Sunday, June 12, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith / **** (PG-13)

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor
Anakin/Darth Vader: Hayden Christensen
Padme: Natalie Portman
Chancellor Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson
Voice of Yoda: Frank Oz
Senator Bail Organa: Jimmy Smits
Count Dooku: Christopher Lee

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by George Lucas. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and some intense images).

The rumors began 28 years ago. Cinema was introduced to one of its greatest villains and everyone had a theory as to how Darth Vader came to be. As the original Star Wars trilogy unfolded the secrets of Darth Vader became one of most speculated aspects of the series and one of its greatest intrigues. When creator George Lucas finally returned to his “far, far away” universe, under intense fan anticipation and scrutiny, he clearly stated this new trilogy would be about the origin of Vader, following the life of the Jedi Anakin Skywalker to the point where Vader was born out of him. Through two prequels the writer/director and fans alike have been so distracted by other elements of the series; annoying CGI characters, the origin of a bounty hunter with a total of five minutes screen time in the original series, the invention of a digital camera that produces film quality pictures (or not), bad acting, bad dialogue, trade federations and overcomplicated political plot points, the clones actually being early versions of storm troopers and fighting for the good guys (?), and Samuel L. Jackson kicking ass as a Jedi master; that the origin of Vader only seemed to be a side note. Well, in Episode III - Revenge of the Sith the spotlight falls squarely back on the original purpose of this prequel trilogy, answering the question of just how a noble Jedi Knight could become a Dark Side warrior and a driving force of the evil galactic Empire.

I realize that I seem to have enjoyed the Star Wars prequel series more than most people, but I think this time Lucas has finally given his audience what they’ve been waiting for from this series. The politics and pseudo-mysteries have played themselves out and we finally get to witness the fall of a Jedi into the Dark Side. But in this final chapter of a Jedi before he becomes the ominous Lord Vader, Anakin Skywalker is not merely a frustrated adolescent who has had it with being good and joins up with the wrong crowd. Anakin makes some hard choices in this movie. They not only seem righteous and good to him, but they are choices so convoluted by the truths and lies that have lead up to this chapter of the saga, only the purest of souls could have fielded them better.

Like all of the Star Wars episodes, Lucas brings the audience in on the middle of an action already set in motion. It is the height of the Clone Wars and Anakin and his Master Obi-Wan Kenobi fly a frenzied course in small star fighters through a maelstrom of laser fire and battling spacecraft toward the ship of the evil robot General Grievous, where the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, Sleepy Hollow) is being held captive by the Sith Lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, Lord of the Rings). Lucas uses this opening sequence to out dazzle all the special effects previously seen in the series, with a space battle so vast in scope that the total destruction to the Star Wars universe brought on by these Clone Wars can be easily conceived.

The effects of the war on the Jedi Order is evidenced by the scattered Jedi Council who still convene in the Jedi Temple tower on the city planet of Coruscant via holograms. Few seats are physically occupied, while holographic images of Jedi Masters leading the charge in other star systems show the diminished spirit of the Jedi. This ever-darkening mood falls over the entire story as Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz, Trading Places) and Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, Coach Carter) become suspicious that the prophecy hailing Anakin Skywalker as “the one who will bring balance and order to the universe” may have been misinterpreted.

Unlike Episode II, Hayden Christiansen’s (Shattered Glass) embodiment of Anakin is a fully realized character. His performance in this final episode is not as stiff as in the previous film. He captures not only the hot head nature of his character but a truly troubled inner conflict of someone who wants to do good but is impatient with both the bureaucratic nature of the Republic government and the unobtrusive teachings of the Jedi. This makes him easy prey for the manipulative power-mongering Palpatine.

This development of Anakin being placed in the middle of the power struggle between Palpatine and the Jedi Council is the real meat of the story. I loved the way Lucas was able to make Anakin’s choices genuine dilemmas. I don’t suppose I can say anyone would make these same choices since the scenario is in such a fantastical setting that there is no everyday quality about it, but Anakin’s choice to start down that path to the Dark Side is very easy to believe. I wondered how Lucas would be able to convince his audience that someone with the nobility of a Jedi Knight could choose the dark side without so obviously betraying his own desire to be good, but he has done it. Throughout this prequel series Yoda claims that love leads to the dark side through selfishness; finally, I was able to see how in the way Anakin desired to protect his secret wife Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman, Closer) from a death he had foreseen in a dream.

While this film is easily the darkest of all six Star Wars films, there is one glimmering light throughout in Ewan McGregor’s (Big Fish) portrayal of Anakin’s Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. McGregor has been the rock throughout this prequel trilogy with a character that evolves in each episode. By Episode III Obi-Wan is a confident Jedi who is completely at ease with himself and his place in the universe, a perfect Jedi and a smooth operator (Attention! James Bond producers!). McGregor uses this concept as a chance to let Obi-Wan’s bemusement with the craziness surrounding him live right up on the surface of his being. He is not always smiling, but you can sense his spirit is. Although he is caught up in a horrible situation, even having to duel his pupil and friend Anakin in the film’s climactic conclusion, it is obvious he is doing what he is meant for and good at.

As in Episode II, Obi-Wan’s storyline is the one that keeps the adventure in this space opera. He is the swashbuckler who is sent by the Jedi Council to find and eliminate General Grievous after his?… its escape during the Palpatine rescue. The light saber duel with the four-sabered robot is one of the highlights of action (among many) in the movie even if just for the mode of transportation Obi-Wan uses to hunt Grievous down. Other highlights include, Windu’s and Yoda’s respective showdowns with Darth Sidious, the montage sequence when Sidious finally turns the clones against their masters, the way Lucas works a few of the original trilogy ship designs into “earlier versions” of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter space ships, and of course Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into the black leather clad asthmatic Darth Vader.

I was surprised at how well the final actions of Anakin’s battle with Obi-Wan matched my own imagination of the events that must have lead to injuries that necessitated Darth Vader’s ominous suit. I also appreciated the references Lucas threw in to the horror classic Frankenstein in Anakin’s “rebirth” scene as the Darth Vader that we all know from the original trilogy.

Will audiences who are not already fans of the series care about any of this? For that matter will anyone who isn’t a fan even know what I’m talking about in this review? I turned to my wife for the answer to that first question (she hasn’t read my review yet), and she claimed it was the easiest movie of the prequel trilogy to follow. And I think it will satisfy all the cravings of the fans that have been left categorically unfulfilled by the first two chapters in the series. The climax of this prequel trilogy certainly doesn’t leave the audience with the warm feelings of the original trilogy. That is due to a combination of the passing of one of the most original works of film history and the fact that the bad guys won this time around. I think that speaks very much to the differences in the world outlook today versus twenty years ago. In that sense, Lucas chose the perfect time to return to his opus.

I wrote a research paper on the original trilogy when I was in high school and read from interviews with Lucas in the 70’s that he had originally planned a nine part series, beginning with the middle three chapters, going back to the first three, and finishing up with the final three installments, with the droids C3PO and R2D2 as the only characters who would appear in every episode. If that is still Lucas’s plan, he is being tight lipped about it and rumors are flying about various television projects being the films’ final legacy. Hopefully, if those final three chapters do become a reality, the world will be a brighter place that will allow for a much more cheerful ending for the entire series. For now, the climax to the Star Wars universe’s darkest period of history marks one of the film legacy’s high points.

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