Monday, July 11, 2005

Review of the Sith

In the new series of Star Wars movies R2D2 is now able to fly around, propelled by little rockets in his robot legs. He has also acquired the ability to defend himself against agressors, zapping them with a retractable laser gun. In one scene in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, he fights off three soldier droids by squirting them with oil and setting fire to it, like some kind of militant octupus.

This encapsulates what is so disappointing about the three forward-to-the past prequels compared with the charm and adventure of the original movies. In the original Star Wars, R2D2 was the systems robot with incongruous moral courage, seemingly more human than his twittering protocol droid companion C3PO. But physically, he was nothing more than a trash can on wheels; clunky and effectively helpless. In Hollywood these days, however, physical limitations will no longer do. Every acceptable character must be able to kick multiple ass.

Gone as well is the innocent mysticism of the originals, which evoked Arthurian legend, Samurai tales, WWII fighter pilot stories and more, while leaving a lot up to the imagination. We cheered for the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire without knowing all the politics of the affair--there was the simple sense that power must be resisted. The newer films heavy-handedly spell out the political context, which is supposedly an allegory of the fall of the Roman Republic, or Nixon's grab for power, or the machinations of the neocons and George W Bush in the present day ("you're either with me--or you're my enemy" growls the Sith lord formerly known as Anakin in the latest movie).

This has led to controversy about the "overtly political" nature of Revenge of the Sith, with some American conservatives grumbling about Hollywood liberal grandstanding. But to my mind the free-spirited original films were the more subversive.

The Jedi ethic has also been ruined. Previously, there was the philosophy that at times you have to "trust your feelings" over logic, while resisting the pull of anger and fear, and recognising that Darth Vader lurks within your own heart. Wishy-washy seventies idealism, maybe, but a view of how to be a good person and a hero that captured the popular imagination.

Now it seems that the Jedi practise a form of ascetic Buddhism, with (ugh) a "temple" where young acolytes are trained. Jedi-ism preaches withdrawal from emotional involvement; Yoda counsels the tortured Anakin that "you must let go of all that you fear to lose". Yet the supposedly unworldly Jedi leaders have no problem being involved in combat or leading military campaigns in all three prequels--they just can't have sex (how many people would have put "Jedi" under "Religion" on their census form if they knew that?). In their role of moral guardians to the political wing of the Republic, the Jedi resemble nothing more than Iranian mullahs.

Of course, I knew all this before I went to see Revenge of the Sith, and had appropriately tempered expectations. I was even forewarned that the Anakin-Padme love scenes between Haydn Christensen and Natalie Portman were even more cringeworthy than in Attack of the Clones. Nevertheless, I was still disappointed at the lameness of the bit we were all waiting for--Anakin's turn to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader.

To an extent, dramatic plausibility was always going to be a victim of the need to have two and a half films worth of Anakin as a fairly straightforward blockbuster action hero, yet morph by the end of Sith into a trachea-crushing lord of the Dark Side. He has to be led into temptation by noble motives--Anakin is tormented by dreams of his wife dying in childbirth, making him susceptible to the seductive promises of Chancellor Palpatine / Darth Sidious.

But the transformation into Mr Evil, when it comes, is ludicrously quick. When Palpatine tricks Anakin into intervening on his behalf and causing the death of Jedi enforcer Mace Windu, Anakin is still shocked by what he's done. Five minutes later, however Palpatine is telling him to bow down before his dark master and he's, like, "ok". Then he's off to slaughter the Jedi younglings and carry out some political assassinations on a distant volcano planet.

It seems to have slipped his memory that this was all about acquiring the power to save his wife; you'd think he'd at least be demanding some assurances from the soon-to-be Emperor before swanning off to murder people. But no. And when Padme tracks him down in the middle of the volcano planet and tells him that he doesn't seem himself, he goes straight into trachea-crushing mode on her. Sure, the dark side corrupts, but that quickly?

In order to enjoy this movie, you have to sit back and appreciate the sets, the spectacle and the light-saber fights, while smirking at the rest. As a New Zealander, it's hard not to chortle every time Temuera Morrison appears as the leader and genetic source of an army of cloned troops. You half expect him to say: "Commander, take your troops to the south quadrant. And cook me some eggs!".

You snicker at the Anakin-Padme scenes' dialogue, and smile knowingly when Anakin does his Darth Bush bit. You appreciate the (intentional) visual gags which have characters gaining a steadily more seventies appearance as the film wears on, in preparation for the moment when Darth Vader is rolled out in his original cape-and-helmet attire, complete with traffic-light chest unit. Padme even appears at one point with her hair done in Princess Leia spirals, which is nice.

You also (sadly, perhaps) chortle at Yoda turning into a self-parody. Back in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda was a great character, the classic Wise Man in the Cave from innumerable myths and legends. His backwards syntax was a nice touch, and actually worked with the pithy things he had to say: "Beware the Dark Side. Powerful, it is".

In the prequel films, it's been getting steadily harder to keep this up, as Yoda has to utter ever-longer sentences. The crowning moment is just before the epic battle in the Senate, when the Emperor Palpatine annouces that he's going to take over the universe; a defiant Yoda gets to his feet and replies: "Not if anything to do with it, *I* have".

Classic. You can see a whole genre of Yoda-ised action hero phrases open up.
Clint Eastwood: Ahead go, sucker. Make my day, you will
Arnold Schwarzanegger: Be back, I will.

It's clear that George Lucas wanted to present this as a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy--there's that ironic moment at the end when the restored Vader enquires after his wife and the Emperor tells him with Iagoan spite: "It seems in your anger you have killed her, my lord". But so subsumed are the dramatic elements to special effects and blockbuster conventions that the best that can be managed is an enjoyable farce.

It's a tribute to the instinctive desire to see narrative ends tie up, that it's still totally compelling to see Skywalker become Vader, Luke and Leia be whisked off to different planets, and Yoda retire to the Dagobar System (which, like, he doesn't even say--my most disappointing moment). You'd watch it no matter how bad it was.

But if you want some real insight into the character and motivations of Darth Vader, Revenge of the Sith won't help you much. Nope, best to just read his blog.

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