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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Long post ahead, folks. I mean, lllooonnnggg post. Warn you, I did.

The time has come to talk of many things, all of them Star Wars. In the paragraphs that follow, I make zero attempt to skirt around plot details that may be spoilers. Seriously. If you haven't seen Revenge of the Sith yet, and you're still trying to maintain some semblance of being spoiler-free before doing so, please skip this post. Really.

OK, you're still here, which I take as permission to spoil the entire movie for you. So here I go. This will be part speculation on what the answers are to some vexing questions either posed by the new film or left unanswered by it, part explanation of what I think the film's flaws happen to be (yes, there are flaws, and I have never maintained that the Star Wars films were flawless), and, yes, a big part of this post will be a big sloppy love-fest for the series in general and this film in particular.

Now that I've seen Revenge of the Sith twice, and taken a couple of days to mull it over a bit, my original reaction stands: it's an astonishing piece of work, and I am convinced that it is a great film. Why do I feel this way?

Revenge of the Sith is, obviously, a tragedy in the classic sense that at its heart is a character who succumbs to his inner demons to the ruin of pretty much the entire world as he knows it. One criticism I've heard a lot is that since the film's ending is predetermined, there can't be any real suspense; it should go without saying (even though I'm going to say it anyway) that I reject this idea utterly. I read the Lord of the Rings books twenty years ago, but that didn't destroy my enjoyment of the films. The Passion of the Christ isn't a bad film, or a useless one, just because the fate of its protagonist is probably the most famous fate of a protagonist in history.

But there is a real point to be made there, and it's this: stories don't exist merely to get us from the beginning of a plot to the end of it, and learning what happens next is just one reason for following a story. One. It's not the only one. I liken watching the Prequel Trilogy (henceforth "PT", versus "OT" for the Original Trilogy) to setting out on a roadtrip whose destination is known, but whose route is not. If I want to drive from Buffalo to San Francisco, there are a lot of ways I can do it. Some of them involve crossing northern plains, some involve the grain-filled heartland, and others would take me through southern bayous and southwestern deserts. Hell, if I had an amphibious vehicle, some routes would involve a hell of a lot of water. Just because I know where I'll be at the end of the trip doesn't make the stuff in between any less worthy of the journey.

So that's the spirit in which I take the PT: a journey with a predetermined ending point. The question then becomes, not do I know what's going to happen to all these characters, but am I moved by what happens along the way. The answer to that, clearly, is an emphatic yes.

I know that this isn't a very popular opinion, but it seems to me that almost every bit of criticism I've seen leveled at the PT, from the most erudite film critics to the most foul-mouthed fanboys, hinges on matters of execution. It's the acting, the directing, the dialogue, et cetera. Well, I've never been able to convince myself that the acting is as bad as reputed; ditto the dialogue, even though I freely admit that it often is very clunky dialogue indeed. None of these matters of execution were so bad as to eject me from the story, which was the thing I came for in the first place. (And I should note that when I say that I admire story most of all, I'm not excusing the bad acting or wretched dialogue. I'm openly stating that I don't think the acting is bad or the dialogue wretched in the first place.)

So what did I admire about the story of Revenge of the Sith? I found it unbelievably emotional, and that to me is the key to the whole thing. But emotion is a tricky thing; talking rationally about emotion is like eating broth with a fork. I've got a list of arguments as long as my arm about why I think the PT films are as good as I do, but to someone who watches them and can't get beyond the supposedly bad acting or dialogue, my arguments aren't going anywhere. That's probably the way it should be, but I do wonder if perhaps we've placed a bit too much of a premium on dialogue these days. Movies that, to me, have great dialogue in conjunction with a crappy story are inevitably held in high regard.

What I admired most about the PT story, especially as it came to fruition in Revenge, was simply this: the way the events of the two trilogies are intertwined in cyclical fashion. Nearly every key choice faced by Luke Skywalker in his journey is preceded by a similar choice faced by Anakin Skywalker before, but Anakin's choices lead to ruin until it comes time for his very last choice.

