30 May, 2005

munkey's-eye view ~ STAR WARS EPISODE III

"Good is a point of view..."

In 1977, George Lucas breathed new life into the science-fiction genre with Star Wars. Lucas's dialogue was uninspired, and his direction of actors was inept. However the film thrives not only on it's revolutionary special effects and bold imagery, but also by virtue of a strong Joseph Campbell-inspired hero-story, memorable characters with three dimensions and a sense of humour, and the natural charisma of actors such as Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guiness.

1980's follow-up, The Empire Stirkes Back was even stronger, with Lucas's story being treated to the work of more-talented screenwriters and director. And, while purists balk at the "cutesiness" of the Ewok race in 1983's Return Of The Jedi, the film brought a visually stunning, character-based conclusion to the saga, with Lucas's story again taking assistance from more capable hands when it came to writing and direction.

Fifteen years later, imagine the excitement when Lucas finally unveiled the first film of his long-touted prequel trilogy. And imagine the disappointment when it was as overblown and soulless as The Phantom Menace. George's multi-million dollar ego had left him believing he was talented enough to grasp the writer-director reigns to himself, and seemingly also to forget all the things that made the original trilogy brilliant. Humour driven by the burgeoning relationships of strong characters - such as Luke getting to know R2D2 and C3PO, Leia and Han's sexual-tension-fueled head-butting, etc etc - was thrown out the window, in favour of the nauseating, potentially offensive prattling of Jar Jar binks. The iconic, elegant design seen in Darth Vader's costume, the Death Star, the Millenium Falcon, etc etc were gone, in favour of messy computerised visuals which looked disconcertingly like a video-game.

However, as testament to the power of mass-marketing, and of course to the indelible impression the original Star Wars trilogy had left on the psyche of the modern world, the film was a runaway success... to the point that people seemed to have forgiven Lucas's total loss of credibility as an artist, and got used to the shallow shininess of his new works. Thus, when the even-worse Attack Of The Clones came along - sporting an even more turgid and uninteresting plot, even more hideous over-design and over-reliance on digital wizardry, even worse acting and dialogue, wrapped around an unconvincing love-story that makes Mills and Boon look complex and gritty - the public seemed to welcome it as a return to form. It's amazing how many teenagers you can fool by digitally animating a little green character (who was always perfectly successful, and looked 100 times more real, as a puppet) and chucking him in a pointless light-sabre fight with a character you stole from The Lord Of The Rings.

Which brings us, at long last, to Revenge Of The Sith. Relying even more heavily on blue/green-screening and digital backdrops than the previous two films, the soulessness continues. Ewan MacGregor has famously, and repeatedly, stated what an unspiring process it has been to make these films, and it shows. While his charm shines through, and you can see him desperately trying to make the dull humour sparkle, it's easy to see how difficult it must have been to simulate emotions and relationships in Lucas's sterile, computer-generated world. We never get the chance to care about the characters, like we did with Han, Leia, Chewy, and even the badly-acted Luke Skywalker. Even the occasional attempt at character-moments, such as the "romantic" scenes between Anakin and Padmé (who seems to have had a personality bypass since the previous films) are so badly written, they are rendered laughable, rather than moving.

This final film also suffers even more than its predecessors from improbable, overly-complex and downight ugly conceptual design. The city-scapes are suitably reminiscent of an even-more overgrown Tokyo, but every single creature, robot or vehicle looks frankly preposterous. It seems the production team have piled idea upon idea, without ever restraining their designs to allow for the simple elegance or emblematic boldness which made the visuals of the original trilogy so memorable. The overall effect leaves the eyes completely bewildered; the viewer is not impressed, but irritated by a visual world which is in no way aesthetically harmonious, or plausible as a real place where living things could dwell.

Those important criticisms made, it is fair to say that Revenge Of The Sith is by far the strongest of the Star Wars prequel-trilogy. Once Lucas stops rabbiting on with tedious political backstory, the main character-arc is, at heart, resonant and gripping. This after-all, is the mirror story to the entire progression of Episodes IV, V and VI. Those three films are the story of Luke Skywalker's quest to bring Darth Vader back to the Light, and restore balance to The Force. This, by contrast, is the story of Anakin becoming Darth Vader, betraying his mentor Obi Wan, and throwing the galaxy into Chaos. It is quite telling that, despite the audience's knowledge of the future story - we know who will survive, who will turn evil, etc - the unfolding of events remains interesting viewing. The film also makes some intriguing comments about the nature of tyranny and opression. As the Republic becomes the very enemy its armies have been fighting against, and liberty is destroyed "with thunderous applause", one cannot help but draw parallels with the current activities of the USA.

With all this going for it, it is all the more frustrating that Revenge Of The Sith's interesting ideas and solid story are so unforgiveably marred. Meandering structure, consistently cringeworthy dialogue, and a directorial vision which prioritises a mess of eye-catching pixels, instead of focussing attention on the potentially-powerful character-story being played-out, are all earmarks of George Lucas's arrogance, which has so obviously overgrown his talent. One can't help but imagine - if Lucas had done the sensible thing as he did with the first trilogy, and handed over his concept to more talented filmmakers - what a spectacular and infintely more worthy conclusion to the Star Wars legacy this might have been.

2 (out of 5)




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