Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

A Review by Tyler Foster

The key to Star Wars is its familiarity. As hard as it may be to admit, there aren't a lot of surprises in A New Hope, just well-defined characters and a wonderful sci-fi universe set to the familiar tune of classic mythology. Nearly 30 years later, after a lot of meddling and two lackluster efforts, George Lucas has finally captured that familiarity again, creating an exciting, shocking, and awe-inspiring chapter that ranks as the second best Star Wars film of all time. Anakin's dark spiral into the hands of the Emperor is chilling, as Lucas draws on the mythos he's made his own, delivering the unique experience of watching it all fall into place. Impressive. It's the Star Wars movie we've been waiting for.

War! The movie's dramatic and exciting opening scroll sets the tone for the rest of the film, livelier and better-written than the prequels before it. Anakin (Hayden Christensen) has matured, well on his way to becoming a Jedi. One of the movie's greatest accomplishments is that Christensen has finally been allowed to craft a believably troubled character, his internal struggle affecting on a level it seemed the prequels would never achieve. It would have been easy to do another immature, angry Anakin, but instead we get a person truly torn between right and wrong. His relationship with Padme (Natalie Portman) is his only refuge, and even while that is threatened by tormented dreams and increasing questions about the nature of the Force, we cannot forget the good man he really is as he begins to make the wrong choices.

Meanwhile, the Jedi Council is increasingly worried about Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and his plans for the future. The resulting dramatic interplay between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Yoda (Frank Oz) and Anakin as they search for the truth about Palpatine is like watching a time bomb tick away seconds. McDiarmid is riveting not only with Christensen (their scenes brooding with an understated evil), but especially when the Jedi Council arrives to arrest him. That sequence's performances by McDiarmid and Jackson provide Episode III with a giant burst of energy, resulting in one of the movie's most electrifying moments. McGregor, meanwhile, has perfected his Obi-Wan in the final chapter, getting his own energy in a battle on a planet harboring enemies.

The visual effects are almost flawless. Character movement is still not perfect, and explosions look a little unrealistic, but the cityscapes are wonderful, filled with all sorts of detail and finally feeling like they're really there. Lucas, for his part, hasn't slowed down at all, using the same massive amounts of computer-aided visuals as the other two prequels, but this time it works. He truly creates scenes of grandeur, especially an amazing space battle and various confrontations throughout the film, not merely complex but also entertaining. General Grevious (Matthew Wood), especially during his second battle, is a mighty impressive creation, while Jar Jar Binks barely shows up and even then delivering nary a single line. John Williams's score is wonderful, haunting, and features many of the classic themes emerging underneath.

The final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan is truly astonishing. Portman gets in a few more strong moments in a somewhat reduced role (despite it being a key to the plot) before the battle is off and running. Sometimes Lucas's camera is too close to the action, making it confusing, but usually the fight is in plain view and exciting to behold. The surroundings of searing, spraying lava flows are an amazing visual and striking backdrop, and the eventual conclusion (shockingly graphic -- moreso than in any pictures you may have seen) is one of the movie's most dark and deeply haunting moments. In the end, the only things keeping Episode III back from being perfect are a few moments of strong cheesiness, an overly abrupt ending, and more of the clunky, hard-to-deliver dialogue that leaves a few kinks in even the best performances.

I say again, impressive. As the credits came up, I felt the sensation I'd been looking for in Episodes I and II: true satisfaction, complete with the wonder and awe that the series used to deliver. The final film in the saga has been worth the wait, so far above the problems of the other two and so well-made and executed that it's almost as if Lucas just threw off two crappy films just to get to the one that really mattered. As the black mask drops toward the screen, lowering until we can only see through the two eyepieces, one gets chills in the way only something truly iconic, yet startlingly familiar can deliver. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the man behind the mask was a mystery, and the truth was shocking. Only in a fantastic film -- a great Star Wars film -- could the familiar be just as powerful.

Grade: A- Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Jimmy Smits, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew and Christopher Lee
Written and Directed by George Lucas
Twentieth Century Fox (2005) | 137 Minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and some intense images

It has become rather well known that I am somewhat of a Star Wars fan. This small bit of intelligence is no doubt deduced from the film's merchandise (They're not toys, they're collectibles.) that can often be seen littering my office. It was therefore a surprise to many of my colleagues when they found out that I was not planning on attending the midnight showings of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. "I though you were some kind of huge Star Wars nerd?" they'd ask, and I'd reply "I love Star Wars, but I hate people more." This is the truth.

I've grown out of the need to be among the first in my peer group to see a film, even Star Wars. I fear that I may be growing up into my father, who used to take me to see Star Wars as a child, and who would then fall asleep and snore in the middle of the story's most exciting moments. This was years before THX, and his snoring was loud enough to draw comments and derision.

I'm in no real danger of falling asleep, despite the dull dialogue that infects every bit of this film's slower moments (more on that later) but I have adopted many of my father's other complaints. The theaters are full of obnoxious children, infuriating adults, and the stench of fandom, a stench that is not coincidently very similar to your garden variety BO.

I don't need to stand in line for hours to buy tickets so that I can stand in line for hours to get just the right seat in the theater. I bought my tickets online, and walked right into the theater after the line zealots had already crowded in. The seat I obtained was satisfactory, and my viewing of the film was not noticeably impacted by having missed out on the excitement of standing in a line for longer than the running length of the film.

Let's face it, all those seats are more or less the same, and they're all uncomfortable and full of other people's farts. I will not be able to really enjoy this, or any other film, until it's released on DVD and I can watch it from the comfort of my reclining couch without having to dodge the encephalitic head of a giant sitting in front of me, or attempt to decipher the dialogue over and through the constant chatter of children and that one elderly lady who always seems to sit behind me and repeats the events on the screen to her deaf husband.

Hey, if that's your thing though, if you really like standing in line and fighting with crowds just so that you can say "I saw it opening night!" and revel in the superior glow of outpacing your peers in the modern equivalent of a dork fencing match, then be my guest. I wouldn't want to spoil your fun. Nerd.

And now, the part of the review where I talk about the film I saw, and stop dwelling on my distaste for people.

Star Wars has become more than a simple movie for an unusually large number of people. Part of this is simple happenstance; the franchise came long at a time in the history of Hollywood where there was a real dearth of quality science fiction and adventure in film. It filled a niche that was lacking and the aggressive merchandising, relatively unheard of at the time, served to cement the idea of Star Wars as a larger and more important piece of pop culture than any film before it. Part of the success was not accidental though, but carefully crafted to elicit a particular emotional response that is almost instinctual, and this is the part that made the film a world wide phenomenon.

The story of Star Wars was crafted using ideas explained in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell was an author and lecturer on mythology who theorized a Monomyth, a common core of story elements that is universal in heroic mythology. His book outlined many of these common elements in the mythic cycle from world literature, and even elaborated on common variations.

The Orphan pushed into adventure who discovers he has power derived from a past shrouded in mystery and is mentored by a vestige of the guardians of that power into battle with a clearly defined evil with which he also has a link to, this is all straight out of Campbell's book and our collected human mythology. We all understand these basic myth elements and if they're carefully applied the result is a story that has a contextual base that everyone can understand.

This is one of the primary reasons the newer Star Wars films have not been as good as those made 25 years ago. The stories have focused more on the macro dynamics of the Star Wars universe, (how the Emperor rose to power, how did a centuries old democracy fall into tyranny, what became of the Jedi) that the story of Anakin and his path to the Dark Side, ostensibly the root of the films, is little more than set dressing. In the Phantom Menace and the Attack of the Clones, Lucas strayed from the universal myth to set the stage for the larger scope of the political events that transpire in the story, and this more mundane story falls short of delivering something that's really interesting.

The good news is that Revenge of the Sith rejoins the universal myth and the story of Anakin finally takes center stage. The bad news is that it renders the other two films almost unnecessary and serves to point out their flaws with increased clarity. Revenge of the Sith doesn't make up for the disappointment of the other two films, but it is by far the best of the three and potentially on par with some of the classic Star Wars films. In fact, to completely understand the story as a whole, it is now necessary only to watch Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi; these three stories contain all the information that you need. Which is unfortunate, because The Empire Strikes Back (set between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi) is widely regarded as the best of the classic Star Wars films, but in light of the info revealed in Revenge of the Sith, it's all filler. Quality filler, but still filler.

