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Dude, Where's My Empire?

They really left it wide open for a sequel.

As the house lights dimmed in the Cinerama dome, I was already thinking about writing my review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I decided to try to write the most glowing review possible. Because, when you think about it, you can get two things for your online Star Wars movie review dollar, and you can get them cheap: obsessed fanboys – who were going to love it anyway – writing effusively about how much they loved it, and bitter assholes like me – who were going to hate it anyway – writing snarkily about how much it sucked. Why not offer something different, and challenge myself in the process? Not a sarcastic good review, like, "Oh, the dialogue is so richly nuanced," and, "Oh, the characters' motivations are subtle and layered." I was thinking about an honest evaluation of the good parts of the film – in which I would just cherry-pick my information and surprise all of us by really seeming to like the movie. About ten minutes into the film, that idea was pretty well shot. Picking just the good parts would result in a very short review. So, I started composing the least sarcastic review I could: "You can always tell what the characters are thinking because even if they told you in the last scene, they'll take a seat and tell you again." But no matter what I tried it just sounded mean and arrogant, and I do that enough in my daily life, no reason to infuse it into the Star Wars review, too.

The only remaining option is a truthful assessment of my unsurprised disappointment with the movie. The only Star Wars movie I've ever liked was Episode IV: A New Hope (previously known as Star Wars) and I never got wildly obsessed with that one in the first place. So, it's perfectly fine that Revenge of the Sith isn't my cup of tea. I don't harbor any grudge there; I knew what I was getting into. If I truly valued my $11, I'd have stayed home. It is, however, relentlessly bad filmmaking in every sense – and it compounds that by also mismanaging the concept of serial filmmaking, doing a disservice to the idea of telling one story over the course of six movies in 28 years.

At this point, I don't blame George Lucas. He's just struggling out of the corner he painted himself into six years ago. I blame that George Lucas. He owes me (and present-day Lucas) a big apology. I think (today's) Lucas felt constrained by the built-in ending for the Anakin trilogy, and decided to use spectacle as an attempt to fill the void. It turns out, making the Anakin trilogy was just a bad idea, or at least executed very poorly from the start. A lot of people will tell you that Episode III is better than Episode I and Episode II, but that's just like saying Garfield is better than Affliction and Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows – it absolutely is better, but it would have been quite difficult to make it worse. There's something to be said for exploring Anakin Skywalker's backstory, but – by Episode III, at least – it's all information that we already know. The whole Sidious/Palpatine thing was heavily foreshadowed as early as the final sequence of Episode I (perhaps even sooner, my memory of the original trilogy is spotty). Anakin's obviously becoming Darth Vader, which means of course he's being tempted over to the dark side of the force. The key is to make all of these pre-ordained events interesting and compelling.

I just watched Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! over the weekend (and I loved it, by the way, but that doesn't exactly help my case here). It's the same thing. You know she's going to be googly for Tad. You know Tad's going to decide to go back on his wild boy ways, and try to woo her. You know she's going to fall for it. You know Pete (Topher Grace, excellent as always) is going to try to win her back. You know it'll be rough going for a while, but you know he'll win in the end. What makes it entertaining is what's happening along that ride. The quirky moments with Pete, the dreamy moments with Tad, the Stephen Tobolowsky cameo. The problem is that Lucas is unwilling or unable to put in interesting stuff along the way. He puts in silly, meaningless, or boring stuff.

For instance, the movie begins with about ten minutes of dogfighting in outer space. None of it means anything to anything – it's just a drawn out battle scene featuring Anakin and Obi-Wan (two characters we can be pretty sure don't die in the opening battle). It ends with both guys landing on an enemy ship and heading in to do that derring-do that they do. It could have started with this. All the rest was just meaningless eye candy. (And don't get me started on the preposterous physics of tiny malicious robots being blown off a spacecraft's windshield in the vaccuum of space.) Interestingly, this same tradition is carried down into nearly every subsequent scene. Lucas cuts into each scene about 20 seconds too early, so there can be a super wide shot of a spaceship flying over an intricately animated city, then a closer shot of the spaceship docking at a giant, richly detailed building, then cut to the interior where things are actually happening. With snappier dialogue, you could afford to slow a movie down this much. Episode III can't afford it.

(Below this point, spoilers become somewhat actual. Up to now, it's been stuff easily surmised from the trailer and previous films. After this, it might be real plot points, such as they are. Again, I'm a big believer that nothing can spoil a movie that's already been spoiled by the director and screenwriter, but in case you care, continue at your own peril.)

Unfortunately, Lucas just didn't come up with an interesting backstory for the whole Anakin-to-Vader transition. Some have praised Lucas for developing Anakin's motivation for embracing the dark side beyond just sulky teenagerhood. If he did, I didn't see it. Anakin sulks because the Jedi Council won't let him sit at the grown-up table, even though he's only in the room because Uncle Palpatine gave him a free slot. He turns to the dark side because he foolishly thinks it'll help him save the mother of his child – whose only threat so far is a bad dream he had. I'm sorry, that's the epitome of sulky teenagerhood to me. That's practically an episode of Chaotic. What's more, in the end he spurns her, anyway – based on a simple misunderstanding: he thinks she helped Obi-Wan find him, when really he stowed away in her ship. Seems like someone so strong with the force would be able to detect her honesty when she says she didn't mean to. It's Natalie Portman, for crying out loud. She's the only one in the cast who's capable of a performance that conveys motivation or feeling – you should at least be able to tell what she's thinking.

I think the main reason people like this movie so much more than the last two is that they feel like they're "in on it" during the tacked-on 15-minute ending which very hastily bridges the gap between the first three episodes and the next three. There's a quickie board meeting about the Yoda/Kenobi diaspora and what to do with infant Luke and Leia. (By the way, I sense a Muppet Babies type animated series coming on.) There's the construction of the oddly-technologically-quaint Vader suit. There's the elimination of that enormous, galaxy-wide droid army – just so nobody will wonder why they don't show up in Episode IV. There's the groundbreaking on the Death Star (which, it took 20 years to build and they still kept it entirely super-secret from the Rebels all that time?), and the introduction of the cadet blue Galactic Empire uniforms. There's the double sunset on Tatooine. "Hey!" says the average, dim-witted Star Wars fan, "All those things are at the start of Episode IV! I totally get it! I'm way more satisfied with this movie than I have been with its recent predecessors in the series." Exactly. Lucas trades on the only good Star Wars film he ever made: Star Wars. And, by evoking fond memories of its characters, locations, and motifs, he adds a little flourish to the end of this clunker which guarantees that audiences will leave the theatre with a warm glow in their hearts, rather than the sullen hostility that was burned in over the preceding two hours. Not only is this a cheap grab at audience favor, but it breaks the rule that each of these films should be able to stand more or less on its own. (I said this about the LOTR series, too.) Yes, it's a continuation and the rewards should be many for the dutiful aficionado who has followed the entire series. But the box office returns alone indicate that more people saw Episode III than Episode I or Episode II. So it makes good sense for it to be an interesting and relatable story on its own. You just don't end it with a bunch of shots that do nothing but refer to another movie from 30 years ago. (Not that I personally would eliminate those shots, but it would make sense to tie them to the story more effectively than this limp epilogue montage.) The whole film suffers from this: characters don't do things because it's been established that this is how they'll behave, the ensemble simply divides up the task of connecting the end of Episode II to the start of Episode IV, then shares the burden equally.

Contributing to the blah feeling of the first 11/12 of the film is the fact that none of the characters is ever credibly imperiled. We're pretty sure Anakin survives, or that "Luke, I am your father" scene is way out of place. Obi-Wan and Yoda are safe, too. Mace Windu? Probably won't make it. It gives the extended, over-animated battle scenes even less urgency, because you can never be concerned that any of the major players are in jeopardy. Everything's indisputably pretty, but still it doesn't mean a whole lot. The same can be said of the dialogue scenes. Even though all the major events of this film have been foreshadowed with wooden speeches since at least Episode II, there are still dozens of scenes where the characters sit around explaining the same dilemmas, and clumsily hinting at the same outcomes. Is Anakin feeling betrayed? If you didn't come in thinking so, here's five scenes sprinkled throughout the film to get you on track. Is the Jedi Council wary of his tenuous allegiance? Yep, and 20 minutes worth of dialogue – accompanied by very stern gazes – will show that it's as true now as it ever was.

Beyond these structural and storytelling fumbles, there are countless miscalculations in tone. Maybe I'm being ridiculous, continuing to cling to the hope that a Star Wars movie might ever again feature the wit and sparkle of the original Star Wars, with the same all-ages appeal (including grown-ups). At this point, Star Wars is the anomaly, and all these other movies with Jar-Jar and silly pratfalls are the norm. I still think it's a mistake to use robots for slapstick humor, and give them all goofy voices that say things like, "Hey! You!" and "Ow!" This is a world of endless technological wizardry – shouldn't they be communicating wirelessly? (And really: "Ow!" when your arm gets cut off? These entirely dispensable battle droids have been programmed to feel pain... but to be really casual about it?) Yoda, a character I've always loved, continues to be misused a little more in each successive film. He's still adorable and wise, but at this point he's like the mascot for the force, and spends less time being wise and philosophical and more time with choreographed lightsabre dances and making pyramids with the Jedi Council. ("Gooooo... Annie!")

Lucas readily admits he's not an actor's director, and it shows in the writing as well as the staging and editing of scenes. The film has a distant relationship with its characters, providing few moments of real emotional connection with them. It's telling that, when Lucas wants to cut through the layers of melodrama and establish a resonant character moment, he borrows a scene from E.T. for Yoda's farewell moment with the Wookies. (Between this conspicuous homage and the Jedi Holocaust montage it's no wonder Spielberg wept.) Even the John Williams score – technically wondrous as always – is too ham-fisted, leaning on the "thrill" button more often than necessary and shouldering the work of laying emotional foundation for otherwise stilted scenes.

Natalie Portman is nearly flawless, though, improving her portrayal of Padme by incorporating the darker strength of her Closer role and the sweet vulnerability of Garden State. Ewan McGregor is still pretty flat, but better than his previous Star Wars work for sure. And the film has moments of clarity. The Death Star and baby Luke and Leia scenes would be great if they had been woven into the context of the film more seamlessly. The sequence in which the Empire turns on the Jedi and executes them in a simultaneous galaxy-wide massacre is positively chilling, and easily the best work Lucas has done since A New Hope. Frank Oz can do no wrong. (I don't count The Stepford Wives.)

I'm glad I went to see Episode III – unlike Shark Tale and The Interpreter I'm not as comfortable bashing it from a position of ignorance – but it's still disappointing how badly the entire "prequel" trilogy has been handled. However, the good news is that it's behind us now. I know, they're talking TV spinoffs and such, but Lucas will only be peripherally involved in those. I haven't seen the Clone Wars Cartoon Network shorts, but I hear they're excellent and at this point I'd trust Genndy Tartakovsky with most anything. I could really see an animated Star Wars series taking what's good about the franchise and parlaying it into something much better in every way. (Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the Clerks animated series.)

***

By the way, I think we can pretty much close the book on this one: George Lucas was very clearly molested in his childhood. My best guess: a drunk relative forced young Lucas to give him a lot of handjobs, and he still feels unclean about it. The man is positively obsessed with chopping people's hands off. It happens at least six or eight times in this movie, plus it apparently happened to Anakin in Episode II (I must have slept through it) and it happened to Luke in Empire, plus probably others that I don't remember from the original trilogy. It's like all the daddy issues on Alias – at some point, it just becomes off-putting.

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