Maybe Iím going over to the Dark Side, or itís at least clouding my mind. The final Star Wars episode not only won me over, it also made me reconsider the other five, which I never held in high esteem, as numerous e-mails and letters from offended fans attest. Perhaps whatís at work here is the Kill Bill Part 2 effect, whereby a mediocre film is redeemed by the one that completes it. Or perhaps, like Greek tragedy, Revenge of the Sith enables us to achieve catharsis by observing characters whose fates we already know. Could what seemed out of tune or just plain lousy in the other episodes (primarily the two most recent, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones) be resolved by this middle movement into what Lucas has referred to as a "symphonic" completion?
Revenge of the Sithís first 15 minutes or so donít seem to warrant any such re-evaluation. Obi-Wan-Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) must rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the hands of phlegmatic evildoer Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). A tedious affair, something weíve seen many times before in this series and its countless imitators, itís one of the final engagements of the Clone Wars, that apocalyptic engagement foretold by Yodaís unforgettable pronouncement at the end of Episode II ó "Just begun this Clone War is!"
Well, pretty much just ended the Clone War is in Revenge of the Sith, reduced to a mention on the opening crawl and a few mopping-up actions (one of which proves to be the treacherous mopping up of most of the Jedi Knight order). Unless you tune in to the animated series on the Cartoon Network, the details of the Clone War make as much of an impression as the War on Terror does on the average American TV viewer.
Concerned I might be missing something (like, were the Clones the good guys or the bad guys?), I consulted with a Star Wars expert, Connor, age 11. He wasnít as bothered by the bait-and-switch of the Clone War as he was by what he saw as a flaw in the concept of Revenge of the Sith ó how did the callow Anakin Skywalker, depicted in The Phantom Menace as a precocious moppet with a knack for the galactic equivalent of video games, and later in Attack of the Clones as a variation on Christensonís sniveling poseur in Shattered Glass, transform into the pop-cultural incarnation of evil, Darth Vader? How could Christensonís whiny treble could ever attain James Earl Jones basso? True, as Connor pointed out, little Anakin showed some temper in Attack of the Clones when he wiped out the Sand People who had done in his mother. But how could this nerd, a synthesis of the average Star Wars fanboy, become the damned and towering wraith whose words "I am your father" would send anyone leaping into the nearest abyss?
I guess itís as believable as whey-faced Mark Hamill playing Anakinís son and counterpart, and you might recall the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke, in Jedi training with Yoda, enters a cave to confront the phantasm of his nemesis and father. He lops off Vaderís head and discovers his own face beneath the helmet. Itís just one instance where Lucas (or perhaps Irvin Kershner, who directed that episode) chooses an image over a tiresome verbal cliché.
Which brings us back to Revenge of the Sithís seemingly dull opening segment. We have seen this sequence many times before, and one in particular, as another Stars Wars expert I consulted, Brett, age 34, pointed out, is significant. The Sith instance is a reprise ó or a prefiguring ó of a similar situation in which Luke finds himself in Return of the Jedi. There, the unarmed Emperor invites Luke to kill him, to indulge his anger and hatred and succumb to the Dark Side. Well-trained by his Jedi Masters, Luke declines. But in this parallel scene in Revenge of the Sith, a less disciplined and frankly needier Anakin canít resist when the rescued Palpatine tells him to kill the helpless Count Dooku.
Such parallels give renewed focus to the whole, which like Anakin often tries too hard. Ideas and images from sources ranging from Fritz Langís Die Nibelungen to John Fordís The Searchers find their way into the mix, and pop versions of psychology from Freud to Joseph Campbell (the latter might be the downfall of the imagination in Hollywood) further addle it. No wonder a recurring motif is the junk heap, usually as a refuge ó the Death Star trash compactor in A New Hope, for example, or the starship waste discharge in The Empire Strikes Back. Celebrated for its restoration of action to movies, Star Wars still stumbles through a lot of allusive and imagistic clutter.
Like a clarifying theme, however, the fate of Anakin focuses Revenge of the Sith. True, a number of parallel stories are going on, and they pretty much pratfall through the same Perils of Pauline format that characterizes the other films. Here, though, these story lines subordinate themselves to the central narrative, and they also draw 0n the plot, the themes, and the imagery of the other films.
Take the use of color. Red, which has been associated with the Dark Side, the Empire, Darth Vaderís light saber, and Darth Maulís satanic face, increasingly pervades the palette of Revenge of the Sith until it dominates the screen in the final showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the volcanic planet of Mustafar. (The play of red against the more positive Jedi hues of blue and green makes for a consistent, coherent pattern throughout all the other films.) And Sithís set designs diminish in complexity from the Blade RunnerĖlike sprawl of Coruscant, the galactic capital and a city whose entire surface is one vast city, to Mustafarís infernal landscape, which evokes in its stark, glowing immensities Gustav Doréís engravings for Danteís Comedia and Miltonís Paradise Lost.
The latter might be the epic that Lucasís protean creation most resembles. Originally the shining light of salvation, the "chosen one" who would "bring balance to the Force," Anakin undermines these new-agey aspirations with the Satanic flaws of pride, fear, and hubris. Like Lucifer and Adam, he disobeys the taboos imposed by his masters, first in little things, like falling in love with Padmé (Natalie Portman), and then in bigger things, like refusing to accept the universal conditions of loss and death.
The latter fear, the same one that drove Victor Frankenstein to his blasphemous deeds in Mary Shelleyís nightmare of "the modern Prometheus," is what Palpatine exploits to seduce Anakin. You canít really blame the kid ó like everyone else, he just wants a world where everything he loves is fun and safe and immortal and heís in charge.
Itís the same reason some people create imaginary universes like that of Star Wars and others pay to see them. Despite the manipulativeness and the cornball dialogue (Lucas is no Milton when it comes to phrasemaking, though rumor has it he did employ the services of Tom Stoppard), Anakinís utopian fantasy is the heart of this movie and of all movies, and I admit I was moved when it all comes to naught. His megalomaniacal dreams prove illusory, but so too do the green-screened visions of the filmmaker. No wonder Spielberg wept at the movieís climax.
In 1977, Star Wars posed the fantasy of a kid from a nowhere planet who gets to fulfill his wish for adventure. Lulled by the disgrace of the Nixon years and the mediocrity of the Carter administration, filled perhaps with a premonition of the terrible events yet to come, millions then were glad to join him. Like Luke, they hoped to escape the mundane mire of politics, history, and responsibility. But as those perennial killjoys Obi-Won and Yoda keep pointing out, being a Jedi Knight has nothing to do with adventure or escape or future dreams. Itís about attending to the present and doing something about it.
Isnít that the reality the average Star Wars fan ó and fans of Star Trek, another franchise that ends this month ó tries to avoid? Perhaps not any more. The press kit for Revenge of the Sith includes a handy time line comparing events in real life ó Watergate, the death of Elvis Presley and, of course, President Reaganís Strategic Defense Initiative, a/k/a "Star Wars" ó with milestones in the genesis and creation of the series. Some might find parallels between Palpatineís seizing power via dubious warmaking and certain current events. Doesnít this spoil the whole thing for adolescents of all ages seeking escapist fantasy?
Yet another Star Wars expert, Craig Winneker, age unknown (he confesses to "nearly 30 years as a Star Wars fan"), an editor of the financial Web site TechCentralStation.com, thinks it does. In the article "No Star Wars for Oil," he points to lines like "This is how liberty ends: with thunderous applause" (one of the best in the film) as evidence that "Lucas suddenly felt the need to add . . . topicality into the story line . . . a recurring, anti-Bush, antiĖIraq War message."
Was it so sudden? Or was the "topicality" there all along for those willing to find it? Unlike Anakin, but like Luke and Lucas himself, Star Wars fans have perhaps grown up and come to see that this vast, extravagant, gimcracky dream not only acts out their fears and desires but also reflects the world from which they try to flee. Maybe Revenge of the Sith is the best film in the series because itís the last, and the adventure of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away returns, inevitably, to the here and now.
Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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