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.I’ll open with the lowdown. That way, those looking for a simple declaration to confirm or
absolve their expectations can either read further or move on to a more
compatible review.

So: Revenge
of the Sith
is at best a mediocre movie. Episode I was a preamble
disguised as a film; its successor was space opera at its worst, making this
by default the highlight of the second trilogy. But removed from the Star
Wars context, Sith is just another big, blustery action movie. Sometimes
entertaining, frequently trying, and often forgettable.

Still with me?

Lucas seems to get a
pass on most of the criteria used to judge other filmmakers, so the statement above
may not matter. There are two checklists, one for fans and another for everyone
else. The fan list is pretty short: death of the Jedi, Obi Wan fights Anakin,
Anakin becomes Vader.

If those are your
only criteria for a satisfying big screen conclusion to Star Wars, then little
else comes into play. In such a situation, most fans will be happy to know those scenes contain some of the most emotional work that Lucas has committed
to film. That no sequence in that list passes without a blemish won’t matter.

I won’t judge fans
who’ve stuck with me for bailing out now. With that sorted, what follows is for
‘everyone else’.

Revenge of the Sith begins with a bang. Amid the chaos of an enormous space battle,
Obi Wan and Anakin race to save Chancellor Palpatine, who has been ‘kidnapped’ by
the wildly forgettable villain Count Dooku and newcomer General Grievous. This sequence
is clearly meant to reflect and one-up the massive clash that paced much of Return
of the Jedi
. Palpatine even sits in a large chair overlooking the
battle, much as he did in the climax of the first trilogy.

It doesn’t work this
time. The screen is crammed with every conceivable manner of ship, explosion
and projectile to the point where chaos reigns. Only one detail stuck with me:
that the Jedi were flying prototype T.I.E. fighters. The point could be made
that we’re witnessing the last stand of the Republic, and that opening with
such a spectacle is courageous. In reality, I didn’t really know what I was
observing, as it’s difficult to watch the digital details blur by.

.

This first-act flub
highlights the chief dilemma of George Lucas, and lays bare his vain solution.
The dilemma: how to breathe life into a story outline that viewers are
passively — and perhaps intimately — familiar with? The vain solution: mirror
past successes, only bigger. Supposedly, the series grew from adventure serials
and world mythologies, with added touches from popular cinema. Now, the only recognizable
influence is Star Wars.

And so the same
dialogue springs up (‘‚ĶFrom a certain point of view’) and goofy droid comedy
intrudes, even upon the most serious of events. We visit the Wookie planet
because Lucas needs a place to hide Yoda and he’d wanted to go there since Return
of the Jedi
anyway. Chewbacca is included merely because he’s always
been well-liked. Never mind that his presence is nonsensical if the films are
viewed in sequential order.

(Even the movie’s title works best only when
remembering it’s a play on Revenge of the Jedi, a ‘fake’ title for the third film. ‘Wrath of the Sith’ would have been much better, but then Lucas would be in Star Trek territory. The irony is that The Wrath of Khan‘s original title was changed to avoid confusion with Lucas’s picture.)

Mini-villains have
worked before, and even been wildly popular: Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett. Their
replacements are Dooku and the tubercular droid General Grievous, who occupies
Obi Wan Kenobi while the plot unfolds. Never mind that ‘Jabba the Hutt’ has a
certain ring to it, while ‘Grievous’ makes only a hollow ping. The character could
be an interesting Vader duality, but this script is not up to the task, and he
dies a nobody.

Perhaps ‘dies’ should be ‘is erased’. Grievous, of course, is a fully digital creation. From a
purely technical perspective, he’s probably impressive. But I’m realizing how
few ‘real’ actors appear in Revenge of the Sith. Sure, Ewan
McGregor is around to do his uncanny impersonation of Alec Guinness. He
actually looks at ease now, making him one of an elite few. Thanks to McGregor,
Obi-Wan makes a seamless transition from prequels to the classic trilogy. Samuel
L. Jackson looks distinctly less comfortable, perhaps because he foresees being
dispatched in a lame ambush.

But eliminate anyone
who could be replaced by a digital actor, and this is a thin cast. Jimmy Smits.
Christopher Lee. Temuera Morrison floats in some limbo between real and
digital, as his head is unceremoniously pasted on a multitude of clone troopers
to poor effect. Call me old-fashioned, but real actors often bring real life.
That’s a force which is ironically in short supply here.

I could go on, but
the point is made. In far too many scenes, Sith feels like product made by
someone who knows what Star Wars looks and sounds like, but
not how it feels. And the hackneyed bits stand out even more because, here and
there, the film really gets something right.

Most of the good
bits are in the extended second act, in which our hero, Anakin, becomes our
villain, Darth Vader. Dish out plenty of credit to Ian McDiarmid, who once
again appears as Palpatine. His voice and performance breathe life into several
potentially dull speeches intended to wean Anakin off the light side of the
force. McDiarmid is often quietly marvelous as the Chancellor whispers and
taunts and cajoles his unwitting apprentice into believing the Jedi are
manipulating him.

.

In the one chance
Lucas takes with this script, they may be doing just that. Star Wars has always featured
a totally polarized morality, but here we sense doubt, a grey area. We believe the Republic could really be in danger. As the Jedi
Council comes to a dire understanding about their role in the Separatist
conflict, Palpatine’s words sound frighteningly persuasive. This is the tension
point we’ve been waiting for, when the fate of everything hinges on
a few words. For an excruciatingly brief time, it all clicks into place.

