Sunday, May 29, 2005

Revenge of the Sith - Third Impressions

I just saw Revenge of the Sith for the third time this afternoon. In marked contrast to the other two prequels, my enjoyment of RotS has grown with each showing; the dumb lines have been less annoying with each iteration; and each time I've found new things to admire.

Here's something I hadn't thought of: "Everyone made fun of the stupidity of having a single ship control all the droids on Naboo in Phantom Menace but now it’s clear why Palpatine wanted it that way: he wanted an off switch so that when the time came he could shut down all the Separatist armies in one easy move." (from a very sharp article:

Many people have commented that Anakin's choice--letting the Jedi die so that Padme can live--doesn't make any sense; how could he possibly make that choice, given how obviously evil it is? It didn't make much sense to me until I thought back to what it is like to first fall in love, or how I felt when Vicki was pregnant. I think there have been times in my life when, if someone had come to me and told me that a lot of people would have to die for her to live, I would have said, "Okay." I might say that even today, depending on the circumstances. The thing about Anakin's fall is that it is a fall: it doesn't happen all at once. Helping Palpatine kill Mace Windu is all-important; it's the bridge between the good person that Anakin was and the monster that he becomes. After he kills Mace, the murder of the other Jedi becomes a necessity for him, personally, a matter of survival for him and for Padme, and not just something he has to do for Palpatine.

Ah, another thing I've read complaints about is the movie's end; one reviewer wrote that apparently Lucas felt he had to set every single plotline of the later movies in motion. But after some reflection, the end of the movie is structurally very beautiful. We have, in order:
1. The big fights, Yoda vs. Palpatine and Obi-Wan vs. Anakin. A duality.
2. Anakin and Padme give birth on their deathbeds. Padme dies as the twins are born, and Anakin (as we've known him) dies as Darth Vader (the visual icon) is born. Anakin assumed the name Darth Vader before, but as a visual transformation the death of Anakin Skywalker and the birth of Darth Vader happen here. Another duality.
3. Padme's funeral. A single event, a unity, followed by:
4. The closing trinity. Bail Organa, Obi-Wan, and Darth Vader all go home to their families, to look after babies. Only for Vader, home is a Star Destroyer, his family is the Emperor, and the baby is the Death Star. The Death Star's early construction is not just a bone Lucas is throwing us; it's a necessary part of the symbolic story. We are left with three elements--the Death Star, Leia, and Luke--that will collide 18 years laters, in A New Hope.

A couple more things. Some people have said that Yoda gives up too easily after fighting Palpatine. I don't think so. Palpatine is visibly surprised when Yoda shows up. "So, you survived." And before Yoda has even left the building, Palpatine has been joined by a platoon of clone troops. I think Yoda had one shot. He would only have the advantage of surprise once, and he would only have so much time before Palpatine could summon his soldiers (that may have been what Palpatine's aid, the one with the horns, left to do right after Yoda's arrival). The fight with Palpatine was already a draw; add a few dozen or a few hundred blaster rifles on Palpatine's side, and Yoda would have been toast.

Another thing that is often commented upon is the apparent stupidity of sending Luke to Tattooine; isn't that the first place Vader would check? Sure, if Vader had the slightest reason to suspect that his offspring had survived. But two things come in here: one, the babies were delivered at least a little prematurely ("We must operate now if we are to save the babies."), and two, Padme is made to look pregnant at her funeral (kudos to Ryan Hill for pointing that out; I saw the movie twice without noticing). That's why it was important for Bail Organa, Obi-Wan, and Yoda to personally deliver Padme's body to Naboo: so they could perpetuate the illusion that Anakin's offspring died with her. Any after-the-fact checking that Vader may have done would only have confirmed what Palpatine had already told him.

It's a hell of a lot more complex than it looks like at first, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. It may even claw its way into the top three in my Star Wars movie ranking.

What do you think?

