Tuesday, 24 May 2005

On the East Rand they say Stor Wors

I’ve been thinking quite a bit on how exactly to put my thoughts on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith into words that sum up all the conflicting emotions I have about it. In the end, I don’t think I manage to conjure up stirring prose, but I will back myself against the movie’s script any day.

That Episode III is a spectacle of mind-boggling special effects is undeniable and that alone makes it worth seeing. Whether that makes it a classic that can stand alone on its digitally enhanced feet, I’m not so sure of.

I am admittedly of the faction that feels the prequel trilogy has not lived up to the greatness of the original three films. While I have the Star Wars pinball machine, figurines and tattoo, it doesn’t bring me close to being as serious a Star Wars otaku as some people out there, especially those with a fear of removing packaging. I at least played with my figurines, as my legless 12” Darth Vader can attest after his parachuting accident when he didn’t make the swimming pool. What I’m trying to say is that I dig it, but not obsessively (don’t reread the bit about the tattoo, ok?).

I’m one of millions who have an opinion on how it could have and should have and eventually was done. Yet, we must remind ourselves that the nostalgia associated with the original trilogy stems from a time and place when things were very, very different. In 1977 BJ Vorster was prime minister, television in South Africa was one year old and elsewhere Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev were staring each other down. By the time Return of the Jedi hit our cinemas and drive-ins in 1986, the State of Emergency was in full swing and the revamped Ford Escort IV was introduced. To compare the pioneering impact Star Wars had on cinema, merchandising and pop-culture during that time with the internet-booked tickets, metrosexuals and switch-of-your-cellphone ads of 2005 and then say it's become crap and you don’t feel the same way about the new movies is wrong.

Well, then I am wrong.

Or, as Michael Philips in his blog, says in the words of Yoda: “Up, George Lucas has fucked it.”

I think the core of my sadness revolves around how it became to be about George Lucas and not about the movies anymore. By reading a few interviews beforehand (and I could only manage a few – even though the questions were few and far in-between, the answers were all so loooong), the central message to me was: “This is my grand finale, I don’t care who thinks what, it’s my story and I will tell it with my money the way I want to, and I will make history in doing so."

Fair enough. But ROTS suffers from exactly that: a lack of collaboration and critical reflection that could have improved it significantly. As Steve05 commented on IMDB: “Where's Lawrence Kasdan when you need him?”In the articles and interviews I scanned, there where a few tell-tale signs that Anakin’s unhealthy lust for control and power scarily emulates his real-life creator. When Ewan McGregor was asked before the release of Episode II what he thought of “Attack of the Clones,” he shrugged and said he hadn’t seen it. He didn’t know that it was the movie he just finished shooting, nobody knew until Lucas sprang it on the world. To his credit McGregor, once it was explained to him, said it was a shite name. And spare a thought for Samuel L. Jackson who, when shooting for ROTS had already started, only knew Mace Windu was going to die, but not how, why and by who’s hands… guess who wasn’t telling. Cerebus phrased it very aptly one day when he said: “Hy gee nie om nie. Hy druk almal ‘n groot vet pit in die gesig.”

This tendency to refuse input from others crippled the last three movies. Input from others needn’t even have been on the story, seeing as we’re effectively being told only one person can truly comprehend and contribute to it. What about some script-writing assistance? Getting feedback from the actors? All we are left with, and this was my overwhelming feeling while I was watching ROTS, is film-making by numbers, as if someone forgot to switch of the DVD commentary, with the voice of George Lucas in its all-encompassing ubiquity thundering above what was left of the Force, phrasing his thoughts on every scene in plain view of all: “Let’s start with a nice console game tie-in scene” or “This is to show character-development” or “Now we show some insight into his later actions.” I swear I heard it. It was frustrating how the story plodded along from dot to obvious dot, ensuring all the clichéd reference points of modern-day American movie making could be ticked off the list, while throwing in a dash of what ILM can do every now and again. It was like an invisible meta-plot was busy squeezing the film into course notes for Script-writing 101.

