May 25 is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars, and to mark the occasion, I've dug out my review of Revenge of the Sith, written in 2005. The writing is a little clunky and fannish (and I couldn't resist sprucing it up a bit), but it's an accurate snapshot of how I felt when Sith was released. I've been absorbed in finishing a long, more intensive piece about something else for two weeks, and intend to contribute something heftier to Edward Copeland's Star Wars Blog-A-Thon, but in the meantime, this will have to suffice...
You will find, a wise man once said, that a great many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Personally, I freaked out first during the opening space-battle. My favorite Prequel character is Obi-Wan’s helpful and polite little red droid, R4-P17. She gets her face ripped off by a robot bug in the first scene! The whole movie is like that.
Thank the Maker. "Good?," "Bad?," only a Sith deals in absolutes: Episode III is satisfying and thrilling, and that is better than good.
Consider this a Rorschach test of your fandom!
So this is a fan appreciation, by an appreciative Star Wars fan. I don't know any other way to watch the six films. In this and all cases, I'm not sure how feigned objectivity increases the usefulness of film criticism. So for your personal calibration:
I love the Star Wars. Darth Vader stands on my TV, plastic cape frozen mid-billow. Boba Fett guards my DVD shelves, rocket-pack utterly un-launchable. This is Pop Myth Love. Star Wars didn't spark my interest in film, as it seems to have done for most of my generation (credit Universal Pictures’ monster movies), but the Trilogy changed for me the possibilities of fictive universes. I am not sad that it is "over," because my relationship with a film is never over (though it would be nice for the cut to remain static for more than 5 minutes, to allow some perspective. I’m frowning in your direction, Special Editions!)
There's a lot of beautiful stuff here, stuff so good you’re a fool to let it be destroyed by the Utterly Botched Stuff. But the common missing key element of all the Prequel Trilogy is dignity.
That's Not True! That's IMPOSSIBLE!: Great Unanswerable Mysteries
How does Leia remember Padmé, but Luke does not, if they have equal face-time with mom?
Why is a glaringly obvious hiding spot the best place to stash Luke?
How is belief in the Force an "ancient religion" that utterly falls out of fashion in less than 20 years?
How is it a debatable "belief," if midichlorians are tactile, scientifically verifiable organisms?
How is Leia a "princess," if her adopted family is not royalty and being "Queen" of Naboo is an elected position, not a bloodline? [2007 Update: The answer is that Breha Organa is a queen, but there is no textual reference to this.]
If R2's memory isn’t wiped, why doesn’t he coherently tell '3P0 where he’s going when he runs away from the moisture farm in New Hope?
Why doesn’t Obi-Wan's glowstick ghost remember that Luke has a twin (Yoda has to remind him: "No. There is another!")?
When does Ben Kenobi stop using the name Obi-Wan? A long time before Luke is born, right? No? What?
And so on. And so forth. But who heard Kane say "Rosebud," and can you account for every murder in The Big Sleep? Do not watch these movies "in order."
This answers many of the above questions.
He's as Clumsy as He is Stupid: What's Wrong This Time?
The prequel trilogy is, film by film, and a 6 + hour single arc, a train-wreck. That is, something ostensibly simple, linear and on a predestined track, totally bent, wrenched apart, and, while the large shapes of the cars are still recognizable, they're laying on their sides and burning. One thing is very clear: these films are tone-deaf messes by any traditional standard. But they are not normal. They are not bloated, overblown misfires in the normal summer blockbuster mode. They are not shaped like or to be read like other movies. The Star Wars prequels are failures, but failures on their own misshapen, independent and defiant terms. These movies are fucking weird, man.
All that had to done, in the end, was to demonstrate Anakin Skywalke's fall from grace, and the transformation of a Republic into an Empire, and not violate a few clearly defined continuity signposts. These goals were largely not met by Episodes I & II. No matter how good Sith is, or could have been, it could never undo the work of Episodes I & II. Not the potential spiritual damage done to some spectators' nostalgia, but the internal integrity of the story: the structure is grossly out of whack.
You - and I mean You, Star Wars Fan. Not a general audience, not mean your dad. I mean YOU – should weep for Anakin Skywalker when he is slashed and burned like his limbs are so much Mustafar rainforest. But you probably won't. You've been made to hate him in the Episodes when you were supposed to love him.
The Prequels waste so much time, space, energy and money on confused, needless tangents (anyone have any idea what the Trade Federation really does or why they’re blockading Naboo?), unresolved, muddled questions that didn't need asking (so who was Sifo Dias, and why did he order those clones? Why did we waste 1/2 of Episode II watching Obi-Wan investigate this, only to receive no answer?), peripheral characters who are important for a chapter, and promptly dropped like rotten, wormy potatoes: Where did Jar Jar go? Where did those handmaidens go? Where did Typho go? Where did the Geonosian bug guys go? Why are we adding General Grievous, when there are more than enough baddies all ready?
