Sunday, May 22, 2005

The New Yorker sees S.W. E.3 ROTS and at last breathes a sigh of relief

Sitting in the theatre last night as the lights were dimmed for the coming attractions, I think it finally hit me.

This was the end of an era. No more Star Wars movies. No more anticipation, excitement, skepticism. It all came down to this moment.

As the brassy fanfare for Twentieth Century Fox was gallantly trumpeted through the surround sound speakers of the theatre, every doubt, every worry, every suspicion that I had had before the film vanished. All that remained was my giddy excitement.

THE LOOK

I thought the film had fantastic visuals.

The galactic landscapes of the first fifteen minutes or so of the film where Anakin and Obi-Wan are on their mission to rescue Palpatine were stunning. The guys at ILM have used the improvements and progress in FX technology in many aspects of this new trilogy. But in my opinion it is in the look of the outer space sequences that the technology has been put to use best.

The little probe fighters that Anakin and Obi-Wan flew in the opening sequence had a neat design. I loved the way they flew in tandem with one another, effortlessly dodging laser blasts from the destroyer. There was something about the graceful way that they moved that reminded me of the Millennium Falcon. The whole orchestration of the first battle sequence was very impressive. There was something visually operatic about the way that the Jedi’s fighters wove in and out of other droids and ships while the destroyers glided through space with ease even as they were firing shots, and being fired at.

There were other little flourishes in the space crafts of this film that I really liked. For instance the mechanism of the hyper-drive ring that Obi-Wan’s small ship locked into, allowing him to travel at hyper-drive speed was very clever.

The city of Courasant looked incredible, as it did in the previous film. The glittering metropolis of the lights and buildings, and the layers of traffic streaming through the air captures perfectly the image of a futuristic city that shoots up into the heavens.

The interiors of the buildings in Courasant were equally impressive. The apartments were a stunning combination of classical Greco-Roman pieces, with Art-Deco lines fusing into a look that is as stylish as it is visionary.

If there’s one thing that can be said about these new Star Wars films is that their visuals were always strong. Every technique that was introduced in Episode I has been fine tuned here for Episode III. The CG work on Yoda has improved by leaps and bounds, and his facial expressions looked very nuanced and real in this film. The creature that Obi-Wan rides around on when he is ambushing General Grievous was really unique looking, I thought the FX guys did a great job with its design and movement.

While it is arguable that the Wookies did not really fulfill any purpose in appearing in this film, I really like the way their planet looked. The organic and environmental architecture and the integration of the bodies of water on the planet created yet another Star Wars world which was unlike any we had seen previous.

PERFORMANCES AND CHARACTERS

One of the biggest characters introduced in this last film was the villain General Grievous, and to be honest I wasn’t really buying it. I liked the concept of a pre-Vader proto-type that had both mechanical and organic parts. But though they added many little flourishes to make him seem like more than just a standard droid, I didn’t think many of them worked very well. Grievous had a strong accent that could be interpreted as either a weak Russian accent, or a Spanish lilt, but either way it was ridiculous, why Lucas insists on using these pseudo-ethnic accents, I’ll never know.

His coughing tick also didn’t really make much sense, and was used to the point of excess. I also thought the film really framed the moment that reveals Grievous could wield four light sabers at once. Yet once the cat was out of the bag, Grievous barely had enough time to show off before Obi-Wan cut his arms off, one by one. If you ask me, the best part about Grievous was the one wheeler motor bike that he rode around in.

One of the most irksome parts of the first two films were having to watch Natalie Portman plod through scenes with the charisma and realism of a wooden coffee table. Finally I thought she gave a decent performance as Padme. She dealt as best she could with some of her less subtle pieces of dialogue, and actually poured emotion into some of her scenes without being melodramatic or robotic. Portman’s gentle delivery and balanced presence, added emotional depth to her role which had been missing in the previous two films.

