A film review by Craig J. Koban
STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE
OF THE SITH
2005, PG-13, 140 mins.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor / Anakin/Darth Vader: Hayden Christianson
/ Padme: Natalie Portman / Chancellor Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
/ Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson
No matter where you sit on the fence in terms of your feelings about the other two films in the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, it'll be hard to deny that the force is definitely with writer/director George Lucas and his newest entry – REVENGE OF THE SITH. In the seemingly neverending chess game between the enigmatic director and the pervasively antagonistic, obsessively critical, and oftentimes petulant STAR WARS fan base, I think that it’s very safe to conclude that, with EPISODE III, Lucas can proudly jump up and proclaim “checkmate!”
I guess if you follow the old credo that “third time’s a charm” then no more is it more apparent than with Lucas’s final entry in the entire STAR WARS sextet. Yes, SITH may not be as good as the previous films in the original trilogy (the best in that series being 1980's THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), but it is most assuredly the finest film of the prequel trilogy, if not the best STAR WARS entry since EMPIRE. It has been said that EMPIRE defined the tone and momentum of the original STAR WARS trilogy. If that is true, then SITH definitely defines the tone and momentum of the entire six-film series.
This is the film that links the two trilogies expertly together and fills in all of the necessary narrative blanks. In hindsight, 1999's THE PHANTOM MENACE and 2002's ATTACK OF THE CLONES were well-placed dominos that SITH knocks down to reveal an entire coherent picture. It is with SITH where the missing pieces of Lucas’ epic space fantasy puzzle finally take completed and succinct form. I can’t think of another series that has spanned six films and that has such a tight and encompassing plot structure that weaves and interweaves upon itself to create one cohesive, grand story that spans nearly 40 years. It's to Lucas’ credit that his ability to stick to an audacious and persistent 28 year plan has finally paid off. Not too many modern filmmakers can boast seeing a project through to completed fruition the way Lucas has here.
With SITH we can now see the operatic and sprawling story that Lucas first envisioned on paper back in the early 70’s. The first trilogy of films were more or less a classic “hero’s journey” (in the strictest Joseph Campbell sense of it) where a young rebel learns the mystical art of the Force to overcome a dictatorial Galactic Empire. That trilogy was about the hero’s rise and his father’s defeat and final redemption. The fascinating aspect about the new prequel trilogy (and especially with EPISODE III) is how it completely redefines the entire six-film saga. It becomes clearly evident that this series is not really about the rise and birth of the Empire and its defeat by the hands of an idealistic hero; rather, it’s the story of cinema’s greatest and most well-known villain, Darth Vader – aka Anakin Skywalker – who took the nastiest of falls, made a pact with the devil of sorts, and eventually lost everything that he tried so desperately to protect. In this instance, Darth Vader is no longer the classic iconic and dark villain that he appeared as in the original trilogy. In an eerie sense, he is more of a sympathetic figure now than ever. Now the whole series takes shape as a majestic and mythical story of family – that of a father figure that fell from grace and the son that inevitably has to save him. Lucas, in this sense, gains the prestige on having the real power of an expansive, iconic narrator.
Now, there was very, very little room for improvement when it came to the original trilogy, which constituted A NEW HOPE (1977), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). Lucas, all on his own, created one of the most endearing and prevalent pop cultural mythologies of the last century. Not only that, but his films ushered in advances and innovations that fundamentally changed the film industry, for better or worse. The original STAR WARS films were not only masterful escapist entertainments at their finest, but they also heralded in a new Hollywood which demanded big budget and special effects-laden summer fare that was unprecedented before it. Modern blockbusters could not have existed without Lucas’s fantasies and most contemporary epics (even the cinematic versions of THE LORD OF THE RING films) could not have been carried forward to completion without the achievements of Lucas.
In this way, I think that it’s impossible to look at the prequels with the same sort of wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm that most fans had as children back in the 70’s and 80’s. The fundamental failing in those that thought that the prequels were failures is in their own unrealistic expectations. C'mon, let's face it - catching lightning in bottle twice is impossible - and for Lucas to re-create the same excitement, euphoria, and emotional response with the prequels is equally impossible. Furthermore, the critics that bemoan the prequel’s lack of good acting and dialogue also miss the point of these films altogether, or care to conveniently forget what made the original films so memorable. The STAR WARS saga, in accordance with Lucas' original inception, are glorious throwbacks to the sci-fi serials of the 30’s and 40’s that thrilled Lucas as a child. The entire series is really the most expensive B-grade serial ever made, a multi-million dollar celebration of the gee-whiz simplicity and aesthetic of the FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS universes. Lucas’ space fantasies have never pained to deal with the subtleties that make up the other genres of cinema; his films are broad and simple archetypal visions that are presented on a large canvas with big, sweeping strokes. These films are space operas, not the works of Shakespeare.
The STAR WARS universe is a glorious hybrid of influences, from the classic John Ford Western, to the works of myth guru Joseph Campbell, to the Sci-Fi serials, to the histories of real world dictatorships, to Eastern philosophies and religions, to the films of Akira Kurosawa (the first STAR WARS was heavily influenced by THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and a few cleaver shots of Yoda in SITH may remind one of Toshiru Mifune in some of Kurosawa's greatest works)…and Lucas combines all of this with new age film technology. But those that feel that the prequel films and the other WARS films are “derivative” and "crude" forget one thing – it is Lucas’ sensitivity and handling of classic themes and archetypes that gives these films their endless and nostalgic flavor. That's why they penetrate audiences so deeply on unconscious and subconscious levels and never feel dated.
That is precisely the understated genius of Lucas with these films – the ability to present the familiar in exotic and fresh ways. No more is this indicative than in a brief moment in ATTACK OF THE CLONES where an intergalactic bounty hunter, after killing his prey, twirls his laser gun like a Wild West cowboy and holsters it. This is a sly and restrained moment that could be missed if you blinked, but it is indicative of Lucas’ imagination and wit. The content of this moment is completely foreign and otherworldly, but the context is seemingly familiar to us.
There are several moments in REVENGE OF THE SITH that act in much of the same manner. The newest film breathes life on many proverbial and recognizable themes and myths. The fall of Anakin Skywalker to become the evil Darth Vader is a Greek tragedy of sorts mixed with equal parts Faustian Legend and part classic Universal horror film (in fact, Darth Vader's "first steps" in his mechanical body and first pathetic cries have echoes of FRANKENSTEIN). The Empire that is forged from the democratic Republic has echoes of Fascist Germany and even the once congenial Chancellor Palpatine transforms into a Hitler-like dictator. Also, when you look at the climatic and virtuoso action scene at the film’s final gloomy act, which pits master versus apprentice on a planet of molten lava (an incredibly realized marriage of the real and unreal), preclusions of a Dante-like Hell do not escape one.
To be sure, SITH reinforces the STAR WARS saga's desire to not be character driven melodramas. They are overwhelmingly intended for audiences to stare at the screen and engage in a sort of old fashioned escapism that modern films seemingly forget to do. Lucas, to be sure, is not a great screenwriter when it comes to dialogue and characters (SITH further encapsulates this), but the distinction here with these films is that he is a great storyteller at spinning yarns with far-reaching and comprehensive themes that tap into our mythologies of the past. That’s the key to the overall success of these films (which is what the negative pundits miss altogether) is in Lucas’ keen ability to appropriate and amalgamate mythologies and archetypes (both historical and fantastical) into one unique package. That is why STAR WARS feels fresh and invigorating, and vaguely familiar at the same time. Our job, as the audience, is just to simply stare at the screen in awe and drink in all of the breathtaking visual sights. That’s what SITH and the STAR WARS films strive for and completely succeed in.
Basically, on primal and visceral levels, the STAR WARS films are not about listening to what they have to say but rather about looking at them and engulfing ourselves in the sights and wonders of what they have to show us. Characters and dialogue are superfluous entities. Yes, the performances in these films are not great, but they are serviceable enough to tell the stories that Lucas is trying to present. The early STAR WARS films have always been remembered as visual nirvanas – no one has ever gone to these things for great acting or writing (funny, no one ever complained about innocuous throw-away lines like "scruffy lookin' nerfherder" or places that are "wretched hives of scum and villainy" or antagonists that are "masters of evil" in the original trilogy, but when similar lines are given in prequels its inexplicably sacrilegious). The first STAR WARS films, along with all of the prequel films including SITH, are in the genre of what I like to call the "epic escapist spectacle" – they exist primarily on levels to inspire a sense of constant awe and wonder in their sights. No filmmaker, not Steven Spielberg, not James Cameron, not Ridley Scott, not even Peter Jackson, can hold a flame up to Lucas in this department.
The visuals themselves have always been the stars of this series, and SITH lovingly carries on this tradition. The images that Lucas has concocted in SITH are easily among the most expansive, visionary, and amazing ever committed to celluloid. Your jaw will literally drop for a week after seeing this film. The sheer scope and depth to what Lucas shows on the screen is astounding. Seeing SITH once is clearly not enough, and even after repeated viewings you may catch yourself seeing new things in the frame that you otherwise missed before. And let’s face it folks, when the 20th Century Fox logo comes on screen accompanied by that now legendary John Williams score set to the backdrop of space with the Star Wars logo blaring out and into infinity, there is just no other film moment that can pump up an already adrenaline-filled audience like that. Not one by a long shot.
The story of SITH finally takes the prequel trilogy into a fever pitch pacing and its underlying sense of dread and dark foreshadowing spreads from its every pore. The film is anti-climatic at its essence and just may be the film's only minor negligible quality (we all know what happens to everyone), but the pleasure in watching SITH is not in finding out what happens but rather how it happens. All of the dangling loose ends that were only slightly hinted at in the original trilogy have now been sufficiently answered to make the bridge between both trilogies as cogent and clear as possible. It’s kind of startling how effortlessly Lucas has allowed the pieces of all of his films to fit together with this latest entry, and after watching SITH it's readily apparent what good expositional films both EPISODE I and II were. There is no doubt that after SITH there is nothing left to question and what we are ultimately left with is not six - two hour films but one long, consistent and smoothly flowing 12 hour opus. Much like a symphony, the STAR WARS saga begins with modest beats and cues (EPISODE I and II introduces us the the setup and characters) and then builds to larger crescendos (EPISODE III) until a complete vision is revealed (especially in EPISODE V where Vader's true family heritage to Luke Skywalker is revealed) and then is carried forward to an ending that concludes and brings absolute closure to the piece (EPISODE VI).
SITH opens with the type of gigantic and kinetic set pieces that fans expect and want to see in films like these. After the infamous title crawl which cheerfully proclaims in pure pulp fiction vernacular “War!”, the film jumps head-on into a masterstroke visual effects scene involving Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christianson) and his master, General Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they face off against Separatist forces and try to free the Republic’s Chancellor from the clutches of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and the evil Droid General Grevious. We are treated to the visual flourishes that Lucas is best at – lightsaber battles, aerial dogfights in space (that eclipse anything ever seen in film before) and a final confrontation with Dooku that defines Anakin’s ultimate destiny.
Without giving away too much, the film then deals with Anakin’s slow decent to the Dark Side of the Force provided by a certain Dark Lord of the Sith that promises him unlimited power, especially the kind of power that can save his wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), who is secretly pregnant with twin babies. Anakin torments himself with eerie visions of her dying and it is his obsession with saving her that acts as a catalyst for his final downfall. As the film progresses so does its inherent dark decent into hellish betrayals. This is not a happy film. It is beset by a bitter and angry tone. And no wonder – we bare witness to the fall of the democratic Republic and its transition to a dictatorship, as well as the lure of Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force, which leads to the extermination of all of the Jedi Knights (including young children!) by Anakin himself. As the film lurches forward to its nightmarish final act, Anakin faces his mentor Obi-Wan on the molten planet and the end result is the Anakin’s literal transformation to Darth Vader and the beginning of the end for the heroes. Salvation, however, for both the new Dark Lord and the fallen Republic, will eventually come at the hands of “a new hope.”
REVENGE OF THE SITH, more than any other STAR WARS film, is a non-stop and aggressive tour de force of sights and images. Much like the other prequel films, SITH has spectacular visions that are too many to mention. The film is layered with the visual density that is Lucas’ specialty. It is his attention to details that separates these films from others– something is happening at every corner of the frame. The film is bathed in joyous and euphoric imagination – we get lush jungle planets, vast armies of hairy Wookies and clunky droids, generals that are part alien, part skeletal robot, expansive dogfights in outer space, cities are in vast sinkholes, tremendous vistas of lava and rock…the list could go on and on. If you want introspective, thoughtful and philosophical science fiction fare that deals with the human condition, then consult THE MATRIX TRILOGY, the first PLANET OF THE APES, or even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. If you want to see hundreds of growling Wookies battle a battalion of cagey robots and machines, then give me STAR WARS any day of the week.
