Finally: We get to the point.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (20th Century Fox) packs a wallop. Or maybe it’s just a pop to the schnoz, but we’re so sedated that some actual drama—a new Force in the Star Wars galaxy—sends us crashing to the canvas. It has certainly been a long slog through two and a half movies to the second hour of Episode Three, marked by lifeless pageantry, tectonic-plate pacing, Jar Jar, effects-cluttered frames, and Medusa dialogue (i.e., it turns actors to stone). What a shock when George Lucas finds his footing and the saga once again takes hold.
The key is that Revenge of the Sith is not just the conclusion to one cycle, but the prelude to … 1977 and the summer blockbuster that would change pop culture. Those humorless Jedi get picked off; the lean, hard, visuals of the Empire ships reappear; and John Williams’ old musical motifs creep back in. The final movement—the Last Temptation of Ani—can’t help but stir simultaneous excitement and dread, as the remaining vestiges of the headstrong juvenile Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are (literally) burned away, and Darth Vader rises from the bowels of hell. And so the way is prepared for the coming of Luke and Leia and Han Solo and Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones and … Holy hyperspace! We’ve made the impossible leap to our old Star Wars!
In our dreams, anyway: The two trilogies don’t exactly mesh smoothly. And the first third or so of Revenge is almost as bad as The Phantom Menace. After some amazingly fluid effects, with the camera appearing to arc around the heroes’ ship and in and out of exploding vulture droids (My what computers can do these days! We really are inside this world!), Lucas drops in close-ups of Anakin and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) that don’t really match—the actors are in a galaxy far, far away. The ship lands and the Jedi go saber-to-saber with hordes of skinny-faced robots: witty designs but zero suspense.
Here comes Christopher Lee as Count Dooku! Leave it to a special-effects mogul to cast an 82-year-old man in a part that’s 99-percent acrobatic somersaults and swordplay. Yoda’s fighting is considerably more credible. And Lucas still suffers from what I called (re: Attack of the Clones) “runaway digititis”: the compulsion to sprinkle every frame, every pixel with cyber-MSG, so that the simplest conversation is upstaged by a backdrop of shuttle-crafts darting up and down, side to side, and diagonally. It’s like competing for attention with hundreds of goldfish on speed.
The word is that Lucas was finally persuaded to bring in a real writer—Tom Stoppard, it is said—to make the dialogue semi-speakable. Certainly the beats are clearer and the conflicts sharper, but there’s only so much one can do with a line like, “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo.”
On a brighter note, the Big Ideas that Lucas dropped like anvils into the last two episodes at last come into dramatic focus. The conflict in Revenge of the Sith (and in the head of young Anakin) is between the light and dark sides of the Force. In the light (or Zen-Buddhist Lite) corner: Yoda, who lectures Anakin that a Jedi knight must let go of all attachments, which only lead to jealousy and resentment. Actually, it’s more like, “Let go you must of attachments”—the syntax being, if you ask me, a major stumbling block.
I haven’t read the thousands of Star Wars novelizations and bibles, so I have no idea if the Jedi are allowed to marry and procreate or need to get their jollies in online chat rooms; but it’s obviously a strike against Anakin that he has knocked up Padme (Natalie Portman). Also, Jedis Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) don’t trust Anakin: They think he’s temperamentally a dark-side-of-the-force kind of guy. What I think is that there has never, in the history of the medium, been a visual disconnect like Samuel L. Jackson whispering into the ear of Yoda.
In the dark corner, of course, is future emperor Darth Sidious, aka Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who tells Anakin that the Sith believe not in denying one’s emotions but going all the way with them: He stirs Anakin’s ambitions and parries the young man’s objection that the Jedi work for good with the line, “Good is a point of view.” McDiarmid isn’t the subtlest of satanic tempters. With his lisp and his clammy little leer, he looks like an old queen keen on trading an aging butt-boy (Count Dooku) for fresh meat—which leaves Anakin looking more and more like a 15-watt bulb.
As Anakin is seized by jealousy, bitterness, and the sense that the galaxy really owes him something, Christensen tilts his forehead into the camera, rolls his dark eyeballs up, and tries to look like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. But the acting force isn’t with him. He looks in the grip of a bad migraine. It seems all too appropriate when his concerned spouse tells him to find Obi-Wan: “He’s worried about you. He says you’ve been under a lot of stress.”
So when does Revenge of the Sith really grab you? As the heroes of Ghostbusters might put it, it’s when Lucas “crosses the streams.” It’s when Anakin takes off after every Jedi and Jedi ally in the galaxy, while Obi-Wan lops light-saber-wielding limbs off a special effect called Gen. Grievous and Yoda joins forces with a hairy old friend. (“Good relationships with the Wookies I have!”) It’s when Obi-Wan and Anakin plunge into an epic battle to the death on a planet of volcanoes, debating the movie’s themes as John Williams pulls out all the Wagnerian stops and the special effects finally amplify—even metaphysicalize—the emotions instead of distracting us from them. It’s when Anakin goes to his hellish fate amid swirling jets of lava and we know why, for Darth Vader, there was no going back.
It’s also, surprisingly, when Lucas’ anti-fascist politics come into focus: when the senate rises to cheer the new order of the first galactic empire, and Padme realizes that she and everyone else have aided in the dismantling of a democracy by ceding more and more power, in the name of security, to an unscrupulous dictator. (An old ‘60s guy, Lucas takes a palpable swipe at our own Darth Dubyous.)
It must be said that there’s a touch of the term paper in how his characters’ fates play out, and the actors still wear the glazed, helpless expression that comes from declaiming lines with no subtext in the direction of Creatures To Be Animated Later. But it’s worth doffing our beanies to a man who wouldn’t settle for Flash Gordon—who was driven to turn a Saturday-matinee space serial into something that needed the combined forces of Milton and Shakespeare to do it full justice. In the end, there’s a breadth, a fullness to the Star Wars saga. It’s so much more than the sum of its clunks.