The answer to this question comes straight from the Journal of the Whills, ladies and Bothans. George Lucas is making up the details as he goes along. For him, the details include everything but the broadest of strokes. Why no one was hired to nitpick the plot on such a detail oriented production, none can say. There is a funny Radar Men from the Moon in-joke, naming a clone-trooper captain Commander Cody, providing an honest laugh, letting us know that Weird Beard is ready to have fun, and play loose. But is the intention to make a junky serial pastiche? Or does Lucas want to make modern Myth? One requires good continuity, and the other does not.
It's this overall mess that is more frustrating than individual elements or moments. That is: Jar Jar Binks himself, Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters voice and all, is less galling than the total dropping of Gungans from the story by the time we reach Sith. If this trilogy were less of a mess, we wouldn’t hear Mace say the word Kashyyyk, and the big invasion would be about the nascent Empire slaughtering Gungans. That is what is set up in Episode I, and that should’ve been delivered in tragic spades in III.
In a real way, besides the personal stories, the larger political context is that the Prequels are a story about how kings, politicians, armies, aristocracy and bureaucrats wreck everything, and farmers, criminals, freedom fighters and old men have to set it straight. One of the major themes is not to judge a person’s worth by their appearance: R2, Ewoks, Chewie; they can all look after themselves. So it’s a little shameful that Jar Jar is ultimately a fool figure. Perhaps Jar Jar's arc should really be viewed as the death of a warrior by becoming a politician. Beat cop takes a desk job. Too bad.
This is Jar Jar. He is from space!
A few character beats are misplaced or wimped-out-on in Sith... which is perhaps better than the gross misplacement in Clones, wherein Padmé finds out Anakin is a genocidal maniac before she falls for him (?!). Here, Vader isn't allowed to actually kill Padmé, who instead "gives up her will to live." This may sound poetic to the writer, but makes no story or moral sense, as we’ve seen him perform the less personally agonizing but equally morally repugnant acts of slaughtering a village of Tusken Raiders, a prisoner of war, and a Jedi kindergarten class. By comparison, a man driven to intentionally murder his wife is the precise Shakespearean-swiped note Lucas needed, and could’ve felt downright classical. If the storyteller is concerned about pushing the character into territory too repulsive, he may have forgotten the consequences Vader suffers.
Received wisdom blames Hayden Christensen's placemat-thin performance on Lucas’ "you can't say this shit" dialogue. But side-by-side comparison of Harrison Ford in New Hope delivering a line that Anakin echoes at the opening of Sith reveals the truth: "This is where the fun starts." It’s all in the wrist, folks. Christensen expresses inner torment by scowling, anger by shouting, happy by smiling, spits out sentences as phonetic sounds he invested with no meaning. The kid can’t say words or make faces good.
Likewise Natalie Portman, whose glassy-eyed performances are nothing unique to these pictures, but her every screen appearance. Perhaps it is her utter lack of anything fun to do in Episodes I & III (in II she got to fight a giant cat), but wherever she’s standing looks like a big swatch of greenscreen someone forgot to Light and Magic.
Laundry list complaints: the Obi-Wan/ Vader duel should’ve had moments more perfectly mirroring their New Hope fight; the battle droid voices and unfunny jokes; wasted '3PO; wasted Chewie; confusing elevator shaft sequence (?); Kashyyyk not matching the Holiday Special depiction; things "falling" in space; a droid that has a Will To Live monitor. None of this is as bad as Greg Proops' pod race commentator.
All this, friends, from a guy who likes Ewoks.
Now let's feel good!
Someone Who Loves You: I Heart Sith
Yoda. Looks. Like. Yoda.
Look at that thing in Phantom Menace and tell me that’s Yoda. Look at the off-model cartoon in Clones. That’s not my Jedi Master. This return to form is nearly across the board.
In The Empire Strikes Back, we may have presumed when Yoda tells Luke he is "too old to begin the training," it meant that there are too many skills for a young man to absorb in the short time before the Rebellion will be wiped out. In Phantom Menace, when Anakin is also deemed too young, and the Jedi Council exchanges shifty looks, we may have assumed it meant knighthood is a lifetime of training that must begin with toddlers, they all know it, and everyone is starting to doubt Qui-Gon Jinn’s judgment.
