Friday, April 19, 2013

Anatomy of a Scene: Grievous Challenges Kenobi

(Originally written for Jedi News.)

I got a comment on last week’s article from a frequent reader of this blog. This particular poster doesn’t think much of Episodes I-III, but since he’s (usually) respectful and we’ve agreed in other areas he’s earned my utmost respect as a passionate film fan, even when I think his criticism misses the mark.

Anyway, he made the claim that it is more difficult for an actor to react correctly when he has to imagine something being there as opposed to actually having an accurate representation in order to get real responses.

For certain actors, that’s very true. Speaking as an actor, I can say that imagination is an essential part of the job, and few people last long without it. However, it is a little easier to react to something that’s there as opposed to something you pretend to be there.

Of course, he was using it to bemoan the performances with effects shots in I-III. I personally think the performances are right on the money and that’s a testament to how hard the actors worked when things weren’t there.

The reader goes on to cite the scene in Revenge of the Sith where General Grievous grabs his lightsabers, separates his arms, and begins his attack. He claims Ewan McGregor just stands there like nothing is happening when really he should at least flinch if not immediately ready his lightsaber. After all, wouldn’t anyone when literally face-to-face with a known Jedi-killing cyborg

I’ve heard this kind of reasoning before, and it sounds solid on its face. However, I’d like to really analyze the scene in question to show how that kind of thinking just really makes no sense in this context.

First off, let me set the scene for you. Obi-Wan Kenobi has been sent to Utapau to make capture General Grievous dead or alive. Spying from a catwalk, Kenobi decides to literally drop in on the General, taking him by surprise. After handily defeating Grievous’ elite Magnaguards by dropping something heavy on them, Kenobi faces the guns of a battalion of droids. “Back away,” Grievous says, drawing himself up to his full height, “I will deal with this Jedi Slime myself.” Your move,” says Obi-Wan, conversational and polite as ever. “You Fool!” Grievous exclaims while unhooking his cloak, “I have been trained in your Jedi arts by Count Dooku!” As the cloak falls, Grievous snags four lightsabers. He holds his arms outstretched as they separate into four, each one igniting a lightsaber. Grievous swings them around in a flourish before holding them in a ready position. “Attack, Kenobi.” Kenobi smiles, nods, and assumes his own ready stance. Grievous then advances slowly, twirling two of the sabers like a windmill of death in front of him. Kenobi’s smile fades. He slowly backs off, ready to block once the monster comes in range. Grievous strikes, the battle commences.

Overall a very exciting scene, but it is true that Obi-Wan barely moves when Grievous pulls out his lightsabers. However, seeing it in context, it is clear that this is not an error brought on by the disadvantage of a CGI Grievous, but a deliberate character moment on the part of both Ewan McGregor and George Lucas.

The criticism fails because it makes a few assumptions about this scene that are wildly inaccurate. The first is that Kenobi, or “anyone” would have a physical reaction to this. First off, Kenobi is a Jedi trained to not let his emotions get the better of him. When he moves, he moves deliberately and without letting fear take him. Any Jedi worth his salt would do the same, as Grievous wears in his cloak proof of what happens when you don’t. And as for a non-Jedi character who would be scared pantsless? They’d be deer-in-headlights frozen for at least a moment before screaming to the hills. The only way they’d have a knee-jerk physical reaction is if the whole thing was a surprise, which leads into the next assumption…

Assumption 2 is that Kenobi was surprised by the General’s display. He wasn’t, and why should he be? Let’s for a moment ignore “Clone Wars” where they met every other week, since those stories weren’t even written yet. General Grievous is a known enemy combatant and Kenobi is technically a General as well. Grievous has been operating long enough for Kenobi to have been briefed a thousand times over on the Kaleesh. And what do we know primarily about Grievous? That he uses intimidation to defeat foes, and will flee the second that intimidation fails. Kenobi may not have known about this particular trick, but he’d expect the good General to pull something like that out of his sleeve. Look at the expression on Kenobi’s face when the scene cuts back to him. It’s a look that clearly states “Things just got interesting.” Grievous’ trophies from lesser Jedi prove that to give in to the intimidation is to lose, so regardless of what Kenobi is really feeling he’s not going to give Grievous the satisfaction of seeing it. Given the blasé way Kenobi entered the room, this was probably part of the strategy to unnerve Grievous into making a fatal mistake. Finally, it must be stressed repeatedly that Grievous in no way jumped out at Obi-Wan at any point during this initial encounter. It’s more accurate to say Kenobi jumped out at Grievous. Kenobi was in control, he instigated this conflict, so therefore no surprise. But Grievous did move awfully fast…

Assumption 3 is that Grievous was all set to attack the second his sabers were ignited. It was a flourish, clear as day. All lightsaber battles in this time period begin with a flourish, or a salute, or even just a simple ready stance from one or both of the combatants (the one exception being Maul on Tatooine, which wasn’t a duel as much as an attempted assassination). Grievous even invited Obi-Wan to attack first (of course, going back on it the second Kenobi pulled his own ready stance). Again, having been briefed, Kenobi knew Grievous was a showoff, and wouldn’t dare attack until his prey has seen what he can do with those sabers. Still, wouldn’t there be at least a dodge if it was right in front of his face?

Assumption 4: Starting distance. The angles may make it seem that, at a quick glance, Obi-Wan and Grievous are literally face to face. But let’s really look at this. First of all, in the shot in question, they look about the same height. Remember, though, that Grievous is at least two feet taller than Kenobi at full height (which he was at when the arms separated), possibly more. They can’t be close to each other. Let’s examine the entire sequence. First, Obi-Wan jumps down and lands a good 25-30 feet away from Grievous. Grievous backs off a few paces once his Magnaguards close in, but Obi-Wan dispatches them with the low-hanging fixture and walks around it, closing a little over half the distance. That still leaves at least ten feet between the combatants when Grievous pulls his little stunt. Now, notice once they begin the duel that it takes Grievous several paces to close the distance to Kenobi? Yes, Kenobi started backing up as soon as Grievous advanced with his rainbow of doom, but Grievous still takes longer strides as shown in one far shot. When Grievous enters the frame it only takes him a six steps to reach Kenobi after it took him good 15 seconds to get to the shot in the first place.

And note that from this point on, Kenobi’s reactions are exactly what one would expect given his situation.

Of course, we’re talking about a psychic space monk verses an alien cyborg, both wielding swords made out of concentrated laser beams. Realistic thought probably jumped out the window a while ago. But even in this fantastic universe there are rules and continuity, even if the detractors fail to see it.

It was fun to really dig into one of my favorite scenes of the film, and is a perfect prelude to something I’ve been working on, which I’ll tell you all about next week.


  1. Although it's almost common sense, the fact that Jedi don't display emotions such as fear from their opponents is corroborated by Lucas on the Blu-ray exclusive audio commentary of The Phantom Menace, during the initial sequence where Jedi fight against battle droids and destroyer droids. Worth to check it out.

    1. Definitely the first thing I get when I get a blu-ray player.