Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Regurgitation Of The Sith

I was not in a rush to watch Star Wars III starring Stephen Glass as Darth Vader. I saw the damned thing last night, and it was one of the most disappointing filmic (sorry) experiences I've ever had. Disappointing not because it was an atrocious film---it wasn't, and my expectations were far from high enough to cause massive disillusion in case of a clunker---but because it was a mostly great story conveyed in a mostly mediocre film.

First, the really awful bits: I've read reviews that describe the dialogue as "wooden"; that's like calling actually wooden dialogue lyrical and mellifluous. (Note to any current and future paramours of mine: If I ever start sounding like Anakin and Padmé (sorry) in their "I love you" "Because I love you more" shtick, at least dump me and maybe kill me.) I shudder to think what the screenplay looked like before Tom Stoppard rewrote it. Beyond the embarrasing language, the acting itself was excruciatingly awful. And that's not because the actors aren't any good; most of them, in fact, do have talent, including Hayden Christensen. The abysmal performances, therefore, are Lucas's fault as a director.

On the other hand, as I said, the story is, or maybe could have been, a great one. To give a rough outline---there's nothing to spoil, I guess, unless anyone doesn't know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader---Anakin turns to the dark side because he has premonitions that Padmé will die in childbirth and is convinced by Palpatine that use of the dark side could save her. So it might be a bit of a formulaic set-up, but it is a formula for high drama.

If Palpatine had been lying, then we have a traditional morality fable, and a story about seduction (I can't be the only one who noticed the homoerotic undertone of the Jedi master/student and Sith master/student relationships). If Palpatine had been telling the truth, then we really have the elements of tragedy---Anakin fated all along to choose his love over his duty as a Jedi. In the end, there's no resolution of that question, just a kind of suspended animation that acts as a propellant for the next trilogy.

Even more frustrating than the narrative (non)-resolution was the film's execution. The entire arc of the plot is telegraphed in the very first scene. Look at the black robes Anakin is wearing. Those are dark Jedi master robes, as anyone who's played Knights of the Old Republic could tell you. As in the Lord of the Rings, everyone in ROTS who looks evil is evil, everyone who looks good is good. But in LOTR, that's the whole point: moral alignments are completely transparent, and the epic lies in the narration of the conflict. In the Star Wars prequel trilogy, not one character is able to see what's plainly obvious to anyone watching the movies. It's almost a special occasion to watch Samuel L. Jackson sitting ponderously and brooding over whether or not agents of the dark side might be nearer than anyone suspects. Jesus Fucking Christ, Jules Winnfield, your man-child is wearing dark jedi robes. He has an evil glare. Open your fucking eyes.

One final point about the third movie: It casts into pretty stark relief what atrocious failures the first two were. There simply was no reason for the first one, the second could have quite easily been reduced to its final 30 minutes. Then there might have been room to tell the story that was very well told in the animated feature Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Lucas could have avoided asking us to be afraid of weirdos like General Grievous who just appear out of nowhere (seeing him kill all the Jedi whose lightsabers he stole might have been something to include in the movie, no?).

So, as Anthony Lane ventriloquizes Yoda (great article, no weblink), break me a fucking give.

Postscript: I thought I should add that the idea of the film as an allegory of the Bush administration is bollocks---even if Lucas doesn't get that. It's some bastard offspring of Weimar and Octavian Rome transposed into science-fiction. It's also philosophically incoherent. E.g. Obi-Wan claims that "only a Sith deals in absolute" while Palpatine instructs Anakin that good only exists from a certain point of view. So both sides espouse moral relativism and moral realism simultaneously. Fantastic, George.


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