Wednesday, September 30, 2009

“It is finished then. You have restored peace and justice to the galaxy.”

And so at last, at long last, we reach the final installment of the Star Wars saga, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith from 2005. The nightmare will soon be over and I might need to wash the taste out with some good Star Wars movies. “But Kestifer!” you may interject. “Isn’t the general consensus that Episode III the best of the Prequels because of the action and for tying the two trilogies together??” Well, gentle reader, we’ll see about that.

So the epic Clone Wars have raged for three years. Three years? That’s it? I mean, sure a lot of fighting can happen in three years, but its hardly epic when compared to the seven years of WWII or the ten years of the mythological Trojan War, that last year of which became the subject of one of the defining tales of the Epic as a genre. Eh, whatever. So three years into the war and the Chancellor/boss of the Republic is captured and being held in a Separatist flagship during an epic space battle, conveniently above the Capital of the Republic, Coruscant. Our two hero Jedi invade the flagship, rescue the chancellor and safely crash land on the planet below in, admittedly, a friggin’ awesome action sequence that lasts twenty minutes. Some politics happens where basically both the Jedi Council and the Supreme Chancellor ask Anakin Skywalker to effectively spy on the other group. The leader of the Separatist armies is found hiding out on a planet and Obi-Wan Kenobi is sent to confirm his presence before the Republic drops the hammer on the bad guys. Meanwhile on Coruscant, Anakin keeps waffling back and forth on the “will he/won’t he” scale of becoming a Sith to save the life of his secretly pregnant secretly wife. Of course he does, and as soon as that happens and the Separatist leader is killed, the Chancellor declares himself Emperor before ordering the extermination of the Jedi. More violence happens and finally and thankfully, rocks fall and everybody dies, except for Master Yoda (who was conveniently (and luckily) surrounded by Wookiees) and Obi-Wan, who is too awesome to be killed (and also because plot armor demands they survive to the next trilogy). Pacing and Plot-wise, this movie is easily the most watchable of the Prequel Trilogy.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan MacGregor continues to be the best thing about these movies. I’m being completely serious. Now a general for the Republic in the Clone Wars (which, I’m not sure how that works that a member of an order that exists outside the military structure of the Republic can become a general in said military unless--oh right, forced plot element because the first movie called him General Kenobi). Anyway, Kenobi continues to possess a warmth and wit that the rest of the trilogy completely lacks. As far as Jedi go, he’s competent, situationally aware without being paranoid and doesn’t suffer any critical observational failure. Anakin is his friend and he is actually concerned about his apprentice/former apprentice’s unsettling traits. Even when Anakin inevitably falls, Obi-Wan still holds out some hope for him, even going easy on the new Darth Vader in the climactic fight scene as he tries one last time to talk a little sense into him. Truly, the badass of not just the movie, but of the entire trilogy.

Padme (Skywalker) Amidala: Natalie Portman again, though with less screen time. Her acting is her strongest in the trilogy (though that’s not saying much) but the character is about as uninteresting as they come. She’s on Coruscant, keeps having blocky conversations about politics and ideology with Anakin (that she continues to not have chemistry with) that are flat, overly simplistic and uninteresting. At this point she’s little more than a plot device; Anakin keeps dreaming about her dying in childbirth and he becomes obsessed with preventing that, whether or not she has any say in the matter. Interestingly, the movie makes it a point so hammer home the “loving each other but also really concerned about the way things are going” point. Padme and Anakin discuss their love for each other, and then a little later, the movie has them on Coruscant in two separate buildings longingly looking out the window across the city and the way its edited makes it look as though each is looking at the other. The scenes achieve the same effect, and if the latter were the only one included, it would’ve been great, but since both are in the final cut, its just redundant and boring. The worst thing that the movie does to Padme, though, is completely undermine the action-oriented heroine of the first two movies. A bad character, certainly, but at least she was a scrappy little survivor. Pregnancy will change that, I suppose, but in this movie all she does is look worried and helpless, and (SPOILERS: though not really since you already know she’s not showing up in the original trilogy) after getting choked out by Anakin, she gives birth to Luke & Leia, lives long enough and then expires. The reason the medical droids give for it is “she has lost the will to live” and a shrug of their metallic shoulders. Never mind the fact that even in our world of less advanced technology we can keep braindead people alive with science, the best these floating mechanical interns can manage is an “I dunno, chief.” It completely removes all heroic credibility for Padme. Sure, a broken heart is a rough thing, but she was a friggin’ Queen in charge of a planet. So Anakin proves that all along he was a rotten apple and she dies because. She. Gives. Up. Yeah, never mind that she just gave birth to twins that need to be raised (because dad sure as hell isn’t going to be a good father figure). So she dies. Not because Anakin’s outburst of rage at her supposed infidelity caused her to die of her injuries (no, that would only have cemented his status as a great villain by having him self-fulfill the premonitions he was desperately trying to avoid). No, she dies because she has to for the plot. How…heroic.

