Friday, June 12, 2015

Serious shit

Note: Only after posting this did I realize the death of Christopher Lee, which actually occurred back on June 7th, had just been announced. I mention him as Count Dooku in this piece -- strange coincidence. Anyway, I'm just adding this note and leaving the post as is.

I'm done watching the prequels. It's all downhill from here.

Now it's just Star Wars before the end of August, The Empire Strikes Back before the end of October (maybe a birthday viewing for me on the 20th?), and Return of the Jedi sometime before Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters in December.

And though re-watching the prequels was generally an unpleasant experience, it did end on something of a positive note. I'll explain.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith has represented an unusual movie for me among the prequels. It's the one I always tell people I think is the best, yet it's the only one I hadn't seen more than once. Hell, I think I'd even seen The Phantom Menace three times, meaning I have now seen it four damn times. That's quite the unjust imbalance.

I suppose what happened between 2002 (when I saw Attack of the Clones twice in theaters, having done the same for Phantom Menace in 1999) and 2005 (when I saw Revenge of the Sith only once) was that I turned 30 and officially retired my inner geek. It's not that that inner geek is not still lurking around in there, somewhere, but let's just say that the only movie I've seen twice in theaters since then on the strength of sheer "AWESOME!" was Cloverfield in 2008. And even that was only because my friend wanted to go to the movies five days after I first saw it, and he hadn't seen it yet. By the time Revenge of the Sith came out, my friends were all fully anti-prequel. In fact, one close friend even refused to see Revenge of the Sith altogether, and has kept his promise to this day. (Oh yeah, I did see Gravity twice in theaters on the strength of sheer "AWESOME!" Apparently, I'm not dead yet.)

But Revenge of the Sith really is the best, and this viewing confirmed it. After a muddy first 30 minutes that really left me unsatisfied -- I swear, that opening space battle is about as boring as that much hectic CGI can get -- the movie really gets down to business and keeps its focus on the end game of the series. There aren't any goofy interludes on Naboo where Anakin Skywalker rides on top of some goofy alien horse. There's just the steady descent into madness. And oh yeah, some goofy interlude on Utapau where Obi-Wan Kenobi tracks down General Grievious and rides on top of some goofy alien lizard.

But really, this movie is focused on what I have called in the subject of this post "serious shit."

Watching this movie again reminded me just how dark it actually is. You could accuse George Lucas of populating his movies with cute characters in order to appeal to little kids (Jawas, Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks), but you can't accuse him of soft-pedaling the end of his prequel trilogy to appeal to those same little kids. This movie gets as dark as it can be expected to get, including the severing of Anakin's legs and the subsequent burning to a charcoal crisp of his body.

If that's not enough for you, how about a particularly intense lightning bolt-lightsaber clash that prematurely ages Darth Sidious into a withered prune? And he's the one who gets off easy in that one -- Mace Windu gets tossed over a balcony. Then there's the (mostly off-screen) slaughter of the younglings by Anakin. And let's not forget that the end of those crappy first 30 minutes is a ruthless beheading of Count Dooku.

And though the general quality level of this stuff is still not quite what I would hope, I was surprised at how involved I was in the movie once it becomes entirely plot-focused and ceases the pussyfooting around that engulfed much of rest of the prequels.

This is certainly not to say I have no complaints about Revenge of the Sith. One thing I was analyzing especially closely this time was Anakin's conversion to the dark side, and my feeling toward it is fairly conflicted. I can't decide whether it's paced correctly or ridiculously sudden. I think I have to talk this out.

On the one hand, Lucas includes lots of little moments in this movie that represent rungs on Anakin's descent into pure evil. The first rungs are actually in the previous film, when he slaughters the Sand People. (Do they actually get called Tuscan Raiders at any point in any of these movies, or do we just know them as that from general lore?) The next step down is his merciless execution of Count Dooku, but even then he's still fighting on the right side. I mean, Dooku was responsible for a lot of fucked up shit, so killing him had a certain pragmatic upside to it -- the sooner he was dead, the more certain you'd be that he could not gain the upper hand again. And he follows that action by refusing to leave behind a wounded Obi-Wan no matter what the costs to him and a fleeing Chancellor Palpatine. This is still "our Anakin."

