Afraid of the Darth

Salt Lake City Weekly | May 9, 2005
Absolutely every reason there is to embrace Revenge of the Sith comes as a result of what has gone before. And not just in the ways you’re thinking.

Just in case that visit to Amish country lasted a bit longer than you planned, this little chamber piece of a movie wraps up a saga that has been part of the cultural consciousness for nearly 30 years. It is almost inconceivable that the generation of film-goers that grew up barely knowing a world without Star Wars wouldn’t be anticipating this grand culmination with high emotions.

It’s also likely that among those emotions is something akin to dread. To put it charitably, 1999’s The Phantom Menace and 2002’s Attack of the Clones did not capture the popular imagination. To put it less charitably, they were crushed beneath George Lucas’ obsession with gee-whiz-ardry, his ponderous plotting and his inability to write a line of dialogue that sounded like any life form in the galaxy would actually utter it. Revenge of the Sith had to do only two things in order to appear somehow consequential: It had to address all the series’ iconic touchstones in a reasonably coherent manner, and it had to suck less than Episodes I and II.

Well, mission accomplished--though that doesn’t necessarily mean Revenge of the Sith deserves a ringing endorsement. It does pick up where Clones left off, with Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padmé (Natalie Portman) secretly married and war continuing between the Galactic Republic and separatists. It builds to a climactic decision as Anakin’s fear for Padmé’s life leads him towards the Dark Side and the calculating Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). And it features a climactic showdown between Anakin and his once-mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) on the way towards Anakin donning the black helmet of Darth Vader.

But is this enough? For many it undoubtedly will be. With the political machinations relegated to background--a pointed analogy to contemporary restrictions on liberty notwithstanding--there’s room for leaner, meaner action sequences, including a dazzling opening dogfight and light saber duels by the score. Ian McDiarmid gets to stretch out and inhabit fully the Machiavellian villainy of Palpatine/Darth Sidious, at long last providing this prequel trilogy with a performance that doesn’t make you want to tear at your own flesh in disgust. And the operatic drama building up to that first mechanized rasp of Vader’s breath, backed by three decades of film history, may seem monumental enough to carry Sith over its bumps.

Assuming, that is, you believe Lucas has really sold the arc of Anakin’s character. Hayden Christensen has taken plenty of heat for his pouting take on the Jedi-turned-Sith Lord, but considering the varying degrees of cardboard-ism displayed by Portman, McGregor and even Liam Neeson over the course of Episodes I-III, that hardly seems to be his fault. The series’ crucial relationships--between Anakin and Padmé, and between Anakin and Obi-Wan--simply never feel real. They’re hackneyed words spoken by actors who all look like they’d rather be somewhere with actual sets and a director who knows what to do with them.

It’s all the more frustrating because Lucas occasionally still seems to know his way around filmmaking, at least whenever no one on screen is flapping his or her lips. The wordless sequence in which he cross-cuts between Anakin and Padmé as Anakin makes his life-changing choice achieves something almost like resonance in spite of the lack of convincing connection between the two characters; a nightscape of the Republic capital of Coruscant twinkles beautifully. Yet just as easily, Lucas can have an anguished character screaming out “Noooooooo!” in a laughably overwrought style you’d think The Simpsons would’ve pretty much rendered obsolete by now.

Lucas spends an extended coda essentially setting all the characters in place for where we would find them in the original trilogy--Yoda fleeing to Dagobah, the newborn Luke and Leia separated, and so forth--in a way that’s almost too calculated. While there has been something almost admirable in Lucas’ stubborn insistence on making the movies he wanted to make rather than the movies he knew everyone else wanted him to make, he also shows at the end that he understands how much he’s been cashing in on the original trilogy’s goodwill. In the final shot--as Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru stare into Tatooine’s double suns in an echo of the original film’s finest image--he at last gives us our closure. It didn’t suck, and we can all stop waiting for a return to cinematic wonder that isn’t going to come.

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