June 01, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

The final hour of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may rightfully go down as one of the finest examples of filmmaking ever. It represents George Lucas in top, almost effortless form. He achieves the amazing without ever stopping to admire what he has achieved, because there is so much more amazing left for him to get to. It is a staggering collision of story, character, and spectacle that comes together almost exactly as it should.
The first hour of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may rightfully go down as one of the most unmemorable in filmmaking history. It represents George Lucas at his sloppiest, rustiest form. It begins with such blinding fury that the result is largely incomprehensible, and pauses only for dialog that makes Godzilla dubs sound like Shakespeare. There are moments of promise to be sure — that first epic shot that goes on and on and on, the way that Palpatine’s serpent tongue meticulously leads Anakin astray, and the final parting of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But they are awash in a sea of such mediocrity that a greater effort is required to invest myself in the proceedings than at any other point in the entire saga. The first two episodes each have deep and fundamental flaws, but even where they’re failing I still feel compelled and engaged, as I’m carried through the rough patches by the sheer energy of the tide they are awash in. Despite all the daring-do, the first epic action set piece utterly fails to rouse me, and the remainder of the first half takes a long time to recover from its stalled momentum. In fact, I’m just starting to think it may salvage itself as an acceptable movie when the rug is pulled right out from under me.
Because what many fans waited through Phantom Menace and Clones for happens in one blazing moment. Anakin is given a clear choice between the Jedi and the Sith, much like his son at the end of Return of the Jedi. And he chooses the other path. The great leader of the Jedi plummets to his death and Anakin Skywalker prostrates himself before the soon-to-be Emperor. This sounds perhaps lame on paper but in the space of a minute it is both shocking and electrifying. Much of the power of the final act comes from the ruthless — even brutal — efficiency with which Lucas sets the stage for the original Star Wars.
But not all of it. There are moments of profound beauty and joy too, the final shot of the film first and foremost among them. And there are several others: Yoda’s final moment on Kashyyyk has surprising poignance as he is carried away with a stirring rendition of the Force them, our only shot from the surface of Alderaan shows that one couple’s tragedy will allow for another couple’s greatest joy. These are small touches of humanity that challenge any critics’ decree that Lucas was never good at telling human stories. They further the mystery of why the first half is so lacking, all while helping the film transcend that first half into something really sort of wonderful.
Then there is the acting. Even as a generally big fan of the prequels I couldn’t find one cringe-worthy performance this time around, even when the words they were speaking were less than stellar. The only thing in the film that made me cringe at all was the droid humour, which seemed out of place compared to what the prior films showed us about the limitations of their abilities — particularly R2D2. The rest of the distasteful parts were able enough to be merely boring, which is perhaps a greater sin than outright terrible in the world of film.
Finally there is the melancholy. Critics like Roger Ebert insist that either Lucas or his company will go back to the well at least a couple more times before letting the franchise finally rest in peace. The film itself serves as a fundamentally clear rebuttal of that theory to me. By the time the blue Lucas credit pops on the screen, the entire saga has been completed. It feels complete, one seamless entity with a clearly defined beginning and end. Any other stories that are told in this universe will need to be peripheral. Coming out of the theatre on May 19th with my father just like Return of the Jedi years earlier, I felt I’d seen it all. And that is a very bittersweet thing. ()