Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Sith" > "Jedi"

I must give Kevin Drum full marks for bravery. It can't be easy to admit that you think that "Return of the Jedi" is the greatest Star Wars film, especially when it so obviously isn't, and when there are so many blogging dorks out there who rightly understand "Empire" to be the best of them.

I will give "Jedi" some credit -- it neatly ties up a complex story with a very satisfying conclusion. It has a solid story arc: Luke's quest to save his father without losing his own soul. And while I find the whole plot to rescue Han absolutely ridiculous, it does, as noted in this epic No Machete Juggling post, demonstrate some important aspects of Luke's development as a Jedi. He's clearly developed some mad skills by the beginning of the film, but his lightsaber is still writing checks his midichlorians can't cash. He assumes he can win any fight, and he assumes his mind tricks will work on anyone. He's also flirting with some dark side stuff, Force-choking one of Jabba's guards. And the final space battle in "Jedi" remains quite awesome, and I still love Admiral Akbar, no matter how stupid he looks.

And I suppose there are simple matters of personal taste here. But I think Drum goes too far when he tries to get us to ignore the Ewoks, which he admits are loathesome:
There are, basically, two extended Ewok sequences. The first, when the Ewoks capture Luke and Han, is inexcusable. I won't even try. But it's only ten minutes of a two-hour movie. The second sequence is the battle for the shield generator station, and in that one the Ewoks really don't matter. It's a set-piece fight, and the Ewoks are just the extras — small, furry extras, but still extras. Ignore them. If someone recut the film to excise most of the first, infuriating Ewok sequence, I honestly think a lot of people would see the rest of it in a whole different light.
No, the Ewoks were not extras in the battle for the shield generator. The Rebels went down to the moon with somewhere around 20 soldiers, right? Everyone was packed into one Imperial shuttle. They expected to find only a small group of guards and stealthily destroy the shield generator. But they instead found hundreds of stormtroopers who were waiting for them. These Rebels were about to get slaughtered. What saved them was the Ewoks. The Ewoks were essential to the Rebels' victory on Endor. And that is among the things that makes "Jedi" irredeemably bad. It is as though three Roman legions were wiped out at the Teutoburg Forest by gerbils.

I would submit that "Revenge of the Sith" is actually a better film that "Return of the Jedi." I recognize that this view, while probably not as controversial as Drum's, is still not the mainstream one. But the "Sith"story is much more coherent, staying fully focused on Anakin's fall. And the fall is masterfully executed and so complete in its outcome. The entire movie is basically a sting, with Palpatine constantly playing on Anakin's weaknesses (his failure to save his mother, his fears over losing Padme, his insecurities over his treatment by the other Jedi) to bring about a crisis. Why did Palpatine demand that Anakin be seated on the Jedi Council, if not to force the Council to resist, adding to Anakin's insecurities? Why did Palpatine so easily slaughter three Jedi in his council chambers but leave Windu -- whom Anakin knew didn't trust him -- appearing to be beating him, even though Palpatine could have killed him at any moment, if not to force Anakin to rise up against Windu?

And Anakin's final fall is so complete, leaving him a smoldering, limbless pile of hate, screaming impotently at the best friend he'd been manipulating into despising, while the woman he was trying to save lays dying. And Obi Wan's final words to Anakin involve (finally!) something like acting. Ewan MacGregor somehow achieves the impossible, delivering an impassioned performance in a George Lucas film, venting both his disgust in Anakin and his own remorse for having trained him.

Mercifully, "Sith" doesn't try to distract us with humorous or furry creatures. Jar Jar is silent. The droids do their jobs. The film is dark and bleak and allowed to remain that way. The few final scenes not focused directly on Anakin -- finding homes for the twins, the remaining Jedi going into hiding, the Death Star under construction -- serve only to set up Episode IV.

I won't call it a perfect film ("Nooooooo!"). But it's really very good, and apart from "Empire," probably the most adult film of the whole series.

Update: Dan Drezner jumps in to assert that "Jedi" > "Sith" and that every film of the original trilogy is better than every film of the prequel trilogy. Fine, be that way.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

can't believe there's people out there who still have this much to say about star wars.

Seth said...

You have no idea.

Jonathan Ladd said...

There are 2 legitimately good films in the series: Empire and Star Wars. These are good on first viewing and reward repeated viewings. You can't say the same about any of the other films. I like Jedi and consider it the third best film. But it has some cringe inducing moments and I don't enjoy watching it again and again like the first films. But there is no way Sith is better than Jedi.

Here is a list of things Jedi has that Sith does not:

1) characters that the audience cares about

2) major plot arcs that the audience cares about

3) legitimate tension about the outcome of these plot arcs

4) romantic relationships that come across as plausible

This are pretty major issues for a movie. To some degree, #3 is an inevitable part of being a prequel, but the others are not.

metrichead said...

Seth:

Star Trek > Star Wars?

or

Star Wars < Star Wars?

Seth said...

Jon, you're right that Jedi has all those things, but only because it borrowed them from other films. There is zero chemistry between Han and Leia in Jedi; their relationship is only interesting in Empire. Indeed, all the characters that had three dimensions in Empire are reduced to bland caricatures by Jedi.

Metrichead, I've made enough enemies today.

CK MacLeod said...

Well done - I agree with your estimation - but one thing I note in all of the nerd discussion is that it's all very subjectively character- and plot-focused. "Characters you can care about" or "dislike," or, even worse, "characters that audiences can care about." So what? Audiences are stupid. A major reason that the Eworks are so deplorable is that they were technically very poorly executed, or well enough executed only if your are six years old - in other words done down to a perceived audience segment level. Aesthetically, Jar Jar was the same mistake, but with the new digital f/x technologies.

Sith > Any of the Others because by the third time working with virtually unlimited budgets and contemporary technology, Lucas finally got it all mostly right, and produced a cinematic Gesamtkunstwerk beautiful to look at and listen to, as well as to "read." The final Obi-Wan v Annakin fight that you highlight is a scene on the shores of Hell, but the action of the second half, beginning approximately at the fight with Windu sweeps forward, propelled by the score, through a series of masterfully choreographed battles/duels - to the finale and epilogue: During the latter, the multi-leveled birth/deaths - Annakin dying/Darth being born, obviously Luke and Leia being born - in turn give (re-)birth to the entire series as we know it.

ROTS is not flawless, in my view - I'm not really even a big Star Wars fan - but it is a far better work of cinematic art.

Anonymous said...

Re: the big fight at the end of Sith--why was there a conference center on a lava planet? Is that where you would put a conference center?

Seth said...

You gotta figure there will be a geologist conference at some point.

Derek said...

Uhh, I can't get past the horrendous script and acting in Sith. Sorry, that's a deal breaker for me. The performances in Jedi may not be as convincing as in Empire, but Episodes II and III have some of the worst acting I've ever seen. They delivered their lines with all the conviction of an extra in a Power Rangers episode - with the aforementioned line from Obi Wan being the exception.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe this post has been bothering me for days now.

First of all, your view is only less controversial than Drum's insofar as there is almost universal agreement that it is incorrect. Maybe I live in a bubble, but I have never encountered a single person who has argued that any of the prequels are even watchable, much less superior to any of the original trilogy.

Your problem with Jedi seems to center on the "cuteness" of the Ewoks and the tactical unbelievability of their victory. And yet... Sith (like all the prequels) is stuffed to the gills with tactically and strategically ridiculous goings-on. Obi-Wan jumping into the middle of all those battle droids to confront General Grievous (who he's confronting for no good strategic reason... alone for no reason), and not just being gunned down immediately? Confronting Palpatine in private when they have plenty of opportunities to do so in public? Sending Yoda off to defend the Kashyyyk because... why?

Actually I do know why, and it leads to my next point: Yoda goes to Kashyyyk so Lucas can shove some Wookiees (and inexcusably, Chewbacca) into the movie. How is that not just as bad as the Ewoks? If anything it's worse, because the Wookiees play no important part in the plot. There's just no possible critique of Jedi that isn't exponentially worse in Sith, compounded by the CGI clutter and the cardboard "characters"...

I better stop before I keep just harping on random plot holes in Sith. I really find it best to just pretend the prequels never happened (The Anakin/Obi-Wan showdon in Sith makes Alec Guinness's line-readings in Ep. IV seem really strange! Why doesn't Obi-Wan make sure Anakin's dead instead of leaving him alive and smoldering on the ground there? Doesn't that seem weird to anyone? Ok, there I go again...). And besides, I pretty much stole all the criticisms from the folks behind these video takedowns (although they're really only articulating the problems we all couldn't quite put our fingers on): http://redlettermedia.com/plinkett/star-wars/

again, I can't believe I've spent this much time thinking about this (but seriously, watch those Red Letter Media videos, you won't regret it, even if it take a while to get used to the character who narrates them).

Seth said...

I recently watched the Red Letter Media review. It's devastating, of course, although I thought the review for Phantom Menace was far more brutal. What I think Plinkett nails is the direction style -- Lucas really likes his characters sitting still on couches explaining plot points. That's a bad, bad development.

One thing bothered me about the review, though. Plinkett likes to complain that a lot of the film -- particularly, Sidious' secret plot and how it relates to Grievous' behavior -- makes no damned sense. And he's right about that, but "Jedi" is absolutely vulnerable on the same point. The whole segment on Tatooine, roughly a third of the film, makes no damned sense. There was no point in Luke placing his light saber inside R2D2, no point in Luke going in unarmed and demanding Han's release, no point in Leia attempting a separate rescue of Han that would have left Chewie and the droids imprisoned, and no point in Luke not just killing everyone at the very beginning if that's what he was planning to do anyway. And as Plinkett points out, Luke's temptation at the end doesn't make much sense. Was Luke ever in any real danger of becoming the Emperor's apprentice? He didn't want to do that, and there was no payoff for him. The temptation of Anakin in "Sith" was much more thought through.

Finally, I would add that yes, we care far more about the characters in "Jedi" than those in "Sith," but not because of any aspects of the "Jedi" film. Those characters were fleshed out in episodes IV and V. They were just coasting in VI. Leia went from being a spunky princess to a drippy nothing. Han went from being a smartass to kind of a dullard. Boba Fett went from being this feared presence to a joke who dies in a piece of slapstick comedy. Jabba is strangled by a 90-pound woman in a bikini. The only character who's actually remotely interesting in "Return of the Jedi" is the Emperor.

Anyway, my point was not that "Sith" is Citizen Freaking Kane. Just that it was better than "Jedi." I'll stand by that.

rusty said...

(Same guy here who posted that most recent anonymous comment)

Glad you've already seen the Plinkett reviews. Sometimes when I talk about Star Wars lately I feel like I'm just doing their material, so I always feel compelled to cite my sources.

Anyway, now that I see you're coming at this mostly from an anti-"Jedi" angle, I do have a couple angles to add that you may or may not find persuasive at all.

1. The shot-reverse shot problem is a symptom of a larger problem that makes it impossible for me to rate any of the prequels highly, namely that filmmaking craft does count for something. I find "Sith," like all the prequels, difficult to even look at (of course, in the special edition, I find the Jabba's palace scene equally visually repellant, but the special editions are a different conversation). Plot holes and Ewoks notwithstanding (although they don't bother me the way they bother you), "Jedi" is just a better-looking movie.

2. The plot holes and illogical happenings in "Sith" are either overexplained or happen in the on-screen business. In "Jedi" it certainly is weird that Luke and Leia and Lando all go to Jabba's palace separately, but at least the audience is left alone to puzzle out why those choices would be made. When Palpatine says he and Vader can turn Luke to the Dark Side, we're not given a convoluted and awkward reason why Luke will be specifically tempted (personally, I think the lack of tension about Luke being tempted is no worse than the lack of tension about Anakin not being tempted). In "Sith" meanwhile, we're actually presented with lots and lots of contradictory, convoluted and nonsensical explanations for the actions in the film. And when we're not, it's of the "why would Dooku just let himself be beheaded instead of selling out Palpatine?" and "why would Nute Gunray keep going along with this arrangement that keeps screwing him over?" type.

I dunno. That's all for now. I guess my point is that even if we're saying neither is a great movie, the way the original trilogy was written and shot gives "Jedi" a lower bound in terms of quality that is higher than the upper bound of "Sith" because of the way the prequels were written and shot. It's totally possible that the "Sith" plot, had it been made in 1983 and constructed the way the originals were constructed (i.e. directed by not-George Lucas), might have been better than "Jedi"... but unfortunately, it wasn't.