Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 2 of 2)

Sith Happens.

And how.

For all the credit fanboys give it for being “dark” (it got a PG-13! And KIDS get killed!… off-screen, kinda. Ooooooh so edgy!) Revenge of the Sith is, to me, where the prequels went from troubling & highly flawed to outright unwatchable. The storytelling gets even more muddled, characterization implodes, dialogue reaches a new low, the entire franchise’s biggest moments are fumbled, and the action is mostly half-hearted & disappointing.

It’s also where lightsaber fighting, once the coolest of the cool, kinda jumps the shark. It already received heavy exposure in the previous two installments but here it’s outright abused. Seeing a single Jedi calmly slice through overwhelming odds or two Force-powered foes go at it has officially gone from awe-inspiring to commonplace, even banal. It is my sincere hope that when JJ Abrams (or whoever) takes over the reins for the next trilogy, they severely dial back both the number of Jedi and the display of their powers. Jedi need to be special again. Anyway:

4) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs Count Dooku (rematch)

“I’ve been looking forward to this.”

The Fighters:

  • Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by a visibly-bored Ewan McGregor.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by Christopher Lee.

The Fight: Meh.

There’s an air of… perfunctory-ness to the whole thing. Skywalker and Kenobi walk in and greet Palpatine, who simply responds with a flat “Dooku” indicating that he’s entered the room behind them (they’re Jedi, shouldn’t they have sensed him?). For his part, Dooku opts not to walk down the stairs near the entrance of the room but instead jumps & CGI-flips down off the railing. It’s very awkward to watch this 80+ year-old man “do” that, and doesn’t really fit with his more stately character– this guy isn’t Darth Maul, he shouldn’t act like it.

Whenever the scene’s not perfunctory, it’s painfully lame, such as when Obi-Wan tries to calm the Chancellor by telling him “Sith Lords are our specialty.” Dude, you’ve killed exactly ONE Sith Lord: it was 13 years ago, and you got lucky. Anakin hasn’t killed any. Last time you faced a Sith it was this guy and he beat your ass in 30 seconds, then got away because Yoda stopped to save you– don’t act so cocky. (To any nerd who tries to object by bring up the Clone Wars cartoons: shut up.)

The fight that follows is smooth & graceful, and it tries to make the most of its rather bland setting by having the combatants move around a lot through the two stories… but it’s missing anything to make it truly impressive. Some of the choreography doesn’t work either, like when Dooku delivers a kick that sends Anakin flying– Lee (or his stunt double) sells the blow terribly. It all adds to the sort airy weightlessness of the battle; it’s like watching cartoons fight.

Dooku Force-punches Obi-Wan twice, the second time being a full-fledged body seizure that takes him out of commission for the remainder of the fight. This movie also muddies the water much farther into how Jedi’s telekinetic punches work: you wonder if there’s no way to defend against it, why don’t they do it more often, etc.

The music kicks in when Anakin is left alone with the Sith Lord, and in a brief but furious fight he manages to literally disarm Dooku with one swift move, chopping off his hands and plucking his fallen lightsaber out of the air.

He holds Tyranus in a scissor-lock and agonizes over killing him. After some goading by Palpatine, he eventually does. Lee does some nice work here when he reacts to the Chancellor’s command: it’s ambiguous enough that Anakin could reasonably interpret it as “oh no, I’m panicking because I’m about to die,” when in reality it’s “my master is betraying me, WTF!” But that only raises the question of why he doesn’t speak up and at least try to drag Palpatine down with him by revealing his role in all this– there’s nearly 20 seconds between when Sidious first gives the order and when Anakin finally gives in, plenty of time for him to get over his shock and start squealing like a stool pigeon. Hell hath no fury like a Sith scorned, one would think.

At its best, the fight is gorgeous yet empty, and its worst it’s awkward. If this were merely the warm-up for better things to come, it wouldn’t be so bad, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Grade: C

5) Obi-Wan vs General Grievous

[no good quotes]

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • General Grievous, played by CGI and voiced by Matthew Wood.

The Fight: Oy.

Just a waste. General Grievous had been built up in supplementary material to be this super-awesome dueling master– a killer cyborg designed expressly to be the ultimate lightsaber fighting machine!– but in this fight the actual “dueling” part is over within less than a minute, and isn’t too interesting watch, besides. (“This food is terrible!” “I know. And such small portions!”) Not since the Matrix Reloaded’s Twins has such a great fight scene opportunity been bungled.

All Grievous’ amazing skill comes off more like just a cheap trick. Despite pulling some crazy four-armed lightsaber-wrangling (two used for fencing while two more spins like fans above), Kenobi defuses the threat very quickly, and not in a way that builds the hero up so much as it brings the villain down. Grievous looks more here (and in his previous scenes in the film) like a poser rather than a genuine threat– he’s cowardly, ineffective and just plain weird. He’s not a Vader, a Maul, or a Dooku. He’s just kind of a clown.

Kenobi himself doesn’t fare all that much better: Lucas fumblingly tries to give the character a Too Cool For School attitude as he non-chalantly drops into Grievous’ meeting with no apparent backup, and McGregor seems uninterested in trying to compensate for the poor writing. His big comeback (to being told he won’t leave alive) is a rather generic and half-hearted “Oh, I don’t think so!” Frankly even Fred Willard sounded more intimidating saying it. The “combat-ready” stance Kenobi assumes twice early in the confrontation (and several times throughout the film), where he holds his blade in one hand above his head, coils his body back, and points his other hand forward is really silly-looking.

Anyway, after the arrival of clone trooper reinforcements and a really lame-looking Force punch (even worse than Dooku’s kick) that sends Grievous into the ceiling, the villain opts to scamper away on this weird giant wheel of a vehicle, with Kenobi in pursuit on this cool giant lizard that can somehow keep up. There’s a chase in which Kenobi drops his lightsaber (odd, considering how much he chewed out Anakin for doing the same thing in Episode II… also during a vehicle chase, coincidentally. But it’s understandable– it’s not like he has some kind of telekinetic power with which he could have retrieved it), then a crash that leaves the two on the edge of a precipice and both lightsaber-less.

Kenobi does kind of well at first with a droid’s electric staff thing, but Grievous’ droid strength gets the better of him. Disarmed, the Jedi’s physical blows are no good (why doesn’t he Force-punch him again? Especially with that pit right there?), but he does pry open the villain’s chest plate, leaving it exposed for several blaster shots right to the heart. Grievous goes up in flames kind of awesomely.

“… and you’re to blame!”

Of course, since back in Episode IV Kenobi compared the lightsaber as being a more “civilized” weapon than a blaster, here he discards the blaster in disgust by saying “how uncivilized!” Which is just a notch or two beneath “why do I feel like you’re going to be the death of me” in the Herp Derp Remember That Scene In The Old Movies?! category.

