If Appellate Judge David Ryan, Judge Kerry Birmingham, Judge Bill Gibron, Judge David Johnson, Judge Ryan Keefer, Appellate Judge Mac McEntire, and Judge Eric Profancik were Jedis, they wouldn't let a bunch of wimpy Clonetroopers get the drop on them.
"The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think
inwards—only about themselves."
Every story necessarily has a beginning and an end. But, of course, stories also have middles. Once upon a time, in a galaxy right here, a young director named George Lucas decided that the story he wanted to tell—an epic space opera in the mold of the classic Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, Crash Corrigan, and Commando Cody serials of the 1930s and '40s—had become too complex and involved to tell in a single motion picture. So he split it up and filmed what he found to be the most interesting of the resulting story fragments. The result—Star Wars—was, of course, historic. However, it was also incomplete. For Lucas sought to tell not the story of Star Wars' hero Luke Skywalker, but the story of the black-clad epitome of evil he thwarted, Darth Vader.
Twenty-eight tumultuous years later, Lucas completed the story of Anakin Skywalker (d/b/a Darth Vader) in his sixth Star Wars film, Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. But this particular story fragment was not the end of Anakin's story—it was, in fact, the midpoint. But in reaching this midpoint, Lucas finally detailed the fall of Anakin into darkness and evil, and did so with something that had been lacking in the sextet up to this point: raw, naked emotion. It is not a magnificent film, but it is a spectacular one—and, most surprisingly, a heart-wrenching one. It is a film about loss, death, and pain, sprinkled with high-tech action sequences to entertain the masses. But in the end, it's a film about a basically decent person who made all the wrong choices for arguably good reasons. It is a true tragedy in the classical sense of the term.
However, anything bearing the name Star Wars brings with it a wealth of cinematic and cultural baggage. Revenge of the Sith is no different. Destined to be reviled by many just for existing, the film was lambasted for…well, take your pick: its wooden acting, gaping plot holes, over-reliance on technology, excess humor, insufficient humor…It seems that everyone with even a passing knowledge of the Star Wars universe has some sort of axe to grind with the film, Lucas, the actors, the story, or with any combination of the above. Lost in the shuffle of authorized canonical fiction, action figures, computer games, themed greeting cards, motorized lollipop holders, Jar-Jar Binks pajamas, special limited IMAX engagements, artwork collections, limited-edition lithographs, director's commentaries, and 1:25 scale models is the fact that Lucas, for all his flaws as a director (and there are many), made exactly what he said he wanted to make: a series of films that were a 1930s-40s style serial. Not films based on them. Many of the "flaws" in the series—the broad, coarse brushes with which the story was painted, the vivid black-and-white nature of the moral and ethical choices faced by the characters, the deus ex machina solutions to problems, and the stilted, awkward dialogue—are precisely what you got in those Cold War-era thrillers. He said what he was going to do, and he did it—he made a fun, raucous, space epic with lots of cool spaceships and weird aliens. That he brought a good deal of depth to his version of Flash Gordon was just a bonus.
Of course, reasonable people may disagree…
Facts of the Case
It is a time of sadness and despair. The Galactic Republic is ravaged by civil war. The Jedi Knights, longtime defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy, are strained to their limit fighting the separatist forces, led by the fallen Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings) and an ominous half-droid/half-organic named General Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood). Amid the chaos, a pair of young lovers, freshly-minted Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, Life as a House) and former Queen of Naboo Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman, Beautiful Girls), are desperately trying to hide their marriage—and her pregnancy—from the public eye.
Padme, who is secretly sympathetic to a group of dissident senators who will eventually found the Rebel Alliance, is worried about Anakin, who is extremely close—probably too close—to the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Anakin's mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge), is also worried. Anakin, although an extremely powerful Jedi, is still as impatient and reckless as ever. For his part, Anakin is worried, too—he's having disturbing visions involving Padme's death in childbirth. Jedi leaders Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz, Sesame Street) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction) are worried about Palpatine, who seems to be grabbing more and more power with each passing month. Palpatine isn't worried at all—because he's secretly Darth Sidious, Lord of the Sith, and commands the full power of the Dark Side, not to mention the entire Grand (Clone) Army of the Republic. And so the stage is set.
High above the Republic capital planet Coruscant, Obi-Wan and Anakin stage a daring raid on Grievous' flagship, rescuing the captured Chancellor from Count Dooku. After the rescue, Palpatine forces the Jedi to appoint Skywalker to the Jedi Council as his "personal representative." The Jedi are suspicious, but allow Skywalker on the Council. They don't make him a Jedi Master, though, which irks him to no end. He's also asked, by Obi-Wan on the down low, to keep an eye on Palpatine for the Jedi. Anakin doesn't like being used as a spy by the Jedi, and begins to change his attitude towards them.
Palpatine (he's a Sith lord, don't forget) senses Anakin's displeasure—and his visions of Padme's death—and immediately starts to exploit both. Step by step, Palpatine leads Anakin down the road to the Dark Side. When matters come to a head, Anakin has to make a choice: will he continue to serve the Jedi, or pursue what he sees as his only hope to save his pregnant wife?
I've got a very bad feeling about this.
Revenge of the Sith completes the tale of Anakin Skywalker, taking us along, step by painful step, on his journey into evil and darkness. It has very little of the humor seen in the original Star Wars, and what humor there is seems out of place and intrusive. It is a dark and depressing motion picture, a film that draws out visceral and primitive emotions from its viewers. Like all Lucas films, it isn't perfect—far from it. However, it is a very good motion picture; certainly the best Lucas-directed film since Star Wars itself.
