Monday, July 23, 2012

Defending the Star Wars Prequels: Revenge of the Sith

I promise I'll have the long-overdue "The Aztecs" review up tonight, but first I want to finish my "Defending the Star Wars Prequels" thing that I never finished.

To be fair, I think "Revenge of the Sith" requires the least amount of defense. While most "Star Wars" fans hate the prequels as a general rule, they don't have quite as much hate for the third one. It included Wookiees and had almost no Jar Jar and it was practically wall-to-wall action, which is difficult to hate.

As I did with "Attack of the Clones", I'll start by citing my personal grievances with the movie before launching into my defense of the common complaints.

So what doesn't work in "Revenge of the Sith"? Well for starters, this movie has some of the weakest dialogue in the series. A lot of it is so bad, it's quotably bad, but more on that later. It's way too on-the-nose, people don't talk like people, and it's really difficult to say these things without sounding like a buffoon.

Next, they ruined General Grievous. If you haven't seen the original animated "Clone Wars" series that introduced Grievous, check it out. He is way more badass in that series than he is in this movie. In the series he can fight off half a dozen Jedi, including a Master, single-handedly (in a manner of speaking). In RotS, he is easily defeated by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Granted, Grievous works better when he has the element of surprise and intimidation, something Count Dooku tells him in the series, and Obi-Wan has the drop on him in RotS, so that might have something to do with it, but still, it's just disappointing, particularly when his lightsaber technique is to spin them like a saw. It's boring.

Finally, my last big problem with the movie is that there's never a moment where the Emperor reveals how he orchestrated everything from the beginning. Yes, it would have been very "Bond Villain" of him, but frankly, that shit needed some explaining. I mean, I think I've figured it out after repeated viewings of the earlier films, but really, a plan as complicated as that warrants some gloating. That's always the best part in stories like "Death Note" or, hell, even "The A-Team" when a plan comes together and we get to see behind the curtain and connect all the dots. Yeah, it wouldn't have been very subtle, but it's not like the rest of the movie is. And it also makes sense because the Emperor needs to delay and distract Mace Windu until Anakin arrives to save him. Explaining his evil plan would have been a good way to kill time.

OK, so now it's time for the defense portion.

A lot of people criticize the bad acting in this movie. I don't think that's fair. As I previously pointed out, there's really no way this dialogue can be acted well. And really, George Lucas' dialogue has always been that way. Hell, the original series would have been just as glaringly bad if it weren't for Harrison Ford.

You see, George Lucas is a stickler for telling everyone to follow the script. If an actor asks to say something different, he'll usually tell them not to. Harrison Ford, who wasn't a trained actor, just went ahead and did things differently. Most famously, in "Empire Strikes Back", when Leia tells Han, "I love you," Han replies, "I know." Originally, it was supposed to be, "I love you too." Harrison Ford didn't ask George or the director if it was OK to say it, he just did it. If he had asked, George probably would have said no. But what he did was so much better that not only did they keep it, they scripted Leia to use the line in "Return of the Jedi". Harrison likewise advised the other actors to ad-lib without asking for this reason.

However, that was back before George Lucas was a god and "Star Wars" was holy writ. The prequels show us what happens when actors are forced to perform awful dialogue unquestioningly.

The only exception is Ian McDiarmid who delivers the awful dialogue with such glee and bile that he makes it work. To me, his performance is legendary. In the first two movies he had to pretend to be a good guy, but in this movie when he finally reveals his true nature, it's just beautiful.

I have seen all of these actors do well in other movies. Hayden Christensen is great in "Shattered Glass", Natalie Portman was great in "Black Swan", and Ewan McGregor... actually, fuck you, I think Ewan was great in "Revenge of the Sith". In RotS, Obi-Wan started to show his age. He actually started to fill the playful "Han Solo" role that the prequels sorely needed and it worked well. One of my favorite moments is towards the beginning when Obi-Wan remarks that it's probably a trap, and when Anakin asks what they should do, his response is, "Spring the trap!" I've actually heard people use this chunk of dialogue unironically in other things and I often think they forget where they probably first heard it from.

Which brings me back to what I said earlier about "quotably bad". Some movies, like "The Room", have such awful dialogue/performances that people quote them for comedic effect. RotS hits that level of bad with some of its dialogue. The most famous of which is the laughable, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

People bring up the "NOOOO!!!" as a negative, and I can see why, and at one point I agreed, but now I love it. Yes, it's hilariously stupid and over-the-top, but so is the rest of the movie.

