REVENGE OF THE SITH
Out of all the Star Wars movies, Revenge of Sith might be the most painful for me to watch, because there are so many cool ideas in it that just aren’t quite executed right. Whereas the final storyboard for Episode I was a Post-It Note that said “ROBOTS???”, Episode III contains (Oh, yeah…there are spoilers in here) a major character turning evil, a democracy becoming a dictatorship, the birth of Luke and Leia, and the extinction of the Jedi Order. How could that be less than amazing? Let’s review together.
Sith begins the way Clones ended…with a half hour of pure action. The first part is an excellent space battle that features cool long shots, missile dodging, and some of the friendliest Anakin-Obi-Wan interactions we’ve ever had. When the two Jedi sneak on to an enemy ship, however, it’s back to the weaknesses of the previous two movies. There’s slap-stick (R2-D2 gets sassy!) weirdly juxtaposed with death (Anakin scissor-murders Saruman!). There’s the lack of fearsomeness of battle droids that appear to be made out of butter. There’s the sheer length of the thing; even after the emotional climax of Anakin killing someone in cold blood, the movie finds other random stuff to throw at the heroes, as shown below.
Again, painful. If Sith cut out the R2 jokes, made the battle droids seem like actual obstacles, and ended the scene after we see that Anakin has some anger issues, they’d have a fantastic beginning, a taut, ten-minute introduction to the evil creeping into the soul of the future Vader. As it is, they have some great moments in a mess.
Continuing to mirror the structure of Clones, Sith sends our heroes in separate ways. Poor Obi-Wan, the most inessential main character ever, is sent after a new Bad Guy, General Robot. General Robot matters not at all to anything or anyone and exists only to keep from Obi-Wan from interacting with other characters.
Anakin has a more interesting plot. Haunted by premonitions of Natalie Portman’s death in childbirth, he seeks reassurance…and finds it only in the slippery words of Chancellor Palpatine. Palpatine, played by the fine thespian Ian McDiarmid, plays off Anakin’s fear of loss, disparages the Jedi Council as a bunch of narrow-minded theocrats, introduces a “everyone-is-selfish” moral relativism, and suggests that Alternative Uses of the Force might be a better way to save lives. It’s a neat dynamic, this subtle, incremental seduction, and even the interspersed shots of the JEDI COUNCIL TALKING SLOOOOWWWLYY can’t kill all the tension.
When Palpatine reveals himself to be a Sith Lord, Anakin is stunned. He can’t quite accept Palpatine’s identity or the invitation to join him, but neither can he strike him down, so he tattles to Jedi Master Samuel L. Windu. Windu decides to arrest Palpatine, gathers the three nearest Jedi, Master Useless, Master Incompetent, and Master Dies-Almosts-Immediately, and confronts the Chancellor in his office. Palpatine, shockingly, kills the sidekick Jedi in four seconds and fights with Windu, who at least knows which end of a lightsaber to hold. Seeing the situation as a choice between a bunch of self-righteous Jedi and the power to save Natalie, Anakin intervenes and helps Palpatine send Windu to his death. At this point, Anakin has made his choice; nobody kills Samuel L. Windu and stays a Good Guy.
It should be clear by the fact that I’m actually summarizing these plot points that I rather like this section. The writing is the best in the trilogy (a dubious honor, I know) and McDiarmid is superb playing, basically, the Devil. But there’s the same problem as the rest of the movie: the things that really work are diluted by being intercut with unnecessary filler. For example, as this is going on, Obi-Wan survives a videogamey battle and defeats General Robot and literally no one in the galaxy or the audience gives one parsec of sh#t.
Ok, the movie is winding up to its final third: Palpatine orders all the Jedi in the galaxy killed by Assassination Montage. The trusting Jedi are killed, in a somewhat moving scene that would be even better if we had learned anything about any of these characters at some point in the last two movies. Anakin kills a bunch of Jedi children, which seems rather Advanced Evil for someone who only enlisted in Evil 101 an hour prior, and everyone in the audience is reminded how much they want him dead. Obi-Wan and Yoda take their sweet time figuring out what’s going on and forming a plan. Natalie Portman sniffles and wishes she knew what was going on.
And eventually we arrive at the momentous lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and I think you know by now what I’m going to say. There’s about five minutes of greatness in there: at the beginning of the fight, Anakin and Obi-Wan are just slashing away at each other in the most emotionally-driven, least choreographed fight in the prequels. But…it’s a 15 minute scene. The movie keeps cutting away to the far less compelling scenes of Palpatine fighting a hopping cartoon frog (who I guess is supposed to be Yoda).* Then, even when Palpy and Froggy finish up their fight, Anakin and Obi-Wan keep going and going and going. By the time they’re swinging over CGI lava Tarzan-style, the momentum is lost. Obi-Wan’s defeat of Anakin brings only a catharsis of the “Finally!” variety.
