Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Sith Hits the Fan

12 – 140mins – 2005
Written by: George Lucas
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Silas Carson, Matthew Wood

[SPOILERS] It’s funny what completely arbitrary memories we retain in our noggins; snippets of this, visions of that. Sometimes the most seemingly insignificant scrap of detail can be seared into our mind's eye for years to come, yet still we’ll forget something as significant as the date of our flamin' anniversary. For the record, that has never happened to me (not yet, anyway), but I have been carrying around three small words from movie mag Total Film’s summer 2005 cinema review of the last-to-be-filmed-but-chronologically-not-final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith.

“Flawed but enthralling” I can vividly remember them summarising at the double-page review’s crescendo; just three words which I have not forgotten some six years later. Why? Heck knows – but I do know that I loved the linguistic flow of the phrase and the internal rhyme (sad, huh? But then I do have an M.A. in English literature). Also, I know that – even as a huge fan of George Lucas’ sprawling space saga – I wholeheartedly agreed with its middling sentiment and backhanded compliment.

Take the blockbuster’s opening gambit as a prime example: we are instantly stunned and in awe at the impressive and swooping mêlée amongst the stars taking place before our very eyes as noble Jedi Knight Obi Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his frustrated, power-hungry apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) soar and shoot their way through a throng of enemy fighters on a make-or-break mission to rescue the “kidnapped” Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid) and bring the raging Clone Wars to an end aboard Jedi-despatching droid commander General Grievous’ (voiced by sound editor Wood) control ship.

It’s an intense set-piece loaded with dark foreshadowing as the headstrong Anakin takes the law into his own mechanical hand and viciously beheads prisoner-of-war Count Dooku (Lee, in a brief return) at Palpatine’s sinister say so, and yet the gravity of this crucial turning point in the future Sith Lord’s fall from grace is completely diminished by an abundance of robot slapstick! It irked me upon initial release and it still does now; it's completely incongruous to have buzz droids and vulture droids beeping and bantering comically while R2 slip-slides in a puddle of oil when the emphasis should surely be on the confused and enraged Chosen One’s dangerous disregard for his Jedi teachings.

While the overdone frivolities are mercifully reduced and far less distracting after this chaotic and overlong first act, it’s hardly an ideal start for what is meant to be the darkest Wars of them all. Obi Wan's violent confrontation with the metal General with living organs (preempting Anakin's own transformation...) goes some way to getting things back on track, as does Yoda's (Oz) journey to help the war effort on the lush primitive Wookie homeworld, but I also found the eventual reveal of the identity of "the phantom menace" to be sorely underplayed. Another major moment, botched!

Yes, I concede, we - the ever-observant viewers - knew all along that Darth Sidious was Palpatine (McDiarmid) in a hood, but the Jedi didn’t and this was a critical blow to their cause and it highlighted an overwhelming weakness in their use of the Force. "Aren't you going to kill me?" an out-of-the-closet Sidious goads. "I would certainly like to," Anakin threatens, pacing in the hallway - before deactivating his lightsabre and running off to inform Master Windu (Jackson), as if he has all the time in the star system.

Speaking of the purple lightsabred one, Mace certainly gets the bad-ass curtain call he was hoping for as he goes mano-a-mano with the devious Sith puppet master, and chances are he would have nailed the lightening-powered old crone had Anakin not made a predictably terrible rash decision and intervened ("What have I done?!"). His subsequent re-christening as Darth Vader was far less grandiose then I anticipated, more a quick-fix off-the-cuff conversation then the grotesque ceremony I had envisioned, with Sidious giving no inclination of the reason behind his choosing of his new apprentice's iconic dark side moniker.

As the tide turns for the demoralised Jedi and Sidious sends out a call to carry out “Order 66” to all "his" clone troopers (it was he, of course, who ordered his former-apprentice Dooku to commission the Kaminoians to grow the battle-ready army ten years prior to Obi Wan’s visit in Attack of the Clones), a suitably sorrowful score-driven montage exhibits Jedi Knights being gunned down by their own men and brutally annihilated the galaxy over. It’s made all the more agonising because it was planned all along, yet the good guys are helpless to stop what they failed to foresee. The Sith are in control now; at last they have their Revenge.

We knew it would happen; this prequel trilogy was specifically all about little Ani’s rise, fall and rebirth as the evil helmet-wearing asthmatic, and his larva-lashed duel against the man who was his master on the aptly volcanic planet of Mustafar (Arabic for "Chosen One", by-the-by) is an appropriately tense, rousing and tirelessly-fought climatic affair. Obi Wan's pain at having to fight the man he loved like a brother is evident for all to witness. As he walks wearily away, leaving Anakin's scorched and horrifically disfigured shell scarcely clinging on to life, you completely sympathise with why the tortured hero finds it impossible to wield the final crushing blow; a decision he no doubt came to rue in the decades of exile which followed.

For all my earlier nitpicking, Revenge of the Sith is a fittingly extravagant affair, and there is much that Lucas does justice to in his most recent entry: the mirroring of Padmé Amidala's (Portman) heartbroken final breath following the delivery of twins Luke and Leia (see, it's all coming together now) with her husband's first laboured wheezes as the reborn suit-bound monster is effectively juxtaposed; the ultimate paradigm of innocence being extinguished as the galaxy falls under the shadow of the reinvigorated Dark Side. (And I didn't even mind the Frankenstein-riffing “Noooooo!” Vader bellows which so enraged the fan community)

Finally, the interconnecting scenes bridging the old and new trilogy at the film's impressive denouement are beautifully evocative and bring to mind the stirring magical charm so intrinsic to Episodes IV-VI (and all too often absent from these overblown, humour-laden later instalments), with Owen and Beru Lars looking out over Tatooine's inspiring double sunset, baby Luke in their arms, whilst the boy's father marches aboard his brand new Imperial cruiser in the last suit he'll ever wear, his new master and a youthful-but-recognisable Grand Moff by his side, overseeing the construction of an all-too familiar moon-shaped super-weapon. What the galaxy far, far away needs now is A New Hope...

In a CR@B Shell: The circle is complete and, boy, what a journey! There were ups and downs along the way, but Revenge of the Sith is predominantly a prodigious, action-packed final bow. I always considered it my pick of the prequels, but Clones has given it a run for its Republic credits following this Blu-viewing. Ditch the profuse slapstick, George, and you've got a clear-cut winner... “Flawed but enthralling” – I couldn't have said it better myself.

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