Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Long Time Ago, In A Theatre Far, Far Away

If you haven't seen the last Star Wars movie, look away now.

I saw Episode III: Revenge of the Sith on Friday, and I have to say I enjoyed it more than I expected to. (I thought Episode I: The Phantom Character Development was dreadful, and Episode II: Attack of the Clowns was worse. And that's the last concession to Big Georgie's pretentious naming convention I'm going to make. Just typing out the colon in the middle of all those titles gives me a pain in mine.) I knew that the dialogue would be cheesy, because, come on. And I knew there wouldn't be much (hah!) in the way of psychological complexity, because Georgie Boy doesn't do that. And yet.

I somehow cared about what happened to these characters, even though I'm not entirely sure why. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen are given dialogue which is almost literally unspeakable. The relationship between Padmé and Anakin is about as passionate as a bowl of jelly beans: sugary and full of pretty surface colours, but sickening if you get too much of it. And they're not the only ones who are forced to emote around mouthfuls of Lucas's undercooked expository wodge. Poor Ewan McGregor fares better at finding a consistent character buried under all the mythic expectations surrounding Obi-Wan. Others, like Samuel Jackson, sink without a trace. When he is allowed to express something like honest emotion (in other words, to behave like a human being, instead of a Living Embodiment of Wisdom) McGregor does fine, even moving, work. (Obi-Wan is the real hero of this story, it seems to me.) When Lucas gives Portman and McGregor scenes together, something good happens: the story (such as it is) moves along, and it's even involving. There were moments where McGregor and Portman made me shed tears - when they were allowed to use their expressive faces. And I admit I cheered when Yoda kicked about six different kinds of nasty droid butt. But I shouldn't care, really, at this point, what happens to Anakin Skywalker. After all, in - ::sigh:: all right - Episode I - he's a whining, selfish brat with an obvious talent for destruction. In the next film he's a snot-nosed teenager in a galactic sulk. I don't envy Christensen having to pull together a performance out of Anakin's raging sense of entitlement, incomplete motivations, short-sightedness and passionate self-regard. And yet.

Why does the fact that Anakin is so easily manipulated bother me so much? I wouldn't care at all if Christensen didn't bring something to the role. On some level, I wanted Anakin to remember that Padmé and Obi-Wan loved him and valued him, even though I knew it wasn't going to end well. Lucas's biggest problem isn't that he has an ear for dialogue made of purest tin, though he does: it's that, even with his infamous absolute control over every aspect of these movies, he can't be consistent within his own creation. It's never satisfactorily explained, for instance, why all the secrecy around Anakin's marriage to Padmé is even necessary. (Hey, kids - one of you is the Chosen One, and one used to be the Queen of her own planet; make a plan like grownups - it's not like you're gonna get shipped off to the Mos Eisley Home For Over-Dressed and Unwed Mothers. Also, a little backbone wouldn't be out of place. I'm just saying.) And if the Jedi Council is made up of the wisest, most evolved minds in the galaxy, why can't any of them make a decision where Anakin is concerned that displays the sense God gave a lemon? The kid is ignored, excluded, manipulated and just plain bossed around in high-handed fashion just for funsies, as far as I can tell. (I’m tempted to think that the ever-so-fetching Padawan haircut - with its soul-destroying combination of militaristic buzzcut and punk-ass asymmetrical rattail - was the thing that pushed young Anakin over onto the path toward the Dark Side, but Obi-Wan appears to have survived the experience. Aren't there interstellar conventions against cruel and unusual punishment that would cover that horror? Yeek.)

Worst of all, though, is the fact that Anakin's transformation into that wonderfully hissable villain known as Darth Vader never feels like tragedy - because it doesn't feel inevitable. Clearly Lucas wants us to think that it is. But he allows Anakin to be convinced on the slenderest of pretexts that the Jedi are corrupt, and has the Jedi attempt to counter Palpatine's obvious ploy with equally hamfisted tactics. Strategy, it would seem, is not the Jedi way. So when Anakin's dark night of the soul finally comes, it’s entirely forced (if you'll pardon the expression) on the audience. It's meant to be horrific, but it lacks the power it might have had, because it could have been prevented if any of these laser-powered dunderheads had given over the solemn speechifying and talked to each other. (Worst in this category is Jackson's Mace Windu, whose sour-pussed, pompous windbaggery ensured that I would have kicked him out of that pretty CGI window myself if no one else had got the job done.)

