|(Photo credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)|
Chances are, anyone psyched to see the wrap-up of the Star Wars saga, Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, is not going to be disappointed—it’s better than the last two. The default setting of all of director George Lucas’s movies in this series, their all-climax-all-the-time mode, serves him well in Revenge of the Sith because it really is the climax. Finally, Lucas’s 28-year-long catechism about the Force and the Dark Side and the Rebellion and the Republic and the Trade Federation is complete: The New Testament has been joined to the Old. Fans get closure; everyone else gets a chance to figure out why we started wanting to flee this galaxy a long, long time ago.
Since 1977, the year the “first,” really the “fourth,” Star Wars movie premiered (the fact that I have to number it in two different ways gets very close to the reason why I’m so heartily glad this most fussy of all epics is over), our beloved pop culture has contained a black hole. It was a phenomenon that all of us had to choose to either tiptoe around or surrender to—a force field that managed to swallow up sci-fi fandom, poor old Joseph Campbell (dragooned to grant gravitas to Lucas’s mythology), and even the once-pure pleasures of movie trivia. The result was like experiencing, over and over, a mediocre production of Wagner: grand, florid, and relentlessly inevitable.
That said, this final edition does have its pleasures—all of them, as usual, on its surface. Big spaceships, narrow-bladed light-sabers, and the freshly CGI-animated, martial-arts-leaping Yoda make our eyes feel happy. Someone at Skywalker Ranch apparently decided to remedy complaints about the earlier movies’ dourness, and so Hayden Christensen burbles, “This is where the fun begins!” before engaging in a zippy air battle, and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi gives us some sly grins and ingratiating winks. (As affable as they are, neither is any Han Solo, whom we can now definitively proclaim the best human character in the Star Wars series, thanks to Harrison Ford’s slow-burn charisma.) And as Star Wars’ most engaging villain, General Grievous is fab: a menacing clickety-clack meanie who wheezes and groans, sprouts new praying-mantis-style appendages with which to wield extra light-sabers, and provides the series with its best one-on-one tussle, against Obi-Wan.
The movie’s flaws run deeper. Lucas is a brilliant technician but a poor philosopher, and his lurchingly thought-out rendering of futuristic politics prevents the entire series from achieving the greatness to which it aspires. (You don’t make anything this big, for this long, without aiming for the planet Masterpiece.) In Sith, however, Lucas’s themes and messages are positively delusional: Yoda, the filmmaker’s green Buddha, tells Anakin that he must “let go” of the things he loves (big problem, it turns out, for his one true love, Natalie Portman’s Padmé). Obi-Wan proclaims, near the very climax of the climax, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” suggesting (at the exact moment when its heroes should be seeing things in clear-cut, we’re-good-they’re-bad terms) that questioning, doubt, and perfectionism pave the road to wisdom. Oh, bosh: These are more likely the qualities that prevented Lucas him- self from getting the series made in a more brisk, exciting, and sure manner.
Worse yet, after all these years, Anakin/Vader turns out to be a petulant wuss, a brat who chooses evil because he didn’t get the Jedi promotion he wanted. Instead of meaningful anti-heroism, we’ve got this bitter fellow gulled by the ego strokes and patently false promises of Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine. At the pivotal moment when Anakin/ Vader says, “I’ll do anything you want,” his hubris— his moment of tragic downfall—is undercut by McDiarmid’s devilishly arch line-reading, a smugly purred “Go-o-o-o-o-o-d!” Laughter erupted even from the faithful assembled at the big screening I attended.
Sith cannot be faulted for lacking surprises. After all, it’s a movie devoted not to startling twists but to answering the questions that came before (and, according to its time line, after). It feels like watching the careful lowering of a gigantic puzzle piece that completes the big picture. Star Wars itself is—finally, now and forever—the great saga as a child’s enterprise: a saggy, baggy elephant of empire, conquest, and Burger King scratch-off promotional coupons. Last week, I won a free milk shake. May the fries be with you.