Star Wars has been much on my mind for several months now, and I've accumulated a great deal of secret opinions and theories that I feel now I ought to share. But, before that, to save some of you skimming, I will say that yes, I liked Revenge of the Sith a lot. It's a good movie. Thumbs up.
It's better than Return of the Jedi. But I haven't been liking Return of the Jedi very much lately.
A few months ago, I watched Empire and Jedi over two nights. As I watched Empire, I couldn't help but compare it to Episodes I and II, and try to determine precisely what it is that makes Empire Strikes Back a far superior film. The answer, in part, is subtle characterisation. For everything a main character says in Empire Strikes Back, there are a thousand things he or she expresses without saying. These quieter things are expressed in ways somewhat analogous to the way we intuit things about the people we meet in life.
Think about the exchange between Han and Leia at the beginning. Han tells the general he's leaving, Leia looks on with a somewhat ambiguous interest. Han confronts her, and we can't gauge much from either but a stiff formality. Then Han becomes annoyed and says, "Don't get all mushy on me. So long, Princess."
Leia had not sounded remotely close to mushy, and we had no reason to expect her to. Han's being sarcastic, but not necessarily, as he insists, because of her hidden feelings for him, but more likely because of his clumsy feelings for her. She seems remote to him--throughout the movie, he constantly refers to her as "Princess" and "Your Highness" as though these are insults, and it seems clear he regards her as a being that's too frustratingly far from him. But apart from Han's words, we don't actually receive the impression that Leia is particularly arrogant and frigid, as demonstrated by her defiant kiss with Luke in the medbay or her earnest words in the briefing with the Rebel soldiers. What Leia is is inexperienced and sheltered--as demonstrated by her inept insults hurled at Han, the innocence of which amuse him ("Who's scruffy lookin'?").
Han doesn't understand his feelings for Leia and neither does she. And she seems little able to comprehend her own eventual affection for him, just sort of helplessly going along with it after some initial resistance to the unfamiliar emotion. And we might wonder how much her affection for him might be based entirely on the situation they're in.
So then. What do these two people look like? They look like kids. Adolescents, clumsily working their way through strange emotional territory. This makes them seem vulnerable, and this adds to the suspense of their flight from the Empire.
Because we don't sense any confusion in Vader. He's tall, dark, mechanical, and adult. His overwhelming Star Destroyers loom over the human interactions, threatening to crush the helpless little organic tendrils with a solid metal boot. One might infer that the "quick and easy" path of the Dark Side is Vader having sidestepped the uncertainties of youthful human emotion to embrace the decisiveness and efficiency of machines and tyrannical rule.
The other main storyline of Empire Strikes Back, Luke's, is also very good. Not a love story, but a more personal story of self-confrontation, culminating with the clear symbolism of the Degobah cave. Where, as Yoda notes, Luke fails. In fact, Luke starts the movie as a self-confident young man who knows what Dak means when he says he feels like he can take on the Empire by himself. After all, Luke's done just that, having destroyed the Death Star in the previous film. You know how the teenage ego can be. How can it be knocked down from that peg? And in fact, despite being mauled by a beast on Hoth and chastised and somewhat humiliated by Yoda, Luke doesn't loose his childish front until he's at Vader's mercy. Not until his brashness looks like it shall certainly lead to his doom.
We sense all this, without it ever being spelled out for us. It's made plain by Vader's costume, his ships, Harrsion Ford and Carrie Fisher's performances, and the dialogue. Even Mark Hammill, who'd been somewhat gratingly inept in the previous film, delivers an effective performance here.
But it's all over with the closing credits because Return of the Jedi is a different animal, somewhat more akin to a monster truck show. The virtues of Jedi are its special effects and action sequences, so it's little wonder that children tend to prefer it over Empire.
