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Friday, May 20, 2005

Ruminations on the Sith

Well, twelve hours ago we were getting situated back at the Grande Theater here in Greensboro: Brian and I for the second time in less than 24 hours, along with Lisa and this couple from Brian's small group at his church one of whom, Zach, I never thought it possible to be a Star Wars fan and THAT big a spoiler virgin. Me and Brian were the only ones with any idea of what was gonna happen, and I tried warning Lisa all afternoon that it was a harsh movie, but for some reason I think me and Brian were more choked-up about it this time than the first. Or maybe it was 'cuz we weren't watching it during the hours most sane people are asleep :-)

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith may be the most perfect Star Wars movie ever. Possibly (shudder) even better than The Empire Strikes Back. The power of that chapter came from how all the different elements - the plot, the pacing, the music, etc. - worked together. So it is with Sith but on a far richer and grander scale. The example that's standing out in my mind a lot when Palpatine orders the clones to "execute Order Sixty-Six": one of the biggest tragedies in a movie rife with tragegies and Lucas orchestrated its execution into something genuinely moving and heartbreaking to witness as a moviegoer. And then again later when The Duel happens: I always wondered how it would be initiated, and the exchange between Anakin and Obi-Wan and Padme before sabers clashed so brought home just how real these characters have become, that it's been haunting me more than the actual fight.

Sheesh, I don't know where to begin talking about Revenge of the Sith, not really. It's a deep, deep movie and it's going to take at least two or three more showings for it to really sink in. But here's a few things about it since having a little more time to think about it...

The Good

General Grievous: MUCH better character than I thought he would be when he was first announced. Grievous is NOT on screen just to become a neat Hasbro action figure. It gets established pretty quickly that he's a legitimate leader of the Separatist faction and war criminal that must be taken down. I liked him a lot... but geez what the heck is up with all that coughing? Does this cyborg have emphysema or something?
The Sith's reveal: Not nearly as dramatic as I imagined it would be, but it couldn't have happened any better. It's NOT this big flashy show by Palpatine that "I am Darth Sidious, fear and tremble!" but something much more subdued and seductive. And though it lacks the "umph!" now 'cuz we did know for all these years that Palpatine becomes the Emperor, I imagine that in decades to come when kids will watch the movies sequentially 1-6 instead of 3,4,5 and then 1,2,3, that this will pack more of a punch and ratchet up the "oh &#@% NOW what?!" factor.
Plans within plans within plans: Episodes I and II are made better by III (and I thought they were pretty good anyway) because there was a LOT of stuff that we maybe didn't catch in the first two that come into play here. The Trade Federation guys? They weren't there just to be a vapid stand-in for the future Empire, there was a purpose for them in the plot and you see how that gets used. Remember that amulet that Anakin gave Padme on board her ship in The Phantom Menace? Well that makes a return, but it'd be a crime to say now in what context. Will only say that there's TONS of stuff that went unnoticed in the previous entries that you'll be slapping your head and telling yourself "why didn't I realize that?!"
The lightsaber battles: No less than five of them here, and they're easily the best choreagraphed of the series.
Wookiees Wookiees Wookiees: A whole planet of 'em. Armies of enraged Wookiees fighting the bad guys. The return of Chewbacca. And the moment that had everyone in the theater going "awwwwwww... how cute!"
The Duel: Wildly exceeded my expectations. I won't say any more than that.
Ian McDiarmid's acting: it was Lucas' original plan to film McDiarmid as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi and then use another actor to provide the voice for Palpatine in post-production dubbing, but McDiarmid was doing so well before the cameras that Lucas kept his own voice in the end film. 22 years later and that is now shown to have been a very, very wise decision on Lucas' part. I consider McDiarmid to be playing three different roles in this movie: the benign politician Palpatine, the Sith lord Darth Sidious, and the deformed but all-powerful Emperor Palpatine that emerges later on that combines the first two. They're all facets of the same evil mind and McDiarmid did an amazingly believable job pulling it off. The last time an actor in a Star Wars movie was nominated for an Oscar it was Alec Guinness for Best Supporting Actor in 1977 (he didn't win though). If the 2005 list doesn't have McDiarmid's name on it I imagine a lot of people - and even the more casual moviegoers - are going to be severely disappointed.
John Williams' musical score: Quite possibly the best for a Star Wars movie, and one of his best ever. Williams combines ALL of the elements of his composing style for the grand finale: the standard sweeping fare of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, but also a little touch of his work on Home Alone, the Harry Potter flicks and even Born on the Fourth of July and Schindler's List. The background track for when The Duel breaks out, "Battle of the Heroes", will get stuck in your brain but in a good way. We also get a return of "Duel of the Fates", used during the epic clash between Yoda and Darth Sidious.
"When Vader goes bionic...": That's what George Lucas told James Earl Jones back in 1994 when Jones asked when was he going to get to work for the Plaid One again. Whatever nightmares you've had about when Anakin gets horribly burned and turned into a malevolent mechanical melange... well, that's what you see here.
The portrayals of Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme: There should be no question now, at all, that Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are up to par with the classic trilogy's trio of Luke, Han and Leia. I'd even dare say that what happens to the core characters in the prequels is far more effective and moving than anything - including the Han frozen in carbonite scene - in the classics. And that's saying a lot.

