Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Darth Vader, you finally reached the end of your beginning -- and your failure, as you once put it, is now complete. To say Revenge of the Sith is an improvement over the previous two Star Wars prequels isn't saying much, but what can be said is this: there's almost as much enjoyment to be found in Revenge of the Sith as there is in Return of the Jedi (1983). [Recall: Of the three original films, Return is the weakest. Our spacefaring heroes mumble through the motions as the narrative never rises above the obligation to tie up loose ends by way of a handful of action set pieces. Also, Ewoks.]

Sith begins with a terrific space rescue operation, only to then have its story engine clank out of gear, faltering into deep and near-purposeless exposition, chiefly political boondoggle smeared with embarrassingly lame "romantic" patter between Anakin and Padme ("You're beautiful because I love you so much," &c.) But there is a modicum of energy here, perhaps because this movie doesn't completely neuter itself in an attempt to cater to children. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were, in makeup and in tone, aimed at teens, folks in their early adulthood. Adulthood. Lucas has since tried to cover this by sugaring the saga with tie-in-ready Ewoks and Gungans -- even while claiming inspiration from the films of Kurosawa (specifically Hidden Fortress) and the philosophy of Joseph Campbell. You can't have both, George. And at least this time, that isn't really where he's aiming. I mean, the anti-hero of the saga gets burned nearly to death after having his legs chopped off by his friend and teacher, who then literally turns his back on him. Pretty dark for the kindergarten set.

Still, supermarket shelves are stocked with Lava Blast Pop-Tarts... and the six-year-old a few seats down from me in the theater repeatedly turned to his father to ask:"When does he turn into Darth Vader? When does he turn into Darth Vader?" Never mind that this was during the extended boring stretch that makes up the middle reels of the film and I was beginning to ask the same thing myself -- but, given that we're talking about Star Wars here, isn't that kind of wrong-minded, even for a six-year-old? Shouldn't the question be "Since the Jedi Council thinks Anakin is the Chosen One, why don't they trust him more? And why did the trade alliance fall apart in the first place?" Maybe I'm overthinking this...

Yeah. In 1977, my ten-year-old eyes had never seen a more cool-looking movie. Sith, while evoking that same spirit of fun, also looks cool. And that's about half the game: watching this final chapter link up with the first chapter (there's almost no way you can talk about the order of this saga and have it make any mathematical sense), like puzzle pieces falling into place. The world has known for 28 years now how Episode III would end. If Lucas hadn't made a fundamental connection back to the original Star Wars, he would have crumbled the entire enterprise. 

I read a quote somewhere recently to the effect that The Movies have outgrown Star Wars, that these prequels were unnecessary, that Lucas had already made his mark with the originals and shouldn't have indulged himself. On the other hand, moviemaking and by extension the experience of moviegoing are now evenly matched by the continued Star Wars saga. The 1977 film was the first genuine jaw-dropping wait-in-line-all-summer-long blockbuster. Quite a blast, and that was back in the days before mammoth cineplexes could exhibit a movie on 6 screens, ensuring round-the-clock showings every half-hour -- theaters would simply fill up, night after night. Word got around: You have to see this thing, it's incredible....

But now effects-laden, plot-by-numbers, summer popcorn action flicks are an established fact of life, and as if by rote we line up to see them. Just as the Ewoks of the original saga evolved into the Gungans of the new (with Howard the Duck as the Missing Link), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) gives way to National Treasure (2004). The Maltese Falcon (1941) becomes the remake of The Italian Job (2003). And Duck Soup (1933) morphs into Dumb and Dumber (1994). Is it any wonder Lucas chose the easier road for his prequels (Darth Vader is the clumsy result of Anakin Skywalker's disappointing childhood and subsequent forbidden love affair) rather than, say, a more nuanced avenue (Obi-Wan's colossal failure as a mentor begets the galaxy's greatest monster)? Who wants any actual opera with their Space Opera? After all: In space, nobody can hear the Fat Lady sing. 

Now, pass me those Lava Blast Pop-Tarts....

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