Even lenient reviewers have criticised the script (if anyone doesn’t, their reviewing license should be revoked), but what bothered me most was a further extension of the phenomenon above. It was as if Lucas forgot to remove script markers and never wrote the actual words. Cut to scene: Anakin kills off Mace Windu who flies out the window (now you know, Samuel). Anakin grabs his head and says despairingly: “What have I done!?”

May the Force be with us.

“What have I done”? Have we EVER heard that line in a movie? It’s as if Hayden Christensen, while practising how to pout and glare at the script underneath his half-closed eyelids, minutes before shooting, said: “Uhm, George, it just says here ‘Anakin stumbles back thinking what has he done.’ What am I supposed to say?”
“That’s not important! Just say ‘What have I done?’ – that’s what he’s thinking, ain’t it? It’s as good as anything else.”

The Internet is scattered with virtual cringes over the woeful and corny “NOOOOO” when Darth Vader hears he “killed” his beloved Padmé. In a blog discussion, some guy pointed out that there’s a “NOOOOO” in each one of the six movies…sigh… so it’s part of an easter egg hunt for 1138’s and fancy references, while forgetting to plug real plot holes. On the same blog, Wallis copied this dialogue from Return of the Jedi:

LEIA: Luke, what's wrong?
LUKE: Leia... do you remember your mother? Your real mother?
LEIA: Just a little bit. She died when I was very young.
LUKE: What do you remember?
LEIA: Just...images, really. Feelings.
LUKE: Tell me.
LEIA: (a little surprised at his insistence) She was very beautiful. Kind, but...sad. (looks up) Why are you asking me all this?

KNEEP KNEEP KNEEP goes the red light of utter shamelessness. No further comment.

Poor Padm
é. Not only did she and Anakin have to be married for her to become pregnant, as if the midichlorians (remember them?) formed a virtual chastity belt which could prevent conception, but at least in her virginal form (Episode II) she was allowed to fight and do stuff, even if it was only an excuse for us to see her midriff and to set up another straight-to-game moment. In ROTS she became a bumbling, diminutive, soppy, scary-hair sprouting, hallmark card caption uttering housewife sitting around in her yuppie pad looking like she needs some serious Valium. No more Queen, no more Senator, just someone who says “Ani” way too much, as if one of the twins she was carrying was actually forming in her head and slowly sucking the life out of her brain. And later on, the only female Jedi didn’t even manage to pull out her lightsabre or show a last fighting flourish like that Jim Jarmusch-meets-Tom Waits Jedi did. She probably trained the ‘younglings’, they were so useless.

I’ll skip the duration of the pregnancy issue. Baffling. I’ll skip how the bit explaining that Qui-Gon Jinn figured out how to do the post-death communication thing was nastily and sloppily inserted at the end to explain glow-in-the-dark Obi-Wan (and now digitally inserted Christensen) in the original trilogy. I’ll skip the lava that was raining down yet never pierced any cloak or made a nasty sizzling noise on anyone’s skin. I’ll skip the probability of surviving surfing on lava. I’ll skip the security cameras (!) in the Jedi temple. Because those are the things we accept from Star Wars – the little incongruities, the funny plot mistakes – yet, previously the souls of the movies made up for it. This time it rattled the jarring spike of disbelief that stuck into my chest and made me wheeze like General Grievous.

George Lucas himself admits that Episodes I and II respectively comprise about 20% actual story and 80% filler, but that the 20% + 20% was necessary to build context. I like Michael Philips’s idea posted on his blog: “The first movie of the new trilogy should never have been made. The first movie should have had much less baby Anakin and much more young man Anakin. The second movie could have dealt solely with the temptation and transition to Darth Vader, concluding with Anakin deciding to go dark side, and the third could have been wiping out the Jedi. As it is, the Jedi are all wiped out in five minutes.”

