18 May 2005

Sith review roundup

"Mixed" seems like an inadequate word to describe the reviews for Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith. The picture is practically a Rorschach test for movie reviewers.

I have a bushel basket full of reviews if you want 'em ...

Geek prince Harry Knowles, in a long spoiler-laden review, is delighted.

I’ve wanted to see Obi-Wan fight Vader on that Lava Planet since that issue of Starlog in 1978. My 6 year old reading comprehension grasping for every word of every article I could get my grubby little hands on. For me, the origin of Vader has been the Holy Grail of my geek soul. That story most coveted, but yet untold. I’m 33 years old now. 27 years lay between me and that boy that dreamt of that fight --- but right now, he’s on my shoulders and we’re slapping high-fives.

The imagery in Revenge of the Sith --- The turning of Anakin, the annihilation of the Jedi, the expulsion of Yoda, Obi-Wan vs Anakin, Palpatine revealed, the birth of the twins, Alderran, the adoption of Luke, what became of the droids… These are all near religious iconography in the minds of children raised in the ways of the Force
Revenge of the Sith is a masterpiece. The final piece of the puzzle Lucas first presented me at age 6. 27 years later, the Jigsaw is complete and damn if it isn't just damn near the most tragically cool thing I’ve ever seen put to film. We won’t see another like this. This is it.

Harry's review is characteristic of the raves that geek reviewers are giving. But God bless him, Harry also has some sharp words for the Jedi in his review, expressing his disappointment with Yoda's behavior, paving the way for my revisionist retelling of the story.

Meanwhile, A. O. Scott of The New York Times expresses relief that the movie delivers what you'd hope for, if no more than that.

This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That's right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it's better than Star Wars.

Revenge of the Sith, which had its premiere here yesterday at the Cannes International Film Festival, ranks with The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner in 1980) as the richest and most challenging movie in the cycle. It comes closer than any of the other episodes to realizing Mr. Lucas's frequently reiterated dream of bringing the combination of vigorous spectacle and mythic resonance he found in the films of Akira Kurosawa into American commercial cinema.

To be sure, some of the shortcomings of Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) are still in evidence, and Mr. Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking --- acting and writing --- is remarkable.

On the flip side of the same sentiment, Stephanie Zacharek, as usual, is worth waiting through the big dopey ad at Salon.
I suspect this picture is pretty close to what fans were hoping for, and for their sake, I'm glad it's markedly better than the two that preceded it.

But Revenge of the Sith is still crap.

She dares to actually look at the film's politics.
Clearly, the hope is that moviegoers will find it rousingly topical. At one point Padmé, furious that the Senate has been so easily steamrollered by Palpatine's slimy promises, cries out, "This is how liberty dies --- to thunderous applause." Anakin, as he's becoming less Jedi knight and more dark knight, snarls at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're against me." Obi-Wan shoots back, "Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes."

Funny, but all Lucas knows is absolutes. Revenge of the Sith doesn't work as a political statement because for all the lip service Lucas pays to democracy, he barely seems to know what it is. In the Star Wars series, democracy may be the alleged goal of the Republic, but what the movies really value is order: Democracy -- the genuine kind, which means you just might get stuck with a president you don't like -- is too messy and complicated for the Star Wars worldview. The very scale of these movies prevents anything but the most obvious moral readings: Preoccupied as they are with good and evil, with so little gray in between, the Star Wars movies are more like faux Wagnerian epics that have been clumsily retrofitted with democratic ideals. They ask us to tremble in the face of their greatness even as they claim to be on the side of the little people. Lucas doesn't realize he can't have it both ways.

Roger Ebert doesn't go there --- he simply accepts it as a movie about its own special effects.
Episode III has more action per square minute, I'd guess, than any of the previous five movies, and it is spectacular. The special effects are more sophisticated than in the earlier movies, of course, but not necessarily more effective.
The lesson, I think, is that special effects should be judged not by their complexity but by the degree that they stimulate the imagination, and Episode III is distinguished not by how well the effects are done, but by how amazingly they are imagined.
Last, but not least, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker is gloriously vicious.
What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.
And he doesn't like Yoda, either, so I'm down with what he has to say.

Rotten Tomatoes has more, if you want 'em.

I'll be hitting a matinee Saturday.


Anonymous said...

This post on Marginal Revolution comports with your reading of the Jedi as lawless ubermensch (ubermenschen?) and the Empire as misunderstood technocrats:

"2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway? The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail). Aren't they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that? As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs. Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends."


Anonymous said...

Orson Scott Card takes aim at the Jedi, mostly because they don't believe in moral absolutes:

As a religion, the Force is just the sort of thing you’d expect a liberal-minded teenage kid to invent. There’s no God and there are no rules other than a vague insistence on unselfishness and oath-keeping. Power comes from the sum of all life in the universe, and it is manichaean, not Christian — evil is simply another way of using the Force. Only not as nice.
I suspect that Lucas realized, after writing "Good is a point of view," that all his friends actually believed that. So he had to make it clear that moral relativism was the right way after all—so he had Obi-Wan say that absolutism was a Sith thing, even though in the actual story, the best of the Jedis show an unbending commitment to absolute Good.