Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Sith Hits The Fan

WARNING: For anyone reading this, buried in these incoherent ramblings somewhere are some thoughts on Revenge Of The Sith. These thoughts are laced with what many call "spoilers," so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you might want to wait until you have before reading this.

Star, not Episode IV. Just Star Wars, thank you very muchIt's a bit hard to remember now being nearly thirty years ago, but I think I saw Star Wars somewhere around a month after it was released. I'm pretty sure I was out of school at the time on those glorious summer vacations that seemed to last an eternity when you're eight years old, so we'll say June 1977 and leave it at that. My parents had gone out the night before and seen the movie with their friends. The next day, my mother and my "Aunt Marilyn" (her best friend at the time) took my brother and I and Marilyn's son Paul to see it: which I suppose indicated that they were pretty into it (or at least felt that it might keep us out of trouble for an afternoon). I remember very little about the experience, save for a couple of key iconic parts and telling my dad later that evening to his amusement that I really dug the Empire (which at that time meant Darth Vader).

To this day, I think we only saw Star Wars once in the theater, though it wouldn't surprise me to discover it was more than that, since theatrical movies back then played for months instead of weeks at a time. The movie certainly had a profound influence on my interests as a kid, since from that point onwards, just about any movie or T.V. show that had anything to do with space adventure was on my "must see" list, whether it was network shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, or movies like The Black Hole and Battle Beyond The Stars.

The Empire Strikes Back: hello, geekdomWhen The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, my best friend at the time (Rob VanNortwick) and his father took me to see the Saturday matinee showing on Day 2. As with Star Wars, I am unsure if we saw this more than once at the cinema, though I'm a little more sure that we did not. Not that it mattered, really, since it was this movie that officially made a full-blown Star Wars geek out of me. The expansion of the scale involved in the movie probably had the most to do with it, with new characters and planets and a much longer view of the battle between good and evil (suddenly Darth Vader was not The Bad Guy, but a cog in The True Bad Guy's machine, et cetera). Sure, I had a lot of the toys and had read some of the rather silly Marvel comic books by then, but I think I was still too young before 1980 to really achieve that slobbering degree of loyalty that separates the geeks from the casual fans. After Empire came out, I found myself suddenly compelled to spend stupid amounts of allowance money at Gray Drug across 12 Mile Road every week collecting all of the trading cards, novelizations, magazines, and making-of/behind the scenes books I could lay my hands on.

It goes without saying that by the time Return Of The Jedi came out in 1983, I had to be one of the first to see it (nevermind that I'd already swallowed the novelization and comic book adaptations whole by the time it was released). Jedi, incidentally, also started up the "opening day" tradition of seeing Star Wars movies for me, which has lasted to this day. By now, I had fallen in with a cadre of fellow Lucas geeks in my junior high school years, and we made a group event out of opening day by somehow wrangling all of our parents to let us catch a show right smack in the middle of a school week.

Return Of The Jedi: the very apex of my childhoodMay 25, 1983. Ah, this was a day to be remembered: about a half-dozen of us made our way to the Americana Theater (we had to have been dropped off and picked up again by somebody's parents...though I cannot at this time recall whose) after being let out of a particularly endless day at Alice J. Birney middle school. This was the pre-multiplex days, and the Americana had two screens housed in a building as large as most of the modern facilities in use today. Even considering how freaking huge the auditorium was, the line outside the theater was the longest I had ever seen for a film up to that point, and peppered with other kids from my school. After what felt like an eternity, we got inside and watched that fucker in 70mm Dolby Stereo as part of a joyously racuous audience (lots of lusty cheers and boos as the main characters appeared on screen) and had a whale of a time. Nevermind that dozens of chattering Ewoks and a handful of goofball monsters in Jabba's court made Jedi at times feel like something out of The Muppet Show, this was the capper event of my pre-adolescent life.