I appreciate the scene’s ambition in trying for a new kind of battle here, especially considering it’s a lightsaber-heavy enough film as it is. The idea of Obi-Wan beating the bad guy with a blaster is a pretty ballsy and unexpected one, to be honest I’d appreciate it even more if I thought the movie had wit enough to be trying something “subversive” here, but of course it isn’t. It’s a short & lackluster lightsaber battle followed by an uninteresting chase and a quasi-interesting physical scuffle. And all against a weaksauce bad guy.

Grade: C

6) Darth Sidious vs Mace Windu

“It’s treason, then.”

The Fighters:

  • Mace Windu, played by Samuel L (mothereffing, etc) Jackson.
  • Chancellor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, played by Ian McDiarmid.
  • Three other Jedi Council members, whose contributions in the fight don’t even rise to “minimal”: Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, and Saesee Tiin (I had to look up the names of the two who don’t have awesome green dreadlocks), played by Ben Cooke, Tux Akindoyeni, and Kenji Oates, respectively.

This is so much less cool than you’d think.

The Fight: Ugh.

If the previous fight scene was merely disappointing and underwhelming, this one is just plain bad and stupid. The choreography is weak and uninspired, the characters less resembling two cosmic-powered titans having an epic showdown than two, ahem, “men of a certain age” awkwardly swinging swords at each other– even more so than Episode IV’s Kenobi/Vader showdown, but that was simply uninteresting; this is outright embarrassing. And yet, while it manifestly fails to deliver on its epic status, it’s also paradoxically too long.

And did I mention stupid? The fight opens with Mace Windu and three other senior Jedi Masters approaching to apprehend Palpatine and, after some very mediocre dialogue, they engage in battle. Sidious opens up with this bizarrely unnecessary corkscrewing jump while he screech-howls like an animal. He then manages to kill Agen Kolar and Saesee Tiin, two of the most powerful and experienced Jedi Masters in the universe, with his opening strikes– in fact, the former falls prey to one of the most telegraphed lunges of all time. Lucas and co have a very hard time selling the awesomeness of one fighter without making his opponents look like total losers.

Kit Fisto takes one to the gut a few seconds later, so then it’s just Windu and Palpatine alone. They do not acquit themselves well.

Yeah, about like this.

Samuel L Jackson is a man of many talents, but sword-fighting on-screen is not one of them, and probably wasn’t even before he filmed this scene at the age of 53. And Ian McDiarmid… oof. He’s not a bad actor, as he’s spent a lifetime making quite a name for himself on stage, including in many Shakespeare productions. And his previous work as the unctuous & charming Senator Palpatine was actually very good, as was his work in Return of the Jedi. But his performance as Darth Sidious is absolutely, 100%, irredeemably awful. He’s a cartoon character in all the worst ways: he contorts his mouth like a buffoon, he cackles incessantly, and hisses like a snake when he’s angry. The overlord who spent decades methodically masterminding his gradual rise to absolute power has the same mannerisms as a schizophrenic hobo. McDiarmid’s performance (which I have to believe was molded by Lucas) is worse than five Jar Jars, because at least you were never supposed to take him seriously.

Anyway, Mace Windu and Captain Clownface twirl around awkwardly throughout Palpatine’s spacious high-rise apartment. One of the fight’s few and fleeting moments of gracefulness is when it moves close to the enormous bay window and an errant saber swing shatters the glass. That’s kinda nice.

Windu disarms Palpatine and he goes scampering about (again, like a cartoon), seemingly helpless. The duel ends with Windu’s blade in the villain’s face, which is of course just when Anakin The Dumbass enters. There’s some argument about whether Windu should execute Sidious on the spot, while Anakin wants him to live because he’s promised to help save Padme from dying. Palpatine can’t decide whether to play the helpless victim or whether to act overtly evil and, in what’s probably McDiarmid’s lowest point, he croons out “No, noooooo, noooooooooooooo!” and tries to zap Windu point-blank with Force lightning, which the Master just reflects back on him with his lightsaber. The lightning zaps throughout Palpatine’s body and either scars him permanently or reveals his true appearance, depending on what you believe (certainly Force lightning hasn’t marred the face of anyone else who’s ever been hit with it before this). Either way, he now looks more like he did back in Episode VI, though in a way that’s a lot more difficult to take seriously.

The real kick in the gut happens here, after the fighting’s done. Although it would take just a few more inches of effort for Windu to shove his blade through Palpatine’s face, he instead rears back his arm dramatically so that Anakin has plenty of time to draw his own weapon and cut off Mace’s saber hand. With Windu defenseless, Sidious surges back to life and releases another torrent of Force lightning, graphically electrocuting him and sending him flying out the window. Prior to Episode III, Jackson was fond of declaring that he was happy to be in the prequels as long as he didn’t “go out like a punk.” Looks like he didn’t get his wish.

[There are many who theorize that Sidious was never in any danger throughout the entire fight, and only prolonged it so that Anakin would walk in at the exact right second. This interpretation involves too many variables for the Sith Lord to rely on; considering he’d spent years & years playing out his meticulous plan it seems strange he’d gamble it all so boldly right now. Plus, Sidious should not be so much stronger than Windu that he’s able to play possum so well against him; Windu is second only to Yoda, and Yoda comes within an inch of beating Sidious later.]

But the worst part is how this one action undoes all of the franchise’s thematic resonance and years of emotional build-up. Anakin Skywalker didn’t turn to the dark side out of pride and anger, nor did he do so as a completely selfish and calculated decision. He did it in a now-or-never moment of pressure, for a noble reason: saving his wife. He isn’t evil, just paranoid and misguided. Luke’s personal victory in ROTJ no longer has the same power; he didn’t win the battle his father lost, because his father turned “evil” under completely different circumstances. Anakin gave in to love, not aggression. Arguably there’s some poetic symmetry to the reveal that Anakin joined the dark side to save someone he loved and left it for the same reason, but it also makes his final decision a no-brainer: of course he’ll save Luke at the end, because saving family has always been his motivation.

So. This fight is completely un-exciting, frequently clumsy, and the ending undoes a huge part of what makes Star Wars tick. I’ll be generous.

Grade: D-

And let’s take a moment, if we may, to spotlight the absolutely horrible makeup job on Darth Sidious. The idea here is to make him look like the wrinkled, sagging freakshow audiences were introduced to in 1983 and indeed it follows the same general template, but too many things are just… off. Even without McDiarmid’s much more spastic performance and choreography that contorts him in very un-flattering ways, the overall effect of the new Palpatine is not comical but creepy.

sidiouscollage

From left to right: Yes; No; CHILD MOLESTER

This is the ultimate dictator of the galaxy and the evil mastermind behind six epic films. I shouldn’t wince every time he’s on screen.

7) Yoda vs Darth Sidious

“Not if anything to say about it, I have.”

The Fighters:

  • Yoda, by Frank Oz and CGI he is played.
  • Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, played by Ian McDiarmid.

The Fight: Derp.