Still, there’s emotion to be found here, and McGregor is quite good as the distraught Obi-Wan yelling his feelings of grief and betrayal to his mangled Apprentice. It’s a real shame that Sith follows this performance with three woefully misguided moments, a Trilogy of sheer Crappitude that ends the prequels on an appropriately dismal note.
Crappy Episode I: Natalie Portman Dies For No Reason. Natalie, having fulfilled her only purpose in these movies by pushing Luke and Leia through her cervix, kicks the bucket. The robot doctors say that she is “medically, completely healthy,” but “for reasons we can’t explain, she’s dying…she has lost the will to live.” UM. How do you know she’s dying if she’s completely healthy? Did you know that “lost the will to live” is not a good diagnostic, you stupid robot? Has Natalie “lost the will to live” just because Anakin turned out to be a nutsack? Withholding benefit of the doubt: In a supremely sexist move, the writers made Natalie’s entire raison d’être be the love of her Man, without with she literally dies. Giving benefit of the doubt: the writers forgot that Natalie was still in the movie and had to kill her off somehow.
Crappy Episode II: Darth Vader Gets a Big Laugh. After some really icky shots of droids drilling Anakin’s burned, peeling flesh (hey, who wants to excuse these movies on the grounds that they’re just for little kids?), the iconic Darth Vader mask lowers. Vader, who is finally voiced by James Earl Jones, learns Natalie is dead, does a little zombie walk, and yells “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” It is, to say the least, a hard moment to take seriously.
Crappy Episode III: Yoda ‘n’ Obi on Vacation. Yoda gives Obi-Wan his next mission. Rather than trying to stop the dictatorship that they inadvertently helped create, confront Vader or Palpatine, train more Jedi, or protect the citizens of the galaxy, the last two Jedi in the galaxy decide to hide and “study the secrets of immortality.” WOW. Way to completely demystify the spiritual meaning of the original trilogy while simultaneously turning your leads into selfish douche-nozzles in a single line of dialogue.**
And then the movie is over.
Episode III deserves its reputation as the best of the Star Wars prequels. Ian McDiarmid, Ewan McGregor, and Samuel L. Jackson get a few moments of real acting. In terms of action, suspense, and plotting, there’s some gold. BUT…the gold is buried in mud that should have been left on the cutting-room floor; there’s so much unnecessary, tedious bloat to this movie.
Even worse, the failure of the first two movies to create compelling, likable heroes means that it’s hard to care when things start to go bad. Imagine if Anakin wasn’t a prick in Episode II. Imagine if Anakin was even in Episode I (a cute little nine-year old with nothing in common but the name doesn’t count). Maybe his fall would have weeping in our seats. Maybe we’d feel conflicted in the final fight, unsure whether we wanted Obi-Wan or Anakin to triumph. Maybe we wouldn’t laugh when Anakin/Vader realized all that he’s lost and yells “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
Ok, that last one is a bit far-fetched.
Best Scene: I’ll say the scene where Palpatine and Anakin watch some sort of holographic sperm ballet and Palpatine makes his first, subtle sales pitch for Being Evil. Of course, I also like the beginning of the Ani-Wan lightsaber fight. I’m not made of stone.
Best Line of Dialogue: Anakin asks how he can learn these phenomenal new powers, and Palpatine gives him just the best look and says “Not from a Jedi.”
Worst Scene: Any in the Crappy Trilogy. I’ve also got no love for early in the film when Anakin and Obi-Wan waste their time getting captured by, than easily escaping from General Robot (wait, who’s General Robot again oh that’s right no one cares).
Worst Line of Dialogue: Anakin: You are so… beautiful.
Natalie: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.
Runner-up: “You fool! I’ve been trained in your Jedi arts by Count Dooku!” This is bad because it calls Saruman a name that is too silly to possibly be real, and also because it is said by General Robot, which means he is on-screen.
Most Unnecessary Camera Technique: Lucas does an extreme close up on the eyes of General Robot and Obi-Wan as they exchange banter. I mean, kudos for trying something new, I guess, but it’s not going to get me to care about General Robot.
* It was disappointing to me that the two most powerful Force-users in the galaxy still had to chop away at each other with lightsabers. Considering even beginners can influence minds, use telekinesis, and sense the future, it seems that Yoda and Palpatine would have awesome powers beyond just flippy-kicks. Why not have them create enormous monsters out of their surroundings, influence the weather, battle in each others minds? You don’t have to just use the tricks that were in the original trilogy.
Also, have I mentioned that I hate CGI Yoda?
** The “studying immortality with ghost Qui-Gon” explanation doesn’t even make sense. Did Qui-Gon study it before he died? How did he learn? Why isn’t he a blue ghost? Does this technique really require 20 years in solitude to learn? When, in the two minutes after Anakin (spoiler) turns good again in Jedi, did he learn how to be a blue ghost? Why does Anakin, in the special edition, get to be a young blue ghost with arms and legs? Why can’t you just let the mysteries of the Star Wars afterlife stay vague, George Lucas?