Friday, September 9, 2011

Amateur Friday - Revenge Of The Sith ( Star Wars Week!!!)

We're back for our last day of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to Monday's review of The Empire Strikes Back.

Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy
Premise: (from IMDB) After three years of fighting in the Clone Wars, Anakin Skywalker concludes his journey towards the Dark Side of the Force, putting his friendship with Obi Wan Kenobi and his marriage at risk.
About: Revenge of the Sith was the script that Lucas had worked on the most out of the prequels and that is evident in the final product. He was originally going to open the movie with seven battles on seven different planets but eventually decided that the key to making the movie work was to focus on Anakin's struggle to resist the Dark Side, so he rewrote the opening to focus on that.
Writer: George Lucas

There are many who consider Revenge Of The Sith to be the best Star Wars prequel. That's a little like saying that Clarke is the best Hanson brother (MMMMMMMMMMMbop!) but it does happen to be true. The reason for this is that Sith has the cleanest storyline in any of the three films. Of course, since it's Lucas, we have to wait half a movie to get to that clear storyline, but at least half of the movie has focus. I'm referring to when Palpatine goes after the Jedi. It's the first moment in the prequel series where there's some actual chasing going on, some actual urgency going on, and, most important of all, a storyline we can understand. So kudos to George for finally figuring that out.

In addition to that, for the first time in the prequels, we have a character with a genuine internal conflict. When critics or audiences talk about depth, the thing they're usually referring to is a central character who's experiencing an internal struggle. You do this by creating a dilemma, preferably something that pulls that character between the "right" way and the "wrong" way. This is, for instance, why Michael Corleone is such a compelling character in The Godfather. He doesn't want to be a part of the family business and yet circumstances dictate that he has to be. That tug of war pulling at your character can be really fun to watch. We didn't get any of that in the first two films. But we get it here and it's a welcome addition to the series. It of course doesn't work all the way because Lucas is a terrible writer and finds ways to screw it up, but it's better than nothing.

That means Sith is basically divided into two halves, both of which sort of work. The first half is about Anakin battling who he should give allegiance to. And the second half is about the Emperor trying to eradicate the Jedi.

So then why is Revenge Of The Sith still sort of sucky?

Well, besides the obvious, it boils down, once again, to sloppy storytelling. Lucas cheats in a big way and as a result, what should be the most compelling part of the movie feels lazy and unsatisfying. You see, Lucas needs a way for Anakin to turn to the Dark Side. The only way he can really do this is if somebody very close to Anakin is in danger and Palpatine is the only person who can help save that person. Then, and only then, would it be believable that Anakin would join the Dark Side (at least with how the series has been set up). The problem is, the only person that's really close to Anakin is Amidala and we can't have her hurt because she still has to have babies. So Lucas creates a loophole. Anakin has a dream that Amidala is going to die……eventually, and this allows the best of both worlds, Amidala can still have her babies, and Palpatine can lure Anakin over to the Dark Side.

Remember, any time you can feel the writer's hand reaching down and creating a plot convenience, the suspension of disbelief is gone. The audience becomes aware that this story isn't "real" and no longer trusts what's in front of their eyes. It's no coincidence that the second Matrix movie uses this exact same story device (Neo has a dream that Trinity is going to die) and that that movie is also bad. I suppose that because Anakin's a Jedi and can sort of see into the future, you can rationalize why this should work, but it's such a false way to drive a story that we see right through it.

Another huge problem with this film is that things are just too easy for the characters. If you remember in Star Wars, when the Millennium Falcon was captured by the Death Star, the characters had to hide inside the cargo bays of the ship. They needed to lure storm troopers in and slip into their outfits. They needed to pretend like Chewbacca was a prisoner. There was some real thought that went into how they would sneak around this place. Now it wasn't perfect. Sometimes people just hid in closets. But you still got the sense that the screenwriters were trying.

Here, you don't get that sense at all. In the opening sequence Anakin and Obi-Wan fly into a ship and just start running around willy-nilly. Oftentimes they run through entire hallways where nobody is around. Even when they walk into the place where Palpatine is being held, there's nobody there - no guards or anything. It's like Lucas didn't even consider how things would really be - or worse, ignored them. I mean the genius of Star Wars was that so much thought went into everything. I don't know about you, but if I was thinking of a giant space station, the last thing I would've thought of was where the trash went. But the writers of that movie did, and integrated it into one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. We don't get any of that here.

