Friday, December 08, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Like the last piece of a puzzle, REVENGE OF THE SITH completes the vast picture that is the STAR WARS saga, and as such manages to enhance all the surrounding films to some degree. Putting the "opera" back into space opera, the film is a classical tragedy surrounded by rich, moody visuals, high adventure, and even the occasional bit of humor. It's arguably the second-best film in the entire series, and a fine high note for the saga to go out on.

[I can't NOT spoil this one, folks.]

The Clone Wars are raging, and the film opens in the midst of a gigantic battle over the Republic capital of Coruscant, where the Separatists have managed to capture Chancellor Palpatine. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, now both full Jedi Knights, manage to blast their way into the Separatist flagship in a daring rescue operation. Anakin kills Count Dooku after a long battle, at the encouragement of Palpatine, and the three face off against the droid commander General Grievous (a full CGI creation with the voice of Matthew Wood) before effecting a crash landing on the planet. Grievous escapes, and the war continues, but Anakin is distracted by the news that his secret bride Padme is now pregnant with their child. Soon after hearing the news, Anakin has a vision of Padme dying in childbirth. Because neither of them can reveal their relationship, it's hard for them to get medical advice, and Anakin can't get much help from the Jedi Council, either. However, Palpatine, who has befriended Anakin and pushed to get him admitted to the Council (much to their chagrin), hints that the Sith may have had knowledge on how to stop people from dying, and that he may be able to help rediscover that knowledge. As Obi-Wan is sent off to a distant world to hunt down Grievous once and for all, Anakin puts two and two together and figures out that Palpatine is the Sith Lord that the Jedi have been searching for ever since his apprentice was cut in two on Naboo. Between the danger to Padme and Anakin's growing distrust of the Jedi Council, Skywalker's loyalty to the Republic and to the Order is strained to the breaking point (if that's not mixing a metaphor- and if it is, well, you have to do it sometimes.) When the Council come to arrest Palpatine (and in so doing stage a sort of coup), Anakin steps in on the Sith Lord's side, becoming his apprentice, Darth Vader. And all Hell breaks loose.

This may well be the darkest film in the series, moreso than THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and it goes without saying that the two share a tonal similarity in this regard. But it's a different kind of dark, a broader, more melodramatic sort of tragedy where the face of evil itself is revealed. Palpatine's use of half-truths and deception to tempt Anakin- this time successfully- echoes Vader's revelations to Luke in EMPIRE and Dooku's attempt to sway Obi-Wan in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. It's worth noting that in each case, the Sith lords do not actually lie- rather, they tell what parts of the truth best serve them at the time. Particularly brilliant is a scene where Palpatine tells the legend of an ancient Sith Lord who discovered the secret (of life?) of life (itself?) itself (*applause*) and was killed by his unnamed apprentice; we know he knows more than he lets on, and the juxtaposition of this exposition with a zero-gravity water ballet being performed in front of the characters adds an ominous beauty. A lot of what happens both before and after this episode is brought into further perspective. Yoda confronts the Emperor and fails (in an entertainingly symbolic battle where the two fight inside and largely demolish the Republic Senate, hurling the now-familiar floating platforms at each other with the Force), and gives up being a warrior to live the life of an exile. Obi-Wan faces Anakin in a fierce battle on a volcanic world (a story element that Lucas had in mind for some time before the original trilogy was even finished), and though Obi-Wan prevails and leaves his opponent for dead, his reluctance to finish off an old friend leads to Anakin surviving as the half-robotic Vader, thus explaining his insistence to Luke in JEDI that Anakin is lost to the Dark Side and must be destroyed. Anakin, meanwhile, is ultimately turned to evil because of his connection to Padme, but at the same time because the Jedi have forbidden romantic attachments; if relationships between Jedi and Senators were considered completely acceptable, Anakin could have openly sought out and gotten the best medical care for his wife. There's a lot to chew on here in terms of the morality of the setting and how evil wins this time around. Death itself emerges as a theme; Anakin wants to stop the people he loves from dying, and the Sith offer him a way of defying death, while the Jedi offer ways of coping with it, and in the end, discover a more spiritual means of returning from the dead.

It's also an astonishingly beautiful film. The visuals are rich, colorful, full of detail and moody as Hell to boot. It helps that the movie, setting up the events of A NEW HOPE, takes on some of the "used", grimy look of the original films, as opposed to the shinier and somewhat more austere appearance of the first two prequels (meant to convey the grandeur of the Old Republic.) It makes it easier for the actors to fit in with CGI backgrounds and characters, and gives a vaguely 70s look to some of the picture as well, to good effect. There's a lot of pure spectacle, as in the opening, a colossal space battle which makes up for the relative lack of space battles in Episodes I and II (the movies are called "Star Wars", after all), in Obi-Wan's extended face-off against General Grievous, which turns into a chase sequence through the caverns of Utapau, and in a battle on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. But the visuals, like everything else in this film, are geared towards conveying a sense of darkness and apocalyptic betrayal. Much of the film is rendered in rich, fiery reds and oranges, while the gadgets and ships become more black-and-white, foreshadowing the monochromatic universe of A NEW HOPE. (There's something symbolic about this, as, with the Sith coming out in the open and taking over the Galaxy, the morality of the universe also becomes more black-and-white.) The film basically features the same technical innovations as its previous installments (and maybe a few more on its own), but applies them towards creating a stronger, more primal emotional response. It's a sad film, and during a montage where the forces of the Republic turn on their Jedi commanders across the galaxy, I got a lump in my throat.

To be sure, the Anakin/Padme romance still isn't much fun to watch, though its presence is toned down substantially from the last movie. The dialogue is still corny (despite an uncredited polish by Tom Stoppard.) And Padme doesn't get to do much (scenes involving her helping start the Rebellion were dropped from the film after a rough cut ran over three hours.) But once again, Ewan McGregor is in pure swashbuckling form, channeling both Alec Guinness and Errol Flynn in a performance that reflects the enthusiasm he brought to the prequels, despite Lucas never being an actor's director. Ian McDiarmid delivers a performance that is both over-the-top and completely appropriate for the character, with some well-timed moments of subtlety; when Palpatine tells Anakin "the Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural", you can hear him very carefully selecting each word. When he delivers a speech to the Senate which essentially transforms the Republic into the Empire, he speaks with a Hitlerian intensity that sweeps the body into applause even though they've just surrendered all their power.

I don't feel I can actually do justice to this movie. It's not the best of the series, still lagging behind THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but I have to side with A. O. Scott who says it's better than the original STAR WARS. It's a wonderfully rich and moving science fiction film in its own right, and it also makes the later films more resonant. In light of the cataclysmic fall of the Jedi and the Republic, the situation at the start of A NEW HOPE seems all the more desperate. Vader becomes a more tragic figure, at first just a scared boy sent into a strange world, then a troubled teenager, and granted power well before he could learn the wisdom to use it. And the end of Luke's heroic journey also becomes the culmination of a prophecy by which Anakin finally does destroy the Sith and restore balance to the Force, resolving an ancient conflict through his own sacrifice. In short, REVENGE OF THE SITH does what the prequels set out to do, and though I hold the first two episodes in higher esteem than most, I admit that this is what we all expected from the start. The new STAR WARS films could never be as innovative and revolutionary as the originals, but they have managed to expand and deepen the universe of the films, as well as some of the philosophy beneath it. Looking back at the STAR WARS films, I'm most impressed by the totality of what Lucas has managed to create: a living, breathing fictional universe as distinctive as Middle-Earth and Narnia, its details filled in by legions of novelists and fanficcers and RPG writers and cartoon makers, rendered for cinema with exquisite craft. All in all, a Hell of a ride.

Grade: A

(And now I can finally get started on NaNoFiMo. To say nothing of my Netflix queue. And comics fans, I haven't forgotten you, I swear.)

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