The next rung is Anakin's failure to be promoted to Jedi master, a denial that is delivered somewhat rudely by Windu and his cohorts. (They obviously had good reason not to trust him, but it's a bit of a chicken and egg argument -- if they had promoted him to master, would they ever have occasion to fear him in the first place?) We're meant to believe this is a deep betrayal that he feels more acutely because he has notoriously poor control over his emotions. Okay, that's fine.

What I wonder about are these visions of Padme dying. They are the key rung in Palpatine converting him to the dark side. Are we meant to believe that Palpatine planted those visions there? Or was he just relying on their random occurrence to execute his plan to convert Anakin? That seems too flimsy. Yet we are given no evidence that Palpatine planted the visions. Because Anakin is unable to let go of the things he loves the most, he is undone by his feelings and converted to the dark side. In trying to do good, he does the ultimate evil, epitomized by his mission to slaughter the viceroys and his eventual extinguishing of the younglings.

The problematic moment is when he interferes with Windu killing Palpatine and then immediately starts responding to Palpatine like a drone under his spell. Given how conflicted he has felt at each moment of his descent thus far, it seems like a real misstep to have him falling into "yes, my master" so soon after his decisive move down the dark path. The only thing I can conclude is that Palpatine is actually hypnotizing him in some way, a hypnosis that may have begun in that compelling scene at the "opera" (or whatever it is) where Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis. Without some explanation like that it feels too abrupt. But considering that most of Anakin's downfall needs to take place in this movie, and a lot of stuff still needs to happen after it occurs, the movie handles it reasonably well.

The fact that I am still compelled to provide this level of analysis of the film ten years later, after every internet troll and his mother has torn the bowels out of these movies, means that they had to be doing certain things right.

A few isolated observations about this movie, which all have to do with bit parts:

I thought it was pretty funny that Peter Mayhew, the actor who plays/played Chewbacca, receives a prominent acknowledgement in the closing credits, even though Chewbacca is barely in the movie and when he is, he is not "our Chewbacca" (in other words, he has no personality). I even thought it might be a digital Chewbacca, though if so, it was probably Mayhew doing the motion capture. I thought it was even funnier, then, that Ahmed Best received a prominent listing in the closing credits, when Jar Jar Binks is in exactly one scene for exactly two seconds, seen marching dejectedly in Padme's funeral procession. He doesn't even speak a line of dialogue. Did they really need Best to don the mocap ping pong balls just to walk as a dejected Jar Jar for two seconds?

Then there's the case of Joel Edgerton appearing as Uncle Owen. I was going to say how funny it was that they cast Edgerton, who already had a career going, just for one two-second scene in which he turns toward the rising suns of Tatooine holding the baby Luke. However, just now I looked it up and realized that he actually appears in the previous episode, a fact I'd forgotten. (You'd think I'd remember, having just seen Attack of the Clones six weeks ago.) So, just strike this most recent paragraph from the record. (Go back and delete it, you say? Never!)

A final thought on the prequels ...

What I've determined is that although this was nobody's idea of a perfect prequel trilogy -- probably not even George Lucas' idea -- what we've tended to forget in the past 15+ years of prequel bashing is just how high the bar was. We seem to believe that it should have been "easy" for Lucas to duplicate the magic of the original trilogy, when we all know how hard it is to maintain a particular level of quality in anything great, be it a movie series, a TV show, a musical act's discography or even a collection of popular novels. Where I disagree with the haters is the extent to which George Lucas failed, and what we had a right to realistically expect from him. They seem to think that anything less than the neighborhood of the quality of the original movies is a massive disappointment, whereas I would argue that the way he went about making these movies was basically reasonable and consistent with the intended spirit of Star Wars. He didn't outrageously miscalculate where to take the story or which actors to cast to play which parts. He just produced results that ended up being sort of flat -- on their own terms for sure, but especially when compared to the original movies.

And look, flat Star Wars is still Star Wars.

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