Thursday, March 5, 2009

Revisiting My Inner Fanboy: Revenge Of The Sith

[Everyone is talking about Watchmen right now. At least, I think they are. Up until this week it’s seemed as if everyone has been talking about how “everyone is talking about Watchmen,” with no one actually talking about Watchmen. But I’m buried with work at my day job (you know, the paying gig), so maybe I’m wrong. In any case, a lot of Watchmen fans are going to be really excited or really upset this weekend. And that got me thinking about my review of Revenge Of The Sith, which is mostly about my relationship with the Star Wars series. Here it is, as written upon the film’s release.]

Revenge Of The Sith, George Lucas’ sixth and final Star Wars film (and the third tale episodically), begins with the kind of frenetic action sequences that typified its prequel predecessors. First there’s an aerial dogfight, complete with parasitic droids, and then there’s a collection of scenes in which Jedi swashbucklers Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi terminate dozens of mechanical foes with a few easy swings of their light sabers.

To those whose Star Wars allegiance leans toward the nonstop action and digital frenzy of 1999’s The Phantom Menace and 2002’s Attack Of The Clones, these early scenes in Sith will inspire a familiar excitement. But for the rest of us, especially those like me who grew up on the original trilogy, the first 20 minutes of Sith are nothing more than a painful reminder of unrealized promise, of wasted opportunity, of a bygone age, of a world we once loved a very long time ago, in what might as well have been a galaxy far, far away.

Officially, we 70s-born children of Baby Boomers are considered Generation X, but it would be just as appropriate to call us Generation Star Wars. For so many my age, Episodes IV-VI weren’t just movies of our youth, they were our youth, or at least a significant portion. Take me. I was born less than five months before the original Star Wars debuted. I was 3 when my dad took me to see The Empire Strikes Back, and when I turned 6, I celebrated my birthday and the upcoming Return Of The Jedi with an R2-D2 cake.

I had all the toys: the action figures and the gear that held them – Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing, and the Empire’s Tie Fighters. I went to school wearing a red backpack with Yoda’s visage on the flap and the phrase “May the Force be with you” above it. So powerful was the grip of Star Wars on our imaginations that in the third grade, more than two years after Return Of The Jedi debuted, my championship soccer team was nicknamed the Ewoks.

The movies remained, and still remain, fresh in our minds because my generation obsessed over these films in a way previous generations never could. It wasn’t that we had greater passion, just greater access. So far as I know, I’ve never once seen the original cut of the original Star Wars in a movie theater, and yet I’d venture to guess that I’ve watched that movie more than any other; my Star Wars fandom is due as much to the invention of the VCR as to the movies themselves.

We got our first VCR before I was in the first grade, and I can still remember the Christmas it arrived. It was silver and black, a heavy monster of a thing. Instead of the front-loading designs of today, tapes were inserted into a tray that popped up from the top of the machine. This beast worked in some form or another until my senior year of high school, at which point it became a 30-pound clock in my bedroom until I saved enough money to buy a replacement before I left for college.

Not surprisingly, the first tape I owned was the original Star Wars. It arrived the same Christmas as that enormous VCR, and in my mother’s memory the tape and the VCR set back Santa Claus more than $100 and $1,000, respectively. For that kind of money these days someone could buy the entire original Star Wars trilogy on DVD, a DVD player to play it, a TV to watch it on and still have more than $500 left over. And yet on a pay-per-view scale I’m not sure I’ve ever had a movie come at such a bargain.

By the time I was a teenager, still wearing out my individually-collected Star Wars tapes, my love for the films had hardly dimmed. In high school, completely by accident, I found multiple friends who had grown up loving the movies as I had. Together we not only enjoyed the series as it existed but traded “what-might-have-been” tales about the three episodes before our trilogy and the three episodes after that Lucas had outlined on paper but seemed unwilling to put to screen. You can only imagine our excitement a few years later when word spread that Lucas would not only film Episodes I-III but would repackage the original trilogy for rerelease on the big screen, too.

When Lucas’ tricked-up version of Episode IV hit theaters in 1997, I was attending Washington State University. Sleepy Pullman didn’t have enough screens to take a chance on a rerun, so a friend and I made the trek to Spokane (90 minutes away) to find a theater where it was playing. A few years later, back home in Oregon for the summer, I celebrated the release of Episode I – The Phantom Menace by waiting in line for seven hours to get a ticket opening day; an activity that was followed shortly thereafter by a two-hour wait to get good seats.

Despite, or maybe because of, my upbringing, I did my best to temper my expectations for the prequels. I reminded myself that Lucas hadn’t made a Star Wars film – or any movie for that matter – for more than 15 years. I noted that at the age of 22, I was far more likely to be critical of Lucas’ work than I had been in my youth, when the odyssey was warmly welcomed with blind acceptance. But these attempts at reserve were futile. I chucked them out the window the moment I read “a long time ago” and heard those trumpeting first notes of John Williams’ score. Suddenly, I was a kid again. The only problem was that The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones didn’t live up to my childhood memories. Not even close.

Looking back, the faults of Menace and Clones are more or less the same. Lucas went heavy on goofy bits like Jar Jar Binks, armed with the claim that he was making a kids’ movie, but at the same time he created characters that did nothing but ramble about politics in conversations so obscure that even adults struggled to follow along. The fantasy landscapes that were so vital to the success of the original trilogy were once again given great attention in the prequels, but, at the technology-friendly turn of the century, Lucas’ full submergence into CGI gave the environs fantastic detail but also a sort of weightless, lifeless quality. Equally dead was the dialogue, which reduced talented actors like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman to zombie-like monotone. Then there were the action sequences, which in terms of glitz and firepower put the original series to shame, but which were so frequent, so accelerated and so chaotic that they were frequently incomprehensible and infrequently exhilarating.

The Phantom Menace, undermined by Jar Jar and a now notorious “Yippee!” by Jake Lloyd (as young Anakin), is highlighted by two thrilling sequences: Anakin’s pod race and the three-man light saber face-off pitting Kenobi and his Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn against the awesome-looking Darth Maul. Those scenes didn’t inspire in me the same kind of excitement as the original trilogy, but they were enough that I saw the movie in the theater three times and bought the episode on DVD, if only to keep my Star Wars library intact.

Menace had some rough spots, I recognized that from the start, but I gave it a positive review on the grounds that it was a serviceable beginning to a vast saga, and because I figured that with his bookends set Lucas would rebound with a more focused Episode II. Instead, Attack Of The Clones continued the series’ regression. It’s a film void of redeeming qualities, with special effects that seem thin, a love story that is flat and action sequences that are either dull (Jedi vs. droids), cliché (the assembly-line misadventure) or ridiculous (Yoda vs. Count Dooku). I saw it once, hated it and refuse to see it again. Ever.

And so it was that this year, at the age of 28, I approached Revenge Of The Sith with mixed emotions. Talking to me in one ear was the optimist, believing that Lucas would finally see the light and breathe some life back into the series and his legacy. But in the other ear was the cynic, telling me that as bad as Clones had been, Sith could be even worse. The optimist assured me that the series would end on a high note. The pessimist said that I was stupid for ever hoping to see the prequels on screen, and that a clunker of a conclusion was the price I would pay for wanting to have my cake and eat it too.

I was so nervous that Revenge Of The Sith would flop that as the movie began I might as well have been covering my face with my hands and looking at the screen through parted fingers. With Attack Of The Clones all too fresh in my mind, gone were my hopes for the extraordinary. Now, as if watching a future-Hall of Fame baseball player, years past his prime, limping to the plate for his final at bat, I just hoped the film wouldn’t strike out and embarrass itself.

