Strange Brouhaha

Friday, May 20, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Spoiler alert


First of all: no matter how George Lucas numbers the episodes, they should always and only be watched in the order that they were released in theaters. Think about how "Episode IV" begins, with exciting action followed by comedy patter from the droids. That is not, repeat, not, in any way tonally appropriate after the mass epic tragedy of "Episode III." It is appropriate to a beginning--not a middle. Watch the films as they were released, not as they are numbered. It is perfectly legitimate to tell the second part of a story first, and then go back and fill us in. Besides, it's a lot more subversive to have things end on the stark and tragic note struck by "Episode III."

As happened with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Star Wars" started out fun and then became angst-ridden and tragic, even horrifying. It deepened (or at least darkened) as it went along, taking us with it.

I was relatively impressed by "Revenge of the Sith." It was a lot better than "Phantom" and "Clones." In fact it's the strongest entry aside from "The Empire Strikes Back," which is the best of them. (No, "Star Wars" itself is in no way the best.) Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine deserves an Oscar (I'm serious) for what he did with his incredibly wooden, expository dialogue. He had the worst lines in the whole film--just for one example, he had to sit there and tell a long story about a Sith Lord no one had ever heard of before--but he created the best moments.

And contrary to all my expectations, they actually did provide a coherent motivation for Anakin's turn to the Dark Side, and they did it in a way which saved some sense of his humanity.

Then they made me furious by ABANDONING IT! But I'll get to that.

Anyhow, Anakin is being bothered by prophetic dreams that his pregnant wife will die in childbirth. Since Anakin has already lost his mother twice (by being taken away from her in PHANTOM and watching her die in CLONES), we can credibly believe that he's psychologically vulnerable to any thought of losing his wife. He is additionally confused because the Jedi Council has asked him to spy on Chancellor Palpatine, whom he considers a personal friend. At this fraught moment in his life, Palpatine tells him that there was once a Sith Lord (the long speech) who went so far into the Dark Side that he learned how to "create life" (giving a very frightening hint as to where Anakin's own unexplained conception might have come from) and how to prevent death. Anakin is deeply struck by this.

Later, it becomes obvious to Anakin that Palpatine doesn't just know about the Dark Side from hearsay; he realizes Palpatine is Darth Sidious. He reports this to the Jedi Council, because his motivations are still basically proper, but he nonetheless hopes to play both ends against the middle and get Palpatine to teach him the secret of life (presumably from jail). When Palpatine resists arrest and the fight between him and Mace Windu threatens to become fatal, Anakin pleads with Windu to save Palpatine. Palpatine pretends that he's weak and about to die; when Anakin intervenes on his behalf, Palpatine immediately blows Mace Windu away.

This clears up Anakin's confusion. He now sees that Palpatine is evil. "What have I done?" he asks. But he knows what he's done, and he knows why; he's just lost any self-protective illusions about it (formerly provided by Palpatine's oft-repeated line that the Jedi are secretly conspiring against the republic). Without urging or provocation, Anakin now pledges himself to Palpatine's service on the condition that he receive the knowledge to save his wife. Palpatine gleefully names him Darth Vader and orders him to go right out and start killing Jedi and tradesmen. It is made clear that the new Vader is sickened by what he's doing, but he's determined to do it in order to gain the knowledge he needs. He knows he's made a deal with the devil; he knows he's become evil in a classic, Miltonian sort of way. It's genuinely tragic.

Why, then, when confronted by Padme and Obi-Wan, does he suddenly start going on about the Republic again? And how he's saving the Republic from the Jedi--no, forming an Empire--no, back to saving the Republic from the Jedi (during the long fight with Obi-Wan)? He knows that's bullshit. He *saw* that Palpatine was lying about the Jedi being against the Republic. He made clear that he was choosing to throw in his lot with Palpatine to get the knowledge he wanted. Why change his story? He still has plenty of material to attack the Jedi with: "If you had let me have the knowledge, I wouldn't have HAD to turn evil! It's YOUR fault!"

So that was annoying. But up until that point, "Sith" was pretty dramatically coherent for a Lucas-penned-and-directed Star Wars movie.

It WAS kind of a shock that Obi-Wan Kenobi, after cutting off three of Anakin's limbs and watching him writhe in agony as he slid ever closer to the molten lava with which he would soon catch on fire, did not have the decency to mercy-kill the poor sonofabitch, but just gave him one last tongue-lashing and marched off. Obi-Wan Kenobi as a character has suffered the most from the needs of Lucas's storytelling. In order for Vader to become the same person as Anakin, Obi-Wan had to become a liar, and in order for Anakin to remain alive to be put in the suit, Obi-Wan had to become a sadist. The poor guy!

And finally: Yoda was cool. The audience applauded his action beats, and deservedly so.

The whole thing was not nearly as bad as I had feared it would be. Against all odds, they found something honest and coherent about Anakin Skywalker to drive his transition to the Dark Side, which was more than I had hoped for. And I think it's genuinely surprising. I think we all expected it to be about power, and in fact, it wasn't. It was about love.


  • (Joshman) I don't follow this all that closely, apparently - what is the lie?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:16 PM  

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