Star Wars at 30: ‘The Saga is Complete’

What is it with the Star Wars prequels that have divided the public so greatly? Viewers either appear to be prepared to overlook their faults in favour of having the story wrapped up, or believe they’re out there with the dire side of the force. Nobody in their right mind would see them as masterpieces, though the use of increasingly realistic and fluid CGI certainly comes close to ‘masterly.’ Me? I’m with the former group. I can forgive some of the appalling acting, the lumbering dialogue, the way certain lines appear more than once in a movie, the obvious allegories, the plot holes, the inconsistencies, the fact its meanings and symbolism are hammered home with all the subtlety of a swerving juggernaut. None of this spoils the overall effect. For me, these faults are just as prevalent in the original trilogy. I accept Episodes I - III come without Harrison Ford, and that’s a big minus. However, there’s a tendency to over-romanticise the older bunch, for audiences that are all grown up now to project themselves back into the past, when they were kids and Star Wars meant an awful lot more.

Revenge of the SithLike many people, I would suppose I will never be quite as blown away as by the shot of that star destroyer, which keeps flying across the screen during the unforgettable opening of A New Hope. It’s cinema lore, but elsewhere I’d have it that Episodes IV - VI contain little of the sophisticated story that runs throughout the more recent series. The old films are a very straightforward yarn about good versus evil. In contrast, the newer series blurs the edges, giving us a hero only to make us watch helplessly as he falls into inevitable ruin, whilst the real villain’s plans come to horrible fruition, the culmination of careful scheming over the course of three movies.

And it’s for this reason, along with enough industrial light and magic to make my eyes water that I view the prequels affectionately. There’s little doubt I’ve seen better films. It’s more than likely I will watch a more valuable piece of cinematic art within the next seven days. Yet there’s something that keeps me coming back, a mystical energy that made slipping a certain disc into the DVD player a no-brainer, a disc that just happened to feature a familiar black-robed figure, one who appears right at the end of…

Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

When Revenge of the Sith originally hit a cinema near you, its official website carried a number of online documentaries you could access, tasters to get you in the mood for the real thing. One was all about Ewan McGregor’s transformation into Obi-Wan Kenobi, in particular the extent to which both the actor and production team assimilated him as seamlessly as possible into the shoes of a young Alec Guinness. It turned out that McGregor and Guinness had heads and facial features that were shaped almost identically, which was seen as a triumph for the production team, ever wishing to make the character’s ageing process as smooth as possible. As the Scot tried in his performance to emulate Guinness’s mannerisms and dialect, and later documentary footage showed how they adapted his hair and attire appropriately, it was clear the extent to which no technical stone had been left unturned. However, my burning response to this has been to cry ‘Brilliant! Why didn’t you spend more time on the script, fools?’

It was by no means the last time I had this feeling. Everywhere I looked, ROTS was a triumph of science, a technological terror in which the hordes of production people had a perfect right to feel proud of their accomplishments. The brilliant feature on the DVD, Within a Minute, shows the development of a 60-second slice of footage from the perspective of everyone involved, highlighting the vast effort that went into making it look as good as it does. What it also did, unintentionally to a large degree, was make clear the relative unimportance of the screenplay. As someone in the programme says, usually the script is the Bible, but here it was simply part of the process, and boy does it show. George Lucas has confessed to finding that writing malarkey a chore; in Within a Minute, he emerges with a completed screenplay, sheepishly confessing that he skims over bits (e.g. covering a fight scene by typing ‘They fight’). You have to wonder why he bothered, certainly when you consider there must be a clone army of willing writers out there, all capable of turning out a neat bundle of dialogue, and checking their drafts to make certain various lines aren’t repeated throughout, as though it’s never been properly proofed…

Treating the script like a second class citizen really is unforgivable. I appreciate Star Wars isn’t exactly Tolstoy, and that nobody goes to see one of Lucas’s epics with the expectations of a screenplay worthy of the Coen Brothers. All the same, a side effect of the amazing visuals, dazzling costumes and intense action is that any shortcomings will come into ever sharper relief. The dialogue seems flatter and lifeless, and it isn’t helped by the millions of dollars of thrills thrown around it.

