Friday, May 21, 2010

Revenge Of The Sith

(Sci Fi Drive is doing a Star Wars Blogothon. Which coiencided nicely with my desire to write up one of the episodes that more or less gets taken for granted)

One of my biggest blind spots as a critic is that there’s a certain kind of movie I give a pass to. It has nothing to do with the genre or director, but a very specific set of circumstances. If I get saturated in bad hype for a movie, basted in the intensity of fanboy hatred from weeks and months before I get to see the damn thing, and I get competence instead of dreck, I tend to over praise, leaving me with reviews that often seem silly in hindsight. This is phenomenon I call, somewhat ironically in this case, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull syndrome.

One of the recipients of this Largess was Revenge Of The Sith. And yet the swift decline in the film’s post release reputation has made me hesitant to revisit it again. People forget that the film’s reviews at the time bordered on glowing. It still maintains an 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, even the far less generous Metacritic has the film hovering near seventy. People like Glenn Kenny, Roger Ebert and AO Scott gave it positive reviews. I didn’t just make that up. That shit actually happened.

And yet now barely five years later, hardly anyone makes the effort to differentiate it quality wise from its siblings in the prequels. I had been itching to revisit it when this blogothon gave me the perfect opportunity.

Briefly though I should establish my thoughts as a series as a whole. The original Star Wars is a giddy mashup of a movie both decades ahead and centuries behind the curve. It’s Lucas taking everything he loved about movies, Kurosawa’s samurai’s, John Ford’s Panorama’s, Hawk’s dialogue and the serial’s sense of pacing and putting them all in a single film.

Empire is to my mind even better. A dark brooding epic heroes journey, via film noir, and the final battle between Luke and Vader, resonates as the series’ emotional highpoint even before the famous plot twist.

Jedi has its fair share of problems (Fett’s ignominious end) but also some of the most arresting images and high operatics of the franchise. Despite its flaws it serves as a fitting capstone to a trilogy that still stands as big budget filmmaking at its finest. Ironically for something so huge it’s the fact that Star Wars is so personal that makes it great.

And yet… I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that Star Wars is the worst thing to ever happen to George Lucas as an artist. Now let me be clear, I’m not saying I hate Star Wars, I love Star Wars. Love it. But do you know what I love more? The Filmmaker who made American Grafitti and THX 1138. Now there was a guy with an eye for the poetic image, and an ear for human dialogue and behavior. What was supposed to be a detour, a glorified bit of pre Tarantino postmodern knuckle cracking ended up turning around and eating George Lucas. Forcing him to become a producer and entrepreneur, which was never his talent. This is all a round about way of saying two things 1) If for nothing else I’m glad the Prequel’s put Lucas in the director’s chair again. Because if nothing else they serve as fascinating documents of a artists head space. 2) Star Wars gave us a lot, but it took some things from us as well. And that talented young filmmaker behind those two films was first on the list.

As for the prequels, The Phantom Menace is a mess pure and simple. A film that manages to be worse then its maligned reputation, incompetent on a staggering scale. Managing to turn actors as naturally charismatic as Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Terrence Stamp into wooden boards. Centering itself around a performance by Jake Lloyd that is sinfully bad. And cribbing any interesting images it has from fucking Dinotopia.

Attack Of The Clones is much more of a mixed bag then it gets credit for though. Sure there are plenty of moments that can be described as “Not good.” Including the still mystifying soliloquy where Anakin expresses his love for Padme by describing how she is not like sand (?). But there’s forty percent of a real decent Star Wars movie in there, including the film’s chase through Coruscant one of the best action scenes Lucas ever filmed, Obi Wan’s journey through Camino and his bare knuckle brawl with Jango Fett, John William’s strong score, Christopher Lee’s malevolent turn as Dooku, and most impressively the delirious Coliseum Climax which plays like something Edgar Rice Burroughs would have dreamed up for John Carter Whilst on Mescaline.

While Revenge Of The Sith has its share of clumsy moments; Jones justifiably derided “Nooooooooooo.” Portman’s risible expiration (Robot Chicken said it best “Where did you get your medical degree poetry school?"), and a performance by Hayden Christenson that never rises above sniveling. It remains against the odds, a darkly effective movie, with some of Lucases most affective imagery. Which even in his degraded state is still saying something.

Things get on the right foot with, Lucas basically doing Touch Of Evil in space. Threading through a grand battle, that as a piece of showmanship still impresses, and as a victory lap is positively giddy. Its one of the most arresting shots in the series, not just the prequels and has a sense of scale and real wonder to it that manages not to be just taken for granted the way most empty spectacle is in Blockbusters.

Then we cut to Christenson and McGregor, still as stiff as ever. From a stunning display of visual filmmaking to a lackluster scene of verbal. Its rather typical of the movie. In short, Revenge Of The Sith is at its best when it shuts the fuck up.

