Star Wars: Episode III
Revenge of the Sith
Directed by George Lucas
True to its pedigree, the final (hopefully not… more on that later) installment of the mighty Star Wars franchise wows the audience with spectacular battle scenes, gorgeous costuming and production design combining for an overall visual appeal like the original Star Wars movie which set a new standard for the sci-fi-fantasy genre 28 years ago. Episode III raises that bar again. There are plenty nits to pick about this film – I’ll get into that – but just let yourself go and enjoy the thrills and the spectacle – you’ve got to love it in spite of its flaws. Episode III cost a reported $113 million to produce – which isn’t all that much by today’s standards for a film full of special effects. I believe it was a bargain at that price – it’s that impressive visually.
Episode III is so packed with cool-looking robots, strange alien life forms and stunning scenery that it’s not hard at all to overlook problems with things like dialog and acting. The opening sequence is a dogfight in space full of beautifully designed battle robots with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) casually battling impossible odds to defeat Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and CG monster General Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood). I think my favorite scene may be when Obi-Wan, riding a giant lizard, chases down General Grievous, riding a huge unicycle -- Grievous sits inside the single wheel. And, of course, every frame is chock-full of bizarre creatures and landscape. The film is so rich visually that true devotees will enjoy seeing it many times.
Although I love Yoda as a character, in this film I got really tired of his speech pattern – he has a habit of putting the verb at the end of the sentence. I never did buy into the idea that transposing words is a marker of stature and intellect, but in Episode III, they included so much of the little guy’s dialog that I got sick of it. I admired the way his look was rendered via CGI and I loved his fight scenes – maybe the best in the movie – it’s so much fun to watch him bounce around with the light saber. If only they had cut 90% of his lines.
R2D2, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful in Episode III. He got to kick some butt (evil droid minions of General Grievous) and since his “lines” are all binary beeping, poorly written dialog couldn’t annoy me. He’s my favorite character of the series. I love it when he and C3P0 converse (only C3P0 seems to understand R2.) I wish I had an R2D2 – he seems more lively than any of the humans.
It’s no surprise that the major event in Episode III is the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. A little context: in the biggest franchise (I’m talking box office) in movie history, after setting all kinds of records with the first three Star Wars movies (Episodes IV, V, and VI), George Lucas had to know that how these three prequels (Episodes I, II, and III) are made will define him in film history. Keeping that in mind, how could George Lucas cast Hayden Christensen in the most critical role? It’s a very demanding role for any actor, involving playing both (a) dutiful Jedi knight who is loyal to both the Jedi Council and his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi and (b) evil henchman, Darth Vader, loyal to the wicked Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Playing both of those parts is hard enough but the gradual transformation is a challenge far, far beyond Hayden Christensen’s abilities. I wanted him to become Darth Vader the moment he took actions that made his return to good graces impossible – I wanted to see Darth Vader without the helmet and cape. What I saw was a pouting adolescent – it looked like his mother had just told him he couldn’t have the keys to the Volvo. Is the Darth Vader that we see at the end of Episode III as menacing as he is in Episodes IV and V – no way. Casting Hayden Christensen as Anakin/Darth Vader is the most extreme case of miscasting in a major motion picture in recent memory.
And it gets worse… when Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are called upon to do intimate, emotional love scenes, the result is some of the worst cinema I’ve seen this year. Awkwardly written dialog combined with wooden acting made those (thankfully few) scenes head-slapping bad. It reminded me of why I created the Planet Naboo Citation for the Worst Cinematic Moment of the Year along with my Best and Worst of 2002 list after seeing Episode II –Attack of the Clones -- which I liked overall, mind you – I just couldn’t stand the intimate scenes between Anakin and Padmé. (I continued the Planet Naboo tradition in my 2003 and 2004 lists.) The filmmakers could have made their point – that the couple is very much in love – without all the dialog. In fact, it would have been more convincing with little or no dialog. Anakin’s devotion for Padmé is key to his motivation to cross over to the dark side. These weak scenes diminish the dramatic impact of the most significant event in this film and, arguably, the series.
Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine is well played as a power-hungry manipulator of young Anakin. Toward the end of the film the character seemed a little over the top – a typical B-movie evil emperor – but the early scenes, where he’s pulling an extraordinary con job on Anakin – and to a lesser extent, the Senate and the Council – are some of the best dramatic scenes in the Star Wars series.
I have another nit to pick concerning the repeated use of the word “democracy” – and how it fits in with this fantasy tale of good vs evil. The Jedi Council is an elite organization that chooses its members – ordinary people/aliens have no available path to become Jedi unless the Council chooses them. The Senate, on the other hand, is presumably representative of the many star systems – so it’s democratic, at least to some extent. Now Palpatine had overwhelming support in the Senate – remember the scene where he gets the ovation. So he is supported by the democratic Senate while he’s opposed by the (undemocratic, elitist – but good) Jedi Council. My complaint is that there are numerous speeches where one of the “good” characters goes on and on about the virtues of democracy – where, in reality, the story is an example democracy misfiring– the institution of the Senate is exploited by a manipulative demagogue, while a totally undemocratic organization – not unlike an unauthorized citizens’ militia – is attempting to unseat that demagogue – a coup d’etat by an armed elite… who happen to be the good guys.
In spite of hearing that this movie will be the last, I have faith that, given the enormous financial incentive, 20th Century Fox will find a way to make the final three episodes in the nine-part series originally envisioned by George Lucas. Why can’t he just write a treatment summarizing his vision of Episode VII and let a writer and director take from there? If you recruit the right people, it could be great. Don’t forget that the most popular and critically acclaimed of the existing six is Episode V –The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kirshner. George Lucas also had help writing that screenplay.
Movies like Episode III shouldn’t be held to the strict standards of serious, dramatic works – the Star Wars movies are summer fun, popcorn crunchers. The audience should not only be willing to suspend disbelief in order to enter the fantastic sci-fi-fantasy world but should cut the film some slack in not expecting intelligent, adult dialog – it would be nice, and would make a better film – but you’re going to miss a lot of stunningly visual fun if you exclude all movies without sophisticated dialog, etc. Episode III is more spectacle than compelling story but I still strongly recommend it as a must-see – it’s just too much fun to pass up. And see it at least once in a theater – all of those incredible special effects won’t look the same on DVD.
Photographs are copyright 20th Century Fox.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.