The Sith Win

by Aaron on May 23, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  • IMDB: link

I can’t think of any movie that’s left me so completely incapable of looking at it objectively as Revenge of the Sith has done.  I’m that kid that grew up with nearly every single Star Wars toy.  I read the Marvel comics, I bought the books, hell…I even have the Star Wars Christmas Special.  This is a movie that I’ve waited for 21 years to see.  It’s entirely possible that no film could ever live up to what I want from the last Star Wars film, no matter how it was handled, but my expectations have been tempered by the lackluster elements of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

For those of you who might have spent the last year living in a cave, Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith details the destruction of the Jedi, the rise of the Galactic Empire, and the descent of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) from idealistic Jedi to heartless Sith Lord Darth Vader. The conflicts hinted at in Attack of the Clones have blown into full-scale war, with the Republic fighting off a droid separatist movement.

Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has used the civil war (which was engineered by himself) to jockey for more power over the Senate, which a beleaguered Jedi Council was helpless to prevent. Anakin is being manipulated by the soon-to-be Emperor, and the young Jedi is torn between his obligations to the Republic, the Jedi Order, and his pregnant wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), and the strain has left him more inclined to indulge in his darker ambitions.

The Jedi Council eventually figures out that Palpatine is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, but Palpatine evades their capture and declares all Jedi to be enemies of the Republic which triggers their destruction at the hands of the clone army, as well as a now enthralled Anakin. Obi-Wan is left to stop his student from destroying himself and the Republic, leading to the long-awaited showdown between the two.

I think we all know what happens then.

As I typed out that plot synopsis, I’m struck by just how incredibly soap-opera these plots read on paper (and on the screen), to be honest. The Star Wars series have all uniformly been space-operas, with the multiple story-lines and personal relationships, so Revenge of the Sith doesn’t break any molds in that regards. But it is severely hindered by Lucas’s decision to start the prequels with Anakin as a young boy, and by placing so much emphasis on the machinations of Palpatine. Because of this, Sith feels exceedingly rushed. As the film opens up, we’re dropped into the last days of a war that we only saw the hints of in the previous film. Sure, the animated mini-series The Clone Wars was meant to fill in the story between, but for those of us who didn’t watch we’re left with no small degree of confusion as to who some of these characters are, and why things have become as they are. That confusion is most embodied by the character of General Grievous, the cyborg leader of the Separatists whom Obi-Wan spends most of the film pursuing in a subplot that just barely serves the story at large. We’re given no back-story, no motivation, and no reason to care about neither this character nor his (it’s?) place in the film.

I’ll be perfectly honest: There are no shortages of flaws in Revenge of the Sith, and before I get to what’s good about this film, I’m going to have to address them. Rather than spend the previous films giving us a full-fledged character in Anakin Skywalker, Lucas squandered four and a half hours of screen time that could have been used to set up Sith as the logical progression of one man’s fall from grace. Instead we’re given a series of flimsy motivations and a seemingly nonsensical choice made by Anakin to serve Palpatine, just to protect the life of Padme. Far from the calculated power-hungry ambition Darth Vader exuded in the original trilogy, we’re instead told that Anakin went to the Dark Side due to a couple of bad decisions and a lack of options. Hardly the stuff of legends, that. Indeed, the birth of Darth Vader is almost completely robbed of its emotional impact due to one ridiculous moment of camp. Truly. It’s almost cringe inducing. You’ll know it when you see it. If ever there was an argument that Lucas should have handed over the writing/directing reins as he did for Empire & Jedi, Revenge of the Sith should prove that point perfectly.

Furthermore, for an action-packed film, Sith moves at a pace far slower than we’re used to. Lucas is a man who redefined how fast films could go, but the opening battle above the atmosphere of Coruscant feels sluggish and perfunctory. Jam packed with the kind of detail we’re used to in his space battles, there’s so much to look at that you’re distracted from what’s going on with the main characters. I hate to say it, but I was actually a little bored with what should have been a jaw-dropping spectacle of war. Matters are not helped by Lucas’s decision to make most of the combatants either clone warriors or droids. There’s no emotional investment with either side, and it’s meaningless when either are killed. Extra points are taken away by having all the clones named Commander Cody. Seriously. Read that again. I’ll wait. You realize the implications of that? Every stormtrooper is named Cody. If you didn’t have reason enough to hate ‘em, I guess we do now.

