Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge of the Sith
Watching Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge of the Sith, a viewer who saw the original Star Wars in 1977 feels like Memento's Leonard Shelby, going forward into the past to get someplace he's already been. Twenty-eight years ago, did anyone think he'd be here three decades later, still playing with the same set of action figures? Did anyone think the Force would still be with him? Did George Lucas?
At the time, we couldn't read the warning signs. Star Wars was a shiny pop noveltya thieving-magpie space opera that played as if its maker couldn't distinguish Joseph Campbell from Flash Gordon or Triumph of the Will from The Wizard of Oz. Every sixth-grader in my class had seen it twice or more; every adult I knew was bored stiff. From Lucas, it was a mixed blessing: a technological leap forward from his 1974 left-field smash American Graffiti, but a stumble backward in almost every human elementcharacter, dialogue, performances. Since then, Lucas has yet to make another movie outside the Star Wars saga. The sad truth is that the best movie in the seriesthe one with dire human consequences, unresolved emotions and a believable romanceis one he neither wrote nor directed.
If Star Wars had arrested only George Lucas' development, that would be bad enough. But its blockbuster success triggered an irreversible change in the movie industry, like a pollutant whose dire consequences aren't known until somebody catches a three-eyed fish. In his book The Big Picture, Edward Jay Epstein compares 10 movies since 1999 that have earned $1 billion worldwide (two of them being Lucas'), then finds their common formula: a fairy-tale setting; a weak young protagonist who achieves power; strictly platonic romance; incidental characters suitable for toys or action figures; room for sequels; and, above all, plentiful violence that is nevertheless inconsequential enough not to waver a PG-13 rating. Sound familiar? After 28 years, Star Wars remains the movies' dominant business modeland as a result, American movies remain dominated by business models.
Thus the climactic Revenge of the Sith amounts to a progress report on the past three decades of mainstream American filmmaking. Technologically, financially, the movies have come of age. Morally, emotionally, politically and intellectually, they're sucking on Nuks. When the screen went blackand the Star Wars logo appeared with that orchestral "bampff!"I felt my heart in my throat. And that was pretty much the last emotional connection I had to anything onscreen. You'll hear a lot in coming weekstrust meabout the "darkness" of Lucas' vision, and it's true that in this concluding film the director does dip his toes in the Dark Side, at least as much as his afternoon-matinee contraption will allow. "Dark," for Lucas, means PG-13 instead of PG.
But it's the supposedly heavy Revenge of the Sith that shows how insubstantial that vision is, down to the usual weightless megaviolence in service of cornball good-and-evil absolutes. Not yet the Mattel-issue Ming the Merciless he'll become in the '77 Star Wars, the renegade Jedi-in-training Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) is intended here as a tragic heroa regal warrior whose fate is to become the monstrous Darth Vader. Plagued by visions of his beloved Padmé (Natalie Portman) in peril, he earns only stony silence from the indifferent Jedi council. (In Lucas' boys club, love only clouds the mind.) As the gnomic Yoda would say, there to console him the Dark Side is.
As visual spectacle, Revenge of the Sith is astonishing, a tremendous achievement: a biosphere created out of thin air and pixels. Stammering robots, giant mosquitoes, impossibly vast cityscapesthanks to Lucas' ILM dream team and their digital backlot, most every voluminous establishing shot in Episode III has the equivalent of five of the original film's hologram chessboards. (And that's what everybody really remembers, rightthe props, the cantina scene, the stuff on the edges?) It's in the movie's obsessively detailed settings that one sees the Lucas of American Graffiti, that densely textured ode to the minutiae of a gearhead's SoCal adolescence. Everything that popped into Lucas' head, he managed to doodle here into the margins of the frame. I can't remember watching another movie and looking less at the center of the screen.
