Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Heath Holland On...Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

by Heath Holland
You’re once…twice…three times a Jedi.

WAR! That’s the first word in the crawler at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, and that’s what this movie really is: a war between Jedi and Sith, The Republic and the Separatists, and the forces of good versus the forces of evil. Three years passed in real life between the release of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and three years pass in the movie timeline, as well. The Clone Wars have been raging throughout the galaxy without much progress being made. The Jedi have become generals and soldiers --something never intended by their order-- and are being spread thinner and thinner in the war of attrition designed by Palpatine to weaken the Republic.

The movie chooses to show (rather than tell) that Anakin has been promoted to the ranks of Jedi Knight in the time since the last film. Likewise, Obi-Wan Kenobi is now a member of the Jedi High Council, the elite group of Jedi who serve as decision makers on the Republic’s homeworld of Coruscant. Their relationship to each other has changed, and so has their appearance. Obi-Wan is more clean-cut and diplomatic in his presentation, while Anakin is now scarred and worn down by the battles he’s seen. It’s an interesting visual note to pay attention to. Not only are these characters looking more like they belong in what we think of as the “classic era,” but it tells us a lot about how Obi-Wan and Anakin have been through the same war, yet been affected differently. Anakin bears physical scars, but Obi-Wan looks good and has a wicked-lush beard.

People had previously criticized The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones for not having enough action in space, and it appears that George Lucas took that to heart. This film opens with the biggest space battle we get in any Star Wars film so far, and contains everything AND the kitchen sink (the ILM team literally put a kitchen sink in the background of the battle). Palpatine has been “kidnapped” by Count Dooku, setting off The Battle of Coruscant above the Republic’s home planet. During this skirmish, we see Anakin as the Jedi Knight we always wanted him to be in the first two movies; he’s the best warrior that the Jedi have. He’s confident and brash, a little cocky and a little foolhardy, but he’s really likeable. I really wish that we’d had this Anakin for more than half of a movie. Later we’d get this Anakin in The Clone Wars television series, but it’s not the same. Those of us who grew up with classic Star Wars always knew that Anakin and Obi-Wan had fought side-by-side in the war, and we could only fantasize about what that would look like. In many ways, we’re still fantasizing, because we just don’t get to see very much of it.

I won’t rehash too much of the plot (which I’m going to spoil), but I think it’s important to note how quickly Anakin obeys Palpatine and goes against 13 years of training by cutting off Count Dooku’s head when he’s told to finish him. The character we knew in Episode II who killed all those Sand People and then had a meltdown in front of Padme (‘They’re like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals”) seems to show very little emotion over what he’s just done. This is not the same Anakin we know. This is a darker character who has seen (and caused?) a lot of death in the three years since we last saw him.

After the battle, the story unfolds at a breakneck pace. The Jedi Council has finally started to suspect that they’re being manipulated (about time, guys), they refuse to promote Anakin to a Jedi Master which erodes his faith in their leadership further, Padme is pregnant, and Anakin is having visions of her dying in childbirth just like he had visions of his mother being tortured in the last movie. We also get a new villain in this film in General Grievous, a half-organic, half-machine character who I believe is a strong forerunner to Darth Vader. Before we actually have Vader, we have evidence that the technology exists to keep a person alive with the aid of machinery. Grievous has a raspy, ragged breath and a constant cough, which reminds us that sacrifices have been made in order for him to stay alive and being half-robot is no party. I think the specter of Anakin’s destiny hangs over the whole movie through General Grievous.