The parallels were obvious in The Phantom Menace, with Anakin, like Luke, being a simple youth on a distant desert planet. Some fans, of course, were chagrined that Darth Vader should hail from the exact same planet as his heroic son, but in retrospect of making Anakin's fall a dark reflection of Luke's rise, this makes sense to me. Both leave their homes behind, the first by choice and the second by necessity, but both for the same reason: to join the Jedi. But their reasons behind that are different, and that's probably where the seeds of their eventual fates reside: Anakin leaves because he wants the power of being a Jedi, while Luke leaves because he wants to fight the forces of evil that have destroyed his home. Anakin, it seems, is following the adventure and excitement that Yoda later warns Luke are things that "a Jedi craves not". Looking at this in Campbellian terms, Luke at first refuses the Call to Adventure, when he first refuses to accompany Ben Kenobi to Alderaan; Anakin doesn't refuse his Call to Adventure at all. This is the first example of one of the faults that will lead Anakin to eventual ruin: his intense eagerness. He's always so damned eager, and everyone's trying to get him to calm down. Everyone, that is, except Palpatine.

Later, of course, both Anakin and Luke become Jedi trainees, but both are initially refused as such. Yoda clearly thinks that training Luke is a colossally bad idea, but he eventually relents, and fairly quickly, at that. Anakin, meanwhile, is refused bluntly by Mace Windu, who basically says, "We don't care if he has the highest midichlorian count in the history of sentient species. We're not training him." That's actually a huge moment in Anakin's story, and I think it explains a lot about the moment in which Anakin finally and conclusively decides to turn to the Dark Side in Revenge of the Sith. But more on that later.

Both Anakin and Luke have trouble sticking to the task at hand. Yoda bluntly says as much, referring to Luke: "All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, on what he was doing." Luke suffers the same problem again, when he has future visions of his friends in deep suffering, and he decides to abandon his training to go to their aid. And Anakin, at a similar juncture, had already done something very similar, when he decides to leave his assignment of protecting Padme on Naboo to go home and follow up on his dreams about his mother.

(BTW, I'm supremely glad that in Revenge Lucas decided to actually show something of Anakin's dreams. He didn't do this in AOTC, which led to a moment that has been widely ridiculed by prequel-haters as being, well, Anakin engaging in a moment of private enjoyment in bed.)

Of course, both Luke and Anakin fail to save their friends. Yes, Luke's friends escape (minus Han Solo), but they don't escape through any actions of Luke's, but because Lando Calrissian decides at the last moment to have a moment of integrity after betraying his old friend. Anakin's mother dies, of course, leaving Anakin feeling completely powerless - - a feeling surely unwelcome to a person who left his mother behind so he could go off and seek power in the first place. This leads to his first direct experience with the Dark Side, when he slaughters the sand people. And, of course, by disobeying warnings to stay put and not get involved, both Anakin and Luke get their asses kicked by Sith Lords, and both lose their right hands (well, Anakin loses his entire arm) in the fights.

So: after two episodes of each one's adventures, both Anakin and Luke stand in roughly the same place: both wounded and scarred and nearly defeated, and both having failed to keep their loved ones from coming to harm. And each is to face his greatest tests in the battles to come.

As both Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi open, both Anakin and Luke are far more confident in their abilities. Since Revenge focuses on Anakin's ultimate fall to the Dark Side, and since ROTJ climaxes with Anakin's redemption, the events that transpire in Revenge are by far the most important. Why does Anakin, then, turn to the Dark Side? The answer seems easy, at first: he wants to learn some technique Palpatine promises him for keeping people from dying. This was alluded to back in AOTC, of course. But it's not the only answer.

One criticism of Revenge that I've seen is that Anakin's turn is too fast: he is good, then he suddenly helps kill Mace Windu, and then this basic exchange takes place:

ANAKIN: What have I done?
PALPATINE: You have fulfilled your destiny. Join me!
ANAKIN: I will join you.

Yes, that probably seems a bit fast, if you view those events as transpiring in a vacuum. But they do not transpire in a vacuum, and the key is in examining just what Anakin is discovering here. He's finding Mace Windu with his lightsaber at Palpatine's throat. There is a lot of subtext to this scene, subtext which makes Anakin's turn here a lot more plain, and subtext that's apparently being missed all over the place.

