As it has been announced since the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd, this will, apparently, will not be the chronological end of the Star Wars movie saga after all. A sequel trilogy following the exploits of the original cast is on track for a 2015 release helmed by J.J. Abrams. What will come of a new trilogy remains to be seen, but for the original trilogy, it ended on a very good note even if it lacked a little something. I think this is the one movie of the original trilogy that has declined over time for me. There is so much depth and peril in The Empire Strikes Back that this movie feels a little starved for that, on the whole. Yet, it is still a highly entertaining, rousing, and powerful film where it truly counts. And no, I’ve never had a negative disposition towards the Ewoks. I certainly understand the issue people have with their part in the film, but it’s never really bothered me. So, let us journey back to a galaxy far, far away one more time.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must travel to Tatooine to free Han Solo (Harrison Ford) by infiltrating the wretched stronghold of Jabba the Hutt, the galaxy’s most loathsome gangster. Once reunited, the Rebels team up with tribes of Ewoks to combat the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor. Meanwhile the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader conspire to turn Luke to the dark side, and young Skywalker is determined to rekindle the spirit of the Jedi within his father. The Galactic Civil War culminates in the ultimate showdown, as the Rebel forces gather to attack the seemingly defenseless and incomplete second Death Star in the battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy.
This was actually the first Star Wars movie I saw theatrically, and I was all of three years old at the time. All I remember from the experience was getting scared by the loud noises and the scared visage of Anakin Skywalker. At that age, you can hardly blame me. This film does follow up rather nicely on the cliffhanger plot threads of The Empire Strikes Back. Scenes of Luke visiting Yoda and Obi-Wan are given substantial weight and the comfort of time to play out with importance. Many were in disbelief at Darth Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and they required reliable confirmation. There were no two better characters for that than these Jedi Masters. This is the main crux of Luke’s storyline as he struggles with trying to pull his father back from the Dark Side, and it provides the weight of emotion throughout the picture. It is a little unfortunate that some scenes were cut from the beginning of the film that would have made this a far more constant and overarching element of the film. As it is, none of this is addressed until forty minutes into the movie in favor of the action set pieces of Han’s rescue from Jabba’s Palace.
Never get me wrong. The Jabba’s Palace scenes are expertly done featuring some of the highest grade puppetry in live action films. CGI has never done Jabba the Hutt justice over the original tangible puppet by Phil Tippett of ILM’s Creature Shop. The palace scenes subject audiences to an eclectic menagerie of fantastical aliens that demonstrate a fertile imagination and talented ambition. While everyone holds the Cantina scene from the first film as the groundbreaker, George Lucas truly made this the new gold standard, and achieved something amazing with his dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic. The atmosphere of the sets is almost classic noir with the smoke all around in this den of seediness and crime. The Rancor scene, matte lines or no, is still an impressive piece of work that has always been an action highlight for me. This is a great example of 1980s fantasy film visual effects where more organic, large scale creatures were integrated into live action. And yes, indeed, I do vastly prefer the original musical numbers by the Max Reebo Band. I am reviewing the original theatrical versions for a distinct reason here beyond just the fact that those are the ones I grew up with and fell in love with. Overall, this entire section of the movie is amazingly well done in every aspect, but unlike the previous movies, it takes quite a while for the story, action, and drama to pick up. Even with Empire, while it didn’t have a rousing opening, it still had danger and peril to create dramatic momentum. Return of the Jedi feels like it lacks an element of excitement and momentum from its outset.
The one thing that I really have come to notice lately about the structure of the film is a marked lack of intercutting storylines. The previous two films used this story structure technique to maintain a tight rhythm and up tempo pace. This made it feel like plots were progressing, and characters were converging. With Return of the Jedi, there’s barely any such regular intercutting until the final third of the film. Anything we do get before then is slowly plotted. The entire Tatoonie sequence, which runs thirty minutes long, is presented without a single cutaway or linking element to anything else in the film. It runs along as its own isolated adventure. While it is smartly written, beautifully executed, and tightly edited, it is this structural issue that makes the film feel too compartmentalized. There are a lot of long sequences in this film that tend to drag the pace of it down, but in the least, they have character building and storyline progressing purposes. Still, maybe it’s just the familiarity of time, but that more deliberate pace seems to work towards the more somber tone for the end of a trilogy where character and story reach their ultimate juncture. They take on a far more important role than action, which is commendable. I’ve felt that the film has lacked something poignant or substantive for the longest time, but maybe it’s not so much an issue of what’s not there but how what is there is presented in terms of structure and rhythm. Just about everything that needs to be there is there, but maybe it could’ve used some greater peril to give it more punch.
I think I have to agree with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in that the film really needed a genuine low point. Both of them firmly believed that Han Solo should have died to give the film that grave sense of peril and consequence. This is probably the film where Solo has the least substantive things to do with no arc to traverse, and he does seem like he’s more just along for the ride instead of having much poignancy to the plot turns. I’m certainly not saying that I would have wanted to see Han die, but I understand where Ford and Kasdan were both coming from. In A New Hope, there were the deaths of Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, and Ben Kenobi to give the film peril and gravity, and in The Empire Strikes Back, there were low points abound creating an emotional contrast and sense of real danger for the characters. Luke surely has his dark moments in his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, but they only resonate for about a moment. The triumph of the heroes would hold more weight if we had felt some strong sacrifice or loss from them.
Now, there is a question of who really directed the bulk of this film. While Richard Marquand is the credited director, many claim George Lucas was far more hands-on throughout production as many of the actors did not respond well to Marquand. To me, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable evidence to this effect. This is a well-directed movie. The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie in all aspects for many reasons. With Jedi, any problems it does have are really not a fault of direction, just a slower pace that may not have given quite as much prominent screentime to the Vader-Luke plot. What we get of it is substantive and right-on-the-mark, but there’s not much thematic material in the film beyond this. Rescuing Han from Jabba, or running through the forest with Ewoks is just fun adventure stuff. The crux of this saga at this point is what is transpiring both internally and externally amongst Luke and Vader, and with so much meaty depth built-up between them in The Empire Strikes Back, I would’ve liked to have more of that spread throughout this movie. I would’ve liked to see more of that internal conflict show through and be dealt with. Ultimately, the film feels a little too light too often for what dramatic weight it is building up to in order to conclude the trilogy.
Regardless, this film features some of the best action scenes in the whole saga. The rescue from Jabba’s sail barge is a rousing, fun, swashbuckling adventure piece where everyone gets their moment of heroism and excitement. It’s great to see the full team of heroes together fighting against a large force, and faring better than they ever have before. This triumph is a great counterbalance to how we left them at the end of the previous movie. It also builds up Luke as we know he was the architect of this plan, and the carefully crafted quality of it all demonstrates his maturing role as a leader and Jedi Knight beautifully. The speeder bike chase is still fantastic making fine use of blue screen effects and optical composites to create this dangerous, high speed sequence. And I hold the entire space battle sequence as the best I’ve ever seen. What impresses me is the depth of elements piled into this energetic and dynamic battle above the moon of Endor. Yet, they never clutter the frame, only add to the scope and visual storytelling of this climax. The technical achievement of this sequence is amazing in the age of optical composites, and it still holds up solidly to any CGI creation made today. This is further reinforced by this film’s Academy Award win for special achievement in visual effects. Beyond just that, it has great tension, danger, and stellar dog fighting. The entire three-way intercut climax gives everyone something purposeful to do, and no one ever gets lost in the mix. Nor does it bog it down with any extraneous story elements. It’s all evenly balanced and clearly conveyed to an audience. It’s the most hair-raising, exhilarating, and epic climax in the saga, to date.
Now, again, I’ve never had an issue with the Ewoks. I just always accepted them. If I have any qualm about Endor is that it never feels sufficiently alien. At least Tatoonie had alien creatures and felt like a full barren world, much the same for Hoth. Meanwhile, Dagobah was lush with its own vibrant, otherworldly life. Endor just feels too terrestrial with no unique personality. There are times when it has a nice, moody feel, but that occurs in scenes that were surely shot on a soundstage. There’s good production design with the Ewok village and a few nice matte paintings, but overall, Endor is a bit of a visual letdown.
The final confrontation with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is fantastically crafted and executed. I like that the lightsaber battle is almost ancillary to the emotional and psychological struggle playing out between these three characters. As I’ve mentioned in a previous Star Wars movie review, the lightsaber battles are really a plot device to motivate characters and events forward. The action is not really the focus, it’s the character interactions and dynamics. The temptation from the Emperor is masterful and devilish, and Ian McDiarmid plays it so damn good. He never treads the line of over the top acting. He keeps the Emperor a very real and frightening threat. He has all this power over so many, and he barely has to raise a finger to exercise his will. His power is in McDiarmid’s dark mystique and subtle, brilliant villainy. What we see in this climax is a seduction to the Dark Side done correctly. A little push here and there, edging Luke towards the unleashing of his emotions shows the cunning psychological manipulation that the Emperor possesses. The symbolism we get when Luke finally lashes out and severs Vader’s hand is just brilliant. The strength of Luke’s character and belief in his father shines through with inspiring honor as he throws down his arms and refuses to give in to the Dark Side. He’s able to resist the temptation because he is not a selfish person. There are good people that he believes in, and those that believe in him. I like that even Obi-Wan tells Luke that his emotions do him credit. Coupled with his maturity, Luke’s loyalty and emotional connections can lead him to the right decisions where we later saw that Anakin’s more intense, selfish emotions were his downfall. I also like the motif of Luke’s attire. In the first movie, it’s all white, in the next, it’s gray, and in Return of the Jedi, he’s all in black. It shows a certain spectral progression for him, but ultimately, his journey is not towards darkness but bringing his father out of it.
The maturing of Luke Skywalker is one of the beauties of this trilogy for me. Mark Hamill matures with the character from an eager young man desiring adventure to a far wiser, confident, and intelligent adult. Luke’s learned a lot from his first encounter with Vader. He’s no longer impatience and impulsive. He makes calm, calculated, and selfless decisions towards ends he believes in with his heart and mind. He’s more than just a respectable leader at this point, he’s a true Jedi that has taken the best qualities of those that came before and of himself. Each film evolved Luke Skywalker another step forward which resulted in this wonderful, noble, and honorable hero. Mark Hamill brings a fresh strength and air of subtle mystique to the role in this film. He taps a little into what Alec Guiness had in the original Star Wars, but with the added aspect of optimism and hope. He has not been weathered by defeat, but instead, made stronger and more decisive by it. I think very highly of Mark Hamill’s acting talents, and I am excited to see what he will be able to achieve in this new sequel trilogy.
The ultimate pay-off in this movie is the beautiful way that Vader redeems himself. I’m not going to analyze this in relation to the prequels. I’m going to say that this has always been one of my favorite moments of the saga. The silent contemplation, the internal struggle you can read so deeply into Vader’s scuffed up mask while Luke is on the verge of death from the Emperor’s Force lighting is just brilliant and gorgeous. Vader doesn’t have to say a word, his actions speak emphatically for him. The unmasking of Anakin Skywalker is beautifully touching, and the funeral pyre has always been a beloved moment for me. John Williams’ score is amazingly heartfelt and wonderful here. I also love the chorus-backed score in the climax. His work is fantastic throughout this film, as always. This saga would lose something immensely profound if John Williams had not been involved, and I hope that the sequel trilogy will maintain the integrity of his musical brilliance.
There is a great deal of good content in Return of the Jedi, but I wish the film had a stronger opening to pull me in more. That’s what usually turns me off, initially, to the movie. It takes a while for it to get exciting, much longer than most of the Star Wars films, but once it gets there, it’s great stuff! This film has all the elements it needed, and delivers spectacularly on the plot threads and conflicts established in The Empire Strikes Back. In the end, I do wish there was a little more meat on the bone to bring those aspects of character depth and conflict more into the forefront of the film instead of lingering in the background for most of the runtime. Regardless, this is a fine conclusion to the trilogy that does satisfy on many levels, especially on fresh action scenes and emotional pay-offs. Despite any shortcomings, this is still a pure, fun, and exciting Star Wars adventure that you cannot go without experiencing!
So, it all came down to this. Both previous prequels were met with mixed reactions, at best, but the advocates for the negative seemed to shout much louder than the positive side. As I have covered in my own reviews here, there were some improvements from the first to second film, but many glaring problems existed with lapses in logic and intelligence, to be brief. Coming to Revenge of the Sith, it is difficult to be entirely objective as I have fond memories surrounding the release of this film. I thought that might impact my review a good amount, but after some refreshers and a deep analysis of the film, I’m going at it just as hard as the last two. Again, it’s not a stubborn stance of hate against something new or different, it’s an objective point of view of seeing what is good and what is wrong about the film. One thing that irritates me with sequels is when the filmmakers don’t have enough objectivity to actually fix the obvious problems from one film to another. So, you know I have a few axes to grind down even further, and there is some summation needed for the overall prequel trilogy. So, get real comfortable because this is gonna be a lot longer than I expected it to be.
After waging the Clone Wars for three years now, the evil Separatist cybernetic commander General Grievous has boldly kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the capital of the Republic. Quickly sent into action on a rescue mission are Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as a space battle is waged above Coruscant. However, despite their ultimate success in this mission and the death of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), more foreboding threats lurk ahead for the Jedi and the Republic. Anakin reunites with his secretly wed wife Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) who reveals she is pregnant. This sparks repeated visions for Anakin of her death during child birth, and he becomes consumed with finding a way to avert this event. As Obi-Wan is sent on a mission to track down and dispose of General Grievous on the planet Utapau, Chancellor Palpatine further manipulates Skywalker towards a dark path which is meant to see the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Sith Lord’s Galactic Empire.
Let’s just get the bad out of the way first. The film’s pivotal faltering crux is that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is exceptionally weak. It stems from the foundation of a romantic relationship that made no sense to exist in the previous film, and never felt truly believable to begin with. It came off more like teenagers in some glorified storybook romance with both having some delusion of what love really was instead of a naturally and organically developed relationship. Anakin never matures, or really changes as a character at all. I can take dark, troubled, and brooding, but the reasons behind it are just very one dimensional. Yes, anyone who had a vision of their loved one that Anakin does here would have a flood of emotional reactions, but what Anakin does because of it and why he believes it will save Padmé comes off as naïve. All of Anakin’s suspicions are unfounded. He is disillusioned by his own built-in paranoia and distrust because he isn’t the all-powerful Jedi he was prophesized to become. A prophecy that no one ever explains where it came from, or who created it. A prophecy that causes a lot of damage to the conceptualization of the prequels. Yes, Palpatine constantly puts ideas in his head, but remember what Ben Kenobi said in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.” Nowhere in this film does it seem as if Anakin is “seduced” into turning evil. He’s a desperate man searching for a long shot desperate solution, and as always, is selfish enough to not care if hundreds or thousands of Jedi have to die for what he wants. It doesn’t feel like he’s truly tempted or lured there by way of its power tapping into his darkest impulses. While the opera scene surely tries to support that idea, Anakin clearly states that the only reason he’s joining the Sith is to save Padmé’s life. That is all that matters to him. If the Jedi could do the same as Palpatine claims he can do, he’d stick with the Jedi. There is no seduction involved.
My personal belief is that Anakin should have been a mature, honorable, and confident man who is swayed and consumed by power. A man who seeks the means to restore order in the galaxy, which aligns with Vader’s statements to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. I would expect that his motives are broader, encompassing a larger landscape instead of being manipulated into believing everything he does. I surely have no qualms about the Emperor being manipulative as that’s always been part of who he is, but Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is more a result of Palpatine molding him there through lies and deception instead of Anakin making these choices of his own free will. Darth Vader was a confident, intimidating individual with a sense of self-control. I would’ve expected to see those qualities reflected in a young Anakin Skywalker. A man mature beyond his years, and amazingly proficient in the ways of the Force. Someone to be admired, not tolerated. His fall is meant to be tragic, but instead, it only comes off as selfish. It’s difficult to care about a character when he is not likeable in the least, and that is a failing which extends to nearly every aspect of these prequel films.
Thankfully, Anakin’s growing paranoia and suspicions leave us with very few scenes of him and Padmé gushing over one another, but we do get one scene too many. Personally, said scene is cringe inducing. The dialogue is horrendous, and the acting from Portman and Christensen do nothing to make it more bearable. Outside of said scene, Natalie Portman comes off a little more mature than her performance in the previous movie. This is likely due to her not being forced into a poorly conceived romantic storyline. However, I do wish the “Seeds of Rebellion” scenes were kept in the film because they actually give Amidala an active storyline to personally involve herself with. In the film as it is, she essentially sits around her apartment waiting for people to inform her of the latest plot developments and get emotional over them. Again, Natalie Portman is one of the most talented and diverse actresses around today, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from her performances in these films. There is some improvement from the flat, hollow Queen Amidala back in The Phantom Menace, but even with strong emotions injected into her character, it still lacks depth. The relationship between Anakin and Padmé only ever feels fabricated. It’s presented to us with a minimum of effort put into making it feel earned. What makes it worse is that Natalie and Hayden have no chemistry whatsoever. A really good actor can take something not so good and turn it into something worthwhile, but everyone has their limits. You can’t do it all on your own, and George Lucas seems to have a tough time conveying his ideas to actors. That is all I can chalk this up to because, outside of these Star Wars prequels, I have yet to see anything less than great performances from Natalie Portman. She really can do it all, and she always does it exceptionally well. So, while it sounds redundant, it seems necessary to say that I have to attribute the sub-standard acting qualities in these films to Lucas’ inability to communicate the depth and detail of his characters to his actors. Of course, the poorly written dialogue doesn’t help matters, either.
With Samuel L. Jackson, I can understand the marketing appeal of casting him in these films, but he wasn’t made for a role like Mace Windu. The wise, seasoned Jedi Master role would be better filled by a Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whittaker, or even a Laurence Fishburne type. Jackson does have plenty of talent, but he seems to shine in more passionate roles. Characters that aren’t conservative with their emotions, but that’s exactly who Mace Windu is. Windu could have been the elder Ben Kenobi allegory for the prequel trilogy, if written with more perceptive wisdom and cast with a more appropriate actor. Alas, he comes off just as one dimensional and clueless as all the other Jedi. Many of his line deliveries are as flat and hollow as they get, especially when confronting Palpatine. Samuel L. Jackson can be a marvelous actor. Probably my favorite performance of his is in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film I love very much, and his Ordell Robbie is a performance filled with a lot of charisma, wit, and dramatic weight. That’s the sort of role Jackson shines in, and shows what kind of talent he has to offer. Mace Windu never offered that for Jackson because, unfortunately, it was never a role designed for him.
Fortunately, Ewan McGregor seems to pull through fine. This is probably because he has full context of where Kenobi has been and where he will go to draw on. He knows where to take his performance to sync the character up with Alec Guinness’ portrayal in the original films. His heart wrenching performance at the start and conclusion of the final duel is everything it should have been. It’s only too bad that the rest of the prequel films never earned those deep moments of character and emotion. McGregor makes this younger, yet still wise Kenobi charming, compassionate, and overall a pleasure to spend time with. He truly had a dimensional handle on the character, and filled it with personality and emotion to spare. Ewan really gave it his all, and it shows through in every second he’s on screen. The character might not have been written too greatly in these three films, but Ewan was able to rise above that more than anyone else.
Moving onto fresher ground, some of the lightsaber duels here are rather mixed. The good ones are the opening duel with Dooku and the climactic Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle. My main gripe is the sequence where the Jedi go to arrest Chancellor Palpatine. Lightweight choreography between Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid along with some bad editing to terrible close-up shots of cringable facial expressions make it tough to sit through. Neither actor is convincing as a master swordsman. Even before that, the editing of Palpatine slaying the other Jedi Masters is clumsy, shoddy. It makes the movie feel like cheap B-movie schlock that couldn’t hire a competent choreographer or editor to make the sequence look decent. Then, there’s the horrible line deliveries of bland dialogue at the latter end of the scene which makes the entire thing worse. At times, it seems like Jackson, McDiarmid, and Christensen aren’t even trying as if the script drained the talent right out of them. And this is the scene which directly leads to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. I couldn’t ask for a worse build up to the saga’s most pivotal moment. It encapsulates everything that is primarily wrong with the prequels – bad writing, bad acting, uninspired editing, and poor plotting. Again, Anakin doesn’t strike out and join the Sith because of a sense of injustice at hand, it’s because Palpatine can maybe save the woman he loves. He even shows regret and remorse over what he just did to Mace Windu, but still goes along with joining forces with Palpatine because of what he claims he might be able to do to save his wife. Again, a desperate guy looking for a long shot solution.
Since I jut touched upon it, I do need to address the technical aspects of these three films, in retrospect. What really strikes me is how dull the cinematography is. There’s hardly ever any camera movement to punctuate emotional or dramatic moments, and scenes are blocked and plotted out with no originality. While the action sequences are dynamically quite well handled, the dialogue scenes are very point-and-shoot, by-the-numbers work. Very little effort is put into making them visually interesting aside from the CGI blue screened backgrounds. I think not working on practical sets or locations greatly affected how these films were shot. There are no environments to envelope the film in, to really move the camera around in to take advantage of what’s actually there. Shooting in a tangible environment inspires a filmmaker to interact with it, and play with camera angles and movement. Instead, everything is shot against a flat blue screen which inspires nothing for both the filmmakers and actors. And as I said before, the editing is also very uninspired. With the original Star Wars, George Lucas went for a less conventional method of editing the film by having the cuts drive the rhythm of the scene instead of it being dictating by the actors. It created energy, pace, and urgency in the way scenes unfolded and how the story was told. With the prequels, Ben Burtt approaches everything very conventionally, very clinically. It’s just like the cinematography. There’s nothing original about it, nothing creative in how anything is presented. It’s all just there.
Another lackluster lightsaber duel is the overly long battle between Kenobi and General Grievous. There’s some dramatic license taken at the beginning as Obi-Wan just stands there waiting for Grievous to throw off his cape, talk trash, and unfurl four lightsabers before even getting into a fighting stance. Then, the scene goes on and on from a duel to a ridiculous chase to a more straight up fight. There is something to be commended for a short, straight to the point action sequence. Long and elaborate can work when it leads to a point, but the end result is the same here no matter the length. The Yoda / Emperor duel is entirely pointless, and just sucks up time that could’ve been used to better story-driven effect. It’s more of that ridiculous action hero posturing from Yoda which is entirely out of character. Removing this fight sequence from the film would have no effect on the story or characters, and that is the very definition of a frivolous action sequence.
While the Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle is well choreographed, and I enjoy the action quite a lot, the dialogue exchanges within it also terribly lack passion and depth. One would think it would be the most impassionate confrontation in the entire saga, but it just lacks that visceral emotional intensity. The entire sequence could have benefited from being a shorter fight with more substantive interactions like the original trilogy duels. The biggest difference with lightsaber duels in the prequel trilogy versus the original trilogy is the over reliance on high speed fight choreography instead of character-based conflicts. You can only maintain interest in a high speed fight for so long before it has to boil down to substantive moments with the characters. This is an impressive sequence, but Anakin and Obi-Wan are so evenly matched that there’s barely any back-and-forth peril. While Anakin might be more powerful, Obi-Wan has the experience and discipline to compensate, and that’s what ultimately allows for him to defeat Anakin. The sequence has plenty of merit with the magnificent digital effects, the changing location of the battle, and the slow descent into a hellish environment. John Williams’ music reaches a major apex here with “Battle of the Heroes,” one of my favorite prequel trilogy cues. Ewan and Hayden showcase immense physical ability and discipline making this an action highlight of the entire saga. Despite any flaws, this confrontation has added so much more depth to the Ben Kenobi / Darth Vader duel in A New Hope for me. It does feel like “the circle is now complete.” The context now given offers up a more epic atmosphere to it like two old Samurai from an era long past battling for the last time. Both men have been through this personal history that no one else in the film is really aware of, and so, that adds to the personal strength of it all.
The opening space battle sequence has always impressed me. I know there are those out there that have their gripes with the entire rescue mission section of the film, and I can understand their issues with it. There’s some extraneous humor that really isn’t needed with R2-D2, and a few bits and pieces in the space battle that could have been trimmed up or cutout for a tighter sequence. Plus, it is extremely difficult to discern what ships are fighting on what side of the battle. There’s no visual context to apply to it, and the scene is very jam packed with all kinds of crossfire and visual depth. That’s how a space battle should be, but it really just becomes random background to the main action with Skywalker and Kenobi. I can entirely advocate for all of that criticism, but with the sentimentality I have for the film, it does not bother me. I enjoy nearly every moment of it because it does feel very Star Wars to me, and I think it’s a welcomed change to start one of these films out with an action sequence like the original film. For a few of the films in the saga, a slow start works nicely by establishing an appropriate dramatic tone, but others like The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi just seem to drag along before anything exciting or interesting occurs. For Revenge of the Sith, it definitely needed an energetic, dark, and dangerous tone set from the start, and I truly love that aspect of the movie. Of course, the tone does become rather inconsistent with the humorous bits intercut with the darker or more perilous moments here, and tone has gotten more inconsistent with each subsequent prequel film.
Also, one has to beg the question of what the purpose was of abducting Chancellor Palpatine. If this was a plot devised by Palpatine and Dooku, I can’t see how that particularly benefits Palpatine’s overall master plan. Him being abducted removes him from his seat of power in the Republic to manipulate events towards his agenda, and gives the leverage of power to the Separatists in the war. It’s kind of a long way to go to assume that it was an elaborate scheme meant to result in Anakin killing Dooku. No guarantees that it would be Anakin being part of the rescue since he and Obi-Wan only just returned from assignments in the outer rim of the galaxy, and no definite guarantee that Obi-Wan would get knocked out for Anakin to potentially give in to killing Dooku. If it was Grievous’ plan, that makes more sense since he doesn’t seem to know that Sidious is Palpatine, but then again, Grievous is depicted as being fully subservient to Darth Sidious and Dooku. So, it’s highly unlikely he’d launch an offensive without their approval especially since Dooku is on board the ship. Of course, as usual, these prequels hardly adhere to any sort of storytelling logic. Characters do what they do because that’s what the script needs them to do. This really harkens back to the nonsensical story of The Phantom Menace where the surface plot does not align with the behind the scenes machinations of Palpatine. If Palpatine is not manipulating events to his benefit, all of this makes good sense, but George Lucas seems to not think beneath the surface of what he’s writing. He approaches the story from the wrong perspective, and thus, it results in these different elements at play not aligning with one another.
George Lucas leaves a lot to be desired in this film because of many hanging plot threads, character motivations that are not explained, the lack of character development, and the stupidity of certain characters. For instance, while I am a very knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and even own the Star Wars Encyclopedia, the average movie-goer never has a single thing explained to them about who the Sith are and why they are seeking revenge. Everything about them is taken for granted as if you just happen to know this, or worse yet, don’t need to know this. Because I am a knowledgeable fan of this franchise, I generally know that the Sith were driven to near extinction by the Jedi a thousand years ago. Also, they have had only had a single master and a single apprentice since then because the Dark Lords of the Sith were too power hungry and deceitful to co-exist as a large organization. They would all backstab one another for their own personal agendas to be furthered, and that contributed to their extinction as well. However, none of this is ever mentioned or hinted at, let alone explained in these films. In the original trilogy, the term “Dark Lord of the Sith” is never mentioned either. So, even the term is brand new to those who’ve followed nothing but the films. It is a gross oversight that the history of the Sith is never explored or implied in these films to give context to their motivations, and those motivations are the real crux of the entire prequel trilogy storyline. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council mentions that the Sith had been extinct for a millennia, but go into no detail as to why or how. It’s a revenge movie that never says what the person is getting revenge for. Quite frankly, that’s utterly ridiculous.
And of course, several characters go grossly undeveloped. Count Dooku used to be a Jedi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s mentor, but no one ever gives any background on why he left the Jedi Order. Just implying that he might’ve had contrasting opinions isn’t enough. What kind of man was he really before he became a deceitful Sith Lord? What we see of him is generally an act put on to fool everyone into following him to secretly benefit the agendas of the Sith. Possibly the only honest scene we see of him is when he has Obi-Wan imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and he is truly a fascinating character in that scene. However, we are never given any further true insight into the man. He’s just another pawn of Palpatine, and with such a talented actor in Christopher Lee, it was a deeply wasted opportunity to not flesh out his character more.
Also, Padmé Amidala might seem to have character development, but in reality, she’s a hollow vessel made to be whatever the plot needs her to be at any moment. In Attack of the Clones, she consoles Anakin after his Tusken Raider mass murder confession, saying “to be angry is to be human,” and then, later marries him despite this cold blooded act of violence. In Revenge of the Sith, she learns he killed Jedi Younglings, is shocked and dismayed at hearing this because she can’t believe that he’d do something like that, and then, says she can’t follow Anakin to the dark places he is going. These are entirely contradictory behaviors and reactions that cannot be reconciled in my mind. Padmé should be one of the most level headed, clear minded, and intelligent people in these films, but instead, she is written with so many incompatible and contradictory character traits that she should have canceled out her own existence. Also, her dying of a broken heart or having “lost the will to live” comes off as terrible in this because of this. Not to mention, she can’t find the will to live so she can raise and love her newborn twins? Seriously, Lucas could’ve had her dying of a crushed windpipe or hemorrhaging or any number of medical complications from Anakin’s Force choke, but he chose “she’s lost the will to live.” That puts an ugly nail into a so-called romance that was contrived and ridiculous to begin with.
Back to Anakin himself, it is hard to actually say he has “fallen to the Dark Side” when he’s still the whiny, selfish, impulsive, bratty person he always was. He’s no different a character when he was a Padawan to when he becomes a Sith Lord. All his turn to the Dark Side really does is free him up to not have to apologize for being the arrogant jerk he’s always been. And of course, he contradicts himself as well. His entire reason for joining the Sith is to find a way to save Padmé from dying in child birth, but once his megalomaniacal streak kicks in on Mustafar, he goes right ahead and tries to kill her himself while jumping to another unfounded conclusion. There’s just no motivational consistency with these characters. In many films, I’ve seen someone striking someone they love, but then, they quickly snap out of it when they realize the horrible thing they just did. They come back to their senses. Here, Anakin just keeps being an disillusioned arrogant jackass. Again, this is not the Darth Vader we know from the original trilogy who is confident, intimidating, and in control. Anakin is the direct opposite of that.
Fortunately, I can give a lot of praise to the Order 66 sequence. From the newly dubbed Darth Vader assaulting the Jedi Temple to the Clone Troopers turning on their Jedi Generals, the sequence is rich with sorrow, dread, and ominous imagery. The moment of Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa witnessing a young Padawan being gunning down on the landing platform is tragic and unsettling. Right from the start of Anakin marching the troops into the temple to the final shot of smoke billowing out of it the next morning, the whole sequence is really well done. It’s only a shame that, one, some bad child actor has to have a line of dialogue in it, and two, we don’t get to know any of these Jedi that are murdered. There was an opportunity in these films to do something with a few of these characters so that an audience could come to care about them to some extent. While the sequence itself earns my general praise, these are just interchangeable background characters being killed off who never had any emotional resonance on the story or audience. It’s ultimately less about those who are killed, and more about those either doing the killing or who have to deal with the repercussions of these events. That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but it’s just a missed opportunity to have the sequence hit the audience harder on an emotional level.
A rather pointless character comes in the form of General Grievous. He makes no independent decisions like a General would. He demonstrates no tactical proficiency or command authority. He just mindlessly carries out the orders of Dooku or Sidious, and is really just around as a plot convenience. He’s also a comedic “mustache twirling” type of villain giddily laughing when he cowardly sneaks off to escape, or likes to strut around boasting his unearned ego. It probably would have been better to have Dooku hang around for a while, and give more weight and purpose to his death instead of burning run time on this CGI waste of a villain.
The Jedi themselves consistently display an almost willful ignorance to what’s going on around them. Maybe Lucas was trying to present them as having become overly confident in their perception of the absolute clarity and power of the Force, but so much blatantly unfolds right in their face that one would have to be willfully ignorant to not take action. Every major negative event that impacts the Republic strategically comes to greatly and solely benefit Chancellor Palpatine, and none of the Jedi seem to find it all that suspicious until the war is over and Anakin actually tells them that Palpatine is a Sith Lord. And of course, by this point Palpatine has almost indomitable control over the entire galaxy. It’s even worse that it takes them well over a decade to perceive that there is a plot to destroy them at work. I understand Palpatine is using his Sith powers to cloud peoples’ minds, but I doubt he’s so powerful that he can cloud the minds of every single Jedi throughout the galaxy every hour of every day. Even then, they hardly need to use the Force to perceive this threat as the obvious evidence right there in front of them. It never seems like anyone followed up on the investigation into Darth Maul’s origins after his death, or discover any allies he had that could further threaten the Jedi. Even Obi-Wan’s investigation into the Clone Army is never resolved. The Jedi never truly discover the hard facts on how or why Jedi Master Syphadias ordered the army, if it actually was him, how Jango Fett got tied up into it, who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or anything else that weaves into and out of that mystery. The Jedi remain willfully blind to these unanswered mysteries which are clearly ominous signs of a conspiracy that could threaten them and the Republic. Fett himself says he was hired by a man named Tyranus, who is later revealed to the audience to be Count Dooku. It’s likely to speculate that Dooku impersonated Syphadias after he was killed, and ordered the Clone Army himself in conjunction with hiring Jango Fett. So, if the Jedi actually followed the investigation to full conclusion, they would’ve uncovered an elaborate conspiracy against them. Instead, the plot requires them to be stupid so that these obvious hanging plot threads can come back to bite them in their collective posteriors.
Going both ways on the issue of character is Palpatine. He is given a good amount of depth and a hint of back story to give him some dimension. Ian McDiarmid has generally done a good job in the role, but there can be too many instances of disingenuous emotion that just make the character’s façade horribly transparent. It’s only by way of everyone else being dumb as a post that no one ever notices how obvious Palpatine is every time he opens his mouth. Also, when he unveils himself as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid starts hamming it up like crazy. I don’t view that as a good thing. How he portrayed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi is vastly different in tone than how he is in the prequels. In Jedi, he was a deeply serious and intimidating villain who was creepy and ominous. McDiarmid’s chilling portrayal penetrated deep into an audience’s consciousness, and deeply into the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker. He had a grim, imposing aura to him that was more dreadful than Darth Vader which elevated the psychological threat in the situation. He was over confident but subtle, and that’s what is missing here – subtlety. McDiarmid’s performance in this movie is far too obvious and overt. While he has solid low key, compelling scenes, such as his telling of the story of Darth Plagueis, he simply allows Palpatine’s ego to increasingly overflow throughout the movie. Instead of transitioning into that fearsome character we experienced in Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling, over the top madman. McDiarmid’s performance in The Phantom Menace was actually far superior and more consistent with his original portrayal. It was a more serious, dramatic approach to the character with subtlety and intelligence. Unfortunately, it only went downhill after that. Also, it’s never explained why Palpatine becomes deformed from the Force lightning. Nothing of the sort happened when the Emperor unleashed it on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. With these prequels, George Lucas seemed more interested in having things cosmetically align with the original trilogy instead of conceptually. He really can’t have it both ways.
When you go ahead with a prequel you can’t change your mind on the established back story and representation of the characters. You can only flesh out what’s already there, and bring clarity to the more vague areas of these histories. George Lucas just failed at that. Everything about an honorable, noble, and admirable Anakin Skywalker that Ben Kenobi spoke about in those original three films is entirely eradicated in favor of this selfish, egotistical, and violent person that never seems like a hero. The Jedi never seem like an order of wise protectors of peace and justice. They come off like short-sighted, dumb as dirt, full of themselves fools who never follow through on any course of action they set out on. Yoda continually acknowledges a swirl of negative and even violent vibes coming from Anakin, but he continually ignores the severity of what Anakin’s going through. Considering that the Jedi had a bad feeling about Anakin from the start, one would think they would keep a close watch on him to make sure he doesn’t go off the rails. Also, after Mace Windu learns that Palpatine is a Sith Lord, he originally goes to arrest him, but then, he insists to Anakin that Palpatine must be killed on the spot. Beyond just the conceptual inconsistencies in these films, the writing itself can’t keep a character’s motivations and intentions consistent throughout a single scene. It really is atrocious on so many levels. Again, the problem is that there is no one to challenge George Lucas’ creative direction. Whatever he wants, he gets even if it doesn’t make any blasted sense.
Some people say that the anticipation and hype built up for these films could never be lived up to. I say that’s a pithy excuse for churning out substandard movies. Plenty of films have been able to live up to immense hype time after time. You can’t tell me that The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have massive hype around it leading up to its release, and that clearly exceeded all expectations. It comes down to talented, competent filmmakers putting care and intelligence into what they do to produce a high grade feature film. Over time, it seems that some filmmakers lose their focus or ambition to be as good as they once were, or in some cases, certain filmmakers lose sight of the fact that film is a collaborative process and they reject anyone’s attempt to offer an alternate point of view to potentially improve the film. I am a filmmaker myself, and my stance has always been, “I know I have not thought of every great idea in the world.” I encourage my cast and crew members to always help in the creative process so that we can make the best film possible. However, George Lucas seems intent on his word being the only one that counts, and that is the first step towards creative failure.
As I’ve alluded to, I have a lot of fond memories from the theatrical experiences I had with this movie. I saw it twice on opening night with a glorious digital projection screening the following week. I went to see this in the theatre, at least, four times in 2005, and even did a DVD marathon of the entire saga when Revenge of the Sith came to home video. I highly enjoyed this movie, and I still find good qualities in it that I continue to enjoy. However, while all of these fond memories project some sentimentality onto the film for myself, they do not excuse the critical analysis it deserves.
The original Star Wars trilogy captured the imagination and wonder of people all over the world, and for me, it still inspires and entertains me greatly. Unfortunately, these prequel films have not done the same for me. They lack the vibrant, memorable, and iconic characters that came to define Star Wars, and are plagued with amateurish screenwriting wrought with underdeveloped concepts. Lucas was trying to tell a story he didn’t have the skill to competently write. There were too many elements at play that he could not put into a cohesive whole, nor was he able to flesh these ideas out so they had some depth and relatability. I have no problems with telling a more complex Star Wars story with political aspects, but it has to make sense. All three of these films are excellent examples of terrible screenwriting, or in the least, a screenwriter’s ambition outreaching his skill.
There was no ambition behind these movies, or creative drive to make them original or innovative. More effort was put into advancing the technology of digital effects than crafting a solid, sensical, and lively screenplay. Everything just reflects a lack of passion from most everyone involved – the wooden acting, the dull dialogue, the clinical non-action sequence cinematography, the by-the-numbers editing, and the clunky plotting. There are a few positives to credit the films for such as mostly great lightsaber fight choreography, some good action sequences, John Williams’ incredible music, and a few bright spots with the casting such as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee, and even Jimmy Smits, for what little he was given to work with. However, these few highlights are grossly overshadowed by all the poorly executed elements of these movies. I hope that I never commit myself to reviewing films requiring this deep of an analytical deconstruction, again. However, I had to complete what I started so that I could move onto the praise heavy reviews of the original trilogy in their original theatrical versions. Those will come in time, but for now, it’s time to rest my mind. Thanks for bearing with these excessively long, in depth reviews of these disappointing movies.
Prince of Darkness is certainly one of John Carpenter’s stranger and more underappreciated films. It’s the second installment in what Carpenter calls his “apocalypse trilogy” (which includes 1982’s The Thing and 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness). Simply put, this film is about the coming of the apocalypse, and the arrival of the Prince of Darkness – Satan himself. This is one seriously eerie and creepy film, but it has the slowest pace of any Carpenter film I have seen. I believe this film comes as an acquired taste. It can take multiple viewings to really enjoy it fully, as it did for me.
A group of scientists, students, and priests – led by Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) – have come to study a mysterious canister which has been sealed away in the basement of a Los Angeles church. The eerie green liquid inside this canister proves to be supernatural as it defies gravity, leaking upwards to the ceiling, and soon, it’s discovered that it is self-organizing as part of a living intelligence. This has made way for changes to occur in nature that herald the coming of something evil. And those who come into contact with this liquid are transformed into mindless undead slaves of Satan himself. Outside the church, the homeless and derelicts of Los Angeles become powerless against the influence of hell. The few human beings inside the church are trapped – barricading themselves inside with threats all around them. Theories are abound as to what is happening and philosophies about heaven, hell, and all of creation. But whatever forces are at work, these few people must not only survive these servants of hell, but also prevent the coming of the Prince of Darkness from the other side.
If you choose to watch this film, I suggest you get things as dark and as quite as possible, put in the DVD, get that surround sound just right, and get ready to experience one of the most haunting, frightening films ever. This is possibly the most taut and suspenseful Carpenter film of all-time. The master of terror gives us a film that nobody should easily be able to forget. The score from John Carpenter & Alan Howarth is absolutely mesmerizing and powerful. Right from the beginning, it sucks you into a creepy and absolutely ominous world, and doesn’t let go until the end credits have finished. It’s an absorbing, killer work of musicianship that compliments the film marvelously.
The effects here are great. There’s nothing here as complex as in The Thing (which Rob Bottin really delivered something groundbreaking), but there’s plenty of scary makeup work and visuals to unsettle any audience. There’s such apocalyptic biblical imagery here – including swarms of creepy crawly critters – that it will have you squirming and jumping from your seat. John Carpenter wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Martin Quartermass,” and man, he does just such an amazing job eliciting such haunting emotions. The film has such a suspenseful power that it could ONLY come from John Carpenter.
That pseudonym is only one of several that Carpenter has employed in his career. He uses them because he feels uncomfortable with his name plastered all over the credits as if it’s an egotistical thing to take so much credit. Me, I believe in everyone getting the credit they deserve for the hard work they do. The fact of the matter is that I know who Martin Quartermass, John T. Chance, and Frank Armitage are, and it is still John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
The cast is full of Carpenter regulars such as Donald Pleaseance (Halloween, Escape From New York), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, In The Mouth of Madness). Also, Jameson Parker from TV’s Simon & Simon is in a lead role as well. It’s very much a Carpenter style cast in that he doesn’t cast big stars, but a lot of strong character actors that give the film a textured diversity. I really enjoy all their talents, and they all put in fantastic efforts. John Carpenter has always been great in the casting department (probably best displayed in The Thing). We even get a cameo from shock-rocker Alice Cooper, and he contributes the title song from the album of the same name. The song only appears in a small scene, and via a guy’s walkman radio. In any case, it’s always nice to see Alice appear in a horror film via an acting role or as a musician. He has no lines, but appears creepy enough as one of the derelict servants outside the church. Overall, this cast gives a lot of life and character to this slow-paced film.
In a way, this is different from most Carpenter movies, mainly in pace. He’s always made very smart pictures, and his horror has never been something you can entirely shut your brain off for. And while Prince of Darkness is full of atmosphere that drives every horror element forward, it is much more an idea and philosophy driven screenplay. There are very few action set pieces as the danger and horror are played through tense atmosphere and chilling visuals. It’s a film that crawls in under your skin slowly, and requires you to stay mentally aware of what’s happening for it to have the proper effect.
There’s a good deal of discussion in the film about philosophies regarding dreams, death, hell, religion, and so forth. This adds to the psychological aspect of the film since it revolves around such supernatural or paranormal phenomena birthed out of an ancient evil covered up by the church. With the film having such a wide ensemble cast, they have plenty of room for differing opinions and beliefs, but don’t let this make you think the film gets bogged down by it. Not at all. As they uncover more truths, it enhances the fearful and foreboding atmosphere of the film. There is a haunting evil taking form in their presence, and it is slowly consuming them either physically or psychologically.
In everyone’s dreams, they see a transmission from the future of a dark figure exiting the front of the church they are all holed up in. They get only bits and pieces, but they all share it getting a little more each time they fall asleep. It is another piece of the foreboding doom that lies ahead of them, and it is immensely effective.
Prince of Darkness definitely has similarities to an old style zombie film where a group of mismatched people have to fend for their lives against an undead army. However, Carpenter just pushes it further with so much more substance and unsettling visuals. This really is a nightmare come to life. A constant theme in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy is some sort of force consuming humanity and deteriorating it into something entirely inhuman. In The Thing, it’s an actual alien life form that perfectly duplicates any organism it infects which could eventually wipe out the human race. With In The Mouth of Madness, reality is twisted and distorted to where people become psychotic and homicidal in the wake of ancient evil reclaiming our world. In Prince of Darkness, it’s sort of a bridge between the concepts. As an ancient evil slowly claws its way back into our world, it also consumes nature and humanity until they become entirely mindless, inhuman servants. Coming from three different screenwriters on three different films, that is an entirely fascinating conceptual arc.
This film is undoubtedly one of John Carpenter’s finest works. Some don’t take a good liking to it because of its slow, slow pace, and its focus more on suspense than physical intensity. Whatever the case, I find it to be a masterwork worthy of inclusion to anyone’s DVD collection. The cast is very good, fun at times, but solid always. The score is pure gold, a powerful accomplishment for Carpenter and Alan Howarth. As in any Carpenter film, the cinematography is stellar, and the direction is absolutely phenomenal! If you genuinely want to get creeped out to the max one dark, lonely night – this is the one film to watch! I won’t say that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film as the pace can be a detractor to its potential. Part of good tension and suspense is momentum, and it’s not entirely consistent here. However, it is a great flick, and I will give it a great 9 out of 10. If nothing else, the ending will grab you like only a John Carpenter film can!