I’ve always been drawn to the theological and mythological elements of Star Wars as much as --if not more than-- the lightsabers and space battles, so the scene that takes place between Anakin and Chancellor Palpatine at that weird water-opera thingy is probably my favorite in the whole film. In it, Palpatine baits Anakin and firmly sets the hook. He tells Anakin the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, who was “so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.” He then tells Anakin that Plagueis’ apprentice killed him in his sleep.
This scene is loaded for so many reasons, and is something that you can speculate on endlessly, because for all the comics and novels that have tackled this topic, there are still no definitive answers, and that’s the way it should be. We assume Palpatine is referring to his own Sith master, and that he’s the one who killed Plagueis, but we don’t know for certain. Also, does Palpatine possess the power to manipulate midichlorians and create life? Did he create Anakin? How far back does his scheme go? Furthermore, he knows that Anakin is suffering from visions of the death of his loved ones, and preys upon that fear. How does he know this, and how much can he see? These are the mysteries that make the world of Star Wars such a fun place to hang out in. I hope we never get definitive answers to these questions, and I give big props to George Lucas for all the dozens of mythological aspects that he introduces but declines to cement as fact. Also, I want to take a second to point out how fantastic I think Ian McDiarmid’s performance is in this scene as well as throughout all three of the Prequels. There’s a lot on the actor’s shoulders, but he’s more than capable. George Lucas has often said that the story of Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker (his fall and redemption), but if you ask me, it could just as easily be about Palpatine. His story starts before we ever meet him, and the ramifications of his rule as Emperor seem to exist far past the sixth film.

If the front half of the movie is loaded with heroic deeds and plot exposition, the back half is all action in service of paying off EVERYTHING. It even goes out of its way to bring in Chewbacca, who has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Truthfully, my biggest problem with Revenge of the Sith is that it contains so many ideas and bits of business that it doesn’t have enough time to unpack everything. We had two whole movies before this one in which many of these themes could have been explored, but were spent on other things. I wonder why Anakin had to be 8 years old in the first movie and why we don’t really even get a glimpse of true darkness within him until the end of Episode II. His whole decline occurs pretty quickly, if you think about it. There’s a lot of rushing going on.

There’s also very little interaction in Revenge of the Sith between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and I’m of two minds concerning that. Once we get through the beginning of the movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are on two different paths. Obi-Wan travels to the planet Utapau to look for Grievous while Anakin is once again on his own, isolated from the Jedi Council and looking desperately for recognition and trust from his peers and superiors. What Anakin needs most is a father figure to tell him that he’s done well and that they’re proud of him. That person should be Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan simply isn’t available. I doubt he’d give Anakin that sort of pat on the back anyway because it’s just not who he is. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Qui-Gon had lived and trained Anakin. Qui-Gon was in touch with what was happening all the time, and deeply connected to the Force. I get the impression in this movie that everyone is just too busy putting out so many fires to really invest in what’s really going on (perhaps a metaphor for the making of the Prequel films?). Anyway, I’m not sure if the lack of communication between Obi-Wan and Anakin is intentional, or just the way things worked out as the movie was made. If it is by design, then I think this is a really well done and adds a ton of shading to these characters. It would have been nice to see some further exploration of these themes instead of it being in the background, though.
When it comes, Anakin’s fall to the dark side is fast…maybe too fast. He turns on Mace Windu, cutting off his hand (there’s a lot of that in these films) and opening him up for a fatal blow, and then immediately gives himself over to Palpatine/Sidious. In a matter of minutes the eradication of the Jedi Order is in full swing and Anakin, now dubbed Darth Vader, marches into the Jedi Temple and kills a bunch of children. One more shout out to George Lucas and his willingness to go there. These movies started with a little kid having a space adventure and now six years later we’re watching that character kill children. We like to root for the bad guy, but it’s hard to root for that bad guy when he’s wiping out innocent kids. It’s kind of indefensible. It’s also worth pointing out that this was the first (and currently only) Star Wars film to get a PG-13 rating. Lucas could have cut scenes and made some different choices to get a PG, but he didn’t, and I applaud that he chose to include the ugliness. It pushes the story far outside the realm of fun space opera, but it also has a ton of impact. 

I feel like the final conflict of the film really works. Palpatine/Sidious sends Anakin to the industrial planet of Mustafar to kill the leaders of the Trade Federation, who have been around since the beginning of The Phantom Menace with that pesky blockade. They are no longer necessary, and with both the Jedi Council and the Trade Federation out of commission, Palpatine can now take total, unregulated control over the government, forming it into one Empire.

Obi-Wan and Padme end up on Mustafar in pursuit of Anakin, and the drama of their confrontation really works for me -- that is to say, the whole thing makes me SUPER uncomfortable. I feel bad for Padme, who has seen the father of her children descend into a homicidal madness. Natalie Portman doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this movie besides stand around and be pregnant, but her scenes at the end of the movie almost make up for this lack of substance. She’s so good at looking devastated that we feel the betrayal. The truth is that she should have seen it coming a mile away. After all, this guy killed all those Tusken Raiders a few years ago, and she didn’t say anything about it. On the contrary, she comforted him after he committed the murders. Now he’s killing more people and she’s acting surprised? Puh-leeze! Yet somehow, Natalie Portman makes it all work and feel like it came out of the blue and that she’s broken-hearted about it all.

Likewise, Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan in this scene is fantastic. There’s so much confusion and sadness behind it all. When he tells Anakin “you were my brother,” it’s so tragic, because you know that Anakin never felt the same way about Obi-Wan. There was always an undercurrent of resentment there that Obi-Wan apparently never picked up on. McGregor really shows that everything he thought he knew has been turned upside down. He really believed in Anakin, and he really thought he was the Chosen One. He’s watching his world crumble and burn, literally. Can you imagine another actor trying to give this performance? Can you imagine Alec Guiness trying to tap into that level of emotion? Ewan is outstanding here. I even think Hayden is good in this scene. When he screams “I hate you” with those yellow Sith eyes glowing, I believe he means it.
The real tragedy of Revenge of the Sith is that almost as soon as we get to see Darth Vader, the movie is over. You can debate whether the lack of the black suit is a good thing (the movie focuses on the man, not the suit), or a bad thing (there is no villain more iconic than Darth Vader). The way I see it, I’d have preferred to have the guy in the suit for a little bit longer. I’m not sure how that could have been accomplished any earlier in the movie while still carrying the dramatic flow of the narrative, though; you have to have the fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin at the end. You can’t do that any earlier, and I don’t see how you can have Anakin physically damaged any earlier in the film, either. What really would have been cool is if the climax had happened at the end of Episode II and we’d had Vader for an entire movie, but there’s no point in crying over spilled milk. I think what we got works. It’s not necessarily the story I was expecting, but it’s the one we got. On those terms, it’s still a very compelling tragedy.

But a tragedy that ends with some hope. Before they embark on their self-imposed exile, Yoda tells Obi-Wan that he’s been in communication with Qui-Gon Jinn, who has learned how to become one with the Force and retain his consciousness even in death. It’s ironic that what Palpatine promised Anakin is something that Anakin’s first master has actually accomplished. It’s hard not to play the “if only” game. I love that this scene implies that Yoda still has much to learn, despite being almost 900 years old. Maybe this is why he’s so much wiser when we see him next in The Empire Strikes Back? Finally, we meet the twins, Luke and Leia. We’ve seen so much darkness throughout the movie, so it’s that much more powerful to see Obi-Wan hand baby Luke off to his aunt and uncle as they stand against the twin suns setting over Tatooine. The movie ends with their silhouettes as John Williams’ familiar music reminds us that there is a new hope.

There are a lot of things about Revenge of the Sith that took me by surprise upon first seeing it, and a lot of choices that seemed unconventional and perhaps unfortunate. However, time is the ultimate equalizer, and I now think the movie works really well and packs a gigantic dramatic punch in a way that most summer blockbusters aren’t interested. There’s an awful lot going on in the movie; there are space battles and lightsaber battles and battles on weird vehicles that seemed designed to sell toys, but the core of the film is the relationships between the characters, and I respect the heck out of that. Action for action’s sake is fine for a temporary piece of entertainment, but it makes for candy bar filmmaking that leaves you unsatisfied. When you ground the action in your characters, it gives you reason to come back again and again. For all the crap that George Lucas has taken for the Prequel Trilogy, I think he grounded the whole thing in his characters and their weaknesses. It’s not the same kind of character development that we’re going to see in the Classic Trilogy, and I appreciate that. It seems to me that the Classic Trilogy takes a look at the events of the galaxy from the Outer Rim, far from the center of the action, and shows how even the most insignificant of players can make a huge difference. The Prequel Trilogy does the opposite and shows us the explosion from the center outward. The two trilogies aim to do two very different things. One is more mythic and fantastic, while the other is far more personal. Really, I suspect these movies come straight from George Lucas’ heart and are filled with the life lessons and the heartbreaks he’s encountered over the years. Everyone can relate to being afraid, but fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. You want evidence of what that looks like? Here you go. The films aren’t perfect, but they’re deeply rooted in the human condition. The goal of the Prequels isn’t the same as the Original Trilogy, and they do what the other trilogy does not: show the creation of a myth.
I’ll see you back here in a few weeks as Luke, Han, and Leia embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Until then, may the Force be with you.

18 comments:

  1. Great column as always Heath. I'm sure you already know this, but for those that don't I just wanted to chime in with this:

    The last episode of the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars shorts takes place mere minutes before the start of Episode 3. During the course of this Episode Mace is chasing General Grievous through the streets of Coruscant in an effort to rescue the Chancellor. Its during this chase that Mace throws a beating on Grievous and is the source/cause of the wheeze you hear from the General in Episode 3.
    I only mention it because I love little connections like that.
    Thanks again Heath!

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    1. I remember those Genndy toons well! It's weird, because they were such a big deal when they came out, but now they've been swept under a rug and it's like they never happened. They've been out of print for years, and they've joined the ranks of things like the Ewoks and Droids cartoons and the Holiday Special as things we're supposed to forget ever happened.

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    2. I was able to get them on DVD just last week from a seller on Amazon. (there are still several available for short $) I wanted to scoop them up before they become impossible to find.

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  2. Nice column Heath, and yes I gotta agree with Anakin turning to the dark side way too quick. They needed another scene with him and Palpatine much like Luke and Vader had that little scene in the hallway during Jedi where Luke is all "Hey Dad I know you did some bad stuff I forgive you come on lets go play some catch" and Vader Dad is all like "But son dont you know how awesome it is to rule everyone- come on we can do it together!" and Luke is all "Dad you just never listen to me!" and then Vader sulks to himself "I should have played catch with my boy!"- of course thats just how I look at it.
    Quick final note- yes John Williams music is perfect, absolutely

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    1. Anakin's turn in the film does happen too quickly, but the novelization does a great job of fleshing out Anakin's state of mind and what is driving him ever closer to the darkside.
      It also offers additional examples of how damn manipulative and ingenious Palpatine was an how blind and often arrogant the Jedi council had become.

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  3. Though I agree with almost none of it (except the conversation at the "opera" between Palpatine and Anakin - I think that's one of the few great scenes of the movie), I enjoyed reading your article, Heath. I like the sort of general story of RoTS, and the conflicts and themes and stuff, but I really hate a lot of the details and how most of it is executed. For the most part I guess it's the dialogue that pretty much destroys it for me - I can't really blame the actors who have to perform it - much of it just feels very, very awkward. And man, some of the ways they attempt to bridge the gap between the trilogies is so rushed - let's not explore the whole "Force Ghost" thing that's absolutely integral to the OT - we'll just have Yoda throw away a line about talking to Qui-Gon and have Obi-Wan's eyes bug out a bit. Come on! And I've said it before but I'll never forgive the missed opportunity of making Alderaan a place we actually care about - it's probably the best and easiest thing they could have done to retroactively add weight to events of the OT.

    But enough hate! This is a site about movie love for movie lovers and I love the fact you can see past these (fatal, to me) flaws and have a lot of genuine affection for this and the other PT movies and I'll always enjoy reading about that affection even when I don't share it!