Sith sets it straight, plays mean, and lets us know those two movies weren’t all badly planned. Sith tells the terrifying truth: Jedi rip babies from their families for the sole purpose of making sure they do not form personal relationships. That ends up being their downfall, after a thousand generations. That difference in Luke Skywalker is what will eventually let the Jedi return.
This is very different from the fun but ultimately pointless moments of revelation in Clones. No one particularly needs to know that the Geonosians built the Death Star, or what Boba Fett looked like as a boy. But there is suave storytelling here, with symmetry and thematic resonance, and that is carefully built.
There are such intellectual thrills here in quantity. The moment most enriched and beautified by this film is not in Sith at all, but the climax of Return of the Jedi; the moment when Anakin fulfills that prophecy (for such a key plot point, we really should have been privy to the full text of said prophecy at some point, Mr. Lucas...), and kills the last of the Sith Lords. It takes Anakin decades to arrive at the point where he can choose to be the Chosen One, and a split second to restore the balance of the Force. It’s always been a Great Scene, the finest in Jedi. But last time you saw it, it was about how Luke redeems his father. Next time you watch it, it will be about Anakin, guilt, personal change, and apology.
It no longer seems like a fuck-up that Darth Maul died at the end of The Phantom Menace. That’s a tough row to hoe, eliminating your scariest, coolest character so we gain an understanding that won’t pay off until Sith, and not fully until Jedi. But we must see that Sidious treats his apprentices with a tough love bar none. Just as he does with Darth Tyrannus near the beginning of Sith, we know that Sith are willing to throw away a hard-trained, ruthless apprentice if it means gaining a student even more powerful. It makes Anakin’s turn to the shadows scarier if we know he’s even more powerful potential evil than Maul and Tyranus. It makes the Emperor’s offer to Luke scarier and more genuine, as we’ve seen him replace apprentices before. "It is inevitable," right?
The characterization (never mind the performance) of Anakin in Attack of the Clones is clever and unexpected, a show-off jerk adolescent who believes his own press. This is how the guys on your high school basketball team acted-- cocky, immature and casually cruel. It is an interesting take on the character, but how could this teenager grow into Darth Vader?
The Darth Vader of Episodes IV-VI is not prone to bratty outbursts... or is he? Are his running-gag Force-chokes of Death Star generals the behavior of a man who has his shit together and expects perfection, or remnants of the hothead, braggart, swinging-dick we met in Episode II? Now that we’ve seen the literal meltdown, and now that we’ve seen the laziness, impatience and nervous, paranoid energy of other Sith Lords, Lucas' - and Yoda's - explanation of where evil is born (from the inside, out) hangs together. Think Maul pacing like a caged tiger as Qui-Gon kneels calmly. Think Dooku’s swollen ego speeches to the captive Obi-Wan. Think Sidious’ glee at his fully functional battle station... The revelations of the Prequels in the case of Vader end up shading the previously faceless stock villain. Vader never learns patience or cool-headedness. Instant gratification, shortcuts, and attempting to evade the inevitable are his downfall, and they’ve always been in the character, and it's a shortcoming we can all recognize in ourselves. Jake Lloyd's a disaster in The Phantom Menace, but if he has a line that will gain poignancy with distance, it is when he pouts to Padmé, "I'm a person. And my name is Anakin."
There’s a lot of pay-offs like this in Sith, of what seemed like painful choices in Phantom and Clones, such as Anakin’s virgin birth, Palpatine’s extreeeeemely slow Senate takeover, and Qui-Gon’s strange demise; they’re all resolved to some degree. This would all be well and good for fan fetishism, but this fiddling detail rarely bogs down the movie that general audiences will see. Sith strides forward with confidence and urgency, saber out, black cape swirling behind. There have always been brief nonsensical diversions in these movies (the Falcon’s layover inside an asteroid-worm’s mouth), but the prequels have been utterly driven to distraction (Pod race, droid factory, etc.). After a needlessly prolonged elevator shaft action set-piece (it’s meant to mirror the trash compactor in New Hope but is merely confused), every scene is like a steel door slamming into place. This Episode boasts the best plotting of the six films.
The other standout performances are Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid, both fully inhabiting characters like no one else in all six films save Frank Oz, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams. Those are the five best performances in the series. McGregor is hilarious as a man rascally by nature but forced to be a tight-ass by profession, and the most lovable of Jedi is given a performance that magically bridges the trilogies.
