Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith Review
Jim Reid of the Jesus And Mary Chain used to tell a story, when people were still interested in what he had to say, about a man who accosted him after a show to tell him that he was the biggest fan of Reid's group but that everything they'd done after their first album had been shit. As Reid, who'd doubtless heard enough by that stage, let this man know, it may not be that he was a fan of the Jesus And Mary Chain but that he only liked the first album. Maybe, as Reid said as he left him, he'd learn that in time and that he'd eventually overcome the disappointment with which he'd met every release by Reid's band since that first one.
Come the time of the release of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith, to give the film its full title, I was reminded of that story by the number of reviews which began by suggesting to the reader that although the critic was a fan of the Star Wars films, the saga had been following a wayward path since The Empire Strikes Back. Each review admitted that there existed some small hope that with each new episode, Lucas may have found the magic that he'd had in 1977 at the beginning of the series of films on which he'd built his, if you'll pardon the use of the word, empire.
On the contrary, I'll plead my case here - since 1978, being the year in which Star Wars finally made it into the cinemas of the Irish countryside, I've been, and here's that word again, a fan of the films. Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is the episode that stands out but the saga really only stumbles in Return Of The Jedi and, even then, it only does so briefly. From 1999, though, with the release of The Phantom Menace, it's all been great with Lucas plotting the fall of the Jedis with care and patience but, in doing so, finally revealing their power as guardians of peace in the galaxy. The original trilogy might have hinted at the ability of the Jedis but Luke Skywalker was, by the time of Return Of The Jedi, burdened by his destiny and by the need to resolve this with Darth Vader and the Emperor. Yet nothing in the Star Wars story was like the opening minutes of The Phantom Menace when the lightsabers of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi lit in a smoke-filled room and limbless battle droids were scattered about the room and the corridor outside. Had I less shame, I'd have dressed in a khaki jumpsuit and brown blanket, waved a pointy stick in the air and shouted, "Hell, yeah!" as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan walked towards Darth Maul muttering, "We'll handle this." Yes, there were the Gungans but, like the unnatural dialogue and the ever-present ILM and their showcasing of new technology, Lucas' ill-advised attempts at humour are but one more seam in the Star Wars tapestry that we have, by now, come to accept. After all, wasn't the death of Boba Fett in Return Of The Jedi once followed by a belch?
Better yet was Attack Of The Clones, which moved the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker ever onwards, showing how his ill-temper and misunderstanding of his great powers left both the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire as being nothing less than inevitable. Despite the possibility of Attack Of The Clones being the start of a tragedy, which, in a way, it was, it still ended on rather a rousing note with the Jedis having sent the Separatists running and taken control of the Clone army. And yet, from the first mention of the Clone Wars in Star Wars - it's hard to begin calling it Episode IV - A New Hope after all these years - to the image of the Death Star at the end of Attack Of The Clones, we knew this was to be short lived success, particularly when John Williams' musical cue for the Empire appeared on the soundtrack.
And so it comes to this, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith. The film opens towards the end of the Clone Wars in which Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) join Republic Clone troopers in an epic space battle against the Separatist leaders, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and General Grievous, who have taken Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) prisoner on their capital ship. As their rescue attempt draws to a close, Kenobi and Skywalker are again involved in a duel with Count Dooku but, with Palpatine encouraging Skywalker to put the Jedi ways behind him, it ends with Dooku's beheading and the Chancellor drawing the young Jedi into his confidence.
The clouds around the Chancellor are darkening, however, with the Jedi Council finding Palpatine's strengthening of his position and the weakening of the democratic Senate troubling. And yet the dark side of the Force clouds the movements of the Sith within the seat of government, leading the Jedi confused about future events. The only one of the Jedi who can see something of the future is Skywalker, who has nightmares in which he watches Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), his pregnant wife, die. Confiding in Palpatine, the Chancellor tells the young Jedi of the powers of the Sith, which includes the ability to save loved ones from death. Intrigued, Skywalker and Palpatine talk further and so, believing that his time has come, the Chancellor reveals himself to Skywalker as a Sith Lord.
Soon, the Jedi, who are scattered about the galaxy, find themselves, the target of Clone troopers. Of Skywalker, Palpatine preys on the doubts felt by the young Jedi but soon, he begins to succumb to the dark side of the Force. As the Jedi begin to fall, so too does Skywalker and as Yoda and Obi-Wan look to save what Jedi are left alive, Palpatine, now revealed as Darth Sidious, tells his pupil, himself now renamed as Darth Vader, to rise. The Empire is close at hand...
Despite having given much of Revenge Of The Sith away in that longer-than-usual summary, I can't say that I feel particularly guilty. Apologies to those troubled by the spoilers within but reviewing Episode III is quite a unique experience. After all, we know what happens. In fact, we've always known what happens, even from the first half hour of Star Wars (Episode IV) during which Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) told Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) about the death of his father by the actions of Darth Vader and how the Jedi were hunted down across the galaxy and killed. Of course, Kenobi was, as we realised later, sheltering the young Skywalker from the truth but he hinted at enough to ensure that the next two films - The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi - would reveal how Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, how Luke had a sister and how Vader would eventually bring balance to the Force. In that sense, Revenge Of The Sith really offers nothing that we don't already know other than the details in the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of the Empire and of Darth Vader. But, as is often said, the devil is in the details.
And so, with Revenge Of The Sith, the question doesn't just become how good a film it is but how does it tie in with the two preceding episodes as well as those of the original trilogy, which, in Star Wars chronology, follow it. Interestingly, it's not the story that entirely ties this film into the five that, in real time, preceded it and nor is it the visuals. Rather, the real star of Revenge Of The Sith is John Williams, whose musical cues in previous Star Wars films are used liberally and wonderfully throughout to suggest, to hint and to guide the characters to their destiny. We know, of course, that Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and so Williams provides an accompaniment that reflects that, scoring his actions onscreen with what we already know as The Imperial March. Similarly, during his moments with Amidala, there are cues from the romance of Attack Of The Clones but the very best moments are reserved for the film's final scenes, when Williams music walks hand-in-hand with Lucas' visuals to set up Episode IV with a view of the twin suns of Tatooine and Binary Sunset (Force Theme) playing on the soundtrack. That, in particular, is a moment that feels just so right that any doubts one might have had about the two trilogies coming together as one series of six films appearing very slight against the excitement of seeing Star Wars conclude.
Of course, it's worth talking about the visuals as they have always been integral to Lucas' vision of Star Wars - even to the production and release of the Special Editions over the original Theatrical Versions of Episodes VI-IV - and Lucas and his ILM effects house have honed their skills until it is becoming genuinely difficult to tell what's real and what is CG. Even through the course of reviewing this film and going back to The Phantom Menace for a little fact checking reveals just how far ILM have come in six years. Looking back, the CG characters look clumsy and there's an obvious disconnection between the CG backgrounds and the human characters in the foreground. This time, though, there's barely a moment in which you see something as a CG creation. There are exceptions, of course, such as R2-D2 moving a little too fluidly compared to the original trilogy, but given how much of the film is CG, you'll be surprised at how little of that is obvious.
Again, many make the mistake of criticising Lucas and ILM for putting as much into each frame as they do with many, who may lean towards a more traditional idea of filmmaking, wondering if Lucas is actually a director, given that much of his on-set work is conducted before either a green or a blue screen. On the contrary, the Star Wars films have portrayed what one might always have imagined a space battle or an alien planet to look like and if the opening battle of Revenge Of The Sith is busy, well, I can well imagine how they might be. Indeed, even as recent a sci-fi film as A.I. now looks very quaint when compared to Revenge Of The Sith - A.I. is a lot more advanced, for sure, than Blake's 7 but its earthbound imagery and its clumsy appropriation of futuristic pop culture throw it back into the same quarries as Avon and company when put against the almost constant spectacle of Revenge Of The Sith. At times, the imagery is almost overwhelming but what we forget is that, for the Jedi, who provide the main point of view for Episodes I-III, these sights may well be commonplace and if we soon look upon yet another alien world with such a feeling, it's a reflection of how the Jedi may be used to them. Such excuses are, I know, used regularly to defend Lucas' work but in this case, I would imagine that it is what the director had in mind.
