Let’s face it: You can’t get much more critic-proof than Star Wars. No amount of bad press is going to dissuade the masses from flocking to theaters and depositing hundreds of millions of dollars in George Lucas’ wallet. For better or worse, the films have become part of Hollywood’s mythology and our cultural identity. For some, the trials and travails of the Skywalker clan are enshrined with a fanaticism that could rival Scientology. The mere suggestion that The Phantom Menace was laughably bad, soulless and overblown is flirting with heresy.
But the fact is, George Lucas has never been much of a director. His early films were mostly triumphs of editing. Adrenaline-fueled cuts and elegant juxtapositions provided his clunky storytelling with pitch-perfect pacing and the occasionally poetic grace note.
The first two Star Wars films, the 1977 original and The Empire Strikes Back, are considered by most to be Lucas’ best efforts and, ironically, the two he had the least creative control over. With the prequels, George Lucas seized total control, and his worst instincts blossomed in full. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were lumbering bores that gutted the series of its heart and soul. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, the Star Wars prequels follow the adventures and exploits of ever-petulant Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), Jedi apprentice to warrior-mystic Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Wedded in secret to Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), the mother of Luke and Leia, Anakin finds himself in a spiritual tug of war between his hard-to-please Jedi elders and the silver-tongued Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a sly and cunning politician who encourages Skywalker to embrace his dark side.
Puffed up with ridiculous supporting characters (including the much-hated Jar Jar Binks), an obsessive reliance on digital effects and a mostly disposable storyline, the films provided lots of details but few answers. With flabby narratives and shameless merchandising, the first two chapters existed to stave off the inevitable: Anakin Skywalker’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader.
Revenge of the Sith is far from a great film but it easily trumps its two predecessors. As a spectacle, the movie delivers in spades, and Lucas keeps the story and action moving at a breakneck pace. Gone are the tedious senatorial debates and endless declarations of Jedi virtue. Instead, Sith opens with an astonishing space battle that bursts with visual complexity and extravagance. The attention to detail is amazing, and Lucas has finally learned how to effectively take advantage of his CGI. His cameras swoop, soar and swirl in and out of scenes, leaving the viewer breathless and overwhelmed. Nothing in the film quite lives up to that opening setpiece, but a fight with a robotic villain wielding four light sabers and a furious showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan above a river of hot lava provide audiences with more thrills than the first two prequels combined. Still, as impressive as Sith’s highly polished digital imagery is, it creates a noticeable stylistic disconnect between the two sets of films.
If you’ve seen the first trilogy (and who hasn’t?) you already know how it all turns out. It’s to Lucas’ credit that the emotional and moral uncertainty of his leads suggests they may yet be able to thwart their destiny. As immature as the film’s emotional core may be, its presentation is more elegant this time around. Sure, Anakin and Padme’s love affair has all the melodrama of a hysterical schoolgirl (and insipid dialogue to match); still the film’s decidedly dark tone is surprisingly affecting. Skywalker’s struggle to reconcile his frustrated sense of duty with a thwarted ego gives poignancy to his fate and brings with it a Shakespearean sense of tragedy.
The dialogue in Sith is clunky but not nearly as wince-inducing as its predecessors. Celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard was tapped to ghostwrite, and he manages to blunt some of Lucas’ more laughable exchanges. The performances, however, are as stiff and awkward as ever. As Skywalker, Hayden Christensen struggles valiantly against his character’s lack of emotional development, and manages to deliver a fitfully convincing performance. Poor Natalie Portman (otherwise a terrific actor) seems completely lost, marginalized by the story and left only to deliver worried glances and half-baked platitudes. Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Mace Windu is, for perhaps the first time in his career, just plain boring. Only Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid rise above their poorly written lines, respectively delivering heroic bravado and snake-like villainy.
Revenge of the Sith is very much what the fans want to see: dazzling battles and over-the-top melodrama. What’s surprising is Lucas’ attempt to inject some last-minute political relevancy into his intergalactic epic. Decidedly anti-Bush, Sith evokes the uncertainty and instability of America’s current political environment. In one scene, Senator Palpatine is granted unlimited wartime powers to ensure the safety of the galaxy. Padme laments, “This is how democracy ends, with thunderous applause.” In another, Obi-Wan warns, “Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes.” To which Anakin replies, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.”
Lucas’ political sentiments might be better received if he didn’t have such a reputation for indulging in absolutes of his own. He seems to suggest that in order to reform the empire, one must become the empire. Spoken like a true tyrant.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].