Release Date: 5/19/05
Written And Directed By: George Lucas
Music: John Williams
Special Effects: Industrial Light & Magic
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Jimmy Smits
The circle is now complete. After a twenty-eight year journey, George Lucas ends his epic "Star Wars" saga right where it all began, with bittersweet results. Following hot on the heels of "Attack Of The Clones" (2002), the film thrusts you right into the midst of the Clone Wars, with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) attempting to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from a perverse kidnapping plot. Once that's resolved, things settle down into politics as Anakin's loyalties and patience are tested. Increasingly frustrated by the political machinery of the Jedi Council, Anakin allows himself to be manipulated by Palpatine and seduced by the temptations of power that the dark side of The Force has to offer. In the blink of an eye, he swears allegiance to Darth Sidius and becomes Darth Vader. He then proceeds to obliterate all of his Jedi brethren, with amazing and brutal swiftness. Inevitably, Vader must face his mentor Obi-Wan, with dire results. Against all odds and having lost everything dear to him, Vader survives, but is forever imprisoned in a menacing suit of life supporting armor. Ultimately, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa are born and whisked to safety to prepare for their roles in "A New Hope" (1977).
First and foremost, the film looks absolutely fantastic and really brings alive the beauty, splendor, color, and diversity of the "Star Wars" universe. Visually, the film is completely engrossing and totally believable. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the characters. With uncanny consistency, George Lucas has once again managed to get lifeless performances out of a very capable cast, and forced them to choke on some of the worst dialog in the entire series. While the film is a classic tragedy, I never felt emotionally engaged with any of the characters. In fact, I was more moved by the special effects and art direction. The very first interior shot of Bail Organa's (Jimmy Smits) cruiser moved me to tears, whereas none of the human drama did. How strange is that? Am I that bitter and jaded?
While the logic of the film falls apart at the slightest scrutiny and it's easy to nitpick, "Revenge Of The Sith" does a lot of things right, and addresses the most grievous failings of the previous two films. First of all, there are no annoying characters whatsoever. The reviled Jar Jar Binks is relegated to a couple of subtle walk-ons, and C-3PO's (Anthony Daniels) inane and witless chattering is almost completely absent. As shocking as it may seem, it was C-3PO who nearly ruined "Attack Of The Clones" for me. Secondly, I didn't immediately mark any scenes as "make sure to skip this when watching the DVD," which is definitely a step up from both "The Phantom Menace" (1999) and AOTC. And yet, how sad it is that now, at the end, the best compliment I can give a "Star Wars" film is that it's free of major irritations. The tone and execution of the film are thankfully much more mature than the previous two films, although "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) remains the most "adult" of the series. Lucas focuses tightly on the nature of good and evil and carefully explores the ambiguities of right and wrong. In the end, it all comes down to perspective, a theme that is echoed in the original trilogy as well. Speaking of which, numerous people have commented on the film as being a thinly veiled criticism of George W. Bush's war with Iraq, to which I have to go "huh?" If it is, good for him, but I'm more of a believer in people just seeing what they want to see.
Even though I mentioned the stiff acting, I will say that Hayden Christensen did a remarkable job as Anakin Skywalker this time around. He is no longer a whiny teenager, and he has a very intense and sexy brooding quality to him. Instead of an annoying boy with super powers, he's a dangerous young man with super powers. He's also a major hottie - a fact that all of the teenage girls in the audience had to audibly acknowledge whenever he showed up. Sadly, Natalie Portman had little to do in the film other than cry a lot and show off the latest in galactic maternity wear, and Samuel L. Jackson was sorely flat and unconvincing as Jedi enforcer Mace Windu.
Again, the visual effects in the film are astounding. Paying homage to "Return Of The Jedi" (1983), the film opens with quite possibly the most impressive space battle ever put to film, but a number of factors worked against it. First of all, we're thrown into the middle of a very dense battlefield with no identifiable parties. Who's fighting who? What do the good guys look like and what do the bad guys look like? It's mostly just an expertly choreographed blaze of light, color, and motion, but missing the necessary emotional hooks. Secondly, the battle is surprisingly free of background music (a time honored "Star Wars" tradition), which is also key for establishing dramatic and emotional hooks. Maybe it's just me, but for the first thirty minutes of the film I kept thinking to myself "when is the music going to kick in?" I was also turned off by some of the battle logistics, and in particular when Obi-Wan's ship is attacked by small parasite droids that start physically pulling his ship apart. Firstly, why don't they just act like sticky bombs and explode, and secondly, what about Force powers? He should have just been able to wave his hand and knock them off the ship, since that's how other droids are dealt with. But that's the kind of pointless fanboy nitpicking that leads to hours of lengthy late night debating at Denny's. Also, early in the film we're introduced to a somewhat silly computer generated character named General Grievous, who is fascinating to watch. He and all of his droids interact seamlessly with the actors and environments to great effect. Thankfully, he becomes much more interesting (and deadly) when he's finally cornered and challenged by Obi-Wan later in the film.
And then there are the requisite lightsaber duels, which are plentiful and furious. Heads and limbs fly off with reckless abandon in this film. Anakin and Obi-Wan get a rematch with Count Dooku (Christopher Lee in a throw away role) with satisfying results, and Obi-Wan's duel with the menacing General Grievous is intensely delightful. Sadly, the weakest duel in the film is between Mace Windu and Darth Sidius, and is a combination of poor execution and invasive camera work. It's still quite enjoyable, though. Yoda and Darth Sidius have a go at each other with very satisfying results, and the execution is less bombastic than the often criticized duel at the climax of AOTC. But by far the most impressive display of swordfighting occurs during the climactic showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan. The choreography is superb, drawing more from Chinese swordplay than European fencing, and while the cuts are often a little too quick, the camera work and editing are outstanding. The battle is fast and furious, and very exciting. The only disappointment here is caused by the aesthetic and thematic confusion of having two duelling blades that are the same color, and the rather disgusting aesthetic of having blue blades against an abundantly orange background.
Lastly, what moved me most about the entire film was how well it transitions into "A New Hope." Not in a "join us next week when Princess Leia steals the plans for the Empire's new super weapon!" kind of way, but in the mixing of technologies and art direction. Like I mentioned before, Bail Organa's ship is the same model as the blockade runner that Leia is aboard at the beginning of "A New Hope," and the interior perfectly replicates the look and feel of that movie. In the opening battle sequence, we get a glimpse of early model X-Wing fighters and other stylings that evoke an emotional response towards the original trilogy. The final twenty minutes or so of the movie play out as an extended gag reel of in-jokes as all of the loose ends are tied up and the stage is set for the events to come. Also, in what seems like a direct response to the universally reviled Ewoks in ROTJ, Lucas added a battle scene on the Wookiee home planet featuring an army of Wookiees engaging a droid army. While it's cool to finally see the Wookiees in action, the scene is too short and doesn't really serve any purpose to the story (other than to see a bunch of Wookiees fighting). The scene also features a pointless cameo by Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), but I can't complain too much. At least baby Han Solo is nowhere to be seen. Again, I have to question the use of infantry in deciding military engagements, but it sure makes for an exciting spectacle.
Now that the series is finished, I feel like a grand chapter in the book of my life has been closed. Maybe now I can grow up and move on. Even though I found the movie somewhat emotionally flat, I left the theater exhausted, somber, and contemplative. Was it good? Yes. Was it a disappointment? Yes. Was it worth all the time and emotional investment? I'd like to think so. Again, it all comes down to perception, and there's a good chance that I see things differently now than I did thirty years ago. Taken on its own terms, the new trilogy is an amazing piece of work. It's a magic place full of wonder and splendor, heroes and villains, and perhaps most importantly, it's self consistent. The problem is that old school "Star Wars" fans (such as myself) have trouble accepting the new films because of our nostalgic perceptions of the original films and our expectations, which have grown up just as we have. Perhaps the biggest expectation and disappointment is in how the old fans perceive Jedi powers and The Force. In the original films, The Force was an unexplained mystical energy force that was spiritual in nature. Jedi powers were limited to suggestion, clairvoyance, telekinesis, telepathy, and enhanced strength and reflexes. In our minds, we believed that the Jedi knights of the Old Republic would be like gods and nigh invincible. These were the righteous paladins we wanted to see go into battle in the new series, but their powers weren't any different or any better. They were just men with special abilities, more scientific than spiritual, and crippled by bureaucracy. We wanted Light versus Dark and we got gray. Is that wrong? Not necessarily. But it did break our hearts and shatter the dreams of our youth, and that hurt. While ROTS may not have redeemed George Lucas as the god we made him into, the entire body of work and its profound cultural impact are an achievement that's not likely to be outdone in my lifetime. For better and worse, it has certainly left its mark on me. Thank you George, for everything. (well, except for maybe the Special Editions...)