Star Wars: Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/18/05 14:37:12

"Is Sith All There Is?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If there are any remaining doubts about the immense social and cultural impact that George Lucas has made over the past quarter-century with his “Star Wars” saga, consider this: even though the last two installments, 1999's “The Phantom Menace” and 2002's “Attack of the Clones,” were widely considered even by fans of the series to be enormous disappointments in which lavish special effects couldn’t quite compensate for draggy, increasingly kiddie-oriented narratives, literally unspeakable dialogue and lousy performances from normally reliable actors, those same people still have enough faith in Lucas and his original vision that they are not only still eagerly looking forward to “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith,” they are convinced that he will not only pull the series out of the bag with this final installment, he will create something so powerful that it will somehow make those earlier films seem more worthy as a result. When I run into such a fan and they ask “How is it?” they aren’t just looking for a recommendation for a movie to see over the weekend–they are looking for something else, a sort of validation that says that their years of devotion and anticipation have, against all odds, been paid off in full. At a time when leaders and idols are built up and torn down with ever-increasing speed, such loyalty is kind of touching, if perhaps a bit misguided and absurd to those who aren’t a part of it.

That said, “Revenge of the Sith” is a film that is sure to both inspire and frustrate those true believers in equal measure. On the one hand, it is easily the best of the prequels (which, I admit, isn’t saying much), it contains any number of visual astonishments and climaxes with the scene that the last couple of films have been building towards–the moment when the once-idealistic Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker finally fully embraces the dark side of the Force and transforms into the malevolent Darth Vader. On the other hand, the same flaws that have crippled the last few installments are still on display here and the film, as a whole, somehow lacks the majesty and impact that one might have expected from the concluding chapter of an epic tale such as this. On the grand scale of the “Star Wars” series, it is about on par with “Return of the Jedi,” the concluding film of the previous trilogy. The difference, however, is that “Jedi,” having come on the heels of two authentic masterpieces, came off as sort of a disappointment. “Sith,” on the other hand, comes follows up two genuinely bad movies and seems like a definite improvement even though it pales in comparison to the likes of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” For a series that started out in a way that revolutionized the world of cinema (for better and worse), to conclude with a film that is merely pretty good is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.

Recounting the plot of the film would seem to be an exercise in futility–those who have been following the series since its inception already know the broad parameters, if not the specific details, of everything that transpires in the film while those who have somehow avoided all of the previous films will be so far behind that I doubt that such people would have even read this review up to this point. With the possible exceptions of “The Return of the King” and “The Passion of the Christ,” I cannot think of another blockbuster in recent memory where nearly every audience will enter the theater knowing pretty much exactly what will happen. For those people, they are not attending the film to see how the story turns out, they are attending to see how it has been transferred to film and to compare it with the vision that they have of how it should look and sound. (The following description is based on the assumption that you have seen the previous films and know what I am talking about–to try to explain the details for newcomers at this point would take far more time and energy than I suspect that any of us are willing to invest.)

Kicking off after the conclusion of the legendary Clone Wars that started at the conclusion of “Attack of the Clones” (and which were depicted in the Cartoon Network miniseries “Clone Wars”), the film opens with ambitious Jedi Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and mentor Ob-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) flying into the center of a ginormous interstellar battle while rescuing the seemingly benign Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of General Grievous (a CGI creature voiced by Matthew Wood) and his right-hand man, the equally nefarious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, in a brief but welcome appearance). Meanwhile, Anakin’s secret bride, Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) announces that she is pregnant with twins, a bit of news that could jeopardize both the relationship and their lives if it became known.

Anakin’s flaw, as we discovered in the previous film when he savagely slaughtered all those even vaguely responsible for the death of his beloved mother, is that he will go to any lengths to protect the lives of those he loves and when he begins to have fearful vision of Padme dying, Palpatine begins to show his true colors by offering Anakin the power to cheat death if he will turn his considerable powers to the dark side. This sets off a chain of events that leads to the Chancellor transforming into the leader of the new Galactic Empire, the eradication of nearly every single member of the Jedi order and Amidala realizing that the love of her life has fully embraced the evil that he once swore to defeat. It all leads to the inevitable moment in which former colleagues Anakin and Obi-Wan go lightsaber-to-lightsaber in a pitched battle on a planet that appears to be nothing but one giant erupting volcano with the fate of the galaxy in the balance.

After the fairly juvenile proceedings of the last two films (actually it goes back to “Return of the Jedi” with its ever-annoying Ewoks), “Revenge of the Sith” shows Lucas frankly going for the darker tone that was established in “The Empire Strikes Back,” the film generally regarded by fans to be the best of the series. Of course, the darkness of a “Star Wars” film is light-years away from the darkness to be had in the works of a David Lynch (who, curiously, was actually asked to direct “Return of the Jedi” at one point) or a David Fincher–the film is still, at its core, a big fairy tale in which good and evil, for the most part, are fairly well-defined. The problem here is that the darkness that Lucas has been striving for here is contained only in the surface details and not in the heart of the story. To be fair, part of this is the result of the fluky structure of the series in which the second series of films have essentially been nothing more than backstory to fill in the details of the original series. When Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker that he is Luke’s father, that scene had an enormous impact on those watching it back in the day because of the way that it suggested the darkness that can reside deep within even the most gee-whiz of heroes. Here, we see Anakin flip, betray his friends and even turn upon Amidala, the woman who he presumably did all of it for in the first place, but it seems so preordained that it surprisingly doesn’t make that much of an impact.