Revenge of the Sith ultimately is a film about relationships—but not in the sappy, maudlin Neil Simon sense. It is about broad concepts: love and friendship; anger and arrogance; loyalty and betrayal. Central to the entire story—and, ultimately, to the entire fate of the galaxy—is the love between Anakin and Padme. The two must keep their relationship secret, primarily because of Anakin's Jedi knighthood. Jedi, we learned in Attack of the Clones, can't have girlfriends, or attachments of any kind. Attachments lead to emotions, anger, suffering, and everything else Yoda goes on and on about. They also lead to an end to the selflessness that Jedi must achieve in order to do their jobs. Anakin is, of course, the perfect example of why the Jedi have this rule. He's unable to let go of the things he loves; ergo, it is the things he loves that have control over him—not his Jedi training. Anakin acts out of love, not out of discipline. Unfortunately, evil preys on good intentions.
And so Anakin is swayed by, and ultimately controlled by, Palpatine, who is the antithesis of the Jedi. Palpatine selfishly uses Anakin's essentially good nature to his own ends, without regard for Anakin's wants, needs, or desires. Anakin's tragic flaw is that he cares too much; Palpatine's is that he does not care at all. As in any good Greek tragedy, the two naturally wind up together as master and servant, each blinded by and to their own flaws.
Left in the wake of these two relationships is poor Obi-Wan Kenobi, who ironically shares Anakin's flaw—he also cares too much. But Obi-Wan buys into the Jedi system, whereas Anakin rebels against it. Anakin's pride leads him to the Dark Side; Obi-Wan's leads him to believe he can "fix" Anakin. But he can't. Obi-Wan is consumed by this failure just as effectively as Anakin is by his. In the end, nobody wins.
At least for now. Of course we, the viewers, know what happens in the end—there are three rather successful films that told that story. One of the triumphs of Sith is how the detail and pathos presented here makes those stories all the more richer. Now, at long last, we understand why Obi-Wan smiles right before his death in Star Wars. The relentless negativity and depression of Sith just amplifies the ultimate payoff in Return of the Jedi.
And there is depression and negativity in spades in Revenge of the Sith. All of the "good" characters, whom we've grown to know (sort of) and love (sort of) in the last two pictures, are subjected to intense suffering in this film. Deaths abound, and not just in the organic sense. A Republic dies in this film, carrying democracy and freedom to the grave along with it. An honorable order, whose history stretches back millennia, is almost completely destroyed thanks to a single moment of betrayal. No one escapes unscathed—even Palpatine is scarred by his experiences.
Sith is darker by far than The Empire Strikes Back, long considered the "dark" film of the series. Empire makes things look pretty grim for Our Heroes, but in the end, they've still got each other (even though one of them is frozen in carbonite). Sith, on the other hand, virtually destroys every last one of its heroes. The few who survive are scattered, hidden, and almost without hope. If we didn't know what was to come in Episodes IV-VI, we'd be as full of despair as the characters.
Sith is a movie you come to resent, because it plays with your emotions. The pain and suffering we see in the film isn't remote and incomprehensible to the viewer; it's immediate and understandable. Anyone (well, any adult at least) can understand the desire to protect one's loved ones at any cost, or the pain felt when someone you love like a brother turns his back on you and everything you stand for. These are simple, real emotions, and Sith hammers us with them. I made the mistake of mentally putting myself in Anakin's shoes while screening Sith for this review, substituting in my own personal Padme. Bad move. Watching the story unfold under those circumstances was truly disturbing—I became physically agitated and uncomfortable. To be honest, I never expected that level of emotion out of a Lucas picture, especially one that's a space serial at heart.
That emotional punch brings up another issue with Sith—it is not a kids' film. I'm sorry to insert a spoiler here, but it's probably important for parents to know: at the end of the film, Anakin is graphically burned alive. And it's not pretty. Leaving aside the graphic imagery in the film, young children simply won't connect with the story, due to its heavy emphasis on adult emotions. From a child's perspective, there's no real reason for Anakin to turn "bad." Yes, there are enough space battles and lightsaber fights to keep the kiddies entertained, but this really isn't a film for them. Consider yourself duly warned.
Like I said before, the film isn't perfect. Back for yet another go-round is the resoundingly wooden acting that has become a Lucas trademark. However, it's not as pronounced here as it was in Attack of the Clones. Unlike that film, the Padme/Anakin romantic scenes don't come off like bad high school drama productions. Nor does Hayden Christensen seem like he's reading from a teleprompter. In fact, Christensen is markedly better in this film, finally showing glimpses of his true acting talent. (He really can act—really!) Natalie Portman is once again wasted, given virtually nothing to do but hang out and be pregnant. Darned if she doesn't look great, though. Another fine actor—Ewan McGregor—is once again trapped in an Alec Guinness-made straightjacket. Think about it—McGregor cannot play the character in his way; since this character must eventually become the person played by Guinness in the original trilogy, he has to adopt the acting choices made by Guinness back in 1977. It's a very difficult task for an actor, and credit is due to McGregor for executing it so well. Blameless in the acting department, however, is Ian McDiarmid, whose work as Palpatine has been exemplary throughout these three "prequel" films. McDiarmid, who has done a good deal of dramatic television in England, brings a distinctly English gravity to his work, much as Guinness and Peter Cushing did in Star Wars. It just goes to show that Lucas doesn't suck the acting out of everyone.
Visually, Revenge of the Sith is, as expected, yet another quantum leap from its predecessor. The opening shot is one of the most visually complex effects shots ever attempted in film, yet it looks as seamless and beautiful as if it had actually happened. The DVD's transfer, taken directly from Lucas' digital edit of the film, maintains the high quality of the original source. It looks just a little crisper and more vivid than the Attack of the Clones transfer, which was certainly no slouch. The THX-certified Dolby Digital audio tracks are, as one would expect, outstanding. John Williams' primarily choral score, which dovetails perfectly with those from Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, haunts the film, often lingering in the background only to leap out of your speakers in the action sequences. (In this humble music fan's opinion, the three-part "prequel" score, which builds on his Star Wars work but expands it into new realms, is the best of Williams' long and storied career.) Lucasfilm has made sure that the Star Wars films achieved high technical standards on DVD; all of these discs are worthy demonstration discs for videophiles.
The one place the disc falls down is in the extras department. As with the past Star Wars releases, the extra features warrant their own disc. The lead extra is a substantial featurette, "Within A Minute." It is clever: it takes a single minute-long shot from the film (during the climactic duel at the film's end) and explains, in detail, every bit of work that was required to bring that scene to the screen, from the special effects work to the caterers who fed the crew. It's an interesting glimpse into the overwhelming boredom and grinding workload that is the movie industry. But it's nothing we haven't seen before, and done better, on the Lord of the Rings discs. A second featurette, "The Chosen One," gives a glib and fairly useless account of Anakin's road to becoming Darth Vader. Only the most uninformed Star Wars fans will find anything new in this one. Finally, "It's All For Real" is the requisite behind-the-scenes-of-the-stunts featurette. Again, it's sort of interesting, but not mind-blowing. Also included is the 15-part web documentary series that originally appeared on the starwars.com website, containing a good deal of behind-the-scenes info. You also get the usual assortment of stills, trailers, TV spots, and other promotional materials, plus DVD-ROM content and a playable demo of Star Wars Battlefront II for the Xbox.
And then there are the deleted scenes. I was disappointed by them, and I'm sure most Star Wars fans will be disappointed as well. When the film was released, there were several "holes" in the plot that fans wanted to see filled. Only one such itch is scratched by these scenes: the formation of the Rebel Alliance. Two of the deleted scenes show Padme with Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, NYPD Blue), Mon Mothma, and other future Rebels sowing the seeds of rebellion. But there's very little there, and it doesn't add much to the film. The remainder of the deleted scenes deal primarily with sub-elements that were deleted from the big action sequence at the beginning of the film. What's missing? Well, where's Qui-Gon? The quickie, slap-dash explanation for the "blue glowie" nature of dead Jedi included in the film was supposed to be fleshed out in these deleted scenes—but it isn't. That's the primary thing missing here, but it's not the only thing—which is why fans are sure to be disappointed by this scene selection. At least Lucas and producer Rick McCallum did fairly decent introductions for the scenes. Speaking of Lucas and McCallum, they're joined by Visual Effects Supervisors John Knoll and Roger Guyett, and animation director Rob Coleman (of ILM), on the feature's commentary track. It's functional, and there's some good information to be had there, but this film—the last in the series—calls for a more detailed Lucas-only track. Stories about how the effects were achieved have value, but I think everyone would probably be more interested in hearing Lucas expound on the story elements.
My colleagues will certainly have a great deal to add to this review. However, it's important to take a step back from the whole Star Wars experience and evaluate these films just as motion pictures. And here's where the fighting begins. Star Wars and its "universe" have taken on a life of their own, unlike any other entertainment franchise in history (save, possibly, for Star Trek—but the Trek phenomenon arguably owes its existence to Star Wars). As such, its rabid fans have taken what was originally a relatively cheap space adventure meant to explore the outer limits of special effects technology and turned it into, for lack of a better phrase, a historical document. To be frank, there isn't a group of fans who are capable of being more out of touch with reality vis a vis their beloved film than Star Wars fans. Okay, the Trekkies do give them a run…but Star Wars fans tend to be more hostile, like a Wookie with colic.
The Star Wars fanbase has been decidedly split on these "prequel trilogy" films. Many have embraced them as flawed but entertaining, but many have viewed them as "betrayals." What's lost is the fact that Lucas has, from day one, been clear about the purpose of Star Wars and its sequels: they're a contemporary version of the science fiction serials that Lucas loved as a youth. It's a simple as that. Everything about the Star Wars films—the action, the one-dimensional characters, the sharp delineation between Good and Evil, the subtexts linked to contemporary politics, the pseudo-mythological trappings, the bizarre aliens with equally bizarre names/costumes, and everything else—is drawn directly from those serials. For example, Chancellor Palpatine is a crudely-drawn, over-the-top caricature of a self-styled "benevolent" dictator. But so was Ming the Merciless. Padme is a crudely-drawn, one-dimensional token girlfriend. But so was Dale Arden. All of this is familiar; none of it is new.
So why is Lucas roundly criticized for this? The vitriol personally directed at him by some fans is undeserved, and often ridiculous. There's a simple explanation—Star Wars fans want the series to be a contemporary American system of mythology. In other words, they want Lucas to be J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien set out to create a cohesive and coherent system of mythology for England, which he felt lacked a true culturally native mythology. His Middle Earth works—which extend far beyond The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, mind you—are dense, interconnected, and intended to be taken as a single "history" of England's distant past. Terms like "canonical" can be thrown around in Tolkien's world, because it's clearly appropriate to do so. Star Wars, on the other hand, is a space opera. Lucas has never, ever held the series out as being a fragment of a "mythology" of space, or anything similar. (Contra Star Trek, which is supposed to be a future history, and therefore can be held to more stringent standards with respect to internal coherence.) It's just a movie. It is true that Lucas has exploited the fanbase's obsession with the mythology of Star Wars via the "authorized" novels and Lucasfilm's vigilant control over the content of anything Star Wars-related. But that doesn't turn the films into something they are not. If I decide to flesh out the Beavis and Butt-head universe, creating a massive backstory involving Tom Anderson's ancestors settling in whatever town they are in, it doesn't mean the show isn't a cartoon about two idiot kids watching videos. And if Mike Judge decides to do a prequel B&B movie that shatters my little Tom Anderson universe into pieces, I shouldn't complain—because it's his story!!!!! (And please don't get me started on the "Lucas ruined my childhood" people…)
Judge David Johnson: Good Knight and Good Luke: A Light Side Look at How Revenge of the Sith Turned a Hapless Farmboy Into a Jedi Bad-ass
(Note: A big hat-tip to fellow Judge and Light-Sider Dan Mancini and his insights during our geek-ass discussions on the merits of this film.)
The cycle is complete. We've seen everything George Lucas has to offer us as far as Star Wars filmmaking is considered. He's told his story, he's populated his universe, and he's completed his mythos. Some people dig the Prequel Trilogy (PT in fanboy-speak), others hate it with the fire of a thousand Death Star blasts. (There's another generalized group of folks out there, but they don't tend to care two figs about Star Wars and prefer meeting women and hanging out at sporting events with their friends, but screw them.)
I fall into the former category, whereas I recognize the faults in the PT, but nonetheless enjoy them and am grateful Lucas opted to pursue his vision. Some of those on the Dark Side are so infuriated for the desecration they perceive Lucas to have performed on their child-like souls, they would rather travel back in time and prevent Episodes I, II and III from ever being released (how they would do this I have no clue, but I wouldn't underestimate their combined nerd IQ.)
Revenge of the Sith is a great capper to a solid trilogy of films, and despite some of the misgivings from the other side of the aisle, it's a movie that accomplishes an incredible feat: it has significantly affected the Original Trilogy, and breathed new life into those most holiest of cinema, movies that have arguably been watched and re-watched and discussed more than any other films ever—Episodes IV, V, and VI have been newly colored for me, thanks to the prequels, and despite the barbs hurled at Mr. Lucas and his perceived lack of storytelling know-how, I hold fast to the notion that the guy delivered the goods.
Because of the way his prequels had profound ramifications in the Star Wars mythology, one character, above all else, benefited the most. Who? In this humble geek's opinion, the once-greatest sci-fi weenie of them all: Luke Skywalker.
While the prequels, culminating in this excellent film, prove that the entire six-film cycle is about Anakin Skywalker, it is his upstart son who comes away the stud. Prior to Revenge of the Sith, that statement would have been laughable.
"You're talking about the Luke Skywalker, right Dave? The same whiny little bitch complaining about his botched trip to pick up some power converters?"
You bet. In the end the prequels had this one simple sentiment to say on Luke's behalf: f*** Toshi Station, homeboy's got it going on. Luke Skywalker is the fulfillment of the much ballyhooed prophecy. His theology, if you will, represents balance, a blending of the both the Light and Dark sides (though, admittedly, more Light than Dark), into a new and improved Super Terrific Jedi Light Side.
When the final credits roll on Episode VI, and Luke has earned all his merit badges to earn him his Jedi status, we see an hombre who's surpassed even the supposed heavy-hitters from the Old Republic days in his understanding of the Force. Gone is the cold-blooded reliance on dogma, the resistance to friendship, and the general condescending, hoity-toity attitude towards everyone outside the esteemed Jedi Council that characterized Mace Windu and pals from back in the day. It was a bankrupt order and it had to be jettisoned.
Granted, Vader and Sidious running around obliterating planets wasn't much of an improvement, but Luke was able to siphon off the Sith's reliance on passion, and incorporate it into his Jedi spiritual journey.
Furthermore, with Sith, Lucas had the balls to bring such icons as Yoda and Obi-Wan down a few notches. Look at Obi-Wan as framed in the prequels—in all three does he ever come across as a true friend to Anakin? He preaches a lot and is quick to chastise, but there was never a feeling of actual camaraderie between the two. Some may attribute this to Lucas's deficiency as a director (and may in fact be right), but I think it was purposeful. Obi-Wan was the product of a broken society, and though helped Luke out plenty, particularly bailing him out of that Sandpeople brouhaha with his Godzilla roar, a re-watching of OT reveals that much of that stubborn, emotionally detached demeanor remained.
Or how about Yoda? What's with that little pep talk he gave to Anakin about "letting go" and "welcoming death for loved ones?!?" Yeah, that's helpful. Jerk.
Take a look now at that most pivotal of sequences in Empire Strikes Back, when Luke bails from his training to rescue his friends. Yoda and Obi-Wan plead and go all doomsday on him, but knowing now what the broke-ass Old Republic Jedi way was, it turns out…Luke was right!
His commitment to his friends, his loyalty, and his compassion guided his actions in that instance, and throughout. Even when it came to risking 1,000 years of getting digested in the belly of the almighty Sarlacc, Luke laid it on the line for his boy Han.
Face it—the old-school Jedi needed reform badly. Business as usual wasn't cutting it anymore and the skiff needed to be rocked. It took a violent purging, a galactic civil war, and a few dead Ewoks to get the job done, but once the final reactor was exploited and the last Death Star finally demolished—and while Wedge and Chewy get down with their bad selves in a treetop village—it did. It is then we see Luke grinning at the ghostly manifestations of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and his dad, the leftovers of an outdated point of view.
That grin. Before the prequels, I would have though it was a simple smile from an overwhelmed farmboy, a gesture of gratefulness to his betters. Now?
It's a big, #$%@-ing smirk.
Judge Bill Gibron: Darth Lamer
Thank God it's over. After decades of speculation, countless months of hyperactive hyperbole, and more mincing and kvetching than non-reality TV participants should have to tolerate, Unkie George Lucas belched up his final installment in the rise and fall of an ex-N'Sync member—a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker—and declared it was good. Lucky for him the rest of the critical community was ready to suck on his talentless teat for one last loving slurp, praising this concluding chapter of chum like it was some manner of slick second coming. The truth is, if Revenge of the Sith has an appropriate Biblical counterpart, it is in Revelations. This is apocalyptic filmmaking at its most artistically shattering. This may be the only movie in the history of the medium that actually calls up the Four Horsemen and their plague-inspired mischief before Pat Robertson and the rest of the 700 Club clan are ready for them.
For someone who had only helmed three full-blown feature films previously (Georgie's gotten a whole lot of mileage out of those creator's credits), it's insane to think that Lucas could deliver the goods, cinematically, for his return to Star Wars country. Prior to the revisionism of the recent decade, most fans found the Irwin Kershner-guided The Empire Strikes Back and the Richard Marquand-managed Return of the Jedi to be vastly superior to the original (by the way, Ewok haters, if these fur-covered Lilliputians were so reviled at the time, why did they get the majority of the spin-off space, huh?). Indeed, in the first run of arguments over the so-called pre-sequels and their derivative nature, the initial space opera world of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie was always viewed as a perfect progression from "great" to "greatest."
Sadly, the same can't be said for the double dip known as the pre-sequels. Under the lamentably lame guidance of Master Lucas, the tightly knit nuances of that mythical galaxy far, far away became a combination video game, graphic novel, and foundation for numerous future financial endeavors. Instead of cutting out all the bullcrap and just getting down to the main 'man under the growing influence of malevolence' storyline, the Skywalker saga became Dr. Phil fodder, an increasingly chaotic amalgamation of abandonment issues, uncontrolled rage, trade tariffs, and hair gel. Instead of dismissing the childhood of the Darth who would be Vader in a couple of flashbacks, or a simple sentence of two, Lucas created a logistical nightmare of a backstory, delivering overly dense and busy digital froufrou in place of certain psychological underpinnings. Perhaps that is why Anakin's eventual acceptance of the Dark Side of the Force feels more like a reluctant intervention in Sith than an actual grab for glory.
The 22-year gap in directing gigs really shows in the pre-sequels, especially Sith. The pacing is so problematic in this film that it occasionally feels like a teenager driving a stick shift. He will take an interesting idea—say the General Grievous/ Obi-Wan "chase scene" during the climatic middle act of the film—and snip in all manner of pointless character interaction. One minute we're smack dab in the middle of a X-box ready dogfight (complete with cute little ship-shredding droids), the next we are listening to politicians discuss the problems in the intergalactic Senate. Snore! Lucas constantly fumbles the basics of filmmaking all throughout Sith. His mise-en-scene is a mess, a jagged jump-cut jamboree of action-stifling shifts, usually between CGI-candy sequences and unadulteratedly boring exposition. When he's not undermining the action, he's beating around the narrative bush. Part of the problem comes from the crappy scripts he crafted for these films. Even Jabba the Hut got help from Lawrence Kasdan, but Lucas went the scribe route alone this time around, and the results are as pathetic as the concept of Force-fed midichlorians (it hurt just typing that).
It's indicative of his writing that Lucas must interlace and complicate his narrative so. From the beginning, the pre-sequels had no real central conceit. They had to address several stalwart characters from the original trilogy, introduce new participants to the Wars universe and find the right combination of situation and ethos to deliver over Anakin's faith-swapping denouement. Coming from the mind that conceived Captain Eo and The Radioland Murders, it was like asking a pre-schooler to prepare a report on prison overcrowding. Some argue that Lucas was merely emulating the sloppy, illogical serials of his boisterous boyhood, those one-dimensional cliffhanger fests filled with mindless mayhem and even more witless wonders. If that is indeed the case, then Lucas succeeded magnificently. Anyone who has sat through the abysmal Phantom Creeps, Undersea Kingdom, or Radar Men from the Moon will heartily agree. Still, exacting mimicry of crap does not somehow elevate your fecal redux into something stellar. To paraphrase that sage of the simplistic, Forrest Gump, "doo doo is as doo doo does."
Of course, a better group of actors may have been able to save Lucas's and Sith's comic book convolutions. A lot has been written about Hayden Christiansen and his substantial lack of menace, but he is a tiny bit better in this movie—probably because he doesn't have to say "m'lady" as much ("master" is indeed a much easier word for the thespian-ly challenged performer). True, the minute he and Natalie Portman swap lovey-dovey platitudes, the film enters an emotional black hole that not even dark matter can endure. As for the rest of the cast, Ewan McGregor is left carrying this entire saga on his "should have been Bond" shoulders and the weight is excruciating. Looking like Father Murphy's extraterrestrial cousin and given over to glorified catchphrases instead of actual dialogue ("You were the chosen one!") Lucas tries to instill all the heroism we hear about in Episode IV—VI into a couple of lines from the "gonna be Guinness" guy. Samuel L. Jackson must feel really good about getting duped by Dick Tracy's Pruneface—otherwise known as Emperor Palpatine. His death isn't bad-ass, just bad. And Jimmy Smits looks like he's praying for another set of pre-sequel prequels to give his character some manner of purpose aside from playing Padme's wet nurse.
Yet it's the overall lack of logic and the constant narrative numbskullism that kills Revenge of the Sith. Looking over the major plot elements, one comes away from the film convinced that everyone in Lucas's future past is a putz. Anakin knows his wife and child(ren) are in danger, so what does he do? Does he take them and travel to an exile planet in hopes of avoiding both the Jedi and the Sith? Nope, he just whines like a wuss and walks right into the Emperor's incredibly hokey trap. Vader is supposedly seduced by the power of the Dark Side, but since we never really see him use said strengths until late in the galaxial game;, he's apparently functioning on more faith than is found inside a fundamentalist Christian. Indeed, the whole Force flip-flop is just a joke, an ill-prepared plot twist that seems silly in light of the surrounding circumstances. If Palpatine is indeed capable of such an elaborate and stealthy cabal, preplanned out to the point of taking coincidence and happenstance into consideration, then Anakin was doomed from the start and his easy conversion is conceivable. But even God gave his people free will. Apparently, the Force is filled with prognostications of predetermination. The Sith are like Calvinists, except with more laser beams.
Perhaps the biggest blow to plot logic is the notion that the Jedi are blind as space bats who can't see the A-number one Sith lord sitting right there atop the government—or worse, that they are power-mad monks who've sniffed far too many light saber fumes to be trusted. When Obi-Wan guides Luke toward the order in A New Hope, he must sense some manner of inner idiot in the boy. After all, Yoda is championed as this great Jedi Master, but even his little green butt got hornswaggled by the Dark Side. Some may enjoy the rank revisionism of making their heroes flawed and their villains unstoppable, but it more or less wipes out the point of all the previous films. If Vader is the new major mofo in the cosmos, he shouldn't be sad that he "killed" his pregnant bride (after all, he is a married man). Since Luke is apparently the MacDuff in this anti-Shakespearean shite, baby daddy Darth should be glad he won't be seeing the light—make that lights—of his home planet's many moons. Like the pirates say, "dead wombs expel no males." Yet when he discovers Padme's death, a decidedly James Earl Jonesian Vader pours on the melodramatic "NOOOOOOO!" like Principal Skinner discovering that the President said school is for suckers.
