In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!
Today’s Greatest Hits post is a review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, which is a truly anomalous post for my blog. First, it is a negative review, which I go out of my way to avoid; movies usually have it hard enough and I don’t like wasting my energy as a writer on negativity. Second, this is perhaps the most reviled post I’ve ever written. When indieWIRE migrated blog engines in the years following this piece, this post lost all of the comments that were left by fans of the series. Needless to say, this post received more comments than anything I’ve ever written. I don’t think one of them was positive. A badge of honor? No. I felt like a curmudgeon for even posting this. That said, I was telling my story in truthful way, explaining my relationship to this film and to the Star Wars franchise. Speaking truth to power… *ha*
The original date of publication was May 27, 2005.
Is Sith An Anagram?
Review | Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith
In the summer of 1977, as a six-year-old boy in Mt. Pleasant, MI, my dad took me to the Cinema Twin on Mission Street (now a Walgreen’s Pharmacy*) to see the movie that had kids across the Mid-Michigan area lining up in hyperactive droves. Of course, the movie was Star Wars. I can’t be sure anymore whether I had begged to be taken or if my father had suggested it; those were different times and I am not sure how media savvy I was or how much about movies I would have known. What I do remember is the film itself, which captured my imagination like no film before it had; a seemingly perfect blend of action, drama, and fantasy that created a moral universe of right and wrong, good and evil, that could be easily accommodated by my six-year-old brain. I probably saw the film five times that summer and, because of my younger brother’s addiction to the series, innumerable times in the years after its theatrical release. Star Wars (now officially called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is a touchstone for my generation, the first and greatest blockbuster to inspire a slave-like devotion to a movie series and a brand name whose sequels were guaranteed to knock your socks off.
Of course, the idea of fantasy cliffhangers and sequels started long before Star Wars with the wonderfully camp serials of the 1940’s and 50’s that provided Writer/Director George Lucas with the inspiration for the series. My dad was a fan of the serials himself, and I am certain part of his attraction to the film was its direct aesthetic relationship to the movies of his youth; the crazy wipe transitions, over the top plotting and unambiguous heroes and villains. While my six-year-old attentions and those of like-minded fans were drawn in by the stunning special effects (the glowing hum of light sabers, the laser beam screams of the fighter ships battling one another in space), I am sure my dad experienced the aesthetics of the movie serial as a nostalgic trip down memory lane, spruced up by state of the art filmmaking techniques.
Interesting, then, my own experience when attending a recent screening of the latest and thankfully last film in Lucas’s six-film box office behemoth, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of the Sith. I am now roughly my father’s age when he saw the original Star Wars and I went to the film hoping to experience my own sense of nostalgia; the unique brand of escapism that only a Star Wars film could deliver. Heartened by great word of mouth and the promise of a return to form, I optimistically walked into the theater and took a seat. As soon as the movie started, however, I experienced another kind of déja-vu altogether. Just as I had at the two preceding films, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, I left savagely disappointed in not only this movie but also the entire series. It’s sad but true; the last three films have completely ruined my previous admiration for and memory of Star Wars.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of the Sith
Numbers, however, don’t lie. The Star Wars franchise is a cultural phenomenon. But like most things franchised and obscenely popular, it is a turgid but empty shell offering little in the way of quality or craftsmanship. Instead, the entire endeavor smells like good business. Despite Revenge of the Sith‘s claims to the moral complexity and character motivation that have been missing from a George Lucas film since 1973’s American Graffiti, Revenge of the Sith is perhaps the most wooden, ludicrous, and awful movie to hit the American multiplex since Attack of The Clones. There are so many problems with the film itself that it barely seems worth running down the plot, but at this point, the entire planet has seen the movie, so why not indulge ourselves?
