Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Review by John W. Herbert
For the first time since 1977, my jaw hit the floor while watching the opening scene of a Star Wars movie.
The Force is strong in this one.
With the galactic-wide Republic collapsing under the weight of civil war, separatists have kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine in an attempt to end the Clone Wars, which have been raging for years. Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker launch a desperate attempt to rescue him, unaware that the Chancellor has all this time been playing both the separatists and the Republic against each other in his quest for power. And Anakin’s ill-fated and secret love for Senator Padmé Amadala, who is now pregnant, plays into Palpatine’s plan, and sends Anakin over to the dark side.
And it is with Obi-Wan’s and Anakin’s rescue attempt that the film begins, a rip-roaring first act of amazing special effects and action. Even R2-D2 gets to play action hero as he kicks serious droid ass.
The film rarely slows down from there, mainly because writer-director George Lucas has left himself a lot of plot ground to cover. It zips along, tightly edited, grinding down, much like Anakin is ground down, into relentless darkness. As Palpatine unveils his plan and subverts Anakin’s will, Lucas turns the screws even tighter until Anakin’s mortal failings destroy him, body and soul. Literally.
Perhaps the most remarkable about Revenge of the Sith is that even though we already know how it’s going to end even before we enter the theatre, we keep our interest in this film. But only just – at a runtime of two hours and twenty minutes, it almost reaches the point of wearing out its welcome.
The special effects are simply stunning. Say what you will about the two lackluster predecessors to Sith, they were excellent eye candy. And this film is no exception. In fact, this is the best looking of all six films. It’s gorgeously photographed.
Lucas has also learned his lesson about special effects. While the film is just drenched in computer-generated wonders, he keeps the attention on the flesh and blood characters, and doesn’t end the film with a battle between cartoon aliens and cartoon robots, as in the much-lamented The Phantom Menace. In fact, the cartoon characters have been kept to a minimum. Jar Jar Binks is seen briefly but not heard, and the new big bad of the film, the CGI-created General Grievous, is dispatched halfway through the proceedings, leaving Yoda as the only cartoon character of note in the film.
It’s this tight focus on the human characters that make this film work as well as it does. This is the darkest of the six films, and delivers the most human conflict, and gives the actors a chance to shine. Ewan MacGregor is terrific as Obi-Wan as he channels the spirit of Alec Guiness. Hayden Christensen holds his own as Anakin. Less wooden than he was in Attack of the Clones, he’s still pretty much a one- or two-note actor in Sith, but fortunately he’s hitting the right ones. Natalie Portman has less to do as Padmé in this film, and doesn’t get much screen time to work. And finally Ian McDiarmid (as Palpatine) receives the chance to chew the scenery as if it were candy as Lucas’s normally awkwardly written dialogue oozes smoothly off his tongue. Christopher Lee and Samuel L. Jackson are pretty much wasted.
Again as in Menace and Clones, there is some stilted dialogue and awkward scenes, particularly in the film’s big pay off scene, the ultimate revealing of the helmeted Darth Vader, which while breathtaking (you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre when I saw it), ends with Vader’s gawky and embarrassing cry of “Noooo!” in a moment of superfluous cheesiness. Also clunky are many scenes involving Padmé and Anakin. But here Lucas has enough sense to cut to the chase and keep those scenes short and lean. There’s one marvelous and beautifully shot sequence involving the two of them as they reflect on the dark turns their journey is taking that has no dialogue, only ominously swelling music, courtesy of composer John Williams.
Lucas even manages to tie up some loose ends: why doesn’t C-3P0 remember that his creator’s name is Skywalker, and the mystery of Anakin’s virgin birth. He takes a crack at explaining how Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Yoda are able to transcend death, but this is a continuity point that Lucas seems to have fouled up. (Apparently Qui-Gon discovered the technique of maintaining his consciousness after death and will teach it to Yoda and Obi-Wan during their years of exile. This explains why Yoda’s and Obi-Wan’s bodies discorporate when they die and why Luke can see them in their “ghostly form” in later films. It doesn’t explain why Qui-Gon’s body doesn’t discorporate when he dies, nor why he is not present in his ghostly form (although his ghostly voice makes a cameo in Attack of the Clones). Further, in no way does this explain how Anakin/Darth ends up in ghostly day-glow robes at the end of Return of the Jedi. Surely Yoda and/or Obi-Wan didn’t teach the evil Darth Vader this technique, and there’s no indication that they taught it to Luke and that Luke then taught it to a dying Anakin. That’s a big gaffe.)
Thankfully absent is much of the kid friendly humour that Lucas inserted in both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. To market the first two as children’s films knowing the carnage to come in Revenge of the Sith is disingenuous to say the least. Kids may love Jar Jar, as Lucas once said, but they may have trouble watching characters get decapitated, and Anakin butcher children and get his remaining limbs hacked off as happens in this film.
So where does Revenge of the Sith fit on a scale with the other Star Wars movies? Sith is solidly in third place, behind the original Star Wars and the best of the bunch, The Empire Strikes Back. It makes you want to watch them all in one sitting, and certainly improves the original trilogy, making Vader’s redemption all the more poignant, and all the references to Luke’s father and the attempts to conceal his father’s past all the more ominous and understandable. It does not redeem Menace and Clones, who really suffer by comparison to Sith, for it’s clear that Lucas could have made them both much better movies. But I guess that’s what happens when the writer/director gets preoccupied by merchandising opportunities like the Darth Vader Lawn Sprinkler (available at starwars.com.)
Still, let’s take this movie for what it is: a fine piece of popcorn-munching space-opera. It could have been a train wreck, considering how underwhelming the previous two films were and how Lucas had to dovetail this one between Clones and the original Star Wars. The fact that Lucas had so much of this film’s plot already predetermined probably helped him stay focused on the story and not get distracted with bantha-dropping jokes.
It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad either.