Harsh critics have picked on the standard of the acting as another major shortcoming. They’re certainly right where Hayden Christensen is concerned. Here, he is supposed to have the weight of Anakin’s previous and the ramifications of being ‘the Chosen One’ on his shoulders. As the movie’s main focus, he should have the presence of Russell Crowe, someone who can carry a big budget film with his brooding, smouldering presence. But he doesn’t. Instead he looks nothing more than confused when questioning his own loyalties, whilst in the presence of Padme he wears the same half-smile throughout, as though he can never quite believe his own luck. It doesn’t help that he’s given some awful, hammy lines to deliver. I suspect the intention was to have him speak epic dialogue, the kind of ‘worlds colliding’ bobbins Darth Vader used to come out with. If so, he simply doesn’t have that level of power, coming across as a spoiled child rather than the potential ruler of the universe.

'I am Mannequin Skywalker...'The fact that this was a major criticism of the previous installment makes this crime even worse. Clearly, Lucas learned nothing from things that had gone wrong before, and in this respect Natalie Portman fares no better, alternating between doting on Anakin and making platitudinal criticisms of the political arena. Even the ballsiness of her performances in Episodes One and Two are yesterday. Pregnant ladies don’t fight, so there’s little for her to do apart from get more disillusioned with her sad lot.

And you’re telling me that the woman who led the assault on Naboo, and who helped the Jedi in their tussle with the droids at Geonosis, dies in childbirth? Of a broken heart, you say? It all sounds very far fetched, even in a galaxy far, far away. You’re asked to accept a lot of plot holes in ROTS, from Anakin’s rather easy conversion to the Dark Side, through to three of Mace Windu’s Jedi Master pals being dispatched with a growl and a summary stabbing motion by Palpatine. It’s a sin that Count Dooku - effortlessly the best thing in Attack of the Clones - is offed almost as soon as he appears. Similarly General Grievous gets handed his cards way too quickly. Anyone who’s seen the superior Clone Wars series will have been given the impression he’s far too powerful to be bumped off after a brief playground scrap with Obi-Wan, yet that’s what happens. Then there’s the whole muddled ending - couldn’t Kenobi have put poor Anakin out of his misery as he’s slowly turned into toast? Certainly by a Jedi’s standards, leaving him to fry seems rather cruel, even if killing him would have left a fair amount to explain between episodes three and four. I’m sure Sidious could have brought him back to life, or something, especially after he delivered that yarn about the Sith Lord who could do just that earlier in ROTS. How ironic would that have been, considering what he tells his charge about Padme? Also, why does Yoda just tittle off to Dagobah? He gives up a bit easily, after more than matching the Emperor in that battle of the force…

I’m being overly critical, I know, but then these are the brickbats the knockers have thrown at ROTS, and there’s substance behind their caustic comments. For all that, there’s clearly something about the thing that makes it more than a complete waste of space. Yeah, I’m a fan of the series, but I’m not stupid. I expect some quality to go with my latest Wars. It’s not like when I was 10, and devoured Return of the Jedi, Ewoks and all because, well, it’s Star Wars, and a new film meant a whole extra range of figures and replica ships available from Middlesbrough’s cavernous Romer Parrish toy store (not that big, really, but then again neither was I at the time).

ROTS possesses one of the most relentlessly exciting opening sequences I have ever seen in a movie. After the usual preamble, the camera tracks two fighter crafts flying through a space battle in a single, continuous take. To a martial drumbeat, the tiny spaceships weave through much bigger cruisers, all firing on each other in a mess of explosions, missiles and warheads. There’s so much to see that the Encarta definition of ‘feast for the eyes’ could link to a media clip of this scene. But this is only the beginning. The first twenty minutes of ROTS is a series of action set pieces, a blistering video game involving piles of dismembered robot limbs, Jedi gymnastics and a recreation of those Airport movies from the 1970s. Whether you like this sort of stuff is up to you, but the kinetic fun of it can’t be argued with, nor can the fact that this shows the characters - all stunts and wisecracks - at their best. Similarly impressive is what’s happening in the background. As Anakin and Dooku fight in the bridge of his ship, outside the windows can be seen the battle raging on, more vessels, laser beams and annihilations. Though the eye’s naturally drawn to the sabres, it’s bewildering to think of how much work must have gone into producing those ’secondary’ effects.