Is it possible to create a really good sword fight featuring a 60-year-old robe-wearing & makeup-slathered actor against a diminutive CGI muppet? Maybe, but ROTS doesn’t provide a lot of evidence in favor.

This time around there’s actually some gravitas at play, thanks largely to audience anticipation, Frank Oz’s performance, and John Williams’ music. Yoda’s entrance into Palpatine’s chambers is pretty cool– he casually flicks a hand and it drops the two door guards to the ground. He is, however, weirdly unprepared for the jolt of Force lightning that knocks him into the wall, even though (again!) Sidious telegraphed the fact that he was about to do it pretty heavily. It looks like Qui-Gon Jinn’s “he can see things before they happen, that is why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait,” in TPM is just below Kenobi’s “only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise” in terms of Statements Not Supported By Reality.

Yoda dusts himself off and retaliates with a strong Force punch* that sends Palpatine across the room. Switching emotional polarities really quickly as usual, Sidious panics and tries to escape with a cartoony flip that really doesn’t match his look (and his naked cowardice doesn’t inspire much admiration for him as a villain), but he’s cut off by Yoda, who utters a smug, “If so powerful you are, why leave?” Sidious’ retort is weird: “You will not stop me. Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of us!” The way McDiarmid delivers it, it sounds like the second sentence is being offered as a justification for the first, even though that makes no sense. At this point, viewers had certainly become accustomed to George Lucas writing dialogue exchanges where each character’s lines didn’t seem to have anything to do with the other’s, but it’s rare that a single character can’t even follow his OWN lines.

[*Once again: what’s the deal with Force punching? If it’s as effective and practical as a regular punch, why don’t they do it more often? More importantly, as we see here, it’s the good Jedi’s long-range equivalent of Force lightning, so if they achieve roughly the same purpose in combat, why is one good/neutral and one “bad”?]

Anyway, after some really awkward posing by Sidious and a cut away to the Anakin/Obi-Wan fight, the two find themselves dueling on the platform that rises into the middle of the empty Senate chambers. It’s here that the combat is actually the most interesting. Yoda is flipping about still, but with much more actual sword work than in his clash with Count Dooku. The new music trailing in from the other fight & some smart camera work really convey the epic scale of the conflict, and of course the symbolism of this deciding battle occurring in the very heart of the Republic’s political system is powerful if obvious.

The fight gets a lot less compelling after the next cut, when we find the two have somehow separated: Sidious is several stories above Yoda in the enormous chamber, ripping out empty Senate seats (again: symbolism!) with the Force and throwing them at his tiny foe (“Duel of the Fates” plays from this point on, but it doesn’t gain much in being repeated from Episode I). The acrobatic muppet has little trouble dodging them as they come, and he finally gets Sidious on the defensive by seizing one & returning it to sender. As he does with every other emotion, McDiarmid WAY oversells his panic at having to dodge a single projectile.

As soon as he re-orients himself Palpatine is face-to-face against Yoda, but he knocks the saber out of the green alien’s hand with a quick burst of Force lightning. It now becomes pure strength against strength, as Sidious pours on the juice and Yoda tries to push it back. Yoda seems to get the upper hand and when he repels the attack it creates an explosive pulse that sends them both flying. Sidious is able to get hold of a guard rail but Yoda is not so lucky, so he falls a loooong way down and takes a couple hard thumps on the way.

Yoda then scurries off and… that’s it. The contest of the two most cosmically powerful figures imaginable comes down to an accident of footing, the fate of the galaxy is lost on a technicality. It’s hard to understate just how monumentally disappointing this is. And besides that, it’s stupid: it’s understandable that Yoda wouldn’t want to continue the fight after suffering such a nasty fall (when 900 years of age you reach, as resilient your back will not be), but it’s frankly astonishing to think he’d tuck his tail between his legs for 20 years to avoid a rematch to a fight he probably would have won, especially with billions of lives on the line. Lucas once again chickened out as a storyteller; he wanted to find a way to have the good guy lose without making him “really” lose, and the resulting compromise is baffling rather than comforting. (And don’t even try to come at me with the silly rationalizations from the crappy novelization.)

More baffling is the pervasive laughter on the part of Darth Sidious throughout the fight. Not just laughter but straight-up cackling, with all the professionalism of a tenth-grade drama student playing a witch in Macbeth. He cackles after he’s zapped Yoda with lightning at the beginning, he cackles several times when they’re locking swords, he cackles as he’s heaving Senate pods at Yoda, he cackles while Yoda is seizing the Senate pod and spinning it in place in preparation to send it back, he cackles while Yoda is falling. He cackles without any regard to whether it’s an appropriate time to do so or whether it will impress the audience. Yes, way back in ROTJ the Emperor’s creepy laughter was a continuous presence in his climactic scene, but there it made sense: Palpatine had Luke right where he wanted him, he was steadily working to unnerve & aggravate the man, and he had every reason to believe his ultimate victory was achieved. Here he just cackles compulsively and ceaselessly. Like most everything about McDiarmid as the Sith Lord, it’s meant to be grand & scary but it comes off as petty & comical. When it comes to over the top acting, there’s a fine line between hammy and vampy. This is so far on the wrong side of that line it makes the 60s Batman villains look like Mark Ruffalo.

There’s more to like here than in most of ROTS’ other fights, but it’s weighed down by too many clumsy missteps and unforgivable errors. Wasted potential.

Grade: C-

8) Anakin vs Obi-Wan

“You were the Chosen One!”

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor
  • Darth Vader formerly Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.

The Fight: Improvement.

After some truly terrible opening dialogue (“only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Hmm, ONLY a Sith, huh? Sounds like an absolute statement there, buddy), the duel kicks off more spirited than anything since the Episode I.

For those first few minutes, everything comes together perfectly. The actors, via either their own skill or just through sheer repetition, move at an incredible pace through an exquisite dance of death, never missing a single beat. Christensen in particular– with his tall & lean physique, striking black outfit and don’t-give-a-crap long hair– cuts the most imposing profile in the trilogy since Liam Neeson took a dive. Lucas shoots the whole thing like a pro, alternating skillfully between close-ups, mediums, wide shots, overhead angles, and even one striking behind-the-back view as the pair duel through a narrow hallway. Remarkably, even though the opponents are using the same color lightsaber (a first in Star Wars history!) and seemingly move in fast-forward, you can actually keep track of the action and see what’s going on. And John Williams’ specially composed piece “Battle of the Heroes” plays up immediately and keeps going for quite a while– it’s exciting, memorable, and hauntingly tragic.

This is the only fight in the whole movie that’s firing on all cylinders. There are some interesting beats in the control room, including some more intimate physical work like a disarmed Vader choking Anakin with his robot hand and doing the “why are you hitting yourself?” thing as he tries to turn Kenobi’s own saber against him.