There's two kinds of "bad". There's the bad that takes you out of the movie and just makes you cringe, and there's the bad that makes you laugh. The "NOOOO!!!" is the latter form. There are plenty of regular cringe-bad parts of RotS (most of the romance scenes), but I think this one has earned a place in our pop culture because of how much it makes us laugh. It is memorable and enjoyable and I honestly don't think removing it would make the movie any stronger.

The next complaint a lot of people have is with the portrayal of Anakin, which is largely the same as in "Attack of the Clones". He's whiny, emo, and his reasons for turning to the dark side are lame.

I touched on this briefly in my last post about "Star Wars", but let me reiterate. Almost all "Star Wars" media gives the lamest possible reasons for turning to the dark side. More often than not, it's just because they were tempted by power because power is tempting. It's always tautological. We rarely see the struggle. The best case of a Jedi struggling against the dark side was with Luke in "Return of the Jedi" where Vader threatening Leia caused him to explode in anger before realizing his folly and turning away from the dark side, declaring himself a Jedi. The spiritual test of the Jedi is often overlooked and Luke's journey was probably the most complex in canon.

If only more people approached it that way. Sith and Dark Jedi (they are not the same thing) tend to just be generically evil and get talked down usually by being shown a simple act of mercy. The common idea is that the dark side is intoxicating. I think this is a mistaken interpretation. The dark side can be manipulated to cloud minds, this much is established, but the dark side by itself does not. As human beings, we are often attracted to power. When we have power and the ability to use it without fear of consequence, it's disturbing what we are capable of. The dark side of the Force, to me, represents the use of that power without care of the repercussions or ethics involved. It warps you and narrows your vision, filling your mind with justifications.

I also think it's boring to assume that all Dark Jedi are Sith. Sith, like the Jedi, are just a group of Force-sensitives who use the dark side and believe in extreme Darwinism. As Yoda says, "Always two there are." The reason for this is that the Sith are expected and encouraged to constantly compete with each other for the top two spots. The main cause of the original decline of the Sith was that they all murdered each other, leaving only two. It is about amassing the greatest amount of power for the sake of one's own selfish desires.

But honestly, I don't see why a lot of Dark Jedi revert to the Sith lifestyle. Yes, the Sith are the ones who know the most about the dark side, but if it were me, I'd become an apprentice to a Sith, learn the dark side techniques, and then run away and do my own thing, possibly faking my own death first. It's just common sense, really. Dark Jedi are all about selfishness and self-preservation... you'd think their survival instincts would kick in around the time their Master starts giving them the shifty eyes.

My big point is, too often people make this leap between dark side and Sith. You gave in to the dark side! Now you're a Sith! No, that's just stupid.

There was one fan film I watched years and years ago and I can't really remember what it was called, and it was mostly unmemorable, but the premise was that one Jedi's brother had turned to the dark side and he was to be confronted and taken down by the Jedi. The character goes in first to try and reason with him, but he is defeated. However, instead of killing him, his brother tries to turn him to the dark side. In most other Star Wars stories, this is the part where we'd cut away and then come back and reveal that he was corrupted until the Jedi talk sense into him. Not this time. We see a very interesting conversation between the character and his brother. The character says that the Sith need to be destroyed, but his brother says that he is not Sith, he has just chosen to embrace the dark side and leave the Jedi behind. But since the Jedi choose to pursue him, he will stand and defeat him. If the Jedi chose to leave him alone, he would likely not bother them, but because the Jedi are intolerant towards use of the dark side, he knows he will either be captured and forced to repent, or simply overwhelmed and killed. It is a question of belief. The discuss some more about the nature of the dark side, and I honestly don't remember most of it, but it is rather compelling. In the end, the character joins his brother to face the Jedi, but we do not see the outcome of the battle. This is probably one of the better justifications for falling to the dark side I've ever seen. You expect a guy to kill his brother for believing something that so far hasn't hurt anybody. What do you think will happen?

