Picking up from the disappointing ATTACK OF THE CLONES, this film finally showed audiences the only plot development that made the prequel trilogy (including THE PHANTOM MENACE) interesting: how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader. Despite some quibbling, the critical consensus emerged that this is the best of the three prequels, even if it fails to live up to the glory of the original STAR WARS trilogy (particularly the original and its first sequel THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).
Interestingly, on top of the expected wave of media attention focused on box office receipts and fan adulation, the film even generated some fairly high-profile political controversy, due to the perception that George Lucas had inserted some not-so-subtle Bush-bashing, with the film interpreted as a thinly-veiled commentary on the war in Iraq. Lucas himself partially disavowed this connection, insisting that the real parallel is with the Vietnam War, which was much on his mind when he first conceived the saga back in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Lucas admitted that the “parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.”
Of course, being the best STAR WARS film since EMPIRE STRIKES BACK isn’t saying much, when you consider what came between: RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE PHANTOM MENACE, and ATTACK OF THE CLONES. EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH is better because it lacks, for the most part, the egregiously annoying elements that marred the intervening episodes: there are no Ewoks, no Jar-Jar dialogue, no tiny tot version of Anakin blasting the bad guys like something out of a bad Disney kiddie flick. Unfortunately, there is still romance — and it’s still terribly bad; fortunately, there’s not as much of it.
In short, the film is watchable, though often ponderous and dull. The outstanding feature of the original STAR WARS was that it was fresh and energetic. At the time, Lucas’ ambition fell well within his grasp: a child of the movie-going era that yielded cynical ’70s paranoid thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Lucas turned back the clock to a simpler time when movies were exuberant fun. His inspirations were clearly old-time serials like FLASH GORDON, which he dressed up in modern technology, using skilled craftsmanship to make the material seem new and invigorating, even though it was all very familiar.
After Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, in their famous PBS interview, cited the original STAR WARS as an example of archetypal mythic story-telling, Lucas gradually fell prey to a grandiose ambition that did exceed his grasp, and to a large extent that reaches its climax in REVENGE, which plays out like a Wagnerian operatic tragedy — with a humorless, heavy hand guiding the proceedings.
As if this weren’t bad enough, Lucas cannot abandon his silly kiddie pandering. The early scenes in the film are filled with ridiculous comic relief, including Keystone Cops-style droids that speak in silly voices and say things like “Uh oh” before falling beneath the Jedi sword. R2-D2 doesn’t fly this time, but he does pop up into the air like a spring-loaded practical joke.
What partially redeems the film is that its position in the saga allows for some actual suspense, with a sense of inevitable doom as all the things we have been expecting finally come to pass: the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin Skywalker finally turns into Darth Vader. In effect, this is the only film of the prequel trilogy that tells a story worth telling.
The special effects are terribly overdone, all flash and noise instead of clean and clear. Some of the battle scenes are nicely staged, and the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader actually carries some measure of dramatic weight — something sadly lacking in the series since EMPIRE.
As for the alleged political subtext, it is clearly there, and just as clearly it is not specific to Iraq and George W. Bush. In the film, the Republic gives up freedom for security — didn’t Benjamin Franklin have something to say about that centuries ago? Chancellor Palpatine uses the continuing war as a pretext to manipulate popular opinion so that he can maintain and strengthen his hold on power — not too dissimilar from what happens in Orwell’s 1984. Anakin says, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” — echoing a statement that harkens all the way back to the New Testament.
The only moment that feels thrown in as a contemporary dig is when Obi-Wan responds to Anakin’s statement by saying, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” This is clearly inconsistent with the whole STAR WARS saga, which has always been a fairy tale world of Good and Evil painted in the most absolute terms. We can either chalk this up to bad writing on the part of Lucas, or we can see it as being intentionally thrown in as a comment on the current political situation, in which the absolutist views of the current administration have led to an unprovoked war that has cost thousands of lives.
Surprisingly, amidst all the talk of politics, it seems that most (if not all) commentators have missed the homo-erotic subtext permeating the film. The love story between Anakin and Padme never generates any sparks, but the seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side by Palpatine does. During a relatively early confrontation, the chancellor croons seductively, “I can feel the Force in you!” Later, when Anakin finally turns evil, a prostrate Palpatine lets out an almost orgasmic sigh of ecstasy. (One waits in vain for him to ask Anakin, “Is that a light saber in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me.”)
Bottom line: REVENGE OF THE SITH is no masterpiece, and it comes nowhere near recapturing the glory of STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But it is a decent, if unduly serious, summer popcorn movie, filled with enough good moments to make it worth viewing, in spite of the clunky dialogue (like the use of the word “younglings” for “children,” which occurs three times and sounds more absurd each time). It’s not a total embarrassment, and discerning audiences should be grateful for that.
In spite of the entertaining action, REVENGE OF THE SITH is flawed in a variety of fairly fundamental ways. Most obviously, on a narrative level, it falls prey to a series of plot absurdities, many of them caused by contradictions in the previous films that were left untied until this final episode. For instance, we’re clearly told that C-3PO has his memory erased (to explain why he recognizes no familiar faces in the original trilogy), but it’s not clear that the same is done to R2-D2, leaving viewers to wonder whether he does indeed recognize Yoda, et al, when they show up in Episodes IV-V.
A couple other curious omissions and/or credibility gaps:
- Anakin and Padme supposedly keep their marriage a secret. Two problems with this: 1) She is obviously pregnant, a fact everyone simply seems to ignore until near the end. 2) She shares an apartment with Anakin with a panoramic upper-floor window, easily viewed by hundreds of flying vehicles. (Apparently, there are no snooping paparazzi in a “galaxy far, far away.” Can’t you just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Princess Pregnant – Jedi Mind Tricks, or the Dark Side of the Force?”
- Late in the film, Padme tells Anakin that Obi-Wan has come by to ask about Anakin’s well-being. Two obvious questions: 1) If Padme’s marriage to Anakin is secret, why did Obi-wan come to ask her about Anakin? 2) Why didn’t the increasingly suspicious Anakin ask Question #1?
- At the conclusion, Yoda and Obi-Wan want to ensure the safety of Padme’s two newborn children. They wisely give the daughter up to adoptive parents who will raise her under their name (Organa), thus concealing her identity. But poor Luke retains his familiar “Skywalker” surname. Even worse, pondering where the boy will be safe, Yoda opts to leave him with his “family” (i.e., the step-family that Anakin met in CLONES, whom we will see in A NEW HOPE) . In effect, Yoda puts Luke on the one planet in the galaxy — Anakin’s original home! — where Darth might conceivably think of looking.
STAR WARS, EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH(2005). Written & Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiramid, Jimmy Smitts, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski