Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Randomised

StarWarsEpisode3PosterSee also:

Finally, we come to the end of an extensive Star Wars fest. I feel like I’ve settled into the Randomisation thing now, so perhaps it’s time to turn it towards some more challenging films. It’s not all that difficult to find something to say about narrative feature films, especially ones that spill over into so many intertexts and parallel strands of a franchise – each shot seems designed to resonate across a range of media. With Star Wars, for instance, even bit-part players might wind up with their own spin-off episode of a comic book or video game.

Before that happens, the saga must come to an end, or more, accurately, an end that sets up the beginning of the next/original trilogy of films. George Lucas might want us to watch them in order, 1-6, but there’s no doubt that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the dramatic irony of characters not knowing the significance that they will have later in the story; if it doesn’t require you to know what’s coming next, it certainly winks in the direction of those who do.

The random number generator will give me four numbers. I take frame grabs from the DVD of the frame that sits at the beginning of the minute-mark corresponding to these figures. They provide the starting point for discussion of the film. The numbers are 30, 77, 83 and 110. Let’s see what happens…
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Natalie PortmanHow often do we see people in bed in the Star Wars films? I’m sure there are some devotees who can give me an exact number, but I bet it doesn’t happen often. That sort of domestic necessity (we see people asleep, but rarely tucked up at home) is a rarity when there are more exciting things to show, and little interest in the private lives and thoughts of the characters. This is an unusually moody shot. The blinds cast noirish shadows on the wall (these people have discovered hyperspace but nobody took the trouble to invent curtains?) as Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) wakes to find her husband gone, tormented by a bad dream (premonition?) of her death. Throughout the prequels, Portman has been dressed up in some astonishing finery, at times ceremoniously decked out in Geisha style make-up and restrictively decorative robes, speaking in a cod-regal British accent through pursed lips. The story of her development as a romantic heroine (sadly, she has little to do in this film, though she does get to utter one of the only decent lines in all of the prequel scripts: “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”, which really jumps off the soundtrack with its unaccustomed relevance) is told through the gradual lightening of her wardrobe load, destricting her personality in the process. But she still sleeps in jewellery with her hair up, it seems. Critics mocked the lack of chemistry between Portman and Hayden Christensen, and this is probably fair comment – they’re not given much poetry to spout to make us feel that their love is really making the blood flow, but this may be, accidentally or not, the point; could it be that the Queen has blundered into this relationship and stays with her husband out of pity or fear, discomfited by his developing violent tendencies but trapped by convention or shocked into inaction? The luxurious surroundings of the palace (those embroidered cushions don’t look very cuddly) can’t be very conducive to a mutual understanding between a monarch and a freed slave, after all.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Ewan McGregor To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “Dude, WTF?!” This frame is so crowded with stuff I hardly know where to start. Obi-Wan is addressing one of the clone troopers, riding like a cowboy on a big, spaniel-lively lizard. Under their helmets, all of the clones look like their source material, Temuera Morrison; George Lucas even redubbed Boba Fett’s scenes in the Original Trilogy with Morrison’s voice. But, for reasons which are a mystery to me, Lucas decided that he didn’t want to make any actual, physical outfits for the troops, so they’re all digital animations. Morrison’s head has been superimposed onto a digital body. It looks ropey in places, but at least it matches the sense of manufactured soldiers, their uniformity and their slightly grotesque otherness, even if this flaw in the special effects is only inadvertently smuggling in such thematic reinforcement. The lizard looks pleasingly rubbery, giving me warm remembrances of Ray Harryhausen monsters, but the level of detail is overwhelming, with multiple planes of movement, destruction and colours that jostle for attention.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregorWhat’s under Darth Vader’s mask? As a youngster, these kinds of questions felt important. The amount of human left behind beneath that machinic shell was a matter of urgency, a mystery that needed solving. Eventually, I got to see what was under there, and it was quite satisfying, but Revenge of the Sith promises to show you how Vader came to be that way. So here we come to the near-conclusion of Episode III, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duelling to the death on a beam that stretches across an infernal chasm filled with raging lava. Anakin’s eyes have gone all Emo on us, conveying a deep angst that we’re supposed to equate with a turn to the darkside. Personally, I was a little disturbed to see this tormented, child-slaughtering fascist, with or without his photogenically precise facial scars, adorning children’s lunchboxes and birthday cards. Red is obviously the dominant colour here, but the lightsabers cut through the frame strinkingly – usually, combatants fight with different coloured blades, but on this occasion the two friends fight with similar coloured weapons. I’ve heard George Lucas espousing the merits of Jordan Belson’s colourful abstract animations, and sometimes the lightsabers duels in darkened spaces transform into semi-abstract bursts of violent colour, but it’s still a couple of dudes having a swordfight. Maybe that’s going to be my final comment on the Star Wars saga – however innovative, adventurous and yes, experimental its technological showcasing might become, it remains resolutely old-fashioned in its cultural references and its commitment to showing its fans what they really want and expect to see in explicit detail, instead of shaking things up with plot twists and formal subversion.

