dir: George Lucas
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It's finally over. The waiting, that is. I don't believe for a second that this is going to be the last Star Wars film. It's just way too lucrative. Capitalism demands that more films get made. Nerds demand that more films get made. Normal people and unborn generations insist as well. I don't care what Lucas himself says, this isn't the end.
The wait has been worth it. Revenge of the Sith isn't only the best of the three prequels, it's a pretty good film in and of itself. Lucas, being Lucas, makes the kind of elementary errors a first year film school student would know to avoid. But he gets a lot of stuff right as well.
He still can't write dialogue, or direct humans, but he makes do with amazing special effects, lots of lightsaber battles and a cracking story. Although, you know, I think there could have been a few more. I don't think sixteen lightsaber fights were enough.
Of all the other words Lucas is probably guilty of redefining, I think he's redefined the term "over the top". To call the eye candy on display excessive in about 75% of scenes minimises the way in which the word can ever be used again. Practically every other scene has some form of CGI which refuses to let the eye rest. And everywhere from the opening battle above the surface of Coruscant to the detailed cityscapes and the hallways of the Jedi Temple have stuff going on in the background, foreground and in the four corners of the screen at every given moment. It's the cinema of visual excess and no-one probably has the money or the inclination to do it with as much gusto or gluttony as Lucas.
He can't resist the cheese, however. Even when he gets 1500 cooks to prepare a gourmet pizza of incredibly rare and expensive providence, he still can't resist the desire to drown whole swathes of its surface with cheap and oily melted cheese.
What cuts through some of the cloying cholesterol is a surprisingly grim and dark tone. We all knew that it would end in tears, but not necessarily the how and the why of it. The stage had been set with the first two films, the machinations and strategies are in play, and the end is telegraphed by A New Hope, Empire and Return of the Jedi. It's still a ride getting there.
Maybe that takes some of the interest out of it, the curiosity, for some. Most of us not living in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp know that Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader (if anyone tells me this is a spoiler I'm going to get some Sith Lord to come over and bruise their genitals with a few well-timed lightsaber thrusts).
I at least found it fascinating and sad to see how it happens in this film. The groundwork for his fall is most clear in Attack of the Clones. Here we see its logical and tragic inevitability.
Hayden Christiansen makes up for some of his shoddy work in Clones by giving a pretty decent performance as Anakin this time around. Watching him grow from a petulant and conflicted wonder boy to a powerful and frightening villain is a transition that I truly appreciated, and he deserves the credit for that. After watching Clones I was convinced he was a terrible actor, and it took seeing him give a good performance in another film (Shattered Glass) to make me think I was wrong. Despite Lucas' best efforts I think Hayden delivers. I mean he's no Keanu Reeves, but he'll do.
He needs to be able to carry the quiet scenes and some of the wretched dialogue as well as the scenes where he has to look and act like a bad motherfucker. I think he and the film achieved a good balance here.
His seduction over to the Dark Side of the Force makes sense to us. It's not only by dint of circumstance that he is placed in the position, but his own nature as well makes it seem inevitable. Of course he is still given a choice as to what path to take, and he makes his choices and takes action in the end with a chilling certainty. All the while Chancellor Palpatine looks on in almost erotic delight.
Ian McDiarmid plays the role of Palpatine / the Emperor with such obvious relish that you think he's either going to eat or hump the scenery at any given moment. Since most of the scenery is CGI, I guess he couldn't get any satisfaction from doing either. This forces him to sublimate his desires and transform into a curious combination of Dame Edna Everage, the Wicked Witch of the West, Winston Churchill and Willy Wonka all pretty much at the same time. I am wavering as to whether I think his performance is high camp or just oddly eccentric, but neither idea detracts from my appreciation of the work he does here. I really enjoyed his twisted facial expressions during his first lightsaber fight. There was something... disturbing about it. He gets more quality screen time here than in any of the other films. Kudos to McDiarmid; now he can go up to Sir Anthony Hopkins at some exclusive club for British hams, look him square in the eye and say "I can overact way, way more than you can" and be telling the truth.
His Palpatine is a pretty twisted guy, and seeing him change from the quite calm and genteel Chancellor to the vile, cackling Emperor was necessary and well done, with all the subtlety of carrying out a prostate exam with a forklift. But Lucas isn't known for his subtlety or his gentle use of metaphor or allegory. These are, after all, mythic tales for grown ups, if you believe all that Joseph Campbell crap that they trot out each time another Star Wars film comes out. But villain he is, and every story needs its heroes and villains, especially when the story is a tragedy of such magnitude.
Someone else has to step up and fight for the good guys, to give us someone to pin our hopes upon that evil's victory won't be final. So Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan and a collection of electrons, the spirit of a Muppet and the ghost of Jim Henson as Yoda step up to give us those little gooey "hero" moments. And they're wonderful, truly.
