Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Star Wars - Revenge of the Sith

George Lucas’ much-loved franchise has taken some hard criticism over the past few years with his “improvements” to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Add to that a less-than-rousing support for the first two movies in the prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and you honestly had to wonder whether Lucas could deliver on this, the final Star Wars prequel.

We needn’t have worried. Aside from a couple of painful scenes between Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) awkwardly expressing their love in rather stilted dialogue (which are both mercifully short), the movie is largely successful and is easily the best of the early additions to the "Skywalker Saga." Many of the elements used in the film were originally intended for Episode VI (the volcano planet, the Wookiee battle, and of course obviously, the title Revenge).

Since the events of the last film, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has seized greater power while behind the scenes orchestrating events to his design with the Jedi scattered throughout the galaxy waging his war.

Although some of the Jedi are suspicious of Palpatine's ultimate goals and the possibility of him not relinquishing power once the conflict comes to a close, none among them suspect he is the architect of the entire conflict by creating both the Separatist movement and arranging for the creation of the Clone Army. With the attention of the Jedi elsewhere, Palpatine continues to tempt Anakin Skywalker to turn to the Dark Side of the Force. As we began to see in the last film, Palpatine has groomed the powerful but arrogant young man and introduced contrary ideas to the Jedi, suspicion of the Jedi motives, and an alternate perspective that promises to hold the key to something Skywalker desires. I will compliment Lucas on his subtlety in this storytelling, something which he never seems to get any recognition for. Eventually the Jedi catch onto Palpatine, but too late for them and for young Anakin, who has little choice but to throw his lot in with the would be Emperor. Chaos ensues as all Jedi are declared enemies of the Republic and Palpatine declares himself Emperor of the Galaxy.

What amazed me about Revenge is how much story is actually told, but yet how naturally it unfolds. One of the complaints about the last two films is the storytelling was rather stilted, much more so than the first three films of the series. Whether it was because Lucas felt more free in telling the last part of the story, or that he simply had more time to think up exactly how Anakin became Darth Vader, or simply that Lucas decided to tell the story the way he wanted rather than attempt to please the increasingly dissatisfied fanbase, the movie simply moves better than his last two efforts. Anakin's turn is tragic, partly because it might have been prevented if the Jedi action in the film towards both Palpatine and Anakin hadn't allowed such doubts to creep into the conflicted Jedi's mind. Palpatine played a perfect end game as his long planning finally results in the apprentice he always wanted.

Because the pace is better, the story is more interesting (face it folks, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for since ‘83), and the cast has been together longer, the actors, with only a couple of small exceptions, come off very well. Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) hasn’t been this good since, well, his death scene. McGregor has grown more comfortable in this role with each film, and I wonder what he could do with the character if given more time. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) is finally given some more weight and depth, with interesting consequences. Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) wonderfully chews up scenery in reprising his role from Episode IIJimmy Smits gives a noteworthy understated performance as Bail Organa. And Yoda? Good in the movie he is.

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning four characters. The first two are R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), both of whom are given a few moments to shine once more. In fact R2 nearly steals the movie with the great performance in the opening battle sequence. Daniels isn’t given as large a role, but just having 3PO in gold plating whining incessantly brings a few good chuckles. Alas, Padme fairs far worse. The character is used mainly as a plot device (in both turning Anakin towards the Dark Side and in bearing his children) while being given so little to do she often seems bored. The only stand-out moment for Padme comes in her reaction to the Empire replacing the Republic she holds so dear. Whether her failure is that of the script (and the scenes cut from the film) or her inability to do anything with what she is given is open to interpretation. The great surprise here is Hayden Christensen who seems to have finally embraced the character and made him his own.  There are several moments in the film that he has to balance multiple emotions. The movie relies greatly on his performance and he does not disappoint (except for some of that awful dialogue with Portman). 

A movie is often judged in two ways. One, is how does the movie hold up as a whole. Of the three prequels I believe Revenge lends itself best to repeated viewings. The movie wraps up the franchise in a way that recaptures some of the wonder and fun of the earlier films. Given its extended opening battle scene and the tone of the ending of the movie, Revenge is rated PG-13 and is much darker in scope than any of its predecessors (and Jar Jar is on screen for a total of about 45 seconds and utters only one line).

And two, by individual moments that stand out long after the movie’s final credits have rolled. This movie has several: the aforementioned R2-D2 sequence, individual moments from the opening battle, the fatherly talks between Palpatine and Anakin where he skillfully and subtly deepens the wedge between Anakin and the Jedi Council, the suddenness of the turn in battle and the fall of the Jedi, the climatic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and of course the birth of Darth Vader (which I can forgive an awkward scream that attempts to honor the monster films of Lucas' youth). I also should mention with these the final shot of the movie, which beckons so successfully back to the roots of Star Wars that the pangs of nostalgia are almost palpable on one’s tongue. It’s a loving moment, and a fitting one.

No comments: