Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Case for "Revenge of the Sith"

If you're not with me, then you're my enemy!

That paraphrased George W. Bush quote, inserted towards the end of "Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith," could sum up the feelings most Warsians have on the prequels as a whole. Having decided that those seven-some hours of cinema were most definitely not with them or their love of Star Wars, they've declared them to be a mortal enemy.

But, as Obi-Wan retorts, only the Sith deal in absolutes. And as we are not Sith, it is time we abandon wholesale judgement of the entire trilogy without nuance. It was, on the whole, a lifeless and frustrating saga. But it did have its moments and qualities--no more so than its final entry, "Revenge of the Sith."

When it was released, in 2005, some hoped that Lucas had righted the ship with "Sith" and would finally deliver on the lost promise of the Star Wars backstory. Alas, he hadn't, not quite. All the things we loathed about the prequels--convoluted plots hinging on details only Lucas seems to understand, overindulgent and hyperactive computer-generated effects, baffling line readings performed against obvious bluescreens--are still there. I get why many fans throw this one in the dustbin with Jar-Jar.

But after what seems like two and a half movies of throat-clearing, Lucas finally gets around to telling the story he wanted to tell, and you can almost hear the moment when things gently click into place. The epic scope of the vision of his pre-Empire galaxy, before only appreciated, can begin to be felt. The result is something that doesn't quite feel worthy of its "Star Wars" prefix but works, modestly, on its own level--a well-funded, wannabe Orwellian fable of how a once-mighty Republic shifts into fascism due to war, fear, hubris, and blind complacency on the part of those who could have stopped it.

In the first "Star Wars" and the two films which followed it, George Lucas famously took Joseph Campbell's principles of mythology and inserted them into a sci-fi universe built from the spare parts of nearly every movie Lucas loved.

With the prequels, he tries something similar--except he subs in Shakespeare for Campbell, a weightier story of personal and political tragedy. The problem is that Campbell naturally lends itself to adventure stories--that's what mythology often is, isn't it?--whereas Shakespearean tragedy just doesn't. Shakespeare has swordfights and the like, but they're not really the point. I'm still convinced a better writing and directing team could have pulled this off, but Lucas never seemed to grasp the storytelling challenge before him. The result was convoluted alliances and conflicts which left audiences baffled and (correctly) assuming it was all arbitrary and aside the point. (Case in point: Why was the second entry called "Attack of the Clones" when the clones--actually, just normal storm troopers--were fighting with the heroes?)

The exact politics of "Sith" seemed, in 2005, obviously aimed towards George W. Bush and the interminable Mideast conflicts of his presidency. Which is odd, because Lucas must have had most of the plot mapped out well before 1999, when Dubya was still safely contained to Texas. Lucas himself claims Richard Nixon and Vietnam were his inspiration for the story he first imagined 40 years ago. Watched in this age of Internet fury, it can maybe be read as a parable about the dangers of allowing unguarded passions to overwhelm reason and respect for liberty.

The plot--as I assume many of you already know, but I will keep vague for those who (I hope) might decide to finally watch after reading this--begins after years of sectarian warfare have gripped the Galactic Republic. Meanwhile, the young Anakin Skywalker has entered into a secret marriage with Senator Padme Amidala, violating the Jedi code against dating. And she announces early on that she is pregnant--but he begins to have visions of her dying in childbirth.

This sets up the central emotional conflict of the story, as Chancellor Palpatine--who looks a lot like the Emperor for "Return of the Jedi," and gee whiz is played by the same guy!--begins to seduce Anakin with hints about the death-defying power of the Dark Side. "Death is a natural part of life," Yoda advises, but this is, understandably, little comfort to Anakin.

Just what is the point--that Anakin is wrong to want to save Padme, he should just chillax about it? Or that he was wrong to ever fall in love with her in the first place? Just what the hell is Lucas trying to say here, that love leads to fascism?

I wish I knew. While most Hollywood movies praise embracing love despite its ups and downs, "Revenge of the Sith" seems to be taking the bold, opposite stance that emotional detachment is the wiser course. There is some tension here--certainly, more so than the prequel trilogy had managed before--but it leaves you a bit cold.

The movie is on stronger ground when dealing with the larger political elements coming into play. (Which is, I'll admit, the inverse of how Star Wars normally works.) Through adroit (and mostly unseen) manipulation of political levers and the emotions of a war-frazzled populace, Palpatine has achieved near total control of Senate and its accompanying political apparatuses. The end of the war--which appears to be near--could spell the end of his reign, but few mechanisms are left to ensure this aside from the Jedi, who seem to exist in a pure state unaffected by politics. (Palpatine views the Jedi as yet another political actor seeking its own self-interest--and given its lack of any sort of check, I'd tend to agree with him. Where we disagree is the conclusion he draws from it.)

In a roundabout way, Lucas is dealing with a question which has long fascinated and perplexed political scientists--what should happen if, in a democracy, the people choose totalitarianism? (We don't actually meet any ordinary Republic voters here--we just have to assume their leanings from the actions of their elected leaders.) This conflict causes an inevitable conflict between the Jedi and Palpatine, which only causes him to unleash his plans to seize total control.

Star Wars has always had a thing for Nazi imagery--curiously, on both sides of the conflict--but in "Sith," whatever was left as subtext became text. The last hour or so is filled with unmistakable parallels to the fall of Weimar Germany--fiery speeches given to adoring crowds, opportunistic accusations of treason or usurpation, marching death squads looking to snuff out dissidents.

