Monday, May 30, 2005

taking a bigger Sith

Fine. Other bloggers are reacting to "Revenge of the Sith," so perhaps I should toss in more than a brief, vague review by Gollum.

Let's tackle various aspects of "Sith" then, shall we?


"Phantom Menace" conditioned me to expect only one good thing from the new batch of prequels: the lightsaber fights. George Lucas, from the 1970s to now, has never really understood the power of the story he was trying to tell, the import of the images he was slapping on the screen. As he famously said one time, the lightsaber fights were "just two guys waving sticks at each other," or something to that effect. Luckily, he chose fight choreographer Nick Gillard, whom I'd love to meet someday, to stage the fights for the three prequels. Gillard gets what Lucas doesn't: the fights matter, and they should look like they matter.

"Revenge of the Sith" features the following lightsaber duels:

1. Kenobi and Anakin vs. Count Dooku
2. Kenobi vs. General Grievous
3. Palpatine vs. Mace Windu
4. Palpatine vs. Yoda
5. Anakin vs. Kenobi

Yoda, alone, also gets his share of Kurasawa moments. I was especially fond of the double-beheading scene on Kashyyyk, where he dispatches the two clones just after they've been given Order 66, the order to kill all Jedi.

The Palpatine/Windu fight was stately and graceful compared to the other, more frenetic fights. The idea, I suppose, was to portray two accomplished masters going at it Old School. Unfortunately, I also thought this was the flattest of the encounters. Lucas, who writes regularly at, promised that Palpatine would dispatch the Jedi accompanying Windu by using "a frightening technique," but there was nothing frightening about the so-called "Sith Thrust," in which Palpatine simply bunched up and then thrust savagely forward with his red lightsaber.

Here's how I would have staged that scene:

Palpatine rises from his seat, unignited lightsaber clutched in his right fist. With his left hand he reaches out and suddenly tightens his fingers in a clawing gesture. One of the Jedi next to Windu is wrenched into a full back-bend, his spine snapping, killing him instantly. Palpatine performs a slightly different clawing gesture, this time gruesomely snapping the neck of the second Jedi accompanying Windu. Both warriors have been killed so quickly that they drop to the floor at the same time, leaving Windu and one final Jedi.

Palpatine ignites his saber and attacks the remaining knights, but his movements are barely human. He moves as if possessed, his saber whirling in improbable arcs, now high, now low, his body spinning and torquing in ways that shouldn't be possible. Two quick slashes, and the third Jedi is chopped into three pieces that fall away from each other.

Palpatine comes eerily to rest two meters from Windu. Panting like a ghoul, bloodshot eyes aglow with infernal glee, the Dark Lord turns to face the last Jedi Master in the chamber. Windu readies himself for what he now knows to be his doom.

I have no idea why Palpatine's deflected Force-lightning would warp him into the Elephant Man, when no one else who suffered the same attack underwent similar changes (cf. Yoda, and Mace Windu himself-- but cf. especially Luke Skywalker, who withstood a sustained attack in "Return of the Jedi" without any expansion of his forehead).

For me, the best of the fights came at the beginning: the rematch between Dooku and the two Jedi Knights. It was intense; movements were spare and direct; it was a sword fight up to the very end, and the CGI was good enough for me to forgive the fact that Christopher Lee obviously wasn't doing his own fighting.

The Yoda/Palpatine fight, on the other hand, descended into a wizard's battle between Force masters, lightsabers forgotten. This was amusing at first but soon lost its appeal once Palpatine began tossing those huge, floating Senate seats-- as if they were monster truck tires-- at his "little green friend." Yoda didn't acquit himself nearly as well as he should have.

Pray tell, why can't Jedi use the Force to protect themselves from long falls? If you can use the Force to push a heavy object over, can't you use it to push against the earth, thereby stopping your fall?

The fight between Kenobi and Grievous had potential. An expert with four arms should have done somewhat better against Kenobi; perhaps it's a testament to Grievous's lameness (he was trained by loser Dooku, after all) that he was unable to score a single hit against Kenobi, while our hero methodically lopped off the cyborg's appendages. It didn't help matters that Grievous's voice sounded like a deeper version of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

[I'm not the only one to say this; check here, for example.]

Grievous gets points, though, for having a cool unicycle that works like a circular saw.