Sadly, for its first 20 minutes Sith takes home-run swings and gets nothing but air. Filling the screen are those predictable action sequences with swarming droids being cut to pieces by Jedi so effortlessly that you wonder why Lucas even bothers to show it. Back in Episode I, these scenes were meant to showcase the Jedi’s immeasurable talent and the droids’ inefficiency, but they quickly grew pointless (and redundant). Having Obi-Wan take on a battle droid is like sending John Wayne into a duel against an unarmed little girl. It’s such a mismatch that it isn’t worth watching.

Equally hollow is the continuing love affair between Anakin (Hayden Christiansen) and Padme (Natalie Portman), a couple with less romantic chemistry than C-3PO and R2-D2, or even Luke and Leia, who are brother and sister. From the start, the whole point of the prequels has been to chronicle the metamorphosis of a good-natured Anakin into an evil Darth Vader. Yet through two full episodes and almost a half-hour of the third, Anakin’s story arc is as flat as the desert of Tatooine. From the beginning, he has talent and knows it. He wants to be accepted by the Jedi council but is consistently denied. Several times throughout the prequels, Anakin steps before his fellow Jedi to demand some respect. He speaks calmly at first but then with a flash of anger. And since the second Jedi tenet – after the one about serving others – is to speak as if sedated, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu always reacts to Anakin’s mild temper tantrums by looking around the room with a pained and bewildered expression on his face as if he’s caught a whiff of a fart and is trying to determine its source.

I was beginning to wonder how many times Lucas could recreate this scene before the end of Sith when, midway through my calculations, an interesting thing began to happen. With each passing minute, as the storyline of Episode III drifted closer to that of Episode IV, Lucas’ treatment of the series underwent a similar shift. As if caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam, Lucas, perhaps against his own will, began to tell the Star Wars legend the way he had in the first place, as a simple mystical tale of good versus evil that is highlighted by special effects but not expressly about them.

Ironically, or maybe not, Lucas’ turn toward the light parallels Anakin’s turn toward the Dark side. The change begins with the scene in which Supreme Chancellor Palpatine – who all Star Wars devotees have long known is really Darth Sidious in disguise – begins to coax Anakin toward evil with a fable about Darth Plageus the Wise, who learned how to keep those he loved from dying but who could not protect himself from being slain by his apprentice. The way Palpatine tells the story smacks of the original trilogy, not just because the actor doing the talking, Ian McDiarmid, is the only human player from the original series to have a significant role in the prequels, but also because the Palpatine’s tale is meant to allude to the fable Obi-Wan tells Luke in Episode IV about the way Darth Vader “murdered” Luke’s father.

By making this allusion, Lucas does something that he might not even realize. He slows down. True, this scene could hardly be considered long or drawn out when compared to movies outside the Star Wars saga, but within it, and especially within the prequels, this patient, steady conversation stands out like a wookiee in a room full of jawas. And it’s remarkable what a difference it makes.

Except for his complex action sequences, Lucas’ prequel films have been chockfull of miniscule scenes of throwaway dialogue that at best move the plot from point to point but almost never do anything to evoke – forget about develop – a sense of character or even a mood. Up until Palpatine’s chat with Anakin, there’s almost nothing about the prequel characters that we didn’t know from the backstories of the original trilogy. But here, Palpatine, who as the Emperor in the original trilogy wasn’t much more than a figurehead, starts to become perhaps the most richly-painted character of the early films, and McDiarmid’s contribution to that is not to be overlooked.

The other character from the original trilogy who finds new life in Sith is Yoda. A puppet in the early days, Yoda here is a digital creation that’s as lifelike as a little green, pointy-eared creature ever could be. Some of that has to do with our growing acceptance of CGI, and some of it has to do with improvements to the craft. But like Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum before him, Yoda takes life not only from outstanding artwork but from the script that treats him as an equal character.

When Yoda and Sidious come face to face – make that face to knee – they engage in what is easily one of the best duels of the prequels, or even the Star Wars series at large. At last, it’s a battle with a hint of mystery, as we know that neither opponent will back down but that both must live. Nearly as exciting is the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan. It’s overdone and overlong, but it effectively explains the roots of Anakin’s physical transformation into Darth Vader, which is as significant as the spiritual one.

