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Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

[National Review Online, May 19, 2005]

Well, that’s a relief. This last of six films in the Star Wars saga, that monument of American myth-making, is finished - and it is good. There was danger that things would turn out differently, and the tale of these characters would have been eclipsed by the tale of their maker: a young man who started out brilliantly, then hesitated, then fumbled, and wound up being an object-lesson himself. Instead, the applause George Lucas receives for "Revenge of the Sith" will be genuine and sincere. That’s got to be gratifying to him, and a relief to us.

Readers who have a vague sense that there have been some movies called "Star Wars" (or is it "Star Trek"? Maybe that’s on TV) should prepare to get further confused. The first of the series, usually called simply "Star Wars," came out in 1977. But, brace yourself, this first movie was Episode Four in an intended series of nine movies. Episode Five, "The Empire Strikes Back," appeared in 1980. Connoisseurs agree that, while "Star Wars" is the popular favorite, "Empire" is the better movie, in fact the best of the whole series. Episode Six, "Return of the Jedi," appeared in 1983.

And that was it, for awhile. Rumors kept circulating that George Lucas was going to start work on new Episodes, any day now. But it wasn’t until 1999 that Episode One, "The Phantom Menace," appeared, and immediately flopped. A fan of the series told me how he and a friend attended a different movie just in order to catch a trailer for "Phantom Menace." They were stunned; "We just couldn’t believe how bad it was," he said. It was a bad sign. Just about everybody hated "Phantom Menace." It seemed shallow and silly, and squandered the capital previous films had built up.

Episode Two, "Attack of the Clones," appeared in 2002, and while a little better than "Phantom" it was still nobody’s favorite. Extravagant sets didn’t make up for stilted dialogue and poor acting (and since these were excellent actors - Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor - blame pointed toward the director). Plans to complete the series with Episodes Seven, Eight, and Nine were abandoned. Episode Three, "Revenge of the Sith," would be the last one. Could Lucas redeem himself, or would this series slide down from the peak of goodwill to the valley of disappointment?

As I watched "Revenge of the Sith" I kept thinking that this might be the film Lucas wanted to make all along. It’s the emotional hinge of the series, the most powerful in that sense; the other five provide the platform it needed to step into the light. Yet for all the noise and space-battle trickery, the drama is largely an internal one. Series fans know that this piece of the puzzle must accomplish one thing: young, idealistic, hot-headed Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) must be turned into that monument of darkness, Darth Vader.

So, although there are plenty of noisy battles, between zippy spaceships and between light saber-wielding Jedi and Sith, the real story is told in close-ups as Anakin winces, storms, and pleads, working out his fate. Christensen is great at this. He has a sullen, sensuous quality; he’s an intergalactic James Dean. This contrasts well with his prim British mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Though Anakin is a Jedi knight, the Jedi council holds him at a distance, correctly sensing the anger and fear below the surface. But their very lack of affirmation leaves him more isolated, thrown back on his own unstable resources. When a life-or-death situation arises that touches his heart, he responds in desperate frenzy, and the result is a great deal of death. The outline of this story is Shakespearean, and Lucas handles it to satisfaction.

This film comes as the third in a series of six, and it is a melancholy moment in the overall story. In a way it’s a quiet movie - a small film that focuses closely on one man’s fall. That’s where it’s excellent. From many other angles, it’s not so great: it lacks the color and energy of the first few films, doesn’t have the range of interesting characters, and the love interest is utterly flat. The gifted Natalie Portman portrays Padme Amidala, Anakin’s wife and mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker, but even she can’t do anything with whiny wifey lines like "How long will it be till we start being honest with each other?" Lucas seems to have deep insight into the complexity of father-son relationships, but his attempts to write young romance are just flat.

Other flaws persist from earlier films. The Force is perceived by tuning into one’s "feelings." But does this mean a person’s emotions? Or some other kind of feelings? Anakin often has "feelings" of anger and fear: should he consult these for guidance? What’s the difference?

Another inconsistency. As the chief Sith baddie tempts Anakin he murmurs that the Jedi are limited because they only use the good side of the Force. He urges Anakin to also use the dark side, "not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. Embrace a broader view." Yet later, when Anakin challenges Obi-wan "If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy," Obi-wan replies, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." But aren’t the Jedi the ones who absolutely reject evil?

I could name other problems (when Yoda goes flying through the air, he looks like a throw pillow), but overall "Revenge of the Sith" is a very satisfying film. It had one thing to do —move Anakin from the light to the dark— and it does it admirably. Another person at the screening remarked that his only complaint was that, at the end of the movie, they brought up the house lights too fast; he had not had time to dry his eyes.

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