P.S. I didn't set out to be the Revenge of the Sith apologist. It's just that so many criticisms are advanced by People Who Don't Get It.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Revenge of the Sith - First Impressions (spoilerific)

Whew. That's my first impression. This movie is packed with stuff. What Lucas said about each of the other two prequels getting 20% of the story and RotS getting 60% makes perfect sense now that I've seen all three. This is the movie we've been waiting for; the first two prequels are as much backstory to RotS as the whole prequel trilogy is to the classic trilogy.

The opening sequence, from the first shot to the crash-landing on Coruscant, is a non-stop action blowout, with some genuinely funny moments. More than anything else in the prequels, it reminded me of the best parts of the classic trilogy. Lucas's sense of humor seems to have regenerated (or perhaps rematured, after the overly broad yuks of Eps I and II).

Much more than in any previous Star Wars movie, the battles are settings, not set pieces. We follow the heroes through the battles, instead of watching the battles and seeing the heroes participate. The tight focus on the main players gives this movie a drive and immediacy that far surpasses the other prequels, and probably exceeds some parts of the classic trilogy.

Might as well say up front that the movie is not perfect. Some of the dialogue is again appalling--but it's informative to compare the dialogue that sucks to the dialogue that doesn't. Palpatine's lines are great. He needed to carry the movie, and he does. He is believably evil, but also believably seductive. The interplay between Anakin and Obi-Wan is everything that it should have been in Episode II but wasn't--tightly written, affectionate, and witty. When Obi-Wan expresses his pain and outrage at Anakin's betrayal, I can finally believe it.

On the other hand, the scenes with Anakin and Padme mostly range from dull to excruciating, and I think I know why. Lucas enjoys writing bad guys and bad stuff, loves crafting evil and destruction, but doesn't have much time for fleshing out the targets. Palpatine is like the Death Star from ANH. Both need to be multifariously scary and awesome, and as cinematic icons of evil they are lovingly detailed. Padme and her love for Anakin are like Alderaan--their only real function in the story is to be destroyed. So while we got to see the inside and outside of the Death Star from a multitude of vantage points, Alderaan got a single, long-distance establishing shot. Padme is similarly underdeveloped.

With that in mind, this movie may be a flawed work of genius, but it is a work of genius nonetheless. For me, the most affecting sequence was Anakin and Padme looking out at each other across miles of cityscape. All of a sudden it was like I was watching a different movie--as a reviewer said of Pitch Black, it was as if Art had suddenly appeared where Crap usually makes its home. The scene mercifully contains no dialogue, and that's the point: it doesn't need any. You can watch Anakin make up his mind. Who knew that Hayden Christiansen could act like that--or that Lucas still had the directorial adroitness to orchestrate such a sequence without botching it?

The movie is, once again, a mega-plot masterpiece. (Lucas has always been good at laying down the framework of the story; he's just very inconsistent when it comes to the line-by-line execution of it.) The depth of Palpatine's manipulation and betrayal of Dooku is bracing. Dooku thought the showdown in the observation tower was a trap for the Jedi. He is visibly shocked when Palpatine orders his execution, but it was an absolute necessity from Palpatine's point of view; he could ill afford to have Anakin and the Jedi learn that he'd been giving Dooku orders and that the whole kidnapping was a setup.

On the galactic stage, Palpatine needed an army to kill the Jedi and administrate his empire--so he ordered one. He needed a war to justify the creation of the army, to bring him to power, and to spread the Jedi and thin their ranks--so he engineered one. All six movies are pretty much the Palpatine Gets What He Wants Show, until the meta-climax in RotJ, when Anakin decides to drop him like a bad habit. And speaking of RotJ....

Trilogies are judged by their final installments. Compared to the level of media saturation it enjoyed a couple of years ago, the Matrix franchise has basically disappeared from the pop culture landscape, scuttled by the total black hole of satisfaction that was The Matrix Revolutions. I've never been an RotJ hater; like Rilstone, I didn't know that Ewoks were annoying until a bunch of jaded fanboys pointed it out. I am by now thoroughly acquainted with the reasons that some people find RotJ lame, but I'm still not board. I think it's wonderful. Science fiction is full of cute little furry guys that live in the woods--Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word For World Is Forest, H. Beam Piper's Fuzzies, and so on. The Ewok haters need to get over their too-cool-for-schoolness (as Tarantino said about Britney Spears haters). Take away the Ewoks and you've got a pretty bleak movie, especially for a supposed kids' flick.

