Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (review)

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Sith Happens

This isn’t just a movie. You don’t have to have been married by a justice of the peace in Jedi robes or have named your dog Boba or have spent the last three weeks on a line outside the Ziegfeld or Grauman’s Chinese Theater to feel that. If you’re any kind of geek and you’re around my age — 35 — you’ve spent pretty much your whole life waiting for this moment. It was nine years ago — 1996 — that George Lucas announced he’d be making a new Star Wars trilogy, and if you’re like me, hearing this was like being eight years old again and being told to wait patiently for summer vacation or your birthday. It won’t be finished until 2005? How can I possibly be expected to wait for that kind of eternity to find out how Darth Vader becomes Darth Vader?

And now it’s here. Now it’s over — or at least it will be by the end of August, when we’ve all seen Episode III a dozen times and have memorized it and are so totally wrung out by the exhausting tragedy and anguish of it that we’ll actually be ready for a break from it… until the DVD comes out in time for Christmas, as Lucas has promised.
And you will be wrung out. I don’t entirely agree with my spiritual brother in geekiness, Kevin Smith, that the film is “fucking awesome” — though there are certainly moments that are fucking awesome — but there is a haunting, disconcerting bittersweetness to the film that is impossible to shake. It’s a particularly GenX response, I suspect: people who saw the original films as adults will not share this reaction, I don’t think; nor will younger kids who did not experience Star Wars the way we did the first time around in the 70s and early 80s. It has to do with the visceral first encounter with Darth Vader — you had to be a little kid of a certain age, it had to come on a big screen, and it had to be something you couldn’t possibly have anticipated (ie, Vader couldn’t already have been a pop-culture icon).

You know what I’m talking about: The corridor on that gleaming white spaceship blows open, and in marches this huge… thing, towering over everyone else, a monster with a skull helmet and a dominating presence that makes you want to cower like a puppy and let loose your bladder on that shiny white floor. Is it a robot? Is it a person? What the hell is it? It scared the shit out of me as an eight-year-old, lemme tell ya. Vader was the personification of evil in the imagination of my childhood, and the discovery in The Empire Strikes Back that he was merely a man in a suit was just barely reconcilable with that fact. The idea that he could be anybody’s father? I’m not sure I’d ever wholly accepted that.

But now, here, in Revenge of the Sith? He really is just a man — a deeply flawed one, but a man nevertheless: sympathetic, complicated, tragic. Forget Episodes I and II — I never seriously believed that annoying little kid and that whiny teenager had anything whatsoever to do with Darth Vader, and it’s pretty clear that Lucas was just treading water with the first two films to get to this one. I’m not saying that Episode III doesn’t have problems as a film — 95 percent of the dialogue is horrendously awkward, for instance — but there’s mood and attitude here that there wasn’t in the other recent flicks, like Lucas actually has a point to make and cares deeply about making it. There’s a passion in this film that Lucas hasn’t shown since maybe even American Graffiti.

Of course, Lucas’s passion doesn’t have anything to do with rocking the foundations of the childhood fantasies of millions of Generation Xers — he’s concerned with politics and how democracies turn into dictatorships, and everyone’s going to be quoting Padmé’s terrific and terrifying line “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause,” when the Republic Senate readily hands power over to Palpatine, and Obi-Wan’s “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes!” Which are of course completely applicable to today’s political environment, though it’s foolish to suggest that this new trilogy could have been specifically tailored to events that happened long after its course was set, even if a couple of lines of dialogue could have been. (Although, hey, if the shoe fits…) But it’s through Anakin’s journey to the dark side that some of Lucas’s key points get played out: how the best of intentions can lead someone down a path to evil, how we never recognize badness in ourselves, how cooler heads can manipulate the passionate for their own purposes. Some of the more powerful moments in Sith are quiet ones, between Ian McDiarmid (Sleepy Hollow) as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/the dark-side Sith lord Darth Sidious and Hayden Christensen’s (Life as a House, The Virgin Suicides) Anakin Skywalker, where Palpatine is working his corrupt wiles on the young man, pandering to his fears and his insecurities, pushing him down a path he might not otherwise have taken. By the time Anakin commits some very bad deeds indeed (ones that help earn the film its PG-13 rating), we’re genuinely horrified by the turn he has taken because it wasn’t necessarily inevitable… and because we actually kind of like Anakin, his weaknesses and frailties and all. He’s not a monster, or a robot — he’s just… sad. Terribly, tragically sad.

If you wanna talk about who steals the film, we can talk about the battle between McDiarmid and Ewan McGregor (Robots, Big Fish) as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The former, you can see how much fun he’s having with a juicy character who’s the new personification of evil. The latter, his impersonation of Alec Guinness is now downright scary. But we really should talk about Christensen, who gets a bit of a raw deal, as much as this is the role of a lifetime, at least at this early stage of his life. There are the romantic scenes with Natalie Portman — who is a goddess, c’mon: Garden State — as Padmé, where you just want to cringe with embarrassment for both of them. They’re left to flounder by the dreadful dialogue; there’s none of that wonderful “you like me because I’m a scoundrel” kind of stuff that Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had to play with in Empire. As powerful as the film is, it could have been much more so in the hands of a gifted screenwriter. If you want to see how much more pitiable Anakin could have been, if Christensen had something to really chew on here, check out Shattered Glass — his Stephen Glass is pretty much Anakin without the supernatural powers: he’s insecure and arrogant, petulant and defensive, and you know if he could have used that choking thing on Peter Sarsgaard’s Charles Lane, he would have.

All those problems aside, though, the final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin is absolutely gut-wrenching… and it’s not like we all didn’t already know the gist of it: that master and apprentice duel over a lava pit and apprentice falls in, causing the grievous injuries that require the Vader life-support suit. I’ve wondered about this to more than a few other geeks my age, how we know this, and none of us is really sure, though we think it must have been in one of the books like Splinter of the Mind’s Eye that we all read desperate for more Star Wars (Kevin Smith says he read it in Starlog) — but it still feels like something we’ve always just known. (Don’t ask me to reconcile the whole “Vader didn’t feel like an actual human being” thing with the whole “Oh I know he’s a guy in a suit because he got burned by lava” thing — this is like religion, where logic doesn’t enter into the equation.) The point is, this is it: it’s really real here, and this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for since 1996. It’s graphic, sure — here’s the other point at which the film earns its PG-13 — but its the stunning emotion of the scene that just floors you. Who’da thunk we’d ever cry for Darth Vader?

Or maybe we’ve been waiting since 1977, even if we didn’t realize it. Because for all the amazing CGI and resplendent FX on display here, what is perhaps the supreme moment of Revenge of the Sith — at least from a rethinking-your-geekiness perspective — is a gloriously low-tech one: the (re)appearance of a simple, plain, stark set… a gleaming white spaceship corridor very reminiscent of the one in which Vader will later make/has already made his entrance into our psyches. Cuz if you’re like me, it will make you want to run home and watch the original trilogy again with a whole new — and wholly more humane — appreciation for its villain.

see also:
Reintegrating the Shattered Divine: The Hero’s Journey of Anakin Skywalker [at The Internet Review of Science Fiction]

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