Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Star Wars" -- technology glass half full; acting and dialogue glass half empty

This week is all about Revenge of the Sith and the critics are all so happy that this one is better than the last two, so relieved that it doesn't have anything about tariffs and only a few seconds of Jar Jar Binks, and so nostalgic about the end to a series that has spanned a generation that most of them were willing to overlook details like, say, the script and the performances.

For example, Gary Arnold of the Washington Times finds that "The merely clunky or absent-minded features of his screenwriting generate a certain fondness, but he leaves the lovers in a permanently immature fix."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott recognizes that "Mr. Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking - acting and writing - is remarkable," but he finds that not only is "Revenge of the Sith" better than the original "Star Wars," but that "It comes closer than any of the other episodes to realizing Mr. Lucas's frequently reiterated dream of bringing the combination of vigorous spectacle and mythic resonance he found in the films of Akira Kurosawa into American commercial cinema." Scott doesn't find much to praise in the performances of the actors, with the exception of the CGI Yoda, who "some of his finest work in this film does," with robot droid R2-D2 "also in fine form." Scott is so delirious over the movie that he even finds a way to rhapsodize over it when -- even because -- the technology falls short: "Even the single instance where the effects don't quite work -- a climactic battle superimposed on a filmed eruption of Mount Etna -- suggests not a failure of vision but a willingness to try what may not yet quite be possible." He says that the most profund thing about the six-movie cycle is "the inverted chronology....Taken together, and watched in the order they were made, the films reveal the cyclical nature of history, which seems to repeat itself even as it moves forward. Democracies swell into empires, empires are toppled by revolutions, fathers abandon their sons and sons find their fathers."

Dann Gire of Chicago's Daily Herald is not as enthusiastic: "Flourishes of cleverness, eye-singeing action sequences, and finally, Anakin Skywalker’s long-awaited, long-overdue transformation into the darkest of Darths propel the last part of 'Episode III' into the ranks of the best-written and best-directed chapter, The Empire Strikes Back, which Lucas neither directed nor scripted. But before we arrive at the really good stuff compressed into the final 30 minutes, we must first slog through an eternity of ear-infecting dialogue, Prozac-induced acting and fight sequences edited so tight and quick that they numb the senses instead of excite them." He also notes the poor performances and wooden dialogue: "'I’m not the Jedi I should be,' Anakin robotically intones. Equally lethargic, Portman’s Padme emits all the passion of a mating gondark in her awkward, bluntly written romantic scenes with Anakin." And he points out that it is a bit odd that technology, while advanced, doesn't seem to develop much over the generations covered by the cycle. "If droids were the cell phones of their time, they’d be scrap metal in three months."

The Oregonian's Shawn Levy finds the simplicity of the script intentional and compelling: "The simplified morality, the easy mysticism, the emphasis on action and novelty, the chaste romances, the cartoonish dialogue -- it's deliberately science fiction akin more to Buck Rogers than Robert A. Heinlein." He says, "The story of Anakin Skywalker reaches a satisfying conclusion, the saga of galactic politics and struggles between the Jedi and Sith orders reaches a plausible crescendo, and the technological experiments of the preceding prequels (in particular, the use of digital actors alongside humans) generates several eye-popping moments. The result, if not great art, is great popcorn moviemaking."

At the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter waves aside both the obsessive fans ("bye-bye, Count Dooku, whoever you were, and it doesn't really matter") and those who are looking for, what was that again, oh yes, acting and dialogue: "It would also help if Christensen and Portman were more expressive actors and if the dialogue they were forced to utter didn't sound like it was stolen from The Black Shield of Falworth starring Tony Curtis, in 1954, but he's not that kind of director either." Hunter likes the way the movie disects Anakin's seduction by the dark side of the force. "Anakin is the classic man who gives up freedom for security, and ends up with neither."

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