Making biology the bait to turn Anakin from cool to cruel is Revenge of the Sith's weakest link. It may have some minor resonance later on, when son battles dad for ultimate ruler of the Force forces, but it can't conceivably explains the eventual megalomania pouring out of the Jedi's pursed puss while battling Obi-Wan on that illogical lava land Mustafar. Since we know everything that happens in the future, Sith gets away with a great deal of this situational fudging. In many ways, the original is writing the prequels, not the other way around. It brings up the entire argument of whether Lucas had these films all figured out in advance. A cynic might say "no" while a convert might scream "yes," but the true answer appears to be "kinda." The "I'm your father" scene from Empire is still a guaranteed goose-bumper, and the notion that Leia and Luke are kinfolk is an interesting, quasi-incestual spin on the first two films. But Lucas lost his way somewhere around the pure visual splendor of the Pod Race. That is why Clones is so meandering, and why half of Sith is as scattered. Thanks to the advances in CGI, Lucas could create a hermetically-sealed world where the suspension of disbelief is no longer mandatory. He'll get the animators and the bit rates to do it for you. For now, just turn off your mind, relax and float down the magma stream.
Ten years from now, when the quadruple dips of the DVDs have gotten to be as old hat as "Tickle You Will" Yoda dolls, when the glimmer is off the glop and everyone can see this stupidity for what it is, fans and fanatics will suddenly start dropping Sith down the Star Wars success chart, probably positioning it somewhere between Jedi and Clones. Certainly, fresh from the computer and ready to wow, the movie is all motion and light, bright colors, and funny shapes to stimulate infantile film fans' tiny aesthetics. But with experience comes clarity, and as more and more people pile off the Lucas sci-fi wagon and hitch their hopes to other offerings, the dopey dated dimensions of Star Wars will find their proper position in the hierarchy of the Hallowed. It happened when The Matrix hit. It happened with Dark City and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Eventually someone will come along and do space speculative fiction the way in which A New Hope promised it would be. Don't worry. As Roger Ebert said, Lucas isn't done milking this cash cow yet. After all, he got you to buy into his haphazard saga of Darth Vader's creation. Certainly he has other substandard tricks up his sleeve.
Judge Eric Profancik: Sensory Overload
As I sit here in my office, illuminated only by the red glow of my Darth Vader Force FX lightsaber, the constant thrum of the "blade" reminds me of what Star Wars has given me. While the newer trilogy has tarnished the once pristine memories of a galaxy far, far away, I still find myself in love with the characters, the places, the things, and the magic of that universe. I have received twenty-five years of enjoyment and imagination.
I am not going to proselytize the many strengths and weaknesses of Revenge of the Sith, for that is in the hands of my fellow Judges. I am here to tell you my somewhat odd take on this final movie. Allow me to simply state that I enjoyed Sith. It is not a perfect movie, but it holds plenty of enjoyment, action, and "wow" to sustain most fans of Star Wars. Yet every time I have seen this movie, two things bother me: the opening sequence and the ending shot.
We all know that an opening sequence is, more often than not, designed to instantly grab the audience and pull them into the film. On the flip side, the ending gives satisfaction and resolution to what one has seen. While the former succeeds in its function, the latter fails for me; but, still, the opening sequence is a classic example of the innumerable faults of George Lucas as the writer and director of the prequel trilogy.
Picture now the opening moments of Sith, with Anakin and Obi Wan zipping through the combat field above Coruscant. It's a visually amazing sequence, overflowing with technical bravado. I love special effects, and I normally find myself salivating over such sequences; yet the millions of things that are going on here make it nearly unwatchable. There is just too much happening, and you cannot digest it all. As we learn in the commentary, the joke came to be that everything but the kitchen sink was in that sequence, so they eventually put in a kitchen sink too. That's the flawed mentality here; that technical bravado is everything. It's taking the final battle sequence from Return of the Jedi and turning it up to eleven, maybe even twelve. I think they went too far. It's overkill. Things need to be toned down so we can actually try to make sense of what is going on. I want to be able to take a look into the background and discern the ebb and flow of the battle, but I can't. A good artist realizes that not every inch of a canvas requires color or a brush stroke. I remember a line of dialogue by Mark Hamill (I believe) from a behind-the-scenes feature on Jedi that perfectly encapsulates how Lucas has gone too far. In that special Hamill says, "And every once in a while, we need to take a moment to catch our breath and marvel at the beauty of our creation." While he is saying this, we are watching the scene from Jedi where the Millennium Falcon flies through the Rebel Fleet as they are about to make the jump to lightspeed to attack the Death Star. It is a beautiful moment, one of my favorites. It's simple, elegant, and compelling. Can we say the same for anything that came after that moment?
The final shot of Sith, with Owen and Beru gazing at the twins suns of Tatooine, bothers me greatly. It's an obvious nod to what Luke will do in A New Hope, again connecting the prequel trilogy to the original trilogy. Most love this new scene, but I believe it horribly diminishes the raw power of the one with Luke. If you recall the "Nostalgia Trailer" for Sith, what is the first scene that is shown? It is Luke gazing at the twin suns. It shows the strife within the young man who yearns for more. It is a simple but masterful scene, one of the most powerful in all six films. But because Lucas delights in doing things twice, he couldn't leave that scene alone. I don't buy into the parallels or the line of thinking that Owen is gazing into the future, wondering what will be. The repetition of that powerful scene weakens it, robbing it of its striking power and uniqueness. Remember that if we are to watch all six films in numerical order, as Lucas states, then the two scenes are only thirty minutes apart. There is no truth in this beauty. Luke's raw emotion is no longer there.
Judge Ryan Keefer: To Those of You Who Wanted More Films From George Lucas, I Hope You're Happy
"I describe it as a Titanic in space. It's a real tearjerker, and it will be received in a way that none of us can expect." George Lucas at ShoWest, May 19, 2005
So, is everyone who watched the original trilogy several hundred times, who lobbied to have "Jedi" put onto forms and applications, and who kept their Luke Skywalker action figures in their original packaging, content with how this has all played out? One of the most memorable movie villains in three decades has been revealed to be a kid who listened to his dreams more than the real events around him and who chose a 60-year-old man over the wife he secretly married.
Now, is it a tragedy that Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, Shattered Glass) abandons his wife Padme (Natalie Portman, Closer), and embraces the Dark Side of the Force? Sure, of course. Anakin is motivated by the rejections from Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, The Negotiator) and the Jedi Council, and despite a solid friendship with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish), he becomes swayed by what the Chancellor (Ian McDiarmid, Sleepy Hollow) says and does around him.
But with one movie already establishing the Obi-Wan and Anakin friendship, does Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith, really delve deeply into Anakin's motivations for crossing over? Well, it doesn't seem to handle it with much vigor, aside from some wooden dialogue ("Something's happening. I'm not the Jedi I should be. I want more. But I know I shouldn't."). Maybe young Skywalker is motivated because his nickname is the same as a successful Broadway play, who knows? But when examining his relationship with Padme, it's full of dialogue that on the surface may be romantic or emotional to some people, but it's just not. Lucas has never written emotional dialogue very well, and one can only look as recently as Attack of the Clones for this. When Anakin's transition to the Dark Side occurs, some of the steps are predictable (though there is one step that is pretty dark, and quite a surprise).
But consider two moments in the film that are cause for discussion; the first is the anticipated confrontation afterwards between Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan, but the dialogue makes Anakin sound more like Paul Snider than an aspiring former Jedi about to kill his mentor. And look at the aftermath of that confrontation, and Skywalker's first words as the newly renovated Darth Vader. The dialogue is so monumentally stupid, that as a moviegoer, I almost walked out of the theater. One would hope, even assume, that the origins of Darth Vader would be a little more Shakespearean, and a little less after school special. In closing, here are the words of Marcia Lucas, ex-wife of George, appearing in the excellent Peter Biskind book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:
"Right now, I'm just disgusted by the American film industry. There are so few good films, and part of me thinks Star Wars is partly responsible for the direction the industry has gone in, and I feel badly about it."
Judge Kerry Birmingham: Tears of the Plaid One
George Lucas gets a bum rap. Oh, sure, I know that he can take the taunts from faceless internet "fans" and wipe away his tears with $100 bills, but the fact is that Lucas put himself in a no-win situation. Whatever his motives for endeavoring to create a new trilogy—restlessness, inspiration, legacy fears, greed—he was a goner the second he put pencil to pad of yellow paper. Because the fact is that there's nothing wrong with Episode III…nothing any more than the garden variety blockbuster, anyway. That's the problem: Lucas tried, and failed, to catch lightning in a bottle. Again. He'd had a good run with the Original Trilogy (yes, cynics, I'm counting Return of the Jedi, warts…I mean, ewoks and all). No matter the popular perception of the New Trilogy, Lucas was doomed. He was doomed not through any fault of his own, not from the creative atrophy that was certainly there and begging to be overcome, but from the pressure to redefine the cultural landscape. Again. And this time he was expected to do it on purpose.
If Episodes I and II had the distinct feeling the rust being shaken out of Lucas's brain, Episode III represented an awakening of sorts. He went out of his way to hit the fan buttons: the Darth Vader mask goes on! Anakin fights Obi-Wan across the volcanic wastes of Mustafar! The birth of Luke and Leia! Sunset on Tatooine! Yoda vs. the Emperor! And Chewbacca, of all things. Chewbacca! George Lucas wanted your goodwill. As fans, as film-goers, as people who have eight dollars and a need to spend it. If Lucas is guilty of anything here, it's that he failed to make a Star Wars movie that people think they remember he used to make. Yes, Revenge of the Sith is fraught with all kinds cringe moments (the much-discussed "No, it's because I'm so in love with YOU!" and "NOOOOOO!," for example), but no more so than every single other Star Wars movie. Haters of Revenge of the Sith will point to the stilted delivery, the glut of dialogue, the contradictory story elements, vivisecting it with a scrutiny that seems ridiculous when one considers that they were probably five years old and playing with Han Solo action figures when the original film came out. On its own, the movie works fine: master has a student, student betrays master, takes everybody else down with him. It's primal, epic, and shot all pretty-like. But this is not 1977; the audience was not a bunch of impressionable kids and clueless adults who were shocked to see spaceships on a big screen. All those children grew up and became more sophisticated and worse, very self-satisfied with their own sense of sophistication. By the time the New Trilogy came about, the fix was in: Cater to the nostalgia crowd, lose a new generation of prematurely jaded youngsters unlikely to be impressed; attempt to appease the largely unfazed new generation, and alienate the old fans looking for the magic again.
Lucas failed by trying to appeal to both camps and pleasing none. Having just viewed Sith again, months removed from the hype and the anticipation, I can say with all sincerity that it is an enjoyable bit of high-gloss science fiction. It does not redefine its genre, nor does it spit on its rich legacy. It's worth the two-and-a-half hours and the prolonged "NOOOOO!" Remove it from the filter of nostalgia and expectation and you might find it to be an actual, honest-to-God enjoyable movie. Just please don't make George Lucas cry again.
Appellate Judge Mac McEntire: A Certain Point of View
It's tough being a Star Wars fan. These days, if you just mention those two words to someone, you've got to be ready for the barrage of complaints and nitpicks to follow. Everybody just has to have their say. "George Lucas has lost his touch, he can't direct actors, he can't write dialogue, he's making it all up as he goes along, he's just doing this to sell toys," and on and on and on.
Yes, I belong to the near-microscopic minority who actually liked the prequels. This doesn't mean I have on rose-colored photoreceptors, so that I cannot see their flaws, but I have enjoyed what George set out to do with them. For as much laser-blastin' fun as the Star Wars movies offer, we also get a good dose of George's personal philosophy in them, usually whenever Ben or Yoda talk about the Force.