Save for multiple repeat viewings of the trilogy throughout high school after moving to Ohio and falling in with a smaller (though no less devoted) group of fellow superfans, that was pretty much the end of Star Wars being an active part of my life. Save for the VHS releases (which took years to happen back then), Star Wars was largely "a Michigan thing" as I had outgrown the toys and trading cards end of the whole enterprise by the end of 1983 and was finally starting to move on to other special interests. For about thirteen years after that, life went on, and while I would occasionally watch or riff on the "Holy Trilogy" with friends when the occasion warranted (and pick up the remastered widescreen versions like a good fanbitch), the thought of ever seeing Parts 1-3 or 7-9 actually happen never really crossed my mind.

Ah, but then George Lucas decided to test the waters for a new trilogy at long last by releasing the original films in theaters once again in early 1997. While the chance to see these movies on a big screen for the first time since I was a kid certainly would have sold me on that point alone, Lucas sweetened the deal by adding all kinds of enhanced visuals using modern computer animation effects to flesh out and spiff up scenes that were out of adequate technological reach at the time of the original productions. A few friends and I took in each re-release on opening night, dutifully keeping with tradition, and while some of the new CG work left me a bit cold (and frankly distracted at times), it was certainly an interesting experience, and it raised our expectations over what to expect in the least in a visual sense.

Star Wars I: The Phantom ClusterfuckBy the time The Phantom Menace (the first of 3 prequels to the original series and set some four decades before the events of the original Star Wars film) finally appeared to incredible anticipation (and expectations) in 1999, I had made the fatal mistake of expecting to be as blown away as I was when I first saw the original films as a kid. But something was different about this film...I wasn't anywhere near as engaged as I was beforehand. Even though I did wind up seeing Phantom two or three times at the theater, it was an empty experience that multiple viewings couldn't improve. It felt like this movie was aimed squarely at kids my niece's age, which made me wonder for the first time if the original films weren't. Was this what watching the original Star Wars felt like to a thirty year old in 1977? The younger generation sure seemed to eat it up, but I was having real problems accepting what I was seeing, no matter how amazingly snazzy some of it looked.

Over the years, I've come to think of The Phantom Menace as being in the same league as Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom in that during both films the first half is fucking excruciating to sit through, while the second half has enough extraneous activity onscreen to keep you interested...yet both ultimately fail to wipe away that agony incurred during the first hour.

Star Wars II: Electric BoogalooAttack Of The Clones followed to my far-diminished expectations in 2002, and (if nothing else) has stood up better over time than The Phantom Menace, though it was occasionally just as arduous to sit through. At least in this case the pain was spread out equally over the running time instead of during the opening hour. Jesus, I'm not trying to imply here that the original trilogy was on par with Masterpiece Theater, but the acting in these films seems so incredibly wooden it's staggering (which I'm quite certain is a by-product of acting to green screens and doing first-takes whenever possible). At least the "good parts" of Clones packed enough thrills to make the godawful "romance" scenes bearable, and the CGI Yoda actually looked like Yoda (and not like a doddering, post-chemo Cookie Monster like in Episode 1).

So now, at long last, we come to Revenge Of The Sith, ostensibly the very last of the Star Wars movies (though I believe that about as much as I believe in the Easter Bunny), and the one that ties together the prequels with the original classic trilogy. Sith takes a pretty tall order on the latter behalf, and I guess in that department it came off as good as can be expected: with this movie, it's not so much the surprises (though there were a couple) as the way things come together in the end that are meant to provide entertainment to longtime fans.

Like good little geeks, Sarah and I went over to the fuckin' mobbed local Regal multiplex for the midnight showing of Sith last night. Despite the scary amount of people present for this thing (five showings on five screens - all sold out) the crowd was thankfully pretty well-behaved during the film. The only real jerk in our vicinity was The Expert, as I refer to him. The Expert is that guy who knows everything about the film going into it and makes a show of explaining every cameo, spaceship and plot development to his group of buddies seated around him. Of course, The Expert wound up sitting just behind my right shoulder, but luckily for me he was drowned out most of the time by the sound system. Hooray.

O.K., let's talk movie.

