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Friday 20 May 2005

Revenge of the Sith

a movie review by Lawrence Person

Directed by George Lucas

Written by George Lucas

Starring Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee

The first problem with reviewing Revenge of the Sith (or, if you prefer the entire 40 ton franchise appellation, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) is that there are too many ways to start the review.

There's the nostalgia angle: When my parents first tried to take my sister and me to see the original Star Wars (screw "A New Hope") at the Galleria in Houston (the only place it was playing in the area, 20th Century Fox having opened the film in only 50 theaters nationwide), the line stretched out of the theater and down and around the ice rink, and they had already sold out all shows for the next 8 hours. When it finally opened in wider release, it was well worth the wait -- The Best Movie for a 12-year-old Boy Ever.

There's the statistical angle: Six movies, 28 years, five Presidents, eight Presidential administrations, nearly $3.5 billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts for the first five films, and an estimated $40 billion or so in total merchandising revenue.

There's the ironic angle: Oh my God! Anakin is Darth Vader!

Then there's the simple approach: So. It's finally here.

The second problem is the impossibility of reviewing this film in a vacuum. As the last part in the first half (by internal chronology, anyway) of a six film saga, there's a huge freight of cinematic, franchise, and personal history loaded upon it. I cannot think of another series of theatrical films with a unified, overarching plot arc (as opposed to simply sequels featuring the same characters) being stretched out over such a long period of time. It's simply impossible to respond to the current installment in isolation from the other movies, or with anywhere near the same frame of reference I brought to the first one. I was 12 when Star Wars came out; I'm 40 now.

And then there are the obvious questions: Is it better than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones? Can it compare with the original trilogy? Is it worth seeing in its own right? And does it redeem the missteps made in Episodes I and II?

Yes. No. Depends. Somewhat.

Assuming the reader's familiarity with the first two films (for those who aren't, let me just say how happy I am you've finally emerged from that coma), here's perhaps the least necessary plot summary of all time, chock full of rich spoiler goodness: Anakin and Obi-Wan rescue Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Siduous from a separatist battle cruiser, during the course of which Anakin kills Count Dooku. Palpatine elevates Anakin to the Jedi council over their objections. Anakin has recurring dreams of Padme's death. Obi Wan is sent to another planet to finish off droid army commander General Grievous while Yoda goes off to help out the Wookiees. Anakin discovers Palpatine is a Sith Lord, turns him in to Mace Windu, then changes his mind and turns to the dark side, ostensibly to save Padme. The Jedi get slaughtered. Palpatine declares empire. Anakin duels Obi-Wan over lava, loses, becomes Vader. Yoda fails to best Palpatine. Padme dies giving birth to Luke and Leia. And everything's set in place for the original film.

First, the good things. It is far and away the most gorgeous of any of the six films. Just about every frame is filled to overflowing with digital wonders: monsters, ships, weapons, droids. If it's not always convincing (for some reason, the giant lizard Obi Wan rides just doesn't look real), it's not for lack of trying. The opening space battle contains far and away the most breathtaking and impressive assemblage of ships ever filmed, even if the actions undertaken by some of them are truly absurd (such as moving slowly past and firing fusillades into each other like 18th century Man-o-Wars). The final light saber duels are good, but not great, and don't measure up to Obi Wan's battle against Grievous earlier on, much less to the battle against Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, which remains the best from all six movies. And Coruscant looks more breathtaking than ever.

The acting here is the best of the recent films. Hayden Christensen has finally become an adequate actor; not great, mind you, but adequate, which is a vast improvement over his performance in Attack of the Clones. No longer does he gracelessly flail his way through Lucas' atrocious dialogue in a way that makes you think we all owe Mark Hamill an apology, and only occasionally does he sound like he's staging a one-man performance of The Whiniest Jedi. Ewan McGregor continues to impress; he's totally convincing both as an Obi Wan Kenobi older than the last film and in his masterful convergence toward Alec Guinness' still older version. As Siduous, Ian McDiarmid chews the scenery not only with relish, but also with mayo, ketchup, onions, and a dab of that really nice brown mustard you get at the deli counter. Alas, this seems to be exactly the way Lucas wrote the role, as his villains have always done everything but carry around signs proclaiming "Look at me! I'm evil!" Natalie Portman has far fewer instances of dead dialogue than in Attack of the Clones. Samuel L. Jackson is still largely wasted.