McDiarmid handles every ounce of Heavy that Hayden Christensen cannot. The Opera House scene, in which Palpatine tells Anakin a Sith fable, as they watch what looks to be the Laser Light Show at the Science Center is a perfectly modulated performance – quiet, with layer-cake upon layer-cake of ulterior motive and complexity. For the first time, in any Star Wars film, an actor has weighed and considered every word of a speech. Mace Windu has been the most frustrating Prequel character, because as solid as Samuel Jackson is, we never get a handle on Windu's personality, never learn one thing about him. He's so boring that when Mace and Palpy face off on a window ledge (since it's to turn into dark-parentage scene, the sucking void below surely echoes Luke and Vader's showdown in Empire), it's difficult to decide who we want to win. It's McDiarmid’s trilogy. Everyone else is just helping.
I’m taking a "don’t worry, it’s good" tone. Forget that. The best part? The very best part?! This motherfucker tells stories with pictures! No kidding. A montage of vignettes during the execution of Order 66, which eliminates the Jedi order, is economic and tasteful. When Aayla Secura falls, it’s ignoble, she can’t fight back, and you will cry with John Williams’ mournful score. Each of these little stories is unique and well-pitched. It is a Godfather II riff, surely, but here the emotional focus is opposite.
The most triumphant moment is of Padmé sitting in her living room as Anakin waits for his boss in the Jedi office conference room. With their marriage barely clinging together, a silent ocean of regrets, resentments and mistakes pressing against the fraying stitches, they look out over the orange Coruscant skyline. And nobody but John Williams says a word. George Lucas may not remember what it's like to fall in love. But he is all too astute at demonstrating relationships falling apart. It is chillingly beautiful, and ranks with the best of all moments in the Star Wars films.
And how about that living room! There is great production design going on here, neatly progressing from glossy Art Deco ‘30s nostalgia into ugly ‘70s kitsch. Haircuts, outfits and spaceships are all in prototype for the 20-years-later New Hope. Except for possibly Obi-Wan’s star cruiser, there aren’t any memorable ships in the first two prequels. Sith is loaded with handsome design...
The sets and costumes all look like this.
The very existence of General Grievous, leader of the Confederacy forces only serves to clog the confused story. That said, Grievous, is one of the designs as well-realized as an original trilogy character, with his ratty cape covering his bad posture, and grimy cowardice. The chase he gives Obi-Wan is thrilling and far more plot driven than the Jango Fett fight or Zam chase in Clones.
Likewise neat is the standout makeup job for Bruce Spence as scary-ass Tion Medon, on whose home planet Utapau, Greivous has holed-up. Utapau looks like landscaping for a 1975 zoo, and when Obi-Wan saddles up on a chirping bird-lizard to chase a four-armed coughing robot down a sinkhole waterfall… good God, just think about what you’re looking at. If the monsters in Clones were basically Wuzzles rejects, Obi’s steed, Boga steals scenes merely by behaving like a real animal. The imagination at work is startling, pulpy and gleeful like you have not seen since Jabba’s palace.
Obi-Wan and Boga: Prom King and Queen!
...That's kind of a problem though. Because George Lucas is a Kurosawa fan, not an Ozu fan, he’s not exactly a master of the uncluttered frame. Lucas' single-mindedness in design matters is evident in how he invents planets. Tatooine is all sand, Kamino is all ocean, Mustafar is all lava, Coruscant is a planet entirely covered by one huge city. So now that he’s able to pack a frame to the edges with stuff, most scenes turn into Jack Davis drawings. But when it really counts, he comes through with a clear, strong image. He always has (even Clones, which ends with a startling echo of Empire’s closing shot). In the grand finales, Owen staring off at the twin suns and Tarkin slinking away from Vader’s bad vibes as the Sith unite and gaze out the windshield, over the universe.
Revenge of the Sith is mysteriously the only prequel with attractive cinematography (digital... camera... need... new word for this?) throughout. Nothing can touch The Empire Strikes Back, easily the most sumptuously photographed fantasy film in history. But Sith may run third behind New Hope’s scruffy retro-funk. By comparison, Menace and Clones look shadow-less as a shopping mall, and Jedi… well, Jedi just looks like 1983.
It all comes down to the Mustafar duel, the only real Duel of the Fates in this trilogy, the reason the prequels exist, and a scene we’ve collectively imagined since childhood. I couldn’t cry for Anakin Skywalker at the point when he lay down by the river of fire. That was George Lucas’ fault. But when Obi-Wan wearily turns his back and staggers away, unable to kill or save his friend, and not wanting to be hurt by Anakin’s mistakes any more... that did it. That’s a feeling I know (and it’s how you feel about Star Wars sometimes). But there it is, at the heart of it all, a Real Live Feeling.
My favorite line in any Star Wars is what Yoda tells Luke about our bodies and spirits in The Empire Strikes Back. Beyond a lesson in Force metaphysics, Yoda is saying something about the primacy of great stories in our lives, and in this case, about movies, those stories made of light.
"Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter."