Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Trying to ensure the survival of the Republic against Count Dooku’s Separatists, the Jedi find themselves increasingly involved in the machinations of Chancellor Palpatine. For Anakin Skywalker, the conflict is intensified by premonitions that his secret wife Padmé will die in childbirth; although he deeply respects his friend and teacher Obi-Wan Kenobi, the only way of saving her appears to lie with the Dark Side of The Force.

They may be easy to poke fun at sometimes, but there’s no denying that Star Wars fans are amongst the most dedicated and loyal film fans on the planet. Which is why, while it’s always enjoyable to rag on awful movies, it was also heart-breaking that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were the absolute dogs they were (don’t argue, they were). As their final chance (until J.J. Abrams’ film appears) to experience George Lucas’ universe in live action form, fans must have been praying that Revenge of the Sith would, if not restore balance to the force, at least restore a bit of credibility to their hobby.

ROTS (no comment) begins with the Republic at war against Count Dooku, who has “kidnapped” Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen) free the strangely composed Chancellor, who then persuades Anakin to kill a defenceless Dooku against the young man’s Jedi judgement. With Dooku dead, it seems that all the Jedi need do to end the war is eliminate vicious cyborg General Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood), and Ewan McGregor sets off to finish the job; Anakin, however, is left out of the picture, distrusted by the Jedi Council led by Mace Windu and the venerable Yoda (Samuel L. Jackson and the voice of Frank Oz) because he’s too close to the power-hungry chancellor. Indeed, Anakin’s asked to be both the Council and the Chancellor’s spy, a psychological burden he could do without since he’s also having visions that his pregnant wife Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) will die whilst giving birth. When Palpatine reveals his true nature and offers Skywalker a way of saving Padmé, his fate is sealed: he may well gain power from turning to the Dark Side of the Force, but the betrayal and bloodshed that goes with it will cost Anakin much more than his soul.

Let’s start with what’s good about Revenge of the Sith. Though overcrowded and obviously created in the guts of a thousand super-computers, the battle-centric opening scenes are manna from heaven to those yearning for a Star Wars movie to feature warring amongst the stars. Kenobi and Anakin’s “rescue” of Palpatine (a superbly scheming McDiarmid) is a big bang to open the movie, establishing the grander scale of the film and the conflict that shapes it – not the war to control the Republic so much as the war for Skywalker’s soul. Although it happens off-screen, the murder of the Jedi ‘younglings’ is a dark turn for the series to take, while the climactic battle between Kenobi and Skywalker – CGI’d to the point of overkill though it is – features some gruesome moments with what is effectively the death of Anakin. Throughout, the epic nature of the film and its frequent, exciting action scenes raise the stakes and our involvement in the Universe as a whole. For viewers who know exactly how this film must end, there’s an additional fascination in discovering how Lucas will manoeuvre everyone into shape*, and the reveal of the fully-suited Darth Vader plays brilliantly on the costume and character’s iconic status.

And Jar Jar Binks barely gets a look in.

Regrettably, while the big picture for Revenge of the Sith is infinitely more appealing than either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, it still features many of the same drawbacks. The dialogue is no less dreadful: Annie and Padmé have some hopeless conversations, including one about love making him blind; while McGregor is still saddled with moribund quips, as though Obi-Wan is rehearsing for an Oscar Wilde play in his spare time.

Lucas’ words also drag down the performances of those who can’t bring themselves to believe in their own characters – Samuel L. Jackson has never been less motivated, and that includes Snakes on a Plane. More importantly, the story piles an enormous burden on Anakin Skywalker: proud and hot-tempered, he respects the Jedi order but is frustrated that his talents do not instantly make him a Master; this rejection, plus the possibility of saving Padmé, turn him towards Darth Sidious; yet the terrible things he must do as a Sith apprentice guarantee that he will lose his wife anyway. The maelstrom of emotions would flummox the greatest actor, not least because they barely make sense, but Christensen only scratches the surface of the character’s inner turmoil. Where he should be a resistant but finally helpless prisoner to his passion, despite Jedi training from a man he respects utterly, he constantly comes across as a kid throwing out his bottom lip because life’s not fair.

The other familiar problem is the director’s unstinting reliance on technology. Although it creates incredible space battles, cityscapes, lakes of fire and so on, the CGI isn’t quite good enough to convince that any of it is real, especially when non-CGI characters are also involved – Kenobi riding whatever beast he rides often doesn’t work, and the jumpy-jumpy Jedis look very silly compared to when they’re just having an honest-to-goodness scrap. Lucas apparently knows how to use the technology; just not when he should, and when he shouldn’t. Another example is Anakin’s meeting with the Chancellor at the weird, pointless light show which looks like a projection of goldfish in a jacuzzi. Also, while the graphics work better on him/it than on the organic beings, the decision to turn R2-D2 into an action hero is ludicrous.

Just occasionally, Revenge of the Sith feels cinematic, which – given the dismal, uninvolving technical demos that preceded it – is relatively high praise. In absolute terms, however, it lacks the writing, acting and directorial finesse to lift it above the mediocre. I can only cross my fingers that Episode VII will approach the high watermark of The Empire Strikes Back; for while this is undoubtedly the best of the prequels, that’s really not saying much.

NOTES: Notwithstanding the design issue mentioned in my review of The Phantom Menace.

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