To say Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is better than its two predecessors would be missing the point. What matters is that it’s actually quite enjoyable. After the promising but uneven The Phantom Menace (1999) and the abysmal Attack of the Clones (2002), writer-director George Lucas finally delivers a story we can care about. Hardcore fans of the franchise will relish the ridiculously detailed manner in which the two trilogies are linked, but the film largely favours drama over mythology. This is the first self-contained Star Wars movie in over twenty years.
Borrowing from Greek tragedies, the plot is simple but effective. Concerned that Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is using a galactic war to consolidate his hold over the republic, the Jedi Council assigns Anakin (Hayden Christensen) to spy on the statesman. Unfortunately, worry for his pregnant wife Padmé (Natalie Portman) has made the impetuous young Jedi susceptible to corruption. Things go downhill from there.
The movie features all the trademarks of the Star Wars series (archetypal characters, gorgeous special effects, thrilling if implausible action sequences, etc.), but the film applies them with more focus than the other prequels. It even makes good use of some of the franchise’s weaker points. Consider Palpatine’s manipulative double-talk, which is immediately apparent to the audience but, because every other voice is devoid of subtlety, seems cunning enough that we understand its persuasiveness.
How Anakin turns to the Dark Side has been the subject of speculation for decades. Revenge of the Sith provides a satisfying answer to the question, which is an achievement in itself, but the film is more ambitious than that, addressing the theme of corruption not just in terms of its fantastic universe but also in relation to our own world. Padmé has a particularly insightful reaction to Palpatine’s plans for the republic: “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”
Two major action sequences are similarly evocative: the climactic battle for Anakin’s soul, set on a planet not unlike the fiery depths of hell; and Palpatine’s duel with Yoda (Frank Oz), in which the Chancellor literally tears the senate apart to defeat his opponent, beautifully summarizing the movie’s political intrigue. These set pieces are the most gripping because they communicate the film’s ideas as much as they do its plot.
It should however be noted that the action scenes, especially the lightsaber battles, are generally too long and far too numerous. I began noticing how, with the exception of Yoda, non-human Jedis seemed incapable of putting up a fight, essentially becoming the equivalent of Star Trek’s disposable red ensigns. I mention this not because I found it particularly distracting but to demonstrate how a bored mind tends to wander during these repetitive sword fights.
Truly distracting are the awkward romantic scenes between Padmé and Anakin, which will make you wonder how Lucas ever got past a first date. The two lovers are incapable of casual behaviour. They either hug and kiss or stand three meters apart, spewing asinine rhapsodies: “Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo so long ago, when there was nothing but our love.” Coruscant must have the worst Hallmark stores.
With such lines, it’s understandable that Natalie Portman would struggle with her role, which has regressed from strong-willed diplomat to generic worried spouse. She and Samuel L. Jackson, who still confuses spirituality with constipation, give the least convincing performances in the film. That we know them both as accomplished actors only makes it more baffling. Perhaps there is no right way of saying, “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart!”
But I’m nitpicking. Wooden acting and cornball dialogue are also signatures of the Star Wars series. This includes the original movies by the way. As Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill gave us some of cinema’s most memorable instances of unintentional humour. It’s all part of the charm.
To say Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith doesn’t measure to the original trilogy would be missing the point. Those of us old enough to remember the first Star Wars films do so from a child’s perspective. I don’t believe it was ever possible for us to recapture that level of wonderment. I suppose this too says something about corruption.