Things slow down afterwards, as we start to deal with the way Palpatine subverts Anakin. This is broken up with Yoda’s trip to help the Wookies and Obi-Wan’s pursuit of Grievous. Both storylines are largely unnecessary as plot drivers, but well conceived, and give the audience some titillation amidst the somewhat ponderous Anakin scenes. In particular, Ewan McGregor puts in by some distance his most accomplished turn of the series. Previously, a combination of stilted, forced lines and green screen acting had him looking uncomfortable, but here he’s every inch the Jedi Master. Overshadowed he is only by Ian McDiarmid, up until this point something of a bit part player in the trilogy, albeit the pivotal figure. His Sith anecdote, shared with Skywalker, is one of the few occasions in ROTS where it’s worth slowing down the action for a scene heavy in dialogue. Palpatine’s is a film of two halves. In the first, he’s the slimy politician. His implorings for Anakin to trust him jar with the malevolent designs he has for the Republic, and it’s that other side of his personality that comes out in the second half, after he’s been scarred by Mace Windu.

Yoda looking ready for actionThe ‘Execute Order 66′ sequence of events is one of the most emotionally effective in the entire trilogy. It could have been made awfully badly, yet it hardly puts a foot wrong, showing Jedi being killed on a number of gorgeous locations whilst John Williams comes up with a suitably funereal score. There’s something horribly sinister about the Clone army, serving their Jedi commanders doggedly until a brief order from Palpatine changes their focus entirely. Even Anakin can’t ruin the moment. In one grisly scene, he shows just how far he’ll go in servitude to the dark side, slaying a roomful of ‘younglings’ without a flicker of conscience.

Then there’s the epic finale, the fight between Yoda and Palpatine/Sidious as Obi-Wan takes on Anakin within the lava fields of Mustapha. The dismissive way Yoda deals with the Emperor’s guards is a joy, but the focus is really on the confrontation between two protagonists who, until now, were friends. This is astonishing, a masterclass in choreography that must have involved painstakingly long rehearsal times for McGregor and Christensen. It’s spoiled slightly by the videogame hazards in the shape of random lava attacks, but the power of the fight doesn’t let up until the end, when Obi-Wan finds himself on higher ground.

What follows, the arresting and rather horrific downfall of Anakin, is never less than powerful. Allow yourself to care for these characters, and it all packs an emotional punch, as does the series of scenes at the very end that are intended to ‘bridge’ the prequels with Episode IV. More than the rather downbeat sights of the baddies very much on top, what really clicks here is Williams’s music, which provides a seamless link with the sound of that 1977 movie. It just goes to show how crucial the composer is to Star Wars. Though there’s a tendency to overuse his score in places (sometimes, already busy scenes have music fiddling away unnecessarily in the background), when it counts Williams can pack a punch, and does so here.

In terms of numbers, ROTS cost over a hundred million dollars to produce (less than half of Spider-Man III’s price tag - I just can’t work that one out) and made that much fourfold in box office receipts alone. Given the adult nature of its content and the fact that this is the single episode that has the older fans in its thoughts, it must be viewed as a commercial triumph. From what I can tell, it was critically received better in the States than in Britain, where I can’t help thinking the knives have been out from the prequels’ start. The trouble is that one-star reviews tend to bring out the belligerent side in ROTS’s supporters. Reading the comments of average fans, it’s possible to get the impression that this is either terrible bobbins, or seriously misunderstood. What it happens to be is okay, a decent movie with glaring flaws but equally standout moments of brilliance. Watching it again last night, I fast forwarded through the Anakin-Padme stuff, and afterwards didn’t feel like I’d missed a thing. At other times, I was captivated, whether by what was happening on the screen, or its effectiveness in rounding off the trilogy, a trilogy that I, like many of you no doubt, have spent time with through much of my life.

7 Responses to “Star Wars at 30: ‘The Saga is Complete’”

  1. Douglas F Burns Says:

    I continue to believe that Lucas’ position in the pantheon of cinema was greatly diminished by Episodes I, II and III. He should have left well enough alone after the first trilogy, and his position would have been secure beyond cavil. There is such a thing as explaining too much.

