by David Cornelius
Maybe it’s because he felt the need to show up all those fanboys who belittled the first two prequels. Or maybe it’s because after being out of practice for two decades, he just needed two films to use as warm-ups before finally getting back into the swing of things. Or maybe still, he took the success of “The Lord of the Rings” as a challenge, and upped his game as a result. Or, just maybe, it simply worked out this way. No matter the excuse: with “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith,” George Lucas has created not merely a good movie, or even a great movie. He’s finally gotten around to making another excellent movie.With “Sith,” the final entry in the “Star Wars” saga and the one that bridges the new prequel trilogy to the original films, Lucas has regained his strength as a master storyteller. Here, he proves that he’s familiar enough with the technological side of things that he’s finally returning to his roots as a powerful moviemaker; he’s no longer merely relying on the visual effects crew to supply all of the best shots. Indeed, many of the film’s most memorable images simply involve a well-placed camera, an eye for what looks great on the screen, a sense for what best propels the emotional center of the scene.
"As good as you've heard? No - it's even better."
This, however, does not mean that Lucas has picked up a “less is more” approach to his saga. On the contrary, “Sith” is arguably the busiest film of the bunch, amping up the action (I lost count of how many action set pieces there are here) and overloading his plot with every last detail necessary to get the series’ timeline into place by the closing credits. And yet it is not rushed, nor is it confusing. It is, quite simply, a manic display of thrill rides, held together by a surprisingly deep emotional arc.
But first, the beginning. “Sith” begins with the best opening shot of all the “Star Wars” films - yes, even better that of the jaw-dropping 1977 original. In the “Star Wars” tradition of dropping the audience right into the middle of things, “Sith” begins mid-battle: a massive space fight is underway above the city planet of Coruscant, and with seamless CGI the camera, in an eye-popping tracking shot, follows two fighters as they zip their way through all the danger. This is, in fact, the start of a breathtaking half hour or so of non-stop action, our heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) pulling off a daring rescue of the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).
No matter your feelings on the previous two movies, this opener goes out of its way to let us know that this is the “Star Wars” we know and love: great fun on a epic scale. Things finally slow down when we get on the ground, Anakin discovering that his wife-in-secret, Padmé (Natalie Portman), is pregnant. And yet this is not the only change in store for Anakin; his closeness to Palpatine has made him into an advisor of sorts, representing the Chancellor on the Jedi Council. (And don’t worry if none of this makes sense to you. Somehow, “Sith” even manages to work for those unfamiliar with the series.)
The Jedi council, not trusting Anakin too much, refuses him the rank of master. This, on top of the nasty visions he’s been having of Padmé dying, drives him to darker thoughts - thoughts Palpatine has no problem feeding.
It’s easy to forget that not everyone knows where all of this is headed. Yes, the entire new trilogy has been leading to the point where Anakin becomes Darth Vader, so much so that the film’s ad campaign (and obligatory marketing tie-ins) plays off the Vader angle. So imagine my surprise when it dawned on me that my young daughter - and, I’m guessing, many other youngsters, and even those rare few who have seen the prequels but never the original trilogy - had not picked up enough from the other movies to make the Anakin/Vader connection (the prequels were made with clever in-joke foreshadowing, yes, but nothing blatant; the original trilogy tosses the name “Anakin” around, but you can’t blame a preschooler for not catching it). At a crucial mid point in “Sith,” the scene to which the entire prequel series has been headed, my daughter began crying violently. Was she scared? No: she was concerned. “I don’t want Anakin to be bad!” she whispered to me. “I don’t want Anakin to be Darth Vader!!”
This was during my second viewing of the film, and it was my first reminder of how well the prequels had worked, despite the naysayers. We had met this cute kid, we had watched him grow into a hero. His darker impulses seen in “Attack of the Clones” and in the first half of “Sith” could be forgiven, considering he’s just a confused youth, and surely his heroics will remind him to stay on the side of good. And now, here, in a film that invests so much in his emotional being, to finally see him betray his good side and become Darth Vader (if in name, but not black suit and cape), why, that’s a mother of a stinger. And Lucas’ handling of this scene and its placement within the story structure (it follows one hell of a build-up, making it the perfect pay-off) proves that, to borrow a famous line, now he is the master.
You may be wondering why I took my young daughter to see this film, which has been reported as being far darker than any “Star Wars” film ever could be, so much so that it’s become the only entry in the franchise to earn a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. Granted, a few shots near the end do feature some startling images, but they’re “graphic” only when compared to the other “Star Wars” films. Compared to, say, “Lord of the Rings,” these shots are, if not tame, then at least handled delicately enough that it’s my belief that the MPAA may have overreacted. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if “Sith” is too much for your whippersnapper, but I’d say that most can take it.