Hayden Christiansen also toned down his petulant whininess, and seemed a more seasoned actor in this installment. He was more comfortable in front of the camera, although still a bit awkward at times. He was fairly convincing as a young and confused Jedi who lacked a wealth of experience and knowledge on which to base his decisions. The mixture of innocence and anger he wore on his handsome brooding face was a refined improvement to the forced wild teen angst he projected in Episode II.

Ian McDiarmid did quite a good job in the role of Palpatine/Emporer. He made good distinctions between the two facets of his character, and played Palpatine as a sinister yet smarmy politician. I actually thought he could have been more understated as Palpatine early on in the film. There were moments it was so obvious that he was an evil character, one half expected the characters around him to call him out on I then and there. But I suppose that is probably more the fault of the script than of Mr. McDiarmid himself. It was thrilling to see Palpatine make the full visual transformation into the Emperor as he used his trademark electrical shocking powers for the first time, and deteriorated into the scarred and wrinkled face we recognize from the original trilogy. That moment where he puts his hood on and we see he burning eyes peer out from beneath it, feels monumental.

Ewan McGregor, who I’ve always thought was a good actor, but has not had much of an opportunity to show his chops in these films, gave his strongest performance of the trilogy in this film. Overall I thought he’s done a remarkable job of showing Obi Wan age through the passage of time in these films. I thought of all the actors and characters who have been in all three films, McGregor really made an effort to show how his character changed and grew. I still felt like he was holding back a bit in some of the more emotional scenes of the movie, but felt he did a nice job, particularly in his final confrontation with Anakin on the lava planet.

Other supporting performers such as Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits were fine, fulfilling the job of their roles without being strikingly strong or weak.

C3PO and R2D2 were great as always, I would have liked to see a bit more of 3PO, but R2 had some fun comedic moments.

Yoda was probably one of my favorite characters in this film. As opposed to one fight where he pulled out all the stops (Attack of the Clones), I really enjoyed watching the huge part that Yoda played in the genesis of the rebellion, and learning just how influential and powerful he was in the history of the Jedi. In Empire and Jedi, we don't see him interact with anyone but Luke, here finally in Episode III, we see he knew many of the characters, and ran with the big guns.

A Note on JarJar.
Jar Jar Binks does not have a single line in this film. In fact there are only a few shots of him in the entire film. One or two times he is shown with other senators, and then there is a close up of him at Padme’s funeral procession. I had mixed feelings on this.

On the one hand, I feel certain that finally the word must have gotten back to Lucas that Jar Jar was one of the least liked characters in the Star Wars Universe, and that nobody would miss him if he fell to the way side.

On the other hand, Jar Jar’s character had no closure within the series. It was as if his entire character was entirely meaningless within the framework of the trilogy and the saga on the whole. Jar Jar’s role was largely diminished from Episode I to Episode II, but at least it was implied that he was still involved with the politics of what was going on, and still had contact with the main characters. But there was not so much as even a mention of him, from any of the characters. Did he have a falling out with Padme? Did Obi-Wan ban him from talking to the Jedi? What was the deal? I wish at least they had tried to tie up his story somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I never really cared for Jar Jar, but still feel his storyline was mishandled in the trilogy. In fact to be completely honest, there is a small part of me that just feels pity for him. After all the Jar Jar bashing I’ve contributed to over the years, at the end of the day I kind of feel bad for the guy.

ANAKIN'S JOURNEY INTO THE DARKSIDE

The first scene that Anakin and Palpatine have together is when Anakin has defeated Dooku on his ship, and Palpatine encourages Ani to kill him.

This scene was framed to set the tone for the film, to show that Palpatine already realizes what potential Anakin has for the dark side, and that he intends to foster it. It also shows that Anakin is conflicted between the powerful impulses of his emotions and the laws of the Jedi by which he must abide.

