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Star Wars 40th Anniversary Review: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey

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My last two reviews may have given off the impression, despite my insistent protestations to the contrary, that I really dislike the Prequels. I hope with this final review of the Prequel Trilogy that I can make clear how I feel about them as a whole since I can and do hold them in high regard while still criticising them.

Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Prequels and even fans who hate them agree this one had the least problems. The story, while still having its own flaws, proves to be an excellent culmination of the entire trilogy and a riveting climax to all the events that were built up in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

As Episode III closes we can see the full extent of the subtle machinations of Palpatine as he rose to power. People complain how the Prequels had too much politics in them, but when you really think about it the integral theme and point of the Star Wars Prequels was to be a political commentary. While I agree the pacing of The Phantom Menace could have been improved by cutting some of the slower sequences, much of the Senate scenes and political dialogue are crucial plot points which enhance the story of how the Sith and the Dark Side ate at the Republic’s core, weakening it to the point that it was ripe for the taking. It had to be slower and less exciting, because having the Sith simply storm the Galactic Senate and conquer the Galaxy all at once would not have made sense. If certain things did not happen first the people would not have gone along with it and no Empire would have arisen. Slowly, but surely, we see Chancellor Palpatine create an environment within the Senate that isfriendly and open to reorganising the government into a Galactic Empire. When Senator Padme observed that “liberty dies…with thunderous applause” she knew she was in a room full of people who were scared. They endured a nearly three year long war with billions of losses across multiple worlds. The Jedi, who were supposedlyt keepers of the peace had been suddenly converted to generals and war leaders eventually causing them be not as popular as they had been. Much of this is why it was not difficult for Palpatine to turn others against the Jedi under the pretense that they were plotting to overthrow the senate. The senators and citizenry of the Republic felt threatened and they gave up their freedom for security. The “thunderous applause” was not for the death of liberty, but for a sense of safety after years of war, economic disasters, and massive loss of lives and resources.

Anakin was another victim of Palpatine’s machinations. The Sith for over a thousand years were plotting how to overthrow the Republic and the Jedi Order. The Rule of Two (that is there being only a single master and apprentice at any given time) helped keep the Sith hidden for centuries as they bided their time setting in motion the events that eventually led to Palpatine’s rise. Anakin had a natural desire for power and emotional insecurities and weaknesses that left him vulnerable to suggestion. When Anakin first met Palpatine he was a Senator from Naboo which was the same planet that Padme was from. He was also the only person who seemed to sympathise with Padme’s cause. In addition to Obi-Wan Palpatine became a second mentor who encouraged his feelings, pretended to empathise with them, and patted his ego. Palpatine would frequently tell him how he envisioned him becoming more powerful than even Master Yoda and that he did not need much guidance. This was followed by Palpatine’s continual interference with Jedi affairs such as recommending Anakin a seat on the Jedi Council and suggesting him to be the one to defeat General Grievous on Utapau. The Chancellor predicted that the Council would grant the request while withholding title of Master from Anakin which would naturally offend and anger him further contributing to his distrust and disillusionment with the Jedi Order. And if Palpatine had his way and got Skywalker on Utapau the defeat of Grievous would have left Anakin in the eyes of the people a war hero who effectively ended the Clone Wars. Anakin was one of the few Jedi popular with the Republic populace (no doubt encouraged by Palpatine) and this would have further ingratiated Anakin to the people prior to Palpatine becoming Emperor with Anakin at his side.
Unfortunately that side of Palpatine’s plan failed and the consequences may very well have contributed to the Emperor’s downfall in the end. As we know Anakin never defeated Grievous, but Obi-Wan did instead. And when Anakin and Obi-Wan fought on Mustafar Anakin was left so badly injured that he was required to wear the Darth Vader suit for the rest of his life. Anakin was thought by the people to have been killed during Order 66 and the emergent figure of Darth Vader was assumed to be a separate entity.
I believe that if Anakin was not injured on Mustafar and not subjected to the limiting and uncomfortable rigours of the suit he would have been more powerful than even Palpatine could have imagined. And the citizens of the Empire would still have had their war hero supporting the Empire making the Rebel Alliance less likely to gain any support.

