I know you’re all dying to know what I thought of REVENGE OF THE SITH, so I’m here to admit that my dire prediction about the film’s quality turned out to be false. Instead of being the worst of the prequel trilogy, this is the best; in fact, it is the best STAR WARS film since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Before you succumb to vertigo from the sudden change in altitude, I should point out that being the best since EMPIRE isn’t saying much, when you consider what came in between: RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE PHANTOM MENACE, and ATTACK OF THE CLONES. The new film, REVENGE OF THE SITH is simply better because it lacks, for the most part, the egregiously annoying elements that marred the intervening episodes: there are no Ewoks, no Jar-Jar dialogue. Unfortunately, there is still romance — and it’s still terribly bad; at least, there’s not as much of it.
In short, the film is watchable, though often ponderous and dull. The great thing about the original STAR WARS was that it was fresh and energetic. At the time, Lucas’ ambition fell well within his grasp: a child of the movie-going era that saw cynical ’70s paranoid thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Lucas turned back the clock to a simpler time when movies were exhuberant fun. His inspirations were clearly old-time serials like FLASH GORDON, which he dressed up in modern technology, using skilled craftsmanship to make the material seem new and invigorating, even though it was all very familiar.
Since Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, in their famous PBS interview, cited the original STAR WARS as an example of archetypal mythic story-telling, Lucas has gradually fallen prey to a grandiose ambition that does exceed his grasp, and to a large extent that reaches its climax in REVENGE, which plays out like a Wagnerian operatic tragedy — with a humorless heavy hand guiding the proceedings.
As if this weren’t bad enough, Lucas can’t abandon his silly kiddie pandering. The early scenes in the film are filled with ridiculous comic relief, including Keystone Cops-style droids that speak in silly voices and say things like “Uh oh” before falling beneath the Jedi sword. R2-D2 doesn’t fly this time, but he does pop up into the air like a spring-loaded practical joke.
What partially redeems the film is that its position in the saga allows for some actual suspense, with a sense of inevitable doom as all the things we have been expecting finally come to pass: the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin Skywalker finally turns into Darth Vader. In effect, this is the only film of the prequel trilogy that tells a story worth telling.
The special effects are terribly overdone, all flash and noise instead of clean and clear. Some of the battle scenes are well done, and the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader actually carries some measure of dramatic weight — something sadly lacking in the series since EMPIRE.
As for the alleged political subtext, it is clearly there, and just as clearly it is not specific to Iraq and George W. Bush. In the film, the Republic gives up freedom for security — didnt’ Benjamin Franklyn have something to say about that centuries ago? Chancellor Palpatine uses the continuing war as a pretext to manipulate popular opinion so that he can maintain and strengthen his hold on power — not too dissimilar from what happens in Orwell’s 1984. Anakin says, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” — echoing a statement that harkens all the way back to the New Testament.
The only moment that feels thrown in as a contempoary dig is when Obi-Wan responds to Anakin’s statement by saying, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” This is clearly inconsistent with the whole STAR WARS saga, which has always been a fairy tale world of Good and Evil painted in the most absolute terms. We can either chalk this up to bad writing on the part of Lucas, or we can see it as being intentionally thrown in as a comment on the current political situation, in which the absolutist views of the current administration have led to an unprovoked war that has cost thousands of lives.
Surprisingly, amidst all the talk of politics, it seems that most (if not all) commentators have missed the homo-erotic subtext permeating the film. The love story between Anakin and Padme never generates any sparks, but the seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side by Palpatine does. During a relatively early confrontation, the chancellor croons seductively, “I can feel the Force in you!” Later, when Anakin finally turns evil, a prostrate Palpatine lets out an almost orgasmic sigh of ecstasy. (One waits in vain for him to ask Anakin, “Is that a light saber in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me.”)
So, bottom line: REVENGE OF THE SITH is no masterpiece, and it comes nowhere near recapturing the glory of STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But it is a decent, if unduly serious, summer popcorn movie, filled with enough good moments to make it worth viewing, in spite of the clunky dialogue (like the use of the word “younglings” for “children,” which occurs three times and sounds more absurd each time). It’s not a total embarassment, and we can be grateful for that.