Saturday, November 14, 2015

'Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith' re-reviewed

"Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" has sentimental value for me.

In 2005, it was the first film which I reviewed for the NORWALK REFLECTOR newspaper.

That, in turn made me realize I had a knack for reviewing movies and this film critic was born. (I'm willing to be hired to do that full-time!)

In fact, "Revenge of the Sith" — and "Batman Begins" — are the first flicks I previewed waaaaay back in a  January 2005 guest editorial, which led to the creation of the (now defunct) twice-monthly version of Cary's Comics Craze. (RIP; you had a great nine-year run in the REFLECTOR!)

Now if I could find my original "Revenge of the Sith" review easily — which was part of an all "Star Wars" package with two features and a CCC column in the REFLECTOR the day after the release of "Sith" — I'd share it here as a flashback. That being the case, that would make my original review an adopted part of this multi-part, occasional series of my "Star Wars" saga reviews leading up to "The Force Awakens."

And counting my "many questions" re-review from three years ago, this would be my third review of "Sith"!

More full disclosure: The last time I watched "Revenge of the Sith" was several years ago. I was so turned off by the cheesy, overdone acting, I took out the DVD just after Emperor Palpatine christens Anakin Skywalker as Darth Vader with little regret.

But as the time leading up to the Dec. 18 release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" comes painstakingly closer, I promised myself I'd watch and review the entire "Star Wars" saga in chronological order.

Granted, I've shared most of concerns about "Sith" in my question/conundruum-filled flashback review,  but here I am.

Many fans have contended since its release 10 years ago that director-writer George Lucas finally found his prequel mojo with "Revenge of the Sith." I can't say I disagree; it's something close to what all the prequels should have been.

First of all, let me give credit where it's due — especially since I've been somewhat harsh with my critique of Hayden Christensen. His performance is much improved, compared to "Episode II - Attack of the Clones."

Christensen will never be mistaken for a great actor, but he does have a bit more chemistry with Natalie Portman as Senator Padme Amidala (one of the biggest problems in "Attack of the Clones," as I pointed out in my recent review).

Portman's Amidala has little to do except pine and worry over Skywalker's increasingly poor decisions.

Queen Amidala is even more stiff in "Episode I - The Phantom Menace" than Christensen is in "Attack of the Clones," but that's what the "Phantom Menace" script delivered — and apparently what Lucas wanted from Portman. Just as the Naboo senator becomes a woman of action in "Clones," it's a shame Lucas relegates such an incredibly talented actress to playing an observer in the sequel.

Next, let me clarify an issue I addressed in my review of the 2008 "Clone Wars" animated movie. There, Skywalker is called "Master" at least twice, but it's unclear if he had earned the title or if it was someone using it as a sign of respect.

In "Sith," Count Dooku notices Skywalker has gained much more power in The Force since their duel near the end of "Attack of the Clones," but it's clear he's only ranked as a Jedi Knight. Much later in "Sith," Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds Skywalker he's the only Jedi not to be a Jedi Master who is a member to the Jedi Council. (Thanks to the manipulations of Palpatine, looking for another power move in his ultimate goal to be the Emperor.) Final verdict: Skywalker, who still is a Padawan in the "Clone Wars" animated shorts (which happen before the CGI movie of the same name), is a Jedi Knight by the beginning of "Revenge of the Sith."

That brings me to Ian McDiamird as Palpatine.

It's taken me three movies to realize he is the stiffest and cheesiest actor in the entire trilogy. (His inability to deliver a convincing predatory/sneaky crocodile smile doesn't help his case.) McDiamird has no onscreen connection with Christensen — what a pair they are as they woodenly act with each other. This makes it difficult to believe why Christensen's Skywalker would consider Palpatine is such a great role model and leader or how such a power-hungry man could manipulate the young Jedi.

McDiamird doesn't hit his stride as Palpatine until he goes full-on Emperor after his own Dark Force
lightning bolts have deflected off Mace Windu's lightsaber and permanently scarred and prematurely aged him.

Sadly by then "Sith" is almost halfway done and the prequels are only an hour or so away from completion. If you watch the post-windy lightsaber duel scene and listen carefully it's as if McDiamird tries out two versions of Palpatine's creepy Emperor voice before (re)discovering the right one. Kinda weird.

