by JAMES BRIGHAM
“Do or do not. There is no try.” These immortal words are spoken by the wise Jedi master Yoda to Luke Skywalker in the misty swamps of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. In addition to being Zen-like advice to an aspiring warrior knight, this bit of dialogue also represents my feelings on Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, the concluding chapter to his Star Wars epic. With each of the previous prequel films, I was able to look past the numerous shortcomings because I believed that they would be eliminated in the subsequent movie. “Lucas is just getting some momentum going. He’ll rise to the challenge of meeting the expectations millions of fans have built up over the decades,” I’d tell myself.
I stuck to this belief through every wince inducing bit of dramatic dialogue and childish joke in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. I held firm, as venerable actors were virtually lost in busy, CGI landscapes during countless scenes. My will refused to break. It was mental fortitude fueled by nostalgia and respect for one of my filmmaking idols. I was a moviegoer who had been conditioned to love anything and everything related to this 1970’s / 80’s space opera. Seeing that opening text crawl coupled with John Williams’ theme instantly made my eyes go wide and my heart begin to flutter. During this period, I suspect that if I had been spirited away to a dark and ominous interrogation room by unknown intelligence agents hell-bent on breaking my devotion, I could have withstood a fair amount of psychological and physical torture.
“Say it! Say the prequels are a load of crap! You know this entire trilogy is an experiment of style over substance; a mad millionaire’s folly to see how far he can push the limits of computer effects. Lucas is surrounded by pandering yes-men and he hasn’t directed any movies since 1977,” my shadowy assailant might have yelled while shoving bamboo shoots under by fingernails.
“No! That’s all lies! It’s his brainchild and he loves this story. This is the culmination of years of work and a fertile imagination. It’s the promise made by an idealistic iconoclast decades ago to an adoring fan base and that’s something to be admired,” I’d have cried before humming the opening score, my attempts to choke back tears only occasionally interrupting the tune.
“C’mon, man!” the other agent would shout as I was doused by a bucket of ice-cold water. “You’ve been brainwashed! You saw the first prequel three times – in the theater! You paid to watch Anakin Skywalker – Darth ‘Freaking’ Vader – run around as a whelp crying ‘Yippee’ and happily accept being called ‘Annie!’ Money from your wallet helped to pay Hayden Christensen to walk around like a zombie and whine. Your dollar bills went to Jar-Jar. Repeat: Jar-Jar.”
“It’ll get better…you’ll see. It’s the final chapter that everything’s been leading up to and it’ll rock. Revenge of the Sith will have made it all worthwhile. Stay on target – stay on target,” I’d mutter while rocking back in forth in my chair.
Needless to say, it was with great anticipation that I went into the theatre to see Episode III after midnight on opening day. I can honestly say that after seeing the film, I’d have rather been at home asleep. Time that I could have spent that night peacefully dozing was wasted seeing a terrible picture with few redeeming qualities. It was akin to watching a conductor direct a symphony with his back to the orchestra, and then seeing the stage collapse. To a film buff who tends to find shining points of worth in nearly every picture, this was a rude awakening.
And how did it happen? What did this movie lack that I found to be prevalent in the first three films of the holy trilogy from my youth? I think it can be chalked up to two things: lack of heart and lack of humility. For all the millions of dollars spent on “A” list casting and state-of-the-art special effects, Lucas failed to recognize his limitations and to invoke the charm found throughout the earlier films.
Compare the flashy, CGI-driven, hyper-speed dogfight that opens Revenge of the Sith to the laborious, stop motion animation and green screen effects that filled the Hoth battle sequence from The Empire Strikes Back. There’s ten times the excitement and appeal in watching the AT-AT walker slowly emerge from the snow than there is in seeing 300 ships of different colors whirl around space in glorified screen saver mode. The effects from the original films, though great at the time, were likely still hampering Lucas’ vision, and he made better movies as a result. The humanity of the actors and their heroic journeys were the magnetic center of the big budget visual feast. They were a part of the crazy action onscreen and not playing second fiddle to it. Here, it seems as if Lucas is so fixated on what he can do via the computer effects that he’s forgotten what he had to do when the sky was the limit. He had to build ground for his actors and story to stand on.
There are those who would contend that the acting in these films is no better or worse than what was found in the original trilogy. On that point, and especially for this film, I would heartily disagree. The lines from the first Star Wars films, while often hammy, were delivered with gusto and wit, making them part of the pop culture lexicon. Quotes from these movies are thrown about on a daily basis amongst hardcore fans and casual moviegoers alike. In comparison, how many lines from the prequels do you hear uttered in casual conversation on the street, at work, or in a bar? Aside from Yoda’s monologue on the nature of evil and perhaps Qui-Gon’s “bigger fish” line from Phantom Menace, these flicks are nearly bereft of the snappy comebacks and larger-than-life philosophical statements that I’d come to expect from a series of follow-ups to the one of the biggest examples of pop cultural phenomena ever.
Lucas should have recognized his limitations after Phantom Menace and brought on somebody (other than Jonathan Hales) to assist on writing Revenge of the Sith. He could have injected new blood by snagging Frank Darabont, M. Night Shyamalan, or David Mamet. Hell, maybe Timothy Zahn would have cowritten the screenplay; the result certainly couldn’t have been any worse than the dreck I was forced to sit through the night I watched this disaster.
By most accounts, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman can be fantastic actors given the right material and proper director. I’ve seen Portman ooze quirky likeability in Garden State in an Oscar worthy performance. People tell me over and over to see Shattered Glass to witness Christensen at his finest. In Revenge of the Sith, I saw two young actors flail about directionless for agonizingly long stretches of screen time. Half-baked dialogue more suited for silent film era screens was met by chuckles in the audience. I looked at my watch several times during the movie, wanting it to be over. During a film that’s supposed to epitomize epic romance and heroic fall, this action would be seen as unfortunate. In a Star Wars film that’s supposed to do the same thing, it’s inexcusable.
Even the much ballyhooed lightsaber battle between rival Jedi Anakin and Obi-Wan failed to impress. It’s all payoff without buildup. Where’s the subtlety and mesmerizing poetry of sword fighting that’s so easily seen in films like The Last Samurai, Yojimbo, Highlander, and the original trilogy? I don’t mind the fight building to scenery-shattering explosions and deafening music as long as it starts out with some quiet, nail-biting tension. Ironically, Lucas could have learned a thing or two by watching a spin-off of his own creation. Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars contains a battle between Anakin Skywalker and a dark Jedi witch that’s an elaborate cat-and-mouse game in a series of watery tunnels. The soundtrack is only punctuated by the occasional dripping from the ceiling and it climaxes in a savage attack atop a cliff face that truly encapsulates the imagery of a noble hero giving into darker desires.
But yet, iconic scenes like the one just described are not what we end up getting in the movie. Revenge of the Sith delivers scene after scene of lackluster boredom that leaves the audience asking “Is that really how it happens?” We learn why Palpatine’s body turned into a wrinkled, ghastly mess; we see how the Jedi were wiped out; we witness the horrifying transformation of Anakin Skywalker into a heartless machine. These are mythical scenes that were often debated about by fans and explored endlessly in extended universe novels and comics. In this last installment, Lucas himself finally gives them an official treatment – and they suck. The whole movie becomes an exercise of inserting “Story Tab A” into “Plot Slot B” because, hey, it’s a prequel and we’ve got to explain how the hell the universe got from here to its status during A New Hope. The necessity of this process leaves the film feeling lifeless, predictable, and cold at the end, without any solid acting or dialogue to recall from earlier. And all the pretty graphics in the world can’t fix that.
1 1/2 stars