Taking the Sith

Okay, I think I’ve worked out the last of my Star Wars issues. It has taken a good couple of days, and a great deal of sneaking around the rubbish bins of Skywalker Ranch rooting around for discarded hard-drives and, when that failed, long hours of communion with The Force. Finally, though, Class Worrier is happy to host the first review of The Revenge of the Sith, based almost entirely on information received directly from midi-chlorians. Their verdict: better than you’d expected.

The Sith rounds out the Star Wars cycle with Anakin’s head in a black helmet. Like the excellent Empire Strikes Back (the most consistently rewatchable of the cycle), you know that it’s going to end on a downbeat. Unlike Empire, this movie isn’t directed by Irvin Kershner, but by his student, the vastly less ept George Lucas, whose strong points are mythics and visuals and not, as we’ve found out by watching the past two films over and over, character development, dialogue, psychology or concessions to intelligent viewers. Luckily, this film lets him play to his strengths, and for that, I think we’re all willing to dumb ourselves down a little. If in the previous films we wanted for characterization and more intelligent dialogue (failing which, less talking altogether) in this film, all we want is dark closure. And some cool space ships.

And this the film provides. No longer motivated by a barely outlined Oedipal drive, or by precociousness, Anakin is now more realistically motivated by fears of Padme’s death. Yes, it’s exactly like The Matrix: Reloaded. And sometimes, even better.

This is a fair achievement given the resources the film has to work with. Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan fails to communicate the gravity or charm in three episodes that Alec Guinness achieved in twenty minutes of screentime. Hayden Christensen is just as wooden as he was in Attack of the Clones – clearly, he’s been taking lessons from Keanu Reaves. But Lucas has been watching the Wachowski brothers, and picked up a trick or two about filming fight sequences. No bullet time, but quite the opposite – fantastically fluid and choreographed real-time light saber fight sequences, with a speed to make Jackie Chan’s eyes water. Mace Windu is, of course, defeated by skullduggery – but in the battle between Anakin and Dooku (which rather hamfistedly quotes the battle that Vader and Skywalker have at the end of Return of the Jedi), and in the spectacular lavalamp sequence that births Vader from fire, the fight sequences are balletic.

But character development there is, of a kind. Yoda emerges as the sort of guru that Hindu nationalists, and the white people who lap up their excretions, have been pining for since the 1960s. Complex, wise, Gnostic, and good with an edge weapon. The Emperor unmasks himself with suitable bassassery. And we even get to catch a glimpse of the Wookie’s history of slavery. Natalie Portman is wasted, of course. But that’s okay. It’s not really about her, or about Lucas’ appalling skills as a director (actors report that his standard and oft-repeated guideline is “faster, more intense”). This is about the film’s subconscious, about the context in which it was made.

In the beginning, Star Wars was made in defiance of the big studios – it knew where to position itself in the battle of good against evil, even as it was, a big-budget film coming out of the Fox studios. And, largely because of the contract Lucas made with Fox – with Fox shrugging off the merchandise rights – Star Wars is a vast franchise. Lucas knows evil intimately, and it shows. In the end the bad guys triumph hamfistedly, through attrition, and backed up with a mighty horn section. Who could ask for anything more?

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