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A New Hope

 

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

George Lucas, USA, 2005

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: May 18, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

My, how Star Wars has grown up! For all its fantastic visuals and its aspirations to a Joseph Campbell-ian mythic resonance, the original 1977 film was little more than a vintage Saturday morning sci-fi serial writ large, as unsophisticated as backwater farmboy Luke Skywalker himself. But Revenge of the Sith, the capstone of George Lucas' 28-years-in-the making, six-part epic, is flush with distinctly modern touches like political allegory (the allusion to George W. Bush's rush to Iraq are obvious) and even moral relativism, a concept entirely missing from the standard good-versus-evil template of the original. "Good is a point of view," hisses the reptilian Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) during his courtship of callow Jedi warrior Anakin Skywalker.

Certainly, Chancellor George Lucas is hoping that the moviegoing public shares Palpatine's flexible definition of what constitutes "good." And so far, the chips are falling in his favor. Most early reviews of Revenge of the Sith adhere to a kind of cinematic relativism: Because Sith is such a pleasant surprise -- so much more dramatically involving and visually stimulating (not to mention less annoying) than the two previous installments of Lucas' prequel trilogy (1999's horrid The Phantom Menace and 2002's wooden Attack of the Clones) -- reviewers, in their relief, are hailing it as not only the best of that trilogy (a no-brainer) but the best of the entire series.

Well, it's a fun movie, but let's not get carried away. To be sure, there's a lot to like about Sith, starting with the obvious fact that it delivers on the promise Lucas made back at the beginning of this trilogy: That it would answer the mystery of just how a promising young Jedi would fall to the dark side of the Force, betray his comrades and become the iconic Darth Vader. To the extent that the whole "Star Wars" series aspires to a form of modern-day mythology, this is the key moment in that myth. Who's not going to want to see the installment that ties everything together?

Also, Sith packs in more than its share of action, including an opening space battle over the planet Coruscant, far-too-brief snippets of war between the separatist-droid bad guys and the amassed hordes of Wookie-dom (including Chewbacca, who literally shows up just long enough for you to recognize him) and more lightsaber duels than all three of the original films combined. Those duels, it should be said, are also far more fun to watch, as the film's assorted Jedis exhibit far more flair than the staid mano-a-mano face-offs of the first trilogy.

This is especially true when Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, agreeably making the role his own with a quiet charisma) squares off against the droid warrior General Grievous -- a hulking, multi-armed cartoon character who carries the lightsabers of Jedis he's bested as souvenirs, and wheezes and coughs like he's got emphysema -- a clear echo of Darth Vader's processed mechanical breathing. Likewise, Yoda tops his scene-stealing turn in Clones in an epic showdown with Palpatine in the Senate chambers -- and then there's the climactic showdown between Anakin and Kenobi on the lava planet of Mustafar.

Of course, some of this whiz-bang action comes with a high grisly count. From Anakin's beheading of his nemesis Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to his gruesome fate following that aforementioned showdown, Sith more than earns its PG-13 rating (not that it should stop legions of pre-adolescents from attending). The film is also notably darker in tone than one expects from the maker of Phantom Menace -- although it's completely appropriate, it can't help but be a little distracting.

It's also just as certain that Sith retains a lot of the same elements that have dragged down the first two prequels. The parts involving a secretly married Anakin and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) don't adequately play up the forbidden nature of their relationship (the Jedi are supposed to shun attachments), and Lucas doesn't attempt to wring more than leaden platitudes out of his actors. Hayden Christensen, in the pivotal role of Anakin, is, oddly enough, a bit more likable than he was in Clones, although he still brings the same petulance to his role that he essayed in the Kevin Kline drama Life as a House. (Christensen, so good as the ethically challenged cipher in Shattered Glass, seems to be making a career out of playing callow young men who find themselves in situations way above their heads.)

And then there are the visuals, which for all their computer-generated grandeur can't help but seem -- well, computer-generated. Thanks to the wonders of Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, we've long since become inured to digitally created backgrounds and battle scenes. It doesn't help matters much that there's an odd sterility to large parts of Sith and its immediate predecessors, which distractingly contrasts with the grainier feel of the original trilogy (much in the same way that it's hard to reconcile the industrial feel of the Enterprise set with the cardboard feel of the original Star Trek series).

And for all its agreeably Shakespearean themes, Sith is still, at its core, a Star Wars movie, which means that its attempts at seriousness are necessarily undermined by names that resemble the gurgles of infants (Count Dooku, indeed) and lines like "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo."

Still, there's an undeniably thrilling epic sweep to watching Anakin's character arc unfold, even if some of it is simply due to 28 years of accumulated pop-cultural buzz. Lucas makes us care about a preordained outcome more than one would expect, given his less-than-deft hand behind the (digital) camera on the previous two chapters. Sith has its faults, to be sure -- not like that's going to stop anyone from seeing it, even given the detrimental effect that Menace had on its successor's box office. But it's engaging and satisfying on more levels than one could have reasonably hoped for. If it's not the best movie of the series -- I'd still have to go with the adventure-serial flow of the Irvin Kershner-directed The Empire Strikes Back -- it is far and away the most hands-down entertaining film Lucas himself has ever directed, and a fitting end (or, okay, middle) to one of the most enduring pop-cultural phenomena of our time.

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 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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