May 21, 2005

Amateur Movie Review: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

After three classics and two mediocrities, I was worried. So was every other geek in the world. Would the final Star Wars movie close the circle, and end the saga well? Would it be painful to watch like The Phantom Menance or would it soar like The Empire Strikes Back? To hell with that: would it be good?

The answer is a resounding sorta.

Revenge of the Sith is an excellent movie… at times. Revenge of the Sith is also a terrible movie…at times. Everyone knows the story: Anakin turns on the Jedi, becomes Palpatine’s Sith apprentice and eventually turns into Darth Vader, merely the best screen villain ever. How we get there is the mystery. This movie is split into three very distinct parts: part 1 is the space battle above the galactic capital of Coruscant. Part 2 is the temptation of Anakin, where Palpatine tightens his hold on the young Jedi. The movies caps with the purge of the Jedi and the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Revenge opens very quickly with the battle for Coruscant. Palpatine has been “captured” by Count Dooku and General Grievous, the newest CGI creation; an asthmatic lizard/droid that features a hacking cough and four lightsabers. The space battle is A New Hope write large. Instead of a few starships and scattered star fighters we get thousands of them. The screen is quite literally stuffed with stuff going on. It’s brilliant and confusing at the same time. The scene shifts inside the ship, as Obi-Wan and Anakin attempt a rescue of the Chancellor. Dooku, despite being portrayed by the marvelous character actor Christopher Lee, is a non-factor. He has about 4 lines, and is ultimately defeated by Anakin in the first of many lightsaber duels. The action is terrific, if a bit too CGI speeded up for my taste. My question for Lucas is this though: Why cast Lee, a classic screen villain of very advanced years, and then put him in a physical role? Yeah, with the computers you can barely tell when the stuntman takes over for Lee, but it just seems out of place. The best part of this section of the movie is the Anakin/Obi-Wan relationship. Unlike Attack of the Clones, the two are obvious friends.

The second section bogs down at times, as Anakin spends entirely too much time with Padme. Like AOTC, the dialogue between these two is awful. Hell, at times it makes the dreck from the previous movie look like Paradise Lost. There is zero chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, and after three movies I still don’t give a damn about Padme. Portman is a dynamic actress is character-driven pieces like Garden State and Closer, but is absolutely lost here. It doesn’t help that Padme has gone from Queen to Senator to Prop during these prequels . She’s there to love Anakin and look vaguely heartbroken at times. And that’s all that happens.

At the other end of the spectrum is Ian McDiarmid’s excellent work as Palpatine/Sidious. He’s perfectly convincing as the embodiment of evil in this movie, though after his unmasking as the Sith Lord, his performance becomes slightly unhinged and over-the-top. The first half of this movie belongs to him though. Unlike the previous prequels, much of the acting is adequate if not good. Ewan McGregor finally seems to enjoying himself as Obi-Wan, playing him as a swashbuckling adventurer at first, but darkening in a very believable manner once the truth about Anakin comes out. McGregor hits emotional high points both when he realized what his apprentice has done and at the end as he battles Anakin on the lava planet.

The final third of this movie is, of course, what everyone has been waiting for the past 28 years. Anakin pledges himself to Sidious, and the Emperor unleashes “Order 66”, and the clone army turns on the Jedi. These scenes are strangely touching, both with the major characters like Obi-Wan and Yoda, and the minor like Aayla Secura and Ki-Adi-Mundi. Anakin leads the clones in an attack on the Jedi Temple and none, not even the “younglings” survive. Christensen does some of his best work here, as Evil Anakin he’s far more believable. He has a very effective array of glares and cold stares, and the makeup work -particularly the “Sith eyes”- is great. Revenge of the Sith then splits focus between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar and Palpatine and Yoda at the Galactic Senate. Both fights are dazzling, and the CGI work is seamless, especially when the Palpatine starts flinging giant Senate booths.

So, what is the verdict? I don’t know. There is a lot to love here, especially for a SW devotee. McGregor and the snakelike McDiarmid are perfect, and the overall acting is vastly improved even considering Portman and Christensen’s scenes togther. The action is immense, and the virtual worlds are as well-constructed as they are in any movie, including the LOTR series. That may be as much a debit as a credit for this movie. It may just be too big to enjoy as much as admire. Lucas has obviously made it a point to pull out all the stops, and it works mostly. I just wonder if the movie was a tad smaller -maybe take out a couple starships or slow down the lightsaber duels just a tad- it might be easier to follow.

The other problem is obvious. Lucas simply has a tin ear, both for a dialogue and real human emotions. We never see how much Padme and Anakin are in love, so they constantly have to say it. We can't just figure out that Anakin has sent himself to his personal hell, we have to see it. Most of the real emotions here are blown up to ludicrous preportions. The worst example: Vader, now encased in his familiar armor, finds out Padme has died. The scene is perfect at first; he trembles, and the scenery starts to crack and break. But Lucas just can’t leave damn well enough alone. Vader leans back and bellows “NNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!”

I couldn’t tell if it was the real movie or a SNL-style parody. And it’s upsetting, because many of the smaller moments are so much more worthwhile, such as the pain in Yoda’s voice when he admits he’s failed, or the look of shock and horror on Jimmy Smits’ face as a young Jedi is killed in front of him. I think I need to see this again, now that I’m past the idea that this is the Last Star Wars Film.

Posted by Frinklin at May 21, 2005 11:01 PM

It should probably be mentioned that there was a very good anecdote attributed to Carrie Fisher about her experience working with Lucas as a director. Supposedly, he had only two directions: "more intense" and "faster".

One of the problems with the prequels is that Lucas has so many effects in his head that are partially formed that he can't allow people to react to things. As a result, they're still as statues, and people like Natalie Portman (who I've never seen outside the Star Wars flicks, and therefore think of as execrable) are just awful; but then, so are great actors like Samuel Jackson.

Posted by: Rob McMillin at May 27, 2005 01:18 PM

Great review! Especially the bits about showing love instead of just saying it all the time- "You're schmoopy!" "No, YOU'RE Schmoopy!!" It's more than balanced by MacGregor at the end or (great observation here) the individual agonies of each Jedi's death, but damn, that "NOOOOOOO" is, for me, worse than Jar Jar. There was enough Karloff-kitsch in that scene when Vader took his first clutzy clomps in that suit, but yeah, that fool Lucas couldn't leave well enough alone. Classless.

I mean, I liked this one a lot too, but you can't make a good movie on effects alone. Lucas should have had the balls to let someone take his creation for a drive. I think it speaks to his inability to just let the thing be itself out there in the world. As a creative person you have to realize that once your art is out there among those who will judge it, it's out of your control, and no amount of hedging (or suddenly trigger-happy Rodians) will fix it.

Posted by: Keir DuBois at May 27, 2005 08:01 PM
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