Taking Revenge Of The Sith as one film within the six of the Star Wars story, it ranks as one of the best and concludes the saga in an entirely fitting manner. There remain the stunning space battles, the lightsaber duels and the sense of the epic, all of which are expected. but even within the flow of effects, small things stand out, such as Chewbacca hoisting Yoda onto his shoulder, the relative silence as the Jedi are slaughtered, particularly the death of Ki-Adi-Mundi on Mygeeto, and, as the film ends, the surfeit of items from Episode IV that make an appearance, including Tantive IV, Bail Organa's ship that would, in turn, provide a memorable opening to the original Star Wars as it fled from a Star Destroyer. As a Star Wars fan, though, Revenge Of The Sith just feels right and a natural bridge between Episodes I and II and the original trilogy. There are still gaps between the films, of course, but that's commonplace in Star Wars - the jump between having the base on Yavin's fourth moon and moving to Hoth for the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back also went unexplained - but Lucas has done well to produce a film that not only looks brand spanking new but also segues into a film made back in 1977 without it looking entirely awkward.
Of course, it's worth saying that many will disagree with this and that I can understand the point of view that says Star Wars is simply jumped-up Battle Of The Planets with the most obvious plotting this side of soapland. The criticisms that many have made in he past hold true here as well and most will find the amount of time taken by Anakin Skywalker to convert to the dark side to be laughably short but this is, after all, Star Wars, and anything other than what we've got would be out of place. as such, if Star Wars leaves you nonplussed, bump the scoring on the right to something you feel to be more suitable but, personally, Revenge Of The Sith makes for a sterling closing chapter in the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker before he, in the original trilogy, finds redemption. Star Wars takes a long time to tell what is a succinct little story but it does it with such style that, even if the flaws are evident, it has defined an entire generation of moviegoers. With Revenge Of The Sith, that generation can now watch the completion of the Skywalker story and despite taking some eighteen years to tell, the wait has been worth it.
As good as the transfer was for Attack Of The Clones, this is even better, with three years worth of advancement in Lucas' all-digital filmmaking being evident in what's on the screen. Where its predecessor had a plasticky look about it that was most evident in those scenes set on Geonosis, Revenge Of The Sith has a much more natural image with a much greater amount of detail and a sharper, more pleasing picture. It also remains a better picture the longer it is transmitted and processed digitally, although, admittedly, this may be more to do with the greater clarity offered by the bandwidth in a HDMI connection. Either way, matching a direct digital source with a digital DVD/TV connection produces a quite superb image.
There is still, however, a very slight amount of interference from the blue/green screen work with a slight haziness existing around the edges of each character that is most noticeable around hair. This is particularly evident in the scenes set on Coruscant, where the entire backgrounds are computer generated but remains throughout the film, less so, admittedly, in darker environments such as the final battle on Mustafar.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack - in common with other Star Wars releases, there is no DTS track - offers plenty of power and clarity and sounds just as good in the quieter moments as it does during the epic space battle that opens the film. Equally, though, there's very, very little noise, such that there is little to annoy the viewer in those scenes in which the impact of the dialogue is made greater by it being said aloud over silence. All in all, this is an excellent transfer that is, like the Star Wars releases that have preceded it, reference quality.
: George Lucas returns for what may be his last commentary on a Star Wars film alongside producer Rick McCallum, animation director Rob Coleman and ILM visual effects John Knoll and Roger Guyett for a commentary that's a little too dry and technical for my liking but that is bound to be enjoyed by those who hang on Lucas' every word. McCallum, as he does elsewhere, works hard to open up the conversation to those who may only have a passing interest but Star Wars is George's show and he has the bulk of the say here.
Deleted Scenes: In the manner of the Star Wars Episode I and II DVD releases, these deleted scenes are as close to the finished film as is possible - animatics and the like remain where no actual footage existed - and feature introductions from George Lucas and Rick McCallum. A few feel unnecessary but others reveal the formation of the Rebel Alliance with Padmé, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma. The six scenes are Grievous Slaughters A Jedi, A Stirring In The Senate, Seeds Of Rebellion, Confronting The Chancellor, A Plot To Destroy The Jedi? and Exiled To Dagobah.
