Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Starring Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson and Frank Oz as the voice of Yoda.
Written & directed by George Lucas.
Genre: Drama / Sci-Fi.
Running time: 140 mins.
Rated: PG-13 (American rating for sci-fi violence and some intense images).
A long, long time ago (but not in a galaxy far away) I wrote an article for The Cheers called ‘George Lucas Has Gone Soft'. You'll probably still be able to find it somewhere in the archives, if you're interested (but it was so poorly written, I very much doubt you will be).
In the article, I essentially put forth my case of how fatherhood and age had transformed Lucas from a revolutionary and daring filmmaker into a middle-of-the-road conservative, using the disappointing Star Wars prequels and the perplexing changes made to the original trilogy as my evidence.
I ended the article with this:
"…[Lucas] has said many times over that the upcoming Episode III will be the darkest of the Star Wars films. Whether that will make this film worth seeing, as opposed to the last two, is anyone's guess."
Well, over a year later and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is being released. So how does it stand up? Does it further condemn Lucas has an artist whose lost his touch, or does it do the unimaginable and rescue the Star Wars prequels from being completely laughable?
Yes and no.
To start with, I have to say how surprised I was to get an invite to a preview screening for Revenge of the Sith, let alone a preview screening being held a week before its release. Being a reviewer for an independent radio station, I've made peace with the fact that I'm not going to get invited to the bigger event films all that often. But whether it was through my pestering the distributor or because 20th Century Fox feels like they need all the buzz they can get, I managed to score my invite.
I was both excited and sceptical. I didn't want to get my hopes up too high. After all, they'd been dashed by both the previous films. I have to admit, however, when I showed up for the screening to see Darth Vader and the Emperor patrolling the cinema lobby with a couple of Imperial Guards, I kind of geeked out a little, and my excitement grew.
Of course, there's nothing like sitting in your cinema seat and hearing that booming music as the title card comes up and tells you you're watching a new Star Wars film. The fact that it was for the last time made it even more bittersweet. I just hoped that I'd like what I was about to see.
The opening scene, a space battle taking place just outside Coruscant's atmosphere, is a stunning display of exhilarating action and special effects wizardry. For all the previous films in the prequel trilogy, we've been hearing the Lucasfilm company line of how marvellous the CG imagery is. This is the first time I've ever really believed that. I don't know how the people at ILM managed it, but there's such a sense of space and gravity in that scene that it immediately hooks you, and hope begins to foster that maybe, just maybe, this will be a Star Wars film worth watching.
That hope only grows stronger throughout the course of the film. Lucas has left a lot of loose threads to tie up in this episode, and because of that there's not much time for anything but plot. There are also no new characters that need to be developed (aside from a stock bad guy here and there), nor any romance that needs to be generated, so for the most part we're spared the painfully contrived dialogue of the two previous films. It still rears its ugly head here and there – pretty much in almost every scene dealing with Anakin and Padme – but for the most part the interaction between the characters is smooth and natural.
Another benefit of having so much plot to get through is that there's very little time wasted on irrelevancies. The story moves along at quite a pace, and as a result many of the action scenes have an emotional edge to them that was completely lacking in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The overall tone of the film is much darker and a lot more sinister, with Lucas taking a lot more chances with the story, and the fact that the audience knows where everything is going really adds to the tragedy of the whole situation. Rather than rob the film of dramatic impact, it elevates it, and you find yourself mourning for these characters even as they're doing their all to win.
Cinematically, this movie just works. George Lucas has given John Williams some amazing imagery to work with, so the combination of sight and sound becomes a real joy. Even the alien environments are a lot more interesting this time around, with cities built in sinkholes and the swampy beaches of Kashyyk serving as great improvements over the somewhat listless backgrounds of the other prequels.
What makes this movie really work, however, is the sly political commentary that hides just beneath its surface. I read an interview that Lucas did with Wired recently where he kept relating discussion back to Fahrenheit 9/11, where he said – essentially – that while he enjoyed the film he found it a little short-sighted. He felt the best place for political commentary was in fictional tales, working as sci-fi and fantasy concepts rather than as straight-out discussion, because the filmmaker's ideas can get across with a lot less resistance and not be blocked out by audience members who disagree.
The seeds for Lucas' story might have been planted twenty years ago, but it would seem that the modern day political landscape has inspired him a great deal, with certain pieces of dialogue pertaining a great deal to what the world is currently facing. While this commentary was bubbling along beneath the surface of the first two prequels, it's a lot more bold and relevant here, and helps elevate the film to a whole other level.
All of this isn't to say, however, that the film is flawless. While the contrived dialogue has taken a bit more of a back seat, it's still there, with Lucas writing lines that aim for an epic nature but fall so terribly short. A number of his attempts to inject humour also fall flat, with an interaction between Anakin and Obi-Wan that's pretty much recycled from Episode II being a particular sore point. I was always more of a Luke fan than a Han fan, and always found the Jedi aspects of the original trilogy to be the most fascinating part. But when you remove the rogue element and focus purely on the stoic, emotionless Jedi, you realise how much of the warmth and heart you're cutting out from the story, and all of Lucas' attempts to make up for that can't help but fall short. Say what you will about Harrison Ford, but he added an element to the original trilogy that is so painfully lacking in these modern day efforts.
Moments that were much vaunted in the press also fall a little short of their target. The creation of Darth Vader, while well done, will no doubt be a bit of a disappointment to some fans, and the epic lightsabre duel we were promised between Anakin and Obi-Wan feels like it's missing a great deal of the impact that we were led to believe it would have. General Grievous turns out to be a serviceable, though somewhat unmemorable, villain, and the transformation of Chancellor Palpatine into his more famous visage comes across as being quite lacklustre.
But there are many moments throughout the film that more than make up for all these, and as I watched it, there were quite a few places that I felt a tingle run through me. This time it wasn't the sinking feeling of realizing you're watching something that sucks. This time it was the sensation of being genuinely emotionally involved in the story.
It might not live up to the original trilogy – but now that those films have become so engrained in hearts and minds, what really could? – but Revenge of the Sith proves itself to be an enjoyable, engaging and exciting film. Though it doesn't completely clean out the sour taste of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, it goes a long way in repairing the damage they did, and it ends on such a high note that you can't help but walk out of the theatre feeling buoyed by the whole endeavour.
Has George Lucas gone soft? Yeah, he has. But with this film he's given his best effort to make up for that. It's not perfect, but it's not terrible, either. And really, what more can we ask for?
The force will be with you on May 19th.