by Mel Valentin
Before seeing "Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith", "Star Wars" fans (and casual fans) want the answer to two, related questions. First, is "Revenge of the Sith" better than its two predecessors, "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" and "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones?" Second, is "Revenge of the Sith" a worthy prequel to the original trilogy? The answer to both questions is “yes,” but the answer to the second question must be qualified. "Star Wars" fans will have to look beyond the obvious flaws in the script and performances (as well as logical inconsistencies between the two series) before getting to “yes.”After two inarguably inferior prequels which followed Anakin Skywalker from a young boy unaware of his talents or destiny to apprenticeship as a Jedi Knight and young adulthood, including a romantic relationship and secret marriage to Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith covers the fateful events that inexorably and inevitably lead Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to the Dark Side of the Force, to his transformation into the half-man, half-machine, black-helmeted Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) much-feared enforcer. Together, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine rule the Galactic Empire with unbending, dictatorial authority.
"Seriously flawed, but definitely worth waiting for (and seeing)."
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As Revenge of the Sith opens, Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) have been tasked to “save” Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from the Droid Separatist Army as a massive space battle ensues over a planet. As Anakin and Obi-Wan make their way through a droid ship, they dispatch dozens of ineffective droids. The ship, however, contains two, much more dangerous passengers, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and General Grievous (a wheezing, insect-like CGI-creation meant to foreshadow Anakin’s eventual transformation into Darth Vader), the military leaders of the Separatists. General Grievous escapes, but Count Dooku fares less well in combat with Obi-Wan and Anakin.
Back on Coruscant, the city-planet that serves as the seat of government for the Galactic Republic, Anakin is greeted as a hero, but after being reunited with Padme (she announces her pregnancy), he falls prey to nightmares, premonitions of Padme’s death in childbirth. Palpatine, the secret leader of the Sith Lords, eager to convert Anakin to the Dark Side, continues his silver-tongued seduction. Palpatine preys on Anakin’s over-inflated ego and his treatment by the Jedi Council (his volatile temperament slows his advancement to the level of “master”), but just as importantly, on Anakin’s fears about Padme. Palpatine offers him power as his new apprentice, but also, apparently, a way to escape or forestall Padme’s death.
Meanwhile, the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Separatists continues, with Obi-Wan tasked with locating and defeating General Grievous. As the conflict nears its end, Palpatine uses his influence over Anakin to draw him further to the Dark Side, while also formulating and executing his plans to eliminate the Jedi Council (and all Jedi Knights). With the external enemy near defeat, Palpatine can only hold onto his emergency powers by creating a new, internal enemy. The Jedi Council, led by Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and the grammar-challenged Yoda (voiced, once again, by Frank Oz), is inexplicably slow to act and react, sealing their fates.
With the events in the original trilogy already known to even casual fans, a tragic dimension attaches itself to the central characters (simply put, knowing more than they do places us in a superior position). The Galactic Republic falls, the Galactic Empire rises, with Palpatine as autocratic ruler. The Jedis are defeated, only to rise again with Luke Skywalker twenty years later. Obi-Wan and Yoda survive, but go into decades-long exile from the center of power. Darth Vader’s saga continues, but no longer as tragic hero, but as villain (Luke becomes the hero in the second trilogy, sans flaws). Balance will be restored to the Force, but not as Yoda or Obi-Wan expected or predicted.
Coming full circle, George Lucas gives us, on balance, a barely satisfying conclusion to the prequel trilogy. The storytelling is better, tighter, more focused than that found in the first two films. Revenge of the Sith is one spectacular space battle after spectacular ground battle after spectacular space battle, a credit both to George Lucas’s visual imagination and the special effects staff at Industrial Light & Magic. But therein lies a major problem with Revenge of the Sith. Lucas shows little restraint in the overlong, action scenes, preferring epic (read: video game) spectacle over intimate, human drama. The repeated scenes and shots of CGI armies battling to the virtual death results in mind- and emotion-numbing effects, and becomes a symptom of Lucas’ distrust in his own storytelling abilities. In addition, Lucas overindulges by including one too many light saber duels (due, presumably, to Revenge of the Sith's status as the last Star Wars film he'll produce) and superfluous characters (e.g., C-3PO, R2D2, Chewbacca, and Boba Fett).