RotS is what RotJ would look like without the Ewoks. I almost wrote "without the Ewoks or the redemptive ending", but that's the genius of RotS (and the whole series): RotJ is the redemptive ending. When Obi-Wan cries out to Anakin, "You were supposed to destroy the Sith," we feel his pain, but we know something he doesn't: Anakin does destroy the Sith--just not for another couple of decades. RotS is full of moments like this, where the classic trilogy and the prequel trilogy parallel and reflect each other, and the effect is often startling. I'm not talking about the obvious parallels, the ones that are fully telegraphed, as when Anakin asks Padme to join him in overthrowing Palpatine and ruling the galaxy--although that one's more effective than you might think at first, when you remember that it's the same guy who makes that offer to Luke in ESB.

Here are a couple of more subtle parallels. Obi-Wan doesn't want to hear that he has to go kill Anakin, but Yoda shows him the necessity, just as Luke doesn't want to confront Anakin, but is convinced by Obi-Wan. Older Jedi keep telling younger Jedi to go kill Anakin, and Obi-Wan gets to play both roles at different times.

In RotJ, Luke didn't want to finish the fight with Anakin. What convinced him was Anakin's threat to turn Leia to the dark side. In RotS, Anakin is finally driven to try and kill Padme by the appearance of Obi-Wan. Both Anakin and Luke are driven to action by nature of their relationships with the central women of each trilogy, Anakin because he believes Padme betrayed him, Luke because he fears that Anakin will betray Leia.

A couple of final things. The movie has what one reviewer called a political conscience. When Anakin says, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy", we can't help but hear Bush saying "If you're not with us, you're against us." Obi-Wan replies, "Only the Sith deal in absolutes", which is equally damning whether read as in-story dialogue or trans-story political commentary. The Senate scenes in previous movies have been criticized as being draggy. The Senate scenes in RotS are not only grim and portentious on their own, they also give us plenty to think about as our own Senate moves towards rewriting its rules. This ain't Team America, but it ain't nuthin', either.

The babies almost moved me to tears. But I can't tell how much credit Lucas should get for that, because I'm a new father. I'll be interested to hear if non-parents find them as moving.

That's all for now. I'm still digesting.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Dr. Vector spoils Hitchhiker's Guide (the book and the movie)


I recently (about two months ago) picked up a copy of the five-volume Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy omnibus. This is second such that I've owned in my life. The first I acquired in my late teens, read about half of, lost interest in, and put on permanent loan to a friend. My newer copy I read about half of, lost interest in, and put on permanent loan to a friend. I'll explain why in a bit.

I should mention up front that I've never listened to any of the HG radio plays, and I've only seen one episode of the TV show on PBS. I didn't think that would matter, but it turns out to be pretty important, as you'll see in a sec.

I'll start, then, with an axe that I've ground in several recent conversations (apologies if you were a participant in those conversations and thus find this repetitive). The characters in HG aren't particularly funny. Neither are the situations or events. The books are mainly funny (and therefore tolerable) because the language itself is funny. Douglas Adams wrote funny sentences. You can put a lot of these together and call the result a funny book, but that's a bit misleading.

In particular, the books don't cohere as books. This is particularly obvious when you're reading them in an omnibus, because you can't see the endings coming at all. At a certain point you turn a page and BAM! there's the end of the book. This is irritating if you're expecting them to work as books, but it makes perfect sense if you know that each chapter of the first few books was originally an entire installment of the radio show. An HG omnibus, then, is a series of funny sentences that really work, compiled into chapters that more or less work, compiled into books that don't work at all, compiled into an omnibus that would work better if the arbitrary boundaries between books were erased.

But all of that depends on how much you like Douglas Adams's funny sentences. If you like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers and a lot of other popular late 70s/early 80s British humor, then you'll probably dig HG, because it's filled with a lot of the same enjoyable nonsense (except for the Fawlty Towers bit; FT worked because of funny situations, and as I've indicated, most of the situations in HG aren't all that funny; it's the way they're described that's funny).

Something that gets to be a problem as the series goes on is that the level of invention drops. The saga undergoes a thinning. However you want to put it, the later books are just less interesting that the earlier. It may be because the early books were transcribed from radio plays, which had to be consistently inventive and pay off in the short term, so that the per-chapter value is fairly high. But the later books were written as books, and they just don't hold up in comparison. It may be that Adams's real calling was as a radio script writer, and his deflection into a career as a writer of books was an unfortunate accident.

Another problem is that not only are the characters and situations not that funny in themselves, they're often downright depressing. Being marooned in the Pliocene for a few years and having to live in a cave and eat bark is not something you want to happen to a character that you care about (or are trying desperately to care about). More to the point, it's boring. At one point in the evolution of Star Wars (ANH), someone who was working with Lucas on the script (mighta been Gary Kurtz, but I honestly don't remember) had one of the characters say "This is boring." Lucas struck the line. He said that if the characters find the situation boring, the audience sure as hell will, and the solution is not to comment on it, but to do something about it. Would that Adams had known that; all the funny sentences in the world can't prop up a story in which not much happens to characters that aren't ever sketched with enough detail or sympathy for us to care about.

At the end of each book, nothing has really changed and no one has learned anything. You might think that those things don't matter, since it's a comedy. But they do, because if the plot doesn't advance and the characters don't develop, the whole enterprise is just so much consequence-free blather. You may object that the plot does advance: in every book and practically every chapter, the characters find themselves on a new planet and often a new time period. My point is that none of this makes any difference; you can pick up the omnibus and start reading at any point and the result is the same (except that the farther in you are, the less funny and interesting it all is); the characters may go to lots of places but nothing they do matters, and the relationships between the characters don't change. This may have been Adams's point: that life is a long series of random encounters that we'll never understand with weirdos to whom we can't relate. If so, he succeeded in spades. I just don't find that funny.

In the final analysis, the books aren't dark enough to be gallows humor, not serious enough to make me care, and not funny enough to keep my spirits up during the boring and depressing longueurs that increasingly take over the narrative as it continues. They're kinda like hot oatmeal. It sounds like a good idea, and the first few bites are always enjoyable, but pretty soon the sugar and cinnamon are gone and you find yourself slogging through a bowl of cold sludge, wondering why you didn't go for some fuckin' Count Chocula instead.

Incidentally, if you want to read something hyperbolic enough to be funny, but also filled with ideas, action, and characters of more than one dimension, check out Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. If you want to read some funny SF where the funny resides in the characters and their situations, try The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, or Bill the Galactic Hero: On the Planet of Bottled Brains, both by Harry Harrison.


I had misgivings about the movie, since so much of the comedy of the book is embedded in the narrative bits. The moviemakers solved this problem in the same way as the makers of the TV show: they frequently cut away from the action to straight narration with cartoons and such. That's fine; that's where the funniest parts of the book are, and there's probably no better way to get them on screen. But it does mean that the funniest parts of the movie don't involve the characters or plot at all, they're just parts where the omniscient narrator is riffing on things.

Which points to one of the central problems of the movie. It is an awkward mashup of 70s Brit humor and 90s American movie cliches, and the two don't coexist well at all. In the books, Trillian isn't really a character; her appearance on the Heart of Gold is just one more in the long series of humiliations that Arthur Dent endures (that's painfully obvious after the first book, when Adams can't really think of anything for her to do). But in the Laws of American Movies, there must be an attractive young female and she must fall in love with the male protagonist. The last blockbuster that I know of that flaunted that Law was Jaws, back in 1975. So...GASP! Trillian and movie Arthur fall in love. Arthur's love isn't pathetic and unrequited, like the rest of his pathetic and unrequited life, as in the book, which is the whole point of his love and his character. No, it's noble and requited, and therefore (from the point of view of the book) it is destroyed.

There are some other major changes from the book, all of which I thoroughly spoil below. The changes are seemingly there to give the movie some semblance of a coherent, resolveable plot. That being the case, it is curious that some of the changes don't, in fact, advance the plot, and other new plot threads, having been called into existence, are never resolved.

Herewith, the changes, in no particular order:

1. Zaphod Beeblebrox has a female Vice President who commandeers the Vogon fleet to chase down Zaphod and rescue him from his kidnapper (who is also Zaphod). Her entire function in the movie is to tell the Vogons to do whatever they were about to do anyway. I can't fathom why the filmmakers, having made the decision that the Vogons would chase the main characters throughout the movie, instead of through just the first few minutes, decided that they needed an Authority Figure to hold their hands. Half the time I couldn't tell if the VP was trying to rescue Zaphod or kill him.

2. The book has a throwaway line about some blue-skinned race that believes the entire universe was sneezed into existence by the almighty nose. The movie expands on this concept, so that the characters land on the planet where this religion holds sway. All of this is very much in the spirit of the book, and I think it works better than any of the other new bits and probably better than some of the adapted material. The high priest of the nose-worshippers is Humma Kavula, amusingly played by John Malkovich. He kidnaps one of Zaphod's heads (by the expedient of cutting it off) and sends the characters to retrieve a special gun designed by Deep Thought, in exchange for which he'll return Zaphod's head. So far, so good. The characters go and find the gun, and their possession of it makes for a nifty escape from the Vogons near the end of the movie. BUT, they don't take the gun back to Lava Kahuna or Bravura Vulva or whatever his name is, and Zaphod is still in the most un-Zaphod-like state of having only one head when the movie ends. This may point the way to a sequel, which would be problematic for several reasons, not least being the energy this movie puts into getting Arthur and Trillian together. If they stay together in the sequel, then there's no sexual tension (TV shows often turn boring when the fated-but-frustrated lovers finally hook up; see X-Files and Frasier). If they don't, then the filmmakers will have fucked with the source material to no good end. Inelegant.

3. Trillian is seized by the Vogons and rescued by Arthur and crew. There are two big problems here. The first is that when Trillian is kidnapped, she's walking on the nose-worshipping planet with Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod. The Vogons show up and grab her, and everyone else gets away. This is handled with about as much exposition and subtlety as the previous sentence. It just happens. There is no tactical reason why the Vogons get Trillian instead of one or all of the other characters. So the kidnapping feels entirely forced and ad hoc, which it undoubtedly was (as something welded onto a pre-existing story). I can't believe that the filmmakers couldn't think of a reason why Trillian might have been even 20 feet away from the rest of the party when she was snatched, which would lend the scene some believeability. That's a Lucasian level of inventive failure, and it really stands out in an otherwise fairly clever film (a lot of the new gags are pretty darn funny).

The other problem with the kidnapped-Trillian subplot is the manner of her rescue. Briefly, the Vogons try her for kidnapping Zaphod, find her guilty, and start to lower her into a cage containing a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Trall. That's kinda cool; the RBBofT is a key piece of HG mythology, and it sets up a really excellent payoff, which the filmmakers then bypass. Arthur and crew land on Vogsphere and go to resuce Trillian, and they filling out forms. That would be just fine and would fit in perfectly with the Brazilian (Terry Gilliam film, not South American country) logic of the movie, except that as things are going forward, anyone with any knowledge of HG in any of its previous incarnations is expecting the good guys to rescue Trillian from the RBBofT by dropping a towel on her head. That would have been completely cool, it would have been a nice reward for HG fans, and it would have been funnier than what actually happened. How the filmmakers missed it is a surpassing mystery.

Having written a total of two reviews now, I'm really starting to get irritated by the young female love interest cliche. Why can't we have some intelligently written female characters that, like, have dramatic questions of their own to answer? But that's a bitch for another day (a young, attractive one).