Anyone care to speculate on why the prequels feature so many wheels? Wheels were never part of the original Star Wars trilogy, but they make important appearances in both "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith." Was Lucas trying for a retro look?

The Anakin/Kenobi fight was also intense, but included a lot of fancy-pants moves that accomplished nothing. One blade-twirling scene in particular struck me as a waste. As a fight choreography junkie, I found the most interesting aspect of that fight (and it caught my attention in the Yoda/Palpatine fight as well) to be how Gillard handled close-in fighting with long blades. He kept the pace incredibly fast. Hats off to the actors, stuntpeople, and CGI crew who made it work. Alas, Kenobi's triple-amputation of Anakin was accomplished so quickly that I barely registered it.


The plot of "Revenge of the Sith" wraps up the loose ends from the two previous movies. Palpatine consolidates his power and the Empire is born. Anakin, who's been long primed for his turn to the dark side, finally goes over the edge. The stage is set for Luke's childhood on Tatooine, Leia's time on Alderaan, Yoda's exile on Dagobah, and Kenobi's ability to reappear as a ghost after death (it was interesting to see how Lucas wrote around the conspicuous absence of Liam Neeson's character, Qui-gon Jinn).

The plot was actually well-constructed, I thought. Good pace, just enough complexity to keep things interesting for the older crowd. Nice exploration of competing Force philosophies through the lens of Palpatine's Sith bias. What mucked the story up, though, was the limp acting and awful dialogue. Kenobi's "I can't watch any more" moment, where he's viewing the video of Anakin's slaughter of younglings at the Jedi temple, didn't sound particulary sincere, and I don't blame Ewan McGregor for that: Lucas isn't an actor's director. He doesn't push his stars to give it their all. Hayden Christensen, however, has only himself to blame for ruining such an important part: he failed to play Vader with the requisite gravitas, and on top of that, Lucas didn't make Vader's fall as jarring as he could have.

McGregor did the best he could with the lines he was given, and yes, Ian McDiarmid steals the show as Palpatine/Sidious. At one point I could have sworn he sounded like an evil Burgess Meredith.

Acting props go to the animators for making Yoda my favorite character in the film. He's both samurai and Taoist sage, the quintessence of the Jedi, settling most fights with a single gesture or a lightning slash of his deadly green lightsaber. I was disappointed with his WWF-scripted defeat at the hands of Sidious, but since I'd read the entire "Revenge of the Sith" screenplay a month or so before the movie's release, nothing I saw surprised me.

The story didn't choke me up, I'm afraid. Maybe that was because I was sitting with a Korean audience that didn't have anything like the warm feelings Americans have for the Star Wars story. No one seemed truly into the movie. There were no cheers when the Star Wars logo appeared on the screen. That detachment stayed with me throughout the film.


Contrary to what some reviewers have said, the special effects weren't all seamless. You knew when a human body had gone from live actor to CGI, and even a CGI character like Grievous had fake moments, such as when he dropped into a tunnel from a rooftop hatch near the beginning of the movie.

But I'm being picky. Overall, the film was an amazing technical achievement, and Lucas stuffed almost every frame full of detail and visual trivia. I get the feeling that Yoda received the most loving care from the CGI artists; his character is one-up on Gollum, because unlike Gollum, there was no Anthony Serkis around to model his movements. Animating Yoda's old Jedi robes must have been a real pain.

The space battle at the beginning of "Sith" was quite impressive, but I've been hard to please ever since seeing those beautiful space shots from 1997's "Starship Troopers," in which the Bugs are hurling their nuclear butt gas at the orbiting human fleet. The "Sith" battle was more complex (and had a wonderful beginning as we follow the Jedi fighters over a large ship and suddenly discover we're in the midst of heavy combat), but wasn't orders of magnitude better than the battle in "Troopers."

Both Coruscant (the Trantor-like capital of the Republic) and Kashyyyk (the Wookiee planet) deserved more screen time. I enjoyed the nifty gadgets we saw on Kashyyyk, like those funky dragonfly helicopters. I also liked the winged creatures we saw during the battle on Utapau (where Kenobi fought Grievous), and enjoyed Kenobi's boga, the huge lizard he rode into battle.


Lucas, not one for subtlety, beats us over the head with signs that flesh will be fused to metal, and that lungs will be crushed and ruined.

General Grievous is a cyborg-- a biomechanoid. You can see he's got alien eyes and still retains many of his original internal organs. We can assume from his demeanor that he still retains his brain and much of his nervous system. Unlike other fans, I didn't mind his coughing at all; apparently, he suffered lung damage from a fight with a Jedi in one episode of that cartoon TV series I never saw. So Grievous is flesh and metal, and he wears a cape and has breathing problems. Sound familiar? He's One Big Foreshadowing of the mechanical Darth Vader we know and love.

Palpatine suffers from his own Force-lightning when Mace Windu manages to deflect a good chunk of it back at him. This alters the Chancellor irrevocably, and he, too, develops a wheeze. Maybe Lucas is saying that evil is emphysemic. I don't know. In any case, I took Palpatine's wheezing as yet another foreshadowing of the arrival of Mechanical Vader.

As Gollum mentioned, plenty of characters take long falls, and these falls fit into the overall theme of a "fall from grace." Neither Lucas nor Spielberg is particularly subtle when it comes to symbolism; Lucas's slyest move ever was the Jacob/Esau reference he claims to have snuck into the old trilogy (regarding the status of Luke and Leia). The multiple plunges, however, are pure Unsubtle Lucas.

As per usual in Lucas's world, evil wears black and carries a red lightsaber. The good guys wear lighter colors and and use blue or green sabers. Anakin gets to wield Dooku's own red saber against him at the beginning of the film, but in his fight against Kenobi, Anakin uses his blue saber. I took this as a symbol of brother pitted against brother, something Kenobi himself notes ("You were my brother!") after crippling Anakin.


(NB: Credit goes to my buddy Dave for the Frankenstein image.)

If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about: this is when Anakin has been suited up as Mechanical Vader. He breaks free of the table, stumbles forward like the Frankenstein monster, learns about the death of Padme, and roars in agony, lurching all the while. What did you think of this scene?

Sorry, but it made me chuckle. You can blame Hayden Christensen for that, as well as George Lucas for his extremely poor choice of camera angle. Vader, whom we see at a distance, appears to be on a stage, roaring into the darkness. I found the effect distracting. Lucas should have done that scene with closeups. It would have given Vader more dignity. Instead, we get a staggering drunk guy at a costume party.


I was disappointed to see that Anakin doesn't fall directly into the lava. "No one could survive that," I hear you argue. But Lucas, writing at, had made abundantly clear that he can do whatever he wants in his own films, including playing with the laws of physics. Fine, George. In that case, the better dramatic choice would have been to plunge Anakin directly into the molten lava, with only the power of his Force-fueled hatred to sustain him against instant, searing death while he scrabbled desperately to shore.

It could be that Lucas had wanted to do this, but decided against the ridiculous sight of a no-legged, one-armed Anakin trying desperately to "swim" to shore. A plunge in the lava would also have meant a crispy, naked Anakin-- not a pretty sight for anyone, and children watching the movie would have been left wondering, "What happened to his wee-wee, Daddy? Did it burn off, too?"

But I favor the lava plunge idea, because it would have driven the point home: Anakin has fallen directly into hell (obviously a Buddhist hell*, since he's redeemed in "Return of the Jedi").

I did, however, like the makeup work done on Anakin's face-- the scene where he's sliding toward the lava and staring hatefully up at Kenobi. Those red-rimmed eyes were impressive.


I'm not sure I feel like seeing this movie again. I had something of the same feeling after watching "The Matrix Revolutions." While "Revenge of the Sith" was easily better than its two predecessors, it still lacked something for me. Again, I think the problem lies in poor acting and bad dialogue. It's a shame, really; Lucas had a decent plot. The visuals worked well. The fights were excellently crafted, and the special effects were fantastic overall.

And yet... and yet...

*You don't go to Buddhist hell forever. You're there until the bad karma burns off, then you can move up to higher realms. You don't stay in Buddhist heaven forever, either, because heaven is also an impermanent state. In fact, some Buddhists reckon that it's possible to waste one's time enjoying the delights of heaven, only to boomerang down into one of the hells because one has spent no time seeking enlightenment. Nirvana is the goal; not heaven or hell.


No comments: