May 20, 2005

THERE'S ALWAYS SOMEONE ELSE TO BLAME (via Michael Herdegen):

'Sith': The Promise Fulfilled (Stephen Hunter, 5/20/05, Washington Post)

This movie chronicles Anakin's earlier transformation, by which the righteous pilgrim, so handsome, so brave, so noble, so committed, lost his way and became Ahab or Macbeth or Raskolnikov or Faust, or John Wayne in "The Searchers," a figure of power and strength and charisma and intellect, all of it invested in madness and destruction. "What corrupted Anakin into Vader?" a critic asked six years ago. "Pride, that manly bringer of self-destruction? Arrogance? Abuse? (An intriguing possibility and source of many monsters on the banal old Planet E.) Genetic predisposition? Fear? Lucas only knows and let's hope he can get it together to tell us. If told right, it should be quite a tale."

Finally, it is.

As the film begins, Anakin and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, hardly engaged, with a quip on his lip and without a bead of sweat on his forehead) are scudding through somebody's battle fleet in order to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine from somebody (I get the sides all mixed up, so check elsewhere for political clarity). This is, to put it mildly, a great slam-bang sequence, that settles some old scores (bye-bye, Count Dooku, whoever you were, and it doesn't really matter), part of the film's new aesthetic of action. No movie has started faster since "Saving Private Ryan," and clearly Lucas has had a long sit-down with himself in which he explained to himself that he directed action sequences far more adroitly than he directed long exchanges on power-moves in congressional backrooms.

But soon, with Palpatine (the oily Ian McDiarmid) back as Chancellor, politics does rear its ugly head. Palpatine draws Anakin (Hayden Christensen) close, which annoys the Jedi Council and shields the young man from the influence of Obi-Wan and other Jedis, just as Anakin has begun having nightmares, and in his nightmares, his wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), dies. The situation creates in him an anxiety he cannot stand, and only Palpatine seems to have the assurance, the knowledge, to help him stave off this looming tragedy. Anakin can't imagine -- he is so blinded by fear -- that Palpatine has an even greater tragedy on the drawing board.

And so we watch the young man's wooing by the old man, how adroitly the old man plays his chords, nurses his fears, tickles his grudges, offers him the world. It's Satan showing Christ the possible, maybe it's Colonel Tom and Elvis, at least it's Mephistopheles and Faust. This is the crucible of the movie, the turning of Anakin until he's living a famous phrase from another period of 20th-century history: He has to destroy something -- his love -- in order to save it.

Stephen Hunter is a pretty good novelist and an often amusing movie critic, but if that's the sort of flaccid mush that passes for moral reasoning in his head it's rather pitiful.

It looks particularly inane when set beside John Podhoretz's devastating take from earlier in the week:

Lucas had more than a quarter of a century to figure out why Anakin Skywalker went bad. And here's what he came up with: Anakin is afraid of losing his wife Padmé in childbirth. Padmé tries to reassure him: "I promise you I won't die in childbirth," she says, offering a touching expression of her faith in the range of health-care services that were available a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2005 8:34 AM
Comments

Anyone who shows such a profound misreading of "The Searchers" cannot be taken seriously. Does he not rememember the ending at all?

Posted by: Bob at May 20, 2005 8:54 AM

I doubt whether Bob Lee Swagger or Earl Swagger (the protagonists from his novels) would respect such limp morality. Not that they wuld be caught dead watching this movie or even reading this review.
OJ - Did you read Dirty White Boys by Hunter?

Posted by: Pat H at May 20, 2005 11:17 AM

Pat:

Far his best.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 12:12 PM

So you guys are fans of Hunter too! Small world, and yes, Dirty White Boys was his best work.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at May 20, 2005 12:45 PM

Lucas' explanation of why Aniken Skywalker chose the dark side of the force is pretty limp. Nothing offered to him by the Emperor couldn't have also been given to him by Obi Wan. Yes, Palpatine manipulates Aniken's fears, but come on, how trivial! We're talking about someone becoming Darth Vader. There has to be a pretty titanic, life changing triggering event that sets up his moment of decision...but there isn't. Aniken Skywalker chose the darkside and chose to bow before the Emperor and say, "yes master" for no compelling reason. Most people won't care however. The psychological& spirtual story surrounding Skywalker's fall into darkness doesn't matter as much as the simple sight of it happening. We see it happen and that's enough for most folks.

Posted by: Dave W. at May 21, 2005 11:15 AM

Dave:

Mightn't we say that lack of faith in the afterlife makes him evil?

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 11:18 AM

That's part of it. What tipped the scales for Skywalker was a lack of faith in the light side of the force. In the light side of the force there is life, oneness, peace, etc. He didn't believe that light overcomes darkness, nor that light makes life possible and sustains it. Fear that a loved one is going to die does at times drive people to take extreme actions, but selling your "soul"? That's a bit extreme, I think. It will be interesting to watch the theological and psychological discussions on this.

Posted by: Dave W. at May 21, 2005 2:38 PM
« ORDER FROM WITHIN OR WITHOUT: | Main | THEY MAKE SOCKS, WE MAKE STOCKS: »