Yoda is far and away the most expressive, the funniest and the hardest working acting in the whole movie. Well, maybe not. But he does put in a solid day's work. Ewan's rendition of Obi Wan also deserves praise. It has matured over the course of the three films as has the actor. Of course Lucas doesn't really have any idea how to use a good actor apart from as a prop, but McGregor has enough of an idea to sneak some good acting past the keeper. He has some great scenes, especially towards the end of the film, and his delivery is note-perfect. The complex relationship he has with Anakin reaches its culmination, or at least it goes as far as it can in this sequence of films, and no-one can begrudge him that.
I found his final scenes with Anakin heartbreaking, I really did. He creates that believable bridge between himself and Alec Guinness' Obi Wan, but makes the character assuredly his own as well, especially in those moments. It helps that the scene I'm talking about is on a par with the best moments in any of the Star Wars movies, where the cheesiness and implausibility of the setup fades away because of the genuine power of the scene.
People are making much of the political aspects of the film, and how Lucas is tying it in with current events occurring out here in the real world. I think people are projecting onto it a bit, and I think Lucas is being awfully pretentious in what he's being reported as saying. The notion of some arch Machiavellian fiend manufacturing a war in order to get more power is as old as war, which is far older than both Lucas, Gee Dub Bush and the entire United States. It's as much a critique of the current US Administration as it is a scathing excoriation of Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire, Cesar Borgia or Eddie McGuire. Any other parallels are, well, kinda silly.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lord Acton is credited as saying. But he never said anything about how cool someone could look running both sides of a war and looking a total badass with a lightsaber. I think people are giving Lucas way too much credit. Including Lucas himself.
With that in mind, I don't know how Lucas lucks out sometimes, but he does. He gets it wrong more often than not, but I can't say enough about most of the film, which is permeated with a great sadness and sense of complete annihilation, yet still it ends on a note of hope.
The second that Darth Vader starts up his asthmatic breathing, and James Earl Jones' voice comes forth: I denounce any of you that have seen it who say you didn't have goosebumps upon your youthful and supple skins as the liars that you are. Except until the moment directly after when Lucas fucks it up. I won't spoil it. I want people who haven't seen it to experience itself as virgins, so to speak. And as virgins, that first time is going to be painful and embarrassing, but it'll leave you hoping that it will never be that way ever again. Unless you get a bigger bag of lollies next time, that is.
On one level I feel like the only reason Lucas puts so much crap into every scene and has so many odd looking characters populating the screen is that he wants an excuse to create more action figures. In a kinder mood it seems that he does it because he wants to give the universe he's created the feeling that it is just that: an entire universe of his and his underlings' imagining. So many races, so many planets and environments: he knows that when he's dead and gone every filmmaker for at least the next century that tries something similar is going to be compared to him the way that most science fiction films now are compared to Metropolis, Solaris, Blade Runner, Terminator, Aliens, 1984. It's a remarkable act of hubris, almost akin to the arrogance itself that Anakin puts on display, so we can see why Lucas likes him so much that he devoted three films to his origin.
He's enshrining his legacy in the way that Egyptian pharaohs possibly thought that getting thousands of slaves to construct massive pyramids was a way to convince future generations that those pharaohs must have been really cool dudes with massive penises. He knows few born to any generation will have the money or the opportunity to ever match (visually, logistically, pop culturally) what he's done for a while. And after he has Peter Jackson murdered in his sleep, his place in cinematic history will be guaranteed.
If his films can't really be compared with anything else at the moment perhaps the most telling comparison one could make involves comparing Phantom Menace with Revenge of the Sith. It's fucking unbelievable to me on a conceptual level that they're the work of the same guy. Menace had large Rasta amphibians running around using catapults to threw big blue balls at pleasantly designed and functional robots as a Lucas version of a war. Revenge has clones of Temuera Morrison killing good guys and a major character murdering children. Murdering children. I can't emphasise that enough. That's not exclusively the reason why I like the film, since that would make me a sicker fuck than even my psychiatrist believes. But it indicates to me that Lucas, for all his sins, still has a pair of balls. He wanted to show how evil someone who'd embraced the Dark Side could be, and he fucking well did it.
It will make more money than Australia itself will make over the course of this year. It will doubtless be on DVD before Christmas, just in case Lucas didn't have enough money to set on fire just for fun or feed through a giant shredder. And the merchandising hell that has formed around us will never end.
But I still loved it. Goddamn did I enjoy it. I've watched it twice since it opened and my appreciation hasn't waned. I think years from now it will still be remembered fondly, and for many people the "real" trilogy is going to become Revenge, A New Hope and Empire. Because I really do think it's that strong. The good stuff's still good though, and hopefully the lamer elements of the film won't seem as lame in time. Like Mark Hamill became tolerable with time. I hope other people that have loved these films as much as I have gotten something out of it too.
That is until Lucas starts to tinker around with them again. Then I hope there'll be another homage to Frankenstein where villagers descend upon Lucas' Skywalker Ranch with blazing torches and pitchforks and finally do the fucker in.
7 more lightsaber fights the film needed out of 10
-- "I have brought peace, justice, freedom and security to my new Empire." – the strange notion of killing people for their own good in Revenge of the Sith.