Finally, the last frame grab from this long-running series of Star Wars Randomised posts. The 83rd minute throws out the image below. Fittingly, it’s a departure. I’ll save you some time and point out the obvious E.T. pastiche as Yoda flies off in his little pod, but I’m hoping you can add some comments on this particular frame:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Yoda

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Randomised

Star Wars - Attack of the ClonesSee also:

Here we go again, with the penultimate entry in this series of randomised Star Wars posts. After the execrable CGI quackery of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones could only be an improvement, right? Well, yes. It doesn’t solve any of the dramatic problems of the earlier film, and perhaps makes them worse by attempting the tricky feat of constructing a doomed romance around which all kinds of political and military activity will swarm. George Lucas is simply not up to such a task as long as he focuses his attention on his digital playthings. I’ve always argued that CGI need not be a brain-sapping tool of anti-intellectual eye candy. It’s just that, while it remained expensive, there was little incentive to put it to adventurous uses. As such, it was just used for the same tasks as earlier forms of special effects – crowds, environments, monsters etc. There’s a moment on one of the extras of the Attack of the Clones DVD where you see Lucas working with an animator on a brief shot of digital Yoda. He pores over the same piece of footage, trying to get the correct kind of wobble in one of Yoda’s ears; they want him to look a little bit rubbery so that he doesn’t look too distant from the puppet used in the earlier films, but they want him to have a much greater range of expressions. I can’t imagine Lucas lavishing this much attention on the finer points of his human cast’s performances. Instead, he’s turned them into a different kind of puppet, adopting a drag-and-drop approach to editing whereby individual performances within a group shot can be isolated from separate takes and compositied into the same space.

Let’s hope the random number generator will at least give me some interesting and unusual bits of the film to look at and write about. The numbers are: 16, 44, 79, and 112. A nice spread, so let’s get started:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 16th minuteGeorge Lucas’ boy-racing past keeps on resurfacing. The Star Wars prequels purport to tell us what turned Anakin Skywalker into the evil Darth Vader. The explanations are pretty standard – the death of his mother, fear of losing his wife and child, being called Annie all the time. In short, he’s never really invested in the ideologies of Imperialism. He’s just weak-willed and very upset. But in Episode II we see him not as an incipient fascist overlord, but an angsty teenager. Lucas includes several moments where his reckless driving indicates a misuse of his Jedi powers for self-fulfilment, but he can’t help making it look exciting, and making Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) seem like a curmudgeon for his disapproval; look at the differences in their facial expressions, for instance. The lemon yellow speeder they drive in pursuit of a suspected assassin is designed like a sleek sportscar, the CG background a souped-up rear projection blurring in the background as it takes a rollercoaster dip. I seem to keep repeating this, but the Star Wars films feature a lot of this kind of vehicular velocity, and the use of point-of-view shots puts the viewer in the front seat of a ride. I noticed in an earlier post how one scene from from Return of the Jedi established downward motion as potentially lethal threat, running counter to controlled and steady forward journeys. Here, Anakin transgresses by leaving the flow of traffic to swoop downwards to street level, suggesting obliquely his alignment with the negative forces that populate the films.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 44th minuteA giant production line is bottling up babies to form the massive clone armies that will enable an Imperial take-over of the galaxy. This extreme long shot abstracts the people inside the little bubbles to shut out their individuality. The light blue is quite soothing and beautiful, but it’s as clinically smooth as the CGI that’s been used to visualise it. Dystopian imagery, where human beings are reduced to tiny outputs of giant machines, is a staple of science fiction, but Lucas doesn’t really pause on the philosophical or ethical consequences of posthumanism; if these issues are raised at all, they’re in the design of shots like this. This is certainly not the film for long discussions of human subjectivity in an age of duplication. Mechanising the workforce is the first stage of an Imperial takeover that will be empowered by a massive arsenal of spacecraft and other hardware: the prequels offer clues as to how the Empire came to power, and this is one of the pieces of that build-up, an insight into its clandestine origins, manufacturing its followers like bargain basement merchandise. It’s an impressive image that isn’t coated in the nightmarish darkness of The Matrix‘s people farms, but it’s also a bit of a dodge – rather than confronting the more troubling possibility that the Empire took over by influencing the populace by false promises and perverted ideology, we see that actually they grew their people in jars.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 79th minuteJust remember, if you’re a good guy in a Star Wars film, some jittery alien snitch is spying on you at every turn. Obi-Wan Kenobi takes a sidestep into the detective genre for most of this film, which means that other stock characters, including the snoop, come into play. This insectoid creature peers in from one side of the frame, hiding inside a cave. So many of the films’ alien species are introduced in this way, hiding and watching from a darkened distance. The digital matte painting that makes up the backgrounds in this shot still looks painterly, rather perfectly drawn and immaculately coloured – once again, we see Lucas’ insistence on dividing his planets up into single environments: sand planet, water planet, city planet, forest moon, etc., as if none of them is an ecosystem, but a cohesive, discrete design project.

For you, readers, the bonus frame is a relatively exciting one, a battle scene from the 112th minute of the film. Take a good look, and muster up some wisdom to share with the rest of us concerning this old thing:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 112th minute

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Randomised

Star Wars Phantom Menace Darth MaulSee also:

Yippee. I committed myself to finishing off a series of posts “randomising” the whole Star Wars saga. (See here if you’re not sure what “randomising” refers to on this blog.) Which means I have to reopen the wound of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks and all.

On a ratio of intensity of anticipation to quality of end product, The Phantom Menace must surely rank as one of the biggest anti-climaxes in cinema history. And it produced long-lasting unsettlement in franchise fans. Did its deep crapness mean that we had entered a cynical age that could no longer countenance jaunty battles, rubbery creatures and accident prone sidekicks (all of which were present in the “Original Trilogy”, as it came to be known, perhaps to protect it from contamination by association with its prequels)? Had Star Wars been rubbish all along and the world just hadn’t noticed? Why had we openly expressed excitement at the imminent release of a new film from the producer of Howard the Duck? I can’t answer these questions, but I can hope that the randomisation process will throw out some interesting observations on this film, whether you regard it as an underrated minor entry in a classic film series, or as the punishment beating of the collective human childhood, a joyless and perfunctory marquee for action figures, lunchboxes and Jar Jar Binks beachtowels.