  2. Mike Says:

    True to an extent, but what would you have thought if the prequels had all been excellent films? Let’s just say that, as with Empire and Return, Lucas handed script writing and directing duties to someone else and retained executive producer powers (would not happen, but for argument’s sake) and the movies were great, what then?

    I suppose another way of looking at it is that Lucas certainly made his money and created a new fanbase of younger viewers who were all happy to buy the figures, books, etc. For us older fans, they’re flawed experiences, certainly, but interesting to see how it all built up to the original films. Also they shifted the emphasis from being Luke’s story, to telling us all about Anakin, his fall and ultimate redemption. That, I believe, was a tale worth telling.

    But I accept your argument. The prequels certainly showed Lucas up as being an auteur rooted in a less sophisticated past. Episodes I - III were totally ovshadowed by the Rings trilogy, which showed massive levels of care in all departments - as opposed to primarily the visual one - and turned out to be the one to beat.

  3. Mark Says:

    I think part of the bitterness comes from ‘if only’. If only Lucas had handed over the job of writing to some one else. And if only they had got someone better for the part of Anakin Skywalker. Those are what I see as the two main faults running throughout the trilogy. But also part of the fault lies with Lucas’s directing which makes a lot of scenes (especially in episode 1 and 2) really quite ponderous. He needed an editor.

    But, you’re right, episode 3 isn’t a film totally absent of any charm. The special effects are incredible and some performances are standouts (Ian McDiarmid in particular) but when the script fails so often and the character’s, and I especially mean Anakin, make you care so little for them then there is no way it can ever really be a good film.

  4. Amanda Jones Says:

    However, there’s a tendency to over-romanticise the older bunch

    Refraining from that tendency dosen’t make any of the newer bunch any less wooden, stilted and lame.
    I continue to believe that Lucas’ position in the pantheon of cinema was greatly diminished by Episodes I, II and III.

    Yes it has, but even more sadly, the position of the originals in the pantheon of cinema was greatly diminished. Especially by 1). people who seem to think think that special effects are all Star Wars was ever about, and 2). by people who feel the need to follow chronology like a religion and watch these blunders before the originals.

  5. tom barnett Says:

    i can’t believe you gave clones 4 darths and this 3 mike. far better film, same level of action for me whilst having a far better plot. as bad as Stephen Glass was (and the cry of Noooo! at the end is, for me, one of the most cringeworthy moments in film ever), i just think that as a film it was far better than clones, but there you go.

    i gave it 8/10 on the lib years ago when it first came out and i think i stick by that - of the three “newer” editions, it’s the one i find most watchable.

  6. Mike Says:

    Good to see a mention of Stephen Glass - great film, and a riveting performance from Mannequin.

    For me, the things wrong with Sith outweighed the problems in Clones. Ep II is a cracking yarn for the most part - III is weighed down with its own portencies, Anakin’s super-quick conversation and the same Hayden-Natalie featherweight acting that made both films a bit of a joke. I think it could have been loads better, and in the hands of a more accomplished writer-director may have turned out to be a masterpiece. Instead, it’s just decent.

  7. The Big Whatsit » Star Wars at 30: ‘Return to a Galaxy… Far, Far Away’ Says:

    […] As the battle rages on, Luke is brought before the Emperor himself, Darth Sidious. Bizarrely, Ian McDiarmid looks somehow older in this than in Revenge of the Sith, despite the actor being 22 years younger when filming ROTJ. As always, he makes for a fantastic villain. You can see the confidence visibly sap from Skywalker as Sidious reveals the extent of his plans for both the Rebellion and himself. Later, he will coerce the young Jedi into a final scrap with his father, the culmination of another scheme gone horribly right… as long as the pair don’t team up, of course. In any event, it’s a grisly plan. Luke is intended to kill his own dad, and from there become the Emperor’s new apprentice. As unlikely as this sounds, it almost works. Darth’s power has diminished. His offspring’s has grown, and the really awful part is that, whatever else happens, the older man is quite accepting that he won’t come out of this alive. […]

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