Speaking of spiritual transformations, what’s so surprising about Revenge Of The Sith is that Lucas doesn’t settle for just having the plot of Episode III line up with that of Episode IV. Although a little too late, Lucas actually does his best to make the final transition between the prequels and original trilogy as seamless as possible. Episode III’s final half-hour is full of allusions to the original Star Wars episode, and twice Lucas even uses – gasp! – actual, physical sets from the first film! Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of potential for CGI sets, both for the director, who can save money by filming against a green screen, and for moviegoers, who can be treated to fantasy worlds that can’t be built with bricks and mortar. For the moment, however, real still looks real and digital still looks fake by comparison. For proof, watch the scene set inside Bail Organa’s ship – the one that the Empire famously attacks at the beginning of Episode IV – and notice how the light reflects off the white walls of that set to give it depth, compared to any of the hundreds of scenes Lucas shot against digital backdrops, which are always exhaustively detailed but disappointingly two-dimensional.

Lucas has made his fame off of technology, but if he hadn’t been so dedicated to digital his prequels would have been enhanced, even with the same actors, the same plot and that same repugnant dialogue. Until a CGI-heavy yet emotional drama comes along to prove otherwise, I remain convinced that having actors constantly working against a green screen damages their performances. First, it hinders their ability to soak up the mood of the scene; just like a costume can feed the personality of a character, so can the surroundings. Second, CGI virtually eliminates the chance for any “happy accidents” or improvisation, because almost every shot needs to be storyboarded. Third, when acting for someone like Lucas, who’s stubbornly dependent on green screen, actors have almost nothing to do.

Think about that. How many scenes during the Star Wars prequels are nothing more than two characters talking to one another while walking down a hallway? The characters don’t sit down because there aren’t any chairs in the room. They don’t pick up a magazine because there’s no coffee table. They certainly don’t do anything as mundane as prepare a meal (as Aunt Beru does near the beginning of Episode IV), because that would require multiple physical props that would have to rest in an physical kitchen set. Thus the actors just walk and talk. And while that’s all they’re asked to do, it’s also all that it seems they do. No wonder Lucas’ dialogue is so limp.

Nitpicking aside, however, Revenge Of The Sith is a triumph: focused, intense, funny and dark (it’s the only Star Wars film to be rated PG-13, and while blood is rare the rating is deserved). Sith is the best movie of the prequel trilogy by a landslide, and probably the third-best Star Wars movie overall, ahead of Return Of The Jedi, which benefits from the momentum of its predecessors, an advantage Sith didn’t have.

It seems now that Lucas just needed a two-film warm-up to get in the zone, and I wonder whether he sees what I do: that the storylines for Episodes I and II should have been condensed and combined; that Revenge Of The Sith should have been the second film of the prequel series, ending abruptly, ominously, with the first mechanical breath – that chilling, awesome breath – taken by the helmeted Darth Vader; and that the third film should have showed Vader in his villainous prime.

Still, I give Lucas credit. Twenty-eight years growing up with Star Wars and I’m excited again. Twenty-eight years, and I’m back wanting more – a thought that was unimaginable to me when I walked out of Episode II. The wonderful thing this time is that “more Star Wars” is a surefire treat. The next steps in the saga take me home, to those old VHS tapes, to that original trilogy that suddenly seems new again, to the movies I’ll love forever and that made me love movies.


Richard Bellamy said...

It's great to have a GREAT film to wow you at a young age - to addict you to the magic of filmmaking. For you it was Star Wars. For me it was Ben-Hur. What is it today?

I feel bad for young people sometimes because they don't seem to have that great film to wow them. A while back it was the three The Lord of the Rings movies, I guess. Recently, it could be The Dark Knight. Or will it be Watchmen? In contrast with Star Wars, Watchmen comes out under the shadow of a fervently adulated graphic novel (or compilation of comic books). Star Wars came out of nowhere with no previously published novel or comic book series to live up to. It was a fresh story that would bomb or soar according to whatever it had to offer.