Or having less reason to look. In the coloring book of Lucas' imagination, only the backgrounds get any ink. Actors, in the recent Star Wars movies, are props to be posed center frame at a careful remove. They're what the special-effects team has to draw around. In the earlier films, the wooden performances were almost a comic annoyance. Here, in a movie that supposedly hinges on grand passionsheartbreak and hubris and betrayalthey're disastrous. The actors don't have the gravitas to fill in these cardboard charactersand when you have Padmé explaining away Anakin Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side by saying, "He's been under a lot of stress lately," you need something more than Portman's mallrat simper or Christiansen's pouty petulance to put it across. Lucas gets exactly the performances he wantsones that mesh perfectly with their digitized, mechanized surroundings. But apart from Ewan McGregor, as welcome an actorly presence as Alec Guinness was in the original, the director reduces even electrifying talents to coat racks. Poor Samuel L. Jackson: under Lucas' tender care, his performance is like something you'd order from IKEA.
Revenge of the Sith is straitjacketed by its place in the seriesboth as the missing puzzle piece that connects the two trilogies, and as the colossally downbeat story of the triumphant rise of the universe's biggest fascist. You can see the grand design: the story of Anakin's emergence as Darth Vader should give Episodes IV to VI a tragic depth, while a viewer's knowledge of the later episodes should resonate throughout this one. It doesn't work that way. Because we've known since 1977 how this story is going to play out, we're aware at every juncture of how it's being rigged to get us there. Anakin's premonitions, like his love for Padmé, function only as a convenience that gets Episode II to Episode IV. Whatever significance the images and characters haveincluding the movie's one moment of operatic grandeur, the Frankenstein stagger of the newly formed Darth Vadercomes from the other films. More than anything, Revenge of the Sith just seems...obligatory.
It's a curious thing, this matched set of trilogiesand not just because the effects worsen dramatically as the tale moves forward. See Episodes I through VI in sequential order, and the first three appear the long windup to a sprightly tale of adventure, resistance and the defeat of a ruthless despot. This is the yarn the Reagan administration co-opted to sell its Star Wars missile-defense system, not to mention its entire foreign policy of blows against the "evil empire." (Somehow Revenge, with its executive-branch power plays and homeland-security smokescreen, better suits the current White House.)
View the movies in order of release, though, and they tell a different, more depressing story. This way, the entire Star Wars series ends not with a bang but the whimper of countless casualties, as a noble knight turned galactic tyrant learns to stop worrying and build the Death Star. At the same time, there's Lucas, an early admirer of experimental and world cinema, who went from his dystopian sci-fi debut THX-1138a despairing vision of dehumanized technologyto becoming the biggest technocrat and toy-pusher on Planet Hollywood. The question is: how far apart are these two stories of men who gain unrestricted power over their worlds and in the process become everything they seem to hate?
With his unprecedented clout and unlimited bankroll, George Lucas may be the only truly independent filmmaker at work today. This is freedom? Lucas has been the prisoner of his creation for 28 years. The creative recklessness and confusion of early '70s Hollywood enabled him to gamble (and fail) with THX- 1138; ironically enough, the success of Star Wars slammed the door on scruffy, marginal studio fare, ensuring the terminal adolescence, effects-driven monotony and emotional atrophy of mainstream American movies for decades to come. It must be said that Lucas aspires to a vast, mythic scale no other filmmaker has dared, and he's committed his entire career to it. But peers such as Spielberg and De Palma have managed to move beyond their gadget-freak obsessions, or at least explore them in provocative, grown-up films. Lucas, meanwhile, can't even stop futzing around digitally with his earlier work. The dude in the black helmet couldn't have struck a more lucrative devil's deal.
But if Lucas is now finally free of the Forceif his next movie can reclaim the observant warmth of American Graffiti, or the experimental spirit and cautious humanism of THXthen this saga may have a redemptive ending after all. Maybe, in keeping with the screwy chronology of Lucas' visually magnificent but developmentally stunted trilogies, this closing chapter is really the one that promises A New Hopefor its audience, as well as its maker.
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