Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith Review
Note: If you haven't seen Star Wars Episode III and are unaware how it turns out, this review contains spoilers. THE COMMENTS SECTION UNDERNEATH ALSO CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.
George Lucas ends his second Star Wars trilogy the way he began it, with a film that offers visual splendour and technical brilliance, but which once again keeps the viewer at arm's length from what's happening onscreen. Revenge Of The Sith can be recommended purely as spectacle - there's enough of that to fill another whole trilogy - but I admired it from the outside. Like its two predecessors, it has nothing to pull you in, nothing to involve you with its characters or to make you care about their fates. That's all the more damaging since this is the darkest chapter of the saga and the one that depends the most on the audience caring.
Episode III begins with the Republic facing a crisis. The Clone Wars are coming to an end. A last, desperate gambit by the separatist rebels has failed and their survivors have retreated to far-flung systems. All should be well but instead there is unease. Some, including the Jedi Council suspect that the Republic's popular ruler, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has used the war for his own selfish ends. He's remained in his position for far longer than his allotted term and granted himself powers that undermine the democracy he claims to defend. The real threat is even greater than they suspect. No one, not even the Jedi leader Master Yoda (Frank Oz), knows that Palpatine is really Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord and a master of the Dark Side of the Force.
An unwitting pawn in Palpatine's plot is Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), the gifted apprentice of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Anakin is facing a crisis of his own. His loyalty to Obi-Wan and to the Council is being sorely tested by what he feels is their lack of faith in him, an insecurity that Palpatine eagerly exploits. Young Skywalker also has a secret he's kept from everyone, even Obi-Wan - in defiance of the Jedi code he's taken a wife, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), the beautiful senator of Naboo. Of course there's a good reason Jedi are not allowed to marry - love brings with it other emotions like jealousy and fear, emotions which can lead the most idealistic Jedi to the Dark Side.
The fundamental flaw of the new trilogy is that its central story - the tragedy of Anakin's fall from grace - is completely at odds with the cheerful sci-fi swashbuckling the world expects from the Star Wars saga. George Lucas must have known this on some level because he kept the inevitable descent into tragedy at bay for two films, making Episodes I and II in the upbeat mould of the original movies. As a result, they don't lead naturally into Episode III with its downbeat tone, 12A-rated massacres and Godfather-like ending. The contrast is mutually damaging. The peppiness of the first two contribute to a lack of dramatic weight in the third, while the foregone conclusion of the trilogy's finale casts a shadow backwards over the earlier installments and tempers the fun. This isn't a fun story: the hero turns into a monster, fascism rises and everyone dies or goes into exile. You can't play that as light-hearted adventure and expect it to work.
The decision to cram Anakin's downfall into Episode III also leaves it with an awful lot of ground to cover in two and a quarter hours. The film feels compressed - not in the same way as Kingdom Of Heaven, which felt like it was missing scenes and subplots, but more along the lines of last summer's Chronicles Of Riddick, which felt like it was on fast forward. Like that film, Revenge Of The Sith ploughs along at a relentless pace, bombards you with incidents and never lets up.
It also bombards you with images - with planets and starships, with countless weird alien races, with vast sets and state of the art special effects. Especially with special effects. There's barely a shot in the film that doesn't contain some sort of CGI. Overkill doesn't describe it. Lucas certainly knows how to shoot these effects. Look at the very first shot, which follows a pair of fighters through a raging space battle - it's truly eye-popping. What he doesn't seem to understand, unlike his peers Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, is that it's best to ration this stuff. You can only be awed so many times. The first look at a magnificently detailed alien world takes your breath away. By the twentieth such world, you're numb to it and you're wishing instead for a moment of genuine drama or a witty line, basic pleasures which Lucas can't provide.
The wall-to-wall nature of the effects frequently detracts from what the director is trying to accomplish. Example: the slaughter of the Jedi. On the orders of Palpatine, the clone stormtroopers turn on their Jedi leaders and shoot them down. This is the turning point of the movie and of the trilogy and it should surely affect us emotionally. But Lucas sets these killings against a succession of visually elaborate battlegrounds: giant rock outcroppings, fields dwarfed by giant flowers. We're left struggling just to take in the images - the drama doesn't stand a chance. The only moment in the montage which has an effect is the shot of a lightsabre being activated before a group of unsuspecting Jedi children. Simple and chilling.
Episode III is a triumph of computer technology and a failure of basic screenwriting. The inadequacy of Lucas's dialogue is notorious but bad lines are just part of the problem. The plot is all over the place. A lengthy sequence on the Wookie home planet, where Obi-Wan helps mop up the surviving rebel droids serves no purpose other than to distract us from more important events. Characterisation is weak and clumsy. Anakin's conversion to the Dark Side is laughably abrupt. One moment he's a tortured but decent Jedi, the next he's leading a battalion of stormtroopers to wipe out his former friends.
The shame of it is that Lucas has a great cast. Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are among the best actors of their generation while Hayden Christensen proved himself more than adequate in Shattered Glass. Here they're adequate at best. Christensen comes off worst, reprising the petulant attitude that made him so slappable in Episode II. Natalie Portman is simply underused. After fighting alongside the boys in the previous films, she's pushed into the background: most of her scenes involve her standing by a window, looking worried. It's quite a comedown for the star who shone so brightly in Garden State and Closer.
Ewan McGregor is luckier. Although Obi-Wan spends too much time involved in cartoonish action scenes, riding what looks like a large komodo dragon at one point, he does work up some real feeling in his confrontation with Anakin. Even that scene is nearly ruined by effects overkill. It's not enough to have the two Jedis duelling beside rivers of molten lava - Lucas has to have them do it on flimsy metal skiffs floating over the streams. He turns drama into video game footage.
The only cast member able to hold his own against the CGI is Ian McDiarmid. Of course he has the plum role, playing Palpatine as a charming politician, as a scheming Sith Lord and ultimately as the Emperor. Of all the references to Star Wars lore past and present in this film, Palpatine's transformation into the hideous ghoul of Return Of The Jedi is the only one that inspires real shivers. The unveiling of the masked and suited Darth Vader is a damp squib by comparison. No doubt about it, McDiarmid walks away with the film.
The saga's other established villains - Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and the Viceroy - barely get a look in while the spindly cyborg General Grievous is no more than an intelligent battle droid. I did however like the little gremlin robots in the very first scene that attach themselves to fighters and pull them apart in mid-flight. Yoda gets a few more "cool" moments although I can't help but feel that the wise, dignified Yoda of old was preferable to the shrunken, green ninja turtle he's been turned into. While Samuel L Jackson is once again wasted, at least he gets his much-publicised wish to not go out like a bitch.
This review seems harsh, I know and I can imagine some of the comments below will not be appreciative. A lot of people seem to like Episode III. It's picked up the best reviews of the trilogy and many fans are deliriously happy. Maybe you'll love it too. It certainly has its pleasures and it would be churlish to completely dismiss a film so rich in visual imagination. However, I can't give it a better review because it just didn't work for me - not as a reviewer, as a moviegoer or as a fan. I grew up on Star Wars movies that could make your jaw drop and also make you care what happened. As sad as I am to write this, when Episode III was finally over and John Williams' theme played for the last time, I felt absolutely nothing at all.