Wednesday, June 01, 2005


(This blog entry on Star Wars 3 contains some spoilers).

Ann and I went to see Stars Wars 3: The Revenge of the Sith this weekend, spurred by a few astonishingly positive reviews and the morbid curiosity of seeing the death throes of an already-dead corpse. Also, let’s face it—we enjoy a good bad movie. Mediocre movies hold no attraction for us, but a really bad movie can be extremely entertaining.

I’m thinking of movies where the director gave up or the actors gave up half-way through, or even movies where everybody went into it knowing they couldn’t do a good movie but might be able to create an entertaining campy movie.

The remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau is a good example, with its insane piano duet between a corpulent and dazed Marlon Brando and the “little gobbet” of bioneered flesh he’s created. Even better, half way through the movie Val Kilmer gives up and starts doing Brando imitations in his scenes with Brando.

And yet even a movie like Dr. Moreau can have a redeeming quality—in this case, Ron Perlman as a hyena man. While the whole movie is falling to pieces around him, Perlman plays it straight and gives an affecting, complex portrayal. So you have the dual pleasure of campy insanity and a genuinely good performance. (Another good example of this, to an opposite extreme, is Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, in which Alan Rickman clearly decides that as the Sheriff of Nottingham in a movie that is a slow agony of mediocre dialogue, he’s going to do an over-the-top acting job. It’s one of the great wacked-out performances ever given in a mediocre film.

Stars Wars 3 has some of these same qualities: it is a genuinely horrible movie (unlike the last two, which were just mediocre) with at least two acting choices that I admire. The first is by Samuel Jackson, who is clearly so disgusted by the inane dialogue he has to utter that he says his lines with all the modulation of a dead man. Some have called his performance stoic. I call it inspired “dullery.” It makes you realize just how bad the dialogue in Star Wars 3 is.

The other performance is by Ewan McGregor who, as the young Obi Wan, plays it straight and delivers a portrayal that, in its earnest quality, despite having to use Lucas’ inane dialogue, ranks with the great acting jobs of the year. McGregor almost convinces us that we’re watching a decent movie, he’s that good.

But we’re not watching a good movie. We’re watching a terrible movie. Can we fault Jackson for not giving a shit as he has to mouth words like “wookie,” “Dooku,” and General Grievous”? “Where is Grievous?” “Where is Dooku?” I’ve got some Dooku for you, right here.

But the problem extends beyond the stilted dialogue. Much of the movie looks like it was shot in somebody’s dimly lit basement. The blocking on action scenes is only adequate. The battle droids make cute little sounds as they expire. The Jedi and others destroy so many robots so quickly that you realize that the “separatist” robot armies are a joke. (Why is it that the Jedi preternaturally dispose of hundreds, if not thousands of hapless robot soldiers but are slaughtered almost to extinction across the galaxy, in every case, by just a handful of ordinary traitorous soldiers?)

In fact, any pretense of this being the future was jettisoned a long time ago. As you watch cute-looking droids attack Obi Wan’s little spaceship, you soon come to realize that you’re watching the final Attack of the Tie-Ins. You’re watching a future extrapolated from the action figures sold in MacDonald’s. You’re watching a future infiltrated and shaped by commercial images from the past. Read this way, Star Wars 3 becomes a time travel story. It isn’t the evil Sith who are taking over the galaxy—it’s George Lucas’ product placement drones. Attack of the Clones.

Because, frankly, we’ve got stuff today that would, if the movie is any indication, serve as a powerful deterrent to any ‘droid army. Bring on that droid army—and them Jedi. We’ll kick all of their butts. Just send ‘em into the past. We’ll take care of your Empire for you.

But this applies to more than just the military technology. When a burned Darth Vader is carried off a volcanic planet, it’s on a gurney that could be something modern-day with a levitation feature added. And as for that volcanic planet—there are droids scooping lava into buckets and bringing it to a factory. Gee, that’s really advanced. Not to mention, there’s a fight scene on said planet in which the characters are standing in areas of extreme heat for long periods of time. (Apparently Jedi are so magical that they don’t get burned to a crisp. It’s a wonder they even need air to breathe while traveling through space.)

Basically, Star Wars is still stuck in 1976, and limited by the myopic imaginations of its creators. Everything in the Star Wars universe is dated and cumbersome and unconvincing—a bunch of random stage props. Yes, you can call it a fantasy that happens to be set in space, but to do so just allows Lucas to get away with the rampant stupidity of the whole enterprise.

There are almost too many stupid moments to be able to catalogue them all. From the awful scenes between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen (“Remember when we kissed by Lake Lackofchemistry?”) to the pathetic and inexplicable characterization of General Grievous (and his retarded organic heart, which proves his downfall) to the chase scene between Obi Wan on a huge Iguana (that looks like it came right out of Sinbad and the Seven Seas) and General Grievous on a flaming wheel of gyroscopic retardation, to ANY scene with a flying green booger (I mean, Yoda) engaged in light saber duels or Yoda scrunching through an airduct, to the gratuitous wookie planet scenes, which serve no purpose other than to try to erase our memory of ewoks…this movie implodes under the weight of illogic, poor planning, and poorly imagined sequences and ideas.

But the defining moment of stupidity in the movie is the rise of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker, badly burned, is encased in his Darth Vader suit, and then the gurney he’s strapped into is brought upright. At that point, the evil Sith Emperor tells Darth that he killed his own wife (not strictly true). He pulls away from his restraints and cries out “Nooooo!” with the same vehemence as the shouted “Stellllaaaaaa!” in another movie of similar melodramatic quality. It’s almost a scene out of Frankenstein, a parallel Lucas probably wants.

It’s possibly the most ridiculous and vainglorious scene in all of the movies. And it doesn’t work at all. Not even a little bit. The sight of Darth Vader stumbling from his restraints isn’t human or inhuman. It’s just sad and pathetic.

The original Star Wars had a simplicity, innocence, and good humor about it that allowed it to work. Despite the mystical mumbo-jumbo, it didn’t take itself too seriously. Since then, Lucas has encased the series in a dual seriousness and commercialism that have made it lifeless and unlivable.

All of this may seem a bit like reviewing a graveyard and complaining that it’s full of dead people, but I’ve been dismayed by the number of reviewers who have given this movie decent-to-good reviews based on the spectacle of (not very good) special effects and the supposed gravitas of the storyline, while dismissing their own concerns about the acting and dialogue.

Science fiction (and fantasy) deserves better than this serving of bullshit mixed with a gruel composed of equal parts sparse imagination and badly translated visions of glory.


At 11:42 AM, Blogger marrije said...

Jeff Vandermeer, you are my favourite movie reviewer. Thank you.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Keith said...

I've never fully grasped the technology of Star Wars. They have giant space ships that can travel through hyperspace but an atomic bomb is beyond them. A few well placed EMP devices would decimate the droid army in minutes, yet, letting the Jedi use them for lightsaber practice is prettier... so let's do that.

I could go on, but I'll stop now.

At 7:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've never understood that, either, Keith.


At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many reviewers had mentioned the film's badness, but, shockingly, still gave it a good rating. Guys like Ebert and that dude from Boston Globe -- both note the bad things (especially Ebert) but they still like it and slap it with three or more stars. Even with the points you made, they said pretty much the exact things, albeit in a "different" sort of tone.

A friend of mine saw it recently, had called repeatedly to get me to go, but couldn't get ahold of me. He eventually goes alone. Coming back, he told me it was a great film and he really enjoyed it. I mentioned about the great reviews and what not -- but I also told him that I think this is a movie, where a couple years from now, maybe longer, people will look back and say, man that really wasn't a good movie. I hope the reviewers reflect on it that way, when the time comes. It's like so many people are caught up in this film's whirlwind, or they're just so happy that it's the last film, the one that "ties everything up", so they get all giddy and basically jackoff a not-so-good film in their review. *shrugs*

Like you said dude -- it's astonishing.

At 1:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew Lucas was trying too hard to develop a "serious" film in the opening part of "The Phantom Menace" when the big motivation for all the actions was ... trade negotiations! It was like the local drunk leaving a copy of the Wall Street Journal on the bar stool next to his so you think he is a not just a shallow lush. Like Lucas, it would be better if he just told a good story with a little humor. But noooo! he has to act like there is all this real lifey geopolitical posturing that somehow replaces character and plot and writing. I think it is tied to Lucas' equally idiotic idea that he has something useful to say about current world affairs. I guess he thought the best way to prove that would be to produce a series of bad movies bogged down in self-righteous confusion and mumbo-jumbo. Wrong.

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha ha, you put a spoiler warning up!

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I learned my lesson with Episode None: The Pantomime Menace. Point-blank refused to see Attack of the Clowns and wild horses wouldn't drag me to Revenge of the Shit.

There's a point. I'm amazed that nobody's yet nabbed the shortest review in history record... a zero word review where you just have the movie title, misspelled. I'd have done it meself if I thought I could actually sit through the film and suffer any more of Lucas pissing on my childhood dreams.

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Rajan said...

I just saw the movie tonight (it was something I felt I had to do) and I pretty much agree with everything that you say here, especially in regard to the performances.

At least it's over...

At 5:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent review.

I believe there is a metaphorical relationshio between Mr Lucas' neck and the star wars franchise. They are both ugly, bloated and unnecassary things you have to live with.

I read some reviewers' comment that George Lucas stated that there is an element of political commentary regarding the current American administration in the story. Really? That hurts my head.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger KathrynK said...

Yes, Jeff, you called it with this one. What's really sad is, Lucas made a great movie once, with good acting (especially by the underrated Paul LeMat) and people speaking dialog that actually sounded like real human interchange. It was called American Graffiti. His later products bear no more resemblance to this film than Natalie Portman does to an actor. There's not even that "OK, let's have fun making a Saturday morning cartoon show parody" spirit of the original Star Wars--only a kind of "Yes, I am the mythmaker of my generation, so I'm going to Create a Dark Fable for Our Time (oh, and let's put Darth Vader on the M&M's dark chocolate package and have Yoda eating a Whopper)."

He's like the peasant who got a little power from the magic fish and ended up thinking he was a god. Throw him back in the ocean, I say!

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you bigest complaint it the fact that they are not burned up in the lava scene...watching the bonus cd and all they have is rave coments about it...common...even with the force you can keep from being burned in 500+ degree temps...Unless you have your arms and legs removed with a lightsaber.I would buy the dvd when it gets to $9.99 just to finish off my collection, and I did somwhat enjoy it. It is after all just a starwars movie.


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