Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Monk's Lost Love for Star Wars Episode III

Yes, The Monk, the Monkette2B and some friends went to see Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith yesterday/today/midnight/whatever. As I noted earlier, The Monk has lost some love for the Star Wars franchise and with good reason: Return of the Jedi was the poorest of the prior batch and far surpasses the first two efforts in the prequel arc, which were (1) very poor and (2) bad.

Where does it rank? Star Wars itself gets an A because of what it is, even though it's not the best of the bunch. Empire gets an A as well. Return of the Jedi is worth a solid B to B+ because it had a satisfactory end to the series AND what is still the best space battle in movie history.

Phantom Menace was a C- movie and that may be kind; Clones was at best worth a C; Revenge gets a B-. With lowered expectations comes greater relative satisfaction.

So here's the good, bad, ugly and missed opportunities of Revenge of the Sith:

The Good: Ian McDiarmid, period. Also good: Yoda kicks a** again, some of the fights are great fun, Yoda fights Palpatine, Hayden Christiansen is much better after Anakin goes bad than when he struggled with his Dark Side/Light Side orientation, the last hour of the movie is solid stuff overall and is the one part of the three prequels that ties in with the original trilogy both in style, feel and quality.

The Bad: Samuel L. Jackson's portentiously droning Mace Windu -- he was absolutely awful. Notably weak: the Jedi other than Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, Yoda and Anakin. They were all taken out like suckers. The mystique of the Jedi suffers a lot in this film because most of them seem like just ordinary soldiers with light sabers. Other bad: Natalie Portman's acting, much of the dialogue throughout the film, and surprisingly some of the special effects.

A.O. Scott, the NYTimes' top reviewer essentially said this movie showed Lucas was far ahead of even Peter Jackson in special effects production. Not true at all. First: the lizard steed Obi-Wan rides whilst chasing General Grievous (droid army leader) looks like a sprightly version of those Clash of the Titans monsters and only slightly more real. Second: the backgrounds on the lava planet where Anakin and Obi-Wan had their duel looked nearly as fake as they were. Jackson did a fantastic job integrating CGI effects (i.e., the Oliphaunts) with live action and did it consistently throughout 12 hours of CGI-heavy films.

The Ugly: Padme calls Anakin "Annie" on three occasions. If I wanna a cute woman macking on someone named Annie, I'll get Showtime for The L Word. Also ugly: the incoherent initial battle sequence as Anakin and Obi-Wan fly to save the Chancellor, the weak rolling thingamajig fight with Obi-Wan and General Grievous, and Anakin himself after losing to Obi-Wan.

Missed Opportunities: I probably don't have time to hit this category in full between now and the end of the month. But let's go with a few of them.

(1) Anakin's training -- the willful prodigy who grows to be the greatest Jedi before turning bad is an unexplored issue. The first movie could have concentrated on finding Anakin, his training inside the Jedi Temple, his innate abilities and his willfulness -- the first part in flash back, the rest in present day all with a rising conflict in the background (the trilogy was supposed to be Anakin's story, after all), greater use of Darth Maul, and an older and more versatile actor playing Anakin as a preteen to young teen instead of the kid who earned the moniker Mannequin Skywalker for his poor performance. Indeed, Lucas could have cribbed a LOT from Ender's Game to make the prequels better.

(2) The Jedi mystique -- Jedi knights were legends of the Old Republic in the original trilogy. Defenders of the realm, they were the janissaries of the realm with power over the Force and tremendous physical abilities. But we never got a look into the Jedi Temple's inner workings, we never learned how they obtained their exalted status or whether they were in decline when Anakin turned to the Dark Side. Instead, Lucas basically uses prostheses and funky make-up to substitute for any actual insight into what made the Jedi masters and the knights great.

(3) Darth Maul and Qui-Gon -- two underused characters, especially the former. If the Sith were believed dead and destroyed as of Episode I, how did Maul become one and apprenticed to Darth Sidious? And go back one -- explain the rise of Darth Sidious and his master before him, etc.

There are more and more and more. Ultimately, starting the prequels with Anakin as a nine-year old kid, casting Jake Lloyd and rooting the first story in a goofy trade dispute set a disastrous tone for the prequels that could not be overcome. Revenge of the Sith is interesting in its own right, and the last hour would be brilliant flashback material for inclusion in a LONG version of Return of the Jedi, but the rest of the prequels are basically rubbish.

George Lucas ultimately failed where Peter Jackson succeeded brilliantly. Jackson took a beloved story, stayed true to its roots and loyal to the tale's core philosophy. And the Lord of the Rings movies are outstanding.

Lucas is another story: He took a beloved story, expanded it and made a hash of things. He failed the fans and failed the franchise. What's worse, the whole thing was his creation; ultimately, he failed himself.

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