Being the Ongoing Chronicle of the Anticks, Misadventures, and Odd Deeds of an Overalls-clad Wanderer.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fixing the Prequels: Revenge of the Sith (part 1)

I've been meaning to get to this for a while, but various things have distracted me and kept it pushed down the priority list for several months. But now, it really is time to start the final edition of Fixing the Prequels, by turning to the final film in the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith.

Before I begin, it's worth a reminder of what I'm about here. I love the Prequel Trilogy (abbreviated 'PT' hereafter), and have since I saw each individual film on first release. I found them all involving, exciting, and in the case of Revenge, emotionally crushing at times. I know I'm a minority in this, but I've never much cared about that. Even so, I must admit that as much as I love the Star Wars prequels, I don't love them unreservedly, because they are flawed. There are things wrong with them.

That's not an unusual opinion, but I think that my view as to the degree of that opinion is. Most folks seem to hold the flaws of the PT as fatal flaws, sinking the films to the point where the only appropriate response to them seems to be outright mockery. I don't believe that. I think that a lot of the flaws in the films are overblown; others arise from misinterpretation or possibly a failure to understand what George Lucas was at times really getting at. And still more perceived flaws in the PT come, I think, not from a sense of genuine error on Lucas's part but the simple fact that, by the time Lucas made these three films, tastes had changed in a lot of ways.

So when I talk about "fixing" the prequels, I'm not about wholesale rewrites and bagging on the direction of the films in all particulars. I point out flaws along the way, but my goal is also to highlight the things in these films that I find admirable, the things that keep me coming back to them frequently. My approach is to address two kinds of flaws: the ones that I think are real, genuine flaws, and the ones that I've heard cited as flaws from other people over the years but which I either don't see as flaws or as fatal flaws. I'm about credit as much as criticism here, which I think is a more measured response to them than a lot of the people who deeply despise the Prequels would admit. It has long interested me that, in almost all cases of such discussion, the people who hold a negative view of something are the ones who invariably claim to be seeing the thing objectively. My response is to simply point out that having a negative opinion is not seeing something "objectively"; it's having a negative opinion.

And now, with all that preamble behind us, let's move on to discussing Revenge of the Sith, a fascinating film that even as I write this I'm not sure about, as to how I'd go about "fixing" it. This is mainly because I'm not entirely sure what I think is wrong with it. But as I work through the film, I expect some thoughts will crystallize. So let's start at the beginning, which means as it always does in a Star Wars movie, a crawl:

War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.

In a stunning move, the fiendish droid leader, General Grievous, has swept into the Republic capital and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate.

As the Separatist Droid Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jedi Knights lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor. . . .

It sets things up nicely. I especially like that opening: "War!" This crawl is pretty blunt, with none of the "politics" stuff that many claim to have been bored by in the first two Prequels. (How they could be "bored" by a couple of lines of text is something I've never figured out, but no matter.) What stands out to me in this crawl, however, is that second sentence in the first paragraph: "There are heroes on both sides." That's an interesting line, there; it seems out of place, but I think it works in an interesting way: it calls to attention the ambiguous nature of the Clone War, the War to Preserve the Republic: we know that it's basically a fake war, started for no other reason than to trick the Republic into destroying itself.

Revenge opens with a massive space battle, of which I've heard many differing opinions over the years. Detractors say that it plays like a video game on the big screen, and is impossible to follow. This has always struck me as odd, because it's always seemed to me that George Lucas goes out of his way to make this incredibly frenetic space battle as easy to follow as possible.

After the crawl, we have our traditional pan down to a planet and a spaceship. (AOTC, remember, actually followed its crawl with a pan up.) The planet is Coruscant, and the ship is a Republic attack cruiser. The music dies away almost completely at this point; all we hear for about thirty seconds is a steady, but off-kilter (because it's in 5-4 time), beat of drums. The camera starts to zoom in on the cruiser, when two new ships enter from behind: small fighter craft. Only two. We follow these two ships as they skim over the surface of the cruiser, out into space beyond it, and then back and dive. The camera follows over the edge of the cruiser, and there – spread out before us – is the enormous space battle.

