Before we either celebrate the release of “Star Wars- The Force Awakens,” I want to recall the last time a new, live-action “Star Wars” film was released in theaters ten years ago. While the release of the prequel trilogy, “Episodes I-III,” was met with mixed reviews and mostly contempt from longtime fans of The Force, the films don’t deserve to be treated like cinematic black sheep. In fact, considering how strong the final 2005 release is, I suspect a reassessment and prolonged appreciation of both Lucas and his 1999-2005 directorial work is in order.
The architecture of George Lucas’ imagination merges in his third “Star Wars” prequel, “Revenge of the Sith.” The uneven quality of the first prequel, the enormously popular but now widely unloved “The Phantom Menace,’ gave way to the superior, underrated and mostly grand “Attack of the Clones.” The criticisms hurled against the initial entry carried over to the second and were mostly absent by the third. Lucas’ longstanding vision of the fall of Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christenson), his betrayal of his best friend and teacher Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and directionless dalliance with Padme (Natalie Portman) had reportedly always existed in his mind but, prior to “Sith,” never realized on film. Everything comes together so well here, both as a fantasy/drama and as a bridge to the older films that begin with “A New Hope,” it seems as though Lucas hit his creative stride in finally bringing the crucial third episode to life.
In “The Phantom Menace,” the film peaked with the extraordinary pod race sequence, showcased a pulse quickening three-way light saber battle but mostly struggled to connect on an emotional level. “Attack of the Clones” had a similar on-again, off-again quality, but featured a coliseum battle/Yoda unleashed climax that salvaged the film (and its unfortunately clumsy love story). In “Revenge of the Sith,” Lucas gets things off to a running start from the first frame: a terrific outer space dog fight leads to a series of extended cliffhangers, with some leftover business from the prior film reaching a conclusion. The rousing start builds to a unique standout scene, in which the brooding, emotionally immature Skywalker meets with the sinister Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) at an odd, opera-like event (the visualization is gorgeous but it’s impossible to tell if its performance art or a musical production). The patient, involving dialog between the two, in which Palpatine verbally seduces Skywalker into embracing the Dark Side of the Force, is one of the best written and most pivotal in the entire franchise. From there, the film remains on strong footing and, even with a few missteps, is consistently terrific.
Many complain about the uneven acting on display but the storytelling and filmmaking are so strong, they keep this space opera focused. Christensen’s line readings are hit and miss but his take on Skywalker’s petulance and escalating madness is just right. When you consider Lucas’ overall take on Darth Vader, that the man behind the mask is a stupid, arrogant young man who brings about his self destruction, Christensen’s often unlikable portrayal feels in key with the character arch. Lucas’ take on the young Vader-to-be is unsympathetic, gloomy and that of a misguided fallen prince, an intergalactic Hamlet (the presence of R2-D2 and C-3PO, the Rosencratz and Guildenstern of this galaxy, only push this idea further).
Portman’s last scene with Christensen is wrenching (in fact, both Portman and her co-star get better as the film progresses), though she has some of the most intriguing lines early on. I’ve never been compelled by the political qualities of these movies but this one had me intrigued. Portman has a few tasty lines: “this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” She also asks Anakin, “have you considered we’re on the wrong side?” At the time of the film’s release, some questioned if Lucas was criticizing President George W. Bush. It seems more likely he’s urging viewers to not simply stand by while a wrongful leader or powerful figure takes control. This could reflect Lucas’ famous stance on having artistic control on his work and not allowing outside influence to compromise his art.
The film belongs to McDiarmid, who is so magnetic and vile as the film’s true villain, his performance anchors the film. McDiermid makes choices both subtle and wildly theatrical, resulting in a true tour de force in a film (and series) not always associated with fine acting. McGregor also has some moments, particularly his sad “You were the chosen one” lament at the film’s end. The CGI Yoda is expressive (and athletic) as ever and there’s the glorious image of the tiny green Jedi master getting a piggy back ride from Chewbacca.
While the highly touted Wookie battle scene goes by too quickly, Lucas wisely edits back and forth between the two duels between Yoda and the Emporer, and Anakin and Obi-Wan; the former is spectacular, while the latter is equally a visual marvel but goes on too long. Moments of comic relief are brief and welcome, as this isn’t just dark but the violence is downright sadistic.
The somber, central set piece of “Order 66” (the number is likely intentional, as is Palpatine’s resemblance to the devil) is strong stuff. So is Skywalker’s physical demise by Ben Kenobi; Anakin’s grisly, pathetic undoing (likely the key reason this is rated PG-13) leads to his being imprisoned in the mask, his children being born, and the orphans finding a new home. All of this is done so well, with an emotional richness that took me off guard, it concludes with the feeling that Lucas has one of his best “Star Wars” movies. Both popular in theaters and under-appreciated today, “Revenge of the Sith” is Lucas unleashed.