Instead, we get this strange sloppy sequence where they're on an elevator and then Anakin slips off the elevator and then he hangs out in the elevator shaft and then the elevator goes down and then it goes back up and then Anakin gets back in the elevator and then Anakin and Obi wan run through a hallway where there's nobody around and then out of nowhere a shield traps them. It feels very much like one of those fever writing sessions we all have once in a while where you write like 20 pages really really fast and at the time it feels amazing because you're just blazing through it. But inevitably you read it the next day and realize that 90% of it is terrible. The difference between you and George is that you then start rewriting it to get it to a place where it's good. George, on the other hand, just thinks well, it felt good at the time, so it must be good. And sticks with it.

Now the thing is, there is an arguably strong goal driving this sequence. Anakin and Obi-Wan are trying to save Palpatine. But here's the problem. We have no idea who the two villains are that are holding Palpatine. I still don't know who Count Dooku is. I have no idea who this General Greivious guy is. And I have no idea why either of them want to hold Palpatine hostage. That means the stakes for this goal are extremely murky. Logically we know that Palpatine needs to be saved. But since we don't know why, we don't care. And that's why this sequence feels so empty.

Now I've actually argued that creating more than one villain can strengthen a screenplay, but only if each villain’s role is clear. If you remember, I pointed this out in The Shawshank Redemption, where there are three villains. But notice how clear each villain is. We had the rapist. We had the head guard who abused his power. And we had the Warden. If you can explain to me how Count Dooku is involved in any of this, I'll personally send you a dollar.

Another big mistake Lucas makes is that he brings us into Amidala's pregnancy right at the beginning of it. That means that Revenge Of The Sith takes place over a timeframe of 7 to 8 months, by far longer than any other Star Wars movie. If you want to talk about a lack of urgency, have your movie take place over 7 months. This forces George to try and cheat and pretend like things are moving along faster than they actually are, but those moments are always fighting against themselves and it just adds to the clumsiness of the movie. What he probably should've done was have her eight months pregnant and make it so that Anakin already knew this. That way, when he first comes back to see her, we have a relatively tight time frame.

Also, once again, Lucas plagues his screenplay with an endless number of scenes of death. Once we get back to Coruscant after saving Palpatine, we have a scene where Anakin talks to Amidala. We have a scene where he talks to Yoda. We have another scene where he talks to Amidala. We have a Council meeting. We have another scene with Anakin and Amidala where they talk about how much they love each other. He has a scene with the Senator where they talk about I don't even know what. Obi-Wan, Sam Jackson and Yoda then talk about Anakin (characters talking about other characters – scene of death!). We have a scene where Anakin tells Amidala how he had a nightmare about her. We have a scene where Anakin and Amidala talk about if they're on the "right side" or not. I mean seriously. You gotta be kidding me. This is the very definition of scenes of death where characters are just talking to each other about their feelings or about other people or about their opinions.

Once again, somewhere in all of this is Anakin becoming confused about his allegiance, which is the only potentially interesting thread in the movie. But instead of two or three powerpacked scenes where we explore this and it really resonates with the audience, we get 12 to 14 scenes where it's brought up in bits and pieces and is therefore diluted. You always want to combine scenes that are saying the same thing so you have one strong scene as opposed to two or three weak ones.

This is the hardest of the three prequels to judge because it does have its moments. But all of the things that plague the previous two films are unfortunately still on display here. We have full sections of the movie that have no engine driving them at all (mainly the stuff after the opening rescue sequence). We have strange tonal inconsistencies (having somebody slaughter a bunch of four-year-old kids in a Star Wars movie?). We have a story that doesn't really make sense (who are these villains?). We have a timeframe that's too long. We have entire sequences that don't matter (the Wookie planet battle). Every one of the prequels needed to be majorly simplified. As much of the politics as possible should've been eliminated. Lucas needed to make things fun and easy to follow, like the earlier films. Instead we had a screenwriter who doesn't understand the craft trying to pull off one the most complicated types of stories there is. The second half Jedi stuff gave this movie just enough of an edge to climb out of the rating gutter, but it's still pretty bad.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The Anakin-Palpatine dialogue scene during the opera is actually a good scene to study for creating subtext in your screenplay. Whenever you have one character who’s saying one thing but trying to get something else across, you're creating subtext, which will usually make the scene more interesting. So if Palatine had done what Lucas had been doing for the majority of these prequels, he probably would have said something like "Look Anakin. I'm actually a Sith Lord and I really think it would be cool if you joined me," which, of course, would've been on the nose and boring. Instead, he tells him a story about a Sith Lord who once had the power to bring people back from the dead, preying on Anakin's need to save the woman he loves. It's by no means the best example of subtext, but it's good enough to work.