This is the heart of
the movie, but it should be its mind and body, too. Alas, interspersed are more
love scenes of the ilk which plagued Attack of the Clones. Because the
ineptly scripted ‘forbidden love’ between Anakin and Padme is what pushes him
away from the Jedi order, the script dawdles in their inconsequential moments
of pathos. Having learned nothing from the last film, Lucas makes the same
mistake twice, and the energy disperses.

There’s not even
much that his actors could have done to change things. While the same submerged
energy which made Hayden Christiansen believable in Shattered Glass works to
his benefit, he’s busy being being irritated to project Vader’s air of
menace. With Palpatine exerting influence on him, Anakin is pushed more
than he falls. Perhaps because of that, Christiansen is simply out on the wrong
limb when trying to articulate Anakin’s rage. Even once he goes into evil
motion, Christiansen seems to be led, rather than driven. His most devilish
moments occur with Padme, though they’re not necessarily his best. Natalie
Portman, on the other hand, often seems to have just accepted things as they
are.

Whether that’s
George’s direction or Portman’s refuge from it is hard to tell. Regardless, we witness the former queen of Naboo become little more than a fretful
hausfrau. In a series not known for female characters, Padme sinks
to horrendous depths. Aside from relying upon her to tell the
audience to worry, Lucas has very little use for Padme right up until
the end. Even her pregnancy befuddles him. In a film created with tremendous
digital sets, he can’t seem to give poor Padme a consistent belly size.

Scattered among the
minor success of the Palpatine/Anakin scenes are more recycled leftovers,
including that visit to Kashyyk, the Wookie planet, and Obi-Wan’s insipid chase
and battle with Grievous. All seem like mere spacers to force narrative points
to fall in order. I enjoyed watching Ewan McGregor’s performance more and more,
so I couldn’t understand using the character as little better than a script
supervisor’s stopwatch. It was disappointing to watch Lucas stretch himself
with Palpatine, then punch the auto-pilot as he cut back to the other
storylines.

Perhaps the best
thing that can be said for Revenge of the Sith is that, for the
first time since Empire, Lucas is reaching for new storytelling skills. The
emotional and logistical complications of this chapter are beyond his grasp, so
the effort only vaguely succeeds. But you can feel him trying to make something
better, more resonant.

What he doesn’t manage is to employ nuance. Delicate detail is exactly the thing George Lucas cannot do. This
isn’t meant as a strict comparison, but it’s like Hamlet. Future generations will always know how the story ends, so
what happens is only as important as how you play it. If only his efforts had
come earlier.

As is, even his
successes are destabilized by the impulse to mirror the past. When Palpatine is
truly unmasked as a dark Sith lord, McDiarmid abruptly becomes a caricature of
the original trilogy’s Emperor. The small glances and fine detail of the
Chancellor disappear into overblown villainy. No attempt is made to explore the
gradation between human politician and twisted master of evil.

.

Without the benefit
of fine emotional detail, the most highly touted setpieces in the film are big,
but not very powerful. The purging of the Jedi is told largely through
insinuation, though a pair of shots communicates the depth of Anakin’s crime.
The look in Padme’s eyes told me more about what occurred than did anything
which directly depicted the death of a Jedi. And in our brief time with him,
Frank Oz and a fully digital Yoda bring a sadness which the film desperately
needs.

Finally, after so
many years, we come to The Duel. Ever since Lucas described this conflict to
some sci-fi mag almost thirty years ago, we’ve known that the showdown between
Anakin and his master would occur near or in lava. For those reading
between the lines, that’s — let’s be conservative — twenty-five years to
write this climax.

So why does it feel
like the Genosian action sequence from Clones revisited? For all the
obvious effort which went into this duel — not to mention the others in the
film — it seems shot from all the wrong angles. With two blue light sabers
flashing and a dark red and black background, much of the action is lost or
obscured. I’m sure the DVD outtakes will look great, but this is one
anticlimactic conflict. There is a truly effective moment at the conclusion,
and thanks again to Ewan McGregor, I felt the sense of despair and loss that
seems so crucial to the story.

Still, after
wondering more than once how this potentially mythic contest would play out,
Anakin’s fate was sadly unaffecting. Only brief moments hold power. As he is fully
conformed to Darth Vader’s suit, the film’s one truly great burst of humanity flashes
by. It’s a little thing, a shred of nuance, but thanks to a bit of silent acting from
Hayden Christiansen I now have a better understanding of one of cinema’s great
villains. As a mere glimpse, the moment is almost orphaned and I hope everyone
grabs hold of it.

Too soon afterwards,
however, Lucas is back to plundering memories of the original trilogy. The
prequels have been laden with nods to the design of the original films, some
even subtle, but in
Sith‘s dying moments the nostalgia machine goes into overdrive.
Instead of delving the despair of Anakin and the failure of Obi-Wan, much less
the loss of the Jedi order, Lucas throws up winks to his old movies. The last
shot pretends to be looking ahead to the hope embodied by
Star Wars. Instead, it
only looks back, longing for an achievement that will never come again.

5.0
out of 10

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