I still remember the first time I really became aware of George Lucas. Not more than eight, I discovered an especially careworn copy of an Empire Strikes Back novelization buried in the bleak looking Science Fiction section of my tiny local library. Naturally, I assumed that Star Wars was in fact a book before it was a movie, and that this George Lucas must surely be the greatest writer who had ever written. Over the next few years I’d eventually read every book on those shelves, but when asked my favorite author my response would invariably be “George Lucas”. I remember all the magazine articles and photos too; the shots of George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by his creations, pictures of him standing next to a miniature of the Millennium Falcon. In the eyes of millions of kids, the guy became a legend. We swarmed to anything that had his name on it, ate up every Ewok Adventure or Star Wars Christmas Special because we knew George Lucas had created it. We didn’t just love Star Wars we loved the mythos of George Lucas, a man who somehow seemed magical.
By coincidence, my wedding fell three days after the opening of The Phantom Menace. My bachelor party wasn’t spent on strippers or a massive kegger. No, for my bachelor party we saw The Phantom Menace. My last night of freedom, and I wasted it watching a mentally challenged alien step in poop. Never has anyone brought so much happiness and hope to so many people as George Lucas, only to turn around and crush those same people with unbelievable frustration and disappointment. He’s exhausted our patience and battered our dreams with his prequels, soiling the name of a thing that, like it or not, to a lot of people truly meant something. On second thought, maybe he was only kidding with all the bad movie making. Because Revenge of the Sith is the movie he ought to have made right from the beginning. This is the story he kept promising he’d tell, the movie we’ve all kept hoping he’ll make. The other two Star Wars prequels are utterly irrelevant; this film could have existed without them. It’s a perfect fit with the glorious originals and unlike the previous prequels it only betters them.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith begins at a torrid pace and never lets up. Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) appear in the midst of a stunning space battle, on a mission to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) being held prisoner aboard Count Dooku’s (Christopher Lee) ship. There’s no need to pause for character development, as Lucas’s exceptionally well crafted script melds deeper growth and personality right in with the action. He establishes the strong friendship between Anakin and Obi Wan immediately, in a way that was never evidenced in Attack of the Clones. This was always one of the great strengths of the original Star Wars movies, an uncanny ability to tell us volumes about its characters while in the middle of a wild ride through a meteor shower, or rescuing a princess from her torture chamber. Writer/Director Lucas has finally recaptured that here, and the film absolutely soars because of it.
With the Chancellor rescued, Sith dips deeper and deeper into its inevitable storyline of corruption and failure. There are moments of celebration and fantastic locales (like Kashyyk, the much anticipated Wookieee planet) particularly in the beginning of the film, but even those are tinged with the knowledge that the heroes of this story are being deceived. The movie gets dark, and puts its PG-13 rating to good use. I’m not talking about gore here, I don’t think that’s the only reason this movie got that rating. Revenge of the Sith is simply too heavy and too intense to be a meager PG. Watching Padme struggle to love Anakin is wrenching, and cringing through his slow personality slip into evil is brutally heartbreaking. There’s a real sense that something important is being lost, as the inevitable storm of Palpatine’s plans comes to fruition and the old Galactic order is pulled viciously asunder. I’m not talking about vague, political mumbo jumbo, but rather something more personal and ideological.
If anything, this fantasy film is a rather poignant warning on the dangers of fear mongering. A lesson on the evil men can do while wrapping themselves in the mantle of freedom, democracy, and safety. As Anakin himself points out later in the film, it all depends on your point of view. Words that are later echoed from the lips of Obi Wan, when instructing Anakin’s son Luke. That’s the kind of highly tuned resonance Revenge of the Sith has. There’s a real sense not only that the vibrations of this film mean something to this universe down the road, but that they might have some application to our world as well. Maybe Lucas is finally getting around to starting that religion so many people have been pushing for, but I prefer to think that the man has at last re-found his footing as a relevant filmmaker.
One of the big Achilles heels of the previous two films was acting, something that can’t necessarily be fixed with a better script like this. Granted, better dialogue certainly helps, but the Star Wars prequels thus far have had the disturbing ability to turn even usually stellar actors into wooden, stilted performers. However Lucas has regained his footing as an all around filmmaker, not just a writer. Whether as a result of better direction or simply greater confidence in the material, Natalie Portman’s work has taken leaps and bounds over her previously awkward portrayal of Amidala. McGregor too simply seems more comfortable in his role, and the chemistry between Kenobi and Anakin really hits. The biggest surprise though is Hayden Christiansen, who turns things up a notch to steal scenes from brilliant veteran actors like Ian McDiarmid. I’m not ready to declare him a great actor, but I think he’s finally nailed Anakin down. It’s not just reciting his lines either, he’s taken on an incredibly imposing physical presence, with Lucas going out of his way to make pre-Vader Anakin feel like the powerful, hulking figure he’ll become once he puts on that suit.
Revenge of the Sith isn’t just a great Star Wars movie, it’s a flat out great film. Yes it’s technically proficient and yes it’s visually beautiful. Those things are a given. What hasn’t been is how solidly the film is constructed. Revenge of the Sith is a powerful, big budget experience. Yet it is the way that it fits so wonderfully into the existing Star Wars mythos that best sells it, the way it nestles so nicely into 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope that makes it special. The real beauty is that you could easily toss out the previous two awkward attempts, watch only this in sequence with the original films, and come out completely satisfied. Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Menace are best forgotten. Lucas’s real miscalculation was in not making this movie right from the start. He tried to stretch the story when all we needed was Vader’s rise in its purest form. Star Wars fans have finally been rewarded for their patience. George has made another masterpiece.