In another cool beat, the two conclude a dazzling series of point-blank blows by trying to simultaneously Force-punch each other, which turns into an impromptu telekinetic wrestle that results in both flying back– odd, because while it’s believable that in a straight duel Obi-Wan’s experience and intimate knowledge of Anakin’s technique might put him on even footing, in a contest of raw strength the Chosen One would surely have the advantage.

Anyway, unfortunately, it’s not long after that an errant strike from Vader manages to hit the “press here to destroy whole chunks of the installation” button on a control panel. And naturally the two Jedi, with their finely-honed instincts and powers of precognition, think that’s the perfect time to venture out from the relative safety of the control room out onto more precarious and crumbling parts of the facility, where they’ll be exposed to the continuous splashing of liquid hot magma. Right.

What follows after could not possibly be more boring. The combatants still take occasional swings at each other but they’re mainly preoccupied with jumping around as pieces of the facility fall down and dodging lava. It’s meant to be spectacular but it’s all just so much green screen sound & fury, signifying nothing. It completely interrupts the flow of the fight and makes this all-important confrontation wind down rather than build up.

“Don’t touch the floor, the floor’s lava!”

Once the erstwhile master & apprentice find a some real estate in the lava river (a floating droid and a chunk of metal with its force field still working, that is. Even still, shouldn’t the proximity to that much heat be enough to kill even a Jedi?) the two have a few more up-close clashes, but nothing near the furious beauty of the fight’s opening. They also talk a little more, and Ewan McGregor gets in his only affecting bit of performance in the entire sequence, if not the whole film: as he tells Anakin that he’s sorry how he failed him, he has the look & sound of a man who’s lost so much he can only laugh grimly at his awful situation. He’s actually smiling as he says it, in a crazy sort of way.

Unfortunately it is soon overshadowed by what’s the worst line that George Lucas ever wrote, indeed one of the worst lines in the history of cinema: when Kenobi declares that Palpatine is evil (hey Obi-Wan, is he ABSOLUTELY evil?), Vader replies, “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” Which… gah. That’s not something anyone would say in that situation, in fact it’s not even actual dialogue– it’s an actor reading his script notes out loud (“ANAKIN: 22 years old. Tall. Headstrong. Driven by love to paranoia. From his point of view, the Jedi are evil. Hates sand”). And the movie still can’t decide if Anakin has only joined the dark side on a selfless mission to help Padme, or if he’s genuinely swallowed Palpatine’s silly story about the Sith being misunderstood good guys out to bring order to the galaxy. Neither, of course, matches the Darth Vader we were introduced to in 1977, but of course that’s been off the menu for a while now.

Shortly after this, Obi-Wan spots some safe terrain atop a nearby small hill, and flips to safety. He announces that the fight is over because he has “the high ground” and warns Anakin not to come at him bro.

Vader disregards and tries to flip all the way over Kenobi’s head and directly behind him, but Obi-Wan lunges in and with one quick strike he chops off the other three of Vader’s remaining original limbs, leaving him to tumble down towards the lava and eventually catch fire.

There are so many ways in which this makes no sense. Search throughout the entire previous six movies for a Jedi duel where “the high ground” was a deciding factor in anyone’s victory. Your search will be in vain. In point of fact, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself flipped directly over the head of a ruthless Sith Lord not once but twice back in Episode I, at the beginning of the fight and (even more so) at the end– yes, that’s right, the arrogantly foolish move reduces Anakin to a torso is the same move that Kenobi used to WIN a fight. In fact Anakin himself got away with flipping over Kenobi’s own head (to land on his platform) about a minute before this! Besides that, even if it was a stupid idea, there was plenty of room on that mound for Vader to land on that wouldn’t have put him within his opponent’s striking distance. With all the various listings of Lucas’ faults that populate the Internet, “he doesn’t know how to end a fight” gets a surprisingly small amount of play.

So Obi-Wan chews out his old student one last time, takes his lightsaber and leaves him to die. Others have complained that it was foolish for Kenobi to just assume Vader died rather than finish him off, but given McGregor’s performance the more obvious (and compelling) interpretation is that he’s just too sad and disgusted to even look at Anakin anymore.

And that, of course, is that. The emotional and aesthetic linchpin of the entire Star Wars series ends not with a bang but with an idiotic whimper.

At least there’s this.

As with the Matrix Reloaded’s signature brawl, this duel is a mixed bag. What works REALLY works, but there are so many bad decisions which simply cannot be ignored. This is a 6+ minute fight in which only two minutes contain actual fighting, and the rest are largely filled with scrambling around on CGI backdrops. There’s no excuse for that. It averages out to:

Grade: B

Well, that’s it for Star Wars, unless this blog hangs around until 2015 or so. I wish I could have gotten the more painful-to-review prequel fights out of the way first and followed up by commenting on the glory of the originals, but I suppose that’s sort of fitting.

Coming Attractions: After all this star warring, we’ll unwind with some really, really, ridiculously silly. I won’t give away what it is, though I kind of just did.

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Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 1 of 2)

Let’s do this.

One character is conspicuously missing from this collage, but I wouldn’t say anyone’s actually *missing* him.

Ah, the Star Wars prequels. They get more hate than they deserve, but the hate they do deserve is more than enough. That animosity out of the way, let’s go ahead and take things as they come.

(Housekeeping note: I tried to do the whole prequel trilogy in one big post, but the verbiage kept spilling out from me. After hitting the three thousand work mark before I was halfway done and seeing that Revenge of the Sith has FIVE fight scenes all on its own, I decided to split this in two, with Episodes ! & II in this post and the next post dedicated to the third. Nobody wants to read a 10,000 word blog post, after all.)

1) Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Maul

“We’ll handle this.”

(Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

The Fighters:

  • Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • Darth Maul, played by Ray Park. Voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, but he says nothing in this fight.

The Fight: Epic.

It’s hard not to view this fight in the context of its time. Prior to 1999, audiences hadn’t witnessed an on-screen lightsaber fight in about 16 years, and in the intervening time the standards of action film choreography had changed quite a bit– mainstream Western audiences were getting more exposed to hyper-complicated Hong Kong action ballets, for one thing. Plus, as we were reminded endlessly, the Jedi in the prequels would be from a mystical warrior culture in its prime, whereas in the original trilogy the only Force-users were a few over-the-hill remnants and one inexperienced newcomer. For this showdown, Lucas & co had to come out swinging, in more ways than one. (Not the sexy way. Mostly.)

So while it may not have ultimately been the best move to replace Bob Anderson with Nick Gillard as the sword master, it was certainly understandable. Gillard fused together multiple styles of fencing (and other types of swinging movements such as tree-chopping) to create a unique style of Jedi-fighting that was highly energetic and complex. His Jedi are more acrobatic ninjas than they are stately knights.

Speaking of complex, the nature of this fight adds several new wrinkles that hadn’t yet been seen in any main Star Wars media by this point: it involved more than two combatants, it traversed an enormous amount of real estate, and most obviously it introduced (to the screen, anyway) that long-drooled-after bit of fanboy lore, the double-bladed lightsaber. Wouldn’t it have been great if they’d not spoiled that in the trailers and been able to keep it secret until opening night? Ah, a fanboy can dream.

From a narrative standpoint it’s also distinctive for being the first Star Wars duel in which the protagonist(s) and antagonist have zero emotional/dramatic connection, at least not until near the end. This is not old friends or payback or familial redemption; Maul is a bad guy, they’re the good guys, and they’re in each other’s way. Maul doesn’t even talk— he’s a silent assassin, a blunt instrument.

Anyway, as to the fight itself, though time & repetition (I personally must have watched this close to a hundred times, including eight screenings in the theater. Yes, eight. You wanna make something of it?) have worn away some of its initial impact and revealed some of its flaws, it’s still a very entertaining & dynamic battle. And it’s still easy to see why it came off as enough concentrated awesome so as to mitigate the disappointment and head-scratchings of much of the preceding 100-some minutes.

The performers really do some excellent work executing Gillard’s hyper-detailed choreography. Liam Neeson (a GFS Hall of Famer for Rob Roy alone) is huge and powerful, while McGregor’s Kenobi is all wiry speed. But Ray Park’s Darth Maul is unquestionably the star here– the fact that he didn’t went on to be an actual movie star after this film and has rarely been put to good use since is something I’ll never forgive Hollywood for. Seriously, is it THAT hard to think up 90 minutes’ worth of scenarios for Ray Park to kick ass in? “Well, you know, he’s not a very good actor.” Oh, but Steven Seagal was?

Ahem. Point is, absent that aforementioned dramatic resonance, this fight had to succeed all the more on a purely kinetic level, and it’s Darth Maul who sells the scale of the threat here. Maul is fast, strong, and lithe like a snake. His overall design is a pointed contrast to everyone’s favorite Sith Lord, much more animalistic and primal (he’s got a painted face and freaking horns, for crying out loud) instead of Vader’s effortless, streamlined menace. And as portrayed by Park he is, while still tactically smart, a guy who wears his fury & aggression on his sleeve. The dude is a big scary bully and he fights angry.

Another key ingredient is the famous Duel of the Fates, John Williams’ specially composed orchestra/choir piece for the film– itself another unusual take for Star Wars. It was heavily promoted at the time and was run into the ground by Lucas afterwards, but like the rest of the much-revisited fight it still retains an elemental power that helps sell the scale of the conflict here, even cut up & re-arranged as it is.

The scene’s real problems come from its staging and plot contrivances. It begins in a hangar deck and Maul soon takes the initiative to move it (in a nice detail many don’t see the first time around, he Force-grabs a battle droid’s arm and uses it to activate a door switch) to more restricted quarters since presumably the open environment offers him little advantage against two opponents. All fine. But as soon as the combatants move through the door they’re in this enormous chamber, maybe 30 stories or more deep, with at least three levels of catwalks and some sort of giant towering reactors. Why are these enormous reactors sharing space with the fighter bay? Is it really safe to collocate your energy reactors with your military assets? (Fortunately for the people of Naboo, the Trade Federation had a similar design philosophy: their ships had their “shoot here to blow up the whole ship” power core about a hundred feet from the docking bay.) The climactic duel of Empire took place in a similarly cavernous installation, but that more or less made sense because Cloud City was established as a mining colony and its structures were designed to harvest the abundant gas below– the fight even took place in an industrial area because that’s where the freezing equipment Vader needed was. Here the audience has no sense of what this place is. It doesn’t flow organically out of the story, it’s merely there because it needs to be there.

Even more egregious is the bizarre contrivance in the latter portion of the fight, the hallway full of force fields that turn off & on at set intervals. These force fields serve no apparent practical function; as a young fanboy I tried to convince myself that they were for slowly venting gases out at staggered times, whereas Terry Brooks’ crappy novelization mentioned that they served a security purpose, which makes even less sense (wouldn’t they just stay on constantly in that case?). They exist purely as a plot device to get Qui-Gon killed– specifically, to get him killed in such a way that it happens while he’s separated from Obi-Wan and the apprentice must look on, able-bodied but helpless to stop it. It’s frankly like something a child would make up.

The way it finally resolves is pretty dumb, too. It’s a cool idea to try to have Kenobi win by using his brain rather than simply getting in a lucky blow in the middle of normal combat, but it’s inexcusable the way Maul stands there like a dumbass for as long as Obi-Wan takes many long seconds to lift himself out of the pit he’s trapped in, then land, and THEN slice him in half. *I* wouldn’t have that slow of a reaction time, and I’m not a mystical psychic space ninja monster.

Contrivances aside, the action itself is, despite all its frenetic complexity, seriously flawed when given close examination. How bothersome that is I’ll leave up to you; it’s not like the Star Wars movies were known for their accuracy in fencing technique before this. And this one is spliced up even worse than worse than ROTJ, because between the duel, the Gungan ground war, Padme infiltrating the palace, and the space battle, this movie has a four-front climax. Let it never be said that George Lucas is unambitious, but the Jedi fight is unquestionably far more interesting than anything else happening simultaneously, so cutting away from it is rarely helpful.

Also, there are three (3) separate occasions where Maul kicks Kenobi right in the face. He’s probably got the manufacturer’s logo tattooed in his brain by now.

Grade: B+

2) Obi-Wan and Anakin vs Count Dooku

“Surely you can do better!”

“Yes I can and don’t call me Shirley”

(Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by acting legend Christopher Lee.

Come to think of it, no first name for Dooku is ever given, and you have to wonder exactly what kind of royalty he is considering that Force-sensitive babies are taken by the Jedi Order at birth. I really wish he went by his Sith moniker “Tyranus” more, because (and this is running theme) “Count Dooku” sounds like a name a child made up. Though not as much as “Dexter Jettster” does.

(You’ll notice I skipped all the chaos in the arena, because the monster stuff is a very weird type of “fight” and after all the reinforcements arrive it becomes more of a war sequence than anything. I also skipped the pretty good confrontation with Jango Fett on Kamino because come on, do you want to be here all day?)

Is it just me or does Hayden have freakily long arms? And shouldn’t he be WAY taller than Kenobi?

The Fight: It’s really less Obi-Wan and Anakin vs Dooku than it is Obi-Wan then Anakin vs Dooku, since little orphan Annie rushes in out the outset like a moron and gets zapped by a healthy dose of Force lightning, taking him out of commission for a few minutes. Kenobi is left alone to face Dooku, his master’s master, alone. Tyranus tries the same zap attack on Obi-Wan, but the latter casually blocks it just by holding his lightsaber in the way. This scene was only the second time we’d seen Force lightning on screen in the Star Wars universe, so it was something of a surprise to find it could be deflected so easily, and somewhat disappointing, too.

Obi-Wan’s time with Dooku is characterized by a series of short, intense clashes, and even though blow-for-blow Kenobi seems to doing well until the end, McGregor’s performance show that he’s struggling just to keep up. Dooku relishes it, too, leering at him evilly as he encourages the younger man to “do better.” And sure enough, it’s not long before he’s able to dart in and give Kenobi a couple incapacitating (but non-maiming, curiously; he just scoops out a chunk of flesh from two limbs) wounds.

He gets stopped at the last second by the intervention of a revived Anakin. Their short exchange is one of the few examples of genuinely successful, snappy dialogue in the entire film, if not the whole prequel trilogy:

DOOKU: “Brave of you, boy. But I would have thought you had learned your lesson.”

ANAKIN: “I am a slow learner.”

Nothing major, but a nice little smartass retort, and it works extra because it plays off the resentment the audience has built for Anakin’s impulsive, stubborn characterization over the course of the past 2 hours. Curiously, the shooting script simply has the slightly but significantly different line “I’m a slow learner”– with that contraction, any emphasis on the sentence would have to go to a different word, which I don’t think would work as well. It’s entirely possible that the ad lib was made by Christensen, who I think gets a bad rap; he’s a good actor in the right role, and the problems with Anakin’s characterization are due more to the script than to him. Ever see Shattered Glass? It’s pretty awesome for a movie with zero fight scenes.

Sorry, back to business. Kenobi throws his padawan (I trust I’m not the only one who never cared for that word) his own lightsaber, and for a few brief seconds Anakin is able to push Dooku back with the extra blade. But his green saber gets destroyed almost as soon as he gets it, so it’s back down to one. Not sure why two swords would always be better than one, anyway; it’s an entirely different fighting discipline altogether (“it’s an entirely different fighting discipline”) and even if two were always better than one, wouldn’t every Jedi carry two?

“I’ll shatter YOUR glass, old man!”
“… what?”

Anyway, Anakin seems to conduct himself even better than his master did, having several long and fluid exchanges with the Sith Lord. The filmmaking gets a bit fancy here, too, after Anakin cuts open a grounded power cable, sparks start flying intermittently out of the ground and lower the light level in the pair’s portion of the hangar. A good chunk of the two’s fight is then shot in an alternating close-ups of their faces, lit only by their swirling blades. It’s really cool-looking, and a very artistic way to work around Christopher Lee’s advanced age (79 at the time).

But even the Chosen One is no match for Gandalf’s boss, who he darts in with a swipe that cuts off Anakin’s hand, and Force-punches him into a heap on top of Kenobi. Lee’s performance after doing so is… interesting. He sags his shoulders and drops his face, looking not so much tired from effort as he does resigned and disappointed. Is he sad about being forced to kill two promising young folks, or bummed that the challenging combat he seems to relish is over so soon, or is he planning on letting them live and trying to look conflicted for the heroes’ benefit so as to better build on the doubts he planted in Kenobi’s mind earlier? If that’s the latter one, that makes no sense, because it’s pretty clear he’s down with the dark side rather than being a well-meaning political dissenter; I mean, even Jefferson Davis didn’t have a red lightsaber and throw out Force lightning.

An enigmatic decision on the actor’s part, or confused direction from Lucas? We may never know. Regardless, Dooku doesn’t have long alone with his thoughts, because a certain little green man ambles into the room shortly after.

This is all very likable, all those nagging issues aside. It’s a great contrast to TPM’s climactic fight– a battle that doesn’t betray the new type of Jedi aesthetic established for the new trilogy but still gives a different type of experience. This is no epic duel of the fates, just a quick & dirty domination by a classy villain. Even though he’s body-doubled a lot (most of the more demanding physical work is done in very wide shots to hide this), Christopher Lee is a welcome addition to the world of Star Wars: it’s a world that is patently ridiculous and is quite often stiffly-written, so “naturalistic” acting is rarely comfortable there. Old-school hams with a sense of the absurd and the theatrical, such as Lee &  his old Hammer compatriot Peter Cushing back in ’77, are a much better fit. He also makes a nice halfway point between Maul and Vader.

Grade: B+

3) Yoda vs Count Dooku

“Much to learn, you still have.”

(Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

The Fighters:

  • Yoda, played by CGI and voiced by Frank Oz, may he live forever.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by Christopher Lee.

“Cut a bitch, Yoda will have to.”

The Fight: Yoda hobbles in and Darth Tyranus wastes no time picking up pieces of the scenery– machinery off the walls and large chunks of ceiling– and throwing them at the funny old master. Yoda calmly deflects it all, not even attempting to counter. When Dooku upgrades to Force lightning, the great warrior (even though wars do not make one great) returns that to sender just as easily, and finishes off by apparently absorbing the rest of it. Neat trick, but it loses some of its oomph now that we’ve seen just how easy it is to defeat that lightning if you have a lightsaber.

“Showing off, I am.”

Still, Lucas manages to sell the gravity of this showdown, and the titanic power of the two foes. It had been more than 20 years since the diminutive sage had first burst on the scene and impressed audiences with only hints of his once-great power– so much so that we inevitably wondered just what the little green muppet had been capable of back in his heyday. And this is basically what many of us would have guessed it would look like: Yoda coolly standing his ground and unleashing a cosmic whoopass with simple humility.

Lee’s aforementioned ability to navigate his way through ridiculousness comes in handy when he says the line that switches the nature of the fight: “It is obvious that this contest cannot be settled by our knowledge of the Force… but by our skills with a lightsaber.” Egads, seriously? That may be one of the most clunky and awkward lines ever written. It reads like the Jedi-fied version of something you’d hear in a B-list high school comedy from the ’80s, spoken by a snooty English-lit teacher who uses twenty big words when five short words would suffice. Granted, Count Dooku isn’t as flippant as John McClane but surely there could have been a quicker & better way to say this– something like “It seems we’ll have to settle this the old-fashioned way.”

But again, it’s a testament to Lee’s skill that he doesn’t come off like a total goon saying it. And the subsequent slow-pan around Yoda as he draws his own lightsaber is SO awesome. As much flack as Lucas gets for not understanding what his fans want, there are times he definitely knows how to play to the crowd.

Because as droolworthy an idea as Yoda engaging in a massive Force-struggle is, Yoda whipping out a lightsaber and swinging away was always a mind-blower. We wondered how would that even work, given the character’s aloof persona, frailty, and tiny size. The solution chosen by Lucas and co was ballsy, reckless, or some combination of the two: Yoda’s fighting style turned out to be a completely unexpected method involving blinding speed and hyperactive acrobatics, much of it using his small size as an asset.

“A butterfly, I float like.”

The result certainly blew everyone away at first (the opening screenings I went to were filled with delighted gasps and shouts of joy), but as with the then-mind-blowing duel capping off TPM, time may not have been kind to it since. Some have unfavorably compared Yoda’s constant flipping to Sonic the Hedgehog’s arcing jumps, and it’s hard not to see that. Still, it was certainly a daring and unexpected choice. Though I would have liked to see more actual fencing and less flipping.

Just as the fight winds down and we get the revelation that Yoda was Dooku’s old master, the latter decides to cut and run by dropping a huge pillar on Obi-Wan & Anakin, which Yoda has to stay behind and push off. A disappointing end to a shocking and epic fight.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: We find out why Revenge of the Sith makes for a fitting acronym.

Shhhhhh, it’s okay, Natalie. Just make out with Mila and people will forget.

Star Wars, Original Trilogy (retrospective)

This will be a post long remembered.

You’re hearing the music in your head right now. It’s okay, don’t fight it.

It’s time for another Retrospective, where we put away the microscope and instead take the bird’s eye macro view of a particular film or franchise. In this case, the great big granddaddy of them all: Star Wars. I’ll try to shy away from going into detail on each individual movie and/or my personal feelings on Star Wars (spoilers: I LOVE STAR WARS), because if there’s one thing the Internet needs less of it’s nerds explaining what Star Wars “means” to them. If there’s another thing the Internet needs less of it’s people griping about the prequels, so I will try to avoid that as well… but not entirely, because, well, that’s impossible.

A few notes first: Mostly because it’s what fits but also for purposes of my sanity, this series will only cover Jedi duels. Fittingly, the word “lightsaber” will come up a lot, and there are only so many ways around saying it over & over again, so I apologize in advance for the repetition. I’ll dispense with the setups here, because if you’re not familiar with Star Wars by now there’s little use in me explaining it to you. The entire series will be split up into separate posts, by trilogy. And despite the fact that George Lucas claims the films are meant to be watched in their own chronological order, I will be covering them in the order in which they were released, as God intended.

Now let’s hop in the Long Ago Machine….

1) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader

“The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

(Episode IV: A New Hope)

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness.
  • Darth Vader, played by David Prowse (body) and James Earl Jones (voice).

The Fight: This was the clash of the titans. Coming into Star Wars for the first time in 1977, you’re introduced gradually to what the concept of a lightsaber is but it’s not until here that you really see them as dueling weapons. I wonder how that moment played out to original audiences, as the delightful old wizard squared off against the towering evil villain and they each ignited their blades?

That aside, the rest of what follows is actually not all that interesting. There’s nothing creative about the fight itself or the way it’s shot. Even the normally bombastic John Williams backs off for the most part. The choreography is never truly clumsy but neither does it impress. It’s just two actors swinging clubs at each other.

Though Hollywood sword master Bob Anderson would oversee the more impressive fights of the next two installments, here he’s only listed as a stunt man rather than a choreographer; Peter Diamond is listed as the film’s overall stunt coordinator, so it’s unknown who exactly plotted out this sword fight, if anyone did at all. Despite Vader’s “you can’t win!” boast, there’s never any real indication that he’s winning or that Kenobi is losing. Neither one dominates, hurts or gains an advantage over the other until the very end. Granted, the insta-kill nature of lightsabers as a weapon leaves very little margin for injury, but there are still ways around this.

It’s also always been my pet peeve that Lucas or whoever signed on to the idea of pulling the hood up on Obi-Wan’s robe. The point is to make him look mystical or some such, presumably, but at the best moments it adds nothing and at the worst it looks comical, especially in the shots where you can see how the fabric has bunched up in a point behind his head. Unhooded, the flowing nature of the robe already works as a humble counterpoint to Vader’s intimidating cape, but the hood itself is a bridge on the river Kwai too far.

No shot in the actual fight looks this cool.

And we now know that Kenobi’s famous “I’ll become more powerful than you could possibly imagine” line was pure BS. Once he dies, he becomes a flickery ghost who dispenses advice– something he was plenty good at when he still had a physical body, thank you very much.

What makes the scene work (aside from the coolness of the lightsaber itself as a weapon) are the actors, and the affection we’ve come to have for the characters. Guinness is all dignity & grace (this performance made him the Magic Grandpa to a whole generation, a fact which irritated him to no end) while the Prowse/Jones combo is just pure menace & power. There is a real sense of grandiosity when they square off, and the way they sell their rather portentous yet snappy dialogue it indicates a clear, almost intimate, familiarity with each other.

Anyway, the whole thing ends with Kenobi deliberately taking a blow from Vader’s blade, presumably to encourage Luke & co to escape without waiting for him. You have to love Guinness’ wry little half-smile right before he does so– such a cocky “I know something you don’t” moment. A great beginning & ending to an otherwise underwhelming fight.

Grade: C+

2) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader

“Impressive. Most impressive.”

(Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

The Fighters:

  • Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.
  • Darth Vader, played David Prowse and James Earl Jones. With some significant in-the-suit work done by choreographer Bob Anderson.

The Fight: This is it. The big one. The silver tuna.

You’ll find it’s full of surprises.

Luke has rushed off to face his destiny prematurely, against the advice of not one but two Sagely Mentors, and soon enough finds himself in an eerily quiet chamber with the Dark Lord of the Sith himself. Director Irwin Kershner, who was wisely given the reins on this installment, does everything possible to sell the magnitude of this confrontation. Of course they barely had to at this point in the movie, because there is literally nothing more cool than Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. As great as he was during his debut, throughout the course of the sequel he has proven to be singularly ruthless, cunning, intimidating and driven, yet utterly composed. This is Vader at his peak.

And this isn’t just the galaxy’s #2 Dictator here– to Luke, Vader is also the cold-blooded bastard who killed his father AND his kindly mentor/brief father-figure, not to mention ordering the deaths of his aunt & uncle. This is personal. So when Luke struts in with unearned cockiness and draws his own weapon, the audience feels all sorts of tension. Props are due to Hamill here, who portrays Luke’s eagerness to prove himself and emotion-driven decisions while still not coming off as an unrestrained spaz, as Hayden Christensen would do decades hence (more on that later).

More props due to Kershner and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who, mostly during the first half of the duel, play excellently with light & steam so that the two combatants are frequently in varying amounts of silhouette, giving their clash an iconic look. Also, I’m not sure if this was deliberate, but the wide shots seem to work smartly with the camera angles and actors’ body posture so that Vader still towers over Luke but not comically so, as a more natural contrast of Prowse (6’5) and Hamill (5’9) might appear.

The fight is basically broken into three parts. In the first, Vader’s main goal is to trap Luke in the carbon-freezing chamber and get him to the Emperor, but Luke’s secret training makes him more formidable than Vader had guessed. They fence a bit both before & after Luke escapes from the freezing pit, with a few neat tricks along the way, such as Luke stunning Vader with a ruptured steam hose or Vader swooping down dramatically after knocking Luke down a flight of stairs. “Dramatic” is definitely the name of Vader’s game here: since the entire confrontation was engineered by the villain from the start, he seems to be almost deliberately (even theatrically) playing up his superior power, often fighting with just one hand and coolly tempting Luke with the power of the dark side. The soundtrack here is mostly silent, with only sound effects and brief snatches of dialogue to highlight the proceedings. The choreography is nothing flashy– that stuff doesn’t really kick in until the prequels– but it’s stately, compelling and thrilling nonetheless. Also it’s not long before Luke is looking visibly sweaty (by the end he’s incredibly ragged and bruised, in fact), which further hammers home his underdog status here; this is a sort of happy accident of costume design, because considering the steamy environment and physical exertion Vader would surely be sweaty too (in fact underneath that bulky armor he’s gotta be stank-ass filthy), but since he’s covered head to toe we never see it, thus preserving the character’s unflappable cool.

The second part begins after the pair are separated when Luke kicks his foe off a platform. Rather than merely hiding, Vader is actually just cannily controlling the battlefield, forcing Luke to chase about. Vader reveals himself near a window overlooking a vast chasm in the enormous Bespin mining structure, but rather than going back to fencing, the Sith Lord decides to show Junior what it’s like when the kid gloves come off. Without even the physical prompting that usually accompanies Force telekinesis, Vader quietly tears off huge pieces of the scenery and throws them at Luke, faster than he can keep up. Soon enough he’s battered to the point where he can’t resist the vacuum after one chunk of debris smashes a hole in the window, and he goes tumbling down. This is where John Williams’ famous music kicks in rather ominously, accentuating what’s already clear to the audience and probably to Luke: he’s not going to win this. He was never going to win this. He’s completely outclassed and has majorly screwed things up, just like Yoda and Obi-Wan warned him. He was a fool to come here.

The final part takes place as Luke tries to make his way back up after recovering from the fall onto an isolated platform (hey, what’s that platform there for, anyway?), but is ambushed by Vader and the fight resumes. The villain doesn’t try any of his cool Force mojo from this point on, but he doesn’t have to: he’s dominating the poor boy more than ever, pushing him back out onto the platform with no place to run. Luke does get in a painful-looking strike on Vader’s shoulder, but shortly after he gets his own hand chopped right off, his weapon along with it.

As Luke crawls out onto the (very narrow) end of the walkway, the dynamic in their struggle changes: because Vader wants & needs Luke alive and Luke is in a precarious position that Vader can’t forcibly extract him from, suddenly Luke has the upper hand, and Vader’s temptations turn almost pleading– he needs to quite literally talk Luke off the ledge.

He tries threats, he tries bribing him with power, then he pulls out the big guns and hits him with the revelation that shocked the world. Watching the scene again now, after 30+ years of repetition, imitation and parody, it hasn’t lost one ounce of its thunder. Done wrong this could have come across as a cheesy soap opera-esque reveal, or the inescapable truth of it might not have been conveyed, but everything here comes together just right: Jones’ growling delivery, Hamill’s reaction starting out as quiet realization and quickly escalating into panicked desperation, and Williams’ music coming in at just the right moment. Perfection.

Vader tells Luke to come with him because “it is the only way,” but Luke proves that there’s always another way, even if it’s probable death. He lets go of his grip and plummets into oblivion. But despite his escape from corruption, there’s no mistaking that Luke scored no victory here: this is a man who has been utterly defeated, inside & out.

What else can you say?

Grade: A+

3) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (rematch)

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

(Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

The Fighters:

  • Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.
  • Darth Vader, played by David Prowse (though mostly Bob Anderson for this fight) and James Earl Jones.

Also Ian McDiarmid is there as Emperor Palpatine, overseeing the whole thing and stepping in at the end for a light show.

The Fight: This one is surprisingly abbreviated, and concerned with drama as much if not more than it is with action.

Goaded on by the Emperor, Luke tries to resist the anger bubbling up within but eventually lashes out, and engages with Vader. The action is noticeably more aggressive than what we’ve seen before and more complicated as well, with Luke pulling off a nifty backflip or two. Hamill does his best work yet in this duel, actually, clearly at war with his roiling emotions and trying to restrain himself yet coming off utterly psycho whenever his rage does take over.

Twice Luke tries to disengage and twice he’s pulled back in. The first time he’s pursued by Vader and forced to defend himself, so he then gets some distance and hides out as Vader hunts; this creates an interesting reversal of the duel in ESB, where Vader made Luke chase after him– except here Luke is trying to defuse the conflict whereas Vader was only turning it to his advantage. In fact there are several inverse parallels in the two showdowns: last time, Luke was warned not to go to Vader even though he wanted to, but now Yoda explicitly tells him he must defeat Vader even though he doesn’t want to, in order to become a full Jedi. This is the kind of thematic resonance snooty critics must be thinking of when they deride Star Wars as “shallow” and “simplistic.”

Anyway, Luke stays out of sight and tries to play it cool, but soon Vader’s continued speaking and threats rattle him enough that he can sense the boy’s anxiety about Leia. Vader plays on that, which finally provokes Luke into a full-fledged Jedi tantrum. This is when Williams’ music, which has mostly stayed quiet throughout the proceedings, kicks in. But it’s not thrilling or scary but sad, because this is a family tragedy playing out before us, this is the wrong path for Luke to take.

Junior finally gets Dad on the ropes and pins him down with a series of furious blows, culminating in Vader’s own hand coming off. Luke finally stops his assault but he still looks truly unnerved– he’s really on the precipice here. But that’s the moment Palpatine chooses to close in (he arguably overplays his hand), gleefully telling Luke to give in & take his father’s place. Luke looks wary at being turned into the Emperor’s next disposable pet, then he looks at his father’s sparking stump and compares it to his own prosthetic fist. It is, oddly, the physical parallel between the two that finally snaps the hero out of it; he sees how alike he and his father already are, and chooses not to go any further.

Standing down for good, Luke throws his lightsaber over the edge of the pit (seriously, pits everywhere in this universe), and tells Palpatine that he’s failed forever. Luke knows full well that he may not leave the room alive, but he has faced his own inner demons and come out victorious, proving himself a true Jedi. He won the battle his father lost long ago.

Fittingly, that also seems to have earned Anakin’s redemption: when the Emperor starts to torture Luke with Force lightning, his father steps in and tosses the despot to his death, at the cost of his own life.

Very good, but this is easily the most over-edited of the trilogy’s fights, cutting in and out to other parts of the movie’s triple climax several times; necessary from a storytelling standpoint, but arguably aggravating the scene’s own energy. As stated the choreography is more complex, even though it’s missing the same level of dramatic oomph as in the previous fight. Hamill acquits himself quite well indeed on all fronts, and McDiarmid’s unnerving presence as the ever-confident Emperor is creepy as anything. But the real missing X-factor here is Vader himself: throughout the fight and indeed throughout most of the film, Darth Vader seems like a shadow of his former self. His whole body language seems tired & resigned, nowhere near the menacing mystical shark of a man we saw in the previous two installments. He’s less of an implacable force of nature and more of an old man with regrets. It’s a shame.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The complementary retrospective. I dread what awaits me.

Might as well get this meme out of the way now.