How strange to write a movie review of something that isn’t a movie at all; something that is more than a movie, and less. To a large extent, George Lucas has spent the last decade working not to disappoint rather than to impress. In choosing to do prequels, he bound himself in a rigid, intransigent expectations, and with the first two episodes of his new trilogy meeting a generally chilly reception, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is, far above anything else, a chance at redemption for Lucas, and at fulfillment for his legions of fans. If ever a piece of cinema genuinely did not stand on its own, this is it. A movie? No. It’s the completion of a saga, the culmination of a pop culture phenomenon, the object of anticipation for millions who know precisely what it must contain, and will certainly let us know if it errs.
But while Revenge of the Sith does do its best to render the language of traditional film criticism irrelevant, there is no getting around the fact that it is not a great movie, though I think it is a good one. In fact, if it were not more than a movie — and less — it would probably be deeply suspect the world over. Lucas’ dialogue is as hideously unwieldy as it was in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, though he does get off a few memorable proclamations and some beautifully head-spinning Yoda-speak. His screenplay is mostly graceless, shuttling us between plotlines and locations like a courtesy van without a driver. He continues to insist on injecting a sizable dose of humor into his mythical universe, but has not figured out how to do so without making it unbearably cutesy and out-of-place. And though the appearance of the film is nothing short of awe-inspiring, the editing and shot selection are either workmanlike or, on a couple of occasions, even clumsy.
The above paragraph should have elicited one of two reactions. Star Wars acolytes have probably stopped reading, dismissing me as a hopeless pedant who wouldn’t know a Wookie from an Ewok. The uninitiated are likely wondering about the relatively generous grade at the top of the page. But these problems, regrettable though they may be, have plagued each of Lucas’ efforts in this decade, and are, I think, a byproduct of the sheer weight and burden of trying to deliver a Star Wars movie. And while the last paragraph describes the execrable Attack of the Clones about as well as it does Revenge of the Sith, the latter brings back something that conventional wisdom says has not been seen since the original trilogy (though I thought Phantom Menace had its fair share): a sense of vastness and adventure, the notion that the characters and events in the film are not merely contrived elements in a cheesy sci-fi plot, or — God forbid — pawns in Lucasfilm’s lucrative merchandising efforts, but real, powerful forces, battling it out a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
“Significance” is the word, and given that we know exactly where the plot is heading, significance is a must. We have to — and do — feel that the events presented here were instrumental in bringing about the stories of episodes IV, V and VI, which many people know by heart. The sense of inevitablility that permeates the affair, then, becomes tragic rather than boring, taking on a grandly operatic quality as opposed to simply spinning its wheels to reach an ending we all know is coming — which is precisely what I and many others feared. The world is hanging in the balance during the confrontations, dogfights and lightsaber battles in Revenge of the Sith, and though it is no secret which way the balance will tip, there is a tremendous payoff in seeing it all play out. There is suspense and excitement during individual scenes, yes, but the overarching feeling is one of dread and futility as the Star Wars universe heads toward a fate neither we nor the characters have the power to alter. Your degree of emotional investment in the other films will dictate how much of Revenge of the Sith you will find fun and how much you will find upsetting, but that, I think, is a nifty continuum for the saga to end on.
Meanwhile, Lucas and his team have advanced CGI technology to the point where one finds himself wondering where it can possibly go from here. The heavily animated nature of Attack of the Clones led many to use the mostly derogatory term “cartoon” when describing it, but Revenge of the Sith well transcends that word’s goofy, childlike connotations. It’s amazing, seamless and essentially photorealistic, and if the images are a bit too disparate to quite sustain the illusion of a whole, consistent, living universe, the individual sights of unbelievably intricate planets, creatures, cityscapes and starships more than make up for any perceived thematic deficiencies. The backgrounds alone may warrant a second viewing; I look forward to seeing it in digital projection rather than in a celluloid transfer.
There’s a marked improvement in the performances as well, suggesting that perhaps these actors are growing accustomed to working in a predominantly non-existent environment. Natalie Portman is still mysteriously useless — and as she is virtually the only female character in this part of the saga, that’s a shame — but Hayden Christensen is worlds ahead of his justly maligned Attack of the Clones turn (though hardly approaching his finely calibrated performance in Shattered Glass). He does arrogant, smoldering anger considerably better than whiny discontent, and the latter is a lousy tone to set for such a pivotal character in any case. For the first time since 1983, Ian McDiarmid gets to shed all pretense and reserve, as he spends the latter half of the film parading around in Emperor Palpatine make-up and hissing furiously at those around him. It’s a masterful job before and after the transformation, making for the best villain this new trilogy could hope to have. His role in the eventual creation of Lord Vader is both fitting and exhilirating.
In the end, though, Episode III‘s reception and place in film history will hinge on how well it fares in the expectations game. I think it does rather well. We get what we came for, and rarely get more, though sometimes what we get is way out in left field (yes, the movie does eventually turn into a gratifyingly direct anti-Bush diatribe). And somehow, despite all of its shortcomings as a piece of cinema, Revenge of the Sith taps into whatever it was that forged the connection between Star Wars and American audiences in the first place. It’s exciting, foreboding, grand and important, a part of our culture and identity no matter how loudly cineastes scream bloody murder, and a fine ending, or perhaps beginning, to a story that has held our imaginations hostage for twenty-eight years now.