June 02, 2005

Sith and Storytelling

 I just saw Revenge of the Sith at a very big screen with a digital projector (at Century 22 in San Jose, CA). Reviews have been all over the net so I won't bother with a blow by blow. Some observations.


In the first Star Wars movie, I thought that George Lucas did something extremely smart. He had the best looking special effects yet seen in a movie but he didn't dwell on them. For example, the first movie had the best looking space dogfight put on film to that time. But the camera don't linger on any of the ships, it just showed them long enough to set up the action and then switched away and kept the story moving.

In Revenge of the Sith, Lucas mostly stays true to that idea. The planets are amazing looking, but they are only on screen long enough to tell the audience where the action is taking place. The cities are breathtaking, but the camera only lingers long enough so that we know where we are. This is smart film making.


The amazing backgrounds often include a huge number of small moving objects. Every city scene is full of flying traffic and costumed pedestrians. Scenes on the lava planet didn't just have flowing lava, but active lava fountains, showers of sparks, and animated machines. It was all very pretty, but sometimes it actually distracted from following the story. For example, even when a cut didn't linger on a city scene, the frame was so full of movement, that it was harder to follow the action than it needed to be.

In this case, I think that Lucas let the special effects get in the way of the storytelling. The space dogfighting scenes in the film are so full of ships that it was sometimes hard to tell where the threats were coming from. In a movie you build tension by showing the audience the threat and allowing them to focus on the danger. If the frame is full of ships and weapon bursts, it is difficult to produce focused tension.

Interestingly, I suspect that the advance of digital effects has contributed to this error. When special effects were done by photographing models, each ship and effect had to be put in by hand. Because of the cost, the director wouldn't ask for any more models than he needed to create the desired story.

But with digital effects, additional ships and weapon bursts can be added procedurally. The animator can create a singe space fighter with programed movement and animation. Then a program can multiply that one fighter into a screen filling flock of fighters.
With procedural digital effects, adding screen clutter can be a matter of dialing up the quantity of fighters in an attack wing from 4 to 400. The director's job goes from deciding how few ships are necessary to produce the required dramatic effect, to deciding how many will ships will destroy the audience focus.
This becomes a problem because the procedural ships look so cool. A large flock of ships is very impressive looking. It easy for a director to err on the side of putting in too many ships (and other effects) rather than putting in too few.

Emotional Let Down

In the 3 prequel Star Wars films, the Jedi suppress emotions that might lead to the dark side. Thus they avoid love (which might lead to jealousy), anger, and any other feeling that might accidentally generate drama. I guess that drama leads to the dark side.

Given this, all the "good" Jedi are played pretty flat. Even a great actor like Samuel L. Jackson comes off as uninteresting when playing a Jedi. The villain of the piece is a Sith, a devote of the dark side of the force. But through most of the movie he is playing at being a mentor and is trying to convince Anakin of the rightness of his cause. So, the villain doesn't show a lot of emotion either. Anakin is working at being a good Jedi at the beginning of the film, and thus shows little emotion other than his love for Padme. And after Anakin turns to the dark side, he hides the change and continues to play down his emotions.

Thus, the only major character who can show emotion throughout the film is Padme. And Natalie Portman lets it all hang out, showing powerful emotion in almost every scene. She acts so differently from the others that it is almost like she is in a different movie, or at least a movie with a different director.

In the first Star Wars movie, Luke loved Leia, Lea hated Darth Vader and liked Luke. Han was best friends with Chewbacca, liked Luke, and had his eye on Leia. Everyone loved, hated, and wanted things they couldn't have. Their emotions helped drive the drama of the story. Too bad the same emotion couldn't drive Revenge of the Sith.


For all the my gripes, I thought Revenge of the Sith was worth seeing. Plot-wise, it artfully connects the 3 prequels to the original three movies. The stakes are high and the confrontations are mostly satisfying and make sense. Since my expectations had been beaten down by The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, this film actually exceeded my expectations.


Worth seeing in the theater, just for the impact of the amazing visuals.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 05:49 PM