Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith
This time it's War! After the sluggish scene-setting of The Phantom Menace and the juvenile dramatics of Attack of the Clones, it's a relief to report that George Lucas has pulled out all the stops for the sixth, central and final installment in his cosmic saga.
Revenge of the Sith is not just in a different league from its two immediate predecessors, it's on a par with The Empire Strikes Back, the strongest in the original trilogy. It's no coincidence that these are the darkest films in the series, both dominated by the looming shadow of Darth Vader. Now that we can see the whole six movie cycle as a whole, it's clear that Star Wars is Vader's story, from birth to death, from Jedi to Sith. Which is to say it is the story of Lucifer, the brightest angel who fell from grace and went over to the Dark Side. Revenge of the Sith explains that defection. It is the most probing and harrowing chapter in Anakin Skywalker's life.
How does a man stray from hero to villain? It's a central question in American cinema - look at the lost hopes and broken promises of Citizen Kane, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Michael Corleone in The Godfather. When Anakin (Hayden Christensen) loses his way it's through a entirely credible mixture of fear, love, ambition and greed. Rebuffed by the same Jedi council who have singled him out as the chosen one, he is seduced by the promises of power and immortality held out by Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is after all, the elected leader of the Republic they're all striving to defend.
In a flippant moment I suggested to a friend that Anakin's story is actually George Lucas's autobiography: here's the radical young independent filmmaker of the early 1970s, and there's the multi-billionaire mogul he became. That's not entirely fair to Lucas (as far as I know he hasn't massacred any babies, unlike his cinematic anti-hero here), but the truth is it's a story which will ring bells with anyone who's old enough to have done their own deal with the devil to make their way in the world.
Mr. Lucas has been mapping this scenario out for decades, but it's hard to miss the contemporary political resonance in a movie which dares to suggest that a democracy can lose its way just as easily as any man. For the Republic, read the USA. For Palpatine, read George Bush. 'If you're not with me, then you're the enemy' declares Anakin, echoing Bush's notorious soundbite for the War on Terror, 'You're either with us or against us.'
'This is how liberty dies,' observes a dismayed Padme (Natalie Portman) after the Senate has voted to extend unilateral emergency powers to the Chancellor: 'To thunderous applause.'
Under the guise of safety and security, a new evil Empire is born.
This movie is not flawless. When it comes to dialogue Lucas is rarely more than pedestrian. Sometimes whole scenes seem to be constructed around the principle of connect-the-clichés. Good actors like Ewan McGregor (Obi Wan Kenobi), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) and Ian McDiarmid do their best to inject some life into proceedings, but the movie demands more of Hayden Christensen than he can muster. The boy can glower, but he seems petty and peevish when Lucas is hunting for tragic hubris. In fact it's telling that the most consistent scene-stealers are Yoda, General Grievous, and our old friend R2-D2… somehow Lucas seems most comfortable with robots and alien life-forms; the closer his characters get to humanity, the more dull they become.
Lucas is not all that inventive with action scenes either. By the nth staging of a light saber duel on the edge of an gravitationally-unscientific precipice it's hard to suppress a guilty yawn. Nevertheless, it's a shock how far he goes in a climactic fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin against a sea of surging lava. Graphic and brutal, this scene is more than enough to merit the film's 12A certificate, and should give parents of younger children pause.
Much more adult in tone than Episodes I and II, Revenge of the Sith will satisfy the generation who grew up with the saga but might alienate their kids. It's just a pity that Mr. Lucas's marketing empire sees fit to pitch toys and action figures to an age group who probably shouldn't be seeing this film.