The circle, as the sith lord once said, is now complete. The saga that started in the middle 28 years ago is now back where it began, having set the Galactic Empire on a path everyone in the world knows, except perhaps a few undiscovered pygmy tribes in the middle of Borneo.
After not only redefining the way movies are made, marketed and consumed but leaving an indelible imprint on global culture on a scale unprecedented for most institutions before it (let alone the movies), George Lucas cut through the corpses of disappointing blockbusters throughout the late 1990s by announcing he was making Episode I, II and III of his saga.
He made an impossible task for himself. After a generation of kids grew up with the ability to make lightsabre noises one of their most beloved skills, nothing could ever stack up. And when The Phantom Menace hit cinemas in 1999, most fans realised the terrible truth — Star Wars was only a movie, and Lucas wasn’t as great a writer or director as thirty years of memories (and refined taste in films) had led us to believe.
It’s been said he finds the writing and directing process difficult, but really shines in the editing suite. Kiwi actor Temuera Morrison, who played Jango Fett in Clones and so plays the republic troopers modelled on him in Sith, said recently that Lucas left him more or less to make up the character on his own, more concerned with effects and animation.
And it’s obvious the writer/director’s sense of pacing and plotting is the labour of his love of classic matinee serial action sequences. It’s indeed in the cutting room where his talents lie, and had he outsourced the micromanagement of scriptwriting and directing in each case (as he did the latter with Empire and Jedi), the Star Wars films may have been even better.
The difference between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was marked; it was typified by the greatly reduced role of Jar Jar Binks, the most hated character in the whole Star Wars universe (for all the wrong reasons).
Lucasfilm damage control claimed Jar Jar was a big hit with the target audience (kids), but it seems more likely Lucas simply took the criticism on the chin and gave fans what they wanted; better action (and more of it), less talk and politics, and some of the money-shot scenes fans had been aching to see for decades, like an arena full of Jedi springing into action or Yoda finally showing us what he’s made of.
And now we come to the biggest and baddest chapter. All the talk you’ve heard about how Revenge of the Sith is so much darker than any other Star Wars movie is true — and then some. 20th Century Fox were in fact still wrangling with the Office of Film and Literature Classification until just hours before the release, and consequently Sith will be the first Star Wars film with an M rating.
More violent, moodier, with an atmosphere of quietly rising malice (or is that just because we know how it ends?), Revenge of the Sith has more work to do than any other film in the series, but carries it all off beautifully.
Lucas has said many times the middle film of a trilogy is the easiest because you’ve already set everything up in the first film and you don’t have to resolve anything until the next one. But Sith not only has to resolve the story of the Empire’s rise (and Anakin Skywalker’s parallel descent to the dark side of the Force), it has to provide connections to a subsequent story we already know (Episodes IV, V and VI), and be entertaining in the bargain.
Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) must have twins with his wife Padme (Portman), he must turn on his master Obi Wan Kenobi (McGregor) in a climactic fight they both survive and he must become Darth Vader. Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid) must transform into the gnarled, cruel figure of the Emperor, turn Anakin to the dark side and derail the republic to turn it into the Empire we know from Episode IV.
We know it’s going to happen, but seeing it happen after nearly thirty years of wondering is the biggest treat of the film.
Part of the critical comment will be focused on Hayden Christensen’s acting. Producer Rick McCallum explained/defended Christensen’s woeful performance in Clones by saying the character called for him to be a ‘whiny teenager’. He is a lot better in Sith, but it’s partly because the role of Anakin calls for less of the emotive outbursts he clumsily stumbled over in Clones and more baleful staring (easier for any actor).
New characters, a new look at some old favourites, some rollicking chase and fight sequences and a galaxy full of weird and wonderful worlds are what Star Wars specialises in, so even while the republic crumbles, the focus is on jaw-dropping visuals and action like it should be. In fact, judged solely on individual merit and not influence, Revenge of the Sith is the best film of the entire series, including the originals.
But for a fan, there’s no convincing one way or the other. It’s not just a movie, it’s Star Wars! For those old enough to remember the hairs on their arms standing up the first time the rebel blockade runner and pursuing Imperial cruiser roared over their heads, it’s a feeling you’ll never forget.