Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Revisiting STAR WARS: Episodes 1, 2 and 3


So why not watch the movies again?  Some need some re-examination, and some because, hey, it's STAR WARS after all.  I went in with an open mind especially for the prequels: it would be easy to tear them down just off the bat (not to say I didn't live-TWEET them, and if you'd like to scroll through the many, many tweets you can go to my Twitter to see them all).  So I took them as films, what they were trying to do, how the actors were, what Lucas' writing/direction did, and so on.  It's not a super-duper in-depth analysis (I leave that to Mr. Plinkett, the greatest 100+ year old murderer/pizza-roll delivering film critic this side of the hemisphere), it's reflections from someone who has been an admirer of the series for a long time.


So this was an interesting sit if only in that it's now half a lifetime later since I first saw it (and needless to say I still remember the discussion between me and a friend after walking out of the May 15th screening in 99 where we tried to figure where it laid in ranking with the other SW films). After so many years, and of course reevaluation by just my memory and the points by others (most notably Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media), I decided to return to it and keep a completely open mind. And overall it's... not as bad as I thought it might be, but that's not to say it's not heavily flawed in some other ways.

The positives: from a filmmaking stand-point the Pod-Race shows Lucas' skills as an editor of an action sequence and it is about as thrilling as I remembered it. Of course some of it is cheesy as can be, but there's genuine tension as far as such a sequence can go. And while the climax may have too many points of view to cut around to (4 to be exact), the saber fight holds up as a master's class in stunt coordination and I have to give Ray Park and Neeson/McGregor's doubles all the credit. That brought me back to how I felt in the theater for a few minutes.

Speaking of which, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are the bedrocks of the film as far as screen presence and talent. Whatever lines Lucas gives them they deliver with gravity and poise, and however much Neeson can do with a guy who mostly says exposition he makes Qui-Gon memorable (McGregor gets better as Obi-Won too in the other two films). And as much as Jake Lloyd is a punching bag for a lot of people in the audience out there, he actually wasn't all that bad seeing it again... ok, 'yipee' is pretty groan-inducing, but he didn't write it. And considering what he's given, he does what a kid in his situation can do. Considering the reputation of Little 'Ani' he really isn't the worst part of the movie.

Hell, neither really is Jar Jar Binks. He's basically a floppy Disney Goofy wannabe (really, he's a Jamaican Goofy, it's that simple), and I actually could buy into him once I recognized he was a Goofy-trope with, possibly, some retardation (that's not a knock by using that word, I just mean that the guy is slow).

But what bogs the film down is simply that a good deal of the writing and direction is flat and brings on a sense of dullness. The first act rushes through things to get the characters off Naboo and on to Tatooine, and we only get to know so much about them amidst all of the, yes political turmoil afoot (in this sequence it was R2's introduction that I still liked the most, something about that robot is perfect for me). And the 'who cares how this thing happened' sense is felt mostly in one thing: C-3PO. This may be nitpicking, but why is he IN this movie? There's no reason for Anakin to have made him or for him to appear than to say 'Oh, here's how C-3PO was made, isn't that cool?' No, it's filler, he does nothing, is of no consequence, and his lines are lame. Cut him out and you lose nothing and actually make the story just a little bit tighter.

Something something dark side...
Outside of Neeson and McGregor and McDiarmid, the cast just doesn't fare well. Portman has been slagged for her acting in this series (I think she even came out and admitted to it), and it's easy to see why here. Flat, flat, flat stuff that she's given and gives out, and it says a lot that, again, Lloyd actually out-acts her in their scenes together(!) Other supporting people are adrift and wooden as can be, or become memorable for being types like the trade federation Asians or Watto (though oddly enough Watto was someone that didn't bother me just due to, hell, he HAS personality at least and is fun to watch, genuinely, he's not stepping in poop or turning his head away from farts).

The biggest sin here is that Anakin should've been a few years older. He didn't even need to be already set to be Darth Vader, I get the idea of progressing things over three films, but at the age he's at (8 or 9, maybe) he's just too young, and when he's in front of the Jedi council he doesn't seem much older than the other 'younglings' in the subsequent prequels. If anything the age transition at around 12/13 would've added a bit to the conflicts - and perhaps the yipees could've been nixed. Maybe even some dark-side could have been hinted at as well, whereas at this age he's more of a gleeful cypher with abandonment issues than anything else.

For all of the faults though, and there are some that are deep-rooted, there are many moments where it does feel like it's trying and going for that Star Wars feel of sweep and spectacle and excitement. If going by the old star-rating scale I'd give it 2 1/2 out of 4 stars, or an admirable thumbs down. It's a disappointment in the grand scheme of things, but considering how long it had been for me and all of the harsh points taken at it over time (many of them still correct), I wasn't that down on it as I expected. Again, it's all about expectations here, and at 31 it's different than at 15. For some it may be even worse than the first time around if revisiting and that's understandable.  PS: Ray Park, tremendous screen presence... shitty actor.  Just saying.

And now seeing this again... This is the worst of the (Episode) series of movies.

What it comes down to is that, simply, Hayden Christensen, for THIS movie, was miscast. It's interesting to see this right alongside Revenge of the Sith because in the latter he DOES get better and perhaps part of that was seeing himself here and recognizing things he could improve upon (albeit the material and direction can take him so far). What does him in, as well as Natalie Portman - who can be a very gifted actress - is that the romance just doesn't work very well.

Some of the romantic stuff comes down to chemistry - do these actors have it, I'm not sure, perhaps with better coaxing or different lines, or a different environment it could work - and some of it down to just what they're given to do. Though still superior (though only just) I was reminded a little of the Edward/Bella relationship in the first Twilight for a few scenes here. Take that scene on the Refugee ship when Anakin and Padme are going to Naboo; when Anakin gives his justification for Jedi-romance, he gives a look that is downright RAPEY.

 And on that precious ol' lake on Naboo he delivers a line (which is already pretty weak) about the difference between the coarse sand and "soft" Naboo as a pick-up line, it's just cringe-worthy. Even for a 1930's serial, of which this is of course the ultimate homage to, it would be cheesy and worthy of jokes, and here it's 2002 for Christssake.  ALl the more ironic that Joel Edgerton (yes, of THE GIFT) appears as young "uncle" Ben Lars; he distracted me by the notion that as Anakin he could pump some real emotion and conflict into this character. 

The rest of the movie is... Ok. McGregor gets better with each prequel performance and here he helps to make Obi-Won a character I could cling on to and thankfully everything he delivers works as the patient-except-when-he-isn't mentor (hell, even given a line like "I HATE it when he does that" comes off somewhat subdued considering alternatives). And nobody ever made a wrong bet having Christopher Lee in a film, and for his few moments he adds some gravitas and screen presence.

"I understood that reference" Captain America probably

The plot though is still not very strong - again, by separating the master and apprentice for such a long stretch to indulge in half romance and then half I'm-going-to-Tatooine-to-slaughter-some-Tusken-fucks, it loses that dynamic - and I've been told there's even a detail which seems off for a good reason. Sypho Dias (sic) was technically meant to be Darth Sidious, or something like that (look at the name and see if you can fuckin tell), and yet through a literal TYPO there is this feeling like 'Well, why is this character introduced, is that Tyrannus or not, why is this Dias involved, who was he ten years before, was it an alias for someone else, if so does it get explained HELL no'. So something like that is unforgivable.

Some of the action is still fine, albeit in the first part of the climax in the arena I deeply wished the creatures were Ray Harryhausen creations instead of bland CGI things, and there's a nifty little Western-saloon homage in that bar (with the movie's by far best moment involving a 'Death-Stick' dealer, a side character I'd love to see a whole movie about, one of the rare moments another story is hinted at in a film where it's most focused on the bland one). 

But there's an overriding sense, even more than on Phantom Menace and Sith if you can believe it, of no one telling Lucas NO, do something else, from certain lines (both Obi-Wan and Anakin have a line here or there after an incident happens that is not funny or cute or clever just annoying) to an entire section where the lack of chemistry and solid direction between two otherwise fine actors is achingly apparent on display.