Lucas’ penchant for stilted, underwritten dialogue is still in evidence (as are the uniformly wooden performances from his dazed cast, with two exceptions, Ian McDiarmid and Ewan McGregor). As Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Hayden Christensen's performance has failed to improve from Attack of the Clones. It’s also clearly evident, however, that Anakin’s (final) fall from grace meant more to Lucas than any of the events covered in the first two films. Lucas still can’t write a believable romantic scene. The romantic scenes are, in short, risible (Christensen and Portman have my sympathies), but the scenes featuring Palpatine and Anakin are among the best in the trilogy. Surprisingly, Lucas is able to wring pathos from the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan, as Obi-Wan struggles with his conflicted feelings toward his former apprentice, as well as the final scene between Mace Windu, Palpatine, and Anakin, with Windu's willful, undemocratic reaction to Palpatine's betrayal contributing to Anakin's conversion.
Besides the more evident flaws in the script and performances, Lucas was forced to tie, or attempt to tie, the loose ends between the two series. Given the events in the original trilogy occur later chronologically, Lucas had to explain, or explain away, potential inconsistencies between the two series (and within the later trilogy), e.g., Luke and Leia’s parentage (she says, at one point, that she remembers her other), and most importantly, Obi-Wan’s decision not to perform a coup-de-grace when he has the opportunity. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan’s decision might be guided by either his belief that Anakin is dead, or his inability to eliminate his former apprentice (but instead leaving him in unimaginable pain and anguish). Of course, Force powers are also an ongoing, unresolved issue. Among other abilities, Jedis and Siths have the ability to throw large objects at each other, but at crucial times, seem unable or unwilling to use that power. The extent of what Jedis can and do feel, whether reading emotions in each other or potential adversaries, also seems to wax and wane, for no apparent reason.
And, importantly, for the second trilogy, why do Padme and Anakin know only about one child and not two? Why does Anakin, the so-called Chosen One, not sense the truth about his children (they’re presumed dead) or his role in Padme’s death (and the Emperor’s obvious lie)? This last question leads to probably the most unintentionally funny reaction shot in the entire film (not what Lucas hoped for, presumably). On a deeper, more troubling level, why, after essentially committing genocide, is Anakin Skywalker ultimately granted absolution for his acts? This last question, of course, is one for the entire series, and not the prequels. Some may see this discussion as overanalytical (and possibly, joyless), but for a series of films embedded so deeply in our popular culture, close analysis is practically inevitable (and predictable).
A word about politics and Revenge of the Sith. Some, film critics and pundits alike, have attempted to treat Revenge of the Sith as politically typical. More accurately, some see Revenge of the Sith as a thinly veiled critique of the current resident of the White House. While Revenge of the Sith does contain one line (“You’re either with me or you're my enemy”) that uncomfortably echoes a line uttered by President Bush after 9/11, the prequels were in production long before President Bush was elected. If anything, Palpatine’s usurpation of power have more distant, historical parallels, to Nazism in Germany (Hitler took power legitimately, through constitutional means) or, more loosely, to the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Here, an old adage seems fitting: good politics does not make good art, or more accurately, a film, even one with the potential to reach millions of people, shouldn’t be judged by agreement or disagreement with the filmmaker's political stance on any given issue.Flaws, questions, and issues aside, however, Lucas comes surprisingly close to redeeming the prequels from abject mediocrity. In time, the "Star Wars" saga may be remembered as the trilogy (the original trilogy, that is) plus one, "Revenge of the Sith." Everything else is superfluous.
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originally posted: 05/22/05 21:02:01