What frustrated me most about this movie is how good it could have been. The talk around the final installment is that it's the best one since the original Star Wars, and certainly it comes closest to the breathtaking feeling of that very first movie. When that iconic line appeared in blue phosphor in front of me on Friday night, and then the introductory crawl started up the screen away from me, I held my breath and waited for magic. I was transported backward to the moment when I was first drawn into that galaxy far, far away. That moment is part of my childhood - it's part of me. I suspect something like it belongs to all of us. In spite of his grip on all aspects of the Star Wars universe, more crushing than Grand Moff Tarkin at his most ruthless, Lucas does not own that moment where we all waited, breathless in the dark, for something wonderful to happen - we own that moment. We want to feel swept up in that magic again. We want him to recreate it, to fulfill his original promise to us. To the extent that he lets McGregor and Portman and Christensen act honest emotion, he does honour that promise. For the rest, forget Jar-Jar and General Grievous and all that computer-generated, ultra-expensive noise. Rent Star Wars again and boo Darth Vader. Feel that shiver you get when his ominous theme rumbles out of the speakers in martial 4/4 time. And think that maybe, somewhere, a long time ago, even Darth Vader was loved. What a pity we didn’t get that movie.

Postscript: Sarah said it first, and better


Blogger Dave said...

What a brilliantly written review!
I was in my mid-20s when I stood in line for the original ("breathtaking") Star Wars, and am looking forward to this final installment. Without giving anything away, you have laid the groundwork for a most enjoyable evening.

Well done!!! You drew me in and never let go!

4:07 p.m.  
Blogger moxywoman said...

Oh my dear, dear Sandman...this is SO exciting. You've joined the Dark side of the Force and got yerself a blog.


VERY nice review!

6:27 p.m.  
Anonymous Jeffy said...

Rise, Lord Sandman. And welcome.

The only hazard is that with writing of this calibre, I may be too intimidated to leave flippant comments.

Hey! It appears not!

9:59 p.m.  
Anonymous Raychul Jay said...

Great review, Sandman!

I saw it too and loved it. In fact, I love it more the more I think about it and may even go see it again.

The thing about Star Wars for me is this: look at Episode IV. Tell me that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are good actors and I will personally throw you off a bridge. Tell me that there was a hint of good dialogue in those movies and I'll throw your loved ones in after you. There wasn't and there never had to be. All we needed back in those days was a story we could believe in and a huge hairy sidekick who just grunted to communicate. That's the beauty of Star Wars for me: that it has succeeded in inspiring the dreams of a generation in spite of all the shortcomings we're now so eager to point out. I think in some ways we're too demanding as a movie going public (partially down to the cost of movies, let's be honest). Where is the wide-eyed wonder with which we all watched that first film? I felt it again as I watched the story come full circle in Episode III.

And for that, I only have George Lucas to thank. And I think he has to give thanks for THX, which allowed him to not have to make a living as a writer/director.

May the force be with him.

10:51 p.m.  
Blogger Sandman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:05 a.m.  
Blogger Sandman said...

look at Episode IV. Tell me that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are good actors and I will personally throw you off a bridge.

I wouldn't dream of it. But they were - what? all of 19 and 20 at the time? Good actors? Not so much. We didn't need great dialogue in the original, I agree. But I wanted better storytelling in this one, I couldn't help it. Lucas has always been able to create beautiful pictures, and I think he's primarily a visually-oriented person. This episode is gorgeous to look, it must be said. The story of the good man corrupted by the taste for power is a great old story, but it's not one that Lucas has the ability to tell in the way that it should be told, and that's too bad. Would I see it again? Probably. It's still Star Wars, right? And it's still better than Episode II.

And then, after I got done being all frustrated and teary-eyed and high-dudgeon-y about it, helenish made me laugh really, really hard.

9:26 a.m.  
Blogger Sandman said...

Uh, "This episode is gorgeous to look at", is what I meant.

10:00 a.m.  

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