It's here where the tragedy finally starts to kick in. There's some sense of weight, of loss, and that at long last George Lucas actually has something to say.

The Order 66 sequence--in which the noble Jedi are systematically shot in the back by their own troops, on exotic planets across the galaxy, for the crime of being in the way of Palpatine's quest for power--has my vote for one of the most beautiful and affecting of the entire franchise. It's one of the few times--probably the only time--when Lucas takes a scene we'd already imagined hundreds of times, and exceeds it.

The prequels were obsessed with bringing to us new, imaginative worlds--and to a degree, I think they succeeded. But only on those visual terms, which is a problem. "Sith" is one of the few times when the expensive scenery feels some connection to emotion and movement. In the Order 66 sequence, as well as an eerie earlier scene in some kind of high-tech opera, when Anakin faces the first of his many temptations.

This probably doesn't sound like a swashbuckling adventure--and it isn't. There's some early business about capturing the several-armed, cybernetic separatist General Grievous that is somewhat satisfying. But for the most part, this is well-animated tragedy, and is engaging on that level. "The Empire Strikes Back" found a way to be downbeat while still offering a thrilling climax of escape, but "Sith" does not have such a nimble narrative. Its only note is a mournful sigh, like Chewie's yelp.

I still like it. I also like when Lucas veers into total silent movie-style melodrama--such as when Palpatine screams "Power! Unlimited power!" while zapping away one of his few remaining obstacles. Or Padme's cringe-inducing but memorable line, "This is how liberty dies--to thunderous applause." Hey, at least it's not wooden. I liked Mace Windu's final confrontation, and how he was undone with his own little moment of hubris, having lost any faith in his democracy to sort out the crimes or intentions of its chancellor.

There are final confrontations, of course--the saber-fight on lava between Obi-Wan and Anakin we had been waiting decades for, and an unexpected one between Yoda and Palpatine. The latter is fine, for what it is, but it's part of what seems like a surrender by Lucas--an acknowledgement that fans weren't interested in these new worlds he had concocted, and that he would have to rely on timeworn and fan-tested tropes using memories from the original trilogy as a crutch. (It's not the only way that "Sith" can actually feel like a regression from its predecessors--Padme, once a spunky and driven political leader, is relegated to mostly out-of-action crying duty for this one.) People seem to like Yoda, and his fighting was the only part of "Attack of the Clones" that didn't make the audience want to vomit. Better do it again. And then there's also the long-promised Wookie planet, shot so much like a video game that it hardly matters what the creatures on it look like.

In fact, the Yoda fight is emblematic of the frustratingly inconsistent nature of "Sith" as a whole. Yoda is rendered in flawless CGI, of course, which is disappointing to those of us who fell in love with Frank Oz's magical puppetry. But the technology still gives us a few effective shots of Yoda contemplating the loss of his beloved Republic--along with some ridiculous business about him crawling around in air vents.

So, like I said, "Sith" isn't perfect. If Anakin's tragic fall isn't doesn't quite hit the mark, there's something about the fall of the society around him which does. The correct way to view it is, as I did, after the initial rush of energy before (and, for me, somewhat after) "The Phantom Menace" gave away, turning into outright pessimism and abandonment by the time "Attack of the Clones" rolled around. I didn't even see "Sith" in the theater. I only caught it years later on TV, and found myself oddly engaged. At this point, I didn't care whether or not it met my ideas of what a "Star Wars" movie should be--I just wondered if it was a good movie, and found that it was.

It wasn't enough, though, to redeem the entire project for me. It's hard to look at the prequels as anything but a pretty embarrassing failure. But what I didn't realize consciously until walking into the theater for "The Force Awakens" was that I wasn't yet entirely dis-invested from the idea of the prequels. I still felt like a "Star Wars" movie owed me not just adventure, but new worlds in this realm to explore, and a sense of where this galaxy was going.

To realize that director J.J. Abrams--and, it would appear, quite a bit of the Star Wars fanbase--didn't want that was a bit jarring. While "Sith" meticulously introduces the world we see in "A New Hope," "Awakens" is curiously uninterested with the implications of the end of "Return of the Jedi." There are (very incomplete) explanations of what happened after, for sure, but the movie clearly believes these to be a fussy necessary evil, needed to justify a return to the central dynamic from the beginning of "Hope" as part of its plan to echo all of the crucial beats from that classic. This is a curious strategy which has already been debated and dissected elsewhere--I'll only remark that in the best of Star Wars, the personal and galactic storylines work in perfect harmony, but in "Awakens" the latter seem to be in total service of the former.

The first scenes contain haunting images of fallen Star Destroyers and Imperial Walkers. But since the two sides have (apparently) been fighting ever since, and little has changed, they're mementos without meaning.

These are observations more than criticisms. Given my stance that new Star Wars movies would never work--which has only been bolstered by the movie's release--I'm not even sure there's a point in rendering judgement on "Awakens." Abrams and Disney have made a movie that's made millions of people happy, and that ought to be enough for anybody. Even me.

I only ask that as the filmmakers continue to explore this galaxy, they consider that there are not only new worlds, but new stories to be found there. If George Lucas could discover one, than anyone can.

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