Within A Minute Documentary (78m26s): Beginning, as these documentaries always do, with Rick McCallum and footage of George Lucas writing his script in longhand, this documentary takes less than one minute of the film - Scene 158, the duel between Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi - and examines how it was constructed. Hubbed about an enormous organisation chart and given a structure by Rick McCallum, this follows the production of less than one minute of screen time from the points of view of Lucas, McCallum and all of the departments involved in it, which includes the art, stunt, catering, construction, sound and editing departments. There are, of course, interviews with John Williams, Hayden Christensen, Nick Gillard, Ewan McGregor, Denise Ream of ILM, Ben Burtt and George Lucas and despite the slightly small feel of the concept, the documentary does a good job of revealing how much is involved in the making of a Star Wars film. Interestingly, which promises to be possibly the least interesting thing you'll have heard, Iain McCaig, who fans of Fighting Fantasy might remember as a cover artist of such books as Forest Of Doom, is now employed as a concept artist on the Star Wars films and is featured here.
The Chosen One Feature (14m37s): Beginning with scene from the film in which the mask is first put on Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas is the star of this feature as he explains how the six films now make up the tragedy of Darth Vader. In going further, Lucas talks of the original trilogy - Episodes IV-VI - and how they should now be looked at as Vader's search for redemption and via footage from Return Of The Jedi, makes his point clear, even to explaining that Anakin Skywalker remains the Chosen One as he does finally destroy with Sith with the death of the Emperor and of himself.
The Stunts Of Episode III (11m04s): Featuring interviews with stunt supervisor/choreographer Nick Gillard as well as behind-the-scenes footage of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen practising their duel on Mustafar, this is a short but very slight feature.
Web Documentaries: There are fifteen of these in total, each of which is approximately five minutes long, and when they debuted on starwars.com, they offered behind-the-scenes glimpses of the production as it continued in Sydney and at Skywalker Ranch. As such, and in watching all fifteen in a single sitting, the impression that they give is of drip feeding information to the audience without actually giving anything anyway. In retrospect, these web documentaries are, therefore, perfect pre-release features and cover such aspects of the film as weaponry, the creation of characters and worlds and Hayden Christensen's hair.
Star Wars Battlefront Game Demo (2m00s): With footage from the game as well as cutscenes, this appears to feature the return of Darth Maul, amongst others. There is also a demo of the game for the XBox console.
Star Wars Empire At War Trailer (2m13s): As above but, this time, it's for Empire At War, an upcoming (2006) land- and spaced-based RTS game. There is, however, no game demo this time.
Music Video (3m42s): Barely a music video at all, more a collection of clips from the film, including dialogue, over part of John Williams' score. Everything is presented in roughly chronological order, which makes this a much shortened version of the film for those who don't particularly care for more than two hours of Star Wars.
Poster And Print Campaign: There's very little to report on here. The Print Campaign includes only seven images of large advertisements that were used on outdoor hoardings whilst the Poster section includes, in reality, only two images - one of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader and another of the original theatrical poster, which is reproduced sixteen times with regional language variations.
Trailers And TV Spots: Two trailers - Nostalgia Teaser (1m42s) and Epic Trailer (2m28s) - are included as well as fifteen short TV Spots, none of which last more than a minute.
Photo Gallery: There are fifty images from behind-the-scenes of the production and all of them come with captions that the user can remove with a touch of the down arrow button.
DVD ROM Content: There isn't very much here, simply a link to the Hyperspace Star Wars fanclub and to dvd.starwars.com for additional content.
And so it ends but, in a way, I'm glad. Glad in the sense that the entire Star Wars story is now complete and that we can enjoy the entire spectacle in one thirteen-hour sitting should we so desire. But also glad that the actors in it can move on again and, in the case of Natalie Portman and Ewan MacGregor, to see them getting back to some of their edgier, earlier material. In some respects, I miss the sassy performances by Portman that, on the evidence of Beautiful Girls, we know she can do and it would be a shame in MacGregor had left the likes of The Pillow Book and Solid Geometry behind him.
Like the original trilogy, though, and as much as I love Star Wars, a break would be appreciated before Lucas begins work on his television show based on these films. The magic of the original trilogy was based on it not being on television very much, that the videos were deleted and that they occasionally made it back into the cinemas. Should Lucas realise this, he'll leave Star Wars alone for a few years and allow the reputation to build up around Episodes I-III until, in ten or fifteen years time, there'll be a generation who name The Phantom Menace or Revenge Of The Sith as a fundamental influence on their life. It might seem that much more than two decades will be required until Jar-Jar Binks is thought of as a cultural influence but many would tell you that they once felt the same about the one-time Green Cross Code Man, Dave Prowse, wheezing in a black jumpsuit and helmet. Don't discount the Gungan just yet.