The Bad

Count Dooku's time on screen: Was my favorite new character of Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He's in this one not nearly enough and when he does appear early on... ahhh, you'll have to see for yourself if you don't know already. Suffice it to say I was eager to see more of Dooku and was disappointed that Christopher Lee's character really had very little to do here.
Horrible makeup for Tarkin: Yup, Tarkin - Peter Cushing's character from A New Hope that bossed Darth Vader around on the Death Star - shows up toward the very end. Okay I can accept that this is supposed to be a younger version of Tarkin and not Peter Cushing, but geeeezzzzz Louise must he look like a walking corpse? Just plain sick looking. Or maybe that was the point.
Political backstory on the cutting-room floor: Scenes were filmed of the younger Mon Mothma meeting with Padme and Bail Organa in Padme's apartment, the idea was that we were witnessing the seeds of the future Rebel Alliance being sown. Two thousand or so senators try to stop Palpatine from taking complete control but they get slapped down as political enemies later on. That is now edited out of the movie, with only a cursory reference to calls for Palpatine to step down. It would have been great seeing Mon Mothma now so that her presence is established for Return of the Jedi but hey it's George Lucas' baby and this thing runs almost two and a half hours, and didn't we see enough of boardroom meetings in the last two movies anyway?
Yoda's fate: We knew already that Yoda winds up on Dagobah and I've seen a still or two showing him landing there. That got cut out of the end product too. You can find a good picture of the escape pod that he uses to arrive on Dagobah in the Episode III vehicles cross-section book though.
Alderaan: Not "bad" by itself per se but finally seeing it and how GORGEOUS it is makes what happens to it in A New Hope that much more painful to witness. Darnit why did they have to make it so beautiful only to trash it later?!?

The Ugly

Palpatine's makeup and burned Anakin: The stuff of nightmares for any little kids that manage to talk their parents into letting them watch this thing.

The Best of All

The final scene: There could not possibly be a better way to end this, the last and darkest of the Star Wars saga for the big screen. A classic pose returns, for the first time. Of all the bridges connecting the prequels to the classics, this scene was my most favorite of all.

I'll prolly watch it again this weekend. It would be neat if the number of times I see this in the theater can eclipse how many times I saw The Phantom Menace, which was nine times (only two more than the number of times I caught Independence Day during its first run... what the hell was I thinking that summer?). And then that'll be it for Star Wars movies on the big screen, at least until another thirty or forty years when Lucas realizes he can make more movies after all and does a trilogy that I'll be taking my great-grandchildren too :-P


Anonymous said...

Chris, check your GMail. I sent you some of the shots I took with my phone while we were in line... :)

Brandon said...

I agree with most of your points except that I thought McDiarmid's performance as the Emperor was a little over the top. Most annoying was that his voice kept changing volume. It reminded me of the scene in the Austin Powers movie where Austin gets out of his cryogenic freeze and starts shouting at every one.

And seeing Independence Day 7 times? I could barely stand watching it once.

Anonymous said...

great review, chris