The tender, inexperienced Leia is gone, replaced by an action figure lady. She's light-years more mature than the girl in Empire Strikes Back and we're never told why. She returns Han's "I know" to his "I love you" like it's the punchline to a joke, for any emotional resonance their relationship has is residue from Empire. Han is himself reduced to a creature of broad, quickly appreciable lines, and the only time we sense vulnerability in him is when he's got hibernation sickness. When Leia deigns to mention to him that Luke's her brother, he looks like he's won a prize at the fair, after he'd very maturely told her he'd get out of the way if she wanted to be with Luke. Actually, Harrison Ford's really good here, and I can sort of believe Han from Empire might behave this way, if it weren't for the fact that I feel he'd be creeped out by Leia's lobotomy.
Speaking of lobotomies, perhaps Jedi's biggest flaw is the walking corpse passing for Luke Skywalker. Utterly gone is the kid from Empire and suddenly we have the cool, almost ghandi-like man, again with no explanation, no discernable character arch. Sure, maybe the big blow at the end of Empire led him on the path to nirvana, but that's taking an awful lot of development as read, particularly considering the "pay-off" is a guy Spock would probably describe as stuffy.
We don't sense any flaws in this guy. So what kind of tactic is team Palpatine/Vader supposed to use to bring him to the Dark Side? Why, endlessly repeating "Dark side", until maybe Luke goes, "Hmm. Dark side. That sounds kinda cool."
In Empire, Vader appeals to the desire for peace. He expresses the idea that, with the great power of the Dark Side, he and Luke can end "this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." To Lucas's credit, he picks up on this idea in the prequal trilogy and makes it one of Anakin's central character traits.
But it's nowhere to be found in Jedi. In the corridor after Luke's been captured, what's Vader's big argument? "You do not know the power of the Dark Side!" And what's Luke's? "I will not turn and you'll be forced to kill me."
And no, we don't for a moment really feel Luke will turn. When he angrily attacks Vader after Vader's threatened to corrupt Leia, I guess we're meant to believe that Luke's afraid of losing her. But how exactly is he supposed to go from that to being a servant of the Dark Side? In order to save Leia from the Dark Side, he's gonna go to the Dark Side? Huh? Hey, in order to save you from your sandwich, I'm gonna eat it for you and love it. You're welcome.
And Vader's soul is apparently saved by Luke as Luke almost sacrifices himself to Palpatine. So Vader realises he doesn't want the people he loves to be hurt. Okay . . . that still doesn't provide a counterargument for his tyrannical bent. After all, he wanted the Empire to bring order to the galaxy, right? So looks like Vader's got some more development to go but--oops, he's dead because the movie's almost over and that would be too much to deal with. So hurrah, dancing Ewoks, the end!
Now that brings us to the prequel trilogy, and a whole different set of strengths and weaknesses.
The Phantom Menace was the best movie for Padme Amidala. Some people say Natalie Portman's a bad actress, but I think it's merely that she's kind of a reserved person. I've known people like this. And there're other actors like that; Clint Eastwood and Kim Novak are two examples. Not as much emotion tends to leak out of Portman--not as much as Carrie Fisher. But this makes Portman perfect as the doll-like queen. Imagine Carrie Fisher in the makeup and headdress and you'd see an entirely less ethereal effect. Portman's big virtue is her statuesque beauty, and I wonder if perhaps her casting provides some insight into George Lucas's view of women and if it is perhaps similar to J.R.R. Tolkien's.
It's much remarked upon how all the female characters in the Lord of the Rings books are very remote, very awesomely beautiful figures. As with Tolkien, all of the most powerful emotional tales in the Lucas-written Star Wars movies (which include episodes I through IV) tend to be about the men, and only occasionally about their feelings for women.
So perhaps this is why, when the attempt is made to bring Queen Amidala down to earth for a love story in the second movie, it really doesn't come off. It feels more like the broad outline of a love story than an actual love story as Lucas too hurriedly dashes from one point to the next, their declarations of love feel like Lucas prematurely ejaculating.