Anakin Skywalker: Hayden Christensen’s acting is improved in this film, largely because he’s supposed to be glowering all the time as he descends into full-blown bad guy status. He displays piloting competence during the first battle scene, which is nice, and there are moments where he wrestles with his obligations to the Jedi and his own dark desires. Still, the audience knows that he’s going to fall from grace (and if you’ve been reading these reviews, you know its been clearly telegraphed from the very first movie) so there’s no tension on that part. Also, the Midi-chlorians get a callback during one of Palpatine’s temptation speeches to Anakin, talking about how some Sith Lord named Darth (I’m not making this up) Plagueis (or however its spelled) was able to manipulate the midi-chlorians into creating life. Cue meaningful sinister look at Anakin. Now, by itself that’s not a problem, but in the framework of everything else swirling around Anakin, it completely removes any and all credibility of him actually being the Chosen One. You can’t be genetically engineered to be the mystically prophesied Chosen One. It just doesn’t work that way. So add that to pile of things the prequel Jedi got completely wrong. It comes as such a relief when Anakin finally does officially switch teams. They even brought James Earl Jones to read some lines when Anakin finally gets encased in the Darth Vader armor, but even his delivery can’t make the lines sound cool. “Noooooooooo!” indeed. The biggest gripe with Anakin in this movie is that they write his fall as basically him being duped into evil, like its an accident (which cheapens the evil that he actually does). Looking closely at Anakin through the prequels, you can tell that he’s obsessed with power more than anything, so Palpatine’s offer to train him is not something that he’s hostile towards (and the resistance he gives it is pretty token anyway). It should be a deliberate decision to cast aside Jedi ideology because its no longer enough for him, adding depth and a “fatal flaw” to his fall, but instead of Tragedy, we get what Arthur Miller called, in an essay I read back in High School, Pathos: bad things happening to a character that aren’t really his fault.

Yoda: Frank Oz’s voice returns and the CGI Yoda is greatly improved, but aside from somehow being able to sense the sudden betrayal right before it happens so he can survive the trilogy, he has little actual bearing on the movie. He does get his ass beaten by Emperor Palpatine though, which is karmic punishment enough for his “Fightin’ Yoda” status. (Little bastard’s broken as all hell in Soul Calibur IV, too)

Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson finally gets some real screen time, just in time for him to finally realize the shit that’s going down. Actually, the Jedi in this movie finally begin to suspect that Palpatine’s actually a jerk, and so they start planning ways to deal with him. Once Windu’s got clear evidence of his Sithiness, he basically attempts a coup, which 1) doesn’t end well for him, and 2) completely goes against everything the Jedi have been spouting about truthfulness and lawfulness and the Republic. They even talk about the Jedi Order establishing a “temporary regime” when/if Palpatine gets removed from office so that they, the Jedi can select a new leader that is to their liking. The implications of this, should Mace Windu and his squad of ludicrously-easy-to-dispatch Jedi Council members win, are…not comforting.

Count Dooku: Hey look it’s the fantastic Christopher Lee again as the head of the Separatist forces- oh look he’s dead in the first scene of the movie. Glass Badass confirmed.

R2-D2: The plucky little astromech returns, though aside from one scene where he single-handedly destroys two battle droids with little more than oil and fire is pretty cool (despite being obviously CGI), doesn’t really do a whole lot for the plot.

C-3PO: Anthony Daniels’ droid is newly gold-plated and, go figure, is a protocol droid working in the service of a diplomat. Now that’s just silly. While it is comforting to see Threepio as he should be, he still has absolutely no bearing on the course of events whatsoever and at the end of the movie, Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) orders his memory wiped, which…makes his entire existence in the Prequel Trilogy COMPLETELY MEANINGLESS. Galaxy the size of a trailer park, right there. Everybody is related to everybody else, just because.

General Grievous: The cyborg leader of the Separatist armies (after Dooku bites it) voiced by Matthew Wood, he’s a well done CGI monster, combining a large, hunched skeletal frame with a nasty cough and an audacious method of getting away from the Anakin and Obi-Wan in their first encounter. He’s also incredibly cowardly, running away from the good guys A LOT. And then guess what? Glass Badass.

Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious: Ian McDiarmid continues his deliciously evil performance as the scheming Palpatine. Here he really works his mojo on Anakin, constantly tempting the young Jedi to jump off the deep end. At the climactic point of Anakin’s journey, Palpatine fully reveals his “POWER! UNLIMITED POWER!” and zaps the hell out of someone. Somehow, doing this transforms him immediately into the leathery, wrinkled old geezer that we later see in Return of the Jedi, which I guess is okay, but the makeup effects actually end up making him look ridiculous and actually not that much like how he looked like in Jedi. I’m serious here, the 1983 makeup job is superior to the 2005 job on the same actor. I mean, he’s got a crease on his forehead that looks like he’s got a second ass up there.

Oh yeah, and Chewbacca shows up for a completely random cameo with Yoda. Just because the galaxy is the size of a trailer park.

I am please to say that George Lucas and ILM have fixed most of the uncanny valley problems in this movie. The clone troopers move like human beings now (despite still being obviously CGI) and the critical lighting failure of Episode II has been mostly done away with. It also looks like the sets have a lot more practical props and backgrounds in them, which is a step in the right direction. The action sequences are generally fantastic, with the first battle over Corsucant and the final duel on Mustaphar standing out. Like I said in the plot summary, easily the most watchable of the Prequel Three. The scenes where Palpatine finally enacts Order 66 to wipe the floor with the Jedi are generally very well done as dark, gritty “end of an era” moments as the Jedi are cut down by the clone soldiers and Anakin crosses the moral event horizon into full villain. However, after three movies chock full of idiot Jedi doing stupid things and enforcing stupid rules onto their order that will only turn around and bite them in the ass later, so I was quite honestly torn between feeling sympathy for the suddenly betrayed superhumans being knocked down from their ivory tower to outright cheering on the white armored test-tube henchman with no superpowers as they clear the table for the better movies to take place. If you feel like it, go back and watch those scenes with “Yakety Sax” playing from the Benny Hill Show. If you dare.

George Lucas alone on writing credit here, and the action oriented nature of the film means that there isn’t much room for people to sit around and mouth bad dialog at each other. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t find its way into it, there just isn’t a lot of it. The Republic of the Prequels is ultimately not a place you really feel like fighting for. The Old Republic is little more than a complacent, decadent society that is willing to let its fate be decided by an army of genetically bred slave soldiers who know no other profession and by genetically lucky supermen with laser swords. That’s a level of apathy that I don’t think even modern America has reached yet. At least the Rebel Alliance felt like a genuine rag-tag group of out-gunned but determined resistance fighters that you can root for against the faceless “The Man.” My hatred of the Prequel Jedi can be summed up with one line of dialog. Obi-Wan says “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” to Anakin, which is the height of hypocrisy. Put aside the fact that that sentence alone is an absolute statement, there is nothing, nothing, in the movies that show Palpatine as being a man who deals in absolute dogmas and black & white morality. He’s always slithering around rules and ideologies and all that stuff while the Jedi themselves are dogmatically hell bent on enforcing their view of what’s right. Hell, you can’t even say that Palpatine’s really all that bad for the Galaxy. After all, his ascension to Emperor ends a war (admittedly one he engineered himself) that lasted three years in which (going strictly by the movies) the only casualties were clones, robots and the occasional Jedi. After that you get about twenty years of relative peace before the Rebellion blows up the Death Star to really challenge Palpatine. According to the movies themselves, that doesn’t really seem so bad. Its bad storytelling when you have to have the Expanded Universe elaborate to the audience just how bad the Empire is. Pacing is good but the story itself is jammed full of various badly handled shout-outs and origins to the Original Trilogy, as though throwing a Chewie cameo into the mix is an acceptable substitute for ironing out plot holes and throwing aside consistent characterization. The story tries too hard to connect everything to the Original Trilogy, and fails to do so in a convincing way. Instead, and I hate to say it, it comes off more like pandering to the hardcore fan boys, who at this point are about the only people (along with children, who are easily impressed by colorful ‘splosions and fightin’) still left in the “eagerly anticipating” camp.

This will probably be the last time I get to say “John Williams on the score and Ben Burtt on sound editing” for a while. Instead of quietly cherishing this treasured moment, I will say that the heroic level of quality that these two movie demigods have brought to this trilogy is incapable of being over hyperbolized. If we lived in an ancient Pharaonic society, they would be deified after they shuffled off the mortal coil and worshipped like Imhotep for making the world a better place.

Saying that Revenge of the Sith is the most enjoyable of Prequel Trilogy is like being told you have the most treatable form of cancer: it still sucks to be stuck with it. In the case of this particular movie, it is a step up, but it all comes too little, too late. The movie just kept on digging plot holes for itself when it should’ve just left some of the connections to the original movies to the imagination. As a mindless sci-fi movie, yeah sure it entertains, but here’s the problem with the Prequels; the Originals were entertaining without being mindless. They left the imagination open for expansion of characters and concepts. For the prequels, an overdeveloped imagination is required to make the remotest sense of what’s going on. Sitting down and watching the Prequels in one week has been a painful, painful experience, particularly since I’ve pretty much washed my hands of the franchise since 2005 because I didn’t want to keep coming back for more abuse because “I still love Star Wars.” I do still love Star Wars, but I also refuse to keep being disappointed by the husk its become due to “battered audience” syndrome. No matter how many times you come back hoping it can change, it never will. No, better to go our separate ways, franchise. I’m saying it because its true. Inside of us we both know that. You’ll know it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. We’ll always have Empire.

…Sorry, got caught up in the moment, there.

The prequels are completely and totally NOT recommended aside from their technical visual and audio merits. If you’re a fan of good movies, take warning from Star Wars fans, who have turned arguing and bitching about the Prequels into high art (I’ve read somewhere that to be a true Star Wars fan, you have to hate the series now. Sad, yes, but also rooted in quite a lot of truth). If you have children, for the Force’s sake, don’t show them this trilogy first, and if you absolutely must subject yourself to the prequels, do so through another medium. Lego Star Wars is probably your best bet for enjoying it, and I also recommend the web comic “Darths and Droids.”

Its so…maddening. So…infuriating. So…impossible to not want to wish evil upon the world.

What’s that? Tomorrow’s October First? Well, I guess sinister dreams can come true.

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