George Lucas comes full circle in more ways than one in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith which is the sixth – and allegedly but not necessarily the last – of the Star Wars movies. After Episode II got so caught in politics that it seemed like the Republic covered by C-Span, Episode III marks a comeback to the classic space opera style that started the series. Because the story leads up to where the original “Star Wars” began, we get to use the immemorial movie phrase, “This is where we came in.”
That Anakin Skywalker abandoned the Jedi and went over to the dark side is known to all students of “Star Wars.” That his twins Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would redeem the family name is also known. What we discover in Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is how and why Anakin lost his way – how a pleasant and brave young man was transformed into a dark, cloaked figure with a fearsome black metal face. As Yoda regretfully puts it in his matchless word order: “The boy you trained, gone he is, consumed by Darth Vader.”
As Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith opens, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and his friend Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are piloting fighter craft, staging a daring two-man raid to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). He has been caught by the rebel Gen. Grievous (voiced by Matthew Woods, sounds curiously wheezy considering the general appears to use replacement parts). In the spirit of all the “Star Wars” films, this rescue scene flies in the face of logic, as the two pilots success in boarding Grievous’ command ship and proceed without much trouble to the ship’s observation tower, in which the chancellor is being held imprisoned. There is a close call in an elevator shaft, but where are the guards and the security systems? And why, for that reason, does a deep spacecraft need an observation tower, when every porthole connects to the universe? But never mind.
Back within the sphere of the Jedi Council, Anakin finds that despite his heroism, he will not yet be named a Jedi Master. The council distrusts Palpatine and asks Anakin to spy on him; but Palpatine wants Anakin to do the opposite. Who to choose? McDiarmid has the most complex role in the movie as he plays on Anakin’s wounded ego. Anakin is tempted to go over to what is not yet clearly the dark side; in a movie not distinguished for its dialogue, Palpatine is insidiously snaky in his persuasiveness.
The way Anakin approaches his choice, however, has a certain poignancy. Anakin has a date with Padme (Natalie Portman); they were secretly married in the previous movie, and now she announces she is pregnant. His reaction is that of a nice kid in a teenage comedy, trying to seem pleased while wondering how this will affect the other neat stuff he gets to do. To say that George Lucas cannot write a love story is an understatement; greeting cards can express more passion.
The dialogue throughout the movie is once again its weakest point: The Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith characters talk in what sounds like Basic English, without color, wit or verbal delight, as if they were channeling Berlitz. The exceptions are Palpatine and of course Yoda, whose speech (voiced by Frank Oz) reminds me of Wolcott Gibbs’ famous line about the early style of Time magazine: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”
In many cases the actors are being filmed in front of blue screens, with effects to be added later, and sometimes their readings are so flat, they don’t seem to believe they’re really in the middle of amazing events. How can you stand in front of exploding star fleets and sound as if you’re talking on a cell phone at Starbucks?
“He’s worried about you,” Anakin is told at one point. “You’ve been under a lot of stress.” Sometimes the emphasis in sentences is misplaced. During the elevator adventure in the opening rescue, we hear “Did I miss something?” when it should be “Did I miss something?”
The lines is not the point, however; Lucas’ characters engage in sturdy oratorical pronunciamentos and then set out for a journey. Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith has more action per square minute, I’d guess, than any of the previous five movies, and it is spectacular. The special effects are more glorious than in the earlier entries, indeed, but not necessarily more effective.
The dogfight between fighters in the original “Star Wars” and the dogfight that opens this one differ in their complexity (many more ships this time, more planes of action, more detailed backgrounds) but not in their excitement. And even though Lucas has his characters attend a futuristic opera that seems like a mix between Cirque de Soleil and an ultrasound scan of an unborn child, if you see the opera hall simply as a place, it’s not as captivating as the saloon on Tatooine in the first film.
The lesson, I think, is that special effects should be judged not by their complexity but by the degree that they stimulate the imagination, and Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is distinguished not by how well the effects are done, but by how amazingly they are imagined. A climactic battle on a blazing volcanic planet is as astounding, in its line, as anything in “Lord of the Rings.” And Yoda, who began life as a Muppet but is now completely animated (like about 70 percent of what we see onscreen), was to begin with and still is the most lifelike of the non-humanoid “Star Wars” characters.
A word, still, about the duels battled with lightsabers. When they flashed into life with a mighty whizzing thunk in the first “Star Wars” and whooshed through their deadly parabolas, that was exciting. But the thrill is gone.
The duelists are so well-matched that saber fights go on forever before anyone is wounded, and I am still not sure how the sabers seem able to shield their bearers from attack. When it comes to great sword fights films, Liam Neeson and Tim Roth got the gold medal in “Rob Roy” (1995), and the lightsaber fights in Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith seem more like isometrics.
These are all, however, more observations than criticisms. George Lucas has achieved what few artists do; he has created and populated a world of his own. His “Star Wars” saga is among the most influential work of art, both technically and commercially, ever created. And they are fun. If he got bogged down in solemnity and theory in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the Force is in a jollier mood this time, and Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is a great entertainment.
Note: I ensured this is not necessarily the final note of the Star Wars series. Although Lucas has absolutely said he is finished with the series, it is inconceivable to me that 20th Century-Fox will willingly abandon the franchise, especially as Lucas has hinted that parts VII, VIII and IX exist at least in his mind. There will be enormous pressure for them to be made, if not by him, then by his deputies.
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