The original trilogy had a feeling of space to it. Of distance. They travelled from place to place, planet to planet. In Episode III we’re everywhere in a flash and only to see a different backdrop for whoever’s sulking now. The Interstitial One, who watched it with me, got very frustrated with the continuous flipping, moving, sliding and rightly commented that it’s rarely possible to really take in the scenes: either it’s too busy, or like with that lizard thing, shown too fast, almost as if they’re trying to hide weatherman’s blur. The Interstitial One also made the point that George Lucas doesn’t seem to have a sense of humour beyond cutesy droid jokes. I concur, I got the same impression from interviews.

Star Wars movies have always relied heavily on music to set tone and warn of impending events, but I cannot recall being blasted by wave upon wave of canned music, telling me how exciting it is. Thinking back to Luke’s approach on the Death Star in what’s now Episode IV, there was such a good balance in sound, with Obi-Wan intoning “Use the Force, Luke” and Luke’s X-Wing bobbing like he's on a carousel. Now that’s a great sequence.

Anthony Daniels, who as C-3PO plays the only character that is in all 6 movies, mentioned the following in an interview: "I like being Threepio, and he brings happiness to a lot of people. But I would have liked the character to grow. There’s a beautiful scene cut from Episode III where Padmé asks Threepio if he’s happy. He soulfully confirms he’s not unhappy, but that he wishes Anakin had found the time to complete his handiwork on him. You can’t have everything in a movie or else it would take all day to watch, but I would have liked to have some more intelligent moments."


Enough bitching. Let me get back to some redeeming points… ok… uhm…ahem

  • I thought, and not many people agree with me, that Ewan McGregor tried his best, but was ultimately thwarted by the poor script.
  • I actually think Hayden Christensen also tried hard, but he’s just damn irritating and shouldn’t have been cast in the first place, so that’s all the good I can say about him.
  • Natalie Portman had a shocker.
  • For what Samuel L. Jackson had to do, he did fairly well.
  • Yoda was good, but I dislike the posturing they make him do since he’s become animated. The scowls and I’ll-kick-your-ass looks.
  • Ian McDiarmid as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/ the Emperor was… good, but was sometimes in two minds whether his gargly voice, screechy voice, or deep and evil Dark Side voice was required.
  • R2-D2 can fly. Wow, that would come in handy later in his life… oops.
  • Aah, Chewbacca, what a wookie! Even though having all characters feature somewhere in the prequels (except the Millenium Falcon stood in for Han Solo) is slightly contrived IMHO, my eyes dampened for the old walking carpet.
  • The others were forgettable. Christopher Lee wasn’t on long enough to make an impression and Jimmy Smits was boring. If I missed someone, that’s the point.
  • The fighter fight scenes were awesome, even if they didn't contribute to plot that much.
American critics have generally been very positive toward the film, but for me it has more to do with sentimentality and giving ol' George a good send-off than anything else. I do agree that this one is waaayyyy better than the preceding two, but I'm not going to fall into the relative comparison trap. Peter Bradshaw, who's reviews are sometimes reprinted in the Mail & Guardian, and who's opinions I have always found well-informed, even if I don't always agree with them, wrote a very accurate review.

For me, the best parts of the film came near the end, including Obi-Wan’s rant at Anakin sans legs and skin and the “birth” of Darth Vader all dressed up. When the recreated sets with the original Star Wars look and feel appeared, especially when the Emperor and Darth Vader stood on the bridge, watching the Death Star’s construction and the serious-looking types with their grey, Soviet-style uniforms were bustling about, I started getting excited. I thought of how great it must be to watch those movies on the big screen again and I actually wanted to see more. I would have sat there for another three hours if he continued with a new movie from there – one that plays off in a vast, minimalist universe where funny hairdo’s and corny jokes and people in rubber suits were part of the fun, not a further impediment. But it ended. And you cannot turn back time, even if you liked the Ford Escort.

PS Congratulations to George Lucas for finishing the second trilogy and staying loyal to his, and only his, vision. I just wanted something else. Which says something about both of us.

PPS For a Yahoo poll on people's favourite Star Wars character, go here. Yoda. Han Solo. Darth Vader. That's the current ranking.

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