First of all, Anakin tries telling Windu that Palpatine must be allowed to live and stand trial, which is a reversal of Anakin's own actions earlier in the film when he has had Count Dooku in the exact same position. Anakin knew that it was wrong for him to kill Dooku, and now he's trying to rectify that by arguing that Palpatine should not be likewise summarily executed. Windu is clearly having none of it, which forces Anakin's hand to act. Of course, the two situations aren't really the same, but in Anakin's mind, they are, because he's incredibly confused. And it doesn't help that it's Mace Windu who's about to execute Darth Sidious.

This is where Windu's actions back in TPM come into play. The first time Anakin ever met Mace Windu, the Jedi Master was visibly cool toward him, and events in AOTC and Revenge make it clear that despite all of Anakin's hard work and heroism as a Jedi, he has never gained Windu's trust. Meanwhile, it is equally clear that Palpatine has become almost a surrogate father to Anakin, perhaps the only real father figure he has ever known. I would posit that Anakin is not only tempted by the power of the Dark Side of the Force, but also in equal measure by Palpatine. He is joining a cult of personality here.

And this is where I think that Anakin's journey versus Luke's journey mark their real differing points: the role of fatherhood in the lives of each.

Anakin, remember, had no father. It doesn't really matter how he was conceived; the point is that when Qui Gon Jinn discovers him in The Phantom Menace, Anakin has never had a father figure. Qui Gon becomes that, for a time - - with Anakin encountering Mace Windu for the first time during this brief period, and being judged wanting - - until Qui Gon dies, and then it's all up to Obi Wan.

But Obi Wan is just not equipped to be a father figure to Anakin, not really. Here's a Jedi who has only just ditched the title of "Padawan" (and done so, apparently, without undergoing "the Trials"), and being handed the task of training the potentially most powerful and important Jedi in history. (This is the first, really, in a long line of incredibly bad decisions the Jedi make. It can almost be argued that the PT is a double tragedy, with Anakin and the Jedi in general falling because of severe character defects.) Palpatine, though, apparently steps in and fills Anakin's need for a real father figure. Anakin leaves Tatooine as a kid, starts having all these adventures, and meets two very important people: Mace Windu, who says, "We're not training you," and Palpatine, who says, "We shall follow your career with great interest!" That's where it starts.

We don't really see Palpatine taking young Anakin under his wing, but it's very clear that he has done precisely that: in AOTC, there's a clear bond between the two when they meet in Palpatine's office early on, and everything in Revenge hinges on that tightening bond between Palpatine and Anakin. So when Anakin is faced with horrible choice of assisting Mace Windu or assisting Palpatine, beside that shattered window on something like the five hundredth floor of one of those Coruscant skyscrapers, Anakin isn't just being asked to take a stand against the Sith. He's ultimately being confronted with turning against his father. And just as Luke does later on when he is likewise faced with the task of killing his own father, Anakin refuses. But where Luke later refuses because he thinks he can turn his father from the Dark Side, Anakin refuses and then realizes that this refusal has left him with no other choice but to turn to the Dark Side. Anakin's dilemma is the reverse of Luke's, and it plays out as such.

Anakin's feelings of fatherhood continue to fester. He is clearly less than thrilled to have made Padme pregnant, but still, he seems attached to the idea, and it's absolutely essential to note that at the end, when Palpatine tells him that Padme is dead, Anakin does not know that she has given birth. Darth Vader has lost the child he thought he'd have, and he never knew that there were actually twins - - which works just fine, as he doesn't realize this until the very end of ROTJ. (I've never had a problem with Vader not realizing that Leia was his daughter in any of the scenes in which they are in close proximity in A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back. I've just never assumed that the Force worked to that level of precision. It's not like, when getting ready to blast Luke out of the Death Star trench, Vader realized that the Rebel pilot in front of him was actually his son - - he merely remarks that "The Force is strong with this one.") So when Vader later learns that he has a son, he thinks that he can fill the father-void in Luke's life that Palpatine filled in his. But he doesn't realize that Luke has had father figures - - Uncle Owen, Ben Kenobi, and even to a small extent, Han Solo. The reason Vader's temptation doesn't work in TESB is that he's trying to tap into a void in Luke's soul that isn't there. (And also, really, because Luke isn't just Anakin's son, but also Padme's, and she turned away from precisely the same temptation to rule at Anakin's side.)