Oh, and one thing that doesn't hold up 13 years later on: Yoda with a lightsaber. Sorry little guy, you're one of my favorite characters in cinema (seriously, he is, he's great), but it's much more interesting to see him lifting a ship out of a Dagobah bog than it is to flip around like Kermit the Frog on crack.  Sigh.

And  lastly on my rewatch train for the prequels I come to a movie that.... I genuinely enjoy very much.

At the time I saw this ten years ago I thought it was a smash - I even toyed with the notion it was superior to Return of the Jedi, making it third below the 4th and 5th episodes - and saw it a number of times.  Seeing it again I rediscovered why I did like it so much, and a large part of it comes down to the acting just being... better, overall.  Even with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman they give greater emotional depth... does that mean they are GREAT?  No, it doesn't, at least for them, but there are moments that are striking, and Christensen finds himself at times not saying much at all (the quiet vignette before the showdown between Windu and Palpatine that shows Anakin in conflict with Padme far away from him) and it's compelling. 

I have to wonder if Attack of the Clones made the actors realize they had to do their own work for themselves - clearly Mr "Faster/More Intense" wouldn't really be of THAT much assistance, if any, and I question if maybe he picked up his game this time - but genuinely a masterful turn comes from Ian McDiarmid.  

He's having the time of his life as Palpatine, and with each prequel he was given more to do, to the point that in ROTS he gives for me an awards-worthy turn.  Serious, he's that good here, whether it's in the subtle seduction to the dark side (the "Plaigus" story, which I suspect was ghost-written entirely by Tom Stoppard, who was an uncredited touch-up writer for Lucas here), or when he has to go to town and be SUPER evil.  I haven't had a laugh, sincerely, in a long while as I did with him yelling "UNLIMITED POWER" seeing it again.  I could watch his performance on a loop and be happy.

Of course the stakes of the Republic falling and the Empire rising are reason enough for it to at least try to be a better story, but I do think Lucas, for the most part, rose to the challenge he set for himself to go back to his series.  I say 'for the most part' as there ARE issues though, certainly that keep it from being really on par with the OT.  And forget things like "Noooo" (which is silly but not unforgivable, it still comes amid a bad-ass Frankenstein monster homage, obvious it might be), or 'Hold me like you did on the lake on Naboo (which is cheesy).  I mean something elemental like... why does Padme really HAVE to die here? 

I understand the notion of her possible death making Anakin go nuts and drive his ego crazy, but it creates a plot continuity I thought Lucas wouldn't be stupid enough to fall into.  And it's not a nitpick; when Leia says in Episode 6, "she died when I was very young" and lists off things she remembered about her, it's not things that she could remember about her from when she was FIVE MINUTES OLD!  The melodrama could've been kept by if she was weakened and frail but was still alive, and the dramatic irony greater for Vader to be told that she was dead (not to mention another lie on top of the heap from Palpatine).  

But her death is slightly pointless at the end of it, only adding a funeral procession that is just grim for grim sake (and this is a movie with a climax that takes place in part on a fucking volcano) and then some further confusion with another (slight) plot hole of Leia being given to Senator Organa even though things should be kept on the down-low for children of Anakin Skywalker.  For Luke it makes sense to go to Tatooine.  For Leia to be with a still-sitting senator, albeit in an Empire now, it was kind of puzzling.

These might be nitpicks or genuine complaints, but they kept me from fully embracing this film as something as great as I remembered seeing.  It is still without question the best of the prequels, and on its own just an exciting and compelling movie with wonderful political overtones - though Lucas may not have intended it, as there's other precedents in history, it's tough to not see the Cheney/Bush connection with Palpatine and Skywalker - and an opening battle that makes the film a lot of fun before it plunges into darkness.  I even liked things that some fans (or critics) disparage like Greivous with the many lightsabers, a silly sight but one that makes sense when one realizes he's still a droid.  As Obi-Won noted in Clones, if droids could THINK there'd be none of us here, would there? 

I didn't really tweet during this one by the way... except for one thing, which was: "I'm pregnant" "Thats... that's wonderful" I wonder if that ellipses meant "Uh... is it mine?"

 Check back in a couple days for more STAR WARS (the originals ya dummy)

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