The film has a number of virtuoso action scenes, all wonderfully paced by Lucas. The opening moments are tense and thrilling, but it’s truly the film’s final 30 minutes that are brilliant examples of parallel action. SITH continues to show Lucas’ mastery of editing, as he intercuts between two huge lightsaber fights –Kenobi versus Skywalker and Darth Sidious versus Yoda – and the technique is seamless and pitch perfect. All of this is combined with that great John Williams score that never disappoints and what you are left with is powerful and uncompromisingly emotional. And emotions definitely run much deeper in SITH than, arguably, in any other previous STAR WARS film.
For all of SITH’s aesthetic flourishes, Lucas has never really been labeled as a gifted director of actors, but I think that he has carved out some decent performances from his leads here. Christianson is more than effective here in SITH and makes Anakin a multi-layered character that is fraught with inner torment, guilt, and paranoia. He definitely creates one of the better performances in any STAR WARS film. SITH definitely belongs to McGregor and Ian McDiarmid, the latter who creates a figure in the Galactic Emperor that is deliciously and unapologetically evil. McDiarmid has never been given credit as being one of the more stable actors of the prequels, and his turn here as Palpatine is scenery chewing and a textbook exercise in crafty and cunning maliciousness, and McGregor really pulls out all of the stops and provides for a more grounded performance in Obi-Wan, maybe because this film is much more personal for his character. McGregor is so much like a young Alec Guinness here it's creepy, and he has definitely matured into the role.
SITH has been called the darkest of the STAR WARS films, and for good reason. The film is violent, but more in an intense and less graphic sort of way (some of the final moments in the film will definitely be too much for very young children). The film is marred by both victories and tragedies, all which kind of define themselves on somber notes. Like all great mythological tragedies, this story is unrelenting in showing us the disparity of its characters and the treachery involved in providing for their downward spiral. Watching Anakin’s fall is not pretty and the more you become involved in SITH the more you really don’t want him to become Darth Vader. Upon reflection, the original trilogy now has the added dramatic dimension of misfortune and sadness, as Anakin’s fall from grace could have been prevented. In this way, SITH resonates deeper than any of the other films in the series. It's not the upbeat and cheerful adventure film that was THE PHANTOM MENACE, nor is it the love story that defined ATTACK OF THE CLONES. This film is the gloomy and sinister conclusion to the saga, and Lucas’ dramatic change from cheerfulness and exuberance to foulness and catastrophe is sharp and effective here. This is simply the most mature, emotionally grounded and moving of the STAR WARS features.
For those who panned the prequels thus far, it’s painfully difficult to see how many could find fault with REVENGE OF THE SITH. The film is the glue that holds the whole saga together. By the time the screen irises out to the end credits you just can’t wait to rush home and put A NEW HOPE into your DVD player. If anything, no one should deny the skill and vitality that George Lucas has in his persistence and commitment to a vision. He had an unparalleled concept of a strange and exotic galaxy far, far away and carried that imaginative idea successfully and triumphantly. After nearly thirty years Lucas has maintained his reputation as a grand mythmaker that conjured up one of cinema’s most engaging and iconic of creations, not to mention one of the most prevalent parts of our recent popular culture. This is no easy task, and one that has rarely been duplicated. To create your own world and universe and populate it as densely as he has is an amazing accomplishment, and one that is far too easily taken for granted by most fans and critics.
Whether you like him or not, you just simply can’t discredit Lucas' power as a storyteller that fundamentally changed not only the landscape of cultural consciousness with these films, but American cinema as a whole. In this capacity - thank-you, Mr. Lucas - for the last three decades of pure escapism. After years that spit out depressions like Watergate, the Vietnam War, Iran Contra, the Persian Gulf and 9/11, it’s humbling to know that six special films can act as a cathartic release. In terms of instilling in an audience a provocative sense of endless wonder and escape, no film, and I mean no film, can top the transfixing and out-of-body allure of the STAR WARS SAGA.
Not one by a long shot.