“Henceforth you will be known as Darth Vader!” These dire words, addressed to a tormented Anakin Skywalker as he crosses the threshold to the much-mentioned Dark Side, mark the definitive moment of his Luciferian journey, which will come to an end with the man in a black, neo-Wehrmacht helmet-mask, with incipient emphysema and a walk that makes him look as if he has had concrete hip replacements.
It supposedly forms the mythic heart of the gigantic Third Episode of George Lucas’s colossally inflated Star Wars prequel trilogy. However, when this moment takes place – after what looks like seven hours of CGI action as dramatically weightless as a tropical fish swimming in an aquarium – I glanced blearily across the cinema and sensed thousands of scalps failing to prickle. We had all been bored into submission long ago.
George Lucas now is not that a director as chief executive-cum-potentate in charge of a greatly profitable saga empire in which striking back is certainly not an option. And within this empire’s boundaries, Lucas is so mind-bogglingly powerful that none of his lieutenants dares tell him the truth: that yet another Something of the Something title, after Attack of the Clones and Return of the Jedi, is pretty annoying. (It’s actually his fourth, if you count the original script title to the first Star Wars: Adventures of the Starkiller.) But here at any rate, finally, is the end of the road, or rather the middle of the road – the moment in 1977 where we came in. Lucas has taken three pointlessly long and artificially complicated movies to get to the point: precisely how did Luke Skywalker’s father come to embrace the forces of darkness?
Hayden Christensen is Anakin, the gifted but mercurial Jedi student of Obi-Wan Kenobi, in which role Ewan McGregor features a huge and bushy beard, to indicate the aged knowledge that we know is his fate. Their mighty contest is to take place at the center of this film, during which in quiet moments main characters will gaze out over vast futuristic cityscapes resembling the photorealist artwork once used for 1970s science-fiction paperbacks: pointy buildings with tons of pointy aircraft criss-crossing upon our heads, often bathed in crimson sunsets.
Once again, McGregor speaks in a simperingly lifeless Rada-English accent, a muddled and misconceived backdating of the Guinness original – the young fogey with the light-sabre. In boredom he is matched by that Jedi master of stiffness: Hayden Christensen, the flatliner to end all flatliners. As an actor Christensen must show the terrible embryo of future wickedness within himself. And how does he do this? By tilting his head down, looking up through lowered brows and giving the unmistakable impression that he is very, very cross. If Princess Diana had gone to the Dark Side, she would have looked a lot like this.
So why does Anakin desert the forces of light? It is his passionate love and worry for his pregnant wife, Princess Amidala, complete with a sense of his own slighted dignity that are to be the disastrous and fateful factors leading to the most unconvincing evil act you can ever think of, an event oddly neutralized by the bloodless unreality that encircles everything. The vicious Anakin massacres – oh, horror! – a bunch of innocent Jedi children.
But that is not how Lucas’s mightily high-flown script chooses to see them. With sub-Shakespearian gravitas, McGregor exclaims: “Not even the younglings survived.” I’m sorry, not even the what? Is that their surname or something? Are Mr and Mrs Youngling going to come home to find a nursery bloodbath?
One of the things about the previous film, Attack of the Clones, that made you think things might be looking up was the terrific performance by Christopher Lee as the sinister Count Dooku. Almost the very first thing Lucas does here is kill him off. It is a crippling blow that leaves us with a range of scandalously dull secondary characters. People such as Senator Bail Organa, played by Jimmy Smits, and Samuel L Jackson as the fiercely unintresting Mace Windu. They are acting as if on some kind of medication.
As for the rest – definitely with McGregor and Christensen and the incorrigibly clunky Natalie Portman as Princess Amidala – a heavy layer of self-consciousness falls, under which they must act out the stilted myth on which rely the hopes and expectations of millions of audiences. There are zero comic moments. C-3PO is allowed on to whinge briefly and unfunnily.
Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith also owns some near-decent aspects. Yoda is good value as ever, though his character is never allowed to breathe in the airless galaxy Lucas creates, and there is a good sequence at the end showing the “birth” of Darth Vader while Princess Amidala is delivered of her twins. It has what the rest of the film so conspicuously lacks: a spark of real dramatic life. But it comes far too late and it is over immediately. How sad to make comparison any of this with the fun and gusto of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in the first film. As for the elephantine trilogy as a whole, it was all too clearly a product of George Lucas’s overweening production giant Industrial Light and Magic. No magic, little light, but an awful lot of heavy industry.