20 May 2005

This Sith

Now, look.

My review of the Hitchhiker film notwithstanding, I'm really not the kind of S.F. fan who's forever complaining about how much better things used to be in the good old days. I firmly believe that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is as mythical as the Garden of Eden, and that the works of contemporary S.F. novelists like Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling are enormously superior to the likes of Heinlein and Asimov. I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, and didn't think they were an insulting travesty at all. And, while I may have criticised the new series of Doctor Who on a number of counts, the one thing you will most certainly not find me saying in that connection is that the programme isn't as good as it used to be, that being quite patently not the case.

So, when I mention that, having seen Revenge of the Sith, I now consider that all three of the Star Wars prequels are, in comparison with the original trilogy, utter pants, you know that it's not because I was secretly hoping that they would be. I really wanted them to be good. In fact, up till 12:40am on Thursday (which is when my friend R. and I went to see Revenge of the Sith -- and yes, by now we really should have both known better) I was still nurturing a tiny spark of hope that Episode III would break the run of pappy drivel, finally proving with its glorious portrayal of the Republic's downfall and the corruption of Anakin Skywalker that George Lucas could still tell an epic tale worthy of that gorgeously faux-futurist '70s logo.

Sadly not. Revenge of the Sith is a sterile and joyless exercise in dot-joining, whose sole cinematic function is to take the pieces Lucas had in play at the end of Attack of the Clones and position them ready for Star Wars. For this I wasted several hours I could have spent asleep.

The story is... well, I don't think there's anything in it which is likely to come as a surprise, but be warned that there will be SPOILERS in what follows.

To get the obvious point out of the way: yes, it looks good. If what you're going for is motion-picture-as-spectacle, big fights involving lightsabers and battle-droids, impressive-looking aliens and spectacular planetscapes, then this film delivers the goods. (It delivers them late and cold and then hangs around waiting for a tip, but even so.) There's actually only one spaceship battle, and it's over before you've really got your popcorn organised, but to make up for that fighting happens on a dozen different planets, with occasional glimpses of spaceships as the characters shuttle between them. If what you want from a film is to be able to turn off every part of your brain except your visual centres and have it satisfy what remains, then yes, this is a film you will enjoy enormously.

For this reason, it may well impress young boys, in much the same way and to the same extent that Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi impressed the six-, nine- and twelve-year-old me. What it won't do is continue impressing those boys when they're thirty-three, in the same way that the first three films continue to impress me today.

Obviously the fixed end-point of these films was always going to cause supply problems in the Surprise Department, but there were ways in which the prequels could have ticked the necessary boxes while interestingly elaborating upon, or even obscuring, the things we learn in the original trilogy. Instead, it is apparently important that the job be done without any kind of ambiguity or deviation from the original plan, and consequently without a trace of inventiveness.

There has been some talk of how the prequels have "subverted" the mythic loss-of-innocence backstory to which the originals refer, by showing the Republic not as an idyllic utopia which the Empire has brutally overthrown, but as a politicking and factional society drawn into fascism by the corruption at its core. It's even been suggested that this is a metaphor -- a prescient one, given that its earliest appearance was in The Phantom Menace in 1999 -- for the precarious state of liberty in the modern United States. As with everything in these prequels, this sounds a lot more interesting on paper than it's ever allowed to be on screen.

The problem is that the tone and conventions of these films, as well as many of their characters, were determined decades ago by the originals, whose cleanly archetypal plots and characters made things nominally simpler, yet whole dimensions more significant. (To take a trivial detail by way of an example, Yoda's sentence structure may be ideal for expounding manichean mysticism, but becomes first hilarious and then incredibly annoying when he's trying to have a sensible conversation about military strategy.)

The same fairytale approach which worked perfectly when dealing with Luke Skywalker's oedipal struggle and mephistopholean temptation becomes absurdly -- in fact offensively -- simplistic when applied to this more realistic world's political manoeuvrings and ideologies. If Revenge warns modern Americans of anything, it's that if at any point George W. Bush suddenly turns wrinkly and grey and starts shooting lightning-bolts from his fingers, then they should definitely think very carefully before appointing him dictator for life.

A tale of the fall of the Republic which kept both the suggested outline and the mythic storytelling style of the first three films could have been a modern-day retelling of the death of Arthur and the breaking of the Round Table, and myths don't come much more subtle, nuanced and overwhelmingly tragic than that. Anakin as Lancelot, trying to live up to his knightly ideals and in despair at his failure, would have been an awful lot more interesting than Anakin as Zach from Desperate Housewives, complaining that his Dad the Jedi Council won't let him date the girl he wants to.

This is helped neither by the dialogue (which rarely rises above the literacy level of a daytime soap, and certainly not to that of Desperate Housewives) nor, unfortunately, the acting. Ian McDiarmid's wily, machiavellian Senator-turned-Chancellor-turning-Emperor Palpatine was the thing most consistently worth watching throughout Episodes I and II: he remains so in Episode III right up to the aforementioned wrinkly-grey transformation, at which point he abandons all subtlety in favour of becoming the cackling pantomime megalomaniac that the Emperor in Return of the Jedi so signally wasn't.

Hayden Christiansen, on the other hand, becomes interesting only when entirely encased in black plastic and voiced by James Earl Jones. (It's an approach I can't help feeling a number of other actors would benefit from -- Richard Gere, for instance, or Jennifer Lopez.) The script does a surprising amount of work to try and ground Anakin's acceptance of the Dark Side in emotions which, while self-centred and annoyingly adolescent, are nevertheless perfectly in keeping with what we have seen of the lad's previous behaviour. Unfortunately, unlike Mark Hamill in Jedi, Christiansen has all the empathy and charisma of a puff-adder, and he entirely fails to make the audience sympathise or identify with Anakin's temptation and downfall.

Throughout the film, good actors turn in terrible performances. Ewan McGregor seems to be constantly wishing he was down the pub, while Natalie Portman apparently loses the will to live long before her character does. Even Samuel L. Jackson is terrible in this, which says something fairly remarkable concerning the director's abilities. The scene where he and McDiarmid vie to out-ham each other with the aid of lightsabers feels like a parody scene from The Simpsons.

I don't want to waste too much of my life slamming this film, and I think it's fair to say that its quality isn't exactly going to come as a shock to anyone who's seen Episodes I and II. As with those films, what significance Revenge of the Sith has beyond its banal action-movie storyline is borrowed wholly from its predecessors, and it wastes virtually all of that.

I would guess that most of us who've seen Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi have imagined our own versions of the epic of Anakin Skywalker. Sadly, it seems now that most of us made a substantially better job of it than George Lucas.

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