May 13, 2006 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Film | May 13, 2006 |


Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith opens with a sequence that is — for me at least — literally breathtaking. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker pilot two small fighters through an overwhelming array of other ships and enemy droids to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, who has been kidnapped by General Grievous, the leader of the Separatist droids. Never have I seen a computer-generated world in which the “camera” moved so quickly, so fluidly — darting, whip-panning, doubling back, and circling around such a complex assortment of objects — in what feels like at least three dimensions. The Jedi survive an attack by small, gremlin-like droids that cling to their fighters and try to disable their power systems; Anakin knocks out the shields on Grievous’ ship; and they reach the landing bay, instantly backflipping out of their cockpits and brandishing light sabers, slicing a score of battle droids to bits before they’ve half hit the ground. They proceed, after some difficulty with an elevator, to the room where Palpatine is held, engage in two battles that would count as climaxes in most action-adventure films, and pilot the disintegrating ship to ground … all in about 15 minutes. (There’s one major flaw in logic, regarding a capricious abuse of the law of gravity, but I was sufficiently captivated to let that slide.)

The sequence is shot and edited with a crackling kinetic force that stacks up against anything in the previous Star Wars films, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, or any other CGI extravaganza. Besides the staggering spectacle, it economically establishes the camaraderie between Anakin and Obi-Wan, the development of Anakin’s powers since the end of Attack of the Clones, his growing ambivalence about the strictures of the Jedi code, and injects a number of genuinely funny moments with impish R2-D2 facing off against stronger but less clever droids. Then the movie turns into crap, for a little while at least.

Back on Coruscant, Anakin finds that everyone he knows has been storing up exposition in anticipation of his arrival. It’s giving nothing away to say that Padme Amidala in the family way, nor to mention that Supreme Chancellor Palpatine is chomping at the bit to turn Anakin to the Dark Side. It will come as no shock either that these scenes are written in plodding, risibly overemphatic dialogue. The only possible surprise is that the actors in question seem to be doing their worst work yet. I’m beginning to think that Natalie Portman’s beauty and charisma have been getting her a free ride from critics. She’s played some lovely ingenues, but here, as in her callow work in Closer, she seems far from prepared for graduating to more grown-up roles. (Which is not to say that her role here is written at an adult level, but it needs an adult presence in order to serve any purpose.) The script strands her in her apartment on Coruscant for most of the film, playing Mrs. Miniver to Anakin, rubbing her pregnant tummy and furrowing her brow while he’s off fighting his battles. Better that, though, than for her to be in the same room with him, where the treacly, intoxicated young-lovers talk goes like this:

Anakin: “You’re so beautiful.”
Padme: “It’s because I’m so in love.”
Anakin: “No. It’s because I’m so in love with you.”
Audience: [Cackles, guffaws.]

The finest actresses in the world would have a struggle with dialogue like this, but Portman’s on her third go-round with a Lucas script, and you’d think she might have come up with a strategy by now. Instead, she’s just as wooden as ever, looking very much like an actress who wished she’d never signed that three-picture deal. Worse, though, so much worse, laughably, sickeningly, obscenely over-the-top worse is Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. His performance, which was sneakily, subversively evil in the previous installments (his alter ego isn’t called Darth Sidious for nothing), is here so hammily repulsive that it’s hard to believe even someone as conflicted and weak-willed as Anakin could be seduced by him. In Attack of the Clones, Lucas set up parallels between Palpatine’s rise to power and Hitler’s taking control of Germany, but here he and McDiarmid have queered the game. Hitler rose in part because he had the charisma to convince a lot of not-evil people that he could lead the way to a restoration of German potency and dignity. Palpatine, particularly after a battle that leaves him instantly disfigured in a way that eerily (and unintentionally) recalls the dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, is so one-dimensionally, unappealingly, obviously evil he couldn’t seduce a hooker with a wad of hundreds. It’s also difficult to buy him as a powerful Sith warrior; with his slimy, sibilant line readings and effete manner, he’s a little too poncy to be convincing in direct combat.

(Political complexities have never been Lucas’ strong suit — as MSNBC’s Jon Bonne has pointed out, Padme’s home planet, Naboo, apparently elects queens but appoints senators — but Lucas does get off a good moment when Palpatine declares himself emperor: Padme looks on and mutters “This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.” It’s Portman’s only credible scene.)

Thank God there’s at least one actor on board who’s figured out how to deal with a Lucas script. Ewan McGregor, who seemed as lost as anyone in The Phantom Menace and only marginally better in Attack of the Clones, does some amazing work here, given the material. His lines are little better than anyone else’s, but he’s the only actor in the cast who gives them any real conviction. He’s figured out that the only way to survive a Star Wars movie with some professional dignity intact is to play the role in great earnest, and he gives Obi-Wan the weight and dignity that befits a Jedi while also seeming looser and more natural than in the previous outings. Helped somewhat by a new hairstyle that increases their physical resemblance, here for the first time he’s fully convincing as a younger version of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan.

It’s McGregor who reinvigorates the movie after the long sequence on Coruscant. Sent to the Utapau System to find General Grievous, Obi-Wan instigates a spectacular battle against the evil droid. Grievous turns out to have received Jedi training from Count Dooku, and he has the additional benefit of an extra pair of arms. Meanwhile, back on Coruscant (a phrase that ought to appear onscreen every few minutes), Palpatine is reeling Anakin in and making moves to consolidate his power. Inevitably, this leads Anakin to a confrontation with Obi-Wan, which takes place in Lucas’ most inventively inhospitable environment ever, a vision of Hell that’s more convincing and terrifying than anything in Constantine. The amazing thing here is that, even though 99 percent of the audience knows what will later become of both characters, Lucas has made the fight so tense and frightening that we’re on the edge of our seats anyway. From a precipice above a flowing river of lava, the fight moves across narrow catwalks, over crumbling scaffolds, and finally into the river itself, the combatants balanced on small droids and chunks of debris.

Lucas should be barred from touching a typewriter, lest he lay down a single line of dialogue but, based on his work here, I’d like to see him encouraged to shoot as many fight scenes as possible. It’s in battle against Obi-Wan, his mentor and surrogate father, that Anakin finally acquires the tragic grandeur Lucas intends. From one decision, entered into with basically good intentions, he has set in motion an apocalyptic series of events, sacrificing both his own humanity and the future he sought to secure. His betrayal of his master comes to symbolize all the greater and lesser betrayals that led him here, and for a few moments his fate becomes genuinely poignant. It helps that, for the first time in recent memory, John Williams’ trademark score works to emphasize and heighten the emotion rather than trying to pull it out of thin air. His Wagnerian conceits join with the visual spectacle in a perfect symbiosis of effect.

Lucas is lucky the scene works so well, as there’s little else in the movie that makes Anakin’s tragedy compelling. Like Portman, Hayden Christensen has no luck finding a tone for his character. He couldn’t do it in Attack of the Clones, either, but at least there he didn’t have to do much more than seem callow and impetuous. Here he’s not bad in the early scenes, where he responds to McGregor’s newfound looseness, but as the story progresses and he’s asked to bear the full weight of Lucas’ idea of operatic tragedy, he slumps under the load. He’s not an actor — not yet, anyway — who can carry the epic charge that’s required of him. His constant glower comes across as pretentious and unearned in an actor with so little gravitas. The role calls for an Othello, but what Christensen gives us is a dinner-theater Romeo. The characterization, though, is in part symptomatic of the series; Lucas has lived for so long among people who tell him he’s God that he believes he can spin grand opera out of comic books and Flash Gordon serials.

For all its deficits, Revenge of the Sith is still by far the strongest of Lucas’ new trilogy. Apart from the Coruscant sequence and the too-long series of closing scenes that set up A New Hope, the pacing is quick and tense, and the plot has a genuine arc rather than the sputtering fits and starts of the previous two installments. The technology available to Lucas through his digital effects technicians at Industrial Light and Magic is still improving, and he takes full advantage of the growing possibilities. Visually, the movie is an overstuffed cornucopia of effects and action, with the sense of grandeur Lucas loves but a more successful grounding in the story; the effects shots (and hell, they’re all effects shots) are integral to the plot — Lucas seems to have progressed past the point of playing with his new toys for its own sake and begun to figure out how they can serve the story, rather than vice-versa. His use of CGI comes close to the total environments of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City, but he uses it not as those films did, to create a particular kind of world, but to create worlds of all kinds. He’s clearly getting off on the virtuosity of his ILM team, but this time the audience is included in the fun. CGI has freed Lucas to take the characters wherever he wants them, and several sequences benefit from that liberty. Yoda’s climactic battle with Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones pointed the way to his amazing feats here, but this time others, such as the previously gravity-bound R2-D2 get to cut loose. Lucas does a good job, too, of connecting the film to the original trilogy, working in set and costume designs toward the end that dovetail with our memories of its bleaker, less opulent visual style, though there is some overkill, as if he felt he had to set every aspect of the later plot in motion for us to buy the connection.

Though it lacks the depth of characterization Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kirshner brought to The Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Sith revives its sense of wonder and at least attempts to reach its moral ambiguity. Anakin does all the wrong things but for reasons that are very human and relatable, if not always noble. He rejects the Taoist philosophy expounded by Yoda and loses everything that matters, but he becomes stronger than ever. The film goes a bit farther than the original trilogy, suggesting that evil is indeed more powerful and seductive than good, but that the price it asks is one’s soul. Lucas describes the Star Wars films as intensely personal, which suggests a perversely persuasive metaphor. Lucas, who has always seen himself as an independent filmmaker more concerned with art than commerce, threw in his lot with Mammon when he began the original trilogy. Is Revenge of the Sith a $115 million apologia?

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.

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Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()



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