After all, it’s not as if the violence here is senseless and random. No, everything here follows the flow and feel of the story, and shots of Anakin being so damaged and broken that he must forever wear that massive Vader suit in order to survive, well, they come with an emotional push. This is where Anakin’s decisions have taken him, this is the price he must pay. It’s not pretty, but it makes perfect sense. (And what better way to discuss the notions of good and bad with your children than to see how Anakin chooses the dark side here, with all its ugly consequences, then compare it to “Return of the Jedi,” in which Luke faces the same choices, yet opts for good. “Star Wars” is nothing if not a morality tale, and “Sith” may inspire plenty of parent-child discussions. How wonderful is that?)
Speaking of the film’s darkness, its most effective scene, the one that packs the most emotional punch while also managing to showcase Lucas’ power as a visual storyteller, is the one in which the Jedi get eliminated at the dawn of the newly formed Empire. This is a sequence that’s equally horrifying and heartbreaking. As to not risk giving anything else away, I will merely state that the way in which Lucas handles this material as both a writer and a director is a fine example of why I came to love the art of movies in the first place; here’s a story point so expertly handled that all else fades away, and we become overwhelmed. This scene, like so many like it in the “Star Wars” franchise, serves to illustrate the power of cinema.
Not everything here is perfect, of course. The finale, which is designed to set up everything for the original trilogy, stretches a bit too long, and a scene in which Vader first speaks in his new suit runs the risk of being unintentionally silly. And yet it works, the first problem because it fits within the structure of the series as a while (much in the same way that the finale of “Return of the King” felt long, but in reality was the best way to wrap up a ten-hour mega-movie), the second because it fits into the series’ notion of space melodrama.
After all, the whole story is inspired by old fashioned sci-fi “space operas,” with all the eye-rolling absurdity that come with them. But it’s so expertly handled that it never falters, despite itself. (Consider the scene in which Anakin discovers the true identity of the mysterious Darth Sidious. This “secret” has been obvious to anyone in the audience, but in a retro serial kind of way, I was willing to buy the mystery. I grinned during this moment, thinking back to every black and white actioner that contained dialogue like “A-ha! So you’re the Phantom! I never would have guessed!”)
While this throwback nature impaired the other prequels (corny dialogue came off in spots as embarrassingly awkward), things seem more finely tuned here. The acting’s better all around, for one, but so is the writing. The result is a series of moments that show off the acting chops of several cast members, most notably: McGregor, the brilliant actor who looked slightly uncomfortable with the cumbersome dialogue of the previous films and who finally gets to show in this series what we’d seen him do elsewhere already (his “you were the chosen one” speech is impeccable, a surge of heartbreak that caught me well off guard, to great effect); Christensen, whose whiny turn in “Clones” now seems either brilliantly calculated or, perhaps, the nervous work of a newcomer, whereas in “Sith,” both the actor and the character have matured greatly, allowing Christensen to shine in the film’s later, darker scenes; and, above them all, McDiarmid.
McDiarmid, whose brilliant, scenery-chewing performance as the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” was vastly underrated, has been given little to do in the prequels so far - his Palpatine has existed merely to forward the plot. Now, finally, we get to see the character in all his glory. Watch how effortlessly McDiarmid handles the role. He is, depending on the moment, a calm, slick politician; a trembling coward in the face of death; a wicked little man (just watch how McDiarmid slips right into his characterizations from “Jedi”); a brilliant villain. Some may see the scene in which he cartoonishly drawls “no! no! noooo! nooooo!” as goofy, but I saw it as perfect. Palpatine is, at his core, a coward obsessed with power, and the sniveling way in which he carries himself here fits in all the right ways.
But above all, watch McDiarmid in the scene where his character tells Anakin the legend of an all-powerful dark lord. The actor’s choices for which part of the story to emphasize and which to rattle through (his vocal rhythms: slow, stressing, slow, important… quick, quick, matter-of-factly), combined with his haunting speaking voice, makes for a truly captivating moment. This is a brilliant performance, one that’s surely to go shamefully unnoticed once again, all because it’s in some spaceship movie.And that’s the secret of “Sith.” It would seem to be just another space opera, some special effects blockbuster that’s all noise and little else, your typical popcorn flick. But look more closely. “Sith” is so much more. This is downright brilliant filmmaking, an awesome spectacle that manages to balance thrills and emotion with a steady hand. This film is an epic in every positive sense of the word, the perfect capper to a franchise that has earned every ounce of its popularity. If this is truly the last “Star Wars” film, I can’t imagine a better send-off.
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originally posted: 05/20/05 20:20:22