Drink the Kool-Aid. Wear blinders. Cover your ears. Because that’s the only way you can totally enjoy Revenge of the Sith — the final and most futile attempt from skilled producer, clumsy director and tin-eared writer George Lucas to create a prequel trilogy to match the myth-making spirit of the original Star Wars saga he unleashed twenty-eight years ago. Fan boys, of course, have convinced themselves otherwise. So have several critics, if you go by early reviews.
Heralded for its savagery (my God, it’s rated PG-13), the film follows Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen — to merely call him wooden is an affront to puppets everywhere) as he loses his limbs and his conscience and takes on the evil mantle of Darth Vader. But thematic darkness is no excuse for dimness in all other departments, except the visual.
In this heretic’s opinion, Sith is a stiff, brought down by that special knack Lucas has of turning flesh-and-blood actors into cardboard cutouts. To hear Anakin and his pregnant wife, Senator Padme (the vivacious Natalie Portman rendered vacant), discuss their marriage — a secret that could get Anakin defrocked as a Jedi — is to redefine stilted for a new millennium. The minute any character — human or droid — opens a mouth to speak, your eyes glaze over.
I kept thinking how much better Sith would play as a silent film, with only Chewbacca allowed to do his Wookiee growl and John Williams to trumpet his recycled score. And still, Revenge of the Sith is the entry that will do more business (my guess is more than $400 million-worth), sell more popcorn and brainwash more audiences than any summer hit this year. There are reasons: Sith is the last time Lucas will ever skywalk with the Skywalkers on the big screen (talk persists of a TV spinoff).
There is gigantic goodwill built up by the original saga Lucas started in 1977 with Star Wars A New Hope, reprised in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back and ended with Return of the Jedi in 1983. All three of those movies belong in my personal time capsule, despite the Ewok blight on the last one. That’s why you, me and everyone we know lined up for 1999’s juvenile The Phantom Menace and 2002’s atrocious Attack of the Clones. We watched with stifled yawns as Anakin grew from a snot-nosed kid (Jake Lloyd) to a whiny teen lover boy and wanna-be Jedi (Christensen). We justified the thudding lifelessness (a pox on those Jedi councils) by praising Lucas’ digital artistry and nurturing the hope that Revenge of the Sith would spin our heads around with the dark magic of Darth Vader.
Not even close. Until the last half-hour, when Lucas really does establish an emotional connection between the landmark he created in 1977 and the prequel investment portfolio he spent in 1999, the film is one amazingly designed letdown after another. Chief culprit? The script. Even with a reported polish by — say it isn’t so — British playwright Tom Stoppard, the words are leaden, faux literate, mock-Shakespearean and devoid of humor.
The late critic Pauline Kael once dismissed Wars as “an epic without a dream.” I disagree. Lucas’ dream is a grand one: to build a mythic futuristic fantasy out of the influences of his youth — the Bible, the Bard, H.G. Wells, Jack London, John Ford westerns, Flash Gordon serials and long afternoons at the movies. If only for the original Wars, Lucas deserves a place in film history. He transformed pop culture into Pop Art.ucas’ major error was believing he could do it all alone.
With Empire — now officially the best of the Wars six — Lucas had the precious help from screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep), and director Irvin Kershner, who knew the way to loosen up actors. For those who wrongly criticized Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford back when, all I can say is, look and weep.
As Mace Windu, even the lively Samuel L. Jackson looks embalmed. Ewan McGregor fares better as Obi-Wan Kenobi, if only because mischief is embedded in his DNA. Best of all is Ian McDiarmid as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, the true badass of the piece. As Palpatine lures Anakin into his hand and away from the Jedi code, the movie is briefly revitalized by the thrill of temptation. McDiarmid paints an insidious, seductive portrait of evil. It’s too bad that playing the grotesque Darth Sideous, Palpatine’s Sith lord alter ego, drives the actor into horror-show hamboning.
As for the good stuff, none of it involves human speech. There’s Obi-Wan taking on the droid general, Grievous, whose metal arms can swing four light-sabers. There’s the massacre of the Jedi when Palpatine calls for Order 66. There’s Palpatine taking on Yoda (again voiced by Frank Oz), whom he contemptuously calls my “little green friend.”
As for the much-touted opening aerial dogfight with Anakin and Obi-Wan firing on the clones in a cluttered digital landscape, the effect is pure video game and purely without threat. Lucas throws in Sith with so much CG wizardry that it hardly jibes with the low-tech original, taking place years later, which features the touch of human hands and plays all the better for it.
But as cop-outs go, you can’t beat the reasons that turn Anakin bad. Suffering nightmares about his wife dying during childbirth, he ultimately joins the Sith, who claim power over death, to save the woman he loves. If it means the killing of Jedi younglings, so be it. If it means letting his hubris run amok like any yuppie exec, so be it. It’s like hearing that the young Hannibal Lecter was weaned on food instead of live flesh.
Lucas almost pulls the plot out of the fire in the film’s final section, showing Obi-Wan hacking away at Anakin with his light-saber on the lava planet of Mustafar. Lucas even drops a hint that Anakin believes Padme and Obi-Wan might have been getting it on.
As we witness Anakin almost melt in the lava, only to be put together in Frankenstein style, in a lab while Lucas intercuts sequences of Padme giving birth to the twins Luke and Leia, a link to true feeling is established at last. It’s too little and too late. To hail Revenge of the Sith as a satisfying bridge to a classic is not just playing a game of the Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s an insult to what the original accomplished. To paraphrase Padme: This is how truth dies — to thunderous applause.