by Matthew Peckham
Revenge of the Sith is a poorly told tale of power corrupting the insecure and narcissistic, i.e. insert a coin
into any number of Eastern philosophies and out pops an outline to match Lucas's juvenile distillations... if my
inner-apologist was still hoping that George might at least go one for three, this final story has me washing my hands
of any further exculpation.
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After passing on Dark Horse's first two graphic novel/movie tie-ins, I couldn't resist plunking down $13 on Revenge of the Sith to satisfy my curiosity. I have to agree with the critics that the first two movies were generally quite bad. Roger Ebert rightly referred to the second film as "...a technological exercise that lacks juice and delight." Kenneth Turan groused in the L.A. Times (travel back to 1999, when the hype was Brobdingnagian) that "It's only a movie, and, like the unmasked Wizard at the end of Oz's Yellow Brick Road, a much less impressive one than all the accompanying genuflection would have you believe." San Francisco Chronicle's Bob Graham said of the first film, "In special effects, Lucas has moved a galaxy beyond...in energy, not yet," but E! Online nailed it: "Being amazed has never been this boring." I prefer to render the films in simple, realistic terms: product placement exercises strung together by gummy, maudlin plots. Will the third film redeem the franchise? Magic eight-ball says doubtful, if the adaptation by Miles Lane is remotely faithful to the upcoming screen release on May 19th.
Cut to the chase, the original Star Wars films are popular low-brow fun. Like much popular art, each steals gleefully from better source material and grind any residual subtlety into a thin sugary paste. But where they captured the pulpy essence of old serials like Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) and paid homage to Akira Kurosawa's masterful Shichinin no samurai (1954), the latter two prequels have seemed more like air-headed merchandising franchises marred by bad writing and particularly terrible dialogue that no actor -- not even a Samuel Jackson -- has been able to remedy. This remains the case in Revenge of the Sith, and if my inner apologist was still hoping that George might at least go one for three, this final story has me washing my hands of any further exculpation. No amount of eye-numbing CG space battles or swashbuckling lightsaber fights (that always end in predictably precarious futuristic girders) are going to excuse the bad dialogue and nostalgia-blighted creative vision.
In the familiar trapezoidal narrative that opens the story, we're told the Republic continues to crumble as Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee), who escaped at the end of Attack of the Clones, is leading Separatist attacks against the Republic. A "fiendish droid leader" named General Grievous has abducted Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate (and whom, since The Phantom Menace, we've know is really the maleficent soon-to-be Emperor). In a poor attempt to create moral ambiguity, the writers have inserted "There are heroes on both sides... Evil is everywhere." Seasoned writers understand that telling is human, but showing -- divine. The kind of "showing" going on here, of course, involves eye-zapping projectile electricity and balletic lightsaber battles, and the sort of "you're not my father" hand-wringing that makes more serious questions like "where does the Force (and those little midi-chlorian buggers) ultimately come from?" totally beyond these characters and this story.
If the prior two films are any indication, writer Miles Lane had his hands tied by Lucas's film script. In a recent interview with TheForce.Net, Lane -- who is also an editor and understands the business -- explained how he essentially culled the action sequences (of which there are many) down to short, focused panels, giving him more space to flesh out the characters and relationships. A quick summary of these: Obi Wan is still a dull, wooden follower; the Jedi Council are still stumbling around in the dark and spouting platitudes that make the Matrix films seem cerebral; Padme remains blind to Anakin's vicissitudes, except now she's hauling her belly around and indulging her inner-Lady Macbeth, and Anakin is still the whining, emotionally shallow (and intellectually vacuous) brat he played in the prior film. Whatever subtlety can be argued existed in the original Star Wars films is gone altogether from these characters, who instead act like walking exclamation points in search of a meaningful sentence.