But a big part of Anakin's temptation is this business of using the Dark Side to save the ones he loves. Again, this mirrors Luke's temptation in ROTJ: remember all those lines in the later film when the Emperor is telling Luke that only by turning to the Dark Side can he save his friends on Endor. Luke almost snaps completely when the spectre of tempting Leia is made, but he catches himself at the last moment, which Anakin never does - - until just a few moments after Luke's refusal to turn. Luke's ultimate refusal of the Dark Side, I think, finally opens Darth Vader's eyes: all along, Vader has believed that it's impossible to turn back from the Dark Side. (To be fair, all the Jedi seem to believe this, too - - at least Yoda and Obi Wan believe it to be impossible.) Vader stands beside his surrogate father, watching as his surrogate father prepares to kill his son, in precisely the same way that he once killed Mace Windu, and he realizes in that moment just what has happened and what he has become. And because Luke refused the duty of killing his own father, Anakin Skywalker finally returns to that moment over twenty years before when he first turned to the Dark Side and does what he couldn't bring himself to do then: he kills his own surrogate father.

That, to me, is pretty breathtaking story construction.

Other thoughts on Revenge of the Sith:

:: Maybe it's that I've heard a lot of operas, but I had no problem at all with Padme dying of a broken heart. This happens in opera all the time, and the emotional strokes in Star Wars films tend to be operatic in nature. I'd almost love to hear a Star Wars opera. Yeah - - screw the TV series, I want an opera. I want to see Anakin versus Obi Wan as two tenors belting their arias at one another, and Padme's tragic demise as a soprano. That would be cool. I wonder who'd compose the music, though?

:: I wonder if the power that Palpatine uses to seduce Anakin - - the power to cheat death - - is actually the same power that Qui Gon has discovered and is passing on to Yoda and Obi Wan? That would be ironic, wouldn't it - - the same power ends up being the key to Obi Wan and Yoda equipping Luke with the powers he needs to eventually triumph.

:: I'm glad the film established that C-3PO's mind needs wiped, but I think it would have been a bit more poetic if a way could have been found for Anakin to do the wiping. I'm not sure how Lucas could have done this, but I think it would have been a nice implication for later on.

:: I had no problem at all with Vader's "NNOOOO!!" upon learning that Padme is dead. It was the lurching out of the harness, Frankenstein monster-style, that kind of hampered that scene for me.

:: The film's pacing is, to my mind, excellent; I was never bored, and this to me was one of those long films (two hours, twenty minutes) that didn't feel like it was that long. Yes, I did tear up several times, mostly during the Jedi purge, during the confrontation between Anakin, Padme and Obi Wan, and during Obi Wan's final, tortured "You were the Chosen One!" speech.

:: Seeing the Death Star superstructure at the end, now I'm wondering: since ANH takes place twenty years or so after Revenge, if that's the same Death Star that later ends up on the sorry end of Luke's proton torpedoes, and if it takes that long to make a Death Star, is the one in ROTJ already under construction, or to begin shortly thereafter? Some people have complained through the years that it seems repetitious to have another Death Star in ROTJ, but I always figured, if you came up with an idea for a superweapon, would you just build one and leave it at that?

:: After TPM, I was prepared to reserve judgment on the whole "midichlorians" thing. And, well - - Lucas has now not mentioned them since, so I'm left to wonder what the whole point of that was. If it was to simply make a reason for Anakin being fatherless, Lucas could as well have just posited that Shmi Skywalker's father died very early on in Anakin's life or abandoned them or whatever. I still don't think the midichlorians directly contradict the nature of the Force as described by Obi Wan in ANH, but as it is, they seem fairly useless story-wise. I suspect their real purpose is to give Qui Gon a reason to suspect that Anakin is not just a Force-sensitive kid, but an incredibly Force-sensitive kid. The midichlorians do not represent to me a big storytelling error, but they are an error nonetheless. Lucas should have either fleshed them out properly, or not mentioned them at all. (Frankly, a bigger error is in having the "What are midichlorians?" conversation take place on a landing pad as the ship is getting ready to blast off. That was just weird, I always thought.)