Revenge of the Sith details the final machinations of Senator Palpatine’s Machiavellian campaign to overthrow the Republic and turn the universe into a Sith empire, ruled exclusively by himself and his evil lackeys, the Sith Lords. Apparently, there is a deep shortage of these Lords, so the Senator decides to recruit one from the ranks of the freedom loving Jedi Knights and he chooses our sullen protagonist himself, Anakin Skywalker. Having seen a vision of his pregnant girlfriend Padme’s death during childbirth, Anakin is bamboozled into believing that by giving in to the seductive ways of the Senator’s ‘Dark Side of The Force’ he can save his lover and simultaneously rule the universe at the side of the scenery chewing Palpatine. Obi Wan Kenobi has other ideas, and chops off all of Anakin’s limbs, but the newly elected Emperor Palpatine saves Anakin and turns him into a black suited Frankenstein named Darth Vader. The Emperor consolidates his power by killing off the Jedi in a sequence that hilariously echoes the final baptism sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. This forces the remaining Jedi into hiding. Padme has died despite the promise of Vader’s ‘dark side’ conversion, but she has given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who are put into hiding by the Jedi in the hopes that they may one day prove to be the prophetic saviors of the Republic.
I wish I were joking, but that’s the plot.
The film itself is a stunningly gorgeous example of the impact of computer animation on the art of filmmaking and features amazing landscapes and architecture. Of course, when inanimate objects do the best acting in your film, you generally have a problem. It is clear that Lucas’s attentions to the awesome detail of the computer imagery has pulled his attentions away from traditional Director’s duties like working with actors, creating a coherent story and making sure that shots match. There is an incredible sequence in the middle of the film, when Anakin and his lover, Padme, stand on what appear to be opposing balconies and seem to be thinking of one another with great longing. At least I assume this is what they are doing, since the editing of the sequence itself provides not a single clue as to where either character is located, what they are thinking, or why this montage is included in the story. But this is just a minor example of Lucas’s disastrous decision to literalize every single dichotomy in the plot by cutting between two individual stories, underlining the narrative relationship between the film’s moments with a thick stroke of his pen.
There are numerous examples of this cinematic bludgeoning; The battle between Yoda and Palpatine intercut with the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, the absolutely unnecessary battle on the Wookie planet (which seems nothing more than a clumsy way to introduce the character of Chewbacca) juxtaposed with Obi-Wan’s battle against Count Dooku. All of these sequences are visually compelling, but by cutting back and forth between them, Lucas loses the narrative steam and moral energy of the scenes themselves. This film might be the apotheosis of the Attention Deficit Disorder generation. Wielding every single screen wipe known to man with the subtlety of an amateur iMovie enthusiast, Lucas jumps across the universe so quickly that the film loses track of its own sense of time. It takes Anakin longer to get across town to visit his friends than it does the Emperor to cross the universe and save him from an almost certain death.
Of course, the jump cut machinations of the overly complicated plot could be forgiven if the story itself had any real emotion behind it. Billed as Lucas’s darkest film, Revenge of the Sith is really a straw man made up of loose ends carelessly tied together, a way of creating moral opposites where more complex relations should exist.
In discussing the Star Wars series with journalists, Lucas said that the films were originally intended to be a way of responding to the war in Vietnam. In our War in Iraq era, Revenge of the Sith has already caused a stir with its critique of political and moral absolutism (literally verbalized in the film’s climactic battle). If only things were that simple. I am not sure which is more upsetting, the fact that Lucas could compare the complexities of the Vietnam war to the moral universe of Star Wars or that people on Capitol Hill were actually concerned enough to take the time to comment on a Star Wars movie. Where are we as a society when Star Wars dominates the public debate about public leadership? I have used this space to argue for a society that takes art seriously, but maybe I was asking for too much in assuming that we could discern the wheat from the chaff.
Regardless, there is not much behind any of this bluster. Like the serials that inspired them, the Star Wars films are simple morality tales best suited for a child’s wide-eyed Saturday afternoon popcorn munching. But in trying to raise the stakes and provide a deeper, darker connection to real world issues, the already laughable plot and dialogue become something even worse; an oversimplification that reduces real life concerns into the stuff of fantasy. I don’t mean to sound a moralist; there is nothing wrong with escapism at the movies, and no harm in good clean fun. Unfortunately, the film’s wooden, nonsensical approach to storytelling provides neither. My inner six-year-old is sad that it had to end this way, but after seeing Revenge of the Sith, the adult I am today is just glad its all over.