So what I'm saying is that Anakin's fall is done RIGHT. Initially, the Emperor tries to tempt Anakin in the usual way that works for most people in the Star Wars universe. "The Jedi are lying to you and holding you back. Come to the dark side! We have cookies!" He also employs a healthy dose of Force Persuasion, but even then, Anakin doesn't budge. While he has his disagreements with the Jedi Council, he knows that they are a force for good. I loved Anakin in that moment. In that moment, it made sense to me why Anakin behaved the way he did in the first two movies. In "The Phantom Menace", it's established that he's a good kid, not the sort that you'd expect to turn evil, but the Council is wary due to his emotional attachments. In "Attack of the Clones", we see his initial frustrations with the Council, but the only time we see him outburst is when his mother dies. He regrets not being strong enough. He even says that one day he'll be strong enough to keep people from dying. His frustration isn't really with Obi-Wan when he talks about how he's holding him back, his frustration is with the light side of the Force. If the light side is supposed to be the embodiment of good, why has it denied him the power to save the people he cares about? It's a similar argument people use about God, "If God exists, why do bad things happen to good people?" It's a compelling argument that forms a lot of people's faith. This cognitive dissonance can either shake or strengthen a person's belief.

Again, in "Revenge of the Sith", Anakin gets a hint that Padme will suffer in the same way his mother did. He asks Yoda for help and he gives him the usual Buddhist bullshit. "Train yourself to let go of that which you fear to lose."

While it's impossible to genuinely feel like Anakin cares about Padme during their romantic scenes, I definitely get the feeling that he cares about her during the scenes where he turns evil. When he finally gives in to the dark side to preserve the Sith Lord who holds the knowledge that could help him save his wife, he finally submits to the Emperor's manipulations and force of personality. He'll do whatever it takes to save this person, even if it means killing children.

Of course he's whiny. Of course he cries and mopes after doing these horrible things. He KNOWS that what he's doing is wrong. He's just trying to justify his horrible behavior so he can find peace in knowing that he'll be able to save his loved ones.

Then, once he learns that he killed his wife and (as far he knows) his unborn child, he realizes that he's got nothing left. He burned everything he cared about in order to save Padme, and he ended up killing her too. He ceased to justify and, like many who lose everything, drowned himself in work. He dedicated himself to the Empire he built for him and his wife to live in. When he discovered that his child survived, he tried to bring him into the fold, overthrow the Emperor and finally fulfill his dream of living in a peaceful Empire with his family. When Luke tried to turn him to the light side, he said, "It's too late for me." He's already done too much. He can't turn back. He knew that returning to the light side could only result in his death. He wanted to live on with his son. But when it came time for Luke to die, Vader decided that he would rather die than allow another loved one to perish.

Is it over-the-top? Yes. But I find it consistent.

Another thing I love is the one moment where George Lucas remembers what subtlety is. When the Emperor tells Anakin of the tale of "Darth Plagueis the Wise", he reveals that Darth Plagueis learned how to manipulate the midi-chlorians to create life. As he says this, he looks at Anakin. Without needing to say so, we learned that not only is what the Emperor's saying true, it's basically the explanation of where Anakin came from. In "The Phantom Menace", we're told that he was most likely conceived by midi-chlorians. This hints at how. Either Darth Plagueis or the Emperor (perhaps both) used this power to create Anakin, either intentionally or accidentally. Regardless, the Emperor recognized what Anakin was early on and expressed great interest in him for this reason. In a messed up way, he treated him like his own son. He groomed him to be the perfect apprentice, challenging him in the traditional Sith way (trying to kill him). We see a sort of possessiveness. When Anakin finally kills Count Dooku, earning himself a place at the Emperor's side, the Emperor starts his endgame. He understands that he needs to get Anakin on his side before the war ends. He knows that Anakin holds the power to either destroy the Sith or the Jedi, and sure enough, Anakin faces that very decision. Though, as it turns out, he ends up destroying BOTH by the end of the saga, leaving only Luke to start a new and improved Jedi Order with less dogma.

Finally, there's one last thing that came out of the prequels that, to me, completely justifies their existence. They could have been the worst movies ever made and I would still be OK with them existing, so long as we still got the previously mentioned Genndy Tartakovsky "Clone Wars" cartoon series. Not to be confused with the more recent CG series, which is OK, but not nearly as amazing. Tartakovsky's style fit perfectly with "Star Wars". Dialogue was always the weakest point of any "Star Wars" movie, so his almost-silent approach works beautifully. Any time I watch all of the "Star Wars" movies, I insist on including these cartoons. In total, they add up to about 2 hours, roughly the same length as a movie, and they are spectacular. If you haven't seen them, find them and watch them. Even people I know who HATE the prequels think these are golden. You really can't go wrong with them.