:: In a couple of places, I thought that the lightsabers looked, well, shorter than they should have been.

:: I liked that Obi Wan picked up Anakin's lightsaber after defeating him on Mustafar, and I liked that Padme was buried with that little pendant that Anakin carved for her. I loved how Obi Wan destroyed General Grievous with a blaster, and then tossed the "uncivilized" weapon aside.

:: I would have liked to see even more of the political side of Palpatine's machinations, frankly. I know, a lot of the political stuff is what people find boring in these movies, but I'd have liked to have seen him strongarm the Senate into his bidding, and the roots of the Rebel Alliance beginning in the inevitable faction that would have opposed him. And I'd have liked to have seen the popular view of the Jedi turn against them as well. George Lucas could have really drawn parallels between the fall of the Jedi and the fall of the Knights Templar (after AOTC, in fact, I was convinced that he was going in that direction). The parallels are there, to be sure - - particularly in the way the Jedi are completely unaware, almost to the very end, of their precarious position - - but that would have been a powerful historical analogy had Lucas pushed that envelope.

:: OK, I'll say it: the childbirth scene doesn't work. It's not a bad scene, by any means, but it felt flat to me. I think part of it was the incredibly goofy looking medical droids, especially the one that looks roughly the way I'd expect a toaster on the USS Enterprise to look, the one with the big green eye and the little red one, or vice versa. The scene's not that big of a liability, being itself an emotional scene and coming as it does at the end of a lot of emotional stuff, but I'd have liked it better had it played out thusly:

INTERIOR: Medical station - antechamber.

Obi Wan, Yoda, and Bail Organa wait outside a medical operation chamber. Through the windows we see medical droids working on Padme. Padme is delirious and mumbling through it all.

PADME: (whispering) Anakin, no…please, no…come with me…

OBI WAN: I pray that we were on time. Anakin hurt her badly, and breathing the Mustafar air didn't help any.

The antechamber door opens, and one of the medical droids comes out.

DROID: I am sorry. We were not able to save her. She lapsed into unconsciousness, and died soon after.

OBI WAN: She is gone?

DROID: Her injuries were not typically mortal ones, so we are not certain why she died.

BAIL ORGANA: (bitterly) She couldn't live without him.

OBI WAN: What of the child? Did the child live?

DROID: We were able to deliver both of them.


YODA: Two, there were?

INTERIOR: Nursery.

The three men stand alongside the bassinets, each containing one of the twins.

OBI WAN: Twins. I had no idea.

BAIL ORGANA: What shall we do with them?

YODA: Hidden, they must be. Discuss these children we must, for the last of the Jedi younglings are they.

Or something like that. (Don't fry my writing in the comments; I just tossed this off the top of my head.) I would also have had Bail Organa's wife name Leia, and have Aunt Beru name Luke. But that's just me.

:: I like the word "younglings", actually.

That's all I have for right now. I'm sure more thoughts will occur to me over the next few days, weeks - - hell, probably years. That's what I love about Star Wars: it's the gift that keeps on giving.


Anonymous said...

I had many similar thoughts at the time that the last movie came out. Glad to see I wasn't the only one!

Charlie said...

Only 4 years later...

I agree with much of what you say here, although I was more bothered by the language and acting than you were. Still, it's nice to find some well-articulated praise for the prequels out there.

I always thought (and I can't remember if I read this somewhere or just made it up myself) that the point of the midichlorians was to make control of the Force something tied directly to one's body. More midichlorians=more Force. This, in turn, was intended to be an explanation, down the road, of how Luke could spend a few months on Dagobah and come out ready to face Vader when young Anakin is one of the fiercest ass-kickers in all Jedi-dom; Vader being "more machine than man," his midichlorian total (and therefore Force-yness) is dramatically lower than it used to be. A convoluted way to explain it, but at least it sort of makes sense.

I agree, though - I think in the end George just decided it would be simpler to drop them.