Overall Lucas' direction seems a lot tighter than in the first two films, and there are fewer scenes between Christensen and Portman where he seemed to say "Eh, good enough" after the first take. The action scenes are, as usual, extremely well staged. However, he looses points for that hoary cliché of a character actually looking up into the sky and screaming "Noooooooo!" But give him credit for not sugarcoating it: the ending is as big a downer as the overarching story required it to be.

The biggest problem is still the idiot-plot twists necessary for Anakin to turn into Darth Vader. Palpatine's machinations were already unbelievably labyrinthine for the first two movies; here they've become patently absurd. Is Anakin Skywalker really so vital to your Sith Lord plans that you have to place yourself in danger of immediate, painful death only Anakin can extricate you from not once but twice? It makes a James Bond villain's lair's self-destruct button seem a model of sensibility by comparison. And Anakin's conversion to the dark side is wholly unconvincing. Despite the prophetic dreams, he still comes across as a clueless, selfish dork rather than a potential "chosen one" seduced by evil. To be fair to Christensen, the scene where he joins Palpatine is so abrupt that even a great actor would have a hard time selling it.

How far does Revenge of the Sith go to redeem Anakin Skywalker's story? How well does it "complete the picture" of the overall story arc of the Star Wars universe? Alas, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones have already severely damaged that arc. So much has been written on the awful dialogue, the unnecessary plot twists, the grating Jar-Jar Binks, the mediocre direction, the poor acting of Jake Lloyd, and Lucas' complete inability to write romantic dialogue, that they need not be expounded upon here. Revenge of the Sith partially redeems having to sit through the first two movies to get here, but only partially. Ultimately, Anakin and Padme's love simply can't carry the gravitas necessary to drive the story of StarJesus turning into SpaceHitler. Anakin's conversion is the fulcrum upon which the entire saga rests, and it's bungled.

For that matter, there are too many elements from Episodes I-III which still make no sense, namely:

  • Do they not have nuclear weapons in the Star Wars universe? Rather than sending endless droids and troopers at Jedi, you'd think a few well-placed nukes would solve their problems far more efficiently. Or even take out an enemy ship or two.
  • Hey Anakin, doesn't the fact that Darth Siduous had you kill his last Sith Apprentice make you just a wee bit leery of becoming his next? The benefits are great, but the job security sucks.
  • Was there really any reason for Anakin to build C-3PO? Except for rather forced comedy, he plays no important roll at all in Episodes I-III.
  • Money seems to be used purely as a plot device in the Star Wars universe. Palpatine is able to embezzle enough funds to equip not one but two intergalactic armies, while Jedi can't even wire enough money to Tatooine to do little things like get ships repaired or buy a Jedi apprentice's mother out of slavery.
  • Given how easily R2D2 seems to be able to control any spaceship, it seems the galactic dreadnaughts have less security than your average Windows PC. Ever think about requiring a password to use your droidjack?
  • Midichlorians are still a stupid idea.
  • The exotic locales in Star Wars seemed organic to the story. The ones here seemed designed primarily to be sites for cool fight scenes. Really, could humans even breathe the atmosphere of a planet that was mostly molten?
  • We still don't learn how the Sith first came into being. (And don't bother telling me it's revealed in this book, or that game, or the limited edition comic with the special foil insert; if it isn't in one of the six films, I'm not interested.)
  • Why does the Senate break into applause when Palpatine proclaims an Empire? Democracy has its problems, but politicians who cheer when being stripped of their power isn't one of them.

We're finally faced with the fact that, despite 28 years of special effects advances, Lucas still hasn't recaptured the magic of his first film. Revenge of the Sith is markedly better than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but not nearly as good as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. (I'd have to see Return of the Jedi again to see if it's better than Revenge of the Sith; they're pretty close.) Despite the sheer size and scale of the marketing hype deployed in service of the Star Wars Franchise (with a capital F), the original Star Wars was a gem of a movie that, despite its flaws, still holds up today. The attack on the Death Star is still one of most tense and exciting scenes ever filmed. I doubt anything in Revenge of the Sith will hold up nearly as well 28 years from now.

Those who liked or were even indifferent to Episodes I and II will probably like Revenge of the Sith. Those who hated them probably won't find it enough of an improvement, and those who haven't seen the first two films will be too adrift coming in cold to recommend the third unless they have an ocular sweet teeth for panoramic eye candy. My final judgment may sound more damning than it really is: Revenge of the Sith entertained me, but it didn't move me.

— Lawrence Person

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