The design elements of the film place the final piece into the puzzle of the fall of the Republic. The ships and buildings are more decrepit and angular, less smooth and beautiful. In the Jedi Council chambers we see a little rot and erosion along the floor. R2-D2 is no longer clean, and he seems to wear the dents and filth of the entire adventure.

Exceptionally minor spoilers follow. If you saw the trailer, there are no surpries here.

Those of you who disliked the cheery nonsense of background droid chatter and the physical comedy of Jar Jar will still find things to dislike in this film, and at times they are forced enough to distract from the film, but they're no where near as distracting as the dialogue in the tender moments shared between Padme and Anakin. These tender moments that are meant to give Anakin's fall from light more poignancy and context are dull and hypnotic. They practically induce slumber. When Padme and Anakin have a brief marital spat surrounding Anakin's desire to keep his dreams of despair secret from Padme, one could hear a noticeable increase of chatter among the children in the audience as they swiftly lost attention with the forced and tiring dialogue. It didn't help that in many of these scenes, Natalie Portman looked absolutely dreadful, with her make up caked face screwed up in a false mask of distressed empathy. The spunky warrior princess of the first two films has been replaced with a whining shrew in fancy clothes who is little more than a plot device to motivate Anakin.

In fact, no one in this film seems to be able to deliver the dialogue with any sincerity unless they're angered, with the possible exception of Ewan McGregor and Ian McDairmid. This disparity is most clear with Samuel Jackson who plays the wise and thoughtful Jedi Master Mace Windu. Whenever he tries on the Wise and Powerful hat, he seems like he's reading his script over breakfast, bored and disinterested. When Master Windu gets his gruff up though, Jackson shines and makes us believe that he is a Jedi Master and one bad mother fu – Shut your mouth! Jus talkin bout Mace...

I suppose one could argue that since this is a story about the fall from light and a slide into darkness and anger, that this is some kind of point that the filmmaker was trying to make. That's a silly rationalization though, and the more likely truth is that in the absence of quality direction, the actors were unable to connect with the motivations of characters asked to speak such shoddy dialogue in normal conversation.

Despite the problems with dialogue and a few minor plot problems, Revenge of the Sith is an excellent cap stone for the new series and a really good bridge between the Classis Star Wars films and the new ones. By the time Anakin dons the mask of Darth Vader (come on, you knew that already didn't you?) we're presented with a character who has sacrificed everything he loved and cherished for many of the right reasons, and the result is catastrophic, but predicted.

During the final duel Obi Wan shouts at Anakin "You were the chosen one! You were supposed to bring balance to the force! Not leave it in darkness!" What Obi Wan and the rest of the Jedi have failed to realize, is that this is exactly what Anakin has done, from a certain point of view. Before Anakin turned on his former guardians, the Jedi enforced order and justice. The Sith were small in number and influence, while the Jedi were numerous and held powerful influence over the government. Despite how nice this was for the Jedi and the Republic, it was not balance. The rule of the Light over the Dark is just as imbalanced as the rule of Dark over Light. What Anakin did was bring balance to the force by evening the scales between the Jedi and the Sith, by helping to eliminate the surplus of power the Jedi held.

Unfortunately for Anakin and the Republic, this was not the intent of the Sith and the Tyranny of Justice is swiftly replaced by the more mundane and predictable tyranny that we're more familiar with. We watch as the manipulation of Anakin by Palpatine is complete, and in the end we not only feel real remorse for Anakin, but we understand why he's chosen to do what he does. Frankly, I was surprised. Lucas has managed to take one of the greatest and most clearly defined villains of contemporary fiction, and make him a sympathetic character. That's no small task. It proves that Lucas really does know what he's doing sometimes and isn't just shooting lucky shots into the dark. It's unfortunate that he lacked the focus to divert this kind of attention to the other two prequel films.

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