Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III

Star Wars, the saga I love and hate probably with equal measure is finally complete (unless you are a proponent of the 9 movie version that is). Even the most die-hard fans of the original trilogy must have felt just a little short-changed after the mediocre Episode 1 and the truly dismal Episode 2. However, when I came out of Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith at 3:15 in the morning, I finally felt I had closure. Here we have a movie that, despite a pretty hellish first third, actually came close to touching the coat-tails of its mighty predecessors.

Going into Ep3, I had a level of quiet confidence. Even George Lucas couldn't screw up the birth of Vader; even George Lucas couldn't distract from the truly tragic events by throwing in Ewoks or Jam Jars to 'lighten the mood'; even George Lucas couldn't come up with enough cheesy dialogue to ruin the most important moment of young Anakins life.

Thankfully, my shaky confidence seems to have paid off, as Ep3 delivers at least half a movie that is both tragic, touching and compelling.

As with the entire 'new' trilogy, the film suffers greatly from a lack of direction and genuine storytelling. Indeed, the first third feels like it is just going through the motions, full of simple filler before the real story of Vader comes to the fore. This first section sums up everything that is wrong with the prequels.

First up we are treated to a visually stunning battle between mighty Republic and Separatist ships. The culminating lightsaber duel is so lacking in feeling that it betrays the memory of those classic encounters between Luke and Vader. These scenes are supposed to set up Anakin as the conflicted mind, eager to serve his Chancellor, but determined to help people. Sadly the delivery of both his lines and actions are as wooden as ever.

From the 'excitement' of the battle we are re-introduced to Padme (Natalie Portman), now heavily pregnant with Anakins child. If there is one plot point that Lucas has failed to deliver on, it is this relationship. It is so integral to the story of the young Jedi and his fall from grace, and yet so lacking in chemistry that it is a miracle the movie flows at all.

The same could be said of Obi Wans friendship with Anakin. It is clear that the two are supposed to be close, but the director refuses to let the actors breathe life into their characters.

Despite the poor direction, dialogue and acting, the first third is rescued by Ian McDiarmid, playing the would be Emperor Palpatine. Sensing the time to conquer the Galaxy is near he begins to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of young Anakin, cruelly taking advantage of the Jedis fragile state. These scenes are terrific and offer the first real glimpses of Palpatine from Return of the Jedi.

From here the movie steps up a gear. In truth it almost feels that halfway through the film Lucas handed over the direction to, oh I dunno, Irvin Kershner!! Not only does the film suddenly become darker than Empire Strikes Back, but many of the actors start to show actual depth of character. We see Obi Wan and Anakin bidding farewell. It is a subtle moment that is clearly marked as the final time they will be together as friends and actually comes across with poignant sincerity.

Palpatine is now free to make his move, leaving Anakin with the ultimate choice. The buildup and execution of Anakins transition to the darkside is wonderful, although once he accepts his choice Hayden Christensen lets everyone down by 'acting' evil - which in his case involves staring up from his sinister cloak and speaking veeeerrrry slooooowwwwly. However, once he fires up the lightsaber again, the evil flows freely and we finally get a glimpse of Anakin, how I imagined him.

Which brings us to the final conflict and much has been written about how this fight would be the fight to end all fights, yadda yadda yadda. However, in the end the climactic coming together of Anakin and Obi Wan is stunning not for its choreography and stunts - which in my opinion are still far outclassed by the brilliant Duel of Fates - but rather by the truly emotional performances of Christensen and Ewan McGregor. After 2.5 movies of wooden acting and emotionless dialogue, Anakin and Obi Wan unleash their guilt, anger and love in a mesmerising display of martial arts, force powers and tearful dialogue. It is, in my opinion, this trilogys finest moment, and easily the best conflict since Vader spoke that immortal line to his cowering son in Return of the Jedi.

"If you will not turn to darkside, then perhaps she will"

Beyond this, there is some superb intercutting of scenes between the birth of the twins and the birth of Vader, only damaged by a return to some extra cheesy dialogue.

And then that's it. The saga is complete. Time to go home.

It is highly unlikely that this trilogy will stand the test of time like the original. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Lucas got very lucky with the original. He cannot direct actors, that much is clear, yet somehow the chemistry between Luke, Leia and Han was stunning and had real depth. Perhaps that had more to do with the actors than anything else. In this new trilogy, there was little or no chemistry, not until the final hour of the final film, and that is one of the saddest points and the reason I sincerely hope we do not see Lucas bring Eps 7, 8 and 9 to the screen.

Another key point which I only noticed last night was the poor use of the soundtrack. For me, a soundtrack is as important as any other aspect of a movie. When I look back at the original trilogy, I can recall how the music heightened the senses of each scene. Remember, the entrance of the Super Star Destroyer? That scene would have been nothing without 'The Imperial March'. What about the sublime Jedi music that follows Luke down the trench of the first Death Star? Or my personal favourite scene in all of Star Wars - the moment Luke gives in to anger and defeats his father. Everything about that scene is perfect, from the framing, to the performances and finally to the piece of music that still sets my heart racing today.

Only once in the entire of this new trilogy did the music feel perfectly balanced with the scenes, and that was Duel of Fates from Ep 1. Too often was the music over-produced and mingled so profoundly with the other sound effects that it became a garbled mess. Add to this the over-use of CGI, the poor ordering and cutting of scenes and it's not a surprise that this trilogy was unable to capture the magic of the previous one.

However, Ep 3 deserves a lot of credit. For me it has rescued a franchise in serious artistic decline and while some of the scenes between Vader and Palpatine are camp let us not forget the cheese fest scenes in RotJ!

Vader: "I have felt him"
Palatine: "Strange that I have not"

Plus, after 2 movies with far too much failed comic relief you'll be pleased to hear that C3PO hardly has a line, while Jam Jar only appears in the background. Bar the shaky first hour, Hayden Christensen finally comes of age when his full wrath comes to the surface while Ewan McGregor shrugs off Alec Guiness to delivery a poignant, new side to Obi Wan. Seeing this great leader reduced to a tortured, desperate soul, will go down as one of THE defining moments in the entire Star Wars saga.

Oh and Yoda is pretty cool too!

In summary, Ep 3 is 100 times better than Ep 1 and 10,000 times better than Ep 2, yet it still fails to match the consistency of the original trilogy. It is very much a story of 2 halves. The first 45 minutes feel like a hangover from Ep 2, save for the performance of Ian McDiarmid. But hang in there, because the final 90 minutes finally deliver a movie worthy of the name Star Wars.

"Thank the maker!"

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