And yes, the dialogue is just as stilted and corny as it’s been in the previous two prequels. Natalie Portman is stuck with the truly awful lines, which isn’t helped by the fact that her presence in the film is almost an afterthought. A far cry from the gun-totin’, ass-kicking character in Menace and Clones, here Padme just stands around looking worried and very pregnant. Christensen, who has proved to be a more than capable actor in other films, must have been completely hamstrung by Lucas’s script and direction, as Anakin comes across less conflicted than just indecisive and needy.

Thankfully, Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid seemed to be immune from Lucas’s notoriously bad touch with actors. McGregor (who has publicly admitted to how tedious he found the role and the film making process), seems to have found an easy vibe with the character, and he once again proves to be the most charismatic actor in the series. McDiarmid gives us a gleefully manipulative Palpatine, and his pre-Emperor scenes are dead-perfect in tone and menace. Sadly, once his character’s true nature is revealed his performance becomes cartoonish and campy, with none of the style he showed in Return of the Jedi.

And finally, Lucas pulls a play from Peter Jackson’s playbook by giving us an extended coda to the film which, in addition to having the aforementioned cringe inducing moment, takes away form the overall impact of the film by showing us what happens to the surviving characters. As each and every filmgoer already knows what happens to those characters, the extended ending is both unnecessary and distracting due to Lucas shoving as many New Hope references in as he can manage.  What was probably meant to be a nod to fans ends up feeling self-congraulatory, in addition to creating some odd continuity issues.

As I read back over those last couple of paragraphs, I realize that I’ve given no indication of enjoyment. Allow me to rectify that now. There are some powerful moments in Sith, and while they are few and far between, they give the film enough weight to get you through the end. Outside of the opening battle, the action sequences are as breathtaking as any you’d expect from a Star Wars film. The showdown between Obi Wan and Grievous was unexpectedly good, and has to be the most inventive usage of the lightsaber to date.

Lucas lives up to his promise of a darker film with Sith, and there’s a reason this film is PG-13. It’s certainly no Empire Strikes Back, but when dealing with the fall of the Jedi you have to expect some degree of brutality, and Lucas doesn’t shy away from it. Most of the Jedi are dispatched in a montage sequence, but when Anakin returns to the Jedi Academy to wipe out the remaining Jedi, we’re given our only glimpse of the Vader to come when he deals with the Younglings who look to him for salvation.

There’s a particularly compelling moment that occurs between Padme and Anakin, as they gaze across the city toward each other, silently conveying every ounce of emotion we’ve been denied for the duration of the prequels. It’s a gorgeous scene, and one that teases us with an idea of how this film should be. Also, the interaction between pre-Dark Side Anakin and pre-Emperor Palpatine is convincing enough to sell the idea that such a malevolent influence could turn the young Jedi away from his family and friends. And as stated before, Ewan McGregor just steals every minute he’s on the screen, especially in his last confrontation with Anakin.

And really, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? The showdown between master and student. It’s the fight that fans have been wanting to see since the first time we heard mention of the lava pit fight that turned Anakin into the mostly machine Vader, and in that regard Revenge of the Sith delivers. From the moment Obi-Wan confronted Anakin on the barren surface of the mining world, I was able to forget the flaws of the prequels and finally enjoy an emotional return on my nearly 30 year investment in Star Wars. The pain of betrayal and hurt Obi-Wan feels is right there on McGregor’s face, and in every word he utters. Their battle is exactly as brutal and fast as you’d expect. Sadly, Lucas has seemingly forgotten how powerful the Darth Maul battle of Menace was, and we’re treated to not a single long-shot of these two Jedi slugging it out, but its finale is both heartbreakingly effective, and tremendously vicious. Anakin is left limbless and on fire as Obi Wan turns his back on the screaming husk of his student, and walks away without so much as a look.

I fear that, like Lucas himself, I’m unable to do this film the justice it deserves. I’m unable to forgive its flaws, but I’m equally unwilling to disregard it. Star Wars has been a part of my life since May of 1977, so I’m incapable of seeing any of the films in an objective manner. I’ve waited some 21 years for this film to be made, and once those closing credits started rolling, I found myself releasing a long sigh. Not of disappointment, but of relief. Relief that at least some of the things I wanted from Revenge of the Sith were realized, and relief that, for good or bad, a chapter in my life is now closed. Even though Lucas has stated that he’ll take some form of Star Wars to the television screen my personal investment in his story is over. Was it worth a 21 year wait? No, not hardly. But I’m glad Revenge of the Sith rose above the level of Menace and Clones, and I’m damn glad I got to see it.

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