The randomiser has given me the numbers 2, 49, 76 and 114. So, here we go…
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 2nd minuteThe number 2 corresponds to the 2-minute mark, so that’s the frame I’m stuck with. I thought 2 minutes would put me right in the middle of the expository text scroll that begins all of the Star Wars film, pretending to be catching you up on the backstory for a serial that spanned a bigger story either side of the one you were watching. As a kid (sorry to keep framing these films in terms of how I remembered them, but I guess that’s when I was most affected by them), the text seemed to be interminable, teasingly delaying the action. Now it’s gone in 60 seconds, and we’re straight into some scene-setting. Two Jedi Knights are being sent to investigate a trade dispute that has led the Trade Federation to blockade the peaceful planet of Naboo, a kind of pastel-coloured paradise of Renaissance palaces and Atlantean underwater cities (that actually like crystalline versions of those Habitrail things that people keep hamsters in). The Jedi’s shroud casts a shadow on most of the right-hand portion of this frame. It’s notable how often George Lucas plays on the monkish, forbidding appearance of the Jedi; does he want to draw attention to how they police the galaxy with this iconography of fearsome mystique, or the way the hoods make them look just like their ultimate nemesis, Darth Sidious (later the Emperor). We are never supposed to be troubled by the self-regulated, masonically sheltered Jedi order; we just have to accept that they are benign. At least all of their superstitious beliefs about the universe turn out to be true. But aside from trying to prevent a galactic slide into imperialism, and ensuring the preservation of their Order and all of its traditions, what are their political and ideological leanings, their worldview or their model for government. Well, aside from some quasi-Buddhist (The Phantom Menace even includes a shot of some Buddha proclamations about the interconnectedness of all things, we don’t really get a sense of the broader system of the Jedi system. Without actually ruling, they operate like a protective, interventionist priesthood, and their wider activities are subordinated to the easier, and more visually pleasing heroics of swordplay, escape and rescue. Anyway, back to this shot. The looming presence of the Jedi knight (that hood is a tantalising cover, setting up anticipation for a reveal) behind the pilot seems threatening, though it doesn’t block out the view through the screen of the blockade of starships around the green planet. There’s a striking stacking up of scales here, from the cloaked body in medium close-up through the windscreen to the distant planet whose inhabitants are abstracted subjects of the metallic ringfence that has them tightly monitored from orbit. As I’m sure I mentioned in earlier posts in this series, that shuttling between individual actions and planetary generalities is the template for the saga as a whole.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 46th minuteA nice red hue distinguishes this shot of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, communicating remotely with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Qui-Gon has taken a cell sample from Anakin Skywalker, believing him to be uniquely strong with the Force. Or something. This was the moment that made Star Wars fans the world over stop and say “WTF?” or some other culturally-specific expression of dismayed disbelief. If the Force was a mystical, spiritual essence that binds everything together, yet only a few believed in it enough to be able to feel its effects, how come we can suddenly measure the midi-chlorians and see a Force-o-meter on a little screen like the one in this frame? Many were not amused. A noble belief was reduced to a bit of pseudo-scientific genetics. Was Lucas trying to scientise the franchise? If so, he could’ve gone the whole hog and had different gravity levels on different planets or something like that. Either way, the tension between Obi-Wan’s monastic outfit and the computer equipment he’s peering into (it’s almost composed like a two-shot, as if McGregor is in conversation with the screen) articulates something of the Jedi’s relationship to technology. They have great facility with it, but it sits uncomfortably with their sense of self-denial and their emphasis on the body’s oneness with spirit, as opposed to the body’s augmentation with electronic assistants.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 76th minuteJar Jar Binks received an unprecedented level of hatred at the time of the film’s release. It was as if disgruntled fans were channelling all of their disaffection into the lightning rod of the amphibious Gungan slapstick sidekick, who they suspected of being a thinly-veiled appeal to kids and the toy market. You can see his feet on the table, to the left of this frame. I wrote a paper about the Jar Jar hate campaign, arguing that it might reasonably be seen as a projection of distaste at the overuse of CGI creatures, an abject response to the coming of the virtual actor. In this shot, Jar Jar sleeps deeply, snoring and tongue-lolling in a slovenly manner that pegs him as a creature of appetites, a folksy bystander to the political machinations of the plot. Lucas may have intended him to be an oblivious guide for the viewer through the earnestness of the other narrative pathways, as if he could make you feel OK not to have a clue what was happening or why it mattered. In contrast to Jar Jar’s clueless peace, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker cowers and scowls in the corner, diminished in the frame by those big dumb feet. One of the promotional posters for the film showed Anakin casting the shadow of Darth Vader on the wall, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that his head appears to cast the shadow of a helmet in this shot. Both the poster and this shot play on the dramatic irony of the incongruence between the jackbooted Dark Lord of the Original Trilogy and this sullen mummy’s boy. An abnormally sensitive composition leaves him forlorn and feeble, out of step with the new space he finds himself in. It also echoes/prefigures a similar scene of Luke Skywalker, saddened and defeated by the death of Obi-Wan as the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star in Star Wars.

Now, it’s become a feature of these Star Wars Randomised posts that one frame will be thrown open to the readers for their comments. Take a look at the following frame and see what meanings, interpretations, pedantries and observations you can apply to it. Any and all contributions are welcome:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 114th minute