Thursday, May 12, 2005

SIGHT FOR SORE EARS

Movie: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Posted on Thu, May 12, 2005 at 4:00 AM

***

Our Rating: 3.00

Revenge of the Sith isn't just a feast for the eyes; it's one of those Las Vegas buffets that offer endless prime rib for less than a 10-spot.

Exquisitely realized creatures take part in lovingly choreographed battles. Nimble Jedis bound across planets of infinitely exotic topography. Molten lava rains down hot, scarlet death. And in a quieter moment, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) attends an otherworldly arts event that looks like Cirque du Soleil as performed by enormous soap bubbles.

It's the best movie since Bram Stoker's Dracula to see with the sound turned all the way off.

Let the projectionist raise the audio above a whisper, and your enjoyment of the free-flowing spectacle will be diluted by some of the worst acting and writing known to mainstream film – and that's by George Lucas' meager standards. Every time a character opens his or her mouth, we're subjected to dialogue that would have rung trite in a Smilin' Jack adventure of 60 years ago. The tough-guy taunts that precipitate the numerous light-saber face-offs are so stale-sounding that, at one point, I was certain Master Yoda (Frank Oz) was going to warn an approaching enemy, "Fast there, not so." He doesn't, but he comes close.

Well-turned bons mots aren't especially important to the multitudes who will likely make Episode III of the Star Wars franchise the hit of the year; neither is narrative surprise, given that just about everyone on this planet knows where the various chess pieces will reside by story's end. The issue here is not what but how – learning the specific series of events that transformed the troubled Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.

The meat of the story concerns Anakin's seduction to the dark side of the Force by the cruelly calculating Palpatine (whom the Jedis still haven't realized is the evil Darth Sidious, making them essentially the Keystone Kops of the cosmos). Having used the rubric of emergency to seize unprecedented command of the galactic senate, Palpatine/Sidious engages in subterfuge and manipulation to expand his control across the stars and keep the noble Jedi security force two steps behind. The crown jewel in his plan is the corruption and conscription of Anakin's almost unimaginable power, which will render the Sith lord's authority absolute. Tom DeLay couldn't have envisaged better.

The movie begins with a deep-space dogfight between vessels that are detailed enough to make Kubrick wet himself; abruptly, the conflict turns personal with an acrobatic flourish that'll have even the most jaded cineplex hecklers mouthing "whaddaya know." Lucas never lets up from his master gamer's throttle, making Sith a landmark in the annals of visual entertainment. Particularly satisfying is his lessened reliance on CGI elements, which gives the movie an organic immediacy; you seldom doubt you're right where he wants you to believe you are.

But then you have to contend with the script. Initial reports had it that the story's build is dramatic and its linkage with Episode IV meticulous, but that's fanboy frogwash. Forced situations and plain old illogic dog this clunky, big-budget transition piece, as Lucas tries to tie his saga's every loose thread into a neat bow, only to tie himself up in knots. Not only does Anakin's metamorphosis into Vader follow a wholly implausible arc, it's amateurishly essayed by Hayden "Most Tragic Miscasting in Film History" Christensen, who never convinces as an incipient monster. Most excruciating of all are the character's dewy scenes with wife Padme (Natalie "Worst Serious Actress of My Generation" Portman) – real WB-rejected exchanges they are, redeemed only by progressively ludicrous hairstyles that allow the actress to pay homage to Carrie Fisher's long-ago case of cruller head.

As with any pair of underachieving kids, I blame the parent. Lucas is so toxic a directorial presence that he can even make Samuel L. Jackson (as the ever-undistinguished Mace Windu) look like a stiff. The only performer who emerges with his dignity intact is Ewan "Obi-Wan" McGregor, and not just because he had Alec Guinness to base a performance on. Adventuring and emoting as if all of the pulp-operatic activity really means something, McGregor shows how much dramatic impact this dorkwad pseudotragedy could have had, even if its outcome was preordained from the start. The good news is that genuine grandeur is waiting at home, in the form of those Lord of the Rings DVDs you probably should be reacquainting yourself with right about now.

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