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.


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

(Dummy comment -- ignore.)

3:39 AM  

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