Revenge of the Sith is a poorly told tale of power corrupting the insecure and narcissistic, i.e. insert a coin into any number of Eastern philosophies and out pops an outline to match Lucas's juvenile distillations. Though it has taken two films, Palpatine is finally outed as the Sith Lord, but not before he manipulates Anakin into killing a fellow Jedi, and makes nebulous promises about the dark side of the Force's ability to extend life (in the story's biggest plot clunker, Anakin has a dream in which Padme dies giving birth, thus motivating him to explore the dark side of the force for "altruistic" purposes -- is this kid a dunce or what?).
We know what happens at the end, and there's nothing surprising about how we get there. Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye (1978) referenced Vader's fall into a lava pit nearly three decades ago, and so it is here at last that the epic battle between Obi Wan and Anakin occurs over some sort of volcanic pit (it looks quite a lot like another video game sequence involving moving platforms, disintegrating architecture, and narrow catwalks). Yes, the particulars of precisely how the ebony-robed one got his duds are finally revealed, and it's sort of interesting to see a few of the visual cues leading to the first of the original films (the Republic's single combat ships look like proto-tie fighters, and individual battle suits are in the final stages of transition to shiny stormtrooper white). A few lingering things bug me: what happened to the droid army by the time we get to the original three films? Is it really cheaper to stick humans in body armor and send them off to die en masse, after you've long since perfected the art of economical robotics? Why is the emperor -- who here is quite spry -- such a pantywaist in Return of the Jedi (when Vader picks him up and hurls him down the shaft)? What is it about the dark side that temporarily mutates its wielders into monstrous-looking creatures (e.g. Palpatine as the puffy-headed emperor), and Anakin's weird jaundiced eyes (and how is it that Palpatine can shift back and forth at will)? Just who is Palpatine and where does he hail from? It's a testament to much of what these new movies are doing wrong that one of the more intriguing characters -- the one central to the rise of the Empire -- remains as cryptic here as he was in the first three.
Until I see the movie, it's tough to put too much onus on Miles Lane, who's only done his duty working with the grist he has been given. Still, I'd like to think someone adapting a screenplay could excise sinkers like (Anakin to Padme) "I've missed you so" or (Palpatine to Yoda) "I've waited a long time for this moment my little green friend," but I'm betting Lucas puts a premium on faithful adherence to the dialogue, however crummy. As a standalone work, it could be worse, and Lane deserves credit for pulling off at least a few nice sequences, such as the final conversation between Padme and Obi Wan or the ominous exchange between Palpatine and Anakin at the opera house. If anything about the flow of the comic feels off, it's the action sequences. Imagine someone taking two pictures at Gettysburg and attempting to pass them off as that battle in its entirety. We're supposed to feel tension, but the pacing makes it impossible, and the mega-battle shots look more like trading card cutouts. Better to refer to such in passing if your palette is limited by budget or page count. No doubt the movie will reverse things, slapping our eyes numb with CG while starving our brains of plot.
Doug Wheatley handles art duties, and just paging at random through the book, it's a looker. The art could almost pass for painted, with Christopher Chuckry's amazing color work enhancing Wheatley's elaborate pencil sketches (the book is not inked, just penciled and colored over, lending it the same wonderfully organic look that Cary Nord's been giving Busiek's Conan series, also from Dark Horse). Wheatley occasionally gets the faces out of proportion or the facial features wrong when attempting to convey high emotion -- this is probably to blame on working from still shots of the film, which can cause an artist to focus more on visual fidelity as opposed to developing a consistent character style throughout. Wheatley does a magnificent job with the space battles and the physical minutia adorning things like proto-star destroyers, and Chuckry's shading work is remarkably detailed without overwhelming Wheatley's lines. Whatever the book's many story-related problems, Dark Horse's artists are putting out some high quality stuff.
Could these prequel Star Wars films ever live up to the hype? Probably not, but they could at least have tried. As a story, Revenge of the Sith has all the problems of the first two films (you can give Lucas credit for being consistent), yet none of their potential to get better in another, subsequent film. Unless you count the recently promised TV series, this is it folks... last in show. $13 is a small pile of dough to hand over for the answers, if you absolutely must have them, even if the video games and books based on the Star Wars franchise utterly outclass Lucas's last fizzy huzzah.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa, and is currently at work on his first book. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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