I suppose this is one of the elements of the film that I wish had been dealt with differently. If my memory serves me correctly, Attack of the Clones never really spent a lot of time developing a relationship between Palpatine and Anakin. Anakin never seems to have had an emotional tie to Palpatine before, nor reason to trust him on a personal level. Anakin is merely fulfilling his duty as a Jedi by rescuing him. Why should he so easily swallow everything Palpatine tells him? If you ask me Palpatine is acting far too fishy right off from the first scene. Between his bloodthirsty whispers in Anakin’s ear, and the fact that he basically asks Anakin to leave Obi-Wan for dead, Anakin should have been a little suspicious of Palpatine.

{I am actually curious if in this scene and others, Palpatine is exerting some sort of mental influence on him Anakin. A “Jedi mind trick” – or in his case I guess it would be “sith mind trick.” How else is it that Palpatine/Emporer brings up the fact that only the dark side can help save Padme? Anakin never told him about his fears of his wife dying…}

The film tries to re-establish the importance of the relationship between Padme and Anakin in order to play upon the fact that in the end it is Anakin’s love for Padme that drives him to do what he does.

Though crucial to the plot, the scenes between Anakin and Padme are somewhat inconsistent. There is a scene where Anakin and Padme talk about how in love they are with one another, and there were pieces of dialogue that caused laughter to erupt among the audience.

Also, my memory could be shoddy, but I don’t remember there being an emphasis on the fact that their marriage was to remain so secret. If this film is supposed to take place three years after Episode II, is it really realistic that they would be able to conceal their marriage from everyone including Obi-Wan? It seems like one of these plot devices that serves no purpose but to hinder the plotting of the story.

Also confusing in these scenes between the two lovers is the timeline of Padme’s pregnancy. Has Anakin been away from her for seven or eight months? The time that the entire film spans does not seem to be more than a couple weeks. Yet within these few weeks she confesses her pregnancy to Anakin and shortly after gives birth. It is very odd.

As cheesy as some of the lines might be, Lucas does try to spend some time emphasizing how much Anakin and Padme love one another. He can’t really bother being too subtle because he needs to show not only how much Anakin loves Padme, but how scared Anakin is that he may loose her.
While I got the fact that he was in love with her, I was not convinced as to exactly why he became obsessed with the idea that she was going to die. So Anakin has a couple of bad nightmares. But it is not as if Padme is ill, or has been told by a physician that her pregnancy has put her in danger. It is merely a sense of impending doom that he feels. I think more could have been done story wise in order to sell us on just how desperate Anakin was, and more importantly how this led to the Emperor holding him in the palm of his hand.

One the more intriguing scenes in the film is when Anakin pays a visit to Palpatine at a performance house. I really liked that they were showing a different side of the Courasant society that we had never really seen before. We have seen where x-cons and bounty hunters hung out (Mos Isles), and learned that Jabba liked to watch a good band and a good kill. But this was a new cultural element which showed what the more polished members of the society would attend. I liked the imagery of the large bubbles floating in mid air with the little ribbons of light and gas floating in and out of it. I also liked that we weren’t exactly sure what it was exactly that we were watching. Whatever this artform was, it didn’t seem to translate literally as in “this is their version of opera” or “this is their ballet”. It was just something completely different, and I really liked that Lucas chose not to spell it out.

Even more intriguing of course, is the subject matter of the conversation between Anakin and Palpatine, where Palpatine discusses the true powers and possibilities of “evil”. The story of Darth Plagueis adds a further mythology and background to the dark side. We’ve always learned about the Jedi side of the force, and the heroes and history of the good, and now finally we are learning more about the other side of things. About the figures who have embraced the dark side, and about what elements about it might draw people to it.