Each time I watch "Sith," it's clear there are three stand-out sequences: the Kenobi-General Grievous, Yoda-Palpatine and Kenobi-Skywalker duels. Wow, wow and wow!

What's most impressive about the film is how much easier it is to buy the real actor-CGI character interactions. There are no obvious glitches — the ones so easy for the audience to detect in "Clones." The only exception is Kenobi mounting and riding the beast in his pursuit of General Grievous. Also, this CGI-created Yoda is much more realistic. It's odd how three years made such a difference in getting the technology that much better.

The Yoda-Palpatine and Kenobi-Skywalker lightsaber duels are battles of equals. I'd say Yoda vs. the Emperor is a draw and circumstances force the Jedi Master to withdraw.

There's also no clear winner between Skywalker and Kenobi. The only way Kenobi "wins" is when the newly christened Darth Vader makes the terrible choice of leaping toward his former master from the sea of lava to the beach. Kenobi has no other choice but to defend himself and in this case, Skywalker pays the terrible price of having both his legs cut off below his knees and one arm chopped off.

Kenobi's reaction to mutilating Skywalker/Vader, seeing him in pain and coming to terms with the awful choices his Padawan has made is where Ewan McGregor makes it all pay off. Hearing how tormented about Skywalker's decision to join Palpatine and the Dark Side of the Force resonates. McGregor brings pain and anguish with every line he says to Skywalker.

Meme/image courtesy of the RPG Codex website
This why Kenobi is such a great character (certainly the biggest stand-out in the prequel trilogy) and why he's one of the greatest Jedi. Relationships matter to him. He knows a Jedi has to control his emotions (or at the very least, knows they can't control him or her), but he understands the power of having strong feelings.

McGregor uses this scene to let Kenobi's emotions flow. It's obvious that even when he has no choice but to slaughter his hate-fueled former pupil in self-defense, it devastates him. But the Jedi Master shows compassion; he makes the humane choice of not delivering the death stroke, but walks away to let Skywalker die.

This brings me to the first appearance of the armored Darth Vader, the classic badass from the original trilogy, and Amidala's post-birth death.

The medical droid tells Kenobi that Skywalker's wife has lost the will to die— and I think that's true. To a point. (Or as Kenobi says later in "Return of the Jedi," it's true "… from a certain point of view.")
Padme Amidala names her children Luke and Leia in her dying moments.

My theory is I believe the Emperor somehow uses the Dark Side to twist the life out of Amidala.

That would mean Palpatine wasn't lying entirely to Skywalker about having the power of saving lives; he might not have the power to resurrect people (as the Sith legend goes — or as Palpatine leads the gullible Skywalker to believe), but Palpatine's Darth Sidious does know how to take a life teetering on the edge and push the person to death. That would very much be a Dark Side power — or at least the manipulation of the truth that one might expect from a Dark Lord of the Sith. Otherwise, Amidala's post-birth death is too much to take seriously.

Our first look at the classic Vader should have been one of the biggest highlights of the prequels. The lighting of the scene makes it obvious the scene was filmed on a set (a bare minimum one at that!), which cheapens the Big Reveal. Christensen's Skywalker struggles against the addition of his cybernetic enhancements, showing us how painful the process is.

But the rest is pure cheese — embodied by Vader's first clumsy step off the now upright operating table. While I understand Lucas is showing us how Skywalker isn't used to walking on his new legs and his awkwardness is symbolic of Vader's first steps into being the Dark Lord of the Sith we love hate at the same time, but it's overdone and his first step or two are much too stiff. (Was this in fact a CGI movie moment instead of a real actor in the Vader costume who overdoes it? You decide.) 

To top it all off, Vader screaming over Amidala's death is B-movie overacting. Combine that with Palpatine chuckling with his evil, reptilian smile over Vader believing that he's responsible for Amidala's death and … well, I think I made my point.

Photo courtesy of Wookieepedia, the "Star Wars" encyclopedia
But Lucas redeems himself in the final scenes of "Attack of the Sith." They deliver the right balance of sentimental love for the classic trilogy and also has fans looking forward to and understanding why events have unfolded the way they have in "Episode IV - A New Hope" (aka the original "Star Wars" film).

The closing scene of Owen Lars and his wife Beru with the infant Luke Skywalker under the twin suns  of Tatooine is a perfect lead-in for the original movie — a new hope, indeed.

Grade: A-

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