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Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Director: George Lucas
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, Samuel L Jackson and Christopher Lee

This is the third entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith!

Brief Synopsis


Three years after Attack of the Clones, the Galactic Republic is in turmoil. The Separatists are winning the Clone Wars and the Jedi are spread thin across the galaxy. However, even after major breakthroughs, they become concerned that the Supreme Chancellor is unwilling to rescind the emergency powers previously granted to him by the Galactic Senate to fight this threat to the Republic.

The primary players are Palpatine, Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate, who is finally confirmed as Darth Sidious; Anakin Skywalker, who is spun well enough to become his Sith apprentice, Darth Vader; Obi-Wan Kenobi, his former master in the Jedi order; Amidala, Anakin's secret wife who is pregnant; Count Dooku, the leader of the Separatist movement; General Grievous, the droid who takes over after his death; and Yoda and Mace Windu, two prominent masters on the Jedi council. Characters from the previous two films reappear, especially C-3PO and R2-D2, but also many others who often appear only in cameos that are easily missed. Chewbacca is introduced for the first time.

Quality


As with the previous two entries in the prequel trilogy, my memory proved faulty when it came to this transition film. On the one time I saw this, soon after release, I was highly disappointed with it, finding little of substance but what felt like a last minute attempt to segue into Episode IV and the original trilogy. I found very little of that on a fresh viewing.

This is certainly a flawed picture, but not for the reasons I remembered. Mostly, it's because this is really three films in one and they don't entirely play well with each other.

The first half hour is the next episode in the saga we've been following within the prequel trilogy, with General Grievous succeeding Count Dooku as the villain du jour. It's a fast and action-packed ride from the very outset, beginning with a wild chase within a stunning space battle. This is eye candy better than anything the second movie ever served up and it doesn't detract or distract from anything. It feels like George Lucas ratcheted everything up at least another few notches and it feels good.
Then, whatever he had in mind is summarily ditched to focus on the defection of Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. Chancellor Palpatine works on him consistently until, as the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, he acquires a new apprentice. Oddly, as this is clearly supposed to be Anakin's story, it's really Palpatine's because he has his own growth and transition to complete to become Emperor and because, frankly, Ian McDiarmid effortlessly trumps Hayden Christensen, dominating the film utterly in the process.
Finally, once the Empire is formed, there's a collection of transition scenes that are there only to tie up a variety of loose ends and set us up for Episode IV. Nowadays, they would appear after the end credits if only there weren't so many of them, but there are plenty. Sadly, they throw off the pace of the film, somewhat like a legal disclaimer after a commercial and many of them could have been safely cut without us losing anything.
What's oddest is that, unlike the previous two movies, which were heavy on plot but short on character, this one is really the opposite. While the events that unfold are pivotal, as was inevitable in a picture tasked with transitioning from prequels to originals, the plot is really best described through its characters, because they are the plot. This film is all about Palpatine’s triumph and Anakin’s defection to the dark side. That this means the near demise of the Jedi order is almost an afterthought and, outside of that, there's pretty much only General Grievous and we've almost forgotten about him by the time the credits roll. It's surprising to realise how focused this script really was and how little actually happens.

Of course, with a focus on character over the minutiae of plot, the actors ought to be able to shine.

Ewan McGregor improves yet again, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi with the quality of Episode II but with more confidence and a little more Alec Guinness again. He makes a few scenes reminiscent of the old master with clever intonation and mannerisms. However, he's overshadowed completely, because he gets less of the solo adventures of the previous film.

Hayden Christensen is much more controlled, broody rather than pissy. There are points where the pissiness comes out, such as when Mace Windu accepts him onto the Jedi council without granting him the rank of master, but mostly he’s broody and, eventually, believably powerful. It may not be the performance that it needed to be but it’s far better than it ever promised to be on the basis of the previous film.
Sadly, Natalie Portman is sidelined and her considerable talents wasted yet again. While she was mis-directed in the first film, like the rest of the cast, she's eviscerated here. She gets very few scenes and what she does get is pathetic. The tough senator from Episode II becomes a fawning girl in Episode III, another example of Lucas's inability to write female characters. He does give her one good line and she delivers it with all due weight. Palpatine declares that the Republic has become the Empire and she comments, 'So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.' Both Portman and Amidala deserved much more than just one good line.

Both Samuel L Jackson and the voice of Frank Oz get more and better material here than previously, but everything comes back to Ian McDiarmid. He grows Palpatine steadily throughout the prequel trilogy to dominate here in a real peach of a role, manipulating Anakin with panache. The thunderous 'I am the Senate!' may be his best delivered line but there are plenty to choose from before he goes overboard towards the end.
The constant invention of the previous films from a technical aspect continues but is lessened because of the focus shift. There are fewer planets, fewer creatures and fewer gizmos, but there are still great examples of each on show. It's great to see some action on Kashyyyk but we might miss it if we blink. Obi-Wan gets to ride a gorgeous giant parrot lizard on Utapau and we get to see more of that planet than most of the others, which are gorgeous but created for mere seconds of screen time during the execution of the brutal Order 66.
The final fights are faster than previous final fights, though not as well choreographed. The iconic one between Obi-Wan and Anakin is especially style over substance; it’s a spectacle rather than a fight, literally unfolding on a lake of fire. Sure, it looks great, but the few final seconds on the shore utterly trump however many minutes the fight took in all its other locations.
I should also add that there’s dirt in the Star Wars universe again, thank goodness, though less of it than there was in Episode I and would soon be again in Episode IV. Lucas's shiny fetish is less of a major problem and more of a mild annoyance here because it feels like the dirt was added only to assuage critics rather than because Lucas understood its purpose.

Progression


The script for Episode II took care of many of the transition elements needed for the prequel trilogy and Episode III does little more. Some subplots or details are ignored completely, to focus almost entirely on the transition of Anakin Skywalker, Jedi padawan, to Darth Vader, Sith lord. That's handled well indeed and far better than I remembered.

Count Dooku sows early seeds and his final moments are a major step for Anakin. Chancellor Palpatine's push for him to be his personal representative on the Jedi council sticks him into a middle ground between sides, where he's inevitably focused on which to choose. The story about Darth Tragus is well told, as it contains hints of truth rather than facts. Anakin turns much earlier than I remembered and the famous scene with the Jedi younglings makes a lot more sense. It serves well to cement the transition, especially when played with reluctance that turns into acceptance.
Most of the rest of the progression is in the background, with the occasional brief focus like the introduction of Chewbacca and the next step in R2-D2's evolution. He showed he could fly in the previous film; here he can fly, jettison oil and then set fire to it, taking down two much larger opponents. He's becoming much more of a protagonist than a constant bystander, but C-3PO is sidelined far too much, as if Lucas had given up on the idea he borrowed from The Hidden Fortress that drove the original trilogy.

The final scenes are all progression and focus on beginnings, even during the end of a trilogy. They start with the birth of Amidala's twins. I have no idea why both were named on screen, because that spoils a plot twist I know is coming, having seen the original trilogy first. It's good to see the nascent Death Star hanging in the sky. And, of course, there's the birth of Darth Vader in a ominous scene very reminiscent of Frankenstein.

Jar Jar Binks


After prominent shenanigans in the first film and more focused and massively important scenes in the second, Jar Jar is kept very distant in this third one.

Unless I blinked and missed something, I caught him twice in scenes where he appears only as part of a crowd. One is early on, when Obi-Wan and Anakin arrive back at the Senate with the rescued Chancellor. Unlike earlier movies, where he would have leapt up to welcome Anny, he simply remains in the background, though he tellingly walks into the Senate right behind the Chancellor. The other is towards the end, when he attends the funeral of Amidala, presumably back on Naboo, and follows her casket in procession.
That means that there's little here on which to base any more development of the fan theory that he's really behind the Sith. However, his change in behaviour could signify that he's done what he needed to do with Anakin and had handed him over to Darth Sidious, his own apprentice, to handle. Now, he's content to shift quietly into the background, showing up only when it would be advisable to show his face for political reasons.

So, after three films, I have to say that I can't find fault in this theory. It stands up to concentrated analysis and only the sequel trilogy will tell us whether it's true or not. I'll find out if he shows back up in Episode VII on Saturday. Of course, even if he doesn't, it's still possible that he was intended to follow this path but Lucas backtracked after the near-universal criticism of any viewer of The Phantom Menace over the age of five.

At the very least, this theory has made me reevaluate a hated character and see him in a completely new light. I know which side I'll be on now when it comes to geek debate. Time to set up a convention panel, methinks!

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