The other central flaw to “Revenge of the Sith” (indeed, of the entire second trilogy) is that while Lucas, aided by his army of technicians, can create vast and detailed worlds populated by intriguing creatures, he seems completely stumped when it comes to putting two or three actors in a room and having them do nothing more that speak and interact with each other. Once upon a time, during the filming of “Star Wars,” Harrison Ford made the now-legendary comment regarding the techno-babble of the dialogue, “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it.” The years have not been kind and Lucas’s scripting skills have devolved to the point where it doesn’t even sound as if he can write that shit anymore–it sounds more like he took his screenplay and threw it into several succeeding Internet language translators until it coughed up the clunky dialogue that never sounds like the words that any sentient being would have willingly put together to express feelings and emotions. The lines are so stilted that all of the characters sound as if they are speaking in the exact kind of flavorless language that would ordinarily be found in the deal memos written to hammer out all the product tie-ins. (We are actually told that one dying character has nothing physically wrong with them–they have “simply lost the will to live.”)

The end result of this is the sad and strange sight of a group of actors standing around in strange costumes trying to utter dialogue that is literally unspeakable. In the original “Star Wars,” this flaw wasn’t as apparent because the actors, aside from Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, were relatively inexperienced and were able to instill the lines with enough enthusiasm to sell them. By comparison, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson and Natalie Portman are among the most interesting actors working today–and even the usually derided Christensen demonstrated some sly chops in the excellent “Shattered Glass”–and yet they are unable to make the dialogue sound like anything other than gibberish. The biggest victim once again is Portman, normally one of the most reliably engaging actresses around but even she can’t make her character anything other than a one-note cipher who merely stands around in the shadows while looking vaguely pained by her inability to do anything other than model a series of increasingly cruel hairstyles. The only actor who survives the dialogue is the great Christopher Lee, who has made more than his share of badly-written movies and has enough panache to make even the weakest lines sound eminently plausible–too bad he disappears before he can make any impact. (This is a continuation of one of Lucas’s more perplexing tendencies: he will introduce a villain of enormous promise–Boba Fett, Darth Maul and this film’s General Grievous–and then treats them almost as afterthoughts by quickly abandoning them.)

And yet, despite these flaws, which would fatally cripple most ordinary films, I still found myself reasonably entertained by “Revenge of the Sith.” Because Lucas has so many essential plot points to hit, loose ends to tie up and continuity gaffes between the first and second trilogy to spackle over (including an always-reliable “memory wipe”), it moves with an energy that has been lacking in recent entries and doesn’t go off on unneeded tangents with unpopular characters–the ever-loathed Jar-Jar Binks is reduced here to a brief, silent appearance at the finale. (Actually, he may have cut too much as it seems as if many scenes were shot and abandoned on the cutting-room floor at the last minute–Keisha Castle-Hughes, the wonderful star of “Whale Rider,” gets tenth billing as the Queen of Naboo, yet her blink-and-miss-it appearance in the final cut would barely qualify as a cameo.) The digital worlds that have been conceived here are the most convincing of the current trilogy and the battle scenes are fairly spectacular. While the earlier films have been plagued with multiple climaxes that have been too convoluted to have much impact, the finale here is clean and streamlined for maximum effect. Best of all, Lucas throws in nice moments for the most beloved characters–Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO and even Chewbacca–that will have fans cheering and the ending, which treats us to the first words of Darth Vader as well as glimpses of two of the locations that are central to “Star Wars,” is satisfying enough to make you want to rush home and immediately put on that original films (especially if you were smart enough to purchase the laserdisc of the original, non-Greedo-firing-first version).

It is telling, though, that those moments–arguably the most crowd-pleasing of the film–are those that specifically reference the original trilogy and don’t reflect at all on the films that Lucas has subsequently made. By serving as the bridge between the two trilogies, “Revenge of the Sith” ties them together as effectively as anyone could hope and for that alone, fans of the films should come away more than satisfied. The downside is that by doing so, it once again reminds us of how fresh and unique those initial films were and how the subsequent installments have paled in comparison to such a degree that they now seem virtually indistinguishable from the FX-heavy films that now clog the multiplexes on a weekly basis. Back in 1977, when I was coming home from seeing the original at the Crystal Lake Showplace for the first time, if you had told me that I would still be able to watch new “Star Wars” films twenty-eight years later, I would have been the happiest six-year-old on the planet. Walking out of “Revenge of the Sith,” on the other hand, all I felt was some relief that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and a brief twinge of regret for a once-fun thing that I will probably never get to experience again.

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