Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

sith_wideweb__430x292And so it ends where it began. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is meant to close the loop, to explain how a once-virtuous and powerful Jedi Knight named Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) became the heavy-breathing, basso-profundo Darth Vader, destroyer of worlds. Does it? Structurally, it does practically nothing else; both rushed and overlong, the movie is as packed as were the theaters playing it during its opening weekend. Emotionally, though, George Lucas’ latest folly reads at zero. Anakin’s turn towards the Dark Side of the Force is supposed to be driven by fear and loathing, but since the character is so amateurishly written and played, he’s little but a cautionary stick figure. The effect, not only of this film but of the previous two, has been to rob one of cinema’s most iconic villains of his mystery.

Sith, like Lucas’ other effects-laden returns to the lucrative Star Wars well, is a pinwheel in frantic motion, except for the dialogue scenes, which stop everything dead. And those are the scenes meant to give this saga thematic weight and resonance, to create a plausible path from light to darkness for a young, impulsive hero terrified of losing his pregnant wife PadmĂ© (Natalie Portman). It’s pretty clear that Anakin’s mind is being controlled by a two-faced agent of the Sith — the anti-Jedis who are seduced by the forcible aspect of the Force. That would explain some of Anakin’s behavior, but it works only on paper. Given a hundred years of cinema language with which to make us feel Anakin’s turn, to make us experience his dread and suffering, Lucas decides instead to play in the sandbox of the future. He gives us lots of twinkly CGI light shows, most of which are so cluttered and hyper-edited we don’t know where to look.

The story of Sith really should’ve been spread out over the previous two movies; we didn’t need to pick up Anakin as an insufferable little boy winning pod races. Most of the point of these three prequels is shoehorned into this last film, yet often Lucas even loses the basic thread. Time better spent fleshing out Anakin’s character is frittered away on gee-whiz fight scenes — Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against the new character General Grievous, a clanking, wheezing precursor of Vader — and fan-pleasing excursions to the planet of the Wookiees, just so Lucas can bring Chewbacca back again. I’m not saying the movie needed to enter the brooding territory of Ingmar Bergman (though that might’ve been interesting); The Empire Strikes Back managed shifts in tone and consciousness without sacrificing popcorn thrills. Maybe Lucas needs all these fancy distractions so that he won’t have to look too closely at the Vader-as-Lucas subtext that, by this point in the saga, is all but unavoidable.

Fans will project 28 years of their own longings onto the finale, which pits Obi-Wan against his former apprentice Anakin on a planet seemingly made of lava. But even here, Lucas succumbs to effects addiction and robs the duel of any humanity. The sight of a lava-ravaged Anakin, flesh ruined and soul consumed by rage, may produce a slight frisson — you’re watching the birth of a monster. (One wonders, though, why Obi-Wan wouldn’t have simply mercy-killed him, rather than leaving him to die in agony — or, as it turns out, to be rescued and given the familiar black metal raiment of Vader.) But perhaps all of this should have remained in the imaginations of the fans, who probably wouldn’t have dreamed up such ghastly dialogue, or such annoyances as Jar Jar Binks (who, thankfully, is reduced to a two-shot, no-lines cameo here).

I couldn’t spot him, but Lucas is rumored to be in the movie himself, as a character named Baron Papanoida. Father of the nerds? Paranoid pap? It’s no small irony that a California geek who probably got stuffed into his share of lockers now commands the biggest franchise in the galaxy. Sith, which broke all kinds of box-office records, confirms his grip on the dreams of people worldwide. I suppose I can be forgiven for hoping that this final panel of the saga represents the release of Emperor Papanoida’s grip, and that we can return to movies that don’t have to be blockbusters, adventures that don’t have to be aggressively hectic, and fantasies that don’t have to be seemingly written for, and by, slow children.

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