As soon as the two Jedi starfighters come into view, the music starts in again, with the famous "Force theme". We don't need any dialogue or to even look into the cockpits to know that our two Jedi are flying these ships. Also, of all the ships coming and going in the skies above Coruscant, these are the only two ships of this type. This isn't like A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker was only one of a bunch of X-wings. Even more, the Jedi starfighters are, by design, similar to what will eventually become TIE fighters, and those ships' thrusters emit cone-shaped blasts of exhaust (presumably because the battle is taking place high in Coruscant's atmosphere, as opposed to in the vacuum of outer space).

Another thing that interests me about this space battle is that we see almost none of it. Really. This battle clearly involves several times as many ships and combatants as the big battle at the end of Return of the Jedi (of course, a one-to-one comparison there isn't easy because that one has a Death Star in it), but aside from lingering shots that quickly flash by, we are shown nothing of the battle itself. Nothing of the strategy, nothing of which side is winning and which is losing, nothing of tactics. All we see of this battle is what Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi see as they fly through it, on their way to General Grievous's flagship. The battle is frenetic, and there is a lot happening onscreen, but it's not at all hard to follow, so far as I can tell. The battle is entirely secondary to their main concern: getting through it alive to land on General Grievous's ship and find the Chancellor.

So, after quite a bit of space derring-do that involves flying directly through a cloud of attacking fighters, evading missiles, and dealing with a bunch of small droids who get onto a fighter's hull and then scuttle about taking the ship apart, our two Jedi heroes land on Grievous's ship. I like a lot of the dialogue through here: at one point, Obi Wan notes "This is why I hate flying!", echoing two lines from Attack of the Clones. I also like how when Obi Wan's ship is infested by the buzz droids, Anakin's first notion is to blast them off, which has Obi Wan screaming in protest, at which point Anakin says, "I agree. Bad idea." So he comes up with something else.

What I also like about this whole sequence is John Williams's music, which is full of interesting things like quotes from the "Force Theme", sections in 5/4, and one heroic quote of the Rebel Spaceship Fanfare when R2-D2 dispatches the last buzz droid. This was a musical touch that I liked immensely.

Anyway, back to the General's ship, where Obi Wan and Anakin have just landed. There's an interesting touch here as the two Jedi take on a typically large number of battle droids: Obi Wan leaps out of his ship and ignites his lightsaber before his ship has even slid to a stop; Anakin, however, waits until he's stopped completely before grabbing his saber and hopping out to join the melee. I like that. It's the kind of tiny detail that gets lost amidst a lot of the melee, the kind of blink-and-you-miss-it thing that nevertheless illustrates something about the story and our characters.

Now Obi Wan and Anakin must make their way to the observation deck where the Chancellor is being held captive. This involves more run-ins with battle droids, malfunctioning elevators, and relying on R2-D2 when R2 is dealing with his own problems. (He has to hide from a couple of battle droids when Obi Wan starts talking to him through his comm-link.) I wouldn't change any of this material, because the banter and chemistry between Obi Wan and Anakin really works pretty well, in my opinion:

ANAKIN: I sense Count Dooku.

OBI WAN: I sense a trap.

ANAKIN: Next move?

OBI WAN: (grins) Spring the trap!

And this, the transition from the space battle to the derring-do aboard General Grievous's ship, is a good place to stop. Next time we'll rescue the Chancellor, land half a ship, and find out that Anakin isn't always shooting blanks. Excelsior!


Jedediah said...

I'm not a big fan of the first two prequels, but when I saw Revenge, I thought: "Yes! It's finally Star Wars again" - it had a much grittier look than the other two, not so perfectly clean, among other things. The space battle is one of my favourite Star Wars moments ever.

Alex said...

I really enjoy reading these, been waiting for your views/improvements for RotS for a long time.