Everybody knows how it is going to end. But what “Star Wars” fans are dying to know is precisely how it all unfolds. Or, more specifically, what terrible deeds will Anakin Skywalker carry out on his way to becoming Darth Vader?
Anyone who has seen the lackluster Episodes I and II knows George Lucas must be saving all the good stuff for the last film. The only kind of drama Lucas managed to create in the first two prequels was from filling in the blanks in the backstory. “Revenge of the Sith” is the last installment, so it has that component in spades. The real question this time is whether or not Lucas has created a compelling story that can stand on its own.
Episode III suffers from some of the same shortcomings- bad dialogue, wooden acting, slow pacing, and incomprehensible plotting- that its two recent predecessors did, only this time there is far less of each.
By comparison then, “Revenge of the Sith” is more satisfying than both Episodes I or II. On its own, however, the film is a more of mixed affair; a glass that I choose to see as half-full rather than half-empty.
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As the Clone Wars draw to a close, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is sent by the Jedi Council to defeat Separatist droid army leader General Grievous. Meanwhile, Chancellor Palpatine’s unlimited “emergency powers” in the Senate are still in effect after three years, and he entrusts his dark secrets to Anakin (Hayden Christensen), with promises of unlimited power.
Part of the problem with these prequels is that the Republic and the Jedi face a “phantom menace.” The Jedi sense a powerful disturbance in the Force, but nobody can figure out who it hasbeen coming from. Impossibly, it has all been right under their supposedly highly-developed noses. Meanwhile, Palpatine divides and conquers the Republic through many tedious maneuverings in the Senate. Luckily, all of this tiresome plotting finally pays off in Episode III, as the Republic’s loyalty to Palpatine proves to be both blind and stupid.
Although he’s been leading up to this moment for some time, who knew that Lucas’ story would so closely mirror our nation’s current political climate? Palpatine’s G.W. Bush-like “emergency powers” during wartime turn him into a full-fledged dictator in this final chapter. Lucas brings all of his totalitarian government parallels full circle, as the Senate, believing their leader’s request for complete control to be justified, extends his autocratic rule, effectively turning the Chancellor into the Emperor and the Republic into the Empire. Padme (Natalie Portman) seems to be the only one who notices as she mourns in a particularly poignant moment, “So this is how liberty dies- with thunderous applause.” Lucas even stages a wickedly exciting action sequence between democracy and a dictatorship as Yoda and Palpatine do battle in the Senate itself, hurling the chamber’s massive disc-like platforms at one another.
Rumor has it that “Shakespeare in Love” writer Tom Stoppard did an uncredited polish on Lucas’ dialogue. Whether its true or not, the difference in the lines and the delivery from the actors is a noticeable improvement, though the acting is still uncomfortably stiff at times. Ian McDiarmid breaks out of his shell, and portrays Palpatine’s seductive advances like those of a bad Catholic priest. He thoroughly enjoys luring Anakin, who is continually frustrated by the Jedi Council’s lack of faith and his own unlimited ego, to the Dark Side of the Force. Unfortunately, the crucial “turning” scene sports some of the movie’s worst dialogue delivery. After the quick and unconvincing event concludes, Anakin sets out on a terrible rampage that justifies the series’ first PG-13 rating, as he executes some very unforgivable deeds.
McGregor, the only saving grace of Episode II, really makes Obi-Wan his own here. Kenobi serves as the true conscience of the film, in stunned disbelief when hearing what his student has done, and yet he also immediately takes action against Anakin. Kenobi’s inability to keep him on the straight and narrow is truly tragic, while the Jedi Council’s inability to see through the Chancellor’s true intentions is truly idiotic. Consequently, we rely on McGregor’s convincing performance to shepherd us through an improbable narrative. He is the most divided of all the humorless Jedi and therefore the most real. Kenobi’s desperate scream during the final lightsaber battle (and the climax of Anakin’s betrayal) is chilling.
It is a peculiar thing to have so much of the drama in a feature film derive from an audience’s knowledge of previous films in the series. As Lucas settles this final installment into the “Star Wars” legend, he ties up some pre-existing lines and plot points in an extended conclusion that has more fake endings than “The Return of the King.” Despite the valiant effort to connect the dots to the 1977 original, diehard “Star Wars” fans will still be left puzzled by some choices that render scenes from the first trilogy quite anachronistic.
In “Revenge of the Sith,” more than before, Lucas is able to capitalize on all the previous exposition and actually move beyond it to create a more emotional experience than either “The Phantom Menace” or “Attack of the Clones.” He can be more easily forgiven, then, for not completely ironing out all the rough spots. Lucas has conjured up a prequel that ends the Vader saga on a mostly satisfactory high note.