Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith

He is a deliciously evil villain.  The way he shamelessly tantalizes you with temptation knowing full well how vulnerable you are.  The way he reels you in like a squirming trout caught on a hook.  The way he plays you like a fiddle.  He is the true master, a heartless scoundrel, a political hack with only galactic domination on his mind.  Good luck standing in his way.  His increasing power is no match for mere mortals or young Jedis.  Your fate is in his hands which is just the way he wants it.
 
Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Emperor Palpatine in Revenge Of The Sith, the sixth and final Star Wars movie (really the third episode of the series), is magnificent, easily the best interpretation of the character he’s delivered.  Every time he appears on screen, especially in the latter stages of the film, you feel his dark presence, you hang on his every word and you can easily understand why anyone would follow him.  He is a seductive beast.  If Hell required a new ruler, he wouldn’t have to audition.  The job would be his.
 
As he inevitably transforms himself from a quietly shady political figure in The Republic, as seen in The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones, to Lord Sidious, the truly hideous ruler of not only the Sith, practitioners of the dark side of The Force, but also the galaxy, the creepier and deadlier he becomes.  He is a terrific nemesis, a cackling figure of unapologetic malice.
 
But it’s a wasted performance in a unnecessary movie.  Despite being the best looking production I’ve ever seen, Revenge Of The Sith, like the other two Star Wars prequels, feels perfunctory and not entirely engrossing.  It only exists to fill in plot gaps and to tie this "first" trilogy to the second.  As a result, this "back story" never compares favourably to the original trilogy.
 
Let’s be clear here.  The action sequences, the special effects, John Williams’ timeless, goose pimply score, and the sound are first rate.  Even though it can be a little disorienting following all of the incredible detail put into all the visuals (some of which are clearly inspired by Blade Runner and Citizen Kane) because there’s so much to take in, technically speaking, it’s perfect looking.  But when the movie catches its breath and tries to tell a story with these characters, it’s a letdown.  We simply don’t care about them, with the notable exception of Palpatine who gets just the right amount of screen time.
 
It’s never been understood why writer/director George Lucas cast Hayden Christensen in the role of Anakin Skywalker.  When he’s not acting stiffly in scenes with Natalie Portman (his pregnant, secret wife) and Ewan McGregor (his Jedi master, Obi-Wan Kenobi), he’s trying too hard to scowl in an evil manner.  Ultimately, he’s less convincing here than he was in Attack Of The Clones.  In his scenes with Palpatine, he doesn’t hold his own.  The real villain makes him look like a third-rate amateur.  And his wild mane of hair looks too fake, as well.
 
The movie begins as every Star Wars movie begins, with familiar studio and production company logos, a one-line graphic that puts a space-age twist on "Once upon a time…", the greatest title music ever heard and three paragraphs explaining what we’re about to see.  The Clone Wars continue to rage while Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, whose term of office has expired but remains in power because of the conflict, has been kidnapped by an old, wheezing droid named General Grievous.  After battling various enemies in space, Anakin and Obi-Wan manage to sneak onboard Grievous’ ship to retrieve The Phantom Menace.
 
When they find Palpatine, he’s not exactly tied up or in any serious kind of danger.  He’s resting comfortably in a fancy swivel chair, waiting patiently for them.  (You would think Jedis would sense all of that beforehand, but I guess The Force had the day off.)  Soon, Count Dooku (the great Christopher Lee who was wonderful in Attack Of The Clones) is eager for a lightsaber duel.  The results of this encounter please Palpatine who believes he’s found his new apprentice.  He senses anger and fear in Anakin and urges him to give in to all of these feelings in order to make him stronger.  By the end of the picture, he’s completely embraced the dark side, thanks entirely to Palpatine who constantly feeds him paranoid propaganda about the Jedis taking over the Senate and ultimately, the Republic.
 
After over 20 minutes of non-stop action, the movie slows down long enough to remind us of the unconvincing romance between Anakin and Padme Amidala, a relationship that has long felt forced and obligatory.  Anakin starts having recurring nightmares about his new bride.  He senses they’re a premonition about Padme that he can’t stop which turns into an unrelenting obsession.  Palpatine, who could easily put Miss Cleo out of business, already knows all about this and in one marvellous scene, he tells Anakin a revealing anecdote that underscores, in his mind, the strong benefits of embracing the dark side of The Force.  If Anakin aligns with him, nothing bad will ever happen to Padme, he promises.  The young Jedi, desperate to alter a foreboding future, is listening closely but is struggling with his Jedi principles and ideology.  It’s only a matter of time, though, before his confusion leaves him for good and he fully embraces Palpatine’s role for him, a tragic choice as we all know.
 
Before that transformation occurs, though, in between a number of dramatic sequences that don’t feel as natural as they ought to, there’s more gripping action and more stunning visuals.  Sadly, despite their untouchable excellence, they can’t overcompensate for lacklustre heroes who aren’t nearly as interesting or as smart as the villains and a story that isn’t nearly as emotionally involving as it should be.  The Empire Strikes Back, this isn’t.
 
I am a child of the Star Wars generation.  For my third Christmas, the year the first film was released, I requested Star Wars sheets (or "sheeps", as I mysteriously called them).  Rather than just wrapping them unopened, my parents had a more magical approach.  On Christmas Eve, they waited until I finally fell asleep.  Then, after carefully and temporarily relocating me to another piece of furniture, they removed the linen from my bed and replaced it with the Star Wars "sheeps" I was dying to own.  Then I was gently placed back under the new covers still asleep and blissfully unaware of everything that had just transpired.  The payoff came when I woke up.
 
As the years went by, I would see Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi numerous times (initially, out of order) and fully embrace the series’ weirdly spiritual mythology.  Like many young kids, I had it bad for Princess Leia and loved imitating Darth Vader’s infamous breathing.  We all felt connected with these characters, especially the heroes who we unashamedly rooted for.  We loved their sense of humour, their quirks and their bravery.
 
It’s impossible to feel the same way for the heroes of the prequels.  From The Phantom Menace to this movie, Revenge Of The Sith, I’ve found it very difficult to muster much enthusiasm for them.  Hayden Christensen isn’t Mark Hamill, nor is he James Earl Jones.  Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful women working in the movies today, is no Carrie Fisher.  And Ewan McGregor, so good in Trainspotting, doesn’t compare to Alec Guinness.  Without a strong emotional investment in them and the story itself, all that’s left are exquisitely detailed footage and compelling action.
 
Maybe if it was some other movie, that would be enough.  But this is Star Wars.  No matter how great it looks and how technically brilliant it is, the plot and characters have to be equally first-rate.  And they’re not.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
2:15 p.m.
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Published in: on September 18, 2007 at 2:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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