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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Movie Review Launch Scrubbed

Yesterday Niles skipped work (because he had to get up at 4am and work for a bit), so in the afternoon we went to go see Revenge of the Sith.

Perhaps I read too many blog posts about the movie beforehand, but I went in with really, really low expectations.

The movie didn't meet them. I'd hoped for a little better, because Michele gushed over it so much, but no. Here's what I saw:

First we have the sacred Opening Crawl, where we explain that Count Beaucoup and General Grievous BH have captured Chancellor Palpitate. Who the hell any of these people are, who are the goodies and the baddies, and why we should care, are left unexplained.

OK, OK, forgive me, Gary Farber, I didn't read the novels, or the comic books, or the DVD boxes, cereal boxes, cocktail napkins, or sanitary napkins that Gary seems to think would add depth to my knowledge of this universe. I have an old-fashioned view that you ought to get something from a movie by seeing the movie.

But, really, a science fiction fan is expected to roll with this kind of thing. Many a science fiction story has plunged you into the midst of the action without any hint as to what a weyr, a jang, or a Jedi is, and you're supposed to keep up, dammit. So, OK.

So we see these two guys in fighters heading for the ship on which Unguentine is being held. There's some unfunny banter, and some pro-forma tension. R2-D2 provides the comic relief which is so desperately needed about two minutes in. Our heroes slip aboard the ship easily, and R2 helps them navigate their way around, which was so cool and resourceful and brave of him in the first movie, but now is kind of old hat.

About every three steps our heroes are forced to draw their light sabers and slash the shit out of the dumbest droids ever manufactured. The Imperial Senate really should be spending its time investigating its military contractors. That would keep it out of mischief for a while.

They also spend a lot of time doing fancy gymnastic tricks. Now, look here, George old man, when Kenobi or Luke wielded their light sabers in the first movie, it looked cool and mysterious. That's because a) it was new, b) they didn't do it very often, and c) they made it look hard. Y'see, when the actors look like they're actually working up a sweat, you begin to fear for their lives. Will he manage to complete that turn before his opponent? Can he deflect the deadly[?] bolts from the droid, and parry the villain's attack? That's drama, dude. Tension. Hell, even I know that. These guys look like they're fighting the Wet Tissue Paper People. You expect them to call the cabana boy over for another pina colada between thrusts.

That is, until Obi-Wan is hit by a falling plot device. This magical bit of superstructure zeroes out his strength points for three more rolls, so that Anakin gets to finish off Count Puku and haul Obi-Wan around on his back for a bit. Eventually the Dungeon Master decrees that he (Obi-Wan) can just wake up at a crucial, comic moment, none the worse for wear, and make a quip about missing something.

About that time they walk into a sheet of flypaper when the (robotic) General E. Gregious gives the command to activate the dress shields (that's what I thought he said, anyway). This causes our heroes to become stuck and utter bad dialog, as when Obi-Wan says, "Wait a minute. We're smarter than this."

This, fans, is known as the "Signal from Fred":

[In which] the author's subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes
[i.e., in dialog] unwitting critical comments: "This doesn't make sense." "This is really boring." "This sounds like a bad movie."

"Fred" is author Damon Knight's term for the author's subconscious.

But poor Fred goes unheeded, and our heroes are caught and -- of course! -- taken to the bridge, where there's a bit of villainous banter before they (easily) wrest control from the stupid droids. General Greaseous manages to escape, however, leaving Obi-Wan and Anakin with his large, disintegrating spaceship.

The ship breaks apart and the bridge portion begins to fall to the planet below, burning. After about two minutes of burning, one of the lads brilliantly observes, "We're in the atmosphere!" Then there's a brief moment when we're reminded uncomfortably of Columbia. Fortunately for these guys, however, the heat is completely confined to the outside of the ship; the Jedi never even break a sweat. (Perhaps Jedi, like dogs, don't sweat.)

So the flaming, useless hunk of metal, piloted by two guys who don't know how, falls uncontrollably to the ground. (Bad dialog moment: "We're coming in too hot!" Yes, you're on fire.) But it just happens to land on a runway, though it does take out the control tower.

For some reason the lumpish Anakin is declared the hero of the moment, and strides off to chat with various Senatorial types, while Obi-Wan (no doubt glad to be rid of the dullard) goes to do something else. Anakin's cocktail party with the high and mighty will have to wait, however, since he is intercepted by Padme, who informs him that she is pregnant. (Bad dialog moment from Anakin: "That's ... (about a minute's silence here) ... uh, wonderful.")

They retire to their lovely penthouse apartment. Padme combs her hair and looks rather disturbingly like Julie Hagerty in Airplane! (she has frizzy hair and too much make-up).

Extended bad dialog scene:
Anakin: You're so beautiful.
Padme: That's because I'm so in love.
Anakin: No, it's because I love you.
Padme: Does that mean you're blinded by love?
Anakin: Uh...let's get drunk and screw.

OK, so, in desperation, I made that last line up. Free of charge, George!

Later that night, Anakin has a dream in which Padme, in obvious distress, is calling for him. He gets up, massaging his metal arm, and then comes my favorite part of the movie.

It's the part where the picture goes away, replaced by a blank screen, and the fluorescent lights go on and we all sit there in momentary confusion.

There's been a power failure.

There are thunderstorms several times a week in summer, like yesterday (in fact, there's another one going on, even as I type). Occasionally the power goes out. One of the patrons went out and returned a few minutes later to tell us that the power was off, which we'd already guessed, thanks. We sat there a bit. Some got up and came back again; some chatted with each other; others got out their cell phones and chatted to someone else. Finally some employee types came out and explained that there'd been a power failure (no!) and it didn't look like it was coming on again any time soon, and we'd all get rainchecks.

We got our rainchecks and filtered out of the theater into a parking lot under a vast blue sky -- filled with clouds, to be sure, but none threatening, and no lightning.

So, even in its truncated state (about 40 minutes, we guessed), this movie exhibited all the signs of suckage. I told Niles that it reminded me of several MST3K movies. Some of them seemed to be outlines of a movie. If you were going to try to sell a movie, you might film a few juicy scenes to show what you can do, then fill in the gaps with some establishing scenes and second-unit footage, just say, "OK, our characters now get from here to there, and stuff happens, and now here's another juicy scene!" I don't think movies are actually sold that way (novels: kinda, movies: no), but that's what some MST movies look like. And that's what this movie looks like.

Maybe it's not fair to judge a 140-minute movie on the basis of its first 40 minutes. The thing is, though, that I was thinking about these things during the movie. It's one thing to think, afterwards, "wait, that didn't make any sense". If you only think that afterwards, the filmmakers have done their job: they got you to suspend disbelief while you were watching. If you can nitpick a movie while watching it, the disbelief has precipitated in a nasty mess all over the floor. (That's what's on the floor of movie theaters, you know: disbelief that has fallen out of suspension. And you thought it was chewing gum.)

And I wanted to like the movie. I loved Star Wars, though I've been very disappointed by the "prequels".

Part of the problem is that the stuff in the first 40 minutes of this movie is stuff we've all seen before in the other movies: the fighters, the warships, the rescue, R2 accessing the computer, R2 as comic relief, the stupid droids, the light sabers, the light saber battles, the gymnastics tricks. OK, I grant you, the explosive decompression thing, that was cool. Not original, but cool. I perked up when I saw that.

[Note: One of the very tiny joys of the 21st century is the fact that audiences know why that happened, and why the ship began to burn on re-entry.]

I was left with lingering questions:

In the opening scene, Obi-Wan's fighter is attacked by these little robots. One of them transfers itself to Anakin's fighter, and R2 dispatches it. It flops over, lies still for a moment, and then is swept off the wing of the fighter. Is there air in space?

Why is a droid sick? (General Piteous) And if a droid must get sick, wouldn't it get droid-sick, not hacking and coughing like a three-pack-a-day smoker?

Piteous's ship is manned by droids, or droided by droids. Why does the ship need air, anyway?

They have way cool stuff in this universe: droids and warships and hyperspace drive and artificial gravity -- but no contraceptives? Padme's pregnancy is apparently unplanned.

Is it really not possible for an American actor to keep up with the Brits? Hayden Christensen (playing Anakin) sounds like a dullard next to Ewan McGregor (playing Obi-Wan) I don't think it's just the accent -- not really. It's more a matter of modulating the voice. Christensen, displaying all the emotion of a two-by four, says every word in a sentence in the same tone. The Brits, on the other hand, manage to sound like living organisms of some sort. Maybe it's the Shakespeare. British actors, as we all know, are suckled on Shakespeare.

Ah HA! IMDB's biography for Christensen explains that he's actually Canadian. (It also explains that he was chosen for Anakin "by director George Lucas because he felt that Hayden has raw talent and more sexual chemistry with actress Natalie Portman".) Well. There you are, then.

By the way, Niles notes that there's a serious drawback, in that we'll have to watch those forty minutes over again when we cash in our rainchecks. We wished we could trade them in for a DVD, when it comes out.