To sum up my feelings, I do think that the prequels have a lot to add to the "Star Wars" saga. We get a fuller understanding of the Galaxy, the Jedi Order, the characters, and the nature of the Force. They may not be individually as powerful as the original trilogy, but they don't detract from the whole.

Rather than explain my feelings on that whole thing, I'd rather point you to an excellent series of articles of how a man introduced his children to "Star Wars". They had only been exposed to the "Clone Wars" CG cartoon, and he decided to show them the movies as well. However, he picked an interesting way to show them.

Instead of showing them in chronological order, either by when they were made or when they take place in the story, he found an excellent way to show them all. He started with "A New Hope" and then "Empire Strikes Back". Not only does this ease the viewer into the nature of the universe and the Force, but it retains the surprises regarding the identity of Yoda and Darth Vader. Then after "Empire Strikes Back", he showed the prequels in order -- "Phantom Menace", "Attack of the Clones", and "Revenge of the Sith" -- followed by "Return of the Jedi". The effect this had on his kids was almost overwhelmingly cool. I highly recommend reading the articles. If you read them and you still don't think the prequels belong in the "Star Wars" canon, then I don't think anything else I can say can possibly convince you otherwise.

Let me close by saying that "Star Wars" is about more than just good movies. "Star Wars" is an attractive saga because of its unique setting that sparks joy and creativity in its fans. Not many other franchises have accomplished that. Yeah, the prequels aren't amazing movies, but they add fuel to that fire. Whether or not you liked them, the Star Wars Galaxy is a wider, richer place because of them, and that's what I love about them. As stand-alone movies, they may not be all that great, but as a whole, they build an entire universe that I can't help but fall into.


  1. You didn't mention the character assassination of Padme.
    She turned into nothing but an object fot Anakin to lose, instead of a character.

    The third movie still is the best, but I maintain that travesty of a birth scend is second only to "I don't like sand..." in terms of AWFULNESS

    1. I lump the awful birth scene and shitty "You're breaking my heart!" stuff in with the bad dialogue part. In terms of her character, I don't disagree with what she did in theory. If she had better dialogue, those parts wouldn't have been so bad. I mean, it's pretty badass to go to an exploding volcano planet when you're like 7 months pregnant just because you're afraid your husband has turned evil. I do agree that the way they wrote and presented it it basically was character assassination, but mostly because of the things she said.

      Also, sorry I didn't get "The Aztecs" up yet. This one's really been giving me trouble.

    2. They said in the film that she died of a broken heart. REALLY! She has two healthy babies and an evil husband. And she just dies like that? BOO!

      As far as Aztecs: I shall NEVER forgive you!

    3. Like I said: Shitty writing. What kind of midwife droid says something like that? I'm thinking the droid didn't have the heart to say, "She died of a broken trachea."

  2. What is wrong with you? What could be more poignant than dying of a broken heart in a context where, indeed, your heart has been utterly shattered.

    IN your attempt to defend the Prequels, you've only shown that you're just as interested in kissing the Prequel Haters' ass as you are in making a few good points in their defense.

    Bullshit Buddhist...??? Though it's within the context of defending The Prequels, your thoughts just remind me of why so many loud haters feel the way they do: they simply aren't very smart, educated or wise.

    And whether you get it or not, it's for what Star Wars (mostly The Prequels, in fact) serves as an excellent remedy. In the fulness of time.

    1. Dying of a broken heart is one thing. Having a MEDICAL ROBOT say that is just bizarre.

      I don't have problems with Buddhism, but it's downright hypocritical of Yoda to toss out the usual adages given who he's talking to and what the Jedi had become at that point (which, if you've seen the Clone Wars cartoons, is something of a theme). They had become soldiers and it was corrupting them and Anakin was representative of the compromises they had been forced to make. Yoda's counsel in that moment was too cookie-cutter and cold and he really should have understood that. I love Yoda, but he's not a perfect character, and his stubborn dogma is one of his most apparent flaws.

      Also, it's very easy to say that people who disagree with you are stupid/uneducated/foolish.