Tom Stoppard simply put, did not earn his money on this rewrite. The dialogue is as clunky as ever, and it has the added indignities of dumping threads and themes the prequels had developed to one side (a necessary evil perhaps), to be forgotten or clumsily sown up in the least satisfying way ("An old friend has return- and fuck do you have any idea how much Liam Neeson WANTED for a Cameo?").

The problem was The Prequels has always been with the actors. Simply whether by miscasting or misdirection the actors have never been able to sell the saga the way the original cast was (Ian McDirmand being one clear exception). Christenson and Portman still share the violent anti chemistry they did in Clones (“Hold me like yo-“ you know what making fun of Padme Anika dialogue is like making fun of something an idiot kid wrote. “No… Because I’m so in love… with you…ha….ha….haa”). Portman is in particular poor form, having clearly checked out sometime around seeing the rushes on the first day of Episode 2. Even a more crucial relationship, that of the epic bromance between Obi Wan and Anakin, is also never sufficiently examined. As such the vows and recriminations shouted between them in the duel sound more petulant then grief stricken.

There seem to be only four ways to successfully speak Lucasian dialogue. Believe in it more then he does (Mark Hamill). Ignore him and adlib (Harrison Ford). Invest it with some mutherfucking GRAVITAS! (Alec Guiness). Or get so stoned you don’t know the difference (Carrie Fisher). None of these techniques were apparently used this time out.

Like I said the lone exception here is McDiarmid who just fucking tears into his lines like its Richard the goddamn III. And says the word “Unnatural” better then any man alive, with the possible exception of Tim Curry.

Still even at its weakest Revenge Of The Sith has an imagination and a visual wit far above its two predecessors. The opening action scene has verve and wit of Tex Avery. Playing with Physics both real (The ship beginning to burn in high orbit) and imagined (The Elevator scene). Imaginative even in the small details like the manic robot guards who fight on sans head. Looking like something from Early Jackson (yes I know its twice in two days that I’ve made that comparison).

And I have an odd affection for the much maligned General Grievous. A lanky diseased Proto Vader, with mad Jedi Killing skills. He’s a weird quasi finished design, with a demeanor as threatening as it is pathetic. His big action scene (rumored to be ghost directed by Spielberg and bearing a certain similarity to the unbothered by the rules of reality, action style of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull) is one of the most headlong rush and inventive choreography of any in the prequel. And it features the awesome use of a running Chicken Iguana I have ever seen. I only regret that Gary Oldman backed out at the last minute. His could have been that perfect bit of sleaze to push The General over the top into greatness.

Visually Lucas is even feeling spry enough to take a jab at Coppala. Mimicking the filmmakers Apocalypse Now Lighting style, staging, and mise en scene to a T in an otherwise rudimentary scene between Yoda and Anakin. A film that Lucas cowrote the first draft of and nearly directed instead of Star Wars. The mind boggles at how irrevocably different in so many ways the world of cinema would be, if he had done so, and tabled his “little space movie”. Its times like this that I wish I could visit that reality, just to see what the fuck it would like.

Whenever the movie goes dialougeless, or near it as in the haunting Order 66 montage, The massacre at the Jedi temple, the majority of the finale duel and the one actual well thought out scene between Adama and Padme. It reaches an operatic height like nothing in the series. A perfect marriage between William’s strong score, and Lucas’s sensous images. Primal images like Anakin standing among a room of the dead starring out into a world of fire. Or the decrepit black cloaked, Palpatine kneeling before the burnt limbless Anakin. Lucas draws on a wide visual vocabulary, cribbing from Dante, Milton, and Michael Powell (There is one shot with framing and motion identical to a shot in Tales Of Hoffman).

Revenge Of The Sith, may not be perfect, but it holds that same ability its predecessors had. That to fire the imagination.


Adrenaline said...

Interesting perspective. I want to mention one thing though, the scene that kills this movie for me. The transformation. Lucas could have saved the whole trilogy in a way if he pulled it off, but it's a complete bomb. Just laughably bad. Disappointing.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah. Well that scene kind of sums up my point. When its silent the transformation is great. Really dark stuff that takes the movie back to its thirties roots. But once they start talking you get "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"

SciFiDrive said...

George Lucas not only made one of the top grossing films but also made the most expensive flop-Howard the Duck which is quite sad for someone who made a cultural phenomenon.

AE said...

I have a couple friends who still won't see this, and it makes me sad. It's certainly not great but it really does have its moments. The final scene on Tattooine just had me verklempt. Nice job defending it.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thank you AE. This movie needs all the friends it can get.

I pity your friends who sat through Menace and Clones only to miss this.