Holding Sith up to the rather less-than-amazing standards of the last two movies, I'd say it was easily the best of the three, though it's certainly not without it's share of problems, many of which are the same issues discussed above minus the overtly kiddie angle (this is pretty violent going at times, particularly General Grievous: flop fopwhen Anakin starts to sizzle like an overcooked burger). Even dependable Chancellor Palpatine starts to grate on the nerves a bit after his unveiling as Darth Sidious (oh please, like you really didn't know). Immediately after this unveiling, Palpatine switches over to high camp mode -- a near-comical slide into Scooby-Doo-style overacting which worked in 1983 when you didn't know The Emperor from Adam but feels very "off " when you're used to how silky smooth evil Palpatine was without lots of latex makeup and contact lenses on. The movie's other big meanie, General Grievous, is by name alone the single lamest villain idea we've seen from Lucas yet. Watching him during the course of the movie, Greivous is hard to take seriously as a threat of any kind -- he spends most of his time castigating droid underlings in the manner of an asthmatic Montgomery Burns while stalking around looking like some kind of biomechanical toothpaste dispenser.

In the "plus" department, though, I have to admit I found a lot of the "droid soldier" humor to be a scream ... but then I am a sucker for throwaway background jokes like these. There were lightsaber fights galore throughout, with Mace Windu vs Darth Sidious a real highlight as well as The Mother Of All Lightsaber Battles in the final third of the movie. During said clash, Obi-Wan Kenobi's anguish before and during the matchup was pretty convincingly portrayed (Ewan MacGregor has long been one of the bright points in the prequels, acting-wise). Perhaps the most satisfying plot surprise in the film for me was the truly diabolical "Order 66," which definitely belongs on Palpatine's Greatest Hits collection of anticipatory chess moves.

Crawwwling throooouuugh my skiiiinEven more remarkable about Revenge Of The Sith is that I actually liked the character of Anakin Skywalker. For the first time in this new trilogy, the central character in all of this silly geekery comes off believably as a person and makes for a fittingly noble Jedi Knight...well, at least for the first half of the movie, anyway. After a certain plot point is reached, poor Anakin reverts back to vintage Clones form as the petulant, bratty sulking teenager you want to smack upside the head after throwing his Linkin Park records in the trashbin. And, I'm sorry, but Anakin/Vader's "evil" glare -- tilting his head down while glowering at the camera like Alex in A Clockwork Orange -- is just not very convincing.

So, that's that. We have come full circle at last. The credits roll after the storylines merge -- Luke and Leia are shuttled away to live in seclusion on separate worlds, Yoda huffles off to Shuffalo, Jar Jar Binks walks by the camera without saying a single word (woo!), and the familiar black armored figure of Darth Vader watches from the bridge of a two-headed proto-Star Destroyer as the framework for the Death Star is being set up (wow, these took longer to build than I thought) while the Emperor and a young Grand Moff Tarkin hover around nearby.

The rube and the city slicker

I guess in a sick way I am grateful for the existence of these prequels, though I certainly think to myself after seeing the last of them that sometimes it's better for a story to simply say "This is The Bad Guy. Why? Because, that's why!" and leave it at that. If there is one single problematic thread running throughout the entire new trilogy, it's having to accept supreme intergalactic badass Darth Vader as a precociously cute ten-year old kid running around yelling "yippie!" and then seeimg him as a terminally annoying and bitchy teenager ... not to mention unbelievably, incredibly, and galactically stupid (not to mention gullible) when it counted the most. It's very difficult to reconcile this backstory with the calculating and precise Vader we came to know during the orginal trilogy: a figure that frequently force-choked incompetent officers to death, tortured and froze Han Solo alive just for the hell of it and abetted in the annihilation of an entire planet for crissakes. Realizing that all of this came on because Vader really misses mom (and/or wanted to make his secret wife happy and secure) just sounds so damn silly...

NP Star Wars Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith Soundtrack (surprise surprise)

The Cosby kids, a robot, and the family dog

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