Jedi are strikingly like the Samurai. It makes you wonder what, exactly, is Lucas’ political ideal. The Shogunate?

This makes for a great costume drama, complete with the tabloid lives of the rich and famous. But it certainly blurs the line between the bright side and the dark side of the force.

Then you have the Buddhist solution to the problem of evil. Anakin seeks the advice of Yoda about premonitions of his wife dying in childbirth. And what is Yoda’s counsel? “Death is a natural part of life. Mourn then, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Can you really blame Anakin for changing sides? Lucas, with his post-Christian vision, leaves the character with a choice between one inhuman philosophy and another inhuman philosophy.

The massacre of the “younglings” is Anakin’s formal rite of initiation into the dark side. Yet it’s Obi-Wan who admonishes him that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Well, if that’s the case, then what’s so bad about the slaughter of the “younglings” or the betrayal of his Jedi brethren and mentors?

Actually, slaughtering the offspring of one’s political rivals is customary in warrior cultures. Such atrocities were part of the honor-code. The problem with Lucas is that he retains the remnants of a Christian conscience. This is in direct tension with his chic, ersatz Buddhism.

And without a moral or emotional center, the epic special effects become mere eye-candy. They signify nothing. Compare that with Dante or Bunyan, where the landscape is a moral landscape. Where every stick and stone serve as spiritual similes—like a two-way mirror between two worlds.

On the other hand, some liberal reviewers savaged the film with the viciousness of a custody battle. Such is the bitter disillusionment of the worldling—whose heart is larger than his creed.


  1. Hehe...nice review. I think Ep. 3 is certainly best out of the three pre-quels (like you said, matching Empire Strikes Back).

    It's odd that you didn't mention the (in)famous comment by Kenobi that, "Only Siths deal with absolutes". My initial reaction was that it was self-contradictory. What do you think?

    BTW, I think the "youngkins" you mention should've been "younglings" (Unless I heard wrong?)

  2. This is an excellent review. If I had to write it, this is how I would have said it. The thing is, I am not a master like you at dissecting movies. So, I would not have written it like you did!

  3. I was actually disappointed with Ep. III. The acting, to me, was so bad, it took away from the action sequences and classic Star Wars landscape. McDiarmid stole the show as the Emperor, he was great. I found myself rooting for him because the Jedi were pathetic.

    Nonetheless, I’ll by the DVD and watch it again. I saw it on the big screen (Cinerama, downtown Seattle), and the experience was great. The first three still hold my imagination though. I grew up as a kid on Luke, Solo, and Wookies, that’s all I need.

    Great review, I agree with you 100%. The moral aspect is so lacking, I just could not engage the film the way I did with Lord of the Rings, where evil was evil, and good was good. There was a definite line in the sand. Lucas blows up that line with muddled messaging and weak dialog.

  4. that's why you find a big wall in your house and buy a projector and the suround system yourself :)

  5. I appreciate the fact that you imply something I have always thought was true about Lucas: he gives lip service to idolizing Kurosawa, but he never really understood Kurosawa. The real samurai code is much harsher than the Jedi/western market vision Lucas hints at but never really fleshes out.

    I think Star Wars -- these last 3 movies, anyway, which are actually the first three -- would have been better if they had been more like the Yojimbo, Rashamon and (of course) the Seven Samuri. Think about that: if Lucas had a real appreciation for Kurosawa and had modeled parts I-III on Rashamon, we might have been able to see the rise of the Empire from the perspectives of Yoda (who would see it as a fall from grace), The Emperor (for whom it is a triumph of the will), and Padme (for whom it is a tragic love story) -- and we, the viewer would have had decades of fun trying to sort out which parts were perceptions and which parts were realities.

    Lousy hacks. I hate film school guys. They are like Star Trek geeks: they know all the niggling details, but they just don't actually get it.

  6. As to whether I'm giving Lucas enough credit or not, I'd say the following:

    1. Assuming that your interpretation is correct, it is an artistic flaw for Luca to make the correct interpretation dependent on outside interviews rather than building that into his screenplays. The interpretation of the story should be integral to the act of storytelling itself.

    2. The Buddhist-Jedi philosophy on the studied repression of natural, normal feelings is by no means limited to the prequels. It runs through the sequels as well on the lips of Yoda and Obi-Wan. So I don't see any dramatic before/after break.

    3. So is the relativism. Remember when Luke accuses Obi-Wan of lying to him about the death of his father, and Obi-Wan counters that it's all a matter of perspective, like many other things in life?

  7. I read Progressive Christian's "rebuttal" of Steve's "Sith" review:

    On a side note, somebody recommended a poster named Sam Hays as a barometer of what fundamentalist thought is out there. I read his "review" of Star Wars. I wonder if we're watching the same film. I for one was appalled at the dearth of people of color and other underepresented people in the film. And, I happen to think that only bad people deal with absolutes. The fact that this reviewer didn't like that statement says a lot about his intolerance. I would advise him (he probably won't listen since he thinks he's right) to perhaps particapate in some sensitivity seminars. Another thing about the film is that it still acted as if light and dark were in opposition rather than 2 sides of the same coin.

    First, and I say this respectfully, if Progressive Christian can't get something as conspicuous as a person's name correct (it's not "Sam"), one wonders how closely he or she read Steve's review?

    The dearth of the people of color issue might better be taken up with George Lucas, I think, or at least someone involved in the production of the film. Ditto with the light vs. dark rather than being part of the same coin comment.

    Also, I don't see that Steve dislikes the statement, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." He uses it to criticize the film's own lack of internal moral consistency, but I don't know that Steve himself necessarily dislikes the statement.

    But even if he did dislike the statement, I'm not quite sure how Progressive Christian would infer from it that Steve is intolerant?

    Re: offending people: Truth by definition is exclusive, is it not?

    And finally, it's just an online Star Wars review. Please, no need to get up in arms and all that, I would think.