Revenge of the Sith arrived in the mail a day ago. Yes, I know, it’s the sort of movie you’re supposed to see on the big screen with surround sound and all, but I’m not that much of a purist. Sorry!
I saw the first installment of the Star Wars sextet when it first came out, and I was 17 or 18. That was a good age to see it. I’ve now been around for long enough to see the final installment.
Let me say at the outset that this is easily the best installment since The Empire Strikes Back. It has a real plot and a lot of drive. It’s a great movie to look at.
The basic problem with the Star Wars saga is the standard of reference. How are we supposed to judge it? Are we supposed to compare it with serious cinematic art, treat it like popcorn movie fare, or something in-between?
Lucas has certain artistic pretensions, and whenever he takes his work too seriously it instantly sinks under its own dead weight--like a gold-plated fortune-cookie.
One can never tell the target audience Lucas has in mind. At what age level is he pitching his stuff? Much of it is frankly childish, and it’s hard for a reasonably intelligent viewer to assume a consistent point of view.
The general quality of acting has been a typical weakness in a Star Wars movie, and it’s more damaging in Revenge of the Sith because the theme of this film is the tragic downfall of a decent, well-meaning man. Beginning with the best of intentions, he gradually passes the point of no return.
The problem here is that such a theme requires fine acting on the part of the lead to chart the inner turmoil and transformation. He also needs a strong supporting cast to play off against. In this film, Palpatine is the only character (played by McDiarmid) with the thespian resources to do his part.
Christensen was cast for his looks, not his talent. What we get is a mix of adolescent angst and a white boy pretending to be a gangsta rapper.
McGregor is too younthful to be a convincing mentor, and he also lacks the kindliness and gentle touch which Alec Guinness brought to the part.
In addition, Christensen and Portman (as Padmé) have all the spark of two wet dogs in a downpour.
On a related note, the actors and characters are just not as likable as the original trilogy. This leaves the film with a dead-centered deadness.
There are other irritants. Lucas has a magnificent eye for imaginary landscapes and cityscapes. But he’s so itchy to show off his digital effects that he constantly litters the panorama with a swarm of gnat-like little shuttlecraft.
Yoda began life as a Muppet, and the spectacle of a digitized Yoda in a swordfight with the Emperor is just a computerized Punch & Judy show—or should I say Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog?
The willing suspension of belief is an act of trust between moviemaker and moviegoer. It cannot be abused too often without fostering a certain level of resentment.
The idea that Palpatine is a Sith Lord in disguise has definite dramatic potential. Great cinematic villains achieve their villainy through sheer acting ability alone. Unfortunately, Lucas doesn’t trust actors and acting to get the message across. Instead, he has to dress up the villain in a Halloween costume and make him spit out his words in a reptilian tone of voice just in case the audience is too obtuse to get the point.
However, the most revealing failure is a moral failing—the lack of a consistent moral vision.
For Lucas, presumably, the heroes are the republicans and the Jedi knights. But what’s so great about the old republic, anyway? Lucas’ idea of representative government is modeled, not on the American experiment, but Athenian democracy, the Roman senate, and the House of Lords. These are aristocrats and royalty. Padmé dresses like an empress and lives in a palace that makes Versailles look like the slave quarters.
And despite Yoda’s Dalai Lama rhetoric, the Jedi are strikingly like the Samurai. It makes you wonder what, exactly, is Lucas’ political ideal. The Shogunate?
This makes for a great costume drama, complete with the tabloid lives of the rich and famous. But it certainly blurs the line between the bright side and the dark side of the force.
Then you have the Buddhist solution to the problem of evil. Anakin seeks the advice of Yoda about premonitions of his wife dying in childbirth. And what is Yoda’s counsel? “Death is a natural part of life. Mourn then, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”
Can you really blame Anakin for changing sides? Lucas, with his post-Christian vision, leaves the character with a choice between one inhuman philosophy and another inhuman philosophy.
The massacre of the “younglings” is Anakin’s formal rite of initiation into the dark side. Yet it’s Obi-Wan who admonishes him that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
Well, if that’s the case, then what’s so bad about the slaughter of the “younglings” or the betrayal of his Jedi brethren and mentors?
Actually, slaughtering the offspring of one’s political rivals is customary in warrior cultures. Such atrocities were part of the honor-code. The problem with Lucas is that he retains the remnants of a Christian conscience. This is in direct tension with his chic, ersatz Buddhism.
And without a moral or emotional center, the epic special effects become mere eye-candy. They signify nothing. Compare that with Dante or Bunyan, where the landscape is a moral landscape. Where every stick and stone serve as spiritual similes—like a two-way mirror between two worlds.
On the other hand, some liberal reviewers savaged the film with the viciousness of a custody battle. Such is the bitter disillusionment of the worldling—whose heart is larger than his creed.