Anakin’s growing distrust and disillusionment with the Jedi was not the only thing Palpatine preyed on. His fear of loss which was exacerbated by the death of his mother was probably Anakin Skywalker’s weakest point. Anakin’s attachment to Padme was such an important priority for him that his reverence for the Light Side and loyalty to the Republic were expendable. Yoda tried to warn him by saying that he needed to let go of what he feared to lose, however, Padme dominated Anakin’s thoughts and the advice was unheeded. So when Palpatine revealed to him that he was in fact Darth Sidious his following actions became confused and misguided. He attempted to do the right thing at first by informing Mace Windu of what he learned. Unfortunately, Anakin was too concerned with the possibility that Sidious might actually be able to teach him to save Padme from death which led him to interfering with the Chancellor’s arrest, causing Master Windu’s death, and ending with his conversion to the Dark Side of the Force.

Convinced the Jedi were the enemy Anakin proceeded to commit heinous acts of violence within the Jedi Temple including the murder of helpless children. Elsewhere Order 66 was executed and the majority of the Jedi throughout the Galaxy were extinguished. The Clone Army that was initially commissioned to fight tyranny became the military arm of the tyrant. It becomes evident very quickly that the Clone Wars and the formation of the Clone Army had been intentionally orchestrated by Palpatine and Count Dooku as a means to cripple the Republic, make it open to becoming an Empire, and providing a strong loyal military force to enforce the change in government.

In the end Anakin’s own motivations fail completely. His body is all but destroyed, Padme dies in childbirth, and all those he once called friends are either dead or left him. Anakin failed to learn the lesson he should have learned on Tatooine when his mother died. Anakin refused to acknowledge that death is a natural and inevitable thing and instead desired to find a way to stop it. At his mother’s grave he expresses self-loathing at his perceived failure to save her. Seeing power as the only solution to anything Anakin thinks every failure or every event that displeases him happens because of a lack of power. Wishing to avoid losing Padme he seeks more power and ironically it is that very power that kills her in the end. And once again in The Empire Strikes Back it is with power that he tries to seduce his son to the Dark Side. Craving power is a Sith trait and it is for that reason that I believe that Anakin was unconsciously partway converted to the Dark Side since Episode II already. His final initiation into the Sith Order and taking on of the Darth Vader mantle was achieved only when Anakin finally admitted that everything including the Light Side and his own conscience were expendable if Padme was saved. He only regretted Windu’s death for a moment before declaring “I will do whatever you ask…Just help me save Padme’s life. I can’t live without her.”
Yoda’s statement about fear (“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”) in The Phantom Menace was prophetic. Anakin feared losing Padme and the resultant anger caused him to hate the Jedi enough to cause the suffering of not only them but also of himself when Padme died and he was disfigured on Mustafar. All his hope was gone and he found himself wholly loyal to Darth Sidious the only friend he believed he had left.
Unlike seeking power, hope is not a Sith trait. But it is a Jedi one. And it was that hope that led Yoda and Obi-Wan to have Anakin’s twins, Luke and Leia, sequestered. Bail Organa took Leia and adopted her into his family. Eventually she became a senator like her mother and served the Rebellion in secret and later openly following the Battle of Yavin.
And Luke was the titular New Hope itself. On Tatooine living with his aunt and uncle Obi-Wan kept a close eye on Luke until he was ready to learn the ways of the Force, revive the Jedi Order, and defeat the Empire.

Now that is a fairly good story. But like the previous two films it had problems in its execution. While, I do appreciate how Palpatine subtly manipulated Anakin to join the Sith I do think there are some things that happened too quickly and are ergo less believable. Killing Younglings is such an evil, despicable thing to do that it bothers me that Anakin does it without any misgivings. His motivation isn’t supposed to be evil at this point. He is trying to save the woman he loves. While I do believe that if he was fully convinced that killing Younglings would somehow save her he would probably do so it would still stand to reason that he would do it with some reluctance and remorse afterwards. I also think he would question the decision initially since Younglings are hardly a fit scapegoat for his complaints against the Jedi. No one could reasonably accuse Younglings of trying to take over the Senate. And Younglings did not tell Anakin to spy on the Chancellor. And Younglings did not refuse to grant him the rank of master. Anakin isn’t a cruel brute like Darth Malak or someone trying to devote himself to the Dark Side by intentionally doing bad things like Kylo Ren. He is at this point a good guy trying to achieve a good thing by doing bad things. Killing Younglings should have bothered a man in his position.

I am also severely miffed at Padme’s treatment in this film. In the first two Prequels she was fierce, independent, and a strong leader who was setting the template for who her daughter would become in the future. But in Episode III she is none of that. She cries a lot, blindly defends Anakin to her friends, becomes an emotional train wreck, and dies of a broken heart.
They softened her up. Dying of a broken heart is such an undignified way to make her character go and I would rather have had George Lucas write that Anakin killed her accidentally in anger. That would have made more sense.

I also wish the film had done a bit more to emphasise that one of Anakin’s motivations for turning to the Dark Side was a lust for power. In the Original Trilogy Darth Vader dominated every scene he was in, showcasing his power of intimidation as well as his mastery of the Force. He was bad in a cool way.
In Revenge of the Sith a lot of this becomes lost and the story opts instead to make Anakin come across as naive and pathetic. He whines too much, gets choked up on dreams he is having, and becomes a Dark Lord of the Sith as a response more to heartbreak than power lust. Some viewers complained that this ruins the badass-ness of Darth Vader; and while I won’t go that far, I do see some fundamental flaws in how his character is portrayed in the film.

Some of the best points of Episode III are the soundtrack and special effects. John Williams creates another beautiful score for Revenge of the Sith with many of the vocal pieces being some of the best tracks he has ever composed for the Star Wars saga.
And of course the sound effects and sound design are top notch. It does suffer a bit from the same blue screen problems that Attack of the Clones had, but overall the effects and sound are great. The opening battle over Coruscant is really cool and some of my favourite shots are the city scenes at night. The exterior shot of the opera house looks absolutely amazing and there are many other shots that are just breathtaking.

The Star Wars Prequels are good movies. And, yes, I am saying that with a straight face. I legitimately think they are good movies. They have some severe problems and they are very much far from perfect, and I have harshly dealt all the criticism I can dole out in these past reviews. But leaving all of those criticisms on the table I must add that I like these movies. I even like Episode II.
Episodes I, II, and III tell a great story that is sums up to a crucial part of the Star Wars Saga. We see the Republic and Jedi at their prime. We see the rise of Emperor Palpatine and the fall of Anakin Skywalker. It’s an epic tale that continues to show that George Lucas is a national treasure and one of America’s greatest storytellers. And, again, I say all that with a straight face.
Problems like Jar Jar, the execution of some of the plot points, the awkward dialogue, and bad acting among other things were never enough to make me call these bad movies. If you wanna see something bad in Star Wars go watch The Holiday Special, one of the Ewok Saturday morning cartoons, or play Masters of the Teras Kasi. Believe me, the Prequels are no where close to the bottom of the barrel. I, for one, think they are pretty great.

Tune in tomorrow for a review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and may the Force be with you.

Star Wars 40th Anniversary Review: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey

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While I must insist on making it abundantly clear that I love all of the Star Wars films, including this one, I have to admit that Attack of the Clones is my least favourite out of all of them.

Episode II shares the same weaknesses as Episode I, but also has the added problem of lacking memorable dialogue and relying too heavily on CGI, blue screen, and digital filmmaking which all combine into making Attack of the Clones a very banal and bland piece. For instance, the new planets, Kamino and Geonosis, lack the invigorating sense of novelty that previous new planets had. Kamino is a colourless, sterile, and boring environment and Geonosis is virtually identical to Tatooine with the exception of having more rocks and having only one sun.
Much of the visual effects and action sequences are stale and lifeless and betray the fact that the actors were performing in front of a blue screen with little reference to add any reality to their acting abilities. One of the worst looking scenes is where Threepio gets tossed about the Geonosian droid factory as the heavy use of CGI has become extremely dated and is hideous to look at. And honestly I can say that about a dozen other scenes in the movie. Much of the visuals in this movie are either hideous or so banal and uninteresting that they are barely memorable.

But visual gripes aside Attack of the Clones’ biggest issue is its story and characters. Anakin and Padme have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever and everything they say and do in this film feels forced, phoned in, and fake. There is not a single realistic precedent for the two of them to ever fall in love. None.
She outclasses him in every way and is way out of his league. After ten years of separation in which the last time she saw him he was a 9 year old with a crush she is now an idealistic and ambitious senator while he is now little more than a monk serving the Jedi Order. When they become reacquainted she is a mature adult working her way upward in her political career and he is an immature, precocious, adolescent whiner. When Anakin is assigned to protect Padme on Naboo he is supposed to just do his job in accordance to his station as a Jedi Knight. Instead he whines to her about all his feelings about his master and how “unfairly” the Jedi treat him. It seems so inappropriate to me for Anakin to get so vocal with Padme about his personal problems when his lower station and their ten years of separation have left them with little common ground. It’s equivalent to walking into a restaurant and the waiter starts whining to you about how his dad talks to him at home. Padme has no real personal reason to care. The inappropriateness comes to a head when he suddenly tells his supposed protective charge that he needs to leave Naboo for Tatooine to find his mother. Who does he think he is anyway?
George Lucas tries so hard to convince us that there is some deep connection between the two of them, but there simply isn’t. The circumstances and environment they are in just isn’t right for such a connection to take place. The reason why Han and Leia’s romance worked so well is because they spent years together building it up with subtle flirtations, rebuffs, charm, and even fights. It’s a way more realistic look at a budding romance than having Anakin pop in virtually out of no where, behave like a spoiled child with temper tantrums and constant complaining, and say really stupid lines like “I’m in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you- I can’t breath. I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating… hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me…” Give me a freaking break! And don’t get me started on how Padme seems to think Anakin’s slaughtering Tusken women and children is OK. Most women would balk at that, but apparently Padme only thinks it makes Anakin a dark, mysterious, attractive bad boy. Attractive bad boys are supposed to wear black leather jackets, ride motorbikes, and say “ehhhhhh!!!” They don’t hack kids to death with a lightsaber! What is wrong with Padme???
And her confessing her love for him at the end equally comes out of nowhere and with no realistic precedent. The only people who could possibly buy this as a real romance are 8 year olds, the socially inept, and George Lucas.

What I can say positive about Episode II is that when it does get action scenes right it does a passable job. The fight between Jango Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the asteroid field is really cool and I love the use of sound effects when Jango launches the seismic charges. It is one of the few scenes in Star Wars where the music is momentarily put aside to emphasise the sound and it works effectively.
The music itself is passable, but I cannot claim it as one of John Williams’ best works. This and his score for The Force Awakens are probably the blandest soundtracks I have heard for Star Wars, but that is a purely comparative statement and when it comes to Williams his lesser work is still fantastic compared to the average compositions of other maestros.
There are some other improvements and good points to be made about some of the characters as well. Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Senator Palpatine is still as great as always and Ewan McGregor provides a much better performance as Obi-Wan than he did in The Phantom Menace. He is beginning to sound more like Alec Guinness: a trend that he takes further in Episode III. We also get much less Jar Jar Binks which is a plus.
And while I do not regard Count Dooku as the most interesting villain to come out of Star Wars I do have to give credit to the late Christopher Lee who puts his best in everything he does. You can’t get cooler than Christopher Lee and his presence alone is what turns Attack of the Clones from a mediocre movie to an OK one.

Aside from the issues with the love story most of the other things that bug me about Episode II are minor complaints. I can live with the film’s overall blandness, and I can forgive the bad Threepio puns in the arena, and I can even let go of the absolutely ridiculous and farcical Yoda vs Count Dooku fight which everyone seems to like except me. At the end of the day; and after all my complaints are spoken and my grievances heard, Episode II is still Star Wars. It has lightsabers, the Force, epic space battles, Jedi Knights, Ben Burtt’s sound design, and John Williams’ music. It may be the weakest Star Wars movie, but it is still a Star Wars movie. I may not think of it as highly as some do and my tone may seem to convince people that I hate the film at times, but I can honestly say I do like it. I have problems with it and no amount of mindless brand loyalty will convince me to ignore those problems. Despite my criticism I am actually one of the biggest Prequel defenders in my social circle. Attack of the Clones is like one of those brothers or cousins that few people outside of your family like and you admittedly know that they have good reasons to dislike them. But being family you defend them anyway and you accept their flaws. Attack of the Clones is as much as part of the Star Wars family as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, black sheep or not. Besides, it’s not as bad as The Holiday Special. You have to admit that.

Check tomorrow for a review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and may the Force be with you.

Star Wars 40th Anniversary Review: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is no where near as bad as people claim it is, but it also isn’t the misunderstood masterpiece that its apologists say it is either. There is a fine line between defending a film that is maligned by the majority and refusing to acknowledge the very real flaws that it has.

What the film has in its favour is usage of practical effects such as puppetry and miniatures while not overusing CGI and blue screen photography. Episodes II and III suffer visually from this and Episode I is the last of the original six Star Wars films to contain an aesthetic somewhat similar to that of the originals.
It also contains many tropes familiar to Star Wars fans such as memorable dialogue, 1930’s styled b-movie acting, and new and unique worlds and wildlife. A New Hope had Tatooine, The Empire Strikes Back had Hoth and Dagobah, Return of the Jedi had Endor, and this film has Naboo and Coruscant. Afterward the Star Wars saga seemed to stop feeling special in the new worlds department. The planets in Attack of the Clones are bland and visually unappealing, the planets of Revenge of the Sith are so varied and all over the place that we barely get to see any of them, and The Force Awakens has a desert planet that is not Tatooine, a lush moderate planet that is not Naboo, and a snowy forested world that is neither Hoth nor Endor. The Phantom Menace is the last film to get any sizeable merit points for originality. I am hoping The Last Jedi will save us from the current trend of mundanity.

The Phantom Menace’s weakness lies mostly in its characters. The story is not the chief issue here even though that does have its flaws. Jar Jar Binks is excruciating and he has failed to grow on me in the 18 years since the film’s release. Jake Lloyd’s performance as Anakin Skywalker is nightmarishly bad and it bothers me that George Lucas and Rick McCallum had looked at thousands of young actors before selecting him for the part. Were they all that bad?
Liam Neeson is decent as Qui-Gon Jinn, but the character needed way more development and chemistry, and the lack thereof made his death less impactful than Lucas clearly wanted it to come across. Obi-Wan Kenobi is fairly bland in this movie too and, to be honest, it seems like the majority of the Jedi Council characters share this blandness. Yoda has that one great line about fear leading to anger and that is pretty much all that makes him stand out. Mace Windu’s only memorable characteristic is being arrogant; otherwise he is completely boring. I give kudos to George Lucas for making Samuel L. Jackson boring. That takes a significant level of writing talent to achieve that.
Padme and Senator Palpatine are really the only characters who are wholly interesting. The Phantom Menace is really more Padme’s story than it is Anakin’s or Obi-Wan’s. I am not saying they are not important, but Episode I feels like it is Padme and her quest to save her people that is the main focus of the story while Anakin’s future with the Jedi and Obi-Wan’s growth are only resultant effects of the plot. Palpatine is portrayed as an expert manipulator and Ian McDiarmid’s performance is amazing. He showcases how prior to his rise to Emperor, Palpatine was more than just a cackling over the top Dark Lord. He was once a seductive, smooth, manipulator and strategiser who used people around him to casually and almost unobservedly obtain greater and greater power within the Galactic government.

What The Phantom Menace does right is set things in motion. We see the seeds of Anakin’s eventual fall to the Dark Side planted, we see Obi-Wan mature into a man who will eventually become the old wizened mentor to Luke in the originals, and we get a taste of the subtle machinations that will inevitably birth a tyrannical empire. It’s all laid out here and for the most part it is done well. The real problem lies in their execution in the following films which I cannot fault The Phantom Menace for. Episode I’s chief issues lie in its annoying characters, wooden and banal performances, forgettable main cast, bad pacing, and some rather juvenile scenes. Jar Jar stepping in poop is not funny and Watto and Nute Gunray’s speech patterns come across as more racist than amusing.

All in all The Phantom Menace is more imbalanced rather than bad outright. It has many enjoyable scenes and visuals and it has one of the best soundtracks of the entire saga. Duel of the Fates is amazing and proves that John Williams can make any movie, even mediocre ones, great with his touch. The lightsaber fight with Darth Maul and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is well choreographed and exciting. Its only fatal flaw is the lack of emotional connection between the audience and the characters on screen which renders the drama in this scene and scenes throughout the movie somewhat inert. In fact, there are a ton of scenes like this in which I find action sequencess less interesting in connection to the story because they feature characters and plot points which are not properly invested in emotionally for the viewer. The podrace scene to me is more long and tedious than interesting and the battles in space and on Naboo make for a great visual feast for the first viewing, but lose any interest for me afterward. If the characters didn’t lack the colour of characters like Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewie, etc. than these scenes would lose none of their charm with repeated viewings.

What makes The Phantom Menace less than great is not Jar Jar Binks; it’s not bad dialogue, and it is not midichlorians. Its problem is dullness. Pure, sterile, phoned in dullness. If George Lucas tried less hard at pioneering special effects development and spent more time writing a good script The Phantom Menace would have been just as good as any one of the Original Trilogy. Alas, what we got instead was a weak, but still underrated movie that could have been much more. It had a few enjoyable moments within a not so enjoyable film.

Check tomorrow for a review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and may the Force be with you.