That brings us to one of the big reasons why I enjoyed Episode III—because of the themes and ideas present in the film. Those who think of the movie as nothing but two hours of CGI and noise will probably call this blasphemy, I know. But George is a brainy guy, and there are indeed a number of thoughtful themes at work in the film, some of which might not be apparent upon an initial viewing. So if you walked away from the movie thinking it was all pointless nonsense, I suggest you see it again, with the following items in mind.
In the first third of the film, after the big, rip-roaring action scene, there's a quick romantic moment between Anakin and Padme on her balcony. Many have complained about the dialogue in this scene, calling it pointless, or too lovey-dovey. I feel, however, that this little minute-long bit actually contains the key to understanding why Anakin makes all the decisions he's about to make. Teasingly, Padme says to him, "So love has blinded you?" These five little words carry a larger weight than the scene suggests. They sum up Anakin's fate clearer than any of the big dramatic turns in Palpatine's office. Anakin becomes so single minded, driven by his need to protect Padme, that he does not see how all his decisions are the wrong ones. Why can't he figure out how nasty and evil Palpatine is? Why can't he understand that Palpatine's just using him? It's because love has indeed blinded him. By the time Padme and Obi-Wan confront Anakin on Mustafar, he's so far gone in this emotional blindness that he's unable to listen to simple reason. This frustrates some viewers who put themselves in Anakin's shoes, wondering why he can't see how obvious it is that he's being tricked and manipulated, but I say it all goes back to that moment on the balcony. Does this make the character stupid, or overly gullible? I argue no, and instead say it's a portrait of a good man gone evil thanks to just a few misguided decisions. There's a lot of talk in the Star Wars films about the dangers of arrogance and the importance of clearing one's mind, and now we know why.
Anakin is not the only character who benefits from reading between the lines on a second viewing of the film. Many filmgoers initially wondered to themselves, "What's the deal with this General Grievous guy?" Here we have a weird, skeletal character with an odd accent and a notorious cough. Why the cough that movie fans keep complaining about? It shows that there's a living thing underneath somewhere inside Grievous. He's not a droid, acting only as he's been programmed to act. Instead, there's a conscious mind making his choices. Grievous is clearly a foreshadower to Anakin/Vader. We can speculate about who Grievous once was, and how he ended up as such an unfortunate creature, reliant on a metal exoskeleton to survive, just as Vader cannot survive without his iconic black suit. But there's more involved than just the mechanics. As villains go, Grievous is pretty despicable. When he's about to be overcome by Anakin and Obi-Wan, his escape method involves destroying his entire ship and everyone on board, just to save his own skin. He's not a charming villain, and he's not a humane, could-be-redeemed villain. He's just plain nasty, the type who'll stab you in the back if he thought it might get him somewhere. He taunts the Jedi, and uses their own lightsabers against them, not caring about the Force, or any other Jedi ideals. By seeing just how rotten this guy is, we can later see how Anakin, once fully Vader-ized in his new outfit is equally pure evil. But unlike Grievous, Vader will eventually have his redemption, even though a few admirals will be choked to death along the way.
What's that? You say my comments about Grievous are based on speculation, and not on anything explained in the film itself? Well, yeah, that's partially true, but it also shows how George requires his audience members to figure out certain points for themselves. Attack of the Clones is the prime example of this, where viewers must figure out for themselves the ongoing back story about the separatists and federation, and who's really on whose side. Likewise, in Revenge of the Sith, there are numerous bits left up to our imaginations. This works best in the exchange between Palpatine and Anakin during the "opera" scene. No, I'm not talking about trying to understand the odd "lights and giant bubbles" performance they're watching. Instead, I'm looking at the story of Darth Plagueis that Palpatine tells Anakin. This is the only real "behind-the-scenes" glimpse we get of the Sith. Many viewers, I'm sure, hoped that this scene would be the big explanation of who the Sith are, how they operate, their history, etc. Instead, we're left with an ambiguous little fable. Was the apprentice from the story Palpatine's mentor? Or was the apprentice Palpatine himself? Perhaps Palpatine merely made up the story to get under Anakin's skin. We aren't told these things. Is it frustrating to have so many questions left unanswered? Initially, it is. But, by leaving the back story of the Sith mysterious and shadowy, George has kept the Sith interesting. Would Palpatine really be that menacing an enemy if he sat Anakin (and the audience) down for an extended expository scene, revealing all his big secrets at once? I for one rather like keeping the Sith's history hidden away in the shadows. That's how they operate, after all. We're told all we're needed to know, and that's enough.
A lot of folks have tried to sell me on symbolism during the final battle, equating the volcano setting with Anakin going to Hell for what he's become. OK, I won't disagree, but I prefer the more clearly-spelled out symbolism of simultaneously-occurring Yoda/Palpatine struggle. They're fighting inside the empty senate chamber. This does make a nice setting for a lightsaber battle, with plenty of places to jump around, and plenty of large objects to throw around telekinetically. Thematically, though, it's also the setting for their overall conflict. Just as they are trashing the place where the government meets, this shows how their aggression, in general, has caused the government to collapse. I like how Yoda and Palpatine start fighting underneath the senate chamber, and then rise into it, showing that their struggle had been brewing under the surface, before being made public in this story. And, yes, I know they mention all this in the commentary, but it bears repeating.
Does Episode III have flaws? It does. There are the occasional lapses in continuity, and a few flinch-worthy lines (like when Padme squeaks, "From the Sith?"). But none of that means George doesn't know what he's doing. If you walked away from Revenge of the Sith thinking it was totally useless, I suggest giving it another try, from a bigger picture point of view. Rather than pick apart the minutiae of it all, think instead about the overall themes and ideas presented, and you might find yourself enjoying it.
Or, just sit back and check out all the cool laser battles.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director George Lucas, Producer Rick McCallum, Visual Effects Supervisors John Knoll and Roger Guyett, and Animation Director Rob Coleman
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