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Star Wars - episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (2005)
Director: George Lucas
review by Jonathan McCalmont
That was that then. After 28 years, six films and enough merchandising cash for Lucas to start up his own space programme, the Star Wars series is finished. Most reviews of Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith seem to take one of two routes; some stress that this film is better than the other two prequels whilst hoping you don't remember the huge recommendations both were given at the time of their release. Others point out that Episode 3 is a film that has its flaws but is ultimately a bit of harmless fun. I don't think it's that much better than the other two and I don't think it's okay or a bit of harmless fun. This film is astonishingly bad. The fact that we're even considering saying it's a decent film is a monument to how our standards for a Star Wars film have dropped through the floor. Before the first Star Wars film, there was no such thing as a summer blockbuster. Before the Star Wars films there was no such thing as geek culture. The first Star Wars film was a beautifully formed gem... it was simple, it was effective, it was fun, it was funny and it was timeless. A million videogames and countless billions spent on computer graphic R&D later we're left with the monstrously deformed and disfigured offspring of the genius that went into the original Star Wars.
The plot of Episode 3 is largely concerned with the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the death of the Jedi order at the hands of the new Empire. Anakin is arrogant and powerful but not trusted by the Jedi Council so the Emperor endeavours to build up Anakin's self-confidence and drive a wedge between him and the rest of the order. As Anakin begins to foresee the death of Padme in childbirth, the Emperor starts to woo him over to the dark side, speaking of Sith lords with the power to cheat death. Things come to a head when the Jedi get wind of Palpatine's nature as a Sith Lord and they try to arrest him only to be thwarted by Anakin who then executes the leaders of the separatist movement, butchers the Jedis and is horribly burned after losing a fight to Obi-Wan in a volcano leading to him donning the famous cybernetic armour we've come to associate with Darth Vader.
Firstly, let's get the visuals out of the way. The film is very well designed, there are dozens of new aliens, droids and ships and they all look fantastic. There are five different lightsabre fights, a few epic land battles and the superb gigantic space battle at the start of the film. But while the CGI is above reproach, Lucas proves himself an inferior action director. The lightsabre fights are poorly choreographed by the standards set by other modern kung-fu influenced action films and even by the standards of the Darth Maul fight in The Phantom Menace or even the end of Attack Of The Clones. We see a return to the epee-based choreography of the first three films and Force powers are rarely integrated into the swordplay. The huge set battles are dealt with incredibly briefly (the much hyped battle featuring Wookiees gets about 30 seconds of screen time) and are included more as filler or for the sake of having them than out of a desire to innovate or impress. The first space battle also raises a problem with Lucas as a director; the curse of the Ewok. In Matt Groening's Futurama, a director says that just because the film's a drama it doesn't mean that the extras shouldn't be doing slapstick comedy in the background. Clearly, this is a philosophy close to Lucas's heart as aliens and droids are consistently played for laughs even during battles. The result is a film whose visuals initially impress but are wasted with poor action direction. Sadly, once you strip away the visuals you're left with a film that is deeply, deeply flawed.
The dialogue continues to be atrocious. Gone are the great one-liners of the original franchise, they're replaced with stiff and clunky speeches that could have been taken from any third rate fantasy novel and that's without mentioning the romantic dialogue. If you thought "I hate sand..." was bad wait till you hear nauseating and cretinous exchanges about whether Anakin thinks Padme's beautiful because he loves her or because she's loved. Ironically Padme gets the best line of the film with "so this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause" but it's the only line with any flair to it whatsoever. Jokes fall flat, epic speeches come out as whining complaints and evil rants are collections of clichés.
The performances are also rather uneven. Much has been made of Hayden Christensen's lack of charisma and nothing has changed. Samuel L. Jackson is tragically under-used. Ian McDiarmid gurns and chews scenery as if he was playing Lady Bracknell for the Croydon amateur dramatics society. You half expect him to go 'A Haaaaaandbag?' between pulling stupid faces and talking in silly deep voices. Frank Oz's Yoda is surprisingly understated and Ewan McGregor portrays Obi-Wan as a surprisingly complicated man. While the performances and dialogue are incredibly sub par for a film with the kind of resources behind it that this film had, they aren't what really kill the film for me. In fact, I think knocking the dialogue and performances are easy targets.
What kills it for me is the ending. 28 years in coming, the end of this film doesn't show Anakin Skywalker giving in to the darkness; it shows the whole Star Wars universe collapsing into moral relativism. This film has no moral centre to it. Whereas the original Star Wars films were Manichean in their moral dualism, this film features lines like "Only Sith talk in absolutes." Anakin's fall begins with him having to choose between peace under a despotic but democratically elected leader and the unaccountable Jedi deposing the democratically elected leader in a coup. Lucas refuses to take any moral stance on this whatsoever. By doing so he's following the precedent set by The Phantom Menace by replacing morality with politics, blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys, between the Sith and the Jedi and between the Dark Side and the Light Side. The descent into relativism is complete with Anakin's line "From my point of view, it's the Jedi that are evil."
Lucas has ultimately proved himself to not be up to the task he has set himself. The Star Wars universe has always been Manichean. Sure, you have lovable rogues and scoundrels but ultimately it's goodies versus baddies. In order to chart the fall of a goodie you need to show him become a baddie. However, Lucas is unable to show the fall of a great Jedi and a good friend... he has shown a petulant and arrogant child who is morally ambiguous at the best of times and has made him choose evil by suggesting that there's no difference between good and evil. Even Anakin's motivations are ambiguous; he wants to prevent the death of Padme by using the powers of the Dark Side. Anakin doesn't fall from grace at all, firstly because Lucas never established him in a state of grace to start with and secondly because even when the armour goes on Anakin is only going along with Palpatine because he wants to save Padme. His life as the Emperor's enforcer isn't chosen on the basis of a surrender to the Dark Side as almost happens to Luke in Return Of The Jedi, he's the Emperor's enforcer because he's killed all his friends and "oh well... might as well make the most of it now I'm here." Anakin's ultimate surrender is not only badly conceived but also badly played out. How does Darth Vader truly mark his arrival? By stumbling around like a comedy Frankenstein, striking a pose and screaming "Noooo!"
This film fails on almost every level. The plot is a disaster, the dialogue is atrocious, the acting's frequently frightening and the action scenes are underwhelming. It's a tragic end to a franchise that started off so well and was loved by so many.
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