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  4. Beauiful Column Heath, I like your thoughts on these movies, and I like the sneaky smile from Chancellor Palpatine at the opera as he tells the story, I never knew about the kitchen sink, where is it? ive never seen it, I don't feel like your joking here?

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    1. Nope, he's not kidding, that kitchen sink is there.

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    2. Can you give me a clue or a timeline? Thats so funny I gotta see it. Thank you

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    3. It happens during the opening space battle over Coruscant. There's a projectile/laser blast that crosses the frame from right to left and hits a Star Destroyer. At the head of that blast is the kitchen sink. It's tiny, but John Knoll points it out on his commentary track.

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    4. Thank you
      Im gonna have a look for it, Crazy

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    5. There's also an Easter Egg involving the Millennium Falcon. When Anakin and Obi-Wan's shuttle is arriving to meet the Chancellor, Jar Jar, Mace, and the other Jedi and delegates, look for the Millennium Falcon docking, close to the bottom of the frame.

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  5. The shot of Vader's infamous lament in Revenge of the Sith after he takes his first couple steps always reminds me of Joe Spinell's war cry as his ship explodes around him at the end of Star Crash. I have this feeling that among the myriad of influences spread throughout the prequels, George wanted to show some respect to some of the films and filmmakers that ripped him off or otherwise paid homage to him. In my own mind, anyway, this shot was one of a few examples of George giving a nod to Corman.

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    1. Not to be left out, I should also add the nod would also go to Star Crash's director, Luigi Cozzi.

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  6. I've gone to being a slight bit on the fence about Anakin's "rush" of a turn to the Dark Side. This trilogy is more of a piece than the Original Trilogy. So leading up to Anakin's turn in the midpoint of Revenge of the Sith, a lot happens that get him to make that final leap. For ten years, his training is marred with daydreams of Padme and premonitions of his mother. He's been very chummy with the Chancellor for those ten years, and judging from the one moment in the Chancellor's quarters/office where he congratulates Anakin on being given the assignment of being Padme's bodyguard, he demonstrates how he's been encouraging Anakin's hubris. The Chancellor goads Anakin's uneasiness and mistrust of the Jedi when they hesitate in giving him Master status in the three years between Episode II and Episode III, and it comes to a head when Anakin admits to Palpatine that he knows there are things about the Force that the Jedi are not teaching him. When it's finally evident that Palpatine is the Sith Lord the Jedi have been looking for, Anakin acts as he should, but certainly it's because if he does, the Jedi will finally begin to trust him and accept him, but when he goes to Mace with the information, Mace won't include him on his team to arrest the Chancellor, so once again, Anakin feels dejected and rejected by the Jedi, and that's part of the problem -- Anakin shouldn't be feeling anything at all, but the Chancellor has been chipping away at him for so long -- thirteen years -- that emotions and emotional responses still come naturally to him. But Palapatine's promise to teach him how to cheat death is the tipping point. So he goes to the Chancellor's office to make sure nobody murders the Chancellor, prevents Mace, gives Palpatine his chance to dispatch Mace, and Anakin finally gives him. Anakin needs Palpatine's help, but watch Anakin's reaction to Palpatine. At first, he's skittish when he sees Palpatine's true face, and what extreme use of the Dark Side has done to him. But then Palpatine does something the Jedi have never done. He tells Anakin, "The Force is strong with you." Since when have the Jedi ever told him, "You're doing a good job, bud. Keep it up." Well, they never said that because they can't. That goes against their philosophy. And yet, it's something Anakin's always wanted to hear. He knows he's powerful, he knows he's grown up, but "Master Obi-Wan fails to see it," and "it's all Obi-Wan's fault, he's holding me back!" And here's the one person who not only treats him as an equal, a confidante, an adult, but recognizes his power, feeding his ego. It took thirteen years of picking and prodding and manipulating, but finally, Palpatine's got him.

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