Tonight I see you know what - never having read the graphic novel - and we shall see how much adulation it merits by itself.

Joel Bocko said...

I loved this post, everything from your childhood recollections to your anticipation of and disappointment with the prequels to the redemption of the franchise in the final half-hour of Revenge of the Sith.

I was too young to see even Return of the Jedi in theaters (I was born that year) and it was only a decade later that I discovered the trilogy on video. But what a discovery! Six years before the prequels, four years before the Special Editions, two years even before the revitalization of the franchise (with the new toys, renewed media interest, buzz about the upcoming films, etc.) I saw all three films, back-to-back, with my father at the Wang Center in Boston. The audience cheered and booed as characters appeared this day it ranks as one of my favorite screenings ever.

In jr. high, I was so obsessed with the Star Wars movies that, as a kind of OCD asinine experiment, I would watch only certain scenes with certain characters, fast-forwarding through all the scenes they weren't in. One time my friends and I watched Star Wars and two of us pretended we'd never seen it before, asking stupid questions like "Who's the guy in black?" and "Are they in outer space or something?" which drove our other friend nuts. When I was bored or doodling in class, I'd even rewrite the cast list, reordering it to fit my notion of who should have gotten first billing.

Yep, I was that much of a Star Wars geek.

In 1999, though my Star Wars hysteria had largely passed, it was given fresh life by anticipation of the new saga. I managed to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was as successful in its own way as the originals and, aided in large part by a crush on Natalie Portman, saw the movie 11 times (the previous record-holders were Jurassic Park and - I think - Independence Day - with 5 each, which remain the second-placers to this day). But tellingly, I never purchased the movie on VHS or DVD and to this day I have not watched it since it left theaters.

By the way, these two lines killed me:

"Having Obi-Wan take on a battle droid is like sending John Wayne into a duel against an unarmed little girl."

"...a couple with less romantic chemistry than C-3PO and R2-D2, or even Luke and Leia, who are brother and sister."

Daniel said...

A moving piece, Jason, that also features your excellent prose and perfect metaphors.

You're about 3 years older than me but we share the generational bond of the original trilogy. Your reactions to the entire series mirrors my own in every way.

I visited the Redwood Forest in CA a couple years ago and it was like visiting Endor. Literally like walking back into my childhood. Of all the Star Wars settings its probably the most accessible, and I highly recommend any fan of the series to make a pilgrimage there.

Has anyone seen Fanboys yet? I've been back and forth about seeing it or not. At this point I'm leaning toward doing so.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all! I've been painfully removed from the blogosphere (and the theater) the past few weeks, but things are starting to get back to normal.

Hokahey: I think part of the problem for kids these days isn't a lack of a film to fall for -- it's TOO MANY films (shows, toys, distractions, etc) to fall for. I'm biased, so I think "Star Wars" is special. But "Jurassic Park" is the last example of a film I can think of that perfectly blended must-see cinema and must-have memorabilia in order to tap into a kid's imagination and make a film a part of their lifestyle.

Still, when a kid is home now, there are so many things to watch. Part of the reasons I watched "Star Wars" on VHS so many times is that it was the only store-bought movie we owned for quite a while. If I'd had other choices, who knows ...

MovieMan: I love the story of pretending not to know or understand "Star Wars." Of late, I keep trying to imagine what it was like to see Chewbacca through an adult's eyes. I bought into him entirely. Adults probably saw what I saw in Jar-Jar. Though at least Chewy doesn't speak so damn often.

Daniel: I've been to the Redwoods! And, you know, there are a lot of things wrong with "Jedi," but it's a terrific example of how an authentic (non-CGI) setting goes a long way to at least transporting us into the story. Fuck green screen!

Anonymous said...

Its a shame about the actors "just walk and talk" comment since that there are many examples from the get go of characters sitting, drinking, eating, packing cases, getting on buses - all kinds of mundane things that Lucas has always liked to put in these movies.

So that comment about not wanting to use any real sets was exagerated for critical effect.

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