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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

June 25, 2006

Revenge of the Sith:
...but did it make sense? (and other belated musings)

Okay, so I finally saw Revenge of the Sith -- yeah, yeah, I’m a few months behind the times -- sue me. Anyway, having just seen this momentous cinematic event, and since this is a pulp website, I figured I’d offer a few comments. (P&D founder, Jeffrey Blair Latta, already considered the end of Star Wars (and Star Trek) in his insightful essay here.


First: what did I think? It was…okay. A lot of critics got a lot of mileage out of saying it was the best Star Wars movie since 1980s Empire Strikes Back. But is that like saying a Star Trek movie is the best Trek since Wrath of Khan (in other words, there were good movies in between, but not necessarily on the same level) or like saying a Superman movie is the best Superman movie since Superman II (in other words, the ones inbetween were pretty bad). Sadly, I think we’re leaning more toward a Superman scenario (not quite, but you know what I mean).

Still, Revenge of the Sith wasn’t bad…but wasn’t necessarily great, either. The problem is that, more than the original trilogy, George Lucas clearly set out to write an ambitious, profound epic of character development and political machinations -- this from the guy who produced Howard the Duck and Radioland Murders! Lucas just wasn’t up to it and, to be fair, most people probably wouldn’t be.

Throughout the whole recent trilogy talky scenes were a little too dry and talky and the action scenes just a little too long and mindless -- not too mention too reliant on CGIs meaning a lot of the action scenes -- even the mano et mano sabre duels -- just looked liked excerpts from Super Mario Brothers video games. The emotion stuff rarely quite worked, partly because of the writing, and partly because of a lack of on-screen chemistry between many of the leads. When Obi Wan emotes in the climax that Anakin was like a brother to him…I’ll admit, I barely got the impression they could tolerate each other, let alone that they were like brothers. Even the romantic stuff between Anakin and Padima too often seemed forced. (And how’s that for pushing credulity: Padme and Anakin are supposed to be carrying on a secret relationship…yet they hang out in busy hallways, he stays over at her place (with a huge open balcony that anyone flying by could look into), and she’s pregnant and no one wonders who the father is! In fact, when Obi Wan finally says, oh so cleverly, “Anie’s that father, isn’t he?”, you half expect Padme to respond: “Well, duh, Sherlock.” But then, Jedis aren’t know for their intellect (more on that in a moment).

The evolution of little Anie Skywalker into Darth Vader was an applaudably audacious undertaking…and it just didn’t quite work for me. Although, I may be nitpicking. After all, intellectually, I can see some of the foundations -- Anakin, a slave who grew up in poverty, becomes drawn to the notion that iron fisted order can bring true justice to the oppressed. Good idea…but viscerally, it was not really realized very well. Maybe Anakin should’ve articulated some reforms he’d like to implement that the current political structure wasn’t able to address (like outlawing slavery on Tatooine or something).

As it is, Lucas seemed to constantly be waffling about who and what Anakin is. He’s sort of got the “darkness” in him…yet he’s also a good kid who becomes corrupted. He sort of embraces fascism because he believes in order…and sort of because he’s just a bad guy. Even in Revenge of the Sith, his motives are fluid. He turns on the Emperor when he learns he’s a Sith Lord, then returns to him because he thinks he can save Padme (who Anakin has dreamed will die), yet later is still arguing with Obi Wan about which of them is better defending the Republic -- when surely by that point, he had accepted the Emperor was evil, but wanted to save Padme.

I know I can be unfair in my views. Because watching the movie, I thought what would be a cool idea is if Anakin mistakenly thinks Padme dies and that pushes him over the edge -- the irony that he became bad out of grief, and a misplaced grief. And, you know what? That’s what they did! And I still wasn’t satisfied! And that’s partly because, like with so much else, it was tossed in in a kind of “everything but the Kitchen sink” way. It comes right at the end, after Darth Vader has already crossed every moral line imaginable. Heck -- he hadn’t just crossed a line, he slammed the door shut behind him, bolted it, and welded the hinges. Believing he had killed Padme…was just the icing on the cake, not the defining event.

In fact, the problem with these movies is trying to define what constitutes an “evil” act. I’ve talked before in previous essays a little about morality, and right and wrong in fiction. And this is sort of an example. Anakin is supposed to be succumbing to the dark side, so he’s supposed to do bad things, but to create tension, we’re supposed to believe/hope (for a while) that he is redeemable -- in other words, his transgressions are supposed to be forgivable up to a point. But what point? When did he “cross the line”? In Attack of the Clones he massacres an entire village of sand people, women and kids included. In the opening of Revenge of the Sith he murders a POW (the, literally, unarmed Lord Dooku) and later, massacres an entire temple of Jedi -- including kids.

When Obi Wan tells Padme of this she says something like, “No! Anakin wouldn’t do that.” Realistically, though, she would’ve reflected back on the sand people massacre, blush sheepishly, and say, “Ah, heh, um, come to think of it, that sounds just like Anie.”

And we’re only supposed to believe he lost his soul when he thought Padme was dead?

Still, there were some good bits in Revenge of the Sith. The surprise revelation that Jimmy Smits -- who had seemed morally ambiguous in the previous movie -- was Senator Organa (I didn’t recall knowing that in Attack of the Clones). And Padme’s line about: “So this is how democracy ends…with thunderous applause.” And other stuff.

Anyways, I didn’t really want to get into what I liked and didn’t like -- I mean, that doesn’t necessarily make a fun -- or interesting -- essay, not almost a year after the fact. No, what I wanted to talk about was some of the things about the movies and to get on my “fan boy nerd hat” and talk about, yup, those dreaded discrepancies.

After all, the Star Wars movies aren’t just a series of movies, but are supposed to form a coherent narrative in which the recent trilogy was meant to be a prequel to the original. Meaning, by the end, all ducks are supposed to line up, as it were.

Did they?

Well, yes and no.

In general, yes. But there are a lot of specific nos.

For one thing, as most other viewers have already mentioned, in Return of the Jedi, Leia talks about what she remembered about her mother -- yet in Revenge of the Sith, Padme dies in childbirth. Charitable fans have suggested Leia might have been referring to her step mom -- but no one really believes that was the scriptwriter’s intent when Carrie Fisher said those lines over twenty years ago.

Also, the basic logic of the thing seems a bit dodgy. Obi Wan and Yoda want to keep the kids away from Darth Vader…so they “hide” them with a prominent senator who Darth will presumably be running into all the time at government cocktail parties…and with Darth’s stepbrother? Man, I know there’s the expression to hide something in plain sight, but that was ridiculous, especially when you’re talking about a dude who has the Force on his side (even if he believed Padme died before giving birth). And then, to top it all off, Obi Wan Kenobi decides to move in next door to the kid, keep his last name, and, get this: despite Jedi Knights being hunted throughout the galaxy…he continues to wear his Jedi Knight robes in public! But then, if there’s one thing we learned in the prequel trilogy, it’s that Jedi Knights are really, really, really, dim. Think about it. For -- what? -- fifteen years at least, they’ve been played as complete chumps by the emperor. In fact, if I remember the story correctly, they’ve spent the last three movies doing everything the Emperor wanted, every time they “uncovered“ something, it turned out it was what the Emperor wanted them to do.

In fact, a weakness with this trilogy is its lack of twists or surprises. We knew how it would end -- Anakin becomes Vader, Jedis destroyed, Emperor wins. And so, that’s what Lucas gave us. But it might’ve been nice if we could have had a few snags along the way. Like, what if the Emperor had another plan at first that the Jedis thwart, so that even as the Jedis are defeated, they still thwarted some of his schemes.

Actually, speaking of “twists” (and lack thereof), I think there was a real missed opportunity for a mind staggering dose of ironic tragedy. In Attack of the Clones, Obi Wan Kenobi is captured by Lord Dooku, a villain, rebelling against the republic. Dooku tells Obi Wan there is an evil Sith Lord in the republic and that’s why he’s rebelling. Of course, it turns out Dooku is working for the Sith Lord and this is all part of the mind games.

But I thought it would’ve been cool if Dooku wasn’t lying. What if he really was opposed to the Sith Lord -- and the Jedis rebuff him because he’s after all, a bad guy, too. Think of the irony: the one guy who knows what’s going on and could help stop it…the Jedis ignore. (There’s a bit of a real world parallel in that, if I recall my high school history, just prior to World War II, the British were approached by the Stalinist Soviets who said something on the lines like “ This Hitler dude is really creeping us out -- what say we team up against him?“ To which the British, seeing the Soviets as a nasty tyranny -- which they were -- rebuffed them…and when war broke out, had to go the first few years without the mighty Russian bear as an ally; in fact some historians have argued the war really turned against the Nazis, not when America joined in, but when Hitler attacked Russia and so dragged the Russians into the war).

But Lucas didn’t go that route and the whole trilogy was kind of lacking clever twists…despite it all being supposedly about clever machinations.

Back to discrepancies. So now we know that Obi Wan Kenobi was responsible for Darth becoming crippled. Well, then, Darth seemed to take it remarkably well when they met again in Star Wars. I mean, don’t you think he’d be just a little, oh…pissed?

Lucas has long claimed that the whole series was blocked out in his head from day one, but I’m not convinced. Some -- yeah, maybe. But not all. One of the most glaring things that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone comment on is that in Star Wars Darth Vader basically seems like Governor Tarkin’s flunky -- a glorified Odd Job. As well, a general snidely dismisses Vader as the last adherent to an “old” religion. Yet by the very next movie, Empire Strikes Back, we discover Vader is the Emperor’s apprentice and the Emperor himself is a practitioner of the Force. In other words, Vader is basically the number two entry in the galactic edition of Who’s Who and the Force is far from being an archaic religion.

Another discrepancy in the overall series was that in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke goes to Dagoba (where Yoda has bravely been hiding out for twenty years!) doesn’t he remark something about the place seeming familiar, as though from a dream? Surely the writers were hinting that Dagoba would have some significance in Luke’s personal -- or at least family -- history. But the planet never appears in the prequel trilogy.

Another curiosity is that Obi Wan describes Yoda as the Jedi master who taught him…but in the prequel, isn’t his teacher Liam Neeson?

Just one final thought I want to bring up. I just read Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye -- a Star Wars pastiche long before Star Wars novels became their own genre. Back in the late 1970s it was just Foster’s Luke n’ Leia adventure and Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels (Daley’s Han Solo at Stars End stands as one of my favourite SF adventure novels). Splinter of the Mind’s Eye isn’t as good as Daley’s books (for one thing, Foster‘s grip on the personalities didn‘t seem as sure) , but what’s interesting is remembering that it was published just after Star Wars -- there was no first trilogy, no second trilogy, no Star Wars universe period. Just one movie…and this book. So it’s interesting to consider it in that context and to wonder how much Foster was being told about the greater story arc…and how much he might have influenced it.

For one thing, Foster puts a big emphasis -- no, a BIG emphasis -- on the sexual tension between Luke and Leia; so either, no one told him they would turn out to be related…or Lucas hadn’t made that decision yet (when you realize that in Star Wars Luke is attracted to Leia, but Han isn’t particularly -- except to get Luke’s goat -- it’s easy to imagine Lucas hadn’t decided they were siblings at first, nor that Leia and Han would end up a couple).

But what’s intriguing is the ways Foster’s book anticipates the next movies. For example he has the Force be used to telekinetically move objects…something that I don’t think occurred in the first movie. And the whole opening of the novel, with Luke crashing on a swamp world, is so evocative of The Empire Strikes Back I had to check the cover to make sure I wasn’t reading a novelization of the movie. You wonder if Lucas read a draft of Foster’s book and realized the imagery would look great on the big screen. While closer to the end of the novel, Luke and Leia team up with a tribe of the planet’s primitive inhabitants to ambush a bunch of Stormtroopers, in a scene reminiscent of the Return of the Jedi (albeit more brutal and violent). Perhaps most intriguing is that, in a climactic duel, Vader’s arm is cut off (now that’s gotta hurt). Given that it’s not till the next movie (or is it the one after that?), that we learn Vader has an artificial hand, you wonder what was the creative toing and froing that went into that scene.

A lot of this stuff has probably been addressed elsewhere, by people far more astute about all things Lucas-ville. But, hey, if I didn’t sound off from time to time…this editorial space would be blank every other week!

D.K. Latta, editor

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