Star Wars Episode Three – Revenge of the Sith

What flaws “Sith” is that Lucas isn’t so much telling a story so much as building the bridge between the two series, putting together all the pieces, making sure everything that has been promised or foretold fits. As we have experienced the end of the story first, and then gone back to the beginning, we already know where these characters will end up. We know who will live and who will die. We know who will end up in exile and who will be transformed into a master of evil. We know the destiny of those just born and how the whole thing turns out. Since we already know Ben Kenobi must survive no matter what danger is thrown in his path, so he can take the baby Luke to Tatooine and eventually train him to become a Jedi master… since we’ve already known Anakin and Ben will battle on a volcanic planet, where Anakin will end up becoming so damaged as a human he must be fitted with the special suit which defines his Vader existence… since we already know Chancellor Palpatine is the phantom menace who eventually becomes the self-appointed Emperor of the Galaxy… since we already know all these things and more, there is no surprise. No real danger. And without true mortal danger, there is no true excitement.

Watching “Sith” is like watching someone work on a paint-by-number work. You can see the outline from the start, and you know which colors are going to be used. It’s simply a matter of watching it be put together. When it’s all composed, it sure does make an exceptionally pretty picture, thanks to the incredible visual wizards at Lucas’s in-house effects house, and the sumptuous costumes and sets audiences have come to expect from a Star Wars movie. But what these pretty pictures are missing is a heart and a soul, as if Lucas simply wants this all to be over and done with, so he can be left alone to his own devices.

It is perhaps not so ironic that the two films most everyone agrees are the best in the series, the aforementioned “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” are the ones Lucas had the least creative control and/or the most outside collaboration on. With “A New Hope,” Lucas had to make do with whatever Fox would give him, forcing the director to make some tough choices about telling his story. On “Empire,” Lucas gave his story over to two superior screenwriters and hired a headstrong filmmaker, Irvin Kershner, who subtly gave that film an emotional gravitas missing from every other, as Lucas has and continues to undervalue the very fundamentals of his own characters’ humanity, treating them like robots in service of the plot rather than autonomous people who are able to make their own decisions. Does anyone really believe the exquisite and gracious Amidala would remain so loyal to the arrogant and persistently petulant Anakinr Or that Yoda, who, like many of the more powerful Jedi, seems to be able to sense the worst things happening across the galaxy but someone cannot feel the extreme disturbance in the Force which surrounds Anakin and Palpatiner Or that not a single person in the galaxy knows anything about Palpatine’s past which would alert them to his delight in devious machinationsr

Beginning three years after the end of “Attack of the Clones,” the Republic is still in the midst of the Clone Wars. Chancellor Palpatine (the cleverly malicious Ian McDiarmid, who deserves to be at least as high as Brendan Gleeson on casting directors’ lists of the best go-to screen scoundrels) has been kidnapped by the Separatist Droid Army, and taken aboard the ship of General Grievous, their half alien/half droid leader of the Separatist Alliance. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) lead a Clone platoon into battle in the space above Corsucant to rescue Palpatine, a skirmish which may be the most concentrated, in both intensity and abruptness, space battle sequence in all the Star Wars movies. The two Jedis are able to board Grievous’ ship, where the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, who looks more alive and vigorous at the age of 83 than ever before) is watching over Palpatine. Anakin and Obi-Wan square off against Dooku in a spectacular lightsaber fight that not only harks back to a similar battle in “Attack of the Clones” but includes a sly nod to the Vader-Luke fight at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” and rescue the Chancellor. Grievous escapes, Anakin tries to land the badly damaged ship and, once on terra firma, finds out he’s going to be a daddy from his wife Padme Amidala (the talented Natalie Portman, who is once again wasted in a nothing role). Then there is a lot of talking, a lot of monologuing, a lot of getting the story from here to there and a lot of Anakin getting pissy because no one on the Jedi council trusts him. And with good reason, too, since Anakin unthinkingly allows himself to become Palpatine’s puppet, solely because the Chancellor is only one who sees the potential inside the young man.

Anakin, having disturbing visions of a possible future where Amidala dies in childbirth, fears for the safety of his secret bride, but when Palpatine finally reveals his true self to Anakin, the Chosen One betrays the Chancellor by informing the Jedi Council of this new information. Only it’s not a betrayal, because Anakin is unaware this was all part of Palpatine’s plan to eliminate the Jedi once and for all. In a fierce battle, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, who continues to be the baddest mofo in the galaxy) attempts to arrest Palpatine, but gets the short end of the stick when the Chancellor uses all the power of the Dark Side of The Force to protect his hide, but not before becoming grotesquely deformed from having to use so much power against a formidable opponent. Thus, the Emperor is born, offering his help to Anakin once again to learn the power of the Dark Side, powers which will save Amidala. It is here, in a quiet moment after an encounter inside Palpatine’s private chambers, where the evil we come to know as Darth Vader is born, and where the audience is thrown headlong into the rollercoaster ride which will led to the events of the original trilogy, culminating in the mother of all lightsaber duels, the one many fans have been waiting more than a quarter century for, between Vader and Obi-Wan, on a desolate planet straight out of Dante’s worst nightmares.

It is this sequence, specifically the gruesome details of Vader’s physical transformation from mostly human to the black clad mandroid, which earned this film the first PG-13 rating in the series’ history, and one parents who saw the original films as children might wish to see for themselves before deciding to take their own younglings. It’s a tough scene to watch, the only one which extends from the usual scope of Star Wars swordplay and space battle violence.

When one sees a Star Wars movie, one knows the acting is the least important aspect of the film, and “Revenge of the Sith” is no exception. Ewan McGregor still does an admirable impersonation of a young Alec Guiness, Hayden Christensen has mastered his two modes, grumpiness and shrill, and Natalie Portman merely needs to look beautiful, even in those cinnamon bun hair rollups (another nod to the original trilogy). As seemingly is cinema tradition, it is the bad guy who gets some of the best lines and most memorable scenes, and Ian McDiarmid clearly relishes his moments in the spotlight, bringing real spirit to his role, which is why Palpatine remains the richest character in the prequel trilogy.

If Lucas learned anything from the previous prequels, it is that Jar Jar Binks was the worst idea he has ever came up with, and thankfully has relegated the buffoonish Gungan to two wordless scenes, both as part of a procession where his presence is not really needed and no one besides Lucas and Ahmed Best would have even noticed his absence. Sadly, this seems to be the only thing he’s learned, insisting on keeping all those long and winding passages about political maneuverings and the evil of imperialism which make portions of the prequels feel more like a series of freshman poli-sci lectures than the fun space operas the original trilogy were.

Still, there is much to enjoy from this final film. Like the other five films in the series, most of the action sequences in “Sith” burst forth with great energy. As technology has improved the speed and efficiency of creating special effects, these battles have become more complex with greater details than ever possible before, although there were a few moments in the screening I attend (presented in digital projection) where one could easily see the distorted pixilation of an all-digital presentation. David Tattersall’s photography, Gavin Bocquet’s sets and Trisha Biggar’s costumes all work in tandem to bring the rich lavishness of the production together, as any slack from one department would make the others look less than stellar. And John Williams’ score is as equally enthralling as every other masterful score he has put together for this series.

Maybe I will feel differently about this film the next time I see it, but for now, the faults of the film were far too major to ignore. “Revenge of the Sith” is a good film, but just not the classic it could have been.

Rating: B-