Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

| June 3, 2005

It’s all about expectations. A lot of what I get out of a movie is tied to what I expect going in. Weeks of rave reviews and great word of mouth sometimes creates the kind of hype that makes whatever flickers across the screen pale in comparison. A fun experiment – go to the theater and see a movie you’ve never heard of. Without those preconceived notions, without that thirty-second, Cliffs Notes trailer bouncing around in the back of your mind, every aspect of the film is a surprise, every new scene defies expectation. This is the only way to develop a truly unbiased opinion of a film, to avoid ruining it for yourself.
Of course the opposite of that movie you’ve never heard of is Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith. This is the movie you can’t escape, the movie that demands you recognize it even if you never get around to watching it. Yoda is pushing Pepsi, Chewbacca is roaring about ring tones, Darth Vader is endorsing evil m&m’s. If the Sith are in the advertising business, I’d say their revenge is complete. This movie is in the unique position of ending one trilogy and establishing a second one that began twenty-eight years ago. It essentially requires you to have seen five other movies in order to appreciate it – like a ten hour joke with a two hour punch line. It’s Star Wars. You’ve heard of it. And since you’ve heard of it I’ll skip the saga-spanning recap, the testimonial where I reveal how much or how little George Lucas shaped my life a long time ago in a movie theater far, far away. You want to know one thing – is it good? The answer is no. No it isn’t.
I saw Revenge of the Sith on opening night and it’s taken me a week and a half to understand that I didn’t like it. I kept trying to write a positive review and I couldn’t finish it. I reached out with the Force, searched my feelings and discovered that I’d fallen prey to my own meager expectations. George Lucas’ masterstroke is that his first two prequels were so bad that I marched into Episode III fearing the absolute worst, knowing that anything short of a punch in the kidneys would make me happy. And so when the movie turned out to be better than the last two, I walked out screaming “Best Picture” at the top of my lungs. But then, everything is relative. Of the prequels, sure it’s the best. Outside of the Lucas-verse, not so much.
Visually, Lucas really outdid himself. Every scene and shot pops off the screen like bacon frying in a pan. I could smell the wet Wookie fur, the lightsaber-singed flesh. He gives us glimpses of new worlds – giant mushroom forests and snowy, windswept mountaintops – rather than yet another sad trip to sandy Tattooine. Yoda shuffles and rubs his head like a tiny Marlon Brando and the multi-limbed General Grievous stalks and wheezes through his scenes like a long-lost Universal movie monster – The Cousin of Dracula, perhaps. If only this had been a silent picture.
Yes, the performances are still uptight and robotic, but I can’t place blame with the actors. I’ve seen Samuel Jackson embody rage, personify loss, but here he’s as blank as the green screen he failed to emote in front of. I got more range from R2-D2 and I can only guess that Lucas wanted it that way. Somebody must have told Jackson to hold back. Ian McDiarmid delivers the only standout performance with his plotting, surprisingly convincing Chancellor Palpatine – the only character who sparked my interest. Poor Hayden Christensen finally gets to let loose a bit while Natalie Portman is mostly relegated to standing around on balconies and, no joke, brushing her hair. Ewen McGregor does a fine job channeling Alec Guinness’s Obi Wan, but around the time he started riding the giant lizard, I quit caring. Chewbacca roars very nicely.
Lucas slightly improves his direction here, but not by much. He still insists on cueing his actors a full four or five seconds after the scene starts. It reminds me of an amusement park ride, the boat or car pulling up to some vignette where it takes the animatronics a few moments to power up and start singing. The movie is full of odd pauses, strange line readings and just plain terrible dialogue. There is a nice sequence with Anakin and Padme staring wistfully out from balconies on opposite sides of the city. There you go – SHOW us that they’re in love since you obviously have a hard time TELLING us they’re in love.
The story goes where it has to in order to match up with the original trilogy, but isn’t entirely convincing along the way. I left wishing this had been episode I, that I would get to see more of the fledgling Vader, the newly established Empire, Yoda and Obi Wan in exile – a Star Wars time-out – thinking about what they’ve done wrong. But that’s not what I got. A good sign you’ve just seen a bad movie? A laundry list of what you’d like to have seen, but didn’t. Another sign you’ve seen a bad movie, making excuses for it. The “well the acting varied, the dialogue sucked, the story left me wanting but it looked really, really good” argument is akin to praising a meal with raw meat, rotten vegetables and sour wine simply because the bread is light and fluffy.
You’ll notice I didn’t really write about what happens in the movie – partly because everyone knows what ultimately occurs, but mostly because it doesn’t matter. Just like this review doesn’t matter. It’s Star Wars. You’ll see it because it’s there, because you’ve invested time and energy in the whole long story, because, like a grimly dutiful parent heading to a school play, you have to go – it’s family. You’ll see it because it’s more a pop culture event than a film, because George Lucas is squirreled away somewhere on his ranch working that Jedi mind trick – muttering, “Two for Revenge of the Sith please” over and over and over.
Note – the tipping point for me, when I realized that Episode III wasn’t really all that good, came when I saw a truly great film about a week later. Like Star Wars, this movie is also set in space. It has laser guns and big ships and exotic planets. Unlike Star Wars, it has amazing performances, flesh and blood characters and a smart, original story with jaw-dropping twists and turns – hilarious, brutal and heart-breaking all at once. This movie ruined Star Wars for me, but made me remember how amazing movies can be, how fun they can be. It’s called Serenity and it opens in September – well clear of the summer glut. I highly recommend it. I could go on and on but I’d hate to do a number on your expectations.

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