People can point to the flaws in the second movie as being its poor editing, its lack of a clear villain, and convoluted plot. But to my mind, the only truly relevant flaw is the failure of the love story--all the other things would have been at least good enough if the love angle had worked. All the prequels have beautiful sets, costumes, and action sequences, which make them acceptable as eye-candy.
But what finally works on an emotional level is Revenge of the Sith. And what works about it has little to do with the love story, and just about everything to do with the relationship between Anakin and Obi-wan.
Every time Anakin and Padme use the word "love" in conversation, it feels wrong. What we're seeing isn't a human relationship, but a very lofty, porcelain sculpture of royalty that doesn't fit in with the rest of the movie. When Obi-wan says "love" near the end of the movie, we really feel it. Because we have been enjoying the relationship of these two men as brothers, and Anakin's betrayal is heart wrenching.
There is one level on which Anakin's relationship with Padme does work, and that's her as a factor in his decision to turn to the Dark Side. This is epitomised in a wonderfully, eerily quiet scene on Coruscant where Anakin stands in the Jedi Council Chambers and Padme stands in her room, looking out at the city.
But for the most part, poor Natalie Portman has the unenviable task of saying things that are almost alien to the narrative. In Revenge of the Sith, it's Anakin we're riding along with for the most part and since his love for Padme seems insubstantial, her pleas based on it feel hollow.
But I think Hayden Christensen did a good job. Some might say he seemed too stiff but, remember, Vader was pretty stiff. I had the impression that Christensen was making a concerted effort to have his voice match in cadence and rhythm with James Earl Jones. Which isn't an easy task without sounding silly or at least implausible. But I think he pulls it off. What you get is a sort of deadening after he turns to the Dark Side. After he's first bowed before Palpatine, and he's given his new name, he rises slowly, tiredly, similarly to how Vader would rise in the original trilogy. As though the conflict in him is an almost palpable weight.
Now, I want to move on to two aspects of the Stars Wars films that seem to make people very angry these days and I'm not entirely sure why. These two aspects being the politics and the Force.
First of all, I love the politics. I don't know why. Maybe it's because it's stuff I've wondered about since I was a kid. How did it get to be an Empire? Were all the people involved really evil inside? It's like Dante and Randall's conversation about the people on the Death Star. I have to admit I find it difficult to sympathise with those who call the politics dull and distracting. I find it fascinating--it's called Star Wars, after all, and if you're going to talk about war, it's good when there's more to it than running around and fighting. I wanna know how the fight got started, and I like that it's for complicated and sinister reasons.
And the Force--anyone who's figured out what the Star Wars reference was in the latest Boschen and Nesuko chapter also knows that I don't agree with everything Yoda says. But that doesn't mean I don't think it's a valid point of view.
We're strongly compelled to hate religion these days, and I'm not fond of religion myself. But maybe there is something noble about leading a life of self-sacrifice, even of chastity. We're only told the horror stories that result, but perhaps it's not wrong to say that there is a psychological advantage to be gained this way--by becoming removed from human passions. I don't think so, but I wouldn't insist that I'm right, and I certainly think it's a worthy topic to explore. Empire and Sith make some points, although the clumsiness of Jedi provides some counterarguments.
And that's something that Sith really has over Jedi--idealistic cohesiveness. Lucas's writing may not be perfect, but at least he holds true to his motives in this one.
I'd like to close by pointing out something about Star Wars that I don't see mentioned very often but I think is the strongest quality of both Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. And that's the Flash Gordon factor.
Some of the dialogue people complain about is the way it is for a very specific reason--when Obi-wan says, "You won't get away this time, Dooku!" we're perhaps reminded of the thousands of times we've heard these words used in parodies of old superhero movies and television shows. So many times that many of us can only appreciate this sort of dialogue on ironic terms. And we are a more cynical people than we were in the 1930s and 1940s.
The really great thing Lucas does is take the child-like, earnest attitude of wonder and treat it absolutely seriously. As if this always truly was the way we would confront space and alien worlds and fantastic action sequences. I like it. For all the convolution, it feels remarkably bullshit-free.