I like the thematic contrast that exists between this scene and the earlier scene that Anakin has with Yoda. Yoda reassures him that death is a natural and essential part of life, one which can not and should not be circumvented. Palpatine on the other hand seductively describes the power of the dark side which can “keep the ones you love alive” and make life immortal. Yet it is the Jedi way which embraces life, and fights to keep those who can not defend themselves from being wrongfully harmed. It is an interesting theoretical conundrum that the Jedis believe in life, but more importantly the in the balance of power and nature, where as the dark side vies for everlasting life in immortality. But for them, this drive does not come from a place of treasuring nature, rather it is founded on seizing what is natural and exerting its force on it, instead of letting the ways of the force take its course.

This idea of Darth Plagueis as a dark creator, is both interesting and disturbing, and at last brings metaclorians back into the mix. Palpatine discusses how Plagueis manipulated metaclorians to create life spontaneously. It seems we can only infer from this fact that either Darth Plagueis, or Plagueis’ apprentice was the “father” of Anakin. The idea that the emperor is Anakin’s father changes a lot in the ideology of the films. It is the closest possible recreation of the “I am your father” reveal in Empire Strikes Back, the implications are equally far reaching.

If this is the case, than the Jedi prophecy that this “immaculately conceived” figure would defeat the Sith and redeem the force is completely wrong,. Anakin would be “the chosen one” to further the power of the dark side, not to destroy it. But then this also derails that concept that this initial trilogy is meant to show how a man who was inherently good, chose to serve evil, and became corrupted. If Anakin was an offspring of the metaclorians as manipulated by the Dark side, the entire trilogy would just be a story about a bad seed, who could not escape his evil destiny.

There is also a part of me that wishes that a version of this scene had appeared in Attack of the Clones. Perhaps sometime after Anakin has lost his mother. It felt like so much information was squished into this film, and Anakin’s turn towards the dark side happened so fast, in a matter of weeks, instead of something that was a slow process, and occurred over years. Not only does Anakin’s allegiance to Palpatine fortify itself so quickly and strongly, but his final turn away from the way of the Jedi seems almost by coincidence.

When the Emporer and Mace Windu are entrenched in their battle, Anakin only seems to want to stop Windu from killing the Emporer, perhaps even in part because he wants to remain true to the Jedi teachings. After all it was Anakin who turned Palpatine in, exposing him as the Sith Lord. This scene mirrors Anakin’s choice to kill Count Dooku when he was unarmed, and perhaps Anakin feels he will redeem himself by not participating in the killing of a helpless prisoner for a second time. We do see that he still longs for the knowledge of how he might keep Padme alive, as he yells to Windu before he strikes him, that he needs Palpatine But even Anakin falls to his knees his devotion to the dark side seems uncertain. He cuts off Windu’s hand but does not kill him, and after the Emperor kills Window, he sinks to the floor unable to believe what he has just done. Yet suddenly mired in this place of confusion and disbelief he agrees to do whatever the Emperor asks and is dubbed “Darth Vader”, a knight of the Sith Order.

Anakin’s path to the dark side is not a very long one. Anakin has his first nightmare about loosing Padme about half an hour into the film. He then swears his allegiance to the Emperor about forty five minutes later. For a trilogy that was devoted to showing this moment, I find myself wishing again, that they had built up to this more in the previous films, particularly the second one. If we had seen more about Anakin’s fear of loosing loved ones, or an unnatural thirst for power, or a desperation to change the inevitable turns that life presents, any of these things would have better led up to this moment.

THE DARK AND MELANCHOLY FINISH

That being said, I found the last hour of the film to be absolutely riveting. Watching all the storm troopers who had been fighting for good suddenly turning on the Jedis in their group, was heart wrenching. Unfortunately, I had heard before I saw the film, that Anakin slays the young Jedi, but I still felt the impact of Anakin unleashing his light saber after a “youngling” asked him what they should do. I’ve got to give Lucas kudos for going that dark, particularly with the tone that he’s kept in the first two films. I don’t think any Star Wars film previous to this had anything as dark as innocent Jedi in training being slain, and by the hero of the series no less!

The rest of the film is really a string of scenes that serve as connecting puzzle pieces to Episode IV A New Hope.

The reveal that one of the wookies who had been helping Yoda was Chewbacca, Captain Antilles’ ship picking up Obi-Wan and Yoda as they flee from the forces of the Republic, C3PO and R2D2 subsequently being dropped off there, the Emperor announcing the birth of the Empire in front of the senate. All of these were nice little touches that formed a bridge from this trilogy to the next.

The final scene between Padme and Anakin on the lava planet was surprisingly well done, both sad and disturbing at once. We see clearly now, how deluded by the dark side Anakin has become. That he is no longer thinking of how his love can best serve Padme, but of how his power can best serve himself, for what he alone wants and needs. This is illustrated fully when he attempts to strangle her. It is a painful and tragic moment.

The drama is only heightened when Anakin confronts Obi-Wan. His irrational ranting drives Obi-Wan to do what he said to Yoda he could not do – to slay his brother. Though some might think that the exploding red lava that surrounds them is too obvious and lacks subtlety, I actually like the way it plays up the tone and feeling of the film and characters at this moment. For me, it was the perfect setting.

I thought the intercutting between the two light saber battles, that of Yoda and the Emperor, and that of Anakin and Obi-Wan worked nicely. In fact the duel between Yoda and the Emperor was one of my favorites in the film. In many ways there are no two other characters that fully embody the polar opposites of the force. The reprise of the Battle of the Fates music from Episode was very much called for, and Yoda vs. the Emperor has an epic quality to it that is both new and unexpected.

The grand finale of Anakin vs. Obi-Wan was perfectly escalated by the transition of their battle onto the floating droid platforms that hovered above the burning lava. I really don’t think I could have asked for anything more in terms of the way this fight played itself out. It was intense to the very last moment, and both the fight choreography and the emotional tenor of the characters were completely gut wrenching. Obi-Wan’s pained admission to Anakin that he had failed him, and subsequent declarations of love and brotherhood were as brutal as Anakin’s failed jump to the shore which resulted in Obi-Wan’s light saber cutting off both his legs.

I have to confess, I’m not sure what I imagined, but I did not anticipate just how vicious Anakin’s injuries would be, before he actually became the Vader in the helmet and full body suit. I found myself watching with my mouth agape as I watched him loose his limbs and then catch on fire and become horribly disfigured.

The sequence that shows his transformation into Vader just as Padme is in childbirth is completely engrossing. Again, I thought the intercutting of these scenes worked really well. People might critique the overt metaphors of life and death, but it worked for me just fine. It felt both appropriate and bittersweet, as I’m sure it was meant to.

But I think the moment when my heart actually broke was when Vader finally awakens from his transformation, not a visible sign of his former self left. When he asks for Padme’s safety and well being in his new electronically enhanced voice, the voice that we know well as Darth Vader’s and not Anakin’s, this was an unbelievable moment for me. It showed that within all his anger and hate there was still love and concern, and that it was the knowledge that this love has been taken away that seals his path to the dark side completely. These lines were incredibly moving.

Sure there were a couple of cumbersome moments here and there. The physician robot stating to Obi-Wan that Padme was medically sound but had for some reason “lost the -will to live”. Yoda suddenly name dropping Qui-Gon, in an off-handed mention to Obi-Wan about how he was going to teach him to speak to dead Jedi. But overall I thought the ending was really strong. Particularly poignant was the image of Aunt Baru and Uncle Owen holding Luke as an infant as they look off into the sunset, with strains of the original Star Wars score playing underneath. The same sunset that Luke would look out on when he grows up.

I really liked a lot of Revenge of the Sith. I thought there were things that could have been improved, and there were elements I didn’t really care for. But there were also a lot of scenes and moments that I really enjoyed and found moving. I could sit here and write about how the trilogy could or should have been better. But I think I will take and deep breathe, and let out a sigh. A sigh of satisfaction from the closure that this movie provided. A sigh of exhilaration at the adventurous climaxes I witnessed. A sigh of relief because it wasn’t terrible. But most of all, a sigh of sadness because it is all over.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

What, no comment on Vader's Frankenstein moment, replete with a "Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!"?

Nice review -- you captured the good, the bad, and the ugly of the film quite well. But there is one place where I strongly disagree: Padme. Except for her realization on the lava planet, I thought her character in ROTS was a huge letdown. Both the first and second movies establish her as strong-willed and independently minded, first as a ruler, and then as a senator. In the third movie, she becomes a weak woman way too beholden to Anakin's irrational behavior. It's as if getting married and pregnant makes women powerless (maybe Lucas is making a political statement). In any case, it was dissapointing to see her become such a non-entity in the third film, just a plot device for Anakin's turn. It sort of reminded me of Garden State, where Portman's character starts off as independent and quirky, and spends the last 15 minutes of the movie crying until Zack Braff makes his final decision.

As for the Darth Plagius moment, my interpretation at the time was that Sidious was his apprentice, the man who killed him in his sleep, making Plagius Anakin's father. But I've also heard reasonable interpretations that Sidious could be Anakin's father, which is why he has such a strong connection with him (the ability to know his nightmares, to feel his danger across the galaxy, etc.).

Aside: why does Leia remember her mother in ROTJ? Was it a false memory? Also, why doesn't Yoda fight to the death against the Emperor?

I have more to say, but it will come with time.

8:46 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I know, I know, I was going to put that in there - but there was a lot to keep track of - but you're right his moment of "rebirth" is VERY classic monster movie.
As for Padme I can see your point. One of the things that actually irked me but that I chose to leave out of my review was the lack of any female characters who actually DID anything. Even that female jedi who gets kibashed, doesn't get so much as a light saber swing in there before she dies. She sort of softly collapses onto the foilage beneath her. As for Padme, I guess I never really thought of her as being that strong or independent. I did think she expressed herself in this film in a way that illustrated her own thoughts on the political situation, but I would have like to see more scenes with her in the Senate reacting and responding to what was going on. I do see your point, in that her pregnancy seem to take over her entire focus for the film.
(as for your Garden State comment, I am in complete agreement. I would go even further however and say that her character construction was flawed from the beginning as she played it like a 15 year old child. I was shocked the moment she was at the bar having a beer. She doesn't seem over 21 at all. It is also annoying she cries so much at the end. Why are women often times played as such emotional messes. It is bothersome indeed.)

9:35 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Oh and as for the ROTJ discrepancy where Leia says she remembers her mother, you are spot on. The only way I can imagine it be justified is that Mrs. Oranga dies when Leia is very young, and she confuses her memories of her, with memories of her actual mother.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Elliot said...

Jar Jar does actually have a line of dialogue.
It's a pivotal part of the movie.
He says "Excuse me".

6:10 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

wait, really? does he really say that?

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

Indeed, I was told by a companion that he says "'Scuse me" near the beginning of the film, but missed it myself. Maybe it's a subtle acknowledgment from Lucas, a sort of "Excuse me for inventing one of the worst characters in sci-fi history."

8:00 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

1. I really liked the introduction of General Grevious as a character, with the sole exception being that I kept expecting him to end his lines with "...for me to poop on!"

He sounded exactly like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

2. Why does Yoda make such a big point about how death is a natural part of life, hinting that what Anakin is considering would be a bold step toward the dark side? At the end of the film, PRESTO, he tells Obi-Wan to learn a variation of this power - a way to achieve immortality!

12:49 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Ok,
A) I can't believe I actually missed Jar Jar's line. I'll have to keep an eye or rather, an ear out for that when I go see it again.

B) Yes Mike, good point on Yoda. Not only was that inclusion of Qui Gonn so last minute and kinda forced, but he's like - Hey I found a way to be immortal!! And it's like dude, you totally weren't jivin' with that ideology earlier in the film. Very strange indeed.

2:27 PM  

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